New Year’s Resolutions

Gotta admit I’m not a big NYR kind of guy. Not bragging, not complaining, just stating the cold hard facts.

First, I’m not the most goal-driven person. Second, I don’t understand the rationale behind waiting for a couple of weeks to start something. It’s kinda like saying, “Two weeks from now, I’m going to begin eating!” Why wait? Grab a sandwich TODAY!!

Third, I’ve never heard anybody say in September: “Well, I’m in the 9th month of keeping my New Year’s resolution to ______.” Seriously. Isn’t it true that about the only time we think of–or hear about NYR is during the December-January brain solstice? My theory is that when the sun dips to its southernmost point above the horizon, it deprives our brains of the heat needed for clear thinking and common sense. By September we’ve thawed out and are enjoying the nice long siesta between one failed New Year’s resolution and the next.

OK, OK, I’m a cynic; you got me. But I’m actually a fan of “LIFE IMPROVEMENT” which I think is what NYR’s are after: heavy people start losing weight; lust addicts take a bat to the computer (a la Fireproof), screaming parents remember it’s more about consistent training than momentary compliance, couch potatoes pursue a hobby, and introverts start getting out more.

Some believers have deep reservoirs of determination and can do this all by merely setting their minds to it. Others never get beyond good intentions. Here’s something available to both: God’s grace. If there is something that you believe needs improved in your life, ask God for help. After all, He gives generously (Jas. 1:5), ultimately is our source of ability and achievement (1 Cor. 4:7), and can do more than we could ever dream (Eph. 3:20).

If there’s something that needs improved in your life, don’t wait until Tuesday to get started. Begin to cry out to God today for His grace today and tomorrow to change. And remember, God loves it when we come to Him weak; that’s when His power really gets to shine (2 Cor. 12:9).


Can we stop the next Newtown?

Twenty silent children.  Twenty sets of parents who didn’t know the goodbyes they said to their children that morning were the last ones.  Parents who in their wildest nightmares would never have imagined having to identify their bullet-riddled sons and daughters at the local morgue.  Parents, never again able to hold their first and second grade children, teach them, love them, cheer for them, help them.  This is yet another time when God’s people turn to pray for strangers.

Parents across the nation were afraid to send their children to school Monday.  Children old enough to get it, worry about the risk their teacher-parents could face on a future day.  An toxic brew of fear and fury affect citizens who have faced this before but don’t want to again.

President Obama gave voice to our outrage when he declared, “We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end.”  They must?  Of course, they won’t.  Bills will be written and voted on–probably including some new gun legislation, and school counselors will create some new initiatives that all school personnel will be trained on.  And we’ll congratulate ourselves for our diligent response and determination to fix our problems.

But all the bureaucrats in the world cannot put an end to evil.  It’s in our DNA.  I’m a hunter and not a big fan of some new gun control, but let’s say we pass some legislation that greatly reduces the likelihood that someone like Adam Lanza could get their hands on guns–or a certain kind of gun.  And let’s say that with some new training teachers are able to head off some serious stuff, maybe help some of the outsiders feel more included.

We should rejoice.  Believers should endorse what has real potential to improve–and secure–life for all of us, especially the most vulnerable.  (Which reminds me of abortion but that’s another post.) 

It’s the confidence in such efforts that’s misplaced.  Gun control and teacher awareness–maybe even police in the schools, does nothing with the mind or the heart of an Adam Lanza.  Perhaps Lanza was mentally ill.  Even if he wasn’t, invariably this is where a world blind to a human depravity that’s universal, goes for explanations.  Mentally ill or not, we do know that he was ill with sin–like us all.  And hope for this, won’t be found in Congress.  The law can only imperfectly restrain sin, it can neither end nor cure itBoth are the work of the worlds future King.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is the good news that the incarnate Son of God lived a perfect life so he could die a death for imperfect people, and has been perfectly raised to life and sits at the Father’s right hand interceding for us.  Jesus and His work is where those of us who know Him by faith, place our confidence.  While hopefully helpful, legislation, training, and a host of other “try harders” can never deal with the heart’s cancer: sin.  Only Jesus can.

Santa Claus for your children?

This morning I read a disturbing newspaper column.  The columnist is a father who is livid about those who would tell children there is no Santa Claus.  When his first grade teacher did it, he still remembers it as “…a dreadful thing to do!”  So when his 9 year-old asked him if he believes in Santa Claus, he answered, “Of course he exists.  There are so few pieces of real magic left in the world, wouldn’t it be a shame to lose this one?”  While he admitted to her that not all of the legends surrounding Santa are true–like him entering houses through chimneys, he lumped him in with the likes of Presidents Washington and Lincoln: some stories told about them are false, but they are still real people.

I have never been able to grasp why it’s good parenting to lie to our children.  Why would we then expect those same children to believe other things we say are true?  While I don‘t see it as spiritually subversive to wrap presents with Santa paper or to have electric reindeers on the lawn, let there be integrity with our children!

