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the most wonderful

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I don’t know about you, but I love Christmas music. And I’m definitely not a purist when it comes to when one is allowed to listen. I’ve been known to listen to Christmas music all during the season of Advent. I’ve been known to even begin listening to Christmas music before Thanksgiving (I just told my students recently it was because there were no good turkey songs). I can even tell that I am truly getting into the spirit of the season when I bust out the Carpenter’s Christmas album. For me it truly is the most wonderful time of the year…and yet for some. Well they struggle with this season more than any other. Often times issues of grief or family drama or financial stress become even more prevalent during holiday seasons. For some this season even becomes the least wonderful time of the year. In a season that is meant to be marked by joy, peace, love, and hope, some find themselves struggling to find these very things in the midst of all the other issues that become more transparent as the holidays take hold.

And on some level I think it all hinges on that last aspect of the Advent practice…hope. The season of Advent, for those who aren’t aware, begins this Sunday and marks the beginning of the church year. Advent is the four Sundays leading up to Christmas and it is both a celebration of the initial coming of Christ and an anticipation of His return. And yet, we so often struggle with finding hope in the midst of this season. Many find themselves placing their hopes in things like the economy, politicians, national defense, etc. and as they often discover; this is no place for hope. When it comes to Advent, our hope takes on an incredible shape. Hear these words from the prophet Isaiah, “He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” – Isaiah 2:4 The Advent hope of Christ return almost seems too wonderful when we read it in the context of our current situation, but this is what true hope should look like.

In a world of shopping malls, black Friday sales, twitter feuds, international diplomatic escalation, racial unrest, cancer, and the like we struggle to take comfort in the story that Advent ushers in. Sometimes it is too much to find ourselves marveling at the story of a young Jewish mother giving birth to a son in the midst of a small town in Judea. Sometimes we struggle to find hope in the shepherd’s vision or the Magi’s quest or the angel’s songs. These stories are too wonderful and too far removed from our present situation for us to take hold of hope in the midst of a competing narrative. Perhaps what is needed is for us to look forward to the coming Advent that will take hold of the broken systems of this world and redeem them. The hope of Isaiah the prophet becomes realized in the words of John the apostle in that concluding hope of scripture. “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” – Revelation 21:4 May we come to find ourselves caught up in THIS wonderful season and hopeful promise as we anticipate the Advent of Christ once again.

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petty

mosquito sucking bloodA couple of years ago my wife and I got to spend a day with one of our professors from college. I say “our” even though I never took him for a class,  because of how instrumental he was in shaping both of our paths. My wife often says that she would have spent her entire student debt on his one class that she took because of what it meant to her faith walk. And in our lives together he’s the person that we have often turned to during difficult times in ministry and he usually has some small nugget of truth that resonates with us for months and even years to come. This day was no exception as we found ourselves talking about ministry and the church again. At some point in the conversation he says to us, “You know what the two great sins of the church are? Being boring or being petty.” At the time I kind of shrugged it off, as I am apt to do…but time reveals so much, doesn’t it?

I’ve come to realize how much truth there was to that statement. The first piece is pretty self-explanatory. The last thing the church should ever be boring with is the life-transforming message of the Gospel. The second piece is something we have all lived with and seen in our own contexts. We love to major on the minors. We will go to war in the church over the color of carpet, style of worship, wall decor, etc. And the grudges we hold if we don’t get our way. Paul says this to the people of Colossians, “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” – Colossians 3:12-13 Clothe, dress, adorn, put-on love, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience! In other words, don’t be petty. Don’t major on the minors. Keep the first things first.

