Archive - December, 2015

Living Christmas into the New Year ©

How do we embrace this joy from God which Christmas calls us to? We know, we surely know, that it is not meant to be a one day phenomenon.

The shepherds guide us in living Christmas. The first principle of application is the most simple. They went.  Not only did they go, they went with haste.  It takes two to make a relationship.

After my first date with Jolynn, my wife, I was so impressed I couldn’t believe she’d really want to date me. Rather than risk rejection, I decided I wasn’t going to bother calling her again.  Thank God for Eric McKinney.  He said, “Let her make that decision.  You can at least show her you’re interested in a relationship.”

The same is to be said for our relationship with God. He has come to us so that we might go to him.  The angel’s announcement of good news is an invitation to go to God.  Faith which transforms fields of fear into pastures of peace is born in the simple act of going to God.

Notice with me the second very straightforward application of great joy. “So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.  When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child” Luke 2:16-17).

They shared what they had seen and heard.  They formed the first community of praise and service.  It is instructive that this was a community endeavor.  There was none of this nonsense of a private spiritual quest.  Our relationship with God lives and grows in the sharing.  The more we give it away, the more it comes back to us.  There is no private truth here but a public offering.

Where is the greatest joy for you at Christmas? If I ask myself that question, the answer comes easily.  The greatest joy is in the sharing.  This is a part of the purpose of gift giving.  The object is not how much loot I can accumulate, but rather to experience the good news of great joy.  Such an experience comes in sharing as those shepherds first discovered.  For this night to be more than a pause in the parade of life but to become what it is meant to be – the defining moment – it must be shared.  Shared not just by being together but by sharing the message and purpose of the angel’s announcement; the sign of God’s salvation in a baby born to us and for us.

The third application of great joy is demonstrated in what the shepherds did when they left the manger. “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them” (Luke 2:20). They offered praise to God.  The act of praise transforms our spirits, cements our relationship, and bonds our allegiance.  Praise is an act which carries within its being the power to make this more than just a one night stand.

The fourth application of living Christmas is unmistakably straightforward and unmistakably counter cultural. The news of this night is not restricted for the right of the believing few. Look again at what the Bible teaches.  The good news of great joy for all people comes initially to shepherds in a field.  Shepherds had to work all the time, even on the Sabbath.  They were known for their tough irreligious coarseness.  Ask the good people of that day what groups were outside the faith and one group they would mention would be shepherds.  And yet, it is to them the angels first came with the news.

Or consider Mary and Joseph, the holy couple. They might pass for that day’s version of the middle class.  Status and rank they did not have.  Wealth was not theirs.  And yet they of all people are most blest.

And then there were the heavenly host. The great army of God’s angels like the stars above proclaims the good news of great joy for all people.  There can be no doubt, none at all, this news of God’s birth, love, presence and care is for all people.  Whoever you are, wherever you have been, whatever you have done, the Lord of all creation offers Himself to you this night in grace, an amazing radically free forgiving and redeeming love.

When I was Senior Pastor of University UMC in San Antonio one of my parishioners passed on a story about ministry we shared in at that church. It is a ministry many of our Central Texas Conference churches share in.  One man wrote of his experience of good news of great joy for all people:  “….I was serving a jail sentence.  It was the greatest mistake I had ever made.  ….Surely God had washed his hands of me….. Near Christmas I started looking for a present I could send my daughter to let her know I still loved her.  …in a catalogue I found a …gold chain with a charm that read:  ‘Daddy’s Little Girl’.  … [but] I discovered that I had missed the deadline for Christmas delivery.  I sent a card instead.

“Christmas Day came. When I called home my wife thanked me for the gift that had arrived for our daughter.  I [was] confused.  Then I remembered filling out an application with the prison’s Angel Tree ministry.  Someone would send my daughter a present in my name.

