Majesty for the Unworthy

The sky is dark.  The land is silent.  For the shepherds it is like any other night.  They watch their flocks as they always do, expecting nothing out of the ordinary.  But tonight is not an ordinary night.  No, something cosmic is underfoot.  God himself in human flesh; the Son of God become son of man.  It happens all so quietly.  A baby born like any other – born in a stable at that.  The moment is passing with the world unaware.

But not for the shepherds.  They are not respected.  They are not important.  They inhabit the lower rungs of the social ladder.  But to these, the lowly, there comes the message.  It is theirs alone to hear.

The messenger is terrifying, an angel in glory, but the message itself is pure grace.  A Savior is born, the Messiah, the Lord!  Then appears the heavenly host.  Something this great cannot go unannounced.  They herald his coming with praise:

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:14; NIV)

The announcement is made, but why here?  This is not the seat of power.  These are not the lords of the earth.  This is a field.  These are shepherds!  Everything is upside down!

Grace has a way of doing that – turning things upside down.  It visits the unworthy with majesty.  It happened to shepherds on the night of Christ’s birth, and it happens today to people like you and me.  “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?” (1 Corinthians 3:16)  How can such a thing be?

In Christ God has visited us.  In Christ he redeems a world gone astray.  The gift is for all who by grace will receive it, and to them is promised an inheritance of glory.  Majesty for the unworthy, indeed!

And grace continues to turn things upside down, for the lowly become messengers of glory.  The shepherds find their sign in a stable and become heralds of the Savior themselves.  Through their lips pass the message of angels.  Can we who have also been visited by majesty become anything but the same?

Grace to you this Christmas season.  May you be visited by majesty.

Be Still

As many of you know, Emily and I spent a few days at The Cove (near Asheville) this past month.  The Cove is a beautiful place where time seems to slow down.  We stayed in a suite with no TV.  With no schedule other than mealtimes, we moved at our own leisure.  Without responsibilities, we “wasted time” by exploring hiking trails, visiting the chapel, and perusing the bookstore.  We met other Christians during mealtimes and engaged in slow and meaningful conversation.  And we also took time to ponder God and his leading in our lives.  The time was refreshing to say the least.

Throughout our stay, we were often confronted with the words of Psalm 46:10, “Be still, and know that I am God,” which were displayed in various places.  I don’t know about your experience, but my own points to the difficulty of being still.  Sometimes it seems that life is driving me rather than the other way around.  There is always something else to be done, always something that needs attention.  And when things do let up, I just want to veg for a while in front of the TV and be entertained.  Life can get put on auto-pilot, and I end up wondering where all of the time has gone.  Or I set aside time to “be still” and find that circumstances won’t allow it.  Children wake up early or something pressing demands my attention.  Being still is not easy, nor is it natural in an age of constant motion.  Yet it is the call of the disciple who would know and please God.

Emily and I went to The Cove in hopes of gaining perspective.  We came away with the blessing of refreshing stillness.  We remembered God.  We remembered his calling on our lives.  We stood in awe of the one who created such beauty and trusted in his power to undergird us today.  Being still proved to be a needed and refreshing experience!

Now we’re back to the daily grind where stillness seems so elusive, and that elusiveness can be frustrating.  The stillness that came so naturally and even unexpectedly at The Cove does not always come so easily in the midst of everyday responsibility.  And yet the experience carries forward.  Stillness at The Cove led to renewed perspective on what is truly important in our lives.  More than this, it led to a renewed vision of God.  These things can’t help but inform our living.

And maybe this is the point of stillness; not that we stay in a beatific state, but rather that our stillness would give us perspective and strength to live well before God when we return to the everyday.  After all, Emily and I don’t live at The Cove.  We live in Durham.  This is the place of our life and work together.  And this is the ground of our calling.  The beauty of The Cove is not that it is a place to perpetually stay.  No, the beauty of The Cove is found in that it came home with us.  It informs our lives today.

Not to say that we won’t return to The Cove or some other place like it!  Emily and I are talking about making stillness retreats a regular occurrence in the Smith household.  After all, every journey needs rest stops along the way!  Our recent experience has taught us this, and we are thankful to God for meeting us in the stillness of our time away.

I wonder if you have found time to be still before God lately.  Or are the demands of life driving you instead of the other way around?  May you experience rest in God’s presence.  May you receive a renewed vision of who He is.  May you gain perspective on life now.  May you carve out time to be still and know that He is God.

