The Gift of Simplicity

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That night in the manger was a simple setting for the birthplace of a King. No thrones or crowns, no trumpets announcing his entrance, and no soft cozy bed for Him to lay in. The feed trough would have been rough wood and the straw used for padding would have been prickly. The sounds of the animals would have been the lullaby He first heard, and his first visitors would be the lowly shepherds (those on the lowest rungs of the culture at the time). What a simple scene for this profound entrance of the Son of God!

Thousands of years later the celebration of his birth more likely features a far grander display. Lights abound instead of the dimly lit stable that awaited his arrival. Glittering glass balls adorn trees trimmed in red, green, gold, silver, and every other color we may like instead of the cedar, fig, date palm and olive trees his family would have seen along the path to the stable. They would have been accustomed to walking long distances as a poor couple and feel fortunate to have a donkey.

The debut of Jesus on the earth would foreshadow what his life and ministry would be like. He chose the simple settings – hillsides, boats, breaking bread with a few close companions. He chose the ordinary people of the day, the common people – uneducated, often poor, those without vast theological knowledge.

Have you ever wondered why?

Could it be because simplicity removes the things that distract from what is most important?

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Consider the impact of a single candle lit in a window or a darkened room. It draws our focus and seems to quiet us, hushing the noise within us so we can hear more keenly the smallest whisper. It captures our attention more completely than a million little twinkling lights that fill a landscape, but never cause us to notice the individual lights within the display or give us time to pause and reflect.

For all that is different and that we might miss about this Christmas season in the midst of a tridemic, threats of monster storms, and more, perhaps He has opened the door to simplicity once again and it is a special gift from his heart to ours – the gift of simplicity.

“Simplicity is the secret to seeing things clearly. A saint does not think clearly until a long time passes, but a saint ought to see clearly without any difficulty. You cannot think through spiritual confusion to make things clear; to make things clear, you must obey. In intellectual matters you can think things out, but in spiritual matters you will only think yourself into further wandering thoughts and more confusion.”

Oswald Chambers in My Utmost for His Highest

If this is a simpler Advent season during a time the world around us has grown darker, full of cacophony, and chaos, what would He have us see more clearly about Him and ourselves this year? Could He be preparing us for the Second Advent that is slated to be quite different from the first?

What does He want us to see in the gift of simplicity?

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Can we yield our disappointments over what we are missing to discover what gift we have been given?

Can these moments push back the sense of impending doom and shadow that would seek to undo us and rob us of the joy of the gift of simplicity born in a stable so long ago?

Will we invite Him in to whatever state we find ourselves so He can truly be with us as never before?

Is there something He wants for us more than a grand celebration?

“Even the smallest thing that we allow in our lives that is not under the control of the Holy Spirit is completely sufficient to account for spiritual confusion, and spending all of our time thinking about it will never make it clear. Spiritual confusion can only be conquered through obedience. As soon as we obey, we have discernment.”

Oswald Chambers in My Utmost for His Highest

We will never know unless we accept the gift and open it to discover all that He has tucked inside for us.

“The setting of priorities is not a once-and-for-all act. It has to be redone frequently. Balances shift. Circumstances change. Moods swing. Is it still God, in fact, with whom I have first of all to do, or is it not? Prayer is the place where the priorities are reestablished.”

Eugene Peterson in Run with the Horses

Let us delight in the gift of simplicity this Advent season and enter into quiet communion with the One who modeled this gift so we could learn to see more clearly and hear more sharply and defeat the confusion that would rob us of all He is.

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When Calm Stilled the Night

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It has been easy to be myopic, to see the world only through a nearsighted lens. At a time, the entire world is at war with deadly viruses, our own worlds have shrunk as a result of limits regarding usual activities and time with people we love. We feel that even more as we approach Christmas, but in the midst of warring factions of all types in all areas of the world one example stands out to me as we approach Christmas Eve. Some of you may know the story, but it bears repeating when so much has sought to divide us during this year.

In July 1914 “the war to end all wars” began. Most of us know it as WW I and it still stands as one of the most horrific wars that mankind has endured. Men on the battlefield lived in trenches filled with the wounded, dead, filth, water, rats, and poison gas raining over them for four long years until November 11, 1918. For all the tragedies that occurred, “the war to end all wars” didn’t accomplish that mission.

