Releasing the Missionary in You

Let me ask you, “What is your calling?  How many of you are members of a church?  How many are ministers in that church?  How many consider yourselves to be missionaries of that church?  Most would say they are members.   Some would say they are ministers; but only a few would say they are missionaries

The Apostle Paul wrote these words in Ephesians 4:1, “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” (NIV).

In our tradition we are taught that there is one calling for those who would be full-time ministers, usually missionaries or pastors, and another calling for the lay person.  Yet, when I read the Bible, I do not find this distinction.  There is only one calling of God. 

There is only one vocation to which we have all been called.  As followers of Jesus we are all missionaries.  We are all on mission.  Each one of us are called according to His purpose.  Are we not?  If not, then Romans 8:28 does not apply to all of us.  Paul writes in the verse, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, those who have been called according to his purpose.”  Yes, Paul told Timothy to set aside and appoint elders in the churches, and in his letter to Timothy, he explained the qualifications for those who would serve as elders and deacons.  However, he never said they were to be a different class of believers.  There is no distinction, in terms of their calling, between those who serve as elders and those who serve in other capacities in the churches.

Jesus called out twelve men to be His Apostles; but he never required of them anything different from what He required of all those who desired to follow Him.  To everyone, Jesus said, “If any man would follow me, let him take up his cross daily and follow me.”  (Luke 9:23 NIV)

There are Spiritual gifts and each believer is given a different set of gifts to serve the Body.  We see this in Romans 12, 1Corinthians 12 and 14, and in Ephesians 4 that  different gifts are given to each person for the purpose of serving and building up the Body of Christ.  Yes, there are different gifts for different functions within the Body.  This is how the Body functions as a Body.  The only difference between these gifted people is the function or purpose they serve in the Body.  Their calling however is the same!

Our calling is to follow Christ and to make disciples everywhere we go.  I would submit to you that everyone reading this blog who has committed to your life to Jesus Christ is called to be on mission!  In other words, we are called to be a missionary – every single one of us, regardless of our function or spiritual gift.  We are called to be on mission and to be about the Father’s business and advance His Kingdom on earth.

If our calling is to advance God’s Kingdom by making disciples, how are we doing?  Are we making disciples?  How are we doing in our mission?  Look at what Paul said to the Corinthian church:

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!  All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.”  (2 Corinthians 4:17-20 NIV)

God called me, not just to be missionary in a foreign country, but He called me to be on mission everywhere I go.  Romans 8:28 applies to me.  I am the “called according to His purpose.” If God is calling me, what does He should I do?  Where does He want me to go?  What does He want me to do within that calling?

I am confident God will reveal the details of the where, the when, the what and the how of your missionary service and my missionary service as we respond in obedience to Him, as we say “Yes!  Yes, I will submit to You Lord!”  Paul wrote:

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:1-2 NIV)

God’s will for you is to be on mission for Him.  I pray you will all discover how to release the missionary within you!

The “Marginal” Church

My article last week was about what it means to be an attractional church.  This week I want to focus on what it means to be a marginal church.  The term “marginal church” refers to the fact that we no longer live in a Christian culture in the United States, and that Christianity no longer enjoys a preferred status in our society.  In addition, the gap between the biblical worldview and that of the American culture continues to expand exponentially.  As a result, the church in Western societies finds itself marginalized.

The Bible has an important word for the marginalized church.  In 1 Peter 2:11, the Apostle uses a phrase to underscore the relationship between the church as a community of Christ followers, and the culture we are called to serve.   Peter refers to the believers as “strangers” and “aliens” living in a land where they have no home or family.  He also uses this same word in the salutation of the letter (1 Peter 1:1-2).

What does it mean to live as a stranger or an alien in a society and a culture you believe is your own?  We really don’t know. Yet, that is exactly what Christians must learn to do in the coming years.

From the time of Constantine (312 AD) until the mid-twentieth century, Christendom enjoyed a central place in Western culture and society – a place of privilege.  Christians assumed the culture of the church was similar to the culture of the world, or could claim it should be.  During the twentieth century, this began to change – beginning in Europe, and spreading to most of the Western world, religious pluralism and cultural secularism pushed Christianity to the edges of society.  Today, evangelical Christians are truly strangers living on the margins of society.

