Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Treasures Emerging

How can it be, save by grace? Pure grace, and unalloyed! God's gifts emerging now in grandchildren like Jessica, Charlotte, and Matthew, captured in this Christmas Eve photo on their way to church in the late afternoon and a family celebration at our home that followed.

It was a Christmas celebration this year without little ones--quite different in character for that reason. Time around the table with Judy and Bob Stromberg, Mary and Bob Manning, and these three was festive--with food, of course, all the Christmas goodies, and inviting holiday decorations--but much more as well this time around. Animated conversations moved back and forth between us all, age differences no matter, in the sharing of life stories, memories, and dreams common to us all as family, yet unique to each of us as persons still emerging. What a feast!

Gifts followed, of course, somewhat simpler this year by common consent, and more quietly enjoyed, yet no less rich for all that. We were all wrapped up in more than giving and receiving gifts. We were embracing each other and the goodness of God to us all, and celebrating others in the family far away but close in stories being shared about them.

These remarkable grandchildren of ours--now young people--are African American, born in Sweden, citizens also of America, and integral parts of the Hawkinson tribe who happen to be Mannings. Each on their separate way to futures they have in mind, they all are tied nonetheless by family bonds that have secured and matured them beyond their years.

What a blessing they are in our lives--each a treasure given us by God--as all our grandchildren--"without money and without price." We are grateful for their spirit and life and excited to see them mature.

With Christmas now past and Epiphany upon us--that great season of lights--we pray for the wisdom and love of God to mirror the light he is constantly shedding abroad in our family to all the families of earth.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

What Goes Around Comes Around

A friend at church surprised me recently with the gift of several books and publications from his library at home. Among them were two issues of The Covenant Home Altar, one of which, dating from 1976, carried a meditation of my own for this time of year. Based on Hebrews 2:14-16, it read as follows:

"The incredible wonder of the incarnation is that God's concern is not primarily for himself or his rights but for each of us. His will was to identify in Jesus Christ with us 'in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of his people.'

"If, understanding and accepting this, we might begin more effectively to reflect the same Spirit in our lives, no doubt others would come to know him too.

"Let us remember that as Christians. We are to be like our human brethren 'in every respect,' i.e., we are to experience with them and feel with them the terrible trauma of their lost and hopeless condition, understanding them in the light of God's love and concern even when they are not able to understand themselves.

Why can he help to the uttermost? Because he himself has suffered and been tempted. And because he never grows weary of seeking the lost he came to save.

"Dear Father, thank you for your identifying love. Help me, by your Spirit, to identify with others. Amen."

Thus do the words I wrote 34 years ago now return to address me. I thank God for their reminder that even as his Son laid aside his glory for me, he now calls me to lay aside my privileges for the sake of others.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Pretense and Reality

I was offended by the silly, tasteless, and often senseless ads that set the stage for a recent Monday night football game on TV. Glitz, glamor, and brazen power, mixed with not a little sexual innuendo--all meant to arouse excitement in us for what was soon to come--actually turned me completely off. What in the world is all this about? Where is it leading? If the media is the message, we're in real trouble.

Samuel Miller, a wise mentor in a former generation, speaks directly to the issue: Advertising has become the religious expression of ... secularity. If manufacturing is about producing more things, then things must be justified, given value, their glory (or glance--the name for superficial glory) revealed. The advertiser becomes the poet in our culture. In his imagination the product becomes the most desirable thing on earth, filled with extraordinary fascination, potent with a magic capable of transforming drabness and dullness to ecstatic heights of success. If such a gadget can be possessed by any means, by painful denials and endless installments, then all the harrowing frustration of being just one more human being lost in the anonymous mass is transcended (Samuel Miller, The Dilemma of Modern Belief, Harper, 1963, p. 9).

More and more, it seems, we as human beings are "lost in the anonymous mass." Rather than truly turning to God, whose image in us lies buried under layers of insecurity caused by our doubts, rebellions, and self-concerns, we become pawns for cynical horse-traders in idolatry that don't give a damn for our souls.

