Merry Christmas!

I hope you are having a blessed Christmas Day despite the restrictions and divisions this year has brought.

I was looking back on previous Christmases and came across the following post from 2014:

Does your Christmas honor Christ, or is the focus nostalgia for your own childhood?

charlie brown

I heard of a church where the worship service on the third Sunday of Advent was a performance of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” based upon that classic television  special. The sanctuary was full of the family and friends of the cast members and everyone had a rollicking good time.

I suppose the Linus character’s scripture reading of the Christmas narrative was what made the pastor and worship committee of this congregation feel this was appropriate for the worship service, rather than presenting it as an entertainment at a separate time. I don’t know what prompted this particular church to substitute an exercise in nostalgia for a time spent worshiping the Savior, but it fits with the current trends in our culture.

We’ve all bemoaned the commercialization of the Christmas observance, but beyond that there is a growing trivialization of this Holy Day, even among believers. Too often the focus of the Yuletide celebration is romantic sentimentality or a nostalgic yearning for the “magical” feelings from childhood. Both of these responses are a form of self-worship.

The Christian church has two supreme holy days set apart for us to recognize God’s sacrificial gift when He stepped into the confines of our human experience and  took on the sins of us all by dying an excruciating death for our salvation; two days dedicated to giving thanks for His great mercy and His amazing grace.

Always on the lookout to find the blessings in even the most uncomfortable situations, I wonder if being kept from our usual celebrations of the season this year might possibly cause us to focus on the One whom we are celebrating.

My prayer is for each of us to find a deeper joy in this Christmas and that we may carry it forward into a spirit-filled New Year.

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Let us gather together

Most everyone agrees that this has been an unusual and difficult year. For those of us who are active church members, the shut-downs and social distancing have been especially hard to take. We miss the fellowship of corporate worship, being active in local ministries, and perhaps especially the small group gatherings. In times of testing, we need one another to keep our faith strong.

If you have been suffering because you can’t meet with your regular Bible study group, I would like to invite you to drop in on the weekly study hosted by my fictional creation, octogenarian Matilda Thistlethwaite.

Step into her parlor, plop yourself down on an overstuffed chair, and see if you recognize any of these women as they study God’s word together.

Welcome to Mrs. Thistlethwaite’s cozy cottage. This evening Tillie is hosting a home Bible study for a group of ladies from her church. You can curl up on the cushioned window seat beside Edgar, Tillie’s pet tortoise, and listen in:

“Keep silent! Cover your head! Don’t tell men what to do! That Paul was such a male chauvinist!” Jesslyn Anderson said. “That’s the sort of garbage that gives Christianity a bad name.”

Jesslyn, a single social worker in her late twenties, was a newcomer to the women’s Bible study and a new Christian.

Tillie just smiled, giving the other women an opportunity to offer their own opinions, before addressing Jesslyn’s comments.

When Tillie invited the young woman to join this group, she’d hoped Jesslyn’s outspoken nature would add some spice to the discussions and she wasn’t disappointed.

Carol Boles, married to the pastor of Tillie’s church, put her coffee cup on the table, pulled the hem of her skirt over her knees, and prepared to defend the Apostle.

“The words of Scripture are not garbage. As it says in Second Timothy 3:16, everything in the Scriptures is useful for teaching and showing us how to live. Saint Paul was inspired by God, so we must do as he says,” Carol said.

“Well, I’m not wearing a hat, a scarf… or a burqa to church!” Jesslyn insisted. “These verses sound more Muslim than Christian.”

Edith Boles, Carol’s ninety-seven-year-old mother-in-law, who had been dozing in a cozy chair with Tillie’s cat, Agatha, on her lap, jerked awake. “Moslems? Where?”

“It’s alright, Mother Boles,” Carol soothed, leaning over and patting her arm.

“And another thing,” Jesslyn said, turning pages in her Bible. “Here in First Corinthians he says, ‘If there is something they want to know, women can ask their husbands when they get home. It is disgraceful for women to speak in church.’ What’s that, if not misogyny?”

Tillie got up to pass the basket of cranberry scones around. Standing in the middle of the room, she gently took control of the conversation.

“Many theologians agree that the instructions for the churches in Ephesus and Corinth reflect guidance specific to the culture of the early church. When studying the Bible, it is important to remember context, including who is being addressed, the circumstances, and most importantly, the spiritual meaning.

“Whenever I think about some of the controversial passages, like these we’ve been discussing, I look for the spiritual lesson. After everything that is cultural, or material, falls away, I usually find the controversy or apparent contradiction disappears, too. Now, what do we think is the spiritual lesson Paul is trying to give the leaders of the early church here?”

