In a silent way

By Alex Knight.

Shhhh…  Can you hear Him?  Do you see Him?  Can you sense His loving presence all around you?

God moves in mysterious ways!  He is beyond our understanding, but His still, small voice beckons us all to take heed and follow Him!

In the middle of the Christmas hubbub, Pastor Ed preached a sermon about silence and solitude.  It is a good message to know that even in the busy times of life, God is still there!  If we listen, He can be heard!

Here is a musical analogy:  Jazz music can be loud, confusing and disorienting.  However, if you think of it as a conversation between instruments, you can begin to hear the dialogue between the trumpets and the saxophones and how the melody of a song can be extended through a solo.  Sometimes it can sound like a noisy dinner conversation, but there’s communication happening in the midst of the song!

One of my favorite Miles Davis records is called “In A Silent Way” and it showcases the great trumpet player not as a featured soloist, but as a listener, engaging with his rhythm section.

Miles said “It’s the spaces between the notes that matter…”

Now if you know me, you know I love to talk!  Talk, talk, talk!!!  But I am learning to listen and to sense His voice.  By reading His word and staying in fellowship with other believers, our lives can be enriched by the sheer art of listening.

May God bless you in the silent spaces.  And may you bless others with His presence when you gather together!

Best wishes for a happy and prosperous New Year!

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Sing a new song

Here are some new songs for a new year.

 

Evergreen but always changing

A Christmas Tree Anthology, by Amanda Ilg.

It was Christmas 2002. My first away from home. I was nineteen and living in the Bronx with Julie, a fellow Christian from Oregon a few years older than myself but just as new to the City. We walked to the neighborhood Dollar Tree, a couple blocks past the market where we bought our groceries if our arms were too tired to haul the bags from the further store with cheaper prices. Our plastic evergreen was five dollars and a few feet tall, with lights already attached. We didn’t have any ornaments, and hardly any money, so we popped popcorn and made garlands and sliced clementines and baked them til dried, and there stood our pretty little tree in our tiny apartment. We would play Christmas carols on the CD Rom of her laptop and trade stories of our days: she worked at an employment agency in the Bronx that catered to non-English speaking folks seeking a livelihood; I rang up clothing and accessories at a boutique on Fifth Avenue for aged and outdated celebrities. We brought home about the same-sized paycheck each week, and both sought to honor and serve the Lord where He placed us. Julie’s stories of poverty, racial inequality, and endless hours of paperwork and advocacy for these immigrant-Americans kept our perspectives grounded, and my stories of Rockefeller lights glistening on new snow and rosy cheeked children giggling on my walk home kept our spirits lifted and reminded that Still, Joy! in the midst.

Fly ahead to 2007. Derek and I walked a block from our third floor apartment and bought our first Christmas tree on our first Christmas as a married couple: a sweet smelling, fresh cut pine off the front lawn of our neighbor’s yard in Lowell – a makeshift tree stand for the holiday season. We carried it home and up the flights of stairs, hacked off the trunk, somehow got it to stand mostly straight without tipping over. We carefully hung the few ornaments we’d been given as newlyweds. I popped popcorn and strung cranberries and shared with Derek the same Celtic carols on our stereo in Lowell as I’d listened to five years earlier in New York City. Each ornament hung with a hope of years to come. What would our family look like? What did God have for us? How would our love grow and change? Who was this babe growing inside me? How magical to anticipate the birth of our firstborn child while imagining Mary’s anticipation, the anticipation of all Israel!

In 2009, still at our apartment, we bought a miniature everlasting (ahem, fake) tree, an upgrade from the Dollar Store variety. Lights included still, and also a fancy stand that looked like pottery! Our ornament collection had grown to include some Baby’s First Christmas cuteness with a tiny Oliver, now a toddler, and we looked forward to welcoming a second child in the Spring.

2010 brought us to a new home in a new town, and friends blessed us with a much grander everlasting tree – seven feet of realistic fir branches, and we excitedly bought lights to string around it. Derek came home with a huge box of ornaments from a co-worker and we beamed as we cheerfully placed each brightly colored glass ball! It looked so happy and homey. The breakableness didn’t even register. Until it did.

