Names of God for Every Day in the New Year

I gave up making new year’s resolutions years ago. Why? Because I don’t keep them. And when I don’t keep them, I feel like a failure. Rather than doing what I can, I give up entirely. What’s healthy or helpful about that?

However, I still see the new year as a time to make a fresh start. To try new things. To take bold steps into things God has been speaking to me about. Although I don’t make resolutions, I do set aside time at the beginning of each new year to talk to God about where I’ve been, where I’m going, and what He’s up to in my life. It’s a sweet time of reflection about the past and anticipation of what’s to come.

After God and I have had our time together, I jot down a few goals, things I want to try, prayer focuses, etc. But rather than “resolving” to do them–and setting myself up for failure–I hold them loosely. I follow the advice of my friend Jan Johnson who is fond of saying “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.”

This year a couple of things are bubbling up. God and I will have our official new year’s talk tomorrow, but I already know one thing He’s inviting me into: more worship. A couple of weeks ago somebody at church commented that God just loves to hear His name. That thought has stuck with me.

Since then, I remembered a handout I’d been given at a National Day of Prayer gathering back in May: 365 Names, Titles, and Attributes of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If God loves to hear His name—and I’m sure He does—then bonanza! God has enough names that I can use a different one every day of the new year!

I picked one this morning. “Bright Morning Star.” I didn’t know what that meant. So I looked it up in Scripture. It comes from Revelation 22:16 where Jesus declares that He is “the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” That still didn’t help me much. My worship effort seemed to be getting off to a shaky start.

But then I decided to google it. And zow! What I learned! The “morning star” is the celestial object (most likely Venus) that shines brightest in the night sky.  It rises in the eastern sky just before dawn. It is a sure sign that night is almost over and the sun will soon shine again.

It was still dark this morning when I learned this. I went to the window and peered into the frigid darkness. I didn’t see the morning star. Nevertheless, I felt encouraged. In the blackest of darkness, hope is rising. Jesus, light of the world, came into this dark world. His light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it! (John 1:5).

I love Your name, Jesus! I love Your light. I love Your hope. I love Your beauty. You truly are the Bright Morning Star. Rise in our world, Jesus! Rise in my heart, too.

So there you go. Names of God. Anyone want to join me in this worship adventure?

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When Christmas Isn’t Merry

Okay, I’m going to stir things up I suppose, but I’ll just say it: I don’t think the first Christmas was “merry.”

I’m not trying to be a Scrooge. I’m just readjusting my expectations for what Christmas is “supposed” to be. I don’t think it has to be merry in order to be good.

Hollywood and Hallmark paint pictures of perfect houses, perfect families, perfect dinners, perfect friends, perfect decorating, perfect gifts, perfect happiness. But that’s not the reality many of us face.

Not everyone’s kids come home for the holidays. Not everyone has a spouse to share the day with. Some people are challenged by unemployment or debt. Others deal with scary medical situations. Some suffer chronic depression. Many have strained relationships. Some have painful memories of deaths that took place during this season. Others just aren’t great cooks or decorators or party planners. Many are just plain tired and overwhelmed.

As I’ve spent time with the stories of Advent this year, I’ve tried to imagine what that first Christmas was really like. My surprising conclusion is that while the first Christmas was altogether good, it was probably not merry.

Here are some things I imagine.

  • I imagine it was lonely. Sure, Mary and Joseph probably traveled in a caravan. And they went to a town that was bustling. But, as we all know, being surrounded by people is not the same as belonging. Mary, as far as anyone was concerned, was a loose woman. And Joseph’s integrity would have been questioned too. Were Mary’s and Joseph’s parents even supportive of them?
  • I imagine it was frightening. Teenaged Mary was about to give birth. What would it be like? There was no bed waiting for her at the Bethlehem Birthing Center. She had no birthing coach. Lots of women died of childbirth in those days. Would she come through this okay?
  • I imagine the political climate was tense. A first-ever worldwide census? What was Rome up to now? I imagine the talk on the street was nervous and edgy. Oppressed people fomenting for change . . . not exactly the silent, holy, all-is-calm, all-is-bright mood the Christmas songs portray.
  • And then there’s the bunch of coarse sheep herders showing up unannounced to see this new Baby. If that’s not stressful, tell me what is? Did Mary and Joseph think, “Oh, good, a party! Let’s bring out more cider and cookies and sing around the piano”? I doubt it. Mary and Joseph were hardly in a position to receive company, let alone a bunch of strangers.

If Mary and Joseph had expectations for what the birthday of the Son of God should have been like, well, I venture to say it may have turned out differently than they would have anticipated. It was deeply good. But it wasn’t easy. It wasn’t fun. And I doubt it was merry.

What made that first Christmas good? Light came into darkness. The Lord’s promises were fulfilled. Hope was born. A Savior came to rescue broken sinners. The humble were dignified and given holy purpose. Emmanuel came to experience life with us as one of us.

And those are the things that still make Christmas good. If you get to have gifts and food and parties and decorations, that’s wonderful! Enjoy them! Christmas is certainly a cause for celebration! But if you don’t, I hope you will remember that Christmas is good, even if it’s not always merry.

 

The Power of Persuasion

Do you think Mary prayed before breaking her shocking news to Joseph?

Yeah, I do, too.

