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Dec 31, 2018

Evaluating Your New Year's Resolutions

There are two types of people in this world: those who are organized, and those who are wandering around aimlessly in a confused and helpless state because they’ve never organized a thing in their life. Okay, that was a bit dramatic, but you know what I mean. Based on my descriptions of the two groups, you probably guessed that I am part of the first group, and you are right; I love organization. Messes stress me out, creating and checking off to-do lists is therapeutic for me, and I can’t live without my folder systems. Interestingly, my husband is basically the founder of the second group. One look at the inside of his car essentially sends me into cardiac arrest; it looks like an episode of Hoarders or maybe a crime scene investigation. Sometimes he makes to-do lists, but I don’t really know why because he leaves them all over the place and can never find them. I guess opposites do attract, but that is another topic for another day.
Considering my love for organization, you might think I’m a professional New Year’s resolution maker with clear, detailed goals for the upcoming year that I accomplish with ease and perhaps even ahead of schedule. Sadly, I must confess that this is not the case. I do make great lists, but that’s the problem. I have learned that it is really easy for me to get caught up in the act of list-making and never actually get anything done. The things on my list may be “good things, but they often aren’t really accomplishing anything. Sometimes I realize I’m just making lists for the sake of making lists and not really moving myself towards action at all.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but sometimes I think it would be beneficial for us to just forget the lists. Yes, lists can be extremely helpful to keep us on track and focused, but I do think they can become obstacles that keep us busy and distracted from true, meaningful action, and I think they do this more than we realize. They are dangerous because they disguise themselves as helpful when they can actually sabotage our efforts to achieve our goals, so we never expect that they could be harmful to us. We feel a sense of accomplishment as we check off the bullet points on our lists, but if these bullet points aren’t actually moving us to significant growth and specific goals, what good is this “accomplishment?
I am not advocating that you throw out lists entirely if you are list-oriented like me; I simply mean to encourage all of us to honestly examine our lists and decide if they are actually aiding us in accomplishing important goals or if they are secretly serving to busy and distract us from more important action. As you are sitting down today and making your New Year’s resolutions, really think about what your main goals are for 2019. I suggest making a list that first and foremost highlights a few very specific goals and then includes sub-points under these main goals with plans of action to help you reach them. This will help you stay focused on the main things you are working toward and keep them on the forefront of your mind instead of getting caught up with random things on a to-do list that don’t actually move you forward.
Lastly, I want to send you into 2019 with a very important reminder: When you inevitably fail, you must not forget that there is grace. Do not allow yourself to reach a point of discouragement that you give up. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 12, God’s grace is sufficient for us, and His power is made perfect in our weakness. Ask the Lord and loved ones for help, embrace His grace, get back up, and keep moving forward.


