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 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

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.

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.

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.