The Gift of Grace

“This is what the Lord says – HE who made a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters, “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing!  Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” – Isaiah 43: 16-19

As I contemplated the dearth of topics I could pontificate on for my end of year offering to you, I considered sharing my year in review, but then if you are a regular reader you already know how completely blown away I am by what has transpired. With that said, I will spare you the details of that novella until I get my feet under me again. Let me just say that if you had asked me last year at this time what would come to pass in 2018, I dare say that none of the life-changing happenings that made this year the paramount chapter of happiness in the book of my life were even being contemplated, let alone hoped for as 2017 came to a close.

We are approaching the waning days of December and for me, as a Christian, it is the time of Advent – a time of anticipation and personal preparation for the coming of our Savior. It is also a time filled with traditions and festivities handed down to us from time immemorial. If you are anything like me – sentimental, deep thinking and even deeper feeling, you may feel everything more acutely at this time than other times of the year. Everything we anticipated and planned for has either come to pass or has not.  Another journey around the sun is almost complete and inherent in that journey is the realization that this moment in time can never be repeated, ever again. And yet, we have been here before – year after year we close out a chapter of our lives and open a new one with traditions that encourage us to hold on to the past all the while looking ahead to the unforeseeable future. Do we look forward with satisfaction at a year well-lived and with hope for what is to come or do we remain focused on a past that we cannot change mired in judgment and/or regret?

When you look at your past what do you see?  What thoughts and feelings arise? Is it a painful memory, one of grief for lost loved ones, an opportunity lost, a heartbroken, a chain that binds and confines your soul? Or perhaps the past brings about a smile of gratitude, puts a skip in your step over a goal achieved, or triggers a longing for the good old days. For me, it is a mixture of the two. Following the deaths of my parents, I struggled to see the good amid the sorrow and to let go of the past and look forward to the future. It’s not that I didn’t want a fresh start on life (one that we are promised every day, by the way) or wish that my life could be transformed from one that seemed stuck in the same old familiar patterns, telling the same story, and hearing the same old voices (usually the critical ones). But for a time, moving on from grief felt like I was dishonoring my parents and moving farther away from their presence in my life. In addition, the past was known to me – familiar – I was used to and longed for the way things were.

Sometimes we can be so focused on holding on to the past – the good, the bad, and the what-could-have-been – that we get lost in the wilderness of what was.

Regardless of how our past plays out in our minds, regardless of what did or did not happen back then, our past has made us who we are today but it does not have to define us, it does not have to lay claim to your life.

We are about to celebrate again the birth of the One who broke through the wilderness of what was to give us the promise of what could be and what is – our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ – God incarnate. We are told of His coming by a wandering figure – not someone sitting in a royal palace or government seat or even a religious authority.

No, the Good News came to John, “a voice crying in the wilderness,” who tells us to let go of what has laid claim to our lives – repent – if you will – from the powers that be that hold sway – be they political, economic, or status oriented. John tells us to escape the wilderness – to let go of the binding chains of fear, anger, disappointment, guilt, regret. loss, despair, and sorrow and calls us away from life-draining busyness, quenchless ambition, and the need for approval. He speaks of a transformer who will overcome our broken relationships, our broken hearts, and our harsh and critical voices. All of these things that lay claim to our lives, that have filled our past, taught us “how to live,” and shaped our character – none are more powerful than God.

John tells us to wake up to, break free from, and deal with these fraudulent powers that claim our souls so we can have a new life claimed by God’s faith in us, hope for us, and love of us.

None of us know what tomorrow or the year ahead will bring. In the closing days of 2017, I certainly could not have fathomed preaching would be a regular part of my summer and fall schedule of events let alone meeting the love of my life and getting married nine months later!  I wish I had opened and lived in the gift already given to me – the joy of trusting in God’s amazing grace for the days to come and letting go of the past that I could not change no matter how hard I tried.

We can face the unknown with the same old patterns, practices, and voices in our head or we can look forward in the freedom of God’s grace. Imagine starting the new year off with a fresh start, anticipating the unknown with confidence that a way will be made for us – no matter how daunting, unimaginable, or seemingly improbable the future is.

What would your life look like each day if you let God’s grace – faith, hope, and love have primary claim? What opportunities might you take? What doors might open for you? How might your relationships prosper? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to wake up each morning with the courage to face the day knowing that you have been healed from the brokenness of yesterday through the redeeming grace of God’s love? Well, you can.

As you look back on 2018 – look back and be satisfied that your life was worthy no matter what did or did not get accomplished and, as you look forward, rejoice in the freedom given to you to start fresh with hope – every single day.

