Advent 2018 Wk4 – Worship

Too often we think Worship = Going to Church. We hustle-bustle out the door. We sit, stand, sing, shake hands in the pews, listen. We greet our neighbors and head home, worship-job done.

That’s too narrow. Worship = recognizing and reflecting back to God His incredible worth, to love Him and love our neighbor with all our heart, soul, and strength, Sundays and all through the week.

I love Jesus, and I believe God ordained the Church to be a unique witness of His love for humanity.

However, more than ever, I am accurately aware that Church isn’t doing it for a lot of people. That many have been allowed, even encouraged, to substitute Church for Jesus in worship. That what should be safe sanctuary has been instead a place of pain. This place, this people, that should witness to God’s love hasn’t been doing a great job.

Not to vilify all churches in all places and times, not at all. Some churches are doing a beautiful job living God’s story. Yet I hear repeating refrains from many directions that they haven’t found those places.

I am also reminded of how desperately we need God. I met a couple this weekend who told me they have lost five young men to suicide in the last five months, friends and sons or brothers of friends. Their story oozes the aches of living in a fallen world. I cling to hope for the Church to be a place that eases the pain, that gives comfort and courage to face each day, that offers light and love and joy.

The Magi encourage me. They actively sought the coming King and were open to seeing signs of His arrival directing them to the most unlikely place. They left their business (and theology) as usual and endured a trying journey to fall down before Him in worship. They worked hard to seek and find the One True King.

Maybe the most worshipful thing you can do today is go to church. Or try a new church. Or, maybe Church looks like quietly listening for His still small voice through His Word. Or heading outdoors to take a walk with Him. Maybe it looks like loving your family, friends, and neighbors, the people He put in your life for you to love as He does. Or loving yourself, making self-care a priority.

Whatever your practice, keep Jesus the focus of worship. Keep your eyes open to see Him in the expected and unexpected places. And be aware of His unending grace and overwhelming love raining down on you as you journey to wherever you have to go to fall down before Him in worship.

Come, Lord Jesus, and give us eyes to see you and love to offer the world.

Week 4 – The Magi’s Worship

Say aloud together: Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Light four candles: We light these candles to celebrate Jesus, the Light of the world, who comes into the darkness to bring hope, joy and faith, and to inspire our worship.

Read Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12

Read: The Magi had open eyes. They actively searched for signs of the King’s arrival and, when they spotted the star, they took a long journey to joyfully worship Him face-to-face. Herod, however, had his eyes and ears shut tight to the good news of Jesus’ birth. May we be constantly on the lookout for signs of God’s presence with us and respond to Him in joyful worship.

Pray: King Jesus, we joyfully bow down in worship before you. In your name we pray, Jesus. Amen.

“Next time a sunrise steals your breath, or a meadow of flowers leaves you speechless, remain that way. Say nothing and listen as heaven whispers, ‘Do you like it? I did it just for you.’” –Max Lucado, The Great House of God

Advent 2018 Wk3 – Faith

The year C20 had his first birthday, Guy and I both turned 30 a few weeks before and after. Our birthdays span November to January so Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s got wrapped up in the fun. We created a list of small celebrations we could enjoy each day during those eight weeks, simple activities like sweetening a mug of hot chocolate with a candy cane, going for a walk together, or watching an animated Christmas movie. We celebrated our lives and the holidays with flair.

As I spent this last week reflecting on joy, I realized that I might be doing Advent wrong. Or, at least, wrong for me at this time.

Other than chomping the daily chocolates in our Advent calendar, I didn’t grow up with an Advent tradition. The time between Thanksgiving and Christmas was simply Christmastime, when we listened to Christmas music and shopped and wrapped and enjoyed the season.

I appreciate Advent for its thematic focus, its intentionality, its lens on waiting for Jesus. But over the years, our church has adopted a fuller Advent tradition, limiting Christmas music to Christmas Eve and the following Sunday (and the annual Christmas concert, the one exception to the rule) in favor of Advent hymns. And since there are only two popular Advent hymnsCome, Thou Long Expected Jesus and O Come, O Come, Emmanuel–the music sounds like the rest of the year. So even though I used to start listening to Christmas music in October while I planned the church Christmas materials, I have mostly stopped listening to Christmas music before Christmas.

