Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Vikings ... no, not those Vikings!

Just finished watching the Vikings beat up on the Philadelphia Eagles. Boy, was THAT fun! But this post has nothing to do with that game, or even with football.

On Christmas Day, I won the my-side-of-the-family white elephant gift exchange. That is, if you don't count my sister, who walked away with a gross of contraband bottle rockets. But I got the decorative viking ship -- well, half a viking ship, designed to hang on the wall as a symbol of all things Scandinavian, or all things medieval, or all things daring and courageous. Or something. The ship is about three feet long. Standing in the prow is the leader of the company of adventurers. He bears a spear and sports a beard and looks past the prow into the future. In the stern is the steersman, responding to the directions of the leader and using his brawny arms to shift the rudder back and forth. With these subtle changes, slowly, he turns the ship. In the bottom of the ship are the oarsmen, each bending his back to move the ship forward with long oars. These oars are striking the blades to the waves in perfect tandem, directed by the rhythm of a song or a drumbeat. One of the miraculous facets of this cheesy piece of mass produced Scandinavian wall decor is that each of these oarsmen has an individual face. Some are clean-shaven, others bearded, others with long sideburns. Some have long hair, others short, some with hats and others bare-headed. Some are old and grim, others young and smiling. Each one also has a unique shield. This viking ship is a tawdry tribute to my ancestors of a millennium ago who went a-viking across Europe as raiders, traders, explorers, and adventurers.

I'm going to hang it on the wall of my office.

One of the earliest metaphors for the Christian church is a ship. In fact, the name for the main part of a church -- the "nave" -- comes from a Latin word for ship, the same word we get "navy" from. Why a ship? Lots of reasons. It's a rich metaphor, and it grows richer as you dig into it. A ship contains a crew all united toward a common goal. The crew shares a common mission, but each person has their own diverse role to play. The ship is buffeted by adverse weather, often in danger of being overcome.

I think of those viking mariners from a thousand years ago and I think we need to rediscover a bit of their spirit in the church of Jesus Christ. What would it mean for us to be willing to take risks, to accept challenges, to go beyond the carefully charted shorelines into vast unknown waters? What would that mean for us as a church?

One of the sacred duties of any ship throughout history has been to aid those who have been shipwrecked or who are in danger on the sea. So we in the church have a sacred duty to help those who are adrift, foundering, lost.

If you see a ship in port or at anchor, there's no turbulence in the waters around it. But as soon as that ship starts to move, the water around it begins to swirl and rage. So those in leadership in the church would do well to remember that if you're going to get your ship out of port, it's going to encounter some turbulence.

These are just a few of the parallels between ships and the church. Can you think of others?

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Calm before the silent night

It is a quiet morning here, December 23rd, and soon I will go into work. I was up late last night, a gift from my eldest daughter who was spending the evening (translation: for college students, "evening" starts about 9 pm and means anything up to and including 1 am) at a friend's house. Between icy roads, last minute changes in plans, and a schedule that allows me to go in to work a little later today (translation: for adults, "a little later" means anything after 6 am and up to 9 am, a time period that for college students is referred to as "some ungodly hour of the morning") I ended up waiting up for her. I trust my daughter, and I am glad she gets to spend some time with her friend, and she was very good about checking in with us to let us know what she was doing. So this "waiting up" business is my problem, not hers.

I received an email this morning from a young woman, Kristina, whose work I have posted on this blog in the past. She just emailed a retrospective piece about her recent three weeks in Thailand working with children's homes and agricultural missionaries and volunteering at a ministry that helps women avoid or escape from sex trafficking. Now she is back in Singapore at her school with a very few other students who will remain over the Christmas break.

She has me thinking today. What does it mean to be radically committed to Jesus?

Kristina challenges me in this way. Her obvious sacrifices -- leaving home and family and traveling literally to the other side of the world, not being home for Christmas, giving of herself and her time and her energy to go serve people whose language she does not know -- these obvious sacrifices make me wonder about my own heart. When Jesus says, "Sell all that you have, give money to the poor, and come, follow me," how do I respond? I live in an enormous house. My income goes largely to my stomach, my family's stomachs, and the stomachs of my two dogs, hamster, and thirteen runner ducks. I own a riding lawn mower, for crying out loud. It's a long way from the days when, somewhat like Kristina, I could load everything in the back of my '70 Impala and travel halfway across the country because I was convinced God told me to.