“‘It’s a beautiful gold chain,’ my wife said ‘with a charm that says ‘Daddy’s Little Girl.’’ No one had known about the necklace—except God.  And he sent his ministering angels to show me I wasn’t forgotten” (E-mail titled “Under the Angel Tree” by Michael Montalvo for Guidepost).

The story is not over. Christmas is far from finished.  It is to be lived out in the coming New Year of our Lord 2016.

  1. Go to God in Christ through the Holy Spirit.
  2. Share what you have seen and heard.
  3. Offer praise to God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit
  4. Remember, the Gospel is for Everyone.

MAY THE LORD’S NEW YEAR FIND YOU SATUARATED WITH AND SHARING THE NEWS OF THE SAVIOR’S BIRTH!

A Baby Born for You ©

I readily and honestly confess I am into babies right now. After an important meeting at the Conference Center this week, I stood around with other grandfathers swamping pictures.  Monday night, December 21st, we shall fly to Washington D.C. to spend Christmas with our daughter, son-in-law, granddaughter (2 &1/2 yr. old “Amazing” Grace).  While there I will hold for the first time our 1 month old grandson Sam (a.k.a. “Yosemite”).  Then on the 26th, we will fly to Boston where our five month old grandson son Simon (a.k.a. “Super” Simon) will be baptized on the 27th of December.

Even as baby bonked as I am, I know that the real baby of focus is one named Jesus. Do you remember the oft told story of a “little boy who was given a part in the church Christmas program? It wasn’t much of a part, just one line.  He was to say the angelic announcement:  ‘Behold, I bring you good news of great joy.’  Mom, Dad, everyone in the family helped him learn his line.  He went over and over it till he had it down pat.  The night of the program came; the crowd filled the sanctuary.  It came time for his one line and facing that mass of people he just froze in fear.  Silence descended as everyone waited for him to speak.  Finally, he raised his arms and in a loud voice said, ‘Boy, do I have good news for you!’”

It is a baby and he is born for you! His name is Jesus.  “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:11).

On one level this good news can become too easily a part of our vocabulary and life. The ancients understood a truth we in our niceties seek to avoid.  If all of us in some way or shape have departed from life with God, sinned is the biblical term, then what we justly merit is damnation.  The job failure…it’s just what you deserve; the broken relationship…hey, that’s your problem; the shattered dream…tough luck; the crippling illness…those are the breaks.  Terrorism … what do you expect, sin can be international too.  But such is not the case where God’s good news is heard!

This good news which splits fear asunder is the reason for the season, the birth of a baby who in fact is God with us and for us. The Bible puts it this way: “God proves His love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

On another level this is too incredible to be really believed. Some called it a stumbling block and others sheer foolishness (I Corinthians 1:23).  The sign of a new relationship with God which might rescue us from a field of fear is a homeless baby laid in a cow’s feeding trough?!

All this is at God’s initiative. We don’t will God into coming.  We don’t beg, borrow or steal the Lord’s appearing.  We certainly don’t earn God’s favor.  Yet God comes to us in what is least to be feared – a baby.  What is more helpless than a baby?  What is more in need of love and care than a baby?  What more needs protection and support than a baby?  Yet this is how God enters the world.  All this is good news of great joy!

The great joy of His birth is not a pause in the march of days. It is not a temporary state of caroling good will.  It is a change of relationship.  It is good news of great joy because from hence forth our relationship with God is one of love and not fear, of compassion and not judgment.  We experience great joy because our sins are forgiven by this one whose birth we celebrate.  “To you is born a Savior” (Luke 2:11).

By way of illustration, Dr. James Harnish writes: “Beauty and the Beast is a classic tale of radical transformation.  It’s the story of an angry beast whose only hope of being transformed into a genuine human being is to be loved in his unlovable condition by a beautiful woman.  At first, Beauty is frightened by the Beast’s large stature, his meanness, his power.  But over time, the unearned love of Beauty transforms the Beast into a man” (James Harnish, Come Home for Christmas: An Advent Study for Adults, p. 34).

