Tag Archives: joy

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

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

Looking for HOPE

I sat at the breakfast table as a guest watching the morning routine. I know these people pretty well. They raised me to be who I am (well, not always, but at least in the ways that are worth admiring). As I sat there my mother brought a stack of reading material and placed it on the table. It was various devotional materials that my parents use every morning at breakfast. My dad’s eyes don’t work so great in the morning, so my mom reads the devotionals.

So, I was an observer to this morning ritual but also a beneficiary of it. I was blessed by the words I heard and even challenged in my thinking in a positive way – I LOVE being challenged in how I see my life in Christ. But, the biggest benefit was watching a life lived well in front of my eyes. Was I surprised? No. I have seen this played out all my life. But how good it is to see a strong marriage focused on a life in God together. I mean, what we see on TV and in the magazines doesn’t promote such things. The stories of affairs and break-ups rule the day. The point is, if you look for hope, signs of hope, they can be found.

I think about my daughter’s boyfriend’s great-grandparents. She just spent the weekend with his family as they celebrated the Great-grandfather’s 100th birthday along with their 79th wedding anniversary. Do you want a news story worth reading? Check out this one which celebrates this couple’s long-lasting bond: (Couple Beats the Odds).

I am glad my daughter has a chance to observe a couple who has held strong for 79 years. 79. That is a LONG time. It can be done. It can be done and it can be good. If we look for signs of hope we can find them. And look for them we should.

Is this post just about marriage? No. I think those two examples are just ones that hit me this past week. So much air time and blog space and magazine article verbiage is given to the downturn in marriage statistics, so we may begin to feel a little hopeless about relationships. But there are examples of hope to be seen if we look. The same is true for other issues we face in the world. There is great division and animosity in our world these days. If we pay attention only to what the media shows us, hope is not the word that comes to mind. We need to look elsewhere to find signs of hope.

Where do we find such signs of hope in the world? Well, it should be among the people of God. The followers of Jesus ought to be the ones living lives of joy and peace even in the midst of their differences. The statistics of marriages within the church ought to be the strongest rather than similar to those in the greater culture. In every way, the people of God should be the ones living life that makes others have to stop and think, “Hmm, maybe it is possible to live and love and serve with kindness and gentleness and deep values.”

In many ways, I already see this as true. I see people in small groups who differ in their political opinions, but love each other. I talk to people who are wanting to and willing to work through their marriage struggles. They don’t want to take what the culture around us says is the “easy” way out. And even when people face circumstances they would rather not deal with – a marriage that ends in ways beyond their control, or elections not going the way they think is best – even in those times, I find there are people willing to live in an attitude of peace and gentleness. And to me, those are all signs of hope.

Bottom line for me is this: the world needs to see more signs of hope. So much of what we face these days and what gets talked about lends itself to a feeling of hopelessness and despair. Those of us who follow Jesus know there is still hope to be found, and a positive life can still be found even in the midst of tough times.

My prayer is that we will become and we will be people of unbridled hope.

Holy high-five to you,
Mike

I Love it When a Plan Comes Together

The end of the late worship service yesterday was one of those moments you treasure. The day had been good in many ways but the song at the end just put the cherry on the top. I had been waiting for that song all day.

Early that morning as I was putting my sermon slides into the schedule for the day and I saw the words to the song. I noticed that the verses each referred to one of the three stories I was including in my Mother’s Day message (told the stories of 3 mothers through whom God teaches us 3 lessons). I was mostly certain that there was no song already written that had those three people and just those three in the song. So, I was anxious to ask our worship leader about it.

When I saw Tommy later that morning he explained that he had written, or at least partially written the words to the song. The tune, he said, would be familiar so people would be able to sing it. And he was right.

So, I finished my message and with much anticipation I waited for the song to begin. Turns out the tune was a traditional hymn tune, the one used for “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”. And the words just highlighted the sermon message (really glad I did not change it from what I told Tommy it would be!). Best of all, I could hear the people singing along and it was just this profound moment. One I will treasure.

