The Weary World Rejoices: A Christmas Lament

A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices.

Lord, we are weary.

We are weary from a year of senseless tragedy. We can barely stomach the next headline.

Refugees fleeing their homelands by the millions.

Blood on the streets of Paris.

Police and civilian tension.

Another cruel beheading.

Another mass shooting.

A friend with cancer.

A painful divorce.

A miscarriage.

Another…another.

Lord, we are weary.

And yet, the weary world rejoices.

For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

We rejoice because the darkness gives way to the dawn.

We rejoice because of the hope this child in the manger brings.

We rejoice because God has not left us alone but has entered into this world.

We rejoice because he is working right now to redeem all of which we are so weary from.

Lord, we are weary and yet, we rejoice. 

We rejoice in your Son.

We rejoice in your salvation.

We rejoice in your new creation.

Lord, we are weary and yet, we rejoice…for we have hope.

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He Made His Dwelling Among Us

08-16292610nativity121115My guess is most people, regardless of their religious background, are familiar with the exodus story. (A quick recap if you don’t mind…) After centuries of growing into a nation in Egypt, Israel faced the threat of a new Pharaoh who felt no allegiance to the memory of the once national hero Joseph or his people after him. In an effort to regain control over these foreigners living within his borders, Pharaoh instilled harsh policy meant to drastically reduce their numbers. Slavery followed by genocide. This was not God’s dream. Greatly concerned for his people, God called a reluctant rescuer, a runaway shepherd by the name of Moses to go back to his former stomping ground and demand the release of God’s people. Upon first encounter, Pharaoh refused, citing that he has no knowledge or loyalty to this “God” for whom Moses speaks. God himself then introduced himself to Pharaoh ten times, the last of which caused Pharaoh to command Moses to take his people and leave Egypt at once. God had done it – he had rescued his people from their oppression and misery.

But this was just the beginning.

God’s desire was to lead the Israelites from dwelling in the slavery of Egypt to dwelling in the freedom of a new promised land. The point, however, wasn’t just to get them out of Egypt (though we cannot overlook the importance of this event). The point of their rescue was to take this nation that was now as numerous as the stars in the sky (God’s promise to Abraham), and bless them and then use them to bless the whole world. God would use Israel to put himself on display for all the nations to see, drawing them to Israel which in turn, would draw them to himself. Israel’s journey out of Egypt took them to Mount Sinai, where God would formally enter into a covenant with his rescued nation, teaching them what it means to live as his people so that they might put God on display (Mount Sinai gives us the important context for the Ten Commandments, rather than just an arbitrary list of rules to follow). It is on this mountain that God himself exchanged vows with Israel and enters into a marriage of sorts (this groom/bride language continues throughout the rest of the Bible).

But again, this was just the beginning.

The next several chapters of Exodus contain the details of the covenant and it can get pretty thick (and probably is where many readers might feel inclined to skip ahead a bit). But don’t miss this – after showing Israel in great detail what he expects from his people, he instructs them to collect offerings from among the people. The purpose? Then have them make a sanctuary (a sacred space) for me, and I will dwell among them. The God who is everywhere present…the God who stretched out the heavens and set the world into motion…this God, in some mysterious and yet very tangible way, was moving in! He was coming down.

God wanted to dwell among his people.

As Moses completed the final step of the tabernacle (a portable dwelling that would travel with the Israelites in the desert), something amazing happened. A cloud covered over the camp and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. Just as promised, God moved into the neighborhood! The question for Israel now was “How do we live with God as our neighbor?”

Over the next several centuries, God would dwell among his people in a very real way. Despite repeated rebellion and disobedience, God continued to make his presence personally known to Israel. Later, King David desired to transform the temporary tabernacle into a permanent dwelling place for God, but this privilege would belong to David’s son, Solomon. After the construction of the temple in Jerusalem, Israel gathered for a dedication service. At that service, the very presence and glory of God filled the temple. Once again, God was moving into the neighborhood so that he might dwell among his people.

