On Call

I have respect for people who are on-call for their work.  Be it to answer a question or to actually go in and fix a problem, being on call takes a certain level of dedication that goes beyond whatever monetary compensation is involved.  I have to believe that staying at the campfire (I wish) is more appealing than going to repair an air conditioner in a dormitory or that staying wrapped in the blankets (like today when it is 5 degrees above 0 outside) has a bigger upside than re-starting a furnace at a local business.  But agreeing to be on call means you are willing, no matter the circumstances, to go do what is required of you.

Though being on call requires a level of commitment, a true follow of Jesus Christ is called to an even higher purpose.  Followers of Christ are to be always ‘on call’  It’s not like waiting for something to break that needs your fixing, rather your life is to be 24/7 for the cause of Jesus Christ.  A disciple of Jesus is to be sharing the love of God will all, everywhere.  To be on call in this way, however, you must first respond to being called.

Make no mistake, the call of Jesus will not be subtle.  Our response should not be either.  I love the clarity of the ‘first responders’ to the call of Jesus found in Matthew 4:19-22.  This account tells us Jesus first came upon Peter and his brother Andrew and then the sons of Zebedee, James and John.  To each set of brothers Jesus presented a challenge: trade in your old life that you know so well and step into the unknown with me.

All four brothers immediately responded by following Jesus.  What a step they took! The bible tells us that these men were fishermen, working for their livelihood on the sea, just as their father did.  In fact, James and John were with their dad when Jesus first approached them.  I think it is very important to grasp the gravity of the decision these four young men made.  They literally dropped what they were doing to cast (pun intended) their lives with this new teacher on the scene, Jesus.

What was it that made them take this life-changing step?  Jesus was just starting on his earthly ministry when He invited these guys along.  The bible records no miracles prior to this time, merely stating that Jesus began preaching after He was baptized by John the Baptist.  The calming of the storm, the feeding of 5,000 and the many recorded healings were yet to occur.  So, what was it that caused Peter, Andrew, James and John to drop everything to answer the call of Jesus?

The bible gives us no clear-cut answer, only that these men didn’t hesitate when called.  Therein lies the timeless truth for all of us.  Jesus called, they responded positively.  Obviously, the call to individual Christians is different today than it was when Jesus reached out to His first disciples.  What needs to be the same is our heart position.  We have a great advantage over those first four in that we know how the ministry of Christ played out.

I have to wonder that if they had a better idea of what they were getting into, would they have left everything they knew so quickly.  If Jesus had said, “Come follow me for three years of nomadic living, with plenty of persecution and threats to your safety, after which time I will be put to death and you all will be scattered and left wondering what to next,” would they still have so eagerly have said yes?

Regardless, jump at it they did, going all in from the start.  How about us? What is holding us back from answering the call of Jesus? Is it the uncertainty of what lies ahead? That is certainly a valid concern.  Allow me to share my wrestling with that question in hopes it may give you some clarity and encouragement in your own decision.

As I have shared before, my journey into alcoholism ruined my family financially.  By God’s grace, once I accepted Jesus as Savior my recovery began.  Then God, in His providential care, set a chain of events in motion that allowed me to get out from under the mountain of debt I had brought on us.  Furthermore, I was blessed to learn a trade during this process which allowed us even more financial stability.  While I was aware and gave thanks to God for His blessing, I was also aware of (but trying my best to ignore) a tug on my heart that was calling me to something else.

Being honest, I knew it was God calling me to full-time ministry, yet I was able to rationalize my not responding by telling myself that we have bills to pay, the kids need college, I’d like to buy a house, etc.… Thankfully, God is as persistent as He is patient.  Understand that Betsy and I had been active-church going folks all this time.  We played and sang with worship teams, led bible studies and even preached occasionally.  God was working on us.  We started a home church, going through the long legal process to make everything proper (www.lakesidechristianministries.org if you would like to check it out) and became even more active in serving in our community for Jesus.  Still, a sense of missing what God had planned for us was still there.

I wrestled with the same basic argument I had for years: I want to do more for His kingdom, but this working 50 hours a week as a painter (plus the commute) didn’t allow enough time for it.  As we prayed and talked about this we began to wonder, is this what Peter and the others felt when Jesus called them? Maybe, just maybe, this was what faith in action was to look like.

My wife and I are financially conservative people; a result no doubt of my riotous wasting of our resources in that past life.  We carefully looked at our home budget, checking to see if this change to one income was plausible.  This was not my most faith-filled period, as initially I decided it just couldn’t be done.  Those two sets of brothers in Matthew Chapter 4 might have jumped at the invitation of Jesus, I somehow felt I needed more assurance.

God gave it to me.  No, not in the form of some financial windfall, but rather in the peace that only He can give as together Betsy and I sought Him out through prayer and felt His assurance that we could trust Him in this matter.  At the end of this two year period soul-searching, and feeling more than a little like the prodigal son (again), I handed in my notice to my employer that I would be leaving there to pursue what God has in store us.  It should be noted, for God’s glory, that on the very day I tendered my resignation, our ministry received an anonymous donation of $1,500! God wanted me to really understand that He did have this all under control.

