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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Not the beginning, nor the ending - but the middle

We are reaching the end of 2014 - for some a grateful end to a tough year, while others will look back and not even realize the passing of time.  Some will mourn the loss of loved ones, or the devastation of properties in the wake of some natural disaster.  Others will celebrate new life coming, or the advancement into a new place in life's journey.  Regardless of mourning or celebration, it all comes to an end and it is the end which also marks a new beginning.  We don't mourn forever - this is not God's way.  We don't celebrate without something also taking us down a pathway of "lesser" enjoyment - this is the way growth occurs.  It is not uncommon for us to judge the end of something to determine if it was worth the journey - the final scene determining the value of the whole.  We forget the "middle" simply because the beginning and the end stand in such stark contrast to each other at times.  Yet, it is the middle where the rubber hit the road, my friends.  It is the middle which often determines the outcome!

The end of something is better than its beginning. Not giving up in spirit is better than being proud in spirit. (Ecclesiastes 7:8 NLV)

It is the tenacity to see things through to the end which I think makes the difference in how we interpret the outcome of the matter.  There are times when we just want to give up, not really concerned with the outcome because the "middle" is so overwhelming.  This is when God comes alongside and just picks up the pieces of our lives - taking hold of burden and helping us to rise again.  If we walk away from the pieces, we never see the finished object. We just remember the pieces.  God's plan is in bringing order and structure out of the pieces, not in leaving them in rubble within our lives.

Although the beginning of a matter is marked with challenge and often the fear we will never succeed in the matter, the middle is often the most fatiguing.  It is there we see the stuff we are really made of - the things we really place our trust in.  The middle is where we see the "real us" and the depth of our trust in either our own ability and effort, or the strength and ability of Christ within.

The most telling part of the "middle" is our attitude.  Many of us will struggle with the "middle" of the matters of life.  We don't want to let others know how much we are struggling, though, so we cover up our struggles with a "strong facade".  In deference to all of us who actually do this let me just say you are not alone - I am there with you!  It is touch letting others see us as vulnerable and struggling.  Yet, in the honesty of being open to the struggle and honest about the impact of the "middle" upon our spirit, emotions, and thoughts, we are making it possible for others to become the instruments God can actually use in the midst of our struggle.

I am not advocating we become "billboards of defeat" here, but that we be honest about how it is we are dealing with the stuff life throws our way.  Those hurdles we have to jump are likely being run by others, as well!  We don't run alone - we run as teams!  When we see the ability of others to overcome the same hurdles we are having to leap over in the middle of our storms, we sometimes find more courage to take the first step toward overcoming them!

My track coach used to always tell us not to focus on the starting block, but on the finish line.  Yet, in between the two there was a whole lot of distance, some obstacles to overcome, and a whole lot of "traffic" getting in our way.  The endurance to finish well is what we really had to work on - not so much the start!  The pace by which we ran made the difference in how we crossed the finish line.  The "burn" we had left as we approached the finish line made the difference between fractions of seconds which could either help us finish or peter out.

So, as we look at the close of our year, let us remember we will face new beginnings with the new year, but in between the beginnings and the endings there will be a variety of "middles" to run!  Remember a couple of things:

- You don't run alone!  God sent his Son so we didn't have to run on our own merit.  Christ sent the Holy Spirit so we had someone to help us navigate the "traffic" and "hurdles" along the way.

- The race isn't about the beginning - it is about the "middle" and the pace by which we measure out how it is we will finish.  The pace-setter may be someone who sees our struggle and comes alongside to help us out.  Never underestimate the power of a pace-setter.  When we are honest about our struggles, someone who has run the race before can help us navigate the hurdles along the way.

We must not let the "middle" overcome us - we are overcomers of the middle!  Just sayin!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Take 'er easy, there!

Mae West once said, "An ounce of performance is worth pounds of promises."  We often find ourselves making all kinds of promises to ourselves, others, and even God as we enter into a new year.  These promises are filled with all kinds of grand schemes about how things will be different for us this year - complete with the plans to actually see them fulfilled in one manner or another.  Problems will rise though, obstacles will come - and these promises will blow away like chaff in the wind.  Why?  We lack the wherewithal to fulfill them ourselves. At best, we can give an "ounce of performance" and hope for God to take that "ounce of performance" and turn it into "pounds of progress"!

God cannot tell lies! And so his promises and vows are two things that can never be changed. We have run to God for safety. Now his promises should greatly encourage us to take hold of the hope that is right in front of us. (Hebrews 6:18 CEV)

We each have purpose in God's family - some of us might not fully appreciate what value we have yet, but nonetheless, we do have significant value in God's family.  That value is not determined by what we think we possess that will help us "be more valuable" in God's economy.  In fact, none of us can add value to our lives, for the most supreme value has been applied to our lives simply by the presence of Christ within!  Many of us think we must perform to obtain value - the opposite is quite true - value is declared and given by the actions of Christ on our behalf.  So, lest we think we cannot ever measure up to what we believe to be what makes us valuable or "worthy" in God's kingdom, think again.  

Now, let's get some things straight about these new year's promises or resolutions:

- At best, a promise we make is based on what we can do to fulfill that promise.  For example, if we promise to be home by 5 p.m. to meet with the child's teacher at 5:30 p.m., we are subject to a whole lot of things outside of our control.  The traffic and weather will influence our arrival time.  The readiness of the kids to be off to the sitter will also influence the ability of us to leave home in sufficient time to arrive at the teacher's classroom by the decided time.  There are things outside of our control impacting our ability to fulfill our promise to be there at the decided time.  At best, we can "manage" for the unknowns.  We can leave a little earlier, giving ourselves a little buffer of time.  We can avoid the "known" heavy traffic spots, detouring carefully to minimize delays.  We cannot count on the kids not having to use the restroom one last time before they are ready to go!  We cannot even count on finding a parking spot in the lot at the school, but we can build in "buffers" to come as close as possible to keeping the promise of arrival time.  "Buffers" are just those things we "build into" the equation to minimize the impact of things "crashing in upon themselves". Now, I don't know about you, but I don't think God wants us to build in buffers when it comes to our relationship with him.  In fact, he doesn't want anything to be "in the middle" of the connection we can make with him.  If we are to fulfill our promises to God, there needs to be nothing between those promises and his connection - in so doing, we ensure the ability to see those promises fulfilled.

- It is easy to make promises, but quite a different matter to keep them.  It is this simple truth which I think is declared in the scriptural warnings to beware of making vows to God which you neither possess the ability or the "stamina" to keep.  In other words, don't be too grandiose in your promises or intentions.  God is happy with "baby steps" in our obedience. He isn't looking for us to bound skyscrapers in a single leap here!  He is looking for us to point ourselves in the right direction and then begin taking steps.  I like to think of this as "integrated movement" toward obedience.  It is like adding one Lego block to another until we have a fully formed structure.  The pile of blocks remains until the last one is in place - but all along the way, the structure is being established which will support the adding of each block until the thing created is a thing of beauty.  This is how it is with obedience - it is a messy thing until it all comes together!  Yet, each "step" serves a purpose - you just may not realize it until you see the finished product!

