Sacrifices and Gifts

This year has been an exercise in sacrifice for many of us. Some of us have put our lives on the line to try to help heal others, some of us have put our lives and energies out in great excess to keep essential services running, some of us have sacrificed what should be big milestones in our lives, some of us have sacrificed reliable income, some of us have lost what could have been many more years with family members had they not gotten sick. Sometimes sacrifice is necessary to get what you want next, for example the sacrifices that are involved with selling and moving from your current residence to a new, bigger/better one, or the sacrifices involved in starting up the business you’ve always wanted, or the sacrifices you make to have and raise kids and not just support you and your partner. But other times there isn’t much reward on the other end, it’s just something you have to do for the greater good.

Of course, that doesn’t take into account what God can do outside of or separate from the sacrifices that you’re making, or what can happen when you see the work as something other than painful and difficult. Luke 6:38 says: “Give, and you will receive. Your gift will return to you in full—pressed down, shaken together to make room for more, running over, and poured into your lap. The amount you give will determine the amount you get back.”

While the year is far from over and there are several hurdles to get through for most of us, I don’t see why we can’t think and pray positively and ask God to bless and return in abundance the sacrifices (that we’re now going to look at as gifts) that we’ve given over the past 8 months. Do take note though that in this verse in Luke 6 it talks about how much activity may surround the returning of the gift, so be open to the blessings God sends your way to be wrapped in some unusual wrappings or that they may take a little work to uncover and incorporate all of the goodness.

We can all count up the challenges of this year, so what have been some gifts that you’ve received?

Easter is About Conquering the Grave

“Very early on Sunday morning the women went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. They found that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance. So they went in, but they didn’t find the body of the Lord Jesus. As they stood there puzzled, two men suddenly appeared to them, clothed in dazzling robes. The women were terrified and bowed with their faces to the ground. Then the men asked, “Why are you looking among the dead for someone who is alive? He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead! Remember what he told you back in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be betrayed into the hands of sinful men and be crucified, and that he would rise again on the third day.”” Luke 24:1-7

Yes, Easter has arrived and with it comes the yearly celebration of the sacrifice and victory Jesus experienced for all who believe. Throughout our daily reflections last week we took a look at some of the last events in the regular life of Jesus, starting with the celebration everyone thought He should have always had on Palm Sunday and leading up to His rather unexpected death on Good Friday. On Easter we did something unusual and gathered in our homes to watch the spiritual leaders around the world give virtual messages from empty churches or at kitchen tables. It’s an Easter I don’t think anyone will ever forget. I’m thankful that technology has evolved that we’re still able to celebrate Easter as a community, even if it’s a virtual one and not the physical one that we’re used to.

While different books of the Gospel share the Easter story with different details they all start with one fact: the tomb is empty and Jesus is no longer there. Of course He can’t be there if He’s risen and truly the Son of God sent to save the world from their sins, but it’s a great surprise to everyone of that time. The book of Luke shares that there were more than three women gathered that morning at the tomb to pay their respects to Jesus, wanting do so out of love for Him despite their likely disappointment that Jesus wasn’t who He said He was (because if He was who He said He was, how could He be dead?). But as often happens with God, there’s an unexpected development and Jesus isn’t there and they’re instead greeted by angels who once again share good news with the world, this time that Jesus is alive.

As I was reading this passage over the past few days, what stood out to me was a question the angels asked: “why are you looking among the dead for someone who is alive?” Sometimes I think we look to what/where/who we think is the answer because it often is where we found the answer, and even if we’re not sure that’s going to be the place to find it, maybe we’ll get lucky and it will be there or close anyway. The angel’s message almost makes you wonder why we go to graveyards and cemeteries to honor the dead after the initial burial, because while their bodies may be there, their souls aren’t, and the things we loved about that person are much greater than anything to do with their physical bodies.

It’s also a message about how to live our lives. Yes, we should remember the past, but not to the extent that it stops us from living in, innovating for, or moving to the future. We can learn tons from the past, but unless we want to recreate the past, we have to put those lessons into practice with an eye for the future. If there was ever an important time to hear the Easter message of life and hope, it’s now as we work to conquer this virus. Our world will be forever changed by this virus, but we can’t let the virus control us to the point that we have no future. Instead, we can choose to build a world that’s stronger because we fought and won against this virus together, honoring those who died during the fight of course, or we can let it keep us in a proverbial graveyard of fear and loss of life and livelihood. How will you let the message of Easter guide you into our new future?

A Discussion on Betrayal

One of the things that we don’t really like to talk about but is central to the Good Friday/Easter story is that of the life and choices of Judas. Yesterday in one of my devotionals I was reading the different passages on Judas’ conversation with the leaders who wanted Jesus dead or out of the picture and it got me thinking about how things got to that point. Luke 22 points out that Satan entered Judas and after that Judas expressed interested in helping the leaders betray Jesus, but I have a hard time believing that Satan randomly picked one of Jesus’ 12.

