So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. [2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (ESV)]

monarch butterflyNo matter what translation is used for the above verses, I find it difficult to picture something that is described as suffering, trouble, affliction, or tribulation as being small, little, or light. Moreover, while I’d like afflictions to be so, they rarely seem to be temporary or momentary. Perhaps, I’m splitting hairs but what exactly is “momentary” and “light” when it comes to suffering and affliction?

While Paul was writing about his persecution as a follower of Christ, what of other hardships and woes? Does “light and momentary” describe the twelve years of constant bleeding and painful treatments endured by the woman with the “issue of blood,” the thirty-eight years the man lying by the pool at Bethesda had been an invalid, or Job’s grief at the loss of his family and the agony of his illness? Is “temporary” the sixteen years Anthony Broadwater spent in prison after being wrongfully convicted of rape or the thirty years Michael J. Fox has suffered from Parkinsons? Is “momentary, light distress” the three hours Jesus suffered on the cross, the nine months during which Elizabeth Smart experienced being raped by her kidnapper, or the six years John McCain was tortured as a prisoner of war? Does “passing trouble” describe the mental anguish of my bipolar uncle who spent the last twelve years of his life in a mental hospital? Could the twenty years my brother-in-law struggled with Parkinson’s or the thirty my sister dealt with MS be described as “short-lived”? What of the nearly fifty-five years Joni Eareckson Tada has spent as a quadriplegic and the chronic stabbing pain, COVID complications, and two cancer diagnoses she’s endured? Is her suffering merely “momentary, light distress”? When we’re the ones hurting, even if only from an abscessed tooth or a pinched nerve, nothing about it seems light or momentary!

Paul knew what he was talking about; he’d been whipped, beaten, stoned, imprisoned, and shipwrecked and his life was in continual jeopardy because of his ministry. He knew struggle, hunger, betrayal, hardship, persecution, pain, and affliction first-hand. Nevertheless, he also knew that every trial, no matter how he suffered, was just a prelude to the resurrection power of Jesus!

Regardless of its length or severity, for a believer, our suffering here on earth is light and momentary, especially in light of the many blessings we receive in the midst of our afflictions or the adversities suffered by others. Our suffering is small and momentary when compared to what we actually deserve or to what Jesus did for us. Most of all, whatever our afflictions may be, they are “but for a moment” in the light of eternity. No matter how long we live or how difficult our lives are, our years here are a mere dot on God’s eternal timeline. Though our afflictions may last a lifetime, they will not have the last word! What waits for us is eternal not temporary and, rather than light, it is heavy because it is the entire weight of God’s glory!

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. [Romans 8:18 (ESV)]

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. [2 Corinthians 5:1 (ESV)

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No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us. [Philippians 3:13-14 (NLT)]

I’m diggin’ up bones, I’m diggin’ up bones
Exhuming things that’s better left alone
I’m resurrecting memories of a love that’s dead and gone
Yeah tonight I’m sittin’ alone diggin’ up bones. [Randy Travis]

lotusI was listening to Randy Travis sing, “I’m diggin’ up bones, exhuming things that’s better left alone.” It seemed an appropriate song for this time of year when we tend to dwell on the past—not just past loves, but past losses, mistakes, oversights, misunderstandings, injuries and pain. As one year ends and another begins, we often dig up all the grievances, regrets, and ”if onlys” of our yesterdays.

The word Randy Travis uses is “exhuming” and that’s a powerful word. When we exhume something, we’re not just digging in the dirt for weeds or post holes—we’re digging a corpse out of its grave and that’s a gruesome ghoulish thought. Once a body is buried, it’s meant to be left undisturbed; that also goes for all those old memories of things dead and gone.

When we dig up the past, we’re trying to rewrite history. Even if we could have a do-over, we would do no better the second time; we’d just make different mistakes and still have regrets! From any time-travel novel or movie, we know that time-traveling is complicated; small changes in the past can have major, and often bad, ramifications. In Back to the Future, Marty McFly nearly erases himself when he accidentally becomes his mother’s high school romantic interest. In Stephen King’s novel 11/22/63, after the protagonist prevents JFK’s assassination, he sadly discovers that the world is worse off because of his actions. Moreover, it’s our history—all of those sad, terrible, painful, embarrassing, frightening, and distressing experiences, along with all the good ones—that make us who and what we are today. We’re us, not in spite of the past, but because of our past.

