Saturday, December 23, 2006

Take a Christmas Tour with Jafabrit

I love her blog. This is just a little slice of Christmas life from her home to yours.

I didn't realize it...

but sometime in the past few weeks, Better Living: Thoughts from Mark Daniels became a Large Mammal. With a current daily average of 845 site visits and an inbound link score (that measures how many other blogs are linking to this site) of 233, I guess this blog is no longer one of the marsupials in the blogging ecosystem...at least for now.

Anyway, thanks to everybody who visits, reads, links to, and comments on the site. Have a great 2007!

Of Gifts, Parenting, and How to Let Go

Susan Senator is the parent of an autistic son, Nat, now seventeen. During this season, Senator is thankful for those who work with Nat. Their compassion and dedication are gifts. And, her experience tells her that in spite of her fears over a future over which she has no control, there will always be someone who cares about what happens to Nat.

Near the end of her piece, Senator writes:
The other day, because it's close to Christmas, Nat's driver handed us a big bag of presents: a huge box of oreos and a polar fleece top to keep him warm. "He always asks for cookies because I give them to him sometimes," she shrugged. "So I want to make sure he gets his cookies."

The old twinge in my throat flared up. I almost cried as I took that bag from her. This gift was much more than a bag of cookies. What she gave me was a little peace of mind. I still don't know what the future holds for Nat as an adult. But I'm pretty sure that there will always be people out there who will care for and love him, even when it's not part of their job description. Even when it's not easy. And even when I'm no longer around.
I was moved to respond to what Senator wrote:
Thank you for this wonderful post!

Acknowledging that we're not really in control of our lives is among the hardest and most essential steps any of us can take.

It's certainly an issue for parents of children who aren't, for want of a better term, differently abled. Parenting is a slow, arduous letting-go. But I'm sure that the letting-go is more difficult for you as Nat's mom.

One of the joys of my life is my service on our county's Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities. I don't know how I would have handled being the parent of a differently abled child and I know that I wouldn't be a good professional worker with such children. But I feel that the least I can do is provide support to such children (and adults), their families, and the very special people who work with these folks.

As a Christian, of course, I believe that the greatest gift we receive is God Himself, Who came to us as a helpless child needful of parents and a community to raise Him to adulthood. It's Christ Who gives me the capacity to deal with the uncertainties in my life, although I admit that I don't have them so maddeningly thrown into my face as you do each day.

But whether one believes what Christians say about Christ or not, I think that most people would agree with the Christian belief that the highest calling in the world--more important than the jobs of kings, presidents, athletes, or pop stars--is the call to be a parent. Susan, I can see that you take that calling with the utmost seriousness. Nat is blessed. And your post is a blessing.

I hope that Nat enjoys his Oreos.
The only way I know how to let go is to let God into all of the daunting and seemingly insoluble situations of our lives. I go back to the three-word Latin motto my seminary professor, Trygve Skarsten, used to write on our "blue books": Ora et labora. Pray and work.

And in that order: Ask for God's help. Then do your best.

Live with the unknowns and trust the God Who has made Himself emphatically, clearly, lovingly, unmistakably known in the Savior Whose birth we celebrate on Christmas!

I don't have the same faith in humanity that Senator has. I know how self-absorbed and sinful I can be. My observation tells me that's true of the rest of the human race. But I have faith--sometimes the size of a mustard seed--in the big, infinite, loving God Who makes Himself known for all to see at Christmas. This is the God Who inspires people to pray and work and serve in His Name and so, make the world a little better. God is the One Who gives me hope.

Read Susan Senator's post.

[Also read here.]

Somehow, This Fits with Las Vegas

The mayor there is teaching a class. (TY to The Moderate Voice for leading me to this story.)

Christmas Encounters

A four-part series by Charlie Lehardy, each one a gem:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Great Christmas reading! Part 4 will be particularly interesting to those with a love for science, I think.

Great Reflections on Christmas

From Jan:
Christmas is the best time to remember that we really do have everything we need. And that yearning deep in our very bones is not just for a new car or for straight hair, or a spouse - who would also be imperfect and occasionally fail us. It is for our true home, where we will be loved perfectly forever and will never want. I leave you with a beautiful perspective on disappointment at Christmas. "Christmas reminds us of all that should be right with the world, but the world isn't always right...But it's not about Christmas, is it? It's about an empty tomb. Christians were never the Christmas people, those concentrated on the First Advent. No, we are the resurrection people, born to die, then to live again."
Read the whole thing.

Opening Your Spiritual Gifts (Day 21)

Ready. Fire. Aim.

After the first of the year, I’ll be providing members of Friendship Church, the congregation I serve as pastor, and readers of this blog with a Spiritual Gifts Inventory I first created more than seventeen years ago. It’s based on the list of seven gifts Paul enumerates in Romans 12. As I’ve said before in this series, there’s probably no counting all the spiritual gifts God grants to His people. But this inventory may help you to learn some things about yourself and the ministry God wants you to do as part of the Church’s overall mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ.

In the meantime, I urge you not to spend too much time thinking about what your gifts for ministry are. Navel gazing doesn’t result in a lot of ministry in Jesus’ Name.

Instead, just get involved with ministry. If your heart is right and your motivation is to glorify God, you won’t go wrong.

The problem with many Christians is that they’re closet perfectionists, forgetful that they follow a gracious God Who accepts us “just as I am, without one plea.” That’s why Steve Sjogren, author of The Conspiracy of Kindness and other books, tells Christians: “Ready. Fire. Aim.”

Get involved with ministry first, trusting that God will make the best of it and that each experience will take you closer to the ministry that’s right for you. As another pastor, Rick Warren, puts it, “Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.” Even the person who does ministry poorly is at least doing something.

I also advise being creative. Do you think that your gift is hospitality? Then, spearhead an effort to throw a party for the people of our community at the church building or a cookout in some cul-de-sac. Do you have an interest in auto mechanics? Then, offer to teach a class on auto maintenance basics that we could share with the community. Or, set a regular time each month when you and others who share your interest offer free oil changes to our neighbors. Have you been dabbling in filmmaking? Offer to lead a group who prepare film clips for use in worship or create a fun documentary we could post on the Internet, promoting Friendship. Are you adept at making friends? Make it a conscious goal to use this gift to invite others to worship with us.

People wonder, “How does a church grow?” Many churches grow to megachurch size these days. But few megachurches really grow. Most of their memberships are composed of people from smaller churches. Reflecting the “what’s-in-it-for-me?” mentality that so pervades our culture, these people migrate to larger congregations with big staffs and big bankrolls, where everything gets done for them.

But how do churches grow God’s way? That’s very simple: They imitate God. The most famous passage in the New Testament is John 3:16, where Jesus says, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.” God gave.

And God calls us to give. Not just our time, talents, and treasures, but our whole selves. We’re to give our whole selves to the God Who gave His whole self to us.

When I was in seminary, Pastor Bruce Schein’s teaching style was what I would call the US Marine Corps version of the Socratic method. We had about 200 pages of readings to do before our two weekly class sessions of an hour and fifty minutes. Pastor Schein would do some brief set-up lectures and then, he would begin to ask us questions. His entire method was designed to pull things out of us and to cause us to put things together so that we learned and so that we owned what we learned. It was exhilarating! But only if we spent the time needed to prepare for class. Schein would tell us, “You need to give me your minds and your efforts. If you don’t do that, you won’t grow.”