So, as we leave behind one year and move toward the next, let us keep in mind the magnitude of our promises and the simplicity of trusting the one who has already made a way of fulfilling all promises through the presence of his Son with us on the journey.  We will be more willing to step forward if we allow him to draw us into his presence.  We will be more successful in our steps if we take them in a "measured" way.  Follow his plan and allow him to work it in you - there is no hurry in God's plan - for each step is ordered and purposeful!  Just sayin!

Monday, December 29, 2014

Journey on...

Anne Lamott said, "I do not at all understand the mystery of grace - only that it meets us where we are, but does not leave us where it found us."  If you are not familiar with her writings, you might just be surprised by her openness in describing struggles with things like single parenting, alcoholism, and even her father's struggle with brain cancer.  Tough subjects, but honest discovery of the ups and downs (including the depression) of living life as it really is.  At best, this is where each of us finds ourselves - living life as it really is.  We may try to make life what it is not, but in reality, we don't control the "strings" which direct the actions of others or those which will affect our lives - we just live what comes.  I think we need to recognize the value of not living this life on our own merits, or in our own efforts. We need the grace which comes from God alone - the grace which makes us holy, not because of our own merit or actions, but because of the actions of Christ on our behalf.  His obedience made a way for us to move into grace - bringing us to places we could never achieve on our own!

The Law teaches that offerings and sacrifices must be made because of sin. But why did Christ mention these things and say that God did not want them? Well, it was to do away with offerings and sacrifices and to replace them. That is what he meant by saying to God, “I have come to do what you want.” So we are made holy because Christ obeyed God and offered himself once for all. The priests do their work each day, and they keep on offering sacrifices that can never take away sins. But Christ offered himself as a sacrifice that is good forever. Now he is sitting at God’s right side, and he will stay there until his enemies are put under his power. By his one sacrifice he has forever set free from sin the people he brings to God. (Hebrews 10:8-14 CEV)

By his one action - Christ has made the "avenue of grace" open to all mankind.  By his one action - Christ has removed the obstacles blocking entry into the presence of God.  By his one action - Christ has made the means of obedience clear for all - not our efforts, but his grace!  

We describe grace as unmerited favor.  It was indeed purchased with a great price - the life of the Son of God.  It was secured once and for all - for all mankind - through the sacrificial death of Christ.  No other means remains for us to experience the presence of God - for all efforts and sacrifices on our behalf will never accomplish what the journey of grace will!

Yep, it is a journey - one upon which we enter into as we begin to follow Jesus.  Jesus never looked for those only interested in a "free ride" - but for those willing to put down their own agendas and to take up his path.  Grace is not a free ride, my friends - but it is a free gift. The ride actually gets a little harried and bumpy along the way, but the journey is worth the bumps!

We are made holy because Christ obeyed God - not because we come marginally close to accomplishing obedience in our own lives.  It cannot be more explicitly expressed - no measure of accomplishment on our part is going to produce perfect obedience - only grace can substitute what we cannot accomplish in our own efforts.

Christ's sacrifice is good forever - for everyone.  If we think about the shelves at a local market, we might be reminded of the stacks and stacks of a particular product.  If we only view the product time after time as we go into that market, we know of its existence.  We have not experienced it, though.  One day there is a table set up with free samples of the product - we partake of it.  It is in the partaking we are taken into the enjoyment of the product.  It is in the partaking of grace that we are brought into the enjoyment of it!  We can look "upon" grace - leaving it at a distance - but until we allow it to be "taken in" we won't experience the awesomeness of it!

Grace never leaves us where we were but calls us from here to there.  The "there" may not always be apparent, nor may it be the easiest road to traverse, but it is in the travel that we come into the fullness of grace.  We don't appreciate the sacrifice until we understand the value of it - we don't understand the value until we see the results - we don't see the results until we complete the journey.  Just sayin!

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Material or Immaterial - you decide

Christopher Columbus once said, "Riches don't make a man rich, they only make him busier."  Maybe there is more to this little bit of wisdom than first meets the eye!  The writer of Ecclesiastes said it this way:  If you have to work hard for a living, you can rest well at night, even if you don’t have much to eat. But if you are rich, you can’t even sleep. (5:12 CEV).  The riches we amass are both material and immaterial, but the ones which seem to give us the greatest of concern are the material.  They require so much of our attention and the last "big thing" we managed to get is almost outdated or not as useful or as good within just a short time of attaining it.  I could spend a great deal of time lamenting the many purchases I have bought over the years only to share how disappointing they were because they didn't perform "as seen on TV" or they simply were outdated within just a short time of getting them.  The this which never goes out of style or "outdates" are the immaterial things I can "amass" over the course of a lifetime.  Things like memories - they may grow old, but they never "outdate".  Things like friendships - they may evolve into deeper, personal relationships over time, but they don't "outdate".  Something which is outdated is antiquated, obsolete, and what some may call "old fashioned".  I don't know about you, but there are some pretty "old fashioned" things in my life and I kind of like them!

What is the best thing to do in the short life that God has given us? I think we should enjoy eating, drinking, and working hard. This is what God intends for us to do. Suppose you are very rich and able to enjoy everything you own. Then go ahead and enjoy working hard—this is God’s gift to you. God will keep you so happy that you won’t have time to worry about each day. (Ecclesiastes 5:18-20 CEV)

My best friend and I joke frequently about one of our favorite pastimes - eating!  We make light of the fact that any day spent creating or enjoying good food is a good day indeed.  I cannot help but think this way as I enjoy not only the good food, but the good friends I share that food with!  Even a bologna sandwich and a cup of tomato soup on a cold day with my BFF is like gourmet cuisine in my book!  It isn't the "much" we can bring to the table, but the "beauty" of each other that makes the time so awesome.  We don't have to spend lots and lots of time in deep conversation.  In fact, sometimes we just share what it is in a particular game we are playing which will help us to finish our quest!  Now, for non-gamers that may seem a little trivial, but let me assure you, some of those quests are hard and a little help from a friend can go along way.  As a matter of fact, my son was over the other day and I asked him to help me get past a particular level in one of those matching games.  He took my phone, worked it out, and handed it back to me.  Finally, I had advanced past the level I had been stuck on for nearly two weeks!  Not much to you?  Everything to me!  Why?  I had time with my son and he got to "school" his mom in how it was done!  Priceless!

Many times we complain about the fact we have to work for a living.  Sometimes we mean it and other times we are making light of the fact we have to get up each day and dress, drive, and engage in whatever it is we do for a living.  I have been out of work for a couple of weeks again with disability for the knee.  I am going absolutely stir crazy around the house.  God just didn't make us to sit around non-productive all the time.  I have payment coming in for my disability, one of the great benefits I have from my workplace, but I find working kind of rewarding.  It is hard, and at times I want to pull my hair out at some of the silly stuff we have to do (or the silly stuff someone else does which makes us have to do what we do!). Yet, in the complexity of the work, I find reward.  Now, that isn't a sick mind my friends - it is a mind doing what God made a mind to do!  We are to enjoy our work - because it is what God has given us to do.

