Fingers are crossed, eyes are glued to the bottom of the screen during the evening news, and you have already eaten your packed lunch in the fridge because you’re so confident that tomorrow will be a Snow Day. How exciting is a whole day to goof around as snow falls outside? Days of playing games in the snow and then cozying up close to the fire are the kind of winter days I longed for as a kid. Snow Days were the best!
While in high school, I had an amazing job on the weekends and throughout the summer working as a counselor for an outdoor camp. At this camp, we often served the youth from the urban core of Cincinnati. While the kids were with us in the outdoors, nearly everything they got to do at camp was a first-time experience. It was so transformative for me to witness these children see a deer for the first time, or to finally be able to see the Big Dipper in the night sky, or to play in and around a large pond. Prior to working at this camp, I had no idea that there were kids so close to my home that never experienced these basic joys that I experienced nearly every day.
One morning, I was leading a group of campers through the woods to the cafeteria for breakfast, I asked “what is your favorite thing to do on a Snow Day?” They took turns sharing as we all nodded in agreement for each response. Eventually, the only person left to give a response was the little boy holding my hand as we walked. I said to him directly, “what’s your favorite thing about a Snow Day?” There was a long silence until he finally said “I don’t like Snow Days, because there is no school that day, and that means I don’t get to eat that day.” My heart sank, and suddenly, I never desired a Snow Day in the same way again.
As temperatures drop, God’s most precious children grow colder while they’re forced to live outside. As winter months settle in, social services grow more crowded and more of God’s children battle with hunger. This year, I witnessed the Holy Spirit hard at work through Lord of Life as our guests from Family Promise called this place home during the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Family Promise is an inter-faith ministry that equips congregations to respond to local homelessness.
Our call to respond came during a week that most consider to be a “Snow Day.” In the midst of resting, playing games, and staying home, God filled our hearts and empowered us to serve others. Although play and rest are an important part of our lives, I am thankful that God is still at work on a Snow Day. God continues to show up day after day, season after season, snow fall after snow fall.
With a Serving Heart,
I have a confession to make... Until just last year, I had never heard of a poinsettia. This may let you in on how much I know about decorating, but I have always simply called them “Christmas flowers.” I’ll admit, there was an awkwardly long amount of time between when I heard the word “poinsettia” being tossed around in the church newsletter and when I finally discovered what in the world it meant.
After a quick search, I learned that poinsettia plants are named after Joel R. Poinsett, who worked in the U.S. government as a diplomat under James Monroe. Joel R. Poinsett traveled to Mexico in 1828 and brought back a holiday tradition to the States. The tradition in Mexico was born out of a cultural legend. As the story goes, a young girl could not afford to provide a gift for Jesus' birthday. As she was feeling down, an angel appeared to her and told her to gather weeds from the roadside and place them in front of the church altar. Before she knew it, red blossoms sprouted from the weeds and became poinsettias (www.history.com).
Many of our traditions, especially around the holidays, do have meaningful backstories that help make them relevant. Usually, we just have to do a little digging to discover what the meaning behind our traditions are. As it turns out, poinsettias do have a religious purpose and do make a theological claim in our worship space. So, this Christmas, as you see the sanctuaries, stores, and windows filled with beautiful flowers, I hope you are reminded of the girl who gifted weeds for Jesus’ birthday. Christmas is not about material things or unwrapping frivolous doohickeys, it’s about the gift of giving. All that the little girl brought to Jesus was flowerless weeds, but that was enough.
When you see poinsettias, know that they represent God’s unimaginable ability to create something out of nothing, to bring the dead to life, and to make beauty out of what we perceive to be worthless. Sprouting a bright scarlet flower from the weeds is what our Christian story is all about. God takes us, considered by some as worthless weeds and helpless sinners, and transforms us into agents for love and justice. The peace that we create and the love that we proclaim is God’s gift to the world.
I may know nothing about poinsettia placement or decorating for the season of Christmas, but thankfully, God is the one that does the important decorating. God places us together and puts us in the perfect arrangement that extends out from beneath any sized tree. God’s Christmas display expands far beyond any window sill. When God creates, God uses decorations far more beautiful than poinsettias, Christmas trees, and bright twinkling lights. We are what God decorates the world with during the holiday. Through us, God showers the world with joy, love, peace, and hope. This Christmas, we celebrate that Jesus is the centerpiece of God’s display. We are arranged, we are illuminated, and we are made beautiful by God’s wondrous hands.
