What? Christmas Time and NO JESUS?

When people come into our home this time of year, the first thing they see is a small nativity scene set up on a table in the front hallway.  There isn’t anything particularly unusual about our nativity scene except for one thing:  there is no Jesus in the manger. 
No, it didn’t get lost over the years.
No, my kids didn’t break it when they were little.
No, Carly hasn’t chewed on it (at least not yet).
Every year when the decorations are brought out, someone in our family has responsibility for hiding the baby Christ child — until Christmas Day.  The empty manger helps re-create the sense of anticipation in our home throughout the month of December.  It’s a fun tradition and a practical one from a spiritual perspective.
In this day and age, when we are part of an impatient culture, it’s easy to miss the opportunity to be still and ponder the anticipation of Jesus’ coming.  There is so much opportunity for worship and to experience joy and peace in this rich season of anticipation!
Life is, in fact, a process of anticipating Jesus’ coming AGAIN.

Revelation 1:8
“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”

LORD ALMIGHTY, thank you for being God with me — Immanuel.  I don’t want to live a single day without you and yet I want to spend this Christmas season re-learning what it means to anticipate Your coming. I am so grateful that you came and that you will come again, once and for all.  Please keep deepening my understanding of and appreciation for who You are and for the reality that You are coming soon!  AMEN

Christmas Throwback

We drove to Springfield, Missouri and back to Minneapolis for Thanksgiving. It involved almost 24 hours driving and required a certain amount of caffeine. My usual “drug” of choice is green tea but that would have triggered too many stops. After peering into the cooler at the gas station for a moment, I decided on a Pepsi Throwback.
In case you’re unfamiliar, the Throwback line is marketed with the Pepsi and Mountain Dew brands. It started as a “limited time only” theme but is now widely available because the retro style packaging and “made with REAL sugar” idea went over well. Despite what corn farmers are saying, there are still people out there who believe there is some advantage to pure cane sugar instead of the high fructose corn syrup that soft drink companies used to replace sugar in the 1980s.
So anyhow…I was sitting in the car listening to Christmas music with the kids and staring at my Pepsi bottle. It got me thinking. Well, yes, I do tend to be a thinker but I also had a blog to write and had been prayerfully pondering what kinds of things I might write about this Christmas season. So it may be no surprise that fireworks of questions and ideas started floating around in my brain:
  • What would it look like if I re-packaged the Christmas season at my house (to better reflect the original sentiments and circumstances around Jesus’ birth)?
  • What could I do in my personal Bible reading and reflections this season to help me capture the anticipation and excitement of the original Christmas?
  • What would it take to convince the skeptics that there truly is something of great value about Jesus — that no substitution can be made?
  • What, if anything, is useful about the latest packaging of Christmas?

For starters, I decided that I’m going to do some review of Bible prophecies related to Christmas. I’ve listed below just a few of the most well known but I’m going to spend this week exploring more (and I hope you will too). After all, these were the original things God was saying about the Messiah. God’s original, first-hand introductions have valuable things to say to us today just as they did to those who first heard them.
Lord, give me ears to hear You as I look back at the ways you introduced Your Son to my ancestors and as I remember the first ways I heard about you myself. Stir up in me a spirit of hunger, enthusiasm and gratitude as I prepare to receive You anew this Christmas season. Show me how to use this information to tell others that You have come for them also! AMEN

Isaiah 7:14 “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” (Fulfilled — Matthew 1:22-23)

Micah 5:2 “But you, Bethlehem, Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” (Fulfilled — Matthew 2:1)

Jeremiah 31:15 This is what the Lord says: ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more.’ (Fulfilled — Matthew 2:16-18)


Hosea 11:1: When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.  (Fulfilled — Matthew 2:14-15)

I welcome and value your “Christmas Throwback” questions, ideas and insights so please feel free to chime in! This could be both fun and meaningful.

Not so fast!

Christmas is over. Or is it? There may be at least a couple of reasons to be careful about moving on too quickly. And besides, they’re still playing Christmas commercials on television, so why not?

Seriously though, I’m slowing down for one very profound reason. The reality of this phrase — “God is with us.”