Fast forward to today, one and a half years later, and I can better appreciate what Peter, Andrew, James and John did when Jesus called them.  It is also much easier to relate to the feelings they must have had as to what lies ahead.  Like them, I find following the call of Jesus still presents questions and wondering as to the particulars of what we get involved with.

My takeaway is this: As precious as I am (and so are you!) to God, there is nothing so special about my circumstances (or yours) that He cannot handle.  I trust Him completely for salvation, I am learning all the more to trust Him as well in the day to day aspects of life lived for Him.  My advice to anyone contemplating the call of God on their life is to answer it! Yes, allow yourself the time necessary to seek out His direction through prayer, but jump in when He calls.  The peace that comes from whole-hearted trust in God cannot be measured.

 

Happy Birthday to me from the NYS DMV!

 

I received a reminder from the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles several weeks ago that it was time to renew my driver’s license by my birthday this year.  Actually, I was grateful for the heads-up, as I don’t have much cause to look at my license these days and may well have missed this date altogether.  Having not been pulled over for a driving infraction or seldom writing personal checks that need an ID, I rarely use it.

I dutifully went to our local DMV office last week with all the necessary forms. (note to self: double check this before leaving the house, it may help having to avoid wait in line twice!) Finally, with everything updated and paid for, I was given a temporary copy of my new license.

I looked it over to confirm all the information was correct and noticed a check mark under the category of ‘Restrictions’ and a capital letter B.  Turning it over, I found the key explaining the B meant I need corrective lenses to operate a motor vehicle.  That must be why the nice clerk had asked me if I needed glasses when I drove.

I spared her the long story and said yes.  You, dear reader, won’t be as lucky! My eyesight went bad when I was barely 10 years old, so into the world of nerdy frames I went.  Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful for the professionals that give care to our eyes as well as the technicians who craft the lenses to each patient’s individual ocular needs, as I have needed these corrective lenses ever since.  Through all the style changes, from aviators to micro frames that were too small for me to properly use the lineless bi-focal, I have relied on my glasses to give me 20/20 sight.

That’s 20/20 physical eyesight.  Often, I find that my spiritual eyes are in need of adjustment as well because they are out of focus.  I notice this in several ways.  Sometimes I allow my physical vision to be all that I see.  I far too often miss something beautiful that’s going on around me because I am distracted by whatever has my undivided attention.  Also, because my spiritual eyes are often in need of correcting, I am not able to discern clearly what God has planned for me.  This is especially troubling because I know what God has said about this: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11 NIV).  God has a wonderful plan for me but I need to be able to see it well to live it out.

My trip to the DMV brought my focus to the restriction my weak physical eyes have placed on my drivers license.  Moving forward, I am going to remind myself daily of my need for ‘corrective lenses’ on my spiritual eyes as well.  With God’s help, I will use the gift of improved spiritual vision to see more of the things He wants me to see.  More importantly, I hope to see more of Him everywhere I go, both in the places He has for me to help others and to be evermore aware of the path He has laid out before me.

So thanks again to the New York State DMV for the birthday present of making appreciate all the more both sets of corrective lenses I need!

What is God’s Will for Me?

 

“What is God’s will for me?” As I speak with folks, this question often comes up.  Generally, there is some frustration in their voice.  They have been praying and seeking direction, but somehow the answer seems to elude them.

We pastor-types tend to make this out to be pretty heady stuff, this trying to figure out what God’s will is.  In many cases, we have made it a more complicated issue than God intends it to be.

To help us get our minds around this topic, let’s start with the big picture and work from there.  With this wide-angle lens with can say with 100 percent clarity that God’s will is for every person to come to know Him as Savior.  His has spelled this out in the familiar John 3:16 as Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  The Apostle Peter also tells us; The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness.  He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9 NIV).

The Bible clearly establishes that God’s heart is for all people to come to Him, acknowledging their need of a Savior.  It really is that simple, God’s immeasurable love is always on display through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It is an open invitation to absolutely everyone.  If you are reading this and you have come to know God’s forgiveness, I rejoice with you!  But like those old Ronco veg-a-matic tv commercials, “Wait, there’s more!”

To find it we must begin to look at the  picture with a narrow focus lens; that being God’s will for your life now that He has called you to His fold.  Once again, we can find some straight forward instruction as to how to do this from the Bible: Be joyful always; 17pray continually; 18give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 NIV).

Sounds simple enough as at first glance it appears God is saying to keep a bright outlook most of the time, pray a lot, and remember to say thank you when someone does something nice for you.  But if you will read those three little verses again, you will find that God is saying much more about what His will is for you.  We are not to qualify or justify our actions by self-righteously deciding to withhold our gratitude, not bothering to pray or opting to be sour instead of joyful.

