Tag Archives: joy

Why Can’t We Be Friends?

I am a big fan of social media.  It has helped me reconnect with school-age friends and former youth-group members.  It has allowed the church to live-stream the worship services for ten months.  It has given me pause to reflect on issues that I tend not to think about and wrestle with perspectives that are not my own.  It has blessed me, and also troubled me at times, with pictures and opinions and video clips and other resources I would never have heard or seen otherwise.  It has been a crucial source of connection during this current crisis.

I will admit that sometimes the sheer volume of divisive rhetoric and destructive personal attacks are overwhelming.  I will admit that there are times that I have considered ‘unfriending” or “unfollowing” certain individuals, but I have always reconsidered, knowing that there is something to be gained – for me personal development or my personal rebuke – from everyone’s story.  I, therefore, continue to engage with others over social media who hold a wide variety of experiences and worldviews.  Some interactions that we have are opportunities to incorporate a bit of wisdom or knowledge into our lives and some interactions are opportunities to eliminate a bit of vitriol from our hearts. 

There is one exception to my “unfriending” or “unfollowing” ban, sort of: I am choosing to “unfriend” and “unfollow” my own sinful nature.  What I mean by this is that I accept that my sinful nature exists and that my sinful nature can draw me to places that I might enjoy, but I am choosing to no longer tolerate its destructive influence.  I have determined that my sinful nature, with its hatred of all things godly and its ‘have-now-pay-later’ practices, is “dead to me”.

Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires.   Galatians 5:24

I am no longer a friend of my sinful nature.  I am choosing to no longer follow it.  I realize that this decision to sever the ties with this companion does not mean that the calls and invitations will cease; it means I will not respond.  It does not mean that others will no longer regale me with tales of the times they have spent with their sinful nature; it means I will not exercise my curiosity for their exploits.  It does not mean that I will not do destructive, hurtful, or damaging things in the days ahead; it means that I am seeking to develop the healthier relationship I have formed with a new friend, the spiritual nature.  I trust that the truth of scripture, that the passions and desires of my old companions will, over time, diminish and die off.

If you have come to the conclusion, as I have, that you need to “cancel” your own sinful nature, please let me know.  If you severed those ties years ago and have tips for others on how to move forward in righteousness, leave me a comment.  Perhaps we could even interact over social media; we could all use more friends like you. 

In the News

The events of Wednesday in Washington, DC were deeply disturbing.  As the joint session of Congress fulfilled its constitutional duty to certify the vote of the electoral college, the Capitol was breached by rioters (a term which I use definitively: “a group of people who meet in a public place and behave in a noisy, violent, and uncontrolled way, often as a protest.”)  The lawful machinations of the federal government were halted by the acts of a disgruntled few.  What are we to think of these developments?  What are we to say to our children?  What do these distressing behaviors indicate about our overall societal condition?

The words that I preached upon last Sunday came back to me as I watched the special reports:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  Luke 4:18-19

As Jesus began his earthly ministry in the countryside synagogues of Galilee, he started by drawing the attention of those who gathered toward the words of the prophet Isaiah, declaring that, under the Spirit’s influence, he had been commissioned to share the good news with the oppressed, as well as several other dismissed and discounted groups.  This term, oppressed, is used only once in the original languages of the Bible, and, as a perfect passive participle, truly means “the ones who have been broken or shattered.” 

The good news of Jesus Christ, the historical ‘evangel’, is that the day of the Lord has come which will bring about the restoration of the broken.  The sad news of our present-day, displayed earlier this week, is that many are seeking wholeness and repair through human might or mental gymnastics.  The startling reality is that we all are, to some degree, broken people: sin has caused its damage, fracturing relationships and corrupting worldviews; society has wrought havoc, deepening divisions and disenfranchising the marginalized; selfish ambition has severed many conduits for compassion and care.  Therefore, we all, in our brokenness, need someone to share the ‘evangel’, the good news of the Lord’s favor through Jesus, in ways that we can understand.