If we don’t like who or where we are in life, that’s not the past’s fault and it’s certainly not God’s. Tomorrow is the start of a brand new year and we can make a fresh start. The good thing about God’s mercy, love and forgiveness is that we don’t need to wait another 365 days before we can start fresh again. God specializes in fresh starts and we can begin anew any moment of any day. Each minute we waste digging up the bones of the past is a minute we’ve lost to the wonders of the here and now. The only moment we have is this one; let us use it wisely and leave the old bones (and memories) where they belong—dead and buried.

The only way to get rid of your past is to make a future out of it. [Phillips Brooks]

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing. Then the God of peace will be with you. [Philippians 4:8-9 (NLT)]

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Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.” King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard this. … He sent soldiers to kill all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, based on the wise men’s report of the star’s first appearance. [Matthew 2:1-3a,16b (NLT)]

Herod the king, in his raging, Charged he hath this day
His men of might in his own sight All young children to slay.
That woe is me, poor child, for thee And ever mourn and may
For thy parting neither say nor sing, “Bye bye, lully, lullay.”
[Coventry Carol (Robert Croo)]

Ruthless and paranoid about would-be usurpers to his throne, King Herod killed three of his sons, several uncles and cousins, and one each of his wives, mothers-in-law, and brothers-in-law to protect his regime and keep his crown. Having been crowned “King of the Jews” in 40 BC by the Roman Senate, it’s not likely a man like that would be willing to share his title with an infant destined to be king. To safeguard his reign, the merciless king ordered the death of Bethlehem’s baby boys.

While there is no historical evidence of this slaughter, the story is plausible. It’s easy to believe that Herod, the Kim Jung-un/Joseph Stalin/Mao Zedong of the ancient world, would order the death of innocent children. When he was dying, the heartless king hatched a diabolical plan to gather all of the Jewish leaders and execute them upon his death. By doing this, he guaranteed that, instead of people rejoicing at his death, the entire nation would mourn. It was during the time of his illness that he ordered the slaughter of the infant boys of Bethlehem.

Perhaps, because the early church grossly inflated the number killed by Herod’s men to between 14,000 and 144,000, historians question its historicity. In actuality, Bethlehem’s population at the time was somewhere between 300 and 1,500 so there probably would have been no more than 20 boys under the age of two. While the death of even one child is a tragedy, the deaths of 20 babies in a time of high infant mortality probably wasn’t newsworthy.

The first Christian martyr wasn’t Jesus on Calvary or even the sainted Stephen; it was some nameless baby boy in Bethlehem.  St. Augustine called these murdered children the “flowers of the martyrs” and “the first buds of the Church killed by the frost of persecution,” while pointing out that “they died not only for Christ but in His stead.” Those innocent children may have gone unnoticed by ancient historians but they had names and mothers and their loss was noticed by all who knew them. Having only sung the first two verses of “Coventry Carol,” I hadn’t realized that, rather than a simple lullaby, it is a mother’s lament for her doomed child.

Recalling this slaughter and picturing mothers desperately trying to save their boys is the dark side of Christmas. Around 485 AD, Herod’s massacre was commemorated in a feast day called “Holy Innocents” or “Childermas.” Today, several churches celebrate the Feast of the Holy Innocents by remembering the preciousness of children.

As we recall Herod’s victims and thank God for the children with which we have been blessed, let us also remember the holy innocents of the twenty-first century. Not just children, they are the refugees and homeless, the hungry and disenfranchised, as well as the elderly, mentally ill, sick, and isolated. Today’s holy innocents are the victimized, poverty-stricken, vulnerable, and casualties of war. They all are God’s precious children. How can we protect them from the Herods of today?

