Read through this passage, keeping in mind the circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus, who as a child grew up as one who was conceived out of wedlock.
Ponder these questions with the Lord in prayer, journaling your responses:
What must it have been like to grow up among the whispers, condemnation and ridicule of others?
What do you think God’s words, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased, “ meant to Jesus?
How do you think they made him feel?
What are the words you long to hear from God? Spend some time listening for the still small voice of God.
Pondering where your God may lead you in this coming year, pray this prayer as a reminder of God’s purposes for you:
God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission—I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for nothing. I shall do good, I shall do His work.
Four weeks to reconnect and reset our relationship with Christ
Welcome to a new year!
The fresh hope of potential, growth, success… there’s something special about a chance for a clean start. Anything and everything seems, at the very least, possible. This is why almost half of all Americans make New Year’s resolutions every year. The problem is that when we find ourselves setting goals, we aim too low… or to a height we can never realistically achieve… or maybe in the wrong direction altogether.
So that’s why, at the very beginning of 2020, I invite you to start with Jesus by embracing the spirit of new beginnings together with Christ’s offer of abundant life. I’ve created four devotionals for each of the four weeks of January (with adaptations from Larry Warner’s book Journey with Jesus – a modern interpretation of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius). These devotionals are designed to be experienced near the beginning of the week (Sunday, Monday, or Tuesday preferably) to give adequate time to process and live out these invitations. They will be posted here each Sunday around noon for the week ahead. The devotionals themselves are only designed to take 20-30 minutes, so there’s lots of room to fill in the week with your usual devotional practices on other days.
There’s also a beautifully designed web version of all four devotional, done by our church’s stellar Communications Director, Amanda Buda. It can be accessed HERE.
As you stand looking at the New Year and a fresh start, we hope you’ll join us in saying yes to Jesus’ invitation to “come, follow me.”
On the journey with you!
Find a time to sit down for thirty minutes or so in a comfortable, quiet, undistracted place – preferably in the early part of each week. Have your Bible and journal handy as you prepare for each week’s devotional.
Start your time with a few, calm breadths to still your heart and mind. Ask God to help you focus on Him.
As you meditate on these various passages of Scripture, focusing on the life of Christ, be aware of what draws you to Christ, challenges you, amazes you or gives you pause. Take time to journal about and ponder these internal movements.
Feel free to use the audio accompaniment as a guide, as well. Each week’s devotionals includes a recorded version of the readings, prompts, and prayers – with moments of space in between for your own reflection.
Evening Reflection Questions:
In addition to these four weekly devotions, consider asking these questions of the Lord at the end of each day. Take a few moments of silence, offering these questions before God and noticing what He brings to mind…
How and when did you experience Immanuel (God with you) today?
When were you aware of your love for Jesus today?
When did you “follow Jesus” in your relationships, circumstances, reactive and proactive responses, and actions?
* Tips for “Imaginative Reading”
Many of these devotionals center around a passage of Scripture that you’re encouraged to meditate on and read “imaginatively”. What that entails is taking the time to read the passage very slowly, and maybe a few times over, imagining the scene unfold before you. This is a Spirit-infused, God-directed use of your imagination that gives you the ability to experientially enter into the stories, symbolism and images of the Bible. How might it look like as a movie? What details can you see in your mind’s eye? What are the sights, smells, tastes, textures, and sounds you observe? You may consider placing yourself in the narrative as a character in the story or simply a bystander observing. Feel the freedom to be playful and creative in this exercise. Don’t worry about “doing it right”, just go with the Spirit’s direction and be open to how God leads you.
WEEK 1 / Jan. 5-11
As the new year passes and 2020 comes into view, spend a few minutes thanking God for His presence in your life throughout the last year. Pray through this simple reminder and allow God to help you reflect on His faithfulness and goodness…
Who has listened to our joys indescribable and our groans unspeakable?
Only you Lord Jesus.
Who has provided food, shelter, friendship, work and rest?
Only you Lord Jesus.
Who has healed the afflictions among us?
Only you Lord Jesus.
Who has brought friends back together and mended families torn apart?
Only you Lord Jesus.
Who has forgiven us for sin unseen and brought liberation from addiction?
Only you Lord Jesus.
Who has been our rock when the ground around us has given way?
Only you Lord Jesus.
Who tenderly carried us through times of unbearable hardship and loss?
Only you Lord Jesus.
Who knows those deep pains in our hearts of which even we are not aware?
