Find Time to Ponder the Christ-child this Christmas

A baby changes everything. When our first was on his way someone gave us a card that said on the front page: “Congratulations!” It had the picture of the cutest baby you would ever see until ours was born. But then you opened it up and saw these words in large, bold print: “Life as you once knew it is over!”

It was. Babies do have a way of disrupting the routine of life. It starts as soon as their existence is announced.

“Guess what honey?” The young husband has no clue. “Did I forget our anniversary?” he wonders. He takes a stab at it: “It’s our anniversary! Happy anniversary!” he declares. She scowls and says, “No dear, that’s not for three months.”

After a few feeble attempts— “Birthday? First date anniversary? Your mother is coming to live with us?!”—he does what he usually does. He gives up. “Why don’t you just tell me?” This time she can’t hold it in any longer: “We’re pregnant!”

At first he thinks, “We’re pregnant? I’m a guy. Why would she say “we”?” And soon he realizes that although he will not have a bouncing baby boy or girl growing inside his body, he is indeed pregnant too. When she tosses and turns in a sleepless night, he doesn’t sleep either. When she is hungry for Baskin Robbins mint chocolate chip ice cream, he will be eating it too. When her back aches, his will too once he is done massaging hers.

I know. I’ve been there and maybe you have too. Those nine-months are designed for the baby to be nourished and grow. But they are also for the parents to prepare. Their routines become shaped by preparation for the arrival of the baby. A crib is assembled. A room is decorated. Diapers are stockpiled. Then the day arrives.

The problem is when he came Kris didn’t look like what I thought he would look like. Red-faced. Matted hair. Slime all over his body. Not the clean, days-old babies you see in the movies. I said, “Karen, he’s great. I think he favors your side of the family.”

Yes, when Kris was born our world changed. And when Jesus was born the whole world changed.

Mary’s world certainly did. The angel Gabriel appears and announces: “…you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.” Gabriel explains that the natural will be replaced by the supernatural with words like “come upon” and “overshadow.” These are words found in the Greek Old Testament that describe the hovering of the Spirit of God over the waters at creation. The Holy Spirit that was part of the creation in the beginning would cause the creation of this child “…for nothing will be impossible with God.”

To this Mary simply responds in faith: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” The word “servant” is literally “slave.” We may not like this word so it gets softened to “servant.” But Mary understands her role. She is giving up her hopes and dreams and even her own body to submit herself to the plans of God. She is giving up her questions of what is happening, why it is happening, or where is her life going to end up to an understanding of herself as “slave.”

When the birth comes so do shepherds. They’ve seen angels too and come to see the child. They leave and like the end of Christmas day, after all the opening of presents and playing with toys and feasting on the Christmas ham or turkey and all the commotion and excitement of the day, the night becomes still.

And maybe for the first time since delivering the baby Mary has an opportunity to reflect. “…Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.” She reviewed all that had happened to change her world and spent some moments “pondering” them in her heart.

“Ponder” comes from the compound verb symballo. “Sym” means “together” and “ballo” means “to throw.” So it means “to throw things together.” We sometimes picture Mary sitting over to the side of the activity somewhere, rocking her little baby boy, having a Hallmark kind of moment.

But much more is going on. This word is used to describe the work of a prophet, someone who would discern what God is up to and announces it to everyone else. That’s what Mary is doing. She gets it! This baby is the son of God. He’s going to change things. He’s bringing mercy. He will bring down the mighty and exalt those who are low. He will feed the hungry that the rich won’t help. Her little baby boy is going to rule in a way that Augustus never dreamed. In a short time, her world had changed and she is throwing things together to make sense of what God is doing in her life.

Maybe your world has changed too. Christmas time is not always the most wonderful time of the year for everyone: Lay-offs leave some wondering how to pay the bills. Sickness sends presents down the list of priorities. Divorce can darken holiday lights. Death of a loved one can steal some Christmas joy.

Christmas is a time to ponder. So this season in the midst of throwing together your preparations for a gathering or throwing together parts to be assembled, may you find some quiet moments to throw together all that is happening in your life. See the good and the difficult. The blessings and the bad. But make sure you throw in with all of that the child born in Bethlehem. Ponder your world less and ponder Christ more.

