Headlines from First Thoughts

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Making Love Happen

(The following posts were originally published for www.followingthestar.com)

Matthew 11:7-11

Love begins when we realize that we cannot make it through life without looking back. When we turn around, we see significant people who made it possible for us to be who we are today.

John the Baptist made Jesus’ ministry effective. John, who was part of Jesus’ extended family, did things that Jesus did not come to do. Like Isaiah’s, he opened doors, prepared hearts, and preached sermons that people had not heard in a long time. He wore just camel’s hair for worship and used the Jordan River for a sanctuary. If Jesus had been that person, few would have believed him. After John’s disciples left, Jesus gave credit to the giant on whose shoulders he stood.

Who made things happen in your life? Who was the person who shared Christ and life with you and made you who you are today? More than likely they sacrificed a great deal of money, resources, and fame so that you could live, breathe, play, and enjoy.

Take time to share love this Advent season with someone who has made it possible for you to live the way you live today. Tell them personally through a note, email, or a personal word of thanks.

Prayer: Thank you, God, that we are not alone and that others have prepared the way for us.

Minding Behavior

(This post was oringally published at http://www.followingthestar.org/)

Matthew 11:2-6

Mind-reading. It happens all the time. People love to take a few actions, tie them together, and “Wa-la!” You know what they’re “thinking.” You hear it in phrases that begin with “Everybody thinks.” “Everybody thinks that I’m a……” “They think that he’s a……..” “She thinks that we’re going to…….”

John the Baptist’s followers were playing the “everybody thinks” game about Jesus. They assumed Jesus was trying to be like him. Jesus reminds John the Baptist’s followers that no one is a mind-reader. You can only read behavior. Here are his actions—healing the blind, curing the lame, treating people with health conditions as people, and sharing good news. Love your mind during Advent, and give your mind a gift. Let someone else read minds, and you focus instead on behavior. No matter what “they think,” there is a world to discover just watch by watching others’ actions. That will tell you everything you need to know about a person.

Prayer: I confess that I’m more concerned about what people think rather than what they do. Help me to see the behavior of others and love them as you do.

The Next Best Thing

(This post was oringally published at http://www.followingthestar.org/)

James 5:7-10

We’re always waiting for the next thing. The semester to end, Christmas to come, school year to break, life to begin. We say, “I can’t wait until…” or “When I get out of school.” James says that while waiting for the next thing, we need the discipline of daily obedience to God.

James uses the example of a farmer who is patient intentionally. He does not throw seed on the ground and hope that the sun and rain will do their thing. He is deliberately patient. He takes responsibility for the land, fertilizing, weeding, tilling, and nurturing. He repairs his equipment, works with the tools, and does everything that he thinks is necessary to be prepared for a good crop.

Like a farmer, we have work to do while we patiently await the “next” thing—graduation, college, marriage, career, etc. We can easily get caught up in the “when I get to…” mode and forget about the gifts of responsibilities.

The gift of showing love rather than gossip to the person who shares a locker. The opportunity to sow secret seeds of kindness to a child or a senior adult. The chance to treat parents with respect and gratitude rather than grumbling and arguing. The next thing you know, we’ve arrived.

Prayer: As I seek your patience, help me focus on today, God, and the gifts that are in front of me.

On the Way with God

(This post was oringally published at http://www.followingthestar.org/)
Isaiah 35:8-10

The hardest thing about getting a driver’s license is waiting for the test. The longest season of life seems to be the months between learner’s and driver’s permits. Our parents watch every move we make. We can’t even back the car out of the driveway with mom or dad or both getting tense.

In a world without motor vehicles, Isaiah imagines another kind of highway that God has created that we have free access to. It’s the Way of God. Like getting a learner’s permit and waiting for the license, as believers we have joined God on the way in this life and await the life that is to come. We drive on this spiritual road through our belief in God, but we do not do so with total freedom. We are not allowed to live with whatever behavior we want to. God invites us on the way of holiness, governed not by the rules imposed by society but from a relationship with a living God who invited us.

