Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Misconceptions of a Striking Appearance

There are those moments in life when we expect one thing and get another.  It is amazing to see how the mind works.  So often we perceive things with our eyes that can be not true at all.  My best friend Steve and I faced this situation in college. When I first heard about him it was through girls.  I heard their stories of how cool he was.  When I saw him in his tech vest standing outside of chapel, my first impression was that he thought he was super cool.  When I found out he played football and the tuba, I quickly drew many other conclusions about him.  I never gave him a fair shot.  Then to top it all off he decided to be pre-seminary, meaning  for some reason he thought it would be cool to be a pastor.  It was like he just wanted to jump on any bandwagon he could find--football, orchestra, and even a pastoral calling.  At the time, we had a very personable pre-seminary director, who seemed to draw people in.  But in a case like Steve’s, I was not buying it.  Eventually we both headed for the pre-sem retreat, and there we began to get to know each other.  I soon learned that he was passionate about the same music and artists that I liked.  He was a deep thinker and studiously contemplated many things in life.  Our friendship took off when I took the time to see past my first impressions of him, and not rely on misconceptions built on stereotypes.  By the time I left college he was my best friend.  Our friendship still revolves around many foundational issues in our lives, and has taken on several new topics.
            You never really expect to talk about misconceptions in Scripture.  But there are several historical discrepancies in the Epiphany account, which cover up the true meaning of what is really going on.  Don’t you think if God’s Word described someone as a wise man, it would be Solomon?  Don’t you think if these men were truly wise men they wouldn’t have been so easily tricked by the king?  And who ever said there were three of them?  Maybe the hardest one to accept--because it takes some cultural knowledge--wouldn’t the wise men, kings, magi, know what gifts to bring Jesus?  All of these misconceptions distract us from understanding why they came to see Jesus, which totally confuses the meaning of Epiphany.  I like the definition of Epiphany as a striking appearance, because it properly conveys the power of this story.  These men typically served kings, wrote horoscopes (well, the versions written back then), and were not considered wise at all.  They were the least likely people to see Jesus.  That is why striking appearance is something that fits better.  Imagine how they must have wondered what in the world had just happened to them.  They were meeting the Messiah!  What were they supposed to do about that?  It was striking to see the appearance of Jesus, which was totally unlike anything they expected from Herod’s direction.  God can take hold of anybody, no matter what the appearance or story the world has put on them.
            I can hear it ringing in my ears, “Pastor, what I want to tell you is, I got a telegram from God.”  She was so sure and then she went on to say, “I know He protected my soul through all the testing.”  You never get to decide when God brings His striking appearance into your life.  You can reject it or ignore it, but time and time again Jesus comes to rescue all people.  His timeline may not fit our own, but He comes with His love, joy, and peace and you know this is nothing our world can offer.  So often we can see our own misconceptions of what we expect this life to be, or even how we expect God to handle things.  I knew Carol Eckert’s encounter with God would be striking to Mt. Calvary as well as to me, but for Carol, His appearance was an Epiphany to go home.  The last time she could really talk as we were planning her funeral service, she hugged and kissed me and said, “I got something special for you, buddy.” You never forget those striking appearances of Jesus in His people.  And while the story of the Epiphany may contain misconceptions because of manger scenes, childhood stories, and live nativities, the power of how Jesus appeared to these men was unbelievable.  It reminds us that this story will never lose its power, and that not a single misconception can change the Epiphany of God’s plan to rescue all people.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Narrating the Nativity

