Songs of the Season: Away in the Manger

Today is Christmas. As I was thinking about what or if I would share today or tomorrow, the words of Away in the Manger kept coming back to me. Away in the Manger is one of the most well-known spiritual Christmas songs, taught to every boy and girl that enters a church building and those who enter as adults learn it quickly too. It tells the story of those moments right after Jesus was born to Mary and Joseph in the little town of Bethlehem some 2000 years ago:

“Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.
The stars in the bright sky looked down where he lay,
The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.

The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,
But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.
I love thee, Lord Jesus! look down from the sky,
And stay by my cradle till morning is nigh.

Be near me, Lord Jesus; I ask thee to stay
Close by me forever, and love me I pray.
Bless all the dear children in thy tender care,
And take us to heaven to live with thee there.”

It’s such a simple song and yet it says so much in these 3 short verses. I know Jesus knew what He was getting into when He agreed to come to earth, and yet I feel like this was a big reality check for Him, on whatever level He understood being fully Divine even though He was a fully human baby.

This song shares a bunch of similarities between Jesus’ story and ours. We all start where Jesus started, although most of us start in a better place than a straw manger with stars as our overhead view. We all are going to face some hardships and challenges in our lives. We all need our sleep. And we all want at least one person to be there with us through it all.

We all have things that we wished we would get this Christmas, some got luckier in that regard than others. Some of us do struggle with our housing and having people who support us in our lives, and maybe we feel as vulnerable as baby Jesus sounds in this song. But we can be assured that Jesus will stay with us and care for us, and the evidence is found in the fact that He did come to earth some 2000 years ago on Christmas and stuck around to die on a cross and rise again three days later.

As you thank others for the gifts they gave you today and throughout this holiday season, make time to thank God for the gift of Jesus, and for Jesus being the best gift ever.

Christmas, Doubts, and Assumptions

Something I’ve always wondered about is the passage in Luke where John the Baptist is born (Luke 1:57-66). In this passage you’ve got people asking Zechariah what the baby’s name should be and using “gestures” to ask him. This sounds odd in general, but the part that I’ve found strange is because earlier in Luke 1 it says he would be “silent and unable to speak until the child is born” because he had questioned God’s plan for him and Elizabeth. Being mute doesn’t mean you can’t hear, and the Bible doesn’t say that he couldn’t hear as well, just that he wouldn’t speak until when John is born.

This possible mistake that people are making with Zechariah is a good reminder for all of us about assumptions. Sometimes they can be helpful, like assuming it might rain so you keep an umbrella in your home and one in your car, or assuming you’re going to be exchanging gifts with friends when you meet during the holiday season (they can be returned if you don’t), or assuming you’re going to want to eat and going food shopping on a regular basis.

But more often than not they set us up for mistakes, misunderstandings and issues. Not asking questions at work can lead to doing a job several times, not talking things over with your partner can lead to hurt feelings or plans that conflict, and assuming someone else did something without checking with them can mean that it doesn’t get done.

The same is true with faith. We can assume that others know what we believe, that we all like the same church activities, or that their life is as perfect as it looks, and it may or may not be true, and could cause some hurt feelings and drive separation if your assumptions aren’t true.

The one thing we can safely assume is that God loves us, and we’re assured of this every year when we celebrate Christmas. God would not have sent His son with such joy or celebration if He didn’t love us or care about our souls, and He would not have let Jesus die on the cross some 30 years later to save us from our sins. Our Bible-based questions may not get answered until we get to heaven, but we can be assured of God’s love for us and attention on what goes on in our lives.

Whether or not Zechariah could hear isn’t really the issue, although I would like to know, the issue is whether or not you’re going to follow through on what God has shared with you. Zechariah and Elizabeth did and they were blessed with their son John and the special role he played in Jesus’ life. This holiday season I encourage you to check in with God and make sure that you’re both on the same page and assumptions aren’t being created.

How Do You Hear From God?

I think one of the biggest questions, challenges, concerns, or struggles people have when it comes to their faith, or any type of spiritual beliefs in general, has to do with hearing from God. If you ask someone of faith they will tell you that God has certainly had a hand in their lives, or that they can see God’s leading.
And yes, we’re able to pray directly to Him, we don’t have to go through an intermediary like a pastor or priest which makes it a lot more comfortable and encourages us to do it more often.

