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Certainty in Uncertain Times

This post was written by Mel Lawrenz on Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014 and is filed in Christian Thought.

One of the boldest things any human being can do is to stand in front of someone else and say, “This is what I believe.” We listen, whether we are inclined to believe the same thing or not.

Belief in God and in the truths of God is a distinctive experience. It is to say, “I have come to a certain conviction. I have listened, I have watched, I have thought about it. I now believe I know something I did not before. And it isn’t so much that I have chosen to believe as that belief has been born in me by a reality greater than myself. I have a sense of certitude, and my next steps in life will be different for it. I am carried along by this truth.”

Many people today have heard that belief in this sense is not possible anymore, that we know better than that now. To say that you absolutely believe in something or someone is to be certain where there is no certainty. It is to risk being a social pariah because to say you absolutely know something will prove anti-social to at least somebody along the way. One thing is certain, these people say, be suspicious of certainty. And they are quite certain about this uncertainty.

The Thing We Believe is Larger Than Ourselves

But belief is not about us. The true believer doesn’t focus on himself, saying, I believe this. Rather, he or she says, I believe this. The more focus there is on the experience of believing, the greater the risk that we can believe something just for the sake of believing.

Belief is not just about knowing; it is about trusting. True faith in God is one of the most intimate personal states a person can find himself or herself in. It is not just about gathering and processing information, otherwise a computer would be a “believer” of sorts. Because there is so much information to process, so many voices to listen to, so many topics that get thrown in our faces everyday, we use up most of our “belief energy” just sorting it all out. In the contemporary world, believing becomes calculating, and drawing a sum. We forget that the most important belief in life is a decision not about what, but about whom. Faith says, this God I can trust.

When we believe, when we trust, we are the most human we ever are, because we are actively connecting with our Creator, anchoring ourselves in his unchangeable nature. Knowing and trusting a friend or a spouse projects us into a world larger than ourselves—and how much more when we know and trust the God who made us and loves us with an irrepressible love.

But whom should we believe? And why? Which God? Which religion? Which doctrine?

Stunned by the Unexpected

Have you ever had the experience of being outdoors somewhere, turning a corner, and being stunned by a scene you were not expecting, nor could have imagined?

Years ago my wife and I were hiking in a beautiful place in the Scottish highlands called Glen Nevis. The narrow green valley was pleasant as we followed a stream, looking up the sides of the mossy rocky sides of the mountains. But then we turned a corner, far out enough on the trail to be alone, and the valley lay out like a green carpet with the biggest mountain at the end and a single silvery ribbon waterfall tracing down the mountain. We realized that the sound of the waterfall had been slowly growing in volume as we walked the path, but we weren’t expecting that thin tower of water.

Another time, when we took our children on a family trip to the Grand Canyon, I didn’t realize how close we were. The land lay flat along the road we followed. Signs read, “Grand Canyon,” but I couldn’t see anything grand at all. We saw a parking spot at a viewing station, pulled the car over, and went to the railing. There below us was an amazing alien world. A vast sunken cavity in which people that looked like specks hiked along the ridges and shelves going deeper into the crevasse. It was like stumbling into a whole other world. One of my kids expressed astonishment, summing it all up in the simplest way, “Man, that’s big.” I couldn’t resist. “Yes, maybe that’s why they call it the Grand Canyon!” They looked at me with that look that said, “Yes, this is the kind of comment we teenagers have to put up with on family vacations.”

Time and again people responded to Jesus’ words with speechless astonishment. Perhaps as they listened to Jesus’ teaching, they occasionally found themselves turning a corner and stunned by a vista of reality that was bigger and grander than they had imagined. Not everyone who heard Jesus became believers because we all have personal agendas that can hold us in disbelief. But everyone who did hear had to grapple with the power of what he said, and they had to decide what to do with the authoritative voice with which he spoke—an authority that did not come from a booming microphone or spotlights or banners, but from the ring of truth in the words themselves, backed up by every action he performed.

