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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BEING GRATEFUL FOR WHAT WE HAVE – THANKSGIVING DAY 2019

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? [Matthew 16:24-26 (ESV)]

great blue heron with snake“As an inmate on death row, I am under many restrictions,” began the writer of my morning’s devotion. Realizing that he’d constantly been asking God for more, the prisoner prayed that God would help him be more grateful for what he already had. Curious about the author, a quick internet search told me that thirteen years ago he was convicted on one count of burglary and two of first-degree murder. His brutal crime was premeditated, there was no question of his guilt and one could say he was “as guilty as sin;” then again, so are we all! It was in prison that he found Jesus.

I pondered how a man, awaiting lethal injection, would choose to pray that God would help him be more grateful. Having lost his appeal to the state Supreme Court, wouldn’t he have some more pressing requests? Nevertheless, after praying for more gratitude, the inmate wrote of smelling the aroma of soup and being thankful that he had soup to satisfy his hunger. Mind you, that was prison food for which he was thankful, not a gourmet dinner! Writing that he sensed God’s pleasure at his gratitude, he understood that God had given him all he really needed and would continue to meet his needs; he was content with that knowledge.

Recently, a friend told me of her morning’s prayers. Although she has plenty more for which to be grateful than an inmate on death row, she was far from content. Admitting to a litany of complaints and entreaties, she was in the midst of her petitions when she distinctly heard the Spirit’s voice: “Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.” Immediately seeing that her way clearly was not God’s, the tenor of her prayers changed. Realizing that she had all she truly needed, she stopped fixating on what she lacked; gratitude and praise replaced her grievances and appeals.

Perhaps, because there are so many restrictions on what he can do and have, the death row inmate truly understands the rest of today’s verse: “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” His prison job earns him less than $3 an hour and he lives in a cell furnished with only a sink, toilet, bed, and wall-mounted writing table. With two officers monitoring him at all times, he has no privacy. Although he is allowed one visit (with no more than two visitors) per week, no physical contact is permitted. In prison until his execution or he dies of old age, he has already lost most of his life. There is little that he can hold on to but his soul. Perhaps, having so little, it was easier for him to give what little he had left to God.

If we took serious inventory, the vast majority of us are more like my complaining friend than the prisoner. Yet, even having more than enough and little about which to grumble, we tend to want more of something or a better version of what we already have. Our prayers tend to be more along the line of “My will be done” than “Thy will be done.”

Let our prayers today be ones of gratitude. May we join that prisoner in asking God to help us to focus on the gifts right in front of us rather than obsessing about what we lack. Let us find our contentment in Christ.

You say, “If I had a little more, I should be very satisfied.” You make a mistake. If you are not content with what you have, you would not be satisfied if it were doubled. [Charles Spurgeon]

But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. [1 Timothy 6:6-8 (ESV)]

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FROM START TO FINISH

Together they will go to war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will defeat them because he is Lord of all lords and King of all kings. And his called and chosen and faithful ones will be with him. [Revelation 17:14 (NLT)]

Christ the KingSeeing the rise of secularization, communism, fascism, and atheism following World War I, Pope Pius XI instituted the Feast of Christ the King in 1925. He wanted to remind Christians who their only King was and that it was Christ (and Christ alone) who should reign in our hearts! Originally celebrated the last Sunday in October, the feast day was moved to the last Sunday of the liturgical year in 1969. In spite of being created by the Roman Catholic Church, many Protestants including Episcopalians, Methodists, Lutherans, and Presbyterians celebrate the day.

This year, Christ the King Sunday was yesterday. Celebrating Christ’s second coming, His messianic kingship, and His sovereign rule over all creation, it marked the end of the church year. Next Sunday, the first Sunday in Advent, begins the new liturgical year. Advent means “the arrival or coming of something” and, for Christians, Advent is a time of preparing to celebrate Christ’s first arrival (his incarnation) and also a time of anticipating His second coming “when the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, will be revealed.” [Titus 2:13].