Truth is, I'm middle aged, firmly rooted, and well established in one place. Does that let me off the hook?

I don't think so.

A poster that I saw in college, one that I think of frequently, read like this: "The secret of life is this: to be ready at any moment to give up all that you are for the sake of all that you may become." It haunts me a bit, but it also reminds me to hold these things -- including my riding lawn mower -- loosely. The challenge for me right now is to live here, to live now, in the full knowledge that "for me to live is Christ, and to die is gain," as Paul wrote to the Philippians. So how do I let Christ live in and through me here and now? Jesus calls people different directions at different times, and sometimes he calls people to give themselves away in one grand sweeping gesture. Sometimes he calls people to put down roots, to lose their lives in one community, in one family, in one ever-growing tangle of Spirit-driven relationships. Truth is, you are most able to make a difference when you choose to invest your life -- not just a moment, but your life -- in a place for Jesus' sake. Am I willing to die here if that is Jesus' call? Absolutely. In the meantime I invest in things that matter -- people of all shapes and sizes. I invest in my daughters, yes, and in my wife (who I see growing day by day into her callings from God ... why is it easier to see Jesus working in her life sometimes than it is in my own?) but I also invest in friendships and ministry relationships and mentoring people. I am invested in the lives of three different orphans in Njombe, Tanzania.

For those of us called to follow Jesus into America, complacency is a constant battle. It is too easy to forget that this life is about him, not about me, and that I am no less a missionary here -- not because I am a pastor but because I belong to Jesus -- than Kristina has been one in Thailand for the last three weeks.

I'm quite sure God has called me here and now. As tempting as it is sometimes to ditch it all and make some grand commitment to Jesus by haring off to Azerbaijan, here is where he's called me. Of course, there may yet be places in my life he wants to change -- things he wants to add or take away, places in my heart that need to be killed or resurrected. So I struggle to stay close to him, to give him access to every part of my life and my soul so that he can shape me as he wants. I struggle to see my life and the culture in which I live through his eyes. I come back again and again to the manger, to the cross, so that I keep my eyes focused on Jesus and not on myself. And as I fall over and over and over again and get caught up in selfishness, in complacency, I return again and again to be broken and redirected by Jesus.

That is, after all, what it means to call him "Lord."

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Alpha Celebration

Had an Alpha Celebration Supper tonight at Central. For those who haven't been a part of it, Alpha is a ten-week introduction to the Christian faith. People share a meal, hear a talk that is humorous, interesting, and informative, helping them to understand what the Bible teaches about a particular topic -- who is Jesus, maybe, or what about prayer? After the talk they get together in groups where they have the opportunity to say, "Here's what the speaker said -- but this is what I think!" As they share their opinions and questions over a ten week period, a couple things happen. One, people develop significant friendships. Two, in many cases people come to know Jesus in a personal way as they investigate what the Bible says about him.

At the end of the ten weeks, we have a meal together and tell stories about what God has done over the last several weeks. It is always an amazing time to hear how God has been working and to recognize that all the work, all the setting up tables and washing dishes and leading small groups and preparing meals and caring for kids and all the rest was worth it. Tonight was no exception.

But tonight we did something extra. After the supper and the celebrating was all done, many of us moved into the church sanctuary and sat around the Christmas tree. We sang carols, many that the kids requested (including "The First Noel," "Winter Wonderland," "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer," and "Silent Night," all of which were requested by the kids) and just enjoyed some good tradition building time.

Not a bad way to spend the Saturday evening before Christmas!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Got quoted

My good friend and partner-in-heresy quotes an email exchange we had a couple years ago, on a topic we haven't touched in a long time on this blog. Check out Curt's blog here.

