Monday, December 24, 2012


2000 years ago, a young, teenaged, Jewish girl was visited by an angel and told that, although she wasn't married and hadn't yet slept with anyone, she would bear a son.  The name of her son would be Jesus and he would save his people.  He would be the one to sit on David's throne and rule forever.  The girl's name was Mary.

For some strange reason, after the angel told Mary that she would be pregnant, she didn't hear much else that he said.  She couldn't imagine what life would be like in a society that did not hold women in high esteem, especially if it was perceived that she had become pregnant after cheating on her husband or even sleeping with her husband before they had officially been married.  What would the people think, what would they say, could she bear the stares and the whispers that would inevitably ensue once word began to spread?  After all, in a small place like Galilee, the word would spread like wildfire.

But the angel told Mary not to be afraid and that her baby would be from the Holy Spirit.  He told her 6 words that would change her life, and ours.  He said, "For nothing is impossible with God."  That was enough for Mary to believe.  Her husband was visited by an angel as well, and he was convinced that this baby was from the Holy Spirit and there was no funny business going on with his fiancĂ©.

In the brief moments after Mary received her startling news, she was guilty of what so many of us are guilty of when God calls us to something, she saw the impossibility of the situation.  What Mary saw was how unthinkable and impossible her pregnancy could be, not the fact that God was the one controlling the details.  But over and over in Scripture, we see God accomplish the impossible and unthinkable through the improbable and unimaginable.  We see God call out ordinary people to be part of His story to accomplish His plan, and they always find excuses as to why He should choose someone else.

Moses stood in front of a burning bush that wasn't consumed and still told God that he couldn't speak.  10 Israelite spies came back from the Promised Land having only seen the impossibility of the situation, there were giants in the land that they couldn't defeat, how could they really take this land?  Over and over again, if we only see situations from our own perspective without a God's eye view, we will always come up short.  We will only see our weakness and the impossibility if we try to accomplish it in our own strength.

The Apostle Paul was familiar with weakness.  In fact, he had asked God to take away his weakness multiple times, but God's word to him should be an encouragement to us.  He said, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."  Paul understood that God's power would be made perfect and accomplish the impossible through his own weakness.  Mary came to that same conclusion.  In fact, if you read further on in Luke 1, you begin to see the transformation in her as she magnifies the Lord through her Magnificat.

While there are some that elevate Mary above others because of how the Lord uses her, both Luke 1:28 and 30 say that Mary was favored by God.  But the Greek word from which "favored" is derived in verse 28 and the word translated "favor" in verse 30 actually means "grace."  God extended grace to Mary for her to accomplish what she accomplished, and He offers that same grace to us, it's just a question of whether or not we will accept it.

God is calling us to accomplish great things, but we can't do it without him.  He wants to accomplish impossible things through improbable ways.  His ways are not our ways and what might not work out on paper in our minds is certainly possible in the hands of the Creator.  God wants us to dream dreams that are big enough that only He can accomplish them.  In fact, if the dreams we dream are big enough that we think we can accomplish them, we're probably not dreaming big enough.

This Advent season is a time where we reflect on the impossible accomplished through the improbable.  God's "true" tall tale was accomplished and the world will never be the same.  God is still in the business of accomplishing the impossible, are we willing to allow Him to accomplish it through us, as improbable and unthinkable as it might seem?

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

I Don't Believe in Westboro Church

I started a post yesterday and got a little bit into it before I gave up.  Something just wasn't sitting right with me.  To be honest, I've not spent a significant amount of time watching the news to hear the latest about the situation in Newtown, Connecticut.  I grew up not too far from there, so it's certainly a situation that is close to my heart, but other than continually reading the names of the victims, reading more and more people wax eloquent with their political views doesn't necessarily put me in a great mood.

Things are broken and we want them to be fixed.  The problem is that rather than find out how to fix them, we think that we need to somehow figure out who broke them to begin with.  Do you know who broke them?  We all did.

Some people within the church will say that throwing God out of the school caused this.  Some, like the people from Westboro Baptist Church, think that it's because Connecticut legalized gay marriage.  I honestly think that these viewpoints reflect a fairly limited view of God.

When Solomon was preparing to build the Temple of the Lord in 2 Chronicles, he said, "But who is able to build a temple for him, since the heavens, even the highest heavens, cannot contain him? Who then am I to build a temple for him, except as a place to burn sacrifices before him?"  Do we really think that we can restrict God's access to a place just because we "forbid" prayer in schools.  As I've seen it written before, as long as there are still tests in schools, there will still be prayer in schools.

