Advent 3C: Philippians 4:4-7 Rejoice?

I’ve really gotten annoyed with people who reduce inner peace to an equation. (Maybe you have, too?) You hear it in a sermon. Or read it on a greeting card. Or see a Facebook posting with a well-meant, helpful comment that goes something like this:
“If you just ______________, then you will find transcending (or inner) peace.”

It can be anything that you DO — eat this food, read this book, try this medication, exercise in this way, pray in this way, go to this meeting or church… The emphasis is on DO. And as a conditional act is completed, then you GET something.

Paul, writing from prison, isn’t allowed to DO anything. In the easiest of his imprisonments, he was under house arrest. In the worst, he was in a Roman prison, shackled to the wall or a guard. Waiting for his trial, kept locked up without access to family, friends and the comforts of home, he would have every reason to think God had abandoned him. And yet, he wrote these words:

Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad! Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:4-7 {CEB]

From the darkest of situations, Paul’s voice of confidence in God rings out. He doesn’t say, “don’t ask!” He says, “bring up ALL of your requests.” It’s not like God has forgotten them. It’s reflecting all of the questions, concerns and anxieties to God, all the while being thankful.

In the fast-darkening days of winter, the grey days can get to you. Maybe the extra tasks of shopping, wrapping, shipping, driving, baking and socializing get to you. Or the “waiting game” of Advent gets to you.

Maybe you’ve gone through huge personal pain recently, and the reserves aren’t there to cope brilliantly with anything. You put on your ‘game face’ and pretend. But inside, it’s pretty grim. You take the next step. Tick the next item off of your list.

If you’re in school, you cross off another day on the calendar. It’s excruciating.

Maybe it’s not the case that you’re struggling, you just live in ‘The Land of Blah.”

I think you’ve got plenty of company.

“Be glad in the Lord always!”

This isn’t a trite saying to embroider on a sampler. For my patients at the hospital, it can   be a lifeline that helps them cope with today’s struggles. Or, if used incorrectly, it acts as more of a guilt trip. I agree that it can sound like a tall order when your life is upside-down or the carefully-laid plans of yesterday get tossed in the trashcan. But perhaps Paul’s voice of experience gives it a little street cred.

I’ll keep trying Paul’s advice. How about you?

Advent 2C: Luke 1:68-79 The Current of the Spirit

I am a fan of weathered rock. I love to study it, run my fingers over it, and see how the course of a river has pounded new shapes and smoothed the rough edges of the bedrock. I ponder the slow, sure and steady pace of water as it works the rocks into a smoother surface. Maybe that’s why I take so many pictures of rivers and currents…

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I was mesmerized by the current of the Youghiogheny River (central Pennsylvania.) The shaping force of water reminds me of the diligent and persistent work of the Spirit. I can re-direct it, store it and even try to dam it up. But the change, the relentless power is there, even when I don’t realize it.

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Sometimes it is difficult to see where God has been working in our world. When our circumstances shout louder than the care and oversight of God, we forget. Or we don’t read the clear signs that God IS at work, and more importantly, HAS BEEN at work. It’s not short-sightedness as much as not seeing God’s intentional involvement in human history. For me, sometimes it is a matter of noticing how God has acted over time, reshaping and molding me in my life’s work.

So it is with this passage from Luke 1. Zechariah, a member of the priestly class, burst into praise at the birth of his long-awaited son, John. He broke a months-long silence in this psalm of thanksgiving. His words recall God’s care and provision. He celebrates the promises of God, fulfilled over time in ages past, and the miraculous, joyous fulfillment of the present. And in true prophetic fashion, not reneging on God’s faithfulness in the past, he declares the work of God yet to be accomplished in the future.

“Bless the Lord God of Israel
because he has come to help and has delivered his people.
He has raised up a mighty savior for us in his servant David’s house,
just as he said through the mouths of his holy prophets long ago.
He has brought salvation from our enemies
and from the power of all those who hate us.
He has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and remembered his holy covenant,
the solemn pledge he made to our ancestor Abraham.
He has granted that we would be rescued
from the power of our enemies
so that we could serve him without fear,
in holiness and righteousness in God’s eyes,
for as long as we live.
You, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way.
You will tell his people how to be saved
through the forgiveness of their sins.
Because of our God’s deep compassion,
the dawn from heaven will break upon us,
to give light to those who are sitting in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide us on the path of peace.”
Luke 1:68-79 [CEB]

Exercising the discipline of praise brings perspective. It also puts the credit where it is due – on God’s work, God’s faithfulness, God’s provisioning. It’s pretty hard to boast in “my” stuff when I see how much of it is really because of God!

