Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas At Innermost: Shepherds

Part 5

16 They hurried to the village and found Mary and Joseph. And there was the baby, lying in the manger. 
17 After seeing him, the shepherds told everyone what had happened and what the angel had said to them about this child. 
18 All who heard the shepherds’ story were astonished... 
(Luke 2:16-18 New Living Translation)


Jezreel went back to his sheep...for a time. Everywhere he went, though, he told the story about the angels, the young parents and the Baby in the feeding trough. To be sure, some scoffed when he said, "The Baby will grow up to be our Messiah!" Others, though, pondered his words. 

Finally, one morning, Jezreel spoke to his mother. "I prayed to the Eternal that very night before the angels came. I asked Him to anoint me with the oil of purpose for my life. I have met a wool merchant who works in Jerusalem near the temple. He has offered me a job as his helper. He will provide food and a place to stay. He has heard my story and will give me time to attend Torah classes and study the Scriptures. I will never be a Rabbi, but I can learn. And I can keep telling others about that night!"

Reluctantly, his mother gave him her blessing. Twelve years later, he was studying the Scriptures in a little room at the Temple, when he heard a commotion in the Court of the Israelites. A Boy was in a passionate discussion with the Priests and the Scribes...

To my readers: the events surrounding the birth of Christ are given extensive coverage in Scripture. The parts we don't always know about are the human elements, especially from the viewpoint of Jesus' participants. My attempt this Christmas is to stay true to the Biblical text, while shading in what it may have been like "between the lines." Please distinguish my ruminations from God's Word by reading the first few chapters of Matthew and Luke. My hope is that reading my words impacts you even a tiny percentage as much as writing them has impacted me.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas At Innermost: Shepherds

Part 4

Author's note: at this point in the telling of the Biblical story, one might think that the angels sang one short verse of "To God Be The Glory" and closed the curtain to go about their heavenly duties. While the account itself is brief, try to recall, if you can, a truly compelling worship experience. For instance, I stood in nearly the back row of the upper deck of Anaheim Stadium one night and sang songs of heavenward praise with about 60,000 men. The resounding chorus of male voices and the sense of awe toward the One we worshiped made each song beg to be sung forever! Could it have been any less for the angel choir that night?

.......
Even the sheep seemed deeply content in the presence of heavenly light. To be sure, no work of darkness could penetrate their hillside as the angels sang and shouted and leapt and danced all around them. Much later, the night watchmen tried to describe what they saw. When one said, "They were above us, up as high as the clouds," another would counter, "But they were all around us, as if almost touching the pasture!" Young Jonathan always mentioned, "One of them was right in front of me, then took a giant leap, landing behind me! It was almost as if he went right through me!"

The shepherds had never heard such music. The melodies were so intricate that it was as if they secreted a light of their own. One angelic flute player would run up the scale to a very high trill and literally rise up in the sky with the pitch of his instrument, gradually floating back down to laugh and sing and dance with the others. On and on their chorus rang. The shepherds themselves had begun to laugh and dance and shout and leap just like the angels.

Long into this celebration, an angel began to sing a song that majestically announced the creation of a world. The shepherds felt, rather than understood with their minds, the declaration of light, water, earth, plants, sea creatures, and animals. The music crescendoed to a solemn declaration: "Humans in Our image!" As those words rang out, a renewed celebration broke out among the angelic chorus. They were celebrating God's creation of Man!

In a few moments, though, the sounds became dark. Every angel went from leaping and dancing to quietly singing mournful tones. The shepherds realized the significance and began to weep. The angels themselves were mourning the Rebellion. From this point, the music rose and fell, then rose and fell again, like the growing swells of a sea beset by a storm. Higher and lower they went. Moments of great rejoicing swallowed by moments of intense emotional pain. Then, silence.

Far back in the chorus of angels, a trumpet began to play a single, simple tune. Quickly, the shepherds noticed that it was the same melody that had begun this night of worship. At the end of the first musical phrase, a second unseen trumpet picked up a harmony. A moment later, other horns joined in, then the harps and percussion started adding depth. Angels, who had stood solemnly for a long time, began to move. Later, the shepherds said that it looked like they were shimmering lights that grew in intensity every moment. 

Suddenly, an angel jumped. Then another; and another. The sound, the light and the movement would have terrified someone who came upon them unbidden. But the shepherds were invited! The were shouting, singing, leaping and dancing again! Over and over, with joy they leapt to the sky.

And they realized that they were alone!

The sun was shooting orange streaks on the high clouds in the eastern sky. To the west, the first of the day watch was coming over the crest of the hill.

"What do we do?" cried Jonah. The others added their voices to his question.

Jezreel thought a moment. "Our relief is here. Let us go into Bethlehem now. We will see for ourselves what the angel told us!"

To my readers: the events surrounding the birth of Christ are given extensive coverage in Scripture. The parts we don't always know about are the human elements, especially from the viewpoint of Jesus' participants. My attempt this Christmas is to stay true to the Biblical text, while shading in what it may have been like "between the lines." Please distinguish my ruminations from God's Word by reading the first few chapters of Matthew and Luke. My hope is that reading my words impacts you even a tiny percentage as much as writing them has impacted me.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas At Innermost: Shepherds

Part 3

"Could it be," thought Jezreel, "that the Eternal truly has poured out His oil and has a purpose for me? If so, what is my purpose?"

"The Eternal hears your prayers, Jezreel." The voice was like the sound of a rushing stream. Immediately, the hillside lit up as if it were daylight! The other members of the watch each began jumping to his feet. Jonah was first, holding his staff at the ready. Jonathan, at thirteen, the youngest member of their group, cried out and looked as if he might run away into the night."

"Don't be alarmed," said the man who was completely cloaked in light. "I have come to bring you good news and it will bring you great joy even before this night is over! It is a message, not only for you, but for everyone you meet!"

"Everyone we meet?" Jezreel's thoughts were leaping as fast as his heart. "No one is out here on this hillside except us."

The angel looked at the watch leader with bright, knowing eyes. "This is no ordinary night," he said. "Today in Bethlehem a baby has been born. He has come to save you and your people. He is your Messiah!"

"Messiah?" The shepherds all began to speak at once. "Messiah has come? Where is He? How will we know Him? What if many babies were born in Bethlehem this day?"

"The Eternal has given you a sign as a way to find Him," said the angel. "He has been swaddled in simple cloth and His bed is not in a house, but in the shed where animals are fed. You fill find Him lying in a feeding trough!"

Suddenly, the light all around them intensified and caused them to look toward the sky. They saw for the first time that their messenger wasn't alone. Surrounding him was a great multitude of bright beings, too many to count. They were praising the Eternal. Among them, some were leaping and dancing as they sang a chorus of praise.

"Glory to the Eternal, the Most High! We declare His peace on earth, for He is pleased with the people He as created. Glory! Hallelujah!"

To my readers: the events surrounding the birth of Christ are given extensive coverage in Scripture. The parts we don't always know about are the human elements, especially from the viewpoint of Jesus' participants. My attempt this Christmas is to stay true to the Biblical text, while shading in what it may have been like "between the lines." Please distinguish my ruminations from God's Word by reading the first few chapters of Matthew and Luke. My hope is that reading my words impacts you even a tiny percentage as much as writing them has impacted me.

 

Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas At Innermost: Shepherds

Part 2

Jonah's snores made Jez smile. "He was tired tonight; he needs this rest. But I will still wake him at the appointed hour. I need rest, too!" The watch leader's thoughts went back to his ancestor David.

"I know that I am but a simple man. I am not a psalmist. I don't play the harp and I don't write great poetry. But have I not used my staff to chase away a wolf? And didn't I send a black bear running down the hillside when I winged him with a stone from my sling?" The memory added to his discouragement.

"I have been faithful, Eternal! Have I not done this work that I despise and cared well for the flock? Please, O Mighty One, rescue me from this field. Or give me an understanding of Your purpose for me here."

Then, from deep in his memory came the familiar words...

"The Eternal is my shepherd; I have everything I need. He makes me lie down in green meadows; He leads me beside a gentle stream. He keeps restoring my soul. He leads me along a righteous path so that I may bring His name honor. Yes, even though I walk through the dark valley overshadowed with death, I fear no evil, for You, Eternal, are with me! It is Your staff that protects and comforts me. You have prepared a feast before me; one that even my enemies notice. You have poured the anointing oil of Your purpose upon my head. My cup is overflowing! Truly, Your goodness and lovingkindness shall trail me every day of life and, when I am through, I will be with You forever!"

"Could it be," though Jezreel, "that the Eternal truly has poured out His oil and has a purpose for me? If so, what is my purpose?"

To my readers: the events surrounding the birth of Christ are given extensive coverage in Scripture. The parts we don't always know about are the human elements, especially from the viewpoint of Jesus' participants. My attempt this Christmas is to stay true to the Biblical text, while shading in what it may have been like "between the lines." Please distinguish my ruminations from God's Word by reading the first few chapters of Matthew and Luke. My hope is that reading my words impacts you even a tiny percentage as much as writing them has impacted me.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Christmas At Innermost: Shepherds

Part 1

After the cloud cover the past few days, the clear sky made the millions of stars look like a tightly woven blanket of light high overhead. It also accentuated the change of seasons; this was the first really cold night of the year. Jez pulled his cloak tighter around him. 

"Perhaps 'hate' is too strong a word," he thought. "Perhaps it is more correct to say I dislike this job and barely endure it, especially when we get stuck with the night watches." 

