Advent 2014

Here are the four Advent lessons I shared this year. Three of them (Hope, Peace, and Love) were presented at Freedom Fellowship in Abilene. The fourth (Joy) is the basis for a fourth lesson, but I just amended it slightly and posted it as a written piece.

I love Advent. I love that we have a season to remember darkness, sadness, and waiting.

Hope: Hoping When There’s Nothing Left to Hope For

Peace: Peace in a Peace-less World

Joy: #icantbreathe, an Advent Reflection on Joy

Love: Protesters, Drummers, and Virgins. An Advent Reflection on Love

#icantbreathe, an Advent Reflection on Joy

Advent is a time of waiting. Advent is a time of darkness.

Yet there is still a message of hope, peace, joy, and love. But sometimes, the message of joy is hard to find.

Over the past few years, I have grown more aware that Advent is for people who don’t know how the story is going to end. What I am also coming to realize is that there are many people for whom that is still a reality: there are way too many people living in our country and throughout our world that have no idea how their story is going to end.

The unfortunate reality that goes along with that fact is this: there are many people for whom things are going so well they are deaf to the cries of those who are hurting.

#blacklivesmatter does not need to be changed. #icantbreathe does not need to be corrected. Nonviolent protests do not promote violent outbursts. People need to speak.

I am a privileged person. I have the opportunities that other people do not have. I have a voice that is often denied others. I cannot truly know the pain and fear of living as a minority in a culture with a history of oppression. I do know this, though: if I am feeling as if I cannot breathe, I can only imagine the difficulty for people who face the fear of death every day.

I Can’t Breathe because there seems to be no one to trust: those in power want more power; those in media want more ratings; those with national followings want more followers. There seems to be fewer and fewer people actually concerned with those who are suffering.

I Can’t Breathe because POC who are killed are villainized immediately with terms such as “thug” and rationalizations such as “he shouldn’t have been there in the first place” as if that justifies taking someone’s life.

I Can’t Breathe because people try to make one tragedy nullify the reality of another tragedy.

I Can’t Breathe because people are insisting support for one group of people necessitates rejecting other groups of people.

I Can’t Breathe because when I say the church needs to do a better job with addicts or those who suffer from mental health disorders I get only a little push back; yet when I say the church needs to do a better job with race relations I am called a racist and told to quiet down.

I Can’t Breathe because people are referred to as “it” and described as “demon.”

I Can’t Breathe because peaceful, non-violent protestors are immediately linked to violent crimes perpetrated by others.

I Can’t Breathe because our society is obsessed with the right to own a gun yet adults and children are shot on the spot for holding a toy.

I Can’t Breathe because our society is obsessed with the right to take life (war, death penalty, militarized policing, abortion) instead of being obsessed with what values life.

I Can’t Breathe because as I prepare to sing songs of worship and praise yet I am filled with despair thinking things will never change.

I Can’t Breathe…



“Behold, I bring you good news of great joy.”

The story is not over.

Protestors, Drummers, and Virgins. An Advent Reflection of Love

This past Saturday, there was a national day of nonviolent protest. In the wake of events such as Michael Brown in Ferguson and Tamir Rice in Cleveland and John Crawford in Ohio and Eric Garner in Staten Island a large number of people have decided it is time to speak up and speak out in a variety of ways. There were marches. There were die-ins. Stores and major highways were closed due to the amount of traffic generated by the protestors.

In addition to those who were protesting, many supported in other ways. Many did so by promoting the events on social media. Others provided care by supplying needs such as food, water, and in many cases—bail money.

Many jeered. Many mocked. Many disparaged.

Yet still the protestors marched on.

What could possibly motivate them to continue in spite of so much negativity and in spite of the cynicism of the age that says the problem is too huge, too overwhelming, for anyone to change anything?

I think it was because of love.

The fourth week of Advent is the week of Love. What greater sign of love than God sending us Jesus, Immanuel, God with us?

There is a verse in the story of Jesus’ birth that stands out to me as one of the greatest proclamations of love and faith in all of Scripture.

Luke 1:26-38:

Six months later in Nazareth, a city in the rural province of Galilee, the heavenly messenger Gabriel made another appearance. This time the messenger was sent by God to meet with a virgin named Mary, who was engaged to a man named Joseph, a descendant of King David himself. The messenger entered her home.

Messenger: Greetings! You are favored, and the Lord is with you [Among all women on the earth, you have been blessed.]

The heavenly messenger’s words baffled Mary, and she wondered what type of greeting this was.