On years with no toddlers, the tree is sparse but decorated tip to bottom; toddler years (like this present one) the top half of the tree is robustly filled with memorable decorations. Hand-painted popsicle stick trees, souvenir ornaments from a mother-son date to the Nutcracker (before ballet was too girlish to be attended), some of Daddy’s childhood football bears gifted to his greatest admirers, still the “Our First Christmas” snowman and woman affectionately snuggled close ten Christmases later. And four more “Baby’s First Christmas”es. The bottom half is ornament-free with clear evidence of a little one grabbing and tugging and reshaping the branches with each enthusiastic and curious encounter. By the day after Christmas I will be ready to box it up and put it away; it’s really not pretty anymore. Haha! But I do smile and chuckle at the affects of four boyish rough housers. And there in the midst, our dainty Phoebe, lifted up to gently caress her precious pink orb. The one glass ornament left, intentionally on one of the highest branches. I wonder how many more Christmases it will live to see? Time will tell.

Our life and family certainly looks different this Christmas than it did all those years ago. Certainly better-for-wear, though the wear has often felt great and continues to. But then, it’s the wear that brings us closer to the Savior, who thankfully did not stay a Babe in the Manger. O, that Tree! That glorious Tree on Calvary. That, though it slay Him, it could not keep Him, because Death’s power is swallowed up in the LifeGiver! I look to that Tree, even as I look at our homely beaten tree. Glancing up to the top, to the star shining. Let’s stand in the Light this Christmas and this coming year; no matter how dark the night feels, Stand in the Light and SHINE.

The Nativity

By Ernie Alberghene.

 
I love the nativity scene.  I can remember playing with several sets when I was a child and always being fixated by them.  I even built one with some scrap wood and carved out characters and animals as a young boy, and my kind mother (with no regard for its disturbing aesthetic impact) placed it on our mantel as if it were a masterpiece.  Maybe you remember something similar from your childhood?

I’m always struck by the prominent well lit Nativity scene on the common in Hudson, NH.  Maybe you’ve scene it where 3A and Rt 111 intersect.  It’s a rare sight to see nowadays on town property.  It’s strange that such a humble passive scene is so offensive to some, and several towns and public places have removed, or been court ordered to remove it from display.  A shabby barn, hay and animals, a baby… what an offense!

Those critics are right though, it is offensive.  We should remember when we look at it that it’s not just a sweet scene.  It doesn’t just touch our hearts, it confronts our hearts.  We should see much more than an odd farm scene.  The nativity is a shocking statement that we (humankind) are way off track, we’re on a sin and death path.  In fact we’re in such a desperate state that God has taken the extreme step down to humanity to start a rescue mission.  The Nativity is the beginning of us surrendering our sovereignty to the one who is truly Sovereign.  That’s offensive.  The “sweet little Jesus boy, born in a manger” is sweet, but He also “comes with a sword” (Mt 10:34).  His coming exposes the fallacy of our goodness, but it also reveals the riches of His glorious grace.  The greatest offense is also the greatest news – “Pleased, as man with men to dwell.  Jesus, our Emmanuel… Mild he lays his glory by, born that man no more may die.  Born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth.  Hark! the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king!”

It’s not too late

By Carynne Corvaia.

I will confess, I need my occasional TV Hallmark moments.  I don’t have a family of my own, so if I don’t laugh and cry with the TV family that I borrowed, who will I laugh and cry with?  I don’t have a home of my own, so why not bask in the glory of their perfectly decorated home– without having to do any of the work?  If I don’t share my TV family’s perfect Christmas, how will I ever have one?

That’s the seduction of Hallmark moments.  They are a substitute.  They manufacture emotions that have no real source. They make you think you’ve been emotionally fulfilled, when in reality, you are still empty.

My antidote has been keep perpetually busy throughout the season, starting in mid-October and running straight through to the week before Christmas.  That, too, manufactures emotion.  I equate being busy and fulfilling all my obligations with being fulfilled.

As Solomon said, “All is vanity.”  It’s more than time to take a breath.

We all know that Advent is a season of preparation for the birth of the Christ Child. Yet we find it hard to fit that season into our season of holiday preparation.

Blessedly, we have had time to take a breath on Sunday mornings, when a family participates in a brief remembrance – standing together, lighting the candles, reading the Scripture.  A soft warmth washes over us as we observing say to ourselves, “Yes, this is what the Christmas season is all about.”

