Wednesday, December 25, 2013

God with us

Without getting into the debate over the choice of December 25th as the designated birthday of Jesus, or the annual arguments of how Santa and flying reindeer enter the picture, or why we decorate dead trees inside our homes, or whether or not the wise men should be included in your Nativity crèche; today is the day we celebrate the birth of baby Jesus: the savior of the world, the Messiah, Immanuel - “God with us!”

For thousands of years prior to His incarnation, God reached out to human beings in love and tried to develop a relationship with us. God walked with Adam and Eve in the garden, as an angel He spoke to Abram and Sarai and sent them on a road trip, as fire He directed Moses, Aaron and Miriam to lead the Israelites on the protracted scenic route through the Sinai Peninsula, as the Holy Spirit She spoke through prophets from Huldah to Micah, and so on.

The fact that very few of these attempts resulted in human enlightenment says more about us than it does about God. We humans are notoriously stubborn and myopic. We seem to want our enlightenment handed to us. Now. On a silver platter.  And yes, we want fries with that. It didn’t occur to ANY of the people God so patiently worked with, that the journey – the very reality and experiences of their lives - was the most important way to develop a relationship with God.

God refers to Godself as “I am who I am” in Exodus 3:14. God uses the present tense, always, because God IS. Jesus did the same, when He said, “I’m telling you, before Abraham was even born, I am.” (John 8:58) and "The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near." (Mark 1:15)  Paul continued in this vein at Athens when he said, "God did this so people would seek Him and perhaps reach out and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. For in Him we live and move and exist!" (Acts 17:27-28) God is intricately entwined in everything. God is the ultimate reality. And that is what God had been trying to teach us from the beginning of time. We just didn’t get it.

We needed a concrete, flesh-and-blood example to follow. We needed to see, feel, hear, taste and touch God, because we are just a bit slow on the uptake.

So to clarify things for us, God came to earth dressed as a baby called Jesus.

And in His incarnation, Jesus proved to Mary – and the rest of humanity - that God is embedded in the messy, excruciating, miracle of birth. He showed us that God is visible in the child’s awestruck wonder at seeing clouds floating in the sky for the first time, as well as the terrifying panic of losing sight of that child in the crowd of Jerusalem or Target. 

God was in the sound of the Samaritan woman’s realization that she was really looking for God, not another boyfriend, when she spoke with Jesus by the well.  God was in the scent of the immense net full of fish that convinced Peter that Jesus might be onto something.  God was in the devastation, hopeless despair and skinned knee that Mary felt as she fell at the foot of the cross. God was the breath in Mary Magdalene's gasp when she realized Jesus was not the gardener, and her laugh of indescribable elation as she ran off to find the other disciples and tell them Jesus was alive.  And God lives in the words “I am with you always.”

God is in all the little details of our lives – giving a glass of water to the guy who mows the lawn, cuddling up next to our spouse, riding the subway to work and smiling with that homeless guy, driving the soccer carpool and listening to “What Does the Fox Say” 50 times because it makes the kids laugh hysterically, feeling that tingly warmth spread through your body as you pray, shoveling snow from both your own and your neighbor’s driveway, hearing the diagnosis and bravely holding Dad’s hand, planning a wedding and a baby shower at the same time for the same girl, and sobbing on the shoulder of a friend because the cat was hit by a car. God is in every single detail of living this life. We must experience this life in order to see how God is involved, because we learn by experience. God is with us.

That was just one of the myriad of things Jesus revealed to us by being born in a dusty manger, in a tiny town called Bethlehem, in a unimportant Roman outpost, on a small blue planet, oh so many years ago. He is God with us.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Love On Display

(Originally posted on That Reformed Blog

Advent: n. An arrival, or coming into being; the coming or arrival of something extremely important. (with capital A, in Christianity) the coming of Christ; in the church calendar Advent is the four week period prior to Christmas. [From Latin adventus, meaning arrival.]

The 2003 British Christmas film, Love Actually, takes place during Advent. The first scene of the movie features a voiceover from Hugh Grant’s character saying, “Whenever I get a bit gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals terminal at Heathrow.” He explains that the arrivals terminal is where love is unselfconsciously on display.

