God will find a way

In Matthew 1:22 we read, “All this happened to fulfill what God had predicted through the prophet.”

Think about it! How many are trying to disrupt the plans and purposes of God? Satan and all his fallen angels, and, with them, billions of disgruntled and deceived people. Yet, here we are, in the middle of Roman oppression, of sometimes corrupt religion, of weak and miserably misinformed people, but God is going merrily along with His plans as though there was no opposition at all.

Only God can do this. He announces what He’s going to do and gives the whole universe a fair chance to fight it if that is what is wished. Then without violating anybody’s will, He just shows up and does exactly what He said He was going to do all along.

This gives me hope. I have plenty of impossible conundrums in my life, but I also have a God who waltzes through them with ease. He’s going to do exactly what He said He would do. Yes, it is impossible. And yes, He will find a way.

Bible trivia:
Answer from last time: The Apostle John spoke with Jesus on the Island of Patmos.
New question: What mistake did the seven sons of Sceva make?

The rule that outlasts all others

God has set up His throne in heaven, and His kingdom rules over all. Psalm 103:19

I need this verse also. I need to know that Someone is in charge. Chaos does not rule. God does.

In 1998, my grandmother passed away. She was 102 years old. She saw the rise and fall of the Soviet empire. She outlived Lenin, Hitler, Stalin. Her lifetime encompassed Kitty Hawk and Neil Armstrong. She was seventeen when she saw her first automobile.

She never talked about these things, of course. Her heart was all about showing kindness in a quiet, unobtrusive way to little people, to obscure and forgotten people in her corner of the world.

But when I wanted some perspective, I sat down and visited with her. The Gestapo, the KGB, the Bolshelviks were history, but this tiny quiet woman lived on.

There’s a lot of noise in this world. But God’s rule outlasts the noise, and His people will endure. God will triumph.

Bible trivia:
Answer from last time: Both Elijah and Moses appeared with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration.
New question: Who talked with Jesus on the Island of Patmos?

Good news of great joy

I know this is long, but I think you’ll enjoy. I originally wrote this when my oldest daughter was a little girl.

“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy…” Luke 2:10

I remember my first Santa Claus doubts. How could a fat man get down a skinny chimney, not just at our house, but at the houses of little boys and girls all over the world? I mean there must be hundreds.

Then came the fateful day when I learned the Truth. Two truths, in fact. My mother was cleaning something in the living room and she said, “You know the Easter Bunny is just make believe.”

That didn’t bother me. The Easter Bunny always hid the baskets behind the TV. He was expendable.

Then she added, “You know, make believe, just like Santa Claus.”

I nodded like I had known all along. But inside this revelation hurt. I wanted to believe that somewhere there was someone who cared enough about me to find out just what I wanted and to risk getting stuck in the chimney to bring it to me.

I missed Santa Claus. He had been a good friend.

I think my dad missed Santa Claus too. Now he had to take the place of the man from the North Pole. And my dad’s sack of toys wasn’t as big as he wanted it to be. Every December he sat us down and delivered the sad news. “I’m afraid there won’t be much of a Christmas this year,” he told us. “We just don’t have the money.”

I felt for him. I wanted to tell him it was okay.

“We don’t have the money,” he said and so my brother and I prepared ourselves to face the sparse holiday my father had predicted. Yet, on the morning of the 25th, we came downstairs to find our stockings stuffed and the floor beneath the tree littered with presents.

Santa slipped out of my life, and, as I grew older, a chilling realization slipped in—one that haunts me even to this day. In every city and scattered across the country, little ones, with hearts full of hope, hang up their stockings with care. But the man in red flies by their homes without stopping. In the morning their stockings look no different than they did the night before.

These children don’t need to be told that there is no Santa Claus. They find out quite on their own.

Now I’m a dad. My little girl never heard of Santa Claus until one of the neighbors told her. And, at bedtime, she doesn’t ask me to tell her about a man with toys and eight reindeer. Instead she says, “Tell me about when Jesus was born.”

She knows the story well, but she asks me to tell it to her just the same.

I start with the decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. I tell her that Joseph and Mary had to walk a long time. And when they got to Bethlehem, no place was found for them to stay.

