This year is about to end. It seems to have flown by so quickly! As I get older, the months appear to lose time on me…the days between New Years' feel like they get shorter. Once again, another year is ending…and a new one will soon be dawning.
I reflect on all that this year has given me. As with any year, there has been a mixture of sorrow and joy. Days of great sadness and loss, as well as days of great pleasure and happiness. 2014 has been a year of changes for me - new beginnings, new friends, new experiences. But, through all of the seasons of life that have come my way this year, I can say without question that one thing has been constant. One thought has carried me through the sad days and the happy days: God is always good. Even in the moments when His goodness seemed distant or His love a bit removed, He has always proved that such thoughts are only my faulty perception. He is always good. I am always loved! Loved by the Sovereign God Himself because He chose to offer me life and hope. There is always a glimpse of Grace, even in the hardest times. There is always a reason to be thankful and to live - because of the One who makes it all possible.
I have learned the gift of true friendship: that it's not about the closeness between you in terms of miles but the closeness between you in heart. That the path from your heart to your friend's is never far…even if you live half a world away from one another! The important things in life like faith and family can bind you together in amazing ways no matter how long you've journeyed alongside each other.
Most of all, I've learned that a life can be made beautiful when God opens the heart to Grace. When someone is willing to let Him have the broken pieces of their heart, He will turn those shattered remnants into a beautiful whole, an example to others of the healing He brings. He was born to raise me to new life, to give me the opportunity to thank, to love, to see Him for Who He is! Every year is another chance for me to see His gifts, His creation, His evidences of love in new and fresh ways. When I am looking, waiting in expectancy, for His next offering of Grace, the days hold new meaning. The weeks hold excitement and hope. The year is something to look forward to…because of Who is planning it out. There is always good in store. Somehow, I think God must smile to think of the beautiful things He is just waiting to reveal to me in the coming year. And I smile too. I smile because He is good. And I am loved. And the year ahead will, I know, drive these truths even deeper into the core of my heart.
For many years, news correspondent Barbara Walters has done a special year-end program called "The Ten Most Fascinating People," which highlights interesting individuals from that particular year. Athletes, politicians, religious leaders, actors, and actresses all make their appearances on her special show. It is always a matter of great interest to many to see who she will choose to profile each time.
During the year, I began to think about some of the people I have known and heard about who were fascinating to me but for reasons different than Barbara Walters' choices. In this blog post, I will highlight some of the courageous and inspirational people whose stories have especially touched me during the year. It is my way of honoring and recognizing the brave and good-hearted among us who help to make this world a better place. As 2014 has come to a close, I want to introduce my Inspiration Awards.
Without further ado, here are my winners:
Most Inspirational Service Member Award
Marine Cpl. William "Kyle" Carpenter is my Most Inspirational Service Member for obvious reasons. In November of 2010, while guarding a roof top in Afghanistan, Kyle and another Marine suddenly started taking enemy fire. When a hand grenade was thrown their direction, he jumped on top of it and took the blow, thus shielding his fellow warrior from the brunt of the blast. Miraculously, both Marines survived the incident, although with series injuries. This past summer, Kyle was invited to the White House where he was presented with the our nation's highest award for military valor: the Medal of Honor. Since then, he has used his platform and newly-found national attention to draw awareness to veterans' issues and to share his remarkable story of faith and courage with others. Always lighting up a room with his wonderful smile and sense of humor, Kyle embraces the second chance at life that God has given him and desires to live it to the fullest. He is now in his second year of college at the University of South Carolina. For his bravery and, more importantly, his character and class, Kyle is more than deserving of being the first recipient of the Most Inspirational Service Member Award. God bless you, Kyle, and thank you for your service to our country.
My choice for the Courage Award was very easy: my friend, Katie Elliot. Katie has been bravely fighting a long battle with cancer for the past few years. Just a teenager, she has had a hard road to travel but has met her health challenges with grace and dignity that is way beyond her years. Her positive attitude, faith in God, and beautiful smile have inspired many people along the way, even drawing the attention and support of Seattle Seahawks' quarterback, Russell Wilson, who visited her on one of his weekly trips to the cancer ward of Seattle Children's Hospital. Katie has endured the countless hours of treatment, numerous surgeries, and flights from Alaska to Seattle with great strength and courage. For this reason, she is my first recipient of the Courage Award. We all love you, Katie! Keep flashing that wonderful smile, and keep living each day to its fullest. Thank you for inspiring so many people.
