2 Free Advent Devotionals that I Wrote

I have written 2 different Advent devotionals for my church. They are both very different but I wrote both to be helpful for people who want to get a better experience of Advent.

The AdThe Advent Hours Experience Covervent Hours Experiment is a devotional that I put together with my dad. It is a journey from December 1-25 that uses a simple liturgy of hours. If you are not familiar, this is an ancient style of praying primarily the Psalms throughout the day. Each day has morning, noontime, and evening hours that varies but can include Psalms, Bible passages, creeds, prayers, and Christmas carol lyrics. There are also nighttime prayers called Compline that are written for every week in Advent. If you have never prayed this way before then this is a great place to start.

 

The other devotion is title adventhistorycoverChristmas Reflection from Church History: Readings about Christmas and the Incarnation from the Creeds, Church Fathers, and Great Thinkers of Church History. For this volume I compiled great quotes and insights from all kinds of different figures in Christian history and laid them out. This is a great way to reflect on what Christmas and the incarnation means as well as experience some of the great figures of our faith.

STRESS: Understanding Stress in Zebras

There are many different ways to talk about stress, but by far the most accessible way to understand it is found in the book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert M. Sapolsky. His way of talking about stress is to consider a zebra on the plains of Africa. If the zebra or a zebra next to them thinks they hear, see, or smell a lion then the body goes into a reaction called a “stress response.” The body goes into fight or flight mode.

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The first thing the zebra’s body does is mobilize the body functions that it needs to survive. Hormones are released into the blood stream to increase energy and blood flow. Blood pressure is increased so that if the zebra has to run the body is ready to do so. The energy stores of the body are opened up so that the zebra can sustain running. Memory is increased so that the zebra can remember how to run, where to run, and how to avoid being eaten by the lion. The zebra’s senses are also increased so that it notices even the slightest change in smell, sound, or vision. The focus of the zebra is sharpened so that they are able to stay acutely aware of the potential threat. Perception of pain is also blunted.

At the same time the zebra’s brain puts a halt on any long term expensive building projects. In other words, the body stops doing anything that takes up a lot of energy to do so that all the energy of the body is available for escaping. Digestion is inhibited. In fact, animals in danger often empty their lower track to be lighter for running away. Tissue repair is limited, sex drive decreases, and immunity is inhibited.

The process is essentially the same when a person feels a stressor in their life. It might be a difficult job or a broken family relationship, but the brain does not distinguish between those kind of stressors and lions. This explains why stress is associated with upset stomachs and a loss of energy. People under stress are more susceptible to colds, flues, and infections because their immune system is decreased. They are more jumpy because of heightened senses. They experience a decrease in sex drive. They cannot focus on other things but cannot stop thinking about the stressor. This also explains why people can remember right where they were when they heard about the attacks of 9/11. It should be noted, however, that this heightened memory does not last. Long term memory is inhibited after the initial stress responses. This explains why people do not remember what happens in the hours following a tragedy, but can play the car accident out frame by frame in their head years later.

My Favorite Story to Use at Funerals

Adapted from The Funeral Encyclopedia by Charles L. Wallis

Harold E. Johnson tells a story of two strangers, a small boy and an older man, fishing from the banks of the Mississippi.  As time passed they discovered that, although the fishing was rather poor, the conversation was good. By the time the sun began to sink at the end of the day they had talked of many things.  Around the bend up river from them came a large river boat.

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When the boy saw the boat, he began to shout and to wave his arms so that he could attract the attention of those on board.  The man watched for some time and then told the boy he was foolish. “That boat is on its way down river to some unknown place and it surely won’t pull over to pick up some small boy.”

But suddenly the boat began to slow down and then it moved toward the river bank.  To the man’s amazement, the boat came near enough to the shore that a gang-plank could be lowered.

The boy entered the boat and, turning to his new friend on shore, said: “I am not foolish, mister.  You see, my father is captain of this boat and we’re going to a new home up the river.”

