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April 20, 2018

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Advent Reflections 2017

Madetomatter Advent Reflections--1 Dec 2017

 

 

Christmas...

                   ...Through the Eyes of New Parents

 

Do you have a friend or family member with a new baby in their home? Are you a parent yourself? Or perhaps you are a new parent yourself? As you read today's Scripture, try to imagine Joseph and Mary experiencing the birth of Jesus in much the same way you did.  The thrill of the first glimpse of the baby's face surely touched their hearts the way it did each of us with our children. How fragile the Christ child must have felt in Josep's strong arms. How sweet it must have felt for Mary to hold Jesus for the first time. The birth of Jesus is a real story with eternal implications, but it's also a true story with three-dimensional human beings feeling the same emotions, thinking the same thoughts as so many of us have done.  How loud the animals must have sounded to Jesus!  On this first day of Christmas reflection, take time to make the Savior even more real to you by connecting your memories as parents with those of Joseph and Mary and Jesus. 

 

Scripture reading: Luke 2:1-7  or for an expanded view, Luke 2:1-16

 

 

December 2, 2017

 

    Is The Fog of Life Enveloping You?

 

Christmas Stress

 

We love to imagine the Nativity as a happy place because it is the beginning of our own salvation.  But for Joseph and Mary, that night was anything but relaxing.  Imagine how difficult it must have been for them!  First, there's the stress of travel by foot and by camel, only to discover there was no decent place for them to spend the night. Now add to that the birthing process, which in the clean, clinical setting of a hospital is stressful enough, but to have your first baby in a strange place must have made Mary's discomfort infinitely more difficult. , as they are visited by an array of surprising guests, bringing both joy and gifts, they learn that Herod wants to kill Jesus, and they not only must flee, but they can't even go home! Now consider one more thing: Baby Jesus, like all other babies, is certainly picking up all the stress his parents are feeling.  Even on His first night on earth, Jesus was learning what it means to be human, and right now, as you read this under the stresses you face, remember Jesus is at the right hand of God advocating for us with an understanding borne of experience.  Jesus loves you is more than just a cute song; He loves you because He knows you.  

 

Scripture reading: Matthew 2:13-14

 

  Saturday Night Live?

 

December 3, 2017

 

If it wasn't a historical event, it might be the perfect script for a Satuday Night Live skit.  Imagine Stephen Colbert, Will Ferrell, Tim Conway, and  others dressed as shepherds in a field.  It's pitch black but for the brilliance of a billion stars visible on a moonless night.  Out of nowhere, a bright light explodes! Can't you just see Colbert, Ferrell and Conway playing stunned shepherds?  Now watch their faces as an angel starts to speak to them.Then follow that up with a giant choir bursting on the scene behind  the angel.  As funny as the three could play that scene, for a bunch of simple shepherds in the real field that night, the bright light, the angel, and the heavenly host were all real.  With one message: The Savior has arrived! It was an entrance fit for a King, played to an audience of a few lonely shepherds, a reminder this King is for everyone. Some night this Christmas, step outside under a moonless night and try to imagine that scene.

 

Scripture reading: Luke 2: 8-20

 

  All This to Pay Taxes?

 

 

December 4, 2017

 

We sometimes forget the reason Mary and Joseph were on the road when Jesus was born.  This new census established by Augustus Caesar served two purposes: It identified people who could be drafted to serve in the Roman army, and it was used to levy both a poll and land tex on conquered terriroiries in order to pay for the Roman Empire's vast expenses. Have you ever wondered by Joseph didn't leave Mary at home and just go to Bethlehem by himself? All evidence poiints to Joseph as a gentle partner to Mary, so it seems likely he would have spared her this uncomfortable journey during her last trimester of pregnancy. The reality is Mary had to be there, too, or else the Roman Empire would have to "trust" it's conquered peoples to declare accurately all of their family members. This census started a system that would play out in Jesus' life, because it created the jobs his future disciple Matthew and future convert Zaccheus would have thirty years later. For thirty years, Jesus heard the story of his birth, and likely the story included grumbling about the Roman taxes, and how hard the trip was on Mary.  As you read today's passage, imagine if you had to travel today to the place you were born, just so you could be counted and pay taxes. So many details packed into this story. So connected to real life, even today..

