Christmas Hope: Light in the Darkness

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“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”  Isaiah 9:2

When do we most need hope?  In the darkness, in the season of pain and heartache and despair.  When it is hardest to find.  Our 3rd day of this Advent series focuses on the hope we must have to survive those seasons of darkness.  The hope in the promise of the Light of Jesus Christ.

I recall a trip to the Florida Caverns State Park in Marianna, and a room deep within the caverns where the park guide turned out all the artificial lights – the room was plunged into total darkness.  For a moment I was overcome by a sense of despair and fear.  In that pitch-black darkness, I lost all orientation, had no idea where the exit was, or where anyone else was.  If my friend had not grabbed my hand, I would have thought myself completely alone. There are seasons of our life that are like that cave adventure when it seems that we are lost in a deep, black darkness.  We are overwhelmed with despair, confused and disoriented-not knowing where to turn or how to escape, and we feel completely and utterly alone.

While we stood in the darkness inside that cave, the guide lit one small match.  With that single flickering flame, the darkness was overcome. Darkness is nothing more than the absence of light – but where there is even the smallest light, darkness has lost its power.

Adam and Eve plunged this world into the darkness of sin, and so we are disoriented in spiritual darkness.  Rather than the sun and moon and stars, we walk in the distorted light of the world.  And so God sent His Son, Jesus to be “the Light of the world” (John 8:12).  His light overcame the darkness of sin and evil; His light can overcome the darkness and despair of living in this world with all its struggles and heartaches and pain.

Paul wrote, “God, who said ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made His light shine in our hearts to give us the knowledge of the Glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).  This Advent season, as you enjoy the lights of Christmas, let the light of the Christ Child come in and dispel the darkness.  Live in the Light of Jesus Christ.

Seeing the God Who Sees Me

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The angel of the Lord found Hagar…” Genesis 16:7

You know the story of Abraham and Sarah – childless and old, God promised them a son, but in the waiting, they grew impatient and Abraham slept with Sarah’s maid Hagar, and she conceived. But their act of faithlessness caused tremendous grief for the Egyptian slave-girl. Twice Hagar wound up in the desert, weary, hungry and frightened. On her first excursion, Scripture tells us “The angel of the Lord found Hagar near a spring in the desert” (Gen. 16:7). The Hebrew word for “found” means “to cause to encounter.” God purposefully put Himself in Hagar’s path to cause her to have an encounter with Him. He set Himself right where He knew she was going because His heart was tender to her.  Hagar gained precious insight into who God is.  Realizing that the God of her master was very much aware of her and her plight,  She named the Lord El Roi – “the God who sees me” (Gen. 16:13).

After the birth of Ishmael (which- by the way – means The Lord has heard – Gen 16:11) Hagar and her son were forced to leave their home with Abraham and Sarah.  When their meager supplies of food and water ran out, Hagar recognized their inevitable deaths.  She put Ishmael under a tree and walked away, so as not to watch her weakened son die.  She and the boy were both crying, and God once again came to Hagar and assured her that He was aware of their plight.  Genesis 21:19 says, “Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water.”  Oh, do you see the beauty of this passage? El Roi – the God who saw Hagar, now opened Hagar’s eyes so she could see.  He showed her a well of life-giving water that would minister to their bodies and to their spirits.

You may find yourself in some difficult places and very hard circumstances, but I can assure you that you have never been out of your Heavenly Father’s sight.  There is no place you can go that God will not be.  Whether they are physical places, emotional pits, and spiritual dark caves – God has promised, “I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Joshua 1:5) The truth is, it’s often in those hard places that we see the God who sees us. Had Hagar not been lost in the wilderness, running from the hard hand of her mistress, she would have never encountered the Lord and come to know Him.  I know this to be true in my life.  So often I have discovered aspects of God that I would have never known had I not been in difficult circumstances.  When I was unable to put food on our table, I discovered Jehovah-Jireth – the Lord who Provides (Gen. 22:8). When I was desperately ill I found Jehovah Rapha – The Lord our Healer (Ps. 103:3). When I was discouraged and fearful, Jehovah Shalom – The Lord is Peace (Jud. 6:23-24) and Yahweh-Tsuri – The Lord my Strength (Ex. 15:2) came to encourage and strengthen me.  If you are in a difficult season, look for God to reveal Himself to you in a new and encouraging way.

