Today I Saw God
It is hard to believe that another year is just hours away from being done. I think for many, 2017 was far from a perfect year, with natural disasters, flawed human choices, and news outlets constantly imparting the state of "crisis" our world is in. Combining this with personal struggles, a lot of my friends are happy to say, "Good riddance," and "Get behind me, Satan." My year was less than stellar, but I know I will try to look ahead to 2018 with more joy and hope than fear.
This optimism seems a bit preemptive, I know, but as a Christ follower, my purpose is to find my fulfillment in helping to improve the lives of others. This upcoming year is one in which I hope to rewrite what those encounter me think of when they think of "Christians." It is the year that I practice what I preach when it comes to loving and guiding my children. It is the year that I will work to uplift those I meet with my actions, not just my words, and when my finances fail, I will offer my support with the gift God has called me to use over and over again–singing.
My prayers for 2018 are that more people act and worship through their year the same way. We are not defined by our skin tone, our political affiliation, religious affiliation, marital status, wealth or lack of any of the aforementioned items. We are defined by how we treat people, in the absence and presence of witnesses-human and divine alike. 2018 is the year I hope trolling dies and people learn to respond with educated and well-thought out responses. It is a year I hope open-mindedness reigns, when we appreciate our differences and acknowledge our similarities. It is a year I look forward to seeing teachers actually embrace an unabridged history-where we stop glossing over uncomfortable truths, accept our past, and use it to heal and prepare our future. It is a year that I will encourage those around me (and myself) to step out of our comfort zones, safe rooms, and personal bubbles to listen to differing perspectives, asking questions and sharing how the dialogue or ideology impacts them instead of hiding behind the most dreaded words, "I'm offended," (which often means shutting down and closing off).
These may be ambitious hopes and prayers, but I work through the One who taught us that we are to invite in the stranger, give drink to the thirsty, feed the hungry, visit the prisoner, care for the sick and clothe the naked (Matt. 25:34-40). In doing for others, we should rejoice in all that God has given us and Jesus taught us to use. We were blessed by Him in all our states to use what we had to make heaven possible on Earth (Matthew 5:1-11). I hope other Christians join me in reclaiming Christ as Christ would want us to; not through persecuting others because they are different, but opening our hearts and minds to all those around us. Let 2018 be the year we understand just because an oppression is not our oppression, it is still an oppression, that a sadness that is not our sadness is still sadness, and that an injustice though not our injustice is still injustice and as a community of Christ is it our duty and responsibility to stand for those are oppressed, weak, sad, alienated, sick and poor. That is what Christ asks of us every year. This is the year, I will continue to pursue being that Christian.
Some days, I have a hard time getting into the Christmas spirit. I watch the news and wonder if we will ever, ever figure out how to stop hurting one another. Advent is meant to be about longing, but I want to skip Advent and rush to Christmas because longing is messy and uncomfortable. We are yearning for the coming healing, we are hungry for the almost-but-not-yet Kingdom. On some days, the Kingdom of God seems very far away.
As a follower of Jesus, uncomfortable feelings of sadness, anger and longing eventually move me to prayer. A few weeks ago, I gathered with some dear friends and we prayed for our world, our leaders, our Church, our community and our children. We prayed we would not become cynical, we prayed we would be agents of the change we want to see in our world. We prayed for God to help us be brave and loving in a world teeming with fear and hatred. We prayed the same things for our children,primarily young adults who don't remember a world before 9/11 and weekly mass shootings. We prayed God would show us the path to peace and empower us to lead the way for our communities and families. We prayed and then we planned. We vowed to continue our prayers with our feet, our hands, our voices, our money and our votes. Pray, and then DO.
Another thing I do when I am feeling sad and angry is go to church. I have sat in church many, many times with tears running down my face, full of hurt.Sometimes, the church has even been the source of that pain. But whether I go full of sadness or full of joy, every time I show up and listen, God shows up and speaks. In all its brokenness, I still believe in the Church as a source of good in the world. If you haven't yet found a church that looks and sounds like Jesus, keep looking.
Last year, I remember going to church and hearing a sermon that particularly spoke to me in that place of longing, a reminder of things I can DO when I am looking for light in the darkness, Here are the three things we might consider doing when life feels overwhelming and circumstances seem to be stealing our joy:
Watch for God at work.When we become overwhelmed by difficult circumstances, we can become focused only on the seemingly insurmountable obstacles in front of us and it becomes all we can see. Yet, God is with us and the deliverance or healing for which we are praying may have already begun. One of my favorite versesJeremiah 29:13says
"You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart."
Every time I purposely, intentionally watch to see God in the circumstances around me, I see His hand at work. It might be a coincidental meeting, a fortuitous phone call, a specific answer to prayer, a changed attitude in a person in my life or a word of encouragement from an unexpected source. Sometimes it might be as simple as hearing the words of a song that touch my heart right where I needed healing at exactly the right moment. When I watch and listen, I always find Him.
