Gifts

The First Noel

First noelI tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation. – 2 Corinthians 6:2b

School had been back in session only a few weeks when the auditions were announced. A month later the cast was set. By Halloween lines were learned and choreography had begun. Seamstresses sewed angel gowns. Set designers painted backdrops and made mangers. By Thanksgiving the blocking was nearly complete, dress rehearsal had begun, programs were designed, signs went up all over the neighborhood. In the next few weeks lighting cues and sound checks were worked out, hair and makeup finalized, props collected and stored. 

Finally, the big moment came, the curtain went up, and the greatest story ever told was told once more, presented in an enticing way, delighting all the senses of an audience who didn’t even realize how much they were longing for its message.

         *   *   *   *

For many years I chased the peace and calm of Christmas hinted at in ‘Silent Night’ and  ‘Little Town of Bethlehem’. I had visions of cocoa, a warm fire and jigsaw puzzles dancing in my head. But those times never came until December 26th or later. I was beginning to feel that if I couldn’t quietly contemplate the advent of God with us, I was succumbing to the world’s distorted version of Christmas. I thought I was missing the point.

Friends, hear this! Christmas is not about anything peaceful or calm. An unmarried virgin giving birth in a stable in a strange town is not peaceful. The heavens cracking wide open over shepherds and sheep with thousands of God’s messengers singing to announce that birth is not calm! Stinky, sleepy shepherds running into town to that stable is not calm, and those same shepherds running through town yelling about the Messiah is not peaceful. A royal entourage arriving with fabulously expensive gifts is not calm. And soldiers flooding the town to exterminate male children is anything BUT peaceful.

This is a story to get excited over! A story filled with dreams, visions, the Holy Spirit, miracle pregnancies, difficult treks, lost voices, quizzical visitors, narrow escapes, and radiant angels with messages from God, Himself! And most amazing of all these amazing happenings…God came to dwell WITH US! God! The God who made galaxies. The God who parted the Red Sea, parted the Jordan River, brought down the thick walls of Jericho with just rams’ horns. God who wrote commandments for us with His own hand, who protected His people from famine, lions and flame, and turned kings into beasts. THAT God chose to come to earth to dwell with US!

And why? Because we were so awesome? No. In fact, we never fully obeyed, submitted or surrendered to Him. He came out of love. Despite our sad, sinful, rebellious state; like a compassionate parent, He saw us as worthy of love…worthy of redemption. He decided to do whatever it took to bring us into a restored, loving, fulfilling relationship with Him. And what it took was Jesus being born as the Messiah, God with us – a moment in time so profound, we renumbered our calendars for it!

This is not a message to be quietly contemplated over cocoa. This is not a message to be wrapped in tinsel and sprinkled with sugar and boiled down to “Peace on Earth.” No! This is a message to be shouted from the rooftops! This is a message to ring bells for, sing songs for! In a world rotting with sin and spiritual death, this is a message of hope! A promise of life – fulfilling now and eternal later! To all those held captive by the need to succeed, there is Jesus! To all those enslaved by a quest for control, there is Jesus! To all those convinced the only way to live is by stealing, killing and destroying, there is Jesus! To all those in despair, nursing wounds, rehearsing hurts that won’t seem to heal, stuck in patterns that lead slowly to destruction, there is Jesus!

The rush and crush of the holiday season is upon us. We, the Church can NOT be calm and peaceful. We’ve a message to bring to the nations, and we can’t be silent! This is the one time each year the unchurched may walk through our doors. In the plays, nativities, teas and bazaars, in the children’s choirs, cantatas, bells and recitals, in the decorations and devotions, we MUST be about our Father’s business – leading the lost sheep home to safe pasture. This is the time to open our doors, open our eyes and open our hearts to those who need our message and bring it to them. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work. There’s so much to do. So many to invite. We can rest in January.

