Wrapped in the Unexpected

NOTE: This week’s guest blogger is my sweet friend, Lindsey Gibson. Lindsey was one of the first people to reach out to me when I joined Hope*Writers, and she quickly became a trusted friend. Her heart for Jesus and her passion for helping others is evident in everything she does. I am so grateful for her friendship and excited to share her words with you today!

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Like it was yesterday, I remember sneakily scooting as near to the Christmas tree as I could without touching it, as that was the rule. Each ornament had a story to tell, and the bubble lights were my absolute favorite. Hoping not to get caught, I’d quickly scan each gift placed carefully under the tree for my name and take note of each one’s size and shape. 

I’d think, dream, and guess what could be hiding behind the beautifully wrapped paper that was chosen just for me! 

Regarding gifts, what if I told you the ones most carefully chosen by our Heavenly Father aren’t always packaged in sparkle, but quite often, in unlikely, unpredictable, ill-timed packaging, while resembling nothing attractive and having little perceived value? 

UGH! Who wants that kind of gift? At first look, I’d say, absolutely no one. 

I’m sure you are saying, “Well, that’s encouraging, Lindsey! What else do you have to lift our hearts in the most fantastic year of 2020?” 

Glad you asked, sweet friend; let’s go to Isaiah 9:6-7 and read the promise given to God’s people: 

6 For to us, a child is born, to us, a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7 Of the greatness of his government and peace, there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.

The Messiah, or the “anointed one,” was a gift of relief, rescue, and redemption. This new KING and GOVERNOR would set the record straight and repair the broken bridge between a Holy God and man. 

Wow! A king is on the way! A palace. A throne. A Savior. 

However, God’s gift arrived a bit differently than anyone expected. Luke 1:26-38 and Luke 2:1-20 tell us the unlikely, yet heavenly, story of a common young virgin girl named Mary. She was chosen to birth the Promised child, conceived by the Holy Spirit. Joseph, her fiance, shocked and unsure, stepped up in humble obedience to become the earthly Father. 

There was no pampering preparation or luxurious birthing suite to anticipate the royal birth, just a long journey home on the back of a mule. Labor pains brought no room to welcome a baby properly. The company of livestock would have to do.

This type of “grand” entrance would be easy to overlook, dismiss, and reject, wouldn’t it? 

What about in our lives, now? Do we have promises we hold close? Are we waiting and believing that God will answer, reveal, and show up? Maybe we long to be a mother, have a healthy marriage, solid friendships, or a different career. 

Also, could we possibly miss the answer if it shows up looking more like a rock instead of the promised jewel?

In our lives, this may look a bit like:

Motherhood wrapped in infertility, 

A happy marriage layered under childhood baggage and bad choices. 

A treasured friendship walled off by trust issues.

A dream opportunity hidden behind a disappointing layoff. 

Did you know diamonds form when carbon deposits (rocks) deep within the earth are subject to extreme temperature and pressure?

It’s still the promise, yet unexpectedly unrefined.

1 Peter 1:6-7 tells us, “In this, you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, 7 so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which perishes though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ;”

Life’s heat and pressure slow a hurried stride. Trials push pause and position desperate hearts to receive. In the beauty of difficulty, our gaze adjusts to focus on the heart of our Father. Intimacy and trust deepen as we lean in a bit more. Through this, His reflection tells our story.

Upon it, His strength is magnified. His goodness outshines hopelessness. His healing is mending the shattered. His faithfulness is never denied. 

Can you believe it, the humble gift sent to save us chose to display HIS glory through the most unlikely….US!!! 

Be encouraged! 

Lindsey Gibson is your “life unpacking” specialist, encourager, writer of the “Moving Beyond Messy Blog”, speaker, wife, Mama of two (plus a few), Registered Nurse, former “Hot Mess Express” titleholder, and definite God’s grace dweller. You can find her in the following places:

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/moving_beyond_messy/

Facebook :https://www.facebook.com/LindseyGibsonWriter

Website: www.lindseygibson.com

When You Find Yourself on Empty

NOTE: Friends, please welcome our next guest blogger, my sweet friend, Abi! She is in the throes of young motherhood, among many other adventures, so I am grateful she was able to find time to write for us (I mean, I barely found time to go to the bathroom when my kids were little!) When she sent me her post this weekend, I almost cried. It is so timely for Christmas time and 2020 in general, when we all find ourselves running on empty, and I know so many of us can relate. You can read more about Abi and find ways to follow her writing at the end of this post. Thank you for taking time to read her words today!

