Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Our Christmas Prayer Letter

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Merry Christmas from Ireland!  All the preparation is over the day has arrived, and we're celebrating Christmas.  We've been in Ireland 18 month... it hardly seems possible.  God has provided in SO many ways.  He has opened doors and done miracles that are beyond our wildest dreams.  We have met some wonderful people and are making what we hope will be lifelong friends here in Ireland.  You might say it feels more and more like home. 

I'm sitting in our living room and above our fireplace is a nativity scene... it's made of Olive wood from Israel.  Annette got it when she visited Israel growing up.  As I look again at this scene I'm speechless.  Think about it... GOD sent his son into our world.  Isn't that incredible?  Doesn't it leave you scratching your head?  I mean ponder the distance He traveled.  He truly did empty himself.

There is no greater metaphor for missions than the picture painted by His birth.  Talk about crossing barriers... HE did it!  We should be challenged again to GO into our world, to enter the lives of those around us... and NOT with answers, but by laying down our lives... like Jesus with love.

As I think about 2013 my prayer is simply... Lord, help me incarnate YOU to those around me.  Help me to be what YOU want me to be.

Can I be honest with you?  I need your help... would you pray for me, for us.  Would you?

Pray that while we might not have clarity all the time... we'd learn to trust Him more in 2013.
Pray for the new things that will begin with the new year, (i.e. a Parent & Toddler Group in the community where we live, Wicklow.)
Pray for Ted & Sarah Voigt as they join us in January.
Pray for the CHURCH in Ireland, that we would rise up and BE the people of God.

Thank you... again!  Thanks for reading, for praying, for partnering with us in this great adventure.  Thanks also for the cards, support and Facebook posts... we love you!

Blessings & Merry Christmas!

Stephen & Annette, along with Matthew in Ireland(and our daughter at MNU) 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

When you lose your voice...

Can I ask you a question… what do you do when you don't know what to do?  What do you say, when words feel so empty?

I found myself in that place on hearing the news from Connecticut… I mean what do you say?  I was sitting in the library reading the paper where they had pictures of the 20 children who lost their lives, alongside the adults… and I find myself dabbing my eyes.  What can you say?  For all the power of words, sometimes they can seem so powerless… and this is not just true about this tragedy it's true for many of the losses in our lives… in fact it's also true for some of the great moments.  I remember someone asking me about the birth of our son, Matthew.  How do you put that into words.  Even 17 years later I struggle to find the words to express the joy, the love, the power of that moment.

So I ask you again, what do you say when you don't know what to say?

Throughout history men and women have used song to find their voice.  Moses led the people of God in a great song, recorded for us in Ex 15 this on the heels of their great deliverance through the Red Sea.  They were overwhelmed with the greatness of their God.  Hannah, does the same thing in 1 Samuel 2 in response to the birth of Samuel.  David, following his dismal failure penned the words of Psalm 32 and 51.  Even Jesus on the cross… sings Psalm 22  Frederick Handel, trying to express the glory of the gospel, found his voice in scripture that is so powerfully rendered in the Messiah.  Many of us have probably sang or embraced those words in a way that speaks meaning into something that is beyond words.

That's what Mary does… You might think she's penning her own song, but that's only partly true…. you see she's recalling the song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2.  The word of God has become her voice.  And Mary is not the only one…  Jonah from within the belly of the whale, cries out to God… but again, these are not his own words, we find him proclaiming God's word… or should I say embracing God's word as his own.  You may find it hard to believe but in his prayer there are more than 10 references to various Psalms.

This got me thinking… This word has the power to give us a voice to us when we've lost our voice.

I can't tell you how many times I have NOT known what to say in my prayers to God… only to discover HIS word on my lips.  I have grown up in a tradition that values spontaneity, and originality in its prayers, but the reality is sometimes we can't find the words… I mean what do you say in response to the terrible things have taken place in Connecticut?

I would suggest the WORD… can give us back our voice… in this case to grieve.  I found myself reading Lamentations and some of the Psalms of Lament. 

