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The Ghost of Christmas Past

Christmas Past“Objects in the rearview mirror are closer than they appear.” Our pasts are closer than they appear. The things they we have lived through and maybe put behind us are never that far away from us. Let’s talk about our pasts. Now I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to talk about my past, for a couple of reasons. First, there are things there that I don’t want to remember. I know what I’ve done, I know that some of them have not been good, and I would rather just leave them there, forget them, never bring them up again. What could the purpose be of bringing those things up. They will just bring back bad memories and pain, so therefore, I would be better off leaving them there, in the past.

Second, I don’t remember parts of my past that well. There are a couple of reasons for this, I think. First, my early childhood was scarred with Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis. Our brains are a wonderful thing, and because of the pain that I was in, my brain blocked many of my memories from my early childhood. Much of my early life is known only because of what I have been told. The other reason that I find it hard to talk about the past is because I don’t remember things the way they actually happened. I remember telling stories about when our daughters were born and every so often, I would look over at my wife. She would be shaking her head, so I knew I got it wrong. This also happens when we are out talking with friends or any other social gathering. I gauge my conversation by watching her as I talk, especially when it’s something that I don’t remember too well. She sets me straight. Know what I’m talking about?

You see, our memories are subject to our own bias, even though they are “our” memories. We remember what we want to. We will forget the pain in certain situations and remember only they really good things. Memories are hard to trust. They can be incomplete as we leave pieces of the picture out. They can be subjective where we only remember what we want to.

In “A Christmas Carol,” Scrooge is visited by the ghost of Christmas past and in the Disney version, this ghost is portrayed as a candle. It’s interesting to think of the ghost of Christmas past as a candle, shedding its light on the events of Scrooge’s past. He confronts both memories that are happy and those that bring him pain. He remembers his childhood friends, but also his isolation during school. He remembers working for Fezziwig who had a love of life and people and held many celebrations. During one of those celebrations, Scrooge met a woman who he fell in love with, only to watch her walk away when his love for money became stronger than his love for her. And here is where we find Scrooge beginning to realize some of his past mistakes. He wants the ghost to haunt him no longer. I love the way Disney portrays this scene as Scrooge gets angry with the ghost, the candle of light, and tries to cover the candle with the ghost’s hat. But Scrooge can’t hide the light, the light shines in the darkness, illumining his past. Showing him all of his mistakes as well triumphs.

We too have pasts. We too have triumphs as well as mistakes. Many times, we try not to remember the mistakes, we want to put them behind us and forget about them. They’re painful, they remind us what we’ve done. They remind us who we’ve done wrong to, who we haven’t loved, who we’ve turned our backs on, who we’ve hurt; physically or emotionally. Our pasts remind us who we are, and maybe, just maybe, that’s not who we want to be. So, we block it out, try to forget it. Let the past be the past.

Jesus calls the first disciples and we hear how they dropped what they were doing and followed Jesus. From what we hear, there were no second thoughts, no “let me get a few things from the house,” no “wait, I have to finish cleaning the fish for dinner, or mending this net for my father, or even let me go say goodbye to my mother.” They just left and followed Jesus. Jesus knew who these men were, he knew their faults, their problems, their attitudes; he knew their pasts. He called them anyway. Jesus doesn’t call the perfect, he perfects the called. He doesn’t look for those who would be vetted and found to be not guilty of any sin. He finds the ordinary, the flawed, the misunderstood, redeems them and uses ALL of them is this wonderful calling that he has.

Jesus also comes to redeem us, and it certainly came at a cost, his life. Jesus paid the ultimate price to redeem all of us. But remember, his redemption does not remain with our lives as they are today. His redemption goes all the way back. He redeems our past and by doing this, he is using all of our past experiences for his glory. All of those things that we keep trying to hide, he knows about, and he uses them in his calling for us. What do you have in your past that you might be trying to hide from God? What closets are hiding things in? What are those skeletons that you don’t want anyone else to know about? Jesus knows all about those doors, in fact, he is standing at those doors, and he’s knocking. He wants you to open those doors to him so that he can fully redeem them. Not just what you want to bring him on Sunday morning, he wants it all, including what’s behind those doors that no one has seen.

