Blue Christmas

When I was a child, my family’s Christmas lights were red, yellow, green, white, and orange. I don’t recall when blue lights came into vogue, but I remember being stunned the first time I saw a tree vibrant with blue LED lights dominating the color scheme. Blue is now my favorite Christmas light color. After all, blue is the liturgical color for the season of Advent.

Then I experienced my first “blue Christmas,” a phrase now used to define a sad, lonely, and sorrowful Christmas. Not everybody has a holly, jolly Christmas. The loss of a loved one, a divorce, a family member not being able to come home, having to work over the holidays, and just plain disappointment can all lead to feeling blue during the most wonderful time of the year. My blue Christmas was due to three things. I had moved away from my church of 16 years, and I was on leave with no Christmas Eve services to look forward to. My oldest daughter had just gotten married and was spending Christmas in another state with her in-laws. Worst of all, my father passed away suddenly two days after Thanksgiving.

I wasn’t just blue, I was black and blue.

Have you ever felt like a holiday could smack you right down? Holidays can be sneaky little buggers. They can come up behind you without any warning in the mall or at a party and poke you so hard from behind that it knocks the wind right out of you. A flash of memory, a familiar song, a taste of nostalgia, and suddenly, unbidden, you are feeling the pain of your loss with such intensity that you can’t move or breathe. The unhappy irony of that is that Christmas is the celebration of the Prince of Peace, the Comforter:

Isaiah 40

1 Comfort, O comfort my people,

    says your God.

2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,

    and cry to her

that she has served her term,

    that her penalty is paid,

that she has received from the Lord’s hand

    double for all her sins.

3 A voice cries out:

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,

    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

4 Every valley shall be lifted up,

    and every mountain and hill be made low;

the uneven ground shall become level,

    and the rough places a plain.

5  Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,

    and all people shall see it together,

    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

Even in the bluest of Christmases, God comes into our valley of sorrow to lift us up and level us out. Grief is a natural expression of a life that was well loved. It is the heart’s way of dealing with the unthinkable void that death creates. God longs to bring comfort to his people who mourn. He longs to comfort you in your blueness. And here is the good news: he will stay by your side until you begin to feel just the smallest and slightest bit better. And eventually you will.

He won’t leave you or grow tired of comforting you, for he is the everlasting God.

28  Have you not known? Have you not heard?

The Lord is the everlasting God,

    the Creator of the ends of the earth.

He does not faint or grow weary;

    his understanding is unsearchable.

29 He gives power to the faint,

    and strengthens the powerless.

30 Even youths will faint and be weary,

    and the young will fall exhausted;

31 but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,

    they shall mount up with wings like eagles,

they shall run and not be weary,

    they shall walk and not faint.

Are you having a blue Christmas this year? You are not alone. If you look around, you will probably find others in the same color scheme as you. So don’t feel ignored or left out of all of the “have yourself a merry little Christmas” celebrations…others are faking it, too.

I hugged a friend last week who just lost her mother. I know she is dreading this Christmas. I have experienced that same dread and the feeling of disconnect with the joy-to-the-world spirit that others were feeling. I even felt resentful and could not wait for Christmas to be over. As I held her, I heard myself saying, “Every time you miss your mom this season, try to get up and do something for someone else. Think of someone who needs a prayer, or a card, or a casserole, and focus on that.”

I don’t know if that will help. I do know that when we push our way out of our circumstance, we survive for another day and live to tell about it. Sometimes that’s all we can hope for. Blue Christmases are a game of survival. And when grief finally loosens its stranglehold on us, we can begin to feel joy again.

So look around. Others are blue, too. Somebody you know is having a bleak mid-winter this year. Find someone who needs their pain to be acknowledged, and let them know that you see them. When you do that, blueness begins to fade….theirs, and yours.

Blue LED lights

Here is a resource that might help, or be the perfect gift for somebody blue on your list: Mourning Break-Words of Hope for Those in Grief

Singing Hallelujah

Isaiah 9:2, 6-7 (NIV)

“The people walking in darkness

have seen a great light;

on those living in the land of deep darkness

a light has dawned.

For to us a child is born,

to us a son is given,

and the government will be on his shoulders.

