Saturday, December 13, 2008

Light Steps Into The Darkness

For this "Saturday Rerun," I will take you back to something I wrote a couple of months ago. We don't get much light in the Northern Hemisphere this time of year so we try to brighten it up with Christmas lights. Originally entitled "When You're Weary, Feelin' Small," perhaps this story will help add a different illumination...

Claude Monet had the ability to paint what few others seemed to see. His ability to bring out the beauty of nature by highlighting contrasts of light, shadows and colors has helped millions open their eyes to a world they had previously missed.

I am increasingly amazed at relatively simple contrasts that make up glaring punctuations in the ministry of Jesus Christ. For instance, these two verses...

But Jesus ... didn't do many miracles there because of their hostile indifference.
Matthew 13:58 (The Message)

One day He was teaching ... and the power of the Lord was present for Him to perform healing.
Luke 5:17 (New American Standard Bible)

In other words, Jesus had the ability to "see" what others missed. The spiritual atmosphere wasn't the same everywhere he went. Light, shadows, colors. Hang with me; I'm going somewhere.

I have a friend who pastors a church in a small town on the other side of our state. In spite of his excellent education, great mind and good people skills, his church struggles. His town struggles. At times, you might even call it "hostile indifference."

In this difficult place, my friend recently made a commitment to stay. He knows there are places where the darkness isn't so prevalent. He knows he could go to a place more aware of the light of God's power. He has even wrestled recently with an unusual depression that might drive lesser faith people away.

We live in a culture where many would say to him, his church and his town: "Just start believing! Everything will get better!" If it were that easy, the Creator of Light (Colossians 1:16) could have just walked into Nazareth in Mathew 13, pushed the doubters aside and started massive miracles. But it doesn't usually work that way.

On the canvas of life, darkness gains prominence a brushstroke at a time. It can take years to fully envelope a place. It can take years of light to push it away.

That's what my friend is doing.

Friday, December 12, 2008

All You Want For Christmas...

...I hope!

What do you get for the person who has everything. Or, more likely, what do you get for the person who has everything but things you can't afford?

I quickly compiled a list of Christmas gifts I would think about giving because each one of them means something to me. They are fairly inexpensive and one or two are kinda unique. One thing that may surprise a few of you: only one of them is a Christian gift. None are anti-Christian, but some are purely secular.

Gifts I Would Give:
1. Amazon Prime.
I probably buy more online than at retail stores. That's especially true of books and media. Because of that, I consider Amazon Prime one of the best purchases I made this year. For $79, you can purchase one year of membership. This entitles you to free 2-day shipping on most products sells. Many products can be shipped overnight for $3.99. I love it and use it all the time. If you give this as a gift, I recommend you use an Gift Card.

I use my exercise time listening to audio books on my iPod and I have found no service I prefer to Audible. Audible users can select from over 50,000 audio programs including a vast selection of books. Select a book, download it and listen to it on computer or a player. It's that easy! I have had annual membership for a number of years and listen to over 20 books a year. Once again, you can give this in the form of a gift certificate.

3. iTunes Gift Card.
This one is easy to get at almost any department store. It's also a gift that will have value for almost anyone under 40! (Or me, but I only think I'm young.)

4. Starbucks Gift Card (or anything else from there!)
Pop into any Starbucks anywhere and pick up a gift card for that person you love. If you don't love anyone, send it to me. (Just kidding -- Sorta!)

5. The Omnivore's Dilemma.
The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan may be the most fascinating non-fiction book I read this year. If you want a page-turning picture into our food supply-chain, this is it. I was totally captivated and that says a lot.

6. Consumer Reports Magazine.
No, I don't agree with all of Consumer Reports' view on politics. What I do love, however, is their unbiased view of the products and services that we interact with every day. They don't take any advertising and that means they stay fairly neutral on their reviews. By the way, we originally gave this as a gift to our son-in-law The Engineer and that's how I discovered that I wanted a subscription for myself.

7. One Year Bible.
For those of you who follow Christ, or those who are considering it, The One Year Bible NLT (One Year Bible: New Living Translation) is a simple plan that takes you daily through passages in the Old Testament and the New Testament, in addition to daily passages from Psalms and Proverbs. I have used this Bible Plan almost every year for over 20 years. It can be accessed online via computer or mobile web. There's an online community to help with questions along the way. And the New Living Translation is a pretty accurate rendering of the original languages in today's American vernacular. I hope many of you might join me as I daily read through the plan next year.

That's my list. What ONE other item would you add?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Angels In The Stable

Decorating for Christmas.

