25 December, 2015

Christmas Day Delight

Your job is done!  The presents have been unwrapped and hopefully the smiles abound.  All those precisely chosen gifts have been given and received...yes, your job is done!  And as clean up looms and the grand Christmas meal awaits, let's pause just a second to reflect on what YOU received.  Perhaps you received a long-awaited gift or another shirt you really didn't need or a scarf that you will never wear but I bet you agree that the gift-receiving wasn't about any specific item.  Was it about watching others open their gifts?  Was it seeing the great surprise in someones face?  Was it seeing and hearing the squeals of the children as they delighted in their treasures?  Is that what you received?

Let's take one last look at our Advent scripture, Mark 12:29-31: "The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’  The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
But furthermore, The Message translates the verse like this:
 The Lord your God is one; so love the Lord God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence and energy.’ And here is the second: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ There is no other commandment that ranks with these.”

We've pondered these verses for one month and eight writings.  I'll be honest and tell you that I'm still struggling to apply these verses in my life.  I'm struggling to even understand the words and how to love in such a manner.  The Message translation helps me a bit but still makes this verse very difficult to apply today and every day.  Love with all my heart-passion, with all my soul-prayer, with all my mind-intelligence and with all my strength-energy.  And if that is not enough of a challenge, love God, my neighbor and myself in this way.  Whew!

So on this Christmas Eve as I sat in my home struggling to write and trying to compose some words that might make sense to someone else, I received a gift.  Far away from the Christmas tree and the tinsel but in the quietness of my writing room.  Just a whisper of a thought that maybe everyone else has already realized but me...these verses that we have pondered for weeks were perhaps not only written as a commandment but as a description and reflection of God's nature.  It is how He loves....me, you, and everyone!  The King, the Saviour, the I AM loves me and you with all His heart, with all His soul, with all His mind and with all His strength.

And He comes to teach me that as I attempt to live and love in this same way it is only in reflection of Him for we are made in His image.  And in loving people and myself in this way, the world will see HIM.  God never asks us more that He's already given and shown.  For His very essence is love....not rules, not commands, not condemnation, not arrogance, not selfishness but all love with His whole being.  And somehow the shepherds who visited Jesus in the manger saw this love, knew this love, recognized this love and that's why they felt compelled to "spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed.."

What a gift we have received today...the delight He feels is seeing the joy on our faces.  His delight is seeing the completeness that His gift gives us.  It was the perfect Gift picked out just for us.  I love a surprise!  Can you see it?  Do you recognize the gift?  Are we compelled to spread the word? Who can we tell what we have received this Christmas Day?

20 December, 2015

All Strength Rerouted

(Cross posted from Advent.again.blogspot.com
The Internet screams "ONLY 5 DAYS LEFT"!  It makes me nervous to read those words even though I'm relatively ready for Christmas!  And there are other comments that I'm hearing: "I really don't like Christmas," "Pray for our family gathering, it's always so painful and stressful," "I'm so excited Christmas will soon be over so I can get back to my normal, boring life," and lastly..."it takes all my strength to get through these days".

Let's be reminded of our verse for this Advent season....Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’Mark 12:30

What is all our strength?  Everything I've got?  Everything I am emotionally, spiritually and physically?  Is 'all strength' all my effort, all my time, all my thoughts, all...?  How does one 'do' all strength?  How do I achieve that in my day-to-day life?

Well,...the shepherds in the Christmas story seem to give us a bit of an example.
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child.  The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.  This resonates with me because in reading these words, with the emphasis marked, I realize that I too am a shepherd.  Aren't you?  Here we find ourselves in our daily work, going about our tasks in routine, matter-of-fact manner, just living our lives.  The shepherds were not the top of society but very common, average.  And aren't we?  Most of us find our very blessed and beautiful lives are actually average, common not world-changing lives...just simple, everyday lives.

And like the shepherds we too 'have been told' about this Child.  We've heard and we've seen.  If fact we've been told and told and told this Baby story for oh, so long.  The shepherds found the news life-changing, unbelievable, throw-down-your-staff-leave-the-sheep-and-run-to-Bethlehem unbelievable! That took all strength.

