Monday, December 31, 2018

Good Ole Song for a Good (or Not So Good) Old Year

Do you know who old Lang is? You know, the person whose sign they always sing about on New Year’s Eve? Old Lang’s sign?

All right, it’s actually Auld Lang Syne, but what’s that mean, anyway? In case you were wondering – and we’re told inquiring minds want to know – I looked it up. It comes from the title and key phrase of a 1788 Scots poem by Robert Burns. Traditionally sung on New Year’s Eve in many parts of the world, “auld lang syne” literally translates to “old long since.” Basically, “days gone by.” 

I remember years ago hearing bandleader Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians orchestra playing this bittersweet reverie leading up to the moment when past and future intersect, as “Father Time” passes the torch for the coming year:
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And days o’ auld lang syne.

If nothing else, the song gives people a reason for toasting with their favorite beverages in remembrance of days gone by and looking forward to days yet born. I don’t think the tune is sung or performed at any other time of year. Christmas carols are heard for weeks (okay, months) before they’re instantly turned off on Dec. 26, but “Auld Lang Syne” gets only a one-night stand.

It seems fitting to pause and reflect on old acquaintances and key events of the past year before charging into the new one. Many of us have good friends and loved ones who left this life during 2018. They are missed. We’ve got happy times and achievements to remember with joy; and there are the moments (or extended periods) during the year for which we now can say, “Good riddance!”

From a spiritual perspective, it’s good to remember what the Lord has done over the past year. In one of his psalms, King David was going through a time of intense opposition and needed a reminder of God’s faithfulness. “So my spirit grows faint within me; my heart within me is dismayed. I remember the days of long ago; I meditate on all your works and consider what your hands have done. I spread out my hands to you; my soul thirsts for you like a parched land…. Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you. Show me the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul” (Psalm 143:4-8).

Perhaps that sounds like you as we prepare to close out one calendar year and turn the page to the next. It does help to recall great things God has done in the past, for us and others, trusting He remains faithful and will do similar things in the coming days. 

At the same time, we’re admonished not to get stuck in the past and let it darken our expectations for the future. In Isaiah 43:18-19, the prophet wrote what God had spoken to him: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.”

In some ways the beginning of a new year doesn’t necessarily mean a totally fresh start. Projects unfinished over the past 12 months will need to be continued even as we flip calendars. For most of us, the job we had on Dec. 31 will be the same one we report to on Jan. 2; strained relationships at the close of the old year will still require attention – and hopefully, healing – in the new.

Nevertheless, the onset of a new year still gives us reason for renewed hope. We can start afresh, trying again with strengthened resolve and determination. Best of all, we have the promise of 2 Corinthians 5:17 that applies to our everyday lives: Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away. Behold, the new has come!

So the next time someone asks, “What’s new?” we can answer, “Me!”

Thursday, December 27, 2018

The Hardest Words to Pray

Let’s face it. Prayer is a bit of a mystery. We pray to Someone we can’t see, sometimes matter-of-factly, sometimes with great passion, and sometimes in desperation. Rarely do we receive immediate responses, although we pray trusting God hears, knows what we need, and will answer us in His own time and His own way.

Sometimes He answers us by speaking through the Scriptures. I’ve experienced that multiple times. Many times He responds through a trusted friend, perhaps a timely sermon, or even a song. There are times when circumstances align and in retrospect we can’t help but believe, “That was God’s doing.”

One thing we know for certain: We’re commanded to pray. In 1 Thessalonians 5:17 we’re told, “Pray without ceasing.” That doesn’t mean dropping to our knees at all times, or always needing to close our eyes. Both are unwise to do if we pray while driving. But we’re to maintain an attitude of pray, somewhat like calling someone and never hanging up – the connection is always active.

In Luke 18, Jesus told His followers that they should always pray and not lose heart, telling them a parable about a widow who persisted in pleading to a judge for justice. To make her stop bothering him, the judge finally relented and did as she requested. 

Then Jesus said, And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off?” (Luke 18:7). James 5:16 also  affirms, “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”

So without question, we know God wants us to pray – to speak with Him sincerely and frequently. Because we’re His children and, like an earthly father, He delights in hearing from us, whether it’s to praise Him, express our needs, share our sorrows, or even honestly admit our times of anger, confusion and uncertainty.

There are four words, however, that I would submit are the hardest of all to pray. In the so-called Lord’s Prayer, which most theologians agree was intended as a model prayer for Jesus’ disciples who had asked Him, “Teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1), He presented a simple outline they could follow, one that’s also part of His message to the multitudes recounted in Matthew 6. 

You probably know how it starts: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come….” But then come the four hard words – “Your will be done” – followed by “on earth as it is in heaven.” Because if we’re honest, when we present our requests and petitions to the Lord, as Philippians 4:6 instructs, much of the time we have in mind exactly what we’d like Him to do. And sometimes, how we’d like it done. “My will be done” might be a more accurate way to phrase some of our prayers.