That was the scene last Saturday when Cathy and I broke out all the boxes and prepared our home for the holidays. I described recently how our tree ornaments bring back the memories of decorating as a family project. The tree stayed in the box this year (sorry Becki -- it wasn't real anyway) because we will head off to see family early Christmas morning.

I still had an emotional moment, though. It came as I put together a manger scene. A very kind lady gave this set to us over 25 years ago. It was -- and is -- a treasure. This year something about it changed and I discovered I had a problem.

You see the angel hovering above the stable? That one came with the original gift. Last year, though, Cathy's mom gave us another one. What would I do with that second angel?

I placed it in several different positions and nothing seemed to work. Placing the shepherds and the Magi where each was focusing on the Babe brought the significance of the moment into focus. The thought of the creator of the universe (see Colossians 1:16) humbling Himself to become a human baby and be born in the most meager of circumstances is overwhelming.

It was deciding where to put that second angel that caused me to think about this event from their point of view. The Bible occasionally pulls back the curtains on these heavenly beings. We can see that they are created beings (So are we!). Operating in the spiritual realm, they have a much clearer view of the glory of God than we experience here on earth. We discover in Scripture that they can abandon God (and many of them did along with Lucifer). What they can't do is return from their fall.

Why? I don't know. But it's this fact that must have blown their angelic minds. They know our history. They see the mess we are making of the world. They perceive our hopelessness.

And they understood that night that God Himself was coming to earth to be born as one of us. So he could pay the necessary price for restoring our relationship with Him. The one we had broken.

I placed that second angel in the stable. Near the Christ child. The people present couldn't begin to appreciate the meaning of that moment. But I think the angels had a pretty good idea. The Baby nestled against the wood of that manger would later be nailed to the wood of a cross.

When I thought about it I wept.

I would love to hear how this impacts you.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

I Saw Detroit Kissing Santa Claus...

...underneath the Capitol dome last night.

It looks like the Big Three will get our help. Folks more learned than me are commenting on the upsides and the downsides of the deal. But it has left me wondering about something.

In the Old Testament, the Jews were commanded to treat their own people differently than they might treat others. “Do not charge interest on the loans you make to a fellow Israelite... You may charge interest to foreigners..." (Deuteronomy 23:19-20 NLT)

The same can be said of the New Testament. More lifestyle than law, it is described: "And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need. (Acts 2:44-45 NLT)

You, I believe, understand this principle. "There's nothing wrong with a little nepotism," the old saying goes, "as long as you keep it in the family." We expect people to treat their own differently.

Boston Becki told me about buying sunglasses from a street vendor at the Common. "How much," she asked. "15 bucks for two pair, $10 for one." Becki countered, "I just need one pair. I'll give you $8." When he hesitated, she said, "Look I'm local -- not a tourist. If you don't sell them to me, someone else will." The local girl scored the deal.

A friend told me long ago that he was uncomfortable charging interest to another Christian. He had a unique way of handling it. He said that some people need the personal incentive to repay what they owe. He would float them a personal loan at a fair interest rate. Then surprise them by returning the interest when they paid him back according to agreement.

Which brings me back to our friends in the auto business? I had the rare privilege to deal directly with the owner of a new car dealership many years ago. He showed me two new cars on his lot. Both of them were unsold, previous year models. Both, he thought, would fit my budget. Because I pastored one of his managers, he treated me like family. He told me exactly how much he paid the maker for the car and exactly how much they were rebating him since it hadn't sold last year. Then he told me exactly how much profit he needed to make to break even on his expenses, offering to sell to me at that price. I ended up buying a late model used car from him instead, but I will always appreciate the gesture.

As taxpayers, it seems to me that we will all own part of the automakers. It's our tax dollars that may bail them out. Soooo, what if you go car shopping, find the car you want, and receive total disclosure on every item making up the sales price? There would be no "wiggle room," no haggling. They simply give you the lowest price they can afford to sell the car for.

After all, from now on we're "family."

How do you like my plan?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Silent Night, Snowy Night

Christmas night. 34 years ago.

How do I remember? Our son was a tiny baby. Cathy and I had moved to the West Coast and had flown back to New Mexico for Christmas. We both grew up in the same state. On different planets. But that's another story about how Clovis (her hometown) is more like Texas, ya'll. Socorro (my hometown) is more like, uh, New Mexico.

Those towns are 250 miles apart. No wonder we had to move to Arizona to meet in college.

We flew into Albuquerque for the holiday. My parents lent us their late model Ford, and we drove to the eastern edge of the state to spend a few days with Cathy's family.