On every boyhood Christmas Eve, I remember waiting to get my brown bag of candy.  The apple would get a quick toss to the trash, but I dug deep to find my orange, sugar-coated gel candy.  Sounds delicious when I say it out loud, doesn’t it? People who are aware of my food tastes realize that those who possess a sweet tooth belong to other family members.  They will remain nameless for the safety of my well-being.  Regardless, I am rarely enticed by too many sweets; probably my greater issue has been with liking sweet drinks.  Now I must admit it has been difficult to appreciate regular tea as opposed to sweet tea.  Yet, that cheap piece of orange candy enticed me every year, which was odd because those bags cost 50 cents at the store.  Not that they were out of my price range, there just was something about eating that candy Christmas night before we returned home to find out what Santa got us.  It revealed a narrative of my life.
            Sometimes we forget details in our narratives.  Over Thanksgiving, our family was talking about finding a needy family next year to support.  I expressed my opinion that we should anonymously choose a family and begin to learn their story.  In our world of giving, knowing the story of the lives of people helps us to understand what giving truly means.  It was in a similar time for us that a piece of my family’s story came out.  It was the period after the divorce when we were broke, and our church had even put us on the giving tree.  That was a truly humbling experience for my family.  My wife was shocked to learn this.  God has changed my family narrative by adding Rod, my step-dad, to our lives.  It was at that point that I realized that Mindy and I had lived such different lives.  My wife’s family had its lean years, but during most of them she was too young to remember.  When we evaluate  the narratives of our lives, we find pieces we have not contemplated in awhile.
            Undoubtedly, the Christmas services create a whirlwind of different portions of the nativity narrative.  Many of you may also have narratives created in your minds by nativity plays that ended with the presentation of brown bags of orange candy.  You might remember angels singing, “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.”  You might remember Mary in a blue robe, and Joseph wearing a brown one.  You might recall seeing little costumed shepherds visiting the new king, while the story was read by a 5th grader who was super nervous.  As we grow up, we return to the Gospel accounts written by four men who had very unique perspectives on the telling of the nativity.  Over the last couple of days we heard Luke’s very detailed and precise version.  On Christmas Day there was a more general connection to God’s Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us.  This weekend we are reminded that this is not simply some sweet story with cows and sheep keeping our Savior warm; rather this is the story of a loving Father who came to rescue His people from a world of sin, pain, and the devil’s attempts (through broken human beings like kings and others) to destroy that plan.  Yet, the narrative of the nativity would not be stopped by the distractions of this world.  Every detail of God’s narrative leads us to an important understanding of how Jesus came to rescue all people.  And here we are today, experiencing another Christmas time, which is full of the usual distractions, struggles, blessings, and love; but most importantly, Jesus.  Again we hear this familiar story that we have heard many times, but this I pray:  in your worship, in loving others, in reading, and in your prayer lives, stop and notice the details of the narrative of the nativity.  I also pray that this account blesses your life and reminds you of how much Jesus loves you.  The story of Jesus’ birth has not changed, but the kid who once loved the sweet taste of that orange candy has turned into a man who prays that people are not so distracted that they miss the depth of Jesus’ love for them.  Your story has changed this year, but God’s promise to send His Son will never change.  

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will Be Done

The most recent conversations in our house have been about time.  When is Christmas coming?  How long until my birthday?  When is Easter?  Whose birthday is first?  This summer I remember conversations that occurred much closer to the birthdays involved constant countdowns.  I actually remember a moment when Mindy looked at me and said, “Enough with the birthday talk.”  She mentioned this quietly to make sure our kids didn’t hear.  But no doubt being an American and a kid creates a desire for immediate satisfaction.  Yet, I am not sure this is limited only to us in our country.  I wonder if this has been going on through all of time.  As I look back across my life, I am shocked at the things that God has brought me through.  I think realizing this only began recently because I often remember asking God to move more quickly.  I wanted to know where my future would land and what God would do in my life.  At this stage in my life, I relate more closely with the words from my favorite artist John Mayer’s song, “Stop This Train.”
            I think the most shocking reality in all of this was discovering how the difficult events in my life came at a time when I could actually handle them.  I was prepared at 13 to live through the divorce of my parents, and at 21, I was ready to accept the passing of my father.  This last year I lost my grandma, and as I watched the passing of generations that have taught me faith, I contemplated the legacy that God would call me to lead for my family and the church to which He has called me.  Considering the fact that when I was coming out of seminary, the idea of  being the sole pastor of a church was scary to me, but God continued to prepare me for every adventure, struggle, and blessing.
            As we stay faithful to our Lord, and certainly during this Advent season, we see how the traditions of the Church speak a reality that many of us may not embrace.  One of the lines we speak every Sunday from the Lord’s Prayer is, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.”  These lines do not fit well with a fast-paced society which is always concerned about when the next birthday, holiday, or event is coming.  These words are about patience and trust that God will bring us the appropriate thing in the right moments so we can handle them.  This is fine to say until we talk about some tragedy or something that brings us pain.  As we continue to walk through life, we find hard realities that shock us, and often we are not willing to jump right up and say, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.”  Yet, these lines are at the core of what God wanted for us.  He wanted us to be a part of His kingdom and He certainly knows His will is best in our lives.  Yet, no matter how much we prepare for His Kingdom and His will, we never seem to be truly ready for it.  Much of that has to do with the fact that His will often remains outside of our normal ways of thinking.
            This weekend we will study Isaiah.  In our reading, Ahaz was debating what to pray for.  He was wrestling with how to respond to God.  At that moment God was giving him a glimpse of His saving plan to send Jesus.  That saving plan would reconcile all the turmoil with the people of Israel and the pains Ahaz was facing with sin.  None of this changes his reality in that moment.  At the time it just may have made it harder, hearing that God was going to save the world through Immanuel . . . but not yet.  Thank the Lord we don’t have to wait for Jesus to come anymore.  But we are waiting for when He will come back.  And with every crazy turn in life we see how He prepares us to see His will mold and shape us.  We do know that sometimes “Thy Kingdom comes,” happens more quickly for some of our loved ones than others.  And we, like Ahaz, sit waiting for God’s kingdom and His return to come into our lives.  This Sunday as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus again, we take time to contemplate what it means to have His kingdom come and His will be done in our lives.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Preparing for God's Plan

