Slow Me Down, Lord

“Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he [Jesus] said to them, ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest. Mark 6: 31.

Or as someone else has said, “Come apart and rest a while before you come apart!”

Someone had a card on their desk that read, “Beware of the barrenness of a busy life!”

Today’s suggested prayer is in the words of Orin L. Crain:

Slow me down, Lord.
Ease the pounding of my heart by the quieting of my mind.
Steady my hurried pace.
Give me, amidst the day’s confusion
the calmness of the everlasting hills.

Break the tension of my nerves and muscles
with the soothing music of singing streams
that live in my memory.

Help me to know the magical, restoring power of sleep.
Teach me the art of taking minute vacations….
slowing down to look at a flower,
to chat with a friend,
to read a few lines from a good book.

Remind me
of the fable of the hare and the tortoise;
that the race is not always to the swift;
that there is more to life than measuring its speed.
Let me look up at the branches of the towering oak
and know that … it grew slowly … and well.

Inspire me
to send my own roots down deep…
into the soil of life’s endearing values…

That I may grow toward the stars of my greater destiny.

Slow me down, Lord.

Thank you for hearing and answering my prayer. Gratefully, in Jesus’ name, amen.”

Joy to the World!!!

As one of the most joyous of all Christmas hymns, this carol omits references to shepherds, angelic choruses, and wise men. It emphasizes instead the reverent but ecstatic joy that Christ’s birth brought to humanity. For centuries hearts had yearned for God to reveal Himself personally. At last it happened as “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The entire Advent season should be filled with solemn rejoicing as we contemplate anew God’s great gift, providing the means whereby sinful people might live eternally.

“Joy to the World” is a paraphrase of the last part of Psalm 98:

Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise. . . . Let the floods clap their hands: let the hills be joyful together before the LORD; for he cometh to judge the earth: with righteousness shall he judge the world, and the people with equity (vv. 4-9).

Although it was originally a song of rejoicing for Jehovah’s protection of His chosen people and the anticipation of the time when He would be the God of the whole earth, this psalm was intended by Watts to be a New Testament expression of praise. It exalts the salvation that began when God became incarnate as the Babe of Bethlehem who was destined to remove the curse of Adam’s fall. The text was originally titled “The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom” when it first appeared in a hymnal of 1719 by Isaac Watts. The music for this popular carol is thought to have been adapted by Lowell Mason, an American church musician, from some of the phrases used in parts of George Frederick Handel’s beloved oratorio, The Messiah, first performed in 1742. Through the combined talents of an English literary genius of the eighteenth century, a German-born musical giant from the same period, and a nineteenth century American choir director and educator, another great hymn was born.

Joy to the world! the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let ev’ry heart prepare Him room, and heav’n and nature sing.

Joy to the earth! the Savior reigns;
Let men their songs employ,
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness, and wonders of His love.

Written by Kenneth W. Osbeck

If Jesus Had Not Come

What would be our lot if Jesus had not come? What realities and beauties and graces we live in would become untrue? What would we not know if he had not come?

On the one hand, it’s an impossible question. The whole universe is in him, through him, and for him (Colossians 1:16). Without him, everything comes apart. But on the other hand, it can help us appreciate his coming to consider some of the numerous individual blessings owing directly to it. Which are some of the most important truths in all the world and throughout all time.

  1. If Jesus had not come, we would not know God’s complete faithfulness. We would not know the fulfillment of every last promise, including the very first one he made: that an offspring of Eve would crush the head of our great adversary, Satan (Genesis 3:15).
  2. If Jesus had not come, we would not know the fullness of God’s love. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13), and “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
  3. If Jesus did not come, we would not know the depths of God’s humility and compassion toward us. According to Hebrews 2:17, Jesus “had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” Jesus was made like us in every respect — he took on all of our weaknesses and temptations and sufferings. And he did it that he might be a more merciful advocate for us.
  4. Finally, if Jesus did not come, we would not know his atoning death and life-giving resurrection, and thus we would not know our own salvation. There would be no salvation for sinners. “If while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life” (Romans 5:10).

