Sunday, December 16, 2018

Advent Week 3: Joy

This third Sunday of Advent is Gaudete Sunday (from the Latin word Gaudete, meaning "Rejoice"). Today, we light the rose/pink candle, which symbolizes joy. It is called the “Shepherd’s Candle,” and is pink because rose is a liturgical color for joy.

As we light the third candle for joy, we remember:
  • the joy Mary felt when the angel Gabriel told her that a special child would be born to her - a child who would save and deliver all people (Luke 1:26-56)
  • the joy the shepherds felt at the angel's announcement: "Do not be afraid. I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people - for to you is born this day, in the City of David, a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord" (Luke 2:8-20)
  • the gift of joy we have in Christ, who came bring true and everlasting joy. (Read what the bible says about joy here)
Joy is different from happiness. The theologian Henri Nouwen described the difference. While happiness is dependent on external conditions, joy is "the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing – sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death - can take that love away." Thus joy can be present even in the midst of sadness. (1)

"And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God's throne." Hebrews 12:1b, 2 NLT

Christ came to save us by giving his life a ransom for ours. How could he view his dying as joy? While the experience itself was one of torturous suffering, pain and passion, he obediently endured "for the joy set before him."

Someone asked, "What was that joy he was awaiting? What was the joy set before him?" And the reply: "It was YOU."

We are the reason Christ came and suffered. God sent his son, because of his great love, to rescue us so that we could return to relationship with God, to the loving fellowship for which we were created and which sin has broken. The joy Jesus awaited and sacrificed himself to attain was our salvation and restoration into God's family for eternity. What joy!

Listen to the King's Singers as they perform one rendition of "Gaudete" --a joyful medieval song of praise:

Song Lyrics:
Rejoice, rejoice! Christ is born off the Virgin Mary – Rejoice! The time of grace has come—what we have wished for; songs of joy let us give back faithfully. God has become man, with nature marvelling, the world has been renewed by the reigning Christ. The closed gate of Ezekiel is passed through, whence the light is risen; Salvation has been found. Therefore, let our preaching now sing in brightness. Let it bless the Lord: Greeting to our King.

Loving God, thank you for the joy you bring. Help me prepare my heart for the Lord’s coming by being joyful in all circumstances. Help me see that Christ came for every person I meet wherever I go. Help me to humbly serve others with joy as Jesus did, in obedience to the Father. I ask this in the name of the one born in Bethlehem, Jesus our Lord.

Living it out:
Consider sharing today with your family members, friends, and/or in the comments section how you have experienced joy. May joy be an overflowing river in you today!

Friday, December 14, 2018

Why We Should Sweat the Small Stuff

Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, 
and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. 
~Jesus (Luke 16:10)

This is a startling statement made by Jesus to those who think we shouldn't sweat the small stuff. What he makes very clear in this statement is that integrity matters in the details, in the mundane, in the hidden. How we conduct ourselves in trivial matters is an accurate predictor of how we will conduct ourselves in large things.

The great basketball coach John Wooden said, "The true test of a man's character is what he does when no one is watching.”

Charles Haddon Spurgeon put it this way in 1876: "I think you may judge a man’s character by the persons whose affection he seeks. If you find a man seeking only the affection of those who are great, depend upon it he is ambitious and self-seeking; but when you observe that a man seeks the affection of those who can do nothing for him, but for whom he must do everything, you know that he is not seeking himself, but that pure benevolence sways his heart."

Other memorable quotes about character include:

"A man’s character is most evident by how he treats those who are not in a position either to retaliate or reciprocate." ~Paul Eldridge, novelist, 1948

“You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.” ~Malcolm S. Forbes, publisher, 1972

Because of the times in which these quotes were written, the generic term "man" is used, but of course, this doesn't let women off the hook. Jesus' words, in the NIV translation, state clearly that this measure of character and integrity applies to human beings across the board, regardless of gender, age, or any other difference.

Wise King Solomon reminds us that character also is reflected in how we treat animals:  "The righteous care for the needs of their animals, but the kindest acts of the wicked are cruel." (Proverbs 12:10)

Further teaching from Jesus also talks directly to not flaunting good deeds: "Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." (Matthew 6:1-4)

This seems to contradict what Jesus said just a few moments before in Matthew 5:16: "...let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven."  However, if we look at the immediate context, this is a concluding statement in an analogy of how his disciples are to be like salt and light, influencing others and improving situations by their consistent character and righteous behaviour.

