THE LEAST OF THESE

And the King will say, “I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!” [Matthew 25:37-40 (NLT)]

zebra longwing butterflyMy friend called to make sure I’d be at an event and then asked, “Do you have a minute?” When people ask that, we all know they really mean twenty minutes. With a to-do list as long as my arm, I had a minute to spare but not twenty. Nevertheless, I’ve been praying for this woman and her family for several years. I knew she needed to unburden her heavy heart, so I said, “Yes.” Twenty minutes later, she asked to meet for lunch the following day. Again, I really didn’t have the time, but I knew she needed guidance, encouraging words and reassurance about some difficult decisions she’d made. She needed a friend!

When we read the parable in Matthew 25, we’re told not to ignore “the least of these.” When reading that verse, we are likely to think about those who are homeless, infirm, disadvantaged, impoverished, disabled, hungry or abused. But, there are suffering people everywhere and they can be suburban grandmas, wealthy businessmen, co-workers, neighbors, or in our book club, Bible study or yoga class. Sometimes, one of “the least of these” lives right next door or just down the street. While their needs are vastly different from those who are indigent or disabled, they often are just as pressing. Moreover, their needs won’t be eased by donating food, clothing or money. Serving the least doesn’t always mean providing necessities for the indigent, visiting prisoners, or even welcoming strangers. It means being present when you’re needed; giving someone an opportunity to share their loneliness, sorrow, fear, or distress; sitting silently and listening; encouraging and supporting; and praying both for and with someone. While we can schedule the day we work at the resale shop or pack groceries at the food bank, times like these are rarely on our busy calendars. Nevertheless, they are just as important.

Writing a check to a good cause would have taken far less time than the time I spent with my friend, but it would have done nothing to lift her spirits or help her find her way. Do I still have the long “to do” list? Yes. I know, however, that the time I spent with her was time spent sharing God’s love and compassion; it was time doing for Him. Moreover, I’m confident that God will somehow provide me with the time I need to complete my other tasks. He always does!

To be glad instruments of God’s love in this imperfect world is the service to which man is called. [Albert Schweitzer]

Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. [Romans 12:9 (NLT)]

And God will generously provide all you need. Then you will always have everything you need and plenty left over to share with others. [2 Corinthians 9:8 (NLT)]

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HIS FAMILY

mallard familyYou must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. [Philippians 2:5-7 (NLT)]

Jesus may have been the Son of God but, for most of His life, He chose to live as the son of a man. Luke’s words that Jesus “grew in wisdom and in stature” [2:52] lead us to believe that Jesus was bound, both physically and mentally, by the normal course of human development. He didn’t arrive as an infant who could speak in full sentences, recite the Torah, discuss Scripture with the rabbis, turn water into wine, or walk (let alone walk on water). Like other human children, Jesus had to grow, mature, and obey His earthly parents. While fully God, Jesus also was fully man, with a human nature and will; when He overcame mankind’s sinful nature by never sinning, He did that as a man.

Even though Mary and Joseph knew Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and would reign over Israel, they didn’t know the details of God’s plan or the magnitude of His power. Although they knew their son was special, they had no idea how special He really was! I can’t help but wonder what Jesus was like as a child, what was it like for Joseph and Mary to raise the Son of God, and what it was like to have God for a brother.

The gospels specifically mention Jesus’ sisters and four brothers: James, Joses, Simon, and Judas. [Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3] Some say that these siblings weren’t the children of Joseph and Mary but were cousins or distant relatives. The Greek words used, however, were specific: adelphos (brothers) and adelphe (sisters). After the wedding at Cana, John tells us that Jesus went to Capernaum with Mary, the disciples and “his brothers.” [John 2:12] Matthew, Mark, and Luke all mention that ”Jesus’ mother and brothers” came to see Him and John tells us that our Lord’s brothers had doubts about Him being the Messiah. That they eventually came to believe in Jesus is clear; they were united in prayer with the disciples after the resurrection prior to Pentecost. Paul refers to James as “the Lord’s brother” and both James and his brother Jude wrote epistles we find in the New Testament. That Jesus had siblings is clear; how they came to be is less clear.

