No Ordinary Days

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December 7, 1941. October 31, 1517. March 7, 1965. September 11, 2001.

Life-changing disruptions.

Two thousand years ago, disruption occurred on a hillside in Palestine. A magnificent, angelic disruption witnessed by just a few shepherds. Old men and young, settled into their nighttime routine of protecting their flock from predators and thieves. Each took a turn watching while the others refreshed with sleep. It was a routine they’d been doing for generations.

Like the shepherds, we all have routines. Some are prescribed, like school and work. For the youngest, it’s the sustaining cycles of eating and sleeping. Every day we journey through the hours, listening and learning, working and earning, healing and resting. At times the demands on our schedules are relentless, whether they be enjoyable, painful, or simply necessary. We’re pulled toward a harried state of living, sorting through a steady flow of requests and activities. In such busyness, days blur together dulling our sense of the unfolding story. An unimaginable story of rescue and hope.

It’s the same story heralded by an army of angels to those hillside shepherds. It’s the story of Zechariah, Elizabeth, and their son John. It’s the story of Mary and Joseph. It’s the story of God — and we each have a part in it. The story is ours.

But sometimes we need reminding. A providential disruption that jolts us from our plodding. Few of us like being sideswiped by the unexpected. But those moments force us to pause. Reconsider. Ponder. Pray.

To ask questions: Why do I do what I do? What am I striving toward? Who and what do I really care about? Who’s story am I living in: God’s, or mine?

It’s unlikely we’ll receive a disruption of singing angels. Still, as followers of Jesus we must be mindful that day-after-day God is working out His story of redemption. And because that’s true, today is not just another day. Our lives are not a series of monotonous routines. In God’s story, every day is extraordinary! Every moment a grace-filled gift from our Father in Heaven. Through our routines of Algebra homework, piano recitals, soccer practice, diaper changes, health issues, car repairs, and boardroom presentations, we have the privilege to live within God’s narrative. To be busy about His work. To praise and worship through every calendar event knowing we’re ambassadors for Jesus.

This day — and every day — we have reason to sing with the angels, “Glory to God in the Highest!” In expected, surprising, wonderful, and tragic circumstances, we can dwell in peace because Messiah has come. We can knit together a non-stop chorus of praise from all our activity because each moment is governed by Him.

Jesus is writing Salvation’s story. It’s His story — and ours. And there’s nothing routine about that!

~ Advent Prayer of Praise ~

King of Kings,
Lord of the Angels  —

Your Holiness calls us to worship;.
with justice and mercy you lead us to love.

On wisps of praise our affections rise,
a soulful song of gladness and joy.

Shake the World

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Have you ever been disappointed? Expected one thing but experienced another? A “no” instead of “yes.” A sub-par test score. A Christmas sweater instead of a super hero t-shirt from grandma. None of us can avoid moments of disappointment.

In the Bible is a story about a man who experienced disappointment. Big time. How? Well, it started when he asked a girl to be his wife. She said “yes” and his dreams took flight. He starting making plans. Building a house. Saving some cash. Then boom — everything changed.

That man, Joseph, landed in a tough spot. Mary, his bride-to-be, became pregnant in a miraculous way with a special baby. Whoa! So much for Joseph’s plans. He went from excitement to confusion. Gladness to fear. This tricky situation was not what Joseph expected. How would he respond?

Joseph had to face this question: What do I do when I don’t get what I want?

Good question. Sometimes disappointment leads to anger or sadness. We might be tempted toward revenge. Or we may choose to withdraw and protect ourselves from more pain.

What did Joseph do?

After receiving encouragement from God in a dream, he acted with courageous obedience. He laid aside his fear and trusted God’s good plan for himself, Mary, and the baby Jesus. Joseph chose to protect Mary, shielding her from nasty rumors and public shame. He offered her relational security by honoring his promise of marriage. Joseph faced his disappointments, then chose love. Joseph was an agent of redemption.

When disappointment disrupts our expectations, a Joseph kind of response isn’t easy. But it is possible. In fact, behaving like Joseph is our calling as Jesus followers. The Apostle John says we are to be like Jesus — giving up everything for the good of others. (1 John 3:16) We have the privilege to be protectors of people. To care for the physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being of those around us. To love what’s not lovable. To be uncomfortable and displaced. To walk through valleys of grief. To stoop and serve so that others might flourish.

“The life that intends to be wholly obedient, wholly submissive, wholly listening, is astonishing in its completeness. Its joys are ravishing, its peace profound, its humility the deepest, its power world-shaking, its love enveloping, its simplicity that of a trusting child.” (Thomas R. Kelly, A Testament of Devotion, p.28) Joseph lived this kind of whole-hearted life as the earthly father of Jesus. He was a strong, protective, life-giving presence for his family.