Mary, even though she was a young girl still ruminated on God's word.  It was a part of her life.  I wonder… is it a part of our lives?  I'm not talking about just memorising it… some of us struggle to do that, but we can all meditate on it, we can all live into it and out of it and with it.

In fact I wonder, instead of reading God's word for answers… perhaps we should read it to find our voice.

As Mary found her voice… we too can find ours in God's word.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The JOY hope brings...

We're getting ready to celebrate our second Christmas in Ireland.  It hardly seems possible.  We got our tree in the house yesterday.  It smells divine.  We picked it out on a tree farm that's owned by someone Annette made connections with at a Knitting Club she joined in Ashford. It's SO good to make friends.  You might say these connections make us feel more and more at home.

I'm working with Wicklow Rotary on an incredible project.  We're hosting a Tree of Remembrance here in Wicklow.  I got to stand in the cold with another new friend the other day as people came to write names on ribbons to be placed on our community Christmas tree.  They placed the names of Grandmas and Grandpas, but also mom and dads and brothers and sisters.  I watched as a little girl wrote the name of her sister on a ribbon.  Just last week we were in Carrickfergus and attended a service at the Carrick Church of the Nazarene where they lit the tree in remembrance of those who had passed, specifically this past year. 

Christmas is a season of happiness, but I'd imagine that for many this year this happiness may be tempered by the loss they experience.  Tempered by the empty seat around the table on Christmas Day, the person we miss as gifts are unwrapped.  Annette's grandma, a wonderful lady, went to be with Jesus this last week, and she'll be missed(massive understatement).  Most of us are touched by loss at one point or another. 

All this got me thinking about the third Sunday of Advent.  If you're church is traditional at all and you have an advent wreath, you'll notice something about the third candle.  It's a different colour... in most cases pink.  It's the JOY candle.  There is SO much joy surrounding the Christmas story.  To be sure, the birth of a baby brings joy, but the more I've thought about it... I think the reason for the joy in Mary and Joseph or the shepherds and wise men is the HOPE that this baby named Jesus brings... a hope our world desperately needs.

Truth is we can have that same hope, no matter our loss or failure.

I'm a sinner!  I've messed up more times than YOU can imagine.  To be sure I'm an ordained elder, a member of the clergy, but that doesn't mean I'm perfect, it simply means that I take the gift offered to me in Jesus.... and as I do, I discover the HOPE there is for a person like me, a person like you... a hope that brings PEACE, but also JOY.

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing.

I hope this Christmas... you discover the JOY that HOPE brings.

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Our HOPE for Peace

Christmas in Bethlehem...
Peace... seems to be a state that eludes our world.  It sometimes feels like we're on the brink, like it might break out then someone does something stupid and suddenly we find our selves on the brink... not of peace, but war.

Isn't it interesting that something we all want never comes?  Something everyone wishes for each year around this time seems just beyond our grasp... it leads one to wonder.

I've seen pictures of Christmas today in Bethlehem. Stars are a common decoration... and why not!  Isn't it sad that in the place where Jesus was born, the place where the baby Jesus entered our world, there is still so much violence?  Even as I write this post there is a fragile cease fire in the region.  How long will it last? I guess that explains our cry for peace.... it seems so rare. 

If you remember, it was just outside of Bethlehem where shepherds watched their flocks that angels showed up proclaiming: "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests."   Just think... in Bethlehem the Prince of Peace arrived.. and unfortunately we're still searching for peace.

All over our town there are lights.  In one window I saw a simple star in the window... and I think in that is the secret of peace.  That star reminded me of the story of those wise guys that got lost on their way to Bethlehem because they didn't follow the star.  They were looking for the Prince of Peace and ended up in Jerusalem... I'd imagine they just figured when the star was obscured for whatever reason that Jerusalem was the logical next stop.  How wrong they were!

And that's our problem... we look everywhere but to HIM.  We look to the UN... or others who we think have the ability to bring peace... but like those wise guys we end up miles from where true peace can be found.  Isn't in fascinating that peace is found not in the halls of power, but in the fragility of a helpless babe.

