Friday, November 30, 2007

A Heart for Christmas

By Kathy Lay

This Week's Verse:
Luke 2:7—And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (NKJV)

We were putting ornaments on the tree last weekend and enjoying a really great Mercy Me Christmas CD to set the festive tone. A nifty, upbeat rendition of “Silent Night” came on and I remember thinking how interesting it was that the music score was so “jazzy” for such a peaceful, mellow song. It turns out, though, it didn’t lessen the impact for my son.

When the line “Round ‘yon virgin, mother and child, Holy infant so tender and mild” played, he commented, “That part always breaks my heart.”

Shane said, “What breaks your heart, Buddy?”

“That mother and child part. Because I can picture it.”

“Does it make you sad or do you mean that it warms your heart?” I asked.

“Yeah, maybe warms my heart. It always does every time I hear or sing it, even at school.”

Shane said something to him about how sensitive and special that was but I didn’t get his exact words because I’d had to kick into self-composure mode. I guess you could say his reaction “broke my heart” too, in such a sweet, pure way. He knew something was going on in his heart; he just couldn’t quite put it into words.

Hearing Skylar’s reaction to the song reminded me of an ornament that my family had gotten when I was about his age. It was a round, flat, clear piece of acrylic that had Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus etched in the center. I loved holding it in front of the different colored Christmas lights to see which color looked best coming through it. Blue was nice because it recreated the nighttime aspect of the birth. Green was cool because it seemed so calm. Pink made me think of how Mary’s heart must’ve “felt.” But oh, that white. When I held it up in front of a white light, it just radiated with purity and righteousness. And just like Skylar, I couldn’t put into adequate words what that did to my heart.

Isn’t it awesome that God chose to reveal to the world his beloved son—our savior and redeemer, the Word made flesh—within that tender “mother and child” scenario? That the Lord of Lords and King of the Ages nestled in his mama’s arms as she pondered and treasured in her heart what all of this meant?

What if the Bible had merely said, “Jesus was born. Then at the age of 30 he…” What if all the vividly beautiful details hadn’t been recorded? What if we weren’t told of the swaddling clothes, the lowing of the cattle, the awestruck shepherds, the humble manger, and the mesmerizing star?

Praise God for his beautiful unveiling! What a flawless, purposefully chosen means of introducing his son. Humble beginnings foreshadow the ultimate humility later to come. But the visit of the Magi and their precious gifts signify that the baby would one day rule over nations. The quiet manger, away from the chaotic crowds of people, seems a fitting environment for the Prince of Peace. Further, the shepherds’ fear and excitement to go and worship offers a glimpse of the reaction of other believers of the message for generations to come.

How truly perfect. Can you put into words what that does to your heart?

Father God, how like you to carefully plan every lovely detail about our Savior’s birth, each one a unique revelation about him and his purpose. Thank you for that and for “breaking our hearts” and quickening our spirits as we contemplate the simple serenity and peace and wonder at that miraculous birth. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Application: Listen to different versions of your favorite nativity songs and hymns and allow your heart to be “broken” as you rejoice in the birth of our savior. ("Joseph's Lullaby" on Mercy Me's Christmas CD is guaranteed to make you crumble!) Also read Matthew 1:18-2:12 and Luke 1 and 2, savoring every telling detail, especially how Mary treasured these things in her heart.

Power Verses:
Matt.2:10-11 (NLT)—When they saw the star, they were filled with joy! They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Luke 2:15-20 (MSG)—As the angel choir withdrew into heaven, the sheepherders talked it over. "Let's get over to Bethlehem as fast as we can and see for ourselves what God has revealed to us." They left, running, and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. Seeing was believing. They told everyone they met what the angels had said about this child. All who heard the sheepherders were impressed. Mary kept all these things to herself, holding them dear, deep within herself. The sheepherders returned and let loose, glorifying and praising God for everything they had heard and seen. It turned out exactly the way they'd been told!

Friday, November 23, 2007

Lover of My Soul, Every Day

by Kathy Lay

This Week's Verse
Revelation 2:4—Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. (NIV)

Have you ever been caught up in such a spiritual experience that you knew you were touched by the very hand of God? Maybe it was at church—a moment of reverence and awe as you saw his glory streaming through a stained-glass window. Or maybe it was a moment of conviction that left no doubt that the day’s sermon was crafted by the Spirit just for you. Or maybe while singing praise, you were so overcome with his presence that you fell to your knees and just wept, grateful to revel in his company.

