If Advent I is hope for the longing, Advent II is love for the hurting. As emptiness may oddly convey expectant longing, pain may oddly show the process to purity. Just as dead stumps and empty branches are the images of hopeful anticipation, a metal refinery and a washboard (see Malachi 3:2) are the images of cleansing pain. I’m not intending to suggest that all pain fits this bill, but there are times when the path to being more filled with the love of God…to have, as John Wesley was so apt to put it, the “love of God shed abroad” in our hearts, is one marked with painful struggles and real hurt.

One of the helpful bits I came across in prepping for this week’s sermons came from Jennifer Ryan Ayres, who borrowed from Ralph Smith, in the Feasting on the Word commentary:

When silver is refined, it is treated with carbon or charcoal, preventing the absorption of oxygen and resulting in its sheen and purity. One writer has suggested that a silversmith knows that the refining process is complete only when she observes her “own image reflected in the mirror-like surface of the metal.” If this is the case, does [Malachi] also suggest that the imago Dei [image of God] is restored in this process?

(Photo credit: certifiedassets.com)

(Photo credit: certifiedassets.com)

The implications of this for Advent, a season of preparation for the coming of Christ, abound. This refining process is mentioned in the context of “preparing the way,” a key phrase for the season. As Christ is the “image of the invisible God,” in his Incarnation, God was (and is) refining humanity so that we may reflect the divine image once again. And that image is love (1 John 4:8).

So the path to Love’s arrival may be one marked with hurt. [That was something the Virgin Mary knew quite well as she prepared the way for the Lord.]

I don’t know. Maybe it’s too much to trust that the pain we experience in life will not be left unredeemed. Maybe the evidence that bombards our news outlets, our courtrooms, our funeral homes, our oncology wards, our unemployment offices, and so on, is too much for love to overcome…

Or…maybe, just maybe, we’ll find someday that Love’s reach is deep enough to find us in those areas of our worst humiliation and pains, like in an animals’ feeding trough because the beds were all taken up…and maybe, just maybe, Love will be strong enough to take us to a time and a place, as Mumford & Sons puts it, “with no more tears, and love will not break your heart, but dismiss your fears…” and hurts.

Hurting and not sure, but hoping, that something better is ahead? You’re not alone in the fire.

About a week after Sam was born, I ran into one of my college professors, Glen Spann, who is also a pastor. I had just completed Seminary a few months prior to Sam’s arrival, so Dr. Spann, whom I had kept in touch with, was aware of my having gone through Seminary. After sharing congratulatory words, he said the following: “I’m going to pass along something to you that Dennis Kinlaw said to me when my first child was born. ‘Now your theological education begins!‘” Boy, has that ever rung true as I’ve learned things about God, myself, and human nature in the joyful journey of parenthood I have been blessed to enjoy thus far.

One of those moments happened about a year ago. I mentioned the encounter with my son on facebook when it happened, but the moment was so dear and I’ve gone back to reflect on the beauty of it several times, so wanted to share a little more about it here. One day my son Sam, who was 4 at the time, was playing in the living room floor. I was in the living room with him while Julianne, my daughter was getting a nap. In the midst of playing, Sam stopped what he was doing, stood up, looked at me and stretched out his hands and arms as far as he possibly could and said this: “Daddy, I love you *THIS* much!” In reply, I extended my arms to full length and said, “Sam, I love you *THIS* much!” He kept his arms extended, walked toward me and soon realized that his wingspan was much smaller than mine. He began to frown and get discouraged and said, “Aw, Daddy, I don’t love you as much as you love me.”

After a few moments of chuckling and getting a few tears in my eyes, I said, “Sam, this isn’t a contest. What matters to Daddy is that you love me as much as you can.” Then he came closer and tried to make his arms a little bit longer to match mine as much as possible.

Photo credit: venusstock.com

The challenge for us is that our love needs to keep up as our wingspan grows. Our capacity to love continues to grow as we get older, yet often we want to put a measure to it and keep more to ourselves. If my wingspan was 5 feet at the age of 10 and then 6 feet at the age of 20, then I ought to be continuing to extend my arms in recognizing that being a true disciple of Jesus means that I give all 6 feet of my wingspan in love to God and neighbor. As such, we are called continually to say to God, “I love you *THIS* much.” Growth in grace begets more growth. The more of God’s grace in us, means that we’re called and tasked to keep giving all, not that we give same when our wingspan was shorter.