Only you Lord Jesus.
Who stores our tears in a bottle, tears shed in secret?
Only you Lord Jesus.
Who else was with us, in our joy and grief, in our victories and defeats, through everything this past year?
Only you Lord Jesus.
Read Luke 2:41-52
Spend time imagining Jesus at the following ages: infant to two years, three to five years, and six to twelve years. Try to appreciate his development, his vulnerability and his challenges at each stage.
Conclude your time thanking God for sending Jesus, and thanking Jesus for choosing to come to earth, clothed in flesh of an infant who had to grow and develop like the rest of us.
As you look out into this new, uncertain year ahead, bring this prayer before the Lord…
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
Have you ever felt grief over the past? Do you sometimes long for things to be back to the way they were? In this sermon, I walk us through some of these feelings as the Israelites experienced them in Ezra 3:10-13. It’s a dramatic passage highlighting the tension between joy and loss. Even as we may experience sorrow about the past, God desires us to embrace the new things He is doing in our lives. Are you ready?
The sermon outline is below. Click HERE for the full manuscript.
THANKS AGAIN to so many of you who supported our mission trip to France through financial contributions, advice, language help, and prayers. Kennedy and I had an amazing time!
We started off the week serving at The Chateau by starting a fire. Literally…I helped start a fire. Our team was set to gather for our first meeting of the week, and my man-skills were called upon to light a bonfire and prep for a BBQ dinner. After many attempts, it did finally get going and all was well (thanks, Dad, for passing down your Eagle Scout knowledge!). We pulled together an awesome spread, ate well, and began the week sharing and praying together – and I led a few worship songs with a borrowed guitar.
The next day, the Chateau Director and I headed to a motel for immigrant refugees. We met with, shared the Gospel with, and prayed with, several people from various countries. One of the men wanted to say a prayer and put his trust in Jesus for the first time! We were also able to encourage an entire family (who gathered around us with interest and questions) to consider how Jesus was looking after them with His love. It was a moving moment.
A German youth group was headed to The Chateau for the week, so we prepped things and greeted them the following day. Our main job those first few days was laundry and making sure every bed was set up correctly for the guests.
I also had the privilege of hunting for tools in a century old shed and fixing a broken bunk bed! The team and I also began rehearsals for our musical performance, and it was a joy to get Kennedy in on the hand-drum for the first time ever and plan out some rich harmonies with one of the Summer Interns. Our street performance on Friday night was an adventure, for sure! It was the night of “Fête de la Musique” (“World Music Day”) in France, and so there were performers on every corner. We bounced around a bit and had the chance to declare in a fun, loud, and public way that we “saw the light”, that God “restores every heart that is broken”, and to sing; God, “build Your kingdom here!”
The following Sunday morning, I had the chance to join the worship team at the church meeting in The Chateau. I was all prepped with the guitar and sound system, ready to join the band, and then realized a few moments before that the chord charts are all in FRENCH, of course! I had to transpose from French to English on the fly and create this fancy cheatsheet to get me through…
In some of our spare time, we were able to take in a Saturday morning street market and tour a few old churches, marveling at the ancient architecture, the stained glass, and the mysterious underground crypts. We talked about what early Christianity must have been like in those days and also paused to consider where God’s Spirit might be moving next.
Our last few days at The Chateau were filled with laundry once again (where I learned how to correctly fold a fitted-sheet – don’t tell my wife! – and run it though an iron roller!). I also managed to unclog a shower drain, fire up a massive weed-wacker for some edging on the grounds, and repair some broken lightbulbs. Kennedy was promoted to kitchen crew for the last day, preparing and serving the meals for a group of about 30 ladies, and I pitched in on the dishwashing side of things.
After our week at The Chateau, we headed to Paris for a couple days before catching our plane and heading home. It was truly a life-changing trip. Thanks AGAIN for being a part of it with us! We are already in talks with The Chateau Director about further outreach initiatives including Writers Workshops, culinary experiences, and even a Worship Leaders Training Weekend for emerging leaders in France (where only 1% of the population identifies as evangelical Christians). There is more to do! May God lead and direct us!
* This devotional is meant to be experienced weekly; for the four weeks of Advent and the week of Christmas. Feel free to pick one day during the week to spend some extra time with these reflections. Lighting a candle to begin your time each week would be ideal, but not critical. Journalling your thoughts and responses to God is encouraged, as well.
* I’ve been inspired by Biola University’s Advent devotional, and it’s available HERE.
