Questions for a New Year

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I am convinced that we generally have more choices than we are aware of but often fewer than we wish. Last year was a strange year, and for some it was downright awful. Bouncing emotionally between killings between the police and rioters, to the Cubs winning the world series, to political upsets in the elections… There have been protests that ended in celebrations and protests that ended in tears. I saw an article that said for the first time Heroin killed more people than guns last year. It has been a crazy year for our nation – the kind of a year leaves my head and heart just spinning.

Rather than start the year off in a frenzy, I want to slow things down just a bit. Even if the world charges madly around me, I can at least find a way to settle myself. Do you remember what Jesus did in the storms? He slept. His faith in His Father was so secure that when others around Him thought they would all die, He was able to take a nap (Mark 4:35-41). When Jesus awoke, He calmed the storm with a two commands, “Silence” and “Be still”, and then He turned to His disciples with two questions.

“Why are you so afraid?” He asked. “Do you still have no faith?”

Jesus knew that storms happen on the inside as well as the outside. While the sky may have been clear, things were still cloudy in the hearts and minds of the disciples. He also knew that the storms on the inside are not settled by commands, but by questions. Why is this? I think it may be because God created us with the freedom to choose whether to follow Him or not, because He wanted us to work with Him in caring for our world (See Genesis 1-3). God doesn’t want to have to command us to follow Him. Instead He asks us and lets us decide for ourselves.

So let us begin this new year by dealing with the storms of 2016. Let us answer for ourselves the questions Jesus poses to us. Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith? Remember, Jesus is right there in the boat with you. Once God’s questions calm us down, we are able to ask our own questions and see more clearly the choices we have ahead of us. It allows us to act with purpose rather than simply react to the chaos or bullying around us. I don’t want to be pushed into doing something I will regret. I want every action I make to be someething I can look back upon and say, “I did my best.” I want my deeds to be inspired by love and generosity, not fear and defensiveness. I want to live by faith, not by fright.

Rejoice

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“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,

the desert shall rejoice and blossom;

like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,

and rejoice with joy and singing.

The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,

the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.

They shall see the glory of the Lord,

the majesty of our God.

Strengthen the weak hands,

and make firm the feeble knees.

Say to those who are of a fearful heart,

“Be strong, do not fear!

Here is your God.

He will come with vengeance,

with terrible recompense.

He will come and save you.”

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,

and the ears of the deaf unstopped;

then the lame shall leap like a deer,

and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.

For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,

and streams in the desert;

the burning sand shall become a pool,

and the thirsty ground springs of water;

the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,

the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

A highway shall be there,

and it shall be called the Holy Way;

the unclean shall not travel on it,

but it shall be for God’s people;

no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.

No lion shall be there,

nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;

they shall not be found there,

but the redeemed shall walk there.

And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,

and come to Zion with singing;

everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;

they shall obtain joy and gladness,

and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” Isaiah 35.1-10 (NRSV)

Christmas Eve is here! It is the night so many children can hardly wait for and a day of excitement of all sorts for everyone around the world. Tonight is a night we welcome Hope, Love, Joy, and Peace into our homes. It is a night some will welcome Santa Claus into their homes as well. It is a night we can all welcome Jesus into our homes again as well.

Every time God shows up there is reason to rejoice! We come to the edge of time (the fullness of time as Paul writes) and celebrate God coming into the world both as the end of Advent and Beginning of Christmas. We remember the Jesus of the manger and we wait for Him to come again and bring justice and redemption to our world. Both are cause for celebration.

Both are also cause for anxiety as well. Those of us who have built our lives upon things other than God will find them shaken up… as Ebeneezer Scrooge found out in A Christmas Carol. Others will find themselves lifted up out of the storms of life. The first shall be last and the last shall be first and those who served the least, the last, and the lost shall find themselves face to face with their king. Is it really any wonder why the traditions of Santa Claus, who embodies generosity also keeps a list of who is naughty and nice?

It all comes together tonight and, as much effort as we put into it, we will find ourselves surprised yet again by God presence coming into our celebrations, and if we pay attention, we will find new cause to rejoice in the love our God sends into the world tonight.

  • How will you celebrate the birth of Christ today?
  • What do you hope Christ will bring into your life tonight?
  • Who will you share your hope, love, joy, and peace with today?

Rejoice! Rejoice!

Emmanuel has come to us, O Israel

Saturday December 24, 2016

Beauty

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“Your eyes will see the king in his beauty;

they will behold a land that stretches far away.

Your mind will muse on the terror:

“Where is the one who counted?

Where is the one who weighed the tribute?

Where is the one who counted the towers?”

