Good-bye 2010

Another year gone by,
Filled with opportunities missed
And new possibilities discovered.

A year of devastating natural disasters,
political unrest, continuing war
and economic upheaval.
But none of that is new--
Every year contains a similar list
Of horrific events.
Every year goes out with a list
Of celebrities that passed away
Why millions of lives passed on
Without notice--if they were lucky
They received a small column in
A local newspaper.

Personally it was another year of waiting.
A year of moving into a new place
And becoming first-time homeowners.
A year of making new neighbors
And adjusting to a new school.
A year of pinching pennies
And trying to enjoy life fully.
A year of discovering a new church family
And exploring ancient paths of worship.
A year of crying, laughing, sighing,
questioning and rejoicing.

And so, as we look back,
We do so not to live in the past
Nor to discover regrets,
But to praise God for His faithfulness
And to learn from our mistakes.
We look back in order
To move into the New Year
As a better person--
A person who has messed up,
But who is forgiven
And determined to be transformed
Into more of a saint
And less of a sinner.

Another year gone by
Brings another year to live.
To live and to worship as fully as possible.


Imagine the Possibilities


Congress, The Constitution & God's Word

I heard on NPR today that when Congress opens on January 6, 2011, they will begin the session with a full reading of the Constitution. Granted, the Republicans are doing it to show up the Democrats whom they feel ignored the Constitution when they were in control. Whatever the motives, it's not a bad idea. Actually, it's a great idea. Shouldn't those who make the laws be well versed in the law? It's incredible that in our nation's history, congress has never read the entire Constitution.

This probably isn't a bad way to start the new year in our churches as well. Not reading the Constitution, of course, but reading the Law and all of God's Word upon which we base our daily living (or at least should be). Not that we have the time read the entire Bible in one setting, but I wonder how many Christians have read through the entire Bible. I wonder how many churches have read through the majority of the Bible throughout even years of existence.

One of the things I'm grateful for as we read The Divine Hours together as a family is that we hear from most sections of the Bible together as a family. I also appreciate following the lectionary at church for the same reason. Of course, whether or not your church follows the lectionary, we all have the ability to read through the entire Bible. Investing in only a few minutes each day takes us through the entire Scripture. If we claim to follow Jesus, we can't do so without knowing His Words (New Testament) and the words He lived by (Old Testament). If you're one to make resolutions, how about starting with something that will shape your life in tremendous ways?


Merry Christmas!

Outside is peaceful.
Snow blankets all,
even the boughs of the evergreen tree.
Inside is joyous.
Lights on the tree
Shine on the wrapping paper beneath.
The few presents,
the boys are told,
Are reminders that on Christmas morn
We were given the greatest gift ever.

When God created
All the visible world,
He said that all was good.
Evil entered in and marred that goodness.
Sacrifices were required--
Blood to atone for our sins.
But on this day we celebrate
The birth of God's only Son
Who came to make all good again;
Who came to be the final sacrifice.

God's gift to us,
The baby is love embodied.
"Where meek souls
Will receive Him still
The dear Christ enters in."
He brings with Him
Peace and goodwill for all.


Fourth Friday in Advent: Christmas Eve

A few years ago--once the kids came along--we had to stop going to all our family Christmas celebrations. We were going to Christmas events with each of our sides of the family, plus with both my parents sides. And we tried to get our own little time in. It was too much. And now that we're farther away, we just can't do all that traveling.

I miss it, though. And it's hard to not see my grandmothers though as they're both getting old. And there is plenty I miss. Growing up we always spent Christmas Eve with my dad's family--on my grandparents' farm and then at their home in town when they retired from farming. We would almost always go to church together (it rotated between 5pm on Christmas Eve, 11pm on Christmas Eve and 7am on Christmas morning--the traditional Swedish julotta service). Most of my extended family was in church for that service as well--several of my grandfather's brothers attended the church. So it was fun to see all the distant cousins--a mini-family-reunion on Christmas. The service always ended with everyone lighting candles during "Silent Night."

We had an "traditional" Swedish meal--lutefisk (I never touch fish anyway, so its not something I eat), homemade potato sausage, ostakaka, dup i grytan, rye bread and much more. Driving home we would always watch for Rudolph in the sky (conveniently there was often an airplane with it's red light flashing). My grandfather would always read the nativity story from Luke. Then he'd hand us each an envelope with a crisp new bill in it. After opening presents, my grandmother would often remember another bag of presents she had forgotten to bring out.

On Christmas Day we would open our presents. We'd often have Mr. Bubble bubble bath under our stocking as well as a new toothbrush, some candy and other little toys. drive three hours to my mom's family gathering in Des Moines (back then you had to make sure you had enough gas as no stations were open on Christmas). My grandmother had a great hill behind her house for sledding.

We're starting our own family traditions, now. I'm thankful our church has a Christmas Eve service. It was a lovely service. The boys had parts in the song "The Friendly Beasts": Nils was a cow all white and red, Anders was a dove. And we had candles as we sang "Silent Night" and "O Holy Night" at the end. A friend from church is spending the night with us (it's really quite nice to make this an "extended-family" event). We're watching "It's a Wonderful Life." The boys are building Legos. The women are knitting. Tomorrow we'll be having a short time around the tree, reading the nativity story, opening a present each, going sledding and whatever else unfolds.

In many ways, Christmas Eve is a magical time. There are old superstitions that animals could talk on Christmas Eve. My father would give the livestock extra feed and leave a bale of hay out for Santa's reindeer. The quietness of the world at night with crisp snow on the ground and on the trees brings a peacefulness to the neighborhood.

But in many ways, this night isn't any different that any others. The newborn King should be worshiped every night (and we must remember that He came to give His life for us). We should cherish out time with our families and fiends. We should always live generously, giving to others. Our hearts should be prepared for the return of the King.

This isn't a positive night for everyone, I'm aware. And I pray that if that's the case for you that you may find peace tonight. We all need peace. And that is why Jesus was born. Peace on earth, goodwill to all.


Fourth Thursday in Advent: Wise Men

The Magi were added to our nativity scene tonight (I know--they usually aren't added until Epiphany, but they were part of tonight's reading). It's amazing how little detail of things is in the actual gospel accounts of Jesus' birth. We're not told how many magi there are (the number three is given only because of the three gifts). We're not told where they came from (other than the east). We're not told why they were watching the stars for a sign of a king's birth (presumably they knew nothing of messianic prophecies). We're not told how old Jesus was when they arrived.

We don't know that Mary rode a donkey to Bethlehem. We don't know what animals were in the stable (actually, we're not even told there was a stable--only that Jesus was laid in a manger because there was no room in the inn). We don't know how long they stayed there or if anyone--including family--besides the shepherds and magi visited them. We know next to nothing about Mary and Joseph, other than Mary being a virgin and them not being married at the time of conception (though it's unclear when they were actually married). We don't even know when Jesus was actually born.

It seems that the details of Christmas weren't what was important (at Easter, we're given the details). God created us, sin ruined our relationship with Him, and He desired a way for that to reconciled. He sent His only begotten Son provide salvation from sins (and the death that results from them) and to give us eternal life. And so as we celebrate the birth of the babe in the manger, we cannot escape the fact that the babe came to die for us all. His life would amount to suffering. And love. And that was His choice--to come to love us and to die for us. Because He desired to.

Most likely no one who was there when Jesus was born knew what lie ahead of him. Did Mary grasp that her son was their at creation and was the one promised of who would crush the serpent's head? Did Joseph understand that his son was born to die? The Magi may have had a notion (after all, they brought Him myrrh which was used for embalming kings). Let us not forget what this babe did for us. That is the detail we must need to know most.