Join me in grieving the human condition that motivates a vocal and violent minority to take the measures that were broadcast earlier this week.  Join me in grieving the despairing brokenness that leads some to seek personal restoration through raucous and reckless behavior.  Join me in praying that those who know the truth would proclaim the truth to those desperate to hear it.

Your plight – your poverty, pain, and penitence – is not imperceptible to the one who is in power.  The one who governs all of creation cares about your brokenness and has brought you a cure.  The salve for your shattered self is the Son of God, who came to announce God’s grace for the captive, the blind, and the oppressed.  Jesus came to make you whole again.

As I think of the broken glass that fell upon the floor of the House chamber, I assume it will be replaced.  That is what we do; we replace what has been broken and make it all better.  That is not what God does.  God repairs the shattered panes that litter our lives.  He reassembles every piece, perfectly fitting each shard and sliver together until we are whole.  That is good news indeed for all those who are watching the daily news with dread.

We Win…We Have Reached 21

Considering all we have been through over the last 12 months, I have come to the conclusion that New Year’s resolutions are, at best, aspirational or, at worst, futile.  Perhaps you thought, on December 31, 2019, that this next year was the year you would get a gym membership and exercise more consistently but after 80 days all the fitness clubs closed, and you were left a little less resolute.  Or perhaps you thought you would adjust that unhealthy lifestyle and [fill in the blank] less, only to discover that it was all you had to do during the quarantine.  It is painfully apparent that there is no certainty to the future.

Yet, our human nature, or perhaps our spark of divinity imbued through the Imago Dei, longs for our improvement.  Therefore, the Apostle Peter writes the following to the Church:

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love.  2 Peter 1:5-7

Whether we are in the midst of a pandemic or in the center of God’s will (N.B.: these two places are not mutually exclusive), there are areas of our lives where we could be doing better.  Honestly, I have learned a great deal about myself in the months of quarantine, and I recognize that there are things I desire to improve.  I suppose January 1st is just as good a day to begin as any other.   

Above all else, I desire this year to increase my perseverance, which Merriam-Webster defines as, “continued effort to do or achieve something despite difficulties, failure, or opposition”.  I long to be more patient, more forbearing, more tenacious.  My trouble is that perseverance is not something that a gym or a grocery store can supply.  Perseverance comes through faith in the promises and providence of God over the long haul.  It means, for me, delighting in the delays as part of God’s design and rejoicing in the roadblocks as they work toward my refinement.  For me, I will know that I am developing perseverance when I no longer experience opposition with annoyance but with amazement. 

But that is my struggle.  Your struggle is likely different.  Why not make an effort this year to work on what is weighing you down?   If you need accountability, I am available to provide an occasional prod.  If you need prayer, feel free to reach out and we can bring these concerns to God together.  If you need motivation for change, simply replay the past year in your mind and marvel at how much you have adapted, adjusted, and altered because of this disease; is not your health as important?  You have shown yourself to be resilient.  Let the changes you make this year be on your terms. Let me encourage you to read the Bible a bit more this year, attend worship a bit more this year, practice kindness a bit more this year, and marvel at God’s goodness a bit more this year.  Clearly, COVID cannot constrict the construction of your Christ-like character; become what you believe you are this year.

I’ll Be Home…

 

I adapted the words of Clement Moore about eighteen years ago as part of our Christmas Eve service.  There is such great hope in the Christmas narrative – God piercing the darkness, the Highest appearing to the lowly, ‘kings’ and shepherds praising the savior’s birth.  This year has been extremely challenging for most of us and my thoughts and prayers continue to be with all those who will be spending Christmas separated from loved ones.  May the reality of Christ’s birth fill you with unspeakable delight.

‘Twas the night of our Christ’s birth and throughout the hill
Not a sheep was there grazing, the lambs were all still.
The rams and ewes were resting now through with their play
Their shearing and roaming were done for the day.

Equipped with my staff, at my feet lay a rod,
And watching the flock I took a seat on the sod.
When all of a sudden there was no trace of the night,
I was brought to my feet by an incredible light.

When what, in the brilliance of God, should appear?
But one of His angels with a voice, loud and clear.
“Fear not,” were the words this messenger said –
But I knew at that moment I was filled with such dread.

