The Ingredients of a Great Friendship

“Dunbar’s number” is a number you may want to know. It’s a number Dr. Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Oxford, came up with originally studying the brains and social circles of primates. When it comes to his number he isn’t monkeying around.

“Dunbar’s number” is 150. It’s the number of a person’s social circle. Dunbar says your brain can only hold a close connection with no more than 150. Out of the 150 your closest 15 are the most crucial when it comes to your mental and physical health. You turn to them for sympathy or to confide in. And the smallest number is 5—your close support group made up of your best friends and often family.

The problem is that more Americans are saying they have no close friends. That number has tripled in recent decades. The most common response to the question “How many confidants do you have?” is “zero.”

“Social isolation is the public health risk of our time,” says Susan Pinker in her TED Talk. She says that one-third of the population say they have two or fewer people to lean on. Her study of the Italian island of Sardinia revealed that is has more than six times as many centenarians as the mainland of Italy and ten times as many as North America. Pinker says that social interaction—having a good friend or two—is a factor in living longer.

It was for David. King Saul was his friend that turned into an enemy: a frenemy. Maybe you’ve had a friend who became an enemy. Sometimes a friend abandons us, snubs us, or stabs us in the back. There may be times we deserve those reactions. We don’t like it then, but we can rationalize why that would happen to us.

But sometimes we are doing good when we are given strong opposition. David was. All he had done was good. He played music for the king, killed giants for the king, and wiped out Philistines for the king. In the midst of this craziness David found a great friend in the unlikeliest of places: Saul’s own son Jonathan.

Their friendship brackets the six attempts by Saul on David’s life. The front end of the bracket: “Jonathan was bound to David in close friendship, and loved him as much as he loved himself. … (1 Sam. 18:1). The closing end of the bracket: “Jonathan then said to David, ‘Go in the assurance the two of us pledged in the name of the Lord when we said: The Lord will be a witness between you and me and between my offspring and your offspring forever’” (1 Sam. 20:42).

Friends can bracket the evil in our lives. Friends can help us live through the difficult people in our lives. Jonathan did so with David. Read the story of their friendship and you find three components of a great friend:

  • covenant,
  • clothing, and
  • cover.

Jonathan made a covenant with David. They spoke words of affirmation to each other. They each knew the relationship was valued. David knew where his friend Jonathan stood.

Then Jonathan clothed David with what he needed. He gave him his robe, armor, belt, and sword. Some people in your Dunbar number will be your friend because they think you can help them. A great friend is concerned about how they can help you.

And then Jonathan gave David the cover of protection. He protected him from Saul by giving him warnings. And he protected David from himself. David could have given up on his anointing and returned to shepherding. He could have let his anger get the best of him and retaliated. But he didn’t. True friends help us become all God intends for us to become.

You may be wishing you had a friend like Jonathan2. You do, you know. Jesus said, “I have called you friends” (John 15:15). His covenant with you is to always be with you (Matthew 28:20). He has clothed you in salvation and righteousness (Isaiah 61:10). And he has covered you with his protection (John 10:28).

You have a friend like Jonathan. So why not focus on being a friend like Jonathan? There’s one somewhere in your Dunbar number. A friend can help you live longer on this earth.

It’s your other one—Jesus—that will help you live through eternity.

Question: Who are the “five” within your Dunbar number? 

 

View Your Work as Your Anointing

It’s Sunday. Monday is looming. And you, if you are like most workers in America, are glooming. A recent Gallup survey revealed that 51% of workers are not engaged at work, meaning they have no real connection to their jobs. Another 16% are “actively disengaged.” They resent their jobs. They gripe about their jobs to fellow employees and are the ones responsible for bringing down office morale.

Want to be a part of the 30% that are engaged with their work? Maybe you need to understand your work as your anointing. Let me explain. We say a singer has such an “anointing.” Or maybe a preacher has the “anointing” of God. I’ve never known exactly what that means other than that someone might prefer one singer or preacher over another.

In the Bible, however, being anointed means that God has given a person a job to do. (See Eugene Peterson, Leap Over a Wall for a more detailed discussion of this idea.)  There’s a job to do, he assigns it, and more importantly the person he assigns it to—no matter how they look on the outside—can actually do it.