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Dec 22, 2018

Christmas Poverty

“For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. -Matthew 26:11


Perhaps Christmas is a day your mind is focused on family rather than the poor; then again, maybe you really are thinking of the poor and serving them on a day like today. This day is Christmas. Is it in any way a reminder to you of the poor? Would you, if you were alive then, have gone to a poor stable to worship the Baby on that first Christmas night? Of course, you would have required an invitation like those poor shepherds received, and you would have had to have been looking eagerly for the Messiah to come like Simeon and Anna.
Jesus said, “The poor you always have with you. The utopia of a poor-less society will not be accomplished until Jesus returns. In other words, every generation prior to the Second Coming will have the poor to assist and to serve. This truth that Jesus reminds us of – that the poor will always be there – does not mitigate in any way whatsoever against Jesus’ command to “always remember the poor. You cannot say, “Well, if the poor will always be there, why should we help a helpless condition?
There is a non-wavering, God-given command to provide continual sacrificial gifts to the poor in any land, along with the biblical instruction to “wisely consider the poor man’s case. As poor are helped out of poverty, they are replaced by more poor needing help and salvation. Such a supply, according to Jesus, will never abate.
Jesus knew poverty; He experienced such. He was born poor in a stable, and His first visitors were poor shepherds. The second recorded visitors provided the royal family with necessary gifts to sustain their flight into Egypt for the protection of Jesus from violent murder by a powerful king. Still, Jesus never experienced physical wealth in His entire earthly sojourn.
The Bible proclaims that “Jesus became poor so that you, through His poverty, might become rich. There are two dimensions of poverty: Spiritual poverty is clearly the worst kind, and physical poverty is a distant second. You can become spiritually rich through Christ, while not becoming rich physically. You can be rich physically but a pauper spiritually. In fact, the physically rich are most often spiritually starving.
It is no coincidence that Jesus’ first visitors were poor shepherds. I believe God was purposely teaching us by orchestrating His Son’s birth in a poor stable environment and bringing the poor shepherds as His first visitors, representing all of us, either physically poor or spiritually poor. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3). Months, possibly a year or more later, He brought Gentile visitors of wealth to worship a still poor Jesus.
Psalm 49 clearly links rich and poor together in their similarities. They are equal in that both experience death “empty-handed. The rich leave life the same as the poor: naked. Both rich and poor are created by the same God, both are creatures of the One Creator, both answer for similar spiritual conditions to the same Master. Rich and poor alike face the same Judge, however, a judgment which will assuredly judge just how the rich used their wealth, which is a very heavy responsibility.
The first Christmas differs greatly from the commercialization of present-day Christmases. Poverty accompanied the first, wealth the present. There are still homeless in the world of Christmas today though. Jesus’ pronouncement about the “always poor holds true. There will always be the need and opportunity to share your blessings with the poor. By making you less “rich, such giving will cause your bank account in spiritual assets to increase. You will believe this in doing it.
You should look forward to conversing with the poor shepherds who first fell to their knees beside the feed trough of hay in a smelly stable. Theirs was the richest of experiences, a treasure which easily lasted a lifetime and on into eternity. You might think, “What was so great about a small group of poor people seeing another baby so recently removed from the womb? There are millions upon millions of such experiences in the world down through the ages!
Yes, but there was only one such birth in the history of the world, and the One whom these shepherds were privileged to adore at His birth became their eternal Savior – their Savior and yours for eternity. These poor shepherds will talk with and rejoice with Him and with you about this incredible experience in eternity. Though some of the world think it so, this was no tiny event in a small obscure corner of history!
Just consider again the words of the angel-chorus above those shepherds in the night sky announcing this birth to them; of all people in history, they were immeasurably blessed to hear and go and witness! “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth among those with whom He is pleased! Who knows, but I am positively wondering if this cantata is not like all cantatas, taking a small phrase and repeating it over and over in glorious crescendo; these are such magnificent words.
Gloria in excelsis Deo!


“Joy to the world! The Lord is come! Let earth receive her King; let every heart prepare Him room, and heav’n and nature sing, and heav’n and nature sing, and heav’n, and heav’n and nature sing.
(First verse of Isaac Watts’ carol, “Joy to the World, 1719)
 

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Dec 19, 2018

Angels from the Realms of Glory

“Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men on whom His favor rests.’ -Luke 2:13-14


