Fear of Going Home: God With Us

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We are in week 2 of our Advent Series: Coming Home. Last week, we started by expanding the idea of “home” to be something bigger than merely our physical earthly homes. We said that home, for Christians, is the full coming of the kingdom of God.  I mentioned that Advent isn’t just the preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus, but that advent is also the preparation for the fullness of God’s kingdom.

I said that we can fully celebrate the beginning of the story because we have the ending in mind. Or as I put it another way, we celebrate the first coming of Jesus because we have his second one, the full reign of God’s kingdom of justice, righteousness, love and mercy, we have that in full view.

Today, we are going to talk about an aspect of going home that we don’t often like to admit. Sometimes, home isn’t where the heart is. Sometimes, it’s where the pain is, but pain is not the only thing present in that place.

From the time I was 10 until somewhere in my early to mid 30s, Christmas time was not a fun time for me.

When my dad died when I was 10, my mom did her best to make Christmas good. She gave me the one thing that I had been asking for: a Nintendo Entertainment System! And while I have never looked back from my love of video gaming, that present that year began what would become an intimate association between pain and joy for me.

Video games and pain seemed to be linked for many, many years after that. I don’t think I ever got a video game system upgrade that wasn’t attached to some kind of traumatic event until Angela bought me an XBOX seemingly out of know where one year. And that broke the cycle.

Like I said, my parents didn’t do anything intentionally to make Christmas bad. In fact, I’d argue that many of the things they did which soured the holiday for me were done specifically in their attempts to “give us a good Christmas.” My parents tried, y’all. They really did. And as a parent myself now, I have some understanding of the mindset my own parents must have had.

But, as the years progressed and my family became one embroiled with addictions, Christmas just started to look different. And I’m not going to go into all the ways things were pretty terrible for me most Christmases. But it should be good enough for you to know that even AFTER I became a Christian, Christmas was something I did not look forward to most years. And the thought of having to endure more of the traditions my family held made me want to stay as far away as possible.

Time marched on, some people changed, and some people didn’t. But the pain and fear of engaging my family every Christmas stuck with me for a long, long time. For me, “I’ll be home for Christmas” sounded more like a threat than it did a hopeful promise.

How about you?

I know I’m not the only one here that has pain and anxiety attached to the holidays.

Your experiences could be better or worse than my own. That isn’t important. What is important for you to know in this moment is that if you experience fear, anxiety, or pain that prevents you from enjoying and celebrating the holidays like “normal” people…I want you to know that you are not alone. There are many like you and me. It’s okay. And it’s normal.

We all, for one reason or another, have something that causes us discomfort during the holidays. For some of us it was a traumatic experience or a series of traumatic experiences.

My friend Shannon shared a story with me this week. She told of one Christmas season back in the 90s. It was a few days before Christmas. Her parents got into a big fight. Her dad had held some suicidal ideations in the past. During the fight, her dad stormed off upstairs. Shannon began following him up the stairs….and that’s when she heard the gun go off. She stopped dead in her tracks thinking what you are thinking right now. It was a short amount time, but it must have seemed like an eternity before her dad came back around the corner showing that he had not done the worst. Other events transpired that day, but one of the images that has seared itself into my friend’s consciousness is the bullet hole mere feet from where she was on the staircase. That traumatic event still bears fruit every year act Christmas. It does not hold the same grasp as it once did over Shannon, but she carries that emotional scar with her into every Christmas season.

For some of us, the pain and anxiety we will carry into this Christmas season comes from loss (whether actual or potential). We’ve had a number of funerals in this church this year, not to mention the countless losses we’ve experiences prior to this year. There’s an empty seat in every household. But, as I said, it could be merely the fear of a near loss.

This week, a 15-year-old boy opened fire at his high school killing 4 students and injuring more. I didn’t know any of those people, so my initial reaction is the one I always have to these events of which there are still FAR too many. My reaction was one of lament and prayer. Then, an interesting thing happened.

