Thursday, December 31, 2009

Living in Blessing

I come to the end of the year with a profound sense of being "blessed".

Over the last three weeks I have had the opportunity to celebrate three new grandchildren born into this world that I will, however long I have to live, have the opportunity to love and pass along the blessings of God to their lives.

It's not easy to live "blessed".

"On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived.
When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord
(as it is written in the Law of the Lord, "Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord"),
and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: "a pair of doves or two young pigeons."
Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him.
It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord's Christ.
Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required,
Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:
"Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all people,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel."
Luke 2:21-32 (NIV)

I may be a few days early in re-accounting the story of Jesus' presentation at the temple, but I read that passage and discover all over again the word "Blessing". Certainly, I am blessed in life, and even in death, in Jesus. That is one of the clear statements of Simeon to us. But, I am also struck by the power of blessing...of being blessed by other's words, and by blessing others with my own words.

At the end of 2009, I have been reading Henri Nouwen's "Life of the Beloved". It is the type of book that I need to pick up every once in a while and allow the words to bathe over my soul. He talks about this extensively in chapter 2. What struck me today in both scripture and his book was the words he wrote about blessing:

"...the characteristic of the blessed ones is that wherever they go, they always speak words of blessing. It is remarkable how easy it is to bless others, to speak good things to and about them, to call forth their beauty and truth, when you yourself are in touch with your own blessedness. The blessed one always one is brought to life through curses, gossip, accusations, or blaming. There is so much of that taking place around us all of the time...The voice that calls us the beloved will give us words to bless others and reveal to them that they are no less blessed than we."

Jesus said "blessed are you..." and reminded us of the many ways we are blessed apart from the way humans around us perceive a life that is blessed.

I am more ways than I can possibly recount. Yet, at the end of 2009, I want to live in the knowledge of those "blessed are you" things and give them back as thanksgiving to God.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas at home

Ok, Pete and Lindsay, Raewyn and Theo, here's a christmas greeting from home...


Merry Christmas

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.
(This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.)
And everyone went to his own town to register.
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.
He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.
While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born,
and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.
An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.
Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.
This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."
Luke 2:1-14 (NIV)

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Census at Bethlehem

Pieter Bruegel painted in the 16th century. One of his paintings that I love because it's both biblically based and it's a bit of a "Where's Waldo?". The inn is crowded. In the mid-foreground, a woman is seated on an ass, in the company of a man with a saw on his shoulder, and he's leading an ox. Mary and Joseph are on their way to Bethlehem where Joseph's ancestors come from because of the decree of the Roman emperor for a census. The painting is from 1566 and
is entitled:

"Christmas Census at Bethlehem".

The text in Luke reads:
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.
(This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.)
And everyone went to his own town to register.
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.
He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.
While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born,
and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
Luke 2:1-7 (NIV)

The beauty of the Christmas story is it's simplicity. In the context of a governmental order a movement takes place. The movement of a man and his young bride to return back to his origins - Bethlehem - leads to the beginning of a movement by God for his people to return back to him. Joseph returned to his roots, and with his movement back home, Jesus comes forth from his mother's womb, and Immanuel occurs - God is with us.

Christmas is a time to return to the roots of our life in God. It's a time to simply pray, to simply give, to simply return my heart to its first love - my savior and my God.

Perhaps like me it can be a day to simply, humbly, speak to God. To say "I love you Lord"... to ask for forgiveness of sins done - intentionally and unintentionally... to reach out and give the present of self to someone who is in need... to read God's word with eyes open for his love language to each of us... to be grateful and thankful for his gifts, no matter what they may seem to be... to pray for those who can't seemingly do the things above.

Merry Christmas Eve.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A House of Bread

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.
This was the first registration and was taken
while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own tons to be registered.
Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.
Luke 2:1-4 (NRSV)

Bethlehem means "house of bread", and so named that because it was a center of wheat and other grain production. Bethlehem had a long history in scripture. It was a place frequented in the Patriarchal period and when Rachel died (remember she was married to Jacob who was renamed Israel by God) she was buried in Bethlehem. In the story of Ruth, she and Boaz meet in Bethlehem, and in marrying they become the grandparents of King David. It is King David who is the most prominent figure from Bethlehem and Luke makes it clear that it is Joseph who is from the line of David.

In the 6th century BC the prophet Micah speaks of the future of Bethlehem in relation to the Messiah - "But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days." - Micah 5:2 (NRSV)
Later in Jesus' ministry his credentials and authority were constantly being attacked by the various religious rulers. At one point they bring up an important note about where the Messiah was to come from - seemingly, to discredit Jesus as a Galilean.
On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me,
and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, 'Out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water.'"
Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.
When they heard these words, some in the crowd said, "This is really the prophet."
Others said, "This is the Messiah." But some asked, "Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he?
Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?"
John 7:37-42 (NRSV)

This was preceded by one of Jesus' most well known statements about himself: Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. John 6:35 (NRSV)

How prophetic and poetic it was that God's son is "the Bread of Life" and that he would enter the world at a site called "the House of Bread".

