Advent: What are you waiting for?

In the Christian Church we have entered the season of Advent, the four weeks leading to Christmas.

At this time of year, people everywhere are busily preparing for their holiday festivities and traditions with gifts, food, special music, and decorations.

Within the church we see similar activities as our sanctuaries fill with sacred Christmas songs and colorful decorations, but the main preparations are happening within the Christian’s heart.

The word “Advent” means the arrival of a notable person, thing, or event. Advent season is a time of waiting and preparing ourselves for that arrival.

The notable thing for which we wait is the joyous celebration of Christ’s birth, a celebration of an event in the past. We prepare our hearts for this celebration by reading about Christ’s birth and life from the Bible. Focusing on how His life changed the world, and changed our own lives, gives meaning to our celebrations beyond outward holiday displays.

The notable person for whom we wait is Jesus Christ Himself and the event we long for is His return.

For Christians, Advent is a yearly reminder of God’s promise and a time to commit ourselves more deeply to a life focused on the most joyous celebration which is still to come.

Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. 10 And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, 11 who also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.”

Acts 1: 9-11 (NKJV)
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Holiday Harmony

[Updated from original posting on November 25, 2016]

The holiday season is the busiest travel time in the United States, when far-flung family members unite to get re-acquainted, catch up, reminisce, eat, and celebrate faith and traditions.  

Since few extended family members share the same viewpoint on every subject, these gatherings can lead to tensions as conflicting opinions are aired during the festivities.

Prior to Thanksgiving in the past few years, articles and commentaries have been published suggesting ways to persuade family members to your own point of view. In our family, we prefer to skirt around known areas of contention and concentrate on our common bonds of love and history to preserve family harmony.

The family of God has these same issues to deal with, and not just at holiday times. Whether between denominations or within them, you will find any number of theological disagreements, often leading to an attitude of competition or animosity between churches or even members of the same congregation.

family of god

We can choose to try to persuade those Christians who interpret the Bible differently than we do, or we can keep our relationships harmonious by remembering we are the same family. Our political or social attitudes fade into insignificance when we remember Who is the head of our family and what He has done for us.  

Surely we have more than enough family stories to share and reminisce about and more than enough points of agreement to provide loving conversations with one another.

Our shared history and the love of Jesus must be at the center of all our dealings within the family. Everything else is just a distraction.

Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.

Romans 12:10 (NIV)

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Climate change is real

Despite summit meetings and heavy media coverage, the topic of climate change remains controversial.

Geological history shows the Earth’s climate has always been cyclical, but the question remains: to what extent is modern civilization the cause of the current trends and what, if anything, can people or governments do to actually change things?:

Opinions are divided and passionate on the subject, but there is one area of climate change that is undeniable and completely within our power to impact.

For several decades our social climate has been growing rapidly coarser and less civil.

In our own homes, we can hear and see things today that would have been not only unthinkable to speak about in polite society, but actually illegal to broadcast. Constant exposure to scenes of violence, foul language, and degradation in entertainment and the news media is reflected in the way we interact with one another. Combined with the decline in support for morality and ethical standards in our institutions, the social climate has heated up to the point where there is little respect shown to anyone, including those in positions of authority whose job it is to protect us.

As Christians we are tasked with the responsibility to be salt and light in our culture. Salt to preserve God’s Word and light to show the way to Christ and His love. It would seem that we have been overwhelmed by the challenges we face, but have we given up?

Like ripples in a pond, when we make Christ’s influence felt in our own small sphere, those ripples can join with the efforts of our fellow believers to make a powerful wave.

The first century Christians lived in an equally corrupt and pagan society and had an even more daunting task. They didn’t have our access to worldwide communications and travel, but because of their commitment and faith, they lived and proclaimed the Good News of Christ’s salvation and changed the world.

With all the tools we have, imagine what we could do to change the climate of our society today.

I believe that God is the only one who controls the weather, but each one of us can certainly control our own actions. You can make a difference and so can I.

Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations…

Matthew 28:19 (NKJV)
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Everyone’s a critic

Therefore encourage one another and build up each other…

1 Thessalonians 5:11 (NET)

In stressful times (and aren’t they all?) everyone needs encouragement.

