Your Best Year Yet

We’re already into the New Year. Four days have already been marked off. And if you’re not careful you’ll be staring 2018 in the eyes and wonder, “What happened?”

Our years have a way of passing quickly. And the older one gets the faster they seem to fly by. That’s because we have more time that we have experienced. So one year to an 80-year-old seems shorter than a year does to a 5-year-old. (Remember how summers seemed to last forever when you were in elementary school but by high school it felt like you just got started and then it was time to hit the books again? Yeah, I thought you’d agree.)

So before this year takes control of you why don’t you take control of it? Here are a few steps that can make this your best year yet.

Decide what you want to say “yes” to. One of the regrets people have is what they did not do or people they did not spend enough time with or things they did not experience. In many instances the reason is they never decided they would give themselves permission to say “yes” to those things.

So right now take some time to answer the question: What do you want to say “yes” to this year? You may want to think in three basic categories I plan around each year:

  • Family. At the end of my life I cannot imagine ever thinking I had spent too much time with family. It seems with life demands there is never enough time. But if we plan to say “yes” to family we will plan time for family. Maybe it’s a bi-weekly date night with your spouse. Or a monthly outing with each of your children, separately, just to let them know they have your undivided attention. It may be planning trips to see extended family.
  • Faith. Faith is critical to my life, so each year I want to say “yes” to the things that will nurture and build my faith. Things like Bible reading and study, gathering with others for worship, investing myself in a few with whom we can mutually encourage each other. This takes time. But if you believe the benefits are eternal as I do, you’ll want to prioritize these things over other things that may be short lived.
  • Fitness. In order to give my best in any of the things I say “yes” to I know I need to do my best at staying fit. So I say “yes” to exercise and eating well. Moderation in everything is important. A doctor friend of ours from years back would say “the body is designed to handle just about anything you put into it, as long as you don’t put too much.” Mental fitness is part of the goal too, so how will you improve there this year? Are there books to read? Courses to take? Webinars to join? You have time to improve your fitness this year. You just have to say “yes” to it.

Once you have your “yes” list in hand you then need to decide what and/or who to say “no” to. You have time wasters in your life and you probably know what they are: television, gaming, social media, surfing the web. Feel free to add to the list. At the end of the day do these add quality to your life? Maybe some. But definitely not at the expense of the “yes’s” you just listed. You have to say “no” to these and keep them in balance.

There are people you may have to say “no” to also. If your boundaries are shaky you will let other people suck up your time. You will allow them to get you involved in things that keep you from your “yes” list. You will allow them to pull you into their problems. And before you know it a year has gone by and you have not said “yes” to many things you intended to.

Understand, your “yes” list is not an excuse to never help someone else. But it is your guide to knowing what to say “yes” and what to say “no” to.

Then calendar your “yes” list. Look at who you will spend time with and what you will spend time doing. Mark out most of this on your calendar for the year. If you said “yes” to bi-weekly dates with your spouse go ahead right now and put them on the calendar. For the most part stick to it. Then when someone asks you to join them for another event you can honestly say, “Thank you, but I already have a commitment on that date.” Your spouse will thank you for it. (Unless they were offering you tickets to go with them to a U2 concert. Then you say, “I think I can rearrange my schedule to make that work!”)

If you don’t fill your calendar, someone else or something else will.

And lastly, do your best when you are at your best.  For many people that best time is in the morning. Some studies indicate that morning people accomplish more (if you are a night owl don’t yell at me…I’m probably in bed so I can get up early). You can read some findings here. But at least in my personal experience I have found I accomplish more earlier in the day than later.

Whenever you are most productive, that’s when you need to produce. Do your best when you are at your best.

Get started with these steps and you can have your best year yet.

Question: How will you make this year your best year yet?

Even Angels Get Excited at Christmas

What is it that gets you excited about Christmas? Young children opening presents? Giving presents? Getting presents? (It’s OK to admit it.) The family reunion at grandma’s house? The travel? (You’re in a special class if this gets you excited.)

It didn’t take much to get me excited when I was a kid. It always started for me when the Sears Wish Book would show up. Some of you will remember those. It was the Google search engine of the day for kids who wanted to find just the right toy for Christmas.

I was a child of the 60’s and I lived for comic books: Superman, Batman, Spiderman. When I was six-years-old Ideal Toy Company put out its answer to the G.I. Joe action figure: Captain Action. He was great on his own but you could also get costumes to make him into all the other superheroes. I had to have it. So I circled it in the book. I wrote Santa.