Scrooge was taken on a trip back in time to encounter or confront his past, and that’s the only way he can move forward. That’s the only way he can begin to understand how he became who he was in the present and begin to change his life. Some of you are facing those same situations. You want to move forward, you want to give your whole life to God, but there are things holding you back. Your past is holding you back. Today’s the day to confront your past, see all those things for what they really are, and allow Jesus to enter those areas of your life and redeem them. Let him take your past, your experiences, and use them for his glory. Offer up your past to him so that they will be a part of your salvation story and witness.

Leave it There

Red-Cloth---Bible-2As the weather began to change this year (quite rapidly I must admit), I pulled my light jacket out of the closet and walked out the front door. I don’t fully remember what it was that I had to do that day, other than it was full of running from this place to another, maybe even a stop in a coffee shop for a little pick me up. However, it was in the middle of the craziness of the day that I reached into my left pocket and found something that I wasn’t expecting. It was a small piece of red cloth, cut in a strip. Now, to many, this will mean nothing. But for some, it will mean everything.

This piece of cloth represents those burdens, sins, and other things that I didn’t want to carry with me anymore. During a Palm Sunday celebration, I asked people to pick up a similar piece of cloth and nail it to a cross in the sanctuary. And then I proceeded to tell them that now that they have laid this at the foot of the cross, even nailing it to the cross, they should leave it there. Jesus has taken the burden and lightened the load. God has removed the sin as far as the East is to the West. It is all gone!

But now the hard part; leave it there. Don’t pick up that burden when you leave the cross. Don’t dwell on the sins of the past, God has forgiven them. It is so easy to pick up that feeling again and carry it around with you. Some of us treat it like a badge of honor, that we need to show others what we think defines us. So every year we make the journey to the cross, may our burdens down, and then pick them back up again. Sometimes we don’t even know that we are doing it.

When I reached into my pocket and pulled out that little reminder, I began to reflect on how many times I had unknowingly picked my burdens back up, only to find them when I least expected to. The past hurts were never too far away, which also means that they effected many of my everyday decisions. I wonder if that is also true for you. Are there some things you need to let go of? What needs to be left at the foot of the cross?

Will you commit to not picking it back up? Will you leave it there?

The “Trying” Christian

bee-1726659_1920Recently, someone asked a question about something they read. It presented the fact that if we are ‘trying’ to be a good Christian, that we didn’t know what it meant to really ‘be’ a christian. (This came from “The Road Back to You” by Cron and Stabile.) While this may seem a bit confusing for those living in this world, it holds some valuable truths.

We must accept that we live in a society that glorifies those who succeed, many times at great and painstaking work. It was from the ‘sweat of their brow’ they achieved the level of success they are. By the code of society, we are the ones who accomplish everything; we are self-reliant. I know as I lived into this for so many years. I worked long hours, devoted so much time to the success of the businesses that I was working for. I wanted to be accepted, valued, and praised for what I could accomplish. It was all about me and what I could do. Many of you might be in that same boat, trying to be the best employee, the best boss, the best parents, or the best whatever it may be for you.

Then we encounter Jesus and things shift, dramatically. However, our worldly minds kick in and we try to become the best Christian we can. We attend worship, join a small group, attend meetings, serve within the community, and do a host of other things, all in the name of trying to be the best Christian we can. But many times we forget the most important piece, allowing God to encourage, empower, and guide us in those actions. We can’t seem to get out of God’s way as we strive to serve God. We even enter into our prayer time and tell God just how good we’ve been. Do you see God, how we served that meal yesterday, how we volunteered to read scripture for worship, or how we visited 3 people last week in the hospital?

If we are quiet enough, I think we might hear God at times say “Yes, I saw that, but did you bring me with you? Did you let me give you wisdom in what to say or not say? Did you allow me to guide your footsteps?” God wants to be that integral part of your life, involved in everything. And we need God in our lives, otherwise we can’t do anything. Jesus tells us that He is the vine and we are the branches, apart from Him we can do nothing. So, why are we trying?