And I’m missing it. I’m missing the joy. I’ve employed the discipline without reaping the benefit, and I’m sorrier for it. I feel dry and dour.

Perhaps traditional Advent observance might also necessitate the observance of the Twelve Days of Christmas–Christmas celebrations commencing on Christmas and lasting until King’s Day on January 6. But I’m not there; when Christmas is over, it’s over. And since so much of life necessarily involves waiting for Jesus, I want to enjoy Him now. I want to celebrate Him today. I don’t want to wait any longer.

Besides, there is way too much good Christmas music to limit it to a day.

Those of us who follow Jesus live in tension between the already and not yet. Jesus has come, and He will come again. We have the joy of salvation now, but we won’t experience the fullness of life in His Kingdom until the second coming. So we wait.

But why in the world am I intentionally limiting the joy of celebrating His birth? Sure, His birthday is next week, but He’s already here. This year the discipline feels a little absurd, like not talking to my son for the month before his birthday just because his birthday hadn’t yet happened… What sense would that make?

This week’s focus is faith, that God will direct our paths even (especially) when the way seems foggy. I’m staring intently down some foggy paths of my own, and I do believe that Jesus will show up, that He will hold my hand and walk gently with me. And I’m going to celebrate that reality today, with some Christmas music, even as I wait for His eventual arrival.

Week 3 – Joseph’s Faith 

Say aloud together: Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Light three candles (two purple, one pink): We light these candles to celebrate Jesus, the Light of the world, who comes into the darkness to bring hope, joy and faith.

Read Scripture: Matthew 1:18-25

Read: A good man, Joseph found himself in what looked like a bad situation. While he quietly planned a way out, an angel assured him that he had no reason for fear: what seemed like bad news would be good news for everyone. Mary’s baby wasn’t just any baby—this would be God’s baby, Immanuel, God with us! When we accept God’s plan, God turns our fear to faith and our faith to joy.

Pray: Holy Spirit, where we feel fear, plant your seed of faith. Grow our faith into joy in your presence. In the name of Jesus, we wait and pray. Amen.

Monday Deuteronomy 7:8-9 How does God’s faithfulness inspire your faithfulness to Him?
Tuesday Psalm 93:1 How do you hang on in faith that God is in control?
Wednesday Isaiah 26:3-4, 12 What worries do you need to put in God’s hands?
Thursday John 14:27 Let go of your troubles and receive Jesus’ peace.
Friday Colossians 1:3-4 Who can you thank God for as an example of faith in Christ?
Saturday Hebrews 11:1 How do you define faith?

Suggested Activities
Make a list of things in which you put your faith, for example, that your alarm will go off in the morning or that the lights will come on when you flick the switch. Try to count as least ten. Then ask: Is it (or, why is it) sometimes easier to trust in these mundane things than to trust in the God who sent His Son Jesus to be our Savior?

Incorporate silence into your daily routine and use it as a chance to talk with God. Drive with the radio off. Go for a quiet hike. Sit in silence with your morning cup of coffee. Read your Bible, and let God share with you His perspective on what you’re facing each day.

Journal
When have you seen God show up in your unexpected or unwanted circumstances? Where do you need to experience His presence currently?

“It is faith that what happens to me matters to God as well as to me that gives me joy, that promises me that I am eternally the subject of God’s compassion, and that assures me that the compassion was manifested most brilliantly when God came to us in a stable in Bethlehem.” –Madeleine L’Engle, Glimpses of Grace

Advent 2018 Wk 2 – Joy

Lately I have been impressed with stories of joy: people enduring difficult circumstances with genuine smiles lighting their faces and claims of, “Laugh or cry, I choose to laugh,” or “I was born a happy child,” or “I choose to do something I enjoy every day.” People who, in witness to others’ difficult circumstances, decide to get their hands dirty and serve, to make life that much easier or better for someone else, and discover joy in the shared experience.

Unlike happiness, tied to experiences that easily elicit smiles and laughter, joy is a choice. A decision to rejoice even when the circumstances don’t seem to warrant it. A connection to God who is the source of all true joy.

Like young Mary who, when greeted by a mysterious messenger with mind-boggling news–Hey, Mary, you’re going to birth God’s baby…–responded, Let it be, and My spirit rejoices in God who has remembered His humble servant…

Happy comes easy. Joy requires intention, effort.

