Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A Man's Man

Many people have a bucket list of things they want to do before they die. I have a list for after I die. Mainly, it involves the people I want to see when the Lord takes me home.

For one, I'm looking forward to catching up with my loved ones whom Jesus has brought home. It will be amazing to see Mom and Dad in glory, especially when my last memory of each is marred by the ravages of their cancers.

Next, I'd like to spend some time gazing at the angels in heaven. Apart from the Baby of Bethlehem Himself, nothing fascinates me more about Christmas than the angel hosts proclaiming His birth to shepherds and glorifying God in chorus.

Third, I have a list of people from the Bible I'm eager to meet: Mary and Joseph, to be sure, along with the shepherds and wise men. But one man who has always intrigued me is John the Baptist. I'm eager to look him in the eye and thank him for the impact he's made on me.

To me, John was a man's man. First, he lived out in the wilderness, eating locusts and wild honey. Then he took on the tough job of preparing stubborn, self-righteous people for a Savior they saw no need for. This included challenging proud Jewish religious leaders like King Herod, whom he called out for taking his brother's wife as his own, even though he risked imprisonment and execution to do so.

It was probably inevitable that such a strong man of God would be a magnet for young men moved by the Spirit to faith. A group of disciples attached themselves to John, and were so jealous for his sake that they got upset when Jesus began drawing the crowds away from their teacher.

It's John's humble reaction then that I admired most. He likened Jesus to a groom and himself to that groom's best man. "The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom's voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease" (see John 3:29-30). John knew Jesus was his God and Savior, and He deserved all the attention. That's what truly great men of God always do, lead people to the only One who can save them: Jesus Christ, God's Son, our Savior.

But this wasn't the first time John rejoiced greatly in the presence of his Lord and Savior. Mary had just been visited by the angel Gabriel, and Jesus had recently been miraculously conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and was beginning to grow in her womb. She rushed off to visit John's mother Elizabeth and his father Zechariah. John was still unborn at the time, six months along in his mother's womb. But the moment Mary greeted Elizabeth, the Holy Spirit filled him, and he leaped with great joy in the presence of the Son of God, his Lord.

We can all know that same thrill and great rejoicing this Christmas as the Holy Spirit of God brings us again to gaze upon the Christ Child in Bethlehem's manger.

Actually, that makes me want to redo my bucket list for heaven. Before I talk to John the Baptist, admire the beauty of the angels, or see my parents, I want to feel that wondrous awe of gazing upon the beauty, glory and majesty of our Holy God -- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

What's on your bucket list? You can tell us by clicking here!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Comings and Stirrings

How is the Christmas shopping going? Mom was always pretty organized when I was a kid. Dad? That was a different story.

When I was a kid, Dad always waited until December 24th to go out and buy Mom's Christmas present. He took the day off from work, piled us five boys in the station wagon, and headed downtown to look in the storefront windows and decide what to get for Mom.

For the longest time, I thought Dad was a big procrastinator. He must have hated shopping, and only went out begrudgingly at the last minute because he knew "If momma ain't happy, ain't nobody happy." It seemed he had to be against the deadline before he could stir the interest, patience and energy to go out and brave the crowds.

I know better now.

I know Dad had his present for Mom picked out weeks ahead. The only reason he always waited until the 24th was because he and Mom were in cahoots. Each year they bought our family one big present and scheduled it to be delivered on December 24th -- while all of us were downtown with Dad.

One year that plan went slightly awry, however. That year Mom and Dad came rushing in the room, "C'mon on, put on your coats and gloves. It's time to go shopping. Hurry!" They hustled us off into the car, and away we went. Later on I learned the delivery truck had come earlier than expected. Mom asked them to drive around the block while Dad hurried us to the car at the last minute.

Mom and Dad each reached their heavenly home many years ago, but I still smile to think of the care and great effort they took to make our Christmases so special.

During the Sundays leading up to Christmas, the great church prayer (the Collect) begins with the words "Stir up." The first Sunday we asked Jesus Christ to stir up His power and come with all His angels to judge the world, drive out every evil, and bring us home forever.