And then I waited. I imagined waking up Christmas morning and finding Captain Action under the tree. Together he and I would save the world. And if the imaginary situation called for it, I could put him in his Batman costume and the Dark Knight would bring light to the dark nights in Memphis, Texas.

All the days leading up to Christmas Day you thought about what it would be like to have this toy. Going to bed on Christmas Eve was torturous. You’d try sleeping on your back, then one side, then the other. And you knew if you didn’t go to sleep Santa would not come. Sneaking some Eggnog helped.

It didn’t take much to get excited about Christmas when we were young, did it? But something happens as we get older. The problem is your world has changed. Demands of work. Long lines. Deadlines. Receding hair lines. Expanding waistlines. Bills to be paid. Once we have some money smaller gifts aren’t such a big deal, are they? You can go out and buy those yourself. And when you have pretty much all your basic needs in our First World living, what would ever cause you to get excited?

Imagine not only having your basic needs but having everything you could possibly need. The angels did. And yet they got excited about the birth of Christ. Angels are everywhere in the story of Jesus’ birth. Joseph encountered angels three times. Zechariah once. Mary once. Shepherds once.

Actually twice. The first angel announced the birth of “…a Savior, Christ the Lord.” Then the sky exploded with “a multitude of the heavenly host.” What got angels excited about the birth of Jesus?

The prevailing idea of angels in the first century was that they were like a tired, beleaguered army. Their mission to help watch the earth was frustrated by Satan and his minions. Mankind was helpless to help itself. The angels needed reinforcement.

And reinforcement came in the form of a child born in a manger. When God sent help he did not send another angel. He sent the Lord of all angels. The Lord of all.

That’s what got the angels excited. When Luke describes the multitude of them as the “heavenly host,” the word for “host” means “army, troops.” The angels are ready for battle. Their leader had come to save.

War leaves causalities in its wake. You may be one of them. Someone did something to you. Said something to you. You’ve done things and said things you regret that have shaped your life. The world is harsh. And you too are tired and beleaguered. You’re tired of fighting alone.

You don’t have to any longer. “For unto you … has been born a Savior. Christ the Lord.” The Lord of all has come to you and you need only come to him.  And so, when a Savior was born…that was all the Christmas the angels needed. And it’s all the Christmas you need too.

I woke up that Christmas morning and Captain Action had come. In my imagination he and I saved the world.  In my adulthood Christ has come and saved my world. He can save yours too. Because of Bethlehem you have a Savior. Christ the Lord.

That’s something to get excited about.

Question: What gets you excited about the real story of Christmas?

A Christmas Invitation You Won’t Want to Ignore

John and Bonnie invited us to our first event of the holiday season. Along with a handful of others we were included in a group we did not know to join them at their house.

I plugged their address into my Google maps and we headed to the party. Along the way I said to Karen, “Do you think we need to pull up the email and check the invitation?” “No, we’ve got their address,” she said. “I don’t think there was any other information we needed.”

We pulled into their subdivision, the gate was open, and we immediately saw a line of cars parked outside a house. Google maps informed us we had arrived so we parked our car and strolled up to the door. We met another couple who was reaching the door at about the same time. We didn’t recognize them but then we didn’t really know anyone on the list. I said, “Are you going to John and Bonnie’s party?” “Yes,” they said. We turned and rang the doorbell.

A Jr. High age boy answered the door. Karen and I looked at each other with puzzled looks since we knew our friends did not have a Jr. High age boy. Then a tall man came to greet us. We exchanged introductions. Peter invited us in and pointed towards the kitchen. “Funny,” I thought, “that John has asked someone else to greet his guests.”

We came around a corner and saw a number of people huddled around the island in the kitchen. They looked at us. We looked at them. John and Bonnie were not to be seen. I looked at Karen and said, “I think we’re at the wrong party.” We went back to the front door found our new friend Peter.

“Peter, I think we’re at the wrong party,” I said while making sure I didn’t see any firearms nearby. “Who are you looking for?” I told him and he said with a laugh, “Their house is right across the street.” I asked him if his party was going to be better than John’s, he said it probably would be, and that if we were disappointed we could come back over. We appreciated the thought, but we were not invited to that party.

Shepherds knew that feeling. Even the one named David did. “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” (Psalm 13:1). There are times in a life of faith that God seems to forget his own, and we feel like we are standing in a room full of strangers at a party we aren’t supposed to be at. Maybe Luke knew that. Maybe he wanted to use the story of the shepherds to strengthen our faith for the forgotten times.

