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Sunday, December 10, 2017

Second Sunday of Advent: Peace

Scripture Reading: Luke 2:8-16

While Simeon watched the sun go down in Jerusalem (remember the story from last week?), little Benjamin huddled close to the fire. As soon as the sun had slipped below the horizon, the wind started. It was a cold, biting wind and Benjamin quickly grabbed his cloak. His father, James, looked across the fire at Benjamin: “Getting cold, son?” he asked.

James was a rugged man. His hair was tossed and his beard tangled. And he smelled like sheep. But Benjamin didn’t notice—his dad always smelled like sheep… or did the sheep smell like his dad? “Benjamin,” his dad called again, “are you dreaming already?”

Benjamin shrugged his shoulders. “Just a little cold,” he said. His father nodded. “It looks as if it will be a cold night tonight. Why don’t you go look for more firewood? We’ll be out here until the sun comes back.”

“Ok.” Benjamin said quietly.

Have you ever been in a dark place where the wind howls and there are no electric lights? Benjamin hated the dark. There were coyotes out there, and maybe even wolves. His friend Simon, the son of another shepherd, even saw a bear one time. Benjamin did not go far, picking up dry twigs and sticks from the shrubs in the field. He wished he wasn’t so afraid all the time.

Benjamin was afraid of spiders, ants, flying bugs, and big fish. He was afraid of being in tight spaces, swimming, and being alone in the dark. But most of all Benjamin was afraid of the Romans. Big soldiers with huge swords and tall helmets. They weren’t very nice to his people, especially a shepherd’s kid like himself. One time he was taking food out to his dad in the field and a soldier took it away from him. Another time he was laughing on the road with his friends and a drunk soldier got angry and started throwing rocks at them. One of the rocks had hit him and knocked him to the ground. He touched his shoulder where the bruise still smarted.

Benjamin was pretty sure he had enough wood now—maybe one more stick. His back was to the fire, and he bent down to pick up one last big one.

But just when he was bending down, his shadow grew long, and he could see everywhere. Something bad was happening. He wanted to run to his dad. His dad always knew what to do. But if he turned around, he’d have to see what was making the light. He could hardly breathe – he turned to run. He saw two things at once. The first thing he saw was his dad on the ground covering his face, and second, a huge person in shining armor with a huge sword on his back was somehow floating in the air. Benjamin couldn’t breathe. He could feel the fear in the tips of his fingers and the bottoms of his toes. He heard his heart pounding in his ears. And just when he thought he could take a breath, a voice boomed across the field with a voice so loud he could feel it in his chest…

“Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
              “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
(Lk 2:10-14 ESV)

And then, as suddenly as they had come – they were gone.

Discussion Questions:
What is something you are afraid of? What is something you worry about? (fear and worry are close friends!)
What do you do when you’re scared and/or worried?
The angels brought a message and a blessing: what was the message? And what was the blessing?
The Messiah was to be the Prince of Peace. Peace from violence and evil, but also peace from fear, worry, and anxiety. What do you think our Prince of Peace wants us to do when we’re afraid?

Song: Angels We Have Heard On High

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Hoping and Waiting - First Sunday of Advent

Scripture Reading: Isaiah 7:14; 9:2-7; Luke 2:25-26

Simeon was young when the Romans had come. But even now in his old age, he could still hear the pounding of feet on the street, the ringing of the swords; the shouts of the guard;, the groans of the wounded. And the smell of blood--oh how he wished he could forget. His people was a conquered people. For a hundred years they had scratched out freedom, but it was short-lived. Now even as he walked through the city some forty years later, Simeon could feel the eyes of the Roman guard boring into his back.

Simeon loved this city. Once the seat of glory and conquest, now a symbol of resilience and of the faithfulness of God. It refused to be permanently destroyed. They would always keep on rebuilding. 

Oh, his knees. They creaked with every step Why so many stairs? Slowly, one at a time, up, up, up to the temple. When he was a boy he used to run up these steps – sometimes two or three at a time – always with his mother calling for him to slow down--it was, after all, the house of God! The great temple that had been erected while the Persians ruled them. Babylonians. Persians. Greeks. Romans. They all blended together now. And somehow, even after 500 years of being back Jerusalem, it still felt like they were not yet home. When would God really bring back the kingdom? Like the days of the David the Great: Slaying giants, routing thieving marauders, keeping those pesky Philistines in check. Those must have been the days! Could you imagine the celebrations of King Solomon the Wise? Banners fluttering in the breeze, music laughing through the air, wine flowing freely, people worshiping Yahweh without the sneers and snickers of the Romans.

Suddenly Simeon realized that he had reached the top of the steps. There he was, lost in thought again. Maybe today would be the day.

“Peace, Simeon.” It was Caiaphas, the young priest. “Coming to watch again?”
“Peace, Caiaphas. God has promised that I shall see him with my own eyes. I will not stop coming until I see his face.”

