a new view on christmas

For some reason, I began watching one of my sermon videos this evening from the Sunday after Christmas.  While I usually like to review what I do in an effort to be a better communicator next time, I rarely go back months later and watch it again.

Screen Shot 2014-05-13 at 9.44.17 PMBut tonight was different.  As I began to watch myself walk nervously across the stage and introduce myself to the congregation, I actually started listening to the content, not just noticing the way the words were being presented or the way I move my hands in a predictable pattern when I talk.  And what I heard struck me in a powerful way, almost as if I had never heard this before (even though I was the one who said it).

There is a theme in the story of Jesus’ birth that doesn’t get touched on in many advent seasons.  It’s not a sermon that is heard on Christmas Eve.  Come to think of it, it’s not even that much of a Christmas-y thought…  But, nevertheless, there it is.  Throughout the story of Jesus’ birth, it’s there.

  • When Mary became pregnant, she had to release control of the life she thought she was going to lead.
  • When Joseph heard about the baby, he had to release control of his pride and stand alongside Mary in this confusing time.
  • When it came to the census, they both had to release control of the comfort of home and travel to Bethlehem, a 3+ day journey in the heat.
  • When there was no room for them at the inn, they had to release control and place their newborn son in a feeding trough.
  • They had to release control when shepherds invaded the delivery room, smelly and loud.
  • And again, they had to release control when a stranger picked up Jesus and started praising God in the middle of a busy temple while trying to exercise their religious routine.

I’m sure that Mary and Joseph learned early on that control goes out the window when dealing with God; trusting him with this pregnancy and this child.

Control

Not a Hallelujah Chorus or a “no crying he makes” baby.  No, this is real.  This is powerful. This is God showing the world that when His will be done on earth as it is in heaven, He has got to be the one in control.  And when we try to gain control, we only get in the way.

Just an interesting thought on a random night, but one that continues to be powerful and relevant over and over again.

Lord, help me to let you control in a way that only you know how.  Amen.

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God: “do you trust me?”

I’m about to be a dad.  Yes, our little James is already here, and he’s been alive for going on nine months, but he’s about to be HERE.  His flailing body, fragile head, and tiny fingers are about to be a reality in my arms.  That scares me poopless.  What if I hold him wrong?  What happens when he cries for hours on end for no apparent reason?  I’ve never even changed a diaper!  How do I know that his delivery will be successful?  Will he be healthy?  What if he has some sort of medical disability?  What if…?  How do I…?  Ahhh!!

Emily and I just got home from another preparing for childbirth class in which we learned all about the complications associated with pain management and the interventions that may need to be taken at anytime during labor.  What happens if James’ cord comes out the wrong way and we have to go into emergency surgery?  Will the nurse anesthetist miss the epidural layer and cause Emily’s heart to stop?  Will our baby suffer from Erb’s palsy?

Not only that, but how are we going to afford another member in our family?  I don’t make all that much as a youth pastor and Emily doesn’t work.  I’m certainly not complaining about what God has blessed us with, but is it going to be enough?  Labor is expensive enough, and then we have diapers and clothes and… college!

Welcome to my world.

These thoughts can be all-consuming.  Every ounce of mental and emotional energy can be wrapped up in the “what if” and the unknown.  It doesn’t have to be about becoming a father or struggling with money.  This world is filled with problems, issues, and fears.  And it’s in times like these in which we need to look to God.

I imagine Aladdin to be an accurate picture of God in my life right now.

Aladdin

He’s looking at me, on His carpet of faith with his hand extended, asking: “Do you trust me?”

And my response has to be a simple “yes.”  And when I do that, I am taking His hand, stepping out in faith, and letting Him guide me and my family on this adventure called life.

I don’t know what the future holds, but I believe that God does.  And I’m far better off placing my hand in His, giving Him my worries, and letting Him guide.

What fears do you need to give to God?  And where do you need to let Him guide? 

Photo credit here.

chirstmas on the sidelines: elizabeth

Elizabeth 1There are those who witnessed the birth of Jesus firsthand. They were there at the very beginning. I’m not going to talk about them. It’s common to focus on the center-stage, first string characters. Instead, I’m going to take a look at the perspectives of those who were off stage for most of the story, those who were on the sidelines.

Elizabeth is probably the first in the string of characters in the Christmas story who was on the sidelines. Elizabeth, even though she wasn’t present at the actual birth of Jesus, has a unique and valuable perspective on the arrival of God in the flesh.

I’m not going to type out the Zechariah/Elizabeth story, so I need you to (1) stop reading, and (2) open your bible to Luke 1 and read verses 1 through 45. If you don’t have a bible, read the story HERE.

Really, go read it, it’s worth it.

