Dinosaurs and Angels: The Shepherds and Fear.

So this is a video from a Japanese prank show, but I don’t think you’ll need to understand the language to understand what is happening.

The thing I love about this video is that even though, cognitively, this guy knows dinosaurs went extinct millions of years ago, and the chances that somehow a T Rex made it to today, and happens to be in Japan in an office building are not great, in the face of the terror of a Rogue Dinosaur in an office building chasing him down: all logic, all rationality, completely disappears. That initial impression was enough to scare the daylights out of that guy.

He’s scared because this was unexpected, amazing. Threatening. Potentially powerful and dangerous. Something he had never seen before. And something that was coming straight for him.

We’re often scared of things we’ve never seen before.

I, for example, as a five year old was absolutely terrified of my aunt and uncle’s wall-mounted deer-head Bucky. The only way I would be in the same room as Bucky was if someone put a sheet over him. Bucky couldn’t do anything to me, but there was just something so strange, so imposing about him, this dead deer bust, with these huge antlers, and that cold, black stare. I’d never seen anything like it before, and I just couldn’t take it. And so Bucky got covered up. Hidden. The fear was avoided at all costs.

And this is how most of us structure our lives. We think “fear is bad,” or at least, uncontrolled fear is bad. We’ll pay money to be scared by movies, haunted houses, and amusement parks, but then we turn around and we lie to our kids and to ourselves, thinking we can decide when and where we are afraid.

We tell ourselves there’s nothing real that we need to be afraid of in this world because we want to control fear, decide what we would like to scare us and how. Those other fears, the real fears, those questions and uncertainties, those threats and thoughts that keep us up at night, those are the things we try to control.

There’s an Emily Dickinson quote: “To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else.” And it would seem we’ve distanced ourselves from those startling aspects of life. We were made to fear something. We should fear something.

But what? Are we supposed to be afraid of everything? Nothing? What should we fear? And then, what do we do about this fear? Hide? Defeat it? What do we do in the face of fear?

When the angels appear to the shepherds in that field on the night Jesus was born, those shepherds had to deal with these big questions.

It’s not like these are meek, timid men. But when those angels appear to them, they are terrified. I like how the King James version says these shepherds were “sore afraid.” They were so afraid, it hurt. This was not routine, this was not normal, this was not a common human experience. This was terrifying.

But the angel says: Do not be afraid! This angel gives them marching orders; he sends them off on a mission. And even more angels join in, worshipping God, making the whole event even more surreal and overwhelming than it was before. “Glory to God in the Highest! Peace on Earth! Good will to men!”

And then, they’re gone.

Most of us are pretty familiar with this story, but let’s think about this: what would you have done in this situation? These men were sore afraid. They just saw the most terrifying, awesome thing they have ever seen in their entire lives. They saw a glimpse of God and his greatness with their own eyes, and it brought them to their knees.

That is life-altering stuff.

They could have been paralyzed by fear. They could have stayed put, hid away from this fear, pretended it didn’t happen, or tried to forget. They could have run away, avoided this frightening scary thing at any cost. They could have turned back to their sheep, shaken, but happy the ordeal was over.

But they don’t. They listen, and they go. They go and they see. They go to Bethlehem, and they see Jesus.

They had reason to be afraid. They were supposed to be afraid. God is something to be afraid of. But God also tells them: “Do not be afraid!” And they aren’t. Their fear becomes reverence, awe, and adoration. They are the first people besides Mary and Joseph to see the Savior of the world, Jesus Christ.

Fear can be good.

The shepherds’ fear becomes the thing that changes their lives forever. They know God had something much bigger for them than their ordinary, everyday lives, their usual routine, the things they were familiar with. And they were changed forever.

Yet how often do we fear God, and then allow this fear to stop us from embracing Him? How often to we avoid Him because of who he is, and what he represents? To paraphrase CS Lewis, like Aslan the lion, God is not “safe.” He is good, but not safe. How often does our fear of God stop us from following Him?

We would like to control how much of God we see. Like covering a scary deer-head with a sheet, we’d like to cover God up. Not see Him too much. Have a non-committal relationship. A vague sense of the guy upstairs. Out there, somewhere, but distant, remote, and safe.

How often do we fall back on the usual, the routine, and safe and secure things of life, like a steady paycheck, a 40 hour workweek, a predictable job, routine relationships, sports schedules and played-out sitcom shows with laugh tracks, happy hour and too much to drink, new and shiny presents for ourselves, because we think these things are the best life has to offer?

We avoid the scariness of God, pad ourselves with the things that comfort us, and ignore the scariest, most frightening thing of all: A life apart from God.

God offers us so much more. He has revealed himself in all of his power and glory through his Son Jesus Christ. He delivers us from fear and death. But we have to listen to Him. Even if it scares us, even if we’re sore afraid. We listen, and then, like the shepherds all we have to do is say: “Let’s go. Let’s go and see this thing God has done for us.”


“Rumor has it”: Joseph and fear.

