In the Bleak Midwinter

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by Brian Waple

As I began reflecting on writing a Last Word for this week, I asked myself, “What would people need to hear?” Do they need to hear how much God loves them? Probably—we all need to be reminded of that. Or perhaps they need to hear about Christ’s substitutionary atonement for their sins. Again, in and of itself that’s good stuff, but not this week. Maybe they need to hear more about Pastor Martin’s new vision for creating a culture of being “disciples who make disciples among those who are not disciples” outside the walls of Elim. He promised we would hear more about that in the weeks to come.

Okay, so what then? I was ruminating on this and looking out the window and watching the rain, and then it dawned on me. As you may or may not know, winters in the Pacific Northwest can be difficult for some people (myself included). There is a bleakness to the winters here that makes us all groan for summer and warmer weather. That’s an interesting word—bleak. Dictionary.com gives this definition: “without hope or encouragement; depressing; dreary.” I have said many times how dreary the winters are here … but hopeless?

There is a wonderful old Christmas hymn that I remember singing as a kid. It’s called In the Bleak Midwinter, and the words of the hymn were written by Christina Rossetti in the late 1800s. The last line of the hymn goes like this:

“What can I give Him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would give a lamb; if I were a wise man, I would do my part; yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.” (my italics)

Giving one’s heart means not holding back at all. In the hymn, Rossetti is speaking about what we have to give the Christ child. And even in the midst of our most abject poverty, when we have nothing left to give, we can still give our heart! It is interesting when we reflect on what God gave us. Almighty God could have given in to the desires that spring up from our wildest dreams. But He didn’t; instead, He gave us the most precious thing He had to give: He gave us his Son. He gave us His heart. And with that gift, we are not hopeless.

So, when life seems as bleak as a Pacific Northwest winter, the hope that we who call Jesus Lord and Savior have transcends the bleakness, the dreariness, the hopelessness. And that hope should encourage us to be willing to give our hearts to others. Maybe it’s toward your neighbor; maybe it’s toward a stranger; maybe it’s toward a friend; maybe it’s toward a family member. For many of us, this is all we can give. But it’s the giving of our hearts to others, as God freely did toward us, that helps transform us into the people God created us to be.

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Preparing Well

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By Brian Waple

Well, it’s almost Christmas. It’s about now that I start to think of all the things we are normally doing as a family (planning get-togethers in Oregon and/or Washington, developing ideas about gifts, making a list of calls we need to make to connect with long-distance family members, dropping off presents at the UPS store for shipping) as well as things we normally do with our church community (coordinating the Christmas Eve service, wrapping things up for the year in our small-group communities, planning activities that will begin with the new year), and it starts to get a little overwhelming. Not in a bad way . . . it’s just that my calendar starts to fill up with all the things I need to “do.”

This season of Advent reminds us that this is a time of preparation. By that, I don’t mean activities that we necessarily do, although it can look like that. It’s more a state of the heart, a state of being. After 400 years, the silence that the Jews had experienced from God was about to be broken. What He was about to do would be the fulfillment of a long-awaited prophecy concerning a Messiah. But it wouldn’t come as they had expected. Rather than a mighty king overcoming the occupation forces and reestablishing Israel as a powerful empire, the Messiah would come in the form of a little baby, born to a poor couple staying in a nondescript little town south of Jerusalem. The fulfillment of the prophecy would be born out in the life and ministry of an itinerant preacher—not extraordinary, but simple. But this simple life would become the hope for us all.

So, as we prepare for Christmas this year, remember that in all the doing, take time to just remember. Remember the birth of a little baby in a plain stable on a lonely night in southern Israel. Remember a heavenly proclamation sung to those who were called to be present at the scene. And remember God’s promise to those who accept and preserve the hope brought by the birth of Jesus. Following all the events of that night, it says, “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Let us do the same.

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The Ordinary Things

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By Brian Waple

As I sit here pondering what I’m going to write, it occurred to me that it is in the ordinary things that we find God. Now, this is not to say that God isn’t present in the spectacular and majestic and extraordinary—He most certainly is. But, as we go through our days, as routine as they are, we have opportunities to see God working. And we have the privilege of joining Him in those things, being present to what He is doing, and being a part of the blessing that comes from Him. And when we think about that, shouldn’t we be thankful?