Checkpoint Church is a digital church plant pastored by Nerd Pastor Nathan Webb. He’s built and amazing community through various means and methods. One of the ways the community “gathers” is by playing online games with each other or by watching each other play games. I know, you might think it is weird to want to watch others play games, but it is a huge hobby for people like me and many younger folks. And honestly, it’s not too weird. I mean, how many of us watch sports? That’s just watching someone else get payed to play a game. But I digress..

In real time as news of that school shooting was being released, one of the members of Checkpoint Church shared on the live stream that his niece attends that school and was present for that traumatic event. My friend, Xando, shared with us online that she was okay but that the experience brought him face to face with the potential loss of his niece. He will carry that worry for a while. Not to mention the fact that his niece is scarred for life now. They will carry that experience into this Christmas. Yes, they get to spent it together and there is joy in that, but the cloud of potential loss will still linger.

And no matter how far removed we are from trauma, it still lingers. We can process it. We can seek therapy for it. It may not control us to the degree it once did, but it walks with us into places we’d rather it not follow.

We carry our burdens and anxieties, and experience our pain most acutely, in part, because we have forgotten (or maybe never even knew) one very important thing that we can take from our Scriptures today:

God was with us. God is with us. God will be with us.

The journey home can be hard and even scary, but we can have peace in our hearts amid all the pain and fear because we are not alone. God is with us.

The greater context of the book of Malachi points to a history of God with God’s people. And it speaks to a future of God’s presence while critiquing the contemporary Jew’s lack of awareness that God was still among them and moving.

Most scholars believe that Malachi was written during the Second Temple Period, or what you might have heard called the “post-exilic” period; the time after the Babylonian Exile. Malachi is addressing concerns in the Jewish community that point to a community that has grown complacent in its routine.

Malachi serves as a kind of arbiter between the people and God in a series of disputations. In these, the people are complaining about God’s lack of involvement in their mundane lives while Malachi is providing the prophetic “response” from God. These responses usually come in the form of rebukes and divine judgements centered on God’s justice.

Why is any of that background important in our discussion of the fear of going home during the holidays….or as I pointed to last week…the potential fear of facing God when the Divine Kingdom comes fully upon this earth?

Understanding the context of Malachi gives us an entry point into a very important aspect of the book. Malachi is, first and foremost, a book about the presence of God. For the Jew to which Malachi is prophesying, they believed that God abandoned them in the past when they were exiled. They believe that God came back to them to return them to the Promised Land. And, again, here in the time of Malachi, they believe that God no longer cares for the concerns of their daily lives. As one commentator put it, “The danger to faith that is being explored in this book is indifference and cynicism to the presence of God in daily routines of the people of God.”

The daily routines of our lives include coming and going. The regular rhythms of our relationships involve leaving and returning. Throughout all of it, God is present…and God cares. But, like the people in Malachi, we often forget, don’t care about, or even worse, we think God causes the pain and discomfort attached to our coming and goings, to our leaving and returning. We become indifferent, cynical, or oblivious to God’s presence in our lives…and so the anxiety and pain we collect when we think about the future as it relates to our past…well, it can keep us from taking the steps forward along the journey toward the places God wants us to be.

Malachi, like all of the prophets before him and all of the mouthpieces of God after him, knew one thing to be true: God was with us. God is with us. God will be with us.

Like Malachi and John the Baptizer and so many others before have done, let us assume God will be present with us in the future because God has been with us in the past.

People are going to hurt us. But God is with us to share the burden and to comfort us in the middle of it. God is there taking every step with us through the pain as we walk closer to kingdom fullness. 

That sounds like an easy idea to grab onto. Yeah! God is with us. But….one thing bothered me as I was studying and preparing this week. One question kept gnawing at the back of my mind. It bothered me so much that I decided to ask people in the coffee shop to share some experiences with me. I asked them all this question, and maybe it has already come into your mind:

What does it mean that “God is with us.”

I mean, that’s an easy thing to say, and in our hearts, we know it’s true: God is with us. But what does that LOOK like practically? 

