” Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.”

2 Cor. 4:16-18

Chances are that sometime in the last week or so you talked with someone who is struggling to get through Christmas. There’s even a chance that this person is you or someone you love.

They just want to see December 26 on the calendar – and it’s not because they’re eager for the post-Christmas sales.

This time of year is really hard, even if everything is going right in your life.

And if nothing is going right in your life, it is perhaps the loneliest time of the year.

Everyone else seems to be happy, festive, decorated and celebrating.  The ads are full of peppy songs, perfect lives and piles of presents.

And then there’s reality.  The reality not based on Madison Avenue, holiday movies or social media humble brags.  

The challenging reality of life in this broken world, the one we all try to hide when we smile and say “fine” when people ask how we are – knowing that inside we are breaking, lonely, hurting and praying for strength.

Maybe it’s a broken relationship, a financial crisis, a health challenge, a year of struggles or an awful combination platter of everything.

Instead of dashing through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh, many are dealing with dashed hopes and painful memories of faded dreams while slipping on snow that froze into dangerous ice overnight.

If this is your life, I just want to encourage you to hold on and hang in there. While it may be darkest before the dawn, when you are the one walking through a dark forest of fear, pain and sorrow, the light still seems hours, if not days, away.

There is a website that shows an osprey nest in Maine. The ospreys have migrated to South America now, but during the summer, the nest is full of life, with little osprey chicks hatching and being nurtured and loved by their parents, learning to fly and ultimately, if all goes well, fledging the nest and then migrating to their winter homes in South America.

A couple years ago, there was a great horned owl who attacked the nest in the middle of the night, trying to take the chicks. Sadly, the owl was able to take two of the chicks over the course of several nights. Many of us viewers across the world stayed up watching, hoping, praying and waiting for daylight, when the last remaining chick would be safe from the owl’s nocturnal attacks.

After several nights of safety, many of us began to hope that we were in the clear and that the owl would stop coming by the nest. I found myself awake one night, watching the nest in the wee small hours. All of a sudden, the owl came into focus in the tree behind the nest. The mother osprey, Rachel, couldn’t see the owl. It was literally a real-life horror movie. I was hoping Rachel would turn and see the owl so she could protect her sweet chick from the owl. Like many other viewers, I even found myself talking to Rachel, warning her, though she could not hear me. In what felt like slow motion as I watched, the owl flew to the nest and without a sound the owl surprised Rachel and her nestling.

What came next is something I will never forget. Rachel, less than half the size of the owl and struggling to see in the midnight sky to fight against her attacker, somehow found the will and strength to fight off that owl and protect her precious chick. For several minutes, they tussled. At one point, Rachel chased the owl off the nest and then returned to her chick, only to have the owl make another attempt to take her. With seemingly all of her strength, Rachel fought that owl off, defending her chick and her nest.

The owl left that night – and did not return for the rest of the season. Her sweet chick Bailey was not able to fledge due to injuries, but she was rescued and rehabilitated by an Audubon facility in Florida, where she will live out her days with other rescued birds. You can see them here.

I remember thinking of this song as I watched the nest in the middle of the night that summer, willing and praying and hoping for morning to break and shed light on the nest, bringing safety and peace to Rachel, Steve and Bailey, the precious osprey family on Hog Island.

Rachel and Steve returned to their nest this past spring, and from beautiful speckled eggs hatched osprey chicks. While there was again sadness and loss in their nest this past season, there was also hope and life – and a beautiful osprey chick named Emmie (she was named by the nest watchers for the letters on her metal tracking band, EM) survived to fly, fledge and ultimately migrate, hopefully and prayerfully to return to Maine several years hence to brood her own nest of osprey chicks, choosing to believe in the possibilities rather than the pessimism of life.

It’s been a really hard year for our nation, our world and for towns, villages and cities everywhere and there are many people hurting, often in plain sight, visible to all of us, and yet their pain and anguish somehow invisible to nearly everyone. There appears to be a lot more pessimism in our world than possibilities.

From natural disasters to gun violence, financial uncertainties to layoffs, political and personal conflicts, people screaming at each other on television, online and in-person, nearly every one of us has been touched by some type of pain, challenge and even trauma in the last year.

“we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body.” 2 Cor. 4:8-10

Like the ospreys on the nest that summer morning in Maine, many of us are waiting for morning to break, for the darkness to be overwhelmed by the light, for the pain to stop and for the peace of dawn to return.

Even if we did not personally suffer tragedy in the last year, we have vicariously suffered as we followed along through the news, social media and word of mouth when we heard about children who were abruptly separated from their families at the border, as fires destroyed entire communities in California, hurricanes devastated the Carolinas, a package bomber brought chaos and fear to Texas, war and famine worsened in Yemen, reports were filed about climate change and irreversible damage done to ecosystems, as conflict raged between political parties that led to violence between citizens, a beloved and brave journalist murdered in Turkey – his assassination denied and those in power failing to address the murder, a contentious Supreme Court nomination, women begging to be believed when they confided that they too had been victims of assault and intimidation, continued reports about Russian collusion, data hacking, allegations of wrongdoing, lies and perjury at the highest levels, an ongoing independent counsel investigation, bizarre tweet wars, devastating shootings in Parkland, Florida, Santa Fe, Texas and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, multiple bombs mailed before the election, racial and religious intolerance, reports of resurgences of Nazism and the KKK, offensive and racist campaign ads in Georgia and Florida, anger bubbling up to the surface, hate, intimidation, threats, violence and depression.

