Thursday, December 31, 2020

What Doth This New Year Hold Forth?

When this year began, did you make any resolutions – or set some goals, as I prefer to do? Were you able to achieve every one of them? If you did, you’re either an exceptional person, or you have difficulty telling the truth sometimes. Because no one could have anticipated and planned for the turmoil and upheaval 2020 would bring.

 

But why dwell on that now? We’ve got a brand new year ahead of us, barely a blink of an eye away. Aren’t we all ready for a fresh start? It’s time to relegate 2020 to hindsight, right? Can’t wait to see it fading in the rearview mirror!

 

Alas, even though we’ll be changing dates on our calendars, checkbooks and other stuff, when Jan. 1, 2021 dawns, it will be just another day – and the problems of the year past won’t suddenly disappear. Based on what we’ve gone through over the past 365 days, it might be appropriate for the entrance to 2021 to be littered with signs like “Beware!” “Proceed With Caution!” and “Enter At Your Own Risk!”

 So while we’re finalizing our resolutions, goals or plans for the new year, recent experience suggests that we prepare to be nimble, adaptable and flexible. Because things certainly aren’t going to go quite like we expect or hope. They never do. But we don’t have to feel like we’re moving forward blindly, like a ship in a storm without an anchor.

 

For me, the Scriptures provide confidence that the unknown that's lying ahead of us is already charted territory. In the words of the familiar psalm, we’re assured, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for [God is] with me…” (Psalm 23:4). Those brief words carry great depth of meaning.

 

In shepherd terminology, this referred to the unwavering trust the sheep had in their caretaker. What might lurk in the shadows could have disconcerted them, but knowing their shepherd would protect them, the sheep could proceed without hesitation.

 

It’s the same for us. Even when things seem darkest, the Lord is already there to provide us with the light we need. He’s “scoped things out” for us in advance. As Jesus Christ promised, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). If I were trekking at night through a dark forest, I’d feel much better if I had an experienced guide equipped with a bright light to show the way.

 

Another verse reassures us, “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10). That’s a passage that has often served me like a spiritual security blanket.

 

Then there’s my all-time favorite, Proverbs 3:5-6, which admonishes, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” Whenever I have leaned on my own understanding during 2020, it only made things seem more confusing. The virus, politics, and social unrest were a devastating triple play. Whenever I had the sense to shift my thinking and trust in the Lord, however, order always seemed to dispel the chaos.

 

Just before ascending to heaven, Jesus offered this assurance: “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). We find a similar promise recounted in Hebrews 13:5, when He said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” After which the writer adds, “So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’”

 

I’ve been to strange cities a number of times. Unfamiliarity was one thing, but being directionally challenged, those occasions could have been daunting, even fearful experiences. But each time I was in the company with a friend or trusted guide who was very familiar with the city and knew exactly where we needed to go. 

 

In a broader sense, life is much like that. We can fear the future – especially in view of recent experiences. But as we follow the One who already knows what lies ahead, we can let go of our anxieties and uncertainties, trusting that He will ultimately take us safely to our intended destination. So we can say with confidence, “2021, ready or not, here we come!” 

Monday, December 28, 2020

Next Year, Will All Our Troubles Be Miles Away?

Christmas is still a fresh memory, but some of us are already anticipating the start of a new year. In a real sense, the passing from Dec. 31 to Jan. 1 will be a  simple turn of the calendar. But won’t it be cathartic, to be able to write “2021” instead of the 2020 that has created so much stress and discomfort? Instead of greeting each other with “happy new year,” we’ll probably be more inclined to say, “Good riddance!”

In optical terminology, 20:20 means excellent eyesight. But in comparison with other years, 2020 has been a blur – and not in a good sense. With all the turmoil we’ve endured, thanks to the pandemic, politics and other perplexities, I think we all can agree that 2020 didn’t live up to its hype.

 

So, just days from now, we’ll move on to 2021. The million-dollar question is, will it truly be a new year – or just more of the same?

 

The other day I was listening to the old holiday song, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” with its promise: “Next year all our troubles will be miles away.” We can only hope.

 

Truthfully, no one knows. No more than anyone could have known how our world would turn upside down because of something called COVID-19. But in the midst of our present and future uncertainty, there is genuine hope we can count on. And not of the “hope-so” variety.

 

It's not a hope in government, or in the right party or President getting into office. It’s not hope in science or technology, although those have served as very useful and helpful tools in many ways. It’s not even hope in human goodness. 

 

This hope can be found only in the presence and power of the eternal God and our Lord Jesus Christ, whom Hebrews 13:8 declares is “the same yesterday and today and forever.” So much of what we see and experience is constantly changing: The seasons transform one into another. Fashions that were in style last month have already given way to the fads of today. Economically, the bull market can turn into a bear overnight. We age, and every time we look in the mirror, we look different. But God is unchanging. 

 

Because of this, the “hope-so” that is determined by so many of life’s uncertainties can be replaced by the hope that’s defined in the Scriptures as confident assurance, or earnest expectation. Here’s a sampling of the passages in both the Old and New Testaments that expound upon the hope that we can have:

 

Hope that pain has a purpose. “…And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us” (Romans 5:3-5).