 

Scripture Reading: Luke 2:1-6

 

  Manure and the Manger

 

December 5, 2017

 

  Among the first things Jesus experienced on Earth was the smell of manure.

  From his first human breath, Jesus was collecting the experiences He would draw on when sitting at the right hand of God to speak for us. Are the smells of the barn familiar to you? When you are praying, Jesus not only hears your requests and praises, He knows the things your senses are experiencing. He knows you fully, right down to the smells of the places you labor while others are still sleeping. From Mary and Joseph Jesus would also learn the fears of young mothers-to-be and the struggles of a father to protect and feed his family. And so much more...

     Imagine, for example, the fears and doubts and emotions of refugees, who flee their homes and the ravages of war, famine and other terrors. Mary and Joseph had years to explain to Jesus what it was like for them to run to live, as Herod sought to kill Jesus. So, when refugees lift their prayers to Him: or when others lift them up to Him because the refugees are too weary or too terrified or even too angry to find words for a Savior, Jesus doesn't just hear the words; He connects them to the fears of His earthly parents in their own flight. Even the darkest corners of our soul are known to Jesus; those places only we visit and which make us believe we are beyond redemption. Even in those places, Jesus knows our thoughts and the damage we do dwelling there. When others cannot love us, Jesus will. When we cannot love ourselves, Jesus will. Even if our actions cause the world to draw away from us in revulsion, Jesus steps forward with arms extended.  

     So it is for each of us. With the birth of Christ, mankind could never again say "N one understands" or "No one cares."  Jesus understands. Jesus cares. By understanding us; by becoming one of us; and overcoming all the temptations we face, Jesus qualified to stand in our stead. He then gave up His life to erase the stains in ours. This King of Kings, born amidst the lowing cattle, the scratchy swaddling clothes, and the damp smell of a stable, chose to be in that place. He chose to experience the joys and sorrows, pains and triumphs, fears and comforts of a human life. Why?

     So He could lead us safely back to God. 

Scripture reading: Matthew 2:13-18

  Have You Seen the Baby?

December 6, 2017

     When the angels interrupted the quiet of the night long ago to tell a group of shepherds Jesus was born, even the angels must have wondered why God picked them to be told. The shepherds likely also wondered aloug: Why us?

      Why? Because a shepherd living off the land is as precious to God as a king. And because the ones who've seen the darkest nights know best just how much even the tiniest flicker of hope can light that night.  This Christmas, let we who know the Savior be those shepherds as we point our friends, neighbors and coworkers to the Light that never goes out.

      May this Christmas season find us waiting on others as we wait on Jesus.

Scripture Reading: Luke 2:8-20

   Holy Refugees, or "The least of these, my children."

December 7, 2017

As you read today's Scripture passage, try to imagine the fears and doubts and emotions of refugees, who flee their homes and the ravages of war, famine and other terrors. Mary and Joseph had years to explain to Jesus what it was like for them to run to live, as Herod sought to kill Jesus. So, when refugees lift their prayers to Him; or when others lift them up to Him because the refugees are too weary or too terrified or even too angry to find words for a Savior, Jesus doesn't just hear the words; He connects them to the fears of His earthly parents in their own flight. In this season, can you set aside political rhetoric and fear to open your hearts to those who have lost everything? Jesus reminds us He judges us on how we treat "the least of these, my children.", and He brooks no excuses based on safety, self-preservation or fear.  If we have, and if we are His, what we have  has been given to us by Him...with the reminder that "to him whom much is given, much will be required."  

Scripture Reading: Matthew 2:13-18

 

  Provision

December 8, 2017

One of the big questions for Joseph, after the Magi left and he was told to take his family to Egypt, must surely have been how to pay for the trip. The answer, of course, would have been immediately in front of him in the form of the gifts the Magi left for Jesus.  Remember, during this time, land was considered the measure of wealth, and even though Joseph was a carpenter, he would be leaving both his land and his regular customers behind during their sojourn to Egypt.  This, of course, explains why God brought the Magi into the story.  All too often we think of provision as being the miraculous providing of food and resources when we have no other way to get it. But God's provision is also occurring every single day in the lives of many when he makes them healthy enough to work, or gives them a job that enables them to make a living.  And what about those who lack? Just as Jesus left the building of His Church to a fumbling group of humans who would one day turn the world upside down; God tells we who have some to share what we have; and we who have plenty to give freely of our excess.  This Christmas, remember God's version of the Magi in your life; and ask yourself if He expects you to be a Magi in the life of others.  

