Church being Church

You may have heard the saying, “hard times don’t build character—they reveal it.”   That saying was much on my mind this week as you, the body of Christ at Ball Camp, walked with the Lethgo family during their time of grief and loss.  There are few times in our lives more difficult than when we face the loss of a loved one.  Watching you be the presence of Christ to a family facing just such a loss was truly a blessing.

Your ministry to them to them was a wonderful answer to the question of what the church is and what the purpose of Ball Camp Baptist Church is.  The news came to us Sunday morning and we started to pray for this family.  Someone was already talking with the family helping to answer questions and make arrangements.  The sanctuary was made available for the funeral service as it always is when a member or friend goes to be with the Lord.  The choir loft was full for the service and there was room there for friends and family who wanted to join in the singing.  Every time I hear our choir sing How Great thou Art at a funeral service, I grow more confident in the promise of heaven.   More than that, I long for it more when I hear them sing.  Somehow it just seems closer when they proclaim it with such power and beauty.   Dr. Leonard Markham’s willingness to return to Ball Camp to preach Gibby Lethgo’s funeral is testimony to the reality that once you have been a part of Ball Camp, experienced the working of God in this place and with our people, it stays with you even when life moves you to other places.  Many of you were here during the receiving of friends and for the service, and by your presence you reminded this family of the promise and presence of Christ.  Of course, on the day of his burial you continued to speak love and support to this grieving family by graciously and wonderfully feeding them when they were hungry.  So like Christ to meet such an everyday, ordinary need in the midst of difficult times.

For many different reasons, we do not always have the opportunity to minister in so many ways to a family suffering the loss of a loved one.  This week, you did and it was a beautiful sight to behold.  No definitions, no explanations, and no words could provide a better understanding of what the church is supposed to be than seeing you and what you have offered to, and been for, this family as they have walked through the cold, dark valley of the shadow of death.  You have been rod and staff to them.

As people of God, saved by God’s grace and made a part of the family of God by God’s unconditional love, we are able to be in constant conversation with that loving and gracious God.  That love and grace shapes our living so that we proclaim with word and deed the truth of it.  Today as we pray, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” we are reminded that we do not face our trials alone.  God has brought us together: “Lead us not,” “deliver us.”  By God’s grace, what we face, we face together and as we do that we see clearly the substance and depth of Christian community.

More than that, we bear witness to the truth of the Gospel.   Jesus told his disciples that he would never leave them nor forsake them, but that he would be with them until the end of the age.  When followers of Christ act and minister in the ways that you have this past week these words of scripture come to life before our very eyes.  They take on flesh and bone as you seek to be the presence of Christ to one another.

Thank you for your faithfulness to the teachings of scriptures and to the commands of Christ.

Leaving a Legacy

“The greatest legacy one can pass on to one’s children and grandchildren is not money or other material things accumulated in one’s life, but rather a legacy of character and faith.” — Billy Graham, who turned 93 on November 7,2011.

Billy Graham has been an internationally recognized religious leader for as long as I can remember.  My earliest memories of him come from sitting in my grandparents’ living room watching one of his crusades on the television.  To be honest, as a young boy, I was not particularly thrilled with the idea of watching a televised sermon.  However, there was only one television and only two channels, so the options were limited.  Even if there had been other options, I am not sure that they would have been utilized.  My grandparents made it pretty clear that watching Billy Graham preach was important.

Through the years, they made other values clear as well.  The way they shared their values was just as important, maybe more so, as the values themselves.  They did so with a steadfast consistency that made their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren feel wanted and loved.

Of course, while they were leaving this legacy of love and faith they were not mindful of it.  At least, I don’t think they were.  They seemed to just be living their lives and doing the work that each day brought with it.  Mind you, each day, each task and each interaction was sprinkled with their values so that day by day their legacy was being left.

Legacies are not something that can be put off until the last minute.  Nor are they something that we can borrow from someone else.  All the while we are living we are leaving one.  The question then is not are we leaving a legacy, but what sort of legacy are we leaving?