I recall a moment many years ago, during my “churchian” years – when I attended church but had no true relationship with Christ. A crisis was going on in my life, and I felt the need to pray, but had no clue how I should do it. The only prayer I knew at the time was what I’d been taught was the Lord’s Prayer. So that’s what I prayed. 

Except every time I got to the “Thy will be done” part, I stopped and couldn’t continue. Because I wanted my will to be accomplished, and I wasn’t sure that was what God had in mind. In fact, deep down I felt certain my will and His will were not at all in alignment.

So for some time, I’m not sure how long, I found myself at a prayer impasse. If I couldn’t pray “Your will be done,” there seemed no point in proceeding. Finally, with tears in my eyes and reluctant resignation – but also new resolve – I succeeded in praying, “Okay, God, Your will be done,” and finished the prayer.

I didn’t receive a specific answer right then, but something else happened. It seemed like the weight of the world had been lifted from my shoulders. Perhaps it was the burden of seeking to override God’s will with my own, I don’t know. But once I released that desire and sincerely and earnestly prayed, willing to accept whatever His will might be, I felt free.

Admittedly, this isn’t easy. We want our will: for a loved one to be healed of a serious, even terminal disease; career direction when it seems so muddled; resolution for a dire family dilemma; rescue from overwhelming financial struggle. Whatever it is, we want God to fix it – and right now.

However, whenever I ponder the nature of God’s will, I’m reminded of the title of the old TV show, “Father Knows Best.” Because, as Jeremiah 29:11 tells us, “’I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”

Monday, December 24, 2018

Anticipation . . . Anticipation!

As Carly Simon sang, anticipation is making us wait.
Do you remember Christmas Eves as a child, when images of reindeer on the rooftop and Santa Claus somehow scrambling down your chimney kept you awake? When your mind raced, anticipating what surprises would greet you the next morning?

Anticipation. It’s something we all become familiar with, from our first day in school to the start of a new job. Approaching the moment for exchanging wedding vows. Taking a vacation to a dream destination. Pop singer Carly Simon even turned it into a hit tune, “Anticipation” – and a Heinz ketchup commercial. 

But anticipation never becomes more evident than the day before Christmas. I vividly remember what Christmas Eve was like for me as a youngster. On those nights, sleep was not my friend. Anticipation and expectation for what I’d find under the tree the next morning were overwhelming. Those weren’t visions of sugar plums dancing in my head. I didn’t grow up in a wealthy family, but my parents made certain that my sister and I wouldn’t be disappointed Christmas morning.

When we boil it all down, much of the Christian faith is focused on anticipation, not just at Christmastime. In the Old Testament we see wrongfully accused Joseph, waiting years for his release from prison. When his anticipation is fulfilled, he becomes God’s instrument for maintaining His covenant with Israel. Four hundred years later, the people of Israel finally experience their hope realized when God raises up Moses to deliver them from bondage in Egypt.

Jesus’ birth fulfilled many centuries of anticipation, prophecies that teachers of the Old Testament – the Torah – knew all too well. One of them was a fellow named Simeon, described as “righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him” (Luke 2:25-26). God’s Spirit had revealed that he would not die before he had seen the promised Messiah.

When Simeon sees the Christ Child, he declares, “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32).

A bit earlier in Luke 1, we read about John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah (or Zacharias). While performing his official priestly duties, he encountered an angel who told him at long last his wife, Elizabeth, would conceive and they would become parents for the first time. The experience literally left him speechless, until his son, John, was born.  

Once he regains the ability to speak, Zechariah declares, “And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins…” (Luke 1:76-77).

John the Baptist himself, erroneously believed by some to be the promised Messiah, eagerly anticipated the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies. At one point John sent two of his followers to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” To this Jesus responded, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor” (Luke 7:20-23).

In other words, Jesus was saying, “If you’re still in doubt, John, I’ve got all of the bases covered. Just believe.” And so it is today. We, too, are being asked to just believe. Except we celebrate Christmas knowing He already came. Now our anticipation has shifted to awaiting His promised return.

No longer waiting in expectation for the coming of the Christ, today we anticipate His second coming, which He promised to His followers. We join with believers all around the world in looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus” (Titus 2:13).

We know, according to the Scriptures, that the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus weren’t His final act. After informing His disciples He was going to prepare a place for them, He also gave the assurance, And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:3). 

So this Christmas Eve we should be filled with anticipation, but not just concerning what we’ll find under the tree, but also knowing that one day – perhaps soon – the Christ of Christmas will be returning. No one can know the day or the hour, He said, but we can know one thing with absolute certainty: Return He will.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

The Real. Meaning. of Christmas.