 

Hope that rewards our patience. “For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently” (Romans 8:24-25).

 

Hope that we can truly trust in. “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1).

 

Hope that leads to limitless joy. “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13).

 

Hope that is eternal. “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection  of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade – kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:3-4).

 

Hope that can sustain us. “Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the Lord” (Psalm 31:24).

 

Hope that is anchored in God’s love. “But the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him, on those whose hope is in his unfailing love” (Psalm 33:18).

 

Hope that overcomes turmoil. “Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God” (Psalm 42:5-6).

 

We all would like a guarantee that 2021 will be much better than the year we’ve been enduring, that 2020 will become an unpleasant, but fading memory. Alas, we have no such guarantees. There’s no assurance that our troubles will be miles away. 

 

But by trusting the promises and assurances of the Scriptures, we do have one guarantee: That the God of all eternity will be with us, through good times and hard times, as close as our next breath. And in that we can find and experience hope that is both deep and unshakable.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

The Day That Changed Everything

Was the first Christmas really on Dec. 25? No one knows for certain. Some experts on biblical history (old authorities?) claim the Christ Child was actually born in the spring. Others think that even if the amazing Bethlehem event did occur in the winter, it might have been on a different date. No matter. What does matter is what happened after that.

For most of the world, the modern calendar traces back to the estimated birth of Christ, which is why we have B.C. (Before Christ) and A.D. (Anno Domini, or Year of our Lord). Every time we make a financial transaction using coins, currency or a check, they bear dates that hearken to Christ’s birth. The cliché, “no room at the inn,” is taken directly from the Christmas story.

 

Many other common references and terms we use today, such as the good Samaritan, the prodigal son, walking on water, turning water into wine, the Lord’s Prayer, faith the size of a mustard seed, the widow’s mite, salt of the earth, and the Cross, are drawn directly from Jesus’ life and teachings. 

 

In addition, He gave us familiar saying such as “judge not lest you be judged” (Matthew 7:1-2), “do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31), “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31), and “it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24).

 

In these and many other ways, our lives would be very different if it were not for that unique, divine day in an obscure Middle Eastern town. However, that’s not the greatest difference.

 

Over the years I have met countless men, women and young people whose lives have been changed for all eternity by Jesus Christ. I am among them, as are many members of our family. Because faith in Jesus is far more than a matter of personal opinion or individual ideology. It means experiencing a literal, life-changing event that alters the course of one’s life for both now and once we step onto the other side of eternity.

 

Speaking to the Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council called the Pharisees, Jesus made the astounding statement, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3). Being born again, I have learned, means much more than a changed attitude or a new way of thinking. As Jesus elaborated, “…no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit…. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again’” (John 3:5-7).

 

In 2 Corinthians 5:17, the apostle Paul stated this in a different way: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!... 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 5:17-21).

 

Then, in another of his letters, Paul looked back not to Jesus’ birth but to His crucifixion and resurrection, without which that first Christmas day would have been just another ordinary day: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

 

So as we celebrate Christmas, commemorating the birth of Jesus, “Immanuel – which means ‘God with us’” (Matthew 1:23), we mark the singular, watershed moment for mankind. Jesus declared, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). It’s available to every one of us – the greatest Christmas gift of all – just for the asking.

Monday, December 21, 2020

In Reality, Mary Didn’t Know What She Didn’t Know

What’s your favorite Christmas carol? “O Little Town of Bethlehem”? “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”? “The First Noel?” “O Come All Ye Faithful”? “Silent Night”?

 

The latter has long been my favorite, for many reasons. But lately I’ve found myself captivated by “Mary, Did You Know?” written by Mark Lowry. This beautiful tune is heard everywhere now, covered by singers ranging from Carrie Underwood and Dolly Parton to Pentatonix and CeeLo Green. 

 If you’re not familiar with it (maybe you’ve been vacationing in Fiji trying to escape COVID and the relentless election advertising?), “Mary, Did You Know?” poses an intriguing question about how the earthly mother of Jesus responded to what her child, conceived by the Holy Spirit, would do, culminating with His crucifixion and resurrection. Here’s a portion of the lyrics:

 

Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water?
… would save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you've delivered, will soon deliver you

Mary did you know that your baby boy will give sight to a blind man?
… calm a storm with his hand?
… When you kiss your little baby, you kiss the face of God…

Mary did you know? 

 

I’ll not venture into how Christian traditions regard Mary differently, but can you imagine? A young woman, probably still in her mid-teens, entrusted with the responsibility of parenting the Son of God – God incarnate? Especially when so many teenagers these days can’t even be entrusted with the task of cleaning up their rooms.

 

It's recorded in Luke 1:26-38 how the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, who was betrothed to be married to Joseph, a carpenter. When the angel said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” In response, it says, “Mary was greatly troubled with his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.” Can we blame her? Here she was, looking forward to her wedding, and suddenly an angel appears with a very special message, one she never could have anticipated. 

