Christmas in Focus

As fun as it is, playing Santa for friends and family every year can become quite a chore. We can begin to feel frazzled and pulled in many directions.

Although many of us take pride in our skill at multi-tasking, at this time of year the planning, shopping, wrapping, baking, decorating, and attending special events sometimes leaves us feeling as limp as an over-stretched rubber band.

At times like this, I find that it helps to get up a few minutes early, stay up a few minutes late, or steal some time somewhere,  to sharpen my life’s focus with prayer and re-reading the Christmas story from the Bible.

If you have ever taken a photo of a large group then you know how difficult it can be to keep each person in focus. But if you are taking a photo of one special person in the group, the task becomes easy; you simply put that one particular face in the center of the focus and adjust the lens until it is clear.

Life is like that. If every task has equal importance, then no one job gets our best efforts. Taking one job at a time, as if the project at hand were the only item on your “To Do” list, makes life manageable.

So if you are feeling stressed these days, take a few moments to breathe deeply, center your thoughts on the One whose birth we celebrate, and let him help you set your priorities so you can get through this season with  peace and joy.

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed,[b] who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

8 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,14 “Glory to God in the highest,
    and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
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15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

21 And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.- Luke 2 (ESV)

Best wishes for a Blessed Christmas Season.

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Seeking both lessons and blessings amidst the pain

A few years ago I was asked to speak at a women’s meeting and to bring, “Just seven to ten minutes on the topic of forgiveness.” Easy, right? There are possibly hundreds of books written on that topic and I was asked to sum it up in ten minutes or less. It wasn’t as difficult as it might have been, though, because I’ve wrestled with the subject a lot and have a definite viewpoint. I am at a place in my faith journey where I no longer feel that I have any entitlement to judge or withhold forgiveness from those who might cause me pain. 

I believe every experience God allows into my life is for my good and His glory. Whether joyful or pain-filled, God has decided to let me have the experience as a gift. He walks with me, if I let Him, in the good times and bad, gently pointing out the lessons and blessings in each day. When I remember to look for the lessons and blessings in even the minutia of my life, I have no time to worry about blaming anyone for my hurts. I try to remember that we all have, either willfully or inadvertently, caused others pain. In that respect, we are no different than those who hurt us.

Sometimes we may feel that God is the one who needs our forgiveness, since He could prevent our injuries. When someone we love is suffering or dies, it is very difficult to look for God’s blessing unless we remember that God’s perspective is different from ours. He suffers with us and yearns to comfort us, but has an eternal view point that places the greatest importance on our spiritual growth and well-being.

Loss always hurts. Loss of health, wealth, loved ones, pride, or possessions all cause various levels of physical or emotional anguish. We cannot avoid these things as we walk through this “valley of death” that is our mortal existence. But our God is with us. The words of the 23rd Psalm speak of the lessons and the blessings of our walk, “He makes me lie down in green pastures” (a lesson), “He anoints my head with oil” (a blessing).

Whether you feel offended by others or even by God Himself, let go of your “right” to judge and hold grudges and you may find a new world of blessings and spiritual growth.

It is not always the easy choice, but I believe it is always the right one.

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Tough love

“I won’t thank a god who allows such suffering!”

“How can anyone be thankful with all the tragedy and pain in the world?”

“If God is all-powerful, why does He allow bad things to happen to good people?”

Those questions are completely valid, and difficult to answer. A being powerful enough to be God is infinitely beyond my comprehension. Theologians have grappled with these questions for centuries and I’m no theologian, HOWEVER, I think I get an inkling of an understanding of this issue when I look at God as Father.

Loving parents never want their precious children to suffer. We protect them from pain and harm whenever we can. But there are some times when we must allow them pain for their own good. When we must give them distasteful medicine to cure their ailments, or let the doctor give them painful inoculations in order to prevent diseases, we cringe at our child’s distress, but force ourselves to carry on, knowing the long-term benefits outweigh the temporary unpleasantness.