I am guilty of making this my “Hallmark moment,” a minute of sentimentality that makes me think I’ve remembered the birth of Christ during the Christmas season, when I really haven’t.  Advent is not a service, or a reading, or a wreath — it is a state of mind. And it’s a perspective that’s ever more elusive as our days get busier, louder, fuller, and our to-do lists longer.

When we were saved, Christ changed our life in a twinkling of an eye, and He promises to again.  Just that quickly, with His grace, we can change, too, right now, during the precious last days of our Advent preparation.

So maybe, like me, you have been caught up too much in the hustle and bustle of the season.  Maybe you haven’t spent enough time in prayer and reflection.  The beauty is that you can start this minute.  Your prayer, breathed in a moment, can resound through all eternity.

Almighty God and Father, eternal and everlasting God, we are so grateful for your compassion and love for us.  As the Scripture says, “Who is man, that you should take notice of him?” Yet you have, and in the most marvelous and terrible way. You have sent us Your Son to die for us.

In this season, though, we are thinking of the first miracles of His human existence – His miraculous conception, His lowly birth, the rejoicing of heaven and earth, the alignment of the stars, the fulfilling of ancient prophecies.  So many details lining up as You set into motion the plan for our redemption. This is cause for celebration!

Every Good and Perfect Gift Is From Above

By Alex Knight.

Hello Church!  It is the Christmas season and that means gifts, right?  It is so easy in our wealthy society to get wrapped up in presents and all the stuff of the season.  I can remember as a child looking forward to getting presents on Christmas morning.  Getting a present meant someone loved me and cared about me.  God is the giver of the perfect gift, His very own presence in the form of Jesus.

As a young child growing up in a “Christmas-Easter” family, I remember Christmas as a time of elevated expectations and waking up early to see what was under the tree.  But later on Christmas day, I had a vague feeling of disappointment when a Christmas gift was not what was expected or was not as fulfilling as it was meant to be.  It didn’t mean my parents didn’t love me.  It did mean that I had bigger needs that weren’t going to be filled by the latest Beatles record.  Maybe if the record was “Elvis Sings Gospel,” things might have been different???

So the material part of Christmas can be a mixed bag.  Everyone likes getting a gift, but there are also feelings of emptiness when the material things of this world didn’t fill the God-shaped hole in our lives that only He can fill.  For as many gifts as there were in my family, there was nothing that was as fulfilling as knowing that the God of the universe knew my name and that He wanted me to know Him too!

I am encouraged that the Christmas story of the Bible focuses on a needy world that yearns for a Savior and that amazingly, He came as a baby!  So innocent and mild as He lay in the manger…

But then Jesus grew up and lived an amazing, miraculous life.  He healed people.  He spoke truth to power.  He broke bread with His followers.  Like the old gospel song says:

“He walked with us and He talked with us!”  It is so wonderful that we have a personal God who is truly Emmanuel, God With Us.  We have a God who is not far away, but He is near to all who call on Him.

So this Christmas, I’m hoping to focus on the relational aspects of family life.  I’m hoping to be together and sing together and travel together and grow together as a family unit.  Fun times ahead!

I pray you are blessed by His presence and encouraged by His gift of Himself to a world that really needs Him.  The world still needs His healing touch and Jesus is the best gift of all!

Merry Christmas!

These broken arks we travel

By Bonnie Lyn Smith

A few years ago my youngest son’s Noah’s Ark Christmas ornament started to fall apart. First the tiny resin giraffe fell off; then a zebra cracked. Before I knew it, the ark itself was losing its hook for the tree and crumbling away paint. If Noah showed up at my door and asked me to get on a life-sized replica of that thing in that condition, you can be sure I’d probably turn him down!

But I would be wrong.

God had a very specific plan for the vessel He had Noah build. He had clear specifications and measurements. This was not a haphazard, last-minute throwing together of a few pieces of gopherwood. According to biblical scholar Bodie Hodge, it took 55 to 75 years to build the ark! When was the last time we had a project that long-term?

So what about us, then? What about these broken arks we ride around in—our flesh? These bodies that fail over the course of a lifetime? These sinning hearts? Sometimes we may feel as though everything is falling off our decks, one by one, and that we are popping holes all over the place, letting the water in that will eventually sink us.

