Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Let's All Meet at the Manger

Some of you know that a few weeks ago our dear Bonnie dog left us and this world at the age of almost 18…something most remarkable for this kind of dog. But then again, Bonnie was a most remarkable dog. We had adopted her from the West Highland Terrier rescue people 13 years ago and never failed to marvel at what a “perfect” and loving dog she was.
During what we knew were Bonnie’s final weeks, I began researching the possibility of adopting another adult female Westie to try and fill the huge void we knew would be left in our family after she was gone. Amazingly, I found a NH Westie breeder who also privately “rescues” abandoned or abused West Highland Terriers. Two months earlier, this lady had acquired a 2 year old Westie who had been so neglected that she didn’t even have a name and was in the process of learning dog “basics”, including the fine art of house training. Soon there were email pictures of “Daisy” on my computer screen and our hopes for having another lovely dog were being realized. It would just take a little time.
When the happy day came for Daisy to be ready to meet us but not yet ready to come home, we learned more of her history. Although she’d originally been purchased as a puppy by a woman who thought she’d make her fortune breeding a pedigreed Westie for lots of litters, she never followed through with this plan, but instead kept the dog outside in a doghouse on a cement slab surrounded by a chain link fence. This little no-named dog had no friend or companion other than her shadow --- literally --- and periodically just had food tossed her way by her owner. It is astonishing that despite the hardship of this kind of isolated outdoor living for the first two years of her life, Daisy is a healthy dog. While formerly she had a habit of chasing her shadow wildly, even that has been brought under control.
It was really something to watch Daisy with about a dozen or so other Westies. Clearly this was “monkey see, monkey do” learning going on about how to relate with others and how to play. They’d play with balls, she’d join in. They’d be chewing on bones; she’d have one between her paws and chewing also. She observed their moves and participated the way they did. Thankfully, though of course shy at first, Daisy really liked us and it was deemed that when she was *ready*, we’d come and bring her to her new home. Diane, who had saved and named Daisy, is a loving woman with more than 20 years experience raising and training these dogs and Daisy could not have been in a better place to actually begin her new life socialized with people as well as other animals. Still, though, Diane was understandably a little concerned about Daisy and our cats. After all, Daisy had never seen a cat let alone lived with 4. In her whole two years of life, she’d only lived inside a house with people and dogs for just 2 months. We reassured Diane that we’d take it slow and cautiously and reminded her that our cats had been great with Bonnie and that Bonnie also had never seen a cat before coming to live with us.
Soon the terrific day arrived and we joyfully brought Daisy home. All went extremely well in introducing her to the house, and our cats were very polite in gently greeting her one at a time. It was obvious that Daisy liked them, too! While all of them get along beautifully together, the two of our cats who were particularly pals with Bonnie have now become Daisy’s frequent feline companions (Jazz and Lilly), often curling up together for naps.
Every day we learn something new from and about Daisy. After all this time with no human contact, Daisy sticks to either John or me like glue. When we leave a room, even if Daisy’s been napping, she’ll get up and go to be where we are. I was concerned why she would she pant but hardly ever drink water or go to her food dish. Yet when I’d bring her to her food and water bowls, she’d dig in with relish. But she wouldn’t eat or drink unless I was standing there with her. Suddenly it dawned on me. This dog has been so starved for human contact, she’d rather be pantingly thirsty than leave her people…she’d rather be with her people than eat! Day by day as she becomes more secure, we observe that when we’re downstairs she’ll go into the kitchen now on her own for food or water and then come back quickly to us. At first she’d leave the room briefly but instantly return to make sure we were still here.
Isn’t this how we all grow? Little by little….step by step? And isn’t this what we all need….gentle reassurance and encouragement by those who love us --- even as they’re just getting to know us? Modeling Christ-like behavior for finding the richness in living with joy? Discipline (from the word “disciple” --- training, NOT punishment) and learning better ways to solve problems and reach new heights of satisfaction in life? Learning how to set aside old and unhealthy habits in our interactions with others and stepping forward into newness, even though it’s beyond how we’re used to being, for greater and real reward? Discovering healthier ways of dealing with the sadder things in life to move forward, living in the now and looking with growing faith toward the future.
So many things about Daisy remind me about all of us in the church. We all have broken places or have healed from much brokenness, or still have a long way to go. It takes much time and LOTS of work, but it is so rewarding to see the results of people (and our animals) becoming who God created and intended them to be with wholeness and joy moving in their lives and peace reflecting through them like a mirror and evidenced by the work of their hands.
This doesn’t happen, friends, by just sitting on the couch or by even just sitting in the pew at church. If we are feeling stagnant or unfulfilled, or overwhelmed by the issues of everyday life, we need to look at what part we are playing in all that. In our “one click” world where we can get practically everything online, where work and things have been slowly but steadily edging out relationships from our lives, we have been learning to find relief in more passive or escape-ful ways: TV, shopping, all things computer/video game or cell-phone, substances, and so many other things/activities…..or even too much sleep! There are so many demands on our life, it is easy to get drawn into things we feel entitled to even at the expense of what is right in front of us which will bring much deeper satisfaction.
We were created by God to be in relationship with one another and with Him. To be His hands and feet in the world. To digest His word as the best “soul food” we could ever hope to consume…..so we’re not consumed by the problems of the world. To be “hearers of the word” AND “doers of the word” as well! (James 1:23-24 “Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.”)
What outstanding opportunities are open before you, even at this very time. Especially at this very time when there’s this good news: you are needed JUST as you have needs! There is no retiring from living a Christ-like life until, of course, we finally go home to be with Jesus. Think of it this way. Have you ever said, perhaps to the host at a dinner or a waiter in a restaurant:
“No, thank you…I have been eating for XX number of years…now it’s time to sit back and let somebody else benefit from nourishment.”
Oh I just cracked myself up on that one :-) I can’t imagine ever saying that…can you? We were made to be doers of God’s word, just as we were made to move. It’s the ONLY way we grow. Otherwise the results are not pretty. An Eastern proverb says it well: “When you’re green you’re growing…..when you’re ripe, you rot”.
The coldness of this season was made to draw us closer to the source of all warmth: the Lord. In following His example (and He did model boundaries --- a healthy balance in being and doing) in learning from His word, praising Him in worship and stepping up to live it out, that’s how we get our nourishment. These are the fundamentals of our very foundation.
Before we know it, Christmas will be here. So much of the Bible talks about preparing, “prepare the way for the Lord”, “Prepare your hearts” --- here are two significant settings to help you prepare for today as well as Advent and Christmas: Isaiah 40: 1-11 and Mark: 1:1-8. There’s a lot about repentance….clearing out the old to make way for the new. Cleaning out the old stuff to make a worthy place for new ways to grow.
As we think about the coming time of celebrating Jesus’ birth into our hearts, if He were going to make a special visit to your house, you’d clean it up first, wouldn’t you? Now’s the time to do some heartfelt spiritual house cleaning of our hearts, attitudes and priorities. You wouldn’t want Jesus to be born into an unclean manger, would you? If you could do anything about it? Here’s the good news: you CAN! We are called to live a “manger life” all year long, not just at Christmas. To keep coming to the manger, to worship and adore, learn and share with one another, and to do the work of the manger as well. In some cases, friends, remember that many need help in learning how to even build the manger first. Let’s roll up our sleeves (in a healthy balanced way) and assess how our lives can best be used for God in our church, and let’s all meet at the manger and dig in. Remember: you do still eat, don’t you? :-)