Here's a thought...either buy some fresh baked bread, or better yet, make a loaf of bread and serve it at the meal you eat together with either family or others, and "break bread"...make it in honor of Jesus, the bread of life.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Advent Communion

Mary's Song of Praise in Luke 1 is often referred to as "The Magnificat". She prays in worship:

And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."
Luke 1:46-55 (NRSV)

Ancient near eastern Judaism meant betrothal of a young girl by the age of 12-13. The year of preparation would have been to assure purity, and then the marriage...probably at the age of 14 or so. It offends our western enlightened worldview to think that a 14 year old would be given away in marriage.

Yet Mary is beyond her years in wisdom and spirit. She is breathing out in prayer the praises of Old Testament faithful like Hannah and Sarah. She is reminding me that faith and obedience are fitting responses to God at all ages.

Advent communion...the desire to have communion with God is wide open to any response of faith and obedience.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Whispers of Love

The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.
Luke 1:35 (NRSV)

Mary lived with Jesus for nine months before the world ever had the chance. Even Joseph, as all fathers must, had to wait to witness his son. It would be family and friends who first congratulated or "oohed" and "aahed" at this little baby. AND, perhaps no one, save Mary and Joseph, had a clue that this little one was not a mere mortal, but had the title "Son of God" because he was Immanuel, God with Us.

So, what do you do with a little new born? The scriptures give us little to know. It says they "swaddled him in cloths and laid him in a manger" after he was newly born. Yes, it makes sense that that little babies are cleaned up and then wrapped up to both keep them warm and to give them a similar sense of being in their mother's womb. What do you do with a little new born?

Yesterday I had the opportunity to go to the hospital where one of my three new-born grandchildren is staying. His mother was smiling, relief from nine months of holding this growing boy. His father was smiling, relief from waiting, wondering, not being to do much to help the physical weariness of his wife who carried this new boy in her womb. You can tell by the look on their faces they love this little boy - even as they love their first born.

I don't know all they did or said, but I know what I did. My second grandson had a special place for 7 hours before a new granddaughter and new grandson were also born on the other side of the ocean in Bristol, England. I haven't had the opportunity to hold my new born granddaughter and grandson in England, but I did see some pictures and a video. I long to hold them, even as I had the opportunity to hold my new grandson.

What do you say to a new born? I held him close to me and told him "I love you". I told him how special he was...not special in the sense that he is above my other grandchildren...but special in that God gave him to his mom and dad, and therefore to me, to love, to tell him how "beloved" of God he is, of how I will always love him no matter what, and that I will always choose to be there for him whenever it's needed.

What do you say to new borns? I don't know what you do, but that's what I do. I do so, because it is what God does to each of me. He reminds me in his closeness how special I am. That I am "his beloved" and that no matter what he will be there for me, and that I will never stop being his beloved.

It's a rare privilege to remind ourselves and others that we are "beloved" of God. It seemed like such a good time to be reminded.

I can't wait to hold my grandson and granddaughter in England and tell them the same!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Advent - For Unto Us Children Are Born!

The text of scripture says, "For unto us a child is born, a son is given..." and it is the most wonderful news for all mankind.

Today, I'm rejoicing in three grandchildren being born on the same day.
My Son and Daughter in law, Chris and Sarah's baby boy - Leo Andrew was born at 1:18 this morning in Milwaukee. He weighed in at a strapping 9 lbs, 5 oz.
Then, 7 hours later, and across the big pond called the Atlantic, my daughter and Son in law, Lindsay and Peter Osborne had twins arrive. Raewyn Leslie was born first at 5 lbs 2oz, and Theo Harvey was born 2 minutes later at 4lb 15 oz.,

Moms and babies are doing fine!!!! Grandpa and Grandma are rejoicing like Shepherds on a hill side!

THREE in one day!!!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Advent With Joy

The Christmas Hymn says:
Joy to the World , the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing.

Joy to the World, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders, of His love.

I was reading this morning and in one of my Advent readings the writer expressed something that intrigues me - "Jesus delighted in being here on earth". For some reason that got me off guard, it made me stop and think about Jesus' coming to the earth. He didn't come because "he had to", "someone has got to do it", "I suppose, it's got to be done" - No, he came with Joy, with excitement that the winter of mankind's darkness would come to an end.

