Even on the Longest Night: God is with you

20170416_063438.jpgMy favorite service during advent is the Longest Night Service we have at Broadway United Methodist Church every year. We always hold it on or near the “Longest Night of the year” which is December 21st, the winter solstice. The purpose of this service is to remind us of the light that Jesus brings in the midst of grief, depression, uncertainty, loneliness, stress or anything else that we experience as “darkness.”

I feel that this service is the most authentic moment we have leading up to the season we call Christmas because sometimes this time of year can seem to hold a lot of darkness, not just because the days are shorter, and that winter has just settled in and spring seems so far away. Maybe the days seem longer because you are missing loved ones, or things have not been going the way you had hoped or expected. Maybe what you thought gave your life meaning –your activities, your achievements, things you considered important, and the meaning that you had given your life feels gone now.

This “dark night of the soul,” as it is sometimes called, can occur if something happens that you can’t explain away anymore, some disaster which seems to invalidate the meaning that your life had before.  Really what has collapsed then is the whole conceptual framework for your life, the meaning that your mind had given it. So what results is a dark place which in some cases is very close to what is conventionally called depression.

Against all the glitz and cheerful songs, we hear being played everywhere we go, our personal struggles can seem even darker during the Christmas season. In its place, we come face to face with how unwonderful life can be.

Distracted by all the glitz and glamor that we have missed is the true meaning and purpose of Christmas.

The true meaning of Christmas isn’t found in the quaint symbolic manger scenes with Mary and the baby Jesus surrounded by wise men, camels, shepherds, and cute fluffy lambs…

Instead, think back to when we first meet Mary and Joseph. When we are introduced to Mary and Joseph in the gospel story, they have just gotten engaged. According to Jewish tradition, they are essentially married- but not living together yet. A promise has been made. This promise may have been made by their parents for them, but it is binding.

I am sure Mary and Joseph, like most of us, had hopes and plans about what the future would look like, to dream about their life together.

But the dream gets interrupted.

Mary gets a visit from Gabriel and he tells her that she has been chosen to give birth to a baby that will bring salvation to the world. There is a snag to this revelation. She isn’t married yet. This circumstance Mary finds herself in is a bigger scandal than we can envision today.

Can you imagine the turmoil that Mary must have felt? There isn’t just the public humiliation she will have to endure, there is also Hebrew Law that she will have to face. A passage in Jewish scriptures says that if a woman is with child before she does go to live with her husband, she is guilty of adultery, and as a punishment for adultery she could be stoned to death.

So even if she survives having to tell Joseph of her situation, if Joseph decides to divorce her – she and the baby still might not survive.

To not have the support of a husband is a problem because when and where Mary lived, men were the ones who were allowed to make money. It was very difficult for women to make money on their own.

So, without someone who would have money and not being able to make her own money, it would be very difficult for Mary to obtain the things that she would need to raise her baby if she had to raise Jesus on her own.

I am sure that this was not part of the dreams Mary had as a young woman planning for her future.

The news that Mary brings of her pregnancy is a shock to Joseph as well.

Joseph does not want to expose her to public disgrace that would bring upon Mary the harshest religious penalty. He wrestles with what is the right thing to do. He doesn’t want harm to come to her so maybe a quiet divorce to legally break the engagement without any public fuss would be the best thing.

Imagine Joseph’s emotions when he goes to bed that night, as this whole horrible scenario comes crashing down around him. His plans have been pulled out from under him. His dream has been torn apart.

It is into this kind of darkness that our scripture for today declares its message. God speaks to Joseph in a dream using an angel to tell Joseph that he is to wed Mary and help her take care of and help raise Jesus.

The story doesn’t end here. It isn’t the happily ever after ending yet. We know that even though Mary and Joseph listen to and accepted God’s will for their life…. Things don’t get any easier.

There are more trials ahead… like having to travel to Bethlehem while Mary was so close to the birth of Jesus. And when her time came, there was no place for her to go, no family to gather around and support them. It seems as the story goes, they were barely able to have found a stable for shelter.

Even doing the right thing can leave you feeling frightened, alone with a sense of vulnerability.

You would have to agree, that this had to be a dark and desperate time for Mary and Joseph.

It is into this darkest point of the story that Jesus is born.

Scripture tells us that Joseph was told by the angel to call the baby, Emmanuel, which means, “God is with us.”

This is the promise of Christmas.

We were never promised that if we have faith and believe in God then we will be protected from problems and hardships.

No, what we are promised is that in the trials of life, God will be with us.

And God IS with us, but we have to be looking for the signs. Mary encountered Gabriel, Joseph, and the Shepherds had an angel, the wise man saw a star…

God is indeed with us, but he comes to us at times, in ways and through people we might not expect.

As we prepare to celebrate again the first coming of Christ on that first Christmas morning 2000 years ago, we need to ask ourselves if we are being truly open to the signs that point out that God is with us through the trials we are facing.

Are we too afraid of what God may have to say to us to look for angels? Are we too frightened of the journey to follow a star?

Or are we blocking out the signs because we harbor grudges, resentment, bitterness or anger in our hearts?

