Where is Peace?

•November 24, 2015 • 5 Comments

Out on the sunny beaches of Indonesia, it takes extra special intentionality to remember that Christmas is coming. There are no sensory stimuli to remind us that it’s only a month away.

And actually, BBC is making it a little hard to get into the mood. I mean, to be honest, some of their “tidings” are just downright scary. And it’s the polar opposite of the carols that I remember singing from my youth about “Peace on Earth.” Leave it to your Facebook friends to fill you in on any stories you might have missed. You know… the really gruesome ones. The background information about the bad guys. The leaked stories about the imminent attacks that are to come.

It’s CHRISTMAS EVERYONE!!! Where is peace on earth????

This morning I sat down to think about that concept… that cozy and inspiring three-word phase that floats through the crisp December air, landing on wanting ears and warming the heart. So I did a scripture search to look for it.

Friends and Family, this is not going to be the normal Christmas letter. This is a topic that has been growing in my heart recently. And today it has to be shared.

The Bible doesn’t promise peace on earth.

I did the phrase search in three different versions. None of them say this. As a matter of fact, the only exact hits that I found were 3 renditions of, “Don’t think I came to bring peace on earth.” And the fourth hit was in Revelation 6, saying that a red horse will come with a rider who will take peace from the earth. (Has anyone seen a red horse in your neighborhood? I feel like he has been traipsing around through the news lately.)

But wait a minute… what about that Christmas play line that I practiced over and over: Glory to God in the highest and on Earth, peace and good will toward men!

So I searched that sentence in a few versions too. Nope. That’s not there either. It actually says:

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” Luke 2:14

So who are “those on whom his favor rests?” As I searched Scripture for those who found favor with God, a unifying theme amongst them are that they trust and follow Him. If we know Jesus, we should have peace. That was His purpose in coming… to bring peace to His followers. Ephesians 2:14 says that He is our peace. And if we aren’t feeling it? Maybe it’s time to set up another coffee date with Him. He has so much more to show us.

The Scripture is just full reminders of where peace is and should be:

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts…  Colossians 3:15

In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety. Psalm 4:8

The Lord gives strength to his people; the Lord blesses his people with peace. Psalm 29:11

Do we know Immanuel well enough to trust His promises?

You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you. Isaiah 26:3

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.  John 14:27

Do we already celebrate, as the Heavenly Host did, that no matter how bad things get, our team wins?

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. Romans 16:20a

…He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. 1 John 4:4

If the real peace that can be found on earth is supposed to already be with us, then we can’t join the masses that are panic-stricken by the news. Remember, that “sweet little baby boy” came to DIE for our peace! (Isaiah 53) We can’t let our minds become overtaken by the evil of the earth!

The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace.  Romans 8:6

I wonder if we need to spend less time focused on the enemies in the news, and more time focused on the enemy of our souls, the Robber of Peace. Because if we don’t have peace in our hearts… and there’s no promise of peace on earth… then the world is truly hopeless.

I have to admit that I once thought that if I had been a disciple post-crucifixion, I might have been the one that remembered that “minor detail” He mentioned to us about coming back in three days. I would hate to think that I would have been one of the 12 all huddled up and hiding in a dead-bolted room, fearful for my safety. But the reality is, I probably would have been right there with them. Maybe you would have been too? In the wake of world news, it could be a bit tempting to go find one of those rooms and lock up for awhile. And why? Because the Robber of Peace has visited us. And what did Jesus bring the disciples in their fear… and through the locked doors? AND TWICE?

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” John 20:19

A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” John 20:26

No. I don’t think I would have done any better than they did. Jesus, will you come in to your disciples, yet again, and bring peace?

We have a dear national friend here who tells an incredible story of his younger years spent in strict religious school training. He had always been inquisitive and once asked his teacher what would happen if he ever touched a Bible. The answer: You’d be struck dead by lightning. For years, he lived in fear of not being able to perfectly accomplish all of the rules and requirements of his religion. And then, in a miraculous series of events (including a vision/dream where Jesus came to him), he chose Truth. For the last 30 years, he has been sharing his story through books and through word. When asked what the biggest life change was at the point of him choosing Jesus, he replies emphatically, “Peace.” No more striving. No more fearful rule-following. And, one by one, each of his family members have said that the same was true for them.

