Epiphany and the Divine Plan

Today is the feast of the Epiphany – the remembrance of the Magi or Wise Men visiting Jesus and his parents. Generally twelve days after Christmas (and hence the 12 days of Christmas we hear in song and story).'ADORATION OF THE MAGI'

Epiphany is a powerful reminder that God is working even when we cannot see it. The parents of Jesus had no idea these wise searchers after truth would come to their home. They appeared one day after a long search for the one whose birth they had seen in the stars. I am sure their arrival was not only unexpected but also overwhelming.

I imagine them going about their business when suddenly these strangers arrive at the door. Or neighbors come to say there are these strangers in town asking about babies born on such a date. An ordinary day in every respect until this revelation or epiphany occurs.

I don’t often post here and not usually two days in a row. But I was struck by yesterday’s verse from Jeremiah with the emphasis on God knowing his plans even when we do not and perhaps cannot. God was nudging these wise ones to Jesus’ home all the while life was settling into the post-birth patterns of family and parenting. Stars in the heavens and advice along the way – and then dreams afterward – propelled them toward the goal of seeing this singular and peculiar child.

God is giving birth to purpose and future for each of us daily. Slowly God’s purposes reveal themselves to us. Sometimes in an epiphany. Others when we look back and see where the Divine One has led us without our knowing.

May today be a day of being open to such revelations of the divine and the divine purpose in your life and mine. May we God’s signs lead us to Christ again today and to a life of submission to his will and pleasure.

 

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem village, Judah territory— this was during Herod’s kingship—a band of scholars arrived in Jerusalem from the East. They asked around, “Where can we find and pay homage to the newborn King of the Jews? We observed a star in the eastern sky that signaled his birth. We’re on pilgrimage to worship him.”

Matthew 2:1-2 The Message

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Plans I Have For You

One of the oft-quoted verses when facing the future are these words from the prophet Jeremiah:

  “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. (Jeremiah 29:11 NIV)

This morning my daily devotional used this verse as its focus.

God’s plans are not the only ones, however. While God intends our good and to give us a better future, the forces around us may move us in a different direction. Like a ship buffeted by winds and waves, our lives may be pushed off this ideal course. And the longer we drift, the farther off this path of life and blessing we are.

It isn’t that God doesn’t care. Nor that God is unable to do on our behalf. It is that God is not the only player in the drama of human life. The forces I mention above? They have their own agendas. We are surrounded by people who have their own ideas and goals – and their ideas for us may be very different than the ones that God intends.

And then there is the free human agent – the other “I” in my life. Me. I choose. I dream. I hope. I worry. I despair. Even God’s deepest dream hasn’t the power to overcome my free choice to drift or even depart from the divine will.

The question on my mind today? Are God’s plans my plans? Am I willing to let God answer my prayers – or am I waiting for God to do what I want and what I hope? Am I submitting as Jesus did to God’s plan at every turn? Is every choice in submission to the plans God has for me? Am I willing to accept the hope and embrace the future that God intends?

 

 

 

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New Year’s Day

Every year for New Year’s I post this poem from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He wrote it in prison when I suspect he knew he would not leave prison alive. In April of the year he wrote these words he was hanged by the Nazis at the Flossenberg Camp.

It gives me such hope to read his words… to recall that he faced what he may have realized were his final days.. and yet to rest his future and the futures of those he loved in the DIvine One’s hands. To have such faith is my prayer this year and every day.

New Year 1945

With every power for good to stay and guide me,
comforted and inspired beyond all fear,
I’ll live these days with you in thought beside me,
and pass, with you, into the coming year.

While all the powers of Good aid and attend us,
boldly we’ll face the future, be it what may.
At even, and at morn, God will befriend us,
and oh, most surely on each new year’s day

The old year still torments our hearts, unhastening:
the long days of our sorrow still endure.
Father, grant to the soul thou hast been chastening
that Thou hast promised—the healing and the cure.