Beloved, if He was faithful to a frightened, lost Egyptian slave girl, and He will surely be faithful to you.

A Beautiful, Imperfect Life

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“If you make a stone altar for me, do not build it out of cut stones. If you use your chisel on it, you will defile it” (Exodus 20:25).

For several years my son and I served with Samaritan’s Purse as the Collection Center Coordinators for Operation Christmas Child. We received thousands of gift-filled shoeboxes from churches in the North Florida region and packaged them in shipping cartons for transport. We quickly learned the most efficient ways to arrange the boxes to get as many as possible in the cartons. We turned them this way and that and searched for small boxes to fit in small spaces. It was like a real-life game of Tetris.

We like it when things fit together well, when there is order and balance. But that’s not always going to happen, especially in life. Things in our lives don’t always fit neatly in place, do they? Like that scary diagnosis or the spouse who walked away. Losing your job didn’t fit in with the structured life you had planned, and that hard-headed, rebellious child of yours has turned your ordered life into chaos. Depression doesn’t sit neatly in your tidy world. If only life cooperated with our well-thought-out plans.

When God delivered the Israelites from Egyptian bondage, He commanded them to build an altar for burnt offerings and sacrifices, but they must not cut the stones used in building the altar. Doesn’t that seem odd? Wouldn’t it be nicer to cut the stones to size so that they all fit together neatly? It could be a beautiful monument of perfectly shaped stones. But God did not want man’s “perfection.” To me, this becomes a powerful object lesson – that true worship comes from imperfect lives. Try as we might, we’re not going to make all the pieces fit neatly together. But when God takes the pieces of our lives, the odd shapes and sizes, and even the broken fragments, He makes something beautiful from them, something that speaks of Him to a world full of imperfect people.

Real life is not neat and tidy. It’s messy and misshapen and broken. But God – those are my two favorite words – but God can take your imperfect life and turn it into a beautiful testimony of His grace. Put the pieces of your life in God’s hands Beloved, and worship at the altar of His love.

The Life of the Party

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“My soul is downcast within me; therefore I will remember you . . . “ (Psalm 42:6)
I used to throw amazing “pity-parties.” Like celebrations of ancient royalty, I could stretch a good bad mood for days on end. Of course, these soirees were always a solo affair. No one ever seemed to want to come. But a good pity-party was best when it was just me and my dark thoughts. Well, I stand corrected. There was always one guest I could count on every time: Satan. He loved my parties almost as much as I did. He brought the snacks and fed me hopeless thoughts and dismal forecasts. He lowered the lights and played the music of loneliness: “See, nobody notices that you are down. Nobody cares about you. Nobody loves you.” He was the perfect companion and kept the “party mood” going.
But something happened – or Someone happened. God. I discovered an incredible thing: it is hard to keep a pity-party going when God is around. Misery flees when the love of God is present. Despair has no place where there is hope and peace and Joy. Lies cannot exist in the presence of the Truth. And Satan will not stick around when God is in the house.
I still have down days and I will always fight against depression, but I’ve discovered a new way to “party.” I invite God as my Guest of Honor. He feeds me with His goodness and love when I meditate on His Word. I listen to the Spirit now instead of Satan’s playlist. I take negative thoughts captive and replace them with what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy. God had brought light where there was once only darkness. He truly is the “Life of the party.”

In the Morning

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I wait for the Lord, my soul waits. And in His word, I have put my hope.  My soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen wait for the morning.  More than watchmen wait for the morning.  Psalm 130:5-6

 If the past eighteen months have taught me anything at all, it is that waiting on the Lord is never futile.  It may be uncomfortable, it may be nerve-wracking, and even a bit frightening, but it always ends with blessing.  I have also learned that the key to waiting is to put my hope in God – not in an outcome, but in the Person.  The outcome I hope for may or may not come to pass.  But I can put my hope in God because He never fails.

