Monday, January 14, 2019

Threshold: 2019 Theme Word

I cross a threshold today: My Doctoral program officially begins. I enter a new age of learning. (Full disclosure: I finished my first assignment and started my reading a week ago. Sometimes you reach a threshold at a sprint.)

I suspect this year will bring many thresholds:
  • I'll cross into my forties, embarking on another decade of living, loving, and learning.
  • I'll cross the country to lead a 4-part seminar on Whole-Bodied Growth.
  • I'll cross the Pacific Ocean to teach at a seminary for a week.
  • I'll preach my 700th sermon.
  • I'll run 500 miles.
  • I'll read 40 books.
  • I'll pay off my daughter's braces, embrace my son's disabilities, and cure my wife's anxiety with Fortnite dances.
Life abounds with thresholds, some arbitrary and others brimming with achievement. They help us mark our progress and keep moving forward, like the fated checkpoint in race car games. 
Thresholds also feed the illusion of control. The apostle Paul learned he could not arrive at every destination he plugged into his missionary GPS. The Spirit prohibited him from crossing the threshold into Asia (Acts 16:6-7). God had other traveling plans.

We must be open to God diverting us from our goals. We may set our hearts on a threshold only to have him upset our agenda and redirect our course. Perhaps he's sparing us from selfish pursuits. Perhaps he's relocating us to a path of greater impact. Perhaps he is asking us to stand at the doorway, knock, and wait for Jesus to open an opportunity in his timing rather than ours. Perhaps.

But this uncertainty is not an excuse to avoid moving toward thresholds in our lives. Faith comprises a blend of patience and progress. We wait and work; we work and wait. In the words of Paul, "we press on" and "eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ" (Phil. 3:12-21).

Thresholds are simply our way of passing the time, marking the miles, and staying motivated as we move toward perfection.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Eternal Home: Advent Reflection (24 of 25)

And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. (John 14:1-3).

Some day Liz and I will share an empty nest. We hope it is located on East Main Street. We’ve traveled long and far to get here. From Parker Street in Warsaw to Thunderbird Drive in Arizona to Clayton Street in Denver to Oak Hill Drive in Warsaw.

Main Street has been our home for 11 years. We moved in with two children. We've since added a third. Someday none will live at home and little (or no) mortgage will hang over us. We’ll observe early bedtimes. And we’ll kiss a lot. We cannot wait.

But we equally look forward to welcoming our adult children home, watching grandkids for the weekend, hosting holidays or family events. We’ve each benefited from loving homes and tried to sustain one ourselves. It’s something we all pine for: to see (or be) that friendly face, that safe place.
At Christmas, we remember Jesus left his heavenly home to make an earthly home with us. But during his earthly ministry he lived as an itinerant. His lack of rest was not because he devalued home. Quite the opposite: Jesus did not rest at home because he wanted to redeem home. He came to secure for us an eternal address for us in God’s neighborhood.

Jesus made this very clear when he told his first followers, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also" (John 14:1-3, ESV).

When we make it to that eternal home (or when he comes again and brings it to us), our collective sigh will not be one of grief but glory. His smiling face is the one we pine for. The one that says, “Welcome home.”

This is Home Reflection 3 of 3, prepared for the Christmas Eve Service at Leesburg Grace.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Itinerant | Advent Reflection (23 of 25)

“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt. 8:20).

My family moved across the tracks during my third-grade year. I entered a new school and neighborhood. I made new friends. The house was bigger, nestled in a cul-de-sac: 6959 Candace place. It had a loft, a closet that led to the attic, and plush carpet. Everything was beige; this was the Nineties.
My brother Jeff and I shared a bedroom for a few years. When my oldest brother Scott moved out for college, Jeff overtook his space, leaving me on my own. I was growing up. I claimed this room until I graduated college. Then everything but the navy blue carpet within it changed. Out with the old, in with the older. It became a storage unit, an antique collection spot, a grand-parents guest bedroom with a crib for my daughters.

Over the years, my parents finished the basement, remodeled the kitchen, changed the color scheme, upgraded the TV (again and again), bought new furniture, and altered the landscaping. The two-car garage housed a long line of minivans and sedans, bikes and lawn equipment, basketballs and recycling bins.

But some things never changed: the pool/ping-pong table in the basement; the ageless patio furniture; the sprawling backyard perfect for tossing the football; the look-but-don’t-touch glassware and China and quilts; the colossal Santa banner hung on the chimney; and the collection of childhood toys: Legos, dinosaurs, Barbie dolls, board games, and Playschool figurines. My children have enjoyed the same assortment of playthings I enjoyed as a kid. While no longer my home, the place on Candace Place housed countless memories for me and my kin.

Last year, my parents sold this home. They downsized, crossed town, and settled in a new neighborhood. We saw the place for the first time last Christmas. When we pulled to the curb, my family let out a collective sigh. We didn’t feel like we’d come home for Christmas. We felt like strangers in a strange suburb.

