Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Just another year?

   Well, it's that time of year again. You know the drill. We all look at the calendar, watching as yet another year comes to a close, looking hopefully toward the year to come.

   If you're anything like me, you'll usually spend a good amount of time between Christmas and New Year's Eve thinking about what you'd like to do differently this year. You'll look at the bad habits you'd like to break, and you'll look at some good habits you'd like to do more of.

   They say that most of the health club memberships that are purchased in this country are sold between late December and early January. While I'm a firm believer in maintaining a healthy lifestyle, I would guess that the vast majority of those memberships fall by the wayside before mid-February. How do I know this? I've purchased a few myself.

   The craziest part is that, as months passed and I wasn't going to the gym at all, I refused to cancel my membership for at least the remainder of the year. Why? Because, in my own twisted little form of self-motivation, I assumed that having to pay every month would eventually frustrate me to the point that I'd return to the gym. Maybe my logic was even more twisted than that. Maybe there were times when I believed that paying the membership fee every month while receiving no benefit from it was the exact punishment I deserved for breaking my New Year's resolution.

   Those of you who are laughing the hardest after reading the previous paragraph are clearly guilty of the same.

   Regardless of whether it's health club memberships, or diet plans, or savings plans, or whatever we see as the most pressing issue in need of being resolved in our lives, our view is usually very narrow. We see a problem, and we want to fix it. We know what the "fix" is, and we resolve to do that very thing.

   More often than not, we make a valiant effort to succeed. We'll usually last for a period of time, and do well with it while the determination remains. But for most of us, we'll eventually fall into the same bad habits we've had before.

   When you think of a resolution you'd like to make this year, what would it be? What's your number one concern heading into the new year? What has been your number one concern heading into previous years?

   Last year at this time, I made a relatively vague, but extremely important New Year's resolution. After experiencing all that I've been through over the past year, I have no choice but to look back and see it as being the starting point.

   I resolved that, last year, I would do everything within my power to move as close to God as I possibly could. I resolved that I would no longer make any excuses for myself, but would instead seek Him out in every aspect of my life.

   Funny thing about making resolutions like that...God hears you when you do.

   What followed for me was an absolute whirlwind of a year, breaking me free from a commonplace, day to day life that wasn't truly living, but which was instead merely existing. I was literally ripped from my comfortable, uneventful, boring little world I had created for myself, and was thrown into a world where nothing was certain, nothing was familiar, and nothing was the same.

   I was brought to a place where - in the very midst of my own confusion, frustration and uncertainty of a life that had seemingly been thrown up for grabs - I was actually being led to accomplish a number of things I had previously believed were nearly impossible.

   What I learned - not merely from head knowledge, but from practical experience - is that, with God, nothing is impossible.

   The only way that I can rightly describe it would be to say that the Lord Himself reached down, picked me up by the scruff of the neck, and then sat me down face to face with Him, showing me in great detail where I was going wrong, what I needed to correct, and in the end, how much He loved me.

   There are two very distinct truths that one realizes when God draws them that close. First, no matter how good, moral, beautiful, intelligent, or talented we may believe we are, we are absolutely nothing without God. Secondly, when we have too high of an opinion of ourselves just before coming face to face with Him, we would be wise to humble ourselves first. If we don't, He has no problem humbling us.

   The man I am today is a completely different man than the one who sat here one year ago. Why? Because it's absolutely impossible to come that close to God without being changed forever.

   Do you want to make a New Year's resolution that will forever change the course of your life? Resolve to move closer to the Lord, to seek Him with far greater determination than ever before, and then wake up every morning, praying desperately to ask Him to show you how. Ask Him to show you His presence in your life, and prepare to be amazed.

   If you do these things, remaining determined to draw more near to God to the best of your ability each day, I can absolutely guarantee that you'll find yourself sitting here at this time next year, being absolutely blown away by the year you have just experienced.

   I don't say these things lightly. Experiencing this type of closeness with God can be terrifying. It can strip us down to absolute nothing. It can bring about changes that we never would've expected, and quite possibly never would've wanted. But in the end, when the dust has settled and the smoke has cleared, we reach a place where see more than ever before, understand more than ever before, and can be blessed by God in way we've never imagined possible.

