Monday, January 28, 2013

Like a Tree // Family Life

sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 01/27/2012

video available at  (this one in particular is worth watching or listening to the podcast – lots of examples didn’t make it to the notes)


Like a Tree series. Psalm 1: Happy is the man who…like a tree planted by streams of living water…


Last week we talked about nurturing and tending to our interior lives. Spiritual growth starts with us. Our inner selves. Our hearts, our souls. Our interior lives. Everything we do flows from there.

However, spiritual growth isn’t just an internal thing. In fact, it can’t be. It must extend to the whole of our selves, including our relationships with others outside of ourselves, or it won’t last.


Consider 1 John 4:12:

No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.

Loving one another is all tangled up with our relationship with God. Spiritual growth is never an exclusively internal thing. That would be like eating without ever moving. Sure, you’ll grow for a little while. But you won’t have any life, and eventually you’ll die.

Just as with any living thing, growth happens throughout the organism. Spiritual growth is the same way. We grow first in our interior relationship with God. And then growth extends into other areas of our lives. Our family life. Our work or active life. Our missional life.

Today we are going to talk about nurturing and tending to our family life. The way we tend to the activities we do and the time we spend with those whom we love and are in closest relationship has a significant impact on our spiritual growth. Because our families – properly understood – are where we first start practicing loving one another. God uses those people to speak to us, to bless us, to challenge us, to test us, to encourage us, to shape us, to give life to us.

If our desire is to be like a tree planted by streams of living water, we must give focused engagement to tending to those relationships. To loving and serving our families. To inviting Christ to be present at the center of them. To looking for the activity of God in the midst of them and cooperating with it.

Let’s acknowledge that the word family means different things to different ones of us. For some of us, it might mean siblings and cousins and parents. For others, spouses and children. For still others, it’s the family you’ve made for yourself in the absence of flesh and blood family [Friends, How I Met Your Mother, Avengers]. And for some, it’s a painful topic, period, because you don’t have anyone you’d call family – so for you, your first step might be adopting a family to love.

To begin though, we need to talk a little theology first.


All Christian theology starts with the trinity. One God, three persons. Father, Son, Holy Spirit. We might even say God is himself a loving family. As the scriptures describe him, God is love. And you can’t have love all by yourself, can you?

The Bible describes God’s love as something that is always expanding, multiplying, growing, ever welcoming more and more into itself. So he makes a universe, and people within it. People whom he makes his children and welcomes into his family. The people of Israel are described as God’s firstborn son. The Gospel of John says that those who believe in Jesus are given the right to be called “children of God.” Those on whom God pours out his Holy Spirit are described as being “born again” or “born of the Spirit.” The church, the followers of Jesus are described as Jesus’ bride, whom he will one day wed.

And the people whom God makes have this same love impulse in them as well, this impulse to deeply connect in love with those who might at one time be other, but through love become family. Husbands and wives are described as two becoming one flesh. We have powerful drives to procreate and bond with children who share our DNA. We have strong attachments to extended family and even to tribes whom we think of as family.

Love is at the root of all this, of course. Love that comes from the God who is love. But even it can get twisted and turned in on itself in this broken, sinful world. We sometimes begin to “love” exclusively those whom we think of as “us”, and ignore or disdain or even hate those who fall outside of that family circle.

[“us” continuum]


And so the work of the good news, the gospel, is always to unleash the true love of God who desires to make everyone his family by his grace, making us all brothers and sisters, even those who might at one time call themselves enemies.

[“us” continuum collapsed]


This is the point of the second half of the great commandment. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself. And this is why Jesus then proceeds to define neighbor as one whom his listeners would have counted as an enemy.


So when we talk about nurturing our family life for spiritual growth, we must understand that the definition of family – no matter how limited it might be for you at the moment – is always meant to eventually include the whole family of God, including those whom you might now count even as enemies. And, as a result, part of nurturing our family life means looking beyond flesh and blood family to those God is wanting you to welcome into your family circle. In fact, for some of you, depending on your personal circumstances and where you are at in your own spiritual journey, “family” for you includes people not related to you. Perhaps close friends, people from your small group, others with whom God has brought you into deep loving relationship.

