Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Eve Meditation

John 1:1-5,14-18 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.


Let’s talk this morning about life.
When Caleb was born, there was an abundance of life.  There was screaming and twisting and crying and reaching, and it was joyous.
As he’s grown, there is more abundance—more screaming, more crying, more reaching, more twisting and running.  He’s only grown larger and louder over the past year, and there is abundant life within him—he squeals in delight, he claps his hands with exuberance; he races back and forth across our lives.  Rachel and I struggle to keep pace with such abundant life.  We sit at opposite ends of the hall and watch him work his way back and forth down the hallway, filled with laughter and delight.  I do not understand how my soul can be so happy.
It’s amazing to think of the baby Jesus in the same way.  Can you picture him as a newborn babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes, wriggling in the manger?  Can you imagine him, the Savior of the world, racing unsteadily up and down little hallways and out in the dusty field?  Can you picture the King of Kings jumping in mud puddles and chasing the chickens nearby, Mary and Joseph shaking their heads as they wonder how they’ll ever keep up with such energy?
Tonight, on Christmas Eve, we celebrate the birth of our Savior, the one who took on flesh and dwelt among us, the one who came and moved into the neighborhood.  Jesus Christ lived for thirty three years on this earth, and for much of that time he lived and worked and laughed and played just as you and I do.  He came, in his own words, that we may have life and have it abundantly.  He came to redeem us, to offer us a gift of new life, of new joy and wonder at what God is doing among us.
He came to give us life.
So when we think about Christianity, let’s not forget about life.  Let’s not forget that Jesus Christ has come into this world to show us how to live.  For thirty three years he lived the perfect life, and he did so with a purpose—to teach us, every one of us, how to live our own lives.  He was a model for us, a demonstration of what the Christian life is supposed to be like.
Jesus Christ invites you to welcome him into your life, to survey the landscape of your existence, and to offer it all to him.  You work and your play, your laughter and your leisure, is all meant to be offered to him.  He wants all of it, so that he can redeem it.  We can serve God in our lives, in the living of them.  When you go to work, remember that he has redeemed your work.  When you enjoy your hobbies or sit down at a good meal, remember that he has redeemed it.  He lived among us, worked among us, ate with us and laughed with us, all of it in an effort to show us that life is good.  It is a grand gift, meant to be enjoyed!  Life isn’t just something to put up with until we get to heaven—it’s something to savor, to relish, and to offer to God.  We are most fully alive when we are living with an awareness of God’s redeeming presence among us.
Jesus Christ was born on this earth on Christmas, and for 33 years he lived among us.  He did so with purpose—to show us that life is a wonderful thing, meant to be lived to the fullest, offered to God.  When we are baptized, we read in Romans, we are joined into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
You don’t have to wait for heaven for your life to begin.  Let your life be lived here and now with reckless abandon—let’s allow God to be the Lord of every part of your day.  When you work and play, when you laugh and cry, when you eat and when you sleep, do it all for the glory of God.  Seek to model Christ’s perfect life with all your heart, and you’ll see that he has redeemed life and offers you abundant life that begins here, at the manger, carries forward through the cross, and onward into eternal life with him.
Christ is born!  Christ lives forever!  Let our lives give glory to him!
Let us pray. 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Meditation for 12/23/12

Hebrews 10:19-25
  Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.


Do you remember, when you were a kid, when your parents told you that if you were bad all you'd get for Christmas is coal in your stocking? 
Most of the time, we didn't get coal.  Our gifts were not dependent on how we actually acted, unless we were very, very bad.  Even if we were only good most of the time, our parents still gave us gifts.  If we're honest, when we look back on our childhoods, we can probably say that we might have deserved more coal.  There were probably years when we deserved nothing but coal—if the outcome was based on our actions, we wouldn't have much reason for hope.
But we had hope for Christmas because we knew the love of parents, love that was willing to overlook the things we had done and give us gifts we didn't deserve.

When we talk about our spiritual hope, the concept isn't that different. 

If our spiritual hope depended on how we lived our life and the extent to which we could have hope for the future, we'd be in a lot of trouble.  We're pretty good, but pretty good isn't enough to earn the love of God.  We can't be good enough to earn the endless love of God, and if having hope for the future, both on earth and beyond death, we'd be a pretty miserable lot.

But our hope doesn't depend on us.  It depends only, as Hebrews tells us, on the blood of Jesus, blood that was freely given for you & for me.  Our hope depends on God's love, given freely, and because it's a gift, we can have hope for the future.

Now, I want to emphasize here that it's not only hope for life beyond death.  It's also hope for this life, for today, for tomorrow, for next year and the ones beyond that.  We have hope that God will continue to work in us, continue to pour his love upon us, continue to help us see his love leading us forward.  We hope for the Spirit to guide us and build us up, growing us into mature Christians who offer everything to God.  We have hope for abundant life this side of heaven, and we have hope for eternal abundant life with God on the other side of death.

All of this hope is rooted in Christ, in his life, death & resurrection.  Let us hold fast to this, and let it motivate us, driving us out, provoking one another to love and good deeds, that our lives may always point to Christ.

