Monday, December 26, 2016


Though we may sometimes tire of formulating the answers, we are often forced to consider what we believe and why we believe it, when asked both simple and profound questions by our children.  Really, no question should be off limits when contemplating the cosmos.  It's a shame when adults loose the curiosity so common in a child.  We should all desire to ask questions.  That's what theology seeks to do -  to ask the questions that might lead to the answers, or that might lead to the understanding that some questions can't be answered in this life.  As Anselm of Canterbury put it: theology is faith seeking understanding.  I believe that there's so much more to our world and our reality than what immediately lies at the surface.  I think most people believe this as well.  Unfortunately, in a world full of distractions, and some of them quite amazing, many don't take the time to ask the questions that might lead to ultimate answers.  Here are some questions that came to my mind on Christmas Eve.  I believe that the answer to all of these questions arrived in the most unexpected of ways some 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem. 


Are we just an insignificant dot of light - a cosmic amalgamation of dust and debris spinning around an average star in an average galaxy?
Will any of this matter in a million, or a billion, or a trillion years when the universe is shred to bits and pieces; gradually torn a part into a cold nothingness?
Are we just an accident of mindless atoms colliding randomly - creating the illusion of structure, purpose, and meaning?  Creating even the illusion of personhood?
Is this just an act - a charade - a put on of the grandest scale - one big universal joke?  Could such a joke be any more cruel?
Is there really any purpose and meaning to any of this?  
Or is this long march of history really nothing more substantial than the latest "tweet" or an episode of reality TV?
Do black lives, white lives, brown lives - do any lives really matter?
Is this something, really nothing?
Or; is there something more? - Shay 

Thursday, December 22, 2016

What's In A Name?

          According to “”, Sophia, Emma, and Olivia were the three most popular girl’s names given in 2016.  The most popular boy’s names were Jackson, Aiden, and Lucas.

          What’s in a name?  Do our names mean anything?  Do they in some ways define us?  Do they reveal something of our charcter?  Why did your parents name you what they named you?  Why did you give your children their names? 

          I was named after the now defunct Shea Stadium in New York City.  My dad just liked the sound of the name.  But they changed the spelling of it to “Shay” with an “a” “y” instead of an “e” “a”, so that my uncle wouldn’t call me “Shee-a”. 

          We “Americanized” the Irish name “Aisling” to “Ashlyn” when our daughter was born in 2009.  We discovered that her name means “dream” in Irish, but that’s not why we named her Ashlyn.

          A lot of people name their children after relatives or famous people.  And some people still name their children based on the meaning of the name or for some other symbolic reason. 

          Names were also very important in the Bible.  God told the prophet Isaiah to name his children for specific symbolic purposes.  One son was to be called Shear-Jashub which means “a remnant shall return”.  Another child was given the name Maher-shalal-hash-baz, meaning “spoil speeds, prey hastes”.  Can you imagine the bullying you’d get at school with a name like that?
         But the most famous of the sign children in Isaiah, is of course the son who was to be called Immanuel, meaning “God with us”.  In the original context of Isaiah’s prophesy, this was to be the name of either one of Isaiah’s sons, or possibly, one of King Ahaz’s sons.  The child was to be a sign of God’s continual presence with his people. 

Why did God’s people, Judah, and specifically, King Ahaz need to be reassured of God’s presence with them?  Because King Rezin of Syria and King Pekah of Israel were plotting an attack on Jerusalem to depose Ahaz and place another king on the throne.  We’re told in the early part of Isaiah 7 that when Ahaz and his people learned of this plot, they were “shaking as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.”  They needed to know that their God would be with them in this crisis.

The word of the Lord from Isaiah 7:10-16.  “Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, ‘Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.’  But Ahaz said, ‘I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.’  Then Isaiah said: ‘Hear then, O house of David!  Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also?  Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.  Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.  He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.  For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.” 

Essentially, God’s message to Ahaz is that very soon, the land of Syria and the land of Ephraim will be deserted and they will no longer pose a threat to Ahaz and the people of Judah.  By the time the soon to be born child, Immanuel, is weaned from his mother’s breast, God’s promise will be fulfilled.  And because the child’s name is Immanuel, (“God with us”), they can be sure that their God will be with them, even as they face this crisis.

Throughout the centuries, God has always journeyed with his people.  He has never deserted them – he has never forsaken them.  When God’s people cry out to him, he hears them and he rescues them -  he saves them.  At the dawn of the first century of our era, God comes to his people again, but in the most unexpected of ways.  Matthew’s gospel tells the story like this.

“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.  When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.  Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.  But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’  All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us.’  When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.” (Matthew 1:18-25).

If the names of the children in Isaiah reveal to us the nature and purposes of God, how much more do these two names reveal?  Jesus, which is the Greek version of the Hebrew name Joshua, or God saves, reminds us of God’s continual deliverance of his people.  Joshua led God’s people into the Promised Land, but how much more does Jesus lead his people into the ultimate Promised Land – the new creation in the age to come! 

And if the child Immanuel in Isaiah’s time had pointed God’s people to his continuing presence with them, how much more is God’s presence realized as God the Son takes on human flesh and moves into the neighborhood (to quote Eugene Peterson)!  In the person of Jesus of Nazareth, God is truly with us.  

