Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Twelve Days . . .

Merry Christmas! Right now we're recovering from six Christmas Eve services (actually Marnie and I were only involved in four of them) and two Christmas Day meals. We were definitely involved in both of those! This blog will get quiet for a while, perhaps twelve days or so. A few words may find their way here - but regular daily reflections will begin on January 12th. The upcoming series at PPC is "Finding God in the Everyday." If you happen to stop by during the twelve days of Christmas, I'd love some help. How do you find God in the everyday?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Ready to Rock

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said” (Luke 1:38).

Advent ends today, as does this series of daily reflections on Luke’s story of events surrounding the birth of Jesus. At the center of every story Luke tells and every character surrounding the birth is the figure of Jesus. Jesus anticipated by the prophets and John the baptizer, Jesus worshiped in the manger, Jesus eventually walking to Jerusalem and the cross. This Jesus is the baby that rocked the world.

But in order for this baby to rock the world, he needs to rock me and you. That is to say, my life needs to be confronted, disturbed, challenged and changed by the familiar Christmas story.

In these final days of Advent we’ve been looking at Mary and the way she yielded her self and her plans to the purposes of God. She allowed her life story to be re-defined by a larger story. God authors the tale of our life. We live as participants, not planners. Mary exemplifies this kind of humility before God.

St. Augustine said of Mary that she conceived Christ first in her heart before she conceived him in her womb.* There is much about Mary that we will never be able to imitate – but this we can do. In fact, this we must do or we will never be rocked, and neither will the world we inhabit.

We sing of such a reality each Christmas. The carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” includes a line that invites God to “cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.”

So we conclude today with a practical question. How do we conceive Christ in our hearts? How is Jesus born in us so that we are rocked to the core and ready to rock the world?

The answer lies in a line from another much loved Christmas carol. We “prepare him room.” We make a space for Christ to take up residence within us. When we sing “let every heart prepare him room” we are implicitly acknowledging two things. One, our hearts are crowded, crowded with anxieties and dreams, resentments and yearnings. Second, we can do something to make room for Jesus.

Perhaps the simplest way to do this is to worship. In worship we can make room by clearing out the junk that is stored in our heart. The best practice in this regard is confession. Telling the truth, naming what it is that crowds our hearts and darkens our soul.

And then we bring order to what’s left as we give thanks to God and offer our praise – especially when we don’t feel very thankful or joyful.

Whatever this Christmas Eve holds for you, make time for worship. In doing so, you prepare room in your heart. You make it possible for Christ to be born in you. You become one through whom God can truly rock the world. If you are a reader in the Atlanta area you’re invited to join us at Peachtree Presbyterian for one of our Christmas Eve services (click here for service times).

Jesus is ready to take up residence in your heart. Prepare him room this Christmas. Invite him in. And may the peace and joy of the savior’s birth be real to you today.

Prayer:
Lord Jesus, cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today. As you dwell in us, use us in your saving work, announcing good news to any and all who need to hear it. Amen.

*(Cited in Charles Talbert, Reading Luke, page 25).

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Creative Imitation

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord . . .” (Luke 1:46).

Then Hannah prayed and said: “My heart rejoices in the Lord” (1 Samuel 2:1).

A few days ago I started reading Steve Martin’s memoir Born Standing Up. Steve Martin hit my consciousness in the mid 70s as a “wild and crazy guy” on Saturday Night Live. Readers under the age of 45 probably won’t have a clue what I’m talking about. Too bad. Sadly the current SNL doesn’t compare to the Martin-Ackroyd-Murray era. But I digress.

What has fascinated me so far about Martin’s story is the layer upon layer of influence and experience that created the comedian I came to know when I was in middle school. Martin tells of his own middle school years when he worked at the newly opened Disneyland in Anaheim, California and watched various stage performers. What Martin describes goes beyond merely watching. He studied them. He learned their jokes. He watched how the magicians’ hands moved as they performed tricks.

And along with his watching he imitated them. He took what they did and used it, adapted it. By the time the nation came to know him on SNL we were seeing years of unnamed influences on the screen. Martin was a comedic genius, but not entirely original. His genius blended creativity with imitation.


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The life of faith, living the Jesus way, is not something we make up as we go along. Following Jesus is a blend of creativity and imitation: Creative in that your story and your circumstances belong uniquely to you. Imitative in that others have been there before. You are in good company as you live a faith-life.

Mary offers a powerful example of how creativity and imitation mingle in a life of discipleship. What the angel announced to Mary was entirely unprecedented. It had not happened before. It has not happened since. Mary’s response was equally unprecedented. She answered God out of the particulars of her life, her engagement to Joseph, her plans for her future. This is Mary’s story, no one else’s.

But in her response Mary looks back to another story – the story of Hannah, the mother of Samuel. Mary’s song borrows line after line from the prayer of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:1-10. After that conversation with Gabriel, Mary does not erupt into original expressions of effusive worship. She recites scripture; she imitates the song of Hannah but in a way that is her own, blending creativity and imitation.


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Humility shows itself in obedience, the kind of obedience captured in Mary’s “let it be done to me according to you word.” That’s a prayer worth uttering every day. But humility is also seen in our willingness to connect our life story to a larger story.

Mary made sense of her life by looking to Hannah. There are other examples of faithful living that help us make sense of our lives. Above all, there is the larger story of God’s mission in this world. Humility is the capacity to see beyond the drama of our own story, the willingness to understand “what’s happening to me” in light of “what is God doing in the world?”

Christmas tells us that God has entered our story. Clothed in flesh, God embraced every detail of human existence. Christmas also invites us to enter God’s story. This is the story that makes sense of what we’re living right now, in this time, on this street, in this economy. Christmas is an invitation to creative imitation.

Prayer:
Gracious God, my own story dominates my attention: my plans, my circumstances, my cast of characters. Give me the grace of a Mary-like humility that sees a larger story. Help me to find my place among other faithful people, taking encouragement from their example as I live a life of creative imitation in the name of Jesus. Amen.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Just Imagine

Mary said to the angel, “How can this be since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34)

Over the weekend my son attended a Christmas party at church, leaving the remaining members of the family two hours of time with which to get dinner. With big brother being at a party, little sister was feeling on the outs – so we made a special evening of it and went to one of those Japanese places where they prepare the food on a hibachi grill right in front of you. Honestly, I think little sister got the better end of the deal that night.

The chef that evening gave us quite a show, not to mention a great meal. He sliced the meat deftly, twirled his utensils with flare, made the grill sizzle and flame, warming our faces just long enough to feel really good. It was an ordinary onion, however, that proved his skill.

The onion had already been sliced and the first two slices were quickly chopped into small pieces. With the third slice he did something different. He separated the concentric circles of onion, one from the other and stacked them up, from large to small, creating a little onion mountain. Then, using a certain blend of oils and a match, he caused the onion mountain to shoot up a flame. Once the flame had died, the mountain continued to pour forth smoke – an onion volcano.

What impressed me most about this was the imagination required to include this in the preparation of the meal. It is one thing to grill an onion. It’s quite another to make an onion volcano that spouts flame and smoke. Most of us look at an onion as something to eat or something to peel and slice. Few of us see a volcano. When it comes to onions we lack imagination.

Whenever we hear the story of the angel’s announcement to Mary several words come to mind. We think of Mary’s faith, her willingness to trust God and submit herself to what God was doing. We think of Mary’s courage, her acceptance of what would certainly be regarded as shameful, the pregnancy of a young unmarried woman. What we rarely think of is Mary’s imagination.

Imagination is not our capacity to make up things that are not true. Imagination is our capacity to know truth that lies beyond what we can see. Barbara Brown Taylor explains it this way:

It is an imaginative enterprise, in which I must first of all give up the notion that I know what I am looking at when I look at the world. I do not know. All I know is that there is always more than meets the eye and that if I want to see truly I must be willing to look beyond the appearance of things into the depth of things . . . a direct gaze often misses what may be glimpsed at the corner of they eye.*

Christmas engages our imaginations. We see this most clearly in small children. They are filled with wonder and anticipation – most of which surrounds Santa Claus and his journey around the world in the dark of night on Christmas Eve.

But eventually children become grown ups, and the imagination gets bleached out of Christmas. This is regrettable because imagination isn’t about elves and reindeer. Imagination allows us to hear the biblical story as it should be heard. God is at work around us in ways that elude a direct gaze. Miracles are happening in ordinary places (stables) among the most ordinary people (Shepherds, a young girl and a carpenter).

And God still work in these ways. What ordinariness surrounds you today? What familiar routines will you repeat this week in celebration of Christmas? What we require more than a new routine is simply imagination. An onion made a volcano. A virgin made the mother of the messiah. And miracles unfolding all around you right now.

Prayer:
O God, grant me the grace of an active imagination. Help me to see what’s in front of me in ways that have eluded me in the past. Give me enough imagination to love my neighbors and co-workers as people made in your image. Give me imagination to see this season as more than an economic concern or a family tradition. Teach me to see what you are doing in this world and make bold to take part in it. Amen.


(* Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life, p. 49)

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Praying

“Do not be afraid Zechariah. Your prayer has been heard.” (Luke 1:13)

This past summer I spent some time reading The Journals of Jim Elliot. Jim Elliot, missionary to Ecuador, was killed with four colleagues by the Auca Indians on January 8, 1956. His story inspired a generation of missionaries, and continues to do so today. The entries I read were written in 1948 when Elliot was a student at Wheaton College. At the time, he was reading the Old Testament, a chapter a day it seems, and writing a paragraph or so of reflection and prayer on his daily scripture readings.

