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An Epic Epiphany

 In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. Ephesians 3:5-6

According to the Christian calendar, Epiphany occurs on January 6. It is a barely-noticeable speed bump lying just west of the mountain-of-our-own-making known as Christmas. Particularly in the United States, January 6 holds little more relevance than any other non-holiday. In other Christian cultures, however, Epiphany is the day Christmas is celebrated, complete with presents, food, friends, and family. All Christians recognize December 25 as the day of Jesus’ birth, but January 6 – the 12th Day of Christmas – is the day Jesus is revealed to us as the manifestation of God. It signifies the coming of the Wise Men from foreign lands to pay homage to this baby King. The Epiphany also celebrates that Jesus came not only for the Jews, but also for the Gentiles – the non-Jews, meaning us. The joy of Epiphany, then, is not that the baby was born, but that the baby was revealed as God-with-us, Emmanuel.

The dictionary definition of epiphany is a manifestation. We often use the term in the context of a sudden realization or understanding. For example, I recently told a friend that I had had an epiphany about fasting – that fasting was not just about giving something up, but about giving something up that would regularly remind me about something else of importance. This was an intellectual clarification of what had formerly been less clear to me. The birth of Jesus, however, was real, meaning he came in the flesh to be seen, heard, and touched. He was not just a vague concept, an intellectual creation, or some futuristic projection. God took on a human body and walked the earth as one of us.

The Christian season of Epiphany runs from January 6 through Ash Wednesday, which is the beginning of Lent. Epiphany provides an opportunity for us to ponder the meaning of God-manifest among us. If we were to invite Jesus to dinner, or to ride with us to work, or to live in our spare bedroom, what would change in our lives? If Jesus were to manifest himself into every moment of our every day, how would we be different? Even though Jesus is no longer on the earth physically, he is still present in the form of the Holy Spirit, which is always with us. Therefore, this season invites us not only to ponder God-with-us, but also to acknowledge that God is, indeed, with us and to live accordingly. God coming to earth in the person of Jesus was an epiphany of epic proportion. If we only celebrate the birth without allowing the manifestation to change us, we pack Jesus into storage with the rest of our Christmas decorations. Jesus becomes an ornament that we take out once a year and say, “Oh, what a beautiful baby!” Certainly, the baby is beautiful; but the baby wants to grow up – within us.

Come home to church this Sunday. Find your own epiphany with Christ.

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Relentless Love 

Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in and eat with you, and you with me. Revelation 3:20-21

“Knock, knock.”

“Who’s there?”

“Doris.”

“Doris who?”

“Doris locked, that’s why I’m knocking!”

Love is the theme for the 4nd week of Advent. This is no ordinary sort of love, however. It is not an emotional, touch-feely, teenage-crush sort of love. The true love of Christmas has nothing to do with lights and trees, with presents and parties, or with friends and family – wonderful as they are. If these types of things and activities dominate our Christmas preparations and celebration, we will almost certainly miss the very personal and relentless nature of Christmas love.

This baby-in-the-manger, whose birth we celebrate next week, requires more than the obligatory oohs and ahs we typically shower on new babies. This is not a baby we greet briefly at church before heading home for lunch. It is not a grandchild we enjoy for a few days at a time. This baby needs a place to stay. We sing about the misfortune of having no room at the Inn for Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. We lament that Jesus’ life began in a feeding trough for cattle, donkeys, and sheep. Although we sometimes romanticize the manger scene, there can be no doubt it was a smelly, dark, dungeon of a place. The baby Jesus, however, finds his forever home in us. What sort of home have we prepared?

There is a portrait hanging in many churches of Jesus standing at a door, knocking. The door has no outside handle, so Jesus can only enter if the person behind the door opens it for him. It is a visual portrayal of Revelation 3:20: “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking.” He assures us that if we open the door and let him in, he will abide with us. Jesus will not enter, however, without a willing invitation.

Advent is a time of waiting and preparation. While we wait, we can prepare for the birth of the child. Is there room in your life for the Christ child this Christmas? Be assured, if we do not make room for the baby this year, Christmas will come and go, as it always does. We, however, will miss the relentless love the child brings.

Come home to church this Sunday. Jesus will be knocking at your door, soon.

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Glorious Joy 

Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. 1 Peter 1:8

The theme for the 3nd week of Advent is Joy. When I think of joy, I think of my grandma Hildenbrand. Grandma had the most challenging life of anyone I have known – and she was the most joyful. Her mother died when grandma was a teenager, leaving her as the mother figure to her 4 younger siblings. Two of her 5 children preceded her in death. She lived through the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and two world wars. She was a hard-working farm-wife and mother. Every challenge seemingly strengthened her faith, as I never knew it to waiver. She loved her family and made certain they had everything they needed, accompanied by a seemingly endless supply of love and encouragement.

With me, grandma always looked beyond my shortcomings. She never saw me as I was, but as the person I was capable of becoming. One of the strongest motivations in my life has been striving to become the person she gave me credit for being. Her joy in her first grandchild – me – took on extraordinary proportions, and I still feel her influence, 32 years after her passing. The ability for grandma to see and bring out the best in others was a manifestation of her joy in life. And her joy was the unshakable outcome of her faith.