He looked around at the lumps of blankets where the other six members of his watch slept peacefully. In an hour, he would wake Jonah and get some sleep himself. They were all on duty, but only one had to be alert at this hour of the night. The stirring of the flock would quickly tell the watchman if a predator -- either animal or human -- was creeping in. 

The thoughts continued to creep in like the brisk breeze whooshing down the hillside. "'Why can't you be content as a shepherd?' my mother said. 'Caring for the sheep was good enough for your father and your grandfather and his father before him. Even our ancestor David was a shepherd before the Eternal chose him to be the king of Israel!' Couldn't she see that David left the sheep joyfully? That is how I would leave, too!"

But, here he was. Stuck. Mired in an occupation that always left him wondering if he could find a way out. It didn't matter that he had quickly risen to the leadership of his watch or that the chief shepherd quietly told him that one day he could surely be the leader of them all. He didn't want to be a shepherd!

"Jezreel. They named me Jezreel. Even my name means 'scattered'. Don't they know that my life ambition is to be scattered far from this village?"

Jez looked again at the stars overhead. "O Eternal, You who created the heavens and the earth, I cry out to you. Please deliver me from this hillside and these smelly sheep..."

To my readers: the events surrounding the birth of Christ are given extensive coverage in Scripture. The parts we don't always know about are the human elements, especially from the viewpoint of Jesus' participants. My attempt this Christmas is to stay true to the Biblical text, while shading in what it may have been like "between the lines." Please distinguish my ruminations from God's Word by reading the first few chapters of Matthew and Luke. My hope is that reading my words impacts you even a tiny percentage as much as writing them has impacted me.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Christmas At Innermost: Gabriel

Part 6

"I have a plan..."

They sat there perfectly still. No one dared move. One hideous, bat-like creature felt a drop of greenish saliva drool from the corner of his lip. He let it drop, not moving to catch it, lest he attract attention. His eyes darted to those around him. They sat there, obviously nervous. They had all seen situations in which THE evil one pointed his perfectly manicured finger at someone, who then fell onto the floor, gasping in undying agony. 

No. One. Moved.

"Thrum! Bum! Thrum! Bum!" echoed in the distance. The smell of sulfur permeated the air. 

If a human had been sitting there, the impression would have been of a handsome actor or model. Every hair was in place. The lean face carried a certain boyish charm, with high cheekbones and lips that turned slightly upward when he spoke. As if he was smiling to hide the permanently etched sneer which was his normal "look." His voice was not the deep, amplified voice of something like the Wizard of Oz; it was of medium pitch with a refined lilt to it. It was only in the cold, lifeless eyes that one began to see the evil that resided behind this carefully contrived visage. 

When one saw the eyes, the voice carried the sound of perpetual death.

Every eye. Every ear. Focused on him.

Thrum! Bum! Thrum! Bum!

"I stood before His mother when He was being born. (see Revelation 12) I was ready to catch Him and crush Him as He uttered His first cry. But the Enemy would not allow it. All this time you thought I was done in. You fools!"

A chorus of shrieks and cries of "No!" and "We always believe in you, lord!" rang out from around the table.

"You thought I was held back. Ha! I pretended to be stymied so I could display my real power later!"

"I told you," snorted a demon with a pig-like snout to his friend sitting next to him. "He always has a plan. Always!" 

"Now, we wait," said the evil one. "When He is an adult, I will put Him to the test. Perhaps he can be convinced to switch allegiances and follow me. Probably not, but I will try. Then, I will turn my ultimate plan loose on Him."

"Ultimate plan?" asked a principality. "What is that?"

"We have a weapon," replied the evil one. "We have been refining it for hundreds of earth years. We have infiltrated the very religion practiced by our Enemy's chosen people. We have taught them to love their religion. In doing so, most of them no longer know what it means to be devoted to Him. They will do anything to defend their religious tradition. Anything!!"

Thrum! Bum! Thrum! Bum!

"Even kill!!!!"

Finally, he whispered: "They will do our work for us."

To my readers: the events surrounding the birth of Christ are given extensive coverage in Scripture. The parts we don't always know about are the human elements, especially from the viewpoint of Jesus' participants. My attempt this Christmas is to stay true to the Biblical text, while shading in what it may have been like "between the lines." Please distinguish my ruminations from God's Word by reading the first few chapters of Matthew and Luke. My hope is that reading my words impacts you even a tiny percentage as much as writing them has impacted me.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Christmas At innermost: Gabriel

Part 5

The war drums beat incessantly in the hills. Great trails wound down to converge on this spot in the dark valley. All around, smoke and the smell of brimstone rose from large rents in the rocks. Below the surface one could hear agonizing cries of those in torment. Thrum! Bum! Thrum! Bum! The drums beat on.

Off in the shadows, little cliques of hideous beings played games of chance. "The winner dines on goat and the loser on buzzard!" called the hawkers. They all HATED buzzard. It was too much like eating leeches.

The large, stone altar stood in front of their evil palace. On it, blood was shed. Human blood, when possible.

Inside, the council was discussing their strategy.

"We must stop Him!" they cried in unison. 

"Yes, but how?" asked an evil prince.

"We will set a trap for Him on the road and ambush Him!"

"Oh," said the prince. "You mean like we tried to ambush His mother right after our Enemy came upon her and she was with child? You remember that day. We sent a whole legion of great warriors to attack that little caravan on the way from Nazareth to Hebron. They never got close. They were blinded by a bright light and ran away screaming in pain."

"We can destroy His reputation!" This from the sniveling voice of a particularly insidious and slimy creature sitting in a corner stool. "A word here, an insinuation there..."

"You mean," replied the prince, "the way we tried to destroy Mary's reputation? We had Joseph ready to fall into our hands when that jolly Gabriel got to him! We would have washed her away in a flood of ill will!" 

Thrum! Bum! Thrum! Bum!

"I have an idea," sneered a supervisor known as Legion. "We can turn the might of Rome against Him."

"The way we turned Herod against all the little boys in Bethlehem? We sent the flood of political power against Him and it was if the planet itself opened up and swallowed down our might. He escaped, as you remember."

Thrum! Bum! Thrum! Bum!

"Then what do we do?" The chorus of complaints and snarls and sickening cries filled the room.

They all looked up. His eyes were as dead as his voice.

His voice. Dread. Evil. Confident. Icy.

"I have a plan..."

To my readers: the events surrounding the birth of Christ are given extensive coverage in Scripture. The parts we don't always know about are the human elements, especially from the viewpoint of Jesus' participants. My attempt this Christmas is to stay true to the Biblical text, while shading in what it may have been like "between the lines." Please distinguish my ruminations from God's Word by reading the first few chapters of Matthew and Luke. My hope is that reading my words impacts you even a tiny percentage as much as writing them has impacted me.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Christmas At Innermost: Gabriel

Part 4

Gabriel stood in amazement as he saw the intricate details of the Most High's orchestration to involve the right people in His redemptive plan. He hadn't yet revealed himself as he watched Joseph of Nazareth wrestling with the knowledge he had received. Joseph was a "righteous" man, a man who took the Law of Moses quite seriously. As such, he was obviously weighing out his limited choices of what to do with Mary's pregnancy. 

The Eternal knew that Joseph would struggle; that's why His messenger had come this night. Gabriel considered the joyful news he would bring shortly and then remembered how one of his kinsmen, a mighty warrior, had been given a message long ago.

One of the Lord's choice prophets, a man named Daniel, was given a great vision of something in his future. Perplexed because he often knew interpretations immediately, Daniel couldn't understand the meaning of this one. He began to fast and pray, continuing for 21 days. (Daniel 10) 

In the meantime, the Most High had immediately dispatched his messenger with the interpretation for Daniel. But the messenger was thwarted by none other than the fallen principality (Ephesians 6:12) of the nation of Persia. This great, twisted demon fought against the messenger day after day with Daniel holding fast in prayer. Finally, the Almighty sent Michael the archangel to join in the fight. Michael held the demon prince at bay until the messenger could break through to Daniel. Then the messenger had to go back the same way, knowing that the demon prince of Greece was now joined in the battle. It was one of the historic battles in the invisible realm!

For some reason, Gabriel's announcement to Joseph met with little resistance. He knew, though, that a great battle was yet to come and would begin soon!

"O, Eternal," Joseph prayed in his exhaustion, "what do I do?"

Gabriel recognized the moment. "Joseph, son of David..."

To my readers: the events surrounding the birth of Christ are given extensive coverage in Scripture. The parts we don't always know about are the human elements, especially from the viewpoint of Jesus' participants. My attempt this Christmas is to stay true to the Biblical text, while shading in what it may have been like "between the lines." Please distinguish my ruminations from God's Word by reading the first few chapters of Matthew and Luke. My hope is that reading my words impacts you even a tiny percentage as much as writing them has impacted me.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Christmas At Innermost: Gabriel

Part 3

Almost six months of earth time had passed since Gabriel announced that Zechariah and Elizabeth would bear a son. Now he was once again sent with a message. He had long known that this girl, Mary of Nazareth, was the chosen one through whom the Eternal Himself would be born as a human baby. What a mystery!

The angel stood quietly in a dark corner of the room. His instructions from the Most High were clear and he joyfully waited to make his presence known. As he did so, he pondered further the way the Creator had planned His creation.

Before what became known as "life" was spoken into existence by the Lord, He had created an entire race of spiritual beings; including Gabriel himself. Each of them was directly a "son of God." They themselves could not create life, nor were they given the ability to participate in the creative process. The ability to procreate was uniquely given to humans and animals on earth. Humans alone were also given the ability to make moral choices like those made by the Most High. 

