at hand

I’m not sure if your household works this way but for some reason ours always has. There are certain odd jobs or tasks that by default get assigned to someone. For instance, my wife is the comforter. If someone gets hurt or upset daddy just will not do. It’s up to mom to make the situation better…although it never stops me from trying. One of the default roles that has come to me is that of seeker. And although I am not chasing down a golden snitch, I am the one who finds lost things. If someone has misplaced something or lost a toy or can’t find their car keys (ahem, my wife), then it is up to the seeker to find them. And I am usually pretty good at my job…unless I misplace/lose something. You see, I am usually very systematic in the way I take care of my things. But a few weeks ago we couldn’t find one of our remote controls. And although we suspected our youngest, as he has a habit of carrying these around, we could not locate it. And then one day I walked into the bedroom and there it was…on my side of the bed. A place I was sure I looked many times.

And now we find ourselves in a New Year. I don’t know about you, but whenever I am faced with newness or unknown I get a little unsettled. What is tomorrow going to look like? What will next month look like? What is this New Year going to bring with it? As I reflect on looking ahead I hear the words of Christ come rushing in from the Sermon on the Mount, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.” – Matthew 6:33-34 And I often wonder what that means to ‘seek first His kingdom’. Is it something I have to go looking for? Is it something I have to find? In another passage in the gospels we read this, “Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.” – Luke 17:20-21 Another translation says that the Kingdom of God is ‘within you’. But if it’s already here or in my midst or at hand then how do I access it, find it, seek it, participate in it?

Even though at times they may loose remotes, my kids often times help me see the Kingdom of God in ways I wouldn’t ordinarily see. I love to get their takes on church or relationships or events or even just sit down and watch a movie with them. They see Jesus in literally everything. Perhaps that is what Jesus meant when he said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 18:3 If the Kingdom of Heaven is all around us then maybe it just takes the eyes and faith of a child to enter into it. Maybe seeking after the kingdom has less to do with us searching and looking and more to do with us realizing we are already a part of it and living as if that were the case. I think children help us out here as well. If you’ve ever been part of imaginative play with children then you know what I am about to say is true. In imagination there is no other world outside of play. Maybe that is what it means to seek first His kingdom. There is no other reality but the Kingdom of God. All of the powers and systems and authorities  and politics and economies that vie for our attention aren’t the real. The real is what we are called to see not with our grown up eyes, but with our childlike faith. And maybe if we start to believe in that, we really will see the Kingdom of God at hand.


noisy bells

When our first born son was around four years old we thought it was time to introduce him to the book The Polar Express. After all, he loved trains and it seemed like the right thing to do for Christmas. And in true good parenting fashion we decided we should also introduce him to the movie…which quickly became an obsession. In the midst of all of this we also decided that he needed bell; much like the one received by the little boy in the book. However, a four year old doesn’t always understand yuletide physics and quickly became frustrated. You see, he would grasp that bell with his whole and and shake for all it was worth and yet…there would be no ringing. He couldn’t seem to figure out that holding on to that little bell so tight would mute its noise and so of course in his world, “it broke”. After trying multiple times to help him see how to grasp onto the bell and it not clicking, my wife and I conveniently lost the bell until a more age appropriate Christmas season.

The image of a noisy bell brings to mind one of my favorite passages of scripture. In his letter to the Corinthian church the apostle Paul writes about the greatest of gifts, “f I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” – I Corinthians 13:1 The imagery of a resounding gong could even be translated as an empty, loud annoying brass bell. Paul is saying to us that if we don’t have love, all of our blustering lip service to the world around us is just that…noise. And not good noise either…but loud unproductive obnoxious noise. Our world today is full of noise. If you have been out shopping at all during the Christmas season you know this to be true. People hustling and bustling to get everything they need to make the season bright. But I am wondering if this is a huge and loud misrepresentation of the season.