Billy Graham rightly points out that leaving a legacy of character and faith is to be desired above one of money or material things.  I imagine that most of us would agree with him. Yet, most of us spend a good part of each day working to earn money so that we can buy the material things that we need.  Given that reality, it is not surprising that those matters become the focus of life for so many people. The problem does not lie in laboring daily for the necessities of life, but doing so in a way that conveys the idea that such activity, and the acquisition of its fruits, is what matters most in life.  Esther de Waal writes, “Christ was a carpenter for most of his life, and those years were not wasted ones.  Then I reflect that for me too it would be really very extraordinary if my own Christian life did not grow out of the most ordinary daily round of family life and earning a living.  Christianity does not isolate the sacred from the secular.  Not only are material things good in themselves, they are also signs of God’s loving attention, and they can, if we let them, open up a way to him.  God, in fact, reaches us where we are, at home, in the prosaic reality of our daily lives.”

The notion of leaving a legacy for those who come after us is a bit daunting.  It can easily become one large spiritual challenge that weighs us down rather than setting us free to live as God calls us.  Truth is, the legacy will take care of itself if we simply endeavor to live our lives day by day as near to God as we are able, recognizing God in the ordinary tasks of day- to-day living. and doing those tasks with care and love, even reverently, so life becomes a prayer.

How will we live the next 40 or so days?  Will we live them anticipating the advent of our savior’s birth?  Will they be for us days filled with mystery, wonder, joy and faith?  Or will they be for us hectic days filled with the stress that seems to have become an expected characteristic of the holiday season?  You may feel like you have no choice. You may feel like you have to do all the traditional things that are expected of you to make this season what it is supposed to be.  Many people do feel that certain holiday activities are necessary, even if those activities leave them worn out, frazzled and worried about how it is all going to get paid for when the bills start arriving in January.  Even church people spend a good deal of time during the holiday season upholding traditions that do little to draw them into a deeper experience the grace and love born so long ago at Bethlehem.

Doing something different can be hard, especially when accepted customs and practices have been established for so long.  Nonetheless, at Ball Camp Baptist Church we are going to try something new this year.  In a small way, it is an attempt to leave behind a new legacy, a legacy that gives life, hope and freedom. That’s right we are going to try to make the birth of Christ the focus of this Advent and Christmas season.  We are going to do that by asking a simple question:  What if the birth of Christ changed the world again?  What do followers of Christ need to do in order for Christ’s birth to once again be a world changing event?  How do we need to live these next 40 or so days in order to leave a legacy of hope and love, rather than one of frenzy and frustration?

This Advent season we are going to conspire together (literally: breathe together) around four ideas:

Worship Fully – because Christmas begins and ends with Jesus.

Spend Less – and free resources for things that truly matter.

Give More – of our presence, our hands, our words, our time, our hearts.

Love All – the poor, the forgotten, the marginalized, the sick, in ways that make a difference.

I believe that in our heart of hearts we believe that the birth of Christ is an event that can still change the world, and that is a legacy worth leaving to our children and grandchildren.

Friday Night Lights

You meet interesting people at high school football games. When the game is delayed for two hours because of thunder and lightening you can really get to know them.  At least, that was my experience last Friday night at South-Doyle High School.

The rain had stopped, but the lightening would not go away. The game could not resume until thirty minutes after the last lightening strike. He was standing just outside the door to the home team’s locker room when I noticed him. Since lightening was still in the area, what better way to pass the time than talking football? So, the conversation began.

We talked about games that we had played in ourselves that involved bad weather. I recalled a game that I had played in rain that was just a degree or two away from turning to sleet. He told me about the time that he played in a game that started in the rain and finished in the snow. Between the rain and the snow, there was sleet, and frozen jerseys.  In Michigan, where he played high school football, such weather was evidently not that uncommon.

Having spent my high school years in the temperate climate of East Tennessee, I did not have a weather story to top that one.  Therefore, the conversation progressed to family and work, as conversations do.  When he learned that I was a pastor he began to give me the religious history of his life. It was fascinating, and he was very religious. However, since we were the same age, it could only last for so long (since I am not that old).

Finally, the announcer’s voice came over the public address system saying that the game was going to resume. We began putting some closure to our time together. We were both glad that we had met and talked. It had been a pleasant way to pass the time.

I thought we were done, but then something changed in his eyes. Later, I would realize that at this moment we were just getting started. We had crossed the threshold into that place were he felt comfortable asking me the one question that he carried with him every moment of every day.

Earlier he had told me that he had seven daughters. Now he told me about his one son that he did not mention when we were talking about family.  He had not talked to his son in three years.  It was three years ago that he learned that his son was gay.

Now his son is forbidden to contact anyone in the family. He is so repulsed by who his son is that he does not want to speak to him. He cannot stand to look at him. In his mind, there was no way he could do anything less, given what the Bible says and what the church teaches about homosexuality.

