Thoughts on Christmas: For To Us A Child is Born

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. – Isaiah   9:6 (NIV)

I am not very good at shopping ahead of time for Christmas.  Fortunately I have avoided the last minute shopping at the mini-mart for gifts, but it has come too close a few times.  My wife, on the other hand, is the picture of organization and planning ahead.  She starts buying presents for the next Christmas the first week of January.  She has a budget and lists of kid’s names and remembers what everyone likes and dislikes.  Between the two of us, you would definitely want her to get your name in a gift exchange.

There is no doubt that my wife reflects a characteristic about Christmas that we may not always consider: that the perfect gift came at the perfect time and was planned before the creation of the world.  How awesome is it to know that Christ’s birth wasn’t reactionary or a move of desperation?  From the beginning of time, through dozens of generations, thousands of years and the stubbornness of human will, God prepared the world for the coming of His Son.  The fulfillment of prophecy and the promise of salvation spoken of from the Garden and throughout all history – talk about planning ahead.

The amazing truth of this is that God takes the same pains to bring us to the gift He sent in His Son as He took in bring His Son to a humble manger in Bethlehem.  Every day He has prepared gifts that will bring us closer to Him.  Every day He has put in place what we need for that day.  On that first Christmas, God sent His Son to bring love and salvation to a dying world, and He is still sending that gift each day to those who are willing to receive Him.

During this Christmas season remember the God who plans ahead.  Remember that there is wisdom for you from the Wonderful counselor, there is power to overcome the world in our Mighty God, there is hope for a life to come with our Everlasting Father and we have a gracious Lord in the Prince of Peace.

Thoughts on Christmas: A Mother’s Song, A Daughter’s Song

And Mary said:  “My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me– holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers.”

Luke 1:46-55 (NIV)

It must have been an incredible moment, a moment that both women carried with them through the years their sons were growing up and becoming the servants of God they were meant to be.  One a prophet preparing the way for the Messiah; the other a rabbi who bled for the sins of the world. Both of them miracles.

John was the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, parents well beyond the childbearing age – the Abraham and Sarah of their day.  Zechariah was commanded by God to name his son John, but was made mute because he questioned God’s ability to give them a son.  Jesus was the Son of God and Joseph and Mary – one by spirit, one by law and one by blood.  Mary was blessed for unflinching obedience and acceptance.

When Mary and Elizabeth meet, John leaps in Elizabeth’s womb, signifying that he already recognized the one he would prepare the way for in an unprepared world.  Elizabeth is moved by the spirit to prophesy, which in turn moves Mary to sing praise to her God.  It is a holy moment, a sacred moment.  Two holy children destined to change the world and two women chosen to love and care for them joined together by God’s Spirit.

Often the song of Mary is considered a mother’s song, and it is, but it is also a daughter’s song to her heavenly Father.  A song of praise and thanksgiving for all that He had done and all that He would do. A song testifying God’s ability to give her everything she needs to do what she should.  A song for Christmas, when we celebrate the day that God gave us everything we need to do all we should.

In the weeks leading up to Christmas day, it is easy to get frustrated with the un-Christmas-like things around us and around the world.  However, the danger of focusing on the lack of Christ in Christmas in our culture is that we don’t focus enough on the Christ in Christmas.  Think of Mary, a young woman in her circumstances travelling to stay with family, avoiding the shame she might endure.  She carried the light of the world inside her, but knew no one would believe her.  In the midst of all this she sings praise to her God; she remembers what she is about and who she is; a daughter of the King.  Instead of fixating on all that could go wrong, or what was uncomfortable or unpleasant, she recounted what good a gracious God she served.  She was preparing the way for the Messiah.

Maybe that is what we should really be about during the Christmas season – preparing the way.  Like Mary and then John, we should be focused on preparing the way for Jesus to come into moments we share with friends, family, coworkers and even strangers.  Let’s prepare the way in our hearts for Christ to have His way in His time.  Prepare the way, Christmas is coming.

Acting Out Our Faith: Taking the Word

Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. – Acts 8:4

The devil does not give up easily.  He is pride personified and will not stop his rebellion against God.  He incites and manipulates and connives to work against the kingdom of God and he worked hard to squash this new move of God called the body of Christ.  Persecution came in various forms and degrees of harm, but it all worked to overcome something that cannot be overcome – the Word.