And if you don’t think pettiness is a big problem consider this adage from the Dalai Lama, “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito”. Granted, he may have meant this in a positive light, but I have trouble seeing anything positive associated with mosquitoes. If we allow pettiness to dictate our actions, it can destroy relationships, families and even churches over stuff that at the end of the day doesn’t even matter. I have seen friendships ruined over stuff that people shouldn’t even be getting up in arms about, but because they have taken a stand, they can’t back down. And at the end of the day, when we allow pettiness to dictate our actions, we have allowed sin to control our lives…because truly is about me and not about we. I always find myself coming back to the quote by Meldenius, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” Perhaps it is time for some of us to learn not to be petty in non-essentials and to clothe ourselves in charity for the sake of our friendships, our churches and the world.


just stop 

I’m tired…and it’s only Thursday (feel free to substitute any day of the week except Friday).

How many times do we find that this becomes part of our vernacular? We have become a people whose god is busyness.
The schedules and the to-do lists and the accomplishments and the appointments and the events and the practices and the rehearsals and the whatever is next never seems to stop. Is this how it is supposed to be? We almost seem to think that it is an accomplishment just to make it to the next day. Something has to give because we cannot keep going like this and have healthy lives, families, relationships, etc.

Fortunately for you my friend, this is not how you were designed nor is this how you are intended to live. The Hebrew scriptures were penned in such a way as to help us see that our lives are intended to be ordered in a more unique fashion. Way back in the very beginning we see that God himself built a rhythm into creation and we are intended to follow said rhythm. It looks a bit like this, “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.” – Genesis 2:2-3. The word for rest in the passage above is shabath from which we get Sabbath and it literally means “STOP”. After six days, God stops…and does nothing. Isn’t that beautiful? There is built into the very fabric of creation a day of nothing…no schedules, no appointments, no errands, nothing.

And yet, we are too busy to honor the very fulfillment of creation itself. If we don’t go here, if we don’t do this, we won’t have this or we won’t get that done or we won’t feel accomplished; STOP! As Jesus is coming to the end of His time with His disciples he reminds them of this is John 15, “Remain in me, as I also remain in you” – John 15:4. Jesus, knowing the rhythm that is built into creation reminds us to stay, pause, remain, stop and dwell with Him. Does that mean that God isn’t present in our busyness and goings and comings throughout the week? By no means. But perhaps we need to take a day to be aware of His presence by stopping and finding ourselves renewed for a moment. After all, we are only human.
So my challenge to you and to me this week? In the midst of renewed schedules and life rhythms that come with this season of year, may you find some time, preferably a day, to stop; to shabath. You need it. I need it. God made you and creation itself for it. And as you do may you find yourself renewed in The Spirit that gave life and breath to creation itself and then stopped.

 


trick or treat

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One of my favorite events in the life of our church here in Odessa took place last night. For one night each year we roll out the red, or should I say orange, carpet in a big way. Our annual Fall Festival is awesome! We have about 50 or so volunteers rally to host over 500 people each year. There’s food trucks, inflatables, face-painting, carnival games, pop-corn, music and costumes…so many cool costumes. I love seeing all of the kids, and “adult kids”, coming to our church in their costumes for a night of fun and festivities. In fact, it seems that more and more each year people are really getting into the Halloween spirit. And yet, sometimes we in the church struggle with what to do with this holiday full of spooks and ghosts and ghouls.

I guess we could start by taking a look at our own history, after all, Halloween began as part of Allhallowtide, a Christian feast holiday. According to HistoryChannel.com, “In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as a time to honor all saints; All Saints Day…The evening before was known as All Hallows Eve, and later Halloween.” Halloween was originally part of a Religious feast intended to honor those who have gone before us. And yet so often we see all of the hullabaloo of Halloween today feeling like something different from it’s Christian roots and often become something else entirely. Even as I am writing this I am thinking about all of those who feel like Halloween is a dark holiday to be avoided at all costs…and I respect your opinion, but think with me for a moment. Try putting yourself in the place of one of the kids who got be at our Fall Festival last night or who looks forward to Trick-or-Treating this coming week. You’re telling me that for a day I get to dress up like someone else, go around to my neighbor’s houses and they give me candy? It’s almost kind of magical. And who doesn’t love another excuse to eat candy?

