Saturday, December 25, 2010

That's What She Said

Earlier this week the Gospel reading was Mary's Song. To those unfamiliar this is a simple prayer of thanksgiving that Mary offers after being greeted so graciously by her cousin Martha. It's a wonderful prayer...honest and humble. It got me thinking about how significant Mary is in Jesus' life...and how she should be in ours. She was there at the beginning of Jesus' Earthly life...and there at the end. And she was there afterward...when He rose again. But it occurred to me...that for all of her significance...we only hear her speak three times.

The first time Mary speaks we hear her offer her complete and unwavering obedience to God (Luke 1:38). The second time we hear her speak it is the prayer of thanksgiving from the Gospel reading I mentioned earlier. She sings of God's holiness and of His mercy. The third time she speaks, we hear her instructing the servants at the wedding feast to "do whatever He tells you (John 2:1-11). So there you have it. Jesus' mother speaks only three times in the Bible and we get three messages: 1) Serve God...His will be done, 2) God is holy and merciful, and 3) we should do whatever He tells us.

As I think about it...that's pretty good advice. And its not advice from some scholar living in a lofty tower, it is advice that was lived out in Mary's life. She is not only our teacher...but our example. Service, worship, and obedience. It seems to me we can do alot worse than apply these "sayings" of Mary to our own life. Maybe this we pause to thank God for the His precious Son, we should pause to think about Mary...about how she lived...and about what she said.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Shout with Joy!

Sometimes I am surprised by my reaction to Scripture. It so often convicts me...nearly always teaches me...but for whatever reason it is a rare occasion (though I dare say it is becoming more frequent) that it moves me. Today's reading from Zephaniah was one of those rare occasions.

From the first line I could feel something stirring in me...this bubbling...almost like a boiling sensation within joy overtook my soul. How could my soul respond otherwise? Here our God shouts to us through His prophet: "Rejoice! I have wiped away your sin! I have removed the judgement against you. You are free! You are saved! There is nothing left to fear!"

As I read it again I hear it echoing the joyful consulation that the angels brought to the shepards:
"Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people....Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests." Luke 2:10,14

Rejoice! And again I say rejoice! God is with us! And God has saved us! How can our bodies contain it? How can we not exclaim it to the world? For God so loved us...that He sent His Son to the form of a ransom us from fulfill His promise at the dawn of Creation...that we will have life...and have it from everlasting to everlasting!

There is no greater greater gift. Let us then celebrate...let us live with a song in our heart and His praise on our lips. This is no season of silence (with all do reverence and love for hymns like Silent Night) is a time to shout....and shout with joy!

Monday, December 20, 2010


God opened my eyes this morning to the realization that I want things to be easy. I wouldn't have thought this about myself I don't think. But it became pretty clear. You see I was lamenting to God that I have trouble staying focused when I pray the mind gets distracted and then races from one thought to another completely seamlessly. while I was at it, I shared with Him my frustration that despite my proclamation at the beginning of Christmas that I wanted to live this Christmas season as if it was the only one I would once again seems to have rushed along to where there are now only a few days left. I hadn't had an special experiences. I don't feel any new or special feelings. And in fact, I feel a bit distant from God. This definitely hasn't been the extraordinarily Christmas I had wanted. And that's when I smiled.. I smiled because I think I heard God chuckle a little bit. " you want it easy, John...." I had to admit...I guess that's true. Of course that's not how it works. Faith is something that grows through use...through struggle...through exertion...just like the muscles of our body. And just like our body, we can't waive a magic wand and suddenly be in shape. We have to work at it...we have to be persistent...we have to pursue it. And it's in that working out that we find the extraordinary.

I heard a great sermon this weekend. In it, our deacon laid out the Christmas story from Joseph's perspective. It was a powerful message...and I guess I should have seen this "it's not easy" message coming...because it sure wasn't easy for Joseph. I mean here was this guy who had worked and saved, built his business, arranged for a wife, and paid the dowry. Things were finally lining up. Finally he was going to see the fruit of all his labor. He would have a wife, start a family, and begin to build a real life for himself and his family. Only then he finds out, that Mary...the woman to whom he is pregnant. She insists she has not been with another man, but there really isn't any other explanation available. You can almost hear Joseph sigh. "So much for my plans. So much for finally getting what I had been working toward for all these years. So much for easy."