A Good Word

I haven't had much time or energy to post on this blog lately so I'm sharing another excellent devotional by my colleague Leon Stier. Find more of his meditations at www.emailmeditations.com


Bill had lived a blessed life. In high school he was a good student and star athlete, and he then did well in college. He enlisted and went to Vietnam where he served with distinction. He returned to his small town a hero. He took over his dad’s farm, the biggest in the area, and made it even larger and more successful. He had a wonderful wife and three healthy children. He had a nice new house and money to travel. At age 42 he was envied by all. Yet, he was hopelessly depressed. He did not understand it. He had everything he ever wanted, everything he had worked so hard for. He had always been happy and loved to work, but now he had no ambition and no desire to live.

Bill had always been a member of the church, and he went when he felt like it. He had been confirmed and knew the basics of the faith. If you were to ask Bill questions about the Christian faith, he would give all the right answers; Believe in God? Yes. Believe in Jesus? Yes. Believe Jesus rose from the dead? Yes. Believe God is with you always? Yes. Believe God forgives your sins? Yes-- and so on. Bill would know all the right answers and believe all the right things. But Bill had paid little attention to God or his Word, and now those words gave him no hope or strength. They were as ‘idle words’ to him.

Our grasp of God’s promises is always incomplete and we all fail to take hold of all the hope and joy that is our to have. And we know that despair can overwhelm anyone, even people of great faith like Jeremiah or Elijah or Luther. They all went through times of deep despair, but they were sustained in their despair by God’s Word. But Bill, who had always paid little attention to that Word, now found it to be of little comfort in his affliction. Bill’s salvation may not be lost. That is another question. He does believe in Jesus. But it is clear that he is getting no comfort from God’s Word right now. He is not like the Roman centurion, ready to take Jesus at his word. Bill has God’s word on so many things, but it is to him only an ‘idle word,’ giving him no strength or hope.

Ruth, on the other hand, though she had much to be depressed about, was not depressed at all. Ruth was 62 years old and dying of cancer. She did not like talking about her illness. People could see she was not well and they had heard it was cancer. But Ruth evaded their questions and just talked about everyday things. People said of Ruth, “She is in denial and not facing up to the truth about her condition. She is dying, but she will not admit it.”

I didn’t think that was true, but I wasn’t sure. I was Ruth’s pastor, but she did not talk to me about her illness either. Then one day she called for an appointment. Ruth came to my office with her well worn Bible in hand and said, “Pastor, I want to discuss with you some things about my funeral. I don’t have much time left and I wanted to do this while I am still able.” Ruth then gave me a list of hymns she wanted sung at her funeral, telling me why each one meant so much to her. She then listed several Bible verses she wanted read, and she had something to say about each of them. Then Ruth said she had an idea for a sermon text if I would want to use it. She opened her Bible to Joshua 23:14 where Joshua was speaking to the people one last time before his death. He said to them, “Now I am about to go the way of all the earth. You know with all your heart and soul that not one of all the promises the Lord your God gave you has failed. Every promise has been fulfilled; not one has failed.”

That is a wonderful verse, but someone could have argued with Ruth about the selection of that verse. No promise has ever failed her? Ruth had much to be disappointed about. Her death would mean that her many fervent prayers for healing would go unanswered, and she would be dead before her 63rd birthday. Her husband had just retired after many years with the railroad, many hard years when he would be gone all week every week. Now they had the money and the time to enjoy life together, but now, her life would soon be ending. They had always wanted a family, but they were not blessed with children. They had lived in poverty for so many years and had endured so many disappointments. Now, finally, all was in order, but now their life together would soon be over. Yet, to summarize her life, Ruth chose these words from God’s Word: “Every promise has been fulfilled.” Ruth had already listed some of those promises when she told me the Bible verses she wanted read at her funeral; promises like, “Whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord...these slight and momentary afflictions are achieving for us an eternal weight of glory, for what is seen is temporary but what is unseen is eternal...Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for though are with me...” These and other verses just flowed from within Ruth’s heart and soul. These were not ‘idle words’ to her, they were her hope and strength and joy even in that most hopeless and sad situation. It is a great blessing to see someone die well like that, able to face death not with fear and self-pity, but with gratitude for the life she did receive, with courage to face the uncertainty and the coming pain, and with an eternal hope that not even death could destroy.

