Why I Like Paul More Than Jesus (And Why That Might Not Be Good)

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I have been reading and studying the book of Acts since right before Easter.  Other than Revelation, Acts stands alone in its uniqueness compared to other New Testament books.  If Revelation is the blond headed step child of the New Testament, than Acts is the tall, dark and handsome eldest child who seems to do everything well.  What I mean by that is Acts isn’t really one genre but it does all the genres.  If you want epistles, you will find them in Acts.  If you want crazy gospel miracle stories you will find them in Acts.  If you wants sermons, Acts has them in plenty.  And if you want apocalyptic visions, Acts even throws a few in there for you.

But it is not just the weird confluence of biblical genres that makes Acts unique.  Also helping Acts stand alone is its main protagonist, the Apostle Paul.   The famous apostle and letter writer is introduced in the 9th chapter, making the previous 8 seem like prologue.  He becomes the main character in the 12th.  From then on out the book is not so much about the Acts of the Apostles or the Acts of the Early Church but the Acts of the Apostle Paul.

With that said up until last month I had not spent much time studying Acts’ portrayal of Paul.  I have read through Paul’s letters hundreds of times.  I have memorized a few of them.  I have led Bible Studies and sermon series through most of them and even claimed some of Paul’s words as my “life verses.”  I absolutely adore the Apostle Paul.  I even thought for some time of becoming a Pauline Scholar.  This dream was undone by a wonderful and blunt mentor who said, “oh, those are a dime a dozen.”

Still I am a Pauline Scholar, just not in the formal academic  sense.

And yet I have never truly read Paul in Acts.

And yet, to no surprise, as I have studied Acts’ Paul this last month I have fallen even more in love.  The Paul in Acts just as attractive as the Paul who wrote to Philipi, Corinth and Ephesus.

Speaking of Ephesus, Paul’s speech to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20 is beautiful, every bit as beautiful as his letters.  I am planning on preaching on it in a couple weeks and excited for that sermon.  So too is Paul in Athens.  He begins his sermon there with a very typical Pauline sarcastic insult and then weaves it into greater truth.

As far as studying the Bible goes, this has been a great month!

But therein lies the problem.  You see, I stand in the now old Protestant tradition who has placed the words of Paul above the words of Jesus.  At first the Protestants claimed “Sola Scriptura.”  Then they began claiming “Sola Paul” and then “Sola Romans.”  In fact I have spoken and read books by several biblical inerrantists who claim that the rest of the Bible has to be true only so that we know that Romans is true.  None of Scripture is formational except Romans.  It just helps us prove Paul knew what Paul was talking about.

At one point several people have even said that nothing Jesus said was binding for us.  Jesus just preached the sermons to show us how hard earning our justification by works was so that we would listen to Paul in Romans.

Under that thinking we shouldn’t love God or our neighbor or our enemies.  We shouldn’t pray in prayer closets.  We definitely shouldn’t mimic the good Samaritan or the prodigal’s father.  Silly Jesus was just letting us know how hard it is so that we wouldn’t do anything he told us to do.

I was raised in this tradition and so it is of no surprise that when Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:24) I laugh it off as silly Jesus just setting us up for failure.  But when Paul says, “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith” (Eph. 2:8) I yell a hearty “amen!”

I am not implying we set up a dichotomy between Paul and Jesus.  Paul words are sacred Scripture and it is because I believe that, that I also truly believe he was following in the very teachings of Jesus and even pleads with his audience to “follow my example as I follow the example of Christ.” (1 Cor. 11:1)

If you read Romans 12-15, you find it is nothing but a sermon about the sermon on the mount.  This comes after all the saved by grace stuff in Romans 5-8 which implies that the saved soul follows Jesus’ teachings, and yes it is not the other way around.  We are not saved by following Jesus’ teachings.  To put it perhaps too simplistically we are saved to follow Jesus’ teachings.

Or to put it another way, true Paul scholars should never minimize the teachings of Jesus, only maximize them in their lives.  A good reading of Paul should cause us to stop, reflect and then flip back a few books to the gospels and read Jesus again.