Maybe ask yourself this question: whom have you made holy commitments to love for the long haul? (by holy I mean set apart to God.) Let’s start there. Let’s call that your family. How do we to tend and nurture our love for them, so that God abides in us and his love is made perfect in us? So that we become like a tree planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in season, our leaves not withering.

The answer is surprisingly simple. Take the posture of a servant, learn to discern how God is calling you to cooperate with him in loving them, and dive in, taking care to be yourself in the process.


Here’s the temptation we’ll all likely face: to try be the perfect __________ father, mother, brother, sister, husband, wife, son, daughter. To see how someone else does it, and try to measure up or do it the same way they do it.

Don’t fall for it! It’s worse than a waste of time; it will give you no life, it will give no life to your family, and may in fact destroy you. At the very least it will stress you out to no end. Why? There is no “perfect” __________, for starters. There is only the you that God is making you to be. And he is making you to be you for his good purposes.

Now, sure, you may be broken and riddled with sin, etc. And God may be shaping and changing you, setting you free from all sorts of things, growing you in strength and grace and love, etc. But his ultimate purpose is for you to be the you that you and he are creatively growing together. Not for you to be some Platonic ideal of a _____________.

And sure, you may be inspired or convicted or encouraged by the way so and so loves his wife or children or friends or siblings, etc. But only because that inspiration or conviction or encouragement points you towards something God is doing in you, some growth he is bringing about in you. And you’ll know that because it will be free of guilt and shame and performance anxiety. You’ll know it because there will be holy grace and energy for growth, a sense of “rightness” and enthusiasm within you. You’ll know it because you become more fully your true self as you cooperate with him.

So on to step one. Take the posture of a servant. We cannot love from any other posture. Are you standing in judgment toward a family member? Step down. Reorient yourself as a servant, placed there by God to help them take their next step toward life. Let go of critique. Let go of agenda. Let go of expectations and things you want from them for yourself.

This isn’t easy. It may require a daily discipline of repentance prayer. “Jesus, forgive me of my judgment / agenda / critique / expectations / selfish desires towards _________. Allow me to see __________ as a brother or sister that you’ve called me to serve in love.”

Steps two & three. Now that you are properly oriented towards them in love, look to see what God wants you to do to cooperate with his love at work in their life, and dive in based on what you think you see. This is the trial & error, adventure, creative, mysterious, keep you occupied your whole life trying to get it right part of loving. There are no shortcuts to it. It involves learning to hear how Jesus speaks to you. It involves the courage to obey. It involves taking risks. It involves getting feedback, making adjustments, persistence, patience, endurance.

Finally, step Always. Take care to be yourself. Yes, you want to be the best yourself you can be by God’s grace, but never try to be somebody else. There will be a way to love your family as you. [discuss Susanna Wesley example from booklet…] There will be grace from Christ to become more fully yourself in love, but there will not be grace to become somebody else.


Are you repeatedly frustrated or disappointed in yourself in your attempts to love your family better? It might be because you’re trying to wear some clothes that fit somebody else better. [David & Saul example…] Ditch ‘em. Try another outfit, or go naked if you have to. Confess: I want to love you better, but I don’t know how? What would you like from me? And then try what they suggest.

Are you making small steps in the right direction and it feels good, even if it’s not as fast as you’d like? Then you’re probably on the right track. That’s how spiritual growth feels.

Practical Tips:


[morning & evening prayers + Examen]


1. Pray for your family 6 this week – one family member a day. Make a list, put it somewhere you’ll see it every day.

2. Pray for your other 6 this week – one a day. Make a list, put it somewhere you’ll see it every day. The other 6 are 6 people you have regular interaction with that may – as far as you know - have no one else praying for them and loving them with God’s love in their lives. Neighbor, co-worker, teammate, classmate, teacher, barber, cashier, probation officer, dentist, doctor, etc. You can do this together with another family member, or solo.

