25 Gifts–Why Jesus (Advent 2014, Day 14)

1

 

Several years ago, when Angelo and I were young and just starting out in life together, we attended a toxic church.

We didn’t know it was toxic, and we were young, and green and willing to jump in and help. We served by helping in the youth ministry with junior high kids. A ragtag bunch of kids met with us in the church basement where we tried to lead worship, share the gospel, and be their friends. Most of the kids lived in the apartments around the church, some were from church-going families. Sometimes the kids would be so ornery during youth group we wondered why they came at all.

Our pastor at the time warned us one day about investing too much in these rowdy neighborhood kids. He said the goal of the ministries of the church was to bring people into the church as regulars. Regular attenders who would become regular members, who would regularly serve in ministries themselves and become regular givers. He said if a ministry didn’t provide material growth, in membership and financial giving, that that ministry wasn’t worth a line in the budget.

We didn’t realize at the time that he was feeding us a regular pile of baloney.

A few years later we left that church. We had been spiritually manipulated to the point of exhaustion. We felt soul-slapped after we’d written a letter to rescind our membership and the rest of the church was told to “treat us as tax collectors” and have nothing to do with us.

I know the ugly side of church.

I wrote yesterday about the gift of community, and I do believe that the essence of true community that Jesus inspired is truly one of the most beautiful things. But I also understand how mucked up we make ministry, how we convolute the great commission, how we contort compassion. Here God offers this amazing gift of community and then has the audacity to bring sinful, selfish humans to the party!

I know the weird confusion of wanting to invite friends to church, but not my church. I remember us asking ourselves, “Do we really want to expose them to our church?” We wanted them to know the hope of Jesus Christ but wanted to spare them of the inevitable painful drama. When things grew worse and before we had left that church, we heard ourselves saying to one another, “I’m so glad this is happening to us instead of _____ who is so young in his faith that this would devastate him.” Oh, we were in a battle alright, but it was a war of internal affairs and one we hadn’t the energy to fight.

Within time that church fell apart.

The neighborhood kids, you may wonder?

Well, we had this foursome who came from the apartments and disrupted youth group like crazy. Two sets of siblings, two girls and two boys. We happened to see them about six years after we had to leave that church and they all survived high school. Indeed they flourished.

Each one of them followed Jesus faithfully. There was a path laid out before them that started in that old church basement. There was a truth shared some Wednesday night long ago that continued to shine in their minds and lead them. And these kids–“at-risk” in so many ways–became adults who wanted to be a part of community in healthy ways. One was studying to be a nurse, another a fire-fighter. Every one of them had a relationship with their savior Jesus.

One of my favorite psalms ends with this quartet:

The Lord will indeed give what is good,

and our land will yield its harvest.

Righteousness goes before him

and prepares the way for his steps. (Psalm 85:12-13)

God never ignores the harvest. He sees the heart-soil tilled and the seeds planted, he sees ahead and brings to completion all our investments made in faith. He indeed gives what is good. And none can stop him.

I wish I could say that that church was our only experience with spiritual abuse. But it wasn’t. We have been lied to, misled and dismissed since then, by others in leadership. But, we learned early on that that leadership wasn’t the “head” of the body of believers, Jesus is. When the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus about the great dynamic of unity in diversity, he said this: “We will in all things grow up into him, who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”(Ephesians 4:15-16)

The gift of Jesus in this is that he is my Peerless Leader.

He makes no mistakes, he misses no thing. He sees us all as equally important to the community and loves watching us grow up into love. Just as we rejoiced when we bumped into our former middle school kids, Jesus rejoices when he sees us moving and being and responding in love.

After we left toxic church, we gathered our courage one Sunday morning and  drove to a new church a friend had told us about. We were rung out and dry and a little scared, I won’t lie. Tears escaped my eyes as we sat in the back of this congregation and heard the pastor say,

“God doesn’t talk stink about you. He can’t! He loves you so much and knows what’s in store for you, knows the plans he has for you! He never says an untruth, never criticizes what you bring to the table or considers your gifts to him to small. He thinks you’re great. He made you and loves you with an everlasting love and even more, he’ll never give up on you!”

