Merry Christmas – The Messiah Has Come

“O Lord, you are the musician, and we are all your instruments. You breathe, and we come to life. You breathe, and we are horns for your glory. You blow through the world the winds of the spirit, and we like chimes cannot keep silent. You pluck the strings of our hearts, and we become a psalm. You come, and we must sing.”
–Walter Wangerin, Preparing for Jesus

Read and light all candles: The first candle represents the Child of the Virgin. The second candle represents the King. The third candle represents the Prince of Peace. The fourth candle represents the Savior. The center candle represents Jesus, the Messiah.

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.”

Read Scripture: Luke 2:1-20

Read: Hello, sweet baby Jesus, lying in a manger. We’ve been expecting you, Messiah! We’ve prepared for your birth, Child of the Virgin. We’ve anticipated the arrival of our King Jesus. And oh, how we have been longing for you, our Prince of Peace. Now it’s Christmas Eve, and here you are, announced by angels and guarded by shepherds and livestock. We’re so glad you’re here, since we need you now more than ever. We’re not very good at waiting, but we will keep expecting you, preparing for your next Advent, when you will gather your people to be with you forever.

Pray: Everlasting Father, thank you for sending us your Son, our Messiah Jesus. In His precious name we will rejoice forever, Amen.

How Do We Pray?

walkAs we walked the trail, my friends talked about dealing with stress: exercise, meditation, therapy, hypnosis…

I said, “Or you could pray.”

They expected that from me, but I didn’t expect their response: “Well, you know how to do that. We don’t know how to pray. Maybe you need to pray for us every morning.”

On the spot, I grabbed them in a hug-headlock and started praying. It’s not that complicated, but we seem to make it more complicated than it needs to be. I talked to God our Father, asking Him to wrap them up in His loving arms and soothe away their stresses as they learn to rely on Him. Walk over, we grabbed a cup of coffee and went our ways.

That conversation certainly motivated me to pray for my gals, but it also broke my heart a little. These friends come to church and hear people pray regularly. Still, they feel ill-equipped to pray themselves.

I’ve been church-going and praying all my life and I still don’t like to pray out loud. I love me a good Bible study but don’t relish out-loud group prayer. Which meant, I thought, I didn’t know how to pray.

I remember the moment, about a decade ago, when I had an epiphany: I pray all the time! I pray as I read God’s Word. I journal my prayers. When I’m alone in the car, I keep the radio off so God and I can chat on the go. I pray as I walk. When someone comes to mind, I pray for them (and then get in contact to see how they’re doing – there is often a reason I’m thinking of them). I pray with and for my kids. I listen to music that leads me to pray. And on and on.

Why did I think I couldn’t pray? Because my introverted tendencies make it uncomfortable for me to pray in groups. It can feel too intimate. I don’t know what to say. I feel a responsibility to those I’m praying with to “get it right” even as I stumble over words. None of which provides an adequate excuse for not praying in groups. I still have to do it. Praying individually and in groups grows me as a follower of Jesus.

I’ve already offered a number of ways to pray individually. In addition, my friend Nancy has written and artfully illustrated a booklet of prayer ideas that you can download for free as you learn to Pray More. There are boatloads of books on prayer, but my new favorite is Fervent by Priscilla Shirer (written for women but don’t let that stop you, guys; the principles apply to everyone).

Some tips for praying together:
* Listen to what others pray for and agree with their prayers instead of composing your next prayer.
* Pray short prayers, using normal language.
* Silence is okay!
* Let the Spirit lead the direction of your prayers, each prayer building upon the prayers of others.
* Remember that God is your audience, not just others in the group.
* Use Scripture as God brings it to mind.

The good news? My friends are learning to pray. Like anything worthwhile, it takes practice. But they are reading daily devotional books and leaning on God throughout their (still stressful) days. As they pray, I suspect they are falling deeper in love with Jesus. Which, by the way, has been my regular prayer for them since that day on the trail.