But be forewarned. This baby changes everything.

Question: What do you think God is up to in your life?

Worship When the Feelings Aren’t There

I remember walking into class that day and seeing her across the room. Something about Veronica caught my eye. Jet black hair. Big eyes. Eyes that met mine left me no way out. She knew I had glanced at her and knew I knew she knew.

It was the start of the semester and the start of something else. At break we met and talked. Talks turned into walks. Walks turned into holding hands. It wasn’t long until I took the next natural step in this progression.

I bought her a ring. I had saved up my money and painstakingly picked out a ring at the store. And then, while examining it one last time before putting it into a box to present to her, I dropped it. It fell apart. The small jewels bounced around on the floor. Settings broke in two.

At first I was near tears but then I thought, “What should I expect from a 5 and Dime store?” I gathered up the fragments, made a mixed media art piece, and gave it to her at school the next day. She was underwhelmed. And so ended my first love in second grade.

It was a great feeling while it lasted. Maybe you can remember your first love. And maybe the feeling was good enough that you wanted it again. Sometimes we can fall in love with falling in love, can’t we?

It happened in the medieval ages. Something called “courtly love” or “romantic love” developed. Here’s what happened: Married men would basically have an emotional affair with either another married woman or a single woman. This “courtly love” would not be physical. It would remain at the emotional level. The essence of courtly love was to fall in love with falling in love.

The church today might be guilty of courtly love. In writing about this phenomenon, Scot McKnight has said, “Some folks love church, and what they mean by ‘loving church’ is that they love the experience they get when they go to church.”

  • They might like the experience and feelings they get from singing songs about adoration of God or the experience of loving Jesus.
  • They might like sermons that make them feel God’s power or tell stories that entertain or insights that seem brand new.
  • If the song isn’t in the right style or the sermon is more broccoli than dessert, then we might leave rating the time spent as a disappointment. Like the segment on American Bandstand where Dick Clark would have some teenagers “Rate a Record,” we rate what we call worship on the basis of its beat and how it made us feel.

But what if the worship of the church is not supposed to be rated on the flightiness of feelings? Instead, its design might be more about building the faithfulness of fidelity to Christ? More about a mature relationship than a courtly love.

The Apostle Paul would say so. He writes: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” What happens on Sunday mornings when followers of Christ meet is worship, but it is only part of a larger framework of a life of worship.

We live a life of worship to the degree that our hearts and faces are turned toward God all the time in all of our life. The early church understood that. And so they sang. They sang when they gathered on the first day of the week but they sang at other times.

  • Paul and Silas sang in prison. Not sure what they were feeling but they worshiped.
  • Jesus and the disciples sang after the Passover meal. Jesus was on his way to the cross. I wonder what he “got” out of that time of worship?

Paul redirects our focus of worship on the idea that even the songs are to “teach and admonish.” Everything to Paul was to move our attention to Jesus. The shape of our worship is intended to shape us into the image of Christ.

When we set our eyes on Jesus we shape our lives like Jesus’.

The feelings are great when they are present. But even when they are not, keep looking at Jesus. You’ll find something better than the flightiness of courtly love.

Question: What would change about your worship experience if you “rated” it by how it taught and admonished you towards Jesus?


When a Thanksgiving Meal Can Be a Picture of the Church

The “All Church Fellowship” was the one announcement at church I looked forward to when I was a young single guy. The invitation typically went something like this: “Come enjoy a potluck lunch. Please bring an item to share. It will be a great time of food and fellowship. You won’t want to miss it!”

Archbob / Pixabay

I really did not want to miss the food part. When you are lacking in culinary skills, these words are like music to your ears. You didn’t know what was going to be spread out on the buffet tables but you could imagine: A pot roast would be sitting next to some tamales. Fresh, fluffy dinner rolls would be next to a loaf of Mrs. Baird’s bread. A homemade cherry pie would be placed next to a container of store bought cookies.

Then there would always be some “manna.” That would be the dish that no one knew what it was and everyone was afraid to try because they didn’t know what it was. If they asked me I’d just say, “Must be manna.” The inquiring mind would then ask, “Why do you say this is ‘manna.’”

