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Inside Out – Joy

Joy-Bulletin-ImageWe have been in the middle of a worship series discussing mental health and faith with the help on a popular movie, Pixar’s “Inside Out” We have already looked at fear, disgust, anger, and sadness. Today we turn our focus to the last emotion character in the movie “Inside Out,” joy.

Isaiah tells us in his 55th chapter; “You shall go our with joy, and be led forth with peace: the mountains and the hills shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the wood shall clap their hands.” In the 13th chapter of Acts we find “The disciples were filled with joy, and with the Holy Spirit.” And in Philippians we find a very familiar verse; “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice!”

Joy is a good feeling to have. Joy is something that we all strive for. We want to be happy. We want to be fulfilled. We want to have a life that is full of memorable moments. Why else would there be a huge section of every bookstore devoted to increasing our success, our relationships, our health, which when you add them all together, you get increased joy, right?

It’s the American Dream. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men (and Women) are created equal, and they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Happiness, it’s right in our Declaration of Independence. We desire to be happy, to be filled with joy.

However, as we think about joy in our lives, we do need to acknowledge that there is a dark side of joy. Sometimes this comes through the manic side of the bipolar disorder. These are sometimes short lived, but dangerous just the same. But we also need to see that we don’t have to be diagnosed with this disorder in order to feel some of the same affects. Usually accompanying these manic episodes, we find problems with overspending and shopping, drug & alcohol abuse, and even risky behaviors with sexuality and personal safety. But we can see this even within our lives. I remember many times being on vacation or away for a long weekend. Everything was good, relaxing, and the family was happy. During these times, it’s so easy to just spend money, whether it’s shopping, eating, or just enjoying entertainment. Isn’t this is what Disneyworld is built on? Happiness begets spending. So, I think there needs to be a balance.

Another problem we run into is that too often we try to put on a mask of happiness. We try to fool everyone around us that we are happy, when inside, we are falling apart. On the outside, we can put on our happy masks, and make believe that everything is ok, but where does that get us? It certainly doesn’t get us to true happiness. We need to have the balance of emotions in our lives and at the same time be willing to be who we truly are. We need to be open and honest about our feelings. Be broken, it’s ok. Admitting it is the first step in true healing and the feeling of true happiness. So, how do we get to true happiness, and what does that look like?

I think there is a fundamental problem within our Declaration of Independence. “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Here we find words about pursuing happiness, like it’s something that is constantly moving away from us. We want to be happy, but it’s just over the next hill, around the next curve. When do we finally achieve happiness?

Jesus tells us is the sermon on the mount; “Happy are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek, those who hunger and thirst. Happy are the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness sake.” I hear that these are happy, not that they are trying to be happy. And they are happy because of the reward. They are happy because they will receive the Kingdom of God, they will be comforted, they will be satisfied, they will receive mercy, they will see God. That is happiness, that is joy!

So, how did they get to the point that Jesus is describing? 1 simple truth. They didn’t seek happiness, they sought God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pastor who was imprisoned in Germany, wrote in his book “Life Together;” Seek God, not happiness – that is the fundamental rule of all meditation. If you seek God alone, you will gain happiness – that is the promise of all meditation.” Seek God, happiness will follow.

Are you looking for true joy in your life? Are you tired of climbing that next hill, only to find another mountain to climb? Does happiness and joy continue to elude you?

Why not try this? Try seeking God in all you do. Look for God’s ways and as you turn and focus on your relationship with him, the joy that you desire will fill your heart by the power of the Holy Spirit. So, let me finish today with one simple question…

How are you seeking God today?

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Inside Out – Sadness

Sadness-Bulletin-ImageWelcome to week 4 of our mental health and faith series as we struggle with different emotions and how they effect our lives and the lives of those around us. We have examined fear and worry and how they get in the way of us truly living the life God has called us to. We also have talked about disgust and anger and how they affect our relationships as well.

We talked about some of the disorders that come with some of these emotions and that this is not something, if you’re facing it, that you need to face alone. There are others going through this too. You are not alone, and if you feel you need help, I encourage you to reach out and get the help you need.

One of my hopes during this series is that you walk away with the understanding that you don’t have to have it all together. And as I’ve said before, if there is any place that you can go and express just how broken you are, it’s in the church. The church is a place where you should feel open to share how you are truly feeling. So, take off the mask and really have an open and honest conversation.