God’s modus operandi throughout time has been deliverance, salvation, and presence.  God rescues us for the sake of relationship, and he converts us for the sake of communion.  Jesus is the climax of the story of God and his people – he is God with his people!  These two names, Jesus and Immanuel reveal so much about the man from Nazareth.  And the man from Nazareth, in turn, reveals so much of the God of Israel – the God of the world. 

On Sunday, many in our world will celebrate the birth of Jesus.  We join them in this celebration.  But we also remember that his birth eventually led to his death and his death to his resurrection and exaltation.  We’re reminded of the early Christian hymn that says, “God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil 2:9-11).
So, wherever we’re at in our journey through life – even if we’re in the midst of a crisis – we can be sure that God will deliver us and rescue us through Jesus.  And let us not forget that God’s presence isn’t just promised at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, but also at the end.  Jesus’ final words are, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”  God remains with us.  May we remain with him. - Shay

Saturday, December 3, 2016

One's Own Sense of Worth

Doing ministry for your full-time job can be dangerous.  I'm not talking about those brave men and women who risk their lives in far-flung places selflessly laying it all on the line in order to bring good news to those in darkness.  They face a kind of danger that many of us pray we never face.  I'm referring to a more subtle, but spiritually speaking, a potentially far more deadly danger.  Maybe the biggest threat to a minister's life and ministry is the minister himself.  One's own sense of worth is often derived from the work that one does, and this can be extremely dangerous for those employed by churches.  Pride is probably the nastiest of sins and a deadly enemy for any believer, but I believe it can be especially damning for members of the clergy.  I've fought this sin all of my life and I have become increasingly aware of it the past decade or so as I've made Christian ministry my life's vocation.

But one of the things that has helped me to have a more realistic picture of myself is to look around me at all the ways that God is at work through my brothers and sisters in Christ, most of whom are not dependent on the church for their source of income (they in fact are the source of income for people like myself).  When I see dozens upon dozens of my fellow sojourners offering their bodies as living sacrifices, often going unnoticed in the process, I'm reminded that God's kingdom is built upon the foundation of humble servants who quietly and consistently demonstrate the love of the Lord and their neighbor, not expecting anything in return.  Sure, vocational ministers like myself have a role to play in Christ's church, and we should seek to play our parts well.  But anytime we begin to place a higher value on what we offer to the collective, compared to what our compatriots might offer, we are on dangerous ground.  Regardless of our role in Christ's church, we need to all be reminded that our worth is derived not from what we do, but from whose we are by virtue of the gospel.  We are the adopted children of the Father in whose hearts the Spirit of the Son cries "Abba Father!"

That last line comes straight out of Galatians chapter four.  The Apostle Paul is dealing with an imminent threat to the gospel as he writes the churches in Galatia.  The cliff-notes version of the backstory is this: Jewish Christians have infiltrated the Galatian churches claiming that in order to truly be a part of God's people, Gentile Christians have to keep the entire Mosaic Law, including the visible signs of covenant membership such as Jewish dietary restrictions, the Sabbath, and especially the rite of circumcision for male converts.  Paul claims that this version of the gospel is in fact not the gospel at all, but a distortion of the gospel.  Paul's argument in the letter could be fairly well summarized as this, " Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.  As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.   There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise...And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying 'Abba!  Father!'  So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God." (Galatians 3:26-29 & 4:6-7).

Thousands of years prior to this God had redeemed a people from slavery in the land of Egypt.  This people of course was Israel.  God had set them free from slavery and given them a new identity as his children.  Now, in Christ, God has formed a new people for himself derived from every tribe, nation, and tongue.  In God's family, ethnic identity counts for nothing.  In God's family, social standing counts for nothing.  In God's family, gender differences, count for nothing.  The only thing that counts for anything is being one of God's adopted children.  That's where our identity and our own sense of worth is to be found.

This sets me free from the slavery of finding my self worth through the success or failure of "my ministry".  This identity in Christ brings freedom to the believer who struggles to meet their own personal expectations in life and spirituality.  When a child of God discovers that there's nothing they can do that would make God love them more, and there's nothing they can do that would make God love them less, they are free to live boldly before God.  A fear a failure is replaced by a longing for love.

I can't say that I've fully embraced this new identity in Christ.  But I want to.  When I find myself becoming prideful over things that I think I've achieved, I need to be reminded of where my sense of worth is to come from.  When I feel like I've failed and that I'm just not good enough, I need to be reminded that that's true - I'm not good enough!  I never have been and I never will be.  But that doesn't matter.  What matters is that I am a child of God and that he has given me the Spirit of his Son.  If I allow the Spirit to do his work in me, then I will slowly, but surely, put to death my fleshly desires, including the nastiest of them all: pride!

Where do you find your sense of worth?  Is it in your job or vocation?  Do you find your identity in your skills or hobbies?  Is it found in your favorite sports teams?  Is your sense of self found in your social or economic standing?  Do you find your identity in your level of education (or your lack of education)?  Do you view yourself primarily through your present life stage (single, married, children, no children, employed, unemployed, etc.)?  Is your self worth bound up completely in your physical family?  Wherever you derive your sense of self worth, God invites you to find your  identity through his Son.  He welcomes you into his family where all the social and spiritual barriers that so often divide our world can be torn down and demolished.   You can discover a new identity in and through him.  If you are curious about what life in Christ might be like, talk to someone who may have already taken those first steps down this path.  Life in Christ really does open up a whole new identity and a whole new world (Gal 6:15).  - Shay