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 – The Promise of Peace

An Advent Devotion  for December 4, 2017                                    Read Micah 4:1-5

“He shall judge between many peoples,
and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more” Micah 4:3

The image of a day when nations no longer go to war and the tools of war are recycled into tools of providence instead, encourages our souls. Who among us doesn’t want there to be an end to war, and an end to soldiers dying or being maimed? Who of us doesn’t want an end to the death, injury and harm of innocents forced to flee for their lives? Who doesn’t want an end to the suffering of people trapped by war?

God gives us a vision so we will work for it . . . A vision that encourages us to work for peace and not for war. It is the vision in the Christmas song which Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne captures in the music “Do you hear what I hear”

“Said the king to the people everywhere
Listen to what I say
Pray for peace people everywhere
Listen to what I say
The child, the child
Sleeping in the night
He will bring us goodness and light
He will bring us goodness and light.”

 

Prayer: God of peace, your vision seems so far from us. Pictures of war fill our screens. Obstacles to peace appear insurmountable. We fear a nuclear disaster. We ache for the wounded soldier. We cry for the lost children. Our hearts bleed for lost lives. May we begin to look at your words of hope, not only as a dream, but your dream for all of us to live into. 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

 

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.

Who in Your Life Needs Some Applause?

Some years ago, I had an opportunity to attend a friend’s ordination service in a small Wisconsin church. The sanctuary quickly filled with friends, relatives and seminary classmates, along with those who would be participating in the service itself. It was a “high day” in the church. A day of putting in your best efforts. And, yes, given the nature of things, a day to impress all who came. I noticed a boy about seven years old sitting at a piano in the chancel area. I assumed he was helping one of the adults nearby or had been told to stay there while a parent was out doing the important work.

But, Chris was not there to help. He began to play a piano prelude. His skills were average seven year old, basic piano. Sometimes he stumbled over the keys. There were sour notes. At other times his pieces came off like a polished professional. There were pauses when Chris looked through his book for another piece he knew how to play. Once, during his twenty minutes of playing, Chris’s brother was sent to him with a message to start over at the front of his book (where Chris was a little more skilled).

Eventually, the choir came in and the organist was able to take her place at the organ. Chris had started towards his pew when someone at the back of the church began to clap. Soon sounds of applause filled the sanctuary and an enormous smile filled Chris’s face.   We are people of many different experiences. Our maturity and faith level vary. Some of us stumble in life in areas other are proficient. At times we get confused and need to go searching for direction. We attempt a project only to see if fail miserably. We become discouraged, afraid and unwilling to try again. We may find ourselves being sent back to the beginning. There are even moments when we have to admit to ourselves, that the notes we are striking come out sounding just a bit sour to our own ears.

As I thought about Chris, it seemed to me that this small incident reflects the family of faith  at its best . . . people applauding and encouraging the best efforts of others . . . Recognizing that all of us will stumble along the way. There will be sour notes and lost places. In our support and encouragement of one another, we become Christ to a world that needs a reason to smile. Who in your life needs some applause?

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.

Counting Blessings One By One

In one of the churches I served it, was the tradition on the Sunday prior to Thanksgiving for the children to sing the song “Count Your Blessings One by One, See the Great Things God has Done.” They would walk past the altar singing the song, and placing gifts of food there. I was always enchanted by this song and it caused me to take stock of my blessings.

Counting our blessings does not come naturally to most of us. There have been moments in my life when I have found it hard to give thanks. Yet, when I began to count the blessing which were mine, I discovered a multitude of ways that God was alive and working in my life. Most of all, I learned that in difficult and painful times God reaches out to us through God’s people. Groceries arrived at my door when I was not sure how I would manage the rest of the month. There were notes of support and encouragement and people who listened. Little things, which meant a lot, for they told me that God was still watching over me.  They told me God’s love was real.

The Apostle Paul expresses his joy that God’s love is touching him through old friends as he writes to the people of Thessalonica, “During all our distress and persecution we have been encouraged about you through your faith . . . How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before God because of you?” (I Thessalonians 3:7,9)

Paul knew how to count his blessings. He opened his eyes to see the good that God was doing in his life. He valued the prayers of his friends. He cherished memories of special moments. He rejoiced that even in times of suffering, God’s love was made known to him, by the simple care of friends. May your eyes be opened to the many ways God’s love and light are surrounding you today, and then give God thanks.