Friday, December 23, 2016

All Longings Summed Up - Advent Reflection (Part 5 of 5)

The Christmas story closed one gap – Israel’s waiting for God to appear – but opened others. Those at the nativity waited for Jesus to start his ministry, but he spent thirty years growing up. The apostles waited three years for Jesus to bring his Kingdom, but following his death, burial, and resurrection, he ascended into heaven, his Kingdom still to come. The church has waited for Jesus to return with his Kingdom, but for 2000 years he has said, “Not Yet.”

2000 years is a long gap for waiting. Long gaps are hard on longing. Has yours stretched to a sharp point and pierced you with grief, or dwindled to a dull end and died? How much time or interaction do you have with Jesus? What patterns of behavior have you witnessed in Jesus? How trustworthy has Jesus been in the time you have known him? How trustworthy has he been recently?

I set my feet in this: God said he would come once and a he did. The Heavenly Father sent the Incarnate Son – Jesus our Emmanuel. And He did not simply come to make an appearance; he came to make atonement—to make all things new again by dying for the sins of the world.

Daily I spend time with this Jesus, because He lives and grants me access to Him. I have witnessed in Him a pattern of self-giving love, undeniable humility, wise teaching, and relentless obedience to His Father. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

So when Jesus says, “I will come again,” I wait patiently (I hope). And I believe him. I trust him. I long for him, knowing all longings are summed up in his second Advent.
I originally composed this Advent reflection for Leesburg Grace, my church family, as part of a Christmas Communion celebration. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel inspired the thematic focus on waiting and longing.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Waiting Gap - Advent Reflection (Part 4 of 5)

The announcement of salvation - For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord (Luke 2:11, ESV) - preceded the occasion of salvation - death, burial, and resurrection (1 Cor. 15:3-4) - by more than thirty years. Thirty years is a wide gap. 

And the wider the gap between announcement and occasion for any promise, the more difficult it is to wait. Consider the following:

You see a new restaurant with an “Opening Soon” sign. You are eager to try it out. Six months later and still not open, do you still care to go?.

Your friends say they’ll have you over. They just need to get a few things shored up around the house. After a few months, they reiterate their desire to have you over, but tell you how busy it is. “Soon,” they say. “We’ll have you over soon.” More than a year has gone by, but you still haven’t braved their front door. Do you ever expect to go over?

You order a new rug from a website. The company tells you shipping times range from 10-14 business days. Day ten arrives, and you feel excited. No package, but maybe tomorrow. Nothing the next day or day afterward. You are at the last day in the delivery range. You begin to question the company or shipping service. Do you make a few phone calls to track down your rug?

Your kids ask you to play Legos. You say you’ll come play in a few minutes. You’re working on a project in the basement. Minutes turns into an hour. Disappointed, your kids move to another activity.

A man and woman talk of marriage. They love one another. They are committed to one another. He says he’ll propose shortly; they just need to save a little more money. Two years later, he is still saving. Disappointed, she breaks the engagement.

Your husband said he would be home at six. It is six-fifteen. He’s often late. I heard a train. He probably got stopped. He usually calls or texts. He didn’t today. It’s six-thirty. Dinner is ready. He never misses dinner. Do you wonder if he's dead?

You pray to God for a specific breakthrough. You’ve asked him before, but now you’ve redoubled your efforts. You have other people praying with you. Your prayers are serious. Weeks pass; no response. Months pass; no response. Years pass; no response. How do you feel? Do you keep praying?

What makes waiting so difficult are these gaps. The wider the gap between announcement and occasion (promise and fulfillment), the greater the likelihood of filling these gaps with negative thoughts: doubt, suspicion, distrust, despair, numbness, distraction, self-protection, revenge.

Much of your response derives from the relationship you have with the person. How much time or interaction do you have with the person or company? What patterns of behavior have you witnessed? How trustworthy has she been in the time you have known her? How trustworthy recently?

