In blogging about prayer and in keeping a prayer journal, there is one type of prayer I don’t dwell on very often. Prayers of confession and repentance are very important, but I don’t include them in my journal and I don’t spend much time analyzing them. It’s not that I want to ignore them or that I want to give a false impression that I don’t say them.
I’m a saint–but only in the sense that Christ’s blood is my atonement and my only hope of salvation. He who started the work is still working, and there’s a lot of work yet to be done. So, while I include prayers of confession and repentance in my practice of pursuing prayer, I don’t write them down or share them publicly.
Here are some of the reasons I don’t spend more time talking about confession:
Confession is not meant to be a public spectacle. It is generally private and very personal between an individual and God. Apologies may be public, and repentance may include public atonement or recompense, but those are not prayer; rather they are the actions taken in conjunction with and as a result of prayer and confession.
Confession is fundamental– it’s not a prayer option, or a stylistic preference–every one of us has sinned, and we all need to admit to our sins, bring them before the throne of God’s grace, and ask for his forgiveness. Hiding sins, denying sins, or lying about them will get in the way of all our other prayers.
Writing about past sins keeps them alive and keeps the focus on me and on my faults, rather than on God and on His Grace.
Making confession public has a tendency to devolve into gossip and self-justification. Descriptions of my sinful actions will necessarily be from my incomplete and very biased point of view. Other people can be misrepresented and hurt.
But the last reason is my favorite– I don’t waste time writing down and discussing past sins because GOD HAS FORGOTTEN THEM! Writing them down, rehearsing them, analyzing them–even analyzing how I might approach confession won’t change God’s response:
10 he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. 11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; 12 as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
Psalm 103:10-12New International Version (NIV)
The key is that we DO confess– humbly, consistently, and with a heart of true repentance. What follows is a free and forgiven conscience, no longer weighted down or pulled off focus by guilt and doubt.
“O Lord My God! When I in awesome wonder consider all the worlds Thy hands have made…Then sings my soul…” (emphasis added) When was the last time you spontaneously broke into the kind of wonder and praise that we find in this old familiar hymn? If it has been awhile, let today be the day that you joyously and loudly sing praise to our Awesome and Great God.
So often, I come to prayer focused on myself– my needs, my unworthiness, my circumstances. But prayer is the act of communicating with the One who is all-sufficient, all-worthy, all-powerful, and all-loving. As we pray, it will often happen that all the cares and concerns melt away in the wonder and insight that we are actually talking to GOD!
But there are times when we miss the great opportunity to fully open ourselves to the Glory and Majesty of Our Father. Yes, we communicate; Yes, He still hears us. But we fail to come away with the full blessing of having spoken WITH God. We speak TO Him; we even speak OF Him. But when we speak WITH God, we are in the presence of such majesty, that we are left beyond words! Our Soul Sings! Our Heart is overflowing! Our mind is overwhelmed with the concept!
Prayer is so much more than what we say; so much more than what we think. God is so much bigger, so much greater, so much MORE than anything we can describe, anything we can imagine! And THIS is who we approach when we pray.
If you have the opportunity, spend some time in nature today. Look up at the sky– clouds, stars, and the endless canopy of space– and let the Majesty of God fill your senses as you make time for prayer. If you cannot get outdoors, find a picture or film or website to remind you of the grandeur of God’s wonderful creation. And then, sing out, shout out, pray and praise the Maker of the Universe, and the Lover you Your Soul! This same God of the beginning is the God who was, who IS and who is to come! The same miracles He has done in the past, He will do NOW and through all time.
There is NOTHING too big or too difficult for God. There is nothing too small or unimportant for Him to do, either. And what He does, He does with Joy and in Love! He rejoices over every one who comes to salvation. He rejoices over every one who comes to Him empty and tired and discouraged– and He rejoices to give them rest, and hope, and strength for the journey ahead. He offers Grace and Beauty from ashes. He offers Eternal Life and Everlasting Peace!
And if that doesn’t make your soul sing, I don’t know of anything else that can!
“I’m sick of thoughts and prayers…it’s time for action.”
“Prayer doesn’t work!”
What happens when your prayers don’t seem to make any difference? People around you complain that you are passive, even apathetic about critical needs. “People are dying!” “People are suffering, and you want to stop and pray?!”
YES! Buy why do I continue to advocate for prayer in the face of overwhelming injustice and evil? Shouldn’t I be talking about action? Shouldn’t I be posting plans to end injustice or poverty or war? Shouldn’t I be willing to say that sometimes, prayer just isn’t enough?