Now the law states that Mary should be taken out to the public square and be stoned to death (Deut. 22:23-24). And Joseph was a righteous man. He was a good man...and he obeyed the law of God. But amazingly, Joseph seemed to appreciate the heart of the law...the heart of God...more so then many of the leaders of his day...because he decided he would not publicly humiliate Mary...and he would certainly not have her stoned. But neither could he endorse her seeming adultery...and he could not live a lie...acting as if the child was his. So he decided he would divorce her quietly. Easy enough.

But of course as we know, God had other plans...and Joseph had a dream. In the dream God reassured Joseph that in fact Mary had not been with another man. That the baby she was carrying was God's child...and that he and Mary should name him Jesus...and raise him as their own. So that's what Joseph did. He took Mary as his wife.

Now I can imagine after that dream, Joseph was probably on a spiritual high. I mean talk about a mountain top experience! An angel appearing in your dream and giving you a message from God...that has to pump you up. Plus God was entrusting you to raise His Son. I mean talk about a vote of confidence. And so it is easy for me to imagine that Joseph must have expected that from here on out...with God watching over His Son...things would be...well...easy.

But then there was the census...and the trip to Bethlehem....and on top of that...there wasn't any room for them in they had to stay in a stable. [Imagine...your first act as the stand-in dad for God's Son is failing to find a warm, clean room for Him to be born...and instead having to settle for a stable.] And then there was Herod...and the flight to Egypt...and then Jesus getting "lost" in the temple...and so on. I think any idea that this would be easy....that God would roll out the red carpet of ease and miracles for them...was quickly shattered. But that should be no surprise to us. we've seen...strength comes through struggle...through work...and yes even through stress. And God wanted His Son...and his adoptive be strong. Just like He wants me to be strong in my faith.

And so I need to abandon this idea of easy....of wanting things to be easy. I need to recognize, appreciate, and embrace the fact that it is through the struggles and frustration and challenges that I grow closer to God. Not only...and not usually...through mountain top experiences or angelic dreams. It's through life...through the humdrum...through the mundane...that God meets me...and teaches me...and grows me...if I let Him. And so I need to let Him. I need to accept and believe that He is directing my path (Jeremiah 10:23). I need to abandon my plans...and simply let God direct my life (Jeremiah 29:11). I need to let Him work...and let Him work on me (Psalms 139:23-24). Then...if I let myself see it...I'll find that my ordinary life is actually quite extraordinary...not just at Christmas...but all year. It's really as simply as that. In fact, it sounds kind of easy.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Christmas Present

This weekend I watched a documentary on the life of Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan (Road of Hope). Amidst being humbled and inspired by this truly hope-full and joy-full man of God, I was moved by a conscious, willful decision he made during his 13+ years of imprisonment in Vietnam (of which 9 were in solitary confinement):
"I decided I would not wait. I would live the present moment and fill it with love. For if I wait, the things I wait for will never happen. The only thing that I can be sure of is that I am going to die. No, I will not spend time waiting. I will live the present moment and fill it with love."
What an incredibly powerful and liberating statement. Here is this man enduring long periods of darkness (literal and spiritual)...feeling helpless and unimportant...being abused and belittled...and somehow he opens his mind to God's truth...and he hears the secret of life. I mean what a beautifully simple compass for one's life...for my life. "Live the present moment...and fill it with love." I knew as soon as I heard it...that is what I want. That's how I want to live.
So I started thinking about Christmas, because that's where I am right the middle of Christmas...and I didn't want to wait to try and implement this new found direction for my life. Each year seems to be a whirlwind of parties and get-togethers and visits and encounters. And when it is all said and done...I inevitable feel like it all slipped by too fast and I never got to really talk to or be with anyone (except my wife and daughter...and sometimes even that seems rushed). So I started do I fill each of these moments of Christmas...with love?