We enjoyed a huge Christmas dinner (that's a noontime meal in our part of the world, folks). Loaded into the car with baby Sean napping, we took off for the 5 hour drive to my parents'.

A few hours later, as darkness fell and with about 90 miles of highway in front of us, snow started falling. We kept driving, noting the gathering white stuff on the roadside, but with the warm asphalt just a little damp.

We were making good time on that two-lane highway and had high hopes of escaping the snow when we descended from high plains into the Rio Grande valley. By the time we reached the last town of any size -- still about 65 miles from our destination -- the snow was becoming thick slush on the road.

You know cell phones? They weren't even in Gene Roddenberry's imagination back then. I stopped at a pay phone right next to a tiny Motel and dialed long distance to my folks. I asked if we should just get a room for the night. Dad said it wasn't snowing there and we'd probably drive right out of it. Besides, if we didn't arrive within two hours, he would come and find us. We got back on the road.

Cars were few in number to begin with that Christmas night and they kept turning back in the ever-deepening snow. Finally, as we rounded the last bend before the road straightened and gradually descended into the valley, an old service station offered a beacon of hope. The car in front of us pulled in and nestled next to all the others finding shelter there.

Cathy begged me to stop. But my dad had told me to come so I doggedly kept moving. We soon realized that we were all alone on the highway and it was almost 20 miles to the Interstate.

By this time the road was but a white ribbon and the snow was falling so fast I could hardly see out the windshield. Every mile was marked by a small reflector on a pole. The brightness of the night helped me keep my bearings until I could see the reflection of my headlights off in the distance.

We counted the miles as we drove down the middle of that highway. We prayed.

And somehow we made it.

The snow was heavy the entire journey. When we arrived, my dad said, "I had no idea when you called what this storm was becoming. If I had known, I would have had you get a room and wait."

Many Christmases have now filled the memory books of our lives. None felt quite as frightening and treacherous as that silent, snowy night.

Have you had a Christmas scare? Care to share it?

Monday, December 8, 2008

Angels We Have Heard

My friend Marty was with the angels this weekend.

You see, the Hells Angels came to town on a charity ride. That's right. Charity. They came to support an organization that helps seriously ill children. I already know what some of you are thinking, so read on.

Marty is a manager at the local Harley dealer. He's also a serious follower of Jesus Christ. For both reasons, he involved himself in this event.

And he caught heat. More heat than you get from motorcycle exhaust. You see, other Christian bikers thought that Marty shouldn't be hanging around with Hells Angels. Not even for a charity event.

Not even to tell them whenever he could how he used to be. Until Jesus changed his life. Reminds me of something that happened a long time ago...

16 But when the teachers of religious law who were Pharisees saw him eating with tax collectors and other sinners, they asked his disciples, “Why does he eat with such scum?”
17 When Jesus heard this, he told them, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.” (Mark 2:16-17 NLT)

Confession time. Most of my adult life, I would have been more comfortable among Marty's critics than with Marty and the angels. I'm changing, though. I don't condone the Hells Angels lifestyle. But I'm convinced that Jesus would have had no problem spending time with them this weekend.

How do you see it?

Sunday, December 7, 2008

O Little Town...

It only made sense. I mean, what was a hungry 17-year-old to do?

So I did it. Repeatedly! On most of those early mornings -- often stopping once or twice on the way into town to re-scrape the frost off the windows -- I flew into the radio station barely in time to "act awake" for the morning show.

Our upbeat, "middle of the road" breakfast format lent itself to what I wanted to do. You see, I was starved! And La Fiesta Bakery was just across the street. And the donuts were hot out of the oven about a half hour after I arrived at work.

And, did I mention I was hungry? Soooo, my morning routine included an LP on the turntable at that certain time. Then a mad dash across the street. Then that heavenly aroma. Finally, the fresh cup of coffee and 3 (count 'em: three!) piping hot glazed donuts.

Breakfast of champions!

When it came to atmosphere, La Fiesta wasn't much. Located in a rundown old (adobe?) building, It might have had a small counter area with a few stools for customers. It wasn't the kind of place where you'd go, plug in your computer and sit around for a couple of hours to the sounds of smooth jazz. Even the smell of fresh bread, cookies, cakes, donuts, pies -- are you salivating? -- couldn't cause a desire to just park yourself there.

Today is the second Sunday of Advent. The story is about Bethlehem. The theme is humility. Literally, the name "Bethlehem" means "House of Bread." To you and me, that sounds like "bakery."

Jesus was the King born in a bakery. Even then, He arrived in places considered insignificant.

That gives me hope.

How about you?