He never gives up. He knows us and loves us and gives what is good – even when we’re slogging through the muck of damaged relationships, dark pasts, difficult seasons and unknown futures – God is good. All the time.

This might be one of my very favorite gifts.

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25 Gifts-Why Jesus? (Advent 2014, Day 13)

com·mu·ni·ty

 

Jesus himself was, of course, one man.

He came as any prophet had: out of obscurity, preaching a message of warning and of hope to the Israelite people. His human life ended like most the other prophets: he was killed because of his message.

In his brief time of ministry (a mere 3 years), Jesus began what can only be called a revolution. How? He invested in individuals and modeled a new idea: community.

Community by definition is a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals. Or, a group of people connected by similar geography, background or interests. You can be in a community of bicyclists or quilters. Your hometown might be your community, or your internet friends who meet regularly to discuss the joys of raising backyard chickens. 

When Jesus walked the earth, many Jewish people rallied in community behind men who promised revolution. They wanted to throw off the Roman shackles and live free of Roman tyranny and taxes. They longed to be free Jews. It’s no surprise that God planned for Jesus to arrive at the time that he did for this reason alone. The oppressed people groups, Jew and Gentile alike, were desperate for some relief from the heavy hand of Rome and her taxation. And further, the Jewish folk were oppressed by their own money and power-greedy temple leaders. They were fettered to their religious practices just as they were bound by Roman control.

So, consider all that and then go read the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5—it changes the flavor of his message, doesn’t it? Consider all that and think about the first thing Jesus did in his ministry: he formed a community. In the gospels (Matthew 4, Mark 3) we read about Jesus calling Peter, James and John, Nathanael, Matthew and the rest of the twelve.

What people have said about him is true. Jesus either was the Son of God, or he was a narcissistic cult leader suffering delusions of grandeur, but he couldn’t be both. As C.S. Lewis said in Mere Christianity,

“Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher.” 

 Here’s why I contend that he’s the Son of God: because the community that he formed in the dusty desert near the banks of the Sea of Galilee is the single largest community anyone can find on earth today.

There were mere hundreds of thousands populating the entire globe in Jesus’ day, now there are billions. There are billions more Christians alive at this moment than there were people two-thousand years ago. And, Christians make up one-third of the world’s population. Although Jesus hasn’t been around in bodily form since 33 AD, we all gather in churches and in homes and schools and parks and find community around his name. This is something Jesus actually prayed for. Yep.

Just before his capture and trial, Jesus spent some time teaching his disciples and closed with prayer. At the end of his prayer, he prayed for you and me:

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.

I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.

“Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you[e] known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.” (John 17:20-26)

If you want, you could print this section of John or find it in your bible and underline every word or phrase that speaks to the idea of community.

Also, all, one, in, given/gave, one, one, unity, with are the words I found. And his phrases are all about connectedness, togetherness, sharing, unity, mutuality.

What was on Jesus’ mind and heart before his arrest? You and me and the community of billions.

This community was why Jesus died. So that we could connect to one another, to him, to the Father, through the promised Holy Spirit and move in community, and in unity, forever.

And I’m so glad he prayed for us! We’ve needed it. We’re messy and proud and demanding and we argue, a lot. But look at what Jesus asked for us:

May they be brought to complete unity

to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

 

What a community! What a goal! What a purpose! And what’s the sparkling stone at the center of that community? Love. The perfect love of God brought to completion in the imperfect community of believers. Now that is a gift worth waiting for.

 

Friend,

I love knowing you. I love knowing that you’re there and sometimes you read my words and we can through this weird thing called the internet, connect in community. I have been a church-girl for a long time and honestly, the community has hurt and confused me. Sometimes I’ve hurt others. We are each one imperfect and in-process. So, our community won’t always be ideal. But, the goal of Christ and the promise is that we will be complete one day. Until then, let’s look for opportunities to uplift one another, forgive one another and face heavenward together. The word tells us that the world will know we belong to Jesus by our love for one another — as we begin to daily look for and act upon ways to love each other well, our community will naturally, organically grow. There is one thing all human beings long for: love. Let’s be a community of loving, open-handed folks!

