Thursday, December 30, 2021

Because God First

What it all boils down to is this: we've got our starting place wrong. We spend so much of our lives of faith trying to work our way to Christ, trying to come to the manger, that we lose sight of the fact that it is He who came to the manger for us. We spend our years doing exactly what the New Testament tells us it's more than time to stop doing, and it's no wonder that we're getting burnt out on our own religion - let alone that the world is. 

There are these beautiful words in the Bible, and we read right past them too easily, but they're simply this: because He first loved us

We love because He first loved us. We are redeemed because He first loved us. We are forgiven because He first loved us. Everything we are, everything we do, everything in which we live and move and have our being is because He first loved us. 

And that must be our starting point. 

We don't go to the manger because we want to see a baby in a manger; we go to the manger because there is a baby there to see in the first place. We don't carry our cross because we're building some kind of spiritual muscle; we carry our cross because He carried it first. 

It's so easy for us to lose sight of this, to get so wrapped up in what we are doing that we forget what He has done. It's so easy for us to get into the doing and stop the being. It's so easy for us to make our faith about what we put into it instead of what called us and drew us to it in the first place, which is this amazing, incredible, indescribable love that showed up one day in a manger. 

And listen, everyone said that can't be Him. Everyone said there was no way that's how God was going to do it. Everyone said it was silly. And then, it changed the world. It changed everything. 

Or...it was supposed to. 

So let us let it change us. Let us let this love become the foundation of everything we are. Not just everything we're doing, but everything we're being. Let us settle down into this love and stop trying to trace our way back to Him, but start instead with the fact that He made His way to us. Let's stop making a show to the world of us going to the manger and instead, quiet ourselves so that they can hear this baby cry, too. 

I want everything I do to start in this love. I want my belovedness, the high price of His love for me, to be the first thing I think about when I think about...anything. I want to change my experience of this world and yes, this Jesus, so that it starts where the Bible has forever declared that it starts - with Him, not me. I want to take these words to heart and plant them in the depths of my soul so that His love is as natural to me as breathing, as palpable as the beating of my heart. 

Because He first loved us

Because He first loved me. Because He loved. Because God loved.

Because God. 

Join me, won't you? Let's put our faith back the way it's supposed to go - because of Him.  

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Christ is Come

On Christmas Eve, I mentioned that whenever you're ready to come to the manger, Christ is there waiting for you. This week, we've been talking about the admonition in the New Testament that because of His coming, we no longer have to trace our way back to Him, no longer have to prove our qualifications, and yet...we still do. Not only do we still do this ourselves, but it continues to be one of the selling points of our Christianity - that no matter where you are right now, there is a way for you to make a path to God. 

And here's the T-shirt and bumper sticker to prove it, lest anyone should doubt you.

But do you realize how it would change our Christianity if we actually listened to what the New Testament has to say? If we actually heard what Hebrews was telling us? If we listened to what Paul says over and over and over again about how every single qualification of the flesh is meaningless in the shadow of the Cross? 

Can you imagine what it would be like to have a Road to Emmaus experience with every single lost individual we ever spoke with, where we are just talking along the way and BAM! Jesus shows up and walks with us? Can you imagine what it would be like if your starting point was "Christ is come" rather than "Christ is just over there, all it takes is a little..." whatever?

If the first thing a seeker ever sees is a baby in a manger, that's the way God wanted it. If the first thing they see is a stranger on the road, that's the way God wanted it. If the first thing they witness is a guy frying fish on the seashore and calling to them, that's the way God wanted it. What God most wants for His people - for all people - is for Christ to be come and for that to be first in our faith. 

That's the starting point of everything. That's the foundation of this whole thing. If it's not, the Cross of Christ is worthless. If we still have to carry that Cross to Golgotha, it's pointless. If we are the ones crossing the sea of Galilee because we heard about a thing that's happening over there, we're losing the battle. 

The beautiful truth of grace and love is that something is happening in Galilee. Period. Christ. is. come. 

I've said it before, and I'll say it again here - the one person most of us would be most surprised to see show up in our churches...is Jesus Himself. That's how far we believe He is from us. That's how deeply we have failed to grasp the concept of the incarnation - the concept, the promise, the hope, the goodness, the gift of the incarnation. We don't expect Jesus to be here. We don't notice that He is. We don't think that He would be. 

Then what in the world was Christmas all about? 

This is just something I want you to think about. It's something I'm thinking about. What if we just started with "Christ is come"? What if we just started with "Jesus is here"? What if we just took that for granted and let that be the foundation of everything we are and everything we do and everything we think and write and offer into this world? 

How would it change your faith if it started with Christ right here?

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

The Road Map

The New Testament tells us over and over again that because Christ has come to us, we no longer have to prove our genealogy. We no longer have to trace our way back to Him. We no longer have to demonstrate that we are worthy of Him, for He came when we were not worthy and made us His anyway. Hebrews says it. Paul says it. Paul says it more than once. Yet, here we are, a people who continue to try to show our own worthiness, our own qualifications. We are a people still trying to prove our lineage. 

Not only that, though, but we are a people trying to get others to prove theirs. 

This is how we sell our Christianity to an unbelieving world - we tell them that there is a way for them, too, to make their path toward God. We invite them to our churches and give them a T-shirt just for visiting. We sell them the same bumper stickers that we have on our own cars. We get them to invest in the same appearances that we invest in. 

We spend an awful lot of our time trying to get the unbelieving world to look like us...we who are "worthy" or whatever it is that we're telling ourselves. 

We spend shamefully little of our time trying to help the unbelieving world to look like Jesus. 

Isn't that where our faith started? Isn't that the very foundation of who we are? We are supposed to be a people who look like Jesus, who help others to come to look like Jesus. We are supposed to be disciples of Christ making disciples of Christ. We are supposed to be a people who declare to one another, "Come and see! He is most amazing!" 

Instead, we are a people who look like a people, who want others to come and look like us. We are disciples of churches and fellowship groups who are trying to make disciples of churches and fellowship groups. To put it more bluntly, we are members of churches and fellowship groups who are trying to make more members of our churches and fellowship groups. We are a people who declare to one another, "Come and look what we're doing! We're so amazing!" And then ushering them into our church services and community programs. 

And maybe, just maybe, sometimes we mention our Jesus. More and more, though, we don't. We have come to believe that even our Christianity doesn't require an explicit witness, that we don't have to ever talk about Jesus in order to help others to love Him. 

We've come to believe that our bumper sticker-and-t-shirt Christianity is exactly what this world needs, and we've become far too happy to oblige.

Then we wonder why the world doesn't think very much of Jesus, how it can think so little of Christ. The answer is simple: we have taught them to do so. 

We have taught them that it's all a show, that it's all a fa├žade. We have taught them that it's about appearances, that it's about marking your life with a path to God so that you can show your own qualifications to be here. We have taught them that the most important thing about being a Christian is being able to prove and to show that you're a Christian through a series of some kind of tangled web of various witnesses, very few - if any - of which have to do with actually living like - or loving like - Christ. 

We are a people not only doing the very thing that Paul and the rest of the New Testament writers told us we don't have to do any more, but we are a people declaring unashamedly that we must do it. Indeed, that it's all we have to do. Show ourselves as come to Christ, and we shall prove that we are Christians. 