    For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they?  And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life?  And why are you worried about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin,  yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these.  But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you? You of little faith!  Do not worry then, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear for clothing?’ For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you."  - Matthew 6:25-33


Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Good things in small packages

    "But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people;  for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”  And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

Glory to God in the highest,And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”" Luke 2:10-14
   And with that, the history of mankind would be changed forever.
   The Lord; Creator of all things from the beginning of time, would give a sign to the people, declaring to them the greatest news mankind would ever be given. And what was this sign?
   A baby...in a manger...in a barn. 
   If you're anything like me, it's hard for you to wrap your mind around how the smallest of things - when done the way that God is able to use them - can develop into moments that forever change the course of human history.
   Those were some very dark times in Israel's history. They were occupied by a brutal Roman regime that, not long after this event, had every male child under two years of age brutally murdered in an effort to kill Jesus before he could ever be referred to as "King."
   I'm quite certain that many of those who were devoted to God during that time prayed regularly, asking Him to destroy this evil empire that was oppressing them. From what had been written in the scriptures, they believed that the "Messiah" who was to come would be a mighty warrior who would destroy the enemies of Israel and lead their nation into greatness once again.
   They, like most of us, had an extremely limited vision of what God had in mind for His people. Since the Romans were the enemy that was currently oppressing them, they saw their deliverance from Roman rule and authority as being the very highest priority, and they believed that surely this is what the prophecies spoke of when describing this "One" who was to come.
   But He didn't come onto the scene as a warrior. He came as a baby...in a manger...in a barn.
   And He didn't come to free them from the Romans, but instead from a far greater enemy; one who would oppress and attack every single person on the planet throughout the history of mankind, doing everything within his power to keep us from knowing the magnificence and beauty of being given a life that can be used by the Lord Himself to change the world around us in ways we never dreamed possible.
   We can get lost sometimes looking at the biggest problems we seem to be facing at the moment, can't we? The problems we face within our own lives can completely destroy our ability to step back and look at the big picture. They can leave us feeling absolutely hopeless at times, entirely drained of the joy we're supposed to be experiencing from our walk of faith.
   During those times, when you're feeling as though everything seems to be crashing down around you, how do you look for God? How do you expect to find Him?
   I'll be the first to confess that I sometimes have a very hard time waiting upon God. I become impatient when I can't seem to see any progress. I'll read verses like Isaiah 40:31:
"Yet those who wait for the Lord
Will gain new strength;
They will mount up with wings like eagles,
They will run and not get tired,
They will walk and not become weary."
   ...and I'll say to myself; "Alright...well...I've been waiting for...like...five hours. Nothing has happened. I need to strap these wings on myself and jump off of this cliff already."
   Maybe it's not five hours. Maybe it's five weeks, or five months, of even five years, and still, nothing has changed. What then?
   It's then that I need to step back and look for God in the small things.
   It's then that I need to just take the next step, making sure that step is the right one. After that, I'll take another. Do I know which one of my steps is the one that the Lord will use in ways I never imagined possible? Do I know how He is weaving all of those seemingly meaningless steps into a glorious tapestry I never would've imagined? No.
   All that I know is this:
   He changed the entire course of human history with a baby...in a manger...in a barn.
   Wherever you are in your life, don't lose hope. After all, God often works through the little things, and not one little thing you do in following Him goes unnoticed by Him. Our God is the God of miracles. Take one more step of faith. Believe for one more year, one more month, one more week, one more day, or even just one more hour. Take the next step, whatever you believe is the right step to take, and then take another one. Only God knows where all of those steps will eventually lead.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

What's in a Christmas carol?

   Of all the Christmas carols I've heard throughout the course of my life, I believe that "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" is one of my favorites. I've never known why, other than I've always thought it was a beautiful song.

    As I looked at the song more carefully, what I found were the words of a man who was calling upon his God to draw near, while at the same time, encouraging his people that they have not been forgotten by that same God. It not only looks back to the very birth of Jesus Christ, but also looks forward to His eventual return. For those of you who aren't aware, the name "Emmanuel" is translated "God with us."

"O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice ! Rejoice !
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan's tyranny ;
From depths of hell Thy people save,
And give them victory o'er the grave.
Rejoice ! Rejoice ! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel."

   Is there a depth of emotion and meaning behind these words which is far deeper than you had imagined?

   Looking at the remainder of the lyrics, it is a soulful cry of a man who's looking out at the world around him, and sees a very deep need for God to move within it - first bringing salvation to the individual, and second to free the world from the evil we find within it.

   When we look at the world around us, do we not see the very same thing? We're being told that we're becoming so much more "enlightened," and yet - at the same time - the vast majority of us would agree that world as a whole seems to be spinning completely out of control. Evil - however you care to describe it - seems to be increasing - not decreasing as one might expect to find with the world becoming more and more enlightened.

   As Christians, we believe that the only way this world will be set right again and find real, genuine, lasting peace, will be when Jesus Christ Himself returns to set it right. We believe this will occur, and we don't apologize for that belief. We look forward to it. We yearn for it.