As we interact in our families, schools, places of work, and various communities, lets be agents of redemption. Power-packed, Gospel-centered protectors of all people. Together, let’s shake the world with the beauty of the Gospel!

~ Advent Prayer of Protection ~

Father God,

Our Strong Creator  —

Your touch meets the edge of the heavens;
with Sovereignty’s rhythm the universe hums.

Absorb our fears in your jealous love,
and expand our souls to care for the other.

Wonderful Dirt

Every day we look at it. Walk on it. Spend hours removing it from floors, windows, cars, and clothing. Its inescapable and everywhere.

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Dirt.

Dirt is a gift. Truly. A wonderful life-giving mixture of minerals, moisture, and dead things. From dirt come shade trees and vegetables. Bricks and glass. Pigments and pottery. Dirt really is quite amazing. Our lives depend on it! But when it’s where we don’t want it, we might overlook dirt as a kind provision from God.

Long ago, God provided in a different way. It came through a person. Her name was Mary.

Mary and her “man-to-be” Joseph had big plans. Marriage plans. Perhaps a family — in time. He’d work as a skilled tradesman. She would foster relationships at home and in the community. Together they envisioned a simple and happy life in the community of Nazareth. A life dependent on God for their day-to-day needs.

And God did provide for Mary and Joseph. But it was shocking and scandalous.

In the midst of their premarital plans, God disrupted everything. (Luke 1:26-38) In His perfect goodness, God chose for Redemption to come alive in a small village through this hard-working man and obedient young woman. An innocent couple filled with great expectations unexpectedly became parents to the Messiah.

Mary and Joseph have a spectacular story. Through their humble submission, God provided for all of us. It began in an instant with the words of an angel and the power of the Spirit. An eternal act of mercy granted by Jehovah-Jireh, our Provider.

As it was then, so it is now. God’s provision enfolds our every moment. A steady stream of grace flows through our triumphs and tragedies. An outpouring of divine love. As we ponder the countless ways that God provides, Thomas Merton calls us to gratitude:

“To be grateful is to recognize the Love of God in everything He has given us — and He has given us everything. Every breath we draw is a gift of His love, every moment of existence is a grace, for it brings with it immense graces from Him. Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to praise of the goodness of God. For the grateful man knows that God is good, not by hearsay but by experience. And that is what makes all the difference.” (Thoughts in Solitude, p. 33)

Jesus has given us everything so that we can be part of His story, just like Mary and Joseph. And every day, as we live in that story, we have the opportunity to receive God’s provision and pass it along. The provision we offer may be a word of encouragement, shoveling snow for a neighbor, or taking a walk with grandma. Sometimes it’s simply holding a hand in silence. Many are the ways we can provide love and care to others.

As we wait and prepare for the celebration of Christmas, may we praise God for His seen and unseen provision, striving to be grateful for all things — even dirt.

~ Advent Prayer of Provision ~

Jehovah-Jireh,
Faithful Provider —

Your Kindness is the pulse of life;
we dwell within your generous love.

Unveil our eyes to Your abundance,
and plant in us contentment’s seed.

The Waiting Game

We all play this game from time-to-time. It blends strategy with chance and careful observation. The goal: choose the line with the shortest wait time.

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Players consider the variables of cart load, line length, and cashier speediness. Self-scan lanes are wild cards. In the end, all must pay and pass through the gateway to parking lot freedom.

More than a game, the store checkout line is one of our waiting realities. Waiting is a part of every day for everyone. We wait for birthdays and summertime. For class to end and a table at restaurants. We wait for cakes to bake and mosquito bites to stop itching. With all of the ways we wait, have you ever waited 400 years?

Back in ancient Israel, God used prophets as His human spokespersons to instruct, challenge and remind the people of His truth and love. It was a way of making His presence known. But for a very long time – about 400 years – there were no prophets. God was silent. So the people waited.

In the Bible we read about a man and a woman living at the end of those 400 years: Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1:1-25). Zechariah was a Jewish priest. A man dedicated to serving God. For many years, he and his wife Elizabeth prayed, asking God to bless them with children. They asked — and waited. They asked again. And waited. For decades they asked and waited. But no children.

How do you think Zechariah and Elizabeth responded in their waiting? It’s reasonable to think they experienced seasons of discouragement. Did God really care about their disappointment and pain? Maybe they wondered if God was hearing their prayers? Why wouldn’t He bless them with children?

Not getting what we want can influence what we think, say, and do. How did Zechariah and Elizabeth handle their waiting? The Bible says they served God. They loved their family, friends, and neighbors. God calls them “blameless” in their living. Zechariah and Elizabeth showed us how to wait well.

If you read the rest of their story, you’ll discover that God broke His silence and granted their request. All along He was preparing Zechariah and Elizabeth for a very special child. A child who would signal the fulfillment of a promise made to Adam and Eve way back at the beginning. The promise of Jesus.