The phrase “God is with us” starting playing itself over and over in my mind the day before Christmas until I realized it was going to be my point of meditation for the entire week right into the new year. Here is how the meditation goes. Each time the phrase is repeated, a different word is emphasized while the layers of meaning are unpacked. Hang in here with me and see where the Lord takes it for you. Will you write us and share your own verses or insights? We’d love to hear from you and pray blessings on this reflective week for you also.

God is with us.

Matthew 1:23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

GOD is with us.

John 1:14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

God IS with us.

Hebrews 13:8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

God is WITH us.

Romans 8:28-31 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?

God is with US.

2 Corinthians 1:3-5 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.

GOD IS WITH US!

Luke 2:11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.

1 John 5:20 We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.

Lord God, we cannot possibly thank you enough for your nearness and availability to us! Please keep our hearts soft toward You and contagious about how You are filling us with Yourself. Teach us and mold us progressively into Your image as You promise to do so that we enjoy and demonstrate Your love, grace and power this coming year, especially to those who have not yet experienced the reality of GOD WITH US. Together we praise You, the One True God who humbled Yourself to become flesh and then die the most gruesome of deaths that WE might LIVE. Halleluia, Emanuel! Amen

Bringing HOPE to the Hurting

“Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord! This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests!”
LUKE 2:11-14

Christmas is upon us. The joyous news that the angels delivered over 2,000 years ago is as fresh today as it was back then: “a Savior has been born to you (and me!); he is Christ the Lord!” Take a moment to picture that scene. Feel the awe of the shepherds as the sky was filled with angels singing “glory to God in the highest…” Pause and reflect on the fact that Jesus was “born to you.” Born to you. Born to me. Born to each of us.

All we have to do is accept the Gift.

I am filled with joy today at the thought of that gift. And it amazes me that, of all of the places the Lord could have chosen to announce this wonderful news, He chose pasture land on the outskirts of Bethlehem. He chose mire. He chose muck.

This week, we have had numerous opportunities in our ministry to see the reality that the mire and the muck still exist – there are so many hurting people out there. People who are facing the destruction of marriages and families due to divorce. People who are counting down the final days of life due to illness and disease. People who have recently lost loved ones. People who are unemployed or under employed. People who are dealing with disability or caring for someone with special needs. People who are feeling isolation. And those are just the situations that come quickly to mind…there are many more.

And the pain of the situation is oftentimes just the beginning, for this can be an incredibly lonely time of year for people who are hurting. Watching others enjoy celebrations and presents can cause feelings of isolation to grow into depression and even desperation.

I believe that we will each have multiple opportunities in the next few days to significantly impact the lives of hurting people around us. What can we do to help people who are hurting? How can we give into someone’s life to the point where they can truly say and feel in their hearts, “Glory to God in the highest?”

An encouraging visit…
An act of service…
A gas or grocery card…
A meal.

Let’s challenge ourselves to look at those near to us…at the grocery store…in the house next door…or across the living room floor. Let’s ask the Lord to point out people in pain. Let’s help meet a need. Let’s be creative. Let’s be bold.

Yes, the muck and the mire still exist. We are all witnesses to that. But the hope of Christ was born into that muck and laid in the manger. The good news of His birth was announced to the shepherds in that mire.

In the coming days and year, may we all be God’s agents in tangibly delivering that hope and good news.

“The King (Jesus) will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
MATTHEW 25:40

Merry Christmas!

Fear & GLORY

—by Luke Hinrichs

Everything rests, then,
on whether you,

with spongy heart
and openmouthed meekness,

hear with aching ears
the heaven-sent announcement;

and whether you act,
taking it in like food,

making way for
your own nourishment.

Imagine yourself, then,
one of the shaken shepherds—

“Fear not, for behold,
I bring you good news

of great joy that will be
for all the people.

For unto you is born
this day in the city of David….”

Where is God?