It is easy to confuse joy with happiness. Certainly, being happy is a good and worthy feeling, but happiness is a cheap and transient imitation of joy. A joyful person possesses something deep inside that radiates delight, apart from the circumstances of the moment. A person who treats us poorly can leave us unhappy, but not without joy. Some people make others unhappy for the sake of perpetuating his or her own happiness, but a joyful person spreads his or her joy to others. There are circumstances where only so many people will be pleased with a decision or a situation. Joy, however, multiplies when shared because joy perpetuates in abundance. That is how grandma was able to see the best in me – she always saw the best in life. Her delight in me (and in her other grandchildren) was such a central part of her being that it could not be shaken by my occasional bad decision or unkind word.

The writer of the book of 1 Peter describes an “indescribable and glorious joy” that is the “outcome” of our faith. Indeed, if we have a strong faith in a loving, protecting, and faithful God who will never leave or forsake us, what could possibly steal our joy? Will we have difficult, unhappy days? Certainly so, but we need not lose our joy in life, nor our confidence that all things will work together for good in the end. Even in the hustle and bustle of the pre-Christmas season, joy lies in wait – just beneath the commotion.

Come home to church this Sunday. Develop a faith that produces joy.

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Giving Thanks by Giving 

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. James 2:14-17

This past Sunday, I sat through two equally disturbing sermons given by the pastors of my church. The sermons were not troubling because of weak delivery of the messages, however. The sermons got under my skin because they revealed aspects of my being that I prefer not to acknowledge. The theme was judgment, as described by Jesus near the end of the 25th chapter of Matthew. In verses 31 to 45, Jesus describes the identification process by which those who enter eternal life will be separated from those who will enter eternal punishment. The factor distinguishing one group from the other is how they treat and care for the least privileged in society.

At least by biblical standards, I am a selfish person and a stingy passer-along of my blessings. I have been known to pat myself on the back for being a good person, which is to say I do not commit a lot of sins overtly. Sins of commission – those sins directly committed – are not where I fall so short by Judeo-Christian standards. Sins of omission – the good I am capable of doing, but fail to do – well, that is an entirely different matter.

Like many of you reading this Life Note, I will sit down at a table overflowing with an abundance of wonderful food today, and in the presence of family and friends, I will eat myself into a long, luxurious, Thanksgiving nap. Meanwhile, Pastor Tom told us that about 13 people in the world die of starvation every minute. Later today, I will consume more food in one meal than some people eat in a month. And in the time it takes me to eat my way to desert, another 400 or so of my neighbors will starve to death.

My purpose is not to ruin everyone’s Thanksgiving with an extra helping of guilt-casserole, however. The point is to remember the critical needs around us, even in this country, and even in our town. Yes, it is appropriate to celebrate and be thankful for the rich blessings we have been given. Is it sufficient, however, to simply give thanks, eat ourselves silly, and then go to sleep? Maybe this year we will commit to doing something more to show our gratitude, perhaps by sharing from our abundance for others who lack. Pick up an extra turkey and give it to a food kitchen. Help prepare and serve a meal at a homeless shelter. Visit a nursing home. Donate. Most of us have so much more food, clothing, money, time, and other resources than we need. There are many places where our excess is accepted and passed along to those less fortunate. That is giving thanks by giving away. This year, all year, let us not forget the giving part of Thanksgiving.

Enjoy a blessed Thanksgiving; and then give to a world that needs your leftovers.

Finding Grace tag

 

Contemplating Grace - Verti Logo

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Ebbs and Flows 

Then I got up and walked in the field, giving great glory and praise to the Most High for the wonders that he does from time to time, and because he governs the times and whatever things come to pass in their seasons. –2 Esdras 13:57-58

Kansas is in the middle of what has historically been considered Tornado Alley. Tornado watches and warnings are as much a fixture of spring here as are Robin songs and Red buds. Like most self-respecting, life-long Kansans, when the sirens wail, I am more likely to be on the porch looking for the tornado than in the basement hiding from it. The past couple of years, however, Tornado Alley seems to have significantly shifted, much to the chagrin of our mostly basement-less neighbors to the south and east.

Last winter, Kansans learned the meaning of a Polar Vortex, where bitterly cold Arctic air pushes farther south than normal and stays for an extended visit. This unwanted imposer arrived again this year, much earlier than last. In the Midwest, we normally take the ebbs and flows of the weather in stride. We say the ever-changing seasons keep us healthy (cough, cough, sneeze, sneeze). We accept the alternating cold and hot temperatures like coastal dwellers accept low and high tides. We observe the patterns of Nature’s rhythms – some as predictable as the moon’s phases, others seemingly random – and we endure. As I observe a weather map showing the expected push of the current Polar Vortex, I wonder how far south I would have to travel to get out of the bitterly cold air. Everything around us is constantly changing, but most humans insist on staying put and being victimized by the conditions around them. Some mobile beings react to the natural ebbs and flows of nature by fleeing, while others go into hibernation. Not us, however – we stand, firmly planted, trying desperately and vainly not to change.