Well, firstly, I believe that Prayer is far more powerful than most people know. Prayer IS enough, because GOD IS ENOUGH! I can’t stop gun violence, or human trafficking, or an epidemic. I can’t– not with all the resources in the world; not with all the action I can muster; not with any effort or plan or army of willing human helpers. And neither can anyone else. I can march in protest, I can write and call and badger legislators to change laws or enforce the laws we already have. Such actions might make me feel better– they might even have some immediate effect. But they won’t “fix” the continuing and underlying problem of Sin. Only God can do that, and He WILL do it. He may choose to work through human agency to right some wrongs or change the immediate future, but our world is broken, and God’s ultimate plan is bigger than just a convenient patch for Sin’s consequences.
However, I will concede that sometimes prayer, by itself, is not nearly “enough.” Prayer must be paired with Faith. I know many people who say that prayer “doesn’t work,” not because they didn’t pray, or weren’t sincere in their desire or their wish for God to act on their behalf, but because they believe in their desire– their wish or their plan– more than they believe in God’s goodness or His ability to bring good out of whatever struggle we are facing.
This is not a simple concept– that God is eternally good even in the midst of evil and horror– it can be painful beyond words. God may choose to allow the sin of drunk driving to take the life of an innocent person in our family, or leave us permanently paralyzed. Or He may allow war to strip us of all that we own– our home and our freedom. How can we possibly view such circumstances as “good?” Why does God allow for violence and injustice? Why does He allow it to continue– seemingly unabated and unchecked? How can God call Himself “Good” while letting evil touch our lives and the lives of millions innocent people? Praying — and continuing to pray– in such circumstances seems like a mockery of our pain and grief. It seems like God is deaf to our cries– indifferent, or even watching smugly from a distance. Why pray to such a God?
But IS this what God is really like? And why do we believe the worst about Him, rather than trust that His wisdom and Love are actually greater than what we can comprehend or experience in the present? Why do we blame God for the evil we see in others? Why do we ignore our own actions or inaction that often contribute to our situation? Why do we believe that God “owes” us a life without sorrow and pain– even as we see others suffering the consequences of sin– sometimes because of our failures? Why do we insist that God always act in accordance with OUR desires, when we often will not act in accordance with His? Why do we “test” God with prayers in our times of trouble, when we will not trouble Him with our prayers in times of peace and plenty? If anyone should have led a life without sorrow or pain, it should have been Jesus. Jesus prayed all the time– He even taught others how to pray (Matthew 6:9-15). He was completely obedient to His Father. Yet God’s own Son faced heartbreak, betrayal, and a painful, unjust death on the Cross. He wept over the death of a close friend– a death He Himself could have prevented (and later reversed)! (John 11) He was in such deep distress in the Garden of Gethsemane that He sweat blood! (Luke 22:44) God’s plan is not for us to live a life free of trouble, but a life of victory OVER despair and doubt!
Seeking “more” than prayer is often seeking “more” than God–as if we can do better on our own. As though we can out-love, out-give, out-do, and over-power the God of creation;the God of the Cross, and the God of the Resurrection and the Life. Deriding prayer is deriding the God to whom we pray– we minimize His power and His compassion while inflating our own. If God doesn’t exist, one might argue that it doesn’t matter– but then, why waste time deriding what doesn’t exist?! Prayer matters because God DOES exist, and because God matters Trusting God means being willing to wait and accept His will; even if we don’t get the answer we want. God’s ways are not our ways, but that doesn’t mean they are inferior or ineffective. God will not “undo” our circumstances, but He will help us through our circumstances. He won’t take away our grief. But He will shape it into something with purpose– if we let Him.
Finally, there are times when prayer must be paired with action. It IS enough to pray for God to act. But when God prompts US to act, and we do not, our prayers are empty words. Faith may lead us to wait, but it won’t lead us to sit idly by when we have the opportunity to help. Faith may lead me to keep taking the next step– even when I can’t see the way forward. Faith may lead me to let go of a dream I thought would be “enough.” It may lead me into the valley of the shadow of death– in my own life, or on behalf of someone else. I can’t take away someone’s grief at the loss of a child– but I can share in it. I can listen and offer friendship, rather than a quick platitude and a few empty words. I can continue to be there when others fade away. I can’t undo the horrors of war– but I can help care for refugees, and I can work to build peace in my neighborhood, even as I pray. I can take the next step in making someone else’s burden just a little lighter, and making the world a little brighter wherever God gives me the chance. And prayer is one way I can focus on the source of strength, wisdom, and compassion to allow me to do my part better.