And he will be called

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Of the greatness of his government and peace

there will be no end.

He will reign on David’s throne

and over his kingdom,

establishing and upholding it

with justice and righteousness

from that time on and forever.

The zeal of the Lord Almighty

will accomplish this.

It is so tempting to hit the “Publish” button right now. What could possibly be added to the glory and beauty of that Isaiah passage? It gives me chills to read it. I can hear the echos of Handel’s Messiah as I read it: those gloriously phrased notes of “Wonderful Counselor, Almighty God! The Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace!”

I had the unexpected blessing of standing next to my sister-in-law and singing the Hallelujah Chorus at the end of a performance of the Candlelight Processional at Disney World this week. Yes, Virginia, they do read scripture at Disney World. It is accompanied by a full orchestra, a 200-plus choir, six herald trumpets, and a deaf interpreter signing each note and word from the stage. All hope is not lost in this world. My sister-in-law is an excellent alto, and our voices combined in harmony with hundreds of others as we sang the truth about why Christmas happened.

It is important for us to sing the truth this season.

In the midst of the world’s cacophony, we need to sing, and sing loudly. We need to be that light in the darkness of commercialism and secularism. It is good for us to remind each the world that Christmas is still Christ’s Mass, a celebration of his birth. We need to complain to school boards that remove every sacred song from school Christmas productions and feed our children a sugar-diet of “Jingle Bells,” “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas,” and “All I Want For Christmas is my Two Front Teeth.” OK, I get that the last one is relevant to the Elementary School set, but still….

Where is the truth? What is the truth?

Handel knew. He wrote Messiah in just 24 days. He wrote from morning to night. Given the sheer volume of the 259-page score, it is estimated that he wrote 15 notes per minute. In total, he wrote roughly a quarter of a million notes in a little more than three weeks. That is insane. That is the power of the Holy Spirit.

Messiah is in three parts. Part I begins with this prophecy by Isaiah and others, and moves to the annunciation to the shepherds. In Part II, Handel concentrates on the Passion and ends with the “Hallelujah” chorus. Part III tells of the resurrection of the dead and Christ’s glorification in heaven. The story is complete, a reminder to us that when you sing of the truth of Christmas, it is good to tell the whole story, from the Old Testament promise of his first coming at the manger, to the New Testament promise of his second coming.

So go and tell. Go and sing. Go and speak the truth, using both words and actions.

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the zeal of the Lord Almighty accomplished it. Hallelujah!

Candlelight Processional by Kenn Haas

Mary Poppins’ Bag

Do you remember the wonderful scene from the original Mary Poppins movie where she plops her large carpet bag on the table and begins to pull out things like a hat stand, a large wall mirror, a potted plant, shoes, clothing, and a very special measuring tape? I remember as a child being fascinated by her bag. Can you imagine being able to reach in to your carpet bag and get whatever you needed?

Many decades later, Hermione Granger one-upped Mary with a small and elegant beaded bag that had a lot of useful things, including a large multi-level tent and an invisibility cloak. And her bag was small enough that she could hide it in her sock.

This notion of magical bags is something that children innately understand. Think about it; how many times does your child expect you to instantly produce what they want, often making unreasonable and unrealistic requests? And when it’s possible, don’t you make every effort to respond?

In the same way, we can treat God as though he has a magical bag. We operate under an assumption that we can make requests and God will supply them. All of us are guilty of treating God like a big ATM machine in the sky at one time or another. We use him when we need something, but when our pockets are full, we pass on by. Is this a good practice? Do you ever feel guilty about asking God for things beyond your ability to provide for yourself? Check this out:

Luke 11 (NRSV)

5 And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6 for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7 And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ 8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

9 “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12 Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

Good gifts. We know how to give good gifts to those whom we love. In most people’s minds, this season is all about getting and receiving good gifts. Look at the advertising all around you. Lexuses wrapped in big red bows, overly expensive and lush outfits that dance across your screen, flashing diamond jewelry featured in commercials where the husband/boyfriend gets a big reward of love for choosing the right piece…and in each case, the bigger, the better.

But the question remains, should we/may we/might we treat God like a department store Santa, and go sit on his lap with a big list of “gimmes?”

