Gift Receipt

Most times, when you purchase an item at a store for someone at Christmas, the salesperson will ask if you would like a gift receipt. A gift receipt is a purchase record that you can give to the person to know where they can return or exchange the present if they need to. It is a good idea since the gift may not be what you need or want, the right size if a clothing item, or you already have the same item. The gift receipt allows you to make your return. It is a good thing. Gift giving can be a difficult task. 

Some people are excellent gift-givers. That is, they know how to shop for a person. They find or create gifts that match the person’s personality. When you open their gifts, you know immediately that they have put much thought and time into selecting your gift. On the other hand, some people don’t like shopping for others or gift-giving. They want to get the entire experience over as quickly as possible. These may be your late shoppers who have to settle with what they can find. Most people are somewhere between the two.

In the Gospel of Matthew, in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks about God as the perfect gift giver. Jesus is teaching about prayer and how God invites us to ask of God. In Matthew 7: 7-11, we read: 

Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give your children good gifts, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

Jesus teaches that God gives his children good things. Even if evil people can give good gifts to their children, how much more so will God, who is infinitely good, do so much greater. God knows exactly what we need, and out of his great love lavishes His goodness all over us. God gives out hos His abundance, blessings upon blessings. When it comes to the gifts of God, no receipts are required.

Tangled Up

I’m not sure what happens between one Christmas and the next, but it always seems that my Christmas lights are tangled up into knots when I unpack them. I’ve never seen a gremlin jump out of the storage boxes, so I have to assume that it is my fault. Most likely, at the end of the previous Christmas season, I was so eager to get everything packed up that I didn’t take the time to pack the lights up in an organized way. So, each year I open the storage boxes to find a tangled mess.

Sin has a way of creating a tangled mess in our lives. Our sins are simply those things that we think, say, or do that are not pleasing to God. A day doesn’t go by that we do not sin. Since the beginning of time, humanity has been creating a mess with our sinfulness. Not only are our individual lives tangled up in our sin, so too is the world itself. We only have to read the daily news headlines to realize how much sin has impacted all of creation. We are all tangled up in knots with our sin. In Romans 3:23, we read, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” 

To not live in such a tangled up mess, we must daily repent of our sinfulness and seek God’s forgiveness. When we daily confess and repent of our sins, we can keep our lives from becoming a tangled mess. When we fail to seek forgiveness, sin over time and unchecked creates quite a knot of sin, shame, and guilt. Before we know it, we are knotted up in our sin, hardened in our hearts, and lifeless in our spirits. This is why the writer of Hebrews would remind us: “let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. (Hebrews 12:1) 

The good news is that God offers us his grace so that we can throw off our sinfulness. God’s grace enables us to experience forgiveness for our sin, even when we are knotted up and entangled with it. By simply asking, God can take our most sinful entangled lives and untangled them into something new. We do not have to live our lives entangled up in our sin. God’s grace sets us free, unravels our sin, and allows us to truly shine. So never let us think that our sin-knotted lives are too much for God to unravel.  God’s grace will always be greater than our sin.

Empty Spaces

Once the Christmas tree is up and decorated at our house, we then check for empty spaces. When we stand back and look at the tree, are there noticeable places that need to have an ornament? We then go back and fill these empty places with ornaments so that the tree looks full. Not until all the open spaces are filled are we satisfied with this year’s tree.

At times in our lives, there are empty spaces. That is, we go through those experiences in which we feel as though something is missing. For whatever reason, something has led us to examine our lives, and when we do, we realize something is missing. While life, in general, may still be good, we are still not content with our lives. Life seems incomplete.

Now we sometimes will try many things to fill these empty places. We may try to fill our emptiness with material things, people, pleasures, experiences, and the like, but things still do not feel right. While these things may give us momentary satisfaction, they soon wear off, and we find ourselves with the same empty feelings. Vincent Van Gogh, the famous Dutch impressionist painter, once said, “I am unable to describe exactly what is the matter with me; now and then there are horrible fits of anxiety, apparently without cause, or otherwise a feeling of emptiness and fatigue in my head.

In the book of Psalms, we read an account of how God delivered his people from a time of emptiness and fill them anew with His goodness. In Psalm 107: 4-9, we read, 

Some wandered in desert wastes,
   finding no way to an inhabited town; 
hungry and thirsty,
   their soul fainted within them. 
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
   and he delivered them from their distress; 
he led them by a straight way,
   until they reached an inhabited town. 
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
   for his wonderful works to humankind. 
For he satisfies the thirsty,
   and the hungry he fills with good things. 

The Psalmist writes that God satisfies the thirsty and hungry and He fills us with good things. That is, God knows our empty spaces, and God is the only one who can truly fill them. Jesus would speak the same truth when he says, “Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35) Jesus is God’s answer to the empty places in our lives. And when Jesus fills these empty places, then we discover the sense of peace, purpose, and contentment that we all desire. We can spend a lot of time trying to fill our emptiness with something other than Jesus. Jesus, however, is the only thing that makes us whole. 