Immediately following the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the Church, in spite of the constant threat of persecution and martyrdom, enjoyed explosive growth. The reason for this strange phenomenon might be found in several verses in the New Testament: “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses, sold them and brought them to the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” (Acts 4:34-35) In another place, we’re told, “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:46-47)

I’m not asking anyone to turn the deed of their house over to the church. I know I’m not planning on doing that. I am saying that the early Church members gave themselves to God’s purposes without stint and with joy.

Churches that really grow don’t do it by picking up members from other congregations and putting out a Hollywood-style product for consumers of religious life. New and everlasting life is God’s gift to all who believe in Jesus Christ. But we only grow as Christians when we give ourselves--including our spiritual gifts--to Christ and the Church. And when Christians grow, the Church grows. Really grows.

Give yourself to God and to the mission of the Church. Ask yourself each day, “How can I use opportunities, talents, and relationships to help the Church grow?” When you truly give yourself in the everyday places of your life and when you help with all the things needed to make the church go, you’ll find your spiritual gifts and your church will be packed out all the time.

You’ll find your spiritual gift and all churches will grow when all Christians adopt the motto of, “Ready. Fire. Aim.”

Bible Passage to Ponder: “On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” (Matthew 2:11)

[THANKS TO: Alex Jordan of Jordan's View for linking to this series. Check out the other blog articles to which Alex links in his Blips on the Blogosphere 9-Christmas Edition.]

[THANKS ALSO TO: Bruce Armstrong of Ordinary Everyday Christian for linking to this and the posts in this series. Pray for the health of Bruce's mother, too, please. And congratulations to Bruce for reaching a milestone, his two-hundredth post!]

Friday, December 22, 2006

"Let My Pride Fall Down"

Lauren, scientist who's also a Christian, presents some excellent thoughts here.

Let Keith Ellison Take the Oath of Office on the Koran

One congressman's stupid ideas to the contrary, I stick with what I said in November when Dennis Prager first began spouting this nonsense.

I am a Christian who believes that Jesus Christ is Lord of all. I want all people to believe in Him and so, have eternal life. It's precisely because I am a Christian who believes that people are loved, served, and persuaded to follow Christ, not coerce or bullied into it, that all attempts to prevent Ellison from taking the oath using a Koran should be repudiated. It's bigoted and un-Christian to do so.

Besides, it's profoundly un-American and unconstitutional.

Read my whole post on the subject.

"The Night Before Christmas"




[My friend and colleague, Glen VanderKloot has shared this in today's edition of his daily emailed inspirations, OnLine with Faith.]

The Night Before Christmas

T'was the night before Christmas
and all through the town,
Not a sign of baby Jesus
was anywhere to be found.

The people were all busy
with Christmas time chores,
Like decorating, and baking,
and shopping in stores.

No one sang "Away in a manger,
no crib for a bed."
Instead, they sang of Santa
dressed up in bright red.

Mama watched Martha Stewart,
Papa drank beer from a tap.
As hour upon hour
the presents they'd wrap.

When what from the TV
did they suddenly hear?
'Cept an ad that told
of a big sale at Sears.

So away to the mall
they all flew like a flash,
Buying things on credit
and others with cash!

And, as they made their way home
From their trip to the mall,
Did they think about Jesus?
Oh, no... not at all.

Their lives were so busy
with their Christmas time things,
No time to remember
Christ Jesus, the King.

There were presents to wrap,
and cookies to bake.
How could they stop and remember
Who died for their sake?

To pray to the Savior,
they had no time to stop.
Because they needed more time
to "Shop till they dropped!"

On Wal-mart! On K-mart!
On Target! On Penney's!
On Hallmark! On Zales!
A quick lunch at Denny's.

From the big stores downtown
to the stores at the mall,
They would dash away, dash away,
and visit them all!

And up on the roof,
there arose such a clatter
As grandpa hung icicle lights
up on his brand new step ladder.

He hung lights that would flash.
He hung lights that would twirl.
Yet, he never once prayed to Jesus,
Light of the World.

Christ's eyes ... how they twinkle!
Christ's Spirit ... how merry!
Christ's love ... how enormous!
All our burdens ... He'll carry!

So instead of being busy,
overworked, and uptight,
Let's put Christ back in
Christmas, and enjoy
Some good nights!

Rev. Jon Prain
+++++++++
Scripture
Luke 2:11 CEV

This very day in King David's hometown a Savior was born for you. He is Christ the Lord.

Prayer

Lord, help me to make Jesus the center of my Christmas. Amen

[You can subscribe to Glen's daily inspirations. Simply send an email to olwf1@gliq.net and put SUBSCRIBE on the subject line.]

Opening Your Spiritual Gifts (Day 20)

Mercy or compassion is the spiritual gift of those Christians empowered by God to personally undertake and to incite fellow Christians to do something about the needs of others.

Many people at Friendship Lutheran Church and at one of our neighboring Lutheran congregations remember a man named Fred. Fred was a member of Lutheran Church of the Resurrection and headed a committee there that assisted people in need from throughout our area: people who were hungry, behind on their rent, unemployed, in need of gas money to get to work, and so on. Fred died several years ago and when he did, it was a loss for both of our congregations and our entire community. We often coordinated our efforts with Fred, especially when he found folks in need in Clermont and Brown counties.

Fred had the spiritual gift of mercy or compassion. He worked to coordinate efforts not only among churches, helping to stretch their dollars, but also with various local agencies.

But Fred was no pushover. He made certain that people asking for help weren’t simply plucking others’ heartstrings, taking advantage of them. When he found phonies, he refused to help and alerted other congregations about them.

Of course, we can’t always know if the people who ask our churches or us for help are authentic or not. Several people I know with the gift of compassion have personal rules governing how they approach such circumstances. One says that whenever she encounters a person asking for money on the streets of downtown Cincinnati, she gives them several dollars. “The way I see it, if they’re lying, the onus is on them. I’ve responded, which is what I think God calls me to do,” she says. Another person with this gift, when approached by a person for money for a meal, invites them to go with him to a nearby restaurant. There, he buys them dinner and also talks with them.

One of Jesus’ most famous parables was that of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37). In it, a man, a Judean, is mugged, left for dead on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Two religious officials, equivalent perhaps to a pastor and a seminary professor in our world, pass by the bleeding man. But a Samaritan, a member of a national group that Judeans hated, bandaged the wounded man, took him to a nearby inn, and provided for his care. Jesus says that all of us are to be that kind of neighbor and that our neighbor is anyone whose need is made known to us.

But those with the gift of compassion have a special heart for those in need. Compassionate service is the focus of their personal ministries. They challenge the rest of us to fulfll Jesus’ call to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Often personal experiences will prompt those with this gift to use it. In Fred’s case, for example, seeing the needy children of Europe after World War Two caused him to make a personal vow to help those in need whenever he could.

I see the gift of compassion in many members of Friendship. They’re the ones who lead the rest of us in sharing compassionately with others. They well exemplify too, the way this gift is meant to be expressed. In Romans 12:8, Paul says that those with the gift of compassion should express it “in cheerfulness.” There is no more cheerful person than the Christian with the gift of mercy exercising their gift.