Messenger: Mary, don’t be afraid. You have found favor with God. Listen, you are going to become pregnant. You will have a son, and you must name Him “Savior,” or Jesus. Jesus will become the greatest among men. He will be known as the Son of the Highest God. God will give Him the throne of his ancestor David, and He will reign over the covenant family of Jacob forever.

Mary: But I have never been with a man. How can this be possible?

Messenger: The Holy Spirit will come upon you. The Most High will overshadow you. That’s why this holy child will be known, as not just your son, but also as the Son of God. It sounds impossible, but listen—you know your relative Elizabeth has been unable to bear children and is now far too old to be a mother. Yet she has become pregnant, as God willed it. Yes, in three months, she will have a son. So the impossible is possible with God.

Mary (deciding in her heart): Here I am, the Lord’s humble servant. As you have said, let it be done to me.

Did you catch that? “As you have said, let it be done to me.” An older translation of the Bible says, “May it be to me as you have said.”

May it be to me. Let it be done to me.

Such a powerful statement of love, trust, faith, and willingness.

Think about Mary for just a second: she is young. Probably the same age as my daughter—13. She has never been with a man. But she is engaged to one. A young woman. Engaged but not yet married. About to get pregnant.

In churches in 2014 that’s scandalous. But in the synagogue culture of this day and age? Mary is having her life put on the line. Literally. Joseph could stone her. And in the whacked out, patriarchal society of that day, anyone in the town who felt so compelled could have had her stoned to death.

Let’s see if we can grasp this: a teenager, unmarried, pregnant.

Oh yeah, and the baby is going to be the Savior of the world.

Now I understand adolescence, albeit just a little bit. (And I probably understand it in other people’s kids better than in my own.) A 13 year old Mary is probably a little bit more mature than a 13 year old today. The way kids were taught and trained was a little bit different then. But still, at 13 Mary was just beginning to enter society as a woman. She was starting to develop her own identity a little bit. But now, she is having all of that normal development scrapped.

She is being called to be a mother. Under scandalous conditions. To a child that is the Messiah.

And she says, “Let it be done to me.”

Mary knows she may be jeered. She may be mocked. She may be disparaged.

But Mary marches on.

What could possibly motivate her to continue in spite of so much potential negativity and fear?

I think it was because of love.

This brings us to our song for this week: Little Drummer Boy. The song tells a story so simple that it is endearing:

Come they told me, pa rum pum pum pum
A new born King to see, pa rum pum pum pum
Our finest gifts we bring, pa rum pum pum pum
To lay before the King, pa rum pum pum pum,
Rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum.

So to honor Him, pa rum pum pum pum,
When we come.

Little Baby, pa rum pum pum pum
I am a poor boy too, pa rum pum pum pum
I have no gift to bring, pa rum pum pum pum
That’s fit to give a King, pa rum pum pum pum,
Rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum

Shall I play for you, pa rum pum pum pum,
On my drum?

I play my drum for Him.
So to honor Him.

Mary nodded, pa rum pum pum pum
The ox and lamb kept time, pa rum pum pum pum
I played my drum for Him, pa rum pum pum pum
I played my best for Him, pa rum pum pum pum,
Rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum.

Then He smiled at me, pa rum pum pum pum
Me and my drum.
When we come, me and my drum.

Written by Katherine K. Davis in 1941, the song did not become popular until 1958. However, it became so popular that as she neared the end of her life, Davis said the song was overplayed. It was only one of over 600 works she composed.

The song tells a simple story: a young boy travels with the Magi to see this new king. The young boy is moved by the extravagant gifts given that he is compelled to give something as well. But he has nothing to give.

Except pouring out his heart as he plays the drum.

He may be jeered. He may be mocked. He may be disparaged.

But still he marches on.

What could possibly motivate him to continue playing his drum while in the presence of wealthy people who have just lavished expensive gifts on a newborn King?

I think it was because of love.

Do you want to know where I see love on display?

At the Paramount Theater last week, I saw several young people on stage dancing and singing to express joy about the birth of our Savior.

At FaithWorks, Ray has been coming and tending to our garden just to make our space look a little nicer.

Last weekend at the Christmas Store, Jodi, and Tim, and Mike, and so many others showed up to help people shop and wrap their presents.

Every Wednesday, there are people standing behind the table serving us food at Freedom Fellowship. And then another crew of people steps up and helps clean up after us.

I see love when people decide that instead of doing the most amazing thing they can think of, they simply do what God has given them the ability to do.

There is an interesting link between the Little Drummer Boy and the Virgin Mary. It is believed Davis was basing her song in part on a French legend of The Juggler. In that story, a juggler performs his craft in front of the statue of the Virgin Mary. According to the legend, the statue was so pleased with the performance that it smiled at the juggler.