As a society, we seem to be puzzled over so many things. For instance, in basketball, who was better: Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant or Lebron James? In football, is Tom Brady really a better quarterback than Peyton Manning or Aaron Rodgers? Is it really about global warming, climate change, or is Joe the meteorologist just a bad forecaster? 

We have the imponderables, such as who’s right, the Democrats or the Republicans? Is it really all about you – or is it all about me? Is a zebra white with black stripes, or black with white stripes? Then there’s one of the all-time classics: less filling – or tastes great?

But one topic of discussion seems to transcend them all, particularly at this time of year, is: What’s the real meaning of Christmas? If you’ve watched any of the TV specials this year – or any year – we hear this question raised again and again. And the range of answers is astounding. 

According to celebrity hosts and pontificators aplenty, Christmas is all about (take your choice): 1) getting together with friends and family; 2) love for our fellow man/woman/person; 3) sharing; 4) peace and joy and good will; 5) Santa Claus; 6) giving; 7) good food and feeling all warm and fuzzy all over. You can probably add to this list, but we have no shortage of perspectives on what Christmas means.

It’s fun spending festive, relaxing time with loved ones. Who among us is opposed to peace, joy and good will? This time of year would seem strange without jolly old Saint Nick. And when it’s cold outside, warm and fuzzy inside feels good. But isn’t it time we get this whole business cleared up? If we go straight to the source, it’s evident the real meaning of Christmas is none of the above.

Turning to where the original Christmas story is found, in the Bible, we see its meaning summed up in four words: “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14). Think about it: If Jesus hadn’t been born, we’d not be singing about wise men at this time of year. Angels would have had no reason for serenading a group of shepherds quietly watching over their sheep. Hardly anyone would have ever heard of a little town named Bethlehem. The little drummer boy would have had to play for someone else.

But it goes far beyond that. If God hadn’t chosen to come to earth in human form, we wouldn’t be dividing human history by B.C. (Before Christ) and A.D. (Anno Domini). The cross might have been cited in some obscure historic writings about ancient Roman practices, but it certainly wouldn’t have become a revered religious symbol. Most of all, we’d still be thinking about God as distant and unknowable, rather than the God who came near and desired to know us – and be known.

Perhaps Dr. Paul Brand and Philip Yancey said it best in their book, In His Image. Regarding Jesus – “the Word” who became flesh – they state He “became the visible, finite expression of the invisible, infinite, inexpressible God.” 

But why did Jesus come? This question is best answered in His own words. For instance, the Lord stated, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). In the very next verse, the One who was proclaimed to the shepherds Himself proclaimed, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep…. I know my sheep and my sheep know me – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father” (John 10:15).

For all of us who desire to know God, but have struggled to discover how that can be possible, Jesus asserted, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). The One who taught us to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39), and to “do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12), came to earth not only to teach, and serve as an example, but also to do for us what we couldn’t possibly do for ourselves. 

We were, in the words of Ephesians 2:1, “dead in [our] trespasses and sins.” How can dead people save themselves? For that reason, Jesus gave His life to atone for our sins. As Romans 5:8 declares, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” 

As a result, while we envision baby Jesus receiving gifts such as gold, frankincense and myrrh from the Magi, we should also consider how from birth, He was preparing to give the greatest gift of all: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).

So in a few days, as we revel in the byproducts of this season – fun, frivolity, and festivities – we would do well to consider what the Scriptures themselves tell us about the “real meaning of Christmas.” I hope you enjoy a truly merry Christmas – celebrating the Christ who started it all!

Monday, December 17, 2018

Getting Ready for a Timely Rest?

Ask any bear: A rest is always a good idea.
In addition to preparing for the Christmas celebration and observance of the start of a new year, this is the time when many of us are ready to take a deep breath, pause from the press of schedules and deadlines, and just rest. Sometimes, because the pace of life in the 21stcentury is so frantic, we feel guilty about resting, but it’s something we all desperately need.

Even in music, with notes following notes in a glorious cascade, an occasional rest is important to the overall composition. Think of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, where the famous “Bum-bum-bum-BAAAAH” phrases are separated by brief rests. From time to time, a rest is always appropriate – and necessary. I suspect you’ve heard about the baby whose frazzled mom called the police, who quickly arrived and charged the tot with resisting a rest?

I chuckle recalling a moment when I was a boy, probably around 10 years old. While visiting relatives in Maryland, I boldly declared that I wished we didn’t have to sleep, that we could do so much more if we didn’t need to stop and rest. (I’m sure my parents were thinking, “Are you kidding me?!”) Alas, time has taught me what a foolish young fellow I was. Now I welcome bedtime, even nap time. At times they’re the highlight of my day.

There are times, however, when more than a good night’s sleep is required. Sometimes it’s necessary to cease activity entirely, even if it’s just for a day or two. 