In the countdown to Christmas and new year, we find ourselves writing and reviewing more lists than usual. We regularly unpack our cluttered brains with all of the “to dos” of the busy season and take pleasure in crossing items off our lists. We might find ourselves deciphering items on our children’s handwritten gift lists, monitoring tight budgets and balances, googling seasonal recipes and scribbling “brussel sprouts, cranberry sauce, eggnog” on the backs of envelopes, which we stuff into pockets before spreading pleated fabric over our faces and dashing out to the store.  

In between curbside pick ups and scheduled package deliveries, maybe we are also finding time to pen gratitude lists and gather all of the memories and lessons of 2020, or returning to bullet point prayers and resolutions to reflect and evaluate. Perhaps we’re so desperate to exchange this challenging year for a fresh start, we’re already jotting down our dreams, plans, and projects for what we hope is a brighter year ahead. 

In the last few weeks, I’ve done many of these things. I’m an analog-loving fan of pen, paper, and post-it notes. There’s a good chance you’ll find me frantically sorting through the mental mess of the season by spreading sticky yellow squares all over the kitchen table. For me, list writing is an organizational strategy and a therapeutic exercise. I also consider it to be a sometimes-effective sleep aid.

One night when I was struggling to fall asleep, I sat up and began to write a grocery list for the next day (as you do). Frustratingly, as I was nearing the end, the pen I was using began to dry out. Blue, inky letters gradually turned to dry, colorless etchings on the page. I furiously scribbled circles in the margins, applying more pressure than necessary, but that didn’t work. I moved the pen back and forth in straight and wiggly lines, but still, no ink appeared. Then in a last-ditch effort, I shook the pen with a strong flick of my wrist, multiple times, hoping that any residual ink stuck in the inner tube would shift towards the nib. I was trying to get that last bit of remaining ink to move and flow out so that I could finish my list. I got a little more done, but it still wasn’t enough. None of my efforts proved entirely successful (and neither did my “sleep aid”). It seemed like a reflection of the state of my heart at the end this year. 

When we are coming to the end of a challenging season, it is easy to grow weary and despondent. We might know the finish line is coming, but we are limping and shuffling towards the blurry end with a pained expression. We feel dry and spent. We’ve run out of energy and motivation. We can feel like that dwindling ink pen, with nothing left to give. We don’t have the strength or supply to finish what we started, let alone finish it well. 

In response, we either settle for less, strive for more, or give up entirely. Some of us decide that we will just survive it, shrink back, and quietly, dutifully finish. Some of us see our fast-fading output and fight back by adding more pressure and movement, trying to force any remaining fuel to the surface. Others of us abandon efforts altogether. 

In frustration, we can force and we can press and shake. In weariness, we can settle for running out and barely there—or even nothing at all. But thankfully those aren’t our only options. We can also admit our weakness and seek the strength and supply only God can provide. 

Perhaps you have given up and put your efforts on hold. You’re pinning all of your hope onto an uncertain future and shutting down until it appears. God has more for you right now.

Maybe hard times have caused you to retreat into the comfort of nostalgia and you find yourself wistfully looking back more than you are eagerly looking forward. Remember—you still have a story to tell, a vital part to play. God has much more He wants to do through you.  

May God release what is stuck, refresh your supply, and free you to flow in the gifts He has given you, to love and serve well in the places He has called you. May you and the people around you be utterly surprised by the abundant overflow of His goodness and grace to you. We are not those who shrink back and diminish but those who press on, fight the good fight, and finish the race.

Bring your lack, your empty vessels, bring your unfinished lists and your fading letters to an unlimited and generous God. Lower your tired and trembling hand, point your dwindling ink pen to the page once again and let grace that’s sufficient flow.

Sometimes the best stories are written from a place of emptiness, and the greatest miracles happen in a time of drought. Just as the finest wine is brought out at the end—quite unexpectedly—maybe the most vibrant ink is reserved for the last few lines. Though you feel weak and empty, God’s power and life will flow through you as you commit to the blank spaces ahead and move forward in faith.  

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:19)

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Abi Marks is a British non-fiction writer who moved to the middle of America 12 years ago. She lives in Missouri with her husband and three lively daughters where she also works as an adjunct English instructor and freelance copy editor. She loves a good analogy, looks for meaning in ordinary things, and writes to inspire reflection about life, faith, and creativity. You can find her on Instagram @abi.m.marks and her blog abimarks.wordpress.com.

Christmas Eve at Granny’s

   NOTE: Christmas is filled with great nostalgia for many of us. Family heirlooms, special recipes, and cherished traditions all have their place among our celebrations. I am excited to share this story with you, written by my sweet friend, Mel. You can read more about her and find ways to follow her writing at the end of this post. I am so thankful she agreed to be our guest author today! Feel free to share about some of your special traditions or treasured family heirlooms in the comments!

