Practical Proverbial, Santa Claus the Cheerful Giver, 11 December 2017

Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.  2 Corinthians 9:7.

Let’s take a few days away from breaking down the Bible verse by verse.   Since it’s Christmastime, let’s talk about Santa.   You see, I believe in Santa Claus.

It’s a running joke in our family that my wife is an elf.   Or at least part elf.   Her Godly love language is acts of service and it is innate to her very being that she loves to serve others, mainly by giving.   It’s not the gift that matters but making someone else’s life a little better that matters most to her.   If she has pointy ears and hails from the North Pole then I haven’t seen it.   But if Hollywood is ever looking for someone who I think could have worked for Santa, look no further than my home.   If you ask Hunnie, she’ll eagerly respond that she, too, believes in Santa.

Now, if you’re a follower of Jesus, you’re probably familiar with the annual “Jesus versus Santa” debate.   You’ve seen the signs saying “Jesus is the reason for the season.”   For a long time I was one of the people exercised about the idea of of Santa Claus crowding out the reality of Jesus.   Santa seemed so secular, an Easter Bunny in a fluffy red hat.  The magic of a fat Norseman slinking down a chimney to give away gifts seemed like a sweetly ominous distraction from the godhead becoming one with His creation to give us the gift of eternal love.   I get it; I accept it, too.  For years it created conflict in me, wanting to be a true believer in Jesus but not wanting to completely reject the mostly harmless concept of Santa.  I mean, in our society, what kind of monster could reject Saint Nick, the venerated gift-giver to good little girls and boys?

Not this one.   Yes, I’m a dirty sinner (like you, even like the real Saint Nicholas of Myra), but I came to the point of thinking there is no conflict, there is no harm, there’s no sin in believing in Santa.   I won’t even offer the cautionary aside of reminding you of the differences between Jesus and Santa; I believe you get those on your own.    Instead, if it is wrong to believe in Santa, explain to me how 2 Corinthians 9:7 lines up with the idea of Santa.  The story of Santa Claus is inseparable from the idea of cheerful giving.   And the notion of being a cheerful giver is inseparable from 2 Corinthians 9:7.   God is all about giving us gifts because He does it every day.   He gives us the ultimate gift of free life symbolized by His incarnation in Bethlehem.  He gives us the gift through the idea of sharing that loving life through the concept of a jolly old man wanting to simply love on perfect strangers.

Sure, Santa wasn’t a real person whereas Jesus Christ is.   We’ll discuss the aforementioned Saint Nicholas later.  But God’s love is real whether someone is fiction or not.  God’s love simply is, and God loves a cheerful giver.   If Santa was a real person, God would love him for being that cheerful giver.  Our world could use some more of that, so maybe sharing a little cheerfully giving Santa love is really sharing the true love of Jesus.   I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t benefit from that.

We own a Christmas ornament (and an accompanying children’s book) showing Santa kneeling in praise at the manger of Jesus.   I think that fits.   I think the story of Santa complements the history of Jesus.  To people who reject that, well, God bless you.  On this we believe different things.   And if you’re like me and you still believe, then God bless you, too, this Christmas season.   Ho, ho, ho and merry Christmas whether you believe in Santa or not.  If you’re nice, my Hunnie might just send you a gift.

For further reading:  Acts 20:35.

Lord, thank You for the story of Santa Claus.   Let this popular fable be a way we can give you praise and glory.

 

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Practical Proverbial, from Hebrews, 7 December 2017

Grace be with you all.  Hebrews 13, verse 25.

Once again, we find ourselves at the end.   If you’ve been reading this blog for a long time, you’ve seen the ending of Hebrews, Mark, The Ten Commandments, Ruth, 1/2/3 John, James, Ecclesiastes, and Proverbs.   That’s a lot of real estate to cover.   Thank you so much, my friend, for reading, sharing, learning, and hopefully hearing the voice of God inside you through these thoughts.

Yet it’s time to finish up this section.   After this, there are other things I’d like to cover.   Next week, we’ll spend the rest of the Christmas season talking about Santa Claus and giving.   After that, I believe God is leading me to walk through the “five T’s” of 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus; we’ll be walking with the Apostle Paul, so get ready to get real; Paul has that effect.