His question for me was whether or not he was right in cutting off all contact with his son. We talked for a while, but in the end I told him that he was the only father that his son had, and that his son needed him now more than ever.  I could not tell if this man wanted a relationship with his son or not. Was he looking for permission to love his son, or justification for hating him?

There was a game to watch and so our conversation really did conclude this time. As I drifted back toward the field, I felt a deep sense of grief for this man and his lack of a relationship with his son. Something he thought would always be there was not.  Would this man’s relationship with his son be different if he had responded to him with love instead of hate, compassion instead repulsion, mercy instead of banishment?

On another level, I grieved for him because of the years he had spent in church.  What did he learn there? Did he learn that it is O.K. to talk about love, sing about love, receive the love of Christ, and then withhold it from people that do not conform to his standard of what is loveable?  Why didn’t someone tell him that sharing the love of Christ is just that — sharing the love of Christ? There are no disclaimers, no qualifiers and no escape clauses, just love. No, it is not always easy; but it is what Jesus calls us to do, because it is what he has done for us. While we were that which we would not love, he loved us and died for us. Without love, Christianity is something other than God intended for it to be.

Who are we?

Who are we?  I Peter 2:9 says that we  “. . . are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”  We are a people whose race is determined not by physical characteristics or ancestry, but by the call of God on our lives. As priests, we open the way for others to discover and to be embraced by the one who has brought us into the light.  We are a set-apart people or nation defined not by geographic boundaries, but by the love we demonstrate to others. 

In a world that is divided by race, gender, social and economic status, religion, and a host of other ways, what is significant about who we are?  If we are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, what difference does that make in our lives?  It can make a huge difference.  If we embrace who we are, then every day becomes an opportunity for us to proclaim the mighty acts of the one who called us out of darkness.  We proclaim those deeds sometimes by telling the story of who Jesus was and what he did, but always by embodying his thoughts, his values and his actions in our lives.

As a  “. . . chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people. . .” we are set apart — different from that which surrounds us and sometimes overwhelms us.  We, the church, find ourselves living in a nation and in a world that often bears little resemblance to the kingdom of God.  Nevertheless, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  We live to proclaim another way.  In living as God has called us, we redeem this world so that politically, socially, spiritually, economically, and morally it looks and feels more like the kingdom of the one who sent out the twelve saying “…as you go, proclaim the good news, ‘the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”   That is the mark toward which we ought to aim our lives, that those whom we encounter would experience the wonder of God’s grace, the depth of God’s mercy and the nearness of heaven from our actions and our words.

As the church, we are not always such a people.  In fact, in some ways the church has become an impediment to grace, mercy and the nearness of heaven for some people. Bad experiences, judgmental words and “holier than thou” attitudes have left them cut off from God and convinced that there is no good reason to do anything to remedy the situation.  They conclude confidently that if God is anything like those who so freely speak for him, then grace and mercy are not to be found.

Yet, we know that such is not the case.  We know God is gracious and that God’s mercy is deep and wide.  God has freely given that grace to us.  We know that God loves us.  So, it is all the more imperative for us to be the race, the priesthood, the nation, and the people that God has called us to be.  In darkness, we did not know God.  We did not know God’s love for us.  In knowing God and sharing God’s love and grace with others, we move further into that marvelous light. In denying others God’s mercy, failing to share God’s love with others, we not only push them back into the darkness, but we turn our own lives back toward the darkness as well.

Who are we?  We are the church, the body of Christ, living according to his call on our lives, to his teachings in our minds, and to his love in our hearts, so that the darkness of this world might be overcome by his marvelous light.

KJV: Happy 400th Birthday!

When Thomas Helwys, co-founder and leader of early Baptists, wrote, “The King is a mortal man, and not God, therefore he hath no power over the mortal soul of his subjects to make laws and ordinances for them and to set spiritual Lords over them,” the king he was referring to was none other than King James of KJV fame. The spiritual truth of Helwys’ words seems obvious now, but such was not the case when he first wrote them. They were deemed treasonous by the king and they landed Helwys in prison,where he died four years later, all because he believed that government had no business governing the consciences of men and women, nor dictating to them the manor or object of their worship. Freedom of religion was not merely a noble idea for Helwys and other early Baptists. It was a deeply held, heartfelt conviction for which they were willing to give their lives.