Most often stress comes from fear. Fear of failure, fear of consequences, fear of loss. To face our fear, we need courage.

One dictionary defines the word “encourage” this way:

  1. To inspire with hope, courage, or confidence.
  2. To give support to; foster.
  3. To stimulate; spur.

In the Scripture quote above, the Apostle Paul writes to the believers in Thessalonica telling them to encourage one another. As Christians in the early church, in a mostly pagan culture, they were facing many challenges and needed all the hope, courage, and confidence they could get, just as we do today.

In the world of social media, encouragement may be hard to find. We seem to feel compelled to comment on everything we read, and those comments are almost always critical. Some people even make hurtful, inflammatory remarks in order to get a reaction. They seldom consider the feelings of the targets of their criticism.

Christians are instructed to love our neighbors and even treat our enemies with kindness, so how are we to respond with encouragement and even love to people or social media posts we disagree with?

Many of us are familiar with the saying, “If you can’t say something nice, just don’t say anything at all.” That may be an old-fashioned adage, but there is wisdom in those words. Silence can be a powerful rebuke to someone expecting agreement or praise. If you think a response is absolutely required, then choose your words carefully. “I don’t believe that is true,” or, “I don’t agree,” let you record your disagreement without making a personal attack.

When a toddler presents his first artistic efforts, a caring parent searches for something encouraging to say. Rather than, “What is this mess of scribbles supposed to be?” We say, “I like those colors, tell me about it,” to spare the child’s sensitive feelings. We make an effort to find something positive to say.

Everyone has an inner child whose feelings are easily hurt by harsh criticism. Making a casual, cutting remark may make us feel clever, but the person on the receiving end of our wit may be devastated.

We can foster a climate of civility, stimulate respect, and inspire hope and courage by taking the time to carefully consider our words, both spoken in person and posted on social media.

…“I will guard my ways,
Lest I sin with my tongue;
I will restrain my mouth with a muzzle,
While the wicked are before me.”

Psalm 39:1 (NKJV)
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Cavalry or Calvary?

Each night I do some physical stretches and then read a few chapters in the Book of Psalms to work out the kinks and stresses of the day before going to sleep.

I love the rhythm and poetry of the earlier translations of the Psalms, but I sometimes find them difficult to understand, so I also read them in the New English Translation which puts the original language into modern words. However, even when reading them in plain English, I have trouble identifying with King David’s comments about his struggles with enemies. I don’t feel like I have any real enemies. I’ve certainly never had to flee for my life from those wishing to do me harm as he did. Only when I realize that his words apply equally to the spiritual battles we all face can I begin to put myself into his situations.

Growing up hearing the King James Version, the words of Psalm 121:1, “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help,” didn’t sound like a question. As a child, I watched TV shows of the Old West, where when the heroes were in the most dire straits, a bugle rang out and the cavalry soldiers appeared just in the nick of time. So it was only natural that when reading or hearing this Psalm, I would imagine a troop of soldiers from Fort Apache thundering down the slopes to King David’s aid.

Reading and studying later Bible translations, I realized my error. The psalm referred to the futility of looking to the mountains for salvation when all our hope is in the Lord. While pioneers of the Old West often relied on the cavalry to protect them, physically, because of Calvary we can have eternal salvation in this very day.

While the cavalry are mounted soldiers, Calvary refers to Golgotha, the site of Christ’s crucifixion.

I’ve learned when I’m struggling and feel like I’m in dire straits, I don’t need to hope for the cavalry to come to my rescue because I’ve already received salvation at Calvary.

 I look up toward the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
the Creator of heaven and earth.

Psalm 121 (NET)

It’s so easy to get the words “cavalry” and “Calvary” confused. One way is to remember the words of that old hymn, by William R. Newell, “At Calvary”:

Years I spent in vanity and pride,
Caring not my Lord was crucified,
Knowing not it was for me He died
On Calvary.