Ernie Casper has only recently become a friend of mine, but he was the clear choice for my Perseverance Award. Eight years ago, Ernie - a young husband and father of two - suffered a debilitating stroke that took away his ability to walk, talk, and really do anything for himself. Through years of therapy and, most importantly, God's healing touch, Ernie has now regained his speech and is actually physically in better shape than he ever was before the stroke. He has become an avid runner and martial arts athlete as well as a painter and photographer. He has told me that he never dreamed he would ever do any of these things, let alone after a stroke. Ernie is one of the happiest and most outgoing people I know, exuding joy and humor to anyone who knows him. He has persevered through his health challenges and embraces life and all it has to offer. More than that, Ernie is a devout Christian who believes that God has made him a better person as a result of all he has gone through. For his beautiful spirit and courageous attitude, Ernie is my 2014 recipient of the Perseverance Award. Thank you, Ernie for bringing so much hope and joy to the world. I am blessed to know you.
Sportsman of the Year Award
I first heard about a young quarterback named Derek Carr about a year ago. While playing for Fresno State University, Derek had set 27 college football records and was in his senior season when I began to watch his games. The more I learned about this young man, the more I liked him. Just before his senior season, Derek's wife had given birth to a little son they named Dallas. Dallas, however, had to overcome some major health issues at birth and almost died along the way. God miraculously pulled little Dallas through, and he is now a healthy one-year-old. Earlier this spring, Derek was drafted by the Oakland Raiders and became their starting quarterback at the start of this season - his rookie year. Over the last several months, I have been blessed to get to know Derek personally and continue to be impressed with his character and leadership skills. After losing only one game his senior season, Derek has only won three games since entering the NFL. But, in victory or defeat, he has shown a maturity and steadiness that is way beyond his twenty-three years. In a sport that has recently been plagued by scandal and crime, he has become an example to many of what a true man of character should be. He has continued to stand on the firm foundation of his faith in God and love of family, which has given him perspective during this difficult season. Because of this, Derek Carr is my 2014 Sportsman of the Year. Thank you, Derek, for putting God first in all you do and for showing such character in the face of adversity. It is my honor to name you my first recipient of this award.
Team of the Year Award
This award was a tie, so there are two Team of the Year awards being given out this year:
The San Francisco Giants are not receiving this award because they are my favorite MLB team but because of the way they baffled many in winning this year's World Series title - their third in five years! Mid-summer, with their division status dropping and their win percentage going down, many thought the Giants' chances of getting to the post season were all but over. To the surprise of most, they rallied just enough to get themselves a wild card spot and a chance to make the playoffs. As they seemingly found another level of play that was missing earlier in the year, their team spirit, selfless play, and commitment to one another became evident to all who were watching their miraculous run to another championship. This team never ceases to amaze me the way that they stick together through adversity, praise each other when a fellow teammate does something well and, most importantly, put their families and their faith above everything. The strong character of their players and the culture of success they have built together is a wonderful example. In an age where selfishness plagues most sports, the Giants are re-defining what it means to be a close team - a team dedicated to the success of everyone involved, not just themselves. Thank you, Giants, for setting the bar high - on the field and in life.
The Chinooks are my second recipient of this award. This summer, I had the opportunity to observe first-hand what it looks like when a team comes together and plays for a higher purpose than just a sport. These college players from around the country began their season hardly knowing one another and ended up as best friends. The beginning of the season wasn't easy for them - they lost most of their first few games - but they stuck together and kept believing that things would turn around. They ended on a good note, winning nine of their last eleven games. Most importantly, these players were a wonderful example on the field of good character and selfless play, continuing to distinguish themselves as the "good guys." By putting faith in God at the center of their aspirations, these players built a solid reputation in the community and the Alaska Baseball League. I loved watching you play, Chinooks, and am proud to call myself one of your fans! Keep making a difference in the world through your baseball playing and your example to those around you!
I appreciate both of these teams and how they displayed the right way to play the game - in sports and in life. It is my pleasure to present the Giants and the Chinooks with my 2014 Team of the Year Award!
Singer of the Year
Jason Gray. I just can't say enough about this amazing singer's faith and the inspiration he has been to so many people, including me. Just over a year ago, I was introduced to the beautiful voice and music of this guy from Minnesota and was even more touched by the story behind his moving lyrics. Jason has overcome childhood abuse and a subsequent speech impediment and has embraced the opportunity to share a message of hope to a hurting world: God is always good - even in the midst of the pain of life - and we are always loved. No matter what we go through, hope is always a reality because of the One who offers it to us. Especially for those who are walking a dark road, Jason's music soothes and comforts the soul. I am pleased to award him with the 2014 Singer of the Year Award. Thank you, Jason, for allowing God to use you and redeem the painful chapters of your life so that you can give life to others.
