Treasuring Everything

I have two little boys. I love them with all my heart. I feel deeply the sentiment first expressed by Elizabeth Stone, “Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” I often find myself catching my breath at the sight of my children. When they look at me with precious eyes, when they rest their heads on my shoulders, when they join me in the morning to cuddle before the day starts . . . the love I feel for them is almost terrifying and it is accompanied by knowing. I know that they could be gone for any number of reasons: they could be lost because of a careless driver, a stray bullet or an accidental peanut. I try not to live in paranoia, but that truth sometimes bubbles up and I catch my breath.

This is how I imagine Mary in Luke 2:51. In Luke 2, we learn that Jesus and his family regularly celebrated the Passover and part of that celebration involved some family travel. Mary, Joseph, Jesus and his siblings were celebrating Passover and when they were done, the family left but Jesus didn’t. Jesus stayed to study at the feet of the teachers in the temple. His parents took a couple days to notice their heart was not only walking around, but had been left behind. They were terrified, terrified the way we would be. They mounted a search for him and went back to the place where they last saw Him. They scolded him and he acted so surprised, where else would I be?! In verse 51 there is a small note, “but His mother kept all these things in her heart.”

What did Mary keep in her heart? Did she keep his talking back, his failure to continue on with the family? Perhaps, she kept his words, his choices, his actions and the obedience that followed. I sometimes wonder if she knew or when she knew he would die and what kind of death he would die. There’s nothing in the scripture that tells us she did, but just as I catch my breath when I am caught unaware by the realization that my children are not my own, that life is both good and fragile, I imagine Mary could predict what His end might look like.

In my moments of quiet I go on to think about the many young men in the African American community who have lost their lives innocently and/or without the trial that is their right. I can’t help, but think that their mothers worried about them too. That their mother’s feared their loss each time they left the house and how, like Mary, they are holding onto the words and moments that mothers and sons share, treasuring their little boys in all of their humanity.

From this flow of thoughts comes a flood of tears. I cry tears in solidarity with those who have lost their greatest treasure and I cry tears of joy because of the great love the Father had for us.How could the Father let His only son die? Jesus was loved this way. Jesus was loved by His Mother and the Father with that heart aching, overwhelming kind of love and I believe it is greater than we can imagine. While holding onto that love, the Father chose to allow Jesus to die because of his great love for us. Our love for our own loved ones gives us a glimpse of the Father’s love for us. The Father aches for us as we ache for our children.

Imagine Jesus, for a moment, in the place of the young men who have been dying in the streets of the United States and ask yourself, are you among the scoffers or are you among those who are grieving?

If one could sing in a blog, I would sing . . .

How deep the Father’s love for us, How vast beyond all measure, That He should give His only Son To make a wretch His treasure. How great the pain of searing loss - The Father turns His face away, As wounds which mar the Chosen One Bring many sons to glory.

Behold the man upon a cross, My sin upon His shoulders; Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice Call out among the scoffers. It was my sin that held Him there Until it was accomplished; His dying breath has brought me life - I know that it is finished.

I will not boast in anything, No gifts, no power, no wisdom; But I will boast in Jesus Christ, His death and resurrection. Why should I gain from His reward? I cannot give an answer; But this I know with all my heart - His wounds have paid my ransom.

Jesus was at one time a small boy. Doing the things that small boys do, they test to see how far they can go before someone comes looking for them. They are curious and inquisitive; all of them. Someone loves them and someone is treasuring every moment. When I see young men in the community, I wonder what their story is, I wonder who loves them and I wonder who is treasuring the moments as they grow. I pray that the Lord protects them and keeps them safe. Finally, I grieve for those lost to violence here and around the world.

“...but, His mother kept all these things in her heart.”

Spring Cooke Culver Palms Church of Christ

Called and Waiting

Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom. After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it.  (Luke 2:41-43)

I first taught this passage at Summer Camp. I was a Junior Counselor for children in elementary. I chose it because I thought they could relate. Jesus was a boy, he was doing what was right, and his parents didn’t get it.

Neither did the elementary kids.

“Why did Jesus sin, Ms. Shannon?”

Umm … What? Something had just gone terribly wrong. I had a sinking feeling in my teenage gut. Where is an adult when I need one?

“Jesus was obeying God,” I said. Not good enough.