The hope for peace in our world... is found in Jesus.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Expectant Hope

The Wicklow Gaol at Christmas!
This Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent... Christmas is coming!

There is a cautious realism in Ireland.  I wanted to say optimism, but the reality is there is very little of that... and with good reason.  Austerity has it's grip on this republic.  They're talking about cutting another chunk from the national budget and we're not talking pennies.  They're talking billions of euros.  Businesses are wondering what will happen when even more money is taken from the pockets of those who frequent their shop.  Homeowners are wondering where the funds will come to pay the property tax on their home, a home for which they owe much more than it's worth.  Meanwhile mums and Dads are wondering how they'll manage Christmas with all the expectations.  I mean reason suggests somethings got to give.  We already pay 23% VAT(sales tax) and they're talking about adding other revenue streams because the coffers of the government are still empty.  The HSE (the government health service) is also having to cut services and increase costs. It seems the very vulnerable will be hit hardest... again!  Even pensioners, those on fixed incomes, are now on the governments radar.  I recently read in the Wicklow Times a plea to shop local... or risk having NO local shops in the new year... and this was no idle threat.  The white flag is being waved! What else can one do? 

All this reminds me of some words in the Old Testament by Jeremiah.  He finds himself in jail.  Why?  He was predicting doom for Israel.  Babylon had them surrounded, the city was under siege.  It wasn't a matter if Jerusalem would fall, it was simply a matter of when.  In truth they already had... their king was a puppet of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon.  It was a dark time.  People in the city were tearing down their homes to repair a wall that would NOT hold. The only thing that happened is more people died.  It was over... the axe was at the root of the tree, the light was being snuffed out.  The promises of God, it seemed, were forgotten, the future had been hijacked by the enemy and the present was no gift.

It's into this scene that we hear these words from the prophet Jeremiah in Jeremiah 33... words that remind us of what I read in a post by James Petticrew... "God always has the last word."

14“ ‘The days are coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when I will fulfill the good promise I made to the house of Israel and to the house of Judah.

       15“ ‘In those days and at that time
       I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line;
       he will do what is just and right in the land.
       16In those days Judah will be saved
       and Jerusalem will live in safety.
       This is the name by which it will be called:
       The LORD Our Righteous Savior."

I wish we could really grasp these words in the light they were first proclaimed... or should I say the darkness.  There was no cause for optimism.  The light at the end of the tunnel was an oncoming train.  It was OVER!  The fat lady had sung. There was NO future.... all they had was the past.

And yet into this darkness, Jeremiah, from a jail cell, speaks of days coming... as a good thing.  Just think about that! He speaks of God fulfilling HIS promise.  Notice... it reads HE will fulfill the good promise... HE will make a righteous branch sprout from that dead stump.  HE will do what is just and right.  This was not about the people.  It was not their works of righteousness.

Something else, nothing changed in the moment Jeremiah proclaimed these words.  He remained in jail.  The Babylonians still surrounded the city...in fact the people to whom Jeremiah proclaimed these words were still destined for Babylon and captivity... BUT everything changed.  Jeremiah proclaimed HOPE... not the hope that wishes for sunshine instead of rain, but rather the hope that recognizes that ALL is well, because God is God.  The hope that leans into a future that WILL be, again because God is God & Jesus is Lord.

As I walk the streets of Wicklow... my heart is heavy for people at the end of their rope, businesses who have no cash and moms and dads who wonder how they'll provide for their families this Christmas.  It would be easy to hopeless, but I was reminded in this advent text that there is HOPE... even in despair, even what Christmas light can't cover up the problems.  And this hope is not found in anything or anyone but Christ.  Circumstances may be grim, you might be surrounded, the circumstances you face may be awful... but we can still be people of Hope.

HOW?  Because hope is not dependent on our circumstance or ourselves, but rather on the character of God.

Erich Fischer, the pastor of Greystones Nazarene recently shared with me an expression that is used by some in Germany when speaking of someone who is pregnant.... "in guter Hoffnung"  Loosely translated it means to be in good hope.

May we this Christmas be in good hope... expecting!