by Dan Jean
“The whole assembly then agreed to celebrate the festival seven more days;
so for another seven days they celebrated joyfully.” 2 Chronicles 30:23
The anticipation of the big day is a memory. The gifts have all been unwrapped. The guests have gone home. It is time to take down those decorations. The Christmas season has come to an end, and a new year is here.
As the tree comes down, the cards are read one last time and thrown away, and the wreaths and tinsel go back in the closet, the season of joy comes to an abrupt end. The house looks bare and drab after the sparkles and bright colors are put away. There is a sadness that wants to creep in and unravel our experience. It is too easy to “pack and label” our Christmas joy and good will, and put them away until next year. I don’t think it has to be this way. Here is why…
First, the “label” is wrong. The trappings of Christmas are NOT Christmas, but only symbols of it. We don’t celebrate a decorated tree. We don’t anticipate eggnog and lighted houses. Yes, we enjoy them. Yes, they add to our experience. I urge care that we not “label” these icons incorrectly, and give them too much importance. Christmas is about the birth of a savior and the joy that birth brings to all people. Worship, the re-telling of the important stories of our faith, is a joyful component of Christmas. The church celebrates weekly, not annually. The Christ in Christmas promises to be with us always.
Next, we can continue to feast. Our gatherings with family, friends, and loved ones over a meal are not rare events, or at least they don’t need to be. A shared meal is always a celebration. Most of us eat two or three times a day! Re-label “dinner.” Call it a “feast”. Invite a friend. Talk. Laugh. Celebrate! Don’t pack away the joy of sharing a meal.
Also, for me, a component of extending the Christmas season for twelve months involves not “packing and putting away” the joy and good will we long for. Keep joy. Keep good will. The most spirited part of the brightest Christmas sweater – the detail that makes it stand out – is the bright smile just a few inches above the collar. In fact, that smile may be one of the best decorations on display throughout the season. You can pack that sweater away for another year, but your smile is in style all year long. It is joy you long for. Don’t pack it away.
Remember that Jesus’ birth is not something that happened “to us” a long time ago, but is something that happens “in us” always. Continue the celebration. Let the joy of the savior shine from within all year long.
Pastor Dan Jean
A Pastor’s Letters, 2014
This is from a collection of articles Dan Jean wrote to his congregation, New Hope United Methodist Church. Republished with his permission.
By Christopher Langford
Psalm 98 begins with the verse “O sing unto the Lord a new song”. This simplistic statement is profound. It is so short and easy to read that we may be tempted to quickly move on from it without giving it further consideration. Alternatively, some of us may be unsure of the meaning of the new song so we quickly move past trying to interpret it. Yet if this psalm was transformed into a hymn this verse would most certainly be the refrain. Many of the remaining verses in Psalm 98 provide justification for why the whole earth should rejoice and provide praise to the Lord. The great irony coming from this psalm is instead of praise being sung to the Lord upon the remembrance of His mercy, petitions for vengeance continued to be sung by the Israelites. The final verse concludes that all of the earth should be joyful together “Before the Lord, for he come to judge the earth: with righteousness shall he judge the world, and the people with equity.”
All too often anger, sadness, anxiety, and despair supersede our communal joy. Perceptions of inequity are often at the core of our negative emotions. We worked harder than our peers and yet they got promoted, they earned better grades, they received the praise and recognition. We did the right thing, we followed the rules, and yet we are the ones that got in trouble, received punishment, thrown under the bus for the mistakes of others. Does this sound familiar? It has undoubtedly happened to all of us before, and it will happen to most of us again.
A buzzword these days is justice. We throw around this phrase carelessly and convince ourselves our actions promote this noble idea. I am all too guilty of this myself. I tell myself – and my business students at BUA sometimes – I try to promote justice is the classes I teach, in part by assigning grades on an equitable basis. But the truth of the matter is I do a horrible job sometimes in ensuring justice here. Students’ computers crash, their vehicles break down, a few end up sick and even in the hospital sometimes. In these cases, I may elect to extend deadlines and provide make-up exams. Is this promoting justice? I am unsure. I am unsure because I have only a vague idea of what justice looks like and even less definitive information to base my assessments on. Looking at definitions in the dictionary provides limited guidance. For example, Wikipedia defines justice as “just behavior or treatment”. What does just behavior or treatment consist of when my knowledge of any given situation is deficient in some capacity?
