Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Christmas Presence

Find rest, O my soul, in God alone, my hope comes from Him. Psalm 62:5

I love the Christmas season. The lights, music and good food. Decorating the house. Decorating the tree--which can take a week if you do it right (the anal retentive "I know exactly where each ornament should go" way I do). Visiting with family and friends. And presents. Presents are always welcome. But for many years the holiday season marked my annual descent into fatigue and depression, as I tried to do everything I usually did on top of Christmas baking, shopping, cleaning for company, wrapping gifts and additional social events. And about five years ago we began celebrating Hanukkah too. By the time New Year’s arrived. I was often completely exhausted, physically and spiritually. I finally realized it was because I didn't adequately rest. By rest, I don’t mean sleep, but regular times of quiet to refresh my soul. When I have a lot to do. It is unthinkable to waste even 15 minutes just sitting--it feels like doing nothing. I would make time for devotions and prayer, gutting my way through the disciplines that I would feel guilty skipping. The ones I get internal (and external) brownie points for doing. But rest is very easy to drop. I usually do not realize that I have neglected it until I find myself wondering where God has gone. His voice grows silent when I let myself become too busy to spend time with Him.

I’ve been reading through the gospel of Mark this month and enjoying the simplicity of the message. I was struck by the passage early in Mark 6 where Jesus sent out the disciples on their own to preach repentance and pray for the sick. Later in that same chapter, the guys have returned and are relating to Jesus all that they taught and did. Verse 31 says that there were so many people coming and going that they couldn’t even find time to eat. So Jesus says to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” Oh the loving kindness of Jesus! His concern was not only for the ministry He was handing over to His followers, but their physical and emotional needs as well. His statement reminds me that especially during times of busyness and stress, I need to take time away from my schedule, away from others and decompress. Rest is not something that can be relegated to when I have extra time. Rest is important. Jesus wasn't telling them to go take a nap (though I believe naps are from God), He was inviting them to spend time with Him, visiting or just sitting in companionable silence. His very presence had power to refresh and strengthen them. And thankfully, that power is available to us today.

Spiritual rest is the time I spend being with Him. Rest is vital, especially this time of year when I can become so focused on Christmas that I lose focus on Christ. I need regular dips into the refreshing pool of His presence--I need Him. In recent years I’ve adopted a more ruthless holiday perspective, giving myself permission not to attend every party; not to give a gift to every, single person I’ve ever met; not to feel guilty when my house doesn’t look like a Martha Stewart special; not to spend the entire month of December baking and crafting. I still enjoy Christmas, but no longer get to January out of gas and wondering whether I'd enjoy it more if someone else was responsible for making it all happen.
The time you spend quieting your surroundings and yourself is time well spent. Take even fifteen minutes watching birds at a feeder; sit quietly by the fireplace and enjoy the fire; go for an afternoon walk. Enjoy a piece of fudge...then enjoy another! The hardest thing can be to turn off all technology (especially those pesky phones) and permit God to use the simplicity of silence to murmur what you cannot hear when your mind is filled with noise and bustle. Just like the disciples, we all need times of quiet and rest, drawing near to Him so He can renew us with His presence.

This time of year rest may seem a wasteful extravagance, but wasting time on God is never a waste. When the holidays begin to feel overwhelming I want to remember that Jesus is calling me to come away with Him and rest. I like Christmas presents, but the best one of all is His presence.
May you have a restful Christmas, full of the refreshing, strengthening, nourishing presence of Jesus.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Dog biscuits

Recently I made some biscotti for Christmas gift giving...crisp, golden brown and filled with toasted almonds. The finishing touch is to drizzle melted chocolate over the top, to add visual pop and another level of yumminess. I spread wax paper on the kitchen table, laid out the biscotti and drizzled Ghiradelli premium bittersweet chocolate (60% cacao!) over the top. They were lovely. I pulled the paper into the middle of the table and left them to sit while the chocolate cooled and hardened. A mere ten minutes later I returned to a mystery. The paper was exactly where I’d left it, but only two of the biscotti were there. The rest were gone. Absent. Departed. All that remained was delectable chocolate drizzle with clean ovals where the biscotti had once sat. I stood there completely flummoxed. The two remaining biscotti had nothing helpful to say. After quizzing my family, it hit me—the dog! A quick search of the floor revealed some crumbs and smudges of chocolate…all that remained of my Christmas biscotti. Beside the disappointment of having done all that work and now having nothing to show for it, I added the outrage of knowing that Annie absolutely knows that she’s not allowed to take things from the table. I glanced under the stairs, where Annie watched me innocently from her bed. I can’t be sure, but she seemed a bit smug, as if she knew I couldn’t even scold her, because I didn’t catch her in the act.

