Advent DevotionalA Garden of Living Water: Stories of Self-Discovery and Spiritual GrowthThe Power of ListeningDeath in Dunedin: A NovelJoy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your CongregationSabbath Keeping FastingDead Sea: A NovelDeadly Murmurs: A NovelPersonality Type in CongregationsBeating Burnout in CongregationsPrayers of the Old TestamentPrayers of the New TestamentSabbathReaching Out in a Networked WorldEmbracing MidlifeA Renewed SpiritualityFriendingDraw Near: Lenten Devotional by Lynne Baab, illustrated by Dave Baab

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These are a few of my favorite things for the Christmas season

Wednesday December 30 2015

These are a few of my favorite things for the Christmas season

1. I “met” this poem when I was in my twenties, and it has remained my favorite Christmas poem: Mary’s Song by Lucy Shaw

Blue homespun and the bend of my breast
keep warm this small hot naked star
fallen to my arms. (Rest...
you who have had so far
to come.) Now nearness satisfies
the body of God sweetly. Quiet he lies
whose vigor hurled
a universe. He sleeps
whose eyelids have not closed before.
His breath (so slight it seems
no breath at all) once ruffled the dark deeps
to sprout a world.
Charmed by dove’s voices, the whisper of straw,
he dreams,
hearing no music from his other spheres.
Breath, mouth, ears, eyes
he is curtailed
who overflowed all skies,
all years.
Older than eternity, now he
is new. Now native to earth as I am, nailed
to my poor planet, caught that I might be free,
blind in my womb to know my darkness ended,
brought to this birth
for me to be new-born,
and for him to see me mended
I must see him torn.

2. Another favorite is the song, “Mary, did you know?” Here’s an intriguing version of it by Peter Hollen.

3. And here’s a new favorite, an email I received from Arise (Christians for Biblical Equality in Australia). It was written by Bronwen Speedie, the founder of the Western Australian-based ministry, God’s Design-Perth, which seeks to bring clarity, healing, and encouragement through the biblical message of the equality of men and women. She is the author of a Bible study and resource kit about biblical equality titled, Men and Women: God’s Design. She quoted from the song, “Mary did you know?” Then she wrote:

This led me to wonder what other things Mary may have pondered, hoped for, and even worried about. How might Mary’s own experience—as an unmarried, pregnant young woman in a cultural dichotomy of honor and shame—have shaped the questions she asked? With this in mind, I’ve added my own questions to those in the song. (Don’t try to sing along—I haven’t kept to the constraints of the tune.)

Mary, did you know that your Baby Boy, in whose face relatives will look for your chin or Joseph’s nose, is the creator from whom all humans are made?

Mary, did you know that your Baby Boy, the fruit of a pregnancy that local gossips considered a sinful stain on your character, will one day protect a woman from similar judgments? That he will turn the stones intended to kill a woman caught in adultery into tools to convict her accusers of their own sins?

Mary, did you know that your Baby Boy will lift the heads of countless women? That in opposition to the patriarchy of his culture, he will accept the touch of a menstruating woman, seek to protect the rights of women cast away in divorce, and reject service within the household as a woman’s sole or primary function?

Mary, did you know that your Baby Boy, whom you now nurse at your breast, is the Bread of Life, and that all who believe in him will never hunger or thirst again?

Mary, did you know that your Baby Boy, who will learn the Tanakh at the feet of the local rabbis with other boys, will open up the study of Scripture to women like yourself, encouraging them to learn at his feet as disciples?

Mary, did you know that your Baby Boy will not reveal his identity as Messiah to the male authorities of Israel, but will first announce this good news to a despised Samaritan woman?

Mary, did you know that your Baby Boy will inspire women over the course of two thousand years to exchange society’s restrictions for God’s calling?

Mary, did you know that your Baby Boy, whom you now wrap in swaddling clothes, will one day leave his folded grave clothes in an empty tomb?

Mary, did you know that your Baby Boy will choose as his witnesses, and the first to be sent out with the message of his resurrection, a group of “mere” women?

Mary, did you know that your own faithfulness to God’s calling will play a key role in bringing a savior into the world who will set women free?