Scripture Reading: Matthew 2: 1-12

   Extraordinary Ordinary Parents

December 9, 2017

Joseph and Mary were everyday people before God picked them to be the earthly parents of Jesus.  God chose well!  Consider Joseph, a man who could easily have dumped Mary publicly because she was pregnant.  Yet even before he was visited by an angel of the Lord, he had already decided to do whatever he could to reduce the embarrassment to Mary. What character that shows us!  Not only that, but he would willingly disrupt his own life and livelihood to protect Mary's baby, even though it was not his own child. Small wonder, then, that Joseph is gone from the family by the time Jesus was crucified, for he surely would have sought to physically protect Jesus even then.  And then there's Mary, who despite the visit from an angel must have been bewidered and overcome by what was happening to her; even fearful of what actions Joseph might take when he discovered she was pregnant. How strong she must have been to make a camel ride, or even sometimes to walk, to Bethlehem when she was nine months pregnant!  And how difficult to watch this baby she gave birth to be put on the Cross. As Moms everywhere will attest, even adult children are the babies they once were---in their mother's heart. It was to ordinary people Jesus was entrusted and how they proved worthy of that trust! As you reflect on Christmas today, remember we now have also been entrusted with Jesus. How will we handle our roles as His ambassadors? 

Scripture: II Corinthians 5:20

  ...Savior, Lord, Redeemer, + All-Around Nice Guy?

December 10, 2017

The names of Jesus are many, and each one carries a nuanced aspect of his role in the Kingdom of God. Angels declared Him a Savior, his disciples called him Lord, and we who have accepted His grace call Him our Redeemer. Yesterday we highlighted the ordinary nature of the two people God called to be His earthly parents.  We noted they rose to the occasion in admirable ways.  But what about Jesus? What kind of son was he? What kind of brother? There's an irresistible cartoon floating around the Internet that shows Jesus as a child with His mother Mary, and they're at the bathtub. Jesus is mischievously hovering over the water, and Mary is telling HIm: "Jesus, I said IN the tub!"  Cute as the idea is, it's not likely Jesus displayed His divine powers prior to the water-to-wine event thirty years later.  But are there clues in the Christmas accounts that poiint us to His emerging character? Today's Scripture gives us a fairly significant glimpse when the passage ends by telling us "He found favor in the eyes of God and men."  Yes, not only was Jesus strong enough to bear everything that would come His way; not only was He wise enough to discern who was playing Him and who was sincere; but He was, indeed, admired by the people He grew up around, as this passage tells us.  

Scripture Reading: Luke 2:41-52, with special emphasis on verse 52.

 

  The Real "Supernatural"

 

December 11, 2017

When Zechariah questioned the angel who brought him news that he would have a son, John the Baptist, the angel responded powerfully: "I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent..." (Matthew 1:19)  Think about that for a minute. When God decided to reveal His plans for humankind's redemption, He sent Gabriel--an angel who we now know "stands in the presence of God" as a messenger for a King or Ambassador might do.  With this visit, we learn anew that God is sovereign over even natural forces, and that He employs a force of angels unfamiliar to humans but completely unrestrained by the forces of nature. Many have tried to fashion Christianity into a religion that can be explained purely without the supernatural, but God has other plans.  He wants you and I to understand there are forces at work beyond the realm of our understanding, and we can be comforted by that fact.  As you ponder the Christmas story this season, count the number of times God employs supernatural acts and beings to introduce the world to its Savior.  While others may dream of Star Trek and Superman, we can dream of Jesus.  He who is All loves you enough to become a child in order to know you and serve you as He saves you. One day, we will be able to say with delight, I am (insert your name), and I stand in the presence of God.

 

  Who first reported the Christmas Story?

