Advent: Keep Watch

As I read today’s text, I couldn’t help but picture a group of mischievous children.  Watching them, you can imagine they’re either up to no good, or wanting to surprise someone. Whatever it is, they don’t want to get caught, so they put one child at the door to be the lookout.  The lookout’s only job is to warn them when the adult is coming. In the movies when this happens, I could never understand why they would chose the youngest child for this important job.  It never seemed to fail that the warning would come too late and their plans were foiled. 

 Jesus’ words here seem to clearly instruct that we are to be watching, not leaving the job to someone else: “What I say to you I say to everyone: Watch for his return.” Are you watching for his return this Christmas, or counting days until life returns to “normal”?  Don’t let someone else keep watch for you.  Don’t let the stuff of the season overshadow your ability to be looking, your ability to be ready when he arrives.

 One of my favorite stories from Jesus is the story that we usually refer to as The Prodigal Son (see Luke 15:11-32).  When the son finally decides to return home, the father sees him while he is still a far way off and runs out to welcome him home.  It was not luck or happenstance that morning.  The father had been watching, looking, yearning for his son’s return.  Are your eyes tuned to Jesus’ entry this Holy Season?

 Prayer:  Father, there are so many things that press in and distract me from looking for your coming at this time of year. Help me to have the Prodigal Father’s eyes: searching daily for signs of your presence.  Amen.

Advent: Everything I Need

When I was little, I could hardly wait for the Wish Book to arrive.  The Sears Christmas catalog would arrive and my brother, sister and I would spend hours pouring over the pictures of treasures we thought we couldn’t live without.  Christmas morning was often a bit of a disappointment when I opened packages containing socks, pajamas, or some other practical necessity.  I didn’t understand the vast difference between needs and wants, and I certainly had no clue about what my parents went through to provide for us kids. 

 In our scripture for today, Paul tells the young Corinthian church that God has provided every spiritual gift they need as they wait for Christ’s return.  This thought shouldn’t have been new to them.  David wrote of it in the great Shepherd Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd, I have everything that I need.” (see Psalm 23) Peter picks up the same thought when he writes: “As we know Jesus better, his divine power gives us everything we need for living a godly life.” (2 Peter 1:3)

 What would happen this Advent season, if every time someone asked us what we wanted for Christmas, or every time we begin dwelling on our wish list, we reminded ourselves that we have everything we need.  Say it, “I have everything I need.”  Five words.  One sentence.  It could change the course of our Advent journey. 

Prayer: Thank you god for your gifts and provisions for my life.  Help me to live as one who has everything I need.  Amen.

Advent: Shedding Light in Advent

Getting Ready for Christmas

            ^Spiritually

Advent Devotions for 2011

Quick.  Someone asks you if you’re ready for Christmas, how do you respond?  If you’re like most people I know, your answer has something to do with the number of gifts you have left to buy, whether your tree is up, and your house decorated.  We may wear pins that declare that Jesus is the reason for the season, but have we taken the time to examine that, believe it, and live it?

 I’d like to suggest that this year:

-Let’s not get to Christmas eve and realize we’ve spent way more time and energy on the trappings of the holiday and not really looked at what scripture has to say to us about this Holy Time.

-We’re told that Mary pondered all these things in her heart, then when things were unsure or unsettled she had the ammo to spiritually get back on track.  Can we afford to be less prepared?

 As we consider being properly prepared, let’s make sure:

-That our mind is on board

-That our heart is at peace

-That our spirit is primed

-That we are strong in purpose.

11-27-11 Romans 13:11-14  It’s later than you think.

Have you ever had one of those mornings that start out all wrong when your alarm doesn’t go off?  Or have you awoken on an important birthday or anniversary only to wonder where the time got to?  And I’m not sure how many procrastinate when it comes to preparing taxes, but each year I seem to hear more and more people moaning that April 15th got there way before they were ready.

 A friend recently asked me what I wished I could do. More than anything, I wish I could be a hospice chaplain.  Typically, folks who are aware that the end is near are more honestly dealing with the time that they have.  They have truly awakened to the fact that there isn’t much time left, so they don’t waste it.  Why do we wait so long to begin living on purpose, living in the moment, living awake to what is here and now?

 I believe it was John Wesley who was asked if he knew he had a short amount of time left to live if he would change anything and his answer was no.  I’m not sure I’ve reached that level of spiritual, emotional, or rational maturity.  What would happen, though, if we began living with the realization that it really is later than we think? 