 

Then came the big news: The angel declared, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.” Wow! Not words she was expecting to hear.

 

Humbly she asked, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” Sounds like a reasonable question to me. The angel didn’t beat around the bush. He replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” Then, sensing Mary might have been thinking, “Say what?” the angel added, “For nothing is impossible with God.”

 

Never before – or after – has anything like this happened. Probably overwhelmed with awe, wonder, and a bit of confusion, Mary humbly answered, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left, leaving her to sort through a range of thoughts and emotions we can only imagine.

 

Obviously, most of the details weren’t addressed in this divine encounter. The angel didn’t tell about the many miracles Jesus would perform, or the profound and unparalleled teachings He would present. The persecution He would face, or how she would witness His horrific, sacrificial death on the cross, fulfilling His destiny to save His people from their sins. Or His resurrection, declaring once and for all God’s victory over death.

 

So Mark Lowry aptly asks in his wonderful song, Mary did you know?... The blind will see, the deaf will hear, the dead will live again. The lame will leap, the dumb will speak, the praises of the lamb. Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?...that your baby boy would one day rule the nations?”

Surely Mary could not have known any of this, or many other things that to this day challenge our understanding. We’re told that as more was revealed to her, from the lowly shepherds, the Magi, John the Baptist and many others, “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). We would be wise to do the same.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

The Challenges of Handling the Times of Our Lives

Does it ever seem to you that time moves faster some days than others? Scientists will tell us that the passage of time is constant, but haven’t you had moments when you said to someone, “Man, it seems like today has gone on forever,” and they responded, “It sure has.” Or, “Wow, this day has just flown by,” and your friend replied, “Yes, I know!”

 

The years can be like that, too. In just a few days I’ll mark the 14th anniversary of my open-heart surgery. For a long time it seemed as if my surgery were just days ago; I could vividly remember the days leading up to it, the day I was wheeled into the OR, and the days, weeks and months of recovery afterward. But now, it seems like an entire lifetime ago. Lots of “water under the bridge” since then, as they say. That’s probably more than 500 million heartbeats ago!

 

When I was a boy, time seemed to pass at the pace of a slug. Days leading up to Christmas seemed interminable. Even the night of Christmas Eve seemed to be at least 36 hours long. Try as I might, I couldn’t fall to sleep, my mind racing with anticipation. It seemed as if daylight would never arrive. Now it feels as if fall lasts only about two days before sliding into winter; the Christmas holidays come and go in the blink of an eye.

 

Many Americans tend to be governed by the clock. We set alarms to wake up, have reminders to keep us on schedule each day, even pass on lunch breaks because, “I don’t have time.” In our latter years, however, we look wistfully back at our lives, wishing we had made time for important things in our lives rather than subjecting ourselves to “the tyranny of the urgent.”

 

The Scriptures tell us a lot about time, but not in the way we generally approach it. The book of Ecclesiastes, for example, offers a refreshing perspective:

“There is a time for everything, 

and a season for every activity under heaven:

a time to be born and a time to die,

a time to plant and a time to uproot, 

a time to kill and a time to heal, 

a time to tear down and a time to build,

a time to weep and a time to laugh,

a time to mourn and a time to dance, 

a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,

a time to search and a time to give up,

a time to keep and a time to throw away, 

a time to tear and a time to mend,

a time to be silent and a time to speak,

a time to love and a time to hate,

a time for war and a time for peace” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8).

 

For those of us convinced that we don’t have the time to do necessary things – because more urgent things are beckoning – this passage is convicting.

 

This is especially significant during a season such as this. Even with COVID restrictions, most of us to one extent or another want to continue with holiday traditions; we’re not about to let a little virus tell us what we can and can’t do. 

 

But it’s really not about squeezing the last second into our planning and errand-running. Rich or poor, executive or hourly wage worker, we all have something in common: 24 hours in a single day, 60 minutes in every hour, 60 seconds in every minute. The question is how we steward those seconds, minutes and hours. We’ll invest the time in some way – what will be the return on our investment?

 

Ephesians 5:16 offers these sobering words: “Redeeming the time, for the days are evil.” Other translations phrase it, “making the most of your time” or “making the most of every opportunity.” Time isn’t inherently evil, of course, but as the adage reminds us, “Time waits for no one.”

 

So how are we going to use it? Will our minutes, hours and days be spent on frivolous pursuits, matters we won’t even remember weeks or months from now? Or will we strive to keep alert, poised to recognize and act upon special, even once-in-a-lifetime opportunities when they present themselves?

 

Just a handful of days from now, Christmas will be upon us. Will we succeed in making memories, or will we spoil them because we’ve been too busy with trivial concerns? After that, we’ll barely have time to catch our breath before a new year emerges and, hopefully, doesn’t become a repeat of the year just past. How will we prepare ourselves for what lies ahead?

