Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Advent: Slowing down on purpose

This Sunday is the beginning of Advent.

It's a season of preparation. Of expectation. Of contemplation.

Each season, I make an effort to make the weeks before Christmas meaningful. Most often, I fail.

But after reading Addie Zierman's great post with an idea for creating an Advent journal, as well as offering several books to help, I'm motivated to try again.

Here's my own thoughts on handling Advent:

1. Slow down, on purpose.

Sometimes we're encouraged to slow down. Take in easy. Smell the roses, One day at a time. Be in the moment.

I'm not discouraging any of these actions. But sometimes I think they miss the point, which is: To slow down in order to come to a sharper focus.

Being purposeful isn't the same as being aware.

The whole idea is to set yourself up to realize that...

2. Preparation is the key.

A good stand-up comedian tells good jokes. Good comedians realize that the set-up is actually more important that the punch line. Comedians who tell funny stories make them funny because they take the time to set up the story.

So the pay off actually comes from the set up, not the punch line.

Take a look at the stories that Jesus told. He was a great story teller because his preparation was strong. He helped his audience...

3. Pay attention.

This may seem contradictory to #1, but it isn't.

Being purposeful sets the stage for paying attention.

In the morning and evening I practice centering prayer. It's a very simple form of mediation during which time I sit down, close my eyes, ask God to cover me, and then focus on one aspect of God's character. (I focus on God as Abba, or Father). So, I spend about 25 minutes breathing in and breathing out slowly, each time I breath in, I say the word "Abba" silently.

It's a way to purposefully approach God and pay attention. And it helps sharpen my spiritual focus for the day.

4. Look for the little things.

Already there is Christmas music playing at the local supermarket. The Christmas decorations have been up for at least a week.

In Western culture, there's a rush to the Christmas season that is the direct antithesis of Advent. And much of it distracts from what we're supposed to be looking forward to in the first place.

Looking for the little things during Advent helps to keep the distractions at bay. 

Little things, like the absolute peace on a child's face while they're worshiping in your home church. The selah moments, in between worship songs, that are golden opportunities to bring your heart before God and have a spirit-to-spirit encounter. Giving a hug to a friend as you realize how much they mean to you. Pausing to smile and say hello to the Salvation Army volunteer running the giving kettle before putting in your donation.

All these little moments help prepare our souls for commemorating the gift of our Savior's birth.

5. Give thanks.

Ann Voskamp wrote the book on this subject. (It's called A Thousand Gifts). 

Her basic point is to develop a lifestyle of giving thanks by actively looking for things to be thankful for. 

It's sort of an extension of #4, but with the intent of being mindfully thankful.

There are tons of reasons to be thankful. It puts you in a positive frame of mind. It's an extremely healthy thing to do. And it feeds (strengthens) your soul.

Advent presents a perfect opportunity to practice giving thanks. 

Voskamp suggests keeping a journal to track the things you're thankful for. 

No matter how you decide to celebrate Advent, I pray that you'll take advantage of this golden opportunity to prepare your heart for the coming of God's Son.

Photo Credit: www.evandolive.com

Saturday, November 21, 2015

You can't shame others into caring.

Like many people, I've been following the refugee crisis. And the attacks in Paris.

Of all the things I've read this post by Seth Haines really spoke volumes to me.

I also came across a magnificent tweet sent out encouraging us not to shame others because they don't happen to support a particular social justice cause. That was powerful as well.

At some point yesterday I became frustrated when I found out that my own government (the House of Representatives) had passed a resolution to "slow down" the immigration process on the Syrian refugees that President Obama has pledged to welcome.

I was so upset that when I found an article that supported my position, I immediately posted it on Facebook - without really taking a good look at the headline, which congratulated the French on their courage to commit to bringing in 30,000 Syrian refugees; but also took a shot at the Republican (U.S.) party.

Last night I felt ashamed that I had allowed myself to play the political card. I had allowed my zeal for helping others to cross the line into trying to shame those who didn't happen to share my point of view.

This morning on Facebook, I posted an apology.

At it's core, the Syrian refugee crisis, like every refugee crisis, is a humanitarian issue. Residents of a country leave their homes in hope of welcome elsewhere. They have left because it isn't safe to stay. 