Speaking of reading Jesus, it is only fitting that I close with these very true words of His from Matthew 5:19: “Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

Tenebrae Friday Reflection: Who’s On Trial Here

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To Read: Mark 12:38-43

Today is Tenebrae Friday, a day of shadows and darkness where we remember that our God died.  Today we make much of the trials of Jesus before the Chief Priests, the Jewish governor of Galilee and the Roman governor of Judea.  We talk a lot about the accusations against Jesus and how that all led to the horrible moment when Jesus spoke the final words, “it is finished” and breathed his last.  We do this in various ways.  Some of us attend a traditional candlelight service.  Others pray through the stations of the cross.  Others watch various film depictions of the event like the Passion of the Christ or the Jesus film.  Still others read the Passion narratives in the four gospels, taking special note of the 7 last words Jesus spoke while on the cross.  The truly super spiritual do all of the above!

But no matter how we commemorate Good Friday, we are prone to realize again that the real trial at the heart of the crucifixion was not Jesus’ but ours.  All of humanity was put on trial before the throne of God.  After all the God who loves us, who created us, whose very presence sustains our being, pitched his tent and camped out among us and we killed him for it.

My devotional reflections this week have been following Mark 12 where Jesus is repeatedly questioned by various members of the Jewish scholarly elite during the last week of his life.  Jesus successfully parried attacks by the Chief Priests, the Pharisees, the Sadducees and one over confident teacher of the law.  These various tests serve as a precursor to his upcoming trial.  Even though they had yet to arrest Jesus under the cover of darkness and serve up a mock trial to reaffirm their own prejudices, they publicly tested Jesus in the hopes that the surrounding crowds would be the jury and judge.

It didn’t work.  In fact, after Jesus successfully answered their questions and avoided the traps they had set, he turned the attack on them.  In chapter 12, verse 38 Jesus says, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets.  They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”

Right after that he contrasts them with a very poor widow who offered two tiny pennies to the temple system.  Her offering, Jesus says, is worth more than all the others.

This image of the humble widow becomes a forerunner to the image of the crucified God.  The arrogant chief priests and teachers of the law respond to the presence of Christ by trying to trick and trap.  The widow responds by giving all she has.  It is her two mites that become the image of true humanity, a humanity formed and shaped and called to the image of the sacrificial and self giving God.

Days later, Jesus as fully God and fully human magnifies the image of the widow for us as he hangs on the cross.  This image of sacrificial and self giving love is who we are supposed to be.  Such an image shames the know it alls and the proud and the arrogant and the powerful.  The cross is a verdict on our own ability to save ourselves by pretending to be more than we are.  It is a sentence of “guilty” for those who “walk around in fancy clothes and soak up the praises bestowed upon them while sitting in the most important seats in public gatherings but who devour widows’ homes.”

And it is a call to repent from our arrogance and pride and embrace the sacrificial giving of a poor widow.  Only by picking up our own crosses of shame and following Jesus can we arrive at a Resurrected morning.

Heavenly father, restore unto us the joy of our salvation as we gaze upon your self giving cross.

 

Emmanuel: God With Silliness

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A few posts ago I mentioned that I try not to blog what I preach or preach what I blog.  Not surprisingly, this is the second time since that post that I am breaking that rule.

I wanted to bring something Christmassy to you all on this glorious day, something a bit more profound than that last post about my favorite Christmas TV episode.  And I have been reading blog posts of other Christmas homily’s that were given last night and eventually thought, why not post mine as well.

What follows is an abbreviated version of what I shared with my church last night.  Enjoy!

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About 3 or 4 times a year I find myself preaching the same message.  The message goes something like this.  We live in a tragic world.  Bad things happen to good people and, even more aggravating, good things happen to bad people.  There are tornadoes and earthquakes and floods.  There are car accidents and drug overdoses and sudden heart attacks and brain aneurysms.  There are bad people whose purpose seems to be nothing but to kill and destroy.  But even though we walk through valleys of the shadow of death, God is with us.  Even though we mourn, we do not mourn like those who have no hope.  There will be a new heaven and a new earth where there will be no more tears and we will be with the Lord forever.

It’s a good message.  It is at the heart of the Bible which is why I preach it so much.