Seeing and enjoying Jesus as the incomparable Son of God, and the embodiment of his greatest blessings, is the only true way to have him.

This is the most urgent item on the agenda today and every day. May God give you fresh eyes to see and enjoy the Son, and the grace to keep seeing and enjoying him with ever-increasing clarity, joy, and awe.

Excerpt from an article by Tyler Kenney

Don’t Settle for a “Merry Little Christmas”

“Look! I am creating new heavens and a new earth, and no one will even think about the old ones anymore. Be glad; rejoice forever in my creation! And look! I will create Jerusalem as a place of happiness. Her people will be a source of joy. I will rejoice over Jerusalem and delight in my people. And the sound of weeping and crying will be heard in it no more. Isa. 65:17–19 (ESV)

Heavenly Father, I love meditating through the Book of Isaiah during Advent. It reminds us that the birth of Jesus wasn’t a “merry little” event. Christmas represents the fulfillment of incredible promises, filled with immeasurable hope and irrepressible delight. Every Christmas is majestic and huge, for several reasons.

With the first coming of Jesus, the kingdom of God came near—the rule of God on earth. As Isaiah proclaims with great joy, you aren’t going to destroy your creation; you’re going to resurrect and restore it through the work of Jesus. This world matters—every place we live, work, and play. The knowledge of your glory will FILL this earth some Day—every square inch of it. Jesus has come to make his blessings flow “far as the curse is found.” Hallelujah!

And, you’ve promised to redeem an enormous family from every race, tribe, tongue, and people group to populate the coming new heaven and new earth. Missions is the heartbeat of your story and the meaning of history. The gospel really is this big and this good. You used stars, sand, and dust to describe to Abraham the mathematics of your mercy and size of your eternal family (Genesis 12-17). Hallelujah! Things are not as they appear in our world.

And on a personal heart-liberating level, because of Jesus’ finished work, we live with the gigantic joy of knowing we’re forgiven all our sins, righteous in Christ, have you as our Father, the Spirit as our guide, citizenship in heaven, and vocation on earth.

The heck with a “merry little Christmas”! Until the Day you send Jesus back to finish making all things new, free us to live and love to your glory, with sacrifice and increasing joy. So very Amen we pray, with peace and hope, in Jesus’ name.

Immanuel

This took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name ‘Immanuel’” (vv. 22–23).

– Matthew 1:22–25

Liberals have long scrutinized Matthew 1:22–23 and the passage it quotes, Isaiah 7:14, leading them to deny the virgin birth. They say that since Isaiah uses almah, a Hebrew term literally translated as “maiden,” he is not affirming the virgin birth. This argument has no merit, for almah almost always refers to a young woman who is also a virgin. Also, the Septuagint, an ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, understands that Isaiah is talking about a virgin as it renders almah with parthenos, the normal Greek word for “virgin.”

We wholeheartedly affirm the virgin birth of Jesus based on today’s passage and Luke 1:26–38. But let us note that Matthew may not be reading Isaiah as has been often supposed. When we look at the word “fulfill” in Matthew 1:22–23, we tend to think Isaiah saw into the future and made a prediction that could only come true for Mary. However, Isaiah 7:14 would then have no meaning to its original readers, Israelites living centuries before Jesus.

The context of Isaiah 7:14 explains why Matthew cites this verse. When Ahaz reigned in Judah, Syria and Israel threatened to invade Judah if he would not join them against the Assyrian empire (v. 1). Yet this threat actually tempted Ahaz to seek aid from Assyria against these foes. God promised him protection if he did not join with Assyria, telling the king to ask for a sign to confirm His pledge (vv. 2–11). But Ahaz did not trust the Lord and would not ask for a sign. God gave Ahaz a sign anyway — a sign of cursing, not blessing! A child’s birth would signify that God would use Assyria to judge faithless Judah (vv. 12–25).