Rearranging the Furniture

For most people, when they put up their Christmas tree for the holiday season, they have to decide how to rearrange the furniture in the room where the tree will be located. With the addition of a tree, then something usually has to change. There is not enough room. A Christmas tree can take up considerable space. At least once a year, you have to rearrange the furniture.

The season of Advent, the days leading up to Christmas day, is a time of preparation. With the birth of our Lord on the horizon, we have to make ourselves ready for his arrival. In the 40th chapter of the book of the Prophet Isaiah, Isaiah call the people to prepare for the arrival of their God. Isaiah proclaimed:

A voice cries out:
In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
   make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 
Every valley shall be lifted up,
   and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
   and the rough places a plain. 
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
   and all people shall see it together,
   for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. 

Isaiah’s words call for a time of preparation. In dramatic language, Isaiah speaks about valleys being lifted up, mountains being made low, the uneven ground becoming level, and rough places a plain. With the arrival of God, the very landscape of the land will be changed and transformed. The greatness of God must be made ready to receive.

As we countdown the days till Christmas, we are given an opportunity to consider the arrangement of our lives, our values, and our priorities. With the birth of Jesus, we realize that our lives cannot remain the same. Jesus’ entrance into our lives causes us to reexamine the landscape of our lives, rid ourselves of those things that get in the way of his coming, and change those parts of our lives that might not honor him. This is the biblical language of repentance. Repentance means to turn around or turn back. Just as we prepare our homes for Christmas, we must prepare our hearts for Christmas by repenting and turning back to God. We must rearrange the furniture of our lives to make room for the Bethlehem babe.

Yet, unlike our Christmas tree, which will eventually be taken down and the room restored to its prior state, in Jesus, we change not for a season but for a lifetime. The birth of Jesus at Christmas is more than a season; but it represents an entirely new way of living. Jesus must now take the most prominent place in our hearts and lives every day. Let us get ready and do what we need to do, to welcome him into our world and our lives.

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The Best Deals

Each year on Good Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, the Christmas shopping season officially begins. Stores across the nation open early and entice shoppers by offering incredible deals on their merchandise. It is not uncommon to see shoppers lined up outside early to be first in the stores as there is often a limited supply. If you want the best deal, you must get there early and even be willing to push and shove a little to get your perfect gift. If you wait around, then you might miss out. 

In his letter to Rome’s church, the apostle Paul did not want his readers to miss out on the best gift. This gift would not be found on a shelf on an aisle but could be attained by only receiving it from the one who gave it. In Jesus, God offered to the entire world the free gift of salvation. With human sin running rampant in the world, Jesus came to offer humanity a change of direction. The path of sin leading to death could be reversed. Death no longer had to be a done deal, but now life was being offered as a gift of God’s grace. In Romans 5: 15-17, we read:

But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one mans trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. And the free gift is not like the effect of the one mans sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of the one mans trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.

For Paul, there is not a limited supply of God’s grace. Instead, God’s grace is sufficient to forgive us of all our sins. In Jesus, we no longer stand under condemnation but are now justified, made right before God. Through an abundance of grace, the free gift of Jesus Christ brings life to all. In Jesus, we are no longer defined by sin and death but by grace and life. This truth changes everything and offers hope to all humankind.

Yet, like any gift, it must be received. God will not force His gift upon us. Instead, God offers it to us out of God’s great love. God then leaves it up to us that we will do next. It is God’s best deal because it comes from the heart of God. This is good news for all of us, and the offer is available every day, not just on Black Friday.

Every Time I Remember

Our lives are full of memories. Early in life, we begin collecting our memories. Our memories are a mixture of both the good and bad experiences of life. Some memories we cherish like rare gifts, while other memories we wish we could erase. As someone once said, Memories warm you up from the inside. But they also tear you apart.  Yet, regardless of the source of our memories, they become a part of our stories.  

While we have many unforgettable memories about places and things, perhaps our most significant memories are of the people in our lives who have made life special. Our lives are not lived in isolation, but our lives daily intersect the lives of others. Some of these intersections only last for a moment, where others not only cross but join together. As we consider our family and friends, we realize how blessed we are by the people in our lives.

In the apostle Paul’s letter to the Church at Philippi, he affectionally begins, I thank my God every time I remember you. (Philippians 1:3) As Paul thought about the Christians at Philippi, he could not help but to stop and give thanks for their special place in his life. Although he could not be present with them, his heart was filled with the memories of times already shared. Memories that caused him to long for future meetings.

We also carry a wonderful treasury of memories of those individuals who are no longer with us. Death removes the physical presence of those whom we love, but death cannot erase the memories of the one lost. These memories are the gifts of our beloved friends and family that remain with us. Such memories can be a source of great comfort, encouragement, and hopefully, joy. Thus, whenever one of these memories rises to the surface of our hearts, we can confess like Paul, “I thank God every time I remember you.” 