For American Christians in the 21st century, Advent has become one of two things. It is either:
·        Irrelevant and forgotten, as in: “Advent? Never heard of it”; or
·        Relegated to a “season” of frantic, mind-numbing, holiday busy-ness (preparing, decorating, shopping, partying, wrapping, shipping, baking, and overeating) that drives our stress levels into the stratosphere.

Many people think of Advent as a time of waiting and preparation, similar to the waiting and preparation that happens before a baby is born. In some respects this is true, as that singular event which occurred more than two thousand years ago is re-enacted by Sunday School children in Christmas Pageants across the globe. Christians need to remember and relive the journey of Mary and Joseph and the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. It grounds us and reminds us that God did, in fact, come to earth as an infant and that His birth was announced by both the lowly shepherds and the glorious angels alike.
pageant sheep

Remembering Jesus’ humble arrival in the midst of the chaotic Roman Empire comforts us and lends our lives meaning in the cold, impersonal, technological world we live in (which is not unlike the Palestine of Jesus’ day). It was the ultimate juxtaposition of Godly and worldly power.
But we need to remember that Advent means Arrival, not waiting or remembering. Advent is like the Arrivals Terminal at Heathrow.

Advent is “Love unselfconsciously on display” for everyone to see. God showed His unconditional love for humanity by arriving on earth in the form of an infant in a cow shed. God didn’t care what anyone else thought about it – Jesus’ arrival was God’s love on display. And when we live in God’s love for us in Jesus, we are free to display our love for God and others unselfconsciously.

May you have a blessed Advent.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Holiday Traditions

Winter is upon us, and the Holiday Season is in full swing! Between the shopping and the parties and the joyful chaos of families gathering together, take a moment for yourself.

Find a quiet spot, and relax. Take a deep breath, and try to remember the personal meaning behind the various holiday traditions that you practice. Think about why you light a candle each evening; or recall the story behind a certain
recipe you pull out only in December. Maybe there is a reason that particular ornament is placed at the top of your Christmas tree; or perhaps you recall your grandfather who told funny stories whenever you hear a certain holiday song.

Think back to where you were when you first heard the story of Jesus' birth - do you still hear it being read by Linus in "A Charlie Brown Christmas?" Does your great-grandmother's menorah - the one that was carefully hidden in her steamer trunk - still gracefully display the candles each year in your home? Are there elves on your shelves? 

Next, look for the larger meaning in the celebrations of Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or New Year's Eve. Many of the traditions we practice connect us not only with our immediate families and generations past, but also with the world! Think about how many millions of people around the globe are doing the exact same thing you are, because you share a faith and a practice!

Recalling the origins and the intentions of our holiday traditions can be very powerful. Allow yourself some time to ponder these traditions, and perhaps journal about a special memory or insight.

"Holidays" is a shorted form of "Holy Days" and no matter which cultural or religious traditions you hold to, in the waning days of December we all pause to take notice of the Holy in our lives.

Our wish for you this season is that your days be filled with holy moments!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Tip Toe through the TULIP

I jokingly call myself a “Recovering Lutheran.” I grew up in the Lutheran church, and I still hold their traditions and teachings in very high regard. Luther was easy to like. After all, he drank a lot of beer and sang bar songs. He was a married monk.  When I went to Seminary I was exposed to some different theology and some different theologians. I remember learning about Calvin’s views, and the TULIP mnemonic and thinking “Yeah, not a big fan of that Calvin dude. I’ll just call myself a 4-point Calvinist. Or maybe just 3.”

And then I joined the Reformed Church in America (RCA). Something like 399% of Reformed churches and theologians consider themselves to be 5-point Calvinists. So you see my problem. God has a funny sense of humor.