Should it be ours to drain the cup of grieving
even to the dregs of pain, at thy command,
we will not falter, thankfully receiving
all that is given by thy loving hand.

But, should it be thy will once more to release us
to life’s enjoyment and its good sunshine,
that we’ve learned from sorrow shall increase us
and all our life be dedicate as thine.

To-day, let candles shed their radiant greeting:
lo, on our darkness are they not thy light,
leading us haply to our longed-for meeting?
Thou canst illumine e’en our darkest night.

When now the silence deepens for our harkening,
grant we may hear thy children’s voices raise
from all the unseen world around us darkening
their universal paean, in thy praise.

While all the powers of Good aid and attend us,
boldy we’ll face the future, be it what way.
At even, and at morn, God will befriend us,
And oh, most surely on each new year’s day!

 

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Final Sunday of Advent – Madeleine L’Engle

My Advent observance has been… spotty. I still haven’t been to church since my final Sunday in the pulpit. I am still working out some things and honestly am not feeling any interest in going. As I say… I am working on it.

I am unsure how in my 50 years of life and faith I have not come across this poem by Madeleine L’Engle. I loved her books as a child and teen – A Wrinkle in Time is still one of my favorite books. I realized later that she had a profound Christian faith but also a deep respect for and interest in science. No wonder I loved – and love – her writing.

Here is the poem…

 

After Annunciation
Madeleine L’Engle

This is the irrational season
when love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
there’d have been no room for the child.

From A Cry Like a Bell: Poems (p. 58)

 

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What Are We Waiting For?

I have never perfectly embraced the traditional nature of Advent. I was taught in seminary that Advent is a penitential season. A period of reflection and repentance before the great feasts of Christmas and Epiphany.

As a great lover of all things Christmas, I have not wanted to wait to sing Christmas carols. While I don’t want to hear holiday music in October, on the day after Thanksgiving let it blast I say. For those who practice Advent, the month that precedes Christmas means properly preparing for Christmas Eve and Day.

What if it isn’t about that at all? What if Advent is a deeper thing…  a more unsettling thing than we have practiced it?

I am, as you likely know, writing this from outside the church this morning. I have not attended worship in a church since my last Sunday in a church’s pulpit. But I have thought deeply and long about the season and the cycle these weeks invite us to observe.

Advent reminds me that the coming of Jesus was not enough. Yes, the angels sang “Glory to God in the highest.” But is the world any better than it was those centuries ago? Is there less suffering, less evil, than in the world of the first century?

As I journey through Advent 2016, I understand for perhaps the first time with both heart and mind that the coming for which I wait is the second and final one. For the “hopes and fears of all the years” to come to their ultimate fruition.

God’s purposes are still in the “not yet” column of the cosmic timeline. Even at my best, my life does not reflect the kingdom of heaven. The world falls short of it too.

God comes to us in the now, though. To hearts that invite him. To lives that open to him. To circumstances yielded to him. But the Advent of Christ remains a partial thing.

 

“For outlandish creatures like us, on our way to a heart, a brain, and courage, Bethlehem is not the end of our journey but only the beginning – not home but the place through which we must pass if ever we are to reach home at last.”

 Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat

 

 

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Thinking About Church…

Today is the first Sunday of Advent 2016. And the first time in 20+ years that I am not spending this morning in worship somewhere.

Several weeks ago – about a week after my last Sunday – a former church member asked me where I was going to church on Sunday. When I said I wasn’t… she pressed and wanted to know how I could go from going every week to not at all. I didn’t choose to discuss the matter with her but it has come up more than a few times since my last day in ministry.

I understand the question and the unasked questions behind it. I spent 24 years as a pastor and while I missed some Sunday’s here and there I was in the pulpit almost every one of those Sunday mornings. Have I lost my faith? How can I be a faithful Christian without attending worship and participating in church life? If the church was so important to me for so many years how could it stop being important so abruptly? And what does it mean to people whom I led and pastored if I have left the chruch?

