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Another Merry Christmas

Christmas Mercy

“The tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Luke 1:78-79

I have some questions for Gabriel about the first Christmas season in Luke 1. For instance, what was the look on Mary’s face when God sent him to recruit her? I wonder: Was he startled when God took away Zechariah’s voice when fear replaced his faith? Gabriel witnessed so many supernatural things that first Christmas.

Written over the season was “miracle.” Consider: In God’s timing, He aligned the solar system to provide the Christmas star; Kings worshipped a baby; travelers brought gifts to a feeding trough they didn’t know existed; Elizabeth, barren and beyond child-bearing years, became pregnant and became directly involved in God’s Christmas plan; and poor Zechariah, a whole lot like us, miraculously lost his voice when he didn’t believe angel Gabriel—and then had his voice revived by God when he saw baby Jesus. Father, don’t let these miracles be commonplace.

Of course, the ultimate miracle of Christmas was salvation’s offer: God became a man to offer Himself as the perfect sacrifice for our every sin. Those who trust only Jesus Christ His Son to rescue them are thus removed from God’s wrath, and transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light. Have I heard this so many times it seems ordinary and the power of the gospel is not changing me this Christmas (Romans 1:16; 2:4)?

One other unnatural thing happened that particularly strikes me this Christmas: The socially awkward situation then of a miraculously pregnant teenager and her fiancé is incredibly used by God to bring salvation’s greatest gift. Note how Elizabeth took great interest in Mary; some even believe Joseph was adopted by Dr. Luke. God takes in some needy people, doesn’t He? He makes them not just guests. He adopts them—us—as His family. Adoption has again invaded our family.

Last week, I wrote about our firstborn daughter who was born on Christmas day. This season, our family has another fresh Christmas miracle story to tell. Her name is Haley Jane. As you read this, my oldest daughter and her family are in Florida taking custody of her for the purpose of adoption. She bears the same name of our third-in-line grandchild and—hold your breath—is also six years old and in first grade. Family gatherings are about to be very confusing…

For Haley, her perceived greatest need is for a permanent family. Having lost so much and so many she longs for a home instead of, so to speak, another manger. In the “tender mercy of God” He is adopting her into our family. How breathless we are to praise God for His sweet, life-shaping, affectionate salvation displayed when adopted us into His family, too.

This Christmas, I am astounded by the adopting, tender mercy of God.

Rhea Herald-News, December 23, 2015

P.S. The legal work is completed and Haley is in Georgia tonight with her new family. Aren’t you so glad we are part of the family of God!

 

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Stars and Hair

New Day, December 8, 2015

“He determines the number of the stars; he gives to all of them their names” Psalm 147:4

This morning’s astronomical center stage before the sunrise was a crisp, smiling, crescent moon brilliant co-star, Venus, both accompanied by a cast of luminaries quietly standing nearby. It was as though I could take a giant step and be on stage with them.

And yet they are so far away. Psalm 8 came to mind, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (3-4).

The holy distance and closeness of God stops us in our tracks. Theologians call this His transcendence and immanence. All at once He is immeasurable, inscrutable, and uncontainable, and still He cares about the number of hairs on our heads.

We long for and rejoice in and live for both.

Rain Again

New Day, December 1, 2015

“He made a decree for the rain” Job 28:26

Henry David Thoreau said, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”

This is the third day of rain. Like awkward middle schoolers, we are tempted to respond to constant gray and rain as if we’re holding our square dance partner’s hand for the first time in front of a room full of giggling others. Go ahead and blush as you remember those fateful days.

Rain gets a lot of bad press. But what if our starting point on a rainy day—or yet another wet day—was this: God has not made a mistake. From all the menu items He could have ordered for this new day He directed nourishing, contemplative, cleansing rain to be our main meal.

In context, Job’s word, “he made a decree for the rain,” illustrates wisdom. “Where shall wisdom be found?” he asks. He answers his own question: “God understands the way to it, and he knows its place.”