I began with the basics...just trying to understand what love really is...what it means. Love is a least as Jesus intended it. It's not a thing that you fall into...or lose. It's not a feeling or emotion (although you can feel things because of love.) is a's an action. And love is outward, not inward. Love is about others...not yourself. It's something you give...not something you get. So from these two basic elements of love I knew that filling moments with love meant doing something (or several things) for others. It had to be about what others felt and took away from their encounter with me. Somehow I had to become God's hands and feet and voice and somehow make His love real in the lives of those I came into contact with. I had to make god's love palpable for them. But how do I do this in fleeting conversations and short visits? How do I deepen the time I have with each person...when that time is so short?

And so I started a list of little things...things I can do in each encounter, each visit, each moment during Christmas to let someone know they are valuable...they are important...they are loved. Here's what I have come up with so far:
  • Find time for "everyone"...even if only a few moments.
  • Make eye contact...and really see the person I'm talking to.
  • Ask about their life...and uncover what is important to them.
  • Express to them their value in your eyes...and don't hold back.
  • Make physical contact...whether a hug or handshake or pat on the back...physical touch helps make God's love real.
I realize these are not earth shattering. In fact, I expect they are some basic tenants from Communication 101. But I also realize how seldom I really do these things, especially with some people...such as the relative I have nothing in common with, or a niece's new boyfriend who has his nose pierced and a sleeve of tattooed skulls down his arm, or the elderly neighbor who talks endlessly and in detail about her maladies and problems, or...and especially at some moments...such as when I'm tired, or I'm ready to go, or I'm hungry, or the game is on, or... Yes, the sad truth is there are so many things always going on...that I get distracted from the moment. And not only do I fail to fill these moments with love...but I fail to fill them with anything...because I'm not there. I'm thinking about how to get out of this conversation or about what I am going to do next. I guess that's why time sees to go so quickly sometimes, because I am often racing to the next moment before I've appreciated the current one. But this Christmas, I want to start to change all that.

Admittedly this sounds somewhat pollyannaish. I haven't even gotten to the first moment with this new perspective yet (or I have and I missed it), but already I am worrying if it's even possible to do this. Can I really focus on the other person I am talking to...really stay there...centered on them...and let God's love fill that moment through me? Can I really tune out all the other distractions around (and within) me...and be with that other person in the moment? I guess time will tell. But if I can....if I can move this lesson from my mind to my heart...if I can live in the moment...and fill those moments with love...then there can be little doubt that a season of moments filled with love is about the best Christmas present one can hope for.

Cardinal Thuan, please pray for me...that the joy and hope you found through living each moment and filling it with love will also find me. Amen.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Adam's or Mary's?

Where are you? An interesting question coming from God. At the time He posed this question, there were only two people in the whole world...Adam and Eve...and so it's not as if God lost Adam in the crowd of people (and besides God is omniscient afterall). So it makes me wonder what God was really asking Adam....and what He is really asking me.

We know that Adam had just sinned...for the first time...the first sin. He ate the fruit that God had forbidden him to eat. And apparently eating this fruit (from the tree of knowledge of good and evil) opened Adam to a host of fears and paranoia and emotions...and knowledge. Adam's initial response to God is probably what we would all do...he answers based on his geographic location, though not getting too specific, and throws in a bit of a justification for why he is where he is (again forgetting or ignoring the fact that God knew where he was and knows his heart).
“I heard you in the garden;
but I was afraid, because I was naked,
so I hid myself.” Genesis 3:10
To this feeble answer, God asks another that essentially amounts to, "What did you do?" He is calling Adam out...encouraging Adam to confront and admit his sin.
Then he asked, “Who told you that you were naked?
Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” Genesis 3:11
What continues from here is a spiraling blame game where Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the serpent, and God holds all of them accountable.

Now this reading was obviously selected because of it's connection to Mary (the new Eve) on the feast of her Immaculate Conception (not Jesus' conception). However, what leaps out at me when I consider all four of today's readings is the contrast between Adam and Eve's disobedience and Mary's complete assent and submission. One the one hand, we have ourselves...fallen, sinful, ashamed...and on the other hand we have who we are striving to be...humble, obedient, faithful. And in the midst of all this, God is asking...where we are on this continuum.

