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Monday, December 27, 2010

The New Year Looking Back

As the New Year dawns, we pause to remember the year that is rapidly slipping into the recesses of our memory. Looking back is important. Remembering helps us put in perspective the things that are to come.

We are slowly recovering from the latest economic collapse as we face the future. We saw improvement in 2010 and financial experts predict an improving economy in 2011. But millions are still struggling. Many recent college graduates have taken low paying jobs while they juggle student loans and search for employment in their career fields. The unemployment rate remains above 9% with more than 14 million people out of work. Retirees watched their annuity investments plunge in 2008 and face the future with increased insecurity.

Looking back long term helps us handle these immediate challenges. It helps us avoid arrogance and pride, despondency and despair. Some of us have a lot to remember. We lived through the war in Vietnam, the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., the cold war and the space race, the first oil embargo with gas lines that stretched around the block, Watergate and Richard Nixon’s resignation, runaway inflation and the recession of the 80’s, the first PCs, cell phones, internet, Desert Storm, the dot com bust, 9-11, the Iraq war, Afghanistan and the Great Recession of 2008. We have learned that things will get better. We have learned that God is faithful in every crisis and every difficulty. We know from experience that his promise is sure: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11).

When times get tough, it is easy to forget. We need to be reminded about God’s faithfulness. This is why the Bible teaches us to remember. The Passover was established to help Israel remember how God delivered them from slavery. We celebrate Christmas to remember God’s gift of his only-begotten Son, a light shining in the darkness. Jesus gave us the Lord’s Supper to help us remember his death, burial and resurrection.

Just as important, the Bible tells us that God remembers us. When we feel forgotten and alone, thinking that no one cares, God remembers. Every rainbow reminds us that God remembered us when the greatest calamity in history struck the earth, a flood so great that it almost wiped all human life from the earth. (Genesis 8,9). God never forgets. “He remembers His covenant forever, the promise He made, for a thousand generations.” (1 Chron. 16:15). Jesus said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So do not fear; you are more valuable than many sparrows.” “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”

Monday, December 20, 2010

Finding Christmas 12-20-2010

The anticipation has been building for a month. Christmas is at the door. Twinkling lights illuminate windows, roof tops and lawns. I like the concerts, the majestic music celebrating Christ’s birth. I like the brightly wrapped gifts full of suspense and promise collecting under the tree.

Christmas is the time to communicate and gather with friends. Although email and Facebook may take a bite out of Christmas cards, I still like hearing from people whose lives have helped shape my own. I like reading their Christmas letters with updates on themselves and their kids. The gathering part can be a challenge. Office parties, church groups, close friends and family quickly fill the calendar. We travel great distances and juggle schedules to spend this special time with family members we have not seen in a year. It isn’t easy. All of this communicating and gathering challenges us for control of our time and our lives. When our continuing duties for work, school and family are overlaid with Christmas commitments we sometimes find ourselves weary and exhausted, feeling that our lives are spinning out of control.

We search for Christmas in the spectacular: the spectacular event, spectacular lights, the spectacular gift. We want to re-create the perfect Christmas card moment that we wish exemplified our lives.

The first Christmas had little resemblance to our contemporary traditions. The birth of Christ occurred in the chaos of the common and the ordinary: a common stable surrounded by common animals in a common village. Few took notice. There was no extravaganza staged in the cities. The angels’ announcement occurred in a remote region with only a few simple shepherds present. The Magi, who observed the star in the east, came and went almost unnoticed.

It was for the common and the ordinary that Christ came. He grew up in a carpenter’s shop in the remote village of Nazareth. He owned no house and had no possessions. He had no place to lay his head. And, after a brief public ministry in which he healed and taught thousands, he died upon a common cross outside Jerusalem and was buried in a borrowed tomb. In birth, life and death, Jesus redeemed the common and the ordinary and elevated each of us to an extraordinary relationship with God.

The first Christmas was an “out of control” event for Mary and Joseph. The tax summons that took them to Bethlehem could not have come at a worse time. The baby was due. She was in no condition for such a long and arduous journey. When they arrived, the town was a bedlam of people. No one wanted to be there. They had come because they were obligated under Roman law. Of course, it was not out of God’s control. What appeared to be an onerous obligation and an inconvenient time was actually a fulfillment of prophecy that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.

Perhaps God planned it this way to teach us that His intervention must be experienced in the common and the ordinary chaos of life. When we look for Christmas in the spectacular, we can only experience it once a year. But when we discover Christmas in the common and the chaotic, it can change our life every day.

