Wednesday, December 24, 2014

a christmas prayer


O Lord, how hard it is to accept your way. You come to me as a small, powerless child born away from home. You live for me as a stranger in your own land. You die for me as a criminal outside the walls of the city, rejected by your own people, misunderstood by your friends, and feeling abandoned by your God.
     As I prepare to celebrate your birth, I am trying to feel loved, accepted, and at home in this world, and I am trying to overcome the feelings of alienation and separation which continue to assail me. But I wonder now if my deep sense of homelessness does not bring me closer to you than my occasional feelings of belonging. Where do I truly celebrate your birth: in a cozy home or in an unfamiliar house, among welcoming friends or among unknown strangers, with feelings of well-being or with feelings of loneliness?
     I do not have to run away from those experiences that are closest to yours. Just as you do not belong to this world, so I do not belong to this world. Every time I feel this way I have an occasion to be grateful and to embrace you better and taste more fully your joy and peace.
     Come, Lord Jesus, and be with me where I feel poorest. I trust that this is the place where you will find your manger and bring your light. Come, Lord Jesus, come.  Amen. (The Road to Daybreak by Henri J. M. Nouwen)

Monday, December 22, 2014

with us

Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel (which means God with us). ~Matthew 1:23


What a promise!  And more than just a promise, what a statement of who God is!  He is Immanuel!  That is his name!  Thus, he is the God who just can't stay away.  He is God with us!  In the midst of our deepest darkness, he is with us.  In the midst of our most desperate loneliness, he is with us.  In the midst of our most unimaginable pain, he is with us.  When our hearts have been broken beyond repair, he is with us.  When we have made a total mess of our lives, he is with us.  When tragedy strikes, he is with us.  When we are lost, left, or abandoned, he is with us.  At the times we feel most unlovable and ashamed, he is with us.  When we feel like complete and utter failures, he is with us.  When we feel like all hope is lost, he is with us.  When we feel completely broken and inept, he is with us.  When we are terrified of what lies before us, he is with us.  When we are uncertain about our futures, he is with us.  And even when life seems to be going "just fine thank you," he is with us even then.  In fact, the Psalms (Psalm 139:7-12) tell us that there is nowhere we can go where he is not with us.  Just open your eyes and your ears, he is there.  Somewhere.  Even if he is there in a way--or a place, or a form--that you didn't expect.  He is with us!  It's just who he is.  Thanks be to God.


I'd love to hear your stories of how you are recognizing God to be with you these days.  Leave your comments so all of us can celebrate Immanuel.

Monday, December 15, 2014

prepare

When Moses told the words of the people to the Lord, the Lord said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments and be ready for the third day. For on the third day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. (Exodus 19:10-11)


"Are you ready for Christmas?"  It is funny this time of year how many times a day you are asked that question.  And I don't know about you, but the minute I hear it my mind goes immediately to whether I have bought all of my presents, or if the lights are up, or the tree is up, or the million-and-one other things that must be done before Christmas Day arrives.  Getting ready for Christmas can be a bit overwhelming at times.  But I wonder if there is not a deeper call I need to hear in that question.  What if being ready for Christmas has more to do with being prepared, which seems to have much more to do with the state of my heart and soul than it does the state of my decorations and/or Christmas list? 

Isaiah (and John the Baptist) knew what I'm talking about: A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.  And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:3-5)  There is a certain amount of preparing that needs to be done when the God of all creation is about to enter that very creation.  And it has much more to do with what is going on within us than it does about what is going on around us.  There is much work to do within before God arrives.  Valleys must be raised up.  Mountains and hills must be made low.  The uneven ground of our hearts and souls must be made level, and the rough places smoothed into a plain.  After all, the King is coming.  Let us prepare the way for him.

It is easy to get lost in the visions of mangers and shepherds and angels and stars and babes in swaddling clothes, and forget that this tiny baby is both the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.  It is easy to allow ourselves to be filled with wonder and amazement about the beauty breaking in within us and around us and miss the awe and the reverence (and even terror) of realizing that a holy God is about to enter our world.  So maybe I should spend some time, like God directed Moses to do, doing some serious preparing within before he arrives.  Maybe I too need to turn my mind and my heart to the ways I need to be cleansed and consecrated before he appears.  The word consecrate comes from the Hebrew word qadash which is a verb meaning to sanctify, to be holy, to separate, to set apart, or to be pure and clean.  God tells Moses to make sure the people of Israel have prepared themselves in this way for his coming.  "Wash your garments, and your hearts, because a holy God is coming down out of the heavens to descend on Mount Sinai.  Therefore, be it Sinai or Bethlehem, get ready."

Which makes me ask myself, "Am I really ready for Christmas?"  If Advent is about watching and waiting for his coming, shouldn't I be doing the same?  Shouldn't I spend the days and weeks of Advent consecrating and cleansing, preparing myself for the arrival of my awesome and holy God?  And what does that look like for me?  God, how do you want me to prepare for your arrival?

So I guess tomorrow, when the next person asks me if I'm ready for Christmas, I think my reply will have to be,  "Probably not.  I've still got some preparing to do."  