Unfortunately, the story of Israel from this point on is quite tragic. Sure, there were some bright spots (think Josiah and Hezekiah), but there were many more dark days ahead for Israel. Wicked kings took the throne who had no concern for putting God on display or living according to his instructions. At one point, things get so bad that the prophet Ezekiel had a vision of the temple in Jerusalem where God himself takes the prophet on a tour to see how the temple had become a home for all sorts of idol worship…the very same temple Solomon had built so that God could dwell among his people! God warned Ezekiel about what he saw, saying that these utterly detestable things are going to drive me from my sanctuary. These were not empty words – God actually moves out. The glory of the Lord leaves the temple in Jerusalem. God no longer dwelled among his people. And soon enough, the nation itself is exiled from the land. But even in the midst of judgment, God promised through the prophets that one day their exile would end and they would return to the land.

Even more important though, God promised that one day, he himself would return.

The Old Testament story of Israel ends with God keeping his promise to Israel- many exiles return to the land after three-quarters of a century away. The returning Israelites even rebuild the temple in Jerusalem that had been destroyed by the Babylonians. However, when I search the account in the book of Ezra, I cannot find anything about God dwelling in that temple. It seems that, despite their efforts, God does not move back in (don’t confuse this with him being distant- it does still say he was working and filled them with joy). So the question for the returning exiles is this:

When will God dwell with us again?

They will wait a long time for an answer to this question. Four hundred years in fact. Four hundred years of silence. Four hundred years of waiting.

And then the silence breaks.

The Gospel writer John poetically penned these words –

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Now this is a little lost on us because John was doing something very significant here to connect with his Greek audience, but John refers to Jesus as the “Word”…the eternal Word that came from God but at the same time was God. What John says next about this “Word” is absolutely incredible. The Word became flesh, and made his dwelling among us.” (The phrase “made his dwelling” is literally the verb form of the word “tabernacle”.) In other words…

God took on flesh, and pitched a tent among us.

God was moving back into the neighborhood(!), but this time not in a tabernacle in the desert or a temple in Jerusalem. Rather, God made his dwelling among us in Jesus. As the apostle Paul would later write, God was pleased for his fullness to dwell in Jesus. And just as God’s glory filled the tabernacle and later the temple, John continues saying, we have seen his glory!

So as you consider the birth of Christ this Christmas, it would be my sincerest hope that you would also consider this story God has been telling in history (and is still telling). That, as we consider the manger, we would also consider that…

Jesus is the living picture of God continually moving toward rather than away.

Jesus is the living picture of a God who has been pursuing his wayward people throughout history, determined to be with us regardless of the cost to himself (read how Paul finishes his sentence above to see this in action).

Jesus is truly the picture of Immanuel – God with us.

In Jesus, God has made his dwelling among us!

Merry Christmas!

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To see how this idea continues:
*See 1 Corinthians 3:16 and how the Spirit now dwells in us like temples.
*See Ephesians 2:22 and 1 Peter 2:5 and how we (together) are being built into God’s dwelling place.
*See Paul’s prayer that Christ might dwell in your hearts (Ephesians 3:17)
*And finally, see Revelation 21 and how God will ultimately come down once and for all to dwell forever (“Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them.)

My Kids Needed an Adventure

DCIM118GOPROLast week, my son Cody (10), my daughter Laila (8) and I, along with my friend Matt and his oldest daughter drove two and a half hours north to Traverse City, Michigan pulling a trailer with five kayaks and a trunk full of gear.  Matt had found out about an island in the Grand Traverse Bay with over 200 acres of nature preserve plus a small island connected by an isthmus that has five rustic camping spots.  So, arriving at Bowers Harbor, we put all our gear in trash bags, packed the kayaks full, and began the 3+ mile paddle to the island.  The winds were not in our favor and the trip over was a real challenge – both Matt and I had the kids’ kayaks tethered to ours for safety.  We even had a false start in which we decided to head back to shore and wait an hour for wind conditions to improve.  We made it safely though, and for the next 3 days we camped, ate, explored, ate, swam, kayaked, and even slept a little.  We gave the kids trail maps and they led the exploration through the thick forest to the sand beaches.  They collected wood and stoked the fire.  They got filthy dirty.  And as I watched my son and daughter own the island for a few long days, I was left with this one clear thought –

My kids needed an adventure.

They needed their eyes wide and their blood pumping.  They needed to sink their toes into new sand and soil.  They needed an awakening.

