Tuesday, February 7, 2017

"Lame Excuses"

Mike Lupica writes in Esquire:
Deion "Prime Time" Sanders, outfielder for the Atlanta Braves and cornerback for the Atlanta Falcons, is the only athlete to have hit a Major League home run and scored an NFL touchdown in the same week. Sanders grew up on the mean streets of Fort Myers, Fla., where exposure to some would-be athletes spurred him to make a success of himself. He explains: "I call them Idas. 'If I'da done this, I'd be making three million today...If I'da practiced a little harder, I'd be a superstar.' They were as fast as me when they were kids, but instead of working for their dreams they chose drugs and a life of street corners. When I was young, I had practice; my friends who didn't went straight to the streets and never left. That moment after school is the moment we need to grab. We don't need any more Idas.[i]

People are just as full of Idas today as they were two thousand years ago. Human nature hasn’t changed. We still like to make excuses for why we can’t accomplish what we’d like to. You may have already made and broken New Year’s resolutions, and you say to yourself, “If Ida just stuck to my diet, Ida lost the weight.” Or, “If my drinking buddies had quit coming around, Ida been able to quit drinking.” Or, “If my husband or wife hadn’t held me back, Ida had a better job by now.” The truth is that often it isn’t other people, but our lame excuses that hold us back.

In John 5:1-7 (NLT), Jesus encounters a lame man who is full of excuses, sitting by a pool in the Holy City. The Bible doesn’t give him a name, but let’s call him Yitzhak. Bear in mind that Jesus’ reputation has preceded him to Jerusalem. When the disabled beggar sees the Master, he knows that this prophet from Galilee is more than a Teacher. Jesus is a Healer. If there had been any doubt as to the newcomer’s identity, the crowd now affirms who Jesus is by crying out to him as they always have before. Everywhere that Jesus goes, people call out things like, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on us!” They reach out to Him, grasping just to touch the hem of His garment. Can you hear the clamor of crowd, jostling for position so they can see, hear, and touch the Master? Maybe the gate he’s coming through will create a bottleneck where they can get closer to him. Everybody wants a piece of Jesus—all except Yitzhak by the pool.

Like Moses parting the Red Sea, Jesus steps through the crowd. The beggar’s head is downcast, trying to avoid the Master’s gaze, but now he sees the Carpenter’s sandaled feet stop right in front of him. Jesus knows this man will never cry out to him, so Jesus kneels and whispers, “Would you like to get well?”

Now, this would be an obvious, “Duh—yes!” kind of question for almost anybody. But not for Yitzhak, who has been disabled for thirty-eight years. He knows nothing about making a living as a tradesman. All he knows is begging. Yes, he is located near a pool known for its magical healing properties. Legend says that occasionally, an angel comes to stir the waters—then the first one into the pool is healed. Who knows what really happens. Perhaps a hot spring or some other phenomenon. All we know is that the people believe it. But while Yitzhak is seated by the pool (perhaps because thirty-eight years ago his dear departed mother placed him there and told him to wait), it is clear that he doesn’t want healing. Not once does the beggar cry out to Jesus. Instead, the Master has to come to him and ask a seemingly ridiculous question.

But it’s not ridiculous, really. Some people enjoy the drama of their difficulties. Whether financial, emotional, spiritual, social, or physical, some people would actually rather remain in their dramatic agony than be healed. But Jesus takes a risk and asks the question with the not-so-obvious answer.

“I can’t, sir,” Yitzhak replies. “Because I don’t have anybody to help me into the pool when the water bubbles up. Somebody else always beats me to it.”

This is the man’s excuse. For thirty-eight years, somebody has always edged him out. The truth is that he probably doesn’t believe the myth anyway. But that’s Yitzhak’s excuse. I wonder—what excuses do you have for not achieving or becoming what God wants you to be? Jesus came to the beggar in essence to tell him, “You were made for something better.” But instead Jesus gets an excuse.

