But God sent his Son to buy freedom for us

Galatians 4:4-11 But when the right time came, God sent his Son . . . to buy freedom for us, so that he could adopt us as his very own children. And because we are his children, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts . . . So now, why do you want to become slaves once more to the weak and useless spiritual principles of this world? You are trying to earn favor with God by observing certain days or months or seasons or years. I fear for you. . . I plead with you to live in freedom from these things.

If you, like me, have lived to sixty-something, waves of memories wash through the holidays. I could write many pages about childhood Christmases at our home in the village of Nebaj in Guatemala, totally at odds with the culture of our neighbors. In college, my sister Jan and I spent one Christmas on campus because we couldn’t afford to go home. We “collected” other students like us, baked cookies, played hilarious games, sang carols, and created warm and winsome memories.

Then came slowly-evolving traditions for Dave’s and my new family as our children were added one by one and we celebrated first in Wheaton, then Port Huron, then Brazil, and finally in Pittsburgh.

I haven’t counted how many of those Christmases were spent in hospitals in each of those places. Some of those memories are lost in a fog of weariness and worry, not just about Karis, but about making that particular Christmas special and memorable for our whole family, despite our circumstances. I don’t know about you, but it’s easy for me to get my tail in a twist over trying to make all my beloved ones happy, as if what I can do for them matters more than just being together, loving each other, and remembering that the Birthday Child was himself displaced, by his own choice, for us.

So even before Advent begins, I’ve begun thinking about what I really want for this Christmas. I’ve been thinking about this Scripture, and the price Jesus paid for me to be free from the demands of my inner critic to “do enough.” And to do it “well enough.” What am I really trying to achieve by all the pressure I put on myself? What if instead we do things so simply that there’s time just to sit together, and deeply hear each other, and encourage each other?

The “spiritual principles of this world” that I’ve lived by for much of my life definitely have to do with earning favor with God and other people. Doesn’t that word “freedom” sound like a delicious alternative? I don’t know yet exactly where this is going, but I’m pretty sure it will be at least one of the themes I’ll be thinking about this Advent. I hear the Lord saying, “Be still, and listen. Let me teach you what true freedom can look like . . .”

But God’s word stands forever

Isaiah 40:6-8, 27-31 People are like the grass. Their beauty fades as quickly as the flowers in the field . . . but the word of our God stands forever. How can you say the Lord does not see your troubles? . . . Have you never understood? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of all the earth. He never grows weak or weary. No one can measure the depths of his understanding. He gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless. Those who trust in the Lord will find new strength.

Which of God’s promises are most precious to you?

These words from Isaiah 40, and indeed the whole chapter, are precious to me as I seek to live my life for my “audience of one,” the only One whose word is absolutely dependable. This One who made me, who knows and understands my weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Instead of judging me (as I tend to do to myself), out of his limitless supply he gives me new strength.

Those who read the Karis book and conclude that I am strong need to understand this: there is no way I could have survived those years in my own strength! That’s really great news, because these promises are for everyone, for you. No matter what your circumstances or struggles are today.

As I shivered into my clothes early this morning before the furnace kicked into its pre-set daytime temperature, I thought about how difficult it was to keep Karis warm her last couple of winters. How much of her strength went into maintaining a reasonable body temperature, since she was too skinny to provide her own insulation and due to other medical conditions and meds. We tried all kinds of things to keep her warm. When we succeeded, even for a little while, she had energy to do things other than just huddle under heated blankets! She had new strength.

I’m visualizing the Lord’s love and faithfulness as a warm blanket covering me this morning, giving me, yes, new strength for the adventures of today.

But God is holy, by Rachel Becker

Psalm 22:3-5 But you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.  In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. To you they cried and were rescued; in you they trusted and were not put to shame.

Pittsburgh continues to struggle its way forward after the overwhelming shock of the shooting at Tree of Life synagogue a week ago Saturday.  Mid-week last week a friend sent me an email suggesting that a group of us gather for Shabbat worship in a show of solidarity for the Jewish people.  The idea came originally from the AJC – a global Jewish advocacy group based in New York.  My friend took the initiative to call a local synagogue (Beth Shalom) and make sure it was OK for a bunch of goyim to show up.  We were received warmly.

The Friday night service was poignant.  After the opening hymn, the rabbi announced, “We gather tonight to reclaim our space of worship.” The majority of the service consisted of hymns sung/chanted in Hebrew.  Thankfully English translations were available.  As beautiful Hebrew words sounded around me I found myself thinking about the ancient roots of this worship reflecting themes that went back thousands of years, some to the time of Moses, others to the time of King David, others more recent.  Some words were familiar – taken directly from the Psalms or the Torah.  Others were new.  All were poetic.

