Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Sometimes you just need Christmas, wait all the time!

In the next few days I will preach on an amazing silent night and God’s Word being in the flesh. Some years are better than others. Some years we get excited for Christmas, and some years we just need Christmas. Ok, we always need Christmas, but some years we feel the pain of sin in our world so badly that we keep wondering when and how will Jesus fix our mess.

Let me start by saying we are not alone. Sometimes we think this year is worse than the past. The honest truth is, ever since the Garden of Eden sin has been rampant and God has been dealing with it. Yet, we live in the present, and in the present, these challenges are real.  We need Christmas!

St. Louis needs Christmas this year. We need to go back to the things we are good at, like celebrating Cardinal victories and being the “Gateway to the West,” not the apocalypse of pain. We don’t want to be known as the city that started this massacre and then watched it run wild. Every news story reminds me of the night I sat there and watched it unfold on TV.

I need Christmas this year. I watch as my son gets older and he develops my characteristics, some good but also some bad. I spend nights praying that God would help me to see the ways I am impacting his life. As a parent, you want to take all of your sin and throw it out the window and not allow it to affect your kids.

I read an article recently regarding some of the areas that Christians mess up. The author stated that one such area is believing that faith is most important. He was making some ridiculous argument that Christians focus too much on faith and not enough on actions. It brought in James being the brother of Jesus and how James believed in works. I wish I could help people understand there are no works without faith! When you try saying that we should follow Jesus’ example, you are missing the point.  That is why Jesus came, because we couldn’t do it – we couldn’t follow His example. Trust me, I am not letting anyone off the hook, but sin is constantly wrecking the lives of people, and we need Jesus to forgive us, redeem us, and sanctify us.

That is just it – we need His sanctification. On the years when I need Christmas, I spend hours in my head praying for Jesus to teach me how to live. When someone comes to me broken, I spend hours praying for Jesus to help me see what they need. The cool thing is, hang out with Jesus long enough and it will happen. You will look back at your life and say, “Remember when I acted like that? Thank you, Jesus, that you brought Christmas again, because I needed you.”

I was not a fan of history in high school, but I love relational history. When people come to me challenged by the world and all that is in it, I like to take them back to where they started. We live and breathe the story of scripture – sinning, hearing restoration, then sinning again, and needing restoration again. History reminds us of where we have come and what God is doing in our lives to restore us. I love when the prophet Isaiah says, “out of the shoot of Jesse....” The people of Isaiah’s time couldn’t remember the good times with King David because they were so broken.  Isaiah had to remind them that God brought restoration through a peasant’s son. Years like this we can look at the world and get a little frustrated.  It’s then that we need to remember that God brings His Son to restore us. We need Jesus this year. Wait, I think we need Him every year. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Mary - Ordinary Person, Extraordinary Servant

It’s the week we reflect upon Mary in a scriptural and funeral-type way. I rarely talk about Mary the mother of Jesus. I am sure that has something to do with my Catholic friends and not wanting to cause offense just for the sake of doing it. I will admit I had one deep conversation with several Catholic families that attended our pre-school. I tried to make sure the conversation ended peacefully despite the theological debate. No point in hurting someone based upon the theological differences. That really gets us nowhere in life. Yet, despite the conflict that surrounds Mary, there is something very important to understand about her role in the Christmas story. So often the image of her in the stable gets stuck in our head and that is the only image we see. Let me just pose this question – how often have you seen a pregnant Mary? As Mindy and I get closer to the due date of our fourth child, I am reminded again of the joy/awe of a “moving” baby. My unborn daughter is not just sitting in Mindy’s stomach, but she’s kicking, and punching, and moving like crazy! I am not sure why we don’t see images of Mary like this, but it reminds us that she was an ordinary girl who God transformed into His Extraordinary Servant.

Let’s reflect on the power of the angel Gabriel’s announcement, and how it would transform Mary forever. No longer was she going to know the life she had before.  Putting that in the context of my life, it would mean one of my girls would be transformed to serve God in a unique way early in her teen years. Whoa! I can’t imagine what Mary was thinking or how she processed it all. She knew that her people had been waiting for the Messiah for years. She also had to know that based upon society’s view, being pregnant without a husband was not good. Yet, amazingly, Mary is willing to be transformed and to serve as an Extraordinary Servant!  She willingly trusted God to lead and guide her. As time went on, she (and Joseph) certainly faced the challenges of Extraordinary Servanthood. Her journey is just the beginning of the many people Jesus would transform on earth. It all started with this little kicking, moving, baby, in the womb of a girl, whose life was transformed forever because of the life inside of her.

Over the last several weeks I got to spend time with one of our members who was close to her passing, Mary Evans. Mary has been a member at Mt. Calvary for many years. She was often quiet, but when the time was right, she made her voice heard. Mary used to come to the Easy Access service – the service we hold for our shut-ins once a month so they can come to Mt. Calvary with a little more ease. A few years ago we revamped the service, adding even more traditional elements that many of them grew up with. As time passed, Mary spoke up and asked why we didn’t ever sing the Doxology? Well, now we close every Easy Access service by singing the Doxology – praise God from whom all blessings flow. As I reflect on the life of Mary Evans, I see that extraordinary servant praising God from whom all blessings flow. In one of our closing conversations we talked about the people she loved in life, and I had the chance to ask her if she was at peace. She responded she was. Mary was having extra help to breathe at this point, and these closing statements were words of praising God for all the blessings He had given her. Like Mary from scripture, we cannot anticipate the many challenges we will face in life when we are transformed by Jesus into Extraordinary Servants. Yet, we know that this is the season to prepare again for the blessing of the life of Jesus, and how we are forever changed because of His grace and mercy.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Anointing