And I deal with tragedy on a regular basis, about once a week on average.  Pastors get to be the unsung heroes of tragedy.  We are one of your first calls, right after the paramedics I hope!  And it is my privilege to be there.

I am not perfect at responding to tragedies but I am confident that I know the places to go and the things to say and not to say.  I have the Bible verses memorized and I can shed the tears and use the right tones that convey shared sorrow.

But I also deal with another element of the human condition on a regular basis, probably daily.  And I am not as confident when it comes to this.  You see, I deal with silliness.  People are just silly.  While it is true we live in a tragic world, it is also true that we live in a very silly world.

We took the wonderful story of a black, skinny 4th century, African saint named Nicolas who gave gifts to children and we turned that story into a cosmic tale of a fat, white, bearded man who lives on the north pole.  He sees you when your sleeping and he knows when your awake and he breaks into your house every Christmas Eve but don’t worry, it is to give not to steal.  It is a silly story.

To make it sillier we added reindeer and gave one of them a shiny nose.  Then we turned Tim Allen into him and that is probably the moment when Santa jumped the shark.  If not, then it was definitely when Will Ferrell became his “Elf.”

And I just have to say for all the father’s in the room that my money paid for the presents.  It was me who  stayed up until 2am putting the presents together and I don’t feel like a jolly fat white fictional guy should get credit for it!  Can I get an “Amen?”

But our silliness extends far beyond our stories.  It finds its way to our language.  We drive on parkways and park on driveways.  I am a bit of a language nut and I have no idea what weird thing happened in the development of the English language to turn our parkways into driveways and our driveways into parkways but there it is, one of many ridiculous exceptions to the rules that govern our communication!

Our corporations are ridiculous.  They develop identical products and then spend billions of dollars to convince you that they are not identical.  Then when they realize it they sue each other over patent infringement.  That is silly, but not as silly as us consumers who choose sides and go to the internet with our angry twitter hashtags!

We spend millions of dollars making movies whose entire plot consists of blowing things up in slow motion.  Then we pay money to see it and go online and tell everybody how dumb it was, even though we secretly enjoyed it.

We pay athletes millions of dollars to dress up in silly costumes and hit each other, all while trying to get an oblong ball to an end zone.  Then we riot and trash our own town when our team loses.  I can’t even begin to explain why.

The silliness finds our marriages.  A pastor friend told me awhile back about a marriage that was in jeopardy because the wife had purchased over 300 pairs of jeans.  She had bought one a week for six years and refused to get rid of any of them.  The husband was saying pair number 301 was going to be the cause of divorce.  He was filing paperwork over number 301 and I don’t blame him!

 

The most ridiculous thing is that the people who don’t think they are silly at all are the silliest.  You know who I am talking about.  These are the people who are quite adamant about things like the weather.  They are stern and cranky and you better not disagree with their interpretation of how harsh last winter was, because they will show you their wrath!  Do they realize how dumb they are?  I can never figure out.

When these people find me (and they always do) I don’t have the words for silliness.  I don’t know the Bible verses for ridiculous.  I don’t have any cliches memorized that gently convey, “I don’t really care about this opinion your have.”  I know a little about how to deal with tragedy but when people are just being silly, especially when they are being judgmental and passionate in their silliness, I don’t have a clue of what to say.  What I want to say is, “Get over it” but that doesn’t sound very compassionate.  So instead I give them a blank stare and I stammer and say something like, “Well I guess last winter was worse than this year’s.”  Then I kick myself later because I know they are going to their friend to say, “See, Pastor agrees with me.”  And we all know I am right about everything, or not.

But this Christmas when we come again to the manger, as we gather again to marvel at “Emmanuel” who is God with us, I find great comfort that just as God descended into tragedy, God also descended into silliness.

Here in Bethlehem around 4 B.C. in a manger was a God  who took on the entirety of our human condition.  We believe that here in the manger is full God and full human at the same time.  We do not believe that Jesus is half and half.  We used to burn people at the stake for doing that, which was both silly and tragic, but that is how strongly we believe it.  We have always said that here in the manger is all of God taking on all of humanity.