 The Psalmist understood that as he talked about watchmen waiting for the morning.  The city slept as the watchman kept vigil.  His responsibility was to be alert for any possible danger.  It was an intense and exhausting job.  And he couldn’t wait to see the sunrise so he could go home to his bed.  As he stood guard in the black of night, he never once doubted that the morning would come. It came yesterday.  It came the day before that and the day before that and all the days before – all the way back to the day when God said, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3).  It was dark through the night, but the morning never failed to come.

 You and I can hope in God through the night because He never fails to come in the morning.   He comes just as surely as the sun rises morning and morning.   Even more than this – He is the reason the sun rises morning after morning.  Yes friend, God always comes.  No power in heaven or earth could keep him from coming, not even death. 

He comes every morning with new mercies (Lamentations 3:23).

He comes with glory (Exodus 16:7).

He comes with redemption (Ruth 3:13).

He comes with listening ears (Psalm 5:3).

He comes with rejoicing (Psalm 30:5).

He comes with strength (Psalm 59:16).

He comes with wonders (Psalm 65:8).

He comes with unfailing love (Psalm 143:8).

He comes with a sustaining word (Isaiah 50:4).

He comes with justice (Zephaniah 3:5).

He comes with resurrection power (Luke 24:1-6).

He comes with daily provision (John 21:4).

He comes with His Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-4).

He comes with the Morning Star (Revelation 2:28).

 

He comes with peace.

He comes with joy.

He comes with promise.

He comes with faithfulness.

He comes with unfailing love.

And when you hope in Him, He comes with even more hope.

Beloved, are you surrounded by the darkness of a long night?  Put your hope in the Lord.  Morning is coming.   Like the sun that rises at dawn, He always comes.  Keep watching.  Keep waiting.  Keep hoping.  The Lord your God is coming.

God in the Darkness

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It was thirteen years ago, but I remember it like I am still there. My season of great darkness. To this day I don’t understand why, but the enemy came down on me with both feet. It was an emotional breakdown and it was spiritual oppression. It manifested physically in sleepless nights and body aches with no medical explanation. I could not stop the tears and the constant thoughts of self-destruction. I truly believed I was losing my mind. I had been writing for several years, and I threw all my notebooks in the fireplace because I didn’t think I would ever have normal, sane thoughts again. And I thought God had abandoned me. The enemy kept telling me so. One day my then 12 year old son came through the kitchen singing, “Jesus loves me,” but he stopped short of the chorus. I said, “please keep singing” but he said, “you finish it Mom, I’m going out to play.” But I couldn’t sing “Yes, Jesus loves me,” because I didn’t believe He did.
One morning in the very wee hours, I sat on my back porch, wrapped in a blanket with my Bible in my lap. The only thing I knew for sure was it I had any hope of survival, I had to stay connected to God, even if I wasn’t sure He wanted to stay connected to me. I was reading Exodus 3 and the story of Moses and the burning bush. When Moses asked God’s name, I “heard” in my heart, “Child, who am I?” “You are God,” I answered, “who else could you be?” “Oh, there is so much more to me than you ever imagined. Know me.” I remembered a little book I had picked up for five bucks at a women’s retreat a few years before, that had a list of the names of God with Scripture references. I started at the first name and day-by-day worked my way through that list. God met me and revealed Himself to me every morning, name by name. I researched more names and for three years I studied until the fog dissipated and I could breath again. He saved my sanity and my life.
Now I know that He is El Emunah – the Faithful God and He is Yahweh Sali – the Lord my Rock and He is Yahweh Gibbor Milchamah – the Lord Mighty in Battle. But most of all I know that He is El Hayyay – God of my life. And He’s proven it over and over and over again.

Christians and Depression

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“Elijah was a man just like us” (James 5:17).

I’ve been studying Elijah lately for one reason: I wanted to understand why, after all God has done for me in recent months, I could tumble into depression. Elijah was a prophet of God – a very outspoken prophet – and most of his outspokenness was directed at King Ahab and His queen, Jezebel who were evil personified.  Elijah predicted a season of drought because of the evil and idolatry in Israel. During that drought, God miraculously provided for the prophet – he never lacked for his daily needs.  Elijah defeated and put to death the 450 prophets of Baal, Jezebel’s god, and showed the Israelites the power of Jehovah. Because of him the people’s hearts were turned back to the Lord. What a victory! Yet when Jezebel got wind of it all, she threatened Elijah. And the prophet ran. Depressed and overwhelmed he begged God to take his life.  Despite all that God had done for him and through him, Elijah wound up in the pit – or cave as it were – of despair.