“He says in other verses that in Christ there is neither male nor female, doesn’t he?” Edina Horvath, a rumpled middle-aged woman in stained and mismatched clothing, asked, lifting an old, brown fedora and scratching her frowzy head.

Edina and Tillie had met when Tillie was helping to serve one of the community meals for the needy. Edina had responded to Tillie’s genuine friendliness and respect and they’d become friends. Tillie overlooked Edina’s rough, sometimes smelly, exterior and discovered a surprisingly insightful woman.

“So, does the important part of this message have to do with mutual respect?” Beverly Washington, the church’s long-time secretary asked. In her late forties, slim and dark-skinned, Beverly was unmarried and devoted to her church family.

“It seems like mutual respect is a big theme in Paul’s writing,” Cathy Hong said. Cathy had retired from teaching the same year as Tillie. They were long-time friends and contemporaries, although Cathy, a Chinese-American, had come to Christ later in life.

“But, what about all that business about the husband being the head of the family and how wives must obey them?” Jesslyn asked. “That doesn’t seem too respectful of the wife.”

“Those verses are always being quoted out of context,” Linda Watson, a late-middle-aged accountant and the church treasurer, said. “You only get the whole picture when you read the rest, where the husband is told to love his wife as Christ loved the church. Christ died, painfully, for the church, remember. That puts a huge burden on a husband to sacrifice for his wife.”

“I agree,” said Ruth Fitzgerald, Linda’s best friend, another long-time church member. “Although Ephesians 5:24 tells wives to always put their husband first, as the church puts Christ first, the husband is to act toward his wife as Christ did towards the church. It’s a two-way street.”

“And Colossians 3:19 says a husband must love his wife and not abuse her,” Carol added.

There was a knock at the door and Tillie went out to see who was there.

“Hi, come on in, Opal,” she said, taking the bag of small jars of honey her friend carried. “You are just in time to weigh in on the place of women in the church and home.”

“A woman’s place is wherever she wants it to be, in my opinion,” Opal said, striding into the parlor, as though illustrating her statement.

“Ladies, I’d like you to meet my good friend, Opal Pyle. She’s stopped by to deliver delicious, golden honey from her very own hives,” Tillie said, holding up a sparkling jar.

“Let’s gather around the table and I’ll open a jar or two and you can all taste the honey. I think we’ve still got enough scones to go around,” Tillie said, leading the group into the dining room.

Although still holding differing opinions on Paul’s teachings, the ladies were soon in full agreement about the place of honey on scones.

Tillamook Tillie series of Christian fiction by J.B. Hawker

I hope you enjoyed this brief holiday break from the realities of 2020 and that it reminded you of the importance of gathering, even virtually, with our fellow believers.

And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.

Hebrews 10:25 (NLT)

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“Che sera sera” Christians

See no evil, hear no evil…

In these chaotic times it is tempting to simply tune out the injustice and outrage all around us. We hope that if we simply keep our heads down and mind our own business this will all blow over. After all, God is in control, so why should we get involved, right?

In the mid-fifties there was a hit song by Doris Day called “Che Sera Sera” which is Italian for “whatever will be, will be.” It was a lovely tune whose fatalistic lyrics said that we can’t know the future, so just let it be. Should those of us who believe that God is in control take it as our theme song?

Even a quick skim of the Bible shows how wrong that would be. Throughout Scripture we are given examples of God using individuals to bring about His perfect will. He chose the most unlikely individuals to carry out His plans. If any of these had refused to be used, God’s plan would still have been fulfilled, it’s true. However, those who refused would have been denied His blessings.

Every Christian should be on the lookout for ways to be used of God, especially in turbulent times. In order to be available, we must be aware and informed.

You may not feel like a potential hero of the faith, but it appears to be God’s pleasure to use the most unlikely tools. He has all the power and all we need to bring to the table is our willingness to be used by Him.

“What will be, will be,” is absolutely true, but what joy to be part of the process!

For nothing will be impossible with God.”

Luke 1:37

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Who do you trust?

11 The Lord is my fortress!
    Don’t say to me,
    “Escape like a bird to the mountains!”
You tell me, “Watch out!
Those evil people have put
    their arrows on their bows,
and they are standing
in the shadows, aiming at good people.
3 What can an honest person do
    when everything crumbles?”

The Lord is sitting
in his sacred temple
    on his throne in heaven.
He knows everything we do
    because he sees us all.
5 The Lord tests honest people,
but despises those
    who are cruel
    and love violence.

