Simon Says

Out of the twelve disciples, Simon is undoubtedly the one with the most depth. He is mentioned more times in the gospels than anyone except for Jesus. He isn’t always mentioned as Simon of course (which is probably helpful considering another one of the disciples is also named Simon) In John 1 Jesus says His first words to the disciple; “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter). Indeed, this God-given name is the name we more commonly call him today.

The verse by itself doesn’t offer us much explanation for why Jesus decided to change Simon’s name or perhaps more accurately, give him a nick name. We are left to ask, what did Jesus see in Simon? What did He envision in Peter? Fortunately, for us, the gospels give a glimpse into both the Jekyll and Hyde.

In Luke 5 it was Simon who got frustrated when Jesus said to cast the net out into deep water in the middle of the afternoon (perhaps understandably as most fishing was done at night in shallow water). It was Simon who fell asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane while Jesus was praying just before the crucifixion (Mark 14). It was Simon who Jesus forgave three times for denying the son of God three times(John 21). Simon. You can almost imagine Peter getting frustrated whenever he hears the name; he knows a mistake has been made.

It kind of reminds me of when my friend and I play old school Nintendo 64 games together. Pixelated graphics fill a modern flat screen as we revel in the memories of our youth. Admittedly, he is way better at it than I am. He is one of those guys that has a natural ability to be fairly decent at anything he puts his mind to. While he fights for 1st place in the Mario grand prix, I fight just to stay on the course. Occasionally, he’ll hit a digital obstacle or take a turn too fast and wind up in the water. Whenever that happens he’ll say “boy, I pulled a real Matt Wyatt there.” Of course it’s all in good fun, but it’s not too far off from what Jesus was saying whenever He called Simon by his birth name; “boy, you pulled a real Simon there, Peter.”

In contrast, in was Peter who got out of the boat and walked on the water with Jesus (Matthew 14). It was also Peter, not Simon, and his faith who Jesus built the very foundation of the church upon (Matthew 16). It is this kind of faith Jesus knew Simon had the capacity to develop when properly discipled and empowered by the Holy Spirit. It was the person Jesus envisioned when He called him Cephas. The truth is we all have the opportunity to become what God sees in us. Think about it, what nickname would He give you? What does Jesus see when He looks at you?

At the Crossroads

I have a fear of flying. The last time I was on a plane was about a year ago. I blogged about the fiasco it was, forgetting my driver’s license, getting the full TSA pat-down. It was a nightmare. Flying isn’t my only fear; I have always had a lot of anxiety in my life. For years, I had an irrational fear about throwing up (emetophobia) that caused me to miss days of school and refuse to come out of the house. Then there were deeper fears such as social anxiety that centered on having a physical disability and worrying too much what people thought when they looked at me.

When I reflect on them, the over-arching theme of these fears was a lack of control. I don’t have control over the plane, I don’t have control over when my body decides it’s going to feel sick and as much as I try to take care of myself physically, I have a disability and my control over its effects are limited.

It’s scary when you aren’t in control of something that has a direct impact on you. You have to trust and have faith that it’s for the best that you aren’t in control. You see, I know absolutely nothing about flying a plane, so at the end of the day I am actually a lot safer relinquishing control despite how difficult that is. As for throwing up, nobody enjoys it, but it’s actually a good thing and your body’s defense mechanism for getting rid of foreign material. The last one is a little trickier to explain, but I have little to no control over the way I walk and letting go of that has freed me of social anxiety. Furthermore, it’s led to friendships I couldn’t imagine life without and conversations I never thought I’d have.

There’s this moment in the Garden of Gethsemane,  just before the crucifixion, when Jesus prays these game-changing words; “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done.”( Luke 22:42) It’s an intense moment, so intense that Jesus sweats blood (Luke 22:44).

So many people find themselves at these crossroads where the spirit is convicting them, asking them to let go of control and dive in. The problem is they find their heart stuck at a red light. Sometimes it’s easier to trust in what we think we can do than what we are unsure of God is going to do. We don’t know exactly the journey He is going to lead us on and for some that’s terrifying. For me it’s exciting. It’s exciting because I know through the promises in scripture that God has good intentions for me even when things seem difficult (Jeremiah 29:11).

I want to encourage you, if you haven’t already, take the leap of faith. He knows how to fly the plane, He knows what’s good for you and what’s not, He knows how to take all of your seemingly flaws and turn them into glory.

Advent – Love All

I’m a little late for my last Advent reflection. The truth is, I didn’t know what I wanted to say about this topic at the time. I may enjoy writing, but that doesn’t mean I can always think of something to say! At first, this idea of “love all” sounded sappy to me; rainbows and ponies. It made me think I needed to be less offensive and more tolerable of whatever came my way.