During November, I posted on Facebook either a picture or a statement of thankfulness to God. It was an exercise in making the US holiday of Thanksgiving a month-long event, instead of a 12 hour exercise in gluttony. It was a wonderful discipline; (one that I am sure I will do again!) Looking back at the ways that I have been blessed gave me renewed appreciation for the people, events, and “things” that surround me. It also made the God I worship seem much more powerful.

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In a headlong rush to get to Christmas, we forget the power of the Advent season to bring us to a place of contemplation. Don’t let the current of anticipation sweep you away. Spend a little time in the reflecting pool, thanking God. Never fear, the Spirit will sweep us onwards towards Bethlehem. But for this week, sit with God and see where the Spirit’s current has been, and where it will lead.

Keep silence. Then praise!

Advent 1C: 1 Thess. 3:9-13

This is a continuation of Advent devotionals. Read more about the series here! 🙂

9 How can we thank God enough for you, given all the joy we have because of you before our God? 10 Night and day, we pray more than ever to see all of you in person and to complete whatever you still need for your faith. 11 Now may our God and Father himself guide us on our way back to you. 12 May the Lord cause you to increase and enrich your love for each other and for everyone in the same way as we also love you. 13 May the love cause your hearts to be strengthened, to be blameless in holiness before our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his people. Amen. 1 Thess. 3:9-13 [CEB]

Standing Between the Peaks

In this passage, Paul  remembers with thankfulness the church in Thessalonica. He encourages them to continue to care for each other, and to continue on their path of growth and spiritual maturity. And Paul speaks with confidence of God’s care and guidance for their future and exhorts them to wait “blameless in holiness” until the promised return of Christ.

Even in the first years of the Church, God’s people celebrated Emmanuel, God with us. And they waited, expectantly, for Christ’s return, not knowing when or how, but only that it would be. They were on a journey of faith, without understanding where it would lead.

As I read over these verses, I was reminded me of an image from a family vacation in the Rockies…

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On this sunny day in Colorado, we spent quite a while looking out across the meadow (which we had just crossed). The twists and turns of the road through the valley were no longer visible from where we stood. Yet we knew the road hadn’t suddenly disapparated! 🙂 We had a 360 degree view of the scenery. We could look back to where we had been, and ahead to the next bends in the road.

One of my seminary professors offered an analogy that helped me better understand the way that prophecy intersects our daily lives. He described prophecy as “standing between the peaks.” One can look back and see what has happened in the past and then look ahead to see what may come in the future. Behind the closest set of mountains are rows and rows of peaks, not fully visible, but viewable. The very top of each mountain is there, clear and knowable. Hidden from view is the exact road we will take to get there.

There are times that the mountain itself is shrouded in mystery. From where we stand, it may be only cloudy and overcast. Then there are times when the brilliance and radiance of God’s promises almost blinds us in joy and hopeful expectation. It’s where we are now —  in a specific point in our lives, and especially in the course of human history — that determines what we see and know for ourselves at any given moment. Our humanity limits our understanding.

In spite of where WE are, God does not change. God’s Word does not change. In the midst of the journey, we can trust that God will do what was promised.

It’s this paradox of “the now and not yet” that permeates the Advent season.

  • Where are you standing?
  • What can you see?
  • And what must you take on faith that God is true and God’s prophecies will come to pass?

Don’t be afraid to WAIT… not knowing, not seeing, not understanding. Embrace your clouded vision and questions. As for when all these prophecies will be fulfilled? Like Paul and the people of Thessalonica, we can say with confidence, “God only knows!” 🙂

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Here’s some more shots from Colorado… each one works with this “prophetic” metaphor. May you have a clearer understanding of the Promises of God — all true… all coming to pass…