I can identify with old Elijah.  God has been so good to us through a very difficult year of health problems, unemployment, family strain, and financial hardship.  So why this downward spiral into depression?  It isn’t the first time I’ve battled this – I am prone to the grip of depression, and it often comes on the heels of blessings and fruitfulness.  I suspect, based on conversations and comments, that I’m not the only one.

I see some similarities between Elijah and me.  The old prophet was physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted.  The long-standing conflict with Ahab, three years of drought in the land, coupled with the intensity of the showdown with prophets of Baal drained Elijah.  Likewise, we struggled for over a year with my husband’s work-related injury, surgery, rehab and battles with worker’s comp and his company.  I had made a disastrous job change and was miserable. We were caught up in a great deal of relational tension with a family member.   Then the heat intensified.  My husband could not go back to work, so now we faced settlements, disability, and the loss of his income.  When my employer found out I was looking for another job, they hired my replacement before I had a job to go to.  Faced with double unemployment and a minimal settlement, we realized all we could do was move back home near family.  Two days before we loaded the truck I was hit with a severe leg infection and excruciating pain. That meant medical bills with no insurance and no income and nearly a month of being flat of my back.  God had graciously led us to a great house to rent, but before we could move in, the house flooded from an open tap and we juggled furniture around while the floors were replaced and I tried to recuperate with the daily noise of saws and hammers.  There was the added anxiety of being separated from our adult son for the first time in his life as he decided not to move with us.  As soon as I was back on my feet I began searching for a job with disappointing results. 

But God had been good to Elijah by miraculously providing for His prophet, and He did the same for us.  Despite all our struggles, God poured out blessings on us and provided generously and unexpectedly.  And He eventually opened the door to a wonderful job for me at a small Christian college nearby.  You would think, with all this, I would be on the highest of highs.  But I soon found myself crashing physically, emotionally and spiritually. Like Elijah, the long drawn out struggles and intensity of the recent months had drained me.  Elijah fled to the desert, a fitting place for a dry and weary soul.  There he begged God to let him die, “I have had enough, Lord” (1 Kings 19:4).  And the overwhelmed and exhausted prophet lay down and slept the sleep of the depressed.  While I haven’t physically run anywhere, I have retreated into an emotional desert of discouragement and weariness.  That is why, you may have noticed, I have been silent on my blog and social media the past month or so.  I just haven’t had the energy or the heart.

So how did Elijah come out of the darkness of despair?  The same way I will.  Through God’s tender care and hearing the voice of the Lord.  As Elijah slept in the desert, God sent an angel with food and strengthened him so that he had just enough energy to get to the mountains where he hid in a cave.  But it was there, in a dark and lonely cave, that the God of mercy and grace spoke to him in a gentle whisper.  I am seeking the help of a physician to deal with the physiological aspects of depression, and I am digging into the Word to glean the whispers of God for my soul and spirit.

Why am I sharing this less-than-encouraging message with you?  Because I don’t want you to think I am some super-Christian through the words I write.  I am just as prone to the struggles and hardships of life as anyone.  The have the same discouraging effect on me as they do on you.  In all honesty, I write to encourage myself as much as to encourage you.  And I am just as prone to failure in my walk as anyone – but that’s a post for another day.  I’m also sharing this because someone else is struggling with depression – someone who loves Jesus and is doing their best to be a good, faithful Christian.  You’re questioning your faith because of this season of darkness.  You may even be questioning God’s love for you.  And the enemy is using that to his advantage.  I hear the accusations too: “If you were really a Christian you wouldn’t be depressed.  God is so disappointed in you.  Why don’t you quit pretending to be something you’re not?”  I hear the reminders that Christians are supposed to be full of joy, joy, joy!  So why aren’t you?  There may be many reasons; everyone’s situation is unique.  And there is no shame in reaching out for help.  Doctors, counselors and others have the God-given wisdom and expertise to treat depression.  Please get the help you need. Today.  I am writing this so that you, my weary and hurting friend, will know that there is no shame in depression – even for Christians.  The Bible shows that we are in very good company in this cave – Moses, Elijah, David, Jeremiah, and Paul all expressed similar emotions and seasons.  Many of the great men and women throughout Christian history struggled with depression.