Thanks be to God for being the living truth and for discerning the heart and mind of man. Only He is the rightful judge. The closest humans can come to ensuring justice on the earth is to love those around them by extending and encouraging mercy whenever possible. For “with righteousness shall (God) judge the world, and the people with equity”. Let the joy and gratitude that accompanies mercy be the new song we sing. Let us sing this new song unto the Lord.
By Christyn Baer
Psalm 22 begins with a line familiar to us all, being five weeks into Eastertide…
“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
David begins his anguished prayer with the same words that Jesus laments on the cross.
As I sit here reading this psalm on Saturday night, I’m thinking along the same lines; but rather than God, it’s Timmy, Tony, Manu, Kawhi, and Popp that I feel have let me down. I feel desperate and beat down, emotionally, after two weeks of watching my team – “the good guys” – fight back and forth with a formidable opponent, only to lose in the end.
I know there are much bigger things going on in the world than the NBA playoffs. And I shouldn’t be comparing my “hardships” in dealing with this loss to any of the real difficulties being faced on a daily basis – in Nepal, in Baltimore, in San Antonio, and right here within our own church. The injustices and conflict in our world today are not so different from what was going on in David’s time.
David continues to express his deep distress through verse 18, calling himself not a man, but a worm, scorned by man and despised by people. Then in verse 19 he begins to ask the Lord for deliverance, asking him to come quickly, knowing that the Lord is hearing his prayers and calls to be saved. He vows to praise the Lord when his sure deliverance does finally come.
Starting in verse 25, David begins to describe all the people that will join with him in praising the Lord: All the ends of the earth… all the families of the nations… those that are rich, and those that are so poor they are near to death – all will come to realize that God is King and will bow before him.
David starts out in a very bad place in this psalm; he’s deeply anguished. Yet he ends up realizing that God has not deserted him, but rather is very much still with him. So much so that David begins boldly proclaiming God’s goodness for all people, reminding us that we can go to God as we are… hungry, tired, poor in spirit.
Man will fail us – our teams will lose, our leaders will disappoint us, even our friends may let us down at times. But God will not. God never lets us down. He is with us, even before we are born. Verses 30-31 provide extra comfort for me, as I think about my baby growing within – “Future generations will be told about the Lord. They will proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn – for he has done it.”
We are those future generations David spoke of! We can share with the world the joy of God’s righteousness, the truth of the cross, David’s final words of Psalm 22 – “He has done it!”
By Lucas Newell
I am not a Theologian. Nor am I a philosopher. Neither am I a half-decent devotional writer. So when I was asked to write a devotional, I freaked out. I hadn’t planned it, I wasn’t ready for it, and I didn’t really want to do it. However, it doesn’t seem that my shepherd was leading me away from the task, but towards it.
Nevertheless, when I sat down to write this, I immediately hit a wall. How exactly does one write about a Psalm that is universally well known? What should my focus be? How can I create this in a way that it relates to those who read it? Questions like these flew through my mind as I sat staring at a blank screen, thinking and thinking about what I should do. The path I was supposed to take was clouded, and I was stumbling around like a blind man.
After three hours and twenty-three minutes of agonizing, procrastinating, and eating ice cream, it finally hit me: the path I was supposed to follow was detailed right there in the words I was mulling over unsuccessfully. The reason I could not see the path was because I was supposed to be led down it. I was to be led by the gentle and comforting rod and staff of God “in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.”
Often, we get so caught up in trying to create the future that we forget that we are supposed to live in the present. We are where we are because our good shepherd has led us there. Despite the rough times, the inevitable treks through the “valley of death,” and the terrifying banquets held in the very presence of our enemies, we are promised that goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives should we elect not to want the future, but instead to be content in the present we have been placed. Even if we cannot see such blessings in the fog of life’s uncertainties, we can be content in the comfort of direction of the Lord our shepherd. And that’s something I’m willing to put my faith in.
By Mary Johns
Have you ever had trouble going to sleep or staying asleep? Do you ever wonder if God listens and answers your prayers? In Psalm 4, David is demanding and assertive with God when he prays his evening prayer: Answer me when I pray to you!! Make things easier for me when I am in trouble! Have mercy on me and hear my prayer!
David is certain that the Lord has chosen him and others who are loyal to God. He believes God listens, he does what is right and he trusts God. He is happy knowing that he is a chosen member of the family of God. He is happier than those with much more material goods than he has.
