Hurting through the Holidays :: Readers’ Choice

This is so good and speaks eerily to my heart and mind (and) will certainly help me navigate the season in a God-honoring way, one day at a time. — Anne

Readers’ Choice (Originally published December 2, 2015)

Physical and emotional pain can make the holiday season feel like a torrent of expectations to appear happy. The unspoken demand of “Christmas joy” weighs on those mourning the loss of a loved one, suffering a long-term illness, or carrying the pressures of daily anxiety or depression. At some point this converges with the seasonal stress of wrapping up the final quarter of the year, scheduling events, and traveling through busy airports.The musical messages that flood every store and streaming site are less than helpful. While festive, the top 10 Christmas songs in the U.S. are unapologetically devoid of spiritual joy. From Lennon’s Christmas-as-political statement, “Happy XMas (War Is Over),” to Mariah Carey’s, “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” which desperately pleads with a lover to fill a need far too large for any person, these songs speak of happy feelings but miss transcendent peace.

Settling for happiness as proxy for true joy isn’t a recent change in America’s Christmas tradition. In 1944 Judy Garland sang, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” the song mandates merriness—challenging, “from now on your troubles will be out of sight,” while predicting, “through the years we’ll all be together”—yet offers no sufficient solution as to how any of this will come to be.

The season of Advent, contrary to demanding a facade of holiday spirit, is an invitation to rest in the promise of Christ’s redemptive joy. When Christ talked about anxiety and trust he wasn’t minimizing the stresses of life, he was revealing the sufficiency of his love.

It’s only by placing our faith in the gospel that we are given the opportunity to displace it in ourselves and our circumstances. We stop looking to calm daily anxieties with our own success, appearance, or accolade—which change far too often to offer the security and hope we need.

“In the world you will have tribulation,” Jesus said to his followers. “But take heart; I have overcome the world.” Lord, renew in us, this Advent, the hope of your victory, the promise of your relief, and the joy of your redemption.

Today’s Reading
Jeremiah 47 (Listen – 1:21)
Psalm 23-24 (Listen – 2:06)

Editor’s note: When Christ talked about anxiety, or discouragement, his words were focused on the daily pressures common to all people. He was not, nor are we above, trying to speak to mental health conditions that persist despite great effort and desire. In all things we look to Christ, but in many we find ourselves holding on for future relief, future glory, future joy—Christ will return, he will make all things new.

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The Surprising Results of Forgiveness :: Readers’ Choice

I love today’s message. — Dee

Readers’ Choice (Originally published September 16, 2015)

All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.  2 Corinthians 5.18

“Forgiveness flounders because I exclude the enemy from the community of humans even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners.” — Miroslav Volf

Yesterday we examined harrowing acts of restoration following the Rwandan Genocide. On the other side of the same continent, and also in 1994, a recently freed political prisoner took the presidential office in South Africa.

Of the moment when Mandela was released from 27 years of imprisonment and forced labor Ghanna’s President, John Dramani Mahama writes for the New York Times;

The world was spellbound. We wondered what we would do if we were in his shoes. We all waited for an indescribable rage, a call for retribution that any reasonable mind would have understood…

Yet, the man insisted on forgiveness. “To go to prison because of your convictions,” he said, “and be prepared to suffer for what you believe in, is something worthwhile. It is an achievement for a man to do his duty on earth irrespective of the consequences.”

Mandela’s life illustrates the reality that when we have been hurt there is a debt which must be paid. We can either force the perpetrator pay, or we can forgive. Mandela’s presidency, and his legacy of dismantling structured racism in South Africa, were the results of his decision to forgive — the decision to absorb the debt.

When someone really wrongs you, there’s always a loss. You’ve lost reputation, or you’ve lost some opportunity you didn’t have and you never will get again. There’s a real debt. It’s not a monetary debt, but there’s a debt. You feel it, and you feel the person owes you. You feel the person is liable to you, but what are you going to do? — Timothy Keller

Moralism demands we forgive. The gospel goes farther. Jesus not only teaches about forgiveness, he offers up his life and blood of as payment for our own debts, as well as those we incur as the result of others’ sins. As I’ve written before, forgiveness is less about mustering up an emotion and more about extending the forgiveness God has already offered.

The weight of this reality did not escape Paul, who saw forgiveness as a foundational task in evangelism. “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ — God is making his appeal through us.

Today’s Reading
Jeremiah 45-46 (Listen – 5:51)
Psalm 22 (Listen – 3:49)

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How to Find Freedom :: Readers’ Choice

As with the biblical transfiguration story, we’re not allowed to live on the mountain—yet. It’s no surprise that Peter, James, and John all likely wanted to pitch a tent and stay there for a while; but that’s not how it works. We are I think called to live very real lives in society, but to live them with an awareness of new mountaintop realities. — Greg

Readers’ Choice (Originally published March 17, 2016)

By Thomas à Kempis (c. 1379-1471)

Jesus has always many who love His heavenly kingdom, but few who bear His cross. He has many who desire consolation, but few who care for trial. He finds many to share His table, but few to take part in His fasting.