So let us lift up our prayer requests, trusting in God, rooted in hope, knowing that Christ, our priest, hears our prayers and ensures they are heard in the throneroom of God.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Come, Lord

Come, Holy Father
  Savior from above

Come, Holy Spirit
  Descending as a dove

Come, Precious Jesus
  Whisper words of love

Come, Lord, this Christmas
  Wake this worldly soul
  That I might laugh and run and play
  That I might dream again

Come, Holy Lord, King and Prince of Peace
  Liberate my life from dreary sin and death
  Help me see the light that shines
  From manger and from tomb
  Help me sing and dance
  To worship you again

Come, King of Kings
  Into this wounded heart
  That life might flow
  And tongue may praise
  All for you
  My King

12/20 E-News

Christmas Eve—The Christmas Eve service will be @ 7:00.

New Hope News

Sunday School—This Sunday, the adult class will review the Old Testament.

Christmas Schedule—The youth choir will bless us this Sunday, 12/23.

Pray For:

All those dealing with the flu

Pray for those who do not know Christ.


Keith's Random Thoughts

I spent the morning having a lot of fun—I went shopping for matchbox cars & legos at Toys R' Us.

These were the toys that I loved during my childhood. I would spend hours upon hours playing with legos. Whenever we went somewhere, I always made sure to take some matchbox cars. My parents didn't have to worry about entertaining me—with my cars nearby, I could entertain myself all the day long. It's funny to look back on it and wonder how I could be so entertained for so long. My attention span has dwindled over the years, and I suppose my capacity for imagining has done so, too.

This morning I got to shop for a child over at East Brainerd Elementary. There wasn't going to be anything under the Christmas tree, and thanks to the extraordinary generosity of a few people, there now will be things for Christmas for him and at least six other families. God is so very good.

Christmas is a time to say thanks. I know we were supposed to do that at Thanksgiving, but let's do so now, too. God has blessed us richly. I am grateful for family and friends, for love that surrounds me, for those of you who bother to read my ramblings, whether or not they make sense. I have been given so much love. God has given a Savior so that I might salvation, a gift I certainly do not deserve and could not earn. Not only do I have a Savior, but I have a Savior who has walked the dusty roads of this life, who knows temptation, who knows pain and sadness. I have a Savior who loves me enough to let a lesser power nail him to a cross and take his life in the most painful way possible, so that he might redeem me and all others who call upon him.

What a gift. What an incredible gift. Before the enormity of the cross, I am speechless.

But it's not just the cross. It's about the manger and the 33 years in between, the life that Christ lived. Christ wants to redeem all of life, for our hope to transform what we do here and now. We don't just wait until after we die to know anything about the full glory of God. Our life here is meant to be a foretaste of that divine glory, so that we are loved and love, so that we are blessed and bless others. We can revel in the abundant joy of God here and now if we'll abandon all else and cling to him alone, the babe in the manger, the carpenter with calloused hands, the teacher in the wooden boat, the Savior on the cross, the glorified God on Easter morning, the Prince of Peace ascending to heaven.

What a gift.

Text for this Sunday
Hebrews 10:19-25

Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

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Wednesday, December 19, 2012


Friends in Christ,

  Talk of the fiscal cliff seems to be dominating the news.  It looms larger and larger each passing day, and none of our elected 'leaders' seem that interested in compromising one single inch in order to avoid fiscal calamity.  Tax rates and budget cuts that will affect real people seem to be little more than bargaining chips cast on the table in hopes of one party 'winning', neglecting the fact that the people seem to continue to lose.

  The sad thing is, this is all our own making.  The fiscal cliff didn't invent until Congress invented it a few years back, devising something that would be such a threat that it would drive the parties to find a common ground between their battle-hardened positions.  As humanity tends to do often, we selected gratification in the moment and chose to push punishment a little farther down the road.  Congress ignored future pain and selected present satisfaction.

  Humans have been doing this since the beginning of time--rather than accept the difficult now, knowing that it will lead to growth and eventually help build us into the people we want to be, we choose to take the easy road today, knowing in the back of our heads that we'll suffer in the future, but we weigh the present with more gravity than the future.

  Our spiritual lives aren't any different.  We consider engaging with the spiritual disciplines, making the hard choices now, but we opt for entertainment today, often engaging with things of little or no spiritual substance. It's easier.  But those choices have consequences--and we won't grow into the Christians we want to be, that God wants us to be, unless we choose to do some of the hard work now.  It's not going to be easy to make time to pray and study Scripture, but to develop your prayer life and know Scripture well in the future, that's what it takes now.

  I'm not master or expert at this.  I often choose the easy way out, opting for entertainment.  Not all entertainment is bad, but to continue to elevate it over spiritual disciplines time after time stunts our growth as Christians.  It manages to block part of what God wants to do in and through us.

  So let's make the hard choices and choose to study, choose to discipline ourselves and live like Christ now, trusting that God will do a work in us that will grow into the future.  The effects of our present choices are magnified in our future.  So let us praise God now, do the work of discipleship now, and entrust our future to God, knowing he will continue to grow us up as Christians.

In Christ,

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Thoughts from Sunday, 12/16/12

John 1:1-9
  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.


Friends, I just want to say a brief word at the beginning of the service about Christmas.

