There can be no vulnerability without risk; there can be no community without vulnerability;
there can be no peace, and ultimately no life, without community. - M. Scott Peck

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Old Year, New Year

God gave us seven days between Christmas and New Years so we could recover from the Christmas rush and get ready for the New Year. Good and gracious God. I’ve had some quiet time to do some thinking. If you sat this week and thought about your small group, what would you tell us? Here are some of my thoughts about our group:

- All 11 guys carved out some time to dive deeper in a weekend retreat – an amazing experience for all of us
- This group leader has deepened his faith and moved forward in his faith journey because of the guys in my group - thanks for the blessing
- If you haven’t felt challenged, angry, confused, exhilarated, authentic, excited, sad, dishonest, humbled, questioning, hurt, like a “poser”, hopeful, more trusting, guilty, arrogant, closer to God, farther from God, are you really leading and is it an authentic group
- One guy’s commitment to Baltimore Station has kept the rest of us grounded in the needs of others and humbled by the effort some people at the Station put in to remaking their lives
- Anger, lust, guilt, money, priorities, and many, many more topics were wrestled with and dealt with real honesty
- Watching a guy struggle to save his business is hard, but not as hard as trying to save it
- Memorizing verses from scripture can anchor your life: “I know that in all things God works for the good of those who love God.” (Paul to the Romans)
- The singing is getting better, but the guitar playing is still a work in progress
- Feeling the presence and power of God work every week in a small group is awesome
- Sharing the pain of one guy’s impending separation and the relief of a Christmas shared with family who loves him makes Christmas special
- There are great cooks in our group who are beginning to get a handle on portion control
- Struggling with whether you believe in God or not is a great reason to be in a Nativity small group
- Blogging is like journaling only more public and more scary
- Telling your story – and multiple times - to a group of guys you have come to trust will change the way you tell your story next time
- Authentic relationships only come when people help keep each other honest
- Three new guys joining the group can make the group even stronger
- Staying connected with a brother in Afghanistan is hard – prayers help
- Christmas pot luck suppers are a lot of fun – and quite tasty
- Nativity message series are not for the faint of faith – they will challenge you, threaten some of your old beliefs, and grow you as a follower of Christ
- Eldredge on prayer can change you relationship with God – really
- The challenge of a small group is to become more authentic in your relationship with God and everyone around you
- “Posing” is hard to do for long in a healthy small group
- How does a tight group who enjoy coming together face the challenge of opening up to more guys who need what a great group can offer – prayer

I am blessed by my group and my Heavenly Father’s real presence there. My prayer for 2011 is that all of you and many, many more are blessed by the grace and gift of a strong, healthy, authentic small group. Happy New Year.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Christmas Gap

Focusing on the simple story of Christmas this Advent opens up so many parts of the story that I have missed over the years. I always think of Advent in terms of “expectation” and “repentance” and “preparation” and “sacrifice.” How do I prepare for Christmas? What should I give up during Advent for penance? How do I get ready for the coming of Jesus? All good stuff. But “healing” was never an Advent word for me.
Our group spent some time talking about healing and what we needed to have healed or restored in our lives. One guy needs his heart healed in the middle of a painful separation and likely divorce. One of us (who probably spoke for many of us) needs to be healed from the pride that makes him want to do it all alone. Another member wants healing from the deep loneliness that settles on his heart during the holidays. Another wants healing from the anger that quickly rises to the surface.
As I listened, I thought of the gap that exists at Christmas. There is such longing at this time of year for happiness, joy, contentment, fulfillment, and peace. And yet there are so many stories of sadness, loneliness, depression, anxiety, stress, and even ill will and tragedy. The Christmas Gap. It was amazing how the areas that need healing in our lives seem to rise more quickly and more frequently to the surface during Christmas and can overwhelm the happiness and joy that we really want during this season.
And then we try to fill the gap - with Ipads, new cars, bigger screen TV’s, expensive parties, pretty decorations, busyness, expensive presents and lots of them. Our culture certainly recognizes the gap. But it seems to offer only one solution – bigger, more, more often. Most of us have tried those gap fillers with limited and very short term success. I can fend off my unhappiness and longings with new stuff for a while, but I’m quickly in search of what’s next to fill the gap that hasn’t gone away.
God understands the Christmas Gap and knows that the way we try to fill it – even in Jesus’ time – is focused on the wrong things. We try to satisfy desires. God is about healing hearts. So God gave us the simple story of Christmas. And healing and restoration are such an important part of it. God fills the Christmas Gap with faithfulness and the promise of a restored heart; by sending Jesus in the most humble form with the most powerful message of healing and restoration. The Christmas Gap is only really filled by the healing and restoration of our hearts in Jesus.
Trying to satisfy my wants with stuff only exposes the deep longings of my heart. Advent points to the restoring and healing of our hearts as the only way to satisfy our deepest desires. Where do you need to fill the gap - have your heart healed and restored this Christmas? Whose heart can you help heal and restore this Christmas? Spend Less. Give More. Love Others. Worship Fully.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Simple Story

