God’s Gift

“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will call him Immanuel.”

Isaiah 7:14

“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace; and with his wounds we are healed.”

Isaiah 53:4-5

I love Christmas cards. I always have.

I have held onto every single one I’ve ever received, ever.

Including this one pictured above. This is a new card believe it or not. I received it from my Bible study leader a few weeks ago.

Of course, it looked a bit different when I first received it. It was perfect, actually.

Then one night the piece of tape displaying it failed me and in the time between it’s falling and my discovery- Reyna found it. (For those who do not know Reyna, she is a just turned 1, 86 pound, fluff ball/ puppy.)

And my beautiful card was crafted into a mess of confetti.

But as I disappointedly picked up the shredded pieces of my lovely card, I came across this final bit.

And I kid you not, I almost threw it away. To be honest I threw it away.

But as I turned away, I reached back and I picked it up, wanting to read the words one more time.

The whole time my world driven vision told me it was a piece of trash. Tarnished. Embarrassing. It would be absurd to hold on to it. Let alone put it back up. Forget the fact I had just grabbed it from my trash can, Lord help me if anyone ever found out.

But… that still small whisper. You know the Christmas story is a lot of things. And if we are honest, those things are tarnished and embarrassing.

Mary was pregnant before she was married- let’s talk about that reputation.

And then she gave birth in a barn. I’ve noticed that never caught on as a trend.

Yet… that story, that beloved and holy Christmas story, is beyond the definition of perfect.

There’s not a single word to fully express the magnitude and the glory of that tarnished and embarrassing story.

In fact, you could string a thousand words together, and just of clipped the iceburg.

We are a couple days past Christmas Day, and I hope yours was perfect. However, if it wasn’t perfect according to Hallmark standards (and I get it- I love Hallmark), I hope you can see that gifts, time and life aside- the victory of that day is never failing.

On a side note, I know many returned to work today, some worked Christmas Day, and those who are off are probably counting down the days subconsciously before they have to return.

Some may have balanced the checkbook today, did school work or cleaned the house.

My point is, as we move past Christmas Day, I pray we will remember to carry it with us.

It’s so hard when it feels as if so little has changed. The world acts as if all is as it has always been.

The angel spoke to Mary. Joseph had a dream. The shepherds heard the angels sing. The wise men saw the star. And the world… the world acted as if all was as it had always been.

As I was in town yesterday running some errands I felt I could see the world acting as if nothing had changed. The store lights, in contrast to Wednesday, were back on. (Never mind some stores did not bother to turn them off at all).

And it dawned on me. We try so hard to bind Christmas to one day. We make it a box, hand it over and say “get in,” forgetting that the reality of Christmas is beyond our comprehension, let alone our box making skills.

Christmas is the time we celebrate when Jesus stepped out of the box, and into the manger. And that celebration continues all year long. It’s a priceless gift freely given, and no sale price can cheapen or negate it. No deal can sweeten it. No amount of time can tarnish or lessen it.

It’s already everything, and then more than we can imagine. As we live in a world that acts as as if nothing is changed; we hear the angels sing, we see the star and we know- that everything has changed. We see it in the pile of dishes, the chaotic filling of email inboxes and in our chewed and torn Christmas cards.

❤️ Merry Christmas friends! My prayers and thoughts are with you all as we finish one year, one decade, and head into the next.

Even This Far

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

2 Timothy 4:7

We love a good “Cinderella” story. At least I do. One where the main character faces impossible odds and it gets to that pivotal moment where all is lost and then… they rise. They make the impossible choice to do the impossible thing that has no guaranteed outcome, no guaranteed success and really through the world’s eyes is completely hopeless. But they do it anyway, they go that far.

Our love for these stories can’t be denied. Looking at recent movies and books which have been released with great success, we all in some way are encouraged by those moments. Moments where they fight the good fight, finish the race and in the face of complete defeat keep the faith.

But living it out… that’s more difficult. I would be willing to bet that everyone reading this has had those in the dust moments, the ones before the epic comeback. The point in the story where everything seems broken, obliterated and all that is left is the debris of what used to be. I know I have been there more than once, and God knows there were moments when I wasn’t sure if I could keep the faith. I wasn’t sure I could be the hero in the story who rose. I wasn’t sure I could go that far.

I would say at some point all of us have hit our knees in defeat. And God, it hurts. We cry out wondering how it got this far. How or why did God let it go this far?

He should have been here by now.

He should have righted the wrongs by now.

He should have….