By natural means, Isaiah and his wife — formerly the virgin maiden — would produce Maher-shalal-hash-baz (8:1–4), a sign of God’s curse on those who trusted in an alliance with Assyria. (vv. 5–22). And as the prophet warned, Ahaz would be humiliated in his deal with the Assyrian Empire (2 Chron. 28).

If this curse foretold by Isaiah came to pass, how can we escape the curse if we do not trust God when the sign is the very Son of God, born of a virgin? Just as Isaiah’s son signified a curse on Judah’s unbelief, so too does Jesus’ miraculous birth signify disaster for those who do not submit to God’s royal Son.

Coram Deo

The fulfillment of prophecy in Jesus can only be understood if we first understand the meaning and application of the prophetic word for its original audience. In this case, Jesus fulfills or “fills up” the word of Isaiah because He, as a Son brought forth by extraordinary means, is the sign of a greater curse or blessing depending on how we respond to the Gospel. Let us follow Him alone as Savior and Lord so that we may receive the greater blessing.

Ligonier Ministries.

Where Did the Season of Advent Come From?

“When I was a young person we never observed Advent,” said Marion, a member of the older adult class at Belmont United Methodist. “We sang Christmas carols for a few Sundays before Christmas, and the pastor preached about the birth of Jesus on the Sunday before Christmas; and that was it. Now it seems like the church is really into this Advent thing and we seem to reserve Christmas carols until just before Christmas.”

So where did the season of Advent come from? Here is an attempt at a partial response — going back to the sacred Scriptures and to the early centuries of the church.

First, recall that the building blocks of Advent — its images, stories, memories, promises, songs, and hopes — are already present in the Bible. The rich images of the prophets Isaiah and Amos are there. The stories of John, Mary, Elizabeth, Joseph, and John the Baptist are found in the Scriptures. There are Israel’s memories of exile and the hope for a day when God would restore hope, justice, and rulers in the line of David. There you find the songs: Mary‘s song, Zechariah’s song, and the psalms of lament, anguish, and hope. The vision of a new heaven and a new earth is there. Jesus’ call to be alert because we don’t know the day or the hour when the Son of Man will come is there. Paul’s and Peter’s words to believers awaiting the return of the risen Lord (the second coming) are there. All of this was there by the end of the first century. It was only a matter of time until the churches in various places began to find ways to weave these elements into their worship and into the ways they kept time together.

How Did We Come to Advent as a Season?

We really don’t know when and where Advent began to be observed, but drawing upon Adam Adolf’s work in The Liturgical Year(Pueblo Books, 1978), we are able to sketch an outline of the origins of the Advent season.

