The How To’s of What Child

I can picture her, Mary, walking to the well with her friends giggling about Joseph, how tall he was and how he was good to look at. He was not the highest up in the community, but he was respectful and respected, a hard-worker whose labor had given him broad shoulders and kept him healthy. She was young, but not so young that her interest wasn’t there, that her curiosity wasn’t piqued.

They discussed the wedding plans and the celebrations, and Mary thought about how life would change after the big day. Where she would sit, live, her role in her family and her new family, how she would relate to this man she was just getting a sense of. And what would change between her and her younger friends who wouldn’t understand what she didn’t understand yet. As her friends spun her around, she already missed them a little. She looked forward to their time when they too would be matched and things would start to settle into a new comfortable rhythm.

It was in the middle of this comfortable life at the edge of the next big thing for Mary that the angel came to her.

“Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

Mary looked around for someone else. Highly favored? Who could he mean? Me? Certainly not. I am just a girl and I don’t have much about me that makes me different than any other girl. In fact, if this angel looked hard enough, he’d notice the lack of adornment, the manner of speech, the evidence in my body that I am common, at best.

“But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

Mary posed the obvious question, and the angel explained, tucking inside that explanation that she could know that the impossible would be possible with God by looking at her relative, Elizabeth, who was too old to have a child and yet, she was indeed pregnant.

Ok. If this is what God wants for me, if this is what God says will be, ok.

She visits Elizabeth and finds that what the angel said was true. She was overjoyed and in that moment of confirmation she worshiped, a song welling up in her in a way she never had sung before.

But there were moments. Three months later she went home. She talked to Joseph. It was a difficult conversation. She cried and she prayed and she worried all the way up to the conversation. What did the angel say? What had God told her to do? What was the action plan?

You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.

The conversation came and went with Joseph, and better than she expected, really. Her friends were a different matter. Or the girls she thought were her friends. She cried and prayed and worried over those conversations as well, but many of those conversations never happened. They just wouldn’t talk to her. How could she help this situation? What had the angel said to her?

You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.

There were many days she went about her chores, humming to herself that praise that had welled up in her,  “My soul glorifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me.” But there were days that the words escaped her, that she replayed the conversations with people over and over and thought, “How can I explain this better? How can I make them see the angel the way I saw the angel? How can I convince them to hear what he said to me?” And she’d cry and pray and worry, finally comforting herself with the thought of the words spoken by the angel, “The Lord is with you. But what is the plan?”

You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.

She began to set plans. Though there were sideways glances and eye rolls, she was a part of a community and her mother and a few others knew she would need care when the time came. They spoke to her about what to expect and promised they would help. “Do not be afraid, Mary,” they had said, “We will be with you.” There was something holy and sacred in those plans, in the gathering of women and the preparations for this little life coming into the world. It would be alright, because she had some support, she had a place and a plan and a few special things collecting in her house to make that terrifying moment seem manageable.

The census was announced and she made plans to travel with Joseph, and while there was something nice to think about traveling with this man, the one who could see the angel the same as her, but it meant this jostling ride through the wilderness to an unfamiliar town, to Joseph’s people, not hers. She huddled into the crook of his arm for comfort as they sat by the fire eating what never felt like enough. They arrive, and there is no room.

But there is straw to sleep on when they arrived, arranged by Joseph who sat, head in hands on the side of the trough. As each contraction came, with it to came waves of awareness that her things, her people, her plans, they weren’t in that barn. With the contractions came the angels words, back to her, over and over.

You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.

That is not enough information! Why are there no how to’s with what child this is? It is true and I will do it, but it is not enough information! I have tried to do well and be responsible and prepare and plan, but I didn’t have enough information! Is there no way to go back to the before, to the walk to the well with my friends when it was just easier? Is there no way to do this the way I had planned? Is it always going to be just me and Joseph and this baby and no one else on Earth?

You will conceive and give birth to a son and you are to call him Jesus.

What more should she have known? What of this journey could the angel have told her that would not have made her say, pick someone else! What should he have said differently? What could he have told her about the plans of God and the cost of obedience that would have prepared her for any of it?