The Roman centurion said to Jesus, “Just give the word” (yesterday's meditation). That was all he needed. He would trust in the power of that word. In the end, all Ruth had was that word, but it was enough. It was enough because after a lifetime of looking to that word every day, she had learned to depend on it. And that word did not desert her. “These are not idle words; they are your life.”

Bill, you remember, had everything-- everything, that is, except that Word-- and he was sad and without hope. Ruth, on the other hand, had nothing left-- but she did have God’s Word, and with that Word she was strong, confident, and full of hope.


Deuteronomy 32:46-47 -- Moses said, “Take to heart all the words I have solemnly declared to you this day...They are not just idle words for you, they are your life.” (NIV)

Joshua 23:14 -- (Joshua said), "Now I am about to go the way of all the earth. You know with all your heart and soul that not one of all the promises the Lord your God gave you has failed. Every promise has been fulfilled; not one has failed." (NIV)

Romans 10:17 -- ...Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ. (NIV)


Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. --Book of Common Prayer

Friday, December 10, 2010

Lessons learned

I learned something yesterday.

Never use a blowtorch in the living room.

You'd think this would be obvious, but it never occurred to me that superheating things -- specifically a glass bottle that then exploded in spectacular ways -- over the coffee table and the living room carpet could turn out badly. Duh.

So, lesson learned, I'm (hopefully) doing two things today. First, I'm trying to figure out how to fix stuff so my wife doesn't have to live with a damaged domicile. Second, I'm trying to figure out how to remember this lesson and even apply it in other areas of life so I don't make the same kind of mistakes again.

One thing that has occurred to me as I'm living with the aftermath. How often do we do things like this in other areas of life? Figuratively speaking, many of us carry an emotional blowtorch into the living rooms of our lives and we end up doing lots of damage in the relationships most important to us. Why not figure out an appropriate setting to use that emotional blowtorch, and find ways to protect those close relationships? The people around us get used to our emotional blowtorch going off and when it starts to heat up, they either strike first (preemptive vengeance?) or they avoid us in order to avoid the explosion.

Some of us do the same thing on a spiritual level. When God starts to work in our lives, we find ways to create a crisis rather than let him do his work. The crisis is distracting and prevents us from having to face difficult truths about our selves.

So I'm still debriefing, but here's a question: What's your equivalent of a blowtorch in the living room? Can you choose to deal with that blowtorch -- whether it's explosive emotions, spiritual avoidance, or whatever -- in a way that's appropriate, that respects the people around you, and that gives God freedom to work in your life?

I've got to go plan a coffee table refinishing project.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Eternal Hope

I subscribe to a series of email meditations written by Leon Stier, our visitation pastor at Central. Leon has a deep faith and a great sense of the communion of saints that have gone before us, and the gift they leave us in their legacy of prayers and devotional writings. Here is his meditation from yesterday. You can find more of his writings here.