Animals could create, but could not morally differentiate between right and wrong. Angels could make that moral delineation, but could not create. Humans could do both. 

Gabriel thought of the effect this had in the history of mankind. Early in the history, Satan (Lucifer's fallen name) had sent many of his cohorts to take on physical forms and do as humans what they could not do as angels: procreate (Genesis 6:2-4). Later, Satan tore apart entire communities named Sodom and Gomorrah by pulling humans down into twisted sin. The devil had obviously discovered that this wonderful gift from the Eternal -- participation in creation through an act of love and devotion -- could tempt many humans to follow his bent ways.

Now the Most High himself was becoming united with a human female so that He could enter the world in human form. A mystery!

Gabriel gazed at the young woman sitting in her parents' home. It was time...

"Greetings, woman favored by the Eternal!"

To my readers: the events surrounding the birth of Christ are given extensive coverage in Scripture. The parts we don't always know about are the human elements, especially from the viewpoint of Jesus' participants. My attempt this Christmas is to stay true to the Biblical text, while shading in what it may have been like "between the lines." Please distinguish my ruminations from God's Word by reading the first few chapters of Matthew and Luke. My hope is that reading my words impacts you even a tiny percentage as much as writing them has impacted me.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Christmas At Innermost: Gabriel

Part 2

Gabriel continued to watch silently as the old priest stood gazing through the smoke of burning incense at the heavy curtain that separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies. These rooms which mirrored the Eternal's actual throne room in heaven were, he had heard, places in which the priests most felt the presence of the Most High. The angel waited patiently as Zechariah knelt down and began to pray. The Lord had told him to expect this and to reveal himself at a precise moment.

It amazed Gabriel that the Eternal had obviously planned for this day even before He created such a thing as "days." That thought flashed an entire scene in the angel's memory...

The smooth lure of Lucifer found it's way quickly into the lives of many more angels. Some, to be sure, followed him because they were afraid of him and the angel of light became far more fearsome after his rebellion. Others were drawn into his temptation, "Join me! We shall topple the Most High and I will share the throne with you. It is no longer necessary for you to go about like slaves to His will. I shall set you free!"

The promise of freedom worked its way deep into the hearts of angels. First, a handful; then a hundred, then a thousand. Finally, a third of all the angelic beings were swept up in rebellion and were cast out of heaven. Of course, what they received was anything but freedom. They began to feel the agony of their separation from their creator. Lucifer tried to take His place, but he replaced the nurture and spiritual sustenance the Most High had provided with what amounted to a slow-acting poison. In their misery, they became more and more twisted and dark. It seemed that they completely forgot the beauty, light and joy of their former estate. 

Now, sharing their misery and pain with the humans so loved by the Eternal had become the very reason for the existence of the fallen horde.

Zechariah began to pray. "O Eternal, I confess that I do not understand. I have been given the privilege to burn this incense before You. I have received Your approval to do so as shown by the sacred lot. All my life I have longed for this day. Now that it has arrived, I stand here with a broken heart. O Eternal, please hear my cry! Through the many years of our marriage, my wife Elizabeth has been barren. We have prayed. We have wept and cried out to You. We have sought the help of the physicians. Now, we have been told that it is too late. Please, Eternal, comfort us. We do not understand."

The old priest got up and turned to leave. Gabriel suddenly appeared to him and saw the look of great fear in his eyes. 

"Don't fear, Zechariah..."

Note: For background study today, see Revelation 12. 

To my readers: the events surrounding the birth of Christ are given extensive coverage in Scripture. The parts we don't always know about are the human elements, especially from the viewpoint of Jesus' participants. My attempt this Christmas is to stay true to the Biblical text, while shading in what it may have been like "between the lines." Please distinguish my ruminations from God's Word by reading the first few chapters of Matthew and Luke. My hope is that reading my words impacts you even a tiny percentage as much as writing them has impacted me.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Christmas At InnerMost: Gabriel

Part 1

He stood and watched as the old man moved quietly and deliberately through his assigned task. Incense was spread evenly over the altar and smoke was beginning to rise through it. He sensed the nervousness of the man as he paused for prayer.

In that tiny moment, Gabriel thought about the history of this planet and what was happening here. Long before people had been placed here, the Eternal of the heavens was at work in preparation. 

When the Eternal named a mighty prince to rule over this planet which humans called "earth", He -- not surprisingly -- chose Lucifer. Often called Morningstar, Lucifer was not only powerful; he was beautiful. To describe his beauty would of necessity require mental images of precious stones. It was as if he was covered by rubies, topaz, diamonds, beryl, onyx, jasper, lapis lazuli, turquoise and emeralds. Plus, it was like each of these jewels was set in pure gold. No, none of the angels was surprised when Lucifer was named.

As prince, Lucifer went regularly into the councils of the Eternal Himself. His occupation; his trade, as it were, was to bring instructions from the Eternal's throne and pass them on to the heavenly host which was already at work on the planet. Then, the way a teacher might collect the examinations from a room of students, Lucifer was to gather up all the praise and worship meant for the Eternal. He was to present those in heaven's throne room. 

But there was a problem. Lucifer fell in love with his own beauty and power. Therefore, he began usurping the will of the Eternal. First, he did it in small ways, neglecting to give an instruction from the Eternal to a particular angel. Then Lucifer began substituting some of his own instructions in their place. 

Very quickly that mighty prince found himself lusting after the praises which were meant only for the Eternal. He started holding back some of those praises and heaping them upon himself. It wasn't long until Lucifer decided that he would raise up his own throne above all -- even the Eternal!

This set the scene for a great war in the heavenlies...

Notes: Some of you will wonder where in the world I came up with some of today's narrative. If that's they case, you might want to see Ezekiel 28:11-18; Isaiah 14:12-17; Job 1:6-7.

To my readers: the events surrounding the birth of Christ are given extensive coverage in Scripture. The parts we don't always know about are the human elements, especially from the viewpoint of Jesus' participants. My attempt this Christmas is to stay true to the Biblical text, while shading in what it may have been like "between the lines." Please distinguish my ruminations from God's Word by reading the first few chapters of Matthew and Luke. My hope is that reading my words impacts you even a tiny percentage as much as writing them has impacted me.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Christmas At Innermost: Mary

Part 7

The two expectant mothers had just enjoyed a steaming cup of herbal tea. Elizabeth was teaching her young cousin the beautiful stitches of needle work which had been passed down through their family for many generations. Ever since Mary and her relatives had arrived at Hebron just two weeks ago, the women had spent hours sipping tea, sewing and talking about the births of their sons.

Their tranquility was interrupted by the sounds of a horse riding up outside. The rider was pushing the animal fast. They got up to look outside. It was Mary's uncle, her father's brother who lived near Nazareth. What could this mean?

The man briefly greeted them, then gazed at Mary with a strange look in his eyes. "I bring you a message, niece!"

"What is it? Is everything all right?" Mary began to feel anxious.

"I hope you will consider it all right." He reached inside his cloak and brought out a scrap of the light-colored wood upon which they often wrote. He then read it to her...

"Dearest Mary. An angel came to me in a dream and told me everything. Please come home soon. I love you! Joseph"

To my readers: the events surrounding the birth of Christ are given extensive coverage in Scripture. The parts we don't always know about are the human elements, especially from the viewpoint of Jesus' participants. My attempt this Christmas is to stay true to the Biblical text, while shading in what it may have been like "between the lines." Please distinguish my ruminations from God's Word by reading the first few chapters of Matthew and Luke. My hope is that reading my words impacts you even a tiny percentage as much as writing them has impacted me.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Christmas At Innermost: Mary

Part 6

She awoke to the sensation of her son stirring inside her womb. He had woken her often during the last week, but had been quiet for the past few hours since the winter sun rose. How long had she slept? A glance outside told her that it was almost mid-day. 

"Where is Zechariah?" she thought. "He promised me that he would spend the long night at the inn and not try to make it all the way home. Still, he should have been here at least an hour ago. O Eternal, please keep him safe!"

She stretched, then put the pot on the stove to make some tea. The baby stirred again. She went outside past the shade of their porch and soaked in the warm sunlight. Looking up the road she saw the dust of several animals. "Perhaps your father is among them, my son," she whispered to her belly. "He will rejoice to be back here with us. I wish you could hear him sing and chant the Psalms! Surely, after you are born, the Eternal will fulfill His promise and give him his voice back."

The dust was nearer now and she could make out several donkeys and a small wagon. Out in front was her husband. What was this? She went back inside to place more water in the pot for tea; even if these travelers were going on, she would offer them something warm to drink and some food for their journey.

A few minutes later, she heard the sounds of their small caravan in the front of the house. Men were talking and, obviously, Zechariah was writing on his slate. As she opened the front door, she was startled as a very young woman -- hardly more than a girl -- was about to knock. She looked at her carefully.

"Mary? Of Nazareth? The daughter of my cousin?"

"Y-yes, Elizabeth, I am Mary."

Elizabeth didn't know why, but her son felt like he had started a festival dance inside her. It was as if he was leaping and dancing in her womb! "Mary, please come in. Oh...!" She grabbed her tummy. 

"Elizabeth! All you all right? Do you need to sit?"

"No, I'm fine. It's just that my son obviously is happy at your arrival!"

"Elizabeth, we heard your good news. It's all over our village about how the angel met with Zechariah in the Holy Place! And, Elizabeth..." Mary lowered her head, as if to compose herself. When she raised it a moment later, her eyes were shining and brimming with tears. "Elizabeth, I was also visited by a messenger of The Eternal!"