Realizing God’s will for us in these things is a full-time and faith-filled response to the above mentioned love the Almighty offers to each of us.  Hebrews 11:1 defines faith as: Being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see (emphasis added).

The faith that is borne at our salvation brings us the surety of eternal life and makes us certain of that which we cannot see with our physical eyes.  Saying yes to Jesus allows us to know the truth of the Scriptures.  In the context of knowing God’s will we can then find the comfort of: And 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 NIV). As the power of that verse sinks more deeply into your heart, we can better see how we are to be joyful always, for even as things may be bleak or painful around us, we have God’s promise that He is working things out ultimately for our good!

The instruction to pray continually does not mean to be reciting prayers non-stop, but rather to be aware of the presence of God always.  The more we do this, the more likely we are to be in a constant conversation with Him.  I encourage you to simply try living in the constant awareness of God’s presence.  Conversation for most of us comes much easier with someone we are familiar or comfortable with.  We have established God’s will for you is to be in contact with Him.  It becomes possible if you are willing.

The third piece of knowing God’s will, we are told, is to give thanks in all circumstances.  Here again we experience the tension between what we are currently going through and the higher call of being thankful always.  The Expositor’s Commentary explains it this way: We need to recognize that seeming aggravations are but a temporary part of a larger plan for our spiritual well-being. Out of this perspective we can always discern a cause for thanks.  I’m not saying this is easy for any of us to do, in fact it’s downright impossible on my own.  Ah, enter faith! God is bigger than what my circumstances of the moment are!

Having said all this, you will note that I still have not given you specific insight into what God’s will is for you.  The reason is simple:  That’s not for me to do! I would suggest, however, that if you will incorporate the instruction given about being joyful always, praying continually and being thankful in all things, you will find yourself much closer to God on a daily basis.  As He nurtures your relationship to Him, your faith will grow. As it does, your ability to see and trust His purpose for your life will increase, revealing His wonderfully personal will to you!

77 times?

 

Many times I have written or spoken about the fact that a person who follows Jesus is much more involved with relationship, not religion.  This is not ‘my take’ on this subject, it is the very heart of the Lord.  We can see this in a short discussion He has with Peter in Matthew 18:21-22: Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” 22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”

Now on the surface it appears that Jesus is in fact giving a mathematical formula for how we are to dole out forgiveness.  Thankfully, He was not.  To best understand what is going on here, we need a little context.  A helpful hint I like to use is to imagine myself in the conversation, as it is taking place.  In this case, this is two Jewish men talking about forgiving someone who wrongs you.  The religious code of that time held that you were to forgive a person three times.  After that, you did not forgive them and basically you were to treat them as if they didn’t exist.

Knowing this, and the fact that Peter has now been living with and learning from Jesus for over two years, we get some insight into Peter’s ‘growth.’  The rule says up to three times, so Peter, feeling spiritual, offers four additional pardons!  Oh Peter, like so many still do today, you missed the point.  It seems like the ‘scorecard’ mentality for religion isn’t a new phenomenon.

I’m not finding fault with Peter, for I too like to have something tangible to hang my hat on.  Some type of cosmic scorecard sounds appropriate.  I can keep a list of all the wrongs done me and can cross-reference the names with those who have sought my forgiveness.  The problem with this approach is that my list will always be considerably longer because many of the injuries done me will be known only to me!

What Jesus is teaching is the exact opposite of keeping score.  Rather than having a running account of wrongs done to you up to seventy-seven times, the Lord tells us that forgiveness cannot be quantified or qualified in any way.  It is a matter of our heart, and it is a matter of choice.

 

The relational (heart) piece of forgiveness starts when we take a grander view of just what forgiveness is.  Remember, you are in the conversation as it is taking place and though you don’t know it yet, this is the Savior of the world who is speaking with Peter.  What an advantage we have now, living as it were on ‘this side’ of the cross.  Here we know that the ultimate price has been paid through the death and resurrection of Jesus.  This is forgiveness in the biggest picture!

The basic point is this: we who have been forgiven much ought to be most forgiving of others.  If you read on in Chapter 18 of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus makes this point clearly in telling the parable of the unmerciful servant.  This guy, who owed millions, begged the king to forgive his debt because he couldn’t possibly pay it back.  The king mercifully wipes the slate clean, only to have this fellow have someone thrown in debtor’s prison who owed him a mere fraction of what he had just been freed of.

This is what we are to keep in mind regarding forgiveness.  Because Jesus has forgiven us the debt we could never repay, we ought never quantify the forgiveness we extend to others.  Our hearts, being humbly aware of the mercy we have been shown, are to share the love of the Lord as we forgive others.

Giving forgiveness is also a choice.  Knowing what I know about it, I can still self-righteously withhold my forgiveness.  I put myself in the judgment seat and decree that someone wasn’t sincere, or they waited too long or, whatever.  Once I sit in that particular chair, I have lost the whole point Jesus is teaching us.