It made me stop and think some more about "how we do Christmas", and why I prefer to call this Advent versus the Christmas season.

Advent is the long meal with family and friends, with conversation, laughter, and fun. It is prepared for, for certain, but the goal is that time to sit together, in communion, in love, in a place of togetherness, with JOY.

Christmas can be a season of "I need to...", "I forgot to get....", "I wonder if so and so is going to do this or that and I need to do something also...", "I suppose I better get a present to....."

If we allow it to, it becomes a season of "have to's" and "got to's", and the JOY doesn't seem to be there at all...just duty, performance, and things to do.

Think about it: Jesus didn't "have to", "I've got to". It says in the Luke story:
"Then an angel of the Lord stood before them,
and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord." Luke 2:9-11 (NRSV)

It struck me all over again, Jesus came into the world and delighted to be here!!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Joseph and George Bailey

Matthew 1:19-20 (NRSV)
19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.
20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.

Advent is about the great love of God...blah, blah, blah. Isn't that how it comes across sometimes. God so loved the world...yeah, I know that. God loves I know that? Do I believe that? God so loves the world, that's true...but God love and care about me personally? I think we struggle with that.

Henri Nouwen wrote about this over and over again:
"To whom do I belong? To God or to the world?...As long as I keep running about asking, 'Do you love me?', I give all power to the voices of the world and put myself in bondage because the world is filled with "ifs". 'Yes, I love you if you are who I want you to be, if you are intelligent, if you have money, if you have a good job, if you produce much, sell much, buy much.'...These "ifs" enslave me, since it is irresponsible (impossible?) to respond adequately to them all...As long as I keep looking for my true self in the world of conditional love, I will remain 'hooked' to the world - trying, failing, trying again." [from "The Return of the Prodigal Son"]

Joseph stuck in the "ifs". If he does not divorce Mary he is marrying an immoral woman, and the child is not his, most of all he has broken the law he loves - so he reasons. He would do it to be "right".

If he does divorce Mary he gives up on the woman he loves and he surrenders his love in order to pass the test of "this is what you should do".

The conflict in Joseph was later mirrored in the conflict of George Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life". George Bailey lives with heart of sacrifice, loyalty, family, loving and being kind - living "rightly"; and yet it feels all so distant from him when his life seemingly collapses around him. He does not feel "loved", but "alone" - perhaps that is one of the best descriptions of our lives when we are struggling with "do you love me?"

Jimmy Stewart, who played George, shared in a story what he felt in acting out George in the scene at the bridge.
"The character I played was George Bailey, an ordinary fella who thinks he's never accomplished anything in life. His dreams of becoming a famous architect, of living adventurously, have not been fulfilled. Instead he feels trapped in a humdrum job in a small town. And when faced with a crisis in which he feels he has failed everyone, he breaks under the strain and flees to the bridge.
That's when his guardian angel, Clarence, comes down on Christmas Eve to show him what his community would be like without him. The angel takes him back through his life to show how our ordinary everyday efforts are really big achievements.
Clarence reveals how George Bailey's loyalty to his job at the building-and-loan office has saved families and homes, how his little kindnesses have changed the lives of others and how the ripples of his love will spread through the world, helping make it a better place.
Good as the script was, there was still something else about the movie that made it different. It's hard to explain. I, for one, had things happen to me during the filming that never happened in any other picture I've made.
In one scene, for example, George Bailey is faced with unjust criminal charges and, not knowing where to turn, ends up in a little roadside restaurant. He is unaware that most of the people in town are arduously praying for him. In this scene, at the lowest point in George Bailey's life, Frank Capra was shooting a long shot of me slumped in despair. In agony I raise my eyes and, following the script, plead, "God… God…dear Father in heaven, I'm not a praying man, but if you're up there and you can hear me, show me the way. I'm at the end of my rope. Show me the way, God…"
As I said those words, I felt the loneliness, the hopelessness of people who had nowhere to turn, and my eyes filled with tears. I broke down sobbing. This was not planned at all, but the power of that prayer, the realization that our Father in heaven is there to help the hopeless, had reduced me to tears."

Interestingly, Jimmy Stewart was raised by a godly Father. Jimmy served in World War II, as a bomber pilot - a very hazardous job. Many bomber pilots lost their lives, many were shot down and ended up in POW camps. Before he left for Europe his Dad wrote Jimmy a letter. The letter from his Dad read:

“My dear Jim boy. Soon after you read this letter, you will be on your way to the worst sort of danger. Jim, I’m banking on the enclosed copy of the 91st Psalm. The thing that takes the place of fear and worry is the promise of these words. I am staking my faith in these words. I feel sure that God will lead you through this mad experience. I can say no more. I only continue to pray. Goodbye, my dear. God bless you and keep you. I love you more than I can tell you.” Dad.