So, let us each remember well the gifts of family and friends that make our lives special, both those living and those now living in eternity. Each day we should spend some time giving thanks for the people in our lives. These memories are unique gifts. Cherish and honor them, and in doing so, we keep them forever in our hearts and lives.

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Word Choices

We said it. Now we wish we could take it back. Perhaps we didn’t think before we spoke. Maybe we spoke out of a moment of emotion like anger. Sometimes we knowingly choose our words realizing the impact they will have on those who hear them. Indeed, words have a way of wounding. We know what it is like to be wounded by words and what it means to injure others with our own words.

In the letter of James in the New Testament, the author writes about the dangers of the human tongue. Tongues which form the words we use. In James 3: 5-6, we read, the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. James encouraged these early Christians to watch their tongues. Even as followers of Jesus, James knew the power of words to heal and wound. In many ways, James cried out the warning of “fire” when it came to our words.

As followers of Jesus, our goal is to have our words guided by the Holy Spirit. When we live under the Holy Spirit’s influence, then our choice of words will be one that not only builds others up but also brings glory to God. Every word we speak is a testimony to our relationship with God. Jesus reminds us, For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. (Matthew 12:34) The sure way to know about a person’s heart is by the words they choose. Hearts filled in God’s Spirit will not talk bad about others, call people derogatory names, spread gossip, utter hate, or seek to tear others down. These word choices never glorify God.

So, wherever we find ourselves in conversation, may we choose words that honor God and build others up. May we choose words that are crafted in love, grace, and kindness. These are the words that matter and the words that make a difference in the lives of others. 

You’ll Ruin Your Dinner

Many a mother and father have told their children to stop snacking so close to dinner time because they will ruin their dinner. Now the dinner itself will be fine. However, the child’s appetite will be satisfied with snack food rather than a full and more complete dinner meal. When it comes time to eat, they will not be hungry. At the same time, they will miss out on a good dinner made with love.

In some ways, God is like a mother or a father preparing a meal for their children. God desires to fill our lives with the richness of his love and grace, which will bring purpose to our living. God seeks to offer every person a relationship with God to satisfy our deepest desire in life; a life with purpose. The problem is that we attempt to find that meaning and purpose by snacking on the poor substitutes that the world offers.  

In the book of the prophet Isaiah, God invites the people of Israel to come to him for life. In Isaiah 55: 1-3, we read,

Listen, everyone who thirsts,
   come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
   come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
   without money and without price. 
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
   and your labour for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
   and delight yourselves in rich food. 
Incline your ear, and come to me;
   listen, so that you may live.

God was offering a divine invitation to feast on life. At the same time, God challenged the people not to ruin their dinner by seeking meaning and purpose in life from that which ultimately cannot provide it. God knows that we will try to find fulfillment in life from other people, wealth, power, pleasure, popularity, and work. It is not that these things are not essential or cannot bring happiness, but when they become the sole source of our nourishment, we will never be fully satisfied.

Instead, God invites us to feast on the meal which he provides. In Jesus, God offers us the true bread of life. Jesus would say in John 6:35, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” In Jesus, we are invited to God’s great banquet, where we partake of the richness of God’s love, mercy, and grace. It is the only meal that can satisfy our hunger and bring meaning and purpose to our lives. We don’t have to settle for the world’s junk food or go through life snacking in attempting to find the purpose for our living. No, in Jesus, we receive the full course of God’s best supper, where we will never leave the table hungry.

May I Put You on Hold?

We’ve all made those phone calls to businesses when the person answering the phone asks, “may I put you on hold?” It usually means that they will be doing something that requires them to ask you to wait. With the click of a button on their end, you are on hold. Sometimes there is silence while you wait. Some hold calls will play music while you wait. Other hold services will remind you every minute or so how important you are to them and thank you for waiting. Unfortunately, there are also those times when the phone disconnects or the person never returns. As a caller, we might even hang up because we are tired of waiting. No one likes to being placed on hold.

Often in our praying to God, it may feel as though God has placed us on hold. We have offered a prayer to God about something important in our lives. Usually, it comes in the form of a request; we ask for something on our behalf or another person. Indeed, part of praying is asking. God invites us to ask in our prayers. Nor does God tire of our asking. Our asking reveals that we are dependent upon God. If we didn’t need God, then we wouldn’t ask. 

Yet, anyone who has offered a request to God in prayer can testify that seldom do you receive an immediate response. There are times in which God responds in an instance. We call these responses miracles. But most prayers are offered to God, and then we wait. We wait for God’s response. However, sometimes praying requires a lot of waiting. Some people wait lifetimes for a prayer to be answered. There are no quick schemes to get an answer out of God. We have to wait. The psalmist would confess, But it is for you, O Lord, that I wait; it is you, O Lord my God, who will answer. (Psalm 38: 15)  

The difference between God and the phone calls we sometimes make is that God does not put us on hold. That is, while we wait, God is not absent. Instead, God is present with us in our waiting. We are not left to wait for God’s response all alone, but God’s presence is with us while we wait. In our longing prayers, God remains with us in the moments of uncertainty, worry, and fear that often occur waiting. God often uses the time of waiting to change us and prepare us for the answer God will give. We can trust that God will not leave us on hold. God’s silence does not mean God is not there. Instead, God is holding us while we wait.  As God would say through the prophet Isaiah, “For I am the LORD your God who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you.” (Isaiah 41:13)  Waiting is hard, but trusting that God is holding us makes all the difference.