Mary spent several moments relating to her cousin how the angel had met her and the mysterious things he told her. "He concluded by pointing me to you, Elizabeth!"

By now, Elizabeth was smiling, but tears were streaking down her cheeks. "Oh, Mary. As you started speaking, my heart was being stirred by the Spirit of the Eternal, blessed be His name! And He has shown me that you are blessed, Mary. And your baby, He is indeed the Promised One from the Eternal and is MOST blessed. No wonder my baby leaped and danced when he heard your voice, for the Eternal has chosen him to prepare the way for your son! How can this be that the Eternal, the Lord Most High, has chosen to bring such blessing to us?"

By now, the tears were dripping from Mary's cheeks and onto the floor. "Then, it is real! What I have seen is real! The stirring in my heart is real! My soul exalts the Eternal! And my spirit rejoices in His Holy Name!"

To my readers: the events surrounding the birth of Christ are given extensive coverage in Scripture. The parts we don't always know about are the human elements, especially from the viewpoint of Jesus' participants. My attempt this Christmas is to stay true to the Biblical text, while shading in what it may have been like "between the lines." Please distinguish my ruminations from God's Word by reading the first few chapters of Matthew and Luke. My hope is that reading my words impacts you even a tiny percentage as much as writing them has impacted me.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Christmas At Innermost: Mary

Part 5

(continued from yesterday)

Now, here he was, tormented again with her message. Back and forth his thoughts flickered, like the firelight now dancing on the ceiling.

"I can trust her," he thought. "If she said an angel visited her, it must be true!"

"No!" he argued with himself. "Of all the crazy stories. How many men have heard from their betrothed things like, 'I was assaulted by a stranger' or 'I have been faithful to you and the Eternal -- I don't know HOW I got pregnant!' In the end, it was always the same story. The bride had some other man whom she fancied and she had strayed."

"Not Mary," his other thoughts rang out. "She is innocent and kind and truthful and loyal and faithful. She loves only me!"

"What will they say at the synagogue?" came the reply. "Joseph, what has happened here? We thought you were a righteous man! You will likely be cast out for your lies and impurities!"

"No!" he decided with finality. "I won't be cast out! I have not sinned! I will issue her a certificate of divorce!"

Then, thinking of his love for her, he thought tenderly, "I will send word and have her stay in Hebron. After the child comes, surely someone will marry her and protect the child. She will never have to return to Nazareth and we will not tell what has happened to anyone outside the family."

"O Eternal," he prayed in his exhaustion, "what do I do?"

"Joseph, son of David!"

Startled, Joseph looked and saw the faint outline of a man in the dark corner. He groped for his carving knife.

"Don't be afraid, Joseph." The voice was kind, even friendly. As the man stepped closer, the whole room became brighter. "Mary is with child by the Holy Spirit, and she will bear a Son. Take her as your wife without fear and, when the Child is born, name Him Jesus. He shall save His people from their sins. And Joseph, as one who has studied the Scriptures, remember the words of the prophet Isaiah which foretold a Son born to a virgin. Mary IS that virgin! Your prophet said that the child will be known as Immanuel -- God is with us."

The fire crackled and Joseph jerked his head up. Had he been asleep? He was in the room alone. Had it all been a dream? But it was so real!

He suddenly KNEW. Something was stirring inside him!

......... What was that noise? Someone was pounding on the door in the pre-dawn stillness! Mary's father climbed out of the warm covers and opened the door. Joseph was standing there. Even in the light of only one candle, his eyes held a strange brightness.

"How soon can we get word to Mary in Hebron?" he asked excitedly.

"Wha...?"

"We must get word to her right away and ask her to return. As soon as possible!"

"What? Why?" Mary's father stood there in shocked surprise at his normally calm, future son-in-law.

"An angel has visited me tonight in a dream! He explained everything. And we must make plans for our future as soon as Mary gets home!

To my readers: the events surrounding the birth of Christ are given extensive coverage in Scripture. The parts we don't always know about are the human elements, especially from the viewpoint of Jesus' participants. My attempt this Christmas is to stay true to the Biblical text, while shading in what it may have been like "between the lines." Please distinguish my ruminations from God's Word by reading the first few chapters of Matthew and Luke. My hope is that reading my words impacts you even a tiny percentage as much as writing them has impacted me.

 

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Christmas At Innermost: Mary

Part 4

He huddled in a blanket as he sat on his sleeping mat. Slumber had failed him. Again. Little embers glowed in the firepot; the flame was gone. Joseph reached another small piece of fig wood and stirred the embers, then placed the stick on them. As the light began to glow, he stared up at the ceiling.

"Mary's father and I completed this roof just last week," he mumbled quietly to himself. "Now I don't know if she and I will ever share this home. Or anything else."

Once again, he relived the sudden change that day -- the day they finished the roof. Mary's mother came at the end of the afternoon and spoke privately with her husband. After she left, his future father-in-law looked at Joseph gravely.

"My son," he spoke often in such endearing terms to this young man whom he loved as his own, "I have been told something I don't understand."

"What is it?" asked Joseph. "Is it Mary? Is she all right? Should I go to her?

"No, it's not that," her father added mysteriously. "Something was discussed between mother and daughter today that I do not quite understand. I will inquire tonight and tell you more when I arrive tomorrow. But there is one thing, Joseph."

"Yes?" Joseph leaned in anxiously.

"My wife's relatives are going down to Hebron in Judea in a few days. Mary is going with them."

"Hebron? Why? How long has this been planned? Why was I not told before?"

Mary's father had little more to say. When they spoke the next morning, it was even more mysterious. He didn't want to say anymore, even though it was obvious he knew something. What?

The couple, though betrothed, had been busy with many preparations. They limited their time together because they also wanted to live righteously and wait until marriage to complete their union. Their only chance to speak had been in the pre-dawn hours as she was helping pack the small wagon that would accompany the family caravan to the South.

"Joseph, my heart belongs to you," she had said, "but I must go on this journey to see Elizabeth. I have told you so little because I have not known how to say it. Joseph, a messenger of the Eternal has visited me."

He stared at her, not comprehending.

"Joseph, I am with child. It is God's Child!"

The shock broke over him like a cold wave at the Sea of Galilee. "Wha...?

Suddenly they were interrupted. Her uncle said, "We must go!"

She climbed up and spoke through her tears: "Goodbye, my love."

They rode into the darkness.

Now, here he was, tormented again with her message...

(to be continued)

To my readers: the events surrounding the birth of Christ are given extensive coverage in Scripture. The parts we don't always know about are the human elements, especially from the viewpoint of Jesus' participants. My attempt this Christmas is to stay true to the Biblical text, while shading in what it may have been like "between the lines." Please distinguish my ruminations from God's Word by reading the first few chapters of Matthew and Luke. My hope is that reading my words impacts you even a tiny percentage as much as writing them has impacted me.

 

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Christmas At innermost: Mary

Part 3

Even the large firepot failed to heat the small open room in the front of the house. Mary was happy for the quiet this morning and was patiently waiting to use this time and speak with her mother. Where would she begin?

Papa put on his heaviest cloak as he departed to help Joseph with the roof on the house he was building. Isaac and young Yacov were at Torah school. Mary's little sister Naomi was playing with her friend in the village. 

Mary sat by the fire and held her hands near it to warm them. She heard her mother from the other room. "Mary, do you want some tea?"

"Please, Mama. It is extra cold today, true?"

"Of course true," agreed her mother. "Here, sip on this."

Mary took the herbal brew from her mother and glanced up as mama sat down.

"What is it daughter? Since my return from the market yesterday, you have been lost in thought with this strange look about you."

"Oh, Mama. It will sound too unbelievable! I don't know how to say it."

"Don't worry, child. I am your mother. Let it tumble out; we can talk it through together."

Mary looked up and began to cry. "Oh, Mama. Something has happened that is so wonderful and yet so strange that I wonder if I imagined it." Little by little, she told her mother of the angel's visit. She described the promise and spoke of the strange stirring deep within her.

When she got to the part about being with child, though she was a virgin, her mother's eyes grew moist and she turned her head away. Finally, she said, "Mary, since I was a young girl, my Papa the Rabbi spoke of the strange promise in the book of Isaiah the prophet. He said, 'Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son.' That son will grow up to be our Messiah, Mary! Could the Eternal have chosen you to be His mother!"

Mary sat quietly for a long time, taking it in. Finally, she asked, "If that is the meaning of the angel's words, what am I supposed to do, Mama?"

"We have heard talk in the family about Elizabeth's pregnancy, even though she is old. Mary, you must see her. Your uncle and cousin are leaving for Hebron next week. You must go with them. I will talk to Papa and he will speak to Joseph."

To my readers: the events surrounding the birth of Christ are given extensive coverage in Scripture. The parts we don't always know about are the human elements, especially from the viewpoint of Jesus' participants. My attempt this Christmas is to stay true to the Biblical text, while shading in what it may have been like "between the lines." Please distinguish my ruminations from God's Word by reading the first few chapters of Matthew and Luke. My hope is that reading my words impacts you even a tiny percentage as much as writing them has impacted me.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Christmas At Innermost: Mary

Part 2

Morning sunbeams danced in the southern window of their little family house as Mary sat near the fire. She enjoyed these hours of daylight when the air outside was cold and the walls protected her from the winds that blew almost ceaselessly along the hilltops.

Mother had gone to the street market in the village to get some olives, some oil and a few figs. Maybe she would bring home raisin cakes for the family to share tonight. Papa was helping a neighbor whose ox was ill. Isaac had taken the three younger children to the vista where they could glimpse the Sea of Galilee off in the distance. Mary was left to her sunbeams, her fire and her thoughts of the house which Joseph was working on for them. She wished the days would move faster!