Take Your Place

If you compare different translations of Ephesians 4:11-13, you’ll find an interesting disagreement.  The passage speaks of Christ giving apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors and teachers to the church.  This is a point of unity among translations.  Disunity, however, comes in the reason for this gift.  The King James Version reads: “For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ…”  Newer translations (NKJV, NASB, and ESV among them) opt for a slightly different understanding.  The New King James Versions renders the reason for the gift like this: “for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ…”  Did you catch the difference?  The words are almost exactly the same, but the number of commas differs.  For the KJV, the reason for the gift of church leaders is three-fold.  They are to perfect the saints, work in ministry, and edify the body.  For the NKJV and the other translations already mentioned, the roles of these leaders are cut down to two.  They are to equip the saints for the work of ministry and edify the body.  The placement of a comma seems slight, but the difference in meaning is great indeed!  At stake is nothing less than our understanding of ministry.  Does it belong to church leaders or to the church itself?

In my opinion, the newer translations are nearer the mark, and all Christians have a part to play in ministry.  Unfortunately, things do not always play out this way.  Many times, church leaders are understood as solely owning the task of ministry, or small portions of congregations end up doing the bulk of the work.  Yet each of us is gifted by the Spirit and has been given a role to play.  And it is when we each inhabit our roles that we find a practical outworking of the body of Christ.

This idea of shared ministry throughout the body will be important in the next couple of months as Immanuel’s Nominating Committee seeks to fill different positions of service in the church.  As this process unfolds, I invite you to prayerfully consider your own giftings and the role that you might be called to play in the coming year.  And I invite you to take your place.  As the Apostle Paul said so well in Romans 12:6-8:

We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully. (NIV)

My prayer for the coming year is that Immanuel will find itself full of ministers, each working according to his or her gifting, and that we will find that God has gifted us well for this moment in our life together.

Discerning Opportunities

Early in the Gospel of Mark, we find Jesus faced with an interesting dilemma.  His ministry has been met with acclaim in a town called Capernaum.  The people there have been awed by his teaching, and he has performed many healings and exorcisms.  In the early morning after a full evening of ministry, we are told that Jesus “got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.” (Mark 1:35b, NIV)  The dilemma comes when his disciples come looking for him.  They exclaim, “Everyone is looking for you!” (1:37)  It seems that Jesus has an opportunity to capitalize on the success of the previous day.

The proper response to such news seems obvious: Jesus should take the opportunity for further ministry.  God has blessed his efforts, and a door stands open.  It would be irresponsible to turn away from such an opportunity!  But Jesus does just that.  With what I assume was incredible presence of mind, Jesus replies, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” (1:38)  When faced with this great opportunity, Jesus walks away.

As I read this account, I am convinced that there is such a thing as a “holy no.”  There are times in our lives when we are faced with great opportunities, sometimes even great opportunities for great good.  But the mere presence of an opportunity does not necessitate that we take it.  Indeed, there are times when we should not, when a “holy no” is the proper response.  This statement may seem counter-intuitive or even irresponsible, but the example of Jesus points to a more discerning way.

Note a couple of things about Jesus in this passage.  First, his choice to walk away from this great opportunity is preceded by prayer; he got up early in the morning to pray.  Second, Jesus’ “no” to one opportunity meant “yes” to another.  Because Jesus refuses to return to Capernaum, he is able to go to other places.  Indeed, he must say no to Capernaum in order to fulfill his ministry.  After all, preaching in different places is why he came. (1:38)  It seems that Jesus knows exactly what he is to be about and is willing to pursue it to the exclusion of all other opportunities, even good ones.

So just how does Jesus know what he should be about?  I would argue that his prayer and his presence of mind are linked.  Perhaps Jesus is rooted in his purpose because he was first rooted in prayer.  His time on his knees informs his time on his feet, and he is empowered to discern between the opportunities set before him.  Thus, Jesus is able to offer a “holy no” to one opportunity in order to offer a “holy yes” to another.

We are coming to a time in congregational life when this kind of discernment will be important.  In the coming months, members of Immanuel will be asked to consider serving in various ways in our community for the coming year.  When such opportunities arise, we sometimes respond with too-quick responses.  Some reply “yes” in excitement for service or reluctant duty, while others reply “no” because of poor past experience or feelings of inadequacy.  The example of Jesus, though, points to the more discerning way – the way of prayer and purpose.

I encourage you to pray about your place in Immanuel in the coming year.  I encourage you to have the presence of mind to discern between opportunities, having the freedom to offer “holy no’s” to good things in order to offer “holy yes’s” to best things.  I encourage you to refuse to take on too much, and I also encourage you to refrain from taking on too little.

May we all pray for discernment, both corporately and individually, as we seek to serve God, one another, and the surrounding community.  And may our time on our knees inform our time on our feet as God grants the wisdom that we seek.