There was help to be found in the crowded inn. Joseph and his carpenter hands did not deliver the baby. It worked out. She made it through and there was the promise of God, held in her hands. The angels, the shepherds, the star, the lowing cattle, it was all more beautiful than she could have anticipated. It was hard work. But she was never alone in it. There were provisions that God set in place and she was often reminded of the scripture from Isaiah which says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

It was not her mother who helped her with that first nursing session, which was much more difficult than she’d anticipated. But as she cradled the living, breathing God of the universe, she treasured all of the things that had happened. She held them in her heart and pondered them.

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I can imagine Mary this Christmas, how everything went outside of her plans, how she would have had so much innocence so that she would have had no idea of just how hard this journey ahead of her would be. If Jesus in the garden was so raw that he would ask for another way, I can’t imagine that the same thought didn’t occur to Mary. She believed, oh, she had faith that was as dangerous as a lion, strong and wild, untamed by the whip of the world. And she held fast to the promises God had given her.

But there is no denying that there was a lot that she went through that she didn’t bargain for. Or that the directions she received could have felt woefully lacking in the face of her challenges.

She experienced the entry of God into her life away from the comforts of home, away from her birth plan, away from her closest family and the women who might have shown her how….

And honestly, right now, there is a lot in my life that I’d like more direction on. I feel like I need more details. I want to know how things are going to play out so I can trust the promise of God for me. But that’s hardly the way things work, certainly hardly the way God works.

I have put my hand to the plow, and the work is ahead of me not behind. My husband quotes a teacher who quoted someone else saying, “Hoe to the end of the row.” This is what I want for myself, to experience the entry of God in my life, to find myself sitting under a star hearing the voices of heaven proclaiming God’s majesty and sovereignty displayed for all to see. It means no matter how blistered my hands get from the hard work, I press on to the end of the row.

It means no matter how simple the directions, how unbelievable the task, how formidable the challenges, no matter how far outside my plans, no matter when or where or what, I believe what the angel told Mary.

For no word from God will ever fail.

And I reply like Mary.

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.”

May it be fulfilled. I still will.

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In or Out?

        I had just finished telling her why I would NOT be coming back to this church.

The people were nice enough. The worship was good. The kids seemed to like the children’s church stuff well enough. But one thing had turned me off and turned me off entirely. So I thanked her kindly for her time and consideration, but I was outta there.

When we first moved here, she had taken time out of her busy days a number of times to sit and talk with me. She had more important things to do, and that’s not me being humble. She legitimately had more important things to do than sit and talk to some random girl who came to her place of work unannounced. But for some reason, she took the time.

We had similar interests. Both in early childhood education. Both with big thoughts about the issues and experiences surrounding that field. We talked probably more intensely about theological issues than one should when you just barely know someone, but that is my way and she indulged me.

She had walked me around the church, giving me the updated tour. I hadn’t seen it since I was in college, when Kermit and I had come to this church a few times at the end of my senior year when the building was just being plastered on the overhead screen as blueprints and dreams.

She took time to invest in me and I told her thanks, but no thanks. All the same, she smiled and gave me another moment to listen about what had upset me. As I made my way to the door, she walked with me, wrapping up our conversation.

I put my hand on the door, trying to push myself out of that church and on to whatever lay on the other side of “anywhere but this place.”

She said “So what’s next?
“Well,” I began, certain of the answer, “My plan is to get my master’s and teach Head Start, but I wouldn’t be surprised if God didn’t have a completely different plan for me.
“I guess we’ll see.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, “We will.”

And with that, I left.
I had no intention of returning.
I was Jonah, having been told to go to Ninevah, turned and booked it to Tarshish,  the most remote place in the other direction I could think of. No doubt, it would take a giant fish and an act of God to get me back in the doors of that church.

Thankfully, mercifully, God acts.

         I have put pieces of the rest of the story throughout my blog in the past, and so I won’t retell the whole story of the storm and the ship and the whale that God used to bring this Jonah back to where He intended me to be in the first place.

This piece of the story though, I tell and retell, because even when I was running to the remote parts of the Valley to escape where I felt He had pointed me, I knew, my plan was not going to win out. His plan would.