“If you say so. Do you think he could really overthrow the Romans?” Caiaphas’ voice lowered to a whisper. The Romans did not tolerate insurrection. Caiphas’ friend Simon had been tied to a post and whipped only last week just for rolling his eyes at the guards. He couldn’t be too careful.

“Need I remind you of the great escape from Egypt?” Simeon wasn’t as quiet as Caiaphas would have liked. “Pharaoh’s army was the strongest in the world. Nothing stood in his way. And our people were only slaves. The whole world saw that day that nothing is impossible for God. My young boy, with God, anything is possible. Never forget to whom you offer sacrifices, my child. Even under Roman rule, the LORD is God, and we are his people. He will not forget us. He will be true to his word. I just hope he comes soon”

That night, after another long day of waiting, Simeon watched the sun dip below the horizon - fiery clouds lighting up the sky in a fearsome display. “God of Abraham and my Fathers. Do not be far off. Do not wait forever. I put my trust in your promise, my hope in your goodness”

What was the promise given to Simeon? What was he waiting for?
What did Simeon do (something what God’s people often do in Scripture) when Caiaphas questioned God to Simeon?
What is it that we, as the people of God, wait for today?
Do you sometimes doubt or question God?
What things can we remember in history to remind ourselves of God’s faithfulness and power?
How has God shown his faithfulness and power to our family?

Just as the Jews waited for the Messiah to come, we too wait only now for his second coming. 
Sing together: O Come, O Come Emmanuel

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Commencement Speech for Silas, June 11, 2017

“Guard the deposit entrusted to you”

We’re here to celebrate Silas’s graduation. But Silas, you haven’t accomplished much.
In a fact, everything we’re celebrating today is a gift that has been given to you. There have been sleepless nights devoted to your arrival at this moment. Thousands and thousands of dollars spent. You love to read. But that didn’t come from you. It came from hours and hours of books upon books being read to you. You love to learn and love knowing things. But that love of knowledge and learning was imparted to you from someone other than yourself.

You have not scaled an impassible wall, nor have you swum the breadth of the ocean. You have actually accomplished little in the grand scheme of things. You were simply given a gift. You have been entrusted with an upbringing and an education that had at its climax, this ceremony: which signifies an end not only to your secondary education, but to your childhood.

But your upbringing and education is not all that has been entrusted to you. You have been given a gift much more valuable than this. You have been given adoption papers, an inheritance of kings.

And now you must finally address the question: who are you going to be. Not what, but who.
Silas, you might be one of the smartest people I know. But being smart doesn’t ensure success. Nor does wisdom, with all its virtue. Even the wisdom of Solomon in all its splendor was not enough: “For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods and his heart was not wholly true to the LORD his God, as was the heart of David his father.” (1 Kings 11:4)

Silas, You have been entrusted with much more than an education towards knowledge and wisdom—you have been entrusted with the treasure of knowing Christ. In addition to the two pillars in your life, there have been many others cheering you on in your race pointing you towards the finish line.

Run, Silas, run! Run your race with wholeness of heart! Run with character and integrity! Run forgetting what lies behind. Run without a word of complaint. What more would we expect than that the road be filled with danger?

In his final letter to his dear friend Timothy, Paul writes a phrase which I leave with you:

"By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you." (2 Tim 1:14)

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

What Does It Profit The Kingdom To Build A Great Ministry And Forfeit Your Children?

     The missionary home is a breeding ground for unhealthy levels of stress. Here are ten suggestions to help mitigate the effect of stress on your MKs. These are things you probably already know. Consider them reminders in the middle of the craziness of life
  1.    Develop routines and traditions: Friday pizza night, Waffle Wednesday, Afternoons at the park, whatever fits your family. Adults and students alike function better when they have an idea of what to expect. And try your hardest to keep traditions you had before moving. Guard these with everything you’ve got!

  2..       Always take a deep breath before reacting responding in anger or frustration. Always good to do—but crucial in these moments. Are your kids acting up out of rebellion, or a call for attention? Many kids don’t know how to process what’s going on around them and the unprocessed stress results in behavioral outbreaks. One day just try and offer them a hug and help them find the words.

    3.       If you’re in Language School, stay out of ministry that demands responsibility. Everyone hates this. Really. But your family needs you more than XYZ ministry.

  4.       Realted to that, don’t fill up your plate. Every time you say ‘yes’ to one thing, you say ‘no’ to something else. In the heat of transition stress, you need time to process and debrief. Every. Single. Day. No matter what you were used to. And your family needs you more. Every. Single. Day. Make it your ambition to live your first year abroad as un-busy as possible.

  5.       Take your Sabbath as if it were commanded by God (Oh, wait…). I do not know one single missionary who does this well (as far as I know). Turn off your phone. Don’t touch the laptop. No ministry. No emails. No meetings. No homework. God, Rest, and Family.  

