Advent Practices: Love and Joy

For me, love and joy go hand in hand…partially because I ran out of time to write another blog post with the way that Advent fell  this year, but also because I truly believe that these two values feed off of one another. The kind of love that Jesus calls us to is a sacrificial love that often doesn’t feel very good. In the same way, choosing joy when something doesn’t go your way or you suffer a crippling loss can seem impossible.

Christmas reminds us that inconvenient circumstances provide a platform for living lives filled with love and joy. Whether you’re in line at customer service to ask about a gift on hold at Macy’s or swaddling a baby in a manger, these inconvenient circumstances are moments where we can move beyond our gut reactions and show others love with joy.

I can be pretty sensitive at times, which often gets me into trouble. This week, and in the new year, my goal is to remember the words of Ezekiel 36:26, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove  from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”

Through the power of Christ, I have a heart that is alive to love and a spirit that is anchored in joy. What would it look like if that heart and that spirit united to look past confrontations with coworkers and time wasted in traffic to lift spirits and point others toward Jesus? The power is present in our ability to remember the baby who grew up to love everyone joyfully, even when facing the cross.

Practice: This week, I encourage you to wake up each day and choose joy, reflecting on how that conscious choice affects your ability to love others well and spread the life of Christ.


Advent Practices: Peace

When I hear the word peace, the first thing that comes to my mind is being at the beach surrounded by white sand and blue water, reading Harry Potter or listening to my “Chill” playlist on spotify (it’s legendary). For many of us, peace is something that is associated with specific places or memories, but in scripture, we see that peace is something that we are called to in every moment of our lives.

Colossians 3:15 says, “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.” It is so easy to be consumed by anxiety in the Christmas season. Gifts need to be bought, final exams taken, visiting relatives coordinated with, but if we profess that Jesus is Lord, then we need to let God’s peace rule us instead of our busyness. What’s more, we are called to be thankful that God’s peace has dominion over our hearts.

In my life, peace is often in short supply. Making decisions and figuring out next steps can be overwhelming, but how would my heart be transformed if I actively embraced peace in Advent this year instead of stress? So this week, let’s reflect on how Jesus lived on this earth as a man of peace and let our expectation of his birth at Christmas remind us that the peace of Christ is always available for us to choose if we remember the Holy Spirit who dwells within us. We are members of one body who are called to peace, so seeking that peace is something that we must do together.

Practice: This week, spend a few minutes in prayer each day thinking about something that brings you stress or anxiety and actively choose to give that thing to God, making room for peace in its place. I’m not saying to shirk your responsibilities, but rather to remember that there will always be something left to do at the end of your day. Instead of worrying about what’s coming next, let God bring peace into your heart…it’s worth it.

Advent Practices – Hope

Hope is a small word that seems big. Many of us are familiar with hoping that our preferred sports team wins a game or that dancing with the stars has another season, but cultivating a life rhythm of hope is a new concept. We spend all of the Christmas season hoping that our loved one’s noticed our casual comment about how we need new running shoes, but that hope, like most of our hopes, is rooted in a one-time occurrence. The true hope that we are reminded of in Advent is the coming of Christ.

One of the many prophecies concerning the coming of Jesus is written in Isaiah 9:6-7:

 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.

Even though our liturgically inspired “hope” in this season is for the birth of a baby, we cannot allow ourselves to make that hope something that we experience once a year. Christmas reminds us of the freshness and new life that exists in our hope in Christ, and if we encourage ourselves to remember the promises of who Jesus is and what that means, we can grow into people of hope rather than being people who hope on occasion.

This week, my challenge for myself and for you is to cultivate the practice of hope in our lives. We need to seek the Lord for our own development this week, but I believe that making something like hope a rhythm of life entails injecting it into the way that we interact with others.

Practice: In your journal or on a sheet of paper, write down a hope that you have for three people in your life each day. Spend time (it only has to be 5 minutes or so if you’re late for work) praying that those hopes are expressed in the lives of each of those people.

Seeds of hope have to watered and tended to once they are planted. How are you seeing them grow?

Advent Practices

As the Thanksgiving dust begins to settle and our pie consumption transitions into YMCA memberships, it is important to note that we are also in a time of transition in the church calendar. Starting on Sunday, we will be in the season of Advent, one of my favorite times of year.

All too often, I feel that this time gets overlooked in our mad dash towards Christmas, but can we really blame ourselves? Not only do the advertisements we see from Walmart look enticing, we are caught in a societal rhythm that is dependent upon gift-giving. Although gift-giving is a good practice, Advent is a time for us to reflect on the greatest gift of all…the gift of Jesus.

One of the ways that the season points us toward this great gift is by how it identifies four specific qualities that are tied to Christ: hope, peace, joy, and love. Depending on the way your church does things, you may light candles each week that symbolize these qualities, or you may acknowledge them in the songs you sing or sermons you preach. What would it look like, though, if during Advent you tried to put rhythms in your life that reflect hope, peace, joy, and love?

