Shake the World

Version 2
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.

waiting

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.

Sappy and Green

I enjoy making new from old. dripping_tree_sap

Last summer in an unplanned flash of creativity, I crafted an outdoor iPod music station. I had a riot pairing my imagination with a stack of wood from weathered apple crates. Today, that music box stands erect, like a soldier at Buckingham Palace, ready to deliver play-listed tunes into the springtime green of our backyard.

Last week, as I unpacked my musical re-creation from it’s winter storage, my mind recalled a recent conversation with a friend. He and his wife are battling cancer — again. The situation is fragile. Emotions are volatile. The future uncertain. Questions ooze from every conversation. Predominant among them is: “Why is this happening, again?”

Life is seasonal. In my friend’s case, cyclical. The chapters of our living stack side-by-side and layer a story. Some of the chapters read with discouragement and despair in our pursuit of happiness. Others have plot lines wrapped around self-affirmation and high-minded morality. And some are penned while walking the slender path that’s illumined step-by-step with a sanctified glow.

We all wander and weave a journey that brings us to lung-burning climbs and leg-aching descents. None are immune from life’s frustrations and setbacks. Each of us cycle through joy and sorrow, breaking and building, closed doors and open.

Hindsight is the gift of reflection. A glimpse backward helps us piece together personal themes, the development of relationships, and circumstances that are more purpose driven than random. In our looking back, we see the progression of being torn down and built up. We see Someone at work.

For those who follow Jesus, our life is a steady plodding toward restoration. In every circumstance, our hope is immovably anchored in the surety of God’s plan of renewal. Deep within, we’re “ever full of sap and green.” * We’re alive and growing by the Spirit of grace.

As you page through your story today, be it joyous, painful, or commonplace, remember that every moment is an opportunity to worship. Believe that your life is not a fate-driven tragedy. A hopeless endeavor. A cycle of needless pain. We are all being broken down and built up. We are green, sappy, deeply loved people being transformed from the old and broken into fruit-bearing newness. In all things, may we be vibrant ambassadors who step with trust into the wonderful mystery of the story God is writing.

* “The righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. They are planted in the house of the Lord; they flourish in the courts of our God. They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green, to declare that the Lord is upright; he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.”
Psalm 92:12–15, ESV

The Good of Friday

lonely-man-app

I felt trapped. Separated from home by a landmark bridge and 500 miles, my studies at college were the loneliest of my life.

Buried in snow and differential equations, I had tapered. My existence seemed shunted, bound by the limit to which the frigid atmosphere of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula could carry my warbled pleas. I was singular, distanced from the familiar, the enjoyable, the comfortable. I felt unprotected and undefended. Monsters of despair bullied my self-talk and clawed at the empty space of me.

Still, in the dim of self pity I desperately tended a flickering hope. My spirit stretched toward Spirit as neediness found readiness in another. In a Man who knows rejection and isolation, for there was a time that He was lonely, too.

Lonely because of me. I’ve said ‘no’ to Him. Deserted Him. Ignored Him — over and over. You have, too. Even His Father distanced himself in this Man’s most desperate moment. Together, we have turned our collective back and willingly cast this Man aside.

Today we remember our rejection of Him. In my remembering, I want those college days near me. To feel fresh the pain and longing. To sit again in the desperation and frustration of wanting to be wanted. To be connected, known, and loved.

We are not trapped on a celestial orb, abandoned and alone, traversing in elliptical nothingness. We have been rescued from isolation. We need no longer be lonely. That is the “good” of this Friday.

Because of the Man, Jesus.

“He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”
Isaiah 53:3, ESV

Redline

redline
I didn’t make a resolution at the new year, but my impromptu January commitment is holding strong. Sure, it’s just the end of February but isn’t life more the myriad of small wins than a few championships?

What I’m staking victorious claim to is two months (so far) of regular exercise. Granted, putting club membership money on the line has been good motivation. Even so, I’m beginning to reap the first fruit from a disciplined care of my aging flesh and bone.

As part of my workouts, I’ve assimilated to the exercising hoard by stuffing ear buds into my auditory canal. It seems relational isolation is required for physical fitness. I’ve capitalized on this fascinating dynamic by listening to podcasts of all types. While listening last week, I nearly stumbled in full rotation on the elliptical (if that’s even possible) when I heard this statement: “It’s not what you do that burns you out; it’s what you don’t do.” (Christine Caine, founder of the A21 campaign and Propel Women)

What? Do more to not feel like I’m doing too much? How contrary. How surprising. How paradoxical. How…true?

My thoughts plunged deep with introspection. I hardly heard another pod-casted word.

I’m typically a steady worker with decent energy. A fast-paced plodder, you might say. But for a while now, I’ve wondered if I was beginning to redline.

My passion lacked sparkle. Desire was AWOL. Energy was down to the dregs. It seemed burnout was nipping at my heels.

My self-help response was to apply new techniques. Re-structure my work and home life with a fresh system of time management. Same stuff in a better way — surely that will fix things. And for good measure, I’ll add more personal pep talks, reduce carbs in the diet, and exercise. After all, I was doing good things and being productive. Surely my “possible” burnout was because I’m not doing things the right way. Just tighten the belt and suck it up. You can do this!