God is so good to bless us with these other-worldly glimpses of his majesty! In his continual pursuit of us, however, he isn’t satisfied with a weekly meeting. He woos us, seeks us out to be with him all the time, every minute of every day. And while it’s not difficult to respond and surrender during those supernaturally divine instances, it becomes more of a challenge to do it in the midst of real life, with a deadline looming, laundry piling up, illness setting in, overnight guests due the next day, and relationships in need of nurturing. It’s tough to hear that gentle whisper amidst the clanging, Amen?

But if we’re to be in a true love relationship with the Lord, which is the very reason we were created, we have to look for him even in the craziness. He wants to share everything from triumphant victories to cleaning the toilet (and if you think that’s beneath the Lord of the universe, remember that he happily removed toe-jam from his friends’ filthy feet). He wants your whole life—the gleaming and the gritty, the joyful and the anxious, the snail's pace or the break-neck speed—all of it.

Right now as I type this, millions of Americans are fully engaged in the day-after-Thanksgiving shopping frenzy. You might be one of those who love the excitement and thrill of the bargain hunt, and I give anyone kudos who attempts to be Jesus in the midst of the mad rush.

I'm not one of those.

Instead of affecting the masses, I tend to let the masses affect me, resulting in a not-so-holy attitude during this, an especially holy season. It's hard for me to abide in the Lord when other shoppers (who he loves just as much as he loves me) are rude, greedy, or even simply in my way. Since that's a weakness of mine and I know that Satan could have a field day with my vulnerability, I stay away from it (James 4:5).

But in the days ahead when I do venture out to make a dent in my shopping list, the Christmas rush will still be in full swing. I better bring my true love, my first love, along with me to ensure that this task—all in celebration of his birth, after all—remains a faithful act of worship.

So go ahead and be awestruck and humbled in church. Your Lord wouldn’t have it any other way. But don’t reserve it for only then. Look for him on the “off” days, too. In the hustle and bustle, can you hear him? When the aisle's blocked with shopping carts and three people are standing in front of the one product you need, can you hear him chuckle affirmatively as he watches you choose to wait patiently? He's there with you, Sister. He’s calling you every day, wooing you, his true love…Can you hear him?

God, we praise you for counting us worth to pursue! Thank you for your unending love and steadfast faithfulness. We invite you to be our “every day” God, wholly involved in every aspect of our lives, even crazy holiday preparations. In fact, as we submit those to you, please accept them as a pleasing sacrifice and be honored as you help us keep our attitudes and actions Christ-centered. In the Name of your beloved son whose birth we celebrate and honor, our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.

On your things-to-do list or your shopping list, alternate items with scripture, prayer, or even love quips to Jesus. That way, as we remember what to do or what to buy, we also remember to invite our first love into the situation too. Here's an example of what a shopping list might look like:
egg nog
Thanks for the crowd, Father.
fruit cake
Help me be a light and a tool.
Tonka truck
Forsake me not, Lord, especially as I walk through the valley of the electronics counter.
MP3 player
Dance with me, oh Lover of my soul...

Power Verses:
1 John 4:19(NIV)--We love because he first loved us.

I Peter 1:19-20 (NLT)--He paid for you with the precious lifeblood of Christ, the sinless, spotless Lamb of God. God chose him for this purpose long before the world began, but now in these final days, he was sent to the earth for all to see. And he did this for you. (Emphasis mine)

Philippians 1:9(MSG)...Live a lover's life, circumspect and exemplary, a life Jesus will be proud of: bountiful in fruits from the soul, making Jesus Christ attractive to all, getting everyone involved in the glory and praise of God.

John 15:9(NLT)--I have loved you even as the Father has loved me. Remain in my love.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Thank You, Lord

by Kathy Lay

This Week's Verse: Colossians 3:16 (NIV)-- Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.

I remember walking out of Burlington Coat Factory last fall having had a successful shopping venture. Both my girls needed new winter coats and I wanted to be able to get them something that satisfied each of their unique styles, but that also provided maximum warmth and durability. Getting them at a good price would be a bonus.

Upon seeing a brown faux suede one with a funky tan fur trim, I knew which girl would love that—it just looked like her. Next I spotted a pink camouflage number and knew exactly who that looked like, too. Both coats were thick, well-insulated, machine-washable, and priced reasonably. A few clicks of the cash register later, I walked out of the store a woman satisfied from a flawless shopping experience.

As I often do after “droppin’ some coin” grocery shopping or whatever, I got into the car thanking God that he enabled me to provide what my family needed. But this time--I don’t know if it was because I could picture my girls huddling into these new coats on a blustery frigid day or what--as the words left my mouth, I was suddenly overcome with such a deep sense of gratitude that I began to cry.