Even in music,
there's time
for a rest.
We find this theme recurring in the Scriptures. I’ve written in the past about Elijah’s dramatic confrontation with the 850 priests of Baal and false prophets, as recounted in 1 Kings 18. After the miraculous events of that day, Elijah fled, not out of fear but because his physical and emotional resources had been depleted. In the 19th chapter, we find that God didn’t chastise his faithful prophet. Instead, He let him rest and sent angels to minister to him.

Jesus packed an enormous amount of ministry into a span of just three years, but even He would take time to separate from His disciples and avid followers for prayer and rest.

Elsewhere we see God’s affirmation of the importance of rest. In one of my favorite chapters in all of Scripture, after we’re instructed to trust in the Lord, delight in Him, and commit all we do to Him, it says we’re to, “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him” (Psalm 37:3-7). My own revised paraphrase of this passage says, “Take a rest, man. Chill out a little!”

Psalm 46:10 underscores God’s emphasis on the need for periodic rest. “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations I will be exalted in the earth.” While resting, we don’t need to go into a brain freeze. It’s a good time for reflecting and meditating on the Lord and who He is; that He’s the one who enables us to do whatever we need to get done, anyway.

It’s not coincidental that the very next Psalm helps us to set our minds on God, His character and His greatness. “Clap your hands, all you nations; shout to God with cries of joy. How awesome is the Lord Most High, the great King over all the earth!... God reigns over the nations; God is seated on his holy throne” (Psalm 47:1-9).

So if you’re anticipating carving out a break in the action, taking a few days off, or even a week or more as this year draws to a close, enjoy the rest. Take advantage of some “times of refreshing,” as Acts 3:19 expresses it, and trust the Lord to prepare you for another productive, fruitful year of serving Him in 2019. 

Just as a great musical composer understands the value of a timely rest in the composition, the One who composed us is fully in favor of giving us a rest every so often, too.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Whatever Was It That He Wrote?

The problem with stones in glass houses . . . .
Anyone who thinks the Bible is always crystal clear, that everything we read is unwaveringly black and white, should reconsider. Much of what the Scriptures teach is unequivocal – although many choose to disbelieve or discount it. However, every once in a while, we read something that makes us want to scratch our heads and simply say, “Huh?”

I could cite numerous examples, but one that immediately comes to mind is Jesus being confronted by a gang of self-righteous religious leaders about to stone a young woman for committing an act of adultery. We find the scene in John 8:1-11. These Pharisees and teachers, feeling threatened by Jesus’ popularity, were seeking to trap Him into doing or saying something that would discredit Him.

“In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” they demanded, thinking they had a “gotcha!” moment. The passage proceeds to explain that without uttering a word, Jesus bent down and started writing something on the ground with His finger. The question that comes to mind, and for which there is no definitive answer, is: What did He write?

Theologians have debated and conjectured over this through the centuries, but no one knows – or can know – for certain. Just as no one knows for sure what the apostle Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” might have been. All we know is that whatever Jesus scribbled in the dust was important enough to get the pious pitchers’ attention. Next, He stood up, declared, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7). Then he stooped down and again wrote on the ground.

No clue about exactly what Jesus wrote either time, but whatever it was, it caused each of the woman’s accusers to drop the stones they were preparing to hurl at her and, one by one, quietly slink away. Your guess is as good as mine regarding what He had written. But I do have a hypothesis. (Or perhaps, a theory. Definitely a speculation.)

Being fully God, as well as fully man, Jesus could have done whatever He wanted, right? I believe when He wrote on the ground, each accuser could read some significant sin (or sins) that he had committed, reminding him that he had little basis for making charges of wrongdoing against others. When Jesus said the one that was without sin should be the first to cast a stone, He knew He had turned the tables. He was the one declaring, “Gotcha!”

How could Jesus write and have each man read something different, something very specifically personal? Well, if He was God, that shouldn’t have been much of a problem, should it? Or maybe it was a particular sin all of the men shared in common, exposing their hypocrisy.

Jesus had also declared during His so-called Sermon on the Mount, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:1-5).

He might have made that statement numerous times in other settings, just as itinerant preachers often give the same sermons to different audiences. So for at least for some of the woman’s accusers, his “note in the dirt” might have been a pointed reminder of what they had already heard Him teach.

Of course, Jesus wasn’t letting the woman totally off the hook. After the would-be stone throwers had disappeared, He asked her, “’Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ ‘No one, sir,’ she said. ‘Then neither do I condemn you,’ Jesus declared. ‘Go now and leave your life of sin’” (John 8:10-11). He offered grace and forgiveness, along with the instruction, “Stop doing what you’ve been doing.”

So what exactly did Jesus scrawl into the dirt that day? Only God knows. But it’s still instructive for us as well. It’s so easy to judge, even condemn, others for their behavior. Recognizing wrongdoing in others comes easily for many of us. When we do so, maybe it would help to imagine Jesus inscribing our sins in the dirt, inviting us to read what He’s written, and saying, “Okay, now. If you’re without sin, then go ahead, cast that stone.”