In our waiting — when we must dwell in the quiet of the unresolved — we aren’t stuck, hopeless, or unloved. God is with us in our waiting. So whether happy, frustrated, excited, or confused we should strive to live rightly. To honor God with our thoughts, words, attitudes, and actions. To prepare ourselves to receive God’s good plan for us — with gratitude.

Advent is upon us. A season of preparation and waiting. We wait for the return of Jesus Christ when all will be set right and made new. We prepare for that time by seeking justice, acting with mercy, and relating with humility. A steady rhythm of faithful obedience as we submit to the care of our Father and the unfolding of His “right on time” story. Just like Zechariah and Elizabeth.

~ Advent Prayer of Preparation ~

God Almighty,
Keeper of Promise —

Touch our lips with Mercy’s salve;
knead our hearts with Spirited grace.

Inject our minds with Heavenly vision,
and settle our souls with assured expectation.

With or Without You?

Not A Team PlayerThe air carried a hint this morning. The trees can no longer hide it. It’s coming.

Fall. The season of football and cider is cresting the horizon. Soon, colored leaves will cover the beach sand ground into my floor mats. Windows will open as air conditioning units taper toward hibernation. And schedules will inflate with a fresh cycle of activity.

The summer months afford an opportunity to get out, get away, and refresh. To do many things, or nothing. As someone who craves solitude, I welcome times of uninterrupted quiet. No requests, no demands. Just the peaceful still of me — and only me.

In contrast to those “me only” dreams, last week I shared breakfast with a few good men. Despite a minor setback with finding carb-free options (we were at a bakery — go figure) we successfully procured some dining fare and caught-up on our summer happenings.

One man changed jobs, another sent a son to Uganda for 10-days to install clean water systems, a third made a commitment to be baptized, and the last successfully relocated a noisy rooster. Our conversation ran the spectrum from excitement to pain, from dreams to discouragement. Sipping my dark roast, I listened and wondered at the complex paths we travel. I marveled at the providential intersection of our stories. It is good to live in community.

But I still like to be alone.

We need silent spaces. Detours from the din. Yet retreats to a quiet oasis must be bounded. I’m easily lured to the out-of-the-way corner. A closed-door room. The library. Places that limit encounter. But too much “me” distorts my perspective. The world loses its color. My empathy atrophies and my grace becomes small.

I become lonely.

Henri Nouwen said, “Real loneliness comes when we have lost all sense of having things in common.”* The stories of my neighborhood friends are, in part, my story. Sure, we all live near one another. But that’s not what makes their story mine. Rather, we are bound together in our humanness. We are joined in the outworking of maleness and marriage. We fell trees, share tools, read books, and watch March Madness — together. We are communal.

So as summertime fades and fall activities filter into the calendar, I must recognize my craving for quiet. At the first hint to escape, I need to do the careful, wise work of prayer, seeking Spirit-guided help with making room for people while making room for me. To prioritize a daily refreshment of gratitude through God’s Word. To find joy in the grand adventure of life — with others, and alone.

*The Return of the Prodigal Son, p.47

Mere Mumblings

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I’m not a verbose person. I’m prone to projecting a quiet, withdrawn, even aloof disposition. This is not for lack of interest, engagement, or care but simply a poverty of words flowing from mind to mouth.

This truth draws a curious tension. I enjoy the craft of arranging words on a page. Poems, prose, devotionals or blogs, writing words is life-giving. Yet speaking those same words requires determination.

And then there’s prayer.

For some time now, my conversations with God have been mere mumblings. The words come slow and incomplete, competing with the ticker tape flow of my self-talk. I offer word-threaded tangles through terse, broken-phrased blurts toward Heaven. My focus easily diverts to other supposed urgencies.

My struggle is not unique. Still, I grieve my paltry praying efforts. I’m saddened by missed opportunity. Shocked by my autonomy. Confused by my difficulty.

How grateful I am for my wife. A pray-er par excellence and spiritual helpmate.

Yesterday, sitting parked in our driveway, she reached across the console, grabbed my hand with gentle firmness, and led us both in a fresh engagement with our Father. No shame. No remorse. Just invitation.

Along with that driveway moment, I’m pondering some words from Thomas Merton. I’m stirred by his thoughts on prayer and solitude. Not a solitude of escape, but transformation. Merton says, “When I am liberated by silence, when I am no longer involved in the measurement of life, but in the living of it, I can discover a form of prayer in which there is effectively, no distraction. My whole life becomes a prayer. My whole silence is full of prayer. The world of silence in which I am immersed contributes to my prayer.” (Thoughts in Solitude, p.91)

I seek the release from distraction through the pleasure of silence. A quietness filled with just one conversation. A prayerful dialogue that ebbs and flows with the mundane and the extraordinary. A conversation enlivened by the Holy as I offer myself without the distraction of me.

A whole life of prayer. One word at a time.