Until then, grace be with you all.   Grace:  that’s a concept I haven’t given nearly enough thought to even though my mom and grand-daughter are both named Grace.  I used to think of grace as a quiet thing, like sunny meadows and warm tea.  But that’s only part of what it is.  My friend, Bill Brimer, however, calls the book of Ephesians “a grace bomb.”  It’s an explosion of God’s grace in your face.   An overpowering force of enormous power that can undo physical reality.  Ephesians spends much of it’s time explaining God’s grace as a living, vital thing instead of just a pastoral quality.

Boom.

Have you ever really thought about what grace means to you?   My Random House dictionary defines grace as “a pleasing or attractive quality or endowment; favor shown in granting a delay or immunity; the freely given, unmerited favor or love of God, the influence or spirit of God operating in man; moral strength.”   All those meanings (and more) for such a small word.   And to think they could all blow up in your face with the peace of a rural pasture.  In the context of talking about Jesus, grace means all those things, and all of them at once.

We don’t deserve it, but Jesus richly blesses us to live in His grace.   We’ve done everything we can think of to tick him off, to merit His wrath, but, instead, He likes us, wants to be with us, runs to us where we are in the middle of our dysfunctions.   If I listed here even a fraction of the sins I’ve done against Jesus, I wouldn’t list much before you’d see I don’t deserve His grace.   I don’t even deserve air, food, water, and my beating heart.   News flash:  neither you you.   We’re damn dirty sinners.

But we have so much more than air, food, water and life.   We have love, friends, jobs, possessions, liberty, opportunity.   We have each other.   We have seven billion people here to live, thrive and survive with, and we GET TO tell them that this Jesus blesses us all in His grace.   That He wants them to know Him, too.   That’s grace.   When I deserve punishment, Jesus wants love for me.  When I deserve scorn, He lives in my heart.   When I merit revenge, He urges peace.   When I deserved to die, He ran to the cross for me and took my place.   Boom!

When the writer of Hebrews had only a few words left to say, he said that he desired for God’s magnificent grace bomb to explode in the lives of his readers.   “Grace be with you all” is more than just a benediction:   it’s a challenge.   It’s a powerful this-I-know-to-be-true amen.   It’s a quiet prayer but also an artillery-packed lock and load on the front line.  Grace is the quiet strength of Christ from the cross giving you peace.   And grace is the raw edge of God’s knife in your hand, cutting away the scar tissue of sin to cure the flesh below.   When there was nothing else to say to his friends, the writer affirmed God’s presence in their lives and called on them to realize all God does for undeserving people while sharing His saving love with those who don’t know about Him.

I’m not worthy to argue with wisdom like that.   I’ll simply accept it as a gift of love from our God.  Grace in your face, indeed.   Back in the race for us now.  Lace up your boots, pick up your gun, and let’s march.

Until next time, grace be with you all.

For further reading:  Hebrews 13:25

Lord thank You for Your grace, for how You love and provide for me.

Practical Proverbial, from Hebrews, 6 December 2017

I want you to know that our brother Timothy has been released. If he arrives soon, I will come with him to see you.  Greet all your leaders and all the Lord’s people. Those from Italy send you their greetings.  Hebrews 13, verses 23-24.

My son in law is current deployed overseas and he talks with his wife and daughter almost daily via Skype, Facebook, and Marco Polo.   I wish those things would have been available when I was still in the military.   And when my wife was overseas on a mission trip in Romania, we talked online (and did our daily devotion) every day via Skype.    When we were stationed overseas (in Italy) in the late 1980s, my wife and I would call home about once per month.  We looked forward to those calls as a real morale booster.   And, speaking of morale boosters, in the mid-80s, when I was deployed to sea, our team received periodic “personals”:   messages called into our unit office, then transmitted to us on the ship.   Getting one could make (or break) your day.

Still, it’s not the same as a letter.