The children were going there much to my dismay. Someone, get me out of this mess!

After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.” (Luke 2:46-48)

Every child in the room could imagine Mary’s tone, the same one that their parents have used on them when they were afraid and angry, all rolled into one. It was NOT a tone of voice that came with good news.

The children could imagine themselves uttering the next words filled with some good-old-fashioned pre-teen attitude – in self-defense, of course.

“Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he was saying to them. (Luke 2:49-50)

“So, Ms. Shannon, did Jesus sin? Or, did Mary sin for being mad at Jesus?”

Some questions are more complex than either/or. We ask questions that the text was not intending to answer. If we reframe the question, we might find the nugget worth remembering.

What if Luke didn’t write this passage to show that twelve year old Jesus was more connected to his Heavenly father than his earthly one?

What if Luke wrote this passage because he wanted to reinforce what all good Jews knew? There is a time and place for a person's calling to be fully realized as  that person's vocation.

Twelve year old Jesus was just coming to the age in which he would be nurtured and trained to become a mature Jewish man - a process which was typically realized at age 30.

Jesus was already drawn towards his ministry calling. So, innocently, he stayed at the temple. His heart was ready. Culture was not. Quite possibly, his maturity was not ready, either. It is a confusing thing when our heart is drawn towards ministry but the time is not right.

Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man. (Luke 2:51-52)

Jesus submitted and was obedient to his parent’s wishes – as those that had authority over him. In this moment, Luke foreshadows Jesus's vocation, while reminding the reader that Jesus was a devout Jew and still needed the time that all Jewish young men needed.

How often have we had a burning passion for ministry but found a closed door? Frustration wells up. Friends may encourage, “All in God’s good time” but do we really believe that it’s in God’s time or our own?

Jesus accepted that God’s timing is everything. Until then, we grow in wisdom, stature and favor with God and people. If you are waiting to lean fully into the giftedness and calling that God has put on your heart, don’t fear. Talk with Jesus, share with him this experience, and have no doubt that he fully understands how it feels to wait until God’s time has arrived.

Shannon Rains Children and Family Minister Kingwood Church of Christ

It's Never Too Late

This is our Guon-Sā-Nim. This phrase was accompanied by my introduction to an older women, often bent and wrinkled, but also full of a quiet joy and peace. She would smile quietly, even shyly as the women of the church surrounded her and spoke of her dedication to prayer and service to others. The first time I met this woman, I just smiled and nodded as if I understood what was going on. But, when the experience was repeated, I became especially curious.

I was in South Korea with one of our graduate students and his wife visiting churches and holding classes and seminars. When we had a quiet moment I asked my hostess what a Guon-Sā-Nim was. She said,

She is our Anna. She is a widow who has no family so she lives at the church and is constant in prayer. She attends to other women who do not have husbands and to young women who need to learn how to be good wives.

I was stunned.

These churches took seriously the instructions from the Pastoral Epistles on how we are to treat widows who have no family or other means of support. This “Anna” met regularly with the elders to report on what she was doing and to represent the needs of the women of the church. I have thought about this practice for years now.

I have been widowed twice.

The first experience was through the death of my spouse at age 21. and the second by the death of my marriage through divorce at age 62. Each time I felt an emptiness and lack of purpose or direction that is hard to explain and very painful.

Where once I had been part of the core of the church, I found myself in each instance on the margins. In fact church became a painful experience that I dreaded or avoided it entirely. That is until I thought of Anna.

My experience in the Korean church had given new life to this ancient story and new hope to me. Through much prayer, fasting, and support of others I came to realize that my place in the church may have changed, but I am still a vital part of the body of Christ.It is never too late in the Kingdom of God for me, or anyone else, to find renewed hope and purpose. And it I owe much of this insight to the first Anna and the many others I have encountered.

There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment [the dedication of the infant Jesus at the temple] she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem (Luke 2:36-38, emphasis mine).

May each of us in this season of Advent realize once again the privilege of knowing Jesus and speak of the redemption he offers to all who will listen whatever our situation in life.

Jeanene Reese Highland Church of Christ Abilene, Texas

The Vitality of Ritual

Dark and still, the ancient stone walls were breathing and holy. The silence was not oppressive, but peaceful. I dropped a coin into the tiny slot at the base of the pillar and carefully lit a long wooden match. Whispering my prayer, I lit a small votive on the stand before me, one of many bright flames breaking the darkness of the church. Wisps of smoke filtered into the dome above me, as the flame's very fragrance perfumed the vaults of heaven.