Here's the entire paragraph: “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven." (Matthew 5:14-16)

In the Matthew 6 statement, Jesus criticized those who were doing things for personal honor. In the Matthew 5 statement, Jesus indicates the purpose of good works is so God will be glorified. Why? Because everything good comes from Him (James 1:17), and anyone who claims to follow Him should reflect the character of Jesus, and of the Holy Spirit who lives in all true believers. God does not give us His Spirit so that we personally gain from it, but so that His glory is made plainly evident to all those who witness our lives.

It's not about me.

How I conduct myself, whether I am seen or unseen, in small things or large, should always be a reflection of the One whom I follow. Every task, no matter how (seemingly) insignificant, is an opportunity to do good and live right. What I do and how I respond becomes a habit, and habits become patterns that will determine how I conduct myself in weightier matters.

Prayer: Lord, I want to be faithful in the little things. I trust in Your strength to help me persevere and do what is right in even the most boring of circumstances, when I'm tempted to cut corners. Thank You for empowering me by Your Spirit to live in such a way, every day, every moment, that if anyone were to witness my actions at any time, they would say, "Glory to God! That person lives like Jesus."

Thursday, December 13, 2018

In Keeping with Peace

As the second candle of Advent was lit last Sunday for peace, I offer this sage and proven advice, given to me during the aftermath of my first husband's sudden death in December 2012. These things help you manage your body, mind, will and emotions during the days and months following a bereavement and/or trauma. If you have been through a similar loss, or are finding life hard to navigate during this season, consider observing the following practices to aid you in "keeping the peace" in your life.
  1. Avoid listening to or watching the news, television, music or movies with intense, dark themes, or deeply emotional content.
  2. Try to not make any significant changes for at least one year, longer if possible.
  3. Maintain the discipline and routine of proper self-care: nutritional food intake, adequate rest, regular exercise, and regularly scheduled time for relaxation and recreation.
  4. Stay connected to a small group of trusted friends.
  5. Allow yourself to feel. Don't numb it with busyness, noise, work, food, booze or drugs. You cannot heal what you won't acknowledge. Allow tears to come. 
  6. If you need help managing your pain, seek out a GriefShare group and/or a professional grief counsellor.
  7. Accept that the hole of another's absence will always be there. Time does bring a lessening of the pain, and it gives perspective, but full healing may not happen in this life.
  8. You will not always feel this way.

This has been my CPR for navigating grief. That, and the unshakable awareness of God's presence, love and mercy, carrying me every moment.
Tears are not a sign of weakness, they are the sign of an open heart.  
~Ann Voskamp
This one final, all encompassing thing I know and remember to keep the peace: God is love. All God ever does is motivated by love. I trust this truth. It is not easy. It is a discipline to trust. But when I do, it transforms and informs my life. In my weakest moment, I am stronger than I have ever been, because my strength is the presence of God.

So do not fear, for I am with you;
    do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
    I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
For I am the Lord your God
    who takes hold of your right hand
and says to you, Do not fear;
    I will help you.
Isaiah 41:10,13

Photo by Jordan Steranka on Unsplash 

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The Genealogy

I've never been particularly intrigued by my ancestry. I enjoyed the anecdotal stories, but didn't spend time researching family history. However, today, inspired by a question from one of my nephews, and by the listing of Jesus' genealogy in the Christmas story, I dug out both my parents' genealogies and discover the following names in my lineage.

Unruh (both sides)

My maternal great-great grandparents were born in Ostrog, Russia, great-grandparents in Poland, grandparents in Kansas.

My paternal ancestors originated in West Prussia @1750 AD. In 1893 great-grandparents left South Russia and sailed to North America. Their 9 year old son died during the transatlantic voyage and was buried at sea. My grandfather was 14. The family landed in Quebec, then continued via train to Kansas where they settled near other family members who had previously migrated.