During this holiday, I don’t think we can plan to find peace on earth. I just don’t think we’re going to find it there. We must find it in the manger. We must find it at the cross.

May Jesus appear to you this season and proclaim again the peace that is yours because of Him.

And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  Philippians 4:7

Christmas 2014 – Tears in the Temple

•December 3, 2014 • 4 Comments

He knelt there a long time on a small pillow. His hands we pressed together and his eyes tightly closed. A moment later, an older woman joined him in a similar position, gently bobbing her prayerful hands. I watched them awhile and wondered what weighed on them.

Incense filled the room, mixed with the odors of tourists passing through the perimeter corridor. The center of the room contained rows of narrow tables filled with carefully packaged food and drink mixes as well as other various trinkets.

And on the walls were Buddhas. Hundreds of small ones. And lots of larger ones. As we walked along, my Chinese friend explained about the larger Buddhas. Each had a list of years below it. She scanned the room and pointed at one in particular. Below it was the year 1979. That, she said, was my Buddha. It was the one that would be my specific protector… as long as I paid 88 Singapore dollars to it. That would ensure that someone in the temple would pray to it on my behalf.

As she explained about this god who would be my protector (for a fee), a woman pushed in front of us and briefly bowed to it… and to the one next to it and to the one after that and the one after that. My friend explained, “She can’t miss one of them. If she doesn’t bow to all of them in the room, the ones that are missed will get revenge on her.”

This temple was especially famous because of a monk who used to pray there. When Buddhist monks die, their bodies are cremated. Then the ashes are carefully sifted. If a piece of bone is found in the shape of a tooth, that monk was truly favored by Buddha. It is said that you can cremate that piece of bone over and over, but that it cannot be burned. On the top floor of that temple was a large glass-encased room. Within it was a pagoda-type structure and inside that structure was a small vessel holding the tooth-shaped bone of that temple’s famous monk. Surely, then, that man (and subsequently, that temple) had much favor in the eyes of Buddha.

We walked around for another half hour or so. But I didn’t really pay attention anymore. I saw people kneeling, bowing, mumbling, and sliding envelopes full of money under the Buddha of their birth year (and some sitting on the “meditation only” platform, gently snoring.) They were desperate for protection, yet fearful of revenge. They brought their private troubles and misfortunes and whispered them into the smoke of red incense, fearfully praying for better fortune, health and peace. Tears streamed down my face as I watched the fervency and futility of it all.

My mind drifted then, to a baby in a manger in Bethlehem…

And I thought of how many times I have passed Him without bowing.

And the times I have mistaken works as a hope of greater favor from Him.

And the times I have tried to come to Him in extended meditation… and woken up the next morning.

Jesus, I love you. It is in times like these that I am overwhelmed again at what Your birth means for us. I am ashamed at how easy it is to take it for granted.

It means Family, not fear.

It means Joy, not confusion.

It means Freedom, not desperation.

And You leave us more than just an “imperishable” bone fragment. You leave us Your Spirit as a seal upon us… swaddled about us as a newborn’s blanket… for love, for comfort, for protection and for the Promise of Your return! Thank you for coming and making a way to Your throne… from right where we are, no matter how high a mountain or how deep a hole.

May our lives reflect the peace that comes from bowing daily at the foot of the Savior… and may we be intentional to bring the Good News of great joy to all people over this holiday season and in the year to come.

Carlo

•October 26, 2014 • 2 Comments

Carlo was a “fringe” kid. He often ate alone for meals, and he was often the brunt of conversation in the group. He walked and looked a little different than other kids his age.

Every day Carlo put on his swimsuit and came out for high dock jumping during his free time. The rhythm of splashes from each student before him in line was constant. It seemed that everyone could run and jump off with ease. Splash… splash… splash….

But then it was Carlo’s turn. He would go to the top, make a run for the end, then stop at the edge of the six-meter drop off and let out a strange sort of laugh. Then he would go back and do the same again. He would stand on the edge for a bit and look down. Students would start to jeer. He would slide the balls of his feet off the edge of the dock, with only his heels holding him above the water.

Then he would go back down the ladder, shaking his head.

I watched him do this several times on Tuesday. Wednesday was the same. On that day, thirty students from his class stood below, calling out a mixture of mocking and half-hearted cheers. I could see his face getting red as he stood up there, trying to get the nerve to jump.