So this Baby news for me...has it become just ho hum news?  Michael Yaconnli, in his book, Dangerous Wonder, says this, "We have lost our astonishment.  The Good News is no longer good news, it is okay news."  Just OK news...is that what I want to base my life on?  Or am I traveling on this journey to run with all my strength to hear, see, live full out?  What if all strength actually means fully glorifying and praising Him just as we've been told?

My day dawned early.  I was young and so naive.  I showered before we left for the hospital.  I wanted to be fresh!  It was 2:00 a.m.  And the precious baby boy was born at 6:00 a.m.  I'll never forget the moment.  He was so very beautiful.  His dad and I loved each other deeply and were so content in our world of two until he came into the room and then we were three...and oh, so perfect.  When my tears finally stopped and I could see him through clear eyes I never wanted to let go.  And I wanted to find everyone in the hospital and show them this beautiful boy.  I wanted to call everyone I knew and tell them of the news, It's a boy and his name is...

Do I feel the same today about the Baby boy coming on Christmas Day?  Am I ready to go all strength and glorify and praise Him just as we've been told?  He is coming!  It's a Boy and his name is JESUS.  He has come to get us....that is why it is a Merry Christmas.  The King of Heaven comes down to get us....is there any way we cannot run, sing, glorify and praise?  This is much, much more that just okay news...are you running yet?

12 December, 2015

What's On Your Mind?

What's on my mind is not too holy!  I confess that my mind is occupied with present buying,
present wrapping, food and more food, plans, parties and finances!  This is the fight I daily battle in this Christmas season.  But through the writings of the last two weeks I have been encouraged to love God with all my heart and all my soul and now this week with all my mind.  Our words have perhaps challenged some but they may have also hung soundless in the corners of our brains.  For truly, how do we love God in these ways?  And certainly, in this week how can we possibly love God with our minds?

Maybe its all about what we see and what choice we make?  Let's go to the Christmas story.  The shepherds were in the fields working.  Their day was just as the one before - hard, grueling, tiresome with little pay perhaps.  I would bet they had family, responsibilities and worried about many things.  As the story goes these shepherds suddenly experienced a visit from an angel who displayed the "Glory of the Lord" and the shepherds were terrified. (Luke 2:9-10).  You may recall that there was a reference to the Glory of the Lord in Moses' day and in fact, this Glory was so overwhelming that Moses was not allowed to even look directly at the Glory for he would surely die (Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.”
And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” Exodus 33:18-20)

Was this the type of Glory the shepherds experienced?  Additionally, joining the one angel was a heavenly host of angels!  I don't really know how many angels appeared but if the one showed the Glory of the Lord I can only imagine what one plus a heavenly host would be like!  It was after this experience that the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about."  Was this decision-making action TO GO an example of loving God with their whole mind?  For they made a decision, yes it would seem their hearts and souls had been stirred and their MIND took them to action.

Is my Christmas mind so stirred with God's glory in my life that I am making plans to love Him with my whole heart, soul and mind today?  Do I recognize his Glory as it shines all about me?  Or have I diminished His Glory to a to-do list full of unwanted and unneeded gifts?  For if I truly see and recall His appearance in my life....how can my mind have any choice but to run to Bethlehem?

I have a very dear friend who has recently moved back to her home in China.  While she was visiting the United States she learned about a spiritual world.  Never before in her life had she known that there was a Saviour born for her.  Never before in her life had she known His unconditional love and grace just for her.  But she met Him here and accepted His love.  In the few weeks leading up to her departure she began to express concern about her return and the lack of Christian fellowship available to her in China.  I expressed to her that our God was the God of the world not just the God of Alabama.  But oh, how easy for me to say as Bible-belt faith literally stands on every corner of our city.  And how different when you are one girl returning to a city of millions or one shepherd standing all alone in a field.  You've seen God but...will He show up in your normal life, that's the question your mind asks.

