Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Out with the Old, In with the New

Another year has flown by, and the next one is waiting in the wings. At this time of year I like to rewind and review the days gone by, even as I set my sights on the future. Now looking back doesn't mean just 2015; rather, I go clear back to my childhood and survey the trajectory of my life. I find it's a good time to take stock of where I'm at on this terrestrial hike and consider where it will all end up.

My wife thinks I'm morbidly obsessed with death. Of course, she's the one who repeatedly told me she'd be dead by 30, then 40, now 50. But you can't be a pastor, sitting at the bedsides of dying members and preaching scores of funeral sermons, without thinking of your own inevitable demise. That's what Psalm 90:12 is about where Moses prays, "Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom."

I'm in my sixth decade on earth and hoping I have another two, three or four to go. But wherever you may be along life's timeline, it's not a bad idea to stop each New Year, stand back, and look at the flow of your life. Hopefully, doing so, will give us a greater sense of purpose -- where we waste less time and make the most out of the stream of hours God gives us here.

It's also a good time to look at the end before us -- the eternal future that will mark our lives with God in paradise, won for us by Jesus who took our place through His innocent suffering and death. Because He is risen, we will rise to live forever. No, looking at our life and death is not morbid -- not as long as we don't forget the resurrection to come.

Moses ends Psalm 90 with a wonderful plea in verse 17: "Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the works of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!" Remind us, Lord, why we are here. Let us busy ourselves with work that really impacts this world -- through our families, our vocations, and our faith-sharing. Let the compassion of our speech and the impact of our Christ-centered attitude resound in this world, long after we are gone, through our children, and the people we have met along the way.

Prayer for the New Year: Lord God, You have called Your servants to ventures where we cannot see the ending, by paths yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go with good courage, remembering always it is Your hand that leads us and Your love that supports us, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

The New Year is always a good time for fresh beginnings -- or a reestablished commitment to groundwork put down in the year just finished.

Where are you as you "ring out the old" and "ring in the new"?

You can share your thoughts on the Men's NetWork blog by clicking here and telling us your plans for the days ahead.

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Magic of Christmas

A hundred candles flicker in our darkened church as we join to sing "Silent Night" in four-part harmony. Between the fire marshal and the church's insurance company, those magical moments have all but disappeared. But I can still recollect vintage Christmas magic. It takes me back to the smell of candle wax and the urge to pitch the burning taper from my hand once the wax ran down onto my fingers.

Back then, a lot of the Christmas magic was centered in Santa Claus, his eight reindeer (or nine in case of inclement weather), and his magical sleigh. Then I grew a little older and found the thrill, wonder and ecstasy of Christmas hiding beneath bright, shiny wrapping paper. Of course, there was the inevitable disappointment of finding clothes inside, but by high school age I didn't quite mind that as much. I figured maybe the new duds might even help me turn some special eyes when school started again.

In time I found the magic that kids experience left Christmas, especially when my older brothers moved out, got married, and spent some of the holidays with their in-laws, instead of us. Eventually, it was time for me to leave home too, and since dad left us for his eternal home earlier that year, it wasn't the same when I came home for Christmas. That empty spot never did leave.

But then God brought a special woman into my life, and we made a life together. Christmas came with new wonder all over again. Then our son came along, our own little baby through whose eyes we could relive the wonders anew.

Then the cycle repeated itself. The magic of Santa relived, the thrill of the presents and, finally, the disillusionment when he grew old enough to understand it for himself.

But there is one place the magic never really left. That was at church where the ancient carols from centuries ago, the gigantic Christmas trees, the roping, ribbons, lights, wreaths and candles are still in full swing. And then there are those fleeting moments during the reading of the Christmas story when I'm sitting on the Judean hillside, along with the shepherds, listening to the angel's message. And all this preceding the rush to go and find the Christ Child wrapped in swaddling clothes, resting in the manger.

Thinking ahead to future Christmases I know there will be highs and lows. There will be a first Christmas when our son brings his wife (Lord willing) and then later, their grandchildren. And, of course, as age marches on, and friends and family cross the Jordan, and when even my own body weakens and fails with age, I pray that Christmas will never lose its luster.

Never, that is, until twilight sets in, and it's my turn to cross over to where mom and dad are now. That's when the true "magic" of Christmas will finally become clear and unmistakable. I'll stand with Mary and Joseph, with the shepherds and wise men, listening to the song of the angels, gazing on the beauty of God's Son: that eternal Christmas in heaven.

Now there's the real magic of Christmas.