Charles Wesley, a great hymn writer and one of the theological fathers of our faith, once penned these words to describe the Christmas story, “He left his Father’s throne above so free, so infinite his grace. Emptied himself of all but love…” Emptying, letting go and allowing love to be all. This was the Christmas story of Christ. But I think all to often we find ourselves like that little four year old when it comes to life. We hold on to our things, our loved ones, our dogma, our traditions, our way of doing things so tight that all of a sudden we are just making noise. Love isn’t ringing through us because it has become about us and not about those who we are called to love. Love is a hard thing. It’s the one action where when you know all motives are fixed on another then you finally have it right. And that is what the Christmas story was about. God letting go of everything in order to show us love. Maybe we need to let loose of some things in our life so that we can truly show the love of Christ to those around us this Christmas. Maybe then we will no longer be a noisy gong/bell/brass/cymbal, but instead may join in the angelic chorus, “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”


a stranger

Since roughly about the 4th century Christians have celebrated the four Sunday season before Christmas known as Advent. Advent, which means welcoming, is a season of preparation for both the commemoration of the original coming of Christ to earth and a celebration of Christ coming again. For many Christians it is sometimes hard to connect these two events. When Christ came to earth as a baby in Bethlehem much of the world went on without noticing. When Christ comes again every knee will bow. How could these two events be more different? The writer of Matthew helped me to find a rather poignant connection this Advent season and it speaks to our world now more than ever. At the conclusion of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew he shares a parable about what His return will be like. In that parable Jesus speaks of the final judgment and those who are judged worthy and he has this to say to them, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For…I was a stranger and you invited me in” Matthew 25:34-35

The story goes on to say that those who performed this kindness were not even aware that it was to Christ himself that they bestowed this kindness and Jesus’ response to them, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” – Matthew 25:40. The Greek word for stranger in the passage above is the word xenos, which best translates as foreigner or alien and it’s where we get terms like xenophobia. But Jesus’ not only speaks of His love for the least of these in His response; He also speaks out of history and experience. If we simply turn back the pages of Matthew’s gospel we read this in the conclusion of the visit of the Magi, When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt” – Matthew 2:13-14 Part of Christ’ original coming to earth resulted in His earthly family becoming refugees, aliens, strangers in Egypt who were fleeing political persecution from an evil political force.

I don’t know about you, but it sounds like our world today very much resembles the world the Savior was born into. Just yesterday a report came out about the fall of Aleppo and how 20 Syrian women chose suicide over the impending rape of the Syrian army. Europe has been overwhelmed in attempts to respond to one of the greatest refugee crisis in human history. And we are concerned as to whether or not we will be able to find a Hatchimal for our kids.

I’m not sure I know what the answer is this Advent season. Right now…pray. Pray for Christ to return. Pray for every hurt, every tear, every pain to be wiped away. There are also ways you can give.

1. Nazarene avenues for donating to anything happening inside seem to not exist at this time. But, Nazarenes are working with Syrian children and families who flee the war and are in Lebanon and Jordan. This is a powerful option for helping: http://www.ncm.org/phone/christmas.html

2. There is also and organization that some of our Nazarenes have looked into called Preemptive Love that seems to be responding well: preemptivelove.org They help people who are still trapped in Syria.

3. You can also consider donating to Central Europe Refugee Response: https://give.nazarene.org/donate/f/125967 which is the Nazarene Courage for the Journey response across the Balkans and Greece to refugees in transit or resettling.

I guess my prayer for all of us in the midst of our world and this season of Advent is that we don’t forget what this season is really about. It reminds us that our God took on flesh and came into the world to show us that life is most Holy when we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, invite a stranger in, clothe the naked, care for the sick and those in prison. May we all embrace that calling this Advent season.



with abandon

As I sit here in the stillness of the morning I find myself transported once again. I can’t seem to get away from the Bethlehem hills this Advent season…

The night is still and shrouded in darkness while the smell of sheep surrounds you. It’s been a long day and you know the night has potential to be even longer. You and your fellow shepherds get to exchange watch throughout the night to protect your charge against potential threats. So you strain against the darkness not knowing what is out there, but being completely on your guard. Suddenly the darkness is broken by a violently bright and unfathomable light.Everyone is on their feet and yet cowering as well, not knowing what this new danger may be. Out of the light you make out a figure that is both lovely and terrifying and you suddenly hear a voice, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” – Luke 2:10-12

