Advent Week 1: What is Your Desire?

I noticed something about Jesus’ dad Joseph this morning when I dusted off Matthew’s birth of Jesus story for this season of Advent. It appears from the story that Joseph’s desire was to “put her (Mary) away secretly” (Matt 1:19). Mary was pregnant, the child clearly wasn’t his, so Joseph’s desire was to secretly end the betrothal. We are told from Matthew the reason for Joseph’s desire was because he didn’t want to disgrace Mary. Sounds like love to me. I’m guessing the other reason is that he was “a righteous man” and didn’t want to be disgraced himself. But maybe I am reading my own humanity into the story too much.
As Joseph is considering his desire, an angel comes to him in the night and offers clarity to the situation. Matthew’s comment after the angel encounter gives even more insight to the reader of this incredible story. “Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “BEHOLDTHE VIRGIN SHALL BE WITH CHILD AND SHALL BEAR A SONAND THEY SHALL CALL HIS NAME IMMANUEL,” which translated means, “GOD WITH US.”(v. 22-23)
 Joseph wakes up from his dream and still has a decision to make, follow his desire or trust the angel, trust God. If he chooses to trust, the promise is Immanuel, God with us. Now for him, that is literal. I can’t imagine actually having God in the flesh with me as a little baby. Being the earthly dad of God in the flesh! That’s the offer. What’s interesting is that God is going to come in the flesh through Mary either way. Joseph can either follow his original desire or trust this crazy promise of the angel and help raise God in the flesh. If he does that he has to believe Immanuel, God is with us, that God is with him.
What if we have a similar decision to make regarding desire and trust? Ours is not as dramatic. No betrothal hanging in the balance, no angel in the night for us (most likely), but still an invitation to trust. This Advent will we trust that God is With Us no matter what is going on in our lives, we will believe the promise of Immanuel?

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.

Aloneness that Feels Like Community

We are three weeks into Lent and I keep returning to Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:28-30, specifically his offer to teach us the “unforced rhythms of grace.” The rhythm I’ve noticed lately is his rhythm of aloneness that feels like community.

Jesus spent time with people and created community wherever he travelled. He also often made time to be alone. His friend Luke tells us,

“The news about Him was spreading even farther, and large crowds were gathering to hear Him and to be healed of their sicknesses. 16 But Jesus Himself would often slip away to the wilderness and pray.” (Luke 5:15-16)

The “wilderness” in Greek is a place that is solitary and uninhabited by other people at the time. Put simply, it is a place to be alone. This rhythm of Jesus does not appear to be aloneness for the sake of being by himself, as in an escape from crowds. It is instead a place to be alone with the Father. As I see it, Jesus had a rhythm of aloneness that actually felt more like community than being with others.

I have experienced glimpses of aloneness that feels like community. Through developing a rhythm of quiet over the years, of being with God and God alone, something mysterious has happened. I feel a sense of communion with God as Father, Son, Spirit as I sit in the quiet in the presence of God. A number of years ago I wrote a prayer in the front of my journal that I read each morning. The prayer ends with this:

As I sit here this morning with you as Father, Son, Spirit I am simply continuing the dance, this ongoing conversation, this ongoing relationship that You have invited me into. I am engaged, all of me is here with you. Speak Holy Trinity for I am listening.

 

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.

Anna Cancer Update: On Hope and Suffering

It was late fall 2017 that we last titled a blog post: “Anna Update.” For months there just wasn’t much to report. Anna was feeling good and we were encouraged by her progress. Her December scan showed that her tumor and lymph node activity was the same as the previous scan at the end of the summer. It wasn’t until her scan in early May that we received new news. The news was such that a blog post was the last thing on our minds. The news was that the tumor had grown in size and beyond the original location of the body. After we gathered ourselves and considered viable next steps, we decided together for Anna to begin a 3-6 month regimen of chemotherapy. We are 5 treatments in, and are just now beginning to catch our breath.