Our first instinct (much like Adam's) might be nonchalant...trying to respond as matter-of-factly as we can, but also trying to explain or justify why we are where we are. But we can see where that got Adam. No...if our true desire is to move closer to become like Mary...then we need to face our failures. We need to bravely examine our lives...our actions...our failures to act...and confront those times when we fell short of what God wants of us (and what we want for ourselves). We can only grow, if we learn from our mistakes...and we can only learn from mistakes if we recognize and acknowledge them. So God asks where we are...not so he can hear our answer....but so we can hear our answer. C.S. Lewis notes that prayer doesn't change changes us. And that is what is at play here. God requires that we examine ourselves and confess our sins...not because God needs us to do this...but because He knows we need this.

If we can be this honest with ourselves...and this honest with God...then we can "sing a new song unto the Lord" and then can we hope to achieve (though not through our own power...but God's) what God called us to from before we were born.
...He chose us in Him, before the foundation of the world,
to be holy and without blemish before Him.
In love He destined us for adoption to Himself through Jesus Christ,
in accord with the favor of His will,
for the praise of the glory of His grace
that He granted us in the beloved. Ephesians 3:4-5

And so on this feast of Mary's Immaculate conception, let us consider the incredible example of her obedience...and answer for ourselves...where are we? Is our relationship with God more like Adam's...or more like Mary's?

Monday, December 6, 2010

Gotta Have Faith

On Friday, the Gospel reading told of two blind men who cried out to Jesus to heal them. When He approached them He asked, "Do you believe that I can do this?" I think as Christians, we confront this question every day. And rather than being the easy, throw-away question that it seems, I believe it can challenge the very core of our least is does mine.

The easy answer to whether God can do something is simple intellectual assent. Of course God can do this...or that. God can do anything. He is Omnipotent...He is without equal. There is nothing God can't do. But while this is all true, it is an answer in the abstract. It is something we believe because we are suppose to believe it. It is just logical. If Go dis God, He can do anything. But it is one thing to say that you believe in a chair...and a wholly other thing to actually sit down. The challenge comes when we are believing in our own life.

When I first read this passage, I immediately started running through all the really challenging areas in my life. I recalled the places where I struggle the most...the areas that get most of my prayer time...the situations where I am the most frustrated and/or have the least hope of it getting better. And then I asked myself this question. Do I think God can do this? Do I believe God can fix this? Do I believe He can make this better? And as my mind darted to the easy answer, I forced myself to go beyond the literal words of the question...and get to what I think is the heart of it. Do I believe God will do I believe He will fix I believe He will make this better? When I ask that question, I am forced to admit, my faith is not as strong as that of the blind men in Jesus' story.

You see if I believe God will fix my most difficult situation...if I believe God really will relieve this burden...if I believe He will make things better...then why do I despair? Why do I worry? Why do I feel hopeless even thinking about it? Despair, worry, fear, hopelessness...these are not markers of Faith. So I'm left with the admission that I don't really believe God is going to act in some of the situation sin my life. I don't really believe He is going to make things better. And that scares fact it shakes me to the core.

Why don't I think God cares enough to act? Why don't I believe that He is faithful...and will answer my many prayers? Why don't I think God wants good things for my life? It's such an odd question to contend with...because the Bible is full of evidence to the contrary.
For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Jeremiah 29:11
And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. 2 Corinthians 9:8
"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life ? "And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. Matthew 6:25-34
"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16

Clearly God loves us and clearly God loves me. Sometimes I think my doubt stems from feeling unworthy. Who am I that God should love me? I mean it doesn't take too much to rationalize that there are more important issues and situations in the world. Or as Brooks & Dunn put it, that God must be busy. At other times I think my doubt is really just my selfishness. Because God hasn't fixed the situation yet, I presume He is not going to. Since He hasn't moved according to my timeline, I figure He isn't going to move at all. He must not care. And at still other times, my doubt really stems from my own realization...somewhere deep down...that the resolution to the situation already lies within me. I already have the power to change fix make this situation better...but I don't. So my unbelief in God's actions are really my not believing in my own willingness to do what needs to be done.