Who is it that is ultimately harmed by my unforgiving attitude? Me.  If I decide to harbor ill-will and resentment toward someone, it eats away at me, not them.  They can go about their life not even knowing I have allowed them rent free access to my mind, where my tortured thoughts of veiled retribution keep me hopelessly bound in anger.

Jesus came to set us free from the power of sin and from ourselves! He speaks of this several times in John Chapter 8: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free,” and, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” John 8:31-32, 36 NIV).  Once freed from the sentence of death our sinfulness deserves, we begin to realize the wondrous gift Jesus has given us.  He has freely loved us, providing the ultimate sacrifice as proof.  Living in this awareness, can we be so petty as to resist forgiving others?

The bible also tells us to not keep an account of the wrongs done to us.  The Apostle Paul, in writing what has become a familiar verse read at weddings says of love: It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it in not easily angered, it keeps no records of wrongs. (1 Corinthians 13:5 NIV).  This we ought to take to heart, for we only waste our time mulling over the things of the past instead of living in the present.

Let the scorecard of the wrongs and slights be gone.  If you can get rid of it, the freedom Jesus offers will become much clearer to you.  Who wants to keep track of up to seventy-seven sins against you anyway? Instead, try to keep in the forefront of your heart and mind the only number that matters; 0.  This is what God sees wrong with you if you have accepted Jesus as your Savior.  The Lord wipes clean your eternal slate, and then He throws it away! Savor this indescribable gift the Savior gives.  As you do, you will find that by extending forgiveness whenever and wherever allows you to stay all the more focused on loving God, and others!

Hands Free

 

Betsy and I were blessed with the opportunity to buy a new car just before Thanksgiving this year.  This is a really, really, big deal for us, as the previous (and only other) new car purchase we made was a 1983 Renault Alliance.  Needless to say, there have been some technological advances over the past 34 years in the automotive industry.  Though cruise control and heated seats intrigue me, they pale when compared to the wonder of the ‘hands free’ connection offered between the new car and my phone.

Hands free? Free to do what? Drive the car? No, I won’t will not get on my soapbox about distracted drivers at this time.  Rather, I will opine on what I and we should all be doing, caring for others.  If you have read any of my other entries, you know I am writing from a Christian perspective.  More importantly, I hope to be living as a faithful follower of Jesus Christ and in so doing, be involved with the care of my fellow human beings.

The Bible gives us clear direction about this in James 1:27:  Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:27 NIV).  Everything Jesus taught about helping others was meant to encourage us all to get actively involved in caring for our fellow humans.  When we do, we move religion, with its many negative connotations, into the more positive light of relationship.  This is the heart of the Lord’s message; not formal once-a-week gatherings to simply check a box of obligation, but rather an involved, intentional life that thinks of others before self.  We need free hands to do this.

The Apostle John says it this way: Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. (1 John 3:18 NIV).  Good intentions are simply not good enough.  We are to use our freed hands to share the love of God with everyone.  The Baker Bible Handbook describes it this way: The Bible connects two important realities that are often separated: paying close attention to our own spiritual formation and meeting people’s basic needs. (p. 929)

 

But being hands free in life is a bit more complicated than having my phone synced with our new Subaru.  In it, merely pressing one button gives me access to my entire list of contacts (that’s not completely hands free now that I think about it).  Prompts from the vehicle then allow me to call anyone of them.  I can be connected with the outside world just that quickly and easily.

Hands free in life is rarely as simple as that however.  Often our hands are tugged in several different directions, usually at the same time.  The day to day demands on our time and resources hardly feels like freedom.  We do what we have to do, which generally leaves us too exhausted for anyone or anything else.

Perhaps your hands are held captive by something more sinister.  Hands that are tied by addiction, in its many forms, are polar opposite of being free. The darkness of these types of bondages seems to envelop you.  It is impossible to be truly helping others when you basically cannot help yourself.  If you are reduced to survival mode by your addiction, only your survival matters.  Others are to be used by you, not helped.

Those of us not tied down in this way, when we do take the time to look around us, we see that there are many who need our help.  The numbers seem overwhelming and that alone can keep our hands bound by inactivity.  Thoughts like, ‘What can I possibly do against the flood of pain and strife,’ often stop us before we get started.  Yet, the scripture quoted from the letter of James gives clear indication that we must be engaged in reaching out to others.  I have often pondered that verse, trying to understand it more from God’s perspective.  It is, after all, God who has freed our hands to be of service to Him.  He has revealed some of His unlimited care to us, hence His viewing of helping others is truly ‘pure and faultless.’

Perhaps you are thinking that this sounds good, but how can I possibly fit one more thing into my already full and hectic life? My question to you in response is: How are you rationing you time?  For me, I can easily get over-protective of ‘my time.’  This happens when I focus on what I have been doing instead of who I am doing it for.  I quickly tend to tip the scales in my favor, telling myself I deserve this or that because of what I have already done.

