When Darkness Overshadows the Holidays

We have just come through the season of Thanksgiving and are headed quickly to Christmas which has been dubbed, “the most wonderful time of the year.” Unfortunately for some people, there has been little to be thankful for right now and the holidays don’t seem so wonderful.

Why does God allow bad things to happen? How do we understand pain and difficulty in the life of people, especially believers? Today, I would like to point you toward four truths about the struggles of this life and the suffering we endure.

1. Sin Exists … and people choose it. The Bible is built on a story that humans are given a choice to follow God or reject him. The first couple decided to reject him, and we continue to do so up through today. Unfortunately, we live in a world where there are people who chose to hurt other people, they lie, they cheat, they steal, they do drugs, they break the law, and they chose to reject what is right. As a result, we are affected by their decisions.

2. Evil Exist … and work against us. I return to the Biblical story of Job. In the early chapters, we have Satan wishing to test Job. He wants to see if his faith is focused on God or just his blessings. Evil wants God to allow him to test Job’s character. I believe that evil still exists, and he is still working against us, testing our integrity, our faith, and our endurance. When you couple our willingness to sin with the opportunity that evil presents, then bad things happen.

3. Pain Exists … and we feel it. Unfortunately, our bodies are not indestructible. Pain makes us cry out for a doctor, or surgery or pills or anything to take the pain away. The harsh reality is that all of us are mortal and these mortal bodies are given to decay. We are all going to die. The flip side of that coin is that emotional and spiritual pain also exists. We feel the pain in our souls as much as the physical pain in our flesh and all of it hurts.

4. Hope Exists … and we need to embrace it. If all of the above statements are true, then our most significant need is for hope in the darkness. I believe that faith has the answer to our pain. First, I believe God can give us forgiveness for our sins. Second, he can provide us with strength over our temptations. Third, he gives us purpose in our pain. He can take the evil and bring good out of the misery. Finally, God gives us the hope of eternal life. Heaven is a place not given to sin, where goodness reigns and where death is swallowed up in victory. There will be no more mourning or crying or pain in the eternal presence of God.

I want you to know that I write this not as a casual bystander watching the pain of the world and offering one-line suggestions for help. I write this as I stand in the middle of my own struggles. Last Sunday marked the one-year anniversary of the last time I saw my father alive. He struggled to walk to the French door and wave as my boys, and I drove out of sight. He then suffered another stroke on Christmas Eve and was gone by January 8th. Every day I think of something that reminds me of the difficulties of the holidays, and it hurts.

Yet, in the darkness I find hope. I understand the nature of the world in which we live, and the hope found in my faith. If you are struggling this holiday season, I pray you find the hope that only trust in Jesus can bring.

Temporary Companions on the Journey

Flipping through a photo album reveals a small mystery of life. There are pictures of people who touched my life for a season and now are gone. It seems God gives us individuals to help guide us for a short time, and then we move different directions.

Obviously social media can allow us to stay in touch longer, but even then, many of the people who have walked through my life are distant now. We no longer speak regularly or know the details of each other’s lives.

The footprints on my soul that have been left by teachers, friends, co-workers, neighbors, and Church members are deeply imprinted. They taught me something. They gave me wisdom and guidance. They saw the best in me when I couldn’t see it.

And now they are gone. Lost in a world of memories of the good times and precious connections.

I believe God brings two groups of people into each person’s life.

1. People To Help Us. I believe God can send the right person into your life to guide you in paths of righteousness if you listen. They can point you farther down the road to the life God has in store for you.

2. People We Can Help. I also believe God has brought people into your life that you can help. It may be as simple as a word of encouragement or as complex as counseling. You have people who need you for this moment on their journey.

These people may only cast a slight shadow over my walk with Jesus, but the impact can be significant.

We naturally attempt to cling to these blessings God sent us, even if our paths separate. Still, slowly God moves us both different directions. Time will inevitably leave us as strangers with a common story.

As I look at the pictures of my past, I am thankful for those strangers God brought to me that became friends. We helped each other, and then we moved on.

I hope my life has been a blessing to other people, if only for a short time.

Each day God brings people close to us, and we never know where that will lead. Every single day he does this … even today.

Don’t Forget Giving Tuesday

The American culture has given rise to naming the days immediately following Thanksgiving. We have Black Friday and Small Shop Saturday. We have Sunday set aside for worship, although our attendance shows that several people forget that day. Anyway, we then have Cyber Monday as the day people shop online unless you have a day job and responsibilities. Then in 2012, a new day was proposed, and it is starting to catch on across the country. Today is Giving Tuesday.

The concept is simple. We have spent the past five days indulging in food and spending. Why not take some of your money and give it to charity? Instead of making the holidays all about purchasing gifts that will break in the next year, why not donate to a worthy cause and allow your cash to do something positive in the world?

