The Gift of New Beginnings

When you hear certain names, the first thing that you think of isn’t good. What comes to your mind when you hear these names? O.J. Simpson. Casey Anthony. Immediately you think of the word murder. We barely remember O.J.’s football career, and we literally don’t know anything else about Casey’s life.

What they did was terrible—I’m not denying that—but I have always felt a little bit sorry for those whose people whose entire life has been reduced to the worst thing they ever did.

Dive into your memory for a moment. What is the worst thing that you’ve ever thought or done? What would your life be like if, when people heard your name, they only mentioned the worst thing you ever did?

I know that some acts of evil are so heinous that it is hard to see anything besides that wickedness, but I believe very few people (if any) are pure evil in the flesh. There is some sliver of good in all of us.

One of the things I love about the new year is the new start it gives us. Teachers like to remind students on the first day of the semester that everybody still has an A. It’s nice to get to start over in a new classroom with a new teacher and a clean slate.

There are people in our lives who could really use a restart.  When we think of their names, we think of how they treated us years ago. Sometimes we’re holding decades-old mistakes over their heads or nursing unending grudges. This new year, would you consider giving someone else a fresh start? Take a step towards reconciliation and forgiveness. See if it isn’t possible to give to others what God has given you. His mercies are new every morning!

The Gift of Joy

The world is filled with joy-stealers. If you gave them a $100 bill, they’d be disappointed that it wasn’t five twenties instead and tell you how much more the dollar was worth when they were kids.

They criticize, complain, and find the fault in anything. The Bible says that we should “rejoice with those who rejoice” and “weep with those who weep,” but they get it backwards. If you’re sorrowful, they’re lecturing you on why you should have a better outlook. If you’re celebrating, they’ll rain on your parade. They don’t empathize; they condescend.

These Grinches often hide behind masks of piety or religion, but their actions don’t reflect any biblical definition of Christianity.

True religion certainly has somber times of reflection on weighty matters, but don’t let the joy stealers neglect the myriad celebrations of scripture. When you read the book of Leviticus, you’ll encounter feast day after feast day celebrating what God has done and is going to do. The Holy Spirit produces joy in his hosts, and Paul commanded a fighting church to knock it off and rejoice—more than once.

Isn’t it interesting that false teachers in scripture are not chastised for celebrating too much, but rather as “grumblers” and “malcontents” in Jude 1:16?

Some churches act like joy is a vice. I wonder if the water in their baptisteries was replaced with lemon juice? Maybe that would explain the sour expressions. If you blindfolded a person and dropped them in a room, they might have trouble distinguishing between some funeral home and some worship assemblies. Isn’t that tragic?

People who are in Jesus have been rescued from disaster and given new life—abundant life! “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again, I say, rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4). If you’re happy and you know it, then your face should surely show it. Don’t rob your family and your church of the gift of joy.

The Gift of Peacemakers

Some of us really dreaded Thanksgiving Dinner because we knew what would happen once the conversation turned to politics. Your uncle is on the other side of the aisle, and he just can’t keep his mouth shut. Your sister takes the bait and jumps on hi m, and before you’ve even finished the stuffing, World War III has erupted.

As you survey the damage to the turkey and the family, there’s no doubt that Jesus’ words are true: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9)

Too many in our society are so focused on winning the argument that they can’t see the collateral damage of the war. They have won the battle but lost the war. Their desire to be right has caused them to be wrong. Civil discourse devolves into civil war.

It doesn’t have to be this way!

If we remember those words of Jesus, we can be agents of peace in the world. We don’t have to attend every fight we’re invited to. We understand that yes, we are entitled to our opinions, but no, we are not obligated to share them.

Hebrews 12:14 says, “Strive for peace with everyone.” Yes, even him.

Romans 12:18 says, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”

Yes, there are some people who are impossible to get along with, make sure that you aren’t that person. Here’s a sign: if everyone in your life likes drama, it’s probably not them, but you!

Peacemakers reduce anxiety and increase comfort. Very little productive happens when we yell, but amazing things happen when we talk—and listen. It might be too late to rescue this year’s thanksgiving dinner, but it’s not too late for Christmas. You can be the one who diffuses the bomb and makes a better day for everyone.

The Gift of Holy Ambition

What are the most important things in the world? My list looks something like this:

  1. My God. The One who created and sustains the universe, who loves me and molds me into his image, who forgives me and is always present with me.
  2. My family. Leslie, Caleb, Katie. My parents and in-laws. My siblings. My extended family.
  3. My friends. The people I share meals with and games with and ride motorcycles with and enjoy life with.
  4. My work. The job that I get to do and all the things that come along with it, including preparing to do it better.