I was especially challenged by something Elliot wrote on February 16, 1948, a reflection on the opening chapter of Exodus. Elliot was observing how Israel flourished under persecution. How the people increased in Egypt, even as slaves. Elliot rightly observed that God’s kingdom advances through affliction. God’s people grow in their suffering. And then Elliot wrote these words: “Send persecution to me, Lord, that my life might bring forth much fruit.”

Elliot prayed more than he knew, and how God answered that prayer. Elliot himself could never have imagined what God intended to do with and through his life, how his violent death would bear much fruit.

Sometimes we may pray things we don’t mean. But perhaps, just as often, we pray more than we mean. Our words to God say more than we know, and God hears more than we say. Paul spoke of the Spirit interceding on our behalf, praying from deep places that lie beyond our vocabulary, uttering things before God that we could never speak. There is a mystery to prayer, far more happening than we know or speak.


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Prayer provides the context for the story of Zechariah and his encounter with the angel Gabriel. As Zechariah is performing his once-in-a-lifetime sacred duty, the people are standing outside praying (1:10). The ritual itself is built around prayer. As Zechariah burns incense at the altar, the prayers of the people are given texture. The sight and smell of incense capture the prayers of a nation.

And of course Zechariah and Elizabeth have prayed. As devout and righteous people they have prayed the Psalms in worship. As husband and wife they have prayed for a child; they prayed about that for many years until it became clear to them that God’s answer was ‘no.’ They struggled to understand that answer, struggled to accept it but accept it they did.

And then Gabriel showed up and greeted Zechariah with “Your prayer has been heard.” Scholars debate exactly which prayer Gabriel is referring to – the prayers for the nation or the prayers for a child. As it turned out, one prayer was integral to the other.

As Zechariah prayed more was happening than he knew. His priestly prayer for the people was being answered in the gift of a child. His prayer for a child would be a part of God’s plan to redeem the nation.


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What are you praying about today? Who are you praying for? Whatever it is, whoever it is, don’t stop praying. And don’t worry whether you’re doing it right. With every petition, you ask more than your words speak and God is doing more than you know.

Prayer:
O Lord, hear my prayer. Hear the words I speak and the yearnings of my heart. Do more than I can imagine, and in all things – the people I love, the situations that concern me – make me confident that you do indeed hear the prayers of your people. Amen.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Silence

And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time (Luke 1:20).

The hardest days had been the very first ones. The moment Zechariah stepped out of the holy place where he had been offering incense people knew that something had happened to him. He gestured but could not speak. At first some thought he had suffered a stroke. Eventually everyone agreed that he had seen a vision – but what? What had happened there at the altar?

When he got home his wife was clearly worried and the neighbors were full of questions. Zechariah thought it odd that his silence mysteriously prompted his friends to speak slowly and loudly. His hearing was fine.

The priest, so accustomed to speaking words of blessing and instruction, was now wrapped in a cocoon of silence. Turns out, that’s just what he needed. He needed the kind of quiet that would allow him to ponder what Gabriel had spoken; he needed to work it through, pray it through.

At first the silence felt like punishment. With the passing of time Zechariah came to under stand that he had blatantly refused to believe what God had spoken. Zechariah saw that he had been afraid. At moments he still was. He was afraid to let himself embrace what the angel had spoken, to risk yet again the pain of dashed hopes. For this lack of faith the angel had rendered him mute. A punishment, or so it seemed.

But as days became weeks and months, Zechariah began to think differently about his stilled tongue. Unable to speak, he listened. Relieved of the need to formulate words for others to hear, he paid better attention to what others were saying. He began to repent of his need to control things with his words, especially his need to control how others regarded him. He watched people. He noticed the dilation of their pupils, the curvature of their lips, the furrowing of their brow as they talked.

Above all, Zechariah had a front row seat as he watched the miracle of what God was doing in Elizabeth’s womb. Month after month he watched in silence. No commentary. No questions. No theories or explanations. Only watching and praying.

Zechariah discovered the silence imposed upon him was not a punishment. It never was meant to be. The silence was gift.


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The gift of silence was God’s chosen method for getting Zechariah out of the way. Maybe God does similar things with us.

Anxieties often prompt us to action. In our fear we try to control things and fix things. Like Zechariah, we ask questions and seek explanations. If we can understand something then we can manage it. But God does not respond to our fears with explanations and assurances. What God asks of us is that we get out of the way and pay attention to what is happening around us. God is at work. In our fear we can miss out on that.

At Christmas time we would do well to imitate Zechariah. We love to sing of “silent night, holy night.” We sing of the little town of Bethlehem, “how still we see thee lie.” But we are rarely silent. We are rarely still. In our noise and hurry our fears cast a long shadow.

In silence and stillness God becomes more real to us, more present. God becomes large and our fears become small. Silence is a gift. Where and how will you find that gift this Christmas?

Prayer:
Merciful God, grant to us in this season of the year the gift of stillness and quiet. Help us to find it that we might see what you are doing in the world around us. Having seen, call us from the quiet places and empower us to love the world in your name. Amen.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Story

After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion (Luke 1:24).

“Daddy, did you see Gabriel today?”

How many times had Zechariah come home from the temple to be greeted with this question from his little boy? It had become a kind of game that the priest shared with his son. Young John wasn’t seeking information. He wasn’t asking a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question of his father. The question was an invitation to tell a story. And Zechariah was never too tired to tell it.

“Daddy, did you see Gabriel today?”

The invitation extended, Zechariah would sit down and John would sit close, or sometimes crawl up into his father’s lap. The old priest would place his arms around the blessing whose arrival he had anticipated in long silence, and he would tell the story.

With every telling the moment was as real and stunning as the day it happened. The once in a lifetime chance to offer incense on behalf of the people . . . the appearance of an angel next to the altar . . . the announcement that Elizabeth would bear a child . . . the reluctance to believe that such a thing was possible . . . the absence of sound from his throat and lips . . . nine months of quiet watching.

John relished every detail. Zechariah was the story teller, but John always glanced toward his mother when it came to the part about how she had never been able to have a child. There was something about the way his mother smiled at that part. Her face was very old, but her delight in that piece of the drama made her seem almost girlish again. John eventually outgrew Zechariah’s lap but he never outgrew the tale. With every passing year, with every telling of the story, John learned something about his parents.

But most importantly, John learned something about God. The story of his birth taught John that God shows up barren places, that lifelessness is the hiding place of the Holy, that wilderness places are the stage for divine drama.

Maybe that’s why, when John was old enough, he went to the desert. His daddy had taught him that God is at work in barren, desolate places.

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There is a barren place in every life. For Elizabeth it was her womb. That will not be true of all of us, but what we share in common with Elizabeth is this: our barren places are often a source of shame for us. Elizabeth called it her “disgrace.” If not disgrace, then at least deep regret.

We spend a fair amount of energy compensating for those barren places. We learn to move on and focus on more positive aspects of our lives. Our prayers from time to time will wander back to that hardscrabble place, but the fervency has leaked out of those prayers. They’ve become occasional reminders to God, nothing more. We learn to accept a certain amount of desolation: desolate career, desolate relationships, desolate dreams, desolate health. We are afraid to think that slightest sprig of life will ever emerge from those places.

But Zechariah’s story teaches us exactly what it taught John. God is at work in barren, wilderness places. What we need is courage to go to the desert. What desolate place in your life have you learned to ignore or tolerate? Advent is an invitation to go there and wait, for God has a way of showing up in the places we’ve given up on.

Prayer:
Once again, O Lord, I bring the barren places of my life before you. Give me courage to wait on you there knowing that you delight to show up in surprising ways in the places I’ve given up on. Meet me in those places during this Advent season, I pray. Amen.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Waiting

But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years (Luke 1:7).

Elizabeth told her husband to stand still while she looked him over, making sure his robe was falling just right and that nothing had foiled her efforts to send him to his temple duty spotless. Of course, he would wash again before performing the sacred ritual. He would put on other priestly garments. Elizabeth knew this, but her attentions were an act of love, an expression of how proud she was of Zechariah. She wouldn’t let him out of the house until she felt sure that he looked just right.

Zechariah was one of thousands of priests in Israel. The priesthood was in his blood, literally. Being a priest was something you were born into, a privilege bestowed by genealogy. Elizabeth herself belonged to a priestly family. The task of offering incense was assigned by lot. You couldn’t apply for it. Seniority among the priests meant nothing. It was entirely in God’s hands. Once a priest had served in this role he could not do so again.

Zechariah had been waiting for this day his whole life.
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Elizabeth herself was no stranger to waiting. The wedding celebration had hardly ended before the comments and questions began to come from well meaning friends. Always good natured and accompanied by winks and giggles, relatives and neighbors knew that soon children would come. It was an expectation that Elizabeth herself had carried in her heart since she was very young. But the months became years and the young couple showed no promise of becoming a threesome. The winks and giggles stopped, giving way to compassionate smiles that Elizabeth despised.

The years became decades and waiting became resignation. Eventually resignation settled into reproach. A shame borne quietly. Elizabeth reached old age childless.
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We’re all waiting for something. The nature of our waiting changes over a lifetime. We wait for love, wait for a break, wait for the promotion, wait for the test results, wait for the next available customer service representative.

Maybe we’ve waited and received only to find that waiting is hard wired into our souls. We need something to look forward to, something to anticipate. We love the waiting, and we hate it too. Sometimes the waiting chisels away at our sense of self, it erodes our faith.