In examining our lives, there are simple things we do each and everyday which deserve more of our attention than others.  Things like letting our sons "school" us in an online game, or sharing stories over a cup of soup with a friend who just needs to talk about the "regular" stuff of life.  It isn't much, you may even think it trivial, but in the light of eternity, it is everything!  The immaterial "things" we amass deserve focus, too - not just the mad rush to get the material!  We cannot underestimate the value of our relationships - for to lose even one is to lose a great deal.  We cannot overestimate the value of our wealth and riches - for to lose them will leave us wanting and haggard.  We need a balance between the material and the immaterial "riches" we can amass.  I guess it is this balance I'd like us to focus on as we come into the new year.  Balance is where we will find our greatest reward - not in the getting of more, but in the enjoyment of what we already have and building upon that until we see it prosper and multiply!  Just sayin!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The spirit of man

The spirit of man - stop for a moment to consider all that is inherent in the spirit of man. Scripture points to man being a tri-part being:  Body, Soul, and Spirit.  Body we understand for it is what we see and feel each and every day.  Soul we get because we can think rational though and learn concepts such as arithmetic or steps in a process - understanding that soul consists of the mind, will and emotions.  Spirit we don't so easily comprehend because it is not as "systematic" as our  minds or as "evident" as bodies.  It is this spirit part of man which allows man to commune with God and experience the things God has in store for us.  It is this spirit which many will say will either make or break a man. It is this spirit part where man differs from animals - for it is the place God's Spirit and a man's spirit become one.  We can trace this three-part make-up of man back to the creation story in Genesis.  I think the most important difference we can make about the spirit which might just help us to understand this part of our tri-part make-up is this being the part of a man which lives on for all of eternity.  Body will perish - getting older by the minute, decreasing in capacity and strength.  Soul will eventually no longer function in the same way as the aging process occurs - clear thought fades, will might remain in tact, but we just don't connect with things with the same emotion we once had.  The only thing which remains "true" throughout the ages is this part of us known as the "spirit" - the connection point where we are brought near to God and he draws near to us throughout all of eternity.

The strong spirit of a man sustains him in bodily pain or trouble, but a weak and broken spirit who can raise up or bear? (Proverbs 18:14 AMP)

Spirit and soul are pretty closely connected - so this is probably why we have so much trouble separating the two.  It is the spirit which animates us, but it is the soul which helps us to take in, experience fully, and emotionally connect with what it is our spirit encounters. Maybe this is why scripture gives us this warning about the difference between a strong spirit and a weak or broken one.  The "strength" of our spirit is directly connected to how well we will emotionally "maintain" and "process" as we go through difficult stuff.  It is the spirit of man which animates us.  The spirit actually drives our emotions.  When things are as they should be within our spirit, with a solid connection to our heavenly Father, we find our "emotional balance" is much better than when we have stepped away from this deep, intimate connection with him.  Emotions get a little harried when we allow our spirit to "disconnect" for a while from the closeness we might once have maintained with our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Since soul and spirit are so closely connected and can kind of get us jumbled up at times, we will do well to understand their relationship they form as we live out our lives.  Spirit drives emotions - emotions don't drive the spirit.  This might just seem a little counter-intuitive, but hear me out.  Spirit rightly connected to Christ brings about an emotional stability, allowing for rational choice, wisdom displayed in right actions, and balanced reactions to what life brings our way.  Spirit disconnected (even temporarily through neglect or just plain laziness) brings about an array of emotional instability affording us plenty of irrational choices, wrong thought patterns manifest in really negative actions, and a pretty "reactionary" response to life's hurdles.

The "health" of our spirit is important if we are to have good "balance" in our lives.  We need to maintain strong connection with the Spirit of God if we are to have a solid handle on our soul life.  The spirit of man is what some might refer to as a man's "personality" or "temperament", but really it is the sum total of what we realize as the driving force for all we do and say.  When our spirit is rightly connected with God's, we find our "doing" and "saying" a lot more rational, right on, and less volatile.  When our spirit is independent of God's Spirit, we find ourselves reacting to life in some often irrational and frequently changing ways.  Our responses become "situational" - based on the circumstances, we respond one way this time, another the next - because there is no anchor or balance.

Anchor is created in the spirit of man - through connection with God's Spirit.  I often speak about the significance of connection, but let me leave you with this one illustration to ponder today.  A boat is made up of raw materials such as wood and pitch.  There has been a "crafter" of the boat - one who has fashioned it and given it form.  The boat serves a purpose, floating atop the water and allowing object to be placed within it's frame, securely out of reach of the waters around it.  The boat is actually adrift on the water, subject to the currents and winds unless there is someone controlling the direction it takes.  There are two things any good boat needs - a rudder and an anchor.  The rudder helps to give the boat direction - the anchor helps to keep the boat "moored" in place where it will always be available for the use of the one who created it.  We are each "boats" of sorts - created by the hand of God.  We were each fashioned for a purpose - we each need both a rudder and an anchor.  The Spirit of God connects with the spirit of man to be both our "rudder" and our "anchor".  Without this connection, we are adrift in a sea of emotional "current" and "wind".  We will drift aimlessly, getting from shore to shore, but without any real purpose.  Just sayin!

Friday, December 26, 2014

A new pair of shoes

"The first step to victory is to recognize the enemy." - Corrie Ten Boom

As we take a moment or two together today, I'd like us to consider the wisdom of those simple words.  There are many steps we can take "toward" victory, but none as profound as the very first one.  If Corrie's insight holds true, we come to the place of actually taking the "right" first step by recognizing exactly who the enemy is!  For some of us, it is that tiny voice within which continues to limit our progress toward good in our lives because we are believing the lies it tells us.  Last week, our pastor spoke on the importance of not putting too much stock in how others see us - because if we do, we will find ourselves burdened down under the load of much "performance".  Performance which never really measures up, never really quits, and never really helps us realize who we are in God's eyes.  I think for many of us our #1 enemy is ourselves - the voices we listen to in our heads, those voices which tug at our sense of guilt and self-consciousness.  Until we recognize the tremendous influence of those voices, we won't get very far in this life!  The first step for us to move "toward" victory over those voices is to recognize the untruth in the message they continually bring!

You have kept record of my days of wandering.  You have stored my tears in your bottle and counted each of them.  When I pray, Lord God, my enemies will retreat, because I know for certain that you are with me.  I praise your promises!  I trust you and am not afraid.  No one can harm me.  I will keep my promises to you, my God, and bring you gifts. You protected me from death and kept me from stumbling, so that I would please you and follow the light that leads to life.  (Psalm 56:8-13 CEV)

Unfortunately, as long as we listen to the voices, believing that we are "less than" or simply "can never measure up", we will continue to live less than victorious lives.  As long as we are listening to these voices, Satan has no need to really focus on our lives because we are doing all the work of keeping ourselves from victory!  In order to recognize a lie, we must find the truth.  As long as we believe the lies, we are in a state of wandering aimlessly through life, never really rising to the potential God has for us.  Lies limit our progress, halting growth and hindering freedom from past regrets.

We are just about a week away from entering into a new year.  As the new year begins to dawn upon us, we have an excellent opportunity to "start again".  Many will make resolutions to do this but not that, eat less of this and more of that, hang out with a different crowd, do a little better at saving, and the list goes on.  Others will not make resolutions because they know the futility of all the years which have come before in which those simply went by the wayside sometime before we could flip the calendar to February!  So, whether you are a "believer" in this whole "resolution" thing or not, let me just take a moment to remind you of some pretty important stuff you need to know as you enter this new year.