 

I like the advice of Galatians 6:10, Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” We can’t go wrong if we do that.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Let’s Make a Deal: Manage Someone’s Money, and Keep 90 Percent

How good is your imagination? How about this: Imagine being a financial planner (unless you already are one) and acquiring a wealthy new client who proposes an unusual investment arrangement. In return for your diligent management of his finances, all you would need to do is return 10 percent. The remaining 90 percent? You get to keep it.

 

Even if you’re not a financial planner, that sounds like a pretty good deal. Having responsibility for someone else’s resources and being permitted to keep all but 10 percent. If you could find an individual willing to do that, you might be tempted to change professions, right? 

 

Of course, that’s only in a fantasy world. Or is it? Because in a very real sense, that’s the arrangement God has set up for His children. He asks us to give a portion of whatever we earn for His work, and we can keep the remainder.

 In the Bible’s Old Testament, we’re taught the concept of the tithe, which was defined as giving 10 percent of one’s earnings right off the top. In Proverbs 3:9, for example, it says, “Honor the Lord with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops.” And the oft-quoted Malachi 3:10 instructs, “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house.” When pastors preach about giving – or financial stewardship – they often refer to these passages. And as they do so, we typically reach protectively toward our wallets.

 

The New Testament doesn’t teach tithing as a hard and fast rule, but it is mentioned. The only time Jesus was recorded to have mentioned the tithe, he was addressing legalistic religious leaders: “Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone” (Luke 11:42). He doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility to give; He simply reminds us to do so with the right attitude.

 

This whole subject of giving makes many of us uncomfortable. “Nobody’s going to tell me what to do with my money!” we tell ourselves. I’ve even heard people say, “God doesn’t need our money!” He does, after all, “[own] the cattle on a thousand hills” (Psalm 50:10). Except, as the Scriptures assert, it’s not really “our money.” 

 

Who gave us the health we have to go to work each day? Who gave us the capacities, even the opportunities, for earning a living wage? If you’ve developed certain skills over time, where did your natural ability come from, your passion for what you do? I’m a professional writer, and I’ve worked hard through the years to refine my ability to communicate through the written word. But where did my innate interest in writing come from? 

 

Whenever we feel defensive about giving, emulating the miser who insists, “It’s mine, all mine!”, we need to remind ourselves of the basics, which are expressed clearly in 1 Chronicles 29:11-13: 

“Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendor, for everything in heaven and earth is yours. Yours, O Lord, is the kingdom; you are exalted as head over all. Wealth and honor come from you; you are the ruler of all things. In your hands are strength and power to exalt and give strength to all. Now, our God, we give you thanks, and praise your glorious name.”

 

I encountered this passage for the first time years ago, and since then I’ve been using it as a reminder whenever I start feeling too possessive about my “stuff.” Even the verse from Malachi, the Old Testament’s last book, offers motivation for our giving. After reading the directive to give, we’re informed God has made an unusual promise. “’Test me in this,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘ and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have enough room for it.’”

 

Perhaps, in the midst of this “season of giving,” it’s a good time for a refresher. We fret over getting the “right” gifts for friends and family. Sometimes this leads to great stress, shifting our focus off the real spirit of Christmas. And when charitable causes bombard us with appeals for year-end giving, we can feel frustrated, even overwhelmed. If our hearts are right, however, that doesn’t need to be the case.

 

Two New Testament passages have helped me a lot in this regard. In Luke 6:38, Jesus spoke of the generosity of God: “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” 

 

For me that means, if we’re stingy in our own giving, we shouldn’t expect God to be lavish in His giving to us. But on the other hand, our generosity will never approach the Lord’s generosity. I’ve heard many people say, not only from conviction but also from experience, “You can’t out-give God.”

 

The other passage is 2 Corinthians 9:6-7, which declares, “Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for the Lord loves a cheerful giver.” Some translate that last phrase as “a hilarious giver.” Have you ever given hilariously?

 

During the Christmas season, we think of the Christ Child, God incarnate. Deity invading the physical world, to serve as an example, teacher, miracle worker, atoning sacrifice, and redeemer. He offers the gift of a new, eternal life to any and all who will receive it. Without question He’s a cheerful, even hilarious giver. If we’re to “follow in His steps,” as 1 Peter 2:21 says, can we be any less?

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Looking to See Who’s Been Naughty and Who’s Been Nice?

This is the time of year when we’ll be hearing, probably dozens of times, “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” I’ve always worried about its ominous admonition: “You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why – Santa Claus is coming to town. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.”

As children, at one time or another we probably all sat on Santa’s lap and heard him ask, “Have you been a good boy (or girl) this year?” Funny: If we really believed the message of this familiar Christmas song, we should have responded, “Who are you trying to kid? You already know that, Santa!”

 

Entering adulthood, the grim specter of Santa spying on our activities and evaluating our respective niceness and naughtiness ceases to be a threat. But we still seem to cling to the naughty or nice notion, that we’re good people just as long as the things we do right somehow outnumber or outweigh the stuff we do wrong. 