There is an art to waiting. It isn’t passive and weak. Somehow our waiting needs to be watched with vigilance or it becomes distorted.

If you’re waiting on the man or woman who will make you happy, the job that will finally give you security, the break that will establish your name, then the waiting can crush you. But to wait on the Lord is a different kind of thing. As Isaiah said, those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength (Isaiah 40:31).

Zechariah waited to be chosen for a job – and was stunned when he encountered an angel of the Lord. Elizabeth’s waiting became her disgrace, until the Lord took her disgrace away. Advent reminds us that we wait on God, not something God can give.

What are you waiting on today? Is this waiting wearing you out or lifting you up?

Prayer:
One of my fears, O Lord, is that my waiting is a waste of time. I wonder when you’ll show up, or if you ever will. Help me to wait only on you – not on something I’m hoping you’ll give to me. You alone are our hope. Renew my strength as I wait on you in this season of Advent. Amen.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Certainty (or the lack thereof)

Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” (Luke 1:18).

“How can I be sure of this?”

This was the question that crossed the line, provoked Gabriel to render the priest mute. This was the question that exposed something of the condition of Zechariah’s heart. This question allowed fear to trump faith.

And it is this question that many of us have asked time and time again. Many of us are asking it right now. We know in our minds and we say with our words that there are no guarantees in life – but the margin of uncertainty must never be too wide. We want to eliminate the variables. We want to know that things will work out, unfold according to plan, meet our expectations.

To insist on a razor thin margin of uncertainty is to live with an equally diminished capacity to trust. Our hearts are thus exposed and what we find is fear.

We can hardly blame Zechariah for asking this question. After all, the man never renounced faith in God. In fact, Luke makes it clear that Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were both upright and blameless people – not perfect by any means, but devout. They took God seriously and lived life in devotion to God.

As a priest, Zechariah had been chosen for the one duty that would fall to him only once in his lifetime. He was chosen by lot – by the providence of God – to offer incense in the temple. In the middle of this sacred moment the angel Gabriel appeared and told Zechariah that he and Elizabeth would have a son. Echoing well known stories from the Hebrew scripture, Zechariah and Elizabeth are old and they’ve never been able to have a child. Gabriel breaks the news with a powerful sentence. “Your prayer has been heard.”

That’s exactly what we have a hard time believing. Especially when it comes to something over which we have prayed long and wept much, an area of life that God has stubbornly refused to bless. The day finally comes when our prayers become little more than occasional thoughts that leave our eyes dry.

And then one day with stunning suddenness there’s an announcement that all those prayers have been heard, that they were heard all along. Not only have they been heard, they are now being answered. God is up to something. That’s what happened to Zechariah. And his response?

“How can I be sure of this?” We get Zechariah. We get him because we’d want to know the same thing. You may be asking the same question right now about some part of your life. How can you be sure? How can you know it’s true, that God is at work in that tender place in your life?

Here’s the short answer: you can’t be sure. Certainty is demanded by those who refuse to trust. God will give us confidence. By grace God will strengthen our faith. God has spoken promises to us in his word. But God does not allow us the luxury of bypassing trust.

On the heels of the third Sunday in Advent we will be thinking about our fears at Christmas time and what Christmas means for our fears. Is there an area of life in which you’ve been waiting for certainty, for the narrowest margin of risk? What do your fears look like in these days of Advent? Name them right now. We’ll spend the rest of the week thinking about what to do with them.

Prayer:
Gracious God, something inside of me craves certainty. Sometimes my desire to be sure masks a refusal to trust you. Today I bring my fears before you. I name each one and ask you to teach me what it means to be bold in following you. Help me to seize the grace of courage this week, I ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Getting Ready for Grace

For my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the sight of all people (Luke 2:30-31).

. . . she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem (Luke 2:38)

His first game of the season, first score of the season, and I missed it. I wasn’t ready. He didn’t score much last year. Honestly, I’m not sure he scored at all. So this past Saturday when my son’s basketball game started, I wasn’t ready for how much he had improved.

I was there at the game, but I missed the shot, missed the moment. For some reason I decided that I needed to check my email on my handheld phone / PDA thing. I was watching, but with divided attention. My eyes were on a small screen when the ball hit the basket. I managed to redeem myself later in the game when I actually saw his second basket.

One cannot help but wonder about all the people who were at the temple when Mary and Joseph arrived to dedicate their son. The place was massive. Throngs of people moved through the temple courts daily. Years later when Jesus would drive out the money changers, we sense that the place had the feel of a carnival, not unlike walking the midway at the state fair or stepping inside the gates at Disney.

Simeon and Anna had company that day at the temple. But everyone there missed what Simeon and Anna saw. They were in the right place but they missed the moment. For most of the people at the temple that day, these two conversations between a very young family and two very old people didn’t even hit their radar.

This is even more peculiar when we realize that we are told about Simeon and Anna with very broad and comprehensive language. Simeon praises God for a work of salvation that is unfolding in the sight of all people. Anna speaks of the child to all who are waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem, which was just about everyone there. The word “all” keeps showing up in the story. But not all see what Simeon and Anna saw.

We know this is so and it perplexes us. We can be in the right places and miss Jesus. We can be in the sanctuary and not encounter the Christ child. We can hear the Christmas story and it remains just that – a story. Comforting in its familiarity, endearing in its images, but somehow disconnected from the traffic of our lives. Too often we are numbered among the many who hurriedly walked by the young family that day, perhaps noting that they carried a baby, but never dreaming to stop, not having the slightest clue who that child might be.

There may be ways to explain why Simeon and Anna were blessed to recognize the infant Jesus and perceive what God was doing in this child. They were at a season of life in which they moved slower, not hurrying to get someplace else. They lived a discipline of life that made them sensitive to the Spirit’s moving. They were uniquely ready to see the work of God around them.

But God’s work is for all of us, not for an elite few – for all nations, for all who yearn and hope and long to see God set the world right. We find ourselves in this story. Somehow readiness and grace meet. The recognition of Jesus comes by grace. Simeon and Anna show us how to get ready.

What would it mean for you to truly get ready for Christmas?

Prayer:
It is by your grace, O God, that we see who Jesus truly is and love him for what he came to do. We ask for this grace as we ready ourselves for Christmas. Make us prayerful in these days. Move our hearts to worship. Give us eyes to see what the world so easily ignores. And we, like Simeon and Anna, will declare your works to all people. Amen.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Empty

She never left the temple, but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying (Luke 2:37).

At Christmas time the food comes out. It comes in the mail: fruit, cookies, and cake can show up at your door on any given day. Of course, food is usually present in abundance at Christmas parties. Your plate may be small, but there’s no shortage of food and no limits to your freedom to graze. And then there’s the family gatherings, assembly line meals where everyone brings something and you end up with far more than the clan can eat.

Most of that we expect. However the food that always ambushes my self discipline is the food that shows up around the office. All morning long I’ve found myself wandering down the hall for just one more handful of caramel popcorn. Earlier someone had set out a plate of little chocolate √©clairs that went along perfectly with my coffee.

For most of us, the season in which we celebrate the birth of Jesus, God’s incarnation among us, is a season of fullness. Our calendars are full, our stomachs are full, stockings over the fireplace and the tree in the living room are likewise full. At Christmas we do not know emptiness. In fact, at Christmas we are often glutted.

And yet, when the apostle Paul looked for words to describe what it is we celebrate, he chose a text that used the word “empty.” He reminded the believers in Philippi that Christ didn’t cling to his position of equality with God, but he emptied himself and took the form of a servant (Philippians 2:7). Christmas is best seen and known in emptiness.

Having lingered this week with Simeon and his temple encounter with Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus, we turn our attention now to another who also recognized this child as the hope of a nation. An elderly woman by the name of Anna was a constant presence in the temple. She had married as a young woman, but after seven years her husband had died and she had remained a widow. Now, at age 84, she too was blessed with a moment of recognition.

That moment of recognition was defined by a devout life. Luke tells us that she didn’t merely hang out at the temple. She was there day and night, worshiping, fasting and praying.

The fasting should hold our attention. She was there in emptiness, and in emptiness she recognized the work of God in the infant Jesus. The young mother had sung a similar theme before Jesus’ birth. Mary knew that God sends the full away empty and the empty he fills with good things (Luke 1:53).

Most of us get to Christmas full and then look back on it feeling empty. Those who truly encounter Jesus come to Christmas empty, and thus experience its fullness.

For some of you this could be the best Christmas ever. News reports will not tell you this. The condition of our economy has everyone bracing for a disappointing season. That’s because we are addicted to fullness. But maybe this year you’re coming to Christmas somewhat empty. Maybe, like Anna, you are fasting from too many gifts, too much debt, too much activity.

Listen to Mary. Learn from Anna. The empty find themselves filled with good things. That just might be what God wants to do in your life this Christmas.

Prayer:
Lord God, help us to embrace emptiness this Christmas season. Give us strength of will to make space for you by doing less, buying less, eating less. Meet us in those empty spaces and grant the gift of your fullness, we pray. Amen.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Advent Reflections on Simeon (Part III)

And a sword will pierce your own soul too (Luke 2:35).

Simeon had been dead for decades.

Not that Mary knew this. She might have suspected it to be so - after all, how could such an elderly man have lived another 33 years? But we have no reason to believe that Mary actually knew anything about Simeon’s death.

Imagination plays with this silent part of the story, allowing Simeon to walk away after speaking his prophetic word of blessing over the infant Jesus, perhaps living a little longer to tell the story, and then one night going to bed and falling into a sleep long promised from which he would never wake.

