God is Near to You

christmas night

Why do we celebrate Christmas?

I suspect Christmas is about far more than surrounding ourselves with uplifting music and familiar tunes during the shortest days of the year. I suspect that Christmas is about something far more than “doing what we do” because it’s “what we did” when we were children. Christmas resonates with something inside of us. There is something about the story of God coming into the world to live with us and to be a part of our lives that helps us to connect with God in a more deep and meaningful way. And that’s why the story of “Immanuel” – “God is near to us” – is a story that we need to hear over and over again as we journey through life.

God is far more than an indescribable Principle, or Being, that exists far beyond what we know and experience in our daily lives. God is more than a distant “Being” who lives up in the sky at a safe distance, but who always seems to know whether we’ve been naughty or nice. God stands at the center of our deepest longings as human beings. And the Good News of Christmas is that the same God that we long for in the very center of our being is a God who comes into our world to be near us.

God is near to us when we welcome a new child, or grandchild, into our lives; and God is with us while we’re trying our best to raise that child in a crazy world. God is near to us when we awaken in the morning and go to work, and God is near to us when we come home at the end of the day exhausted and collapse in our favorite chair. God is near to us during those moments in life when we are living on top of the world, and God is near to us when we don’t know how we can possibly make it even one more day. God is near to us when we are strong and healthy. God is near to us as we age and discover that we are not as much in control of our lives and futures as we imagined. And God even promises to be near to us as we close our eyes for the very last time and quietly slip into Eternity as so many others have before us.

In a little, tiny baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and placed in a manger, God comes into the world because God wants to be a part of our lives and a part of every moment that we live. Jesus, the Child in the manger that we celebrate every Christmas, grew up to be a Man who told us that He will be with us “even to the end of the Age.” That’s a word of Good News, isn’t it? At the center of every Christmas, we find a God who walks with us every day. “God is near to us” in every moment filled with joy and celebration, and “God is near to us” in every moment when we need God’s hand to dry our tears.

May God bless you with a renewed awareness of the fact that “God is near to you” as you gather with those that you love and celebrate Christmas this year. And may you enter the New Year with a deeper sense of God’s presence in your life every day.

Merry Christmas!

Click Here for This Year’s Christmas Message

What do You Want Christmas to be Like?

christmas-tree

What do you want Christmas to be like this year?

Some of us remember Christmas as a day when our family came together when we were growing up and we want that tradition to continue as we grow older. Other people look forward to seeing the twinkle in people’s eyes when they open the special gift that we bought for them. Still others resonate with the words “peace on earth and goodwill for all” and we long to see that happen in our lives and in the world. Yet others experience the coming Holiday as a time of loneliness, sorrow and hurt.

And then, right in the middle of our holiday preparations, the words of John the Baptizer ring in our ears (Matthew 3:1-12). John calls people a bunch of snakes. John calls us to repent and change our ways. John speaks not of the quiet coming of a little baby who is placed in a manger, but of a rather ferocious person who comes into the world to gather wheat into a barn and throw chaff into unquenchable fire. Whoa! John appears to be the biggest Christmas party-pooper who ever lived!

But, think about this. Sometimes Christmas isn’t what we hope it will be because we all have relationships that are strained and broken because of things we’ve said or done – and sometimes that’s why there are empty seats at our Christmas dinner. Sometimes Christmas isn’t what we hoped it would be because we get so immersed in the Holiday cheer and buying presents that we forget that Christmas is about love. Sometimes our Christmas isn’t what we hoped it would be because our hearts are hard; and because, even in a Season of “peace on earth and goodwill for all,” we judge people who need our help and make assumptions about the lives of people that we’ve never met. Sometimes, Christmas isn’t what we hoped it would be because we’ve gotten so swept away by the Holiday tunes and on the radio and preparing our Christmas feast that we forget about people who will spend Christmas alone and even end up throwing food in the garbage that could have been shared with a special guest.