Lent isn’t the only time of year that we can adopt practices for deepening our faith. This year, I’m inviting you to walk with me as I seek to discover new ways to draw nearer to the heart of God through these Advent values. I’ll be posting a blog every week during Advent with a short reflection, some scripture, and a spiritual practice to engage in each week during Advent. How powerful would it be if Christmas moved from being focused solely on presents to being focused on God’s presence?

Practice: Write down each Advent value (hope, peace, joy, and love) on a piece of paper that you can keep with you and spend a couple minutes each day praying about which value is most needed in your life. As you think and reflect, jot down thoughts or notes (even if its just a word or feeling) next to the four Advent words. On Sunday, look at what you have written throughout the week and offer it to the Lord as Advent begins.

To-Do Lists in Your 20’s

I have a love-hate relationship with my early 20’s. All of this independence is great, but going to bed when you want to loses some of its appeal when it begins to become yet another item on a checklist that never seems to end. Sure I had popcorn for dinner tonight, but I also have to worry about getting my emissions done, cleaning my apartment, and wait…there’s another person I see on social media that got engaged. Sometimes there’s only so far that popcorn can take you.

This morning, I was drawn back to the passage of scripture that made me start this blog years ago, Daniel 3. In it, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are thrown into a blazing furnace for refusing to worship King Nebuchadnezzar. God saves them, and the King says that, “…no other God can save in this way,” (Daniel 3:29). When I read this, I am overcome by two thing:

  1. God is so much bigger and more powerful than I give him credit for
  2. By trying to fit everything into my schedule, I’m trying to be my own god

If I’m my own god, there’s no way I could save someone from a burning furnace without a hose and someone else’s reaction time (let’s just say there’s a reason I didn’t make the state swim team). Even if I got them out of the furnace, there would probably still be burns. Nothing and nobody can do what God does, so why would we try?

I don’t believe that God wants us to cut all of the extra things out of our lives. Not paying taxes probably isn’t the best way to create margin in your life. The thing that we have to be aware of is whether or not we are pursuing fulfillment, passion, and satisfaction within the knowledge of who God is and what he is capable of, or if we are just trying to get through our list on our own. This applies to mandatory tasks, work, the fun stuff, and even our desire for things like marriage.

Being in your 20’s is just another stage of life to go through, and like all other stages, there’s parts that are great and parts that really suck. The key here is choosing which umbrella you’re going to let your life circumstances fall under and what your reaction is toward “rain.” Even though I’m not doing great at it every day, I’m doing my best to choose God’s umbrella, because his comes with a raincoat and raft, while the best umbrella I can find on my own is full of holes.

Who is captaining your ship right now? What are the things that overwhelm you and keep you from finding peace in the middle of your to-do lists? Isn’t it worth is to get to a place where the purpose and fulfillment are there regardless of how many items you can check off each year? Food for thought.


Roads Traveling

Inspired by Hebrews 12:11-13

It’s funny how roads bring us back

to haunts and hollows each season,

direction turning, heart yearning

to see a new way up ahead.

Like rings in trees, we age each year, 

memories spinning, refining

like bits of glass caught by the sea.

Discipline brings a full harvest

when the path is walked, each knowing

that though waves crash, they bring about

strength to stand, and smooth our edges.

As clinging sand washes away,

our feeble arms and weak knees leave

us walking, smiling in the wind.

Walls Broken, Gas Tank Full

This week, I am teaching the lesson in middle school ministry at the church where I work. The theme of the message is repentance as it relates to Jonah and his interactions with the people of Ninevah (Jonah 3).

As I was preparing, I had to think a lot about the word repentance, because it isn’t a word that frequents the lunchroom of most 7th and 8th grade students. I came across a good definition that labeled it as, “feeling real regret about your wrongdoing or sin, and expressing that regret.” In a nutshell, this translates to fully understanding our sin and how it hurts God and others, then asking for forgiveness.

Those of you who know me know that when I am going through something difficult, I handle it by going on long drives with no direction and blaring music. I realized this week, that in those moments, wedged between the concrete and a chorus from Simple Plan, my guard is completely down…the walls around my heart are gone. It’s in this space that God takes my pain and makes a metal bucket with wheels and speakers blasting punk rock holy.

The walls around our hearts have to be broken in order for repentance to have its true effect. It is imperative to remember that our hearts are sacred space, and they can either be gardened by God, or left in disrepair.

When you look at the story of Jonah, he repented to God in the belly of the fish, but as soon as he got to Ninevah, his walls were back and he was half-hearted about proclaiming God’s message. If we only ask for forgiveness in the moment, then we run the risk of keeping ourselves from the transformation that God longs to create in us. Life-change is a process.

Paul warns us about walls around our hearts in Romans 2:5 when he says, “But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself…”

Living with an open heart is hard, but we are called to be a people of repentance. We are called to be completely open to God so that he can heal us, and in turn, heal others through us. What do you need to repent this week? What walls do you need to break down for God? Just like taking a long drive, having your heart open to repentance requires some gas. Thank goodness for Kroger fuel points, and a God who is so patient with us.