December 12, 2017

So how exactly did we get the details of that first Christmas so long ago?  Our Scripture passage today answers that question by telling us Luke had investigated what he was about to write, and that it had been passed down by eyewitnesses.  This is important because so many people today try to make Jesus' birth a myth instead of a real historical account, So who would have been the first I-reporters, the people who broke the story of Jesus' birth and held onto its' details until someone (Luke and Matthew) was ready to write it down for posterity.  The shepherds are logical candidates, and it's clear they did tell a lot of their contemporaries about the miracles they'd just seen. It's not unreasonable to assume at least some of those shepherds were still alive when Matthew joined up with Jesus, and as Jesus' ministry began, it's also reasonable to assume one or more of these shepherds showed up in the crowds around the now-adult Jesus to say, "I knew Him when He was a little baby."  Clearly, Mary would also  have been an eyewitness to nearly every aspect of the birth, and she would have been available to Matthew as well.  Herod's records would very likely have contained the details of the visit of the Magi, as well as the tragic murder of the boys of Bethlehem perpetrated by Herod. Parents and family members who lost boys on that night would have that episode imprinted on their hearts, and would serve as reluctant witnesses to Herod's terrible deed.  Luke, of course, would have polled James and Jude, the brothers of Jesus, who likely heard the story again and again around the family dinner table.  As you celebrate Christmas this season, with it's magical made-up stories like It's a Wonderful Life, A Chrstmas Carol, A Visit from Santa Claus and so many more, be sure to remember there's nothing mythical about Jesus' birth.  It was a real event with eyewitnesses who passed on the verifiable details to both Matthew and Luke, and likely many others, too.  

Scipture Reading: Luke 1:1-4

  Tears on the Subway

December 13, 2017

Father: "Answer me!" (The father is now speaking loudly, and to my ear, he's started to sound like he might explode in anger.) "I want an answer and I want it right now!" (These words were said in a shout, and the father seemed oblivious to the rest of us in the car. )

     Incredibly, the young boy still doesn't answer his father. His face and body language don't seem to be belligerent; he just looks like he's afraid and doesn't know what to say.  I'm getting worried because the dad is really big and the boy is really not big. I'm really not big, either, but I'm thinking this doesn't feel like it's going to stop with words.

     Then. Something. Incredible. Happened.   (Reflection continued here.)

 

Babies, babies, babies

December 14, 2017

So far we've talked about many of the major and minor characters in the story of Jesus' birth; today we'll talk about its star. (Pun intended.)  For years now, parents have known that the baby hears and feels things around them even while in the mother's womb.  In today's Scripture passage, we see evidence of that when the baby in Elizabeth's womb (John the Baptist) reacted to the presence of the baby in Mary's womb (Jesus.)  Imagine, for a moment, the sights and sounds baby Jesus would have been surrounded by during his time in Mary's womb. The sound of hammer on wood coming from Joseph's workshop may have startled the baby at first, but its constant presence would eventually have made it a familiar and welcoming sound to Jesus.  Think, too, of the gentle swaying of the camel ride; As the dromedary's long strides carried it forward to Bethlehem, shifting Mary side to side in a steady rhythm, it must have had a calming effect, much like a rocking bassinet.  The baby would also sense the mother's tenseness as the stress of finding a place that first night weighed on her.  Then, suddenly, a bright light shines on the newborn as Mary gives birth in what archaeologist's now believe was a cave that was being used as a stable.  The chill of the evening air made more pronounced by the dampness of the cave would be suddenly replaced by the comfort of swaddling clothes and a massive array of sounds and smells would greet the baby.  Few parents I know believe the line from the famous Christmas carol that says "the cattle were lowing the Baby awake, but litle Lord Jesus no crying He'd make."  Rule #1 in life is that babies cry; and Jesus would have cried that first night, also.  Why is it important to know these things? Because when the end of Jesus' life is told, it is imperative we understand that being God's Son did not mean He couldn't feel pain; in fact, it is his courage in facing what he knew would be terrible pain that makes His sacrifice ever so much more powerful as a measure of the love He has for us...including you.  Today, when you remember the baby, remember these were the first days in his journey into humanness, a journey that ends in our salvation. O joy to the world, a Savior is born!

Scripture Reading: Luke 1:39-45

 

  Are you struggling to find Christmas?