I don’t know about you, but there are times I feel like all I do is dam up the broken places, looking at my life reflecting back at me and seeing baseboards that need polishing and foundations that have weakened over time.

The good news of Christmas is that a baby Savior came to make our arks like new. We still have to ride around in them this side of heaven, but when we commit these “temples of the Holy Spirit” to Jesus, we know they will see us through to the end.

1 Corinthians 6:19-20

Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.

Revelation 21:5

And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

In Judges 6:12, the angel of the LORD (Jesus) called a man hiding from his plundering enemy in a winepress threshing grain “a mighty man of valor.” From the outside of his “ark,” in his current posture of fear, that is the last thing we would have called Gideon—or he would have considered himself. And yet God called it into being, and it was so.

If we struggle to believe that God can use these broken arks of ours, let us finally look to Jesus. Human, dying, broken, bleeding flesh, manger-born among farm animals. Humble and lowly. And yet God sent His Son and declared Him our Savior!

And He told us we were a new creation if we placed our trust in Christ.

Ephesians 4:21-24

…assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.Others may see our brokenness at times, but do they see Jesus?

So don’t dismiss your cracks and worn places. Give them to Jesus. Our purposes were planned by God from the beginning of time.

Ephesians 2:10

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Our arks are made new in Christ, and when people see us rise up from our positions of fear and weakness, trusting in a mighty God who says we are “mighty men of valor” because of Him and in His name, we show a darkened world that broken arks still travel and are lifted up to glorify an infant born to earth to become a Mighty King and Savior of the world!

This Christmas, I say, despite the condition He may find us in, let’s all respond eagerly: “Yes , sweet Jesus: Have ark. Will travel!

How to…PART III: Crown the year

HERE’S A REMIXED VERSION OF YESTERDAY’S PSALMS FOR THOSE WHO MAY HAVE GOTTEN LOST IN THE MANY WORDS AND FOR THOSE WHO MAY WANT TO PRAY IT AGAIN (AND AGAIN):

My soul is cast down within me;
    therefore I remember you.

By day the Lord commands his steadfast love,
    and at night his song is with me,
    a prayer to the God of my life.

Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
    my salvation and my God.

Praise is due to you, O God…

We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house,
    the holiness of your temple!

You crown the year with your bounty;
    your wagon tracks overflow with abundance.

STEP THREE:  Put it in your own words.  Here goes…
Crown the year 0f 2016, LORD Jesus, with Your bounty.  This is the only time we will pass this particular way.  2016 has brought new people into my life.  For good and for ill. Others have departed bringing me sadness or relief (or a mix).  2017 brings with it a sense of great possibility and a sense of great forboding.  Crown the year of 2017, LORD Jesus, with Your bounty.  May Your praise be on my lips.  May I be ever mindful of Your presence.  May I be quick to ask for help in time of trouble and generous to share my joy in time of triumph.
Now you try…

How to turn memories into prayers, PART TWO

STEP TWO.  Talk OUT LOUD to God.  Regardless of the feelings and the circumstance.

The Psalms offer us a treasure trove of options to make our way back to God from nearly every possible corner of human experience.  This is especially true if we don’t censor them and we don’t censor ourselves.  The Psalms let fly and provide a model for us as we engage with the LORD.  There’s no point hiding anything before the LORD who sees and knows all – and still loves us.

Like memories, Psalms are complex and often contradictory.  There are moments of elation and moments of desperation, usually side by side.  How like life.  Through the Psalms we find a way to pray through the contradictions, full of emotion and at the same time not ruled by it.  Most Psalms end in utter determination to praise God regardless.

So here are two recommended pathways to turn your memories into prayers.  OUT LOUD, please!

SAD MEMORIES
Psalm 42

As a deer pants for flowing streams,
    so pants my soul for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
    for the living God.
When shall I come and appear before God?
My tears have been my food
    day and night,
while they say to me all the day long,
    “Where is your God?”
These things I remember,
    as I pour out my soul:
how I would go with the throng
    and lead them in procession to the house of God
with glad shouts and songs of praise,
    a multitude keeping festival.

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
    and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
    my salvation and my God.