Mercy or compassion is the spiritual gift of those Christians empowered by God to personally undertake and to incite fellow Christians to do something about the needs of others.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity.” (Acts 9:36)

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Preacher's True Confession

I hate organ music. Yes, I am a preacher. Nonetheless, I really do hate organ music. Always have.

But occasionally, an organ adds something special to a a piece of music.

Take the classic, Woolly Bully by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. What would that song be without the prominent role played by the organ?

Or would anything by Booker T and MGs be as good?

And without the musical backdrop provided by the organ on Gary Lewis and the Playboys' otherwise mediocre 'This Diamond Ring' (along with that low-register Chris Isaak-y guitar solo and tinkly xylophone), the song would have been completely forgettable.

But who could ever forget the Beatles' Shea Stadium version of 'I'm Down,' on which John Lennon's maniacal solo on the Wurlitzer, a response to a screaming crowd paying no attention to music that was piped through the PA system, had Paul McCartney laughing hysterically?

Or Ringo Starr's staccato organ punctuating the end of the chorus on 'I'm Looking Through You'?

Or Al Kooper's slightly-behind the beat, squeaky organ on 'Highway 61 Revisited'? Or the organ solo on 'Light My Fire' by the Doors?

An organ can enhance a song. But does Matthew Fisher, organist on the Procol Harum song, A Whiter Shade of Pale, deserve 40% of the song-writing royalties for that tune, as he claims? I don't think so.

For one thing, Fisher's contribution was more in the way of being an arranger than a composer.

For another, as musician and producer David Was points out in this November report on NPR's 'Day to Day,' the melody of A Whiter Shade of Pale was taken from a composition by Bach. (Was also says some claim to see a decided similarity to Percy Sledge's When a Man Loves a Woman. They have a point.)

As I see it, all Fisher really did was riff off that second-hand tune given to him by the band members who were always credited with composing A Whiter Shade of Pale.

But a judge has ruled in Fisher's favor and soon he'll be sharing the cash brought in by the Procol Harum classic.

One footnote: A Whiter Shade of Pale was apparently the song playing at the very moment when Paul McCartney met his first wife, Linda, at a party they were attending. Years later, in a song called Young Boy (on which Steve Miller has a great guitar solo, by the way), McCartney invoked that memory with an organ part inspired by Fisher's Procol Harum organ on Pale. Watch out...encouraged by this ruling, Fisher may now want to sue McCartney. But if he does, he'll have to get in line behind the former Beatle's second wife at the Old Bailey.

While there are some exceptions, I still hate organ music. I really can't Handel it.

[Ann Althouse sees the Fisher case differently.]

Robert Gates: Surge Protector?

Presidents don't usually hoist their own policy trial balloons. They leave that to other--ordinarily anonymous--members of their Administrations.

So, did President Bush use his Wednesday press conference to reveal a key--and set--element of the new Iraq strategy he's to announce in a January speech? In short, has the President decided to employ the surge option, increasing overall Army and Marine force levels in Iraq to create a surge aimed at what the President called "victory in Iraq"?

The idea of increasing force levels by 15,000 to 30,000 people is one of which Pentagon brass have apparently been scornful. Yet, the President says that he's ordered new Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, currently in Iraq on a fact-finding tour, to advise him as to whether such a surge is advisable and if so, how it could best be done.

Of course, as many have pointed out, the more basic question about such a surge is what its purpose would be. Military analysts, like retired General Barry McCaffrey, seem to say that an Iraq "solution" can only be achieved politically, not militarily. If his critique represents a sizable body of opinion among America's general officer corps, they may deem a surge as dangerous and unlikely to change things on the ground.

Could this presidential announcement be nothing more than a feint, intended to throw people off? I doubt it. I don't think the President would have spoken so overtly of the surge option unless he really was considering it and likely to embrace it. But it's uncharacteristic of this President to speak so openly of the options he's weighing before announcing a policy.

In the end, there appears to be no upside to the President tipping his hand on a surge policy that he has no intention of pursuing. It's likely to elicit fierce derision if it becomes the President's announced policy. Given that reality, I surmise that he really is biased toward upping the force levels in Iraq. A trail balloon and a subsequent retreat to a fallback policy risks expending more political capital than the President has right now.

Bob Gates may be President Bush's surge protector, the new kid in the administration who, contrary to the Clark Clifford scenarios that I and others have written for him, is actually as hawkish about Iraq as the President and the Senate's number one surge proponent, John McCain. Gates may be the one to whom the President will point as recommending the surge. If the surge works, the President gets the credit. If it fails, Mr. Bush may try accepting the resignation of yet another Secretary of Defense on whom the political blame can be placed.

Opening Your Spiritual Gifts (Day 19)

Leadership is the spiritual gift of those Christians empowered by God to lead the Church and its ministries in pursuing its mission.

I was ordained as a pastor in 1984, four-and-a-half years after I'd left the political world and started seminary. Time and again, seminary classmates had affirmed that I was "a leader." And it's true that throughout my life, including those years before I went to seminary, whenever I was thrown in with a group of people, I seemed frequently-- and involuntarily--to emerge as a leader.

But I’ve learned that while it’s good to have a gift repeatedly affirmed like this, there’s a danger that we may become the victim of our own “good press.” We can get too sure of ourselves, at risk of developing the greatest mistaken attitude that leaders can adopt: a sense of entitlement. People with this attitude see themselves as being in a superior class. Those with a sense of entitlement may be "bosses," who throw their weight around, but they're not leaders. Bosses can't inspire respect or superior performance in others; leaders do that. And they don’t do it with coercion. They do it with persuasion. But leaders who try to persuade others without the guidance and the empowerment of God’s Holy Spirit put themselves and those they lead on a track--fast or slow--to meaningless motion.

In the Old Testament book of Genesis, you'll find the story of Joseph, favored son of the patriarch, Jacob. When Joseph was young, he apparently had a strong sense of how his father's shepherding business should be run. He also had the gift of "dreams," a spiritual capacity for envisioning things. While he was undeniably imbued by God with the capacity for visionary leadership, Joseph demonstrated his lack of maturity when, as a young man, he used his gifts to squeal on his brothers to their father and when he gloated over dreams indicating that one day he would be their lord. It was only after enduring the crucible of hard experiences that Joseph's leadership qualities, once a justification for arrogance, were tempered by the realization that a real leader is, first and foremost, a servant of God and of others.

Of course, the ultimate servant-leader was Jesus Christ Who, on the night of His arrest and betrayal, did the slave's work of washing His disciples' feet. He then told the disciples that anyone who aspired to be with Him or to do God's work in the world must learn from His example and be a servant too.

The Church needs leaders, lay and ordained, to do its work. God has gifted some for leadership. But without adopting the attitude of a servant, leaders will never fulfill the promise of their lives. They'll be fatally focused on themselves and fail to advance the mission of the Church.

Pastor and leadership guru John Maxwell often answers a question he rhetorically poses, “How do you know if you're a leader?” Easy, Maxwell says, turn around and see if anybody’s following you. If you are a leader, then by all means, get on your knees right now and ask God to give you a servant’s heart. A leader must be, first and foremost, a servant of God and of others.

