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.

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?

“Come & See…”

Advent is a season of anticipation, and each year I find myself looking for two things: perfect and imperfect.

As I wrote about here, I look for that moment when the Spirit of Christmas arrives. When I can’t shut out sublime tears, when goosebumps shake me with shivers of joy and revelry and hope: Christmas is coming! Christ is coming!

That describes the perfect Christmas moment. I also look for the imperfect, the things that remind me that all will be well even though nothing on earth will be perfect, that my longings will never be perfectly fulfilled, that I myself and all my striving will still result in something less than. I wrote about that here and here, and this year I laughed every time I looked at our evergreen wreath sticking out its silly tongue at me…wreath-silly

I look for these moments, these encounters. I seek miracles in the mundane. And yet, I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not all that observant.

My maternal grandmother collected Hummel figurines. She’s gone now so I can’t ask when she got the first one, which one?, or how she decided to collect them. She was my grandma, my Mor-Mor, and Hummels were her precious thing. I never thought to ask.

Mor-Mor gave me my first Hummel, from her collection, when Guy and I got engaged. Over years she gave me one, then another, then a couple; I don’t have many but I have some. Truly, they’re not my taste but they feel like a tangible connection to one of my most dearly beloveds, and so I treasure them.

I wish I remembered the occasion on which she gave me Mary and Joseph. I found them a home in our display case and for many Christmases I have forgotten to put them out, precisely because they have a permanent rather than seasonal home. This year, though, as we were “behind” in our typical decorating game, I plucked and placed them center-mantel.

A few days later a friend asked if I had a creche we could use to adorn a Christmas brunch table; I texted her a picture of my Hummels. She replied (with a chuckle, I imagine), “Except, Mary is holding Jesus, so that might be post-creche…?”mary-joseph

Egads! I hadn’t noticed Jesus! I hadn’t noticed that this wasn’t Joseph and Mary en route to Bethlehem but, more likely, fleeing to Egypt! I kept them front-and-center to remind me that Christmas is not about my vision of perfect but about Jesus who is Perfect.

Sadly, I feel like I fled through this Advent, more hustle-bustle than present to the moment. The To-Do List eclipsed attempts at a To-Be List and I found myself squelching sobs through Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services, feeling so not ready for Christmas…

I don’t want to flee through life, living on the run. I want to live in the moment, fully present, listening, seeing, full-body sensing what’s going on around me, what God is doing in and around me. The To-Do List will always be longer, but I want the To-Be list to matter.

Mostly, I want To BE with Jesus, the little guy in arms I hadn’t noticed, The Big Guy who holds me close, who holds together all things–including me.

Like the first disciples, I want to hear–and respond, and mostly, to follow–Jesus’ invitation to “Come and See.” I want eyes to see Him. I want to spend time with Him. I want to let Him change up my priorities. I want to be so excited about who He is and what He is doing that it becomes easy, essential, to issue that same invitation: Come and See…

Come & See
Week 1 – John 1:35-51

Connect
What sights would you like to be invited to come and see?

Study
Read John 1:35-51.
Notice all the words that have to do with sight (look, see, find…). What role does sight play in our relationship with Jesus?
What can we learn from this passage, both in how people refer to Him and in what He says/does, about who Jesus is?
Describe the steps of their transformation as these first disciples encounter Jesus (John pointed Jesus out, they followed, they spent time with Him…).
In vv. 43-45, Jesus “found” Philip but Philip tells Nathanael they have “found” Jesus. What truth does that convey about our relationship with Him?
How is Nathanael’s response to hearing about Jesus different than the others (v. 46)? What different responses have you witnessed when people hear about Jesus?
Jesus offers a word of truth to Simon (v. 42) and Nathanael (v. 47). What might that have been like?

Live
What helps you see Jesus? Or, how do you spend time with Jesus?
Compare the first disciples’ “come and see” evangelism approach to contemporary approaches. How is it like/unlike? How might it influence your own style?
Jesus spoke blessing to Simon and Nathanael. Do you think people expect blessing or curses from Jesus? Explain.
Who would you like to bring to Jesus? What would you tell them about Him?
What does this passage communicate about what it means to be Jesus’ disciple? About how to grow as Jesus’ disciple?
What is Jesus saying to you through this study, and how will you respond?

