BETTER THAN JINGLE BELLS

BETTER THAN JINGLE BELLS

In Ready or Not: The Return of Christmas, Maureen Jais-Mick wrote: “Society never actually wanted the Incarnation. Emmanuel, God-with-Us, does not sell computer games or cologne. Society wanted the cute stuff–rustic stable, adoring shepherds, fluffy sheep, cows, donkey, holy family, infant Jesus, gift-bearing kings, stars, angels, St. Nicholas, reindeer, fir trees, holly, and presents. The pagan stuff they will retain–even if they do dye the trees powder blue and decorate them with miniature hanging appliances and Disney ornaments…The marketplace will also retain some of the traditional hymnody, but in arrangements that remove them from the realm of traditional worship. Ancient chants are popular, too. They sound religious and profound and–best of all–nobody understands Latin, so no shoppers are offended.”[1]

I was reflecting on these things as I meditated on Mary’s song, recorded for us in Luke 1:46-55. I wondered, what would it be like if a young woman stood at the rail above Santa’s house at the mall and began singing, in a pure, clear voice, this song? What if the whole sound system went quiet right after Jingle Bell Rock and one voice stood out above all the rest with this little hymn?

I think stunned silence would follow. A few would lock on and quietly enjoy her song. But most would look away uncomfortably, shuffle their feet, or go on shopping because the singer would be doing something foreign to us. She wouldn’t be performing or entertaining. She would be worshiping. And true worship at Christmas is about as foreign to us as Elmer Fudd at Easter.

Christmas is thing centered. Worship is God-centered. Things leave hearts empty. God fills hearts with peace, and joy, and confidence. Worship is the thing we’re missing at Christmas. The lack of worship – personal worship – is what is leaving us so empty.   

Mary’s heart was full of God. Her song made eight references to the activity of God in her life and the life of Israel. God filled her mind, her heart, and her mouth.  That is worship. And that kind of worship does not come about by accident. Worship that enters the presence of God is worship that comes from a life consumed with his greatness.

Getting there requires a disciplined focus on God. But that kind of focus is difficult for 21st century Americans. We have too many distractions. Too many screens, songs, and sugary treats. Not enough silence, serious reflection, and self-denial. Those things may sound like Christmas downers, but they characterized Mary’s life and made her song possible. It is not unlike landing an airplane or sinking a difficult putt. Stay focused, and it’s a thing of beauty. Get distracted, and it gets ugly.

Don’t get me wrong. I like Jingle Bell Rock as well as anyone. But worship that arrives in the presence of God is the result of a mind that has made a habit of focusing on God – his goodness, his holiness, his power, his mercy, and deeds – to the exclusion of everything else. When you learn to sing Mary’s song, nothing else will quite measure up.

[1]    — (Cresset, Dec. 1995 ).  Christianity Today, Vol. 40, no. 14.

 

PRONE TO PONDER

PRONE TO PONDER

I am prone to ponder more than most men. Most of my sex—gender is sophistry I prefer not to use—are action-oriented, more likely to take up a task than contemplate its meaning. I’m just bent a little different. It’s probably a good thing, as pondering is a professional necessity for preachers. And it’s one thing I have in common with the mother of Jesus, who “gathered up all these things and pondered them in her heart.”[1]

The word translated “ponder” means meditate. The literal translation is to converse or confer with someone. So, Mary had a conversation with herself about the things that happened to her.

One of the best ways to prepare for Christmas is to do what Mary did, to ponder the imponderables. Let’s do that with her.

First, there was the angelic visit. Abraham received angelic visitors, Jacob wrestled with one, Moses heard the angel speak, Joshua saw an angel, Gideon too and David, and Elijah and Isaiah and Daniel.  Samson’s mother, the wife of Manoah, saw and spoke with an angel. All these people of great fame and impact in Israel had seen an angel and heard one speak. Now, Mary, too, had seen and heard one of the flaming messengers. And his word to her had come true. It wasn’t a dream.

She pondered this. And it was good.

