Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A Cradle and a Cross

Dear Friends,

It’s early Saturday morning and I just got off the phone with my sister. I stare out the window of my study. The sun is just starting to turn the blackness of night into shades of gray. But now there are too many tears to be able to see anything clearly. My mom has just died. She lived in Missouri and just two weeks ago we had a long conversation about what we were doing for Christmas. We reminisced about the wonderful Christmas times our family had when we were all young. The last thing we said to each other was, “I love you...” Then just last week something happened. Hospice was called. We prayed she would live through Christmas Day. It was her favorite time of year...

My sister and I have said our tearful good-byes and I look out my window to a dark, bleak, cold winter morning. There is no comfort out there. No peace. No solace. I rub the tears from my eyes and look down to see the baby Jesus bathed in a golden light and lying in the manger. I’ve had this Nativity Set since I was nine years old. My maternal grandmother had given it to me and it’s now sitting on the bookshelf under the window.

While my thoughts began to process the reality of my mom’s death, I find myself fixated on the image of the Baby. And suddenly I hear that quiet, still Voice in my spirit: “This is why I was born...”

It was Jesus Himself who told us the reason for His coming to us as a human – His incarnation: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” John 3:16

My mom believed in Jesus. She and my dad met at church when they were teenagers. They were married in that same church and that was where they baptized their three children. We grew up in a godly home and it was no surprise to my mother that her first-born son eventually became a pastor.

I didn’t talk about my mom at church the next day. Some people find comfort and healing by talking out their thoughts and feelings with others. Some people withdraw into the presence of God and best process their grief when it’s one-on-One with Him. Count me among the latter.

We don’t know what heaven will be like until we get there, but according to God’s Word, there are some things that we can count on and look forward to. At the moment of death, the veil parts for the Christian believer and we step over the threshold and into heaven. We take our last breath on earth and our next breath in heaven. And we know that we will be reunited with our loved ones. 2 Cor 5:8 (NLT)   2 Sam12:22-23

Between having my sister and brother, there was a miscarried baby. A stillborn child that my mom never stopped thinking about. But that baby simply bypassed life on earth and was shortcutted directly to heaven by a loving and merciful Creator. On Saturday afternoon, I felt joy at the thought of my mom now holding that lost baby that she had never forgotten.

Maybe Christmas was the perfect time for her to go home to Jesus. She celebrated Christmas with her loved ones and then went to celebrate Christmas with the One who she had always celebrated.

Into the darkness of my grief, God had whispered, “This is why I was born...” He is God with us. Born so that we could be redeemed and restored to our Creator. Life can hurt. We can celebrate one day and be in anguish the next. We lose loved ones and loved ones will lose us. But helplessness and despair are transformed into hope by the cradle and the cross. By death, He has trampled down death. The Apostle Paul tells us, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? ...But thank God! He gives us victory over..death through our Lord Jesus Christ." 1 Cor 15:55-57 (NLT) 

This is why we celebrate Christmas. Because the cradle lies in the shadow of the cross. The Son of God came from heaven to earth to make a way for my mom. And for your mom. For your loved ones and for mine. For you.. And for me...

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Christmas Prayer

Dear Lord God, Giver of all that is good.
We thank You today for the gift of Your Son, 
Jesus Christ our Lord,
who was born into poverty in a hard and cruel time.
Who gave Himself for us on the cross,
and lives and reigns with You in glory.

We thank You for our family, our pastors, 
our friends who have gone before us,
and taught us the meaning of Your 
incarnation that we celebrate today.
With gladdened hearts, we celebrate Your Nativity 
with beloved scripture and Christmas carols 
and loud rejoicing.

Help us to teach those who come after us that 
Christmas is a holy time. 
It’s about the greatest gift that we could ever receive.
The gift of a Baby in a manger.

Bless us O Lord as we continue to seek Your Son 
and to love Him more each day.
Bless us Lord that through Your Grace 
we are looking more like Him and less like us.

Bless us as we seek to honor the mystery of the Incarnation
and as we remember that You made us in Your divine image.

Help us to welcome You into the messiness 
of our humanity with 
Your wisdom, power and peace today 
and throughout our days to come.
Emmanuel.  God with us.  Thank You, Lord.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Journey of Joe and Mary

You’re a young, teenage girl living right here in this part of the San Fernando Valley and you come from a loving but poor family. Your father works and has a decent job so he is able to keep the family fed, but that's about it.