The shepherds may have felt left out before that night but not after that night. They’re not used to anyone giving them the time of day. But now an angel is interrupting their time at night. He tells them a Savior had been born in the city of David: Bethlehem. The shepherds went to Bethlehem and found exactly what they were told they would find.  Mary and Joseph.  But most importantly, “the baby lying in a manger.”

We have to wonder why God would choose shepherds over kings or rabbis or the popular to receive the invitation to witness the birth of his son. Could it be that: Kings are paying too much attention to the important people to bother with babies? Rabbis are too busy crossing their T’s and dotting their I’s to be interrupted? The popular have too many things on their social calendar to squeeze in one more activity?

But shepherds? They lead a simple life. They don’t have many distractions. They have no reputation to uphold or social order to protect. God had time for the shepherds because the shepherds had time for God. This rag-tag group of smelly sheep herders the rabbis banned from testifying in court were invited by God himself to be the first ones to testify of the birth of his son.

And they did. What was “made known” to them they “made known” to others (Luke 2:15,17). What had been “told them” they “told” to others (Luke 2:18, 20).

Wouldn’t you love to be invited by God to hear the birth announcement of his son and then get the honor of telling others? Well, hold onto your Christmas hat because what happened to the shepherds has happened to you.

  • You have the same story that they had. “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
  • You have the same sign they had. “…you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”
  • And you have the same invitation they had. God has invited you into the story of his incarnation. He has included you in the birth of his son. Because of Bethlehem you are not forgotten. You don’t have to feel like an uninvited guest.

But you do have to respond. So spend time around the manger. Put your work down. Schedule some time. Check the directions again and make sure you look where the angels said to look.

When you get there you’ll find you are right where you’re supposed to be.

Question: How can you spend time at the manger this Christmas season?

Find Time to Ponder the Christ-child this Christmas

A baby changes everything. When our first was on his way someone gave us a card that said on the front page: “Congratulations!” It had the picture of the cutest baby you would ever see until ours was born. But then you opened it up and saw these words in large, bold print: “Life as you once knew it is over!”

It was. Babies do have a way of disrupting the routine of life. It starts as soon as their existence is announced.

“Guess what honey?” The young husband has no clue. “Did I forget our anniversary?” he wonders. He takes a stab at it: “It’s our anniversary! Happy anniversary!” he declares. She scowls and says, “No dear, that’s not for three months.”

After a few feeble attempts— “Birthday? First date anniversary? Your mother is coming to live with us?!”—he does what he usually does. He gives up. “Why don’t you just tell me?” This time she can’t hold it in any longer: “We’re pregnant!”

At first he thinks, “We’re pregnant? I’m a guy. Why would she say “we”?” And soon he realizes that although he will not have a bouncing baby boy or girl growing inside his body, he is indeed pregnant too. When she tosses and turns in a sleepless night, he doesn’t sleep either. When she is hungry for Baskin Robbins mint chocolate chip ice cream, he will be eating it too. When her back aches, his will too once he is done massaging hers.

I know. I’ve been there and maybe you have too. Those nine-months are designed for the baby to be nourished and grow. But they are also for the parents to prepare. Their routines become shaped by preparation for the arrival of the baby. A crib is assembled. A room is decorated. Diapers are stockpiled. Then the day arrives.

The problem is when he came Kris didn’t look like what I thought he would look like. Red-faced. Matted hair. Slime all over his body. Not the clean, days-old babies you see in the movies. I said, “Karen, he’s great. I think he favors your side of the family.”

Yes, when Kris was born our world changed. And when Jesus was born the whole world changed.

Mary’s world certainly did. The angel Gabriel appears and announces: “…you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.” Gabriel explains that the natural will be replaced by the supernatural with words like “come upon” and “overshadow.” These are words found in the Greek Old Testament that describe the hovering of the Spirit of God over the waters at creation. The Holy Spirit that was part of the creation in the beginning would cause the creation of this child “…for nothing will be impossible with God.”

To this Mary simply responds in faith: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” The word “servant” is literally “slave.” We may not like this word so it gets softened to “servant.” But Mary understands her role. She is giving up her hopes and dreams and even her own body to submit herself to the plans of God. She is giving up her questions of what is happening, why it is happening, or where is her life going to end up to an understanding of herself as “slave.”

When the birth comes so do shepherds. They’ve seen angels too and come to see the child. They leave and like the end of Christmas day, after all the opening of presents and playing with toys and feasting on the Christmas ham or turkey and all the commotion and excitement of the day, the night becomes still.