Perhaps nature’s ebbs and flows mirror our spiritual and emotional lives. Different environmental forces come and go, washing over us like the current of a river, before rushing on to points downstream. Boulders residing in midstream wear down over time, and so do we. Like the sedentary beings we are, we stand firm in the stream, fighting the natural tendency to float with it.

I am not suggesting we should roam like wandering nomads at the first sign of difficulty. Perhaps we could become a little less rigid, however, a little less proud, and a little more flexible. Perhaps instead of standing stubbornly in the muck of our own biases, we could move a little to the left or to the right in order to ebb and flow with the times, as well as to restore a sense of harmony – harmony within our being, with our environment, and harmony with each other. In life, as in music, harmony is beautiful when done well.

Come home to church this Sunday. Let the ebbs and flows of the Spirit wash over you.

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Selective Understanding 

The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel: For learning about wisdom and instruction, for understanding words of insight, for gaining instruction in wise dealing, righteousness, justice, and equity; to teach shrewdness to the simple, knowledge and prudence to the young – let the wise also hear and gain in learning, and the discerning acquire skill. Proverbs 1:2-5

Recently, I heard a young mother describe a concern that her 3-year-old son could not hear. She had his hearing tested, only to find he could hear perfectly well. She discovered, much to her chagrin, that he was simply ignoring her. A friend of mine who, like me, has been married for many years, jokingly says that husbands selectively lose the ability to hear sounds in the frequency range of their wife’s voice. Likewise, I have heard husbands complain that when they try to tell something to their wives, the words go in one hear, pick up speed, and go out the other.

This Life Note, however, is not about selective hearing, but about selective understanding. It is very common for two people to hear or read the exact same words and come away with two very different understandings. For example, a couple of months ago, I published a Life Note and received a kind response from a reader, as follows: “I was reminded today is a beautiful gift, and I am the one who determines whether it is a good day or bad day. I’ve reset and plan to have a blessed day.” I thought, “How wonderful;” but nowhere in the words I had written did I say anything about our choice in determining whether a day is good or whether it is bad. Somewhere in the intersection of my words and her life experience, an unintended understanding was born that was a blessing to her. Praise God for knowing what this reader needed to hear that day!

Selective understanding is an amazing gift of grace, for it allows us to receive divine insights tailored specifically to our particular needs at any given moment in time. The receiving of such an understanding has less to do with the actual written or spoken words and more to do with our willingness to be receptive. I have long known that the words I write often mean different things to different people. It is a humbling experience to hear from a reader about what something I wrote meant to them, knowing their understanding came from a source well beyond my words. I find Scripture is ripe for multiple and selective understandings. When the words and stories that have meant so much to so many for so long are meditated upon by those seeking wisdom, magical insights occur. Hearts can be mended, relationships healed, and lives redeemed. We must first, however, be receptive to the blessing and be willing to hear in a way that does not always anchor us to traditional interpretations or understandings.

Come home to church this Sunday. Open your heart and mind for a blessing!

Finding Grace tag

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The “I” in Faith 

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs on your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. Luke 12:6-7

We often hear the saying, “There is no “I” in team.” The thought conveys that the performance of the team is more important than the performance of an individual team member. Sometimes, what one must do to make his or her team successful is not that which will bring the most glory to the individual. Likewise, one of the most common setbacks for team success occurs when individuals perform in selfish ways that hurt the team. We say, “He (or she) is not a team player.”

Having faith, however, is not a team sport – having faith is an individual decision. While people often give credit to others for instilling a strong faith in them, faith can only take hold when a person makes a personal decision to believe. For example, I could easily say my faith was handed down to me from my grandparents, through my parents. Although my parents and grandparents were people of strong faith, my decision to believe – to develop a faith of my own – had to be mine. Furniture, property, pictures, life stories, and life lessons can be passed from generation to generation. Examples of lives of strong faith can serve as models, but for me to be faithful, I must decide to have faith.

So what, exactly, does it mean to have faith? Among the dictionary definitions are “confidence or trust in a person or thing” and “belief that is not based on proof.” For me, faith is a decision to believe there are forces at work that I cannot see, touch, hear, smell, or fully understand. For example, I do not understand electricity, but I use and rely on it all day, every day. I do not understand how the earth remains in its orbit around the sun, but every morning I believe the sun will rise. Having faith in a person or thing means we do not have to micromanage, or otherwise be in charge of or worry about them. We trust their functional design or their good intentions or their competence, and we rely on them – our faith instills confidence in their dependability.

Because faith is an individual decision, we can choose to have faith in different things and/or people, not all of which will be beneficial to us. Having faith establishes a connection that empowers both ends, meaning both the believer and the believed in. Once we believe in a benevolent God, we acknowledge and empower our connection with God and begin to see evidence of God working in our lives. Until, however, we establish that connection – develop that faith – we cannot see the evidence. If we chose to believe life is a random series of unrelated events, however, we establish a connection that will provide evidence for our faith in the chaotic nature of life. The choice is ours. And our choices impact how we experience life. Faith is not just about church, but about life.

Come home to church this Sunday. The choice for a life of faith is yours.

Finding Grace tag

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