Today we turn our focus to another character in the movie “Inside Out,” sadness. Sadness is something that we’ve been taught by society that we shouldn’t talk about. This should be something that we keep to ourselves, but what good does that do? In the movie, there is a moment when Joy has instructions for Sadness. She draws a circle on the floor and calls it the “Circle of Sadness” and wants her to stay inside the circle. Sadness’ job is to make sure all the sadness stays in the circle. How impossible is that. Sadness cannot be contained, it affects all of our lives. We can’t not talk about it.

I think God want us to talk about it. I think that while God doesn’t want us to be sad or depressed, he knows it is a normal part of this life. I know this because of scripture. There are so many places where we find people who are sad, extremely sad. We heard some of those words this past Sunday from Jeremiah chapter 20, verses 14-18.

Jeremiah is known as the weeping prophet and here we find his words written down, almost as a journal sharing his feelings. This passage comes immediately after a prophecy to Pashur, a priest and a son of a chief officer in the house of the Lord. He gives Pashur a pretty harsh prophecy, and then, feeling a deep sadness for giving such bad news, he writes this response to God.

Jeremiah was sad, I would even say depressed. These words are written from a deep and dark place. He seems to be battling his life in his calling, in his work, and his private life. In this chapter, Jeremiah seems to be two very different people. Have you felt like you needed to keep up appearances out in the world, even though you are breaking to pieces on the inside? Have you ever been in one of those places?

Moses experienced sadness when he came down from his mountaintop encounter with God. He’s just received the ten commandments and is coming to deliver the word of God to the people, only to find them worshiping idols and doing other things against God’s will. His heart is broken for these people whom God called Moses to lead to freedom. He cries out to God “But now, if you will forgive their sin, but if not, please blot me out of your book that you have written.”

Have there been people who have broken your heart? Whether it was by things they had done, something they said, or maybe even how they ignored you, has there been someone who has hurt you so deeply, that you find it difficult to forgive them? Do you feel like you have failed them? Maybe it’s a son or daughter that has strayed from the family, and you’re not sure what you might have done or said. It hurts so bad, and you just want them home again. Maybe Moses’ story strikes a chord in your life.

Then we have David who wrote some of the most heart wrenching words in scripture. We find them in the Psalms. Words of pain, loss, solitude, despair abound as David pours his heart out for all to read.

We are surrounded by sadness and depression, but we don’t have to face it alone. If there is one thing I have learned, it is that God is always with us, and sometimes that comes in the form of others that God places in our lives. God places helpers along our journey to help us through these troubled times. They are you friends and family, your neighbors and even strangers. Maybe you are called to be a helper for someone today.

This past Sunday we had a special guest share her testimony with her church family. I encourage you to follow this link to a video of this sermon with her time of sharing. It is a positive reminder about who we are called to be in our churches and the community around us. A huge thank you to Stacy Lamoreux for stepping outside of her comfort zone and listening to God’s call to share this incredibly important message.

Inside Out – Sadness & Depression

Inside Out – Anger

Anger-Bulletin-ImageWhat makes you angry? What gets under your skin? What just drives you crazy and makes you want to flip out? Are those good things? We are on week 3 of our series of mental health and faith with a focus on anger. Now, before we get too far into anger, I want to let you know that anger in itself is not wrong. Anger is a common emotion and one that has its place in our lives, just like all of the other emotions we are discussing. The problem comes within our responses to these emotions. It’s how we deal with our anger that creates issues. So, what should our response be?

It’s always a good choice to look to Jesus for these answers. Because Jesus gives us the perfect example of a response to anger when he confronts the people in the temple trying to sell goods and services. He flips over the tables of the money changers and shouts out; “Is it not written, My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations? But you have made it a den of robbers.” Can you hear the anger in his voice? Can you feel the righteous indignation that Jesus was feeling as he walked into the temple that day? First, this is the right place for anger, this is justified anger, this is holy anger. Jesus was upset, he was angry, and everyone knew it.

There’s a scripture passage in Mark that talks about Jesus healing a man with a crippled hand on the Sabbath. He is confronted by the Pharisees regarding this breaking of the Sabbath law. And Jesus asks; “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save a life or to kill?” You see, there were very strict laws which the Jews needed to follow during the Sabbath. And by healing this man, Jesus, in the eyes of the Pharisees, was breaking the Sabbath law. We find in verse 5 that Jesus looked at them in anger. Jesus was angry. He was angry because they didn’t get it. They were so involved with following the law, that they couldn’t love and care for another person. Once again, a holy anger.