In our song, the little drummer boy played his heart out for the baby Jesus. And Jesus smiles. This song is fiction. It tells a story. But I believe it is a story that teaches us an important truth: when we show our love by using our gifts to honor Jesus, He is pleased.

I continue to be reminded that Advent is for the people who don’t know how the story ends:

The drummer boy didn’t know how his song would be received.

Protestors don’t know if any lasting change will come about.

Mary didn’t know how Joseph, or her family, or her village would react.

Yet still they march on.

Peace in a Peace-less World

We are in week 2 of Advent. A week devoted to peace. The song at the end of this post is actually a prayer for peace. The writer of the song is Noel Regney. Born in France, Regney was drafted into the occupying German army during World War II. Since he hated the Nazi regime he joined the French underground.

As if living out a movie script, one of Regney’s missions involved him leading German soldiers into a trap. He brought the soldiers he was secretly fighting against into an ambush where they were shot and most of them died. The French also shot Regney to sell the deception.

Shortly after that, Regney deserted the German army. After the war, he pursued a career in music and eventually migrated to Manhattan, New York, in the 50s. About 10 years later, the United States found itself in a nuclear stare-down with the Soviet Union. The Cuban Missile Crisis created an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty.

In the midst of that atmosphere, Regney was commissioned by a record producer to write a holiday song. How could he possibly write a song about Christmastime when no one around him smiled? A man who had known the terrors of war could not see how a new song could be written under the impending threat of a war that could literally wipe the world out.

In fact, Regney once said, “I had thought I’d never write a Christmas song. Christmas had become so commercial. But this was the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the studio, the producer was listening to the radio to see if we had been obliterated. En route to my home, I saw two mothers with their babies in strollers. The little angels were looking at each other and smiling. All of a sudden, my mood was extraordinary.”

That mood led to him writing these words. Words of hope that peace actually could be realized:

Do You Hear What I Hear

Said the night wind to the little lamb
Do you see what I see?
Way up in the sky, little lamb
Do you see what I see?
A star, a star, dancing in the night
With a tail as big as a kite
With a tail as big as a kite

Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy
Do you hear what I hear?
Ringing through the sky, shepherd boy
Do you hear what I hear?
A song, a song high above the trees
With a voice as big as the sea
With a voice as big as the sea

Said the shepherd boy to the mighty king
Do you know what I know?
In your palace warm, mighty king
Do you know what I know?
A Child, a Child shivers in the cold
Let us bring him silver and gold
Let us bring him silver and gold

Said the king to the people everywhere
Listen to what I say!
Pray for peace, people, everywhere
Listen to what I say!
The Child, the Child sleeping in the night
He will bring us goodness and light
He will bring us goodness and light

His wife Gloria Shayne wrote the music for the song. They were both so moved that they were unable to sing it without breaking down. Regney would go on to say he was so surprised that so many people could love the song without realizing it was a cry for peace.

And that is why it is such an appropriate song for second week of Advent. A week devoted to the theme of peace.

Isaiah 9:6, 7 reads, “Hope of all hopes, dream of our dreams, a child is born, sweet-breathed; a son is given to us: a living gift. And even now, with tiny features and dewy hair, He is great. The power of leadership, and the weight of authority, will rest on His shoulders. His name? His name we’ll know in many ways—He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Dear Father everlasting, ever-present, never-failing, Master of Wholeness, Prince of Peace. His leadership will bring such prosperity as you’ve never seen before—sustainable peace for all time. This child: God’s promise to David—a throne forever, among us, to restore sound leadership that cannot be perverted or shaken. He will ensure justice without fail and absolute equity. Always. The intense passion of the Eternal, Commander of heavenly armies, will carry this to completion.”

A child is born. A true leader. A deliverer. The Prince of Peace.

Yet Jesus is the Prince of Peace revealed to a people who did not know peace; a people oppressed; a people deprived of justice. And where there is no justice, there is no peace.

So we have a problem. That problem is there really does not seem to be any peace, so what exactly is Jesus supposed to be the Prince of?

When Jesus was presented at the temple, an old man, Simeon, was there to bless Him and His parents. But pay close attention to what he said in his blessing to Mary and Joseph: “Listen, this child will make many in Israel rise and fall. He will be a significant person whom many will oppose. In the end, He will lay bare the secret thoughts of many hearts. And a sword will pierce even you own soul, Mary” (Luke 2:34, 35).

Make many rise and fall?

Significant person many will oppose?

A sword will pierce your soul?

Those don’t sound like the results of peace coming into the world.

And let’s back up a little bit. Remember that passage from Isaiah 9? The one proclaiming the promise of the Prince of Peace? Do you know what comes in the verses immediately following that?