Holy Day Blessings,

Jen


Love Warmly

Love Warmly darkerAbove all, love each other warmly, because love covers many sins. Welcome each other as guests without complaining. Each of you as a good manager must use the gift that God has given you to serve others. Whoever speaks must speak God’s words. Whoever serves must serve with the strength God supplies so that in every way God receives glory through Jesus Christ. Glory and power belong to Jesus Christ forever and ever! Amen.

-1 Peter 4:8-11 GOD’S WORD Translation

A funny thing happens when you dare to teach or write about God’s Word – often when you think you’re teaching others, God flips it, and you find yourself getting schooled. I would say that was the theme for the Jahromi household last weekend.

As we sat sipping hot tea, bundled up from head to toe in hats, scarves, sweaters and fuzzy socks under fuzzier blankets held down by cold kitties we wondered what on earth could have happened to cut power to our furnace. As the temperature grew colder, our hopes sunk lower, as our HVAC guy confirmed that the furnace, heat pump and breaker box were all functioning. The problem was with the power lines. Somehow only a small bit of power was coming through, not enough for the furnace, the well pump, the hot water heater or the oven to work. After hours of waiting for a BGE crew that never came, we threw an extra blanket on the bed and went to sleep.

The morning brought temperatures below freezing. We bundled up even more and had coffee. As I sat there, finding it hard not to shiver, I realized I had not been thinking about the lack of heat, nor the unflushed toilets or microwaved meals. Instead, I was very thankful to have a small amount of power, hot coffee, a fireplace, a case of bottled water and food to eat. I was confident that it would all work out somehow.

But I became very aware that for some people, perhaps even in the Hereford Zone, perhaps some of our Food Bank clients, this was their everyday life. As Food Bank director, I had just paid to put fuel oil in two families’ homes. Another client had just received a BGE Turn Off notice. A single mother and her child were referred to us by the school counselor because they were facing eviction. If it weren’t for our Food Bank, many families would have to choose between buying groceries or paying the bills. I’ve never had to make that choice. Not really.

There were times we had to subsist on spaghetti and hot dogs until the next paycheck came. I can remember searching the sofa cushions for change for the bus or being a few dollars short in the checkout line and having to put something back with the kids looking on. Times of deprivation can make us more empathetic and compassionate towards others experiencing hardship. They are certainly ways to increase our gratitude for the blessings in our lives. Perhaps they can be a call to be more generous with the time and money we have now.

We had to come to church un-showered, but not unwashed. It was humbling. But more humbling were the offers of spare rooms, electricians’ phone numbers, loaned generators and prayers. At home, just as we had given up on BGE for the weekend, a bucket truck backed into the driveway. Turns out our electrical meter was rusted and broken. A few hours later a crew arrived and had it all installed, fixed and up and running before the final touchdown of the Raven’s game. God is good, all the time. The warmth of those kind offers and prayers is still keeping me cozy.

PRAYER: Dear Lord, even when things look bleak and times are hard, help me to focus on the many blessings in my life. Even when times are good and blessings are numerous, help me to humbly remember to bless and serve others with the gifts I have received. Help me to give thanks in all circumstances, for this is Your will for me in Christ Jesus. (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

Raising Grateful Praise,

Jen


Over The River and Through the Wood

Over the RiverGive thanks to the Lord, because he is good;
his love is eternal. Say to him, “Save us, O God our Savior; gather us together; rescue us from the nations, so that we may be thankful and praise your holy name.”

1 Chronicles 16:34-35 (Good News Translation)

I have very fond memories of Thanksgiving. Many of the other holidays have had various disappointments, but for me Thanksgiving is reliably good and satisfying. Perhaps that’s because it was such a time for family, that over the decades, relatives made an extra effort to come over the river, through the wood, or across the country to gather together then. As a child, and now as an adult, the place to gather is still grandma’s house.

In the various homes over the years, the smiling faces, the delectable kitchen smells, the women huddled in the kitchen and the men huddled out in the yard or around the tv for the game, kids scattered on the carpet playing…these are the cherished memories that have gradually faded into a blur of contentment over time. There was always something to help with, someone to chat with, a joke to tell, a story to share – and pie!