But the Good News is that we still have a little bit more than two weeks to just stop and change course and do things differently. It’s not too late to go back to people that we’ve hurt and make amends, so that the empty seat at last year’s Christmas feast isn’t empty again this year. It’s not too late to remember that Christmas is about love and not about finding that “special gift” that is going to wear out or be broken and thrown in the trash. It’s not too late to drop some money into a Salvation Army bucket, or gather some people together to go Christmas caroling at the homes of folks who are confined to their homes because of health issues. It’s not too late to pick up the telephone and invite someone you know who is going to be alone on Christmas to be your special guest at Christmas dinner.

We all have ideas about what we want Christmas to be like. Christmas is a time of the year that’s filled with hopes and expectations and big dreams and deep longings for something in life that we don’t often experience at other times of the year. And that’s why the words of John the Baptizer are so important for us to hear.

We have a little bit more than two weeks to do the things that will help Christmas to be what we want it to be. We still have a little bit of time to stop and change course and think about ways to let other people know that the “Reign of God is near.” And that’s the message that John the Baptizer speaks to us even today.

Click Here for This Week’s Message

As You Enter a New Year

New Year

Happy New Year!

The story of King Herod and the Magi (Matthew 2:1-12) provides fertile ground for us as we enter a brand new year.  King Herod rose to power during the flurry of activity that occurred after the death of Julius Caesar. King Herod was a survivor who was bound and determined to bring Judea into the Roman Empire, and he was a man who was not afraid to use violence to get his own way. Herod ordered the death of his wife; and, then, he had her dead body preserved in honey for seven years. Herod commanded his soldiers to kill three of his sons, and Herod’s own brother escaped a similar fate only because he died before the soldiers could assassinate him.

And then, near the end of his life, Herod meets the Magi. The Magi were oriental priests who studied astrology and who interpreted dreams (which, in the ancient world, were understood to be the voice of God). Most people accept the fact that the Magi were not present on the night of Christ’s birth because the Bible tells us, when the Magi arrived, Jesus was living in a “house” with His mother – and we also know that when King Herod tried to destroy the Christ Child, he ordered the death of every boy under the age of two (to allow himself some wiggle room).

But, the story of King Herod and the Magi is a story about people who went away from the Christ as people who had been changed and as people who decided “to go home on a different road.” And that’s the challenge we find in this story today.

“As You Enter a New Year” is a message that’s meant to invite you to think about the new year and about how you can live your life in a new way in 2018.

Can we enter 2018 with a renewed sense of peace as we continue to live our lives in a world where it’s easy to be consumed by long lists of worries and concerns? Can we enter the new year with a deeper understanding of God’s love and embrace in a world where it’s not always easy to love and embrace? Can we enter 2018 with a renewed sense of what God’s doing in our lives – in our families – in our churches – and in the world? Can we enter 2018 with a deeper sense of God’s unfolding plan for our lives and world during a time when we seem to be constantly surrounded by chaos, conflict, and bad news?

The Magi didn’t return to King Herod because “dream interpreters” who listen to the voice of God understand that God’s future isn’t going to be found in people who simply overpower others to get their own way. “Dream interpreters” who listen to the voice of God understand that God’s future isn’t going to be found where people squash others under their feet to get ahead.

Can we enter 2018 with a deeper understanding of the gentleness and compassion that stands at the heart of God’s message to the world? Can we enter the new year with a deeper understanding of the fact that God’s Reign breaks into the world when divisive rhetoric is replaced with a spirit of cooperation and goodwill for all people? Can we enter 2018 with a deeper understanding of God’s path of love that calls us to bear each other’s burdens and to lift each other up?

How will we be changed by the encounter with Christ that we’ve just shared? How will the voice of God call us to “go back home on a different road” – walking together on new and exciting paths as we enter the new year?

 

Silent Night?

christmas night

It was most certainly anything but a Silent Night!

Soldiers were marching through the streets of Bethlehem – trying their best to control the restless crowds of people who had come there to be counted. People were busy gathering their animals – because, in First Century Bethlehem, people kept their animals inside their homes at night, so that they wouldn’t be stolen. People were scrambling to find a place to sleep, while others had dinner. And then, a woman who was ready to deliver her child appeared in the midst of the chaos.