My daughter and I ponder that in the silence of our own thoughts. I suppose she thinks of how it would be to never find a McDonald’s with a Playland and how it would be to ride on a donkey without a car seat. But I think of Joseph. There he was, pushed out of his home by a senseless decree from a Roman emperor. He comes to the town that is rightfully his own, but no one greets him. No one takes him in. Worried, he asks around for a midwife and a dry, warm, comfortable bed for Mary. “Sorry,” people say. “Sorry, we can’t help you.” In the end, he takes shelter in a barn. And all he can offer the one he loves is a wool blanket and some straw.

I feel for him.

Then my mind goes back to my dad. I see him there at the kitchen table, sifting through a stack of bills, wondering where he will get the money to buy toys for his children. And for the little ones everywhere whose stockings are empty, I hurt. I wish I could shower gifts on them all. And I wonder, Where is the outrage from heaven?

My daughter tugs at my arm. “Tell me the rest of the story, Daddy.”

We switch to the hills around Bethlehem. “On the night Jesus was born,” I tell her, “in the hills, the sheep were sleeping—sleeping away. ’Baaa. Baaaa.’ They were dreaming sheep dreams. The shepherds were there, watching over their sheep.

“All of a sudden, an angel appeared to the shepherds! They were afraid.

“But the angel said, ‘Do not be afraid.’”

My daughter always smiles when I tell her this.

“The angel said, ‘I bring you good news of great joy. For tonight unto you in the city of David is born a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord. And this will be a sign unto you: You will find the baby lying in a manger.’

“And suddenly, all across the sky, the night was bright with angels. And they were singing, ‘Glory to God in the highest. And on earth peace, goodwill to men.’”

My little girl’s eyes get big as we look at the bedroom ceiling together. And I wonder to myself, Can she see what my eyes cannot? Can she see the heavens filled with angels?

What would it be like to see the heavens open? I ask myself. But, though I try, I can see no vision of angels. Instead of angels, I see a man. But he’s not in a shepherd’s field; he’s in a hospital room. And he’s not singing. He’s dancing, holding his newborn daughter in his arms, filled with emotions he could never put into words. I see him there, spinning and twirling, and I realize that man is me.

“Daddy, tell me the rest of the story.”

The reason for the angels’ visit begins to make sense. So, tonight, I change the story. “What do you suppose those shepherds saw when they came to the barn where Jesus was born? Do you think they saw Joseph out in front, dancing under the stars?”

“Daddy, you are silly. They saw the baby Jesus lying in a manger.”

Oh, yes. I sit there for a long time while my daughter falls asleep and dreams of angels. I sit there and think about those words from heaven: “Do not be afraid.”

And, suddenly, I want to rush back through the years and talk to a little boy who grew up to be a daddy himself and say, “Have you seen the angels? Have you heard their song? Did you know that Jesus is here?”

And then I want to stop at a kitchen table and speak to my tired and discouraged dad. “Do not be afraid. What you cannot give has been given for you.”

And I want to swoop down chimneys everywhere with angels at my side and bring the good news to every little one whose heart was filled with hope. “Do not be afraid. The heavens have opened for you. The angels are here for you. Immanuel has come. Do not be afraid.”

If I could, I’d bear presents to them all. Not because I think the trinkets I can give will satisfy Christmas needs. Instead, I’d bring gifts as tokens of a giving, caring God. And I’d pray that when the children finally unwrapped the paper, they’d find not a doll nor a toy truck, but rather a tiny baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

The next morning, my wife and I are busy in the kitchen. Company is coming. Our little girl is talking to her dollies and her stuffed animals, saying this and that. We don’t pay much attention, glad to have a few minutes to straighten the house and make a meal. All at once we are arrested by her words:

“Do not be afraid. For I bring you good news of great joy.”

Bible trivia:
Answer from last time: Elijah and Enoch both entered heaven without first dying.
New question: What do Elijah and Moses both have in common?

The manger

She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. Luke 2:7

They didn’t have a cradle. They didn’t have a crib. They didn’t have expensive baby clothes. But what they did have, they gave.

What is a manger? It is nothing by itself. Yet, given to Christ, it has become a powerful message that has rocked every generation for centuries.

God transforms plain things into works of wonder. A picnic lunch became a miracle meal. A jar of oil became an investment property.