You recently got engaged to this guy, named Joe, who works for a framing contractor building houses. He doesn't make a lot of money either, but he’s just a few years older than you are and he’s just starting out. Both you and Joe come from good church-going families and always try to do the right things. You’re a good girl and you’ve never slept with any boys, and you and Joe agree that you won’t sleep together until you are married. Then the most astounding thing happens...

God sends the angel Gabriel to the San Fernando Valley to visit you. It sounds so normal when we say it like that but it actually scares you half to death. Instantly Gabriel appears before you and says: “Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you!” You’re frightened and confused and you try to think what the angel could mean. “Don’t be afraid!” the angel tells you, “for you have found favor with God! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give Him the throne of his ancestor David. And He will reign over Israel forever; His Kingdom will never end!” (Luke 1:26-33)

Wait! This is impossible! You’ve been a good girl! There must be some mistake here!  You ask the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin!” The angel replies, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God... For nothing is impossible with God.” No Way! You're just a teenager! And you're going to have the Son of God? (Luke 1:34-37)

Is this really happening? What are the kids from the neighborhood going to think?  What’s your dad going to say? And will this be a deal-breaker with Joe? How is he going to handle the news? But you think about this and tell the angel Gabriel, “I am the Lord's servant. May everything you have said about me come true.” You then take a selfie with the angel so that you can prove to Joe and your family what really happened and when you look up, the angel is gone. You look at the photo on your phone and just see you and a very intense spot of brilliant white light. (Luke 1:38)

You are suddenly alone and now instantly and miraculously pregnant. What do you do now? You go see Aunt Liz who is very wise and a strong woman of God. Liz is a pastor’s wife and she’s also pregnant with a boy who will be called John. Liz lives with her husband Zacharias in the hill country they call Sylmar because that’s where the olive trees are. You pack your bag for a three month stay and go racing over there. (Luke 1:39-40) (Luke 1:56)

As soon as you get there and you greet Liz, her baby John jumps in her womb and Liz is instantly filled with the Holy Spirit. And Liz says to you in a loud voice, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! “But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For indeed, as soon as the voice of your greeting sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy. Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord.” Now Liz always talks a little oddly like that, but you cut her some slack because she’s a pastor’s wife and she spends a lot of time in church. (Luke 1:41-45)

But what Liz has done is to bring you to a full realization that you are soon to be the mother of the Lord. After receiving Liz’s blessing, you just do what comes naturally in the Presence of God. You burst out into praise and worship!

You sing: “My soul magnifies the Lord, And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant; For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed. For He who is mighty has done great things for me, And holy is His name. And His mercy is on those who fear Him From generation to generation. He has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones, And exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, And the rich He has sent away empty.” And as you finish your song to the Lord, you’re realizing that you are starting to sound a little like your Aunt Liz. (Luke 1:46-55)

You return home, now three months pregnant and just starting to show a baby bump.  You realize that you need to tell Joe and, as you expected, he is very, very, upset about this. Because he had never slept with you, the only thing he could be absolutely certain about was that your baby was not his. It was obvious to him that you had been unfaithful and the law was very clear on the penalty for that. California Penal Code 22:23,24 clearly states: “If a young woman who is a virgin is betrothed to a husband, and a man finds her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones.” There is no mercy and no appeal process – not even Governor Brown can pardon this crime. In California, if you cheat, you die. Joe doesn’t know what to do. He’s grown to love you and made a commitment to make you his wife, but there’s no way he can marry you now. In fact, as far as he’s concerned, you’ve insulted his intelligence by telling him that God had gotten you pregnant. Wait.. You say a “Spirit” got you pregnant? Yeah.. Sure, Mary... (Deuteronomy 22:23-24)

But fortunately for you, God always seems to have everything under control in your life and God’s got this one handled too. When Joe is fretting about what to do, “Behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Hey Joe, son of David, do not be afraid to take your betrothed for your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins. So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: ‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,’ which is translated, ‘God with us.’” (Matthew 1:20-23)

Wow! Okay.. that’s a gamechanger! So you and Joe are good now. And it’s getting time for you to deliver. You can’t wait. You’re still helping your mom around the house, but it’s getting harder and harder and you’re getting tired quickly and needing to rest a lot during the day.