There seems to be an equal mix in our world of the understanding people have of the idea of fate vs. a structured plan based on our lives that is scripted down to the very detail.  People fall on either side of the spectrum on this.  And let’s not discount Christians, because while we don’t call it fate, there is something to be said for the easy-breezy-plan-in-action vs. the every-detail-put-in-place-theory.

Let me give you an example.  Currently in the sports world, winter meetings are being held, so it’s time to bring up baseball, right?  I have a friend who plays against me in fantasy baseball.  During the Dodger/Cardinal series, our friendship became somewhat strained.  Let’s just say verbal shots were fired.  He was very disappointed to watch his boyhood team fall to my Cardinals.  If you remember Carlos Beltran, now a Yankee, that’s like jumping ship.  Royals, Mets, and Cardinals are all fine, but you are going to end in the pin stripes; anyway, Carlos voiced his disappointment with the way the Dodger players expressed their enthusiasm.  As Carlos bounced off the wall in Game 1 of the World Series, my friend’s opinion was  that it was just karma.  I shook my head as I heard that comment.  My friend is a strong Christian, a Lutheran teacher, in fact, but his superstitious baseball head takes over in moments like that.  He assumed that because Carlos made those comments that was what caused him to bruise his ribs!  Unreal, right?

In a similar but unique way as my Dad dove more into the non-denominational church body, I discovered he held this very defined understanding that God was in control of everything in our lives.  Many of the comments dealing with worship, healing, and even day-to-day events seemed to him and his fellow followers to be driven by God.  I remember him telling me once that, “God told me to go to the flower shop.” Even as a teenager I shook my head at this comment.  There was no way I felt that God was defining moments as small as flower shop visits.

Yet, as we approach Christmas, we see commercials about Santa putting coal into packages for some people.  We have constant reminders that if we are good we will receive gifts.  The underlying message is that good things come to good people.  It is our way of spreading the idea of fate based upon works.  And that, of course, throws a huge monkey wrench into people’s understanding of why they would even need a Savior if it is all based upon their good behavior.

All of this comes together in the reading this week.  And, if not examined closely, we could draw the conclusion that fate and good behavior were driving these stories. When Scripture speaks of Mary as favored in the eyes of the Lord, it continues on to define how all things worked together perfectly to bring the House of David, the promise to Jacob, and two upstanding citizens into God’s plan.  So how do we understand all of this?  How do we argue against our world’s conventional way to determine who is good and who is bad?  How do we look at the face of fate and karma and challenge those who subscribe to these ideas that God guides us, but we do have free will?  And with all those questions how do we understand why Mary was chosen, and why do some churches lift her name higher than others?
These are good questions that don’t have easy answers; yet, some of the answers are found in the context of Scripture.  In our preparation for Christmas, a time we call Advent, it is important to understand God’s very definitive plan.  God was headed in one direction and all of Scripture points to the central message of our Savior’s birth.  These passages are not speaking about flower shops or where the donkey was fed; instead they are focused on bringing God’s plan back from the brokenness of sin.  In the context of Scripture, we find that Mary was a woman who received a full amount of grace.  That same grace is needed by all of us, but in Mary’s case that Word incarnate, that grace, was literally sitting in her belly like Thanksgiving dinner.  It is difficult not to express this as full of grace or favored.  As Scripture unveils all the relationships Joseph had with the line of David, it also describes the connection with Jacob and the promise that his house would live forever.  Jacob was a man who begged, and wrestled for the blessing of God.  As this story unfolds, we see something that is neither fate, nor karma, but something that was God’s absolute plan to bring all things together in order to rescue His people.  And along the way, He chose people to accomplish this.  As Jesus was born, He used Mary, but in this day and age we must prepare for the moments when He will employ our unique gifts to fill people with grace.  I pray in this season of preparation that the story of an angel appearing to Mary isn’t just some story you have read a million times, but is a reminder of the grace God puts right in the middle of our lives as Jesus comes to rescue us.  Keep your eyes open.  You never know when God is going to use you to drop grace right into the life of some unexpected someone!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Expect the Unexpected

