Living in the Gap of Knowing and Not Doing

Living in the Gap of Knowing and Not Doing

I am Not Myself“From dust you have come, to dust you will go.” If you had the courage to come to an Ash Wednesday Service, you would have heard those words spoken over you as you were marked with a cross. I say courage because it takes a certain amount of audacity to come to a worship service where you are reminded of your own mortality.

My family was unable to attend the Ash Wednesday Service this year. Maybe that was for the best. I have always found it challenging to place ashes on the forehead of my children while reminding them of their own death. It is difficult to places ashes on any child. If your child came to my station during Ash Wednesday, I placed the cross on their forehead with the words, “You are loved by God.” On this Ash Wednesday, because of recent events, I would have found it even harder to tell them, “Remember you are dust…” It seems they get that message loud and clear from the world.

You are loved by God. If there is any week that our children needed to be reminded of that truth, it is this week. We are mortal but we are not hopeless. We are broken but we are not unloved.

The word Lent is an old Saxon word meaning “spring.” It is not in the bible but the theme of Lent as a season of devotion and self-reflection is found throughout the pages of scripture. Moses fasted for 40 days when he talked with God on Mount Sinai[i]. Elijah fasted for 40 days on his journey to meet God at Horeb.[ii] After his baptism by John the Baptist in the Jordan River, Jesus was led into the wilderness and for 40 days he was under intense temptation to become something other than what his heavenly Father intended.[iii]

Ash Wednesday is the starting point into Lent. The purpose of Lent is to give us an opportunity to clean out the clutter in our lives, rearrange our priorities, and find space for new life when it comes at the end of the forty days. A lot of people give up certain things – chocolate, caffeine, social media, fatty foods, or negative talk. Fasting is the religious way of talking about it. Another way of understanding the spiritual discipline of Lent is rediscovering the power of “no.” “No” stands in the way of immediate desires. It is disruptive to our wishes and dreams. “No” means withholding something that we want.

We want what we want for a reason, and “no” always runs contrary to those wants and desires.

During Lent we practice saying “no” so that we can enjoy a greater “yes.” So, what do you need to say “no” to today in order to enjoy a greater “yes” tomorrow? Think about it this way: Give up what is necessary so that something good may be added.

It is so easy to say “yes.” It is easy because we like our lives full. We like to be busy. It makes us feel important. It drives us to be successful. “Yes” feels the vacuum of loneliness. “No” creates space. The mid-20th century Catholic theologian Hans Ur von Balthasar saw the work of Jesus as remaking the self by unselfing it. Jesus opens up a “vacant space” in us for the Spirit of God to renew us.

If our lives are filled with to-do lists and projects and deadlines and wants and shoulds, then there is no room for the Spirit of God to work on renewing us in His image. Lent is giving permission for God to “unself” us and create space for the Spirit to work on renewing our self in the image of Christ.

A self full of itself is a conflicted self.

You may not realize it but you need this. How many times this week did we say, “I decided to do good, but I didn’t really do it; I decided not to be bad, but then I did it anyway?” I know I need to exercise, but I was too tired when I got home. I know I shouldn’t go over to his house, but I went anyway. I know I should not have gossiped, but I said it anyway.

The Apostle Paul understands your pain. Listen to the way he describes it:

For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. (Romans 7:14-20)

Why do we find it so hard to live up to our own expectations? We want to do good, but we fail to do it. We desire to live right, but give us a week and we have slipped.

At the end of his life Jesus is praying in a garden. He knew that soldiers were on the way to come and arrest him. He tells Peter to stay awake and pray. Peter falls asleep. Jesus gets upset with him, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour?  Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”[i]

I get it. Don’t you? I am willing but find myself weak when it counts. We are driven to despair by our conflicted self. We come to church and make promises and then we fail to live up to those expectations. The gap between willing and doing is universal. It not only affects us as individuals. It has damaging consequences on a society.

God created a garden for humanity but we have turned it into a war zone. We talk a good talk but we take no action. We say this will be the last one but we do nothing to ensure that it really is. We send our kids off to school with words like, “Remember your lunch money, remember your mama loves you, and remember to turn in your homework.” But if we keep talking without acting, we might as well add, “And remember you are from dust and to dust you shall return – possibly today.”

When the people of God talked about offering prayers and fasting, God replied, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?[i] The prayers God hears are those that beat to the rhythm of justice. The fast God notices is the ones that gives up hate and violence.

