Monday, November 30, 2015

The Advent of Joy


            How do you define advent? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines advent (with a little “a”) as “a coming into being or use.” Advent with a capital “A” means “the period beginning four Sundays before Christmas and observed by some Christians as a season of prayer and fasting.” And it also means “the coming of Christ at the Incarnation.”
            Combining those definitions, we can write our own for this special event: “Advent is a special month-long celebration, beginning four Sundays before Christmas, that commemorates and celebrates the coming into being of Christ, when God took on flesh and came to Earth.”
            In a nutshell, we have entered into a season where joy has come into being.
            The first Christmas was the birth of real joy!
            Two weeks ago we looked at how the Wise Men rejoiced with exceeding joy when they located the young Christ. They were so overcome with joy that they fell down and worshipped Him. Not just kneeled down, genuflected, or lowered themselves into a position of reverence. They fell down.
            How do you picture them in your mind? Collapsing in a heap? Tripping, stumbling or falling onto their knees? I imagine them being so overcome that their weakened knees collapsed, and they fell on their faces and lay prostrate before Him. Their joy translated to awe, and they did the most natural thing in the world in front of the world’s Savior: they worshipped. Their hearts wouldn’t allow them to do anything else.
            Have you ever been so joyful or delighted that you became weak-kneed and fell down? Maybe when your beloved made a marriage proposal to you? I’ve seen that happen, most often on YouTube or America’s Funniest Home Videos.
            I thought my husband, Chris, was going to collapse from joy when his first-born son was placed in his arms and tears poured down his cheeks. And he nearly collapsed from joy (and fear) when the doctor told us he was going to discharge our younger son from the hospital after ten days in the neonatal intensive care unit, even though he’d originally told us not to expect much and warned us it would be some time (like a minimum of six weeks) before we’d be able to take him home. Come to think of it, Chris was also overcome with joy when the nurse called him to tell him he’d become a father when our younger son was born. He was so overwhelmed that he told her she must have the wrong father, because his baby wasn’t supposed to be born until later that day.
            I’ve seen soldier’s wives and kids collapse in joy when their homecoming fathers, who have sometimes been deployed for years, step off the airplane and run into their waiting arms. I’ve seen homecoming mothers who have also been deployed collapse in joy when they see their waiting children and husbands and grasp them in a loving embrace.

            Christmas is the time of year—the “season”— in which we probably think most about joy. The delighted squeal of a child when he opens a present he’s dreamed of receiving. The excitement on a child’s face when they decorate a Christmas tree and watch the Christmas lights switched on for the first time. My 20-year-old son’s face still lights up in wonder and his mouth rounds into an “O” when he first sees those lights illuminate the tree or our house. We experience joy when we find just the right gift for that special someone in our lives, watch him open the gift and witness the thrilled expression on his delighted face.
            Yesterday, November 29, officially marked the first day in this 2015 Advent Season. This time in the year when we look back 2015 years (give or take several years), and proclaim the joy brought to the world when the Prince of Peace came to Earth—God’s gift to mankind who showed up in an animal stall. A lowly, smelly, (but, I’m sure, comfortably warm), barn. God Himself manifested in fleshly form. He didn’t exactly arrive and announce His appearance in the way most imagined He would, but then that’s so like God to have His own way—not ours—and “do things out of the box” as we like to say.