Rain, then, gives us wisdom to live. It can mock despair and wonderfully remind us of our Creator-God who is at work to display His glory and for our good.

Father, help me to not just look and complain but to see You.

Christmasy?

“But Jesus answered them, ‘You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.’” Matthew 22:29

This column is dedicated to Nancy, my thoughtful relative who sent me a copy of the following letter to an editor. A lot about it bothered her and troubles me, too. How about you, Reader?

Editor:

I am thinking about converting from agnosticism to Christianity, but I have a question: Am I to    understand that as a Christian I can deny basic humanitarian assistance to penniless, homeless refugees from the Middle East, the part of the world that Jesus called home, as long as I demonstrate proper outrage because Starbucks’ seasonal coffee cup isn’t Christmasy enough?

   Jim K., West Reading

Ouch. The letter is a window into how we are perceived by non-Christians.  It stings and makes us mad all at once. Our inconsistencies are showing and it is unpleasant—like underwear peeking out when we bend to pick up a penny. Yuk. I am remembering the famous carton by Poco: We have met the enemy and he is us.

Is Jim K. really interested in devoting his life to Christ or if he just wants to pick on Christians? He expects something of Christians no one on earth can possibly fulfill—perfection without any inconsistencies or hint of hypocrisy. Has he found an excuse to not turn from himself as self-appointed savior and then to follow Jesus? The Bible calls that repentance.  Is he authentic but uninformed or distracted by a social and political issue (refugees) and the silly behavior of Christians over coffee cups? Is there another possibility?

Jim K. errs because he doesn’t know or refuses to accept the good news—the “gospel”—which alone is “the power of God unto salvation” (Romans 1:16). This is Christmas: God’s good news, when received, forgives our sin and invades our life with its exclusive power to transform us. Christ becomes primary, investment in others occupies the important second place, and we deny ourselves and take up a cross-reflecting life. Jim K. observes how we often change the order.

An angel helped a troubled Joseph understand the whole point of Christmas and Christ: “But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:20-21)

Two people especially need prayer this Christmas. Will you pray for Jim K., that he will turn from himself to Jesus Christ to forgive his sins? And then, pray for the rest of us, that we will avoid being “Christmasy” in such a way that the good news of Christ is unreal, unattractive, forgotten, or, worst of all…rejected.

An Autumn Wonder

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“The Mighty One, God the Lord, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting.”

Psalm 50:1

How great are cool and clear autumn sunsets in East Tennessee!

Turkey Wisdom

“Come into his presence with thanksgiving” Psalm 95:2

Our affection for Thanksgiving is real. Lovingly called “Turkey Day,” we call each other “turkey” and make fun of one of the strangest animal faces God created. Imagine a close-up of an ugly turkey face and extra-long neck, and chuckle at the caption: “No matter what happens this month, at least you aren’t a turkey.”

Getting our perspective right is important especially if you are you are going through some troubled times and hope is in short supply. Picture a cartoon with a sad Mr. Turkey. He is asked, “What are you thankful for?” Answer: “Vegetarians.” No matter what anyone says you aren’t a turkey without a future if you are a follower of Jesus Christ.

Join me in some “Turkey Wisdom”—a small list of hugely important thanksgiving biblical theology.

First, there is the obvious but ever-important need for thanksgiving to God. Thanksgiving is a response to God for His goodness to us. The Psalmists talk a lot about God’s works on our behalf. For instance, “It is good to give thanks to the LORD…For you, O LORD, have made me glad by your work” (Psalm 92:4). Trace thanks and thanksgiving through the Psalms and hear God’s story of deliverances, rescues, gifts, joys, and provisions just like yours. “Praise,” someone said, “is the occupation of the soul with God’s blessings.” Chew on that long and slow before the start of family, fun, and football on Thanksgiving. You’ll have a wonderful time of worship.