I am not my biggest fan when it comes to my sermons, so I am not here to tell you the message was awesome and expertly delivered. I can say that God was good to me and the message was a proper proclamation of God’s truth and a meaningful one for the most part. But what made the day was when God’s work with me in the sermon meshed with God’s work with Tommy in the song, which all mixed together into one grand moment as the congregation sang. God’s plan, God’s work made the day such a great day.

I love it when [God’s] plan come together. There’s nothing better.

Holy high-five to you,
Mike

Who is magnifying who?

Magnify the LORD with me! Together let us lift his name up high! (Psalms 34:3 CEB)

Magnify the LORD, our God!
Bow low at his footstool!
He is holy!
(Psalms 99:5 CEB)

Looking at passages like those above, it seems like Scripture calls for me to magnify the Lord. When Mary is told she is going to have a child who will be the Messiah she declares, “My soul magnifies the Lord…” The word magnify in that context means to exalt, to make known, to lift up God’s name, to declare God as the “Holy One”.

And yet, it seems like the greater reality is that I am the one being magnified. Not in the same way, not that I am being exalted, but that God is magnifying my soul as a way to examine the intricate workings of my life.

I picture God as a master craftsman watchmaker who is about his work fixing and tweaking my inner workings. I see God at his workbench with those funny looking glasses that have small lenses sitting about 1.5 inches from his eyes. He can see every problem, every piece that is out of sync. Nothing in my life is hidden from him.

And even when things look like they’re working fairly well, He continues to work. And so I ask, “Lord, why do you continue to look so hard? If things are working pretty well do you really need to work so diligently to find a problem? It makes me feel as if I am never good enough.”

And then, loving me, He responds, “I must keep looking and working. Even when the major problems are fixed and time is able to be well-kept, there are smaller issues. There are gears that are not quite aligned, and springs that must be tightened. If I don’t tend to these issues they can become bigger problems down the road. Where there is even a small amount of friction the workings can get work down. Where there is a misalignment the parts can get damaged or wear out too quickly. The beauty of your life demands such attention. If I did not love you and long to see you at your most exquisite I would not bother with such work.”

And so I find myself saying, “Thank you, God. Thank you for not leaving me where I feel adequate but working in me to transform me and change me that I might find my life ‘exquisite’. What an honor to be loved as such a valuable creation.”

Lent is the time when we purposefully let God examine our lives, even down to the most intimate places and the smallest of details. It may feel like we are inadequate, but the opposite is actually true. Only those who are loved and seen as precious get such attention from the Master Craftsman. Let Him work and you will find an exquisite life. And it will be all the more reason to magnify the Lord.

Holy high-five to you,
Mike

Now where did I put that blessing?

For United Methodist pastors (and maybe other pastors also), the period of time from the beginning of December on through the middle of January is non-stop. Advent, Christmas, New Year’s, orientation for new leaders, reports due to the Annual Conference, all make for busy times. Throw in a party for staff and leaders, a search for new staff members, and driving a child back and forth to college and it begins to make my head swim. As I sit in my office this morning it is easy to get overwhelmed by the work to be done and the short time in which I have to do it.

And then I remember. I remember yesterday when I was privileged to be in worship and experience the Spirit of God at work. We had a special time in the service when people were invited up for prayer and anointing. I did the anointing and there were four others who were the prayer partners. It was incredibly moving to see just the number of people who came forward. It was such a blessing to know that God was touching the hearts and lives of so many. That blessing was topped off by hearing how the prayer partners felt the Spirit of God at work as people poured out their hearts and genuinely sought the healing touch of God.

What a great blessing it is to be used by God and even just to watch God at work through others like those prayer partners. And yet, that blessing so quickly gets buried under the mountain of tasks I have before me. My mind is so easily occupied with my to-do list that the memory of that blessing gets lost in the shuffle. I have to remember to stop and dig it out. I have to stop when I feel overwhelmed and uncover that blessing that I seem to have forgotten.

Keeping the blessings of God fresh in our minds is important to surviving the day and the week and the month ahead. It is the reminder that God works in ways we can’t even imagine. It is a way to recall that the power of God to work in us and through us is immeasurable. It’s a way to say to the mountain of tasks before me – be gone and be thrown into the sea.

God is greater than the burden of my to-do list and my calendar. The blessing of a worship service reminds me just how true that is.

Holy high-five to you,
Mike