Self-Centered Resolutions?

James Hinkle likes to say that the biggest room in anyone’s home is the room for improvement. He’s absolutely correct, and this is the time of year when we think about what we need to improve and how we might work on that. We make our resolutions to spend less, save more, eat less, exercise more, worry less, and pray more—and those are great resolutions. We need to take care of ourselves.

Here’s the thing, though: nobody is going to stand around your casket one day and say, “Man, aren’t you glad he lost those 5 pounds?” “Isn’t that awesome? He had a lot extra to retire on!”

What they will remember is how you treated them, your acts of kindness or your acts of cruelty.

I’m not suggesting that we don’t need to work on self-improvement—all of us do. If our poor self-care leads to an untimely end and puts a burden on others, our loved ones will remember and regret that.

What I am suggesting is, that if you really want to improve yourself, improve yourself in a way that improves others.

If you want to spend less and save more—do it so that you can be more generous with others.

If you want to get in better physical shape—do it so that you can be more present in the lives of your kids and grandkids and serve better in the kingdom.

If you want to worry less and pray more, do it so you can free energy and space to help other people carry their burdens.

We won’t be remembered for being a little better with our money or our health, but we’ll never be forgotten for being kinder and more present for the people around us. If you want to make a difference, make that your resolution for 2019.

A Study of Romans

We spent the last part of 2018 (and the first part of 2019) working through the great book of Romans. If you haven’t spent some time with Romans lately – you really should!

Romans teaches us that the ground is level at the foot of the cross.

It reminds us that we all stand in desperate need of God’s great kindness and grace.

It teaches us to treat each other with patience and love on the basis of the grace we have received.

It’s just good, and it’s exactly what the church needs to hear today.

If you’re interested in spending some time studying Romans, I’ve put together a study guide that we’ve used. You can find the study guide over on the church website. Enjoy!

Advent of Jesus – Love

“So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13)

The advent of Jesus becomes for us the definition of love.

“Love is from God” (1 John 4:7). God created it, or more clearly, revealed it as his divine nature. John continued to write, “God is love” (4:8). Love is so essential to the character of God that love is the first and the second commandment, and the best way to sum up pretty much everything God has ever said.

The reason we love? It came from him to start with. “We love because he first loved us.” (4:19)

Simply put, without Jesus, we wouldn’t know love. A world without God would be a world without love.

Jesus demonstrates the sheer intensity of the love of God. Don’t miss the two-letter word in the famous memory verse: For God so loved the world…God loved us so much that he gave his son. That’s an awfully big “so” for such a little word.

Jesus loves us when we are unlovable. He demonstrates God’s incredible love. He defines it with his word and with is actions. He radiates what it really means. When we celebrate the advents of Jesus, we celebrate the love of God.

Advent of Jesus – Joy

Israel had been incredibly unfaithful to God. They had forgotten his commandments and his promises, but God never forgets. So God used men like Ezra and Nehemiah and even a king named Cyrus to give Israel another chance. They began to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and the temple within it. When they read the word of the law, all of the people wept. They saw the pain and suffering their own sin brought upon them.

But after the reading was completed, Nehemiah spoke to the nation. He said, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10).

Despite all the reasons to be sad, Nehemiah promised that the joy God provides would strengthen the nation. Habakkuk said that even if everything good in his land should fail, “yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength.” (Habakkuk 3:17-19).

What causes sadness and sorrow? The things that result from sin. Pain, death, separation, and fear.

What causes joy? Being in relationship with the author of light and life and love.

God’s joy is our strength, our fuel for living, our power for righteousness. Joy is part of the Spirit’s fruit in Galatians 5.

The advent of Jesus is powerful to give us real joy for living. Jesus addressed the very real hardships the disciples (and we!) would face. “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy…So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” (John 16:20-24)

Because of Jesus, no matter what sadness we face, we are fueled by indestructible joy.

Advent of Jesus: Peace

Isaiah painted a picture of something we all want to see. “Then justice will dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness abide in the fruitful field. And the effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever” (32:16-17)

The advent of Jesus heralds the coming of an age of peace. He is “wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).

In a world of terrorism, doesn’t the advent of peace sound like good news?

In a time of division and political feuding, doesn’t the advent of peace refresh your heart?

In seasons of uncertainty and fear, doesn’t the advent of peace calm your soul?

The peace of Jesus is counter-intuitive. A disciple of Jesus enjoys peace most when the world is least peaceful. Perhaps why we call it “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, [which] will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7-9).

One of my favorite moments in the story of Jesus happened just after the resurrection. The disciples had locked themselves in a room because they were afraid. Their leader had been slaughtered. Their movement was over. Their own lives were at risk. Jesus appeared to them—the locked door bothered him no more than the sealed tomb did—and simply said, “Peace be with you” (John 20:19). The passage continues: “Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.”

The calmest day without Jesus brings no peace. A storm with Jesus has no power.

Advent of Jesus – Hope

A long time ago, Bernard of Clairvaux wrote to remind believers of the three comings (Latin: advent) of Jesus. Jesus arrived in the flesh at Bethlehem, in our hearts daily, and in glory at the end of time. In the 13th-16th centuries, the church found the tradition of celebrating his arrival in Bethlehem and anticipating his future return during this season particularly helpful.

I find this season helpful, too. As materialism and secularization continue to increase in our world, choosing to remind myself of what it means that Jesus came in the flesh becomes even more important. Society wants me to focus on gifts. Advent reminds me to think about the giver.

In the Advent tradition, there are four gifts of Jesus that are celebrated in the four weeks leading up to Christmas: hope, peace, joy, and love. Without Jesus, these words would be hollow. With him, they explode with life and power.