            Yet before the Wise Men experienced their joy, there were those lowly shepherds hanging out in the fields, doing what shepherds do: keeping their eyes on their sheep. I can imagine that for them, it started out like any other night.
            “Isaac, you get the fire going and I’ll heat up the pomegranate cider and olive flat bread. I think you’ll like the cider. Bought it in Jerusalem last year during Passover. Been saving it for a special occasion. It should be nicely fermented by now.”
            “Caleb, you make sure you keep an eye on that little lamb over there. He’s been wandering off lately.”
            “Jason, take a look at that pregnant ewe’s right front hoof. Looks like she’s been favoring it, and it may have a stone wedged in it.”
            They gather the sheep in close to them, unfurl their bedrolls, pass the cider and bread and sit down to an evening chat session, what those of us from Hawaii call “talk story.” They were probably laughing and carrying on about the events at home, stories they read in the Bethlehem Times and overheard in the synagogue scuttlebutt, when they suddenly get the kind of unexpected visitor that probably caused some of them to wonder what old Jacob put in the cider.
            The angel of God on duty that night plunks himself down right in front of them, and the glory of God envelops all of them. Lights them up like a Hollywood special effects scene. And scares them almost to death. (I can imagine one of them even tried reaching for his slingshot.) They’re so frightened that the angel has to calm them down by telling them not to be afraid because he’s bringing “good tidings of great joy which will be to all people.” Read that verse again: Good tidings of great joy, which will be to all people. (Emphasis mine.) And what were the good tidings of great joy? “The birth of a Savior, who is Christ the Lord,” the angel says. And guess what? He’s a swaddled-up baby lying in a manger in Bethlehem. That’s the shepherd’s sign: that they need to be on the lookout for a brand new baby lying unceremoniously in an animal food trough in a barn.
            Then to punctuate the message, a multitude of God’s angelic army shows up to add to the shock and awe, sing praises to God and wish peace to Earth’s men of goodwill. If the shepherds weren’t convinced before, that probably sealed the deal for them. Because as soon as the angels teleport back to heaven, the shepherds discuss it among themselves and agree that they need to scurry to Bethlehem as soon as possible. So they take off—I’m going to guess they sprinted since the Bible says they “came with haste”—and (after maybe splitting up and hunting around a while) they found Jesus, just as the angels said he would be, lying in the food trough.
            And what did they do after they saw him? They ran around telling everyone they could about what they had seen and heard while they had been in the fields, how they’d been directed to find the Savior, found Him and actually saw him with their own eyes.
            Like the Wise Men who couldn’t help falling down to worship Jesus, these shepherds—then considered the lowliest of anyone on the workforce pecking order—couldn’t help telling their story. They probably spewed out the news to everyone they saw. The Bible also says people marveled at what the shepherds had to say. (Actually, it may be just as much of a miracle that anyone believed them, because shepherds were considered so lowly and untrustworthy that they weren’t even considered to be reliable witnesses and weren’t allowed to testify in court.)
            It was the birth of joy.
            And that’s what Christians around the world celebrate anew this month and on Christmas day. The birth of joy. Good tidings of great joy born and delivered to men of goodwill. The most miraculous and important gift ever given to the world.
            And the event deserves to be commemorated and celebrated. He deserves to be celebrated.
            We don’t just put up “holiday trees.” We put up Christmas trees and top them with stars to remind us of the star that led the Wise Men to Him, or we perch angels on them to remind us of the triumphant announcement proclaimed to the lowly shepherds and the world. We have a month-long birthday party to celebrate the birth of Good News.
            This will be my 58th Christmas celebration, and I know my heart is in danger of becoming jaded to it, of taking it for granted. Of looking at the season as more drudgery or headache than its worth.
            Are you like me? Are you looking for a new, fresh way to celebrate Advent and Christmas this year?
            If so, then I invite you to really concentrate on “joy” and what it means to you. What He means to you. Pray that the Spirit will fill your heart anew with the kind of joy that drove the shepherds to obey the angel, and abruptly leave their sheep unattended in the field so they could peer down in awe at Jesus, and then shake up the town (and world) with the Good News they’d heard and seen with their own eyes.
            Pray and fast for the kind of joy that caused the Wise Men to drop to the ground in worship.
            Pray for the kind of joy that doesn’t just ebb and flow based on your circumstances but that permeates your life. That changes how you see the world, and how others see you, and Christ.