That transformation process is launched this night by none other than God. It is a renewal of life that is offered to the shepherds terrified in the field.  It is the same new life offered to us in our fields of fear.  Do you remember that line from Robert Frost’s poem “The Death of a Hire Man” in which a person named Warren says, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” This is the great joy we are offered this night; but with one twist, one great reversal.  We don’t have to go to God. God in Christ comes to us.  This is what is meant by salvation.  All the talk of saving has to do with the restoration of a relationship with God; who in divine beauty comes to us as a baby to woo us and love us.  “The angelic chorus anticipates the jubilation which rings throughout the gospel and especially the joy in heaven which Jesus declares to ensue upon rescuing the lost sheep” (G. B. Caird, Saint Luke, p. 61). Jesus put it this way.  “Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10).

One of the great early Christian leaders, a man named Ambrose, put it this way: “He was a baby and a child, so that you may be a perfect human.  He was wrapped in swaddling clothes, so that you may be freed from the snares of death.  He was in a manger, so that you may be in the altar.  He was on earth that you may be in the stars.  He had no other place in the inn, so that you may have many mansions in the heavens.  ‘He, being rich, became poor for your sakes, that through his poverty you might be rich.’ …

“You see that he is in swaddling clothes. You do not see that he is in heaven.  You hear the cries of an infant, but you do not hear the lowing of an ox recognizing its Master, for the ox knows his Owner and the donkey his Master’s crib.”  (Ambrose, from Arthur A. Just Jr., Editor, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament III—Luke, p. 38 [internal quotes, references, 2 Cor 8:9]).

Behold the baby. In Him lies the birth of eternity as earth and heaven touch this night.  Come, enter a Bethlehem stable and lean over the manger.  “It’s a boy!”  And He is for you.

nativity_stained glass

Music as Witness to the Heart of the Gospel ©

Over the past three weeks I have had the privilege of attending three different Advent worship services that were structured around hymns and carols, choral presentations and contemporary praise, full throated singing and quiet prayer music. Each of the three services has brought a deep joy and great blessing to my life.  So too the congregations were blessed and spiritually lifted.

As I mentally gaze back over those services of worship, I am struck again on how music and theology intersect at the heart to the gospel, the core of our faith. In the music, the hymns, carols and praise choruses – we spiritually soar above the shattered landscape of modern living and offer, both to ourselves and to those who do not know Christ, the heart of the gospel.

Today in my devotional time I was reading E. Stanley Jones’ The Way.  This great Christian called attention to Luke 11:9-10. (“And I tell you: Ask and you will receive. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened to you. 10 Everyone who asks, receives. Whoever seeks, finds. To everyone who knocks, the door is opened.”)  Dr. Jones noted that in “asking” we move from question to quest by knocking on the door of faith.  What else can be done in faith but journey metaphorically and spiritual once again to a Bethlehem stable?  What else must be done but to give Him, the Lord, once again our gifts?

As I reflected on this teaching in my own mind I made the connection about the way music itself helps us ask and seek after the heart of the gospel. Music compels us to inquiry and searching through its very beauty.  This is what happened to me as I participated in these three worship experiences.  One of the most evangelistic things a Christian can do is to invite a non- (or nominal) Christian to such a worship.    What great theology and even greater witness is taught in the faith songs of the season!  Consider the witness:

“O come, thou Wisdom from on high, and order all things far and nigh;
To us the path of knowledge show and cause us in her ways to go.”
(“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” Hymn No.211, The United Methodist Hymnal)

 Or

“What child is this who, laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet, while shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste to bring him laud, the baby, the son of Mary.”
(“What Child is This,” Hymn No.219, The United Methodist Hymnal)

Connect the hymn-song witness with the way the Apostle Paul focuses us on the heart of the gospel. “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I didn’t come preaching God’s secrets to you like I was an expert in speech or wisdom. I had made up my mind not to think about anything while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and to preach him as crucified” (I Corinthians 2:1-2).  I suspect Paul could have almost as easily said, “and to preach him born in a manger.”

