Christmas Carols Year-round

The question of when to start playing Christmas music has been a long, and sometimes heated, debate among my friends and students. Do you start playing Christmas music the day after Thanksgiving? December 1? The day after Halloween?

I seem to hold a minority opinion — Christmas music should be played year-round. Let me clarify what I mean by “Christmas music.” I do NOT mean any song that talks about imaginary characters, nor do I include the pop songs that simply use the word Christmas in the lyrics and get labeled as Christmas songs. What I believe should be played year-round are what we traditionally call Christmas carols, the hymns that tell of Christ’s coming.

Why do we only sing about Christ’s coming and the hope it brings during one month of the year? Think of these lines from “Once in Royal David’s City”
“For He is our childhood’s pattern;
Day by day, like us, He grew;
He was little, weak, and helpless,
Tears and smiles, like us He knew;
And He cares when we are sad,
And he shares when we are glad.

And our eyes at last shall see Him,
Through His own redeeming love;
For that Child so dear and gentle,
Is our Lord in heaven above:
And He leads His children on,
To the place where He is gone.”

Don’t I need to hear that throughout the year?

In the middle of Spring, I need to be reminded
“No more let sins and sorrows grow
Nor thorns infest the ground
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found
Far as the curse is found
Far as, far as, the curse is found”

And when hard times come in Summer and Autumn, I need to hear
“The King of kings lay thus lowly manger;
In all our trials born to be our friends.
He knows our need, our weakness is no stranger,”

At Easter, “The First Noel” tell us that the cross and the manger are connected
“Then let us all with one accord
Sing praises to our heavenly Lord
That hath made Heaven and earth of nought
And with his blood mankind has bought.”

Christmas carols should be mixed in with our hymns all year long — to remind one another of the hope of Christ’s coming, and the promise of the day when He will come again
“And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.”

All year long we need to know that He is Immanuel — God with us.


I Am (Not) Invincible

I Am Invincible
by Cassadee Pope

“Broken glass inside
Won’t cut through me
Pain behind my eyes
I turn into strength
Oh I will fight
I will survive
I am invincible
I am unbreakable
I am a diamond cut to last
I am unstoppable
I am a hero
Like a phoenix from the ash
Cracks run through these walls
But they still stand strong
Oh, heart covered in scars
But my fear is gone
Oh I will fight
I will survive
I am invincible
I am unbreakable
I am a diamond cut to last
I am unstoppable
I am a hero
Like a phoenix from the ash
Nothin’ gonna make me break or shatter
No one’s gonna tell me I don’t matter, no
I won’t let you
Time is runnin’ out, keeps gettin’ faster
Gotta find a way, to rewrite the answers
‘Till I can say
I am invincible
I am unbreakable
I am a diamond that will last

The lyrics above are to a catchy song, and one that part of me identifies with. I like to believe, and act as though, I am invincible. Wonder Woman is who all young girls should aspire to be, right? Invincible, unbreakable — this is what it means to be strong and tough. Diamond is the hardest naturally occurring substance on Earth. That seems like a great description, right? The epitome of strength.  Previously, I was proud of the fact that I didn’t cry at books, movies, or tv shows during the saddest parts; it showed how invincible I was.  And yet, I wonder.

Is that really how I want to be? Diamonds might be strong, and beautiful, but they are also cold and sharp. Something (or someone) that is invincible has no weaknesses.  Watch any movie that has a hero and a villain.  The villain seeks out the weakness of the hero, usually someone the hero cares for, and exploits that weakness.  If I have no weakness, if I am truly invincible, then nothing and no one is close enough to hurt me. I’m cold and distant from everyone and everything around me. That’s the only way to avoid being broken — close off your heart from anyone and anything. Don’t care, don’t love.

C.S. Lewis wrote,

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

To love is to be vulnerable.  To love is to be breakable.

Did you notice the line in the song that says, “cracks run through these walls/but they still stand strong”?  Kintsugi is the Japanese art of repairing broken ceramics with a special lacquer mixed with gold, silver, or platinum.  Mixing in the precious metal causes the piece to become more beautiful for being broken.  The places where the object fell apart become the most beautiful when repaired.