Can you picture the fictionalized “angels of Director Aronofsky’s movie Noah appearing to the shepherds in the fields outside Bethlehem on the first Christmas night, or to Zechariah in the Temple, or to Mary in Nazareth? Are Gabriel or Michael even imagined by any Bible-believers as such sci-fi monstrosities created for this movie? There have been many other artists through the centuries drawing or picturing supposed “angels, mostly for commercial purposes. They have a definite human visage with a fairly common addition of wings to distinguish them from humans. These cuddly, cherubic-cheeked, Hallmark-card depictions are certainly not the angels you find in God’s Word though, and neither are the fancifully dressed, adult humans with seraphic wings which we encounter in art.
A careful review of Scripture concerning angels reveals that they appear in the image of human men, with the exception of the seraphim of Isaiah 6, human in face with six wings attached, though still referred to as “he rather than “it. Why He designed and created a whole “race of spiritual beings distinct from human beings remains in the mind and purposes of God, but He did.
These angels were clearly given free will, for some fell from their dwelling place of heaven with their leading fallen angel, Satan, while others remained faithful to the God who gave them being. While their total number is unknown, these faithful angels have been referred to in the Bible as a “great host.
The Bible records angel interaction with human beings, but many of us also speak of the assistance of “guardian angels. This is certainly in line with Psalm 91:11 which says, “For He will command His angels concerning you, to guard you in all your ways, and Matthew 18:10 which says, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones [apparently, true followers of Jesus]. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of My Father in heaven. Guardian angels, indeed! Sometimes they are visible, and sometimes they are not.
God uses His angels as messengers, among other things, not because He has to to communicate with His creation, but because He chooses to. They came to announce Jesus’ birth to shepherds who hurried to His first cradle to worship Him. Later they sat in His empty tomb to declare “He is not here. He is risen! The obedient angels always faithfully and joyfully obey His will, while fallen angels still remain under His ultimate power, for they are still creatures, though destined for destruction.
Angels operate in another dimension, a spiritual reality. They remain invisible to human eye, except in rare occurrences when they appear to such as Mary, or Jesus’ first visitors, or in a dream as to Joseph or the Magi. In the Bible what is titled as the “Angel of the Lord has been shown in its context to be either God or more likely the second person of the Triune God, the Lord, the Son of God, in visible form. This is called a “theophany, the pre-existent Christ. But we can be absolutely certain of this: Angels exist, and they serve a necessary purpose, for they do God’s bidding. Those which assist Satan are known as “evil spirits, the enemies of God’s people.
When God created the world, He called it “good, but after creating the marvel of His creation, both man and woman, He then called what He had made “very good. When did God create this “race of angels? Most likely close to the creation of man, but we do not really know. Psalm 8 says that man was made a little lower than the “heavenly beings who are angels.
They are a part of the spiritual dimension of reality, invisible to us, but with the ability under God’s command to enter the visible world of ours temporarily. In doing this, why would they not appear in the created image of God as a man? Though, these humans to whom they appeared immediately became aware that this “man was an angel. Possibly his visage was striking, but something made them aware, though their appearance is not described in detail, which would really be the case if they appeared in the form of something other than a man.
Their appearance other places is eluded to by the writer of Hebrews when he speaks about “entertaining angels unaware, even as Abraham entertained the three visitors, not knowing at first who they were other than traveling guests. You would certainly not be “unaware, as Hebrews says, if they did not appear as any other man.
They have vibrant and also inquisitive minds, for as Peter writes, “It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look. Apparently, angels did not fully comprehend the Gospel, but they longed for such comprehension, for it thoroughly involved their Master.
Indeed it has well been written: These are created beings from the Realms of Glory, heavenly beings who do God’s will, involving themselves in aiding you at God’s behest. We often pray that God would surround the Paul Anderson Youth Home with His angels, just as He surrounded Elisha with an army of angels on fiery chariots in protecting him from an army doing the murderous will of an evil king (2 Kings 6). We have a cunning and terrible enemy seeking to destroy us with his evil spirits arrayed against us. The angels of our mighty God can and do surround us to protect us from the machinations of those seeking our destruction. “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood!
These angels of God made a magnificent choir in the night sky to an audience of poor shepherds who marveled at the announcement of the birth of a King. They also bid you come and adore Him!


“Angels from the realms of glory, wing your flight o’er all the earth; ye who sang creation’s story, now proclaim Messiah’s birth. Come and worship, come and worship, worship Christ the newborn King.
(First verse of James Montgomery’s Christmas carol, “Angels from the Realms of Glory, 1816)
 

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Dec 11, 2018

Mary as Mother

“And He went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them. And His mother treasured up all these things in her heart. -Luke 2:51


Mary had much more to ponder than most mothers. After all, she was the only virgin out of all mothers to conceive a son without the help of a man. I rather think all of us are most interested in hearing Mary’s story of what it was like for her to bear and rear Jesus, the very Son of God. She had to be wondering what to expect at and after His birth when the angel Gabriel told her in advance about her miraculous conception from heaven.
We know that Mary had meditated on many things during her rather normal pregnancy, improving her pondering skills as Jesus’ birth moved ever closer. She must have wondered greatly about what raising such a son would truly entail. She could not rely totally on the experience of other mothers and fathers knowing her Son was unique from any other. There was no book to read on what it would be like to raise the Son of God from an infant to a child, a teenager, and young adult.
Luke tells us several times explicitly that Mary treasured in her heart experiences concerning Jesus and pondered them deeply in her mind. She, like so many other mothers, would never forget them, especially those out-of-the-ordinary things she saw and heard, but also the glory in the ordinary. I believe these all had to be sanctifying moments for Mary in her own redemptive and sanctifying journey, for Mary was a sinner just like the rest of us.
I do not think either Joseph or Mary had contemplated much about the concept of sinlessness since no other person was or had ever been sinless, nor do I think they knew how to discipline a sinless child. However, they knew what was expected of other believing Jewish parents before them and during Jesus’ childhood, so I imagine they naturally thought discipline was expected whether Jesus required it or not. He didn’t, but Jesus was obedient to His parents because of His sinless character and His intentional, willing purpose to fulfill all righteousness as a pure Lamb to be slain for our sin.
Most parents of multiple children are usually amazed at the different personalities of those children and whether one is harder to rear than another. It is a constant reflective moment as well as a quandary while parents try to reason through the natural bent of their respective children. Mary must have pondered also about her other children concerning those differences between Jesus, her first, and the harder difficulties with her and Joseph’s biological children.
We only receive a few glimpses of Mary in the Gospel accounts which focus majorly on Jesus and His ministry and teaching. The experience of her finding Jesus at the temple, the wedding at Cana, at the foot of Jesus’ cross, and the ascension of Jesus and the upper room after the ascension covers most of what we know from Scripture. We are told of a godly woman who loved her Son, a woman who was courageous, graceful, and humble. She was one who believed her God and her Lord, and she was blessed among all women who ever lived. We honor her as the mother of our Lord!
Please follow Mary’s example this Advent and Christmas season, reserving the time in the busyness of it all to ponder deeply these well-known events as they concern you, your salvation, and your relationship with the Wonder of the Ages, Jesus Christ, your Lord and Savior. You, too, can increase your pondering skills as Mary did and truly be ready when your greatest treasure returns!