The following is an excerpt from Noel Piper’s book Treasuring God in our Traditions and contains much good thinking about being Christian parents when it comes to Jolly Old Saint Nick.

Over the years, we have chosen not to include Santa Claus in our Christmas stories and decorations. There are several reasons.

First, fairy tales are fun and we enjoy them, but we don’t ask our children to believe them.

Second, we want our children to understand God as fully as they’re able at whatever age they are.  So we try to avoid anything that would delay or distort that understanding.  It seems to us that celebrating with a mixture of Santa andmanger will postpone a child’s clear understanding of what the real truth of God is.  It’s very difficult for a young child to pick through a marble cake of part-truth and part-imagination to find the crumbs of reality.

Third, we think about how confusing it must be to a straight-thinking, uncritically-minded preschooler because Santa is so much like what we’re trying all year to teach our children about God.  Look, for example, at the “attributes” of Santa.

  • He’s omniscient—he sees everything you do.
  • He rewards you if you’re good.
  • He’s omnipresent—at least, he can be everywhere in one night.
  • He gives you good gifts.
  • He’s the most famous “old man in the sky” figure.

But at the deeper level that young children haven’t reached yet in their understanding, he is not like God at all.

For example, does Santa really care if we’re bad or good?  Think of the most awful kid you can remember. Did he or she ever not get gifts from Santa? 

What about Santa’s spying and then rewarding you if you’re good enough? T hat’s not the way God operates.  He gave us his gift—his Son—even though we weren’t good at all.  “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).  He gave his gift to us to make us good, not because we had proved ourselves good enough. 

Helping our children understand God as much as they’re able at whatever age they are is our primary goal.  But we’ve also seen some other encouraging effects of not including Santa in our celebration.

First, I think children are glad to realize that their parents, who live with them all year and know all the worst things about them, still show their love at Christmas.  Isn’t that more significant than a funny, old, make-believe man who drops in just once a year?

Second, I think most children know their family’s usual giving patterns for birthday and special events.  They tend to have an instinct about their family’s typical spending levels and abilities.  Knowing that their Christmas gifts come from the people they love, rather than from a bottomless sack, can help diminish the “I-want-this, give-me-that” syndrome.

And finally, when children know that God’s generosity is reflected by God’s people, it tends to encourage a sense of responsibility about helping make Christmas good for others.

Karsten, for example, worked hard on one gift in 1975.  On that Christmas morning, his daddy stepped around a large, loose-flapped cardboard box to get to his chair at the breakfast table.  “Where’s Karsten?” he asked, expecting to see our excited three-year-old raring to leap into the day.  Sitting down, I said, “He’ll be here in a minute.”

I nudged the box with my toe. From inside the carton, Karsten threw back the flaps and sprang to his full three-foot stature.  “And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.  An angel of the Lord appeared to them . . .”  He had memorized Luke 2:8-20 as a gift for his dad. Karsten knew the real story.

In fact, a few days later, he and I were walking down the hall at the church we attended then.  One of the older ladies leaned down to squeeze his pink, round cheek and asked, “What did Santa bring you?”  Karsten’s head jerked quickly toward me, and he whispered loudly, “Doesn’t she know?”

Playing volleyball in heaven

I’ve been a Washington Redskins’ fan for almost 40 years.  For the last 20, I keep a paper bag over my head when I cheer, but I cheer nonetheless.  After floundering under 21 field leaders in that time period, we finally have a bona fide quarterback in the person of Robert Griffin III.  Affectionately known as RG III, the Heisman trophy winner out of Baylor can do it all: pass, run, lead.  He has reignited a lethargic team that seemed to have become comfortable with losing.  Even after he was injured yesterday near the end of the game, the fire he’s lit under the team burned hot as they tied the Ravens at the end of regulation, then beat them in overtime.  Love it. 

I’ve never been quite sure how God feels about football, tennis, basketball, hockey–any of these these sports we love.  Some of you know that after the Pequea Valley boy’s soccer team won the state quarter-finals, my grandson urged me to pray for their next game.  “Put it on your list, Grandpa!”  I demurred because I’m not convinced who wins and loses an athletic contest is high on God’s priority list.

So I was struck by the following blog which contends that there will be athletics in heaven.  Frankly, the argument is biblically and practically compelling.  Click the link and see what you think.

Suffering 101, #3

Pessimists think every new day proves them right.  Days ago I spoke with a young man who hates his job so much that he feels ill when he arrives for work.  People in our congregation can’t find jobs.  There have been several bad traffic accidents in the community recently.  My brother-in-law has leukemia.  Parents have a daughter who won’t talk to them.  Perpetrators like Sandusky and Geyer prey on children.  As James MacDonald insists, you are either suffering, just come out of suffering, or about to suffer.

