Christmas is a time of wonder. Maybe for you, it brings back memories of hot cocoa, decorating the tree, or caroling. I remember listening to Alec Guinness (of later Obi-Wan fame) in the part of Scrooge on a reel-to-reel recording. Dad recorded it on his new Wollensak recorder with a mic in front of our radio which was about the size of a 2-door Yaris. That was before I was born. I thought we had the only copy on the planet.
OK, so it’s not as rare as I thought, but listening to it each Christmas is still wonderful.
Christmas has a spirit of wonder because the real story is so unbelievably, inconceivably, wildly wonderful.
I’ve read there are over 365 names in the Bible referring to Jesus. Isaiah the prophet started with, “His name shall be called Wonderful…” Isa 9:6.
Here are my top seven Christmas wonders for 2022.
1: It’s a wonder the Old Testament got it right. Starting around 2000BC God revealed that the Blessing would come through the line of Abraham, the Jewish nation. Later Jacob is told that the Messiah would come through the tribe of Judah. Isaiah predicted He would come from the line of Jesse. Micah prophesied His birth in the tiny town of Bethlehem. Daniel foretold the timeline that the Wise Men may have been studying when they followed the star. And all of this was written 500 to 2000 years before Jesus was born. Those are wild, wonderful prophecies.
2: And while we are on prophecies, it’s a wonder that anyone would prophesy that “a virgin will conceive and give birth to a son.” You can claim to be a prophet and try to predict the outcome of an election or the sex of a child. That’s 50/50–at best. But a virgin will conceive? Not likely. Isaiah got that one right 700 years ahead of time. Inconceivably wonderful.
3: I wonder why the angel didn’t tell Joseph what was up with Mary before he planned to divorce her (Matthew 1). He must have been so upset, and disappointed, and just sick in the gut before he knew what was happening. It’s a wonderful story, his sticking by her not only then, but for the rest of his life. That’s a wonderful believer, a great husband, a worthy example.
4: It’s a wonder, too, that God came to shepherds, some of the most despised people of the time (Luke 2). In the caste system, they were the bottom of the barrel, so untrustworthy that they weren’t allowed to testify in court. The Jewish system wouldn’t even allow them on the temple grounds. So, God did better, bringing heaven to earth as the angels sang, and the Temple to lowly shepherds in the form of a baby. That’s wildly wonderful!
5: Two words in Luke chapter two are wonderful to me. The angels said to the shepherds, Lk 2:10 (NIV2011) “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
They could have said “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” But they said, “a Savior has been born to you.”
Two unnecessary words make all the difference. It’s unbelievable. Believe it.
6: It’s wonderful that God thought of the practical stuff. Sometimes God can seem distant, uncaring even. But the wise men didn’t show up by accident, they were part of God’s sovereign plan. The star was part of His plan. The gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh were part of His plan. God cares, and that’s wonderful.
Note: Reinaldo reminded me that according to Gary Larson of “Far Side” fame, unbeknownst to most historians and theologians, there was a fourth wise man who brought fruit cake, but he was summarily rejected by the other three Wise Men, Mary, Joseph, and which rejection was ratified by a screaming Baby Jesus.
7: But it’s the incarnation, God come to earth, in a stable, wrapped in a diaper, to rescue the likes of us. WOW. The real story is unbelievably, inconceivably, wildly wonderful. And think where we are today, 2000 years later:
It’s a wonder that King Herod, the ruler of Galilee, a friend of Julius Caesar, and rebuilder of the temple is a footnote to the story of a man who was born in a stable and died a criminal’s death on a cross.
It’s a wonder that a guy who never had an army or money or wrote a book, has mountains named after Him (e.g. Sangre de Cristo / Blood of Christ); in New Mexico USA, 7000 miles away and 2000 years later.
It’s a wonder that Christmas boxes travel around the world in the name of a man who never traveled far from home and died five miles from where He was born.
P.S. The photos that we use for this blog and slides tend to come from the online site Unsplash.com. They are free from Unsplash, and legal. The picture I used this week had a note under it from the photographer. I thought I’d share it with you.“I had just stopped by my parent’s house for a cup of coffee. While I sat at the dining room table enjoying the hot cup of Joe and letting it warm my cold bones. I started thinking about Christmas and that was when I spotted the nativity in the corner. My heart was overwhelmed as I thought of Jesus Christ coming down to be the savior of our world. The God of all creation humbled himself and became a child. What love, what deep, deep love!”–Ben White on Unsplash
Bizarre Christmas Bible Stories was first published by Heritage Builders Press, but right when it was to hit the stores, they went to publishing heaven. Or hell, I’m really not sure due to the president being in jail now. At any rate, it has sat in purgatory for a couple of years while I had to wait to make sure I had the right to publish it again.