Fourth Wednesday in Advent

Tonight the shepherds joined Mary, Joseph and the animals at the nativity scene as we read the birth narrative from Luke 2:1-20. God chooses interesting ways to unfold His story. Let's set aside the whole Messiah-born-in-a-stable-with-a-feed-trough-for-his-bed idea for a minute. The birth of the Messiah is announced to...wait for it...shepherds! We only saw that one coming because we know the story. Shepherd make no sense. They were one of the lowest castes of workers in Israel. They have no connections. They have no wealth with which to honor the newborn King. They have no influence or power. They're nobodies (we aren't even given names).

But angels show up in the midst of the pasture, announcing Jesus' birth in all splendor and majesty, triumphantly singing a pronouncement of peace on earth and goodwill to all. So the shepherds go into town to find the stable that housed the King of Kings (what else were they going to do after angels show up and give them directions?--and what else but a message from angels would convince them to go look in a manger for the Messiah?). They were presumably the first to see the infant besides Mary and Joseph. And then they go and spread the news of what they have seen.

It so happened that afterward the boys and I watched the 1968 Rankin-Bass version of "The Little Drummer Boy." I don't remember actually seeing it when I was young. Less religious shows like Frosty and Rudolph probably pushed it out of a time slot--not to mention it's a bit cheesy. But it's a nice story about a boy who hates humanity because of the death of his parents, but finds a whole heart after following the Magi to the stable where the Christ Child is. There, amongst the shepherds and Magi (who show up together in the story), the little drummer boy shares his only gift--a song--with the newborn King.

The writer of our Advent devotional pointed out that the lambs that were sacrificed in the temple in Jerusalem were raised in Bethlehem. The shepherds who the angels heralded went to the stable to visit He who would be the final sacrificial Lamb. In the manger they beheld the greatest sacrifice; they were present at His birth to praise the Lamb.

As we wait in Advent, let us remember that Jesus came for everyone--shepherd and magi alike. He doesn't care if we bring Him frankincense or percussion song. He cares that we bring Him our heart--that we bring Him the best (and worst) of us. He invites us to set at the foot of His manger and praise the Son of God, the Son of man.


Fourth Tuesday in Advent: Winter Solstice

Today's text was the story of Joseph, which we already looked at on Sunday, so let me take a side trip. Today is the winter solstice--the day with the shortest amount of daylight in the northern hemisphere. It was an even darker day because of the lunar eclipse last night (not that it mattered for us, as the moon wasn't visible from all the snow clouds present anyway). From here on out the days only gain more daylight.

Winter is hard at times because of the cold combined with darkness. My wife strongly urged me not to look at ministry positions in Alaska knowing how hard it would be to deal with the darkness of winter there.

Light gives us hope during Advent. We love to decorate with lights--on our homes, on our trees, in our windows. We are reminded of Christ coming to earth--the Light coming into the darkness.

Yet, there are times when darkness is all there is. We know the Light. We know the Light gets rid of darkness. Yet, there are times in life when we only feel the darkness. This time of year produces that feeling in many. And it is not wrong to go through those dark times. Just as the seasons change, bringing darkness and bringing light, we have those seasons in our life as well.

But let the seasons remind us that in times of darkness, things will change. Light will come. But we may have to wait in darkness for a while. That is Advent. We wait. We wait for Christ to come. We know that Christ was born. But He was born because of the darkness in the world. We know that He will come again some day. And there is still darkness for Him to come into.

So as we wait in Advent, maybe we need to take some time to reflect on the darkness in our lives. What does Christ's light need to illuminate in our lives? Where do we need to bring His Light? And what darkness are we going through that we need to be reminded of the hope that the Light will bring?


Fourth Monday in Advent: Willingness

Tonight we read the angel Gabriel's annunciation of Mary's pregnancy, her visit to her cousin Elizabeth, and her song of praise (the Magnificat). Mary must have had a whole slew of questions when Gabriel shows up: is this real? why me? how is this going to happen? what is Joseph going to think? what will my family say? what about my wedding? the Messiah? really? how am I supposed to raise the Son of God? am I ready for this? can I do this?

But Mary asked few questions ("How can this be since I am a virgin?" is the only recorded question) and simply says, "I am the Lord's servant; may all be as you have said." And that is the hinge of all history: Mary agreed to be the vessel through which God would come come in the flesh to save all humanity.

As we are in the final week of Advent, let us take time to reflect on our willingness to say "yes" to God. It's easy to say "yes," but we must be willing to let our lives be upset because of that. Mary's plans were set aside, her hopes and dreams changed. That's what following God is about: being willing to let His plans be ours--and letting our plans simply be to be available. But when we are willing, the whole world can be changed because of it.


I gave a man my gloves today. And some loose change (I honestly didn't have a single dollar in my wallet). I say this not to receive a pat on the back, but to admit that I struggle with giving. It's not that I don't want to give; it's often that I don't trust those who are asking for help. It seems like far too many people have access to markers for their cardboard signs, and they don't look like they're really worse off than I am. We used to carry a box of granola bars or other food in the car to give to people (usually it was Ken, the man who was often on the corner on our way to our previous church).

We actually have a pair of gloves to give to someone in need. Last winter outside our old apartment, a man was trying to give a homeless guy a pair of gloves. He threw them on the ground (he didn't seem mentally well). I picked them up knowing at some point I would come across someone who needed them. I didn't have them with today, so I ended up giving the guy mine (and I'm hoping the other ones fit me).

The guy came up, explaining how the police wouldn't let him ask people for what he needed. He started going into Bible verses--beginning with how God will provide and going into verses about Christmas. He shared how he was homeless and also had schizophrenia. He had six kids because at the time he didn't know better. It got me thinking about being homeless in the winter we're having in Minnesota. About being the child of a man who's mental illness prevents him from having a stable life. About the financial situation we're in and how blessed we truly are, despite struggling at times.

I'm realizing giving isn't about the actual or perceived needs of those who are asking for things. It's about the status of my heart. Do I need someone to prove their burden of need before I give to them? Do I cling to what I have too tightly that I fear giving it away to someone who will misuse it? Do we need to know the honesty of a person to love them?

I don't know how true this man's story was; he seemed sincere. But I realized it didn't matter. He didn't have gloves. I had some. God calls me to give. I don't always want to. I often don't feel I can without sacrificing of what I have. But that's God's example. Giving. Freely. Even of His Son. And so I wished the homeless man a Merry Christmas, wishing him blessings, just as he blessed me in our brief encounter.


Fourth Sunday in Advent: Love

Tonight at church we heard St. Matthew's account of the annunciation of Jesus' birth to Joseph. Our friend Laura preached tonight at church, and she had us put ourselves in Joseph's shoes. He finds out the woman he's engaged to is pregnant. She claims the Holy Spirit did it. Being a just man, he could have her stoned by law, but being a righteous, loving man he intends to divorce her quietly. He doesn't want to be disgraced, but he also loves Mary and doesn't want her stoned to death. He has one way out--unless he's to believe that she's truly had an immaculate conception as a virgin. How is Joseph supposed to believe that?

Enter the angel of the Lord. God knows Joseph is going to need a little more convincing on this one. He also wants to give Joseph the opportunity to say "yes" (just as He did with Mary). Joseph knows what is at hand; God knows the bigger picture. This isn't about God coming into Joseph's story. This is about God inviting Joseph to be a part of His story.

We have the invitation as well. An invitation to say yes. An invitation to be a part of God's story. And God's story is about love. Love for us, love for all. Are you waiting for God to come into your story? Or are you willing to accept the bigger picture--even if you can't see it--and be a part of God's story? Advent is an opportunity for us to take the time to see the bigger picture. It's not just about the birth of Jesus--it's about God's love for us, about the salvation Jesus' death offers, about the coming Kingdom. You are invited to be a part of the story.