The herald continued, “I bring good news
That will be for all people, both Gentiles and Jews.
“For today he is born. In David’s own town
A Savior, the Christ, the Lord may be found.

“As a sign unto you,” the angel then said,
“He lies in a manger where hay makes his bed.”
Then suddenly there were with this angel a horde
An army from heaven all praising the Lord.

The air was now filled with the song of His birth.
“Glory to God and peace on the earth”
When done with their worship they drew up in the sky.
In a flash, they departed, in the blink of an eye.

The shepherds then pondered “What should we do?
Let’s travel to town to see if it’s true.”
So, taking our flock we went on our way
In search of a child asleep on the hay.

In the city, we found near an inn overcrowded
The child of promise which the angels had shouted.
We shepherds then shared with the young and the old
All of the wonder we’d seen and been told.

We left there proclaiming, as we walked out of sight,
“Happy Christmas to all because the Christ came tonight”.

The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.  Luke 2:20

Arrived

Each year at Christmastime, I lead the church in the observance of Advent.  The term ‘Advent’ was adopted from Latin adventus which means ‘coming or arrival’ and it refers to the season of anticipation before the arrival of Christ, which, for our church, takes place the four Sundays before Christmas.   Through our observance of Advent, we are, as a community of faith, encouraged to demonstrate and appreciate the characteristics of Christian expectancy – hope, peace, joy, and love.  It is for this reason that we have been lighting candles and offering prayers since the last Sunday of November and will continue to do so through this weekend.

This year especially, I have been thinking about Advent and contemplating the arrival of what has been promised from a particularly secular perspective: I have been thinking about Advent every time I track a package.   Because of the pandemic, most of my Christmas shopping has been on-line and, because of this, I am regularly checking my Amazon app and entering tracking numbers on the websites of UPS, USPS, and FedEx.  Some days I am filled with elation as I see the progress of my purchases and other days I am filled with exasperation as I consider contacting customer service.

Many times, I am not in the most healthy of places.  As trucks go up and down the street, I watch from the window (like a kid with a quarter waiting for the Ice Cream Man), wondering if they will stop and, if they do, will they have something for me.  As the weeks turn into days before Christmas, I find that I am worrying more and more about the 3 Ds – delay, damage, or delivery to the wrong address.  I have become so preoccupied with my expectations that I risk missing out on the blessings of what is to come. 

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.  And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  Isaiah 9:6 (NIV84)

This is why I need Advent.  The words of Isaiah quoted above were written more than six centuries before the birth of Jesus.  Imagine the tracking information on Isaiah’s laptop: “Expected delivery – March 7, 2638, before 9 PM”.  The trouble with me is that I want things done on my time schedule; the gift of Advent is that it reminds us that all things are done on God’s perfect time schedule.  Jesus arrived just when He was expected.  Jesus will return just when He is expected. For that reason, we can have hope, peace, joy, and love today.

I will continue to check on the progress of my packages, confident that they will arrive when the time is right for them to arrive.  I have hope that they will be before Christmas, but even if they are late, as I reckon time, they will still get here.  I have peace in knowing that they are on their way or will be soon.  I have joy in the anticipation, which may or may not be resolved on December 25.  I have love in my heart for those receiving these packages and those carrying them to their eventual destination.

May God bless you in this season of arrival.

O Tannenbaum

I am writing this post while sitting next to our Christmas tree.  Typically, our tree is our final act of decorating – when the kids were younger, we did not want little hands tearing off ornaments; now that the kids are older, we did not want to visit the tree lot until everyone was home – but COVID has changed all that with tree shortages and on-line classes.  Will the tree dry out and drop its needles as it occupies the Living Room for more than three weeks?  It is likely, but for now, I will enjoy its familiar fragrance and its meaningful memories.