Then there was the angelic description of her son: “You are to give him the name Jesus.” Names mean little to us, just labels we use to identify each other. Names meant much more in ancient times. They designated the character and calling of a person. They were as much prayers and prophecies as they were labels. For you to call your son, Jesus was to make his name a form of praise and testimony. For an angel to give your son the name, Jesus was to make a prophecy about his life.

Calling someone a son of God wasn’t completely unheard of in those days. Caesar was considered divine. Pharaoh was called divine. Antiochus, who conquered Israel between the testaments, adopted the name Epiphanes—”the god who reveals himself.” But the angel called Jesus, the “son of the Most High,” who is lifted far above all gods and men. He is also the heir to David’s throne, the eternal King, Messiah. He comes to be a nursing infant in a peasant girl’s arms.

Mary pondered long, meditating on the meaning of all these things. And they were good.

Where would you least like to spend Christmas? I would not want to spend it in Syria or Sudan or Venezuela or several other war-torn and poverty-stricken places right now.  But multiply the distance between here and there by 1,000 or 1,000,000, and you will not come close to the distance Jesus traveled and the deprivation he endured to become Emmanuel. Meditate on that, and you will find it good.

Finally, the supernatural conception: Every mother knows her baby is special. We often call the whole process of birth a miracle. It is wondrous and beautiful, but it isn’t miraculous. It’s part of our nature, the system God created. In Jesus, God bypassed the system. Mary knew her baby was more than special. Her baby truly was a miracle.

C.S. Lewis wrote beautifully on the incarnation. Read and ponder. “Jesus was conceived when God took off the glove of nature and touched Mary with his naked finger. Thus, Jesus did not evolve up and out of history.”

“In the Christian story, God descends to re-ascend. He comes down; down from the heights of absolute being into time and space, down into humanity; down further still, if embryologists are right, to recapitulate in the womb ancient and pre-human phases of life; down to the very roots and seabed of the Nature He had created. But he goes down to come up again and bring the whole ruined world up with Him. One has the picture of a strong man stooping lower and lower to get himself underneath some great complicated burden. He must stoop in order to lift; he must almost disappear under the load before he incredibly straightens his back and marches off with the whole mass swaying on his shoulders. Or one may think of a diver first reducing himself to nakedness, then glancing in mid-air, then gone with a splash, vanished, rushing down through green and warm water into black and cold water, down through the increasing pressure into the deathlike region of ooze and slime and old decay, and then back up again, back to color and light, his lungs almost bursting until suddenly he breaks the surface again, holding in his hand the dripping, precious thing he went down to recover.”[2]

That dripping, precious thing is you, and I. Christmas is when we celebrate his coming down to us. Ponder all of that, and you will find it good.

[1] Luke 2:19

[2] The Joyful Christian, Readings from C. S. Lewis pgs. 54-55.

BEST ALPHA COURSE EVER

BEST ALPHA COURSE EVER

The church I lead ran its first Alpha Course in 2011. We’ve hosted it eight more times since then (twice one year and none in 2018) and 2019 was the best ever! The reason? Not because our team was any better than previous years. We had many of the same people. And not because the food was any better, although it was great. And not because the Alpha Course now features a high-quality video journey with two young hosts in fascinating global locations along with in-person interviews instead of just a guy giving a talk on a stage. We used the new videos in 2017. The difference was that the 2019 Alpha Course at our church had more prayer support than any previous year and it showed in at least five ways.

First, prayer preceded the partnership between the Task Force leader, me, and the Alpha Course Host, Jeff Good. Jeff and I went into this partnership after attending the Alpha Course National Leadership Conference in Arizona last winter. We prayed together in the hotel room and at other times during the conference and came away convinced that God would have us offer the course this year. After that, we agreed to meet weekly to pray for this year’s course.

If you’ve ever spent a long time praying for a specific project, you know what I mean when I say that many direct answers to prayer don’t seem all that spectacular. Things just occur or become obvious or apparent that weren’t apparent before. Things flow. For example, all we knew when we left Arizona was that we were going to offer the course and we needed to pray. We didn’t know who would lead the Task Force and who would be the Host. The Task Force leader oversees setup, meals, and clean up. The Host does PR and everything else. But over time it became apparent that, even though I’d been the host most years and I’m no cook, I should lead the Task Force and Jeff should be the Host.