Although my family is not predominately Christian, Thanksgiving has always been a time to focus on the blessings in all our lives. And there are so many. It is also a time when the family is okay to start the meal with a prayer which is also a blessing. It’s the time of year when the past, present and future meet together as I gaze over the faces seated around the room, noting the absence of some and the addition of others, all sharing in an abundance of love and provision. At least for the day.

I realize that not everyone shares these kinds of memories. And honestly, any time family gathers there are some wounds and hurts lurking in the corner, threatening to steal the joy. I realize that it is not a time of abundance for everyone. It is not a time of family drawing near for everyone. My own family has had various feuds that left some uninvited. Memories can bring pain as well as joy. But I do strongly encourage everyone to focus on the many things to be thankful for, set aside differences, and find the joy in gathering together. Perhaps you need to find a tribe of like-minded believers to celebrate with. God intended our church family to BE a family, after all.

The pastor recently said that family should be a little taste of Heaven. For me it really is – at least on Thanksgiving. I can imagine arriving at the Wedding Supper of the Lamb to find cornucopias of fruits and veggies decorating the tables, and the smell of roasting turkey and stuffing and other delights filling the air, with men huddling on one side telling jokes and women huddled on the other sharing all the family news and updates. Lots of hugs and happy tears of reunion. The final cup of wine, The Cup of Praise or Consummation – based on God’s statement, “I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God,” – will be set before us. Jesus will ring the dinner bell and begin the feast. We will all be filled to the fullest with every good thing – – and pie!

PRAYER: Dearest Lord, whether in a crowd of many or few, help me show gratitude for all of the ways You have blessed me this year. Help me bring a little bit of your heavenly peace to my celebration, my friends and family, and my life. Thank you, Amen!

Grateful Blessings,

Jen


Foreigners in Your Land

Let Us Be Thankfull“Do not take advantage of foreigners who live among you in your land. Treat them like native-born Israelites, and love them as you love yourself. Remember that you were once foreigners living in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”

Leviticus 19:33-34, NLT

There is a lot of concern over the immigration crisis in America these days. However you may feel about illegal immigration, I think we can all agree it’s a human tragedy. Migration is never easy – it entails leaving your home, country, language, culture and family behind to face an uncertain future.

In Sunday School we’re learning about the Israelites and their trek through the desert. As former slaves they had few skills to help them survive, much less to form a new nation. God provided their daily bread and gave them a new set of commandments to set them apart as a holy people following the One Lord. They were not well received by the other people groups already inhabiting that Wilderness – the Amalekites and Canaanites. Without God’s mighty outstretched arm of protection, it’s safe to say they would never have made it to the Promised Land.

As Thanksgiving approaches, consider another set of immigrants. These people were fleeing religious persecution. Called “Separatists,” they wished to start new, separate, ‘pure’ church congregations that more closely resembled those of the early Christians. In England in the 1600s, it was illegal to be part of any church other than the Church of England. They were harassed, fined and sent to jail. They sailed across an ocean landing north of their intended destination in the Virginia Colony. Again, without God’s Providence, these religious pilgrims would never have made it to the New World, nor lasted past the first, difficult years of hardship. (for more, see https://plimoth.org/for-students/homework-help/who-were-the-pilgrims)

And as my family prepares to gather around the table for Thanksgiving, I know basmati rice will be on the menu because many family members immigrated to the U.S. from Iran. Some came on education visas, some came as refugees, most fled for their lives with little preparation and even fewer belongings. Their stories of escape are filled with Divine intervention and the hand of Providence. They became doctors, nurses, professors, teachers, chemists, foreign service officers, soldiers, law enforcement professionals and CEOs of tech companies – even ran for Congress. All are proud Americans. All are thankful to be in a country that allows them to freely speak, gather and worship. It wasn’t easy. When they arrived, they didn’t speak the language. They didn’t know how the system worked. They had little money. Despite their college degrees, they babysat, flipped burgers and changed bedpans until they could get established in America.