No longer will you see the insolent people,

the people of an obscure speech that you cannot comprehend,

stammering in a language that you cannot understand.

Look on Zion, the city of our appointed festivals!

Your eyes will see Jerusalem,

a quiet habitation, an immovable tent,

whose stakes will never be pulled up,

and none of whose ropes will be broken.

But there the Lord in majesty will be for us

a place of broad rivers and streams,

where no galley with oars can go,

nor stately ship can pass.

For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our ruler,

the Lord is our king; he will save us.” Isaiah 33.17-22 (NRSV)

Closely related to Christ’s gentleness is His beauty. Although, it is not popular in many cultures to call a man (or a boy) beautiful, God has, in Jesus Christ, everything that we would consider beauty.

Beauty may be subjective, or “in the eye of the beholder”, but it cannot be beautiful if it does not capture our attention. True beauty is that which draws us out of ourselves. The greatest kinds of beauty draw us out of ourselves and transform us into something beautiful ourselves.

This is Who God is. He is that greatest, true beauty. He speaks, and the whole world listens. The winds and the waves obey and lift Him up. The angels of heaven celebrate His birth alongside poor shepherds and pagan leaders. Those who followed, not even knowing what they would expect to find had their lives transformed right before them. Simeon and Anna in the temple waited their whole lives just to meet the newborn messiah. Jesus does not disappoint when we come to Him, just as He is, and just as we are.

But beauty draws the possibility of envy and jealousy as well. When we see the light we see ourselves more clearly and sometimes we don’t like what we see. We resist being drawn out of ourselves and retreat into the darkness to plan ways of wounding the beauty before us. It is sinful nature that invites us to fear what we cannot understand and hate what we cannot have.

Yet, despite our best (or worst) efforts, the beauty of God is not broken. The ugliness of the cross on which our Savior hung only made the majesty of the manger more real. The attempts to put out the light, surrounding it with darkness only made it shine brighter.

So to, the light of Christ, the true gift of Christmas, shines brightest in you and I when we face the darkness around us instead of flee from it. Do you want to be beautiful? Let Christ shine through you. Nothing else in this world can compare. You cannot dress, cover, color, or work your way to greater beauty than by simply letting the light of Christ shine in you. The Creator of beauty Himself made you just for that purpose.

  • Where do you see the beauty of God?
  • What do you see in your life that is not beautiful?
  • How can you bring the beauty of God to those places that need His light and love?

Bring your peace into our violence

Bid our hungry souls be filled

Word now breaking heaven’s silence

Welcome to our world

Friday December 23, 2016

Rote

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“The Lord said:

Because these people draw near with their mouths

and honor me with their lips,

while their hearts are far from me,

and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote;

so I will again do

amazing things with this people,

shocking and amazing.

The wisdom of their wise shall perish,

and the discernment of the discerning shall be hidden.

Ha! You who hide a plan too deep for the Lord,

whose deeds are in the dark,

and who say, “Who sees us? Who knows us?”

You turn things upside down!

Shall the potter be regarded as the clay?

Shall the thing made say of its maker,

“He did not make me”;

or the thing formed say of the one who formed it,

“He has no understanding”?

Hope for the Future

Shall not Lebanon in a very little while

become a fruitful field,

and the fruitful field be regarded as a forest?

On that day the deaf shall hear

the words of a scroll,

and out of their gloom and darkness

the eyes of the blind shall see.

The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord,

and the neediest people shall exult in the Holy One of Israel.

For the tyrant shall be no more,

and the scoffer shall cease to be;

all those alert to do evil shall be cut off—

those who cause a person to lose a lawsuit,

who set a trap for the arbiter in the gate,

and without grounds deny justice to the one in the right.

Therefore thus says the Lord, who redeemed Abraham, concerning the house of Jacob:

No longer shall Jacob be ashamed,

no longer shall his face grow pale.

For when he sees his children,

the work of my hands, in his midst,

they will sanctify my name;

they will sanctify the Holy One of Jacob,

and will stand in awe of the God of Israel.

And those who err in spirit will come to understanding,

and those who grumble will accept instruction.” Isaiah 29.13-24 (NRSV)

What do you think about memorizing scripture? I struggle with it.

I learned scripture first in Sunday school, where we were taught it by rote – that is, a repeated exercise or ritual meant to help you internalize something. Some of the first scriptures I learned through song (a kind of rote). I remember learning Proverbs 3:5-6 as a song that blessed my life many years later and helped lead me to God.

In between that first lesson and the moment I decided to surrender my life to God, there was a lot of unfaithful living and outright running from God. There is very little unique about this part of my story… most of us have been there/done that. However, what I have noticed is that it was during these very rebellious years that I could probably recite the most scripture from memory. I knew the bible – I just did not follow it with my life at all.