Take David for example. When we first see David in Scripture he is out “tending the sheep.” When Samuel the prophet shows up in Bethlehem at Jesse’s house to find the next king of Israel he asks Jesse to bring his sons in before him. He does. Every one of them. Except David. David’s father forgets him. His brothers forget him.

But God did not. “Then the Lord said, ‘Anoint him [David], for he is the one.’ So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully on David from that day forward.”

The job God gave David to do at his anointing was to be king of Israel. Saul had been given that job to do, but he did not do it well. He began paying attention to the work of being a king but he did not pay attention to God. Any work that gets disconnected from God can lose its anointing. Saul lost his. It did not happen right away. But it did happen. When we are more interested in our work than we are in God, God will remove himself from our work.

David on the other hand paid attention to God. His first assignment after he was anointed was to serve a bad king. Eventually Saul wanted to kill David as David’s approval rate soared while his plummeted. Remember that when you want to complain about your boss. And yet he served well. He was faithful in what he was given to do. Later he will be given more.

All work is a place where God can do his work in us. Before he was anointed David was a shepherd. It wasn’t “filler” work until his real work began. It shaped him. Silence. Solitude. Integrity of protecting the sheep when no one was watching. All that prepared him to be a king. He watched. He served. He protected. He led. He cared for the sheep. He helped the hurting. He kept order.

Watch. Serve. Protect. Lead. Care for. Heal. Order. Those are things kings do. And that’s what we do when God anoints us with work to do. We represent God in our work. He works and we work. Listen to what the Psalmist said when he reflected on our unique place in God’s creation: “You made him little less than God and crowned him with glory and honor. You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet.”

Your employment and mine has to do with the work of God. All work is a training ground for God’s work in us. In our work we learn what it means to be shaped by our anointing. God finds the one who is faithful in the quiet things and gives them more to do. Jesus gave us this principle in his story about faithful and unfaithful servants: “Well done, good and faithful servant! You were faithful over a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.”

So if you want to be a manager someday, act like one now. If you want to be a leader someday, start serving in the role you have now. Do you want people to trust you with responsibility tomorrow? Then be trustworthy today.

You’ve been anointed to a work by God that you can do. When you do that work well by paying attention to God, you are really anointed. And you may find yourself engaged more at work.

Question: Is your work the place you see God doing his work in you?

 

 

What to do When You Find Yourself Waiting

It’s the four-letter word we most dread to hear. Speak it in a group of high-powered deal makers about to sign on the dotted line and watch their jaws drop. Whisper it in a fast food lane and watch old ladies react in horror. Yell it out to your kids on Christmas morning as they are about to rip into the wrapped packages and see them turn and look at you with disgust.

It’s a cringe-worthy four-letter word and it may surprise you that Jesus uttered it. And since he did, I will too. Here it comes: “Wait.” Jesus told his disciples to wait. “While he was with them, he commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for the Father’s promise” (Acts 1:4).

We need training in waiting. Fortunately for us there is a place where we can go to hone this skill. You may have been there. I was recently. The appointment was at 9:45 a.m. I thought I might show up early and get lucky. So at 9:20 a.m. I tapped on the glass of the receptionist’s window and announced my presence. She greeted me and promptly announced, “Have a seat and wait here and the nurse will come get you when we’re ready.”

She slid the glass closed and I imagined her sending word to the doctor: “Mr. Brown is here early. Let’s reward him for helping us get ahead of schedule!” I imagined that while I waited in the waiting room.

I looked around while I waited. There was one young wife with her husband. She kept hacking while she waited. I was glad she was waiting with her hacking on the other side of the room.

There was one woman in her later years with her father who was in even later years than she. At one point he got up and shuffled to the door, opened it with great trouble, and then started to shuffle down the hallway. I was amused by this thinking, “Ha-ha…he’s a wise old man. He’s making a run…or shuffle…for it while he can. What if he gets lost?” Another patient was alarmed by this and told the daughter, “He’s heading down the hallway.” She got up and walked at a somewhat quicker gait than her father and eventually brought him back to his seat where he…waited.

At 9:45 a.m. the door opened, a nurse appeared, and called someone else’s name. At 10:20 a.m. she reappeared and called me back where she took me to a smaller room where I sat on the table and waited. I waited until 10:35 a.m. That’s the time the nurse practitioner finally saw me. Not that I was watching the clock while I waited.