Psalm 91:1 has often been called God’s 911. It reads, “”He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’”

Joseph and George Bailey had a lot in common. They were fairly ordinary men who had to believe that God truly wanted to make a difference in their lives, and that "I am loved" is not mere sentimentality, but the heart of God for our lives.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Art of Manliness

A few months ago in a casual conversation with a friend, I was directed to a web site called "the art of manliness". You can check it out at

Not a site necessarily directed to Christ, it is nevertheless filled with material, stories, and articles for men. What I like about it is that it has a moral foundation, and a gentlemen's approach to being a man...something I think that is largely missing in today's world.

My meditation this morning is on a man...Joseph. Luke shares very little about him in the days leading up to Christ Jesus' birth, but Matthew gives us a lot to think about. In Matthew 1:18-19 (NRSV), it says...
18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.
19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.

I can't help but be impressed with Joseph the man. He is called "righteous"... something most men would shy away from as a label today. It implies "self-righteous" as in someone who is egotistical, arrogant, proud.

The word that is used for righteous in the text means "innocent, correct, does that which is right, seeks justice". In otherwords, Joseph wasn't arrogantly religious...better than others...he was humble. He was more than a "man of faith", he was "faithful" to God. He had gone along in life doing the right things - honest, caring, obeying the law, attending the synagogue, and correctly going about the engagement period to a young woman named Mary.

Joseph obeyed the Torah, he obeyed the Word of God.

Mystery entered in when Mary got pregnant. She explains, but it sounds so unreal. "How could it be?", "Why God, would you do this?", "How will I explain this to anyone without being dismissed?", and on and on it would go.

Joseph had to wrestle with his sense of "correct obedience" to the law and love for Mary.

I can imagine his feelings.
I can imagine how he is being pulled.

The scripture says he does the "righteous", which is also the compassionate thing - "divorce, quietly".

I see him coming to a reluctant kind of resolve -- "What happened is wrong, she is pregnant and regardless of what she says, I am not the father - someone else is. I will go quietly to the priest."

The change takes place when he wakes us from a dream (v.s.. 20)
What follows for Joseph is an explanation by God through the angel of what is going on.
- Mary is to be his wife.
- The baby inside is not ordinary - specifically He is called "Jesus" = the Greek equivalent of "Joshua" which means "Jehovah saves"
- The baby is the prophet's promise for the Messiah - Note v.s. 23, a quote from Isaiah 7:14, and so that we don't have to wonder, "Emmanuel, which means 'God with us'."
That is a very Mysterious thing! It seems preposterous!

Imagine guys, whether married or unmarried, whether single and engaged or not even dating.

Put yourself in Joseph's shoes...
It is "Mystery" that Mary offers Joseph as an explanation!
Do we believe Mystery? Do we accept the unacceptable? Do we allow room in our lives for the presence of God to come in when it appears so "Irrational, so impossible" an explanation?

If we men want a model of "the art of manliness", we need not look any further than this man Joseph. Would that men today we care that much about God and others as Joseph did.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Advent Waiting Part 2

Zechariah's first words in months of time was framed in a prophetic prayer for his son's life. John the Baptist was born six months or so before Jesus, and he was to serve as the forerunner - the one who introduced God's purpose and God's Son to a world so unprepared to see him.

Zechariah prayed and prophesied..Luke 1:68-79 (NRSV)
68 "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David,
70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71 that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant,
73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us
74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear,
75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.
78 By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us,
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace."

This life was part of a long line of prophets...voices for God in a world that is filled with darkness and desperately needs the light and life of God.

C.S. Spurgeon wrote this 125+ years ago:
For thou art my lamp, O Lord: and the Lord will lighten my darkness. 2 Samuel 22:29

Am I in the light? Then Thou, O Lord, art my lamp. Take Thee away and my joy would be gone; but as long as Thou art with me, I can do without the torches of time and the candles of created comfort. What a light the presence of God casts on all things! We heard of a lighthouse which could be seen for twenty miles, but our Jehovah is not only a God at hand, but far off is He seen, even in the enemy’s country. O Lord, I am as happy as an angel when Thy love fills my heart. Thou art all my desire.

Am I in the dark? Then thou, O Lord, wilt lighten my darkness. Before long things will change. Affairs may grow more and more dreary and cloud may be piled upon cloud; but if it grow so dark that I cannot see my own hand, still I shall see the hand of the Lord. When I cannot find a light within me, or among my friends, or in the whole world, the Lord, who said, “Let there be light,” and there was light, can say the same again. He will speak me into the sunshine yet. I shall not die but live. The day is already breaking. This sweet text shines like a morning star. I shall clap my hands for joy ere many hours are passed.