See You Later

See you later. This is the way that we end many of our conversations with other people. It implies that even though we are separating at present, there will be a time to greet one another again. While we are departing from each other’s presence, we firmly believe that we will be together again at some point. Most of us don’t think that this will be the last time we will be together. We just assume that we will see each other later.

But then death steps into the picture. Someone we love and live in a relationship with dies. It may be an expected death after an illness or it can be an unexpected passing. Regardless the person is no longer with us. The life that we knew has left the only world we know. With their departure, it feels as though we have said our final goodbye. Death indeed, feels so final. We long to see and be with the person again.

As people of faith, the phrase “see you later” is indeed a statement of faith. As Christians, we believe that we, too, shall live again because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus told a grieving sister in the Gospel of John, “I am the resurrection and the life, those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.” (John 11:25) In Jesus Christ, there are no final goodbyes. We are promised resurrection and life. In Jesus, a heavenly home awaits all those who die in faith. A home where we gather eternally with God and all the saints that have gone before us. Although death happens to all of us, we truly believe that we will see each other later.

Now, this truth does not take away the pain and grief that death brings to our lives when someone we love departs this world. Grief and sorrow are heavy burdens to bear whether you are a person of faith or not. Grief creates an emptiness within us that longs to be filled by the presence of the one who has died. Yet, our faith does give us hope and strength to face our loss with the hopeful assurance that we will be with them again later. The apostle Paul addressed this issue when he wrote to the Christians at Thessalonica, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.” (1 Thessalonians 4: 13-14) Even in death, we will be together again with those whom we say goodbye to in this world at death. We shall dwell together for all eternity with our Lord and those whom he loves. “See you later” is a statement of hope. and promise for all who live in Christ Jesus. Not even death will be a final goodbye.

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A Dangerous Prayer

It is one of the most familiar prayers for Christians, the Lord’s Prayer. Found in both the gospels of Matthew and Luke, it has become the standard prayer for Christians. And why not? It came from Jesus. Jesus told us to pray this way. It would only make sense that we heed his call and pray his words. Like many things that we often do, it can become very routine without much thought to what we are actually saying. We can pray for each part and not really consider what we are praying for.

As part of the prayer, we pray, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done; on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10) When we stop to think about this, is this really what we want for our lives and for our world? Are we sure what we want the world to run the way of God’s will? Do we really want it to be like heaven here and now? In many ways, this is a dangerous prayer for all who find themselves comfortable in the world.

If God’s kingdom was to fully come to earth and if God’s will was fully carried out, then our lives would be drastically disturbed. God’s Kingdom would make us have to reevaluate how we live our lives. Success would no be seen in the greatest wealth, the biggest house, the largest bank account, or the nicest things, but in those who give everything away to serve others. No longer would we strive to be first in everything, but we would desire to be last. Justice, fairness, and equality would not be an aspiration but a reality. Grace would permeate every relationship leading to forgiveness and reconciliation. We would put away our weapons of war and replace them with instruments of peace. Do we really want the earth to be like heaven?

Jesus came announcing the Kingdom of God. It was a message of hope for many who had been left behind and forgotten by the world. The one’s on the outside would finally have a seat a the table or on the front row. The problem was that those and the table and on the front row did not like what it meant for them. Others would be lifted up, and they would be brought low. This Kingdom was too much for them, so they did what most do when they are threatened by such a change, they killed the messenger. They nailed this radical new king and kingdom to a cross. They liked earth just the way it was.

As the old idiom suggests, “be careful what you ask for.” Praying for God’s Kingdom to come on earth might just disrupt our lives. We might have to give up that which we cling to so tightly now. Heaven on earth might, in fact, turn our lives upside down. The way of Jesus is not the way of the world. Jesus lived against the grain, and if God’s Kingdom is realized on earth, then we could expect things to be very different.

We can become quite comfortable in our world, especially for Christians living in America. We often associate the American Dream with the Kingdom of God as though they are one and the same. The radical nature of the Lord’s Prayer, however, causes us to rethink this. God’s dream for the world is a radically different way of being and relating. The greatest in the Kingdom are not those on the top but those who in humility serve their neighbor. The Kingdom challenges our beliefs of what really matters. “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done” can turn everything upside down.

Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done

Contagious

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been asked to do many things to help slow the spread of this very contagious virus. The two most important things suggested are that we wear a mask and practice social distancing. Indeed, these two practices have changed our society as well as our interactions with one another. The challenge has been trying to keep the virus from spreading.