Interestingly enough, Judas’ name is very widely known along with his actions that set in motion Jesus’ death, but very little is know about him (even among the scholarly communities that do lots of research and know lots of stuff), compared to some of the other apostles whose stories we do know. We don’t know about his family or hear of him going places with Jesus, other than knowing that he was sent out with the other apostles to minister in Jesus’ name and was cherry picked by Jesus to be one of His core 12. We also know that Judas was riddled with guilt after Jesus was killed, whether that lines up with a possible possession by Satan (meaning there was no real reason to pick Judas other than he was available), or simply that he didn’t think the goal was to kill Jesus or that He would actually be killed and felt deep guilt over the lies that were told to him about what would happen as a result of his betrayal.

All of this brings me to a couple of points. First, that it’s rare to know everything about everyone and that you can’t find it all out by digging. Some times you will just never really know a person, no matter how hard you try. It means they could hide symptoms or issues for their whole life and no one would know. It also means that it’s unwise to judge people based on one moment of their life or one experience with them and believe that they’re beyond redemption. Second, anyone can make a mistake in their life. Hopefully you won’t make a mistake or betrayal on the level that Judas did, but even if you did there’s no rule that says you can’t redeem yourself afterwards. Finally, no one wants to be betrayed by one of their closest friends, but sometimes people make bad decisions (especially if they don’t have all the information when they make that decision). Jesus knew He would end up at the cross, it’s the big reason why He came to Earth, and I think He would have been a lot more forgiving of Judas than Judas was of himself. It hurts to know that I am one of the reasons why Jesus had to die, that He died for my sins (and yours), and at the same time it makes me appreciate and treasure the events of these next few days all the more.

Transfiguration Conversations

This past week in my Lent devotionals I read one of the passages in the Bible that shares the story of the Transfiguration. The Bible is filled with lots of incredible stories, but this one is a bit more unusual than some of the others in it, because it Moses and Elijah (who have both been dead for many years) to a mountain top meeting with Jesus, while three of Jesus’ disciples look on. Crazy, right? It’s incredible to think that these three disciples got to spend time with not just Jesus but also with these two legends of the Old Testament. It’s easy to understand their excitement and desire to have them stick around for a while, I know I would want to spend as much time with them as possible as well.

But one of the things that caught my attention as I read the Matthew 17 version of the Transfiguration was the fact that you’ve got these three legends up on a mountain top, and it doesn’t share what they talked about. It says they talked but not what they talked about. It does share in Luke 9 that they talked about Jesus’ last days, but all three versions make it clear that they were all on the mountain for an extended period of time and I have a hard time believing that they only talked about Jesus’ last days. But if we didn’t have multiple versions of the story, like we don’t for most parts of the Bible, we wouldn’t have any idea at all what was said.

So all of this got me thinking about how often we don’t know the whole story. It’s really quite frustrating to think that there’s so much more to what happened to our favorite Biblical figures than what the many pages of the Bible shares, things that might help us better understand them or identify more with them, or better understand what God saw in them that we may not.

The same is true for our lives and the lives of the people we connect with each day both in person and online: we don’t know their whole story, and rarely do we know much of their story. Yes, if someone is active on social media it’s a lot easier to get to know them, but most people don’t post every aspect of their lives, so we only know what they choose to share. But chances are good you don’t meet someone and instantly go on their social accounts and try to find out stuff about them, most of us don’t care enough about those very minor interactions to go to those efforts. My point here is that we don’t know the whole story: we don’t know everything they’re struggling with or God is working with them on. We don’t know everything that makes them shine and they’re passionate about. We don’t know everything about their past and how they came to the point of being where they are and the person they are today.

So each interaction, each person, each moment is an opportunity to be more open, to judge slower, to ask God for His feedback before jumping to conclusions, and to be willing to listen and learn as the world unfolds around you. What will you learn by being a little more detail oriented and patient today?

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.

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.

Peace and Quiet

This year for December’s devotionals I’m going to be sharing about the topic of Advent. If you’re not familiar with Advent, it’s a tradition that’s been in religious circles for hundreds of years, most typically practiced with an Advent wreath that has candles around it (typically 4 candles around the wreath and one in the center), although there are other traditions. For those who do celebrate Advent with a wreath, the candles can signify different things depending on the faith group you belong to, and I’ve always associated the Advent wreath and candles with some specific words, which we’ll be talking about throughout the month.

