Coming Home for Christmas

DoorSo he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him we have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God. –Ephesians 2:17-19

With Christmas day less than two weeks away, we’re entering the time of year when people are making plans to travel. Some of us may only need to go a few miles to reach our destinations, while others may need to drive or fly long distances. Our reasons are all the same.

We’re coming home for Christmas.

The word home is loaded with hopes and expectations. Time spent there may include sharing a meal with loved ones or exchanging gifts. It may mean catching up on stories and news with people we haven’t seen for a while. It might also involve sharing in games or concerts and making special memories.

These things are all wonderful, and we might enjoy them very much, but they still may not completely answer our longing for home. Somewhere that we can find peace. A place where we know we will never get hurt again. A space where loss cannot happen, we never have to say good-bye, and we won’t ever be forced to leave it.

Home. A place to stay for as long as we want with people we love. It sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? This is what we’re all hoping for, and what we might be searching for. And yet, it seems so difficult to find. Once we think we may have found it, then it disappears into evaporation right before our eyes. We just can’t seem to hold on to that elusive place our hearts so desperately want to have.

Mary and Joseph strayed far from home at the time their first child was about to enter the world. Their travel did not happen by choice. It was forced upon them by a tyrannical ruler in the Roman Empire. I wonder how Mary felt as distance grew between her, their families, and their home town.

A young woman ready to deliver a baby would want the comfort of her mother and the trusted local midwife nearby. How she must have longed at times for Joseph to just turn the donkey around. It he’d take her back home, she could give birth in her own bed instead of along the road or among strangers.

For as uncertain as the trip may have been for Mary, a moment arrived when she came home. All the things she longed for lay wrapped in the bundle in her arms. This new baby she and Joseph named Jesus would bring her salvation. He would offer her a grace that overcame any of the pain and distress in her journey to Bethlehem. His limitless provisions of peace and love would satisfy her better than the comforts of home back in Nazareth ever could.

She was welcome to stay in this place for as long as she wished. The stark manger in a musty barn probably didn’t hold much charm, but the promise of a relationship with this newborn reached into eternity. Jesus gave her a place in his kingdom that would never end. Mary never needed to leave. She wouldn’t need to say good-bye to him or sustain any loss of his favor and care. She was his and he was hers. Forever.

Are you living far from God this holiday season? Have you lost your way home or forgotten how to find it? Jesus knows your way home. He is your way home. He stands at the door ready to welcome you in.

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All Through the Night

babyBut I have calmed and quieted myself. I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content. Israel, put your hope in the Lord both now and forever more. –Psalm 131:2,3

Be still and know that I am God. –Psalm 46:10

He will take great delight in you. In his love he will rejoice over you with singing. –Zephaniah 3:17

Monday night, I attended a fabulous concert at Pella High School. Both concert bands, the percussion ensembles, and the orchestra performed holiday music. Peeking out of one of the pieces the orchestra played was a tender lullaby, the title of the song not generally recognized among lists of Christmas carols and songs about jingle bells or Santa coming to town.

And yet it belonged. For a moment, my heart stilled as the lyrics to the song flowed through my mind.

Sleep my child, peace attend thee. All through the night.

Guardian angels God will send thee. All through the night.

Soft the drowsy hours are creeping. Hill and dale in slumber sleeping.

I my loving vigil keeping. All through the night.

As I listened, I pictured Mary, a new mother in a strange town, watching her newborn Christ child sleep in the straw-filled manger. Along with the host of angels singing God’s praise in the heavens, she would watch over this child. Guard him. Love him. All through the night.

The orchestra moved on to another song, this one with a bit more drive and holiday association, but my thoughts remained on the lullaby. What if the child in need of protection and love is me or you? And what if the singer of the lullaby isn’t a young mother but God himself?

Sleep my child, peace attend thee. All through the night.

I my loving vigil keeping. All through the night.

God the father delights to lavish on us his tender care. We can rest safe and sound in his arms. Like the child with its mother in Psalm 131, we can be calm, quiet, and at peace while dark hours of pain or uncertainty or grief pass by. God is there singing over us. Loving us. Guarding us. All through the night.