We talked about what we hoped for at Christmas in group this week. We hoped our kids (and grand kids) would come to understand the meaning of Advent and Christmas. We hoped for more family time without outside distractions. We hoped for a new start in our lives. We all had hopes.
But what did we base our hopes on? Is G0d the source of our hope? That was a tougher question. If you view God as a God Judgment (which my God was for years), it can be difficult to center your hope there. If God is solely the "Final Evaluator" of how we lived our lives, hope can be fleeting. Maybe it's this view of God that has many people looking elsewhere for hope. Unfortunately, they often find a false hope based on what our consumer culture promises. Christmas consumerism leads to brief happiness, but always disappoints. Our Christmas story places hope in a completely different context.
In the face of the story of the birth of Jesus and what it means for our future salvation, the false hope of a consumer oriented Christmas is shattered. Our Christmas story is one of true, lasting, unwavering hope. Our Christmas is grounded in God's faithfulness demonstrated over the centuries (Abraham, Jesse, and David attest to this faithfulness). It is God's faithfulness that Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the Magi placed their hope and trust in. It is God's faithfulness to us - personally and individually - that is the center of our Christmas story.
The players in the first Christmas story were certainly afraid, doubtful, and questioning (just like me). Even for a trusting person, this is a pretty amazing story - angels appearing in the night sky announcing to mere shepherds; shepherds abandoning their flocks (the sheep owner can't be happy with that move); three rich guys following a single star for weeks not knowing where they were going; a husband putting his new bride and soon to be born child in a dirty stable; a young woman at the center of it all who must have been the most amazed of all. Quite a story for the birth of the Son of God.
The amazing events of Jesus' birth can't help but give us comfort - no matter what the turmoil in our lives. Our God is a God of faithfulness and not merely judgment. The Christmas story points to a God who is eternally and individually faithful. It is a story that should overcome all our fears and give us great hope.
I am spending more time this Advent sitting with the simple story of Bethlehem, the faithfulness of my God, and the real reasons for me to be hopeful this Christmas. Are you hopeful this Christmas? Are you sharing your hope grounded in God's faithfulness with others who are searching for a Merry Christmas? The simple stories can be the most amazing.

Monday, December 6, 2010

It's A Conspiracy

We shared our Christmas experiences in group this week and I was struck by how much of what was shared went against the popular image of being “merry gentlemen.” There was loneliness, anxiety, separation, loss, routine gift giving or no gift giving, family conflicts. Not the stuff of Hallmark cards.

As I listened, three thoughts rolled around in my mind. First, Fr. White said we need to “Christianize Christmas.” Next, Advent Conspiracy talks about Black Friday being a “worship event” for many. And finally one of the guys in our group commented that in his life “Invariably, ‘stuff’ doesn’t deliver.” I guess it’s not hard to see how the emotions many of us expressed surface when set in the context of these three phrases. We have let the simple Christmas story get away from us and we’re finding little real fulfillment in what our consumer society has offered in its place.

At the heart, Christmas is a really simple story. God loving us so much that Jesus is sent to restore our hearts and deepen our relationships. And it's that story that makes these simple phrases so powerful: Worship fully. Spend less. Give more. Love all.

How did Christmas get so complicated? How did it lose its depth of meaning? How did we let it get so out of hand? Interesting questions, but probably not very productive to spend a lot of time on those questions. We’re being challenged to spend time in much more productive ways that directly impact those questions. Worship fully. Spend less. Give more. Love all. But, in the face of the tidal wave of Christmas that is sweeping toward us, these simple phrases are not so simple to live. Especially if you try to make them come to life in very personal ways.

Giving to provide lunches for kids in Haiti – that’s a home run. Carving out more time for personal prayer during Advent - a stretch maybe, but doable. Spend less? Give more? Now that’s where I’m pulled up short. Ellen and I worked on the Advent Conspiracy concepts last year and it planted some seeds in us. And it seems to be bearing fruit this year. We suggested to one of our daughters that, instead of giving us some wine as she had planned, she donate the money to the Haiti lunch program. The seed was planted last year and she didn’t bat an eye at the idea. A check was written and the conspiracy spread. We have the AC2 bags from church for the rest of our children. We expect the response to be as positive. But now the real test – what do I give Ellen for Christmas?

The lesson for me continues to be that it’s personal. Once Ellen and I changed the way we looked at Christmas, it was easier to show others a different way to approach Christmas. Such a small change - one person, two people, three people. But what if those numbers multiplied? What if others joined? What if small pockets of our culture could change the way they celebrate the birth of Jesus? What if…it’s a conspiracy.