Alyssa

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25 Gifts-Why Jesus {Advent 2014, Day 12}

Therefore, God elevated him to the place

“For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living…

It is written: “ ‘As surely s I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bow before me;

every tongue will confess to God.’” (Romans 14:9,11)

“This is what Cyrus, king of Persia says, “ ‘The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me

all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah.

Anyone of his people among you—may the Lord his God be with him and let him go up.’” (2 Chronicles 36:23)

 

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Sometimes I get to studying a verse or even a word or two from the Bible and I am FLOORED by it’s meaning. The amazing thing about studying the Word of God as a living text rather than simply for it’s literary merit, is that when you dig – even a little—you’ll always strike gold.

As I’ve been thinking about advent, mulling over the usual traditions and even scripture passages used at this season, I’ve been asking God to keep me open. I want to “hear” something or discover something I hadn’t before.

I love to thrift shop and dig around at yard sales. I love finding the treasure that someone else overlooked or the beautiful or useful or absolutely perfect item for a steal of a deal.

And studying the word is like that – but free!

It’s a hobby. Or a passion? Call me weird.

So this day of advent, I’ve been thinking about how everything and everyone will be absorbed in the praise and worship of Jesus Christ. Absolutely every idea, every philosophy, every religion, every political system, every single last person who ever lived, died and went subterranean will one day, all at one time freely profess, praise and adore and kneel at the foot of our creator, savior, Jesus.

Yeah, that right there eliminates the importance of nearly everything we use to validate ourselves. I wondered, what will this future global praise-fest look like? After a study of the words used in this passage of Philippians (and it’s sister passage in Romans 14:11) the cool discovery I made is this: everyone will WANT to praise Jesus. He will not morph into a militaristic despot with unlimited genie power and turn us all into robotic worshippers.

Rather, it looks to me like everyone will be clamoring for a spot to kneel at Jesus’ feet.

I thought of those stinky shepherds who saw behind the curtain of heaven and straightway dropped everything to find the baby that the throng of angels had announced. Come and worship had been the invitation. And worship they did.

So as I dove into this study of the words “Every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord”, I became so excited that I could jump up and down and clap like I just won the World Series.

Because I can’t wait to see what Jesus is going to do that’s going to inspire every person, every hardened atheist, every lost soul, every religious devotee, every Satanist, every unborn or long dead soul to prostrate in willing adoration!

What kind of kick-ass savior is this Jesus?

What theological ideals is he going to shatter? What kind of huge grace is he going to slather in Technicolor over the entire.stinking.universe? How many billions of us are going to finally get it and get our fill of him?

Today’s passages in Philippians and in Romans originated deep in the Old Testament in a very particular, very interesting prophecy of Isaiah.

And this rocks me, just a little bit.

This is a story about a king who would be born, raised up to power and chosen by God to free his people from captivity, to return them to their homeland and restore them. But it’s not a story about Jesus.

(This has a familiar tone, does it not?)

Only this king was Persian, not Hebrew. He wasn’t from the line of David. He was a Gentile.

So first, a little Hebrew history. For a long time God was warning his chosen people, the Israelites, that if they didn’t forsake idol worship and start turning to God and live according to the law he set out for them, that really bad things would happen. Really bad things. Severe drought, cannibalism, child-sacrifice, wars, ravaging disease—you know, bad, bad stuff. (Read Deuteronomy 27-30, if you need clarification). Moses shared God’s warning to the entire nation of Israel before his death, and then, like a good father, God send prophet after prophet to try to explain that this wasn’t merely God being a big, killjoy-theocrat, but these were largely natural consequences of their careless, selfless, living.

<Fast forward.>

A nation known as Babylon rose to incredible power. Modern day Iraq is in the region of ancient Babylon. Babylon was used by God to bring about some of the unsavory consequences to their disobedience. They carted off the best and brightest Israel had to offer (Daniel, of the lion’s den fame, and his bros) as well as a whole bunch of others to be used as slaves around their empire. This was a dark day, in about 630 BC, as voiced by the watch-tower prophet himself, Habakkuk. (Read Habakkuk 1-2 for this desperate prophet’s prayer and God’s answer.) Habakkuk decided, “I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts; I will look to see…” (2:1).