We can try to change our lives, but the One who can truly change us, is Jesus Christ. It is through the grace of God that we are transformed into the ‘best’ that we can become. And we must remember that God’s grace is not something that we earn or something we work towards. This grace is something that’s given to us as a gift. When we accept this grace, the change that we desire happens to us, through the love and grace of God.

We need God. Stop trying to be the best Christian, and allow God to transform you into the Christian you are meant to be. Allow the change to happen to you.

Caring Hands

Stephs HandsWe are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ to this world. And I think we sometimes use this phrase flippantly. We mean well, but the depth of the statement doesn’t completely ring true. So what does it mean to be the hands of Jesus?

One of the ways we can think about this is how we are able to love and care for others. Jesus spent his ministry caring for those who couldn’t sometimes care for themselves. We hear it all the time, that Jesus ate with sinners, hung out with those who lived on the margins of society, and brought a sense of belonging to the lonely. He touched people that society said was untouchable, they were ‘unclean.’ To say the least, it was unpopular to associate with the people Jesus did. The leaders of the church and world around them would have just left them behind. But Jesus loved them, he cared for them, healed them, and said through words and actions, that they mattered. So much of this happened through physical touch. Rubbing mud in eyes, laying hands on ailing bodies, even through the unsuspecting touch from a woman who just wanted to touch his robe. Touch is important, which is why this phrase of being Jesus’ hands is so important.

How do you touch those around you? Or maybe it was you that received that important touch from someone else? Was it a moment when someone held your hand, put their arm around you, or held you with a welcome embrace? Healing comes in that touch. Connection happens in those moments. This is one way that we can be those hands of Jesus. Who can you touch with the love of God today?

Now, I have to be honest with you, and a bit braggadocios about the image that I have used in this post. It was truly the inspiration for this writing. The hands that you see are those of someone who I see as being those hands of Jesus everyday. You see, this woman works with many on the margins of this life. They are those who sometimes have been left behind, pushed to the side, and even abused by others and systems. They find themselves reaching the end of their lives, wondering if they have made a difference. I believe that she helps them to understand that they are loved, welcomed, and celebrated, not only for what they have done throughout their lives, but also for who they are, right now. She reaches out with those lovely hands and cares for them, loves them, and celebrates them.

These are the hands of my daughter Stephanie, and they are not only her hands. They are also Jesus’ hands. I wonder about what this world will look like when all hands are Jesus’ hands.

Love you Stephanie!

Dad

The Quiet Life

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“Certain locals may grow brave wings knowing the silence and the stillness are two different things, one whispers and the other one sings.”

Charles John Quarto

 

Listening to “Small Towns” by Jim Ratts and Runaway Express; reflecting on ministry, life, and friendships. As I was reading through the lost art of CD jacket design and the always magnificent productions that Salli assembles, I ran across this quote from Charles John Quarto.

While I am certain that those from small towns can truly understand this phrase, I am almost as certain that everyone can. I talk a lot about spending 15 minutes of alone time with God; praying, studying scripture, or just listening. During these times you can discern the difference between silence and stillness. But I wonder if you experience the whisper and singing from the same as others around you?

When you find yourself in the middle of silence, does it whisper to you, or sing? Maybe it’s different depending on the situation. I can only imagine as a parent of a young child and finding that silence during a nap and the song that sings in your heart to hear nothing audible. But then, I am reminded of those who have lost a spouse that has spent the last 50 years side by side. The silence when the services are all over and everyone has gone home must be painful. Is this the whispering that is heard?

And what about those times that we are actually able to just be still? Psalm 46 tells us to “Be still and know that I am God.” There have been multiple times that I was able to be truly still, attuned to all my senses, listening for that still small voice. It was in those times that the voice I heard was not that of a whisper, but one of song. The melody rings in my head, surrounding me, and providing assurance that I was not, and never will be, alone.

What are your reflections? Silence or stillness? Whisper or singing?

Climbing the Ladder…

artwork-797_1920Last Sunday in worship we talked about trying to simplify our lives by eliminating “overwhelmed, overscheduled, and exhausted” from our vocabulary. If we are able to do this, we should feel some relief from this out of control lifestyle that is taught by society. One of the illustrations that I used towards the end of the message included a ladder (which I climbed during the service). This ladder is significant in that it can be viewed as a success monitor for work, but also for church life as well. We feel as if we need to climb the ladder of success at work, but also to “prove” our worth within the culture in churches.