Advent 4 – Knowing Peace

Around the time Teen hit middle school I began encouraging him each time he walked away: “Be your best you,” meaning make good choices and do your best and stay true to yourself. You can be yourself, but it takes intentionality to be your best version of yourself.happiness-project

So maybe it shouldn’t have surprised me to discover “Be Gretchen” at the top of Gretchen Rubin‘s Twelve Commandments of Happiness. Fill in your own name and it sounds easier than the reality. I may want to sing like Idina Menzel, or paint like Monet, or innovate like Steve Jobs, but those aren’t my gifts. Sure, I can practice and develop new skills – I can hire a vocal coach, or take a painting or business class – but honestly I probably won’t because those aren’t my gifts; those desires don’t drive me. Beating myself up over a false version of myself won’t make me happy. So I Be Me and employ Commandment #2: “Let it go.”wiz

I saw this on the screen as we watched The Wiz! this weekend. The things each character wanted – a brain, a heart, courage, home – were already theirs; they just had to believe.

Rubin’s pursuit of happiness strikes me as a key to peace: “Be Me” and “Let it go” lead to both happiness and peace. If I am at peace with myself, I have much higher likelihood of being at peace with you. And peace with myself starts with peace with God.

I’m not sure I would know how to be my best me if I didn’t know what God says about me. For example:

God made me – Psalm 139:13-14 says, “You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body and knit me together in my mother’s womb. Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex!”

God loves me and saved me – John 3:16-17 says, “For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him.”

I’m God’s child – John 1:12 says, “But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God.”

Jesus intends me to live a full life – John 10:10 records Jesus saying, “The thief’s purpose is to steal and kill and destroy. My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life.”

God has given me specific gifts for specific work – 1 Corinthians 12:7 says, “A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other,” and Ephesians 2:10 says, “For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.”

God will help me – Hebrews 4:16 says, “So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most.”

Hearing and believing these truths from God’s Word free me up from discouragement and free me to be my best self. I’m created by God, and God doesn’t make junk. I am loved by God, which gives my life value. I am gifted and empowered by God to do good work and live a full life.

I read this prayer this week, and it speaks straight to this point:

Dear God: Please untie the knots that are in my mind, my heart and my life. Remove the have nots, the can nots, and the do nots that I have in my mind. Erase the will nots, may nots, might nots that may find a home in my heart. Release me from the could nots, the would nots, and the should nots that obstruct my life. And most of all, Dear God, I ask that you remove from my mind, my heart and my life all of the ‘am nots’ that I have allowed to hold me back, especially the thought that I am not good enough. Amen.

Blessings on these last few days of Advent 2015!advent wreath

Week 4 – Knowing Peace
December 20-24

Read and light four candlesThe first candle represents the expectation of the One who will bring Peace. The second candle represents God’s peace in us. The third candle represents the call to make peace with one another. The fourth candle represents the Gospel of peace.

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.”

Read Scripture: Ephesians 2:14-18

Read: Jesus Christ is our peace. On the cross He defeated sin and death and tore down the wall separating us from God. He destroyed our interior walls which kept us from being whole and holy. He shattered the walls that separate us from one another, human distinctions that matter nothing to Him. Christ fought the battles to win peace for us. Come, let us worship the Prince of Peace!

Pray: Dear God, thank you for the good news of peace. In the name of Jesus we pray for peace, Amen.

 

Monday John 17:3 How do you enjoy eternal life here on earth?
Tuesday Acts 10:36 How has the good news of peace through Jesus Christ changed your life?
Wednesday Romans 5:1 How does peace with God affect your daily life?
Thursday 2 Corinthians 5:20 With whom does God want you to share His peace?

Advent 2 – Finding Peace

Ironically, during a week in which I’ve intentionally focused on expecting peace, I’ve found distress more often.

The same hour I learned about the mass shooting in San Bernardino, I also heard that a neighbor, husband of an acquaintance, was in a suicidal stand-off with police. He alternately pointed a pistol at his temple and his mouth and, after hours of negotiation during which a nearby elementary school – his son’s school – was on lock-down, he pulled the trigger. He leaves behind his beautiful wife and four kids, his youngest only six and four years old.

Heart breaks. Lord, have mercy. Send your peace!

Far less dramatic: Traffic. Rushing. Deadlines. Botched plans. Carpools, worse, no carpool. Kid stress (aka, school stress!). Appetizers for two different functions. Overly full calendar. On and on.

Thank God for His Word! A few of our church staff did a Bible study on Philippians 4:4-9:

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding,will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

Interestingly, I’d most often read those few verses as three different points: 1- Rejoice. 2- Worry less, pray more. 3- Think about good things.

This week I realized they are One Point (as Peterson translates in The Message): “It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life.”