I am also writing this to let you know that God really does love you – even in the pit or desert or cave of depression.  He is not angry or disappointed in you.  He has not written you off.  In fact, He has drawn near to you, like a loving parent does when their child is hurting.  He speaks gentle whispers of love and encouragement, and He tenderly wipes away the tears on your face.  Let Him love you.  Let Him minister grace to you.  Beloved, there is hope for you and for me in the face of depression.  I’m going to get better and so will you.  God is too good to leave His child in pain. He will turn the darkness into light.  We have His Word on it.

Fear Not

Fear not

“Fear not . . .”  Isaiah 43:1

“Fear not” – words that make us stand a little straighter and feel a little stronger.  “Fear not,” (and words of a similar context) are found in the Bible more than a hundred times.[1]  We’re taught that fear and faith cannot coexist.  A fearful saint is not a faithful saint. But if you – like me – find yourself in a tumultuous situation, that contrast between the two extremes is a very real and present tension.  Like the father in Mark 9, we find ourselves pleading – “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (v. 24).  Over and over I pray: “God, I know You’ve got this.  I know you are faithful.  I know You will never leave me nor forsake me.  But I’m scared God.  I don’t want to be.  I’m trying not to be.  But I am.”  And He understands.  He doesn’t chide or rebuke me – He just gives me reasons not to fear.

Fear not . . . for God has heard (Gen. 21:18)

Fear not for I am with you (Gen. 26:24) (My favorite)

Do not be afraid, the Lord will fight for you (Deut. 3:22)

Do not be afraid . . . for the Lord will never leave you nor forsake you (Deut. 31:6)

Fear not; I will help you (Isa. 41:13)

Today, at the suggestion of my sister-in-love, I’ve been meditating in Isaiah 43 and found some incredible words of hope that fit my life perfectly:

“This is what the Lord says – He who made a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters” (v. 16); “I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland” (v. 19).

At this moment I am both drowning in the sea and wandering through a desert.  Seems as odd as faith mingled with fear but let me explain.  My emotions seem like an overflowing river, thoughts rushing this way and that, pulling me under and threatening to take my very breath.  For a split second I come up for air – “I believe!”  In the next the waves crash over my head again – “But I am afraid!”  God promises to make a way – a path through the waters of fearful thoughts and discouragement that threaten to drown me.  He promises dry ground to cross over to the other side.

Yet I am in the desert where nothing grows and all seems lost – walking through a season of drought.  Health issues.  Disability.  Unemployment.   Multiple applications with no nibbles.  Interviews with “no thank you.”  Watching the funds dwindle as the provisions dry up.  The reality of what we’re facing beats down like the scorching sun as we wander looking for an oasis.  God promises to make a way here too – to provide streams in this wasteland .  Mind you not to drown us like the sea, but to refresh and restore us.

He meets our needs for rescue and refreshing.  He gives us dry ground and cool springs.  He never fails to notice us wherever we are – even when we’re in two places at once.  Oh, my drowning, wandering friend – let me throw you a lifeline of hope.  You don’t have to fear because God hears you, He is with you, He fights for you, He will never leave nor forsake you, and He promises to help you.  He knows where you are right now, and He knows what you need right here.  He will make a way.

 

[1] The NIV records some 110 references; other translations will have a slightly different word count.  Despite how good is sounds, there are actually not 365 “Fear not” verses.