 The worn box appeared like it always did on Christmas Eve. Sitting on the floor in its usual spot, just waiting to be opened and its treasures displayed. Just like the box, every Christmas Eve, my sister, cousins, and I would arrive at my Granny’s house to decorate for Christmas. 

     My little cousins were not allowed to touch the box. Its contents were too special to trust to tiny hands that had not learned the significance of the items inside. My sister and I were the only ones old enough. It did not matter, though, how long I had been helping with that box. My hands still shook when I unwrapped the delicate figurines from their tissue paper. I understood what these figures represented. They were also my Granny’s most cherished possession. I did not want to be the one who accidentally dropped one, breaking it, and ruining Christmas. 

     One by one, my sister and I would pull the figures from their wrappings, then would fuss over how to arrange them. Most were chipped and faded from time, but they were beautiful to me. My favorite one and the one I loved unwrapping the most was baby Jesus. He was always the last figurine to be pulled from the box. My sister or I would feel extra special if we were the one chosen to unwrap him and gently place him on his little bed of straw. 

    Then we would decorate the Christmas tree. It was a 4-foot artificial tree, which we always placed on a low table in order to make it taller. Old ornaments were hung from its branches that had been in the family for years. The tiny red horns were a favorite because they actually made noise if you blew into them. I also loved the green cylinders with little spinning fan blades, and the white snowflakes with intricate patterns. The entire tree was then covered in strands of silver tinsel. It always annoyed me when my little cousins placed all the ornaments in one spot, but Granny never let me move them. She said it was beautiful because we had decorated it together. She always loved how that little tree looked~ the lights twinkling off the tinsel making the entire tree shine. 

    

 Later that evening, we were all brought back for a traditional dinner of family favorites and Kolachie cookies for dessert. Then everyone would exchange presents. The best part of the evening finally arriving for us kids! Torn wrapping paper covered the floor as toys were opened and played with. Everyone would then sit around long after the food had been put away, talking and laughing into the night. We kids would fall asleep on some random corner of furniture or sometimes snuggled up on the floor at the base of the tree. I can never remember the presents I got, but I always remember how much love and laughter was bursting through that little house.

     It has been years since I celebrated Christmas Eve in my Granny’s tiny house in the small town I grew up in. But those memories of the holidays from my childhood are so special to me and come rushing back every Christmas when I pull out my decorations. My Nativity is not as delicate as Granny’s, but my hands still shake when I pull the figurines from their boxes. I still have those tiny red horns, green cylinders, and white snowflakes with their intricate designs. They are so special to me, and just like my little cousins, my own children would often put all the ornaments in one section of the tree. I never moved them because I could hear my Granny’s voice telling me not to. She was right; the tree was always beautiful, no matter how the ornaments were placed, because we decorated it together.

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     Melinda Casilli is small town girl who loves coffee, libraries, and stories that take you to faraway lands. She’s been married to her best friend for 27 years and is the mom to three girls. When she’s not organizing a closet or taming teenage drama you can find her writing under her pen name Mel Havens at MelHavens.com or on Instagram.com/mel.havens.author.

Active Expectation: 4 Steps to Ready Your Soul for Christ

Guest Post by Yolanda Lichty, December 2020

NOTE: Friends, please welcome our first guest blogger for December! I am super excited to introduce y’all to my sweet friend, Yolanda. She is a middle school teacher, a beautiful, thoughtful writer who loves Jesus, and she just happens to be Canadian (so if you notice some words spelled differently, you’ll know why!). You can read more about her and find ways to follow her writing at the end of this post. I am so thankful she agreed to share her words with us today. Enjoy!

The room was cold, empty, half-forgotten. Dubbed the old gym, it waited above the student lounge for more funds and blue prints yet to be drawn. The vaulted ceilings were anything but grand, only giving space for barred windows and gray metal rafters. Still, somehow, in the bleak cold of December, it was the best place–a dark, shadowy, waiting place. 

And we came, one by one with blankets, winter coats, candles, and our own harried, half-grown souls. We came expecting. Expecting what? We didn’t really know. “Come to Advent,” they said, so we did. 

Sitting round in a circle, leaning against each other, sharing blankets, watching the candle light flicker in each other’s eyes, we listened as someone read the Old Story. A stumbling nation grew impatient and nearly gave up hoping for the Messiah, promised by Isaiah, Malachi, and others. The people walked in darkness, and the little bit of light they found did little to satisfy their expectations. 

“Come Messiah, come Messiah, come Messiah, we still wait

For the fruition of the great promise you gave,

Come Messiah, save us from cruel Roman hate,

Come Messiah, come now before it’s too late.” (Yolanda Lichty, 2014)

Come He did, and most of Bethlehem missed Him. Few in Judea recognized Him. The children of Abraham had distracted themselves with so many man-made ways to please the Father, that they forgot to expect the Son. 