The next time you hear someone saying that prayer is “not enough,” remember that no human effort will ever be “enough” to do what only God can do! But prayer taps into the power and grace that is “sufficient” for all our greatest needs.
When violence strikes, I want justice. I want action. I want to make the evil stop.
Just the other day, there was another school shooting in the news. At least six innocent people lost their lives, and another community was ripped apart by grief, shock, and anger.
But is it really justice that I am seeking? Or is it vengeance?
Justice is permanent. Justice is final. Justice takes time. Vengeance is visceral and immediate. Vengeance is a reaction; a retaliation. Justice, on the other hand, is blind to the emotions of the initial event. Vengeance is driven by emotion. Justice comes through the objective application of the law.
Justice is God’s business. I do NOT understand why or how God allows evil to happen in the first place. It hurts. It doesn’t make sense. It is destructive. But it is the nature of Sin. And Sin infects the entire world. We cannot escape from it. We cannot deny its existence. We cannot put an end to it. We can only follow the arduous and imperfect justice systems that are in place for our community or our country. We cannot achieve perfect justice. But God can. And He has promised to do so– in His time, and in His way. This can be comforting, but it can also be frustrating.
Vengeance is also God’s business. God has emotions, just like we do. But His are always under perfect control. God’s wrath is frightening in its power, and paralyzing in its purpose.
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
Romans 12:19 (ESV)
As imperfect as our systems of justice may be, they are still systems, with order and time to look at the total situation. Vengeance doesn’t stop to count the cost. It doesn’t stop to listen to the full story. It seethes and coils like a rattlesnake, waiting to inject venom into the first victim to cross its path. Human vengeance never leads to peace.
Also, vengeance is limited to the strength and resources of the avenger. If a shooter takes the life of my loved one, my vengeance is limited to the actions I can take. I may kill the shooter; I may take the life of their family members; but I cannot bring my loved one back, nor can I guarantee that the killer will suffer the same amount or the same way I do. Vengeance never looks forward, and it never offers a solution to move forward. It lives in bitterness and anger and discontent.
As followers of Christ, we are asked to take a stance that seems impossible from a human standpoint. We are asked to keep our hands clean, to keep our minds at peace, and to give our grief, our anger, and our craving for vengeance over to God with no reservation and no option to set the limits or timelines.
To the world around us, this seems weak and even unjust. What if the evildoer “gets away” with her/his crime? What if the victim never gets “justice” in their (or our) lifetime? What if we never “see” justice done? What if God “fails” to avenge us or our loved one? What does the Christian “do” in the face of evil? Nothing?! Fall on our knees and pray?! Offer lukewarm assurances and empty promises?
The problem with evil– especially shocking violent events– is that we can’t see beyond the immediate shock and pain. That doesn’t mean that there IS no pain or shock or anger or frustration if we choose not to react with vengeance. The pain is still very real, and overwhelming. But we choose to make room for faith that sees the larger picture. Faith makes room to see not just justice, but mercy. It allows us to see the overall tragedy of Sin, beyond our immediate tragedy of an individual act. Faith sees beyond our helplessness to God’s Sovereignty. It sees beyond the present pain to future healing.
I pray for the families of the victims in this latest shooting– and for all those who have experienced such violence. And I pray that God will show me what I can do to make a positive difference going forward. I pray for the strength and the faith to let go of hatred, bitterness, malice, and outrage. Finally, I praise God, even in the middle of pain and shock, knowing that He can be trusted to bring perfect Justice– and perfect vengeance–the kind that leads to a peace beyond our understanding. These are not “easy” prayers. They are not blind prayers, or prayers prayed without tears and groaning and questions. But they are real prayers, not empty wishes that I could avoid all unpleasantness or that I could exempt myself (or others) from tasting sorrow, grief or pain. Rather they are prayers that acknowledge that Life is more than struggle; that Love and Mercy are stronger than despair, and God has already won the ultimate victory.