The final verse of Luke 1 is one more verse after Zechariah's prayer for his son. It says in Luke 1:80 (NRSV)
80 The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.

The waiting period would go on for 30 years. His purposes to bring light and life are relentless, even if it takes all of our lives to bring it to past.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Advent Absurdity

The Story of Zechariah is a story of humanity in it's most usual form...myself included. The priest Zechariah (Zacharias) is part of a priestly division who come to the temple once a year for a two week period of time to perform the temple services. He is chosen by lot (straws anyone?) and he enters into the temple's holy place to burn the incense and take care of the candles and bread when suddenly the angel of the Lord appears at the altar. This angel's name is Gabriel which means "man, or person, of El" which was short for Elohim, one of God's names. He meets Zechariah at the altar of incense which was symbolic of the prayers of the people rising up before God's throne. And the angel gives him the news...
Luke 1:13 (NIV)
13 But the angel said to him: "Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John.

"Zechariah, God has heard your prayers and indeed a son, you'll name him John, will be born to even in your older age. You've been praying for this and God has waited for this time to make it possible. Hallelujah!"

Sometimes in the midst of "waiting" for God we also lose the ability to believe He is listening anymore...and so we stop listening...and waiting. Zechariah is me, and perhaps you...Luke 1:18-20,
18 Zechariah asked the angel, "How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years."
19 The angel answered, "I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news.
20 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."

The word "listen" in Latin is "obedire", which we can probably recognize is the word from which we get "obedience". To listen is the seek to be obedient.

Interestingly, the word for "not listening" in Latin is "surdus". Again a closer look reveals our word "absurd". To live without listening is to live absurdly...vainly...basically going it alone.

Zechariah heard the words, but time had eroded his sense of God might really care and still want to do something. God had been listening...Zechariah had given up listening...he was just religiously performing.

It's the writer of Hebrews that reminds us in Hebrews 11:1&6 (NRSV)
1 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen...
6 And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.

"My prayer this Advent is to listen Lord...your word is full of life, reality, and hope and I want to hear you all over again in the love of your speaking faith, hope and love to me and others."

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Forerunner's Christmas

This morning I read a bit of Luke 1 and the pronouncement of the angel concerning John the Baptist's birth.

Luke 1:12-17 (NIV)
12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear.
13 But the angel said to him: "Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John.
14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth,
15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth.
16 Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God.
17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous--to make ready a people prepared for the Lord."

John's place in salvation history is to serve as a forerunner. Like Elijah he is calling fathers to a faith that makes a difference in the lives of their children. And he is taking on the task of truth-telling to the generation that Jesus is revealed in.

Truth-telling is always an ominous task, especially in our generation today. John challenged his generation with truth and it cost him his life! Truth-telling often forfeits acceptance by the wide audience of its culture.

Jesus said of John in Matthew 11:7-19
7 As John's disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: "What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind?
8 If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings' palaces.
9 Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.
10 This is the one about whom it is written: "'I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.'
11 I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
12 From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it.
13 For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John.
14 And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come.
15 He who has ears, let him hear.
16 "To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:
17 "'We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.'
18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, 'He has a demon.'
19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and "sinners."' But wisdom is proved right by her actions."

Advent is a season of truth. In this post-modern age where "truth is relative", "whatever works for you", it is supremely important that we hang on to God's truth. What is that?
1. That God so loved the world that he sent his one and only son. "God with us" Immanuel is the story of Advent and God's great love for us.
2. That without the son, we cannot have life...translated, that means that without the son people live in the darkness of their own sin, and selfishness, that clouds out a picture of life with God.

This is truth, a double truth, that we have incredible dignity as those made in the image of God, and we are profoundly wretched because of sin. This is truth, God is determined to bring us back to Divine Dignity in his son, Jesus.

Perhaps today, we could prayerfully look for truth in our conversations, our observations...not with a sense of superiority or judgment, but with a desire to be ones who can say to Jesus, "I'm seeking to have ears to hear me to see and listen, and be a fore-runner today for you."

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Peace on Earth

In my readings today, I came across this Advent theme of "peace on earth". It seems like peace evades so many people. We live in a time where darkness seems all around us. Yet, we must cling to this person of peace no matter what may be occurring. The prophet Isaiah, some 700 years before Jesus' coming proclaimed in Isaiah 9:6-7a,
"6 For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.
7 There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace..."

In Jesus we have the prince of peace. The one whose life brings a settled faith in God as the ultimate ruler and judge, and who is full of life and peace for those who are willing to cling to him.