Yet, I can’t escape that statement from Ms. Caine.

Might she be right? Could my feeling of frantic tiredness stem not from doing too much in wrong ways but from not doing the right things? It’s hard to imagine adding anything, but maybe what’s missing will enliven my living? What must I do so I can do all that I should be doing?

Thomas Merton said, “Your life is shaped by the end you live for. You are made in the image of what you desire.” (Thoughts in Solitude, p.49) Hmmm. What is the shape of my life? In this moment, where am I headed? For what purpose did I rise this morning? My thoughts, words, attitudes, and actions are shaping me into…what? My answers craft the curbs which bound my do’s, and don’t do’s, and must do’s.

I can’t self-manage to stay below the redline. None of us can. There’s no prescription for “doing life.” But, as a Christ follower what I must do is center my desire on being conformed to His image. That purpose will shape my affections and wisely guide me with deciding what stays, what goes, and what get’s added in the day-to-day. In that, there is freedom — and rest.

How about you? What’s the end toward which you’re living? What are your shaping influences? Does joy string your activities together, or do you go from here to there thinking, “glad that’s over.”

Our lives should be full, but not frantic. Spend this day pondering the privilege of life and the Person who gives it. Then get busy enjoying Him in every purposeful moment.

No Frosting, Please

A little can be a lot. Especially with friendships.

For a long time, I was a friendship skeptic. A disbeliever. A scoffer at those who’s experience testified to the uncommon gift of true friendship. The kind that is resilient and long-lasting.

Now I believe.

Through triumph and trial I’ve come to understand that real friendship wraps itself around authenticity. A simple but elusive qualifier, an authentic person is honest about themselves — with themselves, and with others. They know the pull of dark things yet strive to offer what’s genuine and true. Positive and gracious, they live with quiet, unassuming confidence. They resist doctoring their persona and crafting facades.

They’re unfrosted.

From my unfrosted friends I reap a bumper crop of relational nourishment. Together, we tend and till the soil of our souls. We gently receive what’s true of the other. We share and laugh and celebrate success. We also, with compassionate authenticity, pull from one another the brambles of pride, pity, and selfishness. Linked by commitment and love, we stumble and gallop and skip and slide and occasionally stand still on our predestined pathway. A troop of pilgrims, we are, bound by a sticky grace infused with divine elasticity.

Over runny eggs and mediocre coffee, during spontaneous sidewalk conversing, through sandwich shop dialogue woven with 80’s tunes, and when seated side-by-side in the red dirt of Kenya, my desire is to be an authentic, patient, unfrosted friend.

To my few, my unfrosted few!

“Wishing to be friends is quick work, but friendship is a slow ripening fruit.” ~ Aristotle

 

Christmas in Kibera

Christmas tunes monopolize my playlists. Dietary restraints have been temporarily lifted. And although behind schedule, we’re processing through our collection of holiday movies. Christmas is a wonderful season of tradition and celebration.

Not quite three weeks ago, my family was focused not on Christmas, but Kenya. We were completing a two week adventure that included stops in Nairobi, Thika, Naivasha, Kijabe, Kilgoris, and the Maasai Mara. It was a spectacular journey that filled us with stories to ponder for a lifetime.

We also spent time in the Kibera slum community. Home to hundreds of thousands, Kibera is a startling place. It is tragic, sad, and perplexing. Yet, emanating from a simple mud-walled Kiberan structure was the sweet aroma of hope, joy, and worship. Enveloped by physical hunger, our souls feasted on the richness of redemption served to us by a humble pastor, his family, and Kibera children they love as their own.

Kibera and Christmas. God is with us — all of us.

Let us be hasty to laud the breadth of Christ’s mercy and grace.

Merry Christmas!

** Below are reflections on Kibera I noted while in Kenya. **

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“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”” ~ Isaiah 52:7

Shuffling step-by-step, the distant voices ricocheted and crescendoed along the narrow walls of mud and sticks. One hundred voices, conjoined with the rhythm of clapping hands and amplified music, presented the welcoming prelude. Anxious but expectant we entered the 20ft square room that snugly held its occupants, but proved helpless against the jubilation.

It was the sound of Good News!

A mouse, roused by the happy gathering, emigrated safely along a rafter. Beneath the tin panel roof, greetings, introductions, and recitations came in confident procession bringing both physical and spiritual warmth to our dwelling. With passionate unity, children testified to the Shepherd of Psalm 23, claiming by faith the promise of protection, provision, and peace. They recited Isaiah’s words of deliverance by a Wonderful Counselor. They lifted high the name of Jesus.

Creativity blossomed in small hands that firmly pressed crayons to paper. Craftsmanship found expression through the weaving of colored thread. Entwined in those twists were happiness, gratitude, and friendship.

We shared a communal meal and prayed for each other. Our brief time of life together with the children of Kara Kibera, their pastor, their “mama,” their teachers, and their caretakers drew us into the beauty of a holistic development of mind, body, and soul. We received a vision for restoration, born from the hope of redemption. It was wonderful.

Yet we live in tension.

The perplexity of disparity. The need for solidarity. The responsibility of knowledge. The call to be faithful.

But there is Good News, and He is alive in Kibera!

“And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” ~ Luke 2:10–11