I imagine David had to fear for his life and his safety in his time on earth. Although there are times I fear the cruel and corrupt governments and people who want to destroy Christians or America, the thoughts that keep me up at night seem smaller. Will I get everything done I need to do! Lord, heal my sick friend or relative! Why did I do or say what I did!! Many folks my age have trouble sleeping and maybe we worry about too many small things. I love the ending of Psalm 4: “I go to bed and sleep in peace, because, Lord, only you keep me safe.” What a wonderful evening prayer! May we all trust that God will keep us safe and let us sleep in peace!
By Mike Neely
This Psalm states in verse 1: “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live in unity”. The Psalmist goes on to state in verse 2: “It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard”.
What do you think of when the word “unity” is used? This word, or variations of this word, is used frequently. For example, the United States of America utilizes a variation of this word. Certainly, each state that comprises the United States is different; yet, each citizen of individual states and the United States live in unity under the Constitution of the United States and of individual states. Our ideals and principles “unite” us as a land of liberty and freedom.
Similarly, although there are many different denominations that together comprise Christianity, “unity” exists via our common belief in God, the Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Of course, differences exist between some of these denominations, some of which diminish “unity”.
The Psalmist stresses in this Psalm that “living in unity” is akin to “precious oil poured on the head”. Although in today’s culture, we may not identify very much with “precious oil poured on the head”, in Biblical times being anointed with oil was very special and there are many stories in the Bible about being anointed with oil.
How wonderful it would be if we would strive to live more in unity!! This could include being united in various causes and lending our support, ideas and gifts to further these causes, whether they would involve supporting efforts to diminish or end human trafficking, helping the homeless, working in the community garden, cleaning up the church building and grounds, supporting missions or so many other ministries of our church.
Please pray about living more in unity with fellow Christians and with others.
By Garrett Vickrey
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
My calendar is wrong.
Typically, weekly calendars start with Sunday at the left margin and move to Saturday at the far right. But, I’m a preacher. And my week leads up to Sunday. My calendar begins with Monday and ends with Sunday so that I can organize my week in order to prepare myself for the big day. And that’s fine except that we worship on Sunday for a reason.
Early in the morning on the first day of the week, Mary and crew came to the tomb to care for Jesus’ body. They came to wrap up and put to rest that which was ending. What they found instead was a new beginning. In the emptiness of the tomb they found the fulness of time where God’s promises come to fruition. The end was the beginning. The empty was full. The future was now. Their fear was their joy.
Christians began worshipping on Sundays because it was the resurrection day. The 8th day of creation. New creation begins on Sunday. And so it is right to tell time in light of the light that burst forth from the tomb that fateful Sunday. Rather than ending the week in worship, we begin with worship so that it will shape our lives for the rest of the week. Rather than meeting to worship in the light of day in a joyful place early Christians met in graveyards and catacombs before the light of day (partly because they had to get to work on time). What were symbols of death became symbols of new life after the resurrection.
This liturgy of paradox might be frustrating to some. Paul says the cross could be a stumbling block to many. It is a stumbling block because of it’s paradoxical truth. The truth that in the end is the beginning. That new life comes from death. That in emptying ourselves we are filled by God to be who we were created to be in the first place. That’s the dance of creation in which we find ourselves. And that dance is best described in paradox. It is enlightening as it is frustrating. G.K Chesterton wrote in his work Orthodoxy, “The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.” Reason sometimes leads us to competing truths which might seem to contradict each other.
This is why Jesus taught through paradox, “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it.” Jesus said, “The first shall be last, the last shall be first.” Perhaps that has as much to do with time as it does with space.
If so, maybe my calendar is right after all.
Maybe I can base my weeks looking forward to the day of New Creation, while at the same time celebrating the coming of that creation each Sunday recognizing and living in the strength and hope this new day brings. As long as we are looking forward toward the new day God brings with expectation, and not dwelling on the past or resigning ourselves to be defined by it, we can be faithful to Easter’s paradoxical truths. You are judged and loved. You are sinners and children of God. God is in control, but we have free will. Jesus was divine and human. Jesus died, but lives. The 8th day of creation is the 1st day of new creation.
Happy Easter. It’s a whole new day!
By Glen Schmucker
It’s time to do some banking today. The nice thing is that I don’t have to take time out of my schedule to go to the bank. I can do it all with my smart phone.