So, at this bleak intersection, all of Israel is scattered and King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon was all about building this giant statue of himself (and then, later, is cursed to graze his own farmland like a cow, and then worships God), who then is succeeded by Belshazzar and then Darius (he’s the king that sent Daniel to spend a night with the big cats). For all those years while Israel languished in captivity, their land lay fallow and recovered from over-farming. God’s people lived all over an empire far from any temples, any prophets, and chance at salvation, any hope of ever becoming a nation again.

Then Persia began bolstering it’s military and gathered its people and resources and became a world power, as well. Cyrus, the king of Persia, conquered all of Babylon and decided to let the Israelites free AND build them a new temple in Jerusalem!

Happy Ending!

Oh, but because this is scripture, there is more. So much more.

<Insert sound of rewinding tape here: zwsisssaizssswsz.>

We just rewound 150 YEARS to a place in time and a spot in your bible and mine called Isaiah 45.

Way back there, the prophet Isaiah told the people of Judah by name the man who would free them from their Babylonian captivity. His name was Cyrus. In Isaiah 44:28-45:1-7 Isaiah spoke the words of God concerning a man yet unborn, the words that would one day reach this man’s ears whilst he sat in a palace eating all kinds of rich foods with slaves fanning him:

“…who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I plese;

he will say of Jerusalem, “Let it be rebuilt,” and of the temple, “Let it’s foundations be laid.’

This is what the Lord says to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of

to subdue nations before him and to strip kings of their armor,

to open doors before him so that gates will not be shut:

I will go before you and will level the mountains;

I will break down gates of bronze and cut through bars of iron.

I will give you hidden treasures, riches stored in secret places,

so that you may know that I am the Lord, the God of Israel, who summons you by name.

For the sake of Jacob my servant, of Israel my chosen,

I summon you by name and bestow on you a title of honor, though you do not acknowledge me.

I am the Lord, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God.

I will strengthen you, though you have not acknowledged me,

so that from the rising of the sun to the place of its setting

people may know there is none besides me.

I am the Lord, and there is no other.

I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster;

I, the Lord, do all these things.”

 

And it’s from this chapter that Paul quotes in his letters to the believers in Rome and Philippi:

 

“ ‘Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other.

But myself I have sworn, my mouth has uttered in all integrity a word that will not be revoked:

Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear.

They will say of me, “In the Lord alone are righteousness and strength.’ ” [says the Lord]

 

And then, and I LOVE this, Isaiah adds:

 

“All who have raged against him will come to him and be put to shame.” (45:22-14)

 

Because my boy Isaiah knows what’s up. God is, I’ve said it before, the shizz. He can bring up rulers and nations and take others down and like I can eat candy. This is no problem for him. He will save his people and he certainly wants all people to be his people (we’re all created in his image, aren’t we?).

And Cyrus, years later, did as God wanted him to do. He was the agent of redemption and the chosen one who restored hope to the Hebrews.

Beyond simply filling the prophecy, Cyrus himself gave God the props he deserved: “The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah.”

So the question is this: are we going to do it now – this bending of the knee and professing of his magnitude – or are we going to wait until he dredges up the dead and the unborn and the long-lost souls of eternity to admit he’s God?

I don’t want to, but until I see it in full-fledged force, I will perpetually and accidentally underrate God’s mercy. I won’t get into a debate about whether a good and saving God would send people to hell. I believe, as much as I don’t understand, that he is so merciful and so just that we cannot, this side of the Day of the Lord, truly comprehend him. Honestly, I don’t know what this future day when every knee bows and every tongue confesses is going to look like, but it’s going to be awesome. Because look at this story of a promised king from our Old Testaments. Look how God shattered every pretense, broke through cultural and racial confines, and reached his long arm into the ways of humanity to restore his people, demonstrate his mercy in the face of their rebellion, and be magnified by the king of the greatest nation on the earth. Cyrus himself was a shadow type of Jesus.

And Jesus is Christmas. And here we can point to this ancient text and see shimmers of the advent of the birth of Christ and glimmers of that future day when every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord.

O, Come. Let us adore him.