This is the hope and glory of the gospel.  That God takes broken things and mends them in such a way that they become more beautiful.  He takes something (or someone) cold, rough, and sharp, and exposes the weaknesses.  His strength is displayed in those vulnerable places.

For me, this involved a lot of pain.  Parts of my heart that were damaged didn’t heal correctly the first time.  Instead of repairing the cracks and making the broken places beautiful, I shored them up to become harder trying to prevent the pain from happening again.  And just like a broken bone that doesn’t heal correctly needs to be re-broken and reset, God did the same with those parts of my heart.  Instead of allowing the impervious parts to remain, the sharp, rough places that I thought had no feeling, He reopened those wounds.  He provided brothers and sisters who have lovingly walked with me as He has healed those broken places, and done so in such a way that they are now tender and warm and feeling.  The light shone in the darkness, and continues to do so.  I know what it is to be broken, but I also know what it is to be healed, and to be repaired in such a way that the once broken places are now more beautiful.

How is it that He can do this?  Why would He do this?  Because of other wounds which were inflicted to someone else.

But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities;
him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we
healed.  ~Isaiah 53:5

He can bind up my wounds and heal my broken heart, because of the wounds of Christ.  His wounds made it possible for broken people like me to boldly approach the throne of grace. He made possible the grace and mercy and love which has healed my broken heart.  It is because of Him that the cracks are beautiful, for they display that

“we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.”  2 Corinthians 4:7

I am not invincible.  Yet, it is in being broken and healed that His power is displayed through me.

Free to serve in singleness

Recently, I read an article titled, “Why Do Churches Treat Singleness Like A Problem” in which the author shared how her church treats singles almost as though they are outcasts.  Churches that separate their congregation based on age/stage-of-life don’t know what to do with single adults; we don’t fit with the college crowd, but the next step up is young married couples.  Where do singles fit in?  How can singles serve the body in their singleness?

Growing up in the church, I’ve heard both extremes from “you won’t believe how God will use you once you are married” to “the apostle Paul says being single is best”.  During college, and for a few years following, I was in that time when it seemed like everyone I knew was getting married.  And those that were already married started having kids.  For a time, I longed to get married; sometimes I wanted it so badly, I would physically ache.  Well-intentioned friends would tell me that “it will happen in God’s time” or “I met my spouse as soon as I stopped looking.”  I got asked what I was doing to prepare for marriage, and reminded that God had to get me and my future husband to the point we were both ready for marriage.  While (some of) these things might be true, they honestly weren’t helpful.  What I was missing was someone telling me how to be content, how to thrive, as a single woman.  I didn’t have anyone helping learn how to live in the “waiting room” (yes, one friend called singleness the “waiting room”).

Why is singleness treated as second-best?  The “waiting room”?  Seriously?  Do we, as a church body, think that God can’t use single adults, or that He doesn’t give gifts until we are married?  I attended one church (for a short time) in which single adults only served in the nursery.  Teaching Sunday School classes, children’s church, or Bible studies (no matter the age group), was only asked of married couples.  Since joining Redeemer Presbyterian Church, I have been given numerous opportunities to serve the body using my singleness.  As a result, I have discovered that being a single adult gives me a freedom to serve in ways that married adults would find more difficult.

My freedom has allowed me to serve in everyday, simple ways.  Being free to house/pet sit for a week, and driving families to/from the airport so they don’t have to leave their car are just two of a number of ways that I have been able to serve families in my church.  As a single adult, I don’t have to worry about loading up the kids to drive someone to the airport; I don’t have to compare schedules with a spouse when someone needs a house sitter.  One family called and asked me to babysit with one day’s notice because their scheduled sitter canceled.  Serving in these ways would be more difficult (if not impossible) if I had a spouse and kids.

The freedom of singleness has also allowed me to serve the body by taking an active role in children’s ministry.  As shocking as this might sound, singles do know a thing or two about working with and ministering to children.  Because my pastors and elders didn’t dismiss me as a single adult, nor tell me that God would use me when I got married, I have experienced the amazing freedom of God’s grace in serving some of our youngest members.  I have been allowed to discover the gifts that God has given me and use those gifts within the church.  These opportunities have helped me thrive as a single adult.