As a society we seem stuck in the gap, the gap between knowing what is right and actually doing what is right. Violence disrupts. Lives are taken. Fingers are pointed. Blame is cast. Hands are washed of blood. And the cycle of death gets put on repeat. Are mass shootings a gun problem, a mental illness problem, a public safety problem, or a heart problem? The answer is “yes!” As long as we continue to remain divided and refuse to move the conversation past heated debates, it will remain a pride problem and we are all guilty.

As followers of Jesus, we are to be about living the ways of the Prince of Peace. Our moral framework is loving our neighbor.  As Jesus followers we make decisions that seek the welfare of my neighbor. When it comes to mass shootings in the United States what decisions need to be made that respect the sanctity of life and show love to my neighbor? In other words, what actions do I need to take that will demonstrate that I am living out the prayer, “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven?” We are not going to get it perfectly right. We will fail. But the good news is that Jesus has come to meet us in the gaps, the gap between what we know is right and not living up to it. Jesus has come to meet us in the gap between our failures and God’s desire for our life. Amen.

Next week we will discuss how Jesus is in the business of redeeming failures.

(Sermon preached at Gainesville First United Methodist Church)

[i] Isaiah 58:6-7

[i] Mark 14:37-38

[i] Exodus 34:28

[ii] I Kings 19:8

[iii] Matthew 4:1-11

 

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An Ash Wednesday Valentine Kind Of Day

An Ash Wednesday Valentine Kind Of Day

image1An Ash Wednesday Valentine Card might read something like, “Roses are red, violets are blue, from the dust you have come and to dust you shall return.” For the first time since 1945 Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day. The day we solemnly reflect on our mortality by getting a cross-shaped ash smeared onto our foreheads is the same day we express our love with chocolate and roses – my wife prefers daisies.

At around thirty years old, Jesus has a powerful experience when his cousin, John, baptizes him in the Jordan River. Coming up out of the muddy waters Jesus experiences God’s claim on his life when he hears, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”[i] It is with the self-awareness of being the Son of God that Jesus is led by the Spirit of God into the wilderness.

In the wilderness Jesus finds himself being tempted by the devil. The temptations thrown his way are not what we normally think of as temptations – lie, cheat, and steal. Jesus finds himself being confronted with choosing a way of life and a vocation that is less than what God would have him to be.

The struggle is real.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of our struggle to spend the next forty days re-claiming our identity as the beloved of God. In a world where we are tempted to choose an identity and vocation less than what God would have for us, it is good to have a season of self-awareness. ash wednesday

The journey begins with an ash marked cross on the forehead that forces us to humbly recognize that we are from the dust and to the dust we shall return. And yet, receiving the ashes in the symbol of a cross is a reminder that we are claimed by God. We are mortal but we are not hopeless. We are weak but we are not forgotten. We are broken but we are not unloved. I’d say that makes for a pretty good Valentine Day message.

[i] Matthew 3: 17

The Tale of Two Brothers, Part II

The Tale of Two Brothers, Part II

tale of two brothersYou can stay home and still be lost. You don’t have to squander love on wild living to create distance between those who love you. You don’t have to get locked up to live your life behind bars. Jealousy can do it. Pride can do it. Anger can do it. Fear can do it. Bitter self-righteousness is as nasty as sleeping in the mud with pigs. Dining on resentment is no better than dining on pig slop.

Last week we looked at the youngest brother. The one who squandered his father’s love and then wanted to return it broken. What we discovered last week is that God’s capacity for finding us is greater than our talent for getting lost. If you haven’t listened to the message, I want to encourage you to go to gfumc.com and listen.

Have you ever had to welcome a loser back home? Have you ever had to go to a promotion party for someone who you weren’t sure deserved it? Have you ever had to say welcome home when what you really wanted to say was get the heck out of here?

No one asked the older brother what he thought about having his pig-loving, family betraying sibling back home. No one asked what it felt like wearing the second best robe because the best one had been given to the younger brother. No one asked what it was like to pick up the slack while the younger brother was wasting his life at binge parties. No one asked him how it felt to watch his father have sleepless nights staring through the blinds hoping for his son to come home. And now, you want him to sit down at the same table with this self-centered, reckless-living, careless brother and have a feast? You want him to join a homecoming party?