Chaos often surrounds Christmas, doesn’t it?

We’ve been watching our doorsteps in the last few weeks – because the news has been filled with stories about Christmas gifts that disappeared shortly after they were left in front of a home. People are traveling long distances to return to the places where they were born and raised – while other people are preparing for guests. Little children are expecting a pile of gifts from parents who are already struggling to pay their VISA bills. Many people flock into churches on Christmas Eve – while others simply stay at home to feast on holiday treats – because Christmas has been transformed into something very different by American culture.

And then, there’s a big interruption. A Child is born and the busyness of the evening is interrupted. The heavens are opened wide, and the songs of the angels announce that something BIG has happened. And then, perhaps just a little bit more than an hour after the whole thing began, it’s over and people are left to think about what it all means as they return to their normal routines.

This year’s Christmas Eve message, “Silent Night?” , lifts-up what has always been the greatest challenge of Christmas.

Will we return to our lives after Christmas as people who have found a renewed sense of peace, or will we simply continue to rehearse the long lists of worries and concerns that consume us?

Will we walk away from Christmas with a deeper sense of God’s love and embrace, or will we continue to listen to the people who tell us that folks who have hurt us don’t deserve to be forgiven?

Will we return to our lives after Christmas with a sense of peace and goodwill for all of God’s people, or will we continue to allow ourselves to be convinced that it’s OK for people who can’t afford health insurance to lose everything that they own because of an illness?

Will we walk away from Christmas this year with a deeper sense of the peace that we can find and with a renewed sense of God’s presence in our lives – in our families – in our churches – and in our world or will we simply return to routines as if nothing’s happened in the last few weeks?

It was most certainly anything but a Silent Night!

Christmas changes our lives and our perspectives. Christmas invites us to experience a deeper sense of God’s peace and God’s presence in our lives.

How will you be changed by that?

How will you be different tomorrow morning?

God’s Using You!

Ordinary People

I had many dreams as a child.

I was told that I could be the President of the United States. I was told that I could use my musical talents to become a concert pianist. I once imagined myself as a marine biologist who traveled the oceans of the world. I once believed that I could even be the doctor who discovered a cure for cancer.

But, here I am sitting at my desk as a rather ordinary guy in a world filled with ordinary people.

And that’s the story of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Mary didn’t have an impressive resume and she didn’t have a formal education. Mary probably spent most of her time doing chores with her mother when she was a child, and she probably didn’t stray far from home. And then, an angel appeared – and Mary’s life began to change. She gave birth to a son and devoted her life to raising her boy. Mary was at the Manger and she was beside the Cross. Mary was at the wedding at Cana in Galilee (when Jesus turned water into wine) and she stood before the opening of the Empty Tomb on the first Easter. And there’s a story in that for all of us.

I have found, through the years, that even though there are a few “great” people – for the most part, it’s the ordinary folks who shape the world. The future is being shaped by moms and dads and grandparents who devoted their lives to little children. The future is being shaped by school teachers, people who volunteer at food banks, and homemakers. The future’s being shaped by people who go Christmas caroling, who visit people who are confined to their homes, and who talk with those who are grieving or facing a tough time. “God’s Using You!” every time you pray and worship, and God’s certainly using you every time you open your heart to God, and ask God to lead and guide you.

If you’ve ever wondered if God could use you to do something great, this is message that you need to hear. God’s Using You!

 

 

Getting Ready for Christmas

Christmas Fireplace

Lots of people are getting ready for Christmas these days.

Merchants have stacked their shelves to capacity; and they are, now, awaiting the arrival of the Master Cards, Visa cards, and Discover cards. People are baking cookies. Folks are buying presents, stringing lights on the outside of their homes, and wrapping gifts. Little children are writing letters to Santa Claus while their parents decorate the Christmas tree. We have parties to plan, gatherings to organize, houses to clean, and big bowls of eggnog to dust with nutmeg. And, it seems, that it all has to be done “right now.”