Then it is as if the remaining darkness explodes into thousands of points of light as the messenger is joined by scores of other heavenly beings who burst forth in song, ““Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” – Luke 2:14 It seems as if time is standing still and then all of a sudden it’s over. You and your comrades are left speechless in the cool night air wandering what just happened. Then someone speaks up, “Could it be true? If so, what are we waiting for.” Quickly you make your way into town completely forgetting about your responsibility in the hills and you find everything just as the messenger had said. Here he is…a newborn baby…wrapped in cloths just like your family did with you. The promised Messiah…David’s own descendant and you are some of the first to lay eyes on him. The joy and energy bubbling up inside of you is uncontrollable. As you and your fellow shepherds prepare to leave you know it is going to be a noisy exodus, but you don’t care. Everyone you bump into is going to hear about this story. Friends, strangers, pharisees, tax collectors, drunkards…even the sheep are going to hear all about the miraculous event that you have just been included in. With abandon you become the first witnesses to the redemption of God for all mankind.

I wonder where you find yourself today, 2,000 years later? Do you need to experience the in-breaking of Heaven again? Do you need to be reminded that there is nothing to fear? Do you find yourself caught up in praising and glorifying God as witnesses to God’s redemption brought about through the birth of Jesus? Or do you find yourself fearful of what others might think or whether or not this story could even make a difference in the world around you. Take heart! The angelic announcement still rings true today and we are now ambassadors of that same gospel announcement, “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.” May we find ourselves proclaiming this same message with abandon for the sake of the world that God has not abandoned.

 

 


versions

In 1992 there was a film released starring Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise that received a lot of notoriety known as A Few Good Men. Although I am sure many of you, like me, may not have seen the entirety of this film, we are all on at least some level familiar with it…or at least one scene. The plot deals with a Marine Colonel Jessup who ordered a code red on a fellow marine that ended up costing his life. Tom Cruise’s character Attorney Kaffe is trying Jessup on this account and it all culminates in one of the more famous dialogue exchanges in all of cinema. “Col. Jessep: You want answers?” “Kaffee: I think I’m entitled to.” “Col. Jessep: You want answers?” “Kaffee: I want the truth!” “Col. Jessep: You can’t handle the truth!” You can’t handle the truth…wow. And yet on some level he was right. Kaffee, like many other characters in the story and many of us have a version of the world that exists in our minds that if it gets challenged could really upset the balance.

I wonder if this is ever something we struggle with when it comes to our living out the life of Christ? I especially tend to think on this during this season in the life of the church known as Advent. It’s a season of preparation and expectation for the coming of Christ. But all to often it becomes a season of stress, busyness, economic abundance and distractions that couldn’t be further from the truth of what the Christmas story was all about. Even though the book of John doesn’t formally retell the Christmas story, the writer does give us a testimony as to what this story was all about. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” – John 1:14 The Word of God himself, Jesus, took on flesh and came to us full of grace and truth. I love this last phrase. Full of truth…what is that truth? That we are hopelessly lost without God. What is that grace? God has made a way for us to be found.

Sometimes I think we haven’t been able to handle this truth. I don’t care if you are a brand new believer, still seeker, or someone who has been in the church all your life. To think you have a chance at making it without God’s grace daily being poured out into you and through you is another version of the truth altogether. Even the apostle Paul, towards the tail end of his faithful ministry had this to say, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.” – 1 Timothy 1:15 I wonder if we live out of this truth or if we somehow have started living into another version. A version that says, ‘I’m okay’. A version that validates our comfort, our possessions, our indifference towards others, our embracing of ideologies not of God or our piety. Jesus himself said that He was the truth and here is someone who was called a friend of sinners, prostitutes, drunkards and tax collectors; a blasphemer and the son of the devil. How often does our truth align with Him? Or has our version of truth aligned us so well with society that we don’t subvert the selfish norm anymore?