This is the heart of the gospel. The outrageous claim that the God of the Universe, the Lord of creation itself, was born and “dwelt among us” (literally pitched his tent in our midst! See John 1:14). This too remains at the heart of the gospel witness as expressed in the very closing verses of Holy Scripture.  “I heard a loud voice from the throne say, ‘Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God’” (Revelation 21:3).  It is still true today!

Here revelation is piled on outrage, illuminated by a star, and proclaimed to shepherds and kings; and yes, in music proclaimed again as God’s great truth and even greater love to you and me.

“In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed the Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.”
(“In the Bleak Midwinter,” Hymn No.221, The United Methodist Hymnal)

 

Ministry and Mission Celebrations ©

Amid all of the bad news we hear, often the good news gets lost. Many of us have experienced the reality of two manifestations of the church existing side by side within the same Conference.  On the one hand there are those places of shrinkage, decline and lament.  On the other hand, there are those mission stations of the advancing Kingdom of God (i.e. churches) that are reaching out in new and vital ways to offer Christ by word and deed to our fear soaked world.

In this season of Advent the great hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” becomes our prayer. Consider verse 7:

O Come, Desire of nations bind
all peoples in one heart and mind.
From dust thou brought us forth to life;
deliver us from earthly strife.”
(Hymn No. 211, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” The United Methodist Hymnal)

Advent reminds us not only of the Lord’s coming birth but also to look for signs of God’s presence today! Last week I attended a meeting of the Conference Council of Finance and Administration.  The news was good.  Really good.  Churches are reaching out in all sorts of ways with enhanced ministry and mission to share the love of Christ with others.  We have a great deal of ministry and mission to celebrate.

We celebrate:

  • Two awards from the General Board of Global Ministry (GBGM) and the General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA).
  • The highest Conference giving to Latvia through the Mission Initiative
  • The highest increase in missionary support in the United Methodist Church in 2014 (of 54 US Conferences) through The Advance as a part of General Board of Global Ministry missional outreach. This includes missional effort in a host of different countries (including but not limited to)
    • Kenya
    • Latvia
    • Honduras
    • Panama
    • Mexico
    • Tanzania
    • Congo
    • Macedonia (the Balkans) to name a few
  • The General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) recognition for giving 100% of a Connectional Mission Giving as a part of the worldwide UMC
  • The highest percentage payout through November for Connectional Mission Giving (CMG) since 2008.

This great work of sharing in the name of Christ is not limited to overseas but is taking place in our very midst!

We celebrate:

  • Recognition for CTCYM (Central Texas Conference Youth in Mission) work with recovery in Louisiana
  • Navarro, Williamson, Ellis, Erath Counties flood relief work through the Conference and significant financial support from UMCOR (The United Methodist Committee on Relief, the great disaster relief work of the United Methodist Church globally)
  • Tremendous ongoing ministry through our office of Disaster Response and Volunteers in Mission which includes long-term involvement with places that have suffered from natural disasters (relief and help that stays after others have left!)
  • Partnership with the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference

On top of this great mission and ministry effort I also want to celebrate and gives thanks for the larger connection to the church we call the United Methodist Church. Churches and groups of the Central Texas Conference has engaged in many (!) mission trips at Sager Brown and aid to Louisiana in recovering from floods.  With the news of serious flooding in part of our own Conference here in Texas, I received a check for $7,000 from the Louisiana Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Dr. Don Cottrill, Provost of the Louisiana Conference, wrote:

Enclosed with this letter is a check in the amount of $7,000 made to the Central Texas Conference. This is a donation from the Louisiana Conference to your Conference to assist with the recovery efforts from the recent disasters that have impacted your area and your congregations. Along with this check come our prayers for you, those in leadership of the response efforts, and those personally involved in these disasters.
“The Louisiana Conference remembers with gratitude the response from your Conference Cabinet and membership to our own natural disasters. We know the difference you and many others made to us through prayers, volunteers, and monetary contributions to aid in the long process toward recovery. This is a small way to say ‘thank you’ and to support you in whatever ways are most appropriate.”