How does Jesus respond to the beggar’s excuse? Jesus tells him, “Stand up, pick up your mat, and walk!” Now, I know that this is recorded as a healing, and I’m not going to dispute that. But I’m not certain this is a physical healing. It seems that Yitzhak is healed mentally and emotionally rather than in his body. All he needs is for Jesus to speak into his life with spiritual authority, dispelling all his fears and setting aside all his lame excuses. All he needs is the Master to tell him that he can do it—and the man overcomes his objections, rises, and is never the same again.

You may throw up your hands and say, “Now what? There’s nothing this man can do for a living!” Of course there were jobs that required unskilled labor. Certainly the omnipotent God would not call this man to a whole life if there were no opportunities outside of his brokenness. So too Jesus calls you to give up your excuses, take up your mat, and walk.

I am just as guilty as everybody else, when it comes to excuses. I have started writing more books than I can count, gotten two hundred pages into the text, and quit writing with the excuse that church, family, and friends demand too much of my attention. I’ve finished writing a couple of books, and failed to get them published with the excuse that I couldn’t find the right publisher. The truth was, I just didn’t search diligently enough for a publisher. I can blame other people for why I don’t accomplish what I want, or I can get honest and admit that these are just lame excuses. You can get honest with yourself as well. Hear again the words of Jesus in John 5:8—but hear them not spoken to Yitzhak but directed to your ears and heart. “Stand up, pick up your mat, and walk!” I wonder, will you have the courage to rise?

Monday, January 30, 2017

"Five Steps to Overcoming Fear and Anxiety"

Source: Aggressive bear charges spectators in Finland by SamiHaaranen on Rumble

I came across this video yesterday, and it made me giggle, then laugh when I thought about it for a bit. Have you ever been chased by a snarling dog? That can be a scary thing, if the dog is a Yorkie or Chihuahua because sharp teeth are still sharp teeth, even on a small dog. But when a German Shepherd chases you, it's terrifying! This bear must have been really frightened by the dog that barked and growled and chased it through the woods.Then, in a moment of clarity, the bear stopped and said to itself, "Hey wait...I'm a bear!" And that reminder made all the difference. With that, he turned around and began to chase the dog, which turned tail and fled.

When you're afraid, it's important to remember who you are.

The devil tries to convince you that you're weak, that you're small, that you're helpless, and that you probably deserve the trouble you're having anyway. But Jesus says of the devil, "...He was a murderer from the beginning. He has always hated the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, it is consistent with his character; for he is a liar and the father of lies (John 8:44 NLT)." The first step to combating fear is to know that most of the things that you're afraid of are lies, anyway. Your own self-talk convinces you that your troubles are a giant like Goliath, to keep you on the run from something that's smaller than you are, anyway. Overcoming fear means you realize that it's a lie, and that there is a way of salvation.

What is that way of salvation? 1 John 4:18 (NLT) says, "love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear." God is love, and in God's perfect love, there is peace.  Like a light bulb drives the darkness out of a room, so the perfect love, drawn down through faith, drives fear out of the anxious heart.  On a practical level, what can you do to welcome this love into your dark moments?  The second step is to turn to God in prayer and worship.  You do this by "singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, and making music to the Lord in your hearts (Ephesians 5:19 NLT)."  This is effective because Psalm 22:3 says that God literally inhabits the praises of God's people.  When you worship God, you become aware of the divine loving presence that drives out fear.  Try to stay in an attitude of prayer and praise throughout the day, because Isaiah 26;3 says that God will keep you in perfect peace when your thoughts are focused on God, rather than your problem.

The third step is to trust that God has it under control. Psalm 56:3 (NLT) says, "But when I am afraid, I will put my trust in you." So trust can come as a response to fear. But even better than that is when you get used to trusting so much that it acts as a fear-preventative. Isaiah 12:2 (NLT) says, "See, God has come to save me. I will trust in him and not be afraid. The LORD God is my strength and my song; he has given me victory."  Thoughts become patterns that govern the way we live.  When you live in a state of fear, oppression, and anxiety, that becomes your pattern.  Those become your go-to emotions when you feel threatened.  But Romans 12:2 (NLT) promises that it's possible to reprogram those old patterns.  "Don't copy the behavior and customs of this world," says the apostle Paul, "but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think."  You do this by replacing your attitude of anxiety with affirmations of faith and trust.  These may be favorite scriptures (like the ones in this article) that you memorize and repeat as your own personal mantra, or spiritual music that becomes your new theme song.  A friend of mine has her own song that she sings to the tune of Allelujah by Bill & Gloria Gaither, with four verses of God-given new lyrics: "I'm protected," "I am covered," "I am sealed," and "I am healed."  This song of faith dispels the darkness and invites the light.