Because of Jesus, we have hope. Hope is very different than wish. Wish is just a desire. Hope is joyful expectation.

Before Jesus, people lived “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” (Ephesians 2:12) Now, we “rejoice in hope” (Romans 12:12) because of our union with Christ.

In a world without Jesus, there is no hope. We are slaves to our sins and desires. We fight to be one of the strong who survive. We claw to maximize our short time on this planet. Suffering is calamity and pain knows no end.

But in a world with hope, the blackest of Fridays becomes good Friday. The cemetery is no longer a death sentence; it’s just an interruption. With Jesus, we never suffer alone. We have the promise of something better on the horizon. The advent of Jesus changes our lives by giving us hope. May we live in that hope each day!

On Civility

I don’t know if our country is more divided than it has ever been. I wasn’t alive during the Civil War, so I really can’t comment on that. There is definitely a sense that we have lost our ability to have reasonable discussions about important issues.

The Bible has lots of somethings to say about that.

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a)

Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. For the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. (James 3:13-18)

More could be said – but first, these passages must be heard and lived.

Our Attitudes Towards “Our” Stuff

Jerry Bridges wrote that there are three attitudes we can have towards money and possessions.[1]

View #1: “What’s yours is mine; I will take it.”

View #2: “What’s mine is mine; I will keep it.”

Christians recognize that view number 1 is the mindset of the thief and the cheat. It runs afoul of the eighth commandment. Nobody likes a thief!

What people don’t realize is that view #2 is equally disastrous. Jesus took on view #2 in Luke 12:13-21 when he told the parable of the Rich Fool who tore down his barns to build bigger ones. His only focus was on self. View #2 becomes even more dangerous when you realize that it causes view #1. Do you remember the parable that Nathan the prophet told David about the rich man who stole his neighbor’s only lamb? He did it because he didn’t want to give up what was his. Jesus also destroys this view by reminding us to store up incorruptible treasure that thieves can’t steal and rust can’t destroy (Matthew 6:19-20). As bad as view #2 is, it is by far the most common view of money and possessions—even in the church. So what’s the Biblical view?

View #3: “What’s mine is God’s; I will share it.”

Paul told the Ephesians, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” (Ephesians 4:28)

When we recognize that everything we have is a gift from God, and we remember that everything we have is only temporary, it becomes a little easier to open our hands to those in need and be a blessing in a broken world.

 

[1] Jerry Bridges, The Discipline of Grace: God’s Role and Our Role in the Pursuit of Holiness. Page 91

The Polar Bear Devil

The polar bear is one of nature’s most formidable creatures. Biologists consider them apex predators: they are the top of their food chains. No creature sees them as prey. Put simply, you don’t want to meet an apex predator on your next camping trip.

While the polar bear is king, the walrus isn’t exactly a wimp. Their large size, thick skin, and tusks make them difficult targets even for the mighty polar bears. The walrus outweighs the polar bear and has some aquatic tricks up its sleeve that make it a less appealing dinner than many other arctic creatures.

When a polar bear decides that walrus sounds good for lunch, it rarely attacks directly. Instead, it finds a herd of them and charges aggressively. While a polar bear generally wouldn’t win a battle against a pod of walruses, the walrus doesn’t know that. When the bear attacks, the walruses panic, charge, and stampede. Generally some walruses are crushed and wounded as the others escape.

I wonder if there isn’t a lesson to be learned here. Did you know that a fire at a movie theater isn’t usually as dangerous as the evacuation to avoid it? Many have been injured in the panic who would have been safe from the fire.

The devil likely acts a lot like that polar bear. A Christian’s defensive armor is far stronger than any weapon the devil has to throw at him, so he is reduced to two main tactics: separate him from the herd, or cause the herd to panic and wound him.

Can you think of someone who got separated from the body and the devil was able to pull him or her away? Can you think of someone who was hurt by the Christians around him because they were afraid of something else?

We don’t always realize that fear and isolation have real consequences. It is no wonder that Peter wrote, “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Maybe he acts like a polar bear, too.

Cease & Desist!

After six days of creation, God “finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done.” (Genesis 2:2) God certainly wasn’t tired. He didn’t need a break. He doesn’t nap or sleep! (See Psalm 121:4). So why rest?

If he didn’t need the rest, who does? You know the answer. Unlike God, you and I need rest. This isn’t a merely biological phenomenon. The God of the Universe could have designed us in any way he saw fit, yet he chose to make us spend 25%-33% of our lives asleep. Why?

I can’t speak for God. There’s not a verse that spells it out, but I have a theory. I think God has us sleep for two reasons: sleep causes us to recognize our limits and sleep brings us pleasure.

Did you know that a driver who has been awake for a full 24 hours responds as poorly as someone whose blood alcohol is .10? One study said that teens in school who scored C’s slept thirty minutes less per night than those who made A’s. We simply can’t function without sleep. God built into the human biology a reminder that we are not omniscient and omnipotent creatures without limits. Like it or not, we have to stop eventually! Sleep is the gentle tyrant. It can be delayed, but not defeated.

God also gives us rest as a gift. You can’t beat a good night’s sleep! The clichés are true: a good conscience is the best pillow. Peace makes for good rest. Trusting in God and living right before him are the best sleeping pills on the market. Psalms 127:2 says that God gives sleep to those he loves. He watches over us.

Let’s make sure that we honor the idea that God built into us. We need sleep nightly. We need Sabbath weekly. We need holidays periodically. We need Sabbatical occasionally. God made us that way!