Just so you know this is not a selfish plea, you do not have to give to the Church I lead. You do not even need to give to a Church.

Now I would ask you to do two things. First, as a believer, I would love for you to give to cause the directly impacts the world for Christ. Our Church supports missions that I can suggest like Show Me Christian Youth Home, Rapha House, a Christian College, Christian Campus House (in Warrensburg, MO), or even a missionary on the field. Second, do a little homework on the place you give your hard-earned money. There are organizations where 80% or more of the donations go to overhead costs. There are non-profit CEO’s that make millions. On the flip side, some great groups function with little staff costs and have a high impact.

My challenge today is simple: Just give something to a worthy cause.

I honestly believe the best way to use your resources this holiday season is to give to a cause that will be about positive change in the world. It will not only impact the world, but it will shift your focus onto more significant things. Jesus makes it clear, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Waiting for a Day that Never Comes

Returning to work after the long holiday weekend meant I was greeted with a mound of work. Combine that with the looming Christmas season, and I am overwhelmed. There is so much to do. I found myself sitting here dreaming about one day. One day I will catch up on all this work and the stress level will be reduced, and life will be good.

Then I realized how many of my dreams I am waiting to happen one day in the future. I fantasize about this one day when everything will be perfect.

One day I will have less work, and I will be less stressed.

One day I will catch up on all my projects at home and have more time for my family.

One day I will not have children’s events to run to, and I can spend more time with my wife.

One day I will have enough money to pay all my bills, and I will become generous.

One day I will have extra time to develop deep relationships with people I know.

One day I will be retired and have more time for God.

One day I will …

One day I will be the kind of man I have always dreamed of becoming. One day when my schedule allows, and the work is done. One day when the children are grown, and I have less responsibility. One day when the finances are better, I will give more time and energy to a cause I believe is worthy. One day out there in the future my life will perfect, and I will be happy.

The problem is that one day never comes. There is always just today. I have been dreaming about this mystical time that will happen one day since I was a young man. Now, I find myself still dreaming about this great one day.

The truth is that we only have today. This is what we get, and we are called to make the best out of the mess. We are challenged to shape our lives in the middle of less than perfect conditions.

Great people do not just show up one day, they are formed over a lifetime of imperfect days, just like today.

When Life Goes Beyond Explanation

Some things in life a hard to explain.

A series of good events take place that seems beyond explanation. We say, “They are lucky.”

Two people meet oddly, and they fall in love, get married and live happily ever after. Hearing their story and some people respond by calling it “destiny.”

Something good happens to a person who is typically nice, and people say, “That’s Karma.”

The storm comes, and it blows a tree over in front of your house, but nothing is harmed. Neighbors talk about the “strange power of mother nature.”

Everyone, I mean everyone, has things that happen in their life that go beyond rational explanation.

Ancient people attributed these actions to a list of gods. They created idols to explain all these incredible phenomena that they experienced. We have moved away from gods and relabeled them with things like “luck, destiny, karma” and a host of other words.

What if the unexplainable events of your life could be the mighty hand of God? What if he were quietly moving and pushing you toward a life guided by him?

A preacher I admire once said, “Trying to see the hand of God is like looking through stained glass. You can see it, but you have to look closely and carefully.”

Where has the hand of God been working in your life? I am sure it has been happening. You may have mislabeled or misunderstood it, but God is with you.

How would your perspective on life change this Thanksgiving if you looked for the hand of God in it?

Maybe the unexplainable in your life has a supernatural explanation of God working for your highest good.

The Rule of Minimal Understanding

My phone has hundreds of features that I do not use or understand. My DirecTV was explained to me by the installer, but I don’t use much of anything he showed me. I own a smart TV, and I have learned to use a few things. I have so many gadgets and gizmos in my life that I have purchased that I barely know more than essential functions.

Recently I ran across an article that explained this phenomenon. Each year new phones and computers are introduced with fancy features. The truth is that most people do not utilize all the special functions they already have on their current technology. The problem is an issue of minimal understanding. Once we gain enough knowledge to make something useful, we have a natural tendency to stop learning anything new.

We tell ourselves that one day we will learn more useful information about our product. We hold these dreams that there will come a day when we sit down and study the manual. Some day we will scroll through features and try things out. We might even plan to google some possible helps, and we will become a master of our technology.

Truthfully, we will never do it. There are usually only two reasons that we learn a new way to use our gadget. First, someone we know, and trust shows us a unique use and thoroughly explains it to us. Second, we are forced to learn to regain its minimal usefulness.

