Some New Thoughts on an Old Story

It is Thanksgiving weekend, and I certainly have much for which to be thankful.  But for the past two weeks I’ve been looking beyond Thanksgiving…to Advent.

I’ve preached tons of sermons over the years, but – until two years ago – I never was the primary pulpit minister.  As a result, I seldom had to present a holiday message.  Many of my colleagues in ministry have shared the opinion that “holiday preaching” is one of the most challenging tasks in all of ministry.  And now I tend to agree with them.

Why?  Because it is extremely difficult to preach about Easter and Christmas, year after year, and keep the message fresh.  These holidays define our faith in essential ways, yet the core story is contained in just a few Bible passages.  People enjoy revisiting these familiar stories, but – at the same time – no one wants them to become stale.

Some pastors I know simply give up, and refuse to preach holiday messages at all.  They create some other kind of sermon series – working their way through a relevant topic or a Bible book – and stick with that series right through the holiday.   I did that (sort of) two years ago, during my first Christmas at Garden Way, preaching just one seasonal sermon on the Sunday before Christmas.  And even that one message fit neatly into the larger (non-Advent) series I was preaching. 

I certainly understand the motivation for avoiding the annual holiday sermon series.  However, I’m not sure this is the best approach, for me or for the church.  It’s certainly easier on me as the preacher, but then the entire church (which includes me, by the way) misses out on the message and the meaning of the season.  And we all lose some of the spiritual rhythm of life that comes from taking time to step back and re-visit the foundational message of Advent: the arrival of God in human form.   

It is an amazing story…a life-changing story…that we cannot take for granted. 

So last year I preached a multi-week series that worked through most of the core Christmas passages.  It was delightful to do so for the first time, but then this year – as Christmas was approaching – I found myself in a quandary.  How should I attempt to “re-preach” some or all of these passages? 

One of the beauties of the internet is that sermon research is amazingly easy, so I’ve been perusing various websites in search of ideas for the Christmas season.  And I’ve discovered that other ministers – facing this same challenge - have come up with some wonderfully creative ways to proclaim the Advent message anew.

I have no desire to preach another pastor’s message, so I was not looking for sermons…I was looking for sermon topics.  I was hoping for a creative spark that would give me an idea for a fresh way to approach the familiar Christmas texts. 

My search was, to a certain extent, futile.  I did not have that “eureka” moment when I was hit by a flash of insight.  However, this search did get me thinking creatively about the Advent message.  In particular, I started to think more specifically about the people involved in the story.  About the ups and downs of their lives, particularly in the months and weeks leading up to the birth of Jesus.

And it struck me that far too often, I have approached Christmas as a bit of warm, comforting history.  As an ancient tradition, over which my family has laid its own traditions.  But to a certain extent, this has caused me to lose sight of the biblical story of Christmas.  I was forgetting that God intervened in the lives of specific people – people like Zechariah & Elizabeth; Joseph & Mary - at a specific moment in history. 

These individuals were not static characters in a play.  They were not “tools” to be used by God to accomplish His purposes.  They were real people, with real struggles and real challenges.  And because of His great love for His children, God did not just accomplish His purposes through them, He showed up to do something significant for them. 

All of this was churning around in my head, so I spent several days pondering…and praying… and reading (and re-reading) the opening chapters of Matthew and Luke.  And slowly, a theme began to emerge.  Slowly some ideas crystallized.  And ultimately the Lord enabled me to discover a new way to present Advent to the church this year.    

So in December, I will present five messages that wrestle with the question, “When Does God Show up?”  Here’s how I described this series to the church:

“Christmas is about God’s arrival in human form; that defining moment in history when Jesus came to live among us.  The Christmas season reminds us that God showed up in an amazing way to display His wisdom, His power, and His love for people. 

In this series of messages, we will explore the lives of some familiar characters in the Christmas story and see how God made His presence known before the birth of Jesus.  Speaking through angels and dreams, God showed up – in critical moments – to meet the heart-felt needs of His children.  And through Jesus, God still shows up to meet our needs today.” 

God shows up… 

When We’re Disillusioned (Luke 1:5-25)
The story of Zechariah & Elizabeth as they desperately wait to become parents

When We Least Expect (Luke 1:26-38)
The story of Mary and the angel’s announcement of her impending pregnancy

When We’re Confused (Matthew 1:18-25)The story of Joseph after he learns of Mary’s pregnancy

When Life is Hard (Luke 2:1-7)
The story of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus in the manger

Postscript:  Do We Sincerely Want God to Show Up? (Matthew 2:1-12)
The contrasting stories…and contrasting purposes…of Herod and The Wise Men

I’ve not yet written these messages, but I’m intrigued with this fresh perspective on Advent.  Just pondering these themes is building within me a sense of anticipation for the month of December.  I’m excited to see what God will say to me as I begin to craft these messages next week.

So I’m trusting that the preparation and presentation of these sermons will be a transforming experience for all of us.

I’m trusting that God will show up in our midst.

And I'm trusting that when God does show up, He will do so in an intensely personal way...desiring to work through us and in us...just as he did for our ancestors in the faith, during that very first Christmas season.