There are many who hold that Mary remained a perpetual virgin: that she and Joseph never consummated their union. The Bible, however, does not support that assertion. Matthew wrote that Joseph did not “know” Mary (a polite euphemism for having sexual relations) until the baby was born, clearly implying that he did “know” her later. Both Matthew and Luke refer to Jesus as Mary’s “firstborn” rather than her “only” son. God ordained marriage and sex before sin entered the world and there is no reason to think Joseph and Mary did not follow His command to “become one flesh” and “be fruitful and multiply.” The sin would have been if Mary had refused to have relations with her husband. For those who want to think of Mary as a perpetual virgin, however, an alternate explanation is that Joseph was a widower and those six or more siblings were from his earlier marriage. In that case, Joseph would have been quite a bit older than Mary and, while he is described as being a righteous man, nothing indicates he’d been previously married. In this scenario, unless those children were all grown and out of his house, where were they that Christmas night in Bethlehem? No mention of a family is made.

Although He was God, Jesus came to earth to live and die as a man. I can’t imagine God wanting Jesus to grow up without experiencing the mayhem, noise, tears, conflict, teasing, and laughter that come with brothers and sisters in the house. As part of a family, Jesus learned how to play, share, wait His turn, tolerate annoying siblings, and help the little ones. The lessons He taught us about love, patience, forgiveness, generosity, and turning the other cheek were all lessons Jesus had to learn as part of a family unit. As Jesus “grew in wisdom and in stature,” he learned how to live peacefully with others, lessons that were invaluable when dealing with the petty rivalries and disputes of His disciples. As we approach the holiday season and the stress of large family gatherings, let us remember that we’re not encountering any challenges that Jesus didn’t face. He managed to do it without sin; can we?

This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most. [Hebrews 4:15-16 (NLT)]

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WORDS

A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything—or destroy it! It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell. [James 3:4-6 (MSG)]

rabbitJames warns of the dangers of an untamed tongue and the damage that can be done with ill-considered words. Although he was speaking of speech, the same goes for the written word. Whether we’re holding a pen, our fingers are speeding across a keyboard, or our thumbs are tapping out a text, our words are powerful. Whether we use them to build or destroy is our choice.

C.S. Lewis, one of the great Christian minds of the 20th century, authored more than thirty books. A man who never used a typewriter, he also was a prolific letter writer. Writing not just to friends and colleagues, he answered every letter sent to him. Most of us probably have trouble responding to someone with a quick email, yet this busy man never hesitated to handwrite a response, even to strangers or children who wrote after reading one of his books or hearing him on radio. More than 3,200 of Lewis’ handwritten letters remain and have been published in various collections. They range from the somewhat mundane (thanking someone for a ham) to the exceptional (reassuring a woman who is afraid of dying).

Often writing more than 100 letters a month, his letters show not just a deep thinker with a brilliant mind but also a compassionate man generous enough to take the time to instruct, explain, empathize, encourage, and reveal himself and his vulnerabilities. Nevertheless, Lewis once complained, “If I didn’t have so many letters to answer, I’d have time to write another book.” His words from another letter, however, explain why he did it: “Ever since I became a Christian, I have thought that perhaps the best, perhaps the only service I could do for my unbelieving neighbours was to explain and defend the belief.” He wrote those letters out of obedience to God and concern for the people who’d written to him.

While many proverbs give dire warnings about imprudent words, the other half of those proverbs often are about judicious ones. That C.S. Lewis’ letters continue to be read today illustrates the power of the written word. Rather than start a wildfire with cruel words, Lewis sowed seeds of Christ with his kind ones; may we do the same. Let us never forget the beautiful things our words, both spoken and written, can do when used wisely and with love!

Words kill, words give life; they’re either poison or fruit—you choose. [Proverbs 18:21 (MSG)]

The words of the wicked kill; the speech of the upright saves. [Proverbs 12:6 (MSG)]

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A WONDERFUL LIFE

And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. [Romans 12:1 (NLT)]

irisAround this time of year, I frequently return to Bedford Falls and get reacquainted with the conflicted George Bailey, the money-grubbing Mr. Potter, and Angel 2nd Class, Clarence Odbody. This year’s version of It’s a Wonderful Life was somewhat different. Rather than seeing the movie, I attended a theatrical production set in a New York City radio station in the 1940s. The well-known story unfolded as if it were a live radio broadcast. Just five actors took on all of the roles (along with producing the various sound effects required for a radio show). In spite of the unusual adaptation, the production remained true to the original movie’s message.