This same concept applies to necessary parental discipline and even to allowing our children to deal with unfairness and hardship. Children raised by  hovering “helicopter parents” and who are cosseted, indulged, and protected even from the consequences of their own mistakes and choices, grow up into weak adults, unable to handle the slightest difficulty or failure. 

Loving parents want to raise competent, resilient, contributing adults. Sometimes that means standing aside, even when our every instinct is to rush to their aid. The old expression, “this hurts me more than it does you,” is often true.

Keeping in mind that God the Father places our eternal spiritual development above our mortal comfort, we can see why He might find it necessary to allow us to suffer. Like any parent, He aches to see our pain, wants to comfort us, but knows it will pass and sees the long-term benefits.

I never want to downplay the tremendous grief and heartache anyone might be going through, but I firmly believe our pain is never a sign of God’s indifference.

Romans 5:3 (ESV)
… we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,

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A Thankful Heart

Even though we are being rushed from Halloween straight to Christmas these days, we cannot overlook the fact that this Thursday is Thanksgiving.  

Although established by political action and not a strictly religious holiday, Thanksgiving originated with an outpouring of thankfulness to God on the part of the Pilgrim Fathers in gratitude for their survival under tremendous odds in the new land. In many ways their first year had been a disaster; they’d lost everything they had in their old life and found loss and hardship in the new land, as well. And still they gave thanks.

Today, the Holiday Season begins each year with the pagan/superstition festival of Halloween, pauses briefly on the day of counting one’s blessings, and then diverges into two separate paths.

For Christians, giving thanks to God for the blessings of the year leads to the Advent season when we prepare our hearts for consideration of the miracle of God’s gift of salvation through His Son, whose birth we celebrate at Christmas. While for many in our secular society, the family, football, and food fest of Thanksgiving, followed immediately by the shopping frenzy of Black Friday, is the kick-off to a month of consumerism and sentimentality.

The days following Christmas bring us all back together as we face the New Year with resolutions, hopes, and fears for the future.

How one celebrates these holidays is a clear demonstration of one’s world view.

If you count your lucky stars, or feel a sort of general thankfulness that your life is good, if Christmas means nothing more than family, gifts, and traditions, you may not know the great blessing of being able to face each New year without fear, knowing that the loving God who created the universe is in control.

If you thank God for the ups and downs, the blessings and struggles of the past year, and know that Christmas is both historical miracle and promise of eternal salvation, then you have Happy Holidays, indeed.

Have a happy Thanksgiving… a blessed time giving thanks to the One who gives us everything. Thank God.

“Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.” (NLT) 1 Thessalonians 5:18

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Thoughts and Prayers

Although it is mid-November, the wildfire season here in California isn’t over. Northern California was forcibly reminded of that fact yesterday when a devastating fire blew up in Butte County, wiping out the charming mountain city of Paradise in a single day. As I write this, the fire continues to rage with more people being evacuated from their homes almost hourly. Those of us outside the danger zone, from everyday citizens to well-known officials, offer thoughts and prayers for those being so horribly impacted by this blaze.

Whenever such a tragedy strikes, social media is flooded with the same messages of sympathy, only to be followed, inevitably, by snarky comments from non-believers about the foolishness of prayer.

As a Christian with faith in the power of sincere prayers, I’ve often wondered about the efficacy of sending thoughts.

While watching the coverage of this current disaster happening to people living only an hour away, some of them personal friends or family of friends, it occurred to me that without those thoughts of sympathy and shared pain, the prayers would never come.

Our thoughts are the impetus for all except instinctive actions and the most beneficial activities are usually those stemming from the most prior thought. Hence, the expression, “How thoughtful!” while emotional “gut reactions” can lead to a contrite, “Sorry, I just didn’t think.”

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things. – Philippians 4:8 (NIV) 

The victims of today’s catastrophe need our sincere thoughts, prayers, and actions. If your thoughts lead you to share, please click on the link to donate to the Butte County fire victims.

