Advent – Emmanuel, God With Us

An Advent Devotion for  December 5, 2017                                        Read Isaiah 7:14

“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.” Isaiah 7:14

The word Emmanuel means “God with us.” Early Christians looked at this passage as one which pointed toward Jesus as the messiah. God with us means that there is nowhere in life we can go, that God is not present. God is with us when our world crashes and God is with us when our hearts are full of joy. God never promised a life without pain, anguish or struggle. There was no promise we would have simple answers to complex questions. We were not promised that we would not get sick, have an accident, or succeed at our every effort. God did not promise we could go through life without trouble, pain, sorrow, hurt or loss.

Today, you may be struggling in your personal life. Some hardship or loss has taken hold. You wonder how you will make it and if you will have strength for tomorrow or the day after. Sometimes you wonder if there is any use in trying. You may be asking where God is in all of this . . . the job, family issues, health crisis or painful loss.

While God did not promise to take away our pain, God did promise to be with us in it. The promise was, that God would be with us in the struggles we faced each day. Jesus came to walk among us. He came so we would know there was nothing in life or death we would ever face alone. That hope and certainty has sustained me in my most difficult moments.

It is the same hope that causes the early hymn writer to pray:
“O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.”

Prayer: Loving God, you know how the pain in our lives can overwhelm us. Our hearts break. Hurt and loss threaten to devour us. In those moments, remind us that you are near as a breath and a prayer. As we pour out our hearts to you, may we find both comfort and peace. Amen.

Additional Advent & Christmastide Devotions can be found at:   Advent & Christmastide Devotions

Advent – Jesus Came to Save the World

Advent Devotion  for the First Sunday of Advent,    December 3, 2017  

Read John 3:16-17

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” John 3:17

One of the first verses I learned was John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”    It would be years before I realized the importance of the verse that followed it. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” John 3:17    The writer of the gospel of John  wanted us to know that Jesus was sent into the world, not for destruction, but to save the world. The world, as God claims this world, includes not only human beings but everything in it.

God’s care extends to the whole of creation. Every creature, every plant is cared for by God. Jesus referred to the lilies of the field being clothed by God, reminding us that not even a sparrow falls, without God’s loving concern. I find great comfort in knowing God’s intent in Jesus was to bring about the salvation of the world and all that is in it. We hear that yearning expressed in John Wesley’s Advent Hymn, “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus”

“Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.”

Prayer: God, you called this world into being. In the birth of Jesus you came to proclaim your love for the whole world and all of its people. May we carry that same vision in our mind and spirit as we begin our Advent journey. May we love as you love. Amen

 

Forgetting to Come Home

Ronnie was my first love. My earliest memory of him is of Ronnie standing by his mother and me standing by mine, while they visited over the low picket fence of my mother’s daisy bed. Ronnie and his family, from Colfax Iowa, were frequent guests at my parents resort on Lake Jefferson, near Cleveland, Minnesota.

You could say that we grew up together and apart. As small children we played in the sandbox, then as we grew older we would fish off of the dock on summer days. My parents insisted that it was Ronnie, then in sixth grade, who smashed the few watermelons growing in our lakeshore garden. (He later denied this.) In our early teens, I hung out in the fish house while he cleaned the family catch. We shared similar views on civil rights. Ronnie, however, was the first person to challenge my view of the death penalty.

The summer between our Junior and Senior year of High School, Ronnie began to return my affection. So it was, that on one June evening, we took off in a boat loaded with, rods, fishing tackle, and nets. We talked for hours and “yes” there was a kiss, but only one.  Night was rapidly approaching before we headed back towards home. Then on our way back, we missed a turn slipping into Swedes Bay. We lost half an hour there . . .  which was just enough time to stir our already anxious parents into doing something to find out what had happened to their children. We suspected trouble when we spotted a boat with a search light aiming in our direction. We knew we were in trouble when Ronnie’s dad called out our names.

Many times since, I’ve waited anxiously for the sound of a car in the driveway, or a door to open with the clear message that one who is late has made their way home. As a parent, I can well imagine the fears that had gone through the minds of our parents that June night when Ronnie and I, dawdled and got lost on the lake.  In our lostness, and yes, even in our dawdling, God searches for us. When we’ve over extended our time away, God comes to us wondering why it is we’ve stayed away so long. Are we lost or hurt? A call goes out to bring us back. Search lights scan the waters for signs of our return. God searches for us, in all our lost places, shining a light that we might find our way home. If you’ve been feeling a bit lost lately, perhaps it is because God is missing you, calling your name and just waiting for you to head home.

God’s Saving Grace

My kitchen is overflowing with pots of flowers – my latest rescue attempt to push the cold of winter away for a few more days.  On the deck is a new experiment to keep other flowers alive. Every year I go through this same ritual . . .  trying to keep my flowers blooming just a little longer.

I am a rescuer by nature. When I was sent to small churches in rural Minnesota, I was convinced that churches in a spiral of death, had life still in them. It’s written into my DNA to encourage the life force,  whether it is a plant staving off the cold and snow of a winter day in mid fall –  Or a church giving up before their work is done – Or a person going through the pain of loss, heartache, addition or failure,  ready to give up.

It was in the midst of failure, poverty and despair that God rescued me. I couldn’t keep a dying marriage from failing. My rescue attempts were futile. But God’s rescue of me out of it was real. I look back on that time in my life as one of grace. God’s love and care was greater than I believed possible. And while I constantly condemned myself – I found encouragement in some of the most unusual ways. One day, while doing some work in the church library, I came across these words in a book, whose name and author I do not remember. The words were these, “When you refuse to forgive yourself, you are refusing to forgive a child of God and that is wrong.” I needed those words that day, as I have needed them since.