George Bailey, a building and loan banker, is an unlikely hero. Having abandoned his dreams for a life in Bedford Falls, he feels that life has passed him by. About to be thrown into jail because of his uncle’s carelessness (and Mr. Potter’s dishonesty), George realizes he’s worth more dead than alive. The other unlikely hero is Clarence Odbody, an ineffective guardian angel desperately trying to earn his wings by helping this despairing man on the brink of suicide. In spite of the story’s incredibly flawed angel theology, it’s a good tale. When George wishes he’d never been born, Clarence shows him what an ugly depraved community Bedford Falls would have been had he never lived. When George Bailey realizes how many lives would have been ruined, lost, or never even have happened, he chooses life.

While George’s perspective changes and there is a happy ending, it’s not a happily-ever-after one. Unlike Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, the evil Mr. Potter doesn’t transform. We know he’ll persist in trying to take over the town and that George will continue to have too little money at the end of the month. The challenges, disappointment, and disillusionment of George’s life don’t disappear. His sacrifices cost him dearly; his aspirations were surrendered, he lost his hearing, never attended college or traveled, worked in a job he hated, and endured financial hardship. Nevertheless, it’s a happy ending because George finally understands the sacrifice was worth it! He realizes the most important work we do is not the work we ever planned on doing.

The missing $8,000 wasn’t what caused George’s despair. He was unhappy and unfulfilled because he was concentrating on the life he wanted to live rather than loving the life he was leading. Like George, most of us have given up opportunities, hopes and dreams or endured hardship of some kind or another for the sake of others. If not, we should have because that’s what God tells us to do. Jesus made it clear that our lives were to be ones of sacrifice. We belong to Jesus rather than to ourselves. Following Jesus means we surrender to His purposes, which inevitably means we don’t always get what we wanted! We do, however, get something better (but often don’t recognize it).

The difference between George Bailey and a Christian is motivation. Bailey sacrificed out of a sense of duty to family, friends and town. Although family, friends, and community often benefit from our sacrifice, the Christian sacrifices out of love and obedience to God. George’s sense of duty was to Bedford Falls; ours is to Jesus! Our Lord was the suffering servant; can we be anything less? In spite of the difficulties encountered along the way, when we sacrifice ourselves to God, we will find such joy and peace that we’ll have no need for an angel to show us that it’s been a wonderful life!

All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away. [The motto Peter Bailey’s office in “It’s a Wonderful Life”]

If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross daily, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it. [Luke 9:23-24 (NLT)]

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SACRED

And yet, O Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay, and you are the potter. We all are formed by your hand. [Isaiah 64:8 (NLT)]

What sorrow awaits those who argue with their Creator. Does a clay pot argue with its maker? Does the clay dispute with the one who shapes it, saying, “Stop, you’re doing it wrong!” Does the pot exclaim, “How clumsy can you be?” [Isaiah 45:9 (NLT)]

turk's cap lilyI used the Lenox bone china that belonged to my mother and some of the stoneware that belonged to my husband’s grandparents at our Thanksgiving dinner. While the Lenox was special ordered from the city’s finest department store as a wedding gift in 1938, the stoneware was purchased in 1929 at the local five-and-ten-cent store. The ornate gold-rimmed Lenox is translucent and elegant; used only on special occasions, it still looks new after eighty years. The stoneware is opaque, less formal and meant for daily use; having been used every day for more than forty years, a few pieces are chipped or stained. When compared, people might think the Lenox more valuable than the stoneware, but they’d be wrong. Both are equally precious because they tell the story of generations gathering together for good food and fellowship and both sets of china served their specific purposes well.

As I laid out the plates for our holiday dinner, I thought of Isaiah’s words using the metaphor of God as a potter and us as His clay. Do we get to complain that we’re not fancy china with gold trim? Do we feel short-changed if we’re pottery instead of porcelain? We shouldn’t; God created and designed each one of us perfectly for our specific purpose. While our general purpose is to glorify God, each of us has been given a special way to accomplish that goal with our unique personalities, talents and gifts. Some, like the busy Martha, are as practical as Corningware and designed for everyday use while others, like her sister Mary, seem as impractical as the gold-rimmed Lenox that should be hand-washed. All of us, however, are special and, unlike my china, we’re not part of a set. No one else has the exact same pattern; we are one-of-a-kind limited editions!