In the beginning, the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection was only known by a handful of people. The event did not occur with any news coverage, social media posts, or street reporting. The story of Jesus had only affected a few people, namely Jesus’ disciples. And even the disciples were unsure of what had happened. Outside of their small group, Jesus was not a well-known figure.

However, it did not take long for the news to get out. Overwhelmed with joy and good news, Jesus’ disciples began to tell the story of Jesus. The good news story of Jesus began to spread. People were hearing what God had done in Jesus and were drawn into a relationship with him. One by one, the Gospel message began to spread. And as it spread, this good news began to change people’s lives.

The apostle Paul is often credited as the individual who took the good news of Jesus to the Gentiles, everyone who was not a Jew. Paul, the once persecutor of Christians, now had a mission to spread the Gospel to all places and all people. Paul traveled extensively, telling others about Jesus and starting new churches. The story of Jesus was contagious, and more and more individuals accepted Jesus as their Savior and Lord.

As recipients of the good news, Paul encouraged the new believers to continue it spread. In his letter to the church at Thessalonica, Paul writes,“Finally, brothers and sisters, pray for us, so that the word of the Lord may spread rapidly and be glorified everywhere, just as it is among you.” (2 Thessalonians 3:1) Paul desired that every person be exposed to the Gospel so that every person has the opportunity to become infected with the story of God’s love. This spread would occur when Jesus’ followers began to live out the Gospel in their lives.

Although we are 2000 years past the time of Jesus, we too are called to further the spread of the Gospel. Through our words and deeds, we must live lives that demonstrate our Gospel exposure, how it has changed us, and how it can bring life to all people. We can never be content to contain the good news of Jesus within the confines of our lives. Instead, we must continue to further the spread until it infects all people with God’s grace and love. An infection that leads not to death but life, both abundant life, and eternal life.

Collectively as the church, we must be a super spreader. Through our words and actions, we bear witness to the Gospel. We share the old, old story of Jesus and his love and embody that love in our actions. It is love that is highly contagious. We help continue its spread by living infectious lives that have the possibility of passing on God’s love to those around us. God’s love is contagious.  We now must further its spread.

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In Good Hands

Waiting on God can be difficult, especially when you are unsure what God is up to in our lives. God can be hard to figure out. The scriptures teach us that God’s ways are not our ways. The mind of God is beyond our grasp and understanding. Hence, at times, our relationship with God can leave us scratching our heads. 

In the Gospels, Jesus often left his disciples scratching their heads. Whether it was something Jesus said or something he did, the disciples could not usually make sense of what Jesus was doing. According to John’s Gospel, on the night before his death, Jesus took a towel and basin and washed the disciples’ feet. This behavior was shocking to them. Washing a person’s feet was the responsibility of a servant or a slave. It was not something that you would expect from a rabbi. It was not that which they could see Jesus doing. But here he was kneeling at their feet.

When he came to Peter, Peter questioned Jesus’ actions. It didn’t make sense to Peter that Jesus would wash his feet. Jesus responds to Peter, saying, You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” (John 13:37) Peter would not understand what Jesus was doing, not then, at least. It would be much later before Peter would understand what Jesus had done. 

We don’t always know what God is doing in our lives. However, even in our lack of understanding, we can trust that God is working on our behalf. Even when life doesn’t make sense, God is still in control bringing his will to fruition. Our lives are not spinning wildly around as if there is no purpose for our living. While life can be chaotic, and we can question God’s action, we can still place our faith in God. Like Peter, what God is doing now might not make sense in the present, later we will all understand. The apostle Paul would echo this truth in his letter to the Corinthians where he writes, For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12) God is faithful to his people. God kneels at the feet of each of our lives and says, “trust me.” We are in good hands.

Clothed in Grace

Every day one of the first questions that most people must answer is what am I going to wear today? A lot will depend on the season of the year, the weather, and what you will be doing during the day. Some people will give much thought and consideration into what they will choose to wear. Others will throw on anything to get themselves dressed. 

According to the book of Genesis, Adam and Eve did not have to make that decision in the very beginning. According to Genesis 2: 25, And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” Sin had not yet entered the picture. Their nakedness symbolized their purity. There was no need for coverings. Yet, as the story unfolds, the first couple disobeys God, sin enters the picture, and immediately they realize their nakedness. Ashamed of what they had done, they now cover themselves with leaves to hide their nakedness.  

Hiding in the bushes, God confronts Adam and Eve. God questions them and asks if they have disobeyed him. After confessing their sin, God issues a judgment. The first couple will no longer be able to remain in their garden home. With this divine eviction in place, the writer of Genesis tells us, “And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and his wife and clothed them.” (Genesis 3:21) Even though they would suffer sin’s consequences, God would not put them out in the cold.  Instead, God replaces their leafy wardrobe with garments of skin. Without his help, they would not survive in a sin broken world. God would clothe them in grace.