It doesn’t matter what millennia or decade or country or irreligious state you may come from, you will, like me, that morning in my pajamas, see a glimpse of God for the amazing non-human, creator-of-all-things, intelligent designer and master of the universe that he is and you will kneel and you will praise – because you’ll see: he did it all to save you.

 

///

Friend,

Today’s reading was sort of like getting caught up in looking at old pictures long left in a box in a basement corner. A bit of a nostalgic glimpse into God’s past interactions with the world. Today’s gift of Jesus is that he is “The Lord and there is no other”. He is so worthy of our worship. Let’s take a bit of time this advent to remember not the babe born in the manger but the Lord of the Universe who will be praised by every person, ever. And let’s remember that his capacity for love and mercy is immeasurable and indefatigable. It takes my breath away.

Alyssa

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25 Gifts – Why Jesus? {Advent 2014, Day 11}

Can

“Nazareth!” exclaimed Nathanael.

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

“Come and see for yourself,” Philip replied.

{John 1:46}

Eastern Washington is dotted with nearly two-dozen lakes. Some are natural, small bodies, barely more than ponds. Others, like Lake Roosevelt are long stretches of dammed river.

My family moved to an area called Four Lakes when I was nearly ten-years-old, which, as is evidenced by the moniker, is a cluster of four separate, natural lakes: Granite, Silver, Clear and Medical Lakes. We’d moved to a community just up the hill from shimmering Silver Lake.

Being an avid Anne of Green Gables reader and an over-imaginative girl myself, as well as being recently uprooted from the Palouse country (known more for it’s rolling farmland than it’s lakes and pine trees), I was enchanted.

I spent most of my adolescence in this part of Eastern Washington. That fall, my parents enrolled me in Medical Lake schools, where I happily became a ML Cardinal and spent all my middle grades at the elementary and junior-high schools.

Medical Lake is a small town. We had a pharmacy, a mini-mart, and a pizza and ice-cream store (complete with a Ms. PacMan video game that greedily gobbled up my spare quarters). On long, hot summer days, I’d ride my bike into Medical Lake to meet my best friend who lived on Clear Lake (they had waterfront property – so we nearly always rode the winding roads back to her place to swim and boat right from her dock!), at the ice cream store or the mini-mart to fill our pockets with candy for the ride home.

It didn’t take me long living in Medical Lake to learn of its particular uniqueness, however. If I met anyone from Cheney (home of Eastern Washington University) or the big city of Spokane, they always made a funny face and said, “Ooooh, you’re from Medical Lake. Which institution do they keep you at: the monkey farm or the tard farm?”

Medical Lake was known for it’s primate testing center, the guarded facility for the criminally insane, a community for people born with severe disabilities, a low-level security detainment center, a women’s prison, and in addition, we had all the Fairchild Airforce Base kids at our schools—the “basers”. So, in the greater Spokane area, my little known berg sported some big notoriety.

I quickly learned to lead people to believe I hearkened from “The Cheney Area” or “Near Four Lakes” or “West of Town on Silver Lake, Have You Heard of It?”.

Because apparently nothing good came out of Medical Lake – only the occasional escapee. Continue reading

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25 Gifts – Why Jesus? (Advent 2014, Day 10)

love-2

“Remember when you couldn’t cook, mom, and people brought us meals?”

“Yes, I do,” I said, changing lanes and turning up the Market Street hill.

“And remember when those nice people showed up with Christmas presents.”

“Yes.”

And the tears threatened so I can’t say anything else.

“That was nice.”

“Yes,” and after swallowing the lump in my throat, I could say, “It’s important that we never forget. It’s important so that we look for opportunities to help people like those people helped us.”

“Yeah, they didn’t even know us.”

“It’s easy to help someone you know and like, isn’t it. But these people helped us just because we’re people and we needed help.”

We pulled into the parking lot of our destination and Nikko hopped out to go to his breakdancing class.

“By mom! See you after!”

And the conversation hung in the air around me on the drive home.

///

Can you edit my paper today?

I read the text on my phone’s screen and replied, Sure thing.

Her argumentative essay needed some work, but it had good bones. I inserted comments but as I read this theology paper my daughter had composed, I was struck by the theme: love in action. Continue reading

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