He asked the students to be quiet, but they yelled all the more loudly. He started screaming. “Stop it! Just be quiet!” A couple of students tried to calm the masses. He ran to the edge but stopped again, showing everyone that it really wasn’t about the noise.

“OK! I’ve let go with one hand!” he said to the skeptical watchers. “I only have one finger left on the rail! All I have to do is let go!”

As I stood down on the low deck looking up at him, I saw something. Tears.

And it wasn’t long before another student noticed them too. The onlooker whispered loudly, “He’s crying! Guys, I think Carlo’s crying!”

The whispers and jeers grew louder.

And then Carlo screamed at the top of his lungs, “BUT IT’S MY FEAR!!!! IT’S… MY…. FEAR!”

I watched him from the low deck as he stood there crying and teetering on his heels. I could feel what he was feeling. My head was a little woozy. My stomach was in knots. And tears were running down my face too. I’d been there before. I’d felt just like that. I’d often been the one that everyone has been waiting for. I hate jumping from high places too.

I also stood there debating what my role was at that moment. Everything in me wanted to go up and tell him that he didn’t have to do it. I mean, really, in the big scheme of life, what’s the point? Is it fun? No. Does it hurt? Yes. Will you get water in your nose? Probably. Will all of these watchers love you more or treat you better if you do it? No.

And then he came down again.

I determined that the following day, the last day to jump, I would do something. And just as with the previous days, as I was on break, I could hear the kids again shouting, “Carlo! Carlo! Carlo!” I could also hear a subset of the crowd yelling, “Carla!” It made my heart hurt to think of a 6th grade kid trying to face his fears while he knew his peers were making fun of him.

I hurried down to the dock, to find him standing up there again, sobbing. He came down yet again, filled with confused anger and taking it out on everyone in line. I walked up to him and asked if we could talk. And I told him about my fear of jumping. I asked, “Carlo, why do you want to jump?” He said he wanted to face his fear. I asked if he wanted to do it when all the kids went away. He could wait and then jump when no one was watching. He awkwardly agreed.

So when the 5:30 cut off time was called and all the kids went back to their rooms, Carlo emerged again and climbed to the top. I climbed up behind him and told him I’d wait as long as he wanted and that if he didn’t want to jump, he could go back down and that it would be ok. He didn’t need anymore coaching. He didn’t need anymore encouragement or any more countdowns.

I don’t know what all went through his head as he stood there, periodically putting a foot out over the water, then drawing it back. But for the next 15 minutes, we stood there in silence as he struggled with the immense fear before him.

And then he broke the silence. “I just can’t do it.” And he turned and went down the ladder.

I’ve been working with teenagers for over a decade. I’ve done all kinds of leadership trainings and culture experiences. And my mantra has always been, “Do something hard every day.” Challenge yourself. Don’t quit. Face the fear.

But for some reason, on this day, I think it was ok for him to walk away. That was enough for one week.

Though my heart hurt for Carlo, I was reminded of the patience of God. We try over and over to do things right, and our failures are many. But His passion for our wholeness and holiness supercedes our finite accomplishments. I believe He values our journey in the failures and the successes. We gain experiences that allow us to not only trust Him more, but also to relate with those who struggle as we do.

And at the end of the day, sometimes we just walk back down the ladder and say, “I just can’t do it today.” And the Kind Father says, “It’s ok. We’ll try again tomorrow.”

I am so thankful for a Father like that.

The Unseen

•March 23, 2014 • 3 Comments

We were silent now.

The thick haze of smoke had not prevented us from laughing and playing on the beach all day at our base camp. We had just returned from our first island stay, and nothing was going to keep us from enjoying our rest time in between island visits. And even when the managers came to us around 4:00 that afternoon to tell us that it was unsafe to stay at the resort any longer, we still made the most of our last two hours before departure, having an unforgettable baptism service for one of our teammates, then taking showers, packing and laughing as we prepared to leave.

But as darkness set in, the reality of the situation became visible. One by one, our teammates came to sit together in the open-air lounge, eyes fixed on the red glow coming from the hillcrest closest to the resort. We sat mesmerized by the way the wind gusts intensified the glow of the raging forest fire just a few hundred meters away, blowing tiny glowing embers out over our thatch-roofed resort. The three-month drought was letting the flames have its way with the parched island forest. And clearly, the resort was next in line.