My hope today is that you will all share with me in about 15 minutes of worship as we seek together to know God and His heart for us…

MATTHEW 2:1-2 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

As a couple, Larry and I have been exceedingly challenged by our daughter Carly’s medical issues and sleep deterioration this year. She has Angelman Syndrome which often, like in her case, includes a complicated sleep disorder. Our sleep deprivation and discouragement have been mounting. As ministry leaders who do a fair bit of pastoral-type care and discipleship, we are also walking alongside several families facing very dark circumstances. These situations are especially painful at Christmastime. There are certainly times when we resonate with the plea, “Where ARE You God?”

Early this week, I was pondering what Larry shared in last week’s blog about God looking at the heart and not appearances. That truth sunk deeper still as I turned it upside down in my mind. Here’s my confession: I am sometimes tempted to judge God’s love for me (his heart) by whether He answers my prayers, by how well my life is going, by whether it LOOKS like He cares about me.

Here’s a Christmas week challenge I am embracing and share with each of you:
Let’s seek hard to find God in our midst and know His true heart!
I want to really KNOW the One who dwells within me.
The better I know the heart of the One who saves me, the more I will share His eternal kingdom perspective which will change everything about who I am as well as everything about how I live and love!

So, come with me and let’s be like the magi who traveled from a far away place asking, “where is the one?” because they wanted to worship Him. God will reveal Himself to us as we seek after Him!

Beginning with a song… “You Are the One”

The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him. PSALM 103:8-13

“Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. MATTHEW 18:21-22

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. EPHESIANS 3:14-21

And now, “Sing to the King!”

Thanks for worshipping with us folks!
And now may you continue to experience the awe and wonder of the King who reigns throughout this Christmas season and into the new year!

of Hair and Hearts…

But the LORD said to Samuel,
“Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him.
The LORD does not look at the things man looks at.
Man looks at the outward appearance,
but the LORD looks at the heart.”
1 SAMUEL 16:7

This has been a week for frequent reflection on 1 Samuel 16:7.

What was to be a one-night stay for my wife at her parents’ house in northern Minnesota has turned into a five-day, four-night “Mister Mom” marathon for me at our home back in the Twin Cities. And while the reason that her visit has been extended is completely legitimate, and the physical, emotional, and spiritual rest she is getting is an immense blessing, the itinerary change has resulted in a daily meditation for me on 1 Samuel 16:7.

But before I get into that, there are a couple of things I need to make clear. First, my two oldest daughters (Alex and Erin) are pretty much self-sufficient and have done a better-than-expected job of helping me out. Second, I am not in any way writing this blog entry as an attempt to get sympathy or praise for my “sacrifice”–I’m an adult and a dad and I should be able to handle it. It’s not brain surgery. So don’t get distracted…remember, 1 Samuel 16:7:

“The LORD does not look at the things man looks at.
Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”

So, you may ask, “what has cause you to dwell repetitively on 1 Samuel 16:7?” What has me so focused on outward appearances? Nothing less than…my youngest daughter’s hair.

Yes, you read that correctly.

You see, since everyone else in my family is gone when she wakes up, I’ve been solely responsible for “doing” Carly’s hair. And it hasn’t been pretty. Her hairstyle requires a ponytail on the top. There are apparently reasons for this…but as a dad, I’m not really sure what they are. In any case, each day I have attempted to re-create the beautiful ponytails that my wife and older daughters are so good at fashioning. And each day the result has been a crying girl with a ponytail that holds too much of the “wrong” hair and too little of the “right” hair. And it has looked completely different everyday. I’m quite sure her teachers at school have been thinking, “Dad must be home alone.” And they would be correct.

Which brings me back to 1 Samuel 16:7.

You see, each day this week I have been reminded that the Lord looks past Carly’s multiple consecutive bad hair days and looks at the purity of her heart. Every day this week, I have been reminded that the Lord looks past my ineffective efforts and looks at my heart of love and service for my daughter. I’ve also been reminded of the importance the Lord places on the substance of my life…on what is really going on in my mind and my heart, not the external appearances that I try so hard to maintain. “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”

He can see right through me, to the truth that lies inside.

As we approach this Christmas season, may we all spend some time looking beyond the outward appearances of presents and trees and decorations. The heart of the matter is that God sent His Son to us as a baby in a manger.