This morning, feeling less outraged and more philosophical, I ate the last biscotti with my morning coffee and reflected. Poor dog—dinner time was approaching and she hadn’t been fed yet and she was probably hungry and opportunity presented itself and why not just help herself? And then it occurred how like that I am! I know I am supposed to wait on God; I know He’s got my provision; I know His timing is perfect; I know He has promised to give me what I need. Yet how many times do I jump at the opportunity to provide for myself? To fix a situation? To reason out how God should help me and then finagle my way into that solution? And of course there are all the things I want that I’m not quite sure He feels I need. So I have to get those things, because I’m not sure He will. I don't always trust Him to make me happy. Too often I am impatient and anxious and unbelieving. How many times has God watched me, His arms full of blessings I can’t see because I’m so busy looking for opportunities to do for myself? I am Annie, snatching goodies off the table when no one’s looking, afraid I won’t get them any other way.
Needless to say, I'm grateful God doesn't respond to me like I did to Annie (she's banned from the kitchen). Even though He knows my weaknesses through and through, He still loves and patiently waits for me to learn to trust and wait for Him. And I am glad, though I am still a little sad about the biscotti...

Monday, December 15, 2014

A Light in the Darkness

At first glance, Hanukkah (or Chanukah) seems to be the Jewish equivalent of Christmas. It is celebrated around the same time of year and contains lights, decorations, gifts and family gatherings with tasty seasonal food. But Hanukkah--the Feast of Dedication, or the Festival of Light--is not Jewish Christmas.

Chanukah (Hebrew for dedication) is not one of the commanded Feasts of the Lord, but is mentioned in the gospels and was celebrated by Jesus (John 10:22-23). It commemorates a miracle which took place several thousand years ago, in the historical period between the writing of the two Testaments. Around 164 B.C. the Jewish people were ruled by a cruel Syrian king. Antiochus Epiphanes tried to make the conquered Jewish people easier to rule by neutralizing their Jewishness. He forced them to worship in a Greek manner as the Syrians did and forbad Jewish customs such as circumcision and Sabbath observance. Study of Torah, their Scriptures, was forbidden and pagan altars were built in every town in Israel. Antiochus placed a statue of Zeus in the Temple in Jerusalem and had pigs, a ritually unclean animal, sacrificed on its altar to desecrate it. He insisted that all Jews show allegiance to him by worshipping idols rather than the true God of Israel. Those who refused did so at risk to their lives. Antiochus was a foreshadowing of the Antichrist, one of many throughout the years who’ve hated and attempted to eradicate the people of God.

Though many Jews did assimilate to a more Greek way of living, the priest Matthias and his five sons flatly refused to worship as Antiochus demanded. When the king’s officers came to their town to organize pagan sacrifices, Matthias and his sons killed them, then fled into the surrounding hills. Matthias is reported to have said, “Let everyone who is zealous for the Torah and who stands by the covenant follow after me!” A rebellion began, led by Matthias’ son Yehudah (Judah). He was a courageous and effective leader and became known as Judah Maccabee (the hammer). Amazingly, within three years his band of guerilla warriors defeated the much bigger Syrian army.

Jerusalem was retaken and the Temple cleansed. The defiled altar was removed and a new one built. The priests made plans to rededicate the Temple, but when they went to light the menorah, the large, seven branched candelabra which stood in the sanctuary, there was a problem. Scripture commanded never to let the light go out, but there was only enough oil to burn for one day. Not just any olive oil could be used, and the process for preparing the oil took eight days to complete. In faith, the priests lit the menorah anyway and were amazed when instead of burning one day, it burned for eight! This allowed the priests enough time to prepare more oil for the menorah. So Hanukkah celebrates the miracle of the oil when the Temple was rededicated to the Lord. It honors the God of Israel who has faithfully and repeatedly kept the Jewish people from extinction and assimilation.

The Chanukah story is definitely relevant to us today, with growing government intervention into previously protected speech and activities. We face tremendous pressure to assimilate to our culture in order to avoid disapproval--or even legal penalties. Hanukkah teaches that while government is in charge of many things and has power to make our lives uncomfortable or even dangerous, it is God who is in charge of His people. We can therefore take courage to maintain our Christian distinctive in the face of opposition, trusting His provision and protection.

Today Jewish families celebrate Chanukah by lighting special nine branched menorahs, called hanukkiahs. Menorahs are usually lit just after sundown and displayed in windows, so their light shines into the darkness outside. Family and friends gather and eat special Hanukkah foods fried in oil, like latkes (potato pancakes) and jelly doughnuts. Gifts are usually exchanged. Children receive chocolate coins and play with a dreidel, a special top that has on its sides the Hebrews letters for the phrase, “A great miracle happened there!” 

