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

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.

Seeing Through a Glass Darkly

The question of suffering is deeply troubling. We want the very best for those who are precious to us. When a loved one hurts, we hurt. When they suffer, we suffer. Part of what makes us human is this connection of suffering love. So, we wonder how a good and loving God, can allow the grief and pain we see in our world. We don’t understand why God allows a September 11th or the shooting of little girls in a small Amish school.  Mudslides, fires, earthquakes and tsunamis all come with their own “Why.”

 

Especially, we wonder why God allows painful things to happen to ourselves and people we love.      If nothing else- we at least want to make some sense of our suffering.  A young woman from a congregation, that I had left weeks earlier, was murdered by a man who had just moved into her apartment building. As I searched and prayed for words of comfort and hope for the family, this passage of scripture began to fill my mind, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known..” I Corinthians 13:12

At the deepest level of faith, we trust that God will take our broken hearts, our deepest questions, our gut wrenching grief and weave them into our life in such a way, that some good will shine through. Today, we do not understand the “why” of suffering.  Till then we are comforted by God who chooses to be involved in our world, in our lives.

The apostle Paul’s affirmation in Romans encourages us. “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:39

The mystery remains . . . as does God who is with us and from whom, nothing can separate us in Jesus Christ.

Turning the Pages of a Year

Turning the Pages of a Year

OXYGEN ChristmasI remember a year that I was really glad to turn the pages of. It began with our newly home from the hospital, preemie getting sick, very sick. Her first three months had been spent in the neonatal unit at Minneapolis Children’s Hospital. After five weeks at home with six older siblings, she had been exposed to everything that was going around their school.  A day earlier, her six and a half year old brother was running a temperature of 105. By Friday night, of that 1st weekend of the new year, it was becoming obvious that what had appeared to be a small problem with my daughter was much larger. On Saturday, she’d been put in the pediatric unit of the hospital where our doctor practiced. By Sunday morning, the hospital called to tell us that she was being transported to life support at Children’s hospital.

Meanwhile, that same Sunday morning, our two year old, four year old and six and a half  year old were in the emergency room of another hospital, with bronchitis and tonsillitis. Later that week would see my four year old admitted to the hospital with pneumonia. I don’t know how we managed to have children in two hospitals, but we did. Most everyone else was sick at home too, except for my two older children who avoided all of the rest of us. On the positive side, our yearly family deductible had been met for our insurance by the end of the first week of January.

I wish I could say that the rest of the year had gone better. The youngest was very sick again in February and hospitalized in March with bronchial pneumonia. A series of illnesses would plague her through the year, until in late December, she was back in life support at Children’s having an apnea study done. A heart monitoring system would follow that stay.

I think it was the overwhelming sense of everything going wrong at the same time, which made it so difficult. Like Mary discovering she was in labor at the very moment she and Joseph were being told there was no room for them in the inn. But life went on. The child survived. Difficulties were overcome. By the time the magi arrived at Christmas, scripture records the couple living in a house.

The magi’s visit would force additional changes upon the young family. Being warned in a dream, Mary and Joseph flee the city with Jesus, to live in Egypt for a time. Once more their life had to be reconstructed. Fortunately, Joseph’s carpentry skills were useful anywhere. For the magi, that Christmas miracle, would send them home in another way, avoiding Herod and his plans to kill the child.

The gift of Christmas is not and has never been, a stress free – pain free life. Rather, the gift of Christmas which we carry every day, is that Christ has come.    What I treasure most about the gift of Christmas is knowing that whatever the new year will bring,  God is with us.   God will be with us in our joys and in on our griefs. God will be near to pour healing on our wounds, blessing on our prayers, and calming waters on our fears.  Christ has come to be with us in our pain and our sorrow, our joys, our dreams, our hopes and our fears. We have been visited by one who has chosen to live and remain among us.

When the Heart Cries

When the Heart Cries

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These past weeks have brought us news of one tragedy after another. Tragedies, however they strike, leave us shattered. We ask the questions of why. We wonder how God can let such terrible things happen to people we love and care about. We wonder at the aftermath of a truck rolling into a crowd in Nice France and the devastation left behind. We worry about the country of Turkey and the consequences for an average person after an attempted coup. Closer to home, our cities are filled with unrest. A long hot summer looms ahead. Police fear for their lives after a second sniper attacks. Our system of law and justice becomes more fragile. In our personal lives heartaches rip the heart in two.

“Where is God anyway?” It comes, that question, when life deals us a bitter blow. “Why? Why didn’t God stop the drunk driver who killed my friend. . . .Or the spread of cancer in my child . . . why didn’t God make my marriage work, when I prayed so hard?” “Why did my child get mixed up in drugs?” “We loved each other, why did my spouse die so young?” Would that there were easy answers to these difficult questions. The more I experience of life, the more convinced I am that there are no easy answers to life’s griefs, disappointments, and sorrows. I am equally convinced that God cares, that God is with us in each and every tragedy, that God does not leave us comfortless. Believing that and feeling that are, of course, two entirely different situations.