I bet your list looks like my list. These are the things that matter most. Here’s my question this week: do we live our lives in a way that demonstrates our priorities?

People with Passion can Change the World for the Better

If I tell you that my family is important, but I never spend time with them because I’m always at work, you can see that something is out of balance. My actions have communicated that, in reality, they are less important than my job. If I tell you that my job is important, but I work half-heartedly and put in the bare minimum to get by, my actions say that my job is not that important. If I say that I’m a Christian but rarely do the “things” of Christianity—pray, worship, study, serve—my actions suggest that my faith really isn’t that important.

One of the best gifts that we can give ourselves and our families is the gift of holy ambition. Holy ambition is having a good and healthy desire for the things that matter most. Have you communicated to your family that your faith really matters? Are you passionate for the kingdom?

It’s so easy to get our priorities wrong.

We might work and play too hard all week long, then we find ourselves with a case of “Sunday Sickness” – that strange malady that strikes around 9am Sunday morning and miraculously clears up by 1 or 2 that afternoon.

We always can find a way to buy our next toy, but we’re always putting off giving to help others to next week.

We would never dare miss a practice for our sports team, but we wouldn’t bat an eye over skipping dinner with our kids or a study with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Jesus said to seek first the kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33).

Paul said, “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit” (Romans 12:11).

These are pictures of holy ambition—a desire to live passionately for all of the things that matter most. Give yourself and your family the gift of living for the things that matter most.

The Gift of Contentment

Some people are never satisfied. Their waitresses never do a good enough job. They always see the newer car and newer toy. Their kids’ coaches never coach quite right. At work, they are always underpaid, overworked, and overextended. They are tired and in debt, but they still haven’t quite kept up with the Joneses. They are never satisfied, and they’re not a ton of fun to be around, either.

One of the best gifts we can give ourselves and our families is the gift of contentment. Contentment isn’t the normal way of life—it’s way better than that! Desire and greed are monsters that are never satisfied. Proverbs calls them leeches who cry “give, give” (Proverbs 30:15). “Never satisfied are the eyes of man” (Proverbs 27:20).

Contentment is the ability to be at peace regardless of the circumstances around us. Contentment doesn’t pretend that things are perfect; it is the choice to be happy now instead of waiting for a perfect world to magically appear.

Paul said, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” (Philippians 4:11). Isn’t it interesting that Paul had to learn that skill? He told Timothy that “there is great gain in godliness with contentment” (1 Timothy 6:6-11) because all of our material circumstances can and do change.

Nurturing the virtue of contentment will make you happier and more pleasant to be around. It will make life’s difficult days a little bit easier, and will make your life a testimony to the peace that comes from knowing Jesus.

Society tells you that if your circumstances change, you’ll be happy. Contentment reminds us that the path to true happiness is in the heart. Will you make the choice to be content?

The Gift of Consistency

consistency_quoteBetween now and Christmas, we’ll use this space to think about some of the non-tangible gifts we can give our families.

“Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:9)

Slow and steady wins the race. The hare is more fun to watch, but the tortoise brings home the prize. Real progress in most important areas of life is made incrementally through the slow and steady work of consistency.

If you want to get healthier, there’s not an instant fix. Improvement requires healthy choices repeated consistently over time. If you want to learn a language, there’s no way to cram it in your brain overnight. It takes learning and repetition over the long haul. If you want to develop a skill, practice makes perfect. One study suggests that ten thousand hours of practice is the likely requirement for true mastery of most subjects.

Consistency is one of the best gifts you can give yourself or your family. Children thrive in homes with consistent discipline; they learn what to expect and how you will respond. Your friends appreciate it when you are a consistent person.

Very little of value develops sporadically and spontaneously. Christian spiritual formation doesn’t happen automatically after years of sporadic church attendance. It happens when a person makes a habit of intentionally following Jesus.

being-consistentNietzsche said, “there should be a long obedience in the same direction; there results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.” Paul said, “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:58).

Finding the Perfect Gift

blackfridayshoppersBlack Friday marks the beginning of the Christmas shopping craze. Americans will spend nearly $500 billion on gifts for friends and family this holiday season. There’s no way to begin to total the number of hours spent examining store shelves and browsing online sites trying to find the perfect gift. The gift exchange is an engrained part of our cultural identity. If we don’t overextend ourselves, it can be a wonderful way to celebrate and bring joy to those we love.

