Monday Meditation: Advent 2014

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Behind the Pulpit: Linus’ Spiritual Clarity (Advent 2014)

In my family, the viewing of A Charlie Brown Christmas is a mandatory Advent/Christmas experience. I admit that I do not often sit down to watch it with them as I once did but this year as it was broadcast, I heard it as I sat in the kitchen.

This time I really pondered the story line, still deeply ingrained after watching it for many years, and I was drawn to the segment where Linus, in that calm, measured, and hopeful voice, calls for the lights on the school stage to be brought up and then starts reciting portions of Luke 2.

 

 

What  caught my attention is the timing of Linus’ actions and words which come after Charlie Brown is humiliated for his choice of a Christmas tree. His angst causes him to ask, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” And Linus tells the story of Christ’s birth with a simple clarity.

And then I realized just how this nearly half-century classic is still very relevant for today.

The chaos of the Christmas program rehearsal reminds me of the chaotic schedules that seem to be unavoidable this time of year even though I hear many people proclaim their desire to simplify their Christmas schedules.

Sally’s letter to Santa asking for cash reminds me of the unabashed commercialism that continues today with Black Friday increasingly encroaching on Thanksgiving Day and family time around the table is once again squeezed in favor of profit and sales.

The sarcasm of Lucy which I think highlights unfulfilled relational hopes and dreams that are dashed again and again throughout the year but brought out again during the Christmas season with the hope that “this season, this season, I will find love and be loved.”

And Linus brings all of this chaotic holiday hodge-podge to a fine point:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

I don’t think that his audience were wanting (or maybe expecting) to hear this. They have heard it all before and it is familiar.

Or is it?

But he tells it anyway because it is a story within a Story – A story of spiritual significance; a story about Love. It is a story about human meaning away from December 25th – about how life can make sense, be hopeful, and laced with love the other 364 days of the year.

It is a story about others and not me and my wants.

It is a story about service – about a Good Samaritan who takes a risk and help in times of trouble;

it is a story about searching for hope and finding it – about a Zacchaeus who is desperate for love in spite of all his wealth and finds himself hosting Jesus at his home and resolving to live better;

it is a story about conflict resolution- about a Jacob who wrestles with his past and his God and lives the rest of his life with a limp and a new name and hope and at peace with his brother;

it is a story about being faithful for a long, long time – about a Sarah who in old, old, OLD age becomes a mother because God said it would happen;

it is a story about faithfulness and finding that faithfulness rewarded – about a Ruth who leaves her own home and culture to stay with her widowed mother-in-law and unexpectedly finds love and hope in a new home and culture;

it is about an overwhelming experience and a simple faith response to it- about a Mary, young, vulnerable, yet full of faith who finds herself incredibly pregnant and says “be it unto me according to thy word.”

We are the cast of A Charlie Brown Christmas- the despairing Charlie; the sad and sarcastic Lucy; the irritated Schroeder; the gift focused Sally, and the beauty conscious Freda with her “naturally curly hair.” We too, seek to find the true meaning of Christmas because trees, money, beauty, and their cohorts do NOT satisfy the need for love and acceptance.

And it is Linus – the prophet/preacher who tells his peers that the story of Christmas goes far deeper than money, trees, busyness and gifts. It goes to the heart and soul of humanity and its need for faith, hope, and love.

30 Days of Thanksgiving 5: Thankful for sanity in the midst of chaos

I am again grateful for the opportunity to respond to Suzanne Burden’s opportunity to express Thanksgiving each week and for this final segment of 30 days of Thanksgiving I am expressing gratitude for God’s grace and its attendant sanity in the midst of chaos.

There is no break from illness or ailing family and friends and accidents of all kinds happen on June 25th as well as December 25th (and November 27th as well as July 27th). Over 18 months ago I began a journey with my mom who experienced major cardiac surgery and rehab over a four month period.

One of the major results of the surgery was the need for her to be near my family and I. So after being apart for nearly, nearly 4 decades after leaving for college, from 2 to 6 hours away, we moved her 5 minutes from us.

It has been a good move. But it is a sometimes uncertain and chaotic journey.

Falls, unfortunately, have become part of her life from time to time and  have occurred  when we have been close (or fairly close) by but were in the midst of other things which required a quick adjustment of the schedule. But every time one has occurred we have been able to get to her even though two of the trips have required a visit to the local ER.

And so I am very thankful the peace AND sanity which the Lord has given to me during these times and I am grateful that I still have my mom here and are able to see her on a daily basis instead of a 3 to 6 hour drive several times a year. And I am grateful for how she was able to get the medical attention she has needed over the past now 19 months.

 

Happy Thanksgiving from my family and I to you!

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

Happy Thanksgiving from my family and I!

Happy Thanksgiving from my family and I!

30 Days of Thanksgiving 4: Books, Please!

It is a good rule after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.

–C.S. Lewis

Again this week my friend and pastoral colleague Suzanne Burden has shared in her 30 days of Thanksgiving series something she is thankful for and it is something for which I am also very thankful!

 

Books!

 

And to express thanksgiving for books she has asked her readers and a few of us on Twitter, to share some favorite quotes from the books we have read. “Well,”  I said in reply to her on Twitter, “that may take a while!”

So here are quotes from three books which have stuck with me over the years.

“The minute I found myself in the privacy of the car, a wave of intense emotion came over me. It was like a dam had broken, a flood of pent-up pressure released behind it in the form of sobbing and hysterical crying. Somewhere in the midst of all this, the pain in my chest lifted and there I was – generally a model of rigid self-control and modern accomplishment- crying ugly and repeating over and over again, “It is all true, all of it, it is all true.” In that moment I knew I was not having a heart attack. Instead, despite lifelong skepticism and outright animosity toward traditional religion, without asking or seeking, this skeptical atheist turned churchgoing agnostic had somehow been struck Christian.”

Joan Ball, Flirting With Faith

Biographies and memoirs are popular genres for me in my reading. When I got to know Joan Ball a few years ago through social media, she asked me to read a galley copy of this book. I was moved by what I read. Since then, I was able to read a published copy and this particular segment of her coming to faith, especially the line “…It is all true, all of it, it is all true.,” has stayed with me since I first read it.

First, prayer is, by nature, more than conversation. To limit its concept to dialogue is to allow some of the most important expressions of prayer to escape our notice. Second, our “conversation” may, in practice, be less a dialogue than a monologue that borders on talking at God. Some of our prayers resemble, “a spiritual shopping list, launched heavenward on the wings of pious words.” But God is not, as one author wryly notes, our “cosmic bellhop…” Communication is a two-way street… One of the key things we must consider, then, is how we listen to God.”

Marjorie J. Thompson, Soul Feast

I recently read the newly revised version of this wonderful book on the Christian Spiritual Disciplines and I was again struck by the insights Thompson has on the “two-wayness” of prayer. (The quote is from the first edition and she quotes, John Mogabgab and Richard J. Foster, respectively.) Her thoughts on prayer remind me that I am still learning to pray.

“That’s the strangest thing about this life, about being in the ministry. People change the subject when they see you coming. And then sometimes those very same people come into your study and tell you the most remarkable things. There’s a lot under the surface of life, everyone knows that. A lot of malice and dread and guilt, and so much loneliness, where you wouldn’t really expect to find it, either.” 

Marilynne Robinson Gilead

I think those anticipating the ministry; those who are in seminary; those who are in ministry, need to read Gilead and Home. (I am planning to get Lila as soon as possible.) Robinson has well captured the souls of pastors in these two novels. This quote is representative of these two wonderful and awarding winning novels and how she captures the dynamic of ministry in a wonderfully narrative way.

Thanks Suzanne for the prompt!

Happy Thanksgiving!

My 2014 Gift Giving Book Recommendations

It has been a privilege to read some great books this year and I am pleased to recommend the following books as gifts for this Christmas season, and throughout the year as well! Looking forward to reading more great books in 2015!

So here are my recommendations for the reader or readers in your life with a brief quote from my reviews of each book:

 

For the Fiction Readers on Your List…

 

18114124Fallen Beauty by Erika Robuck

I was amazed (and at times, uncertain) at the mercurial narrative from start to finish that had my mind and emotions all over the map from start to finish. In my opinion, Robuck’s narrative style, capturing the edgy and uncertain life of both Kelly and Millay (both of whom fit and illustrate the title Fallen Beauty) is one of the biggest pluses of this book.”

 

18209339The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon

“I think that Alena Graedon has given us something important to think about – the place, the value, (really pricelessness) of words, meaning, and community and the vital interplay of all three. This is demonstrated in how the treatment of word flu takes place – with silence and reflection, reading a physical book, and writing.”

 

20873691To Live Forever by Andra Watkins

“To Live Forever is a fast paced and unpredictable novel that, at certain points, reminded me of the dark romanticism of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allen Poe with its frequent forest settings filled with ghoulish and evil images and apparitions.”

 

17910573The Tyrant’s Daughter by JC Carleson

“The Tyrant’s Daughter is novel of many threads – the cultural differences between Laila and her American classmates, the navigation of adolescence and adolescent relationships, the differences between a war torn nation and one with peace and prosperity, the role and place of women in societies ruled by men, the emerging political power of women, and the human dynamics within families of the haves and have nots in a culture and country at war – woven together with a credible cast of characters.”

 

18222672Night in Shanghai by Nicole Mones

“Nicole Mones’ newest novel, Night in Shanghai, is worth every word! With meticulous detail to locations of streets, hotels, and the cultural and political life of Shanghai in the turbulent years of 1937-1941, Mones’ brings alive the nightlife of a culturally diverse city that quite frankly I never knew existed as it did.”

 

978-1-4143-8949-3 The Fight by Luke Yardley

In Luke Wordley’s debut novel, The Fight we are taken behind the masks of anger in men, young and old, and shown the unresolved pain and loss which fuels that anger and drives so many to angry and destructive acts. And Wordley does a masterful job of telling an all too common story but with the potential for hope and change.”

 

17934508The Trident Deception by Rick Campbell

The last time I read a military and political thriller involving a submarine it was a thriller about a sub named Red October!…The result is a true thriller that has more twists and turns in its plot than did Hunt for Red October which I consider to be the gold standard of military thrillers.

 

Helpful and Inspirational books about Faith and Family..

 

21816684Vanishing Grace by Philip Yancey

“…Vanishing Grace: Whatever Happened to the Good News? is a timely book for today as Yancey seeks to go behind the rhetoric and find out why religion, especially Christianity, is being perceived more negatively today. His search leads the reader on journey that is rich and multifaceted.

 

18608105Empty Nest by Marci Seither

“…this book is not just for parents who are, like me, beginning to enter the empty nest phase. I think that Seither’s book would be a wonderful book for those entering the world of teen and really high school parenting as she steps back in later chapters and provides some wonderful long term thoughts on preparing your child for the day they leave the nest. Of note is her quote of Annette Spangler who said “parents can either raise their children to be faith-based or fear-based… We have to decide if we are going to raise safe kids or strong kids.”

18951090Soul Keeping by John Ortberg

I often ask the congregation I serve, “How is your soul?” I think that I have a right to ask that question because I am their pastor and I have been charged with caring for their souls. But John Ortberg has asked me, as a reader, in his newest book Soul Keeping: Caring for the Most Important Part of You, the same question, “How is  your soul?”…  I liked this book for its depth, simplicity, and hopefulness for while Ortberg does remind the reader of the impact of sin and sinfulness on the soul, his focus on God’s work to help us see our soul be transformed is front and center.”

18778012No Saints Around Here: A Caregivers Guide by Susan Allen Toth

No Saints Around Here is Toth’s first person account of the final eighteen months of her care of, and life with, her husband James as he succumbed to Parkinson’s disease along with dementia… There are many topics she touches on in this book that many in the professions of counseling, medicine, social work, and ministry will find helpful and practical. Topics such as handling step-family issues, dealing with the mental and physical exhaustion of care giving, and taking care of one’s self. But it is also for care givers and their families who will benefit as well from Toth’s experiences. I really appreciated this book for its practical wisdom and insight it offers both in my own care giving role and in my work as a clergy. I will be recommending it to others as a guide to help them as care givers and as those who help care givers.

20972327

Living in the Power My Weakness by Dave Clark

This book was a joy to read. And as I read I felt the Dave was talking, on many issues, to me. I liked this book for its honesty and yet hopefulness of living and working in the challenging field of ministry despite our human weaknesses and frailties.

 

 

For The Reader Who Loves History and Biography…

 

17262206 (2)Lawrence In Arabia by Scott Anderson

“If you like military history, this book describes the hit and miss successes and failures of the British and the fledgling Arab army, to dislodge Turkish forces from Palestine, Syria, Iraq, and the Arabian peninsula during the First World War. If you like political history, this book provides an often confusing portrait of the fluid political alliances and betrayals which occured and which has impacted geopolitical realities up to the present. Well researched and very engaging, Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly, and The Making of the Modern Middle East provides some very important historical background reading to the current Middle Eastern situation.”

18594532Russian Roulette by Giles Milton

“…With his ascension to power, Lenin began to focus on exporting his socialist revolution to the world so that capitalism and capitalistic nations would fall. The English took a dim view of Lenin’s plans and thus began an effort to defeat those plans as well as re-establish a government friendly to the west, democracy, and capitalism. Giles Milton’s book chronicles this effort with the stories of an eclectic group of British agents and friendly Russians of what would become commonly called the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) or MI6.”

18310279Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman by Robert L. O’Connell

“What impressed me about this book was that in addition to a very readable and helpful narrative on Sherman himself, is O’Connell’s observations about the second generation of American leadership into which Sherman is chronologically born and the how the strategic and tactical development the US Army of the West has influenced US military doctrine since then. And in the introduction, O’Connell also reminds us of the challenges of writing about persons long dead whose visible nature eludes us which offers both a challenge and an opportunity.”

cover52018-mediumBaghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood by Justin Marozzi

“This is not just a political or even religious history of the city though those two themes run through the book and are adequately addressed. This is a story of Baghdad and its people, its development and architecture, its expansive and expressive cultural periods which led to advancements in learning across the disciplines notably of math and science but also of literature, most notably poetry, which Marozzi points out, was central to court life for centuries. The result is a comprehensive look at Baghdad’s development as a key city in the Middle Eastern world.”

 

 

 

 

 

30 Days of Thanksgiving 3: Gratitude For Mercy

Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. Hebrews 4:16 (NIV)

My last two sermons have been based out of some observations in Psalm 86 that I made several years ago as I read through the Psalms and Proverbs. In my sermon on the 16th (this past Sunday) I pointed out Psalm 86:3

Be merciful to me, O Lord,
    for I am calling on you constantly

I noted in my sermon that mercy was one of the first qualities Jesus noted to the twelve as noted in Matthew 5:7

God blesses those who are merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.

and I pointed out that in the question and answer session which followed Jesus’ telling of the Good Samaritan that mercy was the point He wanted to make with the smug (as I see him) questioner who asked, “Who is my neighbor?”

“Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits?” Jesus asked. The man replied, “The one who showed him mercy.” Then Jesus said, “Yes, now go and do the same.”

I am grateful for the mercy of God and that is why the lead off verse in this post from Hebrews 4 is one of my valued scripture verses. When I think of mercy, I think of being passed by two math teachers in back to back school years even though I passed very few tests.

The first time is was out of the sheer goodness… and mercy… of her heart. The second time in a different class and teacher, it was from a “mercy rule” of “all homework submitted keeps you from flunking.”

How often I have I  flippantly disregarded God’s grace and mercy through my intentional disobedience and a spiteful spirit. And yet He has continued to show me grace and mercy even though I have not deserved it.

So I am grateful and thankful for God’s mercy. A mercy that is available to all who choose to accept Jesus’ offer of it.

Monday Meditation

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Be merciful to me, O Lord, for I am calling on you constantly. Psalm 86:3 (NLT)

 

We Are __________Lord: A Hump Day Prayer

Good afternoon Father

We are not in a good mood this Wednesday!!!!

English: Angry woman.

English: Angry woman. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

We are angry…

with our work

with our schools

with our communities

with our families

with our world

 

We are angry…

because we are tired. We are tired of inaction, we are tired of slogans that are just that, we are tired of all the demands being squeezed out of us at work, in school, at home, even in our places of worship!

We are angry and tired…

because we are afraid. We are afraid of hearing “thank you for your work, your services are no longer needed;” we are afraid of hearing, “what’s wrong with you? Why can’t you do well in math like your sister did;” we are afraid of hearing, “you and your views don’t count because ________;” and as a result we are being discarded and disregarded

 

We are angry and tired and afraid…

because we have been going and going and going and our batteries are totally discharged.

We fear letting go of something – a volunteer position, a sport, chasing our kids all across the county for a sport they will never play professionally

We fear of being left behind -because we say ‘no’ in order to have some sanity – spiritual, emotional, mental, physical, and relational sanity

 

So Lord we are angry and tired and afraid…

We cannot keep it together at home, in the community, in the classroom,

We shout, hit, scream, withdraw

we are frayed, we are fraying, and we are getting more frayed in our souls, relationships, and lives

 

So we yell at you ….DO SOMETHING LORD!

 

But is even this the right prayer?

 

Or is it “Lord help us to do something?”

 

But what is that something Lord…

Is our fear of becoming insignificant because we are not staying up with the times driving us nuts?

 

 

 

 

Final Thoughts on My One Word for 2014: Listen

My One Word for 2013 was empower.

I am still learning how to empower and to empower others. It is an ongoing practice and necessarily so.

My One Word for 2014 is/was listen.

As with my 2013 word, I am still learning how to listen. It too, is an ongoing and necessary practice.

But I have experienced, not just learned, but experienced a great deal by focusing on listening.

But there have been many moments, deep moments when the willingness of listening…

to my body (too much sugar, Jim; too much carb, Jim: uh Jim, you have a bad tooth (that was a recent one)

to my soul (you’re angry Jim, why?: why Jim are you so envious?; Jim you are too full of yourself, stop it!)

to people in pain – physical and otherwise

to God – “God will make a way, when there seems to be no way”

has been an experience of grace and peace

the peace, the serenity, the hope, the calm which listening has brought has been truly priceless.

In my listening I have

discovered ugly and black places in my heart and soul that the finger of God has been put on causing my ego and pride to scream out and resist until Grace comes in…

discovered the presence of God in a fresh affirming way as the song by Don Moen, God Will Make A Way has lodged in my mind as I have prayed about/for personal and family issues. He IS making a way and I am beginning to see that in some small, yet significant ways, which bring peace to me,

So I will continue to listen (and empower) because these words have been practices that I must continue to practice.

And I will also continue to listen because as I have prayed and reflected on My One Word for 2015 one has clearly been placed front and center in which the practices and of listen and empower are both a result of and embedded in this ancient spiritual practice.

I will write about this new word sometimes next month.

“So many words get lost. They leave the mouth and lose their courage, wandering aimlessly until they are swept into the gutter like dead leaves. On rainy days, you can hear their chorus rushing past: IwasabeautifulgirlPleasedon’tgoItoobelievemybodyismadeofglass-I’veneverlovedanyoneIthinkofmyselfasfunnyForgiveme…

There was a time when it wasn’t uncommon to use a piece of string to guide words that otherwise might falter on the way to their destinations…

When the world grew bigger, and there wasn’t enough string to keep the things people wanted to say from disappearing into the vastness, the telephone was invented.

Sometimes no length of string is long enough to say the thing that needs to be said. In such cases all the string can do, in whatever its form, is conduct a person’s silence.”

Nicole Strauss The History of Love

 

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