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Costumes and Character

With Halloween just past, you may think I’m commenting on the usual dust-up about which costumes are acceptable in this PC age, but that’s not what is on my  mind. I’ve been revisiting C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, that Christian classic written from the perspective of one of Satan’s minions (not the cute kind!), and came across this line, “All mortals tend to turn into the thing they are pretending to be.”

The first time I read this, I accepted it at face value, but upon further thought, I decided it is only true some of the time.

We’ve all seen people (politicians come to mind here) pretending to be honest and upright in order to impress an audience, while remaining dishonest and self-serving.

I think it is one’s motives that determine the effect pretense has on character.

Christians are sometimes advised to act “as if” we feel love or forgiveness toward someone when we have difficulty calling up the genuine emotions, because the action can be the precursor of the feelings.

mask

If you pretend to be better than you are, simply to fool and manipulate others for your own gain, it is like slipping into a Halloween costume; you remain untouched. But walking a higher road in order to help others and in hopes of eventually becoming what you are emulating can really change you. Rather than a mask to hide behind, we should be putting on the character of Christ, allowing it to mold us into His image.

I want to be authentic in all my relationships, while always striving to overlay my flawed character with generous, moral, and courageous actions for the benefit of others and the glory of God. Don’t you?

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What can I believe?

“I just don’t know what to believe, anymore!”

In our information-dense culture we are constantly bombarded with information; every source claiming to have the true take on every topic. With wildly conflicting versions, no wonder we don’t know what to believe. This is a real problem and one we can’t simply ignore. How and what we believe guides our actions, for good or ill. sponsor-new-media-europe

A few years ago Macy’s began a holiday ad campaign with the one-word slogan, “Believe.”  What did they want us to believe in? The Christmas spirit? Santa Claus? Spending money in their stores? What? Without context their slogan was meaningless.

We are often told to believe in ourselves, or that if we only believe strongly enough in achieving our goals we can make them happen. The inference is that the power of belief is the important value in life’s equations, without regard to what is being believed.

The dictionaries I referred to all gave some variation of the definition of belief as an acceptance that something exists or is true, especially without proof. So, if we are to believe without definitive proof, how do we know what to believe? Are we to remain entangled in a morass of conflicting information, never knowing what is real and true?

As a Christian, I place my trust and belief in God’s Word, the Bible. When battered by storms of confusion, I cling to His promises, knowing that upsetting events, dramatic headlines, and extreme rhetoric cannot shake my firm belief that Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. John 8:32 (CEV)

 

 

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The Halloween Question

Halloween is a controversial holiday for many Christians. Feelings about this holiday range all the way from fear and loathing of it’s satanic overtones to glee at the idea of candy, costumes, and fond childhood memories.

Anyone who has done any research into its origins cannot deny our Halloween customs haves roots in paganism and superstition, if not outright devil worship and witchcraft. However, by the time my own childhood Halloweens arrived, all this day meant to me and my peers was one special time when we could set aside our everyday selves and step out of some of life’s rules and routines.

We could wear different clothes and pretend to be another person entirely. Children who were taught never to ask for treats were encouraged to become mini-extortionists, going door-to-door threatening dire tricks if we weren’t paid off in candy and homemade goodies… and folks greeted us with smiles and praise for our costumes. Some invited us in and took our picture. Children who were usually admonished to be home before dark were suddenly allowed to roam the night streets in raucous packs, even playing pranks and indulging in mild mischief without fear of retribution. We could eat sickening amounts of candy, stay up late and be as silly as we liked, knowing that the next day everything would be back to normal.

Our culture today is not so simple and safe as in my small town childhood.  There are real dangers for children wandering dark streets. Parents wisely accompany their little ones on Trick-or-Treat and examine the treats carefully before doling them out in healthy quantities.  The wild innocence of a few decades ago simply doesn’t exist.