No matter how you communicate, the important thing is to communicate.   In the days of the Hebrews, letters were the only method.   You could send someone to relate an in-person, personal account of something, and that was convincing (it still is).   But if you wanted to transmit an explicit, word-for-word message, you had to write it down and send it.   Years later, it would still preserve your message.   For instance, consider what you know just from these concluding verses in chapter 13:

  • Timothy, a fellow believer, has been released from custody
  • That same Timothy was on his way to meet the writer
  • Together, the two of them would likely travel to where the recipient of the letter lived
  • The writer fondly thought of his audience and asked them to greet mutual friends
  • Someone from Italy, acquainted with the writer, sent greetings.
  • There was more than one person there from Italy
  • There were things the writer wanted his reader to know

That’s a lot to pack into just a few words, but those are some of the messages the writer of the book conveyed as he closed out his epistle.   Two thousand years (and across five continents), we are still reading his messages.  The only way he could reach people across the Mediterranean and into southern Europe was to write a letter, and that letter enclosed good news about Jesus.   When it was done, the writer wanted to close fondly.   He wanted to end on a positive note, so he sent warm greetings.   How he did it didn’t matter as much, though, as THAT he did it.   That he answered God’s call to share a message with his fellow brothers and sisters.   We benefit from that today.

I saved the 1987 personal message that my (now) wife sent to me while I was at sea, asking for me to call on her when I returned home; as you’ll remember, thirty years ago yesterday I did.    It’s hanging in a small frame on the shelf as I walk into my closet.   Somewhere out in my storage unit I have several small boxes full of cards and letters that Hunnie and I exchanged when we were dating.   I also have boxes with that same correspondence from my parents in 1950s Germany, and even my grandparents thirty years before that.   One day, I’ll go back and read those old letters.   They still have something to say.

So this is a challenge to you, friend reader.   This Christmas, send out some Christmas cards (my wife and I are actually sending a New Year’s card this year instead).   Pick just one person you know and write a letter to them, then mail it.   Actually use snail mail.  Better yet, share a little Jesus in that letter, and close it out with warm regards.   Years from now, someone may just read it and cherish.

For further reading:  Acts 16:1, Acts 18:2.

Lord, thank You for communicating with us!

Practical Proverbial, from Hebrews, 5 December 2017

Brothers and sisters, I urge you to bear with my word of exhortation, for in fact I have written to you quite briefly.  Hebrews 13, verse 22.

Please allow me a few words of praise for my wife.   Living in harmony with verse 22, she has borne my words of exhortation (and other kinds) for exactly thirty years today.   The longer I know her, the more I think she’s been living for God for longer than that.

Understand, I’m not making my wife, Kimberly, out to be a saint.   That wouldn’t be fair, and I don’t want to live with or love with someone who lives on a pedestal.   She’s the queen of our home and even of my life but I won’t put her on a throne and keep her remote.  But I am saying that she’s the most selfless person I know.   Her “love language” is “Acts of Service” and her idea of a perfect Christmas is for her to be able to give hundreds of gifts to strangers and family alike without receiving any in return (except from me…I don’t get off that easy).  Kim could give and give and give and get back up the next day to go at it again.  We have a running joke in our family that, because I’m the dad and the man of the family, of course I’m going to die first.   If that’s true (and that’s a big if), I look forward to the day in heaven when I see her approach the real throne of Jesus and He gives her a crown for her giving heart.   I’ll be cheering louder than any angel.

Until then, she’s my angel here.  I get the privilege of calling her that because, on December 5, 1987 she went out on a date with me.   We had been friends since high school four years before.   She was, in fact, one of the first people I met when I moved to Mitchell, Indiana in August of 1983.  We went out on a few dates in school (she actually turned me down for my junior prom), but just didn’t click as a couple at the time.   That changed in 1987.   She found where the Air Force had stationed me, and we scheduled a date for December 5th.   We’ve been together ever since.

It hasn’t been easy; it never is.   Got skin?   Got sin.   We both have and we both do.  When you fall in love with someone you embrace and accept all of them, including their sins past and present.   Adjusting to living with a fallen person like yourself is an adventure not for the faint of heart.   I think so many couples fail because they don’t accept that accepting someone else means admitting you, too, have flaws.   Like Garth sang, “I could have missed the pain, but I’d have had to miss the dance.”   Spot on, Mr. Brooks.  I’ve caused her more pain in our three decades than ever she deserved, and I’ve accepted more pain from her than she would have thought possible.  Through it all, we’ve learned to dance, and I couldn’t have asked God for a better partner.   Today, she even works at a dance studio, giving her time and heart to others.   Spot on there, too.