Emmanuel in the manger is God with us in our tragedies.  He is God with us in silliness.  He is God with us in the awkward moments and God with us in the tense situations.  God is with us when our wife buys jeans number 301 and we scream and yell and stomp off to a lawyer.  God is with us when we walk away from a half hour argument about whether the average temperature last winter was 40 degrees or 45 degrees.  Then it suddenly occurs to us, “I don’t really care what the temperature was but I sure cared in the heat of debate!”  God is with us even then.

All of God has taken on all of our goofiness, all of our ridiculousness, all of our stupidity.

God is not intimidated or threatened by any part of the human condition but God is among us.  He is guiding us, calling us, leading us to the place where we can be fully with God, fully aware of his presence in our tragedies, in our sorrows, in our frustrations and yes, even in our silliness.

Merry Christmas Everybody!

Viewing Nativities

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I try to write this blog with a few simple rules.  One of them is that I try not to write what I might one day preach, or have preached before.  At the same time I try not to preach what I will one day blog or have blogged before.

With that said, in preparation for Sunday’s sermon about the little town of Bethlehem from Micah 5 I have been viewing nativity scenes all afternoon and pulling 40 of them into a Powerpoint to be the backdrop of Sunday’s sermon.

I was very moved by Micah’s statement that the savior’s influence would spread around the world.  Jesus’ influence has certainly done that.  The nativity pictures on Google are proof.  Some are made with cartoon characters and action figures.  They are from China, Russia, Native America, churches, storefronts, the middle east, Africa, South America and even the suburbs.  I tried to pick 40 of them for my Powerpoint, 40 that illustrate that Jesus’ greatness truly does extend to the ends of the earth.

 

While scrolling through pages and pages of nativity scenes with shepherds, wise men, angels and stars, I found that I was deeply moved in the Spirit.  It was hard not to shed a tear of joy and appreciation as I studied hundreds of them.  You see, for centuries now, people from all ages, all walks of life and all countries have paid homage to the baby with these incredible nativity scenes.

Micah is quite correct that Jesus’ influence has stretched around the world.

Below are some of my favorites.  I would welcome you to turn on a Christmas song and scroll through them or do a Google search of the “nativity” yourself while you consider that this baby in the manger is the one who:

Will stand and shepherd his flock
    in the strength of the Lord,
    in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they will live securely, for then his greatness
    will reach to the ends of the earth.

And he will be our peace.

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Feeding Toddlers, Feeding Church People

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My kids do this thing that I think all children do.

My wife and I are like most parents.  We want our children to receive good nutrition and to receive it often.  We balance out their meals with fruits, vegetables, meat and grains.  Regularly we place this well balanced smorgasbord of great proteins, carbs and sugars in front of them.

My children do a great job of picking through the options, eating their favorites of that day.  The fruit usually disappears first.  After that the cheese.  Then, if they are in a growth spurt, the meat and grain.  If not they are usually done.  Some days they don’t eat much at all because they really aren’t hungry.

But other days they look up at my wife and I, with plenty of food still on the plate, and say, “I am still hungry.”

“Well then eat your ham.”

They look at us awkwardly.

“I don’t very much like ham.  I was planning on more grapes.”  Or applesauce, or oatmeal or something else completely random.

As it turns out, in toddler terms, “I am still hungry” does not mean, “you are not feeding me.”  It means, “you are not feeding me what I want.”

Church people do this thing that all people do.

I am like most pastors.  We want our congregation to receive great spiritual nourishment.  We want their lives to be drenched in the Scriptures.  We want their love to overflow to the least and lonely.  We want their trust in Jesus to be commendable, the faith worthy of the saints!  We want their hope to be encouraging, conquering and casting out the worst of fear.

So we pastors work hard to balance out their spiritual plate with outreach events, discipleship groups, book studies, engaging worship services, and just plain fun get together’s.

They do a great job of picking through their favorites, going to what they want to go to and participating where they want.  But then they look at the rest of our ministries and tell us, “I am not being fed.”

To most church people this sounds like a brilliant critique.  After all it is biblical, stemming from John 21 where Jesus tells Peter three times, “Feed my sheep/lambs.”

They think that the pastoral job is Peter’s job, to make sure that the good church people are “fed.”  They think they can get away with insulting our work if they use the metaphor that Jesus did.  “Jesus said you should feed me and I am not being fed.”  That is code for, “You are failing Jesus.”

