Advent Week 4: Joy as a Choice

Mary had a choice to make when her life drastically changed the night the the Angel Gabriel visited her. Would she remain in a state of fear or choose joy? According the Gospel writer Luke, Mary’s first response to the angel was fear in the moment, makes sense. But, Mary did not remain in a state of fear. Verse 38 says “the angel left her.” Being there in the room alone with the news of having a child out of wedlock, rehearsing the speech to tell Joseph that she hadn’t slept with another man, trying to figure out what to tell her parents…that reality sounds very scary to me.

After the visit from the angel, Mary soon leaves to be with her cousin Elizabeth because Gabriel told her that Elizabeth was pregnant. It seems that Mary wants to be with someone who might understand what she is going through. The two pregnant women see one another in Elizabeth’s home and the response is joy. The first words out of Mary’s mouth are, “My heart is overflowing with praise of my Lord, my soul is full of joy in God my Saviour.”(v46) Had Mary chosen to remain in a state of fear her response could have been much different. She could have focused on how her life would never be the same again, how she was going to have a baby that she didn’t know how to care for. She could have also obsessed about the possibility of being stoned to death when she went back home pregnant. She could have started the conversation with Elizabeth stressed about where they would live, how Joseph would earn money, or any of the other fearful things that come with having a kid. Instead Mary chose joy.

Some might say, of course she chose joy, she was going to give birth to Jesus. The Messiah was inside her. Isn’t that what has happened to us as well? “that sacred mystery which up to now has been hidden in every age and every generation, but which is now as clear as daylight to those who love God. They are those to whom God has planned to give a vision of the full wonder and splendour of his secret plan for the sons of men. And the secret is simply this: Christ in you! Yes, Christ in you bringing with him the hope of all glorious things to come.” (Col 1:25-27) 

Choosing to believe this mystery that Christ is in us could be the way for us to join Mary this Christmas and chose joy over fear, no matter what we are going through.

Advent Week 3: Digging In, Holding On

I read this great article about shepherds.

“You need to be tough as old boots. Imagine working for weeks on end in the rain, and then snow, and lambs dying of hypothermia, with the difference between life and death being you and your knowledge. Even if you do your best they still die, and you will need to keep going. The romance wears off after a few weeks, believe me, and you will be left standing cold and lonely on a mountain. It is all about endurance. Digging in. Holding on.”

Reading about what is required as a shepherd is giving me a little more insight into why the first group of people to get a visit from the angels were shepherds. According to Luke there were four visits from angels, possibly the same angel. Zacharias, then Mary, then Joseph, then shepherds. So a devout old priest, the mother of Jesus, the father of Jesus and shepherds. (One of these things is not like the other…) That song from Sesame Street just came played in my head.

Back to the shepherds. I love that line from the article, “It’s all about endurance. Digging in. Holding on.” I can’t read that enough or say it enough to myself this morning. It’s true. The shepherds knew that. Zacharias knew that from his long life as a priest. Mary and Joseph had a glimpse of this truth through having a child out of wedlock and making the journey to Bethlehem. They would learn this truth more and more as they raised Jesus and his siblings. It is all about endurance. Digging in. Holding on.

Shepherds knew this truth all too well. They were at the bottom of the social rung, outcasts, you might even say homeless since they primarily slept outside with their flock. There was a strong prejudice against them, especially from rabbi’s and religion leaders. They would have not only felt the pain of their occupation, but also the internal pain of their position in society. If anyone near the birthplace of Jesus needed saving it was the shepherds. Into that context Luke writes:

“There were some shepherds living in the same part of the country, keeping guard throughout the night over their flocks in the open fields. Suddenly an angel of the Lord stood by their side, the splendour of the Lord blazed around them, and they were terror-stricken. But the angel said to them,

“Do not be afraid! Listen, I bring you glorious news of great joy which is for all the people. This very day, in David’s town, a Savior has been born for you. He is Christ, the Lord. Let this prove it to you: you will find a baby, wrapped up and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:8-12)

Three statements stand out to me:

all people; Savior; has been born for you

Some might say these shepherds were the most human, the most real of all those living around Bethlehem. They knew pain, joy, loss, sacrifice, friendship, wonder. They were not only the ones to first hear the news of the baby being born, but they were the first ones to tell others. Their message was about a Savior being born just down the road from where they were tending their sheep. These men who brought this message of hope understood, it is all about endurance. Digging in. Holding on.

