Today I Saw God
Some days, I have a hard time getting into the Christmas spirit. I watch the news and wonder if we will ever, ever figure out how to stop hurting one another. Advent is meant to be about longing, but I want to skip Advent and rush to Christmas because longing is messy and uncomfortable. We are yearning for the coming healing, we are hungry for the almost-but-not-yet Kingdom. On some days, the Kingdom of God seems very far away.
As a follower of Jesus, uncomfortable feelings of sadness, anger and longing eventually move me to prayer. A few weeks ago, I gathered with some dear friends and we prayed for our world, our leaders, our Church, our community and our children. We prayed we would not become cynical, we prayed we would be agents of the change we want to see in our world. We prayed for God to help us be brave and loving in a world teeming with fear and hatred. We prayed the same things for our children,primarily young adults who don't remember a world before 9/11 and weekly mass shootings. We prayed God would show us the path to peace and empower us to lead the way for our communities and families. We prayed and then we planned. We vowed to continue our prayers with our feet, our hands, our voices, our money and our votes. Pray, and then DO.
Another thing I do when I am feeling sad and angry is go to church. I have sat in church many, many times with tears running down my face, full of hurt.Sometimes, the church has even been the source of that pain. But whether I go full of sadness or full of joy, every time I show up and listen, God shows up and speaks. In all its brokenness, I still believe in the Church as a source of good in the world. If you haven't yet found a church that looks and sounds like Jesus, keep looking.
Last year, I remember going to church and hearing a sermon that particularly spoke to me in that place of longing, a reminder of things I can DO when I am looking for light in the darkness, Here are the three things we might consider doing when life feels overwhelming and circumstances seem to be stealing our joy:
Watch for God at work.When we become overwhelmed by difficult circumstances, we can become focused only on the seemingly insurmountable obstacles in front of us and it becomes all we can see. Yet, God is with us and the deliverance or healing for which we are praying may have already begun. One of my favorite versesJeremiah 29:13says
"You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart."
Every time I purposely, intentionally watch to see God in the circumstances around me, I see His hand at work. It might be a coincidental meeting, a fortuitous phone call, a specific answer to prayer, a changed attitude in a person in my life or a word of encouragement from an unexpected source. Sometimes it might be as simple as hearing the words of a song that touch my heart right where I needed healing at exactly the right moment. When I watch and listen, I always find Him.
Plug into the Holy Spirit.This time of year, we have many, many strands of light working their magic and making our house a sparkly wonderland. What many who visit our home don't see is the myriad of extension cords required to produce our light show. Simply put, the lights don't work if they aren't plugged in. Similarly, I find I have difficulty accessing the promisedfruit of the Spirit love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control- unless I too "plug in." I think it is different for each of us, but I plug into the Holy Spirit through prayer, reading scripture, journaling, and spending with others who are seeking God. I plug into the Holy Spirit by choosing to acknowledge I need God to help me be brave and love well. When I plug in, I have access to a power greater than my own. When I don't, I get overwhelmed by circumstances.
Bless somebody else.Like many of us, I can get wrapped up in my own little world. When I am hurting and sad, I can become even more self-focused. While we certainly need to learn healthy ways to care for ourselves when we are hurting emotionally, sometimes the most healing thing we can do is to look up and look out. There are a whole bunch of people out there in need of the love we have to give. Finding ways to bless someone else reminds us we are connected to one another, members of the human family. We do not travel this journey alone. We need each other and we each have the capacity to provide encouragement to someone else. A listening ear, a kind word, and a warm smile are gifts when offered with nothing expected in return.
Watch and listen for what God is doing. Be open to the Holy Spirit. Bless people around you. Pray, and then DO.
O come, O come, Emmanuel!
Originally published on www.kellyiveyjohnson.com
What is the first Christmas you remember?
The first Christmas I remember was when I was four years old. It was also the first time I went to church after being invited by my childhood best friend and her family. I think it was a Christmas Eve event for children, complete with a children's pageant and nativity scene. I don't remember all of the details, but I do remember Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. Amazingly, I also remember what we sang that night: "Silent Night". And of course, I remember getting gifts and goodies.
