Thursday, December 28, 2017

Looking Back – and Ahead – at the Same Time

Just as a sunset marks the end of a day, a sunrise - and a
new year - mark a new beginning.
The year’s about over. For some it provided fond memories, while leaving others with bittersweet feelings. Still others regard it as, “Good riddance!” They can’t wait for it to end. How was 2017 for you?   

Soon another new year will usher in. Some will stay up until midnight or after, watching the huge Times Square New Year’s ball drop at the precise moment, while the rest of us will head to bed early, trusting the celebrated ball will descend successfully without our help. But first, there’s a bit of unfinished business with the current year.

A lot happens over the span of 365 days individually, nationally and globally. During this season when we hear so much about peace on earth and good will toward men, we realize the world remains filled with hate, strife and unrest. Here in the USA, the new President demonstrated a propensity for letting his fingers do the walking (via social media) whether we approved or not. In many respects, the societal divide began resembling the Grand Canyon.

These last moments of the year prompt me to assess how I’ve utilized the gift of each day and opportunities afforded to me. Where have I grown as a person? Have I grown? What mistakes did I make that I can learn from, even well into my seventh decade of life? What goals, long-term and short, did I accomplish – and what building blocks did I put in place for future achievement?

Maybe you ask yourself such questions; maybe not. But even if you do, the time comes for looking forward. Just as trying to drive while staring in the rearview mirror is a slow, and sometimes dangerous, endeavor, so is attempting to live life while clinging to days gone by.

There’s nothing wrong with revisiting the past, cherishing things we wish to remember and seeking to learn from things which would be best forgotten – so we don’t repeat them. Dwelling on the past, however, is usually counterproductive. We can’t change it, much as we can only anticipate the future. What we do have, and can affect, is today, whether it’s the final day of the old year or first day of the new.

That’s why I love the words and wisdom of the apostle Paul, who wrote to fellow followers of Jesus in Philippi, “Not that I have already obtained all this [a life totally dominated by the life of Christ], or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me…. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12-14).

As a one-time persecutor of Jesus’ disciples, Paul had much he would have preferred to forget. But recognizing that through Christ he had become a new man, nothing like the religious, anti-Christian zealot he once was, the apostle chose instead to “strain toward what is ahead and press on toward the goal” of becoming more like the One he once opposed.

The same holds for us. We all have regrets, things we wish we could “do-over.” But in Christ, what matters most is not what we’ve done. He’s taken care of all our wrongs: God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). What does matter is what we’re going to do with today, along with the days that remain ahead of us.

Just as a sunset signifies the end of a day and a sunrise the start of a new one, the completion of one calendar can mean a new, fresh start. Drawing from the past and learning from it, proceeding into each day with renewed resolve and determination to become all God wants us to be. As Ephesians 2:10 reminds us, “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

Monday, December 25, 2017

When All Has Been Said…What Else Can You Say?

Let’s see, it’s been an estimated 2,000 years since the first Christmas. There were no Christmas carols then, no one rockin’ around the Christmas tree yet, and the first Christmas cards were centuries away. The first Christmas sermons weren’t yet a forethought, much less an afterthought. But since then, much has been said and written about that holy event. So much that we feel inclined to wonder: What else can possibly be said?

Still, sometimes what’s old somehow manages to be forever new. Like the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s “Messiah.” Many of us have heard it many times, yet it never fails to stir the soul. Or the redemptive message of “A Christmas Carol,” whether read from Charles Dickens’s original writing, or portrayed on film in the Reginald Owen, Alistair Sim, George C. Scott or other newer versions. Timeless virtues never seem to go out of date.

Most of all, we have the original Christmas story, captured in Luke 2:1-20. For all of us who believe that the Word (Jesus) became flesh and indeed lived among us (according to John 1:14), it never ceases to inspire an overwhelming sense of wonder and awe. This being Christmas day, I’ll just reprint it below. It speaks for itself:

The Christmas story is one that never gets old.
“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.’
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.’
So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.”

All I can add to that is…AMEN! 

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Nostalgia, Wishful Thinking and the Nativity

The Sears Wish Book peaked imaginations
for more than 60 years.
Do you remember the annual Sears Wish Book? The seasonal catalog sent sugarplums dancing around youngsters’ heads for decades. We complain when stores unveil Christmas decorations in early fall, but the Wish Book appeared in late summer, giving kids months to fantasize over what they would discover under the tree on Christmas day.

A recent newspaper article reminded me of this iconic publication that spanned 1933-1993, featuring everything from tools to telescopes, and most important…toys. It was a winter wonderland for a young person’s imagination months before the first snowflakes would appear.

The Wish Book’s now a remnant of days gone by, but thinking about it flooded me with nostalgia. It’s like watching “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the original “Miracle on 34th Street” with little Natalie Wood, “White Christmas” with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, and even Laurel and Hardy’s “March of the Wooden Soldiers.” They transport us to places and times far, far away, when we weren’t held captive to technology or rumors of impending social upheaval. That was too long ago!