 As you begin this journey into Advent, I would invite you to invest in each day.  I would suggest that you don’t put off doing or saying the things you need to do or say.  Give now.  Love now.  Live now.  Each day, pray the Psalmist’s prayer: Teach me to make the most of my time, so that I may grow in wisdom (see Psalm 90:12).  Amen.

Taste Good, Good Taste

Am I worth more than a taste?  Everything I know tells me yes.  Screams it.  I’m an educated woman.  I’ve lived over 54 years.  Why can’t I say no to the prospects of taste?  Why am I driven by my appetites?  Why do I give into the temptation of what tastes good instead of sticking to what I know is good for me?

I don’t like thinking that I am weak—pathetically weak.  I am Goliath when there’s no food in front of me, but it all fades to fuss and bluster when I step before a buffet table covered with tasty morsels whose carb, fat, and calorie counts woo me into a submission that makes Samson look like an altar boy.  Where does my resolve go then?  What sucks out my brain leaving me alone with my voracious tongue and empty belly?

Are you ready for the oddest of confessions?  I have, and on more than one occasion, asked God to inspire someone to create a food replicator.  You know, like the one’s that were used on Star Trek.  I have pleaded with Him for a machine that could take spinach taste like peppermint bark over chocolate (think the current decadent Gerahdelli chocolate commercials) or prunes melt in your mouth like New York cheesecake.  Maybe He heard me, because now they’re finding ways to hide an extra serving of veggies in kids’ Beefaroni and apple juice.

It will probably come as no surprise to you that one of the most used metaphors in the Bible to make a spiritual point is food and eating.  In the Old Testament we are told to taste and see that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8).  Then in the New Testament, Jesus tells the disciples at the Last Supper to take the bread and cup for they are his broken body and spilt blood for them.  And as oft as they eat it they, and we are to remember Him.

In Psalm 42, the psalmist declares that his soul thirsts for God and yet goes on to say that his tears have been his food day and night.  Not a very satisfying diet, but I get it.  How many times have you stood at either the refrigerator or cupboard, door open, just staring?  Maybe, like me, you’re hoping that the perfect food choice will just jump out at you and take away that gnawing hunger that has a hold of your mouth.  In a fleeting attempt to quell the taste monster you grab something quick and snarf it down.  But it doesn’t slay the beast so in a few minutes you’re back searching.  This process can go on infinitely and leave you feeling completely unsatisfied.

Paul got this concept spiritually and describes in his speech in Acts 17.  In Athens Paul found himself surrounded by a religious people who were very spiritually hungry.  They had created numerous idols in an attempt to fill that internal void.  It should probably come as no surprise that there were even some Epicurean philosophers in the crowd (Known for “Eat, drink, for tomorrow we die” and their Epicurean delights).  You remember, this is the crowd who in an attempt to cover all their spiritual bases even erected a statue to the unknown God (vs. 23).

So my soul thirsts for God, but I give it a diet of tears.  What kind of sense does that make?  About as much as continuing to eat baby food when we become adults.  The writer of Hebrews points out how ridiculous that is.  The believers had reached the point where they should have moved on from the milk of infants to the solid food of the mature.  They should be craving this, Peter writes (1Peter 2:3) if in fact they have truly tasted that the Lord is good.  Baby food is bland, somewhat tasteless, lacks texture and variety.  There is no salt in baby food, no cayenne pepper.  You don’t see jars of Gerber General Tso’s chicken or Pizza Hut super supreme pizza.  Squash, pears, and mashed bananas, with milk or water to drink.  My soul thirsts for McDonald’s sweet tea or cafe latte from Starbucks, served up with a generous meal cooked by Food Network’s Bobby Flay, but I settle for Similac and strained sweet potatoes.

My soul knows what it wants and needs, but seems to lack the ability to shout loudly enough over my roaring appetites.  Jesus looked at the hungry crowds that followed him, heard their rumbling bellies and sensed their starving souls.  He told them that if they wanted to be filled, completely satiated like we will be after we plow through our Thanksgiving spreads, that they need to hunger and thirst after righteousness.  Later in that sermon, he tells them to not worry about what they will eat because God can and will feed them.  They knew it to, because they still told the stories of the daily manna and the quail flying into camp.  They knew that the Good Shepherd would provide for their every need.  And if I’ll get honest, close my mouth, and listen to my heart and not my tongue, I know it, too.  So do you.