Going to a church on Christmas Eve wasn't a tradition for my family at that time. Even though there were tons of churches around us in Seoul, South Korea, my dad and his family were strong Buddhists. My mom was a Christian, but she couldn't go to church or even tell anyone that she wanted to go. The culture was male dominant and the father's religion was the primary one to be observed by the family. However, I was able to attend church with my friends during my early childhood, although I didn't know much about faith until later, when I was in upper elementary school. I remember I started praying for my family's salvation around that time, especially for my dad and grandma. My mom started sneaking out to the early-morning prayer service each day and because I was an early riser from a very young age, I started following her to the service. As Christmas approached, we would often see beautiful morning stars on very cold, clear winter mornings. I used to ask my mom which star was the one directing the Magi to baby Jesus. She always pointed to the brightest star in the sky and told me that one must have been it.
I still regularly go to the early-morning prayer service and look up at the sky as soon as I get out of the house, just like I remember doing in my childhood. Especially this time of year, the memory becomes more alive when I see bright morning stars.
As we have been learning more about the God of Surprises through this Advent, the idea of God as Emmanuel fills me with wonder. It's amazing that God would even think of coming down to earth as a baby and being born in a manger in the small town of Bethlehem through a virgin named Mary. But this surprising story doesn't end with an unexpected birth. As we all know, it leads to the Cross and the even more surprising resurrection. However, I think there is one more surprise that came just before Jesus ascended into heaven. He reminded his disciples that he came to save the world and told them what they needed to do. If I had been one of his disciples, I would have panicked at hearing the great commission: "Go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit."
Because the disciples were all Jews who didn't associate much with gentiles and because they also grew up in local, small towns, they must have been shocked and maybe even a little frightened at the thought of doing what Jesus was asking. What would the great commission mean for them? What exactly was Jesus talking about when he said "all nations"? They didn't have a globe or map of the world. But they all accepted the great commission, as evidenced in the book of Acts. And because the disciples obeyed, the Holy Spirit opened doors and expanded their vision and understanding of all nations. What if they hadn't obeyed Jesus? Perhaps I would have never heard about Jesus in Seoul, South Korea.
Between today's media and the Internet, we live in the most connected era of all time. Our physical view of all nations is truly global. However, I feel that our hearts' view of all nations has rather shrunk. Even though I get news from all over the world from my tiny laptop, I hardly feel for any of the people I hear about, even those in my own country. Especially in the busy hustle and bustle of Christmas, I hardly think of anything other than my church, family and friends (and if there is any wiggle room, maybe my neighbors).
When I was preparing last summer for this year's Christmas cantata, God strongly reminded me what truly needs to be celebrated. Jesus came to earth to save the world. John 3:16 clearly tells us that, "For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life." Have you thought about what God really wants for Christmas? I have, and I truly believe that he wants all of us who live on earth to have a relationship with him, calling him Father through the salvation in Christ Jesus.
I pray that this year's Christmas cantata worship services will help open our hearts to receive the meaning of Christ's humble birth. You will hear carols from all over the world. I would like to invite you all to be a part of this celebration and to invite your neighbors, particularly those from countries where Christianity is not the primary religion. I also want to encourage you to go beyond the invitation and open your eyes to see who they really are. Who knows if there is another Yoon for whom this could be the first Christmas experience and who will grow in faith through this simple invitation? This could be our first step in following the Great Commission.
It's that time of year. Earlier this week I stopped to pick up butterscotch krumpets for my father-in-law and saw the familiar red kettle and heard the distinct bell ringing-the Salvation Army is out in full force. I stood in the checkout line and smiled as I watched the man in front of me ask for change. I knew exactly where he was going.
Recently I discovered that the Salvation Army has its root in Methodism. In 1865, William Booth, a Methodist pastor in England, and his wife Catherine wanted to bring salvation to the poor by meeting both their physical and spiritual needs. I also found out that the red kettles started in San Francisco in 1891 to raise money to feed 1,000 people Christmas dinner.
The sight of the Salvation Army brings back fond childhood memories for me. I remember my father arranging the "adoption" of a family each Christmas. The family would provide a list of gift ideas for their children. Dad would tell my sister and me how much we could spend and then let us select the Christmas presents for the kids. I remember so clearly how fun it was to shop for someone else at Christmastime. The parents never provided ideas for themselves so Dad would purchase hats and gloves and all the fixings for a Christmas dinner. I remember how much the parents appreciated that we thought about them. I still think about how it felt to bring happiness and joy another family at Christmas.
