Thursday, December 29, 2016

A Word for the Turning of the Year

As we prepare to end one year and begin another, one word stands out for me: grace.  And the source of grace is God.
Grace defines our past: sins forgiven, brokenness redeemed, grief assuaged, blessings too numerous to count.
Grace defines our future: God, who is already there, holds our lives in His hands and His hands are full of grace.
Grace defines our present: “My grace is sufficient for you”—anywhere, for anything, all the time (2 Cor. 12:9).
Make all the resolutions you want.  Who among us can’t stand some personal growth and improvement: lose weight, forsake a sin, spend time with God each day, exercise regularly, make a new friend, say “I love you” more often to the people you love, begin a new hobby.  Make all the resolutions you want and best wishes in following through.
As for me, I resolve to do some things better too, but I since I know myself so well, I mostly resolve to rest in the grace of God.  John Newton said it best:

Through many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come.
Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Tis the Season to Be Filled with Wonder

Imagine the scene in Bethlehem on that first Christmas: crowded city streets, no vacancy signs on every inn; a crude stable for a maternity ward; a young woman screaming out her labor; her husband counseling deep breaths.  Then, "Push, Mary.  Push!  Just a little more.  I see the head.  Push, Mary, push."  And then the sigh of relief and a baby's cry.  Emmanuel—God with us.  Angels singing in the night.  Good news of great joy which shall be to all people.  Unto us a child is born—the Savior, Christ the Lord.  Shepherds getting the news and hurrying to Bethlehem.  Something's up down in Bethlehem.  And history will never be the same.  Something big has happened here.  Something wondrous. 

We’ve heard it so many times, we’ve lost our sense of wonder at just what God did at Bethlehem.

God—who in humility (God, mind you)
would stoop so low as to visit us in person.
Visiting particular people like Mary and Joseph,
in a particular place like Bethlehem,
reminding us that He comes as well to visit particular persons
like you and me
in our own particular places too.
It is God who visits.  God.

God—through virgin birth—
becoming flesh and dwelling among us—
not merely veiling his divinity with skin,
like Superman wears a business suit and glasses
and pretends to be Clark Kent.
But God actually becoming flesh and dwelling among us.

God Himself—God—in the Person of Jesus Christ—
sharing our passions,
bearing our burdens,
tempted in all ways just like us, yet without sin,
and obedient even unto death on a cross,
where He who knew no sin
became sin for us,
so that we might become the righteousness of God.

And when I consider that in His love and grace He would reach out to even me—a first-class sinner—well, such love leaves me with eyes as big as saucers and mouth wide open.  I can't understand it.  I can't stand up to it.  I am compelled to fall on my face in worship.  And I am filled with wonder.  How could the holy God of the universe care so much for a sinful speck on the earth like me?  Why would He come among us, tap me on the shoulder, give me eternal life, and call me to follow Him?  Why me?  It's nothing less than a wonder. 
When my nephew Matthew was five years old, his family made their way from Nebraska to meet the rest of us for a family Thanksgiving at my mother’s house in Branson.  His parents said that every time he saw Christmas lights—every time—he would get all excited, point to them with great enthusiasm and say, "Look at that!  Hey guys, look at that!"  Didn't matter if a house was lit up like the lawn of Hot Springs National Park or if it was just a string of lights on a window sill—"Look at that!  Hey guys, look at that!"  He was one kid filled with wonder.
Sounds like the message of angels and shepherds one night near Bethlehem, doesn't it?  Filled with wonder and amazed at the love of God, about all they could say was, "Look at that!  Hey guys, look at that!"  I beseech you to look … and be filled with wonder.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Tis the Season to Be Giving

A wealthy Easterner wanted to outdo his Texas cousin in sending a gift to their grandmother.  He purchased a zirkah bird that could speak five languages and sing three operatic arias.  He forked over $25,000 for that unique bird and sent it to his grandmother.  He just knew his Texas cousin would never come up with a gift so unique.  He was on pins and needles all day on Christmas.  Every time the phone rang he just knew it had to be grandma thanking him for his gift.  She never called.  So on the day after Christmas, when he could stand it no longer, he called her.  "Grandma," he asked, "how did you like the zirkah bird?"
"It was delicious!" she responded.
Tis the season to be giving.  But giving in this season too easily gets out of hand.  For far too many, Christmas gift giving has become little more than an annual materialistic orgy.  Lists a mile long.  Debt a mile high.  Greed a mile deep.  Some of us will spend a fortune giving gifts to people who don't need anything because they already have everything.  Others of us will run up charge card bills so high that we'll still be paying off this Christmas next Christmas.  And we have the nerve to attach the name of Christ to this pagan spirit by calling our giving—Christ-mas giving.  I fear that the giving more often than not gets in the way of Christ. 
Some blame the wise men from the East for this tradition of Christmas.  Gold, frankincense, and myrrh were elaborate gifts in those days.  Of course, the recipient was the birthday boy rather than all his friends.  The wise men gave wise gifts that many speculate were used to finance the holy family’s hasty trip and brief exile in Egypt when an angel sent word that Herod wanted to run a sword through their baby boy.  Wise gifts indeed.
Perhaps our best gifts at Christmas would be gifts from the heart: gifts that come with no receipt, gifts that no one will want to return, gifts that are always the perfect size.  Gifts like these …

Call, write, or visit someone who really wants to hear from you.

Play games or do something with your kids
just because you know they want to be with you for a while.

Show up at a nursing home with a checkerboard
and challenge all comers to a game.

Choose someone from the church’s homebound list, drop by, and say, “I’ve seen your name on the list for a long time, and I thought I’d drop by and meet you personally.”  If you’ve got kids, take them with you and
maybe even do a little family caroling while you’re there.