  We love Christmas.  Christmas is a time of joy, a time of celebration, a time of brightly colored Christmas trees and carols that bring joy to the heart.  Christmas is a time of cookies galore and children whispering about Santa.  Christmas is wonderful.

  But Christmas is so much more than just the trappings of the season.  Christmas is much more than a holiday party and a new sweater.

  We need Christmas.

  Christmas is a celebration of the light of Jesus Christ coming into the world.  Christmas is a time when we gather in church to remember the depth of God's love, a love that shines brightly even in the darkest of nights.  On that first Christmas, there was plenty of darkness in the poverty of Mary and Joseph, in the cruel governance of the Roman Empire, but into that darkness, into the sin of humanity, the light of Christ came.

  The light still shines.  The light of Christ continues to shine across generations of the world, from Bethlehem to Chattanooga to Newtown, CT.  The light still shines in the darkness.

  There is plenty of darkness in our world today.  Friday was a visceral reminder of the reality of darkness, of the presence of evil and sin and brokenness in the world.  We are all witnesses to this tragedy that shattered the quiet town where things like this weren't supposed to happen.  No place on earth should have to wander through this valley of the shadow of death, where children at school are not safe, where Christmas joy is shattered by the power of evil.  We weep and we mourn with those who suffer the brunt of this pain and loss.

  And in this darkness, the light of Christ still shines.  The darkness tries to overcome it, but it cannot.  We know how the story ends.  We know that Christ wins, that good will triumph over evil, that Christ will stand victorious at the last.  We know this to be true.

  And yet, we live in the in-between times.  In our world today, there is still darkness.  Revelation tells us that the new Jerusalem will need no sun because Christ itself will be the light--there will be no more night, no more darkness, no more sin and death and weeping and wailing.

  But until that day comes, we will still be surrounded by darkness.

  The light will still shine, in each of us and through each of us, and we will continue to hope, continue to believe, that Christ wins.

  So let us mourn the darkness, but let us not despair.  We need Christmas, because it reminds us that God wins in the end, and that Christ is at work here, now, redeeming the world.  We need Christmas because we need light for our darkness.  It is a light we cannot manufacture, but Christ gives it freely, and it still shines today, a light for our darkness, a lamp for our feet, a guide for our hearts to follow.

  Let us take some time in silent prayer together, lifting up the victims, the families, the community and all those who weep and mourn.

  Let us pray

Monday, December 17, 2012

Practice Resurrection

  I'm going to own this at the beginning:  I love reading Eugene Peterson's works.  They're written for pastors.  Not for mega-church superstars or for modern day 'communicators', a term I hear more and more and understand less and less.  Eugene Peterson writes for those of us who struggle along, day after day, in an attempt to love and know each and every person entrusted to us in our congregation.  Peterson writes for the imperfect church, the church where we all know each other and know how broken we all are.  He writes for the church where we worry about the light bill and where we wonder, deep inside, if what we do truly matters in the world.

  So it is with great anticipation that I picked up Eugene Peterson's latest work, Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ, the last in the series of 'conversations' about practical theology.

  Practice Resurrection is focused around the book of Ephesians, and Peterson marvels at the fact that Paul wrote Ephesians to tell the church how to be the church.  It's not filled, as the letters to the church in Corinth are, with advice about how to solve problem after problem.  It's filled with guidance on how the church can most faithfully live out her call as the body of Christ in the world.  Peterson talks about who we are and how we are to live together, from our worship to our daily lives.

  What's great about this book is captured in the title--our job is to practice for our resurrection.  Heaven isn't simply a great place that lurks just beyond the horizon, lingering at the edge of our dreams as a reminder of what is to come but too distant and ethereal for us to ever truly grasp.  Heaven is a reality, the kingdom come to earth, that we can grasp between our fingers just as surely as the leaves in the fall can be gathered as they fall, lumped into large piles and dived into.  Heaven is something that we practice for in this life--and the more we let God's will govern our days and our nights, our joys and our sorrows, the more faithfully we practice for our own resurrection.

  And the church is the setting in which we're called to live this out together.    We do this as an imperfect gathering, filled with sinful people, yet we do this joyfully, marveling at the wonder Christ is doing in us.  If we look hard enough, if we pay attention closely, we'll see the work of the Spirit among us.  Peterson is calling us to open our eyes, to slow down, and to watch for God at work.

  So here and now, he says, let us practice for what is to come, and may God's kingdom come.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Football and need

Friends in Christ,

  I grew up in Cincinnati, which means that grew up cheering for the Cincinnati Bengals, that team that plays in the National Football League.  (I hesitate to call them a professional football team.  Anybody who has followed the Bengals for several decades knows that 'professional' isn't the most appropriate moniker for them.)  Cheering for the Bengals is not an easy task--it's a bit like cheering for the antelope in a National Geographic special.  Every once in a while the antelope will make a sharp turn or a dash for safety and you think it's going to get free... and those specials always end with the lion gnawing on antelope remains.

  A few years back, the Bengals decided they needed a new stadium.  They threatened to move to California if they didn't get one, so the city buckled and handed them a gold-plated deal, one that has financially backfired on the city.  Their budget is now severely affected by the promises they made to keep up the stadium, and the lion's share of the profits find their way into the owner's pockets, rather than the city's pockets.