It was interesting how the darkness showed us what we hadn’t seen earlier in the daylight. Of course, we all knew that smoke comes from fire. But something about not seeing the actual flames kept us focused on our own fun. It’s easy to make our priorities, conversations, and life merely about what is seen.

And to me, that became a theme throughout the trip….

As we dumped buckets of cool, clear water over us while bathing once or twice each day, our host families stayed up through the night, sitting by the dry wells and collecting little dribbles of water emerging from the well walls so that the house water drums would be full again the next morning. And with joy each morning, they would bring out a delicious breakfast and chat with us. It was only later that we found out what they were sacrificing for us while we slept.

In another of my homestays, other unseen events were happening at night. In this home lurked a mangy cat with a nasty paw tumor. It was enough to turn my stomach over when I saw it, and we tried to tactfully avoid it when it would come into the house looking for love during the day. One morning I woke up to find it curled up in a ball, sleeping peacefully at the back of one of my teammates as she slept. I shuddered a bit to think that it probably had done the same to all of us at some point. Though if it had only been a cat roaming the house through the night hours, I might not have been so disturbed. But centipedes also slithered around us. Not one, but both of my host mothers were bit by those nasty little devils. The things I wish I didn’t know…

On one morning as we played with kids at an elementary school, my teammate asked to borrow a child’s hat. The child reluctantly gave it to her, and she proceeded to securely place it on her own head and perform an impressive hat trick. The child giggled, and she returned the hat to him. As he resettled the hat while slowly turning to leave, we saw a large, bald and abscessed region on the back of his head. Would she still have done that hat trick, had she known?

On this trip, I was overwhelmed by the unseen. It’s easy to point out the obvious as we go through our days. I’m so hot… It’s so stinky…I’m so tired… It’s so gross. But it’s a lot harder to acknowledge the unseen. We easily and often pray for lists of things that affect us and make us feel uncomfortable or inconvenienced. But it’s a lot harder to praise the Father for everything he’s doing for us behind our backs, while we sleep, when we’re unaware and in the battles of the unseen realm.

It reminds me of 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 –

 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

There was nothing we could do as the boat evacuated us from the burning hill that night. So when we landed at our “safe” spot, we sat together in the moonlight and prayed that the Father would bring the miracle that would save the resort and fill the wells. The fires had been raging long before we had arrived, and the villagers had been fighting dry wells for a month. Yet now we could see it and feel it. So now it seemed important to us to urgently plead with God for help.

I was deeply humbled when the rain clouds formed, and the first drops landed on my cheeks a couple of days later. Over the following three days, it rained off and on, and we sat in awe of the miracle that was upon us.  

When we returned to the wooden resort on the last night of our trip, one of the unbelieving women who worked in the kitchen said to me, “Truly this rain was the grace of God. Now we know that He has a purpose for this place.” I agreed with her, but secretly, I felt sort of bad.

I had known about the drought for the last month when I was in Bandung, getting soaked every day on the way home from school. But I was focused on what I could see. So my prayers were less than regular or heartfelt for that land of drought. And I often take for granted what has always been, like that wooden resort that I have loved and visited for the last ten years. But that’s no better than the unbelieving worker in the kitchen.

I want to be a person with eyes fixed on the unseen… to praise the Father each day for the things he protects me from while I am unaware. And to have the sensitivity to enter into the earnest prayers of those who suffer in places and ways I have not experienced.

Yes, let us fix our eyes on what is unseen… for that is what is eternal.

 

 

Oh Christmas Tree

•December 11, 2013 • 9 Comments

It’s December 11 and our tree has already been put up and is gone.

I came home early this afternoon and collapsed onto the sofa in tears. It’s been a long semester. As I sat for a bit and scanned our one wall containing a few Christmas decorations, I remembered a line from a marriage book I read this year. It called the first year of marriage the “wet cement” year. Supposedly, that’s the most moldable time of a couple’s relationship and when it’s easiest to create habits and traditions.