The devil’s pride actually becomes a help to those who follow after God.  While the devil was trying to stop the church, the persecution just spread it out and made it grow.  Instead of shutting up and keeping quiet about their faith, believers took the gospel with them to cities, towns and villages.  The good word went with them as the persecution pushed the church out of Jerusalem into the rest of the world.

It is comforting to keep in mind that anything the devil may have planned for us has already been seen and considered by the God who loves and cares for us.  He has already worked out ways for those hellish plans to be fruitless while His children grow and prosper.  This is what happens when we take the word with us through life.  When it sits inside of us and forms our thoughts and guides our paths, we walk in the plans that God has for us and won’t fall into the traps of the devil.

Lord, help me to walk with the word in my heart every step of this life.  My I preach it through action and speech to all who will listen and may I not bring reproach to Your word by my failures and faults.  Make me more and more a man of Your word every day.  Amen.

The Right Kind of Righteousness: Blessed by God

But let all who take refuge in you be glad; let them ever sing for joy. Spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may rejoice in you. For surely, O LORD, you bless the righteous; you surround them with your favor as with a shield. – Psalms 5:11-12 (NIV)

It is clear that the righteous are righteous because of who they put their trust in – who they worship.  Our righteousness will never get us where we need to be in this life or the life to come.  As God’s children through the blood of Christ, we have a righteousness not our own, but there is a difference between having it and walking in it.  The passage above is referring to those who are walking in righteousness and some of the results.

This is not the only passage that describes the righteous as blessed or favored.  It is a theme in the Psalms and prophetic writings.  God blesses His righteous ones.  I don’t believe that God is waiting for us to be righteous in order to bless us, but that He has made it so that walking in His righteousness leads us to His blessings.  I believe that walking in His righteousness puts us in the safe place of His favor.

Imagine you are in a desert and someone brings you a glass of water.  It tastes amazing, but the person says that if you want to have as much water as you need, you have to walk across the desert and over the mountains.  You could just stay in the desert and ask the messenger to keep bringing the little doses of water, or you could go to the place where the water is plentiful.  God sends His blessings into our desert with an invitation to place of plenty, but we have to walk there.

Let me be clear that I don’t equate blessing with money or things.  For some, money or objects would become a stumbling block.  It is not getting what we want when we want it because we deserve it.  God’s blessing is us having exactly what we need when we need it with the full knowledge that we do not deserve it.  This is the place that walking in righteousness will lead us.

Pressing On – Part 1: Turning the Page

I was reminded recently that we can get distracted from pressing on in our walk with God.  Things close in, demands seem overwhelming, responsibilities push for our attention and we can let our time with God dwindle away.  But pressing on in our life with God is what makes us fit for the demands and responsibilities of this life.  I hope this post is a blessing to you.

Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you.  Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh.  For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh–  though I myself have reasons for such confidence. If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more:  circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee;  as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.  But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.

I have heard from various job coaches and employment websites, “A good resume may help you get the job, but it won’t help you keep a job.”  This idea that what you have done is far less important than what you are doing and where you are headed comes across clearly in Paul’s statement above.  Forget your resume.  I don’t believe that Paul is asking us to be like Dory in Finding Nemo, where every moment the past is a blank slate.  Where would testimony fit in this kind of viewpoint?  What would we do with a passage like, “Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering.”? (Hebrews 10:32 NIV)

I think Paul is warning us not to get stuck in the past, to not become those perennial fixtures at bars, bistros and church pews who share the same stories year after year.  They experience a flash of genius, a moment of brilliance or a dispensation of grace and that experience makes an impact.  Instead of this moment providing the motivation to turn the page in their story, it becomes a bookmark; their story is on pause and never is complete.  And like a story, our lives should be moving toward something; a culmination of events, choices and relationships, woven together by a merciful and just God.

However, you can’t get to the end of the story if you aren’t willing to turn the page.  Each page must be left behind to see what is on the next. Paul had a lot of interesting chapters to his story before he met Christ on the road to Damascus.  He had one of those amazing testimonies about transformation and redemption.  I’m sure he could have told his story again and again for years and impacted many people in his day.  But Paul turned the page.

Are you turning the pages of your story?  Are you willing to let go of what has been to live what is so you can move toward what can be?  Or are you reading the same page over and over again because it is safe and comfortable.  Put your trust in the “author and finisher of our faith” that your story is worth turning the page.  Someday, someone will need to read your story to help them turn the pages of their own.  Turn the page.