When we rejoice, we put Christ at the center of our hearts and minds. When we present our requests to God, we put Christ at the center. When we think about good things, true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy things, we put Christ – the author and perfecter of all things – at the center. When we fix our eyes on Christ, Christ displaces the worry that has us spinning like hamsters on a wheel and in turn gives us peace.

Phew! Hopping off the hamster wheel as my head spins…

This hasn’t been an easy week. Looking back, however, I felt most at peace when I intentionally focused on Christ. Engaged in friendship, worship, Bible reading, serving loved ones, diving deep in fulfilling work, walking our dog, I can pray and allow Christ to displace worry. Sometimes peace “just happened” as I had already scheduled life-giving activities; other times Grumpy Me made a decision to pray and pursue peace (the dog got a few more walks this week).

Bottom line: The Lord is near. So much better than tossing sleeplessly or numbing the anxiety, we can rejoice, pray, let our loving God care for our needs, and think on God’s good things. As the angel declared to shepherds watching their flocks by night, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11).

Peace be with you!advent wreath

Week 2 – Finding Peace

Read and light two candles (purple)The first candle represents the expectation of the One who will bring Peace. The second candle represents God’s peace in us.

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.”

Read Scripture: Isaiah 26:3 and Philippians 4:4-9

Read: How many times today did you think about yourself: your fears or worries, your wants and needs? How many times today did you offer to God your fears or worries, your wants or needs? We get so easily distracted, so quick to neglect the peace God offers us in His Son. God invites us to cast all our cares on Him because He cares for us. Set your heart and mind on Jesus and live in peace.

Pray: Dear God, help us to trust you and to let go of everything that keeps us from you. In the name of Jesus we pray for peace, Amen.

Monday Isaiah 26:3 Where do you need peace in your life?
Tuesday Matthew 6:31-34 What worries distract you from seeking God, and what will you do about it?
Wednesday Luke 12:25-26 How does worry sap your time and energy?
Thursday Philippians 4:6-7 When have you experienced peace in response to prayer?Friday Philippians 4:8-9 What are some of your favorite “whatevers” to think about?
Saturday Colossians 3:1-2 How do you actively set your heart and mind on God’s priorities?

 

Another blog I’m enjoying this Advent: lessnerismore. Grab a mug/cup of something warm and tasty and set aside a few minutes to check out her daily Advent blog.

The Church: Traveling Together

What seems like a bazillion years ago, I participated in a high school marching band (sorry, no humiliating pictures available – I did look, I promise). Before freshman year, I registered to be the pianist/accompanist for Beginning Orchestra; unbeknownst to me, everyone quit and the band director transferred me to Marching Band. And the trombone, because the band obviously did not need a pianist yet needed a trombonist.

It will require a separate soul-searching sesh to figure out why I roll with some punches and not others, why I allowed this change to be made on my behalf rather than asserting a desire to try, oh let’s say, writing, journalism, or yearbook. Whatever. I learned a few things.

I found a community. The band room became my safe haven in the large, scary ‘world’ of high school. People knew me, nick-named me (“Huggy Bear,” because I bounded a few steps, dropped my backpack, hugged, and bounded off a few more steps – repeat, repeat, repeat), teased me, loved me, encouraged and challenged me. And yes, we got into some trouble together, too; I have to remember that as I parent a high school kid of my own.

marching-band-md

Staying in step is crucial. Take a clumsy pianist who’d rather take a seat, thank you very much, put an unfamiliar instrument in her hands and to her face, and then make her march in step down streets and around fields in formation… Who thought this was a good idea? And yet it was a whole lotta fun, until we had to listen to tapes of the judges’ comments and hear them yelling, “Low Brass, out of step!” Later, when I thought maybe switching to xylophone might be at least keyboard-friendly, we heard even more, “Percussion, out of step!” Because marching with a xylophone strapped to your shoulders prevents one’s ability to see their own feet (and hurts your back. I don’t recommend). And you have to move both feet and both hands and, oh, it’s All Too Much! But it’s part of the game, so you practice it all the more.

marching-band-md

The music is the message. Left-right-left-step aside (and to think I dated the Drum Major for much of this experience – he must have been chagrined at my lack of rhythm, considering my musicality), the band had music to share. We loved playing together, being together, laughing and making music. As a dear friend recently pointed out, so much of life is work; even when you work at it, music is play, and the very best sort. We made melody and harmony together, and we had a gift to offer even when we were too-often out of step with one another.

marching-band-md

Staying in step together puts you out of step with the crowd. At our best, our notes sounded in tune and our feet hit the pavement/field in synch. But we were only in tune and in step with each other. The crowds watched and listened. They might have tapped a toe, clapped or what-not to the music, but they didn’t march with us. Marching defined us as a band, a unit, a family, distinct from onlookers.