I was having breakfast with my son the other day. We talked about some pretty nasty events going on in the world and how things seem to be verging on the chaotic and hopeless. As we were speaking, I was reminded that God is in all of that, the good and the bad, just as He is present in our conversation. And then it dawned on me like a lightbulb turning on—be thankful. Be thankful for the opportunity to spend the morning with my son and speak with him of things secular and spiritual; be thankful that he has a good, reliable car and is willing to do all the driving around Seattle on a wet Saturday morning (Praise God for that!); be thankful that he is happy with his life and is able to take care of himself and is respected for what he does; be thankful that Cindy and I have a weekly opportunity to spend the day with our granddaughter and be a part of her growing and developing; be thankful that she has parents who love each other; be thankful that there is no strife in my immediate family and that we get along really well. And be thankful that God loves me so much that He has blessed me with an incredible wife who cares about me, looks after me, and is willing to spend the rest of her life with me.

These are things I normally take for granted—these ordinary, some would say insignificant, non-Facebook worthy things. But they are moments when God speaks to us in the ordinary and shows us how much He loves us and how much we really are blessed. And our attitude should be one of thanks. In his book The Voice of Jesus, Gordon T. Smith writes, “Gratitude is fundamental for the Christian believer because through thanksgiving we open our hearts to the Spirit of God” (p. 85). Wouldn’t it be a shame to close our hearts off to the generous blessings of the Spirit of God simply because we refuse to be grateful?

“Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18, NLT). During your day, take a moment to think about how God is being present to you and blessing you in the ordinary things. And then take some time to give thanks.

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Dying

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By Brian Waple

I would like to use this Last Word to address something that we typically don’t talk about. We have brothers and sisters in our body who have experienced or are experiencing a family member’s or close friend’s death. Our Christian response is to lovingly pray for God’s comfort and peace for the individual’s family during these times of mourning and loss. But, what should be our expectations about dying?

In the Waple/Reynolds families, we have lost several loved ones over a short period of time, and it has caused me to reflect on the significance of death. I guess as you get older, you start to do this more often. One writer who has influenced my Christian life and thought is Henri Nouwen. Nouwen was a beloved priest and author whose writings on the spiritual life are appreciated by those in many Christian faith traditions. Writing about dying, Nouwen had this to say:

Dying is returning home. But even though we have been told this many times by many people, we seldom desire to return home. We prefer to stay where we are. We know what we have; we do not know what we will get. Even the most appealing images of the afterlife cannot take away the fear of dying. We cling to life, even when our relationships are difficult, our economic circumstances harsh, and our health quite poor. Still, Jesus came to take the sting out of death and to help us gradually realize that we don’t have to be afraid of death, since death leads us to the place where the deepest desires of our hearts will be satisfied. It is not easy for us to truly believe that, but every little gesture of trust will bring us closer to this truth. [emphasis added]

This past Sunday, Pastor Martin spoke on desires. He addressed the desires that are driven by our natural tendencies. We (and I include myself) struggle with these desires our entire lives. But, I believe that the deep desires Nouwen alludes to, the ones we glimpse only rarely, are the ones that God has placed in us at our core from the very beginning. And I believe that as a Christian, one of our deepest desires is to be with God and know Him completely. During our lives, we strive to fulfill this desire in one way or another, but we are destined to fall short every time. It is only by passing through the mortal veil of this life that we reach a point where this deepest of desires is finally met.

So, although we will mourn the loss of those we love for the remainder of our time on earth, I believe that there is a truth about death that is helpful for us to hold in our hearts: it is only through death that God’s perfect work is completed. We can learn to be reconciled to death, because as Nouwen states, we are finally returning home, where “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev. 21:4). And it is through death that we are finally able to live eternally, as we were created to be.

