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Archives for December, 2014

peekAfter nearly fifty years, I assume that the statute of limitations has run out. I can now admit it: I was a prayer peeker.

That’s right. I would open my eyes during prayers. Not just any prayers, but the prayers said during church services in the main auditorium. That despite having been taught in Sunday School that it was a rule (if not a commandment) that you had to bow your head and close your eyes during prayers.

But I had a good reason. I wasn’t opening my eyes to look at other people or even to see the person praying. I wanted to see Jesus.

I assumed that when we all closed our eyes and bowed our heads, Jesus would come in and listen to the prayer. Maybe, just maybe, I could sneak a peek of him before he realized I was looking.

My older self is a bit envious of that child. Not that I want a childish faith that expects to see Jesus sitting in the rafters. But I’d like to recapture the childlike faith that confidently expects the Lord to be present in our assemblies.

I know intellectually that “God with us” isn’t just the translation of the name of some kid in the book of Isaiah. I also know it’s more than what happened when Mary had a baby in Bethlehem.

I can quote the verse from Matthew 18. You know the one:

“For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:20)

Yet even then, my rational self wants to tie that to a specific context (church discipline) or a specific time frame (apostolic era) or a purely figurative way of speaking. It’s can’t be that Jesus really comes to be among us when we assemble.

But isn’t that one of the great lessons that the gospel writers want to show us, especially Matthew in his gospel? Isn’t that the real meaning behind “God with us”? Not that God was with his people in days of old. Not just that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. But that promise from the end of Matthew: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)

When we come together as a body, Jesus is among us. We need to see that. We need to feel that. We need to believe that.

When Paul was writing to the Corinthian church about the need to discipline one of their members, he begins his instructions by saying:

“When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present…” (1 Corinthians 5:4)

God with us. Us. When we come together. I know that we are temples of the Spirit, and God lives in us. There is a very real sense in which God is with us all the time. But there’s a special meaning to the assembly, a special reality that tells us that God is with us. The power of the Lord is in our midst.

It’s hard to see past what our physical senses take in. We see worn out pews and faded carpet. We hear off-key singing and crying babies. We get too hot or too cold, depending on how well the heating/AC is working. We touch and taste the Lord’s Supper, knowing that it’s really crackers and grape juice, not the body and blood of Jesus.

And yet… God is with us. These physical things merely distract from the spiritual reality that God is in our midst. Or, if we let them, they come together to remind us that there is a Creator behind these physical realities, and that Creator is with us. He is present.

I don’t want to go back to looking for Jesus somewhere up near the ceiling. But I do want to recapture that assurance that he will be there when the church meets. He will be among us.

God will be with us.

JesusManger“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

In the children’s classic The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis’ oft-quoted passage about Aslan (Narnia’s own Lion of the Tribe of Judah) gives the readers in post-World War II England a powerful image of the King of Kings.

I’m not so certain it is as powerful for the readers in postmodern America.

We’re not fond of kings. Our country was formed in defiance to the taxation edict of a king named George, and we decided we’d rather not have our tea taxed, and we were ready to die to have it our way.

We chose our own George and made sure that his authority was checked and balanced, and that he could not ever become a king.

The whole idea of a king is vaguely repugnant to us, unless it is attached to a symbolic monarchy, and the actual governing is done democratically. That one man (or woman) should decide what’s best for all of the rest of us lesser beings and subjects makes our skin crawl. We don’t want to serve anyone but ourselves, generally. And we certainly don’t want anyone telling us what to do.

Even with our President tightly limited by the Constitution, we hold little respect for the office anymore, claiming our constitutionally-guaranteed freedom of speech to lionize him or her in the public media to the point of hate speech and beyond.

We’re Americans. And nobody pushes us around.

But earlier empires did not always hate their king.

Israel had its share of good kings and bad, but one shone more brightly than all the rest combined: David, the shepherd king.