The message of the shepherds was that a baby had come into the world. This baby would  learn that it’s all about endurance. Digging in. Holding on. Not only would baby Jesus learn this as he grew, but he would eventually embody this message as a man, showing all who dare to follow him that it is all about endurance. Digging in. Holding on.

Maybe that is why Jesus calls himself the good shepherd.

Advent Week 2: Suffering as a Teacher

As followers of Jesus, we don’t really like to talk about suffering. We tend to like to praise God when good things happen, when we land the big deal, our kids succeed at something they worked hard for, or when God provides in some overt way. But if things like perseverance, character and hope are desirable traits, then why are we so surprised when suffering comes?

Jesus’ parents knew suffering. There is one very understated line of Jesus’ birth story in Luke that hints of the suffering of his parents, especially his mom. “…Mary, now in the later stages of her pregnancy. So it happened that it was while they were there in Bethlehem that she came to the end of her time. She gave birth to her first child, a son.” (Luke 2: 5-6) As a man, I know nothing about the suffering of being in the later stages of pregnancy. I have, however, been a witness to the suffering. Any husband who pays attention can see that there is a lot of suffering, especially in the last few weeks before the child comes. I can try to picture being Joseph, traveling 90 miles with Mary by foot or donkey through rough terrain just days before my son’s birth. But, think about the suffering of this teenage girl Mary is almost unimaginable.

Our family has experienced quite a bit of suffering the past three years as we continue to walk through this journey with Anna’s cancer. Similar to when our kids were born, I know nothing of the day-to-day suffering that Anna experiences in her body, but I am a witness to the suffering. I am also experiencing my own suffering as her husband, and as a parent who is raising our three young kids with Anna in this reality.

Paul writes, “…suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint” (Rms 5:3-4) After years of suffering, our family is slowly seeing perseverance, character and hope building in us, especially our children. We also see these traits in our extended family and community of friends who love Jesus and love us. They are suffering through this cancer journey with us, and we are learning together how suffering is a teacher.

“Suffering is not so much about pain as it is about giving up and losing control.”           -Dan Bruner

Peace is Available

“Jesus was all about peace. Peace is not just absence of conflict or cessation of the battles waging in and around us. It is a sense of inner calm that all is going to be alright.” (Tim Timmons)

Easter morning tends to get all the attention. It makes sense, it’s what we celebrate. The empty tomb and the resurrected Jesus. Mary Magdelene’s statement, “I have seen the Lord!” is perhaps my favorite proclamation in the Gospel story, but what happened on Easter evening has enormous impact on how we can live our day-to-day lives in light the resurrection.

19 In the evening of that first day of the week, the disciples had met together with the doors locked for fear of the Jews. Jesus came and stood right in the middle of them and said, “Peace be with you!”
20 Then he showed them his hands and his side, and when they saw the Lord the disciples were overjoyed.
21 Jesus said to them again, “Yes, peace be with you! Just as the Father sent me, so I am now going to send you.”
22-23 And then he breathed upon them and said, “Receive holy spirit. If you forgive any men’s sins, they are forgiven, and if you hold them unforgiven, they are unforgiven.” (John 20:19-23)

Jesus’ friends had heard about Him being raised from the dead and they were afraid. Witnesses had seen them with Jesus. What would the soldiers do to them? So they hid in a small room afraid and alone. That’s when Jesus shows up. “Jesus came and stood right in the middle of them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’” What a picture! Jesus gets right in the middle of them, he meets them in the middle of their fear, chaos, the unknown and gives them an assurance of peace.

This is exactly what these close followers of Jesus needed that day. They were afraid and alone, and Jesus offered them peace. I need the same thing. I need to hear and believe Jesus’ words, “Peace be with you!’” In a world where most us are experiencing anything but that inner calm that all is going to be alright, Jesus’ words are hopeful.