On December 7, 1914, Pope Benedict XV proposed a halt of fighting between the warring nations for the celebration of Christmas. The leaders of the nations rejected his proposal, and the war went on, but then on Christmas Eve a strange thing happened along the 400-mile battle lines that had already claimed hundreds of thousands of lives during the previous months of battle.

Later in the evening on Christmas Eve the sounds of gunfire began to quiet. Soldiers waited in uncertainty wondering what their enemies would now do. And then in the midst of the cold, wet, muddy trenches came a sound no one expected – the German soldiers began to sing “Stille Nacht” that the English soldiers knew as “Silent Night” which had first been written in German. Confusion slipped away as the English soldiers listened and then began to sing back the familiar song. The men in the trenches had determined they would determine a ceasefire the nations’ leaders would not. What began in one spot soon began to occur at other locations along the long battle line.

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The story of that night goes on with some saying that a solider from one side of the battle line called across the “no man’s land” and invited his enemy to meet halfway between the trenches. Little by little men anxiously climbed out of their trenches to meet in the barbed wire space between the enemy armies.

Many of the men brought gifts of things they had received to share with their enemies – tobacco, chocolate, hats, badges, and alcohol among them. German soldiers reportedly lit candles along the edges of their trenches at some places. Handshakes were exchanged and songs shared along with the meager gifts they shared. Sometimes bartering took place as a soldier would offer a haircut for a tin of tobacco. There were stories of football being played, not everyone was in agreement with what was happening and it didn’t happen across all the battle lines.

It was not widely adopted in the areas of the front controlled by the French and there was no equivalent stoppage on the Eastern Front with Russia, but what became known as the “Christmas Truce” between the United Kingdom and German soldiers was a special time that was never again repeated. Violence returned to the Western Front, but some areas were without bloodshed until New Year’s Day.

It can be easy for any and all of us to complain about division that has increased over so many things in so many places. We blame leaders at every level and of every political stripe. We want someone to fix this, to make a difference, and to make this hard time go away…at least for Christmas. But what about the example we see in this story from 1914? What took place was not done when a Pope requested it. It was not a chosen path for the political leaders of the nations that did it. It was common men in the midst of unthinkable conditions that sought for the calm of a “silent night.”

What a powerful testimony!

History of such a truce was not repeated, but over and over again history highlights moments in time where one man or woman or just a few made a choice out of their own conscience and values that made a difference and sometimes changed the course of history for good.

How like Christmas when one ordinary man and woman were chosen by God to be the earthly parents of the Son of God who would be fully human and fully divine and change the course of the world forever!

What about us, you and me, what difference are we making instead of waiting on those in authority over us to make a change? What has caused us to forget the authority as believers that God has given us and the commission to be salt and light?

Salt and light are most significant in the midst of darkness, shadow, famine, and distress and it is when it is most needed.

How can you make a difference across enemy battle lines?

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You’re Our Only Hope

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Hope is the one ingredient that we want to never lose. It is the feeling of expectation and desire for something to happen that will be a blessing, will provide an answer, or perhaps an escape from something we wish to avoid facing.

We falter with hope as we travel through our days because we often hope in people or things that disappoint us, let us down, and cause us to doubt anyone is for us and what we seek. Not everything we long for comes to pass. The position we sought goes to someone else or disappears. The raise we were counting on evaporates in the economic downturn. The person we loved doesn’t love us as we wish. The medical miracle we hope for doesn’t happen. Friendships change and we feel alone. Life is a series of things like that until we consider the one truth that came at a time of great darkness for those who lived then – hope comes through the most unlikely places and the only One true source in whom we can hope – God, our only hope.

From the beginning of humankind’s existence, we have grappled with hope and that fateful disobedience in the Garden left an imprint in our DNA of doubting God’s goodness or understanding how evil operates in this world with all the things that come with it – disease, death, famine, war, selfishness, corrupt governments, and more. It caused Israel to question every promise God gave to that people. Things never went the way our human minds thought they should, and they doubted God was with them. They trusted people more than God. They hoped in human governments more than the Kingdom. Even after they were released from the slavery in Egypt, they questioned. Prophets told them of the One who would come to bring his peace and reign and they waited and as they waited, they doubted more as time went by.