I think she prayed like crazy. I mean, can you imagine how angry Joseph would have been? He must have felt betrayed, deceived, and incredibly hurt. And he had the power to have Mary stoned. At the very least, he could abandon her. No matter how you look at it, announcing the news to Joseph would have been a terrifying prospect.

We don’t have the details of how it went. We only know that after Joseph discovered that his fiancé was expecting someone else’s baby, he “resolved to divorce her quietly” (Matthew 1:19, ESV). As far as he was concerned, Mary would have to face this situation without him.

Did Mary protest? Did she try to explain what had happened? Did she justify herself and try to persuade Joseph to change his mind? We don’t know. Scripture doesn’t say. But I imagine that she prayed her heart out.

When Mary had agreed to “let it be to [her] according to [God’s] word,” (Luke 1:38), she’d essentially thrown herself on the altar. Anything might happen to her—the cost for obedience would be high—but Mary chose to be God’s servant. She had to believe that He would take care of her. So, when things looked really bad, I think Mary prayed. She probably realized that although she didn’t have the power to persuade him, God did.

Thankfully, Joseph didn’t follow through with his decision immediately. He decided to sleep on it. And while he did, God worked. Perhaps it was in answer to Mary’s prayers. At any rate, you know the story: An angel came to him in a dream, explained it all to him, and gave him the courage to take Mary as his wife. God persuaded Joseph, and Mary’s prayers were answered.

Obviously, I’m connecting a lot of dots in my imaginative retelling of the story. I can’t promise you that Mary prayed. And I don’t know whether she tried to persuade Joseph or not. But what I do know is this: my persuasive powers are nothing compared to the power of God. I may try to persuade others about what seems right and just to me—but I can’t change their hearts. God can, however. And when I pray, sometimes He actually does.

That Explains Everything

I like to have answers to everything. If I can get an explanation that makes sense, I can usually accept things, even things I don’t like. But if I don’t understand, it’s hard for me to get on with the program. It’s just the way I am wired. I need to understand.

At least I thought I did. But my Advent readings this week have caused me to reconsider.

“‘How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

Fair question, right? And Gabriel’s answer?

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. … For nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:34-37).

I tried to put myself in Mary’s shoes. What would I have thought if the angel gave me that response? I imagine my first reaction would be, Yeah, but how? That doesn’t exactly explain everything, you know!

But that wasn’t her response. Instead, she humbly accepted the angel’s reply. With no further questions, she submitted herself to the mysteries of God.

As I’ve been pondering this amazing scene over the past few days, God has quietly been reframing my thinking.

The answer to your “How?” questions is always the same, Child. I will do it by the power of My Spirit. Just as the Holy Spirit hovered over the formless, empty darkness to bring forth creation, and just as He hovered over Mary to make My Word become flesh, so He hovers over the concerns you pray about. You can’t begin to understand the details of how I work—but if you trust that My Spirit is working, that will be enough. It was enough for Mary. It can be enough for you, too.

I thought about the different situations and people I pray for. As I brought them before God this time, I pictured the Holy Spirit hovering over them. In my mind’s eye I saw Him hovering over certain cities, homes, people, projects, and problems. I realized that when He is involved, anything is possible. I don’t need to understand the mechanics of how He operates. It is enough to know that nothing will stop Him from carrying out God’s good purposes for me and the ones I pray for.

And actually, that does explain everything.

 

No Expiration Date on Prayer

I expect too much of Zechariah, I suppose. Even though sometimes I struggle with prayer fatigue, I don’t want to give him that same benefit. He was a priest, after all—shouldn’t he have led the way in faith? When we meet him in Luke 1, he is in the Holy Place offering incense to God—a once-in-a-lifetime honor for any priest. If God were ever going to show up, wouldn’t it be here, wouldn’t it be now?

Zechariah and Elizabeth had prayed for a son for years. They were righteous and blameless before God. So why was Zechariah so surprised when God broke in? When Gabriel announced the answer to Zechariah’s prayers, why was Zechariah skeptical?

The text doesn’t tell us why Zechariah struggled to believe, but I think I know. I think he assumed his prayers had passed their expiration date. He’d prayed for decades, yet month after month after month there was no answer. Elizabeth could not conceive. And now they were both old. There was no son to carry on his priestly line. Instead of joy and fullness, there were disappointment, shame, and myriad unanswered questions. Obviously (it seemed) God wasn’t going to answer. Those prayers must have passed their expiration date.

I’ve been there. I haven’t prayed nearly as long as Zechariah did—but repeated disappointment still has a way of wearing me down. There’s one prayer in particular that I’ve prayed for a few years now. I pray and pray and wait and wait, but nothing seems to be happening. Meanwhile, people around me give joyful accounts of how God is answering their prayers—the same kinds of prayers I’m praying without seeing results. I’m happy for them—truly I am—but I can’t help but wonder why God seems to respond to them but not to me.

The temptation for me, then, is to try to protect myself from being let down again. I don’t want to expect too much, only to be disappointed. So I pray with less passion, less faith, less anticipation. Eventually I just pray less—at least on that particular topic.

But you don’t have to read far in the Bible to see that God operates on a different time table than I do. Story after story shows Him answering prayers years, decades, sometimes even centuries after people expected He would. Some of those prayers will wait to be answered when Jesus returns. But just because the wait sometimes is long does not mean that the prayers have expired.

So, this Advent season, Zechariah encourages me to keep at it. God hears me. He is never late. My prayers have not expired. My job is to keep praying, watching, and hoping. When the time is right, He will come through.