- God keeps records much better than we ever can.  The problem with our record-keeping is our "slant" on how the books should add up.  We see life through our own perspective, keeping account of each success or failure in our own unique way.  What we also do is compare how well we do with our resolutions compared to how well another does.  When we stop keeping record of our own successes and failures, and begin to trust God to "keep the books" on our lives, what we find is that the "accounting" is somewhat different than we see it.  If you examine scriptures, you will see evidence of this thing called "grace".  Grace is God's method of accounting - he takes away ALL our demerits or debits and replaces them with merits or what you might consider to be a "credit" on the right side of the page!  God's method of accounting replaces each of our failures with an entry which merely reads "GRACE".  The "debit" has been erased because "grace" covers the debit with not only what "settled the account", but what actually brings it into a "positive balance"!

- God doesn't react to our failures in judgment, but in love.  The wandering of our hearts and minds into areas of compromise which leads to failure and feelings of guilt are not things will hold against the one who repents of his/her wanderings.  Whenever we are willing to say we "muffed up", God is willing to restore.  His love bids us to come to him - his grace makes a way for us to actually do it!

- God does more with an honest declaration of our need for his help than he will ever do with our "best behavior".  What God delights in more than anything else if for us to finally recognize the enemy within - the things we believe about ourselves which are just totally contrary to the way he sees us.  Our pastor spoke of the importance of not focusing on what others think of us, but on what God says about us.  I want us to go one step further and begin to focus less on what we have come to accept as "truth" about the permanence of our "failure" and focus more on what God does with each failure that is brought before the cross of Christ.  We go miles and miles in the shoes of a guilty person - God wants our wandering in those shoes to end!  He doesn't see us as guilty - in fact, he gives us new shoes - feet shod with the gospel of truth!  We replace lies with truth - just as we might change a pair of shoes. It seems elementary and a little too simplified for most of us who have walked all those miles in our "guilt shoes", but hear this loud and clear - God has new shoes for all who will allow him to "fit" them to our feet!

We don't have to face the new year with "unbalanced books" or "guilt-ridden wandering". In fact, we have the opportunity to listen to some new promises from God's Word - allowing those words to sink in deeply and change our perspective on how we see ourselves.  We don't have to dread the year ahead, for by grace it is a new path and a new dawning of righteousness within.  Just sayin!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

One last gift....

Christmas day...
Packages will be opened, paper strewn all over the front room, ribbons left in a pile.  Kids will discard the undies brightly wrapped in favor of building with those brightly colored Lego blocks.  Moms will rush to try out the new counter-top mixer or cookware sets all festive in their holiday attire.  Dads will head to the garages and yards to put on display their newest of tools and gadgets galore.  Grandparents will soak in the memories of family glee and holiday festivities.  It is a magical day indeed.  Yet, I would remiss in not sharing how it is I celebrate this holiday with the greatest of joy and the fullest of hearts.  You see, it is because I have Christ living in me that I celebrate with all fullness and joy!  I chose a passage we could explore today because it was a perfect illustration of what Christ has done in me - and what he would delight to do in all those who would choose to put their faith and trust in him as their Savior this Christmas Day!

Once I was bitter and brokenhearted. I was stupid and ignorant, and I treated you as a wild animal would. But I never really left you, and you hold my right hand. Your advice has been my guide, and later you will welcome me in glory. In heaven I have only you, and on this earth you are all I want. My body and mind may fail, but you are my strength and my choice forever. Powerful Lord God, all who stay far from you will be lost, and you will destroy those who are unfaithful.  It is good for me to be near you.  I choose you as my protector, and I will tell about your wonderful deeds.  (Psalm 73:21-28 CEV)

My general state of heart and condition of mind was adequately summed up in the words of this passage - bitter, brokenhearted, stupid, and ignorant.  You may want to say that this is not true of your present condition of mind or heart, but please hear me out before you decide to dismiss this general synopsis of our hearts and minds apart from Christ.

- Bitter:  Having a harsh, disagreeable taste; hard to bear; causing pain; hard to admit or accept.  Now that I define the "state" of bitterness which can be revealed in either our heart or head actions, you might just see how this term takes on a meaning which could describe all of us at one point or another.  Have we ever been disagreeable, leaving kind of a "bitter" taste behind because of our actions or words?  Have we ever been a little "hard to bear" because of our particular behavior at one time or another?  Have we ever been kind of hard to accept in our circle of influence just because we said or did something which really set others on edge?  If we can answer yes to any or all of these, then our heart or mind conditions are not all that dissimilar my friend!  

- Brokenhearted:  Burdened with great sorrow, grief, or disappointment.  If we might not fit on the first picture, we probably can on this one.  It is not uncommon to mankind to fall into periods of great sorrow - either because of a direct loss to one's own state or condition, or because we are influenced by the loss through the lives of someone else close to us.  Grief and disappointment are just part of trying and sometimes not succeeding.  All failure has the possibility of ending in some type of grief, if not sheer disappointment.  

- Stupid:  Dull, foolish, senseless; annoying and irritating.  I guess we might not equate this word with dullness of spirit, but we would be quick to say it referred to the condition of mind we might call "slow" or "dim-witted".  Although I wasn't a "slow" child, I was kind of "slow" on the uptake when it came to recognizing how my behavior was impacting others around me.  In choosing my own way over the values I was taught, I brought much irritation to those around me.  In deciding my needs were greater than the needs of anyone else in my life and that life hadn't treated me fairly, I became a kind of "annoyance" to those around me who I wanted so badly to be accepted and liked by.  Our dullness of mind and heart can often lead us to do things which produce an outcome contrary to the desired effect!

- Ignorant:  Lacking in knowledge or training; unaware.  All of us have the ability to learn stuff, but few of us actually put what we learn into action.  We amass knowledge and use only a small portion of what we have stacked up in the recesses of our minds.  What is not used is of no benefit - we have knowledge, but we are unaware of how to use it.  In this case, all of us would be ignorant in one way or another, right?

So, I have pretty much described the state of heart and mind of most of us apart from Christ dwelling within.  Apart from Christ, we are indeed producing outcomes which leave a bitter taste in both our own lives and those we touch.  Apart from Christ, we are left burdened with stuff we were never intended to bear up under.  Apart from Christ, we have no real sense of how "slow" we are, but our actions reveal our foolishness.  Apart from Christ, we live life unaware of what we are "missing".  It isn't until we can truthfully admit the words of our psalmist as our own that we come to the place where the bitter, broken, slow, and lacking parts of our lives begin to change.  In essence, it is when we acknowledge the words of our psalmist which say, "It is good for me to be near you.  I choose you as my protector, and I will tell about your wonderful deeds..." that we come into a place of laying down our state of heart and mind which keeps us so tangled in emotional unrest and a lack of true joy in celebration of this season of Christmas.  

My gift to you this Christmas season is this one thing:  Christ and Christ alone!  Nothing can quite fulfill our "wish list" in quite the same manner.  No one can take away our pain or sense of "void" quite like he can.  One last gift this holiday season!  Won't you open up yourself to Christ today?  He desires nothing more than a surrendered life.  He will not disappoint!  Of this I am certain!  Just sayin!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The greatest gift under your tree this year...

