Perplexity, Inquiry, Clarity

I was pretty baffled as a kid about twelve days the famous Christmas song referred to. There were 24 days on the Advent calendar, 8 days in Hanukkah, 4 Sundays of Advent in church…which 12 days was it?

The Twelve Days of Christmas refers to the twelve days starting with Christmas and ending the night before Epiphany on January 6, which commemorates the visit of the wise men, or Magi, to the baby Jesus. Along with the rich theological meaning of their visit, this year I got to wondering about their personalities — what kind of people sacrifice so much out of curiosity?

The Magi must have been perplexed by what they saw in the stars, and their willingness to inquire resulted in their clarity — a moment of epiphany that inspired them to rejoice with exceeding greatness (“overjoyed” in the NIV.) Jesus’ life would continue to puzzle people, including his closest followers. As the Magi did at the beginning of Jesus’ life, so Jesus’ disciples would do toward the end of his earthly life. John 16:16-24 records part of a longer dialogue where we can see the disciples moving from perplexity, through inquiry, and eventually to clarity.

When we are perplexed, or even when our worldview feels threatened, there are some unhealthy ways to react. We can react with fear, by fighting new ideas or running away from them. We can react with cynicism, deciding that it’s not worth it to seek knowledge and understanding. But as author Carey Nieuwhof puts it: “An incredibly effective antidote to cynicism is curiosity” (Didn’t See It Coming, 2018, p. 26). That leads to inquiry.

When we inquire about Jesus, God, or other aspects of life and faith, we should remember that asking is part of faith, not antithetical to it. The disciples had no idea what was going on for most of their experience with Jesus recorded in the gospels. And yet they were people of great faith. And if you are someone who gets asked a lot of questions, do what Jesus did: engage. Graciously offer Biblical answers if you have them. Humbly admit when answers elude you. And then reengage the process of inquiry again, even with others who are asking good questions.

Finally, clarity is promised by Jesus, but on the one condition that we make our inquiries and requests “in Jesus’ name.” What does that mean? It means aligning our desires with God’s will, just as Jesus’ will was perfectly aligned with the Father’s. It means, to the best of our ability, asking for what Jesus asks for. Seeking what Jesus seeks. Relinquishing our own agendas for the world and anticipating God to give us the clarity we need, when we need it.

For reflection:
– What is something the Christian faith proclaims that you find perplexing? (If you can’t think of anything, what do you think other people might find perplexing?)
– What sorts of things might you ask God for that you believe align with God’s will?
– Have you ever had an “epiphany” about Jesus, God, or yourself? Find someone to tell that story to!

Many blessings in this new year!

The Manger Is the Message

In Philippians 2:6-7, we read about the second person of the divine Trinity, the Son of God, “making himself nothing.” What does Paul mean? The theological term for this is kenosis which essentially means “emptying.” But it doesn’t mean Jesus was no longer divine, but rather that Jesus refused to take advantage of his divinity as he lived out his human life. He fully entered the brokenness of humanity — the brokenness we do and don’t create ourselves.

Jesus was born into an ethnic minority that had experienced the ravages of persecution and genocide throughout the generations. Jesus reveals a God who identifies with refugees, the poor, and the underprivileged. If you’ve ever had a personal experience of a truly impoverished person, you’re not likely to forget it. Pastor Aaron shared a story of meeting a boy named Pedro in Mexico who had only two things to his name: one square of toilet paper a day, and a tattered toy bear. That was it. Something runs deep within each of us that screams “This just isn’t right.” Not because the goal of life is to have more stuff. But because of the injustice of a child living without the essentials of a healthy life. And Jesus himself claimed to be Pedro’s servant by taking Pedro’s form.

In Luke 4:17-21, Jesus himself recalled the words of Isaiah, who described the purpose of the Messiah. And as followers of the Messiah, we the Church have not only a lot of work to do, but a clear manner in which to do it: with humility. Thomas Merton wrote: “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire about whether or not they are worthy.”

As we move into 2019, consider the impact of not only bringing the good message of Jesus to the broken world, but embodying that message in the same way Jesus did: with humility.

For Reflection:
– What would it look like for you to take a step toward serving your community with more humility that you did last year?
– What might be holding you back from serving more humbly? Money? Time? Fear? Consider bringing those obstacles honestly to God in prayer.
– If you live in the UPPC community, consider new upcoming opportunities to serve.  Visit > Serve

Rewriting the Tape

We are caught between two stories. One tells us what we are supposed to be. The other tells us what we are. One tells us what is possible if we try. The other tells us what is possible in spite of our failures. One tells us what Christmas can be. The other tells us what Christmas is. Which story will you be a part of?

Theologian Karl Barth was once asked by a student to articulate the most important of all Christian doctrines. He answered in six words: “Jesus loves me, this I know.” Despite so many things we think we might need, especially during the holidays, the most pressing need of the human experience is to understand the meaning of these six words. Why?