My Christmas prayer for you is that you find God’s gift of grace that is waiting for you under your tree and that you will open your heart to it. Let His faith in you, hope for you, and love of you strengthen you and guide all that you do in the days to come.

Wishing you a very Merry Christmas and your happiest New Year ever!!

Let your light so shine!

 

The Eleventh Day of Advent

Courtesy: The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Courtesy: The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

The Bible is the revelation of God’s love. To love one another is the greatest commandment given to us and yet in our fallen world it seems we cannot. As human beings we seek to find love and give love but we want to choose who we love and we want to tell others how they can love. God calls us to love everyone as he loved us, including those who hate us and those who are different from us.

We strive for perfection – in order to be loved, to know love, and to give love. And we will fail, because there is only one perfect love,  God. God is love and only God loves perfectly. He does not measure if we are worthy, there is nothing we can do to merit His love aside from loving others. Once we have received God’s love he expects us to love.”Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” ( 1 John 4:8 ).

Let you light so shine as His Light shines in the darkness revealing his perfect love.

The Tenth Day of Advent

Courtesy: The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

I tend to wander off the beaten neighborhood path on my runs or evening walks-  venturing out east of town where the night sky opens up. Here I feel like I am back on the familiar Eastern MT plains but with the shadow of the mountains I love beckoning me instead of an endless horizon.  Here I can breath again, away from the drone of traffic except for the occasional rushing of a train passing a short distance away. Yes it is dark, but I also feel free – free from the confines of buildings and life. Alive.

One can’t help to feel a bit vulnerable and alone in the countryside especially in the dark, but then I feel that way in life at times, despite my strength, independent streak, and general joie de vivre.  And so it was one recent dark night, that I felt an odd kinship with a single pine tree that stood alone in a blaze of light… okay she merely twinkled… but to my eyes she was a glorious light in the darkness, standing tall and beaming brightly – alone.  In that moment, my stride lightened, as if my heart was literally being lifted out of a temporary but very real solitary funk.

I wish I knew who to thank for dressing that singular sensation in white – a few birds trimming their shelter perhaps?  Their gift of light in the darkness reminded me that although I feel very alone at times that doesn’t mean I can’t shine, perhaps even brightly. God did not place me or you on this earth to be a dim bulb.

Let your light so shine as His light shines in the darkness.

Great Expectations of Joy -The Eighth Day of Advent

Erika Stereo (002)

 

I love Christmas, have from my earliest memory. I readily admit to getting wrapped up (pun intended) in the spirit of the season, merry-making galore.Erika Christmas 1

Before moving to the Flathead, during the months of November and December I would spend days adorning my parent’s house with lights, so much so that when I flipped the switch the rest of the neighborhood dimmed.382117_512993682058568_1687365558_n

From there I moved indoors adding more lights to the pre-lit Christmas tree and dressing our mantels and banisters and doorways with pre-lit garlands. I truly believe we are God’s light in this world and this was my most visible way to shine that message brightly.

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Always alive in me was the real reason for the season, the coming celebration of the birth of my Lord and Savior. My parents made sure that Christ was in CHRISTmas long before that became a popular seasonal saying. The merriment of the season however just reinforced the goodness that was to come. As a child, Santa always had a special place in our family – and he still does. I will never forget the time Santa (supposedly, a co-worker of my Dad’s) stopped by our house when I was about four. Somehow he knew about the temper tantrum I had thrown over not picking up my building blocks. From that night on I made certain my room was always clean (still do!)

Erika Santa 2

My family has a strong Scandinavian heritage and I learned at a very young age the art and technique of making lefse and krumkake, traditional holiday food offerings found in any Norwegian home. I was rolling perfect rounds of lefse by the time I was five and have been eating it with delight ever since – a fact of which my grandmother would be immensely proud.

Our home was always filled with music,piano, guitar, and good old fashioned records! I started Christmas caroling and singing in choirs in my teenage years -I loved bringing the message of good news in song to the hearts of people I would never otherwise know. Never much of a party thrower or goer, my Christmas goodwill was focused on spreading cheer to those far and near, through gifts, acts, words, and music.

Erika Barn

I can remember being ever so excited when the Sears and Roebuck’s Christmas catalog arrived in the mail.As youngster living in the high and wild town of Rock Springs , WY the nearest department store of any magnitude was in Salt Lake City – a good days drive away. Catalogs were king!  I would spend hours dreaming over Lego playsets, race car tracks (I was a bit of a tom-boy),  the Fisher Price  barn that mooed when the doors opened, the house, and the city parking garage with car elevator which when added to my barn set up made no sense then or now but was sure cool! The latest board games like Candy Land and Life (I never did get Connect Four or Battleship) and the first electronic games –  Lite Brite, Merlin, the Simon Memory game, and who can forget Superfection, all came to life in the catalog! I rarely received most of what I asked Santa for, and when I did get something like those games, their impact would have to suffice for two or three Christmases. While I delight in a bit of nostalgia as I look at these games from 30 plus years ago, these relics of my childhood Christmas wish lists are not what I remember most fondly.