The answer is yes. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus-like aspect of God. And that’s all right.

You see, God longs to hear the desires of our hearts. God wants the intimacy of a trusting child who goes to a parent in the hope and anticipation of getting a Red Ryder BB Gun. Will he give you things that might harm you? Nope. Will he give you what you need instead? Yup. It is the relationship of love, trust, and honesty that blesses the Lord. When we ask, seek, and knock, we are demonstrating our belief that God is able to respond. That demonstration of faith is vital to us, and to God.

So in this season of preparation, while we anticipate the greatest gift to humankind that the world has ever known, go to God in prayer. Ask away. Watch him reach into his carpet bag and pull out the very thing that you need, even if you didn’t ask for it. God invites us to ask, seek, and knock. It’s pretty much in the bag.

Well, Hello There by Mary Anne Mong Cramer

The Great ADVENTure

Come along with me on a great adventure. One that doesn’t require time in the malls or searching Amazon, but one that ushers in the ADVENT of the Kingdom of God on earth. This breaking-through of the holy presence did not get cleaned up by hospital nurses and handed to his momma wrapped in a hospital print blanket and matching hat. This presence did not receive a baby shower with brightly wrapped presents from his adoring family. This presence didn’t even have a gender reveal party…can you imagine?

No, this presence was birthed in dirt and spent his first night on earth sleeping to the sounds of a mooing cow and a snoring donkey. The stink must have been noticeable, but he was too little and much too polite to mention it.

This miraculous presence came straight from heaven above, intended to take root in the hearts and souls of humanity. God sent his only son to walk among us, to experience temptation, to feel hunger, pain, disappointment (lots and lots of disappointment), anger, and friendship. When God deigned to be one among us, he went whole-hog. He didn’t just tickle his toes in humanity-water, he went for the deep dive and didn’t come up for air for 33 years. God with us, Emmanuel.

The great ADVENTure we will embark on will lead us straight to that manger scene, where we will find ourselves standing among dirty shepherds, regal wisemen, a couple of sheep, vibrant angels, and his parents. Like a piece in a nativity set, we will freeze there in worship and adoration.

But not just yet.

In the meantime, we must prepare. Advent is a season of preparation. Not with decorating, buying, baking, and decking all our halls, but by making our spiritual heart-homes ready to receive the awe that is coming.

In Matthew, we are reminded that we didn’t know the hour of Christ’s first coming on earth, nor will we anticipate the timing of his second coming. So we have one job: to be ready.

Matthew 24:36 (NRSV)

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.

42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

KEEP AWAKE. You don’t know. You must be ready. The hour will be unexpected. You don’t want to be caught unaware.

How can you get ready for the greatest breaking-in of heaven upon the earth? How can you prepare to receive this incredible gift of the infant God, who came to save, heal, forgive, teach, help, rebuke, serve, and love?

Maybe it’s time to clean out the musty attic of your heart and create a space for the manger child to have a room there. Do you carry any unconfessed sin? Repent. Do you harbor a grudge with someone? Forgive. Are you estranged from a family member? Reconcile. Are you lazy in your discipleship? Begin a new discipline, like reading this Advent devotional without fail every morning.

Advent kind of sounds like Lent, doesn’t it?

This season heralds the greatest adventure humankind has ever known. If you keep stressing about gifts, cookie baking, parties, cleaning, and entertaining, you are sure to miss it.

Don’t do that again this year. Be still. Listen. Breathe deeply of the fragrance of the Evergreen that brings both life and eternal life into your nostrils. Settle yourself down so that you can be open to receive him.

See you at the manger.

Pennsylvania Snow by Becca Ziegler.

Black Friday

The history of “Black Friday” includes several versions of how the day after Thanksgiving was named. For a long time, the story was told that retailers operated at a loss all year (written in the books in red ink) until the Friday after Thanksgiving. On that day, holiday shopping pushed profits into the “black,” i.e. written in black ink. This is not entirely accurate, but it is true that with the advent of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade heralding the beginning of the Christmas shopping season, (cue Santa’s arrival at the end of the parade) the holidays are indeed the most profitable time of the year.