The bible is full of anger. There are passages throughout the Old and New Testaments where we find that God is angry, Jesus is angry, the Pharisees are angry, and even many of the biblical characters we know were angry. But they didn’t always get their anger quite right. They were angry at other things, not the things that make God angry. They were thinking of themselves which brought on the anger.

King Nebuchadnezzar got angry with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego because they wouldn’t bow down and worship him. They got thrown into the fiery furnace, but God saved them. The king’s anger was for selfish reasons. He was thinking about the power that he had and wanted everyone to obey him.

Balaam got angry with his donkey, even beat him a few times, all because the donkey stopped in the middle of the road. Balaam was asked to go and curse the Israelites, but with this donkey trouble, he couldn’t finish his task. His anger came from the selfish reasons, not what God really wanted him to do.

David was one that actually get the anger thing right, and it was towards the beginning of his life. It was in the middle of the battlefield, facing a larger than life giant by the name of Goliath. Trash talking is nothing new, and we can see this as we hear the conversation from the book of 1st Samuel, chapter 17; 43-47. Here we find David talking about a fight, an angry fight, but one that is fought, not for David’s sake, but for the Lord’s. It is fought for the people of Israel. You see the difference? This anger is not selfish, it is not self-centered, it is not looking for worldy things, it is anger after the things of God.

So, if anger is a good thing in this context, where is anger good for you? What makes you angry? What gets under your skin? Are you angered by the way that other person is driving? Do you find the way certain people talk irritating? Do you just cringe everytime you hear a conversation begin about politics? Does the fact that the referee missed that call against the New Orleans Saints still cause heart palpitations and cold sweats? Are these circumstances worth getting angry about, worth spending all that time and effort suffering through emotional stress? In the bigger picture, probably not.

But does the fact that thousands of people in the northern Illinois area sleep outside because they don’t have a home make you upset? Do the news broadcasts of another child being abducted into human trafficking make you sick? Or when you hear of one of our own neighborhood kids getting bullied in school make you want to stand up and say enough is enough? This is righteous anger. This is justified anger. What is our response?

I hope that after hearing about some of the people of the bible and Jesus’ example of holy anger, you will be able to discern between anger that needs a response, and those that don’t. I hope you will have the courage to stand up when you need to, when the anger that fills you, is the same anger that God is feeling.

Inside Out – Disgust

disgust-bulletin-imageWhat do you find disgusting? What is it that you find revolting? Maybe we can think of it this way, what do you have contempt for? We find something that we really don’t like, something that we might hate, and we resent everything with it. There are many examples in scripture of people who had disgust or contempt on their hearts. Let’s look at just a couple.

Jonah is a story that many of us are familiar with. It is about a man named Jonah who heard God’s call. He is called to go to Nineveh and share a message which you could say was designed to call the people there to repentance. It was a message of destruction. But Jonah didn’t want to go. He didn’t want to deliver the message.

The story goes that Jonah ran the other way, away from Nineveh. He gets on a ship headed as far away as he could, but then a storm rises up. The ship is tossed around and the people on board begin to pray to their gods, asking for mercy. They began to throw all their items overboard to lighten the load, hoping that would help them survive. Finally, they asked Jonah about why he hadn’t prayed to his God. Jonah informed them that all of this was his fault. That he had been running from God and that they should just throw him overboard and everything would be fine. Well, that’s just what they did. Immediately, a big fish came and swallowed Jonah, and there he lay for three days; in the belly of the fish. Jonah comes to his senses and repents. He tells God that he will finally go to Nineveh. The fish spits him up on the shore and Jonah makes his way to the town. What’s more disgusting than that. Three days in the belly of a fish, slimy, stinky, and just plain gross. No shower, he just walks right into town. Can you imagine the smell? Disgust, absolutely!

Why does Jonah feel so strongly about Nineveh? Why would he not want to give God’s message to them? Because he didn’t like the people in the town of Nineveh. You see, he knew that if this message made it to town, they would want to be saved. He also knew that God would forgive them, and he didn’t want that. Maybe if he ran away, the message wouldn’t make it to the town and God would destroy them. That would be good for Jonah, right?

Jonah felt disgust and contempt for the people, which kept him from doing the will of God. That makes me wonder; are there people you feel disgust or contempt for? People that you would rather never see again, ones that hurt you in the past? Do you think God is calling you to care for them? To help them? Maybe just to love them? Do you think your disgust could get in the way of loving them the way God is calling you to love them? After all, we are called to love our neighbor as ourselves.