Third Friday in Advent: Family

We've been taking a break from our Advent devotions for a weekend Christmas gathering with family in Iowa. We drove down to my parents' farm last night after Anders was done with school and didn't get in until after bedtime (and they still needed some time with FarFar & FarMor).

This morning we visited my grandmother in the nursing home. She had a stroke several years ago. We had to waker her up when we arrived, so she wasn't very responsive. But at one point Anders started singing "Away in A Manger," and she began mouthing the words right away and joined in on the last few lines of the song. That was worth the whole trip.

We traveled up to Okoboji this afternoon. My parents get us rooms at a hotel with an indoor waterpark as their Christmas present to us all. It's partly because there isn't room in their house for us all anymore. But it's also to take time to be together as a family and enjoy the time without rushing off to the next family event.

In many ways, family is what this season is about. I know we don't all necessarily have healthy relationships within our families, and mine isn't perfect, but I'm thankful that we enjoy getting together. But aside from our biological families, God invites us to become His children, to be adopted into His family (which, admittedly has some dysfunction at times, but we are promised a day when we will be made perfect). I am grateful for "brothers and sisters" who are just as close as biological family.

Christ was born into a human family. He had human parents, brothers and sisters and presumably extended family. He also said that we can't put our family before God (using fairly harsh words). He also invited others into His family. He spent time with them. He loved them. He showed them how to love.

Advent is a great time to show love to your family (hint: presents aren't necessarily the best way to do this). It's also a great time to extend your family to brothers and sisters who need some extra love this season. I pray that your holidays (holy days) won't be filled with stress and dysfunction because of family, but that you may find enjoyment with people you love (no matter what their biological relationship with you is).


Third Wednesday of Advent: Inclusion

Tonight's reading was from the first eight verses of Isaiah 56. In the passage God says that those who do justice, obey Him, refrain from doing evil and honor the Sabbath will be blessed. Then He does something that would shake an devout Jew's foundation: God says He will include the Gentiles and eunuchs in on this promise (quick side: next year I need to research an Advent devotional a little better--this one isn't as kid-friendly as I thought it was).

This is radical because the Gentiles (non-Jews) were the unfaithful--they were outside of God's covenant. And Eunuchs were unclean; they weren't allowed to worship inside the Temple. God is including those who were outside of the religious community before--those who weren't the Chosen People. God makes it clear that His love is for everyone. All are welcome in His Kingdom. No one is excluded--not the unclean, the unwanted or unloved. The outsider and the insider have their place at the Banquet Table.

Advent is a time for us to reflect on those around us who need to know God's love. Are there people who we might consider not right for sharing the gospel with? Do we unintentionally exclude anyone? Do we think that some people are not good enough to receive Christ's forgiveness? God sent His Son because He loves the world (everyone. No one is beyond the scope of His love). There are people in our neighborhood, school, and workplace who need to experience the joy of knowing God's greatest gift for them this Christmas.


Third Tuesday in Advent: What Your Heart Says

In Jeremiah 31:27-24 God tells a nation that witness the destruction of Jerusalem and exile of it's people that there is hope. This is a stark break from all the previous "doom and gloom" of the prophet's writing. God tells the people that a time is coming when He will oversee them building and planting instead of being uprooted.

This is how Eugene Peterson paraphrases part of those verses in The Message:
The time is coming when I will make a brand-new covenant...I will put my law within them—write it on their hearts!—and be their God. And they will be my people. They will no longer go around setting up schools to teach each other about God. They'll know me firsthand, the dull and the bright, the smart and the slow. I'll wipe the slate clean for each of them. I'll forget they ever sinned!"
When we partake of the cup at the table during our weekly time of worship, we are reminded, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood..." The blood that washed our sins away seals us with God's new covenant. We are His. His law is written on our hearts.

And what is that law? Love. Love Him, love ourselves, love others likewise. All right actions--compassion, obedience, justice, mercy, peace, goodness, honesty, self-control, etc.--come from living in love. Our heart is sealed--like an letter from the King, stamped with His seal in sealing wax--that we are His, and He is ours. As we wait in Advent, let us listen to our heart--what it truly says, what God has imprinted upon it.


Third Monday in Advent: Santa Lucia Day

Today is Santa Lucia Day. An Italian saint who's fiancée turned her over to the government for being a Christian after she gave much of her wealth away to the poor, the Scandinavians identified with her because her name means light. And in the darkness of winter, light contains hope for getting everyone through the bleakness of nearly continual night.

Tonight we read Isaiah's description of the Messiah--the Savior King--in chapter 53. When the Christ did come, few recognized Jesus as the One who was prophesied to come save Israel. Most were expecting a strong, warrior ruler who would overthrow the Roman government, ushering in a Hebrew utopia. No one expected a humble servant who would usher in God's Kingdom which turned social norms upside down.

They should have known, however. Isaiah's description of the suffering servant would have been in their heads (if not their hearts). Isaiah describes a Messiah without beauty or majesty, unattractive in appearance, despised and rejected, suffering, crushed and led to slaughter. It is not the picture of a warrior king. Yet, that is what most were looking for, and so they missed Him.

As we wait during Advent, let us examine the image of the Christ we have in our mind's eye. Let us make sure it matches up with the Jesus of the gospels: the Jesus who touched the leper, healed the untouchable, hung out with the outcasts, lifted up the poor and oppressed, dined with sinners and served all.

Sometimes our ideas of God need a little illumination to help shed light on the misconceptions that have built up over the years. We may not have missed out on the Christ as many who walked with Him did, but we may be missing out on who He calls us to be as His disciples if we don't fully know who Jesus was. May the light of Santa Lucia's candles direct us to the Light of the World. And may we continually be illumined in knowledge of who Christ really is.


Third Sunday in Advent: Joy

In many traditions, this is the Joy Sunday of Advent. I like the first two Sundays better. Peace and Hope are much easier to embrace. I sometimes struggle with joy. Maybe its because of my stoic Scandinavian roots. Maybe its because I've never been good at being in-touch with my emotions. Maybe its because of periods of slight depression. But I know I seldom experience (let alone show) great joy. And I feel like as a Christian I should be a model of joy (I've got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart).

Tonight's Scripture passage was Mary's song (the Magnificat) in Luke 1. Mary, finding herself pregnant, goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who is also pregnant. When they meet, the baby in Elizabeth's womb (John) leaps for joy, and Elizabeth blesses her (most favored amongst women). Mary then sings a song of joy. Our friend Heather shared during the message at church how Mary wasn't really in a place to be joyful: she was unwed and carrying child--a state that often meant stoning or at least complete shunning. But Mary rejoices. Heather pointed out that she most likely grew up going to the Temple, hearing the Scriptures. Her heart was prepared to receive God's word. She was ready to obey. The point being that we can ready ourselves for joy.

And yes, I do need to spend more time in God's Word--memorizing it as well. I should spend more time in prayer as well. But "should haves" only result in guilt. The fact is that sometimes we're not in places to feel joyful. Many devout Christians have gone through what St. John of the Cross referred to as "the dark night of the soul." And Christmas can be a difficult time for many people because of the memories of dead loved ones, unstable family environments, loss of job, etc. We won't all feel joy--and that doesn't mean that there's something wrong with us.

Yet, we also can cling to the fact that we have joy because "the Lord has come." Though we may not be feeling joyful ourselves, we can acknowledge the joy that is in the world. We can reflect on the moments in our lives that were joyful. And maybe in doing so, we let our heart "prepare Him room." Maybe even in that preparing we find joy. It may not be mirth-filled exuberance all the time. Joy for me might simply be a peace-produced smile as I participate in worship. It may be in that "ahhhh" moment of sitting in a comfy chair and relaxing to Beethoven. It may be masqueraded in the pride I feel when my children are singing a worship song around the house. Maybe joy is even hidden in helping a neighbor get their car shoveled out from a snowstorm.