But let’s face it, saying prayers to God is not often the same as sitting down to have coffee with someone and having an actual conversation where there’s listening and speaking on both sides of the table. I say that it is rarely like that because throughout spiritual history there have been people who have spoken directly with God like Enoch, Samuel, Solomon, Jonah, and Saul/Paul from the Bible. And then there are people from more recent history who also had a close relationship and heard from God like Smith Wigglesworth, Mother Teresa, and Billy Graham, just to name a few of the more well-known people.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with God guiding us through means other than words, I will always take that over nothing at all, but there’s something so much more personal, powerful, intimate and real about hearing actual words. It’s kind of like how you can connect with someone on social media and message back and forth, but unless you meet them in person or talk on the phone/skype, you’re not really positive they’re a real person or who they say they are.

I don’t think it’s impossible to actually talk with/hear from God, and since God is all powerful He’s certainly able to talk with anyone (or everyone) at any time. But most of us don’t take the time to develop the relationship with Him that would encourage Him to speak directly to us in that way (although He certainly can speak to you that way to get your attention as He did Paul/Saul who He didn’t have a relationship with).  And while He could speak to us all with words, it might make Him seem less divine or people would feel like they’re more equal with Him, which wouldn’t be a good thing.

So what do you do if you want to hear (more) from God? Read your Bible, make time to pray and talk with God on a very regular basis, and be open to His leading and the changes of your plans. God may choose to speak words through someone else that you need to hear, He may make your path obvious in another way, He may touch your heart with an impression or direction, and He may speak to you directly with words. I believe God speaks today, and He wants to speak to each of us, it’s a question of whether we are truly listening or not.

Whispers from God

I’ve been thinking about relationships a lot, and especially about the relationship that we have with God. With each verse in the Bible I read I’m reminded of how incredible He is and how little we really understand Him. Yes, we can simplify it and wrap it in a nice package and say God is love, grace, forgiveness and salvation, but the list of characteristics could extend indefinitely, and each of us would come up with a different list of who God is to them.

The Bible gives us an in-depth look into the lives of dozens of people in different life situations and stages of their relationship with God, one of which is Elijah. Elijah was a prophet in the Old Testament, who connected God and people of all walks of life from kings to single mothers. He didn’t die of anything traditional, instead God took him away when it was his time (2 Kings 2). During his ministry he did everything from raising the dead, and calling down fire to defeat false prophets in an epic showdown.

One of the special things about the Bible is that it doesn’t just show the stories of people, it shows personal interactions between people and God. Elijah experienced a rather special supernatural event and communication from God while he was taking a bit of a sabbatical. He was feeling discouraged as many of us do, especially as we see the world moving around us and some of the terrible things that go on. During that time of rest and prayer God stopped by to speak with him and find out what he was doing, because it looked an awful lot like Elijah was doing more hiding than renewing (which he admitted he was).

So God decides to put on a bit of a show for Elijah, and sends a windstorm, earthquake and fire his way. 1 Kings 19 makes it clear that although God sent those natural events his way, God wasn’t actually in them. 1 Kings 19:12b says “And after the fire there was the sound of a gentle whisper.” And in that whisper God’s presence arrived and spoke with Elijah, reassuring and encouraging him and sending him back to the mission field.

God made a point during this interaction with Elijah to show that He was more than capable of showing up in big and powerful ways, but that what was most needed, and He was capable of doing, was showing up in a still small voice. The same is true for our lives, God can show up in big and powerful ways, but He can also show up in the moments of quiet. I think God tends to show up in the moments we’re able to be quiet and pause more often because the world we live in is focused on the big and the bold (think number of likes on social media, going viral, being a celebrity etc.), so rather than attempt to compete with that or try to one-up everyone else trying to be on top, He chooses to show up in the moments we intentionally make time for Him.

I encourage you to make time regularly in your schedule to stop and spend time with God. Maybe that means going to a church that’s open for quiet prayer during the day and making that your lunch break, or starting a time of meditation after you put the kids to bed, or using the time that you spend alone in your car to talk with God (not ideal, but better than nothing). The more you make time for God, the healthier your relationship will be and the more you’ll hear from Him through prompts, peace and maybe even words.

All In This Together

If you’ve been around this blog for a while you know I love to celebrate our differences. I love that the areas in which I’m not as capable there are other people who are not only capable, they really enjoy these things. It’s healthy to have differences of opinion and see things from different perspectives and to like different things. But a quote I read this week reminded me that it’s not always good to look for the differences:

“One of the most basic things we all share in spite of class, race, economic status, or age is our need to eat. It was no accident that Jesus shared a meal with his disciples in that upper room before his betrayal, death, and resurrection. It is that very meal we commemorate each Sunday in the sacrament of the altar where we hear once again Jesus say: Take, eat, this is my body. Drink this all of you, this is my blood of the New Covenant. After Jesus’ resurrection, it was in this way that his disciples came to recognize him as their risen Lord.” Br. Jim Woodrum

If we want to be alive we all have to breathe and we all have to eat and we all have to sleep. Everyone has relationships of some kind. Everyone is born young and grows up, and most die old. Most of us have dreams and goals in our lives. Most of us want to be loved. All of us have a group of people we call family, whether they’re related to us by blood or choice. And as Christians we’re all united through our faith in Jesus and His Resurrection.