Preparation is a normal part of Christmas, and we all know that our time of preparation is limited because Christmas is going to arrive whether we’re ready or not. Can you image a Christmas morning where there aren’t any gifts under the tree because nobody took time to wrap them? Can you imagine attending a Candlelight Service on Christmas Eve and watching the room go totally black when the lights are dimmed because nobody bought candles? Preparation is not just about getting ready. Preparation is about getting ready before it’s too late.

John the Baptizer came into the world to “prepare the way” for Jesus Christ. John called people to stop, and look at their lives and relationships. John called people to admit that we all have relationships that aren’t what we want them to be. We all have things in our lives that we need to push into the past, so that God can do something new. We have things that block our vision. We have things that stand between us and God. We have fears and challenges that overshadow God’s plan for our lives and futures. We all have valleys and craters that can make God seem far away.

In this week’s message, “Getting Ready for Christmas”, we’re challenged to admit that, as a well-known Christmas song proclaims, we grow a little leaner, a little colder, a little sadder, and a little older as we travel through life. Circumstances in our lives can steal the twinkle in our eyes and take the spring out of our step. And that’s why we need this special time of the year.

Perhaps, we can use the next few weeks to prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ by spending a little bit more time in prayer and reflection? Perhaps we can use the next two weeks to mend some fences and to tear down some of the walls that we’ve place between ourselves and other people? Perhaps, we need some new perspectives? Perhaps, we need to reflect upon what it means to be a child of God in crazy times, and to allow the storm in our souls to be calmed?

Oh, yes! We need a little Christmas – right this very minute! But we, also, need a time of preparation that continues to challenge us to look at our lives in an honest and authentic way; and, perhaps, to challenge us to make some changes – as we long for the Day when God will renew His entire Creation, and bring healing into our lives and into our world.

Facing the Holiday Blues

the pain by emilio gallori 1846 1924  siena palazzo publicco

Many different things can cause that rather depressed, stressed, agitated, and fatigued feeling that many of us experience during the Holiday season. The “Holiday Blues” can be caused by a variety of things, and we need to understand what stands at the core of what we’re experiencing before we can begin to address it. What is depressing and stressful for one person may not affect other people in the same way. And, what one person finds to be helpful during those stressful and “blue” periods may not work for other people at all.

It’s important to realize that the “bad feelings” that come during the Holiday season are not the real problem. Bad feelings are a symptom. We are most likely reacting to something that’s “not right” – or to something that we think isn’t right in our lives when the “Holiday Blues” strike. And so, one of the best things we can do when the “Holiday Blues” strike is look beyond those “bad feelings” themselves and focus upon what’s causing us to feel the way that we’re feeling. We may even be able to address the specific issues that are affecting our lives quite effectively once we clearly identify them. Take some time to simply think about what’s happening; and be careful that you are not overlooking an underlying medical problem, the side effects of the medications that you’re taking, or even Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Some common causes:

Most of us probably believe that the Holidays are “supposed” to be a time of happiness, cheer, joy, fellowship and optimistic hopes for the New Year. We all have “idealized” images of what the Holidays “should” be like. And that’s why we’re often bombarded with all kinds of negative thoughts and feelings when we’re moving through times of significant loss, unresolved grief, fears about the future, and disappointment. We can become very discouraged when we begin to compare what we think the Holidays should be like with what they really “are” like. “Holiday Blues” can also be caused by isolation and loneliness.

The Holiday season is also a busy and stressful time. We have more things to do and more things to purchase on tight budgets. There is more traffic on the highways and even parking our automobiles can become more difficult. Stores are crowded. Tempers are short. Extra demands and expectations are often placed upon our time, attention, energy and finances. This can all be stressful.

Some helpful ideas:

Many people begin to conquer the “Holiday Blues” by re-thinking their attitude and approach to the Holidays. There’s a big difference between what you “have” to do and what is “best” for you. Do you have to buy all of the expensive gifts you’re planning to purchase? Do you have to buy so many gifts? How does your understanding of God shape the purpose and meaning of your giving? Is it time for you to approach giving in a different way? Don’t forget to keep the overall picture in mind. Making the effort to get a gift (or to do something nice) for one person may be easy, but it gets more difficult and demanding as you increase the number of people who will receive your gifts and your time. Don’t just follow your past practices and traditions without thinking about them. Families and relationships change. Your financial situation may be very different than it was last year. Your understanding of “giving” can be greatly clarified as you allow your gift-giving to be shaped by your faith. Think about how your life is different than it was last year and accept the fact that a new approach to Holiday giving (and even celebrating) may be totally appropriate.