The simplest answer I can give today (and that I am trying to understand) is that I don’t want to go. I went for all those years, sometimes out of duty and responsibility when I wasn’t feeling like it. Not HAVING to go is freeing. If you haven’t been a pastor, it ‘s hard to describe how Sunday morning (at least for me) cast a shadow over the rest of my week with its needs and expectations and responsibilities. These weeks have been a Sabbath from the Sabbath.

I have not given up on the church. I have certainly not given up on Christ. I still pray and read and ponder. I know the church is there and that I need to be there. But to find a place where people don’t know me and have lots of awkward questions and expect me to be involved is a challenge. To find a place where my Wesleyan-Methodist roots can take new root and thrive is also important. To want to go is important too – not to go because I must.

As Advent begins I am preparing not for the coming of Christ alone or for his return as Advent promises but also my own return.

 

 

 

 

 

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All Things End

I’ve been thinking about the end of my (professional) ministry a great deal these past few weeks. I catch myself thinking “Oh, this is the last time I will do that.” Or  realizing some things that form a part of the rhythm of my life are gone – or will be shortly.

About a month ago my wife and I went on a dinner cruise on the Ohio River. During the last hour we passed places that were a part of my life for many years but no longer are. Places that I remember fondly from childhood are not even there any more. Places we frequented no longer seem familiar. Or mine.

It struck me – when we moved to the Dayton area from Cincinnati in 2009 I grieved. I had spent my entire life in the Greater Cincinnati. But I found new memories, new friendships, a new sense of place and purpose and life. And I would grieve as much to leave Dayton now as I did to leaving Cincinnati then.

All things are transitory. Even those who spend their entire lives in the same community, the same church, the same circle of friends, the same house – one day will leave this world and leave those things behind. Most of us experience more than one such leaving as we take new jobs or  unanticipated transitions. All things end. It is a part of human existence.

Most of our endings are really preludes to beginnings. For persons of faith, even death is not an ending as much as a transition to another, more wonderful life.

I hope to end well this long – the longest – phase of life I have ever experienced (at least where work is concerned). It is bittersweet in many ways. But also the gateway to a new life and a new adventure. It can be the same for you.

While hunting for quotes on endings, I found this gem with which I leave you this Monday morning:

““There’s a trick to the ‘graceful exit.’ It begins with the vision to recognize when a job, a life stage, or a relationship is over — and let it go. It means leaving what’s over without denying its validity or its past importance to our lives. It involves a sense of future, a belief that every exit line is an entry, that we are moving up, rather than out.”

― Ellen Goodman

 

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Dark But Not Night

Yesterday marked the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11. Our youngest child was born that February and so his entire conscious life has been lived in its shadow. Many of you, like me, can remember what you were doing and where you were as that numbing day unfolded. I remember calling Dana from my office at the church to say I had just heard that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Such horror and sorrow that would come in the hours and days after.

I don’t have the perspective – nor the wisdom – to understand how different our nation and world are because of that day. Thousands more have died in a seemingly endless string of wars and terrorist attacks. Our collective security has risen to obsessive levels of concern and focus. That national unity that emerged in the moments after was fleeting and in some ways we are less united than I can remember. Not to mention the erosion of economic security… the loss of civility and good 0ld-fashioned manners… the temperature of our political and social debates. 9/11 may not be the direct cause of all of this darkness but its shadow falls across it all and all of the reality we live today has been shaped by it.

It is dark outside but not yet night. The same events that might lead us to despair or cynicism have led some to rise to acts of incredible heroism and sacrifice. Maniacal, evil faith has deepened the genuine faith of many. Acts of violence, collective and individual, had been answered by countless acts of compassion and love for neighbor.

I remember reading an article that argued that these dark days were an argument FOR God’s existence and providence rather than AGAINST. I wish now that I had saved it somewhere that I could lay hands on it now. He wrote that rather than asking why such things happened… we should instead ask why not more of them? Why does the world not plunge into night? Why is there not more evil – and far less good – than we see even on such days as 9/11?

