Paying Attention in the New Year

We live in a culture of seemingly constant, unremitting distractions not withstanding smart phones and other rapidly evolving technology. This is so much so that being distracted is the new normal. As a result, we accommodate non-stop distractions by embracing short attention spans. We experience discomfort if any task takes more than a brief encounter. Along the way have we lost the habit of being attentive? Do we have what Asbury University professor, Daniel Strait, identifies as a diminished capacity to see beyond ourselves.

Dan Strait writes in the November 2016 issue of Word & Deed, “We are called to ‘behold,’ ‘look,’ ‘witness,’ and ‘see’ God’s presence in our midst. Isaiah 43:19 calls us to live in the expectation of God now, at this moment, in the place where I stand: ‘I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert’ (NRSV). Often we don’t perceive it, and, just as often, perhaps, we don’t expect anything new, not even at the start of a new year.”

He calls for a recovery of attentiveness and for a recognition of the difference between attentiveness and “attending to.”  In our attentiveness, there is always more to see, learn, and know and yet always mystery, discovery, and light. A good place to begin the New Year is with attentiveness with expectancy to the presence and provisions of God in our daily lives. The Psalmist declares (Psalm 40:5), “Many, O Lord my God, are the wonders you have done. The things you planned for us no one can recount to you; were I to speak and tell of them, they would be too many to count.” The Apostle Paul (Ephesians 3:18) prays we might grasp the magnitude (how wide and long and high and deep) is the love of God, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge” (knowledge of the heart).

Here’s the call at the beginning of a New Year: “Wake up! Look! See! Pay far more attention to God and others! Make it a habit! Stop slacking off! Do something about your inattentiveness! There’s more about life in Christ than you’re seeing! Cultivate an appreciation for the wonder and grace right in front of you that makes possible a profound love for God and one’s neighbor.  Instead of a New Year’s resolution, consider praying a prayer for attentiveness:

 Open my eyes, that I may see 
glimpses of truth thou hast for me;
place in my hands the wonderful key
that shall unclasp and set me free.
Silently now I wait for thee,
ready, my God, thy will to see.
Open my eyes, illumine me, Spirit divine!

Happiest and Attentive New Year!



The four Christmas journeys of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus the Christ child, together begin a journey that became our journey. It was and remains a journey of acquainting grace with divine purpose. Glory to God!

Journey is an enduring theme throughout Scripture. We see this in the journeys of Abraham, Moses, Ruth and Naomi, the journeys of the people of Israel exiled to Babylon and their eventual return, the ministry years of Jesus, and the missionary journeys of Peter, Paul and Barnabus. The traditional Christmas story of the journey by Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem in her third trimester is but a part of a longer narrative of four Christmas journeys: (1) Mary with child in her pregnancy first trimester traveling to visit her cousin Elizabeth; (2) Mary and Joseph’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem; (3) their flight with the toddler Jesus to Egypt; and (4) the holy family’s return from Egypt to Nazareth.

The complete journey from Nazareth to Egypt and back again likely covered a period of five years. Altogether the four-journeys-in-one were just the beginning of Christ’s journey throughout his life, ministry, crucifixion, resurrection, and return to the Father. Our Acquaintance with his journey is the beginning of our journey. Because of his life’s journey, we are blessed with the privilege to become personally acquainted with Jesus and through his self-giving love. Thereby we come to know the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Knowing God, we come to love him.  The Christmas journeys begin our journey of an acquainting grace.

It is by God’s acquainting grace that we come to know God in the Trinitarian personhood of perfect unity and love. We begin a journey to knowing his presence (God with us), his identity, and character.   With increasing acquaintance with him, we appreciate Christ as Lord and King. We accept the Father’s love for all the world and embrace our life as children of God. We acknowledge the Spirit’s work in us as comforter, counselor, and guide. Through our journey in Christ by the Holy Spirit we continue to increasingly knowing, love God, and live for him. Those first four journeys of Christ continue in and through us with God who is Emmanuel, God journeying with us, and who continues to love us with an everlasting love! Thanks be to God!

Christmas Journeys and Acquainting Grace

Four Christmas Journeys.

A trip to the mall is not the same as a journey across the country. A journey takes more time, costs substantially more, and holds more challenges, risks, and prospects. In the Christmas season, its traditional to retell the Christmas story of the journey of Joseph and Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem and the birth of the Messiah, baby Jesus. However, there’s more to the story than that one journey. Actually, there are altogether four journeys which speak to our own spiritual journey with challenges, risks, and yet prospects of God’s acquainting grace.