Preacher and scholar, Fred Craddock told a story about the time he was teaching Sunday School at a small rural church. On this particular occasion he discovered that the weekly lesson was based on Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. In his lesson he invited the class to imagine that the story ended differently. In Craddock’s version, the prodigal son “comes to himself” and decides to go home and throw himself on his father’s mercy. As he gets close to the house, he hears the sound of music and dancing. He asks the servants what is going on and the servant says, “Your father has killed the fatted calf and is holding a great feast for your older brother, because he has served him faithfully for so many years!”

Craddock let the ending sit silent in the room. Suddenly there was a loud thud in the back of the room where a woman had smashed her fist on the table. After an awkward moment of silence, the woman looked around and said, “And that’s the way it should have happened!”

Most of us love with a calculated love. We consider the sacrifice. We weigh our options. We love by putting our heart on a scale and calculate the benefits. If the benefits outweigh the risks, then we will share our love. But if the risks are greater than the benefits then we give out measures of love.

The father in our story refused to love this way. He risked public shaming. He chanced getting mocked. He opened himself up to getting hurt. The father taught that sometimes it is more important to be reconciled than it is to be right. Sometimes you have to hike up your skirt and run through town as an embarrassment to embrace a son who just wants to come home. Sometimes you have to put down the ego and give out vulnerable love. Sometimes you throw caution to the wind and love courageously.

The older son counts. You can hear it in his voice, “All these years I have been working like a slave…….you never given me even a young goat……..when this son of yours came back.” I have brought you home nothing but straight “A’s.” I have top performed in my class, in my sport, in my career. I have done everything to earn your love. The father says you can’t love this way. Unconditional love does not exist on the scales of calculated devotion.

In 1668, toward the end of his life, Rembrandt painted “Return of the Prodigal Son.” It now hangs in a hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia. In the painting as you move down from the father’s face, you notice the dirty and ragged rags of the returning son’s clothes. The bottom of his feet are visible with one sandal lying on the floor. The son’s bald head is being embraced in his father’s lap. It is as though the son has just walked in and falling at his father’s feet. The son has come home, let him be embraced. Rembrandt Prodigal Son

But just off to the side you will notice the older son. He is draped in a red robe and standing with his arms crossed. The light shines on the older son’s face and the look of condescension is written all over it. The son has come home, let him be kicked out.

The power of Rembrandt’s painting is found in the distance between the father who is embracing the wayward son and the older son who stands off to the side. It’s hard to enjoy a reunion party when your heart is full of resentment. Gratitude and resentment cannot occupy the same heart. It doesn’t take running away from home and living a reckless life to find yourself far away from home. It only takes letting resentment take root in the heart. Love cannot be found at home when resentment lives in the heart.

Forgiveness can be hard to swallow. Unconditional love can be hard to wrapped our minds around. Grace can seem so careless. That is until we realize whether we stayed home or not, we are all sinners. We are all in need of being loved.

Dr. Tom Long, one of my professors at seminary, tells a story of the time one of his students went jogging with his father in their urban neighborhood. As they ran, the son shared what he was learning in seminary, and the father, an inner city pastor, related experiences of his own. At the halfway point in their jog, they decided to phone ahead for a home delivered pizza. As they headed for the phone booth – before the days of cell phones – a homeless man approached them, asking for spare change. The father reached into his pockets of his coat and pulled out two handfuls of coins. “Here,” he said to the homeless man. “Take what you need.” The homeless man, hardly believing his good fortune, said, “I’ll take it all,” scooped the coins into his own hands, and went his way.

It only took a second for the father to realize that he now had no change for the phone. “Pardon me,” he beckoned to the homeless man. “I need to make a phone call. Can you spare some change?” The homeless man turned and held out the two handfuls of coins. “Here,” he said. “Take what you need.”

If the prodigal son story teaches us anything, it demonstrates to us that somedays we have opportunity to show grace and others we are begging for grace ourselves. And no matter where we find ourselves coming home depends on grace.

If any story deserves a happy ending, it is the tale of two brothers. The father does for the older brother what he does for the younger brother. He goes out to meet him. This is where the story drops off. How does it end? Shall we put aside our resentment and go to the party? Will we keep denying grace even when it keeps us from coming home? Will we sacrifice our own wholeness to simply prove a point? You tell me, how does the story end? Amen.