How about another one. Do you remember the story of Joseph? Well, maybe not Joseph himself, but what about his brothers? Here is their younger brother, Joseph. Their father doesn’t hide the fact that he thinks Joseph is pretty special. So much so, that he has a special coat made for him, you know, the one of many colors. None of the other brothers got a special coat, let alone the favor of the father. Strike one! The disgust and contempt begin to form.

Then Joseph pulls his brothers together because he has some exciting news. He’s been having some pretty awesome dreams and he wants to tell them all about the dreams. There’s one little problem. The dreams are about all of the brothers bowing down and worshiping Joseph. Strike two! The disgust and contempt are in full effect now. The brothers plan and scheme a way to get back at him, maybe they’ll kill him. They wanted to, but Reuben talked the brothers into just throwing him in a pit. He wanted to come back later and save his brother but didn’t get the chance. While Reuben was away, the rest of the brothers decided to sell Joseph into slavery. They completed the deal by lying to their father about the whereabouts of Joseph. The disgust and contempt the brothers had for Joseph clouded their judgement to do good and honorable things. It got in the way of loving their brother the way they should. The story does have a happy ending as Joseph makes it all the way to be the right hand of the Pharaoh. And while he was there, he was able to save his family during a great famine. But it could have been worse, had the brothers carried out their first plan.

Disgust and contempt are not good things to have in the middle of any relationship, especially your family. I wonder if there are people in your family that you need to reach out to in order to tell them that you love them, maybe that you are sorry or that you forgive them.

Where is there disgust or contempt in your life? How is God calling you to get rid of them today?

Inside Out – Fear & Worry

fear imageWhat are you afraid of? What do you worry about? My daughter is terrified of thunderstorms. I am deathly afraid of bees. Not that I’m allergic to them, I just don’t want them anywhere near me. Other people are afraid of losing things, of the dark, of strange places, of meeting new people, and the one particularly showcased in social media; the fear of missing out. We constantly scroll down the endless feed on our Facebook accounts, afraid that something might happen that we don’t want to miss. Or maybe the fear that will never live up to what we see on social media. We see all the exotic places our friends travel to, the wonderful food they take pictures of, and the perfect family activities they just experienced, and we wonder if we can keep up. But fear isn’t the only thing, there is also worry. We worry about being a good parent or spouse. We worry about not having enough time, about obstacles that are in the way of our dreams. We even worry about the unknown. We worry, just to worry.

So, what do we do? Are there simple ways that we can eliminate worry and fear from our life? Where’s the life lesson in this? I think we can to look to scripture for a few answers. Now, these are just a couple of ideas and there are plenty of others, but I hope that by looking to some of the people of the bible and the struggles they had with fear and worry, that they will be able to help us with some of our own fear and worry.

Gideon was just another Israelite working out in the fields when God spoke to him and called him to lead an army against the Midianites. Certainly, worry and fear come whenever you are leading a group into battle, but God creates even more worry when he whittles Gideon’s army from 22,000 to 10,000. That’s more than half, how is he going to win the battle with less than half of his army. But God wasn’t done yet. He eliminates another large number until Gideon is down to 300 soldiers. 300; from 22,000! This is going to be impossible! Can you imagine what was going on in Gideon’s mind? The fear and worry about the upcoming battle and how this was going to play out? I know that he was afraid, because Judges 7:10 tells us; “But if you are afraid to go down, go down to the camp with Purah your servant.” Gideon goes down to the camp. He hears about a dream that God had given the battle to Gideon and that he was victorious. So, they fight, and they win.

Gideon gave his fear over to God. He surrendered his plan and followed God’s. He also knew that he wasn’t alone, that God was there with him. So, remember that God is with you, and surrender your fear and you worry to God.

We hear about Abraham and his conversation with God over the City of Sodom. God announces that he is going to destroy Sodom and wants Abraham to know about this plan. Now, remember that Abraham’s brother Lot was living in Sodom. How would Abraham have been feeling, knowing what God’s plan was. Certainly, he was worried about his brother’s life. So, Abraham begins a bargaining session with God. “If I can find 50 righteous people in Sodom, will you spare them?” God’s response was yes! “Ok, what if I find 45? What about 40, 30, 20?” God again says yes, he will spare them. “What about 10?” Abraham was worried. He confronted his worry with a conversation with God. He spent some time alone with God, praying.