The gospel writers make it clear that one of the outstanding features of Jesus’ ministry was that he freely and naturally exercised this authority. People sensed that they were under the immediate influence of God. Jesus’ words struck at the heart; they were clear, strong, unequivocal, simple, and mysterious. They both wounded and healed, and when they did wound, they offered immediate healing as well. His words still stick in people’s minds and keep moving across the landscape of history like a cyclone. That’s why almost everybody, including even proponents of other religions, show respect for the thunder and lightning of Jesus’ teaching.

Respect and Response

But showing respect is one thing; responding is another. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus talked about one man who built a house on a rock foundation and another whose house rested on a bed of unstable sand. The house-on-sand person hears Jesus’ words only, whereas the house-on-rock person hears and practices. Respect plus response. It was right after this tale of two builders that Matthew mentions the people’s astonishment at Jesus’ authority. The people were not saying, “Did you hear what this fellow is trying to assert?” They were swept up in the power of the Word himself. His authority carried them, and it carries us still. It summons us not just to listen, but to act.

House building is a metaphor for life. Christ does not assert authority so that he can push his weight around. God doesn’t impose commands so that he can have a bevy of mindless followers. His is an act of grace. These authoritative words come to us because God knows there is so much we need to learn about life. Ignorance may not be a sin, but it is an extraordinarily dangerous way to live.

When someone asks, “Why should I believe what Christianity teaches?” or, “Why should I believe the specific things taught about personal ethics, and life after death, and God’s providence in history, and angels, and failure?” the answer he or she deserves is that followers of Jesus Christ believe such things (knowing and trusting) because they believe they have heard an authoritative voice on the matters. Christ summons, and the oracles of prophets and the writings of apostles are Holy Scripture—the exhalation of God’s own Spirit.

I participated once in a discussion with someone about psychic knowledge, and the person commented, “I could believe that.” I wondered, what does she mean, “I could believe that”? Thinking, “I could believe that,” is a short step from “I want to believe that,” which is one more short step from “I choose to believe that.” “But why believe something just because you think you could?” I wondered. Isn’t the question, should I believe that?

That is the reason why we need authority.

I could believe that once there was a land called Atlantis; the romanticism and mystery of it is titillating. I could believe it just because I want to believe it. I could believe that intelligent beings from other galaxies are living in my community right now. (I can even think of a few likely names.) I could believe that cancer is caused by cold winters because someone wrote a book claiming it once. But what should I believe? Shouldn’t my beliefs line up with reality?

Frighteningly, many people today don’t care whether their beliefs line up with reality. If their beliefs have a pleasing or useful effect in life, then they go ahead and hold onto them. They don’t worry about whether they are grounded in truth or not. It’s too much of a hassle to conform beliefs to the form of reality, and certainly inconvenient to risk conflict with someone else’s beliefs. Besides, these people ask, is there any such thing as truth, anyway?

But we all know, really, that we can’t live that way. We don’t live that way. When we receive a bank statement on our accounts, we assume that the transactions line up with the reality of our actual deposits and withdrawals. In fact, we assume that they line up precisely, that the balance is not a whimsical number a bank official decided to put on the statement. When someone is on trial for murder we assume that the careful process of deliberation will produce a verdict that is true. If a doctor tells you that he believes a growth in your abdomen is completely benign and thus does not require surgery, you want to know that this is not an arbitrary opinion on his part because his schedule is too booked to fit in another surgery. You don’t want the doctor thinking, “I could believe it’s benign.”

But, some will argue, it is different with religious beliefs because they are not as objective as legal and medical and financial matters. We shouldn’t go looking for religious authority because no one should dare call anybody else wrong or have the audacity to say that you have found spiritual truth.

But if we’re honest, we’ve got to say there really is a Creator or there isn’t.

Says Who?—Says God

The issue of authority always comes back to the matter of “who” rather than “what.” Who is this oncologist I’m going to see? Who is this political pundit offering a comprehensive analysis of conflicts in the Middle East? Who is this person asking me to vote for him or her for political office?