When I get to this place, I have lost sight of what James 1:27 is teaching.  I need to get myself back to proper perspective, which means realizing once again that the universe is not revolving around me.  The IVP Bible Commentary sums up well what James is saying: Scripture says that God is committed to caring for the powerless and defenseless, including the poor, the alien, the fatherless and the widow. Since the needs of such people are on God’s heart, he expects that same heart to be in us. Further, Jesus himself so identified himself with needy, oppressed people that when we care for one of his people in need, we do it unto him. Any practice of Christianity that does not exhibit this concern in action is deceptive (it misrepresents the truth about God’s own heart) and worthless (it is of no value before God).

Not only is God’s word giving us clear direction as to how we are to respond to the needs of those around us, we have the example of the Son of God to follow as well.  The heart of Jesus was and is for all people to know the love of God.  He constantly had His hands free as He extended forgiveness and the promise of eternity to all.  His love was so great for mankind that He freely allowed His hands to be pierced with nails so that all might be saved.

Few of us are called to anything nearly as drastic; but we are called to give of ourselves.  Whether it is our time, talents or treasure, we are to keep our hands free and hearts open to the hurting world around us.  May we all know the blessing of being a blessing to someone else!

What a Sight!

I am in no way a well-traveled person. Born and raised in Central New York, I have lived here for all my nearly 58 years. I do not travel much, having never been outside the U.S. (save a few trips to our neighbor to the North, Canada) This is not to say, however, that I have not experienced some wondrous sights in my lifetime.

I have had the opportunity to stand in awe on the shores of both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. A vacation to the Southwest gave me the opportunity to see the beautiful red landscape of Sedona and the breath-taking splendor of the Grand Canyon.

As a devoted fan of the San Francisco Giants, seeing three games in the gorgeous AT&T ballpark in 2013 is forever etched in my memory; as is my first football game inside the then brand-new Carrier Dome in Syracuse some 35 years ago.

When employed at one of the three near-by nuclear plants, I stood inside the 550-foot-high cooling tower (while the plant was on shutdown!), with its opening so wide above me I could not see all of it when standing at the bottom! I have stood within a few feet of the spent-fuel pool with its beautiful cobalt blue color, peacefully hiding all that power.
I am sure that most reading this will have seen and experienced much more wonder than I have. I am also equally sure that none of us have seen or heard anything as glorious as a group of lowly shepherds did one night some 2000 years ago:

And there were shepherds living in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you. You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:8-14 NIV)

Now there’s a wondrous sight! And on so many levels! First the obvious; the proclamation that the Savior of the world had been born. This wasn’t some minor announcement relegated to the end of a local newscast. No, it was announced from heaven in a way that truly befitted a King. Can you imagine what was going through the minds of those shepherds on that lonely hillside as they saw and heard this?

While were on the topic of those shepherds, why were they the first to hear this awesome news? Wouldn’t the town square or perhaps outside the home of the highest official been more fitting for an announcement of this magnitude? After all, shepherding in those days was the lowest of professions. If you were a shepherd, there was little to no hope of ever improving your lot. You were going to work and live with sheep, an often dangerous and always lonely life, and all for the benefit of their owner.

But it is in the fact that shepherds were blessed to hear the news first that we get a clear picture of the heart of God. In His infinite wisdom, he chose to reveal to the lowest that He was breaking in on human history. The Sovereign Lord, the Almighty King of kings, thought it best to tell simple shepherds that salvation had come to all men. A most humbling reminder to all of us; don’t let your station in life dictate to you how and when you may hear from Him. There is no more level playing field than the one that stands before the throne of God.

Not only did God reveal His heart’s desire to mere shepherds, He made it clear that His saving love was for all people. The angel proclaimed that this great news was for ‘all people.’ There is not much explanation needed with the word all; if you are drawing breath, this announcement is intended for you.

As all encompassing as this was, God also made sure the His salvation plan was an extremely personal one too. He had the angel not only tell the shepherds that this Savior born was for them personally (I bring you good news), but for us as well! The Savior Jesus Christ was born, lived, died and was resurrected for absolutely all people. Yet in the midst of that mind-boggling fact, the salvation offered from God to us is done on a personal and one at a time basis.

So, if you are feeling over or under whelmed as Christmas fast approaches, please take a moment to consider again the shepherds whom God first told of the birth of His Son Jesus. Don’t let the hustle and bustle of last minute things keep you from pondering why it is you are doing what it is you are doing. There has never been a more life-changing occurrence in all of history; and it was made with you in mind. What a sight to behold!