Because despite our human frailty… despite, from the Christian perspective, our bent to sin and wrong… there is still a Light that shines in that darkness. There is still a Providence that seeks the good and salvation of all. However dark it may be, it is never completely night.

In his epic tale of light and dark, evil and good, J.R.R. Tolkien puts in the mouth of one his minor characters these words that seem appropriate to the day:

The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.” 

(The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, II, 6)

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The Road… Around the Bend

“It looks like I’m going to have to let go of what I expected and enter a mystery.”
Eugene Peterson
I haven’t blogged since my post about leaving full-time ministry. The problem hasn’t been nothing to say – it’s been too much to process and turn into anything that makes sense. In choosing this path I knew there would be some grief and anxiety even though I am more certain now that this road is the one I am called to walk. Every road in life is filled with unexpected turns, detours, traffic jams – as well as surprising and beautiful views and unlooked-for blessings.
Many times over the last month friends have asked “So what are you going to do next?” The answer is “I don’t know.” I have some ideas. I have applied for a job that will not start until January. But other than that I really don’t know. My one serious job prospect is not at all certain – far from it. I don’t know where we will live (other than staying in Huber Heights so our son can finish high school). i don’t know how my life will look on November 1. Other than it will be different in significant ways from what it is today.
I am not a person who likes this kind of ambiguity. I like to know what is ahead and to have planned for every eventuality. I love GPS – it always knows what is coming, when to turn, what areas to avoid due to traffic or construction, what sites wait to be seen. The one on my smart phone is always up to date and is mostly accurate.
Life is more like paper maps and compasses. It takes as much effort to determine where you are on the map as to arrive at a destination. Things on the ground may be different from when the map was printed. A map can’t show construction that has gone over schedule or traffic that is impeding progress ten miles down the road.
In the certainty of God’s leading to travel this road I am also learning anew the enormous uncertainty of what lies ahead. I have things to do and decisions to make. But much waits on what is around the next bend. What I expected may not – and probably will not – be. God’s mystery awaits. Perhaps for you too.
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On Leaving Ministry

The Long and Winding Road

My first sermon at each church I have served has been on the call of Abram (who becomes Abraham):

The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. (Genesis 12:1)

Each time I found myself in a new community, a new place to work and serve, a new adventure. It is time for another such adventure in answering God’s call.

For much of this year I have been discerning the next steps in my middle-aged life. Late last year I had a health scare that turned out to be something minor. But the experience left me reflective on the trajectory of my life. And this November 29 I will turn 50. A time for thinking about the second half of life and work.

For several years I have been sure that I would not end my pastoral career at retirement age. The reasons are many… the journey has been a long and winding one. Some pain and struggle. But also a deeper understanding of how God has gifted me. What do I do well? What gifts and experiences has God given me? And is the best stewardship of them in professional ministry? I have many years of work remaining and plenty of time for another career.

In early May the call came as it did decades ago. As clearly as God called me to leave a great job and future, so God has called me again to leave what I know to journey to what God will yet show me. My personal ministry is not ending – just the professional one. I know God will continue to use the gifts I have received to serve others, to speak and to share, to honor Christ in a new way.

I thank God for a spouse and children who support me in following this path. It means a huge change in our lives and perhaps lifestyle in the near term. My children have no memory of living anywhere except in a church parsonage. Or of their dad as anything but a pastor. And Dana has sacrificed much over the years including professionally to follow me around Ohio. I am grateful that they understand and affirm my decision and are excited, too, about this call to a new season of life.

My last day of ministry at Aldersgate UMC and as a professional pastor will be October 31. What comes next I do not know. Like Abram I can see some paths ahead to follow, some of what might be. Like that adventurer long ago – not just Abram but the young man who in 1992 began a journey – I know God will show me a new land and life. I am looking forward to it.

the-long-winding-road-207526

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