They couldn’t believe hope would come on a cold night in the form of a baby born to an unknown couple in a stable outside Bethlehem. How could that be? They were under the heel of the Roman Empire and needed a warrior, a king with an army that would defeat these forces that kept them poor and unable to risk hoping. What could a baby do for them? It didn’t make sense and so many missed this event we seek to celebrate in these days of Advent.

In May of 1977, millions of people lined up to see a movie that everyone was excited about. It was the first movie in what became the epic Star Wars series, and it didn’t start at the beginning of the story but rather we entered the tale in Episode 4. Most of us don’t recall the title of that episode. It was “A New Hope.”

The backdrop is the unfolding of evil forces battling to control the universe, a theme we have seen on screens and in real life many times. The movie screen lights up with the words, “A long time ago in a galaxy far far away…” Scene by scene we discover we are watching a civil war waged by forces who have created a death star meant to bring the universe under their control and that a Princess Leia is racing home to her people with the blueprint of this death star to show how it can be destroyed before her people and planet are eliminated. As stories often go, she cannot make fast her escape and gives a message to a droid, R2D2, to carry the plans back. The message begins with her plea to someone she believes can save them, “Help me, Obi-Wan-Kenobi. You’re my only hope.”

If you know the movie, you know that this character, Obi-Wan-Kenobi, is an old Jedi knight born of another time when Jedi Knights operated with the power of “the force” against evil and kept evil from total success in the universe.

Those who find the droid go looking for this person and when they find him, they believe he will be someone who can save the day for them and save the princess in the bargain. How shocked they are when he comes face-to-face with the most potent enemy, Darth Vader, and he chooses what they cannot believe. As the enemy gloats that he will kill Obi-Wan, Obi-Wan tells him that when he is cut down, a much greater power will be unleashed than he can imagine. And then, he turns off his light saber offering himself to death.

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It seems all is lost as planets and warriors are decimated into bits, but then those who believed in Obi-Wan and “the Force” begin to “hear” his voice within, leading and guiding them in battle, helping them at every step of the way. Not all are saved, but those who follow that inner voice begin to experience the power they believed was not open to them in their feeble unskilled experience. And because Obi-Wan was gone, the evil could not be sure of where the power would come from or how it might be used against them. It wasn’t a victory they win in that first fight that would eliminate all evil forces, but the beginning of a story that would unfold through more episodes that would keep moviegoers coming back to theaters for years to come.

Little wonder we see a similar story unfold in the New Testament as the children of Israel are still hoping for a Messiah to save them and then miss his birth as the One who is hope. When He grew from that baby into manhood and began teaching in the synagogue and on hillsides and in fishing boats, many missed Him again. Yes, there were disciples who followed and helped Him as he went, but even they could not conceive that instead of taking power from the Roman Empire, He would lay down his life on a cruel cross and multiply his power for evermore. Now He would operate unseen by human eyes and yet could be heard by common shepherds, children, and any and all who would believe.

And here we are again, reliving a familiar story. The pandemic that was to be defeated has become a tridemic, a vaccine that was to be the answer does not solve or defeat the virus, wars go on, economies struggle, and we look for hope in a better place (if we are wise). We wonder if God is with us in this day and if He is, why He doesn’t move to get us out of this mess.

“The present age does not have the last word.

Life that leads us through the wilderness is unexpected and daunting. It can drop us to our knees in prayer and supplication or cause us to ignore what’s best in order to gain a quick entrance to the other side. This is the intersection of life where God is waiting. This is where we either say “yes” to God and trust Him to provide and protect, or we grab the steering wheel to maneuver the path in our own power.”

Mary Geisen in The Advent Narrative

These wise words remind us that the path we casually read in the Old and New Testament or see played out in a film like Star Wars is repeating itself but this time, we are the players in the scene. Will we miss our role? Will we put our hope in sources that cannot help us? Will we believe that the One who died is very much present with us now even though our physical eyes cannot see Him?

Mary Geisen pointed to the truth in the pandemic of 2020, and it holds true in our present day.