My soul is cast down within me;
    therefore I remember you
from the land of Jordan and of Hermon,
    from Mount Mizar.
Deep calls to deep
    at the roar of your waterfalls;
all your breakers and your waves
    have gone over me.
By day the Lord commands his steadfast love,
    and at night his song is with me,
    a prayer to the God of my life.
I say to God, my rock:
    “Why have you forgotten me?
Why do I go mourning
    because of the oppression of the enemy?”
10 As with a deadly wound in my bones,
    my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me all the day long,
    “Where is your God?”

11 Why are you cast down, O my soul,
    and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
    my salvation and my God.

GRATEFUL MEMORIES
Psalm 65

Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion,
    and to you shall vows be performed.
O you who hear prayer,
    to you shall all flesh come.
When iniquities prevail against me,
    you atone for our transgressions.
Blessed is the one you choose and bring near,
    to dwell in your courts!
We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house,
    the holiness of your temple!

By awesome deeds you answer us with righteousness,
    O God of our salvation,
the hope of all the ends of the earth
    and of the farthest seas;
the one who by his strength established the mountains,
    being girded with might;
who stills the roaring of the seas,
    the roaring of their waves,
    the tumult of the peoples,
so that those who dwell at the ends of the earth are in awe at your signs.
You make the going out of the morning and the evening to shout for joy.

You visit the earth and water it;
    you greatly enrich it;
the river of God is full of water;
    you provide their grain,
    for so you have prepared it.
10 You water its furrows abundantly,
    settling its ridges,
softening it with showers,
    and blessing its growth.
11 You crown the year with your bounty;
    your wagon tracks overflow with abundance.
12 The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
    the hills gird themselves with joy,
13 the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
    the valleys deck themselves with grain,
    they shout and sing together for joy.

How to turn memories into prayers, PART ONE

This was a clever idea, if I say so myself.  An advent experiment.  What if a passing Christmas memory was an invitation not to go back in time but to go forward?  What if happy memories became an occasion for gratitude and joy and what if sad memories became an occasion to lift up our unmet longings to the LORD with the hope of being met in the here and now?

OK.  I admit it’s a bit abstract.  A bit “I’m not sure what to do with that” perhaps.  And so here’s some off-the-cuff, unsolicited advice.  If you wanted to turn a memory into a prayer, how would you go about doing that?  And what might be the benefit of such a discipline?

STEP ONE.  Decode the emotions.  Many memories come to us encased in shiny, wistful shrink wrap.  We have to take the plastic off the memory, and  – perish the thought – this is going to result in feelings.  It’s possible the plastic will come off quite easily and it’s also possible that it’ll get stuck and need a strong tug, kind of like a band-aid on a scab.  Yes, ouch.

Not all of us like feeling feelings, especially feelings of a more complex nature.  A memory is usually a mixed bag.  Some good stuff and some bad stuff in close proximity.  How like life.  We have to remind ourselves whether we are the kind of person who tends to minimize the bad and look on the bright side (think Winnie the Pooh) or who tends to minimize the good and recreate worst case scenarios (think Eeyore).  The underside of our temperament may kick back a little as we realize, in some cases, that a time in our lives we thought was so great happened in close succession after a horrible loss or, on the contrary, that really brutal year we couldn’t wait to exit had some wonderful moments in it.  We have to cut ourselves some grace to be ourselves, to feel what we feel, and to remind ourselves, that was then and this is now.  Even if the dark feeling becomes overwhelming, you will not always feel that way.

Here’s a smattering of questions that might help you navigate, categorize, and perhaps even achieve some long-needed resolve regarding moments long past.

Are my Christmas preparations (or avoidance thereof) born out of thoughtfulness, other people’s expectations, or am I trying to take control of some aspect of my life since other aspects are not cooperating?  Is my footdragging to get into the Christmas spirit born out of apathy or cynicism or is it a healthy letting go?  Is this stress I feel (or general grouchiness or weepiness) related to disappointing somebody in particular?  Who might that be?  Is this grief I feel or is it self-pity?  Is this true repentance or is it shameful regret?  Are my hopes for the season based on my stellar performance, the cooperation of others with my wonderful plans, a credit limit, or an inbreaking of the LORD?  Or is it all of the above or none of the above?

Give yourself permission to grab a big helping of emotions.  Tomorrow, I’ll talk about what to do with them, and how that might make for a richer, more meaningful Christmas this year.

(I realize that wasn’t fair at all, unless you love cliffhangers.)