One of the most overlooked parts of the Christmas celebration is this idea of forgiveness. Without the birth and life of Christ on this earth, the offering for our sins would not have been possible.  The burden of sin would still weigh heavy upon our shoulders and keep us out of fellowship with God our Father.  Through his birth - forgiveness became possible. Through his death - forgiveness was assured.  No greater gift was provided on any Christmas since his birth!  No greater gift could ever be sought!  His life for ours - what a gift!

Our God, you bless everyone whose sins you forgive and wipe away. You bless them by saying, “You told me your sins, without trying to hide them, and now I forgive you.” (Psalm 32:1-2 CEV)

Forgiveness is a much overlooked gift of this holiday season.  Why?  We have become so "familiar" and "comfortable" in the misery of our sin that we no longer seek a way out!  Sad as this may be, it is evident in relationships everywhere that remain in shambles, despite years of opportunities for the two to reconcile.  One slight brought years of misery - one sin is all it takes to separate two - especially when the two are God and humanity!  

David's record of his confession of sin stands as a reminder to us of how damaging sin can be when left unconfessed and how freeing it can be to come under the blessing of God's grace.  See his words and take them to heart, my friends:

Before I confessed my sins, my bones felt limp, and I groaned all day long. Night and day your hand weighed heavily on me, and my strength was gone as in the summer heat.  So I confessed my sins and told them all to you.  I said, “I’ll tell the Lord each one of my sins.” Then you forgave me and took away my guilt.  (vs. 3-5 CEV)  Guilt is a natural outcome of unconfessed sin - sin eats away at the core of our being until we are numb to it.  Then it drives a stake into the ground of our failure, chaining us to that failure until we feel there is no escape from that painful ground of guilt.  Yet, when we confess our sin, God forgives not one, but all - taking away any hold we have with the ground of sin and guilt which had us bound.

- We worship you, Lord, and we should always pray whenever we find out that we have sinned. Then we won’t be swept away by a raging flood. You are my hiding place! You protect me from trouble, and you put songs in my heart because you have saved me. (vs. 6-7 CEV)  David's recommendations come through quite clear - we WILL sin - it is inevitable. Yet, there is a way of escape - a chance to avoid the raging flood of sin's misery and guilt. It comes in entering into the hiding place God has prepared for his kids - in the shelter of his wings.  We don't need to be carried away by sin and guilt - we just need to nestle into his caring arms and confess our sin.  He is the one who will save us from sin's tormenting flood of guilt.

- You said to me, “I will point out the road that you should follow. I will be your teacher and watch over you. Don’t be stupid like horses and mules that must be led with ropes to make them obey.” All kinds of troubles will strike the wicked, but your kindness shields those who trust you, Lord. And so your good people should celebrate and shout.  (vs. 8-11 CEV)  Celebration is a result of being led down the paths of right-living.  We may not "naturally" find these paths on our own merit or by our own strengths, but we can be guided down them by a faithful and trusting guide.  We don't need to dwell any longer in the land of unforgiven sin - we have a way out - through the grace of God provided by the birth, life, and death of his Son, Jesus.  He is the road we should follow - the path we should desire above all others.  This path was opened to us by the life of his Son - a thing we celebrate for sure!

It may be Christmas time around the world, but I would be remiss in not reminding us of the tremendous gift we received by this birth so many years ago.  A way was opened to us that just would not have been possible by any other means.  In the fullness of time, in the love which guides all of God's actions, he made a way for us to be free of our sin's hold and the separation which sin brings.  There is no "anchor" holding us in the past, my friends.  There is only a shelter from sin's hold beckoning us "inside" - it is this small voice we should heed this holiday season.  Just sayin!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Not exactly angelic, but divinely provided!

Back in the day when Christ was born, there were several announcements to herald his birth. One such announcement started outside of his home, in the home of Mary's relative Elizabeth.  Elizabeth and Zechariah had been waiting for a child for a long time.  They receive this visitation from an angel when it is Zechariah's time to be tending to the altar in the Temple.  The angel announces the "fore-runner" of Jesus - John the Baptist.  To this aging couple would come a child - one who would point the way to the Christ child.  He would be a Nazarite, live in the desert, and announce the coming of the Messiah.  Imagine the pleasure to have waited so long for a child, almost past your childbearing years, and then receive a grand message such as this.  What an honor to be the parents of the one who would prepare a way for the earthly ministry of Jesus!  Angels came to Mary to announce the birth of Christ.  Angels set Joseph's heart at ease that Mary hadn't "snuck around" on Joseph while they were engaged, getting herself "knocked-up" by some other man.  Angels announce his arrival and angels continued to "care for" him in the early days of his birth - watching over this Christ child and announcing to prepared hearts his arrival had finally come.  In essence the angels did more than announce - they also gave a warning of what was about to come.  Not every message heard was the easiest to take.  Some were instructional, others were warnings to avoid a certain path or direction.  Most of what God provides in life is one or the other - instruction to guide us or warnings to keep us safe.

By your teachings, Lord, I am warned; by obeying them, I am greatly rewarded. None of us know our faults. Forgive me when I sin without knowing it. Don’t let me do wrong on purpose, Lord, or let sin have control over my life. Then I will be innocent, and not guilty of some terrible fault. (Psalm 19:11-13 CEV)

I think this is what David might have been saying when he penned these words for us.  It is by God's teachings (his written word) that we are warned.  By our obedience to these warnings, we find great and lasting reward.  Just as was the case with each of the angelic visitations surrounding Christ's birth and early life, the one receiving the message had two choices - dismiss it as superstitious mumbo-jumbo, or embrace it as God-given direction for their lives.  The Word of God is not superstitious mumbo-jumbo, my friends.  It contains warnings for our safety, direction for our navigation of life's challenges, and encouragement for life's disappointments.  In keeping the instruction, we enjoy great reward.  In turning often to the  instruction contained within the pages of scripture, we are opening ourselves to find great treasures and continued "course-corrections" as necessary.

Look at what David is saying:

- It is by God's teachings we are warned.  A warning is a notice given to tell of some impending danger or possible harm.  Without a notice of this nature, we'd head into things with the absence of awareness and be caught up before we have a moment to even process what has happened to us.  I think this is one of the most valuable parts of how scripture helps us in life - giving us an awareness of our actions so we aren't just walking around "unaware" of issues which might come our way.  God's plan has always been to give "early warning" to those who have ears to hear and a heart to listen.  What set Mary, Elizabeth, the shepherds, or even the Magi apart from others may have been this willingness to listen to what they received in a message from God.  All God wants of his kids is their attentive consideration of the warnings he gives.

- By obeying them we are greatly rewarded.  I guess this is where the rubber meets the road for most of us.  We hear a whole lot, and it even tickles our fancies when we hear it, but making the words we hear become the actions we take is a different matter.  Mary had to believe God when he told her she'd conceive, not in the ordinary manner of man laying with woman, but supernaturally through the Spirit of God.  Joseph had to believe God had been the one touching Mary's life in this manner, not some man in the neighborhood.  Elizabeth had to accept the truth she wasn't past the age of childbearing, even though outward signs signaled otherwise.  In obedience, we are greatly rewarded.  What does God provide through his scripture to us today?  When we ponder it fully, is our response one of disbelief, rejecting it?  Or is our response one of trust, stepping fully into what he directs, no matter how unrealistic it seems?  Obedience makes the difference!