“God of God, Light of Light, Lo, He abhors not the Virgin’s womb. Very God, begotten not created. O come, let us adore Him, O come, let us adore Him, O come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.
(Second verse of anonymous hymn, “O Come All Ye Faithful, 18th Century)
 

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Manger with hay and swaddling clothes in old stable
Dec 10, 2018

A Focused Christmas

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about Christmas? Stressful shopping trips to Target where you wait in line for 45 minutes with all the other parents who are similarly trying to check out with their kids’ toys? Staying up until the early hours of Christmas morning wrapping presents and stuffing stockings? Watching your children’s faces light up as they open the gifts they were hoping for? Going to what feels like a million Christmas parties at your office, your spouse’s office, your children’s school, your church, etc.? Visiting or hosting family members? The annual candle light church service? A beautiful spread of your favorite dishes at a large family dinner? A day or two off work? Watching Home Alone or White Christmas? Christmas trees? Snow? Carols? Santa Clause?
There is no doubt about it: Our society has commercialized Christmas. We are bombarded by advertisements, movies, songs, newspapers, and stores telling us what gifts to get our loved ones so they know how much we care, which dishes to prepare for Christmas dinner so our mothers-in-law will be impressed, the new outfits we need so that the whole family will coordinate for pictures, the latest Christmas trends on Pinterest so we can keep up with the other moms, how to host the best holiday party, and on and on and on.
Of course we know deep down that the true meaning of Christmas is the celebration of our Savior’s birth, but it is far too easy to get wrapped up in the innumerable distractions and stresses of the season that demand our attention and shift our focus off of the newborn King. In and of themselves, there is nothing wrong with most of the secular traditions that accompany the Christmas season; giving gifts our loved ones will enjoy, making gingerbread houses, celebrating with friends and family at parties and over special meals, and watching our favorite Christmas movies are all good things. The danger that we must guard against is letting these practices distract us from Jesus’ birth. It takes a lot of intentionality to do these things, but I recommend three strategies for keeping Christ the main focus of the Christmas season:
Firstly, forcing yourself to slow down can be so valuable. This season is a hectic, fast-paced, exhausting whirlwind every single year. The faster you go mentally and physically, the harder it is to slow down. Force yourself to. You don’t have to get to everything on your very long to-do list. You don’t have to go to every single holiday celebration. You don’t have to decorate every square inch of the house with garland, lights, and wreaths. The world won’t stop spinning if you take a breather, so allow yourself to do so. Slowing down will help prepare your mind to be able to focus on the Lord.
Once you have slowed down, focus your calmed mind and spirit on Jesus and His birth. Reading a daily Advent devotional can be extremely helpful in this endeavor. I personally think Desiring God’s Good News of Great Joy Advent meditations are wonderful, but there are many great options out there at your disposal. Reading these every day throughout the month of December will keep your focus on Jesus’ birth and make it less likely that you will be distracted by all the noise competing for your attention.
Lastly, try eliminating distractions by limiting time on all types of media – social, television, magazines, etc. You’ll still be exposed to advertisements because they are literally everywhere you go, but this may help drown out some of the noise. If you intentionally cut back on your media time, you will be less bombarded with the typical distractions of the season and, consequently, better able to remain focused on the true meaning of Christmas.
Over 2,000 years ago, God sent His one and only Son to save us even though we were in active rebellion against Him. He entered the world that He created in a humble state, and He demonstrated love in a way that changed the course of history and our eternity. This gift is infinitely better than anything we find wrapped under the tree on Christmas morning, and we must fight to remember that during this busy holiday season.
 
