I’m gathering that our house is marked. Like hobos, through the mysteries of their communications, the neighborhood kids have discovered that our home serves RAMEN. Maybe it’s the squiggly lines footprinted in the snow. Some days bowls are lined up like the table service in Madeline’s orphanage. Between little girl, a passionate devotee of ramen herself, and the kids who show up on our doorstep, I might as well buy ramen by the pallet.
Our family went Christmas tree hunting after church one Sunday. We drove to a place called Sulphur Creek which, true to its name, stunk of eggs. Hiking through the snow, Jack picked out the tree. A BIG tree. So we cut it and tied it to the top of the Subaru with our trusty Bungee cords.
We’ve been doing this trip for years. Usually we cut the tree in Montana and bring it 230 miles home. So we’re not novices. And this year we were only 60 miles from home.
Nevertheless, we got on the freeway and a couple of miles up the road heard a thud behind us. I craned my neck to see out the back of the car. There, in the middle of the road, with cars swerving around it, sat our tree. As I watched, a pickup truck squared up on the tree. You could just about see the driver thinking, “Oh, Goody.” And the truck drove right over our dear tree (It was pretty much O.K. – when we got home the flat side fit nicely against the wall).
Michael got out of the car to go retrieve the bungee cords and the tree. The wire hooks on the bungee cords had all straightened out. They weren’t going to hold the tree to our car ever again. I hopped out, too, just to provide moral support. As I walked back toward the tree, I noticed a wad of rope lying by the road. A wad of rope, in fact, exactly the length we would need to tie the tree back onto our car. If we would have lost our tree even 20 feet earlier, we wouldn’t have found that wad of rope.
It could be just a coincidence. But eyes of faith see God at work. I wonder, did God set the whole thing up, from the rope’s previous owner losing the rope, to our bungee cords failing, just so we would wake up and notice? Or did God know that our bungee cords were going to fail and gave them a little help at just the right time? The details of God’s work so often remain shrouded in mystery. But we are blessed when we open our eyes and find God, right there next to us.
Advent. A beginning. A new beginning. This is the season of the year when we prepare for Christ’s birth.
When Jesus was born, the shepherds knew that something was afoot. The wisemen knew that God was doing something special. The angels were singing God’s praises, too.
But most of the people who knew Jesus as a baby just thought he was just another baby. One of many. The littlest. The least. Most people didn’t have any idea that in Jesus, God was doing something new.
And I suspect that most people didn’t think that Jesus was anything special until he grew up and began his ministry. Crowds flocked to see his miracles and hear his teachings. Even then, most people didn’t understand that God was doing something new. They crucified him, after all.
When Jesus was born, God did something new. And it’s strange to me that it was thirty years—a whole generation—before many people noticed. It was like the people were startled awake one morning, “Holy cow! God did something new in our midst 30 years ago! And I’m just now noticing!”
God is doing something new in our lives, too. God has been up to it for quite some time — our whole lives, in fact. God is giving us a new beginning. God is giving us a chance to start over, a clean slate. God has made us his children. We are reconciled to him and to each other, too. Have we noticed? Does the new beginning that God gives us in Jesus mean anything to us? Is it our greatest treasure? Or are we asleep?
It’s Advent. Jesus is calling us to wake up and discover this new thing he’s been doing in our lives. You can trust that the imprint of his hand is on you. He’s been holding you your whole life.
When Michael and I got married, we bought a small wooden nativity set that was made in Africa. I’ve loved it for the sleek, dark figures that make it up.
Last year, Jack also came to love the set — particularly the baby Jesus, who is about the size of a pinkie finger. He played with the baby Jesus quite often, always returning the baby to its cradle — until the day he didn’t.
You can imagine what happened. Baby Jesus went missing! Michael and I looked high and low for that baby; how many places in a house can a baby Jesus hide? During the spring, we finally decided that Jack must have snuck the baby into the diaper pail or the garbage, and that our dear nativity would no longer have a Jesus with it.
Easter came and went, and as we celebrated the empty tomb, we laughed about our empty manger. Then one night right before Pentecost, Michael was making toast for a bed-time snack. Suddenly, the toaster burst into flame. The flames shot out of one of the bread slots, licking the bottom of the cabinet above.
When the toaster cooled down and our hearts quit racing, Michael pulled out the bread and noticed something — a giant crumb, perhaps? — lodged at the bottom against one of the heating coils. He dug around with a knife and finally came out with a piece of something dark and ashy. After washing it off, he realized that it was our baby Jesus. Our baby had been in the toaster for months — who knew how many times he had been toasted. Since he was black to start with, he still looks pretty good — the char doesn’t show unless you know to look for it.