The fourth step is calling on the strength that is within you through Christ. In Matthew 28:18 (NLT), Jesus says, "I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth." In Luke 10:19 (NLT), Jesus also says, "Look, I have given you authority over all the power of the enemy, and you can walk among snakes and scorpions and crush them. Nothing will injure you." This is where our video comes in. It reminds us of this one great truth: Don't flee from the hounds of hell; Instead, be the bear!  If you find yourself running, then just stop.  Remember who you are, turn around, and chase your attacker instead.  "So humble yourselves before God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you (James 4:7 NLT)."  Not only do you have victory over the devil, but over those who are manipulated by demonic power.  "But you belong to God, my dear children. You have already won a victory over those people, because the Spirit who lives in you is greater than the spirit who lives in the world (1 John 4:4 NLT)."  Remember, your enemy is not another person, no matter how fearsome they are.  For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly place (Ephesians 6:12 NLT)."  It's your job to believe the truth, turn to God in prayer and worship, trust that God has it under control, and call on the strength and authority that Jesus gives.  Then let God deal with the rest.

The final step is to find a partner in faith who has your back.  Ecclesiastes 4:12 (NLT) says, "A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer. Three are even better, for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken."  In Matthew 18:19, Jesus says, "I also tell you this: If two of you agree here on earth concerning anything you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you."  When you have a friend who has your back, then when you are weak, they can be strong for you and when they're weak, you can strengthen them.  And of course, when you're both weak, then certainly God is the third strand in the cord that holds you together.  Trust in each other, and trust in God to protect you.

Today I wonder, is there something that's been frightening you?  Is it a problematic person, a financial fear, a horrifying health problem, or something else?  Some fears may be God-given responses to danger that help you prepare for the worst.  But other fears become crippling to your soul and spirit.  Those kinds of fears are not from God, but from the Enemy of your soul.  2 Timothy 1:7 (AKJV) says, "For God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind."  I pray that you'll know God's power, that you'll feel God's love, that God's truth will create new patterns of thinking and a sound mind for you today.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

"Believing is Seeing"

My first ministry position was when I was in college, finishing up my undergraduate degree in religious studies. As a first-time minister it was strange for me to leave the church where I grew up and had attended for so many years, to go to a church where I knew nobody in order to serve. I felt that the time I was there were very good years of ministry, and of my own personal growth. During the time that I was there, my first child was born. Because my family’s financial needs increased, and the church was not able to pay more, and because I graduated and was heading to a local seminary, I felt that I needed to begin looking for a different ministry location. About the same time, my home church’s youth ministry position came available. I thought it’d be a perfect match. After all, I knew all the families, all the names, all the personalities and quirks. So I sent them my resume. Do you know—they didn’t even want to have a conversation about it? Not even a phone call. Why? Because those were the same people who changed my diapers. They saw the mistakes and shenanigans growing up. Honestly, it’s hard to respect someone you knew as a little kid.

This is why Jesus could do few miracles in his hometown—because the people didn’t believe in him. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked (Luke 4:22). In other words—they changed his diapers. They knew he never studied (John 7:17). How could they respect him? This is why it says in John 4:44, “He himself had said that a prophet is not honored in his own hometown.” They did not believe because they had seen too much. They had changed his diapers and watched him grow, and so they couldn’t believe. So he went to Galilee, where they didn’t know him as well.

Verses 45-46a say, “Yet the Galileans welcomed him, for they had been in Jerusalem at the Passover celebration and had seen everything he did there. As he traveled through Galilee, he came to Cana, where he had turned the water into wine.” In contrast to the Nazarenes who didn’t believe because they’d seen too much, the Galileans believed because they did see. But instead of seeing Jesus’ immature years, they had seen the fruits of his ministry. They’d watched him turn water to wine, and so believed him because of his miraculous signs.

