The Return Counter

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It’s not often that you find yourself walking through the mall with an archangel. But that’s kind of the way dreams are: a normal day and you then- throw in something odd- like going to school in only your underwear or discovering that your teeth are falling out one by one during the sermon at church… He was definitely an odd sort of angel I decided, as I watched him (in blue jeans and flannel shirt) finish off an oversized slice of pepperoni pizza from Sbarros. 

He winked at me and said, “Well, looks like you survived another last minute shopping spree.

“I never was much of a planner,” I replied.

“Can I tell you a secret?”

“Sure.” (Who could resist a secret from an archangel?)

“It’s not much of a secret, but I love to point it out.”

“OK,” I said, wondering if he would reveal the truth about Big Foot, the JFK assassination, or Donald Trump’s hair.

“It’s not really His birthday. I know—not a big surprise. But I just like to point that out to people.”

“So when was it?”

“Oh nooooooo. Not gonna tell you. You’re a writer and it would be all over the blogosphere in a day.”

“You overestimate me. I don’t have that many followers.” 

(I suddenly winced at my own words. I’m talking to an archangel about Jesus and then I shift gears to mention my followers. The seedy underbelly of social media exposed once more…)

“I guess you’re wondering why I’m here instead of geo-tracking terrorists,” Gabriel said.

“The thought did cross my mind.”

“Michael is the angel in charge of Battle. Not my job. I just had a little time and I thought I’d help you out,” 

He tossed the pizza container in the trashcan next to the bench. He wiped his mouth and turned, looking me squarely in the eyes with grave attention. 

“You’ve got way too much stuff.”

I glanced at the bags I had plopped on the bench next to us and confessed, “Yes. Way too much stuff. This is how I compensate for all the thoughtlessness of 2015.” 

“You and 300 million other Americans… But I’m not talking about THAT stuff I’m talking about THIS stuff—“ Gabriel said, pointing to a shopping cart filled with beautifully wrapped boxes.  

“Those aren’t mine.”

“Yes they are.”

“But—“

“Don’t argue with an archangel.” Gabriel said with a chuckle. “Seriously they are yours and you might want to return them.”

Now I’m feeling like a thief but he assures me that I am no thief. I had come by all these boxes honestly- every Santa sleigh, Rudolph red-nosed, green or purple and snow-white one of them!

He rolled the cart while I followed, feathers falling in a Gump-like fashion in his wake.

We arrived in front of the smallest shop tucked next to Dillards and in front of the “Discount Swag-Nation Jewelry” kiosk. The sign above the shop seemed dull, sterile, businesslike. No marketer would approve of it. It simply said “RETURNS.” 

The man greeted Gabriel with a smile and said, “We meet again.”

Gabriel got straight to the point. “This fellow has a number of things he’d like to return.”

“Whoa. Wait a second,” I interrupted. “These are really amazing looking presents. I mean, I’d keep them just to decorate the lawn next year,”

“You’ve had them long enough,” Gabriel said gravely.

“What are you talking about? I’ve never seen these boxes in my life!” I exclaimed.

It was then that I noticed the tag on the box wrapped in Winni the Poo paper.

“Envy”

Gabriel sighed and said, “You’ve had that one hanging around as long as I’ve known you. You’ve concealed it with a veneer of kudos, applause and congratulations, but deep inside you feel rotten. It turns everything into a competition and you always feel like the loser. It’s just ugly. You hate it. I hate it. HE hates it. It’s just not you.”

The returns assistant smiled and said, “So you are returning ENVY.”

“He is.”  

“And the reason for the return?”

“It doesn’t fit him.” 

Gabriel paused for a moment and then pulled out a huge box with the tag: SHAME. 

“This has a lot of moving parts. Most of them are under the surface of the item,” Gabriel explained. “He’s had it since childhood and now he needs to let it go back where it came from.”

I gulped.

“And the reason for the return?” The assistant asked, as he scribbled down notes.

“It doesn’t work.”

“He’s right.” I added.

“Fair enough.”

For a long time, as dreams go, we emptied the seemingly bottomless cart of packages and provided reasons for the record

Bitterness (“It so very old school”), 

Acclaim (“It doesn’t do what they said it would do on TV.”)

Fear (“Too many side effects when he uses it.”)