I found myself thinking about the resiliency of this people, who survived pogroms, concentration camps, indignities and prejudice of numerous kinds and most recently a shooting in Pittsburgh and yet gathers with determination to worship.  The rabbi shared that in times like these, we all have two “tracks” running: the train of resiliency and the train of vulnerability.  For some of us one or the other is running fastest right now.  We gather to encourage those whose vulnerability train is running fastest and to help all of us rev up our resiliency train.  The message was only a few sentences long, but it impacted me.  As we returned to hymns chanted in Hebrew – about the faithfulness of God, about the rescue that he will surely bring in hard times – I felt the roots of this worship running far and deep.  And I felt the presence of God “enthroned on the praises of Israel.”

I had gone to provide solidarity, to show that I cared.  And as so often happens unexpectedly in these moments, I received more than I gave.  I am grateful for the resiliency of the Hebrew people.  I continue to pray for them.

But God is a tower of refuge for the poor

Isaiah 25:4-5 But you are a tower of refuge to the poor, O Lord, a tower of refuge to the needy in distress. You are a refuge from the storm and a shelter from the heat. For the oppressive acts of ruthless people are like a storm beating against a wall, or like the relentless heat of the desert. But you silence the roar of foreign nations. As the shade of a cloud cools relentless heat, so the boastful songs of ruthless people are stilled.

When, Lord? How long must the people of Venezuela suffer from the ruthlessness and oppressive acts of their rulers?

But you ARE a tower of refuge to the pastors of Venezuela who have chosen to stay, and serve, and care for your people, under impossible conditions. This is an amazing thing to watch. Their love and commitment are a continual wonder to me.

Here is a translation of an email I received last week from a dear pastor’s wife in Venezuela. She—who must struggle daily to find food for her family to eat, who constantly faces blackouts, violence in the streets, failure of public services including her children’s schools, where 80% of public transportation is no longer functioning (and they have no car), and on and on it goes—is praying for Dave and me:

“From the balcony of my house, looking out on a rainy vista and listening to the calling of a variety of birds, I have the privilege of praying for you. May God continue to renew his mercy in your lives. I am asking our Father to increase your energy, abolish your fatigue, and supply you with all that you need to hear and obey God’s voice. May his plans for you in these days be fulfilled and his Spirit flow through you to bless many more people with the love, perseverance, and passion for God’s ways that have marked our hearts and so many others. May he bring to fruition the dreams he has yet to accomplish. I bless you as fathers and friends to us here, with a hug from my heart.”

Only a person who has found the Lord to be her tower of refuge can so generously pray for us, well fed, free, and spoiled in every way. Please, pray with us for God’s protection, miraculous provision, and encouragement for the pastors of his people in Venezuela!

But God made the heavens!

1 Chronicles 16:26-27, 33-34 The gods of other nations are mere idols, but the Lord made the heavens! Honor and majesty surround him; strength and joy fill his dwelling. . . Let the trees of the forest rustle with praise, for the Lord is coming to judge the earth. Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good! His faithful love endures forever.

This morning I went for a walk to soak in the splendor of the fall leaves. I scuffled through burnt orange, carmine, russet, and gold, joining my prayers to the thousands who are remembering the families whose loved ones will be buried today. It seems the Pittsburgh trees this year reserved their full glory until this week, so they could celebrate with us the loveliness of the eleven lives laid to rest in these days. I will always now associate the bittersweetness of autumn with the events of this week.

Oddly, as I walked I found my thoughts turning to judgment. And more oddly still, I felt the Lord flood my heart with peace and gratitude. Because he is good. And one day, out of his goodness and faithful love, he will judge the earth. Human efforts to bring justice to this situation will be imperfect at best. None of us is wise enough to know, understand, and properly discern all of the complex factors in this case or any other. But God, who not only created the heavens but each one of us, who sees beyond appearances into the heart, will one day come and make the world right. I find such comfort in this promise.

I reflected too on the difference between the beauty of the individual trees, valiantly displaying their loveliness to gladden our neighborhood, and the grandeur of the bluff on the other side of the river, where each tree adds its charm to the whole forest.

Pittsburgh fall foliage

We need both, the individual and the communal. Without the individual, the communal lacks luster. The community celebrates the individual contribution of each of its members. Watching the Jewish community band together this week reminds me that this is my heritage too. I have been grafted into this trunk (Romans 11). I want to learn more deeply what this means, and offer more freely what God has given me to the beauty and wellbeing of the particular communities where God has planted me.