However, my recent winter camp excursion showed me that loving someone isn’t sappy at all; it’s overwhelming and exhausting. At winter camp, I learned that sometimes loving someone else meant challenging them even when it upsets them. Real growth is offensive to complacency. We see this in the picture of Jesus asking Peter the third time, “Do you love me?” Sometimes, loving all meant telling someone “no” because you knew their intentions weren’t what they should be and it would be wrong to tolerate it. Again, we see a picture of this in Jesus and Peter when Jesus tells him to put his sword away after cutting off the centurion’s ear.

My own growth in loving all meant not spending all of my time with people I’m comfortable around, but getting to know new friends. It also included quieting thoughts of frustration when I was lacking sleep. Anyone who has slept on a vinyl encased foam mattress knows how difficult that can be!

Everyone encounters God differently at Bethel Youth Camp in the tiny town of Hawks, Michigan. For some, He breaks chains and for others He brings salvation. For me, He showed me that love is an action, a verb and it isn’t sappy. So, here I am, at the crossroads of my own advent. What will I learn this year? What will I study and how will I grow so that I can help others do the same?

Advent- Give More

Advent Conspiracy (www.adventconspiracy.com) is not about foregoing Christmas gifts. The idea isn’t that we become puritans who banish anything that has a tinge of worldliness to it. It’s simply about doing Christmas in a more meaningful way.

Advent can be likened to the season of Lent. They are both traditions that encourage a time of focusing and integrating the essence of the holiday into your everyday life. True, we should always have a lifestyle that reflects Christ, but the season of Advent helps to propel us along. Who couldn’t use an extra boost? This week’s topic focuses on giving more. See, I told you we weren’t foregoing gifts! I will say, however, the ‘more’ here denotes quality not necessarily quantity.

There are just three weeks left until Christmas day. Even less if Christmas is celebrated early at your house like it is at mine. Are you feeling the pressure? Are you running around frantically trying to find that perfect gift? Some of us ask for lists, others of us take an educated guess and sometimes we even get something -anything- just because we feel obligated.

What if instead of just getting something –anything- we gave meaningfully? Did you know that each of the three gifts the wise men gave had meaning? The Bible doesn’t give us the specific meaning of these gifts, but we can confidently say they weren’t random. Gold may have helped fund Jesus’ flight to Egypt for refuge. Frankincense was and still is used in worship services. Myrrh was used for the anointing of kings and for the anointing of the dead (let that sink in).

These gifts were significant, memorable and full of meaning.

Think about some of the Christmas gifts you have been given. What stands out in your mind? Out of the possibly hundreds of gifts you have been given over the years, how many were really memorable? What made those stand out? Maybe asking that question can be a starting point for your giving this year.

I want to share with you three more tips for finding, maybe not the perfect gift, but perhaps a more meaningful gift. You can find lots of gift guides out there, but instead of looking at the stuff cultural trends tell us are ‘hot’ this year, let’s look back at scripture for some guidance.

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

God didn’t stay at a distance. He didn’t give from afar. He came to be with us. The same is true for the wise men. They came from afar to simply be in the presence of Jesus. We don’t know exactly how long their journey was or how long they stayed, but we do know they just had to be there. Maybe your gift to someone this year can’t be wrapped up in a box and put under the tree. Instead, it’s the gift of sharing presence together. Go out for a movie, coffee or bowling. Have dinner with your best friend or even someone you haven’t seen in who knows how long. Be with each other, because people are more important than stuff.

Give personally – Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Luke 2:11-12 (emphasis mine)

Did you notice the repeating pronoun in that verse? YOU. God knows you inside and out. He knew exactly what we needed. He didn’t give us just any gift, He gave us a personal gift. Sure, the gift of Jesus is for everyone, but it’s also the foundation for a personal relationship with God. How can you make your gift personal this year? What can you give that might have significant meaning to just you and the receiver, even if nobody else gets it?

Give a gift that is truly costly- “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, He made Himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” Philippians 2:8

God’s gift to us cost the very the life of His son. When we talk about cost here, we aren’t talking about money – If you are on a budget and there is a great deal, go for it. I’ve never once asked how much money someone spent on a certain gift for me, but I have noticed the effort they put into it. Jesus gave it all as a model for us to give to each other sacrificially.