Do you remember when you were a kid and someone told you something you resisted or doubted? How often we would reply,“Says who?” And we especially said, “Says who?” when it was someone asserting some kind of authority over us. It always comes back to the same place: “Who?” Almost anybody can be right once in a while, which is why the search for truth isn’t based on a what. As someone once said, even a broken clock is correct twice a day.

But if you find the right “who,” the person who is right not just by accident or by passing fair judgment, but because truth is at the core of that person’s being, then you’ve found proper authority in life.

Now here is the best part about acknowledging God as the absolute authority over all matters of truth: God pulls all the pieces of belief together. The reality of God, of the human race, of the natural world, of good and evil, of purpose, all fits together into a house you can live in. If you pick up a book about French or about maintaining your car or about building an airplane, you assume page 12 will not contradict page 98. One part of the book will not deny what another part has asserted. If there is one author, with one intent and consistent knowledge, then the body of information he offers is a harmonious whole.

Christianity does not offer bits and scraps of disconnected truths or mere sentiments. If one thing is true—really, unalterably true—then it fits with all the other truths we pick up as pieces along the way, and an amazing picture emerges. And this knowledge does not contradict scientific knowledge. A good astrophysicist and a good theologian are really doing the same thing: passionately seeking to discover the way things really are. What they pick up along the way may seem sometimes to pull in different directions, but ultimately what is true is true. And it all fits.

A Prayer: Lord, help me to trust that what you say is absolutely true. Allow me in the weeks to come to have an experience with your words in Scripture that instructs, informs, inspires, and guides me. May your word be a bright light shining on my path. And when I, in my stubborn way, think that I know better than you, please guide me back to the safe harbor of your truth.

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July 2 Independence Day?

This post was written by Mel Lawrenz on Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014 and is filed in Real Life.

According to John Adams, July 2 marked the birth of a brand new nation, the United States of America. Two days later, July 4, the Declaration of Independence was signed, but on July 2 the Congress had voted to approve the independence of the thirteen colonies from Britain.

Writing to his beloved wife, Abigail, John Adams wrote:

“I am apt to believe that [July 2] will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shows, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”

So, go ahead and tell you’re boss you’re taking off work today, to commemorate the birth of a nation on July 2, 1776.

 

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On Reverence and Respect

This post was written by Mel Lawrenz on Friday, June 27th, 2014 and is filed in Christian Thought.

If you are looking for a set of values that will give dignity to your life, that will connect you with the life of God, and that will work at a practical level, you need not look any further than these: reverence and respect.
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A Better World

This post was written by Mel Lawrenz on Thursday, June 19th, 2014 and is filed in Christian Thought.

How would the world be different if leaders were wise enough to value this?

“The wisdom that comes from above is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere” (James 3:17).

• “Pure” means being relatively free of mixed motives.
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The Plight of Christians in Iraq

This post was written by Mel Lawrenz on Wednesday, June 18th, 2014 and is filed in Real Life.

When we hear the phrase “land of the Bible” we think of Israel for obvious reasons. But many of the key turning points in the story of God in the Old Testament take place elsewhere, especially in a geographical area we know today as Iraq.
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The Bad Part of Me

This post was written by Mel Lawrenz on Monday, June 9th, 2014 and is filed in Christian Thought.

by Mel Lawrenz

[Op-Ed in The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Sunday, June 8, 2014]

Of all the shocking details about the two 12-year-old girls who allegedly stabbed a friend 19 times — the calculation, the savagery, the lunacy — the one part of the account that struck me the most is when the girls reportedly dragged their bleeding friend into the bushes and left her to die there.

No realization that they had made a terrible mistake. No change of heart. No remorse. Police said one of the girls said of the choice to abandon their friend: “The bad part of me wanted her to die; the good part of me wanted her to live.”
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“Knowing Him,” an Easter Devotional

This post was written by Mel Lawrenz on Wednesday, March 26th, 2014 and is filed in Easter Devotional.