Simeon had been dead for decades – but what he had spoken to Mary had lived on. Mary had heard and seen many things about her son that she treasured in her heart, silently pondering and praying over them through the years. The words of Simeon had echoed in her mind time and time again.

“This child is destined to cause the falling an rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:34-35)

On this day, Simeon long dead, she remembered him. Saw again his wrinkled hands reaching for her son. Saw again his moist eyes and weathered face raised to heaven in gratitude. Remembered again her momentary fear as this man had taken her son into his arms. Remembered again his words. “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

And standing on a hill not far from that Jerusalem temple, watching the agony of her child, she felt the sword pierce deep.

At this season of the year we love stories of the Christ child. Mangers and livestock, shepherds and wisemen. An infant in swaddling clothes. Angelic hosts announcing the birth in David’s city. We go eagerly to see it again every year.

But Simeon reminds us where all of this is going. This child is the dividing line of history. Some will rise to new life because of him. Others will stumble and fall. He will be adored and spoken against, believed or rejected. Over the manger and the child the cross looms large. As Vic Pentz reminded us Sunday, we cannot separate the incarnation from the crucifixion.

But we try. We much prefer a cross-less Christmas. We had rather not have that shadow lingering over our “happy holidays.” Still, all who are invited to adore the Christ child will also be invited to follow Jesus of Nazareth. And to follow Jesus is to take up a cross.
The same Isaiah who said that a child was born unto us also spoke of a man acquainted with sorrow, one by whose stripes we are healed.

This week, if you’ve been thinking of Simeon as a sweet old man, benign and harmless, think again. Simeon speaks to us about a sword and stumbling and our hearts being exposed. Simeon readies us for the cross. Like Mary, we would do well to treasure these things in our hearts.

Prayer:
Lord Jesus, we often celebrate your birth without the soul piercing reality of the cross. Remind us today of why you came, and give us power in this season of the year to be people who love sacrificially. Teach us what it means to take up a cross and follow you at Christmas time. And as we follow, make us truly joyful people, we pray. Amen.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Advent Reflections on Simeon (Part II)

Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts (Luke 2:27).

Recently a friend shared a quote with me that has been attributed to the artist Chuck Close: “Amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work.”

My initial reaction to those words was positive. I admire and respect people who do what has to be done, facing the day’s demands with courage and poise, living the life that’s been given to them without whining about the life they wish they had.

But in the life of faith, I’m not satisfied with Close’s neat categories. I want to get up and go to work and give myself faithfully to what’s been given to me – but I’m not willing to relinquish the inspiration as easily as Close suggests. Following Jesus is the kind of life that inspires us to do what has to be done. That such a life is possible is seen in the example of Simeon.

There are some obvious reasons why Simeon should inform our understanding of spirituality: Luke’s text – the only text that tells us anything about Simeon – states plainly that Simeon was righteous and devout, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. This is about a close as scripture comes to saying “he was a spiritual person.”

But what strikes me is the balance that characterizes Simeon’s life before God. He is grounded, persistent, patient – but not dry or lifeless. The balance is captured in a brief phrase from Luke 2:27. “Moved by the Spirit, he went into the Temple courts.”

Simeon’s life embodies two aspects of spirituality that are too often separated. Here is a man who is rooted in the familiar practices of his faith. Going to the temple is simply what he does. He’s done it before, and he’ll keep doing it. This is what it means to live a life of faith. His life before God is shaped by the familiar patterns of temple worship.

But there is nothing rote or mechanical about this. The often walked route to the temple is a Spirit led journey. This man embraces the familiar patterns and practices of worship with expectancy, even with yearning. His heart is fully alive to God. He isn’t going through the motions, worshiping on autopilot. Any suggestion that genuine spirituality requires something spontaneous and new won’t find support in Simeon. He is deeply rooted in the tradition, and yet sensitive to the Spirit’s leading.

We have much to learn from Simeon at Christmas time. To build Christmas entirely on inspiration often disappoints. The painful parts of life that we dealt with in August don’t suddenly go away in December. If we wait on Christmas inspiration the day will come and go and we’ll still be waiting.

But a Christmas of mere routine – family traditions and worship practices – is equally unsatisfying. We proclaim “Joy to the World.” The words are hollow if spoken with nothing more than a steely resolve.

Pray today for the spirituality of Simeon. If you’re chasing a rush of Christmas spirit and inspiration, give yourself to the traditions of worship and expectant prayer. If you’re moving through the routines and traditions with clinched jaw, ask God for the grace of a heart moved by the Holy Spirit. Simeon reminds us that both are needed if we want to recognize the Christ child.

Prayer:
Keep me balanced in my walk with you, O God. Help me to embrace the familiar practice of worship in this season and in those practices make me alive to the movements of the Spirit. Guard me from empty routine and short-lived emotions. Keep me vigilant, ready for your appearances in the world I inhabit. Amen.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Advent Reflections on Simeon

It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ (Luke 2:26).

I can imagine that for a moment he thought about not going. Missing this one day wouldn’t really matter. The place was large and busy. No one would miss him. And besides, he was feeling how the years had settled on his bones like rust. For a while it seemed like this would be a day to stay at home and be still.

I imagine him alone in his house. His wife has been dead for years. He’s seen most of his friends leave this life, and he wonders from time to time why he hasn’t been allowed to join them, why he’s still here.

But those thoughts never linger for long. He knows why he’s here. And he knows why, once he’s been up and moving for a while, he’ll walk yet again to the temple for a time of prayer. The Holy Spirit has revealed to Simeon that he will not die until he sees the Lord’s Christ (Luke 2:26). This is what Simeon lives for. This is what gets him up every morning and braces him against the pain of old age.

This is why Simeon knows he will not stay home today.

I admire Simeon. I want to be like him, at least in this regard: he reached the end of his life with a reason to get out of bed every morning. Plenty of people have a reason, or think they do. And the reason seems worthy, bearing the weight of their lives and hope and dreams. But far too many of those reasons eventually show themselves flimsy and brittle.

Some of us get up every morning for the job, or perhaps the job track. Years blend into decades as we get up to work hard and be rewarded with the next job. We continue to face the world daily, working harder and aiming at larger rewards, more responsibility, the next title. This serves us well for a while, until one day we see the end of the track. We see it at a distance at first and we ignore it. But the track ends. It may end very well, leaving us financially secure and highly esteemed by others in the profession. But still, it ends. And then the question of what gets us up in the morning has to be answered again.

Many of us get up every morning for the family. The job is important, but only because others are depending on you. Maybe what gets you up is the litany of need that seems to define your life. Children must be fed and taken to school and then picked up for piano lessons or baseball practice after which they need a decent meal before getting a bath and practicing the saxophone for 15 minutes just before they review for their vocabulary quiz.

But with staggering suddenness those kids graduate and marry and have kids of their own. This is as it should be. But what gets you out of bed now? What do you live for?

All of us need something to live for. We may need several things to live for, and many things require our best energies, our best years. The question that needs to be continually asked and answered is this: am I living for something that matters?

Simeon did. Simeon lived for nothing less than the chance to see God’s saving work. That’s worth living for. That will get you up every day with expectation. Whether you’re tending your career or tending your family, it is God’s presence in this world that gives our lives worth and meaning.

What are living for today? What energized you as you dressed this morning and faced the world? And finally . . . is it worthy?

Prayer:
Gracious God, I want to live this day and every day for something worthy. Because of your grace, my life is full of many things and this day presents me with much to do. All of these things are good. Help me to do these good things as I live for you and you alone. Make me expectant today, looking for your presence in every conversation and every task. Amen.

Friday, December 05, 2008

A Grounded Zeal

“What should we do then?” the crowd asked (Luke 3:10)

“It’s not how high you jump, but how straight you walk when you hit the ground.”

This is one of those lines that has worked its way into the public domain. As far as I know, no one holds the copyright. It cannot be footnoted. I’d gladly give credit for the line if I knew to whom credit should be given.

The first time I heard those words they were spoken by a preacher, and he had likely heard it from another preacher who had also heard it from another. With some effort we could likely trace the line to Elijah. At any rate, it was on a Sunday following a week of revival services. This pastor was trying to encourage the congregation, the emotional tides of revival having receded, leaving everyone with their normal everyday life again. I thought the line sounded a bit “preachery.” But more than that, I thought it sounded true.

It isn’t hard to conjure up a spiritual jolt. Our religious culture offers shelf after shelf of spiritual Red Bull: worship services that stir the emotions, conferences that ignite kingdom dreams, seminars that leave us determined to reform our marriages and our finances. All of these are good and feed the body of Christ in some way. I love the worship. I’ve been to plenty of the conferences. I’ve learned much from the seminars.

But once the benediction has been spoken and the last session of the conference has ended and the seminar notebook has been worked through, we are left with our lives. We still have to get the oil changed and pick up dry cleaning and close the sale and balance the books.

We’ve been thinking this week about a fiery spirituality, the zeal and fervor that ought to characterize our lives now that Jesus has entered the world. What we discover to be truly challenging is not igniting a flame, but sustaining it. As preachers of old might say, it isn’t how high you jump but how straight you walk when you hit the ground.

After John’s confrontational message to the “brood of vipers” and after his call to repentance, the people had a very practical but significant question: “What should we do then?”

The validity of our spiritual zeal and fervor will show itself in our ethics, in the way we live life and treat our neighbor and speak to our children and regard the poor among us.