All desire to be happy with Him; few wish to suffer anything for Him. Many follow Him to the breaking of bread, but few to the drinking of the chalice of His passion. Many revere His miracles; few approach the shame of the Cross. Many love Him as long as they encounter no hardship; many praise and bless Him as long as they receive some comfort from Him. But if Jesus hides Himself and leaves them for a while, they fall either into complaints or into deep dejection.

Those, on the contrary, who love Him for His own sake and not for any comfort of their own, bless Him in all trial and anguish of heart as well as in the bliss of consolation. Even if He should never give them consolation, yet they would continue to praise Him and wish always to give Him thanks. What power there is in pure love for Jesus—love that is free from all self-interest and self-love!

Do not those who always think of their own profit and gain prove that they love themselves rather than Christ? Where can a man be found who desires to serve God for nothing? Rarely indeed is a man so spiritual as to strip himself of all things.

If a man has great virtue and much ardent devotion, he still lacks the one thing that is most necessary to him. What is this one thing? That leaving all, he forsake himself, completely renounce himself, and give up all private affections. For truth itself has said: “When you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”

Then he will be truly poor and stripped in spirit, and with the prophet may say: “I am alone and poor.” No one, however, is more wealthy than such a man; no one is more powerful, no one freer than he who knows how to leave all things and think of himself as the least of all.

*Abridged from The Imitation Of Christ.

Today’s Reading
Jeremiah 44 (Listen – 6:10)
Psalms 20-21 (Listen – 2:37)

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Praying by Name :: Readers’ Choice

Pray for “all people” – first – then when our hearts are enlarged enough – pray for leaders. — Stephen B

Readers’ Choice (Originally published April 15, 2016)

One of the benefits of a Scripture reading plan is that it engages our minds with places of God’s word where we might not regularly venture. This week we arrived at a passage in 1 Timothy instructing believers to pray for political leaders as well as those under their care:

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions. — 1 Timothy 2.1–2

As our editorial team and a small group of readers gave insight into the passage I became convicted about my own prayer life, writing:

Where we know victims by name we can bring them before God. Where we know of great needs, pain, or injustice without knowing any of the victims or leaders serving them, by name, we can repent.

Modern reporting offers Christians today an unprecedented opportunity. When we pray for global situations we can begin with specific names—even if we know just one person from an article—and radiate our prayers out to every individual, family, and nation involved.

As we pray for families whose lives have been shattered by the Zika virus we can begin with Zulmarys Molina, a mother from Puerto Rica, who was infected by Zika early in her pregnancy. Though her baby’s head is growing far below average she has decided not to abort her daughter, no matter what. Her most recent ultrasound was earlier this week.

We can also pray for Rossandra Oliveira, the Brazilian government official who manages mosquito control for a city of over 400,000. “In 19 years of working in environmental control I’ve never seen so much disorganization as I’m seeing now,” said Oliveira. The official and her team of 149 health inspectors are tragically under-resourced.

It’s not until we enter into understanding someone’s story that we fully understand how to pray for them. Ghaith, a 22-year-old former law student from Damascus, explains the refugee crisis like this:

I made it, while thousands of others didn’t. Some died on the way, some died in Syria. Every day, you hear about people drowning. Just think about how much every Syrian is suffering inside Syria to endure the suffering of this trip.

In Greece, someone asked me, “Why take the chance?” I said, “In Syria, there’s a hundred-per-cent chance that you’re going to die. If the chance of making it to Europe is even one per cent, then that means there is a one-per-cent chance of your leading an actual life.”

Variations of this story are repeated by over a dozen others in The Washington Post’s photo essay Refuge: 18 Stories from the Syrian Exodus.

Human beings, crafted in God’s image, are at the heart of every crisis in our world today. Christians have the privilege of naming people in our prayers for healing and justice. Their faces and stories reorient how we view even the most remote of events. Take 11-year-old Dasani whose family is crushed under the burden of poverty and homelessness in New York City; “I wanna go somewhere where it’s quiet.” Or Malik Jalal whose first-person account is shockingly titled I’m On The Kill List. This Is What It Feels Like To Be Hunted By Drones.

Our prayers are not limited by the spotlight of media—there are millions in Africa, China, and the Middle East who are persecuted, oppressed, and slaughtered every year—but through the media we have the opportunity to access stories beyond our comfort zone. We have the privilege of carrying the voices of the hurting to the good and faithful father who will one day make all things new, the suffering servant who knows the depth of their pain, the powerful spirit who walks with them each and every step of the way.