Leadership is the spiritual gift of those Christians empowered by God to lead the Church and its ministries in pursuing its mission.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “The last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:16)

[This post is largely a reworking of an installment of my series of blog posts, Leadership Lessons.]

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Um, No

Christopher Hitchens says that people who describe themselves as foreign policy realists are supporters of the Saudi royal family.

While some realists may be close to the Saudi family, their lineage goes way back before their regime in Riyadh. And it's an honorable and savvy school of thought.

Realists trace their approach back through the Federalist-Republican tradition, beginning with George Washington, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton and proceeding through such figures as Thedore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower.

See my post on the three major strands of foreign policy/national security thinking in US history here.

(Thank you to Glenn Reynolds for leading me to the Hitchens piece.)

First Pass at This Sunday Morning's Bible Lesson: Luke 1:39-55

[Most weeks, I present as many updates on my reflections and study of the Biblical texts on which our weekend worship celebrations will be built as I can. The purpose is to help the people of the congregation I serve as pastor, Friendship Lutheran Church of Amelia, Ohio, get ready for worship. Hopefully, it's helpful to others as well, since our Bible lesson is usually one from the weekly lectionary, variations of which are used in most of the churches of the world.]

[Note: This will be my only pass at this Sunday morning's lesson.]

The Bible Lesson: Luke 1:39-55
39In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” 46And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

General Comments
1. This coming Sunday morning, we'll be celebrating the Fourth Sunday in Advent, the season that anticipates Christmas as well as the coming of Jesus into our lives and at the end of time. Sunday night will bring Christmas Eve, when at Friendship, we will celebrate the birth of Jesus, God in human flesh.

2. The past two weekends of this Advent season, the focus has been on John the Baptizer and his ministry of anticipation of the Messiah, God's Anointed One, who turns out to be Jesus. This Sunday, the focus shifts. Brian Stoffregen writes:
While it is a simplistic and only partially accurate dichotomy, we might say that John's preaching centered on answering the question "What should we do?" (Answer: Bear fruit worthy of repentance.) In Jesus we have the declaration, "This is what God has done and is doing."
A repentant life, the life of a person who turns back to God for life, forgiveness, and hope, prepares a person for receiving what God has done, is doing, and will do for us through Jesus Christ.

3. The Magnificat, in verses 46-55, is often called the Song of Mary. Of course, there's no indication that Mary sang these words. That's a later traditional way of describing her speech.

It's called the Magnificat because of the first three words in the Latin translation of Mary's speech, Magnificat mea anima, meaning, My soul magnifies. The soul in the Biblical thought-world refers to our whole being, not some smoky, ghostly vapor. Mary begins her speech, in essence, by saying, "Every fiber of my being shouts of the glory of God!"

4. Mary's speech is clearly patterned after the speech of another Biblical mother, Hannah, who lived at the tail-end of the era of the Old Testament judges. I talk about Hannah and her "song" here.

5. One of the important themes of Mary's speech and of this entire lesson is also a prominent theme in Luke's gospel: God brings down the arrogantly powerful and wealthy and lifts up the humble poor. God sides with the humble poor over against the arrogantly powerful and wealthy.

For those of us who live in the wealthiest and most powerful nation on Earth, there is a cautionary note here: Everything we have is a gift from God meant to be shared, not hoarded selfishly. As Jesus puts it later in Luke's gospel, "From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded." (Luke 12:48)

In the very selection of an ordinary servant girl to birth God incarnate, God is indicating His intention to lift up the humble and bring to grief the arrogant.

6. In the new film, The Nativity Story, Mary's Magnificat is placed elsewhere in the story. This is harmless poetic license. GO SEE THIS MOVIE. IT'S FANTASTIC!

6. For interesting comments on this text, see here, here, and here.

John Wesley

Read John Brown's post.

Opening Your Spiritual Gifts (Day 18)

Giving is the spiritual gift of those Christians who are empowered by God to give more than 10% of their annual income to the mission of Christ in the world.

All Christians are called to give financially to Christ’s mission. The minimal baseline expectation, according to the Bible, is that all believers will give the first 10% of their income to this cause. It’s what the Bible calls a tithe.

Jesus says that giving to His mission is an investment in His Kingdom and a measure of our faithful dependence on Him. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal,” Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:19-21, “but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Giving isn’t a means of earning God’s approval. God’s approval is a free gift for all who believe in Jesus. But giving does demonstrate our gratitude for the forgiveness and new life that come to us through Jesus Christ.

Giving to Christ’s mission also brings blessings. In Luke 6:38, Jesus says, “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

This doesn’t mean that you’ll be a millionaire if you tithe. God never promises to make us wealthy. It does mean that givers are blessed, always because of the sense of being in sync with God and His plans for our lives and sometimes in other ways we can’t imagine.

If all Christians tithed, it would be far easier for the Church to do its mission. We have nearly 60 households in Friendship. I recently calculated what would happen if only forty of our households gave their entire annual tithe to Friendship, assuming an average household income of $50,000. The result would be giving of $200,000, which would enable us to pay off our mortgage more quickly, undertake new ministries, and meet our current annual operating budget of about $130,000.

God gifts some people to go beyond the 10% minimum in their giving. Often, these are people to whom God has also given a special ability to create wealth, though not always. Usually, they do have a particular acumen for managing their personal finances. One of these is Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy, who even before he attained success, decided to be a more-than-tither in his giving and also that his restaurant should be closed on Sundays. In fact, these very decisions probably contributed to his success.

Not everyone can be a Truett Cathy. But if you believe that God has given you the spiritual gift of giving, you can contribute mightily to the mission of Christ, whatever your income.

Giving isn’t easy for me. It’s about as far from being one of my spiritual gifts as I can imagine. But I certainly revere those who have it and exercise it.

Giving is the spiritual gift of those Christians who are empowered by God to give more than 10% of their annual income to the mission of Christ in the world.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “Give, and it will be given to you...” (Luke 6:38)

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Follow-Up on That Opening Prayer at the House

As you know, I was scheduled to do the opening prayer at the Ohio House of Representatives today. It turned out to be a wonderful experience.

My Dad went with me and I hadn't known until I arrived to pick him up today that in spite of being a resident of Columbus for fifty-two years, he had never been to the State Capitol building. As we walked away, I commented that I couldn't believe he'd never been there before. "Well," he said, "I was busy raising a family." May the people in that gorgeous Capitol building always remember that they're employees of folks who, like my father, work hard to live their lives and to do right by their families, neighbors, friends, and communities!

When Dad and I first arrived, we went to the little Capitol building restaurant in the basement below the Rotunda. We wanted something to stave off hunger until I was finished praying. It was a good decision on our parts!

Snack finished, ready to go to the House, and turned around by all the refurbishing that's been done to the place since I worked there, I asked a young woman waiting for an elevator how to get to the House chamber. "Just follow me," she told us. "That's where I'm heading." When we got to the chamber, a House page approached her for instructions. "A page," I said, "I used to be the page supervisor." "That's what I do," she told me. "Oh," I said to my dad, "one of my successors." Turning back to her, I said, "I left here in 1979." She smiled and said, "That was the year I was born." I laughed and told her, "You really didn't have to tell me that."