Sometimes it seems that Day will never come, like He's sitting on His heavenly throne procrastinating, delaying until the last possible moment. But God has it all planned out. He's waiting for just the right time -- His time -- to rise from His throne and come down to judge us, save us from sin and death, and bring us to live with Him forever.

But then, we need to be ready for His coming, so this past week we prayed, "Stir up our hearts to make ready the way of Your only-begotten Son." We often procrastinate too. We need Him to remind us of our sin and our need for His salvation so that we can celebrate His birth, life, death and resurrection.

Many generations have come and gone since Jesus made that promise to return in glory, and we have no idea if Jesus will come in our lifetimes or many generations down the road.

But we can ask God to make us ready in either event, and we pray our Lord Jesus will find us faithful, watching and ready, whether His return or our own death comes first.

Christmas is such a momentous time of the year. How do you honor the Christ's coming while keeping your heart tuned to His pending return? You can tell us by clicking here!

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Traveling toward Bethlehem

Monday morning I was on my way to drop my son off at school when I passed a Catholic church. In the front yard just beyond the sidewalk were figures: Joseph was guiding a donkey, and Mary was riding on its back. A few hundred feet down the road stood the little town of Bethlehem. I thought how unique that is.

Normally, when manger scenes are set out, all the characters are in place from the start. Mary kneels at the foot of the manger, and Joseph stands behind it. The Christ Child rests on the hay. The shepherds are there, leaning on their staffs, with sheep at their feet and lambs across their shoulders. Included also are the wise men, standing or kneeling with their gifts. Camels are present with other animals too, and an angel hovers above them all. This kind of Nativity is more like a picture postcard: static, unmoving. The figures stay in position until Christmas is over, and the set is put back in storage.

But the scene I passed that morning is dynamic, breathing the very life of that first Christmas. It carries us back to a living, vibrant moment in time, the most pivotal period in all of human history. Mary and Joseph traveled down from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and Jesus traveled along with them, as He grows in Mary's womb.

The distance between Joseph and Mary and their Bethlehem destination makes me wonder what that Catholic congregation will do in the coming weeks. Will they move Mary and Joseph a little closer each day or week? Will Mary and Joseph reach the city on the 24th? Will baby Jesus be in the manger that night? Will a bright star appear over the streets of Bethlehem? Will the shepherds show up a few hours later? Will the wise men begin their travels along the sidewalk, following that guiding star?

Once again my thoughts remind me that Jesus came into this world in a definite time and place. But He didn't come to stay in that manger. He grew up and moved on -- the same way each of us passes from childhood to adulthood. And in that growing the Savior experienced first-hand what our lives are all about.

Of course, He didn't need to become human to know what it is like to live as a human on earth. As the almighty Son of God on His throne in heaven, He knew human life better than any of us. But the fact that He actually came and lived out that life changes the picture dramatically. I often find myself doing things that seem insignificant or unimportant: the endless chores, the trivial tasks to be done at work or at home. But Jesus did the same kinds of things in His life. His life gives those moments in our lives honor, dignity and great significance.

But Jesus did one thing we can never do: He lived His life perfectly as our Substitute. And He suffered the punishment we deserve for all our failings and sins when He died in our place on the cross. The human passage of His birth, childhood, life, suffering, death and resurrection transformed all our paths, opening for us the opportunity to live forever with our God in His glory.

Like Mary and Joseph, each of us is on a journey through life. We may be walking that path with a few close friends, or all alone. But we're never really alone; Jesus Christ travels that road with each of us.

The Christmas story is one that changes everything for each of us. What does Christmas mean to you? You can tell us by clicking here!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Not Feeling Very Thankful?

Some Thanksgivings arrive during life's good times, finding us in the middle of exciting new relationships or new jobs, or we may be enjoying restored health or some newfound prosperity. In other years the tide may have turned. That's when financial struggles, unemployment, underemployment, health issues, broken relationships, or the loss of a loved one may be the norm. To be sure these difficulties can make holidays tough. And of all the holidays, it may well be that Thanksgiving is worst of all, especially when it feels like there's nothing to be thankful for.