And maybe for the first time since delivering the baby Mary has an opportunity to reflect. “…Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.” She reviewed all that had happened to change her world and spent some moments “pondering” them in her heart.

“Ponder” comes from the compound verb symballo. “Sym” means “together” and “ballo” means “to throw.” So it means “to throw things together.” We sometimes picture Mary sitting over to the side of the activity somewhere, rocking her little baby boy, having a Hallmark kind of moment.

But much more is going on. This word is used to describe the work of a prophet, someone who would discern what God is up to and announces it to everyone else. That’s what Mary is doing. She gets it! This baby is the son of God. He’s going to change things. He’s bringing mercy. He will bring down the mighty and exalt those who are low. He will feed the hungry that the rich won’t help. Her little baby boy is going to rule in a way that Augustus never dreamed. In a short time, her world had changed and she is throwing things together to make sense of what God is doing in her life.

Maybe your world has changed too. Christmas time is not always the most wonderful time of the year for everyone: Lay-offs leave some wondering how to pay the bills. Sickness sends presents down the list of priorities. Divorce can darken holiday lights. Death of a loved one can steal some Christmas joy.

Christmas is a time to ponder. So this season in the midst of throwing together your preparations for a gathering or throwing together parts to be assembled, may you find some quiet moments to throw together all that is happening in your life. See the good and the difficult. The blessings and the bad. But make sure you throw in with all of that the child born in Bethlehem. Ponder your world less and ponder Christ more.

But be forewarned. This baby changes everything.

Question: What do you think God is up to in your life?

Believers Belong in Church

My earliest memories of church come from my preschool days in a little church in Memphis, Texas. I remember the songs. When the Roll is Called Up Yonder was one of my favorite. The Church of Christ-ers could belt that one out with enthusiasm.

There were two things that caught my young attention in that song. First, I thought it had something to do with dinner rolls so my mouth started watering when we’d sing that one. And second, the idea of the trumpet of the Lord sounding created vivid scenes in my mind of some big angel—like Gabriel—blowing that horn real loud.

So one Sunday as I was laying down on the church pew during the sermon and dreaming about dinner rolls, I heard it. A loud sound like a trumpet. It was brash and long. I bolted straight up. I thought, “This is it! The roll is being called up yonder, and I’m going there.” I looked around and saw my Mom and Dad. I didn’t see my older brother Scott who was sometimes mean to me so it figured that he wouldn’t be there. Just when I was getting ready to find the heavenly banquet table with bottomless dinner rolls, my Mom patted me on the back, leaned over and whispered, “It’s just a train blowing its horn. Lay back down.”

I did. But those experiences gave me my first ideas about church. You have ideas about church too, don’t you? What is it that has shaped those ideas? For some, it’s childhood. For others, it’s some church you went to at Easter or Christmas Eve. For still others, it’s some new church in the neighborhood that has popped up and gives the impression they’ve figured something new out that no one else has yet discovered.

Maybe our ideas of what the church is should come from the New Testament instead of the latest blog article or the fastest growing church in whatever part of the country we live in. Maybe we should get our ideas of church from the Apostle Paul, the one who established the churches we read about in the New Testament. When we turn to Paul we get a different picture of the church.

There we find ekklesia. Ekklesia is the Greek word for church. It is a compound word meaning to be “called out” or “called together” for a special purpose. Ekklesia is a word that was common in the first century to describe any group that assembled. It was used to describe the group of free men who could vote, the popular assembly, part of the Greek system of governance, or any gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place. The word for “church,” then, is not that “churchy” to begin with.

When Paul uses the word he has in mind the Old Testament word qahal. It was used to refer to Israel who had been called out by God to serve a special purpose. Paul connects these new churches to the old Israel, God’s people who had a purpose for their existence. When we understand “church” the way Paul did, no church is a new church.

He also connects the church to Christ. The gospel—the good news of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ—was the unifying common interest that brought them together as the church. They weren’t all alike. Men, women, slaves, free, rich and poor. They were called out of their daily routines and assembled around Christ. This kind of diversity was unprecedented among ancient associations.

Because of their diversity they needed a new identity. Paul gives them one. He says they are now family. “Family” is the predominant image for the church in the New Testament and Paul’s writings.

In 1 Thessalonians—Paul’s first letter to a church he established—he says a family: has a corporate identity, is beloved by God, is to walk in a manner worthy of God, is to be holy, are children of light, and are siblings to each other. Paul knows nothing of the individual Christian because people respond to the gospel by living in community. For Paul, to be a believer is to be in the church.