            Or maybe you have never even experienced that joy, and you want to know how to have it.
            Pray for it. Pray for it to be given to you. Accept the angel’s announcement as truth and go searching for it like the shepherds and Wise Men. Ask Jesus to reveal Himself to you like He did for them.
            He’ll show up for you, even if you—like a lowly shepherd hanging out in a dark field—don’t consider yourself worthy. And He’ll say to you, “Do not be afraid, I bring you good tidings of great joy (delight)! For I, the Christ, have come into being. Rejoice! For I have come. To you!”

            If you have an idea for a new way to celebrate joy this Christmas season, or you celebrate Christmas in a unique way, please share it with our readers. Just add a comment to give us ideas on how we might truly make this blessed season special!

So until next week (and more joy!),

Thanks for joining me,



Artwork Credit: Parker Prescott Owan; 1997 award winning colored pencil drawing
Photo Credit: 2015 Andrea Arthur Owan

Monday, November 23, 2015

Joy From Life's Thorns


           Undoubtedly, most of you reading this post have experienced a major life event you might describe as being more of a “thorn” than a blessing. We don’t like the thorns. They’re sharp and often draw blood. They might leave bruising or an infection that takes time to heal. They make it difficult to handle life. Sometimes it’s best if you wear protective gloves or clothing when working around them.
            But there are priceless, life-growing lessons to be learned from blood-drawing thorns, and joy can result from them. For it is in life’s thorns that we usually learn the most about ourselves, the world and grow the most.
            This post is focused on Thanksgiving, a special holiday we will celebrate here in the United States on Thursday, November 26. It focuses our hearts on what we’re thankful for: family, friends, and life events. While we probably wouldn’t think about celebrating or giving thanks for the thorns in our lives, they may be the first and most important things we should look to and have at the top of our “I’m thankful for…” list.


            Thanksgiving is special to me. It should be, since I’m a direct descendant of two of the Pilgrims who sailed to America in 1620 from England—a little band of mostly like-minded, pioneers who desired to worship God without fear, persecution, or worldly influences, and who sneaked away from England on a tiny boat to bravely start life over in another world. (As a side note, do not confuse Pilgrims with Puritans. The Pilgrims were Separatists: they wanted to separate from the church to worship their own way. The Puritans, in contrast, wanted to purify—not separate from—the Church of England.)
            When I think back to that first Thanksgiving—the three-day feast the Pilgrims celebrated with the Indians—I wonder just how many of them were thinking “I’m thankful.” Were they doing it with humble, joyful, or sober hearts? Or humble, joyful AND thankful?
            Certainly, they were thankful for the Indians, one of whom intervened early to teach them how to add fish to the soil to improve its growing condition. Massachusetts was not where they had intended to set up house. Farther down the coast in what is now the state of Virginia had been the plan. But they arrived too late in the season and had to settle for the more northern location. They also missed planting adequately for the upcoming growing season, in Massachusetts’s terra that wasn’t prime crop-growing soil. Then, most of their tiny band was decimated in the first six months by disease, starvation and freezing temperatures.
            And this is where it gets personal. My great-great-great, etc., etc., etc. Pilgrim grandmother, Priscilla Mullins, arrived at Plymouth in Massachusetts with her brother and their parents, ready and excited to start a new life. Within months, the teenager’s mother, father, and 14-year-old brother had been buried, along with so many others, in unmarked graves. By the end of the winter, 102 had died; fifty-three had survived, including only four adult women out of the original eighteen. Priscilla was suddenly a young orphan in a strange land.
            A year later, during that first Thanksgiving feast, what could she have been thankful for?
            Was she at all thankful for the thorns in her life?