Every time we face a delay, we intuitively work through these kinds of questions. Consciously or unconsciously, we bring to these waiting gaps trust resulting in patience or doubt resulting in restlessness.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Thirty Years of Waiting - Advent Reflection (3 of 5)

Like many a childbirth story, the beautiful arrival of Jesus precipitated a long, quiet period of growing pains.  Matthew and Luke give us a few glimpses into Jesus’ infancy and childhood, but his first thirty years remain hidden from history. We know he moved a few times to escape the clutches of Herod. We know he grew up on Nazareth and learned his father’s trade. We know he had siblings. We know he followed Jewish customs, highlighted by the record of his Passover visit to Jerusalem, where Jesus, at age twelve, seemed more eager to debate Scripture in the temple than return home with his family. When his parents located and confronted him, Jesus simply commented, “I had to be in My Father’s house.”

Then, thirty years later, Luke tells us, Jesus began his public ministry. 
Thirty years of quiet development. Thirty years of humble learning. Thirty years of family interactions, religious observations, daily chores, and vocational duties. Thirty years of obscurity.
In the meantime, I suppose the aged prophetess Anna, as well as righteous and devout Simeon, had passed away. They met Jesus on the final page of their earthly story. Perhaps Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Joseph had parted, too, all advanced in years.

But what about the shepherds who left their flocks to see child wrapped in swaddling clothes? Thirty years later, did they continue to praise God for "good news of great joy"? Did they still believe they had seen "the Savior, Christ the Lord"? Thirty years after visiting the manger, had their longings for redemption sharpened to the point of grief or dulled to a dead end?

And what about Mary, once called “highly favored by the Lord”? After answering Jesus’ cries for milk and dirtying her hands with his diapers, could she still perceive his saving role? After thirty years of ordinary family encounters, had her longing for salvation waned? If her interactions with Jesus during the beginnings of his public ministry give any indication of her faith, both Mary and Jesus’ siblings reflect more skepticism than support.

And what about the wise men who came from the east? After their great journey following yonder star, did they begin to question their belief when decades passed, and no news came out of Jerusalem? Did the distance of time and space dull their longings for a king or sharpen to the point of grief?

And what about the angels who appeared singing glory on that first noel? The apostle Peter spoke of angelic longing – their hope for salvation spanned across the entire Old Testament story. Was it satisfied by the manger scene? Thirty years later, how pregnant was their longing to sing glory in excelsis deo again?

Of course, any answer to these questions would be pure speculation. We cannot know if the angels or Mary or the shepherds began to doubt. We cannot know if their longings sharpened or dulled. Nevertheless, one thing is certain: Jesus’ birth only ended the longing for a few aged individuals. Simeon and Anna likely departed in peace soon after seeing the Christ child. The rest of the figures in the Christmas endured another thirty years before redemption gained any real momentum.
I originally composed this Advent reflection for Leesburg Grace, my church family, as part of a Christmas Communion celebration. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel inspired the thematic focus on waiting and longing.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Waiting & Longing: Advent Reflection (Part 2 of 5)

Every Advent season, we experience the rebirth of hope. Heavenly longing fulfilled in humble Christ child.

The longing of Advent is not our own. Before it belonged to boys and girls waiting to unveil their presents, it belonged to lonely, exiled Israel. God’s people awaited their ransom and their Redeemer.

They waited a long time. Decades compiled into centuries. But they did not wait idly for this Advent.  Priestly families, religious sects, sacred scrolls, and apocryphal books filled the vacuum. Their longing for Advent—God’s arrival—produced competing brands of isolation, fanaticism, legalism, Hellenism, and mysticism. They became more partisan than patient. They strove to construct God’s kingdom rather than receive it.

We should not be surprised; waiting patiently does not come easily to us. We have bought the myth that it is better to construct a kingdom than receive one. We bury our spiritual longings with religious doings. We do not wait idly for God to appear.

But longing requires waiting. Waiting demands patience. Patience is the virtue we rarely pray for because God’s ironic answer to this prayer is an opportunity to wait. And in our waiting, longing either stretches to a sharp point and pierces us with grief, or dwindles to a dull end and dies.

Some of us tire of waiting and pursue vain pleasures. Some of us chaff and become bitter. Advent proposes an alternative: wait patiently, expectantly, joyously. “For unto us a child is born and a Son is given” (Isaiah 9:6). 
Heavenly Father sent Incarnate Son. The first Advent assures a second one.

“Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel. Shall come to us: All longings to fulfill.”
I originally composed this Advent reflection for Leesburg Grace, my church family, as part of a Christmas Communion celebration. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel inspired the thematic focus on waiting and longing.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Waiting & Longing - Advent Reflection (Part 1 of 5)

In the heart of every human is a complex of longings. Some longings are simple. Some are profound. Some longings are within reach. Some are impossible.
We long for the ice to melt.
We long for the end of the year bonus.
We long for a clean bill of health.
We long for regression from depression.
We long for the kids to leave the house. We long for them to make a return visit.
We long for good old days of fewer consumer choices and local grocers.
We long for the Brave New World of ubiquitous technology and genetic mastery. (Well, some of us do.)
We long for a needed break, good book, daily bread, or best friend.
And, yes, we long for God’s kingdom come and will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
The preacher from Ecclesiastes said “God has set eternity in every human heart” (3:11). We all long for transcendence—life everlasting and Eternal God. C.S. Lewis wrote, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing on this earth can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” Indeed, we are.

Before most of us reach that invisible, eternal, transcendent world (and Eternal God who governs it), we can rest in the fact eternity came to us. “The word of God became flesh and dwelled among us,” declared the apostle John (1:14).

God with us. Heavenly Father made visible in Incarnate Son.

Jesus, Our Emmanuel, fulfilled a deep longing. At His arrival, the gloomy clouds dispersed, the weary world rejoiced, heaven and angels sang.
I originally composed this Advent reflection for Leesburg Grace, my church family, as part of a Christmas Communion celebration. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel inspired the thematic focus on waiting and longing. I will provide additional excerpts each day this final week of Advent.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Editing and Pastoral Prayers

Last Monday I spent half a day cleaning my study. I thinned out my book collection, recycled old training materials, and cleared clutter from my bulletin board. When I started taking pictures out of frames and dumping personal belongings in to donation boxes, I feared my administrative assistant might next expect a resignation letter.

"Just tidying up," I assured her. I couldn't tell if she was happy or not.

My itch to bring order to my study coincides with my theme word for 2017: editing. While this term seems the opposite of 2016's campaign - expand - the notion of editing brings me cheer.

Editing includes reducing, reworking, and fine-tuning. Editing is not the same as finishing, but it is a step in the right direction. All of life needs editing -- from manuscripts to shopping lists to DVD collections and magazine subscriptions. Our excess of duties and things competes for our limited time and energy.

Today I resumed the editing process. I thumbed through outdated magazines, scanning for an article or two worth archiving. I found a gem by Gordon MacDonald in Leadership Journal (Spring 2012, pp 91-94).

In "Praying that Makes a Difference," MacDonald described his gradual adoption of pastoral prayer. From his childhood forward, an air of mystery surrounded prayer. In college, his public prayers took a hit from a classmate who said, "You don't pray like the other guys." She implied he prayed worse. When first asked to give a "pastoral prayer" in a worship service, her bard echoed through his head. He managed to stitch a few sound words together. In years that followed, the pastoral prayer became more natural.

More importantly, pastoral prayers met a spiritual need for his congregation. "People  may not always realize or express it, but they want to be prayed for," he wrote. When he interceded for them, his people felt like he read their minds, knew their pain, and understood their world.  MacDonald clarified,
"[The pastoral prayer] is not a time to pray for church programs, for the offering, or for some new building project. It is a time to remember that the congregation spends its life in a much larger world where there is noise, intimidation, distraction, hardship, challenge, and sometimes pure evil. This needs to be prayed for. The people must hear someone describe their mutual experiences to God."
Even our ability to edit has limits. We can all reduce our debts, rework our calendars, and fine-tune our  pet projects. But none of us holds the key to eliminating all "noise, intimidation, distraction, hardship, challenge, and sometimes pure evil" in this large world. These obstacles cannot be edited out. We can, however, edit prayer in.

Pastors, rework Sunday mornings. Edit prayer in.