Journey 1 – Mary visits Elizabeth.  Mary was about 14 years old when first “with child.” She set out on a journey from Nazareth to the hills of Judea to visit her older cousin, Elizabeth. There’s no mention of Joseph accompanying her. Scripture suggests she made the trip of about 20 or more miles alone. She stayed with Elizabeth and Zechariah through the first trimester of her pregnancy for three months before returning home. Since the Christmas story starts with her miracle conception, this was the first Christmas journey. It is significant in connecting the Christmas narrative to Elizabeth’s anticipated birth of John the Baptist. John was to play a major, prophetic role in the eventual start of Christ’s ministry.

Journey 2 – The traditional Christmas story begins with Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem. In the third trimester of her pregnancy, the couple journeyed sixty-nine miles to Bethlehem. The likely route was directly south through Samaria. Mary rode on a donkey with Joseph walking the whole way. Only the mega-wealthy would have made the journey by means other than walking or by donkey. Imagine such a journey for Mary’s in her third trimester. The journey could not have been pleasant. It ended with no place to recover but in a stable. Upon arrival, Mary went through the physical rigors of labor and giving birth to baby Jesus and then hosting visitors that smelled like sheep. Nevertheless, the journey ended in an amazing, celestial celebration like no other. Then, it wasn’t for several months, possibly as much as two years, before the next segment of their Christmas journey.

Journey 3 – The flight to Egypt. Contrary to the traditional narrative, the Magi mentioned in Matthew 2:1 did not visit Jesus in the manger on the night of his birth along with the shepherds. They arrived several months and possibly a much as two years later.  By then Mary, Joseph, and Jesus had moved out of the stable. Luke’s narrative (v. 2:11) states that the Magi, on coming to the house, saw the child and Mary and worshiped the child king. The blood thirsty king, Herod, was out to murder the Christ child when the Magi returned to Jerusalem on their way home. Sensing Herod’s malevolent intentions, they returned another way. If so, they were right. An angel then appeared to Joseph in a dream saying, “Get up. Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” That night they fled as political refugees to Egypt, a trip of 430 miles.

Journey 4 – Return to Nazareth. After a good while in Egypt, Herod died. An angel appeared again in a dream to Joseph again and said, “Get up. Take the child and his mother and go to the Land of Israel for those trying to take the child’s life are dead.” They then returned to Israel and settled again in the little town of Nazareth where it all started. The journey likely took more than twenty days covering nearly five hundred miles. By this time Mary was nineteen or twenty years old and Jesus was four or five years old. Rome’s oppressive occupation of Israel was in full swing controlling the lives of the people by intimidation and fear. Likely, for the child Jesus, crucifixions along the journey to Nazareth previewed the cross to the young Jesus and what was yet to come later in his continuing life’s journey. To be continued . . .



This Thursday millions of Americans will sit down with others to enjoy a time of reflection and thanksgiving. Like our Canadian cousins who celebrated Thanksgiving dinner in October, many of us will share a meal around a table with family and friends. Millions of others will sit across from strangers to partake of turkey, potatoes, and other accouterments thanks to the institutional compassion of The Salvation Army and other churches and missions. Sadly, some will eat alone or not at all.   Giving thanks has always been a hallmark of American life at this time of year since before the nation was founded. It remains tethered to the story of Native Americans and undocumented aliens (Pilgrims at Plymouth) sitting down to share a time of feast and fellowship.

The Trinity Table of Divine Fellowship & Holy Love   Icon by Andre Rublev

The beauty of Thanksgiving includes the idea of inviting others to the table. It is a special time of holiday (from the root: holy day). It is a time of hospitality and self-giving love for one another; a time of appreciation for blessings too often unnoticed and unacknowledged throughout the year. It is a time to remember the source from whom all blessing flow, the triune God of perfect unity and holy love who daily invites us to a table of divine fellowship, into the presence of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God in three persons, blessed Trinity, invites us to the table of fellowship and waits our response.  Thanks be to God!

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community-picWe are social beings easily affected by the presence of other persons – by people with whom we are not competing and with whom there are no rewards or punishment, and in fact with whom they do nothing except be passively present. One hundred and eighteen years ago, a psychologist, Norman Triplett (1898), noticed that cyclists times were faster when racing together than when racing alone against the clock. He noticed the same result with children winding string faster on a fishing reel along with others than when winding alone. Triplett, a pioneer social psychologist, is credited with the beginning of research into what eventually became social facilitation theory. The theory states that the presence of others liberates latent energy and improves performance. That’s not always the case. Sometime the presence of other diminishes performance. Later studies showed that the presence of others arouses dominant responses enhancing easy behaviors and impairing difficult ones.