Wherever joy is for you and however you may experience, know that joy comes fully from Christ. It is found in the working of God:
And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for He has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear Him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with His arm;
He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.” (Luke 1:46-55)
So, Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel has come to thee, O Israel!


Second Saturday in Advent: Blizzard

Today, we woke up to a blizzard. It's our third snowstorm this winter; they've all been over eight inches or more. Which is fun in most ways--I like winter. I like having snow on the ground (it's great fun). I like the crisp freshness of a fresh fall.

Today we have had probably about a foot and a half of snow (in addition to what was on the ground before). It's blowing (which is the first we've experienced in the city--it was very common in the country). The temperature is dropping. Pretty much everything was cancelled (even the buses and mail carriers were pulled off the streets at one point).

We spent time making cookies, cooking soup, watching a movie together as a family, and of course doing plenty of shoveling. It was a nice day. I got work done, but it was laid back. And the boys got to be involved. The neighbor boys came over and played for a while.

Blizzards, in some ways, are the epitome of Advent. They force us to slow down. They cancel our plans. And though they often produce a little more work for us, for a time they give us a reprieve from the busyness we often find ourselves in this time of year. We can over-schedule ourselves this time of year--and often for good reasons--but sometimes we need the reminder that we're not in control and that we need times of rest.

Plus, once the roads get cleared we'll be able to do some good sledding again.


Second Friday in Advent: Living Right

Tonight we read the 10 Commandments. The Hebrews were free; they had never lived without someone giving them directions. God comes and gives Moses instructions for the people (they're never numbered or labeled in the Bible). He gives them boundaries for living in freedom; boundaries for living in harmony with God, with neighbor and with family.

Often time we view the commandments--or any of God's laws--as a list of don'ts. A list of kill-joys. What if, instead, we looked at them as loving boundaries to help us enjoy life more? What if "don't commit adultery" was actually a boundary for having a healthy marriage (as well as honoring others' marriages)? What if "don't give false testimony" was instruction for us to protect others and ourselves from the harmful effects of lying? What if "don't make idols" kept us from selling our hearts to things that won't last?

At the end of Moses' reading of the commandments, there is this little dialog between him and the people:

And they said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen. But don’t let God speak directly to us, or we will die!”

“Don’t be afraid,” Moses answered them, “for God has come in this way to test you, and so that your fear of him will keep you from sinning!” (Exodus 20:19-20)

The people are afraid of God talking to them. Moses paradoxically tells them not to be afraid, but to remain fearful of God in order that they live right.

As we wait in Advent, we anticipate Christ's coming. We long to be able to talk directly with Him. We know we don't need to be afraid. After all, He came as a baby. One of us. Lowly and humble.

But maybe we need to regain some of the healthy fear. Not that we live in constant fear of obeying God so that we don't get punished, but a healthy fear like what occurs in a healthy relationship between parent and child. The child obeys the parent's instructions ("drive safely," "don't go to that party," "be home by eleven") because they know their parent gives them those directions out of love--that they want them to live well.

So, in the midst of waiting, as we look at how Christ calls us to live, let us look at God's commands as ways He shows His love to us. And let us obey, not out of fear, but out of love fore Him as well.


Second Thursday in Advent: Freedom

We ate supper standing up with our coats in hand tonight. It was a Passover meal (well, it was actually Chinese food, but we played out the Passover). The Israelites had to be ready to go at a moments notice. After we finished our Advent reading (which involved the passage on Pharaoh telling the Israelites to leave Egypt) at supper, we left our house. We walked the perimeter of our house as I talked about what it must have been like to join a million other people, leaving everything you owned behind and heading toward freedom.

In yesterday's passage, the blood of the lamb meant protection. In today's passage, the blood meant freedom. Jesus' blood likewise offers us freedom--freedom from sin and death. In waiting for His return we wait for freedom from a fallen world. May we not take advantage of the freedoms we have been give but be responsible stewards of them.


Second Wednesday of Advent: Prepared

Tonight we read about God's commands to the Israelites for getting ready to escape Egypt. Part of that was getting prepared for the angel of death to come through the community. They had to slaughter a lamb, spreading its blood on their door frame and eating the roasted meat. This would be a mark to the angel to pass-over their home, saving the first-born son. They were to be ready to leave on a moments notice--taking only what they could carry with them, leaving the rest behind.

We heard at the beginning of Advent in our church, "It matters how you wait." The Israelites had been waiting for their freedom for generations. They were waiting for God to emancipate them. They had to obey God's commands. They had to be ready. There couldn't be any hesitation.

Advent is partly about us being ready as well. We must be ready for Christ's return. It will happen without a moment's notice. We are called to be like Christ: to obey God completely, to love others selflessly, to live fully. We must love God more than we love the world. We must not try to "live it up" waiting until the last moment to follow whole-heartedly.

Be prepared. It matters how you wait.


Second Tuesday in Advent: Provision

We read tonight the story of how God called Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac (Genesis 22). The son that he and Sarah waited decades to have. The son through whom God's promise of descendants too numerous to count would come. The son whom Abraham and Sarah loved deeply. It's really an awful story to read with your kids--though so far neither has asked if they will need to be sacrificed some day).

It's a disturbing story. Even if this is just a test of Abraham's faith (as Genesis 22:1 says), how can a loving God who considers life to be sacred ask a man to offer his son as a burnt sacrifice (something God later forbids when giving the law to Moses as a detestable practice)? What kind of God is this? To be honest, I still wrestle with that every time I read this passage.

But lest we get too hung up on how this test was carried out, let us look at the outcome. Abraham loads Isaac up with the wood (as I picture him carrying the wood for the sacrifice up the mountain, I can't help thinking about Christ having to carry His own cross). At the top of the mountain, Isaac asks Abraham, "Where is the lamb?" Abraham prophetically responds, "The Lord will provide." And just as Abraham lifts the knife as his son lies bound upon the altar, an angel of the Lord stops Him. Because of his obedience to God in faith, God says Abraham will be the father of multitudes through Isaac. And there, caught in the thicket, is a ram for Abraham to sacrifice. Jehovah Jireh: Provider God.

The story so poignantly foreshadows God's sacrifice of His son for us. God provides. Yes, God takes care of our physical needs...but He also make a way for us to have a restored relationship with Him. And that starts now, as we wait for His Son. There amongst the cattle and sheep, lying in the feed trough is the One who came to make a way for us.


Second Monday in Advent: St. Nicholas Day

Today we set aside our regular Advent devotions to celebrate St. Nicholas Day. When the boys were young we decided that we wanted to make our Advent and Christmas festivities a little different (I don't think we really fleshed this out until the Christmas right after Nils turned one--and if I remember right, it was within the day of that we decided how we were going to celebrate). We didn't want the commercialism and greed that often accompanies Christmas to be the main focus. We decided instead of having Santa visit our house on Christmas that we would celebrate St. Nicholas Day (and we're not saying that what we do is a model to follow--it's simply what we do).

Our main focus in celebrating St. Nicholas Day is to emulate his character of giving to those in need. Currently we do that by packing shoe boxes with little gifts for children around the world (our boxes were going to India this year) for Operation Christmas Child. Nils and I were able to
deliver our boxes today which worked out well. We took time to read a story about St. Nicholas as well as watching the Veggie Tales version of his life and his relation to Santa Claus. We also give the boys one present (it was one to share this year). Through it all we talk about the greatest gift we could ever receive (Jesus, of course) as well as how we are to follow St. Nicholas' example in giving to others (anonymously if possible).

