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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James Atticus Gardner

It’s been just over two months since James arrived January 27th at 9:22 a.m.  Wow – has it already been that long?  And how has it only been two months?!  In the last eight weeks, my emotions have been all over the map.  With each new day of fatherhood comes a new adventure in trusting God.

James Atticus.jpgIt all started with an adrenaline rush that began when Emily said, “I think my water just broke,” continued when I held James for the first time, all warm and snug in his swaddle, and started to wane as 24 of sleeplessness hit me in the postpartum wing of the hospital.

As we left the hospital, adrenaline turned to fear.  Emily and I are now RESPONSIBLE. Who cleared us to be parents?  I’ll never forget the scary feeling of driving back to the hospital within six hours of leaving because we were worried about him.  I often still find myself listening for our breathing child at night, making sure he’s okay.

Fear is often trumped by joy and excitement.  Our family has grown by one, and I could not imagine a more perfect child.  The last two months have been two of the best and most challenging months of my life.

It truly is a daily adventure.  No knowing what tomorrow will hold for Emily, James, and I. But what’s great is that I can rest in the knowledge that God knows.  And that’s going to have to be good enough for me.

dear emily…

Dear Emily,

It’s Valentine’s Day.  A day that has been wildly commercialized.  It’s a day that people spend a lot of money on chocolate and decorate with pinks and reds that make any room look like the Hallmark Store had a fight with itself.  And lost.

And while there are many who publicly oppose the notion of celebrating such a day that commercializes love, I believe the heart behind the day is pure.

Today gives children an opportunity to express their care for one another through cleverly themed valentine notes at school.  Today gives little girls a chance to tell little boys that they think he’s cute.  Today gives classmates something to look forward to, even if it’s just the candy. Today reminds us that we need to tell our loved ones that they are special.

So I want to take this opportunity, this Valentine’s Day, to let you know how much you mean to me.

Valentines Day

I admire you.  I admire the way you mother our little James.  He is a precious gift from God, and God has graciously given him to us to take care of.  You do this beautifully.  You love him perfectly.  You care for his needs, well, in ways that I physically can’t.  I could not think of a better mom for our James.

I enjoy you.  That is, I enjoy spending time with you.  I enjoy that we are both introverts, and that we can both be content with sitting in silence and have by-you time (you more than me, sometimes).

I look forward to continued primitive roads with you.  Ever since that literal primitive road in rural eastern Washington, I knew life with Emily would be filled with primitive roads.  And I wouldn’t have it any other way.  We have had many adventures in our short life together, and this will probably not end.  We’ll likely have so many more primitive road experiences, and I love that.  I love that I get to experience them with you.

I appreciate your love.  Your love for me is great, I see that every day.  And I appreciate the way you love me.  I appreciate you letting me sleep (even though I really want to help change diapers in the middle of the night… really!).  I appreciate breakfast in bed once in a while (really, you shouldn’t have!).  I appreciate the way you hug me in the mornings and after I come home from work.  The way you love me is perfect.

V Day

To be honest, the words are not enough.  I love you more than I can express.  I love you more than I ever thought possible.

It’s Valentine’s Day.  A day to stop and reflect on the loves in your life.  I know that today is not the only day to do this, and that expressing love is a daily act in any relationship.  But today, this is how I will say: I love you, my Emily.

the waiting game

For parents, the weeks leading up to birth are stressful.  If you don’t agree, read my post from yesterday.  It will stress you out.  But it’s not only because of the fear of complications, lack of money, and the unknowns associated with birth.  It’s also the WAITING.

In all reality, Emily could pop at any moment now.  True, her due date is not for another 2 1/2 weeks, but we’re officially full-term, so our little guy could decide he’s ready 2 1/2 minutes from now and make his way into the world.  This puts a whole new dimension of feelings into the mix — thoughts of WAITING.

In my perfect world, God would tell me (audibly, of course, because it’s my perfect world) the exact time and day James will arrive, insuring that I have packed the bags properly, planned time off work accordingly, and escaped the need to continuously ask Emily about her recent contractions.  Was that a big one?  How many have you had in the last hour?  I would have no need for WAITING.

waiting

But what if waiting has some special purpose?  What if God has designed, in some strange only-God-knows way, waiting to be part of His plan?

Isaiah tells us that when we wait, we will be given strength.

David cries out, Wait on the Lord!

James instructs to be patient and wait for the return of Jesus.

Paul tells the Romans, “We know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.  And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5, NIV).

In my eyes, waiting and suffering are synonymous.  To wait is to suffer.  And when we wait, leaning on God’s understanding, we can know that our waiting will lead perseverance, which leads to character, which points to hope.  And our hope is found in God’s love.  AND we don’t have to wait alone.  We have the Holy Spirit, “who has been given to us” on our side.

So when we wait, we continue to develop our faith and trust in our Savior.  When we wait, we acknowledge we are not in control, and we have to look to Jesus.  When we wait, God is glorified.

What are you waiting for?

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

1473041_10100120866564800_1714485859_n

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