But He hasn’t. And we find ourselves faced with the decision, are we willing to go that far? Will our faith carry us that far?

The truth is we know that He knows it hurts. We know that He hears our cries. We know that He is good and that He is all-knowing. We know that we can trust in His plan and in His will above our own. Even this far.

This is where clinging to the truth, to what we know God has said over what we see, is essential. And God knows it’s hard. That is why He has given us the stories of others who rose despite the impossible circumstances. Stories of those who were probably wondering how it had gotten this far, and yet didn’t falter in their faith.

Can you picture it? Daniel being led to the lion’s den, praying to God. Believing God was there beside him and yet when they arrive, he is still thrown in. And as he gets up and realizes he is actually in the lion’s den, the king wishes him luck and then seals the door. Literally, a stone was rolled in front of it and was sealed with the king’s signet ring and of the other nobles, so “that Daniel’s situation may not be changed”. Daniel 6:17, word for word.

And in my head I wonder why that far? Why did God let it go that far?

And it’s not a one time occurrence. Moses in the wilderness, the four men in the furnace, Job in the rubble of all he had, David on the run, Jesus on Calvary. Time and time again we read stories in the Bible letting it go that far, not only in the Old Testament but in the New Testament as well.

I am sure Mary and Martha wondered why Jesus had let it go that far.

Lord, if you had been here this wouldn’t have happened.

I am here, always, it is apart of the plan, have faith. There is a greater purpose, even this far.

We could list stories all day long of those who were faced with choosing to accept defeat and lose hope or choosing to go that far. Stories which bring with them a revelation. Going that far has always been apart of the plan. Maybe not our plan, but His plan.

God’s not surprised. He didn’t momentarily forget and then turn around and go “my bad I never meant it to go that far”. God’s plans always serve a purpose. One of those purposes, growing and solidifying our faith.

A faith that won’t flee at the sight of the seemingly impossible. A faith that not only knows but fully believes that what is impossible for man is possible with God. A faith that will carry you that far. A faith that says even this far.

So many times have I cried out, demanding to know why God has let it go this far, pleading with Him to move His hand. And as my pain pours out, His peace pours in. And I know that He is moving His hand. That is has gone this far for a far greater purpose. I need only to trust and to keep the faith, to know that when I cannot run He will carry me. When the den is sealed and the tomb is closed, God’s still working. So keep the faith, because in those darkest moments, He’s about to call you out.

Even now, even this far.

Special thanks for the featured photo Bruno van der Kraan on Unsplash

Child’s Play

“For we walk by faith, not by sight.”

2 Corinthians 5:7

One of my favorite games growing up was one which my sisters and I created titled “Pearl Harbor”.

We would go out to our front field which ran along the state route we lived by and starting in the back we would try to stealthily make it to the front before an “incoming enemy” (aka a car) was able to fire upon us. We would army crawl, jump over logs and take cover in the tall grass. When the enemy swept in, we would high-tail it to the back to start all over again. It was a game inspired by its cinema namesake, and built primarily on imagination. In our game the good guys always came out on top, sometimes with a few minor injuries but without a single casualty. #win.

Things looked bad, but we never lost hope. We never believed there was a reason to not have complete faith in our ultimate victory.

Looking back, it is astounding how the imagination can change. As we get older we are still tempted to let our imaginations run wild, though they seem to take a different direction when things look bad. They run wild with worst-case scenarios and ever-growing mountains and obstacles. All we see are the realities this world insists are unmovable- and most of the time it’s bad, it’s really bad.

Instead of believing there is no reason to doubt, we believe there is no reason to hope. We see defeat, not victory. The incoming enemy is fully armed and there is no shelter from the fire. Instead of our imaginations affecting how we see the world, what we see affects how we imagine the world to be. Instead of imagining the possibilities, we only see the impossibilities- the tests don’t look good, the bills are due, time is short and days are long.

Many of us at different times in our lives, may be one piece of bad news away from a breakdown, slipping into the black pit with no way out. A mindset of  “It’s impossible, it would literally take the hand of God…”

… The hand of God. Our grown up imaginations often seem to forget about His presence, as it runs amuck in all of its doomsday scenarios. But what if we redefined our imaginations’ job description? Not merely as some impractical childish foolishness but as a powerful and purposeful tool. A tool which helps us to walk in faith, even when what we see is bad. A tool to help ground us in a faith that cannot be shaken, a childlike faith.