Sometimes life is like that.  There are times when the ship of death makes an unexpected stop along the river of life and, to our surprise, picks up a passenger.  We do not always understand the timing.  It can come very unexpectedly to us or sometimes it can seem to take it’s time.

I wish I could say something that would take away the sting of death. I wish the sadness would go away. But I want to assure you of one thing:  “My father” is the captain of that boat, and it is heading to a new home.  Death is not the end, but it is the beginning of a new adventure. And the only way that the sting of death with be no more is if you trust in the Father.

 

5 TIPS FOR HELPING ANOTHER PERSON IN GRIEF

In my previous blog I wrote about mistakes I see people make when they grieve. As a pastor, I also get to see lots of painful mistakes people make when they are helping another person who is grieving. Here are 5 tips to help others well during a time of loss:

1. Don’t use foolish platitudes. People say things like “It will be ok.” “Time heals all wounds.” “Be strong. It will get easier.” “God only gives you as much as you can handle.” These things are not helpful in grief. First, they are not totally true. Time does not heal all wounds. Some wounds are with you for your whole life. Also, I think God often gives people more than they can handle so they have to rely on God for help. Beyond that, these phrases often only serve to make people feel bad about how bad they feel and feel guilty that they are not handling things well. Instead, say things like “I am sorry” and “I care about you.” the_weeping_angel_by_woodfaery

2. Offer specific help. I often hear people say (and I have said) to people in grief, “Whatever you need just call me.” Here is the problem with that: they don’t know what they need. What they really need is their child, parent, spouse, or friend back. You can’t do that for them.

I suggest that you offer something specific. Say something like, “I am going to bring dinner over on Tuesday. Do you like pasta?” They may say no but this makes it a little easier for them to deal with the question. Instead of asking a huge question like “What do you need?” you have asked a simple question about if they like pasta.

3. When in doubt, don’t say anything at all. Pastors call this “a ministry of presence.” I know as a pastor that when I show up at a funeral home or a hospital waiting room at least 95% of my work is done. When I am there, I say that I care about them, I represent that God is with them, and I become a living reminder that the church is there for them.

This is the same thing that happens when you are with someone in grief. If you fill the room with conversation it is likely because of your own insecurities and not because the grieving family actually needs your distraction. So don’t fill space with empty conversation. Don’t try to distract the person from their grief. Just be present and be quiet.

4. Use the deceased person’s name after the service is over. I have witnessed so many times when people are careful not to mention the name of the person who has died around the family. I understand where the thought process comes from. You don’t want to hurt the other persons feeling by bringing them up. But in my experience it can hurt even more to pretend like that person was never here in the first place. Use the person’s name. Tell the mourners that you miss them too.

5. Share your experience with loss, but don’t claim to know what they are going through. I see people say at funerals way too often that they know what the person is going through. That is simply not true. You may have both lost a grandmother, but you did not lose their grandmother. You did not lose their relationship with their grandmother. You may have even both lost the same person, but you each had a different relationship with that person. This is always more true of siblings than they realize.

Every death is a unique wound. Be respectful of that and don’t assume to know exactly what they are going through. But each death is not totally unique. There are often similarities and shared feelings. Rather than claim to know what they are going through, simply share the story of your loss. Your story can help heal another’s wound. Assuming the story is the same can make them feel incorrect about what they are feeling.

To hear my sermon titled Death, Where is Your Sting? CLICK HERE.

4 MISTAKES PEOPLE MAKE WHEN GRIEVING A DEATH

I have had the privilege as a pastor to walk beside a number of people as they deal with the death of a friend or loved one. It can be a very difficult time and many people have never learned how to go through a grieving process well. Either their families did not deal with death well growing up or they suffered a loss that was so painful they never got over it.

Jacques-Louis_David-_Andromache_Mourning_HectorHere are the 4 biggest mistakes I see in people as they grieve someone who has died.

1. You don’t see grief as normal. Grief is a normal process. We don’t like any changes—even good ones. Death is the ultimate change and it is difficult, painful, and represents as total loss of control.