While our children or grands might have candy filled Advent calendars to help them count down to Christmas, many adults observe this season of anticipation with a spiritual discipline, such as memorizing Scripture or Bible reading. Although no Christmas Eve service would seem complete without hearing the account of Christ’s birth in Luke 2,  there are twenty-three other chapters in Luke’s gospel! If you started December 1 by reading one chapter in Luke and read another chapter every day until the 24th, you’d wake up Christmas morning having read the entire gospel. As we busy ourselves in preparation for the holidays, reading Christ’s story and words might keep our minds on the reason for Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem some 2,000 years ago.

The last week before Christmas, when life gets busier and it’s harder to keep centered on Jesus, Luke’s narration can keep us grounded in Christ as we see God’s plan fulfilled. On the 18th, Jesus will predict His death for the third time. In the next day’s reading, before taking His triumphant entry into Jerusalem, Jesus will tell His followers what is expected of them between His departure and second coming. We’ll read of His conflict with the religious leaders on the 20th. On the 21st, Jesus warns the disciples about the future: the persecution, the tribulation, and second coming. It will be Judas’ betrayal, the last supper, and Peter’s denial on the 22nd and Jesus’s trial, crucifixion, death and burial on the 23rd. Finally, on the 24th, we’ll read of His resurrection and ascension. Hopefully, as Luke’ words take us from annunciation to ascension, Christmas morning will be a more meaningful to us all.

May we always remember that Jesus is the only reason for the season!

The immense step from the Babe at Bethlehem to the living, reigning triumphant Lord Jesus, returning to earth for his own people–that is the glorious truth proclaimed throughout Scripture. As the bells ring out the joys of Christmas, may we also be alert for the final trumpet that will announce his return, when we shall always be with him. [Alan Redpath]

I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! [Luke 2:10b-11 (NLT)]

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WORLD KINDNESS DAY

Don’t ever forget kindness and truth. Wear them like a necklace. Write them on your heart as if on a tablet. Then you will be respected and will please both God and people. [Proverbs 3:3-4 (NCV)]

Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around. [Leo Buscaglia]

world kindnessThe mission of the World Kindness Movement (WKM) is to “inspire individuals and connect nations to create a kinder world.” Having no political or religious affiliations, the WKM is an international coalition of like-minded kindness NGOs (non-governmental organizations typically set up to address a social or political issue). Since its introduction in 1998, “World Kindness Day” has been observed every November 13. The purpose of this day is to “highlight good deeds in the community because kindness is the common thread that unites us all.”

When I looked at one kindness NGO website, it asked participants to pledge a good deed for today. Another site, hoping to make kindness a norm, made a series of suggestions, not just for November 13, but for every day! They suggested things like sharing a compliment or letting someone merge into your lane with a smile and a wave (and I don’t think they were suggesting using your middle finger in that wave). Other sites’ suggestions for Kindness Day included extra big hugs, three random acts of kindness, writing a thank you note, spending ten minutes cleaning up a park or playground, sending flowers to a friend, wheeling out your neighbor’s trash bin, visiting with someone who’s lonely, hiding a love note in that special someone’s purse or pocket, providing donuts to your co-workers, and bringing cookies to a neighbor. In this day and age, I’d be rather cautious about those extra big hugs unless you’re absolutely sure they’d be welcome, but the other ideas are all good. What bothers me is that we seem to need a day dedicated to kindness and a list of ways to do it. As Christians, shouldn’t kindness be the norm? After all, kindness is a fruit of the Holy Spirit and we all should be bearing His fruit!

While working on this devotion, I came across a recent “Pearls before Swine” comic (by Stephan Pastis). In the first frame, Pig is adding the 37th hash mark to his whiteboard list of “Badness in the World.” In the next frames, he’s seen walking into the city and then down a dark alley where he gives money to a ragged man sitting by a trash can. In the final frame, we again see Pig’s whiteboard. While it still has 37 marks in the “Badness” column, a “Goodness” column has been added. Pig confides to his friend Goat, “I’ll even this thing yet.” “Good for you, Pig!” I thought, “We can make a difference.”

