A Life of Serving Humanity

Today in the US we’re honoring the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He was best known for his work in the Civil Rights Movement and his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, but what many people may not know was the key role that faith played in his life. He actually started his career of “serving humanity” as he called it, by attending seminary and becoming a pastor. While he wasn’t ‘just’ a pastor for long (although he did preach until his death), faith was a key part in how he led and the fact that he led non-violent movements to worked on advancing civil rights.

Each year we take a look at his life because there’s so much we can learn from it, and each time I read an article or hear a bit about him, I’m reminded of something I had forgotten or learn something I didn’t know. One of the things I was reminded of this year was how young he was when he died: he was only 39. When people die that young we often feel regret for the life that has been lost and what they could have done with the many years they were likely to have had they lived a life of more typical length. I have to say that I think Dr. King did very well with the few years that he had, packing more than most of us do in his last 14 years. He certainly didn’t pick an easy journey, even with the decision to be non-violent and work from a place of peace. But because of his bravery he made a lasting positive impact on countless lives, even beyond the civil rights discussion.

Additionally today I want to think on the many people who paved the way for his work, as well as supported him in his journey. The civil rights movement is something that had been building for years, and reached a boiling point with people such as Emmett Till and Rosa Parks, erupted right as King was becoming a pastor and was most active during his last 14 years. He was also supported by people such as Billy Graham, Mahalia Jackson, Jesse Jackson, and Thich Nhat Hanh, not to mention countless people who were never named but were present or supported in some way the many protests of the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King didn’t do this alone. Yes, he was a charismatic man with big dreams, a captivating presence and the willingness to do what it took to get the attention that was necessary to finally create positive change. But he didn’t do it alone while he was alive, and because he died he couldn’t continue his work, others had to pick it up, and they did.

Maybe God has called you to be a voice, maybe God has called you to play a background role. There are no small roles, just people who aren’t content with the gifts God has given them. Today I encourage you to celebrate the opportunities God has given you to contribute to the Kingdom, however large or small, and be brave in honor of Dr. King’s life.

“The prophet Isaiah was speaking about John when he said, “He is a voice shouting in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord’s coming! Clear the road for him!”” Matthew 3:3

Home and Family

The other day I was reading part of the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15. If you remember the story, two sons live with their father, one son decides to strike out on his own, is unprepared for the realities of life, struggles greatly, hits rock bottom and decides to return home. Upon arriving home he was welcomed home by his father with open arms and a party, while his brother struggled to welcome him back because he felt deserted and was frustrated that his father welcomed his brother back so easily. If you haven’t read it lately, I’d encourage you to go check it out because there’s a lot of important emotion and description that Luke and Jesus share in the parable.

What this passage got me thinking about was the topic of home. We just went through the holiday season, which is always a time of gathering with family and friends, as well as a time that causes us to remember the loved ones we’ve lost over the years. The holidays encourage us to gather with the people who are home to us and visit the places that feel like home. Sometimes home is about the people and not the places, but most of us do have places that feel more comfortable and welcoming and make us think of home. Just like the prodigal son had hope that if he returned to the place and people who were home to him, each time we return home we go with hope that we’ll have a good visit, strengthening our relationships with those who are important to us and maybe also enjoying a good meal too.

Not all visits to the people and places we call home are good or go as expected, and like the brother in the story of the prodigal son, some relationships are works in progress. But when you think about the limited time that we have with each other, it’s important to hold out hope like the prodigal son did, that maybe this time our gathering will be good one. And from the people I’ve talked with, this year had more good experiences with family than usual, important as some of these families lost a family member before or after the holiday season.

If you are still feeling led to make a change this year or focus on something this year, maybe this year you want to focus on home, both the people and the places. Commit to spending time with the people who God has put in your life by both birth and life choices, people who you want to have stronger relationships or play a larger part in your life, and you in theirs. Commit to making your home a place you’re proud of and people feel welcome in. And finally, commit to living a life that welcomes Jesus and makes Him part of the relationships and interactions you have.

Time to Praise

The new year is here, have you and God been talking about the year ahead? Has God put anything specific or different on your heart for this new year and decade? I’m excited to have another year here to talk with you about God and see where our journey together takes us. I want to start the year off by sharing a passage from the Psalms:

“Let all that I am praise the Lord; with my whole heart, I will praise his holy name. Let all that I am praise the Lord; may I never forget the good things he does for me.” Psalm 103:1-2

I can’t guarantee what the year ahead will be, I can’t promise that it will be a good year, I can’t promise that this year will have better news in it than last year did, I can’t promise better income, I can’t promise better health, I can’t promise much unfortunately, as much as I would like to. What I can promise is that if you spend more time this year in praising God, you’ll have greater peace about whatever does happen.  Taking time to praise and worship God even when (especially when) you’re feeling down can lift you up because it helps to recenter and refocus your heart and mind.