Most Christians however, do not know how to live in a post-Christian culture.  We continue to operate our churches and ministries as if we were still living in Christendom.  It is like waking up one day and discovering you are a missionary living in a foreign country, and you do not know the language or the culture.  You are not only an outsider, but everyone and everything in this new culture is hostile to you and to your message.

The single greatest challenge we face today is learning how to live and serve as strangers in a society that is increasingly hostile to religion in general, and to Christianity in particular.

Rather than being resentful or discouraged over the growing secularization of our culture, we should embrace this as an opportunity to clarify what it means to be a true follower of Jesus, and be willing to suffer and give our lives to glorify God.  Living on the margins of society gives us an opportunity to proclaim the Gospel and give a clear witness to the true character of Jesus.

As missionaries in a foreign land, we will discover the methods and strategies used in Christendom, are not effective in a secular culture.  The society, and those who lead this society, have no place for God or religion in their worldview.  There is little or no common ground for conversations about guilt, faith, religion, or God.  Therefore, as missionaries, we must find the bridges into their world by learning their languages and by understanding their worldview.  Most of all, we must learn to do what Jesus did, to love them unconditionally.

The church (And all the expressions of church such as denominational entities, Christian ministries, etc.) must learn to live and serve on the margin of society, Those who do, will become the missionary force that changes the world.  Those who do not, will simply die or fade into irrelevance.

So, is yours a marginal church, or one headed for extinction?

Attractional Church?

Mammoth Cave National Park, in south central Kentucky, is one of the oldest tourist attractions in North America.  People have visited this site since 1816. I often wonder what attracts people to these places. Is it the 400 miles of underground passageways in the longest cave in the world, or the hundreds of acres of woodlands in the beautiful Green River Valley surrounding the historic cave? Or, could it be the weird names of some of the small towns in the area such as Horse Cave, Cave City, Bear Wallow and Uno?  I have a deep attraction to that part of the world for a totally different reason. It is my home, the place where I grew up, and where my family lived, and still lives today.

Discovering what attracts people is multi-billion dollar business!  Corporations and businesses spend hundreds of billions of dollars every year trying to attract people to their products, services, and places of business.  The same is true for churches and religious organizations. For the last twenty years or so, many Christian denominations have focused most of their resources and training efforts to help leaders and pastors develop “seeker friendly” strategies.

It is important to make sure our churches and the events held in our buildings are attractive and welcoming.  We need to be sensitive to those who are seeking answers to life’s questions, and to those who need help sorting out all the many challenges life brings. However, we are not simply selling a product or drawing people to an event.  There is an eternal dimension to who we are, and to what we do as followers of Christ that cannot be overlooked.  It is found in Jesus’ words to some of the Gentiles who were visiting Jerusalem.  Evidently, they heard about the miracles Jesus was doing, and they came to His disciples asking, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” (John 12:20 ESV)

How did Jesus respond?  He talked about His death and resurrection.  He spoke of His disciples following Him.  And, then He said, “If I be lifted up, I will draw all men unto myself.” The dimension we must always keep in mind is that Jesus is both the attraction and the attractor. It is not important how they see us, but it is very important how they see Him.

What really attracts someone to God?  What draws someone into a relationship with the Living God, and ultimately compels them to allow this attraction to transform their lives?  It is Jesus! It is not what we believe about Jesus, or what we say about Him.  It is Him.  Do they see Him?  Do they see Him in the way we treat one another in our churches?  Do they see Him in how we demonstrate compassion for the poor?  Do they see Him when we demonstrate forgiveness and mercy with each other and with total strangers?

As pastors and leaders, we need to learn, it is not about building attractional buildings, programs or events, but growing an attractional community – the community of faith.  This is what really matters!  I think this is what Jesus had in mind when He said, “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, ‘If you have love one for another.” (John 13:35 NKJV)

Frankly, it does not matter how you greet people coming into your church building, or how impressed they are with your worship services, if they do not see Jesus in you, and in the way you live your life.  If they do not see Him, their attraction to your church will be superficial and short-lived. Make sure they see Jesus! He should be the main and the only attraction in our worship services!