Never mind that He has come to us to prove that we are His.... 

Monday, December 27, 2021

Our Way to God

Yesterday, we looked at what Hebrews meant when it said that we don't have to trace our lineage all the way back to God any more, for God Himself has come to us in Jesus Christ and that changed everything. (Such is the miracle of Christmas.) We saw how Paul liked to deconstruct this same argument, tracing his own lineage back through the Pharisees and his legalism and then coming to the conclusion that absolutely none of that matters now that Jesus met him on the road to Damascus. Now that Jesus drew near to him. Now that Immanuel - God is with us. 

And yet, aren't we still doing this? Aren't we still so busy trying to prove ourselves by some list of measurements of our own righteousness or sacredness that we still miss how completely unnecessary it is?

We talk about what church we go to and how long we've been going there. We talk about all of the extra-church activities that we've been involved in - the mission trips, the community meals, the sports ministry, the outreach programs. We talk about the ministries in which we've served - the devotionals we've shared, the classes we've taught, the children we've mentored, the light bulbs we've changed, the floors we've scrubbed, the monies we've counted, the plates we've passed. 

We declare our Christianity in bumper stickers and T-shirts and the occasional pieces of jewelry, and we tell the world, "If you want to know my way to God, this is it." If you want to know how I got to the holy place, here's my path. If you want to know the legitimacy of my faith, you can follow this map and see it plain as day. 

No wonder the world isn't impressed with our Jesus. He's a lot of work. 

And the truth is that these have become the marks of Christ on our lives, which means, He's not even really all that impressive. We wear a T-shirt with our church name on it, but we wear T-shirts with a bunch of other brand names on them, too. We have a bumper sticker declaring our faith, but it's right next to one declaring our vote. We wear a cross around our necks and a fancy circle of leaves around our finger. Jesus is...not unlike the rest of the adornments of living in a branded world. He's just one of the brands to which we have given our allegiance. 

Aeropostale. Nike. Doritos. Jesus. 

He's one cause we support, one name we claim, one thing we do. And for some reason, we're proud of this. For some reason, we wear this proudly and say, "Yep. Jesus is my thing." 

But Jesus didn't come to be your thing. Jesus didn't come to be my thing. Jesus didn't come so that we could continue to try to trace our way back to Him. 

He came to show that He is with us. He came to show that He loves us. He came to show us that all of the T-shirts and bumper stickers and genealogies aren't necessary any more. He came to show us that we don't have to prove our way back to Him because He has made His way to us. Immanuel. God is with us. 

Saturday, December 25, 2021

A Way to Jesus

We could be forgiven for not understanding the miracle that has just taken place among us. After all, in terms of what we understand of religion in general - and even of Judeo-Christian history - it is fairly (perhaps) unique. 

You see, one of the ways that we most commonly think about our faith is in terms of our own journey toward it. We talk about how it is that we came to God. And if we're being honest, that was kind of how Judaism was set up to begin with.

For thousands of years, the Jews had to prove their lineage. They had to demonstrate where they came from and trace their faithfulness all the way back to Abraham, all the way back to the fathers of the faith. When Israel came back from exile, there was some question as to whether some of the men who called themselves priests actually were and whether they could be proven to be descendants of Aaron or Levi. Men who wanted to serve, who wanted from the depths of their heart to be part of worshiping the Lord, were set aside until they could trace their family histories sufficiently back and prove themselves.

And not just priests and Levites. There were men in the general population of Israel who wanted to claim Judaism, but they had to first show that their fathers were Jews. And their fathers. And their fathers. In fact, one of the claims against Samaritans (who we know so well were hated by first-century Jews) was that they were "half-breeds;" their family histories could not show them to be thoroughly, 100% God's people. 

This struck me as I was reading very late in the New Testament here recently, where the Bible was talking about this sort of thing again. (I'm pretty sure I was in Hebrews.) And it struck me that this is exactly the kind of thing that Paul liked to talk about, too. Remember how he liked to say that if there were any qualifications to being God's people, he - Paul - had them? A Jew of Jews, a Pharisee, a Hebrew of Hebrews, a member of the synagogue, righteous in the obedience of the law, circumcised in the flesh, and on and on and on he went. What Paul was saying was, "If you want to trace my history back to God, you'll find Him. He's there. I'm legit."

But every time, Paul says it's not as legitimate as we want to think that it is. Because what Paul says is what the miracle of Christmas reminds us - that it's not about whether or not we can trace our history back to Jesus. 

It's about a Jesus who wrote His history toward us. 

It's about a Jesus who made His way to where we are. It's about a God who has come to us. It's about Immanuel, God with us.

That's what this passage I was reading in Hebrews was saying, too - that we don't have to trace our lineage back to God any more. Because Jesus Christ has come, He has traced His way to us. That means that we get to start at the Cross and work our way forward - together. We don't have to crawl our way back to the Temple and beg entry; we stand up and walk out toward Calvary and there is room for all. We stand up and journey toward the manger because it is not we who have come to God, but God who has come to us. 

That's the miracle of Christmas and the new reality that we wake up to this morning. 

And yet.... 

Thursday, December 23, 2021

A Way in a Manger

With Christmas now upon us, we've been talking about all of the things that might keep us from the manger this year (or any year, really). It's not something we frequently talk about, but the truth is that for all kinds of reasons that our broken flesh can hardly bear, Christmas can just be a difficult season. 

And that's okay. 

We don't have to whitewash this. We don't have to paint over it with hope and grace and guilt everyone into having a merry Christmas this year. We don't have to pretend that because Jesus is the reason for the season, this season is just lovely and perfect and wonderful for all of us. We don't have to drag our weary, worn-out souls out of the inn and go down tonight to see what's going on in the manger or forever live with the knowledge that Jesus was right here...and we missed Him

That is, I think, the greatest fear that we all have, that if we don't find a way to stop and to settle in and to drag our world-weary souls out of the inn, that we're going to miss what's happening in the manger. That Christmas is just going to sneak by us and when we blink, it will be over, and we'll have missed it. 

We think that we're going to miss hope. That we're going to miss grace. That we're going to miss love. That we have just one breath to try to grab hold of all of it but our hands are just so tired and our grip so weak. And then, like that, it's gone. 

And if we can't even figure out how to have hope at Christmas, what realistic chance is there for us with the rest of the year?

Because, you know, what we all need this Christmas is a little more guilt in our lives. (Please note the sarcasm here.) 

Here's what I want to tell you: it's okay. It really is okay. It's okay if you're tired, if there's too much noise, if your heart is hurting. It's okay if you are feeling lonely or rejected and just can't bring yourself to the manger. It's okay if you're stuck in the inn for whatever reason and not even the cry of a newborn babe - not even the promise of all the hope in the world - can lift this heavy weight for you right now. 

Because whenever you're ready, there will still be a baby in that manger, ready to receive you with cries of hope and giggles of joy and that beautiful little twinkle in His eye that assures you that everything is going to be okay. 

No, Jesus doesn't stay in the manger forever; we know He walked the streets of Jerusalem all the way to Calvary. But the beauty of Christmas is God with us and God...has never stopped being with us. 

And that means that whenever you're ready to find Him, He'll be there. Whenever you're ready to throw on your housecoat and slippers and make your way down from the inn, there will still be something going on in the manger. Christ is come; He's here. He's not going anywhere. He is with us. 