3. Pop the question. Ask at least 1 family member how you can love them better this week. Try doing what they tell you.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Like A Tree // Interior Life

sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 01/20/2012

video available at


20My son, pay attention to what I say;

turn your ear to my words.

21Do not let them out of your sight,

keep them within your heart;

22for they are life to those who find them

and health to one’s whole body.

23Above all else, guard your heart,

for everything you do flows from it.

Proverbs 4:20-23

In a series called “Like A Tree” focused on spiritual growth. On becoming, as we talked about last week from Psalm 1, people who are like a tree planted by streams of water.


Text today from the book of Proverbs, structured as instructions or wisdom from a father to his sons.

לֵבָב [lebab /lay·bawb/] : inner person, center (translated here as “heart”)


The kind of growth we’re talking about, spiritual growth, begins in our inner person, our heart, our soul. And from there flows to the rest of us.

A fundamental idea in spiritual growth is that life comes from God, and God alone, and if we are drawing on his life, with intentional, focused engagement, growth will happen. Just like a tree planted by streams of water will draw nutrients and moisture and energy from the soil and sunlight, and growth will happen. And the more it grows, the deeper its roots will grow, and the broader and higher it’s branches, and growth will multiply.


We draw life from God first and foremost through our inner person, our heart, our soul. If the center of us is connected to him, moving towards him and not away, at peace, secure, then we will grow. We will be like a tree planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in season, our leaves not withering, whatever we do prospering, as Psalm 1 describes.

Our world is full of things promising life and demanding our attention.



Shiny objects.

Tasty things.

Exciting things.

Pleasurable things.

Numbing things.

Fearful things.

If any of these things get our first attention, if our inner person imagines that it might draw life – or have protection – from any of these things, our inner lives will fall into turmoil.


The center of us will move away from God, the true source of life. We will become disconnected from him, and by extension our connection with everyone else will become corrupted, twisted. Peace will leave like heat escaping when the door is left open in winter. Security will turn to insecurity. And growth will sour and give way to death.

Even in religious settings, it’s easy to lose the plot and allow spiritual growth to stagnate. It happens as soon as our focus becomes anything other than the Jesus. This is what happens in bounded set churches…

[Illustration showing people inside and outside of a circle…]


The primary concern in a bounded-set organization is how we are doing in relationship to the boundaries (particular behaviors, conviction about a particular set of beliefs, ways of dressing, ways of worshipping, etc.). Our concern for ourselves becomes: am I staying inside of these boundaries? Our concern for others becomes: how do I get and keep them inside of these boundaries? Or sometimes: how do I ensure or maintain the purity of those within the boundaries?

But then of course our inner lives grow stagnant, we become dry and empty inside, and the rest of our lives get emptied of life and love over time.

Remember, we are a centered-set church.

[Illustration with Jesus at center, people with arrows oriented in various directions surrounding…]


Our primary concern in a centered-set church is whether we are moving towards, away from, or stagnant in relation to our center, Jesus. Our concern for ourselves is this: What is our next step in discipleship, in spiritual growth? Our concern for one another is: How do we support one another in taking that step? Because our desire is life (Jesus: “I have come that they might have life, and have it to the full.”) And if we want more life, we must move towards Jesus, who is the way, the truth, and the Life. And love is our aim (Jesus: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”). To love someone is to serve them in their pursuit of life, is it not?

Spiritual growth is a process of day by day re-orienting our inner selves, our hearts, our souls toward the center. Toward Jesus. Because eventually, over time and with focused engagement, all the rest of us will come along for the ride.

As the writer of proverbs says:

23Above all else, guard your heart,

for everything you do flows from it.

(for from it flow the springs of life.)

In Luke 6:45, Jesus says it this way:

The good man brings up good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things stored out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.

So here is the question today: How is your inner life?

How is your heart? How is your soul? Is it settled and at peace in your relationship with God? Is your identity as beloved child of the good God secure? Or are you experiencing an inner turmoil and discontent? Anxiety? Self-hatred or doubt?