That’s when my Bible degree would pay off. I’d look them in the eyes and say, “Well, when the Israelites in the wilderness saw the frosted flakes on the ground for the first time they called it ‘manna.’ And ‘manna’ means “What is it?” Some older lady in the church would then go home with a smile on her face because she heard we were saying her dish was heavenly.

And then there would always be a large bag of Lay’s potato chips. They would be right in the middle of a table, as conspicuous as a man waiting for his wife in the lingerie department. Everyone would know where they came from. It would be my contribution to the “all church potluck fellowship.”

That was the great thing about the invitation. Everyone was invited. And everyone brought something to share. The scene was a modern day parable of the first Christians.

In their early meetings you might see another potluck. But this one is comprised of people. You see a slave. But he isn’t serving anyone. He’s sitting next to his Roman master. You see women and children. You notice a Jewish woman and a Greek man. There are Romans who lived the full Roman lifestyle but are now learning the ways of Jesus. There are Jews who still practice their Jewish ways but have embraced Jesus as their Messiah.

And there is a table spread with food for everyone. Before there were ever church buildings and pulpits and praise teams there were houses and kitchens and tables.

More importantly there was fellowship. The Greek word for “fellowship” is koinonia. It means literally “that which is shared in common.” What we traditionally call “fellowship” involves sharing some time together. But biblical koinonia encompasses more.

Koinonia is first a spiritual sharing. It existed from the beginning as the Father, Son and Spirit shared life together.

Then it is a social sharing. Jesus had koinonia with the Father, but he showed us that it was to be shared through invitation to others. Jesus was always at table with “sinners”: tax collectors, prostitutes, the immoral, the blind, lame, and diseased. Everyone was welcome at his table.

John put it this way: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” If you are a “whoever” you are invited.

And then koinonia is also a financial sharing. John writes that we are not walking in light if we see a brother or sister in need and close our hearts against them. True fellowship means we will use our financial blessings to help others.

You may experience some fellowship around a Thanksgiving table this week. When you do, let it be for you a picture of the church, a place where everyone is invited to the table with Jesus. And everyone has a place to belong. That’s something for which to be thankful.

Question: Who might you invite to the “table”?



Believers Belong in Church

My earliest memories of church come from my preschool days in a little church in Memphis, Texas. I remember the songs. When the Roll is Called Up Yonder was one of my favorite. The Church of Christ-ers could belt that one out with enthusiasm.

cgcowboy / Pixabay

There were two things that caught my young attention in that song. First, I thought it had something to do with dinner rolls so my mouth started watering when we’d sing that one. And second, the idea of the trumpet of the Lord sounding created vivid scenes in my mind of some big angel—like Gabriel—blowing that horn real loud.

So one Sunday as I was laying down on the church pew during the sermon and dreaming about dinner rolls, I heard it. A loud sound like a trumpet. It was brash and long. I bolted straight up. I thought, “This is it! The roll is being called up yonder, and I’m going there.” I looked around and saw my Mom and Dad. I didn’t see my older brother Scott who was sometimes mean to me so it figured that he wouldn’t be there. Just when I was getting ready to find the heavenly banquet table with bottomless dinner rolls, my Mom patted me on the back, leaned over and whispered, “It’s just a train blowing its horn. Lay back down.”

I did. But those experiences gave me my first ideas about church. You have ideas about church too, don’t you? What is it that has shaped those ideas? For some, it’s childhood. For others, it’s some church you went to at Easter or Christmas Eve. For still others, it’s some new church in the neighborhood that has popped up and gives the impression they’ve figured something new out that no one else has yet discovered.

Maybe our ideas of what the church is should come from the New Testament instead of the latest blog article or the fastest growing church in whatever part of the country we live in. Maybe we should get our ideas of church from the Apostle Paul, the one who established the churches we read about in the New Testament. When we turn to Paul we get a different picture of the church.

There we find ekklesia. Ekklesia is the Greek word for church. It is a compound word meaning to be “called out” or “called together” for a special purpose. Ekklesia is a word that was common in the first century to describe any group that assembled. It was used to describe the group of free men who could vote, the popular assembly, part of the Greek system of governance, or any gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place. The word for “church,” then, is not that “churchy” to begin with.