Don't let yourself get wrapped up in the guilt of "missing" Christmas. It's okay. Really. 

Because Immanuel. God is with us. And because of the miracle of the manger, He always will be. 

Whenever you're ready. 

There is a Way in the manger. 

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

The Thrill of Hope

We've been talking about Christmas, of course, and why it might be that those in the inn never came down to the manger. We have looked at several ideas that we can relate with - that there was already enough noise that Christmas, that these were weary travelers too tired for one more thing, or even that their souls were burdened with knowing how close - and yet, how far - they were from home. And I ended yesterday by adding that even though we're tempted to say that Jesus is the answer to all of this, there's a part of me that understands how challenging that is. 

Jesus...doesn't cure my homesickness. In fact, He often makes it worse.

There are so many truths about the human condition, about living in these broken lives far from the places where God intended us to live, that can't be summed up so neatly by putting them into broad categories like noise, weariness, or loneliness. There are so many other little things that just nag at and eat at our souls, that weigh us down with burdens too great to bear. And listen, I know that Jesus is the answer to all of them but at the same time, all that hope lying in the manger...is sometimes just downright painful.

It's a confirmation that my soul is right, that something is wrong here. It's confirmation that what I'm feeling is real this season. It's confirmation that things are not the way they are supposed to be and that there really is supposed to be more to life than this. Sometimes, when I look at hope, I can hardly bear it. When I hear promise, I don't want to believe it. When the answer to every ache in my entire being is lying right in front of me in swaddling clothes, there's something in me that still wants to turn away for reasons that I can't explain except to say that my human nature just hurts that bad. 

It's not shame. It's not guilt. It's not fear. It's not anything sinful that makes me turn away from Jesus sometimes in a season like this. It's more like...it's more like the same thing that makes worshipers in the Bible fall straight to their knees in the presence of holiness. It's like I just lose every bit of my strength to do anything else. I can't even stand any more. 

The Christmas carol says one of the things we find in the manger this time of year is the "thrill" of hope, but if we're just being honest with one another, hope isn't always thrilling. Sometimes, it's just heavy. 

There are persons this Christmas who just can't handle good news right now. That sounds so strange to say, I know, but if you understand what I'm saying, then you know this kind of ache most intimately. You get it. There are persons in the inn who hear that baby crying and for any of a thousand little reasons just say to themselves, "I want to...but I can't. I just can't. Not tonight." There are persons for whom this hope, this hope that is meant to be so thrilling, just won't be. Not tonight.

And listen, that's okay, too. Because the one thing Jesus never came to be to you is a burden. 

Tonight, on this hard night, on this dark night, in the midst of your troubled soul, it's okay if you hear that baby cry and for whatever reason, you don't come down out of the inn. It's okay. 

But at least, at the very least, recognize this: you do hear Him crying. No matter how overwhelmed, weary, lonely, burdened, or broken you are in the inn, just looking for rest and respite, you hear Him. 

And if you ever do want to venture down and see what's up, He'll be there. 

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Far From Home

Maybe there was just too much noise in the inn; we can all relate to that. Or maybe the travelers in the inn were just weary, completely worn out and tired from everything they had to do to get that far; we can relate to that, too. Or maybe it was more even than that.

Maybe being in the inn that night reminded those travelers how far from home they were, and maybe those travelers were hurting on that first Christmas.

Remember, these were folks who had gone to Bethlehem to be counted among their family. They were supposed to show up and be surrounded by those that they knew. They were supposed to be welcomed home with open arms. They were supposed to be rolling out sleeping bags on the floor of grandma's house and playing with cousins they only got to see a couple of times a year and smelling all the wonderful scents of those secret family recipes being passed down from generation to generation. 

But here they were, in an inn. No grandma. No cousins. No family. No family recipes. The great big reunion that was supposed to be...isn't happening. If it is, it's happening without them. 

Anyone missing their family this Christmas? 

Anyone know that if they show up to their family's gathering this Christmas, they are going to be the black sheep and spend the day alone in a corner talking to themselves?

Anyone have someone else who isn't going to be there this year?  Someone who this past year has taken from us, and the whole dynamic of being with your family this year is changing?

At a moment like this, when your heart is aching this deeply, it's hard to care so much about a baby in a manger. Your soul is in agony. The hurt runs through the very core of your being. And you look around and see all of the other families...even in a place like the inn, where look - a young father-to-be and his very pregnant wife have just come in together and it just aches all the more. 

I'm telling you - there are so many who are so hurt by being alone this Christmas. Or by being rejected. Or by being unwanted. Or by being abused. Or by being abandoned. that the thought of a baby in a manger with two loving parents around Him and the entire miracle of life...is just too much to bear. 

Not only that, but they are convinced that even Jesus doesn't want them there. 

It's easy for us who know the welcome of Christ to scoff at this, to say that home is right there waiting for them. That all they have to do is come down out of the inn and see what's going on in the manger, but it's not that easy. Not everyone understands that. Not everyone can get past that shame and that hurt to hope, let alone to believe, that there's anything in the manger for them. 

And even if they could, I have to be honest and tell you that...Jesus doesn't really cure my homesickness, either.... (More on that tomorrow.) 

Monday, December 20, 2021

Weary Travelers

When we talk about what must have been going on in the inn that night, it's easy to say that it was noisy. But it was more than that, too. 

The persons in that inn were also tired. 

They had traveled a long way to arrive at that inn. They had packed their stuff, put together their caravans, gotten their children (and yes, toddlers) ready for the trip. They were all on their way to grandma's house, really - headed home for the census and the festival and the holiday. Headed home to be counted among their clan. Maybe just making a token appearance. 

But these persons had traveled all day. In many cases, they had traveled for more than one day. They had been on the road a long time, managing bags and roads and robbers and animals and kids and all of the little spats that happen when we try to travel together (even to a place like church, right?) 

And maybe they had run into the same troubles along the way that Mary and Joseph did - maybe these persons had come to inn after inn after inn that was full, place after place that had no room for them. Maybe they had knocked on two, three, ten doors that night, trying to find a place to lay their heads. Maybe it was late when they finally got a place. Maybe they then had to figure out which bag they packed their PJs in and where their toothbrushes were and how to get their kids out of the manger in the first place because little Johnny really likes that other donkey and wants to pet it and play with it and Annie is busy burying herself in the hay and then throwing it up in the air like confetti. 

Road trips are tough. Journey are tougher. All of the effort that we expend just trying to get ourselves from one place to another is exhausting, particularly if we aren't that invested in getting there in the first place. The census was required. Everyone had to go home. They had to show up and show themselves and be put on the registers in exactly the right places and then, they had to pay the tax for the privilege of doing so. Doesn't sound like a whole lot of fun, right? Especially not worth several days' travel. 

So we have to understand how tired these travelers were. How weary they were. How heavy their souls were with the weight of just...everything. 

We have to understand how weary today's travelers are.

Christmas is not a lot different in these times as it was back then; there are so many around us this season who are just...tired. 

For them, this is a season filled with obligations. Often, there are so many obligations that some of these persons don't even get to breathe for the month of December. There are families to visit and places to be and packages to wrap and children to corral and pajamas to wash and toothbrushes to find and doors to knock on and on and on and on it goes, and this is magnified all the more in the lives of those less privileged - single parents, the unemployed, the recovering addict, the sick, the imprisoned, the naked. 