What’s important is that we are social beings who are impacted for better or worse in the presence of others. When there are no scales or physical measures for something, we turn to the assessment of others to understand its nature or value. Others provide support in the way of information, judgment, and insight. In the presence of others we look for a consensus of opinion and wisdom that offers clarity on what’s real and true. This is what Paul may be referring to when he uses the phrase in Ephesians 3:18, “ . . . together with all the saints . . ..” He writes,

“I pray that you . . . may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide, long, high, and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge. . .”

 apostolic-teachingTo truly know the love of God is not merely an academic, theoretical idea or engaging proposition. It is more. It is to have knowledge that surpasses knowledge, a knowledge of the heart. Such knowledge comes from being in the presence of the saints, others who walk, and talk, and love one another in holiness. This is the “what” of Paul’s prayer. Then he prays the “why” – “that you (too) may be filled (like all the saints) to the measure (Christ) of the fullness of God,” in other words that you may be holy; holy in the presence of all the saints with complete knowledge of the magnitude of God’s love in true holiness and righteousness. All the saints increasingly know the extent of God’s love.   In the fellowship of saints, it is clear, knowable, visible, obvious in who they are and how they live in loving God with a profound love; loving others in ways that are immeasurably more than one might imagine (Eph. 3:20), all to the glory of God.

Power to love, together with all the saints, is the nature of social holiness!

The Swamp or the River

The center of Christian discipline is this:  “The love of Christ constrains me,” or “narrows me.  The difference between a swamp and a river is that a river has banks, and a swamp has none – it spreads over everything. Civilizations organize themselves around rivers.  Some people are like rivers.  They know where they want to go, and they confine themselves to the banks that lead to the goal. But some people are swamps: they spread over everything; their minds are so open they cannot hold a conviction; they are everything and nothing. . . Paul could say, “This one thing I do.”  They can say, “These forty things I dabble in.”  Paul left a mark.  They leave a blur.    –    E. Stanley Jones

river-banksLike the banks of the river, when we commit ourselves to the constraining love of Christ, such discipline occasions habits of the heart.  Such habits constrain us. Jesus’ commitment to the love of the Father resulted in three disciplined habits: 1) He read the Word of God.  Luke’s gospel (4:16) reads that it was his custom to go to the synagogue on the Sabbath where he would stand up and read the scriptures.  2) He frequently sought solitude to pray. “He went into the mountain to pray as was his custom.”  And 3) He shared what he had and what he gained through the Scriptures and prayer.  In John 17:14, Jesus says in his prayer to the Father, “I have given them your Word,” and in 17:22, “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one.”  In the life of Christ, The River of Life is one of disciplined habit. In this way, the love of Christ constrains.  If we love Him, we will exercise the disciplines of prayer, reading the Word of God, and sharing the Truth with others.

Stanley Jones says in his autobiography, A Song of Ascents,  “Long before I had discovered these three things in the Scriptures, I say this instinctively (or was I led by the Spirit or both): the deep ingrained necessity of these three simple habits. So I fixed them deep into habit; they became part of me.”

O, God our Father.  The swamp is not the place for me.  I want to move with you in the River of Life.  Your grace takes the form of constraining love.  You show me the way to my only realistic response to your great love for me.  I confess it takes time and discipline to form core habits.  I ask for more grace to strengthen my resolve to love you more and to reflect that love in the life-changing habits after the likeness of my Lord, Jesus.  Amen!

MAKE US HOLY – 1 Peter 1:3-2:3

holiness-2Recently I’ve been reflecting about the need for clarity on what the bible means by holiness.  In preparation for writing on the topic, I took another look at Dr. Timothy Tennent’s book entitled The Call To Holiness* and rediscovered the lovely hymn Make Us Holy written by his musically poetic wife, Julie Tennent. Every line is worth pondering:

You are holy – make us holy! Let our lives reflect Your name; By Your Spirit’s pow’r within us, be a sanctifying flame.  Not the work of human striving, but a change from deep within:  Redirect our core affections; free us from the bonds of sin.

You are holy – so our holy lives a shining light must be,  Purged from empty selfish living, filled with love that comes from thee.  Purged again of seed eternal, through the living Word of God;  Growing up in our salvation, tasting that the Lord is good.

You are holy, and You call us to be pure in all we do,  As your character is holy, so we would be holy, too.  Purified by true obedience, loving others from the heart;  Serving in the world with power which you Spirit does impart.  You are holy – may your church embody perfect holiness;  

May the love of Christ compel us to bring forth true righteousness. Let the strains of New Creation echo through your church today;  Sounding for the consummation of that glorious holy day.

–  Julie Tennent

The words to this beautiful song may be sung to the tune of Beecher (“Love Divine, All love excelling) or Ode To Joy (“Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee”).

*Published in The Call to Holiness: Pursuing the Heart of God for the Love of the World, by Timothy Tennent, (Franklin, Tennessee: Seedbed Publishing, 2014), pp. 73-74.