John told the person with two coats to share one. John told the tax collectors not to cheat or defraud. John told soldiers not to extort money and to be content with their pay. Honesty, sharing, contentment. This is what a fiery spirituality will look like. Authentic zeal is grounded in ethics. Hearts aflame for Jesus produce lives that look like Jesus.

As Christmas approaches we often hear a lament that says “I just don’t feel like Christmas.” Some among us may confess to a lack of the Christmas spirit. If that’s you, don’t worry too much about what’s lacking. The good news is that Jesus has come and forgiveness is ours. The real question is “what should we do?”

Prayer:
Show me what to do, O Lord, and give me grace to do it. Let the truth of this season be grounded in my life and not my feelings only. Grant to your people a zeal that endures and produces compassion, honesty, and contentment. As you dwell among us, use us to change the world, we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Recalculating

He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 3:3).

Last year for Christmas I gave my wife a Garmin GPS system. That was great gift for three reasons. For one thing, she told me what she wanted. Second, she was still excited to receive it. And third, I’ve been able to use it too. That gift will be hard to top this year.

The GPS helps us to our selected destinations by a voice that speaks directions with an English accent. At some point my kids started calling the GPS “Fred.” He sounds more like a Nigel or a Jared – but the name stuck. When we’re on the road, Fred is a member of the family.

There are occasions when I’ll select a road or route that deviates from Fred’s instructions. Typically this happens when I’m using Fred to get to a location I’ve been to before – a familiar place. Why use Fred at all if that’s the case? I honestly have no idea. But on such occasions I’ll think Fred has it wrong. I’ll ignore his instructions and that always prompts him to say “recalculating.”

Recalculating. That’s what Fred does to assess the direction I’m going against the desired destination. It’s a valuable life skill, one we would do well to practice often without a GPS. You might even call it a spiritual discipline. Sometimes we need to take a look at the direction of our life, the way we’ve chosen, the road we’re on – and we need to recalculate. Is this getting me where I want to go?

John the Baptist was a fiery preacher with a fairly short sermon. “Repent.” Somehow this word has fallen into disrepair in our time. We may hear it as an angry word, the rant of pious finger-pointer. We may hear it as a word that speaks to our feelings, suggesting primarily a sense of remorse or shame. We may hear the word as a moralistic term that means we’re doing something wrong or bad.

Repentance may involve all of those things, but those meanings alone leave us with a stunted understanding of repentance. Repentance is about direction. The word means to turn around, “a complete alteration of the basic motivation and direction of one’s life.”*

Our destination is the life God intended us to have from the beginning of creation. That’s what Jesus came to give us: life to the full or “abundant” life. We’re all trying to find who God made us to be. Sometimes that quest leads us down some strange roads, sometimes to dead-ends; sometimes we’re just plain lost.

The invitation offered to us is simple: recalculate. Once we’ve done that we’re ready to respond to John’s sermon. We’re ready to change direction and chart a new course. That’s repentance.

Advent is great season of the year for recalculating. It’s a wonderful time to look at where you are and where you’re going against the desired destination of God’s design for your life. Advent reminds us that when we’re lost, God comes looking for us. And the good news is, no matter where you’ve gone, no matter where you are right now, there’s a way to get to the place God wants you to be. John told us how. Repent.

Prayer:
Speak your word of direction to my life today, O Lord. Give me the courage to assess the road I’m on, the path I’ve chosen. Grant to me the grace of repentance. With each new day I want to turn toward you, ever becoming the person you made me to be. Guide me through this day, I pray. Amen.

*(From The New Bible Dictionary, IVP / Tyndale, 1982, pg. 1018)

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The Desert

. . . the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert. (Luke 3:1-2)

We have a fireplace in our house. From time to time the fireplace actually contains fire. I light a match and turn a key and there it is. Fire. It burns hot and steady until I turn the key again and make the fire go away.

Some may object that what I’m describing hardly qualifies as a real fireplace. I can understand the objection.

During my growing up years my parents owned a place in the mountains of North Carolina. We would go up in the fall of the year, usually arriving after dark, and the first order of business was building a fire. My dad wadded up newspaper and placed pieces of kindling in a strategic formation. The tiny flame would be passed from the tip of the match to the newspaper to the kindling, allowing for more kindling that created stronger flames. Eventually the flames were able to accommodate pieces of wood that had been split with a real hatchet and stacked on the porch.

There’s an art to building a good fire. It requires some patience. Effort is exerted in the splitting of wood and in the nurturing of flames that warm the house. Attentive care is given to continually stoking the embers or adding a log to the fire. A good fire demands more of us than turning a key.

The fiery ministry of John the baptizer didn’t come by turning a key. From what scripture tells us it was cultivated over time. For one thing John was born to devout parents (Luke 1:5-6). At some point he made his way to the desert. Details are scarce as to when this happened. All Luke tells us is that John “grew and became strong in spirit, and he lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel” (Luke 1:80).

When Luke introduces us to John’s ministry he does so by giving us a list of names. These are the power brokers of the time. Tiberius Caesar rules from Rome, Herod in Galilee, Pontius Pilate in Judea. There are some powerful religious figures active in Jerusalem: Annas and Caiaphas. After rehearsing the names of the powerful, Luke shifts our attention to the obscure by adding “the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the desert” (Luke 3:2).

There it is again. The desert. A soul aflame, a spirit that burns with a God-ward zeal, is cultivated in out of the way places. The desert feeds the fire. But most of us don’t live in the desert. We live in the thick of traffic and sound, crowded calendars and clamoring people. If we are to find a desert we’ll have to work at it. We will have to nurture silence and stillness. Thus will our spirits blaze. It won’t happen by turning a key.

What would it take for you to create a desert in your life? This is not done by escaping the place where you live or the expectations you live with. Somehow we find the desert by staying right where we are, but clearing enough space so that God’s word to us can be heard. Our desert places allow us to be still. This takes time, and even effort – but it makes for a real fire in the soul.

And then, like John, once the fire is kindled we go public and meet the world.

Prayer:
Lead me, O God, to a desert place: a place where your voice can be heard and where the soul is set ablaze with your love. Do the work of building a fire in my spirit that will impact the world around me. I ask for grace to be still, and grace to be bold, all in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Fire

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” (Luke 3:7).

Over the thanksgiving holiday I spent a fair amount of time raking and bagging leaves. Trees that stand lush and green in the spring and summer punish me in the fall by letting go of their former beauty, leaving layers of brown debris for me to gather.

My neighbor was doing the same thing in his own yard. However, he has a stone fire pit into which he dumped his leaves and burned them. My kids, while doing forced labor with me, asked with thinly disguised envy, “Why can’t we burn our leaves?”

It’s a fair question. Burning leaves is legal in Cobb County. The issue isn’t that we can’t, but that we don’t. I’m not comfortable starting a fire in my own yard. That’s just me. I like the fact that fire can get rid of my leaves. But fire can do other things that I don’t like. So we rake and bag, rake and bag.

Fire is peculiar that way. It can be a source of light and heat. It can be fundamental to survival in a wilderness place. The warmth draws people together, builds community, allows for the making of “smores.” But fire can also burn and destroy.

John the Baptizer was a fiery preacher, but fiery in a way that drew people to him. I find this puzzling. John’s language was blunt and vivid and confrontational. He spoke of his congregation as a “brood of vipers” (Luke 3:7). He warned people that if their lives failed to produce good fruit they would be cut down and thrown into the fire (3:9). And yet, crowds went out to him from all over Judea (Mark 1:5) .

In seminary I wrote a paper on a fiery Baptist preacher who drew huge crowds in Fort Worth, Texas in the 1920s. J. Frank Norris openly excoriated immoral Fort Worth politicians; he ridiculed modernists, preaching against evolution with a live monkey next to the pulpit. Norris was at the center of scandal, tried for shooting a man to death in the church office. It was ruled self-defense and Norris was acquitted. This man was a blow-torch of a preacher. But he was mean. Plenty of spit and fire. Not much Jesus.

I suspect I’m not alone in connecting a fiery preacher with condemnation and unkindness. That’s too bad really. The unfortunate result of that connection is the lack of fire in many Christians. Most of us are very careful to avoid being like John the Baptizer. We avoid being fiery Christians and work hard at being relational and relevant.

The fire that scalds and singes and destroys is uncontrolled fire. There is a kind of fire that gives light and warmth and draws people in. That’s the kind of fire that the coming of Jesus ought to ignite among us. It burns just as hot as any flame, but it gives life to all who get close.

Maybe we should be less fearful of fire and more at home with spiritual zeal. The presence of Jesus ought to spark something in the soul that others will notice and be drawn toward. You can burn bright without scorching what’s around you. John told people to anticipate the coming of one who will “baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Luke 3:16). Passion, zeal, fervor – these are good things. Are they evident in your life?

Prayer:
Lord Jesus, you have called us to be salt and light. But we fear the zealot and shun the fanatic, and our fear renders us bland and even cold in this world. Cause us to burn with expectancy, eagerly looking for signs of your presence among us. Let the heat of our life with you be a source of light and warmth that draws in others, we pray. Amen.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Advent Rocks!

“I have come that they might have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).

And so it begins.

Scarcely had the Thanksgiving leftovers been placed in the fridge than Christmas was underway. Truthfully, it didn’t take that long. The schmaltzy made for TV movies were being aired long before the weekend’s big games. You didn’t need to wait for malls to open Friday to start your Christmas shopping. The retailers have been ready for you for a while.

So now it’s December 1. It begins in earnest. And we all know where it’s going.