I didn’t grow up celebrating Advent. I saw the word around Christmas time and assumed they were one and the same. I didn’t know that Christmas without Advent is like a gang of old friends showing up on your doorstep around seven thirty Monday morning. You love the old friends and want to welcome them with open arms; but the washer is spinning, the toast is burning, and your mind is whirling with the week’s to-do list. Christmas isn’t Christmas without Advent, because we cannot celebrate Jesus, if we are not expecting His Presence.

So, friend, this December, may I tell you a little secret?

Jesus is coming.

He might be coming in the form of a neighbour dropping by with cookies. He might be coming as a still, small whisper in your soul. He might be coming in a crabby son who needs to be held and hushed and kissed. He might be coming with the Salvation Army sign, tinkling bell, and the invitation to give. He might be coming in the strains of a virtual Christmas choir. Just know, He’s coming. 

We get to expect Him. This Christmas, the world may be under lockdown, but my risen Jesus comes through locked doors and into locked hearts. He comes into our empty spaces, our loneliness, or unfilled days on the calendar and fills them with Himself. What can we do to actively expect Him, so that we don’t miss Him when He comes?

Prepare Space: 

It can be a window looking down on the street with a candle on its sill. It can be a corner of the classroom where a few dogwood sticks make a Jesse tree. (That worked for my seventh grade last year.) It can be the hide-hole under the stairs where you go to be still for a while. Wherever it is, dim the lights, close the curtains, and prepare space for Jesus to enter in.

Prepare Time: 

Look at your calendar and choose the time. My college Advent services were at nine at night. When I did Advent with my students, it was sometimes first thing in the morning and sometimes squeezed into fifteen minutes after lunch, but every day the time was carved out ahead of time so we could anticipate it.

Prepare Your Heart: 

When you’ve brought yourself to the set apart space in the set apart time, take a few minutes to set aside the day’s stress. Give them to the Father. Confess the day’s faults. Then be still. Breathe deeply, read some Scripture, sing a few Advent songs, but mostly give space for silence.

Invite others: 

While there is something incredibly good about taking time alone with Jesus, the presence of others enriches the experience of Advent. A nation waited for the Messiah. All people of every generation expect the final return of King Jesus. Share these moments of expectation with others. Not convinced? Let me share a couple stories.

My second year at college, I stumbled into a conversation with the dean of men, a gaunt man with a scraggly beard and the pure heart of a child. He’d learned somewhere about Advent wreaths, with special candles for different days.  He didn’t think we’d need to go into all the details, but he’d kind of like to make one. If he made the base and got some greens together, could I help make it, maybe find someone else to help, too? I told him I had no clue what I was doing, but I’d try. I thought of a dormie (dorm-mate) of mine, a quiet, tiny girl with a knack for beautifying her corner of the world. I invited her to join us. There, in the dark, greasy corner of the maintenance garage, we assembled a lovely wreath with boxwood, cedar, dogwood, and spruce. We giggled as we stuck in a branch here, twisted a vine there, trimmed some holly, and added berries. Somehow in that moment of communal preparation, we caught the wonder of Advent.

Jesus is coming.

Last year, in my classroom, we all coloured a picture or two to hang on the Jesse tree. We pulled down the blinds, cleared our desks, and turned out the lights. We took turns reading the Scriptures and holding the candles. We sang and prayed together; and the quiet got into our souls. In one of the craziests seasons of the year, my seventh graders were calm, and so was I. The warmth of God’s Presence held us like the softest blanket.

Jesus is coming.

Friend, I invite you to prepare a space and time, to prepare your heart, and to invite others to wait with you (especially the children). Jesus is coming, if we have eyes to behold Him. Expect Jesus to show up and be delighted and surprised when He shows up in the most unexpected ways.

Yes, Jesus is coming, and I can hardly wait!

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Advent Resources I’ve Used:

The Greatest Gift a book of Advent meditations by Ann VosKamp

Jesse Tree Ornament printables available free on AnnVoskamp.com under the “Free Tools” tab

Free dogwood branches growing in the ditch

Candles of any shape and size

This Year I’m Using: Advent Devotions & Christmas Crafts for Families a book by Victoria Duerstock

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Yolanda Lichty, a Mennonite from Southern Ontario, (yes, Canada), lives at home with four of her five siblings. She entered the classroom as a student in 1999 and hasn’t left it since, currently teaching seventh grade. Small natural wonders, child’s play, and the minor key fascinate Yolanda. She longs for women to love God with their minds as a path to intentional, abundant life and would love if you’d join her in discovering grace and truth at travelight94.com. You can also find her on Pinterest at https://www.pinterest.ca/yolandalichty/_created/.