But another account has emerged that tells a different story. Back in the 1950’s, Philadelphia police officers dubbed the day Black Friday due to the chaos and crowds that poured onto the streets of the city in advance of the Army-Navy game, which was held in Philly every year on Thanksgiving Saturday. (Go Navy!) The additional traffic and crowds meant that all the police officers had to work that day, and were scheduled for extra shifts to manage the large numbers of people. In addition, shoplifters took advantage of the situation, making law enforcement even more challenging.

Whatever the true reason, Black Friday has emerged to be a day of chaotic shopping, where people arrive at stores as early as 2AM to score that one must-have for Christmas. And coming on the heels of a day full of prepping, cleaning, cooking, baking, and serving, we end up absolutely exhausted after Thanksgiving “break.”

Even retailers without brick and mortar locations are jumping into the shopping frenzy. We have received offers of Black Friday deals on hotel rooms and rental cars this season, and many of us will be scouring Amazon for those incredible deals that are the make-or-break of our Christmas season.

Since we are talking about Fridays and gifts, wouldn’t we be smarter to take a beat and focus on the gift of Good Friday instead? If any day should be called Black Friday it was that day. The day of the crucifixion was black indeed, even to the point that the sky went suddenly dark and the sun did not shine from the sixth hour to the ninth hour. The tomb was sealed shut in blackness for three days. But on that third day….on the third day, he arose, and everything changed forever. So how dare we call any day black, when we have the resurrection to look forward to? Once he arose, all the darkness of the world shrank back in respect for the Light. That’s why we call the day of Jesus’ death Good Friday. It was good indeed.

Lest you think I am jumping the gun straight to Easter just days before Advent begins, consider this. What was Christmas for, if not for Easter? Why did the angels sing and the shepherds rejoice? Because the Messiah was born, and he came to save us. Easter arrived wrapped in the swaddled cloths of a cooing baby lying in a manger. In the fullness of time, he turned black days into good days. All of them.

So how can we turn Black Friday into a Good Friday? Maybe by finding some way to do good:

1 Timothy 6:17-19 The Message (MSG)

17-19 Tell those rich in this world’s wealth to quit being so full of themselves and so obsessed with money, which is here today and gone tomorrow.

Tell them to go after God, who piles on all the riches we could ever manage—to do good, to be rich in helping others, to be extravagantly generous. If they do that, they’ll build a treasury that will last, gaining life that is truly life.

Do good and be rich in helping others. Be extravagantly generous. This is the way to build up an everlasting treasury that brings life that is truly life.

On Black Friday, you can either be a buy-out or a sell-out. Sell yourself out for the one who made all Fridays good, and go after God with all your gusto. Buy someone’s groceries, pay for someone’s fast food order in line behind you, hold all the doors open, smile more, donate to your favorite charity….find a way to bring light into the black. And if you are brave enough to go shopping, please be especially nice to the store clerks!

In giving, you receive all the things you will ever need. God indeed piles on all the riches we could ever manage. Do you, and the people you are buying for, really need any more?

Early Light by Patti Kohl Kohler.

The Sound of Freedom

Yesterday I sat in my favorite chair by the corner windows overlooking the harbor and I was startled by the sudden sound of jet noise. I looked up and saw Navy F-18s flying low in a tight formation. NAS Oceana is just over an hour away, and it is not uncommon for us to see Navy planes flying training hops over our beautiful island.

For the first eight years of my marriage, I was a Navy Pilot Wife. I am accustomed to the sound of freedom flying overhead. We lived close to Naval Air Stations where jet noise was a constant reminder of what freedom costs our young men and women as they serve in the skies.

And then there was that horrible time when no planes flew for days. After 9/11, air traffic was grounded for two days. I lived just south of the Atlanta airport at the time, and it was Twilight-Zone-eerie to walk the dog and not hear a single airplane overhead. That was unheard of; the Atlanta airport handles over 2,700 arrivals and departures a day. There was ALWAYS airplane noise…until there wasn’t.

On Thanksgiving, we remember the hazardous journey of intrepid immigrants looking to settle in a new land where they could have religious freedom. The first Thanksgiving was a meal that celebrated a late autumn harvest and their successful founding of a colony on a new continent. They gathered to thank God for his provision and their freedom.

