Advent Week 2: When Love Comes to Town

nativity when love comes to town

We talk about childbirth, the hours in labor, the pain that is soon forgotten for most. We share our stories of being 3 weeks overdue or a month early. Of how unprepared we were and the wonders an automatic baby swing can do to induce sleep.

We are filled with questions the books don’t seem to answer and can we trust the advice of an earlier generation?

What we do know, is that in the midst of sleep deprivation, smells you thought impossible from someone so little and cute, and the 5th time you’ve wiped spit up off your shirt in one day, in the midst of all this chaos and mess, love has come.

You are smitten beyond words. There aren’t enough synonyms to describe the deep feelings you have when you look at the, sleeping, face. The eyelashes that are as delicate as snowflakes. The skin softer than any silk you’ve run your hands across and those fingers….especially the crooked pinky fingers like your dad had. Those. The visible sign she’s mine. Ours. Love has come and won’t let go.

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neighborhood

Neighbors have wrapped palm trees in lights. Inflatable Santa’s and Snowmen list in the wind. A few have nativity figures on their lawns. A display is advancing down our street. Signs of a season begging for signs of love.

It’s been a tough week in our country. Violence, protests, sadness and grief and questions of why. Love seems silent.

At times, the silence is closer. Grief and loss, unanswered questions that strike deep in our lives. Cancer, addiction, divorce, Alzheimer’s, death, financial devastation, job loss. Our hurts scream louder than love. We want a Jesus, a Savior who will save. “Save us from our hurt and pain and disappointment!”, we cry.

We want that magical love that grips our hearts like the way our baby took hold and never let go. The love that could kiss away the tears and scrapes and make it all better. That’s what we want from this babe, this Christ child on that silent and holy night.

“Jesus didn’t come to fix it all. He came to be with us in it all.”Jamie Wright

Love is here. Quiet, in hushed tones, begging our cries to soften so we can hear love’s presence. Immanuel. God with us. 

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We will celebrate this with our men today. Another candle will be lit and words read. John will make his offering as he rat-a-tat-tats  on Little Drummer Boy.

This is our worship, our ushering in Love not just in the decorations but in our lives. Right into the chaos and pain we will pause to still ourselves and welcome Love, Immanuel, God with us.

 

When hope is hard

You think it’s just the way you are, the way you don’t have big dreams and hide behind calling yourself a realist. It’s been years since things fell apart and you tell yourself, year after year you keep telling yourself it shouldn’t matter now. When are you going to get over it? When are you going to quit hiding behind that excuse?

What feels worse is it feels silly. Silly to carry scars and shame from the action of others. Silly that 40 years later their divorce still fractures your world.

You hate to admit it but it makes hope hard.

So you carry on and it doesn’t get mentioned much these many years later but it’s always there. Always there how the family was ripped apart from one end of the country to another and ripped apart in ways teenagers can’t understand, even 40 years later.

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We lit the hope candle this week. The first week of Advent is about hope, the hope that appeared in a baby whose birth ripped apart expectations and split open the darkness with His light. Of hope.

Ann Voskamp writes: “No matter how we’re hurting — it’s only when we lose hope that the real horror happens.”

It’s hard to cling to something that seems too good to be true. It’s hard to cling to things unseen when you’ve been crushed by what was in front of you. It feels safer to curl up in the cocoon of cynicism that has protected you so long. Even when you failed to see the cocoon was a thin veneer made of fear.

xmas tree hope

Hope. Real Hope in the person of Jesus. Hope who came from his safety to a world that would crush his body but never His spirit. Hope that is real because His love is real and He is love.

Save me, Lord, from my fears to know your hopes for me are greater than I can imagine. Save me from the past that is my shadow and split the darkness with the light of Hope. In You.

“Look at my Servant.
See my Chosen One.
He is my Beloved, in whom my soul delights.
I will put my Spirit upon him,
And he will judge the nations.

He does not fight nor shout;
He does not raise his voice!

He does not crush the weak,
Or quench the smallest hope;
He will end all conflict with his final victory,

And his name shall be the hope
Of all the world.” Matthew 12:18-21 Living Bible

All this glory…here

I knew the words they were going to read. My breath caught, wondering if it would be too much. The weight of the words penned for this first week of Advent.

Every year holds a challenge to communicate a truth we find simple: God sent His son, born of a virgin, to be Savior of mankind. When you grow up hearing the story told and retold it’s as familiar as Jingle-bells. To us.

 

 

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So much is intertwined with this season and much of it centers around a place, a literal and figurative place. Where they are. Where they aren’t. I fight my own struggles with this but these men in our charge, for them it’s more than I can fully understand.

“In the middle of the mess, there is majesty”

It was a song, again, that stirred that place in me, the place that says listen closer. Listen again. I hit repeat, and again and the words sunk deeper in my heart and this is what we would share about the gift given by God. The gift of His Son.

“To the middle of our plight came the King of Kings”

Christmas decorations

Christmas is about expectations. So that was our reading this first week.

They were expecting a King not a baby.

I was expecting a mom and dad, not a father I never knew.

They were expecting a Kingdom, not a stable.