As I write this, my mom is dying. We don’t know how much longer she has, but we’ve asked for prayers as she takes this journey toward death and resurrection. These are sometimes difficult prayers to make. We don’t like to see Mom suffering, but we don’t like the thought of separation through death, either. Our initial prayer would be for complete healing. But that’s not realistic, given that Mom has heart failure and is almost 90 years old. That doesn’t mean that God cannot or would not grant total healing. But we aren’t expecting that kind of miracle when we pray today.
For some people, our prayers seem meaningless. One of my classmates from school reacted to my request for prayer by saying, “I just wish that prayer DID something…” I take this to mean that if we don’t get a miraculous outcome, she believes our prayers are wasted. I hope I’m misinterpreting here, but I know that this is a common criticism of prayer in tough times. It seems that every time there is a natural disaster, or a mass shooting, people who offer “thoughts and prayers” are roundly criticized for praying “instead” of “doing.” As though the two are mutually exclusive. As though prayer is an empty gesture in the face of disaster and distress. As though there is no hope, no comfort, and no help in praying.
There are others who will assert with complete confidence their belief that God will answer any prayer for a miracle, simply because they ask it “in Jesus’ Name” or because many people are praying for the same outcome. I call these kinds of prayers, and attitudes about prayer, “Vending Machine Prayers.” It is the belief that prayer must produce an immediate and positive outcome, or it is “broken” or invalid. If you don’t get what you were expecting, you must have prayed “wrong,” or didn’t have “enough” faith. Or your prayer just didn’t “work.” When someone puts money into a vending machine, and presses a button or punches in a code or pulls a knob, and they don’t get the expected item, some of them will kick the machine, or curse. Or they will try again, carefully trying to get the “right” result. Vending machines are inanimate objects designed to give a satisfactory consumer experience. If the coins or bills “jam,” if the knobs or buttons malfunction, if the product gets “stuck,” or isn’t available, the consumer feels cheated. Sometimes, they can get their money returned, but most often, they go away angry and unfulfilled.
God is not a vending machine. He is not “designed” to serve us or give us satisfaction. There is nothing we can “insert” in our relationship with God –even sincere prayer–that obligates Him to give us what we desire. God chooses to answer prayers in whatever way He knows is best for our eternal and overall well-being. God still gives miracles. I’ve seen it and experienced it. In fact, we could have lost Mom several years ago, when her heart failure put her in a similar state. God provided a miracle in the form of heart valve replacement surgery–and a cancellation that moved her surgery schedule forward before her condition was too far gone. I’ve seen people healed of cancer– and people whose prayers for healing ended in their rapid decline and death. But none of those prayers were wasted. Not one. God was working– sometimes on the sidelines, strengthening family members to deal with grief; sometimes providing testimonies to those with doubts and questions; sometimes planting seeds that would bear fruit years later in the lives of those left behind–sometimes God was working “sideways,” as He did with Mom years ago to give her several more years of life, even though she wasn’t completely healed, to grow and prepare for this next step and testify to God’s sustaining power.
God is not apathetic, and He certainly isn’t “happy” about Mom’s decline and her impending death. He shares our sufferings and our sorrows. But God knows and sees the “rest of the story!” Jesus wept over the death of His friend Lazarus, even though He knew that Lazarus would be raised back to life. Jesus was sharing the deep grief over the loss and sorrow felt by all of His friends, just as He rejoiced with them as Lazarus walked home from the tomb! (See John 11 for the whole story.) God doesn’t delight in death. He is the author of LIFE. But He is very present through every stage of life– even that last bitter taste of death we all must experience. And just as we pray for God’s miraculous presence, we pray for His guiding, comforting, and hopeful presence in ALL situations.
Prayer DOES something! Even if we don’t see immediate changes in situations; prayer changes US. It changes OTHERS. It changes our priorities and perspectives. It draws us close– to each other and to the One whose Love is Eternal and unchanging.
116 I love the Lord, because he hath heard my voice and my supplications.
2 Because he hath inclined his ear unto me, therefore will I call upon him as long as I live.
3 The sorrows of death compassed me, and the pains of hell gat hold upon me: I found trouble and sorrow.
4 Then called I upon the name of the Lord; O Lord, I beseech thee, deliver my soul.
5 Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; yea, our God is merciful.
6 The Lord preserveth the simple: I was brought low, and he helped me.
7 Return unto thy rest, O my soul; for the Lord hath dealt bountifully with thee.
8 For thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from falling.
9 I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living.
10 I believed, therefore have I spoken: I was greatly afflicted:
11 I said in my haste, All men are liars.
12 What shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits toward me?
13 I will take the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord.
14 I will pay my vows unto the Lord now in the presence of all his people.
15 Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.