When Paul uses the word he has in mind the Old Testament word qahal. It was used to refer to Israel who had been called out by God to serve a special purpose. Paul connects these new churches to the old Israel, God’s people who had a purpose for their existence. When we understand “church” the way Paul did, no church is a new church.

He also connects the church to Christ. The gospel—the good news of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ—was the unifying common interest that brought them together as the church. They weren’t all alike. Men, women, slaves, free, rich and poor. They were called out of their daily routines and assembled around Christ. This kind of diversity was unprecedented among ancient associations.

Because of their diversity they needed a new identity. Paul gives them one. He says they are now family. “Family” is the predominant image for the church in the New Testament and Paul’s writings.

In 1 Thessalonians—Paul’s first letter to a church he established—he says a family: has a corporate identity, is beloved by God, is to walk in a manner worthy of God, is to be holy, are children of light, and are siblings to each other. Paul knows nothing of the individual Christian because people respond to the gospel by living in community. For Paul, to be a believer is to be in the church.

The church is a family. And its messy. The first century church was too. There was never a time when the church “did it perfectly.” You’ll never find a perfect church now. Plant yourself in a church, focus on your calling in Christ, and learn to be family.

When the “roll is called up yonder” you’ll want to be there. You won’t be alone. But you may be surprised at who else is there with you.

Question: How is church like a family to you?

When Your Candy Store Gets Ambushed

It was somewhere around my third grade year when the entrepreneurial spirit hit me and my brother. This was back in the day when a kid could walk around the neighborhood or ride a bike to the 7-Eleven store a couple of miles away and no one had cause for worry.

My brother and I would go to that corner store to fill up on candy and lemonade mix. We noticed that a number of other kids from our subdivision would do the same thing. That’s when the idea struck us: we’d start a candy stand in front of our house. We would buy the candy from the store, jack up the price a bit, and save our friends the trip. We’d throw in some lemonade to help them wash it all down. I’d like to say we did this to be kind to our friends. But honestly? We wanted to be independently wealthy.

We opened up the store and were an immediate success. Supplies were flying out of our stand quicker than you can say “Pixy Stix.” The boys were all wanting to learn our business secrets. The girls were asking for our phone numbers. We’d sell out, put out our “Be Back in an Hour” sign, and take our profits to the store to stock up again.

A couple of weeks into our gig we were outlining our first seminar on “How to Grow Your Own Business” and planning our first franchise into the next neighborhood when we heard a low roar. We looked up and saw a big guy—he must have been at least sixth grade—wearing jeans and a T-shirt with one of those candy cigarette packs rolled up in the sleeve. He was rolling up on his mini-bike and stopped with a dramatic skid in front of our store.

I watched all this from a distance. I had started back to the house to get more lemonade. My brother was watching the stand by himself. The sixth-grade-gang-guy flashed a knife and demanded our money. It was a tough decision facing me: run to my brother’s aide or run…to the house and get my Dad.

Dad was bigger than me so I ran to him. My Dad was about 5’7” but to a sixth grader he might as well have been Arnold Schwarzenegger. As soon as he appeared the boy hopped on his bike and took off like a dog with his tail between his legs. My brother and I stopped worrying.

We kept on about our business knowing our father was watching over us.

And you can keep on about your business knowing your Father is watching over you.

This election season has been tumultuous: Bickering. Fighting. Name-calling. Accusation-hurling. Slander-slinging. And sadly, much of that has been from people who claim to follow Jesus.

I get it. We think we are clicking along at a good pace with our private little stands doing what we do in the world. Then along comes someone to cast fear into our hearts and we panic. (Yes, the candy store was real but is now an analogy.) And when we panic we get anxious and we worry about our future.

Is this how followers of the Nazarene should behave? His Word tells us to not let any unwholesome talk come out of our mouths. His Word tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. (I’m not sure the debates we’ve endured count as persecution, but they may come close.) His Word reminds us that “some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.”

Do we?

  • What do the people around us think we trust in by our behavior? The “nation” or the “God” we claim to be under?
  • What do our children think when they hear our fear-based reactions? As Andy Stanley famously said, we need to “Stop scaring the children!”
  • What do our neighbors think when they watch us on Sunday sing “Our God is an Awesome God” and on Monday sing the blues because we think our world is doomed no matter who is elected?