“I heard about a mansion / He has built for me in glory. / And I heard about the streets of gold / beyond the crystal sea; / about the angels singing, / and the old redemption story, / and some sweet day I’ll sing up there / the song of victory.” (“Victory in Jesus,” E. M. Bartlett)

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A Place of Quiet

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By Brian Waple

“One day soon afterward (following the healing of a man on the Sabbath) Jesus went up on a mountain to pray, and he prayed to God all night” (Luke 6:12, NLT). One of the things that strikes me about Jesus is how critical it was for Him to spend time alone with His Father. I think He did this for a couple of reasons. One, with all the time spent giving to others, He needed space to withdraw and be refreshed. And two, He needed that one-on-one time with His source of renewal and inspiration. “So Jesus explained, ‘I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself. He does only what he sees the Father doing. Whatever the Father does, the Son also does’” (John 5:19, NLT).

As we learn to grow in more intimate relationship with God, we find that we long for those times of solitude when we can be inspired and renewed by what the Father is doing. Like Jesus, we must take time to withdraw from the demands of our busy lives and focus our attention on being attentive to God’s presence. It is only when we can remove ourselves from the distractions of life that we are able to present ourselves fully to God. And as we make ourselves more and more available to Him, we bring Him glory.

So if you can, set aside some regular, consistent, and daily time to spend alone with the Father. Maybe it means taking a short walk during lunch or turning off the car radio on your way home. If you’re home during the day, perhaps you have a special place where you can sit quietly for a few minutes. Whatever rhythm you practice, offer that precious time up to the Father. And cherish it as your own time of renewal and inspiration.

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Because He Loves …

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By Brian Waple

To be honest, I absolutely adore my granddaughter, Dylan. I have adored her from the day she was born, and always will. Even with all her awkwardness, there is something special about her that evokes strong feelings in me that are indescribable. Now I know that as she grows older, there will be times of testing. But my love for her will never change. No matter what she does or doesn’t do, I will always love her.

Isn’t it the same with God and us? God knows our past, present and future, and yet He still loves us. In fact, he is absolutely crazy in love with us. Did you know that the word “love” appears close to 550 times in the NIV translation? (By the way, the number of times the word “love” is used outnumbers the word “sin.”) What does that say about God? John 3:16 says, “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” (NLT). When asked what is the greatest commandment, Jesus replied, “You must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind … a second is equally important: Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Why so much emphasis on love? If we just obey as we’ve been commanded, isn’t that enough? If we attend the weekly worship service at church, join community groups, pray regularly, read our Bibles, lead Bible studies, help out at activities, disciple others … isn’t that enough? The people of Israel thought so. They thought that all God required were their sacrifices. In Micah 6, we read, “What can we bring to the Lord? What kind of offerings should we give him? Should we bow before God with offerings of yearling calves? Should we sacrifice our firstborn children to pay for our sins?” Micah goes on to say, “No, O people, the LORD has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” It is a heart of love for God and others that enables us to do these things. Our obedience to God should come out of our love for God, not the other way around.

I guess my preoccupation with love comes out of a book I’m reading by Dr. David Benner called Surrender to Love. In discussing the story of the prodigal son, Benner writes, “Part of me — and I suspect part of all of us — wants to earn the Father’s love. In the story both sons fall into this trap, and both have to learn the same lesson. The Father’s love reflects the Father’s character, not the children’s behavior. My behavior — whether responsible or irresponsible — is beside the point. Responsible behavior does not increase the Father’s love, nor does irresponsible behavior decrease it” (p. 20).

I remember a conversation I had with my sister Whitney, who struggled with alcoholism. Looking back on her life, she asked, “How could God possibly love me after all things I’ve done and continue to do?” I told her about one of my favorite Christian authors, the late Brennan Manning, a former Catholic priest and chronic alcoholic. I told her about Manning’s belief that God continued to pursue him, even in the midst of his wretchedness, because of God’s love for him and the grace God extended toward him. I told her that God continues to pursue her, because He loves her and extends that same grace to her. She just needed to acknowledge her need for Him — that in spite of what we do and because He loves us, God never gives up on us.

We were made to be in relationship with others and we were made to love, because we were created in God’s image and that is God’s character. And here’s the really crazy thing: even the love I feel for Dylan, or Cindy, or other members of my family cannot come close to how much God loves me. Can we love as God loves? I don’t think we can in this life; but I believe there is a long-forgotten part of who we are that desires to love that way. And one day, I believe we will. God has pursued humanity from the beginning because He has loved us from the beginning. Although at times our actions and behaviors can grieve God, He continues to pursue us because of the immeasurable love He has for us.

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