We are a long way from Eden, but we, too, have been clothed by God’s grace. Rather than leaving us alone in a world of sin, God offered his presence to remain with us, even in our sin. Yes, we have disobeyed God, but God refused to give up on us. Just as God’s presence would cover the sinful couple, God’s presence covers us even in our sin.

However, God still knew we needed more.  While clothed in his presence, we still suffer from our sinfulness.  As a result, God sent his only son into the world to wear and bear our sin upon the cross.  In Jesus’ death and resurrection on Calvary, God brought a new day out of Eden’s tragedy.  No longer would we be defined by our sin, but in Jesus, we are defined by God’s grace.  Paul, in his letter to the Galatia, would state it this way, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”(Galatians 3: 27).  And then to the Ephesians, Paul would write,“For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus. You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:22-24)

What we experience in Jesus is the ultimate wardrobe change.  The old self, stained and broken by sin, is clothed anew in Jesus.  Jesus returns us to the way God intended it from the beginning.  Jesus is our new beginning.  We no longer need to carry the weight of our sin and shame, but we are now clothed in God’s grace.  In Jesus, God completes the wardrobe He started with Adam and Eve.  We now wear the finished product.

Clearly Said

In listening to another person, most people talk, like when that person gets straight to the point. That is, beating around the bush or talking too much can leave you weary in your listening. We want the person to be clear and direct, so there is no misunderstanding. Let your words speak for themselves.

Jesus has a way of getting straight to the point about matters to living out one’s relationship with God. Jesus could be straightforward and get straight to the point. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is a great teacher. Nowhere is this truer than with the Sermon on the Mount. One such direct teaching is in Matthew 6: 25, where Jesus states, “Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.” It doesn’t get more direct than this as followers of Jesus. When we said yes to Jesus, we are not only accepting his gift of salvation, but we are also saying yes to a way of living. Being saved is the easy part; living out that salvation can be challenging. 

Three words: love your enemies. Yikes. Think about your enemies. While we may not label individuals as enemies, people do come to mind that we don’t like or get along with. It is impossible to live in our world and not find ourselves living in tension with others. This tension can quickly turn into hate of another person. Jesus calls us to reverse that course and instead respond in love. Love is not merely an emotional feeling towards another person, but rather love is an active response. Love is not only something you say but something you do.

With this scripture, at least, Jesus says, “do good” and “lend, expecting nothing in return.” You might say, “do good and give.” When we think about those individuals in our lives that we don’t always get along with, what would it look like if we did good and gave ourselves to them? Such behavior could be transformative in our relationships as well as in our society. Indeed, loving others, even our enemies, as Jesus commands us, can be a powerful force in our world. As Christians, Jesus didn’t offer this as a suggestion. Instead, Jesus gave us a command. Following Jesus requires a different way of living. A form of living that over and over again defined as love. Jesus said, “they will know you are my disciples by your love.” (John 13:35)

It is easy to live in a world whereby we hate our enemies and love our friends. Jesus said paraphrasing, “anyone can do that.” (Matthew 6:34) Jesus calls us to a better way. Jesus got straight to the point when he said love your enemies. Now, we have to get straight to the point of living it out in our lives.

Your Last Breath

Over the years as a pastor I have had the sacred opportunity to be with individuals when they took their last breath. In most cases, we know that death is near and so I sit with family as they watch their love one journey through the final moments of life. As we join them in their time of departure we realize that each breath could be their last one. As the breathing slows, eventually we witness that final breath. Immediately you realize that they are gone. Their body is still there before you, but the essence of their life has departed. They have taken their last breath.

Most people do not go through life thinking about their breathing unless they suffer from a serious breathing disorder. The typical person doesn’t really worry about their next breath. A human breathes about 960 breaths an hour, 23,040 breaths a day, 8,409,600 a year. Unless we get a lot of exercise, the person who lives to 80 will take about 672,768,000 breaths in a lifetime. We just naturally assume that there will be another breath.

Yet, for every individual there is a last breath. As individuals, we live with the knowledge of our mortality, even though we might deny it. Even with the length of our days extended by modern medicine, we still know that we will one day take our last breath. The question that leaves us to ask ourselves is what happens the moment after the last breath? Is it is simply the end or is there something more? Humanity since the beginning to time have pondered what happens after the last breath.

As a person of faith, I trust that the God who placed in his breath in us has a plan for when that natural breath ceases. In scripture, we read, “In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being.” (Job 12:10) According to the Bible, it is God who ultimately Lord over our living and our dying. Furthermore, as a Christian, I believe that because a person has a relationship with Jesus, when they take their last breath on earth, the next breath is the air of God’s eternal heaven. An eternity in which we will never have to be anxious about our final breath.

Yet, here in the present, each breath brings us closer to our final breath. Knowing this, we should consider now what happens next for us when that last breath is taken. This doesn’t mean we sit around stuck in fear of death, but it should lead us to contemplate what it means for us as individuals as we reflect on the moment after that last breath. While much of what happens after that last breath is still a mystery, we can trust in the God who will be there to receive us. We can live in hope, even in the face of death. A hope that we can experience in a relationship with Jesus Christ, where we trust Him with every breath of our living, even our last one.