Movie of the Year
I first went to see this movie last spring and was blown away by its courageous message. It is the story of a young man who dares to stand up to the false teaching of his college professor and who refuses to believe that there isn't a God. It is a wonderful inspiration to anybody who watches it and is a reminder of the importance of taking a stand for what you believe. For this reason, I select "God's Not Dead" as my 2014 Movie of the Year.
Book of the Year
After seeing this incredible story on a national TV show, a relative of mine first told me about this woman. When I saw her book on the shelves of a local bookstore, I knew I had to get it. I wasn't prepared, however, to be so profoundly moved by what I read in those pages. It wasn't a hard decision for me to know what book I would choose for my 2014 Book of the Year. Thank you, Antoinette Tuff, for sharing your story and inspiring so many people because of it!
Song of the Year
Jason Gray's song "Laugh Out Loud" came to be a sort of personal anthem for me this year. In the various seasons of my life, I kept coming back to the life-giving words of this catchy little song. It always reminded me to be thankful for what matters in life and to laugh and smile…even when life makes it hard to do so. God will always take your hand and give you the grace to go "whistling through the dark" when you give the pieces of your broken heart over to Him. Thanks, Jason, for penning what, in my estimation, is the 2014 Song of the Year!
I hope you enjoyed my 2014 Inspiration Awards. I can't wait to begin choosing the 2015 nominees and winners and announcing them to you at the end of next year! It is my prayer that the example of these amazing people will inspire all of us to live better lives.
My mom and I were doing a Greek word-root search online, looking for the original meaning of the words "grace" and "joy." As we clicked on links and typed in Bible verses, it dawned on me that life is a perpetual quest for grace-infused joy. Every person that calls this earth home is on a personal search for meaning - for original intent. Like us looking for words. Hidden in every soul is a deep yearning to know our created purpose - ultimately, to know the Creator. To know Him.
So each word kept leading back to Him - chara (joy) meaning "grace recognized;" charis (grace) meaning "favor." It all is coming clear to me now: I receive life-giving joy when I recognize and acknowledge God's favor. Apart from Him, my happiness and joy is fake and artificial. Without Him, trying to find that original meaning is like typing a Chinese word into the Greek search and hoping for an accurate result. It leaves us coming up empty - it leads us to a false reality. We still seek that purpose but have no way of finding it. We have only ourselves to look to.
As I applied this chara-joy, this "grace recognized," to the living truth found in God's Word, it gave a new light to scripture: when the wise men were rejoicing "with exceeding great joy" (Matt. 2:10) upon finding the dwelling place of the Son of God, they were not merely happy that the Star had gotten them there, that they made the long journey safely. No, they were recognizing God's favor, His grace on both their own lives and the lives of those whom this Messiah-King would deliver! This gives a whole new twist on the story!
And here it is that I find what this search is all about: it is about mankind longing for a Savior, aching to be told that they belong, they they are loved and accepted…that they have been chosen and called. Until we have been effectually found by the One who is searching for us, our lives have no direction and, consequently, no joy. We have no grace to recognize, no favor to appreciate. Therefore, life becomes no miracle - no discovery of endless hope. It is mere survival. Dark-roaming in perpetuity.
Oh how thankful I am to have been captured by this amazing grace! That I even have such a favor to acknowledge is a miracle in itself! If I can only remember to keep my eyes open for his demonstrations of such grace - then, I will have joy. Then I will have reason to be happy - not for my sake, but for His. Because isn't this grace-love completed when I return back to Him what is given? To be thankful in an otherwise thankless world? Chara-joy. "Grace recognized." Favor. Life.
" This night a battle has been waged and won for you. Love had to get you. The Love that has been coming for you since the beginning - He slays dragons for you. This is the truest love story of history, and it's His Story, and it's for you. All the other fairy-tale stories only echo your yearning for this truest, realest one - this one that has its beginning before the beginning of time. This night, you on this visited planet, your rescue is here. You can breathe. Your God extends now on straw. He lays Himself down in your mire. He unfolds Himself in the stench you want to hide, in that mess that is your impossible, in the mucked straw you don't want anyone to know. Rejected at the inn, holy God comes in small to where you feel rejected and small. God is with you now. Wherever you are - in a soundless cry or hidden brokenness or in your ache - God always wants to be with you. You are not ever left alone in this. We are never left alone in this; God is with us. This is Love you can't comprehend. You can only feel and touch this kind. There, in the place where you feel rejected, you can be touched by God."