I expected a home not a jail cell.

They were expecting peace, not animal noises and itchy hay.

I expected a loving marriage, not one torn apart by addiction.

They expected majesty, not a mess.

I expected to be a better man, not a drunk.

In the middle of darkness came His majesty.

In the middle of my darkness came His grace.

Yes, my breath caught when they stood to read those words. Is it too harsh? Too real? Too true?

“While we were waiting on Your love to come along, light broke in, coming like a Son…..All this glory…Jesus, God with us. Jesus Christ has come and I’m undone.”

 

*Words in italics from All This Glory by David Crowder on his album Neon Steeples

We Gather Together

 

Lord willing, we have gathered for another Thanksgiving with our Florida family in the Panhandle. We’ll crowd around the table, extended to fit our number. The weather looks to be cool for an outside feast as we’ve had other years.

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annual gathering

annual gathering

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There will be warmth from the cooking and warmth from the laughter. I cannot imagine another family who laughs as much as we do and I’m happy it spreads so freely from generation to generation.

My cousin and her oldest will do most of the cooking. She is in her element hosting this crowd again. The crowd whose numbers shift year to year, some due to distance and travel constraints and some we’ve lost to their eternal heavenly feast. My uncle and in-laws all held places around this table, places that have now been handed down to sons.

Younger ones have been added and it takes some of death’s sting away seeing them extend the family’s joy.

Wherever this Thanksgiving finds you, by choice or circumstance or obligation, may you know God’s love. May you know you are enough. You failures, your mistakes, your disobedience, small faith, big pride, your addictions and imperfections, your hurts, habits and hang-up’s are enough.

His grace, mercy and love are big enough to cover our biggest sins. He loves us not because, but anyway.

For this, I give thanks.

 

Measuring Thanks

When it comes to measuring, I tend to size up the wrong things. Why measure things that wither like the wildflowers along the road? Their beauty is bold in the noonday sun but soon they are gone, their duty done.

I wanted to measure thanks. To write out that for which we are grateful on little cards tucked inside the Sunday bulletins and heap them into the offering plates. A literal thank offering. We will not measure our words, not his against mine or measure our blessings but we will stack our thanks one on top of the other, all 100 of us telling and singing and writing THANKS BE TO GOD……..

We have to make a place for this in our lives. Sometimes it happens in the spontaneous way you say “God bless you” when the person behind you sneezes but most often, most often we don’t slow down long enough to consider those things in life to spell out T H A N K Y O U. Not just thank you to the air but thank you to God. To recognize He is the giver of life and breath and sun and rain and He is the shelter for our weary souls.

Here’s a glimpse inside our gathering when spoken and written thanks were share:

“My mom use to cry tears for her son but now she cries tears of joy for me.”P.

“Some of you know I use to bail, wanting the job back, the girl back, the dog back. Now I have God back and will graduate.” T.

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“Even when God says no, I know he’s able.” A.

“The worst day in here is better than the best day out there.” D.

Thanks notes

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Let’s measure our thanks. Gathering the words and stacking them into heaps so tall it will take a lifetime to read them all because a lifetime of giving thanks is the best way to measure up a life well lived in Christ.

Take 2 minutes to view some video excerpts of our Offerings of Thanks

Trading nothing for something

Psalm 103-4a

These words are meaningful to me. Meaningful because I believe in hell.

I believe in a place of eternal torment and damnation. I believe to be separated from God for eternity is hell. I believe hell will be filled with bad people and good people. Good people who have done good things, lived a good life but did it all on their own, never bending to acknowledge the need for a Savior, who is Jesus Christ.

Most importantly, I believe in redemption.

***

Mama put the wet sponge in a water-filled dish, laid the stack of green stamps in front of me and gave me the book. I sat at the kitchen table sticking those stamps in the S&H Green Stamps book until enough were filled to take to their store and redeem them for a clock or dishes or something practical.

The stamps were useless on their own. Their value was in the redemption.

***

Holy Land Tour

I’m at a loss to describe redemption. The kind that makes something out of nothing. I see it all around us yet how do I explain how one comes to that point of wanting to be redeemed? Of wanting to take in your plain, ordinary stuff and get something better.

Sometimes I think it’s easier for the men in our program because they come through our doors with little. Opportunities gone. Housing gone. Jobs and money gone. Family angry and withdrawn. Who wouldn’t want to trade that in for something better? Trade nothing for something.

For us, living in ease and comfort, what prods at our heart telling us there is better? Not more money or power. Not a better house or car but a better life where the external trappings mean less than the inner peace. What reveals the lie that being good is not enough?

Maybe it’s in having those things. The comfort and ease of life. The knowing the bills will be paid, the health insurance, the full refrigerator, maybe it’s in having the stuff that I realize the value of redemption. Redemption that can’t be bought with good works. Its value so high it had to be bought with blood and Christ paid the price in full. For me. For us.

I gave my nothing for his everything.

Five-Minute Friday {still}

He calls me his hummingbird.

