Sunday, December 26, 2010

Know the Story

. . . and they will call him Immanuel – which means, “God with us.” (Matt. 1:23).

Pat Conroy’s latest release, My Reading Life, is an engaging blend of biography and bibliography. In it Conroy narrates how books have shaped his life. Words had worked their way deep into his soul long before they started emerging again in his work as a writer.

One of the most poignantly amusing chapters is about his first days as a new student at Beaufort High School. He didn’t know anyone and not a single person bothered to say as much as “hello” on his first day there. He had no idea what to do with himself during the lunch period until he stumbled across the school library – totally empty at that time of day. The books were a refuge for him. He found a copy of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and started reading.

The focal character of this chapter is the school librarian – Miss Hunter. She was mean, dour, inhospitable, and feared by both students and faculty at Beaufort High. When she discovered Conroy in the library during the lunch period she scolded him and accused him of looking for books that had “dirty parts.” When she saw that he was reading Les Miserables she spoke disparagingly of “French authors.” And then she suggested an alternative book by Hugo.

She said to Conroy, “Do you like football?”

“Yes ma’am,” he answered.

At this Miss Hunter went to a shelf and pulled down another volume. She handed Conroy Victor Hugo’s ‘football book’ – The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Here was a woman who worked in a library. She knew where to find the book. And yet she didn’t have a clue as to what the story was really about.


During Advent and Christmas it is possible to sit in a sanctuary and hear a familiar story. We can show up at church and sing songs about that story and listen to sermons on the story. We may even pick up the book and read the story for ourselves.

We can do all of those things and yet miss the real meaning of the story, never clue-in as to what this story is really all about.

Christmas is not about our benevolent disposition to our fellow human beings, as important as that is. It is not about “the children,” as delightful as they may be. It is not about high ideals like peace and joy and giving, although they figure prominently in the drama.

Christmas is about God. This is God’s story. God is the author and God’s glory is the point of what is happening. Christmas is about God entering history – both then and now. At Christmas we affirm the truth of the name Immanuel. God is with us.

When we sing the familiar hymn that invites Christ to “be born in us today,” we’re not singing a mere metaphor. We are declaring what’s real. Jesus lives and is made manifest in this world through his people. God comes near by the power of the Spirit dwelling in us. This means God works through you. It also means that God comes to you.

This Christmas don’t miss the story. In the words “God with us” you find both your calling and your comfort. And the glory goes to God – just as the angels sang.

All glory to you, Almighty God. You are present with us to sustain and comfort; you are working through us to bring good news to all people. May your name be honored and held high today as we worship and gather and celebrate your presence among us – the gift of Immanuel, Jesus our Lord through whom we pray. Amen.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Who Needs a Savior?

“She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).

The good news was that the Atlanta Police car made the left turn from Habersham onto Valley Rd. within minutes after my call.

The bad news was that the Atlanta Police car made the left turn from Habersham onto Valley Rd. within minutes after my call.

I would have preferred not to call at all. A fender-bender collision at Habersham and Valley made it necessary. As it turned out the damage was so slight that there was really nothing for the APD to do. Still, I’m thankful for the timely response. And I’m also aware that what comes to us as good news often points to something gone wrong.

A tumor is benign . . . but it still needs to come out. You are told you will not be laid off . . . but the company is in trouble and others still have to be let go. To us a savior is born . . . which means we need saving. We are not well. And what isn’t well is beyond our own capacity to make right.

The angel’s message to Joseph was very clear about two things: where Mary’s baby had come from and what that baby was to be named. As to origin, the angel made it perfectly clear that “what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” And as to the child’s name, he was to be named Jesus “because he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:20-21).

Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua which means “the Lord saves.” At Christmas time we hear this as a “glad tiding.” The angel’s announcement is good news; it reason for great joy and thanksgiving and glory to God for his favor to us.

But these glad tidings carry with them a quiet implication – a verdict on the condition of the human race. The announcement of a savior being born is only good news to those who need saving.

