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Wednesday, 9 December 2015

The Four-Letter Word Which Could Have Stopped Christmas

It always amazes me how I can read the same Bible story a hundred times and suddenly have this great epiphany about it on the hundred-and-first reading. Or, in the case of the Christmas story, thousand-and-first, because I’m certain I’ve read or heard the Christmas story a thousand times during the course of my life. Probably more. Thanks to an ‘Advent Christmas Book Tree’ I’ve been doing with my girls this year, I’ve read it in different forms ten times already just in the last ten days.

Our Advent Christmas Tree, with a different Christmas story each day

This year, one phrase in particular has struck me – every time.

Don’t be afraid.

Mary was told it. Joseph too. And the shepherds. Over and over, “don’t be afraid”.

Fear. It’s a powerful thing. Have you ever thought about what might have happened, how different the Christmas story we all know would have been, had its main characters not heeded that command?

What if Mary had been so terrified by the angel, his news and what it might mean for the rest of her life that she’d fainted, or refused to accept the message? What if she’d been so afraid of making a mistake or not being worthy enough that she’d told God no way.

What if Joseph had been too afraid of what might happen to his reputation to marry Mary? What if he’d divorced her quietly after all? Chosen the family and descendants he would one day have over the knowledge that his ‘firstborn son’ would never truly be his?

What if the shepherds had convinced themselves they were seeing things – after all, it was late at night and they’d likely been deprived of real social interaction for a while – and decided amongst themselves not to say a word about the ‘angel’s visit’ to anyone?

I’m certain God would have sent Jesus anyway, humans in no way able to thwart God’s plan, but can you just imagine how different Christmas would have been?

I’m sure I noticed that particular command more this year because of what God was doing in my own life. As I read over and over the words ‘do not be afraid’, God was patiently hammering it into my world.

See, I was terrified. And that fear was stopping me from doing what God had asked me to do. Only I didn’t want to admit it, because, of course, then I’d actually have to do something about it. Like not be afraid.

If you’ve been following my blogs, you’d know I’ve been writing books for a while and working on getting them published (here if you missed it!). I feel like I’m finally getting close. I’ve had interest from a couple of literary agents (the bridge to the publishing world), one in particular who’s been asking questions and been really encouraging. Each time they’ve had advice alongside the encouragement and, seeing the wisdom in it, I’ve followed through with it and sent back the revised version. 

This last time, I thought I'd done everything I could do. Now, I simply had to wait and see if they would accept or reject me. Fine. I’d done that before. It’s the reality of sending proposals.

Only instead of a yes or no, they asked for more information. I'd prepared myself for everything but that. Instead of replying or doing the little bit more work they required - nothing compared to what I'd already done - I sat there and cried, feeling so disappointed and unqualified that I couldn't do anything. I made excuses, telling myself they were valid. I was sick, I didn’t have time to do more work on the proposal, being Christmas there were lots of other things I had to do, and the agency had said there was no rush.

It wasn’t until two weeks later, when I was making all these excuses to a friend that I realised the truth – valid as they might have been, they really were just excuses. Despite all of them, I could have done it. I'd done it before. I hadn’t yet because I was scared. Scared that after all this time and effort, I still might get rejected. Until I sent the information back, the ball was in my court – unrejected, but not exactly moving anywhere either. It was that realisation that gave me the strength to do the work.

See, I’d determined one day years ago on a school camp, looking up at a tiny little platform at the top of a tall tree, that fear wasn’t a good enough reason for not doing something. From that day on, I decided that I would never let fear be the only reason. Physical limitations and common sense, certainly. I have never and will never go on Dreamworld’s Giant Drop. That’s not fear. That’s a complete hatred of free-falling. Nor will I do abseiling for fun. It’s totally not worth the stress of wondering whether my arthritis-affected hands will hold me.

But going on the giant flying fox on the camp that day, talking to people I don’t know, making decisions about the future – fear wasn’t, and isn't, a good enough reason. And that included sending proposals to potential agents.

That night, I ignored all the excuses, sat down at my computer and answered the questions they'd asked. I emailed them back the next day. Once I realised it was fear holding me back, it lost its power. The worst that could happen was that I get rejected, and honestly? I’d probably cry for a little while and have a couple of days of feeling down but then that passion that’s gotten me this far would kick in and I’d realise God’s still got me and my writing in his hands and I’d start again. Because I know that one day I’ll get there. One person on the other side of the world doesn’t hold my future. Only God has that power.

Fear could have, literally, stopped my story. It could have stopped Mary’s, Joseph’s and the shepherds’.

But it didn’t.

This Christmas, and coming into a New Year, don’t let fear stop yours. That’s my prayer for you this Christmas.

Don’t be afraid.  

Sunday, 22 November 2015

More Than I Can Handle

Recently, I was catching up with a friend I hadn’t spoken to in a while. I asked how she was going and she commented, among other things, that life was tough and God was taking her constantly out of her comfort zone. I felt like I could relate all too well! This year in particular has been a huge growing year for me, feeling frequently overwhelmed by everything that’s been happening.

