The Fuel of Fearless Love

While today is two days after Christmas, the event that special time marks deserves continued reflection.  The writer of the first gospel aids us in that. 
18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.
Matthew 1:18-24 (NIV)

We find a familiar story as we read these words.  Every birth story is important for it tells of life.  This birth story is beyond important; it is fundamental to our faith.  This is the unique story of God choosing a young man named Joseph and a woman younger still named Mary.  Mary was to give birth to a son even before she and Joseph consummated their marriage; “she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.” 

This is a powerful story.  Perhaps this story has lost some of its mystery and shock for you, especially if you have heard it countless times.  If that is the case for you, accept my invitation to look with fresh eyes and to hear with clear ears.  Delight in the mystery of this unique story.

For me, one key phrase that the angel speaks to Joseph notifies us that extra, even heavenly, assurance is needed.  What is that phrase? –
“Joseph son of David, do not be afraid . . .”
Of what are you afraid?  What causes you to fear?
     The Dark
     Public Speaking
     Things that go bump in the night
     Death . . .

Whatever your fear or fears may be, take heart from Joseph.  God is there.  God knows you and knows your fears and He gives you the strength to face them.

What was Joseph’s fear?  His fear was in following through with their engagement and marrying Mary who he thought had been unfaithful to him.  As a righteous man, he felt stuck; he did not want to disgrace Mary and parade her supposed-adulterous behavior, nor could he marry her and call it justified.

In those days, an engagement was legally binding and had to be ended in divorce.  Joseph decided to divorce her quietly.  That plan made sense to Joseph and no one would have blamed him.  God, however, had other plans.  So He sent one of His angels to visit Joseph during a dream to explain the nature of Mary’s pregnancy and to tell him to fear not!

     Fear not this vision.
     Fear not your doubt.
     Fear not the doubt of others.
     Fear not the ridicule of others.
     Fear not learning to be a husband.
     Fear not learning to be a father. 
     Fear not raising the baby from the Holy Spirit.
     Fear not giving guidance to the one who will save from sins.
     Fear not your role as earthly father to “God with us.”

We know that Joseph listened and did well for, as the last words we read testify, he “woke up . . . and took Mary home as his wife.”  Wow!  How did Joseph deal with his real fear?  What did he do?

He relied on Love.  He trusted in the love of God and he demonstrated his love to his wife and his “son.”

The Love of God
The role God called Joseph to fill was a heavy one.  It tested his faith.  Why else would an angelic visitation be required if not to make the unbelievable story believable, especially to the man who would marry and care for the woman who everyone, including him up until the dream, thought was an unfaithful woman?

Enter the love of God.  And what better way to enter than with one not-so-subtle reminder . . . “Joseph, son of David . . .”

These words reminded Joseph of his family tree and of the promise contained within it.  Indeed, Matthew began his gospel with these words: “A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David . . .”

Joseph heard the angel and knew that he was hearing the message of the God who keeps His promises throughout all history.

Joseph’s Love for Family
In the face of all the doubts, Joseph woke up and took Mary home.  To keep the message of Jesus’ origin clear, the newlywed patiently and lovingly waited until after Jesus’ birth to consummate the marriage.  At the birth, he loved the boy and named him Jesus, “Yahweh is salvation.”

Joseph feared; yet his trust in the love of God and his devotion to loving his wife and the Christ-child provide the fuel to overcome his fear. 

Do you know that fearless love?

After his name, Joseph heard the words, “son of David, do not be afraid.”

After your name, as I say, “child of God, do not be afraid,” how do you respond?

Do you know that fearless love?  Can you go and do as the Lord leads you?  What is He calling you to do?  What holds you back?

“Child of God, do not be afraid.”

Traditions - Part Two

While hot glue replaced melted sugar as the adhesive of choice some thirty years ago (to the delight of our fingertips), most every other element and characteristic of our gingerbread house remains the same as when my family started our version of that holiday construction sixty-four years ago.  A few years ago, my wife did add her own touch with the creation and placement of five gingerbread versions of the five of us in our family as well as a friendly tree-munching moose. 
Align with six-decade-old pattern. 
So the tradition goes. 
Our children (and I, I must confess) continue another less-official, yet equally long-standing tradition between Thanksgiving and the destruction of our artistic creation some time in January.  They (we) slyly reduce the number of Red Hots on the path and "snow" on the roof and yard.  They (we) extend the so-called "five second rule" by say about 100,800 seconds.  I promise two-month-old Twizzlers, while difficult to chew, taste rather good. 

In addition to taste, the house provides other delights.  When I see our handiwork,
I think of how my father, as a teenager, must have sneaked candy; how my grandparents certainly burned their fingers annually with unforgiving melted sugar; and how my father and aunt must have disagreed on the placement of candy.  (I'll have to ask Aunt Judy.) 

I also delight in the memories of joining my parents and two sisters in the yearly adventure of guessing if the uncooked gingerbread would prove to be enough for all the parts and if the walls would remain standing.  Thanks to extra hot glue and discretely placed wood craft sticks, the 2016 house stands!

Sometime next month we will lay the house to rest in our trash can that will empty into the Waste Management truck early on a Thursday morning from which the house will be transferred to a landfill where various birds, rodents, and parasites will digest the sweet tastes. 

Morbid?  Perhaps; yet true. 

Nevertheless, eleven months from now, my family and I will once again mix, roll, glue, etc.  Why?  Because it's our tradition.  Because it's fun.  Because our actual house would somehow seem less full without the crafted little one in it during the latter months of each year. 

At this point in my writing, I, as a preacher and writer, feel obligated to somehow turn this gingerbread story into a parable with a lesson or a clearly stated "So here's the point".  However, I am ignoring that feeling.  I will leave the "Here's the point" to you.  I would love to hear from you about what you conclude. 