(Luke 15: 11-32 Preached at Gainesville First UMC, Gainesville, Georgia)

A Tale of Two Brothers: Part I

A Tale of Two Brothers: Part I

tale of two brothers“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15: 2). This is how it started. This is what motivated Jesus to tell three stories about lost things, lost animals, and lost people. The religious elite criticizing his eating habits, questioning his motives, and interrogating him on his mission. Three stories to demonstrate his purpose.

A farmer has one hundred sheep. One carelessly wonders off. The farmer leaves ninety-nine sheep behind to go look for one lost sheep. When he finds it, he calls to his friends and neighbors to celebrate.

A woman losses a valuable coin. She turns her house upside down to find it. When she does she goes door-to-door inviting her neighbors to join her in the celebration.

Then there is the tale of two sons. The rebel. The perfectionist. A father who loved both. The youngest set out on a path of destructive selfishness. The oldest stayed close to home but lived in judgment and jealousy. Regardless of where they found themselves, both brothers were lost. Both were in need of grace.

In the next couple of weeks we are going to explore the tale of the two brothers. In the parable it is two different individuals but if we are honest with ourselves there is a little bit of both in us. We can as quickly turn from asking forgiveness for ourselves to denying forgiveness for others. When it comes to ourselves we want a God of mercy. But when it comes to others we want a God of fairness.

In his recent memoir entitled In the Sanctuary of Outcast, Neil White recounts his eighteen-month federal prison sentence for bank fraud. Neil was not sent to any ordinary prison. He was sent to a leprosarium in Carville, Louisiana. He and other similar inmates who had been convicted of white collar crimes shared space with the last people in America disfigured by leprosy (show image on screen). In the early days of his stay, Neil does everything possible to avoid being near the Hansen’s diseased outcasts. Over time and learning more about the condition, he befriends a number of them. He comes to admire their tenacity as they cope with the cruelty of their condition and living in a forgotten world.

One evening, the lepers were holding their annual spring dance. The inmates were assigned to set up tables and sound equipment in the ballroom. The party started before they were able to leave the room. Patients limp and wheel and slide onto the dance floor. Scarred limbs in the air and disfigured faces are radiating joy as they move to the music. An elderly woman motions for Neil to dance with her. As they move around the dance floor, suddenly the party is interrupted by a leper named Smeltzer. He screams out, “You are not invited! No inmates at our party! You are not welcome here. Get out!” Quietly, Neil and the other inmates exit through the door. Neil writes in his memoir, “We just got kicked out of a lepers dance.”

Have you ever felt that low? Have you ever felt that you were not even welcome at a party for the unwelcomed? Sometimes a divorce can make us feel that low. We are not sure how our old friends will receive us. We are not sure what the neighbors are saying. A battle with an addiction where we have hurt those we love leave us in a place of unwelcome. Sometimes those who have a spouse or a child that has committed suicide are left feeling ostracized. They feel that the questions are being directed back towards them. They are afraid to leave the house. A person struggling with their sexuality and trying to make sense of their feelings feel unwelcomed even among those that are supposed to make them feel supported.

And sometimes it is just being the baby in the family and always feeling judged by the accomplishments of the older brother or sister. Living under the constant shadow of someone more successful than you can drive a person to do irrational things. We don’t know what drove the younger brother in the story to demand his father’s inheritance. It may have just been simple selfishness. It could have been a rebellious streak. It could have been he was tired of playing by the rules of the house. Regardless, he finds himself neck deep in pig mud. A big-time player turns into a big-time loser. He starts out in a righteous home and ends up in a pig sty. He plays his father’s love to claim a portion of his father’s fortune and then blows it on a binge. He abuses it and he strays from it. He squandered it and now he wants to return it broken.

This is where Jesus gets so frustrating. I got enough religion in me that I can understand letting him back in the house. But maybe he should come in through the backdoor. Let’s let him eat in his room by himself. Let’s put him on probation, a trial period. We need to create a schedule so that he can work off some of the money he took from the old man. There is a lesson or two that this boy needs to learn.

A party. We going throw this kid a party? Here is where it gets challenging. If I were the kid, I would long for the mercy. But If I am the one asked to show the mercy, well I might need to see some proof that you have changed.