There was no magic in that ritual. No special force or mystique. But it had power, that simple act of flame, and smoke, and prayer. As the candle burned, so, too, did my plea to God sear upon my heart. Years later, I carry with me the memory of that moment, still. 

I grew up in a world without religious ritual – or so we thought. Repetition equaled rote, and thus, we held ourselves above common prayer, rites of passage, and liturgy. As I’ve grown, and my church has matured, these practices have returned into our worship, little by little, and I am enthralled by the mystery and the power of these rituals. While traveling in Europe, I loved the opportunity to light a candle in the ancient churches. One among thousands of prayers offered in that sacred space.


When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.” (Luke 2:22-24)

But if she cannot afford a lamb, she is to bring two doves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. In this way the priest will make atonement for her, and she will be clean.’” (Leviticus 12:8)

I find it remarkable that the virgin mother of our Lord the Messiah still felt compelled to offer a sacrifice for the impurity of his birth. How could giving life to God With Us cause anything, or anyone, to be unclean? And yet, she did not hesitate. Just a week from childbirth, she traveled to Jerusalem, following the ancient laws as her mother and sisters and ancestors had done for a thousand years and more.

The Torah decrees that when a woman gives birth, she is in a state of spiritual impurity, a state defined by the absence of holiness, for seven days if the child is born male, fourteen days if female. To return to spiritual wholeness, she must offer a sacrifice. A lamb, if she can afford it. A pair of doves and two pigeons if she cannot. A sacrifice on behalf of The Sacrifice.

There was nothing impure about the birth of the Messiah, and yet, the ritual was vital nonetheless.

Christ did not need to be immersed for the forgiveness of his sins, and yet, the ritual of baptism was vital nonetheless.

There is power in ritual. A vitality of routine, actions, and words that contain value in their very repetition.There is a sacred beauty in the recurrence of a blessed act worship.

The weeks before us in December are rich with tradition and repeated ritual. The preparation of favorite meals, the wrapping of gifts. The frantic search of the Elf’s next pose, the photos with Santa at the mall. The careful placement of the nativity. The ornaments unwrapped, memories falling from the tissue paper of places, and people, and friends.

These oft repeated acts can, easily, become mindless habits.

Or, they can be worship. The mundane and the silly, the meaningful and profound. Repeated moments and actions, each aspiring to be that sacred act of ritual worship, as long as we’re paying attention.

Adelle Gabrielson Assistant to Children’s Ministry Campbell Church of Christ Campbell, CA

A Birth Announcement

When a woman is pregnant with a baby in 2015 it is common to celebrate in many different ways. First the mother should video herself telling the father that he is going to be a Dad. Then she should also do something special to tell the grandparents. Then you announce it to Facebook in a cute way (puns appreciated) but don’t forget to post those videos you took to tell the father and grandparents. After that there could be gender reveal parties, multiple showers, and maybe even a sip and see after they are born. Our culture today realizes that a birth is important, and we find a million to celebrate the birth of a baby.

So when it is God’s turn to announce the birth of his son, he goes all out! It is pretty adorable in my opinion (is it okay to say God is adorable? I think he is.) He puts a big star in the sky, and he sends a great company of angels to some shepherds in the night sky. What a sight it must have been.  

We often think of what it must have been like for Mary and Joseph to birth the Son of God. I wonder what it must have been like for God to send his son to the earth to be born. Knowing why he was sending him and what would happen, would it be a celebration or would it be something God feels sorrow for?

If I had to hazard a real guess, I would say I think he felt like celebrating. The Bible sure paints birth of Jesus is a celebration. He brings all types of people to the table, the rich and powerful Magi and the poor and hardworking Shepherds. It is an analogy for the change that Jesus came to bring.

My husband’s brother and his wife brought a child into the world just a few months ago. After his wife had a C-Section, my brother-in-law had a few moments alone with the baby while she was coming off of the drugs. I got to watch a proud Daddy look upon a child with all of the anticipation and excitement of who he would grow to be. God with all of his infinite power to love and actually know who Jesus would be seems to be looking upon his son here with that same anticipation and excitement.