Of all the people I have encountered in my life, I often sensed there might be relatives among them. Even Henry's family surname and mine were listed in the same community in the 1700s. I think I have Facebook friends that share many of the surnames in my list above. Six degrees (or less) of separation, indeed.

Sunday, December 09, 2018

Advent Week 2

The lighting of the candles in the Advent Wreath has been a long-standing tradition within many churches and homes. It began in the sixteenth century in Europe, yet it is less than 100 years old in North America. I did not experience it myself until recently, when I worked in a church which lit a candle on each of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. This year I gave a wreath to my son and his wife, along with an adapted "advent practices" calendar for each day, and I set up a wreath in our own home for the first time.

The wreath's circle is a symbol of eternal life, and like the circle of a wedding band, reminds Christians of God's endless love and mercy. The evergreen leaves represent the hope of eternal life brought by Jesus Christ. The candles symbolize the light of God coming into the world through the birth of Jesus Christ. Various colours have been used for the candles throughout the centuries but each one represents four aspects of our faith to focus on in preparation for the second coming of Christ and also as a remembrance of his first coming as a baby.(1)

Week 1 candle represents hope, week 2 either faith or peace, week 3 is joy and week 4 is light.

As is the case with all symbols, they speak most loudly to remind us of God's promises of life when they are drawn directly out of our daily experience. Traditions and symbols are contemplative prompts which help refocus my mind and calm my heart. In this season, one is tempted to be swept away by the barrage of consumerism and excessive number of options for attending seasonally-themed events, programs and social gatherings.
Instead of becoming overwhelmed, I want to set aside time, using  prompts and symbols which return my focus to the One who is the Source of hope, faith, peace, joy, light and life.
Today I am reflecting on peace.
The second week of Advent we remember the gift of Peace we have in Christ. Peace is a gift that we must prepare for and work to preserve. God gives us the gift of peace when we turn to him in faith. 
Through John the Baptist and all the other prophets, God asks us to prepare the way of the Lord, whom the prophet Isaiah calls “the Prince of Peace.” As we light this candle today we look with hope for the day that Christ’s peace will reign in our hearts, in our homes, in our communities, and in our world. As we light this candle, we are reminded to work for that peace of Christ to come and take root in us. (2)

As we light the first candle for hope and today's candle for peace, we share with each other how we have experienced peace recently.

Loving God, we thank you for the gift of peace you give us through Jesus. Help us prepare our hearts for the Lord’s coming by working for Christ’s peace to take root in our family. We ask this in the name of the one born in Bethlehem, Jesus our Lord. (2)
Consider sharing your thoughts on peace today with your family members, and/or in the comments section. May peace be yours is great abundance today!

(1)  Geddes, Gordon; Griffiths, Jane (2002). Christian Belief and Practice. Heinemann. p. 97. 
(2)  Advent Week Prayers, downloadable PDF (adapted)
(3)  Other resources: Wikipedia and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Thursday, December 06, 2018

On Loan from God (Guest Poet)

My father was a poet, preacher, and songwriter. I came across one of his poems today that is quite timely after yesterday's blog post. It's intriguing to me to hear my father echoing words and feelings that I myself now experience. We are, after all, not so different, he and I. 

On Loan from God
Alternate Title: "Earth's Family Cycle"
by Frank P. Nickel

We take our infants in our arms.
No sacrifice, just joy!
And soon they take steps of their own –
our precious girls and boys.

They trust us so, and we in turn
don’t want to let them down
but we will fail, and they must learn
that God is God alone.

Reminded they’re just lent to us,
both for our joy and trust
and if we’d help them reach their goals,
show trust and hope we must.

Then comes the time to take hands off,
but heart-strings still hold fast;
and God keeps working, till one day
we’re satisfied, at last.

They find their niche in this wide world
by grace of God above,
and that is what it’s all about:
when they express God’s love.

Frank P. Nickel,
December 1980

(If you enjoyed this poem, feel free to browse the 200+ others at My Father's Poems.)