The word prodigal means wasteful and reckless. If you ask me, we need to rename this parable. If anyone is being reckless and wasteful, it is the father. The kid hasn’t even apologized. The father cut him short of a full apology. He saw him coming. He didn’t wait until he got to the front door. He hiked up his skirt for all the town folks to see and ran across the field and embraced his irresponsible son.

Ernest Hemingway once wrote a short story called “The Capital of the World.”  In it, he told the story of a father and his teenage son who were estranged from one another.  The son’s name was Paco.  He had wronged his father.  In his shame he had run away from home.

In the story, the father searched all over Spain for Paco, but still he could not find the boy.  Finally, in the city of Madrid, in a last desperate attempt to find his son, the father placed an ad in the daily newspaper.  The ad read:  “PACO, MEET ME AT THE HOTEL MONTANA.  NOON TUESDAY.  ALL IS FORGIVEN.  LOVE, PAPA.”

The next day, in front of the newspaper office, eight hundred Pacos showed up. All seeking forgiveness. All seeking the love of their father.

If your name is Paco or Tony or Julie or Sherry and you feel that you have no one searching for you, then I want you to know that God will seek out ever Meth house or Methodist Church, Bar or Baptist or Hell hole or dark valley until you are found. The world may have given up, your family may have quit searching, your friends left you alone, but God is on the hunt and God won’t stop until you know that you are loved. God’s capacity for finding us is greater than our talent for getting lost.

For those worried about wayward children, friend, or family members, I want you to know it is not their remorse that forces God to set a banquet table, it is not their desire to start over that causes God to kill the fatted calf. It is not their getting their life together that causes God to be on edge until their return home. God’s love is unconditional. God’s love is limitless. God’s love is soaked in grace.

One of my favorite stories in Philip Yancey’s excellent book, What’s So Amazing About Grace, comes from an article in The Boston Globe about an unusual wedding banquet:

Accompanied by her fiancé, a woman went to the Hyatt Hotel in downtown Boston and ordered a wedding banquet. The two of them pored over the menu, made selections of china and silver, and pointed to pictures of flower arrangements they liked. They both had expensive taste, and the bill came to $13,000. After leaving a check for half that amount as a down payment, the couple went home to flip through books of wedding announcements.

The day the announcements were supposed to hit the mailbox, the potential groom got cold feet. “I’m just not sure,” he said. “It’s a big commitment. Let’s think about this a little longer.”

When his angry fiancée returned to the Hyatt to cancel the banquet, the Events Manager could not have been more understanding. “The same thing happened to me, Honey,” she said, and told the story of her own broken engagement. But about the refund, she had bad news. “The contract is binding. You’re only entitled to $1,300 back. You have two options: to forfeit the rest of the down payment, or go ahead with the banquet. I’m sorry, Really, I am.”

It seemed crazy, but the more the jilted bride thought about it, the more she liked the idea of going ahead with the party – not a wedding banquet, mind you, but a big blowout. Ten years before, this same woman had been living in a homeless shelter. She had got back on her feet, found a good job, and set aside a sizable nest egg. Now she had the wild notion of using her savings to treat the down-and-outs of Boston to a night on the town.

And so it was that in June of 1990 the Hyatt Hotel in downtown Boston hosted a party such as it had never seen before. The hostess changed the menu to boneless chicken “in honor of the groom,” she said – and sent invitations to rescue missions and homeless shelters. That warm summer night, people used to peeling half-gnawed pizza off the cardboard dined instead on chicken cordon bleu. Hyatt waiters in tuxedos served hors d’oeuvres to senior citizens propped up by crutches and aluminum walkers. Bag ladies, vagrants, and addicts took one night off from the hard life of the sidewalks outside and instead sipped champagne, ate chocolate wedding cake, and danced to big-band melodies late into the night.

Grace. Grace is being welcomed to a party by someone who came to eat with sinners. Amazing grace. Amen.

(Luke 15: 11-32 Preached at Gainesville First UMC, Gainesville, Georgia)

 

In the Beginning God

In the Beginning God

31832_A_Quiet_HikeThe holidays are great. They are full of excitement, family and festivities. But when it’s over I am ready to get back to normal. I want the house back to its pre-Christmas décor and the new toys put up. Children jacked-up on chocolate running through the house flying Star Wars Galactic gliders is enough to make the most laid back father find his breaking point.

The calm of a silent night gives way to chaos.