So what’s this got to do with Church?

I listened to our pastor preach this morning on the Church, on Christ as Head of the Body, and how we all fit as God ordains, with unique positions and roles to play. And I listened as the choir and congregation sang – some more on-key and -beat than others – beautiful, joyful noise unto the Lord. And together we observed Communion, received that blessed grace God has given as a remembrance of the great gift of His Son Jesus Christ, as a defining mark of His family, the Church.

And I kept thinking about our high school band. That we belonged together. That we were in step and in tune, and when we weren’t, we dealt with it together. That together we had something to share with others who were not us. That we needed each other, and that others needed us.

Sometimes these metaphors surprise me. As much as “Band Geek” sometimes sounded like a slur, and the uniforms were universally unflattering (who looks good in a fringe-covered marshmallow hat?), I am grateful to have played with the band. C’mon, friends, C’mon, Church, let’s make beautiful noise for the Lord.

Connect
Share about a memorable trip you took with others.

Study
Read aloud 2 Corinthians 5:11-20.
Paul states several reasons why he must share the good news. What are his reasons?
How are “fear of the Lord” and “Christ’s love” complimentary and in tension as motivations, and how do they motivate us to share Christ (vv. 11, 14)?
Of what is Paul “convinced,” and what implications does that have for the Christian life (vv. 14-15)?
What does it mean to “regard no one from a worldly point of view?” (v. 16)
What does it mean to be “in Christ” (v. 17)?
Define “reconciliation.” Explain the ministry and message of reconciliation. What does it mean to be “Christ’s ambassador”?

Live
In your experience of sharing Christ, what has been your primary motivation?
What would it take for you to begin to see people from God’s perspective rather than a worldly perspective?
What do you need to feel equipped and encouraged to take up the ministry of reconciliation?
For whose sake right now in your life has God made you an ambassador of Christ?
What could you do as a small group to live out the ministry of reconciliation together?
What is Jesus saying to you through this passage and how will you respond?

Pray
Pray that God will direct you to people who are open to hearing the good news of Jesus Christ.

When Tuesday Acts Like Monday

The day after Memorial Day Monday, of course, is Tuesday. But when Monday is a holiday and Tuesday begins the week, then Tuesday acts like Monday. Except that I work from home most Mondays, and Tuesday doesn’t allow me that freedom. People grump about Mondays but they’re one of my favorite days of the week; today I understood the grumps.

I jumped from a full weekend of travel and friends to a day in the office, the more worse for wear because I did not sleep well last night. At all. I woke up from a bad dream at 3:20am, got up for a drink of water and a walk around the house, hoping to fall back into restful sleep. No such luck. Same bad dream, different scene (If I could only recall in daylight the craziness of my dreams I could write a movie blockbuster. Where does this stuff come from?). Repeat for the next four hours until daylight wins and I give up.

Don’t get me wrong: I love my job. But I also love sleep, and its lack put me on edge. I forgot to eat breakfast. I left my full travel coffee mug on the kitchen counter.

Surprisingly, I got to our weekly Tuesday morning meeting a) prepared and b) through the agenda in less time than usual (maybe I was too tired to be chatty). I moved on to one overly complicated project, only to realize I had another more pressing project and not quite enough time.

Between projects Guy had given me a handmade cross, a gift from another pastor made by one of her parishioners. Guy had another very similar and so, as he told me its story and I commented on how good it felt in my hand, he encouraged me to take it.crossI couldn’t know that cross would be such a gift today.