Pray
Pray that the Spirit will open your eyes to see God in all your circumstances, and that He will give you opportunities to bring others with you to come and see Jesus.

Be Still…

happy_birthday-8

“Stillness can be an adventure,” says Pico Iyer, and so on my birthday I gave myself the gift of stillness.

I left my phone on airplane mode and turned off my email. No news, no social media.
I went for a longer-than-usual run.
I gave myself a mani-pedi.
I lit a candle, sipped a cup of tea, and prayed.
I listened to calming music.
I read and wrote, my job but reframed today as my work-at-home retreat.
I smelled the roses and lifted my face to the warming sun.
I took deep breaths.

Of late the world has been particularly noisy. Beyond the normal seasonal work-and-life stress, global conflict and racial strife explode from gun barrels; politicians and their supporters shout in lieu of dialogue; and under our own roof, the extra of one kid applying to college while another struggles for health… One can only take in so much.

The antidote: stillness. And gratitude.

No year in a life can be perfect, even perfectly easy. This year had its trials, but in so many ways, this has been a good year in my life.

I initiated the Create Challenge on my blog, a source of encouragement and inspiration that has also connected me with people in new ways.
I started running, so unlikely it still makes me laugh.
I didn’t quit, despite set-backs.
I took on new work challenges with confidence.
I preached a summer Sunday sermon.
I have made good progress on a personal creative project.
I have friends and family who love me and a job that fulfills me.
Life is good, and stillness helps me to hear its goodness above the clamor.

I jotted down this quote from Kate Atkinson’s book, A God in Ruins, because it spoke to my need for stillness: “The last thing she wanted was people looking for her. No, that wasn’t true—the last thing she wanted was people finding her.”

I want to be looked for—I want people to need me and enjoy my company. And I want to be found. Tomorrow. Tomorrow we can have a party, a loud celebration. For today, I trust that those who love me will appreciate my self-gift of self-care. Thank you for your patience with me as I extend patience to myself.

Stillness has been both solace and struggle (how to still the hum of shattered nerves?). It took time and effort to stay put, to keep at it, to avoid easy distractions. I carefully guarded my daylight hours and, in so doing, I completed a major project in record time while also receiving a different measure of quiet rest. Like any discipline, any adventure worth having, it wasn’t easy, but it was worth it. I might just do it again, sooner than later.worth-it

Celebrating God’s Goodness

Jesus Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed!

Today we celebrate Easter, the resurrection of Jesus Christ which conquered death and gives us new life.

Easter lilies. Choral and brass anthems. Dress-up clothes. And yes, Easter baskets, hidden eggs, and even chocolate bunnies.

Photo credit: Nancy Ingersoll, http://thephotocottage.net/

Photo credit: Nancy Ingersoll, http://thephotocottage.net/

Celebration is important, necessary for a full life, the highs balancing the lows. But what if you don’t feel like celebrating? What if you’re stuck in a valley so deep you don’t remember the sky?

Thank God the Bible addresses the full range of human experience. See Psalm 13:

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
    and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
    How long will my enemy triumph over me?

Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
    Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
    and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

But I trust in your unfailing love;
    my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
    for he has been good to me.

David cries out in despair, feeling the absence of God in this struggle against his enemy. And yet, he chooses to trust, to rejoice, to sing the Lord’s praise, to celebrate God’s goodness. He doesn’t feel like celebrating but he chooses to celebrate nonetheless.

It helps to remember that celebration is itself a spiritual discipline. We can choose it even when – maybe especially when – we don’t feel it.

A decade ago I went through a particularly difficult few years. After two years of secondary infertility we finally got pregnant just as my dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. My sister had a baby and on his baptism day, Father’s Day in fact, she landed in the hospital with a potentially life-threatening case of pancreatitis. Around the time our own long-awaited baby was born, we realized our jobs were in transition; we left our jobs shortly after Dad passed on Tween’s first birthday. Our peers, fortunately for them, hadn’t experienced the crushing weight of life’s traumas and couldn’t support us in our grief.