For the next twenty-five days we will alternately delight in and despise what we’re doing. There’s the music . . . the annoying 24 hour Christmas music format on many radio stations, as well as the much loved carols and hymns.

There are the repeated activities that make Christmas both meaningful and maddening. The ones we love we call traditions. The ones we simply tolerate we call routines.

And then there’s family: the joy that comes from being together . . . and the disappointment that comes from being together. The excitement of everyone gathering and the relief of everyone going home.

Right now, on December 1, you know where things are headed because you’ve been there before. You’ve done this before. You know what to expect. This doesn’t mean there’s anything lacking or wrong in the way you do Christmas. It simply means that what you’ll do in the coming weeks will very likely be just what you’ve done in years past.

Question: what would Christmas look like if you were to shake things up just a bit?

During the Advent season, the theme of the weekly worship gatherings, sermons, and the daily reflections will be “The Baby that Rocked the World.” Our premise is simple: Jesus’ birth shakes things up. The tectonic plates at the foundation of the universe shifted when this child came into the world.

There was a season in my life when I regularly rocked a baby. My little ones are too big for that now, but I can’t hear the soundtrack from Shadowlands or Rich Mullins’ Creed and Peace to You without remembering the days of rocking a child. The goal of that rocking was always sleep. If not the child’s, then sometimes my own.

But Jesus comes as a baby that rocks us – not into complacency, but into a full life. We will spend the coming weeks asking what kind of people we become because of Jesus’ birth. We’ll look at the fiery character of John the Baptist, the faithfulness of Simeon and Anna, the surprise and fear of Zechariah, the quiet strength of Mary. All of them examples of people whose world was rocked by the coming of Jesus.

What we’ll discover may surprise us. Your Christmas will not change all that much. You’ll have the same family members as you had last year, you’ll hear the same songs, you’ll sing the same carols, you’ll shop in the same stores, you’ll go to the same parties and send cards to the same friends.

Sure, you’ve been here before. Christmas may not be different . . . but perhaps you will be. After all, that’s really the point. That’s why Jesus came. To be in Christ is to be a new creation. What better time for that to happen than Advent.

Prayer:
Stir something in us, O God, and make us yearn for a different kind of Christmas. Come once again and make all things new. Begin with us. We ask for a Christmas that is different because we’ve been changed. We invite you to come and disturb our complacency, ignite our compassion, increase our joy. We ask these things in the name of Jesus, the baby that rocked the world. Amen.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Fill the House

The master said “Then go to the country roads. Whoever you find, drag them in. I want my house to be full!” (Luke 14:23 The Message).

Several years ago Marnie and I invited our congregation to our home for a Christmas open house. The family bedrooms were on the upper floor of the house, the living room, dining room and other public areas were downstairs. At one point in the afternoon a very precocious child came to me and asked, “Can I go upstairs?” I politely explained that we were all staying downstairs. That answer didn’t satisfy him. “The invitation said open house,” he replied. I was suddenly eager to help him find his mother.

The party Marnie and I hosted was not truly an open house. We kept certain rooms off limits. We didn’t intend for people to roam around checking out our dirty clothes hamper or the closets or the uncapped tube of toothpaste by the sink. We had not planned to exhibit the nitty-gritty details of our everyday living.

Not so with God. God wants to fill his house. When the invited guests decline to come to the banquet, the master isn’t satisfied with one effort to boost attendance. After gathering the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame there is still room. So once more the servant is sent to bring others to the party. God wants to fill the house.

This too is our mandate. What God wants, we also want. It’s not enough that we accept the invitation extended to us and find our own seats at the banquet table. God is actively filling the house, and we can be a part of what God is doing. It is for us to go out the streets and country roads and find others to bring to the party

This is where I make excuses. I gladly accept the invitation that God has extended to me. No excuses there. But when it comes to actively seeking others who will come and find a place in the Kingdom, I find excuses. Usually my excuses are the same as the ones Jesus identified in his parable: work concerns and the demands of family life dominate every waking moment.

But God intends to fill the house, and we are the means by which others will find their place at the table.

We are ending the “Upside Down” series this week on the threshold of the holiday season. It is a season of invitations, a time when houses are full. It is also a time when some around us have no place to be. There can be no better way for you to put flesh and blood on the Kingdom than by opening your house, placing one more chair at the table.

Those of us who have accepted God’s invitation must also accept God’s instruction. In the language of the King James Bible, “Compel them to come in.”

May the Kingdom of God be real in your hearts and in your homes as this blessed season of the year approaches.

Prayer:
We give you thanks O God for the way you have made everything ready and opened the fullness of your Kingdom to us. Let our gratitude find expression in obedience. Fill us with your Spirit that we might be sent into the world to bring others to the party that is your Kingdom. We ask all of this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Well, That Was Awkward

One Sabbath, when Jesus had been invited to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched” (Luke 14:1).

Jesus told the parable of the dinner party while attending a dinner party. Luke 14 begins by telling us that “one Sabbath, when Jesus had been invited to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched” (Luke 14:1). This opening verse wastes no time creating tension. When you combine careful scrutiny with a prominent host, you can sense that something is about to happen.

Luke doesn’t disappoint. As chapter 14 unfolds (read the whole thing) Jesus assumes an in-your-face posture at the table. He is not rude, but he isn’t shy. He is not concerned with tact or with protecting the feelings of his prominent host.

He begins by openly healing a man with dropsy – a condition marked by swollen joints (vv. 2-6). Remember, it’s the Sabbath. Jesus doesn’t do this discreetly. He openly confronts the other Pharisees there. “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” No doubts about Jesus’ thoughts on the matter.

Jesus then speaks openly about people who show up at a dinner party and take the best seats at the table (vv. 7-11). He observed that those who presume to take the seat closest to the host are vulnerable to humiliation when someone important shows up and the seat of honor is given to them. Better to take the lowly place and wait to be called to the place of honor. Those already at the table couldn’t miss the point of the story. You can see them shuffling in their seats.

At this point another guest at the table tries to lighten the mood and cut the tension with a pious declaration of blessing on those “who will eat the feast in the Kingdom of God.” That statement only serves as a launching pad for Jesus’ parable about the feast – a story in which the invited end up missing out while the low life of the streets are given their places (vv. 16-24).

I can imagine that everyone was glad when that meal ended and it was time to go home. As the guests make their way home you can hear them saying, “Well, that was awkward.” And it probably was.

But such is the nature of God’s Kingdom. Jesus proclaimed a reality different from the reality we know and live in every day. He held forth practices that call into question our standard ways of doing things. The Kingdom of God is not this Kingdom with a touch of religion thrown in. It’s a different reality, a great reversal, an upside-down approach to life. And the truth of that ought to disturb us.

If the nature of the Kingdom doesn’t bother us at all we’re probably not paying attention. Jesus’ words have a way of calling us into question. To read Luke 14 is to confront my own proclivity for safeguarding tradition at the expense of people. Jesus reminds me that I really do like having the seat of honor. Jesus confronts me with the way my busy life becomes an excuse for not living the Kingdom way.

To invite Jesus into your life is to open yourself to disruption. Jesus is disturbing. What parts of your life is Jesus inviting you to take a look at today?

Prayer:
Having invited you into my life, Lord Jesus, I seem to prefer that you sit quietly while I manage things. But your words and ways call my life into question. Thank you for showing us a different reality. Thank you for the ways you challenge us without condemning us. Make us fit for the reality of your Kingdom, we pray. Amen.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Party Will Not Wait

Then the master told his servant, “Go out to the roads and country lanes and make them come in, so that my house will be full.” (Luke 14:23)

I can tell I’m getting older. I feel things aching that didn’t used to ache. Above my ears, around the temples, the hair is grey. Move a little higher up and the hair is nearly gone.
I used to do things that my kids found amusing. Now they’re embarrassed. All of this bears witness to the relentless march of time and how that march leaves tracks on mind, body and soul.

Perhaps one of the most telling signs of age is that I am less prone to mock and ridicule certain elements of my upbringing. Mocking betrays immaturity. Those who bemoan or belittle how they were raised haven’t really grown up yet.

One such element of my religious upbringing and faith formation was the altar call. I’ve been guilty of a dismissive laugh when it comes to the altar call. I’ve seen it caricatured, seen it done badly, and maybe that has caused me some shame. The shame gave rise to the occasional expression of disdain.

The truth is that altar calls were an important part of my religious life. I’ve seen my Dad extend more of them than I can remember – always with pastoral sensitivity and genuine care for the people to whom he preached. Never coercive or manipulative. They were always called “invitations” in the churches of my youth. At one such invitation I made my own response to the truth of God’s love for me in Jesus Christ. Thank God for the altar call.

Mock as you wish, say what you will, the altar call or invitation embodies a bedrock truth, a truth at the heart of Jesus’ story of the great banquet: The party will not wait.

The story Jesus told pictures the Kingdom as a party or great banquet, but the emotional impact of the story is not frivolity. While there is certainly celebration in the Kingdom, this story isn’t meant to evoke effusive joy. This is a story about urgency. It’s time for the banquet. You’ve been invited. Come, for God has made everything ready.

But some don’t come. They have other things to deal with first. Fine – but the party won’t wait. You don’t get to reschedule. The master will see to it that people come to the party, even if he has to go t the most unlikely places to find guests who will respond. The house will be full, every seat taken.

Those who think they have a free pass to get in will be left at the door, and those who never dreamed they’d be at the table will be welcomed and seated. The audience to which Jesus told this story didn’t hear it as promise of good times. They heard it as a warning – and that’s exactly how Jesus intended for them to hear it.