In this time of Advent we have much to give thanks for and celebrate! Truly the Lord is leading us!  “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” – God with us!

 

Lament, Challenge and Hope ©

I confess that I had initially written a different blog to share today.  (It will be published on Friday instead.)  However the tragedy of events in San Bernardino, California brought me to a halt.  No doubt as with many of you, I watched transfixed to the broadcast of the events that followed.  As the story of the mass shooting unfolded and more details became known, I found myself engulfed by tragedy, despair and anger.  As one writer put it, shootings feel like the new normal.  Anguish engulfs us once again.

Quieter reflection has brought me to a point of lament, challenge and hope.  Careful readers of the Holy Scriptures know that there is a category of Psalms called simply Psalms of Lament.  Some are corporate, for the nation and people collectively.  Others are more individual in context.  Psalm 42 speaks to my heart and mind at such a time.  It echoes the confusing jumble of my emotions and thoughts.

“Just like a deer that craves streams of water,
my whole being craves you, God.
My whole being thirsts for God, for the living God.
When will I come and see God’s face?
My tears have been my food both day and night,
as people constantly questioned me,
“Where’s your God now?” …

I will say to God, my solid rock,
“Why have you forgotten me?
Why do I have to walk around,
sad, oppressed by enemies?”
10 With my bones crushed, my foes make fun of me,
constantly questioning me: “Where’s your God now?”  (Psalm 42:1-3, 9-10)

The most faithful among us ask, “Where is God?”  The deepest of disciples long for the very presence of the Lord.

In our lament-filled longing, faith calls us to remember we follow a crucified Lord.  God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit is present amidst the bullet riddled terror of the shootings.  Christ is with us as first responders reach out to help.  The Savior’s presence at the epicenter of violence and terror challenges me with a divine calling.

I am challenged to turn away from the worship of violence.  I am challenged by the Savior to seek first the Kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33).  We live in a world that often gives violence a final word.  War haunts our globe.  Terrorism has become a fact of political expression.  Interpersonal violence stalks our streets and infects our families.  It is a short step from the venting of rage verbally (in person or on the internet) to the perpetration of violence as an expression of a false, corrosive righteousness.  Stop and reflect on how many television programs are structured around a violent theme or plot.  We have a cultural fascination with a violence that needs to be repented.

Please hear me carefully.  Prudence in safety and protection is not a bad thing.  Nor am I attempting here to enter the debate about gun control.  Proper measures for protection are good and to be taken.  While I was converted to following Christ as a young adult among the Quakers, I left that group (which I still respect highly today!) because I am not a pacifist.  Christian just war theory offers one faithful avenue for confronting oppression.

Beneath our response and lament, our rage and anguish lies the deeper issue of moral challenge.  We are adrift as a moral culture today.  Again carefully, I am not just referring to America or just to terrorists.  Our world culture is adrift.  We have played fast and loose with a moral relativism that has led us away from the Lord.  Herein lies our challenge.  We must confess reliance on false gods (especially the false gods of violence and self-reliance) and return to the Lord.  This begins with each of us individually and links us corporately together in Christ.

The challenge of returning to a greater faithfulness brings us back to deeper, truer hope.  Let the Psalmist speak again to our world and to us even as we are caught in a horrifying new normal.

“Why, I ask myself, are you so depressed?
Why are you so upset inside?
Hope in God!
Because I will again give him thanks,
my saving presence and my God.” (Psalm 42:11)

Advent Slips In ©

After a great family Thanksgiving celebration, Jolynn and I went to church Sunday morning. I was still basking in the good family time; in the glory of holding my 4 ½ month old grandson (Simon); in the shared joy. I was unprepared for the Scripture lesson that was read. The lay reader opened the Bible and began. “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered” (Luke 2:1).