 

We will be sending out a daily email devotional, starting this Sunday, leading up to Easter Sunday. This Easter devotional is called “Knowing Him,” and is based on the premise of Philippians 3:10, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection of the dead.”

The readings will get into the story of Jesus’ last week, including the trial, crucifixion, and resurrection. We will also explore the meaning of forgiveness, atonement, redemption, and other things Jesus accomplished for us.

Sign up HERE [not necessary if you are already on the email list for The Brook Network].

P.S. You have permission to copy and post these readings on your own blog, send them to your own email list, or whatever. Free and open access. Pastors—use them for your church. Bloggers—use some or all 22 of them for your site. Bible study leaders—send them to your group. Please use complete text, with attribution and reference to www.thebrooknetwork.org, please.

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The Locust Effect

This post was written by Mel Lawrenz on Monday, February 3rd, 2014 and is filed in Christian Thought.

(One of the truly great examples of people putting faith into action in a big way is the work of International Justice Mission and its founder, Gary Haugen. Every interaction I have had with their staff has been truly encouraging. 600 brave advocates work today around the world on behalf of people who cannot speak up for themselves. Today Gary’s new book, which holds the potential of being a game-changer on the topics of poverty and violence, is out. All author royalties go to the work of IJM. And this week only, $20 is being donated to the work of IJM with every copy sold.)

Reading The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence seemed like an exercise in moral obedience.


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How Does Forgiveness Work?

This post was written by Mel Lawrenz on Saturday, February 1st, 2014 and is filed in Christian Thought.

Some years back, after a young husband and father shot five young girls dead, the news coming out of the Amish community of West Nickels Mines headlined a single word: forgiveness.

This word caught the attention of the media, but what does “forgive” mean?


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God is Not a Watchmaker

This post was written by Mel Lawrenz on Tuesday, January 14th, 2014 and is filed in Christian Thought.

Some people have a hard time believing in any form of providence. They may acknowledge a creator or designer, but one who is now no longer directly involved in the creation. They don’t see a gigantic hand reaching down from the clouds, or they believe that most of what happens in life can be traced to natural cause and effect. God may be a watchmaker who produced an impressive machine, but now those gears and springs are clicking through their motions on their own.
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Thoughts for a New Year

This post was written by Mel Lawrenz on Monday, January 6th, 2014 and is filed in Christian Thought, Everything New.

It is the first week of January and I find myself wondering what this new year will bring. One more trip around the sun: 8,760 hours. Last year most of those hours turned out as I expected. But a few thousand did not. That’s where the excitement comes in—and the worry.

On many coins and city gates of the old Roman Empire appears a bearded figure with two faces poised in opposite directions.
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Christmas

This post was written by Mel Lawrenz on Tuesday, December 24th, 2013 and is filed in Christmas Joy.

[After Christmas, new articles in The Brook Letter by Mel Lawrenz: sign up.]

The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. -Luke 2:20

At the birth of Jesus, amidst the dirt and straw of a stable, millennia of promises, prophecies, and hopes were fulfilled. In the birth of a child, something that happens every single day all over the world, something happened that would change the world. Everything the faithful were anticipating took shape. It was the alignment of all that was meant to be. But the birth of Jesus has that power and significance only if he really is who he said he was.
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Eve

This post was written by Mel Lawrenz on Monday, December 23rd, 2013 and is filed in Christmas Joy.

While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born. – Luke 2:6

On the night before Jesus was born, the shepherds would have seen the night sky the way they had seen it thousands of times before. That was a quiet night, in stark contrast to the following night, when an angel would appear with “the glory of the Lord,” announcing the birth of the child—then join with a great company of heavenly beings proclaiming glory and peace.
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Beginning

This post was written by Mel Lawrenz on Sunday, December 22nd, 2013 and is filed in Christmas Joy.

This is post #23 in the Christmas devotional “Christmas Joy.”Read more devotionals by Mel Lawrenz.

