Come Thou Long Expected Jesus

Come Thou Long Expected Jesus

An Advent Devotion for December 11, 2017                                           Read Psalm 103:1-13

“For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is (God’s) steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west,  so far he removes our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion for his children,  So the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.” Psalm 103:11-13

Willa Cather’s story, “The Burglar’s Christmas” portrays a young man named Willie who moved west seeking his fortune.  The story takes place on Christmas Eve.   Rather than a fortune, Willie loses everything he has.  Both  destitute and  ashamed of the person he has become, he stops sending letters to his parents.  He simply disappears from their lives.  On that Christmas Eve,  Willie  has spent the day  wandering  the streets of Chicago.    Having neither food nor friends, he decides to break into a nearby home. Willie has done many things since leaving home, but never before has he stooped to theft.  He tells himself that he was owed some food, at least on Christmas Eve.   Slipping into the strange new house, he is puzzled by familiar items . . . Items from his childhood. Had his parents  moved in the years since he last contacted them and he had somehow stumbled into their home?

Just as he is about to grab something and leave his mother catches him stealing.    There is both shock and hope in her face as she recognizes him.  She can only say, “O, my boy, we have waited so long for this! You have been so long in coming, even I almost gave you up.” Looking up with eyes full of shame her son responded, “I wonder if you know how much you pardon.”

“O, my poor boy, much or little, what does it matter?” she asks. “Have you wandered so far and paid such a bitter price for knowledge and not yet learned that love has nothing to do with pardon or forgiveness, that it is only loves, and loves and loves?”

Love, loves and loves and loves. The story of  God’s grace and forgiveness is that even as we live out the consequences of our mistakes, the sting of sin is removed from us. God offers us fresh beginnings, new opportunities and the certainty that the stain of yesterday is behind us. God touches us with pardon, compassion and forgiveness. As far as east is from west, God does remove our transgressions from us. Charles Wesley reminds us of this in his Christmas carol, 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 of compassion. Thank you for your grace and kindness, for offering us new beginnings, freed from the weight of yesterday’s mistakes. When we doubt your love, when we wonder if we are forgiven, remind us that your forgiveness is real. Remind us that you came to set us free from the mistakes of yesterday and our fears in today. Help us believe this promise is not only for others, but also for us. Amen.

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

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

Saved From Our Predicament

  It took me a long time to make my way through Marcus Borg’s book “The Heart of Christianity.” I’d gotten stuck about midway and had almost consigned it a place on my bookshelf.   A friend’s words about the book encouraged me to pick it up once again. I’m so glad I did.

Borg talks about the “hatching of the heart, ” the transformation God works in us, when we open our hearts to God. He comments that we have taken too small a view of the Biblical images of salvation. While most of us think of salvation as God’s forgiveness for our sin, he reminds us of the many other images of Jesus which are also are part of the scriptures: Jesus came to be light in the dark moments of life; give sight to blind eyes, to set us free from the stuff that holds us captive; to welcome us whenever we return from the far country. Salvation includes our finding a home in God and  being resurrected from the land of the living dead we have consigned ourselves to. Borg says that salvation is really about being “saved from our predicament.”

I don’t know about you, but there are days I know I need to be saved from my predicament. I need a savior. A real savior. I  need God’s saving grace to save me from predicament’s I have landed in. I need that grace when my thoughts and actions do  not reflect what I profess to believe. I have needed  grace, when I’ve wandered away from God.

We need God’s saving power in those moments we realize that we are not at all where we are meant to be.  Instead we are in a predicament in a far country of the heart. We need light in our darkness and sight for our blind eyes. The good news is that in Jesus Christ, God provides a way out of our predicaments. God simply asks us to open our hearts to the truths and wisdom that will lead us out of our messes and into God’s arms.

Getting a Character Do-Over

Recently, I’ve been reading up on “Twelve step” programs. The brilliance of Bill W and Alcoholic’s Anonymous was to create small support groups, where on a weekly basis, people would come together in community. There they shared their common struggle to let go of their dependency on alcohol. Today there are groups for many different issues, but all have the same common core, of coming together and working through life issues, one step at a time.

