A Christmas Prayer

Cradle

Lord, make me into a cradle for You to come down and be born. Rest in me. Come alive in me. Be born in me. I know I am brittle like old wood, but break me down into pieces and craft me into a cradle to welcome You, to hold You. I am brittle like old wood, but use me like kindling. Kindle in me a bright fire. Ignite in me a deep, burning love that warms my cold heart. Help me to radiate outwards to warm others. Let my fire be Your fire; and when that time comes when You choose for my fire to die down, let my embers still glow with Your warmth. But when all the fire is gone and all that remains are cold ashes blowing in the wind, I pray that You will reignite my spirit in eternity, to glow in Your Glory forevermore.

Amen

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Is There a Vacancy in the Heart?

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“And she brought forth her firstborn son, and she wrapped Him in swaddling clothes and laid Him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.”
-Luke 2:7

 

Growing up, I remember the family trips we would take in the family station wagon. Sometimes they were long pilgrimages between Washington DC and Alabama. My father loved to push the limits to see how far he could go before pulling into one of the small motels that dotted the rural landscapes of small highways in the 1950s. Of course there were no Google and no checking ahead for reservations. I doubt the Mountain Top Motor Lodge in Mount Airy, North Carolina, took reservations in 1959. And so my father pushed daylight hours to the maximum, and we seemed to always be looking for the motel to finally land for the night. Inevitably, we always ran into the times when the ”No Vacancy” sign seemed to be the norm. I remember all of us being tired and wanting to get to that motel that had the air conditioning and the swimming pool, and how we all looked with anticipation as we continued to drive and search for a place to stay. It was always a huge celebration when we finally came to a motel where the “Vacancy” sign seemed to smile and say, “Welcome Slaughter family. We have been waiting for you. Come in and rest.”

And so I think of Joseph and Mary, tired and anxious and worried. I think of Mary in pain and fear. And I see them looking for the inn with the vacancy light blinking and saying, “Welcome Joseph. Welcome Mary. We have been expecting you, and we know you hold inside of you the Son of Man. Give birth here in our home. Warm us with His presence.”  I recently asked some children what the innkeepers would have done if they actually knew that Mary held Jesus within her and that she would bring forth into the world a Savior? One child said, “They would have kicked some other people out!”

More times than not, I am afraid I am like the Bethlehem innkeepers. Christ appears knocking on the door of my heart, and I don’t even recognize Him. He may appear in the form of a stranger, a loved one, a grocery clerk, a decision to be made, a joy, a challenge, but He knocks in the cold darkness of my heart, looking to come in and bring light and warmth. Alas, there is no room in the inn. My heart can get overcrowded at times. There are too many other guests taking up space. And so as an innocent child advised me, I look at the inhabitants that need to be booted out: my do lists, my busyness, my greed, my pride, my procrastination, my fear, my anxiety. There are more unwanted guests than I even imagined. And so I pray. Lord help me to make room for You, not just in this season of Advent, but in all seasons, all days. Help me to recognize You in all things. Help me to hear You knocking.

Help me remove the unwanted guests that make my sacred space cold and dark, and let me always welcome You in the space You want to call home, the place where You want to be born anew everyday and to grow and to come alive.

There are many rooms in this heart of mine. With Christ’s help, I am going to boot out some of the freeloading guests. I am going to put new light bulbs in the sign of my heart. I want the “Vacancy ” sign to be visible for miles. I don’t want Christ to miss it.

 

Amen

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An Advent Awakening

The Advent Awakening

In this Advent season, I await the arrival of what I know I already have. The Christ child has already arrived. He has been born and lives inside me. I know this, and yet I wait still with excitement and expectation and anticipation for Rebirth. With excitement and expectation and anticipation, I still wait. But in the waiting, I find my Advent Awakening. I am once again awakened to what I know is Truth. Not having the Christ child in my life, alive and breathing and pulsating in my heart, would create a void so vast that, for me, would be unimaginable. It would be unbearable. I celebrate my dependence. I am once again embraced by the Awakening.

 

Amen.