Alas, who needs a Wish Book today when we have Amazon and the Internet? And in our skeptical age, sentiments and values portrayed in movie classics seem sentimental and sappy, hardly a match for the harsh and unsettling realities bombarding us today.

Nostalgia’s a thing of the past – literally. Some people think it’s old hat. And it’s that, too. But I say, bring it on. The more nostalgia, the merrier. Especially during the Christmas season.

"A Charlie Brown Christmas" has captivated
viewers since 1965.
Despite new recordings released every year, we smile when we hear traditional holiday tunes like “The Christmas Song,” “Jingle Bells” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” The fragrance of a fresh-cut Christmas tree evokes memories from years past, and for decades we’ve thrilled to hear hapless “Chuck” proclaim the Good News of the first Christmas to the shepherds in the fields in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

Traditional carols remind of us what Christmas is truly about: “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “The First Noel,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” and “Joy to the World.” The favorite of many, “Silent Night,” always draws me back to my boyhood days, attending Christmas Eve services in the Hungarian-American church in New Brunswick, N.J., where the simple tune written by Franz Gruber was simultaneously sung in both Hungarian and English.

Nothing is more nostalgic, in my view, than various depictions of the very first Christmas – Mary, Joseph and the Christ child huddled in a humble stable with cows, sheep, angels and shepherds peering over their shoulders. Ranging from simple creations that fit in the palm of a hand to cute Precious Moments renditions to elaborate Nativity scenes that are true works of art, they remind of the amazing time when “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14).

With our annual commemoration of that day nearing, let’s hope and pray that despite the turmoil and discord that seem to reign in society, we will experience the reality of this declaration: “Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests'” (Luke 2:13-14). 

Monday, December 18, 2017

The Amazing Human Heart – and God’s Amazing Heart for Us

The human heart is amazing. Consider the numbers: Healthy hearts beat 60-100 times a minute. If someone’s normal resting heart rate is 75, that means it beats 4,500 times in an hour, and 108,000 times during the course of 24 hours. Over an entire year that heart beats nearly 40 million times, and over a 70-year lifetime, that’s close to three billion heartbeats!

Can you imagine a car engine running non-stop for 70 years, or longer? It doesn’t happen. The heart is one of the marvels of the human body, especially because if the heart stops, so does life. Every year about this time I have special reason to reflect on these facts. Nearly 11 years ago (Dec. 20, 2006), I was lying on an operating table, chest splayed open while a surgical team performed multiple bypasses and built a new ascending aorta for me.

My "heart pillow" remains
a treasured souvenir.
They in fact did stop my heart for a half-hour or so while the repairs were being made, attaching me to a heart-lung machine in the meantime. So, it got a brief respite. But ever since, it’s been beating non-stop about 440 million times.

I’m extremely grateful for those 11 additional years – and for whatever time still lies ahead for me in this life. Over that span I’ve added two sons-in-law, four grandchildren (with another expected in January) and three great-grandkids. Professionally I’ve had the opportunity to write and edit a number of books and articles, and even to start this blog. God has also given me the privilege of meeting with a number of men in mentoring relationships, providing mutual encouragement and accountability for our journey with Jesus Christ.

To borrow the title of my favorite Christmas film, it’s been – and continues to be – a wonderful life, even in the midst of inevitable challenges. Jesus said of His “sheep” – His followers – “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). Thanks to medical technology, a very skillful surgeon, and God’s grace, I’ve already had more than a decade to experience that abundant life He promised.

The Bible says much about the heart, although not necessarily in the ever-beating muscle in the chest sense. The book of Proverbs, for instance, comments often on “the heart.”

Proverbs 4:23 tells us to guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” Then we read, “In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps” (Proverbs 16:9). Later we read, “All a man’s ways seem right to him, but the Lord weighs the heart” (Proverbs 21:2).

Acts 13:22 recounts God’s description of David, who became king of Israel, as “a man after my own heart.” Jesus spoke often about the heart, saying such things as, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). And, “But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart…. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, immorality, theft…” (Matthew 15:18-19).

Without question, these uses of the term “heart” refer to our motives and desires. But even though I can’t prove it, I believe there’s a spiritual component to the physical heart.

I remember the years following my surgery when I visited people in the hospital who had just undergone open-heart surgery. I went to encourage them by sharing my own story, seeking to “comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Corinthians 1:4). It was not uncommon to see even macho-looking men well up with tears as they pondered their recent surgery and how God had chosen to extend their lives. No question, it’s a humbling experience.

So, with my 11th “anniversary” coming in a couple of days, I’m literally feeling heartfelt thanks for the extra time the Lord has provided me in this life, and the opportunity to enjoy another Christmas season with my family on this side of eternity. What a wonderful reminder that, even at times when “we are faithless, He remains faithful” (2 Timothy 2:13).