Psalm 107 New International Version (NIV)

1 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;

    his love endures forever.

2 Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story—

    those he redeemed from the hand of the foe,

3 those he gathered from the lands,

    from east and west, from north and south.

4 Some wandered in desert wastelands,

    finding no way to a city where they could settle.

5 They were hungry and thirsty,

    and their lives ebbed away.

6 Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble,

    and he delivered them from their distress.

7 He led them by a straight way

    to a city where they could settle.

8 Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love

    and his wonderful deeds for mankind,

9 for he satisfies the thirsty

    and fills the hungry with good things.

I am thankful for everything God provides; for the beasts of the field, the creatures in the sea, the sunrise over the ocean, and the moonrise over the canal. I am thankful for my family, friends, and a congregation who loves me. I am thankful for all those who serve our country and protect our freedom. I am thankful for my home and my dog, and for everything God has given me that brings so much happiness into my life.

What are you thankful for today?

This morning, I am especially thankful for all of you who want to be in God’s word every day. You make At Water’s Edge possible. Bless you, and THANK YOU for reading, and especially for sharing!

We give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for mankind today. God satisfies the thirsty when we turn to him, and fills the hungry with good things. It happens every time we open the word or sit at the table. Have a wonderful feast today!

Flying High by Jamie Mathis

The Google

Do you remember a time when you couldn’t pick up your phone to access a global source of information in a matter of seconds? We are so accustomed to having a map, dictionary, encyclopedia, calculator, instant news, weather, etc. at our finger tips, it’s no wonder we freak out when we lose our smart phones or worse, drop them in the toilet. Yes, I’ve done that. Twice.

I haven’t the foggiest notion of how “the Google” works, but I do know that you have to frame your search inquiry correctly to get the results you want. As search engines evolve and algorithms track your previous searches, it gets easier to find things out. For example, I do so many searches for scriptures that scripture references now pop up whenever I type in a few words. Alexa listens to our conversations and then an ad for that very thing magically pops up on our FaceBook feed. We are living in a time when artificial intelligence not only responds to our inquires, but actually directs our behavior. Big Brother is not just watching us, he has moved into the guest room and has commandeered the best fluffy comforter and the biggest bathroom in the house.

But none of this happens until you initiate a request for a response. You start the process by seeking something: a product, an answer, a direction…you seek, and Google finds.

I wonder if the Wisemen would have found Jesus faster if they had Google Maps and a Star Finder app.

Occasionally during the holidays you will find something that says, “Wise people still seek him.” I love that. Whenever we stretch out an arm to shade our eyes and cast our vision outward, we can easily find God. He is never far away from our presence, and longs to be found.

He can be found in the eyes of a homeless man looking for help. He can be heard in the cries of a child separated from her family at our nation’s border. He can be felt in the palm of a dying grandmother, longing for one last hand-holding with her grandson. He can be seen in the Sunday morning choir as they stand to bring their harmony into worship. God can be found in God’s people everywhere: all we have to do is look.

In seminary, a professor taught us that the Bible is God’s love letter to his people. In scripture we find not just the answers to the complexity of the world and beyond, but the Answer to everything in Christ Jesus. The Old Testament is the search. The New Testament brings the answer.

Hebrews 11 The Message (MSG)

11 1-2 The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see. The act of faith is what distinguished our ancestors, set them above the crowd.

3 By faith, we see the world called into existence by God’s word, what we see created by what we don’t see.

6 And why? Because anyone who wants to approach God must believe both that he exists and that he cares enough to respond to those who seek him.

Anyone who wants to approach God must believe that he cares enough to respond to those who SEEK him. Ask, knock, and seek, and you will find.

Psalm 105 English Standard Version (ESV)

1 Oh give thanks to the Lord; call upon his name;

    make known his deeds among the peoples!

2  Sing to him, sing praises to him;

    tell of all his wondrous works!

3  Glory in his holy name;

    let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice!

4 Seek the Lord and his strength;

    seek his presence continually!

Got questions? Need answers? Feeling empty, and long to be made full? Seek God today. He will be found.

Layers of Light by Michelle Robertson.

“Did Anybody Drop This?”