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

All is Safely Gathered In.....

September passed and almost all of October had gone before I heard them. I thought I’d missed the annual sight and sound of Canada geese winging their V – shaped way to a warmer climate, until late one afternoon from the distance came that powerful but somewhat mournful sound. Rushing to the window and then outside, sure enough, there they were. Until then I’d been clinging to the notion it was still summer. Now, though, my state of denial had been clearly confronted with the reality of fall by the almost barking sounds of about 100 geese purposely engaged in this amazing annual ritual of migration. How do they know their way?
Time to button up for colder days ahead. We draw closer to our source of heat and hopefully to one another. Beyond the outside chores of the final mowing and dealing with fallen leaves, a few last walks down the steep meadow to visit the swirling river before the slippery time of ice sets in, and then it’s time to batten the hatches and turn toward the enjoyment of indoor pursuits.
Just as the trees are not truly dormant in winter, so also is this an ideal time for us to deepen our knowledge, challenge our minds and work on our inner growth. A time to reclaim lost pieces of truth and stretch our thinking, to examine the concepts of other people we respect to deepen our own understanding, a time to enrich and enliven the content of our conversation shared with others, as well as expand our knowledge of finding our own way through the ever-changing personal geography of our lives. Unlike the geese, it’s not programmed into our DNA. There are many options to select from, such as listening to audio books, listening to/watching inspiring programs and also the comfortable pleasure of curling up with books.
This past year, in addition to our own personal individual reading, Pastor John and I instituted a new practice of reading a book together, one chapter at a time before bed. It was something we began after the New Year and it really “stuck”. Every evening, unless things have been so hectic that we must skip an occasional night, we look forward to our time to read a chapter, discuss it and then begin our time of prayer together before going to sleep. Each night we take turns as to who reads the chapter aloud.
As the list of potential books to choose from grows more vast every day, like an ever-expanding maze difficult to navigate, I thought it might be useful to share the books we’ve read so far this year. Each book is enjoyably segmented into easily digested chapters well suited for our purpose: not so long as to be cumbersome at the end of the evening and prohibit much time for discussion before prayer, and not so short as to be too thin in concepts to challenge our thinking or provide good material for pre-prayer conversation. NOTE: none of these are “prayer books”. Our prayer time together before bed is a habit which is separate from the reading. After each title, I’ll include a brief blurb of description, each taken from Amazon.com for consistency and brevity’s sake. Here they are in the order in which we’ve been reading, and we would heartily recommend every one of them.