And now, you and Joe get just about the worst news possible. The entire country is reeling from some governmental decrees. The Emperor, Caesar Augustus had rolled out a new health plan called CaesarCare that was not being at all well received. And as CaesarCare was tanking, the Emperor decided that it needed to be bailed out by the government and the only way he could do that would be to raise taxes. So the Emperor decreed that every man needed to go back to the city of their family of origin to be registered so that he could make sure that everyone was paying their full share of taxes. (Luke 2:1-3)

This is bad news. Joe came from David’s family and they had come from Santa Barbara. That means Joe’s got to go to Santa Barbara and you’ve got to go with him.  And Joe doesn’t make enough to afford an SUV or even a donkey so you don’t know how you’re going to get there. You wonder if maybe you can go down to Rakem’s Rent-A-Camel but the bouncing up and down on a donkey or camel when you’re nine months pregnant isn’t good. So you guys are just going to have to do what everyone else does and walk. You don’t know how far it is from the San Fernando Valley to Santa Barbara but you google it and find that it’s about 70 miles. (That happens to be about the same distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem.) (Luke 2:4-6)

A strong, healthy man or woman can walk 20 miles in one day but you wonder how far and how fast you can walk when you’re nine months pregnant. You can only take a few things to carry. Water and a little food. No extra clothing. You leave the laptop at home. You’ve got to travel light.  

After 2½ long hard days of walking you reach Ventura but here’s your dilemma. You can’t go any further because you’ll soon be in Summerland which is also called Samaria. Now everyone knows that the people who live in Summerland-Samaria and the people of the San Fernando Valley have been bitter enemies for centuries. That’s why everyone from the San Fernando Valley always avoids going through Summerland-Samaria if they can. You and Joe talk about taking your chances on passing through their little beach town, but no one will give you food or shelter and they will very likely try to harm you both.

Joe is very protective of both you and the baby so you do what everyone else does when they travel north and south. Once you and Joe get to Ventura, you cross the Ventura river and go inland to Ojai. From there you go around Summerland-Samaria by taking the back roads to Santa Barbara. Normally, this is an enjoyable diversion in beautiful hills and mountain passes but your feet are so sore that there are times when you just don’t think you can take another step.  

You wake up in the mornings feeling sick to your stomach and dread another full day of walking. You thank God that Joe is very loving and gives you plenty of time to rest. Your back hurts so much right now and you get short of breath even climbing small hills. But Joe is helping you walk and he’s even patient when you need to stop at every fourth bush to go to the bathroom. It’s taking forever to get to Santa Barbara. Having to avoid the dangerous Summerland-Samaria added another two days to your painfully long trip.

The one thing that’s helped you since you started out from the San Fernando Valley a week ago is the thought of staying in that cute bed and breakfast right there on the beach that overlooks the ocean. Your Aunt Liz recommended it and it’s a quaint little inn with free wi-fi and Victorian furnishings in all the rooms. 

And now you’ve finally arrived in Santa Barbara and you wonder if maybe you should see a doctor. This pregnancy thing is all new for you but from what your mom and Aunt Liz told you, you’re thinking this could be time. The pains are getting sharp and intense. But you’ve been on the road walking for a week now, it’s getting dark, starting to rain and all you can think about is a hot bath at the inn.  

And of course we all know what happens next. Because we’ve read your story and we know that you forgot to make reservations. The innkeeper and his wife are very kind and apologetic as they explain to you that they are completely filled up and there is no more room at their inn. And because of so many people who have come to Santa Barbara to register for the Emperor’s new tax assessment, all the inns, hotels and motels are also filled. But the innkeeper tells you that there’s an old storage shed in the back where he lets his dogs and cats go in to get out of the rain. He says that you and Joe are welcome to spend the night there.

As you walk hand in hand in the drizzling rain with Joe to the back of the property and to a cold, unheated shed you can’t imagine that this is what God had planned for you. Something must have gone terribly wrong. You are cold, wet and exhausted. The excruciating pains are lasting longer and coming just a few minutes apart. Can anything good come out of this miserable night...? (Luke 2:7)

Have you ever thought about why Mary did go to Bethlehem with Joseph? A physically exhausting trip just right before she is about to have her first child? And, we don’t know how she got there. You might remember Sunday School pictures of her riding a donkey but that’s a church legend and not biblical. She most likely did what everyone else did. She walked. But why did she go? The census was only to count men. Women literally didn’t “count” in those days. Mary could have stayed home and family members would have cared for her and helped through the birthing process. Jesus could have been born in Nazareth in a warm, comfortable home.  

But God’s autobiography, the Bible, tells us that His plan was for the Son of God to be born in Bethlehem. The prophet Micah had prophesied that 700 years before. And yet, it would be nearly impossible for Mary to know that. Mary may have sensed that she was simply following the will of God to go to Bethlehem with Joseph. Mary didn’t know how things would turn out. But we know her faith and trust in God was strong.