For those not fully baptized (ha! get it?) in the Reformed tradition, TULIP stands for the 5 major points of John Calvin’s theology. Calvin was a religious reformer in the 1500’s, and he wrote extensively on theology. (And I do mean extensively – his Institutes of Christian Religion has 80 chapters!) Someone thought it would be easier to remember what Calvin taught if it was in some sort of handy mnemonic device that was easily remembered – a nursery rhyme, perhaps. The little sing-song-ditty didn’t catch on, mainly because it’s very difficult to rhyme words like Depravity and Atonement. So they came up with “TULIP” instead. It stands for Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints. Cute, huh?
So, let’s take a look at Total Depravity. Basically this means that because of our fall into sin, human beings are horrible, nasty, depraved, disgusting, perverted, hopeless creatures that can barely pull themselves out of their own muck and mire – but only to throw rocks at other people. Calvin was known to have used phrases like “totally depraved” and “utterly perverse.” In other words, people suck.

 I had a problem with this concept. I mean, are all people totally depraved? I thought that was a bit of a stretch.

 “Sure, some people are depraved,” I said to my Seminary professor, “I mean, Caligula and Hitler – I think we can agree they were totally depraved. Charles Manson and Jeffrey Dahmer, sure. But Everyone? Totally? Come on! I know some really nice people!”

My professor said, “Nice doesn’t get you into heaven. Watch the news; then we’ll talk.”

Well, OK then. I watched the news. I also watched the History channel and TMZ so I could get the full picture. TMZ makes some pretty good arguments for Total Depravity.

 But I dug even deeper. I read the newspaper. I spoke with people. I prayed.  I was forced to come to grips with humanity’s sad history of torturing, raping, and pillaging one another. Much of the “history” isn’t so historic. I read about men forbidding women to work outside their homes, forbidding girls to get an education or have a choice in whom or when they marry, citing “their culture” and I shook my head. I puzzled over seemingly senseless wars in all corners of the world. I was dumbstruck by the universal pervasiveness of child porn.  I became outraged over the stories of the Arizona parents who locked their kid in a trunk – on purpose – as a punishment for stealing a Popsicle! Or the guy who shot and killed his neighbors’ entire family because their dog was barking. And then there were the politicians. I was undone.

 OK, my professor was right. People suck.

 I found this really amusing Tumblr that summed it up nicely:

So maybe I can begin to accept Calvin’s doctrine of Total Depravity. But I am also a HUGE proponent of grace! This is a conundrum. I know Calvin must have talked about grace somewhere in the myriad of writings he left. He did write about Irresistible Grace, but that was referring more to how God draws us into relationship, not necessarily the “overflowing love and mercy” kind of grace I’m thinking of.  There was much discussion of “God’s common grace” by followers of Calvin and later Reformed theologians. Common grace being the love and mercy which God bestows on all of creation and all people, just because. Grace flows because of God’s very nature. You know, “God is love” and all that. The Bible is pretty clear that God loves people.

 True Calvinists maintain that God’s common grace does nothing to improve our unregenerate nature, and it doesn’t improve our ability to change our moral standing before God. Huh.

 “But people were created in the image of God,” I argued, “It simply doesn’t make sense to ONLY say that people are totally depraved! That would imply that the Creator was also depraved!”

Calvin would roll over in his grave if that were the accepted logical conclusion. There is much more to it than that.

OK, so humans are created in the Image of God, and that’s good. But because of the fall, we’ve been relegated to the scratch-and-dent category (there’s the depravity) That’s bad. God clearly loves us and has forgiven us – isn’t that what the gospel is about?! And that’s good. Paul was always going on about how God “remembers our sin no more.” And once we are “in Christ, we are new creations.” And we “can do all things through Christ,” and so on. All good.  That doesn’t sound like much Total Depravity to me.

So, which is it? Are we worms? We cannot be just despicable, perverted worms. God doesn’t seem interested in developing relationships with worms. God loves people. God has been trying to develop relationships with people since we first became human! (see Genesis 1 and 2) And God wants a relationship with us – certainly not because of our depravity, and not in spite of it either. Perhaps God loves us just the way we are because that’s who God is…and by God’s Grace we are forgiven and loved and lifted up and empowered. When God looks at us, God sees us as capable, much-loved children, right? When Jesus was walking the earth, He assured us we can do whatever He did and more!

 We’re Worms with Superpowers!