- None of us knows our faults.  Maybe this is where scripture really takes on a specific purpose in our lives.  We don't know our own faults - why?  It is simply because we have blinders to what we do, but plainly see clearly (and can point out with pinpoint accuracy) what another does or doesn't do.  We see the actions of others long before we see those in ourselves.  Maybe this is why scripture contains so many "stories" of the lives of others - to help us see where it is we have the same "faults" in life!  In so doing, we take what we see "in another" and begin to examine ourselves.  In essence, we use the life failure of another to show us where the same tendencies exist within us - simply because we don't see these faults in us naturally.  We need the supernatural to unveil our eyes!

- We can do wrong on purpose; sin can gain control if we let it.  There is some truth to the fact that we "fall" into sin without even knowing it - those are the faults we are unaware of. Then there are times when we just plunge deep into sin's mire with full knowledge and what should have been adequate warning to avoid it!  Why?  Sin pushes to gain control - righteousness pulls to regain control.  It is a battle of sorts - one pushing us further into our own mired circumstances while the other is pulling us upward and out of the pit we have been digging for ourselves.  When we are willing to turn to the warnings in scripture, taking them seriously, we find the pull of sin is less each time we obey the warnings!

We may not receive the angelic visitations of old - but we have been given some basic instruction which is just as practical, insightful, and helpful.  All we need to do is turn to the instruction we have been given - not as a mythical book of phrases, but as a "playbook" of sorts which is designed to give us the best offensive and defensive stance as we walk through this life.  Just sayin!

Monday, December 22, 2014

Some "mulling spices" for you

We all  have those moments in time when our dreams seem to be far away and sleep seems to be a little elusive to us.  We toss and turn a little, drifting in and out of restless slumber, only to come awake again, mind thinking on things we should have shut off long ago.  In those times where slumber seems to evade us, we often think about stuff which we have been mulling over previously.  I think this is why God asks us to learn the "skill" of meditating upon his Word and upon him.  When those sleepless nights creep up on us, we will have some better "fodder" for our mulling than if we just ruminate on the worries of the day!  We can "mull over" his grace, think a little bit about his goodness, and contemplate his blessings in our lives - all because we have filled places in our minds and hearts with the right "fuel" for "mulling"!  As I was in the Big Lots last week, I came across a display of "mulling spices" and had to ask my mom what they were.  At this stage in the game, it is a crap-shoot if she will remember stuff like this, but I gave it a try.  She couldn't exactly remember, so I looked them up and found out they are things like cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg - ingredients added to hot beverages on cold nights to warm the body.

I am innocent, Lord, and I will see your face! When I awake, all I want is to see you as you are. (Psalm 17:15 CEV)  

Now, we are not a family who lives in the colder climates, so this is probably why I didn't know much about mulling spices, but in considering their origin and purpose, I was instantly "hooked".  I may not make much hot cider, but I think I understand apple cider is made the "richer" by the spices which are added and "cooked into" it over the flame of the hot stove.  It is the "essence" of the spices which are released into the warming juices which will become the hallmark of the warmed drink.  These "essences" are often wrapped in a bit of cheesecloth and then boiled into the drink over the hot flames.  As they are soaking up the juices, they are releasing their rich flavors and fragrances, bringing an awakening to one's sense of smell and taste.

The idea of "essence" being released is what caught my attention about this Christmas tradition.  You see, if we have the right "ingredients" in the "bag", the essence of what is released when we allow it to begin to "seep into" the areas of our lives where we are ruminating, we will soon begin to realize the beauty of what Christ wants to release "into" our lives in those wee hours of the night!  The worries will begin to vanish and the "beauty" of his presence (the fragrance of his grace, love, kindness, etc) will begin to be released, overtaking the thoughts we are "stewing on"!

The idea of having something of "fragrance" or "essence" added into our lives is not a new concept - it is frequently taught in scripture.  Grace has a "fragrance" all its own.  You might recognize it as "release", "peace", or "freedom".  The goodness of God has an "essence" which leaves indelible signs of having touched our lives in things like "restored health", "renewed relationships", and "regenerated purpose".  The "essence" of God's presence is palpable, friends.  It is apparent in not only the daytime hours of study in his Word, but in the nighttime hours of ruminating thoughts and fatigued bodies!

In case you weren't aware, the "essence" of something is more than the fragrance it gives off. It is also the "lifeblood" of the object or person.  When we are touched by the Spirit of God, there is something of a "life-exchange" which occurs.  His "essence" leaves us different than we were before.  Apart from his essence, we are merely "fruit juice" - with his added essence, we are "robust and warming" life!  Cinnamon once it is soaked for a while in the fruit juices no longer really has much essence left - it has given the essence to the mixture.  The same is true of the allspice, nutmeg, and cloves.  The distinctive essence is infused into the whole. This is the way it is when Christ's Spirit invades the thoughts of our wee hour musings.  The essence of his presence begins to give a new "flavor" to the things we think upon.  

May all your musings be filled with Holy Spirit infused "mulling spices"!  Just wishin!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Not another "mystery" gift under the tree!

But when the time was right...  
This is a phrase which should bring such awe to our hearts, for it is the phrase expressing God's heart for all of humanity.  He purposed to provide for our needs - in the right manner. He purposed to provide for our deliverance - with the right means.  He purposed to provide for our short-comings - through the right sacrifice.  All when the "time was right".  This is something we struggle with - timing.  We all have a tendency once in a while to be a little too early or too late - our timing just not being perfect on all accounts.  We are subject to our own whims and fancies - something which will mess with our timing whenever it has a chance.  Yet, God's timing is perfect - and his ability to endure until exactly the right time is awe-inspiring.  If you remember back to when you were a kid, you would count off the days until Christmas.  You'd have advent calendars or the like to help you know just how many days till the time you could tear into those brightly colored packages beginning to take form under the tree.  Others would wonder what else would show up on Christmas morn - when the time was right - like those "mystery" gifts which appeared with the greetings, "Merry Christmas From Santa".  Those never appeared before the "timing was right", did they? There is just something of suspense in waiting which makes us all a little anxious and curious to boot.  We want to know now - God's plan may be next week.  Aye!  We must learn the importance of "when the time is right" - huh?

Children who are under age are no better off than slaves, even though everything their parents own will someday be theirs. This is because children are placed in the care of guardians and teachers until the time their parents have set. That is how it was with us. We were like children ruled by the powers of this world. But when the time was right, God sent his Son, and a woman gave birth to him. His Son obeyed the Law, so he could set us free from the Law, and we could become God’s children. Now that we are his children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts. And his Spirit tells us that God is our Father. You are no longer slaves. You are God’s children, and you will be given what he has promised. (Galations 4:1-7 CEV)

I remember one Christmas with my kids.  We were pretty limited in funds for Christmas gifts, so I did a lot of garage sale shopping and even some thrift store jaunts to try to find some toys for the kids.  My daughter was just at that age when she had an interest in Barbie dolls.  I had saved my Barbie and Ken dolls from when I was a kid, so I dug those out, ironed the clothes which had been wadded up over the years and stored in a shoe box, but one day I came across the thing I knew would just make her heart jump for joy.  We were garage sale shopping early one morning and I came across an old three story, plastic white and pink Barbie doll house.  No furnishings - just the house.  The family sold it to me dirt cheap and I stashed it away in the little shed off the carport.  Each night after the kids were in bed, I'd sneak out there, wash it down, polish it up a little, then begin the task of creating furnishings for each and every room.  I saved tin cans which I painted and covered with fabric pieces and batting to create stools and chairs.  I crafted bed from small boxes, foam rubber, and scraps of old sheets.  In time, the little garage sale find became a well-adorned home for her Barbie dolls.  As they went off to bed on Christmas Eve, I took it inside, set it up around the tree, complete with the dolls posed eating a meal at the kitchen table.  As she awoke the next morning, she squealed in delight!  Music to a mommy's ears, my friends!