As I look at the tree, my eyes first focus on the ornaments.  A few of them are pieces of foam or felt fashioned by tiny fingers, taking me back to a time when my children were a bit smaller and their wonder of Christmas was a bit larger.  Most of them are commercially produced, whether they are a reflection of a “1st Christmas” (my grown or growing children all wanting their own to be placed highest and centermost) or a reminder of the year we purchased them.  There is an ornament from Jeanine’s college days and there will be an ornament, I am sure, from this season of life.  Each one serves as a mnemonic device of our time together.

Behind the ornaments are the lights, red and yellow and green and blue twinkles that are just bright enough to illuminate their immediate surroundings.  Alone, these bulbs are insignificant, but putting 500 or so together casts enough light to give the room a certain glow.  Unlike the ornaments, the beauty and significance of the lights are not in their individual meaning but in their collective impact: at night, just as we are retiring to bed, Jeanine and I sit by the tree, with only its light filling the room, and remark at ‘how lovely are your branches’.  It serves as a mnemonic device of our beauty together.

Finally, there is gold garland that, literally and figuratively, ties all the aspects of the tree together.  Wrapped around this fragile, living (and dying) evergreen is a cord of shimmering splendor.  It makes this ordinary plant something special.  I do not typically think about the garland, which I usually regard as a finishing afterthought to my tree decorating, but today I am in a mood to recognize its significance.  I consider the garland a glimpse of Christ within the Christmas tree – a touch of royalty surrounding the rustic.   This cord envelopes the earthly with the eternal and the ordinary with the extravagant.  It serves as a mnemonic device of Jesus, fully human and fully divine.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.  We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.  John 1:14

I appreciate the tree beside me because it reminds me of God’s blessings, God’s community, and God’s presence.  Whether real or artificial – or not even a tree – I pray that there is something near you, as well, that jogs your memory of the goodness of God this Christmas.

Quaran-teen

Yesterday, our unexpected blessing, our bonus baby – a surprise to all but God – turned thirteen.  My youngest, Joshua, following the faith of His savior, is now a man.  If we were contemporaries of Jesus, yesterday would have been his Bar Mitzvah (bar [בר] is a Jewish-Aramaic word meaning ‘son’ and mitzvah [מצוה] is a Jewish word meaning ‘a commandment’).   Joshua would have been seen not as a seventh-grader but as a “son of the commandment” – he would be responsible for keeping the Law of God.  This leaves me, as his father, with a nagging question: have I done enough to prepare him for adulthood.

Thankfully, we do not live in a non-adolescent culture and Joshua will not be an adult for another 5 years (legally) or more (culturally).  That said, I have been slowly realizing that how I see this boy – as my defenseless and impressionable baby and as my child in need of protection and correction – is not the way the world outside our front door sees this young man.   While I would seek to isolate him from the culture of the age, the societal gates of social media have been, with the change of a date, opened to him with its beckoning siren song.  In my head, I know that all these coming changes are natural and beneficial steps in his healthy maturity, but in my heart, I worry for he is still just a boy to me and his mother.

Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.  Proverbs 22:6

The above-quoted verse is typically mentioned when the topic of parenting comes around.  It makes sense since the command of training is good advice for new moms and dads and the promise of faithfulness is comforting during those rebellious stages.  As my boy enters manhood, I ask, as I said before, if I did a good enough job training him?  Ironically, that might not be the right question for the term Solomon uses for ‘train’ is not translated as ‘train’ anywhere else in the Scriptures; it is translated as “dedicate’.  The four other times the Hebrew Bible uses the term חנך, it is in reference to the temple.  This admonition is not, as I see it, to prepare my child for the world and hope that I have done enough, but to proclaim my child to the world and trust that he will remember who he is, and whose he is.

Today, I am wrestling with letting go of the precious blessing of my baby boy.  Today, you may be struggling with letting go of another blessing.  Can God be trusted to keep His word and continue to provide for His people?   My friend, the answer is yes.  As my son Joshua’s name declares, the Lord is salvation (or deliverance or redemption).   The Lord will carry all of us who trust His promises and bring us safely through to the other side.

Happy Birthday, Joshua.  Enjoy the beginning stages of adulthood. Remember who you are.