During Advent, we look forward to the coming of baby Jesus, meek and mild. But we also look forward to the second coming of our risen Lord — Jesus who at Easter saw and defeated the fires of hell. And as we are reminded throughout the Advent season, Jesus who comes to us as Lord has the capacity to turn our lives on our heads — to light fires in our hearts and under our feet.
May we all be blessed with Jesus in our lives — challenging and changing us, seasoning us with fire, and bringing us home into his glory.
I met a guy who is different than the rest of us. He lives out things like justice and mercy. Love just pours out of him. He seems so in tune with God. I want to be like him. He loves me. And I love him back.
On my way home a couple of weeks ago I was listening to a National Public Radio talk show called This American Life. This episode featured an interview with a man who, for medical reasons, had quit producing testosterone. It was a couple of months before the doctors diagnosed the problem and began replacing the hormone, but in the meantime the man experienced some very interesting symptoms.
As the testosterone left his body, so did all of this man’s ambition and competitiveness. It was nothing for him to sit on his bed for three or four hours at a time, not bored or sad or lazy, but just inert, content to look at the wall. This man began to enjoy monotony. He was happy to eat Wonderbread and drink milk for every meal—in fact, he wanted his food to be bland.
One of the side effects that this man experienced is truly remarkable. He started noticing everything. It was as if his filters that helped keep him from being distracted were lifted, and now he saw everything, everything with equal emphasis. As he walked down the street, he would notice the streetlight telling him to go or stop, but he would equally notice the grass growing out of the crack in the sidewalk and the bolt holding the wheel onto the car. He believes that he saw them objectively, without judgment, as they really are. Without testosterone, he saw the world without emotion, without sentimentality. And so, for those two brief months, he saw the world as it really is. Without passion and desire clouding his sight, he saw clearly, rightly.
And as he saw the world as it really is, he kept thinking, “That is beautiful.” That grass coming through the sidewalk is beautiful. That lug bolt is beautiful. And not in a sentimental way, but in an objective, factual way. The things he saw were in and of themselves beautiful. He thinks that for a brief time, he saw the world as God sees it.
I think he’s right. I think that God looks at this creation that he made and thinks, “That is beautiful.” God looks at things and sees them for what they are—what they really are. And God sees that they are beautiful.
This doesn’t stop with grass growing from the sidewalk and lug bolts. God looks at you and sees you for who you are—who you really are. He sees the good and the bad, everything that makes you, you. God looks at you and says, “You are beautiful.”
And you are.
Last week Jack got potty-trained. Michael and I have been putting off the inevitable, not because we love changing diapers, but because we couldn’t imagine how we would potty train a boy, and we knew that having a kid out of diapers would mean more planning on our parts when we went out grocery shopping, to the park, or on car trips. We knew that Jack understood the basics, and that he was physically capable. The only barrier to him being potty trained was mom and dad’s imaginative barrier—Michael and I couldn’t get Jack potty trained because we couldn’t imagine Jack being potty trained.
So last Friday, we got up in the morning and said, “Jack, guess what happened last night? You got POTTY TRAINED!” Jack screamed, “NOOOO!,” cried for an hour, and then went and got a pair of underpants and put them on. Job done. (Proud parents beaming)
It gets me wondering how many other things in our lives—in our families, in our work, in our congregation—we are unable to do because we just can’t imagine it being done.
No European crossed the equator until the 15th century when intrepid explorers finally did, simply because no one could imagine it ever happening. Similarly, it was many years before anyone ran a four-minute mile, and when that imaginative barrier was broken, several men broke that record within a short time.
What things have we told ourselves can’t be done? What limits have we placed on ourselves not because we lack skill or energy, but because we lack imagination? What calls to ministry and discipleship are we not answering because we can’t imagine doing the things God calls us to do?
In July, Michael, the kids and I went up to Luther Heights Bible Camp in the Idaho Sawtooths to serve as camp pastors for High School week. It was a fun week of camp—we had about 50 kids from Idaho, Utah, and Oregon. Michael and I helped with worship services, gave staff devotions and “Back Deck Chats” (little talks on the theme of the day each night after supper), and generally mixed in with the campers during meals, activity times, and canteen.
One afternoon Michael and I took Jack and Natalie canoeing on Lake Perkins. Neither Michael nor I are expert canoers—we consider it a successful outing if we’ve ended up where we wanted to go, instead of traveling in circles.
Last year we went around the lake and explored the inlet. This year I wanted to go down the outlet river. So we got to the river and headed down it. The river is shallow—18 inches or so, and we hardly had to paddle other than to steer. After a couple of hundred yards, the grade gets steeper, and the river breaks into small riffles. What fun!