This time I self-published it to make it as inexpensive as possible, as a result you can get it as cheaply as me. BUT–I’d just like to get it out there and I’m lousy at marketing. If you can leave a (nice) review, that can really help.
The above picture and caption/title were recently posted by our daughter Amanda on Facebook. This is a very different blog for me. It’s about Amanda’s cancer, and a call I made to her husband Jake. I wrote it hoping the journal ChristianityToday/Pastors will print it for Jake, so I wrote it with that in mind. If you have improvements, please send them my way. Here we go…
I didn’t plan on being a pastor, and parts of it still terrify me. Hospital visits have never been my forte. I’m a strong believer that God made skin to keep stuff in, and I’d just as soon keep it that way.
I fainted at the birth of our first child.
Don’t judge me.
It wasn’t until years into this job that I realized what a privilege it is to be with families in hurting times. Now I’ve been with families through more hard times, healings and deaths than I can count. But I think I’ve still missed much of what folks are going through.
That’s until my daughter got cancer.
Our daughter and family live about 12 hours away, outside of Austin. A couple weeks into her diagnosis I realized that while we had been talking to our daughter Amanda, we had not talked with her husband, Jake. So, I gave him a call.
I should have called sooner.
He had plenty to say, including some suggestions for churches helping others in his situation. I asked him to write it all down. I had some thoughts of my own, so I’ll put his words in italics and my thoughts in normal type.
In late July Amanda texted me at work. “You ready for this?” she asked
“Yes?” I replied.
“My mole was Melanoma.”
I paused for a second as I tried to remember what Melanoma was. I couldn’t remember. I quickly googled it… CANCER was the first word I saw.
We talked for bit. I asked her every question I could think of. She had no answers yet. For the moment, the dermatologist knew no more than us. All he knew was that the mole had melanoma (cancer) cells in it. And so, he referred us to a Surgical Oncologist.
Those were two weeks of Hell. With no other facts, melanoma removed all hope for life. We had no idea if it had traveled from her foot to another part of her body, and that lack of information was the fuel that kept our minds racing. We didn’t sleep well, we were short with our kids, we were terrified. Mostly I was planning for the worst possible scenario. Sometimes I dared hope for the best.
After two weeks the medical oncologist informed us that the melanoma-laced mole was cause for concern due to its size. The mole was slightly smaller than a dime, so it didn’t seem like a big deal to me. But it was. The doctor told us she was going to first cut a circle out around the melanoma site, then take a lymph node from Amanda’s upper thigh, and finally place a skin graft on top of the melanoma site to help it heal. Amanda was on board, so we set a date for surgery.
On August 10, 2022, at 7am we were at the hospital prepping for surgery. They took us to a room to get Amanda in a gown and rest prior to surgery. Then they ran us through a number of doctors who mostly asked Amanda a series of questions about the upcoming surgery. Finally, the anesthesiologist came in, gave Amanda some sedatives, and took her back.
There’s not much to do in a hospital room. I played some games on my phone, walked to get lunch, and just waited. Thankfully, the surgery only lasted around three hours. I was thankful that Amanda seemed to be in very little pain. In fact, what she first asked for was her morning coffee (even though it was now 12:30pm). Once we checked out of the hospital, I wondered if she could be hungry. “You know, we are close to a Chipotle.” I said. “YES! THAT! THAT’S WHAT I WANT!”
1: Celebrate plateaus with the family
Here is something I (Dan) learned from a friend. With cancer there is no final healing short of glory. There is always another scan. Even in remission, like so many diseases you have to keep tab on things. So, celebrate the plateaus. It’s a break. It’s good news. Don’t look to the future and become a false prophet. Just sit back and celebrate.
In the hour drive home, we updated everyone we needed to update. I created a messenger group of all the people that knew Amanda was having surgery for melanoma, including our prayer team. By the time we got home, and we were so relieved the surgery was! As Amanda went to lay down and sleep off all the pain killers, I had additional responsibilities.