We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen [Collect for Holy Innocents from the Book of Common Prayer]

Herod’s brutal action fulfilled what God had spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A cry was heard in Ramah—weeping and great mourning. Rachel weeps for her children, refusing to be comforted, for they are dead.” [Matthew 2:17-18 (NLT)]

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Words bubble up from waters deep within a person; a stream gushes from the fountain of wisdom. [Proverbs 18:4 (VOICE)]

Reichenback Falls - Switzerland“A children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story,” said C.S. Lewis. I agree and admit to enjoying the seven books comprising Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia both as a child and an adult. Even though the Narnia books take place in a make-believe world filled with talking animals, mythical creatures, and magic, there are Christian overtones to the entire series. For example, the first book calls up images from Genesis when Aslan, the Great Lion, sings Narnia into existence and evil is introduced to the land. In the second, Aslan willingly dies so that the sins of one boy are forgiven but comes alive again. In another book, Eustace, who had “greedy, dragonish thoughts” becomes a dragon. When Aslan strips away the boy’s scales and throws him into the water, the repentant boy is transformed and images of rebirth and baptism come to mind. Resembling the last book of the Bible, the final story in the series tells of a beast, a false prophet, Narnia’s fall, and a Narnian paradise (where sadness and weariness do not exist).

In spite of the Christian symbolism throughout the series, Lewis never set out to use his fairy tale as a way of writing a “Christian” book for children. “Everything began with images, a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion. At first there wasn’t even anything Christian about them,” said Lewis. In fact, that image of the faun had been in his mind since he was 16, long before he became a believer. When Lewis began writing The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, he thought it would be the last in the series. He didn’t anticipate writing four more Narnia books and evoking the end times with the last one. How then did his books become “Christian”? The author explained: “That element pushed itself in of its own accord. It was part of the bubbling.”

Without deliberately meaning to do so, Lewis’ deep faith in Christ couldn’t help but bubble over into his work. As the tale solidified, Lewis found himself answering the imaginary question of “What might Christ become like if there really were a world like Narnia, and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as He actually has done in ours?” The question, however, came after he’d begun writing the answer.

Lewis’ phrase, “part of the bubbling,” got me thinking. Gifted with a brilliant mind, C.S. Lewis has been called “one of the intellectual giants of the 20th century.” Nevertheless, I don’t think those stories sprang just from his genius; they came from the presence of the Holy Spirit! His genius may have put the words on paper but the spring from which they bubbled over was filled with Biblical truth, Christian doctrine, and love of God. Once Lewis became a believer, he couldn’t help but put Christian ideals and a Biblical worldview into everything he said or wrote.

None of us are likely to be called intellectual giants but, as followers of Jesus, I wonder if what bubbles out of us in our day-to-day existence reflects our faith the way it should. Instead of imagining what Christ would be like in Narnia, perhaps we should consider what He would be like in our world today and then make Him visible in our words and actions. What bubbles from our fountain?

There is but one good; that is God. Everything else is good when it looks to Him and bad when it turns from Him. [C.S. Lewis]

Do not slack in your faithfulness and hard work. Let your spirit be on fire, bubbling up and boiling over, as you serve the Lord. [Romans 12:11 (VOICE)]

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Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, “Come at once and recline at table”? Will he not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink”? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.” [Luke 17:7-10 (ESV)]

black-crowned night heronWhen she lived in Florida, my mother-in-law hired a woman to do the cleaning. In spite of representing herself as a “cleaning service,” this woman had a long list of “won’ts”—won’t do windows, mirrors, get on step ladders, move furniture, or bend over to wipe the baseboards, etc. Nevertheless, she always had a long list of complaints and financial needs that she was more than willing to share.

I wonder if that’s how we are in our relationship with God. Instead of being a willing servant who snaps to attention when his master calls and does what is asked, we have a list of “won’ts”—won’t obey, give, forgive, love, go where Gods sends us, or inconvenience ourselves. Nevertheless, in spite of our unwillingness to do for Him, we always have a long list of things we want from Him or complaints about the blessings we’ve already received.