 Now that’s a concept that requires more thought. I need to revisit the other parts of TULIP as well.  Stay tuned…

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

6 Reasons to go on a Retreat!

Retreats have always been an important part of the spiritual journey. Dallas Willard, who writes about spiritual practices, says “It was an important day when I finally understood that if Jesus needed forty days in the wilderness.... I could probably use three of four.” 

Here are six reasons why you should go on a retreat this year:

1) Jesus did it.  Luke reminds us “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places…” (Luke 5:16) In Jesus’ ministry, he accomplished a lot. Performing miracles, healing, preaching, and walking all over Israel can take a lot out of a person. Yet, we never see Jesus frantically rushing. He wasn’t driven by agendas or running around at the speed of light. He lingered over meals. He sat and talked with people. He went into the mountains by himself, or walked by the sea where he experienced God’s presence. Jesus went on retreats – retreats where something significant happens. His 40 days in the wilderness was as much a retreat, as it was temptation.  Retreats fueled his ministry. When Jesus said, “I am the way” (John 14:6) maybe he implied more than we realize!  Maybe his way is better than your way. If you want to be a disciple of Jesus, you must do the things that Jesus did. Jesus retreated. Enough said.

2) You’ve got rhythm. There is a natural rhythm to life that people often want to avoid. We just can’t get around the fact that we need 8 hours of sleep, in order to be alert and functioning during the other 16 hours. There is also a rhythm to nature. Gardens need to lie fallow for a time, in order to replenish the soil. Trees lose their leaves and go dormant in winter. Something happens in the winter than can’t happen in the spring. There is a purpose to these seasons of rest! When you resist or try to rearrange the rhythm that God created in you, you miss out on the abundant life that Jesus promised. A retreat can help restore your rhythm.

3) God is awesome. Without reminding yourself of the bigger picture, the overarching story of life, you can find yourself living a small, lonely existence filled with meaningless routine. Work, fast food and Facebook can consume your life. People are more often awed by the tiny-ness of technology than the glory of God. We’re told that Jesus often went off by himself so he could pray, rest and get refreshed. He went out into the mountains and surrounding countryside to experience God’s presence, in a way that would reorient his perspective. On those retreats, whether he was alone or with a few of his friends, Jesus experienced the splendor of creation and the majesty of God. A retreat can remind you just how amazing God still is.

4) Your soul needs recharging.  When the battery in your cell phone is dead, you plug it in to get it going again. You have to recharge the battery. After a busy week, or a busy season, your adrenalin levels are high. Yes, you need to achieve and accomplish stuff, but your soul was designed to recharge by not achieving and accomplishing stuff. God rested, so should you. Rest is how your soul recharges. Something happens during rest - in retreat - that cannot happen when you are living on adrenalin. Your soul needs to retreat to recharge.

5) Knowing God requires more than books. Our society is obsessed with information and education. Seminars, conferences, sermons and podcasts are everywhere! More information may look good on a resume, but it will not transform your soul.  God says, “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10) There is a holiness in stillness and silence. Experiencing God’s presence changes your life in a way that knowing facts about God can’t. Jesus’ parables referred to things like storms, seeds, trees and birds. Creation can teach us things about God that books and conferences can’t. A retreat that ushers you into stillness, silence and the beauty of nature helps you really get to know God. 

And the best reason of all to retreat:

6) Jesus invites you. “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me - watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Matthew 11:28-30, The Message)

See you at The Oasis soon!

Sunday, September 22, 2013


I read this book - The Four Agreements, by Don Miguel Ruiz - recently. And several years ago. And two years before that. And the year it first came out. I keep returning to it because it is brilliant, easy to read, and It. Makes. Perfect. Sense.

THIS is how I keep intending to live. To be impeccable with my word. To never take anything personally. To avoid making assumptions. And to always do my best. And yet...

Four simple agreements. Four completely easy-to-remember statements of truth. So why do I forget?

Beyond the fleeting "I hope I'm not getting early-onset dementia," I really do wonder why this is so hard to remember!

Maybe it's just me, but we humans have a tendency to forget really important things. We don't learn our lessons as quickly or as thoroughly we should. We have to keep repeating the lessons until God hits us over the head with a brick.