Sometimes when faced with tragedy or trouble we comfort ourselves by saying, “Oh well, it could have been worse;” or, “At least it is not as bad as what happened to that family down the street;” or, we may say, “Being in the hospital was tough, but I saw there a lot of people with far more troubles than I.” It is good to remember that others also suffer, and, these kinds of comparisons can give some comfort. But in Romans 8:35 Paul goes beyond that kind of comparative comfort. He first describes some of the very worst things that can happen, and then he says, ‘Not even these things can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.’ Look at the troubles Paul lists-- persecution, famine, nakedness, the sword, and more. It doesn’t get much worse than that; no food, no clothes, danger on every side-- and Paul endured those hardships much of the time. But even so, Paul was filled with confident hope and could proclaim, “Not even all this can separate us from God, but in all those things we are more than conquerors through him who loves us.” And in verse 38 he says not even death will separate us from God. In fact, it is death that brings us into God’s home. As an old hymn attributed to St. Francis expresses it, “And you, most kind and gentle death, waiting to hush our final breath; you lead to heaven the child of God, where Christ our Lord the way has trod."
We are all on a journey to God, and on the earthly part of that journey God is with us providing comfort and strength and assurance amidst all our troubles. But when the very worst does come, death ends only the earthly part of our journey, and we then continue on in God’s heavenly home. So, Paul says, we will never be separated from God’s love.
Sometimes we limit our trust in God to this time and place. Once is a while we hear things like, “Just trust God, he’ll make sure you get better;” or, “just trust God, he will make sure you get what you are praying for.” But I don’t think Paul would say that. Yes, we must certainly trust God in and for all things. But it is an immature faith that thinks trusting God means that God will always give you everything on your list, as if your will was always perfectly in line with his. God’s will for us may be very different from our own wishes, and a more mature faith will trust in God even when it seems he is not there at all; even when it seems God contradicts our personal preferences. God will, as it says in Romans 8:28, work out all things for the good of those that love him, but we must remember that God has all eternity to work things out, and not just the 70 or 80 years of your life here.
Antonio Parr, the narrator in Frederick Buechner’s novel
Lion Country, must watch his sister die of a rare disease that leaves her bones brittle and breaking with even the slightest pressure. As she is dying, and as more bones break, her pain becomes unbearable. Antonio must watch her suffer, and also see his two little nephews lose their mother at such a young age. His faith is shaken as he begins to question the truth of all those Bible verses about God’s love and care. But Antonio does continue to trust in this God that he cannot understand. He says, “I didn’t like the thought of God being the one who had broken Miriam’s bones, but... I decided that he had always been one to play rough, and if the last word was really going to be one of rejoicing, I could forgive him almost anything.”
Why God plays so rough, and whether God causes the troubles or simply allows them to happen, are other topics for other times. The Bible does have some things to say about that, too. As we read the stories of the great men and women of the Bible we see that yes indeed, God does allow much trouble to come into their lives. But we also see that God does get the last word, and he has promised that it will be a word of rejoicing for all who have believed in Him. As the German preacher Helmut Thielicke said in several of his sermons during World War II, sermons often interrupted by air raids and bombs: “He who possesses the last hour, need not fear the next minute.”
Before going into combat a soldier asked the chaplain if his prayers for safety would guarantee that he would not be harmed by bombs or bullets. The chaplain replied that faith in God made a man sure and certain of the most important thing, which is that even if his body was shattered, his soul would be untouched and safe. We know that many soldiers in every war have prayed for protection, but many of them did not make it home. We know that every day many prayers in many hospitals are not answered with health and recovery. But our trust is in a God who is bigger than life itself. Death for God is nothing more than one of the many problems that he will one day put an end to forever. On that day, death itself will die.
There is the old saying, ‘Where there is life, there is hope,’ but with faith in Jesus we can say, ‘Where there is death, there is hope there, too.’


Romans 8:35, 37 -- Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?... No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

Romans 14:7-8 -- For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. (NIV)

Hebrews 13:6 -- So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?” (NIV)


Let no riches or poverty make me ever forget you, Lord: let no hope or fear, no pleasure or pain, no accident without, no weakness within; hinder my duty, or turn me from the ways of your commandments. O let your Spirit dwell with me forever, and make my soul just and charitable, full of honesty, full of religion, resolute and constant in holy purposes, but inflexible to evil. Make me humble and obedient, peaceable and pious: let me never envy any man’s good, nor deserve to be despised myself: and if I am despised, teach me to bear it with meekness and charity. Amen.
--Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667)

Monday, December 6, 2010


Molasses in wintertime. When people used to use molasses and homes weren't heated to seventy degrees year round, "molasses in wintertime" was an expression meaning slow, ponderous, lethargic.

It's how I've been feeling lately. (That's probably why regular followers of this blog have been finding nothing new for several days!) Seems like I hit this every year in early December. Maybe it's the decreasing light, but I don't think so. Winter nights are great times for Scrabble and for reading and for watching good movies -- three of my favorite activities. I've noticed, too, that I have a great deal of energy for getting out in the snow (what a great year this is turning out to be for snow!) to get in an afternoon of late-season bowhunting.