We have 4 small kids who had no idea what was going on with mom. And they didn’t know why their “JoJo”(Amanda’s mom) was there to help take care of them. So, I let Amanda rest and went to engage with my kids. I was so exhausted. The burden of surgery is a lot–it’s a lot for a whole family. Reading James was helpful, “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.” James 1:12 ESV
Much has happened since that date. There was cancer in one of the lymph nodes they removed, making this a stage three cancer. Amanda later had a PET scan that came out clear, but the scanziety (a word I picked up from a cancer friend)made for another hellacious week. We’ve been to MD Anderson in Houston and are starting immunotherapy.
Now that we are being “cared for,” instead of “caring for” others, here are some things I thought of that could help if the church just knew of them.
2: Pray. Then pray again.
And pray some more. Let God hear your voice. The Creator of the Universe. The One that holds it all together without tiring. When dealing with cancer it’s helpful to remember that God is the only one that can fully heal anyone.
The church can pray for understanding, peace, blessings, healing, and for God to be glorified. We still want to understand how God is using us in this time. We need daily peace knowing that God is still here with us through it all. We want to be a blessing to others as we walk through cancer. We want Amanda’s body to be cancer free. And we want God to be glorified in it all. We would not have woken up today if it weren’t for His grace.
Additionally, we want the doctors and nurses to fully understand what cancer Amanda has and where it all is. We want them to be at peace with giving the care she needs to help fight it. We want them to know how much of a blessing they are to us. We pray God uses them as a vessel to heal Amanda. And we pray they give God all the glory for it.
“All our perils are nothing, so long as we have prayer.” — Charles Spurgeon
3: Check in. And check in again.
Text, Email, or Facebook Messenger are great ways to ask questions of the family. For us calling was less intrusive after 5 days of being home after surgery. Text and wait. Don’t expect a quick reply. Text the caregiver and not the person directly. Like I mentioned earlier, we had a running messenger group that we continually added people to who wanted to know how Amanda was doing. Get added to that group. You can even create that group.
What do you ask the caregiver? Ask about their kids and how they’re doing. Do they have help, like a family member staying with them? “I’d love to be praying for you, is there a prayer chain chat that we get updated on?” “Do you need help with anything?” “Can we pick up your groceries?” “Can we come clean your house?” “Can we mow your lawn?” (YES, Mowing the lawn would be great!!!!)
Our late Pastor Matt Netzer in his sermon on Hospitality said, “if you don’t say what you need help with, how can we effectively help you?” I didn’t tell anyone that I needed help with mowing the lawn. So what happened? It became overgrown, and we got a warning from the city. Comical, really, but no one knew we needed help in that way. By God’s grace, he sent a kid just starting his lawn business to my house and he cut my lawn.
4: Consider a point person
At our church, and yours may be similar, we have someone who oversees meals for those who need it, and we have small group leaders and pastors who visit. But sometimes if you are the family in need, you don’t want a meal tonight, you just want to be left alone with Chili’s mac and cheese. Or maybe you need the lawn mowed but feel funny asking. Having a “point person” who is a good friend of the family in need to be the go-between can be a real help. They can say things bluntly, like, “kale casseroles give their youngest a lip fungus,” or, “I was there last week and the yard is a mess, do we have someone who can mow it?” and it makes for a bit of a buffer.
5: Food, just no kale casseroles
Sometimes the greatest practical help could be the inevitable Meal Train. I will tell you though, as a giver, it is hard to be on the receiving end. I don’t want anyone to think I’m bashing them or being ungrateful, but sometimes it’s not the best night for a meal from someone else. There are times when I’m stressed, and I just want to eat fat food. (That’s not a typo). I want my fat food!
When we have friends over to our house for dinner, we usually ask something like, “do you like (insert food here)?” And it’s that person’s responsibility to be honest and let us know if they do or not like the food. The meal train could ask what their top 5 foods are. What are their favorite restaurants? Do they have any food allergies in the house? Are the kids really picky? Or simply, “what are your comfort foods?” “Is there something the person is craving?”
I was contacted through Facebook a little while ago from a “point person” who was helping a friend undergoing similar surgery. They were getting people put money on a Grub Hub for them. What a cool idea—then they can eat what and when they want. And you can get folks to sign up through Facebook or email or whatever, which can get more folks involved.