20 years later, I find that my memory is not quite as sharp as it was back then and I stumble over the words more. It’s not near as impressive. Yet my understanding of those scriptures has grown deep and wide. I may not be able to recall the specific words, but I often tell you who wrote them, who they were first written to, why, and how they apply to us today. Even more than that “preacher knowledge” I can give personal testimony about how they apply to my life today as a personal witness.

My wonderful teachers, taught me to memorize the scriptures, but only half the job was done. I’ll claim it was because of my own stubbornness. What I needed, more than rote memorization was a relationship with God. Perhaps my teachers thought I was too young to have a relationship with God, so they gave me rote instead. Maybe they just did not know how to explain it. Or maybe I was not listening.

It was during the year of Christ’s birth, we are told, that those who had memorized the scripture missed the Messiah. They knew where to find Him… indeed they knew enough to send the Gentile Magi to meet Him, but they would not follow the scriptures themselves. For them, knowing the bible was enough. They did not think they needed to know God.

Regardless of what happened in my own life, God makes it clear that our connection with him needs to be deeper than something we just memorize and recite. There needs to be a spiritual understanding underneath and through it all. As Isaiah wrote: we need to do more than memorize the commandments. We need to trust and obey our commander.

  • What spiritual lessons did you learn by memorization?
  • How have they blessed your life over the years?
  • How has God brought deeper meaning to them ?

Surely goodness, surely mercy

right beside me all my days

and I will dwell in Your house forever

and bless Your Holy Name

Thursday December 22, 2016

Dust

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“Then Job answered the Lord:

“I know that you can do all things,

and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.

‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’

Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,

things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.

‘Hear, and I will speak;

I will question you, and you declare to me.’

I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,

but now my eye sees you;

therefore I despise myself,

and repent in dust and ashes.”” Job 42.1-6 (NRSV)

“Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” – Ash Wednesday Blessing

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

God outdoes us at every turn. He humbles me in the power and care of His creation. The freedom He allows us while providing for our every need is a paradox that I cannot fathom. He redefines the word ‘god’ every day, expanding it into new territories.

Compared to this, who am I? Who are we? Just flickering motes of dust, tossed about to and fro by every little gust of wind. Some of our greatest adversaries: Cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, hunger, and poverty… these might be barely noticeable blips on the radar screen of the one who created the entire universe, who determines the deaths of stars, let alone the health and comforts of humanity. I cannot relate.

Then God does one more incredible thing. He becomes dust Himself. Eternity fits itself into a box of 33 years. The God of the universe, who could have been born as a blazing star that consumed everyone in Bethlehem with His glory and holiness, was instead born as a tiny helpless baby. How can this be? Even I, a man of dust cannot humble myself to the level of an infant!

But that is exactly what God asks of each of us. Following His lead, we are called to be “born again”. To rid ourselves of our fanciful notions of greatness and stoop to a terrifying level of helplessness – trusting God to hold us, as He trusted Mary to hold Him.

Can you remember you are dust today… dust that only enjoys this life by the grace of God? Can you return to the humility of that dust as we wait expectantly for our God to return, to lift us up, and to lead us home?

  • What brings joy to your life today?
  • What reminds you of your humble place in life?
  • How can you follow God’s example and humble yourself in order to trust in God’s grace more this week?

Who are we…

That you would be mindful of us?

What do you see…

That’s worth looking our way?

Wednesday December 21, 2016

Signal

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“On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

On that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that is left of his people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Ethiopia, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea.

He will raise a signal for the nations,

and will assemble the outcasts of Israel,

and gather the dispersed of Judah

from the four corners of the earth.

The jealousy of Ephraim shall depart,

the hostility of Judah shall be cut off;

Ephraim shall not be jealous of Judah,

and Judah shall not be hostile towards Ephraim.

But they shall swoop down on the backs of the Philistines in the west,

together they shall plunder the people of the east.

They shall put forth their hand against Edom and Moab,

and the Ammonites shall obey them.

And the Lord will utterly destroy

the tongue of the sea of Egypt;

and will wave his hand over the River

with his scorching wind;

and will split it into seven channels,

and make a way to cross on foot;

so there shall be a highway from Assyria

for the remnant that is left of his people,

as there was for Israel

when they came up from the land of Egypt.” Isaiah 11.10-16 (NRSV)

I have tried to figure out God and failed. I would like to say it is because God is so vast that I cannot grasp or comprehend Him. However, it may be simply because I overthink His simple and profound love. I don’t get stuck on the ‘what’ God is doing questions, so much as the ‘why’ questions. I cannot just accept love as the answer. There has to be something more. So I look for signs – not of His love, but of the master plan… the end goal… the great ‘why’.