The problem is that even though I know this, I’m not disciplined enough to live it.  My focus is off. Instead of eating to live, I live to eat.  God made food taste good and then gifted individuals who know how to bring out layers and layers of goodness.  I want the goodness.  And this becomes idolatry.  It’s not what God wants for me, not physically and definitely not spiritually.  It’s just as wrong to want the goodness of God, to crave the grace and blessings without hungering for the one gives those.  I’m not supposed to fill myself with the gifts.  I’m to hunger after the giver.

Jesus got this.  We find in John 4 Jesus has an encounter with the Woman at the Well.  Perhaps because they shouldn’t be talking at all, we find them talking in a kind of spiritual code, referring to water that will leave them never thirsty again.  When the disciples show up, they try to offer Jesus food and he tells them that he has food they don’t even know about.  They’re a bit miffed because they had just been to the local Kroger’s to get lunch.  Jesus tells them this: My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work (vs. 34).

I’m going to enjoy our family Thanksgiving feast tomorrow.  I will partake of the turkey, all the yummy sides, and finish it off with my mother-in-law’s delicious pecan pie.  I will count my blessings and return thanks.  And I will remember.  I will remember that this is just a meal.  It will fill my stomach and increase my fat cells, but for all the goodness, it is not my food.  For as much attention as I give this body of mine, the truth is: I am so much more than this body.  It will not last forever.  My soul, however, will, and it is my soul that I need to be much more intention about caring for and feeding because it is what matters the most to God.

Am I worth more than a taste?  God thinks so.  He invites me, and you, to taste and find his goodness.  He is so much better than the tears and bland baby food I have been trying to live on.  David writes, “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (Psalm 119:103)  His promise is to completely fill and satisfy if we will hunger and thirst after him.  No wonder Jesus taught his disciples to pray for daily bread.  We can be sure that it is a prayer that will be answered!

I will probably still struggle with feeding myself with things that are less than satisfying, physically and spiritually.  But hopefully I will get better at realizing when I need to be filling myself with more of Him.  Remember the prayer we prayed as children gathering at mealtime: God is great, and God is good.  And we thank him for our food.  Amen.  Maybe we were on the right track.  Maybe it’s still a good track to be on.  Amen and Amen!

 

On Prisoners and Freedom–When will we be restored?

(I was reading over some “old” writing of mine and this one asked to be published…perhaps it is a chairos thing….)

Luke gives us a picture of Jesus’ early preaching/teaching ministry. In it Jesus appears to be clearly stating his purpose as he unfolds the words of the prophet. We find it in Luke 4:16-21:

16He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. 17The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
18″The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed, 1
9to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[a]
20Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, 21and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (NIV)

The phrase that grabbed my attention was in verse 18. Jesus tells them in verse 21 that today that scripture is fulfilled in their hearing, so it seems to me that he is saying that God sent him to proclaim freedom for the prisoners.

I remember when I met with my lawyer for the first time. He cautioned me in my zeal to be honest. He recounted that many believers who found themselves on the wrong side of the law, who thought that by telling the truth they would be set free from their consequences. I don’t find that in scripture. My understanding of many texts throughout the Bible portrays a loving God who doesn’t remove the consequences (just take a look at David who lost his son) but who promises to walk with us through the consequences even to restoration (see Micah 7: I will be patient as the Lord punishes me, for I have sinned against him…The Lord will bring me out of my darkness into the light and I will see his righteousness.).

What then is this freedom of which Jesus spoke and the prophet wrote? Let me first begin by pointing out how important this message must have been both to the heart of God and the ministry of Jesus: this is his first recorded message. Position is a powerful indicator of the importance of a topic. This passage is heart and soul to everything that Jesus would be about.

With that in mind, I believe that the message was to the prisoners. Unfortunately, as with many of the things that Jesus taught, I believe that it was highly likely that Jesus was misunderstood. To a people who had known captivity and injustice this was a message of physical and national redemption. I don’t, however, believe that was the emphasis Jesus wanted to make. I believe that the freedom was not so much freedom from something as much as it was freedom within it. There would not be the removal of consequences, but there definitely was promised the grace to endure and actually be able to count it all joy.

I’m finding that one of the toughest places for a prisoner to find freedom is freedom from judgment. No matter how much time one has done in jail or prison or on paper, there will be those who feel it is never enough. And that leads me to the second audience for Jesus’ message: those who have never broken the law.