So as I looked around our house, I tried to see what we did for Christmas that might become “family tradition.” Sadly though, in the midst of one of my busiest years of teaching ever, we didn’t put much thought into it. I mean, the nativity is sort of interesting. Paul set it up to be more chronologically correct. So on the left side of the table is the stable containing Mary, Joseph, some shepherds and Jesus. And on the far right, separated by a large pile of green garland, is a palm tree where the wise men and a camel sit pondering the stars and waiting their turn to come… months (or years?) later.

The only other noticeable feature of our living room right now is a large empty space where the tree used to be.

We set up the tree a couple of weeks ago, not long before we decided that this would be our last Christmas in Bandung. After we made our decision to leave on the night of December 1, I found out that our new neighbor (my roommate from years ago) was hoping to buy a tree for her two-year-old son this year. We would not be able to take our tree with us next year, so it made sense to give our tree to them now. So one night last week, after the child had gone to sleep, we took the tree (ornaments, lights and all) across the street and set it up in their front room. At 4:30 the next morning, my friend was woken to the sounds of a toddler yelling, “Wow! Wow! Cool! Cool! Wow! Wow! Cool! Cool!”

Clearly, a two-year-old needs a tree more than an adult does anyway… right?

I remember hearing a native friend here once define a “Christian” as one who wears white gowns, plays bells and worships Christmas trees. (It’s sort of interesting what selected media gets piped into people’s homes in December around here. The Vatican Christmas footage apparently shaped the worldview of that man.)  And I remember scoffing a bit at how anyone would think that we worshiped Christmas trees…

… until I was sitting here this afternoon looking at that hole in our front room. We take a tree and hang keepsakes, heirlooms and pretty things all over it. We sparkle and light it up and then bring our gifts and place them at its base. And then we sit around it and gaze upon its beauty in a low-lit room, enjoying its glow and the warm fuzzy feelings it creates. Sometimes we sit and sing there. And sometimes we sing, “Oh Christmas Tree.”

I could see how an outsider looking in might think we worshiped it.

And this afternoon, I have to confess, I missed it a little. It’s been there 33 Decembers in a row, signifying that it’s Christmas. Where will we put our two little packages on our first married Christmas, I found myself asking.

And then I was prompted to read Matthew 2 and the story of the wise men.

On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.

 

I’m humbled to be reminded tonight of where our gifts should go.  Shouldn’t they go at the feet of whom we worship? And shouldn’t He be the One that we sit near in the stillness of the evening during this holiday season? To sing a song or to just sit at His feet in silence and marvel at His beauty and the Light that He brings.

This might be a tradition worth keeping.

 

May you and your family make the time

to gather around Him this holiday season.

Merry Christmas from the Christensens!

Living in the Land of the Shadow of Death

•April 2, 2013 • 1 Comment

One of my favorite parts about flying is sleeping. Whether it’s a quick domestic trip, or a 14-hour international flight, I love a good airplane nap. The sound of the cold air hissing from the vents automatically causes my eyelids to droop. It’s like Pavlov’s dog salivating after hearing a bell. It just happens.

So when I settled into my aisle seat after checking in our team of 21, I was ready to succumb to the drowsiness incurred by the surroundings of the airplane cabin. My teammate sitting next to me (in the middle seat) was engrossed in a Sudoku book. All conditions were perfect. But just as I was about to doze off, I noticed the college-aged girl sitting in my row by the window, reading from a notebook. At our team’s last training session, we had discussed the importance of developing lives of intentionality. In that session, it was I who mentioned something to the effect of being aware of opportunities to be Light and share Truth, even in the modes of transportation that would take us to our destination.

So I shook off the impending stupor, and asked the girl what she was studying. I assumed it would be a short conversation but I at least wanted to make the attempt to be congenial. She responded, “Oh I’m not studying. I’m reading my friend’s journal.” That was interesting. And within the next minute, I was wide awake. Essy was 22 and had been friends with the writer of the journal since they were both in 3rd grade. The journal was given to her by his mother at his funeral earlier that week. Essy had been on the phone with him when he was killed in a car wreck.

That took a minute to process. We were sitting next to a girl shrouded in darkness. I was reminded of another past training session I had done with our team. Every person has a story they are waiting to tell to a person who is willing to ask questions and listen. And so that’s what we did.