I set it to the left of my desk as I worked. Repeatedly it caught my eye and I picked it up, admiring its heft, the way it fit my hand, the smooth beauty of the wood grain. I’d put it down again and return to work. Until the song on my busy-office-noise-canceling headphones caught my attention:

We have seen the pain
that shaped our hearts
And in our shame
We’re still breathing, ’cause

We have seen the hope
of your healing
Rising from our souls
is the feeling
We are drawing close
Your light is shining through
Your light is shining through

Wake up, wake up, wake up
wake up all you sleepers
Stand up, stand up
Stand up all you dreamers
Hands up, hands up
Hands up all believers
Take up your cross, carry it on

all that you reveal
with light in us
will come to life
and start breathing, ’cause

here we stand our hearts are yours, Lord
not our will but yours be done, Lord

“Wake Up” by All Sons & Daughters

On a sleepy, sleepy day, the call to Wake up, Stand up, Hands up, Take up your cross, carry it on broke through my haze. I looked up the song lyrics, held the cross, and prayed. The last line, sung over and over, Jesus’ own prayer in Gethsemane as He faced the cross. Not my will but yours, Lord! I pick up my cross. I couldn’t sleep but you didn’t sleep, either, as you faced your death. I feel whiny but you sweat blood. Egads, there can be absolutely no comparison.

And yet there I sat, at my desk, working “in Jesus’ name,” without Him. My work: reading the Word of God, writing questions to guide people in their study, and the passage about sharing the good news of Jesus Christ… Prayer and the power of the Spirit are integral to this work, and I had neglected Him, had attempted to do it in my own sapped strength.

Would it surprise you that, once God caught my attention, the work flowed out of my heart and mind and fingers onto the computer? Nah, me neither. His light shines through.

In her new book, Wearing God, Lauren Winner writes:

“One of the invitations…of the Bible is this: you can discover things about God by looking around your ordinary, everyday life. An ordinary Tuesday – what you wear, what you eat, and how you experience the weather – has something to offer you about God. There is a method here, and it is Jesus’ method. Jesus, after all, specialized in asking people to steep themselves in the words of the scriptures and then to look around their ordinary Tuesdays to see what they could see about holiness and life with God. This is not merely entertaining wordplay to give overactive minds something pious to do. It is the Bible’s way of making us aware of God and of the world in which we meet God.” (15-16).

On this ordinary Tuesday, a day that pretended to be a Monday of the grumpy variety, I learned (yet again) that God shows up. That a gift might be an icon, that a song might lead to prayer, that my work will only be as effective as my remembrance of God’s presence. That God loves me, and that He has the power to overcome my sleepless grumps with His gentle good humor.

What has your ordinary Tuesday taught you about God?

Salvation: Search & Rescue

Mother’s Day Sunday afternoon the neighbor’s cat caught a small bird, a sparrow, perhaps? Neighbor was able to rescue the terrified bird from the over-excited cat’s mouth – Have you ever seen a pet cat with a bird in its mouth? They’re funny about it, growl-y and amped, racing about but not injurous – and brought it to our house.

Which seems like an odd decision unless you know my family and the zoo we call “Home.” This is not the first time a bird has recovered in Teen’s room. He has a red shoe box that might as well by now be designated for this purpose. It contains an old worn-out soft dish towel in which he places the bird in need of shelter. He shuts the lid tight and leaves it alone, for hours at least, or until he hears fluttering.

No bird has ever died under Teen’s watch, mostly due to playful but not mean cats.

Mondays are my work-at-home days. As I soaked in silence, working hard and fast, I heard a Thump! from across the house. No one was home, so I had to get up and check.

In Teen’s room I found a red shoe box on its lid, our own cat batting at the side; she must have heard fluttering wings. And Teen must have been overly distracted to uncharacteristically forget about Bird in Box.

I shooed the cat away, grabbed the box, and ran outside. Well, not entirely accurate. As I snatched up the box, my first instinct was to open it and see if the bird was okay – first one cat, and then another… sheesh! Thankfully, I thought twice and did not open the box in the house because that would have been fun.

I ran outside and shut the slider behind me (no more cats in this game). I did not pause to grab a camera of any sort, a non-decision I regretted instantly as I lifted the lid.

This isn't our bird, but it works...

This isn’t our bird, but it works…

There sat God’s perfect creation of a bird, stunned by two cat attacks in less than 20 hours. It blinked at sunlight. It did not look at me. It sat so still that I considered whether I might have time to run inside for a camera, and then it took off for one of our large pine trees and I lost sight of it in the branches. It flew straight-line, not bird-limping, though I’m not sure I’d know what that would look like.

The bird embodied wholeness, perfection, freedom. My mom has always said she’d like to fly like a bird. I’m afraid of heights and prefer my feet on solid ground, though I admire the instinct to soar.