* The music is from my album Noel. The poems come from Malcom Guite (an English poet, church leader, professor, and musician) and the photos are taken by Farrah Fox (a Richmond, VA photographer and writer) with a film camera as autumn took hold of the south.
WEEK 1 – HOPE
In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. John 1:4-5
The first candle of the Advent Wreath, the “Prophecy Candle” or “Candle of Hope”, is traditionally purple. We light this candle because, like God’s people centuries ago, we also look forward with hope to the coming of the Shepherd. The purple color of the candle reminds us of the seriousness of our hope.
Hope is a light shining in a dark place. As we look at the lights of this first week of the Christmas season, we celebrate the hope we have in Jesus Christ.
First light and then first lines along the east
To touch and brush a sheen of light on water
As though behind the sky itself they traced
The shift and shimmer of another river
Flowing unbidden from its hidden source;
The Day-Spring, the eternal Prima Vera.
Blake saw it too. Dante and Beatrice
Are bathing in it now, away upstream…
So every trace of light begins a grace
In me, a beckoning. The smallest gleam
Is somehow a beginning and a calling;
“Sleeper awake, the darkness was a dream
For you will see the Dayspring at your waking,
Beyond your long last line the dawn is breaking”.
PRAYER:Dear God, we hope for your coming as our Good Shepherd. Please gather us in your arms, feed us with spiritual food, wipe away every tear from our eyes, and “let your face shine, that we may be saved”. Come, our Shepherd! Amen.
WEEK 2 – JOY
“And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” – Luke 2:10
The second Advent Wreath candle, named the “Shepherd Candle” or “Candle of Joy”, is pink in color. Pink represents joy or rejoicing and reveals a shift in the season away from repentance and toward celebration. From hope, joy grows.
We reflect on the subject of joy to remind us that when Jesus is born in us we have joy and that through him there will be everlasting joy on earth.
Joy is a light shining in a dark place. This week, we celebrate the joy we find in Jesus Christ.
“St. John’s Eve”
Midsummer night, and bonfires on the hill
Burn for the man who makes way for the Light:
‘He must increase and I diminish still,
Until his sun illuminates my night.’
So John the Baptist pioneers our path,
Unfolds the essence of the life of prayer,
Unlatches the last doorway into faith,
And makes one inner space an everywhere.
Least of the new and greatest of the old,
Orpheus on the threshold with his lyre,
He sets himself aside, and cries “Behold
The One who stands amongst you comes with fire!”
So keep his fires burning through this night,
Beacons and gateways for the child of light.
PRAYER:Gracious God, you came to us in human flesh and you abide with us in the Holy Spirit. Fill us with your joy, and help us shine as a light to the world. Through Jesus Christ, who makes our joy complete. Amen.
WEEK 3 – LOVE
“Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.” – Matthew 1:23
The third Advent Candle color is purple. It’s called the “Angel Candle” or the “Candle of Love”.
We light this candle because, like God’s people centuries ago, we also need a Savior who will forgive our sins. The purple color reminds us of the sacrifice found in true love: Mary’s sacrifice and Jesus’ sacrifice for us.
Love is a light shining in a dark place. As we look toward this third week of Advent, we celebrate the love we have in Christ.
O come, O come, and be our God-with-us
O long-sought With-ness for a world without,
O secret seed, O hidden spring of light.
Come to us Wisdom, come unspoken Name
Come Root, and Key, and King, and holy Flame,
O quickened little wick so tightly curled,
Be folded with us into time and place,
Unfold for us the mystery of grace
And make a womb of all this wounded world.
O heart of heaven beating in the earth,
O tiny hope within our hopelessness
Come to be born, to bear us to our birth,
To touch a dying world with new-made hands
And make these rags of time our swaddling bands.
PRAYER:Dear God, in You, we rejoice. We know that because of your great love for us, we can live lives of sacrifice and love with one another. As we prepare for our celebration of Jesus’ birth, also fill our hearts with love for the world, that all may know your love and the one whom you have sent, your son, our Savior. Amen.
WEEK 4 – PEACE
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” – Isaiah 9:6
The fourth Advent candle, called the “Bethlehem Candle” or the “Candle of Preparation”, is also purple in color.
We light this candle of “peace” to remind us that Jesus is the Prince of Peace and that through him real peace is found.
Peace is a light shining in a dark place. As we look toward this fourth week of Advent, we celebrate the peace we find in Jesus Christ.