I wore an audaciously bright pink scarf to church today (atop a gray/black pant/sweater set) and mentioned to someone that the scarf was in honor of Mary’s joy. Eyes wide, she chuckled, incredulous that I would match my outfit to Advent. Well, I suppose that’s an insight to the odd workings of my mind!

And, yes. We can find hot pink joy against a dark background. We can find joy in a cute Christmas mug filled with messy clumps of hot chocolate. We can find joy in the homemade and gifted decoration even though the mirror has cracked. We can seek–and discover–joy in the clumpy, broken, messy, difficult parts of life… That’s kind of the whole point: we rejoice in God with us, because God walks with us through life.

 

Week 2 – Mary’s Joy

Say aloud together: Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Light two candles (purple): We light these candles to celebrate Jesus, the Light of the world, who comes into the darkness to bring hope and joy.

Read Scripture: Luke 1:26-38, 46-49

Read: The angel announced, “Mary, highly favored one, the Lord is with you,” and Mary rejoiced at the role she would play in the coming of the Son of the Most High. God’s Spirit whispers to each one of us, “You, too, are God’s servant, with a special role to play in God’s story.” The story may turn and twist in ways we can’t anticipate but let us say “Yes!” to God’s calling and rejoice in His presence.

Pray: We rejoice in God our Savior who has been mindful of His humble servants. In the name of Jesus we wait and pray, Amen.

Monday 1 Samuel 8:6-7 How can you rejoice in Jesus your King today?
Tuesday Psalm 5:11 How does God’s protection increase your joy?
Wednesday Habakkuk 3:17-19 How can God increase your joy even when times are difficult?
Thursday Acts 16:33-34 How does believing in God give you joy?
Friday Galatians 5:22-23 Ask the Spirit to increase your joy.
Saturday Jude 24-25 Read these verses aloud as joy-filled praise to our good God!

Suggested Activities
Make a list of ways you can spread Christmas joy, such as:
Take a Christmas treat or poinsettia to someone who lives alone.
Find a way to serve someone, for instance, clean an older neighbor’s gutters.
Invite friends to join you for a cookie decorating party and/or viewing of a favorite Christmas movie.
Create handmade thank you cards and attach candy canes for your teachers or church leaders.
Gather a group and go caroling.
Pray over each Christmas card you receive, inviting God to rain joy over each household.

Ted Tuesday – Advent Hope 2018

With all that’s currently piled on my To-Do plate, it seems all I can do to stab a rolling pea here and there with the tines of my fork, barely making an impact. Hope, I remind myself, I cling to hope.

And then I remember, first world problems. Not to diminish the emotional and physical toil of the work before me, but just to put things back in perspective. I have speed bumps, while others have mountains.

Isaiah 9:2 – The people walking in darkness
    have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
    a light has dawned.

I may encounter some darkness, but others trudge through darkness. So I found this video, this beautiful song inspired by a peace warrior who encouraged: If you’re feeling helpless, help someone. Maybe the video will help someone else today, and maybe each of us will look at others–at the world–with eyes that call us onward to be the helpers the world needs.

Advent 2018 Wk1 – Hope

Recently I had a conversation with a friend who admitted she is looking forward to the holidays and, truly, next year. She’s had a rough few months and needs some joy and a fresh start.

Same. And, from conversations with others, I know we aren’t alone. It seems so many people are up against so many things; the weight of the world feels like too heavy a burden, and we’re wondering if we might buckle.

It feels right that Advent more or less closes out the calendar year, this season of waiting to celebrate our Savior’s birth, waiting for joy, waiting for new beginnings. More than ever I need this spiritual reset of my focus. I need to meditate on hope, joy, faith, and wonder. I need to get caught up with the One who loves me more than I will ever comprehend. I need to worship, not just on Sundays but throughout the week, the Prince who freely rains peace that passes understanding on His beloved people.