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. – 1 John 1:1-2

Beginning. The Beginning. How much we all want to know about the beginning of all things, in order to understand the now of all things, and to pursue the way things are supposed to be in our lives today. The original design must be the ideal, the way things ought to be. The Bible’s opening words: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” delineate between a time in which there was only God, and a new time in which his magnificent creation began (Gen. 1:1).


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Light

This post was written by Mel Lawrenz on Saturday, December 21st, 2013 and is filed in Christmas Joy.

After Christmas, new articles in The Brook Letter by Mel Lawrenz: sign up.

For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel. – Luke 2:30-32

The winter solstice on December 21, the darkest day of the year, means for many of us who live halfway between the equator and the North Pole, that we have breakfast when it is still dark outside, and that by supper, the sun has long set. That slide toward the shortest day of the year seems like sinking into a black hole. No wonder people in ancient cultures celebrated the days when the sun began to return. The prophet Malachi spoke of the healing power of light: “The sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings” (Malachi 4:2).
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Flesh

This post was written by Mel Lawrenz on Friday, December 20th, 2013 and is filed in Christmas Joy.

How does “Spiritual Influence” work? Take the Survey.

The word became flesh, and made his dwelling among us. – John 1:14

Not only did the Son of God become a baby, but also he became flesh. Divinity joined to corporeal muscle, blood and bones. In this humbling of the eternal Son of God, the Word who was with God from the beginning and was God, chose to begin in the way all flesh does—as a newborn.

But what does “flesh” really mean? Doesn’t it sound a bit crass?
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Star

This post was written by Mel Lawrenz on Thursday, December 19th, 2013 and is filed in Christmas Joy.

This is post #20 in the Christmas devotional “Christmas Joy.”Read more devotionals by Mel Lawrenz.

They went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. – Matthew 2:9-10

In Psalm 19, David gives voice to the stars:

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. (Vss. 1-4)

If you have ever stood outside at night and looked up at the canopy of stars, away from the city, away from noise, you may have seen that the stars have a message. In silence they speak, and their voice is thunderous.


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Magi

This post was written by Mel Lawrenz on Thursday, December 19th, 2013 and is filed in Christmas Joy.

[After Christmas, new articles in The Brook Letter by Mel Lawrenz: sign up.]

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” – Matt. 2:1-2

Mary and Joseph stayed in Bethlehem many months after the birth of Jesus, yet we know nothing about that time. How was Mary treating her baby, knowing she would have to submit to him as her Lord? How much attention were they getting from the townspeople? What were they telling people, if anything? We simply don’t know. But we do know that one day some travelers from the east—maybe Persia or Mesopotamia (the regions of modern day Iran or Iraq)—suddenly showed up in Bethlehem, claiming to have been guided to a new king by a star.


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Prince

This post was written by Mel Lawrenz on Tuesday, December 17th, 2013 and is filed in Christmas Joy.

Learn how “spiritual influence” works. See the survey.

And he will be called…Prince of Peace – Isaiah 9:6

In ancient times, princes, whether they desired it or not, often became warriors. Rulers of nations may talk about peace, but nothing is more elusive than peace. And so, when Isaiah talked about a child who would be born, a son who would be given, who would be called “Prince of Peace,” it sounded like high rhetoric, wishful thinking. Could it ever possibly happen?


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Everlasting Father

This post was written by Mel Lawrenz on Monday, December 16th, 2013 and is filed in Christmas Joy.

This is post #17 in the Christmas devotional “Christmas Joy.” Want to read more devotionals by Mel Lawrenz?

And he will be called…Everlasting Father. -Isaiah 9:6

What a remarkable string of names in Isaiah 9:6! Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Now, these were radical statements indeed, and they described the one who was coming to rule heaven and earth. A coming ruler might—if he were an ordinary ruler—simply assert his authority and prerogatives as sovereign. As we well know, a king is one who has the power because he has an army, and who has wealth because he controls the resources of his realm. That is the way of earthly rulers. But Isaiah also spoke of a ruler whom people would look to in far more personal terms: “Father.”
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Mighty God

This post was written by Mel Lawrenz on Sunday, December 15th, 2013 and is filed in Christmas Joy.