I preached on the Sixth and Seventh Steps a few weeks back. They are odd steps because after listing all the defects in one’s character in Step Four and naming them to another person in Step Five, in Step Six you just ask God to make you ready to let go of them. In Step Seven, instead of intentionally working on some area of your life you know needs working on, you ask God to remove those negative character traits from your life. One author pointed out,  that when we try to figure out what part of our character we think we should be working on, we almost inevitably get it wrong. After turning areas in our life we know need to change over to God, we simply trust that God will work in our hearts the changes that need to be made. The problem is, that when you ask God to work changes in your heart, God does. God lets you know where and how you’ve slipped and how that may have affected another person.

I find myself echoing the old African-American spiritual, “Lord I want to be more loving in-a my heart, in-a my Heart. Lord, I want to be more loving in-a my heart.” * The combination of readings, a study I’m leading and an elderly friend’s funeral called to mind those moments I am less than proud of. I think of times when my patience was thin and words that could have been said to sooth a heart were withheld. I remember moments when it was easier to makes assumptions about a person than to really reach out in love and compassion. I regret times and ways I didn’t express God’s love to a person who needed to know that God cared.

The good news is that God does give innumerable opportunities to get this right. Other people come into our lives who need comfort or a word of affirmation and encouragement. We are given more chances to show compassion and love. Where we may have failed before, God offers us a new moment, to listen, to care and to reach out. Meanwhile, in God grace, God continues to work in our hearts transforming our failures into wisdom, our regrets into loving care. God keeps moving and restoring our hearts in ways that allow us to live fully, the life God envisions for each of us. All we need to do, is let God walk beside us on our journey and accept  God’s love for us.

*Words are from the African American Spiritual, “Lord, I want to be a Christian.” Verses include the prayer to be;”A Christian”, “more loving”, “more Holy” and “like Jesus” in my heart.

Stumbling into God’s Arms

It is comforting to recognize that all of Jesus’ disciples, followers and friends slip. We flounder just after we’ve received the fresh insight, just when we think we’ve figured it out. We falter just at the time when we think we’ve come to terms with life and with God. Even those first disciples of Jesus swung between great insights and a certainty that Jesus was the Christ to the other side, of thinking that he had come to reclaim the power of a king in Jerusalem, replacing Herod. They had it together some days and others – not so much. One day they were faithful followers, the next doubting Jesus altogether. John Procotor, says of them “Enviable though their place in time may be, these disciples still flounder between insight and failure . . . their journey involves both progress and stumbling.”*

As do our journey’s. The grace-filled thing about this is that when we stumble, we stumble into God’s arms. We stumble between insight and failure. I think we feel this more, the greater our love for God is. We may see failure. God sees an opportunity for us to learn and grow. We get another opportunity to learn about kindness and grace. We are reminded of forgiveness and mercy. Humbling moments carry their own lesson on true humility.

There are times when we look to the giants of the faith, comparing ourselves to them. Yet, even they were not perfect. Mother Theresa had her moments of doubt. Others had issues with anger, relationships or grudges. Each of us carries a set of vulnerabilities. Some days we fail miserably and other we know we’ve done our best. We are frail human beings who need friendship, compassion, affirmation, love, encouragement and companionship. We need to know that we are both loved and loveable. God reminds us that no matter how high or how low our status, God loves each of us. God loves us in our fragility, woundedness, dysfunctional behavior and everything else. God loves us when we are at our worst and at our very best. God’s love never fails. But whenever we stumble, God gently and quietly draws us forward, pulling us back to places of healing and rest. For this I give thanks.

*John Procotor, “Feasting on the Gospels Matthew Volume I” Reflection on Matthew 13:10-17

By God’s Grace, Light Will Shine

IMG_8060The last weeks have been difficult ones for some in my family.  A long and unexpected hospital stay, including surgery, left part of my family struggling through the Christmas season.   I once  heard Henri Nouwen  say, “Jesus didn’t come to take our pain away, but to be with us in it.”   While I would like God to fix everything that is amiss in my life and the lives of those I love,  that was never God’s promise.   The promise wasn’t to fix,  but to be with us in  the difficulty and complexity of  life’s challenges.