  • The first faint traces of Advent emerge in popular piety and custom in various places by early fourth century. 
  • In Spain and Gaul (equivalent to the area we now call Western Europe), Christians observed a period of fasting and preparation for baptism. The region had close links with Eastern Christianity’s (Syria and other eastern Mediterranean areas) celebration of the feast of Christ’s birth on Epiphany (January 6) as a day for baptism. 
  • The oldest witness to Advent as a time of preparation comes from Bishop Perpetuus of Tours (490) who called for times of fasting from the feast of St. Martin on November 11 to Epiphany Day on January 6. There was already a custom of “St. Martin’s Lent” that lasted eight weeks. The use of “Lent” may reflect the desire to parallel the disciplines of Lent in the weeks prior to Epiphany and shows the importance of preparing people for baptism. 
  • The first evidence of emerging Advent worship practices comes from Ravenna, Italy, in the mid-fifth century. Again, the city was strongly influenced by Eastern Christianity. The expectation of the celebration of the birth of Christ was the central theme. By mid-sixthth century in Rome, the mass made use of Advent themes. Under Gregory the Great (590-615), there were four Sundays of Advent — although the focus was not so much on the second coming of Christ as on the incarnation of Christ and on preparation for the celebration. 
  • The focus on the eschatological dimension of Advent emerged under the influence of the Irish missionaries who put strong emphasis on the coming of the Lord for judgment. They preached for penitence, so Advent became a penitential season. The Gloria (“Glory to God in the highest and peace to God’s people on earth.” United Methodist Hymnal, 83) and the “alleluia” were suppressed in the Mass, and the “Te Deum” (United Methodist Hymnal, 80) in the daily office. Purple vestments were used. 
  • These Gallic penitential practices spread to Rome by the twelfth century. Rome adopted the practice of wearing purple vestments and of omitting the “Gloria” but retained the “alleluia.” The reason for omitting the “Gloria” was not because of heavy penitence, but to allow the “angel’s song” to ring out more clearly and in all its newness at Christmas. 
  • Rome fixed the length of the season at four Sundays, although it varied in different areas between four and six Sundays. Even today, Milan still observes six Sundays. By the tenth and eleventh centuries, Rome’s solution was generally accepted in Western Europe. 
  • Under our current ecumenical practice (the calendar and Revised Common Lectionary) the first Sunday of Advent can be as early as November 27 and as late as December 3. This makes for some interesting calendar situations. For example, every few years the fourth Sunday of Advent falls on December 24. On such days, the church gathers for worship on the fourth Sunday of Advent in the morning; then it gathers again after sunset to celebrate Christmas Eve. 
  • In the last third of the twentieth century, the liturgical reform movement bore fruit. The ecumenical efforts of Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans/Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, and others came together around a revised calendar of the year and the three-year lectionary system, including the Revised Common Lectionary (see http://www.commontexts.org/). These have been widely accepted, and the result has been broad adoption of Advent as a season leading to Christmas and not simply a “pre-Christmas Christmas.” 
  • In this revised liturgical approach, each Sunday of Advent has its distinctive theme: First Sunday — Christ’s coming in final victory; Second and Third Sundays — John the Baptist; Fourth Sunday — the events immediately preceding birth of Jesus Christ (See The United Methodist Book of Worship, 238)
  • Written by Daniel Benedict

Encountering God in Prayer

One of the themes Tim Keller presses us to see in his book on prayer (Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God) is that prayer is a conversation with God on the basis of the Bible’s words. We listen to God through reading and pondering and meditating over Scripture and then we pray to God. But Keller’s title focuses on the experience of prayer and intimacy with God, so I have been waiting for these themes to appear more directly: they do, in chapter 11.

Tim Keller is not one bit shy of speaking about the experience of God in prayer. Here is a classic set of lines, shaped in a section about the Puritan John Owen, for you to read (p. 182):

If we are going to be imbalanced, better that we be doctrinally weak and have a vital prayer life and a real sense of God on the heart than that we get all our doctrine straight and be cold and spiritually hard.

His opening definition for the chapter says much: “Prayer is a conversation [with God] that leads to encounter with God” (165). He adds, “We must not settle for an informed mind without an engaged heart.” And this leads him to the question about experience that many have about prayer: “What kind of experience should be expected and how should it be sought?” (165).

[Source for image by Elizabeth Wang.]

His perception seems to be what can be called internalization or intensification:

At one level, Christians have these things [the blessings of grace and love in Christ from Ephesians 3:14, 16-19]. At another level, they haven’t experienced them. It is one thing to know of the love of Christ and to say, “I know he did all that.”  It is another thing to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ. What Paul is talking about is the difference between having something be true of you in principle and fully appropriating it, using it, and living in it—in your “inner being” (Eph 3:16) or “in your heart” (v. 17) (166-167).

He mentions Pascal’s famous “FIRE” experience and Moody’s experience that was so intense he asked God to back off. “But don’t write them off,” Keller warns, “too quickly as exceptional” (168). As Keller describes such experiences of encountering God, “When your feelings and behaviors are affected, you have, to a degree, grasped a particular truth about God. The light comes in and makes permanent impressions” (170).

In Paul’s prayer this encounter is seen in the “inner being” and in “knowing the Father.” Genuine encounter with God is to know and commune with God as our Father. Keller’s words are worthy of much repetition (172):

When the Holy Spirit comes down on you in fullness, you can sense your Father’s arms beneath you. It is an assurance of who you are. The Spirit enables you to say to yourself: “If someone as all-powerful as that loves me like this, delights in me, has gone to infinite lengths to save me, says he will never let me go, and is going to glorify me and make me perfect and take everything bad out of my life—if all of that is true—why am I worried about anything?” At a minimum this means joy, and a lack of fear and self-consciousness.