 

Last December's Christmas posts:
     Upside-down Christmas
     Bringing my whole self to the manger

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What I learned about the incarnation from Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere

Friday December 18 2015

What I learned about the incarnation from Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere

I celebrated most of the Christmases of my childhood and early adult life in northern cities in the Northern Hemisphere, where night falls in December long before 5 pm. The most common Christmas imagery in those places draws on the Gospel of John’s description of Jesus as the light of the world. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it” (John 1:5). The dark and broken world needs light, and every evening during the Christmas season the candles and lights in our homes shine in the dark night, and we remember that reality.

It took me a while to adjust to Christmas here in the Southern Hemisphere, with the long days and warm December weather. Because the majority of Christians throughout history have lived in the Northern Hemisphere, many Christmas songs, poems, stories and traditions draw on Northern Hemisphere symbolism, and it makes us miss the rich possibilities for Christmas imagery here. I am convinced, with some creative thinking, Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere can be a meaningful experience of celebrating with joy the Christian emphasis on Jesus becoming flesh in order to redeem the whole creation.

Warm weather gives opportunities for all sorts of outdoor activities at Christmas: tramping, sailing, swimming, biking, gardening, walking on beautiful beaches. Delicious local fresh fruit and vegetables are in season. For many, the long school holiday creates relaxed times with families and friends.

On long bright summer evenings, you may want to pause to remember that Jesus is the light of the world. While we are enjoying light, many people on earth are experiencing darkness, both literal and metaphorical. Spend a few moments on a light-filled evening praying for God’s light to shine in darkness.

When you’re enjoying being outside in nature using your body, you may want to stop to reflect on the mystery that Jesus took on human flesh. He walked human roads alongside human companions. Spend some time praying for those whose human bodies cause them pain rather than joy: maybe a friend who is fighting cancer or someone who has been sexually abused.

When you bite into a fresh strawberry or home-grown tomato, you may want to take a few moments to remember that Jesus ate with his friends. He took on human flesh fully so he could fully redeem it, and being human involves the pleasure and necessity of food. Pray for those who lack enough food and for those who lack high quality food. Jesus came to earth for people in every kind of need.

When you’re relaxing with friends or family members – or even when you’re irritated by them – perhaps pause and remember how highly Jesus valued human relationships across all sorts of boundaries. Pray that you will cross boundaries in your relationships, and pray for those who experience pain in their relationships or who are lonely.

A summer time Christmas gives us the opportunity to remember Jesus’ birthday in ways that haven’t been commonly stressed in the past. To do so, we need to relinquish Northern Hemisphere imagery. We need to learn to celebrate the warmth and the light and our physical bodies as ways to connect with the deep truth that Jesus became fully human in order to redeem all of humanity, and indeed, the whole created world.

(If you'd like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under "subscribe" in the right hand column. This post was originally published in the Otago Daily Times. Watercolor by Dave Baab)

Thankfulness and sentness

Thursday December 10 2015

Thankfulness and sentness

When I was a young adult I got to hear John Stott speak about Jesus’ last words to his disciples in John 13 to 17. I remember so many things about those four talks at Urbana 76.

In John 17:18, Jesus says to his disciples, “As the Father sent me into the world, so I send you into the world.” Stott talked about this verse as a foundation that helps us understand what we are called to do on this earth. The notion of being sent into the world as Jesus was sent helps us understand our mission.

A brief note about Bible translation helps us understand the connection between John 17:18 and mission. As early as two centuries after Jesus said those words, Christians begin to translate the New Testament into Latin. (It was originally written in Greek.) And the Latin word for “sent” is “missio.” That’s the word from which we get “mission.” So mission is all about sentness.

It’s easy to think that mission is something done only by missionaries. Or that mission is something a bit exotic and strange that we only do occasionally, when we can gird up our loins to engage in something difficult and awkward. Instead, John Stott’s perspective that influenced me so much is that every day we are called to understand our sentness and live into it.

I’ve been writing on thankfulness the past two weeks, and I want to continue that theme by writing here about how thankfulness helps us participate in God’s mission. I believe that thankfulness helps us notice what God is already doing, so we can participate in God’s work in the world. Without thankfulness, we focus too much on what is lacking, which can be overwhelming.