Photo from Huffington Post
  6.       Do not have a ‘Discussion’ in front of your kids. You and your spouse have mountains of things to talk about. Trouble with finances, trouble with the sending organization, trouble with other missionaries, trouble with the family, trouble with ministry, trouble with friends or family back home. DO NOT have these conversations in front of your kids, whether they’re 2 or 18. They don’t need to carry that. Even infants pick up on parental stress. Go on a walk, go on a date, wait until after bedtime—FIND A WAY TO MAKE THIS HAPPEN! You can worry about modeling how to fight well later.

  7.       Find situations that are OK for them to control, and give them the freedom to make as many  decisions as possible. These don’t have to be big (although the bigger the better). But kids of all ages in transition are completely out of control. Like you. At least you were the one who decided to move and where to go. Give them two or three options of what to eat for dinner, let them pick the family game or the movie, give them the option of picking the next family activity let them decorate parts of the house... anything to give them the feeling of not being absolutely out of control.

  8.       Schedule in family play time during the week. Your kids need you. Even if they’re ready to graduate. Give them time during the week, not just on your day off. Don’t be on your phone at the dinner table, and don’t study the hour before bedtime—both things I have been guilty of, by the way. Sometimes I have to schedule it on my calendar to make sure it doesn’t get moved. In our society, the calendar is sacred, and nobody challenges a calendar appointment! (Although it might be different in the culture you live in now!) What makes you all laugh? Do THAT. Laughter, Biblically and scientifically, is proven to lower stress.

  9.       Try and bring your kids into the loop whenever possible. At the end of the day, debrief it with your kids, and then go over the following days’ events so they have a chance to process the day and know what to expect. All of us adults know how hard ambiguity is to live with, and we forget that kids live with 10 times as much as us!

  10.   Keep Christ the center of your life. Not just theoretically, or doctrinally, but pragmatically. Guard your time in alone with the Lord. The demands of the family are loud. Ministry is so needy, will eat your soul if you let it. You can only be as good a parent and as good a minister as you are a disciple. How are you really doing? Your kids know whether or not you’re spending time in the Word and in prayer. Invite them to join you sometime. 

     BONUS: Don't yell at your kids. Everything that needs to be said can be said without yelling. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Commencement Speech for Suzi's Graduation

June, 2016

I am much honored to be asked to share some thoughts as we celebrate Suzi’s graduation today.

Suzi has been an instrumental part of Youth Group. Ever since we moved here almost 3 years ago, we’ve been friends. Suzi joined our student leadership two years ago, and her dedication, focus, and hard work have been an example not only for other youth group students but also for me. She would bring focus back to our student leaders meetings when the rest of us would be running off on rabbit trails. She would leave little room for complacency among her friends. Suzi is a passionate person.
I can honestly say, I don’t know what I’ll do without you. If any of you are familiar with the AMCA International Youth Group, you know that things tend to change often. In the midst of the comings and goings, all the hellos and goodbyes, Suzi has been a constant factor, not just in Youth Group, but in my family’s life. Suzi I want to say Thank You for touching me and my family.

One of the qualities that is most important in a person is that of a moldable and teachable spirit. To realize that there is knowledge and understanding far beyond what we have achieved, and to learn both from your own experiences and from others. A love of learning will get you far in life. The willingness to learn is strengthened when kept in place by firmly grounded convictions. Not blind opinions or prejudices, but calculated, well-thought-out convictions. And the more embedded in the Word of God these convictions lie, the stronger you can hold to them. Biblical convictions will last longer, and carry you farther. Convictions anchor us in the chaotic sea of relativity. They keep us from learning and adopting wild and ridiculous notions. If a teachable spirit is like a river rushing you forward, your convictions are like the banks of that river, giving it boundaries and direction, and distinguishing river from marsh. We learn and accept truth within the boundaries of biblical truths and convictions. Suzi, over the last two years, I watched you walk this tension of being teachable, yet holding fast to the authority we find in Scripture. We’ve had many discussions and conversations over the years. We’ve sat by campfires, rivers, waterfalls, and pools, in this room, and in forests. And now as you graduate and fly into a new adventure I appeal to your teachable spirit one last time; allow me to leave you with two last thoughts that the Spirit has laid on my heart for you.