Wretched men and women that we are, who will deliver us finally from this bondage to sin? One thing is for sure. It will not be advertisers for this or that, even so-called religious ones. Our help must come from God himself, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Do not limit God's only begotten Son this Advent and Christmas to a manger where you can manage and take care of him--re-creating him in your image and the false images of our culture.

Behold him also crucified on a cross, then buried, only be be raised on the third day and ascended into heaven. See him even now sitting at the right hand of the Father, who has given him all authority in heaven and on earth to re-create you before he comes again to judge the quick and the dead, separating finally his sheep from every false pretender to his glory.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Song Goes On

In his book Sing with Understanding (Covenant Press, 1966), James P. Davies writes that "when Martin Luther, under God, defied the exisitng ecclesiastical hierarchy and restored the belief in the universal priesthood of believers, he made available two great tools to insure the practice of this relationship: the Bible and the hymnal.

"He gave his countrymen the Bible in their own tongue," Davies writes, " that God might speak directly to them. He gave them the hymnal that they might answer directly. He said, 'Next to theology. I give the first and highest honor to music'" (pp. 1,2).

Many have said, in fact, that the hymnal is the instrument through which we form our theology in response to hearing the word of God. It belongs next to the Bible in our hearts and homes, addressing as it does not only the rhythms of sacred story in our communal worship year after year but the full range of our human experience as individuals as well.

If the Bible remains the norm--"the only perfect rule for faith, doctrine, and conduct" as the Covenant Constitution puts it--the hymnal might well be thought of as our tutor, prompting us where and as we are to listen, pay attention, be encouraged, and above all be formed by receiving God's Word.

Yesterday we had two rich Advent and Christmas hymn sings during normal Sunday School hours at Salem. People were invited to choose what they wanted to sing and tell us why. The explanations were rich in both feeling and experience. But the hymns lifted up, bathed in biblical narrative, delivered once again to those gathered the substance of our faith.

There is no substitute for the "faith once delivered by the saints." Fresh joy flows into our hearts and minds every time we enter those streams--lasting joy and forming, the kind that, born of the Spirit, livens faith and increases our desire to spread the good news we have received to others.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

'A Little Child Shall Lead Them'

Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes a little child like him welcomes me (Matthew 18:4-5).

Johnny’s mother looked out the window and noticed him “playing church” with their cat.

He had the cat sitting quietly and he was preaching to it. She smiled and went about her work. A while later she heard loud meowing and ran back to the open window, only to see Johnny baptizing the cat in a tub of water.

She called out, “Johnny, stop that! The cat is afraid of water!”

Johnny looked up at her and said, “He should have thought about that before he joined my church!”

Are You Listening?

On Receiving Glory

‘Mild he lays his glory by,
born that we no more may die,
born to raise each child of earth,
born to give us second birth.’

No wonder the angels sang,
‘Glory to the new-born King!’
Why do we forget so soon
such unbelievable news?

It pertains to us, you know,
meant for each to see and hear,
to take to heart and ponder
what Heavenly Hosts announce.

Glory then is Glory still,
even while lesser glories
bereft of lasting promise
compete for our attention.

There is little gain for us.
in momentary glories.
Our eyes must be lifted up
to see the Glory of God.

Veiled in flesh the God-head see,
hail th’incarnate Deity,
pleased with us in flesh to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel.

Awake then, soul, and worship,
with bowed knees and open heart
forsake your altar buildings
and focus on God’s Glory!


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

'Snow Had Fallen, Snow on Snow'

It is hardly "Bleak Midwinter" in Minnesota, as some might think who have been spooked by recent recent weather reports. Actually it is very beautiful today, as you can see--with bright blue sky, sunshine, and caverns of snow all around.

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," the saying has it. From a distance all this may seem bleak indeed, much too cold and confining. But you should gaze on it as we do, both from without our home and within. Its actually invigorating and beautiful, a true "winter wonderland of snow."