Advent is the time we are reminded to watch and wait for Jesus, Emmanuel, “God with us.” We are to expect to see him.

What is Christmas?

For God so loved the world… he took on human flesh in the form of a helpless baby… so that he could be with us.

The one who has called goes with us. You are not alone.

 

 

Redefinition

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Simon Peter told them, “I’m going fishing.” They said, “We’ll go with you”. They set out in a boat, but throughout the night they caught nothing. Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples didn’t realize it was Jesus. Jesus called to them, “Children, have you caught anything to eat?” They answered him, “No.” He said, “Cast your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” So they did, and there were so many fish that they couldn’t haul in the net. Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It’s the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard it was the Lord, he wrapped his coat around himself (for he was naked) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they weren’t far from shore, only about one hundred yards. When they landed, they saw a fire there, with fish on it, and some bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you’ve just caught.” Simon Peter got up and pulled the net to shore. It was full of large fish, one hundred fifty-three of them. Yet the net hadn’t torn, even with so many fish. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples could bring themselves to ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came, took the bread, and gave it to them. He did the same with the fish. ~John 21:3-13 (CEB)

For three years Peter spent his time with Jesus. He was even one of his most sacred, hand-picked inner circle. He was not just a disciple but a friend. But in one moment he goes from overreacting and attacking a guard in his anger to denying Jesus three times in a panic. To fall so far. In Peters confusion, he returns to his old way of living.  It’s not that his past life was wrong, it’s that he forgot the truths that he had learned at Jesus’ feet. Peter had gone to a dark, unwelcoming place.  Jesus was crucified before he had a chance to reconcile.  No opportunity to right the wrong. No space for an explanation. With his confidence shattered he goes back to the life he had had before.

The night of fishing lacked its previous satisfaction, but the dawn of a new day brings with it new mercies. The man who should be dead stands on the shore. After asking about their success from the night’s fishing and telling them to cast their nets on the other side John turns to Peter saying,  “It’s the Lord.” Peter, the one who had failed Jesus the most can’t wait for the boat to reach the shore. He jumps in and starts swimming.

I too find myself at times confused as to what Christ has called me to do. In my panic, I find myself in old habits. In my anxieties I find myself returning to my old way of life. When I find myself where I don’t want to be I remember what Jesus told Peter before all this took place. “You will be sifted, when you return to me help your brothers. When you find your way again share the good news.” Jesus came looking for Peter in his old way of life,  not to ask why or tell him he must earn his favor back, but to remind Peter who he was.

My failures do not define me. In Christ, my failures can redefine me. Jesus comes looking for me and calls me to a greater task. Fear can no longer define me.  Love must prevail.

I am thankful Lord that when I find myself fishing again, you come to the shore to find me. Thank you for always seeking me out to remind me who I am. Amen.

Good friends

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People brought to him a man who was paralyzed, lying on a cot. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man who was paralyzed, “Be encouraged, my child, your sins are forgiven.” ~Mat:9-2 (CEB)

Good friends, everyone should have some. These friends did for this man what he could not do for himself. Jesus, seeing their belief healed him. I can think back to paralyzing moments in my life that friends stepped in or stepped up when I could not.

A pastor friend of mine tells a story of a kid he knew who had gone through some hard times. He told Bob that he had friends who saw the way he had been living. If only they had said something about his lifestyle he would have turned back sooner. They knew the choices he was making and had remained silent.

That story makes me sad every time I hear it. How often have I remained silent when a friend might have needed a gentle reminder of who they are and whose they are? Was there a time I thought maybe it was none of my business and turned the other way? Did I not have enough faith?

Lord, forgive me for my sins of omission!

Heavenly Father, please give me the courage today to say the things that must be said. Forgive me when I am weak and remain silent. Amen.

Thirsty?

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Whoever drinks from the water that I will give will never be thirsty again. The water that I give will become in those who drink it a spring of water that bubbles up into eternal life. ~John4:14 (CEB)

We were created with a longing for the Creator. This desire to know and be known by the One who made us and loves us can often be overlooked, denied and buried under an avalanche of personal pursuits and interests. This thirst can go unnoticed for a long time, but then some event in life invites or forces us to pause. When we pause we find rushing towards us an awareness that something is missing. A deep longing or desire takes up residence and when it is filled with God we know that real life is impossible without the companionship of the One who first gave us that gift of life and who sustained us all along, even when we were unaware. We know for certain that we need living water; we need what only Jesus came into the world to give us if we are to really live.

What is my part is all of this? My part is to recognize the deep need for God that resides within me and to offer a space in my heart for God. My soul thirsts for God! The good news I find is that through Jesus Christ my thirst can be satisfied!

Heavenly Father, I recognize this deep desire within my that longs for You. Today and every day I invite you to live within me.  Fill my heart so full that it overflows and cannot be contained. May I then turn to another empty heart and share what spills out. Amen.