Since Adam and Eve remodeled their perfect Garden of Eden into a little house of horrors, nothing has been the same.  Yes, from sunsets to super bowls, from lovers to children and good health, life still offers much that is smileworthy.  Yet playing between commercials of happiness is a relentless daytime and nighttime lineup of dramas that stalk the planet: wars, illness, grief, drug addictions, tragedies, birth defects, poverty, broken marriages, natural disasters that kill, broken friendships, loneliness, etc.  To which different people react differently.  In previous posts we’ve discussed two ways suffering people react to their misery: throw in the towel in resignation, or get angry.

Then there are those who get depressed, who descend into a funk of despair.  I’m not talking about clinical depression which neither sufferer nor doctor can pin on circumstances, but an emotional and visceral reaction to life not going as planned.

Depression afflicts 15 million Americans over the age of 18 but that sterile stat fails to encompass the number of people who get “down” when their worlds are coming apart: discouraged, blue, see the glass half empty, doubt that things will ever get better, obsess, worry, withdraw.  It affects job, relationships, even physical health.

Some of these people are your brothers and sisters: blood-bought, justified, heaven-bound saints.  They won’t admit it even to those closest, but some are unduly eager for heaven’s future because of the escape it promises from this mean old life.  Christians, for whom life’s so bleak that prayer is hard or seemingly impossible.  Times when God’s promises ring hollow.

OK, some of these people are…, us.  I have this bent, and so do some of you.  We’re the type who are quick to catch the elevator to the ground floor when all is not well.  And anyone’s who’s been at the bottom has heard all the remedial cliches from well-meaning people:

  • Remember, there’s always someone else who has it worse than you do
  • Cheer up, it could be worse!  (that person gets annoying!)
  • Things will get better one of these days
  • God has something to teach you
  • There must be sin in your life
  • If you were really in God’s will, none of this would be happening
  • Just pray and claim God’s promises

Of course there’s some truth sunning itself in most of these statements.  Among some grievous errors.  And omissions.  Errors like the miscalculations of Job’s friends: “If you’re suffering you’ve sinned.”  Of course, every sufferer has sinned.  Isn’t that what Jesus died for?  And if it’s a truism that suffering follows sin, how about all the times when we sin but nothing bad happens as a result?

And what if tomorrow things actually get worse?  Pastors cringe when they hear suffering people say they’re banking on tomorrow getting better (we’ll delve into this reaction more in a future post) knowing there’s a good chance things will worsen.  Not just get worse before it gets better, but often it just gets worse and worse and worse.  The sick person dies.  The husband leaves.  Financial problems lead to bankruptcy; the addict goes to prison.

The most significant thing about such cliches though, is the great omission; something’s missing.  It’s the same thing that’s often missing when we’re despairing: a hope resting in Jesus.  Yes, the gospel is heaven’s hope for the dying, but it’s also today’s hope for the living.  A hope neither necessarily resigned to suffering, nor dependent upon an end to suffering for good cheer.  Put another way, because of a believer’s relationship to God through Jesus Christ, the summum bonum (highest good) is no longer things “going my way”.  In Christ we can appeal to the great Circumstance Changer, but we can also find contentment if in God’s sovereign plan life does not improve.  All because of Jesus.

When He explained in John 10:10 that He had come to give abundant life to followers, Jesus did not mean that He had come to make them rich, purge them of all sickness, guarantee them great romances, provide exotic vacations, or give them a boss who is always nice to Christians.  He did not mean puppies would never die, that the transmission would never go out, that friends would never turn on them, or that wives would always be faithful.

What He meant was that we can expect the Good Shepherd to have our best interests at heart as He fashions what comes our way.  Unlike the hired help who’s just there for the paycheck and has  little interest in the sheep, the sheep belong to the Good Shepherd.  He’s going to take care of them.  Lovingly.  Even in sorrow and disappointment.  When that doesn’t appear to be the case, God reminds us how limited is our understanding.  For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth,so are my ways higher than your waysand my thoughts than your thoughts.  (Isaiah 55:8-9)

Our disappointments are legitimate ones.  Who wants to lose a job, health, a husband, a child, even freedom?  Losses have real world consequences.  But we can’t both stare down at them and look up to God; it’s one or the other.  Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?  Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,my salvation and my God.  (Psalm 43:5)  When God means most to us, a turn for the worse has no power to kidnap our joy.

Like a healing stream, a good long look at the cross washes the inescapable truth over me that no matter how badly things go, nothing begins to approach the magnitude of my sorry condition before an innocent Savior gladly paid for me in blood.  I was an enemy of God, a child of the darkness, under God’s wrath, lost and without hope for this life or the next.  Jesus changed all that.  His work not only changes how I look at things, it changes…, things.  The world or things in it that I cherish may be slipping through my fingers, but I will never, never, never lose my soul–or a place at my Father’s table.  I will never ever be abandoned or neglected.  I won’t even have my sin thrown in my face.  Ever.  Jesus has taken it all upon his pristine shoulders.

Though the fig tree should not blossom,nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail  and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stall, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.  (Habakkuk 3:17-18)