A Nose for the Holy (or the Holly)

Glorious songs, sights, and sounds of end-of-the-year holidays, especially Christmas, are knit into our shared emotions and memories. But the smells of the season seem to be even more so!

Here’s my short, incomplete list of these smells…

Pine Tree Candle – Sometimes you first catch a whiff of this in stores newly decorated for Christmas. There’s probably a dozen varieties of Yankee Candles that exist as tribute to different aspects of this fragrance. Actual pines in the forest are the most breathtaking. There is nothing like the smell of pine. It takes over. Countless families risk the danger of a “real” Christmas tree for only this reason: the piney scent. The stuff in the spray can doesn’t come close, but it’s better than nothing.

Fresh from the Oven Chocolate Chip Cookies – The kitchen is really the iron-fisted queen of Christmas and Holiday smells. I don’t know the science behind the smell of molten chocolate, but I know the power of it. It enters the mind like an unforced hug, like a dark chocolatey Trojan horse. You welcome it unthinkingly, and then it rips the volitional steering wheel from your hands. There is no other power on earth that is able to “amend” diet commitments like the smell of “fresh from the oven Chocolate Chip Cookies.” It exterminates willpower. Gone. “Yes, I’ll have another.”

Fresh from the Oven Cinnamon, Apple Baked Things – This is among the strongest of the season’s kitchen aromas because it connects to the psychology of our holiday expectations. If something like the smell of fresh, hot apple pie is lighting up the air, it bespeaks of a distant hope. Maybe your weird uncle won’t be so weird this year. Maybe the family dinner conversation won’t take its annual dip into the abyss of awkwardness. Maybe another topic of conversation will finally overtake the subject of flatulence at the kids table… maybe literature or current events… maybe…

Gingerbread in the House  – The best way to catch a whiff of gingerbread is to eat it. The taste of ginger has a way of recruiting the sense of smell. All this fun leads you to say to yourself,  “Well, now that I’ve eaten the stale-gummy festooned chimney off of a gingerbread house that was sitting out in the open collecting dust for weeks, I declare my holiday food options expanded! A new world has opened to me.”

Eggnog with Nutmeg – This is the season’s olfactory equivalent of the Stop Sign or the Red Light. If you are about to glug down a second glass of Eggnog, you have reached the border. There is no going back. Somebody should have built a wall, but they did not. You will now find your post-eggnog options quite limited. Capacity for intake dramatically decreases as girth dramatically increases. Belt have more than one hole for a reason. Elastic is like the grace of God sometimes. “No, I’ve had enough. Thanks. I’m good.”

Newly Cracked-Open Hardcover Books – Lots of types of gifts seem to come and go, but the gift of a new book, maybe especially a new hardcover book, is timeless. When you first crack open a new book, there is that freshly printed scent. Some book lovers unashamedly press their noses right into the spine and inhale. Great, great smell. And if the book is an especially good one, it seems to smell even fresher and more valuable.

A Bleak Cold Day’s Bright Warm Fireplace – A lit fireplace is something that changes everything about a room. It offers a symphony of sounds, sights, and smells. It’s something that can be enjoyed alone, but is best enjoyed with others. You need someone to turn to and say, “What a great fire! Just what I needed on such a cold day… in such a cold world.”

Ancient, Churchy Incense – Few Protestant churches get this one. And some Catholic and Orthodox churches struggle as well, but those that do get it offer a palette of holiday aromas that truly transport worshippers. In Exodus 29:18b is says, “It is a burnt offering to the LORD. It is a pleasing aroma, a food offering to the LORD.” This looks like the first of many times something like this is mentioned in the Bible. Apparently, our Creator designed something in us that He has in Himself: the ability to be pleased by aromas that have sacred meaning, many of which are associated with food. In churches, the sacredness should be obvious, linked to sacrifice, which for us as Christians is linked to the Cross, so a form of this can flourish in our private homes too. There are 58 days left till Christmas, and then it is gone again. And then another year is as well. In a world that has always been filled with the kind of hate dominating the news lately, the “holy days” are meant to be just that: holy. Holy means “set apart.” Turn off the cable news and disconnect with the Internet. Turn your eyes from all your screens and onto your one and only life. This is it. Take a deep breath and take in the smells of the season, and thank God for it all.  Never forget that the word “Gospel” means “good news.”

“Why?”

“Why?” I have heard the question often. Occasionally I’m asked how I answer this question, especially when losses are horrible, shocking, cruel, evil… everything like what people in Pittsburgh are suffering tonight.

First, the question “why?” can be two things. It can be a standard question: the one seeking an answer. In cases involving loss, however, it can also be a one-word lament in the form of a question, in which case no answer is given or wanted. Any answer would be unintelligible; it would not matter because it could not change what those grieving wish they could change. Just last night all those people were preparing for their service this morning. They were gunned down in hate, the early reports indicate. “Why?”

I stopped writing here not long after my father passed away, undergoing a series of procedures intended to extend his life. No violence or hatred, of course, but still unexpected. “Why?”

Again, this second form of “why?” that life brings us all to the point of voicing may have a question mark at the end of it, but it is more of a statement. It is not about inquiring; it is about exhaling. It accompanies us when we are furious, not when we are curious. There is little point to explaining anything when most of what is present is pain and grief. Our minds do not hunger for information when our hearts ache for relief. This is especially so when we hurl “why?” up to God. It turns into, “why, God?” Verses like Psalm 22:1 give us confidence that God wants both our “why?” questions and our “why?” statements. Christ quoted this verse and asked God “why?” from the Cross moments before He died.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?”

God knows we sometimes want answers for the sake of answers. He knows that more often we need Him to know our hearts and their condition, especially when they are broken. “Why?”

This second form of “why?” can have many degrees. A family’s private loss is on one end of the scale while a city’s bitter bewilderment is on the other. Tonight it is Pittsburgh’s turn to exclaim “why?” The rest of us join them…

“Why?”

 

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.”