Monday, December 10, 2018

Got Spurs? Let Them Jingle, Jangle, Jingle

Pardon me for showing my age, but I’m reflecting on the “good old days” when I reveled in the Saturday morning cowboy shows on TV – in living black and white, no less. Characters like Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, and Wild Bill Hickok. They were the good guys, always standing up (or riding) for justice and what’s right.

They could shoot their pistols with uncanny accuracy from horses in full gallop, never lost their hats in pursuit, and were nothing but gentlemen around the ladies. What I remember in particular are spurs, those metallic accessories to their boots used for prodding their trusty steeds faster when the bad guys seemed about to get away. I’m not certain, but it seems I had a set of toy spurs myself when I was a boy for my cowboy-and-Indian play days.

I’ve never used spurs on a horse. Actually, I’ve never spent much time on a horse; I like looking at them, but never felt safe sitting atop one of them. But from what I understand, those spurs were handy for getting the animals moving and keeping them going in the proper direction. 

Did you know the Bible has a bit to say about spurs? Not in the rootin’, tootin’ cowboy sense. But right there in Hebrews 10:24 it says, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.” I don’t recall any other reference telling us that Jesus, or the apostles, or even the prophets had literal spurs attached to their sandals. Nevertheless, this term is aptly used.

This thing we call “the Christian life” isn’t easy. At times we’re coasting along on some spiritual high, feeling like we can handle any obstacles we confront. But other times, especially during uninspiring doldrum moments, it’s harder to keep going. Those are the times when we can use a little “spurring on” for continuing what God has called us to do.

The image of championship sports teams comes to mind. They have talented players, usually more than one at each position, who engage in spirited, healthy competition. These athletes challenge one another, but also support one another, rejoicing in one another’s success. Probably without being consciously aware of it, they’re spurring one another on toward higher levels of achievement and success.

That’s what we should be doing as followers of Jesus. As the next verse in Hebrews admonishes, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another” (Hebrews 10:25).

Elsewhere in the Scriptures we find acknowledgements that the our trek through life can sometimes be tough, slow sledding. Galatians 6:9 cautions, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” I suspect we’ve all experienced a bit of fatigue in well-doing, wondering if we can continue – or if what we’re doing is really accomplishing anything.

We find a similar exhortation in 1 Corinthians 15:58, “Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” Reading this in the Word of God is a great reminder. Our expressions of similar sentiments to one another can be as well. A few words of timely encouragement never hurt.

The old cowboy song went, “I got spurs that jingle, jangle, jingle.” When we encounter a brother or sister in Christ who seems to be dragging, whether weary from expended efforts or simply discouraged, it’s time to spur them on, urging them to continue in their pursuit of love and good deeds. Let’s keep our “spurs” jingling, and jangling! 

Thursday, December 6, 2018

‘But We’ve Always Done It That Way!”

Why are there always three wise men in the Nativity scene?
There’s a story about an aging monk that had a pet cat. The feline was fine, except when its owner was engaging in silent meditation. Then its constant meowing and rubbing up against his leg was distracting, disrupting his spiritual reflection. So he decided to tie it to a tree during his quiet times. When he was finished, the monk would release the cat and bring it back into his room.

Time passed and one day the monk died, leaving behind his pet. His fellow monks dutifully continued to care for the cat just as their deceased brother had done. One day the cat also died; the monks obtained another cat to replace it in the dead monk’s memory. As they had with the other cat, once a day they would tie it to a tree.

When asked why they were doing that, the men of the holy order replied, “That’s what Brother Jerome always did. We never asked him why, but we don’t want to ruin his tradition.”

It’s been said that the seven last words of the church are, “But we’ve always done it that way!” Many traditions and practices are well-considered and worth perpetuating, but sometimes rituals are repeated simply out of habit (no pun on the monk story), without any good reason.

For instance: Orders of service that never change. The same types of music always being played, without variation. The same version of the Bible always being read without question. Sacraments performed on the same Sunday of each month. Identical prayers being repeated. Maybe the same Christmas program every year; the only changes being who fills the key roles of Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus. Having three wise men in the Nativity scene, even though most likely the Magi didn’t arrive in Bethlehem until months after Jesus was born – and no one knows for certain there were three of them. 

It’s like Heather, who routinely would cut the ends off the Christmas ham while preparing it for her family’s holiday dinner. One day her husband, Henry, asked, “Honey, why do you cut the ends of the ham before putting it in the oven?” “Well,” she responded, “that’s the way my mom always did it.”

The next Christmas the family went to Heather’s mom’s for dinner, and as expected, her mother cut the ends off the ham before putting in to bake. Henry seized the opportunity to ask, “Mom, that’s what Heather does – cuts the ends off the ham before baking it. Why do you do it?” The mother-in-law replied, “That’s what I learned from my mother.”