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Matthew 1:18-25  

But as [Joseph] considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

I’m an HSP, which is a much hipper way of saying I’m a “highly sensitive person.” Not physically sensitive: I inherited the Bradley family gracelessness and in the month of December have inflicted a number of nasty and yet unaccountable bruises.

I’m very sensitive to other people and emotional stuff.

Those of you who know how to get me going would say: “Yeah, well, what woman isn’t sensitive?” And, yeah, that will get me going, but I could also reply: “What woman do you know who when she was a kid was acutely aware of the possibility that her stuffed animals would figure out which ones were her favorite and was sure to organize them on her bed in such a way to avoid hurting their feelings?”

That was me between the ages of four and ten. I’m not exaggerating.

I’m also very frank and blunt, which some people mistake for insensitivity. But I find that this frankness works pretty well  in conjunction with the sensitivity. I can tell pretty quickly when I say something that gets a reaction out of someone. It’s in the eyes; they get shifty, and the person kind of moves in his seat a little. And I think: Okay, I can either be accommodating and charming, or I can get frank and blunt with him and really get his attention.

More often than not, it’s the latter.

I think Joseph was kind of like this in a way. In this passage, we see that he wanted to do the right thing for other people, and he was very aware of how other people saw him, and how other people saw Mary. And he was aware of how people would respond and react to him and his future wife.

After all, what would people think?

When Mary told him she was pregnant, he knew this was a problem. For her, sure, but definitely for him.

During this time period, Mary’s father had legal right under Roman Rule  to have Mary and Joseph killed for this apparent breaking of the law. Joseph would have been well-aware of the potential consequences of having a pregnant fiance.

Joseph was fully aware that this was a very sensitive situation. He was fully aware of how people would see him: He would be seen as either a cuckold, an oblivious chump unaware of the fact that his fiance is two-timing him, or he would be seen as sinful, lascivious, law-breaking what-have-you. People would talk, and he would have that label on him forever.

And he was sensitive to Mary. He didn’t want to ruin her life either. So he was ready to divorce her quietly, slip back into normal step with his society, find a woman to marry who wouldn’t make people shift their eyes, pass knowing glances at each other or avoid him altogether when they saw him or his spouse.

Joseph was afraid. But what is the first thing the angel tells him? “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” The angel also tells him that she has conceived through the Holy Spirit, and that this is the Son of God.

Now as a HSP, I would probably say to Joseph: You’d better get used to that glazed look people are going to get whenever you get to this part of your story about your son. Also the slow nod, the sneaking suspicion that you’re being humored when people say: “Oh, I see, it was through the the Holy Spirit… I gotcha…”

I think Joseph is fully aware of this. Joseph is sensitive to how other people see him, and what other people are going to think about him. But he doesn’t need to be afraid of what other people think. Joseph takes Mary as his wife. He does as the angel tells him.

Joseph chooses not to be afraid of people.

He is only responsible for himself. At this point, it doesn’t matter what people are going to say. If people talk, if people raise eyebrows: who cares?

Like Joseph, we don’t need to be afraid of what other people think. The only person we need to be worried about, the only person we’re accountable to is God. We don’t answer to people. We answer to God.

And instead of being afraid of what people are going to think or say about us if we do something crazy that God has asked us to do, it’s time we started worrying about not doing the crazy things God has asked us to do.

Things like:

Giving to the undeserving.

Loving our enemies.

Doing good to those who hurt us.

Speaking blessings over those who wrong us.

Dying to ourselves, and living for God.

We need to become HSP’s about what God thinks, what God asks of us, and what God’s dreams and expectations are for us.And like Joseph, we then obey Him.


Datebooks, Calendars, and Thwarted Plans: Mary and Fear.

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Luke 1:26-38: 26

And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

A couple weeks ago while I was doing some Christmas shopping, I picked up a datebook. I’ve kept it out on my coffee table, mainly to comfort myself.

“Yes! 2013 is almost done, and 2014 is almost here, ready to be filled up.”

I’ve considered having a funeral ceremony for my 2013 book: it’s kind of a mess after a messy year. I’m excited about this blank one: a new, beautiful bundle of joy. 

There are a few reasons why we buy date books and calendars. Sure, we need to keep track of what obligations we have. And now, 2013 is coming to a close, and 2014 is coming right up, so we’ve got to be ready, and fill our new date-books up.

We assume our days can be planned: We have routines and we have a sense of what life is “supposed” to look like, when it’s supposed to happen, and we make goals and timelines. But at some point we realize what we plan to do, and what we plan to have happen in our lives and what actually happens are two different things.

Something I’ve heard that raises my hackles is: “When you make plans, God laughs and changes them.” Somehow, this is supposed to make the listener feel better about how life didn’t go the way as planned. I can get a little sarcastic about this kind of thing, and go into a little inner snarky reply: “Oh, okay, it’s not my fault. It’s God. God wants to ruin my life and make it unpredictable, throw me curveballs, take my dreams and aspirations, crumple them up, and then take some 3 point shots into the corner wastebasket with them. Good to know.”  

