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.


Let the Complaining Begin (and End)

Just about everyone I know is looking forward to today for the ceasing of the political commercials. And I don't blame them. Ads keep getting worse and worse, focusing on instilling fear and dividing us rather than trying to speak to actually representing us.

My peeve with the day after elections is that nothing has changed. And I'm not pointing fingers at the politicians. I'm talking about us. We cast our ballot (hopefully), but just get back to complaining. For that's what the majority of us do. We complain about anyone for whom we didn't vote that is in office (as if all our nation's problems would be solved if we got our way and had all of our candidates in office).

But complaining is what we do when we don't get our way or don't like how reality is. We let politics divide us rather than using it to work for the good of the people. Maybe, instead of griping, we need to spend more time praying. Then, only after an outflowing of our prayers, do some work ourselves in making this country (whether in our neighborhood, city or state) better.

Actually, I'm thinking that prayer is a good response whenever we find ourselves complaining (whether it's about politics, the weather, our neighbors or whatever). It's not the situation that necessarily needs to be changed (often the situation can't be changed), but our response to it. Prayer opens us up to a changed attitude. Try being thankful: "Gratitude evaporates frustration." Pray for political leaders (or your neighbors or co-workers)--not that they would change, but that you might love them better. Pray for their success (wow! what an impetus for humility). I for one need this reminder.


Of Saints and Fear

As I see it, we sit sandwiched between fear today. Yesterday was Halloween: a day that has become about fear. And, apparently as many costume catalogues will prove, sex (an upper-elementary student I met in the park the other day told me that she was going to be a "sexy, hooded witch" for Halloween). Now that's something to be scared of....

Tomorrow is Election Day, and if the political ads are telling us anything it's that we're to be afraid of what is happening to our country and of the opposing candidate. The political platforms seem to be largely based on fear.

Today, however, is All Saints' Day: a day when the church honors the lives of the faithful who have gone before us. We remember their witness. And their witness gives us hope. The saints (not just those canonized by the Vatican, but all who lived and died following Christ) remind us of the teaching of John that "perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment" (1 John 4:18). When the Bible talks about fear, it is often the fear of the Lord--the one fear we should frequently practice. This was the fear the saints knew--the fear that made them saints.

Fear of the Lord is not an easy thing to comprehend. It's not about being scared of God--though it is having a healthy respect of His power. We're not to be afraid of God, but to behold Him with awe and reverence.

I was reading from The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe to the boys tonight. The Beaver family has these things to say about Aslan: "'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you" and "if there's anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they're either braver than most or else just silly."

Instead of throwing money at horror movies or political ads (think of all that could have been done with the billions--yes, billions--used on those horrible television commercials), take time to
think what it means to fear God and to walk humbly with Him your whole life. (And if you must throw money at something, give to your church--most of us aren't anywhere near actually tithing, let alone giving above that as Jesus calls us to do.)