The bird did, the bird was, perfect Bird. Honestly, at first I felt exasperated that Teen had forgotten Bird, and then I felt elated – I got to release Bird, to watch healthy and whole Bird fly away to a hopefully much longer bird-life. This has not been my role in the family, to help hurting creatures. And now I get it in new ways, this desire to love God’s creatures in need of care. I am grateful.

In the same breath, I thanked God for my own creation, redemption, freedom. He created me; I am injured and He rescued me; He freed me to live in wholeness, to be the person He created me to be in the first place. I can soar with Bird, even with my feet on Solid Ground.

Connect
Reflect on a time when you or someone you know was involved in a search and rescue (official or unofficial). Who or what got lost, and what happened?

Study
Read aloud Ephesians 2:1-10.
Compare and contrast the “dead” life (vv. 1-3) with life with Christ (vv. 4-10).
How are “this world,” “the ruler of the kingdom of the air” and “the cravings of the flesh” spiritual forces in opposition to the Spirit of God?
Notice all the verbs where God is the subject. What does God do? What do we do?
Define “saved,” “grace” and “faith.”
For what reasons does God save us?

Live
How is your life different because of God’s great love for you?
How have you seen people try to earn salvation? When have you personally experienced this temptation?
Why do you think grace can be so hard to receive? To offer?
Read 1 John 4:10-12. How are love and grace related? What will you do to more freely extend God’s grace to others?
What good works do you think God has planned for you to do?
What is Jesus saying to you through this passage and how will you respond?

Pray
Pray that you will live more fully into the reality of your salvation by God’s grace and that you will take every opportunity to extend God’s grace to others.

Jesus: The Way

As we planned and lived last year’s Costa Rica summer, guides took on an importance like never before. Before we left we had maps and guidebooks and websites, all of which we continually referenced throughout the trip. But once on the ground, we also relied on new friends and strangers to point the way; just after we picked up our rental car a friend of our new landlord met us at a major landmark so we could follow her to our summer home. We would never have found it on our own.

We would have driven in perpetual circles without the GPS we bought for our rental car; Costa Rica has no street names or addresses; roads to major tourist destinations are two-lane, seemingly insignificant, and ill-repaired – without the GPS we definitely would have thought we were going the wrong way and, even still, sometimes we were. More than once we came to roads overrun by streams and in one case a river had completely washed out the road to a highly anticipated hiking destination.

We never left home without our copies of Fodor’s See It Costa Rica to direct and inform our itinerary and The Wildlife of Costa Rica to help us identify the magnificent creatures we encountered in air, land, and sea. It’s a wonder we didn’t wear out the covers of these books as each one of us thumbed through them almost daily. The kids in particular used the wildlife book as a treasure hunt, ticking off the animals they’d seen and setting goals to see others. Another important reference book: our Spanish-English dictionary. Its heft made it unwieldy to carry around so we made note of words and looked them up when we returned home.

Of course we also had tour guides. We went to several animal rescue centers, including Proyecto Asis near Arenal Volcano, and the Jaguar Rescue Center and the Sloth Sanctuary, both on the Carribean coast. These amazing people are working to make Costa Rica – and the world – a better place by serving animals and educating people.

Carlos & spider monkeys at Proyeto Asis

Carlos & spider monkeys at Proyecto Asis

Staff & guide at the Sloth Sanctuary with an injured 3-toed sloth

Staff/guide at the Sloth Sanctuary with an injured 2-toed sloth

We visited several ministry sites (Abraham Project, La Montana Camp, Roblealto Children’s Homes) and met with followers of Jesus serving the people of Costa Rica.

Phil at Abraham Project and the site of their upcoming stadium sanctuary/skate park - no kidding, this is out-of-the-box creative ministry!

Phil at Abraham Project and the site of their upcoming stadium sanctuary/skate park – no kidding, this is out-of-the-box creative ministry!

We spent one remarkable day with Prudencio and his five-year-old son Leandro in Yorkin, a community of the indigenous BriBri people. Entirely in Spanish, Prudencio spent the day explaining to us how his people live: schools, organic farming, chocolate production, making thatched roofs, hunting and fishing by bow and arrow.