  Now, when the city was being sold on this deal, two things were mentioned over and over.  One was the emotional impact of the team leaving.  (Hard to imagine this was a winning argument!)  The other was the economic impact of the team leaving.  The team does have a positive effect on the city--affecting everything from hotels to bars and restaurants to merchandise to jobs held within the stadium.  There are tax revenue and parking fees and many other channels through which money flows back to the city and to other businesses.  I'm not going to deny this.

  But I wonder if anyone talked about the economic impact of what might happen if the city's money was poured into the local schools, particularly the poorer schools.  How might those children have benefited from funds that were given to a football team?  Who knows what impact those dollars could have had ten, twenty years down the road?  Perhaps some children would have received an invigorating education that was otherwise missed, and in their rising above poverty, they might have lifted countless others with them.  Who knows what might have happened?  It might have transformed a city--and Cincinnati would have been the city that said no to football and yes to children.  I imagine that the billionaires who run the NFL would have found a way to get by.

  Whenever we spend money, there is an opportunity cost.  There is always something else that money could go toward.  This cost will always exist, whether it's the money we spend on rent or on a milkshake at Steak & Shake.  We can guilt ourselves crazy if we like, or we can see the opportunity to examine how we spend our money & ensure that we are being faithful stewards.  May we be sure that we are giving generously, freely, working to fight poverty and hunger.  There is nothing in the Bible that says we can't spend money on ourselves--but faithful stewardship demands that if we have money to spend, we must be willing to give some to others in need.  We need to leave some behind so that others might glean from it.

  It's a delicate balance, and the best thing we can do is make sure our priorities are correct.  If our hearts are focused first on Christ Jesus as Lord of all of life, then that mindset will guide us when it comes to spending money.  We'll know when we need to save and we'll know when we need to invest in the lives of others.  It's not always an easy decision, but the more thought we give to our money will help us be more faithful in our use of it.

  May we consider the cost and give generously, following the example of the Lord, who has given us more than we deserve.

In Christ,

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Caleb's Christmas

  Christmas is only 14 short days away!  And the days are getting shorter and shorter!  (Well, not really.  They're still the same length.  But they feel shorter, and the sun isn't up for as long.  So there.)

  Rachel and I have talked quite a bit about Caleb and Christmas.  Christmas, you may have noticed, has become a bit secularized over the years.  Some might even say that the real meaning of Christmas has become lost under and avalanche of wrapping paper and ribbons and advertising.  So how do we, as a family trying to focus on Christ, navigate these waters?

  Tough question.

  I'm not going to pretend we've come up with the perfect answer.  I'm aware that my idealism and reality will probably not match up well.  But Rachel & I feel the need to set big expectations.

  We want Christmas to be a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.  We want this to be a joyful time in which we give thanks for the tremendous blessing of a Savior.  Rachel and I both come from families that gave gifts freely and generously to celebrate this occasion, and we have no intention of not giving any gifts to Caleb (or any other future children) as a stark reaction to a secular Christmas.

  But we're also very aware that Caleb has a lot of stuff.  He has a lot of toys and clothes and other things.  He doesn't have a lot of material needs.  Rachel and I are very blessed and able to meet most of his needs, except for the ones that he cries out for so desperately at 3 A.M., but we can't meet those because we can't figure out what they are.

  So we were thinking about how we might encourage people who want to give gifts to Caleb to consider giving a gift to World Vision in his name.  In this way, we can celebrate the gift of Caleb and give thanks for God's tremendous love, expressing that by reaching out to others in need, just as God reaches out and gives us a Savior to meet our need.  To make this easier, we have set up a World Vision My Gift Catalog Page, found here:  Caleb's Gift Catalog Page

  Now, I know that people want to buy Caleb gifts.  And that's fine.  Gifts aren't bad.  We will probably get him a gift.  We know that family and friends will get him gifts, and I think that's great.  May this be a season of joyous expectation and expressions of love!

  We hope that we can make his birthday the primary occasion for gift-giving, letting Christmas be a time when we focus on giving to others, but I'm not going to be legalistic.  Having children requires a certain degree of flexibility, and Rachel and I are going to try and do the best job we can.  We just want to manage Caleb's expectations, and try to help him see that it's not about us, but it's about our taking part in a bigger story.

  I don't pretend that this is perfect.  I also don't know what the future holds and how this will work as he grows up.  Maybe it's not going to work when he's 5 or 8 or 14.

  But it will work now.  And hopefully, it will help him see Christmas as a celebration of generous love that is made manifest in Jesus Christ, a love that should inspire us to reach out and help where and how we can.

Here's that link again:  Caleb's Gift Catalog Page

Monday, December 10, 2012


  I received Eric Metaxas' biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, titled Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, as a gift several months ago, and as it takes me a little while to get around to any new books, only recently finished it.  It's a great read, though--it's hard to put down this engrossing story.