When Sam came closer and tried to make his arms longer (out of desire to love me more), I realized that he was giving me a picture of what sanctification and discipleship is all about…our love for God and neighbor keeping up with the growing wingspan. Luke said it this way with regard to Jesus’ growth: “He grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and people.”

Now, let’s see if we can make our arms longer!

I’m now a few weeks removed from having preached the series at Liberty’s revival on the Prodigals & Prophets. One of the details of the parable continues to stick out in my mind and blow me away. With all the love and forgiveness that the father lavishes on his lost son who has returned, the one that stands out to me as the most puzzling, at least at such an early stage is the command given by the father to the servants that they put “sandals on his feet.” I find myself asking, “Really, Jesus? A father who puts sandals back on the son’s feet? Don’t you realize that opens up the door for being hurt again, perhaps even worse than the first time? After all, he’s been in a few rough parts of the world that we wouldn’t dare dream of here in the safety of this farm. Sure, let’s put a robe on him, give him a ring, and have a nice barbecue, but you really want to trust him enough to give him a way back out again?”

In preparation for the sermon on the centrality of the father in the parable, my mind raced back to the class I took in college on the 8th century prophets (Amos, Isaiah, Hosea, & Micah were the prophets whose ministries were during the 8th century BC). With all the things that I forgot from that 8:00 am class, two things I remember: 1. the time the professor started to ramble in his prayer one day and began praying for aliens; and 2. the gut-wrenching, tear-jerking analysis of Hosea 11. Now, Hosea’s story certainly has some interesting twists and turns, many of which are not analogous to a parent-child relationship but to a spousal relationship. Nonetheless, chapter 11 portrays the compassion of a heartbroken parent whose children have lost their way, were “bent on turning away from” God, and yet though showing tremendous disappointment, admits an unwillingness to give up on these children. “My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.” What moves a parent to have such compassion?

Hosea 11 showcases the “covenant faithfulness” of God: that God remembers his faithfulness. This isn’t meant to imply that God had “forgotten” it, but that the ultimate character of God is remaining true in faithful love to God’s people. God remembers, among other things that, “Yet it was I who taught them to walk.” Examine what happens in the message of Hosea, the parable of the returning son, and a modern rendition…

God’s children had used their pedagogy to walk away. The younger son received the inheritance and walked away with it. A rebellious teenage daughter is taught how to drive and is given the keys to her parents’ car and decides to leave town with it.

God’s children had lost their way and were scattered without a home and without hope. The younger son wasted half the family fortune and found himself desiring to eat pig slop. The daughter runs out of gas, finds some ways to remedy that and get by for a while,  but eventually runs out of options and gives up the car to keep the collateral from being herself.

God doesn’t give up…

They return. He comes home. She hitches a ride back.

View of the feet from Rembrandt’s painting of ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’. (Photo credit: snailskin.blogspot.com)

“They will walk after the LORD…” (Hosea 11:10); “put sandals on his feet” (Luke 15:22); “Here’s a key to our new car”

Really, God? You’re willing to trust them? him? her?

“We are accustomed to finding a catch in every promise, but Jesus’ stories of extravagant grace include no catch, no loophole disqualifying us from God’s love…I imagined God as a distant thundering figure who prefers fear and respect to love. Jesus tells instead of a father publicly humiliating himself by rushing out to embrace a son who has squandered half the family fortune.” – Philip Yancey

“Behold with wonder and pleasure the gracious reception they find from Divine, injured goodness!” – John Wesley

“Yep. Sandals. They’re my children. My children, like me, are free.”

One of the facts I found out soon after beginning at Post Oak & Liberty UMCs is that there is a tradition at both churches that if they have a new pastor, then the new pastor typically preaches at the revival services at each church in his or her first year. Well, I suppose it’s best not to duplicate the sermons for the revival messages, so I have been spending a lot of time in prayer on what theme or sets of messages to prepare for Liberty after sharing at Post Oak’s revival in August. The messages I preached at Post Oak were centered on the last statements Jesus uttered from the cross, which you can read a little bit about here.

As I’ve been praying with God and conversing with others on what sorts of things ought to be brought to those who will gather at Liberty during the week of revival, I’ve been continually brought back to the parable of the father with his two prodigal sons, found in Luke 15:11-32, as well as some passages from the prophets. Without revealing too much of what is in store, I did want to share with you a resource in which one man describes his encounter with Rembrandt’s painting of the return of the prodigal son.