Today, celebrating some Christian variant of Halloween, such as a Harvest Festival with Biblical costumes, is the norm in many churches; while this is seen by some as unnecessarily narrow-minded and prudish.

Personally, I can no longer feel comfortable with the day. I hand out candy to the children in the neighborhood, but don’t put up any spooky decorations. I am ambivalent, abhorring the thought of giving support to superstition, paganism, or even commercialism, yet nostalgic for the magic evenings of my memory.

For thoughtful perspectives on the holiday, read “The Christian Response to Halloween” by Chris Legg; and “Christians and Halloween” by Travis Allen.

Trick or treat? What do you think?

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Beauty in dying

Yellow Maple Leaf

When Fall finally arrives in Northern California, we can’t compete with the autumn displays of the northeastern states, but there are still occasional bursts of rich color scattered in the hills and valleys where I live.

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 Walking along the streets of my town, smiling at each crimson leaf, I enjoy all this loveliness and sometimes think about the cycle of death which creates it.

All of the material world is under the law of entropy: a gradual decline into disorder and death. Even though we  try to ignore it, all living things eventually die. It is the natural order of our world. Without the annual cycle of death, we would be denied the glory of autumn we so enjoy. There is beauty in the dying of the leaves before they release their hold on life.

Taking advantage of assisted suicide laws, many people with incurable diseases seek to avoid the inevitable pain and ugliness these diseases can cause before the release of death. This desire is understandable. If the material world were all there is, it would be the logical choice.

All material things pass away, but we are not simply our physical bodies. Each of us has a spiritual component, our immortal soul. When we take our dying out of God’s hands we are denying Him the opportunity of making of our final days a more beautiful thing.

From the moment of birth, our physical body is in the business of dying, while the spirit can continue to mature and expand eternally. Knowing this truth can inspire us to spend our lives on Earth dying beautifully.

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Like the leaves of autumn, we can add vibrant color to the lives of those around us, and bring blessings where we happen to fall.

A hospital chaplain who sat beside many death beds once told me of the great difference he saw  between the death experience of non-believers and that of believers; people convinced the material world was all there is tended to die in fear, sadness, or anger, while those looking ahead to the next great adventure often became “beautiful” in their last moments, breathing their last with sweet expressions of peace and joy.

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As Christians, we should not wait for those final moments, but should begin to show the beauty in our dying from the day we are born into the family of God.

24 “Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life. 

John 5:24 (NIV)

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A Sample Children’s Sermon

I was recently asked by my pastor to prepare the children’s sermon for our worship hour. I was hesitant because I know how tricky it can be to present something meaningful for both children and the rest of the congregation. The children’s sermon deserves as much consideration as the pastor’s message, keeping in mind that you are dealing with tender, developing spirits.

It is important to treat the children who come forward with respect, not as entertainment for the adults, and to share the children’s comments (if any) so the folks beyond the first row can follow the interaction. 

After much thought and prayer, this is what I came up with:

(The children are welcomed to come to the front of the sanctuary and gather around my chair where they are greeted with a smile. When they are settled, I introduce myself and ask a child his or her name.)

Say: “Margo (child’s name), I’m so glad you are here. Can you tell me why you came to church today?”   

(Give the child a chance to reply, repeating it for those in the back of the sanctuary to hear. Go around the circle of children until each has had an opportunity to respond. If the reply is that they are there because their parent/grandparent brought them, ask the parent to give their reason for bringing the child.)

(Recap the reasons given, emphasizing these probable responses: to learn about/worship God, to get closer to God, and to be with friends. The first time “friends” are mentioned, you might comment that being with Christian friends is a really good way to feel God’s love.)

Wrap up by saying: “You see, we all have really good reasons to be in church. So, whenever anyone asks you why you go to church, now you can tell them:
 

We come to church to learn about God, to feel His love, and to share that love with others.”


The children’s message above applies to all God’s children, young and old. We all need to be ready to defend our faith.

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. 2 Timothy 4:1-2(NIV)
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