When Representative Joe Uecker introduced me at the beginning of the session, he couldn't resist telling his colleagues that I had worked there a long time ago.

The original plan had been for us to meet Representative Uecker's aide, Sheila Ross, about fifteen minutes prior to the session. But we arrived very early. We did though, get the chance to meet her. She was the one who really had done all the work necessary for making our visit there go smoothly and I don't remember if I actually thanked her when she introduced herself to my Dad and me.

As I mentioned yesterday, the start of today's session was to be delayed from 11:00AM to 1:00PM. But as it turned out, it started even later than that, owing to last minute negotiations on pending legislation. (It should be added that under the current speaker, Jon Husted, sessions generally get started on time. But the close of General Assembly sessions always bring last-minute compromises and accomodations.)

While there, I had the chance to chat with Ohio Public Radio's Bill Cohen, a guy I had met several times back in the day. He was a friend of my old pal, Howard Ornstein, and the three of us even went to a Columbus Clippers game or two together. (I don't think Bill remembered me. But I have the advantage over him. While I left Columbus and the State House long ago, I've been listening to his radio reports every weekday in the intervening twenty-seven years!) But I had to ask Bill if he still plays folk music and he confirmed that. "I used to say, 'Let's play some folk music for the young people.'" he told me. "Now I say, 'Let's play some folk music for the old people!'"

It was also good to see and talk with Brad Young, House Clerk, a friend of several members of the congregation I serve here. Brad and I got to know each other when I co-presided at the wedding of his friends. He and his wife and my wife, my family, and I stayed at a beautiful Bed and Breakfast in Loudonville on the night before that wedding.

My Dad and I also spoke with several staffers and House members before Speaker Pro Tem Chuck Blasdel brought down the gavel to begin the session. (Husted walked in a few moments later.)

It was great of Representative Joe Uecker to take the time to speak with us. He commented, "What I wouldn't give to be able to spend time with my Dad the way you're getting to do with yours today, Mark." It was good.

After we left, Dad and I met up with a dear friend of mine since high school days, Tom Carr. I showed them around the Capitol and the old Supreme Court building. Then, we trekked to the Max and Erma's at City Center just to catch up. I couldn't believe that Tom took the time to come to the Capitol just to hear me lead the House in prayers. But then, I have always been blessed with truly fantastic friends!

Okay, enough rambling. Here's the prayer in its entirety:
Lord, as this General Assembly session draws slowly to a close, we ask for three things for the members of both the House and the Senate, both Republicans and Democrats.

First: We ask for You to give them the wisdom to discern the difference between what’s important, what’s urgent, and what’s unnecessary.

Second: We ask that You would also give them the clear-headedness and the courage they need to vote with that wisdom.

Finally: We ask that their wills will be open to whatever guidance You want to give to them. We can ask for nothing more. Amen
Several Ohio bloggers expressed interest in what I might pray and wondered what they would say if they were in my place. (See here and here.)

As of this writing, the House is still in session, trying to wrap up the 126th. General Assembly. But as soon as today's session is archived, you'll be able to see and hear the prayer here.

[UPDATE: See here.]

Speaking of Bizarre Scenarios...





What if the Republicans ended up nominating a Double-G Ticket in 2008, Giuliani and Gingrich?

What on earth would the social conservatives and the religious right do if the GOP nominated two alleged serial adulterers for President and Vice President, each married three times, one of them an unabashed supporter of gay marriage, abortion rights and gun control?

What if the Democratic Party, in turn, nominated a ticket of Obama and Clinton or Clinton and Obama, one member of which is a born-again Christian and the other a lifelong mainstream Christian do-gooder?

This December, after the second set of midterm elections during President Bush's tenure, with the nominations of both parties wide open, is a time for weaving scenarios. And this bizarre one has some chance of coming true.

Republicans, as I've pointed out several times before (see here and here), have a penchant for honoring an informal plan of corporate succession that, in spite of John McCain's past run-ins with the GOP establishment, has him as the favorite for the nomination among the guardians of conventional wisdom. Robert Novak has just recently written about this. (TY to Andy Jackson for pointing me to Novak's piece)

But Rudy Giuliani enjoys folk hero status for how he handled himself after the 9/11 attacks occurred in New York City during his watch as Mayor. (It should be pointed out that John McCain is a genuine hero!) Giuliani also has strong support within the general electorate and will probably be able to raise a lot of money. As this article in The Washington Post points out, if Giuliani can get the New Jersey primary scheduled ahead of the one in South Carolina and he's able to win in both the Garden State and before that, the Granite State, New Hampshire, he might have something called momentum working in his favor.

In the meantime, Newt Gingrich, apparently the Freddy Krueger of national politics, is running the most intriguing non-campaign campaign for President I have ever seen. Gingrich, a self-admitted gadfly, loves ideas and right now, he's generating a bunch of them on critical issues.

He knows that he can only run for president by artful misdirection, so many are the questions about his ethics, his divorces, and his proto-Delayist politicking. Gingrich offers his ideas to the other candidates, claiming to hope that they will talk about issues and not each other.

It gives this one-time hyper-partisan warrior the appearance of being above the fray. And if, over the course of this coming summer, Gingrich's ideas gain traction, but the other contenders for the GOP nomination don't, the way will be cleared for him to make a Labor Day announcement that he's going to run.

By sticking firmly to discussing the issues, Gingrich hopes to effectively check questions about his personal life. In short, he hopes to shout down all doubts with incessant wonkiness.

The strategy may not gain Gingrich the top spot on the GOP ticket in 2008, but I could envision Rudy Giuliani as a presidential nominee, wanting to shore up his right wing, asking Newt to come on board as his running mate.

It's a very bizarre scenario, to be sure. But it could happen. And if it did, all conventional wisdom about how liberals, conservatives, Democrats, and Republicans might vote would have to be tossed out. That would especially be true if the Democratic ticket included a pro-war Democrat and an anti-war Dem. (Clinton and Obama, respectively)

And just where would the religious right go under such circumstances? My guess is that it would still fall heavily to the Republicans, but not in the proportions it has in recent presidential elections.

But my guess also is that we'll never get the chance to find out. I doubt that any of the four potential candidates I've mentioned will be on the national tickets of their parties come November, 2008...Except maybe Freddy Krueger. (No, I'm not kidding.) That's because Freddie--I mean Newt--is more conservative than any of the other candidates in the running for the GOP nod and because he's not associated with any of the policies of the Bush Administration or the past three Congresses.

Rudy won't pass muster with GOP voters. Obama is untested. Clinton won't run, knowing she's general election poison in most of America and she doesn't want to be blamed for taking her party to defeat when Democrats' shot at victory in 2008 is so strong.

But watch out for Freddie.

[THANKS TO: Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit for linking to this post on December 20.]

[UPDATE, IN RESPONSE TO SOME OF THE COMMENTS: A G-G ticket would almost certainly be trounced. This was a post about "bizarre scenarios," mind you. But as I considered it, I realized that it could happen and that of the four potential candidates pictured here, amazingly, Gingrich was the one whose strategy could likeliest put him on a national ticket. Still, I would put his chances at about 1%. But I think those odds are better than those for Giuliani, Clinton, or Obama.

Do I like Gingrich as a candidate? I don't get into stuff like that here. I don't do endorsements.