Weekend Reading List

Today’s Reading
Jeremiah 43 (Listen – 2:34)
Psalm 19 (Listen – 1:52)

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Email me the title or link. If you don’t mind adding a sentence or two as to why each post was significant to you, I would love to include your voice as well.

Thanks for being part of The Park Forum community. We are so thankful to be part of your devotional rhythm.


The Glory of Fasting :: Readers’ Choice

I am “processing” with a hungry heart and wanting to learn. I continue to learn about these truths with gratitude. 2 Peter 3:18 — “To God be the Glory” — Linda

Readers’ Choice (Originally published February 5, 2016)

Faith, like generosity, grows when a person transfers their focus outside of themselves. By prioritizing those around us we experience growth—the same happens when the object of our faith becomes our heart’s joy and priority. When generosity and faith combine a person experiences the glory of the two greatest commandments: to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself.

No act of virtue can be great if it is not followed by advantage for others. So, no matter how much time you spend fasting, no matter how much you sleep on a hard floor and eat ashes and sigh continually, if you do no good to others, you do nothing great. — John Chrysostom

The season of Lent, which begins next Wednesday, is marked by fasting. “In Scripture, we see that fasting is a sign of sorrow over sin, a sign of repentance, and an aid to prayer,” observes Kevin P. Emmert. Yet if these were the only reasons to fast it would not have made sense for Jesus to fast 40 days before beginning his ministry—Christ had no sins for which to be sorrowful or repentant and lived his life in direct communion with the Father.

In his article—titled as a call to action—A Lent That’s Not For Your Spiritual Improvement, Emmert writes,

The truth is Christ didn’t forego privileges and battle for humanity for only 40 days. The scene of Jesus in the wilderness is a synecdoche for his entire early life—and ultimately his incarnation… Christ made himself nothing by becoming a servant. He did not use his divinity to his own advantage, as Paul put it, but largely to walk a life-long path of self-sacrifice.

Christ’s whole life was lived on behalf of others, a continuous pursuit of others’ wellbeing. And Christ’s fast in the wilderness is a crucial example of that reality.

The ancient Jews expected the Messiah to grow in power and control—instead Jesus grew in wisdom and favor with God and man. They expected him to conquer and overthrow—instead he sacrificed and served. Emmert continues, “If we want to imitate his life and his fast to the degree we can, then we should consider fasting on behalf of others—that is, for their benefit and blessing.”

Perhaps this is why Jesus insisted that he desired “mercy, and not sacrifice.” Part of Christ’s fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures was calling his followers to embrace God’s vision of fasting given through the prophet Isaiah:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

Isaiah’s prophecy is one of total transformation—the salvation of marginalized and oppressed actuated by the people of God growing in faith. Fasting—sacrificing—in such a way that others benefit is the very way we ourselves grow. “The mercy of God is a proclamation made to the world, a proclamation which each Christian is called to experience at first hand,” writes the Pope. In a Lenten proclamation the pontiff continues:

In the corporal works of mercy we touch the flesh of Christ in our brothers and sisters who need to be fed, clothed, sheltered, visited; in the spiritual works of mercy—counsel, instruction, forgiveness, admonishment and prayer—we touch more directly our own sinfulness. The corporal and spiritual works of mercy must never be separated. By touching the flesh of the crucified Jesus in the suffering, sinners can receive the gift of realizing that they too are poor and in need.

The glory of fasting is found in what it does for others. Maybe we fast from meat or coffee and donate the money we would have spent to organizations who feed the poor. Maybe we give up plastic for the benefit of the environment and those most harmed by its decay. Maybe we abstain from time-wasters like online video-streaming or non-essential iPhone apps to invest in relationships we don’t normally have margin for. Regardless of the steps we take by God’s grace, Emmert reflects,

Lent is not just about personal holiness. Nor is it about pursuing simplicity of life for its own sake. Lent also has a remarkable social dimension. As pastor and columnist Chuck B. Colson said, “Lent gives us the opportunity to move towards our neighbor in charity” because it “emphasizes simplicity for the sake of others.”

Today’s Reading
Jeremiah 40 (Listen – 3:50)
Psalms 15-16 (Listen – 2:06)

This Weekend’s Readings
Jeremiah 41 (Listen – 3:36) Psalms 17 (Listen – 1:58)
Jeremiah 42 (Listen – 3:44) Psalms 18 (Listen – 5:47)

Weekend Reading List

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Email me the title or link. If you don’t mind adding a sentence or two as to why each post was significant to you, I would love to include your voice as well.

Thanks for being part of The Park Forum community. We are so thankful to be part of your devotional rhythm.