I start with those statements because during this time of year we do think about what we want or our resolutions or our year ahead (if we only take one time of year to truly think about it, that’s better than never thinking about it). But we shouldn’t be praising God or doing anything that has to do with God for what we’re going to get out of it, but rather to honor, worship, love, celebrate and remember God. We can praise God for all of the things He’s done for us, all the blessings He’s shared with the world, and for just being the caring, loving, omnipresent God that He is.

What will you praise God for today?

Christmas Courage

We’ve reached the end of another holiday season, the end of another year, and also the end of a decade. Unless you’re an unreformed Grinch or Scrooge, you probably don’t want the holidays to end anymore than I do. I’m always sad when December 26 rolls around and every store and radio station packs away the Christmas stuff for another year. As I shared about with my devotion readers this week, Christmas is a beginning, not an end, so for everything to just end so abruptly, it’s sad and not a real reflection on the Reason for the Season.

Today I want to share one last thought on Christmas, and it’s also something that will be relevant as we move into the new year and decade. We can learn a lot from the Christmas story, about God, about how God interacts with us, about God’s plan for the world, about love, and about our fellow humans. The Biblical Christmas story is an intimate look into the lives of 4 key players and several other supporting characters, and we get to see the emotions they work through and their experiences and reactions to how everything goes down and the birth of Jesus. It’s reassuring to know that God has a plan for everyone, that He’s willing to share some reassuring and encouraging words when we’re unsure of the situation (as we saw with Joseph and the dream he had), God wants everyone to be part of the celebrations from the wisest to the average joes, and something very small can really bring hope.

But something that we don’t talk about much with regard to the Christmas story is about courage. Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, and Zechariah were all fully human, and while they were all likely people of faith (we know Zechariah was), the story still tells of the doubt and confusion that these four faced when the angel first came to each of them. They knew that despite it being God’s plan, other people wouldn’t necessarily understand or agree with their choices to accept the babies and that they would always have to accept that as much as the babies were theirs, they were first and foremost God’s. It took courage to step up and say yes to the angel and welcome in those babies.

If the last decade has been rough for you, I can understand why you might be looking at the new one ahead with trepidation, although for the same reason you may be looking at it with excitement. Those mixed emotions are probably exactly what the people of the First Christmas experienced. Just like them we’ve each got the choice to find our courage and move into the new year and decade excited that Jesus has come and is part of our lives, or focus on something more negative. I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather move into the new year with a courageous stride than be pulled kicking and screaming over the line. If you’re not sure what to make of or do about the year ahead, maybe you want to focus on living a courageous year.

“”Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord will personally go ahead of you. He will be with you; he will neither fail you nor abandon you.”” Deuteronomy 31:8

Facing Fears with Faith

Christmas is almost here! How has this Christmas season been for you so far? What has been different about it? How much more ‘stuff’ do you have going on before you get a break (do you get a break)? Christmas is one of the many seasons and stories and times in our lives that brings up many questions. These are just a few of them, and others include ‘How long until we get to…?’ ‘When will Santa be here?’ ‘Is it too early to open presents?’ ‘Have you been good this year?’ And of course we’ve got lots of questions asked in the Biblical account of Christmas, where we listen to Mary, Zechariah, Herod, the Wisemen, and Joseph ask questions, and there had to be tons more questions that weren’t written down but were asked during this adventure they all went through both by them and the people they knew and met.

Some of the questions we ask are asked because we’re heading into the unknown or things aren’t clear to us, and we want clarification and understanding. These are important questions to ask and can help us from making big mistakes, or having to do things again because we didn’t understand.  Other times we ask questions because we’re excited and can’t wait for something to happen and keep checking in. Then, there’s another set of questions that we ask, and those come from a place of fear or avoidance.

Fear is something that we all deal with at some point in our lives, we all have fears, and we all deal with fear in different ways. Sometimes fear can cripple us, other times we’re able to face our fears and power through them, other times we face them and are wrecked by them. Fear is definitely present in the story of Christmas, I can’t imagine being any of the people and not experiencing some level of fear. Each of the characters face their fears in different ways, some working through those fears with more grace or quicker than others, but all were able to conquer them and became an integral part of the Christmas story.