  I was trying to determine exactly what it was that made the story so captivating, and I think it's a combination of things.  The first is the backdrop of the story--as Hitler gains power and the atrocities escalate, it's hard to imagine that any human can be so purely evil.  I have studied the holocaust and know many of the fact, but the story still startles me in the degree of its terror and hatred.  Perhaps the story of one individual in the midst of such chaos is able to bring forth emotions that pure statistics cannot.  The loss of Bonhoeffer's life in the midst of violence is such a waste of a young mind.  And yet the telling of each story, one by one, makes the holocaust a story of six million tragedies, rather than just one.

  The second thing that makes this book so powerful is Bonhoeffer's stand against these horrors.  The pastor and theologian joins the resistance movement against Hitler, and his faith informs everything he does.  His integrity is amazing--he is so firmly rooted in the Scriptures and in his faith, and nothing the man does seems to drift from that anchor.  He sees God's call to resist the cultural shift towards Hitler and implores others to join in the resistance, to not be caught up in the worship of Hitler and Germany, but his voice is drowned out by the celebration of Germany's revival.

  Bonhoeffer's views on death are also somewhat inspiring, especially for me, a somewhat anxious pastor.  Bonhoeffer doesn't fear death.  For him it is a beginning--in his own words, 'That life only really begins when it ends here on earth, that all that is here is only the prologue before the curtain goes up--that is for young and old alike to think about.  Why are we so afraid when we think about death?...  Death is only dreadful for those who live in dread and fear of it. ...  Death is grace, the greatest gift of grace that God gives to people who believe in Him.  Death is mild, death is sweet & gentle; it beckons to us with heavenly power, if only we realize that it is the gateway to our homeland, the tabernacle of joy, the everlasting kingdom of peace.'

  The events in this book are surrounded by death, from the death of Bonhoeffer's brother during WWI to his own death at the conclusion of the book.  But death does not define the book any more than it define's Bonhoeffer's life.  His life is a story of victory, of good triumphing over evil, even when it seems as though evil will prevail.  Bonhoeffer knows the end of his story, the end of all our stories, and he urges us to cling to that truth, to let that truth affect everything we do, and live bold lives of faithfulness to God, rather than cowering in fear when the devil tries to win the day.



Sunday, December 9, 2012

Sermon for 12-9-12

Philippians 4:10-14

  I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it. Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress.

Today, we're going to focus on today. Makes perfect sense, right?
Last week we talked about what the gift of Jesus Christ means for our past—about what how the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ gives us peace with our past sins. We no longer have to look at our past with fear and trembling, letting it have power over us. With Christ's grace and love, we can let our past sins drop onto the shoulders of Christ and live with a freedom that is not available through any other source.

Today, we're going to talk about how the gift of Jesus Christ gives us strength for today. This is about the present—how the reality of a resurrected Savior gives us what we need to face daily life.

First of all, I'm going to talk about Caleb. Why? Because he's my son and this is my sermon, so we're going to talk about him! Plus, he's cute.

Now, let's say you were going to advise us on Caleb's diet. Which would be appreciated, since Rachel and I have no idea what we're doing. What should we include in his diet?

Now, what are things we should probably not include, at least not on a regular basis?

Why would we structure his diet this way? Why do we want to make sure he eats a healthy diet?

We focus on giving Caleb a healthy diet because the healthier the diet, the healthier the life he will have, and the healthier growth he will have. If he does not have the nutrients and vitamins that his growing body requires, his growth will not reach the fullest potential that God has in store for him. A misstep now could lead to stunted results later, right? Proper nutrition is vital to future growth. In order for him to be the child God wants him to be, we have to be sure he is eating well.

Friends, our spiritual life is not any different. For each and every one of us, we can look back at our past spiritual habits and see how they have determined how vital or flaccid our spiritual life is today. You cannot be the prayer champion you long to be if you never bother to spend any time in prayer. You cannot have a knowledge of the Scriptures if you never bother to open them. You will not have a dynamic spiritual life if you never sink any energy into it.

What I am trying to say is that for us to experience the type of spiritual growth that we all want, it takes time, and it takes work. There is no substitute, no shortcut. You know what you need to do. You don't need to hear from me about how important prayer and Scripture reading are. It just takes the decision by you to do it.

How this ties in to Christ giving us strength for today is this: Christ is trying to feed you. He's not trying to feed you spinach and carrots to make you physically healthy, although I have to imagine that if Christ was designing a diet for all of us today it would probably involve more salads and less Krystal, but that's another topic for another day. What Christ is trying to feed you is spiritual knowledge. He's trying to feed your soul so that you will grow up big and strong. Each of us is a child of God. Each of us is a child of the God who created the universe and set this planet spinning around the sun. Each of us is precious to him—and he wants us to grow up into mature Christians, just like every parent wants their child to grow up into a mature adult. God wants the best for you. But, in order for you to grow up big and strong and healthy, you have to take in the right things. You need nutrients and vitamins. You need healthy intake. You need Scripture, prayer, worship and Christian fellowship.

