Light in the darkness

Graphic from Floris United Methodist Church, Herndon, VA

There’s this guy walking down the street who suddenly falls into a deep hole he did not see coming. It’s dark in the hole and the walls are steep.

A psychiatrist happens by and the guy calls out, “Hey, Doc, can you help me out here?” The doctor writes a prescription for Prozac and throws it down the hole.

A priest comes by and the guy calls out, “Hey, Father, can you help me out here?” The priest writes out a prayer and tosses it down the hole.

Then the guy’s best friend comes by, sees his friend down in the hole, and immediately jumps in. “What did you do that for?” the guy says. “Now we’re both stuck!”

“Nah,” the friend says, “I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.”

:: :: ::

I love the way this story (retold by Scott Hoezee) describes my life. Sometimes things feel very dark, like I’m in a deep hole. I’ve felt this way when someone has died, when I’ve been stressed out, when the future looks uncertain. And that says nothing about the darkness in my life caused by sin – my own stupid mistakes as well as all the brokenness in the world that impacts my life. Sometimes it feels like I’m stuck in a dark hole.

Even more, I love the way this story expresses the power in relationships. Things are never quite so sad, so strained, or so scary when there’s someone with me. And when things are going well for me, this story reminds me to be the friend for someone else who feels stuck somewhere.

Mostly though I love this story because it reminds me of how Jesus is the best friend who has come down to where I’m stuck. No matter what dark hole I find myself in, he knows what I’m experiencing and offers me a peace that passes understanding. More than that, he’s strong enough to fight the power of sin in my life. In fact, he’s been in the darkest, scariest hole ever: the grave. And he even knows the way out of there!

Much of the time I feel like I need to figure out a way to get up to God. Like I need to get his attention or impress him before he’ll notice me. The fact is God came down to me in the person of his Son, Jesus. That’s what Advent and Christmas are all about this month.

Jesus is the light of the world and of my life, bringing hope to the dark places. His is the light that shows the way and illuminates God’s love for me even when my love for him is shaky and unimpressive. And he is the friend who takes away my loneliness, forgives my sin, and even promises me eternal life.

You can’t find a better friend than that for the holidays and all year round.

These reflections appeared in last week’s Rock Valley Bee.

Rest you merry

The churches in which I grew up and have served as a pastor did not often sing the Christmas carol “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen.” That’s a shame. Perhaps its archaic language forms a barrier, but, once you decipher it, it’s very meaningful.

The word “rest” does not here refer to sleeping or taking a break; it means “to keep.” It reminds me of Aaron the priest’s blessing, “The Lord bless you and keep you…” And we use the word “merry” often enough this season, but seldom otherwise; it makes us think of holiday festivities, but it has a secondary meaning of “being alert.” A couple hundred years ago, people used the expression “rest you merry” to encourage one another to keep well. Knowing this helps explain the comma between “merry” and “gentlemen:” The opening line could be seen as an invitation to gentlemen (a gender exclusive reference to people in general) to allow God to keep them alert and well. Less poetically, the carol says, “May God keep you alert, everyone!”

Why do we need to keep alert? Because it’s easy to experience “dismay” (using the carol’s word) in the various circumstances of life, especially considering the chaos of this past year. Because it’s easy to get consumed with the distractions of this season and forget “Jesus Christ our Savior was born upon this day.” And because it’s easy to become enticed by “Satan’s power when we were gone astray” as we were in the past. That reminds me of the apostle Peter’s words: “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.” I constantly need God’s help to keep me alert, to keep me “merry!”

When I put my trust in God, I can rest (there’s that word again!) assured that I am secure in him: Nothing can snatch me from his loving embrace. In the same text where he warns about the devil’s schemes, Peter reminds his readers of how “God cares for you.” Peter also refers to God’s ongoing work of restoration in his people’s lives. Peter finally promises that in Christ, we will remain “strong, firm, and steadfast.” If all that isn’t a cause to be filled with joy, I’m not sure what is! These are indeed “tidings of comfort and joy.”