If I’m sitting in my house watching TV and eating Oreos and an ambulance pulls into my driveway I will not be relieved. I might be confused or annoyed – but not relieved and thankful. But after too many years of watching TV and eating Oreos a day may come when I am not well. Something goes wrong. Maybe, by God’s grace, someone can call 911 and the ambulance will come. And when it does there will be relief and gratitude and hope placed in the paramedics.

At Christmas, spiritually speaking, there are plenty of us eating Oreos and watching TV, feeding on the goodies and taking in the sights of the season. Many have no idea that something is wrong. They might hear about the birth of a savior but it has nothing to do with them, or so they think.

Christmas is not truly good news unless we are convinced that there’s bad news. That message doesn’t get too much press in December. Too negative perhaps. But it’s definitely there, plain as day, in the words of the angel. Jesus came to save us from our sins. We couldn’t save ourselves, so God did it for us in sending his son.

So the real question is this: An ambulance has pulled up into your driveway in the form of God’s infant son. What is your response?

Before the season ends, O God, we would get honest and make our confession to you. This world is not well. We are not well. We need a savior. Thank you for sending your son. Thank you for loving the world so much that you sent Jesus to save us – to do what we could not do by our own efforts. May this Christmas bring us news that is truly good, because we have faced the truth about ourselves and turned to your grace through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Big Deal

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

According to my children I tend to make a big deal over things that really aren’t a big deal.
I disagree.

What time they go to bed and how much sleep they get on a school night is a big deal. How much screen time they get – video games, G-chat, TV – that is a big deal. Whether or not they put off a homework assignment until the last minute is big deal. Words they use, clothes they wear, all of that is a big deal.

At the same time I know they are not entirely wrong. I’ve been guilty of making too much over small things. Usually this happens when something isn’t right with me: I’m tired or preoccupied. They may be laughing and raucous as kids sometimes are and I’ll put an end to it because it bothers me. They might drop something or spill something and I’ll launch into some parental lecture. Maybe they just need my attention and I take what should be theirs and give it to something else that seems more urgent, more pressing. I make a big deal of the wrong things.

Cars are fitted with side-view mirrors that make things look distant and smaller. God designed the human soul to do the exact opposite. The soul was made to resonate with things in such a way that those things are made to look large and significant. This resonance of the soul has a way of giving weight and honor to what we truly cherish.

The biblical word for this capacity of the soul is “glorify” or “magnify.” To borrow language from my kids, the inclinations and resonances of the soul are how we make a big deal over something. Whether we know it or not, and often we do not, our souls are continually magnifying something. The question is “what?”

Sometime after the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she was pregnant with the one who would “reign over the house of Jacob forever,” Mary gathered up all that she was thinking and feeling in a prayer. This prayer comes to us through Luke’s pen in the form of a poem or song known to us as “The Magnificat.”

The opening line of Mary’s song / prayer will occupy our attention for the remainder of the week. “And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord’.” (Luke 1:46).

What does this mean? More importantly, how do we do it? If our souls are designed in such a way to magnify something, what do we magnify or make a big deal over in the course of a typical week? And if we want to say with Mary that our souls magnify the Lord, what will that look like?

The question is worth pondering because in scripture glorifying or magnifying God is given to us as a command. Consider Psalm 34:3. “O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together.” Magnifying the Lord isn’t a feeling or a passive experience; glorify and magnify are verbs that we are commanded to do.

For today, begin with the big deal that dominates the landscape of your mind and heart right now. What occupies your thoughts? What stirs your excitement? What’s the big deal? Maybe as we magnify the Lord what seems so big won’t stay that way.

Grant us grace, O God, to magnify your name: to see you as great and mighty, and to see the rest our life in the light of your glory and strength. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Questions and Prayers

And Mary said, “Behold I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

As Luke introduces us to Mary he tells us a story in which Mary has very little to say.

