Ash Wednesday

Genesis 18:27 – Abraham answered and said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.

As I ran on the rail trail between Chester and Monroe, a group of students from a local high school, who apparently comprise their track team, ran the other way by me. I looked up to see ashes on some of their foreheads. Smears of black ash seemed like something that most people would want to wash off and forget. It looked embarrassing. It was ugly. Funny how something ugly can be beautiful.

Let me admit that these teenaged boys with their smudged foreheads inspired hope in me as I passed them. Somehow, despite all societal trends, they remain connected to Christian tradition. Christian tradition is the only thing that assures us that there will be any kind of Christian future. It begins with the Bible and tells us who we are as believers. If we cut it off in order to fit into contemporary culture, we cut off our identity.  The Holy Spirit wasn’t invented in the 20th century. Relevancy is a relative concept. Who knew that dark smudges worn all day by some teenagers could say so much? Well, whenever an imperfect tradition intends to be faithful to Scripture and involve Jesus Christ, it lives and promotes life spiritually in all of us.

I pray for all who read this that these days between Ash Wednesday 2018 and Easter Sunday 2018 would be days of repentance, renewal, and rejoicing. It matters. We all need our faith to be restarted and refreshed by the Holy Spirit. He has been filling and tending to Christ’s church from the beginning.

Ashes remind us of the incomparable grace and mercy of God in Christ.

 

Echoes of The National Prayer Breakfast

2 Chronicles 7:14
…if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. (ESV)

  • This Sunday I talked about the honor of being invited to and attending the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC (with Pastors Stewart and Rodriguez) last week as an illustration for my sermon on John 15:18-16:4a. You can listen to this at www.goodwillchurch.org.
  • I still think the line in the sermon that captures the category-busting experience of the National Prayer Breakfast for me is the one that recalls when I was asked, “Do you have your Jesus book?”
  • The “Jesus” book is a small, beautiful, hardcover book that contains the four Gospels and the Book of Acts. That’s all. The “Jesus” book contains no other content, not even a copyright notice. I had to ask to learn that the Bible text is from the J.B. Philips translation (1958). Yes, I now have my “Jesus” book. So did every person in attendance. Many were Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or non-religious, from what I could see. All took their new “Jesus” books with them.
  • No President of the United States has missed or failed to bring his best to the National Prayer Breakfast for each of the 66 years we’ve had it. President Trump was no exception. Every president prior, from Eisenhower to Obama, has his most memorable comments recorded in the booklet we were handed at our tables.
  • Per the published material they put on our plates with our “Jesus” books, the National Prayer Breakfast is centered on “the Spirit of Jesus of Nazareth.”
  • The “fellowship” – the “friends” behind this huge operation that hosts 3,500 invited guests from 140-160 countries at the Hilton in Washington – world and religious leaders from all over the globe – they want us to befriend people and share Jesus with them. I had what felt like divine appointments with many insiders of this group. They were focused on personally encouraging me to learn from them and to be encouraged. “Befriend and share Jesus with the leaders you can reach.” That’s it. Amazing, eh? Very convicting. I spoke with someone else who went this year. We agreed that this may lead us to do things that we would not otherwise choose to do. The real risk is not in being bold for Christ. The real risk comes from not being bold for Him. I am risk-averse, so this means it’s time to ante up for Jesus of Nazareth. The National Prayer Breakfast taught me that I can simply contact a leader I might see as far over me in the government or the military and offer my time, friendship, and prayer. There is no end to the stories of how this approach changes the lives of all involved! (Yikes!)
  • I have to think about the cynicism I brought to the event. I expected a heavy dose of ecumenism. I did not expect what we all got: a potent, unapologetic, authentic, gracious witness to Jesus Christ. “Lord, I believe. Help me with my unbelief.”
  • Seeing Scotty and Tiffany Smiley – who I’ve hosted or enjoyed someone else hosting in our area 3 different times in the last years – and seeing Matthew West – who will be at Goodwill this July… well, this made me think about how small God makes our world. I am just this guy who said “yes” to Him a while ago and He – God – has gone so far overboard in blessing me and connecting me. I will not serve before obscure men, right? Amen! God is crazy like this. He doesn’t know when to stop.
  • If you’re reading this, how can you question that Jesus is seeking to bless you AND use you in His purposes for this world? He is calling you. He will equip you. He is already working behind the curtain. He will not be denied. People all over the world want to hear about Him… and only Him. “If my people… pray.” 
  • We ought to continue to pray for Congressman Steve Scalise and his continued healing from being shot. We ought to pray for his friendship with Congressman Cedric Richmond too. It’s all about our relationships. America is a nation of relationships, beginning with our relationship with God through Jesus of Nazareth. Friendship is the key to life. It is no small thing that Jesus said He no longer calls us servants, but friends.
  • May God richly encourage and bless you this week!