Each of us has a sort of “tape recorder” that plays in our minds (okay younger readers, a DVR). It repeats basic messages, usually about who we are. And they’re usually discouraging. It says things like “You’re not good enough.” “You’re too (insert any physical feature here like thin, fat, hairy, etc.)” “You’re just average.” “You’ll never find someone who loves you.” And so on.

The gospel (“good news”) of Jesus also repeats a message about who we are. It’s a simple, down-to-earth message. Its simplicity might actually be why so many people miss it. But it has been on repeat since the first Christmas, but each new generation has to discover its meaning. The message is: In Jesus, you are a child of God.

Understanding our identity as children of God has nothing to do with our efforts or achievements. It has nothing to do with anything that might bolster our self-esteem. Jesus did not come to give us better self-esteem; Jesus came to share with us “God-esteem.” In Pastor Aaron’s words: “Jesus came to empower us with all the rights, blessings, and responsibilities of what it means to be God’s children and to transform us from fear-based life to a confident, love-filled life. This is our new identity.” Never forget the sequence of events. First, God so loved the world. Then God gave his Son.

Rather than reflection questions today, I’d like to offer the four one-line prayers we prayed today, and invite you to pray these prayers throughout the Christmas season:
– Lord, rewind the tape in my mind and rewrite the message I hear.
– Lord, renew my mind that I may believe in your esteem for me.
– Lord, soften my heart that I may feel your embrace and acceptance.
– Lord, ready my hands that they may respond with love to others.

Merry Christmas,

A Baby Changes Everything

Emmanuel — God with us.

In Jesus Christ, God chose to dwell with us in the most ordinary way. What does this mean? At the very least, it means you do not have to earn God’s attention. God is seeking and pursuing you.

God’s pursuit of humanity came in the form of a baby, and as the song says, “A Baby Changes Everything.” Anyone who has ever had a baby knows that is true in so many ways. But in the case of this baby, the Christ-child, everything that matters most to us and to the world is changed.

Or…it isn’t. But it can’t be both. The fact is that we get to make our own decision about whether or not Jesus changed everything. If God did not choose to become flesh, if the baby Jesus doesn’t change everything, then the world and the universe in which it resides is a cold and empty place. The task defining life’s meaning falls to us. The burden of judging and forgiving sin falls to us. The burden of saving the world falls to us. Are we up to the task?

But if God does dwell with us, first in the Christ-child, then by the Holy Spirit, the everything that matters most is changed. It’s changed forever. It’s changed for good, and for the good, and for everyone.

For reflection:
1) Did the baby Jesus change “everything?” What part of “everything” do you see that Jesus changed, and what part of “everything” do you feel has remained the same as always?
2) Does it change how you might relate to God to realize that God is first pursuing you, rather than the other way around?

A blessed Christmas,

Down to Earth: Flesh Comes Down

I’ve noticed a disconnect in our midst.  Pretty much everything I’ve read and everyone I’ve talked to bemoans the divisiveness in our culture these days.  No one seems to be celebrating it.  But on the other hand, most people seem to also agree that the divisions are increasing, not decreasing.  So, why the disconnect? 

One possible reason is because of all of the talking.  Beyond interpersonal dialogue, the internet has become a free-for-all of anyone’s ideas about anything.  So much talk that can lead us to create our identities around ideas, rather than actual issues.  And these “identity-based ideologies” are “by the far the more potent predictor of social distance.”*

In his brief letter to the Philippians, Paul is writing  to a church struggling with divisiveness, and he offers one of the most theologically and poetically rich passages about Jesus in all of scripture, and maybe in all Christian literature.  In only 3 verses, Paul describes the lengths to which God went to surpass mere talk of love and instead show his love to us in the flesh.

In Jesus, God is present in the flesh. 
Jesus’ birth in the manger is much more than just the arrival of a great prophet or teacher.  And Paul describes God’s presence in Jesus in two distinct ways.

1) In Jesus, God is present in the flesh as God.  
Jesus “very nature” is God, and he shares “equality” with God.  Paul begins this way because if we miss Jesus’ divinity, we miss the miracle of Jesus’ birth in the flesh.  It is precisely because Jesus’ very nature is divine that his birth fulfills the promise of Isaiah, that God would dwell with us.  Jesus’ birth as God among us fulfills the deepest human longing to be near the Creator.

2) In Jesus, God is present in the flesh as human.
God’s choice to be human does not empty him of his divinity.  The phrase in the NIV “made himself nothing” can be misleading.  The Greek verb kenoō denotes an emptying but is used figuratively to connote a neutralization of effect, or an emptying of significance.  So Jesus did not relinquish his equality with God, but rather chose to lay his divine power aside in his life in the flesh.  N.T. Wright puts it this way: “The decision to become human, and to go all the way along the road of obedience — this decision was not a decision to stop being divine. It was a decision about what it really meant to be divine,” which is to offer self-sacrificial love.**

Jesus’ human life reveals what it means to be divine, and also what it means to be human.  It is to be God’s image-bearers, capable of loving our communities as God loves — in the flesh.  

