Life Wrapped in Unexpected Packages

A Devotion for The Twelfth Day of Christmas January 5, 2018
Read Isaiah 42:8-12

“See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them.” Isaiah 42:9

Writer, Max DePree’s granddaughter Zoe was born during the 24th week of pregnancy weighing only 1 lb.7 oz. In her early days he started to write letters which eventually became the book, “Dear Zoe: Letters to my Miracle Grandchild.”

One day Zoe’s nurse came to him with advice on the importance of his being there for his granddaughter. The baby’s father had left so there was no dad around to hold Zoe. He writes to his granddaughter, “While we were looking at you, a wonderful nurse named Ruth came over to chat. After a few minutes she turned to me and said, ‘For the next several months, at least, you’re the surrogate father. I want you to come to the hospital every day to visit Zoe, and when you come I would like you to rub her body and her legs and arms with the tip of your finger. While you’re caressing her, you should tell her over and over how much you love her, because she has to be able to connect your voice to your touch.’ I’m sure Ruth’s suggestion is going to be very important in our relationship together. I also have the feeling that she has given me something enormously profound to ponder.”

Zoe’s birth is a life changing event for Max. The miracle of her life stretches his heart. Her fragility reminds him that when life “seems most secure, it is unspeakably fragile” and “when it is most precarious it is yet unspeakably good.”

God’s gifts of new life come wrapped in unexpected packages. What looks to be defeat becomes an open door to healing, hope and new life. God moves in our lives to change and lift up. We encounter people whose presence causes us to rethink some of our assumptions.  About the time we are ready to give up, God breaks in with Christmas promises, of Peace on Earth. God entered the world in Jesus to show us a better way to live, to be with us in all of our challenges and especially when life is “Unspeakably fragile.”

Prayer: God of Hope and Promise, Thank you for the hope you brought into the world at the birth of Jesus. We give thanks this hope lasts longer than a single season. When our lives are fragile and we frantically struggle to survive, be with us. Open our eyes, our minds and our hearts to the “new things” you are doing among us. Amen.

Additional Advent & Christmastide Devotions can be found by clicking here:   Advent & Christmastide Devotions

Skeletons in the Closet

A Devotion for The Eleventh Day of Christmas January 4, 2018
Read Matthew 1:1-17

“An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” Matthew 1:1

The world Matthew lived in did not normally include women in the list of ancestors. Which is why the record of Jesus’s birth recorded in the gospel of Matthew is so important to us. It includes the names of five women, last of whom is Mary, mother of Jesus. Each suffered from prejudice in one form or another. Each woman included in the genealogy of Jesus has been a person on the outside. Through the words in the first chapter,  Matthew tells us that the Savior came for people who are the least loved in the world.  He does that  by naming the skeletons in the closet of Jesus.

Each of the women have compelling stories. Tamar’s story is found in the 38th chapter of the book of Genesis. Tamar is a young widow. In her world it was expected that when her husband died his brother would become her husband.  The tradition insured that the line of the lost child would continue, as well as support his widow.   Judah was Tamar’s father-in-law.   When  Tamar’s husband died,  she married his brother.   But, then that brother died.  Judah was convinced that Tamar was jinxed.    With the passing of years Tamar realized that Judah was never going to allow her to marry another of his sons.  Yet, she cannot legally marry anyone else. One day, disguised as a temple prostitute of a pagan religion, she meets Judah on the road. He spends time with her and she becomes pregnant. Some months later Judah  is outraged when he learns that Tamar is pregnant. He is ready to put her to death – until he discovers he is the father of her child. Among the ancestors of Jesus is the woman Tamar. Matthew is telling us that the Savior comes for people who have been unloved and unwanted.

The story of Rahab is told in the 2nd Chapter of Joshua. The Israelites are ready to move into the promised land. Rahab is a prostitute, forced into the trade by her economic circumstances. She offers to protect the scouts who stay at her home,  as she comes to believe that their God is the one true God. Rahab is brought into the community of Israel. According to rabbinic tradition, she is one of the four most beautiful women in the world and remembered for her kindness and courage. Among the ancestors of Jesus is Rahab, mother of Boaz. Matthew tells us that the Savior comes for those who have not always been proud of the way they have lived their lives. The Savior comes to give fresh starts and new beginnings.