Closed for the Season

Just north of where I live there exists a relic from the past: a drive-in theater. When (if) the winter weather finally breaks, it opens, and they show movies on the weekends until late October. At that time, along with a thank you to their patrons, they put on their marquis, ‘Closed for the season.’
I drove by the currently closed drive-in the other day and was struck by those familiar words as we approach another Christmas. Seemingly everywhere you see or hear ‘tis the season,’ as December 25th draws near. What is a time of joy for many, with thoughts of family, presents and parties abounding, others find deeply depressing for any number of reasons. Hence, my thoughts on closed for the season.
In my broad circle of acquaintances there are several who will be going through Christmas without their spouse for the first time. Their sense of loss and loneliness is heightened as the calendar relentlessly chugs toward the 25th. Their pain has them closed for the season.
I know others whose financial struggles are heightened at the holidays. They want to buy gifts for their kids, but the heat bill must be paid. Their jobs aren’t giving them any security either, as more and more in this already economically stressed area are being laid off. Uncertainty has them closed for the season.
Still others are going through the annual tension caused because their kids are estranged from them. Attempts are made at reconciliation, but seemingly they go for naught. Stiff reunions are accented by more arguing. Anger has these folks closed for the season.
If these examples, or any I haven’t mentioned that you are currently causing you to feel closed for the season, please know that there is hope! It is found in the true ‘reason for the season,’ Jesus Christ. The Prophet Isaiah wrote of this hope some 700 years before the birth of the Lord: Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14 NIV). Immanuel means God with us. It is a personal promise from a personal God. Just as it was to the Israelites in the dark days when Isaiah prophesied, the hope of knowing the Savior is just as real today.
If you find yourself feeling closed for the season, I ask you to take a moment to simply reflect on those words the prophet wrote. They truly are incredible; a virgin conceiving? And then her child was to be God with us? It’s almost to crazy to believe, and maybe you don’t. I also have plenty of people in my circle who do not. If that’s you, I pose to you the same question I put to them: How is your life going without God in it? May I encourage you to consider the awesome possibility that what was said so long ago did in fact happen. If you will, allow that wonder in, you may well find those things keeping you closed for the season will lose their power over you as the power of our loving God permeates your life.
Being a realist who has been at the trade of pastor for a while now, I understand that not everyone is or even will be open to the things of God. Yet I press on, because you are so very important to Him (and me too!). For your consideration I offer some more words from Isaiah that also point to the saving heart of the Lord: For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6 NIV).
Here this same promised Savior of the world is described in a most glorious way. The Son of God, sent by the Father to bring salvation to the world, is indeed wonderful, mighty and everlasting. The peace He brings to a lost soul, as the bible says, truly transcends human understanding.
Does it all sound too good to be true? Where’s the catch? Friend, it is true! And the only catch is in you risking a little faith to believe it. I know what it is to be trapped in despair with no human way out. I have felt the pain of loss and the debilitating guilt caused by my actions. Thankfully, I now know the nearly inexpressible joy that comes with being a child of God. What seemed to be permanently closed for every season in me has now been opened. May this be the time that you can experience the freeing love of Jesus; tis, after all, the season!

Be Careful What You Pray For (you might just get it!)