Curious about the comic strip, I did a little research. Pig’s creator, Stephan Pastis, describes him as a “gentle, sweet and naïve soul…a bit slow-witted…a living rebuttal to those people who say that swine are intelligent animals.” Based on his description of Pig, I don’t know if Pastis was encouraging acts of kindness or was saying that only the dim-witted think they’ll ever be able to change the world!

Perhaps I’m being as naïve and gullible as Pig, but I truly believe that kindness can make a difference. As individual Christians, while we may not be able to change the world, we can change the world for someone. Moreover, when we work together, we can help change the world for many! When Jesus told us to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, He also told us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. [Mark 12:30-31] In short, He told us to be kind—every day and in every way. We don’t need to make a pledge to do a good deed today; as the hands and feet of Jesus, we should be doing good deeds all day, every day! Let’s put some more hash marks on Pig’s “Goodness” list!

Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours. [Teresa of Avila]

We show we are servants of God by our pure lives, our understanding, patience, and kindness, by the Holy Spirit, by true love, by speaking the truth, and by God’s power. [2 Corinthians 6:6 (NCV)]

God has chosen you and made you his holy people. He loves you. So you should always clothe yourselves with mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Bear with each other, and forgive each other. [Colossians 3:12-13a (NCV)]

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FOR ALL THE SAINTS

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints…[1 Corinthians 1:2a (ESV)]

The early Christians often marked anniversaries of the martyrdom of Christ’s followers. By the fourth century, however, there’d been so many martyrs that there weren’t enough days to honor them all and the idea of one feast day honoring all the martyrs began. In 609, Pope Boniface IV established an All Saints Day in May. After Christianity came to Ireland, the Roman church attached the Feast of All Saints to the already established pagan holiday of Samhain (a celebration of the end of the harvest) and, in 847, Pope Gregory IV formally rebranded this Celtic festival as All Saints Day. Today is All Saints’ Day: a day to commemorate all of the saints, not as determined by a Pope, but as defined in the Bible.

Biblically speaking, what is a saint? The word “saint” comes from the Greek word hagios meaning “consecrated to God, holy, scared, pious.” Sainthood isn’t conferred by people; it is granted by God to all who trust in Christ. When Paul addressed his letter to the Corinthians, it was to “those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints…” Even though they were struggling with issues like immorality, jealousy, and divisiveness, those early Christians were saints because they’d been made holy when they united with Jesus.

Sainthood wasn’t reserved for the Corinthians; Paul also referred to the believers in Rome, Ephesus, Philippi, Colosse, and Thessalonica as saints. Simply put, saints were and still are the Christian church—the body of Christ. All Christians (as flawed as we are) are called to be saints—not just in heaven but right here on earth. No martyrdom, miracles, heroic virtue, or canonization is required. Simply by being followers of Christ, you and I—everyday garden-variety believers—are saints! As His saints, like the Corinthians, we are called to grow more and more like Christ every day. Scripture, however, never tells us to revere, worship or pray to saints. Rather, it tells us that the saints (meaning us) are to revere, worship, and pray to God alone.

For Roman Catholics, the focus of All Saints’ Day tends to be on the “official” saints (those people canonized by the Pope). Nevertheless, regardless of denomination, this is a day for all of the living saints (that’s us) to remember the saints who went before us. We have never been alone in our journey of faith; along with the Holy Spirit, we encountered believers (saints) who demonstrated their faith, pointed the way, urged us on, answered our questions, and corrected us when we strayed.