December  15, 2017

 

...For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost."---Luke 19:10

      For most of us, the search for the "Christmas spirit" begins shortly after we clear the Thanksgiving dishes. Some search for it in malls, where they hope the perfect gift will evoke perfect warmth, restoring broken relationships or taking loving ones to the next level. Others look for it in acts of kindness, hoping against hope to see a hint that something they did made a difference in someone else's life. Others search for "that feeling" in nostalgia, where a favorite movie or a special box of decorations calls to mind a tender time or a better day when loved ones now gone were still present, or where estranged family members were not so estranged. Many look to their faith, confident that the reason for the season will awaken in them the warm glow they once felt as a child, when Christmas plays were big family events and Christmas candlelight services overwhelmed their childlike senses. Mixed in with the faith crowd are the ritual and tradition folks, those who cling lovingly to the "way we've always done Christmas" to rejuvenate the damage done by overzealous marketing campaigns and over-the-top gift demands.  Some are so busy they never realize the holiday is upon them until it's too late to "feel it." Others are too lonely or too worried or too sick or too sad, and for these, the Christmas tunes make promises their hearts are convinced just can't be kept. In fact, most of us are like the shepherds sitting in darkness on that hillside long ago; we need a host of angels to shake the dust from our souls such that we're left with only this thought:

I need to see Jesus!

     But where to find Him? Here's the good news:

He's...looking...for...you!

      ---Are you the broken Christian, whose journey has taken you away from God, leaving you feeling unworthy again? Like the younger son in the Prodigal Son account, He wants to remind you that nothing can separate you from His love! He's watching for you right now.

      ---Are you the Christian trying so hard to obey His Word that you're angry with those who aren't? Has your outrage at the disrespect others are showing your Savior disrupted your loving-kindness, as it did the older brother in that same Prodigal Son account? God loves your respect for His word---and your obedience---but He wants you to have peace of mind. Jesus is looking for you, so He can tell you to let Him (Jesus) judge others; let Him change them: You be His angels this Christmas, finding new ways to break up the darkness around unbelievers with the good news that God is With Us!

     ---Are you angry Christians aren't what they should be? Jesus is looking for you, too, eager to let you discover He's everything you're looking for when you look at Christians. He's eager to show you His love, and to teach you that anger at others only punishes you.  Expecting Christians to be perfect pressures many of them to try too hard to be good (Martha) instead of learning to be in the presence of God, who teaches and shapes us for service.(Mary)

     ---Are you the lonely single parent left to raise your family alone? The person who's failed so often even you don't want to be with you? The addict whose body has sold your heart out, robbing you of the strength to even cry out to God? Jesus wants you to know He sees you made whole---some here and some not until heaven---but He wants you to know He sees you with eyes of love and not words of reproof.

     ---Are you the child whose parents are gone, or have rejected you, leaving you bewildered and stunned? Jesus wants you to know He is with you right now. He does not want you to feel abandoned; He wants you to rest your head on Him.

     ---Are you broken in hidden ways, desperately afraid someone will discover your secret struggles? Are those struggles making you ashamed to meet Jesus because you know He knows? He wants you to know you are fully known and fully loved!

      Wherever you are in your spiritual trek, Jesus waits to break through the darkness to shout "A Savior is Born!" as long and as loud as it takes to get you to decide to go look. For no one who approached the manger that first Christmas day, and no one who met Jesus on any day thereafter, ever came away the same.

      Let we who call Him Savior be harbingers of the hope that once brought us profound relief; and may we be found by Jesus tending even the worst of the wounded when He first hears them call out for Him.

      He always shows up. Always.

      That's the real buzz of Christmas.

 

  Slow Down; Breathe; Meditate; Pray

December 16, 2017

Imagine what it must have been like for the shepherds on the night AFTER the angels and heavenly host burst into view in their night sky.  The Bible tells us they left their flocks to go see the Baby, who was born nearby; and then they turned into a be-robed marketing operation, telling everyone they encountered what had just happened.  Even without television cameras and reporters, their next few days were probably spent telling the story again and again and answering questions about what it all meant. "How would I know?" the shepherds must have thought, even if they didn't say it.  For people used to quiet nights and unassuming lives, this must all have been a strange and perhaps difficult time for them. How would they handle it? My guess is they would have gone back to the campfire and the quiet explosion of stars in thier moonless nights.  There, their hearts would slow down, their heads would stop spinning, and they could take a deep breath and pray.  Today marks the last ten days before Christmas. How's your pace? Are you enjoying the journey to the birthday of the KIng?  If not, perhaps it's time to follow the shepherds.  Find a time and place where you can turn cell phones and entertainment media off and you can just sit queitly.  Slow yourself down; take deep beaths; then let your mind gradually carry itself away from the hundreds of thoughts rushing through it when you first slow down. Wait it out. The longer you wait, the better your head will clear itself of rubble until its just focused on the sights and sounds it sees right now. then talk to Jesus.  It won't matter what you say; eventually as you try to unload all you want to tell Him, the Holy Spirit will take over the conversation, and soon you will be listening again.  It may be that God will tell you something specific in that time; or it may simply be that God uses this time to help you to focus on the things that really matter. Like our response to Jesus.  Don't let Christmas rush past you without finding at least one time for you and God to be alone this season. 