This prayer of Paul’s in Ephesians 3 also speaks of “grasping the love” and Paul speaks of grasping “how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.” How wide? as wide our sins. How long? from now through all eternity. How deep? From equal with with God to death on the cross. How high? Glorious perfection and transformation.

And he sees all of this summed up in seeking and seeing the face of Christ, and one obvious source for this is 2 Corinthians 3:18 and 4:6. The beatific vision. Keller (177, my emphasis):

To behold the glory of Jesus means that we begin to find Christ beautiful for who he is in himself. It means a kind of prayer in which we are not simply coming to him to get his forgiveness, his help for our needs, his favor and blessing. Rather, the consideration of his character, words, and work on our behalf becomes inherently satisfying, enjoyable, comforting, and strengthening.

Written by Scott McKnight.

 

Attracted to Self-Righteousness

There is a forgetfulness that is common and intrinsic to every Christian. It is a part of the fall and Christians must fight it all the time. We forget how good the good news really is.

Paul was surprised when the Galatians forgot: “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?…Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:1, 3). In other words: What were you thinking? Have you already forgotten?

Paul should not have been surprised. We can’t help it.

There is something in us that causes us to become the very thing Jesus came to prevent. Maybe we believe that we could not be that bad or that God’s grace could not be that good. Maybe it’s just that a religion of rules and righteousness is attractive because, frankly, we want to do it ourselves and get the credit for it. It could be that pride and self-righteousness are so much a part of us that we’re attracted to that which affirms it. And then it could be that we’ve been playing the game of religion for so long and are so used to it that we have come to believe it is the only game in town.

After I finished my time with the Lord, I recently found myself adding an addendum before getting to work. I said (I’m blushing when I tell you this…if you say I said it, I’ll say you lied), “I bet there aren’t many Christians who get up this early to be with you. I know you’re proud of me and will bless me for doing this. See how much I love you and how faithful I am!”

I heard God laugh.

I think he said, “Are you crazy? If there were any benefit in your getting up so early, you just blew it with your arrogance, your super-spirituality and the violation of everything I’ve ever taught you.”

That would have ruined my day, but he never condemns. God added, “Don’t look so depressed. You’re a mess, but I’m still fond of you.”

I repented and, of course, was forgiven.

And then God told me that, if I had not repented, he would still love me.

I’ve been thinking about my attitude and trying to understand it. Given the fact that I’m a teacher of grace, I don’t understand how I can forget so easily. I simply don’t understand my reversion to works and how that constantly haunts me. I don’t understand why I tell others that, if they miss their devotions, God won’t be angry; but then feel, in my heart-of-hearts, that if I miss mine, God will be ticked and something really bad will happen during the day. I don’t understand how I can tell people that their sin may be God’s greatest gift to drive them into his arms yet still think that my sin makes me unwelcome in his presence. I don’t understand why one (i.e. me) who goes around the country telling Christians that God isn’t angry with them, could so often believe that he is angry with me.

What is it with me?

Of All People, I Ought To Know Better.

Let me tell you. It’s the same thing that’s wrong with you. I just know it and admit it, making me more spiritual than you are…uh…sorry…erase that.

We are all attracted to self-righteousness and the temporary enjoyment of it. There is something in all of us that causes us to bask in doing it right, trying harder and succeeding, and in being better than most other Christians. And that’s why the most dangerous thing that can happen in your walk with Christ is your obedience…when you know it.

Why do you think Jesus was a friend of the winebibber and sinners? Was it because he affirmed them in their sin? Of course not. Was it because he didn’t care about their sin? You’re kidding. It was because they knew their sin and that, if anything depended on them and their goodness, they were lost. Those are the kinds of people with whom Jesus hangs out.

