Empty Hands

Emptiness. That’s a bad thing, right?

We are all seeking to be filled. We’re not exactly sure with what. We think money, love, a meaningful career, a family, or some combination of these things should do the trick.

But we don’t stop to think about it much. We just know that we don’t want to be empty. Ever. For even two seconds.

It’s as if we are bargain shoppers running up and down the aisles of life, filling our arms with as much as we can carry. We grab things off the shelves with reckless abandon. We take so much that we can hardly carry it. We don’t even know if we want or need it. We just want it, just in case it might fill us up.

What would happen if we allowed our hands to be empty?

Sometimes the true blessings of life come at you when you aren’t expecting them, when you aren’t even looking for them. They might come in an unexpected conversation with a child. Or a new friendship with someone you wouldn’t have expected. Or a sudden, breathtaking encounter with nature.

What if your hands are full when these unexpected blessings come at you? How will you receive the blessings if your hands are full of other things?

In Isaiah 40, the prophet tells us to be prepare ourselves for the Lord. “Make straight in the desert…a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all the people shall see it together.” Later, John the Baptist quoted this verse when he prepared to baptize Jesus, the fulfillment of Isaiah’s Messianic prediction.

John was talking about the human heart, instructing the people on how to be ready for the Lord to appear. And later events in the story of Jesus’ life and ministry showed that many people followed this advice, that they were ready, that they were open to the leading of the divine. But many others were not. They were unable to see God’s work in their lives. Because their hands were full of other things and they had no place within them for his Spirit. Like the Town of Bethlehem, which had no place for the Baby Jesus in the inn, the hearts of the religious authorities were too full of other concerns to make room for the Lord.

It is not an easy thing to empty ourselves. We have to let go of old habits, old ways of thinking, sometimes old relationships that hold us back from growing. Being empty is difficult and frightening.

Yet it is necessary work if we want to make space for the true, eternal, lasting blessings of God’s life in our hearts.

Allow yourself to be empty. Sit with that emptiness. Because within that emptiness is a wonderful openness to accept blessings that you could never have imagined.

Within that emptiness is freedom.

Christmas 2020

Are you preparing for your worst Christmas ever?

The consensus seems to be that the year 2020 in general, right up through the Christmas season, has brought nothing but illness, poverty, loss, and despair to most (if not all) the people I know.

Personally, I have no complaints about this year. It’s been a good year for me, for many reasons. The anxiety surrounding the pandemic, the social isolation and the economic challenges,the sense of loss we all share, are emotions that I have met many times before and I’ve developed my own array of coping skills. In short, 2020 doesn’t feel much different from other years for me. (And actually much better in some ways!)

But I’m aware that the fear, sadness, loss, and isolation is tough to take for most of us. Are you alone, separated from family during the holidays? Are you stuck at home with a toxic or abusive family member? Are you facing job loss which makes it hard to afford gifts for your children? Or maybe you have even lost a loved one this year. All these situations make Christmas feel like a giant, aching void of what should be, but isn’t.

I can remember many years when the Christmas season was a struggle. There were years when the recent loss of a new baby tortured me with the “should have beens.” There were other years when a toxic marriage, with constant fighting, was a giant crushing weight on my chest. And of course, there were all the years as a teacher and a single mom when I agonized over how to afford all the things on my children’s Christmas list.

Not to mention all the stress. Shopping (my least favorite activity!), baking, wrapping, and attending parties, all while trying to work full-time and care for a family made Christmas often feel like a chore.

Speaking of “should have been,” is Christmas supposed to be a chore? Is it supposed to be a lavish display of gifts that drives us to the brink of financial ruin? Is it supposed to be an aching reminder of everything we’ve lost? 

To answer these questions, I ask myself what the birth of Christ really means. It’s more than just a sweet story of a baby in a manger. Jesus’ birth means that God came to Earth and lived as one of the humblest of humans, a human who didn’t even have a place to sleep besides an animal’s feeding trough.  He endured suffering, loss, illness, and hardship…even though He was God. As Emmanuel, “God with us,” He brought sacredness to the condition of being human. 

He brought holiness to our feelings of loss, hardship, and suffering. He gave honor to the poor, the ill, and the grieving. All these conditions are tinged with the holiness of God, because God was a human and experienced them all. In this way, our suffering, our loss, our fear, our need have become places where God truly walks with us.

You hear it in the words of the hymns and carols.

“Chains He will break, for the slave is our brother, in all our trials born to be our friend.” “And in despair, I bowed my head, there is no peace on earth I said, for hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, goodwill to all.” “I’ll have a Blue Christmas without you.” “I’ll be home for Christmas…if only in my dreams.”

The true spiritual meaning of Christmas has nothing to do with gifts, food, or even family, although it’s always wonderful to have the opportunity to celebrate these things. Christmas, at its heart, is about all the ways in which our humanity (and our pain) have become holy.

Even nature gives us this message.  Has anyone noticed how gorgeous and stunning the colors of sunrise are during Solstice? And the snow covers all nature’s flaws with a smooth blanket, bringing the promise of a better tomorrow. To me, these are God’s signs that even in the darkest seasons of our lives (like the year 2020!) He is walking with us, giving us beauty along the way.

So if you are lonely, fearful, or grieving today, then you have more reason to celebrate Christmas than anyone else. Because of Christmas, you can open your heart to feel God’s Spirit, Emmanuel, God within you, comforting, supporting, encouraging. Because of Christmas, you can walk with confidence that sunrise and spring will always come again, and that you never have to endure the cold and darkness of your life alone. Even in 2020.

So no matter where you are, or who you are, embrace the holiness, and enjoy a Merry Christmas.

Hypocrisy

A note from Amy.

Are most Christians really just hypocrites?