Plug into the Holy Spirit.This time of year, we have many, many strands of light working their magic and making our house a sparkly wonderland. What many who visit our home don't see is the myriad of extension cords required to produce our light show. Simply put, the lights don't work if they aren't plugged in. Similarly, I find I have difficulty accessing the promisedfruit of the Spirit love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control- unless I too "plug in." I think it is different for each of us, but I plug into the Holy Spirit through prayer, reading scripture, journaling, and spending with others who are seeking God. I plug into the Holy Spirit by choosing to acknowledge I need God to help me be brave and love well. When I plug in, I have access to a power greater than my own. When I don't, I get overwhelmed by circumstances.
Bless somebody else.Like many of us, I can get wrapped up in my own little world. When I am hurting and sad, I can become even more self-focused. While we certainly need to learn healthy ways to care for ourselves when we are hurting emotionally, sometimes the most healing thing we can do is to look up and look out. There are a whole bunch of people out there in need of the love we have to give. Finding ways to bless someone else reminds us we are connected to one another, members of the human family. We do not travel this journey alone. We need each other and we each have the capacity to provide encouragement to someone else. A listening ear, a kind word, and a warm smile are gifts when offered with nothing expected in return.
Watch and listen for what God is doing. Be open to the Holy Spirit. Bless people around you. Pray, and then DO.
O come, O come, Emmanuel!
Originally published on www.kellyiveyjohnson.com
What is the first Christmas you remember?
The first Christmas I remember was when I was four years old. It was also the first time I went to church after being invited by my childhood best friend and her family. I think it was a Christmas Eve event for children, complete with a children's pageant and nativity scene. I don't remember all of the details, but I do remember Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. Amazingly, I also remember what we sang that night: "Silent Night". And of course, I remember getting gifts and goodies.
Going to a church on Christmas Eve wasn't a tradition for my family at that time. Even though there were tons of churches around us in Seoul, South Korea, my dad and his family were strong Buddhists. My mom was a Christian, but she couldn't go to church or even tell anyone that she wanted to go. The culture was male dominant and the father's religion was the primary one to be observed by the family. However, I was able to attend church with my friends during my early childhood, although I didn't know much about faith until later, when I was in upper elementary school. I remember I started praying for my family's salvation around that time, especially for my dad and grandma. My mom started sneaking out to the early-morning prayer service each day and because I was an early riser from a very young age, I started following her to the service. As Christmas approached, we would often see beautiful morning stars on very cold, clear winter mornings. I used to ask my mom which star was the one directing the Magi to baby Jesus. She always pointed to the brightest star in the sky and told me that one must have been it.
I still regularly go to the early-morning prayer service and look up at the sky as soon as I get out of the house, just like I remember doing in my childhood. Especially this time of year, the memory becomes more alive when I see bright morning stars.
As we have been learning more about the God of Surprises through this Advent, the idea of God as Emmanuel fills me with wonder. It's amazing that God would even think of coming down to earth as a baby and being born in a manger in the small town of Bethlehem through a virgin named Mary. But this surprising story doesn't end with an unexpected birth. As we all know, it leads to the Cross and the even more surprising resurrection. However, I think there is one more surprise that came just before Jesus ascended into heaven. He reminded his disciples that he came to save the world and told them what they needed to do. If I had been one of his disciples, I would have panicked at hearing the great commission: "Go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit."
Because the disciples were all Jews who didn't associate much with gentiles and because they also grew up in local, small towns, they must have been shocked and maybe even a little frightened at the thought of doing what Jesus was asking. What would the great commission mean for them? What exactly was Jesus talking about when he said "all nations"? They didn't have a globe or map of the world. But they all accepted the great commission, as evidenced in the book of Acts. And because the disciples obeyed, the Holy Spirit opened doors and expanded their vision and understanding of all nations. What if they hadn't obeyed Jesus? Perhaps I would have never heard about Jesus in Seoul, South Korea.
Between today's media and the Internet, we live in the most connected era of all time. Our physical view of all nations is truly global. However, I feel that our hearts' view of all nations has rather shrunk. Even though I get news from all over the world from my tiny laptop, I hardly feel for any of the people I hear about, even those in my own country. Especially in the busy hustle and bustle of Christmas, I hardly think of anything other than my church, family and friends (and if there is any wiggle room, maybe my neighbors).
When I was preparing last summer for this year's Christmas cantata, God strongly reminded me what truly needs to be celebrated. Jesus came to earth to save the world. John 3:16 clearly tells us that, "For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life." Have you thought about what God really wants for Christmas? I have, and I truly believe that he wants all of us who live on earth to have a relationship with him, calling him Father through the salvation in Christ Jesus.