We’ve learned to bear each other through exhortation.   That’s another thing that hasn’t been easy.  Our backgrounds in faith were as different as everything else about our background.   We started walking with Jesus together a few years after we were married when a neighborhood pastor came to our door and invited us to church.   That walk has been up and down hills; in marriage, it always is.  For years, we stayed together yet drifted apart and came together again but didn’t fully grasp what God was saying to us.   Finally, when we should have fallen apart (as most couples do in similar situations), we each turned to God.   Her gift of giving became even more selfless, then, when she realized God was the real giver in her heart.  Finding that God had already found us bound us back up.  Every morning now, we ‘do devotion’ and spend a few brief minutes together drinking coffee, reading our Bibles, talking through a joint devotion, and praying.   We’ve done that as a way to hear God exhorting us to cling to Him so that we can cling together in the face of a world that always says “it’s too, tough, guys.   Give in.”

For my Hunnie I have only praise because she never gave up on me.   I won’t give up on her either.   I’ve seen her at her best and I’ve seen her at her worst.  Life, death, sins, celebrations, plans, anguish, success, failure:   welcome to the world.   We’ve shared them all for years.   They’re the events in our lives, and the music that plays life’s soundtrack.   Leading the orchestra is God, conducting, playing, singing, and enjoying.   And so we dance.   We dance on together because we have for thirty years now.   Sometimes it’s a slow dance, sometimes the Charleston, sometimes it’s even hip hop (and we don’t do it very well).   But I’m thankful to dance with her.  I praise God for that, and thank Him for all He’s done for and with us so far.   I praise God for my friend, dance partner, and wife, Kim.  If the final words of Hebrews are a love letter, let these be mine to her.

For further reading:  Romans 1 Peter 5:12.

Thank You, Father, for thirty years of life with my wife.   Thank You for sustaining us, for keeping us together, and for her.

Practical Proverbial, from Hebrews, 4 December 2017

Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.  Hebrews 13, verses 20-21.

This is a love letter.   It bids adieu like a love letter would.

For many years, people assumed Paul wrote Hebrews.   The words used in concluding it were part of the reason.   Paul closed his letters with flourish, and the writer of Hebrews, whoever he was, did the same.   Not to set myself up as equal to the Apostle Paul (or the writer of Hebrews, whoever he was) but I could have written this.   Why say “bye” in one word when you can use 158?  Paul did this in most of his other letters so it’s understandable that people might think he wrote Hebrews.   Current thinking is that the letter might have been written by Barnabas, Paul’s contemporary.   The fact is, we don’t really know…and it doesn’t particularly matter.   What matters is what the letter says, even how it says it, not so much who said it.

But, you know, letter-writing seems to be an art we are losing.  I have one pen pal who still writes me long-hand letters (and she was my third grade teacher, who is now in her late nineties).  Not so long ago, if you wanted to impart thought, you had to write them down.  In the day of Hebrews, writing was the only way to exchange thoughts long-distance.   Whoever wrote a letter knew that his thoughts could (would) be read over and over by both his intended audience and complete strangers.   Knowing that makes it more understandable why one would conclude their letters with flourish.

Like a love letter.

Not only, but the entire book of Hebrews is a letter explaining the faith to people who needed encouragement in it.  It’s an explanation and re-iteration of the tenets of following Jesus.   Hebrews is a primer for why people should put their faith in this Son of Man.  I’m hoping that we’ve seen how the book explains in common sense ways why Jesus is who He said He is, and why it’s a good thing to follow Him.   With that established, it makes sense that the ending of the letter should contain flowery language, some of it almost a catch-all.

It’s like it’s a love letter…because it is.  It’s a vehicle to show long distance agape love to people who need it.