Dear Winter: We get it. Thanks.

Mark 13:18 – Pray that it may not happen in winter.

Maybe it’s part of the aging process, but winter seems colder this year. And darker too. In fact, I wouldn’t mind if the Groundhog was embarrassed and in under six weeks we were all complaining about the heat. “Oh, the heat. I just can’t take it. Turn up the AC.”

The Gospels give us a glimpse into the struggles of the end of time. It’s strange to me that Jesus teaches us to pray that our fleeing to the mountains would not occur during winter. Why would our prayers have any effect on the weather then? They don’t seem to now, do they? And how on earth would they influence the timing of events at the end of time? I know, it’s probably just a manner of expression that Jesus is using here and not something offered to build a doctrine of prayer on. I get it. But I also really get the point that doing anything in the winter is harder, especially running for your life on account of the apocalypse.

It’s touching that Jesus, as He heads to the cross, is worried about the details of our physical experience in life and on earth. You can see His humanity here, as well as His compassion. It’s real. He feels it for mothers with babies and all the rest of us. Remember this as you endure the wind chilling you to the bone as you move from heated homes and buildings to heated cars and back.

It’s always counterintuitive to picture Jesus caring like this. Really? Who are we? He should be angry with us, right? He has every right to be. The cold can remind us of what we deserve due to our sins, but instead, with a little Scripture in front of us, because of what Jesus did for us on the Cross, the cold can also remind us that winter is temporary and will soon be eclipsed by more than the warmth of summer. Someday the warmth of Heaven will overtake us. Someday soon. And only because of Jesus.

Let me just write the word “summer” here a few more times. It looks so good on the page.

Summer…

 

The People of Christmas Eve

Luke 2:8–14
And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest,and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

It’s interesting and inspiring to think of the people of Christmas Eve. Just looking at each person or group represented in these few verses…

SHEPHERDS – These guys were marginalized and, probably, hygienically challenged. They lived and worked outdoors. Socially, they were at the bottom of the heap. Many considered them not just physically dirty, but “spiritually” dirty.  That they have any screen time at all on Christmas Eve shows just how different Christ and His birth are. Jesus came for all of us. Yes, He came for the least of us, but His coming really meant that the least of us would no longer be called the least of us. All are equal in the sunshine of God’s love in Christ. This liberates and encourages all of us. Whatever position we have in this broken world does not matter to God. In God’s kingdom and economy, we are judged by our character and our faith. Amen.

AN ANGEL and THE HEAVENLY HOST – Angels are people too, in a way. They don’t die. They have power the likes of which we can’t imagine. They are frequently in the presence of God. They obey perfectly (or are rejected completely, which is the case for Satan and all demons, fallen angels all). It was a big day for angels. Angels are created beings with a purpose: they work for and glorify God. They do not exist for themselves! On this big day, they got to experience their reason for being like never before.