Goin’ to the Chapel

Since moving to Durham, I have adopted the habit of making a weekly trip to Duke Chapel.  If you’ve been there, you know that it is an awesome structure.  A massive, cross-shaped room rises dizzyingly into the air, walls of grey interrupted by the bright colors of stained glass.  As you enter, you can’t help but look up, and the place evokes a sacred feeling that demands silence or at most whispers if speaking is a must.  Most weekdays between 12:30 and 1:30pm the sounds of the organ can be heard reverberating off the walls.  Majestic sound teams with majestic sight to create a majestic effect.  The Chapel has become for me a place of centering and calm, a place of reflection and rest.  It has become a place of prayer.

As I reflect on my experience at Duke Chapel, it strikes me that such places can be of help in our spiritual journeys.  They serve as centering forces in our lives that draw our attention to God and call us to reflection and prayer.  At this point in my own life, a majestic chapel fills this role, but a grand place of worship is not a necessity.  In fact, we can find many such places if we seek them intentionally.  A front porch swing can become a chapel in the warm months of the year.  A recliner close to the coffee pot can become a chapel in the early hours of the morning.  A walk in the community garden or park can become a chapel experience for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.  Even jogging, an activity that is by-and-large unknown to me, can become a chapel experience to the initiated.  The point is not the place or activity so much as it is the intention that we bring to these things; an intention to unplug for a few moments and to become present to God and his creation in a different way.  In these moments, we allow ourselves to be reminded of God and of ourselves.  In these moments, we allow ourselves to gain perspective and to see things with fresh eyes.

Of course, things don’t always play out so neatly.  At times, these “chapels” can feel void and leave us frustrated.  At times, we wonder why we make the time.  But there are also moments when God speaks, sometimes powerfully and sometimes in a still, small voice, and these moments keep us coming back.  And when we think about it, maybe those “void” moments aren’t so bad.  In those moments we learn what it is to wait on the Lord.  In those moments we learn that God is free and is not at our beck and call.  And in those moments we find that intentional chapel times form a rhythm of life that God uses to shape us.  After all, we’re in this for the long haul of regular life and not just for “mountaintop experiences.”  In all of this, our chapels, whatever and whenever they may be, serve to remind us of a great God and ground us in his call.

I wonder if you’ve found a chapel in your own experience.  If so, have you been there lately?

Let us all wait on the Lord who transforms us.

An Easter Meditation

The daytime sky is dark.  It has been for the past three hours.  The untimely darkness covers much, but it can’t hide the sounds of pain.  In the shadows stand three crosses, each bearing a contorted body that was once strong and fit.  Two are rebels.  One is the King of Glory.  All three will soon be dead.

The King is anything but glorious in this dark moment.  Hours earlier, soldiers spat upon him and placed a crown of thorns on his head.  His arms and feet are nailed to hard, unrelenting beams.  He hangs there in the darkness, lifted high above the earth, sweat and soldiers’ spit covering his naked body.  Trails of blood flow from his wounds, pooling beneath his feet.

He has been the object of insults and abuse.  He has been abandoned by his followers.  He hangs now between two criminals, and even they mock the King.  Glory has fled.

And now in the darkness, the powers of the present age gather in anticipation.  The King is fading.  He bows beneath their weight, and he will surely break.

He does.  In a God-forsaken moment, Jesus cries out in agony and breathes his last.  The King is dead, and hope lies forgotten in the bloody earth.

But hope will not be silenced.

In the darkness of a tomb, all is still.  Quiet lies heavy like a cloak except for the occasional rustle of soldiers who guard the entrance.  The body of the King lies dead.  Until the touch.  It is the touch of God the Father.  It is the touch of life.  The King who was dead is again alive.  Behold the resurrection!  Glory has returned.

Forgotten hope begins to sing.  She lifts her voice loud and true.  It is the song of newness.  It is the song of sunrise.  It is the song of a dawning age.  The powers that gathered will not hold sway.  Death has not triumphed.  No, God will have the last say, and he speaks words of life.  The powers are defeated, and a new age has dawned.  Jesus has won.  He has ascended.  He sits at the right hand of the Father.

The King stands victorious.  Hope sings her song.  He is our hope.  He is our glory.  He is our peace.  He is our victory.  And we now await his return.  We wait for his kingdom to be made manifest.  We wait for what was begun to be brought to completion.  We wait for a new heaven and a new earth where chaos, mourning, crying, pain, and death will have no place.  We wait for glory to be revealed in us.  We wait to see clearly face to face.  We await the King.

Even so, come Lord Jesus.

Journey With Jesus: Good Friday and Easter

Join us at Immanuel Baptist Church for public readings of our last two Journey With Jesus passages.  On Good Friday, April 6, at 6pm, we will contemplate the crucifixion together.  On Easter Sunday, April 8, at 11am we will celebrate the resurrection!  Saturday stands as a day for reflection.  We hope to see you at both of these important steps in the journey!