Once they have crossed over the border, the politics that sent them running turns into an opportunity to help the homeless and downtrodden, the widow, orphan and entire families that no longer have the basics of human existence.

After arriving at this conclusion, I had to dig a bit deeper and realize that not everyone is going to take on the refugee crisis as a social justice issue. The fact that there are over 60,000,000 individuals who are now refugees, and half of them are children doesn't always elicit a sympathetic response.

I am beginning to understand that.

So, rather than spend my time focusing on the politics of it, or trying to shame others into agreeing with my point of view, I am going to see the refugee situation as an opportunity to extend grace to people who no longer have a home.

According to the Bible, grace is unmerited favor. It's love and mercy extended that isn't earned. It's unconditional.  And the current refugee crisis presents a wonderful opportunity to show others God's grace in a powerful way. 

That is the message I choose to share.

Photo Credit: www.abc11.com

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

My church doesn't need me

A good friend on Twitter recently re-tweeted a post by Stephen Jones titled Why I Stopped Going to Church.

It's a great, thought-provoking read, And it motivated me to examine why I continue to go to church, the same church, after 29 years. What follows are reasons that readily come to mind.

1. I don't know everything there is to know about God.

Not even close. The teaching I receive each week is usually solid and causes me to think about things I would ordinarily put on the back burner. I am not a spiritually sophisticated person, and need others to keep pointing the way to a deeper relationship with God.

2. I need fellowship. 

By nature, I'm an introvert, not naturally gravitating towards groups or community. My home church offers a perfect opportunity to get together with some pretty amazing folks. There is even a built in break between the two services, called Intersection, where fellowship is encouraged.

3. It's good to worship God together. 

The apostle Paul encouraged us not to neglect the "assembling of the saints." Being part of a group of people who are gathered, focused on God, singing out to God, is powerful stuff. Oftentimes the worship leader will pause in-between songs and encourage us to focus on a particular aspect of God. It's like having spiritual laser surgery that cuts away the dross from my soul.

4. God speaks to me at church.

Through the teaching, the worship, the encouragement from the worship leader, even during the Intersection (fellowship time) God speaks. And it isn't always in the same way. Sometimes it's a two minute conversation with a friend that turns the day around. Sometimes it's a worship song that hits my thirsty soul. Sometimes it's a sentence within the teaching that grabs me and motivates me to go deeper in relationship with God. Which leads us to the final point.

5. My church doesn't need me.

The fact is, my home church would get along just fine without me. But I would not be the same person without them! 29 years worth of teaching, fellowship and friendship has brought me closer to God. My walk with God would not be as consistent or deep without the members in my home church walking along with me.

Yes, I'm part of a couple of ministry teams (teaching Kids' Church and the Prayer Team). So technically I give back to my church. But on any Sunday, I get much more out of being with the kids, and praying for others, than I give. 

That's the way God works, isn't it?

We seek God and we find out that God meets us in service to others. It is in community that aspects of God are revealed that allow us to go deeper in relationship that add up to stronger "alone" times with God.

What do you think? I'm curious!!!

Photo Credit: www.time.com

Monday, November 16, 2015

Will we always have Paris?

I was talking with my sister about the Paris attacks.

The focus came around to how do you respond to pure hate? Hate that is intent on total destruction to the point that to sacrifice your own life (i.e. as a suicide bomber) becomes a holy act.

ISIS sees Western culture as the enemy. So much so that they are blind to their own hypocrisy.

A hypocrisy that treats women, in every sense of the word, as mere appendages to men.

Within ISIS women are of no worth, except to spawn male children. They are best left uneducated and pregnant so they grow up volunteering to strap bombs on themselves to defend a movement that places no value on them. Women must remain totally covered from head to toe. Because their beauty cannot be comprehended apart from sexual temptation. On the other hand, men are free to roam the range of their sexual desire with no consequences.

In such a culture disagreement is seen as blasphemy, punishable by death. To openly question authority is the greatest sin.

ISIS looks on Western culture as the devil incarnate. They see moral decay, disrespect and degeneracy. And to be clear we are, by no means, without fault. 