As she thought of her wedding and her future life, she noticed the growing light in the room. Had the door blown open? She couldn't have that! She turned and the door was closed. "Hmmmm," she wondered. "Perhaps it was just my imagination." She turned back to the fire.

A man was standing there! She was about to cry out, when she saw him smile.

"Greetings, woman favored by the Eternal!" 

What was this? The man is suddenly just standing there! What does he mean, "Woman favored by the Eternal?"

"The Eternal is with you! Don't be afraid, Mary. I am here because the Lord has sent me to you."

"H-h-how do you know my name?" she asked.

"Mary, you have found favor with the Eternal. I am Gabriel and I have been sent to you with a special message."

"Message? What type of message would the Eternal have for someone like me?"

Gabriel smiled again. "Mary, the Eternal has long been planning for this special time. You are going to conceive and bear a Son. You are to name Him Jesus. He will be great and will be known as Son of the Most High. He will be given the throne of His ancestor -- your ancestor -- David. The kingdom He establishes will be forever!"

Mary felt something stirring in her heart. It wasn't fear; it was awe. But why her? 

"How can this happen? I am betrothed, but I am a virgin!"

"The Spirit of the Eternal will come upon you and the mighty power of the Lord shall watch over you. Mary..." his voice was quite tender now. She could sense that Gabriel was also in awe of all this. "...you will give birth to the Son of the Most High!"

Years later, Mary could immediately feel what she felt at the moment: fear, awe, joy, hope, and promise all mingled together. But she could never really describe it to anyone else.

"The Eternal is already carrying out His plan, Mary. Your relative Elizabeth, wife of Zechariah the priest, is pregnant in her old age. She is already in her sixth month. Mary, never forget: NOTHING shall be impossible with God! Every time He speaks, it contains the power to bring it to reality!"

"So be it!" Mary declared with a confidence she didn't know was there. "I am the Eternal's servant and I want Him to use me as He pleases."

To my readers: the events surrounding the birth of Christ are given extensive coverage in Scripture. The parts we don't always know about are the human elements, especially from the viewpoint of Jesus' participants. My attempt this Christmas is to stay true to the Biblical text, while shading in what it may have been like "between the lines." Please distinguish my ruminations from God's Word by reading the first few chapters of Matthew and Luke. My hope is that reading my words impacts you even a tiny percentage as much as writing them has impacted me.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Christmas At Innermost: Mary

Part 1

Her heart pounded as she willed her legs to go faster up the long hill. Her strides were full and her breathing was rapid, but she could hear him closing in behind her. Cresting the hill, she turn right and ran along the narrow trail into the shadow of the outcropping of large rocks just above her. "Just a few steps more," she thought as she gasped for breath. 

She suddenly realized that she no longer heard his footsteps nor his hard breathing that had been so close behind her. He must have slipped and fallen. With renewed hope, she rounded the hill and saw her family's small home just a hundred yards away. She stretched out her stride and ran for safety.

Suddenly, she heard him again. He had taken the short cut, the treacherous path over the top of the hill. He was running down hill with legs several inches longer than hers. She cried out!

"Got you!" he yelled as he grabbed her by the shoulder. They both stopped, too winded to go on. 

Hands on their knees, trying to fill their lungs with oxygen, they heard their father laughing a short distance away. "It's good that you will soon be Joseph's wife, Mary! Your brother Isaac is a full two years younger and this is the first time he has caught you. Perhaps you should relinquish your running championship to him!" 

"Oh, Papa," she yelled back between breaths, "he never would have caught me if he hadn't cheated with the shortcut!"

"Just remember," her father said, "that's the same shortcut you took the first time you caught your cousin!"

As they entered their old house, Mary went to the small room that had been "home" her whole life. She looked on the shelf her father had built and noticed again the exquisite shawl which Joseph had given her for a betrothal gift. She pick it up, placed its softness against her cheek and thought of how her life was changing.

Her family and the family of Joseph the carpenter had made arrangements for their marriage when the children were too young to decide for themselves. There had always been some mystery in her mind about the arrangement because it happened when she was two years old, but Joseph was already eleven. Somehow their fathers had believed that this arrangement was the will of the Eternal, blessed be His Name.

The tradition said that the couple, when they reached the right age, could go through a time of engagement in which they got more acquainted with each other. During that time, the children could decide to call off the planned marriage. 

If the children decided to accept their parents' choice, they entered a year of betrothal, in which they were married in every sense except one. During that year, they did not come together as husband and wife. Joseph was now legally and financially responsible for Mary and they saw each other almost every day. They both were anxious for the year to end so they could belong to each other completely. 

"Our day will be soon, Joseph," she whispered quietly to herself. "Then we can be together for the rest of our lives. Oh, how I long to be with you!"

She smiled just thinking about it.

To my readers: the events surrounding the birth of Christ are given extensive coverage in Scripture. The parts we don't always know about are the human elements, especially from the viewpoint of Jesus' participants. My attempt this Christmas is to stay true to the Biblical text, while shading in what it may have been like "between the lines." Please distinguish my ruminations from God's Word by reading the first few chapters of Matthew and Luke. My hope is that reading my words impacts you even a tiny percentage as much as writing them has impacted me.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Innermost Interlude

It was sunny and cool in the mountains of western New Mexico as I took my morning walk last August. I left the busy covered area where about a hundred family members had just finished a huge breakfast. I wanted a few minutes alone from the numerous conversations taking place and walked west up the slight incline of a small hill.

I passed the site where I spent hundreds of childhood hours playing in and around the corrals that have long since been torn down. On my left was the house I helped build as a teenage boy; the one which replaced the original house that had burned to the ground just weeks before. 

I crested the hill and turned south. Off in the distance was the tall mountain where I went on my first hunting trip with my dad. Just in front of me was the depression of a dirt tank used to trap the rain water running down from higher ground. When the tank had plenty of water, the cattle used it as a watering hole. As children, we used it as a place to get muddy.

Step by step I walked around the original perimeter of that small ranch my grandparents had homesteaded back in the 1930s. They eked out a life on this little parcel of land that current generations use as a quiet escape from the pace of the "real world." 

I know the hills and the low spots, the fence rows and the dirt roads. Yet, on these too infrequent trips back, I find myself walking. My walks are an amalgamation of long-held memories and the heightened sensory awareness of the tiny things that have changed. I notice the droppings of deer that roam the area. I see where old scrub cedar trees have died and fallen. Insects are everywhere, but primarily down in the soil. 

It is in moments like these, that I reintroduce myself to the long familiar. I find that I often forget to look for the surprises when I walk the trail on a regular basis. 

It's like that with Scripture. It's like that with Christmas. My attempts to climb inside the hearts and minds of the characters in the story are really my attempts to remember. But I want to remember with a fresh vision.

I want the old stories to be just as fresh as the new ones. "Innermost" is helping me do that. I hope it's helping you, too.

Tomorrow, we turn our attention to a girl who has just barely become a woman.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Christmas At Innermost: Zechariah

Part 6

The old woman grew tired as she gazed up the darkening path to hopefully catch a glimpse of her husband. She worried much on these days when he began travel so early and rode until late. A few times he had risked the bandits that frequented the hills and completed his trip well into the night. The clouds high overhead were wrapped in golden orange that was quickly shifting to gray, then black. She decided to go back inside their little home when she looked up the road one last time. She saw his faint image off in the distance. A moment later, she heard the plodding steps of the old burro.

"I'm glad you made it back, husband!" she called out. "How was Jerusalem? Did you enjoy your time with the 'Three Kings?'" He lifted his head and pointed to his throat. "Are you ill? I have some warm soup that will surely help!" She waited until they arrived at the post Zechariah used when he needed to hitch his animal, then she reached up and gave her husband a hug as she said, "Take your beast to the barn and I will have your supper ready on the table."

It was as her husband walked silently into the door that she noticed this slight grin on his face. "What are you so happy about that you smile even when you have laryngitis?"

Zechariah quietly reclined at the table and began to sip his soup, then took a bite of the hard bread. Chewing, he reached down by his side to pick up the small writing tablet which he brought with him from Jerusalem. "I was chosen," he wrote, then looked up to see Elizabeth's expression.

"Chosen? To offer the incense?"

He nodded.

"That is why you have such light in your eyes! Husband, no wonder you don't have a voice. You must have told the story a hundred times already!"

He held up his hand to slow her down. "An Angel visited," he wrote hastily.

"An Angel? In the Holy Place?"

Zechariah nodded again.

"Why? What did he say? No one has seen an Angel in our lifetime!"

Zechariah wrote furiously. "God has heard our prayers!"

"Our prayers? What do you mean, Zechariah? What prayers do you mean?"

Zechariah point to his wife. Then to himself. Then back to the tablet, emphasizing the last two words: "OUR PRAYERS!"

A look of shock covered Elizabeth's face. What did that mean? She pondered it, then looked down to the new words her husband had written: "We will have a son!"

As she read them, she looked up at the tears breaking from the corner of Zechariah's eyes. She bit her lip. Then a little sob escaped from deep within her. "How? What are we to do?"

He reached under the little table where they sat. He pulled out the small bouquet of flowers and handed them to her.

She sobbed again. Then laughed. Then leaped up and broke into a little dance.

To my readers: the events surrounding the birth of Christ are given extensive coverage in Scripture. The parts we don't always know about are the human elements, especially from the viewpoint of Jesus' participants. My attempt this Christmas is to stay true to the Biblical text, while shading in what it may have been like "between the lines." Please distinguish my ruminations from God's Word by reading the first few chapters of Matthew and Luke. My hope is that reading my words impacts you even a tiny percentage as much as writing them has impacted me.