I was buckled in with my cell phone in airplane mode, and my tray table in its upright and locked position. I was ready for takeoff. We had just started to push back when the PA come on and the flight attendant asked, “Did anybody drop this?” Of course everybody looked up, craning their heads around the seats and leaning into the aisles to see. She continued, “OK, now that I have your attention, let’s go over the safety demo.”

Touché! Well played, Southwest Airlines, well played!

If God could completely have your attention, what do you think he would say?

Here’s one thought:

Matthew 6 (The Message)

34 “Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.”

Whoa. Did you hear that? Are you craning your head around all your problems to see what he is saying? Don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. Whatever it is, God will help you deal with it.

Do you believe that? Do you have a well of trust deep enough that when you dip your worry-bucket in, it comes out filled up to the rim with hope? Yeah, me neither. I mean, it is hard to face your unspoken fears with courage and faith. Instead, our human tendency is to immediately dive deep into fret and worry. It’s normal. It’s natural. It’s understandable. And it’s also useless.

Scripture reminds us that God loves the wildflowers he created, and….wait for it…he loves us even more:

30-33 “If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving.

People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.”

Do I have your attention yet?

So here’s the thing. You know God. You know how he works. Every day you check in here to read, learn, and grow in your understanding of his word. So pick this up today: the best defense against useless worry is to relax in his promises.

Steep your life in God-reality.

Steep your life in God-initiative.

Steep your life in God-provisions.

When you do that, you’ll find all your everyday concerns will be met by the God who loves you, who created you, and who died on a cross for you. Thanks be to God.

Outer Banks Starfish by Michelle Robertson.

A Joyful Noise

I am just going to put it out there. Kids belong in church. I don’t care if you disagree. I once talked back to an usher for telling a hassled single Mom that she should take her fussy child out of the sanctuary. I pulled him aside and corrected him in my best minister-voice. We do not ever tell a tired mother to remove her exuberant kids from the sanctuary. Not for any reason. Not on any occasion. NOT. IN. MY. CHURCH.

His reasoning was that the child was disruptive. So was Jesus.

He was afraid that the noise would prevent others from following the service. That’s why we give out a bulletin.

He didn’t want visitors to not want to come back. They are welcome to find a church where kids aren’t welcome. This is not that place.

He was concerned I would be distracted in my preaching. Buddy, don’t try to hide your gate-keeping bias under some fake concern for me. I love that sound and I can preach in harmony with it any day of the week and twice on Sunday. Like, for real, twice on Sunday.

Babies, toddlers, and old people singing loudly (off key, and several beats behind) are the Lord’s joyful noise. Even the angels rejoice at this noise! I don’t know a preacher who isn’t used to it and can’t ignore it when it happens. The fact that it happens tells us one thing: we have a baby in church! There is a child here! Some parent went to a tremendous amount of effort this morning to get here to worship.

Please tell me how that is a bad thing.

Matthew 19 (New International Version)

The Little Children and Jesus

13 Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them.

14 Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” 15 When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there.

So if you like to take scripture literally, let’s unpack that one for a bit. Let them come. Don’t hinder them. The Kingdom of God belongs to such as these.

Hold up there a minute. The Kingdom of God belongs to the little children? Jesus wants them to come to him? Sounds like all the big people sitting in the pews are the actual interlopers, since apparently we are invading the church that, according to Jesus, belongs to the kids. Ponder that! Maybe it’s a good thing that they still need us to drive them to church; otherwise they might decide to unionize and hinder US from coming. No more Grups! (Some of you may recognize Gene Roddenberry’s contraction of grown ups from a very early Star Trek episode. If so, I salute you.)

And that is so true. We all realize that the future of our churches and our denominations depend on the children who are squirming in the pews and running helter-skelter to the doughnut table, but do we acknowledge that they are also the PRESENT of the church?

Maybe it’s time to count the ways kids are hindered from worship. Like parents who are overcommitted and too tired to make the effort on Sundays. Like churches who don’t make an effort to warmly and intentionally welcome them and make a place for them. Like pastors who continue to use dusty, old sermon illustrations meant for the over-50 crowd. Like worship committees who don’t utilize children and youth as worship leaders.

Where is Jesus calling you to open your heart to the little disciples? Do you need an attitude change? Parents, is God calling to a stronger commitment to consistent worship participation with your family? Or maybe your entire church needs a shake-up?