- Bruce

The Absence of a "Post-Vacation Letdown"

As we pass our 2nd anniversary here in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, I’ve been reflecting on the incredible change that has taken place in our lives.  We are in a new place, making new friends, participating in a new church, living in a house unlike anything we ever have experienced, and we are learning a new rhythm of life. 

How can anyone summarize all of this?

For me, the most succinct way to distill all of this down is captured in the title of this post:  “The Absence of a Post-Vacation Letdown’”.

Here is what I mean. 

By God’s grace, we live in a place of beauty.  It is green here all year round.  It is a place where we can work hard and be frenetic if we want…but it is a place where we easily can step back from perpetual busyness and experience peace.  And tranquility.  And silence.  We live in a country setting in the heart of town.  We can be outside of town in mere minutes.    

And it is green.  Oh, so green.

We have learned that for us, the green of God’s creation is life-giving.

Our life in Southern California was comfortable and familiar.  It was home; the place of our birth; the place where we raised our family.  It was a place of rich, long-standing friendships; people that we now miss intensely.  We lived in the center of an entertainment mecca, where there always was something to do.  But it was expensive and crowded…and it was green for only a few months of the year.

Getting established here has kept us busy, so our times away have been few.  Other than an overnight trip here or there, we had not taken a real vacation until we spent a few days camping in the mountains this past summer.  We were about 75 miles from home, and it felt as if we were in a different world.  And after a few days of kayaking, driving through parts of the Cascades, and taking long walks with our dog, we felt completely relaxed and at ease. 

In the past, on the last morning of a trip, I would find myself getting anxious about the return home.  I would be regretting the end of vacation and the return to our frenetic (though fruitful) life.  I would be planning our departure times to try to miss the worst of the LA-area traffic.  I knew that we would be coming home to summer weather that was hot and dry; that we would be driving past hills that were brown; that inevitably – despite my best planning – at some point we would be sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-5 or I-10 or I-15. 

In other words, coming home after a vacation was a real let-down. 

And all that changed this past summer.  As we packed up the RV and drove back into town, we passed from the green of the Cascades to the green of the Valley.  We traveled from one kind of beauty to another kind of beauty.  We left a place of vacation rest and returned to a home that also is a place of rest.

There simply was no post-vacation letdown. 

This was a transforming experience; another unexpected blessing of our move to this place.  Another reminder that the Heavenly Father knows what is best for each of His children…and He knew this place would be the best for us. 

In this place of beauty, where creation is green and lush, God is allowing us to find some space and to experience life in a whole new way. 

We are busy and productive, and we are at peace…whether away or at home. 

-      Bruce

Fan or Follower?

We are in the midst of a nine-week sermon series at church that is perhaps the most personally challenging series of messages or lessons I ever have presented.  The title of the series is, “Am I a ‘Fan’…or a ‘Follower’?  (The title…but not the substance of the messages…came from a book by Pastor Kyle Idleman entitled, “not a fan”.)

Each time we prepare to start a new sermon series, I share the idea and vision with the church through a brief written introduction.  Here’s what I wrote for this series:

Some 600 years ago, a humble follower of Jesus Christ wrote these words:

"Jesus has many lovers of His kingdom…but few bearers of His cross.  He finds many companions at His feasting…but few at His fasting.  All want to rejoice with Him…but few are willing to endure anything for Him.  Many love Jesus as long as no adversities befall them.[The Imitation of Christ, Thomas a’ Kempis]

You and I face the same situation today, don’t we?  It is so much easier to be a “fan” of Jesus than to be a “follower” of Jesus. 
Being a fan is fun and exciting.  Being a fan is about winning and losing.  About the adrenaline rush of the big play; the come-from behind victory; the stunning upset; the post-game celebration. 

Being a follower certainly has moments of great joy, but the life of a follower is different.  Following Jesus means we look beyond the adrenaline rush and we allow Him to invade the everyday, ordinary aspects of life and transform them.  We allow Him to fill our work and chores and relationships with spiritual meaning.

But there is more to being a follower, because Jesus wants all of us.  He wants our minds, our hearts, and our souls.  He wants to be the priority in our lives and – at times – move us beyond the comfortable routines in which we live.  He wants us to be willing to be inconvenienced in order to grow in our faith, because He is more concerned with our character than our comfort. 

Jesus wants to give us His best, and He only can do that when we give Him our best.  

So…are you ready to take a step of faith?  Are you willing to invest more of yourself in your relationship with Jesus?  Through this series of messages and LifeGroup discussions, He is extending each of us an invitation to become less of a fan…and more of a follower. 

The message this past Sunday (part four of the series) was on the cost of following Jesus.  In Luke 14:25-35, Jesus invites us to make a life-altering decision: to love Him more than anyone or anything.  He says that this should be our goal if we want to be a disciple.

I find the Lord’s invitation to be exhilarating, challenging…and oh, so convicting.  Because I recognize that there are things about this life and this world that I love, and – at times – I allow them to inhibit my faith.  At times I knowingly, willingly, choose to invest my time in activities that are not harmful…but neither do they enrich my spiritual life.