During Advent we prepare room in our hearts for the joyful arrival of the Baby Jesus. He has come, He is coming, and He will come again. As one writer so eloquently put it:

“Advent is the time of promise; it is not yet the time of fulfillment. We are still in the midst of everything and in the logical inexorability and relentlessness of destiny.…From afar sound the first notes as of pipes and voices, not yet discernable as a song or melody. It is all far off still, and only just announced and foretold. But it is happening, today.” ― Alfred Delp, Advent of the Heart

In our church and home, we use an Advent wreath to meditate on the meaning of God’s coming. Every aspect of the tradition is symbolic: the Wreath (a circle) signifies eternity—God is, was and always will be. There are four candles on the perimeter of the wreath. Three purple candles represent royalty and repentance; one pink candle (for week three) represents joy. The white center candle represents the divine nature of the baby Jesus. Evergreens represent everlasting life in Jesus and His everlasting love for us. The candlelight itself symbolizes Jesus, the Light of the World. If you need to keep it simple, all you really need is five candles, four to make a circle and one in the middle.

I wrote the following for our congregation and plan to share each week here as well. May God fill your life this Advent season with His light, His love, His joy, His hope.

Week 1 – The People’s Hope

Say aloud together: Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Light the first candle (middle purple candle): We light these candles to celebrate Jesus, the Light of the world, who comes into the darkness to bring hope.

Read Scripture: Isaiah 9:1-7

Read: Though now we trudge in darkness through our daily toil, we do not fear because our hope is in you. Sunbursts of light will illuminate our way to you as we joyfully anticipate the birth of this baby who will bring peace, justice and righteousness. We will rejoice before you then and forever when we see the face of our Mighty God, our Prince of Peace.

Pray: Father God, we joyfully anticipate the birth of your Son. In His name we wait and pray, Amen.

Monday 1 Kings 8:56-58 How does God’s presence fill you with hope and joy?
Tuesday 2 Chronicles 13:12 What hope does it give you that God is your leader?
Wednesday Psalm 46:1-3, 7 How can God’s presence turn your fear into hope?
Thursday Ephesians 1:4-6 What encouragement do you have from being chosen by God?
Friday Colossians 1:27 What does “the hope of glory” look like in your life?
Saturday 1 Peter 1:3-5 Describe the “living hope” you have in Jesus.

Suggested Activity: In anticipation of all the season’s celebrations, have a conversation with your family (or yourself) about hope. What emotions are primary as they think about the holidays, and why? Which events does each person expect to attend, and what do they hope for those gatherings? What do they hope will be on the holiday menu? Do they hope to receive certain gifts? What hopes do they have for extending charity? When the new year dawns and they look back on this month, what do they hope to have experienced and/or accomplished? How do they hope to have encountered God?

Mighty Love

The first time I saw Yosemite Valley it snowed. I had accompanied my boyfriend (now husband) and his family on a cross-country skiing weekend a short drive from Yosemite. Having never been, they decided I must see it.

The snow itself was beautiful but, as it fell from the sky, it obscured the view. I had a sense that I should be gasping with awe, yet all I saw was white: white clouds, white snow, with patches of grey rock and black trees stabbing their presence known.

So much snow fell so quickly that, by the time we reached the valley floor, we had to purchase chains to drive back out. We may have paused for a quick cup of coffee at the general store, but it was a slow drive for a quick trip.

The next time I saw Yosemite was two years after we married on an anniversary camping trip. This time, I understood all the fuss. I aimed my camera every which direction–at impossibly large rock faces, dogwoods, brooks, clouds in glorious blue skies–understanding that no camera could adequately capture the beauty of standing in this one spot.

You’ve felt it, I’m sure. You recognize that sensation of glory. The feeling of being in the presence of something so awe-some, so wonder-full, of being so small a speck on the face of this planet and yet somehow also feeling larger than life because you had the chance to witness this moment.

In those moments, I am overwhelmed by the presence and power of God. By His might, and His mighty love through which He created everything and everyone. I don’t understand God and have plenty of questions for Him, but recalling those astounding moments when I can do little more than utter WOW! grounds me in gratitude for His presence.

Journey to Freedom
Exodus 5-10

Connect
When has God made you say, “WOW”?

Study
Read Exodus 5:1-9 and 5:22-6:9.
Why did God want the Israelites to go into the wilderness?
How did Pharaoh respond to God’s request through Moses and Aaron?
What does God reveal about Himself?
If you’re discussing these questions with others, break into three groups. Invite each group to read one of the following passages and discuss the questions that follow as they prepare to share with the other groups: Exodus 7:14-8:19; Exodus 8:20-9:12; and Exodus 9:13-10:29.
What are the plagues? What do you notice about each? What do you learn about God?