The Ultimate Undercover Boss

Personally, I do not care for most “reality” television shows today.  There is one exception however. I really enjoy Undercover Boss.  I especially enjoy watching people’s reaction when they learn they have just spent a day working alongside the CEO of their company.

In each episode, hidden cameras follow a different executive each week on an undercover mission to examine how their company functions. The executives step out of the comfort of their cushy offices to work alongside their employees, and in the process discovers how decisions made in the corporate office impact the average employee. They get an “up-close” and personal look at both the good and the bad. Occasionally, they discover incredible, unsung heroes -people who make their companies great.  Often times the mission turns up some mediocre performances and disappointing attitudes.

I’m still not sure why I like it so much.  Perhaps, at some level, I enjoy watching the poor performers get their just desserts. You have to admit, there is a bit of “sweet justice” when a jerk comes face to face with the boss who saw them for who they really are.  On the other hand, it is also inspiring to see an unsung hero discovered and rewarded for his loyalty and sacrificial service.

On a deeper and more important level, as followers of Christ, we have the Ultimate Undercover Boss!  Jesus spoke often about the “Father, who sees in secret” (Matthew 6:6), and examines the motives of the heart.  Psalms 139 speaks of the One who “knows when I sit down, and when I stand up”, and “knows my every thought from afar.”  He even “knows what I am going to say before I say it.”  Then the Psalmist concludes, “Such knowledge is too great for me to comprehend.”

He is ever-present, and all knowing.  In a real sense of the word, God is the Ultimate Undercover Boss!  Perhaps that’s why Paul urged the believers in the church at Colossae, “Whatever you do, work at with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.” (Col. 3:23), and to the Corinthians he said, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” (1 Cor. 10:31)

On the show, people put their jobs, and even their future, on the line by not recognizing their boss is right in front of them, watching and listening to how they are treating customers and co-workers.  In the same way, the Ultimate Undercover Boss is always listening, always watching, and always aware of the unspoken attitudes and feelings in our hearts.

Paul reminded his readers, “So we make it our goal to please Him, whether we are at home, in the body or away from it.  For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” (2 Cor. 5:9-10)

In Matthew 25, Jesus talks about of the separation of the sheep and goats at the final judgment. “I tell you the truth, whatever you did (or did not do), for one of the least of these my brothers, you did (or did not do) for Me.

What would you do, or say differently, if you knew the person with whom you are speaking today is, in fact, the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe – the Ultimate Undercover Boss!

The Power of Partnership

How important are partnerships in your life, and in your ministry?  Have you given much thought to the partnerships in your life?  Which were successful?  Which were failures?  Do you find yourself seeking out new partnerships, clinging to old ones, or steering clear of them altogether?

Partnerships are important.  In Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 the Bible says,

“Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor.  For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up.”

As a teenager, I remember working in the summers for my dad, in his auto repair shop.  Actually, it was a complete service garage. You could buy gasoline, get a flat tire fixed, have most anything repaired or replaced, or even have your car painted.  In addition, Dad was a master welder.  I was always fascinated by the oxy-acetylene torch Dad used to cut through heavy metal plates and pipes.

Acetylene is a hydrocarbon fuel that burns at a very high temperature (3200 to 6300 Degrees F), when mixed with oxygen.  I remember watching Dad carefully adjust the regulator valves controlling the amount of each gas to reach the torch flame.  When he adjusted the flame to the precise color and size, he would begin to heat the metal.  As the metal began to melt, he would make another adjustment to the flame with a small lever on the torch, and begin cutting through a solid piece of metal like a piece of cake!  It was amazing!

What a great example of the power of partnerships!

Oxygen and acetylene by themselves have little effect on iron or steel.  However, when combined in the correct amounts, and placed close proximity to an open flame, they can cut through a four inch metal plate.  By bringing these two gases together in a controlled environment, they have a much greater potential together than they do separately.

Partnerships between people work in a similar manner.  As individuals, everyone has great potential, but when partnered with someone with complementary strengths and talents, the potential increases exponentially!  Many of the greatest accomplishments in history happened because people worked together.

More than this, we need partners!  Human beings were not designed to “go it alone.”  The Bible is full of examples of the huge value God placed on relationships and partnerships.  From the beginning in the Garden of Eden, God said “It is not good that man should be alone” so He created woman – a partner.  (Genesis 2:18) Jesus sent his disciples out in pairs to minister in His name, and to proclaim the Kingdom. (Luke 10)  The first missionaries sent out by the church in Antioch were sent in pairs.  (Acts13).