O COME LET US ADORE HIM, CHRIST THE LORD!

HOW A MOTHER PRAYS

The most agonizing moments of my experience as a mother have been those times when my youngest daughter, Carly, has been in pain — a pain she can’t explain to me and a kind of pain that I may never be able to make go away. For all the things Larry and I have tried to do for her over the years, there is increasing awareness that there is often little more that we can do but pray.

Raising a child who cannot talk and who has complex developmental and health issues has stretched me in many ways but probably, most of all, it has been teaching me to surrender things I cannot (even should not) try to control. This experience keeps teaching me to embrace the precious intimacy and power of prayer.

We can learn a lot from the way people in the Bible pray.

Samuel listened and responded decisively to God’s call.

David laid his heart bare before the Lord.

Paul prayed often for others and frequently used written prayers to encourage.

But since it’s the Christmas season and because I’ll be talking with a group of young moms tomorrow, I got to thinking about what we can learn about prayer from Mary, the mother of our Lord. Among the many reasons why I’m drawn to Mary during this season is that we have been in a prolonged season of caring for Carly through issues we’ve not been able to understand or fix.

As I watched the movie The Passion years ago, the scenes that most brought me to tears were those of the frantic Mary trying to wrap her heart around the most painful but holy moments her Son would ever endure. It’s arguable that there were numerous other scenes that should have gripped me more, but I must admit, it was resonating with Mary’s mother-heart that tore me to pieces. Even with Mary’s deep trust in God and with whatever appreciation she must have had for the eternal value of the events unfolding before her, there was nothing that could soothe her broken-heartedness in those profoundly overwhelming hours of Jesus’ suffering.

Tomorrow during my talk we’ll be unpacking several things about how Mary prays that can be helpful reflection at any time of year but especially as we consider the awe and wonder of Christmas — what it meant then and what it means today. If you’d like to dig deeper with me on that, check out the list at the end of my post.

I’m taking a couple of things away from the kind of woman Mary must have been. I think she was like our modern-day prayer walkers. She seemed to be in a constant state of prayer, attentive to all that was going on around her and quietly pondering — continuing to be a woman of persistent prayer right into the earliest days of the Christian church (Acts 2:14). I don’t know about you but I’m inspired.

Today I’m also taking notes from David’s book (metaphorically mostly, but also quite literally going to the Psalms) and praying from an anguished soul. I’m weary and battle-worn from parenting Carly and the intensity of her needs and our shared suffering. After another very rough night last night, Larry and I are in the midst of yet more prayerful pondering about what to do next while expressing raw emotions before each other and the Lord as David did. But I am also increasingly praying, as Mary did, with a quiet and pondering heart.

I would be on the fringes of sanity without prayer, without my Lord’s constant availability for conversation. I am brought to my knees with gratitude for the intimate way I have of connecting with my Savior on a most holy level.

Certainly we need a Savior to pay the penalty of sin for us but we can also claim Jesus as the One who keeps saving us from suffering that threatens to consume us — the One who extends mercy and power to us through the Holy Spirit so that we can keep a heavenly perspective and remain strengthened for the journey.

Some things Mary modeled:

AUTHENTICITY—Luke 1:34

TRUST—Luke 1:45, Luke 1:50, Luke 2:48-50

REVERENCE—Luke 1:46-49

SURRENDER—Luke 1:51-55

QUIET & PONDERING—Luke 2:19

FREQUENCY—Luke 2:41-42

FRUITFULNESS—Luke 2:52

DISCERNMENT—John 2:3-5

PERSISTENCE—Acts 2:14

LET US BE AMAZED!

Larry and I spent last Saturday evening at a Gala event in Chicago that raises money for Angelman Syndrome research. Three years ago this rare and severe disorder was cured — yes CURED — in a mouse model. It was recognized as the “Scientific Highlight of the Year” and all of the medical world stood amazed. It remains yet today only one of two cognitive disorders ever cured in a mouse model.

As parents of a child with Angelman Syndrome, the idea of a cure was not even on our radar when Carly was first diagnosed in November 2000. When we heard news about the ground-breaking research, we stood with other parents of children with this serious disability — AMAZED.