 

That was my belief for my first 30 years. If you had asked me back then, I would have told you with great confidence that all things considered, I was a pretty good guy, convinced I was spending more time being nice than not. Then I encountered some unsettling Bible passages. They informed me that God and Santa don’t see eye to eye. No matter how much we do, no matter how nice we try to be, that’s not good enough in the Lord’s sight.

 

For instance, Romans 3:23 declares, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Kind of like trying to leap the Empire State Building. No matter how hard you try, even with lots of practice, you’ll never come close. Another verse in the same chapter uses even stronger words: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10-12).

 

Whoa! That’s a revelation! But it’s not just a New Testament idea. In the Old Testament we’re told, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). Compared to God’s holy, all-righteous requirements, Santa’s nice/naughty guidelines are a piece of cake – or milk and cookies, if you prefer.

 

However, the gospel literally means “good news.” So if it’s true that absolutely no one is righteous – good enough – in God’s sight, where’s the good news? I’m glad you asked.

 

In a season when gift giving is on our minds, Romans 6:23 offers fitting assurance: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The gospel of John confirms this declaration: “Yet to all who received him, to those who believe in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12).

 

That’s encouraging. However, if even our very best efforts aren’t good enough, why is God willing to offer this gift to each of us? It goes back to the reason we celebrate Christmas. The familiar verse, John 3:16, tells us, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” 

 

This speaks of a limitless, unconditional love we can scarcely comprehend. But the Scriptures are clear: If it weren’t for the sacrificial, atoning death of Jesus Christ on the cross – and His resurrection – there would be no reason to celebrate His birth.

 

Romans 5:8 expands on this: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” And yet another passage underscores the gift aspect: “For it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

 

There’s no escaping this truth. Titus 3:4-6 also affirms we can have a genuine, eternal relationship with God only through His gracious gift. ”But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior.”

 

This goes far beyond the story about a young couple in an obscure village 2,000 years ago given the incredible responsibility of serving as earthly parents for the Son of God. Trusting in the whole counsel of God’s Word, we discover why we care about Christmas at all. 

 

While youngsters around the world fret about whether Santa Claus will find them nice or naughty, that’s not God’s concern. Humanly speaking, we can never be good enough. But according to the Bible, to use today’s language, “not to worry!” 

 

He’s already done everything necessary to make us right with Him – if only we’re willing to receive His free gift of forgiveness and eternal life. We’ll never receive a greater gift than that!

Monday, December 7, 2020

Good Questions to Ask Ourselves and Others

Do you have an Advent calendar? We don’t, but I’ve been amazed at the assortment of Advent calendars that have appeared this year, many of which having little to do with the biblical concept of Christmas. 

 

Traditionally, the Advent calendar counts down the days until Dec. 25, when we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ in that “little town of Bethlehem,” as the traditional carol calls it. But many of the calendars I’ve seen feature everything from toys to cheese. Even little bottles of wine. This has been a year to tempt even the most staunch teetotaler, but seriously? For Advent?

 

Nevertheless, in one way or another, we’re all making preparations for Christmas. Buying and wrapping gifts. Making family gathering plans – COVID guideline-approved, of course. Baking cookies and other holiday treats. Watching holiday movies and specials. All with the calendar counting down to the day most “magical” – the term each Hallmark Christmas movie is required to include.

 

But how about preparing spiritually?

 

I’ve already forgotten who sent them to me, but I received an intriguing list of “questions to ask professing Christians,” compiled by pastor and author Tim Keller. As we anticipate Christmas morning, his questions would be good for each of us to consider. They might aid our own ponderings about the “true meaning of Christmas.”

 

We receive an admonition in 2 Corinthians 13:5 to, “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you – unless, of course, you fail the test?” Keller’s questions provide such a test. Here they are for us to ponder for ourselves and others:

 

1. What is the evidence of God’s presence in your life? We tend to associate being a Christian – a follower of Christ  with things we do. Like attending church (in non-pandemic times), performing good deeds, using the proper vocabulary in the right settings, things like that. But outward behavior isn’t always an accurate indicator. As someone has said, going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going into a garage makes you a car.

 

In the middle of His “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus spoke about counterfeit faith. He probably astonished many in His audience when He declared, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven…. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform man miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:21-23). 

 

What is this “evidence”? Well, for starters, consider Galatians 5:22-23 – “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Again such things there is no law.” These are not mutually exclusive, and if God is present in our lives, we should sense and demonstrate this “fruit” increasingly in our lives. Nothing wrong with being a fruit inspector.

 

2. What is the evidence of Scripture changing you? No one’s perfect or ever will be, this side of eternity. But for true followers of Christ, reading, meditating on and studying the Scriptures is always life-changing. “The word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). 

 

As 2 Corinthians 5:17 tells us, being changed by God and His Word is inevitable: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” We might have walked an aisle, raised a hand during an invitation time, or marked a response card indicating we had repeated a suggested prayer. But if we remain the same person we were before that, there’s some justification in questioning what – if anything – has been going on in our lives spiritually.

 

In Psalm 119:11, King David wrote about his reliance on God’s Word for everyday living: “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against You.”