 

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Christmas At Innermost: Zechariah

Part 5

Zechariah turned to leave...

11 Unannounced, an angel of God appeared just to the right of the altar of incense.
12 Zachariah was paralyzed in fear.
13 But the angel reassured him, "Don't fear, Zachariah. Your prayer has been heard. Elizabeth, your wife, will bear a son by you. You are to name him John.
14 You're going to leap like a gazelle for joy, and not only you—many will delight in his birth.
15 He'll achieve great stature with God. "He'll drink neither wine nor beer. He'll be filled with the Holy Spirit from the moment he leaves his mother's womb.
16 He will turn many sons and daughters of Israel back to their God.
17 He will herald God's arrival in the style and strength of Elijah, soften the hearts of parents to children, and kindle devout understanding among hardened skeptics—he'll get the people ready for God."
18 Zachariah said to the angel, "Do you expect me to believe this? I'm an old man and my wife is an old woman."
19 But the angel said, "I am Gabriel, the sentinel of God, sent especially to bring you this glad news.
20 But because you won't believe me, you'll be unable to say a word until the day of your son's birth. Every word I've spoken to you will come true on time—God's time."
(Luke 1:11-20 The Message)


.......
The wonderment of everyone near the Temple was as distant as yesterday's sunset. Zechariah leaned forward and stroked the neck of his old burro as if the gentle touch might communicate this mystery to the beast. The burro snorted and trudged onward. They were many miles from the beginning of today's journey.

"It's one thing to hope my old four-legged friend will understand," the priest thought to himself. "But I have no voice. How will I tell Elizabeth? What am I supposed to do, O Eternal?" He raised his eyes to notice the cart of a flower merchant on the edge of town. After a brief exchange he climbed back up on the mule, not realizing the twinkle in his eyes.

To my readers: the events surrounding the birth of Christ are given extensive coverage in Scripture. The parts we don't always know about are the human elements, especially from the viewpoint of Jesus' participants. My attempt this Christmas is to stay true to the Biblical text, while shading in what it may have been like "between the lines." Please distinguish my ruminations from God's Word by reading the first few chapters of Matthew and Luke. My hope is that reading my words impacts you even a tiny percentage as much as writing them has impacted me.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Christmas At Innermost: Zechariah

Part 4

Through the smoke of incense, Zechariah could see the long sash from Aaron's robe lying on the floor just outside the veil. From the other side of the thick curtain, he could hear the bells tinkling on the sleeves of the High Priest as he moved about in the Holy of Holies. The voice was that of an old man, muffled in the mist of Zechariah's mind: "Blessed are You, O Etern..." In fear, Zechariah listened again. Nothing! No bells! No voice! His own throat seemed full of cotton as he called the name. "Aaron!" Then, with more urgency: "Aaron!" He bent down, grabbed the long sash and began pulling..."

Covered with perspiration, he sat up in the bed. His night clothes were soaked. The sounds in the courtyard told him that morning was stirring. He smelled a firepot burning outside.

All night, the dream had wafted its way back into his subconscious. He thought of his ancestor, the original High Priest, and how he must have felt when he entered the presence of the Eternal in that wilderness tent of worship. The Almighty gave strict instructions on how to prepare for that occasion. The High Priest had to be washed thoroughly, then dressed in his priestly garments. After the sacrificial goat was killed, he went with blood into the Holy of Holies, the earthly dwelling place of the Eternal. The High Priest entered with a right heart and in sanctified garments. Even then, he might have missed some step. Some flaw, some unconfessed sin might cause the Holy One to strike the High Priest dead. The bells alone announced that the spiritual representative of the people still lived. If they stopped, he was to be removed by dragging him with the long sash that extended outside the veil. For anyone else to go behind that curtain meant death. Even the High Priest went only once a year on the Great Day of Atonement.

Zechariah shuddered again. Today, he would be alone just outside that veil. The glorious power of the Almighty would be that near. "Am I ready?" he thought. The question replayed itself over and over as he joined the other priests on duty for the daily cleansing ceremony.

"Am I ready?" He again pondered the enormity of it as he entered one of the two columns of priests and their somber processional moved into the Hall of Hewn Polished Stones. 

Could it be that Elizabeth's failure to conceive was caused by some sin he had committed? Something he had never confessed?

"Am I ready?"

The sacrifice, the cleansing of the Menorah and the preparation of the altar of incense were complete. Zechariah took the pungent incense with him as he walked alone into the Holy Place. His heart beat rapidly as he spread some of incense evenly over the altar. Thoroughly satisfied, he took a flame and began to light the fire. Dark, aromatic smoke rose between him and the veil. It would burn for a long time.

Zechariah paused. On this one day in his life, he was alone just outside the presence of the Almighty. He thought of the faithful whom he had seen praying nearby in the Court of the Women. He watched the cloud of incense, representing the prayers of the people before the Eternal. He felt the sudden urgency to pray the prayer he held in the deepest recesses of his being.

"O Eternal, I confess that I do not understand. I have been given the privilege to burn this incense before You. I have received Your approval to do so as shown by the sacred lot. All my life I have longed for this day. Now that it has arrived, I stand here with a broken heart. O Eternal, please hear my cry! Through the many years of our marriage, my wife Elizabeth has been barren. We have prayed. We have wept and cried out to You. We have sought the help of the physicians. Now, we have been told that it is too late. Please, Eternal, comfort us. We do not understand."

He turned to leave...

To my readers: the events surrounding the birth of Christ are given extensive coverage in Scripture. The parts we don't always know about are the human elements, especially from the viewpoint of Jesus' participants. My attempt this Christmas is to stay true to the Biblical text, while shading in what it may have been like "between the lines." Please distinguish my ruminations from God's Word by reading the first few chapters of Matthew and Luke. My hope is that reading my words impacts you even a tiny percentage as much as writing them has impacted me.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Christmas At Innermost: Zechariah

Part 3

The firelight flickered off the faces of the three kings. "Three kings" was Zechariah's affectionate term for the three priests with whom he had been friends since they were quite young; and that was a long time ago. Zechariah had received his name, meaning "memory of the Lord", because his family line included the Old Testament prophet. His three friends, instead of being given traditional names popular in the lineage of Aaron, were all named for former kings of Judah. Josiah, Asa, and Hezekiah were quick to point out that they were named after some of the few good kings in the nation's pock-marked history.

Two of the three, Asa and Hezekiah, had received the sacred lot for burning incense many years earlier. Josiah and Zechariah were still hoping. As they sat near the fire pot, all of them waited in anticipation for the announcement of those whom The Eternal would mysteriously choose. Every week of duty at the Temple was preceded by this evening of friendly reunions and anxious murmurings; who would be selected this time? Zechariah's stomach was rolling.

"I overheard an argument tonight, Zechariah." Asa leaned in as he spoke in a low voice. "Two young brothers from the north looked ready to fight. One said, 'It is The Eternal who decides the outcome of the lot.' The other angrily pointed to the soldiers nearby. 'Do you believe that The Eternal decides their lot, too? Of course not! If He avoids the lots of the Romans, why would He be concerned about our lots?'"

Hezekiah, obviously listening, turned with a laugh as he burped up his wine. "Remember when we were just like them? We spent many evenings in this very courtyard thinking we could prove our argument once and for all."

"Our arguments mean little now," mused Josiah, "but for Zechariah and me the chances of selection are growing dim."

"Listen," called the court crier, "The lots have been cast and the High Priest will announce the chosen ones!" As one, the entire order rose and crowded near the steps. Each man's eyes and ears were attuned to the solemn announcement. With almost a thousand priests in their order, the four lots per day seemed so few when the priests' service lasted but a week. They only served two weeks a year, meaning that many of them never received the call to burn the incense.

"The first day," recited the High Priest, "the cleansing of the altars and preparation of the fires will be done by Daniel, Uriah from Joppa, Joshua the younger and Eli from Beersheba. The sacrifice, the cleansing of the Menorah and the preparation of the altar of incense will be done by Meshach of Nazareth. The incense burning privilege goes to Nathan the Elder. The altar offerings will be done by Elihu the Bethlehemite."

Day by day the names were read. As each was called out, Josiah's and Zechariah's shoulders slumped even more. Zechariah began to dream of home. At least he could offer his companionship and comfort to Elizabeth.

"On the sixth day, the incense burning belongs to Josiah from Jericho." Zechariah's heart pounded as he watched his old friend began to shake with laughter that quickly turned to deep sobs. At least he could rejoice in the story of Josiah's experience.

"On the Sabbath..." A hush fell over them as they all strained to hear. Every day their ministry was important, but the Sabbath was the holiest day of the week. Selection on that day would be the deepest honor of a priest's lifetime. "And the Sabbath incense burning goes to Zechariah of Hebron." The High Priest paused and look at him. "Our hearts rejoice with you, Zechariah."

The three kings surrounded him, laughing, crying and shouting for joy! Could it be? Did he finally receive The Eternal's favor?

To my readers: the events surrounding the birth of Christ are given extensive coverage in Scripture. The parts we don't always know about are the human elements, especially from the viewpoint of Jesus' participants. My attempt this Christmas is to stay true to the Biblical text, while shading in what it may have been like "between the lines." Please distinguish my ruminations from God's Word by reading the first few chapters of Matthew and Luke. My hope is that reading my words impacts you even a tiny percentage as much as writing them has impacted me.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Christmas At Innermost: Zechariah

Part 2

The midday sun shone brightly in the southern sky. Rays of warmth washed over Zechariah's old coat to push out the last molecules of cold trapped there the previous night. The cot in the ancient inn where they always spent the night was comfortable, but Zechariah felt his years that morning as he mounted his burro for the final miles into Jerusalem. 