This realty applies to more than technology. It also applies to our spiritual life. Many people reach a turning point in their lives. A new job, marriage, childbirth, a job loss, divorce or some other issue pushes us into a new way of life. We get excited about the prospects that this new life holds when we apply Jesus to it. We listen and learn. We read and search to get a grasp on all that faith can mean. Soon we know enough that things are usable in our faith. We experience grace, we understand the cross and our guilt is removed. We reach the minimal understanding of following Jesus.

The question is, will we go beyond minimal understanding? I hope that everyone who comes to Jesus begins to use the features. Just like your fancy new phone, it has far more going for it than you understand. Will you push forward to learn all about it? I know people say they want to be more and dream of being a spiritual giant, but will they? It is possible that some believers will just live at the same level of understanding and use.

God may one day push us to grow. A friend may walk into our lives and give us a deeper level of faith. Maybe? I just hope that one day we do not think our faith is a failure and trade it in for something different because of our lack of knowledge.

I Would Make a Good Pharisee

I think I would have made a good Pharisee.

People who read the Bible are introduced to this interesting group of religious leaders called Pharisees. They started as a collection of committed men who wished to separate themselves from the ordinary everyday believer. They held tight to the teachings of the Old Testament and the man-made traditions that surrounded it. The group was composed of people who sought to live in total devotion to God to the best of their ability. They fasted and prayed, they gave tithes and offerings, and they sought to know everything they could about the scriptures.

I really think I would have made a good Pharisee.

The problem that develops over time is that in their quest to draw close to God they started to look down on everyone else. They viewed their acts of righteousness as better than other people. They were more devout, more giving and more knowledgeable than everyone, so why not feel a little superior to those less committed?

Over time they developed traditions that made it more difficult for people to live out their faith. They lost sight of God and started elevating their own actions. They alone thought right, talked right and had the proper viewpoint. The Pharisees became judgmental of other people and their shallow faith shown in words and actions. Slowly this group of committed believers turned into a bad example of what it means to trust God. Rarely in the accounts of Jesus are they ever painted in a positive light. Usually, they are elevated only to show their flaws. Jesus tells his followers that their righteousness needs to exceed that of their Pharisees. Their highest goal in life was not to please God but to appear better than you.

I am sure of it; I make a good Pharisee.

I enjoy standing at the back of crowds offering a quick assessment of people’s character. I read through social media with a judgmental eye for mistakes in thinking and actions. I frequently lose sight of God while telling the world I am trying to please him. I hate to say it, but I often elevate my agenda about Jesus.

As I read the New Testament, I remind myself that I am far more like the Pharisees than I am Jesus. I do take comfort in the fact that the Apostle Paul was once a Pharisee. He said, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life. (1 Timothy 1:15-16 – NIV)

Paul got it right, in God saving a Pharisee like me, he demonstrated that he can save anyone. That is true for a Pharisee like you too.

The Joy of Preventative Grace

There is an old saying you probably know that states, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” It is not found in a Bible passage and is usually attributed to a preacher named John Bradford from the 1500’s. He wrote it in a more personal manner by saying, “there, but for the grace of God, go John Bradford.” It appears that his words caught on and became applied to believers everywhere. By the early 1900’s the phrase was regularly used by people across the globe, and we still use it today.

I know I have stated this one little sentence repeatedly in my life. It is uttered when I hear the story of high school classmates whose life turned out as less than glamorous. These words are spoken when I hear of a college classmate who left the ministry because of some dark sin in his life. I speak it when I see a Christian make a poor decision that could have been avoided. My life truly bears witness to the truth, “there, but for the grace of God, go I.”

Most days I see my need for grace, and I am thankful for the forgiveness I find in the work of Christ. Occasionally I need to be reminded of the grace that I do not feel every day. Today I am thankful for the grace of God that prevented me from walking down some dark paths.

1. I am thankful for my family. I am grateful for parents who stayed together and gave me a great life. I am sure there were days they both felt like giving up on our family. God blessed me by preventing me from being raised in a fractured family.

2. I am thankful for my Church. Some of my earliest memories are of people in the Church teaching me the Bible. There have been people pointing me the right direction my whole life. Who knows how many mistakes I might have made without their guidance on my journey?

3. I am thankful for my relationships. I am grateful to God for not allowing me to develop a deeper relationship with that one girl in high school. She is now on her fourth marriage. I am thankful I did not marry that girl in college who did not want to be a preacher’s wife. I know she would have made me quit what I am doing years ago.

These are just a few of the ways God has guided my life with grace and mercy.

I am intensely aware of the grace that forgives my failures, but I need to be continually reminded of the grace that guides me every day. I could have walked through so much heartache and hardship in life and yet God prevented me from going down those paths.

Today is an excellent opportunity to remind myself of the truth that, “there, but for the grace of God, go I.” Maybe you needed to be reminded today too.