Rake leaves for a neighbor who, for whatever reason,
is unable to get to it this year.

Take the time to encourage a co-worker who appears lonely or down.

Let someone else have the last word for a change.

Give a New Testament to some unchurched neighbors and ask them
how you can pray for them in the Christmas season.

Say something nice to someone you like,
and say something nice to someone you don’t like.

Take time to thank the people who serve you regularly:
like the cashier at the store or the donut shop
or the waitress at a restaurant you frequent.

Talk to someone who has hurt you and say,
“Here’s the present I want to give you: I forgive you.”

Give generously to Angel Tree or the Salvation Army or Toys for Tots
so that those who have no gifts will have something for Christmas—
and then make this kind of generosity a year-long habit
rather than an annual event.

In my Southern Baptist tradition, we like to give a generous offering
to the Lottie Moon Offering for International Missions
so more people in the world can hear the gospel.

Instead of buying someone a tie they don’t need, a sweater they won’t wear, or a trinket that will get tossed in a drawer and forgotten, why don’t you make a donation to that person’s favorite charity in that person’s name and honor. 
That’s a way of multiplying the impact and effect of your giving
and bringing joy to the one in whose name you give.

And then once in a while, set places at your table for those
who would otherwise be alone at theirs.

Do you know anyone who could be blessed by these gifts of the heart?  And  wasn’t Christmas a gift from God’s heart to ours?
A five-year-old girl was all caught up in the excitement of Christmas.  She couldn't wait to see what was in all the presents.  But after yet another round of inspecting each gift under the tree, she noticed something troubling and asked her mom about it: "Mommy, if Christmas is Jesus' birthday, how come there are no presents for Jesus under the tree?"  Her mother tried to explain it, and the little girl seemed satisfied enough.
But on Christmas Eve, just before bedtime, the girl put a package under the tree.  Her mom, knowing nothing about it, asked who the present was for.  "It's for Jesus," said the girl.  "I'm sure He'll like it a lot." 
After the girl was snugly asleep in her bed … while visions of sugarplums danced in her head … the mother decided to investigate this gift for Jesus.  She didn't want her daughter to be disappointed, so she opened the clumsily wrapped package.  Do you know what was in it?  Nothing.  Not one thing was in that box.  "Hmm …" thought the mother to herself.
Soon it was Christmas morning.  The little girl looked first for her package for Jesus.  She was thrilled that it was open and the gift gone.  "Honey, what was in that package anyway?" asked the confused mother.  Said the little girl, "It was a box full of love!"
A box full of love.  Tis the season to be giving.  And heart-gifts like that are what real Christmas giving is all about.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Tis the Season to Be … Changing

I can be a real dud sometimes.  That's right, a dud.  I didn't say dude, with an e, I said dud—just plain old d-u-d.  I'm the kind of guy who doesn't much like surprises.  I like predictability and stability.  I'll wear the same clothes until they're threadbare, the same old pair of shoes until the soles are so worn and the leaks are so bad that I get tired of wet socks and buy another pair—and even then the pair I get will be just like my old ones. 
There's a part of me that likes sameness.  I have no yearning to see new places or take trips to exotic ports of call.  I tell others, "You go, and show me your pictures when you get back.  I like it pretty well around here."  This may be a primary reason I’ve been a lead pastor for 34 years but only served two churches in all that time.  I know it makes me a dud, but I like the familiar.  I could be satisfied eating the same things for supper week after week after week.  I like visiting new restaurants, but there has never been a burning desire in me to try them.  If I've found a place I like, I'm content to go there over and over again where, as you have probably already figured out, I order the same thing over and over again.  And if you ever want to take me out for ice cream, no need to take me to the 31 flavors of Baskin-Robbins because I'll just order chocolate—though at Baskin-Robbins I will occasionally take a walk on the wild side and order chocolate almond.  See what I mean?  I'm a dud.  Just drives Dayna crazy sometimes.
But sometimes … sometimes there is a part of me that longs for newness and change.  I remember when my wife and I were waiting for our first child.  Getting the room ready.  Doing that shower thing.  Getting baby presents.  Picking baby names.  Some of my friends to whom the stork had already paid a visit, told me, "Now a baby will change your life," but well … I was ready.  Our children changed our lives all right, but what wonderful changes!
Babies will change your life for sure.  The Christmas baby, Jesus, has sure changed a lot of lives.  He’s even changed an old dud like me.  Jesus is constantly at work making changes large and subtle in my life even now.  He works to make me more loving, more patient, more forgiving, more humble, more pliable to change.
John the Baptist elbows his way into the Advent season.  And he comes with a message of change: “Repent!  Messiah is on the way!”  Even though Christmas takes our minds to shepherds and wise men, to Santa and elves, John the Baptist finds a way to stick his pointy nose into this season too: “Repent!  Messiah is on the way!”
Maybe in addition to making a gift list this Christmas, we’d be wise to make a “change” list—what might Jesus want to change in me?  Why don’t you sit down with an open Bible and an open mind and reflect on that?  Maybe He’ll point out some sins for which you need to repent.  Perhaps He’ll bring a face to your mind—someone you need to forgive.  There’s a good chance Jesus might reveal some act of ministry or service He wants you to do this season.  But you’ll never know unless you take some time to get off the Christmas merry-go-round and listen to the Lord.
No season is marked by more rituals and more sameness in the celebration than Christmas.  Seems a bit odd to talk about change.  But then that pesky John the Baptist just won’t let us off the hook.  He barges in and, above the strains of Rudolph and O Come, All Ye Faithful, shouts, “Repent!  Messiah is on the way!”  Maybe this is a good time for change after all.  That Christmas baby changed a lot in this world.  I suspect he wants to do some changing in you.  Pray it through and follow His lead.  Tis the season to be changing, you know.