There’s something about announcing our Christian beliefs that immediately opens us up to accusations of hypocrisy. The word seems to get thrown around a lot as an easy way to call someone out for disagreement, unkindness, or just in general not doing what other people want us to do.

I certainly understand how this has happened. Let’s be honest; Christian actions throughout history (and even in the news today) stink of hatred, apathy, meaningless violence, and other qualities which everyone can agree are the opposite of good Christianity. Understandably, this has made the world skeptical, even scornful, of the true depth of our Christian faith.

I am aware that when people know I’m a Christian, my actions are immediately under a very harsh microscope. Any unkind word, any clash of opinion, any failure to pay attention to details that others deem important, brands me instantly as a hypocrite. Obviously, Jesus would be doing much better than that. If I’m not exactly like Jesus, then of course I am a hypocrite, as are most other Christians. 

There is some merit to this argument. After all, Jesus himself warned that it is better to have a millstone around your neck and be drowned in the sea than to cause another person to stumble (Luke 17). As “the light of the world” and “the salt of the earth,” (Matthew 5) we are called to set ourselves apart from the sins of everyday life so that others can see Jesus through us.

Hypocrisy is defined as “behavior which contradicts what one claims to believe or feel.”

What do we believe and feel?

I believe that I am deeply flawed. I feel that I am sinful. I believe that Jesus is the only one able to love me enough to die for me, and that He has a plan to help me overcome my flaws.

Instead of giving up or pretending to be perfect, how about honesty and transparency? How about letting others know how much we struggle…and how much God is present in that struggle alongside us?

Isn’t that truly what being the “light of the world” is all about? After all, light illuminates the truth rather than hiding it.

The world may always see us as hypocrites. That’s because we have not been honest or transparent about God’s love and what it really means to us.

Let’s leave hypocrisy behind and work to become the “salt of the earth” and “the light of the world” that God created us to be.

Is This Really The End?

What is the true nature of Heaven?

Having lost several good friends close to my age, abruptly and unexpectedly, I’ve been forced to confront this question.

There are no real answers, of course. But as much as I try to ignore it, the reality of my mortality finds me in the middle of the night, sits on my chest, and relentlessly looks me in the eye.

It is horrifying to think that all we’ve done on earth could be for nothing, that those we love will abruptly disappear one by one, ending with ourselves. It’s a thought that can bring real despair.

But at the same time, it’s impossible to believe that this life on earth is all we get.

Some might think it’s vanity or hubris to believe the soul lives forever. Yet it can’t be denied that our minds and spirits constantly strive for something better and more satisfying than this earthly life. 

C.S. Lewis once said, “The fact that our hearts yearn for something Earth can’t supply is proof that Heaven must be our home.”

God created us with this feeling that we don’t belong here so that we can find our way home to Him.

We will someday leave behind our frail physical bodies to find the real peace and rest for which He created us.

But what can we do to draw closer to Him while we’re here on earth?

Romans 8 says: “If we live according to the flesh we will die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”

Knowing our flesh is only temporary, let’s rely on the Holy Spirit that lives within each of us to draw closer to God every day.

Then, when the end of our earthly life finds us, it will approach as a familiar and beloved friend, instead of a terrifying phantom.

God has prepared a dwelling place for each of us. But we don’t have to wait. We can begin to taste heaven while we are still here…and in doing so, we can truly live forever.

Christmas Spirit

Are you in the Christmas spirit?

For me, the Christmas Spirit can feel hit or miss at times.

The celebration of Jesus’ birth brings me great joy. I love the old Christmas hymns, love setting up our manger scene and attending Christmas Eve service. 

But sometimes all the crazed consumerism strikes a jarring note of dissonance in God’s Silent Night. 

When I see videos of Black Friday shoppers lined up in front of stores, or rooms crammed with presents yet seemingly empty of Jesus, I feel grumpy. REALLY grumpy. It seems to me as if the Lord’s birth has been commandeered as an excuse for a marathon of competitive greed. Often those who celebrate Christmas with the most determination also seem to be the ones who have shut Jesus most determinedly out of their hearts the rest of the year.

Yet despite this, I can’t deny that Jesus appears to be miraculously at work within those same hearts. 

As if by magic, everyone suddenly seems kinder, more generous, more open, more ready to offer a smile or a helping hand to those who need it.

To quote Charles Dickens’ immortal description, Christmas is “a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”

This is one of the best descriptions I’ve ever read of “the Christmas Spirit.”

It’s also a very good description of the life that Jesus calls us to live every day…not just during the Christmas season.

As Colossians 3 says: “…clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other…Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.” 

Whether or not Christ dwells in their hearts, God allows each person this brief moment to feel his presence, and experience the call to live as He wants us to live.  And the joy is so great that they can’t help but let it overflow with showy light displays, piles of wrapped gifts, the most gorgeous Christmas tree. And I must admit that’s pretty amazing.

It really is true that the news of Jesus’ birth, as described in Luke, still represents “good tidings of great joy that shall be to all people.” All people everywhere, no matter where they live, how much money they have, or even their relationship with Jesus the rest of the year. 

We get this brief moment in time when the whole world feels the pull of the Holy Spirit on their hearts.

And I say…God bless it.

Amy Gardner

I’ve experienced many things: marriage and divorce. Having children and losing them. Illness and healing. Leaving home and returning. I have worked as a private tutor, a language teacher, a freelance writer, a teaching assistant working with autistic children. I also lead a Women’s Bible Study and play the piano in my church. But at the end of the day, it’s not about me or anything I’ve done. It’s about God and the message He calls me to convey. The interaction between intellect and faith has been my life story and purpose. My humble hope is that I can help others understand how broad and all-encompassing the experience of faith can be.

Please comment. I love discussion, and thrive on it.