Why Did I Underline That?

Every believer should have a plan to read their Bible regularly. This one spiritual discipline will give you a more profound knowledge of God and his word, a better understanding of theology and help you grow spiritually. For the last nine years, I have developed my own plan, and I read through the Bible in about 18 months.

Each time I complete a journey through the Bible, I purchase a new Bible to read the next time. Occasionally I pick a different English translation, and sometimes I use a study Bible to help with my reading. Then I take the old Bible that I had just finished and move it to my pile that I use for sermon and lesson preparation, public speaking and any other use that comes along.

Frequently I will pick up one of my old Bibles to read, and I notice that I have underlined or highlighted something while I was on my reading plan. I will look carefully at what jumped out at me during that phase of my spiritual journey and wonder, “Why did I underline that?” I mean, what was I thinking? That statement that seemed so profound to me that I took out my pencil and drew a line under it now appears to be another random statement that has no unique value.

This experience reminds me of another passage of scripture. Hebrews 4:12 says in the New International Version, “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”

Much of this scripture is familiar to someone who grew up in Church. As a young boy, my Sunday School teacher held “sword drills.” The Bible was our sword, and we were to look up whatever passage he announced. The first one to the verse was the winner and often received some prize.

The part of this passage that is easy to read past are the first words. “The word of God is living and active.” Wait, what? How can a book that was written on paper be active?

The truth is that God can speak to us through the words of the Bible in new and personal ways every time we read it. One season as I am reading I may be struggling personally, and God uses his word to speak to me through a particular passage. The next time I might be hurting from loss, and God speaks to me differently as I read through it.

One primary reason to read and reread the Bible over and over again is to receive what I need for that moment in time. Yes, it is still truth whether it touches my life or not. The sweet spot of spending time in the Bible is when I hear the voice of God using his truth to speak to me today. It may touch my heart and soul so much that I take out a pencil and underline it. I might even make a note in the margin.

I find a simple pleasure in reading the Bible and seeing those strange places where I underlined a sentence that means nothing to me now. It reminds me that the word of God is living and active and it is still touching lives today. Maybe he wants to speak to you today, take a little time to read and see what you hear. Be sure and have your pencil ready.

Deciding Who and What to Help

If you spent one month in the Church office, you would have a different view of helping people. Most people have no idea what happens here almost every day. It might surprise you the number of requests for money we receive repeatedly.

These requests come in one of three categories. First, there are phone calls for help with a bill. Almost all of these have a sad story about how they lost one of their utilities, or they are about to lose it. Also, people need help with gas or food immediately. Second, requests for support of a mission project. Numerous people want to accomplish something great for God. All their dreams require money, so they contact the Church seeking the help of other believers. The final group of requests is people looking for help with a community project. These are some type of good work, but usually, do qualify as God’s work. There is a need in our community, and people want to help, even though they will never mention the name of God they still look for help from the Church. Honestly, over the next month as we approach Christmas and we live in the shadow of the new year we will receive at least 30 requests for financial help.

I am blessed to serve in a Church that has several different avenues to help people this time of year. Even then, there is just no way to meet all the requests. So how does the Church decide who and what to help?

Here are several things our Church leadership considers.

1. We gather INFORMATION. Information is vital. The more we know, the better we can help. We request paperwork be filled out and submitted. We file old requests and make notes on them.

2. We seek the WISDOM of others. Frequently I text the other Churches in town to see what they know about the situation, person or ministry. I present information to the leadership of the Church and ask for input. No one person makes the decision about the Lord’s money alone.

3. We ask people to PRAY. We ask God to open or close doors, to show us the direction to go and how to best handle the situation.

4. We prioritize GOD’s WORK. As a Church we want to support people who are in the Church, are interested in the gospel or are trying to promote the work of the Lord. There are hundreds of good projects that help people who need support. They are good, if not great works, but they do not further the name of Jesus. We weight this issue carefully.

5. PERSONAL CONNECTIONS are helpful. Does anyone know who is requesting this money? Is there anyone who can stand up for this need and verify the people who are asking for it?

There is no set formula to handle all requests because every situation is unique. We, as a Church leadership, seek to decide based on the most accurate information to promote the work of God in our world. Sometimes, that means we must tell people who their request has been denied. It is not because we are mean or greedy, it just means there is not enough money to handle every need or want. I wish we could do more, but no Church has an overabundance of money. We must be wise with what God has given us.

Over the next six weeks, you will hear stories both good and bad coming from Churches. I know from personal experience, none of these situations were handled in a light-hearted way. Churches and their leaders have a heart to help, and we take it seriously. Sometimes wonderful decisions abound, and other times hard choices are required, I hope that God is glorified through it all.