If significant losses are making the Holidays difficult, you may want to use some time during the Holiday season to mourn and grieve in a different way. You will most likely feel loneliness and sadness. If you accept the grief and feelings that go along with your loss, the intensity of those bad feelings will likely lessen. Remember that you don’t need to spend the Holidays alone – but remember that you, also, don’t need to accept every invitation that you receive. You may need to find ways to satisfy the needs in your life that were filled by the person you have lost. You may, also, need to spend some time alone. The Holidays can be difficult – but they can also be a time to celebrate the goodness of the relationships that continue to be a blessing to our lives in a healthy and balanced way.

You may also find the “Serenity Prayer” helpful during the Holiday season. When the “Holiday Blues” strike, remember that it’s sometimes helpful to: (1) accept the things that you cannot change, (2) change the things that you can, and (3) accept the fact that there’s a difference between the two.

The holiday season is, finally, a great time to celebrate the presence of God and to remember the promises of a brighter future in difficult times. Please don’t forget to include worship and prayer in your Holiday schedule. You may find a “Longest Night” service to be helpful. As Christians, we can find great peace when we remember that the Holiday season is REALLY about the God who loves us and who comes into our world – even during challenging times – to be an important part of our daily lives.

Keep Stirring!

stirring pot

Have you ever noticed that holidays bring back memories?

I remember the days when my one job on Thanksgiving was to stir the gravy, so that it didn’t get lumpy while it was coming to a boil. My mother would drain the turkey juices into a pan, put the pan on the stove, add some water and flour that she had shaken in her special little gizmo, and then she’d tell me to stir. And I’d stir, and I’d stir, and I’d stir. I’d adjust the flame underneath the pan to speed things up. And then I’d stir, and I’d stir, and I’d stir. And at some point I’d always remember what my grandma used to say: “A watched pot never boils.” And, as funny as it sounds, Isaiah drew upon that image a long time ago – writing: “Oh, that you [God] would rend the heavens and come down – that the mountains might quake at your presence, just like when the fire causes a pot of water to come to a boil.” (Isaiah 64:1-2)

A pan of water doesn’t start to boil as soon as we put it on the stove, does it? When I was serving on Thanksgiving “gravy patrol,” I’d stand beside the pot of gravy – stirring and stirring and stirring and stirring – waiting for something to happen. And that’s, often, how life works, isn’t it…?

God doesn’t always change the circumstances in our lives (or in the lives of the people that we love) as quickly as we’d like – but we just continue to stir and stir and stir. God doesn’t always heal the illnesses that we face, or take away the sting of our grief, or heal our strained relationships as quickly as we’d like – but we just continue to stir and stir and stir. I’m sure that, at some point, we’ve all heard that “a watched pot never boils” because things don’t always happen as quickly as we’d like – but we just continue to stir and stir and stir. And that’s what this week’s message “Keep Stirring!” is all about.

St. Paul once wrote that all of Creation is groaning inwardly as we wait, together, for the Great Day when God’s going to fix it. (Romans 8:22) The prophet Isaiah tells us that from Days of Old, no one has heard – and no one has seen any other god than the Lord who comes into our world [and into our lives] (Isaiah 64:4) as we continue to stir and stir and stir. And that’s what Advent’s about. Stirring. Staying awake. Loving each other. Caring for each other. Supporting each other. Encouraging each other as we wait, together, for the Great Day when God’s going to renew His entire Creation and make it whole.

Have faith, my friend, and trust in the Lord. Always remember that the things that you’re doing – as you continue to stir and stir and stir – really matter (even though you don’t always see the fruits of you labor as quickly as you’d like). Love each other. Care for each other. Support each other. Encourage each other. And always remember that, as we wait together for the Great Day when God’s going to renew His creation, we need each other in order to be strong and courageous and active and faithful.