Now, I'm not saying that a lack of effort on our part will prevent God from working in our life. I'm not saying that God's wondrous love is blocked by the fact that you're too busy to pray. What I am saying is that a major source of God's strength is being missed by you if you never take the time to attend to it. The Scriptures are filled with different examples of how God has strengthened his children throughout the years. Christian literature today is filled with countless more examples of the way God works. But if you never bother to take the time to learn about it, you might miss the ways that God is seeking to strengthen you today.
Similarly, God wants to strengthen you through your prayers. Imagine yourself wearing a vest filled with rocks. These rocks represent your burdens. This vest would make it much harder to walk or to go about your daily life, right? In prayer, we offer all those burdens to God, laying them down before him and lightening our own load. God wants to help you through life, but you have to be willing to receive God's help. God wants to strengthen you, but if you're too busy to let God work in you, you'll miss out on a good portion of it.

Now that we know the way that Christ strengthens us, let's talk about what Christ strengthens us for. Now, Philippians says that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. What does that mean?

Has anyone ever been skydiving? What do you imagine that feeling would be like, standing at the door of a perfectly functioning airplane and deciding that a piece of fabric is a better way down? What would it feel like to stand there and decide that you can do all things through Christ, including jump out of an airplane without a parachute? It says all things, right? Doesn't that mean we can do anything?

Now, we can't do all things. We can't fly. We have our limits. I can't sing on key. I can't heal other people or answer some of the toughest questions of life. There are many things I cannot do. So how do we understand verse 13, which clearly says that we can do all things?

To understand this rightly, I want us to think about last week. In our Ephesians passage last week, Paul told us why we were created—for the purpose of doing good works. That is our purpose in life. Now, in John's Gospel, Jesus tells us the purpose of our good works—so that people will see them and give glory to God. Want to know the meaning of life? There it is, straight from Scripture—do good works so that others give glory to God.

So that is our purpose on this earth. To do anything that doesn't give glory to God is working against God, and I don't believe that Christ strengthens us to do sin. Therefore, we can understand verse 13 in this context—the rest of Scripture helps us interpret this verse. Christ strengthens us to do good works so that others will give glory to God.

To live today, this very day, in such a way that brings glory to God, and so that others could watch us live and give glory to God.

For anyone who has ever faced a challenge, this is a lot tougher than it sounds. I don't pretend, for one moment, that this is easy. Which is exactly why we need Christ's strength, and this is exactly why Christ offers that to us, each and every day.

Now, I don't know what you're facing. I'm not going to pretend to understand. But I can promise you this—God will give you the strength you need to endure. God may not always make things easier, but God will help you get through it. In Psalm 23 it says that we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Just because we're a Christian doesn't mean we get to avoid this valley and many others like it. But we endure. We can endure with confidence, knowing that God is with us. We can endure with peace, knowing that nothing in this world can separate us from the greatest power in the universe. We can endure with strength, knowing that Christ endured the cross and the grave, and he promised to bring us through these, too. We have strength for today—I promise that you will endure whatever it is that you face. And if we face it with confidence and peace, that is a witness to those around us that our trust is placed in a God bigger than this life and bigger than death. Some of the challenges we face lead us to the grave, some of them to our own grave—even in the face of these, we have strength bigger than the grave. We have strength to face our challenges, strength to endure them, because Christ has faced similar challenges, bigger challenges, and he promises to bring us through them. Let us never, for one moment, believe we are on our own in the face of challenges. You have the strength to endure if you are willing to rely upon it and trust in it.

Now, life isn't always just challenges, right? Sometimes, oftentimes, life is grand, right? Let's not pretend that Christianity is only about enduring through challenges. Christianity is also about rejoicing in the wonders of life, in love and sunshine and puppies and the laughter of little children. Christ gives us strength for these, too. The picture we get of Christ in the Gospels is a man who loved dinner with friends, a man who loved a wedding feast and little children, a man who loved the wonders of nature. The three years of his public ministry were not just constant talk of the end of the world. There was joy and wonder in the midst of that, and Christ helps us face the wonder in our life, too, because when we rejoice, that is of God, too. That is a good work that can give glory to God. We can offer up our laughter and our play and our fun to God, too, and let that be a proclamation of the wondrous love of God.

Let us not paint God as a dull figure only accessible to those in suffering, but rather as a sovereign God who wants life to be filled with abundant blessings but who will also endure the challenges of life alongside, too. Let our lives proclaim the truth that God abides with you in everything that you do, and that we can do these things for God because the strength and love and wonder of God fills us, renews us, and sends us back out into the world to serve him and point others to him.

Let us pray  

Friday, December 7, 2012

Intimacy With God

  I love to read.  With Caleb around, I don't have nearly as much time to read as I have in years past, but I still take every chance I get.  One area in which I have focused my recent reading is prayer, and when I went to the abbey for the weekend I took a few books that I thought might inform and deepen my prayer life.  One of those books was Thomas Keating's Intimacy with God, which is an introduction to centering prayer.

  First of all, I'd say this book is highly readable.  It's about 150 pages, but it breezes by rather easily.  It's not a slog like many others.

  Secondly, I think you have to be open to the idea of centering prayer before you read it.  Centering prayer is, as I understand it, essentially silent meditation.  It's what I would call 'waiting on God.'  Centering prayer isn't necessarily something you do--it's a time to be, and to let God work.  There is usually a word or idea that centers you, but the essence of the prayer isn't a focus on that word.  The essence of the prayer is stilling the self before God.