I think I'm having a Very Hard Time the first week in December as the world launches headlong into "Deck the Halls" and every possible Trans-Siberian Orchestra Christmas Hit. (I like TSO, by the way) ... I just can't keep up with this mad dash to Santa Claus. And I really don't want to. I'm not ready for tinsel and garlands and presents under the tree. I don't want to think nostalgically about being home for Christmas. I get ready for Christmas right around December 20th. I'm not a Scrooge -- I really do enjoy Christmas, but I wish it started around the third week in December (instead of November or in the case of Retail, the god of self-indulgent consumerism, October) and lasted through the first couple days of the New Year. Like the Twelve Days of Christmas was originally supposed to be -- December 25th through Epiphany, January 6th.

I used to be evangelical about these beliefs, trying to persuade people that they shouldn't do Christmas stuff until the holiday was actually close. I've given that up. I don't even try to squash my own family's early season enthusiasm, though occasionally I do feel the need to grunt and walk out of the room when people are talking about shopping, or to insist on Driver's Privilege and turn the radio off the "All Christmas, All the Time" stations. My internal clock won't hit Christmas for about two weeks yet. And I think that's okay.

We are putting up the tree tonight, though if I get my way it will remain a stately evergreen standing watch over our living room and we'll put up the actual decorations this weekend. We'll see. I might get outvoted, or maybe my family will indulge me for a day or two. About this time in December I usually surrender a little easier. It's a slow process of giving in to a holiday that storms through our culture like a fast-moving freight train.

What a contrast to a poverty-born baby, delivered in the press of a Roman census, unremarked except by his parents and a few shepherds.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Two sides of a coin

When John the Baptist appeared along the Jordan River, he came proclaiming, according to Mark and Luke, a baptism of "repentance and the forgiveness of sins." It strikes me that these two things -- repentance and forgiveness -- are the essential framework of the Christian message. In fact, when Jesus appears to his disciples after his resurrection at the end of Luke's gospel, he tells them that repentance and forgiveness of sins must be proclaimed through all the world. And when Peter is preaching a few weeks later on the day of Pentecost, he tells his hearers to repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins.

Baptism is an important ingredient here, too, but for the moment let's look at repentance and forgiveness.

Many Christian traditions, and many individual Christians, choose to focus on one or the other of these. Some people are repentance-focused: "I'm so bad. I did wrong. Please forgive me, Jesus. I failed. I am a sinner." There is a hopelessness to this expression. There's little if any joy involved. This "faith" is more like chronic depression.

Other people jump right to forgiveness without doing any repenting. "I'm free! I'm victorious! I'm joyful! Jesus loves me and he wants me to be happy!" There's a joy not only without sorrow but without seriousness, like a perpetual sugar high.

When Jesus calls people to follow him, he calls us to both repentance and forgiveness. In fact, repentance becomes the entrance to the Christian experience, and forgiveness becomes the experience of unimpeded fellowship with God.

So what is repentance? In Greek the word is metanoia, and it literally means to turn around. So what we described earlier as repentance -- feeling bad, emotionally beating one's self up -- is not really repentance at all, because it doesn't involve any turning. Repentance recognizes my error, and then turns away from it. When I recognize the place I have fallen short, I bring that sin to the foot of Jesus' cross in prayer. In that encounter with Jesus I receive a clear word of forgiveness, a costly forgiveness that buys my freedom at the price of Jesus' blood. At times I am tempted, because forgiveness is so costly, to want to cling to my sins, not to burden God with them. But this is foolish, for even the smallest sins are a burden too great for me to bear. And the love of Jesus that put him on the cross is limitless. So his desire for me, and the best thing for me to do, is to go freely and often to the cross in repentance, confessing my shortcomings, laying my faults at the foot of the cross, and as best I can turning from those faults and surrendering to Jesus, asking God to change me when I cannot change myself.

When I rise up from the cross, I turn to the risen Jesus, victorious over death and hell, who gives me the free gift of forgiveness, life and salvation. Because, as Luther said, where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation. Coming in humility to the cross opens to me the life that Jesus longs to give me. This is why he paid the price of giving his life -- not so I can squeak into heaven, hanging my head at the entrance and hoping to just get through the closing doors -- but so that I can come to him in confidence, knowing his love, and freely receiving from him the greatest gift I can imagine, the gift he longs to give more than anything.