I went to a Christmas craft event with my brother and sister-in-law last week. He is studying at Covenant Seminary and this was an outreach event for them. The kids made Christmas crafts and heard the story of Jesus. It is always fun to be an observer versus running an event. This year they added new things to the event and it was better organized than last year. The pastor ended up talking to me at the end. During our conversation something odd happened. We were talking about how many services we have at Mt. Calvary, when all of the sudden he said, “Hey Will, we should get together. I would love to learn about what Lutherans do.” It totally caught me off guard, but it got me thinking. We, as Lutherans, are often an “exclusive culture” – meaning we keep to ourselves. We focus on the traditions of our families, friends, and church. Bringing people into that culture is a truly challenging endeavor. Even some newer individuals or families in the church have misunderstood its traditions and teachings of the past.

This weekend’s activity, the Trim-A-Tree Christmas Party, is a prime example. My first year we just said, “Come decorate the church,” and many of the people who had done it for years showed up. Why not new people?  Perhaps it was as simple as our younger families, or new families, didn’t realize this is the way the church ends up looking beautiful for Christmas. Maybe some just thought the pastor does that. Last year we tried something new – we made it a party. We intentionally told people what needed to be done and how they could help. We also added the key piece of fellowship – something that we love at Mt. Calvary. Last year’s decorating happened so fast that we had lots of time to fellowship. Mt. Calvary is not the only church that is challenged by this. All of my previous churches had volunteers decorate the church. Often it was like a secret. It was something members who had been there for years knew about, but not something everyone understood. If communication breaks down among members of a church, imagine how there can be a complete disconnect with people who are not familiar with the church.

The church is full of examples of communication breakdown. Everything from our language to our services can be challenging for anyone new to understand. That is why at Wednesday Advent services I try to remind us why we have this mid-week service.  It is for extra reflection and focus (not extra offering). Sure we can point back to November and talk about managing the treasures we have, and December allows us time to share those treasures with Jesus, but the purpose of the Wednesday night service is to keep us focused and prepared for the coming of Jesus. The world says we prepare with lights, gifts, and Christmas music. Even as I type this, I realize I haven’t put my Christmas music list on my iPhone to listen to yet. We are hit with so many things during this season that it is hard to keep it all straight. Yet we know our true preparations are for Jesus.

Have you taken time to ask anyone about their family traditions for the holiday?  Have you shared any of your own?  In Bible times a common tradition was anointing, putting oil on someone’s head to mark them for something special.  King Saul and King David were both anointed, as were many others.  In our culture today, anointing is not something we practice or typically talk about. So, imagine the jump it takes to understand that Jesus is the anointed one sent to save us. Not so easy. Our language, often misunderstood, could hold someone back from hearing the message of Jesus we want to convey. Part of our Advent preparation this year is to prepare for those moments and opportunities to explain what is often misunderstood. We ask ourselves questions like: “Am I prepared to talk about anointing? Do I know how to share what that means to me? Am I prepared to say why I would take time out to decorate a tree at my church? Am I prepared to define why my traditions are centered around Christ?” That may sound simple, but often it’s not. Maybe preparation for this kind of sharing is the key we’ve been missing. Perhaps it is time to stop and ask about someone else’s traditions, and look for those opportunities to share our own.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!  Too soon?  One of our fellow members said that to me on Sunday, and they are absolutely right! It is a new year for the Church, not just Mt. Calvary, but the Church at large. The end of the church year was covered up by a late Thanksgiving and our focus on the treasures God gives us to manage. You could also say it ended with a bang, as so many things happened in our city reminding us of the struggles and pains of this earth. Though we didn’t specifically focus on the end of the church year, it happened, and now we are starting a new one. That put us in conflict with our other calendar – our 12-month calendar – which says the year is still finishing up. It is a tension we have to manage.

We all manage tensions in our lives. There are moments we wrestle with being a good mom and good wife at the same time. There are moments to wrestle with being a good employee and a good family man. There are moments to wrestle with how to be a good citizen and proclaim our views in a helpful and productive way. The tensions we have to manage never quit coming.  Life is full of tension.

This year I bought a shower holder that was supposed to go in our bath. It was one of those tension rod types. I worked on that thing for over an hour, wrestling with this side and the other trying to get the tension to work.  Finally I gave up and took the silly thing back. I didn’t want to deal with it anymore. I didn’t buy anything to replace it, so the kids continue with shampoos and soaps that sit on the edge of the tub. I never mentioned it to Mindy because I didn’t want to tell her I didn’t figure it out. Things that bring us tension are easy to give up on.

The season of Advent is full of tensions. There is the tension of celebrating the coming of Jesus that already happened and the one still to come. There is the tension of Jesus being 100 percent man and 100 percent God, and of course there is the tension of us being both sinner and saint. Don’t forget the whole calendar thing we talked about earlier. As we walk into this season, we also have to managing the preparations and things our world wants us to focus on, verses the focus that scripture is bringing us to – preparing for the coming of our Savior and the joys we have in knowing Jesus. This week I pray that God will help us manage the tensions in this season, and in our lives, with patience and grace.