Belatedly, Michael and I remembered that we would have to paddle back up this increasingly fast river. We turned around, knowing that we had quite a bit of work ahead of us. We paddled as hard as we could, hardly making any progress. In our efforts, we soaked the kids, who were by now crying. Our nice canoe ride had turned into a miserable trial. Finally, the current was so strong that we couldn’t keep the canoe headed upstream. In defeat, we decided to portage back to the lake.
We nosed the canoe close to shore, and I jumped out to pull us in. But as I pulled the canoe, I discovered how ridiculously easy it was to pull upstream. The water was shallow, and the canoe felt like a feather as I pulled it through the riffles, around the corner, and back to the lake.
Why had we struggled so hard to paddle our way back to the lake when it was so easy to pull the canoe? For us, in admitting defeat and surrendering our plans, we discovered a better way.
Our lives are filled with all sorts of these surprises. We struggle; we become exhausted by our trials and burdens. It is only when we give up our ideas of how things should be, when we surrender OUR way of doing things, that we are open to God’s way. As we pray, “HELP!” God shows us his way. You can trust that God will bless you with his guidance.
I spend a lot of days home alone with the kids, and some days they completely melt down. (To be fair, they are not always alone in the meltdown.) “Suicide hours,” my mom calls them. If you add in the Fed-Ex truck making the dog bark and the usual messes—spilled juice, markers gone off the paper, and toy cars underfoot, you’ve got yourself a Calgon moment (“Calgon, take me away!) When the screaming gets to be too much, what do I do? I reach for a cookie. Or three.
I know I’m not the only one who turns to the comforting power of a cookie or a bowl of ice-cream when emotions are running high. It’s certainly not the worst way in the world to deal with stress, but aren’t there better ways?
It turns out that God created us hungry. God created us with a yearning, a “God-shaped hole” that only he can fill. God created us with a hunger for his presence and a thirst for his peace that stays with us our whole lives, that drives us to keep seeking until it is filled.
Unfortunately, we often mistake our God-hunger for cookie-hunger or beer-thirst. Instead of turning to God when the pressures of the day finally get to us, we turn to other creature comforts. We eat too much. We drink too much. We spend too much.
And seeking to fill ourselves up, we end up hungrier and hungrier.
I wonder what would happen if, while the kids were melting down, instead of reaching for a cookie, I sat down with the kids to pray? What would happen if I substituted a camp song for that second bowl of ice-cream?
I’m going to try it this month. And I suspect that I already know how the experiment will turn out. God is going to find ways to surprise me, to blow my expectations out of the water. I know that by turning to Him instead of to snacks to ease my frustration, I’ll be blessed. And my kids will be blessed. What better lesson can a parent teach a child than to turn to God when the going gets tough?
Spiritual hunger—it’s good for us to see it in ourselves. As we recognize the hunger for God that He has built into us, we can begin to reorient our lives toward Him so that we might be filled. May you be blessed with hunger, and with God’s peace that passes all understanding.
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received came from a pastor in a South Australian Aboriginal town. He said, “Never be afraid to re-invent yourself.”
Being reinvented is hard. It’s disorienting. There’s time at the beginning when you don’t know where you’re headed, only that you can’t stay where you are. Then there’s time in the middle when you’re really confused. After a while, things start to clear up. God’s path starts to shine brighter than all the other paths. The future comes into clearer focus. And pretty soon, you come out on the other side of the confusion and pain and growth, and you discover you are a new person. A stronger, smarter, person. A person who spies God working in your life more easily. You’re a new person who God has called to do something new, and something amazing.
At least that’s been my experience.
And in the past couple of years I’ve been wondering how congregations can nurture disciples instead of encouraging members to be consumers. How do we challenge and support our leaders so that they grow in their abilities? How do we bring up new leaders? How does a pastor help a congregation grow, both in spiritual maturity and in numbers?
So here I go again — following God’s call to get smarter and stronger, to become a more faithful disciple and better pastor.
I’m applying for a doctoral program through Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Kentucky. The “Doctor in Ministry,” or D.Min. is a three-year program designed for pastors in busy parish ministries. It requires about ten hours a week of reading and writing, three weeks on campus each year, and a thesis project. For the next three years, I’ll sleep a little less, the kids will be with the sitter a little more, and when I go to continuing education events, I’ll go to Louisville.
I’ll be studying “Advanced Practices in Ministry,” which is a fancy way of saying “Leadership.” I’ll be learning (and practicing) how to encourage you each deeper into your walk with Christ. I’ll be learning (and practicing) how we can form our congregation to more closely resemble God’s dream for us. I’ll be learning (and practicing) how to help us connect more broadly with the people in our towns.
These next three years, I’ll be investing in myself. And I’ll be investing myself deeply in you. I know that God is calling us to something delightful and full of grace. I want to help you discover God in a new way in your lives, and to help as you listen for God’s call and find that “thing” that makes you burst with excitement.