Monday, December 13, 2010

A Soul Christmas

We don’t talk much about the soul. Other generations did, but not ours. We are far more focused on our bodies and our money. This is apparent in our approach to Christmas with our lists of what we want and our search for the perfect gift with the deepest discount. The soul is seldom even mentioned. It seems that we have abandoned discussions about the soul to practitioners of New Age and metaphysics.

What is the soul? It is not an organ that can be removed, placed on a laboratory table and analyzed. We cannot perform a “soul-ectomy.” The Bible is filled with references to the soul and clearly recognizes both the existence and the importance of the soul. We all sense that there is something within us that is more than the sum of our parts, the substance of our being where we make decisions that affect the health of our bodies, our mind and our emotions. This is our soul. It is the substance and the essence of who we are, especially in relationship to God and to each other. When the body withers and dies, the soul remains. Our soul is eternal.

Our decisions and our actions shape our soul. Regarding the body in comparison to the soul, Jesus said, “Do not be afraid of those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” With respect to money, Jesus said, “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” He told the story of a rich man who was focused on his wealth and amassing greater fortunes. ' But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?'

David was intimately aware of his soul and referred to the soul often in the Psalms. He gave us clues as to how we can nurture and shape our soul. He said, “The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul.” And “Then my soul will rejoice in the Lord and delight in His salvation.” (Ps. 19:7; 35:9).

In some way, the Christmas season reveals the condition of our soul. If we are focused on temporary conditions, seeking to satisfy ourselves with possessions and self-centered gratification, Christmas can become a season of stress, leaving us disappointed, exhausted and empty. But, when we approach the Christmas season in faith, our soul is stirred. When we focus on the miraculous goodness of God who sent His Son and when we seek opportunities for generosity and comfort to others, we discover joy and gladness. Our soul resonates with Mary, the mother of Jesus who sang, “My soul exalts the Lord and my spirit has rejoiced in God my savior. For he has had regard for the humble state of his bondslave; for behold from this time on, all generations will count me blessed. For the Mighty One has done great things for me and holy is His name. And his mercy is upon generation after generation toward those who fear Him. He has done mighty deeds with his arm; He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart. He has brought down rulers from their thrones, and has exalted those who were humble. He has filled the hungry with good things; and sent the rich away empty handed.”

Monday, December 6, 2010

Secrets 12-06-2010

The Wikileaks secrets are still leaking. Most of the documents appear to be trivial and petty. Some of them are serious. All of it stems from words written and spoken in secret places that the participants never dreamed would be read or heard by anyone else. But what was said in private is now public and the international diplomatic world is reeling.

You would think that we would have learned our lesson about secrets. President Nixon and “all the President’s men” thought that they could get away with it. But every word uttered in the oval office found its way into print and into the public. The Watergate tapes ripped the mask off the public image of politics and left an entire generation disillusioned.

Twenty years later, Bill Clinton assumed that what he did in secret would remain secret. But what happened with Lewinsky behind closed doors became public record resulting in the second Presidential impeachment in history. In his autobiography Clinton confessed, “The question of secrets is one I have thought a lot about over the years. … Secrets can be an awful burden to bear, especially if some sense of shame is attached to them . … Of course, I didn’t begin to understand all this back when I became a secret-keeper. …I was always reluctant to discuss with anyone the most difficult parts of my personal life.”

Jesus warned us long ago that our secrets would become public. He said, “But there is nothing covered up that will not be revealed, and hidden that will not be known. Accordingly, whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in the inner rooms will be proclaimed upon the housetops.” And again, He said, “For nothing is hidden, except to be revealed; nor has anything been secret, but that it would come to light.”

What we do and say when we are alone, when we think no one else is looking, that is the part of our life that ultimately determines our success or failure. We are defined by our conduct and our conversation in secret. Jesus constantly encouraged his followers to focus on what they did in secret. “When you pray,” He said, “go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.” And, “when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”

Jesus taught that those who say and do things privately that they do not want others to know about are like cups that are only washed on the outside. A slimy green scum continues to grow on the filth that is left on the inside. He compared people who keep up a public image that is not consistent with their secret conduct to marble tombs in graveyards. They appear whitewashed and clean on the outside, but inside they are filled with rotting and decaying bones.

When we do what is right in private, what is seen in public will take care of itself. The most important part of our lives is the secret part.