Sometimes I play a computer game, read a book, do a crossword puzzle…and then tell myself that I did not have time to meet with the Lord in prayer.  What am I actually saying to Jesus in that moment?  I’m saying that I prefer these other activities to spending time with Him. 

When I see this attitude in myself it pierces me to the heart, because it is the attitude of a fan, not a follower. 

I recognize that I always will fall short in this life, but I also know that my love for Jesus should be reflected in my priorities.  While there is nothing wrong (and much value) with taking time for some enjoyable rest and recreation, I cannot do these things at the expense of my spiritual nourishment. 

Marriage is such a wonderful picture of my life with Jesus.  I don’t need to spend every waking minute with my wife to demonstrate my love for her, nor do I need to spend every conscious moment talking to Jesus or thinking spiritual thoughts to demonstrate my love for Him.  But both my wife and my Lord need to know they are a priority in my life. 

And Jesus – my Savior, my Lord, my God – needs to be my highest priority. 

So I am praying and pondering what it means for me – as a husband, a father, a pastor – to love Jesus more than anyone or anything.  Each day.  In the myriad decisions I make about how to invest my time. 

Because I never want to be just a fan of Jesus…I want to be one of His faithful followers. 

-      Bruce

The Lavender Pavilion – First Steps

For almost two years, Bruce and I used this blog to chronicle our time of transition, from leaving our ministries in California, to our first seven months of life here in Oregon.  And then we took a break from blogging.  Now, after more than a year, it seems appropriate to once again share about our life and ministry here in Oregon, with a particular emphasis on an unfolding dream:  a place of beauty and rest, where women can come for moments of spiritual renewal.    

In a blog post written by Bruce in 2009 (“My Dreams for Julie, posted 12/12/2009), he shared about my call to pastoral ministry, shaped through the many years of service at our church in Southern California, and confirmed through all that took place during our Sabbatical.  He said he had dreams for me, and his fervent prayer was that these dreams would come to pass, so that I could use my gifts and talents for Kingdom purposes.

One of those dreams was to create a gathering place.  A room of quietness and beauty, where I could meet with women individually and in groups.  Where I could lead women through times of spiritual refreshment.  Where I could teach women how to have meaningful times of personal reflection, Scripture contemplation, and prayer.   His dreams also included a place where I could write devotional articles that would address the deepest needs of women; a way to share my heart for ministry through the written word. 

Needless to say, it meant a great deal to have my husband articulate this prayer of dreams that were important to me.   

Seven months later I wrote a blog titled “Pursuing A God-Sized Dream” (posted 07/16/2010).   I acknowledged the frenetic pace which I had lived for so many years, and the realization that many others – particularly women – do the same thing.  Because of my concerns, I had an idea to create a place for women to relax, experience beauty and serenity, and draw closer to God. 

But this idea never took on any concrete form.  It just continued to be a vague, unformed concept that I might pursue someday.   The months passed and these dreams simmered.  They were ever present, but there was little change or activity. 

And then, one day in April of 2010, God begin pouring plans – specific and concrete plans – into my mind.  For the first time, the dreams started to become real as God gave me a clear vision.  A vision of prayer rooms, restful gardens, and colors.  A vision to touch the hearts and souls of women. 

Since that day, the Lord has continued to feed me details about how to bring this vision to life.  And – as Bruce has prayed with me about these details - he has agreed with me that this is a vision from God. 

And so the months have passed.  We started our life here in Oregon, renting a 100-year old farmhouse from a member of our congregation.  We quickly fell in love with the stately trees, and the wrap-around porch.  This place speaks of history, and beauty, with many squirrels feasting on our nuts, and our sweet neighbor’s outdoor bunny, Farnsworth, hopping from pasture to orchard, and back.  After almost two years of waiting, and praying, we believed it was time to buy this home and property; and to begin building “The Lavender Pavilion”. 

To that end, Bruce has been clearing the blackberries out of the pasture, and uprooting the fence posts, to create a space that ultimately will become a large prayer garden.  At the moment, it is just a large and empty pasture…about 1/3 of an acre…but we can visualize an all-seasons garden with meandering walkways, benches, fountains, and reflecting pools.  A place to come and be still in the midst of this frenetic world.  A place to sit for a few minutes or an afternoon and spend time with the Lord. 

We are not sure of all the steps that need to be taken, but we are aware of many of them…and they seem daunting.  Energy, time, money will be required along the way, and we do not know how these pieces will fall into place.  But God has continued to lay this vision on our hearts – through our move, through transitions, through various jobs, and seasons.   And the vision becomes increasingly clear with each passing day. 

We can see it.  So stepping out in faith…even before the pasture is ready for planting…we purchased our first two trees: Japanese Maples.  Our hope is that these will flank the entryway to the garden, welcoming those who come seeking rest in the presence of God. 

So as we take each step, in faith, we simply trust that God will reveal the step after that… and the step after that.  

God planted this dream in my soul more than two years ago and now I can see it so clearly in my mind.  And now we are taking the first steps to make this dream a reality.  Thank you, Lord.   

-      Julie