Most of the talking is done by Gabriel. Gabriel has figured prominently in Luke’s gospel, having already appeared to Elizabeth in much the same way as he appears to Mary. Mary only speaks twice. She asks a question (“How can this be?”) and she speaks a prayer (“Let it be to me according to your word”).

Our questions and prayers belong together. Somehow we forget this. We assume that people who have questions about God’s will and God’s ways don’t pray, or that those who pray don’t have questions about God’s will and God’s ways. We are wrong to think this way. Good questions make the stuff of good honest prayers.

“How can it be” and “let it be done” make good neighbors.

Roughly thirty-three years after her son was born Mary attended a wedding at Cana of Galilee. Jesus was there too. An awkward social circumstance arose with regard to party provisions. The host (for reasons we do not know) had run out of wine.

Mary took the matter to her son. “They have no wine,” she said. Jesus’ answer sounds curt, especially since he is addressing his mother. “Woman, why do you involve me?”

Scholars work hard to explain Jesus’ words to Mary. What we do well to notice is that Mary doesn’t answer her son directly. No rebuke to his remark, no justification of her request. Having shared the problem with her son, she turns to the servants with a brief word of instruction. “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:1-11)

Mary is for us a model of prayerfulness. In Nazareth, told of the birth of her son, she prayed a prayer of trust. In Cana with her grown son, she takes a problem to him and leaves it for him to do as he will.

In both instances we see the essence of prayer. We bring our lives before God and know that he will act. God will do his will. His purposes will be accomplished. Mary did not fully understand all that Gabriel told her. She had no promises from her grown son as to what would be done about the lack of wine. But what joins these two stories is the letting go, letting go of the need for explanations and answers. Questions and prayers make good neighbors.

And so Mary teaches us to pray. She teaches us what Jesus would later teach his disciples. When we pray we are to say “Thy will be done.” Not “Thy will be known” or “Thy will be explained.”

We may not know exactly what God’s will is. We do not always receive assurances as to what will happen and explanations as to how. We lay the matter before Jesus and we leave it there, knowing that he will do what is good, even if we don’t understand it.

Now it’s your turn. What matter do you bring before Jesus today? What will you leave with him trusting that whatever he does will be good? What are you facing that eludes figuring out, refusing a clear answer or resolution. Listen carefully to Mary and borrow her prayer, confident that God will do what is good.

Do what you will to do, Lord God. In the midst of what we cannot understand or figure out, teach us to trust you, knowing that “You are good and what you do is good” (Psalm 119:68). Amen.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Spirit, Power, Life

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the most high will overshadow you .” (Luke 1:35).

By the time you read this your day will likely be well under way. If you’re like me you woke up this morning knowing what that would look like. I’m looking at a morning office appointment, a lunch appointment, an afternoon office appointment, and family plans for the evening. In between those things I’ve got some tasks to complete and some writing to do, along with some teaching material to prepare for Sunday morning. Not a bad day.

Occasionally surprises crop up here and there, but for now this day is looking fairly “typical.” I’ve done these things before. Some of them, in fact all of them, are things I do regularly. Pastoral visits, writing, studying – this is standard fare in my line of work. I can do these things without trying too hard.

And that’s the problem.

Far too often and far too easily we develop the skills we need to get through the day or the week. But getting through the day is not the same thing as living the day. An inner crisis often develops when we realize that somewhere along the way getting through became our objective. Without realizing it we stopped living.

Of course, getting through the day is not an unworthy goal. There are seasons and circumstances in which getting through a day is all we hope for. Maybe today you’re facing something so daunting that just getting through it would be a blessing. God hears and answers prayers for getting through.

But Jesus told us that he wanted us to have life – and in abundance (John 10:10). The question is where does life come from and what does it mean for us to live our days and not merely get through them?