I almost made the comment that God must think us far stronger than we feel to be throwing all this stuff at us, but was stopped by a thought that instantly came to me. The thought that I’d missed the point entirely.

Sure, God sees me and I probably am stronger than I feel, but the challenges he sends my way have nothing to do with my strength – and everything to do with his.

There’s a saying I hear quoted far too often as a Bible verse – the idea that God won’t give us more than we can handle. One, it’s not actually in the Bible and two, to be honest, I think the opposite is true. I think God frequently gives us more than we can handle, not to prove our strength to us but to prove his. And the Bible is full of examples of that.

Let’s be honest, David couldn’t ‘handle’ Goliath. David was a scrawny kid and Goliath a giant of a man, not to mention a well-trained soldier. The only reason David defeated Goliath was because David saw God’s strength, instead of his.

And Gideon? Going up against an army of thousands with a few hundred men, trumpets and some crockery? I’m not a military strategist by any stretch of the imagination, but I can pretty safely say that’s a particularly bad plan. And yet, once again, Gideon and his piteously small band of men won.

God didn’t look at Gideon and say, "Ah, I know he can do this, if he’ll just believe in himself." Gideon’s strength, his self-belief, had nothing to do with his win. That was purely God.

And I think it’s the same with us. I think God constantly throws us more than we can handle, not because he wants us to realise how strong we are but to prove how strong he is. He’s under no illusions of how strong I am. He knows I’m weak. He sees how often I fail. He knows that no matter how hard I try, it still might not be enough.

But he also knows that how I handle the ‘too much’ he throws at me has far more to do with my faith in his strength than my faith in myself.

He knows he is strong. 

He doesn’t think me stronger than I am. Nope. He just knows that he’s stronger than I think.

Because he knows that he’s enough. Every single time.

God does give us more than we can handle. But he never gives us more than he can.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

God of the Cookie Cutters (aka When God Says No)

I never realised how terrifying faith was till the day I prayed with my young daughter that God would do something, and realised that he might not.

We’d been out shopping and found the perfect Christmas present for someone - a set of novelty cookie cutters for a wonderful baker in our lives. In pink. Because, of course, everything is better coloured pink (or so my daughters tell me!). Only, we’d didn't realise how perfect the set was until we arrived home.

So, we sat down and asked God to save us a set and have it waiting for us when we went back to the shops in the morning. I don’t think I’ve ever prayed a scarier prayer. It wasn’t that I didn’t think God could do it – I had complete faith that he could – it was that he might not. And, unlike just me praying it and knowing God would still be faithful if he didn’t answer it, this affected my daughter too. My daughter who’s only just learning who God is. My daughter who might very well decide God can’t be trusted based on this one prayer. Here’s me, telling her God can do anything, and he just might not. Seriously, scary.

So, we dropped back in to the store the next day, me selfishly hoping my daughter had forgotten all about that prayer while desperately hoping the set would be there so I could remind her of it. Of course, she hadn’t. As we were walking in, she told me that we had to remember to get the cookie cutters God had saved us. In that moment, I was as excited as I was filled with dread. God wouldn’t disappoint a child with such faith, would he? I just knew the cookie cutters would be there. I could picture the one set left there on the shelves for us. Proof to my daughter, and me, that God cared about the little things and that prayer is powerful.

They weren’t. The shelf was completely empty. I even tracked down a shop assistant and asked if they had any more. They didn’t. Sold out the first day. In every store. 

Despite our prayer, God hadn’t saved us a set. I had no idea what to say to my daughter. But it didn’t upset her like I thought it would. I think I was more disappointed. She just said something along the lines of, ‘oh well, maybe next time, or maybe we’ll get her something else!’

I’d love to say we sat down when we got home and had some big theological discussion about it, but we didn’t. For one thing, she’s only five, and the truth is, it just didn’t seem to bother her. She wasn’t disappointed with God. She wasn’t devastated the cookie cutters weren’t there. She was already thinking what other thing we might be able to get instead. Something even better than pink cookie cutters!

I don’t know why God answers some prayers the way we want and not others, but I have to believe he has a reason. And I have to believe that it is good. 

Faith will always be scary because it comes with no guarantees. God comes with no ‘formula’. We could be the most ‘spiritual’ Christians in the world, pray twenty-four hours a day, fast for days on end, and ask only what we are certain will bring about others’ salvations and is in line with God’s heart – and still have God say no. No, I will not give you that. No, I will not heal them. No, I will not change her heart. No…

But I wonder how often ‘no’ isn’t the end of the sentence. We walk off, angry or disappointed at the answer God gives only to miss what he says next:    

“Not yet.”

I wonder how many times we pray, desperate for something, certain only one answer will do – and God is sitting there on his throne, not stressed or flustered at all by our pleas but calm, saying simply 'wait'.

Just wait. I’ve got this. I haven’t forgotten you. I know you want this, I see your heart and how much you ache to see this prayer realised. I do too. But wait. Something better is coming. I know that’s not what you want to hear and I know you don’t understand but I’m not finished. I’m not done yet. There’s more to the story. Just wait.

The God of the Cookie Cutters isn't done yet.