Another thing amazed me on Saturday night. As we have before, we met parents who are raising more than one child with this complex and overwhelming thing called Angelman Syndrome. One can only imagine the moment-by-moment challenges of a family experiencing that kind of adversity! We stood simply amazed as we listened to parents sharing about their lives in those kinds of circumstances.

The emotional reaction of amazement is deep but often fleeting. We pause momentarily to absorb the idea of something that challenges our perspective and our appreciations. Yet, most of the time, we quickly move on and forget that moment of awe and respect when something tests our ability to wrap our mind around it.

It’s the Christmas season and those moments of incredulity at the Gala got me pondering a critical question. Am I appropriately amazed by JESUS? Am I have even momentary astounded when I stop to consider what God did when He birthed His Son through a virgin and placed Him in a lowly manger for the salvation of my soul?

The shepard’s response to the news of a Savior was to exclaim, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests,” And then scripture specifically points out that they “hurried off” to find the baby. I take it they were amazed.

When the wise men saw the star, they were overjoyed and went to the house to see Emmanuel. They bowed down and worshiped the baby. Then they opened their treasures and presented Jesus with gifts. Those magi were utterly amazed.

When Simeon saw the baby and realized he was gazing upon the long-awaited Messiah, he said, “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation… the glory of your people Israel.” As Simeon expressed his amazement, Mary and Joseph marveled at what he said about their son. They, too, were amazed.

With evidence of a festive season all around me I’ve decided to pause more often and consider the wonder of who Jesus is and all that He has accomplished. I want more than passing moments of wonder and amazement.

I want a LIFESTYLE of awe, gratitude and passion for the One who came to do even more than save my soul. God became man to demonstrate the greatest act of love and power that will ever be known.

He gave Jesus to ensure that I experience life to the fullest— not just for some future eternity, but also for right now.

That’s amazing!
Almighty and sovereign God, YOU are amazing!

Lord, please cause our amazement with YOU to affect EVERYTHING about how we think, feel and live! AMEN

Are We DONE Yet?

It’s a typical family meal. Larry and I find our plates half full when our teenagers are already excusing themselves and taking their dishes to the dishwasher. He and I look at each other with unspoken wonder while rhetorically thinking, “Are we done yet?”

More than once, we’ve challenged the kids to linger just a little longer. Contrary to popular opinion, some parents don’t have cooties! We’d enjoy the chance to sit and talk a few minutes more about their day, what’s on their minds, what’s coming up for the evening, and so on. Understandably they have homework to do, piano to play, texts to send, tv to watch, and it might even be laundry day with a “Family Power Fold” on the evening schedule. Still, we’re counting the days til college and measuring the preciousness of each moment. We crave more lingering.

It occurred to me one day recently that my time with God is like that. He wants me to linger. I’m in a hurry. He says “come near to me and I will come near to you” (James 4:8). I quickly say “gimmee gimmee” and then run for my To-Do list.

Sometimes I linger. I stay long enough to get what I wanted to get out of it. But did I stay long enough for God to give all HE wanted to give or for either of us to experience the full delight of our undistracted, unhurried nearness to one another?

What if I spent time in quiet reflection with the Lord until I was absolutely certain we were BOTH finished?

PSALM 27
3 Trust in the LORD and do good;
DWELL in the land and enjoy safe pasture.
4 Take delight in the LORD,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.

5 Commit your way to the LORD;
trust in him and HE WILL DO THIS:
6 He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn,
your vindication like the noonday sun.

7 BE STILL before the LORD
and WAIT PATIENTLY for him

With Thanksgiving, Christmas and a new year fast approaching, perhaps you would take this challenge with me:

Meet with the Lord quietly now and then, praying and reading the Bible — when you think you’re done, ask the Lord, “Are we done yet?” If you sense the answer is “yes” then go forth and enjoy the rest of your day appreciating that God is always near. If you’re unsure that your mutual business is done, then be still a while longer, read a little more, journal or pray and listen for more promptings of the Holy Spirit.

Who’s in?


Let us know what happens, will you?