DAVID – David had been made a promise by God as told to him by Nathan (2 Samuel 7). From my sermon earlier today 12/24/17 … “Who was King David? Well, he was the eighth and youngest son of Jesse of Bethlehem. He was of the tribe of Judah. You can read about him in 1st and 2nd Samuel as well as 1st Kings and 1st Chronicles, but you can learn about him from the inside out by reading the Psalms, over half of which he is credited with writing. He was one of three kings of the United Monarchy of Judah-Israel from 1050 BC to 930 BC. Each reigned about 40 years. Saul, the first, reigned from 1050 to 1010. David reigned form about 1010 to 970, and Solomon his son reigned from 970 to about 930. After that the Kingdom was divided into Israel in the north and Judah in the south. / David was chosen to be King by God through the prophet Samuel over all his older brothers. He is famous for slaying the giant, Goliath. He is also famous for his sinful relationship with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband Uriah. He ended life on a bitter note, in some ways, due to his epic failures as a father. Despite the worst of what he did, the Scriptures call him a man after God’s own heart (in 1st Samuel 13:14 and Acts 13:22). And David’s heart, when he was at his best, was to worship God above all things. Nothing meant more to him than the chance to build a temple for God. Today we’re going to read about the day God said “no” to this dream of his… for the sake of a bigger ‘yes.'”

THE BABY – Jesus Christ was of the tribe of David. He was “the Son of David.” He went from everything to nothing; that’s what we contemplate tonight. No change of circumstance anywhere at anytime can compare to His. We are incapable of fully imagining it, because we can only partially imagine what perfect fellowship with His Father for eternity past had been like. Human history is a parade of Biblical prophets leading up to the moment of Christ’s birth, who all point to it in one way or another, and who all affirm both the reality of it and the reality of the love of God it proves. Our Savior and Christ is born; this is what we celebrate this night and tomorrow. Merry Christmas!

Advent Worship

Isaiah 9:2
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.

Written yesterday (Sunday, December 17, 2017) morning…

“I’m writing from the ‘green room’ of the main building on our Montgomery campus. It’s Sunday morning, the 3rd Sunday of Advent. The theme today is joy. The way to joy is always and only through sacrifice. See the Cross. And past it there is an empty tomb.

The worship team is practicing. They should stop soon because people will be walking in to find a seat and settle in before the service begins.

My mornings this month each feel like the opening scene of ‘Home Alone.’ Chaos tempts one to forget something important. In the movie it was a little boy left home alone. In my life (and in many others), it is the baby whose birth we celebrate this month. The Chaos of Christmas can cause us to forget the person at the center of all seasons: Jesus Christ. This chaos can be just like the darkness of Isaiah 9, even though it seems much more innocent. Whether innocent or insidious, anything that blocks our eyes from seeing Christ is ‘deep darkness.’ God sent His Son to each of us that each of us may see ‘a great light.’ So, stop reading this, get ready, and head out to worship with us today. Together let’s marvel like the Magi at the great light of Jesus Christ.”

 

 

The Advent Resolve of Joseph

Matthew 1:19 – And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.

Tucked away in the story of Advent, there are surprises. This verse above is one. Joseph himself is another. He was a man of epic compassion and character. He disappears before we pick up on the adult years of Christ’s ministry in the Gospels, but he is center stage at the beginning. Without his resolve to do the best he could for a woman who seemed to have betrayed him, the story of Advent would not be what it is.