Ignatius of Loyola can be very helpful to us in “guarding our hearts” or keeping them oriented towards Jesus for life. (noble birth in the 1500s, leader in the Spanish military, wounded by a cannonball, ended up having a profound conversion experience while recuperating, and then eventually founded the Jesuit order, devoting his life to training people to care for their interior life with Jesus.)

He taught that our souls move in and out of two states: “consolation” and “desolation.” Consolation being when we experience an increase of faith, hope, love, and inner joys that draw us towards God. Desolation being when we experience darkness of the soul, turmoil of the mind, inclination to low things, restlessness from disturbances and temptations which lead to loss of faith, loss of hope, loss of love, apathy, separation from God.

One of the practices Ignatius recommends is the daily examen. Simply a regular time each day to examine your inner life and point yourself towards God.


The Daily Examen is a tool we will be using throughout this series, and add a unique element each week. It works by setting aside some private time each day (10 minutes should be enough, although you can take much longer if you’d like) and following 6 steps:

1. Stillness: Become aware of the Presence of God. Quiet your heart, and listen. In this moment, become present to Jesus.

2. Gratitude: Review your day with gratitude. Seeing through a lens of thanks, appreciate God’s gifts in each event of the day.

3. Reflection: Become aware of your emotions. Review your positive and negative feelings. Did you choose Jesus’ way in each situation?

4. Joy & Sorrow: choose one feature of the day, and pray. Rejoice in a success, or ask forgiveness for a sin. If necessary, plan to make amends.

5. Hope: Look toward tomorrow. Move toward expectation. Ask God to shine light on tomorrow’s path. Resolve to grow.

6. Question of the Week (this week): Am I finding my identity in my relationship with Jesus, or increasingly in my tasks, relationships, ministry, or vision?

Closing thought.

Above all else, guard your heart.

More literally, keep watch over your heart with all diligence. In other words, this is the one thing that matters. Your inner self is the whole game. Like coaches that say “defense wins championships.” Anything else you are doing – if you are doing it instead of keeping your inner life on track with God – is foolhardy. It’s like driving with your eyes closed. You, and everyone else, would be better off with you staying where you are and doing nothing. Or maybe think of it this way: If you’ve got 1 gallon of gas in your tank, and there is a gas station 20 miles north of you, but the place you’re trying to get is 100 miles to the south, turn north and use what gas you have to get to the gas station!

Sometimes we are fooling ourselves that we don’t have time or energy to attend to our interior lives. That they will somehow get better on their own, if we just keep plugging along taking care of our exterior lives. Doing our work. Taking care of our families. Making a difference in the world. Not so! says proverbs. Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. If your heart becomes lifeless, so does the rest of you in short order.

What is the point of life without any life? What is the point of working hard to make a living when there is no life in your living? If that’s what we’re doing, we are living to die. Far better to die to some of the things we think will bring us life, in order to have the real life God alone can give us.


Which brings us to the practical tips:

1. Option A. Try the Examen + the morning and evening prayers for 1 week. Not kidding. Just do it. No matter what it means you have to give up to do it. A 1 week experiment to turn the arrow of your heart towards the center, and see what your experience of life is. And then give an honest answer to this question at the end of this week: How did I experience life this week? Have I grown at all?

2. Option B. Do nothing different. Keep on keeping on. And then give an honest answer to this question at the end of this week: How did I experience life this week? Have I grown at all?

3. Together We. Try the buddy system.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Like A Tree // A Guiding Vision

sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 01/13/2013

video available at


Happy is the man who has not walked in the wicked’s counsel,

nor in the way of offenders has stood,

nor in the session of scoffers has sat.

But the LORD’s teaching is his desire,

and His teaching he murmurs day and night.

And he shall be like a tree planted by streams of water,

that bears its fruit in season,

and its leaf does not wither—

and in all that he does he prospers.

Psalm 1:1-3 (Robert Alter’s Translation)

A new series starting today. “Like A Tree.” Focused on spiritual growth. A new year is beginning, and one of the graces that comes in the marking of time is the openness we have to new growth at the start of new seasons. We are reminded that in the ongoing flow of time, there are times for fresh starts, for new intentions, for change, for growth. This is such a time for us.