Not only that. The part that is most tender to me, which melts me in front of the glorious redemptive love that my God has for me, is that in the VERY conversation which I intended to reject this church, God placed my hand on the building and put these words in my mouth “I wouldn’t be surprised if God didn’t have something completely different planned for me.”

There are often times that I feel like God sighs before He says things to me, wondering at my amazing ability to miss a point, but there is no sigh in that moment. Only this sense that God may have thought, “Watch this. Watch what I’m going to do here. Watch me knit my plan into her hand so that she will not ever forget the hard coolness of this door and those words which I am about to unfold in her life. Just watch.”

This morning I put my hand on that door again and pressed it open. Certainly one of the greatest evidences of redemption I have in my life is that when I rejected “that church,” God brought me back and over and over placed my hand back on the hard coolness of that door until that place became “my church.”

Today, my first official day of working for my church, this story came out again in conversation, drawing me back to those same words of the unknown plan of God in my future and hitting me hard with the magnitude of just how much higher His thoughts and His ways are than my own.

Closely behind this story came a verse to my mind, a verse that was shared in the sermon given the day I put words to the calling I felt God was laying in front of me. The sermon talked about considering the cost of following Christ and was full of commentary that felt so made for me.

Jesus speaks to a man who wants to follow Him, but wants to put it off for a little while, til he can enact his own plans and settle things his way. In Luke 9:62  “Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”

Here is my plow and my hand is upon it. How gracious was He who did not turn away from me when I ran from my plow. How kind is He who called me back to it. Each day that my hand presses open that door, I pray that the hard coolness under my hand will serve as a constant reminder of the day I spoke those words, and press into my heart which side of those doors I will choose to be on.

May I never look back from my plow or my door.

By Faith, I…

The story of Abraham and his journey out from Ur has been one I’ve returned to over and over since the very beginning of our family’s exit from Ohio. There’s been a lot that I feel like I identify with there in that story of a handful of people stepping out and leaving what they know to go out in the world and find where they belong, one foot after the other led by not much more than a few conversations with God.

The Israelites, it seems, were forever building little altars, or big altars, stacks of rocks that whenever anyone saw that pile, they’d remember, this is where God did _____ for them. And I imagine that in a nomadic tribe they wandered back by those stacks from time to time and did revisit those stories. I am so glad for those stacks of rocks, those stories retold so that I could return to them so many many years later and hear what those stories tell us.

I was back with Abraham again this week, listening to a few sermons, reading the passages again, and ready to process the meaning for today. During each class I’ve taken in the past year, we’ve been assigned a sermon to prepare and present, and this week one of my classmates presented on Abraham. While my friend gave his sermon he repeated this passage…

“By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”

Don’t I hear that? Don’t you? Oh man, y’all….I am looking forward to that city with foundations, not the one I came from where I struggled to build my own foundations, but the one where I am going, built by Him. I long for it as it applies to my time on Earth and I long for it as it applies to my time in the next life.

When my classmate gave his sermon he read that passage a few times, by faith, Abraham…by faith Abraham….by faith, Abraham…and then he asked “I can’t help but wonder what it might say about you, By faith,…..” and then he named each of us sitting there. I sipped in the air of the room and held a tiny breath til he reached my name.

By faith, Sarah….

I can’t keep moving towards the promise of God if I rely solely on a pile of rocks we made three and a half years ago when we left Ohio. The Israelites piled up the stones and moved on. They reflected and remembered, but they kept moving forward.  When I hear “By faith, Sarah…” because I am still alive it is an action statement. What did I DO because I trusted God at His word? What am I doing today because I believe in what He’s promised? What will I do tomorrow? How can I keep moving forward “by faith?”

There is a purpose and a plan for you, friend.  When you have those times that the action called for by faith is so clear, DO it!!! Do it and then mark it so you can remember it, so you can come back upon the old stories of your life and see, “By faith, I….” Let those moments encourage you to see that when you trusted God to direct your steps, He guided you well, He defended you, He protected you, He provided for you. Build little altars. Keep a journal. Plant something. Mark it so that people will see and remember what God has done. And then travel on, little nomad, because God has a journey ahead of you before He brings you home.

If it’s been a while since you’ve made a stack of stones, consider today, what does God have for me to do?

By faith, Abraham.
By faith, Sarah.
By faith, you.
By faith, I…….