Essy talked about her pain, asked rhetorical questions about why things like that have to happen, and repeated over and over the final words of her friend. I asked her what she did when she had pain like that, and my teammate and I were able to share our hope in the Father. She proceeded to mention that while she was in town for the funeral, she had also happened to catch her boyfriend of two years with another girl in the mall. (In a city of 7 major malls and 5 million people, that could NOT have been a coincidence.)

Quickly, she switched the subject and wanted to know if I was married. My answer of being engaged set her into a frenzy of questions, and she wanted to know every single detail starting with how Paul had come to teach at my school. I explained to her how a dear colleague had to leave mid-year after being diagnosed with cancer and how Paul had come to fill in for the remainder of that year.  She paused for a moment and then referred back to a comment I had made earlier, saying, “It really is important for us to have open hands, to be willing to release and receive whatever it is that God wants to give to us. You just never know what plan He has in mind.” I was moved by her desire to listen.

We talked a little more about the blessing of waiting for a man who will be faithful. She took a deep breath and mumbled that maybe it would be best for her to break up with her current boyfriend, even though he had promised her he would never cheat again. She slumped back into her seat, and I sat back in mine, closing my eyes and feeling her pain.

Suddenly, Essy leaned forward with new energy and said, “Jennie, will you tell me a story?” It’s a question that I had only heard one other time in all the years of living in Indonesia. It was an open door to share all kinds of stories from life and from the Word. For years, I have told my students about the man who first asked me that question. I have challenged them to always be ready to answer. And now here it was again. “Will you tell me a story?”

My mind numbed at the vastness of the question, and I asked her to give me a topic. She said, “Something that will make me smile and forget my pain.” I took a deep breath and asked the Father to give me the right one. At that moment, a toddler started screaming at the top of her lungs. I prayed for focus… and then I began talking. I told her of a time when I was young, and Dad and I had gotten stuck in a sand pit at dusk after a fishing trip. We had to walk a long ways in the dark, crossing water, barbed wire fences and long stretches of dark prairie until we reached a farmhouse and could call for help. At one point in the journey, I remember coming up to the crest of a hill and seeing a valley lit up by fireflies. It is a memory that has never faded.

The other part of that memory was that I wasn’t afraid. I knew that Dad knew the land like the back of his hand. Even though I couldn’t see a thing, I was with Dad. And that made it fine. At that moment in the story, I realized why I was telling it. Essy was walking in the dark. And she needed to trust in One who would walk beside her faithfully.

It’s hard to know what Essy’s smile meant exactly. The plane was descending and the final landing calls seemed unusually loud and distracting. However, we managed to pray for her, and she eagerly took my number with a promise to call soon. (And at that moment, the child quit screaming.)

The following 10 days on the islands were full of stories too… reuniting with a poor family who I have visited many times over the years… hearing about strange spirit encounters and bizarre child sacrifices… watching the burial of a man on an island of 400. And I also went back to the home of Razmah, a middle-aged woman who had a stroke 5 years ago and is paralyzed on one side of her body. (You can read more about her in my blog post from 2 years ago https://jen4him.wordpress.com/2011/04/04/touched/)  When Ibu Razmah recognized me, tears came to her eyes and she said, “I want to die.” I sat with her again and listened to her story and about all the experimental drugs she had tried since the last time I had seen her. And we prayed again for healing. And again, He chose to refrain.

But despite the many stories from the trip, my mind still wanders back to Essy, a “random” acquaintance along our path before the trip even began. It was a reminder to shine always. And I was blessed to be just one of a team of students and staff who carried Light into the darkness. (2 Cor 4:6-7)

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.
— Isaiah 9:2

Christmas 2012 – Saving Face

•December 22, 2012 • 4 Comments

I live in a land where a good face is everything. People will do almost anything to save it. From personal appearance to family name to the way you do business, having a good “face” or reputation seems critical to having peace. At times there could be some value to this if situations are given proper forethought.  However, the problems most often arise when damage is already done. Sometimes people will go to great lengths to cover their tracks and save their name.

I remember the time when I was packing to move out of one of my homes a number of years ago. The house was almost empty, and I was doing a last sweep. I suddenly discovered a cabinet in a back room that I had never seen before. (The house was too large for 2 people, and we didn’t use all the rooms.) Upon opening it, I discovered a mound of broken dishes. My housemate and I had accumulated a list of mysteriously disappearing dishes over the course of that year. And there they were. I felt bad for my helper. The floors of the house were hard ceramic tile, and a bowl slipped from the hand had no chance of survival. Her fear of losing her reputation with us was so great that she chose to hide the evidence. (Though I’m still not entirely sure why she didn’t just throw it away!)