I have always looked at scripture a little differently and I hope you will amuse me here. To me, one of the saddest verses in all of scripture is found in I Corinthians 13:11 “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” So often we think of this as the natural maturation process, but what if it is talking about the loss of the natural wonder and love that comes with childhood? I think all to often we are ready to grow up and we miss the joy and simplicity of living that can be seen through the eyes of a child. Maybe if we began to see this holiday again through the eyes of a child and all the joy I saw last night we might be able to see it a little differently. Maybe the treat is found through the trick of seeing Halloween as a child. And maybe holidays like Halloween can be enjoyed in a new light as we seek to reclaim the world yet again through childlike wonder and joy.

 

 


our go-to

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Do you ever get nervous about what is to come? Do you ever find yourself fearful of the next moment? Do you watch the news at all? It’s crazy to think that our culture has become dependent on fear and worry. It’s almost as if we as people of faith have to struggle more than ever not to give into “the rulers, the authorities, and the powers of this dark world”. The crazy thing is that this isn’t a new struggle. We as humans have been quick to cling to fear or dread or worry…even in the good times. I’m reminded of the story in scripture recorded in the book of Nehemiah. The people of Israel had come home from exile, had begun to rebuild, and had even rediscovered the law. They gathered as one to hear the law read and explained to them and their response is recorded here, “Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, ‘This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.” – Nehemiah 8:9 What should have been this beautiful moment of reclaimed identity became a moment of weeping. Why? Because we’re not very good at joy.

In her book Daring Greatly, author Brene Brown addresses this a bit when she speaks to fear, dread and joy. “We can’t prepare for tragedy and loss.  When we turn every opportunity to feel joy into a test drive for despair, we actually diminish our resilience.  Yes, softening into joy is uncomfortable.  Yes, it’s scary.  Yes, it’s vulnerable. But every time we allow ourselves to lean into joy and give in to those moments, we build resilience and we cultivate hope.  The joy becomes part of who we are, and when bad things happen–and they do happen–we are stronger.”* The people of Israel wept in the face of the law because they worried once again that the other shoe was about to fall. They had experienced loss and exile and in this moment of what should have been pure, unadulterated joy, they wept…they were still fearful. As Brown puts it, joy is scary because it’s vulnerable. It opens us up to the possibility that we could be hurt or let down. But if we never fully experience joy we actually become more hollow, more shallow, more fearful and even weaker in the face of tragedy.

The great thing about that passage in Nehemiah is that it doesn’t stop at verse nine. “Nehemiah said, ‘Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength’.” – Nehemiah 8:10 Did you see that? The joy of the Lord is our strength. Being able to be grateful and joyous in the good things that God gives us actually becomes that which makes us stronger. I often hear Christians quote or paraphrase German philosopher Nietzsche when it comes to tragedy and pain; “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” (Sometimes they just sing Kelly Clarkson) But this isn’t entirely true. Our go-to after facing tragedy and hurt and pain, can be worry or dread over whatever is coming next…and this is not strength. True strength can be found in the gratitude and joy for those surreal life moments when we experience God in a new way and truly come to realize that the joy of God becomes our strength.

 

* Brown, Brené. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York, NY: Gotham Books, 2012. Print.

because I said so

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I remember before my wife and I became parents we would often talk about how we would never tell our kids, “because I said so”. We both had always felt like this was a parental cop-out and were therefore determined to be able to help our children understand the reasoning and the logic behind every request that we placed upon them. As of today however, the running tally of how many times we have said, “because I said so” is roughly about 4,607,322…not that anyone is keeping track. Because sometimes you look at your amazingly beautiful, precious child and the amount of frustration boils up as your patience continues to wear thin and you just want them to understand your request but you really have nothing left and “because I said so” becomes that very necessary trump card.