The Familiar story of Ruth told in the book of Ruth, is the third woman named by Matthew. She is from Moab, a land and people hated by the Israelites. After her husband’s death, Ruth insists on going to Bethlehem, the ancestral home of her mother-in-law Naomi. Soon the village of Bethlehem sees Ruth’s devotion to her mother-in-law. They see her kindness, loyalty, and goodness. In spite of her immigration status she wins the hearts of the people and the heart of Boaz. Matthew tells us that among the ancestresses of Jesus is a foreigner. The Savior comes for the immigrant, the alien, the foreigner – anyone who is an outcast in society. Matthew tells us that the Savior came for people who have not found acceptance elsewhere.

The Wife of Uriah is the last before Mary to be mentioned. We find her story in the 11th chapter of II Samuel. Her name is Bathsheba and her story could be on the front pages of our newspapers. A powerful man and King takes advantage of her. She is caught between love for her husband and being a subject of a king. Her husband is off on the field of battle when King David spots her one day. She is a beautiful woman and he wants her for himself. Not long after he sends for her, he discovers that Bathsheba is pregnant. David decides to cover the deed by sending Uriah into the front lines, knowing he is likely to be killed in battle. Uriah dies, then David takes Bathsheba for his wife, but their first child dies. Bathsheba experiences losses and tragedy. She is violated by a king. Her husband dies in battle. Her life is manipulated by David. Since her first encounter with David, her life becomes crisis after crisis, filled with loss and pain. Later she will give birth to Solomon. Bathsheba stands in the line of Jesus as a statement that Jesus the Savior comes for those who have been violated and used by others.

Most all of us have some kind of skeleton in our closets. Along with the ancestors and family stories we tell only in whispers, there are the deeds we are ashamed of.   We remember moments when  we lost our temper. There are words we would take back if we could and attitudes which have been  destructive. We carry shame for things that have happened to us . . . ones we blame ourselves for. We keep our secrets tucked away. There are regrets and actions of an earlier day.

The promise of Christmas is, that the Savior comes for those who have reached their emotional and physical limits. The Savior comes for everyone who has felt forced by circumstances to compromise their deepest beliefs and values. The good news is that in Christ there is forgiveness for sins, a place for the outcast and acceptance for those who are living with shame. Most of all there is a love which frees us from our prisons of fear, of shame and of guilt.

Prayer: Loving Savior, You came to walk this journey with us. You came to free us from the hurt, pain, guilt and shame of yesterday. In this day, may we be willing to surrender our hurts, our pain, our guilt, our shame to you, trusting that in your love you will accept and love us even  as we are. We give thanks for the message that each of us is loved and cherished by you. Amen.

Additional Advent & Christmastide Devotions can be found by clicking here:   Advent & Christmastide Devotions

I Have Called You by Name

A Devotion for The Tenth Day of Christmas on January 3, 2018
Read Isaiah 43:1-2

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.” Isaiah 43:1b

Moss Hart lived in the early 1900’s. His family was desperately poor. One year his father had taken him shopping on Christmas Eve. As he told the story, he said, “The cluster of lights ahead were those of 149th street and Westchester Ave. And those lights seemed to me to be the brightest I’d ever seen. Tugging at my father’s coat, I started down the line of push carts. I would merely pause before a push cart to say with as much control as I could muster, ‘Look at the chemistry set,’ or ‘There’s a printing press,’ or ‘Look at the stamp album,’ and each time my father would pause. He would ask the push cart man the price and then without a word, he would move on to the next push cart. Once or twice he would pick up a toy of some kind and look at it and then at me as if to suggest that this might be something that I would like. But I was just a ten-year-old kid and my heart was set on a chemistry set or a printing press. There they were, on every push cart, but the price was always the same and soon I looked up and saw that we were nearing the end of the line. Only two or three push carts remained. My father looked up too and I heard him jingle some coins in his pocket and in a flash I understood it all.”

My father had managed to get about 75 cents together to buy me a Christmas present and he hadn’t dared say so in case there was nothing to be had for so small a sum. As I looked up at him, I saw a look of despair and disappointment in his eyes that brought me closer to him than I had ever been in my life. I wanted to throw my arms around him and say, ‘It doesn’t matter. I understand! This is better than a printing press. I love you!’ But instead we stood shivering beside each other for a moment and then we turned away from the last two push carts and we started silently back home. I didn’t even take his hand on the way home nor did he take mine. We were not on that basis. Nor did I ever tell him how close I felt to him that night and that for a little while the concrete wall between a father and a son had crumbled away and I knew that we were two lonely people struggling to reach each other.”