They loved David. David was a man after God’s own heart, no matter how fallible he was; no matter how poor a father or how willing he might have been to abandon his palace to a rebellious son. He sang of God and His love and His law. Before he became king, he soothed his predecessor’s madness with his compositions and performances of praise. When the tabernacle was brought home from enemies, he danced his heart out in praise. His people loved him for it.

When he felt himself inspired to create a palatial temple for God, and God’s prophet told him that it would not be his to build, David decided to prepare the way for his son Solomon to build it during his own reign. He gave out of his own wealth. He asked the people how many would consecrate themselves to this task, and they gave too, willingly and generously. Then David praised God in humility:

“Now, our God, we give you thanks, and praise your glorious name. But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand.”

This is the kind of king of which prophets like Jeremiah spoke when they foretold the Messiah, the promised king to come:

“‘In those days and at that time I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line; he will do what is just and right in the land. … For this is what the Lord says: ‘David will never fail to have a man to sit on the throne of Israel, nor will the Levitical priests ever fail to have a man to stand before me continually to offer burnt offerings, to burn grain offerings and to present sacrifices.’”

When those prophecies came to pass in a stable in Bethlehem years after, a jealous King Herod sought to exterminate his Infant rival. When this humble Messiah rode into Jerusalem, He was welcomed as royalty. When He was arrested and tried, the charge against Him from the overlords was that He claimed to be King of the Jews. In the Revelation, the Lion-that-becomes-a-Lamb will be the triumphant King of kings and Lord of lords.

We choose to serve this King, or we choose to serve self.

We choose to serve Him and live … or we choose to serve self, and die.

The timeless truth remains that the apostle Paul proclaimed to believers in Rome:

“Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness?  But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance.  You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness. … But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.  For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

We’re comfortable with the baby in the manger, admired by shepherds and soon-to-be sought by wise men from the east. He is so sweet and helpless there. He makes no demands. He issues no orders. He doesn’t tell us what to do, or how to live, or how to crucify self. He hasn’t yet lived out the power of a selfless life, or died on a cross only to reclaim life by that power of God.

He’s just a baby.

But sooner or later we have to leave this nursery in a stable. We have to follow Him as He grows and matures, and we must grow and mature too. We’re drawn to hear His words and watch His life match them. We’re compelled to climb the hills and descend in the valleys with Him until we come to that hill with a cross and that valley darkened by the shadow of death. And we have to choose whether we believe that He is more than a man, more than a teacher, more than even the Son of God. We must decide whether He is our Lord, our Master.

Whether we will run for it or continue to follow, even though it will cost us our lives, our wealth, our selves.

Whether we will serve Him and love Him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength – as He loves us.

He isn’t a safe choice.

He’s the King, I tell you.

And He’s good.

“Momma, what does ‘Advent’ mean?”3candles

Sophie is six and Sawyer is two. This year, since Sawyer is old enough to sit still for roughly five minutes (sometimes), we have started a new tradition with our kids. Each night during this Advent season, we read from Sally Lloyd Jones’ brilliant Jesus Storybook Bible. It begins “in the beginning”….much like John’s gospel. And it will take us through God’s story as it unfolds in Israel to the time of Christ’s birth. After our reading, the kids punch out that day’s block of the Lego Advent calendar and they build the piece for that day—so far we have a mail carrier, a mailbox, and a faceless snowman which Sophie thinks looks creepy.

I love Christmas – my kids love Christmas. I enjoy giving gifts. I enjoy even more that most of said gifts can be purchased from the comfort of my computer. There is joy and fun in the so-called “secular” parts of Christmas. Even if Jesus was taken completely out of the picture (as was/is the case for so many in our CofC tribe), what we “do” during Christmas whispers his name. As kids, we wait with expectation and joy at the coming of Christmas day—Santa is coming to town, after all. Our hearts seem to be built for hope. So, when Sophie asks, “Momma, what does ‘Advent’ mean?” we get to tell her the story. We get to revel in the wide-eyed expectation and hope of who’s coming–Jesus. Jesus is coming! The world hears the songs of hope…

Oh holy night!
The stars are brightly shining
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth!