“O Rex Gentium”
O King of our desire whom we despise,
King of the nations never on the throne,
Unfound foundation, cast-off cornerstone,
Rejected joiner, making many one,
You have no form or beauty for our eyes,
A King who comes to give away his crown,
A King within our rags of flesh and bone.
We pierce the flesh that pierces our disguise,
For we ourselves are found in you alone.
Come to us now and find in us your throne,
O King within the child within the clay,
O hidden King who shapes us in the play
Of all creation. Shape us for the day
Your coming Kingdom comes into its own.
PRAYER: O God of all good gifts, we desire to know you fully; to understand completely your love for us so that peace may truly dwell in us. Help us, during this season of preparation, to remember the true meaning of readying ourselves to participate in your peaceful and loving ways. Give us the courage to spread the message that your peace and love is for all people. Grant healing in our personal lives, and throughout the world, that we may more deeply know Your peace. Amen
“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God. ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’” – Luke 2:11-14
Christians around the world light the last, white candle on Christmas Day to remember the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. As the prophets promised so long ago, God has come to us; and with the shepherds, we are filled with wonder and amazement.
We are filled with great joy and celebration, because Christ is born in Bethlehem. God’s Son has come into the world to be our Savior! And he will come again in glory.
“Christmas On the Edge”
Christmas sets the centre on the edge;
The edge of town, the outhouse of the inn,
The fringe of empire, far from privilege
And power, on the edge and outer spin
Of turning worlds, a margin of small stars
That edge a galaxy itself light years
From some unguessed at cosmic origin.
Christmas sets the centre at the edge.
And from this day our world is re-aligned
A tiny seed unfolding in the womb
Becomes the source from which we all unfold
And flower into being. We are healed,
The end begins, the tomb becomes a womb,
For now in him all things are re-aligned.
PRAYER:Lord, you come as a tiny, fragile baby; yet we know that you are God and you are with us. May the celebration in these moments remind us that you are the light of the world and that if we follow you, we will never walk in darkness but will have the true light of life. Dear God, we rejoice in the birth of your Son. May we worship him, welcome him, and make room for him in our hearts. O come, let us adore him! Amen!
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.”
I was recently asked this question: “How does somebody get more of the fruit of the Spirit in their life?” After reading and reflecting on the above passage, it’s a very understandable and practical question, and this short article is an attempt to answer it. As the Christmas season draws near, it’s also a timely discussion since we’ll be hearing a lot about hope, love, joy, and peace these next few weeks. When you hear those words, do you wish you had more? Do you wish these traits were not merely seasonal sentiments but more of a reality in your life? I know I do! So, to that end, here’s 3 steps toward that goal…
* REMEMBER: These characteristics are fruit of the Spirit, they are not fruit of our efforts – they don’t come from us, they come from God. Just like grapes come to life through the nourishment of the vine, a person cannot externally fabricate this fruit and paste it onto their life. It must organically grow from within, through the Spirit in us. Jesus said it best, “As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (Jn. 15:3-5) Does that mean we simply sit back, do nothing, and wait for God to do His work in us (in spite of us)? What’s His part, and what’s our part? It’s true, He is the one who does the changing, but we need to position ourselves to receive His work in us. We need to posture ourselves to be open and available. With that in mind, these three steps are a way we can participate better with the Spirit’s work. They’re a way for us to position ourselves and assume a posture that connects us more deeply to the vine.
STEP 1: VISION
The first step is to get a vision for what this fruit looks like, in yourself and in others around you. Dallas Willard’s concept of “vision, intention, and means” (or “VIM” as he calls it in Renovation of the Heart) is a helpful model here, so I’ll use it to guide our discussion. Each of these three steps will be accompanied by a 30-minute prayer time to help you further explore this area with the Lord. Experiencing more of the fruit of the Spirit simply will not happen apart from spending concentrated, focused time alone with God. If that is something you’re not willing to do, I’d recommend closing this screen right now and doing whatever else you’d like to do…
(On second thought, my goal is to make this invitation to time with God more compelling through the course of this article, so I hope you’ll stick with it to the end, and then decide if you’re up for it!).
Getting a vision for what the fruit of the Spirit is, what it looks like in practical terms, and how it might be more evident in your life is our first step. Take the following three questions to the Lord in prayer. I highly recommend writing your thoughts and prayers (and even doodles!) in a journal as you spend this silent, solo time with God…
– Set your timer for 30 minutes
5 minutes: Begin by reading the Scripture passage at the top of this article (Gal. 5:22-25) a few times for about 5 minutes. Read it slowly and thoughtfully. If the five minutes isn’t up, and you’re already bored of the words, read it again! Keep at it for five minutes!