In the words of Queen Elizabeth II, it’s been an annus horribilis. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by life in 2018, you’re not alone. And if you’re not feeling very “Fa-La-La,” that’s OK too.

The thing is, while there is great joy in Christmas and we have much to celebrate, the reality is that we’re still living in a dark world with all of the accompanying struggles and sorrows. And while Jesus came down to rescue us from sin and hell, we still do battle each day with the consequences of sin and face challenges and hardships – often some which seem unbearable and interminable.

Here’s the other thing, though. While we will still face anger, selfishness and ugliness in our days on this earth, we can choose how to respond and we can choose to respond the way God calls us to respond – the way that He responds.

Because while the opposite of love may be hate and indifference, the antidote to hate is love. That is literally the only thing that will neutralize hate. We cannot respond to hate with hate and we cannot respond to hate with indifference – these do not counter the effects of hate, they only multiply and exacerbate the consequences.

No, the only antidotes to evil, anger and selfishness are kindness, grace and generosity.

None of us can change the world by ourselves or in our own strength. But together, we can make many small differences in our own communities, at our jobs and in our own families. And those little differences will ripple out, over and over again, touching more lives, showing kindness to more people, reaching the world with God’s love and kindness.

God wants us to be His hands and feet here on earth and He has made us His ambassadors to this world. And God’s Word teaches us that when we are kind to others, we are being kind to God – which is pretty amazing to think that we can bless Almighty God simply by blessing others. (See Matt. 25:40)

And then there’s this verse, one of my favorites.

” Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Heb. 13:2

Imagine being kind to someone, thinking you were just being kind to a stranger at the market or on the street, when in fact, you were showing kindness to one of God’s angels!

As much as I understand theologically why there is suffering in the world, my heart and my head continue to struggle with why there is so much pain and heartache. While suffering can draw us closer to God when we choose to allow it do so, it can also bring great grief, struggle and challenge to life.

There are some things that I do know for sure, though. I know that God is with us and He will not let go of us. I know that He sees our sadness and He knows our sorrow. I know that He loves you and He loves me – and He loves all of us. I know that Jesus came down to earth to be our Savior but also to show us that He knew our trials and tribulations – that He was not a Savior who could not understand His creation, but One who wept when His followers wept. (John 11:35)

And while the tragedies and heartaches of 2018 have left many of us reeling, God has known since before time began that these things would happen. While we are surprised by both tragedy and triumph, God already knows what each day will bring and He is never surprised or caught off guard.

Today, if you’re feeling alone and you feel like the world is celebrating Christmas with trees that are perfectly trimmed, gorgeously wrapped gifts, flawless family photos on the covers of annual “Aren’t we Ah-mazing?!” Christmas cards and newsletters, platters of Instagram-worthy Christmas cookies and new cars with big bows while you are struggling with getting through the Christmas countdown, know that you are not alone.

Do something small that is kind for yourself. It doesn’t have to cost any money even – watch a show, listen to a song, admire God’s creation, draw a picture, read a book that you’ve always wanted to read, spend time talking with God, read His Word, find online animal cameras and watch animals enjoy winter (or summer in the southern hemisphere), treat yourself to a special Christmas treat or a hot mug of cocoa, tea or coffee.

And then, this will sound counter-intuitive, but try it.

Do something kind for someone else. Again – it doesn’t have to cost much or even anything at all. Compliment someone. Say hello to a stranger in line at the market or at work. Send a Christmas card to someone from your past or present. Donate – even if it’s just a handful of coins into a red kettle. Give to a cause important to you. Encourage someone else. Use your time, talents and treasure to bless another – find a cause or group to volunteer with today and in the year ahead.

Remind yourself what love feels like, what love looks like, what love sounds like.

Go to church. Sing Christmas carols. Light a candle at a Christmas Eve service.

If you are sad, if you have suffered loss this year, allow yourself to cry and even weep.

If you are lonely, acknowledge your solitude and endeavor to know another better before this time next year.

If you have suffered setbacks, give yourself the precious gifts of mercy and grace, honoring your human frailty and purposing to press on.

If someone has hurt you, seek to forgive the person, accepting the reality that they caused you pain while still protecting yourself – refusing to harbor a grudge that might separate you from God and man.

Like the ospreys in Maine, cling to the hope and the promise of brighter and better tomorrows. You will get through this, even if you literally have to take it one breath and one heartbeat at a time.

Because God came down to save you, so very many years ago. And He is walking with you through this trial, even today. He is walking right beside you, and He knows your thoughts, fears, wishes and worries. And when you stumble (and we all will stumble sometimes), know that He will catch you and help you back up, leading you in the way that you should go.

Today, let us each choose to be the love and the light of Christmas in our world.

And like candles passed one to another in a quiet darkened sanctuary, we will share God’s love with the world, one simple act of kindness at a time, bringing the beautiful light of hope and love to this world.

Let us take courage. Our Savior has overcome the world and He will help us through all of our days in this world as well, thanks be to God!

” These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

“Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960,1962,1963,1968,1971,1972,1973,1975,1977,1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.”

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