Even when my wife and I are at our very best and most intentional (which, I don’t know about you, but there are a lot of times when we aren’t), it is very easy for us to let our family and home slip into a routine.  Do this, eat that, go there, drive here, shop then, wash this, brush that, rinse and repeat.  Pretty soon, you find yourself operating on autopilot.

Autopilot is fine in airplanes, but harmful in humans.  And kids aren’t immune.

Sometimes we just need a break from the routine…something that shakes us out of our complacency.  We need a challenge.  We need adventure.

I loved watching my son come alive as he ran and climbed.  He loved tending the fire and smashing sticks against trees and chasing a raccoon from our campsite.  And the craziest part?  Not once did he say those two words parents dread – I’m bored.  He didn’t ask for screen time because he was out of things to do.  Adventure has a way of slaying the boredom dragon.

This trip was important for my daughter to experience too.  Sure this sounds like the making of a good father/son trip, but I wanted her to do challenging things too.  It is important that she sees herself not as fragile and helpless, but that she can be strong and confident.  She can do things.  She can have adventures.  And more importantly, her dad wants to have those adventures with her too, not just her brothers.

IMG_3886Not all adventures will look like this one.  Maybe camping is not your thing.  What’s important is that you do something that breaks you out of the routine…that reminds you that life is not simply composed of calendar appointments and to-do list items or searching Netflix for something decent to watch.  Find something that opens your eyes and invokes wonder, and be sure to invite others (kids/friends/random strangers) to do the same.

So, what adventures have you been on lately?

 

 

Father’s Day

Father’s day. Yes, that great calendar day set aside for honoring all the dads out there. I love today, simply because it reminds me of the great privilege I have of being a dad, and yet if I’m honest, I’ve grown a bit concerned with how dads are portrayed in modern society. I walked into a local big box store here in Grand Rapids and was suprised to see these two shirts hanging on the rack:

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First shirt: “Wanted: Dad.  Last seen in front of TV.  $0 Reward.”  

Second shirt: “Danger: Dad offering advice.  Alternative route suggested.”

Really?  This is supposed to be funny?  And judging by the size of the shirt, it looks like dad might be the one wearing it, so this is now a gift given to dad.  I thought the aim of Father’s day was honor? Is this what honor looks like? I don’t mean to sound like I can’t take a joke, but I just have grown weary of seeing dads portrayed as lazy, dumb, and disinterested. Certainly there are many of those out there…dads that took off or checked out. Dads that worked too hard and never made it to a game. Dads that tore down and never took the time to build up.

But there are those of us that are trying. We don’t get it right all the time and we definitely make our fair share of mistakes.  We try to find the balance between hard work and family life and we don’t always make the right choice…but we are trying. We show up. We listen. We leave work early to make it to the game. We are around and stick around. We are trying.

How have you seen dads that are truly making an effort, and how can we celebrate those moments rather than glorify the all to common societal image of the lazy, dumb, and disinterested dad?

Blessed and Blessing

Snake River by Ansel AdamsThere once stood a lone mountain in the middle of the desert.  The region was arid and desolate, making it very hard for anything to grow there.  Now, this mountain was tall and majestic, reaching high into the sky until its very top was concealed by the clouds.  The peak was covered with snow, which partway down mingled with the hot desert air, causing the snow to melt into a cool river flowing down the side of the mountain.  This river was not large, but it was the source of life for the village below.  People would come to the river to drink and find relief from the harsh desert heat.  The cool water from the river also nourished its banks, creating fertile ground in which to grow food for the people of the village.  The people did not understand where the water was coming from, and because of this, they grew fearful that one day the water might run out.  They created an intricate system to dam the river and divert its water throughout their land into cisterns.  Once one cistern was full, the people would simply dig another cistern.  The small village could never possibly use all of the water they were storing, but they continued to create more and more cisterns to store the water.  Over time, the unused water in the cisterns grew stagnant and contaminated by bacteria.  The people would then simply empty the water into the desert, where it was swallowed up by the hard, cracked ground.  Each morning at sunrise, the people of the village would gather at the base of the mountain to give thanks for the life and sustenance it would provide for the day.  And at each meal, the people would take time to recognize that every morsel of food was a direct result of the mountain’s constant provision.