 

3. What is your evidence of a growing appreciation for God’s mercy? Early in our spiritual lives, during the euphoric “honeymoon” period, we feel excited about our new relationship with Jesus. We start hearing the biblical promises and grow in anticipation of God’s blessings. Then, once the emotions ebb, we begin contemplating what the Lord has done for us.

 

We used to think we were pretty good folks, and maybe even have believed the Lord got a bargain when He invited us to join His eternal family. However, one day we realize who were really are – and who He really is – and start to grasp the amazing, truly miraculous act of mercy God has performed to make us His children. And we begin to realize the magnitude of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.

 

Romans 5:8 declares, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Chronologically speaking, none of us had yet committed our first sin when Jesus made the truly ultimate sacrifice; we hadn’t been born yet, not even a gleam in anyone’s eye. Even knowing how sinful, how unworthy we would one day prove to be, Jesus willingly went to the cross for us. As an old friend used to say, Jesus took the rap for us.

 

Another passage offers a powerful perspective: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).

 

How do we answer the questions above? If accused of being followers of Jesus Christ, would there be enough evidence to convict us? Something to ponder during this Advent season. 

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Overcoming the Obstacle of Near-Sightedness

Since my early 20’s, I’ve been making spectacles of myself – in a manner of speaking. During my boyhood years, my right eye had occasional encounters with things like tennis balls and a toy pistol, so my distance vision needed correction. I’ve worn eyeglasses ever since. However, being nearsighted, I don’t need them for things up close.

 

My wife is different. Thanks to recent cataract surgery, she now has near-perfect farsighted vision. It’s seeing things up close that poses problems. Combined, we can boast 20:20 vision both far and near, even though lots of things haven’t looked all that good in 2020.

If you were to choose, which would you prefer? Flawless farsighted vision, or excellent close-up vision? In terms of physical eyesight, a good argument could be made for either. It depends on what you’re wanting to do.

 

But spiritually speaking, I’m convinced being farsighted has to be the preferred choice. The Bible affirms this over and over. It’s at the heart of the Christian faith – being willing to trust in things we can only see from afar, despite disheartening circumstances that might surround us. 

 

The Scriptures abound with numerous examples of what we might call “spiritual farsightedness.” Jesus, speaking to the doubting disciple Thomas after he insisted on seeing visible proof of His resurrection, said, “Because you have seen Me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).

 

After suffering a series of personal losses, including his children, and wracked by painful sores over his entire body, Job declared, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth…. I myself will see him with my own eyes – I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” (Job 19:26-27).

 

Here are some other passages that underscore this emphasis on the value of spiritual far-sight:

“So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18).

“For we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).

“Looking for the blessed hope and the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).

“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” (1 John 3:2).

 

The 11thchapter of the book of Hebrews speaks extensively about the need for spiritual farsightedness, even when the way ahead seems dark or obscured:

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).

“By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family” (Hebrews 11:7).

“By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as an inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going” (Hebrew 11:8).

“All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance” (Hebrews 11:13).

 

After citing other glowing examples of unwavering, unconquerable faith, the chapter reaffirms,“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).

 

We find ourselves in the closing days of an unforgettable year many of us wish we could forget. What we’ve been seeing, up close and personal, often hasn’t passed the eye test. This is all the more reason for practicing, as did the biblical patriarchs, a faith that looks not down but ahead – toward a not yet seen, but promised future of joy and peace. Anticipating the time when we’ll be experiencing the words of the old hymn, “It Is Well With My Soul”: “…when the faith shall be sight.” 

Monday, November 30, 2020

Is This a Cross You’re Willing to Bear?

 We see them everywhere: on rockers and rappers, pro athletes and politicians, store clerks and restaurant servers, movie stars and mail carriers, even relatives and friends. Maybe you have one or more of them yourself. What am I talking about? Ornamental crosses people wear around their necks. 

Some crosses come small, plain and simple, others large, ornate and ostentatious. Gold, silver, steel, gem-studded, even carved from wood. For many of the wearers, they’re little more than a piece of jewelry or accessory.

Whenever I see someone wearing one, I immediately wonder, “A follower of Christ?” Sometimes that’s the case. Other times, it’s not. For example, when we hear some cross-adorned celebrity lacing his or her acceptance speech at an awards show with a barrage of obscenities. Or a wide receiver preening in the end zone, pounding his chest rather than pointing upward.  If they’re a follower, it must be from a considerable distance.

 

People have a right to wear whatever they choose, of course, and many decorative crosses offer a lot of visual appeal. For thousands, the crosses they wear are more than jewelry. They’re genuine, outward symbols of the faith they embrace on the inside. 

 

However, the origin of the cross wasn’t some fashion designer’s brainstorm. It was an innovation of the Roman Empire, a tortuous form of execution said to be the most inhumane way to die. In those days, people weren’t wearing crosses around their necks. For them, the image of the cross represented a hideous end they hoped never to experience. Envision a necklace from which hangs a miniature gallows, or electric chair. 