He will send fiery coals
and flaming sulfur
    down on the wicked,
and they will drink nothing
    but a scorching wind.

The Lord always does right
    and wants justice done.
    Everyone who does right
    will see his face.

Psalm 11 (CEV)

The book of Psalms can be a comfort and an encouragement in difficult times, especially those Psalms written by King David to inspire his people. His words were especially effective because the people were aware of his past struggles and his relationship with God.

We tend to trust words when we see them lived out. When a person’s words are in conflict with their actions, we meet them with skepticism. Hence the adage, “Actions speak louder than words.”

Other than our own personal witness, the next best proof of character may be found in the testimony of others who have proven themselves to be trustworthy.

With widespread distrust of the modern media and of many political figures, who can we trust in these turbulent times? When even the witness of our own eyes can be so easily manipulated, this question becomes even more important.

I believe the answer can be found in Scripture.

Men who sacrificed everything to record God’s message have been proven trustworthy over the centuries, with scientists and archeologists uncovering more physical evidence supporting even the most incredible claims of the Old and New Testaments. These are people whose actions matched their words.

When we are confused and frightened by circumstances, we can turn to the promises of God and never be dismayed, if we remember this:

The Lord always does right
    and wants justice done.
    Everyone who does right
    will see his face.

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There is always a choice

Like many of you, I experienced a very different Thanksgiving this week. Rather than family members crowded around the dinner table, we were huddling over video screens as we made the most of technology to share the day.

I suppose these video chat services should be high on our list of blessings for which we give thanks but it is hard not to compare a virtual visit with the real thing. In fact, every time we compare our own circumstances with those we might prefer, we make an active choice for dissatisfaction.

Everything about this year lends itself all too easily to comparisons to previous years, as well as to worries about just how we will get through whatever lies ahead.

As always, the Scriptures have encouraging words for such a time as this.

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?  27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 … and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Matthew 6:25,27, 31-34 (NRSV)

As we move into the Christmas season, let’s make a decision to celebrate Christ’s birth in a new way, with no comparisons to years gone by. Let’s choose to find the joy in this season; joy and gratitude for God’s great gift of love that does not depend upon traditions or circumstances.

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Thanksgiving in the year 2020

When Thanksgiving rolls around, we often hear these words from 1 Thessalonians, “in everything give thanks.” While seasonally appropriate, these words present a challenge.

How do we give thanks in the midst of turmoil, chaos, or heartache?

For many years I held to the view that these words of the Apostle Paul meant that we should be thankful during difficulties because God will help us get through them. While that is true, the Scripture goes far beyond that to get to the heart of the nature of God.

We’ve all heard the skeptics say that if God is all-powerful, He can’t also be all-loving and righteous while still allowing bad things to happen to good people. So, either He isn’t able to prevent our problems or He must not care about us.

Many modern Christians subscribe to the idea that God is all about love, but after He set the world in motion, He has a sort of hands-off policy. When the bad times happen, He sympathizes with us and comforts us with the knowledge that things will be better in Heaven.

I’ve found that a thoughtful reading of Paul’s full text presents a different perspective (emphasis mine):

16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

1 Thessalonians 5:18 (NRSV)

The will of God is for us to rejoice always, pray without ceasing and give thanks, yes. But perhaps all circumstances are also His will for us.

God is all-powerful. That should go without saying as an absolute requirement to be God. This means that everything we encounter in this life, good and bad, has been allowed by Him. He could have stopped the difficult and the painful, but He chose not to. Not because He doesn’t love us, but because He does.

28 We know that all things work together for good[a] for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

Romans 8:28 (NRSV)

Struggles, hardships, and discipline are seldom enjoyable, but they are undeniably character building. A loving parent may wish to spare their child from these experiences, but doing so can result in a weak, selfish, and immature adult. A wise loving parent must make difficult decisions when choosing when to protect their child.

When making your list of blessings for your Thanksgiving prayer next week, remember God’s promises, and you may be able to be thankful even for this terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year of 2020.

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Cheaters never prosper? Really?

One of the hardest things to accept is when people are rewarded for cheating and lying.

When we were children and we complained about other kids who weren’t obeying the rules, we were reminded that, “Cheaters never prosper.”

We were assured that they would come to a bad end… eventually.

Not surprisingly, that adage comes from the Bible.

King David knew how frustrating it was when those who care nothing for God’s laws seem to be rewarded.

In Psalm 37 he reminds us of God’s eternal justice (the full Psalm is long, but well worth reading every word. Here are a few of the verses I cling to.)