            About fifteen years ago, I started deliberately thanking God for the thorns He’s brought me, or allowed in my life, because it’s been in and through these thorns that I’ve grown the most emotionally and spiritually.
            My thorns remind me that I’m really a helpless, puny human without much control over my life, although I often entertain, placate and blind myself by thinking I have more control than I do. The thorns keep me humble, relying on Something. Someone greater than myself.
            My thorns still hurt. After all, thorns make you bleed. And they can leave nasty scars. Yet they remind you where you’ve been and what you’ve survived and where you should be going.
            What I will now write, what I have told others, will shock or disgust some of you and cause others to nod their heads in collective understanding: As much as I still grieve over my infant daughter’s death, as much as I still long to have her and day-dream about her possible life, and mentally replay the dreams I had for her, I am grateful – thankful – that I walked that dark, horrible road, because doing so brought me into vivid, eternal life, with the Supreme give of life. Life in the here and now, and life in the eternal. *
            I’d like to think that it really didn’t need to happen that way, but in my heart, I know it did. I would have kept going just as I was, with one foot in the world and the other on a spiritual banana peel. I’m thankful for those thorns. They remind me to Whom I belong. And they remind me that I will one day see my daughter face-to-face and rejoice. They give me one more reason to look forward to heaven.

            So what was Priscilla Mullins thankful for that cold fall day? I can only guess. Even though she was a firm believer in God, His word and His promises, I suspect she went through the normal stages of grief that all of us encounter: shock, denial, anger. Being a Christian doesn’t make you immune to suffering the affects of death and profound loss. Being a Christian means that when you grieve differently. You grieve with hope.
            Priscilla probably sat at the table, thanking God for His protection over her and the other survivors, for the memory of her parents and brother, for the hope of the future, and probably for the new man in her life, John Alden, with whom she would have ten children and produce more descendants in the United States than any other Pilgrims. I often think of her and wonder if her unwavering faith and prayers for her children and children’s children paved the way for the blessings I’ve received in my life, that my blessings may indeed be the result of her generational faithfulness. For that, I also give thanks.

            As my older son said to me the other day, “I wouldn’t change a thing about my life. I don’t regret any of the mistakes or the problems. Because they all make me the person I am today.”

            I want to leave you with a couple of questions to ponder this week:

            What are the thorns you have experienced in your life?
            Is it possible for you to be thankful for them?

            If so, offer up thanks to the One who heals and encourages and loves you with an everlasting love. The One who wants to prune and cultivate your thorns into joy!
            May you give thanks this Thanksgiving Day—for everything in your life!

Until next week,

Thanks for joining me!



photo credit: <a href="">starr-071024-9885-Chorisia_speciosa-thorns-Enchanting_Floral_Gardens_of_Kula-Maui</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">(license)</a>

Monday, November 16, 2015

Searching for Joy: Being a Treasure Hunter

            Have you ever asked yourself why joy is missing in your life? Have you considered it might be missing because you’ve hung up your treasure map and stopped searching for it? Join me today as we continue our look at joy this week in the New Testament.

            Since we’re nearing the Christmas season, I thought this passage in Matthew an appropriate one to begin this week’s look at joy.

            “When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy.” (Matthew 2:10)

            Joy. Cheerfulness. As in delight and gladness. And not just a run-of-the-mill cheerfulness. They had exceeding joy. And they weren’t silent about it.
            But just who is “they”?
            “They” are the wise men from the East who arrived in Jerusalem specifically to find the King of the Jews and pay homage to Him. They’d been following a star.
            Strangers from a foreign land. First Century astronomers and prophet-readers who recognized the sign of the times, (they seem to have been looking for it), found it, promptly packed their bags and precious gifts to deliver, gathered their entourage and set off on a likely two-year cross-desert trek to worship The King.
            When they saw the star again, and it pointed out the location of this young King, they erupted with joy! And then they did what they had traveled so far to do: they bowed down and worshipped Him. They were overjoyed they had found what they had been searching for so diligently.

            Several take-away points stand out to me as I read this section of Scripture, as it pertains specifically to joy.
            First, these wise men seemed to be looking for this special event. At the very least, they had probably studied the ancient writings and prophetic verses enough to know that the star was important. They were sensitive and alert to the signs of the times.
            Second, they seemed to be expecting a great thing to occur.
            They didn’t waste any time in following the star and going in search of the King.
            They rejoiced with unbridled joy when they found that King. 
            The final outcome, as the Wise Men learned, is that finding Christ brings exceeding joy!