There are those burdened by the idea that they have to go home this Christmas. That they have to spend time with family that maybe is strained, or broken. Or someone who is sick. Or dying. They have to show up in the right place and the right time, whether they want to be there or not, and they have to invest in that moment somehow, for the privilege of just existing there.

We have to understand how weary our world is. 

When we understand this, we start to get how Jesus is just...one more thing. How an invitation to church seems like one more obligation. How that cry from the manger feels like one more burden. Like one more thing you forgot and have to get out of bed to do when you finally get a chance to lay your weary head down at the end of the day. 

The truth is, some of those persons in the inn were just too tired to care about a baby in a manger. The truth is, many in our world are the same today. We are a tired people, weary travelers. That's why it's so hard sometimes to make one more trip...even to see the Hope of the world. 

Saturday, December 18, 2021

In the Inn

It's easy for us to judge the persons in the inn that night. How could they be so calloused as to shut the door against a very-pregnant young woman, even if she was stigmatized in her culture? How could it be that there was an entire hotel full of persons and not one of them would make room for her? How is it that an entire building full of individuals never heard a newborn baby crying? Certainly, someone should have made room for them after He was born.

And on and on and on we go, full of complete understanding about everything that was wrong with every single human being in the inn that night. Starting with the innkeeper, but not limited to him. Someone should have known. Someone should have had compassion. Someone should have cared

But it seems to us that no one did. 

(This is, by the way, how we get in trouble with understanding God. It's when we take this view where we seem to see so much and know so much and we're certain that we know what's best and it's easy for us to be angry at what really happened...it's why we think it's easy for God to be angry with us, because He sees everything with this kind of view...doesn't He?) 

But what if the persons in the inn are not as evil as we think they are? What if there was more going on in that inn than we want to acknowledge?

What if...it was just noisy?

A manger is a noisy place. This is where everyone who was staying in that inn would have boarded their animals for the night. There would have been, most likely, servants of the inn who were down there, whose job it was to take care of animals boarded there. You know, like a concierge. And if the inn is full, just imagine all the animals down there making noise. Donkeys. Camels. Braying. Chewing their cud. Smacking their cud. We know we've got sheep not far off in a field, for here come a few shepherds with their flocks in tow. 

Have you ever been in a barn? It's a noisy place. Don't let the song fool you - this was no silent night; not where Jesus was born. 

So maybe the persons in the inn heard the noise from the manger, but it was...just part of the noise. Just part of the cacophony of sound coming out of there. Maybe they just expected it to be noisy and had learned to tune it out. After all, there were servants there; let them take care of the animals and the noise. That is their job. 

The same thing is still happening at Christmas. This world we live in, it just expects a lot of noise. You can't have something like Christmas and not expect it to get loud. With the shopping and the baking and the cooking and the company and the traveling and the welcoming and the wrapping and the decorating and...you get the picture, how is anyone supposed to hear a baby crying? 

Before we condemn our world for not recognizing the baby Jesus this Christmas, we have to ask ourselves the same thing we have to ask about the inn - can we really even expect them to hear Him? 

Or is there just too much noise?

(And...are we part of that noise?)

Thursday, December 16, 2021

Go Tell It

Don't misunderstand what I am saying - although we know that the shepherds did not go to the inn and wake everyone up and knock on every door and make sure that everyone knew about the baby in the manger, we are not saying that they just went back to their regular old lives and never told anyone and never talked about it or anything. 

What I am not saying, then, is that we should keep the miracle of Christmas to ourselves. 

But what I am saying is that we should only be looking for ways to express that miracle in our own context. That is, in our own fields. 

This is what gets us in trouble. We are a people who realize how many in the inn that night that we would consider 'unchurched,' and we'd think that would be just a great spot for the pickin's. We'd rush upstairs, thinking that this is where we're going to get the most bang for our buck. This is where our evangelism is going to be so easy. All of these folks are already here, right here; they can hear the sound of the baby crying. How much easier can this possibly get?

What we fail to realize is that these folks...don't want to hear from a shepherd. They don't want to hear from someone who has no standing with them. Who is this guy, this laborer who just came in from some far-off field and wants to tell us what's going on in our inn? Who does he think he is? Go away, shepherd; no one here wants your "good news." 

We run up against this very thing all the time, right? And it's because we're in the wrong place. It's because we've stepped into a context that isn't ours, a place that God has not called us into. We think we are meant to just go into all the world, but remember Jesus's prayer in John 17 - God calls us into the places He's put us and to go to those He's given us. Not everyone and everywhere, but those in our context. Those in our circle. Those who might value the testimony of a shepherd on a starry night. 

When we don't listen to and understand this caveat, this is where our witness becomes a grating annoyance rather than the bearing of good news. To say that the shepherds should have gone up into the inn is to say that we would be justified standing in the public square shouting all the great things that we know about Jesus. Sure, some folks are going to hear us, but no one is going to care. We're just crazy men, just nuisances. 

Without context, the good news goes nowhere. Without relationship, many may hear, but few (if any) will listen. 

No one in the inn that night was going to listen to some random shepherd, crying baby or no crying baby. If the baby intrigued them, they would have been down in the manger already. But those on the mountain, those in the fields, those tending their sheep in places where maybe they had seen the star but not recognized it...those are the folks who are going to be interested in what the shepherds have to say. That's where their witness is going to be. That's where their story is going to have the greatest impact - in the places where God has put them among those whom God has given them. 

So what I'm not saying is to keep Christmas a secret. That's not what I'm saying at all. Rather, what I am saying is, well, go tell it on the mountain. Go tell it where it's likely not just to be heard, but to be listened to. Go into the places God had put you among those God has given you and start there. 

The inn may seem easy, but it's fruitless. The real testimony is out in the fields. 

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

From the Manger

When we talk about the faithful shepherds visiting the baby Jesus and going straight to the manger, it's important that we also talk about what didn't happen: the shepherds didn't leave the baby Jesus and go up into the inn. 

Oh, they probably heard that the inn was full. They probably asked Mary and Joseph what in the world they were doing down here in a stable (besides, of course, saving the world). They probably heard the story of how Mary and Joseph searched all night for somewhere more suitable, but this was the only place that was offered to them. 

Yet, they don't take off to talk to the innkeeper. They don't go knocking on doors to try to find someone who is willing to cram three more human beings into their room. They don't even go upstairs to see if anyone else wants to come down to meet this newborn baby Jesus, savior of the world. 

No. Once these shepherds find Him, they stay with Him. And then, they go back to their place, taking their story with them. 

We, on the other hand, are a people who would leave the manger in the blink of an eye, turn away from the very presence of Jesus Himself, and tell ourselves we're doing the Lord's work by going up into the inn and making a scene for Him. 

That's what we're best at, isn't it? Making a scene for Jesus. That's what the world can't stand about us. It's the way that we storm into the conversation and make our presence known, not just knocking on doors but knocking them down. We call it something like "righteous indignation," where we claim to be righteously upset that the world doesn't care more about a baby in a manger but let's face it...if we really cared about Him, we'd be down there ourselves. 