I remember the interview I had for my present position. One of the board members asked me when I had experienced restoration. In part, it depends on where I am. With my family, it feels complete. Among my closest friends it is complete. But it is in the church where I still struggle to feel forgiveness. It is in the church where I feel the oppressiveness of judgment. It is in the church where I feel the least free.

Now, please let me hasten to say that there are pockets of loving, accepting, and forgiving people in the church. They have ministered abundant grace to my aching heart and reached out in love and forgiveness. But this experience has not been across the board. And quite honestly, I don’t expect it to be. That’s why I believe that Jesus’ message is twofold. First, I can’t wait to find freedom from my circumstances. There will be people who feel totally justified in their daily role of judge and jury (and sometimes executioner). I have to accept them and accept the freedom in my circumstances that Jesus offers.

But I also believe that Jesus is challenging those who have stood in judgment and continued to hold crime against a person, never allowing for repentance or restoration. His challenge is that they should bring freedom to the prisoner as well. If a person expresses genuine remorse and repentance, restoration should follow.

Jesus’ words are life-giving to those who have been through poverty, prison, illness, and oppression, but the joy is short-lived if we aren’t lovingly restoring the wayward back into life and fellowship. Remember, it isn’t much further into His ministry that Jesus makes it quite clear that with the same measure of mercy and forgiveness we offer to others we ourselves will be judged.

(This is just a start…but I wanted to put the thoughts out there.)
More thoughts…

Let’s consider a few biblical examples.  Let’s start with Paul, or Saul as he was still known.  He is a murderer and an all out zealot to squelch this new band of believers.  God has other plans and there on the Damascus road Saul experiences God in a whole new way.  His life will never be the same.  The problem was: who does he tell and how?  No one is going to believe him.  How will he ever experience the full freedom of following Christ and answering his calling if he constantly is judged for who he was?  What if Barnabas had never stood up for him and in doing so set him free to serve?

Howdy, Neighbor.

Monday.

Beginning of the week.

Opportunity to put yesterday’s message into practice out where I work and associate with others.

Do I even remember yesterday’s message?

Yes.  Asking the wrong question.

Who is my neighbor?

I have heard, and even said myself, that there are no stupid questions.  Yesterday the speaker at my corporate worship service reminded me of that as he brought a message about “The Good Samaritan.”  He pointed out that the teacher of the law who approached Jesus to check out whether he was on track with his doctrine and teaching asked a wrong question.  Put more clearly, he asked a question with a wrong motive.  While asking “who is my neighbor” might seem an innocent and obvious question, it is more likely that he was really wanting to know: who isn’t my neighbor?  Who don’t I have to care about?  Is there anyone that I can cross off my list?  Anyone I can ignore?  Anyone I am not responsible for?  Anyone I don’t have to love?  Anyone I don’t have to forgive?

And I believe Jesus would say, “No.”  I believe that Jesus would wish that we would look out over the multitudes and be moved with compassion, just as he was.

I just recently began a study of the Sermon on the Mount.  Matthew records that when Jesus saw the crowds he went up the mountain with his disciples, he sat down, and he began to teach.  The teaching that follows begins with what we commonly refer to as The Beatitudes.  Reading through this list of unusual attributes and their promised blessing and grace, it occurred to me that quite possibly Jesus came up with each of these as his eyes scanned the crowd.  He saw a clearly destitute family, devoid of earthly treasures eagerly seeking to hear his teaching.  He saw the tears of a woman recently widowed and alone.  He saw the kindness of men as they helped a cripple move closer so he could hear and not be trampled on by the crowd.  He saw a man seeking to settle a dispute between two others.  He looked out at the earnest and eager ones who had left so much behind to follow him unreservedly.  And his heart ached because he knew the road they chose in following him would not be easy but would be fraught with chastisement, persecution, and for many death.

When we walk through Walmart do we see our neighbors or just people out to steal our bargain or place in the shortest and fastest checkout lane?  How quickly do we judge the driver who cuts us off without considering what tragedy he or she may be facing?  As we’re checking out at the grocery do we click our tongues when the woman in front of us with four stair-step children pulls out her WIC card or foodstamps?  When we see someone with a different skin tone, speaking a different language, wearing foreign garb or head coverings do we give them a wide berth and hold tighter to our purses and children?

Really, who isn’t my neighbor?

If there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.  Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  Let this same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,  (Philippians 2:1-5, NRSV)

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