This Father is not tense or worried; he enjoys the ride with you; and invites you to continue the journey. The Way lasts a lifetime and ends at an eternal destination.

Prayer: Father, thank you for being the calm presence on the stressful highway of life.

Leaping with the Lame

(This post was oringally published at http://www.followingthestar.org/)
Isaiah 35:5-7

In the ancient world, physical disabilities signified spiritual problems. If you were lame, people assumed your parents did something to cause it. If you could not speak, you possibly said something wrong to mute your tongue.

We might laugh and assume “we’d never do that.” The Facebook world, however, gives into the same mentality. On the surface, you on see what a person looks like but can not know the complete story. We see someone who is obese or gaunt, and we might presume gluttony or anorexia. We look at someone’s ethnicity and presume “good athlete” or “smart student.”

Isaiah imagines a different kind of world-- where water springs up in dry places, when pools are built in the Sahara. This kind of world causes believers to see the lame, mute, physically, mentally, socially, and culturally disabled and to look past the surface of their lives. Isaiah says, “You can’t judge a book….or a person….by her cover.” What we see on the outside is an invitation to us to leap with the lame, to see to the mute, to listen to the blind. And when we do, our hearts are the ones that are changed.

A Drought of Love

(This post was oringally published at http://www.followingthestar.org/)
Isaiah 35:1-4

A full grown tree drinks 200 gallons of water in a region of the country that needs all the water it can get. The simple solutions is to remove trees, right? Unfortunately, the tree is a common nesting ground for the endangered willow flycatcher. Local government is prohibited from removing the trees that drink the water. Unfortunately, when the city of San Angelo dredged the local lake to create a larger place to catch runoff rain water, the sludge held the seedlings of future salt cedars. The workers deposited the gunk along the side of the lake and literally planted seeds of trees that consumed the water.

The water of love can be drained like a Salt Cedar planted beside a lake. When we withhold love from certain neighbors, friends or enemies, the water of love is consumed by the trees of mistrust, hate, and vengeance. In Isaiah, God corrects us with his own purifying love. God uproots the hate, vengeance, and mistrust so that we can be free to love again. Spiritual renewal requires God’s corrective love. Water and love flow when there are no barriers between ourselves and others.

Prayer: Holy God, I confess the deeds that have drained my life of the water of love. Lord, have mercy.

Loving the Alien

(This post was oringally published at http://www.followingthestar.org/)
Psalm 146:5-10

Dora the Explorer was just a cartoon character on Nickelodeon until she became the face of Psalm 146:9 for me. I met her during our Latino Vacation Bible School in 2005 in our gymnasium. When I introduced myself to this young mother with a baby she said in simple English, “I’m Dora…you know like the Explorer.”

Dora accepted Christ at that Vacation Bible School and was baptized that week. At the time, we did not have a Latino pastor in Knoxville; but we promised to take care of the new believers.

A few weeks later, Dora was admitted to a local hospital with pneumonia-like symptoms. The physician told her she needed a heart valve. With no immigration papers, no insurance, and little money, the hospital discharged her. That’s when a church member became the hands and feet of God. She contacted friends in Washington and found a federal grant that would pay for the surgery. A few days later, Dora was re-admitted to the hospital and received successful surgery.

Every Sunday when she worships, she is living proof that God watches over the alien and sustains the fatherless. And most of the time God does it through us.

Prayer: God, give us eyes to see and hands to touch the aliens among us.

Safe Stories

At the beginning of the film, the Never Ending Story, a young boy named Bastian finds himself in an old bookstore, inquiring of the bookstore owner about a special book that he has noticed. “What’s that book about?” asks Bastian.
“Oh this is something special,” says the bookstore owner. “Well, what is it?”
“Look your books are safe,” the owner says, “By reading them you get to become Tarzan, or Robinson Crusoe.”
“But that’s what I like about them,” says Bastian.
“Ah, but afterwards you get to be a little boy again.”
“What do you mean?” asks Bastian. “Listen,” says the man.
“Have you ever been Captain Nemo, trapped inside your submarine while the giant squid is attacking you?”
“Yes,” says Bastian.
“Weren’t you afraid you couldn’t escape?”
“But it’s only a story!”
“That’s what I’m talking about,” says the man. “The ones you read are safe.”