They are right that Jesus’ command to Peter was not just for Peter.  What they get wrong is that Jesus’ command to Peter was for everybody who calls themselves a “church person.”  After all, the church’s mission is the apostolic mission and the apostolic mission extends to the “sheep that are not of this fold.”  (see John 10:16).   When Jesus told Peter to feed the sheep, he was talking to the entire church, laity and clergy alike to feed the world and nourish them into the Spirit’s presence.

In light of that, I wonder if those who are “still hungry” are so because they have a full plate in front of them, a plate full of ministry and service opportunities that give spiritual food to both the giver and receiver.  But they don’t realize it because that food looks like green beans.  And they are not very hungry for green beans.

In their lingo, “I am not being fed” doesn’t really mean, “I am hungry.”  It means, “I don’t like the food that you are offering.”

Just a thought for a winter’s Sunday afternoon.

Blessings on the week ahead.  May God give you the food you need to feed others.

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading/Watching: The Hunger Games’ Mockingjay

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When it comes to teeny-bopper novels with young female heroins I am pretty out of touch.  A couple years ago, I was completely surprised when I asked my Facebook friends what books I should read and this swarm of young women suggested I read Divergent.  I thought Divergent would be a non fiction sociology text about the need to engage culture critically so as to diverge to new paths.  Instead it was a novel about some teenage girl who gets to pick her own faction and then suddenly becomes the chosen one.  .  .because, you know, all teenage girls are the chosen one these days.

But this post isn’t about Divergent.  It is about the last teeny-bopper fad I did catch up with, “The Hunger Games.”  When Suzanne Collin’s trio of novels went big a few years ago, my wife and I somehow came in possession of them and I read all three in a week.  The first was surprisingly brilliant, a wonderful narrative critique of professional sports and their impact (or less than so) on low income neighborhoods.  Strangely, almost nobody is talking about that aspect of the novel, just how all girls get stuck in their choice between the Peeta’s and the Gail’s in their lives.  Don’t get me wrong, I can totally relate.

The other two novels were less than the first, leading me to believe Collins should have stopped after the one hit wonder.  And yet, as I have continued to think about “The Hunger Games” and now have watched all four movies, it is the last two novels that have been the object of my focus.

I should add right now that huge spoilers for the entire trilogy follow this point.

In “Catching Fire” Katniss Everdeen emerges from the hunger games with a raw power that is best described as influence.  She has a national following and is a political force to be reckoned with.  So “Catching Fire” is about President Snow’s attempts to control and co opt Katniss’ influence using his brute force.  When he is unable to do so, he resorts to sending her back to the Hunger Games with the hope that this time she will either die or emerge a victor but with severely decreased influence.

It doesn’t work.  Katniss escapes the game before all the victors are dead and, in the “Mockingjay”, awakens in a 13th district that is led by a cunning President Coin.  The third novel is about Coin’s attempts to control and co-opt Katniss’ influence, but not with brute force.  Instead she uses a very cunning manipulation, that is almost worse than Snow’ss force.  This leads to a stunning climax where Katniss has standing in front of her both Snow and Coin with the entire nation looking on.  Forget Peeta versus Gail.  This is Everdeen’s true choice and she uses it to kill Coin instead of Snow.  I must admit that during my first reading of “Mockingjay” it did not occur to me that Coin was a villain until Katniss killed her.  But then it made sense.  Cunning manipulation is just as bad as brute force.

Therefore, the reason these two novels have consumed my thoughts since I read them is because I feel like Katniss’ story is the church’s story.  Since the first Pentecost, the church has had access to a raw and supernatural power that is best described as “influence.”  We are not powerful in and of ourselves but the Holy Spirit has given us access to the Trinity’s power, which is what C.S. Lewis calls “the deep magic.”  It is a power deeper and more pure than brute force or cunning manipulation.  It is the power of love and it is that love that powers us.