Anger (“It’s just ugly. Who would want that? Really.”)

And a flood of smaller items that are too many to name.

After the cart was empty, a feeling of lightness enveloped me. I was beginning to experience what Christmas was all about.

As I surveyed the brightly decorated packages, the assistant of the Returns Shop said, “I wish we could reimburse you for these, but they aren’t worth a plug nickel. However… we’ll put them in the layaway department next to the Cinnabon if you ever want them back. It’s open 24/7.” His crooked smile haunted me. It still haunts me. 

Gabriel chuckled, “I wouldn’t recommend it. Just cut your losses and get on with life.”

As we walked away I asked a million questions and Gabriel answered them all. He revealed mysteries great and small. Answers to a thousand questions… But for the life of me, I can’t remember any of them. Isn’t that just the way dreams are?

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Who Touched Me?

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“You see the people crowding against you,” His disciples answered,

“and yet you can ask, ‘Who touched me?’”

i wonder if the angels ask Him that on Sundays.

Jesus looks through this mass of believers

millions speaking

singing and seeking

a whirlwind of worship as the world spins from sun’s rise to fall.

“Who touched me?”

He asks.

And the angels watch as His gaze spans the Sunday horizon.

“Do you see the millions?”

“Yes, but who touched Me?”

“Do you hear the music and see the offerings?”

“Yes, but who touched Me?”

“Do you feel their passion?”

Yes,

but

who

touched

Me?

The Art of Pondering

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“But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.” Luke 2:19b

Advent is to ponder.

If you don’t take time to turn everything off and ponder sometime this week, you are left with all that is temporal, ordinary and fleeting about Christmas.

Stop and ponder.

Luke tells us in his gospel that Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. What happens when you catch a glimpse of God’s glory? You treasure it. She could have griped about the travel arrangements, the lack of planning, the constant need to improvise. But Mary, in a barn full of visiting animals, horses, mules, stray dogs, camels, splinters, hay, horse manure, kept all these things treasured in her heart. 

That night she had to contend with Joseph’s snoring. And those shepherds, loudly recounting angelic visitations. They probably woke the Baby several times that night. But, just before dawn, with all asleep, except Mary and a mule, she gathered from the hope chest of the near past a tapestry of memories —

The beautiful colors of Gabriel’s clothes,
The look on the face of Elizabeth when she turned and saw Mary,
The clamor of packing for the dreaded tax appointment,
“No Vacancy” signs,
The nervous, frustrated father,
The incarnate kicks,
The looming grief,
The tiny hands that would pierce her heart.

She wept and smiled. She experienced an orchestra of emotions in concert with the breeze that swept through the Bethlehem hills like a Spirit newly released.

And Mary pondered. 

Will you join her tonight?

Don’t You Worry, Mary

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Don’t you worry, Mary. 
Just lean into My plan.
I will not leave you helpless 
On the way to Bethlehem.
No money in your purse…
No place for you to stay…
But don’t you worry, Mary.
I’m enough for you today.
Don’t defend your reputation.
There’s greatness just ahead.
Your name will be remembered
Long after they are dead.
So just cry if you need to.
Feel free to let it out.
But don’t you worry, Mary
You’ll never do without.
A gentleman beside you
And joy to heal the pain.
Adversity surrounds you,
But it will not be in vain. 
So don’t you worry Mary.
Every step to Bethlehem
draws closer His appearing.
My Son, the Great I Am.

He Came for the Rest of Us

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Jesus came
for the wise and the strong.
And He came, just as well, for the rest of us.
Jesus came for the days that life seemed ordered and filled with meaning.
But we rejoice because He came for the other days, too.
Blessed by old men and shepherds
Worshiped by kings and beggars
And the rest in between.
He loves us still.
He did not come to receive just our joy and elation.

He came for the rest of us.
He came for our doubts, our burdens, our sorrows and grief.
He even came for the times when we doubted His presence.
He reached down to us.
When our loneliness seemed unbearable.

His love courted us.
And His mercy enveloped us.
His holiness consumed us.
God’s advent of grace put the pieces of our broken lives together.
Along the path of our lives we’ve heard of blessed souls who could manage their problems, pick themselves up, find the reasons for all of life’s challenges.
But thank God, that He came for the rest of us!
Not just our good.
But also the rest of us.