I was never prepared for the arrival of any one of my kids.  I like to tell people I should have known that when my mother-in-law had seven kids that this might not take all that long.  I don’t want to go into too many details that make people uncomfortable, which it shouldn’t since it is God’s process of procreating, not mine. But this is neither here nor there, and we move on.  I remember the conversation with my mother-in-law after every birth, “I am not sure I am ready for another kid.”  She would say, “Well you know how this happens.”  The phone would grow silent and I would sit there in my sullen state.  It is not that I would give back any of my kids, it just didn’t fit the plan—well, my human plan.  I mean there I was as youth pastor constantly busy with youth and then occupied with three little kids as well.  The first time I was caught off guard because I expected that Mindy and I would have more time together.  The second time we were moving into our new home, and back to St. Louis.  And the third time, it just seemed too soon.  I have all my reasons, but they are all human reasons.  As the months got closer my fatherly worry turned to joy.  I was beginning to prepare for three little people that mean the world to me.  I can’t imagine my life without any of them, but in the beginning I was scared, and had all my practical earthly ways of wanting to tell God that this train was moving too fast.
            In both our Matthew readings this week, we certainly see how God was preparing the world for its unexpected child.  Honestly, in our sinful state we are never ready for this baby, this Savior, our Jesus.  In our sinful state, and with our mortal minds, we have designed our own plans to make our lives better.  We have ideas of what should transpire, and when it should happen.  Honestly, there is not anything wrong with this thought process until we contradict God.  The reality is that God designed us with minds to make sense of the things in our lives.  He provided us with common sense and the ability to think things through.  So let’s just take a look at our stories.
            Here is Joseph, this dude who is going to get married to his love.  And then she turns up pregnant, and he knows he is not the guy.  This is the perfect script for one of our reality TV shows.  You can imagine the dialogue playing out. “Um, Mary, you are pregnant?  That’s not really cool.”  Mary responds, “Well, Joseph the Holy Spirit put this baby in me.”  Joseph responds, “Ok, so now, not only are you lying, but you think I am dumb or you’re delusional.” Because we hear this story so many times, it eventually sinks in, but stepping back we see that this was the preparation it took for the Son of God to come as the unexpected Savior of the world.
            In Story Two, we find a dude who is eating bugs and walking around in a woolly robe.  He is telling everyone that Jesus is coming.  He is going outside of the church, baptizing people, and telling everyone that Jesus is his cousin.  Not too long before we go, “Well, when you put it that way.”
            See, human logic would involve advising Joseph to follow the law, divorce her quietly, and get out of Dodge.  Human logic would tell us not to believe the bug-eating robed dude.  But if God’s plan came as an expected event, it wouldn’t be any fun.  No, just kidding!  The fact is that we can’t even figure out what we really need, or the way God can save us.  Seminarian Professor Jeff Gibbs puts it this way:  “It contrasts the ways that human beings think and behave with the unexpected way in which God puts His plan to save into action.”  Again I say, “Well, when you put it that way.”  If God’s plan and His miracles operated outside of the natural means where He sets things up, it probably means that we, as humans, don’t understand what He is doing until His Holy Spirit is inside of us, helping us to understand.  And even then we have moments like I shared at the beginning of my blog where we wonder how God is going to get us through certain situations.
            My prayer for you this Advent season is that you prepare to expect the unexpected.  We believe in God’s saving plan; that is why we go to church.  That is why we strive to be extraordinary servants.  That is why we seek to follow the B1 discipleship model, and grow closer to Jesus.  That means that if what we said in these stories is true about Jesus, God will shock our human thinking like He shocked Joseph, and bring us to be prepared for the unexpected.  So are you ready for an unexpected Advent?  Be prepared!