There’s a lot of talk these days about figuring out where God is at work so we can join in. How can we do that without thankfulness? Here’s an example. Suppose you are deeply concerned about a cousin who has cancer. You get regular updates so you can pray, you bring meals over and you try to be helpful as you can.

Imagine that you engage in some thankfulness prayers for the situation. As you scan around for things to be thankful for – admittedly a hard thing to do when you are very worried about someone – you find yourself thanking God that this illness has brought your cousin closer to her sister. The two of them had always had a difficult relationship, and now they are finding more common ground.

How does this relate to mission? Maybe instead of bringing meals over, you could do something to help the patient and her sister have more time together. Or maybe when you bring the meals over you could say something like, “I’m hoping that maybe you can invite your sister over to share this meal with you.” Or, “Maybe this meal will free up some time for you so you can spend it with your sister.” Thankfulness helps us see what God is already doing so we can join in.

Thankfulness helps us see beyond the needs in any given situation, which are often so disheartening. Thankfulness prayers give us hope, because we see the small (and sometimes big) things that make a difference. Thankfulness prayers help us find motivation and energy to enter into God’s mission because they help us see the wonderful ways God is already working.

What a cool invitation from God. We get to participate in God’s work! And thankfulness helps us join in with hope and joy.

(Here’s a fabulous book that explains clearly and vividly the theme of being sent – Sentness: Six Postures of Missional Christians by Kim Hammond and Darren Cronshaw. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

Previous posts on this blog about thankfulness:

A thankfulness challenge 
Another thankfulness challenge  
Growing in thankfulness  
Drawing near to God by noticing patterns
A cat with a noble character

Another thankfulness challenge

Wednesday December 2 2015

Another thankfulness challenge

On the morning after Thanksgiving, my husband Dave said to me, “I found the most amazing passage. It really helps explain why thankfulness matters.”

Here’s the passage, Deuteronomy 8:11-18:

Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today. When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid waste-land with poisonous snakes and scorpions. He made water flow for you from flint rock, and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know, to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good. Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth.

After Dave read it to me, he said, “Part of what thankfulness does is exactly what is described here. It helps remind us that everything good we have came to us as a gift from God. Thankfulness helps us avoid boasting about our own prowess, exalting ourselves. It helps us remember God.”

I wrote last week about a thankfulness challenge. I got some interesting responses on Facebook. My friend Steve wrote,

Really good point about how prayers of thanksgiving help us keep God in the center. It’s so easy to think that the sole reason God exists is to do good things for us! Pretty crazy when it's put like that, but if we’re honest, that's the way we act and talk much of the time.

My friend Margui wrote,

What struck me in your blog was that our prayers of Thanksgiving remind us of what we have versus what we do not have. This is such a powerful act for our spiritual and emotional health.

So, to summarize Dave, Steve and Margui’s comments, here are some profound reasons why thankfulness matters:

1. It keeps us from exalting ourselves.
2. It helps us remember that everything good in our lives comes from God.
3. It helps us keep God at the center.
4. It helps us focus on what we have rather than what we don’t have.

These ideas are intimately connected with each other. If I’m not going to exalt myself, I have space to be able to exalt God, which helps keep God at the center. If I remember that God give me all the good things in my life, then it’s easier to keep God at the center. But if I’m not going to exalt myself for my competence and achievements, I might shift my focus onto what I’m lacking in my life rather than what I have. Thankfulness keeps the focus on what I have rather than what I don’t have, but I remember it all comes from God.

I am convinced that the consistent practice of thankfulness is one of the most important spiritual practices we can engage in. It shapes our heart in so many good ways. My thankfulness challenge for you this week is to identify the areas of your life where you might sometimes get cocky about your own competence, prowess and achievements. In that area, spend some time daily for the next week thanking God for the blessings you have received.

(The illustration is a watercolor by Dave Baab, and the telescope is a good image to remind us that thankfulness helps us see God at work in our lives. If you'd like to receive an email alert when I post on this blog, sign up under "subscribe" in the right hand column.)