What do we have? Our homes might not be spotless, our cars might not be fancy. It may seem like we have nothing to give but the plainest of gifts. But let’s not hold back! Let us give what we have to Christ. Our plain gifts, every one of them, is an opportunity for God to work wonders.

Who knows what He might do!

Bible trivia:
Answer from last time: A manger is an open box or feeding trough for farm animals.
New question: What do Elijah and Enoch have in common?

What a child understands

Jesus, at this time, filled with joy, prayed this prayer: “I thank You, Father, ruler of heaven and earth. Who understands the mysteries of Your kingdom? Not the intellectuals. Not the educated. Nope. Instead, You’ve made it plain to little children because that’s what makes You happy.” Luke 10:21

When I was a boy, I was enthralled by the bubble lights on our family’s Christmas tree. They were shaped like candles, with some sort of bubbling substance—alcohol perhaps—inside, boiling from the heat of the light bulb. When I grew up, I wanted to buy them, but for many years I couldn’t find them anywhere. My guess is they were probably a fire hazard.

Too bad.

I always wanted to share them with my children before they grew too old to appreciate something like that.

There are many things that only children understand. One day when my children were young, we were sitting on the edge of a slightly raised platform at church. No one else was around, so we took off our shoes and counted all our fingers and toes.

Adults understand that almost everybody has ten fingers and ten toes. But children understand the wonder of making that discovery.

Innocence. Discovery. Wonder. These are precious things.

It is no coincidence that I lingered so long by the Christmas tree when I was a child. For the only heart that is really ready to receive the Christmas Child is the heart full of wonder.

To me this is precious: God has little time for our jaded sophistication, but has open arms for our wide-eyed wonder.

Enjoy this season of wonder and awe!

Bible trivia:
Answer from last time: As a three year old, Jesus probably lived in Egypt.
New question: What is a manger?

God with us

This goes along with the Biblical prophecy: “The virgin will have a son, who should be called ‘Emmanuel,’” which means, “God is with us.” Matthew 1:23

This is a switch. Throughout the Old Testament, God makes it clear that we are allowed only so close. In Exodus 19, for example, there were serious penalties for even touching the mountain where God was visiting. But here in Matthew, God chooses to do more than just visit. He chooses to move in with us, to hang out where we hang out, to live among us common folk.

I had a professor in college who was like that. He brought his wife and kids to class one day. Then he invited any of us who wished to come over to his house. So I went, along with a few other students. Wow! They were nice. They were regular people, so much unlike those who showed up for class and then disappeared into that mysterious world of the rest of their lives.

Why did God move in with us? The answer is clear. He wanted to be close. He didn’t want to go on being God at a distance. And so He did what it took to shorten the distance between us and Him. He remains God, beyond our understanding, beyond us in every category, yet Christ shows up as our elder Brother, as Family, as our Friend.

Bible trivia:
Answer from last time: The Magi (Wise Men) visited Jesus at least several weeks and more likely up to two years after the shepherds visited.
New question: Most likely, where did Jesus live as a three year old?

The journey to Bethlehem

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem, scholars from the East arrived in Jerusalem asking around town, “Where’s the recently born king of the Jews? We followed His star and we’re here to worship Him.” Matthew 2:1-2

Why is it that some can recognize the presence of Christ, while others miss it entirely?

All my life I have been fascinated by these scholars—these “Wise Men” or the Magi. Who were they? How far did they travel? And how did they know? How did they know that this was no ordinary king? How did they know that the star signified more than just a new regime, but rather a king who needed to be worshiped?

There was a star. Surely other people saw it. Yet no one else followed the star so far as we know. Why?

These kings or astrologers or whatever they were arrived at city that was clueless. The greatest events of history were happening in nearby Bethlehem, but nobody seemed to know anything about it. It took someone from the outside to point it out.

I don’t know the answers to most of these questions. I’m not sure God provides answers to them.

But I do know that the One who was born under the star still wants to be found. He wants to be found by every part of us, including the parts that forgot to look. He wants to be found not only by the religious part of us, but also by the scared part, the tempted part, the angry part, the apathetic part, the hopeful part. Let’s take the journey to Bethlehem. Let’s find the One who came to put us back together.

Bible trivia:
Answer from last time: Although the traditional answer is three, the Bible does not say how many Magi or Wise Men came to visit the child Jesus.
New question: How soon after the shepherds visited baby Jesus did the Magi (Wise Men) visit?