 


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Live Christmas nativity scene in an old barn
Dec 05, 2018

Mary Gives Birth

“And she gave birth to her firstborn Son and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. -Luke 2:7


It was the most important birth ever! Mary had traveled a lot of miles in this journey even though she was eight to nine months pregnant; her husband traveled on foot, and she rode on a donkey. One way to help start labor today is to go out and ride a horse. I imagine a multiple-day trip of 90 miles on the back of a donkey could work very well to kick-start labor. Actually, it is amazing Mary would get as far as Bethlehem before going into her first labor. But God’s hand and the truth of the prophecies were very much in the mix; this baby would be born in Bethlehem!
Having barely arrived, there was no time to acquire proper lodging. Hoping to find a room with some privacy in an inn for travelers, they found it overly full. The only shelter available where other humans were not was with the animals; hence a stable with a feeding trough of hay.
In a non-sterile environment, the Son of God entered the world in the flesh. It was quite a poor entrance into the home of man, and it certainly was not a comfortable place for a first-time mother to give birth and find rest, and then, on top of all that, to entertain immediately unexpected visitors. Joseph and Mary were certainly wondering what to expect after such a mysterious conception and a pregnancy where Mary had spent significant time “out of town at the home of Elizabeth and Zechariah, minimizing questions. But they had no idea that just after giving birth, visitors would descend on them.
Why was Mary even here in Bethlehem at this critical time instead of at her or Joseph’s home in Nazareth? A taxing census, highly questioned by critics, had forced this situation upon the couple. Without providing the myriad details about whose or what census it was, there are quite probable evidences that it was a Caesar-directed census, under the regional supervision of military commander Quirinius in his first assignment in Asia.
It is not known if Mary was required to accompany Joseph, but it is probable that, knowing the awkwardness of her pregnancy and Joseph’s unwillingness to subject her to the behavior and comments of neighbors, it was best for Mary to go with Joseph, who most likely planned to remain in Bethlehem to avoid as much as possible the uncomfortable occasion of the birth of an “illegitimate child in their hometown of Nazareth. This is just the orchestration of events by God to ensure Jesus was born in “the city of David.
Luke, the loved physician, was chosen by God to interview Mary much later for her eyewitness testimony concerning the Infancy Narrative of Jesus’ birth, circumcision, protection, and known childhood experience. He was a historian extraordinaire following his Gospel with his history of the early church.
But not unlike what happens with many other births of the children of friends and relatives, Mary and Joseph had visitors welcoming their new son, even though they knew them not. God invited them. They were neither important nor rich visitors but rather common and poor, and they came into a very stark situation. But they came to worship, regardless of the poverty circumstances. They were comfortable with poor, but joy and awe in abundance were their emotions!
These shepherds, no matter how many there were, shared with the parents the most unusual and actually spectacular announcement of the angels while they were with their sheep, creating for Mary and Joseph much more to ponder. Jesus’ parents knew very well they were in a remarkable situation to say the least.
Why was Luke chosen to research and commit to writing these so-called “Infancy Narratives of Jesus? Was it because he was a physician who was also a disciple? In any case, he must interview Mary, the sole eyewitness still alive, and capture all which the Holy Spirit wanted him to write, since he himself was not an eyewitness of either the birth or what later took place after. Nor was he privy to a “lost 12-year-old Jesus, found at the Temple among the rabbis. Luke was an excellent historian, however, as we conclude from his Gospel account and the book of Acts.
Interestingly, Matthew is the writer who alone commits to papyrus the angelic dream to Joseph concerning Mary, his betrothed, the naming of Jesus, and then the journey and visit of the Magi with the soon slaughter of the baby boys in and around Bethlehem. The Holy Family sojourn in Egypt and eventual settling in Nazareth was to avoid Satan’s plan to destroy Jesus. Why did Luke have nothing to say about the Matthew 1 and 2 accounts including these Magi-events since they were all well-known to Mary? These are questions to be answered in eternity and there are good reasons for the whys we ponder.
We are intrigued and blessed by the revelation of Jesus’ entrance into the world, attended by the arrows of an evil enemy. You would have no celebration of the nativity without Luke and Matthew’s accounts. Christmas has entranced the world for centuries even among non-believers. It has been a powerful witness to who Jesus is and more evidence of the Savior and Lord before a fallen world. Christmas celebration is nearly universal, from rising to setting sun throughout the world. Do not allow the commercial trappings to obscure the reason for you to worship Him, an adoration of the One who came to be your Savior.


“He came down to earth from heaven who is God and Lord of all, and His shelter was a stable, and His cradle was a stall. With the poor, and mean, and lowly, lived on earth our Savior holy.
(2nd verse of Cecil Francis Alexander’s hymn, “Once in Royal David’s City, 1848)
 

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