Singleness is not a “waiting room” where we sit and do nothing, waiting for something better to come along.  Nor is it something to just get through.  We should not simply accept singleness with the attitude of “well, this is where God has me now so I’d better be content.”  Rather, we should be thriving in singleness, serving the body in ways that only single adults can, and looking for everyday, simple ways that our singleness makes us free to serve.  Pastors, elders, and leaders can help by providing numerous and various opportunities for singles to serve within the church, allowing single adults to serve in whatever area they are gifted.

It’s okay to say “no”

Telling people no, that I can’t help them or can’t do something, is the hardest thing in the world for me to do.  I don’t like it at all.  When friends, family, or coworkers ask for help, I want to immediately jump in and do whatever is needed.  But, I’ve learned this year that always saying “yes” isn’t a good thing.

The desire to want to help is good.  Loving people means we do what we can to help.  But, I have to stop and ask myself why I am really helping.  What are my motives?  Do I worry about what people think of me, and therefore, am looking for some kind of recognition or praise?  Do I struggle with control issues, thinking that it won’t get done unless I accomplish it?  Do I genuinely want to help my friend?

The answer to all of these is “yes.”  Yes, I agree to do things because I genuinely want to help.  But, I also say yes when asked because I want people to view me a certain way, or because I think it won’t get done without my help.  Do wrong motives mean I should say “no”?  Not necessarily.  It does mean that I need to do a heart check and ask myself why I’m agreeing.

But, there truly is a time when it’s okay to say “no”.  Even if I have the right motives in helping, it still may not be the right thing to do.  I’ve learned this year that constantly saying “yes” to everything I’m asked to do leads to exhaustion, burn out, and causes me to neglect the work I am responsible for and called to do.

We encourage our children to be helpful; we teach them that Jesus wants us to help people the same way He did.  But, when I read the gospels, I see that there are times Jesus didn’t help people.  Luke 5:15-16 says, “But now even more the report about him [Jesus] went abroad, and great crowds gathered to hear him and to be healed of their infirmities.  But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray.”  People were coming to hear Jesus preach and to be healed, and Jesus left.  Why?  He healed many other people, why not all of them?  Jesus knew that in order to fulfill his calling, to accomplish what he needed, he had to have time alone.  He needed to get away and just be in the presence of the Father.  He needed to focus on his relationship with the Father and what he was called to do. 

We need to do the same thing.  Sometimes, I need to say “I’m sorry, but I can’t help you right now.  I really need to focus on my responsibilities.”  Yes, sometimes helping someone means sacrifice — a sacrifice of time or money or anything else.  But there is a time when I should say “no”, and realize that it’s okay.  I need to stop feeling guilty because I choose to honor the previous commitment I have made, or because I need to focus on something that takes priority over my friend’s request.  The world won’t stop spinning because I can’t help someone right that second.  We won’t stop being friends because they had to go ask someone else.  I need to follow the example of my Elder Brother and withdraw occasionally; spend some time with my Father and focus on what matters.

Single, and not waiting

Why do people assume that all single adults are lonely and just sitting around waiting to get married?  Last month, a friend sent me the “Single’s Guide To Surviving The Holidays.”  I didn’t even bother reading it.  Why would I need help “surviving” the holidays? Perhaps a better question would be, “why can’t I thrive during the holidays” or simply enjoy the time spent among family and friends?

As a single woman in my early thirties, I’ve heard most of the clichés and hollow reassurances that people offer.  In high school,  I was applauded for being picky and having high standards for what I wanted in a relationship.  After graduation,  I heard numerous friends and family say, “I met my spouse in college.”  When I finished college, the phrase was, “God will bring him when you least expect it” or “as soon as I stopped looking for a spouse,  I met my husband/wife.”  The assumption has always been that marriage was in the plan.  Friends have suggested that I ask someone to set me up,  or even try online dating.  And yes, there was a time when I thought I wanted to be married, but looking back it was for all the wrong reasons.

What I find interesting through all of this is the underlying assumption that single = waiting to get married.  Not once has anyone assumed I *want* to be single, or that singleness could be God’s best for me.  Singleness is portrayed as something to get through, as though it is an illness from which a person will eventually get cured.   Yet, at this time, I would say that being single is God’s best for me.  If this is where He has me,  it must be for His glory and my good.  He has given me multiple opportunities to serve and use my gifts to bless others. I have a passion to work with children.  The Lord provided a full-time teaching job and I help coordinate children’s ministry at my church.  He is showing me how to thrive as a single woman,  how to use my gifts (which include singleness) to build up the body.