This is a powerful season for me–it has been in recent years. Especially this year. I cannot escape the thoughts and feelings that have surrounded our world the last few weeks: Ferguson, Eric Garner…and the Social Media malady which has made my heart groan.

How do God’s people respond to the hurt? The pain? The brokenness? I have seen a lot of venom. I have seen a lot of rants. I have seen a lot of writers suggesting “truth” and “justice.” What I haven’t seen is a lot of grace.

Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till he appear’d and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!

Our world is weary. So very weary. We need hope. We need to see grace—experience grace. I have been part of a teaching team going through the gospel of John in our adult Bible classes at church on Sundays. As I have journeyed though John’s gospel, I can’t get away from this singular thought: if we want to know God, we have to take a good, hard look at Jesus. No matter what we think we know, what we struggle with…or cling to, in the Old Testament’s witness of God –the one thing we can know without a doubt is the fullness of who God is, is made manifest in Christ. And John tells us that if we know Christ, we will obey his commandments–and he tells us exactly what that means: Love. Selfless, cruciform love. Love that makes itself nothing, taking on the very nature of a servant, putting others before itself.

Truly He taught us to love one another
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease

That is where I cling to hope. Always in Jesus. Only in Jesus. And I anticipate Christ’s coming–both in the Advent season and in our already/not yet kingdom mindset–more and more every year. And so we sing of hope. For our world of hurt, pain, injustice, suffering and brokenness we sing our defiant songs of love, hope and anticipation of Jesus. Come, Lord Jesus, come!

Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord, O praise his name forever!

ImmanuelHow many times can we see a baby in a manger before it is just another baby in a manger? Sometimes the baby we see is way too big to be a newborn. Other times the baby is clearly plastic and can be seen for the fake it is even from the back row of the Christmas pageant.

But the baby that was in the manger that night in Bethlehem was a real as they come. God in flesh, ensconced in raw humanity. The creator of heaven and earth became creation on earth. The power that was displayed when the words were spoken “let their be light” became both the “Word” and the “Light of the world.” As Mary’s water broke, she gave birth to the “living water” and by him all who are thirsty may come and drink from the deep well that is the Messiah.

Immanuel, God with us…that is our theme for December. Immanuel, God with us, not just 2000 years ago, but also today. Not only is Jesus with us here as he promised he would be (Matthew 28:20) but we are with him (Eph 2:6).

While we reflect back on the incarnate God we are reminded that our vision not only looks back to “Immanuel” but it also looks forward to “Maranatha”…Come Lord Jesus…that just as he came before, he will come again when all things will be made new and very good (Rev 21:5), just as they were in the beginning.

My prayer for you, dear reader, is that as we close out one year and move into the next that your love for God and for others will grow, that you mind, will and heart will become more and more entangled into the depths of the very mind, will and heart of God and that we can continue to walk in the light because of the gracious blood of our savior.

Just as God has richly blessed each one of us through the coming of Christ, may each one of us embody the incarnation of Christ in the world to richly bless someone else.

Wineskins has officially launched a Youtube channel! We have more work to do on it but I wanted to make you aware that it is there and that we will be adding more content to it over time. Thanks for reading (and now watching) Wineskins! The first video introduces Lauren King, preaching intern with Patrick Mead at 4th Avenue Church of Christ in Franklin, TN.

After the Waiting…3candles

I love the Advent season – the lights, the prayers, the buying of presents, arranging them under the tree, the songs, and the special gatherings to celebrate the Lord. And yet…I keep thinking about the whole “waiting and then the gift” paradigm I see in scripture and it gives me pause. No one wants to give a present only to see it opened and the recipient’s face fall in disappointment but God has seen that time and again and…it seems…even set up us for disappointment to teach us something about ourselves or about Him.

The children of Israel were hungry so God supplied…manna. Lots of manna. Every day. After awhile even Bubba Gump would run out of ways to cook manna. What was God thinking? Sure, He supplied meat for them once when they complained too loudly but that didn’t go well so let’s not go there right now.