With Sprouting Beauty,
It has arrived! That time of year when calendars are full, stores are crowded, stockings are hung, and families are gathered. Growing up in my house, the month of December always meant that we were hosting family and friends. Snow days for most kids meant hot chocolate and sled rides, but for me and my siblings, cold winter days meant cleaning and chores. We spent our snow days sweeping the floors and dusting the counters. It felt like we were always preparing to entertain for that coming weekend.
Eventually, the hour would hit that were done preparing and cleaning and all that was left to do was wait patiently for our guests to arrive. All the work was finally done as we peeked our heads through the window looking for familiar cars to pull into our driveway so that we could shout “they’re here.” That shout was our family code for finding the coolest posture we could, one that indicated that we were not frantically throwing our toys in the closest just before the guests appeared. While we were frozen in that pose, we waited eagerly and patiently.
As Christians, we have worked tirelessly all year long, serving others, loving others, and fulfilling God’s mission in the world. Lord of Life has trained and equipped eight Stephen Ministers to listen effectively and passionately to those who are hurting. We have confirmed 8 students and baptized 11 of our youth. We have raised nearly 500,000 dollars for the mission of the Church. We have grown thousands of pounds of produce in our garden and prepared countless meals for those who are hungry. I could go on, but the point is clear, God has been hard at work in this place.
Now that Advent has arrived, although we should never let-up on doing God’s work, we are finally patiently awaiting the arrival of the long expected Jesus Christ. Although we may not be completely prepared, although the table may not be fully set, we are eagerly awaiting our guest to arrive and show us the way of peace, hope, and love. Let us wait for the Lord with that same kind of child-like giddiness we had when our faces were pressed against the window as the guests finally pulled into the driveway.
This Advent, I encourage to take a deep breath. Put your mops and brooms away and join the children at the window, who are waiting eagerly for the Christ-child to arrive. This year, I invite you to do your best not to be stressed about shopping, cleaning, and getting everything done on time. Because believe it or not, Christmas will come, Jesus will arrive, and all creation will rejoice at our Savior’s birth. Know that whether or not the house is exactly as we want it, God will arrive. God doesn’t care about whether or not our life is tidy. God shows up in our clutter and messiness. After all, Jesus showed up in a dingy manger surrounded by livestock. God doesn’t need impressing. When we cast aside our cares about superficial appearances, all of sudden, we become available to live into the presence of God. It is God that is coming down our driveway. It is God that enters into our homes this Christmas. It is God that fills our hearts and leads us to shout “Jesus is here!”
With faithful patience,
Beauty... violence... beauty... violence... beauty! This was the pattern of our men’s retreat this past weekend as a group of us gathered at Hueston Woods Lodge. The Holy Spirit guided us through three heart-wrenching discussions about racial, sexual, and spiritual violence in the world today and in Scripture. Although these moments of learning were meaningful, thought-provoking, and honest, I learned the most about God between the lessons.
As a leader of the retreat, I carved out intentional time between the lessons for the men to literally “retreat.” I figured, in-between three intense discussions, they would want time for themselves to meditate, unwind, and reflect. I pictured them sitting alone on a bench by the lake, or hiking along a path in the woods alone. The environment at Hueston Woods was certainly conducive to sitting back and enjoying nature all by oneself. Although solitude is important, and God often speaks to us in when by ourselves, what actually happened at this retreat was fascinating.
What was meant to be meaningful moments of isolation, turned into beautiful experiences of community. It seemed that as the conversation about violence got more difficult, our desire to be in community got stronger. Suddenly, whatever we did during our breaks, we did together. We hiked together. We sat by the lake together. We even felt the need to experience silence together. Prior to this weekend, I had ever thought about the difference between silence and solitude. As we ended each session with a prayer, it was as if the word “Amen” was a light switch for joy, laugher, and togetherness.
This retreat taught me an important lesson about the violence that surrounds us every day. We must remain in community. Not only is being together important, but our coming together is one way to actively stand-up against the violence that surrounds us. Through our frustration, question asking, and doubt, God shows up in our lives in the form of relationship. If you hear the far too common stories of violence, and respond as I want to, it is easy to slip into isolation and despair. But, we must resist the temptation to give-up hope.