The story of Mary is the story of a literal conception. Cells divided. An embryo took shape in her womb and a heart began to beat. Fingers and toes, chin and nose, the body of a boy. This was Jesus. This was the body of the one whose mouth would speak God’s thoughts and whose touch would heal. This was the body that would one day be crucified.

We ask Mary’s question: “How can this be?” The answer we receive in scripture ignores cellular biology. This happens by the Spirit and Power of God. It’s sad that this event has morphed into a topic of theological debate and speculation. For what’s worth, I assume the truth of the virgin birth. I affirm the reality of the incarnation – God “in-fleshed” among us.

But the gift of life by the power of the Spirit isn’t something for us to merely think about. It is something we can experience. God still comes to us by the Spirit and infuses our days with power. Jesus promised that God would give the Spirit when we ask (Luke 11:13). Jesus told us that we could live our days with power (Luke 24:49).

God still does this. He has from the beginning. At the creation of the world, the Spirit hovered over chaos and brought forth life. In Mary’s womb the Spirit came with power and created life. After the resurrection the Spirit came on a small group of Jesus’ followers and the church was born. This is God’s way: the Spirit gives life.

The Spirit and Power are yours today. This will not necessarily change what you’ve got on your calendar: Same appointments, same job, same chores and errands – but truly lived and not simply accomplished or endured. There is more for you today than getting through.

We listen to the word, we trust God’s promises, we ask for the Spirit, and by God’s grace we truly live what we are doing. It’s not too late today to start.

Come Holy Spirit and grant life to us as we go through this day. Save us from empty motions and habitual patterns. Work within us to bring forth life that we might do ordinary and familiar things as people called, blessed, and sent into this world in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Favored One

The angel went to her and said “Greetings, you who are highly favored! . . . Mary was troubled at his words (Luke 1:28-29).

Before Gabriel spoke Mary’s name he called her “favored.” Her name is spoken later as the angel tries to reassure Mary and give some definition to the word “favored.” What’s notable is that Mary’s proper name is only spoken once. The designation “favored” is spoken twice.

It’s true of all of us: grace defines life far more than a name or title.

Mary is favored by God. That sounds good doesn’t it? What could be better than being told – by an angel no less – that you are favored by God, that God is inclined toward you, takes notice of you and directs his blessing toward you? God’s favor sounds like a very good thing indeed.

I’d be perfectly willing to be numbered among the favored ones because in my mind God’s favor would look like this: First of all, the people that matter most to me would matter greatly to God. My children would be healthy and regularly make honor roll. God’s favor means charting a consistently upward course professionally; it means a marriage that grows deeper over time; it means approaching fifty in better shape that I was at thirty. God’s favor means a good life as I’ve defined it.

To be perfectly honest, I have received much favor from the Lord in my family and work. I am blessed. I know it’s true.

But what strikes me about Mary’s story is her response to God’s favor. Mary the favored one is troubled at Gabriel’s greeting. After Gabriel’s first attempt at an explanation, Mary still has questions. God’s favor comes to Mary as something disturbing, perplexing, confusing.

God’s favor doesn’t mean getting the life we want. God’s favor means being summoned to a life we never imagined. God’s favor and our ease have very little to do with each other; they are not the same thing.

I take encouragement from Mary’s response to God’s favor: troubled, perplexed. And I wonder if maybe we can work in the other direction. Is it possible that today you can begin with what troubles you and somehow find grace in it? Is it possible that you can look deeply into that thing that has you stumped and perplexed, afraid and anxious, and find the favor of God? God’s favor may rest on you right now but you don’t know it. If we define God’s “favor” strictly on our terms it’s probably easy to miss.

Take heart all you who are troubled. There’s favor to be found in what you can’t seem to sort through or figure out. Like Mary, the skills we need are in listening and trusting. Take time to practice those today.

God, we thank you for your grace and favor. We give you thanks for the many different ways your favor comes to us. Teach us to look for your favor in what troubles us and not simply in what we believe would make for our own happiness. We would be a listening and trusting people today, in reliance upon your Spirit. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.