We have all become highly suspicious of those questions of motivation. I see it every day in politics. Every email, every tweet, every facebook post our leaders make is suspect. It seems that soon, even the food our leaders eat will send out a chatter online that will throw the stock markets. It matters whether those motives are right or wrong… it matters very much, but it also matters how and how much we scrutinize. Most cons require you to be looking at the con men and women, so that you are not looking at things they are taking from you.

Our God has never been like that. He is jealous for our attention and affection… but not all of it. His desire is that we would share that love with one another as well as Him. He does not fight for the limelight. In fact, He often does just the opposite.

God leads with signs and signals, great promises made, and then He ducks away as those promises become fulfilled, often after He is out of sight. This Christmas season we celebrate the power of the Word made flesh… and yet no one was able to physically see this miracle occur. Mary was visited by the angel, given a promise, and then she certainly felt the symptoms of that pregnancy – but there was no great fireworks going off as the King of kings and Lord of lords stepped into our world. It happened rather quietly.

Isaiah reminds us of God’s promise. He is going to build a highway, straight through the lands of our enemies, leading right into God’s kingdom. He did it before, paving a path of dry land through the Red Sea. He did it again with literal roads from Israel to Rome where the new Church would find a home in the capitol of Gentile territory, and from there spread out to change the world. I believe God is doing it again. What we in the south have often called revival is not a boost in church attendance, it is a movement of the Spirit of God, which calls for a movement of His people… (which means we have to literally move sometimes) and means that sometimes the central location which we perceive God to be basing His work may move. Indeed it may move away from us, out of our own nation – just as He did to Israel in the Gospels and Luke. This is just our own perception though… God has a central office from which He bases all his work. It’s called Heaven. Every time He sets foot in our world He is doing field work.

So what is your role in this work? Are you a field worker too? Are you one paving the way and helping God make that highway straight through enemy territory, connecting God and His lost children? Or are you a signal: a sign pointing to the promises God has made and directing our gaze to the work He is doing now? Maybe you are both. Loving God and loving others does not have to be complicated. Maybe we can do it simply because God does.

  • What promises has God made to you?
  • How have you seen them fulfilled?
  • Where is God calling you to serve Him today?

Christmas Chalk

Tuesday December 20, 2016

Cover

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“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,

and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,

the spirit of wisdom and understanding,

the spirit of counsel and might,

the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,

or decide by what his ears hear;

but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,

and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;

he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,

and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.

Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,

and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

The wolf shall live with the lamb,

the leopard shall lie down with the kid,

the calf and the lion and the fatling together,

and a little child shall lead them.

The cow and the bear shall graze,

their young shall lie down together;

and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,

and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

They will not hurt or destroy

on all my holy mountain;

for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord

as the waters cover the sea.” Isaiah 11.1-9 (NRSV)

Peace on earth and goodwill to men is not just what the world needs, it is what each of us need. The famous poet Longfellow wrote a poem about this, which he called “Christmas Bells”. After losing his wife and a son, Christmas was not a joyful occasion for him, yet upon hearing the bells chime on Christmas Day, he reflected that his own sorrow was shared by the world. He was also reminded that God’s grace speaks to our sorrow in the gift of his only Son, Jesus Christ, whose birth we celebrate this weekend.

You cannot bring this peace about with force. Does scripture tell of violence? Yes, most assuredly… but every battle is followed by another. Every conquest is followed by a loss to a bigger, badder army. God’s creation in Genesis and the redemption of the world in Revelation are not marked by violence – indeed it is quite the opposite. They are instead marked by submission to Him, and God gets that submission through invitation and offer of a relationship, not through brute force or clever tactics.

The apostles Paul and John perhaps write about it best in their description of God’s primary means of transforming the world. It is, in a word: Love. Not romantic love or any other kind of self-serving emotion… God’s love is self-sacrificial by definition. God, in so many ways wins the war by giving up. He surrenders His only Son to death at our hands and the world is transformed in a moment. Victory is guaranteed. To a worldly way of thinking, this is absolute madness. You cannot gain, let alone protect yourself by giving up… yet this is exactly what God does, and it works far better than anything He might accomplish by force.

Isaiah reminds us that from beginning to end, from Eden to New Jerusalem, God’s desire for our world is peace on earth; goodwill to men. God is willing to surrender anything for that peace to cover us all. What are you willing to surrender for peace?

  • What would you be willing to fight to protect in your life?
  • Where do you need peace in your life?
  • What would you be wililng to surrender to invite God’s peace there?

The Cost of Peace

Monday December 19, 2016