This week, I had a video call with my friend and one of the first things she shared was this story:
"While I was up feeding the baby, I thought I heard music playing from the apartment above me.  And the music seemed familiar.  I began to listen closely and finally could understand the music and recognized the sounds as Chinese christian worship songs.  I immediately alerted my husband so that he could listen too.  We were so excited and overwhelmed that we left our apartment and went to find this music.  I never thought I would hear such sounds in my apartment complex.  But Kathy, I am not alone.  He has gone before me.  He is here!"

She loved God with her heart and her soul and on this night she believed and loved with her mind.  She saw the Glory and her mind followed.

Through Bethlehem, He surely went and goes before us!  I want to remember His glory today and have my heart and soul and mind follow.

06 December, 2015

A Big Soul

(Cross post from Adventagain.blogspot.com)

Since last week I have been grappling with this verse.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’   I have gone through the week thinking about heart, about soul, and about the old song Heart and Soul for goodness sake!  
(I daresay some reading this are too young to even recognize the very popular duet, Heart and Soul, that many of us banged out on our mom's pianos!).  

How does one define heart especially when the verse asks us to delineate between heart and soul?  Several months ago, I had the opportunity to teach a group of visiting scholars and Ph.D. students this very verse.  These scholars were all from China and were quick to help me differentiate the meanings of these two small words.  Please be reminded that these scholars had NO prior spiritual training or Biblical understanding and that these descriptions were their very words...

HEART                                                 SOUL

•site of specific feelings & intuition     •spiritual
•physical only                                       •immaterial part of a person
•eventual death                                     •eternal part
                                                              •humans only animal with soul
                                                              •part that has relationship with God
                                                              •has a will
                                                              •lives forever

The fact that a people group with limited to no knowledge of the Biblical Jesus could come up with this list astounds me but also confirms to me the presence of a very real, living God.  A God seeking us, searching for us and even placing within each of us this innate desire for a God of our understanding. There is indeed a God-shaped hole in each of us...a longing to be filled only by our Creator.  Every human living has a heart and has a soul.  Our question for today is how do we love God with all our soul?

Joseph faced the very same question.

"This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son." Matthew 1:18-25

Joseph was a real man.  We have him stored in our brains as some surreal character that we read about as children in Sunday School.  He was a plain man.  He worked hard for a living, worried about the future, worried about money and loved a girl.  He wanted to get married and have a family.  We are also told that Joseph was faithful to the law.  In these verses, we can also see that he was a man with a beautiful soul as he prepared to spare Mary disgrace and divorce her quietly.  Can we also agree that only faithful men and men of soul might receive angels in technicolor dreams?  Can't we agree that as surely as God chose Mary the 'highly favored', that He also saw Joseph as highly favored?  

When I look back at our definitions I realize the highly prized heart of a person is the one of great emotion whether that be joy, exuberance, sadness, pain or joy.  I've always prided myself on having a big heart.  But today I've newly realized that my heart never really tells me the whole Truth.  It is fickle and one day it will die.  Also, I believe that Joseph MUST have experienced a heart-ache as happenings unfolded.  His Mary was telling him of an encounter that surely his heart wanted to believe but yet....how difficult was this news.  So...it was Joseph's great soul of belief that allowed him to keep striving to be the man of God to which he was called.  For his emotional heart was surely damaged and in great pain; therefore, it wasn't Joseph's emotional heart that kept him on course but it was his God-seeking soul.

In this Advent season, loving with with your whole heart may be difficult.  For even in this season of joy, celebration, gifts, food, children and love there is still pain in our lives...pain from disrupted relationships, the stress of Christmas giving and expectation, and the enormous pain of a broken world.  But in the depths of us this week, Advent is truly calling for us to Love with our whole souls - our essence, our forever, eternal selves.  Our whole souls are those that rise to the top during difficult dreams, angel visits, unexpected Savior visits and life's hurts and disappointments.

So today, this day, I strive to LOVE with a BIG SOUL - the eternal, forever part of God in me.  For that is the LOVE of our Saviour...forever and unchanging.

02 December, 2015

What's in a word?

(Cross post from Scott Elliff - Adventagain.blogspot.com)

Love the Lord your God with all your heart...

As one who loves to speak and write, I have always been aware of the power of words.

Dr. Maya Angelou said this about them: “Words are things. They get on the walls. They get in your wallpaper. They get in your rugs, in your upholstery, and your clothes, and finally in to you.”