Different kinds of people need different proofs if they are going to believe. 1 Corinthians 1:22 says that the gospel “…is foolish to the Jews, who ask for signs from heaven. And it is foolish to the Greeks, who seek human wisdom.” In either case, some require miraculous proof and some need ironclad logic. Yet matters of faith aren’t a matter of proof, but of trust. This is why many consider it to be foolishness. After the resurrection, Thomas disbelieved because he hadn’t witnessed it for himself. Once he saw the risen Lord and believed, Jesus told him, “…You believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who believe without seeing me (John 20:29)." It is just this kind of faith-without-proof that we see next. Some say, “I can’t believe because I’ve seen too much.” Others say, “Seeing is believing.” But the government official with the dying son learned, “Believing is seeing.”

When his son fell ill and he heard that Jesus was near, the first thing the official did was beat the bushes looking for Jesus. This isn’t the same thing as faith. But it was hope that if he could just find the Master, everything would be okay. So he searched high and low for the Lord’s help. How far would you go, to find the help that you need today? Jesus said, “Keep on seeking, and you will find (Matthew 7:7).” So the man searched, and I hope you will too.

Next, the man fell on his face and “begged Jesus to come to Capernaum to heal his son, who was about to die (John 4:47b).” In Matthew 7:7 Jesus also says, “Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for.” In the Parable of the Persistent Widow (Luke 18:7-8), Jesus says, “…Don’t you think God will surely give justice to his chosen people who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will grant justice to them quickly!” God wants us to continue in prayer, untiringly and trustingly asking for the things we need. Yet even his begging is not true faith, but hope inspired from need.

John 4:50 says, “Then Jesus told him, ‘Go back home. Your son will live!’ And the man believed what Jesus said and started home.” It was only after Jesus declared the boy’s healing that the official trusted that Jesus was going to help him. We could chide him with the words Jesus spoke to Thomas, but remember this official hadn’t traveled and ministered with the Master for three years. He was just taking his first steps of faith. The miracle is that once he believed, he saw the fruit of faith. Verses 51-53 say:
While the man was on his way, some of his servants met him with the news that his son was alive and well. He asked them when the boy had begun to get better, and they replied, “Yesterday afternoon at one o’clock his fever suddenly disappeared!” Then the father realized that that was the very time Jesus had told him, “Your son will live.” And he and his entire household believed in Jesus.

While it’s not within the scope of this article to answer the question why Jesus didn’t heal every dying child in Galilee and why God doesn’t work miracles for every prayer lifted to the heavens, it is important to point one thing out: “Name it and claim it” Christians believe that if you only believe enough, God will do a miracle for you. Notice here that this man did not believe until after Jesus declared the healing. His faith helped him to see the fruit of the healing. The healing helped others to believe. But Jesus didn’t heal the boy because he just believed hard enough. In the end, faith is trust—trust that God will do the good that God does, and trust that a loving God is holding you in loving hands. “Believing is seeing” doesn’t mean that your faith forces God to do anything. It means that without faith, you cannot see the miracles that God is already doing, because without faith you can’t see the hand of God at work in the world. Whatever stage at which you find yourself—“I can’t believe because I’ve seen too much,” or “Seeing is believing,” or “Believing is seeing”—I pray that you’ll find God as the official did, “while the man was on his way… (John 4:51)”. I pray that somewhere along the way you’ll see the God who loves you and cares for you and works on your behalf. I pray you’ll trust God with every care you have, and that, believing, you’ll see the miracles God is already doing in your life. I pray you’ll hear the Lord say to you as He said to Thomas, “Blessed are those who believe without seeing (John 20:29)."