It's only three days away now. Have you considered what this most holy day means for you -- your family -- the world around you?

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Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Saving the Earth

The 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference met in France and came up with something called the Paris Agreement. It is a global statement of intention made by 196 nations concerning the need to address climate change. This is a big issue with strong arguments on both sides, and I will be the first to admit I'm not informed enough to know what, if anything, should be done.

I have heard that climate change is cyclical. Every so many decades or centuries or millennia the world warms up, and then cools down again for another spell. These days human activity seems to be aggravating the situation -- most noticeably through fossil fuel emissions from our cars and industries. This, of course, extends to the roving army of strident activists and politicians jetting all over the globe, urgently warning us of our expanding carbon footprint, not to mention (but I will anyway) the no-small matter of bovine emissions (I think they call them "cow farts").

I don't know how much climate change is due to human actions, or even if climate change is a bad thing -- or all that unnatural -- for that matter. I remember sitting in an undergraduate geography class back in the 80s. The professor showed us a map of Eastern Europe, specifically the Soviet Union. He mentioned how one of that nation's greatest challenges was that the bulk of its landmass was too far north, too cold to be farmable. So its breadbasket was a small region in the south. Now I wondered if that information is still correct. Couldn't it be that parts of the world would actually benefit from a little warming?

The biosphere of the earth, sea and sky is incredibly complex. And I'm not sure our brightest minds are able to accurately gauge the impact our human interactions have on the whole thing. It seems to me a lot of people are running around believing the earth is a closed system with no outside interaction. Consequently, they think that unless we make changes, those changes will never be made. There is no other intelligence overseeing, guarding or protecting our biosphere.

All I can say is that I believe God created the heavens and the earth. And in so doing, I believe He didn't just sit back on the seventh day and say, "My work here is finished. I'll leave it to run itself." No, rather, I believe He holds it all together, even though our sin and short-sightedness have greatly damaged our environment as well as our fellow human and nonhuman creatures living here with us. God gives humanity the responsibility and authority to oversee this planet, and that's for better or worse. But this doesn't mean He isn't actively controlling it, working either miraculously or through the mechanisms He has placed within the biosphere to help clean up our oil spills, or to compensate for increased greenhouse gases.

We have one earthly life to live. As such we owe it to God -- and each other -- to learn as much as we can about protecting our environment, so we don't make matters worse. But we can't forget that God is the Creator and the Sustainer of this creation. At the same time, we need to remember the best we can do is put a bandage on a badly hurt creation. The natural world around us will continue to be subjected to frustration (see Romans 8) and will groan in the pangs of child-birth until Jesus' return. Then, without our agreements, scientists, and global initiatives, Jesus will completely and perfectly restore this biosphere where we will live in glorified bodies, forever enjoying His perfect heavens and earth, dwelling in absolute harmony and delight with Him, with each other, and with His whole creation.

Sound too good to be true?

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Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Getting in the Spirit

This year I've been finding it hard to get into the spirit of Christmas. It seems like it's just too early -- or maybe there's so much yet that needs to get done before I can get into that holiday feeling.

That all changed this past weekend, however. My wife and I drove up to visit our son at Concordia University in Chicago. He sang bass in its annual Service of Lessons and Carols. We went to two of the three services: Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. (If not for work on Monday morning, I think we would have stayed for the third service on Sunday night.)

The music was exquisite, which was my focus during the first service. And the leap in musicianship and ability from high school to college was impressive. Four different choirs, pipe organ, hand bells, and a chamber orchestra presented amazing music.

The second time through I was drawn into the Christmas story, as it unfolded in the service. There were a total of nine readings taken from the Old and New Testaments. Each was followed by an anthem or carol. These gave the audience a chance to dwell on the promises of God, contemplating how He stepped into human history in the person of His Son to fulfill them.

One piece that struck me was sung in German. It began with the four voices singing Isaiah 9:6, "To us a Child is born, to us a Son is given." Then while the lower three voices continued on, repeating this Scripture, the sopranos soared into a German stanza from Luther's incredible hymn "From Heaven Above to Earth I Come," with this line: "To you this night is born a Child, of Mary, chosen mother mild, This little Child, of lowly birth, shall be the joy of all your earth." Hearing it sung in the words of Luther impressed me. I remembered we are all part of this magnificent body of Christ, celebrating together throughout time and eternity.

Another was an extremely sweeping and powerful piece called "Bogoroditse Devo." It was sung in Church Slavonic: "Rejoice, O Virgin Theotokos (God-bearer). Mary full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the Fruit of your womb, for you have borne the Savior of our souls."