Direct answers to prayer and evidence of its power appeared in other ways as well.

I realized we probably didn’t have enough budgeted to pay for all the food and the necessary advertising. We also needed a new catering plan that would involve the whole church. But before we even had the catering plan, someone donated $1,000 for the food. Then, a thought “occurred to me,” You dummy, Karen Schopen owns the best restaurant in town and has been in the hospitality business her whole career. Ask her! And voila! We had a new catering plan that included the whole church working together as a team.

But we still needed someone to massage the menus and recruit the cooks and select the right serving setup and make sure I kept everyone up to speed. Enter my excellent wife who, though she’s never cooked for fifty people in her life, knew exactly what to do and how to get it done. Almost the whole church participated. No one felt exhausted and burned out at the end. The meals were great! And the cost? We spent $942.04 on food!

Then there was childcare! Before we could even ask her, Karin Theo offered to do a children’s program concurrent with Alpha. Karin recruited helpers from the whole congregation, and we didn’t have to worry about this part at all. A big relief for me!

Technological problems overcome. We wanted this Alpha Course to feel seamless and high quality to our guests, but we also knew that, technology being what it is, glitches happen. We prayed about that and sure enough, about halfway through the course, the sound card went bad on the computer. One of our guests who is a whiz with technology had it figured out for us before dinner was over.

Finally, and most important, friends who are genuine seekers felt free and safe to ask their hardest questions and hear answers. People in the small groups developed great relationships, shared their deepest struggles, and grew closer to God. One, totally new to the area and our congregation, even joined the church.

With all that in mind I want to ask you to do three things. First, join us each week in prayer for the 2020 Alpha. Second, ask God to show you what part you can play in an Alpha Course near you. Third, begin praying and talking it up with your friends as God provides opportunity. Be ready to invite them when the time comes. I believe the 2020 Alpha Course will be the best ever!

Haven’t heard of The Alpha Course?Click here: The Alpha Course.

THE SECOND LAW OF SPIRITUAL THERMODYNAMICS

THE SECOND LAW  OF SPIRITUAL THERMODYNAMICS

Physics recognizes the second law of thermodynamics. Everything is winding down.  Everything atrophies. Everything decays unless it’s maintained.

Do you have a car? The clutches and seals in the transmission will wear out. Own a home? The siding will rot. The mortar in the bricks will need touching up. The porch will sag. The plumbing will stop up. Have a computer? Its CPU will crash if you don’t maintain it.

What most of us don’t realize is that there is a spiritual version of that law.  It’s called “the law (or doctrine) of total depravity”.  It means that the whole person is affected by something that destroys us, something that causes problems in our relationships and our communities. The mind, the will, the emotions and the body of every human being is infected with a condition known as sin. It doesn’t mean that everyone is as bad as he can possibly be. It means that left to ourselves, without something to keep us in line, we will tend toward selfish, greedy and destructive behavior.

The second law of thermodynamics means we must work at maintaining physical things. The law of total depravity means that we must work at maintaining spiritual things. That’s what Jesus meant when he said, “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt has lost its saltiness it is good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do men light a lamp and put it on under a basket, but on the lamp stand, and so it gives light to all who are in the house.” (Matthew 5:13-16).

How to pull that off? Well, it can be costly. The late Howard Hendricks told this story:

Recently, I was walking the streets in San Mateo, California. I met an attorney I knew from a local evangelical church. I said to him, “What are you doing?”

He said, “I’m looking for a job.”

I said, “You’ve got to be kidding.”

He said, “No, last week I walked out the front door of that corporation and told them, ‘You can hang it on your beak. I’m no longer going to write contracts that you and I both know are illegal and illegitimate.'”

That man is regarded as one of the top five corporate lawyers in America, and he’s unwilling to sell his value system for a mess of pottage. We need a larger core of lawyers like that.[1]

I can hear you thinking, “Yeah, we need more lawyers like that!” But to be honest we need more mechanics, more doctors, more contractors and more everybody to be like that. That’s what it means to be salt.