What I am coming to realize more and more is that doing today with Jesus is our only chance at peace. Jesus said, “Peace be with you” to his friends, and he says the same thing to you and me. He wants to take the fear out of our lives and replace it with a deep sense that everything is going to be alright.

Freely and Lightly

How could anyone learn to live freely and lightly in our world today? Our world is in chaos, and many of the things we face in day-to-day life seem constricted and heavy. So what is Jesus getting at with his offer of “freely and lightly” in Matthew 11?

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Matt 11:28-30)

It seems like the invitation of Jesus is to learn to live freely and lightly in the midst of circumstances that are heavy. Jesus understands that life on earth can be difficult because he lived it. He especially lived it in the days leading up to his death. Phrases like, “take this cup from me” and “why have you forsaken me” remind us that even Jesus desired a different road than the one he was set to walk.

I don’t believe that Jesus’ invitation of freely and lightly ignores the pain and turmoil of our lives. This posture of freely and lightly that Jesus offers comes when we realize that we are not in control. Jesus’ journey to the cross and our journey through life is about letting go, it’s about surrender, it’s about trust. As we learn to hold things more loosely we get a glimpse of what it means to live our lives freely and lightly.

It Turns Out God Can Be Trusted

It turns out that no matter what, God can be trusted. God is with us no matter where we go or what happens in this life. I grew up in church, attended countless summer camps, was open to Jesus in high school, became a Young Life leader in college, had amazing mentors through my 20’s, married a woman who loves Jesus, graduated from seminary, had more amazing mentors through my 30’s and early 40’s, and developed many good friendships around Jesus the past 20 years. Even with all of that somehow I missed it, I missed that God can be trusted no matter what. Only recently has this reality settled in.

Jesus believed God as Father could be trusted. This appears to be Jesus’ most fundamental “rhythm of grace” that he invites us into in Matt 11:28-30. Jesus ultimate rhythm when he was here on earth was the moment-by-moment belief that His Father could be trusted. The belief that the Father would be there, that Jesus wouldn’t be left alone.

This belief that God can be trusted is the very definition of rest. If you’re wondering how trust is rest, consider the alternative. How do we ever truly experience rest if there is not trust that God is going to be with us no matter what? If that belief is not inside, somewhere down deep, then we tend to run around frantic trying to prove to ourselves that we are not alone. When Jesus offers, “rest for our souls,” he is offering something that he lived in his humanity.

Jesus invites us into this rest, this posture of utmost trust in the Father. I believe Jesus had to trust that the Father would be there on the other side of the cross. In his humanity Jesus did not know for certain that there would be a resurrection. He believed it, proclaimed it, but ultimately he had to go to the cross trusting that His Father would not leave him. Jesus pinnacle act was dying on the cross. I wonder if his greatest impact was teaching us how to be human, how to trust the Father no matter what.

Begin the Day by Sleeping

I have struggled with sleeplessness off an on in my adult life. The common theme when sleeplessness sets in is worry. My mind races and I tend to try to do two main things: solve problems in my head on my own or play out possible scenarios for whatever is consuming my thoughts. As I continue during Lent to consider  the “unforced rhythms of grace” that Jesus offers, I wonder what His life has to say in regards to sleep.

The fact that Jesus slept at all is a great reminder of his humanity. He had the biggest mission statement in history and yet he slept. Maybe if part of it had to do with his Jewish outlook on when the day begins. A new day begins at sundown in Jewish culture and the first gift of God for the new day is rest. Maybe that’s it. Maybe the unforced rhythm that Jesus offers regarding sleep is to see it as a gift from God. Even Jesus received this gift from his Father.

We have the opportunity to join Jesus in beginning our day by sleeping. I believe the first gift God wants to give us each day is sleep. It’s practical surrender, and I know Jesus is very interested in us learning to live a surrendered life. When my mind begins to spin or wander as I lay my head on the pillow, I remind myself that I’m not God, I’m off duty, He’s got it. I’m off the hook, it’s not up to me. May we receive this unforced rhythm of Jesus as we learn to see sleep as a gift.