Their story is not unique. It’s the story of many of today’s immigrants. It’s the story of your parents or grandparents. Human migration is the story of humanity. Even our Native Americans came across a land bridge from Asia some unknown millennia ago. With every war, climatic disaster or economic upheaval our news programs are filled with images of people packing up as much as they can carry and heading off into an unknown land with an unknown future.

As part of God’s chosen family, we too are foreigners in a foreign land. We live as people of spirit in a world of fleshly desires and temptations. “You are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:9) Like the Israelites and the Pilgrims, we live by the blessing of God’s love and provision and guidance. Our citizenship is in Heaven. Here on earth, we are Jesus’ ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20). As ambassadors, we can make love and hospitality our calling card. We have been blessed in order to bless others – with our talents and gifts, our charity, our loving attitudes, and the good works prepared for us to do from the beginning. What a wonderful thing to be thankful for!

PRAYER: Lord, help me to see past all that seeks to divide us and see each person I encounter with Your eyes, as a brother or sister. Keep me mindful that I am just a foreigner here. Help me to be Your ambassador, bringing a taste of my Heavenly home down to earth.

Blessings,

Jen


Whatever

Whatever IsPhilippians 4:8

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

Whatever.

Don’t you just hate that response? I remember the first time I heard it from my kids. It’s such an expression of sarcastic resignation and total apathy. Hearing it from a spouse often puts the tough decisions about what to eat, watch or do right back in our own hands.

But my opinion of ‘whatever’ changed when I read Philippians 4:8. Those ‘whatevers’ are my favorite things! I have been reading fairytales and fantasy books filled with those since I was a child. Philippians 4:8 quickly became my favorite verse – perhaps my life verse.

Thinking on the best and most praiseworthy things is wonderful advice for at least three practical reasons. Of course, the biggest reason is just because God said it. But the practical reasons hint at why God said it:

FIRST, all of these qualities are the attributes of God Himself and by extension, of Jesus as He lived His earthly life. God is saying, ‘think about me.’ He loves our praise and worship. Meditating on His Word and Works and Son which all so powerfully demonstrate these qualities is the essence of worship.

SECOND, this is the ultimate ‘self-help’ advice. Replacing negative thoughts with positive ones is proven to lift us out of depression and increase contentment. But for Christians, it’s so much more. We are called to become more like Jesus, and these are the attributes we should be manifesting in our life. These are the fruits of the Spirit that should be ripening in us. With the help of the Holy Spirit, meditating on these things yields the renewing of our minds and guarding of our hearts that the Bible instructs us to do in Romans 12:2 and Proverbs 4:23.

FINALLY, thinking on these things regularly will instruct our future actions towards others. It takes a lot of courage to do the noble, just or gracious thing in this world. The opportunities for compromise and inaction are too many and too strong – UNLESS you have trained yourself. Police, Dancers, and Athletes train for countless hours, rehearsing in their minds regularly so that they will be able to perform a particular series of movements perfectly, without thinking, when that stressful moment of action arrives. Similarly, we need to prepare ourselves to do the right thing when the time comes. Like the great saints and martyrs of old, this is a tremendous witness to the world. Even if it’s just learning to bite our tongues and be gracious when someone is rude, or to be honest when a lie would make life easier, or to be inconvenienced in the service of others even if we suspect they’ll be ungrateful – these are our witness in the world. Others are watching and they’ll wonder why we dare to be so different.

It feels odd to many of us to think that Truth, Justice, Purity, Graciousness, and Excellence would make us stand out as different these days. I feel like these used to be the golden standard that our society was built on in the past. But maybe they’ve always been aspirational and inspirational, the stuff of fairytales, fantasies and Hollywood movies. God, however, calls us to this higher ground. He calls us to transformation and sanctification, setting us apart for His purposes. That process will never be fully complete in our mortal lifetimes, but by ‘thinking about such things’ we can bring a little taste of Heaven to earth now.

PRAYER: Holy Father, show me ways to do ‘whatever’ for you. Help me to think and do what is true, what is noble, what is right, what is pure, what is lovely, what is admirable, excellent and praiseworthy to bring glory to You. Amen.

Blessings,

Jen

Whatevers