You read it, right? Good. Here are some thoughts I had recently about this story…

(1) The narrator tells us that Zechariah and Elizabeth were both “righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of The Lord” (v. 6). This is hugely important. Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and in that day, this would have pointed to a problem between the couple and God. It would be a moral or ethical failure, a problem of sin, or some other reason why God would be displeased with them. However, the detail found in verse 6 tells us this isn’t the case. They were in a right relationship with God.

Imagine what Elizabeth would be feeling. She’s old, and her entire life she has remained childless. I imagine she routinely cried out “Why God?” Her prayers may have sounded like Psalm 13, expressing sorrow and pain. But, like in the psalm, she probably always ended her prayers with trust and faith that God is in control. While she couldn’t see God at work in her life in this area, she and her husband remained faithful and remained in a right relationship with their Father. Talk about faith!

(2) Gabriel, the angel who appeared to Zechariah in the temple, said “your petition [or prayer] has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son” (v. 13). Wow. Elizabeth and Zechariah probably spent years before God, praying and asking God to give them a child. Even though God seemed absent and silent, they had not stopped remaining faithful in prayer.

That’s huge! Often, when we don’t hear from God, we say, “Forget this!” Elizabeth and Zechariah had spent most their lives not hearing from God, but they kept praying. And now the angel says, “God heard your prayers. God IS present. God DOES see you.”

(3) After so many years of waiting, so many years of wondering where God was, yet remaining faithful to God’s ways and God’s instruction, Elizabeth became pregnant, just like the angel said. And her first reaction to this is key: “This is the way the Lord has dealt with me in the days when He looked with favor upon me, to take away my disgrace among men” (v. 25).

She is filled with joy and rightfully attributes this blessing to God, knowing that God has provided. God saw her and her husband and had a plan for them all along. In verse 43, she exclaims, “And how has it happened to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me.” She realizes her and Mary’s parts in God’s story of bringing a savior, Jesus. God had not ignored her, and had plans to use her for His purposes, for His story.

There’s Elizabeth’s perspective. Most of her life was marked with barrenness and emptiness. But she was faithful in the midst of that hardship, joyful for God’s provision, and thankful that she was able to be used in God’s big story of redeeming His people.

Something to think about:

  • Where are you in this story? Are you experiencing hardship, wondering where God is? Are you able to remain faithful in these times?
  • Elizabeth’s initial response was joy and thankfulness as she rightfully attributed her child’s conception to God. What is your response to God’s blessings?
  • Does your obedience to God ever depend on what you receive from Him?
  • Are you able to notice how God wants to use you in His story of redemption?

My prayer for you:

Father, as we continue through this Christmas season, help us to look to you and find you, notice your blessings in our lives, and respond with joy and thankfulness when you work in our lives. Amen.

(All scripture references taken from the New American Standard Version.)

give thanks

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As you sit at the table and enjoy family, friends, and a thanksgiving meal, remember who we are giving thanks to: the Father of Lights, our Creator, our Provider, our Savior.

Last night at youth group, we were reminded by Psalm 111 that as we ponder, or think about, who God is and what God has done, we will know Him better, worship Him more, and be able to give Him thanks.

Before you dig in today, take a moment and ponder God — His character and His blessings.

Psalm 111 (NIV)

Praise the Lord.
I will extol the Lord with all my heart
in the council of the upright and in the assembly.
Great are the works of the Lord;
they are pondered by all who delight in them.
Glorious and majestic are his deeds,
and his righteousness endures forever.
He has caused his wonders to be remembered;
the Lord is gracious and compassionate.
He provides food for those who fear him;
he remembers his covenant forever.
He has shown his people the power of his works,
giving them the lands of other nations.
The works of his hands are faithful and just;
all his precepts are trustworthy.
They are established for ever and ever,
enacted in faithfulness and uprightness.
He provided redemption for his people;
he ordained his covenant forever—
holy and awesome is his name.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
all who follow his precepts have good understanding.
To him belongs eternal praise.
Photo Credit: Logos Bible Software App, Verse of the Day

he prayed

Three Lessons

Prayer.

Rather than focus on what Jesus said about prayer, let’s focus on what Jesus did in prayer.  The popular phrase (at least when I was in junior high) says, “What Would Jesus Do?”  Fortunately, we don’t have to speculate about what Jesus would do about anything, since we have four accounts of what he actually did.

So, prayer… what did Jesus do?

3 Lessons from Jesus on Prayer

1.  Get away.  Jesus prayed… away from distractions.

Throughout the Gospels, it is recorded that Jesus got away to pray.  Early in the morning (Mark 1), on a mountain (Matthew 14), alone (Luke 6).  Jesus often needed to be by himself while praying so he could connect with his Father free of distractions.