Photo Credit: Deposit Photos #8995377, standard license

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Anchors and Clear Sailing

In the life of a person, there are a very few anchors. For me, they are the relationships that keep one on an even keel, point to true north and keep us steady on toward wholeness and deep satisfaction. I am privileged to name mine as 1) Jesus 2) parents, 3) spouse, 4) child. From each, I have received unconditional love. My first anchor is the One who chose me from before the foundation of the world, loved me so completely he voluntarily gave his life to ransom mine, and now, by His Spirit, lives in me, to guide, sustain, provide, direct and complete.

When I am loved by those closest to me--my human anchors--those who love me best, I can more capably navigate the rest of life with its joy, trial, or trouble. This past weekend was one of those anchor-strengthening times and this blog entry is something of a journal entry. This unique weekend was one of those transcendent times that are hard to capture in words. Yet, I shall attempt to do so. Grab a cuppa something warm and read along if you like.

We had planned to possibly join my son and his wife on his birthday. As an only child, our family was small. When I was young, my very large family rarely ever celebrated birthdays in a personal or stupendous way. So, when he was young, we always made a big deal about birthdays. Now he is a mature young adult, it is only right and fitting that I share him. He is married, living close to his in-laws, and as a couple, they are quite socially active with their own circle of friends. I checked in with them about possible dates to come visit, and they'd already made plans for several close friends to come from out of town to spend his birthday weekend celebrating with him.

So we chose an alternative weekend when the Christkindlmarkt (German Christmas Market) was also going to be open in downtown Vancouver. Might as well include as much fun as possible with one trip. And much fun we did! We knew in advance, however, that there would be a third person with them: a dear young boy who had special needs. We'll call him "Joey" (not his real name). They had recently been approved by the government body who certifies relief care givers. They provide occasional care, keeping Joey the entire weekend, so that his foster home has a brief respite from his full time care.

My mother's heart was so enlarged by seeing my son and daughter-in-law's loving care for this sweet boy who'd been born with limitations he will never outgrow.  I was able to bear witness to how both of them patiently care for him, lovingly train him, and relate to him in healthy, life-giving ways. This was one of the most transcendent experiences of my life, defying definition. Gratitude and pride are mere shadows that barely approach the depth of emotion from our weekend together.

In these moments approaching holiness, I have learned to be silent. I used to be like the impulsive Apostle Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration, blurting out whatever comes to my head that "seems like a good idea at the time," but as I've aged, some wisdom has arrived that helps keep me humble (and closed mouthed) as an observer of the miraculous.

Please allow me to share some weekend highlights, and delights of all sorts. Rejoice with me. I record them because I want to remember.

Friday night we arrived after a full day of driving. The roads had been clear, with only a skiff of snow near the mountain pass. Driving through the mountains when the weather is good is such a gift and settles my soul every time. It is such mysterious, majestic beauty.

Upon our safe arrival, we checked into our favorite Best Western nearby, then went to my son's home. Joey was already in bed, so we visited quietly.

We had brought Andrew's birthday gift, a hockey jersey from his favorite team with the name of one of the rising young stars. He was delighted, as it had been on his wish list, which his wife kindly shared with us. Don't you just love giving your children gifts and witnessing their total delight?! And, of course, I also had to bring a gift for my grand-dog, Louise the Doodle. She enjoyed the tug of war rope I'd found for her. I also have begun an annual tradition of giving both him and his father-in-law a bottle of the annual release of Alberta's first local single malt whiskey. It's made using local grain, in small batches, at a certified farm distillery. It's a farm to glass operation, with some of their select batches coming from an old-fashioned harvest involving 4-horse-teams which pull a cutter/binder. This fall, Henry and I, along with a few dozen others, got to be "farmers for a day" and help stook the barley or assist later in threshing for a future batch.

Since the beginning of Advent was the next day, I had planned a special surprise for "my kids" -- even though they are adults, I suspect a part of us never outgrows our favorite childhood traditions. This is the first year I've made up a calendar on my own, rather than just buying a chocolate one. Our church held a fundraiser recently, sponsored by women from the sewing club. Proceeds go to our church camp, so I'm happy to support it by stocking up on stocking stuffers. One item I found there was this hand stitched advent calendar which can be re-used each year. I filled each pocket with two chocolates for both A & R. Gotta be fair!

(If you want to see more detail, you can click on any picture for a larger version.)