As it happened, Grandma was joining them for dinner, so after she arrived, Henry couldn’t wait to pop the question. “Grandma Harriet, why do you cut the ends of the Christmas ham?” Without blinking an eye, she answered, “Well, early on as a young bride, I only had a small baking pan, and the hams were always too big. So I cut off the ends so the ham would fit into it.”

Traditions and rituals are good, as long as their practice remains useful and purposeful. But to maintain them simply because “we’ve always done that way before” isn’t a very good reason. As Ecclesiastes 3:1 tells us, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven.”

This suggests that time might one day come to end, when the “season” for a certain tradition has drawn to a close. It’s true even for our spiritual rituals, like a daily prayer or quiet time. Must they always take place at a specific time and/or place? When we study the Bible, do we follow the same routine, never bothering to “mix it up” and experiment with a new approach? If we ask a blessing before meals, do we use the same words every time? Do we always need to sit in the same spot during the worship service?

As long as these practices continue to enhance our walk with God, there’s probably no reason to change. But as devotional writer Oswald Chambers stated, let’s make sure they constitute our time with the Lord – and not just our time with our habit.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Absent from the Body, Present With the Lord

Gib is the gentle giant on the left.
Years ago, the rock band MercyMe recorded the hit tune, “I Can Only Imagine.” It later served as the inspiration for a theatrical film, telling the story behind the song and its message which ponders what heaven must be like. Don’t you sometimes wonder about this yourself?

These words take on deeper meaning when a dear friend or loved one who follows Christ passes away and it occurs to you that their wondering and imagining are over. For them, as the classic hymn “It is Well With My Soul” declares, faith has become sight. 

A couple weeks ago my friend, Gilbert (Gib), ended his year-long bout with cancer when he quietly drifted from this life to the next in his sleep. Over the months following his diagnosis and numerous treatments, Gib had voiced concern about the dying process, but never once did he fear the prospect of death. Many times he told me and others, “I can’t wait to see my Jesus.”

Even more than fishing, Gib loved
"fishing" in the name of Jesus.
When people learned Gib was dealing with cancer, they would predictably respond, “Oh, I’m so sorry.” He usually took this as an open door to tell them there was no reason for feeling sorry, that he was looking forward to going to heaven. Then he would kindly – but directly – ask if they had the same hope.

His hearers often marveled at his confidence; some called it courage. But as we studied the Scriptures together, Gib and I had talked about what the biblical term “hope” actually means – earnest expectation, confident assurance. And this is what Gib possessed until he drew his final breath. There was no hint of the tentative “hope-so” that comprises the best some people can muster as they consider their eternal destiny.

In 2 Corinthians 5:8, the apostle Paul writes, We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord." Gib could have written these words as well, and at last the Lord has granted this "preference." No longer encumbered by disease and earthly limitations, my friend is experiencing what I like to call the other side of eternity, since the Bible teaches that eternal life actually begins before death for all who have received Christ as Savior and Lord. "I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life" (1 John 5:13).

Gib was truly a gentle, congenial giant, the kind of man who never knew a stranger. Armed with a wonderful sense of humor, and a deep, resonant voice that could carry across the room, he thought nothing of striking up a conversation with anyone nearby, offering compliments and other pleasantries. Whether as an Uber driver, bass player in the church band, eating at a local restaurant, or sitting in a chair receiving his periodic chemotherapy treatments, he saw himself as an ambassador for his Lord. And he did his job well.

In the Bible we occasionally come across seeming imponderable statements, making us want to stop, scratch our heads, and ask, “Say what?” The declaration of Psalm 116:15 is one of these: Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints." 

How can a loving God delight in the death of His children? How can someone’s death be described as “precious”? I puzzled over that myself, until I realized what we perceive as the end of someone’s life is actually the beginning of a new one, unfettered by sin, pain, sorrow and all the hardships of our temporal lives.

But there’s another aspect to it as well. Think of a parent eagerly awaiting a beloved child’s return from a long stay in a distant land. I truly believe it’s that way with God the Father. As His children pass from this life, He is ready to welcome them, maybe even giddy with excitement. We talk about people “going home to be with the Lord.” According to the Scriptures, that’s exactly what it is, our heavenly Father with open arms receiving us to our real home.

I do wonder what is was like for Gib, as well as many other friends and loved ones, to be in the Savior’s presence for the first time. What a marvelous experience that must be, one that will never fade for all eternity. As 1 John 3:2 tells us, “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” Imagine that, Jesus looking at us and instantly seeing an undeniable family resemblance!

Thursday, November 29, 2018

What Football Can Teach Us About Faith

Is your view of God that of a celestial football referee?
Traditional Thanksgiving weekend contests have taken place, and college football season is steaming toward bowl season and the College Football Playoffs. So there’s still time to consider what this uniquely American pastime can teach us about everyday life.