In The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz writes, “The word is not just a sound or a written symbol. The word is a force…your word is pure magic, and misuse of your word is black magic.” Wow!

With such apparent power, why then are we so casual with words? Yes, we are casual, even reckless with words that wield the power to change a life, to change the world.

Perhaps one of the words we treat most casually is the word, “love.” The word for which scores of people hunger is either reserved for the deepest of bonds, or tossed about freely and carelessly: “I just love this dress!” “I love my wife!” “I love that song!” “You are my one true love.” “This steak sauce is delicious—I just love it!”

Whether a noun or a verb, used either to describe a fervent passion or simply a preference, such an important word should be carefully used or there is the risk that its power is marginalized.

Certainly, Christ Himself must have given careful consideration to the power of this word when he was asked to name the greatest commandment. He began with the words each man to whom he spoke that day knew from his childhood, Sh’ma Yisrael, Adoinai Eloheinu, Adonai E’chad (“Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One"). Then he made it perfectly clear that the greatest commandment had little to do with laws, rules, or regulations.

It was, is, and will always be about love.

In this instance, the word is a verb. Action is expected. Initiative is required. Results are anticipated.

The ancient Hebrew commandment first exhorts one to love the Lord God with one’s whole heart. Through the ages, the heart has been the symbolic representation of our emotions. Yes, this ancient commandment first and foremost challenges us to take the emotion of love that fills the heart and channel it into action. We must do more than feel something.

We must act.

As Kathy wrote in our first installment for Advent, Mary is our example for “loving with the whole heart.” Now, before I go on, I know some like to divide readers of scripture into two camps: those read with a literal perspective, and others who take a more figurative, symbolic approach. It’s a shame that so many see this as an “either / or” proposition, rather than agreeing that scripture can be read both literally and symbolically. It seems to me that God’s story is big enough to reside on both sides, in between, and all around.

As the Nativity narrative begins in the Gospel of Luke, a barely-teenaged Mary gets big news from a visiting angel: she is a pregnant virgin and God is the father! Her immediate response to the message is to depart hastily to visit an older cousin in another town. Elizabeth, whom we are led to believe has not seen her much younger cousin in some time, greets Mary with an apparent message of joy and clairvoyance—her own unborn child leaps in her womb at the sight of the future Mother of God. The entire scene wraps up with Mary’s lyrical song of praise, the Magnificat, and we learn that she stays to enjoy an extended visit with Elizabeth and her husband.

Read literally, the whole scenario is mind-boggling, defying common sense, logic and science. Certainly, it takes an incredible leap of faith to accept such a proposition, and millions across the ages have taken just that leap. And many, undoubtedly, would enjoy stopping here and debating whether or not things happened just as they have been written.

But let’s go further. Read symbolically, Mary represents many ideals: purity, innocence, humility, and obedience, to name a few. In the narrative, she comes across as one completely devoid of ego, emptied entirely of herself.

In a nutshell:  It is not about her.

Kathy wrote this last Sunday:  Amidst all of the unexpected surprises, all the chaos, all the stress, and the wrappings and tinsel…can I simply give my whole heart of love to those around me?

It occurs to me that I cannot do that unless, like Mary, I get out of my own way. I am my own worst enemy. It’s hard to love God with my whole heart when I am so busy trying to be God, feebly attempting to control all the circumstances and people in my life.

I am not alone, apparently, inhabiting the "all about me" space . We live in a narcissistic world where people are consumed by selfies and “likes.” We fret over appearances. And tragically, in these days, we see people of all faiths, traditions, and cultures using religion like a blunt instrument to bludgeon one another, to be “right” so that others are “wrong."

Such is “ego,” a word some have cleverly refashioned as an acronym for “edge God out.” That is not the “whole heart” love of Mary. That is not the love we are called to show as followers of Christ.

Unless I am willing to empty myself of my ego, my sense of personal importance, my notion that “it’s always about me,” I will find myself blocked or, worse, tripping and falling in my attempts to act in love, and not simply to feel love.

Mary reminds me: When my ego is in the way, I block the power of that magical word, love.

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