The church is a family. And its messy. The first century church was too. There was never a time when the church “did it perfectly.” You’ll never find a perfect church now. Plant yourself in a church, focus on your calling in Christ, and learn to be family.

When the “roll is called up yonder” you’ll want to be there. You won’t be alone. But you may be surprised at who else is there with you.

Question: How is church like a family to you?

When Your Candy Store Gets Ambushed

It was somewhere around my third grade year when the entrepreneurial spirit hit me and my brother. This was back in the day when a kid could walk around the neighborhood or ride a bike to the 7-Eleven store a couple of miles away and no one had cause for worry.

My brother and I would go to that corner store to fill up on candy and lemonade mix. We noticed that a number of other kids from our subdivision would do the same thing. That’s when the idea struck us: we’d start a candy stand in front of our house. We would buy the candy from the store, jack up the price a bit, and save our friends the trip. We’d throw in some lemonade to help them wash it all down. I’d like to say we did this to be kind to our friends. But honestly? We wanted to be independently wealthy.

We opened up the store and were an immediate success. Supplies were flying out of our stand quicker than you can say “Pixy Stix.” The boys were all wanting to learn our business secrets. The girls were asking for our phone numbers. We’d sell out, put out our “Be Back in an Hour” sign, and take our profits to the store to stock up again.

A couple of weeks into our gig we were outlining our first seminar on “How to Grow Your Own Business” and planning our first franchise into the next neighborhood when we heard a low roar. We looked up and saw a big guy—he must have been at least sixth grade—wearing jeans and a T-shirt with one of those candy cigarette packs rolled up in the sleeve. He was rolling up on his mini-bike and stopped with a dramatic skid in front of our store.

I watched all this from a distance. I had started back to the house to get more lemonade. My brother was watching the stand by himself. The sixth-grade-gang-guy flashed a knife and demanded our money. It was a tough decision facing me: run to my brother’s aide or run…to the house and get my Dad.

Dad was bigger than me so I ran to him. My Dad was about 5’7” but to a sixth grader he might as well have been Arnold Schwarzenegger. As soon as he appeared the boy hopped on his bike and took off like a dog with his tail between his legs. My brother and I stopped worrying.

We kept on about our business knowing our father was watching over us.

And you can keep on about your business knowing your Father is watching over you.

This election season has been tumultuous: Bickering. Fighting. Name-calling. Accusation-hurling. Slander-slinging. And sadly, much of that has been from people who claim to follow Jesus.

I get it. We think we are clicking along at a good pace with our private little stands doing what we do in the world. Then along comes someone to cast fear into our hearts and we panic. (Yes, the candy store was real but is now an analogy.) And when we panic we get anxious and we worry about our future.

Is this how followers of the Nazarene should behave? His Word tells us to not let any unwholesome talk come out of our mouths. His Word tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. (I’m not sure the debates we’ve endured count as persecution, but they may come close.) His Word reminds us that “some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.”

Do we?

  • What do the people around us think we trust in by our behavior? The “nation” or the “God” we claim to be under?
  • What do our children think when they hear our fear-based reactions? As Andy Stanley famously said, we need to “Stop scaring the children!”
  • What do our neighbors think when they watch us on Sunday sing “Our God is an Awesome God” and on Monday sing the blues because we think our world is doomed no matter who is elected?

Can I remind you of something that may help? “The LORD is in his holy temple; the LORD is on his heavenly throne” (Psalm 11:4). He has not gone anywhere. Your Father has not vacated his house. And perhaps all he is waiting on is his people to call on him just as I called on my father that day at the candy stand.

Isn’t that the verse many have dusted off over the past few months?

“If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14).

It might be helpful for us to remember those words were written to the nation of Israel. To apply them today we must not apply them to America. No. Today these words would apply to the church, the New Israel. If there is humbling and praying and seeking and turning to be done, it is to be done by God’s people. His church.

So let’s do that. By the time you read this the election will have been decided. Depending on the outcome you may feel as if some bully has shown up and disrupted your world. You may be worried. You may be anxious.

If so, won’t you do what I did? Run to your Father. The heavenly one. The one who is in his holy temple. The one who is on his throne.

He’s a lot bigger than 5’7”. But the result will be the same. He’ll protect you and restore peace. He’ll heal our land. So let’s let him be our Father. And let’s do our best to look like his children.