            Yet, for some reason, even after we’ve found Him, we “lose” our joy. Heartache, world-weariness and pain can suck it out of our hearts like an industrial-strength vacuum.
            Maybe, in order to recover our joy, we need to carefully search the Sacred writings, and go on a serious hunt to find and reclaim it. To be led by the Spirit to a point where our joy can be refilled. Where we can reclaim it.

            In Matthew 13:44, we find a man who has located a treasure in a field. Eureka! What luck! He’s found once-in-a-lifetime treasure! Once he finds it, he hides it well on the property, (or tucks it back where he found it), and with delight over his find, gathers all that he owns and sells it, and then buys the property from the unsuspecting landowner. That all sounds a little unfair to our modern ears, but listen to what Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers has to say about the parable Jesus told.

            “Probably no parable in the whole series came more home to the imagination of [Jesus’] disciples than this. Every village had its story of men who had become suddenly rich by finding some hidden hoard that had been hastily concealed in time of war or tumult. Then, as now, there were men who lived in the expectation of finding such treasures, and every traveller who was seen searching in the ruins of an ancient town was supposed to be hunting after them. As far back as the days of Solomon such a search had become a parable for the eager pursuit of wisdom (Proverbs 2:4). Now they were told to find that which answered to it in their own experience. The conduct of the man who finds the treasure in concealing the fact of his discovery from the owner of the field, hardly corresponds with our notions of integrity, but parables—as in the case of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1) and the Unjust Judge (Luke 18:2)—do not concern themselves with these questions, and it’s enough if they bring out the salient points—in this case, the eagerness of the man to obtain the treasure, and the sacrifice he is ready to make for it. Jewish casuistry, in such matters, applied the maximum caveat emptor, to the seller rather than the buyer, and the minds of the disciples would hardly be shocked at what would seem to them a natural stroke of sharpness.”

            So, like the wise men, this treasure finder was actually a treasure hunter. He searched and found. Evidently he searched diligently. Mabye plotted out a field, surveyed the area and looked. Hard. Dropped down on his hands and knees in some parts of the land and scraped. Got permanent dirt under his broken, split fingernails. And repeated that day after day after day. This was no lucky find; it was a purposeful hunt and locate. Like a modern day treasure hunt for sunken treasure.

            Like the wise men, this treasure-hunting man is searching, and the possession that made all of them rich and joyful was God Himself. The wise men sought the King and experienced great joy when they found Him. The treasure hunter found God (which the treasure represents) and experiences great joy in His find. He’s so joyful, he’s willing to sell all of his material goods to buy, claim and possess it.

            Is your life missing or lacking joy?
            Maybe we don’t have joy—the delightful treasure that can only come from knowing and having Jesus—because we really don’t want that treasure of joy enough; we aren’t searching or hunting for it enough. We talk the talk, but we’re not walking the passionate, searching walk. We lament not having joy, but we don’t lift a finger (or our eyeballs to the pages of Scripture) to go in search of it. Worse yet, even though Jesus promised us that we would find and have it if we have Him, down in the deepest recesses of our souls and hearts, we don’t really believe we’ll ever attain it.
            Like the people who tell us that God doesn’t really want us to be happy, we’ve become ambivalent and satisfied with the sorry, despondent status quo of our souls; never expecting it to get better. And then, since it seems so elusive, we decide that we weren’t really meant to have it anyway and must have misunderstood what Jesus meant. We must have been all wrong about His promises. So now we don’t expect to possess that delightedness Jesus talks about. And we reason it away by thinking it gets doled out to others, just not to us. And since that’s just the way it is, why expend the energy to look diligently for it?

            My challenge to you this week is to go on a treasure hunt. Start looking for joy, and expect to find it. Ask God to point you in the right direction; to provide you a locator “star.”
            And then let me know what delighted you!

Until next week (and more joy!),

Thanks for joining me!



photo credit: <a href="">Carte au Trésor</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">(license)</a>