The gift was purchased for some time before it actually was given.  Why wasn't it given right away?  The time wasn't right!  It was envisioned as a Christmas gift - not an everyday, run of the mill, gift - but one which needed a whole lot of love invested into it to make it super-special for my little girl.  I don't think my heavenly Father is much different!  In fact, he often withholds some things which are just not right according to the timing he has for my life (and yours).  It isn't because he loves us less than others, but because he knows the supreme beauty of us receiving those things in the "right timing".  We wouldn't be ready to receive them in the same manner, nor would we be as "appreciative" of those gifts if we received them ahead of that timing.  Many years later, when she was a grown woman, I heard my daughter recall this gift as she shared Christmas memories with my daughter-in-law.  I had no idea the impact that labor of love made on her life.  No idea at all.  The day she explained about the gift, I knew she had done more than squeal in delight - she had connected with my heart.  She saw the labor of love - she appreciated it - and it impacted her life.  I know this is how God wants us to view all of his gifts, as well.  Not as quickly prepared, or quickly dispensed, but as painstakingly prepared and perfectly orchestrated!

But when the time was right....God sent his Son.  This is our season of Christmas - the memory of God sending his Son.  Our personal memories of this Christmas need not be devoid of this most awesome gift, my friends.  In fact, the greatest gift of all has been given for each and every one of us.  Not so we can squeal in delight and then move on to something bigger or better, but so we can savor his gift with awe and intense love.  Let us not lose sight of the perfection of God's timing - this is his season - delight in him!  This is his time when he delighted in each of us - now it is our time to fully and completely delight in this gift he has provided "in the fullness of time".  The gift - grace.  The gift-giver - God.  The gift recipient - you and I.  Just sayin!

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Settling in for a long winter's night

Quite some time ago, I learned the light-hearted song, "All I want for Christmas..."  You know the one I mean - the little jingle about wanting my "two front teeth" for Christmas.  I think we all want something for Christmas - some of us will be quick to announce what our wish list includes, while others will be more reserved and not really be able to make any grand gestures toward letting the world know what it is we are wishing for.  Many a child will be making their lists and checking them twice, then sealing them in an envelope addressed to the Jolly Ole St. Nick care of the North Pole.  It is kind of what Christmas has come to these days - a lot of hustle and bustle to get the right gift and to ensure everyone has something special they will want.  As the grand-boys have been growing up, I have asked for their "lists" because it makes it easier for me to actually get things which fit their current interests.  Imagine my surprise this year when I found out the wish list did not come in the usual handwritten fashion, but was an Amazon Wish List!  Tee hee!  They are definitely not little boys any longer!  My greatest hope for everyone this Christmas season is for Christ to be at the top of your list!

You, Lord, are all I want!  You are my choice, and you keep me safe.  You make my life pleasant, and my future is bright. (Psalm 16:5-6 CEV)

We have probably all heard the little quips here and there about men and holiday shopping - like they can buy gifts for 25 relatives in the last 25 minutes of shopping time just before Christmas!  As silly as this may be, we enjoy poking a little fun at people who think fruit cake is a great gag gift, or who procrastinate till the last minute to scurry around in a mad frenzy on the 24th of December on a mad flight of gift buying.  One of my favorite quotes about Christmas came from Dale Evans.  She said, "Christmas, my child, is love in action.  Every time we love, every time we give, it's Christmas!"  Now, think on that one a little and you will see she was saying Christmas goes way beyond December 25.  It is a lifetime of giving of one's talents, time, and treasures for the blessing of another.  This is the true meaning of gift giving - not that we have our every wish or that the list is all checked off!

As our psalmist so aptly states, "You, Lord, are all I want!"  I wonder what state of mind and spirit we have to get to in order to actually mean those words?  I think we say them kind of freely, but when push comes to shove, we don't demonstrate them in action in our lives.  Our challenge this holiday season is to remain faithful to this one action - making Christ central in all our gatherings, all our gift giving, and in all our preparations.  If we want to remain true to the season, we cannot forget that Christ was "central" to the entirety of the Christmas story!  His birth was prophesied - his tiny life was celebrated - and his home was made the richer because he was in it.  May our homes be the richer because Christ is central in them, as well!

As we consider our passage again, the key to Christ being all we want is a matter of choosing the right focus in the madness of the season.  When we make Christ our choice, we are choosing to have our lives made whole in him.  We are choosing to have our lives become demonstrations of his light and grace.  As we explored yesterday, all kindness and grace is evident in the living of his life in us.  One thing I recognize as a tendency in my own life is to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of the season.  This year has almost forced a different vantage point for me.  I had the knee revised on the 8th, so I am on crutches, moving past the pain once again, and attempting to rehab this knee so I can return to work after the first of the year.  I had to prepare for the holidays before I could go into the hospital for the surgery.  In all my years, I have never been more at peace with Christmas!  It was all done the week before my surgery and now I can just enjoy the peace of the season!  I highly recommend settling down with a good book, enjoying family, and taking in the joy of the season!  It is awesome!

May God's grace be always evident in your lives.  May his peace always fill your hearts with joy.  And may his love fill you with all the glee of the season!  Just sayin!

Friday, December 19, 2014

Christmas lights strung with great care!

Light - most don't equate Christmas with light - but I think the glowing and twinkling lights of the season are a reminder to us of the simplicity of the truth that LIGHT came into the world that one Christmas night so long ago.  In the decoration of our homes with the icicle lights and the twinkling rows of bright LED, we see more than just brightness - we see the love that goes into taking all the time to bring those lights into order and arrange them into a display of beauty.  I remember the hours and hours my dad would take designing how he'd put them up each year.  Each year brought some new addition, usually created by his own hands and in his tremendous imaginative way.  I remember one year with a huge cross on our roof, fashioned from tin pie pans mom had saved throughout the year, each with a glowing light in the center.  The piece was magnificent!  In fact, it drew the attention of the neighbors as they commented how creative the piece was and how much light it brought into the display.  He was ahead of his time, because this was in the very early 60's and his creativity that year sparked some pretty awesome creativity among the neighbors the following year!  What dad always did was create a place which was festive, but also very focused on celebrating the reason for our season of celebration - the birth of Christ.  In the display of lights, we always were reminded of how the "first light" was "displayed" in the tiny manger, adorned by the light of a bright star!