Can I remind you of something that may help? “The LORD is in his holy temple; the LORD is on his heavenly throne” (Psalm 11:4). He has not gone anywhere. Your Father has not vacated his house. And perhaps all he is waiting on is his people to call on him just as I called on my father that day at the candy stand.

Isn’t that the verse many have dusted off over the past few months?

“If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14).

It might be helpful for us to remember those words were written to the nation of Israel. To apply them today we must not apply them to America. No. Today these words would apply to the church, the New Israel. If there is humbling and praying and seeking and turning to be done, it is to be done by God’s people. His church.

So let’s do that. By the time you read this the election will have been decided. Depending on the outcome you may feel as if some bully has shown up and disrupted your world. You may be worried. You may be anxious.

If so, won’t you do what I did? Run to your Father. The heavenly one. The one who is in his holy temple. The one who is on his throne.

He’s a lot bigger than 5’7”. But the result will be the same. He’ll protect you and restore peace. He’ll heal our land. So let’s let him be our Father. And let’s do our best to look like his children.

America needs us to.

Question: What is your greatest fear this morning? Will you take it to your Father?

Learn to Travel Light Through Life

There is an art to traveling overseas for an extended time. Unfortunately, in 2008 we had not mastered that art. You see, we were going on sabbatical to Europe for five weeks. But we did not go lightly.

27707 / Pixabay

The biggest mistake of our trip happened in our room when we were packing. We each had a smaller suitcase and were plotting out what to take and how to pack it tightly. That’s when one of us—I will not mention who it was—but that’s when Karen said, “Why don’t we pack our things together in one suitcase?” We went from two small suitcases to one large suitcase. Same amount of stuff crammed into one container. Made sense.

Until we got to Europe and started climbing onto trains. You see, you don’t check your baggage through trains like you do on an airplane. You take your luggage onto the train with you and you put it in an overhead bin. Because Europeans travel by train and usually go for short day or weekend trips, the bins are small. Made for small suitcases. Like the two we left back home.

We had one large, heavy suitcase. Each of our sons had their suitcases. We had a guitar. We had two backpacks. And when we tried to load all of this on our first train we almost had a meltdown. We couldn’t get into our cabin. The people behind us couldn’t get on the train. They were stacked up like cars on a Houston freeway at rush hour. We felt the pressure of too much to carry and too little space for it.

Maybe life feels like that for you today. You’re carrying around more than you were designed to carry. So did the Prodigal Son. When he came home his father embraced him and kissed him. Then he said to his father, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”

His father has given him grace and he still says, “I am not worthy…” He’s carrying baggage called shame. Brene Brown has done great work in the area of understanding shame. She says shame is lethal in our lives. It keeps us from living the life God intended. It makes us live instead the life we think others want us to live.

You can detect shame in your life by your self-talk. “I am stupid. I’m a loser. I’m such a mess up.” That’s shame speaking. The focus is on self.

Counteract shame in your life by changing your self-talk from focus on self to focus on behavior. “I made a stupid decision last night.” “I wasn’t thinking.” “What I did was wrong.” We need to get clear about our self-talk and the effect of shame on our lives.

Brown says that the difference between guilt and shame is this: guilt says “I did something wrong” whereas shame says “I am wrong.”

The father in the story helps his son think differently by giving him the best robe, a ring and sandals.

  • In the ancient world the best robe in a family was the father’s robe. He covered his son with his own robe. The act said, “You are enough.”
  • A ring represented authority and power. The son came home thinking he had no future. Now his was secure.
  • And sandals were worn only by family members. Servants of the household were barefoot. The sandals placed on the son who hoped to only get the place of a hired servant told him he was accepted.

My guess is his self-talk changed. And yours can too. If you have been baptized into Christ, you have been “clothed with Christ” (Galatians 3:27). You’ve been given the covering you need. You can say, “I am a child of God” (Galatians 3:26).

By Venice we got tired of the excess baggage. We tossed the large suitcase, bought a smaller one, and traveled lighter the rest of the trip. You can too. Put your shame away. Change your self-talk. There’s a Father running to you that wants to clothe you with all you need to carry through life. And it will be enough.