Without something to preserve it, the world will suffer ethical decay. Without something to light the way, the world will recede into darkness. God put his church into the world to be that something.  God put you and me here to do something for the world that the world cannot do for itself. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.

[1] Citation: Howard Hendricks, “Beyond the Bottom Line,” Preaching Today, Tape No. 101

 

HOW TOUGH IS YOUR SOUL part 3

HOW TOUGH IS YOUR SOUL part 3

In 2003, my daughters had a funny lesson on the inevitability of change. Their uncle Mike had given them a whole box of VHS tapes containing 144 episodes of Star Trek the Next Generation. The videos dated back into the 1980’s so watching them was like being in a time machine for commercials. But what really tickled the funny bone was seeing an ad for a brand new 1989 Chevy truck on Tuesday night, and then standing at the bus stop Wednesday morning, watching that same truck with 14 years and 175,000 miles on it go by. “It’s a heap!” They cried. Talk about a lesson on change!

Change is inevitable. It’s how we meet it that matters. The one luxury we cannot afford is to assume it will not touch us and refuse to prepare for it.

The nature of the human animal is to be dominant and territorial. We like to set ourselves up in a good situation and stay there. We work hard at creating stability and predictability so that we can enjoy life with the least amount of hassle. We are control oriented. Unexpected change reveals our lack of control and makes us feel naked in the cosmos.

The Bible is full of examples of God’s people meeting unexpected change. Consider Moses’ successor, Joshua, and the changes he witnessed: Slavery in Egypt, miraculous escape across the Red Sea, the Ten Commandments, the wandering in the wilderness.

For 40 years Joshua witnessed change, but that paled in comparison to what he was about to do. He was about to lead the people of God into the Promised Land itself. He was facing the walls of Jericho and he was doing it without Moses.

God had two commands for Joshua as he took up the challenge of this change, commands that still apply today.

Be strong and courageous.

In the decade leading up to 9/11 the notion was spreading that the days of strong, forthright leadership operating from the courage of conviction were passé. The world – it was assumed – was becoming a kinder, gentler place and there was just no need for confrontation when therapy or diplomacy could do the job. This was just as true in the church as it was in geo-politics.

The Bible is much more realistic than that. It teaches us that evil and danger, deceit and treachery will be in the world until Christ returns. The only way to meet those things is with strength and courage.

Those manage change well who have the courage of their convictions. But what convictions?

Stick to fundamental principles.

Strength and courage are dangerous if they aren’t harnessed to core principles that honor God and respect people. But strength and courage in the service of those principles enable us to adjust our approach to meet the need at hand.

Thomas J. Watson Jr., founder and CEO of IBM from 1956 to 1971 wrote, “I firmly believe that any organization, in order to survive and achieve success, must have a sound set of beliefs on which it premises all its policies and actions. Next, I believe that the most important single factor in corporate success is faithful adherence to those beliefs. And, finally, I believe [the organization] must be willing to change everything about itself except those.”[1]

Those manage change best whose principles are changeless.

Fear is the biggest hindrance to change. Change forces us to think, to adjust, to adapt. We prefer cruise control. When contemporary music first began to make its way in to worship many congregations rejected it. But that indicated more faith in the method than in the message. When new translations of the Bible began to compete with the KJV many churches rejected them. But that indicated more faith in the translation than the message.

As Chuck Swindoll wrote, “Extraordinary times will require of us extraordinary wisdom, vision, boldness, flexibility, dedication, willingness to adapt, and a renewed commitment to biblical principles that never change.”[2]

When the changes come—and come they will—go back to core principles and with strength, courage and wisdom apply them.

When change comes ask yourself: Am I operating with courage on core principles?

Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go.[3]

[1] Citation: Thomas J. Watson, Jr., A Business and Its Beliefs (1963); Bill White, Paramount, CA

[2] Swindoll, Chuck; Come Before Winter pg. 26.