Second, and even deeper, thanksgiving recalls the nature-character-essence of God Himself. “Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving…For the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods” (Psalm 95:2-3).  An entire life of study could not exhaust the depth of who God is (Psalm 139:17-18). Yet to do so is our privilege, joy, and call. When your mind is most clear, I recommend Psalm 111. Circle the many descriptions of God.

Third, a lifestyle of thanksgiving is protection from idolatry. Yikes! I know you didn’t expect that so catch Paul in 1 Corinthians 10. Using Israel’s Old Testament history as a negative example for us, he says: “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did…Do not be idolaters as some of them were…We must not put Christ to the test…nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer…Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” In the middle is grumbling, and grumbling is a spiritual big deal. It isn’t our human nature to do so; it is our sin nature in rebellion, worshipping the idol of self. Thanksgiving guards our hearts. The Father said, “The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me” Psalm 50:23).

Christmas is pushing its way in prematurely, so this Thanksgiving won’t you open the door to thanksgiving with a full heart before you fill your empty stomach?

The Rhea Herald-News, Thanksgiving 2015

A Place For Us

“I go to prepare a place for you.” Jesus Christ

First, the bad news. We are nervous. Our world seems less safe and many of us again feel a sadness that is rare. Our soul is unsettled and mourning and wondering and maybe, if we’re honest, is fearful. Are you secretly asking: Could the shattered peace of last Friday evening in Paris happen here, too?

With reality smacking us with cold water, the horrific, heartless killings in Paris painfully remind us of Scriptures we can’t ignore: Ruthless spiritual warfare exists; Satan seeks to devour us and is real. These are like a fire out of control and so strong we cannot ignore them again. The Apostle Paul was right, “But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self…proud, arrogant, abusive…unholy, heartless, unappeasable…” (2 Timothy 3:1-3, ESV).

Yet there is good news for followers of Christ. We need some good news, don’t we?

First, we know how the story ends. God has written the last chapters for evil and evil’s prince, Satan. Ultimately, revenge is God’s to administer and He won’t be timid when it is time (This is not to forget a human role in resisting and responding to evil).

Saturday morning after Friday’s carnage I sat with my Bible and began to read the book of Revelation. I settled for a while on chapter 18. It is the final chapter outlining the terrible time of judgments by God toward His enemies. I scribbled a few beginning observations to help me think about it, pray through it, and to follow through in application: heaven has spoken and still rules, horror awaits those who reject God’s authority, and holiness matters. Therein is hope.

Second, Jesus Christ has gone ahead to set up a safe dwelling for us with Him. In His own words He said: “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. 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 14:1-3).

Third, back to Revelation 18. It comes just before the good news portion of Revelation, with the “Marriage Supper of the Lamb,” the return of Christ, the thousand year reign of peace and Christ, and our final home in the new earth. We have a safe future!

Finally, Revelation 18:14 summarizes God’s heart and begs our application: “The fruit for which your soul longed has gone from you, and all your delicacies and your splendors are lost to you, never to be found again!” God longs for a relationship with us that is exclusive and, in perfect love and jealousy, accepts no rivals.

Friends, what does your soul long for?

Rhea Herald-News, November 18, 2015

Mirrors Today

New Day, November 20, 2015

“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” 1 Corinthians 13:12

On a clear morning it is impossible to actually stare at the sunrise when the sun pops up on the horizon. We are unable to take in the sun’s brilliant glory.

This morning, the sunrise was reflected on the trees across the street. For a moment the trunks were colored with a pleasing yellow. They became a mirror of the sun’s brightness. Now bare without their covering of leaves, the trees appear bleached and reflect light starkly and with force.

I thought about the wonder of reflection and its protection for our eyes on earth—and our souls which aren’t yet ready for heaven. I then considered the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who reflects Yahweh, our Father. I longed for Christ’s coming and our living in His presence forever in the New Jerusalem, where my dimmed view of the Lord will turn into rejoicing as we see Him face to face. Knowing—seeing—through a mirror is so incomplete.