We will be considering spiritual growth and its connection to our souls, our interior lives. Its connection to our family lives, our central relational responsibilities. Its connection to our active lives, the work we do as worship in our world. And is connection to our missional lives, the calling or sense of purpose that Christ has given us.

Today: a guiding vision of spiritual growth from Psalm 1.

Happy is the man who has not walked in the wicked’s counsel,

nor in the way of offenders has stood,

nor in the session of scoffers has sat.

But the LORD’s teaching is his desire,

and His teaching he murmurs day and night.

And he shall be like a tree planted by streams of water,

that bears its fruit in season,

and its leaf does not wither—

and in all that he does he prospers.

Psalm 1:1-3


Notice the first word.


In Hebrew, ‘ashrei.

Also translated “blessed.”

A kind of abiding happiness. Like there is a peace in that kind of happiness. A staying power. A deep down right with the world in the soul. Like a laugh and a smile and sigh of satisfaction rolled into one, with echoing rumbles reverberating in one’s bones.

That’s where spiritual growth leads us. To happy. To blessed. To ‘ashrei.

The writer of this poem knows that before us there are always two invitations. An invitation to seize some appealing, right-in-front-of-our-noses happiness for ourselves. And an invitation to come near to the happy God and learn from him how to have the life he has.

The first road forks into the desert, full of flashing neon signs advertising happiness. The other road can scarcely be called a road at all, it is simply the bank of a river, running from a mountain to the sea.

Happy, says the psalmist, is the one who chooses to be like a tree planted by that stream.

Spiritual growth always begins with trust. Trust that the God who is the author and source of life does in fact love us and desire us to have life and happiness. Trust that he knows the way to give it to us, that he knows what we need to experience it, that he is in fact in the life and happiness business, that we can surrender ourselves into his care.

Brings to mind the first three steps in AA.

1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.

2. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.

Surely that is a picture of people who have chosen to abandon the road of neon signs and allow themselves to be planted by streams of water.

My understanding is this. Happiness is the natural state of God, and as human beings made to bear his image, it is meant to be ours as well. The news that has the last word in our world is the good news of God’s kingdom, and learning to hear and trust and live in the reality that good news sheds light on restores our capacity to be image-bearers, and to be blessed, happy.

Yes, there is suffering and pain and horror and evil all around us. And we will not be untouched by it. It will vex us and pummel us and try us to our breaking point. Nonetheless, God’s kingdom is breaking in and setting all things right, and the promise of the resurrection is that his ultimate victory is secured. Good will prevail. Love will win. Life will have the last word. And so the surest route to happiness is the one Jesus recommends: seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

So let us resolve to grow in trusting God, confident that the happiness we seek is already present in him, and we will know it more and more as we draw nearer, and he nourishes us and strengthens us.

Now notice this. Walked….Stood….Sat.


Happy is the man who has not walked in the wicked’s counsel,

nor in the way of offenders has stood,

nor in the session of scoffers has sat.

Picture it. There is a movement, a progression, a process.

Walking. One could change course at any time, veer off, slow down and let the wicked pass them by.

Standing. One has stopped and turned face to face, eye to eye with the offenders. Intimacy and vulnerability has increased. Contracts and deals are arranged in this posture.

Sitting. Things are settled now. It takes quite an effort to get up and leave. Deep conversation happens seated. The breaking of bread.

This is a picture of the process by which spiritual death happens, and it tells us as well that spiritual growth is a process. Perhaps one that begins at first with rousing ourselves from seated positions. Standing where we had previously been sitting. And then walking, but in a different direction, perhaps alone for a while until we have reached the banks of the river we left.

But the LORD’s teaching is his desire,

and His teaching he murmurs day and night.

Spiritual growth begins with desire for it. Growth doesn’t happen apart from desire. Not from a sense of should or duty or to please someone else. Rather, growth is fueled by a primal desire deep within us. And like all desires, it can be disregarded and abandoned, or nourished and brought to maturity.

