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Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Praise, Praise, Praise and more Praise

I'm amazed at how quickly Advent has come and gone. Time flies by so quickly at this time of year, which is the main reason I make it a point at this time of year to sit down and read through the birth stories of Jesus and let them simply sink into my heart and soul. This means slow reading, letting each of the scenes rest for a while in my imagination and heart as they settle inside, coming together in a story of simplicity and great depth, of bewilderment and questions, of trust and faith, messiness and more.
This year the overarching theme that has risen up within me from the settling inside is praising God. Beginning with Elizabeth and Mary, moving onto the angels and shepherds, then to Simeon and Anna and finally the Magi; they all respond with praise and worship. Their immediate situations don't change; as far as that goes, Mary's situation became much more difficult, along with Joseph's, and yet praise is the primary response to the news and coming of Jesus.
The shepherds go back to tending their sheep, still despised by most of the townspeople, the Magi go home, swinging around Jerusalem, Simeon and Anna are never heard from again and likely pass away shortly afterwards, the angels head back to heaven where Jesus isn't there, at least for a time. Still, though nothing seems to change on the outside, the response is praise!
What's your response to Jesus' birth? Is it praise? Is there something preventing you from praising God? Last week I received news my father was in the hospital again and his heart is not so strong anymore. Naturally, the first thing was to pray for healing and for God's presence with my dad, but then it struck me, is this going to keep me from praising God? Christmas has a bitter sweet place inside of me since my mother died just before Christmas and my brother died just after Christmas, both many years ago, yet when Christmas comes, the memories come back too. Then the what ifs kicked in, what if my dad died as well? Would I, could I still praise God right now? As I worked this through inside myself, I realized there is so much to give praise for: my dad knows Jesus, he taught me about Jesus and showed me how important it is that knowing about Jesus impacts how I live, not just what I think, that belief shapes what I do and who I am as a person. My dad is not afraid of death because he knows death is not the end because of Jesus. As the oldest son, and a rather stubborn son at that, my dad and I haven't always been close, but over the last decade, we've grown closer as we've learned to appreciate who the other person is. Another thing to give thanks for and to praise God for.
But how about you, do you give praise only when God answers your prayers the way you want or expect? That's rather simply and shallow if that's the only time you praise God. Can you give praise when God says 'no.' Do you give praise for the ordinary everyday kinds of things? Things like family, friends, food on your table, a roof over your head, your health, beauty around you, neighbours and a neighbourhood to be in, jobs, your mind, your church family, and so much more. They may not be perfect, but then you aren't either.
And of course you are invited to join Mary, the shepherds, angels, magi and others in praising God for his goodness, for the gift of his son who came in order to die for us that we might once again be right with God. Praise God! You can come praise God because of the gift of the Holy Spirit who is also Emmanuel, God with us; meaning you are never alone, God is always with you, no matter your circumstances. Praise changes you even when your situations don't because praise creates gratefulness and joy, shining light and hope even if the darkness is deep.
By the way, my dad should be alright, but the day is coming, sooner or later when I shall have to say those good byes, but the Christmas story brings me to a place where I can praise God no matter what comes.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Spirituality: what is it to you?

Over the past few weeks I've heard a number of people quote statistics that say the province I live in, Quebec, is "spiritual" but not religious and been thinking about what it means to be spiritual. I've been reading Eugene Peterson's Subversive Spirituality to prepare for our deep discipleship group's reflection for next month on spirituality, and now, honestly, I still can't define exactly what spirituality, or being spiritual, really is. People in church will say they're not being spiritually fed, or they'll say they're spiritual and don't need to attend the church and I'm never sure exactly what they want or who they're saying they are. Mostly I see people who aren't much different than any of my neighbours who never go to church or even believe in God.
What struck me with Eugene Peterson's book is a comment he made about spirituality, he goes something like this: when we are healthy and good in our relationship with God we don't think a whole lot about spirituality, but if we're off the track in some way with our relationship with God, we blame it on the church's lack of focus on spirituality. It seems to me that spirituality is mostly about living right with God and with others and when we start living in a way that causes us to drift away from God's ways, or we get into dysfunctional or unhealthy relationships with others, all of a sudden we get a desire for "spirituality" and we start looking to find a way to "feel" good about ourselves again, usually meaning we're trying to find a way to justify the way we're doing things, or the way we're living, then we say we're tapping into our "spirituality." I think most times we're just fooling ourselves instead.
Maybe we need to get back to a simpler faith instead, live according to how God calls us to live with him and each other. The problem is this is a lot easier said than done since the way to live God's way is to live with love; healthy love where we are looking out for the best for others, not the artificial love Hollywood would have us believe is real love. A young man blamed me for not warning him how hard it was going to be to live like a follower of Jesus. When I asked him what he meant, he told me he was finding it really hard to live in a way that focuses on helping others to see what living in healthy ways is. He realized that this is what loving your neighbour is all about. But that means caring a lot and being willing to take a chance to confront his friends, co-workers and even family when he would notice something in what they were doing or how they living that was hurting themselves or others. Yet when I pushed him on how he was doing with God, he mentioned that by working so hard at really living out this loving your neighbour thing, that his relationship with God was stronger than he expected. He had thought because his friends and others ignored his advice so often, that he would feel guilty because of his lack of success, instead he believes he understands God's love for us a lot better now since we're so often like his friends, not really listening to God's advice.
Perhaps spirituality is simply nothing more than reading our Bible more faithfully to get to know God better, and than living out the way of living Jesus laid out for us. It's not about "feelings," but about a commitment to a deep caring of the people around us, along with talking with God through prayer, and spending time with God's people who are trying to live the same way so you can encourage each other, help each other and worship God together.