16 O Lord, truly I am thy servant; I am thy servant, and the son of thine handmaid: thou hast loosed my bonds.
17 I will offer to thee the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and will call upon the name of the Lord.
18 I will pay my vows unto the Lord now in the presence of all his people.
19 In the courts of the Lord’s house, in the midst of thee, O Jerusalem. Praise ye the Lord.
Psalm 116 KJV (emphasis added)
There are dozens, if not hundreds, of people praying for my Mom (and all of us who love her so very much). And probably, there are some “vending machine” prayers among them. That’s ok. God hears them all. And I am so very blessed by them all. Because prayers DO SOMETHING AMAZING. They rise to a God who sees, who hears, and who LOVES unconditionally, eternally, and perfectly! We’re actively trying to do what we can do to make Mom comfortable and seeking treatment that will ease her last days, but we depend on God’s touch, His healing, His timing, and His good will to see us all through and keep us in perfect peace.
Confess that I have not really comprehended what Christmas really means. There are times throughout this year when I have not made “room in the inn;” I have not welcomed Christ in the “least of these.” I have not followed the star, or listened to the message of the angels. I have not come to the manger with gifts. I have been like the people of Bethlehem– asleep and unaware of the miracles taking place under my nose. I have not acknowledged that you are
Here. Not just that you came. Not just that you lived, and died, and rose again. But that you are present with me–Now! Every moment! Forever. Here. Not just beside me, but indwelling…living in me and working through me, flawed and cracked vessel that I am. Living in and working through other ordinary people You send into my life (as You send me into theirs).
Righteous Redeemer, help me to understand better Your Wisdom, Your Power, Your Glory, and Your Holiness. You did not come to rescue us from some failed plan or cosmic mistake. You are altogether perfect in Your plan of Salvation. Even when I cannot understand Your ways, they are higher and better than anything I can imagine. And Christmas, with all its wonder and glory and contradiction was never a surprise to YOU. It wasn’t Plan B. It was timed down to the minute, scripted to the very last detail, and part of the eternal plan of Salvation.
Inspire me again with the wonder of Your Mercy and Grace. Help me to experience the Joy of the Shepherds, the Awe of the Magi, and the Hush of Heaven as You left Your throne to become a little lower than the angels who shouted Your Glory into the darkness.
Send me, as you sent the Shepherds, to make known Your wonders, as you sent the Angels to tell of Your Good News of Great Joy, and as you sent Your Son into the world to make reconciliation. Strengthen me as an instrument of Your Grace, as a Witness of Your Might, and as an Ambassador of Your Love.
Transform my thinking. Build my Trust in You, that I would spend less time fretting about my daily needs and the unforeseen circumstances of my days, and more time praising You for what you have done, and will do, and are doing. Help me to embrace Your
Might, Your Majesty, and Your mystery. That the same voice that spoke galaxies into being and the same right arm that raised up empires was wrapped up in rags and laid in a Manger, meek and tiny. That Your glory was hidden in a cattle stall in a quiet village of a conquered nation. That Your plan to bring us life involved Your own painful death at the hands of people You had raised up to power That all of Eternity could be changed in a single instant, even as the Earth slept.
Accept my adoration, incomplete and uncomprehending as it is. And equip me to Act in ways that bring You Glory and Honor. Advance Your Kingdom, and Thank You for making it possible to be reconciled to You.
Sovereign Savior and Gracious Shepherd, let Christmas be born in me anew this season. Let me grow in Faith and Obedience. Let me shine like that first star– drawing others to worship You.
When I was a child, we used to write letters to “Santa” with a list of what we wanted to find under the Christmas Tree that year. Sometimes this was a school project– practice in letter-writing etiquette, etc.– and sometimes, it was done spontaneously after poring through the Sears “Wish Book” Christmas catalog, or after watching Saturday morning cartoons with their endless ads for toys, dolls, bikes, and sugary cereals.
As adults, we often do something similar, drafting a Christmas “wish list” in our prayers and Advent dreams. Our adult lists may be as shallow as those of childhood–a new dishwasher, or a shiny piece of jewelry; a new “toy” boat for Dad, etc. Sometimes, they sound more virtuous– world peace, a healthy economy, a cure for cancer…
It isn’t “wrong” to have wishes at any time of year. And we should hope for better things in the world around us. But we can get caught up in the idea of Christmas being all about wishes and desires at the expense of the real GIFT of Christmas– Christ Himself! In fact, we can become numb to the fact that Jesus wasn’t just “another” Christmas gift among our “wish list” items.