Remembering September 11th and What Followed: A Moment of Honor and Nobility

The rest tent is the white rectangle in the middle of the picture.  You can view a current picture of the World Trade Center here.

Something I post every September 11th.  Pray for peace.

“But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate — we cannot consecrate — we cannot hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

The Gettysburg Address

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
November 19, 1863

It was early on Tuesday morning as I got dressed and ready for work.  Molly and Keely were still asleep when the phone rang and my Mother’s broken voice came across the line, “Turn on the TV, Christopher!”  The image of that first tower smoldering in the New York Skyline is still fresh in my mind, ingrained there with so many other images that came into homes and business throughout that day on screens too small for the enormity of the event.

A few weeks later the call came from The Salvation Army Headquarters that they needed officers to volunteer for duty at Ground Zero; I had my name in the same day.  There were five of us from California and we arrived in New York October 15th of 2001.  We went through the standard briefing, received our assignments and then they took us to Ground Zero.  When the subway arrived at the Chambers Street station you could feel the quiet, the normally bustling crowds subdued and solemn.

Words fail to describe the scene at the World Trade Center.  Photographs may be worth a thousand words, but a thousand words would not be enough to describe what that place of desolation felt or smelled or sounded like on that day.  Those with me said little and walked on in silence around the perimeter of Ground Zero.  With each stop we would meet the men and women who worked diligently to recover those who had fallen what seemed ages ago.  They would smile and welcome us to the work, but the weariness and sorrow in their eyes was deep.

Our team worked at Ground Zero for two weeks and much could be written about what we saw and heard in those 14 days, but I will only share one event as the nation remembers September 11th, 2001.  I was assigned with a fellow officer to man a rest tent across the street from the World Trade Center and what was now called “The Pile.”  We provided drinks, snacks, basic first aid supplies, magazines and other items for the recovery workers, but we also served as chaplains as the need arose.

I was by myself one evening (I worked the shift from 11pm to 11am) when a firefighter asked if I was a chaplain.  I answered “Yes” and followed him to The Pile.  The crews had just uncovered an elevator car and were recovering the remains of seven people; seven sons and daughters taken from their resting place to be identified and laid to rest again with honor and dignity.  As they lifted each stretcher from the hole, an American flag was draped across the body and then they placed the stretcher on a motorized cart to transport them to the morgue.  I was asked to accompany one of the fallen and took my place at the foot of the stretcher and waited to make the walk.

That is when the siren sounded.  One long, deep clarion tone and everything stopped.  Truckers stopped their dump trucks and shut off the engines.  Cranes paused with loads of debris still in their grasp.  Dozens of workers stopped where they were and faced the Pile, hats off and held over their hearts.  A hush settled on that hallowed ground and we began the long procession to take the seven on their way to loved ones and a better resting place.  It was one of the most noble and honorable moments of my life.

Over the next few days that moment rested in my heart and mind and changed the way I saw what was around me.  Perspective comes at a high price sometimes, but then it can help us value what we ought.  Our team headed back to California on October 29th, ready to be with family and to consider all that we had seen the past two weeks.  I remember seeing my little girl, Keely, waiting with her mother in the concourse.  The sound of, “Daddy! Daddy!” was the sweetest sound I had heard in weeks.  She ran toward me and I toward her and we hugged and cried and mommy joined in soon after.

It has been 15 years since the towers fell and America rose to the resulting challenges and I have not forgotten that moment.  Each day is a day to live the life that hateful men tried to destroy. I will spend this September 11th with my family.  I will go and worship God with my brothers and sisters in Christ.  I will rest at home with my wife, daughters and extended family.  I will celebrate the life I have and give thanks to God.  We will play and laugh and eat good food.  We will snuggle and watch funny cartoons and read a book or two.  There will be days ahead when grief will visit us again, but we will not let it stay for long.  If you let it settle in and get comfortable, it is harder to kick out and it does not suffer roommates. This day is about God’s grace turning mourning into dancing.

Love your family, be grateful, remember what was sacrificed so you don’t forget what was gained and never take freedom for granted.  Remember the words of Abraham Lincoln, “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

The Shepherd and the Sheep: Restore My Soul

Wild Garlic in Bloom

My family and I will be at Family Camp this weekend, so I am reposting for this week.  Next week, I will be posting  something I wrote for 9/11 last year.  Please have a safe and sober Labor Day weekend.

Oh Lord you call my name

Like a shepherd in a field.