So Santa Claus doesn't visit our house. The boys get one more present from us on Christmas day, as well as some small things in their stocking, but again, we try to focus on the birth of Jesus (for us birthdays are more present-focused as a celebration of the individual) and others and time together as a family.

If you're not familiar with the real St. Nicholas, he was the son of wealthy devout Christians who died when he was young after an epidemic (possibly getting sick from helping the sick). He was raised by an uncle who was a bishop in the church and eventually become a priest and bishop himself. He used his wealth to help others (I couldn't help but point out the parallels of Batman's story with Nicholas' tonight as the boys are familiar with the orphaned Bruce Wayne who used his family's wealth to help others--albeit in a more justice-based manner). There are many stories about Nicholas' good works and miracles (some of them quite fanciful and even grotesque).

The best-known story involves a man with three unmarried daughters, and not enough money to provide them with suitable dowries. This meant that they could not marry, and were likely to end up as prostitutes. Nicholas walked by the man's house on three successive nights, and each time threw a bag of gold in through a window (or, when the story came to be told in colder climates, down the chimney). Thus, the daughters were saved from a life of shame, and all got married and lived happily ever after.

So on this night of Advent, as we celebrate the life of a faithful saint who modeled Jesus' example and teaching to give in secret, we are reminded that we can give joyfully and freely when we are rooted in the joy of the gift Christ has given us.


Second Sunday in Advent: Peace

Isaiah 11:1-10 talks about a branch from the stump of Jesse who shall bring peace. A world of peace where the wolf lays down with the lamb, the lion and calf feed together and the child plays near the viper's den. Or think of it this way: a world where Palestinian sits down with a Jew, where Muslim extremist drinks coffee with the evangelical fundamentalist, where Hutsi and Tutsi are friends. We believe Jesus is that shoot from the stump of Jesse. He has come, ushering in His Kingdom. Yet, we aren't at this place of peace. What gives?

As Pastor Jan pointed out tonight, Isaiah says that before there is peace, there must be judgment. Before reconciliation and redemption there must be righteousness.

Regarding judgment, the writer of Hebrews says, "For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart" (Hebrews 4:12). Keep in mind that the word (logos) of God is Jesus: "In the beginning was the Word" (John 1:1). He brings judgment--which can be scary.

Pastor Jan also pointed out these words from O Little Town of Bethlehem: "The hopes and fears of all the years / are met in Thee tonight." I've never really reflected on those words tonight: hopes and fears. The mighty King Herod was scared of the birth of a baby. Fear comes to those for whom judgment is a scary thing--when there is much sinfulness to be accounted for.

Yet, with those fears come hope. There is hope because we do not have to be afraid of judgment. The Christ has offered to wash us white as snow. As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us (Psalm 103:12).

And therein we find our peace. We have been made right with God. Each day we can come into His presence, relying upon the Holy Spirit to continually transform us more and more into Jesus' likeness. And we have the assurance that one day all we be made right. All will be at peace in the Kingdom.

The Kingdom is now, and not yet. It is here, but not fulfilled. The appetizers have been served, but the main course is yet to come. So for now, we are to be peacemakers. We are to be the ones who seek and create peace where we are at. And we can be at peace, resting in the arms of the One who came as a babe into a tumultuous world. We rest in His arms and we wait. And there is and will be peace.


First Saturday of Advent: Promises

Tonight we read the follow-up to yesterday's passage about building the ark. After over a year on the boat (it may have rained for 40 days and nights, but the water covered the earth for a lot longer), it comes to rest on Mount Ararat and God opens the door to let Noah, his family and the animals out. Noah makes some sacrifices as an offering to God (those poor animals that survived being drowned only to be killed after being saved--I believe God must appreciate the irony of that). God gives Noah some direction: you can now eat meat, fill the earth, take care of things, life is sacred so don't murder. Then God makes a promise, a covenant, to never wipe out all life with a flood again. The rainbow is the sign of this promise.

And God does fulfill His promises. He hasn't failed one yet. Some may take a while, but it's His timing, which I'm told is perfect. And there are promises yet to be fulfilled: the return of the King, a new heaven and earth, God's judgment, etc. So, as we wait in Advent, we wait in the shadow of yet-t0-be-fulfilled promises. As we think about celebrating the birth of Jesus, we also wait on the promise of His return. I've talked about waiting in length before, but we have hope when waiting on God's promises. We know He keeps His word.


Why Advent

I had a good conversation with a friend the other night who asked my what's the importance of Advent--why observe it? It was a good, honest question. I've been a part of several churches in my adulthood as we've moved to different areas. Some of them follow the liturgical year wholeheartedly, others mostly focus on Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter, and some barely make note of Christmas and Easter.

I've come to appreciate the rhythms and markings of the liturgical year, from the First Sunday in Advent to Christ the King Sunday and everything in between. A friend recently shared this article from Rob Bell on the importance of Advent. He explains it with much better word pictures than I could put together.

First Friday in Advent: Second Chances

Tonight the boys built an ark out of Duplos. For our Advent devotions we read from Genesis 6:5 - 7:5 where God looks at how corrupt and violent the world has become. He can only find one righteous man, and it grieves Him so He decides to wipe out all life. But Noah is given the absurd command to build a huge boat to save his family and a representation of all the species. And it was an absurd thing to do. It has never rained on the earth at this point. Never. Genesis 2:6 tells us that misty streams arose out of the earth to water the vegetation. So for Noah to question God in having him build a boat would have been the sensible thing to do. For him to brush off the command would have been almost logical. But Noah is a man of faith and he obeys.

The reading tonight pointed out that we often think God sent the flood to remove all life because He was angry and vengeful. But Tamara Buchan (author of Seeking the Christmas Lamb, the devotional we using) suggests this that another conclusion is this: "God was so in favor of what He had created that He was providing a second chance." I like that thought. After all, when God created everything He declared it was all "good." When we brought sin into the world, we corrupted everything. The Flood was an opportunity to try and put things back to "good."

We all mess up. A lot. But God is a god of grace. He gives us all second chances. In the waiting of Advent may we grasp hold of opportunities to receive those second chances.


First Thursday of Advent: Chosen

We didn't get to our family advent devotions tonight as we had guests over and just got caught up in good conversation. The passage, however, was the last part of Genesis 3. Here's the quick synopsis: God comes to the garden looking for Adam and Eve who are hiding from Him, they each make excuses, God puts punishment upon each of the parties involved (man has to toil at the ground, the woman will have childbearing pains and the serpent's head will be crushed by the woman's offspring), God makes clothing for them and then banishes them from Eden.

It's not a very "Adventy" passage, I know. But consider this: God, knowing full well what Adam and Eve have done, goes into the garden to find them. He seeks them out. He does that still. Even though we may be hiding from guilt or shame, He still loves and cares for us enough to seek us out individually. That's exactly what Christmas is about: God incarnate coming to earth, walking amongst us.

God also takes action to clothe Adam and Eve now that they have made nakedness shameful. He does so with animal skins. Which means the first blood was shed in the garden in order to clothe them. God makes the first sacrifice, righting the effects of sin. He also makes the last sacrifice for sin as His Son is nailed to the cross.

As we wait, isn't it good to know that God seeks us and God wants to take care of our sins? That should bring us a little holiday cheer.


First Wednesday in Advent: Sin

We read tonight during our Advent devotions from the first seven verses of Genesis 3: Satan (the serpent) deceives Eve into thinking it's okay to eat the forbidden fruit. It's easy to blame for bringing sin into this world; the fact is that any of us would have done it at some point or another.