Disturbed by the news

I plan to get back to the topic of forgiving others, but wanted to take the next few posts and focus on Christmas…

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem, scholars from the East arrived in Jerusalem asking around town, “Where’s the recently born king of the Jews? We followed His star and we’re here to worship Him.” This announcement caught King Herod and his buddies off guard. His mind started racing. A new king? The promised Messiah? Over my dead body! Matthew 2:1-3

The world is full of people who are disturbed by the news that a King has been born.

Herod is so crazed with power that when he finds out the news that the Messiah has been born, his first response is to try to find him and kill him. The people of Jerusalem also somehow seem to know that this Messiah came to save them from their sins, and they wanted no such salvation.

Why do we resist letting Christ be King? I suggest it’s because we believe a lie. Herod believed the lie that he could hold on to power and that power would protect him. But he died, just like everyone else, and all his power was stripped from him.

Where are we unwilling to let Christ reign? In our fears? In our lusts? In our pride? In our greed?

We all have a line someplace in our souls. On one side we say “yes” to Christ; on the other side we say “no.” In between is the lie. That is our spiritual journey. Follow the “yes’s” until we get to the lie. Then let Jesus tell us the truth, so that another “no” can be turned to a “yes.”

I’m not saying this is easy. It requires great courage to find the border of our faith—but that is where Christ takes us—out into the deep. But it is out in the deep that we let down our nets and discover what we never dreamed was there.

Bible trivia:
Answer from last time: The Philistines captured the Ark of the Covenant and held it for several months.
New question: According to the Bible, how many Magi or Wise Men came to visit the child Jesus?

Forgiving does not invite abuse

Myth #6: Forgiving an offender removes protective boundaries
Truth: Forgiveness is not reconciliation.

In an ideal world, we would always reconcile with those who hurt us. But we don’t live in an ideal world. We live in a fallen world. Sometimes reconciliation is possible; sometimes it is not.

Forgiveness Reconciliation
Forgiveness is based on truth. Reconciliation is based on trust.
Forgiving others changes your heart. Reconciliation changes the relationship.
Protective boundaries stay in place with forgiveness. Protective boundaries are partially removed with
Forgiveness depends on your choices. Reconciliation depends on the other party’s choices.
Forgiveness is possible through Jesus. Reconciliation is sometimes impossible.

Forgiveness does not automatically restore a relationship. For example, if someone harmed one of my children, I would look to Jesus for the grace to forgive. But I wouldn’t willingly allow that person to have any further access to my children. Relationships are built on trust, and if trust is not deserved, then a relationship cannot exist.

Someone I care about was raped. Although I think forgiveness is an important part of the healing process, I did everything in my power to protect the victim from having any contact with the perpetrator. I also championed the prosecution of the man who committed the crime. Simply because we may choose to forgive does not mean that the legal system should forgive. No. They have a different responsibility before God. It isn’t our job to dispense justice, but it is their job to dispense it. We are not vigilantes; we are citizens.

More next time.

These thoughts are adapted from Chapter 5 of Dwight’s book, Spiritual Self Defense. More info here:

Bible trivia:
Answer from last time: The prophet Samuel anointed both King Saul and King David as kings of Israel.
New question: Who captured the Ark of the Covenant and held it for several months?

Forgiving is deeper than just words


Myth #5: Forgiveness takes place when we declare the offender forgiven.
Truth: The words “I forgive you” in themselves are not a magic incantation.

These words do not automatically result in forgiveness. Forgiveness is sometimes thought of as an act of the will, summoning the willpower to say those words aloud. But true forgiveness goes deeper than that. When true forgiveness takes place, the anger isn’t buried; it’s gone.

How is this possible? It’s only possible when Jesus grants us the truth that sets us free. That is, He shares with us God’s perspective on what happened and where we stand after we sustained the damage that we did. Once we see things from God’s perspective, forgiving others is easy. Until we do, it’s impossible.

More next time.

These thoughts are adapted from Chapter 5 of Dwight’s book, Spiritual Self Defense. More info here:

Bible trivia:
Answer from last time: Bethlehem is the hometown of King David.
New question: King Saul and King David were both selected for their role as king by what Old Testament prophet?