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Jos 1:6–7). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

TOUGH SOULS Part 2: Rapid Change

TOUGH SOULS Part 2: Rapid Change

The world is changing more rapidly than it ever has before. Just take a look at some recent statistics.

Population – It took until 1850 for world population to reach 1 billion. By 1930 it was at 2 billion. By 1960 it was 3 billion. Today it is somewhere close to 7.7 billion.

Books – There were almost no books until 1500 and Gutenberg’s press came along. By 1900 there were 35,000. This year, over 2.1 million titles will be published.

Top Speed – Until 1800 the top speed for a human being was around 20 mph. Trains reached 100 mph in the nineteenth century. Now we routinely travel at 400 mph. Supersonic jets are three times faster.

Automation – the first fully automated cars were developed in the 1980’s by Mercedes Benz and DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration). In 2018, Waymo began the first fully automated commercial taxi service in the U.S.

Pick any field and a few minutes on the internet will yield data on the hyper pace of change in every one, medicine, robotics, chemistry, physics, you name it.

Change is picking up speed and for some folks that’s unsettling.

It’s much easier to adapt to change over time. But sudden change rocks us. And it doesn’t matter who you are. Unexpected change comes upon everyone. The good news is that scripture gives us timeless principles for the toughness necessary to master winds of change.

The first principle is to expect it. Expect the unexpected. Hear what Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, said about change.

I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all. (Ecclesiastes 9:11NIV).

The Pros and the CEO’s, the prima donna’s and the Politicians, each one, not to mention the rest of us will experience change. Change is inevitable. We can expect it, prepare for it or be overwhelmed by it.

The good news is that Christians need not fear unexpected change. As the people of God, we belong to the One who knows the end from the beginning. He isn’t caught off guard by change. As people of God’s Book, we have a road map for navigating happenstance.

Over the next few weeks we’ll look at these principles in depth but for now a summary might be helpful to you:

  • Change is inevitable. We can prepare for it or be overwhelmed by it.
  • Those manage change best whose principles are changeless.
  • Those manage change best who trust that God is still at work in unwanted change.
  • Those manage change best who meet it with a positive attitude.

 

HOW TOUGH IS YOUR SOUL?

HOW TOUGH IS YOUR SOUL?

Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be men of courage; be strong. Do everything in love. (1 Corinthians 16:13-14 NIV)

In my first year at the church I lead, I met a wonderful woman, about sixty years old, named Violet. I was just getting to know her when I got a call that she was in the hospital. I went to visit, and she said, “I just got dizzy and weak one day. The next day they told me my heart was bad and here I am, on my way to Duke for bypass surgery.”  Less than a week later, we were burying Violet.

The economists tell us that we are experiencing full employment, the economy is stronger than it has been in fifty years. But over the last month, five friends find themselves looking for new jobs.

Life is tough. And it only gets tougher. I’m discovering as I get older, and I know you are too, that “life is good, no worries” is at best a temporary arrangement.  “Life’s a witch” is usually waiting just around the corner.  The tough things in life are one heartbeat, one doctor’s report, one emergency phone call, one company meeting away.

And lest we think “that’s only for the older folks” I remember how suddenly I lost my friends Joseph Ramsey, a high school senior, and Steve Kotter, aged 49, who died in car accidents in 2002 and 2004. I also remember how quickly our small town lost over five thousand textile jobs, mostly to China, in the first few years we lived here.

Life is tough and it gets tougher.  In fact, life can get downright crazy. And the temptation is to spend all of our time as Christians in the “emergency room” of soul work – helping wounded people heal – instead of in the gym or on the practice field, training believers for strength and endurance and skill to face the battles.

Healing is necessary. But healing is a temporary state, or it’s supposed to be. (No one I know wants to spend one day longer in the hospital than necessary.) Growing up into full maturity, coming back into the game after an injury or illness, and playing ‘all out’ to the end is what following Christ is all about.

God wants us to be strong people, active people, resourceful people, and balanced people as we face the challenges of life. I’m going to spend the next few posts talking about how to get there.

Until then, …be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. (Eph 6:10-11 NIV).