It goes without say this has been a difficult year. Time magazine proclaimed it was the worst year ever, which I personally feel might be a little hyperbolic. Regardless, this is a time in which I especially need to hear “tidings of comfort and joy.” Probably you too.

In this Christmas and New Year’s season, with its cheer and trouble, may you experience the kind of comfort and joy that’s only found in Jesus, the Son of God born in Bethlehem. He will “rest you merry.”


This adapts a recent message I gave at Trinity CRC
and will appear in next week’s Rock Valley Bee.

O Sordid Town of Bethlehem

Until recently, if you’d have asked me what I imagined the town of Bethlehem to have been like in Bible times, I would have described a pleasant hillside village on a cool evening surrounded by peace and quiet. I assumed the Christmas story takes place in a sort of wholesome US Midwest small farming town, where people are generally friendly and values matter.

Artwork by Carol Sheli Cantrell

It turns out that the Bible paints a startlingly different picture of Bethlehem. The place is first mentioned in Genesis as the location where patriarch Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel sadly dies in childbirth. After that, the next two stories with references to Bethlehem come in the book of Judges. These stories are filled with idolatry, injustice, rape, and murder that culminate in civil war. Then right on the heels of that comes the story of Ruth which begins with a famine in Bethlehem that makes a local family flee to a foreign country. We learn in 1 Samuel that the great king David is from Bethlehem. But we’re first introduced to him as the youngest son of Jesse who doesn’t even bother inviting the kid to the feast when the prophet Samuel asks to meet all of Jesse’s sons. In 2 Samuel, Bethlehem is under the control of the Israelite’s enemies, the Philistines, at that point in history.

We read about Bethlehem once more in the New Testament soon after Jesus’ birth in that town when King Herod goes on a murderous rampage in an effort to destroy “the one who has been born king of the Jews.” The despot kills all the children in Bethlehem 2-years-old and younger.

To summarize: Stories in the Bible connected with Bethlehem are filled with extreme sadness and sin.

Yet despite its sketchy history, God chooses Bethlehem as the birthplace for His Son! I see in God’s choice of Bethlehem a picture of God’s redemptive purposes – His tendency to rescue the most hopeless of situations.

I head into Christmas fully aware that I do not have the perfect family that people might be inclined to think we have based solely on the smiling faces on our Christmas photo card. Our home is not always a haven but sometimes a place filled with stress and short tempers. There always seem to be temptations vying for my attention and opportunities for me to mess up and hurt others.

Yet I need not despair: If God can bring something (Someone!) good out of Bethlehem (of all places, it turns out!), then God can use me and whatever mess I find myself in. The Good News is that God specializes in redeeming bad places, relationships, and situations.

Which, of course, is why Jesus came to Bethlehem in the first place.

These reflections appeared in last week’s Rock Valley Bee.
They are an adaptation of something I blogged for Christmas 2015.

Make me your manger

Christmas Manger

And she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.
She wrapped him in cloths and placed Him in a manger…
This will be a sign to you:
you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger…
So [the shepherds] hurried off and found Mary and Joseph,
and the baby, who was lying in the manger.

— Luke 2:7, 12, 16


Come, Lord Jesus, make me a place
where you can rest.

Make me a place where others will see you
and find peace and joy.

Make me a place where the empty
will be fed by your presence.

Make me a place where the unimportant
will find their significance as they gaze at you.

Make me a place where lost people
will see the light of your face.

Make me a place where the hardened
will be softened by your tenderness.

Make me a place where the helpless
will find help through your seeming helplessness.

Make me a place that people will forget when they leave,
caught up in the joy of the One who makes his residence in me.

Make me a manger—
of your grace,
your mercy,
and your life.


Thou didst leave thy throne and thy kingly crown
when thou camest to earth for me;
but in Bethlehem’s home was there found no room
for thy holy nativity.
O come to my heart, Lord Jesus—
there is room in my heart for thee.