I've treated the Christmas story in years past like a book in a used bookstore. Each year, I have read it, reenacted it, preached it, and imagined it. And I have put it safely back on the shelf and become the person that I always was. But for the story to have any meaning, I must, like young Bastion discovered in the movie, enter the story and become part of it.

Matthew invites us to do just that. He mentions three groups of 14 generations in Matthew chapter 1. The first group is from Abraham to David, the second from David to the exile, and the third from the exile to Jesus. The only problem numerically is that there are only 13 generations listed in chapter 1 of Matthew from the exile to Jesus.

Some scholars suggest, however, that the 14th generation is the church--from the 1st century forward who completes the story. They listen, imagine, and then enter the story, from the moment of Immanuel-- "God with us" until the times is fulfilled while Jesus "is with us always until the end of the age."

Call from the Unwanted

Vocation, or one's calling, as Frederick Buechner reflected, is the place where "Your deepest longing meets the world's greatest need." After studying Joseph's decision this Advent, I would add another layer to the definition. For Joseph, Mary's difficult circumstance became an awakening to a decision to a new kind of righteousness.

Matthew 1:18-25 tells us that Joseph was already known as a righteous man before he chose to be Jesus' earthly father. He was righteous because he abided by the Old Testament purity laws like every other faithful devoted Jewish male. But the purity laws usually forced people to withdraw from the defiled and profane. Mary was viewed by the culture like Bathsheba, Rahab, and a long line of other sinful people. But like these women, their circumstances awakened the call of God in their lives. In Joseph's case, he redefined righteousness for all of us. Instead of withdrawing from those deemed "impure" by the religious. He walked into the place and lived with the person whom the villagers would surely disgrace (as the text says).

Vocation can also be then the moment when you see the world's greatest need, and despite your upbringing, you enter the world of the needy to be the righteousness that they need. What a calling, what a privilege, what a challenge.

When someone in our family or network chooses a lifestyle that scripture deems as "sinful," or when a friend makes a mistake that he will later regret, we have two choices for righteousness-- one that withdraws from them back to the Old Testament view. Or another kind of righteousness-- the kind that causes us to join the crisis. Their choice (or maybe our choices) awaken the call of God on our lives to enter the unwanted, difficult circumstance. And in that moment there is "Immanuel-- God with Us."

And when we are the ones who have made the choice, mistake, and have sinned, the very act of making the mistake can awaken God's call on our lives. It can be a moment-- much as experienced by Bathsheba, Rahab, and many others who have found God in their brokenness, and even God found them.

Harold the King

I've learned that the Christmas story has some prominent and not so significant characters. Each one is important not only to the story but also to the way we have seen the story re-enacted at the Knoxville Nativity Pageant. Not only do you get a few characters you expect-- shepherds, Mary, and Joseph, but according to Parker, Herod the King is better known as Harold.

First Baptist members and many others in the community began this event years ago. We saw the Nativity Pageant this year at the Colisseum in downtown Knoxville. This event has become part of our Advent celebrations because Parker responds to the live action, drama, simplicity, and even the friends he sees playing a part. As parents, I'm thrilled by what it does not have-- no blood, no guts, no gore. It's not overdone, overpreached, overemotionalized, oversentimentalized. It's a nice cominbation of the accounts of Matthew and Luke with the arrival of the magi conveniently at the manger so we can go home in 45 minutes.

There are a few welcome liberties taken. Not only do you see the traditional characters, but a few others that have taken on a new role at the Shiell home. Parker's buddy Zeb played a villager. He was thrilled to see that Zeb not only played a significant role-- walking in the village-- but he did two things. (1) He laid on a mat during one scene; and (2) A soldier pushed Zeb. I've checked the footnotes, checking to see if there is a pushing scene in Luke, but alas there is not. But according to Parker, because Zeb was pushed, "it's there."

When we arrived home, Parker was ready to perform his own pageant. I asked him if he wanted to be in the pageant one day. "No, Dad, I'll just do my own in the neighborhood."