When fear and worry grab hold of us, we need to get away for a little focus time. We need to spend a few moments alone with our creator. I keep encouraging you to take 15 minutes every day to spend reading scripture and talking with God. How are your 15 minutes? This is another step in eliminating worry in your life. Give it up to God and spend some time talking with God about what’s going on in your life.

Finally, King David was a busy man. Running a kingdom can keep you on your toes. I can only imagine the many things he needed to do every day. I’m sure he would have worried about having more time. We can see this in the many Psalms that he wrote. So many times, we hear him speak about being afraid. The fact that he wrote so many Psalms, and many about fear, tells me that David found the time to slow down and write. When we are in a hurry, fear and worry are not far behind. We need to stop the hurry to eliminate the worry.

So, give your fear and worry over to God. Spend 15 minutes in alone time with God, have a conversation. And then slow down, eliminate the hurry and know that God is with you.

Go and Tell…

MicrophoneThis past Sunday we celebrated the baptism of the Lord where we recognize John’s baptism of Jesus in the Jordan river where the dove descended upon Jesus and we heard the voice of God tell us that this was God’s son and that God was well pleased with him and that we should also listen to him. One of our scripture passages from this past Sunday came from Acts chapter 8, verses 14-17 where we hear of another group that was baptized. Let me share those words with you today.

“Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, for he had not fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.”

Many of us might remember the story of the good Samaritan, the Samaritan woman at the well, and maybe even the thought from the people in Jesus’ time that Samaria was not a good place to be. The people there were not to be liked. They were not to be invited in, or to even have a relationship with. But Jesus taught something completely different. He taught that we should love all people, and that included the people in Samaria. It didn’t matter who they were or where they lived, they too were god’s children, so who were they to judge them or worse yet, hate them?

The apostles hear that Samaria has received the word of God, they have heard someone share the witness of Christ and they are being changed, transformed. They begin a new life in Christ. So, Peter and John travel to Samaria to pray for these new believers. They want to support them in every way they can. It didn’t matter who they were or where they lived, they were baptized and therefore, they were family.

When you look around you, what do you see? Do you see all the differences in people? Do you see democrats and republicans, educated and uneducated, different shades of color, gay or straight? Do you see those with money or those without? Do you see popular or unpopular? Or do you see something different? Do you see people the way God sees them?

God views each of us the same way. We are God’s children and he loves us all just the same. God wants us to do the right things, but doesn’t love us any less when we mess up. More than that, God calls us to love each other the same way. We are given the two great commands to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and then we are to love our neighbors as ourselves.

This can look like our story today from Acts as Peter and John travel to a place that used to be forbidden for the Jewish people, but God has welcomed them into the family and so, Peter and John go and welcome them by showing support for them and praying for them. What if we did the same? What if, instead of judging others for who they are, where t

hey live, how much they have, what they look like, or anything else, we just loved them and supported them? What if we prayed for them?

Can you imagine the change in this world if we would follow this simple, but profound command to love? I encourage you to do just that. I want to challenge you to pray for those whom you would normally find yourself judging or condemning. See what happens in your life. I think you might be surprised at the changes that happen within yourself as you share these moments with your creator. Allow God to transform your heart, and remember that you are a child of God.

Epiphany

three-wise-men-750277I remember working on a car stereo back in my high school days. They were projects that I would enjoy; modifying the dashboard for the new stereo, running wires to the fuse panel, speakers, and amplifier. After a couple of hours of painstaking work, the moment of truth came. I turned the car on and then turned the stereo on, except nothing happened. No lights, no sound, nothing! I went back over everything, double checking my power connection, the speaker connections and could not find where I went wrong. Why was this not working, I was sure that everything was hooked up right. Well, a couple more hours passed by of fiddling with it, walking away from it, even having conversations with it, more like arguing with it. Then the epiphany, my Aha moment came.

For those who know about electricity, you will understand. On the wiring diagram, I saw a black wire that seemed to just go to the car, but not connected to anything. So, I didn’t connect it. Well, this black wire is the ground wire and without it connected to anything, more importantly to the cars frame, no power would go into the stereo, hence, nothing happened. I finally realized my error, I saw clearly this project in a new light and after properly connecting the ground wire, the stereo started, and I once again had music. These Aha or epiphany moments happen throughout our lives.

In our scripture lesson from this past Sunday, we are heard about the three wise men. This Sunday is called the Epiphany of the Lord and it marks the day when Jesus Christ is manifested to the Gentiles, represented by the wise men. That is the church’s definition of Epiphany. The wise men come and encounter Jesus Christ and are changed, they have an epiphany moment, an Aha moment, and are changed, how can you not be? I can’t imagine anyone encountering Jesus Christ and not being changed in one way or another.

