Tag Archives: Advent

A Season of Watching and Waiting

pregnant belly copyIt seems I am surrounded by pregnant women on all sides – which is not a bad thing. Women in our family – both my family and my wife’s family – are expecting in 2014. A young lady in our congregation along with another who is connected to and a regular visitor with our congregation just put out the news that they are awaiting the arrival of a baby in May. Then there are the ones connected to the families in our church, which means we have grandparents who anxiously await a newborn – including one set of grandparents-to-be headed to the hospital the morning this blog was written.

Pregnancy is a great image for this season in the life of the church – the season of Advent. During this time before Christmas we might think this image of expectant mothers points toward Mary who was at this time awaiting the birth of her first child (yes, assuming December 25th was the day – that debate is another blog for another day). It is partially what Advent has become for us – the waiting for the celebration of Jesus’ birth. And yet, it really is more than that. It is truly a season of expectancy – a time of waiting and watching for the dawn of new life, but it is about more than the birth of the Christ-child.

You see, pregnant families are not the only ones living through a time of waiting and watching. I know others who are facing the diagnosis of some form of cancer or about to enter into another round of cancer treatment (and for the record, I hate cancer). They wait to hear results. They wait to see if the treatment works. They wait and watch and wonder what the future holds.

Still others are waiting to find out other aspects of their future – what school will I go to when I move past high school? Will my job be one of the ones eliminated in the latest cutbacks? Will we have enough money to buy our children presents for Christmas? Will we have enough food to feed our families this week?

There is much waiting and watching and hoping in the face of unknown futures – some are waiting with exceedingly great joy. Some are waiting while holding their breath. And for those of us who know the truth behind the season of Advent, we encourage one another to wait and watch in faith.

The word Advent means “coming.” The Church celebrates this season not just as a pre-Christmas ritual, but as a reminder that Christ will come – again. Yes, Jesus Christ was born to Mary, humbly among the animals. But, our faith is not just based on this belief that God came near to us. Our faith is that this child would live courageously, and boldly declare that God has a bigger plan. He would go to the cross and become the sacrifice for all our sins as a way to show that the grace of God is at work to reconcile us back to our heavenly Father and restore our true life. And he promised that he would come again, that he would bring about the Kingdom of God in its fullness – a Kingdom of joy and peace where issues like cancer no longer haunt us in our nightmares.

That’s the joy we celebrate this season. That’s the reason we wait and watch. Just as a pregnant woman knows there is a day coming when the physical challenge of nurturing her child will result in the birth of new life, so we, the ones who believe in God’s promises revealed to us in Jesus Christ, await the birth of God’s Kingdom in all its glory.

So we wait and we watch and we say – “Come Lord Jesus, come.”

Holy high-five to you,
Mike

More thoughts on “where is God”

candles in a rowA young mother grieves the loss of her precious child. She remembers her smile. She recalls the way she played house for hours with a doll and some old dishes. This mother is haunted by the way her life ended. the grief seems almost too much to bear.

A father struggles to cope with the loss of his son. The fishing trips had just begun. The dreams of future outings now lie in shattered pieces on the floor of his imagination. Life will go on, but it will not be the life he expected.

As I tell those stories our hearts all go out to the parents in Connecticut who are facing the tragic loss of their children. So many words are being offered as to why God would allow this to happen. So many thoughts being tossed around trying to understand where God is in all of this.

But the reality of those two stories is that they have nothing to do with Connecticut. The young mother lives in a neighborhood just across town. Her daughter died of complications from the flu. This young mother had no easy access to medical care, one reason being that she had no transportation. She and her children walked to their school, to the grocery store, and to the park down the road. This young mother was also not aware of the severity of her child’s illness. She thought she would nurse her through just as she had before. The tragedy of her daughter’s death was the result of numerous difficulties converging at one time.

The young boy? Well, he was the victim of a drunk driver. Properly buckled into the booster seat of his grandfather’s car, he had little chance to survive the direct impact on the rear door of the car by which he sat. The grandfather had done everything right. There was no way he could have foreseen the speed and the impaired judgment of the driver who ran the red light. At the hospital the whole family gathered in utter disbelief.

There is no national outcry for those families. No TV pundits offering their take on where God was in those moments or why God allowed these deaths to occur. And that’s not a criticism.  That is just the reality of the world in which we live. Children die difficult and tragic deaths every day. So, we might ask every day, “where is God?”

Well, we are deep into the season of Advent and that may just be the best time to explore this question. There are two schools of thought on what Advent is – one more “church official” and one more lived out in our current reality.