A faith that doesn’t look back when leaving our comfort zones, such as Lot’s wife in Genesis. A faith that doesn’t look at the storm around us, but looks to the one leading us across the water. A faith that establishes truth amidst a doubting and dark world. A faith that is a rock Jesus can build His church on. An imperfect faith made perfect in Him.

Loving faith.

Painful faith.

Radical faith.

Total faith.

Can you imagine? I can, and I see a world overcome not by doubt or fear but by hope. Unspeakable hope that no matter what this world throws at us, the truth that the best is yet to come prevails. Knowing there is no situation too lost, no news too bad or circumstance too dark that God cannot reach it.

Our faith and our hope are not resigned to only when things are going well. It’s easy to declare hope and God’s faithfulness when all looks right in our world. True faith is knowing how bad it really is, how seriously hopeless the situation looks and sounds, being in the middle of it and choosing God’s ultimate truth over those worldly facts surrounding us.

Having faith doesn’t mean it won’t hurt. Having faith doesn’t mean it won’t be difficult. Having faith does mean that in the middle of the doubt, pain and fear you will have peace, hope and comfort- recalling what God has said, despite what you see and moving forward.

Having faith is fearlessly charging ahead, jumping over the obstacles, hitting your knees when necessary and running full speed to shelter. Those obstacles looked huge as we jumped and dove but from our shelter they no longer looked quite as large.

It’s the same now. When we look out at the obstacles from our shelter and mighty fortress, Jesus Christ, they no longer seem so impossible.

Walk by faith, not by sight. Don’t look back. Don’t look around. Look at Him. And just like in those childhood games, bring back up. Remember His words. And let what you see be transformed.

 

Jamie & Jesus

A picture is worth a thousand words.

Everywhere I can fit a photo frame has a photo frame. My reasoning- I love to be surrounded by the smiling faces and moments which have shaped my life. My parents and sisters, best friends and cousins, nephews and new adventures.

Alas, I believe many of you will agree with me that you could never fit every photo you have taken in your home. At least not neatly. In today’s world we take a massive amount of photos every year, if not within a single month depending on what events are taking place. However, it is alright because we have a solution to this problem – Facebook.

Personally, I love to look through photos on Facebook. To me it is such a great reminder of where I’ve been, where I am and where I am going. It reminds me just how many times I have been blessed, that God has brought me through and never failed. And sometimes I need that reminder. I look back and see all God has done and is doing; graduations, weddings, babies, careers and just life. And it astounds me because there was a period of time where I didn’t have the hope these things would come to pass.

That story is for another day, just know that I have a best friend named Jamie and she passed on May 9, 2011. For two years after her passing I struggled to stand in my shattered world. Then one day Jesus called. And here we are… which leads into today’s story –

It started out as a mere Facebook break and then God surpassed every imaginable thought in less than 48 hours.

Facebook breaks are mandatory amidst heavy homework days, and so I had wandered onto the site and after checking up on everyone’s current status started to go through my albums. Pictures, hundreds of pictures, over several years. I started with the most recent and ended up back in the late 2011s. And as I looked through the photos I was overcome with an unspeakable amount of gratitude and thankfulness and joy.

I couldn’t tell God how full looking at those photos made me because I do not know if a word has ever been invented to convey such meaning by a mortal tongue. Knowing how dark that period had been and seeing how much God had been working in our lives, even now just thinking about it I am setback in awe. And as I continued to wander back into the high school years I just found myself perfectly and completely content.

Eventually I downloaded a few photos to my phone, since I was going to be beginning a social media fast soon, and prepared to get back to homework. But as I clicked out of the Facebook pages and pulled up my assignments I had a thought. If you could have any picture from any time and place of anybody, what would it be? And it really struck me as a thousand ideas came to mind.

But then I had the one. If I could have a picture of anyone, anything at anytime. I thought

God, I have all these pictures of so many wonderful moments, of so many wonderful people. You have brought us through so much, it is overwhelming to think of everything we have done over the past 7 years, especially when at one point I didn’t believe in a tomorrow. But God if I could have one more picture… it would be of Jamie after May 9th. I have all these pictures of us and how You have blessed us and our lives have grown. But I would want one picture of her, after that day. 

And as I this conversation was passing through my mind in prayer I was full of joy and excitement. Because it wasn’t possible for me to even imagine what that picture would look like. I explained to God, that it was okay that I couldn’t have that picture because the mere fact that Heaven was a place too great for us to comprehend, too far beyond our imagination and wildest dreams – and the fact that was where she was – filled me with joy beyond explanation.

And so I settled back into doing my homework. End of story.