Prudencio at the entrance to Yorkin

Prudencio at the entrance to Yorkin

Prudencio & Leandro teaching us to thatch a roof

Prudencio & Leandro teaching us to thatch a roof

You can’t travel to Costa Rica without adventure, so we also had adventure guides – white-water rafting guides, scuba and snorkeling guides, tranopy and ziplining guides, and hiking guides. Stanley, our snorkeling guide, offered to take us on a true locals-only Costa Rica frog ‘hunting’ hike: his goal was to find three frogs, one found only in that particular region of Costa Rica, and indeed he did find all three on our hike. Greivan, our host at the Jaguar Rescue Center’s La Ceiba jungle house, took us hiking three times in two days looking for animals. A PhD candidate in herpetology, he was a special gift from God for our budding herpetologist.

Grievan & a kinkajou at La Ceiba

Grievan & a kinkajou at La Ceiba

And finally, it took us a while to figure out that the people barking orders at us as we arrived at different destinations weren’t beggars but parking guides, a culturally acceptable way for people to make money in a country sorely lacking good parking. We had a unique encounter with a parking guide at Guayabo National Monument, an archaeological site. He directed us to park along the street (typical), but the spot was on an odd angle. When we tried to leave the car slid sideways towards a rock wall. We had to climb out of the car and wait until the folks parked in front of us returned to their car, and then several men came and helped to push the car out of danger. Only then did we notice that the parking guide was blind!

All this thinking about the importance of guides for life in Costa Rica caused Guy and I to reflect on important guides for the life of faith. We need a guidebook, the Bible, and other reference books/websites can be of great help. We need a GPS, the Holy Spirit who directs us even (especially?) when the road seems out of the way. We need tour guides, mentors and friends to walk the way with us. We need adventure guides, people who help us take new steps of faith in service or mission. We need parking guides, the church in which we regularly park our patooties to worship and learn and engage in relationship.

All of these guides point us to The Way, Jesus Christ (John 14:6).

In An Unhurried Life, Alan Fadling writes:
“What if, instead of a road map, God is offering to be my guide? What if I let him decide where we are going? … He would prefer to guide me as my companion for the journey rather than hand me directions that I’d be tempted to run off with, leaving him in the dust. Maybe I could learn to ask less for God’s guidance and more for a sense that he is being my guide; to ask less for help and more for the awareness that he wants to be my helper; and to ask less for strength adn more for confidence that he is my stronghold” (p176).

In Matthew 7:13-14 Jesus said:
13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

And then in John 10:9-10 He said:
I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.They will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

Jesus Christ, true God and true man who lived, taught, died, rose again, and reigns at the right hand of the Father, is the way to abundant and everlasting life. His road may be bumpy and pot-holed, out-of-the-way and not well-traveled, but I’d rather walk His road to life than an easy road to destruction. Walk with me?

Connect
When you meet someone new, do you introduce yourself by who you are or what you do? What do you say, and why?

Study
Read aloud Colossians 1:13-20.
What does Paul tell us about what Jesus does?
What does Paul tell us about who Jesus is?
Describe Jesus’ role in salvation (vv. 13-14, 20); in creation (vv. 15-17); in the church (vv. 18-20).
How does Jesus show us God (v. 15ff)?
Jesus is “the head of the body, the church” (v. 18). What does Paul’s description of Jesus say about what might be Jesus’ priorities for His body, the church?

Live
When you think about Jesus, do you think of Him primarily in terms of God (Paul’s cosmic description in Col. 1) or human? Explain.
What most stands out to you from Paul’s description of Jesus, and why? Which, if any, are most difficult to accept, and why?
How might this description of Jesus change or challenge your view of Jesus? Your relationship with Him?
Read Matthew 16:13-18. Who do people today say Jesus is? Why was Peter’s answer such a big deal? Who do you say Jesus is? Who does Jesus say you are?
What is Jesus saying to you through this passage and how will you respond?

Pray
Pray that you will grow in knowledge of and love with Jesus.

God: Our Guide

The last couple of weeks have been over-full. Most nights I’ve tossed myself into bed too late and slept fitfully, waking groggy with odd remnants of uneasy dreams clinging to my tousled hair.

It’s just a season, and God has shown up in small and big ways: a verse of the day that spoke with increasing volume as the day wore on; sweet Tween snuggles and fewer Teen snarls; opportunities to encourage others; glimpses of God weaving together strands of this-and-that beauty in ways that we only yet guess at the pattern in the fabric He is creating.