The book of Exodus is a prime example. The wandering Israelites were all excited to be leaving Egypt on page 5, and there was much rejoicing! Then on page 6 they were complaining about having to leave Egypt because that's where the tasty food and awesome night life was.

On page 7 they ALL promised to worship only Yahweh, and on page 8 they were bowing down to a gold statue of a cow. A cow! Like the cow brought them out of Egypt.

Seriously. Forgetful doesn't even begin to describe their actions. I totally get it.

SO, beginning (again) today, I will live by the Four Agreements.

Now what was I saying.....?

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Great idea, God!

I spent this past week diligently planning a retreat, called Art and Spirit. I scoured the internet for cool art project ideas, I scoured the bible for good scripture ideas, and I joyfully wrote up a schedule of how this art-full and spirit-filled weekend would unfold. I had 3 art projects lined up, and lectio divina readings....I had this whole thing under control.

And then God woke me up.

So, before I got out of bed, we had the following conversation:

God:  Nice start on the retreat plan.

Me:  Start? Well, I mean...I've got...stuff...ummm.

God:  Re-frame.

Me:  Re-frame? What are you talking about? Re-frame what? ...OH! The art... A frame! Duh. And the prayers? Of course. Re-frame everything. What a great idea, God!

God:  Of course it's a great idea. I thought of it.

I love it when this happens. Of course, not that I have to start over, but at least now I have a solid idea of where it's supposed to go.

Yep, that's a great idea!

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Ministry for manly men

Today's blog post is by David Hetrick, chief deacon at The Oasis:

When the day-to-day job just isn't as fulfilling as it used to be, one thing I have found that brings immediate satisfaction is volunteering at the Oasis Renewal Center.  Last weekend I was carving walking paths around the chapel, and carving out swaths of grass where the labyrinth and the greenhouse will be.  It was satisfying to be able to look at my work as God’s work! 

The Oasis sits near the border, nestled between the scrub oak forests that extend into Mexico and the rolling cattle lands of southern Arizona.  It's covered in wild prairie grass, yuccas, junipers, oaks, and cacti.  It’s a wild place so I had to buy the Brush Annihilator 4000 to cut the paths through the woods! The review said this machine "Whacks weeds like a sheep on steroids." There's something innately satisfying - and really manly - about that, so I tried it out. The reviewer was correct.

After two days of cutting, whacking, raking, scraping and trimming, I could clearly see that I had made a difference. I felt like I was doing the Lord’s work. Ministry doesn't all have to be indoors, you know.

As we go through each day following God's calling as leaders, it’s good to be able to reconnect directly with God.  Two days at the Oasis might be just what you need!

"Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human taskmasters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. 
It is the Lord Christ you are serving."  
 Colossians 3:23-24

Friday, August 16, 2013

Mowing the lawn

I mowed the lawn at The Oasis yesterday.

We have an old-fashioned, 2-wheeled, reel mower that you have to push. It does a terrific job cutting the grass as long as the grass isn’t too long, or you don’t run over a stick.  It took me two hours. Our grass was very long and I ran over lots of sticks.

If the grass is too long, the grass just kind of bends over as the mower passes over it. Then it pops back up and laughs. So you have to make several passes over that particular blade of grass, from various angles and different directions. It’s very much like a dance.

My grandfather DeeDee had a reel mower that hung in the little shed behind his house in Massachusetts. It maintained its fresh-cut grassy smell even if he hadn’t used it in months. It had a certain distinguished air about it. It also looked slightly dangerous - but in a respectful way - not in the horror movie kind of way.

I was in awe of DeeDee’s reel mower, and I always wanted to have one of my own. Reel mowers are unobtrusive and well-mannered. Reel mowers are much more sincere and unpretentious than their gas-powered cousins. And don’t even get me started on the electric models – those are obvious imposters.

So I mowed for two hours, enjoying the fresh-cut grassy smell, and working up a sweat. It was meditative and calming; very Zen-like, in a nostalgic, home-spun way. And while I mowed, I noticed the way the color of the grass changed depending on the angle which the mower cut it. I also noticed that our grass was abnormally long and our yard was full of sticks. But I considered it an honor to cut the grass and dance.