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.

Hold On

It’s exceedingly easy to bolt (or, rather, drag yourself) out of bed, to hustle-bustle the family out the door–to school and to work, to the gym or to walk the dog–and into the day. One thing leads to another, until you have to get dinner on the table, get the kids on to homework or sports or music, pay the bills, answer the emails, until eventually you collapse into bed, hoping not to toss fitfully through the wee hours before the alarm signals it’s time to do it all again.

And to ignore God’s presence in all of it. Just because we don’t acknowledge God doesn’t mean He’s not there.

Other seasons might find us crying out to God, painfully aware of our need for Him in this crazy, chaotic world, only to hear silence in response.

Just because we don’t see or hear God doesn’t mean He’s not there.

How long would it take a dozen brothers to have families that have families that have families enough to create a people group so intimidating that their host country begins to dread them, enslave them, then try to annihilate them? It’s got to be a while, right?

That’s the set-up for Exodus. The Israelites have their babies–which we understand to be signs of God’s blessing–and the Egyptians ruthlessly use and abuse the Israelites, which (somehow) results in more baby-blessings, this strange oppression-population explosion cycle playing out for likely a whole lot of years.

Where is God while His people are getting beat up?

The new king asks the midwives to kill the Hebrew boy-babies. They “fear God” and make up a clever excuse. And there, there is God, pleased with Shiprah and Puah’s God-honoring disobedience. God is pleased with them, so He gives them families of their own.

Did they recognize their own babies as a gift directly from God? I think they did, but I wonder if others could see God so clearly. All those Israelites “miserable with hard labor, crushed under a cruel workload” (The Message), did they remember the stories they had heard about the God of creation? About the God who watched over Joseph even when his brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt?

Did they look to the overwhelmingly bad circumstances of their immediate existence and despair? Or did they remember what they had been taught about the God who always sees His people?

I like to think that Shiprah and Puah act as a subset of a whole, that they are the specific example of God-fearing Israelites.

But then, I know from personal experience that it doesn’t always work that way. The world never is as it should be, and we rail against it and lose sight of God in our tizzy. And then, of course, there are the stories yet to come in Exodus of God’s people being just a wee-bit short-sighted and stubborn.

I come back to the main point of a sermon I heard long ago: When you want to ask why, it’s time to worship.

When life gets out of whack, when we can’t see our way past the circumstances, when God seems absent, then more than ever we need to hold on to God’s character and what He’s done in the past, and worship Him.

Journey to Freedom
Exodus 1

Connect
How might your childhood neighbors have described your family? How might your current neighbors describe your family?

Study
Read aloud Exodus 1.
Describe the Israelites (vv7-9, 17-19). What might the specific example of the Hebrew midwives tell us about the Israelites as a whole?
Why did the new Egyptian king perceive the Israelites as a threat, and how did he handle it?
Read Genesis 46:8 and Genesis 1:28. What might the echoes of Genesis in the beginning of Exodus mean to its readers?
The Egyptians dreaded the Israelites. What sense do you think the Israelites made of their situation?
Where do you see God in this chapter?

Live
Who appears in your genealogy of faith? How can a faith legacy make a difference?
Share some things God has done for you. How does God working in your past affect your faith presently?
When have you felt like God was absent? How did you hang on to faith during that time?
“Things are not the way they ought to be, but we rest in God’s promises. We have faith” –Peter Enns. How was that true for the Israelites? How is that true for God’s people today?
What is God saying to you through this passage, and what will you do about it?

Pray
Ask God for the courage to live faithfully even when the world seems hostile.

 

Family Share Questions
Use these questions to reflect on Exodus 1:8-21 individually and with your family.
Why should you obey God?
Has anyone ever told you to do something you knew was wrong? What did you do?
Ask God to help you do the right thing.

 

Greatness

[Since I don’t post when I’m away from home, this week I’m going to post some of the content I wrote while on vacation…]

“Do you think this makes one too many visits?”, my mom asks as we’ve ‘lost’ the teenagers again in the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

“No,” I reply, “never too many visits. The kids just know their way around. They know what to look for and what to expect. And they’re bigger, so they move faster.”

We’ve been coming here for so many years, truly, their lifetimes. We know what we’ll see in each exhibit, each tank. We’ve long ago determined our favorites and, also, the ones we’ll quickly pass by. We know where to find each other for the long looks, the tanks that even now warrant wonder, our focused attention.

Okay, so maybe the teens are a little underwhelmed after all these visits, but that comes with the age.

No matter how many times I’ve been here, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has earned my respect. Their work in research, conservation, and education is nothing less than awe-inspiring.

Just today, we saw a program we’ve never seen before: a live-narrated video presentation about Great White Sharks. We have seen Great White Sharks live, in their tanks (though they don’t have one now); most people have never seen a Great White except in a movie.

I don’t always love a zoo. There’s something about animals in captivity. But the best zoos, including aquariums, care for both animals and viewers. MBA is The Best Aquarium.

These creatures…we’d never see them otherwise. Fish with vibrant colors. Shore birds swimming in silly circles to churn up whatever delicious bite might have lodged itself in the mud. Baby bat rays that swim up and slide down the glass. Penguins treading water as they watch crazy humans. Octopus tentacles clustered against the tank while it sleeps. Cuttlefish marvelously changing color as they glide.

The beauty and variety of these creatures amazes me. No matter how small they might be, they make me feel small. Together, we are the creations of an infinitely creative God who loves all of us.

Later, I walked along the coast, finally perching on one of the many benches (with a coast this dramatic, there should be this many benches). I soaked in the view, the smells and sounds and sights: the crash of waves on rocks; the delighted squawk of a seagull discovering a fat, dead fish; two sea lions ‘porpoising,’ taking turns gracefully arching their bodies up and out of the water; an otter, bobbing and diving in the surf.

I clicked open my daily Bible reading app to Psalm 145, a favorite.

“Great is the Lord! He is most worthy of praise! No one can measure his greatness. Let each generation tell its children of your mighty acts; let them proclaim your power” (vv3-4).

While we admire God’s greatness mirrored in the beauty of His creation, my sister lies in a hospital. Again. For fourteen years, she’s been fighting for her life.

“The Lord is good to everyone. He showers compassion on all his creation” (v9).

If she could be here, she would be as enthralled by the coast and its creatures as I am. But of course she is also fearfully and wonderfully made, more precious to God than all the rainbow fish. So we pray that God will fulfill His promises:

“The Lord helps the fallen and lifts those bent beneath their loads. The eyes of all look to you in hope” (vv14-15).

We pray and we hope…

 

[Update: she is out of the hospital but, given her chronic illness, she will never be entirely out of the woods. We pray and we hope…]

jean wimmerlin