"Who's going to be in it, I asked?"

So he made a list of all 14 characters that he needed and began recruiting them. Some in the Bible and some others, well, in the imagination.

Guys who get pushed- 2
Soldiers who push the guys- 2
Shepherds- 3
Magi- 3
Mary- 1
Joseph- 1
Angel- 1
Harold the King- 1

The Christmas story invites us not only to observe but to re-enact the meaning in our lives. Whether or not we don costumes, we see the imperfect characters who weclomed Jesus and realize everyone can have a part to play. We share God's perfect love with an imperfect world even if all we can remember are the moments we fall down.

Christmas Musical

The film that captured Parker's imagination was not found in theaters. You could find it on the Disney Channel. High School Musical--2-- surprised everyone in my home. It was even better than the first. I know this not because I actually watched the first movie. I listened to the music (over and over in the car), heard the stories told, and was informed many times how I needed to "get with it" and watch the movie. So when "2" came out, I squeezed in a few minutes and realized that Disney knows as much about Christmas as I do.

The two movies reflect themes needed at this time of year. The first is about a group of teenagers brought together by a musical, despite their varied interests in sports, the arts, or the nerds. Everybody has a talent to offer even if they did not realize they can sing, dance, or play and instrument.

The second goes further. When the teens are off to work at a resort for the summer, they learn that no matter their economic place in life, everyone is important. We need each other to survive.

Christmas invades our world again along similar lines. The shepherds, magi, and teenagers have a part to play even if they had no idea what the Christ child truly was. It takes all of us-- including the outcasts and insiders-- to survive. It's a storyline worth telling, and singing, again and again.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Unwanted Baby

Maybe I was mistaken, or perhaps I turned off my brain in seminary. I think I heard the words "unplanned pregnancy" associated with the conception of Jesus for as long as I can remember. After 10 years of ministry in Texas and now 3 in Tennessee, unplanned and pregnancy I guess go together pretty frequently in Baptist life.

Preaching is heard and spoken through all kinds of filters. In a nod to all the unwed, troubled, and ill-timed conceptions, "unplanned" fit one motif of Mary and Joseph's relationship. The biggest trouble with searching for the new inside the old story is that you tend to come back with motifs that fit your culture. The "unwed" "unplanned" labels note a moment of grace and hope for redemption.

But I need a stronger word, something that really gets at the root of all this. I don't want to overreach, but as I understand this moment somewhere between Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 1:47-2:4, Jesus' arrival was worse than an unplanned event.

Unplanned is a bit too staid and sterile. The word reminds me of an event on a calendar that could have worked better with enough committee meetings, staff meetings, or medical equipment. Unplanned is the holiday guest that calls. We can make room for her. Not a big deal. Unplanned is the sound going out in the middle of the sermon. Inconvenient, yes. Fixable, yes.
You can adjust for the unplanned.

Planning was the last thing on a 12-or-13 year old girl's mind in 1st century Israel. Parents did that, and they decided to wed her to the carpenter's son Joseph. It was a good economic arrangement for both parties, and the rites of 1st century betrothal were in place. Money was exchanged, and Joseph prepared to be married to a woman that he would try to fall in love with later. First marriage, then love.

The last thing you would want in the middle of all this would be a baby. They had not courted. What was dating to a 1st century person?

What you want is that Joseph will have enough money and room in the house for Mary when she comes to lives with him during the period of betrothal. What you want is for Joseph to stay alive and not leave Mary widowed. What you want is that this family can just have a nice normal start. Baby, yes, but that's for much later.

So when an angel arrives on the scene and becomes both Joseph's nightmare and answer to his prayers, the angel assures Jim that the greatest gifts in life are the most challenging, unexpected, and at the moment, unwanted presents. When an angel conveys similar information to Mary, it's no wonder she left town. The omission of a family support network on Mary's side shouts from the silence in the Gospel of Luke just how undesirable these circumstances really are. Mary needs time, Mary needs to go alone in the silence to her relative Elizabeth's home. Only then can this news become good.

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