If that's the case for you this year, I invite you to step back in time, to October 3, 1863, to be exact. Welcome to the Civil War. Here, delivered midstream in that bloody conflict, are the words of President Abraham Lincoln:

"The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.

"In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and provoke their aggressions, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict; while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.

"Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

"No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

"It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people. I do, therefore, invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.

"In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United Stated States to be affixed.

"Done at the city of Washington, this third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States the eighty-eighth."

Abraham Lincoln

Thankfulness and humility before "our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens" -- now those are words to remember. What are your thoughts on President Lincoln's establishment of a national day of "thanksgiving and praise"? You can tell us by clicking here!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Happily Ever After?

I enjoyed fairy tales when I was young. I don't think I'm alone on that because those same stories continue to be passed on from generation to generation -- even turned into TV shows and feature films. Why so popular? Because in the end they all live happily ever after. But experience teaches us that's not how real life works. Throughout our lives we will continue to struggle with various problems: sorrow and heartbreak, financial struggles, relationship problems, sickness and, finally, death. Whatever we may have thought as kids, fairy tales don't come true.

Or do they?

When I was a senior in high school, there was a popular book entitled, Is there Life after High School? Though I never read it, I did ponder the question. I thought life after high school would be golden, filled with loads of good stuff, you know, happily ever after stuff. I'd have no more homework, no more class schedules, no more curfews.

But I discovered life after high school was work, and rush-hour traffic, and uncertainties. Then came college and a whole new set of hurdles to jump. Each time I've crossed a threshold from one phase to another, I've found the new phase was never quite as golden as I thought it would be. Finishing college, taking my first job, watching my bride walk down the aisle, sitting in the birthing suite and hearing the doctor say the baby is on his way -- those new phases are full of promise and joy, but they aren't happily ever after.

I expect the same thing will be true in the remaining phases of my life, as in when my son goes off to college next fall and -- if God is willing -- I see retirement, and the closing years of my life. Each phase will have plenty of troubles, trials, tears and frustrations of its own.

So, the fairy-tale ending is not realistic, at least not for this life. But what if we step back and look at the broader picture? What happens after death?

In a week and a half we'll be into another Advent season, and then Christmas. We'll talk about a young virgin girl named Mary, and Joseph, her betrothed. It was during this betrothal separation that Joseph discovered Mary was pregnant, and learned in an angelic dream the baby was none other than God's own Son.

Centuries ago, betrothals were different than our contemporary engagements. A betrothal was a binding, legal commitment. It was more like a wedding than an engagement. The husband and wife remained apart, living with their parents until the wedding feast. During that period of separation, the husband established his career and prepared a home for his bride. Finally, when everything was ready, he came for her. They celebrated a lavish marriage feast, and he took her to live with him in their new home.

The night before Jesus died, He made a fairy-tale promise that picked up this betrothal language. "In My Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to Myself, that where I am you may be also" (John 14:2-3).

This betrothal language dovetails very nicely into the fairy tales I enjoyed as a child. God the Father is our Heavenly King. Jesus Christ is His Son, our Prince Charming. All of us as believers are the Cinderellas He raises from the dust to live with Him in His Kingdom.

On Judgment Day Jesus will return to take us home, and then, with glorified bodies, we will live happily ever after in our Heavenly Father's house.

So, when you think about it, your life really is a fairy tale; we just won't get to that "happily ever after" part until Jesus returns to take us home. I think Paul had that fairy-tale ending in mind when he wrote, "I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us" (Romans 8:18).

A fairy-tale ending, that's not quite what we expect from this life, is it? You can tell us what you think by clicking here!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Judgment Day Is Near

Tension is building in St. Louis. Shop owners in Ferguson are boarding up their stores. People across the county are stocking up on essentials. Schools and businesses are making plans to minimize damage. Commuters are checking alternate routes in case the interstates are shut down. I've heard one rumor the Missouri National Guard has reserved a hundred hotel rooms downtown. On social media pages people have posted pictures of National Guard helicopter formations flying up from the south and tanks sitting on trailers in fast food parking lots. It feels like Judgment Day is drawing near.