Let's focus on what the serpent does: he deceives. More importantly, he gets Eve to question God. The serpent says things like: "Did God actually say..." and “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Questioning God is not bad (look at the Psalms if you doubt this), but the serpent gets Eve to doubt that she heard God correctly. He gets her to doubt that God has her best interest in mind--that He is keeping something good from her. He gets her to question God's relationship with her.

This is Satan's tactic: to get us to believe the lies. They're not outright "black is white" kind of lies. They're subtle. They're intended to get us to question God, to question ourselves, in ways that our relationships will no longer be as whole as they once were. "You're not good enough." "A little sin won't hurt anyone." "God doesn't want you to be happy--that's why nothing is going right." If it makes you happy, do it." "Go ahead, you deserve it."

After hearing those voices again and again, the sound of God's voice slowly fades. We forget His words. "I have chosen you." "You were created for good works." "I have a plan for you." "The wages of sin is separation from me." "You are fearfully and wonderfully made."

In the waiting of Advent, it is important to refocus our ears to hearing Gods words and tuning out the devil's deceit. In the silence, in the listening, may we "be still and know that [He] is God."


First Tuesday in Advent: Relating

Genesis 2 was the passage we read tonight in our Advent reading. It tells about the Garden that God created, the first man God created, the animals God then made to show man that he needed a special companion and the woman who was uniquely made as a companion for the man. It also describes two special trees in the garden: the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The latter was the one tree forbidden by God for the humans to eat the fruit from.

The tree is a quandary. We know little about it other than it's forbiddenness and the consequences of eating from it. On some level it seems cruel of God to place it there. He surely knows that Adam and Eve will partake of its fruit. Why create Paradise if parts of it are off-limits?

The real question is: can we have Paradise without limits--that is, can we love God if we don't have opportunities to obey him? Or does God truly love us if He doesn't give us boundaries?

At the very core of this passage is our need for relationship, formed in the very core of our being. God created us in His image, and God exists in relationship: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God shows Adam that it is not good for him to be alone. He needs human, as well as spiritual, companionship. And relationships, if truly formed out of love, and if truly healthy, contain boundaries and command obedience. As parents, we give our children boundaries, not to be mean, but because we love them, we want them to be safe and we want them to grow up to be responsible adults. As children our obedience is an act of love.

And that brings us back to Advent where we wait. But we wait not alone; we wait in relationship with God and with others. In our waiting for the return of the Christ, we are called to be His incarnate love on earth to our neighbors.


First Monday in Advent: In the Garden

Tonight we read the creation account from Genesis 1 for our Advent reflection. It's a good place to start; a reminder of what it was supposed to be like. At some point as we were discussing what it would be like to live in the garden where you could pet the lion without fear or play with a wolf, Nils commented, "Like when the lion eats straw." He was referring to a passage he must have heard in children's church on Sunday night, Isaiah 11:6-7:
The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
Isaiah 11 begins by describing the shoot from the stump of Jesse that will bring peace to the world--a peace where mortal enemies will eat together. We believe that shoot to be Jesus, the Christ. He promises to return and right all things, bringing a new heaven and earth.

And so we wait. We wait for peace. We wait for justice and righteousness. We wait for Christ's return. But we wait not idly. We wait with hope. We wait with open eyes, watching for where Christ is at work in the world. We wait while working to bring about justice, righteousness and mercy where we can.

Most importantly, we wait in Christ, dying to our self each day and being transformed more and more into His likeness. The same likeness as the image Adam was created in back in the garden. There, in the garden, where God pronounced His creation "good." In the garden where God walked with them in the cool of the day.

So we wait and we hope: for peace, for paradise, for fulfillment as image-bearers.


First Sunday in Advent: Waiting and Hoping

"You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part"
- "The Waiting" by Tom Petty

I'm fairly certain I've written about waiting before. Probably several times. Waiting is hard. Sometimes it can be really hard. We've been in the midst of waiting for over two and half years for my wife to be able to find a job in her field. There haven't been many openings. She's discouraged. It's been frustrating. We have strong moments of questioning God, of being angry with Him, of doubting. The waiting can really suck.

Sometimes the amount of time God has people in the Bible wait for things is qu
ite discouraging. The Israelites waited forty years to enter the Promised Land. Joseph waited in prison for over two years for Pharaoh's cup bearer to remember him (plus his time before that). Sarah and Hannah waited decades to have a child. Israel waited 400 years after the prophecies of Malachi for the Christ to be born. Now were in the midst of waiting nearly 2000 years for the Christ to return. They're not hopeful precedents.

But today we begin the season of Advent (if you're one to follow the liturgical calendar, may I
wish you a happy New Year!). Advent is a time of waiting. And, as we lit the advent candle today, we were reminded to wait with hope.

Today's gospel reading ends with: "So too, you also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come" (Matthew 24:44). Our waiting is not to be passive. We are to be prepared. We are to be watchful.

My friend Tonya reminded me during the sermon tonight that waiting for the future when Christ returns involves watching for where His Kingdom is showing in the present. Therein lies the hope, I believe. When we slow down and watch where God is working, we can see His Kingdom active around us. We can take hold of the promise that His Kingdom will come in full. We can be hopeful that this fallen world will one day be restored. We take hope that Christ's promise to return will find fulfillment.

As we wait hopefully, I close with the hymn from tonight's Divine Hours:

Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus

Come, thou long expected Jesus, Born to set your people free; From our fears and sins release us, Let us find our rest in thee. Israel’s strength and consolation, Hope of all the earth thou art: Dear desire of every nation, Joy of every longing heart. Born your people to deliver, Born a child, and yet a king, Born to reign in us for ever, Now your gracious kingdom bring. By your own eternal spirit Rule in all our hearts alone; By your all sufficient merit Raise us to your glorious throne.
Charles Wesley


Happy Thanksgiving

Despite Beth having to work for most of the day, we ended up enjoying Thanksgiving.

Beth had to work at 11:30, so some good friends invited us over for breakfast. It was a really nice way to start the day. Then the boys and I drove out to join the Bros family for dinner. Beth joined us when she got off of work at 5:30. We're very grateful for the hospitality of our new friends and "family."

The holidays aren't always easy or enjoyable for everyone--family issues, missing loved ones, etc. I hope you found yourself surrounded by people you love, and that today wasn't overshadowed by the need to find good sales. May gratitude have seasoned your day.


Giving Thanks in the Midst of Bitterness

I admit that I'm more bitter today than I am thankful. I'm bitter that my wife has to work tomorrow so that we don't get to have Thanksgiving together. I'm bitter that God hasn't opened a door for her yet into her field, but that instead she's having to work through another menial job. I'm bitter that it doesn't pay enough to live on. I'm bitter that we've been whittling away at our savings again (it seems every time we get a little saved up something happens where we have to use it) to pay bills instead of paying off more of the mortgage. I'm frustrated I haven't been able to do more to help out. I'm bitter that she has to work irregular shifts instead of having regular hours so we can have a more scheduled life or so I could do some part-time work.

Yet, I am not without reason to give thanks. I have much for which to be grateful. Unfortunately, I don't do it enough. One day is not enough. Every day is not even enough. Thanksgiving must be more of a state of being--something we are all the time.

I've said it before and I'll say it again, thanking God is the surest way for an attitude change ("gratitude evaporates frustration"). We incorporate giving thanks into our prayer time with the boys each night. When they're having a bad attitude (greedy, selfish, etc.), we often have them name a few things they are thankful for.

And so I am thankful that my wife has found a place to work, and that for the most part it's been a healthy place. I'm thankful that God provided us with a house with payments cheaper than our rent. I'm thankful that we were able to receive a tax credit on the house so we can pay the bills right now. I'm thankful that I get time with my kids (and my niece and nephew). I'm thankful for a wonderful family, for an amazing wife and for kids who bring a smile to my face. I'm thankful for these things and so much more. And I'm feeling better already.