If you find yourself desiring growth, know that the Holy Spirit is with you. It is God himself who has awakened in you a desire for more life, because he knows that eventually that desire will lead you to him. Say yes to it, give it its head, and let it run. It will lead you to water.

But the LORD’s teaching is his desire,

and His teaching he murmurs day and night.

murmur // hagah : a low muttering sound, what one does with text in a culture in which there is no silent reading. What we might today consider meditating, focused engagement.

Spiritual growth is supported by focused engagement. Intentional, regular (in the psalm, daily) practices to move us towards God, the source of our life. Without focused engagement, growth will be stunted at best. At worst, it may be arrested entirely, as we slowly wither in the rush and press of day to day life.

Over the course of the series, we’ll use some tools to help us murmur, to help us be intentionally focused, engaged. When we get to practical tips in a bit, we’ll talk about some simple prayers and scriptures to use every day from now until Lent.

And he shall be like a tree planted by streams of water,

that bears its fruit in season,

and its leaf does not wither—

and in all that he does he prospers.

Here now is our central image. A tree planted by streams of water, bearing its fruit in season, its leaf not withering.

In a semi-arid climate like Israel, there is not enough precipitation for a tree to flourish, unless it is near a water source.

Have you ever felt like our lives take place in a semi-arid climate? If we want to flourish, we need feeder roots that go down deep, reaching for supply. Leaves that capture the sun and the rain. Minerals in the soil provided by the life and death of the community of trees around us.

The growth that comes to a tree planted by streams of water is a process too. It is slow, taking place over years, season after season. It can’t be rushed, but it can be nurtured. Nurtured by stretching out roots in prayer, study, caring for one’s self, engagement in the life of the community of disciples, responding to the call of mission.

So as we approach our study of spiritual growth over these next several weeks, the questions before us are these. Which image describes your life right now? The unhappy one who walks and stands and sits, chasing after the false seductions of happiness? Or the happy one who is planted like a tree on the bank of a river of life, trusting God and finding life in the deep places of her soul, bearing fruit in season, leaves green and growing towards the sun? And what do you desire, more than anything now, here, today, in the presence of God and this community of saints? Is it the neon lights and promises of this advertisement soaked world? Or is what you desire the good life that Jesus promises to teach us if we follow him?

If so, then come and join together with us these next few weeks.


Practical Tips:

1. Waking and Sleeping Prayers

2. Walk Away

3. Stop chasing happiness and start chasing the happy God.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Christmas Eve: Swaddled Hope

sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 12/24/2012

video available at

Christmas is a season of hope. Hope wrapped in swaddling clothes. Hope drawing its first bracing breath. Hope announcing itself with a baby’s piercing cry, interrupting the cold dark night. Hope hungry to be fed, longing to be held.

Hope is no delicate, pretty thing. It is strong and unwieldy. Jarring at times in its entrance. Sneaking up on you at others. But always raw, wrinkly, unadorned. Like a naked baby embracing life for the first time.

The Christmas story teaches us an important lesson about the beginnings of hope. Because Christmas is, after all, the dawning of hope in the world. A world aching for salvation, for the intervention of God in its darkness and crisis.

This Christmas Eve, may we consider what the birth of Jesus teaches us about how we too, can apprehend the hope of Christmas.

As we witness Joseph and Mary on a forced trek to Bethlehem, Mary pregnant and weary, finding only a stable for shelter… as we witness the Shepherds summoned by angels to gather around the newborn and his bleary eyed parents… we learn this about Hope:

Hope comes when we enter into the real pain of the world and encounter God there. When we allow ourselves to open up, touch the pain of another and encounter God there – that is when we have an active experience of hope. As long as we stay insulated in ourselves, we won’t know the joy of salvation. Because the joy of salvation is big and wide, a party to which all are invited.

The manger invites us to come and taste that joy.

That’s what the shepherds did, and they went on their way rejoicing.

