Saturday, December 31, 2016

Chose Joy in The New Year

Is being joyful difficult for you? It has been for me, until I began to realize and internalize that happiness and joy are not the same thing. Happiness has to do with circumstances or what’s going on. Joy is the internal knowledge by faith that God is in it with you. He is your joy, so you can respond to tough days like the Apostle Paul from prison. “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say again: Rejoice!”  (Philippians 4:4). Here is Paul heading toward execution and rejoicing. This is crazy from a worldly perspective, but from a faith-filled and eternal perspective it is central. We can rejoice because God is in it with us. Psalm 22:3 says, “God is in (inhabits) the praises of His people.”  James puts is another way saying, “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you” (James 4:8). So keep rejoicing, it is a choice.

For several years I have been choosing a “word of the year” or trait on which to concentrate. Chosen characteristics have been faithfulness, kindness, and gentleness for 2016. I am choosing “Joy” for 2017. Not that I have already succeeded in it as Paul said in Philippians, “Not that I have already attained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ took hold of me”  (Philippians 3:15). No, I have not been perfected in these things. In fact, concentrating on them has reminded me how far I still have to go. I could keep on choosing the same word forever, but I will keep working on them all in the New Year. The “Fruit of the Spirit” referenced in Galatians 5:22 speaks of certain characteristics of God like joy, faithfulness, kindness and gentleness that are one fruit we should be developing more and more together with God’s help. They are not attainable without the Holy Spirit’s counseling, convincing, comforting and convicting. This is not easy, but comes slowly through trials, temptations, victories and defeats.  As Paul says, “Rejoice! Let your gentleness be known to all.  The Lord is near. Do not be anxious for anything but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God that transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus”  (Philippians 4:4-7). What a wonderful promise to take in. Rejoice and be thankful in prayer, not worrying about anything in life, and His peace will be your guard. This is difficult, for it seems that humans are an anxious lot. But elsewhere in Scripture Moses says, “For the Lord your God will bless you in all your harvest and in all the work of your hands, and your joy will be complete”  (Deuteronomy 16:15). Nehemiah tells the Israelites after rebuilding the broken wall of Jerusalem, ‘Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength(Nehemiah 8:10).

Philippians is known as the “Joy letter” as Paul mentions joy 27 times saying, “Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind”  (Philippians 2:1-2).  Complete joy is a state of mind and heart that is content in the Lord, at peace.

It is the Christmas Season as I write this essay. Joy to The World, a wonderful Christmas Carol reminds us “the Lord has come.”  Yes, Jesus has come to earth to live and die for us that that those who believe in Him might have eternal life and rejoice in it. Have you received your King as “the indescribable gift,” or are you still stuck in trying to make yourself happy? The world does not get it. Jesus told the disciples, ‘So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy” (John 16:22).  Make your joy complete, choose Jesus as Savior and Lord and rejoice! Have you chosen a word for the New Year?

“This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24).

Friday, December 30, 2016

Be Transformed

“Therefore I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God- this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not be conformed any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is- His good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:1-2).

Transformation is a process that is done by God. Our job is to be obedient and submit to His headship in our lives. But first we need to receive God in Christ Jesus as our Savior and Lord. This is the process of sanctification or being made holy, more like Jesus. Paul is telling us that we must conform ourselves to God’s will as written in His Word, the Bible, not the world. God does the rest. “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into His likeness with ever increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Once made new in Christ, we reflect His glory and He is transforming us.

“You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:22-24). This is a process of intentionally putting on a new attitude that is renewed in Christ to be holy. It is an every day thing. Paul tells us in Galatians 5:18 “So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature…But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:16-17; 22-26).  These traits are what the new self is all about in increasing levels.

Paul teaches in Colossians teaches “since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator…Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you... And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them together in perfect unity”  (Colossians 3:9-10; 12-14). He is teaching about our renewal in the knowledge of  Christ. It is a life of reconciliation with God and others. It is covered with the law of God through His Spirit with unworldly, Godly attributes.

Transformation is a process authored by God as we submit to His molding of our lives. This brings more of Him and less of us.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016


“Why is this happening to me?” I hear this or a similar phrase dozens of times each day in my ministry as a hospital Chaplain. It might be illness or loss of health or relationship. The theme is common to man. In fact the Apostle Paul said, No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it”  (1 Corinthians 10:13).  Temptations and trials are interchangeable here. Yes, we all have trials and it is pretty much constant as I think King David’s wonderful Psalm 23 reminds us. “Even though I walk through the shadow of the valley of death, I fear no evil for you are with me, your rod and staff comfort me.”  It is our walk until we are home free or in fear. I chose to be home free in the valley. I see the valley as a place full of flowers blooming and rivers flowing, because God is in it with me. He says fear not for He is comforting and protecting you. As well, if you chose to trust in God through His Son Jesus Christ, death is a shadow, it can’t hurt you. This means heaven is your home. Heaven is free from adversity and trials, but filled with peace and prosperity. Again it is a choice.

OK back to blame. “God can’t be good if I had my leg cut off and my wife has cancer.” I am not sure that one follows the other as commonly as I hear this. Why can’t the world just be full of struggle and not good? God made it good, but human kind has screwed it up, big time. We have sinned and not been obedient. We have thrown God out of our society and His word is anathema to a major part of our society. Atheism is a belief, a strong one. It believes not in God, but in self to overcome and succeed in the world. Good luck with that. It does not believe in eternal life, but in our circumstance or state of affairs now. It is a temporal and pessimistic view of life. It says that someone has to be to blame for this rotten mess. And it also takes credit if good stuff happens too. But what of the solution? Blame God! OK, I think we can blame Him, as it were, for giving us free will. Therein lies the problem, we can chose to follow Him or be disobedient and follow ourselves.   The world that is fast devolving into the chaos from which it came is doing so because of us.  