The increased traffic coming from and going into the Holy City heightened their anticipation. Somehow the business of merchants and pilgrims helped to dull the harsh awareness of the Valley of Hinnom to their right. The smell of the constantly-burning garbage made Zechariah think of the children who had been sacrificed there by the likes of evil Manasseh. The old man cleared his throat and spat, as if he could rid himself of the smell and the thoughts. How could the Eternal give babies to those who hurt them and close the womb of the righteous? Zechariah wasn't sure he would ever understand.

The road grew even busier as they noticed the towers of Herod's Palace above the city's western walls. They turned the corner and followed the curvature of the hill near the Jaffa Gate. Zechariah's heart quickened as he anticipated the renewed fellowship with some of his closest friends. They had all served in the order of their ancestor Abijah since they were young. Today they would meet at the priest's lodgings and catch up with the latest news from their regions and families as they rested from their journeys. Tomorrow they would prepare their hearts for the week of service that would follow.

"I wonder what will be their response when I tell them Elizabeth's sad news," Zechariah mumbled to himself. Some of the more critical in his order would surely say, "One of you has sinned if the Eternal has judged you thus!" Another would add, "What is wrong that the Lord is blocking your prayers, Zechariah?" Still others would quietly come to him and tell him of some new treatment; a 'miracle cure' being done by a physician in their region.

He hoped his three close friends would just grieve with him.

To my readers: the events surrounding the birth of Christ are given extensive coverage in Scripture. The parts we don't always know about are the human elements, especially from the viewpoint of Jesus' participants. My attempt this Christmas is to stay true to the Biblical text, while shading in what it may have been like "between the lines." Please distinguish my ruminations from God's Word by reading the first few chapters of Matthew and Luke. My hope is that reading my words impacts you even a tiny percentage as much as writing them has impacted me.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Christmas At Innermost: Zechariah

Part 1

He looked over his shoulder to catch a final glimpse of the lamps burning in the windows of the small, flat-roofed houses. His thoughts, as he rounded the hill and noticed the first glimmer of daylight on the eastern horizon, were of his wife. Her sadness at his departures weighed heavily upon him ever since their reality had struck its final blow. 

"It is too late, Zechariah," she had mumbled on that warm, spring evening several months earlier. "The physicians and the midwives have all said that I am past my opportunity. I can never bear us a child." Her tears fell silently and ceaselessly that night. He fought for words to console her, but she wept still.

He thought about the finality of it as he pulled his cloak tighter against the chill. Riding on, his mind jumped to their goodbye a half-hour ago. Would she never feel joy again? Could she never know that his love for her grew deeper as the years passed, whether she bore him a child or not? 

"Steady," he whispered to his old mule as they wound down the hillside. "You know these rocks are loose. That's right, boy, be sure of your footing."

Each minute the darkened shapes of the hills grew richer with color. The purples of the sunrise were being accompanied by the early-morning songs of sparrows. A coney bounded up the trail just ahead of them. One part of Zechariah's heart wanted to leap with the same joy as this waking morning. "I am on my way to the Temple of the Eternal," he said to himself. "It is once again my privilege to serve as a priest!" But his joy was hidden in the shadows of heartache and disappointment.

His thoughts returned to Elizabeth. Always before, she had sent him to Jerusalem with the whisper, "Perhaps this time the Eternal will answer our prayers and we will have a son!" This morning, however, she handed him his cloak and some food and said simply, "Goodbye, husband."

To my readers: the events surrounding the birth of Christ are given extensive coverage in Scripture. The parts we don't always know about are the human elements, especially from the viewpoint of the participants. My attempt this Christmas is to stay true to the Biblical text, while shading in what it may have been like "between the lines." Please distinguish my ruminations from God's Word by reading the first few chapters of Matthew and Luke. My hope is that reading my words impacts you even a tiny percentage as much as writing them has impacted me.

Friday, November 26, 2010

A Time To Remember

I was working in my yard a few weeks ago and needed some parts for my drip irrigation system.  A local WalMart is just a couple of miles away so I headed over there the night before to purchase the parts and some other items.  I stepped into their large garden center and noticed they had trimmed their selections down to a bare minimum.  To make room for Christmas decorations!

My middle name is NOT Ebenezer.  I love the beauty of this season, even living in a place where many "snowbirds" run around in shorts and tee shirts all winter.  But give me a break.  I found none of my needed parts.  They obviously were back in storage somewhere so the store could sell those decorations.  I had to go out early the next morning and purchase the irrigation parts at a store which specializes in them. I should have started there in the first place.

A couple of years ago, I began to think about the original Christmas.  I tried to separate my thoughts from the cluttered, commercialized version of our current day and go back 2,000 years.  What must it have been like for the very real people whose lives were intersected by angels and thus became the cast of the drama which stands at the center of history?  What did they feel?  What did the unfolding mystery mean to them?  I tried to enter their lives with a story that helps me think about the impact of The Birth as they may have experienced it.

I have called my story Christmas At Innermost.  I hope you will join me this Sunday as it begins...

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A Mighty, Rushing Wind

The clear, hot skies of morning surrendered to growing afternoon darkness yesterday. Clouds that had begun boiling up over the mountains east of us gradually covered the heavens. I paid little attention until suddenly...SUDDENLY...a raging torrent of air began to rattle the windows of our office.

Most likely a microburst (they are common here) that lasted maybe a minute. Then someone came to my office door to announce what had happened near the entry to our auditorium.

"The wind blows where it wants to and you hear the sound of it, but you don't know where the wind comes from or where it is going. It is the same with every person who is born from the Spirit." (John 3:8 New Century Version)

In recent times I am seeing it over and over. The wind of God's Spirit blows into the life of a Christ-follower and changes everything. Old norms are turned upside-down and God (not religion, not rules) makes everything new. I never cease being amazed at the power of it.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Raise The Bar

I lifted my arm in a wave as I passed two women on the jogging path at a local park. "I wonder if they noticed how relaxed I am as I zoom past them," I wondered with a bit of pride. I was in fairly good shape and felt great as I glided along. Just after I went around them, I turned on a gravel road to exit the back side of the park and make my way to a canal bank on the way home.

There, blocking vehicle access from the road to the park, was a chain stretched out about a foot above the ground. "I'll just hop over that," I said to myself while taking long strides, "and head down the road. Almost home!"

SPLAT!

The next thing I knew, I was picking myself up from the gravel, road rash on hands, knees and one shoulder. I was still wondering about the people I passed just moments before. "I'm sure they are really impressed now!" I was also hearing a voice in my head say, "Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall." Some lesson!

Obviously I'm not the one to talk about today's subject. How can I speak about raising the bar if I can't even jump it when it's ridiculously low? Well, I hope I'm in a little better shape to speak of it as a value we hold at Stone Ridge Church. I'll be careful as I talk about it, though. I remember the thing about pride, destruction and falling.

Our church has sought ways to communicate to people, "Come as you are!" But we try to show the goodness of God not to leave us like we are. Many of us sought God because our lives were a mess. Following Jesus is far more than simply changing our eternal location; it's changing the way we live our lives every day. Most of us, if we are honest, desperately need God to make some changes in us.

Raising the spiritual bar is not God's way of increasing the requirements we must meet to experience His forgiveness. It is, however, a lifetime of spiritual stretching exercises that God Himself often orchestrates to conform us to the image of Christ (Romans 12:2). Inch by spiritual inch, He keeps developing our character, helping us live like the new creation He designed us to be.

Here's the problem and it's the reason we specifically stated "Raise the Bar" as a Stone Ridge value. Far too many churches get stuck in spiritual ruts. Communities that were once vibrant and growing have settled into the spiritual doldrums.

One reason, I believe, is that the requirements for spiritual leaders aren't much different than the requirements for church membership. A few outward signs of commitment (like attending, giving and serving) are enough to be a spiritual leader. No one stops to see if the character of Jesus is being formed in them. No one asks that Biblical requirements for leaders, listed in books like 1 Timothy and Titus, be present for one to lead.

If the leaders don't have spiritual passion, no wonder the church spends most of its time wounded on the gravel road rather than racing along a God-designed spiritual journey.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Don't Stay Where You Are

I knew him when he was in his middle years. The challenges of a growing family, the responsibilities of a high-demand job and the extra load of a side business seemed to occupy his time. His involvement in church was hit and miss, though I could sense that he had an earlier season when his heart burned bright with hope and vision of reaching his community with the love of Christ.

The metaphor of a siding off a major rail line comes to mind. At one time this man had obviously been going down the track with great joy, but the worries and cares of life (along, perhaps, with the deceitfulness of riches) had captured his attention and he chose to dwell on the siding.

The siding can be fine for very short stays. It's where we can be repaired so we can get back on the rail and into fully serving our purpose. But there is something insidious, even diabolical, about the siding as a permanent stop in our spiritual lives.

The ugliness of the siding was seen clearly by the time I knew the man. As he watched the trains of spiritual life roll past him, he used his considerable influence to discourage others around him from getting back on track. His long tenure in the place where he lived had given him the ear of many who, like him, had taken a respite along the side rail. Like him, they lingered there until they considered the siding the normal place for spiritual travelers and voiced their disdain for any and all who dared stay on the main tracks and move past them.