Question: What shame are you carrying around that is making your journey heavy?


When You Need Help…Ask for It

One day I needed help in a big way. I was at the gym a few years back and there was only one other guy working out at the same time. I was putting in a little extra work that day and on the agenda was some decline presses. Now, if you know what they are you know they are kind of strange. You are leaning backwards with your head slanted towards the floor. Blood is rushing to your head…that can’t be the best way to workout. And then you take the bar off the rack and fight against gravity wanting to take it and obliterate your blood-rushed head.

Peggy_Marco / Pixabay

I had been building up my strength on the decline and was pretty proud of the progress. I was now adding weights to the bar and so I put the 2 ½ lb. plates on each end and got ready to lift. Now, one rule of lifting is you shouldn’t lift alone. You need a spotter. I figured I could handle this by myself and, if I had a problem, could grunt loud enough for the other guy to come over and lend me a hand.

At the time I did not realize it but I had made the grave mistake of already doing some arm work. I got to the third set of my decline presses and was doing fine until suddenly my right triceps gave out. I had the bar resting up against me and I could not for the life of me get it back up to the rack.

Not to worry. I used my blood-rushed head to look around the room so I could grunt to the other guy and he was nowhere to be seen. I wasn’t sure what to do. I imagined leaning the bar to one side and then the other but knew this would only end in embarrassment.

But then, out of nowhere—actually out of the men’s bathroom—came the only other person in the weight room. Like a “band of brothers” brother, he helped me in my time of trouble. And I was desperately in need of help.

The younger son in the story of the Prodigal Son needed help. A great famine had come on the distant land he had gone to where he had squandered all his father’s fortune. In those days “great famines” meant there would be robbing, murder, bodies left to rot in the streets and even children being sold for money. It was bad enough that he was feeding pigs for a living. This made it even worse.

But it took him some time before he decided to go home. He knew how he would be greeted. The people of the town would meet him outside the city. They would take a clay pot and break it on the ground in front of him and tell him, “You are to us as this clay pot. You are broken. You are cut off.” This ceremony was called Kezazah, a Hebrew word meaning “to cut off.” “You have broken our community, you are now cut off from us, never to return. Let these pieces be a symbol of your brokenness.”

That’s what he expected. It might explain why it took him until he was at rock bottom before he was willing to ask for help. We don’t like to ask for help much, do we? Especially men. I’ll spend an hour in Lowe’s looking for the part I need before I’ll ask someone in a blue vest.

We humans will often stay in our own mess before we find help so we can live differently. Author Robert Quinn notes: “We actually seem to prefer slow death. Slow death is the devil we know, so we prefer it to the devil we do not know.”  What he’s saying is we’d rather keep repeating a cycle that leads to slow death because we know it and would rather stay there than to risk what it takes to change. What it takes to change is admitting we need help.

The son did. He came to his senses and he went home. And instead of facing the Kezazah ceremony, his father ran to him. The word Luke uses in the story for “ran” is used for an athlete. He ran like Usain Bolt to get to his son before the Kezazah did. Dignified men did not run. It was humiliating to do so. But this father did. He took the humiliation that should have been his son’s and placed it on himself.

The son found his help in the Father. And you can too. Jesus told this story so that people who needed help in life could come home. Jesus lived among people so that people who needed help could see what the Father was like. In Jesus they found a Father who runs and covers their humiliation with a robe, a ring, and sandals.

Ask for the help you need today. You don’t have to do life on your own. You certainly don’t have to run.  Your Father is already running to you.

Question: Is there a place in your life today where you need to ask for help? Who can you ask? Will you do it?


When Running Around Leads to Your Turning Around

Police raided an open field full of underage drinkers recently in Holmes County, Ohio. You may think this sounds familiar. You may have been a part of some open field parties yourself in your younger days. But this one was unique. The raid happened when 45 police officers descended on a party that was part of a Rumspringa.

JoeKeim / Pixabay

Rumspringa is an Amish rite of passage. The word means “running around.” For Amish youth, Rumspringa usually begins around the age of 14-16. Teens are allowed freedom to leave the community and experiment with the world outside. After this season they come back to the community with a choice to make. They can either choose baptism with the Amish church or leave the community permanently and choose to live in the world.