It’s good to see, appreciate and even celebrate our differences. A world where everything was all the same would be boring and lack the life and depth that our current world does. I also don’t think we’d be nearly as successful with solving our problems if everyone/everything was pretty much the same. But we have to be careful to not focus so directly on our differences that we forget that we’re all human, all in this life together and that we all want to live and love just like everyone else.

So this week rather than celebrating your differences, I encourage you to celebrate your similarities and the things you all love with those you spend time with. Talk about that basketball game or TV show that you all watched, talk about the races you’re all preparing for, talk about the pets you all love, get their advice and insight on the situation you’re all working through at work, and celebrate how connected you all are.

Getting through Lent with Grace

We’re a week into our journey of Lent for this year and I’m working through a couple of different Lent devotionals. I’ve been enjoying them because they each bring a different perspective to this journey that we’re on and to spiritual life as well. One of the things I struggle with regarding Lent may be something that you struggle with as well, and that’s the continual focus on our sins. I know it’s important to recognize our sins, to ask for forgiveness of them and to make changes in our lives based on not living those sins, but it’s not exactly encouraging to talk about our failings all the time.

Maybe it’s my fault because I’m immersing myself in Lent and not just reading one devotional each day, since it gives me a lot more exposure to the topic of Lent and those that go along with it like looking at your failings. On the other side of the story sometimes it’s good for us to really take a solid look at all aspects of our lives. About how we treat people, how we use our resources, how we treat ourselves, how we think, how we worship, how we go through our day-to-day lives. Taking 40 days out of 365 to make sure we’re leading lives God would be proud of isn’t so bad.

Since we’re human we know we’re going to mess up as we go through life, it’s a consistent messing up-seeking forgiveness-healing cycle. The reason we can do the solid 40 days of Lent and reflecting on our imperfections is because we know that after doing the hard work there will be a great reward, and that’s the celebration of Easter and the promise of God’s eternal love. Whether this Lent journey speaks to you and invites you to take time for reflection more frequently throughout the whole year, or you just take this time to experience God’s grace and love, I encourage you to be open to whatever God will be showing you.

“Lent is a time for us to take an honest look at ourselves and receive the grace of Jesus’ healing love.” Loyola Press

Preparing for Easter

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the Easter journey. It’s an opportunity for us to prepare our hearts for Easter, 40 days (not including Sundays) representing Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. It’s a great time for us to dive into the Bible and read or re-read the stories of the life of Jesus and learn about His life and learn from His wisdom. The Bible may have been written many years ago, but so many of the lessons and experiences in it are relevant to our lives today, especially the teachings of Jesus and the ways that He lived His life. Yes, we take time to learn about Jesus all year long, but I think Lent is an opportunity to journey along with Jesus and really dive deep in His life, and with 89 chapters in the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, you can read 2 each day (including Sundays) and get through all 4 books and read all about the life of Jesus before Easter.

Why is Jesus so important to the spiritual journey and our spiritual studies? Not only because He’s God son and not only because He lived and died for us to save us from our sins, but because He was human just like us. He’s someone who experienced our struggles exactly as we do, He knows what it is to live and survive in this world, and knows how to do it all while staying true to God and living a life of faith. Each day we have opportunities to live our lives like Jesus did on a regular basis. He taught lesson after lesson about caring for the body, having healthy relationships, caring for others, choosing love and compassion, listening to others, listening to God and the treasure that life is. It’s a reminder that we don’t have to do the miracles to share God and Jesus with the world, that in our little actions, daily tasks and regular interactions we’re able to make a difference in the lives of others and share the love of Jesus even if we don’t say we’re sharing love because of our faith.

We can’t forget that He performed miracles, that God is still doing miracles today, and that Easter is one of the biggest and best miracles, but we don’t live life miracle-to-miracle. We live life far more often in the day-to-day life that Jesus did, doing normal things like eating, traveling and sleeping, those actions reveal how human He was, and how closely we can identify with Him.

I encourage you to join me during this Lenten season, preparing for Jesus’s death and resurrection, celebrating His life, both how human He was and how divine. What is Jesus calling you to learn and prepare for these 40 days?

“Jesus changes our image of God. Jesus immerses himself in life — eating and drinking, walking, and working, and weeping, and resting, touching and feeling, and pointing to the very ordinary stuff of life as being revelatory: revelatory of what life is to be and of who He is to be for us.” Brother Curtis Almquist