You see, the more involved we are, the better Christian we are right? So we join the trustees, choir, participate in missions, offer our tithe, and so many other things that we “do” in order to be the right kind of Christian, or to at least be viewed by others as a good Christian.

When we do these things, we can view it as climbing that ladder, trying to become better in our faith. The problem comes when we realize that no matter how much we do, or how involved we become within the church, we never seem to reach the top of the ladder. But the amazing part of this, is that we don’t have to reach the top on our own merit, because God came down the ladder. God sent his only Son, Jesus Christ to us, so that we don’t have to “do” all of those things. The relationship has been reconciled through Jesus Christ, not in the things we do.

Afterward, I had a few people ask me about this and I realized that I should have explained a bit further. Here is what I was hoping to get across. We don’t have to do anything to earn God’s grace, it is a gift, freely given to each of us. Our works do not save us, God’s grace does. Now, what I’m not saying is that since it’s not through what we do, then we shouldn’t do those things. We should. But the difference is in the attitude. It’s a change of heart.

We understand that instead of doing things within the church because we “have to,” we begin to do all of those things because we “want to.” It’s a change of heart, and that’s what God desires for us. So keep serving wherever God has called you, but serve because you want to, not because you have to in order to earn something. This is God’s economy.

Jesus & The Kid’s Table

Jesus at the Kids TableI was recently blessed to help by serving on a “Walk to Emmaus” retreat where many were introduced to the kid’s table during the Lord’s Supper. Yes, a little leeway applied here. Much humor presided at this table, but upon further reflection, so much more was presented. Love, grace, acceptance, and joy were present. So many differences were expressed through behaviors, appearances, and attitudes, but all were welcomed.

I attempted to portray a shy, fearful, and outwardly emotional child. As this drama began to unfold and the scene was set, the shyness began with innocent eyes and a quivering lip. The response from the audience was that of immediate care and evoked compassion. No words were spoken, but the response was definitely felt. We had playful kids, disgusting kids, and loud kids. But no matter, when the image was placed behind us from Stephen Sawyer, we all got it.

Jesus tells us to let the children come to him; noisy, playful, disgusting, and shy ones. Children of all colors, cultures, social class, economic standing, ones with behavioral struggles, challenged in physical and emotional ways are all are welcome at the table with Jesus. What are those song lyrics again? “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.” Guess what? We are all God’s children, and we all belong at the table. Everyone!

Maybe the kid’s table is truly the table to be at!

Sometimes it’s worth taking the time to wonder…

Are You Watching Closely?

hummingbird-691483_1280The other morning, I walked out onto the front porch at home and received a wonderful message from God. You see, as I came out to spend my 15 minutes alone in reading, prayer, and listening, I was drawn to the vines that divide the property to the east. These vines seemed to be growing where they might not have been wanted as they were covering a hedge of arborvitaes that were devastatingly affected by the bitter cold over the previous winter. When we first moved in, I noticed the bushes and wondered about talking to the neighbors about removing them, however, over the past month this vine has taken over the hedge and has brought new life to this area of the yard. Isn’t amazing how God can bring this new life to things that seem dead, covering them in fresh life? As intriguing as this was, there was something else that really caught my attention.

There are some flower buds on this vine and there was a hummingbird flittering from bud to bud, no doubt drinking in the nectar from the flowers. It was beautiful to see God’s creation at work. I am in awe of these tiny birds. Their wings beat so fast, so continuously, that you can almost get the illusion that they have no wings, just a blur of movement. Even though they are working so hard to hover, it seems effortless for them. But then something happened…

There are not many times that I have witnessed this, but the hummingbird landed on one of the branches. The continuous motion of wings, paused. The hummingbird rested.

I wonder how much this resembles our lives of constant motion. I wonder if we, like the hummingbird, feel that we need to keep moving. There is so much work to do, so many places to go, so many people to talk to, so many activities to attend, and the constant reminders from society to keep our wings beating. We need to keep our social media post current, showing just how good things are, how busy we are, how connected we are. Wings, constantly moving, even when we seem idle. Some of us have become so good at this, making it look almost effortless.