So, with this post I remind myself that I need to "give thanks in all circumstances." When I'm feeling down, frustrated, bitter or angry, I need to also take time to focus on what I have to be thankful for--but not just then. I'm working on cultivating a lifestyle of thanksgiving. It also helps me hold onto things more loosely, remembering that what I have is God's and that He gives me opportunities to bless others with it as well.


Crown Him with Many Crowns.

Yesterday was Christ the King Sunday, the end of the liturgical year for many churches. We finish up ordinary time, before we head into the season of Advent, by being reminded of the Lordship of Christ. It's not an easy concept in our democratic society. We vote for our leaders; we want a say in who rules us. And we like to complain about our rulers who don't line up with our ideals.

We don't grasp the concept of vowing servitude to a liege. Most of us don't know how to serve a lord. We our taught to be our own boss.

When it comes to living with Christ as my King, I echo the words a dear friend of our shared at church last night: I fail miserably. I fail daily, hourly, each minute of the day. I try to take control, rather than letting Christ rule in my life (after all, He knows what's best for me). And either I become too prideful, thinking I'm better than others, or, more likely, I get down on myself, forgetting that I am a child of the King--a prince in my own right. Too often I try to put other things (including myself) on the throne instead of Christ.

So, when we arrived at church we were given a crown to wear upon our head. Yes, it took some humility to walk around (or stand at the door, greeting everyone, as it was in my case) with a big, yellow paper crown on our heads--though it did help that everyone was wearing one. After our friend shared her story about Christ being her King (as she shared her struggles in dealing with her plans not going her way in not being married or having a family by now, not working where she thought she'd be working, but knowing Christ called her to be where she is nonetheless), we were invited to decorate our crowns. We wrote on them or drew pictures of things that were important to us in our lives. Then, as we entered into worship together, we had the opportunity to lay our crowns before a crucifix.

I know that not everyone who reads this will understand what it means for Christ to be my King. Some will think it's unpatriotic. Some will think I'm a part of some radical, militant religion that wants to bring the world under one rule through crusades and wars. Some may just think it's stupid. I accept that. In many ways, it doesn't make sense.

But I also know that for me, it doesn't make sense to keep trying to follow my own ways. I screw up plenty. I get selfish and prideful. I also get depressed, lonely and bitter. I fail. But when I lay it all (and though I fail here, too, I do mean ALL) before Jesus, I can only succeed. It may not look like success in the world's eyes, but I'm not trying to please the world. I'm only trying to please my King.



Last night on the news they reported that as of Wednesday night (November 17), a couple in Florida had already set up camp outside a Best Buy store to be first in line to snag Black Friday deals.

In the words of Seth Meyer and Amy Poehler: Really?

Is that what we're coming to? We can't even get to Thanksgiving Day--a day set aside to be grateful for all we have--without wanting to get more. It's always bothered me that "Black Friday" follows Thanksgiving, that we can't get through gratitude without being greedy. I'm all for great bargains (I seldom buy things at regular price), but camping outside a store for over a week in order to get a bigger television is a bit ridiculous.

Let's take this time to seriously be grateful, thinking through all the gifts we have been given. Let it prepare us for Advent, thinking less about what we want and more about what we have. Let us think more about being generous than being needful.

Let us also savor the season. Let's not rush. I know people who have their Christmas decorations up already--which I understand; I love the season, too. But by the middle of January, we're complaining that we're sick of winter already. I wonder if it doesn't have something to do with commencing holidays before their time...(technically, according to the Church calendar, we're in Advent from November 28 until December 24 and in Christmas from December 24 to January 5).

Don't rush through the holidays (holy days), but take time to celebrate, reflect and savor. It actually simplifies our lives.


More on Tithing and The Church

I had a conversation earlier today with a good friend of mine over my post earlier this week on money. We both agree that we are called to give radically (in all areas--not just money), going beyond tithing. He was questioning, though, if we must tithe to a church (disclaimer: I'm going to paraphrase some of his thoughts--combining them with things I've heard elsewhere and examples that he didn't necessarily say). He doesn't like the fact that in most cases, more than 90% of a church's budget goes to infrastructure (salary, materials, building upkeep). He would rather have the money go to organizations that use the money more directly in ministry--helping the poor, the homeless, the hungry--rather than going to salaries and buildings. Yet, at the same time, he would admit that he would give to the person begging on the corner without needing to know where the money would be going, feeling that Jesus calls us to help without questioning the results, but he admits that he has a hard time giving to the church knowing where the money is going. He knows there's a disconnect there, but he'd rather give to things like Gospel for Asia or a local homeless shelter. And I completely understand where he's coming from.

I don't know if I had (or have) formulated my thoughts enough to verbalize them well. But I do believe that our tithing starts at the local church to where we belong. Probably some of that is based upon the fact that I have been in ministry and hope to someday return to it. I also am aware that the church isn't perfect. It is often too structured, too bureaucratic, too hierarchical. It often puts programs and tradition before people and outreach. Too often the leadership is driven by politics (the fear of being voted out or moved to another diocese if they don't appease everyone) rather that prophetical ministry.

But I also believe that the church is what God has given us to be a community of followers who love Him and love others. I believe the church (by which I don't mean a certain building, but the collective people) has great potential to change the world (for the better), to usher in the Kingdom and to have effective ministry.

I also find it interesting that one of the few examples we have of Jesus dealing with money is when he has Peter catch a fish with a coin in it's mouth with which Peter is supposed to pay for his and Jesus' portion of the temple tax which was used for the upkeep of the Temple (see Matthew 17:24-26). I've always felt that our tithe first goes to the church and our support of other ministries is above and beyond that. Of course, if the church was fully doing it's job, we wouldn't need para-church ministries. And if we were all tithing, there would be more than enough resources for the church to do those ministries itself.

Which all goes back to us needing to be radical givers and stewards of what we have--time, talents, possessions and money. I don't have all the answers on church or tithing. I'd love to hear your thoughts. In the meantime, I'm giving. Even when it hurts.


One of Those Days

We're having one of those days. I say "we" because I'm pretty sure my wife and I are on the same page, even though we're not in the same place today. Actually, we've had a lot of those days together. They're the days we often don't talk about with others--when someone asks how you're doing, you're still likely to say "fine" or "good," even though it's a lie. And there are points on some of those days where I'm "fine" one moment and not another. Still, I'm not going to gloss over my day today. It's not fine.

It started yesterday with Beth feeling certain that she didn't get the job she had recently interviewed for. It's been almost two and a half years of her trying to get into her field. It's discouraging. And I don't always know how to respond. Sometimes she doesn't want to be encouraged; sometimes she wants to give up. Often I feel inept as a husband. And today she found out that she was scheduled to work from 11 to 5:30 on Thanksgiving Day (at Starbucks, which she enjoys working at, but it's not where she desires to be--nor can we live on the wages), so we don't really get to do a meal together that day. And sometimes, it's just tough be inside all day with 3-4 kids (as much as I love them all).

To be further honest, the Bible isn't always a place of comfort for this--especially in waiting for God's perfect timing. Sarah and Abraham had to wait until they were older than most people live to be to conceive a child. Joseph was in prison for years before being remembered. There are four hundred and some years of waiting between Malachi and Matthew--the Old and New Testaments. It's not always comforting.

One of our church's core principles is reading the Divine Hours twice a day (at least). The Divine Hours are Phyllis Tickle's compilation and adaption of a manual for fixed hour prayer--a modern version of what St. Benedict requested of monastic communities 1500 years ago. One of the things I appreciate about it, is that it's very Psalm-focused. And the Psalms don't gloss over the emotions of being human. I venture to say that there are more of them that share feelings of anger, depression, sadness, loneliness and hopelessness as there are "happy" psalms.