I first saw this movie while traveling a couple of years ago. The story of an elderly man who goes out of his way to bring the spirit of Christmas to others is truly touching. It should make us all want to slow down and take more time to bring the holiday cheer and love to those around us. For this reason, "Christmas Angel" has become one of my Christmas movie favorites!
Several years ago, I wrote this poem in honor of those who spend Christmas away from loved ones due to military deployment. Even though the miles separate them from us, they are still celebrating Christmas in their hearts with us.
To all the brave service members who will be coming home to spend the holidays with loved ones, we welcome you back and thank you for your sacrifices and your service! To those who will spend it away from family and friends, stay safe and may God bless you. Merry Christmas to you from across the miles!
This song expresses the meaningful blessings of Christmas - the little things like candles burning and visits with old friends - that make this season special. May they be yours today and throughout this holiday time of year.
I listen and reflect as the pastor's message unfolds. He speaks of stables and shepherds, of angels announcing the arrival of the Messiah, of the good news of peace and great joy coming to a lost and despairing world.
As I read the Christmas story once again, it all becomes clear: God enters the places no one wants to go and chooses those whom the world deems lowly as the recipients of His peace and love. He was born in a stable - the last place anyone would choose for a baby to be born, certainly not the birthplace for the King of Kings. His arrival was told to a group of outcast, dirty shepherds - not the first people most in society would think of to be told the glorious news of the Savior's coming. God is not afraid of the humble and unlikely places. He often goes there of His own volition and brings His good news to the unloveable. I look back at my own life and count the many times when He has entered, somewhat unannounced, and brought hope and light into my dark and dirty places. Those areas of my soul where few would choose to come. Those places where even I have hesitated to enter. There have been moments when I have thought, "This pain is too deep; this shame is too great for Him to forgive. Why would he want to come into the hidden hurt, to step in and embrace my darkness as His own?" Those stable places, those tucked away and outcast caverns of the human heart, these are the ones He comes to. Sometimes He arrives a bit unwelcome. But He comes. He comes because He wants to. He comes because this is what his lowly birth was meant for: to identify with "the least of these." Many years later, He would pray,"I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children." (Luke 10:21). He would then say to His followers,"…Many prophets and kings have wanted to see what you see but did not see it…" (Luke 10:24).
At the time of His birth, the world had no room for Him. The inn was full. So, also, were the hardened hearts of those He was born to save. Little did Bethlehem know that night that the Sovereign Lord was in its midst! Shepherds heard the great news. They tried to wake up the town and share the glad tidings…but none took heed and came to see Him. Only "the least of these" accepted the message and took it to heart. The humble are the ones to whom the kingdom is entrusted.
Truly, those who will discover His Christmas miracle will find it in the least likely of all places. The humble places. Go to the stable or the fields where stinking sheep abide, and there, His news of good will is found. There, in the dark and cold places, He comes in peace.
"Night has fallen; the clear, bright stars are sparkling in the cold air; noisy, strident voices rise to my car from the city, voices of the revelers of this world who celebrate with merry-making…Around me in their rooms my companions are asleep, and I am still wakeful, thinking of the mystery of Bethlehem. Come, come, Jesus, I await you…Jesus, I am here waiting for your coming. Wicked men have driven you out, and the wind is like ice. I am a poor man, but I will warm you as well as I can. At least be pleased that I wish to welcome you warmly, to love and sacrifice myself for you."
"The birth of the child into the darkness of the world made possible not just a new way of understanding life but a new way of living it."
So said Frederick Beuchner, and I concur wholeheartedly. The arrival of the Messiah into our world not only brought a reign of peace upon the world such as had never occurred before in history but, perhaps more importantly, brought into existence a plan of eternal hope without which mankind would have been lost forever. By Christ coming to earth, our fallen race was granted redemption.
The first time I watched this movie was when some friends invited me over to see it at their house. My year had been anything but full of hope and health - my dad had been fighting a life-threatening condition and had only recently gotten out of the hospital, and some dear friends were deployed that holiday season with the military. My emotions were all over the place, and I needed some inspiration and Christmas hope in the worst way. Then, I saw "The Christmas Card" - a lovely story of how a small act of kindness, a Christmas card, brought a young soldier to a small town in California, where his life was changed forever. Having written many Christmas cards to deployed service members over the years, I can say that the story told in this movie is exactly like real life: a small thank-you to our military members goes a long way…sometimes further than we ever expect or dream!