In Luke 1, the Advent story begins with Zechariah, a priest, who was visited by the angel and the birth of John the Baptist who would be the "forerunner" of Jesus is declared. Later, when John is born, his father exclaims in Luke 1:76-79 (NASB)
76 "And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; For you will go on BEFORE THE Lord TO PREPARE HIS WAYS;
77 To give to His people the knowledge of salvation By the forgiveness of their sins,
78 Because of the tender mercy of our God, With which the Sunrise from on high will visit us,
79 TO SHINE UPON THOSE WHO SIT IN DARKNESS AND THE SHADOW OF DEATH, To guide our feet into the way of peace."

John's life serves as a model for life in Christ for us. We also have the privilege of sharing the good news of Jesus. To give to others the knowledge of salvation, by way of the forgiveness of their sins, because God is tender in his mercies. This he does to those sitting in darkness, even in the shadow of death. All around us is a world that is thirsty for peace. People who are desperate for inward peace. Who have filled their souls with many things, except for the one thing that brings real peace - Jesus.

Later the angels come to announce the birth of Jesus to the shepherds and they proclaim in Luke 2:14 (NASB)
14 "Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased."

God is pleased to grant to us peace, let's receive it with faith and trust in the one who is real peace.

Monday, December 7, 2009

How precarious it must have been

Sunday School and carols sing about the birth of Jesus and the role that Mary played as the mother of Jesus, and of Joseph, at first not only skeptical, but clearly hurt and wounded by the thought of his bride getting pregnant outside of marriage.
The nine months of Mary's pregnancy is more vivid for me today with two daughters - my daughter-in-law Sarah now in her 40th week awaiting our next Grandson, and my daughter Lindsay in her 34th week with twins, a boy and a girl.
Over the weekend we got word that Lindsay had to be hospitalized with high blood pressure and a concern for a condition called pre-eclampsia. She's being taken care of in a hospital, resting, and having tests done to see if there is unusual amounts of protein in the urine.
As a father, I'm concerned, and happy she's being taken care of. Our son-in-law, Peter, is keeping us abreast of what's happening, but being 4000 miles away with an ocean in between makes it all very anxious.

So, I've been meditating a bit on God's decision to send his son across the universe to be born into a young hospitals to care for her and her baby. The infant mortality rate must have been high. Sarah is "great with child" and hopefully soon to have their second, and ours, son/grandson. Lindsay is "great with children" and waiting to see if the condition is not severe, or whether she will need to have a C-section and early birth for the twins.

I don't know if the Father ever gets nervous, but I know I wait with prayerful hope and a bit of nervous desire to have it all be ok.

Jack Hayford wrote:

"That you came is a wonder to me --
That you came in a manner so lowly,
Came to earth to live; came Your life to give.
That you came changed all history.

That you came brought the glorious Word--
Son of Man, named Jesus, the Savior.
What a gift the Father gave,
His only Son He sent to save me.

That you came changed my destiny.
That you came is a wonder to me.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

2nd Sunday in Advent - Living With Tension

We live in the beautiful tension of the Holiness and Grace of God.
John 1:14,16-17 (NRSV)
14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.
16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.
17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

John 3:16-17 (NRSV)
16 "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
17 "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

God's holiness leads us to the truth about ourselves, and about the world around us. We, and those around us, indeed the whole world, need a savior. We need grace to counteract the selfishness of our resident sinfulness.
We die to self in receiving the grace of God. It is that grace that relieves us from pretending to be good and allows us to confess and receive from the well of God's grace...and most importantly, it allows us to let others be imperfect and stops our judgment. The grace of Christ offers us forgiveness, love, beauty for ashes, a crown of righteousness for the garments of despair.

Here's a thought for today... The desert father, Abba Moses, gave this instruction: "Do not let dislike dominate your heart."
Why not make a list, hopefully short, but a list nevertheless, of those whom you dislike. Then start with one and pray for their blessing from God. Pray for God's grace to be lavished upon them...pray that your heart will be free of judgment.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Bethlehem Rhapsody

This is amazingly cute, and the singing is pretty good too!

An Advent Saturday

I often wondered if I, and the people of God, prepared for Sunday as much as we prepare the setting for a day of football, would we get much more out of our worship experience?

Remembering how the Christmas story began is part of this: Luke 1:5-11
5 In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah; and he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth...
8 Now it happened that while he was performing his priestly service before God in the appointed order of his division, 9 according to the custom of the priestly office, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense.
10 And the whole multitude of the people were in prayer outside at the hour of the incense offering. 11 And an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense.

The setting was an angelic visitation during his worship. The visit of God's messenger frightened Zechariah, even as it would frighten us today.