Chaos. This is how the world is described before God took on the role of artist and begin creating. Before God spoke the world into existence the world was a dark glob of mess. Translations of Genesis says it was a “formless void,” or “vast waste,” or “formless and empty.” The earth was without order and no creative purpose. But all that changed when Genesis says, “In the beginning God….” God was, God is, and God will always be. In the beginning God.

For those who have felt abandoned in 2017, “In the beginning God” is statement of more than historical record. This is a confession. When all that is left is chaos and darkness, God is present. 31815_A_Quiet_Hike

This is a God who chose to get intimately involved in the chaotic mess. This is an artist who chose to get His hands dirty. An artist who gets the stains of water color on His fingertips. God gets down in the chaotic mess and creates something beautiful. If 2017 has you asking, “Is God still able to create something out of my chaotic life?” The answer is found in Genesis 1: “In the beginning God….” If God can take all the chaos of primordial substance and make something as beautiful as sunsets, waterfalls, and sunflowers then God can do something with your messed up life.

As we head into 2018, we all have something in our life that can be described as chaotic, formless, or empty. What is it? Is it a relationship? A job? A loss of some kind? Your emotions?

The story of creation is not just about a God who made the heavens and earth. It is a story of a God who takes things that are formless and empty and creates something life giving and full of purpose. This is what God wants to do in your life in 2018.

31828_Quiet_hikeGo over to the New Testament and we discover how. In using the same images as Genesis, the author of the Gospel of John says speaking of Jesus, “All things came into being through him, and without him no one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people” (John 1:3). A life with Jesus at the center is a life that can have order in chaos and purpose beyond being empty.

The Wonder Of Christmas (Christmas Eve Sermon 2017)

The Wonder Of Christmas (Christmas Eve Sermon 2017)

27222Unless you know the names Captain Kangaroo and Mister Rogers, the story I am about to tell may seem irrelevant. But imagine if SpongeBob SquarePants and Gumball where in a show together or if Dora the Explorer teamed up with Paw Patrol.

A young boy was a big fan of Captain Kangaroo and Mister Rogers. Back in the day these guys did not need an introduction. They were the best two kids’ show on television. It was one day announced that Mister Rogers would be paying a visit to the Captain Kangaroo show. The little boy was ecstatic. Both of his heroes in one show. Every morning the boy would ask his parents, “Is today the day when Mister Rogers will be on Captain Kangaroo?” Finally the day arrived, the whole family came together for this grand event. They circled in front of the television together and there they were……Mister Rogers and Captain Kangaroo together on the same television show. The little boy watched for a moment, then got up, and walked out of the room.

Puzzled, the father followed and asked, “Son, what is wrong?” “The boy replied, “It’s too much, It’s just too much!”

There is not much in our world that leaves us saying, “It’s too much…….It’s just too much!” Our senses have been numbed by familiarity. Our routines have removed the elements of surprise. Our schedules keep the explainable before us.

Take Christmas for example. Who has time to get caught up in the wonder of Christmas? We have Christmas parties to attend. Gifts to purchase. We’re too busy getting ready for Christmas to think about Jesus.

But what if tonight you just settled in the moment. What if just for tonight you give up trying and give in to the experience. Let yourself be taken by the wonder of this night. Wrap yourself in the narrative of this story and leave with your heart full. Be in awe of the Christ child. I don’t want us to be like the innkeeper and not find room in our lives for the wonder of Christmas. If you will let it, tonight you can discover awe, it will shape you, mold you, and leave you with the filling that it is too much…….it’s just too much!

I believe this baby can tell us all we need to know of God and life. The mystery of beauty and relationships are wrapped up in this child.

It is like the three-year-old little girl who was soon to be a new big sister. The day came for her mother to give birth. Mom and dad go off to the hospital. A few days later they return home with a new baby. The little girl is delighted. She just stares at her baby brother in amazement. After a few hours, the little girl tells her mom and dad that she needs some alone time with her new baby brother.

The parents had installed a baby monitor in the nursery and knew they could watch and listen from another room. So, they left baby brother alone with his sister. The parents rush off to listen and watch. The little girl leans into her two-day-old baby brother and says, “Tell me about God. I’ve almost forgotten.”

Christmas Eve is about leaning into this manger scene and saying to the baby, “Tell us about God, about my life, my purpose, my reason for existence.”

Some of you are asking out of a sense of confusion. A relationship that ended or a career that was terminated has you feeling lost.

