Tag Archives: Christmas

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

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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

The Other Side of Christmas

I sit in a quiet living room, the morning half over, working on my third cup of coffee, no one else out of bed, and a grand site of chaotic clutter. It is the other side of Christmas.

I like this day as much as the days prior to it. Christmas Eve and Christmas day were such amazing days. We were blessed to share the joy of the celebration in worship several times. I enjoyed those days – I’m not sure I can say I “enjoyed” the preparations, but I was glad to do what could be done to make it all it turned out to be. But before worship yesterday was family time. Christmas morning with my family is one of the highlights of my whole year.

And now I am on the other side of all that. Now I am enjoying the spiritual aroma of the fresh-baked blessings of the season. I am surrounded by new gifts of grace and peace. I love being able to sit here and recall the moments those gifts came to me. For me it is the epitome of the words:  “comfort and joy”.

And then I move into the thoughts of others who don’t know what I know. There are those whose lives are filled more with the smell of sadness and hurt. There are those who are surrounded by emptiness rather than abundance. I am not moved to feel guilty as much as I am moved to feel compassion. My heart doesn’t feel burdened because I am blessed, my spirit just feels burdened to bring hope and peace into the lives of others.

I also sit here thinking of friends. One family in particular, the Bessers. Pam, wife to Robert and mother to Barrett died on Christmas day. She was the associate pastor at the church where Robert is Senior Pastor. For many months they have boldly and publicly lived their journey of faith and hope. And that faith has not diminished even now. It was heart-breaking to think what the day turned out to be for them, but then I read a post to my Facebook wall by a friend of mine who was praying for the Bessers (even though they did not know them). They wrote this:

What a day to enter Heaven! I am so sorry for her family and all of her friends! My prayers go out for comfort.

Thanks Lisa, you said it so well and I think Pam would agree.

Well, I probably need to stop my ramblings. I just hope you know the other side of Christmas. It is a place filled with the blessings of grace – gifts we don’t deserve; a place of love turned outward toward others; a place of hope in a new life and eternal life that comes to us because a baby was born.

Blessed Christmas high-five to you,
Mike

Surprised by grace

I had this presented to me by our children yesterday – a gift from the WOW Worship crew at our church. (WOW is worship time designed for children to experience and know God in a way that makes sense to them).

It’s a “Certificate of Birth” for Jesus nicely framed with an accompanying stand. They surprised me with the gift at children’s time. Completely unexpected, but really appreciated. I like the way someone put this together as a creative way to remind us who Jesus is and the import of his being born.

And I really liked being surprised with the gift. It is something I didn’t even know I wanted until it was given to me. And isn’t that just so appropriate at Christmas – to get a gift you never even imagined you could have. That’s the gift God gives to us in Jesus – the gift of grace that takes away our sin and puts new life within us.

If we’re honest about this gift God gives to us at Christmas, we’ll have to admit it was probably something we never knew we always wanted. But that’s Christmas, full of surprises.

Mary was told she would become pregnant by the power of God – surprise. Joseph was told he should take Mary as his wife even though she was carrying a child who was not his – surprise! The Shepherds in the field heard from angels, the Magi saw a new star – surprise, surprise, surprise.

We shop until we drop, but then we find more joy in giving toys to children living in poverty – surprise. We plan a big family meal, but are more overcome with peace when we take time to feed those who have so little to eat — surprise. We come to church because we like the Christmas songs, only to find a Spirit so powerful we are filled to overflowing by a prayer or a hug or a baby softly crying in the row behind us – surprise, surprise, surprise.

May we all have moments throughout this season where we are surprised by grace. May we be filled once more with new life. May Christ be surprisingly born in us once again.

Holy high-five to you,
Mike

The Reason for the Season

Well, Thanksgiving and Black Friday have come and gone and Advent is here and Christmas music is playing all around us, so I guess it’s okay to write about it. So, here’s my first volley.

I love having conversations about Christmas and all the ways we struggle against how Christmas is mishandled. Some people vehemently dislike the fact that people say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Others get up in arms about using “Xmas” instead of “Christmas”. Neither one bothers me. I’m thankful when someone wishes me happiness, they could just ignore me. And “X” is the Greek letter that begins the word “Christ” in that language, so it has been used for centuries as an abbreviation so Xmas = Christmas. Even if people don’t mean it that way, I can see it that way and be perfectly happy.

What I enjoy most is talking, like I did this morning, about the reason for the season. I see bumper stickers and signs that say “Jesus is the reason for the season” – but I think those signs are wrong. Jesus’ birth may be the focus of the season, but the reason for the season is YOU.

Jesus didn’t come to make a name for himself. Jesus came to make a name for you – and that name is “child of God”.

YOU (and me) are the reason for the season.

The season is not about you or me in the way we often think about it – like, “what did you get me?” It’s about y0u and me in the sense that we remember that the one who was born was born to be “God with us”, to be the one who saves us from our sin and gives us abundant life. When we think about it properly the question changes from, “What did you get me?” to “What can I give to you (Jesus) knowing how much you gave for me?”

I hope we all find ways to give ourselves to the One who was born into this world and gave himself for us. If you’re not sure what that means, just start by giving yourself to those who need joy and peace in a real way.

Holy high-five to you,
Mike