Newt is smart, to be sure. But he certainly has issues. It would appear that he doesn't, as they say, put the fun in dysFUNctional.

Nonetheless, if you were Newt Gingrich, with almost no chance of winning the presidency, rehabilitating your image through a non-campaign campaign of churning out ideas and position papers is the only way you'd have a shot. Gingrich seems well aware of how remote his prospects are. But at this point, I'd say he has about 100% more of a chance chance of being on the national ticket than Sam Brownback or Duncan Hunter have.]

[THANKS TO: Aaron Hockley of Another Blogger and Tai-Chi Policy for linking to this post. Hockley thinks that a G-G ticket would be heaven-sent for the Democrats. TCP says yes to any ticket with Gingrich on it.]

[THANKS TO: Simon at Stubborn Facts for linking to this post. I think that Simon is ignoring some stubborn facts, though.]

Opening Your Spiritual Gifts (Day 17)

Exhortation is the spiritual gift of those who have the ability to coach, counsel, and encourage their fellow Christians to move toward becoming all God meant for them to be.

He was the most demanding teacher I ever had. He was also someone with whom I could talk about anything and to whom I could go for good advice. His name was Pastor Bruce Schein, holder of a doctorate in New Testament studies from Yale. But more importantly, he had the gift of exhortation. We were never friends and certainly not close. He wasn’t my pastor. He was an encourager who came into my life briefly. That's how it often is with people who have this gift.

And Bruce Schein arrived at a pivotal time in my life. My experience at Trinity Lutheran Seminary had, until the point when he came to teach there, been somewhat discouraging. If that was anybody’s “fault,” it was mine. Nonetheless, I was in a funk when, lo and behold, here came this passionate, down-to-earth man of faith who pushed and prodded me to move toward achieving my potential. “We want you to become a spiritual Charles Atlas, Mr. Daniels,” he told me once. That’s the aim of every possessor of the gift of exhortation.

“A person who has [this gift],” writes C. Peter Wagner, “becomes concerned with the spiritual welfare of a [fellow Christian]...for the period of time it takes to help that person, then he or she moves on to another...”

People with this gift are effective counselors. They’re dispensers of God’s love. They help us see, in a common phrase, that God loves us just as we are but loves us too much to leave us there.

The most famous Biblical figure with the gift of exhortation was a man named Joseph--not Joseph, the dreamer, from Genesis, or Joseph, the husband of Mary, from the New Testament Gospels. This Joseph was an early follower of Jesus known more commonly by his nickname, Barnabas, “which means ‘son of encouragement’” (Acts 4:36).

At the place we're first introduced to Barnabas in the New Testament, we find him encouraging the whole young church. He sells off his property and gives the proceeds to the apostles so that they, in turn, can help the needy within the fellowship of Jesus' followers.

Later, it was Barnabas who had the courage to go to the one-time persecutor of the Church, Saul of Tarsus, who we know as the apostle Paul, in order to encourage Paul’s new faith in Christ.

Later, Barnabas argued fiercely with Paul over a young believer named John Mark. Paul wanted to dump the young man because he felt that John Mark had failed him in an earlier assignment. Barnabbas insisted that the young disciple deserved a second chance and decided to undertake a missionary journey with him, apart from Paul.

Tradition says that John Mark is the author of the Gospel of Mark. Would Paul and Mark have become the great preachers and writers they became without Barnabbas’ encouragement? Maybe not.

(Barnabas, by the way, is one of my favorites and frankly, a person I try to emulate. There is nothing I love to do more than encourage people to use their gifts and talents to be all that God made them to be!)

The Greek word for exhortation, the word for this gift used by Paul in Romans 12, is paraclesis. A related word is paraclete, a word sometimes translated as comforter, one of the titles Jesus gives to the Holy Spirit. Both of these words are related to the verb, paracleo, a compound term literally meaning to call alongside. The person with this gift walks alongside fellow Christians at pivotal moments in their lives and helps move them to greater Christian maturity.

People with the gift of exhortation are usually backstage players, having less in common with motivational speakers than they do with a coach at the gym. And their aim is the same as that identified by Pastor Schein when he encouraged me: To help others become spiritual Charles Atlases.

Exhortation is the spiritual gift of those who have the ability to coach, counsel, and encourage their fellow Christians to move toward becoming all God meant for them to be.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “I want their hearts to be encouraged and united in love, so that they may have all the riches of assured understanding and have the knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ himself...” (Paul, writing in Colossians 2:2).

Monday, December 18, 2006

With Whom Would You Rather Hang Out?

Dan knows how he answers that question.

Praying at the State House of Representatives Tomorrow

Tomorrow, I'll be trekking to Columbus, where I'm to offer a prayer for the opening of the day's legislative session at the Ohio House of Representatives.

This is exciting to me for several reasons.

One reason is that, quite simply, it's wonderful to have the opportunity and I thank my representative, Joe Uecker, for inviting me to lead the prayer. (Joe's a great person, by the way. He beat three other guys and me in our party's primary for the office he now holds back in 2004. But after he'd thrashed me, we became friends.)

Another reason for my excitement is that it will be a homecoming, of sorts. Before I went to seminary, I worked for the House. I have a deep reverence for the institution and for the Capitol Building in which it meets. In recent years, the Capitol has been restored and renewed. As a boy and a teen, I often went inside just to soak up the place and all its history. (I once saw Jim Rhodes, the best Ohio governor in my lifetime, chatting one-on-one at the bottom of the marble staircase running from the rotunda to the Senate side of the building. I was with my mother and grandmother at the time and when I caught sight of him, they prompted me, "Go ahead. Introduce yourself." But I was too terrified to do it.) Given the awe of the place I've always had and unabashed love I have for Ohio--I know that seems hokey, but it's true, I loved working there. But I only worked for the House for one year before I sensed God's call taking me to seminary and the pastoral ministry I've done for the past twenty-two years.

On top of this, it will give me the chance to spend a few hours in my favorite city on the planet, my hometown of Columbus. And, I get to take my Dad with me.

All in all, it'll be a little pre-Christmas fun...and I hope, ministry.

The prayer I've prepared is short, just four lines. Brevity is something for which I always aim in public praying. (I don't always hit my target!) My general rule of thumb in this regard is something I picked up from Billy Graham: Spend a long time each day praying, personally. Give God access to your life and lay everything out for God. But keep your public praying brief. That will allow more people to be engaged with you as you pray. (In other words, they'll actually pray, too.)

Another thing that I think is important for pastors (and others) to remember when they do public praying is that there's a difference between praying and preaching. When we preach, we're out to convince. But when we pray with others, the only real audience is God. It's fine to employ language that invites people to pray along with you. But public prayer isn't a performance. You're not trying to convince those with whom you're praying. And you surely shouldn't use public prayers to score debating points or bash those with whom you disagree. Such practices have nothing to do with prayer!

Often, when we pastors are invited to offer public prayers, we use the occasions to impress others. We ramble on in supposed eloquence, all the while subliminally screaming, "Look at me! Aren't I smart, insightful, and spiritual?"

Ironically, the worst example of this I've heard happened at a gathering with Billy Graham. About 150 people attended this event and a fellow asked to give the closing prayer couldn't pass up the chance to wow us all.