We don’t know how things will turn out in our own lives either. But like Mary, it is only when we follow God in trust, faith and obedience that we live our lives according to His plans and purposes for us. And on our own journey, when we can’t see clearly what tomorrow will bring, we know that when we’re following God, somehow, everything will turn out okay...

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Are You a Santa or a Saint?

Dear Friends,

Please don’t get me wrong here. I love Santa Claus. I’ll never forget the year he brought me a genuine Red Ryder BB Gun and I still have one of my old steel toy trucks he left for me under the tree. I even have the Erector Set that Santa gave me, but the Gilbert Chemistry Set disappeared shortly after the incident involving the stink bomb in my sister’s bedroom. As I grew into my teens, Santa apparently became very concerned over my personal hygiene habits because my stocking would be filled with deodorant, toothpaste and dental floss. Instead of finding an exciting new toy under the tree, I’d find a shirt and a package of underwear from Sears. Today, as I’ve transitioned into my senior years, Santa leaves me industrial-sized packages of toilet paper and paper towels from Costco. No. I’m not kidding about that.
But the Santa I knew and loved as a boy never overshadowed the Baby in the manger. We’ve enhanced and expanded the Santa legend today until he has morphed into God. He sees you when you're sleeping. He knows if you're awake. He knows if you've been bad or good. So be good for goodness sake. Santa Claus is omniscient – all knowing. He knows when you've been good or bad. Santa is omnipresent – he’s everywhere on Christmas eve. Santa fulfills the wishes of good little boys and girls because he is all powerful – he’s omnipotent. Santa brings miracles! All you have to do is to believe!

Those three underlined characteristics are the attributes of God and God alone. But when we’ve imprinted God’s characteristics onto Santa Claus and elevated Santa to be our Christmas deity, we can’t blame our children or grandchildren for praying to their Santagod for toys and other cool stuff. Take a moment and look up Exodus 20:3.

But when I was a kid, the legendary Santa Claus was more like the real Saint Nicholas. In the 4th century, Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra which was located in the territory of Lycia. In New Testament days, Lycia was a province of the Roman Empire and was visited by Paul on one of his evangelistic journeys. (Acts 27:5-6)

Saint Nicholas has been remembered both as a man of great faith and for his compassion of others. His parents died when he was young, leaving him with a large amount of money. Many bishops in those days used their position in the church to gain great wealth and property. Nicholas used his position as bishop to give away his personal wealth to those in need. He used his money to redeem those sentenced to death for their failure to pay taxes to the Roman Emperor and Nicholas was known for giving gifts of food, clothes and shoes to children.

During the reformation, because of the unbiblical Church practices regarding the worship of saints, the Protestants jettisoned nearly all the saints but kept Saint Nicholas. In remembrance of Saint Nicholas on Dec 6th, children received gifts. “Sinter Klass” is Dutch for Saint Nicholas, and Dutch settlers brought Sinter Klass to America where he became “Santa Claus.”

But when the “Santagod” becomes our Christmas deity, we Christians join non-Christians on Black Friday to trample over each other at Walmart and fight over a big screen TV. When we’ve lost the true reason for the season, our hearts go out to disadvantaged children who don’t have the latest video games or a “Supernovia Battle Rover,”and we fill buses with Christmas toys while every 15 seconds, a child in the world under five years old dies from lack of clean fresh water. That’s why for the past three years we’ve been doing something differently in our church at Christmas time.  

Our little church has donated a disproportionately huge amount of money – $3,000 per year to Living Water International. This is the Christian organization that provides sustainable drinking water and the Gospel message around the world. Our church has provided working wells at an orphanage in India and another one in Mexico. This year we provided a village of 1,000 people in Nigeria with fresh, clean drinking water. All in the name of Jesus. Santa Claus would use that $3,000 to buy one hundred toys. Saint Nicholas would dig a well to save hundreds of lives. And at Christmas we get to make a choice. Will you be a Santa or a Saint?

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How to Transition from Santa to Saint
New Hope Family Church has joined a radical movement called the Advent Conspiracy which celebrates the birth of Jesus not as consumers but as Christians. It's not about the rejection of giving gifts to loved ones, but about giving fewer, more meaningful gifts and then giving the money we saved to Living Water International. $25 will buy a cheap plastic toy or it can provide clean drinking water to a family of five for a year. New Hope Family Church will give our entire Christmas offering on December 21st to Living Water and we invite you to join us. If you do not attend our church, you can donate directly to Living Water here. Why give fresh, clean drinking water as a Christmas gift to needy families? Because that's what Jesus would do.