What does it mean that “God is with us” along the painful journey?

We love to talk about this idea in a very abstract way. Or in a time like Advent, we point to the past as though that is our present. We prepare and celebrate the birth of Jesus and then sing songs like “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” In Hebrew, Emmanuel literally means “God is with us.” And this was true 2000 years ago when Jesus was born and walking among people. God was with us in human form. But what does that mean for God with us today when we know that Jesus was murdered?

Some with rightly say, that we have God with us in the form of the Holy Spirit, who according to Scripture, is the Advocate that Jesus sent in his place after his death. God’s Spirit, the Holy Spirit, is God with us acting as a muse, as an inspirer, as an agent to jostle our consciences. But, the idea of the Holy Spirit as God with us is still too intangible for most of our Western, post-Enlightenment period minds to accept as “real.” We believe it, but we can’t grasp it, and so for many of us, the reality of God’s Spirit being God with us is no more use than just saying the word or believing the idea. No, we need something with more…texture.

In the real, lived experiences of most people and throughout the whole of the Bible, we learn time and time again that God is most often “with us” as humans are with each other. Remember, I mentioned last week that many of God’s miracles were worked in cooperation with human action. It should not come as a surprise that human involvement is our main way of experiencing the miracle of God’s presence.

We do not focus on a distant God who did amazing things for us in the past. Nor do we only anticipate the work of a God that will again do amazing things for us in the future. No, we live in this present moment with a God that is fully present with us in every moment. And we see God’s real, tangible presence in the physical and digital spaces where we connect as human beings in shared experience.

My friend Shannon looks back and sees God’s presence in that horrible pre-Christmas gunshot event in the fact that she wasn’t slightly faster, which would have likely resulted in her being wounded or worse. And she also sees God in the comfort and processing she has done over the years when sharing this experience with others. God was with her then and God is with her now.

My friend Xando saw God in the Discord and Twitch communities rallying around him to offer comfort as he sat helplessly learning of the details surrounding his niece in the school shooting this week. God was with him through us. And God was with his niece and their family as Xando was with them.

I have made no secret on who God has manifested through most obviously in my life. Christmas is now one of my favorite times of year. And I actually seek out spending time with various members of my family (even my in-laws! Crazy I know.). And it’s all because I’ve experienced God most directly in my relationship with my wife, Angela. She is not God no matter what she tries to make me believe.  But I consistently hear God talking to me through her. I consistently feel God’s love for me through her. And it was through her infectious love of Christmas that I began to love it again. And now, as she works her way through her own trauma each Christmas, I get to remind her that God has not left her alone either.

Home might not be where the heart is. It might be where the pain is. But God is there too. And there is no pain too big, no anxiety to great, no fear to horrible that can drown out the love of God manifested through our relationships with each other.

God was with us. God will be with us. But imagine what this Christmas season will feel like for us if we fully accept that God IS with us! Amen? Amen!

Praying the Psalms – Psalm 26

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Praying the Psalms – Psalm 26

Lord, may I act with integrity today. May I be honest with everyone I encounter. May I trust you without wavering. But even if I falter, may I find my way back to you quickly. May I pass every test set before me with kindness, patience, and endurance. Check my heart and show me where it needs to be whole again. Your love is right in front of me. May I be aware enough to see and embrace it.

I pray I am “up to no good” for you. May I not be the liar in my group. May people see enough of you in me they choose not to lie in my presence. I detest evildoers. May I never be the wicked one in my group.

May I wash my hands of vileness. May I always get my hands dirty by protecting the innocent.

Thank you for the wonderful things in my life, my spouse, my kids, my friends, and the ability to learn something every day. Thank you for the beauty I get to experience every day. Thank you for the opportunity to witness your gloriousness in creation this day.

May I not be among the sinners whose lives are mired in evil schemes and whose hands work only for themselves. Let my face be known as one of integrity. Save me from myself when I veer away from this.