Too many of us have walked out of the church intending to become vigilantes for Jesus. Intending to make sure, by whatever force necessary, that everyone knows about this God in our church. Knows about this Jesus on the Cross. Knows about this baby in the manger. We are mercenaries on a mission for God, surprisingly lacking in...mercy. 

And the world just looks at us and asks, "If the baby in the manger is so great, then why aren't you with Him?"

That's what the world most wants to know about us. Why have we, as a people of God, left Him in order to tell others about Him? Why have we gone away from holy places to enter into the profane and tell ourselves it's the mission? 

The truth is that too many of us are not spending time at the manger. We are not spending time at the Cross. We are not spending time with Jesus. This is what we were talking about last week, right? We have traded our love for God for a love for the things of God.

And it's because somewhere, we got the idea that the brightest star in the night sky was placed there to lead us to the inn, where we're supposed to shout and scream and wake everyone up until they all know how selfish, how blind, how foolish they are for sleeping comfortably in their rooms while there's a baby being born in a manger...a baby who is God Himself come to be with us and yet, it so rarely seems to occur to us that the star has actually called us to be with Him. 

We started this series by asking what if the shepherds were more like us, but maybe the real question ought to be...what if we could be more like them? What if we could be a people who just go to the manger...and stay there? 

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Faithful Shepherds

If the shepherds wouldn't have gone to the inn, but straight to the manger, then the message for all of us is quite simple: be who God created you to be. 

When God invited the shepherds to Christmas, He invited them because He knew that they would go straight to where the baby Jesus was. He invited them because He knew they were faithful and that, even in their pursuit of Jesus, they were not going to leave their responsibilities behind. He knew they would take their sheep with them. He knew they would make sure their flocks were secure before anything else. He knew they weren't going to leave hundreds of sheep standing out in the streets; they were going to take them with them, all the way up to the manger itself. 

And this is exactly why He calls us the same way. This is why He puts us where He puts us, makes us who He makes us. 

Because God has given each of us a flock. He has given each of us a task, a responsibility. He has given each of us an opportunity to bring something, or someone, with us from the fields to the manger. And what He has said is that He knows that we are faithful to do it. 

That means that we don't have to change the fundamental nature of our being when we come to Jesus. We don't have to pretend to be wise men if we are, in fact, shepherds. We don't have to come as weary travelers if we were called in from the fields. We don't have to engage in the social niceties of knocking on the door of the inn when we've already found what we're looking for when thinking we were just going to lodge our sheep. 

Now, a quick interjection here because this is important - the fact that we don't have to change ourselves to come to Jesus doesn't mean that coming to Jesus won't change us or that God won't desire us to become a "new man." In fact, just the opposite. 

Not one of those shepherds ever saw a star the same way. 

I'm telling you. Once you've seen the brightest star in the night sky and followed it somewhere unknown and discovered there the baby Jesus, you just don't look up into the vastness of the night sky the same.

Once you've driven your sheep on a journey that you can't quite explain and your sheep themselves lead you to the place where you were supposed to go all along, your sheep bring you to the manger when your human nature would have sent you to the inn, you don't look at your sheep the same way. 

Once you know that your faithfulness is the reason that God called you into this moment, you don't look at your responsibilities the same way. 

One simple encounter with the baby Jesus changes the way you see everything. And if the way you see everything has changed, you're going to change, too. You just can't help it. 

But even as you change, even as you grow, even as you become more firmly rooted in God's incredible design on your life, you can't forget that the fundamental nature of who you are led you to follow that star in the first place. The person you already committed yourself to be took you to the manger instead of the inn. God called you because you are who you are, because there's just something about you that was perfect for this Christmas morning...and it is now being perfected in the shadow of the manger. 

So cool.  

Monday, December 13, 2021

Shepherds in a Manger

Yesterday, I wondered if the shepherds were more like us, wouldn't they have gone knocking at the inn after following the star? Certainly, they had to believe that anything worth happening would be happening in the inn. 

But maybe God chose shepherds precisely because they are not like us. 

Shepherds, traveling through an area, would likely have gone straight to the manger. They would have naturally gone first to the place where the animals board, probably because they might have had their own animals with them to board!

There is nothing in the Luke account that tells us that the shepherds left their flocks unattended in the fields. There is nothing in the Gospel that tells us that the shepherds, who were faithful enough to follow a star, were unfaithful to their own flocks. In fact, the way that the Gospels like to tell us that shepherds are a good thing - that Jesus is the good shepherd - means that maybe we've been picturing this whole shepherd visit thing incorrectly for far too long. 

Maybe...maybe it wasn't just a few men who showed up that night. Maybe...maybe it was a few men and few hundred sheep. Can you picture that?

And if these men showed up with a few hundred sheep, then they had to go straight to the manger. They had to go straight to the place where there might be a servant-attendant to drop their sheep off with. They probably rehearsed their story along the way, what they were going to tell the guy when they showed up in the middle of the night with hundreds of sheep behind them. 

"Uhm, hey...." 

Doesn't that change the story of Christmas just a little?

This is how the star led them straight to Jesus. It's because they were a people not quite like us, not exactly like us, who would not have gotten so far as the inn, which would have been the first place that we ran. These shepherds came to the manger and saw that everything they were searching for was right there, right in the first place that they looked. Right exactly where the star had led them and not just somewhere in that general area, not somewhere more expected or accepted but right exactly in the manger. 

Which means...not only did the star lead them there, but also, their faithfulness did. The fact that these men would not abandon their responsibility, would not just leave their sheep - the fact that they were good shepherds led them straight to the Good Shepherd, even if they didn't know it at the time. 

And isn't that a beautiful image? The newborn baby Jesus already surrounded by sheep who would hear His very first cries, who would know what His voice sounded like from that very first morning? That's so cool. That's so God. 

That's so Christmas. 

Friday, December 10, 2021

Christmas at the Inn

As we transition into talking about the Christmas story, we're using last week's conversation as our touchpoint. The truth is that even we, as Christians, are losing touch with Christmas as we continue to show the world how pro-Christmas we are by adopting Santa and his elves as our own celebration, somewhere seemingly so far removed from the manger. 

I have been reflecting on this in my heart, partly because I am just as prone to be tempted as anyone. No one wants to be "weird" at Christmas, and certainly, insisting that Christmas is actually about Christ has become...weird. 

One of the things I'm thinking about, though, is the shepherds in the Christmas story. Remember these guys? They were out in their fields and saw the brightest star in the sky that they had ever seen. They started following it, knowing that wherever it led them, they would find the Promise waiting for them. And anyone who has ever been lost in the woods knows the tremendous goodness of one bright star; it can reorient your whole world for you. 

So these guys follow this star, and they come to the manger...but do they? 

That's the story that we're told, and when we see it dramatized, how could they not? The star lights the way and there comes just this bright illumination on the baby Jesus Himself and the angels sing and there's this holy aura and there is no way at all that this star could lead them anywhere but the manger. 

Except when you remember that the manger was attached to the inn. It was probably in the basement. There was probably all kinds of stuff going on starlight-adjacent in this inn that was so full that there was no room even for a very-pregnant woman about to give birth...or for a newborn baby. After all, we aren't told that after He was born, someone kindly gave up their room for Him. No. That baby Jesus stayed in the manger. 