  And when we stop to think about it, that's a really good thing.  God knows all of our thoughts and feelings and desires.  God made us and we are his.  God formed our inward parts and loves us deeply.  This same God holds the very universe in the palm of his hands.  This same God speaks planets into being & dwells in unapproachable light.  There is a certain point where we run out of words and need to be in awe before the majesty and awesomeness of God.

  Intimacy with God is an introduction into this type of prayer.  It's hard for most of us.  We have constant distractions and our ability to sit and be still is pretty low most days.  We aren't accustomed to discipline.  But for those interested in trying, Keating invites us in and guides us along the way.  Much of this is rooted in St. John of the Cross, who tells us that silence is the language in which God speaks, and it is in silence that we hear this.  So centering prayer helps us be silent, helps us be still, and endeavors to help us be present before God, emptying ourselves and letting God's presence fill us.

  Centering prayer isn't easy, especially at the start.  But I do believe that we will improve with effort, and the more we empty ourselves, the more we'll notice God moving in and around us, leading us ever forward.

  As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:31, Strive for the greater gifts.  And I will show you a still more excellent way.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

12/6 E-News

Adopt a family—The Christmas season is upon us, and I'd like to invite you to consider helping out another family. I've talked with our contact at East Brainerd Elementary, and she said that she has a list of families that could use a little help this Christmas. It may be as little as a small gift card to Toys r Us, or it can be bigger if you like. Let me know if you'd like to take part.

Christmas Eve—The Christmas Eve service will be @ 7:00.

Wednesday Night Suppers—The last Supper of the year will be 12/19.

New Hope News

Sunday School—This Sunday, the adult class will discuss Zechariah.

Christmas Schedule—The cantata will be Sunday, December 16. Handbells will play this Sunday.

Pray For:

Pray for Roger, too, in his continued recovery.

Please lift up Victor Christian this week, as Bettyann passed away Saturday.

Pray for those who do not know Christ.


Keith's Random Thoughts

Caleb doesn't walk yet, but he can push things. Our neighbors graciously gave us some of their old toys, and so Caleb has a little car/truck that he pushes up and down our hallway, squealing in delight every step of the way. Rachel & I could spend hours watching him do this. He does need a little help turning around at the end of the hallway.

Now, we don't have the longest hallway in the world, and it isn't very wide, either. If the truck has the slightest deviation in it from straight, Caleb doesn't make it all the way down the hall before crashing into the wall or the couch or something else. We have to make sure that Caleb is lined up properly before releasing him.

I think the devil relies on similar tactics. Sin creeps into our life, but it does so slowly. At first, the deviation from God's will may not even be noticeable. We take the tiniest turn from right living, and no one, ourselves included, may notice it at first, but over time that error compounds. It may take years, or even decades, but soon we find ourselves crashing into the walls of life, and the full effects of that sin are felt. Sin takes a little hold, then a little more, and then a little more, and each minor misstep isn't noticed, but their total effect can be drastic.

So let us be vigilant. Let us pay attention to how we live, to the choices we may and the thoughts we think. May we examine ourselves often, spending the time to root out sin tirelessly, making sure it doesn't worm its way deep into our hearts and minds. May our feet stay on the straight and narrow, and may our eyes stay focused on Christ, that we might run our race well and for the glory of God.

Text for this Sunday
Philippians 4:10-14

I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it. Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress.

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Sunday, December 2, 2012

Sermon for 12-2-2012

Ephesians 2:1-10 
  You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.
  But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus.
  For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

A couple years back, I was driving through the middle-of-nowhere in Alabama.  There was nothing around me, and seeing as how I was driving a smooth, new rental car, I might have happened to accelerate to a rate of speed a bit above what was recommended for that particular road.  It was a sunny day, and I had some Bon Jovi, and so I just moved right along…
Until a patrol officer noticed that I was moving a bit too fast and pulled me over.  It was a bit of a downer on a great trip, and the ticket he gave me was a rather strong reminder of how Alabama views those of us who drive too fast. 
But imagine that, rather than giving me a ticket, he had walked up to my window, leaned over, reached in and handed me a winning ticket to this week’s Powerball lottery, which clocked in around $587 million.  Imagine that rather than having to pay my fine, I found myself in possession of a reward far greater than I deserved. 
Pretty great, right?  We’d all be pretty excited about such a turn of events.
Or how about this—it’s been the year of protests, right?  So picture yourself very angry against the current administration.  Imagine that you discover the president is going to be in Chattanooga and this infuriates you.  In fact, you’re so angry that you decide to go actively protest his presence.  You discover the path the motorcade will be driving and you go find a bucket of rocks, then position yourself along the path and await his arrival.  When the time comes, you start throwing rocks at the limo, only to be shocked when the door opens, the president steps out, invites you into the comforts of the limo, ferries you onto Air Force One, takes you to the White House and gives you a permanent seat in the Oval Office, to sit next to him and share in the privilege of the office.  You’d feel pretty silly about that bucket of rocks you were holding, right?