9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
John 1: 9-14 (NIV)
Christ didn’t come that first Christmas in response to any person’s wish list. In fact, the Bible says that when Jesus came into the very world He created, He was rejected, ignored, even despised by those who should have recognized and welcomed Him. He didn’t come wrapped in shiny paper and waiting for us to enjoy Him. He came wrapped in rags, forced to go into exile under threat of death, and honored only by humble shepherds and strangers from foreign lands. No one sought Him out on their own. Even the shepherds and wise men were led by angels and a guiding star.
This year, instead of concentrating on wish lists and our desires (even noble ones!), let’s reflect on God’s wish list– that we would turn from sin and rebellion, and be reconciled to Him; that we would make His gift our greatest desire!
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
John 1:1-5; 14
Emmanuel– God WITH us. The Baby Jesus in the manger is the same Jesus on the Cross; the same Jesus who was involved in the Creation of the universe.
We love seeing the Baby Jesus in the manger. We like the idea of Jesus, the good teacher and friend. We even bow our heads to honor the Jesus of the cross. We pray to Jesus, acknowledging that He is the God-Man who came to save us from Sin. But sometimes, we get so comfortable seeing Jesus lying peacefully in the manger or serenely enduring the pain of the Cross, that we ignore His absolute Holiness and Power.
Jesus was fully human– he ate, slept, cried, felt cold, and felt pain. But He is also God– fully Divine; fully Sovereign. He doesn’t force us to worship Him– not now, anyway. Someday, though, every knee will bow, and every tongue compelled to confess that Jesus is the Ultimate Authority in Heaven and on Earth (Philippians 2:10-11). Larger than life; more permanent than history; eternally Sovereign.
We pray to a God who is so awesome and glorious that no person can see His face and live. And yet, we pray to a God who so loved mankind that He came and walked among us, lived among us, and died among us. We look at Baby Jesus in the manger– we see the face of God. And when we look at our neighbors and friends, we look at those made in the image of God– we see those beloved of God; those Jesus came to save.
This is not new theology. This is basic Christianity. But sometimes, in the bustle of the “Season, ” we forget the wonder and the miracle that is the very reason for it all. God is NOT distant. He is not looking for reasons to reject or condemn us. He reaches out to us EXACTLY like a baby reaches out– seeking to be held close. He is as close as the person sitting next to you at the dinner table, or sharing a seat on the bus. GOD! Not a theology; not a list of do’s and don’t’s. Not an esoteric idea. A Presence; a living Christmas Present! An eternal Gift of Love! One with arms and legs; a twinkling eye and infectious smile.
In this season of Advent and Christmas, may we let the Glory of God fill us with awe and wonder. And may we let the Love of God fill us with hope and joy. May our prayers be like the sweet singing of the Angels on that Holy Night so long ago. “Glory to God in the Highest! And, on earth, Peace among those with whom He is pleased.” (Luke 2:14).
I don’t know about you, but I sometimes have problems with Advent Season. On the one hand, it’s a season of joy and wonder; a season of anticipation and expectation. But I find myself contemplating…and as the days get darker, earlier, and the snow falls, then melts, leaving everything brown and gray, I can’t seem to hang on to the joy. It slips through my fingers, leaving me thoughtful and even a little depressed.
I also find myself looking at the glitter and listening to the peppy music of the season and feeling as though all the “Merry” in Christmas is just a soap bubble, waiting to burst. I don’t watch much television, but it seems that every year the “holiday” specials and TV ads get more artificial and shallow. “Buy this!” “Turn up the Tunes!” “Wear THIS to the Holiday party!” “Eat this– Drink that!” “Get away from it all!” It’s more about escaping the ordinary, rather than celebrating the extraordinary gift of God’s Son. The more I try to get “into the Spirit” of the season, the more I seem to miss it…
It is important to remember that this extraordinary Joy came INTO and THROUGH the ordinary. The angels didn’t announce to the shepherds that they could escape their duties and run off to a vacation cruise; Mary and Joseph didn’t celebrate their first Christmas surrounded by lights and mugs of hot cocoa. The wise men didn’t have a brand new GPS device to help them find their destination, or tasty cookies and fruit baskets to make the journey more “fun.” This “good news of great joy” was the birth of a child– an ordinary event–except that THIS birth was the fulfillment of God’s Promise and the Way, the Truth, and the Life!