He came to celebrate our youth but when our youth is spent,
He celebrates with even greater passion, the rest of us.
He came for the people of Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Judea.
But He also came for the rest of us.
So now He compels us to shout to the world, the joy of a coming King.
So that every person can hear the invitation to join…

The rest of us.

He came… for the rest of us.

There is a River

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The longing of our hearts
the thirst of our soul
When we are forsaken
When our joy is taken
We feel lost in the desert of dashed dreams
There is a river.
Our peace is so fleeting amidst wars and struggles
The heat hangs in the air like a curtain of despair
Even then let me remind you
There is a river
When we look in the mirror and we see an aging soul
And life seems so brief
And knowing death comes like a thief.
We stare at gravestones and unscalable walls
And in our despair we lose sight of our dreams
We are tired, thirsty and fearing the enemies schemes
Our song is silenced. And we reach the end of our rope
No vision, no laughter, no hand and no hope
We hear the voice of life-giving savior
Who leads us to this river
He is the everlasting giver
And if we look beyond the horizon of our hopelessness, we will see the river.
And we’ll hear a Savior say “Come. Come take rest. Come and be blest.
With all you are.
You emptiness,
your filth,
your doubts,
your despair
All things that have caught you unaware
Celebrate, reunite with the One who invites you.
Come…


 

I Promise

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I promise not take myself so seriously, remembering that God made the hippo and the hammerhead shark.

I promise to look at all the incredible blessings that are buried under our to-do lists, agendas, and behind the billboards that blur across the windshield as I shift into fifth on the open road.

I will remember that Jesus took naps even during high gale warnings.

I will choose to let myself off the hook when critical remarks fly my direction. If i wanted to judge my life on the opinions of others, I chose the wrong Savior.

I will remember to never attend a church business meeting, chaperone a youth retreat, get a root canal, and stand in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles in the same week.

I will try to give more than I get. I can’t keep it anyway. Remember, God is planning a huge end-of-the-earth bonfire. Even the antique doilies my wife bought for next-to-nothing on e-Bay will be ashes.

I will remember that this life is not predictable. It is best lived in a state of dangerous wonder rather than linear monotony.

I will NOT try to figure it all out today, and I really don’t expect you to do so either.

I will make it job #1 to hang on for dear life to my family, my friends, my mission, and my Jesus.

Everything else I’ll move to the back of the line.

 

Christmas Prayer

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Lord, may we not be like the Bethlehem visitors, so busy with the day-to-day tasks that we fail to notice the presence of God.

Lord, may we not be like the inn keeper, giving the best rooms to mortals and giving God our stable.

Lord, may we not be like Herod, shedding the blood of the innocence to secure our personal kingdom. Remind us that when we attack the innocence of babes we are attacking the nature of God.

Lord, may we not be like beloved Zacharius, praying fervently for the impossible and yet asking how when God surprises us with the answer of our dreams.

May we never forget that this God-with-us Savior is here and He has invited us to good news and great joy.

 

Before I meet Bart Wrinkle

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when it’s all said and done here.
look me up.
I’ll be kicking back, slinging jawbones
with samson
who made it in the door by the grace of God
same as noah
found grace
discovered it

(he happened upon it or rather it happened upon him)

i’ll be listening to stories of limping jacob and stumbling bartimaeus
I’ll be all ears– smiling and wondering about weak eyes, pharisees and romance
discussing it with the miracle boy of Jesus’ mud pies

look! there’s Paul (no longer writing with big letters–the lasik surgery is divine)
he’s catching up on his reading
checking out the far flung analysis of lettered theologians
from barclay to barnes to hal lindsay (just for fun)
I will not dare disturb him.

and Jesus is smiling
His kids–the whole crew is back home
all of them
He’s feasting on the vision He’s been waiting to see

me?
i’m the guy way over in the back of the family portrait
next to a man named bart wrinkle (of whom i have not met)


 

I Run to You

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I run to You like streams
that are drawn into the sea,
like a fire to kindled tree,
like a child to dreams.
like time to eternity
my one and only destiny
You are full.
Fill me.
I don’t want to be more me.
I want to be new.
No me.
All You.
I want to hear Your voice.
Don’t turn me away.
Bless me Father.
I won’t leave until You do.