But whatever it is that impedes my complete trust in what Jesus can and will do, the end of the story gives me every reason why I need to fight through it.
“Yes, Lord,” they said to him.
Then he touched their eyes and said,
“Let it be done for you according to your faith.”
And their eyes were opened.
You see, God chooses to move according to our faith....and so I can limit God (because He allows me to). I can not live up to my potential...I can get mired down in hopelessness...I can live in constant frustration and doubt. I can do all these things...if I choose. But that is not God's desire. He desires to heal and transform and deliver. God desires to be in every situation in my life. And He'll act in every situation...if I just trust Him. If I believe not only that He can...but that He will act...then miracles will happen. I just gotta have Faith.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Worth Fighting For

So I heard a story yesterday about a grandmother who threw her 2 1/2 year old granddaughter off a 5th floor walkway at a mall...killing the little girl...and I How could someone do this? But no sooner did the question form in my mind and I also had the answer: evil. What else could be the source of such awful, despicable, tragic events? The devil exists...and we see him everyday.

People may doubt that demonic possession still happens (or ever happened), but I think the truth is that it happens much more frequently than we realize. Of course these "possessions" are not the Hollywood versions (i.e. The Exorcist). Based on outward appearance they are far less dramatic and there duration is rarely longer than a impulse...a nudge. But these possessions nonetheless have horrific consequences.

I don't throw out the idea of possession to suggest the grandmother, or any perpetrator of horrible, evil acts is absolved of responsibility. On the contrary, its the decisions and choices people make in their lives that make them vulnerable and susceptible to Satan's prompting. The Evil we do is absolutely our fault. But I mean when you try to think of how angry someone would have to get to desire to kill her own 2 1/2 year old grandchild...and seems that level of contempt for life...for innocence...must have its root in the Devil himself. All the stories we hear like this...all the atrocities committed...that is what happens when the weakest part of our humanity is let loose. Evil is what happens when we are left unchecked...without restraint...given over to our selfish, prideful hearts. But we find that path with Satan's help. We open the door...he sends the thought right on in. We set the stage...he writes the scene. It's as if there is a weird, perverted form of the power we get from the Holy Spirit to do good...only this power comes from Satan...and it emblazons us to do evil.

As I thought more about the horror of this event (and others like it), I was distraught by the realization that in the battle of that moment...when there was still a choice to be made by that grandmother...Evil won. And then I thought about my own life...and the places where I struggle with my own sin. I thought about all the rationalization I do...all the internal debates I have about whether such and such is really wrong or whether it might be okay for me to do x, y, or z. I mean let's face it...sometimes I struggle with the "why" part of not being allowed to do something. Other times I struggle with my resolve to avoid some particular sin...especially when it seems as if no one really gets hurt by the sin. Then it came to me. Looking at this single tragedy amidst a sea of them...the reason for doing what I should do came to me.

No matter how difficult it might be to resist the temptation to matter how innocuous the sin might seem...I need to not sin so that Evil doesn't win. Not this time...not in this moment. Whatever pleasure I think the sin might bring, however harmless it might appear, no matter how small it might be, I can't let sin win...not here...not now...not because of me.

And while I realize the internal struggle of one person...particularly of seemingly little consequence in the grand scheme of the universe...and Eternity...I find the urge to fight the good fight no less compelling. Without wanting to get too grandiose, this reminds me of a scene from Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. It's the point in the story where Frodo really starts to lose heart...where doubt truly takes hold of this hero...where the weight of his quest is pressing down upon him to the point where it seems he will break long before he will succeed. That is his friend and companion, Samwise, says something that opens his eyes (and all our eyes) to the significance of what doing what should be done...even in the face of failure.

Frodo: I can't do this, Sam.
Sam: I know. It's all wrong. By rights we shouldn't even be here. But we are. It's like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn't want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it's only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn't. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.
Frodo: What are we holding onto, Sam?
Sam: That there's some good in this world, Mr. Frodo... and it's worth fighting for.
That is what it all comes down to...that's what the tragic death of this beautiful little girl made me realize. That whatever my struggles, whatever my sacrifice, I can't let Evil win. I can't relinguish a single victory. Though I am small and insignificant in the grand scheme...though there are far bigger and far more important battles taking place every moment of every day...I can't let Satan win my little internal battles. I can't add to the Evil in this world...I simply can't. And though I will surely fail at times...I have to keep pulling myself back up (or let others help me up)...because win or lose...denying Evil another matter how small...THAT is worth fighting for.