Brennan Manning, in his book, “Reflections for Ragamuffins”  mentions a man who was reflecting on the gospel of John where it is written, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God . . . The Word was made flesh and dealt among us.” (John 1:1-5) As the man thought about the passage it seemed to him that God was saying, “Yes, the Word was made flesh. I chose to enter your broken world and limp through life with you.”

Brennan Manning goes on to say, “On that last day, when we arrive at the Great Mansion in the Sky, many of us will be bloodied, battered, bruised, and limping. But, by God and by Christ, there will be a light in the window and a “welcome home” sign on the door.”

We do not know what this new year  holds for us. For some of us there will be great trials.  We may  face enormous challenges or confront heartache and sorrow.  High mountains  may be conquered . . . where we will revel in the accomplishment of long sought dreams. Along the journey, it may be that we find ourselves in turn, battered, bruised, bloodied, weary and worn by the turnings of life.

In the birth of Jesus, we witnessed God’s fresh start in our world . . . God coming to live among us, to show us how to live life with integrity and with power. In Jesus, God entered a weary world and the earth has never quite been the same.  God’s gifts of comfort, strength, hope and joy came with Jesus. It is God’s gift, freely and abundantly available for all . . . God’s welcome sign, sent to all the worlds people. We call this gift grace.

May your life be touched by “grace filled moments” where you have cause to marvel at God’s good gifts of love for you.

Life’s Little Bumps – Sometimes the Story is Enough

img_9561We were having a supper time meeting and it was my job to order the Pizza. Armed with a coupon for bread sticks, and two large, two topping pizzas I made my call. Very quickly, it became obvious that this would not be just any ordering experience. The young man asked – “Do you want hand tossed or thin crust?”

I answered “Thin.”

He asked “What do you want on your hand tossed one?”

“I asked for thin crust” I said.

“Ok, Ok,” he mumbled “What do you want on your thin pizza?”

“Pepperoni and mushrooms” I ordered.

“Then, what do you want on your hand-tossed pizza?” He asked.

“That was a thin crust pizza.” I said.

Again, he asked, “What do you want on your hand tossed one?”

Once more, I said, louder. “I asked for two thin crust pizzas.”

In the background I could hear my customer service care rep ask his manager, “How do I cancel out this order and put in Deep Dish instead?”

“Now,” he said, “What do you want on your first Deep Dish pizza?”

“That was thin crust. I ordered two thin crust pizzas,” I spelled, “T . . . H . . . I . . . N.”

“Oh.” He said, Then asked “And what was it you said you wanted on your first pizza?”

Once more, I gave my Pepperoni and Mushrooms order. He asked for the second pizza. “Canadian bacon and Pineapple” I said.

Going over the order once more for me, he quoted, “That’s pepp ………….and rooms on the 1st and bacon on the 2nd.”

“You said pepperoni and mushrooms on the 1st – right?” I asked.

“Yes” he answered.

“But it’s Canadian bacon and Pineapple on the second,” I reminded him, with an emphasis on Pineapple.

I arranged for delivery at a quarter to seven . . . 6:45 came and went. At 7:15, I called the pizza shop, asking why our pizza was so late.

A different clerk found my order. “We have a hold on that. It’s not supposed to be delivered till 7:45.” After telling her when I asked for it to be delivered, I could hear her give orders to start our pizza cooking. My call ended with an apology, along with a couple of dollars off the pizza.

Just short of 7:45 two boxes of pizza arrived. As I opened the first box, mushrooms smiled up at me. But where was the pepperoni? Warily opening the 2nd, I found bacon on the pizza – it may or may not have been Canadian. There was no pineapple in sight.

You don’t always get what you order in life. Sometimes, instead of pepperoni you get a hearty laugh and the good feeling which comes when you look at life’s little bumps and know that you’re bigger than they. Sometimes, you get to laugh at yourself and wonder why little things have seemed so important. Sometimes, the story is enough.