I am sure Hosea was a good man who prayed for a wife to help him in his ministry. I’m sure his mother prayed that God prepare a special little girl for her little guy. But when Hosea got the present God gave him he wasn’t happy (and it seems he didn’t make her happy either).

I could go on…okay, I will. Remember that whole “I am taking you to a land flowing with milk and honey” thing? Talk about poetic license! When they opened up that present they found it full of people who didn’t like them and had the temerity to believe they owned the land they lived on. There was a lot more blood and pain than there was milk and honey.

But God is not evil nor is He capricious. There were reasons for these gifts and many other gifts we could name. Let’s turn our minds to the wonderful gift of God we received in Jesus and how…well…odd that was.

It is here I must restrain myself. I could go on for a hundred pages about how amazingly, wonderously HUGE our universe is and what a magical, mind-boggling place it is. I can go from Patrick to full blown “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” in 0.01 seconds if I don’t watch out. Let’s just all agree: it is bigger than we can imagine and more beautiful and wondrous and amazing and…you get the idea. [we pause here for Patrick to breathe deeply into a paper bag until he gets his science nerd self under control]

And God made that universe. All of it. Just made it. Not sure how and the “why” can get a little confusing but He made it and it is awesome. Now – a God like that is coming to us! He is going to save us from the Assyrians, Babylonians, Philistines, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans! And from the internecine warfare taking place in Jewish life between secularists, liberals, legalists, and politicians. Yes! Imagine what it will look like when a God who can make the Milky Way Galaxy arrives in Jerusalem. What will that look like? It positively boggles the mind to consider the possibilities.

And He arrived…in the form of a baby. Born in an annex to a guesthouse. To a not-quite-married teen girl. Whose story sounded fishy even to her own kids later in life.

God – thanks for the present, but we were expecting something else. We were expecting armies of angels. We were expecting a King David (in his good years, not the fat, old, and adulterous years) preceded by a herd of Elijahs sniffing out reprobates followed by Solomon and a multitude of builders to finally get the Temple back in shape. We were expecting fireworks. We got a baby.

But that is the only way God can approach us without us scattering to the winds. The God that made all things cannot directly approach us or we would die. This may not have been the gift we were expecting but it was exactly the gift we needed. In fact, no other gift would have meant so much.

So it is in our own lives. We ask for this or that gift but God gives as He sees fit. Sometimes we are disappointed in the gifts He gives us (and in those He doesn’t) but if we deal with it and move on we eventually learn to trust Him. He IS smarter than us, remember?

So as Advent moves on toward the Great Event on the 25th keep in mind that God disappointed a lot of people when He gave us a baby. But that gift was awesome. That gift saved us all.

Perfect gift, God. Absolutely perfect. Thank you.

wordSo morning came way too quickly. I was eating breakfast, and I needed caffeine, quickly and massively. I pulled into a local coffee shop and ordered an espresso. I began sipping while reading the morning paper on my smartphone.

Just as the fog was beginning to clear, the phone rang. It was Stanley. “Sorry. I know I’m getting to be a pest, but I’ve been up all night worrying about our last discussion.”

Oh, great, I thought. I can barely remember last night at all! Maybe when the espresso hits …

“So,” Stanley asked, “if the Spirit is such a big part of how we read and understand the scriptures, why doesn’t that make each of us our own, you know, pope? Why aren’t we each the final authority on the meaning of the text? Isn’t this, ‘every man doing what is right in his own eyes’?”

“Stanley,” I said, “I have to get to work, and so I’ll be brief. And I’m pretty tired from last night, so I may not get this exactly right. But here’s a quick and dirty shot at an answer. And maybe in a few days, when we’ve both had some more time to pray and think about it, I can do better. Here goes —

“That’s kind of where we are now — ignoring the Spirit. Right? We assume that we’re all rational beings, unfallen, and fully capable of reading the text on our own — and every man does what is right in his own eyes. That’s why we’re so divided now as to how we read the Bible! I can’t imagine any theory that could make things any worse! Read more »