We don’t like to wait, do we? Raise your hand if, like me, you get in the “10 items or less” checkout line and, when it doesn’t move, start counting the number of items in the carts in front of you. You find 11 and want to report the person. Why? Because they’re making you wait one item longer than you should have to.

 

“Wait” is a four-letter word. Just utter it to someone in a hurry and record the response you get. We are a people who are used to being on the move. To us, waiting is equated with waste. One estimate suggests that some people spend a year or two of their lives waiting in line.  We have to be doing something so we just look at our mobile devices. We read. We text. We email. We work while we wait.

But God prefers that he work while we wait. He has trained his people in the art of waiting throughout Scripture. Abraham had to wait for Isaac. The Israelites had to wait forty years before entering the Promised Land. Joseph had to wait for his dream to be fulfilled. Mary had to wait to give birth to Christ.

And the disciples had to wait in Jerusalem. But while they waited and while God worked there was something to do. Waiting in the Bible has to do with paying attention to God, watching to see what he is doing, and when his people are given a green light they move.

To wait is to pray. Gathering to wait and pray are the two primary activities of a faithful church.  Reread that sentence and answer this question: if we looked at most churches today in our fast-paced society, would we say that these two activities were the primary activities of the modern day church?

Possibly not. The reason is that, as one modern day theologian penned in song, “the waiting is the hardest part.”  Waiting is the hardest part because there are things that need to be done in the world and we think we need to get about the task of doing them.

Could it be that to wait is contrary to our nature because it confronts our desire for control? When we wait we feel as if we have no control. Which is exactly where Jesus wants us. Peter was probably champing at the bit to start witnessing. Andrew was ready to invite someone else into this movement. James was ready to lead the church in Jerusalem. But just because Jesus had instructed them for forty days was not enough to carry out this mission.

They needed the power to do so. And power comes through waiting. “…but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.”

Have you been asked to wait on something today? A job? A healing? A spouse? Has Jesus asked you to wait before doing something? Before a move? Before accepting a job? Before marrying that person?

Not everything God has in store for you will happen quickly. Some things require that we wait. It may be a week. It may be, as in the case of the Israelites, forty years. It may be, in the case of the disciples, forty days. But while you wait, God is working. And he wants you to be ready. He wants you to have renewed strength. He wants you to soar like eagles. He wants you to run the task ahead and not be weary.

All you need to do is wait and pray. Funny, isn’t it? Both are powerful. And they are both four-letter words.

Question: How can learning to wait increase your spiritual power?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Your Failures are not Final

As rejection letters go this one wasn’t too bad. I had an idea for a book, had written most of it, and decided to send a proposal to a publisher that was fairly new on the scene.

I imagined them reading the first few lines and shouting, “This is it! Our next bestseller!” Their offices would shut down and celebrate before a contract was even signed. Within two weeks I received a response. “Thanks so much for your proposal. Your topic is certainly a worthy one, and we’re honored you thought of us as a publisher. Unfortunately, we don’t believe this book is the right fit for us at this time. Our niche is in practical church leadership, and we don’t typically publish inspirational works.”

Someone taught me to look for the good things so I did. “Worthy topic.” “O.K.,” I thought. “I’m on the right track.” They were “honored” I thought of them. “Great. I made them feel good about themselves. That’s honorable of me.”

Nothing in there about bad writing. They could have said, “We read your sample chapter and honestly…we don’t really understand what it was we were reading.” It was just not a match for the kind of publishing they do. It wasn’t bad. But it was still a rejection.

It did not matter that Karen kept reminding me I had only sent the proposal to one publisher. It did not matter that she recounted the stories I’ve shared of writers who were turned down numerous times before they found their publisher.

It didn’t matter. I spent exactly 36 hours and twenty-one minutes feeling like a failure.

Maybe you have too. You lost a job. You lost a marriage. Never finished school. Watched your business go under. Planned to improve yourself one year but didn’t change a thing. You described yourself as a failure and thus prescribed your role for life. You’ve lived with the consequences ever since and decided to return to something safe. Instead of pursuing something else and risk failure you retreated to the familiar.

If you can relate to what I’m saying, you can relate to Peter. He’s been fishing all night and hasn’t caught a thing.  After the events of the cross he retreated to what was most familiar to him. Something safe. He went fishing.