The words of Proverbs 31:21 came to mind, “She has no fear of winter for her household because all of them have warm clothes”(NLT). All I could think was “Lord, thank you. Thank you so much for your provision, which allows me to just walk into a store and get what my family needs without having to worry about how to pay for it. I sure don't deserve it, but I sure am grateful for it. It’s only your grace that allows it and I don’t take that for granted.” My gratitude completely overwhelmed me that day.

I know some Old Testament folks who were probably even more overwhelmed with gratitude. My “Read the Bible in a Year” schedule has had me in Ezekiel lately. What an astonishing story and reminder of purification and grace! In Chapter 39, the Lord lays out his plan for restoring Israel after the exile: “Then my people will know that I am the LORD their God—responsible for sending them away to exile and responsible for bringing them home. I will leave none of my people behind. And I will never again turn my back on them, for I will pour out my Spirit upon them” (28-29).

Okay, so after being purged from their sin, God brings every last Israelite home again and in pouring out his Spirit, determines to continually be with them from that point on. His Lordship in their lives meant safety, provision, and inheritance. Hallelujah, Girls, it means the same for us! Like the warmth and comfort those new coats provide for my girls, we can also wrap ourselves in the comfort and peace of God’s promises to us. Isn’t that great reassurance something that we can be grateful for? In the midst of anything our mighty, mighty God will take care of us and keep his promises…A HAPPY THANKSGIVING, indeed! :-)

Father, it's times like this, when we count our blessings and find them too numerous to even begin to list, that the plea “Oh for a thousand tongues...” applies. I mean really, how can we put into mere words how utterly thankful we are to you for all that you are? I'm even thankful that in your omniscience, you already know our words fall short, but you know what's in our hearts. How infinitely awesome you are and yet you call us “friend.” Thank you, thank YOU, Lord. Amen.

Application: In the spirit of the holiday, click on “comments” below and give a public thanks to God for something that you're thankful for. As The Message puts it in Ephesians 5:4, let's make thanksgiving our dialect.

Power Verses:
I Timothy 4:3,4 (MSG) They'll tell you not to eat this or that food—perfectly good food God created to be eaten heartily and with thanksgiving by believers who know better! Everything God created is good, and to be received with thanks. Nothing is to be sneered at and thrown out. God's Word and our prayers make every item in creation holy. *(What a great verse to remember around the Thanksgiving table--LOL!)

Philippians 4:6 (NIV)
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.

Colossians 3:16 (NIV)
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.

2 Corinthians 9:12 (MSG)
Carrying out this social relief work involves far more than helping meet the bare needs of poor Christians. It also produces abundant and bountiful thanksgivings to God. This relief offering is a prod to live at your very best, showing your gratitude to God by being openly obedient to the plain meaning of the Message of Christ. You show your gratitude through your generous offerings to your needy brothers and sisters, and really toward everyone. Meanwhile, moved by the extravagance of God in your lives, they'll respond by praying for you in passionate intercession for whatever you need. Thank God for this gift, his gift. No language can praise it enough!

Friday, November 9, 2007

Just a House, or a Real Home?

by Kathy Lay

This Week’s Verse: Isaiah 32:18—My people will live in peaceful dwelling places, in secure homes, in undisturbed places of rest. (NIV)

I came home from work around noon today and noticed that Penny, our chocolate lab, wasn't around to greet me. I figured that she was spending the day lounging with the neighbor's dog as she often does on school/work days, so I called across the yard for her and then came in to fix my lunch. I'd just sat down to enjoy my pork steak when I heard the trademark rumbling of paws across the deck. Penny-poo was home and wanted in to greet me!

Her excitement fueled not just one, but two full spins around as she saw me approach the sliding glass door to let her in. I thought her back end would fly off in all the wagging and she was clearly surprised I was home before the usual hour. I couldn’t resist hugging and scratching her and of course I had to share a few morsels with her. Later when she saw that I was finished eating, she found a sunny patch on the carpet and settled into a nap.

I thought to myself, Man, who wouldn't want to come home to this?! That dog has got a pretty sweet deal: go and socialize with friends, roll around in something—the stinkier the better, chase interesting things around in the woods, then when hunger or exhaustion sets in, come home to hugs, food, and a sunny place to nap. Waiter, can I have what she's having?

I was filled with warmth and joy seeing her so satisfied, knowing she has a happy place to come home to. But I was also suddenly filled with conviction that maybe it’s not always such a pleasant experience for the people in my life. See, dogs are simple: food, a bit of attention and love, and they’re generally happy. But people? A bit more complex. I expect things from them and they expect things from me. And when expectations go unfulfilled, we just might greet each other with frustration at the doorway instead of hugs and belly rubs.