My oldest son was just shy of three years old when I discovered that he was gone. In the distance I saw him riding on his little red tractor. Gathering up my 18-month-old son, I began the chase. The problem was, I was seven months’ pregnant. With the added weight of my second son, I couldn’t run faster than my older son was scooting. The best I was able to do was to keep him in sight. The race had gone on for about three blocks when I saw him heading for the freeway. There wasn’t much else to do, but put my 18-month-old son on a corner, tell him to “stay,” and with less baggage go after his brother. I remember how my younger son started to cry. I’m sure he felt that I was deserting him. What he didn’t know was how much he was in my thoughts, as I pursued his brother. He had no concept of how hard it was for me to leave him there. He didn’t understand that I didn’t want him left by himself, even for a few minutes. Nor, could he know how very worried I was about him. He didn’t know that my heart was aching for him.

What we believe in faith is that some day we will understand this life with all of its unfairness. To say that it is God’s will a child dies of cancer, a drunk driver kills someone, a marriage fails or that anyone gets messed up in drugs seems to me blasphemy. It’s equally evident that God doesn’t protect us from life’s hurts. I once heard the theologian Henri Nouwen say, “The good news of the Gospel is not that God has come to take our pain away, but that God has come to be with us in it.” The apostle Paul says it another way, “I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38,39)

No, I don’t have the answers for “Why.” But this I know, God sticks by us, in whatever place we find ourselves in. May that be your strength and your hope.

Do You Hear the Angels Song – “Be Not Afraid”

I’ve been needing to hear some angels singing. Some celestial visitors reminding me to “Fear not. Be not afraid.” December brings with it moments of reflection when we are reminded of the angel’s words. I’ve been walking through this Advent time with a mixture of events and reminders. From the awe inspiring St. Olaf Christmas Festival, to a musical at church, my grandsons’ school concert with its songs of peace, a granddaughter’s somewhat hokey Christmas play and my two young grandsons’ Sunday School program. Each spoke a part of the Christmas hope, reminding me of the songs of the angels. The angels of Christmas begin their assignments by addressing the fears of those they have been sent to. Mary is told, “Do not be afraid.” Joseph in a dream is called to trust, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” Shepherds hear the words, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy.”

It is difficult to every truly take in the whole message of Christmas. God’s gift of love born in Bethlehem’s stable forever challenges our understanding of God’s desire for humankind. God came to be among us. To live with us . . . to share in our lives, yours and mine. What causes God to love us with this love? What possible reason does God have, to enter our world?

Some days, when I look in the newspaper, I wonder about that. Certainly God was acutely aware that we needed help figuring out what to do with our lives and how to live with each other. There are times when I wonder if we have made any progress through these twenty centuries since Jesus’s birth. We make a mess of life quite easily. Our mistakes are legendary. Nations go to war without seeking peaceful solutions. And the “Prince of Peace,” is passed over, as one who is out of touch with the reality of our world. And so wars come, families are broken. Domestic abuse cripples families emotionally, spiritually, as well as physically. Life goes on as always . . . or does it?

The good news is that in spite of it all, God came. Not for a short season, but for all time. God came to dwell among us. For that very reason, lives can and do change. The message of Advent . . . this waiting time, is one of getting ready. Getting ready to hear the angel’s song, “Be not afraid.” Getting ready to let God into our lives. Getting ready to make the changes God would have us make. Getting ready for the adventure of faith, God is waiting for us to say “Yes” to.

The God From Whom We Cannot Hide

Psalm 139 has been a favorite of mine since I was a young mom with a brood of children. I’ve always preferred the older versions of scripture where the Psalmist asks in verse seven, “Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?” (RSV) Whither seems more encompassing than newer versions which interpret the word as “Where.” Where is a place, a location on a map, “Whither” digs deeper into our psychic. More than a location, it is also a state of being. It is how we are living in the world at this moment in time.

I like the older interpretation because it tells me that whatever situation I find myself in, God is there. I’m reminded that when I find myself in a dark place, wallowing in a mess, searching for a way to make sense of my world, God is with me. The psalmist tells me that even in the moments I am tempted to believe, God has deserted me, I am wrong, for there is no place where God is not. I have often read this psalm at the beside of one who is dying as reassurance, that even in death, they are in God’s hands.

The psalm begins with the recognition, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me.”(NRSV) God is aware of the facts in our lives, knows where our hearts bleed and what makes our spirits soar. God is also aware when we are less than our best selves. At least less than we would like our circle of friends and family to know of us. Our all-seeing God would be frightening, or even threatening, were it not that God is also “all loving.” God knows the secrets of our hearts, God understands what motivates us to speak and act the way we do. God loves us as we are, but loves us far too much to leave us in our messes, our bad choices and our foolish decisions.

This psalm has carried me through sick children, a messy divorce, single parenting and its resultant poverty. The words encouraged me when I made a mid-life course direction. I have found comfort in its words as I have comforted others. The simple message that God is with us gives me hope. I find strength in the knowledge that God will never let go of us. The God from whom we cannot hide, wants most of all that we realize we are loved, that we are God’s beloved and precious children. Whatever we might face in life today, we have this assurance, we will not face it alone.