Then, I added individual notes in each day's pocket with a daily activity to help focus on faith. Each day the items rotate through either prayer, service, or a spiritual practice. The ideas and inspiration came from here. Since the prayer practices included lighting candles once per week, I also gave them an accompanying advent wreath and candles, so they can light them each Sunday to represent hope, peace, joy, love and (on Christmas Day) light. This is my first year doing this also, and I'm very excited to share the experience with them. It was fun picking out the candles and finally using the wreaths I'd purchased several years ago and saved for just the right time.

We finished our night with snacks and a couple quiet rounds of Azul, an award-winning board game which they had introduced us to on our previous visit. To my surprise, I managed to win both rounds. That's unusual, as I instilled a competitive spirit in my son and he's usually tops in most of our competitions.

Saturday we met for breakfast at Porters Bistro Coffee & Tea House, as is our favorite tradition. It's successfully managed by my son's in-laws, and no visit is complete without at least a couple breakfasts and an evening of scrumptious buffet dinner with live music in this heritage building built in the early 1900s. If you are the kind of person who likes to watch Hallmark Christmas Movies, you might see Porters featured in some of them.

Then we were off to walk Louise the Doodle. It was a lovely foggy day, with frost just clearing from the grass. The mist hung low over the school field as we made our way to the playground.

Then it was time for regularly scheduled therapeutic horseback riding for Joey. I can't share pictures of him, but let me try to describe it. The weather had turned into a wonderful sunny day which offset the chill in the air. We watched the ride, where Joey sits on the horse with someone walking alongside as a spotter and another person leading the horse. He did very well, sitting tall in the saddle, holding on by himself, and his smile gave testament to the joy of this experience.

Afterward, we all went to our hotel, had a quick bite of lunch and took a dip in the indoor pool, which we had all to ourselves. Joey loves the water, even the hot tub, which was very hot! I love being in the water, so this was a treat for me too!

Our evening was a repeat of the night before, but we brought in Vietnamese food for supper, and watched a hockey game, then just chilled with Louise the doodle, who is also learning some very valuable lessons as she now shares her master's attention with another person in the house.

Sunday morning started a bit earlier than usual, as we chose to attend services with A & R. Next, we explored the small, quaint, trendy town of Fort Langley, browsing the shops and discovering a new brunch place which made its own jams and sauces, and baked lovely pastries. They even had a lovely gluten free scone for me.

We picked up dried cranberries and cranberry tea from our favorite shop, and took a few photos by the artist's murals.

The nearby playground had another artist's installation that added a stunning, playful splash of colour to the day. Hanging from wires you can't hardly see, were several dozen open umbrellas. Aren't they fun?

After that it was well past time to go home and chill. Well, home to A & R's  place. Joey loves relaxing there and Louise was happy to see them and get her own walk and snuggles.

That afternoon, Henry and I took a drive into the city to spend a couple hours at the Vancouver Christmas Market. We headed across the bridge as the sun was setting, navigated the maze of big city streets and were pleased to find on street parking right in front of the market.

This is an annual tradition, a German-themed craft and food market for artisans of all sorts, set up around the Olympic torch on the Vancouver waterfront. A carousel greets you at the entrance, and in the centre is a very tall (2-3 story) revolving pyramid, and a very tall Christmas tree. For more details, go here.

We loved our time, sampled Gl├╝hwein, enjoyed bratwurst, and selected some Christmas gifts. The view at night over the waterfront and the seaplane harbour is delightful. Then we returned to A & R's place for a final visit and fond farewell.

The next morning, we met Andrew's in-laws for a lovely visit and breakfast at the Hilltop Diner, a long time fixture on the old Fraser highway between Langley and Aldergrove. That is also a joy-filled experience, sharing comfort food, life experiences, and parenting stories about our two children whom we love.

Our journey home was quiet and uneventful. Any time we drive the 11 hours between Langley and Calgary, especially in the winter, it can be a hair raising experience, but once again, the roads were clear, and we made the trip in Godspeed. I drove from Sorrento to Golden while Henry caught up on the sleep lost due to the one hour time difference and early mornings.

All in all, a joyful weekend and terrific start to the Advent season. Thank you for sailing along with me. I hope your season is filled with similar times of family joy.

Merry Christmas!