I don't often know how to pray when I'm having "one of those days." I don't have to--others have prayed for me, and the Spirit mediates my groans. Sometimes it's comforting just to know that those prayers of anguish and lamentation are in the Bible. That God can handle what we're feeling, and that other pillars of faith have been in the same boat. It doesn't take away the fact that we want this time to pass, but it's okay to have one of those days.



We like to flaunt it, hate to talk about it and never have enough of it.
It's the least popular sermon topic, even though the use of our money and possessions is one of Jesus' most frequent topics.
The denomination I belong to often tops the list in surveys of how much people give to their church. But as a whole our denomination is somewhere around 4%; most denominations have people who average giving 2%.

Tonight at church Pastor Jan strongly spoke about giving (and I applaud her for doing so bravely). She urged us to look at what we're giving, to have heartfelt talks with our spouses (making sure we're actually talking with each other about our income and expenses) and step up our giving. It's a matter of faith. Do we put more trust in God or in our money? Do we fear giving too much or do we fear God? Do we trust God to provide all our needs or do we hold tightly to what we have?

If you'll permit me, I'll get personal for a moment. We decided early on in our marriage to give 10% of our gross income to whatever church we attended. It's never been easy. For most of our thirteen years together we've lived mostly on one income with salaries mostly between $20k and $35k. For a few jobs, I was blessed with having housing provided as part of my work. We've always lived very frugally--grocery shopping at Aldi, buying clothes from thrift shops or on sale at outlets, going to the cheap theater if we go out, rarely eating out--and we've never been without our basic needs. Despite raising a family on one income, we've paid off college and car loans. We've been without work at more than one point during our marriage, but never been able to be on unemployment. We were only able to buy a house this summer because our income was low enough (our mortgage is less than our rent was). And yes, our house is full. I would love to replace our hand-me-down couches as some point, but they do their job. Thrift shops, cheap auctions and curbside finds have supplied us with more than we really need. And we try to take good care of what we have. I know there are people in our neighborhood who think we must have money because we have a new house and decent things. Yet, we buy groceries with WIC checks and Anders gets reduced-price meals at school. We haven't rented a movie in years--we wait until we're able to get what we want at the library (I think we waited almost a year to see the movie Juno after it came out).

That money we put in the offering every other week (depending on when paychecks arrive) would be very useful. We could pay down the interest on our mortgage payments, not worry about eating as cheaply as possible and even see inside some of the theaters in downtown Minneapolis. But we're committed to our tithe. Not because of any sort of legalism, but because it's how we want to live. Actually, we want to give more than that. We want to be able to sponsor kids through Compassion International like we have in the past. We want to support our friends who are missionaries.

Here's the thing: Jesus never commands us to tithe. It's an Old Testament concept that New Testament Christians would have probably followed, but Jesus doesn't really talk about it (other than "woeing" the Pharisees who give a tenth of their spices but neglect justice). The word "tithe" doesn't even show up in the New Testament in the NIV.

Instead, Jesus calls us to follow and trust Him fully. Instead of tithing, He is more likely to tell people to give away everything they have. He invites us to follow His example of generosity and stewardship.

And so, I've got a ways to go. More often I find myself worrying about finances or being jealous of those who seem to have more. I don't fully trust God all the time. I try to be generous with what I have, but sometimes I cling to "stuff" too tightly. But the offering basket allows me an opportunity each week to tell God, "I trust you with all I have. It all comes from You; it is all Yours to begin with. Money is not my first priority." After all, it is not our sacrifices He wants (though we may be expected to give sacrificially), but our hearts and our lives. A fullness of life awaits when we turn it all over to Him, trusting Him fully and following His example in living and loving.


Nils Turns Four

Today, our youngest turned four. We set a record high temperature of 69 degrees today. Four years ago in Iowa we were driving through our first, light snowfall. A few hours later dear friends from church brought Anders to the hospital to meet his new brother. We were in the midst of being unemployed and looking for work. A few months later (after a couple heavy blizzards), we found ourselves moving to Canada. But Nils really only remembers Minnesota as his home. Before going to bed tonight (as has somewhat become a tradition), we pulled out Nils' baby book and enjoyed looking back.

We celebrated his birthday today by going to the Mall of America to take advantage of Nickelodeon Universe's free birthday wristband. It was his first real time in a theme park. He loved riding on most of the rides (the haunted house was too scary, even though they provided guns to shoot the ghosts, and the log ride was too much of a drop and too wet). He was also given a coupon book which provided a free cookie and ice cream cone later. We ran across the road to Ikea to have the birthday meal Nils asked for: a hot dog. He got to play mini golf for free--which he was really wanting to do. And we even saw Santa Claus (he was there for a photo shoot on one of the rides).

I get to spend almost every day with my son, but it was fun to get to watch him enjoy a new experience. It was fun just to celebrate. Sometimes he may test my patience, and sometimes I get upset when I keep stepping on toys that don't get picked up, but I love the kid. Thanks for the past four years, Nils. I love you.


Glimpses of Grace

A couple from our church was baptized tonight. I love baptisms. A few years ago I was able to baptize my dear friend Alaina, and it was very cool to be a part of that part of her journey (along with the other parts of her and her husband's journey that I've been involved with).

I love baptism for the remembrance it brings: that my old self has been buried, and I am a new creation in Christ. Tonight Pastor Jan pointed out how baptism is an external sacrament, affecting your whole outside (at least in immersion where all of a person gets wet); then we celebrated communion, an internal sacrament. The outward is cleansed in the water; the inner is rinsed with wine (coincidentally, Jesus' first miracle involved water and wine). In the beginning of creation, the Spirit hovered over the waters. At Jesus' baptism, the Spirit descended as He arose from the waters.

Baptism is a huge reminder of God's grace. Our sins are washed clean; only He can do that for us. Christ invites us to follow Him, dying to our own will and living in the fullness of life which He offers.

Before our worship and baptism time, we were invited to reflect on our own baptisms and God's grace in our lives. We were invited to write some reminder of our status as God's beloved on a ribbon and have someone tie it around our wrist while they reminded us "You are God's beloved."

The name "David" comes from the Hebrew word for beloved. I think I've written before about how I sometimes struggle with feeling unconditionally loved. But that's what God does. My name is even a reminder of my status with him. Not sinner (though I am). Not saint (though he makes me). Not failure or nobody or shame. Beloved. I was chosen by Him. Nothing I can do can change His love for me.

Tonight during our time of communion, one of the servers (our pastor's husband), invited Anders to come help him serve the juice. It was a joy to watch him hold the cup while others came to dip their piece of bread in it.

Earlier Anders and I were at the communion table together with a few others. I watched as adults broke off a piece of bread and gave it to the child next to them, and then the child breaking of a piece of bread giving it to the next adult. "The bread of life given to you." Then it was my turn to kneel down and accept a piece of bread from Anders. The same Anders that I had been frustrated with and yelled at this morning for not wanting to wear any of the pants that were in his drawer (I was trying to get him to dress nicely, too, so we could take some pictures today). The same Anders I got to hold hands with as we walked through the zoo. My performance doesn't entirely effect how he loves me (though there are moments when he'll say he doesn't love me if he's particularly mad right then). Grace is freely given. I can choose to freely accept it.

The waters of baptism, the communion table and even my name were all reminders tonight of God's grace. I have his free and unmerited favor. Not because of anything I have done (the sacraments may be reminders of grace, but I do not earn grace because of doing them), but because God has chosen me to be His child. He chooses each of us. Sometimes we just need those little (or big!) reminders that we are His beloved.