The former is that Advent is a time to remember that we are waiting – not for the birth of the Christ-child, but for his return. It is a time to acknowledge that there will come a day when Jesus will establish his Kingdom in all its fullness. A time to reassure ourselves that there will come a day when death and crying and pain will be no more.

The other school of thought, the one we see lived out in our churches and in our communities, is that Advent is the season in which we look forward to the celebration of Christmas. Our church just had a “Christmas Festival” highlighted by our children telling the Christmas story. Our neighborhoods are decked out in Christmas regalia – and that includes the houses of good and faithful Christians. We soak in the season of pre-Christmas because Christmas is such a day of great hope. We want to enjoy the story of how God came to live among us as one of us. We are comforted to know that God loved us enough to send his Son to save us from ourselves.

And so, there is the answer to where God is in these moments – in school shootings, in the living room where a young girl lies deathly ill on a couch, and in a hospital room where all valiant efforts to save a young boy were just not enough. God is with us in the midst of a sinful and fallen world. God is with us as time marches on toward the promised day when all these tragedies will no longer be known.

We must not be so quick to discount God’s presence, or to decide that we know why God is NOT some place (when in fact God is not absent in any place – see Psalm 139). The reality that we face every day is that we live in a world that is broken, fallen, sinful, imperfect – pick your adjective. And the hope that we have is that in the midst of this broken, imperfect world that is inundated with acts of evil, mental instability, and tragic decisions, God is with us. The hope that we have as we live in our grief and suffer these losses is that there will come a day when we will not have to deal with those troubles ever again.

That is the hope of those who know and follow the Lord and Savior of this fallen world – Jesus Christ. And that is the hope we must bring into the dark places of this world.

Where is God? Supposedly he lives within those who believe in his Son. Supposedly the Holy Spirit of God dwells in us and is working to transform us. Supposedly WE are the light of the world. In times when a mother has a sick child, perhaps she will see the people of God reaching out to help and she will say – “there is God.”  In times when a family is overwrought with an avoidable tragedy perhaps they will see the church working to stem the culture of alcohol and drug abuse and they will say – “there is God.”  In times when tragedies happen and families are surrounded with love and care, when stories of teachers giving their very lives to save the ones they could, in those times, perhaps, people might say – “there is God.”

May we, through our actions and attitudes, let the God in us be made real in the world around us so that others would know GOD IS HERE.

Holy high-five to you,
Mike

When Christmas feels like the season of “more”

It is confession time. I don’t feel particularly festive at the moment. No tidings of comfort and joy seem to be flowing over me at this time. What I feel is overwhelmed by the tasks to be done. I find tidings of disorganization and impossibility greeting me as I enter my office this morning. And Christmas is the reason for my season.

As a pastor working full-time in the church, Christmas often feels like the time of “more.” It is the season when the usual daily agenda remains in place, but now there is “more” added to it. Special services to plan. Parties to attend. Church decor to work on. Honestly, the day-to-day normal stuff is plenty. I wasn’t really looking for more.

And I know it’s not just me. Many people feel the crush of the holiday and joy is not always the word of the day. We go to the store and see people fighting to make their way down the aisle. Baskets are loaded with goodies that most of these customers will be paying off for many months to come. We see the movement of “more” (buy more, spend more, give more, do more, eat more) all around stores where we shop, and we wonder if we should just do away with the season all together.”

And yet, what would the year be without this time?

I think back to yesterday morning. It was a good day yesterday. The morning was filled with worship in a sanctuary adorned with a Chrismon tree and beautiful poinsettias. Young families came and lit 2 purple candles on our Advent wreath. In the later service our praise band took us through the story of Jesus’ birth. They reminded us of how Jesus’ birth is a sign that God loves us. They helped us recall that God is not satisfied to leave us living this broken life we choose for ourselves, but instead chooses to send His Son to give us new life – to give us “more.”

I think back to last night when I joined the youth at the end of their progressive dinner – an annual Christmas season event. I was reminded that these festive gatherings, that can feel overwhelming as just another item on a crowded calendar, are rarely enjoyed at other times of the year. Sure, the days get full with numerous events, but when else do we dress up in the fancy clothes or Santa hats or Elf ears and just enjoy one another? How often do we fill our homes with songs that sing of tidings of comfort and joy? For me, once I get over my angst of having to go to yet another gathering, I find that the parties and the dinners and time spent with friends adds something to my life – I get “more” than I expected to get.