As we move into 2014, I would challenge each of us to take a good long look at our partnerships in previous years, and to contemplate what partnerships we need for the coming year.  The reality is, life is full of partnerships.  The question is whether these partnerships are the right ones, and whether or not they help us and our causes reach full potential.

With whom do you partner?  How would you describe the effectiveness of that partnership?  What could you do to take your partnership to the next level?  What would make you a better partner?

Remembering a Father’s Love at Christmas

Note:  Each year at Christmas, I share this same story with my readers.  I share it because my life was changed forever through the sacrificial love of one man – my father.  God’s gift to us at Christmas is His eternal, unchanging love – the love of our Heavenly Father.

As a ten year-old boy, my father did something that changed my life forever.  For many years, my dad served as the adult leader for a boys mission group called Royal Ambassadors, in our home church in Horse Cave, Kentucky.  Yes, that’s really the name of a small town in south central Kentucky.  Among the many things we looked forward to as boys, was the annual camping trip with our fathers.  That year, we went to one of our favorite places, an island in Dale Hollow Lake, on the border between Tennessee and Kentucky.  We loved going to that remote island because the only way to get there was by boat, or by crossing a really cool swinging bridge.  Dad and the other fathers liked it because the island kept us rowdy boys somewhat contained.

On the last day of our trip, just before we were to head back, we talked our fathers into letting us go swimming one last time.   The dads were on the shore fully clothed, while we boys played in the water with our inner tubes, inflatable rafts, and such.  I was floating on one of the rafts, eyes closed, enjoying the warm sun, and listening to the other boys.  No one noticed I was slowing floating further and further away from the shore.  Half asleep, I was startled by screaming and yelling from what seemed like a long, long distance away.  You guessed it!  I had floating thirty or forty yards out into the middle of the lake.  All the other boys were yelling, “Larry, come back!” I’m not really sure what happened after that, but next thing I knew, the raft was ten feet away, my feet could not touch the bottom, and I didn’t know how to swim.  Arms thrashing, gasping for breath, and swallowing at least a gallon of lake water, I remember going under and coming back up at least twice.  After that, the next thing I remembered was being carried to the shore. Coughing and spitting out water I remember seeing my dad’s face, and feeling his enormous arms holding me tight.  I literally felt his love.

My dad, not only saved my life, he also demonstrated love in a way I would never forget.  The long drive back to our home is something I can picture in my mind as if it were yesterday.  I’m sitting in the front seat of our 1959 Ford station wagon, as close to my dad as possible, and thinking how lucky I was to have a dad like mine.  I began to understand a father’s love, and began a journey that would eventually lead me to know and embrace the love of my Heavenly Father.

Since his death in 1987, I often think of my dad at Christmas.  Being one of seven siblings, there were some years when I didn’t receive a lot of gifts at Christmas.  But my dad’s love for his family, and his love for God were the most important and valuable gifts he gave me as a child.  Through his consistent, faithful example, he taught us the value of a father’s love.

I pray you will enjoy the love of your heavenly Father during this Christmas season! Remember, He loves us so much that He sent His Son, Jesus, to give His life for us.  Oh, how He loves us!

“God showed how much He loved us by sending His only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through Him.  This is real love.  It is not that we loved God, but that He love us and sent His Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.  Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other.”  1 John 4:9-11

“Joy Unspeakable”

On my way to work every morning, I pass one of those electronic billboards, with frequently changing messages. Yesterday, I noticed a holiday message, “Eat, drink and be merry!  Enjoy the holidays!”  The sad truth behind this message is for some, the only joy they will experience during the holidays will be in eating, drinking, and being merry.

As I reflected on the billboard message, and thought about the Advent theme for this week, several questions came to mind.  Where do you find joy?  How do you experience it?  Most importantly, what is true joy?

As followers of Jesus, we know a joy that transcends the temporal and far exceeds anything you might experience in the physical through eating, drinking, and being merry!  In fact, this joy has nothing to do with our physical condition or our state of mind.  It is a joy that, in one sense is incomprehensible to the human mind – what some would describe as “mind blowing.”