Tragically, the man I have described was real. Sadly I tell you that I believe his heart once burned with desire to keep moving as he followed Christ. With a broken heart, I tell you that I watched him slow (and sometimes stop) the spiritual progress of an entire church.

Unfortunately, he was also an Everyman of sorts. He represents a bloated and ever-growing number of people who have left their first love for an empty life on the side. The siding is deceptive; make sure it doesn't fool you.

"Don't Stay Where You Are." It's our second value at Stone Ridge Church.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

An Open Letter To Wesley King of the Willow Creek Association

Dear Wesley,

"It's about the church, capital 'C', not small 'c'." Those were your words at the very beginning of our conversation over nine months ago. The decision to become a "Host Site" took weeks of prayer and discussion among our Team, but I think that statement hooked me from the very beginning.

You didn't know it at the time, but I could remember a season when the Church in our region was working together extensively. Over a number of years we gradually drew apart. Without doubt, some have tried various ways to open the communication lines again, but I have noticed our churches throughout this area have been more like grain silos than like a continuous tapestry of varicolored fields. During this time, some of the churches (including ours) have grown. A few new churches have started and are making an impact. But overall, we became strangers to each other...

...until last week!

Bill Hybels began the 2010 Global Leadership Summit with thoughts about The Power of a Whisper: Hearing God, Having the Guts to Respond. It would be understatement to say that our journey from that opening conversation with you to the last Summit session was a veritable chain of "whispers." For instance, you opened the door to the possibility that we could find ways to involve the Hispanic community, both here and across the Mexican border, ten miles away. That one idea made it possible for approximately 25 people to attend the Summit.

Another "whisper" occurred when I sat down for coffee with a pastor whom I have known for years, but we had little real connection. This Lutheran brother was immediately gripped by what the Summit could mean in his portion of the faith community. His church signed on as an Assisting Church and he worked hard to reach some congregations we would never have reached otherwise. I wish you could have been in his church's conference room one morning when four of us sat down for a brief conversation and prayer. Hearing him pray for our community touched me in a deep way and has kindled what I believe will be a long-term bond as we face the future.

One way God whispered was through the many conversations I had with a variety of pastors about the Summit. Virtually every one of them has recently been burdened with the deep needs of our region and the impossibility that any of our churches can face them alone. Pastor after pastor, some who were unable to attend the Summit, said, "We want to find ways to work together with the other churches. Please tell us when we can meet with others."

During the lunch break at the Summit on Thursday, people sat around tables and began discussing some of the deepest needs in our region. They started forging relationships to see how we can work together. Just one example of the power of this was when a young mom in our church spoke about a pilot initiative we are beginning which will place adults in a local elementary school to encourage/mentor/tutor young students. She still needs a few helpers for this pilot project and was asked by a staff pastor at the local Episcopal church if some of his people might help. "Yes!" was her reply. In return, she (a classroom teacher herself) agreed to train others from his church so they can take the ministry other places.

Whispers from God, Wesley, over and over again. The last one I will mention was more like a shout to me. The final session had just concluded and I turned around. Pastor Raul, who shepherds two Hispanic mission churches we support, came up to me with tears in his eyes. In broken English, he said, "Thank you for doing this for us." We embraced and I emotionally acknowledged his gratitude. I thought he was about to walk away when he grabbed me in a bear hug again. This time he started sobbing. "Thank you for helping us!" he choked out.

During the break before the final Summit session, I was approached by pastor after pastor and leader after leader saying, "Thank you for doing this! Thank you for investing in us!" I echo those words to you, my friend. Thank you for investing in our church. Thank you for taking a chance on us. On behalf of all the churches that participated, we are eternally grateful!

Sincerely,

Sam Norris


Sunday, August 8, 2010

Come As You Are

He had patrolled the blood-soaked streets of Mogadishu and endured the harsh desert of Iraq, but it was the pain of events back home that brought him to the brink of hopelessness.

I received a call one morning from a guy in our church; a call from someone who never called. "I have a friend," he said. "He's going through some pretty rough stuff and isn't sure he can go on with life. Can you see him?" I just happened to have an opening that morning, something that can be quite rare in my schedule. "Can he come right away?" I asked.

The man walked in, eyes downcast and shoulders slumped. He spoke of his despair and his longing to know that Someone could offer him hope. At least a sliver.

That man, who today is a leader in our church, was a living picture of our first value at Stone Ridge: Come as you are!

To contrast, I saw a family walk into one of our recent services. Parents and two or three kids, who looked to be in their young teens. As I noticed the relatively conservative clothes they wore (girls in dresses and boy in sport shirt and slacks) along with the somewhat stiff way they walked, I thought, "Uh-oh. They may be in for a surprise." Our Ignite worship band was leading that morning; the same band that leads Ignite for teens on Saturday nights. Let's just say that they aren't "traditional." The young man who leads them used to be in a touring band and has body art all the way down one arm. He passionately loves Jesus, but he ain't, er, traditional. At the end of the service, I noticed that the family quietly left and I don't think they have been back.

Please don't get me wrong; I have a deep level of compassion and respect for the family I just described, but they struck me as people whose whole view of attending church is different than ours. We seek to embody the value "Come As You Are." For most of us, the button-down, spit-shined version of ourselves is a person we like to be, but we would admit that looking good is in many ways just a veneer. In other words, our lives are marred by schisms, struggles and stresses that take their toll on us. Nearly every day.

Unfortunately, many of us took the admonition to "give your best to God" to mean, "Act like everything is great even though it isn't." In an era when our culture regularly grinds people up and spits them out, we have learned to walk into church with what I call our "plastic Jesus smile" on our faces. Most of us desperately need healing, but we act like we're the people who have it all together.

Stone Ridge isn't like that. I have dubbed my office as a "free-cry zone." We have boxes of tissues sitting at various places all over our campus and they are not primarily for allergy season. Jesus called the weary and those carrying a heavy burden to come to him. He said that He was here to rescue the downtrodden. One day He told the religious leaders that it is the sick who need a physician; they saw themselves as having it all together and He couldn't help them.

At our church we urge you, "Come As You Are!" It's the first step to becoming someone different.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Leadership Summit, August 5-6

Stone Ridge!

Global Leadership Summit is August 5-6 on our campus. Without doubt, those two days will be some of the most encouraging and stretching you will experience this year. If you serve at Stone Ridge, please sign up! The cost is $75. If you need help with part or all of it, please contact office@stoneridgechurch.com about a scholarship. Many other churches from the region will be here and we are praying that this will be but the beginning of a great movement of God here in Yuma.

What is Global Leadership Summit? Watch this...

video
July 19th is the last day for us to turn in names of participants before the Summit begins. Why not contact us at the church office today and sign up!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Actions Speak Louder...

I was listening to a recorded discussion as I was driving the other day. One of the people in the dialog is the pastor of a very large church. I have learned much by listening to him over the years and appreciate his ministry.

My ears perked up when he admitted that he had become angry when his neighbor's lawn was overdue being mowed. I pulled into my driveway and looked over to my own little patch of grass and realized that many areas of it were seeding out. The telltale little shoots were four or five inches high, even though I had mowed only about five days earlier. I was secretly grateful that the pastor (who, by the way, was sorry for his attitude about something so unimportant) didn't live in my neighborhood.

You see, I am particular about my yard. I don't struggle much with how my neighbor's lawn may look, but I am constantly doing little things to keep mine up. I rarely walk to the mailbox around the corner without adjusting something that isn't quite right. To put it simply, I enjoy keeping it nice.

My choice to spend time, energy and money on my yard reflects a personal value. If I told you that I really care about how the exterior of our home looks and never did anything to keep it up, you would say that I was hypocritical. To genuinely value something requires that I take action. It doesn't mean that I must be perfect, but it means I will expend resources to accomplish it.

As a pastor, I understand that a church values some things, too. This subject has been on my mind a lot because we just rewrote our values statement recently. Whether you go to church or not, whether you live in the same town as me or not, I can't wait to share it with you. It says much about us.

In the meantime, what does your use of time, energy and money say about your values?

Sunday, June 6, 2010

How God Uses Pain

I remember the day the third baseman’s world was pulled out from under him. His life was baseball and his college team was headed to the small college World Series. He thought. If only one of his teammates hadn’t brought champagne into the locker room after they won the regional championship -- to celebrate like the pros. If only a local newspaper photographer hadn’t snapped the picture. If only the paper hadn’t printed the picture with the story. If only the story hadn’t infuriated the constituency who supported the small, Christian college. If only the coach had taken action and removed the offender with the booze from the team. If only.

Instead, the college president did take action and pulled the team from the series. The whole purpose of life came crashing down around that third baseman. Looking for answers, within a couple months he ended up in an unexpected place. He realized that Christ could fill the void in his heart and he received the forgiveness and hope that comes when we surrender to Him.

Less than two years later that third baseman and his young wife were teaching school. I had the privilege of becoming his pastor. He was eager to know and serve God. He spent hours studying the Bible. He was a natural leader who easily talked about faith and saw a number of his friends follow Jesus.

One day he came to me and asked for my blessing as he went off to further explore his world of faith. I knew the right answer and fought back my own disappointment that he was stepping away from our church. A few months later he started his own church, even as he still taught high school. That church started growing. At the time, we had just moved to Yuma. He would call me asking for input as they tried to organize their ministry.

Almost 25 years have passed since he planted the church in the Phoenix area. It has grown into one of the largest churches in AZ and they have seen hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- come to Christ. Even today I am moved as I think about this man who became my “son” in the ministry.

It all started when he faced the pain of a lost dream. What good is coming from your pain?