And now, as I sit here and write this blog post in my office I think about the table in the Main Hall. On that table there are simple mesh Christmas stockings filled with toys. These stockings did not start out full; they were taken by people and filled with toys and goodies. These stockings will be delivered to the Salvation Army for distribution to local children – so that in this Christmas season they might experience “more.”

It is the season of “more.” More work in the local church. More events on a crowded calendar. More shopping in madhouse malls. More worship services where we are reminded of God’s great love for us. More opportunities to share a meal. More times to sing songs and exchange gifts with people we love. More chances to bring joy and hope into the lives of others.

I am not sure how much more of this season I can take, but I do know how much more of this season I need.

Holy high-five to you,
Mike

Christmas pre-season (otherwise known as Advent)

Ever have one of those days when you know you have forgotten to do something but can’t think of what that was? Yeah, me too. Like yesterday. It wasn’t until last night that I realized, I never did write my blog post. I ask forgiveness for slipping a gear and offer this Tuesday morning musing.

[Of course, if you edit but don’t send, then you have a day off, well, it gets to be Thursday – oy!]

I came in this morning and anxiously headed toward the Sanctuary. Yesterday evening a couple of dedicated church folks came up and set up the Chrismon tree. I always love seeing the tree in our Sanctuary. It just sets the mood for the festive season. It makes me very excited for this coming Sunday and the beginning of the Advent season. I love the way we decorate for the season and I love singing the songs and carols.

And that brings up the real challenge of Advent. As many of my liturgically nerdy friends (ones who seek to honor the distinction between Advent and Christmas) would tell me, the songs of Christmas should not be sung until Christmas. Then, keep singing them through the “12 days of Christmas,” which begins on Christmas day. Advent for many Christians has become something different from what it is “officially” intended to be. And, truth be known, I am okay with that.

Advent, in the official lexicon of the church, is about the coming of Jesus – not just the baby Jesus (for he has already come), but the returning Jesus. Advent is a time to remember that yes, Christ died, yes he is risen, but also that he will come again. It is a time to remember that the Kingdom of God burst into the realm of this world on Christmas day, but that was just the beginning. The birth of Jesus represents the beginning of the birthing process for the Kingdom of God. The Apostle Paul says that all creation groans in the labor pains:

18 I believe that the present suffering is nothing compared to the coming glory that is going to be revealed to us. 19 The whole creation waits breathless with anticipation for the revelation of God’s sons and daughters. 20 Creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice—it was the choice of the one who subjected it—but in the hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from slavery to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of God’s children. 22 We know that the whole creation is groaning together and suffering labor pains up until now.

(Romans 8:18-22)

So, Advent is meant to be a reminder of the greater picture of God’s saving grace and the fullness of God’s Kingdom yet to come.

That view as Advent is historically accurate and right, and, my church-nerdy friends are correct. And yet, I still see Advent differently. I still see Advent as the Christmas pre-season. It is the gearing up and preparing for the joy of the day so many of us enjoy. It is the time leading up to the great day recognized by many of our friends and neighbors who may never think of Jesus much at other times. For me, it has become the time when we can show glimpses of the truth of Christmas. It has become a time when we can try new ways to engage people in the real meaning of Christmas.

It is, for me, a time to sing the songs of Christmas that are already playing in the stores. It is a time to offer people the opportunity to give of themselves in ways they might not at other times of the year. It is time to decorate and celebrate even more than our neighbors. And it is a time to invite those neighbors to enjoy a bit of holiday peace and joy in our homes and in our churches.

I am particularly excited about the opportunities being presented in our church. Not only will we have the normal fare of Salvation Army Stockings to stuff and the local Fire Department Toys for Tots donations, but this year we will have the chance for people to give a different kind of gift. We will be offering “alternative giving” opportunities. People can give to various ministries in honor of friends and loved ones. It’s a great way to bless those in need while honoring the hearts of our friends and relatives.

I personally love having people donate in my name because I really have all I need. If friends will give $5 or $10 to a ministry in my name, and that money is added to the gifts of others from around the country and around the world, then that small gift can make a real impact. And the impact of that small gift would be so much more than a picture frame or a bookmark (though I am always grateful for any gift).

Well, I have rambled on and mused a good bit today. Thanks for reading and I hope it was worthwhile. I hope that Advent will be a special time for you no matter how you see it or celebrate it.

Holy high-five to you,
Mike

This Pilgrim’s Progress

I am a pilgrim. Not THAT kind of pilgrim, but similar. I am on a journey, more now than I ever have been. And my hope these days is to invite others to make a journey of their own. I want others to join me – not so others will do what I do, but so others will find the company of the same one with whom I travel.