Advent Day 13 – Blue Christmas

“And He will be called Wonderful Counselor . . .” (Isaiah 9:6)

It is well known that Christmas, the most joyful season of the year, is also the most prone to bring on bouts of depression.  When your family Christmas doesn’t measure up to the Norman Rockwell standard or the Hallmark ideal . . .  When the truck repairs take all your Christmas money . . . When your company skips the Christmas bonus and gives you the boot instead . . .  When crazy relatives show their worst side . . . When you are just tired of the cultural “Happy Holidays!” . . .  Well I think you get the picture.  Depression seems worse this time of year because you know you’re supposed to be full of joy, joy, joy but the reality is you’re having a “blue Christmas.”

My friend, you need a counselor – but not just any counselor – you need the Wonderful Counselor.  You need the Counselor who knows you inside and out, who knows your past, your present, and your future.  You need the Counselor who has perfect insight into your state of mind and heart and knows exactly what will bring you peace and joy.  You need Jesus.

He is the Wonderful Counselor because He has perfect wisdom.  His Word is full of righteousness with not even a hint of error.  His counsel is perfect – He will never steer you in the wrong way.  His ways and words are true as He leads you through the darkness and into his marvelous light.  His counsel is without cost – in fact – He Himself has already paid the full price for you with His own life.

Beloved, if your heart is not ringing with joy this Christmas, may I suggest you get into counseling with Jesus?  His office never closes and He is never too busy to meet with you.  Your Wonderful Counselor is only a whispered prayer away.

Read Isaiah 9:1-7

I Wrote This for You

“Whatever I tell you in the dark, speak in the light; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs” (Matthew 10:27).

The truth is, what you see in me – or read in my words – is not all there is.  I may look wise and together on paper, but it’s not the full picture.  I wrestle daily with the dark devil of depression; it has been my constant companion since I was very young.  It has taken me to some deep, gloomy places.  It has cost me a great deal in my relationships, health, time, money, and hopes and dreams.   I’ve tried many things to keep it at bay; medication, Scripture and prayer have all been effective and helpful tools. But they haven’t made it completely go away.  Especially in the past few months.   This is what I wrote in my prayer journal not too long ago:

Lord, the truth is, depression lingers just below the surface.  I walk through my days like walking across thin ice on a river of discouragement, knowing that one misplaced footfall and I will plunge into the dark waters again.  Then sometimes I think, it would be so easy to give in to it; just take a deep breath and let myself slip under those familiar waves of despair.  In some weird way it is a comfortable foe – we’ve been together for a long, long time.  I fight it most days, but make no mistake – it’s always there, looming, dark and taunting, waiting for me to take that one wrong step and tumble in.

So, am I a fraud when I write words of encouragement and hope? Not at all.  Do I really believe the things I write about God breaking through despair to bring hope?  Yes – because those are the very same words that God speaks to me – His continual stream of goodness and inspiration that keeps my feet steady and my head lifted.  They are His constant reminders of love flowing through His Word and His Spirit and shining in my darkness.  He knows me.  He knows that I can’t make it one day without the hope He gives.  He knows that the frustrations and uncertainty I am facing right now threaten to do me in.  So He speaks to me.

Then He tells me to speak to you.  Because He knows you too.  He knows that some days are so hard you don’t even want to get out of bed.  He knows that you are lonely, grieving, hurting, fearful.  He knows that you have been disappointed, forgotten, rejected, passed over – and so He tells me, “Take the words that have spoken over you and speak it over them.”  That is why I write.  It’s so you can grab onto the same lifeline God threw out to me.  Paul said, “The Father of compassion and the God of all comfort . . . comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).  I can’t keep this comfort and encouragement to myself – it’s much too big and wonderful for just me.  It’s for you too.  It’s a warm blanket we can share in a cold world.  The blanket of hope.  The quilt of encouragement.   And the beauty is – there’s always room to welcome more.

Beloved, come join me in the sweet, blessed comfort of our Heavenly Father.  Hear His words of hope, of peace, of encouragement and of joy.  Let Him wash over you with the warmth of His love.  We’re in this together – you and I – and the God of Heaven and Earth.  We’re gonna make it—He told me so—and then He told me to tell you.

Holy Father,  You are so faithful to speak words of light and life over me.  As long as I have a voice, whether speaking to one person, a crowd, or the whole world of cyberspace, I will speak of Your goodness and faithfulness and love.  Let me always be a conduit of Your comfort. Amen.