After a long night he has nothing to show. It’s not the first time he’s failed either. It’s not the first time shame has been taunting him: “Maybe you’re not really cut out for this business.” “You don’t have what it takes.” “You let yourself down and you’ve let others down.” No one else has to say these things. The tapes are playing in his own mind.

But that’s when Jesus appeared on the shore. Peter jumps in the water and meets him by a charcoal fire. The last time we saw the words “charcoal fire” Peter was warming himself while turning a cold shoulder to Jesus. At that charcoal fire Peter denied Jesus. At this one he will see his shame burn away and his new life appear when Jesus gives him an assignment. “Feed my sheep.”

Failure and the shame that accompanies it can cause us to quit. We go into hiding and don’t take another swing at the ball. We disappear into the bushes like Adam and Eve, afraid to make another move.

I did. For exactly 36 hours and twenty-one minutes I resolved to never write again. “How can God use me if I can’t get a publisher to take a chance?” I thought. I know. It sounds crazy, but you’ve said similar things, haven’t you? The Enemy will take anything we think we’ve failed at and use it to stifle us. He plants the thought in our minds that failure makes us unfit to be used by God.

Whatever your point of failure is, take it before Jesus. That weekend in Cancun when you were younger. That word you spoke to that friend that ended the friendship. Those thoughts you have that no one else knows.

If Peter can take his denial to Jesus, you can take your misdeeds to him too. Jesus does not call the holy. He makes holy the ones he calls. That’s what he does with Peter. He sets him apart for his service.

Peter’s task is to feed the sheep. The one who denied Jesus three times would now be the one who would lead the fledgling church in its infancy. The one who was afraid to die at the first charcoal fire found the courage to die by the second.

Jesus tells Peter how he will die. He tells him that when he grows old “…you will stretch out your hands…” This is a metaphor for crucifixion. He would face death on account of his faith because he faced his failure.

Early Church Fathers wrote about Peter’s history. Clement of Alexandria (c. A.D. 150-215) wrote “They say when the blessed Peter saw his wife led away to death, he rejoiced that her call had come and that she was returning home.” Then, sometime after witnessing his own wife’s martyrdom, he endured his own. Tertullian (A.D. 155-250) wrote that “Peter endured a passion like that of the Lord” and “In Rome Nero was the first to stain with blood the rising faith. Peter was girded about by another when he was made fast to the cross.”

Jesus has a way of using people who have failed. Abraham’s cowardice caused him to lie about his wife being his sister before God made him the father of many nations. Moses’ anger resulted in a dead Egyptian and a 40 year hiding in the wilderness before he led God’s people to the Promised land. David had Uriah killed so he could have Bathsheba before God used him as an example of a man after his own heart.

He used Peter, denials and all, to lead his own bride, the church.

And he has something for you to do too. It may not be leading the church the way Peter did, but it does include loving the church the way Jesus did. Your failures are not final.

Publishers can send nice rejection letters. But Jesus won’t. You’re a part of his story.

And there’s more writing to be done.

Question: What failure is keeping you from moving forward?

 

 

Live Into the Freedom of the Battle Won

Sometimes the battle is won by one person giving his life so the others can live. John R. Fox made such a sacrifice.

Fox was a forward operator for the U.S. military in WWII.  In December of 1944 he found himself stationed in the Italian village of Sommocolonia. By Christmas day enemy soldiers had gradually infiltrated the town in civilian clothes.

A German attack from the outside had begun by 4:00 a.m. on December 26. The enemy soldiers who had infiltrated the town bolstered the attack from within and the two groups quickly overwhelmed the American soldiers. Greatly outnumbered, most of the United States Infantry forces were forced to withdraw from the town.

But Fox volunteered to stay behind with a few Italian soldiers as part of a small observer party. They would be “eyes and ears” in the town. He and the others would direct artillery fire from outside the town against the German troops with the hope that the American unit could make a safe retreat and regroup. Fox and his Italian party positioned themselves on the second floor of a building in a spot that allowed him to see the advancing enemy.

By 8:00 a.m. Fox reported that the Germans were in the streets and attacking in strength. He began calling for defensive artillery fire in an effort to slow the enemy’s advance. It quickly became clear that the Germans were going to overrun the streets and outnumber his small group. And if they overran his group they would eventually get to the rest of the U.S. forces. So Fox held his position and radioed his requests.

When evil advances something has to be done to defeat it. And when a mission is designed to defeat it, that mission must be finished.