But sometimes there is just no way to hide the shame. This is often the case with the handicapped or others who are visibly sick here. I cannot even count the number of times that people have preemptively come up to me and initiated a conversation by, “Look at that child with the big tumor on his head,” or “That person over there on the porch is a little off.” I always feel so sad that the sick have to be pointed out or even mocked in order to make everyone around them feel better.

Shame. Its hoped secrecy gives it power. Its silent pain is debilitating. And its weight can push even the kindest of hearts to do unspeakable things to themselves or others they love. I have watched students cheat over and over to try to appease their parents’ high academic hopes for them. I have watched close friends retreat into the darkness to avoid the truth and light. And I have known uncountable numbers of students and friends who have carried unspoken secrets, feeling they were the only ones who held them. It leaves us in a world of brokenness, silence, lies and guilt.

Recently as I reread the Christmas story and asked God to show me something new, my heart was drawn to the plight of Joseph. Historical evidence indicates that Joseph wasn’t a young man. It is very possible that he was in his thirties or even forties when he met Mary. He had already gone through the process of talking to her family and they were well into the journey of preparing for marriage. But then, in the midst of the excitement and coming joy, the unspeakable happened. Mary became pregnant.

Who would have believed them? Was there a precedent for a situation like this? Of course, but certainly not under these circumstances! I sat trying to imagine how Joseph might have explained that. And for the first time, I felt sorry for Joseph. He and Mary knew the truth. It had been revealed to them in an unmistakable way. But that same revelation had not happened for all of their friends and relatives. And so, as the days moved on and the “shame” was evident to all, Joseph began the process of answering the inevitable question over and over. And yet, he still walked with her. For the distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem (almost 70 miles!), he walked beside his pregnant fiancé for all to see and to whisper.

I wonder what he must have felt. Did he ask God over and over why it had to be like that? Did his face flush when he had to explain that they were not yet married? He was known to be a righteous man. We know he sat down after hearing the news and tried to come up with some kind of a godly plan to help the situation. He decided on a quiet separation. And yet, that wasn’t the Father’s plan. God told Joseph to stick with it and to not be afraid. Through the shame, Joseph’s family would usher in the Promise.

I have the utmost respect for Joseph. Maybe he didn’t ask God why, but I am pretty sure I would have. It doesn’t seem fair that he would have to walk through that season (and perhaps, to some degree, the rest of his life) with the story that his wife had a child out of wedlock. He had to endure the rumors and the gossip for the sake of the Promise.

And yet he had another promise on which to cling. And so do we.

I remember a time when I was struggling with an injustice of my own, and a friend told me, “Perhaps this is just a time to let God be your defender.” It was somewhat of a new concept to me. What if I just trusted God with His title as Defender?

I remember the story of Moses as he tried to calm his terrified people being chased by the Egyptians. He said, “The Lord will fight for you; you need only be still.” (Ex 14:14)

I consider the Psalms, and I see the life of difficulty and injustice that David faced. And yet, Psalm 91 is full of the trust that David had in His Defender.

“I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God in whom I trust.”

“He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge…”

“… he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways…”

“Because he loves me,” says the Lord, “I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name. He will call upon me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him. With long life will I satisfy him and show him my salvation.”

Certainly there are times for all of us where the fault is ours. And yet, there is hope even for us. Even in the most heinous of crimes, God calls us to confess our sins to each other so that we can be healed (James 5:16). Bringing our failures into the Light significantly reduces satan’s stronghold in that area and allows for Truth and healing to happen… and ultimately freedom in His forgiveness!

And for those of us who carry shame or injustice which is no fault of our own, may we look to the Promise. May God give us eyes to see as He sees and to trust that our stories rest securely in His hands. May we have the courage to hold to His Truth and to take refuge in the Promise. Let us not forget Jesus this Christmas, as the One who came to heal the brokenhearted, bring freedom for captives, and to bestow on us a crown of beauty for ashes. I believe Joseph carried that Promise close to him.

Psalm 34:5 – Those who look to Him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame.