Monday, November 30, 2015

Advent: Preparing Our Hearts for Christmas

The time leading up to Jesus’ birthday is called the season of Advent. Advent is from a Latin word that means ‘coming.’ This season focuses on the coming of the Savior. It begins on the Sunday closest to November 30th and ends on December 24th, the day we celebrate Christmas Eve. 
We use the time of Advent to get everything ready to welcome Jesus. Just as families prepare a room when a new baby is expected, God helps us prepare our hearts. How? By thinking about how wonderful God is to give us this special gift of His son. 
The days of Advent also give moms, dads, sisters, and brothers a special reason to pray together each day as a family. They can share their excitement, look forward to receiving baby Jesus afresh into their hearts; and remember that Jesus will come again someday.
From Getting Ready for Christmas: A Daily Advent Prayer and Activity Book for the Family, by Yolanda Browne
As we prepare our homes for Christmas this December with decorations, gifts, cleaning, entertaining, maybe a new holiday outfit, and delicious holiday treats, let’s make sure that Christ receives an even greater portion of our attentions.  

We have four beautiful weeks ahead of us to prepare our hearts to receive our Savior anew…four beautiful weeks of waiting with joy and sharing our expectation with the people all around us…four beautiful weeks to envision Christ’s return in glory to gather up His faithful followers to eternal life...four beautiful weeks to help our children understand the real reason for Christmas joy.

Here are some questions I am thinking about this Advent season, and I invite you to consider them, too, if you think they might be useful:
  • How can I reclaim my sense of joy at the news of Jesus’ birth--God’s great gift to His children?
  • What activities and events do I want to experience this month in order to focus my attention on the joy and expectation of this holiday season? (And which activities and events can I let go?)
  • When I strip away the commercialism, consumerism, and all the other –isms that have attached themselves to Christmas, what will I do to be ready for a true celebration of Jesus’ birth?  How will I celebrate Christmas in a way that reflects my faith in Christ?
  • How can I help others—my family, my church community, people in need—share in the joy of this season?

It's easy to get swept up in the exciting, colorful, flashy side of Christmas--and I will do my share of shopping, decorating, and holiday baking, to be sure--but every year I try again to capture the true meaning and spirit of Christmas for myself and for my children. I will share some of my efforts in blog posts during this month of December as we head together again to Bethlehem to peek into the lowly stable and catch a glimpse of the tiny little baby who came to be our King!
Jesus is the world’s greatest gift. He is the gift to be shared above all others with family and friends. It is not only my responsibility to share this gift, but also my joy. 
From The Christmas Countdown: Creating 25 Days of New Advent Traditions for Families, by Margie J. Harding

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Appreciating Abundance This Thanksgiving Season

In the book Daring Greatly, Brenee Brown writes about global activist Lynne Twist’s perspective on the subject of the scarcity mentality we are prone to.  Consider this:

What are our thoughts when we first wake in the morning? “Ugh, I didn’t get enough sleep!”

And once we’ve glanced at our calendar for the day? “Yikes, I don’t have enough time to get all of this done!”

Our day perhaps is filled with a litany of “never good enough,” “never thin enough,” “never powerful enough,” “never safe enough.”

By the end of the day, we are reflecting on what we didn’t get that day, or didn’t get done, or still don’t have in our lives.

Scarcity, writes Brown, is the “never enough” problem.

Brown suggests that when we free ourselves from the scarcity mentality, we discover the value and benefits of…enough.

Twist suggests that when we free ourselves from the scarcity mentality, we discover the value and benefits of…sufficiency.

I’ve been tossing all these words and concepts around in my mind this Thanksgiving week, and I’ve come to the conclusion that through the grace of God, I can set my scarcity mentality aside in favor or His great and promised…abundance.

The promise that lies at the heart of the gospel is a promise of abundance:  “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).  That’s not just a good life, or a long life—that’s a forever life with God. Abundance.

And to show that abundance is not just a word for Jesus, he displayed this principle of abundance in his miracles
  • not just a little water turned into wine at the wedding banquet, but six stones water jars holding 20 to 30 gallons each (John 2);
  • not just water from the well that lasts for a single day promised to the Samaritan woman, but “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4);
  • not just a man carried to a pool for a chance that its waters will cure his disease, but a healing that allows him to pick up and carry his mat—that very Sabbath, right to the temple (John 5);
  • not just enough lunch to feed a huge crowd of 5000 men and their accompanying women and children, but with enough leftovers to fill twelve baskets (John 6);
  • not just healing the son of a royal official (John 4) or a man born blind (John 9), but bringing a man back to life who has been in the tomb for four full days (John 11);
  • not just a nice catch of fish for some hardworking fishermen grieving for their slain friend and leader, but a haul so huge they are unable to bring in the net because of the large number of fish (John 21).

The examples of abundance through Jesus are abundant!

Further, Paul reminds us in his letter to the Ephesian church that God “is able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or think, according to the power at work within us” (3:20).

And in his letter to the Romans, he describes the Holy Spirit providing us with an abundance of hope born out of a fullness of joy and peace in believing (15:13); again, as in the verse above, he references a power within us-- the Holy Spirit, within us by the grace of God.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul points out that this grace of God is so abundant that it provides everything we need—“sufficiency in all things at all times”—so we can be abundant in the good works that we do (9:8).

And examples of abundance through Jesus are abundant in our own lives, if we are willing to pause and take notice of them.  Ann Voskamp points out, “Everyone gets to decide how happy they want to be, because everyone gets to decide how grateful they are willing to be.”

Right now, I am in circumstances that make it easy to be content; I pray that you are, too!  But our challenge is to learn alongside the apostle Paul “to be content whatever the circumstances”…well fed or hungry, in plenty or in want (Philippians 4:11-12).  It’s so easy to be content right now, when I just spent $100 yesterday at the grocery store for food for my family, and sit snugly on a sofa in a home filled with healthy and happy family members.

But how can we be content when faced with the opposite circumstances…the “hungry” and “in-want” end of the equation? 

“I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13).

That’s no easy answer, no flip response, no fortune-cookie proverb. It is a hard-won understanding made possible only through a daily commitment to accepting the grace of God no matter what the circumstances of that day.

My prayer this Thanksgiving week is that you will leave aside an attitude of scarcity, and embrace the abundance so abundantly exemplified by Christ—promised in his words, exemplified in his miracles, and taught by his followers.

My prayer is that you will look to Christ for your abundance, which is the strength you need for whatever circumstances you are facing.

My prayer is that you are able to see the abundance of blessings that are already yours through grace from God, strength from Christ, and power from the Holy Spirit.

Have a truly blessed Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Putting Our Faith to Work: Winter Blanket Mission

The other night as I was putting my daughter Katy to bed, I noticed that it was chilly in her bedroom, and commented that we should put another blanket on her bed to snuggle with on these colder nights.  She chose one from the stack at the top of her closet, and cozied down for a good night’s sleep.

I thank God every night for our comfortable, warm home, and I pray that others are blessed with the same safety and warmth we enjoy.  But as I well know from the Book of James, it’s not enough just to pray for it and wish others well:
“My brothers and sisters, what good is it if people claim they have faith but don’t act like it? Can that kind of faith save them? Suppose a brother or sister has no clothes or food.  Suppose one of you says to them, “Go, I hope everything turns out fine for you.  Keep warm. Eat well” and you do nothing about what they really need.  Then what good have you done?” (James 2:14-16, NIrV)
This passage from James challenges us to “put our money where our mouth is,” so to speak, to match our actions to our words. 

Our actions bring life and usefulness to our faith (James 2:17, 20).

At the beginning of this year, I decided that I wanted to get back to crocheting, but I didn’t have anyone to make blankets for.  (Granny-stitch blankets are pretty much the extent of my crocheting repertoire.) 

I had a sudden thought one night as I drifted off to sleep that I would crochet blankets, and then donate them to the Media Food Bank’s clothing donation room.  I had helped out there last winter, and they were trying to make sure that everyone who came received a hat and a pair of gloves for the frigid temperatures we were experiencing.  I thought it would be great to contribute toward a goal of the babies and children whose parents go there to receive a blanket to stay warm this winter.

My mother decided to join me with this project.
By last week, we had nine blankets and four hats between us to contribute to the Media Food Bank! 
All of her blankets and hats were crocheted, while mine were a mix of crocheting and no-sew fleece projects. These are not blankets for covering a bed, but rather blankets to wrap a baby or child up in for a warm sleep. 
I also included two little "schleppies"--small 10"x10" fleece blankets with fringes for babies to play with (like the "taggie" blankets that were so popular when my girls were babies).  
I also made a couple of no-sew fleece hats from a pattern I found in a library book ages ago.
I would like to invite you—challenge you!—to join me in contributing a blanket to the Media Food Bank so that even more babies and children will be warmed this winter.  I heard a song not long ago that included a man wondering why God didn’t DO something to help out with all the need he saw in the world, and God answers back, “I DID do something:  I created YOU.”  Join me in being part of God’s answer to the need in our corner of the world. 

Here are some ways you can get involved this holiday season:

1. Crochet or knit a child-sized blanket.
2. Buy a no-sew fleece blanket kit from the craft store to create a cozy blanket with tied-fringe edges. Don't forget to take a coupon with you in case they aren't already on sale!

3. Buy 2 yards of solid color fleece and 2 yards of patterned fleece, then watch a YouTube video to find out how you can make a no-sew fleece blanket in just a couple of hours.
4.  Purchase a $5 fleece throw blanket at Five Below.

5.  Purchase a $15 to $30 blanket at Target; there are plenty of differently-priced options to choose from.

Once you have your blanket donation, you can give it to me and I will deliver them all at once to the Media Food Bank as a ministry donation of the Living Stones Women’s Ministry, or you can deliver your blanket donation on your own to 350 West State Street, Media, PA, at the First United Methodist Church. 
A clothing closet volunteer finds a spot for our blankets.
If you are not a member of Living Stones and do not live in this area, please consider a blanket donation to a Food Bank/Homeless Shelter/Clothing Closet near your home.
However you choose to participate, please contribute by New Year’s Eve Day 2015! 

There are 17 women currently on the email list for Living Stones.  That is 17 warmer babies and children if we each just contribute a single blanket to the cause!  If others outside of our group get involved, the needs of even more families will be met in this basic way.

Thank you for your participation!

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Pick Up Your Mat and Walk!

If you had asked me at the beginning of last week, “What did it take to be healed by Jesus?” I would have answered, “Jesus healed people who showed that they had faith that he could.”

After all…

When the bleeding woman touches the hem of Jesus’ robe, she thinks just that distant connection is enough, and Jesus says that her faith heals her.  When the four friends lower the paralytic through the ceiling of the home where Jesus is preaching, He sees their great faith, and their friend is healed.  When the synagogue leader demonstrates faith that his daughter can be brought to life, even though the mourners at the house laugh at the suggestion, the little girl rises up to have something to eat. 

The presence of faith in so many gospel accounts brings about mighty miracles.

But during Bible study last Thursday, as we talked about the healing of the man at the pool recorded in John 5:1-18, I learned something new about Jesus’ healing miracles, which also taught me a lot about God’s grace.
image from
Note:  I want to thank my Associate Pastor Nikki Passante for her teachings about 
this Bible passage during our Bible study last Thursday.  
Many of her insights are included in the post.

In this gospel episode, Jesus is in Jerusalem for a Jewish festival, and goes by a pool of water in an area of the temple known as the Sheep Gate.  At this pool, a “great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed” (verse 3).  They embraced a popular superstition that an angel of the Lord would periodically stir up the waters in the pool, and that the first person to get into the pool when the waters began to move would be healed of his disease or condition. 

On this particular day, Jesus encounters a man called “an invalid for thirty-eight years” (verse 5).  We don’t know how long he has been lying there next to the pool, but we know that it is long enough to feel hopeless that he’ll ever have a chance to get healed; after all, when the waters stir, he has no one to carry him to the pool, and he can’t move to it on his own (verse 7).  Someone must have brought him here, but it sounds as though no one has been there to care about his plight for quite some time.  Where is his family?  Where are his friends?  He has likely gone unnoticed for quite awhile. 

But Jesus sees him, and Jesus recognizes his need.

“Do you want to be well?” Jesus asks the man (verse 6).

 “Do you want to be well?” This is what you’re going to ask him, Jesus?  Don’t you assume he wants to be well after thirty-eight years of suffering? Don’t you know he’s miserable—alone, neglected by friends and family, unable to make it to the water’s edge in time for healing, watching everyone else get their miracle while he continues in his distress?


Imagine how painful a healing after thirty-eight years could be. 

This man’s invalid state has become central to his identity; it is likely central to how he sees himself and how others relate to him, if at all.  His condition has become a way of life. 

A healing would require the building of an entirely new life.  He’s going to have to figure out how to earn a living, how to interact with his community, how to regain an identity within the temple.  It’s not going to be easy. 

Put in those terms, it might be easier to go back and sit by the pool!

We don’t ever really find out the man’s answer to Jesus’ question.  Does he want to be well?

His response is much more complicated than a “yes” or a “no.”

There are probably a number of ways to read the man’s tone in verse 7, when he says to Jesus, “Sir, I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred.  While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.”  I tend to read it with a kind of whining tone:  Everyone always gets in ahead of me!  When will it be my turn?! 

But at the same time, I can also imagine the genuine despair he must feel at losing again and again what he sees as his chance for healing. 

Perhaps this man is “playing the victim,” or perhaps he is simply expressing, “I want to get well, but I can’t do it on my own.”  Either way, he is being “real” with Jesus.  Whether he bears bitterness, a victim mentality, abject misery, hopelessness, or some degree of all of these, he exposes his heart to Jesus no matter what it looks like. 

And no matter what it looks like, it’s okay with Jesus.  Jesus has sought him out, Jesus has taken the initiative to approach him, Jesus demonstrates His divine grace and heals him.

God’s grace is truly a free gift, not dependent on the state of our heart.

This man, by the way, didn’t even know he was talking to Jesus (verse 13)!  It is not his faith that saves him; no specific belief is required for his cure. 

Jesus is not limited by our faith or lack of faith.

God’s grace is truly a free gift, not dependent on the state of our own faith.

Jesus gives this man what he never even asks for. 

This miracle calls to my mind the miracle at Cana, where He changes water into wine at the wedding feast.  Mary, remember, points out to Jesus that the host has run out of wine, but doesn’t dictate a specific action for Jesus to perform; rather she simply directs the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them to do (John 2:5).  Rather than simply calling up a few extra glasses to provide for the most important and potentially influential and critical guests, Jesus provides six large stone jugs full of top-quality wine to carry through the rest of the feast (John 2: 6-10). 

Likewise, by the pool, Jesus does more for the man that he could have ever thought to ask.  If anything, perhaps he might ask Jesus to help him to the pool’s edge in time for the stirring of the waters.  Never in his wildest imagination would he have said, “Please heal me so I can walk again.”
And yet that is just what Jesus does for him:  “Get up!” He tells the man. “Pick up your mat and walk.” 

This time the man does not delay with stories and excuses, as in verse 7.  Rather, he is cured at once, and so picks up his mat and walks.

Jesus’ compassion surpasses all limits—the limits of what we can imagine to ask for, the limits of human law codes or social expectations.  He doesn’t take a day off from caring about people, or relating to people, or demonstrating compassion, or doing His Father’s work. 

God’s grace is truly a free gift, not dependent on what we think to ask for.

I love that when Jesus goes to look for the man after his healing, He finds him in the Temple.  It’s a promising start to the man’s “new life.” This man seems to know that something extraordinary has happened, something that warrants some praise and thanksgiving to God. 

But that doesn’t stop Jesus from issuing a further warning:  “See, you are well again.  Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you” (verse 14). Again and again in the gospels, there seems to be a close link between a person’s physical healing and their spiritual healing, a correlation between healing and forgiveness.  Here, Jesus seems to be saying, Now that you have bodily health, attend to your spiritual health.  The consequences of neglecting your spiritual health would be even more dire than the misery of the physical distress and suffering with which you are well familiar.

As a result, this man becomes a witness to Jesus the Healer.  “The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who made him well” (verse 15).  I don’t think he did this with evil intentions; I don’t believe he knew that the very men he told of his experience were the ones who wanted to see Jesus dead.

God’s grace is truly a free gift, a gift that heals us, fills us, changes us, revives us.

Thanks be to God, He never leaves us where He finds us!  He bids us pick up our mat and walk.


As an aside, I was struck during Bible study by what a great bumper sticker we could create based on this account from the gospel of John:

Pick Up Your Mat and Walk!

Don’t dwell in your weakness.  Walk in the forgiveness and healing that God has given you as a free gift.  Live in that state of grace that God offers to you in Jesus Christ. 

Pick Up Your Mat and Walk!

Monday, November 2, 2015

Living the Questions with Rachel Held Evans

What happens when a Christian woman questions one area of her faith, or doubts one aspect of what she has always been taught to believe?

It’s a slippery slope, isn’t it?  One question leads to another, one doubt brings to mind others, and she is suddenly in danger of her whole belief system coming unraveled.

Rachel Held Evans recently posed this scenario—drawn from her own Christian walk—at a talk given to students at Eastern University entitled, “Living the Questions.” How we understand our faith and how we explain it to other people changes with the seasons of our lives, Rachel told us.
Rachel Held Evans, speaking at Eastern University in October 2015
But for a long time, she didn’t know those kinds of changes were allowed.

For Rachel, the questions began in her years at a Christian middle school.  She was always taught that anyone not coming to God through a belief in salvation through Jesus Christ was going to hell. 

And then for English class, she read The Diary of Anne Frank

She was so moved by this young girl’s story, and could not imagine that the God of her faith was going to treat Anne even more horrifically than the way she was treated during the Holocaust. 

The questions resurfaced in her years at a Christian university, where she was told that all Muslims were going to hell. 

At one point on the news, however, she saw footage of the stadium execution of a Muslim woman charged with adultery.  And again, moved by her story, Rachel could not imagine God subjecting this woman to an even greater punishment than she faced under the horrors of the Taliban, simply because she was born into and raised in the Muslim faith.

Rachel could no longer shove down the questions, could no longer hold so tightly to the faith she had been delivered as a child.  In spite of the “Best Christian Attitude Award” she won for three years in a row as a young girl, Rachel came to see doubt as better than its alternative—a Zombie-faith, as she calls it, a checked-out faith, an ongoing fear that her faith wasn’t strong enough to handle tough questions.

In Rachel’s mind, it’s 100% worth it to risk that slippery slope, in order to live with a tried and tested faith.  She proudly calls herself a “doubt-filled believer.” As she told us in her message, “If there was a guarantee, then it wouldn’t be faith.  That’s part of the deal.”

For Rachel, she indeed found herself on that dreaded slippery slope, but for her, it led right to Jesus.  She vows to keep her head and heart fully engaged in her faith, and to do that, she told us that she made friends with her doubt; her doubt has actually become a part of her faith.

She characterized a dangerous doubt as being the kind of doubt that would lead us to stop obeying—to stop doing the things that Jesus teaches us to do, such as caring for others and praying for our enemies. 
Rachel, far right, listening to the introduction to her talk
Faith isn’t about getting everything right and having perfect doctrine, Rachel says.  Faith is about following Jesus in spite of our doubts.  She spoke of the importance of routine for preserving her faith.  She prays, she goes to church, she continues in these practices of her faith, even when she is going through a particularly intense period of questioning or doubting. 

Hearing Rachel's talk made me consider the role of doubt and questioning in my own faith journey. 

We can easily move through life in a state of doubt if that is our personal disposition.  We can doubt that the actions of the people around us are done with positive intentions.  We can doubt that our efforts to serve in our communities will make any real difference.  We can doubt that our efforts to be good role models to the young people around us will influence them in any way.  

For me, doubt is a negative state of mind that would leave me pretty miserable day-to-day if that was the way I chose to live my life.  

If I choose to go through life doubting that God exists, doubting that God really cares about me, doubting that God hears my prayers or that my prayers make any real difference, then I can pretty well guarantee that my faith will not just unravel, but that my whole spirit will shrivel away in exhaustion and distress.

I have a very different view of questioning, however.  

For me, questions are the driving force behind learning, behind increasing my knowledge and deepening my understanding of any topic or person.  If I re-frame my doubts as questions, then I am on a life-giving, faith-strengthening path:  Where do I see God at work in my life and my world today, helping to support my faith in His existence and His concern for me?  How can I strengthen my prayer life and engage in daily communication with God?  How can I listen for God’s “voice” in my life, perceiving the ways He communicates right back to me?  

If I choose to go through life asking questions about my faith journey and my religious traditions, then I can pretty well guarantee that my faith will not just hold together, but that my whole spirit will strengthen and flourish. 
God tell us in the Book of Jeremiah, “Call to me and I will answer you, and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know” (33:3).  And Jesus Himself tells us, “Ask and it will be given to you…” (Matthew 7:7).  James writes to Jewish believers living in Gentile communities outside of Palestine:  “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (1:5).  God’s Word supports a questioning Christian, one who calls out to God, one who asks for wisdom, and one who remains open to the “great and unsearchable things” that God would then reveal.

The Psalms are filled with tough questions for God:  Why do You hide in times of trouble (10:1)? How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever (13:1)? How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land (137: 4)?  David is always described as “a man after God’s own heart,” and he felt free to cry out to God with whatever deep and honest emotion he was experiencing, even the hard questions that we continue to ask so many thousands of years later. 

I have not read Rachel Held Evan’s books yet, so I don’t know the specific nature of the doubts she has faced over the years.  While she calls herself a “doubt-filled believer,” she speaks of never knowing when she’ll head to church on a Sunday and not believe a word of what she hears.  She talks of conversations with her husband about whether they will raise their son (due early next year) as a Christian.  She speaks of faith crises that have cost her friendships, until her friends came around to their own faith crises and could finally understand where she was coming from. 

Rachel ended her talk with the admonition to respect each others’ journeys, and I agree wholeheartedly that we all relate to God in beautifully individual ways.  And she seems to have grown in her understanding that she shouldn’t “evangelize the doubts,” trying to spread her faith crises around to her friends.  And finally, even though she has doubts related to the Gospel, she told us that “the story of Jesus is a story I’m willing to risk being wrong about.” 

Faith, she says, is about taking the risk of obedience in spite of the doubts, taking the risk of being wrong about what we are putting our faith in.   

The caution that I would offer is to beware of doubting for the sake of doubting.  Turn your doubts into questions, and bring them to God.  Seek His answers in His word, through the teachings of trusted Christian leaders, in conversation with other seeking believers, and in other resources that God will almost surely place in your path once you bring your questions to Him with an honest and authentic desire for the answers.  
What role has doubt and questioning played in your journey of faith?  Did you experience the "slippery slope" phenomenon that Rachel describes, and did it bring you right back to Jesus?  Do you see a difference between doubting and questioning, in the way that I do?  Please join the conversation in the Comments section!

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