Several miles away from the mountain stood another village with inhabitants much like the first village.  Children.  Men and women.  Young and old.   This village, however, was quite different than the first.  There were no sunrise gatherings to celebrate life and sustenance.  No words of thanksgiving or gratitude.  Rather, in this village, there was only sorrow and despair.  For though this village was situated within the reach of the mountain’s cool refreshing river, its life-giving waters never quite made it.  The banks had run dry long ago, just like the hope of the people in the village.  They knew what the mountain was capable of, but unfortunately, they just never had the good fortune to experience it.  The sad reality was that the stagnant water that was wasted on the desert floor was always meant for them.  The river, however, had been deprived of its very existence: to flow from one place to another, bringing with it life and provision.     

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I’ve been thinking a lot about blessings lately.  I hear it quite often:

I feel so blessed.

We have so many blessings to be thankful for.

God has really blessed us.

Certainly this is true.  I think of my own life and it would be a tragedy to say that everything I have is simply a result of my own strivings.  I am blessed in many ways and this fact is important to acknowledge.  But is that it?  Are we simply blessed in order to “keep our cisterns full” or is there a greater purpose for our blessing?

Enter Abraham.  Before he was the patriarch of the nation of Israel, he was simply a man that God asked to do the unthinkable:

Leave everything you know and go to a place that I won’t reveal to you until sometime later on.  

What God said to Abraham next, however, would make all of the difference.

I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you.

God was asking Abraham to step out into the unknown, and he was prepared to bless Abraham for his obedience.  To live in God’s blessing- this is a beautiful thing.  But we have missed a critical component if we stop here.

I will make your name great, and you will be a blessingand all peoples on earth will be blessed through you. (Gen 12:1-3)

God’s intent to bless Abraham was always paired with his intention to bless the whole world.  As far back as I can tell, God’s sights have always been on blessing all of creation.  The blessing of Abraham, and later Israel, was meant to flow through their banks downstream to the rest of the world.

And this is God’s intention for each of us.  Theologian Miroslav Volf said it this way: The flow of God’s gifts shouldn’t stop as soon as it reaches us.  The outbound movement must continue.  Indeed, in addition to making us flourish, giving to others is the very purpose for which God gave us the gifts.

Blessed and blessing go hand in hand.  We are blessed, certainly, but now we live to be a blessing, for blessing was never meant to live in cisterns.  It can’t.  Rather, we must allow blessing to do what blessing does: flow from one place to another.

When The House Doesn’t Sell

It’s been one year.  An entire year.  A year of last minute cleanings.  A year of finding things to do while strangers walked through our home, offering their opinions on everything we should have done differently.  A year of moving the For Sale sign in the front yard in order to meticulously mow, only to return the For Sale sign back to its place.  A year of asking the pot holders to make room in the drawer for all of the loose papers and knick knacks we could forcibly squeeze in for an hour or so.  I can honestly say I have vacuumed more in this past year than I have in my entire life.  I also now know exactly how much you can cram into a dishwasher.  It’s been a year, and after all of the planning and waiting and hoping, the house didn’t sell.

No offers.

No buyers.

And if that isn’t enough, it seems like everybody and their brother has sold their houses lately.  We decided to take it off the market a few months back in hopes of giving our family a normal summer and at this point, we really don’t have plans of putting it back on the market anytime soon.  So I guess that’s it.  It would be easy to look back and say “Well that was pointless” because this year did not bring about the result we had hoped for.  We still own the same house (or it still owns us) and we have no plans of moving.  The more I think about it, however, the more I am left thinking that this whole experience was not pointless.

See, when the house doesn’t sell, there are really two options.  The first option is to live in the thought of all that could have been as you lay to rest any plans you may have created for when the house sells (because certainly the house will sell, right?).  There has certainly been moments like this.  Disappointment has a way of creeping in.  But there is also a second option, and it is where we are trying to land, as hard as it may be.  This option is to learn contentment.  It is to look at all we have and to not say “I want more” but to say “It’s enough.  Where we are at right now is okay.  Maybe someday things will be different, but for now, we will be content.”  If I have learned anything from times of disappointment, like losing a job or the house that didn’t sell, it is that life continues.  We must, however, consciously make the decision to fully participate in that life now, wherever it happens to be.  And for us,

for my family,

for the foreseable future,

life is happening here.