I’ll take a picture of the checks, tap a button and it’s done. That’s not including the fact that I don’t ever see my paycheck. I just get a notice that my company paid me via direct deposit.
Unless I go to the bank and withdraw cash, I’ll never actually see the money I make. It’s all numbers, electronic digits, these days, which is one reason, I’m sure, Congress enjoys spending our numbers. It’s not their numbers and it’s always easier to spend someone else’s numbers than it is your own.
Truth is, we’re all banking every day, whether we know it or not. Willard Harley, in his decades-old book still in print, “His Needs, Her Needs: Building an Affair-Proof Marriage,” is the one who popularized “The Love Bank.”
Harley correctly theorizes that each of our hearts contains a love bank, especially for our marriages. Every word we speak, every deed, either makes a deposit or withdrawal from our spouse’s love bank.
In time, if we make more withdrawals than deposits, our spouse’s love bank gets overdrawn. Then, when we need them to come through for us and we write a check on our love account in their bank, the check simply bounces. There weren’t enough assets to cover the check.
Wise people learn this truth early on and make certain to make more deposits than withdrawals. They don’t have to be large deposits. They can be very, very small. It’s important to remember that most of what love banking involves wasn’t covered in detail in the marriage vows. We have to figure that out as we go along.
A love note for no good reason. A bouquet of flowers when it’s not your anniversary – especially if you have them delivered at work where your wife least expects it and it makes all her co-workers jealous. Either that or their imaginations run wild wondering what you’re apologizing for!
A hug – every single time they walk in the door at night. The hug and kiss get first priority above everything else including petting the dog.
A cup of coffee in the morning sitting on the bathroom counter when they get out of the shower. Beating them to do the dishes, especially when they did the cooking. Asking them how their day went when you know it was lousy and they just need to decompress.
I knew a couple once who gave priority to the first thirty minutes in the door at night. They sat at the kitchen table and, over a cup of coffee, told each other about their day. Thirty minutes, not an Alaskan cruise, not a trip to Europe, not a new car – just thirty minutes over coffee at the end of every day.
Withdrawals? A critical word. Telling your spouse how they feel before you let them tell you how they feel about virtually anything. Not listening to them when they’re trying to tell you something. This can include not turning off or at least muting the TV during their attempt at conversation. It can also include failing to deal with an issue they told you was important to them because, when they told you, you were daydreaming instead of focusing.
Nancy told me the other day she missed seeing tulips before Easter. Tulips are her favorite flower. I had to stop for gas. Inside the gas station, they had some not-so-healthy-looking tulips for sale. I’d never bought gas station tulips before. I bought her some anyway. She was so excited!
A couple of days later they died the natural death of gas station tulips without ever blossoming. Gas is rarely helpful to the health of a marriage. It still counted as a deposit and came with a cheap laugh to boot.
Love banking only happens when we’re not keeping score and when we’re genuinely more concerned about what we’re giving than what we’re getting. You can’t fake it. Our spouses are good bankers. They can spot a fake deposit a mile off.
When you give more than you receive because what you give really does matter more, as in “agape” love, your bank of love for your spouse mysteriously recharges.
It’s almost like the more we give the more receive. Seems like I read that somewhere once. I wonder where.
By Garrett Vickrey
Pastor John Hagee has just announced to his San Antonio congregation (and worldwide audience) that there will be a world-shaking event sometime between this April and October 2015. Yes, that’s correct. He is predicting that sometime within the next year and a half a significant event will happen somewhere in the world. And he knows this from looking at the skies, which are “God’s billboard”. Four “Blood Moons” corresponding with feast days of the Jewish calendar mean that something significant is going to happen on earth.
This prediction was on the home page of the San Antonio New-Express website on Sunday morning. Hagee’s 20,000 member church is just down the road from us here in San Antonio. His apocalyptic fervor is for better or worse a part of the cultural fabric of San Antonio. When people think of Christianity here in our city they most likely think first of Cornerstone’s flashing digital sign on the outer loop of town displaying Hagee’s image.