You use your rod and staff

When my spirit needs to yield

But my ears are deaf with busy noise

And your prodding is ignored

So I wander far from your sweet voice

And my soul is not restored.

Give me ears to hear

Give me eyes to see

I want to be obedient

But I am struck with fear.

I need courage to walk,

I need patience to stay

Restore my soul with living streams

Oh God please draw me near.

Restore my soul,

Restore my soul,

Good shepherd come and lead me home

Restore my soul

Gardening Tips: Follow the Sun

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. – Hebrews 12:2-3 (NIV)

We have attempted a garden this year with some success; zucchinis, tomatoes, butternut squash and others. Each plant has an unique and incredible differences.  One of our biggest and most anticipated is a giant sunflower.  It has reached about 8 feet in height and a single flower is beginning to emerge.  In watching this flower develop, one characteristic stood out; it follows the sun.

This is actually a common trait among many plants, but the sunflower has the amazing ability to reset for the next day.  Once the sun has set, the sunflower turns back to the east to wait for the sun to rise. It isn’t just drawn to the light, but has an expectation of the light returning.

This is a good patern for us to follow as people of God.  We need to keep our eyes on Jesus, but sometimes we lose sight of Him.  The darkness of this world, our situation or even our bad choices block our view of Him.  In those times we need to reset our perception to look with anticipation for His light to shine on us again.  We need to position ourselves to receive His
light and love.  So follow the Son and live in such a way that even when He seems out of sight, you are still living like
He is coming back.  If a sunflower can do it….

Read the Directions: Shake Well Before Using

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.  See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. – Psalms 139:23-24 (NIV)

My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing. – James 1:2-4 (NRSV)

If you have ever used Italian dressing or tried to drink those canned protein shakes, you have probably read the words, “Shake well before using” or something similar.  These are important words.  Italian dressing is not appetizing if it isn’t blended well.  It either makes your salad over-seasoned or soggy with oil.  When we are directed to “Shake well,” we are preparing something to be fit for use.  It seems to me that the human heart and mind have the same directions included.

God needs to shake us well, to bring us through trial and tumult, so that we are prepared for the proper time and place.  When God shakes us up, things begin to blend together; our spiritual life is no longer separated out as something distinct from our life at work and with friends.  When God brings us through “trials of any kind” we have the opportunity to grow and build spiritual muscles that we would not otherwise be able to develop.

The difficulty for us is to be willing to stay in the trial.  Our fallen inclination when we face trials is to find a way out instead of a way through.  Phillips Brooks, the great 19th century preacher once said, “Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for power equal to your tasks.” In other words, we need to seek God’s help in facing our trials, in being shaken, so that we can make it through to the finish.

Jesus was clear that we would have trouble in this life; Paul consoled us that God would use everything that happened for the benefit of His children; James wants us to live in that reality; David helps us cry out to God to make us fit for the trials.  God allows us to be shaken by the trials of this life while also providing all we need to meet them with courage and hope.

Lord let me be shaken by You, in Your time for Your purpose. Help me to stay in the midst of the trial for as long as it takes to prepare me for Your work. Amen.

The Shepherd and the Sheep: Introduction

A psalm of David.
The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake. – Psalm 23:1-3

The scriptures are occupied by numerous shepherds.  From Abel, the favored son of Adam, to Abraham wandering from Ur; from Jacob earning the right to marry to Moses learning the right way to lead God’s people, shepherding has been an underlying theme in God’s history with His people.  Why does God hearken to the relationship between shepherd and sheep so often?  Why does He use such ignoble beasts to represent His children?  What does it mean to be people of His pasture?

David wrote psalm after psalm with pastoral themes.  Isaiah’s prophetic writings are strewn with this same imagery.  Ezekiel commits a complete chapter to shepherds and sheep and what God intends for both.  Finally, Jesus reveals Himself as the Good Shepherd to His disciples.  It is obvious that God wants us to get this relationship settled in our minds and hearts.

Psalm 23 is probably one of the more famous scriptures in the world.  It is the lyrical picture of our heavenly shepherd guiding us through life, the terrain of this world, and a reminder of all that the shepherd provides.  David makes the case that the life of the sheep is dependent on the shepherd for sustenance, protection and contentment.

For the next few weeks, we will look at some of these writings on shepherds and sheep and search out ways to be content, secure and fulfilled in the pasture of God’s love, grace and mercy.  We are people in need of a shepherd and the Good Shepherd does not rest in calling his wandering sheep back to the comfort of His care.