Thinking we have a master probably makes us uncomfortable; we don’t want to think we’re subservient to anything or anyone. Instead of a master/servant relationship with our Lord, we’d prefer having a giver/receiver relationship with Him. Rather than serving Him, we’d prefer Him serving us and, as our generous benefactor, He continually would bestow gifts and blessings on us. When we think of God as our father, we’d prefer an indulgent father who’s long on generosity and short on discipline rather than one who expects obedience from His children. We’re happy to think of God as a protector shielding us from harm, a heavenly bail bondsman bailing us out of problems, or a pleasant and undemanding friend, but not so thrilled about having a master. While we’d prefer God being a trusted advisor whose advice we would follow if we liked it, He’s more of a dictator (albeit a benevolent one) whose word is law and whose plan is to be followed (like it or not)!

Make no mistake about it—God is more than a provider, parent, defender, rescuer, comrade, or counselor. God is our master and we are His servants. Rather than serving God with a list of “won’ts,” let us approach our master with the willing, eager, and obedient heart of a servant. Unlike that house cleaner, rather than serving for a reward of some kind (and complaining all the while), good servants whole-heartedly and joyfully serve God because they know, love, and trust Him. The central theme of Scripture is servanthood; may we always serve as did Jesus—the greatest servant of all.

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. [Philippians 2:3-8 (ESV)]

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This, you see, is how much God loved the world: enough to give his only, special son, so that everyone who believes in him should not be lost but should share in the life of God’s new age. After all, God didn’t send the son into the world to condemn the world, but so that the world could be saved by him. [John 3:16-17 (NTE)]

While we’re busy decorating our homes, planning holiday menus, finding the perfect gift for everyone on our list, and stressed about supply chain issues and shipping delays affecting the receipt of those gifts, let’s not forget that we’re in the season of Advent. This is a time for us to prepare for the second coming of Christ and to ponder the gifts of hope, love, peace, and joy we received with His first coming.

Although the observation of Advent has no Biblical mandate and its traditions vary throughout various denominations and nationalities, many churches observe this season with an Advent wreath and candles. At our northern church, last Sunday’s candle was the Prophet’s Candle, the candle of hope. This Sunday’s candle will be the Bethlehem candle, the candle of love. It was on that holy night in Bethlehem long ago that God’s love for His fallen children took on human form. When thinking about this amazing gift of love, the words of Christina Georgina Rossetti’s beautiful poem come to mind. “Love came down at Christmas, love all lovely, love divine; love was born at Christmas, star and angels gave the sign.”

God is love and that baby born in Bethlehem so very long ago was God! When love was made manifest in Jesus, we saw that love is far more than an abstract idea or emotion. We not only saw how much God loved us, but we also saw what real love looks like, and it has nothing to do with expensive gifts, gaily wrapped boxes, beautifully decorated cookies, or wreaths, colored lights, and tinsel. It has to do with serving others, humility, patience, compassion, forgiveness, generosity, mercy, and sacrifice.

In a season marked by materialism, stress, shopping, over-eating (and drinking), travel, and entertaining, let us reflect upon the love of a God who, rather than giving up on his sinful rebellious children, loved us enough to sacrifice his only Son for our salvation. That Son was “love incarnate, love divine” as He put on the flesh of humanity, was born of a woman, suffered and died for us just so He could redeem us with His own blood! Born in Bethlehem over two thousand years ago, He loved us enough to become flesh and blood, not so that He could be with us, but so that we could be with Him!

It’s been pointed out that, while it’s easy to believe in Christmas and even easier to celebrate it, it’s much harder to live Christmas. “Love incarnate, love divine” is the true meaning of Christmas. As God loved us, may we love others in the same way, not just in this season, but all year long.

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, love divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and angels gave the sign.
Worship we the Godhead,
Love incarnate, love divine;
Worship we our Jesus:
But wherewith for sacred sign?
Love shall be our token,
Love shall be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and to all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign. [Christina Georgina Rossetti]

The one who does not love has not known God, because God is love. This is how God’s love has appeared among us: God sent his only son into the world, so that we should live through him. Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his son to be the sacrifice that would atone for our sins. Beloved, if that’s how God loved us, we ought to love one another in the same way. [1 John 4:8-11 (NTE)]

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