I don’t know about y’all—but I always have mixed feelings when the Holiday season is over. The lights, decorations, parties, the excuse to eat copious amounts of sugar, special time with family, it’s all so romantic. But like most romance novels, there’s a dark side: exhaustion from the busyness, tempers flare (maybe from all that sugar??), hard things creep in like sadness of a family member no longer with us, or maybe strained family relationships, drained budgets, the list goes on.
Christmas Day has come and gone, presents have been wrapped and unwrapped. We get our storage bins back out and tidy up our wreaths, lights, figurines, and ornaments. So on one hand, I’m happy to return to a routine, but I’m sorry to see the sparkle of December swept up and gone again.
Imagine with me that the family Christmas tree is now bare, but a few unopened presents remain. These particular packages are different—in each, an expectation, a dream, or desire. Maybe it’s a new house, a friendship that was supposed to be easy, a promotion we thought was a sure thing, a college acceptance letter that never came, a first grandchild, a husband for a lonely daughter; whatever it is, it either hasn’t happened yet, or it’s not going to happen.
All of these boxes are sitting under our tree, hoping to be unwrapped and able to curate a beautiful fantasy-life. The American dream of generations past tells us as long as we do our part, we should get to open these boxes, one by one, until a picturesque life has been neatly unpacked and lived out.
While the tree is eventually disposed of, the presents remain unopened, yet moved out of sight in a spare room or dark closet. The anxious child-like version of ourselves reminds me of Clara from The Nutcracker as she tiptoes down the creaky hall, cracks open the door to the spare room, and eagerly peaks in. She silently steps in the dark of night, and crouches down to examine her packages. She carefully inspects each beautifully wrapped box. Anticipating the dreams she’s crafted for her future, she sits awhile with them, dreaming of what life will be like when she can finally unwrap the bow and delicately take off the paper.
Life will be beautiful then. Life will be grand and glorious and full of laughter.
With ever so much routine, the sun begins to make its way into the windows, and the little girl from our past must return to her own bed, and her real life. She diligently moves through the motions of each day, but waits for it to be her turn to open gifts in front of everyone.
On a hot Central Florida Sunday morning in May, I stood on a church stage with my best friend, graduation caps pinned and tilted just right. I chose to quote Jeremiah 29:11, “‘For I know the plans I have for you’, says the Lord,” and I meant it. I was proud to claim those words as a life verse. I was going to attend a small university nine hours from home, ready to embark on a beautiful adventure.
Then a few years later, when adult life began, the ‘real world’ I’d anticipated didn’t look much like what I’d expected at all. After a challenging engagement, family health problems, friendships that didn't work out like I’d hoped, several career changes, a second move hours from home, another new set of friends, another church hunt, another bout of intense loneliness—I began to completely unravel. Even after publicly quoting Jeremiah 29:11, my life verse didn’t seem to fit my life as I had imagined it would.
I thought to myself, “These are not the plans that I had, these are not the plans that I drew up with you in mind, God. What has happened since my declaration on that podium?”
I don’t know if you can exactly relate—but I’m going to make an assumption that there have already been a couple (or 30) things in life that have surprised you, maybe disappointed you, or even broken you. I wonder if we might take a minute to reflect on this question:
Why does it hurt so badly that my perfectly precious plans are not working out?
We know that we are meant to “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.” (Romans 12:12) …But life.
When what we wanted was good, when what we planned was coming from an innocent enough place, and God gives a resounding “No,” what in the world are we supposed to do?
I’m sure a lot of us are alike in that our pre-packaged, ideal life is a really sweet one. Prosperous, happy, easy, tidy. Or perhaps life was meant to be adventurous, passionate, and on the go. But these dreams are about us: what excites me, what makes me happy, what is pretty from my perspective.
And yet, God never promises easy. How do we miss this, even though it’s right here in the Word?
James 1:2-3 “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you can meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” According to my ESV notes, steadfast here means “a life of faithful endurance amid troubles and afflictions.”
We want to be steadfast Christians, but we want our packages, too.
Where do we begin to believe the lie that we get to orchestrate the rhythm of our lives?
What misconceptions lead us to this disastrous misunderstanding of the gospel?
As I have prepared for our study, this quote came to my attention—and it has set a new tone to my interpretation of the unopened packages visual.
“We want to get the power of God into our hands, to call it to us that it may work for us in promoting and furthering our kind of Christianity. We want still to be in charge, guiding the chariot through the religious sky in the direction we want it to go, shouting “Glory to God,” it is true, but modestly accepting a share of the glory for ourselves in a nice, inoffensive sort of way. We are calling God to set fires to our altars, completely ignoring the fact that they are our altars and not God’s.” (A.W. Tozer)
So often, our packages are placed on altars that do not belong to God, but to ourselves.
In my desperate quest to understand this idea I want us to study together several women from the Bible that lead lives of adversity. Personally—and I really don’t want to offend anyone—but I want to learn from people who have been through it. Like gone through Hell on earth and lived to tell the tale. Oh, wait, that’s pretty much everyone who has ever followed hard after Christ. Soapbox, sorry, anyways…
The next four weeks, I’m going to introduce, or perhaps re-introduce to you, four different women from the Old Testament. Each woman lived a life of challenge—but each lady’s story is completely different and unique. My goal is to give you a package-inspired perspective on Sarah, Rahab, Naomi and Ruth. I think we’ll see some common threads that will inspire us to reflect on our own ‘Altars of Unopened Packages’ and come to the other side of these 18 posts with a fresh perspective on our own life story.
Just for today, can you identify any packages in your own life?
Take a moment to write down a list (however short or long) of your own personal packages.
For clarity’s sake, I’m identifying unopened packages as:
Dreams that haven’t happened yet
A relationship that you have pictured differently
An unplanned situation that you’re having difficulty accepting
The sequence of your life seems disordered and is not following your plan or mental timeline
Maybe it’s something completely out of your control like a death, loss, or source of hurt that has hit you out of nowhere
Write down dreams that you desperately want, things you hope and pray come true in the future.
Keep this list with your Bible Study materials, and commit to pray that God would reveal and unearth packages that you didn’t even know were there. You can add to it at any time, but I do ask that you keep it in a safe place because we will refer to this at different points in the study.
Throughout the next six weeks—I believe God has work for us to do. I believe God is offering us an opportunity to do hard and holy work together. He has made what may seem like an impossible task possible because of what we just celebrated - Christmas and the birth of His Son. Because of that hope, I’m so honored that you are going to walk this thing out with me.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross,scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. Hebrews 1-3
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