Seeing the volunteer stand next to that red kettle also reminds me of the times I stood on the corner of Main Street in downtown Annapolis ringing that bell in the freezing cold. I vividly remember the joy I felt when someone would drop something in the kettle, but also the sadness when people would not even smile or look my way.
These memories are why every time a see a "ringer" I make sure to drop money into the kettle, look them in the eye and say, "Merry Christmas." Those red kettles and bell ringers are a reminder to me that Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Emmanuel, God with us, a light of hope and love in what can sometimes be a dark world.
J.K.Rowling first dreamed up Harry Potter in 1990, while on a train from Manchester to London. She finished the story in 2007 with the final book in the seven-novel epic. Now, that's a long story. Those who followed it all the way to its conclusion were held in suspense until the very last pages. We were all surprised by the ending all of us, that is, except J.K. Rowling. She clearly had planned it all from the very beginning; she always knew how it would end.
This is the wonder of a great story and the gift of the great storyteller. They plot everything precisely and then make us wait for the surprise ending. While we wait, our anticipation grows, preparing us for the BIG finish! In the end, what we couldn't possibly have imagined happening surprises us, and we're completely gob-smacked by the satisfaction we feel. If we had skipped ahead to the conclusion, it would be empty. We'd have an ending, but no resolution.
It's tempting in today's world to want to fast forward things. Our technology and consumer conveniences make it possible to skip the lines, avoid the traffic, and tape the game so we can fast forward through the commercials. Stories aren't meant to be experienced this way. They take their time, justlike our lives do. That's a good thing, right? Who wants to rush to the end?
But really, why not? If what God has promised is so much better than what we've got, why not fast-forward us to the good part? Perhaps because the God who is able to do immeasurably more than we could ask or imagine (Eph 3:20), is still working on us.
Now to him who is ableto do immeasurably more than all we askor imagine, according to his powerthat is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. ~Ephesians 3:20
God, the great storyteller, is telling His story by His power that is at work within us. For the satisfying resolution to make sense to us, we have to read all the way through to our last page.
We're not meant to jump to the end of our lives without reading the middle parts. Something of God grows up in our lives as we learn to lead them. It will allow us, with all the Lord's holy people, to stand before the love of Christ that is so much more than anyone could ever ask or imagine and find ourselves completely filled by it. (Eph 3: 14-20) Hard to believe,right?
Definitely. Yet, if Ms. Rowling had told me in book three how Harry's story would end, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have believed it either. It took four more books to develop the breadth of things which ushered me into the only ending that made sense.
So, even though from my vantage point on this side of my life story, the path to a happy ending may look narrow and perilous, to the God who conceived, wrote and is still writing it, it's a broad expanse. It'll take a lifetime's filling of His Spirit for meto see and believe just how wide and long and high and deepis the love of Christ for me. Surprise!!
Perhaps this is what the late Steve Jobssaw on his deathbed as he uttered his last recorded words: "Oh Wow. Oh Wow. Oh Wow."Can you imagine what would make aninventor, creator, and visionary like Jobs say that?Yeah, me neither. Guess we'll just have to wait.
This Thanksgiving was a simple one for our family. It had been a rocky few months with work and potential financial setbacks that I defaulted to my most instinctual response to my world spinning out of control: I wanted my family. So, this year, we spent Thanksgiving with my mom, my younger sister, and my hero, my grandmother. My grandmother is 90-years-old and will be 91 in January. She still makes the best yeast rolls (a BIG pull to family meals at my mom's house), looks like she may be in her late-60s or mid-70s, and she is mentally sharper than most people alive. Though physically she isn't as spry as she used to be, she can motivate you to do your best with just a raised eyebrow, and that is just what I needed going into the holiday season.
You see, I would be nothing without my grandmother. My grandmother stepped in to fill the void of a father when mine passed away when I was only eight months old. My mother was 20 and had two children under two. My nanna was and is the best father figure that any young child could ask for, in my opinion. She is musical, playing with amazing skill any instrument she touched. She led the student choir at my church with the same professionalism she led the adult choir and her all-state winning choirs at the high school. She was well-read and promoted reading and education at all times. One of my favorite sayings of hers is, "When you have learned everything, you know your time on Earth has come to an end." She is my mentor in exploring music and the arts. We discussed Degas, Serat, Van Gogh, Rimsky-Korsikoff, Rachmoninov, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Aaron Copeland, Rogers & Hammerstein, the Gershwin Brothers, Balanchine, Tallchief, Pavlova, Petipa, Fosse, The Nicholas Brothers, Lena Horne, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Scott Joplin, Sarah Vaughn, Marian Anderson, Mahalia Jackson, Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson, Bojangles, Cab Calloway, Pearl Bailey, and Herbie Hancock just name a few (and if you don't know who most of those people are, fortunately, there is Google). She taught me the joy of research and the power of learning who you are. She also taught me that who you are and will be is so strongly influenced by who you come from.