   I fully understand how someone who doesn't share those beliefs would have the impression that any group of people who are sitting around waiting for some mysterious God to appear and make things right again must be delusional at best.

   I would ask those who have that opinion one question: When you look out at all of the chaos, mayhem, and evil going on in the world right now - When you look at all of the hunger, starvation, sickness, and disease - When you see all of the war, bloodshed, and injustice that surrounds us, wouldn't you love to believe that there really was a God who's plan was to return someday and make all things right again?

   So, if we do believe that Jesus will return at some point in order to set things right, what should we do in the meantime? Are we to sit on our hands, shaking our heads and pouting over how bad things appear to be? No.

   As Christians, we are to do what we were called to do from the very beginning. We are to be the light of the world. We are to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless. We are to love those around us. We are to forgive. We are to offer hope to the hopeless. We are - in short - to be the reflection of the very image of Christ in the midst of a very dark, dangerous world.

   When Jesus walked the earth, the crowds flocked to him. They came from miles away to hear him speak, to be taught by him, to be healed, and to be freed from whatever might have been oppressing them.

   What if we - while waiting for His return - became that very same thing to the people around us? What if we - like the writer of this song did - called upon our God to make His presence known in the lives of others, while at the same time reassuring them that they have not been forgotten?

   What if we - in the midst of all of the madness - were able to bring comfort to those around us by simply reminding them of the words spoken to them by Jesus Himself?

  “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

O come, O come Emmanuel.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

What we don't know...

      Can you think of anything being a greater test of a child's desire to be good rather than bad than being asked to go to bed on the night before Christmas, and to then stay there through the entire night, not climbing out of bed to take a quick peek under the tree and maybe peel the corner of the wrapping paper off of one or two gifts?

      Worse yet, how do the early risers among us resist the temptation to start opening their gifts before anyone else is awake? I say that a purer form of self-control does not exist anywhere on the planet.

      If any of you were like me as a child, you became pretty crafty within the month of December, looking in closets, under beds, and anywhere else you thought that your gifts might be hidden before being wrapped. And if you were anything like me, you also remember how different opening those gifts felt if you had already somehow discovered what they were. Sure, you may still have been happy about what you had received, but the vast majority of the excitement was gone. At that point, tearing off the paper became more of simply going through the motions than anything else.

      Again, if any of you are like me, you'd have to admit that you sometimes approach your walk of faith much the same way as you would a pile of presents, stacked neatly under the tree on Christmas morning.

      You see, we sometimes like to have our walk of faith - and the events that will occur within that walk - to be stacked neatly in front of us. We want to know what all of them are before they are opened, and we want to open them in the order we believe they should be opened. We want all of them tied up in neat, tightly wrapped packages with a bow upon them. We don't want to see any loose ends. We don't want to see any messy packages. Most of all, we want every one of them to make us feel happy, joyful, and blessed as we open them.

      In Luke 1, we read the story of Mary being met by the angel Gabriel to inform her of the Lord's plan for Jesus to be born of her. At that very moment in time, it was as though an enormous pile of gifts were placed before her, all of which were to be opened at the appropriate time. While a few of the major details were explained, there was far more that she simply didn't know. Some of what she would be asked to open would cause her more pain and heartache than most of us have ever experienced. Her faith being what it was, she accepted all of it as the good and acceptable will of God, and was then obedient in all she was told to do.

      While it can only be mere speculation on my part to do so, I can't help but to wonder if she would've still agreed had she been informed of the incredible heartache she would experience 33 years later.

      As I think about the many different stops of faith my own walk has led me through, I wonder how many of those packages I would've joyfully ripped into had I known what I would find inside. Had I been allowed to peel the corner of the paper back before the time had arrived for me to open some of those packages, would I still have opened them, or would I have tried to hide them under the tree, or changed the name tag so somebody else would be forced to open them?

      Speaking for myself, I can look back over the course of my life and see many "packages" I was eager and excited to open, only to be badly hurt or disappointed by what I found inside. I can also look back and see many packages I would've wanted no part of, but which were ultimately used by God to change for the better who I was as a follower of Christ.

      To some extent, I believe that we all want to know how many of the events we'll face in life will turn out before we decide whether or not we want to open those packages. But more often than not, the beauty can only be found when we don't know - when we open what's been placed before us with great expectation and excitement, because we know that all we've been given comes from the Lord, and whether we can see it now or not, "we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose."  - Romans 8:28

      You see, as much as we'd like to peek into the future, it's almost always better that we simply don't know, because it's only then that we can walk in genuine faith, and as we were intended to do so, one day at a time, being obedient in our walk, and fully trusting the Lord with the final outcome.