 

Historians say the practice of wearing crosses originated early in the fourth century. While in Assisi, Italy a couple of years ago, I discovered a T-shaped Tau cross was favored by Saint Francis of Assisi. Liking its simplicity, I bought a small wooden replica. Through the years, artists have fashioned cross designs in many different ways, from bejeweled creations to ones inscribed with various messages.

In the Scriptures, references to the cross are definitive – the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, paying a debt He did not owe because we owed a debt we could not pay, as the old song goes. While nowhere in the Bible do we find a prohibition against wearing a cross or displaying it, it’s clear that for Jesus’ followers, the cross means willingness to die to self and follow Him, whatever the cost.

 

In Luke 9:23-24, the Lord says, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it.” Jesus isn’t calling for death on a literal cross, but being willing to put to death desires and ambitions that conflict with His call on our lives. 

 

This is one reason the apostle Paul wrote, “But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14). He also wrote about dying every day – to self and any purpose other than what God had for him: “I affirm, by the boasting in you which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily” (1 Corinthians 15:31).

 

I doubt Paul would have considered wearing a necklace or any kind of jewelry adorned with a cross, because for him it represented sacrificial ministry, anchored in an unwavering trust in Christ. This is why he could say with confidence, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).

 

So, if you’ve got a favorite cross you like to wear, a symbol of your faith in the Lord, let it also serve as a reminder of how much it cost – the once-and-for-all death of Jesus Christ to atone for the sins of everyone who would receive His gracious gift of forgiveness and restoration. 


And when you see someone else wearing a cross, but don’t know what it represents for them, pray that God will open their eyes that they too will come to understand its true meaning.  

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Pursuing Lofty Visions of Greatness in a Very Ordinary Life

Do you desire to do something great, something that people in your community, even around the world, will remember long after you are gone? You know, leaving some grand, indelible mark that will ensure your legacy for many years to come.

I wonder if great inventors like Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, or the Wright brothers had thoughts like that. Waking up one morning and thinking, “I know – I’m going to invent a light bulb (or a telephone, or a way for people to fly).” I kind of doubt that. Greatness is something that arrives without fanfare while someone’s in the midst of doing very ordinary things.

 

What about the great agricultural scientist George Washington Carver, who rose above slavery to develop techniques to counter soil depletion, discover more than 140 uses for the peanut, and become a college professor? Do you think he went to bed at night dreaming about how to achieve greatness? I think not. I suspect he recognized his calling, cultivated his passions, honed his skills, and along the way, became one of the most renowned scientists of his time.

 

One of the stark realities of everyday life is that it’s so daily, marked mostly with the mundane and rarely with anything spectacular. The legendary Helen Keller, who achieved much as an author, political activist and lecturer, despite being both deaf and blind, acknowledged this. She said, "I long to accomplish some great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble." 

 

In a meditation in My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers wrote, “We have a tendency to look for wonder in our experience, and we mistake heroic actions for real heroes. It’s one thing to go through a crisis grandly, yet quite another to go through every day glorifying God when there is no witness, no limelight, and no one paying even the remotest attention to us.”

 

Have you ever felt this way? No tickertape parade in your honor, no commendations, just the distinction of doing non-extraordinary work for little or no recognition? And yet, this is what God calls us to as His children. As Chambers also observed, “To be utterly unnoticeable requires God’s Spirit in us making us absolutely humanly His. The true test of a saint’s life is not successfulness but faithfulness on the human level of life.”

 

In one of His parables, talking about the importance of being faithful in undertaking responsibilities entrusted to us, Jesus declared, Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much" (Luke 16:10). To me, the Lord is saying, “Do you long to be engaging in things great and important? First, prove yourself trustworthy in doing the small, ordinary things I’ve already given to you.”

 

Writing to believers in the ancient city of Colossae, the apostle Paul affirmed that workers or employees, whether doing small tasks or pursuing great projects, should always keep their ultimate “boss” in mind: “Bondservants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh, not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but in sincerity of heart, fearing God. And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ” (Colossians 3:23-24).

 

It's not about doing great things for God; it’s about the joy and privilege of a great God doing His work through us for His glory. That way, even if we have the opportunity to do something great and noteworthy, we know where the credit should really go.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Will This Be a Thankfulness-Challenged Thanksgiving Day?

So, what are you most thankful for in 2020, this epic year of the novel coronavirus, aka COVID? Finding it difficult to think of something, perhaps?

 

Aren’t you thankful that for most of this year, whenever you have emerged from the relative security and safety of your home, you had to wear a facemask? Just think of the limitless opportunities for making a facial fashion statement for family, friends, and complete strangers!

 

Millions of parents discovered the delights of virtual learning as their children exchanged classrooms for the family computer. What about the daily challenges of having to juggle schedules and figuring out who would watch the kids when mom or dad had to leave the house? For those who always wondered what it would be like to work from home, now they know. That’s something to be thankful for, right?

Sports fans have had the opportunity to learn new worries, not only whether their teams would win the big game, but also the suspense of whether the big game would even be played at all – or if it would fall victim to COVID. Given thanks for that yet?