Faith in Action: 
1) What is one practical step you could take this Christmas season to embody God’s loving kindness in person?  Who needs to hear in your voice or see in your face God’s down-to-earth love?
2) Maybe even more challenging — from whom are you longing to experience that in-person kindness?  Is there someone who should know that you need to reconnect, even reconcile with them? 

Many blessings this Advent,

*”Why Has America Become So Divided?” Psychology Today, 9/5/18.
**N.T. Wright, NT for Everyone, Philippians 2:6-8.

Down to Earth: Love Comes Down

The season known as “Advent” is a time of “spiritual pregnancy,” as we wait for the arrival of our long-anticipated savior.  At the same time, we are Christmas people, and the baby of the manger is already alive and amongst us by the presence of God’s Holy Spirit.  So the season of Advent is a time of waiting, a time of remembering, and a time of celebrating.

We live in a culture of deep divisions.  Social ideologies compete with each other for a place at the table, partisan politics (which so many people seem to dislike) still makes top headline (which so many people seem to watch).  When the apostle (which means “one who is sent”) Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, he was unable to visit them in person because he was stuck in prison.  But his concern over some divisive issues went ahead of him in the form of his letter, the inspired wisdom of which we still benefit from today. 

In Philippians 2:1-4, Paul begins with an indirect question: “Has your faith in Jesus made any difference?”  Because if it has, that difference should be noticeable in people’s lives.  In particular, in the way Jesus’ people treat each other.  Advent and Christmas introduce an entirely new way of living that imitates the character of the one born in the manger, the one called the Prince of Peace.

But even many of Jesus’ followers today are trading in the peacemaking narrative of Christmas for an unfulfillable promise of material comfort that places us on the busy hamster wheel — all our efforts amounting to so little by the time January rolls around.  What did you get for Christmas last year, after all?

So let’s be counter-cultural and consider a couple of things on this first week of Advent.
1) We do not always have to agree because there is a love we can agree on.
– Speaking of hamster wheels, if we think agreement on “issues” is the path to peace, we’ll be spinning that wheel until our last days.  That kind of agreement has never been a prerequisite for peace.  But the new way of living that Christmas calls us to is an agreement that the one love of God in which we share transcends and unites us all, in all.
2) We do not have to win in order to win.     
– Putting others’ interests before our own is truly counter-intuitive.  But consider the freedom within it.  And consider the harm we do in the name of “winning.”  The incarnation of God in the humble feed-trough is a revolutionary reminder that winning based on God’s criteria looks very different than winning based on the world’s.

For reflection: 
1) Think of someone with whom you have a fundamental disagreement.  What would have to happen for you and that person to find agreement in God’s love, so that you’re not divided by your disagreement?  Make a move to make it happen this week.
2) What would it take for you to “come in second place”?  In your next argument?  In the parking lot at the mall?  In the dangerous game of “who gave the best gift?” 
3) What kind of reward might you get from being “second place”? 

Many blessings this Advent season,


The Silence is Holy

(A Christmas gift for UPPC Group Life followers: an early blog!  Life gets busy during the weeks surrounding Christmas, so I wanted to get this to you now.  There will be another blog entry after the message on Dec. 31, but not until Tuesday Jan. 2.  –Mike)

Matthew 1:18-25

Mary and JosephCut off.  Alone.  That’s how Mary and Joseph might have felt.

The census Caesar decreed meant that Bethlehem was filled to bursting with every cousin, grandparent, and third-cousin-twice-removed who traced their lineage to the line of David.  It probably felt a bit like some people’s Christmas gatherings, come to think of it.

So Mary and Joseph’s urgent need placed them in a vulnerable situation.  Physically, because she was about to give birth.  And socially, because who wants her to give birth in their living room?  They must have felt so alone.

Ironically, alone was the last thing they were.  Because moving and kicking inside of his mother’s womb was the very Lord of creation Himself, ready to disembark.  Or, perhaps, to embark on what would become the most important life in all history.  The life of “God with us.”  No more would he be enshrouded behind a cloud on a mountaintop.  No more would he be relegated to a tabernacle-tent.  No more would he be veiled behind the temple curtain.  God chose to be with us.  And he meant it.

For reflection:

  1. Have you ever felt truly alone?  What led to that loneliness?  What did you do to cope?
  2. Have you ever known someone who was lonely?  What could/did you do in response?
  3. If God chose to be with us in the flesh then, how does God choose to be with us in the flesh now?
  4. Imagine having an encounter with another human being that convinced you God was right there with you.  What would that encounter be like?