9:12: “They come, these enemies, from both sides (Syrians on the east and Philistines on the west) and consume Israel, swallowing it whole. Still, God’s anger smolders. His hand is raised; there is more to come.”

9:14: “Therefore, He will take them to task. In a single day He’ll cut off from Israel the head and the tail; He’ll cut down the noble palm and lowly reed.”

9:16: “These misguided leaders have misled this people; and those who follow have become swallowed up in their deceit.”

9:17: “Mercy has run out for even those without power—the widows and orphans.”

10:1, 2: “How awful it will be for those who mandate wickedness and legalize oppression, denying justice to the needy, taking away the right of the poor among My people. Such leaders intend to make helpless widows and orphans their prey.”

Peace? This is the peace that will come when that child, that son, that gift comes into this world?

I think about the three questions our song asks: Do you see? Do you hear? Do you know?

This is what I see:

I see a world where people are killed in the streets and there is no accountability for those who do it.

I see a world where if another person does it, it is terrorism; but if I do it, it is patriotism.

I see a world that makes it almost impossible for people to get a fresh start, a second chance; because every time they take one step forward there is a system in place that will gladly knock them back down.

I see a world where consumerism drowns out the calls for justice.

I see a world that is convinced they are right and everyone else is wrong.

What do you see?

This is what I hear:

I hear people crying out for justice and peace.

I hear people yelling with, at best, comments of dismissal, such as, “Just get over it. It’s not that big a deal.” At worst, they are yelling statements of hate, such as, “They got what they deserved. There’s one less of them now.”

I hear people who in theory exist to tell the truth spin their stories to bolster their ratings.

I hear people who are supposed to be in charge offer platitudes and promises with no practical solutions.

What do you hear?

This is what I know:

I know that Elisea is going to celebrate Christmas with the pain of losing her 6 month old son fresh on her mind.

I know that instead of opening presents underneath a tree, many of my friends will be spending the night sleeping by a tree.

I know that people are still picking up the literal and figurative debris of their communities and do not feel like celebrating anything.

I know that people will be separated from their families on Christmas Day because they are away fighting someone else’s wars.

What do you know?

Why could Regney say he was filled with hope?

Why could Simeon say, “You may now dismiss your servant”?

How can we sing songs praising the Prince of Peace when all around us there is anything but peace?

And then I remember:

Advent is not for people who know how the story ends. Advent is for people who are waiting—uncertain, unknowing.

Advent is about being in the dark; and then all of a sudden being surprised by a bright light.

Jesus actually speaks to this near the end of His life. In John 16, just before Jesus begins His final prayer with His apostles, He looks at them and says, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart. I have overcome the world.”

That is why a man well-versed in the ravages of war could be filled with hope by two children smiling at each other.

That is why a man who had waited his entire life for the Messiah could happily prepare to depart this life.

That is why the Israelites in Isaiah’s day could be comforted by the gift a child.

That is why Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego could look at Nebuchadnezzar and say, “Our God will rescue us from this fiery furnace, but even if God does not we will still not bow down to your idol.” (Daniel 3)

That is why Esther could stand in the presence of the King on behalf of her people. (Esthcter 5)

That is why Stephen could look at the crowd of people stoning him to death and say, “Father, forgive them.”(Acts 7)

That is why John could write about the elders and all the living creatures bowing down to the Lamb and crying, “Holy, holy, holy.” (Revelation 5)

Because Jesus has brought peace into a world that is in desperate need.

Where there is no justice, there is no peace.

Jesus came to bring both.

So we wait.

We hold on.

We anticipate.


Voice to the Voiceless

When Israel left Egypt, they were given a Law to follow. Most people know the 10 Commandments. Or at the very least, they know the 10 Commandments exist. Some of those other laws, however, are less known. Because let’s face it: reading a book of numbers, a book of priestly duties, and a book that repeats and summarizes everything in the previous three books can get kind of boring.

(My apologies to all my Old Testament professors for such a poor job of describing Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy.)

But when we pay attention, we learn that from the beginning of God’s covenant with God’s people, God was concerned with how the people pushed to the margins were treated. The weak. The defenseless.

The voiceless.

Consider these examples from Exodus:

“Do not wrong or oppress any outsiders living among you, for there was a time when you lived as outsiders in the land of Egypt” (22:21).

“You must not take advantage of any widow or orphan. If you do oppress them and they cry out to Me, I will certainly hear them, and My wrath will be kindled” (22:22-24a).

“Do not deny justice to the poor among you in their disputes” (23:6).