These wise men, or magi, have come from the east and are searching for the child born to be the Messiah. When they finally found the place where Jesus was born, what did they do, what was their response to their encounter with Jesus? Worship! They presented the child with gifts and bowed down to worship him. They were changed, like the others were changed, but in a much different way. Their lives were dramatically altered because of this encounter. Their lives changed direction. It is said that they returned home, but not by the same path. Herod was waiting for them down the original return trip, but they were new men with new lives. They no longer lived like they used to. The song “Thanks to Calvary” by the Cathedrals speaks about the changing nature of encounters with Jesus Christ. Here is one of the lines from the song; “Thanks to Calvary, I am not that man I used to be, thanks to Calvary, things are different than before.” An encounter with Jesus Christ changes everything. When the change happens, we don’t want to live like we used to anymore. We don’t want to take that trip back down the same path which brings pain and misery. The wise men didn’t want to travel back home by the path which led to Herod, they wanted to go another direction.

Have you encountered Jesus Christ? Have your lives been changed by the Christ child who brought light to this world? It is a very real question, a question that needs an answer. Other questions arise from this, why are we here? Who are we? Who am I?

If you have encountered Jesus, what was your response? Were you hostile towards his calling for change in your life? Were you indifferent, looking more towards what you are doing here in this building than to a relationship with Jesus? Or were you joyful, worshiping God for the change he has brought into your life?

One of my epiphany moments in this life came while working on that stereo so long ago. It came when I realized that the stereo needed to be grounded in order to work. It needed to be connected to the foundation, the frame of the car, otherwise nothing was ever going to be heard. Another epiphany comes today, as I realize that God’s message will never be heard unless we are grounded in our foundation, our relationship with Jesus Christ. Is your ground wire connected? Are you receiving the power you need to face your day, your circumstances, your life?

If not, how do you plan on getting connected? Attending worship, studying the bible, spending time in prayer are all good ways to get connected. Will you strive to connect today?

Is It Over?

christmas-ornament-701309_1920It’s a new year, over a week after Christmas. Now, I have to say that most of the time, we try to leave our Christmas decorations up as long as we can, at least until January 1st. I know that we should try to keep them up until Epiphany, which is this next Sunday, but there are many times that has been impossible, especially with the tree. I remember one year, after noticing that needles were dropping from the tree faster than leaves on a good and frosty autumn morning. We didn’t want to touch the tree, we couldn’t bump it, for fear that all the needles would fall off.

We decided that Christmas day was going to be the day we took the tree down. Sure, we were careful the week before Christmas, only lighting the tree when we would be in the room with it, Carefully making sure we didn’t smell smoke or light candles within 20 feet of the Christmas tree. So, we began to remove the ornaments, one by one. We remembered once again what each one meant to us, just like when we hung them only a few weeks earlier. We removed the girls’ first ornaments, our first one as a couple, ornaments that we bought each year as a family, and even those that were gifted to us by friends and family. By the time we removed the last ornament, we realized that we also removed every last needle on the tree. Charlie Brown had nothing on our tree that year. Bare sticks were all that was left. I remember feeling grateful that no spark or open flame got anywhere near that tree over the final week or so. Who knows what could have happened.

But then, as I looked where the tree once stood, I thought, is it all gone now? Is the wonder gone? Is the excitement gone? Now that the tree was removed, and the decorations came down, was Christmas really over? There have been years when the feeling of Christmas left right after the gifts were opened, the decorations were down, and the stores all moved ahead, without even a remembrance of what we just experienced. How is that possible? How can we just plug right along into the next season, the next holiday, the next anything, forgetting all about what we just experienced? Is it over?

Christmas is not just a once a year thing. It is not just something that we feel around December 25th, and then put it away just like the decorations, until next year, until the next holiday. When we do, we miss the meaning of this wonderful celebration. The Christmas carols, the lights and sights, the snow, the faces of family and friends, the gifts, all of these helps to remind us of something greater than we are. They remind us of the wonder in this season, the wonder of Christmas. That wonder is the birth of a King, but not just any king. It is the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, the Prince of Peace, Wonderful Counselor. This child is Emmanuel, God with us.

So, how do we keep this feeling with us? How do we keep the wonder of Christmas all year long? I think we do this by living a Christlike life. To live as a Christian, as a child of God. It is to love each other, to allow the peace of Christ to live within us, caring for one another.