Choose the Better Way

Regardless of which candidate wins the next presidential election, we as a nation have already lost. We lost some time ago. Regardless of who is the next president, our country will remain divided. There have always been differences, but now the division has turned ugly. We’ve stopped seeing one another as fellow citizens and have labeled one another as enemies. We accepted the “us versus them mentality” in regards to everything. Our leaders have set us against each other. The division has seeped down from the corridors of Washington and into communities, friendships, churches, workplaces, and even families. Social media has turned into a war zone of sarcasm, condemnation, and sinful pride.

But here lies our problem; our sinfulness. From the very beginning, our sin led to a breakdown of relationships. The very first sin of disobedience in the garden brought division to the first couple. They began to blame and point fingers at one another. Later, with two grown sons, one rose up and killed the other. Abel’s blood saturated the soil, and by Noah’s time, the world was full of wickedness. Sinfulness spread throughout humanity like a virus, infecting our human institutions, including our political ones.

We have surrendered to the politics of hate and destruction. We’ve not only surrendered, but we seem to relish in it. Also, we’ve become quick to see it in others, but not in ourselves. We can easily find the speck in another’s eyes but fail to see the plank in our own. We’ve decided that we are the “good,” and they are the “bad.” We’ve convinced ourselves that we are on God’s side and everyone not like us is not on God’s side. It is easy to sink into self-righteousness. Self-righteousness blinds us. It makes us unable to see our lives and others as they truly are.

Yet, until we recognize our sin and repent of it, we will never be the people God has created us to be. We will continue down the same path. While we may find some satisfaction in how things turned out the way we want in an election, we will still have lost. We cannot honor God as long as we remain divided. When we continue to malign one another, then we move further and further away from the Kingdom of God. We will continue to bear the fruit of anger, hatred, and division.

As Christians, we are called to live in light of our relationship with Jesus Christ and to bear the fruit of this relationship. Paul would write in his letter to the Church at Galatia: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23) This is the fruit we to be bearing in our daily living as followers of Jesus. Imagine what the world would like if this was the path we chose. Unfortunately, we have abandoned this fruit and chosen the fruit of hate, anger, and division. We have believed the Temptor’s lie, that this is the only way to accomplish things in our world. We have chosen power over humility, and we are now paying the price for our foolishness. 

The day after the election, nothing will have changed. This division will continue to be there until we change. Until we reject the lie of saving ourselves, we will remain lost. As the Psalmist would remind us in Psalm 146: 3-6:

Do not put your trust in princes,
    in human beings, who cannot save.
When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;on that very day, their plans come to nothing.
Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
    whose hope is in the Lord their God, He is the Maker of heaven and earth,
    the sea, and everything in them—
    he remains faithful forever.

The only real answer to our brokenness is found in God alone. Placing our ultimate hope in anything or anyone else will continue to bear bad fruit. Getting our person in office will never accomplish what placing God at the center of our hearts can. Only when God reigns in our hearts will we discover who we truly are and who we can become. I am praying that we will choose the better way. I know I am going to try.

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Free To Serve

In a nation like the United States of America, we like to stress our freedoms, and we don’t like someone trying to suppress them.  How often have we heard the remark, “this is a free country, and I can do what I want.”  We don’t like the idea of someone dictating what we can and cannot do.  When someone infringes upon our rights, then we can become outraged.  We should be free to do what we want.

In the apostle Paul’s letter to the church at Galatia, he addresses this idea of freedom.  Because of Jesus Christ, we have been set free.  Whereas the people had obediently followed the law to maintain their relationship with God, in Jesus, that relationship was now made right by God’s grace.  However, this new status before God did not give them the freedom to do whatever they wished or desired.  Instead, the freedom in Christ Jesus had a higher purpose.  In Galatians 5: 13, we read, “For you were called to freedom, brothers, and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.”  According to Paul, we should use our freedom not merely for ourselves and our own needs and wants, but we should use our freedom to serve others.

As a people of faith, we are called to center our lives not around our own needs or what is best for us, but instead, make our living about meeting others’ needs.  The question that we should ask in every situation is not, “how will this affect me” but rather, “how will this affect others?”  Through love for others, we decide how to live our lives.  Paul also states, “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  As Christians, we realize that life is not about placing us at the center but about putting others before ourselves and serving them.  We are called to love our neighbor.