May my feet stand of solid ground. May my feet stand on level ground. May my feet take steps toward you. May my feet lead others toward you. May my feet pick up speed as I seek to rush toward the goodness of your embrace. May the work that you have called me to bless the great congregation you have set before me. AMEN.

Praying the Psalms – Psalm 19

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Praying the Psalms

Psalm 19

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing to you. Like the sun begins its course on one side of the sky and ends on the other, may my mouth and heart trek through the landscape of kindness and mercy for you. May I see a glimpse of heaven today. May I see your handiwork all over. Let creation speak to me without words but as clear as crystal. May your instructions be perfect for me and who I am. May I become more of who you want me to be. May I become wiser, gladder, and more righteous. Enlighten me so I can help people see you. If I have done wrong that I do not know, forgive me. For the wrongs which are known to me, save me from myself so that I can be blameless. Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing to you. AMEN.

Praying the Psalms – Psalm 12

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Praying the Psalms

Psalm 12

God, help me follow your lead. I am sometimes among the multitude of people who do not follow. The world can’t find you because they can’t find you in us. We try to be faithful, but we fail. We lie through honey-coated lips. May the words that come from my mouth be uplifting and healing. Our hearts are hollow so that we cannot store us the goodness you share with us. Fill the holes in our hearts!

May the strength we have in the Holy spirit quiet our arrogance. May we use the power you’ve given us to use our words to bring people close to you instead of to cut others down. Master our souls, O God.

Rise and stand strong for the poor, the hungry, and those in danger. Rise in our hearts as we do the same. Let us use our place in this world to lift others up to safety. I long for the safety of your presence.

Your promises are true and unending. You have promised to love. So, you love. You have promised a new creation. So, we know it is coming. You have promised relationship. So, we know we are never alone. You have promised protection. So, we know we are in your care even when others don’t care about us. Let this be a constant reminder to us in times of struggle. AMEN.

Praying the Psalms – Psalm 7

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Praying the Psalms – Psalm 7 (v1-6)

My God, save me from those who are chasing me! Rescue me from the perils that await me, both in my heart and in the world around me. Don’t leave me alone. The lions are hungry. Don’t let them feed on me!

Have I done something to deserve the wrath of my enemy? If so, reveal it so that I can change my ways. What have I done? I do not want blood on my hands! Show me how I have mistreated the ones you love. If I have taken anything I have not earned, please show me.

My enemies are angry. Let your love counter their anger. Let you love work through them so they can see with Jesus’ eyes. Let your love work through me so that I no longer see enemies but only people who are not family yet. Open my eyes so I can see people like you do. Open my ears so I can hear their pain crying out for comfort and compassionate care. AMEN.

Praying the Psalms – Psalm 29

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Praying the Psalms—Psalm 29

Glorious and powerful God, I put my focus on you today. I want to hear your voice rush to me like it rushed over the waters so long ago. I want to hear it ring out like a peel of thunder. When I hear you speak, may that I would be awestruck and speechless. I only want to hear you. Give me strength to weather whatever comes today. May the sound of your voice bring peace to my soul and rest in my weariness. AMEN.

Praying the Psalms – Psalm 52

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Praying the Psalms

Psalm 52

God, I do not want to brag about the evil I’ve done. I want to bask in your faithful, long-lasting love. Give me the courage to have your kind of power, the power to persuade, the power to convince, the power to draw others to me so they can know your love.

May the words I use not be destructive. May they not cut others. May they be honest. May I focus my entire life on good and not evil. No matter what, may I never lie and deceive others.

Do not take me down unless I have gained anything through deception. Do not uproot me from the living. Not yet. I want to be whole with you in eternity…but not today. Today, I wish to be in awe of your creation. Today, I wish to laugh at those people that love evil more than good, who speak destruction and deception. I will laugh today. But I will also pray for them the same prayer I have for me: Lord, I pray for your shelter and protection. I pray for the strength and wisdom to trust in nothing but your loving guidance. I pray I am smart enough to understand it and to follow it.