The difficulty is that Hagee seems much more interested in the spectacle of what the bible might tell us about geopolitical struggles than the transformative power of sacrificial love that saturates the red letters of the New Testament. Indeed, his sources for this bold new prediction seem to be more astrological than biblical. Jesus’ apocalyptic word to his disciples in Mark 13:32, “About the day or hour no one knows, neither angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father”, need not be tempered with modern Astrology. After all, did Jesus even know then that he was Capricorn? Regardless, Jesus seems pretty certain of two things concerning the end times in scripture:
- No one knows the hour
- When the hour comes it will be obvious
We can lose ourselves in speculation when we put down the bible and look within to the fears that chain us to selfishness and pride. This is a temptation for every church and every Christian. However, when we do this we conjure a Christianity content to focus on what Walter Rauschenbusch referred to as “Weaving the tinsel fringes for the garment of religion” (Christianity and the Social Crisis, 7). This weaving may lead to some semblance of inner peace, but not to the lasting transformative work in which God’s spirit invites us to participate.
Too much of Christian witness today is more spectacle than substance. There is substance out there, yet it is overshadowed by the spectacle of end times prophesies or publicity stunts. Consider the past few years where we have seen a pastor in Dallas spent a 24 hours live in a bed on top of his church sitting their with his wife. Why? To make the point that Christians need to talk more about sex. A few months ago a church in Kentucky made headlines by giving away firearms to guests visiting their church. Why? To get people in the doors. Years ago, Oral Roberts threatened in January 1987 that he needed to collect $8 million by March to fund a hospital he was building — or else. He said. “We’re at the point where God could call Oral Roberts home in March.” He got the money and opened the hospital. It closed two years later.
Too much of our religious fervor has been reserved for spectacle and prophesy that has little to do with the life saving mission of Jesus Christ. Our spiritual zeal is tapped out by prophesies and stunts intended for shock and awe. These ploys feed our fears instead of inspiring us with love and compassion for God’s world. Instead of sending us out two by two to proclaim the gospel and heal, we scramble for bottled water and head for our bunkers to wait out the worst.
It’s not just Hagee and Oral Roberts who give in to this temptation to spectacle; it’s me. I read the Sermon on the Mount, and skip over the end of Daniel. My church passes out cookies to guests (delicious cookies!). I tell our church members if you gave a little more to the budget we could really dream big. We seem to fail at every turn—Always choosing the circus over the sanctuary. We will give anything— guns, iPads, cookies, money— when what Christ really demands is that we risk ourselves. This temptation lurks around every corner of life and ministry.
A blood moon is rising. Things are changing. Like the moon reflecting the light of the sun, let the moon be a reminder to you of God’s peace reflected in you. And when the world shakes, remember the last words of Jesus to his disciples at their final meal together, “Take courage; I have conquered the world.”
By Ellen Di Giosia
I’ve been giving up things for Lent for a number of years now, and it’s become a bit mundane. I could give up Starbucks, of course, or chocolate, or eating out, but I’d just go hog-wild on Easter Sunday, and something tells me that Jesus wouldn’t care for that. So for the last few years, I’ve thought about disciplines that, once practiced during Lent, might become long-term changes for the better. This year my friend Pam Durso wrote something* that seemed to be calling my name:
“What I have come to understand is that the intent of Lent is not just to give up or take on. The intent is to pay attention. Lent calls us to be attentive to our relationship with God, to our connection with others. Lent also asks us to be attentive to our own our bodies and to our souls.”
Pay attention! I thought. Truly meaningful (and maybe not too hard). Ash Wednesday went well. But by day 2, I was seriously questioning my commitment when my 8-year-old son got off the bus and launched into a 40-minute non-stop monologue about, among other things, what kind of laptop he wants (Good luck with that, kiddo!) and how many video games he will need to invent and sell to buy a mansion. I persevered that day, though I’m not sure the itch of my smartphone-addicted fingers brought much glory to God.
As we’ve moved through Lent, I’ve begun to pay attention to some other things: What’s with the tension in my shoulders and neck? I’m holding some anxiety there – maybe that’s something requiring my attention. I’m so easily moved to tears these days. Is it possible that the emotions on the surface are a reminder that recent griefs cannot so easily be set aside? This woman I don’t know well is telling me an awful lot of personal stuff. I have an opportunity to be a friend to someone feeling isolated and confused.
Paying attention has given me more sweet times with my family, more wonder in the universe, and more rest for myself. But the more I pay attention, the more I’m also aware of how much brokenness is inside me – and how much brokenness is in the world around me. Easter Sunday, I’ll pay attention to what I’m wearing and how many eggs need to put out for the hunt and how to play my role in the services, but I’ll also be paying attention for that moment when I realize once again that Jesus has come to make all things new.
*Pam’s blog post to link: http://www.nextsunday.com/pay-