Monday, December 31, 2018

Some Thoughts at the Threshold

We are standing just outside the door into 2019. Here are some thoughts that are bouncing around in my head as we enter a new year.

Since when do we need to “make the Bible relevant?” I hear those war-drums banged by hipster pastors those in trendy churches, and I just don’t get it. Either the Bible is true, or it’s not. If it is true, then “salvation comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God,” not by entertainment or cultural relevancy or even by storytelling. You cannot “make” the Bible relevant. It is or it isn’t. If you believe the Bible is relevant, preach it.

Someone sent this to me from a church in another state: “We do not allow children between the ages of three months and fifth grade in the adult worship service.” Note: It is not a preference there, it is the law! The message went on to explain that adults will “worship better” without distractions. Two questions: when did training our children to worship with us become a distraction? I thought it was a privilege and a responsibility. Secondly, when did “personal comfort” become our highest goal at church?

Since we are on the subject of our children, let me encourage you Dads to hug your children every day. Tell your daughters and especially your sons, that you are proud of them. Their souls will bear that imprint throughout their lives.

If you are having trouble with boomerang children, you might laugh (or cry) when you hear Paul Shanklin’s classic song from a few years back, “Can’t Fit the Cradle.” It is set to the tune of the classic Harry Chapin song, but the chorus goes, “Well, he can’t fit the cradle and he sleeps ’til noon. The boy’s 42 and he don’t have a clue. When you gonna leave son?” ‘I don’t know when. We’ll have a good time til then, Dad, we’ll have a good time til then.’” At the end of the song, the boy finally gets married again and moves out. The dad sings, “And as they drove away, it occurred to me, the boy had a front door key, yeah, he still had a front door key!”

Speaking of keys, get a copy of Rosaria Butterfield’s book, “The Gospel Comes With a House Key.” If you don’t know anything about Butterfield, you should Google her and read how she came to Christ as a radical feminist English professor at Syracuse University. Or read her first book, “The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert.” Her latest book is an invitation to ordinary Christians like you and me to practice what she calls “radical, ordinary hospitality.” It challenges us to be more intentional about opening our home, our dinner table, our hearts, and our lives to those around us.

As we take the next few steps into a new year, let me remind you that actions can become habits. Habits shape character. Character helps determine destiny. Put some actions into play this year with these four “starts.” Start reading the Bible. Start going to church. With over 400 in the county to choose from, there is no excuse. Find one that still believes the Bible and darken their door every week. Start eating dinner together as a family. And start telling people in your life that you love them. Why wait until you’re on a ventilator and they won’t believe you then, anyway?

Monday, December 24, 2018

When Great Fear Turned to Greater Joy

Dave Barry wrote several years ago about the increase of political correctness we find in our culture surrounding Christmas: “To avoid offending anybody, the schools dropped religion altogether and started singing about the weather. At my son’s school, they now hold the winter program in February and sing increasingly non-memorable songs such as ‘Winter Wonderland,’ ‘Frosty the Snowman’ and, this is a real song, ‘Suzy Snowflake,’ all of which is pretty funny because we live in Miami. A visitor from another planet would assume that the children belonged to the Church of Meteorology.” I don’t know about “Suzy Snowflake,” but I do know that when angels appeared 2,000 years ago to poor shepherds on a Judean hillside, they weren’t there to talk about the weather.

Luke tells us that the shepherds were outside, watching their sheep, and an angel appeared to them. Let me ask you: what would you do if an angel showed up at your workplace? I am not talking about your wife, men, though I don’t doubt that she is angelic. No, this was an angel from heaven, not a redeemed sinner from earth. The shepherds went from calm to terrified in an instant. The Bible says they were “greatly afraid.” JB Phillips translates it, “terror-stricken.”

Luke was a historian, and was not given to exaggeration. If anything, he understated the case. The shepherds were terrified and part of the reason was that the angel just appeared, out of nowhere, without warning. Perhaps that’s why the same angel said, “Do not be afraid,” nearly every time he showed up.

God turns the great fear of the shepherds into the greater joy of the shepherds. How? How do you go from fear to joy? By hearing and believing good news. Think of a person waiting for the doctor to come in with the test results. He has been diagnosed with advanced-stage cancer. Now the surgery and the treatments have been done, and test results will reveal the truth. The patient is filled with fear as he waits to hear from the doctor. He goes from great fear to greater joy instantly when he hears the good news: “Your cancer is gone.” The angel says, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy...for unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

Heaven has come down; God’s glory has come to earth. Great fear has been replaced by greater joy because of the greatest news the world has ever heard. The bad news for healed cancer patients is that they are still going to die. The good news for redeemed sinners is that though we die, we will live again because of the news the angels proclaimed on a Judean hillside two millennia ago. Are you looking for joy this Christmas? Then believe and receive the good news.