Let the little children come to Jesus, with all of their joyful noise. When Jesus laid his hands on the children and prayed over them, I bet that is just what he asked his Father to do. Wake up, churches. The future-present is crawling under the pews during the offertory. Make way!

Raising Cain.

Covenant

I love the word covenant. For me, it may be one of the most significant words in the Bible, just after salvation, peace, and forgiveness. Covenant describes the reason all those other words exist. In a Biblical sense, a covenant is a solemn agreement or contract between God and his people that is flesh-and-blood binding.

In the Old Testament, covenants were made with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David. These covenants were promises God made to never destroy the earth again, to provide land and descendants, to bless those who followed the law, (and punish those who didn’t) and that the house of David would produce the kings of Israel. Not to mention THE King.

In the New Testament, we have the end-all-be-all covenant of Jesus, known as the New Covenant. The New Covenant came as a completion of all the old laws, ways, covenants and promises. In the New Covenant, God promises to offer forgiveness of sins through the shed blood of his son on the cross. All who believe will receive eternal life.

In every case, God is the agent of the covenant-making. He initiates, he declares, he invites, and he promises. Every type of covenant relies on both parties doing their part and agreeing to the terms as presented.

One of my favorite modern uses of the word covenant is in the wedding ceremony. It appears in several places, and is in the prayers when we refer to “this solemn act of covenant” and ask God to bless the union. At the end, we invite the bride and groom to “seal your covenant with a kiss.”

(As an aside: we stopped inviting the groom to kiss the bride when we finally realized that the old liturgy assumed the bride to be an object to be given away by her father at the beginning of the ceremony and kissed by the groom at the end. We now ask the family to “present this woman to be married,” and both bride and groom are invited to “seal the covenant with a kiss.”)

In a marriage, we have an equal partnership of covenant-makers. Each benefits from the mutually agreed upon terms from a position of parity. But not so with our covenant with God. We are not his equal. We cannot hope to match what he can give as part of his covenant agreement. It could not be more lopsided, and yet, there it is:

Hebrews 8 The Message (MSG)

A New Plan with Israel

6-13 But Jesus’ priestly work far surpasses what these other priests do, since he’s working from a far better plan. If the first plan—the old covenant—had worked out, a second wouldn’t have been needed. But we know the first was found wanting, because God said,

Heads up! The days are coming

    when I’ll set up a new plan

    for dealing with Israel and Judah.

I’ll throw out the old plan

    I set up with their ancestors

    when I led them by the hand out of Egypt.

They didn’t keep their part of the bargain,

    so I looked away and let it go.

This new plan I’m making with Israel

    isn’t going to be written on paper,

    isn’t going to be chiseled in stone;

This time I’m writing out the plan in them,

    carving it on the lining of their hearts.

I’ll be their God,

    they’ll be my people.

They won’t go to school to learn about me,

    or buy a book called God in Five Easy Lessons.

They’ll all get to know me firsthand,

    the little and the big, the small and the great.

They’ll get to know me by being kindly forgiven,

    with the slate of their sins forever wiped clean.

By coming up with a new plan, a new covenant between God and his people, God put the old plan on the shelf. And there it stays, gathering dust.

The New Covenant offers us the opportunity to be a part of the kingdom of God. God will write this new plan in our hearts. It is a plan that offers us his kind forgiveness, where repentance results in our sinful slates being wiped clean. God desires to be known firsthand. He will be our God and we will be his people. Did you catch that? The God who created the entire universe wants to be our God! He wants to be known in the little and the big, the small and the great. Can you even imagine?

The only thing we can do….the ONLY thing that God asks…is accept this gift of covenant. We can’t earn it, we can’t reciprocate in kind, and we certainly can’t mechanically adhere to meticulous laws to prove ourselves worthy. We just have to open up our hearts and receive the promises of God.

And that’s the best news of all. God has made a promise to us, and God always keeps his promises. How will you respond? What will you do with this gift? Can you keep up your side of this covenant?

God invites all to come to the table he has prepared before us. Will you accept?

God’s Creation, Offered Without Price. Photo by Patti Kohl Koehler