I pray that this year's Christmas cantata worship services will help open our hearts to receive the meaning of Christ's humble birth. You will hear carols from all over the world. I would like to invite you all to be a part of this celebration and to invite your neighbors, particularly those from countries where Christianity is not the primary religion. I also want to encourage you to go beyond the invitation and open your eyes to see who they really are. Who knows if there is another Yoon for whom this could be the first Christmas experience and who will grow in faith through this simple invitation? This could be our first step in following the Great Commission.
It's that time of year. Earlier this week I stopped to pick up butterscotch krumpets for my father-in-law and saw the familiar red kettle and heard the distinct bell ringing-the Salvation Army is out in full force. I stood in the checkout line and smiled as I watched the man in front of me ask for change. I knew exactly where he was going.
Recently I discovered that the Salvation Army has its root in Methodism. In 1865, William Booth, a Methodist pastor in England, and his wife Catherine wanted to bring salvation to the poor by meeting both their physical and spiritual needs. I also found out that the red kettles started in San Francisco in 1891 to raise money to feed 1,000 people Christmas dinner.
The sight of the Salvation Army brings back fond childhood memories for me. I remember my father arranging the "adoption" of a family each Christmas. The family would provide a list of gift ideas for their children. Dad would tell my sister and me how much we could spend and then let us select the Christmas presents for the kids. I remember so clearly how fun it was to shop for someone else at Christmastime. The parents never provided ideas for themselves so Dad would purchase hats and gloves and all the fixings for a Christmas dinner. I remember how much the parents appreciated that we thought about them. I still think about how it felt to bring happiness and joy another family at Christmas.
Seeing the volunteer stand next to that red kettle also reminds me of the times I stood on the corner of Main Street in downtown Annapolis ringing that bell in the freezing cold. I vividly remember the joy I felt when someone would drop something in the kettle, but also the sadness when people would not even smile or look my way.
These memories are why every time a see a "ringer" I make sure to drop money into the kettle, look them in the eye and say, "Merry Christmas." Those red kettles and bell ringers are a reminder to me that Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Emmanuel, God with us, a light of hope and love in what can sometimes be a dark world.
J.K.Rowling first dreamed up Harry Potter in 1990, while on a train from Manchester to London. She finished the story in 2007 with the final book in the seven-novel epic. Now, that's a long story. Those who followed it all the way to its conclusion were held in suspense until the very last pages. We were all surprised by the ending all of us, that is, except J.K. Rowling. She clearly had planned it all from the very beginning; she always knew how it would end.
This is the wonder of a great story and the gift of the great storyteller. They plot everything precisely and then make us wait for the surprise ending. While we wait, our anticipation grows, preparing us for the BIG finish! In the end, what we couldn't possibly have imagined happening surprises us, and we're completely gob-smacked by the satisfaction we feel. If we had skipped ahead to the conclusion, it would be empty. We'd have an ending, but no resolution.
It's tempting in today's world to want to fast forward things. Our technology and consumer conveniences make it possible to skip the lines, avoid the traffic, and tape the game so we can fast forward through the commercials. Stories aren't meant to be experienced this way. They take their time, justlike our lives do. That's a good thing, right? Who wants to rush to the end?
But really, why not? If what God has promised is so much better than what we've got, why not fast-forward us to the good part? Perhaps because the God who is able to do immeasurably more than we could ask or imagine (Eph 3:20), is still working on us.
Now to him who is ableto do immeasurably more than all we askor imagine, according to his powerthat is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. ~Ephesians 3:20
God, the great storyteller, is telling His story by His power that is at work within us. For the satisfying resolution to make sense to us, we have to read all the way through to our last page.
We're not meant to jump to the end of our lives without reading the middle parts. Something of God grows up in our lives as we learn to lead them. It will allow us, with all the Lord's holy people, to stand before the love of Christ that is so much more than anyone could ever ask or imagine and find ourselves completely filled by it. (Eph 3: 14-20) Hard to believe,right?
Definitely. Yet, if Ms. Rowling had told me in book three how Harry's story would end, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have believed it either. It took four more books to develop the breadth of things which ushered me into the only ending that made sense.
So, even though from my vantage point on this side of my life story, the path to a happy ending may look narrow and perilous, to the God who conceived, wrote and is still writing it, it's a broad expanse. It'll take a lifetime's filling of His Spirit for meto see and believe just how wide and long and high and deepis the love of Christ for me. Surprise!!
Perhaps this is what the late Steve Jobssaw on his deathbed as he uttered his last recorded words: "Oh Wow. Oh Wow. Oh Wow."Can you imagine what would make aninventor, creator, and visionary like Jobs say that?Yeah, me neither. Guess we'll just have to wait.