Psalm 37:4 says, “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.”  This doesn’t mean we follow God to get things from him,  or that he owes us anything.  Instead, as we delight ourselves in him, or desires begin to align with his and he is pleased to grant them.  As I follow God daily, and draw closer to him, I start wanting what he wants.  If I desire something for the wrong reason (seeking what I want above the Lord), then granting that desire would not be a good, loving thing for him to do. So he works in my heart to change that desire.  For me, that’s what he did with marriage.  I’m not single and waiting to be married. I’m not single and longing or looking for marriage.  I’m not single and preparing for marriage.  I’m not single and anything.  I’m just single.  This is where he has called me, and where he is using me to build his kingdom……as a single woman.

How Many Kids Do You Have?

As a teacher and a children’s ministry volunteer, I get asked frequently, “so how many kids do you have?” People assume that because I work with children I must have my own. I used to get offended by this; now I just laugh. If I feel like starting the discussion, I tell them “I have close to 80 children.” Once the person catches on, he/she usually follows with, “I mean how many of them are yours.”

Here is where I really want to laugh. First, why does working with children mean I must have kids of my own? Does being single imply I don’t like children? Second, they are all mine. The students I teach and the kids at my church are “my kids.” Why does this seem strange to some people? Did I give birth to them? No. Do I love them, pray for them, disciple them, invest in their lives? Yes. And as a member of a PCA church, I took a vow to assist the parents in the raising of their children. They are my kids. I laugh when I hear them laugh; I miss them when they are gone; I cry when their family moves away; and I have great joy when they smile and hug me. I love them. These are my kids.

It’s not about biology. It’s about having a heart that loves to see the joy in their faces when they discover something new, a passion to see them grow in faith, and a prayer that they never lose the innocence to believe anything is possible.

The Journey (Part 5)

Why is this journey so long?  Why haven’t we reached His kingdom yet?  I don’t know how much further I can walk.  Most of this journey,  I have felt like I am walking wounded.  Bruises and cuts, whether inflicted by myself or others, barely have time to heal before more hits are delivered.  I don’t have the strength to raise my shield in the attacks.  Instead, I keep taking hit after hit after hit; sometimes, I’m not even standing back up before I get hit again.

Battered and bruised I go to the King.  I ask questions, but rarely receive the answer I want to hear.  Instead, He gently holds me close; so close I can hear His heartbeat.  “I’m hurt, Father.  I don’t think I can continue.  If I get hit one more time, I might not get back up.”
“I know.  Every time you are hurt, I hurt too.  Every time you cry, My heart breaks.  But, this is the road you must travel.  This is the road which will strengthen your faith in My love for you.  This road will teach you to believe what I say is true of you, rather than the lies that are hurting you.”
“Why can’t you just whisk me away to your kingdom?”
“Because you have more to learn about My love for you and to understand about who I am.”
“But it is hard and I’m weary.”
“Come to Me when you are weary.  Draw your strength from Me.  Take what you need from Me.  When you cannot walk, I will carry you.  For now, lay your head down and rest.  I will watch over you.  You are safe.”

Crying, I lay my head on His chest and He wraps His arms around me.  I fall asleep listening to the sound of His heartbeat.

The Sounds of Silence

I don’t like silence. Sitting in a quiet room makes me anxious and restless. Silence screams at me. As a teacher, the worst days of the semester are days when I give exams, because the room is completely quiet and I have to stay in that for an hour. It feels like an eternity. I have a tendency to hide in noise. As long as there is noise around me, I don’t have to be inside my own head or focus on feelings. I can compartmentalize things, keep the emotions in check, and focus on what is rational and logical.

But, I’m learning that there is a time and place for silence. There is an appropriate time to get away from the noise and to just sit in the silence. I don’t like it, but it is necessary. Silence causes me to stop and focus; it forces me to think about what I’m thinking about.  When I get away and just listen to the silence, I realize how noisy I am on the inside.  I get a good look at my worries, my cares, my priorities; I stop and realize that I never stop.

Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still, and know that I am God.”  Other versions use the phrase “cease striving.”  For someone who likes to believe she is in control, this is difficult to do.  If I am physically being still, then I tend to focus on what is not getting done because I’m not doing it.  To be still internally is even harder.  It requires the full acknowledgment that I am not in control of anything.  Internal stillness, to truly cease striving, means I have to trust that Someone else is in control of what is going on in and around me; I have to acknowledge that I am not in control and rest in the One who is in control.

In 1 Kings 19, Elijah is on the run.  He is hiding from those who seek to kill him, and he flees to a cave on Mount Horeb, where God comes to talk to him.  If you are familiar with the story, you know that a great wind comes, followed by an earthquake, and then fire.  Yet, none of these are the ways in which God speaks to Elijah.  He does not speak in loud, booming tones, and in ways that would cause fear.  Instead, “after the fire the sound of a low whisper.”  A still, small voice speaks to Elijah.

The same still, small voice speaks to me today.  It comes in many forms — the gentle encouragement from a friend, the shoulder to cry on, a verse brought to memory, or the words to a song that bring Truth and comfort.  He speaks in quiet, gentle tones; tones that I can’t hear if everything inside of me is noisy, or if I’m staying busy to avoid the silence.  To hear Him speak, to feel His comfort, I have to stop.  Stop trying to find approval from those around me; stop trying to earn His favor through good works.  Cease striving.  Sit in silence and hear Him say, “I love you.”  Feel His love as bright and warm as the sunshine.

Promises, Promises

Human beings are not always good at keeping our promises.  We lose track of time and forget a promised meeting.  We become prideful, vengeful, or gossip and a promised secret is repeated.  We break promises all the time, intentionally and unintentionally, which makes trust a difficult thing.

Psalm 89:33-34 says, “I will not remove from him my steadfast love or be false to my faithfulness.  I will not violate my covenant or alter the word that went forth from my lips.”  If I am honest, I find some of God’s promises easier to believe than others.  I can read in scripture how God made promises to Abraham or David and see how He fulfilled those promises.  What about His promise to never leave or forsake me? Trusting that promise when it feels like He has abandoned me is hard to do.  What about when I experience evil at the hands of someone else but don’t receive justice? It is hard to hold onto the future promises of God.

Dee Henderson wrote, “Is a promise made that’s not yet delivered on any less of a promise? God is trustworthy. It isn’t easy to take that on faith when circumstances are tough, but that’s what He asks of you.”  Think about it.  Is God’s promise any less of a promise, is He any less trustworthy, because He fulfills His promise in His way and His time, not mine? 

We have to focus on the One who is making the promises.  He is the one who “is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind.” (Numbers 23:19)  In the same verse, we are reminded, “Has he said, and will he not do it?  Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?” 

Look at who He is; rest in the love of the promise-keeping God who is faithful even when we are not.

Isaiah 40:11

Have you ever had a day where you just needed a hug? You didn’t want to explain anything; words of comfort wouldn’t help. You simply wanted to lean on the strength of someone else. You needed to be reminded that someone was there to help carry your load. I’ve needed that recently — just to have someone wrap their arms around me and remind me that even though things are tough now, they will get better, and I will be ok.

These are the times when I find it most difficult to turn to God. I get so hung up on thinking that I *need* to feel a physical presence, to physically have someone wrap me in a hug, that I start to think I can’t turn to God. I believe the lie that He can’t fill that need. Recently, I started thinking about what it would look like for God to fill that need — what does it look like for God to give me a hug? Sometimes, He does physically give me a hug through one of His people — a friend, a fellow church member. Usually, this is not the case. When I most want or need a hug, I don’t receive one. What then? How does God fulfill that need?

As I sat thinking about this recently, I came across Isaiah 40:11

He will tend his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms;
he will carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead those that are with young.  (ESV)  

When I read that verse, my immediate thought was “HUG”.  It may sound silly.  But, as I think about the phrases “gather. . . in his arms” and “carry . . .in his bosom”, isn’t that exactly what I’m looking for when I want a hug?  These verses assure me that He is holding me in His arms and close to His heart; someone else is strong enough to carry me AND my load.