There is plenty that the United States has done that smacks of arrogance. 

On-going drone attacks on civilians, the recent bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kabul, and supporting a series of dictators in other countries simply because we need their natural resources don't paint the U.S. in a good light. 

Is it any wonder that ISIS members have pledged their lives to our obliteration? 

Where is the love? 

God's Son once said, "There is no greater love than to lay down one's life for one's friends." (John 13.15).

In Christian tradition that is exactly what Jesus did. 

Dying a painful death on the cross for our sins, His death redeemed us from the grave. We have spiritual life because of his sacrifice. If we were able to trace our spiritual heritage, we would find millions upon millions of souls were saved because of what happened on the cross over 2,000 years ago.

The emptiness of hate screams from the grave.

The lack of hope and inability to trust spreads like a cancer across both cultures.

However, I have to believe that the power of the cross and what Jesus accomplished is greater than any cultural barrier.

Such love is supernatural, but it's beyond comprehension without faith.

It is the only solution that can break the cycle of hate that breeds mistrust and fear that swallows up souls.

Yet, the love of God is a paradox. 

Jesus also said: "To you who are willing to listen, I say, love your enemies! Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you..."

In fact, this is the ultimate proof that we are followers of God's son. "Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples." (John 13.34)

This is the kind of love the world so desperately needs.

Photo Credit: www.dreamatico.com

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The end of the world. Or not.

Recently Kris Vallotton gave his take on the "end times," inviting others to add or respond to his list.

Kris' invitation motivated me to revisit the subject of eschatology. What follows are my own thoughts:

1. God knows the exact end time, so I don't have to. 

2. There's a good reason that God took that pressure off me. There's enough to consider in everyday life without wondering when the world is going to end. 

3. My relationship with God should drive how I act and respond to life, not what I happen to believe about the timeline for earth's demise. 

4. If the exact date of the end of the world were so important, then God would have revealed it to us and not relied on a human being's interpretation. (There's a reason why every doom's day cult has ended very badly.)

5. We human beings can easily get side-tracked into considering things that ultimately aren't of much consequence.

To sum up, I think the point to consider isn't when will the world end, but where will we be spending eternity once our own life is over.

Isn't that what truly matters?

The world may have been around for millions of years. It could go on for another million. 
Or not. I have no clue as to how many years are left for planet earth.

But I do know that at some point my own life will end. And being 63 years of age, I know, from a normal human lifespan, most likely I will be gone from this earth before another 30 years have passed.

That is sobering, but it doesn't frighten me.

If I'm honest about it, facing my own inevitable death frees me up to concentrate on making the best use of what little time I have left.

I find that liberating and challenging as life becomes an adventure.

Followers of God's Son are in a perfect position to offer hope, regardless of when the world might end. 

Followers of God's Son offer hope by their on-going involvement in acts of social justice (like feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, aiding refugees, advocating for worldwide education of girls, etc).  

Ultimately, isn't that what being about the Father's business is all about?

Photo Credit: www.money.cnn.com

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Perfect Love Casts Out Fear

One of the most powerful scriptures concerning love is this one: "Perfect love casts out fear." (1 John 4.18)

Why is this particular verse so power-packed?

John is making the point that "there is no fear in love." (1 John 4.18). 

Fear can't exist in the same soul that love inhabits.

It's as simple as that. When you think of love, images of sacrificing for the other come to mind. Giving out of a sense of joy for the other person. Putting the other person's need ahead of our own.

While this is all good, we need to remember:

For the most part, we don't live in a loving society (at least not in the United States). 

While this is no secret, it's interesting to note that as our society turns increasingly secular, it's gotten harder to find evidence of perfect love. Love itself isn't highly valued. Is it any wonder that there are many people we know, from workmates to acquaintances who are actually love starved?

If we choose to, we could become sidetracked bemoaning the loss of true love. But that isn't going to bring it back.

Anyone who keeps an interest in current events knows the world can be a fear-filled place. There's plenty to be afraid about. I came across an article in the The New York Times  today that mentioned there are about 60 million refugees worldwide, and half of them are children. One Syrian living in a refugee camp in Lebanon said, "We've lost an entire generation."