Stuff happens, pain, loss, gain, light and dark. “God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). This Christmastide we read or hear many Scripture verses, whether we believe them or not. “Bah Humbug.”
 The people walking in darkness
    have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
    a light has dawned. 
You have enlarged the nation
    and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you”
    as people rejoice at the harvest  (Isaiah 9:2-3).
However, many do not trust in the light but chose to walk in darkness. “If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin” (1 John 1:6-7).  “Light” is written over 300 times in Scripture and always pointing to God. Do you walk in light or darkness, there is no in between.

Life is hard and we will have unexplainable trials and pain. I do not know why. God knows, and it is to bring us to closer faith in Him and our recognition of our need for a Savior from trouble that He alone has overcome. That is the goal of adversity, to bring us closer to Him. You can cry out, but in the end suffering is not to defeat you, but to change you. It is not about punishment; that has already happened on the cross for all of us. Many will hear and few will heed.  

So continue to enjoy the “holyday” parties and carols of Christmas without understanding. It is not about gift giving. But it is about receiving the ultimate gift in the only One who gave it all to all. “Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift” (2Corinthians 9:15).

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Full Moon Christmas

Full Moon

I have said it before, about my riding my bike in the predawn darkness.Today it is white with snow. Only snow shoes or XC skis would work in gliding along. Yet this morning was a full moon, a very rare Christmas morning one. The light showed me the way through the streets. Shadows from the trees were cast across lawns and fields. The moonlight cast golden beams across Lac du Cour and the Milwaukee River as I skied by. It was magical and showing me a sense of God’s presence in His creation. The power of Isaiah 9:2-3 seemed to speak saying, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned. You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest.”

Jesus is the great light coming into the world on Christmas morning. He is the “light of the world.” This is the message, “God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with Him yet walk in darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, His Son, purifies us from all sin”  (1 John 1:5-7).

This is the message of Christmas; there is no other truth. May your day be full of His light.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Taste and See

Christmas brings our senses alive with smells, sights, sounds, and tastes galore. Can you imagine the taste of plum pudding. Perhaps you have never had it with thick white sauce and brandy added and even lighted to caramelize the mixture. The pudding is like an ancient dark fruitcake, full of dried fruits and nuts. Many families have traditions with food and drink that are unique to the holiday season. These tastes for me include the 300-year old Daughters of Charity fruitcake recipe that I have baked for nearly 50 years. The cinnamon, nutmeg and clove mix with the dark molasses, butter and orange juice, drizzled with brandy that seems to explode from the bowl. For some, fruitcake brings bad memories. For me it is nostalgic with my favorite “Flying Nun” boss and her bountiful Christmas parties that lighted up St. Mary’s Hospital each year. She would open the feast with a prayer and toast of thanksgiving to the many hospital caregivers. Standing rib roasts and stuffed Cornish hens were garnished with candied apples and fruit. Candles flickered throughout the dining room, as the sent of pineapple glaze on the baked hams and sweet potatoes wafted through the air. She would end the feasts with entertainment of madrigal singers and Baked Alaska. This mesmerizing smell of this high white meringue dessert, flambĂ©ed to brown the top, tickled the nose.  Cognac and liquors were poured all around. “Taste and see that the Lord is good, blessed is the one who takes refuge in him(Psalm 34:8).

Can you taste and see the Lord? It is easy for me to remember, my senses speaking of the good things the Lord had provided us throughout the year and this Christmas season. He is also in the swirling snow, flickering in the brilliant colored lights on the pine tree outside the living room window. The full moon sets above, etched gleaming silver in the pre-dawn frigid temperatures. I can hear the snow plows in the distance and the soft church bells muffled by the deep new fallen snow. The shadows of trees stretch across the blanketed yard, reaching to the dark pointed spruce forest beyond. It is below zero this morning, but the sweetness of the scene makes the tastes and sights come alive with warmth.

As I warm up inside, my clothes are steaming from shoveling another half-foot of light, fluffy snow crystals. The hot robust coffee does too, is warming me through and through.

“How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (Psalm 119:103).  As I close my Bible from my early morning devotional, the words have not only jumped off the page, they have come alive in all my senses. God’s word is truth and guidance to my way. It is sharper than a two-edged sword, but more comforting than a hot bubble bath after a long day at the hospital. It is sweeter than honey to me as it warms my heart and opens my spirit to aspiring thoughts and the sense of God’s presence and peace. This is the power of God’s word, the Bible. The psalmist says, “I am consumed with longing for your word” as he delights and meditates on the wonders of the words. Is that how God’s word affects you? If not, perhaps you have not really come to know God and His personal love through His promises and statutes, as He desires for you. I pray you come to a place where all of your senses like Psalm 119 portrays will come alive. Then you will be praying to God the words, “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer”  (Psalm 19:14).  This psalm says that the Word revives the soul, and it is pure and enduring, radiant and giving joy to the heart. The words are perfect going out to the ends of the earth. “They are more precious than gold; than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from a comb” (Psalm 19:10).

This Season is bringing home the intimacy of the Christmas story for me, and may it be for you too. Reread Luke 2 telling the story of Jesus’s birth. Be moved in spirit with all of your senses and slow down. Hear again the anthem of the angels and the company of heavenly hosts praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom His favor rests” (Luke 2:13-14). Take in the scene the shepherds experienced in astonishment. Can you “treasure up all these things” like Mary and “ponder them in your heart?”   Merry Christmas!