Outsiders (or foreigners; or immigrants). Widows. Orphans. The poor.

These are the voiceless. These are the ones God’s people need to speak for.

Throughout the Law, there are repeated calls to take care of these groups of people. Those calls continue through the Psalms. The Prophetic books detail punishment on God’s people resulting from their failure to watch out for people who were pushed aside. In fact, in Amos goes so far as to say God hates the worship of the Israelite people because they have neglected justice.

When Jesus began His public ministry, He quoted from Isaiah pronouncing that He would be going to the lost, the poor, the hurting, the lonely, the oppressed.

One of the Apostle Paul’s main objectives on his missionary trips was collecting money from richer Christians (who were often more generous than they were wealthy) to distribute among the poorer Christians. Paul was known as the Apostle to the Gentiles because he spent so much time proclaiming how the Jewish Messiah was the Savior for all people.

In his letter, James wrote that pure religion is that which looks after those who are in need: the widow, the orphan, the poor.

For those who are voiceless, the people of God should be viewed as advocates. The people of God should be looked to as people of refuge, security, and justice. The people of God should be the ones speaking up for those whom no one else will listen to.

So, people of God, I ask us all this question: are we doing it? Are we being a voice to the voiceless? Are we advocating for those with no power? Are we relieving the suffering of the hurting? Are we providing for those who have nothing? Are we giving homes to the homeless? Are we speaking up?


Stuff has been crazy for the last two weeks.

Do you know what is wrong with that statement?

Primarily this: stuff has been crazy for years. The last two weeks have just highlighted part of that problem.

Ever since the Ferguson grand jury came back with no indictment, social media has exploded. Many have been decrying the system and its inherent weaknesses and injustices. Many have been saying justice was done and everyone just needs to accept it.

Some have attempted to start conversations and some have just yelled. Some Christian leaders have spoken up and others have tried to avoid addressing any current event situation.

Then the Eric Garner grand jury came back with no indictment in spite of the video and the medical examiner ruling the death a homicide. More anger. More yelling. More avoidance of the issues.

Protests keep popping up in cities all across the country and the world. Some observers are supportive and realize the message that is being delivered: we are being disregarded and it needs to stop. Other observers respond with annoyance, rage, and dismissiveness.

What are we missing? How can things be so contentious in 2014?

I believe one of the major problems to be this: those who are in the majority people group (in this case, White people) have failed to truly listen to the voices of the people in the minority people group.

Consider the history of Black people in America: from the 1620s until the 1860s they were treated as a commodity: kidnapped, chained, transported to another country, sold, beaten, bred, worked to near death. They were not even considered fully human. From the 1860s to the 1960s, slavery was no longer allowed, but indentured servanthood was. “Separate but equal” was the rule.

340 years of oppression, suppression, and generally being disregarded. We just celebrated the 50 year anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. 340 years is much more than 50. More than 8 generations of oppression followed by just over 1 generation of (supposed) freedom.

Do we really think everything is going to be okay that quickly?

We must listen to the voices of the millions of people in our nation who feel they are treated as less than. We must listen to the voices of the millions of people who are afraid of the people hired to protect us. We must listen to the voices of the millions of people who live in neighborhoods that are financially deprived. We must listen to the voices of the people who are protesting. (Side note: did you realize that the protests have been occurring daily for the past 122 days? They did not start with the grand jury decision; they started the night Michael Brown was killed.)

Are we willing to listen?


There are people hurting in your communities. They believe they have no voice. Will you be willing to do two things?

First, listen to them. No reply. No explanation. No defensiveness. Just listening. Listen to their stories. Listen to their hurt. If you feel you must ask any questions, make them questions of clarification or explanation. Listen to the experiences people have endured.

Second, only after you have truly listened, lend your voice to theirs. Speak out right along with them. Be bold in what you say. Let people you regularly interact with learn the lessons you have learned. Understand that for voiceless people to have their story heard, people need to listen and then lend their voice.

This will not solve all of our problems. This will not cure all of our society’s ills. But maybe it can short circuit some of the arguing. When people post pictures and make comments that rub you the wrong way, listen to the pain behind the statement. Before you dismiss someone by telling them to get over it consider the past experience that has led to their current pain.

Then, maybe you can share some of those things, as well; pictures like the one at the end of this post. You might upset some people. You might make some people angry. But that’s okay. In order to process our hurts and move to a better place, we will need to move through some discomfort.


So, people of God, I ask again: will we do it? Will we be a voice to the voiceless? Will we advocate for those with no power? Will we relieve the suffering of the hurting? Will we provide for those who have nothing? Will we give homes to the homeless?

Will we listen?

Will we speak up?

i can't breath