“Just one more verse . . . one more verse . . . you come now.” It may be a bit clich√©. But it’s true. The time to respond is now. The party will not wait.

Many of you have said yes to Jesus. You believe in God. But somehow you’ve not fully embraced the life of the Kingdom. Excuses are easy to make. Other life concerns seem so much more urgent. But the life that God offers is truly urgent. What keeps you from coming to the feast that God has made ready for you? Consider this a written altar call.

Prayer:
We give you thanks, O God, for your invitation. We thank you for the life to which you call us and for the way you make everything ready, giving us what we need as we embrace your Kingdom. Kindle urgency in our hearts that we may respond eagerly – and make us urgent in calling others to the party, that your house may be full and your name honored in this world. Amen.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Kingdom in a Diner

A certain man was preparing a banquet and invited many guests . . . “Come, for everything is now ready.” (Luke 14:16-17)

Tony Campolo is the author of The Kingdom of God is a Party. For him that’s not just a book title. It’s something he lives.

In an earlier work of his, Campolo told the story of Agnes. Agnes was a prostitute. And it was her birthday. Campolo would often stop by a particular diner that also happened to be a gathering place for girls working the streets. On one occasion Campolo happened to overhear that Agnes was having a birthday. He conspired with the owner of the diner and some of Agnes’s “colleagues.” What resulted was a quickly planned surprise party, complete with cake, courtesy of the diner.

The next night when Agnes came to the diner there were friends who shouted “surprise!” and sang happy birthday. And then someone brought out the cake. “Cut the cake Agnes,” urged the owner of the diner.

With quiet tears and tight choked-up voice, Agnes replied “I’ve never had a cake before. If you don’t mind, I’d just like to keep it a while.” At this point Campolo said that he asked if everyone would join him in a prayer for Agnes. He prayed and thanked God for Agnes’s life and asked God’s blessings on her. Upon reflection, it never occurred to him how strange it looked for a bunch of prostitutes to be having a prayer meeting in a diner.

After the party the owner of the diner confronted Campolo. “Hey – you never said you were some kind of preacher. What kind of church do you belong to anyway?”

Campolo answered, “I belong to the kind of church that throws parties for prostitutes at 2:30 in the morning.”

The owner was quiet for a moment and then said, “No you don’t. There are no churches like that. If there was, I’d join it.”

And he’s not the only one. That’s the kind of church Jesus would join too. The reason may be simple: that’s the kind of church that shows what the kingdom of God is like. Far too many people don’t see God’s kingdom as a party. Perhaps that’s because they don’t see joy in God’s people.

Campolo’s book title finds good support in the Bible. Jesus himself described the Kingdom as a party – a banquet or feast. The sad part of Jesus’ party parable is that some who have been invited find excuses not to attend. Interestingly, the party goes on anyway.

The party will guide our thinking next week about God’s kingdom. Seems fitting as most of us will be getting ready for a feast on Thursday. What kinds of excuses keep you from finding your place at the table?

Prayer:
Lord Jesus, use your story as a way of once again inviting us into the joy of your kingdom. Help us to confront our excuses. Give to us the joy of the kingdom so that others will be eager to join us in the great celebration that is life with you. Amen.

(I found Campolo's story in John Ortberg's The God Life)

Friday, November 21, 2008

Good Soil: A Reflection on Landscaping the Soul

But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop (Luke 8:15).

It’s been one of those mornings. I’ve been sitting here for nearly an hour absolutely stumped. The daily reflection for Friday morning needs to be written. I’m in meetings all afternoon and then planning to leave this evening for a weekend commitment. So the writing needs to be happening now. Problem is, it isn’t.

While sitting here I’ve been hearing voices and commotion outside. I finally opened the blinds on my office windows to see four men with shovels (I kid you not) digging up massive piles of soil. They’ve made big holes in the ground and the dirt they’ve churned up looks like good soil to me.

The material for today’s reflection on good soil is happening right outside my window. I only needed to open the blinds and take a look.

I went out and spoke to one of the landscapers. He explained that those holes were going to be filled in with eight foot Holley trees. That’s one way to make a garden. Take the fully grown plant and drop it in the ground. Pack the dirt around it. Water faithfully. And there you have it.

If only spirituality were the same way. That would be a very appealing way to do the life of faith. But the soul cannot be landscaped like a garden. We don’t get to take a mature faith and place it in our lives right where we want it. No, the life of the soul is formed over time, cultivated.

To be fair, so are those eight-foot Holley trees. We have friends in North Carolina who own and operate a nursery. They deal with the plants before the landscapers get them. Every plant that gets placed in a hole along the side of a building was grown and nurtured somewhere.

Landscaping the soul, becoming more like Jesus, is the Spirit’s work of slowly cultivating Christ-likeness in us. That happens as the word of God falls on good soil.

The Greek of Luke 8:15 literally says that the word of God “bears fruit in patience.” The NIV Bible renders that phrase with the word “persevering.” The basic idea is the same. Even in good soil, in a good heart, the word of God works slowly. Immediate results are not a good litmus test of the condition of our hearts.

Jesus tells us there are three ways the seed of God’s word shapes our lives and brings forth life: Hearing, retaining, and patience or persevering.

So stay at it. Do the hard work of landscaping the soul. Don’t look for shortcuts that try to fill holes with fully developed faith. Grow in faith by the word and by prayer. Hear the word, use your mind and memory to retain it, and patiently walk with Jesus through every circumstance of your life.

God, a master landscaper, will use the seed of the word to bring beautiful things out of your life. Thanks be to God.

Prayer:
Merciful God, by the work of your Spirit form your likeness in me. Use the seed of your word to cultivate the attitudes and thoughts and actions that reflect Jesus’ presence in my life. Help me to hear and to hold fast what is heard. And in all of this teach me to patiently endure, knowing that you are at work in all things. Amen.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Crowded Soil

The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature (Luke 8:14).

My daughter has a small cactus plant in her bedroom. I have no idea why. It sits on her desk looking harmless. It appears to be covered with little bristles, something not unlike peach fuzz. Those nearly microscopic hairs lured me into carelessness not long ago. While retrieving a pair of soccer socks for my daughter I knocked over her cactus plant and picked it up with my bare hand. I probably shouldn’t admit that, but there it is.

I spent the next few minutes trying to visually identify and then surgically extract tiny cactus thorns from my fingers. Good times.

This element of Jesus’ parable is interesting in that it isn’t directly concerned with the soil upon which the word of God has fallen. In fact, the soil involved here is good soil. The seed takes root. It yields healthy growth. Trouble is, God’s word isn’t the only thing growing there. Thorns are growing too. And those thorns choke the word.

The soil that gladly receives God’s word is often crowded soil. The worries of this life, riches and pleasure, these things are found in good soil. And these thorns are like the hard to see stickers of a little cactus plant. We know they are there, but they are not obviously threatening. We grow careless with them. At some pint, our fingers and hands get scraped and bloodied. All we feel is the thorn. God’s word has been choked.

The worries of this life: schedules, children, children’s schedules, tuition payments, business deals, strained relationships, roofs that leak and cars that quit, health issues, employment issues, razor sharp thorns all.

Riches: these do not threaten the wealthy only. All of us want things. All of us worry about money, the money we have or the money we lack. The news these days braids a wicked crown of money thorns and worries-of-this-life thorns. Daily reports press it onto our furrowed brow.

Pleasures: pleasures we chased that let us down, pleasures we’ve yearned for and fear we’ll never have. Pleasures we regret. Pleasures we keep trying to re-live.

During Christmas time we sing a hymn that says “let every heart prepare him room.” That’s the task that confronts us when it comes to the thorns of worries, riches and pleasures. We need to clear room so that the thorns don’t choke the life out of the God’s word to us. In yard-work terms, this is the tedious work of weeding.

Prayer is our best tool in the soul-work of weeding. In prayer we identify the thorns that keep God’s word from being productive in our lives. In prayer we name our worries and we confess the desires that rival God’s claim on us. To neglect prayer is to grow careless and pick up the cactus plant with your bare hands. That kind of pain can be easily avoided. It just requires being attentive.

What thorns most threaten God’s word in your life today?

Prayer:
Gracious God, our hearts are crowded with so many things that choke the life of your word. We are a tangle of worries and desires. Remind us today that in our worries and desires, your grace is sufficient for us. Help us to prepare room in our hearts for you as we come to you in prayer, bringing our fears and longings. Amen.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Shallow Soil

Those on the rock are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root . . . in the time of testing they fall away (Luke 8:13).

Back in June we lost a tree in the backyard. By “lost” I mean it came down, falling across the back fence and scraping gutter off the back side my neighbor’s house. The tree was big – very tall, very big around.

What amazed me more than the size of the tree itself was the size of the root ball. When the tree came down it pried up a massive knot of earth and exposed a root system that looked like Medusa’s head. Some roots were massive and thick, others smaller and wiry, it seemed the tree should have stayed upright but it didn’t.

What brought the tree down was a brief but intense thunderstorm. As the storm approached, I surfed TV channels looking for weather warnings. But there was no hurricane watch, no wind advisories. Nothing. Just an intense storm that brought a burst of wind against that tree and down it came.

Jesus explained that when the seed of God’s word falls on shallow soil it appears to produce healthy growth. As best we can tell the seed has taken root. There are signs of life that look promising. But then the storm comes. A moment of testing. When the day of adversity comes it exposes the truth about the soil. It couldn’t sustain long term growth because it had roots that weren’t deep enough to hold or draw nourishment from the ground.