Scripture Reading:  Psalm 46:10

  A Light in the Darkness

May there be a moment this Christmas season where the darkness that surrounds us is pierced by the Light that is in us, so that we may once again see out into eternity. And may we not forget that many who know the story of Christmas don't know it's meaning, and won't...until they can see the Hope born in Bethlehem reflected in us today.

Scripture Reading: Matthew 5:13-15

 

A Night about You

December 18, 2017

A long time ago, on a night history still records with wonder, the eyes of God looked down on us, and sent us His Son, a reminder that Someone was thinking of you, and me, that very night.

Scripture Reading: Galatians 4:4


 The Missing Ingredient

December 19, 2017

From the earliest days of the New Testament church, founded by Jesus during His time on earth, Christians have continually made the mistake of trying to  make the Kingdom of God about rules when it's supposed to be about the remarkable merging of grace, mercy and love.  This new mixture wasn't intended to fully erase justice and judgment, but it WAS created to change any person who met and accepted Jesus as their Savior and Lord.  The Laws given by God to Moses had proved to humans that no person could ever live a life so obedient, so holy and so circumspect as to make them worthy to be called a Child of God.  Everyone, no matter how perfect they seem on the outside, fails the test of the Law. (Romans 3:10; 3:23).  If we humans were going to be restored to God instead of wiped out by the punishments the Law demanded, salvation would have to come from God's side. It's easy to see why the Israelites would have placed such an emphasis on ebedience to the Law when God handed down portions of it to Moses. After all, more than a third of those who had escaped Egypt were already being buried in the desert for their direct disobedience to the life rules exemplified by the Ten Commandments. Even today, Christians and people who think of themselves as Christians are working hard to be strictly obedient to the Laws contained in the first five books of the Bible in the mistaken belief that God will grade on the curve, saving those who tried hard and obeyed the most.  Jesus brushed that aside quickly, telling His disciples (and us) that if we break even one law, we're as guailty as if we'd broken them all.  What to do, then?  We let Jesus live the sinless life; and we acknowledge that even though He was innocent, we were not, and then we're to marvel and be moved as we watch Him step up to be crucified FOR OUR SINS!. The rest, then, is history, literally and figuratively: Jesus conquered Death, rose to life anew, and waits for anyone who wants Him to be their Savior.  THE LIFE OF THE LAWS IS FOREVER CHANGED TO THE LIFE OF LOVING.  From the moment we meet Jesus and accept His salvation, ONLY love is an acceptable motive for our every action.  ONLY LOVE!  And yet, just as the Pharisees and Sadducees--and even Jesus' own disciples and the early Church of Christ--we find ourselves tempted to make the headlines of our public faith about the dos and don't's of following Jesus.  In other words, we misrepresent Jesus, and we sentence those who don't know Him to a battle they can't win: Obeying the Law we couldn't obey.  What causes this change  in us from mercy-receiving sinners to Law-toting accusers?  We've moved away from the Love that was Christ's motive in saving us; and we slip back into the human default of trying harder to be good....while trying harder to make others be good, too.  And yes, the Law is still important, but once we meet Jesus, He gives us the Holy Spirit to help us understand it is God who will make us holy as we love Him--and others--expressing that love in every encounter both public and private, and resisting the urge to become enforcers for a Law we can't keep on our own best days.  This Christmas, let's meet Jesus afresh, and bask in the love that made Him become the Baby in the Manger and the Man on the Cross.  As we do, let's ask Him to teach us how to love as He loves; and how to make that love the central ingredient in every act of our time on earth.  