America needs us to.

Question: What is your greatest fear this morning? Will you take it to your Father?

When You Need Help…Ask for It

One day I needed help in a big way. I was at the gym a few years back and there was only one other guy working out at the same time. I was putting in a little extra work that day and on the agenda was some decline presses. Now, if you know what they are you know they are kind of strange. You are leaning backwards with your head slanted towards the floor. Blood is rushing to your head…that can’t be the best way to workout. And then you take the bar off the rack and fight against gravity wanting to take it and obliterate your blood-rushed head.

I had been building up my strength on the decline and was pretty proud of the progress. I was now adding weights to the bar and so I put the 2 ½ lb. plates on each end and got ready to lift. Now, one rule of lifting is you shouldn’t lift alone. You need a spotter. I figured I could handle this by myself and, if I had a problem, could grunt loud enough for the other guy to come over and lend me a hand.

At the time I did not realize it but I had made the grave mistake of already doing some arm work. I got to the third set of my decline presses and was doing fine until suddenly my right triceps gave out. I had the bar resting up against me and I could not for the life of me get it back up to the rack.

Not to worry. I used my blood-rushed head to look around the room so I could grunt to the other guy and he was nowhere to be seen. I wasn’t sure what to do. I imagined leaning the bar to one side and then the other but knew this would only end in embarrassment.

But then, out of nowhere—actually out of the men’s bathroom—came the only other person in the weight room. Like a “band of brothers” brother, he helped me in my time of trouble. And I was desperately in need of help.

The younger son in the story of the Prodigal Son needed help. A great famine had come on the distant land he had gone to where he had squandered all his father’s fortune. In those days “great famines” meant there would be robbing, murder, bodies left to rot in the streets and even children being sold for money. It was bad enough that he was feeding pigs for a living. This made it even worse.

But it took him some time before he decided to go home. He knew how he would be greeted. The people of the town would meet him outside the city. They would take a clay pot and break it on the ground in front of him and tell him, “You are to us as this clay pot. You are broken. You are cut off.” This ceremony was called Kezazah, a Hebrew word meaning “to cut off.” “You have broken our community, you are now cut off from us, never to return. Let these pieces be a symbol of your brokenness.”

That’s what he expected. It might explain why it took him until he was at rock bottom before he was willing to ask for help. We don’t like to ask for help much, do we? Especially men. I’ll spend an hour in Lowe’s looking for the part I need before I’ll ask someone in a blue vest.

We humans will often stay in our own mess before we find help so we can live differently. Author Robert Quinn notes: “We actually seem to prefer slow death. Slow death is the devil we know, so we prefer it to the devil we do not know.”  What he’s saying is we’d rather keep repeating a cycle that leads to slow death because we know it and would rather stay there than to risk what it takes to change. What it takes to change is admitting we need help.

The son did. He came to his senses and he went home. And instead of facing the Kezazah ceremony, his father ran to him. The word Luke uses in the story for “ran” is used for an athlete. He ran like Usain Bolt to get to his son before the Kezazah did. Dignified men did not run. It was humiliating to do so. But this father did. He took the humiliation that should have been his son’s and placed it on himself.

The son found his help in the Father. And you can too. Jesus told this story so that people who needed help in life could come home. Jesus lived among people so that people who needed help could see what the Father was like. In Jesus they found a Father who runs and covers their humiliation with a robe, a ring, and sandals.

Ask for the help you need today. You don’t have to do life on your own. You certainly don’t have to run.  Your Father is already running to you.

Question: Is there a place in your life today where you need to ask for help? Who can you ask? Will you do it?

 

When Running Around Leads to Your Turning Around

Police raided an open field full of underage drinkers recently in Holmes County, Ohio. You may think this sounds familiar. You may have been a part of some open field parties yourself in your younger days. But this one was unique. The raid happened when 45 police officers descended on a party that was part of a Rumspringa.

Rumspringa is an Amish rite of passage. The word means “running around.” For Amish youth, Rumspringa usually begins around the age of 14-16. Teens are allowed freedom to leave the community and experiment with the world outside. After this season they come back to the community with a choice to make. They can either choose baptism with the Amish church or leave the community permanently and choose to live in the world.

But during Rumspringa some do some pretty radical things. Like buying a television. Or driving a car instead of a horse-drawn buggy. Some forgo the traditional clothing and hairstyles and go modern.

And some try out alcohol. That’s what led to a gathering of Amish kids in an open field in Ohio where beer was running as free as the Rumspringa teens. Imagine the regrets voiced while 75 were sitting in the local jailhouse.