I have a fairly durable attention span when it comes to listening to public speaking. I enjoy listening to lectures, speeches, monologues, and sermons. But as this guy's "prayer" dragged on and on, I found myself offering another, silent prayer. It may have not been appropriate either, but I kept saying, "God, shut him up. Please, shut him up." Finally, after what was probably a ten-minute prayer, he said, "Amen," which as you know means basically, "Yes!" I uttered my own hearty "Amen!" at that moment, thankful that what seemed like a performance disguised as a prayer had ended.

As to the constitutional issues associated with praying at a legislative session, I can only say that the courts have consistently held that such prayers, so long as they avoid proselytizing or pushing a particular political agenda, don't violate the establishment clause. Clergy from various faiths are invited to offer prayers at the General Assembly. (That's the name of our state legislature in Ohio.) And going all the way back to the period when our country operated under the Articles of Confederation, provision has been made for chaplaincies in the military and in legislative bodies. The Founders made these provisions despite their commitment to the separation of Church and State and the fact that they were as religiously as diverse a bunch as the new country could muster at the time.

Tomorrow, I'll share the text of my prayer, which is a lot shorter than this post.

[UPDATE: In a generous link to this post, Don Surber questions whether the courts have the right to tell a legislative body what sorts of prayers may be used. I based my characterization of court rulings on information supplied to me by the House. I'd like to learn what lawyers who read this piece might say.

[As to Joe Uecker's motivation for asking me to do the prayer might be, Joe can answer for himself. But I will tell you that, from my experience of him, he is a devoted follower of Jesus Christ. Tomorrow, he will introduce me as a Christian pastor, I'm sure.]

[ANOTHER UPDATE: The session's start tomorrow has been delayed until 1:00PM. You can watch all sessions of both houses of the General Assembly here.]

What Do You Get...

when you combine blasphemy, the WWF, and a mosh pit? (Not to mention the world's worst comb-over!)

Ladies and gentlemen, I present Benny Hinn.

(Thanks to John Schroeder of Blogotional for leading me to this little piece of cinema verite.)

Opening Your Spiritual Gifts (Day 16)

Teaching is the spiritual gift of those with the ability to convey God’s truth and glorify God so that others learn about Jesus Christ.

In a congregational context, we usually associate the gift of teaching with those who preach or teach Catechism or Sunday School. In the Church at large, the gift is associated with instructors at colleges and seminaries and with our bishops, who also have teaching offices. Those are good and essential places for people to exercise the gift of teaching, to be sure. We need people who teach God’s Word with care and faithfulness.

But the gift of teaching can help the Church fulfill its mission in other ways, too.

The most important responsibilities of parents, for example, are (1) to prepare our children for adulthood and (2) most importantly, to introduce them to the God we know in Jesus Christ (Deuteronomy 11:18-21). Parents mostly discharge these two responsibilities by their examples. But if parents have the gift of teaching, they also have an important weapon in their parenting arsenal.

Another way people with this gift might exercise it is through mentoring. In my home church was a woman named Martha. Martha was in her sixties when I came to know her, a person of deep faith in Christ who took this rambunctious, out of control twenty-something under her wing and taught me about living for Jesus Christ. Mentors, too, often teach by example. But some with the gift of teaching have the capacity to make the faith come alive for both those within the Church and those outside of it.

We can also use the gift of teaching to extend the mission of the Church in non-churchy ways. In that same home congregation was a devoted follower of Jesus, president of our church, and vice chair of the Plant Pathology department at Ohio State. Phil was in his thirties and a husband and a father of four children. But, in the midst of a busy schedule, he taught a class on lawn care at our church building. We publicized his class to the community. It became a means by which we loved the people of our neighborhood in a practical way. Spiritually disconnected people who attended the class saw the Savior behind the teacher.

Teaching is the spiritual gift of those with the ability to convey God’s truth and glorify God so that others learn about Jesus Christ.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord.” (Psalm 34:11)

Sunday, December 17, 2006

'The Nativity Story'

If you get the chance to do so, enrich your Christmas celebrating by seeing The Nativity Story. It's a moving and down-to-earth telling of the story of Jesus' birth. The cast is fantastic. The way the story is told can, at times, be witty, something that I think could appeal to spiritually-disconnected people.

While one could quibble with trivial things like Mary riding on a donkey to Bethlehem, which almost certainly did not happen or the wise men being at the stable with the shepherds, which, according to the Gospel of Matthew certainly did not happen, they don't distract attention from the story.

The scandal associated with the young Mary being pregnant and with Joseph taking her as his wife is well-portrayed. (As they leave for Bethlehem, the census, and the impending birth of Jesus, the people of Nazareth greet Mary and Joseph with cold stares. Joseph turns to Mary, his virgin bride, and says, with a smile, "We'll be missed.")

One might also quibble with the use of three wise men, even though the Bible doesn't say how many magi presented gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the Christ child. But the movie's portrayal of their decision to follow the natal star and the building up of their faith that results, is a sometimes funny and compelling element of The Nativity Story.

The scene showing the birth of Jesus in a barn is so moving, it may bring a lump to your throat. The deity incarnated in a stable. What a God we have!

DON'T MISS THE NATIVITY STORY!

A Changed Life

[This message was shared with the people of Friendship Lutheran Church, Amelia, Ohio, during worship celebrations on December 16 and 17, 2006.]

Luke 3:7-18
In a 1997 sermon, Robert M. Bowman tells about a friendship between a former head of the NAACP and the one-time Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. They met debating each other, many years ago. The Klansman taunted the black man and called him names. The black man responded that nothing the Klansman could do would make him hate him. He responded instead with love. Over a period of many years, the Klansman would telephone the black man, beginning the conversation by calling him the “N” word. But in 1991, he called and said, “Hello, brother.” He went on to tell his friend that he had left the Klan, had accepted Christ, and was called to preach the gospel, and that his conversion was due to the example of the black man returning hatred with love. By the time that Bowman recounted this story, they co-pastored a church and together preached about God’s love.

Last week, in our Bible lesson, we were introduced to the ministry of John the Baptizer, who said that the appropriate preparation for Christmas and for meeting Jesus Christ in our daily lives and in eternity is repentance. Repentance is the means by which our wills, minds, and hearts are opened to Christ and we become more like Him. When repentance happens--when we turn away from sin and toward God, miraculous things take place. That includes Imperial Wizards of the Ku Klux Klan renouncing racism and instead, becoming followers of Jesus.

In the very visual Hebrew language of the Old Testament, the word for repentance conveys the idea of a person once walking away from God, changing course and turning back toward God. In the more cerebral Greek language of the New Testament, the word for repentance--metanoia--means to change one’s mind.

But repentance needs to be more than a one-and-done deal. Sin is the common condition of the human race and even the most spiritual people you and I might name must fight it every day. Satan, the apostle Peter tells us in the New Testament, is a ravenous lion looking for those he can destroy. You can be sure that if the devil tried to tempt even Jesus, he’s not going to give up on trying to lure you and me away from walking with God. It’s possible for those of us who have repented for our sins to slip up and turn back to sin and away from God. If we’re to keep walking in the free gifts of forgiveness, love, and hope that Jesus gives to all with faith in Him, repentance needs to be our lifestyle.