Advent slipped in and caught me by surprise. There is something utterly prosaic about the Evangelist Luke’s epic account of the birth of our Savior and Lord. Nothing, absolutely nothing, stands out in verse one of the second chapter of this great Gospel (good news!). Taking a census is just a part of the normal business of governments.

So too the season of Advent, a time of preparation for the Savior’s birth, slips into our life and world in this day. The casual reader can almost do their own rewrite. “Today the 147 world leaders gathered in Paris to discuss climate change.” Or, “Today Presidential candidates debated with each other over the economy and immigration issues.” Or, “Today further news on the conflict in Syria dominates the headline.” Or, ….the reader can write their own line.

Advent means the coming or the visitation of someone notable. For Christians the year opens with the season of Advent – the special time of preparation for the coming of the Lord. If you think about it on any kind of deeper level, the claim that the God of the universe visited our world is outlandish, even outrageous, and yet this is precisely the Christian claim. This holy time of preparation slips in almost unnoticed in seasonal preparation.

The author of In Search of the Real Spirit of Christmas, Dan Schaeffer opens his book with a statement I find myself re-reading at the start of Advent: “Each year, millions of people go in search of the real spirit of Christmas. True, some want to find it only so they can try to package it and sell it. But others gaze at the Christmas tree, the presents, and all the decorations and wonder: What is all this really about?” (Dan Schaeffer, In Search of the Real Spirit of Christmas, p. 9).

“Some people,” Schaeffer notes, “are attracted to Christmas the way they’re attracted to a concert or the Super Bowl or the annual Macy’s Christmas parade. …[Others] do sense that there is a deeper holy meaning to this season, which at least temporarily satisfies their spiritual longings. The shared excitement and anticipation are such wholesome emotions that many are attracted to the celebration of Christmas even when they don’t really know what it’s all about. … In other words, … they are like people at weddings who laugh louder and drink more than anyone else, and yet are not really close friends of either the bride or groom. They’ve been invited because they work with the bride or groom or are friends of the couple’s parents . . . but they have no real interest in the two who have just gotten married. Their real interest is in the celebration” (p. 17-18).

Writes Schaeffer, “This is the essential difference between those who possess the real Christmas spirit and those who don’t. If you removed the trees, and the lights, and the poinsettias, and the decorations, and the presents, and the food, and the music, those with the real Christmas spirit would still celebrate” (p.18).

Quietly Advent comes amidst all the noise and commotion of our normal celebration. It invites us to pause and truly reflect on what it means to celebrate and give thanks to God. It also challenges us deeply to reflect upon the notion of whether or not I am (we are) ready to receive the Christ child.

Advent slips in and lodges in the corner of my mind calling me to prayer and reflection. When I think about it, when I really reflect on what we Christians think we are doing in the days leading up to December 25th, I am struck silent. As someone once said the claim of the incarnation, of God with us in the person of Jesus, seems almost too good to be true and also to true to be good.

I rummage through the half-formed shopping list I am struggling to put together for family – Jolynn (wife), two adult children and two adult children-in-law, now three grandchildren (Grace, Simon, and new born Samuel …. Or as I call him Yosemite Sam!), Mom and Dad, my brothers and sister-in-law – I find myself wondering what I should get Jesus this season, this celebration of coming, his Advent. In reflection once more the power of His advent slips into my heart and messes with my mind.

The Lord calls and fumbling I attempt to reply. Often we picture God as far off and removed, as distant and uncaring. We embrace the frivolities and parties of Christmas as if for a brief period of time to forget the harsh reality of our world. But Advent slips in almost unaware upon us. In worship and reflection, we come face to face with a God who knows the world’s hostility in its full force and yet enters in as a baby. Martin Luther used to always say that this is the real miracle of Christianity. God enters not to judge but save; not to damn but to love; not to reject but to reclaim us and our hurting world. This is the character and nature of God.

I am called to a time of preparation. Am I ready to receive Him?