There are innumerable distractions in our lives.  Notifications on the iPhone, MacBook, iPad (bias showing), text messages, phone calls, emails, that burning desire to see how many likes that one Instagram photo received before finally turning in for the night.

Jesus knew the same distractions.  Ok, maybe he didn’t have an iPhone (though I bet he wanted one!), he knew demands on his attention, time, and energy.  People wanted to connect with him, wanted to be near him, and he needed to get away.

In the busyness of life, it often seems difficult to find a mountain or venture into the wilderness to spend time with God.  However, it may simply look like turning the push notifications off, leaving our phones in the other room, taking an afternoon walk outside of the office.

The Creator wants to spend time with His creation.  Let’s follow Jesus’ example and get away from the distractions, which vie for our attention and ultimately keep us from hearing God.

2.  Get ready.  Jesus prayed… in different ways and in different positions.

He got ready in a posture of prayer.  Matthew writes that Jesus prayed with his hands on others (Matthew 19:13) and while his face was on the ground (Matthew 26).  Luke points out that he was known to kneel before God in prayer (Luke 22).  And John recorded that Jesus even prayed with his eyes open, looking up toward heaven (John 17).

Jesus used his body in prayer.  Different positions evoke different emotions.  Arms wide and face up is a vulnerable place to be, causing ourselves to be exposed before God.  Head down and kneeling allow us to be humble before our Savior.

Get your body ready, in a posture of prayer.  There’s no special formula, no hand motions, and no impossible positions to attain before we can connect with our Father.  But we can learn from Jesus that prayer can, and should, be more than just closing eyes and bowing heads.  By positioning ourselves [kneeling, lying face down, arms spread wide, hands up, eyes open] we put ourselves into a place where we can surrender, be vulnerable, be ready to receive what God has for us.

3.  Get comfortable.  Jesus prayed…  A lot.

Luke records that Jesus “went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God” (Luke 6:12 ESV).  All night he continued in prayer.  All night he continued.  All night.

Both Mark and Matthew’s accounts of Jesus’ experience in the Garden of Gethsemane show us that Jesus prayed, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39 ESV).  And he prayed this multiple times during his time in the garden that night.

Sometimes prayer looks like returning to God over and over again, abiding in Him and His promises.  Sometimes prayer looks like getting comfortable and sitting down for a while, allowing God to speak in the silence.

Get away, if just for a moment.

Get ready, maybe opening your hands to receive from God.

Get comfortable, as you will always be coming before God in prayer.

Leaning on God’s Understanding

Read it

Proverbs 3:5-6I know, you probably have it memorized and can even sing it from so many years of VBS and summer camps… but today, I want you to actually go to these verses in your Bible.  Proverbs is directly after Psalms, and if you open right to the middle of your Bible, you’ll probably be real close to it.

The amazing thing about Scripture is that we can read it over and over again and see it differently each time.  God loves to use Scripture, His Word, to show us things we may have never seen before or remind us of things we may have forgotten.

So go for it, read Proverbs 3:5-6.  And if you’re feeling adventurous, read it twice.  It’s always good to get real familiar with the Word of God.

Consider it

Trust in the Lord with all your heart” –

These are easy words to say, but not always the easiest to do.  In all the situations in our lives, from having a tough time in school to families falling apart, we know that God is present, comforting us, guiding us.  Even during the times when we don’t recognize God, He is carrying us.

What do you need to completely trust God with right now?  What does it look like to trust God with all your heart?

And lean not on your own understanding” –

As you may know, I am in the process of looking for a job.  Emily and I have been searching high and low from Washington to San Diego for a place that we can call home.  Throughout the process, we have been trying to trust God and lean on His understanding.  A few weeks ago, while traveling to the state of Washington, a church offered me a position as the Youth Pastor.  We were SO excited!  All the months of searching and day after day of not knowing where we are going to live and where money is going to come from has ended!

As we got into a deeper conversation with that church, which was offering me an amazing salary (we’re rich!), we came to the realization that there were some things about that church that didn’t sit well with us.  While they are great people, we began to realize that God did not want us there.  Are you thinking what I’m thinking?  It’s a job.  It’s awesome money.  It’s no more of the unknown.  It would make all the human sense in the world to take this position!  But we turned it down.  We want to fully rely on God’s understanding, and God was saying, “not here, not yet.”

You may not always know where God is taking you, but don’t you want have God (the one who created all of creation and you) guiding your life?  We really want to say “yes, of course!” to that question, but it’s difficult – because we like to be in control of our own lives and the many situations we encounter everyday.

In all your ways acknowledge him” –

We are called to follow Jesus, walking the path he has set out for us, letting him infiltrate every aspect of our lives: from our school-life to our home-life to our friend-life.

In what aspect of your life do you need to acknowledge God in the most?  And what would it look like to “acknowledge him” in that area?