4So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

8And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

13Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14“Glory to God in the highest heaven,

and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

16So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

Luke 2:4-20

Perhaps the nativity scenes we are most familiar with leave us with the impression that the shepherds were entering a Hallmark moment, peaceful and quiet, filled with soft lights and harp music and beatific smiles.

But no, the shepherds were sent into an animal shelter filled with some of the deepest pain known to humankind that night.

There is the pain of displacement, of separation from our home. All of us know this pain, do we not…?

Joseph and Mary were forced to take this journey for the sake of a Roman census. An edict that was enforced by Roman soldiers. At the end of a pregnancy. When a woman doesn’t even want to go up or down the stairs if she doesn’t have to. When the last place a poor man wants to be is on the road trying to get his beloved wife to safety and shelter, alone and far from grandmothers and aunts and others with experience in these matters.

There is the pain of isolation, of separation from the party. All of us have felt this pain, have we not…?

They arrive in Bethlehem to discover that there is no room for them. That they have arrived too late, surely because they had to travel more slowly than others. And they are too poor to bribe the innkeeper for a room. They can’t even generate enough sympathy for Mary’s condition. And so while everyone else is warm and fed and gathered together, they are left out in the cold.

There is the pain of rejection. All of us dread this pain, do we not…?

Why is no one with them? Why would no one travel to help this baby be born? Mary was an unwed woman when she became pregnant with Jesus, and this put her in a distressing situation. Joseph even considered abandoning her, cutting off their engagement, until an angel arrested him. He quietly married her, but a stigma would have remained on her pregnancy and her child to most who knew her, with the exception of her older cousin, Elizabeth, whose son John the Baptist leapt in her womb when she visited. And so Joseph and Mary find themselves alone, socially rejected as their son Jesus is born that night.

And of course, there is the pain of birth itself, the excruciating transition from one kind of life to another that growth requires. This is a pain we all unavoidably share in common.

Mary gave birth to her son with only her husband Joseph there for comfort and help. A young teenager. Worn out after a long journey. Carrying all those other pains in her heart. And surely fears born out of pain. And first babies do not come gracefully into this world, do they?

So we can imagine the scene into which the shepherds rushed. Joseph and Mary, exhausted and overwhelmed. This long awaited birth, fraught with anxiety and pain. And everything has gone wrong except that this baby is alive. And now theirs to care for. And there is no sign of God’s presence, of some miracle of epic proportion. Just a crying and perhaps now sleeping baby.

And then the shepherds enter. And they are filled with wonder because what the angels has said was proven true. And they see God in the painful place they have entered into.

And Joseph and Mary hear them tell their story. And they are filled with wonder because what the angels said to them 9 months earlier has found confirmation. And they see God now, right before them in the manger.

And Hope. Hope is here. Hope comes alive in them. Hope is alive in the world. Rescue is coming! It has arrived. Oh, it has arrived indeed, right in the midst of their pain.

And so the shepherds leave, praising, bursting with hope.

And Mary treasures all these things and ponders them in her heart. Hope filling every place of pain, like a river released from a dam, tumbling, coursing through the dry riverbeds of her soul.

May we have courage this Christmas to open ourselves up to entering into the pain of others and meeting God there, so that we, and our world may be filled with hope.

God himself had that courage. After all, the one who first opened himself up and entered into our pain is Immanuel, God with us. Jesus, born to Mary, God made flesh dwelling among us. Our savior, separated from his home, far from heaven’s party, rejected, suffering the excruciating transitions of birth, and later even death, so that the old creation might be transformed into new creation. And he now is our hope: Jesus, the hope of the world, the hope of my life and yours.

May we hear the mangers where he is born beckoning us to come, in the real pain of our world. In the lives of our children, our parents, our brothers, our sisters, our neighbors, our friends, our enemies. In poverty. And sickness. In rejection. And isolation.

And may we be like the shepherds, so that hope may become active in us, and we may have cause to glorify and praise God with them.

And may you be like Mary, bearing your pain with patience, until the time that God is revealed in it, flooding your soul too with hope wrapped in swaddling clothes.