While I have opinions about marriage, to think that a sad and broken individual's evil choices were caused by a state's decision to legalize gay marriage seems as ridiculous as thinking that Hurricane Katrina or the tsunami in Asia were punishments from God on evil nations.  Do we really serve a God who is simply out to get everyone?  Did He not send His Son, the One whose birth we celebrate during this Advent season so that people might be saved?  The Bible says that He is not willing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.  While I don't believe that everyone will come to repentance, there is a measure of rejection that is involved there, not necessarily on the part of God but on the one who rejects Him.

Every time that I heard my kids' voices yesterday, I began to cry.  I cried for the families whose Christmas would be a nightmare this year.  For all of the unopened presents under Christmas trees.  For every empty bed that was abandoned way too early.  For every parent's empty heart waiting to be filled with years and years of memories of birthdays, of graduations, of wedding days, and so many more special days.  I have a hard time believing that God caused that.

Yet people will ask why God did not prevent it?  A much trickier question, but a question nonetheless.  My best answer is this: I don't know.  Sure, you can look on Facebook and see pictures of 20 little kids running on clouds into heaven, but that doesn't really do the trick for me.  I'm not going to fool myself into thinking that somehow God needed those 26 people in Heaven more than their families needed them on earth.  But answers are elusive and that's not something that we as a society are accustomed to dealing with.  We don't like unsolved mysteries, we don't like things to be left unresolved, we want answers and we want them fast.

Somehow, I don't really think this whole thing is about guns and stricter laws, but I am sure many will disagree with me.  There's certainly something backwards in our country when the people who make the most money generally do it with sneakers, cleats, or a ball while those who make the least are the ones who are sacrificing for their time and additional income to teach the next generation.  Too bad we can't find a way to tax the entertainment industry higher so that we could afford to focus some additional funding and resources into our educational system.  Maybe we could somehow decrease class sizes, reduce teacher stress, provide them with additional resources, and actually let them teach something besides how to successfully pass the standardized tests that have become the educational holy grail for so many.

I can't change anyone else, but I can change me.  I can influence my children.  If they begin to show signs of instability, I can choose to ignore it, or I can address it and deal with it.  I can turn my back on the stigma that our society has put on mental illness and choose to advocate for healthiness and wholeness.  For now, that's what I will focus on, and at the same time, I will pray that the Shalom of which I read about in the Bible would surround 26 families in Connecticut, families to whom "Silent Night, Holy Night" will mean something very different this year.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Community vs. Commonality

I've been having a lot of conversations lately about the idea of community.  What is it?  How do we find it?  Can we conjure it up or does it happen organically?

Within the church, there are seasons in which certain buzzwords have become popular.  10-15 years ago, the big rave was "seeker sensitive."  Are we reaching the people who Jesus is trying to reach?  While the idea still exists and takes place within the church, it doesn't enjoy the same popularity that it once did.

Some of today's buzzwords are "community" and "missional" and "relevant."  Those are great words, it's just important that we legitimately try to understand these words before we begin throwing them around.  I certainly don't claim to hold the corner on the market regarding these definitions, but I am continually seeking understanding of them and how they are applied.

Over the next few posts, I'll do my best to unpack my understanding of these words.  I think that they're important for us to apply if we are going to seek to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world.  So let's talk about this idea of community.

When I was in high school, I took a class called "Humanities."  We had the chance to go into New York City three times for field trips, which was probably the main reason I wanted to take the class.  It was kind of cool that my dad was always asked to be a chaperone because of his knowledge of the City.  Somehow, I didn't really mind as a teenager that my father was going as a chaperone on a field trip.  At the end of the semester, we had to do a project and report.  I chose the topic of community.

I don't remember a whole lot about the project other than the fact that I lived in a fairly affluent town and I made some kind of correlation between community and the amount of money that one had.  Of course, I was young and idealistic (read: stupid?).  I think I was on to something, but my articulation of it wasn't refined.  Somehow I thought that the more money people had the less likely that they were to build community with the people who lived around them.

While that might be true to some extent, I have come to realize that community starts with commonality.  In order to begin to build a community, there needs to be at least a few elements of commonality.  Those elements can range from ethnicity to belief, from socioeconomic background to education, and on and on.  There seems to be an endless amount of possibilities on which people can find commonality.  But commonality does not make community.  Community goes deeper than that.