Merry Christmas!

Pastor Mike

The Sounds of Christmas

Luke 1:67-80, “A Parent’s Joy”

There are times when God seems silent.

There are times when we need to be silent.

And there are times when we need to burst forth in joyful song!  Today was a day to break the silence of Advent; a time to cast our minds forward to the fulfillment of God’s promises.

As Jesus’ people, we live an “already-not-yet” existence.  In Christ, the Kingdom of God has already come, breaking into our world with the rushing wind of God’s Holy Spirit.  But the Kingdom of God has not yet been fulfilled, evident in the broken, but healing, world in which God has placed us.  And so Jesus’ people are to be characterized by a unique sort of waiting.

Like the moment after the orchestral overture, but before the curtain rises, we wait with baited breath, with eager anticipation, with joyful excitement.  For we know that what we wait for will come.  And it will be worth the wait.

For reflection:

  1. Can you recall a time in your past when you just had to share some good news?  When you burst forth with joy?
  2. Have you ever known someone who was so full of excitement, enthusiasm, or joy that they couldn’t keep silent?
  3. In seasons when God seems silent, how do you suppose you might maintain hope?
  4. In seasons when the noisy din of humanity drowns out the peace-giving presence of God, what could you do to find peace?
  5. In seasons when you’re blessed with joy, what can you do to express it?

Many blessings,



Silence of the People

Luke 1:5-22

Last week, we began this Advent contemplation of “Silence” by looking at the painful silence that accompanies a longing for the voice of God.  But even when God sent a messenger to Zechariah, to announce the coming of a new prophet John the Baptist, there was a need for a new kind of silence — the silence of the people.

The story of Zechariah’s life-changing encounter with the angel Gabriel is linked above.  But in sum, Zechariah and his wife are childless and elderly, but when God reveals that Elizabeth will bear a son who will be a prophet, Zechariah can’t believe it.  In response, the angel makes him mute until the day the child will be born.

Of course, when you read it, it’s clear that Zechariah’s muteness is a sort of punishment.  But really, I see it as more of a discipline, that is, something imposed upon him for the sake of teaching him an important lesson.  Perhaps the lesson was something like, “Oh, you don’t think God can do this?  Well, how about you stop using your mouth for a season and learn how to use your other senses; your ears, your eyes.  Observe and see all that God can and will do.”

Had he not been silenced, we might conclude that Zechariah might have rationalized his experience away, like Scrooge does when he’s getting creeped out the night before his ghostly encounters: “Perhaps a bit of bad beef…”

But because Zechariah was silenced, he was actually blessed with the opportunity to observe all that God can and will do in God’s own time, and with God’s own power.  And thankfully, it is all for the benefit of the world.

For reflection:

  1. Would it be hard for you to not speak for nine months?  Discuss.
  2. Have you ever had an experience of slowing down and turning off the noise of your life?  What was it like?
  3. Why do you think God seems to insist on encountering people in simple, humble, and easy-to-miss ways, as he does with Elijah at Horeb (1 Kings 19:12)?

Many blessings,


Silence of the Prophets

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, a period of waiting for the arrival of the Messiah, Jesus.  We recognize Advent in a few ways.  (1) We anticipate the Christmas holiday, of course (think “Advent calendar.”)  (2) We acknowledge that we are currently in a period of waiting for Jesus’ return and the final consummation of God’s creation.  (3) We remember the time before Jesus’ birth, sometimes referred to as “the silence of the prophets,” during which people waited for centuries to hear a word from God.

Of course, even before this relative silence, people would cry out to God in times of distress.  One in particular, the prophet Habakkuk, articulates the kind of prayer one might even hear today as he asks God to explain why the world around him is so full of wickedness.  God, it seems to Habakkuk, is silent.  Ironically, God has plenty to say in this 3-chapter book, and reveals the plan for God’s people to be conquered by the terrifying Babylonians.

Later, the voice of God would fall silent for generations.  This silence, perhaps, cultivated in people a longing, an anticipation, for God to act.  To save.  To anoint a particular king who would usher in a new and permanent era for God’s people and the world.  This king was known in Hebrew as the moshiach or Messiah.

For reflection:

  1. Do you have an experience of trying to hear from God, but “hearing” nothing?  What was it like?  Did it ever change?
  2. Habakkuk actually has two complaints: one about his own people and one about the invading Babylonians.  Which do you find more concerning today, the problems within your community, or problems that threaten from outside your community?
  3. Think of something you had to wait for.  There was nothing you could do to speed up the process, and maybe you didn’t even know when the waiting would end.  Is there anything you learned?  Did the waiting shape you in any way?
  4. If you’re currently in a period of waiting, especially for God to do something, what are some ways you can learn or mature because of the waiting?