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Thankfulness That Glorifies God

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In Luke 17:11-19 we find a story of Christ healing 10 lepers as He was passing between Samaria and Galilee. The leprous men stood at a distance begging for mercy. The wretched disease made them not only full of physical pain, but also full of emotional and spiritual pain. They cried out to Jesus for help. Jesus tells them to go show themselves to the priest, and in the process of walking, they find themselves healed of their incurable disease. They were cleansed. Healed. The insurmountable problem they faced had been overcome through Christ. With their problem behind them, nine of the lepers went on with life. On the other hand, one leper was overcome by what had happened. When this leper realized he had been healed, he did what the others did not. He turned back. He turned back glorifying God with a loud voice and then falling on his face giving thanks to Jesus. How many times have I faced the insurmountable in my life? How many times have I cried out to my Lord, “Jesus have mercy on me. Help me through this situation.” How many times have I cried out and then gone on, only to find out that along the way the problem I had faced had worked its way out? How many times have I realized that Jesus did in fact come through, and how many of those times have I said a quick thank you to God and then kept on walking down the road of life? More times than not, I am afraid I am like the nine versus the one. Christ answers my prayer, and sometime I give thanks, but sometimes I even forget. Sometimes I just find my prayers answered without even realizing it. I want to be like the one and not the nine. I want my thankfulness to be loud, and I want my thankfulness to glorify God. I don’t want to forget. I want to fall on my face at the foot of Christ and say that I will never forget. And so perhaps today and in this season of giving thanks, and even beyond it, I will try. I will try to be more aware of how Christ heals me, and comforts me, and rescues me, and loves me. No, I will try to be more than just aware, I will try to be awakened. And in that awakening I pray that I will turn around and glorify God in a loud voice. I pray that I will no longer take for granted how I am continually blessed. And I pray, I fervently pray, that I will fall on my face and give thanks to my loving Savior. This will be a thanks giving that truly glorifies God.

 

Happy Thanks Giving.

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Pray

Pray

A friend recently said, “I guess all we can do now is pray.” The truth is, now ABOVE all, we should pray! I don’t mean the small, “say a little prayer for you” type of prayer. I mean “a deep down on my knees” type of prayer. Above all, that is what we must do, every day, and even several times a day. PRAY. Pray fervently! Pray for healing and pray for resolution and pray for this darkness to quickly be overcome by the Light. And, as hard as it may be, pray for these adversaries. This is the hard part. Pray for their misguided hearts, pray that the evil enveloping them will lift, and pray for their souls. The madness seems to never go away. What can I do? What can you do? What can we all do? All we can do is pray? No, ABOVE all, we must pray.

 

Amen

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True and Lasting Comfort

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Chris Culver

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. —Isaiah 40:1 ESV (Revelation 21:5 ESV)

I made biscuits this morning. They were good. Real good. I love biscuits. I love how they taste and how they are tied to geography of my life. Every culture has its own inexpensive, salty flour cake. Ours is the southern biscuit, and it’s the best. I’m teaching my son to make them. Take flour, some fat, salt, a little something to make it rise, mix it with some buttermilk and you have something that is delicious and carries some history of the place I live. Biscuits are my comfort food. They make me happy. Biscuits solve problems. If I were to get a tattoo it might read, “Make biscuits, not war…and grits, make grits too…and please tell me we have local honey, heritage bacon, and Chilton County peaches.” In Hebrew. Probably too long for a tattoo.

But alas, as great as a good biscuit is, it can’t solve everything. There are times when even biscuits will not comfort me. Where to turn then? It is surprising how much the Bible talks about comfort, shocking how often the God of creation gently says to his people, “Comfort.” Look at 2 Corinthians 1:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of allcomfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for yourcomfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort. —2 Corinthians 1:3-7 ESV (emphasis mine)

It’s all over the Bible! Why? Because we need it and we need it often. We need to be comforted when our sins overwhelm us and the fiery darts of accusations let fly by the Evil One bury deep. Be comforted because the record of your debt has been canceled, set aside, nailed to the cross. (Colossians 2:13-14). When we run from him and find ourselves where we should not be he is ready to welcome us home as children (Luke 15:20). Be comforted.

We need a word of comfort when life seems overwhelming. It so often feels out of control! We need to be comforted that he is sovereign, that no force can stand against Him (Romans 8:31), that there is no where we can go that he is not present (Psalm 139:7-8) and fighting for our good (Romans 8:28)! He is the rock that the storms of life cannot crush! We are invited to hide beneath his sheltering wing (Ruth 2:12Matthew 23:37). We need his comfort when all seems lost. When we find ourselves traveling through the valley of the shadow of death he is guiding and speaking his love to us (Psalm 23). We long to feel full, satisfied, and complete. That is what we are looking for. Imagine for a second that you were designed by a great artist. Imagine he made you for a reason and a purpose. What if you were made to only be satisfied when you loved him and knew deeply that you were loved by him. What if biscuits, ice cream, careers, spouses, children and other good things will never be enough? What if we are asking these things to do something for us they can only do partially and only for a moment? We need something better.