What's all the fretting about? The grand jury in the shooting death of Michael Brown is nearing a decision on whether to charge Darren Wilson, the police officer, with a crime or not. Many expect the officer will be acquitted, and that could launch another wave of protests, possibly violent. I've heard law enforcement officers are moving their families out of town, and there are even rumors that attempts will be made to ambush law enforcement officers.

It reminds one of Matthew 25:13, where Jesus warns, "Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour." We don't know what day or hour the grand jury's decision will be released, and we certainly don't know what day or hour our Lord will return.

While we await the grand jury's decision, many people in St. Louis are working hard to be peacemakers. They are encouraging protestors to remain peaceful, to find non-violent ways to express their opinions. They want to avoid the looting, gunfire, fire bombs, and other malicious acts that characterized the first days of the Michael Brown protests in August. Sad to say, the shooting and the tumultuous aftermath have made the town of Ferguson a household name around the world.

It seems to me that is what Jesus was doing the last days before His death on the cross. He was warning of God's coming judgment, alluding to the angel armies that would come to subdue all opposition to God and bring each sinner before God for judgment. Jesus and His church are busy warning us of that day, pleading with us to turn from our sins and selfishness, and recognize God's righteous judgment. He is inviting us to find salvation by trusting in His promise of forgiveness for Jesus' sake. That's why I give thanks for God's peacemakers, especially His Son Jesus Christ and all who share the good news of what He has done for us all.

So, in St. Louis, we'll spend these days praying and trying to encourage peace as we await the grand jury response. But here and all around the world we have another Judgment Day to prepare for. May we be busy warning others of God's pending judgment, and encouraging everyone to find peace with God through Jesus Christ our Savior.

The situation in Ferguson and greater St. Louis is a touchy one. You can share your thoughts on this matter by clicking here!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Campaign Season

I shuddered when I wrote that title. I'd much rather write about children trick or treating, or the beautiful autumn leaves blowing across the highway outside my window. The best thing I can say is it's all over, at least for the next few months. Of course, with 2016 comes a presidential election, so I'm afraid our respite will be short-lived indeed. Before long, new candidates will be popping up, and the frenzy of campaigning and media coverage will start all over again.

I find it depressing to think of modern campaign tactics: all the negativity, the politics of fear, the misinformation, and half-truths. Back in the '60s when I was a kid (that's right, back when we walked to school, uphill, both ways; no, we weren't the ones who had to wear trash bags over our feet; that was our parents), politics seemed a more noble game, a little more civil. Candidates spoke more eloquently about the positive changes they would make; they showed respect for their adversaries. Throwing mud at other candidates was classless, a sign of desperation.

Sure, it was all probably naïve, contrived and artificial. But at least I had the impression I didn't have to hold my nose to vote, reluctantly pulling the lever for the lesser of two or three evils. Campaign seasons -- and the elections that follow -- now give me the impression we're just putting a new crop of horrible, self-interested people in office because, well, that's all we have to choose from.

I wonder if that's why the U.S. Congress typically has such low public approval ratings. Maybe that's why government comes across as a necessary evil.

The apostle Paul once wrote a letter to the believers in the Washington D.C. of his time. In Romans 13 we read, "Rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer" (Romans 13:3-4).

I love that phrase: "He is God's servant for your good."

In this month where we pause to give thanks for God's gifts to a broken world, I want to start by giving Him thanks for our government. No, it isn't perfect. We have imperfect people doing imperfect jobs --just like me trying to do mine. But God has a very important purpose for our government: maintain law and order and thwart those who would bring disorder, crime and chaos. A government for the people can offer its citizens the chance to live peaceable lives, a society where they can follow their beliefs freely in a society without restriction.

I'll enjoy our short respite from campaign ads, and give thanks for all God does for us through our government. And I encourage you to join my prayers that God will uphold our leaders, guide them to just decisions, protect them from vanity and deception, and give them clarity and purpose.

Please share your thoughts about our government and the election process. You can post your thoughts here: click here!