The Holy Ground of Advent

dreamstime_s_75029362Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Exodus 3:5

On the day this Scripture happened, Moses was leading his normal life, grazing the flock as he did on any other day when something out of the ordinary caught his attention. He went over to check it out only to find, as the book of Exodus tells us, “a bush that does not burn up.”

The bush may have been the only thing around showing evidence of flames, but the whole place was filled with God–his voice, his person, and his plan that he revealed to Moses. Even the ground beneath Moses’ feet may have been warm from the fire reflecting God’s glory.

God called his name.

Moses answered, “Here I am.”

Then God informed him of the reality Moses discovered. “…the place where you are standing is holy ground.”

In this encounter with the Lord, Moses experienced a little bit of Advent. In the midst of the ordinary day with the same common tasks that were performed the day before and needing to be done all over again tomorrow, God broke in. His shining glory turned a plain monotonous place into holy ground.

God had in mind a redemption plan for his people under oppression in Egypt. He’s getting ready to act. Moses is the first to see, the first to hear, and the one through whom God wants to work to bring the plan about.

All these years later, God still has in mind a redemption plan for his people. Each time the Advent season rolls around, we stand with Moses on holy ground. God is here. He’s getting ready to act. A savior is on his way. We listen, we prepare, and we anticipate the day when he arrives.

As we head into the weeks of December where full schedules get fuller and the world’s definition of Christmas competes with God’s, the quiet, underlying significance of Advent can help us retain peace as we stay focused on God’s voice. We prepare not only for days of celebration, but also for God’s plans to unfold in our lives. We anticipate not just the arrival of special occasions to make memories, but the reign and rule of a King. One that will bring justice, order, and hope. The holy ground warms with the glow of his joy as his arrival draws closer.

An Advent Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer

Holy One, whose coming we await, you invite us into the light of your presence. Illumine the dim places of our hearts. We are thirsty for your compassion. Draw near to us and fill us, that we may pour out your goodness to all who hunger. Amen.

 

A Serving of Happiness–Anytime. Anywhere.

dr-seuss-clipart-dr-seuss-clip-art-green-eggs-and-ham-picture-1I would eat them in a boat. And I would eat them with a goat. And I will eat them in the rain. And in the dark. And on a train. And in a car and in a tree. They are so good, so good, you see! And I will eat them in a box. And I will eat them with a fox. And I will eat them in a house. And I will eat them with a mouse. And I will eat them here and there. Say! I will eat them ANYWHERE! I do so like green eggs and ham! Thank you! Thank you, Sam-I-am!

This quote above is the last four pages of Dr. Seuss’ book, Green Eggs and Ham. You’ve probably read it to someone at some time in your life, or had someone read it to you. Perhaps you remember the story. Sam-I-am is trying really hard–and failing, as it first appears–to get his friend to try a new dish colored the appetizing shade of green. His friend refuses. After the car and the train and the boat along with all the passengers riding these vehicles crash into the water, the doubting friend finally takes a risk on the green eggs and ham.  He decided that he actually likes them. In fact, he’s willing to eat them anytime, anywhere, in all conditions of weather, and in any company.

He reminds me of myself in relation to–not the choice to try a new food–but happiness. Things happen that can sour our outlook on life. We can’t be happy in the rain or in the dark or when we’re up a tree. We can’t find happiness anywhere.

But then God comes along. Maybe in the form of an annoying friend trying to get us to try something new. Or maybe during our journey down a long tunnel in which we can’t see the light at the other end. God might find us on that day when we’re dangling from that spindly little branch after we’ve gone way out on a limb, either because of our own fault or because life seemed to force us there.

He offers us a platter on which to feast–happiness. In whatever situation we find ourselves, this delicacy may look distasteful at first. But when everything crashes and we have nothing to lose, we give it a try only to find out that happiness is a little easier to swallow than we first thought. We polish off the entire helping and ask for seconds. And then the next time we find ourselves in these difficult circumstances, happiness is a bit more savory than it was before.