It seems more than a little ironic 400 years later that so many Baptists cling tenaciously to the Bible authorized by King James while they have conveniently forgotten the price paid by their Baptist forebears at his very hand to set free the moral and religious yearnings of men and women. Long before any nation’s constitution prohibited the government establishment of religion, or limits on the free exercise of religion, early Baptists were living like they were already free to do so regardless of the consequences. At least part of King James’ motivation for authorizing a translation of the Bible was so that he could better control the religious practices of his subjects.  He thought that if he could control what they were reading that he could control them.

While King James’ Bible did not fully serve the purpose he had in mind, it has certainly had a profound impact on the world. The anniversary of its publication is certainly worth noting and celebrating. With that in mind, here are some of my favorite KJV quotes.

“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.  And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” (Genesis 1:1-3)

“He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.” (Micah 6:8)

“Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh? Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the LORD shall be thy reward. Then shalt thou call, and the LORD shall answer; thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am. If thou take away from the midst of thee the yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking vanity; and if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall thy light rise in obscurity, and thy darkness be as the noon day: and the LORD shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones: and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not.” (Isaiah 58:6-11)

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.” (John 1:1-5)

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35-39)

“And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was ahungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee ahungered, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matthew 25:33-40)

“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)

“If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.” (James 2:15-17)

“Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:5-11)

These are some of mine. What are some of your favorite verses in the King James Bible?

An Evening Prayer

Almighty God, you who are eager to find and to hold each one us,

we call out to you as the darkness of night begins to surround us.

May the light you so freely give remain within us and before us

even in the deepest depths of the coming night.

 

You who reach for us and bend toward us as we grope around

the dim edges of life sustain us and keep us.

Hold us this night and every night ‘til the morning comes

and we find ourselves bathed in your glorious light forevermore.

Responsible Teaching about Sex

An edited versions of this post appeared in the February 19 edition of the Knoxville News-Sentinel.

We should be able to reasonably expect our public school educators to respond to the questions and concerns of parents in a timely, professional and helpful way while never compromising the central task of providing the fullest and best education possible to our children. Their job is a difficult one in a county as broad and diverse as Knox County.  Nonetheless, parents ought to always be seen as vital participants in the education process. In the same manner, parents ought to act with due appreciation for the vital task we ask our school system to accomplish each day.

There are many reasons why parents choose our public schools to provide the education of their children. Some parents do not have a choice. Public schools are the only schools financially within their reach. Some parents choose public schools because they want their children to attend the same schools that they attended. Other parents choose public schools because they understand that our nation’s strength lies in a quality education for all students and that their participation in our public schools adds to the quality and richness of that education as well as the strength of our nation.  Still other parents choose public education for their children because neither the narrow sectarianism of the church school nor the exclusivity of the private academy satisfies their understanding of what education ought to be in a democratic society.  Choosing to send ones children to public school should never be seen as an opting out or unwillingness to participate in the vitally important task of education.  School administrators ought to expect parent participation and parents ought to expect to participate.

The recent events at Hardin Valley Academy around a Planned Parenthood presentation might have been less disturbing and frustrating if more and better communication had occurred. Unfortunately, that did not happen.  The topic was a sensitive one about which parents obviously had strong feelings. The failure to adequately inform parents about their options regarding this class presentation was most unfortunate as was the administrations tardiness in responding to the parent’s legitimate inquiry.

Interestingly, figures recently released by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that the birth rate among teenagers in the United States is down significantly. In fact, the birth rate among girls ages 10-14 in 2009 was lower than it had ever been since data began being collected in 1940. At the same time, the number of births among girls ages 10-14 in 2009 had not been so low since 1950.  The birth rate and the number of births among older teens also decreased appreciably.

Ignorance does not serve us well. Education does work. To be certain, most parents would prefer for their children to be in a committed marriage relationship before becoming sexually active. However, not all young people will wait until they are in such a relationship. For those who chose not to wait, real facts and accurate information are of vital importance if we are to keep teen birth rate numbers in decline.  Failing to adequately educate our children can only result in an increase in unwanted pregnancies and an increase in the number of abortions among teens.  Let’s talk more, communicate better and share information with our children in age appropriate ways so that all of our children can be adults before they start having children of their own.