I want to remind you of something that you already know: some of life’s most important gifts cannot be found on a store shelf. This holiday season, I hope you’ll remember some of the things that matter most.

What spiritual gifts are you giving your family? Don’t take me too literally here; I’m not asking if you’ve bought a Bible for everyone in your family. I’m asking if you’re investing in them, not just buying junk for them. Remember that Jesus said we should lay up treasures in heaven, not just on earth (Matthew 6:19-20). Perhaps as we shop for Christmas gifts, we could think about the other kinds of gifts we leave our families.

Have you given your children the gift of a Christian father? Not just a guy who shows up to church, but who is truly a follower of Jesus? Have you given the spouse the gift of your presence? You have chosen to intentionally spend time with her, paying attention to her and turning off the TV and the phone. Have you invested in creating experiences and memories and opportunities to grow as a family or with your friends? Or are you just going to buy another iPad?

I love my toys—but the gifts that will last are the eternal ones. As you shop for fun Christmas gifts, don’t forget to spend some time searching for ways to give spiritual gifts, too.

Bible Memory Challenge

memorychallengeSo many useless things vie for the limited space in our brains. Our minds are constantly bombarded with messages of fear or pleasure or inanity that simply doesn’t deserve the space we give them in our brain. Why not try to fight back by making room for some truly important ideas? Here are seven passages that I wish every Christian had buried in their hearts and minds. Try memorizing one each day this week.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” (Proverbs 3:5-6)

“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:33)

“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22-23)

“for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” (2 Timothy 1:7)

“No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13)

What passages would you add?

Brace Yourselves: Election Day is Coming

54502273“Democracy,” according to Winston Churchill, “is the worst form of government. Except for all the others.”

The fundamental flaw with democracy is the fundamental flaw of all the other government systems we’ve come up with: human beings are running the place. If you haven’t read your Bible lately, human beings share a fundamental problem: we sin. We like easy things better than hard things. We play favorites and mess up justice. In all human history, there is only One who didn’t sin.

Whether you are pleased or depressed by the results Tuesday night, remember the bad news and good news. The bad news is that humanity is in no state to save itself. No politician can fix all that is wrong with us. The good news is that we don’t need a politician, because we have someone better.

John brought a message to the seven churches of Asia straight from God’s throne. His message came from “Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth” (Revelation 1:5). He might not acknowledge it, but earth’s cruelest dictator does not wield total power.  He is under authority! God alone is sovereign. Jesus alone is “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Revelation 17:14, 19:16). To him alone we bow.

Take comfort in knowing that we bow to Jesus Christ the ruler of all things. Take comfort in pledging allegiance to an incorruptible kingdom. Take time to pray for God’s blessing and guidance on our feeble attempts to rule ourselves.

Eve

saintcWhen you hear about a day that ends in “eve,” it’s a reminder that the next day is even more special. Christmas Eve is the warmup to Christmas. New Year’s Eve is the celebration of the new year that begins on the next day. Those are the only two eves that most people remember—but I’d like to remind you of a third eve that I find meaningful.

“Halloween” is a shortened version of “All Hallows Eve.” So what this “All Hallows” that gets a special day just to prepare us for it? All Hallows, better known as All Saints Day, was a feast day that began somewhere in the mid-700s AD. Remember that, Biblically speaking, everyone who is in Christ is a “saint.” During this feast, Christians would remember and celebrate the lives their brothers and sisters in Christ who had already gone on to their reward. They would especially remember and honor the memory of those who were martyred for the cause of Christ. Now it is certainly possible to go to an excess with a day like this, but the basic idea is worthy of our attention.

It would do us good to stop and remember some of the saints who have preceded us in death. Whose faith has aided your walk with God? Can you think of a person? A grandparent? A parent? A historical figure? A missionary or elder?

We ought to thank God for the legacy they left us. Their lives and sacrifices amaze us. Their faith inspires us. Their love of God and neighbor motivates us to follow in their steps. We are who we are because of who they were. Hebrews 11 encourages us to look to great men and women of faith as an example to strengthen our walk with God.

These godly men and women also remind us to think about the legacy that we will leave behind when we die. How will our life and death affect generations of Christians yet to come? All Saints Day is a great reminder to think about eternal things.

“Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on…” (Revelation 14:13)