You and I have some regrets too. We’ve probably had our own forms of a Rumspringa. We just call it by other names: “sowing our wild oats,” “Spring Break at the beach,” or  “mid-life crisis I’m buying a Harley-springa.”

There may be someone reading this on a Rumspringa right now. Some running around. Experimenting with something taboo. Flirting with something outside your boundaries. And you may be setting yourself up for regret.

We all have them. Even if we have already found our way to God there are many other times we have to find our way back to God. We wander from him. We do things we know we shouldn’t or maybe things we don’t realize will harm us. And we have regrets.

The younger son had them. He took an early withdrawal of his inheritance, went to a foreign land, and squandered it all. The story says that he “came to his senses” and made a decision to “arise and go” to his father.

When we come to our senses and awaken to our regret we repent. “Repent” sounds churchy, but it really isn’t. It is a compound Greek word made up of “mind” and “change.” Repentance, then, is a changing of our mind or our way of thinking. The Hebrew word for repent means “to return.”

The younger son had to change the way he was thinking about life. He had searched for something to satisfy his longing for love, purpose and meaning. When he hit rock bottom he realized the longing was still there.

And maybe sitting in pig squalor can help a person discover the real longing is for home. So he repented—he changed his direction—and headed home. Repentance can involve emotion. Some repent and tears flow. But repentance has more to do with motion. All repent and then go. True repentance propels us to go in a new direction. The younger son’s was towards his father.

Many of us have “come to our senses.” We can recognize decisions we’ve made that led us to places we one day regretted. But regret doesn’t get us home. That’s the second step that many people never get to. We want to change, we want to start over, we want a mulligan. But shame, guilt and even fear get in our way. We ask: “Will they accept me?” “Will they take me in?” “Could God ever forgive someone like me?”

And the answer is “Yes, yes he can. And yes yes he will.” The father welcomes his son home with an embrace. The Father will do the same for you.

Go home to him. He’ll run out to greet you. And that’s a better story than all the running around we could ever do.

Question: What direction are you going today? Do you need to change direction?

 

 

What You Believe About Jesus Matters

When I first met her she was more of a project to me than a person. My youth group was taking part in a 33-hour fast to raise money for relief efforts in Third World countries. Along with fasting and raising money we were to help someone poor in our community. I called Mrs. Anderson.

She sounded tired, the kind of tired that comes from a life of more “downs” than “ups.” More defeats than victories. And maybe one too many cold winter nights without a hot meal and a warm blanket. But a hint of hope surfaced in her voice as I began to picture for her how we wanted to help.

She answered “yes” and my project was underway. Something began to change, however, the day I drove up in front of her house. It was a bleak West Texas November. The steps up to the house were crooked and cracked. I knocked on the door.

“Come in!” “Mrs. Anderson?” “Yes, come in!” I turned the knob and took two tentative steps. The room was as unkempt as was Mrs. Anderson. Heavy-set, missing teeth, and “just out of bed” hair, she sat on the couch. Her left leg was noticeably larger than her right. She began to tell her story.

Her husband had passed away several years before leaving her with four children: one married daughter who was out of the house, a teenage boy and girl, and a fifth grade daughter. “Times have been hard,” she said. “I’m not able to get around to work because of my leg. Back in the 60’s I got bit by a spider and it got infected. The doctors say it isn’t getting any better and they may have to amputate.”

Insects scurried across the walls as she talked. The house would not have been so bad had it been clean. But what could she do? It was a chore for her to merely walk to the door. I began to lose sight of the project and see the person. And now, with a person within reach of me, I was faced with what kind of Jesus I believed in.

Maybe you’ve been there too. You’ve asked your questions about Jesus. If you’ve ever looked at him long enough you have. We’d rather him be spiritual and more tied to heaven than earth. That way we can worship him on one Sunday and not revisit him until the next.

But when you see that Jesus “became flesh and dwelt among us” things change. They have to. The truth you believe about Jesus matters. In 1 John, John is dealing with the virus of Gnosticism in his churches.  A group had surfaced who said that Jesus did not come in the flesh, that he was a first century hologram of sorts. They taught that the world is divided into spirit and flesh and the only thing that mattered was spirit. Jesus could never—if he were truly God—be associated with things of the flesh.

Because of this belief their worship was focused only on spiritual things, disconnected from the material world. Their lives were disconnected from their flesh—their bodies could do whatever, whenever and with whomever—and they could still view themselves as righteous. Their love was disconnected from the hurting and sinful of their world.