6: Check in on the spouse:
Please remember to check on the spouse. I know I need to talk things through with people. When I process internally, I come to irrational conclusions. Thankfully, my elders and pastors have been in contact with me daily. They ask me questions like: How are you holding up? Are you sleeping? What was yesterday like? Did anything crazy happen?
It’s also wise to ask the patient what they might see the spouse needing to avoid that which is unhealthy. One of Amanda’s major concerns was that I would work long hours to pay all the bills we just accrued. She has also mentioned my horrible sleep schedule! How can I sleep when I have 1,000 scenarios to run through my head?
In short, make sure that the spouse has a solid care team as well. They need the mental fortitude that comes from these relationships to get through cancer.
7: Do a financial check in:
This journey has just started for us, and already we’ve had four thousand dollars in deductibles to meet; fifty dollars per visit co-pays to pay; gas to and from these appointments; medicine copays; and numerous other expenses. Over the last month-and-a half Amanda’s cancer has cost us upwards of $6,000. We in no way could have done that on our own. God provided family and friends that donated to meet these costs. Praise God!
Our next step is immunotherapy, which will entail even more financial hardship, more time off from work, more babysitters, and less time with the family.
Cancer doesn’t just effect one person’s body; it riddles all with whom it is associated. It disrupts life itself. It takes people away from time with their family. It takes away time from work where they make their money to provide for their family. It robs you by being the first thought of the day. Cancer becomes thought that every other thought is countered with or compared to. Unfortunately, that will probably never go away.
What a privilege it is to be with families in hurting times.
I had some folks ask me for a reading I did at the end of the service yesterday. It all comes from Psalms 23. I adapted it from the conclusion of Traveling Lightby Max Lucado. I hope it encourages you this week.
In Psalms 23 God says to you,
If you will stop playing God and surrender to Me, you will know YHWH, the only true God.
You will stop feeling lost—as you accept Me as your Shepherd.
You will be healed from endless wants—when you realize you lack nothing.
You will be healed from weariness—when you rest in My meadows of grace.
You will be healed from worry—as you let Me lead you.
You will be healed from hopelessness—as I restore your soul.
You will experience innocence—as I lead you into paths of righteousness.
You will be familiar with humility—when you live for My name’s sake.
You will be fearless—when you center on My presence in the valley.
You will be healed from loneliness—when U realize I am right beside you.
You will be without shame—when you join Me for breakfast in the presence of your enemies.
You will be healed from envy—when you focus on your overflowing cup of grace.
You will be healed from homesickness—when I call you home to live in my house forever.
And I know nothing about this book, but I thought the cover was priceless.
Back in my youth pastor days, we would put on a church-wide Passover service every Spring. One year, to better promote the service, I went to a local sheep farmer to see if I could borrow a lamb. My plan was to keep it in our backyard and bring him to church on Sundays. We lived in a parsonage on church property, so logistics once I got the lamb home would be simple. Or so I thought.
The farmer was accommodating, so I put the lamb in the back of my rusted-out Ford with David, one of my High School students, and drove to church.
But the lamb stunk.
The farmer didn’t raise his sheep by bringing them to different fields, he simply brought food in. The result in Lake Charles LA was that they ate whatever food was given, and whatever grew on the ground, down to the ground, and lived in mud. All his sheep were needing sheering, and this one was no exception. So, he (or she, I really don’t remember) had 7-inch-long wool full of mud and other stuff they were living in.
This lamb really stunk.
I had no idea how bad they could stink until we had him living in our backyard for a week or two. Mercy. And they aren’t like a dog that you can train. They just eat and poop and baa all night when you want to sleep.
Anyway, my friend David and I decided we needed to wash this sheep if we were going to bring it to church. Water alone would not cut it. David went and bought a bottle of Woolite, and we got out the hose, and a brush and started scrubbing. That poor lamb. Anyway, once he was kind of clean, we needed to get him dry. We couldn’t. The wool was too thick, and we were concerned about him getting sick overnight when it got cool. So, we hatched a plan.
David went home and got his dad’s lawn and leaf blower. We thought we could use it like a giant hairdryer.
It blew the lamb over.
So, I got on the wet side of the lamb to hold him up, and David blew all the dirty water off of the lamb and onto me.
OK, now to Psalm 23. It begins The LORD is my Shepherd. When God called us the sheep of his pasture, it wasn’t a compliment. He could have called us the ambassadors of His kingdom. Warriors in His army. Water boys of His team. Anything but sheep.