Although the word “sacred” is usually used in a religious context, anything that is set apart is said to be sacred. For example, motherhood is a sacred calling, Wrigley Field is sacred territory to Cubs’ fans, and, for many, a roast turkey is sacred to Thanksgiving dinner. Something that is sacred can also be said to be consecrated to or belonging to God. In both uses of the word, we are sacred beings. We belong to God and He has set us apart for a specific purpose. As we celebrate our sacred uniqueness, we should be aware of everyone else’s uniqueness, as well. If we have a divine purpose, so do they; if we are sacred, so is everyone else we meet! If God’s thoughts about me are precious, so are His thoughts about my neighbor. Moreover, it’s not just my name that He’s etched into the palm of His hand—everyone’s are!

As we move into this holiday season and deal with the challenges of traffic, crowded malls, long lines at the grocery, short-tempered wait staff and sales clerks, difficult and demanding customers and bosses, meeting impossible deadlines, and the other demands that accompany Christmas, let us look at one another with the eyes of Jesus—eyes that see the sacredness and beauty of each individual, even if they have a few chips or are a little rough around the edges!

Sympathize with each other. Love each other as brothers and sisters. Be tenderhearted, and keep a humble attitude. Don’t repay evil for evil. Don’t retaliate with insults when people insult you. Instead, pay them back with a blessing. That is what God has called you to do, and he will grant you his blessing. [1 Peter 3:8-9 (NLT)]

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CHRISTMAS IS LOVE

mourning dovesLove never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, Doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, Isn’t always “me first,” doesn’t fly off the handle, Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, doesn’t revel when others grovel, Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, puts up with anything. Trusts God always, always looks for the best, Never looks back, but keeps going to the end. [1 Corinthians 13:4-7 (MSG)]

I just received my first Christmas card and letter. While reading about the family’s year of stellar accomplishments and fantastic vacations, I was reminded of my all-time favorite holiday letter. Several years ago, a friend reported that his eldest boy had founded the Young Entrepreneur Club at his high school and was in the process of patenting an investment model based on quantum economics. The middle child had received an award from the Nevada Humane Society for his efforts to find homes for dogs deserted in the desert and the youngest boy had designed a Lego-themed online game and been granted a summer internship at Legoland in California. Amazed by his sons’ achievements, I read on. In the next paragraph, when I read that the boys’ mom had become a cheerleader for the Lingerie Football League, I finally realized the letter was all in fun. Indeed, in the last paragraph, my friend continued with a more accurate depiction of his family.

Remembering his letter got me thinking about the Christmas cards and letters we receive and the social media postings we see. Sometimes they’re no more accurate than my friend’s tongue-in-cheek missive. We’re led to believe that everyone else’s children and grands are future Olympians or Nobel Prize winners, that it never rains on vacations, families never disagree, everyone else’s child is on the honor role, they all entertain like Martha Stewart, pipes never break, toilets never back-up, nobody has any debts, and the family photograph didn’t require hours of preparation and several retakes!

Granted, none of us want to read the gruesome details of someone’s surgery or bout with shingles but let’s never make the mistake of comparing our lives to holiday letters or social media “reality.” It’s not the awards, triumphs, possessions, gourmet meals, or holidays that hold a family together; it’s love.

It’s love that endures a partner who snores, toddler temper tantrums, teen-age angst and rebellion, and gets us through a diagnosis of Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, dirty bathrooms, harsh words, and the loss of a job. It’s love that helps us survive flooded basements, the in-laws, sleepless nights, dirty diapers, piles of laundry, muddy floors, broken arms and broken hearts. Love is what helps with homework, spends hours sitting on hard bleachers cheering a child who plays for three minutes, and forgives the forgotten anniversary or the over-drawn checkbook. That’s love teaching a boy to ride a bike, caring for a handicapped spouse, emptying bedpans, saying “No,” to an addicted daughter, refusing to write a child’s book report for him, waiting up for the high schooler, and grounding him when he’s late. It’s love that doesn’t complain about a scorched shirt, getting hopelessly lost, or a misplaced key. Love attends dance recitals and grade school band concerts, sits for hours at a hospital bedside, and patiently listens to the same story the umpteenth time.

While none of those things are Facebook or holiday letter worthy, they are far more important. As this holiday approaches, let us remember to look further than the cards and letters, decorations, Christmas tree, music, and gifts. Let us remember Christmas is about love: a God who loved the world so much that He gave His only Son so that all who believed in Him would not perish but have eternal life!

Christmas, my child, is love in action. Every time we love, every time we give, it’s Christmas. [Dale Evans Rogers]

Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions. [1 John 3:18 (NLT)]

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