I looked back at that last “Anna Update” post and the subject was Waiting and Hoping. Turns out we may not be very good at either. We thought we had learned a few things over the years about waiting and hoping, and perhaps we have, but we know very little about how to actually do it. How do you wait and hope? There is a section of Romans 5 on hope that I have not ever liked,

“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,and hope does not disappoint…” (Romans 5:1-5a)”

The part I don’t like is suffering. Paul says that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. Anna and I want to learn to hope but we don’t want to suffer. Who does?!

Suffering isn’t a popular word in our culture. According to Dan Bruner, “Becoming Christ-like will involve suffering. Suffering is what causes us to trace our lives after the example of the suffering King. Suffering is not about pain. Suffering is about giving up and losing control.” Maybe that is what it means to wait and hope. Maybe it’s about embracing suffering, releasing control. And perhaps that is why Paul mentions suffering as the precursor to endurance, character and hope. We want all of those things, but we pushback against the suffering.

So, as I mentioned, we are just now beginning to catch our breath. We don’t know what the days and weeks ahead hold, but we are certain that God is with us in the suffering, in the hoping. The learning process this past year since Anna’s diagnosis has been so valuable for us. We have asked God from the beginning to direct our steps, and to specifically show us the next step along the way. This has been a source of comfort as He has answered that prayer over and over this past year. We see this current treatment as the next step of trusting God in the process.

It’s almost hard to type because it doesn’t make sense on paper, but we are finding ourselves more and more grateful – grateful for the suffering; grateful for the hope that we have in Jesus. And, grateful for the many friends and family who are with us. We have been overwhelmed at the care and support of so many who love us. We are not in this alone, not by a long shot!

Thanks be to God!

Hearing the Voice of God

After a number of years of spending daily time alone with God, I have realized that perhaps the most significant thing we can do in our time with Him is listen to His voice. You may be thinking, What? Come on now, Shawn. How do you do that? What does that even mean? I hear you. Developing the discipline of listening for God’s voice did not come easily for me. In fact, in the early days I would get distracted by a thousand different things in one sitting. I was annoyed, impatient, and constantly looked at my watch to see when the pain was going to end. Yet slowly, over time, as I continued to return to this place of listening, I began to hear the voice of God.

Now, it wasn’t an audible, booming voice that shot down from Heaven. Sometimes it was simply through Scripture, a passage in a book I was reading, or journaling. Other times it was through the still calmness that overcame me in the moment. But surely and incrementally, over the past 17 years of consistently showing up to listen each morning, God has given me the ability to hear Him. He gives direction for my day, wisdom in decisions, discernment in the moment, and assurance that I am His son. And more than anything, His quiet whisper assures me that I am loved.

Give it a try. Do you best sometime in the next few days to sit with God. Maybe just repeat a verse in your head to get the time started like, “The Lord is my shepherd there is nothing I shall want.” (Ps 23) Pay attention to your breathing. Breathe in calmness and peace, breathe out worry and fear. Allow yourself to just be.

Embracing Solitude

Solitude is so counterintuitive to our culture. It takes a lot effort to learn to cultivate this spiritual discipline, but we can see in the Gospel accounts that time alone with God was very important to Jesus:

In the early morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house, and went away to a secluded place, and was praying there. (Mark 1:35, NASB)

 So Jesus, perceiving that they were intending to come and take Him by force to make Him king, withdrew again to the mountain by Himself alone. (John 6:1,5 NASB)

It was at this time that He went off to the mountain to pray, and He spent the whole night in prayer to God. (Luke 6:12, NASB)

We don’t know what happened between Jesus and the Father in these times of solitude, but we do know that quiet, reflective time with the Father was a priority to Jesus.

By the world’s standards, some might have said Jesus was “wasting” time. Not being “productive.” Not “accomplishing” anything. The truth is that Jesus was operating on a completely different value system, one that we are wise to consider if we, too, want to draw close to the Father.

The Psalmist David also experienced this, saying, “My heart has heard you say, ‘Come and talk with me.’ And my heart responds, ‘Lord, I am coming’” (Psalm 27:8, NLT). In that place, he could open himself up to the Lord and commune deeply with Him. David wrote of this practice: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. (Psalm 139:23, NLT). When we sit quietly in the presence of the Lord and invite Him to search us, we join David and a long line of spiritual giants who have experienced this before us.

(from Chapter 8 Am I Loved?)