Rembrandt’s rendition of the return of the younger prodigal son, which is on the cover of Henri Nouwen’s book on the parable & painting. (Photo credit: wikipedia)

A Catholic priest by the name of Henri Nouwen used personal anecdotes in his book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, to tell of how in his life he has found resonance with the various characters found in the story and painting. In particular he told of his progression from playing the part of the bystander(s) to the younger son to that of the elder, but it took the wisdom and input of someone else to point out that his identity was to be found in playing the role and fulfilling the mission of the loving father who pursues both sons in hopes of making the family whole once again. The main character, as it were, is neither the younger nor the older brother, but the compassionate father.

Why am I including “prophets” in the theme? I believe the various characters and elements of this most wonderful parable are demonstrated beautifully in a few passages from the Old Testament prophets: from Micah 6, Ezekiel 36, Jonah 4, and Hosea 11.

>>So if you’re anywhere near Camden, Tennessee during the week of October 7-10, come join us at Liberty UMC at 7pm.<<

May God prepare our hearts in opening wide our hearts for repentance, renewal, restoration, and reconciliation.

“I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ…” Ephesians 3:18 (Photo credit: soulgrit.wordpress.com)

In the midst of St. Paul’s letter to the churches in and around Ephesus, Paul lifts up this glorious prayer that his audience would have the ability to know the immensity of Christ’s love. The four dimensions are illustrated in the depiction of the cross and I really like the way that John Wesley expounded on these dimensions in his Notes on the New Testament. Here’s how Wesley described it:

What is the breadth of the love of Christ – Embracing all mankind. And length – From everlasting to everlasting. And depth – Not to be fathomed by any creature. And height – Not to be reached by any enemy.”

Love’s breadth (or width) – or as Wesley elaborated, Christ’s love is one that is “embracing all mankind.” There is no nation, group, family – no person – who is beyond God’s love. Now on the surface everyone reading this may not have too much difficulty nodding in agreement with that, but let that general statement be applied to people who you find difficult to like or love: no terrorist, no immoral dictator, no dirty politician, no IRS agent, no murderer, no adulterer, no addict, no dead beat dad, no one…is beyond the love of God. When Paul speaks of the immensity of the breadth or width of Christ’s love, we get a vision of just how generous God is in giving his love. Even the deranged mind of a cannibal named Jeffrey Dahmer was able to taste and know God’s love and forgiveness.

Love’s length – or as Wesley elaborated, Christ’s love is “from everlasting to everlasting.” In the Gloria Patri that is often sung reminds us of God’s glory and that his love has existed “as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be.” Michael W. Smith wrote a song “Never been unloved.” He listed off the many adjectives that could be true if spoken of his life when Smith wrote, “I have been unfaithful … unworthy … unrighteous … unmerciful … unreachable … unteachable … unwilling … undesirable … unwise … undone by what I’m unsure of unbroken … unmended … uneasy … unapproachable … unemotional … unexceptional … undecided … unqualified … unaware … unfair … unfit …” But even though he’s found himself described by these “un-“s he recognizes that “it’s because of you [Jesus] and all that you went through, I know that I have never been unloved.” There has never been a time and never will be a time that you have not or will not be unloved, friend!

Love’s depth – or as Wesley said, Christ’s love is so deep as “not to be fathomed by any creature.” Perhaps, though difficult, we can grasp that God loves everyone and that he has always loved everyone and always will…but the “depth” language is where we really have the most difficulty and are faced with the impossibility of grasping it. If you go diving into the depths of the sea, the deeper you go, the less you can see because the light of the sun diminishes the deeper you go. The Apostles’ Creed says that we believe Jesus “was crucified, dead, and buried.” Buried. The darkness is where we bury things. We don’t talk about them. They’re down deep and we don’t want to bring them up. Christ’s love is deep enough to dig it out and redeem it. He had to die and be buried to dig us out of death.

Love’s height – or as Wesley said, Christ’s love is so much as “not to be reached by any enemy.” The height of Christ’s love is that he doesn’t leave us in the depths. Christ’s love is a victorious one for it does not permit sin and death to have the final word. Otherwise love is weak and grace is cheap, as if Christ were to say “I love you but you can stay there in darkness.” If we only knew the depths of Christ’s love but not the height, then we’re just allowing Jesus to polish the chains to hold us in bondage.

Let’s jump in to the ocean of God’s endless love in Christ and maybe together we can grasp more and more just how broad and long and deep and high Christ’s love really is.