Since the outpouring of that power, the lesser powers, the national and corporate interests, have desperately tried to control and co-opt it.  Some, like President Snow, have used threats and force.  Others have been more like Coin, using cunning and manipulation.  This still goes on today.  Politicians are right now fighting to co-opt our votes and use our influence to get them elected.  Corporations still use Christian symbols and imagery to get us to buy their product.  Sports’ teams still tout the religious credentials of their star players to convince Christians to root for them and in turn, buy their merchandise.  When the principalities and powers see our “deep magic” they recognize it and desperately want it for their own.

Sadly, we are not as unique or as brave as Katniss.  We sell our religion to the highest bidder and remain loyal until another bidder comes along.  There is quote that traces back to Augustine that claims, “the church is a whore!” and I agree.  We sell our bodies to anybody who offers to buy from politicians to athletes to CEO’s.

At the end of Mockingjay it becomes clear that there is no win for Katniss.  In the movie she explains to her newborn daughter that fighting nightmares is her new game.  Thus, I walked out of the theater last night feeling very somber and downcast because rejecting the principalities and powers is a tough and costly chore.  But Katniss did find a subtle win.  She notes to her daughter that fighting the nightmares is a better game than the other ones she played.  Her win was not executing Coin or even Snow.  It came when she retreated to a quiet, humble and good existence, becoming a wife and a mother.

Her choosing of Peeta in the end is indicative of that choice and the church would do well to follow her, to deny the cunning manipulators and the coercive tyrants and instead follow the commands of our one true King, who tells us through the Apostle Paul, “to make it our ambition to live a quiet life” (1 Thess. 4:11)  and who adds to it through Peter, “live such a good life among the pagans that they might see your good deeds and praise your father in heaven.” (1 Peter 2:12)

It is the quiet but good life lived among the ungodly that beats the principalities and powers.  It is the quiet but good life that refuses to be co-opted by nations and politicians and armies and businesses.  It is that life that wins the raw victory with God’s raw power.

Last Sunday we celebrated this with Christ the King Sunday where we proclaimed anew that Jesus is Lord and King of all. He stands above the athletes and corporations and politicians and nations.  He is the Ancient of Days and one day, hopefully not long from now, He will take his throne and open the scroll!  May that assurance carry you into a blessed holy-day season!

Unwritten Grace

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When I started this blog I was really new to this whole “online brand” thing.  I thought all you had to do was create a page, give it some nifty, trendy title that includes a pop Christian buzz word (like “grace”) and people I didn’t know would flock to it.

When they clicked on over from wherever in cyber space they found my link, they would read the entertaining musings of a unknown pastor.  His very intricately and detailed life experiences would strangely mirror their own but he would stay a disembodied soul without a name.  They would rush to their social media accounts to share the link, and through it, the experiences of this poor, faceless pastor stuck in a church somewhere in America whose life is full of grace.

Online brands don’t work that way.  It turns out, you have to share the link first, which means you are effectively branding yourself through your family and friends and parishioners.  This means 90% of people who click over here know who I am, where I am and, unfortunately, who to complain to if they don’t like my writing.  Strangely, the random compliments at conferences and events make me the most uncomfortable.  Seriously people, these posts are not that great!

I bring all this up to say that sometimes I experience things that are chock full of grace but still cannot be written.  After all, I am a pastor bound by confidentiality clauses and desires for privacy and good common sense.

Several times in the last months I have sat down to write about an experience I had, only to finish half the post and realize, “I can’t post this for oh so many reasons.”  The people involved know who they are.  The people not involved know who the people involved are.  Their are too many ways that the post could be misread as offensive (though I never intend it).  Mostly, my interpretation of the “grace” in their lives would be unwelcome, especially in a public forum.

I wrote such a post this morning and it hurt to delete it because God’s grace was so evident.  Instead I decided to post about that post as a reminder to myself and all of you that some things don’t need to be written, just appreciated.

Even though I can not write about these graces I can still pray about them.  I can still think over them and ponder them anew in my heart.

That last phrase reminds me of the Virgin Mary whose humility is a hallmark of the advent season.  After the wonderful birth of the savior, sung by angels and praised by shepherds, she did not join the shepherds in proclaiming the good news, “but she treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19)

In closing, I would welcome you to join her, in praying over the unwritten and hidden grace in your life.  Count your many blessings and ponder anew the love of our God and treasure it up in your heart.

Have a graced Sunday!