How fantastic it is that the unchanging all-powerful, self-existent Creator of the universe would care about us smelly sheep. How remarkable that He would send His Son.
John 10:7 (NIV) Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. 9 I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. 11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
There are so many analogies. Like sheep, we aren’t too bright. In our sin, we smell. God becomes one of us so that our dirt can be taken by Him, blown on him as we become clean. And He pays the price for us.
I read two books on Psalms 23 during our vacation that were helpful. One was an old favorite of my dad’s, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 by Phillip Keller. It has sold over 2 million copies so far, so I guess my dad was in good company. The other book I read was Traveling Light by Max Lucado. If you want more information on the Psalm, they are both great devotionals.
OH – the is a picture of Lambchops, David, and me from back in the 80s. David is still a dear friend.
In CS Lewis’ classic book The Screwtape Letters a demon, Screwtape, is training his nephew on how to tempt humans. He writes, “whatever their bodies do affects their soul. It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: In reality, our best work is done by keeping things out.”
Here is truth.
If Satan can keep the Word of God out of your mind, he will be successful without putting one thought in.
So, how about getting in the Word this summer? I wrote a little devotional called Summer in the Psalms—Book One, which you can download from our church home page. The book of Psalms is divided into five different books, Book One is chapters 1-41.
The purpose is to get everyone us into the Word of God this summer, whether you are camping, watching services from home, or going to a church building. By getting into the Word, I mean into the Bible, not into sermons, not into commentaries, not into YouTube. I love what others have to say about the Bible, but this summer we want to get into the Word. Period.
Warning: This will be more difficult than reading a devotional.
When you read a devotional, someone else has gone through the joy of getting into the Bible, finding cool truth, cutting it up into bite-sized morsels, and feeding it to you. It’s easy eating, but you miss something.
You miss hearing the steak sizzle on the grill. You miss the wonderful smell. You miss cutting in to see the perfect color. You miss biting in.
There is nourishment in pre-chewed steak for sure. But for the joy of discovery, for a renewed relationship with the Author of the Scriptures, nothing beats getting into the word for yourself.
Here is how it works:
Starting MAY 30, we will start going through the Psalms, Book One together. Each week we will go through just one Psalm in detail, then read two or three more over the weekend. Week one we will examine Psalm one. Each day is one small step in evaluating that Psalm so that at the end of the week you can list your discoveries. Each month we will use a different Bible Study Method to go through that one Psalm in detail. The Psalms are printed out in the booklet for you in the NIV, but feel free to use other versions to compare in your study.
Some help for you:
I figured this would be new for many of us, so I put an example of a week’s study below. I chose the first eight verses of Psalms 119, (A Psalm we are not doing this summer) as most of the Psalms we are studying are pretty short.
OK, below is the Psalm just like you will find it printed in the booklet. Then I put the booklet questions in bold type, with an example of possible answers in italics.
Example: Psalm 119:1-8
Ps 119:1 (NIV2011) Blessed are those whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the LORD. 2 Blessed are those who keep his statutes and seek him with all their heart— 3 they do no wrong but follow his ways. 4 You have laid down precepts that are to be fully obeyed. 5 Oh, that my ways were steadfast in obeying your decrees! 6 Then I would not be put to shame when I consider all your commands. 7 I will praise you with an upright heart as I learn your righteous laws. 8 I will obey your decrees; do not utterly forsake me.
DAY 01: Observation:Read Psalms 119:1-8 three times. Don’t try to make conclusions or applications yet, just observe the story. Then either
Paraphrase it; that is, rewrite it in your own words, or
So, here is my outline
Those who are blameless
Those who walk according to God’s laws
Those who keep God’s laws
Those who seek God
They do no wrong
They follow God’s ways
Your ways are known and to be obeyed
If I would be steadfast in obeying your decrees
Then I won’t be put to shame when I read the Bible
Then I will praise you as I learn the Bible
I will obey, don’t give up on me.
OR, if I was going to do a paraphrase instead, this is what it might look like:
I’m blessed when I know God’s word and do it. Therefore, I need to know His word and follow it with all my heart. God took the time to tell me how to live, and I will be blameless if I will just follow it. I must persevere in obeying what I learn so that I don’t embarrass myself when I do these devotions. Thank You, Father, for giving me Your laws. I’m going to do what You asked, I know you won’t give up on me when I mess up.