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

"Limping or Leaping"

The New Year is a time when many people reevaluate their lives to determine what’s working and what’s not working. Now that we’re a week into 2017, now that you’ve made and broken your resolutions, it’s time to really and realistically assess the changes that need to be made. Maybe you’re determined (like me) to lose a bit of weight, because you’ve found that the holiday pounds are just too much. Or perhaps you’ve decided that your spirituality needs the kind of boost that a daily quiet time can provide. It could be that your church attendance needs to improve or that you’ve realized you need to do something different with your employment to make ends meet. Maybe you determined that instead of waiting for your kids to call you, you’re going to pick up the phone and connect with them. The New Year is a time for figuring out where you’re limping and where you’re leaping in life.

In 1 Corinthians 12, the apostle Paul does some self-evaluation for the church. He sees that, in many ways, the church has been limping. In verses 14-21, he paints a picture of a human body that lacks unity among its members. Jewish and Gentile believers refused to help each other. Women and men lacked unity and cooperation. Employers and employees who attended the same church jockeyed for position. About this disunity, Paul writes:
14 For the body does not consist of one member but of many.15 If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”

With the disunity and disorganization of the church, Christ’s body which should be leaping in the resurrection seems to be limping. Instead of a figure of love and perfection, the body of Christ seems more of a Frankenstein’s monster or Picasso painting with arms in place of legs and eyes popping out where ears should be. It’s been a tough year for many in the church. Many churches, like mine, have experienced too many tragedies, struggles, and too much decline. But instead of limping in ministry, Jesus wants His body to leap into the New Year with hope and vision, agility and strength. Just as people hit the gym and fix their broken diets in January, so churches need to do some reassessment, streamline their ministries, and reset some dislocated body parts. In verses 27-31, Paul tells how to do this:
27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues.29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? 31 But earnestly desire the higher gifts.
And I will show you a still more excellent way.

The way of leaping instead of limping begins with understanding that every believer is called to ministry of some kind. Not all possess the same gifts, but when we work together and exercise the gifts we have, the whole body can function as God intends. Just as a human body has four main limbs, so the church has four limbs that support and do the work of ministry. Each of these four limbs is represented by ministries Paul mentions above:
1. Outreach – This important arm of the church is overseen by people with apostolic gifts. Paul also gives the example of people who can speak in other languages, reaching people groups outside the norm for the established church. Every healthy church needs committees and ministries that are dedicated to outreach. Examples are benevolence committees, groups that take mission trips, teams that work with church prospects, etc.
2. Inreach – Run by people with the gift of healing and helps, this essential arm of the church takes care of the needs of members. Examples are fellowship committees, homebound and hospital visitation of members, and nursery workers.
3. Spiritual Formation – Led by teachers and those with the gift of prophecy, this foundational leg of the church builds people’s spirituality through music, teaching, discipling, preaching, and leading in worship.
4. Structure – This strong leg of the church is headed by people with gifts of leadership and administration. Helping the church to run smoothly seems like a miracle in itself! Examples of this may be a church secretary, building and grounds committee, transportation committee, or those who handle the church finances.

Just as an individual often assesses where they are limping and where they’re limping in the New Year, adjusting so their lives and bodies function optimally, so churches need to go through times of introspection, restructuring, and streamlining. Maybe your church has been doing this type of thing lately. Perhaps God is calling you to step into a place of leadership within your church. You might have an interest in outreach, inreach, spiritual formation, or structure. You might have the gifts necessary for one or more of these ministries. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:31 that we should “earnestly desire the higher gifts.” He then follows up by saying, “I will show you a still more excellent way.” These higher gifts are represented by this more excellent way, the way of love (1 Corinthians 13). It is love that binds the body together like ligaments, covers it beautifies it like skin, and helps the church to leap into her purposes in Christ. I pray that in this New Year, you’ll follow the way of love, that invest yourself in your own health, and that you’ll find your ministry and strengthen the body of Christ.

Monday, January 2, 2017

"It's a Wonderful Life!"