But what would it look like to stop for just moment like that hummingbird? What would happen if we take the time to pause and listen, reflect, gain encouragement and strength, and then head out to do the will of God? I thank God for that little reminder within the life of this little hummingbird. God’s messages are all around us, every day.

How are your 15 minutes going?

Slow Down!

Emmaus Sunrise1So often we hear this when things are running out of control, or at least seem like they are. Maybe our new teenage driver is going a little too fast, the person behind us is following a little too closely, or someone’s running through the house (possibly even with scissors or a lollipop in hand). Then those two words come flying out, usually at a high decibel. SLOW DOWN!

These are words of warning. Someone is trying to keep us safe, keep us from harming ourselves or those around us. So I guess we could say that many times they may seem like angry words, but they are really spoken in love and care. The other person loves us so much, that they would do almost anything to get us to understand the reckless nature of our behavior.

Why is it so hard to understand what God is trying to tell us through the words of the Psalmist when we hear these words? “Be still and know that I am God.” There have been many times that I was so involved in ministries in and out of the church, singing with Alleluia Quartet, and trying to maintain balance with family. But I was ‘doing’ so much that I didn’t have time for the most important piece of the puzzle, growing in my relationship with my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. I guess you could say that I was like Martha from that story in scripture in which Mary sits down next to Jesus and just listens to him, growing in that friendship. Martha was busy trying to make sure everything was just right, but missing out on an incredible opportunity to be still and know God.

There have been many times when God has told me to slow down. These times came through health issues, getting sick, and even through the wise words from my wife telling me that I’m going to fast and involved in to many things. Yes, God speaks through all of these situations and more. We just need to hear that voice when it cries out, “Slow Down!!”

I know that there are a lot of people like me out there who might be hearing this message and thinking that it’s about time we slow down. I think our lives depend on it. There are four things that happen when we slow down, according to Kirk Byron Jones in his book “Addicted to Hurry.” We don’t see clearly, because we are always looking to the next thing. Life is a blur. We also are not able to listen deeply. How can we truly hear others, when we can’t slow down enough to pause and listen. We can’t think clearly because we have no time to reflect on what happened during our day. And finally, we can’t savor life fully. When we are so busy and running from one thing to another, we fail to really celebrate this wonderful life we are living.

God does not want that for us! “Be still and know that I am God.” These are the words we are given by our creator and they are words of life. As I challenged the congregation at Epworth Church, I challenge all who will hear to take 15 minutes out of your day. It can be in the morning, during a break at work, or maybe before bedtime, but take these important 15 minutes to spend alone with God. Read scripture, spend time in prayer, and most importantly, listen. Hear what God has been trying to tell you for so long.

Please, slow down, your life depends upon it…

Season-Such-as-ThisThis past Sunday, we heard from Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 which is also where the band “The Byrds” received inspiration for their song “Turn, Turn, Turn.” This is a reminder to all of us that we travel through seasons in our lives. We have moments of celebration as well as deep despair. We have seasons of health and those of sickness. Seasons of life, and seasons of death. We may experience a time of stagnation and then a sudden rebirth.

One of the truths that we can take form this is that we are all on individual journeys, even if we are close to each other. We are facing different issues than our neighbors, maybe even our spouses. While one person may be happy and celebrating where they are in their journey, another might be reaching the lowest point they have been in quite some time. Some people put on a really good face and say that everything is fine, when inside they are falling to pieces. One couple is celebrating a milestone anniversary and another is finalizing a bitter divorce. One person is sharing joyful news of remission and a neighbor is receiving a phone call with test results.

We are all at different places in our lives, different seasons, and we should not assume that everyone else is in the same place as we are. We should be compassionate and understanding about those around us, where we work and play, even where we worship. My constant thought is that if there is one place where we can just be ourselves, it should be the church. The church should be our family and one that we can share all of our hurts, habits, and hangups. It is where we should feel the comfort of God’s Agape (unconditional) love, expressed through all who enter these doors. So, when I ask “How you doin’?” I really want to know, and I hope you can do the same with those around you.

What season are you in right now? Where would you like to be? And how can I help you get there?