What I fear happens too often within the church is that we find commonality and mistake it for community.  We say that we believe the same thing and that we have the same moral values, and we assume that we are a community because of these commonalities, but we need to dig deeper.  The problem becomes when we either think that we have gone "deep enough" or when we think that we need to dig deeper with everyone.  Community is generally formed in pockets.

In the Book of Acts, we see believers who had commonalities that helped them morph into community.  Acts 2:44 says, "All the believers were together and had everything in common."  If you continue to read, you see that they really did have everything in common and that they were willing to make sacrifices for each other.  In order for us to really form community, we need to go beyond the pleasantries that we generally experience.  It's more than just a, "Hey, how's it going?" kind of greeting.

If we simply settle for finding common ground, we could be bound to simply form an environment of sameness rather than a culture of transformation.  Do we really want to simply surround ourselves with a homogeneous community that will only spur us on to all be the same, or do we want to be spurred on to look more like Jesus every day?

John the Baptist's words in John 3 are the standard to which we need to strive.  He said in verse 30, "He must become greater; I must become less."  We need to constantly seek after the image of Christ while still maintaining our personalities and giftings.  This can only happen in true community.  We cannot be changed in isolation.  While we can hear the Holy Spirit in isolation, our own objectivity is limited and we need others to help us see more objectively.  That's where community comes in, but we won't listen to people within whom we have shallow and surficial relationships, at least I won't.

I am being challenged in this idea on a daily basis.  There are many within the church who will challenge orthodoxy, but the beauty of community is that we have hundreds of years of history to lend us perspective and affirm the orthodoxy to which we ascribe.  In community, conversation can happen, if we are simply seeking commonality, other voices will be stifled.  Like I said, this is a constant "becoming" part of my life because I am far from an expert in this area, but I am striving to see less of me and more of Christ.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

5 Years

Five years ago today, we were a family of three.  All of our belongings had been packed up in a moving truck in Asheville, North Carolina and we closed on our second house in almost 7 years.  Life was changing and we were moving again.  Mechanicsville, Virginia, here we come.

It’s hard to adequately articulate all that has happened in the last five years.  It’s somewhat monumental for me and my wife that we have spent more time where we are than anywhere else as a married couple.  I have been at my job now longer than any of the previous three jobs before this one.  We have multiplied to a family of five and have seen both the difficulties of life as well as the blessings that God has afforded us.

Short of revisions to a graduation required paper, my seminary studies are over, at least for now.  We are doing our best to look forward rather than behind.  But looking behind is not always a bad thing.  I am reminded of the many monuments that the people of Israel set up throughout their 40 years in the wilderness.  They were reminders to them of what God had brought them through, of how God had provided, and of some of the mistakes that they had made along the way.

I don’t know what tomorrow holds, but I trust the faithfulness of God.  There is uncertainty and I feel unsure at times, but I know how His hand has provided for me in the past.  Five years ago, we had come to the end of a journey that had felt much longer than 3 ½ years and we felt called to move on.  We were uncertain and anxious about what to do.  It’s one thing to pick up and move as a couple and a completely different thing altogether to move as a family. 

The real estate market was beginning its descent into the depths of where we are digging out from now.  There were many houses on the market, we weren’t sure how we were going to sell our house.  It didn’t help that the timeline had been forced a little, not by my own hand.  What we thought would be a smoother transition was put on a fast track and we were nervous.  But should we have worried?

Well, we’re human, and that seems to be the way of things.  We are not perfect, but God showed us who was in control.  Within 10 days, our house had sold.  We were able to find another house in Mechanicsville, and the transition and timing which had seemed impossible to us, had become a reality.

Sitting here and contemplating these five years, it’s important for me to reflect on ALL of it.  18 months ago, I lost my mom, who was a best friend to me.  My father’s health has deteriorated, mostly from what I would call a “broken heart.”  I am not the person that I was five years ago.  Praise God for that.  I hope that I can look back in five years and say the same thing.

The words of the prophet Habakkuk seem appropriate to me:

Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.  The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to tread on the heights. (Habakkuk 3:17-19)

I am grateful for all who have been along on this journey with me.  Some have been on it with me for a long time, others for a shorter time.  Thanks for five memorable years in Virginia.  I look forward to many more.