Immigrants USATo follow God at all is to follow him in being small. God not only entered this world, but came diminished and in lowliness. This is the message of When God Becomes Small by Phil Needham (Abingdon Press, 2014). This is a book worthy of a much more developed review, one yet to come. For the purpose of this note, hear Phil Needham’s voice in two paragraphs near the end of his book:

The Old Testament, prophets, gospel of Jesus, and the New Testament writers all teach us to side with those who are treated as small. As they are the ones who are vulnerable and powerless, so we become vulnerable and powerless. We come out from behind the security of our office, the power of our position, the protectiveness of the institutions with which we are identified. We risk alienating associates, neighbors, and even family. We stand with those with whom Jesus stood. We become small.

 This is not a call to large-scale social revolution, which often results in repression of a different sort. It is a call to personal courage, where we each refuse to keep our distance, refuse to overlook the overlooked, and refuse to justify our smug comfort. It is a call to claim the better part of who we are be getting beyond the fear that confines and weakens us. It is a call to shed the thick exterior of who we pretend to be and risk the compassionate center of who Jesus says, with him, we truly are.

 At this time in our culture, we have exhausted ourselves with overload and overreach. No time in our history has America been more powerful, more self-entertained, and more pampered by technology, and immersed in self-indulgent leisure. The paradox is never have we felt more lonely, lost, and longing for something that’s missing.  Rather than investing in large pursuits, and in bigger and better, greater and grander aspirations, it is time to become “big enough to become small.” It is time to come down to earth and pursue a deeper, closer, more intimate relationship with God and disenfranshied, marginalized and neglected others. It is time to become small by discovering the small in the countless small ways we value and connect with others.   It is time to especially bridge the gap between the world and those who are ignored, marginalized, poor and mistreated. When we do so, we find the blessing of their presence where God is present. There we find ourselves in the presence of God with whom there is no better company.





us-presidential-sealAre you happy with the choice we have  to elect the next president on Tuesday, November 8, 2016?  Do the candidates reflect what you had hoped for in the candidates?

In the nation’s attempt to elect a new president, it is clear that the overarching characteristics we hope for in president are twofold: competence and character. Regarding competence, it is natural to look for evidence in a candidate’s history of past performance. Experience counts especially the kind of experience that matches the demands of the President’s job description. On the other hand, character weighs in calculating the acceptability of a candidate. Rarely do candidates run for office with a history void of flaws and mistakes (sin). Often the voting public exercises a level of common grace in response to the shortfalls in character for both candidates, mistakes that the media inevitably uncovers and makes public.

For many authentic Christians, competence matters, but character matters equally if not more. By authentic I mean Christians who are repentant about their sin, regenerated (born again), reconciled, and in continual state of obedient faith and restoration by the Holy Spirit to the likeness of Christ. This is in contrast to nominal Christians who John Wesley called “practical atheists,” who get to church from time to time, but live the same life as most others living with indifference to sin. For authentic Christians, character ultimately means progress in living in ways that are pleasing to God and living in holiness of heart and life. Authentic Christians look for evidence that a candidate’s life reflects a history of character, and hopefully of growth in grace and the likeness of Christ. Many would say that this sets the bar too high, but does it really? In putting forth a candidate in the primaries, and in knowing how power corrupts, should not both parties set the bar high for the highest elected position of power in the land and possibly in the world?

Could we hope that political parties would embrace such a standard of character in the future? Does that sound impossible? While it is not impossible, it is highly improbable in a nation that is realistically described now as in a “Post-Christian” era. But is it an essential standard for authentic Christians. The answer must be yes. Can authentic Christians be the leven in the bread that lifts the bar and sets a higher standard, one that acknowledges that candidates will not be perfect in skill and abilities, understanding, knowledge, or health, but that they will be candidates with observable love for God and for all others, mature in faith, hope, and charity; that they will be grounded in humility and understand that as a nation we are not sufficient in ourselves to solve our problems or to achieve our hopes and desires; to understand that without the Spirit of God, we can do nothing.  Such humility is a right judgment of self by a president, an awareness of one’s sinfulness and helplessness, and of human nature, that such judgment extends beyond self to the appreciation of the sad state of the culture.  Such a leader functioning at the level of the nation’s president implies humility and lack of hubris and disregards honor of self because he or she knows him/herself. Such an individual neither desires nor values the applause he or she knows they don’t deserve.  It implies a profound love for God and all others and that all honor and glory goes to God who is able to raise up servants to do his good pleasure for the nation and the world.


It is not too soon to begin praying for the primary process of both parties that begins three years from now when the nation is back in the primary process of choosing candidates for the 2020 presidential election. But pray too, that in the next four years, the God of forgiveness, reconciliation, restoration, and holy character will shape the clay of the next President’s life who is soon be elected on the second Tuesday of November, 2016.