Advent Revelations

How can I understand unless some one explains it to me? — Acts 8:21

It was a simple ice-breaker game. Some of the class selected cardboard discs with questions about Christmas: Traditions, travel, gifts, wishes…

As with any good ice-breaker, the idea was to elicit discussion. This one broke the ice. The six teens revealed as much about Christian culture as themselves:

  •  “I want a…”
  •  “My dad always gets a rolled up tree.”
  • “We have one of those fake trees…”
  • “How come we sing carols…?
  • “Christmas songs are lame…”
  • “When are we going to learn something I don’t know?”

Did I mention this was a Sunday school class? Did I mention all of the students were from church-going families? Did I mention they each had to state something they had learned about Christ or Christmas before the class was dismissed to go home?

The Scripture study for the first Sunday of Advent in Luke.  It turned into Revelations.

  • “Advent means we put up a calendar.”

actions-of-christmas-ppt-bkgd-3-waiting

Pam Nelsen/etcgraphicdesign

It’s difficult to say what was most revealing: The stories about Christmas dreams and wishes; the cynicism around being in Sunday school; or the recognition that Christian kids who grew up in the church realm don’t grasp what Christmas means other than obligatory Christianese (“Jesus came to save us from our sins”…”so we don’t go to “the bad place”…’Christ-mass’…eternal life”).  Considering that between Sundays they’re inundated by a culture where Christmas is an adjective for a department store sale or tv  dating movie, this does not surprise.  And yet…

So, the question came to mind: Are we who teach about celebrating the incarnation of God…the birth of Jesus…effectively connecting the message?

Granted these were middle school students and high school freshmen. Granted there was the ongoing (weekly) battle about putting away the mobile device (“My Bible is on there…”). Granted the age is fraught with a wide-range of attention spans and hormonal exploration. Yet, they are also the age of great intellectual curiosity. They are a mission field of critical thinkers with untapped thoughts.  They are more willing learners than the ice reveals…beneath the surface.

They are the age Jesus was when his parents had to go look for him in the temple. Imagine: Jesus, the Middle Schooler.

In the words of pastor Paul Tripp, they are “the age of opportunity.”

In the last 20 minutes of the period, we got back to the planned Advent lesson:  Simeon & Anna in the temple.  The theme was waiting.  This was a followup from the sermon earlier in the morning.  Only 2 of the group had been there.  We read from Luke. Luke 2:21-38. Aloud. Collectively. Summarized the story, then challenged them to read that passage each day during the week. Mount Rushmore became teenaged.  We circled by the door to prepare for home.  Provided each was able to articulate their revelations during the period…in case they were asked at home.

Among their discoveries was learning to listening for the message of Christ in the music they hear this time of year, no matter the source.  This grew from the ice-breaking prompt about favorite Christmas songs which led to a You Tube comparison of Taylor Swift’s “Last Christmas” and a version of “Come Thou, Long-Expected Jesus,” one of the congregational songs in the previous hour’s Service of Worship.

Defending her choice, Taylor’s fan explained she liked the beat and that she also has a favorite church Christmas song, “O Holy Night,” as did a laconic boy, who previously was sarcastic and distracting. Two of the girls accompanied “Last Christmas” verbatim while #TheBoyWhoKnowsEverything except — apparently — this song, cried out, “That’s got nothing to do with Christmas!”  One of #TheGirlSingers countered: “She said she wanted love and was looking for her heart.  I mean she COULD have been singing about Jesus.” Even she admitted this was a stretch, but it also reflected a stretch of thought, leading to discovery No. 2.

A purpose of Sunday school is to prepare the students to think about faith and speak confidently about Christ for themselves rather than regurgitating what just the information they have received at church. “I guess some Christmas songs are okay,” admitted #MrLaconic before the day’s amen.  This was growth.

To prepare them, adults must give structure, listen, correct and encourage.

An illustration of such interaction is a “non-Christmas” scripture: Philip and the Ethiopian in Acts 8.

The Ethiopian was reading scripture. Phillip asked if he understood. How can I if no one explains, said the eunuch.

Phillip took the time. The eunuch understood and came to Christ.

Such is the role of modern apostles. No matter how long we walk with Christ, have heard, taught or preached the Christmas story there remains a responsibility, a command, to tell others.