10 minutes: Take 10 minutes and ask these questions of the Lord in prayer; “What about the fruit of the Spirit is appealing to me? When in my life have I experienced these characteristics most, and what were the circumstances surrounding that time?”
10 minutes: Take the next 10 minutes and ask these questions of the Lord in prayer; “What fruit of the Spirit do I notice in others that I can thank God for? Where have I seen these characteristics best displayed in the individuals and community around me?”
5 minutes: Take the last 5 minutes to thank God for the gift of the Holy Spirit. Thank him for His power, which is able to work in and through you.
STEP 2: INTENTION
The next step is to orient your heart toward a desire to see more of this “fruit” in your life. It is to intend to follow the will of God, to walk according to His Spirit, and to commit anew to His will and way in your life. Take the next 30-minute prayer time to ponder, reflect, and respond in your own personal way to this step…
– Set your timer for 30 minutes
5 minutes: Begin by reading the Scripture passage at the top of this article again (Gal. 5:22-25) a few times for about 5 minutes. Read it slowly and thoughtfully. If the five minutes isn’t up, and you’re already bored of the words, read it again! Feel free to pause for moments of silence as you read and reflect but keep at it for five minutes!
10 minutes: Take 10 minutes and ask these questions of the Lord in prayer; “When in my life have I experienced a lack of these characteristics most, and what were the circumstances surrounding that time? What gets in the way now of this fruit being born in me?”
10 minutes: Take the next 10 minutes and ask these questions of the Lord in prayer; “How close am I to the ‘vine’ these days? How is my relationship with You, Lord? What could I do to strengthen that closeness?”
5 minutes: Take the last 5 minutes to thank God for His love for you. Ask Him to grow the fruit of the Spirit in you, and thank Him for His ability and desire to do so.
STEP 3: MEANS
In following Dallas’ model to the end, our last step is “means”, and it’s where we find the practice of spiritual disciplines. Discipline is not a very fun sounding word, yet it’s where real, actual growth happens. Just like in the gym; no pain, no gain. Do you want gain? Do you want growth in your life? Then this last step is essential. But unlike exercises at the gym, Spiritual disciplines do not change us, they only make a space for engaging with God – and He’s the one who changes us.
So, let’s make some space for engaging with this life-changing power of the Spirit! The classic list of spiritual disciplines often includes these: Meditation, Prayer, Fasting, Study, Solitude, Submission, Service, Confession, Worship, and Celebration. Some of these might seem joy-filled for you and others might look dreadful…and that’s okay! If some of these sound difficult, or the whole idea of doing a spiritual discipline seems painful and costly, remember the main way a gardener actually grows more fruit – it’s through pruning. Jesus says, “’I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.’” (Jn. 15:1-2) In a way, God uses spiritual disciplines to prune us, so to speak, so that even more fruit might grow.
It’s time for our final prayer time, so let’s go to God. I encourage you to spend these last 30 minutes realizing your relationship and partnership with the Lord. You are not alone! He longs for you to do this with Him!
– Set your timer for 30 minutes
5 minutes: Begin by reading the Scripture passage at the top of this article once again (Gal. 5:22-25) a few times for about 5 minutes. Read it slowly and thoughtfully. If the five minutes isn’t up, and you’re already bored of the words, read it again! Feel free to pause for moments of silence as you read and reflect but keep at it for five minutes…and viola, you are now meditating!
10 minutes: Take 10 minutes and ask these questions of the Lord in prayer; “What has been my experience with spiritual disciplines? Where have I seen them abused, and where have I seen them beneficial? Which ones have been particularly helpful in my life?”
10 minutes: Take the next 10 minutes and ask these questions of the Lord in prayer; “What spiritual discipline (or disciplines) are You calling me to do? When and how should I start? How long should I focus on this particular activity? How can I remember to do this with You and not in my own strength?”
5 minutes: Take the last 5 minutes to thank God for His constant presence in your life – for His bottomless patience and grace. Ask Him to help you and be with you in a special way as you carry out your spiritual discipline plan.
Go in the grace of the Lord! May the fruit of the Spirit grow in your life and may it be a blessing to many around you. May peace, love, and joy, be not simply empty slogans on cheap decorations this Christmas – may they be an increasing reality in our lives!