Invited to Life

I am having a real love/hate relationship with all of the snow we have been getting this winter.  I hate that it has caused us to miss a Sunday morning of worship, and that it has interfered with our scheduled activities on two Wednesday evenings.  On the love side, even though I want all of the children to get all of the education that they can, I do not begrudge them their days out of school due to snow.  Is there anything better than a snow day?  Yet, even lovelier than a day off from school, is the way that snow covers the landscape. Blanketing the ground, clinging to the limbs of trees, and balancing on wires, it creates art in such a way that no matter where you are, you are standing in the middle of a picture.

The beauty of snow-covered landscapes almost always reminds me of God’s creative activity in the world.  Standing outside in the night, as the snow is falling and covering everything that it touches, is an awe-inducing experience.  The glory of God’s creation cannot be contained as it beautifies the darkness.

At the same time, I am mindful that what I am experiencing as beautiful is creating an altogether different experience for some. They are cold without warm shelter to shield them from the night.  The snow does not prompt them to think of God’s presence.  Left alone in the cold, at best they ponder the absence of God — at worst, they rail against a cruel deity that would allow it to snow on people who have no protection from the harsh night.

It is easy to get stuck in the snow, especially for those of us who do not get much practice driving in such conditions.  As believers, it is also easy for us to get stuck in the creation, or least in the questions of creation.  How did we get here?  Does the Genesis account of creation say all that there is to say about the origin of life?  Can Christians be faithful in their relationships to God without ignoring what science would teach us about the human experience?  These questions would be much more important than they are if creating us was the last thing that God did for us.

However, God did not just create us and leave us.  God created us and came to us.  In coming to us in Christ, God invites us to live the life God intended for us.  In Christ, we see that life modeled.  The early church recognized Jesus in the words of Isaiah, “…a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.”   In a time and place marked by its share of suffering and wrongdoing, Jesus lived with a gentleness that would not break an already bruised reed nor extinguish a weakly burning flame; yet with his life, he brought light to the nations, sight to the blind, and justice to the oppressed.  He invites us to such a life. God did not create us just so that we could wile away our days admiring the artistry of God’s handiwork. God made us, redeemed us, and invited us to live lives that shine light, open eyes, and do justice.  God invites us to live in such a way that those who find themselves without shelter on a cold winter’s night will know that they are not alone and that they have not been created only to be abandoned by God.  They will know because they will see the love of God being shared by the people of God.

Talking Like God

I was listening to my sister explain to my niece why she could not spend the night at her Aunt Patti’s house.  My sister had to make several attempts at explaining why the night was not a good night for her to sleep over.  At the conclusion of what would be her final effort, she ended her reasonable and logical explanation with an emphatic, “…and that is the end of it, because Momma says so.”  The conclusion was when I stopped listening to my sister and started hearing my mother.  There are all kinds of ways that my sister is different from my mother, but I chuckled to myself as I heard my mother’s words coming out of her mouth.  We learn the vocabulary of living from those who are closest to us.  It gives me pause to think what I have taught my boys.  What will it feel like if one day I hear my words coming out their mouths as they speak to those who are nearest and dearest to them?

Words are what we use to communicate with each other.  What we mean by them can be easily misunderstood if how we use and understand them is different from how the person we are speaking to uses and understands them.  Our tone, volume, body posture and attitude can also impact the message we are trying to communicate with our words.

Words can hurt and words can bless.  Words spoken by us can encourage someone to discover the joy of life, and they can also leave wounds that will be a long time healing.  Sometimes we speak before we think.  Our intention would never be to hurt or to harm someone, but a word or phrase slips out and the damage is done.  Words are powerful. They can nurture and grow a life, or they can tear it down.

Words are used all the time in our world, not just in our closest relationships.  They are the tool that anyone who has something they want us to know, think about, or act upon gets his or her message to us.  Politicians who want our votes throw words at us.  Retailers who want us to buy their products throw words at us.  Criminals who would deceive us with a fraudulent scheme throw words at us.

Words are everywhere and they come at us all the time these days.  Facebook, email, and texting allow words to come our way on a virtually continual basis without us even speaking with another human being.  How do we process all those words?  Is there a danger, in the midst of so many words, that words will have less meaning, or over load our capacity to process them, understand them, make sense of them, and respond to them accordingly?

With all the words that are zipping through our lives each day, it is no wonder there are times when we miss the Word that God spoke to us so long ago, and is still speaking to us today, “…the Word that took on flesh and lived among us.”  When God wanted to speak to us the deepest longing of the heart of God, God left words behind and came to us.  The Word God spoke was God in the flesh with us.  We know God because God came to us.