True, lasting comfort is found nowhere in this world apart from the God who spoke it into existence. Not even in biscuits. In his embrace there is shelter and comfort and love eternal.

Chris Culver is pastor of Birmingham Community Church.

A New Wardrobe

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“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.”
Colossians 3:12

I am blessed. I have a closet full of clothes. Over the years many of my clients have been in the clothing business. So there was always an exchange of clothing for services. As a result, there has always been nice clothing in my closet. In many cases, the clothing still looks new. But with all of that nice, new clothing in my closet, I still find myself going back to some of the same old items. In fact, one of my favorite shirts is so frayed at the collar that the collar almost doesn’t exist. I have a few favorite ties that are close to 40 years old [both pictured above]. I have all of this new clothing set before me, and yet I still will go back to an older suit that has the elbows wearing thin. I have shoes barely out of the box, yet I still grab a pair that is worn and tattered. In Colossians 3, Paul tells me the amazing news! I have been raised with Christ, so I am to set my sights high. I am to put away my old impure and filthy and frayed and false self, and instead, “put on the new self.” Christ is asking me to go into the closet of my heart and throw away the filthy, frayed stuff and to clothe myself with the new stuff. Christ has given me a new wardrobe. He gave me this wardrobe; he gives all of us this wardrobe, because He loves us, and He wants us to be clothed just like Him. He wants us to be clothed in compassion and kindness and humility and gentleness and patience. And above all, He wants us to be clothed in love. He has given us this amazing wardrobe, this beautiful collection that will eternally be in style, and yet even with this glorious wardrobe as my gift, and at my fingertips, I still go back to the ragged and the impure. Maybe that ragged and frayed life feels too comfortable. Maybe it’s easier to lose my patience. Maybe it’s easier to let my pride swell up. Maybe it’s easier to let the earthly idols captivate me. Maybe it’s easier just to desire the impure. But Christ still pursues me. “Terry, don’t set your mind on the old stuff. Set your mind on the new stuff. The new way. Go into your closet and throw away the ragged and torn and filthy and out of style and clothe yourself with this amazing gift I have given you.”

This morning I walked to my closet and looked at what to wear. I was tempted to reach for this older white shirt that I knew had a small spot on the sleeve. It is comfortable. But I set my sight on another shirt. It was rather new. I put it on. At first, it didn’t feel quite as comfortable as the older white shirt, but within a few minutes it kind of felt good. It felt fresh. Well, it just felt right. That being said, I am sure before the end of the day, I will be thinking about that old frayed shirt and a 40-year-old tie.

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A Prayer

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Cave Dwelling

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“I cry to you O Lord, I say, ‘You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living. Attend to my cry for I am brought very low!’”
Psalm 142:5

David cries Psalm 142 from the darkness of a cold, damp cave. He is on the run from the madness of King Saul. He is in hiding. The crown prince of Israel is hiding in a cave. He has lost everything, and he now finds himself alone, cold and afraid in the darkness. He was now a cave dweller.