Since Christmas has already happened and Jesus already came to earth, died for our sins, and rose again, God’s not going to ask any of us to do anything like what Mary, Joseph and crew went through. But God’s still just as present and powerful as He was some 2000 years ago and can and will face any and all challenges with us that we face in the coming days. You may experience fears as you face these challenges, and God will ask you how you will respond, just as He asked the people of the First Christmas. What will your response be?

“”Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”” Luke 2:10b-12

Christmas, Doubts, and Assumptions

Something I’ve always wondered about is the passage in Luke where John the Baptist is born (Luke 1:57-66). In this passage you’ve got people asking Zechariah what the baby’s name should be and using “gestures” to ask him. This sounds odd in general, but the part that I’ve found strange is because earlier in Luke 1 it says he would be “silent and unable to speak until the child is born” because he had questioned God’s plan for him and Elizabeth. Being mute doesn’t mean you can’t hear, and the Bible doesn’t say that he couldn’t hear as well, just that he wouldn’t speak until when John is born.

This possible mistake that people are making with Zechariah is a good reminder for all of us about assumptions. Sometimes they can be helpful, like assuming it might rain so you keep an umbrella in your home and one in your car, or assuming you’re going to be exchanging gifts with friends when you meet during the holiday season (they can be returned if you don’t), or assuming you’re going to want to eat and going food shopping on a regular basis.

But more often than not they set us up for mistakes, misunderstandings and issues. Not asking questions at work can lead to doing a job several times, not talking things over with your partner can lead to hurt feelings or plans that conflict, and assuming someone else did something without checking with them can mean that it doesn’t get done.

The same is true with faith. We can assume that others know what we believe, that we all like the same church activities, or that their life is as perfect as it looks, and it may or may not be true, and could cause some hurt feelings and drive separation if your assumptions aren’t true.

The one thing we can safely assume is that God loves us, and we’re assured of this every year when we celebrate Christmas. God would not have sent His son with such joy or celebration if He didn’t love us or care about our souls, and He would not have let Jesus die on the cross some 30 years later to save us from our sins. Our Bible-based questions may not get answered until we get to heaven, but we can be assured of God’s love for us and attention on what goes on in our lives.

Whether or not Zechariah could hear isn’t really the issue, although I would like to know, the issue is whether or not you’re going to follow through on what God has shared with you. Zechariah and Elizabeth did and they were blessed with their son John and the special role he played in Jesus’ life. This holiday season I encourage you to check in with God and make sure that you’re both on the same page and assumptions aren’t being created.

Looking for Hope

Hope is found in some really strange places. In the case of the Christmas story, it’s found in a couple of babies, some shepherds, and maybe less surprising, some angels. As much as hope is an idea or concept, the Christmas story really brings the message of hope to life and makes it something tangible that people were able to not only see but touch. We can’t touch or see any of the people from the Christmas story, but we do have signs all around us that remind us of them like nativities we have in our homes and churches, plays telling the story, and stained glass windows in churches of scenes from the Christmas story.

The Bible is a journey of ups and downs, much like our lives are. We may not be able to relate to living in tents or being nomadic or fighting wars and battles or all the farming like some of the people in the Bible, but we can relate to the different interpersonal struggles they have and other challenges they face in their lives about safety, food, family and money. Where the story of Jesus is found is after many books of struggle and doom and gloom from the prophets. Yes, they had some words of encouragement too, but a lot of it was God reminding the people that they’re living in sin and not listening to Him. And then we happen upon the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah who find out they’re going to have John the Baptist, and the whole story of Mary and Joseph and angels and long trips and shepherds and wise men. It’s a bit of a surprise, and very refreshing to read this whole story after reading the struggles the Israelites had gone through for so many years.

The struggles weren’t over just because Jesus was born, nor were they after He died and rose again. But finally there was a definite light at the end of the tunnel. The prophesies were finally going to come true, we finally have something to look forward to after dealing with all that we do in this life, and there’s nothing that can take away or change Jesus being here and being part of the story of the Bible, no number of bad days, or amount of suffering and struggle.

Some of us are struggling as we reach the end of this year and work through the Christmas season, things that aren’t typically erased by Christmas celebrations or the story of hope that we’re hearing. My prayer is that even though the struggle won’t likely be removed from your life, God would bless you with some hope this month. Hope that you aren’t alone and that it’s hard to beat the crazy story that is the Christmas story. Don’t give up and don’t lose hope.

“The people who walk in darkness will see a great light. For those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine.” Isaiah 9:2