Heaven’s arches rang when the angels sang,
proclaiming thy royal degree;
but of lowly birth didst thou come to earth,
and in great humility.
O come to my heart, Lord Jesus—
there is room in my heart for thee.
— from Emily E.S. Elliot’s hymn, “Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne”


This was Dale Vander Veen’s daily e-devotional for 21 Dec 2018
which he gracious welcomed me to share with you.
Email dalevanderveen@sbcglobal.net
to receive his daily e-devotions yourself.

It’s ok to cry at Christmas

The story of King Herod killing the baby boys in Bethlehem in his unsuccessful attempt to destroy the newborn King of the Jews might be in the same chapter as the Christmas story in Matthew’s Gospel, but it is rarely told at Christmastime. I’m pretty sure I’ve never sung about it in a Christmas carol nor received a Christmas card with a reference to it. Yet, try as we might to ignore it, there it is told together with the story of the magi (a.k.a. the wise men or “We Three Kings” of whom we like to sing).

Why is such a ghastly story included in the Bible, let alone in our beloved Christmas story? Well, if nothing else, this tragedy illustrates how badly our world needed (and needs) a Messiah. In the pain surrounding death, we need someone to bring life. In the face of arrogance, we need someone to model humility. In the destruction wrought by violence, we need someone to restore peace.

Interestingly, Matthew does not immediately explain why the tragedy in Bethlehem happens. Instead, he provides a lament, quoting the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning…” Hearing this cry of pain suggests to me that it’s ok to cry at Christmastime.

Christmas sadness graphic found at verywellhealth.com


It’s not a holly, jolly Christmas for everyone. For some, there’s an empty chair at the table. For others, the battle with depression clouds even the happiest days. In some homes there’s no holiday from the spiteful fighting or cold hostilities between family members or roommates. Countless 20- and 30-somethings dread being asked in yet another social gathering why they aren’t married or don’t have children as though there’s something wrong with them. Around the world, people live in fear even at Christmastime because of corrupt tyrants, food scarcity, or gang warfare. For all of these kinds of people (yourself included perhaps), the Christmas story includes a paragraph with tears. The tragedy in Matthew’s Christmas story gives us permission to tell the truth about the hurt in our lives and in the world. The tragedy in the Christmas story also gives us permission to lament (like Matthew) the pain in our lives and in the world. And in that we begin to find some comfort, healing, and maybe even joy.

I like how John Witvliet, a professor a Calvin College, puts it: “There is no grace in Herod’s heinous act. But there is grace in Matthew’s truth-telling. Matthew is telling us there is no reason why we should avoid the whole story. We tell it as a candid account of what Jesus came to resolve. We tell it to testify that even this terror cannot ultimately thwart God’s purposes.” May God give you grace this Christmas season to both acknowledge the pain in your life and in the world as well as press on to receive the Good News that Jesus’ arrival at Christmas changes everything, making things new and whole while he lovingly holds on tight to you even in – or perhaps especially in – your pain.

These reflections appear in today’s Rock Valley Bee.
They are a summary of what I talked about
at Trinity CRC’s Blue Christmas service last week.

The Infant King

I don’t think I’ve ever associated Psalm 2 with Christmas before. It’s the one where God, enthroned in heaven, scoffs at sinful humanity’s futile attempts to dethrone Him.

This time of year we celebrate the arrival of King Jesus, a King greater than the Herod of His day or any other power or authority back then or since. Countless monarchs and empires have come and gone; things I have enthroned in my heart instead of Jesus have crumbled (or will crumble) into the dust. However, as God’s Son, one with Father, Jesus’ Kingship is secure. He is the ultimate fulfillment of the promise God makes in Psalm 2 to install His King on earth.

King graphic found at rescuehousechurch.org

A poem I read this week in a book of Advent meditations reminds me of all this. Attributed to Daithi Mac Iomaire, it’s simply titled “The Infant King.” It leads me to worship the newborn King – the true King of kings and Lord of lords – this Christmas season.