God said to Moses, "Go to the people.  For the next two days get these people ready to meet the Holy God.  Have them scrub their clothes so that on the third day they'll be fully prepared, because on the third day God will come down on Mount Sinai and make his presence known to all the people." (Exodus 19:10-11, The Message)


Wednesday, December 3, 2014

hope

Ultimately the season of Advent is a season of hope.  Hope that God will somehow show up amidst all of the chaos and turmoil and pain of this world.  And after watching a significant amount of pain in the last few weeks in the lives of several different friends, I am coming to believe that where we perceive God to be in the midst of our chaos and pain is a very significant thing.  It determines so much about our process of healing, or at least it has for me.  Because in order to heal us, Jesus needs to get his hands on us.  In order for us to find ourselves in his healing embrace, to hear his words of deep affection, and to allow his hands to tenderly mend our broken hearts, we have to be willing and open for that to occur.  For the most part, Jesus never healed anyone, or put his hands upon them, without some amount of willingness and openness from their side.  And this willingness and openness is largely determined by where we think God is in the midst of our pain.  Or, in other words, how we see him. 

If we believe him to be distant or disinterested, much less the source and cause of our pain to begin with, we are unlikely to ever seek his healing touch.  In that case we are more likely to feel abandoned or betrayed, which becomes a source of anger and bitterness.  But if we are able to believe that God is somehow mysteriously and wonderfully with us in the midst of our pain, it is a different story altogether.  Then we are likely to have a deep sense of compassion from him and companionship with him.  We are likely to realize that since he has experienced the depths of pain himself, he is wonderfully able to understand ours, and to truly be able to comfort us in the midst of it. 

Thus, the season of Advent stands at the mysterious intersection of groaning and hope.  When we stand with Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus, seeing his tears and hearing his groans, we are likely to see the tears in his eyes and hear the groans of his heart over our pain as well.  And then we can rest assured that, even in the midst of our pain, we are both deeply known and deeply loved...and deeply understood.  I don't know about you, but that gives birth to hope deep within me.  Hope that I can, indeed, make it through this, whatever this may be.  Hope that I am not alone to navigate it, but somehow more connected with him than I've ever been--more fertile to whatever he wants to plant within me and more receptive to the movement of his Spirit.  Hope that somehow, someday I will be able to live again, not just surviving, but thriving because of the beauty he was able to bring out of my ashes.  Now that's hope!  Come, Lord Jesus!


"The purpose of Advent is to make us pregnant with hope." ~The Work of the People



 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Monday, December 1, 2014

jp

So the day after I had the amazing privilege of meeting Sean and his family I attended the funeral of another young man.  This young man's name was Jonathan.  We all called him JP.  JP was 25 years old and had graduated from Powell the same year as my daughter.  He was also on our football team for all four of his high school years, so I knew him pretty well.  JP was bright, fun-loving, outgoing, and had a warm and infectious smile.  He was really fun to be around, on top of being a pretty good football player.  But apparently, since his days at Powell, things had not gone quite so well for JP, especially over the past few months.  Through the years I would see him from time to time around the Powell community, or when he came back to one of our PHS football games, and from all appearances he was doing fine.  But inside it was a much different story...he was really struggling.  So much so that on Monday, November 10, JP decided to take his own life.  Shock, sadness, and sorrow filled my heart as I heard the horrific news.  "Not JP.  Really?!?  Are you sure?"
 
Well, on Thursday night, November 13, I joined family and friends at JP's memorial service.  "What do you say?" I thought to myself, as the pastor began the service.  And what I heard over the course of the next hour was so honest and so real, so sad and yet so beautiful.  The pastor who led the service had known JP, and his family, from the day he was born.  And it showed.  I've been to five or six different funerals that came about as a result of suicide during my years of life and ministry, most of which refused to face the tough questions that were firmly lodged in the hearts and souls of everyone in the room.  But not this one.  It was truly incredible.  Having had 25 years of relationship with JP the pastor began the service head on, by acknowledging that in the last few minutes (if not years) of his life JP had made some devastating decisions, but those terrible choices were not "who he was."  He encouraged all of us to remember JP for "who he was," rather than for "what he had done" just a few days earlier.  He then spent the next few minutes recalling who he knew JP to be; which was then followed by his father, his mother, his sister, and then his brother, all of whom spoke, remembering who JP was to them.  The image of a grieving father talking about the life and death of his dearly loved son will be something I will remember for a long time.
 
After a time of remembering who JP was, the pastor asked the question: "So what happened?"  He then went on to describe some of the darker days and disappointments in JP's life that had left him in a pretty dark place.  He talked about the hope of Christ in the midst of darkness and spoke a bit about JP's journey of faith, the time he had trusted Jesus with his life as a younger boy, and how he had recently started coming back to church again.  But by far the most impactful moment in the service is when he turned to JP's parents, his dear friends, and began telling them that God knows exactly what they are going through.  So much so that he is wonderfully able to meet them in the deepest places of their pain.  He told a story about how he had been in Israel last summer with some folks from the church, touring all of the places of Jesus' life and death.  He said one day while they were in Jerusalem touring the places related to the death and crucifixion of Christ, their guide, who was a Jewish Christian, turned to them and asked them if they knew why the curtain in the temple was torn from top to bottom as Christ died on the cross.  After hearing the correct theological answer the guide informed them that, in his culture, when someone was overcome by grief or pain, the proper expression of that was to tear their robes.  He then introduced them to the idea that maybe God the father was so filled with grief and sadness at the loss of his son that He tore his robes from top to bottom, in the rending of the temple veil.  It was an incredibly beautiful and profound image to offer these grieving parents, and one that I will remember for years to come.
 
Please pray for the Price family in the days ahead as they continue to grieve the tragic loss of their dearly loved son.