Changing Seasons

Can you feel the change in the air and, more specifically, on the air?  Yesterday may have been Thanksgiving, but today is the beginning of the Christmas season.  Overnight we went from enjoying the autumnal comforts of pumpkin spices and falling leaves to enjoying the winter delights of peppermint swirls and drifting snow.  Yesterday may have been spent watching competing teams play football, but tonight we will be watching competing networks broadcast ‘specials’ featuring Frosty and Burgermeister Meisterburger.  This weekend we will witness Christmas lights begin to twinkle on our front lawns and Christmas trees being set in front windows.  I hope not to alarm you, but Christmas Day is exactly four weeks away.

But this year is different, isn’t it?  Because of the travel and gathering restrictions many of us face, there will be much smaller lines at the big box stores this “Black Friday” and much longer shipping times from the online retailers this month.  There will also be fewer ‘cookie swaps’ and Christmas parties (although “Secret Santa” gifts may be as simple as visiting Amazon).  That may allow us the serendipitous blessing of more time to spend with those closest to us and more opportunity to stream our season’s greetings than in Christmases past.  We will have to be creative, but we can still make this the most wonderful time of the year.

Besides, sometimes the crowds around us keep us from appreciating the gift of Christmas before us.  We, too, are sometimes distracted by all the hubbub of the holidays to see the truth as it approaches.  We are sometimes the “Inn Crowd”, the huddle of humanity in the Bethlehem of our day, too busy or too burdened to recognize the gift of God about to be given.  We are sometimes guilty of misguided priorities and pointing the Savior to the stall in the back.  The “desire of every nation” has been delivered to our doorstep, and we are in danger of dismissing him due to the distractions of the day. 

Here I am!  I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.  Revelation 3:20

But this year is different, isn’t it?  The crowds have socially distanced and we have settled for a celebration in isolation.  In the stillness of this strange and strained setting, can you hear the knock on the door of your heart?  In spite of all the changes that COVID has brought (or maybe because of them), this year may be the perfect time to get out of the inn and away from all the revelry and travel back to the stable – to hear the shepherds and see the child, to marvel at his radiance and muse about the shepherds’ report.  Do whatever you need to do to prepare yourself for the blessed arrival of God’s greatest gift: listen to a Christmas Carol playlist on Spotify, stream an Advent service on YouTube (might I suggest Calvary’s?), or watch “The Bishop’s Wife” on Amazon Prime.  This Christmas may be the best chance our generation has to worship the newborn king together.

I pray that we all are enveloped by the enormous love we encounter at Christmas.

Still Giving Thanks

There is a ‘standing headline’ circulating through social and broadcast media: “Celebrating Thanksgiving to Be Quite Different This Year”.  As a consequence of surging numbers of COVID-19 cases across the globe, authorities are recommending, at least in my area of the country, that our observances of Thanksgiving be limited to small – and preferably outdoor – gatherings, that our travel plans be curtailed or eliminated, and that our traditions take a hiatus.  Under the circumstances, it seems to me that this is the most reasonable path to take, both for the sake of our loved ones and for the communities around us.

The requested modifications in celebrating this thoroughly North American holiday gives us an opportunity for beneficial correction.  This year we will not have the chance to celebrate “Turkey Day” or “Friendsgiving” or “Football Day in America”.  The Thanksgiving table may not, this year, look like the iconic Rockwell painting in its gastronomic bounty.  The chairs may not, this time around, be filled with friends from work or church, or school recreating the warmth of community.  The back yard or living room, this year, will not be shared by generations who enjoy tossing around the pigskin.  This year we might only have the opportunity to give thanks – alone with the grantor of all good things or with those in our closest of circles.

Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song.   Psalm 95:2

Earlier this month, for another purpose, I formulated my list of ‘thanks’.  I have modified the entries slightly, hoping that my touchpoints might stimulate your thoughts toward thanks.  Today, I am thankful for:

TIME – I give thanks to God for the gift of time.  I would have never planned to spend so much time at home and share so many little moments with my family.  I cannot fully express the gratitude I feel to God for the ability to unexpectedly be together for much of the last year.  