And in the corridors of power
and in the palaces of hate,
the despot and his lords conspire
this holy threat to liquidate;
yet all the kings that e’re there were
and all the princes of this earth
with all their wealth beyond compare
could not eclipse this infant’s birth.
A million monarchs since have reigned,
but vanquished now their empires vain;
two thousand years, and still we bring
our tributes to the Infant King.

God in the desert

It strikes me how many Bible stories take place in a desert. I talked about this a few weeks ago in a message I gave at Trinity CRC, observing that it makes sense for the desert to figure so prominently in Scripture because the two geographical features that continually seem to wrestle for control in the Holy Land are the sea and the desert sand. One Bible dictionary describes how the wind rages across Middle Eastern deserts, “driving plants, animals, and people before it like chaff.” The dictionary entry goes on to say how people believed the desert was a place where only “divine intervention offers deliverance from death.”

Desert photo found with Google.

Long ago, I learned from James Houston how biblical deserts are not only geographic locales but also a symbol of the periods in our lives when we need to be tested and learn the ways of the Lord. These are difficult times. However, it’s in a desert experience – when I feel disoriented and uncertain – that I may best learn to trust God in deeper ways than if everything were fine.

Despite the cards, lights, parties, presents, and general festive cheer, Christmastime can feel like a desert. Loneliness, seasonal affective disorder, family being far away, financial strain, or grief over an absent loved one easily make this a difficult time of the year.

It’s not a typical Christmas text, but the Song of Moses gives me courage when I feel blue this time of year: It reminds me how God never abandons me in my desert experiences. Even “in a desert land” or “in a barren and howling waste,” God finds me, just as He found and led the Israelites in ancient times. He not only finds me (even though that would be enough!), He also shields and cares for me; He guards me “as the apple of His eye.”

Mind you, that doesn’t automatically make the desert a challenge-free place. Moses sings of how God is like the mother eagle who “stirs up her nest” and pushes out her chicks. They need to learn to fly, not always play it safe in the nest. But the mother still “spreads her wings to catch them and carries them aloft” as they struggle and learn. Similarly, followers of Jesus are always being pushed out of the nest, out of our comfort zone somehow or other as the Holy Spirit dares us to dream and risk and redefine impossible as we pursue God’s mission for us. And even when it feels most difficult, God never drops or forgets any of His people.

I dare say one of the reasons God allows me to experience a challenging time, a desert place, is so that I can better experience Him. When I am worn out and dried up, I have nowhere else to turn except to God, the One who shields and cares for me. God leads me in my desert experiences and makes me better despite – or because – of them.

Granted, He doesn’t necessarily promise to entirely remove me from the desert – at least not on this side of the new heavens and new earth. But He does promise to never forsake me or leave me on my own. He didn’t find me in the first place just to give up on or lose me.

With God’s presence and in His strength, even a barren or blue Christmas can become a bit more of a joyous Christmas for me. And if I can share that Good News with someone else, maybe it’ll bring a bit more joy to their Christmas, too.

Losing Jesus

Epiphany starts today. The liturgical season of Christmas is officially over.

In another week or two, our family will take down our Christmas decorations. One of our favorite pieces is our Precious Moments nativity display. Each November we carefully unpack it from a box we have specifically for it and each January we carefully pack it all back in again.

Our Precious Moments nativity set

As you can see from the picture, baby Jesus is the smallest piece of this set. And baby Jesus is the first piece I look for when I open the box and the last piece I double check to ensure was safely put back in. I mean, it would be sad if we lost a sheep or even the shepherd, but it would be nearly tragic if we lost baby Jesus!

I think there’s a bit of irony in the thought of losing Jesus: As He is fully and holy God, I never need worry whether Jesus will become lost or stray from carrying out His redemptive plan for me. He came at Christmas so that I would never be lost!

So each time I put away the nativity, I give thanks that the care I take in not losing baby Jesus is actually infinitesimal compared to the care He took – as well as the pain He endured and the victory He achieved – to ensure I’m never lost.

