Top Songs of 2016

At the close of 2015, I offered up a list of the songs that had impacted me throughout the year.  I would like to do the same at the close of this year.  The following songs have played a significant role in my life over the course of the past year.  Some were used for corporate worship, while others ministered to me on a personal level.  Where they are available, I have included YouTube links for the songs so you might be able to listen to them.  Please consider supporting these artists by purchasing their albums or downloading their songs. 

“Echo” Blanca

“Even so Come” Tommee Profitt & Brooke Griffith

“Good Good Father” Tommee Profitt & Brooke Griffith

“Greater is He” Blanca

“Because He Lives (Amen)” Matt Maher

“I Surrender” Hillsong

“Just a Girl” Brandon Heath

“No Borders” Ginny Owens

“Overflow” Lex Buckley

“Your Grace Still Amazes me” Phillips, Craig & Dean


Prepare Him Room

A few years ago, my sister came up with a plan— a way for me to participate in our family Christmas gathering.  Since I lived more than two hours away and couldn’t drive, she and her husband planned to drive the more-than two hours to my church, pick me up, and then we would make our way down to my parents’ house.  We wanted it to be a surprise, so for a few weeks, I couldn’t say anything to anyone about our plans. 

In order to make this surprise trip possible, I had to make a lot of preparations before I left home.  I needed to pack a bag since I would be staying with my parents for a few days.  And since it was Christmas season, I had to be ready for the services at church.  I would be arriving home on Christmas Eve, and I wanted the house to be clean and tidy so my Christmas visitors would feel welcome and appreciated.  My sister and her husband would be staying with me upon the return trip home. 

So the day before I left for Minnesota, I hurried home from work, delaying lunch so I could make quick work of mopping the floor.  I didn’t have a broom at that time, so I dry-mopped once, and then used the wet-mop to catch any spots I had missed.  I did the dishes, dusted, vacuumed the carpet, and cleaned the bathroom.  By the time I finally responded to my hunger pangs, it was well-past 3:00, more than three hours since I had returned home from work.  I had been willing to sacrifice my physical comfort just so the house would be ready. 

I thought about that particular day when I heard a children’s message by one of my pastor friends.  The pastor asked the children if they would get excited if the President of the United States said he was coming to visit.  Would they hurry to get things done around the house?  Would they (or more like their parents) want things to be in perfect order?  The pastor pulled out a broom and proceeded to explain that he would sweep all of the floors in the house, the garage, and probably the driveway and cul-de-sac too.  He would want to make a good impression on the President, and no detail would escape him as he prepared for the President’s arrival. 

Then the pastor set aside the broom and turned to the children with an even more important question.  What would it be like if Jesus came?  You see, He already came, that first Christmas more than two thousand years ago.  But the reality is, He’s coming again. 

On the night Jesus was born, it seemed that the world was unprepared for the monumental event.  The Messiah’s coming had been prophesied, but I’m pretty sure no one expected the King to come as a tiny baby.  I think of the innkeeper who turned Mary and Joseph away when they arrived in Bethlehem.  Instead of welcoming Jesus into the world, cozy in a warm guest room, Mary labored in childbirth within a humble stable. 

We sing this song almost every year at my annual Christmas concert; it’s called “Just a Girl.”  It tells the story of the innkeeper who sees Mary at the door and simply refers to her as “just a girl.”  But after he has turned Mary and Joseph away, he feels remorse, and he hovers outside the stable door, reflecting on what he has done.  “He’s just a babe,” the innkeeper laments.  “I could have found a room for them to stay; I’m so ashamed.”

Even though my pastor friend didn’t reference this song in his children’s message, I couldn’t help but make a connection.  Obviously, we weren’t there the night that Jesus was born.  We weren’t the innkeeper who missed the Savior right outside his door; we weren’t the shepherds who witnessed the sudden angelic visitation in the dark fields; and even though the wise men searched for the Christ child, we were not the ones to bring Him gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

We may not have been there that night, but one day, we will see His face.  It may be that we will pass away, and the first face we will see upon entering into eternity is the face of our Lord and Savior.  But perhaps Christ will come again before our time on earth is complete.  And unlike that first humble, quiet Christmas, no one will miss His coming.  All the world will know that He has returned and has come for those who believe. 