But what does a repentant life look like?

Every year in this season, we read or see stage or movie adaptations of Charles Dickens’ classic, A Christmas Carol. As you all know, it tells the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, who one amazing Christmas Eve, is met by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. Through these encounters, Scrooge feels compelled to change his mind and the direction of his life. Near the end of his story, Dickens says of Scrooge, “It was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.” Scrooge turns from the greed and self-centeredness that was killing his humanity and, according to Dickens, kept doing so for as long as he lived. His repentance became a way of life.

Today’s Bible lesson takes us back to John the Baptizer at the Jordan River, preaching repentance. His message doesn’t sound like anything that Oprah Winfrey would say. “You brood of vipers!” he cries out to some of us hearers.

He tells them too, not to count on being children of Abraham to get them into the Kingdom of God. The question isn’t what the religion of our parents and grandparents were; the question for each of us is whether we ourselves believe in and follow the God we meet in Jesus Christ.

What John was really saying is, “To get the life God gives for free, you have to be walking toward God yourself!”

That means being truly repentant. Our lesson says that John encounters three different groups of people who want to know what a repentant, faithful life might look like in their real worlds.
  • The first group are described vaguely as “the crowds.” John tells them to share their extra coats and extra food with others.
  • Then comes tax collectors. John tells them to only collect what they’re supposed to collect.
  • Finally, he’s approached by soldiers. He tells them not to use their power to extort from the people.
Notice what John didn't say to any of these people. He didn’t tell the crowds to give away more than they had or could afford. He didn’t tell the tax collectors to stop doing their work. He didn’t tell the soldiers to stop soldiering.

In other words, God wants us to live out our lives in the same everyday places we all presently occupy. But we’re called to be light in a darkened world by conducting ourselves with an obvious love for God and love for others.

That’s a repentant way of life and it’s only possible when we surrender ourselves to the Savior Whose birth we soon will celebrate.

I’ve told some of you before about Fred. (This is a different Fred I'll be telling you about in one of the spiritual gifts devotions later this week.)

Fred was a member of my internship congregation. Less than a year before I met him, Fred had been in the clutches of alcoholism, an addiction in the grips of which he’d been for a long time. Finally, his wife and family and friends had had enough. An intervention group was organized in which all these people who loved Fred told him that he needed to quit.

Their tough love paid off. He enrolled in a Twelve-Step program and he continued to work the steps the rest of his life. Fred turned from his addiction and turned to Jesus Christ. He kept turning to Christ day-in and day-out.

What a difference it made in his life! When I first met Fred, I didn’t know his story and when I handed him a cup of wine for Holy Communion shortly after my arrival, I was perplexed that he simply held the cup and, without drinking from it, put it into the tray with other worshipers' empty cups.

His daughter and son-in-law later told me that they had been terrified that Fred would drink the wine, but were so proud of Fred and so grateful to God that he’d been able to put that tempting cup down. A lifestyle of repentance is made up of a thousand such little victories, won because we dare to turn from destruction and death and turn to Jesus.

I got to watch Fred through all the festivals and seasons of a Church Year because he never missed worship. That’s how grateful he was to Jesus for his deliverance. I watched him weep at the reading of the story of Jesus on the cross on Good Friday. I watched him too, sing at the top of his lungs in celebrating of Jesus resurrection on Easter. And I saw the light in his eyes when we celebrated Christmas. Of him, like old Scrooge, who turned from sin, it could be said, “He knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”

As we turn to Christ each day, asking for forgiveness of past sins as well as the courage to resist sin today and to keep walking with Him tomorrow, may the thing be said of us. You see, the ones best able to truly keep Christmas are those who live this lifestyle of repentance, a lifestyle of walking with Jesus. Amen!

Opening Your Spiritual Gifts (Day 15)

Prophecy is the gift of those people who have the capacity to apply the Word of God to specific circumstances, calling people to a renewed relationship with God and to treat their neighbors with love.

On two of the four weekends of the Advent season just prior to Christmas, most Christians focus on the ministry of John the Baptizer. John was a prophet, sharing all the characteristics of those who had the gift of prophecy in the Old Testament.

How so? First: He was given a particular word from God. Second: His call happened at a specific time and place. Third: It came with a specific charge. (In John’s case, he was to prepare for the coming of the Messiah.) [For more on the typical pattern associated with the calls of Old Testament prophets, see here.]

Sometimes, prophets don’t regard the gift of prophecy as a gift. Jonah, an Old Testament prophet, didn’t want to go to the foreign city of Nineveh because he hated the Ninevites and feared that if he told the people there that God planned to destroy their city, they would repent of their sin and God would forgive them. (That’s exactly what happened, to Jonah’s disgust.)

Often, as you can imagine, prophets aren’t wanted around. They speak truth that people and rulers would rather not hear. Jesus once lamented that Jerusalem, then the center of God-worship, had a history of killing off prophets. Prophets confront us with uncomfortable truths.

Because the words shared by prophets come straight from God, the prophets themselves are often unaware of their full meaning. John the Baptizer called Jesus “the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world.” And yet, while he was imprisoned, awaiting execution, he sent messengers to Jesus, asking if Jesus was the Messiah or if the Messiah was yet to come. The prophet simply shares God’s message, a person under command from God, and lives with the uncertainties about its implications.

The prophet is only tangentially concerned with the future. She or he isn’t a seer, though a look into the future--as in the writings of the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah--is often embedded in their prophecies. Prophets call people to repent--to turn back to God--for specific sins and injustices, telling people the consequences both of hard-heartedness and repentance.

Prophets are especially called to confront injustices, whether those perpetrated by rulers or nations. This is why they can often be unpopular. Forty years ago, a Baptist pastor named Martin Luther King, Jr. had the gift of prophecy and delivered God’s message of opposition to racism and discrimination and advocacy of justice and harmony. King, like many prophets before him, was killed for sharing God’s message.

Often, because of their countercultural messages from God, prophets are even unwelcome in or don’t quite fit in with the Church. John the Baptizer didn’t fit in with the religion of the ancient Jews, God’s people. Today, Bono of the rock band U2, is one of those unchurched Christians who loves Christ, the Bible, and the Church and calls Christians to care about their neighbors, yet doesn’t feel quite at home in a specific denomination or congregation. (The Church, by the way, is at its worst when its values are too much like its surrounding culture.)

Prophets call the Church to enact God’s particular brand of justice. As Father Walter Burghardt points out, Biblical justice differs from legal and philosophical notions of justice. The Bible affirms their notions of human rights and treating others fairly, but Biblical justice is so much more. The God of the Bible says that justice is only served when we love God and we love our neighbor as though they were another self.

People with the gift of prophecy can often be irritating to the Church and to the world. But they call us to truly live out Jesus’ Great Commandment: to love God with every fiber of our beings and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Only a sadist would want the gift of prophecy, I suppose. But prophets are heroes for believers in Jesus.

Prophecy is the gift of those people who have the capacity to apply the Word of God to specific circumstances, calling people to a renewed relationship with God and to treat their neighbors with love.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” (Luke 3:1-2)

[Cross-posted at RedBlueChristian.com]

[THANKS TO: Bruce Armstrong of Ordinary Everyday Christian for linking to this post.]