I used to wonder why the game’s still called “football,” when so little of it actually has to do with the foot. Yes, there’s placekicking, kickoffs and punting, but rules changes have substantially reduced the impact of foot on ball. But then a speaker pointed out that in this sport, almost everything revolves around where the football is located.

The “line of scrimmage,” for instance, is determined by where the officials place the ball. Penalties, such as “offsides,” also depend upon the football’s location and whether defensive players cross the “neutral zone” around the ball. The “goal line” comes into play when the football crosses it – or doesn’t – to decide things like touchdowns, safeties, and touchbacks.

When a quarterback drops back to pass, he’s throwing the football. And his intent is for a receiver to catch and advance it down the field. Conversely, defensive players either want to knock down the football so no one can catch it, or catch it themselves so their team will take over possession of the ball. The job of running backs is to hang onto the football and try to move it forward for first downs and touchdowns. 

Yes indeed, everything revolves around the football.

Why, when considering spiritual insights into everyday life, should we care at all about a silly game called football? Because as people created in God’s image, our lives – everything we do, say, and even think – should revolve around Him. 

When God gave Moses the 10 commandments to pass along to the Israelites, the first four specifically dealt with our relationship to Him. We’re not to follow other gods; we’re not to bow before manmade idols (“graven images”) in worship; we’re not to profane the name of the Lord in any way; and we’re to set aside one day of the week as “a Sabbath to the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:3-11).

A skeptic friend once commented that he thought God must be “pretty egotistical” if He demands our worship. I countered, “Well, if He created the entire universe and everything in it, keeps it functioning as intended, and provides for our every need, isn’t he deserving of honor, worship and praise? We recognize athletes for stellar performances, actors and musicians for their talent, and people holding elective office for their positions of leadership. Is it wrong for the Lord to expect recognition for everything He has done and continues to do, which dwarf any human achievement we can imagine?”

But there’s another, very different aspect of football also worth considering. It’s the role of the officials who maintain order, enforce the rules, and make it their aim to catch someone doing something wrong. 

We never see a referee running up to a player, patting him on the back, and saying, “Man, that was a great run!” or “What a clutch tackle that was!” or “Nice catch!” Do something wrong, however, and they call you on it immediately. First they throw the yellow flag, then announce for all the world to hear exactly what you did.

Sadly, this is how some people perceive God – as a divine “referee,” watching intently from the heavenly realms poised to throw the flag on anyone that gets out of line. Some people refer to the NFL as the “No Fun League,” and those with this perception of God might see Him as the No Fun Lord. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

God’s not surprised at all that we fail consistently to meet His holy standards. The Bible makes it clear: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away” (Romans 3:10-18). So when we sin, which literally means “to miss the mark,” He’s not surprised at all. This has been the case since the beginning of time, humankind determined to function as its own god.

Unlike football referees, who dutifully enforce the rules by imposing prescribed penalties, God instead has provided the remedy – Jesus Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross – to offer forgiveness to anyone willing to receive it. As 2 Corinthians 5:21 declares, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” In the Old Testament we’re told, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him [Jesus] the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6).

Football operates by the “if you do the crime, you do the time” philosophy, immediately penalizing offenders for rules violations. In the realm of faith, however, God desires to forgive and to redeem, using His laws primarily as tutors to instruct us in how to achieve successful, fulfilling lives. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

The Lord not only offers us grace – His unmerited, undeserved favor – but also the faith needed to believe and receive His love and unconditional acceptance. So if you view God as a celestial referee eager to “throw the flag” when we mess up, maybe it’s time to take a fresh look at the Scriptures. 

Monday, November 26, 2018

How Much is Really Enough?

Financial advisors spend much of their time dealing with people who don’t have enough. Maybe they haven’t handled their finances wisely, amassing large amounts of debt. It might be because they’re not earning enough to support themselves and their families. Or it could be attributed to a variety of other reasons, including major, unexpected expenses, such as severe illnesses, or high repair/replacement costs for cars or “big ticket” items like air conditioners, furnaces, and roofs.

It’s tough when you really don’t have enough.

How should we respond when we're
being told too much is never enough?
However, some people have a very different question to answer: How much is enough? That’s something many of us never ask ourselves. Or, if we do, the response is typically the same. Years ago, one of the world’s richest men was reported to have been asked, “How much is enough?” To which he replied, “Just a little bit more.”

That sounds ludicrous, doesn’t it? How could a person with great wealth be dissatisfied with what he or she already has? When that “little bit” is achieved, the target somehow moves just a tad farther out. Makes no sense, right? But we’ve all done it.

We don’t need fabulous wealth to wrestle with this “little bit more” issue. The boss gives us a raise at work, yet within weeks the additional compensation begins to seem inadequate, especially if we learn a coworker also got a pay increase and is earning more than we are. In setting career goals, we reason if we could just arrive at a certain level of income, that would make us happy. But once we get there, it appears we’ve set the bar too low.