In moments of deep loneliness, God calls out to us saying, “I have called you by name, you are mine.” God knows our name, speaks to our hearts and reminds us that we are beloved and precious children. Our lives may be imperfect. Our Christmas celebration may have been far less than what we have hoped for. Still God calls to us with the message, “You are mine.” In that message is both our hope and our promise. For if we belong to God, we are God’s children . . . Beloved and cherished children of God.

Prayer: God, You know our name. You love us just as we are. On those days when our lives are far from perfect and crises overwhelm us, draw us close to you. Encircle us with your love and compassion. Renew our hearts and spirits. Tell us again that we belong to you and we are truly yours. Amen.

Additional Advent & Christmastide Devotions can be found by clicking here:   Advent & Christmastide Devotions

A Moment of Grace

A Devotion for the Seventh Day of Christmas on December 31, 2017

Read John 1:1-5

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” John 1:5

In 1979 the American Embassy in Iran was overrun and those who lived there were taken hostage. The first contact the West had with the hostages was at Christmas that year.  Some clergy were allowed to go in and conduct religious services. William Sloane Coffin was one of those.  Two armed students met him at the  Embassy, led him  to a room and left him  there.  Eventually,  they returned with four of the hostages, Marines who had been assigned to guard the Embassy.  Coffin  passed out books of Christmas carols, and played the piano while they sang.   Afterwards, he passed around his Bible and let each person read a part of the Christmas story.

As he spoke to the men, he told them that the Holy Family had been rejected, abandoned, and isolated in a barn. But God’s love changed that barn into a holy place. “This will not be your most joyful Christmas, but it could be your most meaningful one.”

Asking everyone to join hands, he invited the Iranian guards to join hands with them. To his surprise, they did. Standing in the circle Coffin prayed that “they might experience a moment of grace when, in the sight of God, there be neither American nor Iranian, neither captive and captor . . . but that their hearts would be big enough to receive the Christ Child, and that one day they might gather around the manger as one family.”

Coffin said he could see one of the Iranian guards was crying, trying to fight back the tears. “I began to weep, too, because after all, that is why God gave us tears. To wash away all bitterness, the sorrow, and the anger.”

Jesus was born into a world that needed light. In that light, in that love . . . bitterness, sorrow and anger can wash away.   Tomorrow begins a new year, a fresh canvas to be painted on with our actions, thoughts, commitments, compassion and our love.  It is  a year where we can be people who live  in the  confidence there is one who washes away  bitterness, sorrow and anger . . . One who brings us new life.   May the New Year be a joy and a gift to you.

Prayer: God of Christmas, may we remember that the light you sent in Christ came into the world to stay . . . To light our journeys, illumine our darkness and lead us to life in you. Be with us in this New Year in all we encounter and in all we face.   May we trust in the power of your light and the joy of your presence. Amen.

Additional Advent & Christmastide Devotions can be found by clicking here:   Advent & Christmastide Devotions

Do Not Lose Heart

A Devotion for the Sixth Day of Christmas on December 30, 2017
Read II Corinthians 4:16-18

“So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.” II Corinthians 4:16

The world Christ was born into was a dark and troubled one. Long years of bondage to a foreign power had broken the spirit. September 11, 2001 troubled the waters of our country. Around the world, candles were lit. Each lit as a sign of light against the darkness that tore us apart. Often, it is in moments when we are most broken that we are most conscious of the light of Christ. Light comes as a sign of hope when all else is obliterated by darkness and despair.

The story is told of a European town which was known for its beautiful stained glass window. The window was shattered in a storm. There was nothing to do but store the pieces in a box. Some time later a stranger, hearing of the loss, asked if he could have the fragments. They were useless to the villagers so he easily received the permission needed. Two years passed. One day the people of the village were invited to a showing of the work of a famed artesian in a nearby village. When the artist unveiled his work, there were the fragments of stained glass – seemingly useless after a storm, but now fashioned into a window of far greater beauty than the original.

The apostle Paul would write, “So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.”

God is the one who takes the fragments and splinters of our lives, then remakes them. Christ came not only to save us from our sins, but to take our lives and transform each one into a masterpiece. The message of Christmas is not only that Christ came, but that Christ continues to come, again and again whenever . . . wherever there are those waiting to receive him in.