My special gift this year is a book. The inspiration for this book came from road trips with my Mom. My Grandmother is in an assisted living situation and throughout the year my Mom and I go to Indiana to visit her. When we travel to see her for Christmas, we read a small book together, something we can finish on the twelve-hour round trip. My book is one of those books. This Christmas, sharing presence in a four door sedan, we’ll read my book; a personal gift that cost me a year’s worth of writing.

How can you give in a way that reflects the story of Christmas?

By the way, if you would like to check out the book I wrote click here

Advent- Spend Less

The traditional advent theme this week is peace. This is a challenging theme for a chaotic time of year. There are gifts to buy, parties to attend, cookies to bake, trees to decorate, light shows to watch, etc. etc. and etc. Couple all of this pressure to find the perfect gift and host the perfect party with the struggles our culture is facing, such as terrorism and the presidential election, and we’ve gotten ourselves into a financially and mentally overwhelming situation. Estimates show the average American spending $850 dollars on Christmas this year. That’s more than $450 billion dollars total. Sometimes we get so busy and caught up in consumerism. We think a good Christmas –a “real” Christmas- consists of having all the bells and whistles.

Let’s look at a “real” Christmas. For a moment, let’s look at the first Christmas. It too occurred in the midst of chaos. We know that during Jesus’ birth most of the known world was occupied by the Romans. Many territories were proud to be a part of Rome because it offered them protection. The Jews, however, hated the Romans. In fact, there were even small groups of Jews called The Zealots (Remember Simon?) who led rebellions against the Romans by means of killing Roman soldiers. We get a hint of this tension in the nativity story; the NIV translation of the Bible tells us that a census was taken during the birth of Jesus, but the KJV tells us why, “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.” Not only were the Jews taxed, their temple had been desecrated decades earlier and some 12,000 Jews were killed as the Romans seized Jerusalem. The Jews hated the Romans.

Yet, in the midst of all this political chaos, in the small middle-of-nowhere town of Bethlehem, the real meaning of Christmas was taking place. Jesus had every right to be born in the most beautiful palace with riches and glamor and that still would not have been enough to honor His majesty. Instead, the palace was occupied by an earthly King afraid of losing control. While outside in a lowly manager, wrapped in simple cloths, is a baby who is actually in control of everything. It’s a simple but powerful picture.

You see, we’ve made Christmas more chaotic than it needs to be. We’ve made it about the bells and whistles when the very first Christmas didn’t really have any. In fact, when Mary and Joseph take Jesus to the temple to make sacrifices to Jesus we read this: “And to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.” (Luke 2:24) It’s significant because Leviticus 5 tells us that the sacrifice is supposed to be a lamb or goat, unless you are so dirt poor that you can’t afford it, then you bring two pigeons. You might be thinking, “but there was Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh!” Even the ornate gifts the wise men brought, were believed to be presented to Jesus some two years after His birth (See Matthew 2:16). No bells and whistles. Just a simple manger in a simple cave with the smell of a barn animals filling the air.

When did Christmas change from a simple, quiet manger to being lost in loud crowded shopping malls and how can we find it again? In the midst of the chaos this Christmas, how can we simplify things?

Spend Less- I have been saying in other posts that this isn’t about foregoing Christmas gifts and it isn’t. It’s about giving more meaningful gifts instead of giving something just for the sake of giving. The best part is meaningful giving doesn’t have to cost a lot financially. What if you bought one less of those “just because it’s Christmas” gifts and opted for a handmade present or the gift of spending time together? You could then use the money you saved to give to someone in need. What if instead of hosting a Christmas party, you hosted a volunteer day? These are just a couple of ideas. I don’t know what you should do or what organization you should give to, but the point is, do something meaningful to resist the chaos and find the real essence of Christmas.

Ponder things in your heart- There is a verse in the nativity story that always stands out to me. “But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19) I want to encourage you to take some time to ponder the story of Christmas in your heart. In the midst of the chaos have some quiet time. Take a cue from Jesus who “often withdrew to lonely places to pray” (Luke 5:16). Turn off a Christmas TV special, quiet the jingle bells for a moment and spend some alone time the first couple of chapters of Matthew and Luke.

Advent- Worship Fully

NOTE: During the next four weeks, I will be participating in Advent Conspiracy. It is an idea that is made up of the following four pillars. 1. Worship Fully 2. Spend Less 3. Give More 4. Love all. I will be pairing these with the traditional themes of the four weeks of advent which are 1. Hope 2. Peace 3. Joy 4. Love. You can learn more about Advent Conspiracy at http://www.adventconspiracy.org

Over this holiday season, I have been working a retail job at a local mall. The busyness has started. Yesterday was arguably the busiest day of them all- Black Friday.