Remember; Christmas is not a one-time story, but a continual story. The wonder of Christmas is that God is with us. My prayer is that we will all live into that promise of God being with us, so that all who see us will know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the promise God gave all of us is real, and it’s for them too. Christmas is the assurance that no matter how far we have traveled from God’s will in our lives, no matter how far we’ve fallen, no matter how much we’ve sinned, or how badly we’ve been hurt, abandoned, judged, or viewed by others, God has come to be with us. To walk with us, to love us, to cry with us, to encourage us, and to redeem us.

You see, Christmas isn’t the whole story, it’s the beginning of the story. And it is a story that continues on through the cross where Jesus offered his life for you and for me, to redeem us, to make us right with God. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ we receive the saving grace of God. And it all began with a star, a whisper of a name, the humbleness of a manger, and the hope in a promise.

It is not over. It will never be over. It has only begun.

The Wonder of A Promise

Bulletin-Image-wk4As we search for wonder in this season, we turn our attention to a promise.

I was preparing for my senior year at Greenville College. The summer was moving by pretty quick and I had many plans to make, including finding housing for the upcoming year. Now, for those who experienced large scale school where you had to have housing all set up almost a year ahead, this was a bit different. I needed to tell my school whether I was going to live on campus or off, but if I chose off campus, it was up to me to find where I was going to live. But there weren’t scores of buildings with apartments to choose from. This was in a smaller town, one with a population of around 2000.

Well, being the procrastinator that I am, I waited until mid-summer to find a place to live. I found a little apartment in my price range, and without seeing in in person, mailed my deposit to the owner. I was excited to move into my new place. This was going to be the first time that I lived alone, no roommate for that year. I was going to have the place all to myself.

Move in day came and since I drove myself down to school, I had limited space to bring things with me. As I moved the few things I had into the apartment, I realized the condition was not as good as I thought it was going to be, more than that, I didn’t have some of the things that would help pass the time. No TV, no stereo, no video games, no telephone, nothing, not even much furniture to sit on. Those first few nights were horrible. I was incredibly alone. More alone than I had ever been before, and I didn’t like it. I wanted friends, family, anyone to help share the time with. But I had no one, especially because I was off campus.

I am not the only one with these feelings either. Many of you have felt the same way, in fact, you might be thinking of a time when you felt alone like this. Maybe it was at school, maybe it was in your job, maybe it was during special holidays, maybe it was during Christmas. There are a lot of times that we feel alone, discouraged, depressed, or even desperate at Christmastime. But there is hope.

During our time of Advent, we have talked about wonder. We’ve looked into the wonder of a star, the wonder of a name, and the wonder of a manger. Each of these themes point in a certain direction, and that is the wonder of a promise.

So, what was the promise? The promise comes from the prophecy from Isaiah, the 7th chapter; “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel.”

Isaiah was one of many prophets who spoke God’s word to the Israelites. Like many other prophets, Isaiah spoke about the things that God despised, about the sin of the people, but also of a promise, a coming King who would rule on the throne of David for all eternity. The people were waiting for a King, they were waiting for the Messiah who was promised in this prophecy from Isaiah. But then, 400 or so years goes by. Silence. I can only imagine how alone the people felt. Alone, waiting, hoping, trusting in a promise from so long ago. But there was something different about this promise from God. The child’s name would be Immanuel, God ‘with’ us. The people had known about the God who was above us, creating all things, watching over us. And they knew of God against us when we sinned, passing judgement on what we do and say. But they also knew of God for us, especially when we were doing things right. When we were living into God’s calling on our lives, following the commands, loving God and neighbor.

But this promise was a bit different. This was Immanuel, God ‘with’ us. What could that possibly mean? For the Israelites, there was always someone between them and God. Moses, a priest, a prophet, or even a king. There was someone who could intercede on their behalf. But this promise was new. God was proclaiming that the desire was to be God with us, so that we would never have to be alone again; not on Christmas or any other day. We would not be alone on our best days, just as we wouldn’t be alone on our worst days. That is the promise of Christmas, of this birth, of Immanuel, is that God is with us, always.

I remember a family that I was able to be with during the worst time in their lives. The mother and father had just lost their 1-day old child. The emptiness and aloneness they must have been feeling, the seemingly absence of God in that moment and the silence must have been deafening. However, as I sat down and was only present with them in that moment, was the moment they felt the very presence of God in the room. At once they knew they were not alone. God was not just above them. God was not against them. God was ‘with’ them. They were not alone, just as we are not alone.