My kids were my joy, my reason to get out of bed each day. My sweet husband held me when I could cry, not as often as I expected. Family felt like a lifeline as we walked together through the valley of the shadow of death, that poetic line from Scripture becoming our too-real daily walk.

Time passes. We found new jobs and new community in a new town, and I came across my journal from that time. Although grief like thick fog had obscured my vision, had left me feeling alone, here I saw page after page of Scriptures and prayers in my own handwriting, a dialogue with God that had under-girded each day. Even in the darkness I had continued to practice a long-time discipline of Scripture reading and prayer. I wrote in my journal the verses that stood out from each day’s reading and then wrote my prayers to God in response. It didn’t feel celebratory, but I held on to God’s goodness, to His faithfulness, His love for me, His promises to be with me in every circumstance: “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”

As I flipped through the pages of my journal, a testament to God’s goodness, I recalled this promise from Psalm 30:

11 You have turned my mourning into joyful dancing.
    You have taken away my clothes of mourning and clothed me with joy,
12 that I might sing praises to you and not be silent.
    O Lord my God, I will give you thanks forever!

I wish that dark valley hadn’t appeared in our journey, but I am forever grateful for God’s presence with me and for the spiritual practices He used to reveal Himself to me. I am grateful, too, for the place He has planted us down the road, for the good work before us and the rich friendships we enjoy. We might have wanted to go a different way, but we had to keep walking to arrive at this beautiful destination.

God is good all the time. All the time, God is good!

Jack & Diane tell us: “Oh yeah, life goes on, long after the thrill of livin’ is gone.”
Jesus responds: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

Celebrating God’s goodness in every situation – rejoicing in the Lord always – may be the very thing we need to get through those dark valleys and to live the full life Jesus intends for us. We will not emerge unchanged, but Lord willing we will come out with grace enough to share.

Jesus Christ has risen, and that changes everything. Hallelujah!

Connect
Reflect on a great party you’ve attended and what made it a special event.

Study
Read Philippians 4:4-7.
What does it look like in everyday life to “Rejoice in the Lord always”? i.e., How can you obey this command in the midst of difficult circumstances without being phony or inauthentic?
Explain the connection between rejoicing, anxiety, and prayer.
Read 2 Samuel 6:12-22.
Describe David’s acts of celebration.
Why was Michal offended, and how did David respond?

Live
What causes you anxiety? How can an intentional focus on celebration affect your anxiety?
When have you danced before the Lord with all your might, physically or otherwise? Explain.
What gets in the way of you celebrating God’s goodness? What can you do this week to level those obstacles and increase your celebration?
Richard Foster, in Celebration of Discipline, writes, “…I am inclined to think that joy is the motor, the thing that keeps everything else going. Without joyous celebration to infuse the other Disciplines, we will sooner or later abandon them. Joy produces energy. Joy makes us strong.” Reflect on your experience practicing spiritual disciplines this Lent. Does the above quote resonate with your experience? If so, how?
What spiritual practices might God be leading you to continue beyond Lent?

Pray
Pray that the Holy Spirit will cause your faith training to overflow with joy.

Note: This is the last study in the Faith Training series. It may be helpful to review the Faith Training Exercises and continue to explore practices as God leads you.

Tween picked out this bouquet in Easter celebration colors

Tween picked out this bouquet in Easter celebration colors

Faith Training

A few sessions of childhood swim, ice skating, dance, gymnastics, and tennis lessons hardly qualify me as an athlete. I may be the only person you know who has never participated in a team/competitive sport. I once asked my parents if I could join a soccer league. My mom said no, citing scarred knees as unattractive on a girl; I’m pretty sure it had more to do with life’s chaos – me as the oldest of four kids, her job in real estate, and her travelling husband, last thing she needed was to spend hours field-side with a decidedly non-athletic kid.

I did, however, take piano lessons from age five to eighteen. Like most kids enrolled in music lessons, I didn’t love to practice but I did like to play well. The older I got, and the better I got, the more I enjoyed it. In high school and especially as I anticipated a recital date, I played for hours, working the music into my fingers, into my heart and soul. My favorite practice time (surprisingly, my parents didn’t complain – how did they not complain?) took place between 10pm and 2am, even on school nights.