We, the Sprankle Five, gathered ourselves, grieved our losses, and walked to the front door. We were greeted by my parents, provided the warm embrace and “friendly gaze” we pined for.* Sure enough, my mother wore one of her traditional Christmas sweaters, my dad donned a gray pair of sweats and coordinating sweatshirt, and the colossal Santa banner hung from the wall. Despite the change in zip code, we had, in a sense, come home.

When Jesus begins his earthly ministry at age thirty, he leaves his hometown (Luke 3:23). Sometime in the next three years, he returns to Nazareth, but his welcome is not warm (Luke 4:16-30). The locals question his teaching. They even seek to harm him. He escapes narrowly and, as far as we know, does not return.

Capernaum becomes home base for Jesus and his followers; they frequent the residence of Peter’s mother-in-law (Mark 1:29). But most of Jesus’s ministry happens on the road, in the marketplace, by the seaside, in a boat, or visiting other people's homes. He even makes the claim, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt. 8:20).

Jesus was not content to rest on this earth because he was committed to redeem it. In the opening of Orthodoxy, Chesteron writes, “We need to be happy in this wonderland [this creation] without once being merely comfortable.” This explains the itinerant life of Jesus. Surely he was happy on this earth. But the Son of Man was even happier to give up his right to a temporary residence in this wonderland so we could enjoy an eternal residence (and abounding comforts) in a renewed earth.

NOTE: This was the second Home Reflection for the Christmas Eve Service at Leesburg Grace.
* Allusion to the refrain from (There's No Place Like) Home for the Holidays, referenced in last post.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Birthplace: Advent Reflection (22 of 25)

And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:7, NET)

Christmas songs stir up nostalgia. I’m not a huge fan of obsessing about the good ol’ days, but nostalgia around the holidays is normal, natural, and healthy. The sights, smells, and sounds of Christmas resurface memories of childhood—my own and my kids’ early years.

There has always been something safe about Christmas: sitting by the glow of the tree, sipping eggnog, wrapped in a flannel blanket, Mannheim Steamroller or George Winston playing in the background. That spelled home for me as a kid.

I hope I’m creating a similar sense of comfort and warmth for my children. Years down the road they’ll be adults. They may attend college, work abroad, or move cross country. If “Come let us adore him” isn’t their Christmas refrain, I want it to be this: “I’ll be home for Christmas.” 

Or: “There’s no place like home for the holidays...
'Cause no matter how far away you roam
When you pine for the sunshine of a friendly gaze
For the holidays you can't beat home sweet home!

In my forty years of life, I’ve had many homes.
Image result for riverside hospital columbus
I was born in Riverside Hospital. Year of our Lord 1979. My mother had been watching Bedknobs and Broomsticks with my older brothers when her water broke. She traded a cinema seat for a hospital bed. Hours later I emerged, small, yellow, lovely. A doctor announced my arrival. A nurse wiped me down, wrapped me up and handed me over to my mother. This was my birthplace, where I took my first breaths. Days later, my parents took me to my first home in Ohio on McVey Boulevard where I grew in wisdom and stature (well, at least stature) until I was eight-years old.

Why am I telling you this? Well, as I’ve been reflecting on Jesus’s earthly life and ministry this month – how he wrapped himself in our flesh, became fully human while remaining fully God so he could restore glory to the material world – as his humanity has been my focus, I was struck by the fact that his first Christmas Jesus was homeless.

Prior to Mary’s miraculous conception of the Christ child, Jesus (our Savior and Lord) had dwelled with God the Father and the Holy Spirit.  Heaven was his home. And yet for his first Christmas (Jesus’ birthday), Jesus did not go home for the holiday. Earth was foreign territory; a feeding trough was his birthplace.
Giorgione - Adoration of the Shepherds - National Gallery of Art.jpg 
Not only did Jesus begin his earthly life homeless but spent the opening years as a refugee. An angel warned Joseph to take his family and flee from Bethlehem to Egypt. Years later they finally returned to Nazareth, where the Joseph’s Traveling Family Band finally established home base (see Matthew 2).

Most of the time, I take home for granted. During the holidays, though, I’m especially appreciative for home, from birthplace to current residence. God intends home to be a safe place to grow in wisdom and stature, to build traditions and memories, to nurture affections for God and man.

On the first Christmas, Jesus abandoned his heavenly home to make a home with us. Emmanuel. God with us. What a sacrifice. What a story. It’s certainly worth celebrating.

NOTE: This is the first of three Reflections on Home I wrote for the Christmas Eve Service at Leesburg Grace Church.  

Friday, December 21, 2018

Mockery: Advent Reflection (21* of 25)

When they had mocked him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes back on him. Then they led him away to crucify him. (Matthew 27:31, NET)

Two kids threw mulch at Sensi. Another student stomped on his foot. I've heard several other kids say, "Sensi talks funny." My son says nothing in reply (and I'm ready to storm the gates).