Wrong. What I wasn’t aware of at the time was how much I underestimated God’s love. I knew God was good. I knew God loved me. I knew all we have to do is ask. But for some reason I didn’t expect that he would listen to such a little conversation, a conversation which for me was little more than a fleeting thought process. Knowing it wasn’t possible, that one picture didn’t exist and never would and that was okay because I understood why. That why caused me joy, overflowing joy. I was at perfect peace and contentment.

Later that evening, homework finished, I jumped back on Facebook. Because you know, right before bed is a good time to do that (now you may realize why the social media fast was important.) And as I am scrolling I begin to think to myself how I had read all of this before and needed to go to bed. I decided on one more scroll and then it was lights out. That last scroll had me sitting straight up in bed.

It was a painting titled “First Day in Heaven”. It didn’t include the name of the artist but it was of a young girl hugging Jesus. And all I could think of was this was my picture. For twenty minutes I stared at it, I thanked God and even cried a little. Because it had been so random, and it was so perfect. I saved it to my phone and in absolute awe and peace and love laid back down.

As I began to sleep though I had a thought, what if I could have someone recreate the painting with Jamie as the girl hugging Jesus? Not possible. I had never heard of anyone having such a thing done. I had heard about having a photograph turned into a painting but I didn’t have a photograph just an idea and two “photographs” if you will that needed to be combined. I wouldn’t even know where to start. Go to sleep.

But sleep wouldn’t come. So at 11 pm I was on Google proving to my inner self that this wasn’t a thing, at least not anymore. And if it was, it had to be expensive. And Google proved me right. So back to bed I went.

Ten minutes later I was on Etsy. This is it. I will look just so that my mind will slow down. Expecting the same results I had received on Google, I am proved right once again. Except that the first result is about a pet portrait. Odd I thought, I didn’t want a pet portrait but everything else was – just how it had been on Google – a photograph to painting ordeal. As I continued to scroll the pet portrait link kept appearing at the top of the results.

So being late and slightly amused I clicked the link and began to read the artist’s bio. About to hop off, a statement catches my attention “we can discuss what background you would want for the portrait…”. She can improvise a background or scene. … Well that would work. But does she paint people? Dogs, yes. Really quite spectacularly. But people? Further investigation needed. The investigation proves fruitful, as I find she has done various projects from wedding portraits to portraits of athletes.

Thus, during the later part of the 11 o’clock hour I write her a message explaining the summarized version of the whole story along with the picture of the painting and some of the photos of Jamie which I had downloaded that day from Facebook. Because you know, I had downloaded the perfect photo which one would need in order to paint her into that painting, a random side profile shot during a ride home from our friend Katie’s.

Thinking I probably wouldn’t hear back from her for a couple of days and uncertain of what her answer would be I finally sank into the best sleep ever.

The best sleep ever ends waking up to a reply. She could do the painting. She would be honored to do the painting. And it would cost me almost exactly what my bonus check had been that month. All that is left is to decide on what size I want the portrait to be and for her to upload a personalized link for me to purchase it on. By the end of the next day the painting is ordered and paid for, and is just a matter of waiting out the next several weeks.

Over the next several weeks I kept the painting between God and I. While I wanted to run around and tell everyone this amazing story and that I had commissioned a painting… from Canada!… I stopped. I knew I would struggle to wait, did I really want to pull everyone into my struggle with me? And what if it didn’t look right? At this moment there was another thought, why couldn’t I keep it between God and I? Why couldn’t I spend the next several weeks turning to him every time I wanted to talk about it? Why couldn’t he be my go to while I waited? So for 6+ weeks I prayed over the painting, the artist, my family and friends reactions and joy and just celebrated how amazing and faithful and loving He is.

And we have never been closer. As excited as I was for the painting, a part of me was reluctant to see the super secret surprise conspiracy end. And then I realized it didn’t have to end. It was just the beginning.

Upon receiving the painting I titled it “Jamie and Jesus” and shared it with our family and friends. The joy it has created is beyond what I could ever imagine. We ordered three more for other family members and friends. Someone who never met Jamie is now intimately aware of her legacy and love. Her light is as bright as it as ever been.

Most importantly though, this painting is a continuous reminder of how deeply God loves us. Of how greatly he truly cares. Father we are beyond blessed, and you are not done yet. Such a small thing, unexpected, and yet such a mighty reassurance.

It’s not so much the painting but the story behind it. A picture that’s worth a thousand words. Words declaring his love.

“If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11)

Shout out and a huge thank you to MissysPortraits for creating the beautiful paintings!