“But in the middle of this crisis, we as believers can rest in the truth that Jesus arrived two thousand years ago as a baby ready to live and die for our transgressions. We can proclaim with the authority of Jesus that He will come again as we wait for the pandemic to subside. Most of all, our hearts can cry together “Come, Lord Jesus” as we hold the present and future in the palm of our hands, believing that God already has this figured out.”

Mary Geisen from The Advent Narrative

Seeing But Not Seeing

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Reading Luke’s narrative of the first Advent tells us much about those who lived during that time, but is it possible that his words penned so long ago also say something about us?

Prophecy about the expected birth of Jesus had been around for a long time for those who had heard it and yet the question that came to the lips of more than one or two were, “Are you the One we’ve been expecting?” A casual reading might make it too easy to scoff at the uncertainty that lays behind the question. After all we may think, how could they have missed this?

There can be many answers that come to mind including what Luke says:

“He said, “You’ve been given insight into God’s kingdom—you know how it works. There are others who need stories. But even with stories some of them aren’t going to get it: Their eyes are open but don’t see a thing,
Their ears are open but don’t hear a thing.”

Luke 8:10 (MSG)

Were they asleep or only dull of hearing and murky in sight? The people of the first Advent knew the One was to come, but what did they expect?

What we expect often determines what we see and hear. There is a narrative at work in each of our hearts, minds, and spirits that has been sown over the course of our lifetime. It is that narrative that we believe to be true and we take in things we see and hear that align with that narrative and set aside those things that do not.

And narratives run through every area of our lives and if we are not alert to them, they open the door to deception and choices that lead us down paths the Lord never intended we take.

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At the time of the first Advent many were surely looking for a king who would bring the harsh rule of the Roman Empire to an end. Others were looking for a warrior who would take over by force and root out the evil conditions so many were enduring during that time so that justice could prevail. Despite the prophecies they had heard, they were not thinking about Him coming as a helpless baby to a nondescript couple in a stable in Bethlehem. That didn’t fit their narrative of what they wanted to see happen, hoped would happen.

They missed seeing how Jesus comes in the midst of the ordinary, the common small places and things in life.

John gives an even more unique image of the One that was to come and will come again:

“The Word was first, the Word present to God, God present to the Word.
The Word was God, in readiness for God from day one.”

John 1:1-2 (MSG)

How abstract it can sound that when mankind was looking for a king or a warrior “the Word” was sent.

“Some people may wonder: why was the light of God given in the form of language? How is it conceivable that the divine should be contained in such brittle vessels as consonants and vowels? This question betrays the sin of our age: to treat lightly the ether which carries the light-waves of the spirit. What else in the world is as capable of bringing man and man together over the distances in space and time? Of all things on the earth, words alone never die. They have so little matter and so much meaning…”

Abraham Heschel in Run with the Horses by Eugene Peterson

Scientists and researchers spend their days looking to try to see what they have not seen previously in order to understand it or discover secrets previously unknown. Yet, many of them looking through telescopes, microscopes and vast amounts of data can miss what is there. Consider how Alexander Fleming returned to his lab in Scotland in 1928 after a two- week vacation to discover mold had accidentally contaminated a culture plate of staphylococcus that led to what he didn’t expect – the discovery of penicillin.

I think God must delight in times He surprises us. It reveals how far beyond our imagination He is, but yet He wants us to “see” Him and “hear” Him, to not miss Him.

In the midst of the “not yet” as we wait on the second Advent, might we also miss Him?

I think the key is not only whether or not we are awake and watching, but whether our hearts are beating at one with Him as a result of our intimacy with Him.

Our heart is never fooled in recognizing the person on whom our affections are set. We sense the person before they even speak when they enter a room. We recognize the fragrance that is them before they ever touch our hand. It is a knowing born of much time spent together.

After all, where it is, we first encounter Jesus? Does He not come knocking at our heart?

“For those who listen for Christ’s coming, a knock sounds over and over again. The things that come forth are not necessarily highly spiritual. Sometimes they are very simple things.”

Mary Geisen quoting Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt in The Advent Narrative

Scripture tells us the Second Advent will not look like the first, but not unlike the First Advent, those whose hearts are already aligned with Him will surely not miss that glorious appearing.