And it’s not just about paychecks and bank accounts. We can have a closet full of clothes, yet strolling through a retail store, we can’t help thinking a new dress, shirt, or pair of shoes would really be a nice addition to the wardrobe. That 50-inch high-definition TV we already have is okay, but having a 65-inch model would even be better. We’re feeling satisfied with our five-year old car – until a neighbor drives up with a new one right off the showroom floor, loaded with accessories we didn’t even know were available.

We’ve just finished observing another Thanksgiving Day. For many of us, as we salivated over the array of food set before us, “just a little bit more” was the all-day answer to our “how much is enough” question. Long after we’d appeased our hunger, we were still treating our taste buds.

This is a “normal” human weakness it seems, which might be why God decided the last of His 10 commandments should be “You shall not covet…anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:17). Coveting what others have never leads to uplifting thinking. It may motivate us to work harder so we can have it too, but once we’ve attained “it,” it never seems to be enough. And this puts us at odds with others, the old “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality.

Proverbs 27:20 warns, “Death and Destruction are never satisfied, and neither are the eyes of man.” One translation of Proverbs 30:15 reads, Greed has twins, each named ‘Give me!’" What the Bible calls “the flesh” – our sinful nature – doesn’t understand what having enough means. It always wants more. 

The solution to this is making a conscious decision about what will be sufficient, what’s “enough,” even when opportunities emerge for us to acquire more. The apostle Paul, who experienced his share of both prosperity and deprivation during his lifetime, stated, I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Philippians 4:12).

Out of that “classroom,” Paul reached an important conclusion: But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that” (1 Timothy 6:6-8).

Perhaps this is an important principle we all need to keep foremost in our minds, especially since the Christmas season is officially upon us. Over the next several weeks we’ll be bombarded with messages telling us about all the stuff we “deserve” and “need.” Have we learned the secret of being content? Can we distinguish genuine needs from wants? Are we willing to make a determination about how much is really enough?

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Being Thankful – Even When You’re Not

Since this blog post is appearing on Thanksgiving Day, I hope you’re reading it with a tummy filled with turkey, dressing “and all the trimmings.” What exactly are “all the trimmings”? Last time I checked, we don’t put Christmas ornaments on our turkeys, mashed potatoes, green bean casseroles, or pumpkin pies. And gorging on the holiday feast certainly doesn’t lend itself to “trimness.” So what’s up with all the trimmings?

Anyway, I want to wish everyone a happy Thanksgiving and trust you have already done so, or soon will take time to reflect on your reasons for being thankful. 

For many people, there’s lots for which to feel and express thanks. A good job, strong and growing family, enough money in the bank to pay all the bills (that could change in the weeks leading up to Christmas Day), personal health, and a place to call home. Unfortunately, for more than a few folks, some of those reasons for thankfulness are missing.

Over the past year I’ve learned of several friends confronting grim cancer diagnoses, or dealing with other serious health challenges. Unemployment, we’re told, is the lowest it’s been in years, but there still are those out of work – or unable to work due to some disability. Almost everyone faces family issues at one time or another; some are quickly resolved, others aren’t. Even during a strong economy, which many experts say we’ve been experiencing of late, financial help practitioners and bankruptcy attorneys aren’t agonizing over how to keep busy.

So if you’re among those feeling abundantly blessed and exceedingly thankful, good for you. But if your situation is very different from that, if you want to give thanks but don’t feel thankful, how do you respond?

The Scriptures offer help, since thankfulness is one of its central themes. In fact, one of the first Bible verses I learned – a very short one – speaks to it directly. In 1 Thessalonians 5:18 we’re told to, “give thanks in all circumstances,” adding why we should do so: “for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

I understand. Saying to be thankful “because God says so” isn’t particularly helpful. Unless we tie our thanksgiving not only to what He has done, but also what we trust He’s going to do. In times of trouble and stress, I’m often reminded of Philippians 4:6-7, which urges, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

So when we’re praying, asking the Lord for direction, provision, intervention, or simply peace and hope in the midst of the turmoil we may be facing, we’re to begin giving thanks even then. Kind of like making a down payment on something we expect to acquire at a future time.

Ultimately, that’s what faith is all about. As Hebrews 11:1 tells us, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” At the end of the same chapter, after citing numerous examples of people who maintained strong faith despite overwhelming circumstances, it states, “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect” (Hebrews 11:39-40).

I close with this biblical admonition which precedes the command to give thanks in every circumstance: “Always be joyful; pray continually” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-17). If today’s a day when you couldn’t feel more blessed, rejoice and pray. If, however, today’s a day when we’re still anxiously waiting for God to “show up,” we should do the same – rejoice and pray. 

And give thanks. If not for present trials, then for the promise that He is faithful. “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord, trust also in Him, and He will bring it to pass” (Psalm 37:4-5).