If we were to make a list of those who influenced our Christian walk, there might be some big name champion saints like the Gospels’ writers and Paul, the Wesleys, Martin Luther, Augustine, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, C.S. Lewis, Corrie ten Boom, or Billy Graham. There are, however, many ordinary run-of-the-mill Christians who guided us on our journey: saints like our parents, grandparents, neighbors, schoolmates, teachers, friends, co-workers, pastors, or even strangers, whose faithfulness encouraged us on our journey. Today, in honor of all the saints of God, let’s remember the life and witness of those people, both known and unknown, who were a part of our personal salvation stories—the people who strengthened our faith by their words and actions and led us to where we are today.

Who are the heroes in your individual Christian history? Who would you acknowledge in your spiritual memoir? Let their examples of faith spur you onward.

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. [Ephesians 2:17-22 (ESV)]

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TRANSFORMING PUMPKINS

Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. [Romans 12:2 (NLT)]

The Food Network’s “Outrageous Pumpkins” features remarkable pumpkin artistry as it pits four pumpkin carvers against one another in a three-round competition. Competitors create traditional Jack O’Lanterns, 3-D pumpkin carvings, and then their own free-style pumpkin masterpieces. Using everything from melon ballers to huge saws, they make intricate designs and sculpt extraordinary and intricate works of art. As someone who is severely pumpkin-challenged (and eventually purchased a permanent Jack O-Lantern that came with an electric light), I am impressed by the skill of these pumpkin artists.

Watching those carvers transform what is nothing more than a large gourd into a work of art, I couldn’t help but think of another artist who is in the business of transformation: God. There are both similarities and differences between transforming pumpkins into Halloween décor and transforming people into Christians. In both cases, the finished product bears little resemblance to what it once was (but, instead of becoming something frightening and macabre, the Christian becomes more beautiful)!

Both carvers and God start by making a selection but, unlike the pumpkin artists, God isn’t looking for perfection. He’ll take any color, size, condition or age. Scratches, bruises, blemishes, a dried up stem, and even a little mold or rot won’t keep anyone from His workshop. Just as the carvers cut into the pumpkins and scrape out all of the slimy stuff inside, God opens us up but, rather than scooping out our guts, He scrapes away things like fear, anger, despair, doubt, hate, pride and greed. Instead of an X-Acto knife, vegetable peeler, saw, or drill, God’s tools consist of His word, the church, and both blessings and challenges. Just as those artists’ imaginative creations surpass the toothy smile and triangle eyes of the typical Jack O’Lantern, each one of God’s creations is a one-of-a-kind custom design. The pumpkin carvers, preferring something frightening or creepy, usually give their creations a menacing face. Although the Christian’s outward appearance may not change, God wants His handiwork to spread faith, hope and love rather than terror or dread so He gives us a far nicer demeanor. Occasionally, the carvers make small mistakes; when that happens, they either alter their designs or use a toothpick to reattach a piece. Unlike the carvers, God never makes a mistake; every one of His creations is a masterpiece.

Although the carvers leave their pumpkins hollow, God fills His people with the Holy Spirit and His gifts. Wanting their creations to glow from the inside out, both the carver and God insert lights. While the carver uses either a candle, light bulb or flashlight, the Christian’s light comes from the Holy Spirit. Eventually, the pumpkin’s light will cease shining; God’s light, however, lasts a lifetime. While the “Outrageous Pumpkins” competitors perform their artistry in hope of winning $10,000 and a gold medal (along with bragging rights), God transforms His children out of love. Unlike carvers in the competition, God has no time limit and continues tweaking us until our dying day.

The “Outrageous Pumpkins” competition is held for a few weeks around Halloween, but God transforms people all year long. Although the pumpkins have no choice about being chosen, washed, and carved, we are free to reject God’s hand in transforming our lives. It’s wise to remember, however, that any pumpkins remaining in the patch after harvest eventually rot and decompose; the same goes for us. Alas, in spite of all their artistry, those fantastic pumpkin creations are temporary. Even when dipped in a mild bleach mixture, they soon will turn moldy and soft; eventually, they’ll end up in the trash. Not so with God’s handiwork! Unlike carved pumpkins, Christians tend to improve over time; in fact, they last forever.

This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! [2 Corinthians 5:17 (NLT)]

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