We must not lose sight of Him in the midst of all that would cloud our sight or distort our hearing.

“When God wrote the script for our lives, He linked hardship and goodness in an effort to reach us in our reality. Independence is admirable, but dependence on the One who created us is where we meet Hope for the first time.”

Mary Geisen in The Advent Narrative
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What A Choice!

How easily we can miss the significance of the choice God made to humble Himself and choose to come to earth in human flesh to show us what mankind had been missing for thousands of years about how great was his love, grace, and mercy. Somehow, we think of it at Easter on the cross as He hung there without considering what is beyond our imagination to consider about his choice to come to earth as a baby in the humblest of places.

The nativity scenes we set up during the season of Advent are so pristine compared to the reality of that manger where Mary and Joseph first laid Him. Any farmer would tell you in vivid detail the sounds and smells that would have surrounded them. Stables smelled of hay and straw (both old and new) and of the dirty stalls of the animals that spent time there. Dust was everywhere. It was not pretty or clean.

How like Him to come into the mess of such a place! He comes into the mess of our lives and chooses to live within us when we accept Him.

It wasn’t just on the cross that He showed his love in his humility. But none of us mortals are very good at humility if we’re gut-wrenchingly honest.

“Humility looks like caring for others more than we care about ourselves. It is looking beyond ourselves and recognizing the beauty around us. Humility keeps the spotlight on Jesus. When we shine it on ourselves, it reflects the flaws and messiness that Jesus has already redeemed through His death on the cross.”

Mary Geisen in The Advent Narrative
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Perhaps our struggle with humility is not only about pride, but our unwon battle with selfishness that requires us to lay down our lives for others as Jesus so clearly showed us and still shows us each day. Maybe we don’t spend enough time looking in the mirror of the Word and seeing ourselves as accurately or clearly as we ought.

Over and over again humility is the convicting message of that first Advent. It was the manger, the humblest of parents chosen to be the earthly parents of Jesus, and it was the shepherds who were considered lowly in that culture who were first blessed to hear the news and see this babe in the manger who had come to save them. Consider who God honored with this privilege we read about – shepherds of all people, not the religious leaders of the day, not the chief rabbi of the town – shepherds.

This Advent again gives us space to make room for Him in our hearts and enter into the scene more deeply and personally, to finally grasp just a bit more than we take time for other times during the year when we are out and about, and now busier with the seasonal traditions we love. It can serve as a time to consider with greater anticipation the Second Advent yet to come and where we are in that journey.

“A life worth living takes us on a journey of preparing well. But it is not just the preparation and awakening of our hearts. God leads us through the “not yet” as a challenge and call to let Him dive deep into our very core. He wants our faith to look like the roller coaster ride that we hold onto for dear life because we don’t know what else to do. It is wondering and believing for more. It is saying “yes” when we prefer the “no.” God knows, and whether the path feels comfortable and familiar or takes us off road on the adventure of our lives, He is with us in every step forward and backward.”

Mary Geisen in The Advent Narrative
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This year is perhaps when we ought to remove the masks we can often wear when we spend time with the Lord, the masks that we foolishly use to be less honest and real with Him than He deserves or that we need to be in order to lead a more sanctified and holy life. That would be humility.

“The first requirement in a personal relationship is to be ourselves. Off with the masks. Away with the pretense.”

Eugene Peterson in Run with the Horses

This Advent season of 2022 is not without hope, not without promise. If it seems that way, where are we looking? The smelly dusty manger in the midst of a world ruled by the Roman Empire should adjust our perspective if we pause to really see it and enter into the story behind the scene our nativity sets depict.

“The best part of our God-driven stories is the hope that is ours every step of the way. It is ultimately the desire to end up at the manger to see Jesus and the gifts He left there for me and you. Max Lucado says it like this: “The path marked Humility will take you to the manger of the Messiah.”

Mary Geisen in The Advent Narrative

The lowly shepherds became the first eyewitnesses of what God was doing. God has not stopped the story, his story, and we are eyewitnesses to what He is doing now in big and small things. We are part of the story.

How will we spread the word and share the story so that no one will miss the Second Advent because we were asleep or silent?