Being in life-giving relationship with others is what gives us the strength to make it through those moments when we feel alone. Just as darkness needs the light, as death needs the resurrection, our stories of violence need stories of communal joy. Sometimes it may feel like God is distant, but we are never alone. God will always be there through our cycle of hope and despair. As a church, we are here for one another. As children of God, we are never alone. In Scripture, we are reminded to “be strong and bold, to have no fear, because it is the Lord your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you” (Deut. 31:6).
Together in Christ,
Flour covering the kitchen counter, white handprints all over the apron, and sneaking squirts of whip cream while my wife isn’t looking, are what I love most about October. Awaiting the ding from the oven indicating the pumpkin pie is done and smelling the sweet aroma of Fall baking in the kitchen brings so much joy to this season. Dare I say, the baking of the pumpkin pie is more enjoyable than the tasting of the pie itself. For me, baking is more about the experience in the kitchen than it is about the end result.
Pumpkin pie, stewardship, and the Reformation are the three themes stuck on replay in my mind this October. What do these things have in common? They each require a process, a journey by which they are made. The final product is made with ingredients, pieces, and layers, working together to create something new.
Stewardship is not just about the amount that you give to the mission of the church, but more importantly, it’s about what happens to your heart when you give. This year, we are diving into the theme of “God blesses the world through Lord of Life.” When we discover how we are blessed by God, the Holy Spirit moves us to give with thankful and joyful hearts. When we reach that place where we can give, not out of guilt or self-promotion, but out of pure joy for the Gospel and love for the church and its mission, amazing and transformational things can happen. Stewardship is more about the experience of giving than it is about how much we give.
As we look toward commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, we lift grace up as the core theological tenant that sparked this radical movement in history. Grace remains a staple of Lutheranism. Similar to baking and stewardship, grace is more about the experience than the result it brings. Grace is more than the gift of salvation. As we think about Martin Luther hanging the 95 theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany, it is helpful to reflect on what he might hang on our door today.
What are the things preventing us from living into and experiencing God’s grace? Are we competitive about our faith, believing that Lutheranism is better than the rest? Do we view ourselves as unworthy to receive grace? Understanding grace as a gift freely given is much easier said than done.
I am reminded of the parable about working in the vineyard. In this story, one group of workers begin laboring in the morning, while another group begins laboring in the afternoon. At the end of the day, the vineyard owner gives everyone equal wage. Understandably, those that had worked all day were outraged! The lesson being, “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16). Whether we are first or last, God will provide the outcome. Our faith is about the experience of being together as a community. Our life in Christ is about the journey.
See you in the kitchen,
Raise challenging questions. Speak from your core values. Surface unresolved conflicts. These are the pearls of wisdom that I gathered from my intensive course at Trinity Lutheran Seminary last week, while studying the qualities of effective leadership. Like most everything else, leadership is much easier said than done. The most important first step to take is understanding yourself as a leader. We all have God-given gifts, passions, and skills that God calls us to share with those around us. We all are leaders, capable of equipping others to have a meaningful impact at Lord of Life and in world. How are you feeling called to lead?
The courage to raise challenging questions is essential for growth. Through the process of asking these questions, we can better understand who we are as a community. By being grounded in our mission and rooted in the Gospel, we can learn to view radical and invocative ideas as opportunities for meaningful dialogue.
Knowing who we are requires the ability to speak from our core values. These values are formed by our identity as Christ-followers, and articulating them often takes practice. Take a few minutes to jot-down what you believe are your core values. Are you running out of space on your scrap paper or is your paper blank? Coming up with a list of core values can be difficult, but our values are what shape us. The values of Lord of Life, congruent with the values we find in Scripture, are what make this place come alive on Sunday morning and throughout the weeks. All the way from the 108 preschoolers playing and learning here, to the many Bible studies and recovery groups supporting and teaching here, our mission is formed by the people God serves in our space.
In the midst of ministry, not everything is as life-giving. Surfacing the unresolved conflicts in relationships and within our community is the not so fun side of being in community together. But, one cannot garden without pulling weeds. Whenever I am involved in conflict, I try and tackle the challenge head on, while staying focused on the future. Being open and honest about the current struggle is important, but we must live as Resurrection-people, by living with the assurance that God will bring restoration and healing.
This Sunday, we will experience the joys of Lord of Life’s Ministry Fair. Many of our outreach partners will be represented, along with the many ministry areas from Lord of Life. It will be a bustling morning filled with opportunities to meet inspiring people and share meaningful conversation. There is no better time to think about your own leadership roles within this community. The question is not whether God is calling you to lead, but where?