Thanks for reading.  Merry Christmas!

And . . . be careful with melted sugar and hot glue guns.

Traditions - Part One

According to my calendar, Winter begins on December 21st.  I'm not one who enjoys arguments, so I must politely state my disagreement.  While surely not arbitrary or random, the dating system of the beginning of Winter appears faulty.  Winter arrived long before and we're still a week away from the "start" of it.  While our snowfall for this season so far is less than most Alaskans (including this one) hope for, it remains snowy white outside.  Only a few diehard leaves cling to branches and the geese flew south long ago.  Winter is here.

While Winter brings some things I don't enjoy such as cold fingers, slick intersections, road-gravel cracked windshields, and falls (I have yet, in all of my sixteen Alaskan winters, made it through without a slip on the ice!), it also brings wonderful things such as snow to play in, ice to skate on, starry nights, neighborhood house light displays, sledding hills, and eggnog.  

Winter also brings out traditions.  Two of my favorite family traditions occur in late November or early December every year.  Each year, along with several traditions and newly-discovered activities, we engage in our tradition of setting up our Christmas tree and building our gingerbread house.  Next week I'll tell you about the latter.  Today I invite you into our Tree Tradition.  

As far back as I can remember, in my more than forty years, I have settled only once for a "fake" tree.  I believe in the real deal - smell, sap, needles, and all.  While everything else for our decorating for Christmas rests in boxes and tubs most months of the year, our tree is new each and every year -- sometimes from Home Depot; sometimes from Lowe's; and, occasionally, self-felled.  I remember years where string and wires held our tree in place when a stand alone would not do.  Yet, every year a tree stands in our home.  Once it does, traditions within the tradition begin.  First, we unpack our ornament boxes and search for and sort our treasures.  I do so nearly religiously.  My wife will vouch for me on that.  Displacing bubble wrap, tissue paper, and protective boxes, I lay my collection out, reassuring myself that each ornament is accounted for from my fist ornament (a baby boy in blue footies) to my Beagle Scout Snoopy; from my white bear to my tennis-playing Santa; all the way through.  I cherish those tiny possessions.  I resist the temptation to hang all of my ornaments front and center on the tree.  I'm still learning to share!  Plus, it would really look bad for me to relegate my children's treasures to the rear.  I'm getting better; I promise!

Along with those tree decisions, we face another.  What goes on the top?  No, not an angel.  Hear me out on this.  I dig the Bible's accounts of Gabriel meeting Zechariah, archangel Michael fighting with the devil over Moses' body (see Jude), and the studly two who escorted Lot and his bunch out of Sodom.  But I just cannot get into the images of exceptionally beautiful (and, for some reason, blond) or "Precious Moments"-delightful, or star-shiny angels.  So we've tried several tree-toppers.  Lately we have granted our kids permission to pick a stuffed friend to rest atop.  The orange-antlered moose often wins.

This year we took a different approach.  Several years ago we received a "Christmas Nail" as a gift.  A poem accompanied the nail.

This is The Christmas Nail.
It is to be hung on a sturdy branch,
a branch near the trunk,
a branch that will hold such a spike without being noticed by well-wishers
dropping by to admire one's tinseled tree.
The nail is known only to the home that hangs it.
Understood only by the heart that knows its significance.
It is hung with the thought...that the Christmas tree but foreshadows the Christ-tree which only He could decorate for us,
ornamented with nails as this.
I like the Nail.  I strongly dislike the poem.  "Hold such a spike without being noticed."  Really?  Christ decorating the "Christ-tree."  Seriously?  

So I kept the nail and threw away the poem.  (I had to Google it in order to share it with you.)

This year the moose finds another home and the Nail hangs from the pinnacle.  To be noticed.  To "tell" of Jesus' birth as the arrival of the One who would die on a tree.

Within our Tree Tradition, we broke from tradition - first by giving a moose the angel's place and then offering that place to the Nail.  Who knows?  Will that become a tradition?  We don't know.  As long as we don't surrender the top to a cute angel again, I'll be OK.

But for now, each time my eyes rest on the Nail, I remember to say "Thank you" to the One . . .
6 Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:6-11

Early Thank Yous

Fifty-one blogs ago, I started posting The Ordinary Life.  I committed to celebrating the ordinary things of life.  One year later, my determination to do so remains.  It does so because reasons to celebrate still abound.  For example, after a relatively lengthy delay, snow finally covers the ground outside my windows.  Perfectly white flakes continue to fall from the sky, covering boring pavement and long-since dead grass.  Beauty returns.  

Very much related to that blanket of snow joy, I celebrate the fact that now my wife and I (and other enthusiasts) can clean the garage ("garage" as an adjective, not a noun.  Who wants to clean a garage?!) dust from our skis and head to the Kincaid Park trails and later, joined by our three children, strap on the downhill version and carve the slopes.  

Before I fail to mention another closely-related ordinary joy, I must cheer for the cookies joined by marshmallow-covered cocoa that we will consume.

I am compelled during these cold months to also give a "shout out" to the . . .
     - sheep whose wool warms my feet

     - geese whose down heats my core
     - people who design the fabrics that make 5-degree-weather skiing possible

In about three weeks, many "thank yous" will be mailed and handed to those who gave gifts in celebration of Christ's birth or at least in a spirit of holiday generosity.  Yet we need not wait for December 26th for pen to meet paper.  I offer an idea to you today.  How about writing that thank you note before you receive gifts?  How about telling through pen, text, or spoken word, reasons for which you are thankful for them?  Let's give it a try.  Buy a few cards, grab your tablet, push the Message App on your phone, and give expression to your gratitude.

It's never too early to say (or write) thank you.