Gloria in excelsis Deo!

A Christmas prayer

Lord Jesus Christ,

Your first disciples heard, saw, and touched you. They concluded that you are the very life – the essence – of God. You are eternal life. Yet they never forgot this crucial fact: You are also flesh and blood.

Too easily we lose touch with this reality. Too easily you become a pious name, an abstract idea, a theological term. Too often we talk about you as if you are not present with us. (But though we cannot see you with our eyes, you are near.) Lord, have mercy on us, sinners.

Grant us, Lord Jesus, during this Christmas season, the grace to contemplate you as the Incarnate One. In you, there is no darkness, no sin, no loneliness. You are light.

So we desire this same integrity that you embody in flesh and spirit. As we contemplate you, O God-made-flesh, dry up the roots of our sin and transform our inner lives into the likeness of you.

The Cradle and the Crown - A Regent College Advent Reader edited by G. Richard Thompson, et alAmen.

I slightly adapted this prayer for Advent
written by fellow
Regent College alum Alvin Ung
who suggests praying it in light of 1 John 1:1-2:2.
It appears in
The Cradle and the Crown.

While Children Watched Their Flocks by Night

If you use Google to look up pictures of “shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks,” you find a lot of bearded fellows with long staffs. Some look like they could be grandparents.

Christmas carol graphic found at SermonCentral

To this day, you will still find shepherds in the vicinity of Bethlehem and historians believe that not much has changed in the shepherding profession in the past 2,000 years. Something I heard Ray Vander Laan once say about these shepherds (and I understand he repeats it here) fascinates me: Many of them are children, often young girls.

That means some? most? all? of the people who receive the angel’s message that first Christmas are children. So then it’s children who make their way to the manger to find the newborn Messiah. And it’s children who “spread the word” about the Christ child and go about “glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen.”

I’ve known for a long time that the Holy Spirit is no respecter of age: He can use and work through anyone regardless of how old they are. So I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that the first evangelists telling others about Jesus are very likely young girls and maybe some boys, too.

This is a great time of year for children. Monica and I are looking forward to watching our children open their presents this evening after we enjoy a fun meal together. But children need not only be recipients of Christmas joy: They can join their adult sisters and brothers in Christ in spreading the Good News of Jesus’ arrival and the difference He makes in our lives and in our world.

No one is too young, immature, or inexperienced to be blessed by and to bless others with the joy of the season this Christmas. Not even you regardless of your age!

O Sordid Town of Bethlehem

Until recently, if you’d have asked me what I imagined the town of Bethlehem to have been like in Bible times, I would have described a pleasant hillside village on a cool evening surrounded by peace and quiet. I assumed the Christmas story takes place in a sort of wholesome US Midwest small farming town, where people are generally friendly and values matter.

Christmas carol graphic found at SermonCentral

It turns out that the Bible paints a startlingly different picture of Bethlehem. The place is first mentioned in Genesis in connection with Rachel, the favorite wife of the patriarch Jacob. She dies in childbirth, naming her son BenOni, which means Son of My Sorrow. Jacob buries Rachel in Bethlehem and sets up a pillar over her tomb as a visible reminder of the sadness associated with this location.

After Genesis, the next two stories with references to Bethlehem come in the book of Judges which records a very dark time in Israel’s history. The first story concerns a citizen in Ephraim who crafts an idol made of silver and then hires a Levite from Bethlehem to be the priest for his false god. It’s a good gig for the Levite until warriors from Dan come and steal the idol. But it all works out because the warriors end up bribing the Levite from Bethlehem to become their priest instead. The second story from Judges concerns another Levite who has a concubine (think: mistress) from Bethlehem. The two are on a journey and overnight in Gibeah. The locals demand to have sex with the traveler, but he offers them his concubine instead. The concubine is gang raped and ends up dying after the ordeal. So what does the Levite do with his deceased concubine from Bethlehem? He takes a knife and cuts up his concubine, limb by limb, into twelve parts and sends them into all the areas of Israel which then plunges the country into civil war.

