Archives for the month of: December, 2014

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“You never know how far you can go until you risk going too far.”  This is a paraphrase of a quote by T. S. Eliot that was on a poster in my classroom when I taught high school English. I recognized that my high school students often were far more interested in just receiving a passing grade for my class than they were in learning what I could teach them. Their focus was on their friends and their immediate circumstances. They were more interested in graduation than in learning. They preferred easy to meaningful. They wanted to get to the end more than they wanted to learn in the present.

I understood them because I was just like them when I was in high school. I’m still like that. How often have I settled for what I can control, rather than reaching for all that was possible? How many precious moments have I wasted focusing on what was next, rather than the significance of the present? How many adventures did I miss because they were inconvenient or did not come with a guaranteed outcome? How much joy did I miss because I was too busy being proper or prepared for what I thought was next? How much delight have I missed because I was content to just go through the motions? I don’t want to get to the end of my life and be done; I want to be wowed by all that happened.

Jesus came to earth to teach us to life this life to the fullest. His purpose for us is not heaven; it is relationship, beginning now. He didn’t come just to protect us from Satan’s schemes; he came to that we could know the power of his resurrection. (Phil 3:10) He didn’t teach us to be satisfied with barely getting by; he came to give us abundance. (John 10:10) His ultimate goal was not to keep us from being miserable; he came so that our joy could be complete (John 15:11).

One of my goals for the New Year is to depend on God so much that he wows me. I don’ want to have a nodding acquaintance with God; I want him to delight my soul. My hesitant, inconsistent faith in the past has taught me that his way is better, that his plans are so much more exciting than mine, and that his love for me is more than I can ask or imagine. I don’t want to skim through 2015 and just get to the end; I want to see God and know his power and presence and joy. I want to risk my plans and expectations on the one who calls me to adventure and abundance. The stories I hope to have this time next year will have far less to do with my capabilities than with my choices to trust God with all the things I cannot control. I’ll keep you posted…

presents 2

I’m to the age where opening the presents on Christmas morning isn’t near as important to me as the precious people who gather with me, even if only by phone, at the party, around the tree, around the table. The people who make relationship with me, who make my presence their priority, are an incredible gift that makes me feel valued and loved.

There are all kinds of presents. There are presents that meet my needs and others that bring me delight. There are some that are given in gratitude, and some that are given in unconditional love. Charities give me “gifts” of address labels and notepads because they want me to contribute to make a contribution. But the people who really matter, the ones who really love you, give you their presence.

God gave the present of his presence to an undeserving people. God sent his only begotten son to the mess and the struggle of earth because relationship with us right now is his priority. Being with us was more important to God than the perfect praise of heaven or protecting his glory. He had already given us all the riches of earth, but on that first Christmas he gave us his physical presence for the first time since Eden. God loved and value us so much that sent his only begotten son to be present with us because he values and loves us.

May you know the presence of the ones who love you during these holidays. May the presents you receive bring you joy. And may the presence of Immanuel, God with us, fill your heart and your home with strength for your struggles, with joy for your blessings, and with gratitude for his love.

lost and found

Yesterday I lost my keys…again. I frantically search all over, everywhere I could think they might be, or anywhere that I might have laid them down while I was focusing on something else.  That is how it usually happens.  My mind is one place and my activity is somewhere else.  But when my search finally leads me to what I seek, there is delight, relief, and the opportunity to focus on what is next, rather than endlessly repeating where I’ve been.

This morning as I read the Christmas story, taking comfort in the familiar words, I saw something new. Mary was “found” to be with child (Mat 1:18).  Because the Joseph aspect of the story is in Matthew and the Elizabeth story is in Luke, it’s hard to merge the chronology of these two. Did Mary just run away to Elizabeth immediately after the visit from the angel?  Was everyone surprised when she returned home, months later, looking very pregnant? Did she even try to talk to Joseph before the town gossips got in on the action? How exactly did he “find” out? Who “found” her to be pregnant? What did they choose to do with this information that they “found”? Did they assume Joseph had violated the betrothal laws, or that Mary had betrayed him during the months she was away?

But when I searched the word “found” in the gospels, I learned that the first “finding” in the Christmas story was when Mary “found” favor with God (Luke 1:30).  The Christmas story is full of “finding”.  The Shepherds “found” Jesus, lying in the manger (Luke 2:16). Herod “found out” from the Wise Men when the star had appeared.