It would be better if life was a little more predictable. It would be better if we didn’t experience disappointment and failure, lose jobs, lose friends, have divisive family arguments, get sick, get interrupted.

If only we could just choose the things that happen in our lives, and have things go according to plan, have our days go like clockwork. If only we could write down in our life datebooks what is going to happen when, and have it just happen, just like we jotted down. That would be great.  

And often we make decisions that way.

We say things like: “I can’t give that kind of money away to God: what if I need it?”

“I can’t start a new career or life direction — that means change!”

“I can’t stick my neck out for her; what if I get dragged into her messy life?”

Because we want things to go as planned. We want it to be predictable, plan-able, and doable.

Mary had some plans for her life that didn’t go exactly the way she expected. She thought she was going to get married, have some kids. She planned for all her children to outlive her, and take care of and provide for her. She had a blank datebook, a blank planner, ready to be filled. But even before she gets married, everything she planned for gets turned upside down, in a very scary way.

An angel shows up. He tells her God is with her, but Mary is afraid. Any of us would be afraid. Even if the message is “God is with you”: this is terrifying. It’s terrifying not only because this is an angel, a heavenly being, but also because this is something that’s going to upset her life, disrupt her plans.

And that’s exactly what happens: God is going to disrupt her plans and push her into a scary predicament: Despite everything she’s planned for, Mary is going to be an unwed teenage mother. Yes, this angel is telling her this is Jesus. Yes, this is the biggest thing that will ever happen in the history of the world. Yes, this is something people have been waiting for, begging for, for hundreds of years. But this doesn’t change the fact that Mary’s life has gone from “safe and predictable” to “tumultuous, supernatural, and dangerous.” And those plans, those hopes for a normal married life are being dismantled and rebuilt before her future even begins.

But the angel ends his speech with a comforting message. He tells her “Nothing is impossible with God.” Despite this interruption, despite this drastic change in plans, God is with Mary, and He will do the impossible. God brings life where there was no life. God sends blessings that we cannot imagine or conceive of.

But it would seem he hand picks a pretty disastrous circumstance for his son to be born into.

Or is it?

He asks Mary to take a risk, but it is by this risk, by this unlikely and unpredictable blessing that Jesus comes into the world and brings us salvation. The angel tells Mary God is changing her plans, but this is a plan not just for Mary, but for the entire world, and everyone who will ever live.

And Mary has a choice. She chooses not to be afraid. She chooses to obey and to accept this change in her life plans. And through her willingness to be a servant of God, and take this risk, she is not the most unfortunate of women.

By accepting God’s plans for her life, Mary was, and still is, the most fortunate, the most blessed of women.  

And like Mary, when we accept God’s planning, God’s role in our lives, we find that this interruption is a source of blessing and life. We will start to see our loose schedules, our upside-down datebooks, our thwarted plans, as signs that we’re also in God’s good favor, and taking part in God’s rich blessings. This is where we’ll see God do the impossible.


Once Upon A Time

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A post from Steve Bell.

Laurie and I occasionally have the privilege of serving communion together.  It’s a high honor to offer the Body and Blood of Christ to fellow believers.

A while back we had taken our places and folks began to queue up. As I was waiting for the next person to come forward, I noticed a woman rise from her seat nearby and make her hurried way to the line. (I might have been multitasking…) She stood there, shifting her weight from one foot to the other, and betraying a general impatience with how slow the line was moving.

When her turn came, she didn’t make any eye contact but focused her full attention on the Bread. Before I had even presented it to her or had said “The Body of Christ, broken for you,” she had her hand out and kept nodding her head as if to say,” Yeah, yeah, just get ON with it”. 

I placed the Bread in her palm and she shoved it in her mouth as quickly as she could.  Immediately, she relaxed visibly and a small smile crossed her face. The smile said it was everything she’d been told it would be and was the Best Thing she’d ever tasted.  Now she caught my eye and smiled and made her way back to her seat.

My eyes teared up.  When was the last time I’d been so desperate to taste God’s goodness? And when was the last time I’d internalized its’ significance so completely that my countenance changed upon partaking?

Far too long.

We remember this Advent season why we celebrate.  It’s starts with an unnoticed birth and ends with a disgraceful death.

And it’s the Best Story we’ve ever heard.


Applications from Sunday — Presenting Jesus: Salvation Has Come

Luke 2:25-35

For Your Salvation:  Hang on to the person of Jesus Christ.  Your salvation is not a past event.  Your salvation is not an abstract belief.  Your salvation is the person of Jesus Christ.  Hang on to Jesus.  Hang on to your salvation.

For Other’s Salvation:  Jesus is for everyone.  Include everyone.  Every person in your life Jesus is for.  Every person you meet Jesus is for.  And all kinds of people were attracted to Jesus.  Don’t exclude anyone.  Include everyone.

For Our Salvation:  We will suffer too.  Salvation was painful and costly to Jesus.  Salvation was painful and costly to Mary.  Salvation is painful and costly to all followers of Jesus Christ.