At the end we sang "O Come, All Ye Faithful." As the sopranos burst into the famous descant on the final stanza, the combined choirs of Concordia filed out into the aisles and encircled the congregation. As they lit the candles, the house lights dimmed. We were soon surrounded by their white robes and angelic faces, singing the hauntingly beautiful "Noel" by Carl Schalk. I felt like I was sitting among the shepherds in the Judean hillside at night, surrounded by the angel choirs. I didn't want it to end.

Music is truly one of God's remarkable gifts. It draws our hearts and emotions into the text or, it could be said, draws the text into our hearts and emotions. I encourage you to take time during your busy preparations to immerse yourself in the hymns, songs, carols and anthems of the Christmas season at your church. If available, attend a special Christmas concert and let God unfold the birth of His Son -- the marvel of His love -- and the incredible mercy that caused Jesus to leave His throne and become one of us.

How has Christmas music been a part of your holiday celebrations over the years? Are you an avid listener to the beautiful melodies of this wonderful time of the year? Do you like to sing? Do you play an instrument? When was the last time you and a few others went caroling through a neighborhood?

You can share your thoughts by clicking here and telling us about them.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Taking Back Christmas

In my childhood back in the 60s, there was always a tension between the sacred and secular sides of Christmas -- between Baby Jesus in the manger and Santa Claus in his red sleigh. My family celebrated both, but we kept them distinct from each other. Christmas Eve was for Jesus, Christmas Day for Santa. Christmas Eve was all about standing in church singing the classics: "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and "Away in a Manger." I can still smell the candle wax and feel the flickering warmth of the flame on my face as we sang "Silent Night" in the darkened church.

Santa left Christmas Eve to Jesus. He waited until midnight to come down our chimney. Then first thing Christmas morning we opened our packages and started playing until it was time to get dressed for church. Mom insisted on separating Baby Jesus from Santa. I still remember a brief trend where some Christians tried to bring the two together by displaying manger scenes in their front yards with Santa kneeling beside the manger. Mom was totally incensed.

Back then, in my child's mind, I must admit Santa was always bigger than Baby Jesus. Christmas carols and the Christmas story were neat, but they couldn't compete with the presents under the tree -- or the great elf that brought them. But ever since I've grown up, I've struggled to take Christmas back for Baby Jesus.

So I put a magnetic manger scene on my car that reads "Jesus is the Reason for the Season." I smile at bumper stickers that say "Put 'Christ' Back in 'Christmas.'" When greeted in the stores with "Happy Holidays," I am careful to respond with "Merry Christmas!"

But I think it's time we go beyond words, bumper stickers, and what we name the holidays. I want to take back the heart and spirit of Christmas for Baby Jesus. And I want to begin with that favorite activity of men everywhere: Christmas shopping.

Like many men, my attitude toward Christmas came from shopping with my dad. He was one of those guys who let mom do all the Christmas shopping, waiting until Christmas Eve to get the only present she wouldn't: hers. He took the day off, then dragged along all five of us boys. I remember observing that among all those last-minute shoppers there wasn't a woman to be found. It was all frazzled men, dashing through the aisles, frantically searching the picked-over shelves, trying to find a present that told their wives, "See, I put a lot of thought into this present and didn't wait until the last minute to buy it!" (Only later did I realize dad actually had thought this out carefully, and he wasn't procrastinating. He took us out of the house so the big Christmas Eve deliveries could be made to our house: the ping-pong table one year, the console TV another, the pool table a third.)

But I digress ....

My point is this: let's start putting some careful planning into our Christmas buying. Let's be more like our Heavenly Father. He so deeply valued His lost children that He made careful arrangements to send His Son to be born in Bethlehem as our Savior.

And let's reflect something of the love of the Christ Child too. He didn't push His way into the best house, or insist on the finest of cribs. He was content to be born in a lowly animal shelter, and laid in a humble manger. Like Him, we can yield to others when that spot opens in the mall parking lot. We can be mindful of His compassion for others when walking through crowded aisles, and when we're waiting in long lines at checkout time. We can patiently wait our turn with a smile on our faces, loving the preoccupied, pushy strangers who surround us -- the same way the Christ Child loved us and came into a world of selfish, preoccupied people to bring His great salvation.

It seems every year Christmas gets a little more blurry in respect to what people really think about it.

What ideas do you have to take this Christmas back for the Christ Child? You can click here and tell us about them.