 The idea of being found is a key image and message of the gospel. When Jesus was lost, Mary and Joseph “found” him at the temple.  When Andrew met Jesus, he told his brother that he had “found” the messiah. When Jesus was crucified, the soldiers came to break his legs, but “found” he was already dead. The women who came to the tomb “found” the stone rolled away. Luke 15 records three parables Jesus taught about “finding”: sheep, coin, and a lost son. In each of these parables he describes the utter joy of the one who “found” what he was looking for.

The Christmas story is God coming to “be found” by his people. He always knew where we were; he left where he was and came to Bethlehem that night in such a way that we could “find” him. He gave his own job description in Luke 19:10 when he said he came to seek and save the lost. His direction to us is to “seek first his kingdom”.

When I study history or read the news headlines, it is difficult for me to understand why God would seek us. We are unquestionably lost. We seek false gods that do not satisfy. We seek the “far country” and our own power and control. We seek what gives us temporary pleasure and are ultimately destroyed by our evil desires. Even those of us who want so much to be defined by our relationship with God sometimes “find” ourselves lost in the temptations and distractions of our world.

We are never lost to God.  He always knows where we are.  We are lost only in the sense that we “find” ourselves somewhere we don’t belong.  As I look back at my life and all the times I’ve chosen to wander away from God, I’m completely humbled by a Savior who left heaven to “find” me, who seeks me every time I wander off.

We worship the God who made himself available to us, who seeks us, who wants to be “found” by us. When we realize that what we most seek in this life is the relationship with God who so wants to be “found”, we find relief and delight that the world cannot give, and we can then focus on the story and life that God so wants to share with us. This Christmas may you “find” the wonder of the baby in the manger who came to where you are, the love of the savior who left heaven to be found by you, and the joy of the Father/Shepherd whose incredible love forbids him from letting you stay lost.

(reposted from 12/25/13)

stars and angel

They were the invitations God sent to include man in the Christmas story. The Wise Men followed the star; the shepherds followed through on the directions given them by the angels. Stars and Angels beckoned non-members of the Holy Family to celebrate with the new parents. Their role in that first Christmas was to call people into the presence of Immanuel, God made flesh.

Now they are common in our Christmas decorations. We sing about them in our carols, and we usually top our trees with a star or an angel. Christmas pageants always include a “host” of angels.

I wonder if any others saw the signs or heard the invitation of that first Christmas and just chose to ignore them. I wonder how many others saw the star, were fascinated by its appearing, and chose not to interrupt their schedules. I wonder why the angels picked those particular shepherds to invite to the manger. Did the inn keeper’s family know a baby was being born in their stable? Did they check on that laboring mother, or were they too busy with other plans and chores? Was their story left out of biblical account, or did they leave God out of their story that night?

Too many of us see the signs of Christmas and appreciate them from afar, without ever following them into the presence of God. The light of that star shone over the birthplace of the Light of the World. God put the sign where everyone could see it, but very few made the effort or had the desire to follow it into his presence. The angels told of the blessing that the birth of Jesus brought to Earth, but only the shepherds went to see for themselves.

 Appreciating the decorations, even being aware of the event, will not necessarily bring you into the presence of Immanuel. When you see a star or an angel during this season, be reminded that they were always God’s invitation to be a part of his story. In the days leading up to the celebration of Christmas, may you follow the star and the angels past the tradition and ritual of the holiday into the presence of God himself.

gift

Gift wrap matters to me. Wrapped presents under the tree increase the expectation for Christmas morning, and are part of the decoration in my home.  Somehow the color and beauty of the wrapping and bows and the process of peeling them away escalates the anticipation of the gift inside.

Sometimes gift wrap can be deceiving. My dad used to put a box in a box in a box until a tiny gift loomed large under the tree. My Sunday School class does white elephant gifts at our annual Christmas party, and the silliest, ugliest presents are often hidden beneath the most beautiful paper. There were times when my boys were small that the wrapping on their precious gifts for me used more tape than paper.