 

Why bother with Advent?

advent-wreath

Many Christians experience a sense of angst during the Season of Advent.

We see Christmas lights adorning the houses in our neighborhoods, and familiar Holiday songs are bursting from the speakers in our cars. We’re baking cookies and wrapping the presents that we’ve bought for other people. Children are getting excited. Pine trees are being strapped to the roofs of automobiles and are being dragged into homes where they’ll be decorated with lights and tinsel and ornaments. We’re celebrating the Holiday Season at parties that are being hosted by our friends, and favorite recipes are being shared. And then, we come to worship and discover that Pastor Grinch won’t allow us to decorate the inside of the church building with things we’re seeing everywhere else.  And we just can’t understand why Pastor Grinch is such a curmudgeon.

Many people in the Church celebrate Advent during the days and weeks before Christmas. Advent is a time when we’re called to simply stop and reflect upon the “gap” between the things that we see and experience in our daily lives and what God intends for our lives and our world. The Bible tells us about a Day when lambs will rest peacefully beside wolves and when bears will graze beside cows (Isaiah 11:6-7). The Bible speaks about a glorious Day in human history when swords will be beaten into plowshares, and when spears will be used for pruning hooks (Isaiah 2:4). God comforts His people with a great message of hope that is meant to encourage us and lift our spirits (Isaiah 40:1-2). And yet, we’re not there yet, are we? Our hearts and our souls yearn for better days in the midst of times that are not always easy to face. And in that yearning of the soul, we discover what it means to live our lives with faith and to look forward to something better.

The Holiday Season isn’t easy for everyone. Picture a woman, who’s being abused by the man that she once loved, desperately doing her best to tough-it-out because she doesn’t want to ruin her children’s Christmas by uprooting the family and moving into the local women’s shelter. People who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder find the days that surround Christmas very difficult because the nights are so incredibly long. The Holiday Season can highlight the sense of brokenness that we experience when we’re trying to move through difficult times with our friends and, sometimes, with members of our own family. Even the well-known Christmas carol, “Silent Night,” sounds very different when you’re hearing it for the first time after you’ve lost your spouse – or a parent – or a child.

Advent is a Season that invites us to be real and authentic. Advent is a Season that invites us to acknowledge that our lives and our relationships aren’t perfect; and that reminds us that, even on the longest night of the entire year, the light of Christ still shines. God walks beside us and lifts us up in times when we need strength and courage. God reminds us that better days are surely coming – even when we’re ready to throw-in the towel. Wars and violence will cease. Families and relationships will be restored. Even the shadow of death, itself, will be overcome by the glorious light of the Prince of Peace. Our lives and our souls will be healed by the power of God. And when it’s all said and done, we will be lifted-up by the Christ that we meet on Christmas.

Radical authenticity isn’t easy. Our lives aren’t always what we want them to be, and our relationships and families are far more complex than what can be described by a Hallmark card. And we want to run away from that. And, perhaps, that’s why so many of us want to run toward Christmas as quickly as we can. We want to experience the joy again. We want that feeling of hope. We want the “peace on earth” that’s announced from pulpits around the world. But, Pastor Grinch wants us to slow down and to take some time to think about what’s happening in our lives and in the world. That dastardly, old curmudgeon wants us to look deeply into the parts of our lives that desperately need God’s healing presence. And, from that deep and profound sense of authenticity, he invites us to come to the Manger – and to stand face-to-face with the God who has the power to make us whole again.

It’s not always easy for us to move through Advent when the rest of the world is filled with people who are shouting, “Ho, Ho, Ho!” We’re always going to be tempted to flee from the radical kinds of authenticity that challenge us to openly admit what’s broken in our lives and in the world. We want to flee from what makes us feel uncomfortable, and run full-speed-ahead toward what’s both familiar and safe. And, perhaps, that’s why so many of us are tempted to push Advent out of the way on our way toward Christmas? Maybe our very human reluctance to embrace Advent is caused by the fact that we don’t want to fully embrace the parts of our lives and of our human experience that God wants to heal?