Now “love your neighbor” is a broad statement and rightly so.  We tend to limit our neighbors to people just like ourselves.  However, when we are called to love our neighbor, then there are no limits on who our neighbor is.  Our neighbor may be a lot different than ourselves.  We do not get to pick and choose our neighbor, but in Christ Jesus, every person is our neighbor.  I love the signage that I sometimes see, which says:

Love Thy Neighbor

Thy Homeless Neighbor

Thy Muslim Neighbor

Thy Black Neighbor

Thy Gay Neighbor

Thy Immigrant Neighbor

Thy Jewish Neighbor

Thy Christian Neighbor

Thy Atheist Neighbor

Thy Addicted neighbor

God’s neighborhood is pretty big and diverse.  As his followers, this is where we are called to live.  As a result, we are always looking out for the interests of others before our own.  In Christ Jesus, we are free to serve others by loving others the way that Jesus did.  We are free to choose other people’s needs before our own.  We are free to put others before ourselves.  We are free to love in the same way that God has loved us:  unconditionally.  This is what true freedom looks like.

Heavy Hearts

The normal heart is about the size of a clenched fist and weighs 300 to 350 grams, less than 1 pound.  When you consider your overall weight, it is small in size.  Yet, when it comes to importance, the human heart is essential.  The human heart begins to beat in the fetus at 3 to 4 weeks.  When you consider that it then beats for the rest of human life, it is an incredible organ.

Beyond its physical importance, we use heart metaphorically in many ways.  The end of a relationship may bring a broken heart.  A sports competitor is described as playing with all their heart.  If we are not excited about something, we might say our heart is just not into it.  Or if we are overburdened by something in life, we might confess that our heart is heavy.  We might sometimes concur with the great German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “My peace is gone, my heart is heavy. ”

In Proverbs 12: 25, we read, “Anxiety weighs down the heart.”  The writer of Proverbs recognized that sometimes we have heavy hearts.  It is impossible to live in the world and not have a heavy heart at times.  When problems grow great, worry settles in, and uncertainty fills the future, we can quickly feel like our hearts are sinking.  We often use the idiom to describe such a situation by saying, “my heart sank.”

In the Gospel of John, Jesus sat around a table with his worried followers.  Jesus could tell that their hearts were sinking.  It was the night before Jesus’ death, and their lives seemed to be unraveling.  The heaviness of the hour was thick in the air, and it filled their hearts with a sense of despair.  Realizing this, Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27) Jesus’ remedy for a heavy heart is his peace.  Peace, which the apostle Paul said, “passes all understanding.” (Philippians 4:7) Our hearts need not be overwhelmed by trouble when we allow God’s peace to guard them.  God gives us peace that can hold us steady and strong, even when our hearts seem to be failing us.  God’s peace will not fail us.  We will always face difficulties and challenges living in a broken world, but we can trust that God’s peace is stronger and can lift the heaviest of hearts.

Although we might look to other things and peoples to find our peace, these will always be inadequate. While they may offer short term peace to a heavy heart, true peace of heart can only come from God.  C.S. Lewis once said, “God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.”  May we trust in the peace that passes all understanding.  May we anchor our anxious hearts to the presence of Christ Jesus, and may we live in the hope that can lift our heavy hearts.

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A Pebble in Your Shoe

It is an uncomfortable feeling.  You are walking when you realize that you have something in the shoe you are wearing.  In many cases, it may be a small rock or pebble that has found its way into your shoe.  And while it may not be huge, it can cause you discomfort and affect your walk.  Eventually, you have to sit down, take off your shoe, and remove whatever object is there.  Otherwise, you will continue to be uncomfortable, and your walk will be affected.

There are times when something happens in our daily living, causing a relationship with another to be damaged.  Something is said or not said, done or not done, that results in hurt feelings or anger.  Someone has made us mad, and we cannot stop dwelling on it.  Thus, like a small rock in our shoe, our inability to forgive and move on disrupts our lives,  leaves us irritated and frustrated.  Hence, each day we walk around miserable because of the past act, which has now turned into a grudge.  A grudge is defined as “a persistent feeling of ill will or resentment resulting from a past insult or injury.”  If you have ever carried a grudge around before, you know its impact on daily life.

The writer of the book of Proverbs in the Old Testament offers wise counsel with respect to grudges.  In Proverbs 17: 9, we read, “One who forgives an affront fosters friendship, but one who dwells on disputes will alienate a friend.”  As the writer suggests, we can easily dwell on actions in the past to the point that we grow more and more distant from our friends.  Many individuals daily live with broken relationships because of an inability to forgive.  And in many cases, this unforgiveness is a result of something relatively insignificant.  Rather than letting go of the act, we allow it to fester in our lives to the point that we walk around angry and agitated.  This can be a miserable way of living.

On the other hand, forgiveness can remove the power of an act to continue to agitate our living and, at the same time, strengthen our friendship with the person who has wronged us.  It is impossible to live in relationships with others and not be hurt at different times.  Even the best of us say and do things that bring hurt to others.  Forgiveness is like removing that rock from our shoe and then moving forward to walk anew.  It doesn’t mean we can completely forget what caused the hurt, but forgiveness allows us to let go so we do not continue to hurt.  Likewise, forgiveness is rich soil for a friendship to grow again.

Life is too short to walk around limping in unforgiveness.  Letting go and offering forgiveness to those who have wronged us sets us free to walk with a fresh new step and towards a brighter future for ourselves and our friend.

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