But during Rumspringa some do some pretty radical things. Like buying a television. Or driving a car instead of a horse-drawn buggy. Some forgo the traditional clothing and hairstyles and go modern.

And some try out alcohol. That’s what led to a gathering of Amish kids in an open field in Ohio where beer was running as free as the Rumspringa teens. Imagine the regrets voiced while 75 were sitting in the local jailhouse.

You and I have some regrets too. We’ve probably had our own forms of a Rumspringa. We just call it by other names: “sowing our wild oats,” “Spring Break at the beach,” or  “mid-life crisis I’m buying a Harley-springa.”

There may be someone reading this on a Rumspringa right now. Some running around. Experimenting with something taboo. Flirting with something outside your boundaries. And you may be setting yourself up for regret.

We all have them. Even if we have already found our way to God there are many other times we have to find our way back to God. We wander from him. We do things we know we shouldn’t or maybe things we don’t realize will harm us. And we have regrets.

The younger son had them. He took an early withdrawal of his inheritance, went to a foreign land, and squandered it all. The story says that he “came to his senses” and made a decision to “arise and go” to his father.

When we come to our senses and awaken to our regret we repent. “Repent” sounds churchy, but it really isn’t. It is a compound Greek word made up of “mind” and “change.” Repentance, then, is a changing of our mind or our way of thinking. The Hebrew word for repent means “to return.”

The younger son had to change the way he was thinking about life. He had searched for something to satisfy his longing for love, purpose and meaning. When he hit rock bottom he realized the longing was still there.

And maybe sitting in pig squalor can help a person discover the real longing is for home. So he repented—he changed his direction—and headed home. Repentance can involve emotion. Some repent and tears flow. But repentance has more to do with motion. All repent and then go. True repentance propels us to go in a new direction. The younger son’s was towards his father.

Many of us have “come to our senses.” We can recognize decisions we’ve made that led us to places we one day regretted. But regret doesn’t get us home. That’s the second step that many people never get to. We want to change, we want to start over, we want a mulligan. But shame, guilt and even fear get in our way. We ask: “Will they accept me?” “Will they take me in?” “Could God ever forgive someone like me?”

And the answer is “Yes, yes he can. And yes yes he will.” The father welcomes his son home with an embrace. The Father will do the same for you.

Go home to him. He’ll run out to greet you. And that’s a better story than all the running around we could ever do.

Question: What direction are you going today? Do you need to change direction?



When Your Longings Surface Turn Towards Home

Henry the VIII had six. Elizabeth Taylor had eight. Zsa Zsa Gabor had nine.

epicantus / Pixabay

But Glynn Wolfe had more. He holds the record for marriages: 29 in all. He married some for days, some for months, and a few for years. He married teenage women and he married women with teenagers. He married country girls and he married city girls.

He exchanged wives like someone trying on a variety of clothes. You’d think somewhere along the way, maybe at #5 or even #14 he would have stopped. But he didn’t. Wolfe said he loved women but would get bored with them and felt a strong drive to find another one.

Henry. Elizabeth. Zsa Zsa. Glynn. It doesn’t take much to realize they were all looking for something. More correctly, they were longing for something. We have longings too.

We have a longing for love. That’s why when you got dumped in a relationship you found yourself getting into another one later.

We have a longing for purpose. That’s why even when you were a kid and did not have to pay bills or worry about working, you still had a dream of who you wanted to be when you grew up. And the reason you were thinking about this is that you already had a desire inside of you for purpose.

We long for meaning too. We want to know the answers to the big “Why?” questions of life. You may have asked them yourself: “Why, if God is good, did he let this happen?” “Why am I here?” “Why is there so much suffering in the world?”

Those questions and these longings are in us because they are placed there by God. The longings aren’t the problem. The problem is we often journey away from God to find answers to our longings.

The Prodigal Son did. Charles Dickens called this the greatest short story ever. The younger son in the story had everything his father had to give him. But even with that he had a longing for something more.

So he asked his dad for his inheritance. In that Middle Eastern first century culture that request was the same as telling your father you wished he were dead. You were supposed to take care of your father in his old age and then, when he did die, you would receive your inheritance.