So, thank you, Dr. Seuss, for teaching me. I can imagine that when he wrote this children’s book, he probably wasn’t thinking in deep, theological concepts. Either way, there is a message here. In fact, if I were to rewrite the end of Sam-I-am’s story, I would say it something like this:

I can be happy in a boat. And I can be happy with a goat. And I can be happy in the rain. And in the dark. And on a train. And in a car and in a tree. It feels so good, so good, you see! And I will be happy in a box. And I will be happy with a fox. And I will be happy in a house. And I will be happy with a mouse. And I will be happy here and there. Say! I can be happy ANYWHERE! I do so like green eggs and ham! Thank you! Thank you, Sam-I-am!

God’s Heart Shines Through

Scripture

For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures, we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another in accordance with Christ Jesus so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Romans 15:4-6 (NRSV)

Recently, a colleague asked me, “Why the gospels? If you had to say anything to promote trust in the message of Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrection, what would you say?”

I found this to be a rather intriguing question–one I wanted to explore further. These are my thoughts in answer to my friend’s searching.

An obvious point is the fact that the gospels provide a window into the steadfast (patient), encouraging heart of God. He is the one who comforts in times of grief, protects in danger, and offers strength, rest, and assurance in the face of fear. His own Word is the vehicle through which he reaches out to us with these truths.

Whenever we’ve witnessed or experienced for ourselves this gracious heart of God, we can’t help but respond. These verses in Romans 15 tell how God speaks to us through his word found in the gospels and gives direction on the best response.

The first way we encounter God’s heart in the gospels is through instruction. For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction (verse 4). The ministry of Jesus portrayed in the gospels brings to life in a personal, direct way the teachings and truths of the Old Testament. When we see Jesus in action, we begin to trust the heart of God. Over time, our despair in our sinful condition gives way to hope as we respond to his gift of salvation. This is the purpose as stated in the rest of verse 4. By steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures, we might have hope.

The second way we learn about God’s heart in the gospels is through His patient encouragement. Paul uses these words in verse 4 to describe God’s word. He uses them again in verse 5 to describe God himself. Steadfast. Encouraging. This fatherly love draws a response from us of harmony. We share what we receive. We give away what we’ve become. Patience. Encouragement. The community of believers gains the same value in our eyes that it holds in God’s. All people are welcome. Everyone has a place in the kingdom.

According to Romans 15, the last way God reveals himself to us is through his glory. Jesus paid the sacrifice. He died so that we might live. This glory is seen when we work to stay in accordance with Jesus Christ. A glowing, unique sort of glory is cast when God’s people live in unity, agreeing with each other, and loving one another with the same love that flows from God’s own heart.

 

Celebration in Gratitude

thankyou

Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. Luke 17:15-16

According to Adele Ahlberg Calhoun in her book, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, gratitude is a loving and thankful response toward God for his presence with us and within this world (p. 29).

Gratitude is also a distinguishing mark of true faith. All of these men had a basic level of faith. They knew enough about Jesus to believe he possessed authority. Calling him Master seemed a natural way to get his attention. They’d heard enough about Jesus to believe he could do something about their condition.

And they were right. All of them were healed. Jesus honored their request for mercy. And yet, only the one man who returned to say thank you heard the words, “your faith has made you well.” Ten men. Ten expressions of faith. But only one experienced a full healing.

The other nine possessed just enough faith to get something in return. Their temporary faith lasted long enough to ask Jesus to do something for them. After it happened, they left not seeing any more reason to hang around.

This scene causes me to ask the sobering question–is it possible to experience healings and miracles and yet remain unmoved to a deeper faith in Christ?

If “yes” is a possible answer to this question, then we must find a way to open ourselves up to God.

The invitation embedded in this passage is to celebration. The grateful man down on his knees before Jesus shows us how to stay attentive to the work of God so that he can enter into our hearts and lives in new ways during our times of deepest need.

Our needs might run parallel to those of the ten lepers. Maybe we’re engaged in a struggle with sickness. Or perhaps we endure isolation and loneliness.We may have a hunger for relationship that continues to go unsatisfied.

What should we do? We attempt something that doesn’t feel natural or even make sense–at first. We fall on our knees and cry out, “thank you!” The celebration doesn’t have to arise over the pain or the hardship of the situation. Instead, it comes from the belief of who Jesus is. He is all powerful, compassionate, and ready to change your life.

