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Sunday, December 30, 2018

Make a Choice this New Year


Many people like to celebrate the arrival of New Year’s Day with resolutions for the coming year, seeing the holiday as a time for a fresh start, a second chance, or simply a motivator to start something new. That can be a great thing, or it can be setting oneself up for another year of frustration at unfulfilled hopes and plans.  Either way, the idea of looking forward to possibilities and move ahead to something fresh with optimism is a positive asset to have.  But those are changes that we choose.  

What about the changes we do NOT choose, but are thrust upon us?

People going through divorce find themselves in this situation, certainly.  Even if they are the ones who filed for divorce, that was not what their preference would have been when they stood before an altar making vows “till death do us part,” but instead found that life had gone in a different direction, and they now find themselves making a choice they wished they never had to make. Other people in divorce find that they face a new year all alone, having been abandoned or rejected by the person they had expected to be with them for the rest of their lives.  In either case, this new year will be a significant change in their lives.

Others approach a new year with other kinds of change brought upon them by life.  Some may have lost their jobs, and face a search for something different, or may have had to adjust their lifestyle due to having accepted a lower paying position. Some will start this new year in a different community, as their job, natural disaster or family situation forced a move.  Some will face a new year of unfamiliar and scary medical procedures, having recently discovered a condition that requires treatment.  Some may find themselves faced with the need to care for aging parents who need their help, and so their time and plans have to be adjusted accordingly. Some will experience difficulties with their children that create awkward situations, such as a child who has gotten entangled with drugs and the law, or a child whose financial irresponsibility requires ongoing bailouts or perhaps even a move back home.  

Many of these things can come about through choices we select, but many come because of the choices of others, the economic climate, or simply one of the many of the realities of life.  It is fun to face the new year with plans and dreams that we have created.  It is another thing when we are forced into places we did not wish to go.  Or is it?

To cope on a daily basis, we maintain a sense of control about our lives that is, in many ways, an illusion.  For example, I have known many people who are “health conscious” in their diets and workouts, who still end up facing unexpected illness. I have known others who worked hard in life and were frugal in planning for their future, only to have it taken away when their pension disappeared due to the actions of others, or who lost their homes when the market went crazy into a downturn and their mortgage became unaffordable.  Even the fact that we have clean water or electricity in our homes is, apart from paying the bills, beyond our control.

We get excited about choices and plans when WE make them…imagining the possibilities and placing our hope in a better day. But we generally don’t feel the same when the choices are forced upon us.  And yet, WHY NOT?  Just because the changes aren’t ones that we create ourselves, does that mean the change doesn’t bring with it the possibility of something fresh, something good?  While the change may not be everything we hoped for, are any of us really so omniscient that we actually know what is best in every situation, or what all the possibilities are in any given scenario?  What if, instead of only being optimistic about changes WE choose, we instead make the choice to be optimistic no matter why changes come into our lives?  Sort of like the old silly adage of “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”  Maybe the adage isn’t so silly after all.  

As you face the coming year, with hopes and plans you have created, as well as some that you would never have expected or chosen, I invite you to face them all with optimism and hope.  There is always something to learn, always opportunity for something meaningful in even the hardest of circumstances.  That was proven by people like Victor Fankl and Corrie ten Boom and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who found meaning and power even in the hell of German concentration camps.  

We can’t always choose the things that come into our life.  But we can always choose our attitude as we face them.  And for those of us who know Christ, we can face those changes unwanted by us with the knowledge that God is working a plan, even if it isn’t the one we expected, and God’s promise is that his plans are always for our ultimate good. 

Perhaps a good New Year’s resolution might be to live each day reminding yourself of that beloved verse Romans 8:28---

“And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” (NASB)

Choose to have a Happy New Year, knowing that God is in charge, and he DOES know what he is doing, even when we don’t!.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Choosing Joy at Christmas


The Christmas season is one that is filled with calls to rejoice, and to sing carols like, “Joy to the World!”  As you saw in the last blog, though, for some individuals, it may feel anything BUT joyful!  From the beginning joy is central to the Nativity, perhaps expressed best in the angel’s call of Luke 2:10--

 “ But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Luke 2:10-11 (NASB)

That is a wonderful sounding ideal, but is it realistic for those who, perhaps through no choice of their own, are finding themselves facing a “Blue Christmas” this year?  Or could it be that joy is to be found and expressed, even in the bluest times of our lives?  When Jesus grew up, he made a point to tell us that the very words he spoke to us, and the prayers he answers are designed to give us not just joy, but joy made full! How is that relevant when everything in life seems to conspire to take all the joy out of living?

Paul picked up on the same concept of joy, issuing to us a charge to live in joy always.  Here are a couple of references that say this:  

Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”  –1 Thessalonians 5:16-18  (NASB)

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!”  --Philippians 4:4  (NASB)

Notice that he doesn’t describe joy as something we passively receive in life.  Rather, he indicates that we have a choice in the matter, that we choose to rejoice, to express joy, to live in joy, to focus on joy, to share joy, and he says it is something we are to do ALWAYS!  Obviously, he doesn’t have a clue about how hard life can be sometimes, and how much these things can get you down, right?  Wrong.  When Paul wrote the Philippians verse, he was sitting in a Roman prison under arrest, soon to be facing execution.  He expresses in his writings that he had suffered beatings, rejection, imprisonments and shipwrecks, poverty and almost anything else life can throw at us, and yet he continues to admonish us to rejoice!