You can sing about the weather for the next few days if you like. Since God is the weatherman, only he can “let it snow.” I would rather join in the angels’ song, translated by Charles Wesley this way: “Hark the herald angels sing, Glory to the newborn King; peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled! Joyful all ye nations rise, join the triumph of the skies; With the angelic host proclaim, Christ is born in Bethlehem! Hark, the herald angels sing, Glory to the newborn King.”

May you have a merry and joyous Christmas!

Monday, December 17, 2018

Pass the Pecan Pie

During this time of the year, when my favorite foods are so plentiful, I can go on a sweet-eating binge as fast as you can say “homemade fudge.” Which brings up the question I ask my wife every year: “Why do we need to make fudge?”

“It is a Christmas tradition,” she says. To which I reply, “So is gaining five pounds. Some traditions we could do without.”

We have lots of things we like to do around Christmas, just like you. We read through the Christmas story, starting Dec. 1, and follow the story of the Messiah’s birth as it was foretold centuries before Jesus was born in Bethlehem. We participate in Operation Christmas Child. More than the socks, toys, and candy, a local church delivers each shoebox gift, and the pastor there will share the Gospel message that God sent Jesus “that the world through Him might be saved.”

We sing Christmas carols to neighbors or to shut-ins from our church, and sometimes take them a basket filled with goodies. We write a Christmas letter. On the night we decorate the Christmas tree, we make cookies, watch “The Christmas Carol,” or my new favorite Christmas movie, “The Nativity Story.” On that night, the kids (and their kids) sleep with the tree. Ma in her kerchief and I in my cap … do not.

On Christmas morning, we gather in the living room and read Luke 2 together, sing a Christmas carol, and pray. Then after breakfast, we gather again in the living room to open presents. The iPhone cameras are rolling, the kids and grandkids are at the top of their game with funny comments, and the love that we share as a family is sweeter than the chocolate chip pie from Christmas Eve dinner.

Which brings me back around to eating too much during the holidays. I will exercise more this month in an effort to fight back, but in a way that’s like building a hospital at the bottom of a mountain instead of adding guardrails at the top. I need to send my will to the gym. The truth is, many of us simply have weak wills that need to be trained, not just for portion control at the table but for every other area of our lives. Our minds are quite capable, and we know much more than we have ever lived out. Our emotions are fully operational and ready to take over at a moment’s notice, and for many of us, lead the whole time. But our wills are puny, malnourished, 90-pound weaklings. That is why I can stand in front of the dessert table and have this conversation.

My mind: “I just ate four thousand calories. I don’t need dessert.” My emotions: “Oh, good grief, it is once a year. Besides, take a look at that pecan pie.” My will: “Uh…umm…well…”

You get the picture. My will can be an absolute wimp, which is why I need to develop it. Here are some tips from a book written by Helen Andelin in the 1960’s. She gives three steps to take every day to help in training our wills, which I have adapted:

Do something unpleasant — take a cold shower, exercise, or eat health food you don’t like.

Do something difficult — do a hard job, stick to your diet, work on a difficult goal.

Demand quotas of yourself — get up at 4:30, get a specific job done at a given time, put your finances on a budget, read a book every month, have exercise goals.

I need this advice, and maybe some of you do as well. Merry Christmas, and pass (up?) the pecan pie.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Christmas Existed Before the World was Created

When I was little, around this time of year, I would be almost beside myself with anticipation. I could not wait for the day to finally arrive. You know which one I’m talking about. My brothers and I would try to be on our best behavior, for one month out of the year, at least, because the day was coming. We didn’t want to lose out on anything that might be under the tree or in our stocking on the day. So we kept our rooms clean. Kind of. I mean, Mom was happy as long as she didn’t open my closet door. You know, my skateboard, which I stuffed in the closet last, could fall from the top shelf right onto her head.

But we cleaned a little, and we even asked Mom if she needed help with cleaning the kitchen as she prepared for the big day. We were like little angels, my brothers and I. We would even strike up a peace accord during the month, and agree not to shoot our BB guns at each other, until after the day. There was nothing more important than the day, and that’s why, on the Eve of the Day, for one night, we three brothers would sleep in the same bed. It got to be pretty cumbersome when we were 17, 15, and 11. But it was worth it, for Christmas.