Perhaps one of my favorite Christmas movies is the 1946 classic by Frank Capra, It’s a Wonderful Life. The IMDB website describes the story of George Bailey, who:
has spent his entire life giving of himself to the people of Bedford Falls. He has always longed to travel but never had the opportunity in order to prevent rich skinflint Mr. Potter from taking over the entire town. All that prevents him from doing so is George's modest building and loan company, which was founded by his generous father. But on Christmas Eve, George's Uncle Billy loses the business's $8,000 while intending to deposit it in the bank. Potter finds the misplaced money and hides it from Billy. When the bank examiner discovers the shortage later that night, George realizes that he will be held responsible and sent to jail and the company will collapse, finally allowing Potter to take over the town. Thinking of his wife, their young children, and others he loves will be better off with him dead, he contemplates suicide. But the prayers of his loved ones result in a gentle angel named Clarence coming to earth to help George, with the promise of earning his wings. He shows George what things would have been like if he had never been born. In a nightmarish vision in which the Potter-controlled town is sunk in sex and sin, those George loves are either dead, ruined, or miserable. He realizes that he has touched many people in a positive way and that his life has truly been a wonderful one.[i]

Maybe you’ve had moments like George Bailey, who wished he’d never been born. Maybe, like George, you feel so overwhelmed by the cumulative circumstances of life that all you can see is pain. The irony of Frank Capra’s movie is that this pivotal point of George’s life takes place at Christmas. While everybody else is celebrating, George’s life is falling apart. While everyone else seems so full of Christmas cheer, George is thinking of jumping off a bridge. Perhaps this holiday season you’re having a George Bailey moment, and you just wish that things had turned out differently. But I wonder—what about some of the most significant moments of history—what if they had turned out differently? Where might we be today?

Take, for example, the D-Day invasion of Normandy. So much devastation—so much pain! Nobody would say that they are glad that such a day happened, yet look at the result of that day. The tide was turned on Normandy beach, and that day marked the beginning of the end of the war in Europe, resulting in the saving of far more lives than were lost. But, you know, the Allied forces never would have won at Normandy if the US. hadn’t been part of that invasion. And the US. wouldn’t have been in Normandy if it hadn’t been for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which resulted in the US declaring war on Japan and then the Axis powers declaring war on the US. So sometimes the most difficult things that we go through as individuals, or even as nations, end up resulting in something good. That doesn’t mean that those things are good, in and of themselves. Obviously, suffering is painful by definition. And personally, I don’t believe that God causes suffering in our lives just to bring about good things. But often we can see, like George Bailey, that despite the suffering, it really is a wonderful life. And maybe if the painful things hadn’t happened, some of the good things couldn’t happen, either.

In the Christmas story that we find in Matthew 1:18-24, we might ask, what if Mary had not become pregnant by the Holy Spirit before she was married? What if Joseph had refused to marry her? In Luke 2:1-7, we might wonder what might have happened on a larger scale—if, for example, Augustus had not been Caesar or if Quirinius had not been governor of Syria. What if there had been no edict from Caesar that a census should be taken of the whole Roman world? Then Joseph wouldn’t have traveled to his ancestral home of Bethlehem, and the birth of Jesus wouldn’t have been in that place. These events caused hardship for the Holy Family, but also for the entire population of the Roman empire. Yet hardship brought so many blessings. And without these difficulties, so many godsends might not have come about. The events leading up to Jesus’ birth fulfilled prophecy, substantiating the Christian claim that Jesus is the Christ. The sufferings that we go through in life are, by definition, painful. Yet when we find ourselves wishing that things were different it’s because we can’t see the either the big picture of how many of our past tragedies shape our current blessings, or how our current suffering may produce something good later on.

Romans 8:28 ESV says that “…we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” George Bailey didn’t understand that. He didn’t understand that the painful things of life produce good in the lives of others. He lost hearing in one ear in icy water, saving his brother Harry. But if George had never been born, Harry would have died—along with every man on the transport ship that Harry would later save in the war. If he hadn’t been there to save Harry, Harry wouldn’t have been there to save them. Joseph probably had plenty of George Bailey moments along the way as he lived out the Christmas story. Perhaps it would have been good if he’d had a guardian angel like Clarence who could say, “Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?” Perhaps you need to hear the same thing—that your life touches the lives of everyone around you, and that without you, there’d be an awful hole. This is why Jesus came—to save you and give your life meaning—to let you know that it really is a wonderful life (John 10:10). Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 18, 2016