Have you ever walked into someone’s home and been immediately blessed by the environment? I remember being delighted by the calm of one place in particular. My friend had scented candles burning, fluffy cushions on the couch to sink into, and low instrumental music was playing on her surround-sound. The whole room had an aura of peace and calm. I felt like I had walked out of chaos and into tranquility as she welcomed me in. And I felt loved because of her hospitality.

Lately, I’ve made an effort to go to those lengths in my own home. Why save candles for company when they could bring my family joy in the meantime? Why not have inspirational music as a backdrop to our activities at home?

But most important in creating a sanctuary for my family is that the attitudes, words, and actions that reverberate through the air are complementary to any environmental variations I’ve made. What good is order and a pleasant aroma if a funky attitude is stinkin’ up the place, ya know?

So when the kiddos burst through the door after a busy day of classroom learning, playground encounters, following rules (I hope!), and a long bus ride, will they walk into a sanctuary that allows them to unwind from their day and just be carefree for awhile? When my husband finishes up a day of sales calls and administrative chaos, will he cross the threshold into appreciation and love? Will they find a safe-haven from a world that can be rude, unfair, and at times even cruel? Or will they dread opening the door because they may find more of the same?

Ladies, even though it may seem a little unfair sometimes that it’s solely up to us to create this for our families, it really is. The very first time I read Proverbs 31—as a mom of twin toddlers trying to grade 100 research papers while potty training—I was resentful. I remember thinking, “Hasn’t she earned the right to sleep late? Or at least go to bed early? Can’t her husband stop being respected at the city gate long enough to get his butt home and give her a break?!”

But now, years later, I see the wisdom in the roles set forth by God himself as harmonious when we do them humbly for his glory. You’ve heard the expression “If Momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” Isn’t it so true? We set the pace and consequently, set the foundation of memories for our families.

Whew! That can be a daunting challenge on our own, but thankfully, if we invite the Holy Spirit in, his fruit will be manifested in a mom and wife that is truly welcoming. Gals, if we start there, we’ve got the most important ingredient to make our houses homes. I have to remind myself daily to submit to that. But when I do, I can gain the satisfaction of knowing I’ve fulfilled expectations and met needs for my husband, my kids, and yes, even our darling dog.

Lord Jesus, thank you for entrusting us with our families. Guard our hearts and minds when it comes to ministering to their needs on a daily basis. Fill our minds with the wonderful thought that we’re actually doing it all for you and let that shape not only what our hands do, but what comes out of our mouths, as well. May our submission to your Spirit be a pleasing and fragrant offering to you, Father, that in turn you bless our homes. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Application: List some adjectives that describe how you feel when you walk through your door. What adjectives would your family members list? What action steps could you take that would add more positive adjectives to the list?

Power Verses:
Job 8:6...and if you are pure and live with integrity, he will surely rise up and restore your happy home.(NLT)

Proverbs 27:15—A quarrelsome wife is like a constant dripping on a rainy day; (NIV)

Proverbs 21:9—It’s better to live alone in the corner of an attic than with a quarrelsome wife in a lovely home. (NLT)

John 14:23—Jesus replied, “All who love me will do what I say. My Father will love them, and we will come and make our home with each of them.” (NLT)

Friday, November 2, 2007

Finishing the Race

By Kathy Lay

This Week's Verse: I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful. (II Timothy 4:7—NLT)

You know that look people get when they want you to do something? That's the look my husband had when he approached me with this: “I think we should do the Deuces Wild Duathalon. It’ll be fun, something we can do together, just you and me.”

I looked doubtfully at his cute face—I mean how could I turn that down? But, more realistically, how could I possibly run a duathalon? Me, okay? Someone who hasn’t run more than the length of the driveway at any one time since my high school track days.

“Plus, it will set a great example for the kids.” He had a point there.

“And your running would be broken up: two miles at the beginning, then I ride my bike 20 miles, which would give you close to an hour to rest, then you run two more. C'mon, it'll be fun.”

Okay, with two months to prepare, I could surely run two, two-mile stretches. Couldn’t I?

And so it began. This wish from my husband, and that persuasive style of his, started a training period for me. I began to run every-other day, starting the two-mile distance, but stopping whenever I felt I needed to at first. The very first day out, I vowed to jog to one telephone pole, walk to the next, jog to the next, etc. for the whole two miles. Girls, I thought I was going to die! I was so discouraged because, wow. I had no idea I was THAT out of shape. Major wake-up call.