This is post #16 in the Christmas devotional “Christmas Joy.” Want to read more devotionals by Mel Lawrenz?

And he will be called…Mighty God. – Isaiah 9:6

In the Old Testament, some of the prophecies about Christ are mysterious statements. They were so bold and so large that they were treasured through the generations, until they were fulfilled and finally understood. Isaiah’s oracle about a son who would be born—Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace, and all the rest—was one of those landmark prophecies. In that moment of inspiration, Isaiah revealed he would be Mighty God.


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Government

This post was written by Mel Lawrenz on Saturday, December 14th, 2013 and is filed in Christmas Joy.

See “A Call for Wisdom in Washington.”

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders…and of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. – Isaiah 9:6-7

Government. Does that word strike a positive note in you, or negative note?  The word has good and bad connotations. Over the centuries, many corrupt governments run by greedy and power-hungry people have imposed tyranny rather than justice. Their form of order is more often a form of chaos.


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Counselor

This post was written by Mel Lawrenz on Saturday, December 14th, 2013 and is filed in Christmas Joy.

This is post #14 in the Christmas devotional “Christmas Joy.” Past days HERE.

Mel Lawrenz is Minister at Large for Elmbrook Church and directs The Brook Network.

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. -Isaiah 9:6

“What is the baby’s name?” The people in Bethlehem who had heard of a baby born in a stable must have stopped by to talk to Mary or Joseph. Mary and Joseph voiced the name they themselves had not chosen: Jesus. But hundreds of years earlier, other names had already been announced for the Anointed One. Among them, Isaiah spoke of one who would be called Wonderful Counselor.
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Magnify

This post was written by Mel Lawrenz on Thursday, December 12th, 2013 and is filed in Christmas Joy.

This is post #13 in the Christmas devotional “Christmas Joy.”

After Christmas, new articles in The Brook Letter by Mel Lawrenz: sign up.

My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. -Luke 2:46-47

One of the worst things that can happen to a person is to live with a shrunken understanding of God, a shrunken soul. This is the perfect reason to take Christmas seriously, as our best hope for our minds and hearts to be enlarged with God’s greatness.

Mary’s response to the message that she would bear the savior was a remarkable song of praise, sometimes known as the Magnificat (Luke 2:46-55). It begins, “My soul magnifies the Lord,” which means that because God’s announcement opened her heart him in a way that she couldn’t have imagined, her soul was beginning to grasp the bigness of God.


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Immanuel

This post was written by Mel Lawrenz on Wednesday, December 11th, 2013 and is filed in Christmas Joy.

Learn how “spiritual influence” works. See the survey.

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.” -Matt. 1:22-23

My wife and I have only seriously lost track of our daughter once. We were walking through a crowded tourist town and the streets were lined with shops. It was evening and the crowds were dense. Suddenly, I noticed that neither my wife nor I had our eight-year-old daughter by the hand. We spun around, unable to spot her. With candy stores beckoning children indoors, and winding side streets all around, she could be anywhere.
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Bethlehem

This post was written by Mel Lawrenz on Wednesday, December 11th, 2013 and is filed in Christmas Joy.

This is post #11 in the Christmas devotional “Christmas Joy.” Christmas Joy as eBook HERE.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. -Luke 2:4

Bethlehem was like any other town in the hills of Judea. Yet, it was the birthplace of the greatest king of Israel, David, and one thousand years later, the Messiah.

How does such honor come to the ordinary? Were the people of this town particularly worthy? Was there some great strategic advantage to where it lay? Were the people of Bethlehem politically savvy, having a long history of producing great leaders? Not at all. The little town of Bethlehem was in the shadow of great Jerusalem just six miles to the north. Even the meaning of Bethlehem, “house of bread,” is unremarkable.


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Christ

This post was written by Mel Lawrenz on Monday, December 9th, 2013 and is filed in Christmas Joy.