Some scholars have speculated that Jesus was conceived during the Feast of Chanukah. Though we cannot be certain, it would be so like God to begin the salvation story--the incarnation of the Light of the World during the Festival of Light. Like all the Feasts, Hanukkah is a reminder of God's faithfulness to His people as well as an opportunity to gather and celebrate His goodness to us.

This year Hanukkah begins at sundown on December 16 and ends at sundown on the 24th. This is a great time to pray that our Jewish friends and family members receive a greater revelation of our amazing God and the best gift of all—their Messiah. Just as the Temple was cleansed and rededicated, let's rededicate ourselves to the One who loved us enough to leave Heaven's glory and come to earth to be a light showing us the way through the darkness. Happy Hanukkah!

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

God in a Box

When I was younger and pretty sure I had Christianity all figured out, I was sometimes frustrated by all the different streams of Christianity…and even the different ways that my individual friends perceived Jesus. You see, I thought that the way I saw things was the right way, so it followed logically that the way others saw things had to be the wrong way. What can I tell you, I was young and knew less about the human heart’s propensity for self-deception. I’ve grown to see that my perspective is heavily influenced by what I am comfortable with, which is formed less by what is true and more by my background, temperament, education and experience.

That is one reason I’ve become leery of systematic theology as I’ve grown older. I studied it in college (back in dinosaur days) and believed what I was told, because it was in thick books with small print. Systematic theology interprets Scripture so that it fits within a particular system, or point of view. It neatly folds and even cuts and pastes where necessary in order to make the mysteries of God fit within that logical framework. My issue lies in the fact that godly, sincere scholars, pastors, seminaries and authors pick a side, then hunker down behind the barricades of dueling systems, all sides claiming to interpret the Bible “correctly.” I wonder if these good people ever consider the confusion they cause regular folks when thinking biblically changes depending on which camp you’re in.

I’ve come to the conclusion that God must look at how seriously we take ourselves and shake his head. I cannot believe the first thing that will happen when we all get to Heaven is a theology seminar, ironing out every tiny wrinkle in every single verse, until everything in the Bible makes sense to human minds. I don’t think there will be celebrating from one camp and mourning from another as we finally discover who was right after all. I think I’ve read something about a giant wedding reception, which sounds much more fun.

A more Hebraic view of things might help here. Systematic theology grew out of Greek philosophy. The Greeks believed it was possible to use human reasoning, step by step, until they found the one, right answer to a question. But the Bible comes to us from the Hebrew culture. Hebrew scholars believed that God was bigger than their theologies, and that there were bound to be disagreements, and that debate wouldn’t necessarily end with the “right” answer. It is a given, in Hebraic thinking that some things are simply beyond our understanding. Therefore debate can be a spirited discussion among family members, not a death match to decide a winner. We could benefit from thinking like that.

God created a diverse population, full of unique individuals. Isn’t it wonderful that Jesus loves us enough to reveal Himself to us in the way we can receive Him best? Then once he has captured our hearts and made us his own, we are able to share that aspect of him with the world. No one person or church or denomination has the complete picture of Jesus. One may know Him mainly as a God of love; another may be more familiar with his holiness; still another may love His majesty and justice. This is an evidence that we need each other, not that a lot of folks need straightening out. It is only when we honor and receive the vision each of us holds that the body becomes more complete.

In these troubled days I need input from other lovers of Christ. I need to stretch my boundaries to include what others have received from Him. Not to swallow whole everything that ends up on my plate, but taste and see...then eat the meat and spit out the bones. Only a child turns up his nose at something he hasn't yet tried. So instead of looking with suspicion at other denominations, or other believers, I can ask myself what they might have that I lack. What has been deposited in them that can enrich the church at large? Because a day is coming when we will be less concerned with whether someone was baptized in Jesus’ name only; or whether someone speaks in tongues; or whether some go to Mass; or whether one is Calvinist or Arminian. All the differences which now loom large will shrink to insignificance when the world decides it has had enough of its conscience and moves to silence it. Those who truly know Jesus will be identified by their refusal to reject Him when it becomes easy and even prudent to do so.

I am looking forward to the day when we lay down what divides us as Baptists, Presbyterians, Catholics, Methodists, Charismatics, and all the rest and gather around the few (and I think we will be amazed at how few) theological imperatives that make us disciples. I believe that true unity, forged in great trouble, will make the church a force to be reckoned with. I believe that is the church which will blaze like stars in the growing darkness.

"Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe.” Philippians 2:14-15 NIV


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