This is not the Christ John knew. The only Christ John knows is the one who “became flesh and dwelt among us.” The only Son he knows is the one who was God-in-the-flesh, the Jesus he had seen with his eyes, heard with his own two ears, and had touched with his hands. So he writes, “every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.” The truth we believe about Jesus matters.

It did to Mrs. Anderson. I had to come to grips with the Jesus I believed in. And when I began to understand more clearly what it meant that Jesus became flesh and dwelt among us, my need for a project disappeared into the West Texas sunset and my love for this person surfaced. My Jesus was one that would not let me retreat to my study. He led me into the mix of this messy world.

And that mattered to Mrs. Anderson. In the following months my youth group and I became friends with her. We brought canned goods and blankets during the fast. Turkey and trimmings at Thanksgiving. Tinsel and toys at Christmas. We held a “spring cleaning” and made trips to the hospital during the amputation. A “Jesus come in the flesh” will connect the spiritual and the material. He would bring heaven to earth.

That’s where Jesus would be. And that’s why we confess that Jesus Christ came in the flesh.

Question: How have you experienced “Jesus in the flesh” in your life?

Find Life Around a Table

Can you picture a time of warmth around a table from your youth? It doesn’t take me long. As a young boy we took trips to northeast Arkansas to see my grandparents. We’d make our way past Texarkana and start checking off the towns: Hope, then Prescott. We’d move on to Little Rock, Searcy, then on to Hoxie and Walnut Ridge. Once there we knew Pocahontas was near. The car would snake its way through the town square and out towards Attica. If you blinked, you’d miss it. The General Store was on the left side of the road. The Baptist Church on the other.

But then over a few more hills and we’d turn onto the gravel road on the left and up to Granny and Pop’s house. By the time Dad parked the car they’d be on the front porch ready for two little boys to come running for hugs.

We had lots of fun on their farm. We’d try to help Pop “slop the hogs.” We’d catch fireflies. We’d crank homemade ice cream and ride our pony. But if I had to picture a time of warmth around a table it would be there. When the food was ready we’d all gather around the table: Pop, Granny, Mom and Dad, me and my brother. Pop would say the prayer. And we’d enjoy the meal together.

The warmth came not so much from the meal itself but because we were together and I knew that these people loved me and I loved them. Even my older brother. I had to. Mom said so. We were family.

Meals should be important to us because they were important to Jesus. Some scholars have said that “Jesus ate his way through the gospels.” Sharing meals was a significant thing in Jesus’ culture. There were social boundary markers in the Jewish world. And one way those boundaries were kept intact was by who received invitations to a meal and who did not.

Jesus came along and upended the social boundaries. Sure, he ate with his closest friends. That goes without saying. You know that from scripture but if not, you at least would know that from Da Vinci’s The Last Supper in Milan.

But Jesus did not only eat with those who were on the same journey with him. Jesus shared meals with people who saw things differently than he did. In Luke 7 Jesus eats at a Pharisee’s house. Jesus is reclining at the table with him. We need to remember that there are times we need to sit down with people we may not totally agree with and offer them our friendship. We might even give them a glimpse of the Kingdom.

And Jesus shared meals with people who lived differently than he did. He was known to eat with tax collectors and sinners. “Tax collectors” were hated by their Jewish friends. “Sinners” was a catch-all term for people who were obviously wicked. Tax collectors would fit into this category. But so would criminals and prostitutes. They had no place to fit in regular society so they fit with each other. When Matthew starts following Jesus he invites him to his house for a meal. We’re told that “many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus…” They were comfortable being with Jesus. And Jesus was comfortable with them.

Jesus ate his way through the gospels. Sitting at table with others meant they were accepted. They belonged. Maybe we should eat our way to life. Start with your family. If you are used to eating in different shifts or in different places around the house, begin by eating together at the table.

Move from there to inviting someone over to your house for dinner. Think about your neighbors and friends. From time to time you may want to throw a party and have a larger circle of people over.

When you can, eat family style. Sharing a meal includes passing plates and caring for each other in that way too.

Remember, you don’t have to be a great conversationalist. But you can learn to be a great questioner. Ask questions. Ask about a person’s day. What was good? What was not so good? Hear their story.

It’s a cold world out there. But warmth can be found around a table. We’d better get used to it. I’m told there is a banquet awaiting us at the Father’s house.

Question: What are your favorite memories around a table?