Thirty years ago this week, I started dating the lady who is now my wife.   Our relationship started as friends in Indiana four years before, then stayed long-distance over years and miles before she found me while I was overseas with the Air Force.   Thirty years ago this week, we went out on a date and have been together, through many ups and downs, ever since.   I used to write letters to her like this, letters full of flourish, grand visions, and sparkle.   With time and togetherness came the lazy complacency of familiarity.  Today we share more, and less, and I think we both look back and sometimes wish we could recapture the elegant times when we devoted many words and many moments into building “us.”

That’s a beautiful thing about love letters:   if you keep them and re-read them, they can remind you of what matters most.  They share things you might not get to say any other way, things you want someone to remember.   In the case of the writer of Hebrews, he wanted people to remember that their God is a god of peace.   That He gave His Son for our salvation.  That through Him all things are possible.   That He is worthy of glory that we get to witness and share and grow.

For further reading:  Romans 15:33, Genesis 9:16, Isaiah 55:3, Ezekiel 37:26, Matthew 26:28, Acts 2:24, John 10:11.

Lord, thank You for this love letter You shared with us through Your writer.   Thank You for preserving it so we might enjoy and learn from it so many years later.

Practical Proverbial, from Hebrews, 30 November 2017

Pray for us. We are sure that we have a clear conscience and desire to live honorably in every way. I particularly urge you to pray so that I may be restored to you soon.  Hebrews 13, verses 18-19.

Notice what the writer asks for:   prayer.   Not money.   Not weapons.   Not food.  Not manual labor or physical assistance or anything tangible we might consider.   He asks for prayer.

Sure, if you think prayer is just a wishing well or self-talk, this might seem like a harmless (albeit useless) request.  No harm in asking someone to do something that costs you nothing and doesn’t hurt anyone else, right?   If there is no God, then self-talking to a god who doesn’t exist is strange but mostly harmless.

Except that’s not how the writer of Hebrews viewed it.   Indeed, he realized his readers might not be able to help him, so he asked that they do what they could and pray.   Go back to that last paragraph and read it again:  no harm in asking someone to do something that costs you nothing and doesn’t hurt anyone.   That’s true about prayer.   Prayer costs you nothing, not even your time because you’re engaged in DOING something.   It has no physical cost; indeed, psychologists admit the mental health benefits of confessing one’s in-most thoughts in prayer.   It hurts nobody; indeed (again) disposing one’s attitude towards the needs of others builds compassion, empathy, and understanding.   I’m betting you can see that even non-believers would be hard-pressed to find the negatives in simple prayer.

But prayer is actually more.   Prayer is you taking an interest in someone else straight to God.   There’s no intermediary, no pontiff, no priest, no elder between you and your Lord.   You talk with Him directly and take your petition to Him.  That’s a pleasing thing to Jesus when we do it from the heart.  When you’re praying for someone else’s benefit, you’re participating in their lives even if they don’t know it.   You may not have any resources available to you to physically interact with them, but you can pray.   When you do, you’re asking for God’s personal touch in someone else’s life.   You’re asking the creator of the universe, the one who created you and whoever you’re praying for, to intervene for someone else’s benefit.   You’re asking Him to use you and the rest of His creation to help another fellow human being.   Smiles in heaven result.

And it’s even more than that.   Prayer is war.   Prayer is a weapon, a tactic, and a soldier.  When you pray, you are directly combating the evil prince of this world.   It isn’t cool these days to acknowledge that evil is real and that Satan is the father of evil.   It may not be cool but it’s still real.  The first, best way a follower of Jesus can combat Satan is to pray to God.   Even Satan knows God is real and more powerful than himself.   When you ally yourself with God through prayer, especially on someone else’s behalf, you’re directly confronting Satan.   He knows he has no power to stop or thwart that.   Sure, he may hit back; he probably will.   But he can do nothing to stop your prayer or lessen God’s response to them.   Hit your knees or pray as you will, but you’re in a long line of soldiers directly confronting the evil one and knocking him flat on his back.   Pray and advance forward.

The author of Hebrews knew all this.   That’s why he asked his fellow believers to pray.   He was sure in his faith and sure that their prayers would bear good fruit.  You and I can be sure of it as well.

For further reading:  1 Thessalonians 5:25, Acts 23:1, Philemon 22.

My Lord, thank You for the gift of prayer, for hearing my prayers, for teaching me to pray.