God is the source of our joy!  There is an amazing picture of God in the prophetic book of Zephaniah. “The Lord your God is in your midst, a victorious warrior. He will exult over you with joy. He will be quiet in His love. He will rejoice over you with shouts of joy.” (Zephaniah 3:17) According to the Bible, joy is something God Himself experiences.  Jesus experienced joy even as He faced the horrors of the cross. “Jesus, the author and perfector of faith, who for the joy set before Him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”  (Hebrews 12:2).

Jesus said to His disciples, “These things I have spoken to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.”  (John 15:11)  Jesus wants our joy to be complete, filled to capacity, and overflowing.   The joy He saw beyond the cross is the same joy He gives to those who follow Him.  And, His joy, in turn, makes our joy complete!

Knowing this helps us understand the message the angel spoke to the shepherds on the night of Jesus’ birth.  “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”  (Luke 2:10-11)

Do you know this joy?  Do you live in this joy?  Perhaps we need to pray the prayer of repentance and restoration David prayed in Psalms 51:12 “Restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation.” Only then, will we know what Peter described as “joy unspeakable and full of glory.” (1 Peter 1:8)

I wish you true joy this Christmas season!

Peace on Earth . . .

There are approximately 34 major wars and conflicts taking place around the world today.  These conflicts contribute to homelessness, a deluge refuges fleeing to nearby countries, and many deaths. In twelve of the thirty four conflicts more than 1,000 people die every year.  These wars include: the Afghan Civil War, Somali Civil War, Iraq War, North West Pakistan War, Arab-Israeli Conflict, Niger Delta Conflict, and the Côte d’Ivoire Crisis, and many more

During troublesome times, peace may appear to be a distant dream. Yet, God’s Word to us at all times, but especially in times of trouble, is a word of hope, reminding us of His promise of peace.

When I think about peace at Christmas time, I am reminded of the story behind one of our most cherished Christmas carols. In December 1864, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem entitled, Christmas Bells, which later became the text to the Christmas carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”   When Longfellow penned these words, America was still several months away from Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9th 1865.  This poem reflected the despair and hopelessness of most Americans at that time.

 And in despair I bowed my head:  “There is no peace on earth,”  I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song, of peace on earth, good will to men.”

However, the following stanza revealed Longfellow’s faith in a God who was still on His throne, and who never abandoned His people.  With great confidence, he wrote the final four lines of his poem:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:  God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.
Till ringing, singing, on its way, the world revolved from night to day
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime, of peace on earth good will to men.

Although peace on earth doesn’t seem to be a reality at the moment, God has not forgotten His people, or His promise.  My prayer for us as individuals, and as a nation, is for God to grant us the same faith that enabled Longfellow to see beyond the hate and evil of the day, and embrace God’s gift of eternal peace.    In addition, I pray we would discover and experience the fullness of God’s peace, and as a result of that discovery, become what Jesus called, “the peacemakers.”

The Hebrew word for peace is shalom. The meaning of the word goes far beyond what we typically understand as peace.  It is derived from the Hebrew root shalam – meaning to be safe, to be complete, and to be whole.  Shalom as a word, and as a message, seems to encapsulate a reality and hope of wholeness and security.

Wholeness and security are the heart of the message Jesus brought to the world in His first Advent. He said, “Do not think I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill.” (Matthew 5:17)  He also said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”(John 10:10)  Just as Jesus brings the law to its completion, He brings men and women into the wholeness and security God designed for us from the beginning of creation.

The shalom of God is far more than a state of mind or a social condition. As Paul explained, the peace of God, “passes all understanding,” and “keeps our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”(Philippians 4:7)

I wish you true peace in your Savior this Christmas season!

Larry Doyle

The Ultimate Undercover Boss

Personally, I don’t care for most “reality” television shows today.  There is one exception however. I really enjoy Undercover Boss.  It airs on Sunday evenings, so I don’t get to watch it often. But the couple of time I have, I’ve really enjoyed watching people’s reaction when they learn they have just spent a day working alongside the CEO of their company.