 

And what about not having to worry about having to get up Sunday mornings to go to church, because for much of the year that wasn’t a possibility? We found out that online services – even the most high-tech and sophisticated – are a poor substitute for in-person, side-by-side worship. So can we give thanks for that?

 

Okay. All sarcasm aside, it’s been one tough, disruptive year. Life we’d grown accustomed to turned upside-down. Even worse, we’re wondering if it will ever be turned right-side-up again. Many have suffered personal loss, whether it involved loved ones, jobs, financial hardships, or health setbacks. So, with those things in mind, how can we be properly thankful with Thanksgiving Day fast approaching?

 

The Bible gives us the answer. Thankfulness – and thanksgiving – aren’t to be dictated by feelings or our current mood. They’re determined commitments, conscious decisions possible only as we focus on the limitless love and goodness of God. 

 

Being thankful, believers are told, isn’t conditional; it’s not a choice. In 1 Thessalonians 5:18 we’re told, “give thanks in all circumstances [in everything give thanks] for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” It doesn’t say, “unless…” or, “except when….” All means ALL. Everything mean EVERYTHING.

 

Psalm 50:14 tells us both what we’re to do, and why we’re to do it: “Offer to God thanksgiving, and pay your vows to the Most High. Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify Me.” Another translation says, “Sacrifice thank offerings to God…” with the same assurance, “I will deliver you, and you will honor me.” After a year as fraught will challenges and difficulties as this one, that’s one great promise.

 

It's at times like these that we need to cling to Romans 8:28, not as a handy cliché, but with total confidence: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” We may not know why things happen – or how the Lord will use them to accomplish His divine purposes – but that’s the assurance we have from His Word. 

 

Because of that, there’s another passage concerning thanksgiving that we can embrace without reservation: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Philippians 4:6). Then we’re told, if we do this, “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).

 

There’s no denying that 2020 has been a year to forget in many respects. If for some reason living through a pandemic was on your bucket list, you can definitely check that one off. Nevertheless, we trust in a God who has taken us through tough times before and is more than capable of doing it again. 


For that reason, we can approach this Thanksgiving Day with genuine thankfulness, knowing that one day and in some way, He will have worked through it all “to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us” (Ephesians 3:20). Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Is Your ‘Check Engine’ Light On and You’re Ignoring It?

Several weeks ago, my car spoke to me. Not in an audible voice, but in that special language auto manufacturers have created to alert drivers when action is required. It said, in bright orange letters, “Maintenance required soon.” 

 

Fortunately, it wasn’t signaling an emergency. It was just time for an oil change. Those pesky warning lights can be annoying, but they can be very helpful reminders, especially for those not inclined to check under the hood very often. Every car, no matter how new – or expensive – needs periodic maintenance. As the guy in the old auto repair commercial used to say, “You can pay me now…or you can pay me later.”

 

Wouldn’t it be nice if humans had a “check engine” light to let us know a personal tune-up is in order? To date, no baby has been born with a built-in warning light. However, in a sense, we could say we do – at least physically speaking. A fever, ache or pain signals when something’s amiss in our bodies. It might just represent a minor strain or a seasonal illness. But other times it can mean something of greater concern. If symptoms persist, we’re told, it’s best to consult your doctor.

 

When it comes to the less tangible parts of our lives – our mental and emotional well-being, even our spiritual condition – it’s much harder to discern when problems are manifesting themselves. That’s when a personal “check engine” light would come in handy.

 

The realms of the mental and emotional can be very problematic. It’s often difficult to assess objectively when our thinking or behavior gets out of kilter. Even when we do recognize such problems, we can’t always identify the cause. That’s why trained practitioners in those areas can be so helpful.

 

But we don’t have to be wizened theologians or learned seminarians to address our own spiritual well-being. Because we have direct access to what Jesus in John 14:16 and 15:26 called a “Helper” or“Counselor” (the Holy Spirit) to provide necessary discernment. The Lord said in John 16:8, “When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment.”

 

Not a visible “check engine” light, but a very real Guide for our everyday lives: Sometimes shouting to our conscience, and other times speaking to us in a still, small voice. In addition to the Holy Spirit, God has provided us with another kind of light to tell when we’re on track, and when we’re not: the Scriptures.

 

Psalm 119:105 declares, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.” The entire psalm – the longest in the Bible – affirms the importance of the Scriptures not only for the sweet by and by, but also for the nasty now and now. In Psalm 119:9-11 we read, ”How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to Your word. I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from Your commands. I have hidden Your word in my heart that I might not sin against You.”

 

Another passage explains how the Word of God helps to advance our spiritual growth: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). Proverbs 6:23 offers a similar perspective: “For these commands are a lamp, this teaching is a light, and the corrections of discipline are the way to life.”

 

Although we don’t have a physical check-engine light to warn us if we’ve gotten off course spiritually, God’s Spirit living in us and the Bible can serve in that way. The question is, will we devote enough time with the Lord and in His Word so that when critical junctures in life arrive, we can recognize the warning signals before disaster strikes?