In the Bible, there are endless entries that discuss people's lineage. Even in the case of Christ, Matthew makes a point to take the most circuitous route possible to show his relationship to the great King David. That continues even today. Walt Disney and the Disney corporation honor the importance of lineage with the appearance of at least one apple in every major Disney film. This is their way to represent and honor Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – the first full-length animated feature film. It introduced us to the movie soundtrack, was Walt Disney Pictures' first majorly profitable animation, changed the landscape of animation as it was known, won the first Oscar ever for an animated film, but could have also been the film that ended Walt Disney's career.
In business and politics, we acknowledge the lineage of such families as the Rockefellers, the Hearsts, the Rothschilds, and the Kennedys. We watch the antics of their latest generations because their families have access to the mediums that draw us, "the unknowns" in, and many of us desire to be like them. In the world I grew up in that was based in the Southern African-American Baptist lineage was viewed much differently. It was the foundation of the "generational curse," in which it was believed that the circumstances of people today is a direct result of the sins and mistakes of their forefathers. This always baffled me because I always wondered why those who bore the names of slave traders, early settlers that killed entire populations of indigenous people, slave owners, and Confederate generals never hung their heads in shame or faced persecution because of the "sins" of their forefathers? When I informed a boy in high school that my grandmother and I learned his family had actually owned members of my family, instead of asking if I had learned anything else, his response was a snide one of, "well, I guess you're glad you're free now then. I would have made you miserable," followed by laughter. The fact that my ancestors were owned by someone was not a point of sadness or shame for me. My grandmother taught me by learning as much as we could about ourselves, we would find more commonalities and more reasons to live in harmony than we would not to get along. We all in a way have humble beginnings that are changed by our belief that somewhere in our past and perhaps, even someone in our future can create a positive difference for our own part of the world.
Looking from the outside in, the difference from those whose lineage and power is derived mostly from money and very little else and those who lineage comes from investing in something they love that could hopefully better the landscape of the world for a lot of people is a difference of quantity and quality. Those in the financial and political spectrum have a power they control through money. Once the money is gone; once it has no value or a value far less than it does now, that power is gone. I acknowledge Walt Disney was no saint, but Disney made his imprint through quality work. He was obsessed with the quality to make a defining animation that would inspire wonder and imagination. He was not afraid to lose money because what he loved was not in the bank – it was in his sketchbooks and then in his films. Closer to home for me, my grandmother opened her heart, pantry, closet, wallet, and classrooms to students from all walks of life for almost 40 years. She taught in the agrarian areas of Virginia which were the home to impoverished Blacks with limited access to education. She taught in her living room and churches. She taught during segregation into integration. She opened the minds of Black students who only saw the limitations that society wanted them to adhere to, changed the hearts of skeptical White students and teachers, and empowered all her students to be their best self. Years after her students graduated and she retired, her students would come up to her and tell her what a difference she made in their lives. They would speak for hours, and her students would tell me how lucky I was to have her every day. Those were words I didn't need hear but was so proud that I could.
When I come home and sit among the comfort of my family, I am thankful for the line of women I continue. My grandmother's persistence to do well in all things, my mother's desire to always do better than the previous day, week, or year, and the overall drive that those women taught me about never giving up is more powerful than any financial lineage I have read about or witness on the world's stage. It is Christ's example of giving to those who need it, loving those who don't deserve it, and raising up those who feel the least worthy. I am bathed in the stories of triumph in the face of discrimination, calm in the face of violence, compassion in the face of inequality, and truth in the face of lies. There is a world out there that would reduce my family down to the whitewashed history of slaves, loud-mouthed preachers, and uppity-negroes, but what I see are the descendants of the same people who can claim the One True King as their own. I hope to continue the line of people who inspire others to be in the world but not of the world. I couldn't ask for a better lineage to claim as my own.