Today, I look at pots of flowers on my table. I see how much beauty is there and I know that this is how God sees each of us, when we are about to give up on ourselves. God sees the beauty in us and wants us to know that we are God’s beloved and precious children – Loved more abundantly than we can imagine.

“God rescued me out of the miry pit, out of the mud and clay; God set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm footing.” Psalm 40:2 REB

Civility is Basic to Christian Life

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.”

This passage from Phillipians 2, written by the apostle Paul,  has been the focus of my devotional life in the past week. I’ve been reminded that humility is one of the gifts of the Spirit and that when we stop assuming we are better than everyone else, we begin to see what we can learn from people who think differently. Every day, as I have read through the passage, I have been struck by the discord in our country and how people of faith have gotten caught up in those divisions. Sometimes we have contributed to them and acted in ways that were not constructive.

Today my local paper, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, headlined an editorial, “Six steps to make America more civil again.” The piece was by Doug R. Berdie, of Minneapolis, a semiretired marketing executive and researcher. He names simple things we can do to create a healthier emotional environment . . .  from showing simple consideration for the people around us when we are shopping to doing a good deed each day. (I suspect doing a good deed for a person you don’t know well and happen to disagree with might help even more.) He named: Giving other people the benefit of the doubt; Helping in practical and tangible ways; Leaving our surroundings better than we find them.

We have been engaged in ripping apart the soul of our country. Our collective conversation has been bitter and divisive. We find it difficult to agree on much and even when we do, there is someone able to punch a hole in that unity. So, this past week, I found myself chastened often when I read the words, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”

We are tempted to only look out for “me and mine,” but God asks us to stretch our minds and open our hearts. God asks us to see others as God’s children, who are loved and cherished by God even as we are loved. Scripture tells us, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” (Phillipians 2:3-4)   What a difference we could make in our communities if we started with respect for all of God’s children.

God Never Stops Searching For Us

Maybe, its just being in Minnesota, where spring has a habit of appearing in mid-May. Most of our year is spent waiting for summer to come and the rest of it regretting that summer is gone. Since I retired, I’ve taken to  vacationing in September as a way of stretching summer, just a little bit longer.  The few days away that I had planned for last week are already over.  I woke up this morning to a brisk and unexpected fall day.   Those moments we have waited for and anticipated may pass quickly, yet they leave us with lasting joy.  Moments of celebration, rest, vacation and reunion are part of the ebb and flow of life. They stand as markers of time passing, a movement through the different periods of our lives.  They speak of the significance and meaning we place on various aspects of our life.

Yet, the greatest meaning comes to us in our relationship with God. Augustine, an early Christian theologian and philosopher writes of God, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.”

Our hearts know there is “something more” in life. The nagging sense that we are missing out sneaks into our minds and spirits. The search for the something more can take us on a convoluted journey when we don’t realize who or what is missing. We may wander aimlessly, follow the false gods of materialism or find ourselves in dark and dangerous places. The good news is that God never stops searching for us.  God never stops  chasing after us in our wanderings.    We may stumble along the way.   We may falter in our faith journey.   We may lose our way, thinking we are on the way.   We may get confused and totally mess up.   Still God searches for us in all the places we try to hide ourselves in.   God searches for us the way a mom or a dad agonizes over a troubled child, or goes  searching for a missing one.   God does this because God loves us.  God wants us to be part of the great family of God and to know we have a place where we belong.  A place where we are wanted.   A place where  we will always be welcome.  A place to call home.

 

The Power to Overcome

Interstate State Park Minnesota

The Apostle Paul writes, “We have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed, perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken, struck down, but not destroyed.”   II Corinthians  4:7-9   Paul writes these words having lived through shipwrecks, floggings and imprisonment. There were people who went out of their way to cause him grief and  pain which   created a great deal of anguish in his life. No one who studies the life of Paul comes away thinking that he was unaware of the pain and struggles that we face. Paul well understood the stresses and strains of life.

A job is lost. Our best friend dies. We are treated unfairly. Life can throw us some very painful curves. We have choices to make whenever this happens. We can wallow in self pity. We can dish out grief to our friends and family . . . We can make sure that everyone knows about our pain. We can even isolate ourselves from the rest of the world. Or we can move on. We move on by letting go of yesterday’s pain and trust God with it. Sometimes, this will mean a period of counseling to deal with the issue. Traumatic events need to be worked through – heartache and loss need to be grieved, but there comes a time to let go. Only in letting go can we ready ourselves for a tomorrow that is better than today.

If we were to try to do this in our own power, it might well be impossible. The good news is that we are not alone. The power of God lives in us. God made us to be over-comers in the traumatic events that we face. Paul developed a resilience to face the hurts and struggles of his life because he had come to know One who would give him strength to endure. God continues to come to us, offering us a source of power and strength to overcome our personal traumas and confusion.

The scripture reminds us that God wants to be with us to get us through whatever difficulties, crisis, or heartache we face. When Paul wrote the people of Rome that “Nothing can separate us from the love of God,” he was echoing the words he had written earlier to the people in Corinth. Paul’s witness has  reverberated through the ages as we add our own assurance, that truly, there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. And in that power – through that power – we find the strength to overcome. Truly, God’s love and power embraces us in all the circumstances of our lives.