Let’s go back to where we started.  Christmas from the very beginning was designed as a cause for great joy.  Why? Because the Son of God has come to earth to dwell with us and to teach us the ways of God and to give his life as our Savior so that we could be set free from sin and its penalty.  No matter what comes into our lives, no matter what reversals we experience, the facts of the coming of Christ and the purchase of salvation never change.  That is the cause of joy, that is the source of joy, that is the constant in life for which we are called to always rejoice.   Jesus addressed this same issue after sending his disciples out to do ministry on his behalf, and when they bring their report of all the great things that happened as they went, Jesus words to them were:

“Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven.”  --Luke 10:20  (NASB)

You see, Jesus is describing the key to joy in life, the joy that remains no matter how much life changes, no matter how many difficult and discouraging experiences come our way.  The disciples came back joyful and excited about all the things they had seen God do, including their experience of authority of evil spirits just as Jesus had been doing.  But Jesus challenged them to adjust their focus, to not rejoice on the things here on earth that are so subject to change and variation, but to rejoice that their names are on the rolls of heaven.  If you are letting the blues get you down too much, perhaps you, too, are focusing on the wrong things as your source of joy.

When we give our lives to Christ, accept him as our Savior and the forgiveness he offers through his sacrifice on the cross for our sin, that is the day our names are written on those heavenly records in permanent ink!  Our health may change, our relationships may change, our circumstances may change, all of which can affect our emotional state, turning our happiness into sorrow or worry.  But our joy is not based on any of the changing things of earth.  Our joy is based on the fact that our names are written in heaven.  When things are hard, remember that promise.  When everything seems to work against you, remember that you have One who is for you in all eternity.  When you despair of life here, remember that it is but a breath of time compared to the real and beautiful life that awaits there.  Our emotions can affect our attitudes and our outlook and our energy…but they have nothing to do with the joy that we can count on as we rejoice that our names are written by our Savior on his palm forever.  

No matter what you face, happy times and sad times, times of prosperity and times of need, times of comfort and times of adversity, don’t let those things distract you from your real source of joy. Remember the angel’s call to the shepherds, which is also God’s call to you and to me today:

“ But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Luke 2:10-11 (NASB)

And then, go about your daily life and rejoice!

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Is it Really a Time to Celebrate?


This year, at my church, we will be hosting a “Blue Christmas Vespers Service,” designed for individuals who, instead of looking forward to Christmas with joy, are doing so with a deep sense of dread and sadness.  For some of my readers, this will be the first Christmas post-divorce.  That means money may be very tight.  It may mean that they will be with their children only a portion of Christmas, as the children are shared between parents.  For some it will mean spending what is supposed to be such a joyful holiday all alone, shedding tears of loneliness.  

Others are dreading Christmas for other reasons. Perhaps a spouse or loved one passed away in the last year, and so this is the first Christmas without that person. Others will have lost their job, or, for those folks out in California, some will have lost their homes and their possessions.  Some will be dreading the holiday simply for the reason that family members are not going to be able to come home, and so it will be a holiday all alone.  Others are just struggling financially, and wrestle with the fact that they don’t have the wherewithal to purchase the gifts they would like this year.  And there are those who are the ones who have been displaced, serving in the military overseas, or far away for educational or work reasons, who are going to spend the holiday away from family and home. 

I visited briefly with a gentleman one day, whose spouse has recently entered a care facility for people with Alzheimer’s disease…and just talking about the upcoming Christmas was difficult for him. 

 As everyone else is singing “Joy to the World” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” what are these individuals to do?  

As I have been working on the preparations for the service, one of the things that has really struck me is that even the first Christmas was not all jolly and merriment.  After all, Mary and Joseph were themselves displaced for the purpose of taxation…and who in their right mind would be joyful about that?!?  When they got to the village, they weren’t even able to stay in a proper facility, but had to be out with the animals in a manger (no advance reservations or Presidential suites for them!).  And, of course, as we all have been reminded by our mothers and wives at some point or another, even the birthing of the baby Jesus involved the pains of labor.  Sure, that anguish tends to be replaced by the joy of having a newborn child, but that doesn’t diminish the pain gone through to get there.  

But most of all, I am somewhat haunted by the portion of the story found in Matthew 2:

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and 
he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. 

  Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:

 “A voice was heard in Ramah,

    weeping and loud lamentation,

Rachel weeping for her children;

    she refused to be comforted, 

because they are no more.”   (ESV)

Our world is filled not just with joy and celebrations, but also with sorrow and pain, suffering and hardship.  It always has been.  And that is true of the first Christmas as well.  The story of Immanuel, “God with us” includes the fact that, from the very beginning, in Christ, God was with us in the midst of our sorrow and sadness, not as an escape artist far removed from it.  What anguish there must have been in Bethlehem as day after day, funerals were held for those poor little children so viciously attacked.  How the mothers and fathers eyes must have been red with tears and their nights filled with troubled sleep.  And yet…

And yet, even in the midst of this awful tragedy, Jesus was present on earth, beginning the life that would one day redeem us and lift us above all the weights of this world.  The Spirit of God has been sent forth to those who believe, so that no matter what hardships we suffer and face, we know that we are never alone…Immanuel:  God is with us.  In the months after my divorce, when the house felt so empty and loneliness was overwhelming, a wise friend reminded me more than once that though I may be very lonely, I was never truly alone.

In the story of YOUR Christmas this year, there may also be a mixture of angelic rejoicing and tearful anguish.  It is the way of this world.  It was there when Christmas began, and it will continue to be in one form or another until the day when God calls it all to an end, and personally wipes every tear from our eyes.  Take comfort in knowing that it wasn’t into some storybook fairy tale world that Jesus came, but into the world in which you and I live…the world filled with joy and hurt and kindness and hatred and acceptance and racism…God has entered into the world as it is, and invites us to walk with him through whatever that life may bring, so that we may find meaning and hope no matter what comes. 

As you journey toward Christmas, may you always remember that you never need to journey alone.  

Immanuel—God is with you.