Scripture Reading: 3:9-12; I Corinthians 13

 

   Everyday Angels

December 20, 2017

New York City reporter Jacob Riis made it his business to let the world know what being poor was like.  His vivid descriptions of ghetto life in 19th century New York horrified a generally complacent public.  His "magic lantern show" of photographs taken of the poor in New York so stunned lecture halls that his audiences felt they were present in the tenements themselves.  Many fainted, and it is said not a few talked aloud to the people in the photos.

Riis' book, How the Other Half Lives, combined his writing with his own photographs to paint a picture so vivid the public could not escape the certainty of its existence. The third of fifteen children, Riis wrote so effectively because, once upon a time, he lived in that world of terrible despair.

 

Shortly after the release of his book, a card was delivered to Riis from a young man only then beginning his political career.  The card read simply, "I have read your book, and I have come to help.  Theodore Roosevelt."  

 

Hard-nosed, skeptical, world-weary Riis immediately became a disciple of the future President for life.

 

------------------------------------------

 

The birth of Jesus announced to the world God's greatest gift to His children: Unmerited salvation and a restoration to the presence of God. That gift in all its amazing glory, should change us forever, inspiring us to love and serve not only the giver of our salvation, but to also serve other humans in need of both salvation and sustenance.  It is not enough for us to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, to successfully conquer obstacles and become self-sufficient. Our individual lives must be trailblazing, leaving not scorched earth but well-lit paths that others may follow out of the same perilous plights we once faced.  We owe it to the tired and poor to call attention to their plight and not merely celebrate the fact that we made it out of that morass ourselves.  We owe it to our God to love others so much that the memories of their poverty wrest us from our complacency to a place of action. 

 

Scripture Reading: James 1;22

 

  We Encounter Real Angels

 

December 21, 2017

 

The wind chill was nearly 40 below zero when Cheryl and I spotted an elderly, well-dressed gentleman standing by his car on the other side of I-89 north in New Hampshire.  We were headed north when we spotted him, and instantly we agreed we had to turn around and help. "Did you see his eyes? Cheryl asked. "I felt like he was making direct eye contact with me across all this distance!"  I was surprised because I was about to tell her the very same thing. When I saw him, I felt as if our eyes locked; it was a powerful and intimate connection, we both acknowledged, which only made stopping to help more necessary.  A gravel crossover meant to be used only be emergency vehicles appeared immediately and we turned around-----to absolutely nothing!!  In seconds at best, if human explanation was all that was available, the elderly gentleman had raced to his car, swung open the door, leapt in, closed the door, and then sped off at an incredible speed. Now that's assuming he had his car running already and he didn't fasten his safety belt.  In other words, it was impossible for him to be gone and yet he was gone. Curious, I raced ahead just to see if we did indeed see only a human who was faster than we believed but there were no cars to be found anywhere for the next few miles. Eventually, we gave up the chase, and traded information that made it clear to both of us we had just witnessed an angel.  But to what purpose? Were we spared from an accident? Was our day altered to ensure we crossed paths with someone God wanted us to see or talk to later that day?  That answer awaits us in heaven some day, as the only thing we know is that two very down-to-earth, practical Christians were given the chance to witness firsthand that angels aren't merely a detail added to romanticize a Scripture story.  They're as real today as they were during that first Christmas, when they contacted Zechariah, Mary, the shepherds, and Joseph all those years ago.  Even today, Gabriel stands in the presence of God, ready in an instant to deliver whatever word (or Word) God wants a human recipient to know is divine. That was why the angels were involved in Jesus' birth; to stamp its significance with a supernatural assurance that God was at work in those events.  (Stay tuned for tomorrow's reflection, when Randy shares a second, more purposeful encounter with an angel in Washington, D.C. 

 

  Encountering An Angel with a Purpose

 

December 22, 2017

 