We have a lot of material to teach about Christmas. Creative. Fun. Insightful. Yet, when it comes to the annual Christmas studies, we must be careful that our traditional pageants, programs or teachings do not become commonplace so that even ardent Christ-followers turn an icy ear. As the students discovered, given time and earnest discussion, this Christmas can be more heartfelt than the last one.

 

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The Blessing Jar

“I will give you the promised and sure blessings promised to David.” —  Isaiah 55:3

The kitchen has an intense struggle with the television as the focal point of the family interplay.  But until there’s an HD fridge-TV combo unit in the den, the kitchen wins out.  Even on TV they admit everybody’s got to eat.

So it’s apt that in the middle of the kitchen table is a quart-sized Mason jar, the kind that — in the days before tin cans, Tupperware and microwaves made dinner more facile — great-grandmoms stuffed with peaches, tomatoes and all sorts of homegrown treats then vacuum-sealed with wax to be eaten months later, or donated to those who couldn’t do so.

blessingjar2xThis particular jar is a modern variation on Greatgran’s.  Rather than wax, the lid is sealed by a gold plated metal top, held to the glass by a metal clasp.  A rubber cylinder seals the lid that keeps fresh, not food but small, neatly folded squares of paper.  Taped to the outside is a homemade white label on which a child has printed, “Our Blessing Jar.”  One S looks like an N, the other is backwards, as is the J.

Written on the papers are notes about what happened to each family member that day.  These are their blessings.  It’s not the desired daily ritual originally hoped, but the effort allows them to stay in touch with each other and the LORD in this era when there’s more time commuting than communing.

More often than not the family writes at least three blessings of the day, trade papers to read aloud, then place in them in The Blessing Jar. Sometimes they write after dinner; often just before bedtime.  The blessings are the basis of their nightly prayers. The blessings are big stuff — “Bonus check came.” Little stuff — “Didn’t argue with V.” Sometimes they overlap: “Had fun with…Mom/Dad/Family.” They’re often enlightening.

The Blessing Jar began as a time capsule to be opened on Thanksgiving. Often, though, the seal is broken in the middle of the night when someone feels hungry, overwhelmed, or lonely and ends up in the kitchen at 2 a.m.   The Blessing Jar is where blessings are counted, instead of sheep; where life stops and roses are smelled; where thanksgiving isn’t a holiday but a daily reminder of God, from whom all blessings flow.

VIDEO: Count Your Blessings, Bing Crosby & Rosemary Clooney

Prayers of a Righteous Cub

“The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” – James 5:6

Praying is hard.

It’s hard to concentrate.  Hard to know what to say.  Hard to listen.  To stand.  Kneel.  Raise your hands.  Close your eyes.  Stay awake.  You get the idea.

Praying is hard.

Yet, praying is essential if one is to remain connected with God.  Not only is praying essential for communication, praying is evidence of faith.

Our human grasp of prayer is limited.  For many Believers, praying becomes routine.  It’s something we’re supposed to do in the morning, at night, before a meal or the offering. For unbelievers, it’s response to a crisis.  A request from The Genie in the lamp. When prayers are not answered as we hope – the loan fell through, the loved one dies, the grade is F – prayer is abandoned and God is blamed.  And God is abandoned.  Until the next crisis.

What God requests of prayer is consistency.  This is a hard lesson, and hard activity.  Through prayer we recognize the attributes of God, acknowledge His ways are not ours, and realize we – His children (those who acknowledge Him) – are instruments of His plan.  Instruments, not pawns.

These ideas became concretized in these corners when the Cubs won the 2016 World Series and Ben Zobrist was named Most Valuable Player.

zobrist-double

In the course of the playoffs, Zobrist unexpectedly popped up on our TV in a commercial for his alma mater, Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL.  Generally, such commercials are muted in our house awaiting the next noisy game show.  However, the spot hit the personal radar because of family friends who attend there and interns from ONU our church has hired.  That commercial put Zobrist on our Christ-follower radar.