As teenagers, my friends and I came into the discovery of some caves outside of our hometown. These caves were not like the majestic caverns we saw on vacations. These caves were small holes in the side of small rock outcroppings out on a farm. The cave openings were small, but the passages were tight and long. We always went deep into the caves. It was more frightening that way. They were dark and damp, and there was a stench always present due to bat droppings. We always went in with flashlights, but we always came to the time when, in sequence, we turned the flashlights off. It was then that we not only saw the darkness, we felt it. We felt the depth of the loneliness and helplessness of the dark. Our paths were hidden. We knew not where to go. We just stood there, afraid to move. We always screamed and cried out. But this was fun. Real caving dwelling is not so much fun. I have been in other caves since I was a teenager, but these caves were not openings in the earth, they were openings in my spirit. Truth be known, most of us have been cave dwellers sometime in our life, maybe many times. We’ve spent time in the darkness crying out to God for help. For our business, or our marriage, our parents, our children, our health, or our fears. Sometimes we’ve even cried out not to God, but for God. “Have you forsaken me?” At a time when C.S Lewis found himself helplessly stumbling in the dark, in one of his dark cave dwelling experiences, he cried out to God, and he said, “A door slammed in my face, and I heard the sound of bolting and double bolting inside. After that, silence.” I too have heard the heavenly silence. But I too, have seen in the darkness the heavenly light. It was always there, because God was always there. He is in every cave experience. He is not only in every cave experience, He is behind every cave experience. Because it is in the cave dwelling that we find the Indwelling. In Rosedale where I work with the youth, we built an unusual garden shed. It is a garden shed, but it is also a camera obscura. In one side of the shed is a small half-inch hole. When one is inside the garden shed, with all the doors shut, as one’s eyes adjust to the darkness, the small hole, by God’s divine, cosmic miracle, projects the outside garden on the inside wall. It is remarkable! I remind the kids, as I always remind myself, the Light will always reveal itself in the darkness. Always! And the Light always changes us. The Light always transforms us. When we were teenagers in the cave, and our flashlights we’re still out, and our screaming had stopped, we always sat in the cave in silence. And we waited. Before long, the light from the small cave opening hundred of yards in the opposite direction, always found its way to us in the darkness. It was remarkable.   The next step we always took was to find our way out of the cave not with our flashlight, but with God’s light. We always made it out. And we always felt changed. David went into the cave running from a crazy king. He came out reaching for a crown. David rose from a cave triumphant. Christ rose from a cave triumphant. We can rise from our own cave triumphant. Embrace your cave dwelling experience.  The Light will always be revealed. Transformation awaits.

I write these words at this time with tears in my heart. I write with real tears in my eyes as I type. I have just found out that my son’s best friend has entered into a cave. The wife of my son’s best friend was killed in an automobile accident today. Their baby is in ICU. This cave is so very, very dark. And so we enter the cave with others sometimes, don’t we? And perhaps that is why we must embrace our own cave dwelling experiences. They shape us. They prepare us. They fuel us. They ignite us. Why? Because the days will come, the days will most assuredly come when we will be called to move from cave dwellers to become torch bearers, the days when Christ calls us to be His light in the darkness of the abyss. Today is one of those days. Pray hard for them. Oh, pray so very hard for them. Be the light. Burn brilliant and radiant in the darkness of others. Today, tomorrow, forever.

Amen

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Friendship With God

Dr. Ed Hurley

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What is a friend? Is a friend someone who always agrees with me and always takes my side, a yes man, someone who seconds whatever motion I happen to make? Not necessarily… in fact, a friend is someone who may disagree with me if he or she sees me doing something or saying something he or she knows might hurt me.

A friend is someone who wants the very best for your life.   A friend is someone who is willing to give some of himself or herself to help you move toward your best. A friend is someone who gives you space when you need it, and can let you make your own decisions, even make your own mistakes.  A friend welcomes you, cares for you, but does not try to manipulate or control you. A friend is someone who doesn’t run away when you make a mess of everything and yet, nevertheless, in spite of any mess, any problem, any flaw, still accepts you as a friend, no matter what! My friend, Paul Watermulder, who is a pastor out in the San Francisco – Burlingame area says this about friendship:

“What is a friend? I will tell you. It is a person with whom you dare to be yourself. Your soul can be naked with him. He or she seems to ask of you to put nothing on, only to be what you are. He or she does not want you to be better or worse. When you are with a friend, you feel as a prisoner who has been declared innocent. You do not have to be on guard, you can say what you think as long as it is genuinely you. A friend understands those contradictions in your nature that lead others to misjudge you. With a friend you breathe freely. You can avow your little vanities and envies and hates and vicious remarks, your meanness and absurdities, and, in opening them up, they are lost, dissolved in the white ocean of loyalty. He or she understands. You do not have to be careful. You can abuse, neglect, tolerate. Best of all, you can keep still. It does not matter. A friend likes you and is the fire that purges to the bone. A friend understands.”