As a store associate, it is my job to generate sales and interact with guests. We see all sorts of characters in our store. Some of them are more than willing to shoot the breeze with you and are friendly and courteous. On the other hand, many blatantly ignore you, are snarky and sample products that aren’t actually samples.

When I try to talk to these people it just feels like I am in their way. The sacredness of a human to human interaction is replaced with busyness and accomplishing a task.

There is a blackness about consumerism that grips our hearts and tells us there is nothing more important than acquiring stuff. New product releases, better bargains and earlier store hours all promise us something they can’t really provide. That is what is so dark about consumerism; it has no real hope to offer us. Instead, it leaves us insatiable year after year.

In the book of Luke, Jesus visits the home of Mary and Martha. Mary sits at Jesus’ feet, listening to His teachings while Martha is too busy preparing things to pay Him any attention. For Martha, spending any time interacting with Jesus was in the way of the stuff she was trying to get done.

This is what Jesus says during the interaction,

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (See Luke 10:38-42)

It seems like getting together with others this time of year is nearly impossible. “It’s the holidays, I’m busy” becomes our mantra for everything from not going to the gym to forgetting to call someone back. Does it also keep us from fully engaging in the story of Jesus’ birth? Do we place our hope in the ‘many things’ at the cost of fully worshipping Jesus, the one thing we really need?

This isn’t about bashing Christmas. It’s not about foregoing gifts or even not getting a great Black Friday deal. This is about checking where our hope lies and fully engaging in the advent season. In the stories of His birth, we learn that Jesus is called Immanuel which means ‘God with us.’ God is always with us, but are we always present to His presence or are we distracted by busyness?

I want to encourage you this first week of advent, even in the midst of the busyness, to practice worshipping fully the one who is our real hope. Here are some practical ideas:

1.Have intentional conversations-Talk about the nativity story with others. What’s your favorite part? Your favorite line? Share with someone why Jesus gives you hope. Let your conversations reflect the real hope this time of year is about.

2.Value people above stuff- Be friendly and courteous to sales associates. Don’t go into a store just to buy the thing, get in and get out. What’s more important, another person or another thing?

3.Make intentional time to worship-

A. Read and re-read the story of Jesus’ coming. Follow along with an advent devotional. You can find a good one here: http://amzn.com/0764816284

B. Fully engage in the worship experience at church service. Try closing your eyes or lifting your hands during worship. Actually use the altar when the pastor says it’s open for prayer. Give to the offering and ultimately to sharing the hope of Jesus with others, offer to light the advent candle. Worship fully.

 

 

Designed For

Not until a man has inwardly understood himself and then sees the course he is to take does his life gain peace and meaning;  -Soren Kierkegaard

I’ve spent the last three years working with individuals who have mental health disabilities. The first two years were spent mostly working with adolescents, in which I found some success, but this last year was spent working with adults. I believe that if Jesus were here on Earth today, people who have mental health disabilities would be a high priority on His list. One only has to do a short survey of the gospels to see that He spent time with the socially marginalized. He was changing lives and promised us that He would equip us to do the same. The fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. All of these you will need in great excess when it comes to working with individuals who have mental health disabilities. In fact, “Gentle Teaching” is the driving philosophy behind most mental health programs. I prayed daily before each and every shift that these attributes would be the guiding force behind my interactions with the people I worked for. I learned a lot and I grew a lot from this position. On occasion, I was even presented with the opportunity to share the message of Jesus. In the end however, I had to walk away. Although I prayed for the Spirit to help me in my work and believe that He did grow these attributes in me, it never became something I enjoyed doing. It was always a struggle, like trying to smile when you aren’t really happy. I questioned for a long time my inability to find satisfaction in this work. If I was truly a Christian who was empowered by the Spirit then shouldn’t I be better at this? Shouldn’t there be less of a struggle and more success? Shouldn’t I be better at doing something Jesus Himself would be doing? In 1st Corinthians, Paul talks about gifts. He tells us that God has equipped different people to do different works. The conclusion I drew from re-reading this scripture is this; although working in mental health is a good thing, that doesn’t mean it is what God has designed me to do. Lots of works are good, but we aren’t called to do all of them. Jesus would definitely be investing in people who have mental health disabilities and healing them of these paralyzing conditions, but He would also be doing other things too. John tells us this about Jesus; “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” (John 21:25) What are you called to do? So many people spend their lives unhappy doing things that they aren’t designed to do. Maybe instead of being called to do the things we know Jesus did, we’re called to do the “many other things” instead.  I want to encourage you to know yourself, know your creator and find out exactly what He has designed you to do.