The more I practiced and the better I knew a piece of music, the more the music had the power to take me out of myself, into what Madeleine L’Engle calls a kairos experience. I lost track of time, I lost my sense of self, as the music itself became all that mattered. “I am outside time, outside self, in play, in joy. When we can play with the unself-conscious concentration of a child, this is: art: prayer: love” (Circle of Quiet, p13).

I’ve heard runners talk about a similar experience, once you move past the first phase of muscle fatigue (the “I don’t like to run, I don’t want to run, I can’t take one more step” feeling, because you keep going anyway), and then, apparently, some get to a euphoric state, a runner’s endorphin high.

Faith training can have similar results, yet even better as training our faith helps us to draw near to God on high.

At the gym there are so many different pieces of equipment, each with a different purpose but all with the purpose of increased physical fitness. Similarly, there are many different ways to exercise one’s faith, all with the purpose of drawing near to our beloved Jesus.

Commonly called “spiritual disciplines,” well, that just doesn’t sound all that fun, does it? But they can be. Even when they’re strenuous, they can lead to great joy.

Today is Ash Wednesday, a day focused on repentance and identifying with Jesus in His sufferings as we begin a 40-day season of giving up or taking on spiritual disciplines. In our church staff meeting this morning, we read this:

“Even now,” declares the Lord,
    “return to me with all your heart,
    with fasting and weeping and mourning.”

Rend your heart
    and not your garments.
Return to the Lord your God,
    for he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in love… Joel 2:12-13

I get that today’s focus should center on fasting, weeping, and mourning, but I’ve been thinking about and practicing to varying degrees different disciplines over the last few weeks. I have returned to the Lord, so to speak, and this morning I felt overwhelming joy. God drew my focus to His gracious, compassionate, slow-to-anger love. And the joy bubbling up in my heart. I almost giggled (inappropriately?).

Once a week or so during this Lenten season, from now til Easter, I will post a Bible study focused on one spiritual discipline; there are more disciplines than we can name, but we’ll cover fasting, solitude, prayer, simplicity, confession, and celebration. I’ll also include suggestions for practicing each discipline.

I encourage you to ask God to direct you to the exercises He’d like you to try. And don’t give up just because it’s uncomfortable at first (think sore muscles after physical exercise). You could try one exercise for all of Lent, or different ways of exercising one practice (i.e., different prayer method each day), or sample different practices throughout the season – ask God for direction and stick with it until He asks you to stop.

Here we go with an introductory study!

Connect
What practices or routines do you do to keep physically healthy?

Study
Read aloud 1 Corinthians 9:24-27.
How would you explain the metaphor of physical and spiritual training to someone who hadn’t read this passage?
What is “the prize” for spiritual runners (v. 24)?
What might “running aimlessly” look like in one’s spiritual life?
How could Paul have been “disqualified for the prize” (v. 27)?

Live
On a spectrum from aimless running/air boxing to marathon champion, which physical activity might describe your spiritual life and why?
When have you experienced a connection between physical and spiritual discipline?
Reflect on your experience with any of these practices: fasting, solitude, prayer, simplicity, confession, and celebration. Which do/don’t sound appealing to you, and why?
Which of the Week 1 Faith Training Exercises (see below) might God call you to, and why?
What is Jesus saying to you through this passage and how will you respond?

Pray
Pray that God will use your spiritual training to make you fit in new ways for Christ.

Faith Training Exercises
Fasting: Skip one meal and spend time in prayer.
Solitude: Memorize Psalm 46:10 and use it as a reminder throughout the day to be still before God.
Prayer: Set aside a regular time and place to pray every day.
Simplicity: Set a timer (20 minutes or less) and clear off one cluttered space, e.g., a junk drawer or desk top.
Confession: Invite the Holy Spirit to bring to mind sins you’ve committed. Confess them to the Lord and ask for His forgiveness.
Celebration: Do at least one thing each day that brings you joy: sing loudly, dance freely, laugh heartily, live boldly.