John writes of such a mission when he tells the story of Jesus on the cross. “When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’” What was finished? A mission that began not in a small Italian town but a gun-free garden. It too had been infiltrated.

From the Garden the battle was on. God had said, “He will strike your head and you will strike his heel.” We see the war raging and evil spreading until we come to a covenant: “Through your offspring all the nations of the world will be blessed.”

We see the battle in Egypt as God frees his people. We see it in Babylon when God brings his people home. And we see it as evil has spread through cosmos and creation when Jesus enters the scene.

He brings God’s kingdom against the “ruler of this world.” He heals the diseased and the demonized. He does battle against anger, lust, swearing oaths, temptation, lying, legalism, false teachings, spiritual blindness and persecution. The battle was against religious legalism and oppression. Against racial and social marginalization. Against sexism. Against cruelty and judgmentalism. All these things were seen as being inspired by the Enemy. Jesus came to “destroy the works of the devil.” And the final blow was found on the cross.

John Fox saw the enemy from his second story perch. They were starting to swarm the city. Evil was advancing. He knew his friends would not stand a chance unless he did something. So he radioed an order to adjust the artillery fire closer and closer to his position. He was warned that the final adjustment would bring the deadly artillery right on top of his position. Fox acknowledged the danger and insisted it be fired as it would be the only way to defeat the enemy.

Jesus ascended not into a second story house but onto a cross. He took the full force of the enemy’s assault on himself—the full force of the consequences of sin we have allowed to reign in this world—and experienced what we would have otherwise experienced.

Satan’s lies were exposed. His “certificate of debt” against us was nullified. Even his greatest weapon—the threat of death—was diffused when Jesus rose from the dead. When you see the ugliness of the cross you see the full force of evil in the world…and the beauty of love.

Next time you hear that voice telling you that you are not worthy or that you did something God could not forgive, remember these words: “It is finished.” Then say, “It is finished. My God forgives. You lied about him all along. You have no power over me.”

Soldiers lived that day because John Fox took the full force of the artillery so others could live. We live today because Jesus took on the full force of evil on the cross. The Enemy bombarded him with his best and most lethal weapon: death itself. And death did not win.

It is finished.

Question: Where do you feel attacked most often? How do you combat those attacks?

 

 

Open Your Family to Those Who Need One

Moms and sons have a special relationship.  A national survey of nearly 1,200 adult children over age 40 were posed this question: If asked to make the choice, which parent would they choose to move in with them?

You already know the answer, don’t you?  2/3 of the respondents chose mom because she would be more help with cleaning and cooking, could help with the kids, would be neater and a better listener.  Dad?  Well, Dad would be messier and more of a couch potato than mom.  He’d have worse hygiene and say inappropriate things and want control of the TV.

Dads, don’t get too upset.  70% of the respondents said that they’d rather not have either parent move in with them.  But mom…it’s you if one of you does.

Mothers and their children, especially their sons, have a unique relationship. And whose is more unique than that of Mary and Jesus? It began with an angel. Gabriel shows up, tells her she is “favored by God,” only to find that means she’s going to have a baby before she gets married to Joseph. She’s a bit confused by this: “How can this be, since I have not had sexual relations with a man?” But she gets an answer: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.”

She lost him once when he was twelve years old on a trip to Jerusalem. She pushed him as an adult to make wine at a wedding. She even went to get him one time when she thought he was out of his mind.

But the greatest scene for Mary with her son came at the cross. “When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple he loved standing there, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his home.”

A flood of memories from Gabriel through childhood—to now having to watch her son suffer through this gruesome ordeal—cascade over her heart. If there ever were a time she would desire to hear the word “mother” it would be now.

Instead she hears, “woman.” What is clear in the Greek and even in the English translation is the contrast between what Mary may have expected to hear and what she instead received: “Jesus said to his mother, “Woman…”

The word is not impolite. It was a simple, courteous address. But the word was important. With it Jesus redefined family. Jesus is helping his mother see that family ties are not as important as ties between the teacher and his disciples. She needs to be on mission with Jesus’ mission.

As do we. A word from the cross to Mary and John— “the disciple he loved”—is a word to us about finding our identity in Jesus and a new family. We don’t neglect our biological family. But we do gain another one that helps, supports, encourages, and lives on mission together.