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Time to power up

When I began this blog back in 2008, I called it Power Walking with Jonna because at the time fast-paced daily walks were a big part of my fitness regimen and because I knew that the only way to face the challenges of each new day is in God’s power.

Today the challenges we face call for tapping into that power more than ever.

We receive power through the Holy Spirit.

 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth.

Acts 1:8 (NET)

When overcome by fear, confusion, or discouragement, how do we draw on that power to face our challenges? A first step is to calm the mind and heart by remembering all the blessings and joys we have received in the past and continue to receive even amid the present crisis. Then we can call out to God in prayer with thanksgiving and confidence in His love.

Always rejoice, constantly pray, in everything give thanks. For this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (NET)

The next step to take to increase access to overcoming power is to turn to God’s true and living Word.

For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any double-edged sword, piercing even to the point of dividing soul from spirit, and joints from marrow; it is able to judge the desires and thoughts of the heart.

Hebrews 4:12 (NET)

The more deeply we study God’s Word, the greater will be our resilience and strength in the face of hardship.

Finally, be strengthened in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11 Clothe yourselves with the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens. 13 For this reason, take up the full armor of God so that you may be able to stand your ground on the evil day, and having done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm therefore, by fastening the belt of truth around your waist, by putting on the breastplate of righteousness, 15 by fitting your feet with the preparation that comes from the good news of peace,16 and in all of this, by taking up the shield of faith with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 And take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit (which is the word of God)18 With every prayer and petition, pray at all times in the Spirit, and to this end be alert, with all perseverance and petitions for all the saints.

Ephesians 6:10-18 (NET)

When my sons were small, they watched a TV show called Power Rangers. This group of costumed heroes went about saving the good guys from evil. At the moment of greatest peril, they faced the enemy with the call, “Power up, Power Rangers!”

I think it is time for all of us believers to join the battle and power up.

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Halloween Revisited, once again.

Halloween is a controversial holiday for many Christians. Feelings about this holiday range all the way from fear and loathing of its satanic overtones to glee at the idea of candy, costumes, and fond childhood memories.

Anyone who has done any research into Halloween’s origins realizes it has roots in paganism and superstition, if not outright devil worship and witchcraft. However, by the time my own childhood Halloweens arrived, all this day meant to me and my peers was one special time when we could set aside our everyday selves and step out of some of life’s rules and routines.

We could wear different clothes and pretend to be another person entirely. Children who were taught never to ask for treats were encouraged to become mini-extortionists, going door-to-door threatening dire tricks if we weren’t paid off in candy and homemade goodies… and folks greeted us with smiles and praise for our costumes. Some invited us in and took our picture. Children who were usually admonished to be home before dark were suddenly allowed to roam the night streets in raucous packs, even playing pranks and indulging in mild mischief without fear of retribution. We could eat sickening amounts of candy, stay up late, and be as silly as we liked, knowing that the next day everything would be back to normal.

Our culture today is not so simple and safe as in my small town childhood.  There are real dangers for children wandering dark streets. Parents wisely accompany their little ones on Trick-or-Treat and examine the treats carefully before doling them out in healthy quantities.  The innocence of a few decades ago simply doesn’t exist.

Today, celebrating some Christian variant of Halloween, such as a Harvest Festival with Biblical costumes, is the norm in many churches; while this is seen by some as unnecessarily narrow-minded and prudish.

Personally, I can no longer feel comfortable with the day. I hand out candy to the children who come to my door, but I don’t put up any spooky decorations. I am ambivalent, abhorring the thought of giving support to superstition, paganism, or even commercialism, yet nostalgic for the magic evenings of my memory.

For thoughtful perspectives on the holiday, read “The Christian Response to Halloween” by Chris Legg; and “Christians and Halloween” by Travis Allen.

In today’s post-pandemic world, when all our holiday celebrations are changing and we are encouraged to wear masks every day, perhaps it might be a good time to rethink Halloween.

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Know Your Source

These days, everything seems to have become political. Whatever we hear is slanted according to the agenda of those speaking. How is anyone to know what is true, anymore?

It is critically important when deciding what to believe that we consider the source of the information and the potential bias of that source.