While it’s not a traditional week one topic, I wanted to start the month by talking about peace. For people of faith one of the first words that comes up when we think about Christmas is peace. There’s always been an association of Jesus in the manger with a peaceful, perfect night with some gentle sheep and local shepherds gathered around. Rarely is giving birth a quiet, peaceful experience, and if you’ve been around an infant, there’s some peace and quiet, yes, but there’s also noise and smells and needs to take care of that often interrupt sleep for the adults. The same is true for sheep, they aren’t exactly great at creating peace with the noises and smells that they make.

Peace is sometimes about our circumstances, including that picture perfect moment we imagine in the manger or that moment we’re all gathered around a Christmas tree. But peace is also found in the words of Psalm 46:10 which says “”Be still, and know that I am God! I will be honored by every nation. I will be honored throughout the world.”” and Luke 2:19 which says “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” (after the shepherds stopped by and told them about the angels).

We each have a choice how we approach and take in this holiday season. We can choose to be bringers of peace into the world, or we can choose to add to the chaos. I would encourage you to celebrate this holiday season with the wonder that Mary experienced and take the time to be still and experience all that is going on around you, and all that God is doing too.

Making Time to Give Thanks

This week in my weekly devotional I shared about the story of 10 men being healed of leprosy from Luke 17, and thought I’d share an additional thought here today. In short, the story goes that Jesus is traveling and 10 lepers call out to him for help, Jesus tells them to go visit a priest, they do so and are healed, and then one comes back to thank Jesus. It’s an interesting story about men who are willing to ask for help and follow through on instructions that may not seem like they’ll do anything, as well as how touched Jesus was by someone making a point to thank Him for helping them.

Most of the stories about Jesus and His interactions with people are short. The Bible gives description so you can feel like you’re there, but it’s not the same as watching a video recording of the whole thing play by play, so while it does make complete sense as you read it, it’s certainly possible that there are some things left out. There’s no mention of if they thought He was crazy or if they questioned how walking to see the priest would help their leprosy heal, if there was anything else said between the lepers and Jesus, or if Jesus and the lepers were alone or if there were other people around. There’s also no mention after Jesus tells them what to do that they said “OK, thanks” or anything like that before they headed off to see the priest.

But the second half of the story is devoted to the interaction between one man and Jesus, and how one of the healed lepers comes back to thank Jesus and Jesus is amazed that only one made a point to find Him and thank Him. I can see why people who were previously outcasts would be very interested in moving forward finally with their lives and being able to embrace those who they hadn’t been able to be near in however long, but the story reminds us of how important those few extra minutes that it may take to thank someone can be. It’s clear that like us, Jesus liked to be appreciated for how He helped.

As I mentioned earlier, there’s no mention that “OK, thanks” or anything like that was said before the lepers took off, which it should have been, but even if it wasn’t one man knew that it was better to give thanks late than to never give thanks. As we head towards Thanksgiving, I encourage you to make a point of thanking others, even if you’re a little late in doing so.

A Faith Journey

When He left, Jesus gave the command to take the Good News into all the world. His time on earth showed that some people needed to rethink their idea of who was welcome into the kingdom, because Jesus did a really good job of turning them on their heads by eating with tax people, caring for those who were ill, and talking with those who had multiple husbands. God made sure the message got reinforced and shared after Jesus went back to heaven with Peter’s vision of the animals in the sheet (Acts 10-11) representing the welcoming of any nation who fears God and does right.

So it’s not a huge leap to get to the idea that anyone could get into heaven, as long as they’ve been forgiven of their sins, have a relationship with God and believe in Him. Which is why we should first and foremost be open and willing to tell whomever God puts in our path about the love that He has shown us, about how He has supported us, and how He cares for us. We should do the very best we can with each and every opportunity that God sends us, give them the care, respect and opportunity that each of us would want.

But there’s two other sides to this, neither are as hopeful. The first is the fact that you individually can’t save everyone. Even someone with the reach of a Billy Graham, Kirk Cameron, Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, T.D. Jakes, Joyce Meyer, or Steven Furtick can’t save everyone, it’s why we are all called by the Great Commission. Sometimes we have to choose to save the one or two people that we can. The lesson applies to other areas of our lives; we should do our best and let God handle the rest. God knows the potential of that one person you may bring to God, you can only do your part.

The third side is a story that is seen in 3 of the 4 gospels (Matthew 10, Mark 6, Luke 9 and 10) and in Acts as well. It’s the recommendation of Jesus to shake the dust off your feet when you’re not welcomed in a home or town that you’re traveling through or bringing God’s message of peace to. Basically it’s suggesting to leave them to whatever fate they may have. Maybe that means years from now something will change, maybe it doesn’t, but according to these stories, it’s not our job to be overly concerned or focused on their future. Of course we can pray for them, but each person is ultimately responsible for their own future.

So this week I encourage you to walk with faith.  Do the best you can, live a life that honors God, share your faith and don’t let the negative take you down with it.