Practical Proverbial, from Hebrews, 29 November 2017

Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.  Hebrews 13, verses 17-18.

Pastors, presidents, parents, bosses:   they are our leaders.   So are mentors, quarterbacks, famous actors, media figures, teachers, and drill sergeants.   Every group has leaders and followers; it’s human nature.   Some leaders have natural aptitude for it; some have elected authority; some have power they have simply assumed from those around them or the situation in which they find themselves.   Some leaders inspire you to want to follow them in anything; some leaders are complete jerks.   Some are virtuous; some are murderous Communists.  Whether these verses are talking explicitly about ecclesiastical leaders alone misses the fact that these verses actually do apply to all situations.

God allows leaders to be vested with (and use) authority that originates with Him.  Just before ascending after His resurrection, Jesus said that “all authority in heaven and on earth” had been given to Him.   God the Father owned it and vested it into His Son.  That means Jesus is where the buck really stops.   And because of that word “all,” through delegation, if someone on earth has any kind of authority, they have it because Jesus directly or indirectly gave it to them.   Even people who don’t believe in Jesus have this endowment.

Yesterday evening I was having an online discussion with a friend who doesn’t profess conventional belief in God.   I don’t think of him as an atheist, or even an un-believer as I don’t think his heart is hardened against God.   Indeed, I’m hopeful that God is working on him as we speak.  He’s going through a terrible time right now, and I hope and pray that He learns to seek comfort from the Lord.   He’s having a leadership crisis because he has lost faith in many of the leaders in his life (work, family, etc).  If you told him that these verses required him to have confidence in these leaders he might rip your head off.

Yet think about the writer of Hebrews.   He was saying these words and echoing his contemporary, the Apostle Paul.  Paul exhorted his fellow believers to submit to authorities, and many of those believers were being actively persecuted by those authorities.   Paul himself was imprisoned and tortured by both Roman and Jewish officials.  Unless you have been tortured by ISIS, you and I may not be able to comprehend what kind of character it must take to put trust in leaders who are evil.   But we’ve all worked for bosses who didn’t seem to know how to lead; sometimes those bosses have been us.   And we can each tell stories about parents or people we looked up to who let us down or didn’t do things they should have.

The verses are another of God’s reminders to us that we are to remember that those in charge are in charge because He allows it.   He allows their selection (or assumption of power) because it serves His purposes (even when we don’t understand what those purposes are).  I don’t know what purpose was served by God allowing tens of millions of innocent people to be murdered by Communists in the last hundred years but I do know that God worked to turn that evil for good purposes after.   I don’t know what good purpose was served at Auschwitz, but I do know about the stories of faith and love from people who survived there.   I don’t know what good is accomplished by allowing pedophile priests to rape kids, or presidential candidates destroying classified information, or the exploitation of people for profit and power, but I do know that good people come out of those situations even stronger.   It’s tough to admit but we, as people, have the power to stop many of these things, yet we don’t, and then we blame God when they happen.   But a tangent of this is also true:  when good prevails, you can count on the fact that it was because God was at work through it.

Besides, those in charge will have to give an accounting for how they used the power entrusted to them.   Did they use it in ways to further God’s Kingdom?   Was love increased because of things they did?   To God be the glory or was it to the person waving the flag?  It’s important to remember that we must not hold God to standards that we ourselves won’t abide by.  Thus it’s a fool’s game to blame God for all evil because doing so simply means we’re putting ourselves in His place as God.   I don’t know of anyone who’s worthy of that.

I’ve been fired from jobs, and it’s hard for me to do honor to my former employers but that’s what God calls me to do.   There are leaders in our government whose words and actions I detest, but Jesus tells me to abide and follow them.   Some of what elders and mentors tell me is tough to hear, and some of it is dead wrong, but the Lord still tells me to respect them.   All of this is true because God entrusts them with the authority they have and we all serve His purposes in one way or another.

For further reading:  Isaiah 62:6, Acts 20:28, 1 Thessalonians 5:25, Acts 23:1, Romans 15:33, Matthew 28:18.

Lord, abide with humanity’s leaders.   Empower them, instruct them, guide them and forgive them.   And teach me to do the same as I follow them.   When I follow, I’m following You.