Strangely enough though, I see a bit of Divine resonance in the phrase, “because I said so”. But I think it is all about where the emphasis is placed (did you see my hint?). There is a Psalm that kind of helped me to understand this a little more recently and it is probably familiar to many of you. Psalm 19 begins this way, “The heavens declare the glory of God…” It then goes through an incredible description of God’s glory and majesty and all that He has created and then it interjects with the following phrase, “The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul. The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple.” Psalm 19:7 It goes from all the splendor and glory of creation to a description of the law…huh? But what I see the Psalmist presenting before us is a case for God being able to say, “because I said so” So often we see the law of God and we simply see it as a list of what not to do and what to avoid and how we will get punished if we step out of line. But for the Psalmist the law was born out of the love that God, the God who made everything, had for us.

Now think about that love for a minute. God gave us stars and planets and nebulas and quasars and all of these amazing things to display His glory. God gave us cells and synapses and electrons and mitochondria and DNA to amaze and grab our attention. And God gave us His law, His instruction because He is the same God who created all those things and He may know a little about how life works best. So His law is not a limitation of life…it is an amplification of how life works best. Often times this is how I feel when I am trying to convey to my children why I want them to do something. I’ve been around longer, I’ve seen more life than you and I know how this all plays out. I don’t want you to do something because I am mean or conniving, but rather the opposite. “Because I said so” is a reflection of my love for you, because it’s me…and I know how I feel about You. May we come to feel the same way about the law of the Lord so that we can reflect alongside the Psalmist in the concluding verse of Psalm 19, “May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.

 


the norm

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In the introduction to Walden in an essay entitled Economy, Henry David Thoreau writes, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.” In the 1850s Thoreau felt the need to escape life and run away to the woods because he felt that everyday existence had become so desperate, so mundane, so meaningless that he had to find something more. Can you imagine what would happen if we stuck him in the middle of the civilized world today? A world of enslaving technology, over prescribed medications, processed meals, incoherent work schedules, meaningless division and loosely connected family lives. I imagine Walden pond would not be deep enough for him to escape into.

And yet for many of us these routines, habits, diversions and crutches not only define us, but even give us some false sense of security. It is as if our routines, habits, and definable patterns make us feel normal. OPEN YOUR EYES! This is not normal. This is robbery! This is theft! You are being led away from who you were made to be. The writer of the book of John quotes Jesus with the following, “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.They will come in and go out, and find pasture.The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” – John 10:9-10. And the problem I have is with the way we read these verses. We read that those who come through Christ as the gate will be saved and we think it refers to an eventual reality and we stop there. We rob ourselves of the next verse! Jesus says that he has come to give us life…and life to the full. The Greek would be played out a bit like this; life that is more than, greater, exceeding, abundant, overflowing, passion filled, surpassing, uncommon, superior, more remarkable, more excellent, etc., etc. Are you getting the picture?

And yet so often we get to the end of the day and are glad we “made it through another day”. One of my favorite shows as of late has been the BBC’s Sherlock. In the season 2 finale (this shouldn’t be a spoiler at this point) there is a scene where Sherlock comes upon Moriarty who is listening to the Bee Gee’s Staying Alive. Moriarty then launches into an odd soliloquy, but this is my favorite part, “Staying Alive. So boring, isn’t it? It’s just…staying.” Now granted this is a delusional maniac saying this, but he does have a point. Why are we ever content to just “stay”? And especially those of us who are people of The Way! We should be moving. We should be active. We should be transforming those areas of our lives that people could see as normal into something that is truly incredible! Think about the ares of your life you could transform today. Maybe it is time with  spouse or kids. Maybe it is an encounter with  co-worker or fellow student. Maybe it is a chance encounter with a clerk or a waiter or waitress in your daily routine. Maybe it is something as simple as walking with a smile and a skip in your step. There are multitudes of ways to take your life to the fullest! Why not allow Jesus to do that for you and go out and make His name great today!


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