So, you may ask, where does this journey lead? Honestly, I haven’t a good clue right now. I keep asking the one who walks with me, but he just encourages me to walk. All I know is the journey is taking me deeper into the heart of God, deeper into the Kingdom of heaven. I hope to know someday soon what that means for my reality in this world, but for now I walk.

Adding to my joy is the theme of our Advent season. Thanks to Adam Hamilton, our church-wide focus for the next few weeks is “The Journey”. I am not certain of all that this Advent season holds for us, but I am so amazed at how God is keeping this idea of a pilgrimage in front of me, and how He keeps calling me to encourage others to join in.

I’m excited about where this Advent “journey” takes us, which is not to say that i am anxious to know where it leads. The greater part of the journey is not the destination but where it takes us as we travel. That’s the biggest lesson I have learned – from my time on sabbatical in October, to the weeks since I have returned to active work in the church – what matters more than the destination is the journey. Is there a destination and a goal? There should be. But, when we focus on the goal we miss out on the blessings of the journey.

As we head into the holiday season, I hope you will take time to slow down when everything around you is calling you to speed up. Don’t miss out on what God would show you along the way. Don’t miss out on the time you could spend talking with and walking with Jesus.

Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s – all the holidays will get here no matter what we do or don’t do. May we not look back and wish we had spent less time standing in line at the store, less time making our house look just so, and more time sitting on the couch with a friend, more time experiencing the love and grace of God.

Holy high-five to you,
Mike

Thrill Ride

It has been a crazy, wonderful week heading into a time of family vacation. It reminds me of riding a thrill ride in an amusement park. Lots of twists and turns – climbing slowly at times and then rushing downhill at record speeds with the wind blowing in what’s left of my hair!

Last night I watched with great joy as numbers of people converged upon the church. Leaders came for our annual meeting. There we met others from other area churches and talked about the ways God is doing great things in us and around us. What excitement and energy there is for God’s Kingdom work. It won’t be easy and yet so many are willing to step out of the boat!

Today the ride is reaching that plateau and pulling into the platform. Our family is taking time to get away. A quiet week spent in a cabin on the river. We’ll have our traditional Thanksgiving grilled steak dinner on Thursday. We’ll play some games and relax.

When we get back we start the climb again and head into Advent. but for now, we’ll catch our breath and enjoy the calm. I hope you will as well. Happy Thanksgiving.

Holy high-five to you,
Mike

Traditions, Rituals, and Relevance

Yesterday I listened to the praise band play and sing a traditional Christmas carol. It was mostly like it always is, they just used guitars, a keyboard and drums as the instruments. I liked it. I like the classic Christmas carols. Later in the service a family came to light the Advent candles. I like that as well. It’s a nice ritual that reminds me of the celebration and anticipation of Jesus. That ritual was followed by a more recent song geared toward the style of a praise band-led worship service. I liked that too.

It was earlier in the day when the choir presented a Christmas cantata. The music was a mix of classic carols and newly written material. At the end the congregation joined in and the words for them to sing were projected on the screens (or, in our case, the wall). During that service another family lit the Advent candles – and it was not a classic Advent wreath but one creatively designed to give a new look and feel. The people of the church were also sitting in chairs and not pews. And, we have a platform for the table and the preacher and the poinsettias and not a formal chancel area.

There is a constant challenge to embrace the things that allow us to hold fast to the faith passed down to us from the generations before us while also taking hold of that which is most familiar to our day that also helps us connect to God. In my desire to serve God by seeking those who are lost, I am tempted, at times, to reject the traditions of the past in order to be more relevant in the present. Others, in a desire to hold fast to what they found meaningful never see the need to let go of, nor rethink, the way things have always been done. Ultimately it can create real tension within the church.

The good news in that struggle is this – tension creates energy. I love being in a church that embraces both new possibilities and traditional. We do not easily discard the work of the past, and we rarely hear the words, “we’ve always done it that way.” We wrestle together to do what will move us closer to God.

For us, the key is not the tradition or the relevance of the activity. For us it is about how we help people in our community connect with Jesus and discover the deep and abiding love of God. So, we sing a new song with electronic instruments. And we sing an old song with them as well. We do classic worship with new technologies and new creative styles. If they help us know and follow Jesus, hopefully we embrace them. If they keep us tied to old, outdated ways, or they take us too far in new but misguided directions, I hope we let them go.

As you experience this Christmas in new and old ways alike – may you know that ultimately it is all about how much God loves you and loves us all.

Holy high five to you, Mike