Live
When have you experienced God’s power? How did you respond?
How do you describe God to someone who doesn’t yet know Him?
Have you ever felt so discouraged by circumstances that you couldn’t see what God might be doing? How did that situation resolve?
What do you do when you just can’t understand God?
How can remembering who God is and what He has done help you in times of doubt and struggle?
What is God saying to you through this passage, and what will you do about it?

Pray
Worship God for His fearful might and great love.

Family Share Questions
Use these questions to reflect on Exodus 5:22-6:8 individually and with your family.
When have you seen God’s power?
How do you say thanks to God?
Thank God for being your God!

It’s Complicated

One of the lessons from history that repeatedly presented itself during our recent trip to Washington D.C. was just how amazingly complex humans are. People can do fascinating things–like deciding it must be possible to fly like a bird and, within less than ten years, producing not only working airplanes but aviation schools.

People can create works of intense beauty out of unthinkable destruction, like the artists commissioned by the U.S. government to document World War 1.

People can speak and write on behalf of justice, and still manage to justify living in opposition to their own convictions. Like Thomas Jefferson, who called slavery “moral depravity” and “a hideous blot,” yet owned and directly profited from the work of 600 slaves, freeing only five upon his death.

Does our good work invalidate our bad deeds?
Do our bad deeds make meaningless the good we do?

Maybe. Sometimes. I hope not and, in some cases, absolutely. It’s complicated.

One need only to have participated in church for a few minutes to recognize that some people should not be in leadership. Perhaps they need more help than they offer. Or maybe, in the helping, they are working towards greater health.

Yet one bad sermon doesn’t invalidate a preacher. The occasional missed opportunity or lack of understanding doesn’t mean someone doesn’t care. The Bible is pretty clear that the church is a mixed bag of nuts, sinners redeemed by grace. God isn’t done with us yet. He is bigger than our best attempts and worst failures.

God uses people, broken in oh so many ways, almost despite ourselves. He uses people because He’s good like that, because His grace shines brighter through our cracks, because, in using us, He redeems and restores and heals us along the way.

I’ve long said I’m more Moses than Mary. Sweet, compliant Mary imagined the unimaginable and sang, “Let it be…” My flare for the dramatic makes me, like Moses, prone to argue with God, to be a true chicken squawking that I’m not fit for service.

Thank God, He knew that about Moses before the conversation began. He created me that way, too. And in the push-back, God takes the opportunity to reveal Himself, to teach us more about who He is and what He’s about and how great big GOD can use lil’ ol’ us to accomplish His objective.

“God doesn’t call the qualified. He qualifies the called.” (I think I read this in Madeleine L’Engle’s books decades ago; but I’ve just now seen it attributed to at least three other authors…)

Sure, I have some qualifications: degrees, work experience, relationships all direct my life in certain ways. But all that would mean nothing if God wasn’t behind the work. In so many ways, I’m unqualified; and so are you; and yet, God calls…

Journey to Freedom
Exodus 2-4

Connect
Share about a time when you made a big move (i.e., going away to college, moving for a new job, etc.) and what you learned about yourself in the transition.

Study
Read Exodus 2:1-10.
Where can we see evidence of God in Moses’s early life?
Read Exodus 2:11-22.
Describe Moses as a grown up.
Read Exodus 2:23-4:17.
What stands out to you from the conversation between God and Moses, and why (2:23-4:17)?
What do we learn about God from this conversation?
Read Exodus 4:18-31.
Put yourself in the meeting of Moses and Aaron with the elders (vv29-31). What encouragement did each receive?

Live
God sometimes delivers people from circumstances, but perhaps more often works through circumstances. How was that true for Moses? For the Israelites? For us?
When have you experienced God turn a mistake or failure in your life into an opportunity?
Moses took off his sandals and hid his face. How do we show respect for God’s holiness?
When has God called you to take a scary step of faith? How did you respond?
Have you ever argued with God? How did that go?
Moses had Aaron and the elders. Who has been a partner/helper/encourager to your faith adventures?
What is God saying to you through this passage, and what will you do about it?

Pray
Thank God that He works all things together for good.

Family Share Questions
Use these questions to reflect on Exodus 3:1-10 individually and with your family.
What amazing things have you seen God do?
How can you show respect for God’s holiness?
How do you know that God sees you and cares for you?
Thank God for being so good to His people.