To live well

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By his divine power the Lord has given us everything we need for life and godliness through the knowledge of the one who called us by his own honor and glory. Through his honor and glory he has given us his precious and wonderful promises, that you may share the divine nature and escape from the world’s immorality that sinful craving produces. This is why you must make every effort to add moral excellence to your faith; and to moral excellence, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, endurance; and to endurance, godliness; and to godliness, affection for others; and to affection for others, love. If all these are yours and they are growing in you, they’ll keep you from becoming inactive and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. Whoever lacks these things is shortsighted and blind, forgetting that they were cleansed from their past sins. Therefore, brothers and sisters, be eager to confirm your call and election. Do this and you will never ever be lost. In this way you will receive a rich welcome into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ. ~2Peter 1:3-11 (CEB)

As a young adult, I knew there was more to being a Christian than just being saved. “But what does God require of me? “, I would wonder. It was only after much reading that I began to realize that God does tell us how He wants us to live out our Christian lives. Here in 2 Peter 1 we find that God has given us everything we need for life. God gives us faith, morality, knowledge, self-control, endurance, godliness, affection for others and love. All of these are mine to claim. These verses tell me I have these things right now but I need to embrace them and allow them to grow.

To think that I cannot do these things means I have forgotten that I have been washed clean of my past. There was a time that I may not have had self-control, but now I do. There was a time that my morality was on shaky ground, my endurance was not strong and I didn’t always love others as I should. That is the past. Today I can claim a new faith, love, knowledge, morality, endurance, godliness and affection for others. I have been called to these things and as long as I go after these things I will never be lost. Following after what I have been called to enriches my life.

Heavenly Father, Help me claim anew this day the characteristics You have promised me through Your word. Give me Your strength as I  go through this day. May my steps not falter from Your path. Amen.

Chasms

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Who will separate us from Christ’s love? Will we be separated by trouble, or distress, or harassment, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? …. But in all these things we win a sweeping victory through the one who loved us. I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created. ~Romans 8: 35-39 (CEB)

For someone who keeps trying-hard to live right, these verses can sometimes be hard to swallow. Why? Well when you think that by trying-hard you can succeed, it is hard to believe that God loves you no matter how hard you try… or how little you try.  When life is going well and I think I have everything under control it is easy to believe that God loves me. Why not? I have tried so hard to be what I think He wants me to be. But as long as I have gained my approval from God in my own try-hard way I worry that if I stop trying-hard will God’s love slip away?

Then there are those times when I have failed miserably at trying hard. The harder I try the worse things seems to go. At these times I find comfort in these words. “You love me anyway? Despite the trouble I have caused or the danger I keep finding myself in?”

Nothing can separate me from God. I already have his approval. This approval from God is beyond my control. Whether I try with all my might or I do not try at all. God’s love is always there.

I can’t help thinking about a conversation I had with my son when he was small. He wanted to know if there was anything he could do that would cause me to stop loving him. He named all sorts of horrible things. Not clean his room, run away from home, spill milk all over the kitchen floor. Then he thought of the ultimate. “What if I killed someone mom, would you still love me then?” *sigh* “Yes, I would still love you, but I would be really, really sad.”

God loves us no matter what we do or don’t do. But I do think there are times that He is really, really sad at the way we are living. I think He may even be sad when He sees me trying so hard wishing I only knew that He loves me no matter what.

Heavenly Father, I thank You for Your word that reminds me of Your love. Guide me through this day. Remind me that I don’t have to try to win Your love. Help my heart to feel Your presence already living in me. Amen.

Falling

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I assure you that unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it can only be a single seed. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their lives will lose them, and those who hate their lives in this world will keep them forever. ~John 12:24-25

In John 12:24, Jesus says that unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone and useless. There is a promise of life inside the shell but when life is held closely in control it cannot flourish. We assume letting go is a sign of weakness. We cannot see the promise of waiting to get out. Only when we get to the point where we are ready to surrender and give up the try-hard life can we begin to find true life.

As long as we try to hold onto our self-sufficiency we are living a less-than life. Although Jesus accepts us as we are he never wants to leave us where he finds us. He knows what self-sufficiency does to our soul. It slowly eats away at it bit by bit. Jesus likes to bring us to the edge of our self-sufficiency and urges us to fall down to the ground in surrender. There on the ground can the kernel of wheat soak in the life-sustaining water to soften the outer-shell.  As the shell softens it breaks and light and nutrients find their way into the heart causing new life bursts forth.

For a long time, the meaning of these verses remained just beyond my understanding. I would read this scripture and almost understand, but I was not ready to give up my self-sufficiency. It was too frightening. Dying in any form is not very appealing. Besides I had relied on myself for a very long time.

Only when I felt that I no longer was capable of controlling my life that I let go and let God take over the control. I realized I couldn’t, that only God could and finally one day I decided that I would begin to let Him.  There is freedom and life in the letting. When I found that I didn’t have to be so tough I found light begin to fill my heart; with light came hope; and with hope came a new life, one where I had true freedom to be me.

Heavenly Father, I thank You for Your complete acceptance. I thank You for never leaving me the way You have found me, always pushing me to be more. I thank You for pushing me out of worshiping self so that I could truly understand who I really am as Your beloved child. I thank You for the freedom I have through You. Amen.

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