In ancient times, a King named Asa ruled the land. He was a young king who had inherited the throne from his Father. The land he ruled was plentiful and he had a kingly duty to protect it from those who would seek to come and conquer the land and enslave his people. So he built strongholds in the land, and he raised up an army of strong and brave men. Half with large shields and spears, and the other half of bowmen. His mighty army was 600,000 strong. A deadly force to be reckoned with.
But there arose out of Ethiopia an even greater army. An army of one million soldiers with resolve to take the land out from under the young King, to enslave the people and plunder the land. No fortified city could stay the surging sea of this massive force. It would be like a sand castle on the tide line as the ocean comes in. One moment it’s there in all its glory. The next, it’s washed away, leaving no trace that it had ever existed.  And the ancient chronicles tell us that Asa, King of the southern Kingdom of Judah cried out to the Lord and said: O Lord, there is none like you to help, between the mighty and the weak. Help us, O Lord our God, for we rely on you, and in your name we have come against this multitude.[1]

And the Lord honored his cry. And the men of Judah crushed the Ethiopian horde. And they chased them down and filled the treasury of the temple with the gold and silver they plundered.
And the young King grew into his role. He took courage and destroyed idols of all kinds, even dethroning his own mother from being queen when she began worshiping a false goddess. Here was a man sold out for the LORD. Someone who was making a difference. And for a long time there was peace. But after a time, after Asa had ruled for 36 years, the king of the Northern Kingdom of Isarel crossed the border with an army and began building a stronghold to control a large part of Judah. He held many hostage, no one could get out, no one could get in.

Asa by now was a seasoned King. He had experienced much of life. He had ruled a nation for decades. Gone was the inexperienced baby face. Now his face aged by war, impossible decisions, and the burdens of safety, economics, international relations, and internal politics. Think of how the president of the United States has aged in the last eight years, and add another 30 years on top of that.
So the king made a brilliant decision drawn from his experience and wisdom. He made a treaty with another king, the king of Syria, and sent him a vast sum of money to attack Israel. That way Israel would have to move its army out of Asa’s land, and he could move his forces in. Asa not only won the battle without spilling a drop of his people’s blood, but he removed all of the stones and wood that had been used to build the stronghold, and used it to build two other cities in his kingdom! What a move! What a king!

Why then did Asa hear the footsteps down the corridor? Why did the court start whispering? Why was the prophet coming to see him?

“Because you relied on the king of Syria, and did not rely on the Lord your God, the army of the king of Syria has escaped you. Were not the Ethiopians and the Libyans a huge army with very many chariots and horsemen? Yet because you relied on the Lord, he gave them into your hand. For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward him. You have done foolishly in this, for from now on you will have wars.” [2]

And like that, after 36 years of glorious reign, the king began a downward spiral. Asa died a bitter old man.

I tell this story to share two things: The first is a warning. Just because you are walking with the Lord and God is using you for great things does not guarantee that this will always be true. If you do not place your trust and reliance on the Lord, you will be trusting and relying on something else. In Asa’s case, he used money dedicated to the Lord (probably acquired during his earlier famous conquest) and relied on one of his enemies, the king of Syria, instead of the Lord. The Lord would have given Asa another glorious victory over both Israel’s king AND Syria’s. But somehow Asa stopped trusting primarily in the Lord. Strategy, methods, wisdom, council, these are all valuable things. But if you rely on any of these in your time of need rather than on the Lord, you will be sorely disappointed. It is easier to trust the Lord when you know little and are in trouble. But what about when you have everything under control? The church today is in grave danger of this with all of their balanced budgets, strategic plans, qualified staff, and leadership development. How easy it would be to depend on these rather than on our King! Let Asa’s story serve as a warning to you, Suzi. You’re heading off to college with everything going for you. You’ve got a wonderful family and proud parents, a great scholarship, you’re bi-lingual, you study well, you are personable and people like you, you’re a thinker and a learner. Don’t rely on these things to get you through. I beg you, put your trust in the LORD. Declare to yourself and to him over and over how much you need him—I need thee, O I need thee, every hour I need thee! He will do so much with you Suzi if you can bring yourself to lose your independence.

The final thought I leave you with is one of comfort. It’s found in the prophet’s rebuke of the king from our story. 1 Chronicles 16:9 says, For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward him.
The prophet’s point was this—why did you go looking for help elsewhere? The eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless, or, completely his. Whose heart is fully devoted to Him.  This isn’t even a promise directed at a specific or general audience, it’s a description of a truth that is found throughout the Scriptures:
Those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength they shall run and not grow weary; Ask and you shall receive; cast all your cares upon Him because he cares for you; be anxious about nothing, but in everything with prayer and petition present your requests to God. The hope of this truth is that if you seek him with your whole heart, a committed heart, He will find you. An He will support and strengthen you. I believe with all my heart that God is sovereign. And I believe with all my heart that your actions have consequences. Because of this I urge you with all my heart to add to your river bank of convictions these truths, for they will guard your steps.

Suzi, it is my dream that you would go farther in life and in faith than I have ever gone or could ever go. You can be certain that my thoughts are prayers will be with you wherever you go. May God make his face to shine on you, and may you ever rest in dependence on your King.

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (2 Ch 14:11). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (2 Ch 16:7–9). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.