Jesus had much to say about prayer. The New Testament has many examples of His teaching others how to pray. Not only did the Lord frequently teach on this important topic, He modeled what a devoted prayer life ought to look like.
The gospel accounts record Jesus praying at various times, from early in the morning and also late at night. Jesus prayed often, which should encourage us to do the same.
My focus for this article is the fact that Jesus also prayed with great faith. He did not pray hoping that God the Father might hear Him. Instead, Jesus prayed as if He were talking directly to God (which He was!). Jesus knew, as we must, that our all-powerful and all-knowing God supernaturally is able to communicate with all people simultaneously. For us to be aware of this awesome fact is a gift of faith, for my finite mind can in no way get around it, yet in my heart I know it to be true.
Allow me to share the true story of how I became certain that God hears all our prayers and hence the title of this blog: Be careful what you pray for, because you might just get it!
A little background first to help you get the full impact of the way God opened my eyes and heart to his prayer answering ways. In May of 1991 I was admitted to a de-tox facility as the first step in my recovery from alcoholism. After spending three weeks there I was feeling so much better physically, and through the care of the professionals on staff, I was becoming aware that my only hope for long-term sobriety was to admit my total defeat at the hands of booze and to trust in a Higher Power to give me the strength I would need to stay sober each day.
As a child, my parents had dragged me to church with them every Sunday. Though it meant nothing to me then, apparently the stories I had heard repeated there stuck with me as did the messages of hope I had heard, for in those early days of treatment I came to know that Jesus Christ was indeed this Higher Power. (I am blessed these days to know Him as the Highest Power!) I began then a habit that continues to this day; in my morning prayers I ask that He give me the strength I need to stay sober today. Nearly 27 years later, He has perfectly filled my request each and every day.
But I’ve gotten a little ahead of the story. My prayers at the beginning of my new life, though consistent, lacked any real depth. I knew what I needed, for me and my family, and I asked. God graciously responded. It was one particular response that I want to share with you that truly opened my eyes to how closely God listens to us and how He patterns His response in the way that best speaks to us individually.
After de-tox I spent another 28 days in a rehab facility. This I know now was another blessing as I was able to begin to deal with the disease I had. I was learning about the damage it had done to me and to those closest to me, especially my wife and our firstborn child.
Those who are familiar with the ravages of addiction know full well the scope of this damage. My wife, one of the greatest gifts God has given me, decided early on to stick with me, offering gracious support as she herself began a journey of recovery from the effects my illness.
Though we committed to each other to go all-in on this new opportunity for life we were given, it was not going to be easy. My drinking had ruined us financially. As I emerged from treatment, we were faced with a huge financial burden. I owed in excess of $100,000 in back taxes (a sizable sum in 1991) and we had no income. We had to rely on Social Services and the kindness of family and friends just to stay fed and to have a place to live in the summer of 1991.
I have come to see the truth in scriptures like Jeremiah 32:17 which says nothing is too hard for God. Our situation was indeed dire, but not impossible to overcome. God did (and does) have a plan for each of us.
I began to more fully experience God’s mercy after I finished my 28-day in-patient rehab. Out of work and with few marketable skills, God stepped in. A good friend had a well-placed friend in one of the three nuclear power plants nearby. With the right strings pulled, I was hired as a temporary employee for a position that was to last 6 months.
There was a slight problem, however, I didn’t have a car to get there and back. Again, no problem for God, as He provided one. Another friend in our small town was aware of our troubles and sold us his 1975 Chevy Chevelle for $100. This car was a true winter-rat. The driver’s side door didn’t open from the outside, there was no floor board in back and the catalytic converter caused the passenger-side carpet to smolder after about 15 miles.
Here’s where I learned the lesson that God does have a sense of humor, as in hindsight I came to understand about being careful what I pray for. This junker of a car was well beyond my ability to fix if anything else went wrong with it. So I prayed, “God please keep this thing running for 6 months so that I can get back and forth to work.”
The job started on October 8th, 1991. It went well and with lots of overtime worked we started to chip away at the mountain of debt I brought on us. That Chevelle ran all winter, getting me through some horrendous snowstorms along the way.
April 7th, 1992 was my last day of employment there. I got out of work early and stopped at the noon AA meeting here in town. I got into my car when the meeting ended, and it would not start. It was dead; no life, no horn, no nothing. Then with a smile I remembered my prayer. God had answered it alright, to the minute! That car ran for 6 months, exactly as I had asked God to do.
I share this account to encourage everyone who prays to never sell God short. He does listen to us and He does respond, just not always as we expect or even hope.
I’ll conclude for today with what the Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the church at Ephesus:
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. (Ephesians 3:20-21

The List

‘A’ list celebrities, bucket lists, grocery lists; even Santa Claus has a list. His being so important we are told through song that he checks it twice! We have Top 40 lists, honey-do lists, greatest plays lists, blooper lists and play lists on our electronic devices. For organization, we often list things alphabetically. Lists are seemingly everywhere, as many aspects of our lives seem to be in list form.
I for one am a list maker. I find my most productive days are ones in which I have made a list of the things I want/need to get done. Driven by equal parts memory retention issues and my orderly nature, I seem to work best when I can see my goals written out.
I will also admit to a certain satisfaction when an item gets scratched off the list at its completion. I’ll leave for another time a discussion of my tendency at days end, as I review the list, to write in other things I have gotten done that were not originally on it; just so I can scratch them off too!
The Bible contains many lists too. The Book of Exodus (chapter 20) records God giving Moses the Ten Commandments, making it safe to assume that God favors lists as well. The Almighty, having created us to be favorably disposed to using lists, gives us His Law in 1 through 10 form.
Jesus himself was also inclined to using lists to teach people. The 12th Chapter of the Gospel according to Mark records a conversation between the Lord and one of the Jewish teachers of the Law that gives evidence of Jesus using a list as a valuable teaching tool.
(The teacher asked him), “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” 29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
Jesus not only gives the answer as a list of two things, He goes even further and prioritizes them. In brief, Jesus tells us to place God first, others next and then ourselves in our plans. When Jesus lists things is a particular order, it’s a good bet He did so for a reason: For us to follow it as is!
Here lies the key for all us list makers/followers: Priorities. A list loses most of its ability to be a guide for us if there is no order to the items on it. For example, if I place mowing the lawn ahead of making a bank deposit in the checkbook to cover rent, the lack of priority may have repercussions for me. So as important as listing making and following it is for me, without a thought-out plan to do all these things, I may still end up merely chasing my tail.
Some years ago, my wife Betsy came up with a brilliant yet practical idea to help me get and keep my priorities in order regarding my lists. As a Christmas present, you gave me a 5’ x 7’ pocket notebook. On the top of every page, she printed the name Jesus; giving me an instant and on-going reminder to always place Jesus at the top of all my plans:
Jesus
1………………………………………
2………………………………………
3………………………………………
4………………………………………
What a great gift! It helps me in several ways. (Here comes another list!):
Serves as a reminder to pray about how I spend my time.
With Jesus at the top, my priorities are already in order. No matter
how urgent/important an item I put on the list, Jesus is already on top
of it
Allows me to continue using a method that has been successful for me.
Gives me a conversation starter when talking lists with others.
If you are reading this and are already a follower of Jesus Christ, I hope the sharing of my ‘Jesus’ list helps you to remember where to keep your focus. I know it does that for me, especially when I check my list and it seems to be growing as time passes instead of decreasing. I can take a deep breath and pray that the God helps me to re-focus on the most important item on it, Him!
But if you are not (yet) a believer in Jesus, I hope these thoughts on prioritizing your to-do list is helpful. I will be praying that the day comes soon that Jesus will be atop all your lists as well. (BTW, I just added you to my prayer list to receive salvation!)