This is what God does for us. This is the wonder in a promise. God promised to be with us, and God is. Christmas is not a one-time story, but a continual story. The wonder of Christmas is that God is with us, and we can claim that promise for ourselves now. We claim that promise by living our lives, proclaiming that original promise of God with us to all those around us. My prayer is that we would all live into that promise so that all who see us will know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the promise God gave all of us is real, and it’s for them too.

Christmas is the assurance that no matter how far we have traveled from God’s will in our lives, no matter how far we’ve fallen, no matter how much we’ve sinned, or hove badly we’ve been hurt, abandoned, judged, or viewed by others, God has not come to judge us, but to be with us. To walk with us, to love us, to cry with us, to encourage us.

God is not just above us. God is not against us. God is not some far off deity, observing but never engaging. God, as we remember the promise of Christmas, is with us. We are not alone. We are never alone.

The Wonder of a Manger

Bulletin-Image-wk3Christmas is full of joy and happiness, and sometimes that flows over to jokes, scenes of joyful exuberance, and even practical jokes. One of the most heard of pranks is stealing baby Jesus from yard sized nativity scenes. It seems like we can’t go a Christmas season without hearing about another Jesus-napping. But why? Why steal Jesus from a manger?

Or maybe the better question really is, why would Jesus be in a manger in the first place? Why would God deliver the best present to the world into a manger, a feeding trough?

Why would God enter the world in this way? Why wasn’t there more pomp and circumstance? Why wasn’t the birth in a palace, or at least in the comfort of a home? Why a stable, why a manger? Because it makes perfect sense.

E. Stanley Jones writes about a story of a little boy during World War II and his Christmas wish. It seems as there was a certain little boy at a mission boarding school during World War II. And because of all the fighting, the little boy could not get home for the Christmas holiday. Christmas day came, and he felt incredibly sad and there was nothing that could cheer him up. He didn’t come out of his room all day. He stayed in there even through mealtimes. Finally, the headmaster went to check on him. Seeing that the boy was upset, the headmaster tried to comfort him by asking him what he wanted for Christmas. The boy looked over to his dresser where a photo of his dad was resting, and said, “I wish my father would step out of the picture.”

A Christmas wish that for the boy would not happen, but one that happens for us during this special season. This is exactly what God did in Bethlehem on that wonder filled night. God stepped out of the picture and entered this world as one of us.

William Ezell describes it this way; “It is as though we were looking at God through one of those snowy glass balls and couldn’t clearly see God, so Jesus stepped out of the encasement and took up residence on this planet so we could better understand and know God.” Eugene Peterson explains in the Gospel of John; “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” God came near, and it began through the wonder of a manger.

Jesus Christ stepped out of the picture and right into our reality on that first Christmas. God became fully human, having the full human experience, all while remaining fully divine. This means that God can know and empathize with all our experiences, because he has had them too. This is why, as Hebrews tells us that Jesus is our high priest who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses. He was tempted in every way that we are, but he is without sin.

You see, the wonder of a manger is that God would actually become human, and humbly invade our world with love. God chose to arrive as a powerless, unassuming, and insignificant baby, laying in a manger. This was not by mistake. This was not something that just happened. This was a part of a greater plan, God’s plan. That means there is significance to everything, including a manger.

There’s something thing that struck me as I reflected on a passage from Luke and the thought of a manger. What is a manger? We tend to romanticize the thought of a manger and think that it could be like this one we have here in the sanctuary. And it is possible. But it is also possible that it would have been a box where people would throw food in so the animals could eat. It was a feeding trough. This was where the animals would come to fill their bodies with what they needed for the day. This was where they would gather with other animals.

Jesus is born in Bethlehem which means house of bread. Jesus is the bread of life. We pray each Sunday morning for God to give us our daily bread. We feast during Holy Communion on the body and blood of Jesus Christ. There is a direct connection to this thought of Jesus as the bread of life, the living water that is given, and the first place he was laid as a baby, a manger, a feeding trough. God is showing us who Jesus is by placing him in the wonder of a manger. We see and know who God is by this simple act.

This is the wonder of a manger. This is the wonder of Christmas.

God became human. God took on our human condition. God embodied love for us. Jesus showed us how to be truly human by loving others, serving others, and redeeming our lives by reconciling us back to God. God moved into our neighborhood through the wonder of a manger.