It is this new life God longs to pour into our hearts by his Spirit, but our sin prevents us from receiving. We are like empty corked bottles longing to be filled. Our sin is the cork that needs to be removed by the corkscrew of the cross so that God's Spirit can be poured into us. And the trouble with us is, we keep re-corking ourselves! This is why repentance is not a one-time event but a returning, morning after morning, day after day, to the cross. And repeatedly we rise up forgiven, renewed, enlivened.

You can't have new life (forgiveness) without repentance; you can't live in real repentance for any length of time without rising up renewed. They're like two sides of a coin that rotates through our lives.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Advent Meditations

Have you found a way to focus yet? A way to bring your heart and your mind into Advent, the time when we prepare for Jesus' coming?

For those of you who are looking for a way to do just that, here is a series of twelve reflections on the Christmas story from Luke 2 that I wrote on this blog last year. I won't repost them, but they're printed as a unit, all twelve in one document, in the "pages" section of this blog. Feel free to read them all at once or (better yet) come back to the page every couple days as a way to keep your heart and mind turning toward Jesus' arrival at Christmas.

A parable, sort of

Whether you're Norwegian or not, bear with me for a minute.

Some of us, at family gatherings, argue about lefse. Not just how to spell it ("lefsa" or "lefse" -- my spell check doesn't recognize either version) but how to eat it. White sugar and butter? Brown sugar? White sugar and cinnamon? Heated or cold? Ask people how they like to eat lefse and you'll get a startling variety of responses.

In some families, however, you'll find a whole different level of questions. Ask the question, "How do you like to eat lefse?" and some family members will respond, "What's lefse?" In the Scandinavian ghetto where I grew up, everyone knew what lefse was and everyone ate it the right way -- with butter and white sugar, of course. But as I moved out into the world, I found that not only were there people who ate lefse differently, but there were people who didn't even know what it was. (Me, in the bakery at the local grocery store in Port Orchard, Washington: "It's sort of like a tortilla made out of potatoes ..." Grocery store guy: "You're kidding.")

I was recently at a gathering with several other pastors. Since one of my hobbies is listening in on other people's conversations, I spent a good deal of time comparing things. I noticed that there were two kinds of conversations happening around me. In one set of conversations, we discussed Holden Evening Prayer vs. Taize, albs vs. no vestments, the Heidelberg Disputations vs. the Augsburg Confession. The other set of conversations revolved around one simple question: How do we connect a dying world to Jesus, the giver of Life?

Often Christians are guilty of majoring in the minors. Contemporary vs. traditional worship? NIV vs. NRSV vs. KJV vs. ESV? Arminianism vs. Calvinism? Predestination vs. Open Theism? Seven Day Creation vs. Theistic Evolution? Wooden pulpits vs. Plexiglass? Hymnals vs. projected words? Transubstantiation vs. Real Presence vs. Meal of Remembrance?

I know, I know, I'm going to get angry emails from people telling me that these things are Really Important. And in some sense, they are. But they are important in the sense that it's important to know the difference between a dogpaddle and an Australian Crawl if you're going to compete in the Olympics. If all you need to do is get to the riverbank so you don't drown, it's not an important question. Christians need to realize that our main job is to introduce people to Jesus, what the Bible calls "making disciples." It is not our primary task to teach these disciples the difference between the Council of Chalcedon and the Council of Trent.

So, for example, one of the arguments that rages this time of year between Christians is this: How soon is it appropriate to start using Christmas carols in worship? Some will say December 24th is as early as it should happen. Until then we sing "O Come O Come Emmanuel" and "On Jordan's Banks the Baptist's Cry" and such. Others say that once Thanksgiving is over, it's fair to sing "O Come All Ye Faithful" and all the rest. What if we quit arguing about such trivia and asked instead, how can I best invite those who don't know Jesus this Advent to know him?

Such a question might rock our churches. But then, they might need to be rocked.

Pass the lefse.