Mel Lawrenz is Minister at Large at Elmbrook Church and directs The Brook Network.

Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. -Luke 2:11

Some people think that “Christ” is Jesus’ last name. Jesus Christ, like Joe Johnson or Audrey Smith. If you have thought that, don’t feel bad. It is just evidence that over the centuries our understanding of Jesus as the Christ has become so solid in our thinking that we don’t think of “Jesus” without “Christ.”
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Jesus

This post was written by Mel Lawrenz on Sunday, December 8th, 2013 and is filed in Christmas Joy.

This is post #9 in the Christmas devotional “Christmas Joy.”Read more devotionals by Mel Lawrenz.

She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. – Luke 2:7

Sometimes a name is just a name, and sometimes a name captures someone perfectly. The ancients inclined to choose names carefully, so as to make a lifelong statement about a person’s identity. “Jesus” is a name so familiar to us, that we easily forget that it was a name with an extraordinary significance. The name an angel announced should be given to Mary and Joseph’s new child. And what a name! “Jesus” means “the Lord saves.”
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Manger

This post was written by Mel Lawrenz on Saturday, December 7th, 2013 and is filed in Christmas Joy.

She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. – Luke 2:7

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Where is the first place a baby is placed after it emerges from the mother’s womb? Today we use hyper-sterilized blankets and sanitized cribs. A Plexiglas dome, if necessary. All precautions go toward minimizing the germs the child may come into contact with.

But Mary laid Jesus in the feeding trough for an animal. The Good Shepherd took refuge that night in the sheep’s manger, and when the shepherds came to see what was announced to them, how stunned they must have been.
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Kingdom

This post was written by Mel Lawrenz on Friday, December 6th, 2013 and is filed in Christmas Joy.

This is post #7 in the Christmas devotional “Christmas Joy.” Previous days HERE. Christmas Joy as Kindle book HERE.

He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end. -Luke 1:32-33

Christmas represents a beginning that only makes sense if we comprehend the end. The beginning is a child—a humble birth in an earthy stable. But the end… The end is an explosion of divine glory bright enough for the whole world to see—like the birth of new star. The end is a kingdom. Jesus came to forward the kingdom of God, to open people’s eyes to the power of God, to make it the central reality of their lives. “His kingdom will never end.”
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Joseph

This post was written by Mel Lawrenz on Thursday, December 5th, 2013 and is filed in Christmas Joy.

This is post #6 in the Christmas devotional Christmas Joy. Receive Christmas Joy via email.

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. -Matthew 1:18-19

We know so little about Joseph. He is only mentioned in the birth and childhood stories of Jesus. He was named after an ancient patriarch who used his success in Egypt to save his family and a future nation. Joseph was a carpenter who lived in the town of Nazareth. His ancestors were from Bethlehem, so when a Roman ruler, Caesar Augustus, wanted a census, Joseph had to go back to Bethlehem, even though his wife was well along in her pregnancy.


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Shepherd

This post was written by Mel Lawrenz on Wednesday, December 4th, 2013 and is filed in Christmas Joy.

This is post #5 in the Christmas devotional “Christmas Joy.” To get via email, sign up HERE.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby keeping watch over their flocks at night. – Luke 2:8

It may seem like a stretch of the imagination, but try it anyway: If you were God, and could announce the arrival of the savior of humanity, would you send your messengers to some shepherds out in the fields, as they whiled away their nighttime watch? Why not instead send angels to an assembly of the religious council in Jerusalem? Why not to the megalomaniac King Herod? How about Caesar? Wouldn’t that be a night of work—to blow opens the doorways of society, to change everything with a few simple words.
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Virgin

This post was written by Mel Lawrenz on Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013 and is filed in Christmas Joy.

This is post #4 in the Christmas devotional “Christmas Joy.” Want to read more devotionals by Mel Lawrenz?

God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus.” -Luke 1:26-31

Can any of us fathom the immense amount of faith Mary was called on to have? She was young. She was a virgin. She was probably expecting to lead no more than an ordinary life in a no name Galilean town.