Do not fret because of the wicked;
    do not be envious of wrongdoers,

for they will soon fade like the grass,
    and wither like the green herb.

Commit your way to the Lord;
    trust in him
, and he will act.
He will make your vindication shine like the light,
    and the justice of your cause like the noonday.

7 Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him;
    do not fret over those who prosper in their way,
    over those who carry out evil devices.

12 The wicked plot against the righteous,
    and gnash their teeth at them;
13 but the Lord laughs at the wicked,
    for he sees that their day is coming.

27 Depart from evil, and do good;
    so you shall abide forever.
28 For the Lord loves justice;
    he will not forsake his faithful ones.

34 Wait for the Lord, and keep to his way,
    and he will exalt you to inherit the land;
    you will look on the destruction of the wicked.

It was frustrating as children to be told we would have to wait to see the bad guys “get theirs,” and it is still one of the Lord’s hardest lessons to learn, and one more of His promises which call for His people to trust, keep doing good, and be patient.

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Choices and consequences

Life is made up of a series of choices. From the moment we open our eyes each day, we must decide our every action, and when we do, we must live with the consequences of our choices.

Much of the time our choices seem to be on autopilot as we repeat established habits. Sometimes they are “gut reactions” resulting from pure emotion. When the choice is inconsequential, little harm usually results.

However, even our seemingly insignificant choices can ripple out to effect others. So, it is prudent to try to make all of our choices wisely.

To make wise decisions requires information. When considering our options it is wise to do our research into the possible outcomes, make a list of the pros and cons, and then prayerfully consider the choice as dispassionately as possible.

Once the choice is made, we must be prepared to accept the consequences of our decision.

While we may recognize our responsibility to accept the consequences of our own choices, but what about when the choices of others impact us? What about when we don’t like those choices? What is our responsibility then?

Our reaction to such a situation is also a choice. Perhaps the most important choice of all.

Choose this day whom you will serve.

“If it is disagreeable in your sight to serve the LORD, choose for yourselves today whom you will serve: whether the gods which your fathers served which were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.”

Joshua 24:15 (NASB)
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Be still and know

We often hear the phrase from Psalm 46, “Be still and know that I am God,” but how many of us are familiar with the rest of the Psalm?

Rather than a simple admonition to “let go and let God,” as the words seem to imply when taken out of context, this Psalm, which inspired Martin Luther to compose the hymn A Mighty Fortress is our God, reassures us that God is in control of both nature and nations. He is our refuge and strength in all sorts of trouble.

“When waters roar,” as in the recent storms with their destructive flooding, He is there to give us strength to cope.

No matter what the outcome of our upcoming elections, “though nations raged” or “kingdoms are removed,” God is with us and He will continue to use events for His children’s good and for His Glory.

No matter what upheavals and trials come to pass, we must calmly, faithfully cling to His promise.

Though times seem bleak, He is in control, now and always.

Be still and know that I am God; 

I will be exalted among the nations, 

I will be exalted over the earth.”

Psalm 46:10

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Halloween in the time of Covid-19

This year almost every tradition is being impacted by the restrictions of the pandemic. This includes Halloween. Here in California, we are discouraged from Trick or Treat, church or school carnivals, or even neighborhood gatherings, all in the name of preventing the spread of disease.

While some of us appreciate the authorities trying to keep us well, many people resent what they consider draconian measures meant more for exercising the power of government. What many see as good, others perceive as evil.

When re-reading C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, the Christian classic written from the perspective of one of Satan’s demons, I came across this line, “All mortals tend to turn into the thing they are pretending to be.”

While that sounds profound, I think that is true only some of the time.

We’ve all seen people (politicians come to mind here) pretending to be honest and upright in order to impress an audience, but who are eventually revealed to be dishonest and self-serving at heart.

I think it is a person’s motives that determine the effect pretense has on character.

Christians are sometimes advised to act “as if” we feel love or forgiveness toward someone when we have difficulty calling up the genuine emotions, because the action can be the precursor of the feelings.

If you pretend to be better than you are simply to fool and manipulate others for your own gain, it is like slipping into a Halloween costume; you remain unchanged beneath your mask.

Walking a higher road in order to help others and in the hope of eventually becoming what you are emulating can really change you.

Rather than a false face to hide behind, we should be putting on the character of Christ, allowing it to mold us into His image.

For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.

Romans 8:29

I want to be authentic in all my relationships, yet always striving to overlay my flawed character with generous, loving, and courageous actions for the benefit of others and the glory of God.

Don’t you?

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