"Elf Esteem"

One of my favorite Christmas movies is Elf[i], starring Will Farrell. Buddy the Elf isn’t really an elf. He’s a human who accidentally stowed away in Santa’s sack as a baby, and was raised at the North Pole with elf children. Because of his human size, he doesn’t fit in with the other elves. When he learns that he is human, he journeys to find his father, Walter Hobbs, who is a children’s book publisher in New York City. Hobbs wants nothing to do with his son Buddy, whose only desire is a relationship with his dad. Much of the movie is spent in Buddy’s efforts to please his father, and trying to get the grumpy man to show a little Christmas spirit. While Buddy has lots of Christmas cheer that he carries with him from the North Pole—there’s one thing that he lacks: self esteem (or, I should say, “elf esteem”). He needs to know that he is loved, and that he is wanted by his father. This elf-fulfillment is the subject of Buddy’s search.

God knows that we can only have self-fulfillment and self-esteem when we are in relationship with our Heavenly Father. Some spend their whole lives, searching like Buddy the Elf, to find the One who made us. In Deuteronomy 4, Moses tells the people about just such a search. He encourages them to follow all the commands of God, and specifically warns them against idolatry. If they do follow other gods, Moses warns, they will be scattered among the nations. Verses 26-28[ii] say:
26 “Today I call on heaven and earth as witnesses against you. If you break my covenant, you will quickly disappear from the land you are crossing the Jordan to occupy. You will live there only a short time; then you will be utterly destroyed. 27 For the Lord will scatter you among the nations, where only a few of you will survive.28 There, in a foreign land, you will worship idols made from wood and stone—gods that neither see nor hear nor eat nor smell.

God knows that we were made for a relationship with Him, and not to chase after anything else. When we are scattered, nothing seems to fit in our lives. Buddy realizes that something isn’t right when he can’t fit into the elf-sized bed of his childhood, or when he had to squeeze into an elf-sized school desk. In the same way, when you’re scattered, nothing seems to fit right. Have you ever been through a time when you felt like your spirit was scattered, your soul destroyed, and nothing seemed to fit? Maybe it’s time you sought the Father.

After a time away, God knows that His children will want to come back. When we do, God is ready to restore that broken relationship. In verses 29-31, Moses says:

29 But from there you will search again for the Lord your God. And if you search for him with all your heart and soul, you will find him.30 “In the distant future, when you are suffering all these things, you will finally return to the Lord your God and listen to what he tells you. 31 For the Lord your God is a merciful God; he will not abandon you or destroy you or forget the solemn covenant he made with your ancestors.

Just as Buddy finds his dad, so too will every one of God’s children find Him when they diligently search. But this is where the analogy ends. In contrast to God, Walter Hobbs is a dishonest curmudgeon who would rather pay him to disappear than deal with him and restore the relationship. Still, at the end of the movie, all things are made right. If a bad dad can learn to embrace his son, and a weird son can find his father, how much more can God receive back His children who return to Him! In Matthew 7:11, Jesus says, “…If you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him.” When God sees that you’re living at the North Pole, or as far from Him as you can possibly get—when God sees that you are scattered—God wants one thing: to reach out and draw you back to His arms of love.

How did Buddy gain a relationship with his dad? Not by following him around the office, watching him do things Buddy could never understand. Neither can we get close to God by pondering theology and going through the practice of religious ritual. When Buddy can’t grasp the father, he reaches out to Walter’s son, Buddy’s own half-brother. Eventually, when Buddy runs away, it is young Michael who bursts into his dad’s office to intercede for Buddy and ask for Dad’s help. In the same way, it is Jesus who mediates between God and runaway humanity. Sometimes we, like the people of Israel, can be cotton-headed ninny mugginses. We can stow away in Satan’s sack and allow ourselves to be carried off to who-knows-where. But it is the Holy Spirit who guides our journey back to the Father. And it is Jesus who puts our broken lives back together.