Many millions of people today will not have joyful circumstances to make the season “Merry and Bright.” But they can experience true Joy– the kind that comes from Knowing Jesus–and not just for a day or a season, but forever, in spite of difficulties, pain, and struggle. There IS joy in the journey, but it doesn’t always manifest as mirth and comfort.
This season, it is our privilege as Christians to offer a different level of Joy to the World–the Joy of forgiveness; the joy of belonging; the joy of eternal Hope and Peace. It may not be in laughter or singing. It may be in holding a hand at the side of a hospital bed. It may be in sharing tears with those who are suffering. It may be sharing a crust of bread with real thankfulness, instead of a feast with stress. Joy doesn’t have to be complicated. It doesn’t require wrapping paper sugar sprinkles. The best gifts we can give this season don’t have to be filled with merriment and laughter. They don’t have to be expensive or even filled with thoughtful intent. They should be the spontaneous response of love and compassion for those around us. Let’s give lots of hugs, smiles, and small tokens of respect and appreciation this year. After all, God’s great gift– the greatest of all– began as a tiny, wailing infant, hidden away in a spare stable, wrapped in rags. But “Behold!” It is still bringing great joy all over the world. (Luke 2:10)
Let’s not trade certain Joy for temporary mirth this season. Reflect on the Reason, and not just the Season!
In the Dr. Seuss classic, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!,” the bitter and devious Grinch tries to “steal” Christmas from the village of Whoville. He steals all the things the Whos of the village seem to need in order to celebrate a holiday he hates. He hates their gift exchanges, their feasting, their singing, and their general happiness, all of which serve to remind him of his own loneliness and gloom.
With mounting glee, the Grinch proceeds to pile up his hoard of goodies– presents, decorations, food, anything that could serve to make the holiday cheery and bright. He loads up all his stolen loot and takes it to the top of a mountain, where he plans to dump it. But first, he stops to savor the shock and pain he expects to hear as the Whos discover that their holiday has been ruined. He waits in the cold of a clear dawn to hear wailing and lamenting, but the sound he hears instead is singing…the Whos have come together to sing a hymn of gratitude and peace. There is no lamenting; there is no distress. Instead there is a peaceful acceptance that the new day has brought joy and goodwill that has nothing to do with all the trappings of celebration.
He hadn’t stopped Christmas from coming. It came! Somehow or other it came just the same. And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow, Stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so? It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags. And he puzzled and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore. Thenthe Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas!–Dr. Seuss
The first Christmas came without any of the festive trappings we’ve added over the years. There were no groups of cheery carolers; no jingle bells and tinsel; no greeting cards or candy canes. Jesus came in the dead of night, in the midst of chaos and terror, as people were groaning under the oppression of an invading empire, being forced to travel long distances to be counted and taxed by their oppressors. There were no Christmas parties, no brightly decorated trees, no stockings filled with treats, no cookies and cocoa on a cold night. The gifts would come later– and they would be followed by death threats and exile! But Jesus came! He came just the same!
This year, Christmas will come– with or without ribbons or tags. Christmas will come to those who are homeless, and those who are lonely in palaces and mansions. Christmas will come in spite of efforts to erase the holiday from our culture. It will come just like the dawn of each new day– quiet in its wonder and glorious in its simplicity. Christmas doesn’t come wrapped in shiny paper or announced with blaring horns and neon lights. Christmas comes just as Christ came so many years ago–wrapped in rags, laid in a straw bed on a cold, dark night; announced to simple people going about their business, signaled by a single star ignored by most, wondered at by others. Christmas will seep into the hearts and eyes of those with child-like faith and willing to sing when things are darkest.
God chooses to come in simplicity– He creeps like the dawning day; He sighs like a gentle breeze; He comes as a harmless infant, or a wandering teacher and healer. And when our Christmas Day comes without ribbons and boxes or feasting and lights– it will come just the same. Christ will enter darkened hotel rooms and alleys, He will sit beside hospital beds and in makeshift refugee shelters. He will sneak into homes where Christians huddle in secret, and He will knock gently on the doors of the lonely and the lost. Because Christmas DOESN’T come from a store. It doesn’t come from our bounty and our glittering decorations. It comes from the heart– the heart of God, who SO loved the world, that He came! And He will come this year, just the same!