In the mid-1990's, I was at the National Archives in Washington, DC, researching a book. Having spent the entire6++ day there, I emerged into darkness and, it being a warm night, I decided to walk back to my hotel from the Archives.  What I failed to realize, however, was that I was walking the wrong direction. Tired and distracted, I didn't even notice I'd left both the office and residential areas behind and was now entering an industrial park section, dimly lit and with no other humans in sight.  Suddenly, from nowhere, the driver of a yellow taxicab driving the other direction, whipped his car around and pulled up beside me.  An African-American driver in his mid-fifties with a big smile rolled down his window and simply said, "Hop in, Randy!"  A  little shocked, I asked how he knew my name and he pointed to the big name tag on my blazer.  With little hesitation and no sense of foreboding, I jumped into the back seat and told him where I was headed. As he drove, he told me I was heading the wrong way, and explained he had pulled over because it was pretty clear I didn't know where I was going, since I was about to head into a particularly dangerous section of the city. I thanked him and asked him questions about his life. He told me he was "attached" to a Baptist church he named which I assumed meant he was a tentmaker---a pastor or church staff member who worked other jobs in order to earn a living without burdening a congregation with a salary.  It felt like it took forever to get to the hotel, but we finally made it. As I pulled out my wallet to pay him, he put up his hands and asked me to give the doorman a big tip instead. "This one's on me," he laughed.  "After all, I really didn't give you a choice about riding with me."  Then, before I left the cab, we prayed for each other. 

 

I stepped out of the cab and had taken about three steps when I remembered I hadn't asked for his card; thinking I could repay him by calling him over the course of my next week in Washington.  But when I turned around THERE WAS NO CAB OR CAR IN SIGHT--anywhere!  I was stunned. I even walked into the middle of the street to see if that vantage point would show me something I had missed. It didn't.  So I quickly walked up to the doorman and asked if he had seen where my cab went.  "Cab," he said, "What cab? I didn't see a cab. It was pretty weird actually, because I remember looking up from my magazine and seeing you there as if you'd come from nowhere."  Now completely baffled, I told him the story of how the cab driver had picked me up. He shook his head and told me I was "blessed" that the driver had stopped, and then he explained how dangerous the area I was walking in had become.  After a bit, I offered him the money from the cab ride as a tip, but he refused it.  "We can't take tips," he said, nodding to the hotel office as if it was a policy.  So I walked inside and chatted with the desk attendant, who seemed truly interested in what I'd just been through. "Wow," he said, "maybe it was a ghost!" Then he paused, and said, "Or an angel!". It was only then that it struck me: I really had just seen an angel.  

 

Before I headed up to my room, still in shock, I complimented the doorman to the desk clerk for adhering to the policy of not accepting tips.  With a look of real bewilderment on his face, the desk clerk shook his head. "Sir, we don't have doormen. I'm the only one on duty this evening." Sure enough, when I walked back to the front door, there was no doorman, no seat by the door and no magazine, either.  

 

For a second time in my life, I'd seen an angel, only this time the purpose was clear: Keeping a distracted writer safe from his own carelessness.  

 

I now had a taste of what it felt like for the shepherds, Mary, Joseph and others to have a corner of heaven pulled back long enough for God's messengers to break through.  And it was a reminder that the God of yesterday is the God of today, deeply invested in the lives of His children.  May we each find the same reality of God's presence through the miracle of His Word--the Bible.

 

  Do not be afraid!

 

December 23, 2017

 

The world was a scary place when Jesus was born. Rome had conquered most of the world, and resistance was met with brutal reprisals. Freedom was a word on no one's vocabulary, and the idea of peace on earth was a distant dream.  For the shepherds, a tough group of brave souls who slept in the fields and fought off the predator's of their sheep, their dark night was about to become even more frightening as they witnessed first one and then an explosion of heavenly beings sent to deliver a message to the world through them. Likely frightened beyond words, they heard this sentence: "Do not be afraid."  That alone would have been enough. But the angel continued: "I bring you good news of great joy." And then this: "A Savior has been born to you."  Even the heavens couldn't contain their glory, as the heavenly host burst onto the scene and added this message: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom His favor rests."

 

The world is a scary place today, too. And the message of that birth night long ago is our message, too. "Do not be afraid. Our Savior has been born." And we know the rest of the story, for He conquered sin and death and made it possible for us to wear the robe of His righteousness in order that we might once again enjoy fellowship with God both now and into eternity." Who will you tell today?

 

Scripture reading: Luke 2:8-13

 

  As a mother loves her child...

 

December 24, 2017

 

...so should we love others. As we celebrate the Incarnation, be encouraged by the power of the first Christmas to ring out in the darkest places, changing even the gruffest cultures into reflections of His glory.  May the joy of the His birth ring in our hearts and echo through the canyons of our souls this Christmas season.  And may we never forget we serve a King who loves every person. Every person.  As should we.

 

Scripture Reading: Matthew 22:34-40

 

...A Child is Born!

 

I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.

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