" The Light never comes how you expect it. It comes as the unlikely and unexpected - straight into Bethlehem unlikely and the feed trough hopeless, and Christmas whispers there is always hope. It doesn't matter how dark the dark is; a light can still dawn. It doesn't matter if the world whispers, 'There's not a hint that help will come from elsewhere,' telling us that nothing will ever improve, get better, or change. God favors the darkest places so you can see His light the brightest. And once the light of Christ shatters your dark, shadows forever flee your shadowlands. There's no going back and living in the dark; you live in the impenetrable, safe Light of light, and Christmas never ends for you…True, you cannot light Christmas - because it's Christmas that lights you."
Come, Emmanuel, and free our captive hearts that mourn. Bring us Your wisdom, and show us the path of truth so that we may walk in Your ways.
"O Come thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And Death's dark shadows put to flight."
You are the Desire of Nations. Come, and bind us to Yourself. Fill the earth with Your peace, and give us hope. Thus may we rejoice in this the season of Your redeeming. The season of Your choosing. The season of Your holy birth.
"Miracles always begin understated. They begin, and the earth doesn't shake and trumpets don't sound. Miracles begin with the plainsong of a promise - and sometimes not even fully believed. This is always the best place for miracles: God meets us right where we don't believe. When our believing runs out, God's loving runs on…The miracle always is that God is gracious, that grace carries us and breathes life into the dead and impossible places, that grace - a thousand graces - explodes the doubting silence in our hearts."
I'm getting excited for Christmas!! Snow-covered rooftops and beautiful lights add a lovely atmosphere to the most meaningful holiday of the year. The day we all love is almost here. As the following song says,"Christmas is coming! Will you be there?"
This beautiful story of how a Marine surprised his family for Christmas will bring a smile to your face and a tear to your eye. This is my Christmas moment of the week for obvious reasons! God bless all those who serve and defend our country!
"This is the message of Christmas. The message of Christmas is not that we can make peace. Or that we can make love, make light, make gifts, or make this world save itself. The message of Christmas is that this world's a mess and we can never save ourselves and we need a Messiah. For unto us a Child is born. "
For this week's Christmas movie recommendation, I suggest "The Christmas Hope." It is a beautiful story of people who learn to overcome their own pain and step into the pain of others. Through the miracle of Christmas, they are able to come together and encourage one another to love and live again in spite of the tragedy of their past. It is absolutely wonderful and full of hope and a good ending. Here is the trailer for it:
This past weekend, snow fell for the first time. It had been much-anticipated and longed for. For many weeks, the cold and frosty earth had waited for its winter coat. And I had waited for it, too. The trees that had no leaves, the ground that was life-less looking and frozen hard - it all seemed so bare, so lacking in beauty. But then, the white flakes came gently falling down and covered everything in sight and turned a drab outdoors into a winter wonderland.
As I watched it come softly down, I thought of how much more its Creator had been anticipated, too: hundreds of years had humanity clung to the promise of a Messiah-King who would deliver them. They pictured a mighty conqueror arriving in splendor and royal glory. But how surprised they were when He came softly, quietly into the fallen world. Born in a stable, His arrival was announced to the humblest of society - shepherds who had the royal news revealed to them by the heavenly host of angels. In the lowliest of places, the King of Kings made His entrance, thus identifying Himself with the shamed, the outcast, the downtrodden. Most were not aware of His coming even though they had looked for Him for centuries. Christ comes much the same way into the human heart: tenderly and quietly identifying with the weakness and shame that it carries deep inside. He chooses to reveal Himself to those whose souls are open to welcome Him, no matter how lowly they may be.
This Christmas season, as is the case throughout history, many seek Him. But He will only be seen by those who know where to look for Him, in the least expected. Long-awaited, much-anticipated, He has come and, through His arrival, changed the eternal destiny of mankind. But we shall only discover the true meaning of His birth when we realize that His ultimate victory came not as an earthly conquerer like many thought but as the One who clothes our bare and cold hearts in His purity - the dark sins of our past being forever covered like the snow upon the hard, frozen ground.
The flakes continue to gently fall. So, too, does His grace and love continue to fall on the lost souls of those He purposed to redeem.
December has begun! With it comes a countdown of sorts - a deep anticipation of all things Christmas, of all things hopeful and full of light. With it comes a uniting of hearts in peaceful celebration all over the world. I love Christmas. Not just for the beautiful decorations and the lovely music but for the One who is remembered by it - the One who humbled Himself and came to our broken earth to accomplish a redemptive plan that still lives today. All through this month, I will be sharing here my thoughts and favorite things about Christmas. I can hardly wait to give you a glimpse into my favorite Christmas memories and traditions, and I hope that you will share yours with me, too.
To start things off, here is one of my favorite Christmas carols, "Angels We Have Heard On High" as performed by one of my favorite groups, The Piano Guys.