And he will make your paths straight” –

While God doesn’t promise the paths we are on will not be difficult at times, like my not knowing where and when I’ll get a job, He does promise that He will guide us as we put our trust in Him.  When we strive to completely surrender all of who we are to God (both our thoughts and our actions), God can make our paths straight.  God will provide our every need.  And that’s an amazing promise!

However, sometimes God’s paths for our lives and what He thinks we need may not look like our sometimes selfish ideal paths and desires for our lives… like the desire to be the rich, popular, smartest student in the “cool group” at school.  But God knows us and loves us more than we could possibly imagine.  So His righteous good must be better and more God-honoring than our selfish good for our lives.

I trust that God is active in my job search and is guiding Emily and I to the place he would like us to be.  Similarly, I trust that God is at work in your life, working for your good.  So regardless of what you are facing and how you feel, we are called submit to God and be open to what God wants to do in and through us in every situation.

Respond to it

Take some time to be in conversation with God…

Thank God for being active in your life, being present in your life even when He doesn’t seem to be there.

Ask God where you need to allow Him to be part of your life.  Invite Him to be active in your life this week as you seek Him.

In silence, allow for space for God to speak to you.  If you feel yourself distracted by people or things around you, re-read Proverbs 3:5-6 to center your thoughts and dive back into prayer.

The God Who Sees

I went to Ronald Reagan’s house (the house before he became president) when I was 17. I played piano, and I wanted to join my high school ministry’s student worship band. My youth pastor had an aunt that had gone crazy and got kicked out of her home. It’s like that show Hoarders on tv where people are forced to get rid of the mass amounts of junk they have. Unfortunately, she was placed into a retirement care facility and other people had to go through her stuff. I was there for the grand piano for our youth room. My youth pastor and I headed down to his aunts house. It smelled like cats. Not the “I can tell there’s been a cat in here” smell, but the “How did the entire cat population of the world pee in this house?!” smell.

Anyway, that doesn’t really have much to do with the point of the story… This house was an older house, while he was still acting, in Bel Aire. You walk in the front door, travel through the first hallway, and you’re faced with two options. One, you can continue into the normal house and have access to every room in the house. Or two, you can enter the secondary hallway and access to the world’s smallest room and the kitchen. This second hallway bypasses the rest of the house. If you were in the living room, you wouldn’t be able to see anyone in that hallway. You can live completely separate lives, but once in a while, you might meet up in the kitchen.

This was the servants’ quarters, completely separated from the rest of the house even though still under the same roof. The small room that the servants stayed in didn’t have any windows. The hallway was half the size of the regular hallway. The builder of the house made it entirely possible that the servants and owners of the house would not see each other at all.

We know that servants and masters don’t really interact. The servant looks down to avoid eye contact. The master is usually cold or distant. Generally, there is no relationship. There is no contact outside of making sure the meal is delivered to the master.

As I stood there, in the house that reeked of cats, I couldn’t help but think about what it would be like to serve someone in that way. I couldn’t live my whole life void of any meaningful relationship. I couldn’t live under the same roof as someone I barely know.

What if our God was like that: a master that we cannot know; a being that does not know us?

In Genesis 16, Hagar was mistreated. She was the servant that was simply used for Sarai’s own good. She used Hagar to start a family. When Hagar found out that she was pregnant, Sarai hated her to the point of mistreating and abusing her. Hagar was trapped. She was doing what Sarai had asked her to do, but then Sarai turned on her. First, using her for children, then, abusing her because she was jealous of her. Running away, she probably felt lost and confused.

I imagine Hagar felt like the first few lines of Katy Perry’s song: Firework.

“Do you ever feel like a plastic bag, drifting through the wind wanting to start
again? Do you ever feel, feel so paper thin like a house of cards, one blow from caving in? Do you ever feel already buried deep? Six feet under screams but no one seems to hear a thing” (Katy Perry, Capitol Records, 2010).

There is sometimes confusion about God when we’re in situations like the one Hagar was in, when we feel lost and feel like no one can see us… like we’re invisible.

It can feel as though God doesn’t see us in our situations, maybe he just doesn’t care that we’re in pain. It feels as though his face is turned away from us.

“How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1)

But God found Hagar in the desert, and blessed her with the promise of many descendants. Hagar names God, which doesn’t happen too often in the Bible… someone naming God. Hagar names God “The God who sees.” God saw Hagar in her pain and confusion, and showed love toward her.

She named God, “the One who sees me.” God turned his face toward us and knows us. God is proud to look at us and call us his children.

God sees us.

God knows us.

God is with us.

“For he has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help” (Psalm 22:24).

We don’t have to live like the servants in Ronald Reagan’s house, always there, but never truly known.

We worship a God who sees us, knows us, and is present to us at all times.