Make me like a thriving olive tree in your house, healthy and full of fruit. May I trust in in your faithful love forever and always. Make that trust real in my words and my actions. I thank you because you have acted and not left me alone to continue down the path of destruction and deceit. Please surround me with people that are faithful to your loving way. In them, I will see the reason for hope in your good name. AMEN.

Praying the Psalms – Psalm 15

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Praying the Psalms

Psalm 15

God, I want to live under your tent. I want to be secure in your love. I want a mountaintop experience. Give me the strength and desire to make the climb. We don’t just get to the mountaintop. We must make the journey there. Thank you for not making me climb alone.

I want to be blame free. Your Spirit makes clear when I am not and comforts me in those moments. Bring healing and restoration to those on the receiving end of the actions of which I am guilty. I want to do what is right for you and those around me.

May your Spirit guide my tongue and empower me to speak truthfully and sincerely. Words can do more damage than most physical weapons. I do not want my words to hurt myself or others.

I miss my friends. May your Spirit remind me that doing no harm to them is just the first step. I want to love them. May my neighbors know no insult because of me. Please reveal to me how I have caused them harm so that I can repair it if possible.

God, you despise wickedness but do not destroy the wicked. Instead, you seek to change them into people who honor and love you. You seek to change them into people who love your creation as much as you do. Where I have been wicked, change my heart to be more like you.

I have made promises. Honoring promises and being honest with others is important to me. But I am not perfect. Forgive me for my broken promises. Give me the strength of will to forgive those who break their promises to me.

I want to give without expectation of getting back. If someone needs from me, may I remember you gave everything and expect no repayment. You have called us to be givers, not lenders. May I be a giver.

The innocent are vulnerable, especially to those that seek to harm them. May I never be swayed to hurt an innocent person. May I never we swayed to hurt anyone.

God, guide my footstep along the path of mercy and justice that you have paved. Please don’t let me stumble but be with me to pick me up if I do. AMEN.

Praying the Psalms – Psalm 68

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Praying the Psalms – Psalm 68 (v1-4)

God, may you show yourself to me today. May you rise up in my spirit until I cannot ignore your presence any longer. May your presence in me be a presence in the world. May that presence disperse those who oppose you and your will. May evils flee from me because of you. May evils flee from the world because of you through me.

May the wind blowing on my face today be your breath of goodness and life-giving freedom from harm. May your breath blow away every wall barring you from working completely through me and this world. Melt the evil in my heart as a flame melts a candle.

I want to be able to rejoice in your presence as the truly right-hearted do. Show yourself to me and judge me to be worthy to rejoice. Let me celebrate with joy! I desire to sing songs of praise of you to you. Rekindle the flame of creation that used to roar so furiously for you. May my voice ring out in praise and hope. May you take me to the wilderness to be deliver your goodness. Maybe I am already there. If I am, may I bring water to parched souls. AMEN.

Praying the Psalms – Psalm 31

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Praying the Psalms

Psalm 31 (v1-8)

I can handle it all because you are my shelter, O God. Change the hearts of those who would shame me. Change my heart when I seek to shame others. Save us from my anger and guilt.

I know you hear me when I cry out to you. I pray I listen to the people sent into my path that can help deliver me from this heartache. I pray for stability in an unstable world. I pray for strength to make it through the hardships in front of me.

God, your stability and faithfulness to goodness is a protective shield. May I reflect that goodness to your people. May I give over every part of my spirit that does not love perfectly.

I hate that I hate. I get so worked up when people waste their place in this world. I hate what is worthless, but I embrace worthless ideals all the time, giving over my limited time to things that do not bring me wholeness, goodness, or empowerment. My spirit celebrates faithful love, and I suffer when I do not extend that love or accept it for myself. You know my distress because you know me intimately. Protect me from the spaces in my life that the enemy of love seeks to bind me in. Free my soul to roam in the wide-open spaces of your empowering goodness. AMEN.