Which leads me to a question: When did Christmas begin? Was it sometime around 4 B.C., in the dusty little town of Bethlehem? Or did Christmas emerge from a pagan holiday in Rome in the first century? Maybe Christmas was created when Nicholas was a bishop in Turkey in the 4th century. Perhaps Christmas doesn’t exist at all, and we should resign ourselves to wishing each other the more benign “Happy Holidays.” One note of irony is that even the word, “holiday” is a contracted form of “holy day.” The next time the clerk wishes you one, with a smile thank him or her for helping you keep this season holy.

The truth is, Christmas did not begin in a manger in Bethlehem, but long before that. In fact, Christmas had no beginning. It always was. If we define Christmas as the coming of the Messiah, the incarnation of the Christ, the time when God took on human flesh and dwelt among us for a while, then there was never a time in history that Christmas did not exist. At least, not in the mind of God. In fact, even before time existed, Christmas was. You could go back one hundred million years before the birth of Christ, and Christmas was there.

How do we know that? Because the Bible speaks plainly on the subject. Peter wrote of Jesus, “He indeed was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for you who through him believe in God.” In other words, it was in God’s mind to send Jesus to the earth long before God ever formed the world. He knew we would need a Savior, and there was only one available.

Remember, love is an action, a commitment of the will that results in one sacrificing for another. The Bible says that Jesus is “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” Do you want to know what God gave you for Christmas? Before the world was ever spoken into existence, God gave His son, Jesus, to die for you and for me. What else can He do for you? And how do we respond to such a gift? The songwriter said it this way:

What then can I give Him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb, If I were a wise man, I would do my part. What then can I give Him? I must give my heart.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Lead the Life the Lord Assigns

The greatest single life event that has ever happened to anyone is when Christ gives the gift of faith, and the grace of God changes a man or woman from darkness to light, from dead to alive, from lost to saved. But what are we to do, then? How do we respond to this personal life-quake that rearranges everything in our hearts, and turns everything in our minds right-side up for the first time? Here’s one thing we should not do. I heard about a college coach years ago that got saved. Great! So he decided to buy a boat, leave his wife, and sail around the world, telling people about Jesus. Not great. That’s called zeal without knowledge, friends. It’s also called disobedience, not just for the obvious fact that he left his wife, but that he left the place where he was when he became a follower of Jesus. New converts often feel like the only way they can serve God is to become an evangelist, a pastor, or a career missionary. But Jesus calls people in all kinds of vocations, and he uses those whom he has called in those same places. That means of course that we are called to be Christian fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, singles, sons, and daughters. It also means that we are called to be Christian students, or homemakers, Christian business owners or teachers, Christian truckers or carpenters.

What does the Bible say? “Let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him.” Literally, “walk in the way” the Lord has assigned. Christians have two vocations, if you will. We are, as Martin Luther liked to say, “genuinely bi-vocational.” The first calling is vertical, a relationship with Christ. It is paramount, and it nourishes and sustains the second. The second calling is horizontal, the vocational calling to manage our time and resources and abilities to the glory of God in a place of work. Both are necessary, and both are God-given. But, here’s an important truth: You and I do not receive our identity from what we do, but from who we belong to. Christ. That means that you are a Christian realtor, a Christian homemaker, a Christian brick mason, not a realtor or homemaker or brick mason who happens to be a Christian.

That also means your work is not meant to provide ultimate fulfillment. God gave Adam work, but it wasn’t the garden that was Adam’s treasure; God was. It was those long walks in the cool of the evening with the Lord that defined who Adam was, even as he worked to tend and to keep the garden that had been assigned to him. What happens when we flip that on its head, so that we see our job as our identity, and therefore the ultimate source of our fulfillment? We get off the rails, because we put the vertical relationship in second place. We look to our jobs, our income, our position in the company, or our status in society to fulfill us. It cannot do it, so we get frustrated. We flounder. We become anxious, or depressed. We end up hating our job, or going from one job to another. Perhaps that helps explain recent data provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that 91% of millennials stay in a job less than 3 years, and will have 15-20 jobs over the course of their working lives. Of course, they are not much different from many Boomer parents who also lived for their jobs.

What is the answer? Lead the life the Lord has assigned to you. Make knowing him your first calling, and your most important job. Then, commit yourself to being the very best at your second vocation, for his glory.