1. 3:16 The Numbers of Hope, by Max Lucado. “If 9/11 are the numbers of terror and despair, then 3:16 are the numbers of hope. Best selling author Max Lucado leads readers through a word-by-word study of "John 3:16", the passage that he calls the "Hope Diamond" of scripture. Using his trademark folksy style, Lucado employs great stories and real-life illustrations to drive home points about God's love, justice and determination to save.

2. Come Thirsty – No Heart Too Dry for His Touch, by Max Lucado. “Lucado, pastor and bestselling author of more than 50 titles, extends hope to those whose souls are "dehydrated" from neglect, fear and guilt. Lucado teaches that salvation is God's work, not ours, and that we should "drink deeply from his well of grace." He encourages readers to look to God for spiritual energy, to rest in his authority or "lordship" and to wholeheartedly accept his never-ending love.”

3. Fill My Cup, Lord by Emilie Barnes. “This book is filled with gentle meditations to help you draw near to the heart of the Father. In your moments with Him, you will find new strength and fresh vision to carry you through the day.”

4. Traveling Light, by Max Lucado. “…refreshing words wrapped around the biblical passages of the 23rd Psalm to reenergize weary spiritual travelers. In his inimitable, pastoral voice that both soothes and exhorts, Lucado gently unpacks the verses of the psalm while helping readers lay down the burdens of doubt, anxiety, perfectionism, and fear.”

5. Facing Your Giants, by Max Lucado. “This profound look at the life of David digs deeply into the defeats he suffered, and the victories he won, as he faced the giants in his life. When David focused on God, giants tumbled. But when David focused on giants, he stumbled.”

6. And the Angels Were Silent, by Max Lucado. “It is the final week of Jesus' life. All of heaven watches. It is the long-awaited week, a week when no angel dared sing. A hush fell over heaven as Jesus faced his final days. Note the firmness in his walk. Hear the conviction in his voice. Witness the courage of his deeds. See his passion. . the Savior who will not give up his children until they are found. See his power . . the God who will not tolerate hollow religion.”

7. When God Whispers Your Name, by Max Lucado. “…a series of short stories for those who, he says, might not realize "that God has written their true name upon His hand." Allegories, the retelling of Bible stories (i.e., Moses becomes an office janitor to whom God speaks through a mop bucket) and even Lucado's own journeys are used to show God's grace and holiness and to hold out hope in the midst of life.”

8. The Beloved Disciple: Following John to the Heart of Jesus, by Beth Moore. “Moore goes into great detail describing minor and major life occurrences from John's vantage point. From his humble beginnings as a fisherman, to his calling as a disciple and the tradition of his eventual exile on Patmos, Moore dredges deep for biblical exposition and focuses on John's writings with single-minded clarity, offering carefully crafted expositions of his biblical letters to the seven churches in Revelation.”
9. In the Eye of the Storm: A Day in the Life of Jesus, by Max Lucado. “Come face-to-face with Jesus when He experienced more stress than any other day of his life aside from his crucifixion. Before the morning became evening, he has reason to weep, run, shout, curse, praise, and doubt. If you know what it means to be caught in life's storms…if you've ever ridden the roller coaster of sorrow and celebration…if you've ever wondered if God in heaven can relate to you on earth, then this book will encourage and inspire you.”
10. Insights to Help You Survive Peaks & Valleys: Can You Stand to be Blessed?, by T. D. Jakes. “…practical and proven insights to help you survive your challenges and revel in your joys. Life is not the same day after day - some are good, others are not. Walking through the peaks and valleys takes energy, direction, and stamina. You will be prepared for a lifetime of journeying by following the insights given by Bishop Jakes, one of the most relevant and dynamic ministers today. Important insights include learning to welcome the Refiner's fire, living in the grace of God, and recognizing the blessings in your life. Do more than just survive the peaks and valleys in your life; embrace them, learn from them, and walk confidently into your future!”
There you go! Your first observation might be that we particularly enjoy Max Lucado, and, you’d be right. His style is easily understandable and enjoyable, even when writing about things which are tricky to encounter in your life. While Max is popular on our list of authors, there are several different writers and books in our selection process for continued reading. Now that it’s undeniably fall, heading into the shorter, colder days of winter, why not take advantage of the fact that “all is safely gathered in” and take some time to explore and grow in your faith, understanding and strength to meet the challenges of life.