In other places around the world people are expected to take a certain amount of time to grieve, but in the West we expect people to go to a funeral on Saturday and be fine on Monday. It simply does not work like that. And if you don’t let yourself grieve then you will end up slowly grieving the rest of your life. It is normal. It is ok to need some time. It is ok to not be ok.

2. You don’t understand the mix of emotions that go along with grief. People often expect to be sad about a death, but often grief has a lot of other emotions that go along with it. Sometimes the person meant a lot to use and we feel joy and gratitude for their life. Sometimes the person was in a lot of pain or had dementia and were not themselves and we can feel happy or relieved.

I have done one funeral for a suicide in my ministry so far. A man with a history of mental illness waited for everybody to go to the store and then shot himself in the back yard. The family came home to find him in that state. They were more than shocked. They were angry as they had to deal with it. At the same time they were relieved because he had been in a very difficult place for some time.

When you grieve, it can include a lot of different emotions. Often the sadness over a previous death come back, as if your mind is reminding you to be careful and remember how bad this hurt last time. The emotions surrounding death are complicated and have to run their course. Let them.

3. You don’t move on from your grief. This is the flip side of #1 and #2. You have to let yourself grieve with whatever emotions come up. This can take a long time. A part of you might have died with that person and a part of that person’s life may be with you forever.

But the Bible says there is a time to mourn and a time to dance. I love how Psalm 23 says it: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” The key word there is through. We don’t move into the valley. We don’t by a house in the valley. We don’t stay there. I read that verse at every funeral and remind people that death does not have the last word on life. Not for the Christian. At some point, though you may always be sad about the loss, you have to move on.

4. You close off emotionally from others. Sometimes people are so saddened by grief that they don’t want to get close to anyone anymore. After all, if I am not close to anyone then it won’t hurt so much to lose them. So people close off and don’t let anyone close.

But this is not healthy. Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross said it this way:

The agony is great and yet I will stand it. Had I not loved so much I would not hurt so much. But goodness knows I would not want to diminish that precious love by one fraction of an ounce. I will hurt. And I will be grateful for that hurt for it bears witness to the depth of our meaning. And for that I will be eternally grateful.

Grief hurts, but it is worth the pain to have the joy and meaning of connection with others. Don’t let your grief close you off to great things God has for you in your life.

To hear my sermon titled Death, Where is Your Sting? CLICK HERE.

Getting Some Perspective about Death

We are all going to die and everyone we know is going to die. Can you feel that tension in the pit of your stomach when you read those words? We don’t want to talk about it. We don’t want to think about it. But death is an inevitable part of life.

We keep it at bay. We don’t talk about it. We avoid the words death, dead, and die. Instead we say things like passed away and gone on to a better place.

Death French_-_Pendant_with_a_Monk_and_Death_-_Walters_71461

It used to be that when someone died they were laid out in a room in your house called a parlor. Neighbors and friends would come to do viewing hours there. Eventually, a new business was started called a funeral parlor. Now you could pay to use someone else’s parlor instead of your own. Nobody has parlors anymore so these locations are now called funeral homes.

When you died you were often buried on the family property. When you used a cemetery it was usually at the church or in a prominent place in the community. Much of the community would attend funerals. Very few people come to funerals anymore.

Why do we fear death and try to stay so far away from it? First, it is so far out of our control. We don’t know when, where, or how it will happen and the unknown is always scary. Also, we don’t like any changes. We even have a grief reaction when changes are good. But death is the ultimate change. I think that another part of the problem is that death points to a larger reality. There are things going on beyond what we tend to notice and experience every day and that is difficult deal with.

Ultimately, however, I think we avoid dealing with death because it hurts. It stings. It sucks. It tears us apart.

But this is not the final word on death for Christians. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:54-57

[54] When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
[55] “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”[56] The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. [57] But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Yes, death stings. But death is also defeated. We don’t have to fear it or avoid it. We can deal with it and hope in the day when it is no more.

To hear my sermon titled Death, Where is Your Sting? CLICK HERE.