Then the message came from heaven.

To be visited by an angel would be miraculous in itself. But the words! Those powerful, surreal words: “The Lord is with you.” Certainly that is true for all of us, generally speaking, but in this case the emphasis was: The Lord is with you, Mary. The creator of the universe has handpicked “you who are highly favored”. As with Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Ruth and David, God had chosen Mary to be his instrument, to do his work in the world. A high favor indeed.
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Angel

This post was written by Mel Lawrenz on Monday, December 2nd, 2013 and is filed in Christmas Joy.

An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said: “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” – Matthew 1:20-21

Angel: 1). A spiritual being believed to act as an attendant, agent, or messenger of God (Oxford English Dictionary).

What did Mary see when the angel Gabriel appeared to her? What kind of being came with foreknowledge of a supernatural conception and with words that would change her identity forever? “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you” (Lk. 1:28). How would the shepherds have described the angel with the glory of the Lord shining about? How could they encapsulate “a great company of the heavenly host,” whose voices poured out a sudden tidal wave of sound, a booming chorus?: “Glory to God in the highest!” (Lk. 2:14). How would Joseph his own encounter with the angel? Or what would Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, say about their messengers? In the days leading up to the birth of Jesus, supernatural appearances and utterances were occurring like they never had before—an electric buzz of Heaven’s voices among us.
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Peace

This post was written by Mel Lawrenz on Sunday, December 1st, 2013 and is filed in Christmas Joy.

This is the second post in the devotional “Christmas Joy.” Don’t want to miss any? You can subscribe here.

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” – Luke 2:13-14

Peace is a noble aspiration at any time. In times of war or in times of harmony. When you find yourself at odds with someone, or when you are feeling pretty good about your relationships. When you feel in harmony with God, or when you feel a discord. It is always important to pursue peace.
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Joy

This post was written by Mel Lawrenz on Sunday, December 1st, 2013 and is filed in Christmas Joy.

This is the first post in the devotional “Christmas Joy.” Don’t want to miss any? You can subscribe here.

But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is Christ the Lord.” - Luke 2:10-11

Great joy? Is it almost too much to hope for?

Where did all the Christmas joy go? How did things get so complicated? So rushed? So squeezed and cluttered? A non-stop buzz of Christmas lights and weary shoppers, boisterous television specials and pleading children. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can choose to step aside, step into a quieter moment, and read the angel’s words that came on the night that changed the world: “I bring you news of great joy!”


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A Prayer for Thanksgiving

This post was written by Mel Lawrenz on Thursday, November 28th, 2013 and is filed in Christian Thought.

In America this week we celebrate Thanksgiving Day. I have always treasured this holiday because its intention is so clear and so right. It is not so cluttered with commercialism and busyness. It recalls the harvest of fields, and invites us to look for a harvest of God’s goodness in our own lives.


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Christmas Joy

This post was written by Mel Lawrenz on Saturday, November 23rd, 2013 and is filed in Christmas Joy.

Hundreds of millions of people will be preparing for Christmas in the days to come. But how will we prepare our hearts and minds?

Thought for today: The Christmas carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” mentions “the hopes and fears of all the years.” The coming (“advent”) of Jesus strengthens our hope and gives us ways to deal with our fears.
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New Heaven and New Earth

This post was written by Mel Lawrenz on Thursday, October 31st, 2013 and is filed in Christian Thought.

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.” Revelation 21:1

The popular conception of heaven is something I don’t want to have anything to do with.

Close your eyes. Picture heaven. What do you see, or not see? Are the images based on stories or movies, or on what Scripture actually says?

Whoever thought it was a good idea to depict heaven as the complete negation of everything good that we know in this life should be made to stand waist-deep in a cloud for ten years and see how he likes it.
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International Center Open Forum

This post was written by Mel Lawrenz on Tuesday, October 15th, 2013 and is filed in Real Life.

Elmbrook Church is pleased to host 18 Christian leaders from 12 different countries for the 2013 session of the Elmbrook International Center.
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