We can choose to believe that whatever we agree with is truth, while something that goes against our own ideas is propaganda, or we can look beyond our own preconceptions and consider the track record of the source of the information.

In the Gospel of Matthew we are told that we may know the character of a person by the fruits of their life.

15-20 “Be wary of false preachers who smile a lot, dripping with practiced sincerity. Chances are they are out to rip you off some way or other. Don’t be impressed with charisma; look for character. Who preachers are is the main thing, not what they say. A genuine leader will never exploit your emotions or your pocketbook. These diseased trees with their bad apples are going to be chopped down and burned.

Matthew 7:15-20 (MSG)

Has the source of a particular piece of information been trustworthy in the past? Or have they shown themselves to be trying to manipulate data for their own benefit? In the translation above, we can insert any type of information source for the “preachers” in the text. A more traditional translation refers to prophets, those claiming to bring God’s message:

15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. 16 You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? 17 Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Therefore by their fruits you will know them.

Matthew 7:15-20 (NKJV)

Whether weighing the words of preachers, prophets, or politicians, the same principal holds. It may be more work to do the necessary research to find out the speaker’s track record for impartial truth, but if we are to be wise it may be necessary.

A wise man will hear and increase learning,
And a man of understanding will attain wise counsel

Proverbs 1:5 (NKJV)

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I hope, I hope, I hope…

The Bible tells us that God cares deeply about each one of us, that He knew us and had a plan for us before we were even born. Every experience of our lives, no matter how painful or frustrating, is filtered through His great good will and can be used for our good and His glory.

When I begin to think I can’t make a difference in the vast scheme of things, I consider those truths and realize that each one of us does make a difference, for good or ill.

While I may not be an influencer on a grand scale, I do have an impact on each person I encounter, every single day. Whether I share a smile and a kind word in the grocery store, or pass down the aisles wrapped up in myself and ignoring fellow shoppers can make a difference, both to others and to my own mood.

If my conversations with friends and family are filled with complaints and grumbling, I darken everyone’s thoughts, but when I make the effort to comment on the many blessings and opportunities I see, it brings sunshine into our lives.

Concentrating on our joys and blessings, especially when interacting with others, fills everyone with greater hope.

Be strong and take heart,

    all you who hope in the Lord.

Psalm 31:24 (NIV)

Keeping our focus on the blessings to be found in even the most difficult day and upon our joyous eternal hope does make a difference in each small sphere of influence. Like the ripples in a lake at the start of the rainstorm become roiling waves as they multiply, when the people of Christ work together to share the hope we have within us waves of faith spread across the land.

But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,

1 Peter 3:15 (NIV)

Whether we recognize it or not, our every action or inaction makes a difference. Make the choice to share hope today.

13 Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Romans 15:13 (NKJV)
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Where is the love?

Perhaps one of the most difficult commandments in the Bible sounds the simplest: love one another.

In theory, this sounds easy. We know how to love our family and friends and to treat everyone we meet with kindness. The difficulty comes when we are faced with loving our enemies, those who persecute us.We must first recognize who our enemies are and then proceed to love them.

On a battlefield or in a life or death struggle with an assailant, it is easy to know who the enemy is. While the Bible tells us we are in a battle for our spiritual lives, our enemy may appear in many guises and many subtle forms. Therefore we must:

13-14 Keep your eyes open, hold tight to your convictions, give it all you’ve got, be resolute, and love without stopping.

1 Corinthians 16:13-14 (MSG)

Bravely and strongly standing up for our convictions in chaotic and perilous times is never easy. It is made just that much more complicated when it must be done in love.

13 Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong. 14 Do everything in love.

1 Corinthians 16:13-14 (NIV)

These verses were featured on the You Version online Bible devotional for today and the presenter made a profound statement. He said, “Love with an agenda isn’t love.” To me that means I must look beyond the anger and resentment I feel toward those I perceive as the enemy and see each one as a fellow sojourner trying to make sense of these troubled times. I must set aside my agenda of trying to change their attitudes and beliefs and simply treat them with the same love I want to receive, reminding myself continually that nothing is impossible with God.

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