In times of difficulty and challenge, God still speaks.  God is still with us.  In times of grief, God is still with us.  In times of joy, God is still speaking.  In all of our days, in all of our living, the Word that took on flesh and lived among us is still with us. That Word still holds out to us “…the power to become the children of God.”

The challenge for us seems to be one of discernment.  Is it possible for us to distinguish the Word that God is speaking into our lives from all of the other words that fill up our world?  Are we willing to so position our lives in proximity to God that the Word God is speaking to us becomes our language, our way of communicating with the world around us, and interacting with it — so that as we live, our lives speak of forgiveness, mercy, peace, hope and redemption?  Ultimately, what God said to us by taking on flesh and coming to be with us is that we are loved.  Can the Word that God spoke to us, and is still speaking to us, be spoken through us?

It can, if we make time to listen to God.  If all we ever listen to are the voices that clamor for our attention, then we can never hope to speak with any other language.  Nor can we hope to see life from any other perspective than that of those clamoring voices.  Let us listen to God so that our lives will tell the story of God’s great love for all of us. As children of God, let us repeat the sounding joy over and over again.

Immanuel

Whose birth are we celebrating at Christmas time?  I suppose it can get confusing in the midst of all the hustle and bustle that has become the Christmas season.  The idea that there is an event, and a person behind it — behind all the holiday trappings —  might even come as a surprise to some people.  Honestly, the layers of tradition, custom and practice that have come to be associated with the celebration of Christmas all too easily distort its meaning and distract us from its significance.  In fact, those traditions, customs and practices have taken on a meaning and significance all their own.  Without them, it would not be Christmas for some.

But what if what you need is God?  The parties are grand and the meals with family and friends are treasures. Giving is a joy and receiving a gift from someone who took the time to think of you is heartwarming.  We ought never to miss an opportunity to celebrate and to share joy with one another.  But what if what you really need is God?  What if, like King Ahaz of Judah, your enemies have allied themselves together and are plotting your destruction?  We read in the seventh chapter of Isaiah that the Lord instructed Ahaz to ask for a sign, any sort of sign. The Lord put no limits on what Ahaz could ask, but Ahaz was too afraid, too filled with despair to ask; and he hid behind a false sort of piety refusing to ask for a sign because he did not want to test the Lord.  The prophet Isaiah does not let him shirk his responsibility so easily. If Ahaz is unable to ask for a sign, God will give him one anyway.   “. . . Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.  He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.  For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted” (Isaiah 7:14-16).

In the midst of these troublesome times, it is a woman giving birth to a child that will be God’s sign.  A woman will do what the king, for whatever reason, could not do.  She who had as much, if not more, to fear from the possibility of war and the horror that it brings to the most vulnerable, will act with courage and faith. When all evidence is to the contrary, she will name her child “God is with us.”  Her bold proclamation will echo the words of the psalmist, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult” (Psalm 46:1-3).  The King cannot bring himself to trust in God, but this woman will.  She will do for him and for her people what he cannot; she will believe in God.

For Christians, there have been few explanations better than the courage and faith of this Jewish woman to explain the meaning of Christmas and the nature of God.  In this story, we see God taking on flesh and dwelling among us.  We see God coming to us and saving us.  Like Ahaz, we at times find ourselves in dire situations.  To our eyes, there seems to be no prospect for a positive outcome. Our fears paralyze our faith and the idea of turning to the Lord for help appears pointless.  Or we have cried out to the Lord for so long without seeing any change in our dilemma that to do so any longer feels like it would be fruitless. These sorts of situations are ripe for Christmas.  When our courage is waning and our faith is wavering, God gives us a sign and names him Immanuel, God is with us.

Yet, we miss it.  Perhaps our situation is not dire enough.  Our enemies are not drawn up around us on every side.  Our circumstances are not such that we have needed to frequently cry out to the Lord.  We embrace the hustle and the bustle even if it is not all together to our liking.  The traditions, customs and practices that have grown up with around the Christmas season satisfy our need for Christmas, or so we tell ourselves.   Still, we need a sign, perhaps more so than if we were in trouble.  Is there any greater trouble than to not know that we need God?  Though we have constructed our lives to look content, satisfied, and peaceful, our need to know God, to know that we are not alone, to know that God is with us, is no less than that of the long ago Jewish mother who named her child Immanuel.