Not only that, those are also the kind of people who can love others. That’s what John meant when he wrote, “For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another….Whoever does not love abides in death.…By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” (1 John 3:11, 14, 16). Because God loved me when I didn’t deserve it and continues to love me when I don’t deserve it, I have some love to give to others.

I can’t love anybody if I can look down on him or her. I can be paternalistic and nice…but I can’t love them. The truth is that “pure” people (except Jesus…but that’s another story) don’t hang out with impure people. People who are right (i.e. “think they are right”) don’t hang out very long with people who aren’t right and there is no fellowship between “light and darkness.”

The kind of attitude I manifested is the kind of thing that causes divisions, condemnation and destruction in the body of Christ. It is the manifestation of having our own righteousness (i.e. our purity, correctness, knowledge or reputation) to protect and whenever we do that, we’re in trouble and cause trouble everywhere we go.

One other thing. True goodness comes in resting in the hope that Christ loves us when we don’t deserve it. That’s what John meant when he wrote, “And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:3).

I obeyed the law. I got up early and spent a lot of time with the Lord. I felt self-righteous and spiritual. But what am I going to do when I sleep in, think I don’t have time to pray, or don’t love him very much? Then I’m going to feel just as condemned as I was elated.

Let me give you a wonderful quote from Martin Luther (in his Commentary on Galatians):

“Did the law ever love me? Did the law ever sacrifice itself for me? Did the law ever die for me? On the contrary, it accuses me, it frightens me, it drives me crazy…Christ is no Moses, no tyrant, no lawgiver, but the Giver of grace, the Savior, full of mercy…Christ is Joy and Sweetness to a broken heart. Christ is the lover of poor sinners, and such a Lover that He gave Himself for us. Now if this is true, and it is true, then we are never justified by our own righteousness.”

God told me that it is far better to sleep in and forget about praying than it is to get up, be spiritual and bask in the self-righteousness that comes from doing it.

Time To Draw Away

Read Romans 5

Do you struggle with self-righteousness? We all do. You can certainly continue to try harder and exhaust yourself, taking pride in your self-righteousness or feeling condemned in your failure. Or you can instead relax and rest in Christ’s grace, love and forgiveness. It’s good news: Jesus likes to hang out with sinners who know it. Which one will you choose?

Written by Steve Brown.

My discontent with discontentment

I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.  I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do all this through him who gives me strength. (Phil. 4:11–13; NIV)

 

I am not content. I’m not even content with that sentence. I should’ve written: “I am discontent.” But that’s not really perfect either, since I’m not always discontent. Perhaps I needed to write: “I am almost never content.” Although why would I use two words, “almost never” when one simple adverb – such as “seldom” – would have sufficed? Let’s start over, then.

I am rarely content.

(Yeah, still not quite right.)

Anyways, I guess on a positive note, I’m so bad with contentment that I’m not content with my discontent. I’m dissatisfied with my lack of satisfaction.

As a biblical scholar, I probably should not say this, but I sometimes get a bit perturbed when I read Paul boast to his friends about how he has learned the secret of contentment. I’m sure it’s not, but it can come across in my mind as a humble brag:

“I’m content in all things. La da da da da!”

I’m frustrated, of course, because I’m not in on the secret. I mean, why can’t I learn the hidden formula?

Don’t get me wrong. I understand what Paul is saying. I can parse the bejesus out of that passage, discuss the first-century (Stoic) parallels to it, and recount its history of interpretation. I can deliberate on the aspect of its Greek verbs and the etymology of its juicy words. For instance, a fun fact is that the mu in the verb memuemai (translated “I have learned”) is the same mu in musterion (where we derive our word “mystery”). I get it. Paul has solved the great musterion. And to be sure, I too “know” the solution to the riddle. It is . . . “through Christ who strengthens me.” I understand that, to borrow from Philippians 3, the key to Christian contentment is knowing Christ sufficiently enough that everything else is cow-plop in comparison. Yet while I know the answer, I have to admit that I have not learned the lesson. Certainly I pursue the Lord, but I am discontent with how often and how passionately I do so.