But the father gave him his inheritance and he went away and spent it all “in reckless living.” We don’t know what that was. Drinking? Gambling? His brother offered that he “devoured the property with prostitutes.” Regardless, he lost it all trying to fulfill his longings.

When the money and the women and the friends were all gone he discovered he had another longing: home. He wanted to go back home to his father, even if it meant he would work as a hired hand.

Jesus told this story because he knew we all have longings for something more. And he knew that “something more” was life with the Father. That is where your “home” and mine is. It is a story about finding your way home to the Father.

As far as we know Glynn Wolfe never found his way back home. Believe it or not, he was a minister and he died alone, suffering panic attacks in the middle of the night in his later life because he was virtually alone all the time. To his dying day he kept a wedding dress in his closet. Just in case.

Your story can end on a different note. Pay attention to your longings. Believe that they will not be satisfied running from God but running towards God. Then turn towards home today.

Question: Identify a time when your “longings” took you far from home…the place you are made to be.

Stop Climbing Stairs and Sit

They are called the Scala Sancta. The Holy Stairs. You can find them in Rome near the St. John Lateran Basilica. They are believed to be the same steps Jesus climbed on his way to trial before Pilate. The 28 steps were moved from Jerusalem to Rome around 326 A.D. by Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine. They are marble in construction but encased in wood to protect the marble.

They are protected because for centuries pilgrims have climbed these stairs for various reasons. Some out of devotion. Some to offer prayers. And some because they believe that if they do so they will be forgiven their sins—one year for each step. 28 years of sin removed. When the average lifespan was only 50, two trips to the steps could give a person assurance of entry into heaven.

But climbing the steps is not easy. The only way a person is allowed to climb the stairs is on one’s knees, stopping on each step to offer a prayer. Karen and I have done this once. We thought the experience would be a good one, like crossing off an item on your bucket list. It was an experience. A painful one. And we did not feel a need to have that experience ever again.

Martin Luther climbed them. The great Reformer struggled with his doubts as a young man. He said “my conscience would never give me assurance, but I was always doubting and said, ‘You did not perform that correctly. You were not contrite enough. You left that out of your confession.’”

On a trip to Rome he learned that if he climbed the Scala Sancta he could free his grandfather from purgatory and maybe help his own cause along the way. And so he began on his knees to climb one step at a time.

Maybe you haven’t climbed the Scala Sancta but you’ve had doubts too. Some of you don’t, I know. Some of you have a gift of faith and like a rock cannot be moved. But others of us doubt.

  • “With all I’ve done, how could God ever love me?”
  • “I just don’t think I’ll ever be good enough.”
  • “If the message of Jesus is so clear, why do I have so many questions?”
  • “If God is love then why do unloving things happen to people?”

A lack of assurance is nothing new. John’s audience faced the same. “… for whenever our heart condemns us …” he writes (1 John 3:20). If you ever think the first century Christians had an easier road to faith than you, think again.

But John had a remedy for “hearts that condemn.” He said there is a place to find reassurance: “before him.” “By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him…” Instead of listening to condemnation listen to the One who works for your transformation.

That is the other place John points us to: our transformation. Do you have a firm belief in Jesus as the son of God who came in the flesh (1 John 2:23; 4:2)? Are you growing in your desire to be more like the Father (1 John 3:19-20)? Do you love those who also love the Father (1 John 4:12)? If your answer is “yes” then you can find reassurance that the fellowship with the Father and the Son is having its effect in your life.

Reassurance is not found in some secret code. It is not found in something detached from the world we live in. It is not found in rule keeping.

And it is not found by climbing 28 steps on your knees. Martin Luther knew the promise. “If your heart condemned you” you could gain assurance of eternal life one step at a time. So dressed as a monk, with a shaved head and bare knees, he began creeping up the marble steps with the hope of his troubled conscience finding peace.

At some point he suddenly heard a voice like thunder say, “The just shall live by faith.” He got up to his feet, left the place, and was reassured of his place with God. Not because he loved God first through any action. But because God loved him through his action. (1 John 4:10).

You will be assured too. When your heart condemns you do what Luther did. Hear the voice of God and believe in Jesus. Just sit before him. It’s so much better than climbing steps.

Question: In what way(s) has your heart condemned you?