And if the shepherds are anything like us, and I can only imagine that they are, I can just imagine them following that star all the way to the inn...and then knocking on the innkeeper's door to see what was going on there. Knocking on the doors to all of the rooms to see if anyone there knew anything about the Promise that had brought them this far. Becoming discouraged because no one seemed to know what was happening, why these shepherds would be led to this place. Here? Nah, no Promise here. 

Just a full inn on the edge of Bethlehem on the eve of the census. Just a bunch of out-of-towners trying to come home. 

Nothing to see here. Not sure what star you thought you were following, but you guys got yourselves good. 

All of a sudden, the shepherds, so close to the Promise and yet so far away, are nothing more than what we most fear to be - religious nutjobs. Because they were too busy knocking at the inn to look in the manger. Because they expected Jesus to be somewhere comfortable, not somewhere dirty. Because they thought for sure that if God was sending His promise, it was going to be clean and obvious and pretty and at least able to afford a room in the inn. At least, He would have made reservations ahead of time and known for certain His place. 

All of these reasons that we don't think of the manger for Christmas. All of these reasons why we're tempted to miss Jesus when He's right in front of us. All of these reasons why we're so sure we know what God is doing. We follow that star all the way to the inn because we know there is a Promise there, and then...and then, we miss it entirely because it's not what we'd expect. Because it's not what we think God should be doing. Because it's unbecoming of the Lord of All Creation to be lying in a manger. 

And, well, it still seems unbecoming, doesn't it? 

Thursday, December 9, 2021

A Christmas Witness

We've been talking this week about what happens when we fall more in love with the things of God than with God Himself and when our walks become silly walks - walks of doing more than of being, walks of just living more than of loving. This kind of slow slipping away affects us down to the core of our souls, and it also affects the soul of our world. 

We see this nowhere more prominently than now, at Christmastime. 

It's amazing how quietly Jesus has been slipping away from our Christmas. How slowly, but surely, it's harder and harder to find any religious-themed Christmas items. This year, I found myself looking for a little church or an angel or a manger or something (for a secret Santa that I know is a Christian), and I couldn't find anything. I have been listening for years to my Christian radio station play more and more songs about Santa and reindeer than about Jesus during this time of year. And it's just disheartening for me to turn on a station that I know for its encouraging, hope-filled, positive music and hear that grandma got run over by a reindeer. 

But the truth is that our culture is winning the war on Christmas because even we are falling more in love with the things of this season than the reason for it. Even we are investing ourselves, and even our children, more into Santa and presents and red kettles and mistletoe. We keep telling ourselves that it's Christmas, that we know it's about Jesus, but we aren't living like it's about Jesus. An increasing number of churches are telling the story of Luke 2 on Sunday morning, but on Saturday morning, Santa will be here! Santa! I know him!

We're creating for our kids, and our culture, this notion where Christmas can be both cultural and sacred, and the truth is...we're losing that battle. We start buying different kinds of Christmas cards and only sending the ones with Scripture on them to those we know we aren't going to offend. We put out the manger, but we surround it with candy canes and elves and snowmen, just so the neighbors know we aren't those kind of people. You know. Religious nut-job kind of people. We move the Bible off the coffee table to set up the lantern with the candle in it. We pull the Cross off the fence to hang up the sleigh. We take the Christian welcome sign off the door to hang the wreath. 

And then the world looks around and wonders why we don't even care about the manger this year. Why we aren't even looking for Jesus at Christmas, the very time He's been promised to be with us. 

I don't know if we're afraid of offending the world or if it's that we come from a generation that has been trying to give its kids everything or if it's just this mix of trying to be in the world but not of the world. I don't really know what it is. What I know, though, is that by and large, Christians are not pointing to the manger at Christmas any more (unless, of course, we can get you to come to church with us, and then our pastor will do that...hopefully). Even we are not putting Jesus front and center at the very time of the year that is named for Him

And if we're not following the star to Bethlehem, we can't really be surprised that no one else is, either. 

This is why our personal, devotional walk is so important. This is why we can't let the love of God start slipping away from us. Sometimes, we convince ourselves that it doesn't matter that much, but I'm telling you - it does. It matters down to our very souls, and to the soul of our world.

If you aren't convinced of that, just try looking for Jesus this Christmas. 

Spoiler alert: He's not the big guy in the red suit.  

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Deconstructing the Faith

There's been a lot of talk recently about "deconstructing" the faith. This is another one of those circumstances where those who want to feel some sense of authority have up-sold the language to make it sound more complicated than it is. What it really means when we say someone is deconstructing their faith is that they have questions. 

And one of the number one reasons that persons "deconstruct" their faith? 

Because someone who they looked up to as a Christian example...isn't living a Christian example. Someone who proclaims the name of Jesus isn't living by the name of Jesus. 

Someone has been leading them in a ministry of silly walks (walks not with God). 

The first thing we have to recognize is that this is why what we're talking about this week is so important. This is why the very most crucial element of our Christian lives must be our personal, devotional walk with God. This is why the example that we set must come from - and include - our witness to the risen Jesus with every single breath. We have said that on multiple occasions this week.

But we have to also say that deconstruction is becoming a hot topic in the church. I suppose it always has been, although we used to call it "doubt" and call it a problem of faith. More and more, those who have come into the church are leaving it because of this very reason, because the persons who they believe are most supposed to love Jesus...don't seem to love Him very much. At least, not enough to actually live like He wants them to live. 

This is where it gets sticky. Because yes, we must do a better job of living Jesus, especially those of us who serve in our churches. But at the same time, no one should be resting their faith on our example. That is, a Christian faith cannot be rooted in anything but Jesus. It cannot be grounded in what His people do; it can only be based in what He Himself did. So the fact that those deconstructing their faith are doing so because their human examples failed is a real problem.

At the same time, if they have rooted their faith in human examples because of what we have shown them, then we're right back to where we started - where what we have is a problem of our living witness, our lived-out faith. We are not showing others how to ground their faith in Jesus, so they're grounding their faith in us, but then we fail because we're not grounded in Jesus any more, and then their faith fails because it was grounded in us. 

And well, I just can't help but wonder what would happen if we fixed this problem instead of dancing around it. I can't help but wonder what would happen if we taught everyone to ground their faith in Jesus. Because it seems to me that if we did this, then we would have a whole host of other brothers and sisters to help hold us accountable in our own faith, instead of just letting us go astray and following us there. 

It just really makes my head spin, all of this. And it makes my heart go topsy-turvy. Because I know that what we have is a witness problem; no one who has ever truly met Jesus then goes on to wonder if He might be the problem. The problem the wavering faithful is having is with His disciples - us - who have lost our way and are no longer leading and living and loving from a personal, devotional faithfulness. And I want to show others the way to Jesus, but I...I just don't know sometimes about them following me there. Because I don't want them to follow me; I want them to follow Him. And if I get them in the habit of following me, they will fall and fail because I will fall and fail and...it will just break my heart because I know that even when I have fallen and failed, Jesus never has and never will. 

And if we could just get one another to understand that, then we wouldn't have to worry about the so-called deconstruction of the faith.  