HEALTH – I give thanks to God for the gift of health.  I consider myself fortunate that I have the availability of protective equipment and world-class care.  God has truly blessed me with the accessibility of masks and wipes, medications and medical professionals that enable me to resist much of the ailments that in other places or other times would have diminished my quality of life.

AMUSEMENT – I give thanks to God for the gift of laughter.  As dire as things are, there is an abundance of resources ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous that make me laugh.  I give thanks to God for giggling babies, on-line videos, satirical skits, and dog sweaters, along with another million amusing moments.

NETWORKS – I give thanks to God for the gift of connectedness.  I have been awed by the creative ways God has inspired others to engage with the community around them – Zoom, Duo, Facetime, YouTube, balcony concerts, calls, letters – and I am grateful to God for enabling me to participate in things I thought would be impossible to attend last Thanksgiving.

KINDNESS – I give thanks to God for the gift of love for one another.  Through signs, parades, and deliveries, we have cared for one another like no other time I can recollect.  This reminds me of the grace of God each time I see these expressions.  Thank you, Jesus.

SALVATION – I give thanks to God for the gift of forgiveness.  Countless times over the past year, as I reflect on the above-stated gifts of God, I have messed up: failing to appreciate what I have, ignoring the opportunities granted me, selfishly pouting for the things I am denied, or blatantly disregarding the Lord’s will and word.  I am so thankful to God that my sins are forgiven and that I am a new creation, saved by the free gift of His grace.

For what will you be thanks giving?

Let us all agree that we will get together a year from now for “Turkey Day” and “Friendsgiving” and “Football Day in America”.   But this year, in light of all we have been through, and continue to go through, let us all give thanks.

Purple People

In the days ahead, after the recounts and the legal challenges, one of the candidates for President will carry the requisite 270 electoral college votes and win the election.  At that same time, approximately seventy million voters will be, to some degree, delighted with the outcome and a similar number of voters will be, also to some degree, disappointed.  In many states, the margin for victory has been razor thin and large sections of our country are no longer ‘red’ or ‘blue’, but shades of ‘purple’ instead.  Whoever is inaugurated next January, he deserves our prayers.

Where do we go from here?  I believe this is a time for practicing the biblical behavior of reconciliation.  Reconciliation, when mentioned in the Scriptures, is found in the Greek term καταλλάσσω (katallássō) which means “to change completely toward agreement”.  Having an accountant at home, I know that the most common contemporary connection to reconciliation is related to the balancing financial records (i.e. to change the books to establish an agreement among diverse categories).  But the words of God represent a deeper level of agreement amidst diversity: the positive, complete change in relationships between rivals.  

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.  And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.  We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.  We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.  2 Corinthians 5:18-20

The process of reconciliation begins and ends with our relationship with God.  Despite the fact that we willfully and intentionally deviated from God’s desire, by actively sinning against Him, He has changed completely our relationship through Christ, not counting those sins against us. (Please note that there is no mention of excusing or eliminating those sins, nor that those sins were no longer grievously offensive.)   God moved us from His ledger of opponents to His ledger of friends, based solely on the actions of Christ.  This is the first step of reconciliation: to know ourselves, in Christ, as a friend of God.

Once we have accepted our new position in Christ, we can move to the second part of reconciliation, namely that God has committed to us the ministry of reconciliation.  In other words, God has bestowed upon His friends that privilege of inviting others into God’s friend group, all on the basis of the actions of Christ.  In this ministry, we are welcoming mutual friends to share in the celebration.  Our shared relationship with God creates a shared relationship with one another, regardless of the diversity we express in our words and experiences.  We are able to befriend one another because we have a friend in Jesus.

This ministry of reconciliation is what we need right now.  Instead of dwelling on what divides us, we can rejoice in what unites us.  Instead of debating policies and positions, we could work together to defeat societal ills we all abhor.  Now is the time to focus on what we agree upon.  Now is time to cultivate the mutual friendships we have through Christ.  As we gather before the presence of God, we can share in the things we hold together: that we all have struggles, that we all have pains, that we all have gifts and that we all need love. 

Now is the time to work together and trust Christ to heal what divides us.