The practice of thankfulness offers many benefits. First, it releases Jesus to work. Mark 6:5-6 mentions a time when Jesus was inhibited by lack of belief. “He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. And he was amazed at their lack of faith.” When we express thankfulness, we are also expressing trust in him. This gives Jesus space to work.

Thankfulness manages selfishness. When we turn our focus away from our own hurts, problems, and discouragements, and onto the one doing the giving, we become more aware of others and more willing to give.

Thankfulness places proper value on the giver. When we acknowledge that someone had to make an effort or pay a price for what we have received, we elevate them in their worth and value to us. A simple thank you says, “You are important. What you’ve done means a lot.”

Thankfulness leads us into relationship with Jesus. Through the Holy Spirit, we delight in God when we show him gratitude. The one healed leper who came back opened himself up to the life-long relationship with Jesus where he received the gift of eternal life. From that moment, he went on to delight in Jesus through all eternity.

Give thanks to the Lord for he is good. His love endures forever. Give thanks to the God of gods. His love endures forever. Give thanks to the Lord of lords. His love endures forever. Psalm 136:1-2

Where I Belong

mountain path

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. –Romans 14:7-8

I remember an old Three Stooges movie where they got lost somewhere in the mountains of Italy. They were pulling a crude wooden cart and needed to finish their trek to a town on the other side of the mountain. After a brief argument between them (involving some knocks on heads, pokes of eyes, and slaps of cheeks complete with all the sound effects), they come across a peasant working in his field. They ask him for directions. He looks east. He looks west. He points, stutters, looks south, and points again. Finally, scratching his head, he says, “If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here.”

Well spoken, Mr. Peasant. The trouble was, they had no other place to start from.

Just like me. Today. In my life. I want to get to Jesus. I want to discover just who it is he thinks I am. I want to find that road through the mountains that will lead me to freedom, peace, purpose, safety, and victory.

But, like poor Larry, Moe, and Curly, I’m starting out right here–stuck where I’m at confused, traveling in circles, and with my view of the ultimate destination blocked by the impassible and the immovable.

If I were talking to Mr. Peasant, I would have asked him, ‘So where do you suggest I start from?”

He probably wouldn’t have had an answer. Or, if he did, he may have doubted my ability to believe him or follow through. Weary travelers in the Three Stooges’ predicament don’t always convey a convince degree of wisdom.

How do we get there from here?

The amazing thing is, each of us has an internal compass. For those who belong to the Lord, this compass is already calibrated to point us in the right direction.

Maybe we don’t need to struggle as much searching for a place to belong because Jesus is already here. Instead of me trying to get to him, maybe he’s running to get to me.

Rather than trying to figure out where “due North” is, maybe I need to pause and rest so that Jesus can reach me. When he does, we journey on together.

What were to happen to those Stooges if, instead of asking for directions, they kept walking? With the power of the Lord within, even the smallest steps of faith count for something. Where there was no road through the mountains before, a new one gets created just by moving forward.

Instead of the path blocked by the impossible, that obstacle becomes a means of blessing. It holds surprises and helpful strategies that I wouldn’t have considered until viewing it up close.

What does all this have to do with finding identity in Christ? When we identify with someone, we associate with them. We become a part of their group or their movement. Identity gives us a sense of what is real. It gives us a sense of who we are. Identity helps us understand where we belong.

Did the Stooges belong in Italy? They certainly would’ve stood out in a crowd.

Did they belong on that road they though would take them over the mountain? Possibly.

Do I belong on this road I journey right here and now? The only way to find out is to remember who I belong to. My internal compass will naturally point me toward the One with whom I identify.

If I identify with Jesus and belong to him, then freedom, peace, purpose, safety, and victory are mine. If by consulting my internal compass I discover that I do not belong to Jesus, then it’s never too late to get off this road and choose a different one.

Jesus already knows the road he wants each of us to travel. H’s been watching and waiting for the moment when we realize where we belong. He accepts us when we choose him. Then we begin a relationship with him. Out of that relationship, he tells us who we are and how we fit into the story he’s written for each of our lives.