“I’m Very Busy”

Most people I know are quite busy. Many of my peers are constantly juggling the responsibilities of work and family, often wearing themselves out in the process. Add in the kids, grandkids and all their social activities and a great majority of people are going through their days in a daze.
For some reason, I began to take notice of how my friends were responding to my generic greeting, “How are things going?” I started to keep track in my head how often I got the answer, ‘OK, just very busy.’ My very non-scientific methods resulted in 75% response rate! On average, three out of four people have begun their conversations with me by saying how busy they are. I was floored. It seems to me that folks are defining themselves by the amount of activities they can cram into any given day.
To be clear at the start, I have friends that are non-Christian and Christian alike. Please understand I did my study randomly, as the opportunities presented themselves. I mean no judgment on anyone. My faith-professing friends and those with no leaning in that way have both been consistently running at the before mentioned 75% when asked how things are with them.
I certainly do not put myself above this, either. I have often espoused when asked how that I needed more than 24 hours in a day to get to everything on my list or that having a third arm might be helpful in getting all this stuff done. Being honest, having more hours in a day would simply allow me to schedule more things to do and a third arm would only help carry the extra stuff I would then need!
It seems that being busy has become our Red Badge of Courage. I reference Steven Crane’s novel of a young soldier during the American Civil War who longed for a wound, the badge, that would announce his bravery even though he had acted like a coward. A bloody wound would speak volumes to anyone who saw him, even if it didn’t speak the truth.
Though I do not question the integrity of those answering me that they are so busy, I have begun to wonder if we are, at least to some extent, wearing our busyness like a symbol of our struggle in daily life. It’s as if being busy is an end in its self, that somehow not running full-speed all the time is to be empty.
Jesus shared some heavenly wisdom on this very topic. The Gospel according to Luke, 10:38-42 is where it can be found:
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened here home to him. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” 41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Martha makes the mistake that many of us do today. Far too often we allow the doing of whatever task is at hand to obscure the importance of what is going on around us. In this case, the opening of her home and the duties that went with it were important, but she allowed the busyness of preparation to steal her joy of the moment. Martha, like I and so many others have done, blurred the lines between doing and being. She made the getting ready her sole focus, and in so doing lost sight of why she was doing it in the first place.
How many times have you and I settled for a good thing that caused us to miss out on something far better. This happens to me when I get tunnel vision, which only lets me focus on something I must get done, that somehow my completing whatever it is going to be vital to everything else that happens. I need to be reminded to get over myself from time to time!
Continuing with the analogy of wearing our busyness like a badge, and I don’t mean this judgmentally, perhaps Martha enjoyed being the martyr. She was so busy, and her sister Mary was just lolling about at the feet of Jesus. It’s like Martha was saying, ‘Can’t you see what I’m doing here all by myself? Won’t you make it better for me somehow?’ If you can honestly admit to having feelings like that, you’re not alone. We do tend to bury ourselves in the stuff we do. In the end we must ask ourselves who it is we are really doing these things for.
Our pride can be a tricky thing. It seems to be able to sneak in where we least expect it to. In the case of Martha, pride jumped up, confusing and upsetting her. She couldn’t see that her singular focus blinded her to the others around her. Jesus gently pointed this out. While recognizing her discomfort with the situation, the Lord was also trying to get Martha to re-focus. She wanted things to be just right for this important visit, but in trying to accomplish this she was missing the whole point. That is why Jesus told her that Mary had chosen what is better.
What are well-intended busy people to do? To start with, slow down and take a breath. Don’t allow the accumulation of tasks to get done overwhelm you. It is ok to ask for help. You need not allow yourself to be on a low boil because no one is helping you. Other folks are just as crazy busy. Perhaps if you take the risk of admitting you could use some help, others will not only step in to lend a hand, but also take a look at their own situation as well.
Being busy ought not to be a badge we wear or a cross to bear. Rather, let all your activities reflect the love and kindness of your Savior. He knows how we struggle in this area. Insert your name into verse 41: “. . . you are worried and upset about many things.” Now take to heart His offer to choose what is always the best, Him! Only He can set you free to know the peace that He brings; the peace that surpasses all human understanding. Don’t be so busy that you miss it.