Picture2In truth, what I savor most are memories of sitting in the quiet by the fire with just the Christmas tree lights on after Christmas Eve services; the Life Saver Sweet Story book that Santa placed in my stocking every year along with an apple, an orange, and a note telling me what a good girl I had been and how proud he was of my hard work in school; the old fashioned cinnamon striped ribbon candy and Brach’s Royal  candies that sparkled in the candy dish; lighting the angel chime canErika Stereo (002)dles before every dinner; and my delight in putting out the Nativity scene on top of the console stereo while singing along with Arthur Fiedler’s Boston Pops Christmas records.

I remember sitting  at the kitchen counter on the gold upholstered barstool coloring in my Santa and Friends coloring book or cutting snowflakes while Christmas carols were sung by Lawrence Welk as Mom cooked dinner. I remember sitting by the fire cracking mixed nuts with Dad. I have a treasured collection of Snoopy Christmas ornaments for every year of my life since they started making them. It is an entertaining walk down memory lane as I hang the 40 some ornaments on the tree each year. I remember every red or green or red and green velvet Christmas dress and the ordeal my Mom went through in sewing or later buying them for me. I knew I was grown up when I finally got to wear black velvet on Christmas Eve and I still feel that way to this day!

My dogs  were always a source of Christmas calamity and hilarity – from eating the pre-lit Christmas tree to getting more gifts from my co-workers one year than I did!

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Looking back, I long for what now seems like such a simple but wonderful way of celebrating the holidays. I long for my childhood wonder and acceptance of the way we did things, because that is how we did things. I don’t recall my parents being as stressed out around the holidays as we allow ourselves to become today.

These days we have become a very expectant society when it comes to celebrating the holiday’s. Social media posts of families gathering to beam at the camera remind us that this is a happy time of year; of dressed up snowmen in front yards reminding us of how old we have gotten; of sumptuous recipe after recipe appearing in our friend’s Pinterest lineups making our Pillsbury sugar cookies, green bean casserole, and sage stuffing look positively blah; of group shopping parties and kitchens a bustle with cookie baking fests.

Advertisements tell us we are going to “Win the holiday” by patronizing such and such retailer; “You got this!” they exclaim as a family stands back and admires perfection personified in Christmas lights. Who doesn’t want to “win the holiday” but in reality, who can?  For the longest time, I tried but I always ended up feeling defeated and depleted.

All these images of happy traditions have a way of coloring our own expectations of happiness around the holidays. It is indeed a wonderful time of year in which we focus on making and spreading joy, a time I cherish and look forward to. But I have also experienced the emptiness inside after too much money is spent, all the presents are given, and life just goes on the next day. I have felt my heart break when my high expectations of the perfect family gathering go up in the smoke of a blazing argument or are dampened by the stress of over-extending and over-committing my life to every activity that comes my way. I have felt the cold sting of loneliness at a time when love sparkles in the lives of all those around me. I have felt the let down when my own celebrations don’t measure up to the grand gatherings of friends and acquaintances.

These are the dual realities of the holidays that approach. A time when both joy and sadness, quiet and commotion compete for a presence in our lives. My own experiences with both the light and dark aspects of the holidays have heightened my emotional sensitivities and my empathy for others who struggle at his time of year.

Perhaps that is the truth God wanted me to see after all the years I spent wrapped up in the busy-ness of the season. The true joys of the season are not found under trees or in shopping carts or even along glowing roof-lines. In this joy-filled yet broken world filled with traditions and terror, caring and competition, winning and whining, the joy we seek can only be found in our hearts and the hearts of others. When we share God’s light and love with those of every walk we encounter, be it the hungry at the shelter or the stressed out Mom in line behind us, that is where we find joy. When you hold the door to the post office open for a package laden distressed style maven and they sputter their surprised gratefulness, that is joy. When your landlord offers to pay half your heat bill out of the blue for the months of December and January, that is joy multiplied.  By releasing ourselves from celebration expectations we can find joy in actively and expectantly waiting for the One who is coming whose true light will shine in the darkness and bring peace to our hearts.

Let your light so shine just as His light shines in the darkness.

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Courtesy: The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America