[i] Elf.  Bob Farveau, Director.  New Line Cinema.  2003.
[ii] All scriptures taken from the NLT.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

"The Island of Misfit Toys"

The 1964 classic movie Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,[i] is all about misfits. Rudolph has a very shiny nose, and gets tormented by all of the other reindeer for being different. His friend Hermey the elf prefers dentistry over toymaking, and suffers harassment by the other elves for not fitting in. Together they flee the North Pole’s persecution, in search of a place more tolerant of their differences. Along the way, they stumble on the Island of Misfit Toys, where they meet a nesting-doll clown with a wind-up mouse at the center, a choo-choo with square wheels, a squirt gun that shoots jelly, a spotted elephant, and a cowboy who rides an ostrich. These toys dream of finding homes where they can be loved and accepted. According to the mis-identified Charlie-in-the-box, “Every night, King Moonracer searches the entire earth. When he finds a misfit toy, one that no little girl or boy loves, he brings it here to live on this island til someone wants it.” In the movie (spoiler alert) every single misfit finds his or her place. And, as for the rest of the story, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer went down in history.

The reason we love that song and that movie is that most of us at some point have felt like a misfit. Maybe your nose didn’t glow, but your ears were too big or your hair too red. Maybe you had a learning disability or a hard-to-pronounce last name. It could be that, like me, you had a Christian childhood and non-Christian kids picked on you. Maybe you were unathletic or you wore glasses or braces on your teeth. Or maybe your parents didn’t make enough money and you didn’t wear the right clothes. The truth is that most kids feel like misfits sometimes. That’s why we love the story of Rudolph. We like to believe that one day every misfit will find a safe place.

If you’ve ever felt like a misfit, then you’re in good company. 1 Peter 2:7[ii] calls Jesus, “The stone that the builders rejected.” Isaiah 53:2b-3 says, “There was nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance, nothing to attract us to him. He was despised and rejected—a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief. We turned our backs on him and looked the other way. He was despised, and we did not care.” Jesus Himself was a misfit. Yet, 1 Peter 2:7b says, “The stone that the builders rejected has now become the cornerstone.” God is in the business of making something out of nothing—of taking misfits and lifting them up. God doesn’t exclude them—God understands how they feel. He offers a way for them.

To those whose hearts cry out for salvation, Jesus offers a promise better than an Island of Misfit Toys. In John 14:1-3, Jesus says, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me. There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am.” Like Moonracer, every day Jesus searches the entire earth and gives a home to all who will trust in Him. Then, God gives you a glorious identity. Instead of being a misfit, God says, “…You are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light. Once you had no identity as a people; now you are God’s people. Once you received no mercy; now you have received God’s mercy (1 Peter 2:9b-10).” Through the gift of Christ’s love, God has a glorious plan for you. You may once have felt like a misfit, but in Christ, you have a place with God.

The problem is that many who have found their place in Christ, or their place in society, have forgotten what it felt like to be a misfit. Perhaps they never felt like a misfit at all, because you were born into a place of privilege. Instead of being harassed like Rudolph, too many white, middle-class, Christian, Americans find themselves more closely resembling “all of the other reindeer.” You know, the ones who laughed and called him names because of his red nose. Or assaulted him for his skin color. Or didn’t let him play any reindeer games because didn’t speak English. Or despised and discriminated against him for his gender identity. Or told him to go back to his nation of origin. Or feared him because of his different religion. If that’s you—then Jesus has one message for you: “Don’t be all of the other reindeer! Be something better!”

We live in a nation that is too divided already, and we don’t need privileged Christians making it worse by behaving badly. The church is in enough decline as it is. In Matthew 25:40b, Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!” In that scripture, Jesus is very clear that God’s harsh judgment falls not on those who are different from you, but on you who treat others as though they were different. Jesus says that God is in them, too. Therefore, there are no misfit toys. There are only God’s children. Again, 1 Peter 2:9 says, “You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God.” Indeed, you MUST show them the goodness of God. If you were a misfit toy and Jesus gave you a home, then praise the Lord and be thankful! But don’t even think about denying others their place in the blessing. If you do, one might wonder whether you’re a toy worth playing with at all.

[i] Rankin-Bass Productions
[ii] All scriptures taken from the NLT.