This December has been busier and harder than any other for me. I'm already getting tired of celebrating. I am tired of waiting, Advent can be just as hard as lent is sometimes. But I am reminded of the joy and celebration that God himself sent to us. A choir of angels, a bright star, a chance for everyone to know Christ, Kings and Shepherds. 

May we look upon this time of year with anticipation and excitement. We know who Jesus becomes and what happens, but for now lets experience the miracle of this child. Let's find time to celebrate this season.

Maybe skip a Christmas party that will wear you down instead of help you celebrate. You don't need to send out 200 Christmas cards with personalized messages. The kids don't care if the presents are perfectly wrapped. Take a break from the busy to enjoy the reminder of how near God is. Praise God for being faithful to us. Laugh at yourself and your plans and devote yourself to God’s ideals for you. Then do as the shepherds did and go and share about the joy you have found. 

“Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

Luke 2:14

Holly Racca Youth Minister Southern Hills Church of Christ Abilene, Texas

Birth Plans

The last thing any woman wants to do when she’s nine months pregnant is go to Bethlehem. I don’t care if you're fifteen or forty-five years old, there is a significant biological mandate that makes itself known at the end of pregnancy that says, “Get home! You are about to have a baby!” Pregnant animals know this. When they are about to give birth they retreat to the safety of their dens. And pregnant women do to. As modern women we do a great job of letting our brains get in the way of our instincts, but even modern women find themselves cleaning and organizing their homes, driven by a biological need to “nest,” as their due date approaches. So the last thing any pregnant woman, first century woman or twenty-first century woman, wants to do when she’s about to give birth, is travel.

But Mary’s story is filled with plans that she didn’t make. Looking back over the nine months she remembers her miraculous conception, her reluctant fiancé, the angel with big promises, and the compelling emotional encounter with her cousin Elizabeth. And now this. Her birth plan is thrown out the window, as she and Joseph follow Caesar’s orders and head to Bethlehem. As she grabs her bag and walks out the door she thinks, “Maybe at least the walking will put me into labor.” Because no matter how scared you are, no matter how much you would rather be in the safety and comfort of your own home, the one thing every pregnant woman wants when she gets to that forty week mark is to not be pregnant anymore. And she knows that walking helps. Every step moves the baby’s head deeper into her pelvis, pressure mounting in her hips, subtle but increasing pain in her lower back. With every step she wonders if this will be the one that will break her water and send her searching for the nearest safe place to give birth.

Sure enough, this normal teenage Jewish girl whose life has suddenly become filled with divine surprises, goes into labor. Mary knows how births are suppose to happen. Her mom and her midwife are supposed to be there, but they aren’t — they are home in Nazareth. And she is apparently having this baby in Bethlehem. Like the woman who gives birth in her car assisted by a 23 year old highway patrol officer with basic first aid training because traffic is stopped dead and the baby won't wait, Mary depends on the care of strangers as she gives birth to her first-born, a son.

After the ubiquitous uncertainty of pregnancy, the amazing creation process of labor and childbirth works the way it’s supposed to. The chaos of traveling, frantically trying to find a place to stay while the contractions grew more frequent and intense, has ended, and Mary feels intensely grateful that she and her baby have survived. The hay of the manger and the soft swaddling clothes feel oddly perfect as she holds her beautiful newborn in her arms. She feels his soft skin against her own as he nurses himself to sleep.

Her mind is tired, and her body’s exhausted, so she sleeps as well. Off and on for the next twenty-four hours, she sleeps. A blanket keeps her warm as the baby lays on her bare chest, and the Bethlehem midwife she’s only known for a few hours gives her sips of water and soup. As she dozes off she remembers the angel’s words. “Do not be afraid.” And she realizes she’s not. She is filled with a crazy mix of feelings right now, but fear is not one of them. She actually feels courageous. It’s a divine maternal form of courage unlike anything she has ever known before. And in this hazy, weary, postpartum state, there is one thing that is crystal clear to Mary. She is this boy’s mother and she will do whatever she has to do to take care of him. Wherever his life leads, she will go.

“And they came with haste and found Mary, Joseph, and the babe, lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:16)

Amy Bost Henegar Minister for Family Life and Spiritual Formation Manhattan Church of Christ New York, NY

Image: Where Advent Begins © Jan Richardson