Still, one day this week I’d had it with the hustle-bustle and desperately needed solitude. I asked Guy to take over dinner prep, shut the bedroom door, and picked up a book of spiritual meditations. One exercise involved praying while holding an object reminiscent of Christ. Which reminded me that I have a handheld labyrinth I hardly use.

labyrinth

A labyrinth is a prayer path, a walking meditation. It involves your physical body in your spiritual journey. It has three movements: releasing on your way to the center; receiving in the center; and returning on your way out. Another way to think about it: moving from self, to God, and back to self. At times you might bring questions to God in the labyrinth, and sometimes it’s just a way to slow down. No magic, just a helpful tool for spending time with God.

Guy bought my labyrinth, designed after the labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral, years ago at a retreat center. I had recently audited a graduate-level seminary course on spiritual disciplines and his gift honored my contemplative inclinations, different from his more gregarious form of Christian practice. But I think I’ve only used it once, when we had been invited to participate in a leadership position. I came to the labyrinth asking for direction, emerged unsettled, and God eventually said a loud and clear No. Did that put me off using it again?

The labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral, France

The labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral, France

However, this particular day it called to me. Because the metal stylus that came with it makes a metal-on-metal ear-splitting sound I grabbed a Qtip to make my way through the path. I then read Psalm 63 and a few phrases imprinted themselves on my heart:
O God, you are my God;
I earnestly search for you.
Your unfailing love is better than life itself;
how I praise you!

As I held the labyrinth, I told God I felt worn out, sad, heart-heavy. I told Him I needed Him. I began winding Qtip through path as I whispered, “I seek you. Earnestly I seek you.”

The Qtip is too big for the width of the path. I can’t see where it’s going, and I think, “That’s like God leading us through life” – we can’t see the twists and turns, but we trust that He is with us. Oh, no, God! There are twists and turns I do not want you to take with my life. Please, no? But you are with me. I know you won’t fail me; you won’t leave or forsake me.

Realizing I’ve inadvertently skipped some turns, I get to the middle: Jesus. Repeating His name over and over, I stay with Jesus, tracing the center petals of the flower, enjoying His presence, letting His love wash over me.

Jesus sends me back out, His Spirit walking with me as I reenter the world, and the prayer changes again: “Your love is better than life.” Jesus loves me, and He sends me into the world with His love pouring over and through me. I’m still skipping lines on the labyrinth, but truly, all roads lead to Jesus and back again; Jesus is my path through life, the Way, the Truth, the Life (John 14:6).

I’m surprised how quickly I’m out of the labyrinth. Not feeling done, I start over, wanting to trace the lines I missed the first time. And now I realize I’m racing. I am racing to Jesus, which strikes me kind of funny. Yes, I want to run into His arms. And yes, He is with me all the time. And thank you, Jesus, that I can stop the madness and find some quiet time with you.

This second pilgrimage takes a fraction of the time but when I get back to myself again, I realize I no longer feel sad. Having spent time with Jesus I’m ready to reenter my family without my own gunk getting in the way.

O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you… Your love is better than life. I praise you with songs of joy.

I won’t always pray labyrinth in hand, but I am grateful God guided me to it – and through it – this week. I pray God will open your eyes to the tools He intends to lead you on the next steps of your faith journey.

Connect
In what ways are you like/unlike your parents?

Study
Read aloud John 14:6-21.
What do we learn about the Father, the Son, and the Spirit from what Jesus says?
You might find it helpful to create 3 columns on a piece of paper for “Father,” “Son,” and “Spirit,” and fill in the columns with corresponding verse numbers and descriptions.
What does this passage tell you about the relationship between the Father and the Son? Between the Son and the Spirit? Between the Father and the Spirit?
What does this passage says about our relationship with Jesus? With the Father? With the Spirit?
Since Jesus says that the world cannot see the Spirit or the Son (vv. 17, 19), how can the world see Jesus? (hint: v. 20).

Live
To whom do you most often address your prayers, and why?
Jesus’ followers knew Him well because they lived with Him for three years. What do you do regularly to know and love Jesus? In other words, how do you actively invest in your relationship with Jesus?
What does Jesus’ relationship with the Father and the Spirit tell us about what our relationships in the body of Christ should look like?
How do intentionally live Jesus’ presence in your life so that others will see Him?
What is Jesus saying to you through this passage and how will you respond?

Pray
Pray that you will know and love Father, Son and Spirit more each day.

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