I reflected on the privilege, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Father, we see You in the glory of Your Son and, amazingly, we get to reflect Jesus. When will you ask me to reflect Him today? I know around me will be those blinded by darkness and You have privileged me to reflect the Light, Jesus Christ?

Don’t Be a Turkey

We’re on our way to Thanksgiving. Some may suspect the turkeys are scrambling to get away from hunters and butchers. Maybe…they are just trying to find a hide-a-way from all the early Christmas decorations and shoppers. Can’t you see their eyes bugged out and their little legs flying a hundred miles an hour?

I am finding Psalm 107 helpful to not be a turkey this year. This week, chew on these verses: “Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever! Let the redeemed of the LORD say so, whom he has redeemed from trouble…” (Psalm 107:1-2, 7).

There is a striking pattern in the song of Psalm 107. After each of four stanzas of familiar history for Israel, the unnamed song writer sounds the chorus, “Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to the children of man!” (Psalm 107:8, 15, 21, 31).

This week, chew on this principle: Thanksgiving is a primary response in personal times of  worship and in gathered times with other followers of Christ. No other book helps us worship like the Psalms and no other book in the Bible calls us to thanksgiving as often as the Psalms. The Psalmists look at life through the filter of God—not themselves or their troubles. What would happen if we spent more time seeing our glass as half full instead of half empty? This is not pie-and-sky, feel good theology. It is our reality: “If it had not been the LORD who was on our side—let Israel [and all who follow Christ] now say—if it had not been the LORD who was on our side…they would have swallowed us up alive…Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 124:1-3, 8).

Last weekend, Cheryl and I took in the stage production of “Annie” in Macon, Georgia. The most lovely and talented of the orphans was Duffy, played by Adeline, actress and granddaughter extraordinaire…I asked Adeline to name her favorite song and she quickly stated it was, “It’s the hard-knock life.” Sing along, won’t you: “It’s the hard-knock life for us/ It’s the hard-knock life for us/No one cares for you a smidge/When you’re in an orphanage/It’s The Hard Knock Life!/ It’s the Hard Knock Life!/IT’S THE HARD KNOCK LIFE!!!”

I can still see the orphans washing the stage floor while tapping their pails and swishing their brushes in unison at off-beat times to the music. Duffy never missed a cue.

For an orphan stuck in the Municipal Girls Orphanage in 1933, Annie had no real hope of deliverance—of being adopted. But Annie’s future became secure when Daddy Warbucks, immensely wealthy and with a heart captured by a very red-headed, eleven-year-old cutie, adopted Annie.

Followers of Christ, this Thanksgiving don’t be a turkey! Join in the chorus of thanksgiving for our adoption out of the orphanage of sin and despair and into the extravagant, wealthy family of God through Jesus Christ.

Rhea Herald-News, November 11, 2015

A Splash of Wonder

New Day, November 13, 2015

“Stop and consider the wondrous works of God…the wondrous works of him who is perfect in knowledge…” Job 37:14, 16

Today the air is crisp. Otherwise known as invigorating or brisk, it is refreshing and energizing. The air jabs at any exposed skin (I am grateful for a hat for my bald head while I sat on my porch). It is accompanied by a sweeping blue sky and accented by delicate pink clouds. The crispness feels clean and new, like a tongue rolling over freshly brushed teeth.

Crisp is “cool”—as opposed to winter’s cold. Crisp is “cool” (in a delightful twist of language) in the sense of desired, enjoyed, and sought after. Crisp is a splash of wonder, like creation’s joys in the context of Job 37-38…if I will “stop and consider” what God has and is doing.

Crisp is in-between a rainy day and another cool morning; in-between one season and the next. It reminds us: We live in an in-between time. Christ has come to rescue us (Yay!) but He has not finally come to retrieve us and judge the rebellious nations. “In these last days he has spoken to us by his son” (Hebrews 1:2).

Father, teach me to bask in the wonder of Your Son, Creator and Savior, who invigorates my soul with His life and presence in these last days before He comes to usher in His next season.



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