Some of you are asking out of desperation. A medical diagnosis or a death has you living in fear.

Some of you have chosen not to lean in at all. You find yourself in a place of great doubt. If you are a person of doubt, there is place for you in the Christmas story. It is actually what makes this story so special. The announcement of Jesus was not made first in hallways of influence or corridors of power or sanctuaries of the religious, it was given to those on the outside. For those who have given up on God or feel that God has given up on them, God’s message is for you, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people…..” (Luke 2:10).

The Christmas story declares that even for those who could not muster up enough faith to show up tonight God is still sending angels out into the fields with Good news of great joy. Jesus is still being born among people who have given up on him.

The miracle of this night is that wonder and awe can still be captured in a dull and boring world. The miracle of this night is that a dry and dead religion can still be awakened to the surprise of faith. The miracle of this night is that a predictable life can be astonished by an adventurous God.

Seeing the infant Jesus before us and anticipating the glow of hundreds of candles on this holy night, may this Christmas story give birth in us to awe and wonder. It is a story that begins with a Jewish teenager in an obscure village on the outskirts of the Roman Empire. It is here that God sends his messenger, Gabriel, to tell this young girl that she would give birth to the Savior of the world.

The whole story hinges on a young lady who had the courage to talk back to an angel. In a year when the voices of women were attempted to be silenced, this is the part of the story we need to tell. Mary is greeted by God’s messenger, “Greetings, favored one!” and with that greeting the salvation of all humankind was set in motion. It is the moment when the will of God and the choice of Mary meet in a decision that changes the course of history. Here was the God of Mary’s heart asking her to do the impossible and Mary responding, “Let it be according to your word.” My prayer as we move into 2018 is that all the women in our lives have the courage to act on the impossible from God.

Ceasar is issuing decrees, Rome is flexible its military muscles, the religious authorities are showing off their authority and in an outskirt town God is setting in motion a revolution of love. G.K. Chesterton, the British writer, puts it this way, “God came down and slipped in the back door to surprise us all.” Wrapped in swaddling cloth, laid in a pile of straw, and surrounded by people that would never be front and center, God is about to take back the world.

For most people in the village of Bethlehem that first Christmas what they witnessed was a poor baby being born and nothing more. But I don’t you to miss it. Don’t let the motions of Christmas cause you to miss the awe and wonder of the birth. Don’t be surprised if the birth of wonder comes from unlikely places. God is fond of working in outskirt places, among people others have written off, and in ways that seem out of the norm. Don’t be surprised if there are moments surrounding the celebration of this birth that leave you saying, “It was too much…..It was just too much!” Amen.

Remembering Sandy Hook

Remembering Sandy Hook

(I wrote this Dec 15, 2012 after the Sandy Hook tragedy.)

sandy hookChristmas carolers sing, “Joy to the World” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” The wonder and beauty of the season is all around. The glow of Christmas shines in the hearts of children all over the world. We spend our days wishing each other peace for a New Year.

It would seem from Thanksgiving to New Year that we live in a perfect world surrounded by happiness and laughter. But we don’t live in a snow globe. We live in a world where children die and mother’s weep. We live in a world where the glass globe has been shattered and the screams of children are disrupting our silent nights.

On Friday, December 14, 2012 twenty children and six adults were mass murdered in a Newtown, Connecticut elementary school. It was a senseless and painful act that disrupted the joy of the season. Many will take the opportunity to use this moment as a political platform. Others will create controversy by playing the blame game.

But the fact remains that we live in a wounded world among broken people. The action of one of the broken has left a community screaming out for comfort.

Generalizations of peace and comfort, love and mercy don’t seem to suffice in times of deep pain. We need something more tangible. We need something more particular to reach into the depths of our suffering.

We try to fool ourselves with happy endings and “once upon a time” beginnings but when tragedy disrupts we are fully aware that the fairy tale is an illusion. We need sandy-hook-victimssomething greater than high sounding words and lofty expressions. While the world will try to comfort itself on platitudes of generalization God comes as Emmanuel, God with us.

“Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people; to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” the angels told shepherds in the field (Luke 2: 10).

Jesus came to be with us right here. The God we celebrate on Christmas Day is the one who comes to be with us in the particularity of our lives and on days when we are shaken out of the loftiness of “let there be peace on earth” this is the Good News that allows us to sing the rest – “and let it begin with me.”