But I didn't give up and you know what? The next time I went out, I was able to take two poles at a time and dramatically reduce the walking. Then two weeks into the program marked my first non-stop two miles! (Even if it WAS slow!)

I prayed during my runs... “Lord, please let my body hold out…thank you for that beautiful horse neighing as he watches me go by...thanks for the gorgeous weather...please let this whole deal serve as a positive example to the kids…please use it to strengthen my relationship with Shane…please be glorified in this.” I just enjoyed the God-time, even though I really wasn't having any major revelations or anything.

That was, until race day.

I am competitive by nature and I'd told Shane all along I didn't want him to be disappointed. I guess I transferred my competitiveness to him, assuming he was playing to win. He assured me throughout training that finishing was all that mattered. It was “just for fun.”

But as the entire pack of runners took off at the start, I made a huge rookie mistake: instead of pacing myself, competitiveness overcame me and I actually tried to keep up with the big dogs for a little bit. Things were not going well as I became extremely out of breath not even a quarter mile into the race. And I was still behind everyone except a mom with her young son. Not lookin' good. At all.

That leg of the event was nothing short of torture. My lungs were stinging, my mouth, throat, and even ears (weird feeling!) were completely dry as I gasped continually. I was reduced to walking fast a few times just to get a decent breath. As I finally tagged Shane so he could start his leg, I felt utterly defeated: “I can NOT do any more. I got Shane off to a late start, I walked for Pete's sake, and just about killed myself for what—to be in stinky-next-to-last place! There's no way I can continue in this race.”

Ever been there before in your life? You feel you just can't go on another minute, let alone another day? You're washed up, dried out, and fearful or maybe even hopeless?

Girlfriend, that's when grace and mercy kick in.

Angie Lindley was Jesus to me as she met me at the line. She encouraged me, walked me around, actually helped me peel off my outer shirt because physically, I just couldn't, and assured me the next leg would go much better after resting. Of course I didn't believe her at that moment because I felt like, well you know, puking and all, but she was amazing. :-)

Sure enough, a little less than an hour later when my hubby zipped back in to tag me for the last leg, I felt better. For one thing, I was starting alone this time—no pack to set an unrealistic pace. I was working at a speed that was optimal for ME, not someone else. It also didn't hurt that I was no longer near the rear because Shane had done a tremendous job on the bike. I was determined to enjoy this part. As I met other runners coming in, they'd holler “Good job” or “Way to go” (I didn't know about this runners' etiquette!) so I started doing it back. As I reached the turnaround, I knew that I'd be meeting others who were behind me, so I made a special effort to encourage them as well (even knowing several of them would soon be passing me!). I was actually having fun with this!

Then God hit me with the lesson I'm sure he'd planned from the beginning: See Kath? When your focus is on how you're doing compared to everyone else, it leads to disappointment and frustration... But when your focus is attuned to my plan for you, there's fulfillment and satisfaction in that because you're right where I want you. Stop looking at everyone else and just run the race I have marked out for you (Heb. 12:1-2) and no one else. You're not supposed to be with the big dogs yet.

Amen, Lord, what freedom in that! Thank you for a lesson I will ALWAYS remember because I didn't quit.

And as God so often does when we've internalized more of Him, he threw in an extra blessing--Shane and I received medals! We came in first in our class! (Okay, we were the only ones in our class, but hey, we'll take it!) And the kids are very impressed by medals. ;-)

(By the way, for those of you who know Heather Kirkwood, give that sister some major props! She did the whole thing, running AND biking, by herself and came in under two hours! She won the medal in her class (and she was not the only one in her class!). Way to go Heather!)

Lord, how we thank you that you have a special plan that is beautiful in its uniqueness for each one of us. Keep our eyes on the course you have marked out for us as we encourage others along the way on their own courses. Keep us continually focused on you and whatever prize you have for each of us as we finish our respective races. In Jesus' Name, Amen.

Application: How are you doing in your race? Are you struggling for each breath and step or enjoying the process? Pray that God shows you where you need to be to ensure you're not trying to run someone else's race.

Power Verses:
Proverbs 6:17-19
[Things the Lord hates] haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that kill the innocent, a heart that plots evil, feet that race to do wrong, a false witness who pours out lies, a person who sows discord in a family. (NLT)

Acts 20:24
However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the gospel of God's grace. (NIV)

Galatians 5:7-8
You were running the race so well. Who has held you back from following the truth? It certainly isn’t God, for he is the one who called you to freedom. (NLT)