I don’t know about you, but I am excited for that day— whether it be the day I pass into eternity or the day He comes again.  I want to be fully ready— fullly prepared— for when that day comes.  Although I have confidence in my salvation, there is so much more that can be done in the days remaining.  Just as I cleaned the house in preparation for the Christmas holiday, may I also seek to honor Christ in the way I live my life.  May my love, hope, joy, and peace spring forth from the things I do and the people I interact with on a daily basis.  May I seek to find goodness, explore potential for happiness (yes, happiness), and open my heart to the work that God has for me. 

Take some time to read through my posts from this year, and I think you will see that God has been working in my heart and spirit, calling me to go deeper in my relationship with Him.  The days ahead will not be easy.  As I wrote back in May, it’s going to take some heart work, but I am ready.  In every moment and in every season, may my heart prepare Him room.  He is coming, and He is coming soon.  Let earth receive her King!          

Keep Watch and Pray (Advent 2016)

Nine months ago, my family said good-bye to a dear, loved one.  Why do I choose to bring this into the light just days before Christmas?  Well, it only seems fitting that as we celebrate Christmas, our loved one might not be forgotten, but there’s something else too— this concept of waiting.  We have just walked through four Sundays of Advent— a time in which the Church enters into a time of waiting, expectation, and anticipation leading up to the time of Christ’s birth. 

On Good Friday morning, March 25, 2016, our loved one received the greatest reward; he was welcomed into the Presence of God, and we celebrated his home-going.  Jesus had come for Him, and some day, He will come for each one of us as well.  How will we spend our time in waiting and anticipation?  How will we honor Him as we await His return? 

Let me take you back to those days of waiting last Spring, and may these experiences bring a deeper meaning to the celebration of Advent and Christmas.  Christ is coming, and He is coming soon!…

The hours were long as we sat at the bedside.  It had been a meaningful time spent with family, but even so, we were all gathered for one purpose.  A dear one in our midst was nearing his final days on earth.  It had been a journey of six years as we walked through the changes that came with failing health and altered circumstances.  It had all been leading up to these moments… waiting for the end.

Most of the time, there were several of us gathered around, and it was comforting.  In the times when I thought of keeping vigil alone, however, I felt a strange kind of anxiety.   There was something about sitting there in silence that made me feel uncomfortable… as if I should say something, do something, anything… So I only visited when there were others around… until one sacred Sunday afternoon.

I tiptoed into the bedroom to the sounds of labored breathing and an almost reverent silence.  Instantly, my eyes filled with tears.  These were the peaceful moments I had been missing up until that point… moments when I could have been reveling in the joyous solitude of the all-too-soon home-going of our loved one.  I was almost afraid to break the silence, for it was so beautiful.

But then I opened my hymnbook and began to sing… “Praise to the Lord,” “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” “God is so Good,” “How Great Thou art,” Great is Thy Faithfulness.”  At times, tears cascaded down my face, but I sang on… my quiet songs blending with his straining breath.

Moments later, family members began to stream into the room and we were no longer alone in our worship vigil; the moment was broken, but the waiting and watching continued.  We talked quietly around our loved one, and I wondered what he must be feeling in that moment.  Was it hard for him to breathe?  Was he in pain?  Did he know he would soon leave this world?  What could I do to help ease his pain and fears in those final hours?  But there were no answers.

As the days passed and we reached Maundy Thursday, I listened intently as our pastor shared a message about Jesus and His disciples praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Jesus asked His disciples to “keep watch” with Him as His soul was overwhelmed with “sorrow to the point of death.”  He expressed his emotions to the disciples at that point, but I don’t think they truly grasped what would soon take place.  After all, He had told them of his death and resurrection three times already, and still they didn’t seem to understand.  In that last evening in the Garden, Jesus knew He would soon suffer and die for the many sins of this world.  The load He carried must have felt unbearable, and in those final hours, he asked His friends to keep watch with Him… only they succumbed to sleep.