His MVP award demonstrated his value to the team throughout the year, not just in the Series.  After winning a World Series championship with the Kansas City Royals in 2015, he became a free agent and signed with the Cubs over the winter.  As a Cub, Zobrist became a personal favorite for his reliability and versatility on the field throughout the season even though neither he nor his statistics, were flashy or headline-grabbing.  A switch hitter, he was signed as a second baseman, but was skilled at multiple positions. As younger players – potential stars – developed, Zobrist was moved around.  Even though it was not always certain where he would play, it was pretty certain that he would. By the playoffs Zobrist had become a fixture in left field.

Between Games 5 & 6, when the Cubs were down 3-2 in the Series,  The Huffington Post Parents section published a blog by author Kristie Christie outlining  how Zobrist and his wife Julianna infuse their faith in raising their family and their work.  This was something of a revelation, for throughout the year there was no great, public indication that Zobrist is Christian – not in the same high-profile athlete vein as, say, Tim Tebow.   In these eyes, appreciation of Zobrist grew.  So much so that, when he came to bat with runners in scoring position during the 10th inning, something unexpected emerged from lips that had never been done in relation to a sporting event, team or competition.

“Lord,” The Lips said, “ let Your Child get a hit.”  This was not a thought.  These were SOUNDS from a mouth that generally prays in his head,  or writes them in order to concentrate.  No sooner had they come out, Zobrist purposely sliced the ball the opposite direction, beating a defensive shift against his left-handed swing.  The result was a double and two runs batted-in, including one for the margin of victory. Shortly afterwards, Zobrist was given a snazzy new car as part of his Most Valuable Player performance.

However, the larger stage for the small-town Illinois native was to come on Friday at the championship rally.  Before countless millions watching live in Chicago’s Grant Park, and elsewhere, Zobrist gave insight into his professional journey and served as a witness to those who do and don’t speak Christianese.  Zobrist spoke of God as a proper noun and of the role of God in his decision-making process.

“So literally, I promise you, I prayed during free agency last year, to be a Chicago Cub….”

“Thankfully God, and Theo (Epstein, the Cubs’ president of baseball operations),” he added, bringing perspective, “made it happen.” (Watch the speech.)

To the uninitiated, this may have sounded as some hocus-pocus, mumbo jumbo.  For those to whom God IS a proper noun, the sentence is a lesson.

Zobrist’s free-agent process included the following considerations:

  1. He had to know what he wanted professionally – where he wanted to play, terms of the contract, work conditions, how much money, his ultimate goal.
  2. He had to weigh these options against offers from other teams, in tough negotiations with Epstein and in a restricted time frame.
  3. He had a choice:   to make the decision on his own, or petition God with specifics – especially if other offers seemed more, well, tempting.
  4. He had to make a choice that involved his family as well as personal desires.
  5. Having made the choice, Zobrist had to live with the decision trusting God, win or lose.

He chose the Cubs, and the rest is, well, you know…His story.

It would be wrong to interpret these thoughts as saying, “God made the Cubs win,” or, “God liked the Cubs more than Cleveland,” or “Didn’t the Christian Indians pray, too?”

just-because-chicago
Drawing by Vince Conard.

This tale is simply a reminder to those who do give God His Proper Noun. It is embracing one man’s approach to facing recognizable human challenges.  It is a tale of recognizing Paul’s letter to the Romans in action today: from the free agency prayer, to the season of play, to the family blog, to the prayer on the couch, to the double to left, to the stage at Grant Park,  “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

 

Though not dealing with millions of dollars, millions of people engage in a free-agent process each day such as mulling job offers, making school choices, selecting contractors for home repairs, or health care procedures. Zobrist’s journey illustrates prayer encouragement of Paul to the Thessalonian congregation (“pray without ceasing”) and  Jesus to His followers (“seek first His kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well”).  It brings to mind prayer perspective by Jesus’ brother James, writing to the first Jewish believers in Jesus Messiah . First James admonished (“When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasure”);  then he reassured (“The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective”).

Zobrist reminds us there is power in specific requests but to not just leave prayer as lip service. There is the responsibility of doing the work at hand rather than passively sitting back and waiting for “a miracle” or giving in to distractions.  In such cases, as our desires become in sync with God’s, He’ll provide the stage to proclaim His glory whether in a ball park or a kitchen table. That’s His reward for being  MVP:  Most Valuable Prayer.