So we do what families do. We eat together. We spend time together. We help each other. We give counsel and support. When we do, we follow in the footsteps of the first Christians: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). We bring others in who have no family.

When we do, we do as John did. Eusebius lived in the late 3rd and early 4th century. He was the bishop of Caesarea and was an historian of the early church. He wrote about the traditional belief that Mary lived with John. He took her with him to Ephesus and was present with her when she died. Each year pilgrims travel to a house a few short miles from the center of Ephesus that some believe to be the house where Mary lived until her death. Jesus’ family became John’s family.

The third word from the cross is a word of devotion. Jesus is devoted to us to the point of death on a cross. Even there he is thinking about his family. Mary. John. You and me. It’s a word of devotion we are to have for each other.

The only choice he made was to include all of us.

Question: When have you experienced “family” outside of your biological family?

Open the Gift that is You

When you’re a young Jr. High kid and you realize there is something you want but you are unemployed and have no way to buy it you can only hope that someone will love you enough to gift you the desired object.

I was a budding tennis player wannabe who wanted to follow in Bjorn Borg’s footsteps. I grew my hair long. I watched every match I could find. I even tried to walk like him. The only problem was I did not have the tennis racket he had. And I just knew that it was the missing piece that would link me to future tennis stardom.

I don’t remember if it was a birthday or just a surprise, but one day I arrived home to find that my parents had found me the holy grail of my tennis world: a Bancroft Bjorn Borg signature racket. Complete with a cover and press.

It was high excitement. They handed it to me in its wrapping and the first thing I did was open it. I examined it. I ran my fingers in amazement at it. I gripped it with my hands—one on the forehand side and two on the backhand.

Maybe you remember a gift from when you were younger that made its mark on your memory. Or maybe it was as recent as the Christmas holidays. Regardless, if you enjoy receiving gifts, then read on. Because gift giving has been around longer than my childhood.

“…grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore, it says, ‘When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.’”

Each person in the body of Christ has received a gift.  The first thing we do with gifts is open them.

How do you know what gift rests inside you? Read the gift lists in scripture. Look at individuals in your life you want to be like in ministry. Pay attention to where you enjoy and have the most fun serving. Make a list of your natural talents and skills. God can use all of them in ministry. Add your g-ifts, i-ndividuals, f-un, t-alents and s-kills together and you will find your “gifts.”

We open gifts. But then we use them. Peter writes: “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace…” Your gifts that God has packaged inside you are not to be held onto tightly. They are to be developed and then used within the body of Christ. You have gifts that will help others grow into his likeness. And they have gifts you need too.

No one has all the gifts that Jesus has given to the church.  But each one has a gift to be used. We need to see ourselves and others in the church as Jesus does. That’s why Paul wrote in Romans 12: “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment…for as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them . . .”

“Sober judgment” means you understand your place in the body and you understand that others have their place. When functioning together, great things can happen. We can fulfill a purpose bigger than ourselves.

One thing my parents did not count on the day I opened their gift was that I also understood the intention of a gift. I wanted to use it. Right then. So they had to pack me and my brother up into the car and take us immediately to the tennis courts. I couldn’t wait for my first serve.

And you don’t need to wait for your first serve either. Open the gift that is you today. Then use it in service to the church and people. In the end, everybody wins.

Question: What is the thing you do best that when you do it you enjoy it and others seem to benefit from it?

 

The Sign Will Lead You to Your Christmas Gift

Finding Christmas presents makes the giving fun. And giving clues as to where to find presents is even more fun. We’ve done that with our kids. Maybe you have with yours. You give them clues that lead to more clues which finally leads to the gift. It might go something like this:

  1. Rudolph is Santa’s #1 flyer. Your first clue is by the washer and (dryer).
  2. Santa’s suit is a very bright red. Now go look where at night you lay your (head).
  3. Santa’s lived long, he’s very old. Your next clue is where the food is kept (cold).
  4. To be on Santa’s nice list you can’t be a grouch. Now look under the living room (couch).
  5. The air in the house can get kind of stale. Get outside for the next clue and check the (mail).

On and on it could go until the last clue says: “You’re tired of looking. It’s almost done. Look under the tree and unwrap for some fun!

I admit. There would be something a little Grinchy about sending kids all around the house inside and out and then bringing them right back to the tree. But no matter how you go about it, the clues do what they are supposed to do. They lead them right to the gift they most want.