Nevertheless, by the grace of God, I dare to say that – though I have far to go and I only inch along – I am growing in contentment. While Paul’s testimony in Philippians has been crucial for my success in this area, his is not the only one that has helped me on this way. When I was living in beautiful Ammerbuch-Entringen, Deutschland, an old German man told me something one day that often comes back to me when I think of finding contentment. On my walk from my flat to the train, I struck up a conversation with the old veteran working in his yard. In the course of our conversation, with my dreadfully limited German vocabulary and thick southern Arkansas accent, I tried to ask him if he ever got tired of living in such a tiny village. He looked at me, shook his head and said, “Nein, ich habe einen Garten gepflanzt,” which translates (I think!): “No, I planted a garden.” In retrospect, I’m wondering if the old man just misunderstood what I asked, but I took his answer as a profound metaphor.[1] I understood it as him saying that he actually loved his tiny little village because he planted (pun intended) some meaning in it. Too often, I look beyond my tiny village, in search of meaning elsewhere, instead of discovering the meaning that’s growing up between my feet. Right there, right now, in the sacred space God has allotted me.

Nonetheless, between him and Paul, I’m realizing that although I do not have all that I have desired, I desired more than I deserved. And everything that I have now is –thanks be to God – bounteously more than I should have. So, here’s to pursuing Christ and planting “gardens” in 2017!

Written by Dr. Joey Dodson

Henri Nouwen and Hospitality

“In our world full of strangers, estranged from their own past, culture and country, from their neighbors, friends and family, from their deepest self and their God, we witness a painful search for a hospitable place where life can be lived without fear and where community can be found.

Our society seems to be increasingly full of fearful, defensive, aggressive people anxiously clinging to their property and inclined to look at their surrounding world with suspicion, always expecting an enemy to suddenly appear, intrude and do harm. But still – that is our vocation: to convert the hostis into a hospes, the enemy into a guest and to create the free and fearless space where brotherhood and sisterhood can be formed and fully experienced.

…if there is any concept worth restoring to its original depth and evocative potential it is the concept of hospitality. It is one of the richest biblical terms that can deepen and broaden our insight in our relationships to our fellow human beings. Old and New Testament stories not only show how serious our obligation is to welcome the stranger in our home, but they also tell us that guests are carrying precious gifts with them, which they are eager to reveal to a receptive host…When hostility is converted into hospitality then fearful strangers can become guests revealing to their hosts the promise they are carrying with them. Then, in fact, the distinction between host and guest proves to be artificial and evaporates in the recognition of the new found unity.

Hospitality, therefore, means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines. It is not to lead our neighbor into a corner where there are no alternatives left, but to open a wide spectrum of options for choice and commitment. It is not an educated intimidation with good books, good stories and good works, but the liberation of fearful hearts so that words can find roots and bear ample fruit. It is not a method of making our God and our way into the criteria of happiness, but the opening of an opportunity to others to find their God and their way. The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness, not a fearful emptiness, but a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and discover themselves as created free; free to sing their own songs, speak their own languages, dance their own dances; free also to leave and follow their own vocations. Hospitality is not a subtle invitation to adopt the life of the host, but the gift of a chance for the guest to find his own.

Indeed, more often than not rivalry and competition, desire for power and immediate results, impatience and frustration, and most of all, plain fear make their forceful demands and tend to full every possible empty corner of our life. Empty space tends to create fear. As long as our minds, hearts and hands are occupied we can avoid confronting the painful questions, to which we never gave much attention and which we do not want to surface. ‘Being busy’ has become a status symbol, and most people keep encouraging each other to keep their body and mind in constant motion.From a distance, it appears that we try to keep each other filled with words and actions, without tolerance for a moment of silence. Hosts often feel that they have to talk all the time to their guests and entertain then with things to do, places to see and people to visit. But by filling up every empty corner and occupying every empty time their hospitality becomes more oppressive than revealing.”

– Henri Nouwen in the chapter “Creating Space for Strangers” in Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life