Being functionally non-verbal makes Sensi an easy target for taunting. Being cognitively disabled lends him to mockery from classmates. Fortunately, God has surrounded Sensi with people who love him, committed to building his confidence and expanding his capacities. Most of his peers treat him with compassion. His mockers are in the minority.
But I'm all too aware of how a few mocking voices can ruin a life. They can sabotage self-confidence. They can instill fear. They can sway public opinion, turning a merciful crowd into a mob.

While I don't envision this for Sensi (God, save him from middle school), mockers made Jesus Public Enemy No. 1. They rejected his teaching, questioned his authority, and maligned his reputation with false testimony. They dressed Jesus in a mock robe and mock crown. They hailed him with mock praise. They condemned him with a mock charge. They mocked his royal title and miraculous works.

They are the Pharisees and Scribes. They are the high priest and governor. They are the Roman guards and Jewish bystanders. They are you and me.

But God got the last laugh. He raised Jesus from the dead and enthroned him as the true king. Every mocker will someday meet his Maker. And he's going to ask, "Why did you throw mulch at my Son?"

* I skipped Reflection 20. People take priority over blog posts. Plus, I had a sermon to prepare.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

God's Son: Advent Reflection (19 of 25)

“Why does this man speak this way? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”  (Mark 2:7, NET)

"Did the disciples know Jesus was God?" Margot asked.

It was bedtime, and the question was likely a classic stall. However, when your father is a pastor, asking a theological question is a guaranteed way to extend lights out by at least ten minutes. I took the bait, responding, "No way."

"Really?" Margot muttered in disbelief.

One of the earliest bits of doctrine we cram into a church-going child's head is Jesus-Is-God. Followed by God-Is-Trinity.
     Followed by It's-A-Mystery.
          Followed by "I don't totally understand, either. Go ask your mother."

But Mom was sleepy, so I provided some context.

"Jesus' first followers were Jewish people. They believed in one God. One and only. They had no concept or mental shelf space for another God, let alone God-as-a-Man. Even when Jesus calls himself 'Son of God' the Jewish people understood it as a reference to the Jewish king born in David's line. God called the king His son [Ps. 2:5; 110:1], like a special representative.

"But in Jesus' day, there was no Jewish King. His disciples assumed Jesus meant to go to Jerusalem and reclaim the throne. It's why James and John asked for seats of power at his side."

Margot didn't seem convinced.

"If Jesus simply came into to town and said, 'Hey everybody, I'm God. Who wants fish?' they would have thought him crazy," I explained.

"So he just gave hints," Claire chimed in, pushing back bedtime another ten minutes.

"Yes," I affirmed. "Lots of hints. Like when he forgave sins, which only God could do. Although he wasn't the only miracle-worker in his day, the quantity of miracles he did showed his extraordinary power. His teaching demonstrated special authority. And at the end of his life, Jesus tells Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest, he will see Jesus again, referring to himself as the Son of Man. This title comes from Daniel 7:13. It's a human figure whom God invests with authority and rides on the clouds like only God could do. Caiaphas catches the implication and calls Jesus a blasphemer [See Matthew 26:63-65]."

I stopped and glanced at each bed to see if my explanation has put the girls to sleep. They remained awake, so I added, "One more thing: In the gospel of John, Jesus often refers to himself using "I Am" statements. I am the bread of life. I am the living water. I am...

"God was the Great I AM," Margot interrupted.

"Bingo. When Jesus makes these kinds of statements, it's another hint or clue of his divinity. Sometimes the crowd catches on and picks up stones to throw at him [See John 10:22-33]."

This delightful conversation put a nice orthodox bow on an already-full day. It also made up for the fact that we had failed to complete our daily Advent reading ... again. And now it was too late.

Or so I thought, until Claire asked, "Will you still read to us?" Another classic stall. But when your father is a pushover, asking for a few extra minutes to read before bed is a guaranteed way to extend the night.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Smiling: Advent Reflection (18 of 25)

"The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many." (Mark 10:45)

A few month ago I heard author Siang-Yang Tan take a pot shot at servant leadership. I was aghast. Can you undermine servant leadership? I wondered. Isn't this the heartbeat of Jesus' ministry, I thought.

I was wrong.

Jesus did not come to be a servant leader. He came to serve. Period.

He served in a variety of ways: teaching and telling stories, healing the sick and forgiving sins, welcoming children and helping the weak. The highlight of his service record was the low point of his earthly life. He submitted himself to death, even death on a cross (Phil. 2:8).

When the author of Hebrews reflects on Jesus' fatal service, he reveals a surprising motive. "For the joy set before him" Jesus embraced the cross (12:1-3). As he gazed upon the crowd, he caught a glimpse of his mother and John among a blur of faces. Then he smiled. They were his joy, his favorites. And so are you and I.
Image result for smiling is my favorite gif
The gospel writers do not tell us Jesus smiled, but I think he did. Smiling is the expression of the consummate servant. Jokers grin and bear it. Jesus smiles. 

And those who serve like Jesus served--not as a gimmick or ploy for power, but as a genuine expression of joy in helping others--smile, too.