The true light that shines on everyone was coming into the world.  The Word was in the world, but no one knew him, though God had made the world with his Word.  He came into his own world, but his own nation did not welcome him.  Yet some people accepted him and put their faith in him.  So he gave them the right to be the children of God.  They were not God’s children by nature or because of any human desires. God himself was the one who made them his children.  The Word became a human being and lived here with us.  We saw his true glory, the glory of the only Son of the Father.  From him all the kindness and all the truth of God have come down to us.  (John 1:9-14 CEV)

We sometimes don't recall these words from the Apostle John as we tell our Christmas stories, but they are nonetheless quite a significant part of the Christmas season!  The "true light" was coming into the world - known by none, though he had been the very one to create all which was in the world, including those who would both accept and reject him.  Those he created would both accept - coming into the fullness of light; and they would reject - pushing light away because it was too convicting, too revealing, or too "hot" for their liking.  The light shone either way - whether we were going to accept it or reject - it shone on everyone.  No one is outside of the reach of this "light" of Christ.  As we celebrate our Christmas holidays this year, I challenge us to remember the purpose of light - it is shed so that which is not easily distinguishable may come into focus.  When light is shed, the things hidden in the mystery of darkness are now plainly revealed.

The most important portion of this passage is the very last sentence:  From him all the kindness and all the truth of God have come down to us.  From Christ, the light of the world, all the kindness of God is brought down to our level.  It never ceases to amaze me that the most holy and divine God would come down to our level in order to meet us right where we are at.  In this act, the truest meaning of service is defined.  It is the laying down of one's own life for the needs of another.  Jesus came down to our level to reveal to us the extremity of God's kindness - his mercy, grace, and tremendous love.  He came to reveal all the truth of God to us - so we'd no longer have to deal with the "abstract" beliefs and rules, but have the "concrete" evidence of his love resident within us.

The very presence of Christ brought light - it brought the revelation of God's grace.  This is what light does - it reveals what we have a hard time seeing apart from light.  Grace is sometimes the hardest thing for us to actually understand because we don't equate the gift of grace with anything we already know about on this earth.  I wonder though if Christ coming as a tiny, innocent babe into this world wasn't a way of us learning a little more about grace.  Perhaps in the innocence of the infant we might just realize that grace comes in small ways - then it grows and grows, until it is mature in us.  We sometimes don't "get" grace until we have more and more light which reveals the depth and breadth of grace! 

If we see our Christmas lights twinkling a little brighter this year, maybe it is because we are reminded of the light of God's grace and truth which is exemplified in those glowing little bulbs!  Just sayin!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

What did obedience cost Mary and Joseph?

As we have looked at the birth of Christ, we have considered the fact he was born of a virgin, with an earthly father so willing to honor God with his life that he married a woman who was already pregnant.  In that day and time, a very taboo thing.  We also saw how the mother of Christ was chosen by God and given the dramatic news that she would carry the Son of God.  Imagine her awe, but also see her tremendous amount of fear as she would have received this announcement, knowing all she knew about the time in which she lived about how a woman out of wedlock showing up pregnant would be treated.  We also explored the lowly birth of Jesus in a stable of sorts, surrounded by animals, visited by shepherds, and then honored by magi from afar.  The announcement of his birth was by angels - start to finish.  Mary heard from an angel (a messenger from God), while Joseph was set at ease by a messenger from God on another occasion - assuring him the thing he was about to do in marrying Mary was going to be okay.  Angels announced his coming to the shepherds in the fields and the Magi heard plainly in a dream of their need to not return to Herod with the news of the locale of the Christ child.  All this "visiting" from heaven's hosts and God's Spirit had such an impact on the events surrounding the birth of Christ, but the story of heaven's "announcements" surrounding his birth were not finished.  On two more occasions, Joseph receives word from heaven, one time from an angel and another in a dream.  Multiple interventions to set hearts at ease, give oversight into the plans God had in using a common man and woman to set things in motion on earth for the arrival of his Son, and the continual protection of the Christ child from those who would have sought to take his life at a very young age.  God still speaks today, my friends.  If not in angels who appear with heralding messages, in the dreams of our hearts and in the quiet of our meditation before him.  We are beckoned to draw near and to listen with hearts open to respond in the same level of obedience as we saw in these examples given for our reference in scripture.

After the wise men had gone, an angel from the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up! Hurry and take the child and his mother to Egypt! Stay there until I tell you to return, because Herod is looking for the child and wants to kill him.” That night, Joseph got up and took his wife and the child to Egypt, where they stayed until Herod died. So the Lord’s promise came true, just as the prophet had said, “I called my son out of Egypt.” (Matthew 2:13-14 CEV)

Imagine your wife being very close to the time of her delivery and needing to make a journey on donkey and by foot, all the way from your home town to the place of the taking of the census.  Today, we have census takers who come to us - but not so in the time of Jesus' birth. The "accounting" was done in a central location, based on one's heritage (lineage).  The travel would have been grueling for any mother that close to term.  The worry this must have caused Joseph as he ushered her along toward the central town of his family line probably was significant.  Yet, he obeys.  If not because God told him to, then because he was a man under authority, who submitted willingly to the authorities in his life.  We could take a lesson here, my friends.  Too many times today, we consider "if" the voice of authority is "worth" listening to and then base our obedience on our "opinion" of that authority's worth. What we neglect to do is remember God has appointed all authority and when the rubber meets the road, we take all that an authority asks us to do and consider it in light of scripture. If it lines up, we do it.  If it does not, we obey God!  This is the example we have with Joseph's actions - he chose to obey the authority God had placed over his life - so he packed up and took his wife on the journey of a lifetime!

Now, the newborn life is in his hands, and he receives a warning to get up, take his wife and child to Egypt - the country his ancestors had fled - to avoid the harmful intent of King Herod.  Jesus was at least 8 days old, but even at this wee age, he was at risk on this journey. It was not a hop-skip-and-jump for the family.  In fact, it was likely about a ten day journey on foot/donkey.  Just thinking about taking a tiny infant, a mother who is only a week or two away from delivery, and probably a little bit of a sleep deprived father on this journey is kind of mind-numbing.  Yet, we see tremendous obedience once again on Joseph's part - he "immediately" got up, packed up the family, and went on the journey.  In fact, he left family and livelihood to do this, for he would have had to make a totally new existence in Egypt. It is highly unlikely that he packed up all the tools of his trade before he headed to Bethlehem for the census taking, so he would have had to start all over in Egypt - a costly venture, to say the least.  In following what God wants of us, there are times when it will cost us dearly - not because God wants to do us in "financially" or in a "material" sense, but because he wants us to trust him with the end result of such obedience.  To Joseph, the material would take care of itself - his concern was for the welfare of his wife and child.  This is often an overwhelming concern of many a new father, is it not?  

It is likely they lived in Egypt for about 4 years, until Herod died.  So, for all this time, Joseph was away from family, as was Mary.  A good deal of time would have been missed with grandparents, aunts and uncles.  Mary and Joseph would not have had the support system most new parents would be afforded in the closeness of family life in New Testament times.  So, this step of obedience was indeed another "huge" step for both Joseph and Mary. It started with trusting God with the revelation of the Son of God coming into their wee family, continued with the need to flee a jealous and fearful King, and continued in exile in a land where they likely knew no one.  Obedience is costly, indeed.  But...the blessings of obedience outweigh the cost any day!  Just sayin!