Wrapping is scriptural. David described God as “wrapped in light”. (Ps 104:2) God took the holiness and divinity of his son and wrapped him in human flesh when he sent him to earth for that first Christmas. Mary wrapped that baby in cloths and placed him in a manger. Joseph of Arimathea took the body of Jesus from the cross and wrapped him in linen before placing his body in the tomb.

The gifts under my tree represent planning and shopping that I hope will bring joy to the recipients. But the bottom line is that the wrapping is just the presentation. By the end of Christmas morning, crumpled paper and torn ribbon will be stuffed into trash bags and thrown away. It is the gift itself that matters. What determines the importance of a gift is not whether you like the wrapping; it is what you do with the gift once the wrapping is gone.

Christmas is our reminder that God loved the world so much that he gave us the incredible gift of his son, wrapped in the form of a human baby. (John 3:16) What will you do with the meaning and purpose of Christmas once the celebration and wrapping are gone? Let God’s gift that became Christmas bring you new hope and joy as you chose to celebrate his presence, throughout this season and until you see him face to face.

Tree

One of the tenderest parts of my preparation for Christmas is putting up the tree. Decorating it usually brings a few tears. Many of the ornaments were given to me by people who are now waiting for me in heaven. Many of the ornaments were made by my precious children who are now wonderful grown men. Some were given to me by people I rarely see anymore. Each ornament represents a person or an event or a trip that blessed me or my family. Each one has a story. I have spent twenty seven years accumulating the ornaments that make my tree complete and give it beauty and meaning.

It’s not a perfect tree where everything matches. It’s a tree that mirrors real life. Most of the ornaments on it are one of a kind. Some are elegantly beautiful; some are whimsically fun. Some shine; some are worn by age. Some are religious; some are secular. All are precious to me and are a reflection of the story of my life.

The decorations and parties and concerts are one way I try to make celebrating Christmas look different from the rest of my year. The older I get, the more my celebrations are lace with memory and tradition. That tree is precious to me because it is where those that I love will gather on Christmas morning. My tree, my life, and my effort to celebrate the birth of my Savior are all imperfect, but God is not deterred by my imperfection; it is the reason he came to save me.

My intentional focus on the fact the God interrupted history to send his son to earth is intertwined with family needs and schedule demands. When I choose to acknowledge God’s incredible gift of that first holy night of Jesus’ life, Christmas comes to my den and my heart as surely as it did to the stable and hillside in Bethlehem.

That Christ child would grow up to lead those willing to follow him through all the events of their lives: the shiny and the raggedy, the glorious and the tender, the sacred and the secular. He didn’t insist that we become holy so that we could know him; he came to help us become holy in the midst of all the stuff and shine and stress of our lives. May your home and your Christmas celebration be characterized by his presence, his peace, and his joy as you allow him to weave the story of your past into all that is to come in the new year.

 

angels

God sent one angel to announce the birth of Jesus and tell the shepherds how they could find the holy family. Then a whole “host” of angels showed up with a different proclamation.

 Luke 2:14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.

Glory to God and peace to men – that is what the birth of Christ brought to earth that night. The angels proclaimed glory to God who loved his stubborn, disobedient people so much that nothing would prevent him from dwelling with them. And they proclaimed heaven’s peace to men who could not seem to find or create peace for themselves. There was no immediate change in the lives of the shepherds that night. After the angels disappeared, their circumstances were unchanged. The sheep still needed to be watched. Their family and economic situations were unchanged. And they faced a new day with no sleep. But their hearts and expectations were changed. Those shepherds who were so afraid of the sudden appearance of the angels did what the angels told them to do…and they saw God.

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

Looking at all the strife in our hearts and our headlines, it seems we need the same thing today. Giving glory to God often takes a back seat to our comfort zone, our agenda, and political correctness. Too often when God comes to us, we are too busy, too hopeful for our own glory. We forget or refuse to honor the one who has come to us over and over, who has blessed us, who loves us so much he refuses to let go of us. We don’t give praise and glory to the only one who deserves it…and that robs us of our peace.

I suspect our peace here on earth is rooted in our ability to choose to see the glory of God in the midst of all the other stuff in life. God never promised to grant all your wishes, but over and over he promised his presence. May you hear the proclamation of the angels with new insight this Christmas, and may that knowledge lead you to see God in the midst of the circumstances of your life. Let the honor you show to God bring you deep peace.