When God’s word falls on soil that lacks depth it produces faith of the same kind.

Shallow soil isn’t known for what it truly is until the day of testing comes. Before that, all seems well. You believe in God and rest in God’s faithfulness, you go to church, you pray from time to time. Your spiritual life seems firmly rooted. And then it happens.

You lose a fortune. You lose a career. Your body begins to fail you. Your spouse leaves you. What you dreamed of and expected never seems to happen. What you’ve dreaded and never expected starts to happen all the time. The day of testing comes, and you wither. The roots that should have sustained you never went deep enough to draw life in the dry season.

Psalm 1 describes a blessed life, the kind of life we all want, as a tree planted by streams of water. The person who lives this kind of life is one whose “delight is in the law of the Lord and in his law they meditate day and night” (Psalm 1:2).

That’s how our roots go deep. Continually meditating on God’s word. This is what pushes the seed to the core of our being so that when the day of testing comes we don’t dry up.

To meditate is to think or dwell on. You can do this in conversation with others, by memorizing, by writing – any practice that allows you to dwell on and explore God’s word. Start today, because a time of testing is here. If it’s not here, it’s on its way.

Prayer:
O God, plant your word deep in my heart and mind so that in the day of testing I will be able to stand – and not simply stand but flourish. Make me “like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither” (Psalm 2:3). Amen.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Hard Soil

As he was scattering his seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on and the birds of the air ate it up (Luke 8:5).

Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts (Luke 8:12)

We can’t get grass to grow in our back yard. There’s a bit of green here and there, but for the most part the backyard is hardscrabble and bald. During the summer when I try to mow what little grass we have back there, the mower spins a dust storm worthy of The Grapes of Wrath.

About four years ago I tried using an aerator. I rolled this massive spiked cylinder around the yard, peppering the ground with holes. Then I put down some seed. Later I noted a few sprigs of grass making a valiant effort to establish their presence - a valiant effort, but one short lived.

Last summer we tried putting down sod, the horticultural equivalent of a wig. Again, a noble effort, but the bald spot remains in the back yard. Laying down a grass carpet and throwing seed on top of the ground doesn’t mean that grass will take root in the earth. Sometimes it just doesn’t happen.

Human hearts are much the same way when it comes to the word of God. Sometimes the word is read or heard, but it sits there on top of the ground, never taking root, never getting down deep. Birds come and eat it, or as Jesus explained, the devil snatches it away.

The enemy of our faith can foil the work of the seed in any number of ways. Sometimes the word perishes because we’re ignorant of it. Lack of knowledge means seed is wasted. Sometimes the word fails to go deep because we won’t let it get any further than the surface. We’re not open to hearing what it might say to us.

Hostility and ignorance are fairly obvious explanations for our failure to hear the word and thus discern the voice of Jesus speaking to us. But there’s another one that may be more common. In fact, my guess is that if you’re even bothering to read this daily reflection, ignorance and hostility are not the main reasons the word perishes on the surface of your life.

A more common problem is familiarity. We’ve heard it before, over an over. We’ve read it until we can almost say it by heart. We’ve heard plenty of sermons or lessons. We know what it means, so we stop listening. We no longer have ears to hear.

The hard soil and the hard heart do not belong solely to those who have rejected faith in Jesus. The hard soil can be found in those who believe, but have heard so often and so much that they’ve stopped listening.

This might be a day to test the soil of your own heart for the resistance that comes from familiarity with the word. Ask God to give you ears that hear the word in a fresh way. This may be something we need to pray every day. Familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt. When it comes to God’s word, familiarity breeds . . . actually it breeds nothing.

Prayer:
Help me to hear your word afresh, O Lord. Take what is old and familiar, and place it deep within my heart. Forgive my casual neglect of your word and plow again the hard places in my heart and mind, I pray. Amen.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Seed and Soil

The seed is the word of God . . . therefore, consider carefully how you listen (Luke 8:11, 18).

“He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” There’s another one of those peculiar and enigmatic Jesus-isms. At times I’ve thought I had a handle on what that means, at other times not a clue. Everyone has ears to hear, don’t they? Apparently not.

Seeds of faith were planted in my life in different ways. One of those ways was listening to my parents talk when we were on long car trips. I remember a family vacation that involved hours on the road. My mom read a book to my Dad, John Claypool’s The Preaching Event. This was before the day when kids could disconnect from their surroundings with the help of ipods and earphones. I tried to act bored and aloof, but I heard every word of it.

And on one occasion they talked about how people hear the word of God when it is proclaimed from the pulpit. Is it an equal playing field, everyone hearing the same message with the same capacity to respond to what they hear? My mom’s answer was “no.” I can’t quote her, but basically she told my Dad that she’d sat in the choir for years while he preached and it seemed to her that some people seemed open to what was being said, almost hungry for it. Others were obviously bored. They couldn’t wait to get to lunch.

In other words, different soils. The seed of God’s word is scattered about but it falls on different kinds of soil.

After telling and explaining the parable of the seed and the soils, Jesus told his followers to consider carefully how they listen (Luke 8:18). We might think that everyone listens the same way, that everyone hears the same message. That’s not so. I often blame myself for that. As one who preaches occasionally and teaches often, I feel like I’ve failed if someone doesn’t “get it.” That might be the case, but not always. The word of God falls on different soils and whether it brings forth life depends on where it falls.

This week we’re going to spend some time thinking about the different soils, and asking what it means for us to consider “how we listen.” Some soil is hard and tightly packed. Some soil is shallow. Some soil is crowded. And some soil is good and productive.

As for how the seed is scattered, preachers are by no means the only ones who sow the seed of the word. The word comes through teachers, through our own reading, through conversation with friends in a small group, through a colleague or co-worker. God will see to it that the word is sent out. Ultimately, scattering is God’s work.

The question for us is about how we receive it. Something more than mere hearing is required. We need to listen. Having “ears to hear” means being able to truly listen to the word so that God’s voice is heard. That’s not always easy.

In his book The Voice of Jesus, Gordon T. Smith says that every Christian should be able to answer two questions. First, what is God saying to you at this time in your life? Second, how do you know it’s God? Good questions. Smith maintains that discerning the voice of Jesus is a critical spiritual skill. This week we’ll try to learn about how we can develop it.

Prayer:
Lord Jesus, give us ears to hear. Let your word impact our lives in productive and transformative ways. Teach us how to detect your voice behind the word written and proclaimed. We are eager for you to speak to us. Help us to listen, even now in these moments. Amen.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Jesus, History, and a Drive to School: A Post-Election Meditation

Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world . . .” (John 18:36).

The ride to school takes about twenty minutes on a good day. Just long enough for me to try and do some on-the-fly teaching to my two pupils in the back seat. I knew they wouldn’t engage my civics lesson for twenty minutes so I had to get right to it.

It was the morning after we had elected our nation’s first African-American President. My kids had done a mock election at school, but did they understand the significance of what was happening in the country? This is huge. Obama’s election is profoundly significant for all Americans regardless of how we voted on Tuesday.

So I told them a story, a story I’ve told here before. I told them about my buddy in second grade, the kid I most enjoyed at recess time – a black kid. This was the late 60s in Camden, South Carolina. I told them about how my teacher had phoned my parents to express her concern over my recess association, suggesting that perhaps I needed to widen my circle of friends. I remember it well.

I wanted my kids to hear how significant Tuesday was because when I was in second grade, Tuesday would have never been dreamed of – at least not by my school teacher.
History was being made, and we were watching it.

The apostle Paul wrote that Jesus came “in the fullness of time.” That phrase gets at the far reaching historical significance of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus came to change the world. God is sovereign over history, and Jesus had a keen awareness of what God was doing and how people needed to respond. “The Kingdom is at hand.” That’s they way Jesus put it.

What ought to grab our attention is the way Jesus went about defining the times and calling people to participate in the movement of history. Jesus was surrounded by others who were trying to do the same thing; define the times, shape the lives of people and nations. Jesus was not alone in his task – but his method was singular.*

Herod’s legacy was alive and well in Jesus’ day. Herod shaped people by force and manipulation. He didn’t participate in history, he made history. The way of Herod was the way of raw power used to reach goals determined by Herod himself. His way was harsh, but it got things done.

Jesus was no doubt aware of the example of Ciaphas the High Priest. Here was a religious man who was skilled at adapting secular methods for spiritual purposes. This makes sense and has wide appeal today. Watch what works in the culture and then do the same thing in the place of worship with a little God sprinkled on it.

Jesus also lived with an awareness of the Essenes. These were the spiritually elite among the Jews, seriously devout persons who responded to their times by withdrawal and seclusion. They were totally focused on God, waiting on God to act in history. They removed themselves from the worldly culture so that they could give adequate attention to the Holy.

Jesus had plenty of role models for impacting the world – and he rejected all of them. How then did Jesus bring heaven to earth? How did he live in the Kingdom he proclaimed? He did simple things that you and I can do right now. He lived in the intimacies of a small community, he prayed, he worshiped, he loved people, he engaged them in conversation, and he told them stories about God that intersected their own stories.

And he says to us, “Follow me.” We are invited to do what Jesus did. The Jesus way is the same now as it was eight years ago, as it was two-thousand years ago. It’ll be the same in January. That hasn’t changed. And we can live that way right now.

Prayer:
Show us how to walk as you walked, Lord Jesus. Go with us through the details of this day so that our ways and your ways will be the same. Teach us to follow you, we pray. Amen.

(Again, I am indebted to Eugene Peterson’s The Jesus Way, pp. 193-242.)