There is GOOD NEWS! God wants to be our Friend. He created us for companionship.  He created us to live in community with other people. He does not want us to be left all alone. Remember the first Man, the first Woman, Adam and Eve—God created them for each other, to be in relationship with each other and with Him. You see, God is love! You have heard that, and maybe it has sort of just rolled off your back as a silly little saying decorating the wall of your Grandmother’s kitchen. But it is a deep truth of the universe. God is love! God created us to love and to be loved—those first two people, and all the people he has caused to be born and live, ever. Including YOU! God is love, and God loves you! God is not some cosmic policeman, some angry judge, some mean teacher, some thoughtless coach, trying to catch us up in sinful disobedience, and when we fail, snap the mouse trap and say, “Gotcha!” Sin means, “missing the mark or the target.” The arrow goes astray. God’s target for us is to live in loving relationship with Him. Jesus said, “I came that you may have life in abundance.” God wants us to experience a real life, a full life, an abundant life with Him. Right where you are, God wants to be with you. Sin is thus missing that target of a loving relationship with God.  Sin is going our own way. This separation from God is what sin is. There was a father who had a son who demanded his inheritance from his father, and the father gave it to him. The boy took it and went off to a distant country, where he wasted it all and got wasted. He made a mess of his life. He broke relationship with his father. He separated himself from his father. But that is not the end of the story. The father did not let his boy go and remain separated forever from him. God went out to him and welcomed him home. Probably the best known verse in all the Bible is this, John 3:16, “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” Everybody knows that verse, at least from seeing it hoisted on a sign behind the goal posts at a football game. But there is an important verse that follows, John 3:17. This describes God’s intention in sending Jesus. “Indeed God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him.” God loves us. God wants the best for you. There is nothing you have ever done that can make God love you any more. And there is nothing you have ever done that can make God love you any less. God loves you!

God wants to be our friend. But even God cannot have a friendship alone.  Friendship is a two-way street. It takes two, with both persons giving and receiving affection and esteem. It is up to us to OPEN THE DOOR TO GOD’S FRIENDSHIP. I was a church kid. I grew up in a home with two parents. They were not so hot as a loving couple, and they later got divorced. But they were good parents, and every Sunday they took my sister and me to Church. Yes, I grew up going to church. But I was very lonely, very awkward, and very needy as a kid. And I really did not know God as my Friend. I even, and you will laugh at this, remember in youth group at church one night hearing two men who had been in prison, gotten caught up in some tough things: lots of drugs, drinking, and other things. I remember they described that it got so bad with the drugs that they spent a week in a big trash dumpster, and did not come to until a load of trash was dumped in on top of them. Then they discovered what a friend they had in Jesus, and Jesus turned their lives around. I remember thinking, “Gee, I wish I had a dramatic story like that to tell.” But I don’t. And really, I am glad I don’t! Yet I do have a story of how God turned my life around and changed me from just being a church kid to being a friend of Jesus. Jesus showed me he really is my friend. God met me in Jesus when I was this gangly, awkward and lonely 7th grader. A group of kids in my town who called themselves, “Teens for Christ,” came to our Church and told us their story of how they had discovered God loves them and God was their friend. And they invited us to ask God to come in and establish a friendship relationship with us.

A wonderful man by the name of Henri Nouwen wrote about how friendship with God changed his life.  He wrote, “Intellectually, I knew that no human friendship could fulfill the deepest longing of my heart. I knew that only God could give me what I desired. I knew that I had been set on a road where nobody could walk with me but Jesus.”

I discovered a special friendship with Jesus that night in the youth group. That was 48 years ago. There are many chapters and many stories over the years that I do not have time to tell you about right now. Many times I have messed up. Many times God would have been justified in rejecting me, turning his back on me, locking me out of his presence. But God did not do this. I have this to tell you, friendship with God has made all the difference in my life. And it has been a friendship that has grown and grown. One evening in particular. I was out at a church group meeting at a conference center along the Chesapeake Bay. After the evening program, I went out along the Bay and looked across it. There were houses lining the distant shore. Some had their lights turned on. Some were dark. I heard a Voice within—I believe it was the Voice of God, saying, “Ed I want you to go and help turn some of those lights on.” Friendship with God has made all the difference in my life.

Henri Nouwen writes a bit more about this special friendship. He writes, “Very old places of pain that had been hidden to me were opened up, and fearful experiences from my early years were brought to consciousness. The interruption of friendship forced me to enter the basement of my soul and look directly at what was hidden there, to choose, in the face of it all, not death but life.”  (Henri Nouwen, A Journey Through Anguish To Freedom, p.xvii.)

Friendship becomes more and more possible when you accept yourself as deeply loved by God. THE MOST REWARDING CHOICE IS LIVING IN FRIENDSHIP WITH GOD. It is the only choice that is worthy of us. It is totally satisfying. We are children of God, loved and created by God. We are brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, loved and redeemed by Him. We are temples of the Holy Spirit, who loves and sustains us.

A friend is Someone who wants
the very best for your life.
That Someone is Jesus Christ.
What a Friend we have in Jesus.

 

Dr. Ed. Hurley is senior pastor at South Highland Presbyterian Church.