In each episode, hidden cameras follow a different executive each week, and one of their average workers on an undercover mission to examine how their company functions. The executives step out of the comfort of their cushy offices to work alongside their employees, and in the process discover how decisions made in the corporate office impact the average employee. They get an “up-close” and personal look at both the good and the bad. Occasionally, they discover incredible, unsung heroes -people who make their companies great. Often, there are also times when the mission turns up some pretty mediocre performances and attitudes.

It’s a well-written show, but I’m still not sure why I like it so much.  Perhaps, at some level, I enjoy watching the poor performers get their just desserts. You have to admit, there’s a bit of “sweet justice” when a jerk comes face to face with the boss who saw them for who they really are.  On the other hand, it is also inspiring to see an unsung hero discovered and rewarded for his loyalty and sacrificial service.

On a deeper and more important level, as followers of Christ, we have the Ultimate Undercover Boss!  Jesus spoke often about the “Father, who sees in secret” (Matthew 6:6), and examines the motives of the heart.  Psalms 139 speaks of the One who “knows when I sit down, and when I stand up”, and “knows my every thought from afar.”  He even “knows what I am going to say before I say it.”  Then the Psalmist concludes, “Such knowledge is too great for me to comprehend.”

He is ever-present, and all knowing.  In a real sense of the word, God is the Ultimate Undercover Boss!  Perhaps that’s why Paul urged the believers in the church at Ephesus, “Whatever you do, work at with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.” (Colo. 3:23), and to the Corinthians he said, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” (1 Cor. 10:31)

On the show, people put their jobs, and even their future, on the line by not recognizing their boss is right in front of them, watching and listening to how they are treating customers and co-workers.  In the same way, the Ultimate Undercover Boss is always listening, always watching, and always aware of the unspoken attitudes and feelings in our hearts.  Paul reminded his readers, “So we make it our goal to please Him, whether we are at home, in the body or away from it.  For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” (2 Cor. 5:9-10)

In Matthew 25, Jesus talks about of the separation of the sheep and goats at the final judgment. The King will send each to their eternal reward based on these words, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did (or did not do), for one of the least of these my brothers, you did (or did not do) for Me.”

What would you do, or say differently, if you knew the person with whom you are speaking today is, in fact, the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe – the Ultimate Undercover Boss?

Celebrating Advent

Most of us lament the over-commercialization of Christmas and the reality that the true meaning of Christmas is lost amid the noise and hype of Christmas trees, Santa Claus, reindeer, parades, and “Black Friday.”  Even the traditional Christmas Nativity programs at church have morphed into “spectaculars,” that look more like Hollywood than Bethlehem.

I remember years ago as a young pastor, I wanted to do something to help my church and my family keep Christ at the center of Christmas.  I looked for something to help my small children, and the children in my church keep their focus on the reason we celebrate Christmas – the birth of the Messiah–Jesus.  I found what I was looking for in the Advent Wreath, with its simple purple and rose-colored candles.  Children love lighting candles, no one more than my youngest child.  All children love the stories about the shepherds, the angels, the Magi, and the birth of a very special child in Bethlehem.

The Advent Wreath helped us keep our focus on the “coming” of the Messiah, and how His first Advent anticipates and prepares for His Second Advent.  The lighting of the candles each night during the four weeks prior to Christmas provided the opportunity to repeat the stories, and focus on the central themes of Christmas:  hope, love, joy and peace.

I grew up in a Christian tradition that did not celebrate Advent.  In fact, I had never heard of the Advent season until I attended seminary, and even then, I did not really appreciate the value of this tradition as a teaching tool.  Since introducing this tradition to our family, we have made it a central part of the Christmas season, and we treasure these experiences as much, or more than the Christmas tree and decorations.

If this is not a tradition in your family, I encourage you to try it this season.  This past Sunday, December 1st was the first Sunday of Advent this year, and during this week we light the first candle in our Advent Wreath, the candle of Hope.  We read passages from the prophets like Isaiah and Micah, who predicted the coming of the Messiah, and proclaimed hope for the people of God, and for the entire world.  We also talk about what it means to have hope, and how God is our only source of true hope for the future.

The word “Advent” means, “anticipated coming” or “expected arrival.”  My prayer for you and your family is you would discover what 1 Peter 1:3 describes, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!  In His great mercy, He has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade away – kept in heaven for you…”

May the hope He brought through His first coming fill your heart with great anticipation of His second coming!