Finders Keepers

While in college, I was introduced to one of the most interesting places on the planet.  One weekend a month, a major clothing company would open a supply room of their store, accessed from the back of the building, for a first-come, first-serve shopping experience at highly discounted prices.  The first time my friends took me along, we arrived at 5am and there was already a line of people waiting in their camping chairs, rehearsing strategies as if they were on an apache helicopter touching down in an overgrown field somewhere.  It turned out I was not prepared for what came next.  As the clock struck six, two brown metal doors opened and a company employee handed me a garbage bag.  I thought to myself, “Why do I need this?  Do we have to clean up first?”  Just then the crowd literally pushed me through the door.  As my eyes adjusted to the lighting in the room, I found the very purpose for the bag in hand.  The room was filled with clothing – coats, vests, shirts, pants, some lined on tables by size and style, others thrown in bins or hanging on poles.  Instincts I didn’t even know I possessed kicked in, and I was off like a sprinter at the sound of a starter pistol, grabbing everything in site that I might be remotely interested in and stuffing it in the garbage bag.  This is not a place with fitting rooms or benches for the weary.  The strategy I would come to learn and pass on to others was the “grab and stash,” in which you grab as many things as you can (throwing elbows if you must), secure a corner of the room, and sort through the pile for the things you actually want to purchase while throwing the rest back to the vultures circling the room for leftovers.

I went back to this place several times during my college years, and each time there was this twisted hope as those brown metal doors began to open.  All of this can be mine. This is the voice of materialism.  We see something and we just have to have it because we don’t know what we would ever do without it.  We say things like “I’ve always wanted one of these” or “I don’t know how I’ve lived so long without one of this.”  It will make our life easier.  It will cause people to fall in love with us.  It will bring world peace to the darkest corners of the globe.  There is another voice, very similar to the first, which lurks just below the surface of materialism.    I’m pretty sure I heard it that day while I was stuffing clothing in a garbage bag like a bank robber stuffing a canvas sack with a dollar sign on the side.  All of this should be mine.  This is the voice of entitlement.  While materialism breeds a desire for more, entitlement convinces us it is our right.      

I remember a few years back, my wife and I had dinner at the home of some newly married friends of ours.  We hadn’t been to their house before, and so I was quite surprised to pull into the driveway of a brand new home.  Their house was bigger than our house.  Their backyard was larger than our yard.  Their refrigerator was shinier than our refrigerator.  As we pulled up to our house at the end of the night, I noticed our siding looked faded and the driveway had more cracks than when we had left earlier that evening.  I felt depressed and found myself thinking, it’s not fair.  I’m older.  I’ve been married longer.  I’ve worked harder.  They don’t deserve the better house. 

I do.

This is the voice of entitlement and it permeates all of society, including our churches.  This has not always been the case, however.  Just read the accounts of the first Jesus followers in the beginning chapters of the book of Acts.  As the message of the resurrected Christ spread throughout Jerusalem and the surrounding region, more and more people came to put their faith in Jesus and joined this new community. Luke gives us this description of those early days of the Jesus movement:

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.  (Acts 4:32)

When the text says everything, it means everything.  Luke continues on to speak of new Jesus followers even bringing the deeds of their homes so that their property could be sold and the money distributed evenly.  The thought that they had a home and their new brother or sister didn’t was unacceptable.  In our society, this type of action would be considered outrageous, possibly even downright irresponsible.  You earned it.  You deserve that.   Let them get their own.

Thank God our heavenly Father doesn’t deal with us in this way, for we can do nothing to earn his favor.  We may come holding out our deeds or thinking our life circumstances certainly should earn us something, but God’s grace is not for sale.  It cannot be earned.  We cannot do enough to deserve it.  But here’s the crazy part – he gives it anyway.

Paul, a former church persecutor turned Jesus follower (who then went on to write most of the New Testament) was quick to remind us how little we have actually done to earn God’s grace.

While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 

While we were undeserving, God gave.  While we were incapable of earning, Jesus bled.  God’s grace is truly an unmerited gift, as is our entire life.  How much different would your life be if every day began as a gift instead of a right?  As the sunlight spills through the blinds and stirs you from your slumber, you become aware that you are indeed alive for a new day.  With a voice still heavy with sleep, you whisper to your heavenly Father, “Thank you for the gift.  It’s beautiful.”  You rise to live in the newness.  And as you stumble from the bed to your shaky feet, you take your first steps all over again.