After the book of Judges comes the story of Ruth. It begins with a famine in Bethlehem (ironically, the name Bethlehem means House of Bread) that drives Naomi’s family to Moab. Naomi later returns to Bethlehem as a childless, bitter widow.

We learn in 1 Samuel that the great king David is from Bethlehem. But we’re first introduced to him as the youngest son of Jesse who doesn’t bother inviting his boy to the feast when the prophet Samuel asks to meet all of Jesse’s sons. The town is again part of a story in 2 Samuel, but the lines on the map have been redrawn: Israel has lost Bethlehem and it is under the control of the Israelite’s enemies, the Philistines, at this point in history.

We read about Bethlehem once more in the New Testament soon after Jesus’ birth in that town when King Herod goes on a murderous rampage in an effort to destroy “the one who has been born king of the Jews.” The despot kills all children in Bethlehem 2-years-old and younger.

To summarize: Stories in the Bible connected with Bethlehem are filled A Not-So-Silent Night by Verlyn D Verbruggewith grief, idolatry, sexual immorality, war, depression, family dysfunction, military weakness, and infanticide. As Verlyn D. Verbrugge puts it, Bethlehem’s history “is connected with either extreme sadness, unfaithfulness, and seedy or despicable behavior.”

Yet despite its sketchy history, God chooses Bethlehem as the birthplace for His Son! I see in God’s choice of Bethlehem a picture of God’s redemptive purposes – His tendency to rescue the most hopeless of situations.

I head into Christmas fully aware that I do not have the perfect family that people might be inclined to think we have based solely on the smiling faces on our Christmas photo card. Our home is not always a haven but sometimes a place filled with stress and short tempers. There always seem to be temptations vying for my attention and opportunities for me to mess up and hurt others.

Yet I need not despair: If God can bring something (Someone!) good out of Bethlehem (of all places, it turns out!), then God can use me and whatever mess I find myself in. The Good News is that God specializes in redeeming bad places, relationships, and situations.

Which, of course, is why Jesus came to Bethlehem in the first place.

Fear not

If you research what the most basic emotions are, you get a whole bunch of different answers. Some psychologists say it’s just fear, love, and rage, and that each of our other emotions is a subcategory under one of those three. Other psychologists have a much longer list of what comprises our most basic emotions. But for the majority of Image of fear found via Googlepsychologists, fear is prominent on their list.

Some of our fears are external: We’re afraid of circumstances on the horizon that will be out of our control. We fear being personally assaulted or getting caught up in a terrorist attack on our city. Or maybe at the moment we’re only afraid of what the boss or teacher will say about our project not getting done on time.

A lot of our fears are internal. We’re afraid of not having enough money, of not keeping up with the Joneses. We fear what other people think of us and our material possessions. We have fears connected with intimacy, life purpose, physical appearances, health, and change.

What aren’t we afraid of? Our hearts and minds are filled with fear!

This time of year, we’re once again integrating the Christmas story into our fear-filled lives. It struck me afresh these past few weeks how often the command “Fear not” appears in the Bible texts connected with Christmas. The angel says to Zechariah: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard.”  The same angel says to Mary: “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God.” To the shepherds out in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night, the angel says: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.” I especially like the angel’s words to Joseph: “Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”

It’s appropriate to hear God’s messengers comfort people in the Christmas story because at Christmas we’re celebrating the arrival of the One who says most convincingly, “Do not be afraid.” To use Jesus’ actual words: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me… Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

We receive and experience Jesus’ peace as His Holy Spirit works in us. The angel said to Joseph that “what is conceived in [Mary] is Happy New Year 2014 image found via Googlefrom the Holy Spirit.” I think that’s part of the Christmas and New Year’s message for us, too: What is conceived in you and me this season and for 2014 is from the Holy Spirit. What have we to fear? The Spirit is present and will be at work in you and me all year long.

PS: Shout out to Leah! Thanks for your encouragement!