Maybe during this season of Advent we might find that we can’t handle the truth…but that through the grace offered to us through the Word made flesh, we just might try.


misplaced curiosity

I love the curiosity that comes with childhood. You see it evidenced all the time if you are ever around small kids. If they have a question; they ask it. It doesn’t matter if it makes the situation socially awkward. Their immediate need to satisfy said curiosity is going to be made plain. I’m sure like me, those parents of small children always cringe at those social encounters when you notice your child catch something strange or different and you see the wheels inside their little heads begin to turn. It’s only a mater of time before, “How…” or “Why…” turns into a, “I’m so sorry…” from you. But we have all been there before. I remember being a very inquisitive child. So much so that often my parents would just turn me loose on our set of encyclopedias for answers (yes, I was that kid). But it seems sometimes that as we get older, our curiosity seems to wane or become misplaced and we just become indifferent to the lives of those around us.

Oh don’t get me wrong, we still like to know things about people…but rarely directly. We love to find out about people from the safety of our own homes and read about their stories from our digital screens and not have to worry about potential socially awkward moments. Think about it for a minute. One of the fastest growing industries over the last couple of decades is celebrity gossip. I can know all about their story, feel like I even know them, and yet I have never had one conversation with this person. Or even the advent of social media. Here we can look at people’s likes, dislikes, kid photos, workout plans, dinner plates, etc. and never even have to talk to them in real life and feel like we are the best of friends. But what is really occurring is that our natural curiosity that creates true and lasting relationships with others has been replaced with something inauthentic, ineffective and indifferent.

I think we are made to get to know one another. I think we are made to be neighbors who love each other like God has called us to. I think that natural inborn curiosity is a way for us to engage one another so that we begin to understand one another and ultimately so that we might be able to share Christ with the world. But when that curiosity is displaced, or stifled, or lost…then what? We keep to ourselves, we engage only those like us and we leave this world looking much the same as it did before we got here. In his epistle to the Corinthian church the apostle Paul says this about engaging others, “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” – 1 Corinthians 9:20-22 In order for Paul to share the gospel he became like those to whom he was called. In order to become like those to whom he was called he probably had to get to know them. In order to get to know them he had to be curious about their story and who they were. Are we curious about the stories and circumstances of those we encounter everyday…or have we become indifferent?

My prayer is that God renews in you and I a sense of curiosity that defies difference and social limitations or awkwardness so that by all possible means Christ may save some.


action and truth

Last night we gathered for our regular Wednesday night church gathering. And I’m not sure if it was the result of Daylight Savings Time or the fact that so many have been sick, but we had a very intimate gathering (that’s pastor talk for a small crowd). But we sat around the table and we began to discuss what Relational Holiness/Mission looked like. We talked about healthy relationships in a digital world and helping new people feel connected to a local church body. We talked about the challenges of the contemporary world and how the church is called to embody healthy and whole community as a reflection of the Divine Life of the Trinity. And the best part about this discussion…I was the only one around the table under the age of 40.

The description of the conversation above may have sounded like a gathering of Gen X’ers or Millennials, but I am so excited to say that this conversation took place with people who are old enough to be my parents and possibly even my grandparents. I sat with these amazing church people as we discussed problems that church faces with it’s mission in the 21st century and that had as much or more insight into the dilemma as many of my peers. They spoke about days gone by when they would incorporate people into the local church by having them into their homes, going out to eat with them, having volleyball nights or picnics. Our verse for the evening even reflected this approach to ministry and sharing the gospel. “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” – 1 John 3:18

It’s funny sometimes how there truly is nothing new under the sun. Often times the younger generation (present company included) think we have a monopoly on forming healthy communities. But honestly this isn’t something we need to reinvent. Our elders have been doing this for a long time…how do you think the gospel got to us anyway? So I have a challenge for us today. Let’s take that passage of scripture from John’s epistle at face value. Let’s not just give lip service to ideas or concepts or strategies etc., but let’s love with actions and authenticity and truth. I look at the world around us even now and am astounded at the words we hurl back at forth at each other…sometimes even lined with scripture. I think we have all had enough words. Let’s love. Love truly. Create churches and communities where people feel loved and connected to something bigger and greater then themselves. After all, Christ himself said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” – John 13:35 Those you are called to love may not always look like you, think like you, believe like you or lead life like you, but that doesn’t diminish or negate your calling to love them. May we find true salvation and holiness in the communities we are called to give our lives to.

 


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