We’d agree that both are absurd situations, right?  Both are so far beyond reality that we wouldn’t even dare to dream about them.  The world doesn’t work that way, right?  There’s no such thing as a free lunch, right?  We sure aren’t going to rest our hopes on such wild schemes, right?
And yet, each of these pales in comparison to the gift of Christ Jesus we have.  We cannot make accurate comparisons when we’re talking about the forgiveness we have in Christ, because what we have been given so radically outweighs anything this world can give.  The reward we have in Christ is far richer than all the gold in all the kingdoms of the world—we have life with Christ, the glory that belongs to Christ is given to us, freely.  It didn’t come for free, for Christ paid the cost with his own life, but it is given to us freely.  And all out of love, for it was given while we are in open rebellion, each sin a rock thrown against God.  Each and every sin is an offense against God—and yet God has been gracious enough to offer forgiveness, to offer life, as a gift.
Keeping that in mind, let’s turn to this passage from Ephesians.
We begin in death.  That’s right, death.  I want us to pause for a moment and consider the cost of our sins, the consequence of our sin.  It is death.  How many of you have ever committed a sin?  Even just one sin, even though it might have been many years ago.  Any perfect people here?  No.  Then that means that we all deserve death.  Eternal, permanent death is what should await us.  Now, many of us can sit here and compare ourselves to our neighbors, to others, and say that we’re better than them.  We can say that we’re pretty good people.  In the world’s terms, that may be true.  But we don’t live according to the world’s terms—we live according to God’s terms.  And, according to God’s terms, each and every one of us has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  When we look at Jesus Christ and compare ourselves to him, the perfect human, we fall short.  We sin.  And that’s not ok.  It’s not something to laugh off—sin is a serious problem, so serious that it condemns us to death.
Well, at least it would, were it not for the grace of God.  Paul starts out talking about how each and every one of us followed the ruler of the power of the air, that is the devil, and so were dead.  And, without the intervention of Christ, we would still be that way. 
But God, Paul says, is rich in mercy and loved us, even when we were in active rebellion.  We were dead, Paul says, but God made us alive in Christ.  There we were, throwing stones against the motorcade, actively sinning and unable not to, and God swallowed us up in his love.  Your Father in heaven came down to us, became one of us, and died on the cross so that you might have life.  Notice, here—we’re not just saved, Paul says, but seated with him in the heavenly places so that God might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us.  God wants to pour out blessings upon us.  It’s not enough just to save us—God wants to shower us in love, in wonder and grace. 
It would have been enough to save us, right?  If the EMS comes to a house and finds someone dying, it’s enough just to save their life, right?  Imagine the EMS not only saving their life but also giving them a mansion in the nicest part of town and a million dollars and a new helicopter.  It’s crazy, right? 
But our God is a God of abundance, and when that is paired with love and mercy, what we see is a God who is anxious to bless his children, to pour out love upon them.  He sees our sin and our hopelessness, and in Christ there is an answer—there is hope and life, and so he not only saves us from the fate we deserve, but also gives us a seat beside Christ in the heavenly kingdom for all of eternity!  This is abundance the likes of which we will never witness on this earth.  This is a love deeper and wider than you can imagine.  This is God being more generous than we deserve, and it’s all free.
Paul goes on, in the last paragraph, to talk about how freely this is given.  Paul tells us that our salvation is through faith, not works—we could not do it ourselves, but it is a gift. 
Now, think about gifts.  How many of you plan on giving Christmas gifts this year?  How many of you will withhold your Christmas gift until the person to whom you are giving the gift writes and adequate thank you letter and proves themselves worthy of the gift?  Rachel and I are currently buying Caleb gifts in the hopes that he lives a good life and will receive them when he turns 18 and proves himself worthy of a set of blocks, right? 
No!  Of course not!  No one gives gifts this way—we give gifts freely, without condition.  And if we can do that, why do we expect God to make it so much harder?  God gives us the gift of forgiveness and love before we can earn because he knows we cannot earn it.  No one could earn the right to sit next to Christ Jesus in heaven for all of eternity.  But God gives it to us.  He forgives our sins in Jesus Christ and offers us life. 
Paul tells us what we were created for in the final sentence.  He tells us our purpose here on earth—for good works.  Before the world was formed, God had a purpose in creating you.  So that you would do good works, so that you would love your neighbor and strangers you have never met.  So that you would give love freely.  So that you would feed the hungry and clothe the naked and work for justice for the poor.  You were created for this reason—for good works.
But God doesn’t tell us that good works are the condition for our salvation.  There is no condition for that—it is a gift, a free gift, and God gives it to you.  To me.  To all of us.  God gives it in Jesus Christ, and merely asks us to receive the gift, to let it transform us.  God hopes that the gift will change how you live, that it might help you find your true purpose, serving others, but God doesn’t tell you that if you don’t live right, he will take the gift back.  God gives the gift.
So let’s ask that question again—how many of you have sinned?  Another question—how many of you have sinned long ago and are still carrying that burden around with you?  How many of you have sins for which you refuse to forgive yourself?  How many of you are still trying to earn God’s love, to earn salvation?  How many of you are trying to keep God from forgiving you?
Let it go.  Let yourself sink into the wondrous grace of God, and receive the free gift.  It’s a gift.  In Christ, we see our hope for eternity, our peace with our past, our strength for today.  In Christ, we are forgiven.  Thanks be to God.