The Pastor asked us in all honesty if we would have committed to keeping watch with Jesus.  He admitted that he would have quickly said “yes,” that he would have lasted with Jesus until the bitter end.  But he knew that in all actuality, he would have succumbed to slumber just like the disciples had done.

As I listened to my pastor’s humble confession, my thoughts shifted to the ongoing vigil at my loved one’s bedside.  Those hours of watching and waiting had been difficult, and I knew there were others, like myself, who had struggled to remain there in the long hours.  We could see his struggle for breath, and although we were emotionally entwined in this process, we couldn’t physically identify with Him.  We could only watch and pray that the final hours would be blessedly brief and free of pain and suffering.

Good Friday morning, I awoke well before dawn.  I had committed to pray for an hour to contribute to our church’s 84-hour prayer vigil leading up to Easter Sunday morning.  Over the years, I have always held Good Friday morning sacred.  I can recall many Good Friday mornings, sitting beside my father in a church pew as we prayed together in the moments before sunrise.  I wanted to keep that tradition, so with coffee in hand, I prayed and read Scripture until sunrise.

In the quiet of my sunroom/ office, the phone rang just as the sun broke over the horizon.  Our loved one had passed away and was now with Jesus.  The tears came instantly, but not merely in grief; these were tears of bittersweet joy.  It was truly a good, Good Friday.  He was now home with His Savior who had sacrificed everything in order that my loved one might have eternal life.  The long night of sorrow had come to an end, and with the dawn came the promise of new life.


When Fruit isn’t so Sweet…

You might feel as if I overanalyze it a bit, but I’ll be honest and admit that I have a bit of a systematic process to enjoying Christmas dinner.  I eat the hot, more savory items first, gradually making my way over to the sweeter, more dessert-like treats.  But even when enjoying fruit or chocolate, for example, there is a process.  I’m sure many of you have learned this lesson right along with me; if you eat orange or other citrus after something extremely sugary, the sour tang of the fruit will be far more pronounced.  You may pucker your lips, your eyes might water, and it will be pretty uncomfortable for a few moments.  But if you indulge in the chocolate after the citrus, the affect is the opposite.  The sweetness is prominent and the flavor is rich.

Sweetness that follows the sour fruit— it doesn’t just pertain to food.  Sometimes our lives have moments of acute bitterness.  Circumstances can leave a bitter taste in our mouths, and we wonder when we will experience the sweetness of life again.  Such circumstances may include the loss of a loved one, a dream that seems so far off in the realm of possibility, the loss of a job, long-term pain, the drain of medical bills, ongoing hospital visits, relationship strain, and the list could go on and on.  Such circumstances can quite easily rob us of joy, or as my friends and I call it: “bump into our happy.”  What do we do when the world is dark all around us and the bitterness of the lemon is all too prominent on our taste buds?

Well, as the familiar phrase states, “When life gives you lemons, made lemonade.”  Well, before I say anything about this all-too-familiar phrase, let me tell you about a better tactic.  It still involves fruit, but a more long-lasting Fruit of the Spirit.

In the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, our pastor shared a nine-part sermon series on the fruit of the Spirit, outlined in Galatians 5.  Throughout the series, he made it clear that these traits, these fruits, can’t exist in our lives in our own strength.  It is the Holy Spirit who works within us to produce love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  We can work to strive toward these traits, but it is the Spirit Who shines through.  It isn’t always easy to love when there is a person in our lives who makes it difficult to show love in return.  It’s difficult to experience joy when circumstances alter our perspective.  It isn’t easy to experience peace when the world is a crazy-busy and sometimes scary place.

I could outline six more examples, but then you might be reading for a very long time.  My point is that in our own power, exemplifying the Fruit of the Spirit is no easy task.  But sometimes, with a little prayer and an optimistic outlook, it can be easier than you think.