Our offices are side-by-side and hears my chattering on the phone or with folks stopping by for a moment or two. Most of the time they come by for something work related but the conversation flits about landing here and there and, hopefully, ending with smiles or laughter.

full moon

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We turned the corner and saw the moon, the big, full, golden moon, hanging in the sky as though it was deliberately placed just so. “Look! It’s gone. Go around, let’s find it” and I reached for my iPhone.

We turned corners and drove the overpass. We turned down a road that ended with chain link fencing and while we could see this beautiful moon, the kind you want to capture in digital form to post to Instagram or Facebook or text the son a few states away, we didn’t get it. Not without noise. We are surrounded by noise.

The noise of street lights glared from every angle. It’s the same when we try to look into a starry sky. The lights from the nearby ball field are aglow. Our street with houses nestled into zero lot lines is illuminated by more lights. The sounds of the traffic on the street behind our house can be heard most of the day. There is so much noise.

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He calls me his hummingbird because he says I flit about, rarely still. In meetings I finger paint doodle on my iPad. At home, my fingers are tapping the keys or holding needle and thread or paint brushes or doodle in a sketch pad.

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I’ve discovered the stillness found in movement. These movements. The ones painting on a canvas or sewing an ornament. Tapping out words on a different kind of canvas and feeling the calm coming with the words.

These are the times I am still. Still with purpose and joy that blocks out the noises of the every day. The stillness where God quiets my soul and breathes in my heart: He is here.

Linking up with a flash mob of Five-Minute Friday bloggers. Free writing for 5 minutes with the word prompt given by host Kate Motaung. Jump in the party!

Healing for every disease

Psalm 103-3b

It only took until verse 3 to make me pause in my efforts to write out my specific thanks as listed in Psalm 103.

 This verse: “He heals your disease – every one”, stops me.

I know the answer. I know the ultimate healing the Psalmist is talking about. The healing when this body is gone and we find eternal peace and restoration in heaven. That is the healing that will last and the one that gives us hope in the midst of today’s struggles and disease.

It’s not my favorite answer. I’d prefer the answer that works like this:

“Dear Lord, please heal Linda of her cancer.” PRESTO – HEALED!

“Father God, please take this dementia away from mama.” PRESTO – HEAELD!

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Isn’t that the kind of healing you want? Isn’t that the kind of God you expect? The kind who hears our prayers and answers them. Just like we want.

Instead, I find a God who works his way and not mine. I find a God who directs me to the doctor when my heart seems to be fluttering away and the tears won’t stop. I find a God whose healing is at the end of a prescription for anxiety meds.

I’ve found God heals through community and the 12 Steps. This healing is slow and more of a process and relapse is common but it’s a daily healing that depends on work. It’s a healing that embodies the spiritual practice of faith and works.

The healing I’ve found most often, the one that’s my least favorite, the healing that cures every disease is death. Death to self and life in Christ.

Job, the bible character most noted for his patience in suffering, was an example of healing. His family and possessions had been taken from him. Pain and physical suffering had consumed his body. His friends and his wife urged him to curse God. Others told him to seek forgiveness because surely all this disease and loss was brought on by sin.

In Job, healing looked like faith. Unshakeable faith that refused to curse God. Job died to himself when he endured physical suffering and pain. Died to himself to live in God. The here on earth God. Today and tomorrow.

This is healing. For every disease.

This is the healing for which I thank God.

This is how we order sin

Psalm 103-3a

We like lists. Top Ten lists, Best Of lists, Best Dressed lists, even Worst Of lists. We like ranking things and putting order to what we can of our world.

But how does one order sin? 

In our work with men in recovery we’ve learned, along with them, that confession is part of honest recovery. Working through the 12 Steps are suggestions to admit wrongs, even seeking amends with those we’ve wronged. The same teaching is in the bible (James 5:16) but, again, my experience has shown we often ignore this in the church. It would be messy, after all. And isn’t cleanliness next to Godliness?

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prayer

After the sermon has been given, prayers have been said and sacred words shared, at the close of this time set apart on Sunday morning, the call is given. The church calls it an altar call. An invitation to come forward. To actually move from your seat to come to the front of the chapel and kneel at an altar. To come and pray. Most often the invitation is given to come and pray in confession, seeking forgiveness for our sins.

The sins we like to rank.

His is worse than mine and yours isn’t that bad and that one, yes that one, is the worst. The worst!

This is what we need to stop. Just stop. Stop talking like homosexuality is the worst sin ever and stop comparing his sins to your sins and conveniently forgetting gluttony is not a virtue and stop ranking how good we are because that’s the real motive here: to feel better about ourselves.

This is how we order sin. We seek forgiveness.

But if we confess our sins to him, he can be depended on to forgive us and to cleanse us from every wrong. And it is perfectly proper for God to do this for us because Christ died to wash away our sins. 1 John 1:9

Our prayer today: At the start of this new week we thank you, God, for your love and mercy so great that you choose to forgive us of our every sin. Those things we’ve done that bring sorrow to you and hurt to others or ourselves, those things, God. Those thoughtless words we’ve said, the lack of compassion shown, the thinking better of ourselves than we ought, even those things, you forgive. Thank you that you forgive – every one.