We're not use to seeing the heavenly up close. The incarnation story begins with a worship service. It begins with a priest doing his priestly thing. He's doing the normal, the typical, the everyday-priests-do-these-things service.

Sunday, after Sunday, after Sunday, don't we also "go" to worship? The question is "do I expect anything to happen?"

Friday, December 4, 2009

White Christmas

I don't know why it is that there's such a desire for many of us for a white Christmas. Is it the sentimentality of it? It is nostalgic? It certainly is partly crazy!

We got our first real snow fall last night. It meant traffic jams and slippery roads, and gingerly walking from the parking lot to the building I teach in.

White Christmas? The movie White Christmas is classic...the song, I believe, is the most recorded song in all history. Bing Crosby's rich voice and Rosemary Clooney's doesn't get any better than that. Remember?

I don't think it's just White Christmas that has immortalized it. Who can forget George Bailey running through the snow on the way back to his house, or the snow blowing on the bridge, or the scene in which he plows his car into the tree?
There's so many movies that have played off of that theme. It's engrained within us.
Of course a white Christmas is limited to the northern latitudes; but did you know that weather forecasters get inundated this time of the year with inquiries into whether or not there will be a white Christmas?
As a Wisconsinite, there's huge disappointment when the grass is still visible at Christmas time. Still, this morning out in the driveway, I was not singing the song as I shoveled off the first snow...I was thinking about buying salt! There's go the romance.
We had our first snow last night...there's more to come they say. It's almost certain that it will be a White Christmas.

Christmas is about Christ, and memories...and this snow is about tradition and "it's time" for Christmas once again.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Praying through Advent

A Scripture Reading from Luke 1:46-50,
46 And Mary said: "My soul exalts the Lord,
47 And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.
48 "For He has had regard for the humble state of His bondslave; For behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed.
49 "For the Mighty One has done great things for me; And holy is His name.

I cannot read the Messianic prophecies, nor the announcements by angels in Luke and Matthew, and not see that the only response that makes sense is prayer.

I have a confession to make. I have always struggled with prayer. Early on in my walk with Christ, I approached the pastor of the church and asked him, "Why do I struggle so much to pray?" You would think that after 40 years, 37 of them as a Pastor myself, I'd be able to laugh and say that was those days when I was young and not very spiritual. Well, I'm older, and although I can't speak to the very spiritual part, I still struggle with prayer. Are there reasons? Sure...and I'm aware of some of them, but not all, I'm certain. And, does it make any difference? Not really. One of the things I'm most comforted by in knowing God is that my personality, disposition, and even ways of acting and reacting are not foreign to him. He does not look at me, nor us, with a surprised look, as if to say "I didn't know you thought like that", or, "Wow, you shocked me with that response."

I take great comfort in what the psalmist says in Psalms 103:8-14 (NASB)
8 The Lord is compassionate and gracious, Slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness.
9 He will not always strive with us, Nor will He keep His anger forever.
10 He has not dealt with us according to our sins, Nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.
11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth, So great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him.
12 As far as the east is from the west, So far has He removed our transgressions from us.
13 Just as a father has compassion on his children, So the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him.
14 For He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust.

I have been a 25 year reader of Henri Nouwen, a now-home-with-the-Lord Catholic Priest whose writings moved me to a deeper awareness of Christ than most writings did. I have one book entitled "Advent and Christmas", and I read my way through it during the Advent season. I love Nouwen's prayers...they are simple, full of life, and truth, and always make me say "Amen Lord, wished I could have said it that way."

Here's an Advent prayer of Henri Nouwen that beckons us to seek God in quiet ways:

"Lord Jesus, Master of both the light and the darkness, send your Holy Spirit upon our preparations for Christmas.
We who have so much to do seek quiet spaces to hear your voice each day.
We who are anxious over many things look forward to your coming among us.
We who are blessed in so many ways long for the complete joy of your kingdom.
We whose hearts are heavy seek the joy of your presence.
We are your people, walking in darkness, yet seeking the light. To you we say, 'Come Lord Jesus!'”

May we each find a quiet simple place during Advent to pray, "Lord come to me and prepare my heart to hear you every day."