A Ministry of Silly Walks

We have been talking about how easy it is for us to shift our love from God Himself to the things of God - to church, to fellowship, to service, to being able to call ourselves "Christians" for whatever social standing that gives us, and on and on the list goes. Yesterday, I mentioned how this trap is particularly easy to fall into for those who serve in the church, whether professional pastors or lay servants. We just get to the point where all of our engagement with God is focused on what we pour out for Him, to the point that it pours right through us instead of filling us up. 

And it is at this point that our ministry becomes a ministry of silly walks. 

Really, I just couldn't help myself once I titled yesterday's post; I had to write a post on the ministry of silly walks. If you're not familiar with the reference, it's an old Monty Python bit to which I was introduced during my childhood (outside of the church), and well, some of it still makes me giggle.

But this is happening in our churches. And here's how it's happening: it starts when someone who is a servant in the church starts falling in love more with the things of God and the service of God than with God Himself. Now, the truth is that no one becomes a servant in the church by accident; you come to head a ministry or participate in a program or speak from the pulpit because at some point (hopefully), you have demonstrated your spiritual maturity. Others look to you for guidance on all things God. They believe you are an example that they should be following. 

In other words, you have a position of service in the church precisely because of your walk with God. 

But when your love starts falling away from God and more toward the things that you're doing "for" Him, your walk starts falling away, too. All of a sudden, you're walking with others through their trouble, but it's not the road to Emmaus any more. You're just walking. You're walking through rehearsals, but you're not worshiping any more; you're just playing music. You're walking through the sermon, but you aren't preaching it to your own heart. 

If you're paying attention, you'll notice when this starts to happen. The persons who are following your walk will tell you. It starts out in all earnest - they want to walk with you because of the way you walk with God. You're so in love with God, and they see it. But then, they want to walk your prayer walk. They just like the way that you pray. So they start maybe to pray like you, but they don't have your heart, so it's missing something. Or they like the way you play music, so they start to try to play music like you - not to worship, but just to play music. Instead of hearing, "I want to worship like you," you start to hear things like, "I want to be able to sing like you" or "I wish I could play the guitar like you."

Maybe your heart for God has always driven you to a ministry of presence or provision. And others have learned from your example along the way, but the more you do it because you enjoy presence and provision (and not particularly ministry or God), the more you hear things like, "I wish I could learn to be a good friend like you are." Not a good brother or sister; just a friend. Just someone who cares, like anyone in the world would care. Not particularly because God has given you a heart for it. 

Your ministry becomes a ministry of silly walks...because it isn't walking with God any more. Because you're doing the same things and taking the same steps, but it's not coming out of that heart for God that drew you to it in the first place; it's just coming out of a heart that thinks this is who you are and this is what you do, so you're doing it. 

The number of persons in our churches who are discouraged, even to the point of turning away from the faith, by those whose silly walks they are following is astounding. The number of persons in our churches who are discouraged because they aren't more like so-and-so, not because of the way so-and-so loves God but because of the things so-and-so does around the church or the community, is heartbreaking. And that's why it's so important, especially for us who would be servants in our churches, that our walks do not become silly. That we stay grounded on the road with God. That we are always, forever and foremost, walking with Him

And that's the danger we've been talking about - what happens when we don't. 

And, well, then our walk just becomes silly.  

Monday, December 6, 2021

The Ministry of Things

This trap that we can fall into where we come to love the things of God more than we love God Himself is an especially dangerous pit for ministers of the Lord to fall into. And when I say "ministers," I am not just talking about professional pastors; I'm talking about anyone who serves in the church.

When you're responsible for preparing content every week or when you're responsible for managing components of a service every week, it's really hard to engage with things for yourself. If you're preaching the Word, then it's tempting to make every bit of the Word that you read part of your sermon instead of part of your personal devotion. If you're leading worship, every song you sing is a rehearsal for a performance, not an act of worship to God. If you're organizing the greeting team, it's easy to be talking to someone and also thinking, "How can I ask them to join the team for next Sunday?"

All of a sudden, that close relationship that you once felt with God, that inspired you to serve Him in the first place, starts to slip away and it is replaced by the things that you're doing "for" Him...but it doesn't take long from there before you forget He's part of it at all, except when you're justifying how much energy you're investing into the thing or how much you care about it. 

This is a pattern that I confess that I fall into from time to time. I do so much writing and talking and ministering that I find myself writing things down from my Bible that I think will be powerful when I share them again later, or things that I want to say to that friend who is going through that thing right now. You know, the next time I talk to them. It gets to the point sometimes when there are things that start to tickle my own heart, and I can't figure out how I would ever possibly share them, so I skip too quickly over them and never let them get in.

I go through dry seasons. I go through parched seasons. And it is precisely because it is so hard for those of us who have a public declaration of ministry and faith to maintain a personal faith consistently. It is precisely because it's so easy for us to get into places where God pours right through us instead of filling us up first, where we become funnels instead of wells. 

If you have a pastor, I promise you he or she knows this. He probably doesn't talk about it, but it doesn't make it less true. 

One of the ways to combat this is to make sure you're not serving every Sunday. To make sure that you're not in a position to pour out more than you're taking in. Pastors need to hear sermons, too. They need to sit and let the Word wash over them and hear someone else expound on the goodness of God. Worship leaders need to be just one voice among many sometimes. They need to hear others sing. Ushers need to sit down in the pews and not worry about organizing things. Greeters need to have time to fellowship. Every single person in the church needs time to just be part of the church and to not have to be in charge of the church. 

I know persons in churches in many places, including my own, who only show up because they are serving. If they aren't on the service list, they aren't in the building. I know pastors for whom this is true, as well. "I didn't feel like going to church today, but, well, I had to preach the sermon." It's because they've poured themselves empty and needed rest and restoration, but their responsibilities to the church kept them going. 

And every single time this happens - whether you're the preacher, the worship leader, the children's church teacher, or the security person - you bring a lesser gift to God. You bring something less than the best. Because you just don't have it in you. 

That's why we who serve, in particular, must be so careful about our personal devotion. About not taking too much responsibility onto our shoulders. About setting up these systems of rest and replacement so that if, this Sunday, I need to just sit in the pews, I can do that. So that if your preacher needs to just hear the Word, he's got someone else who can bring it. So that if your worship minister's fingers are fumbling, she can step down and let the voices of the congregation wash over her. 

It's too easy for us to become doers of God instead of lovers of Him because we've been trained to share every good thing. But here's the truth: we need to just soak in some of those good things for us. Some of those are just for our benefit. We have to remember to let God pour into us and not just through us. If we don't, terrible things happen - not just to our congregations, but to our own hearts. (And it's that second one that is most devastating.) This is how the faithful fall away. 

Saturday, December 4, 2021

The Things of God

One of the things that we must always be on guard against is our falling too much in love with the things of God. On the surface, you might be thinking that doesn't seem possible - but read carefully what I said. The things of God. Not God Himself. 

This happens to more of us than we like to admit. We come into the church, and we fall in love with the church. As we should. That's what God wants us to do - love one another. But there's this really fine line between loving the church as an expression of God's holiness and loving the church just because we love the church. 

When we love the church, we go on Sunday mornings to see our friends. We invite others because we like our programming. We brag about our stage sets or our screens or our pastor or our children's ministry...but we don't brag about our God. We proudly say that we are members of such-and-such congregation, but somehow, it's a little quieter when we confess that we are Christians at all. 

We start to love one another more than we love God, and that's where too many of us get in trouble with our faith. That's where our faith starts to fail us.