Here are just a few things to think about concerning Joseph…

  1. The Character of Joseph was the real home that God the Father chose for His One and Only Son, once the baby Jesus left Mary’s womb. Only a man like Joseph could be the earthly, adoptive father for the Son of God, the Savior of the World. Joseph, like no one else in history, provided for and protected Jesus Christ. How amazing this is!
  2. The relationship grace extended from Joseph to Mary continues to uplift every single person who hears of it, right up to this very minute. It is the model of Ephesians 5 marital submission-to-the-other. It is the model for what is most important in any human relationship: thinking of what is best for the other.
  3. Joseph did not allow his emotions to overwhelm his ethical code. He was willing to sacrifice his own feelings, reputation, and pride for the sake of his fiancé and the child she carried.
  4. Joseph’s “Advent Resolve” came from an exchange with an Angel (messenger) of God. The Angel’s voice rose above all the other voices that must have been shouting for Joseph’s attention.
  5. The Scriptures here call Joseph her husband, though he was not yet, at least not technically. However, beyond the cultural piece we’ve all heard about how engagement was different in those days, we can read this as the identity Joseph accepted. “I am really already her husband.” In his mind, Joseph was not merely the leading candidate for being Mary’s husband, nor was he merely a customer who had put his marriage to her on some kind of lay-away plan. He leaned into the full responsibility of his future role. He did not back out.
  6. Joseph saw his relationship to Mary and Jesus as an opportunity to serve, not to be served.
  7. Joseph, a carpenter, seems to have lived a difficult life in which he had to rise above disappointment and stand up to defend those in his care. He was a warrior in his way: a man of courage, decisiveness, honor, and strength.
  8. Joseph was a leader like no other. He may have had only two followers during his most important season of leadership, his wife and his son, but the rest of us are still yielding endless blessings because he accomplished his mission.
  9. Joseph, in this verse, is a man with a completely broken heart. Divorce – not from his marriage, but from his engagement – was the only option he knew before an Angel counseled him. He wasn’t going to look the other way on what he thought was Mary’s sin, but he also wasn’t going to do anything to make things worse for her. He had, apparently, already identified himself as her husband.
  10. No sense of revenge polluted Joseph’s thinking. He didn’t want to hurt Mary because she had hurt him. He wasn’t on the hunt for “the other man.” He didn’t allow his personal pain to play too large a role in his thoughts or his actions.
  11. Joseph disappeared. We don’t read a thing about him past the birth and childhood of Jesus. I think this is more than him just dying early. He embraced obscurity. And it seems even God honored this servant’s humility by allowing him to retain it in this special way. That’s part of the mystery of Joseph. Did he know the joy of humility that his adopted son epitomized? It seems so. It’s refreshing and encouraging to consider the soul and heart of such a person of faith. I hope you think so.

 

 

Finland and “Sisu”

2 Timothy 4:7
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.

SPA51928It turns out that today (12/6/17) is a very great day for Finns. Today is the celebration of 100 years of independence. I have Finnish heritage from my Mom’s side. Finland is cool. (No pun intended!) It is a tough and beautiful place, famous for the resilience of its people. In fact, resilience is really the core value of Finnish culture and this resilience is captured by the word “Sisu.” “Sisu” is a word for which there is no English comparison. Below is the best I’ve found in terms of a working English definition of “Sisu.” It comes from Finlandia University in Hancock, MI.

“Sisu is a unique Finnish concept. It is a Finnish term that can be roughly translated into English as strength of will, determination, perseverance, and acting rationally in the face of adversity.

Sisu is not momentary courage, but the ability to sustain that courage. It is a word that cannot be fully translated. It defines the Finnish people and their character.  It stands for the philosophy that what must be done will be done, regardless of cost.

Sisu is an inherent characteristic of the Finnish people. You might call it backbone, spunk, stamina, guts, or drive and perseverance.  It is a measure of integrity that surpasses the hardship and sees through to the end.

Sisu is the quality that lets them pick up, move on, and learn something from previous failures. It’s the hard-jawed integrity that makes them pay their war debts in full. In short, it’s the indomitable will that sets Finns apart and explains many of the incredible things they do.

Due to its cultural significance, Sisu is a common element of brand names in Finland. For example, there are Sisu brand cars (and Sisu armored vehicles), the icebreaker MS Sisu, and a brand of strong-tasting pastilles manufactured by Leaf. Mount Sisu is the name of a mountain first ascended by mountain climber Veikka Gustafsson in the Antarctic.”

That is just uber-cool stuff, eh? Had you ever heard of “Sisu?” Well, I don’t think the apostle Paul had either, but he captured it, I think, in far fewer words in this famous verse above. It’s always what we need. It’s often what we lack. It’s time to fight, finish, and keep for the One who did all this for us on the Cross.

May the Lord grant us some holy “Sisu” this Advent and Christmas as we face all that we have to face with the courage He gives us, the courage that Christ’s birth both represents and grants.

(And… Happy Birthday Finland!)