Don't feel sorry for us. The coffee is on. There's milk and coke in the fridge. And Alyce's cookies are even now fresh from the oven. You may not make it up the front walkway, but call ahead and we'll let you in from the garage. You won't believe how blessed you will feel looking out on it all.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Reflections on Reflecting

"There is life for a look at the Crucified One," an old hymn says. "Not thy tears of repentance or prayers can atone, but the blood which avails for thy soul.... Then come with rejoicing to Jesus today, life eternal he freely will give.... Look! Look! Look and live.... There is life at this moment for thee" (The Covenant Hymnal, 1931, No. 138).

These words came to mind when opening a older volume in my library today I discovered a random scrap of paper on which I had written the following some years ago: "The Christian life in all its aspects is a reflecting life--i.e., its power lies not in man's ability to achieve but, if at all, in his willingness to reflect his experience of God."

It was a wonderful reminder that spiritual power and influence, far from being an achievement of our own, is a gift of God--like life itself. Only as we reflect on and mirror in our daily walk the power of his redemption, his holiness, and his love are we enabled to spread the same abroad.

Absent that mirroring of the Triune God in our lives, all our human strivings for power and influence are but losings. Spiritual power and influence must be generated and given us from above.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Saturation and Inspiration

On many occasions throughout church history people have tried--even for noble reasons--to defend the Bible, as if somehow its inspiration was under question and it needed to be defended. An early Covenant historian and preacher named Hjalmar Sundquist ( 1869-1949) had his own take on inspiration, more in keeping with a Pietist understanding of the issue. Warmly personal and less argumentative, it never fails to feed my spirit and soul. Hopefully, it may both feed and challenge yours as well. Listen:

What ... is inspiration? It is the Spirit of God taking possession of an upright and devoted soul who listens for the voice of God, using him and all his mental faculties as his messenger. The writers of the Scripture are not like water pipes taking water from a distance to bring it a long way and deposit it for you without you taking the trouble to dig for it or to go and get it. Writers of the Bible are more like the mountainside, saturated with water which pours from its sides in springs for everybody to come and drink. The Bible writers were saturated with Divine truth; then out of that saturation the truth sprang forth into utterance. That is inspiration.

Much in the same spirit, Herbert Palmquist (1896-1981) once wrote:

The more I read the Bible and put faith and trust in it, the more it reveals itself to me to be true.... I do not wave the Bible. I press it to my heart. It is my time table, my light shining in a dark room ... my travel guide. I trust it implicitly and I am never let down. I find that 'all the sages said is in the book my mother read.' And I have no greater desire in all the world than that others shall find such treasures in the Bible as I find every day of my life.

"Take up and read," the unconverted Augustine once heard children chanting nearby. He did just that, was converted, and only then became the saint we name him today. The Bible does not need our defense. It needs our attention, our devotion to reading it, and our trust in its message.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

A Yearning Heart

Advent is a season for yearning. Don't miss it by trying to take it by force--thinking that preparing the way of the Lord requires you to do something for him. All any of us really can do is wait on his coming, allow room in our hearts and minds for what he is coming to do. Only those who yearn for him will receive both the comfort he is coming to give and the power he holds in his hand to save.

"Humankind," Dietrich Bonhoeffer has said, "wishes to remain Lord of the world, the Lord of the future.... [But} without his doing anything this wonderful happening draws near, in the time of God, in the future of God, in his coming on the earth. Here the future becomes for him a living reality, here he lives today under the shadow of the coming, not some kind of threatening misfortuine, a fate, but the righteousness of the coming God, of love, and of peace. Not that he goes self-assured on the path into the future of God; no, he takes the future from God. He knows that he cannot go to God but that God must go to him in his inconceivable grace, otherwise he has waited in vain and will lose his life. He can do nothing else but watch and wait, which means enthusiastically, totally taken up, deaf toward everyone who would make him confused with doubts, blind to every force that comes between him and that future of God. Only one thing is of importance to him. He wants to see God; he wants to hear God; he wants to receive God; he wants to know God; he wants to serve God. He wants inconceivably nothing else, in any case nothing like he wants God" (A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, p. 324).

O God, save us from our prideful heart. Help us not to hide from all our yearnings. but give them full expression as we await your coming to deliver us. Amen.