Because what we know from living on this earth is that any human institution is a moving target. Members of churches come and go. Programs come and go. Ministries rise and die. And I can't tell you (and I probably don't have to) the number of persons who have fallen away from God because their church lost whatever was considered an essential piece for them - the pastor left, a friend moved away, a kid grew up, whatever. 

The strange thing is...when this happens, the person falling away almost always blames God for the offense when the truth is, that person hasn't loved God in a long time. 

When we fall too much in love with the things of God, that's what happens - we start falling out of love with Him. We still love the idea of Him and we know that He's the thing that brought us to whatever we're in love with now, but we stop doing the things that would connect us deeply to His heart. 

If you're going to church for the socialization, you don't read your Bible much on your own. That's not what you and friends are talking about in the fellowship hall. And if music is part of what you get by going there, then you don't need to worship on your own any more, right? And even our prayer life starts to fall away because we get into this pattern where we can't wait until Sunday so we can share our latest trouble with that church friend, who we think is going to pray for us, and too many of us have stopped praying for ourselves. 

But here's a question for you: what if that friend you're so sure is going to pray for you is also more in love with the things of God than God Himself and is coming to church just to see you and maybe have you pray for her? What if her heart, too, is overflowing with the things that she no longer shares with God because she can't wait to share them with you? 

This is how faith breaks. It breaks because we turn away from it and replace it with the good things that come from it. We want to eat the fruits without being burdened by the tree, and when it comes right down to it...fruit not connected to the vine rots. Plain and simple. Then we look at our rotting fruit, blame the vine, and go out in search of something else. 

Do you see this problem? There are so many layers to this problem. We'll look at a couple of more as this week continues.  

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Under Attack

As we talk about Sabbath, it's important to realize that the one thing that is under attack more than anything else in our world is our rest. 

This time of year, it's tempting to think that the whole Christian notion is under attack. We hear about wars on Christmas - about tearing down nativity scenes and banning them from public places and worshiping Santa and Rudolph more than the baby Jesus. We hear about how you aren't supposed to even say "Merry Christmas" any more, but go with the more politically correct "Happy Holidays," although even that's a little touchy in some places, I guess. 

But that's all just a distraction. The world doesn't really care if you worship Jesus; it knows that we all worship something, whether it wants to admit that or not. But what the world cares about is when you live your life in a way that directly challenges the things that it is trying to place value on. And that's not Jesus - it's rest. 

Rest flies in the face of everything the world stands for. The world is all about more, more, more - more commitment, more time, more work, more of everything. Rest settles into what it has and says that it's enough.

And the world just can't stand that. 

That's why not that long ago (relatively speaking), the world opened itself up on Sundays. It carved out a place and then, it told you that that place was good and holy. That you could go out and have an "old-fashioned" family dinner by patronizing a restaurant after church. And then, it wasn't long until it was too easy to get you from the restaurant to the gas station. And then the grocery store. And then the department store. And now, well, you just go anywhere you want to on Sunday because it's "just another day." 

Then, the world told you that you needed to work on Sunday. That it was okay for you to miss church because you'd be serving your neighbors and your community by doing your regular job during church hours. You don't need to worship; you "worship" God by serving His children by stocking those shelves or packaging those products for those who need them. 

Then, it started signing your kids up for travel leagues and competitions that only happen...you guessed it...on Sundays. Because the world just can't stand your family settling down into anything; it's got to always keep you moving, just like it thinks it is, and that means that it has to draw you away from your places of rest. From your real worship. And again, it will tell you that this is good. That God wants you to engage with all of these things. That God wants your kids to "be a witness" on that travel team...by skipping church to play sports. By skipping rest to be active. 

Did you notice this year how many places were closed on Thanksgiving Day? One chain even made it a point to say that they're "never" going to be open on Thanksgiving Day ever again! They're going to make this change permanent! And it seems that everyone has forgotten how it was only a few years ago that everywhere was closed on Thanksgiving Day. "Early Thursday Night Doorbusters" has only been a "thing" for a handful of years, but now, the world wants you to know that it's shutting back down. 

Not so that you can have rest, really, because hey, we're still open online. You should stay at home with your family and still engage in commerce, spend all of your time connected to your little box and oh, so busy finding the best deals. This isn't rest. The world didn't give you Thanksgiving Day back so that you could settle in; it still keeps drawing you out into the hustle and bustle of it all, but gives you the space to make all the spreadsheets you need to track deals and coupon codes and pick-up times from the comfort of your own desk. 

The world pretended to offer you rest but was actually just bringing busyness into your last sanctuary - your sacred time with family. 

Do you get it? Rest, as a practice, is under assault. It has been for a long time, and the world doesn't want you to recognize it. The world doesn't want you to know that's what it's doing. 

And that is precisely why Sabbath is so important. Because it's the one thing about our holy lives that the world has truly gone full-out assault on. It's the one thing the world consistently wages war again. This world doesn't really care if you believe in Jesus or not. "You do you." 

But don't you dare find rest. It's the one thing our world will not tolerate. 

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Disciplined

What are we to do when we fall away from our discipline, when we slip so far from the practices that we have put in our lives to glorify God? 

For most of us, the answer is that we condemn ourselves. We hate on ourselves for our failures, and we promise we're going to do better. We start to carry around this heavy weight of guilt that we think we somehow deserve, so that every time we are tempted to start falling down the same slippery slope again, we remember how much this heaviness sucks and we stop ourselves, cursing ourselves in our own spirits for even thinking about doing such a thing again. 

Let me tell you (in case you don't already know) - that doesn't work. It doesn't work, and it's not what God wants for us. 

As much as we want to pretend that we are, we are simply not a species motivated by guilt. Not consistently, anyway. Sure, we might do a thing or two to try to ease our guilty conscience, but the truth is that it isn't very satisfying and it doesn't take long until we just don't even care about guilt any more. It's not a good motivator. 

Neither, really, is a sense of commitment or promise. This would be our other natural inclination - we would keep reminding ourselves of the commitment we made, of the promise we made, of the vow (to call it that) that we made to God to do something like keep a Sabbath. We promised. We said we would. So we should. No matter what. 

This doesn't last very long, either. None of us is motivated by that kind of life. A commitment becomes a drudgery after not very long at all. It becomes a grind. It becomes something we're doing just because we said we were going to do it and not because we love it or even value it or even think it's a good idea any more. We just..."have" to? So we do. And then, we grow to hate it. 

Again, probably not a secret, but God does not want us to hate the things that we do that glorify Him. Glorifying God is not supposed to be a drudgery. 

How, then, do we come back from the slippery slope? How, then, do we get back into the groove of a discipline that we've fallen away from? How do we reclaim the holy things in our lives that we let slip away?

By developing a hunger for them. 

By letting our souls crave them. 

By listening to the echoes of the empty spaces in our lives that have been left hollow by what is no longer there, what is no longer filling them. 

I didn't reclaim my Sabbath because I felt guilty or because I made a promise ten years ago to keep a Sabbath; I reclaimed my sabbath because my soul was hungry for it. My spirit was hungry for rest. There was an ache deep inside of me that I could no longer ignore, and it wasn't the ache of a failed commitment; it was the gnawing burn of a deep need for something I no longer had - a Sabbath.