Prayer:  Holy God, You are the one  who restores and remakes us.   Come to us again this day.   Take the shattered pieces in our lives that need your  healing touch.   Reassure us of your presence and care.    In those moments when we are ready to lose heart,   remind us that you are the one who takes the tattered pieces of our lives and turns them into places of beauty.  Help us to trust  that we really  are held in your hands of  love.    Amen.

Additional Advent & Christmastide Devotions can be found by clicking here:   Advent & Christmastide Devotions

On a Silent Night

Christmas Eve Devotion for December 24, 2017
The Fourth  Sunday of Advent                                            

Read Luke 2:1-7

“While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” Luke 2:6-7

Ted Loder tells of visiting a ninety-four-year-old woman named Ann, who said to him, “I suppose that worship is supposed to bring us deeply together and heal us, make us strong and daring . . . Then she added, “And there’s that other part, about ‘without us, God will not.’ I love God for that . . . It makes life so exciting and full.”

Life certainly became full and exciting for Mary. But, I wonder if Mary was lonely that first Christmas Eve as she prepared to give birth to the Christ child.  There she was away from her family in that strange place without the support of people she has known all her life.  There must have been a sense of being so terribly alone.  Confined to a stable of all places with her infant child. Mary  must have wondered about the promises of the angel and why everything had become so difficult for her and Joseph. Indeed, she might well have questioned just what God was doing in all those complications. Scripture records nothing of her feelings. Only later do we read, that Mary “Ponders everything she hears in her heart.”

We too ponder the birth of Jesus. The words of Joseph Mohr’s “Silent Night, Holy Night” draw us to awe and wonder. Every Christmas Eve, when the lights dim and carols are sung, I’m drawn once more into the mystery of Christ’s coming in Bethlehem so long ago.   Near the end of the service when we sing the words, Silent Night, Holy Night my heart grows still with the power of love revealed in Jesus.  Today as you sing these words, may your own heart be warmed with God’s love.

“Silent night! Holy night!
All is calm, all is bright
’round yon virgin mother and child!
Holy infant, so tender and mild,
sleep in heavenly peace,
sleep in heavenly peace.”

“Silent night! Holy night!
Son of God, love’s pure light
radiant beams from Thy holy face
with the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth!
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth!”

Prayer: Loving God, Plant within us the courage that when we are challenged to reach beyond our comfort zones, when your dream grows inside our hearts and you call us to follow you, that we will trust you.    Give us  the inner strength to carry out your vision. Grant us grace to trust your wisdom in calling to us. Amen

Additional Advent & Christmastide Devotions can be found by clicking here:   Advent & Christmastide Devotions

A Sad Day in Lake Wobegon

I live in Lake Wobegon country and I must say, that heroes are falling fast. Both Sen.Al Franken and Garrison Keillor have been on the front pages of our newspapers. I’ll leave it to others to determine the truth behind the allegations. But, I have to say that I have been disappointed. We make our heroes invincible. We tell ourselves that they only act justly and fairly in their dealings with others. We put our heroes on pedestals and pretend they are super human, not given to the faults and flaws of others.

We want our heroes to be more saintly than we expect of ourselves. As a fan of Prairie Home Companion and an occasional teller of Lake Wobegon stories in my sermons, I’m feeling a bit deflated. Our heroes are not supposed to act inappropriately. They don’t do drugs or drink excessively. Our heroes are supposed to remain true to our highest values and never let their humanness get in the way of their inspiring us.

There are, of course, no perfect people. Those on pedestals inevitably slip off. They make mistakes. Stress takes it toll in various ways. Sharp words, bitter words can spew from their mouths. Alcohol or drugs can be a too easy coping mechanism when one feels misunderstood or overwhelmed. Addiction can rob the people who we look up to of their credibility. Inappropriate sexual contact happens, even from our heroes. So, what is a Christian to do?

Our faith is one of second chances. We believe in redemption.  My New Testament seminary professor used to say, that “God forgives, but we live with the consequences of our sins.”   Then he would add the promise of forgiveness and new life. God is the one who gives us second chances, who restores us when we fail and promises us a life of new beginnings.  I’m not sure what is going to be happening in Lake Wobegon in the next few weeks. In good 12 step fashion, we made amends for our wrongdoing. We start again, fresh over, knowing that the God of second chances, gives each of us the same gift.  Meanwhile there is prayer.   Prayer for people being accused.  Prayer for those who feel victimized. And a prayer that we all learn something about respect and appropriate behavior from all of this.