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Root of Jesse

Christmas for most people involves a tree. There are many historic reasons for the inclusion of the evergreen tree in the Christmas season, and I may share one or two of them as the season goes along. Perhaps the most basic idea is that in Autumn (in the Northern Hemisphere that is) the leaves fall from the deciduous trees and the days of light grow shorter, darkness more and more invades the earth, and the cold weather drives us indoors. I personally love winter, but the symbolic part of "life" retreating can't be missed. Along comes the evergreen tree and reminds us that life continues in the midst of the darkness, the cold, the winter season.
2800 years ago a prophet looked all around the land of Israel, and all he saw was "darkness, gloom", a foreboding sense of trouble that would lead to war, captivity, exile for his people, Israel. Isaiah prophesied faithfully to a nation that had lost hope, and forgotten it's heritage. He spoke truth into the situation and also hope for the Messiah to come.
A favorite Messianic Hebrew Bible passage comes from Isaiah 11:1-10. In the NASB...
1 Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse, And a branch from his roots will bear fruit.
2 The Spirit of the Lord will rest on Him, The spirit of wisdom and understanding, The spirit of counsel and strength, The spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
3 And He will delight in the fear of the Lord, And He will not judge by what His eyes see, Nor make a decision by what His ears hear;
4 But with righteousness He will judge the poor, And decide with fairness for the afflicted of the earth; And He will strike the earth with the rod of His mouth, And with the breath of His lips He will slay the wicked.
5 Also righteousness will be the belt about His loins, And faithfulness the belt about His waist.
6 And the wolf will dwell with the lamb, And the leopard will lie down with the young goat, And the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; And a little boy will lead them.
7 Also the cow and the bear will graze, Their young will lie down together, And the lion will eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child will play by the hole of the cobra, And the weaned child will put his hand on the viper's den.
9 They will not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain, For the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord As the waters cover the sea.
10 Then in that day The nations will resort to the root of Jesse, Who will stand as a signal for the peoples; And His resting place will be glorious.

The passage speaks of a different day in the future when "shalom", the peace of God's Kingdom will cover the whole of the earth. Where does this begin? It begins with the "root of Jesse...a branch" that speaks of Jesus' coming in the future.
Remember that Jesus' family line comes from David, who was a son of Jesse.

Psalms 72:18-20 (NASB)
18 Blessed be the Lord God, the God of Israel, Who alone works wonders.
19 And blessed be His glorious name forever; And may the whole earth be filled with His glory. Amen, and Amen.
20 The prayers of David the son of Jesse are ended.

When the angel visited Mary to tell her of the miraculous birth she was to have, he said to her,
31 "And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus.
32 "He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David;
33 and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end."
Luke 1:31-33 (NASB)

The tree, the tree of life from God has continued to grow, to survive even when chopped down, and all that remains is a root, and a branch from a stump.

The image from Isaiah of the Messiah is full of wonder. "The Spirit of the Lord will rest on Him, The spirit of wisdom and understanding, The spirit of counsel and strength, The spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. And He will delight in the fear of the Lord"

We do not live in a day where it's popular to embrace "the fear of the Lord". We live in a culture that is centered on "me". The selfish aspect of that hearkens back to the reminder of what the Jesse tree is all about...that our roots are roots of faith that are linked to God's creation and his ultimate purposes, and the means for all of that is in His Son, our Savior, the branch, the Son of David, Jesus.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Christmas memories

I have some vivid memories of Christmas past. Born in 1949, Christmas was a grand affair filled with Hallmark kinds of memories. I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin called Fox Lake. I was one of 7 kids - a twin and my parents were blue-collar hard working folks. I remember going with my Mom to the town near us that had a Sears and J C Penney's dept store for Christmas shopping. The stores were decorated to the hilt with Christmas fan-fare and Christmas hymns and music was pumped through the store. The city I grew up in hung decorations from the street lights, and banners across the main street declaring "Merry Christmas". We were a German immigrant community (by and large) and so almost everyone was either Lutheran or Catholic. Even in public school Christmas was recognized and celebrated. We actually had "Christmas Vacation"!

I remember hymns and carols on television. Every year the city would put on a Christmas party at the city's community building. There would be several hundred kids in one place and they'd show 16mm films of Christmas - often cartoons, and then at some point the fire department would drive up with Santa Claus in tow.

Our house was modestly decorated, but decorated it was. Dad put up the tree, but mom and kids decorated it. I remember Christmas music everywhere...department stores, the radio, even on the city streets.

The Lutheran church I attended put on a Christmas eve program and we had to memorize a passage of scripture and had Christmas rehearsals to learn the music and practice reciting our parts. I speak in front of hundreds today, but back then I was as nervous as anyone could possibly imagine.

The presents didn't appear under the tree until we returned from the Christmas eve service, and then magically so. When we left they were no where in sight, but when we returned, there they were. It didn't hit me until I was 8 or so that my Dad mysteriously was always late to get to the car for the Christmas eve service.

It was an old fashioned Christmas and it is nostalgic to still remember it today. There was much anticipation, and much in the way of celebation.
Forgive the nostalgic reminiscing, but it struck me, I've loved Christmas as much as anything over the 60 years of life. I hope the feeling doesn't go away.