I was enduring a long day of testing at the Mayo Clinic recently.  I had already been in to see the doctor, and although the news wasn’t great, there was hope that the addition of another medication could help in the long-term.  I was feeling pretty discouraged, but having the most stressful of the appointments behind me, I was feeling a bit more relaxed.  That’s when they called me in for the visual fields exam.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with how a visual fields test works, I’ll try to explain.  Basically you put your chin on a padded rest and look straight ahead into a shell-like contraption.  The clinic personnel then takes a tiny light and randomly clicks it on at various places all over the surface of the contraption.  My job is to take the beeper they have placed in my hand and ring in every time I see the light appear.  This basically shows the range of my vision— the peripheral, up on top, and below.  The test itself is not very hard, but there is the unexpected nature of not knowing when the light will appear.

The woman administering the test greeted me warmly and asked if I was having a good day.  I responded sarcastically, “Oh, it’s great.  I just love spending time here!”

She laughed.  “I enjoy seeing you here,” she said.  “But I know what you mean.  I guess I would rather you didn’t have to be here either.”

We joked around a bit more as I prepared for the first test.  I had worked with this woman before, and we had a good connection.  I always remember her name because I am reminded of several individuals in my life that share that same name.  I was so glad we were able to inject some humor into an otherwise stressful situation, especially as we moved on to the second phase of the exam.

This time, I sat in a wheeled office chair, facing a black square on the wall.  In the middle of the square is a white dot.  Once I have found that central dot, I must focus my eye there.  Then inch by inch, a long-handled stick with a white ball at the end is extended downward from the top or over from the edges.  I cannot turn my head or shift my eyes to try to see the ball at the end of the stick, but I am required to say something when the ball comes into my line of sight.

I never know what to say during the test.  Often, I mumble some combination of “Yup” or “beep” when I see the ball appear, but that day it just didn’t seem good enough.  I wasn’t happy with my results from my visit with the doctor, and I really didn’t want to be there.  Yet, the woman administering the test was kind as always and had a ready smile.  She made it more bearable to be in that room, and I was grateful for her cheerfulness.  I knew I couldn’t change my circumstances, but with God’s help, I could change my attitude.

When I saw the ball come into my line of vision, I didn’t even think before I blurted out “love!”

The woman laughed.  “Okay,” she said.  “What else have you got?”

When I saw the ball again, I said with a smile, “joy.”

“Okay,” she said.  “And?”

“Peace,” I responded at the appropriate time, just seconds later.

“Oh, this is good,” she said.  “You’re such a good sport.”

“Patience,” I said next.

She laughed outright at this.

By the time she had extended the stick forward eight times, I managed to list all but one of the fruits of the Spirit.  It was great to have the test complete, but I was kind of disappointed that I couldn’t say the last one.

So I told her this, and she reached for the stick again.   “All right; a bonus one then!”

“Self-control!” I exclaimed moments later.

“Okay,” she said, laughing again.  “Why couldn’t you be my last appointment of the day?  It would be so awesome to leave for the day after seeing you here.  Thanks for having such a good attitude about all of this.”

I thanked her and gathered my things to head back to the waiting room.  My day was far from over, and she had a long day ahead of her as well.  But somehow I knew we were both better off for the moments we had just spent together.

“Hey,” she said when I was halfway out the door.  “What were those words from… the ones you said during the test?”

“The fruit of the Spirit,” I said with a genuine smile then, hoping she could sense the peace I now felt working through my troubled heart.

“It was perfect,” she said quietly.   “Thank you.”And with that, I went back to waiting.  I still had a lot of unanswered questions, but my heart was a bit lighter.  I didn’t want to spend my Monday morning at the clinic, but I couldn’t let my circumstances alter my perspective.  Deep down, I knew the Lord was working that morning.  Maybe I wasn’t going to receive miraculous healing form the symptoms that had brought me to the clinic, but perhaps I was there to radiate a small taste of the Holy Spirit’s presence.

I wasn’t happy, but I was content with where the Lord had placed me that day.  It was only in His strength that I could move forward in sharing His love with others.  When the fruit I had been given didn’t taste so sweet, I found a better way to partake of the bitterness.  It didn’t make the difficulty of the circumstances disappear, but I was better equipped to walk the road set before me.  And hopefully, I was able to share a morsel of His love with a certain visual fields technician.  Isn’t that what it’s all about after all— sharing our fruit with others?

I pray this can be true of all of us!  May we bear fruit that lasts as we further the Kingdom!