That's truly frightening.

A logical mind would be boggled as to the solution. 

But Love Wins.

You've seen the bumper sticker, and it sounds comforting and also a bit simplistic. 

After all, how can love possibly win? 

Looking at from a world-perspective, it's easy to give up hope.

But God doesn't call us to limit our perspective.

Whenever we grab hold of the truth of perfect love, miracles happen. 

Perfect love comes from God

That's the bottom line of it.

And if perfect love comes from God. If God is the source of it, then we are considering an unlimited supply. Without limits. Because it isn't something that we manufacture on our own. It's totally Spirit driven.

Jeremy Courtney and his wife run an organization called Preemptive Love, which encourages us to "love first and ask questions later."  

Bob Goff's humanitarian efforts in Uganda are centered around his mantra Love Does.

Ann Voskamp is continually challenging her readers to look for the good and to live a lifestyle of thanks.

None of these folks are starry-eyed dreamers. Each of them is very much aware of the state of the world. But they have refused to give up. They have caught a vision of God's perfect love and they are eager to share it.

I wonder what our neighborhood, our church, our city, our nation would look like, if we caught the same vision? 

Photo Credit: www.rickwarren.org

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

It's far easier to criticize than to lend a hand

Here are five things to keep in mind today!

1. Instead of criticizing our public education system and educators, we should be praying for them.

Federal and state funding for education programs has been declining. Public education systems and educators are trying to teach our kids within a system that is overwhelmed with challenges. 

For the past four weeks I have been working at my local neighborhood elementary school. It has 400 students and not enough educators to go around. Close to 90% of the kids attending this school are eligible for free-and-reduced meals, meaning they come from low-income households. Many of the kids attending come from single-parent households struggling to make ends meet.

Our educators are already feeling the burden of an uphill battle. They could use our prayers, not our finger-pointing.

2. It's far easier to criticize than to lend a hand.

Speaking of point #1 above, in general, it's far, far easier to look at a situation (like public education or politics) point a finger and utter unkind words. 

This does nothing to change a negative situation and most often contributes to it 

Instead we should go to God in prayer, ask: Show me how to pray Lord! Show me what I can do to help today. 

It always costs something to change the world. And changing the world often begins in our own neighborhood.

3. Our pastors and church leaders need our support, not our critique.

In Western culture, or more specifically, the United States, church attendance has been on the decline. I don't know if it's yet reached the point that there are more folks on a Sunday morning criticizing the church than attending one. At times, it sure feels like it.

One of the hardest jobs on earth is leading a congregation. I'm sure Moses could have written a book about it. (Come to think of it, he did. It's called Exodus.)

I'm not saying that all pastors are perfect, but, on the other hand, who among us is? Barring gross infractions of the pastoral office, could you imagine what a difference it would make in most local churches if the members committed to pray daily for church leadership to be filled with God's wisdom, grace, mercy and love?

4. God sets the standard for my behavior and how I view the world. 

Way too often I let current events drive my thoughts. 

Yes, it's important to remain informed. It's important to become a citizen of the world, in regards to having a working knowledge of the challenges nations and families are facing. But it's just as important to take those challenges to God, asking what God would have us do.

Knowledge alone isn't enough to solve a challenge. 

There's always a spiritual dimension behind each problem. Didn't the apostle Paul say something to the effect that we don't struggle against flesh (each other) but against powers and principalities? Pray first. Listen. Then act! Speaking of which...

5. The beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord.

Anyone who has spent time reading Proverbs knows this one. But how often do we forget!

How often do I simply overlook this basic truth?

Fear, in this scriptural reference, refers to awe, deep-seated respect and reverence. 

A person who has a healthy fear of the Eternal One most likely isn't going to give in to temptation or other unproductive behavior. When they do, they will more inclined to correct the mistake.

Fearing the Lord leads to knowing who God is. Knowing who God is leads to relationship. That relationship grows as love grows, leading to consistent obedience. As we are consistently obedient to God we grow in wisdom from that relationship of love.

Feel free to reply!

Photo Credit: www.schoolofthinking.org