The best Giver gave his best gift the same way. There were shepherds out in the fields, watching their flock at night. The angel came to them and told them, “…this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”

There is some evidence that there were shepherds around Bethlehem who were priestly shepherds. Some think they were tasked with spotting unspotted lambs for the Temple sacrifices. And some believe they would wrap them in bands to keep them from hurting themselves right after birth and then lay them in a crevice in the rocks called a manger until they were calmed.

We don’t know if all of this is true. The evidence is unclear. But we do know that according to the Torah two lambs were required every day for the daily sacrifice in the Temple. That’s 730 lambs each year and thousands more for other feasts and festivals. Bethlehem was known for sacrificial lambs.

Every day. Every month. Every year. Shepherds watched as these innocent, blameless lambs were offered for sin. They had time to reflect. They knew it was for their sin too. You see, they weren’t even allowed to the Temple to worship because their livelihood made them unclean.

And your livelihood makes you unclean too. No, not your 9-5 job. But the living you do every day. The way you speak to others. Your behavior. The way you go about your relationships.

Preachers aren’t immune. One holiday season I was heading home after a long day. I was almost home a little early one Friday afternoon. I was driving by a school and, out of habit, driving 20 mph due to the school zone even though school was already out for the holiday.

Suddenly the truck behind me sped up, moved over to the other lane, and passed me. I threw my hand up in the air and waved it around pointing my index finger at him thinking “Are you crazy! What kind of idiot are you?!” Then I saw him looking in his rear view mirror. Then I noticed my hand. I thought, “From his vantage point it probably doesn’t look like I’m giving him a neighborly wave. It probably looks like I’m waving one finger at him. Not the index finger.”

I didn’t feel too good about this. I felt worse when he turned into my subdivision. I slowed down a bit so he could get to his street before I got to mine. But then he turned onto my street. And then he turned into the driveway across the street from our house. I had gestured angrily at my neighbor! I waited down the street until he went inside his house. If he ever knew it was me he never said anything. But I didn’t like what was in me.

You and I need what the shepherds needed: a sign that leads to the Savior. “… wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” I’d like the story of the priestly shepherds to be accurate. It would make this sign have added significance if they in fact wrapped lambs in bands of cloth and laid them in a place called a manger.

I’d like that to be true, but we don’t need it to be true. The shepherds found exactly what they were supposed to find. Earlier Luke told us “…[Mary] gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them…”

Later, Luke will strike the same cadence when he writes of the crucified Savior: “Then [Simon] took [the body] down and wrapped it in a linen shroud and laid him in a tomb cut in stone, where no one had ever yet been laid.”

This baby we celebrate at Christmas is our Savior. The shepherds needed one. I need one. And so do you. And that is the gift God gave you. A Savior. God gave you a sign: a baby wrapped in rags and lying in a manger.

May you find him this Christmas.

 

Learn to Travel Light Through Life

There is an art to traveling overseas for an extended time. Unfortunately, in 2008 we had not mastered that art. You see, we were going on sabbatical to Europe for five weeks. But we did not go lightly.

The biggest mistake of our trip happened in our room when we were packing. We each had a smaller suitcase and were plotting out what to take and how to pack it tightly. That’s when one of us—I will not mention who it was—but that’s when Karen said, “Why don’t we pack our things together in one suitcase?” We went from two small suitcases to one large suitcase. Same amount of stuff crammed into one container. Made sense.

Until we got to Europe and started climbing onto trains. You see, you don’t check your baggage through trains like you do on an airplane. You take your luggage onto the train with you and you put it in an overhead bin. Because Europeans travel by train and usually go for short day or weekend trips, the bins are small. Made for small suitcases. Like the two we left back home.

We had one large, heavy suitcase. Each of our sons had their suitcases. We had a guitar. We had two backpacks. And when we tried to load all of this on our first train we almost had a meltdown. We couldn’t get into our cabin. The people behind us couldn’t get on the train. They were stacked up like cars on a Houston freeway at rush hour. We felt the pressure of too much to carry and too little space for it.

Maybe life feels like that for you today. You’re carrying around more than you were designed to carry. So did the Prodigal Son. When he came home his father embraced him and kissed him. Then he said to his father, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”

His father has given him grace and he still says, “I am not worthy…” He’s carrying baggage called shame. Brene Brown has done great work in the area of understanding shame. She says shame is lethal in our lives. It keeps us from living the life God intended. It makes us live instead the life we think others want us to live.

You can detect shame in your life by your self-talk. “I am stupid. I’m a loser. I’m such a mess up.” That’s shame speaking. The focus is on self.

Counteract shame in your life by changing your self-talk from focus on self to focus on behavior. “I made a stupid decision last night.” “I wasn’t thinking.” “What I did was wrong.” We need to get clear about our self-talk and the effect of shame on our lives.

Brown says that the difference between guilt and shame is this: guilt says “I did something wrong” whereas shame says “I am wrong.”

The father in the story helps his son think differently by giving him the best robe, a ring and sandals.

  • In the ancient world the best robe in a family was the father’s robe. He covered his son with his own robe. The act said, “You are enough.”
  • A ring represented authority and power. The son came home thinking he had no future. Now his was secure.
  • And sandals were worn only by family members. Servants of the household were barefoot. The sandals placed on the son who hoped to only get the place of a hired servant told him he was accepted.

My guess is his self-talk changed. And yours can too. If you have been baptized into Christ, you have been “clothed with Christ” (Galatians 3:27). You’ve been given the covering you need. You can say, “I am a child of God” (Galatians 3:26).

By Venice we got tired of the excess baggage. We tossed the large suitcase, bought a smaller one, and traveled lighter the rest of the trip. You can too. Put your shame away. Change your self-talk. There’s a Father running to you that wants to clothe you with all you need to carry through life. And it will be enough.

Question: What shame are you carrying around that is making your journey heavy?

 

When Your Longings Surface Turn Towards Home

Henry the VIII had six. Elizabeth Taylor had eight. Zsa Zsa Gabor had nine.

But Glynn Wolfe had more. He holds the record for marriages: 29 in all. He married some for days, some for months, and a few for years. He married teenage women and he married women with teenagers. He married country girls and he married city girls.

He exchanged wives like someone trying on a variety of clothes. You’d think somewhere along the way, maybe at #5 or even #14 he would have stopped. But he didn’t. Wolfe said he loved women but would get bored with them and felt a strong drive to find another one.

Henry. Elizabeth. Zsa Zsa. Glynn. It doesn’t take much to realize they were all looking for something. More correctly, they were longing for something. We have longings too.

We have a longing for love. That’s why when you got dumped in a relationship you found yourself getting into another one later.

We have a longing for purpose. That’s why even when you were a kid and did not have to pay bills or worry about working, you still had a dream of who you wanted to be when you grew up. And the reason you were thinking about this is that you already had a desire inside of you for purpose.

We long for meaning too. We want to know the answers to the big “Why?” questions of life. You may have asked them yourself: “Why, if God is good, did he let this happen?” “Why am I here?” “Why is there so much suffering in the world?”

Those questions and these longings are in us because they are placed there by God. The longings aren’t the problem. The problem is we often journey away from God to find answers to our longings.

The Prodigal Son did. Charles Dickens called this the greatest short story ever. The younger son in the story had everything his father had to give him. But even with that he had a longing for something more.

So he asked his dad for his inheritance. In that Middle Eastern first century culture that request was the same as telling your father you wished he were dead. You were supposed to take care of your father in his old age and then, when he did die, you would receive your inheritance.

But the father gave him his inheritance and he went away and spent it all “in reckless living.” We don’t know what that was. Drinking? Gambling? His brother offered that he “devoured the property with prostitutes.” Regardless, he lost it all trying to fulfill his longings.

When the money and the women and the friends were all gone he discovered he had another longing: home. He wanted to go back home to his father, even if it meant he would work as a hired hand.

Jesus told this story because he knew we all have longings for something more. And he knew that “something more” was life with the Father. That is where your “home” and mine is. It is a story about finding your way home to the Father.

As far as we know Glynn Wolfe never found his way back home. Believe it or not, he was a minister and he died alone, suffering panic attacks in the middle of the night in his later life because he was virtually alone all the time. To his dying day he kept a wedding dress in his closet. Just in case.

Your story can end on a different note. Pay attention to your longings. Believe that they will not be satisfied running from God but running towards God. Then turn towards home today.

Question: Identify a time when your “longings” took you far from home…the place you are made to be.