DAY 02: Observation:Write your observations for each verse. Ask yourself, “What is being said?”
Verse 1: I’m blessed and blameless when I follow God’s word.
Verse 2: I’m blessed when I follow with all my heart–not partly but completely.
Verse 3: I can’t do anything wrong when I am following God. That’s pretty cool to know.
Verse 4: God’s laws aren’t suggestions.
Verse 5: If I would just follow consistently that would make all the difference in my life.
Verse 6: Gods word should be encouraging not embarrassing.
Verse 7: I will worship as I do these devotions.
Verse 8: I will obey, period. God will be there to help me, even when I mess up.
Day 03: Interpretation:Write the meaning of each verse or section. Ask, “What does this mean? What is being taught?”
This is the hardest step for me. I would write something like…
I noticed that in the NLT the word that the NIV translates “blessed” is translated “joyful.” So, I think what is being taught is that those who study God’s word and put it into practice bring joy and blessing into their lives. The blessing doesn’t seem to be material or success, but a clean conscience, of following the Spirit and knowing you are pleasing God. It even brings joyful worship as we obey and as we study. As a result, it is foolish not to know and follow the Word of God.
Day 04: Correlation:Find cross-references for what you think is being taught in this Psalm. Is it taught anywhere else? You can use the little notes or references in the margins of your Bible to help.
The first I thought of was the rest of Psalms 119. Every verse seems to have some emphasis back on the Word of God and how it helps us. I also thought of Proverbs, those verses about God’s wisdom, and Deuteronomy 6 about training our kids in God’s word. Then I cheated and googled “obeying God’s word verses.” A few I found that seemed to really fit were;
Dt 28:1 (NIV2011) If you fully obey the LORD your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations on earth.
Jn 14:23 (NIV2011) Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.
Jas 1:22 (NIV2011) Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.
Ro 12:2 (NIV2011) Do not conform 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.
Day 05: Application:Start three sentences with “I will…” You can also try praying the Psalm, it may be easiest to pray your paraphrase.
I prayed my paraphrase. Starting with; Heavenly Father I know I’m blessed when I know Your word and do it. Therefore, I will keep up this study this summer and follow with all my heart…
It may look like a lot but remember this is five days’ worth of study. It really doesn’t take that long. And remember, you only need it to impact you, no one else. This isn’t for a grade; it’s for relationship.
Here is truth.
If you can keep the Word of God increasing in your mind, you will be successful without worrying about what you need to keep out.
When I was a kid, my dad would listen to a radio show by Paul Harvey called The Rest of the Story. Paul Harvey would tell a story but at a key point stop and say, “In a minute you will hear the rest of the story.” Then they would go to the commercial break.
It was mean, really.
Anyway, after the commercial, he would give the shocking end and say, “And now you know the rest of the story.”
When a radio station says, “we will be right back, don’t move that dial,” you know what I do?
Yup, I move that dial.
Call me a rebel.
But never did I do that with Paul Harvey. I knew the best was coming.
Thankfully, so did Dad. So, we would wait.
Living in the Commercial Break
I don’t remember ever liking the commercials making me wait for the rest of the story. But, had there been no commercials, there would have been no story.
Before Paul Harvey, the New Testament writers used the story of Israel going to the Promised Land and waiting in the wilderness as their metaphor. As Israel was rescued out of slavery in Egypt through the blood of the lamb and was baptized in the Red Sea, so too we have been rescued from sin by the blood of the Lamb of God and been baptized into the body of Christ. (1 Cor 10, Hebrews 3-4) God was with Israel through the pillar of fire at night and cloud by day, and we are indwelt by the Spirit of God. But God’s blessing and presence in the wilderness was not the end of the story for Israel.
They had to pass through the wilderness to get to the Promised Land. Once there, due to disobedience, they had to wait for another 40 years for the rest of the story. In a sense, God being with them was their promised land as they waited to enter the physical Promised Land.
And we too are waiting, but as with Israel there is hope. In a sense, God living in and through us is our promised land as we wait for the rest of the story, the Promised Land when Jesus returns to rule.
The Stockdale Paradox
I got a book at a leadership conference years ago called Good to Great by Jim Collins. In it he tells a story of Jim Stockdale who was an America Vice Admiral during the war in Vietnam. Stockdale was captured, imprisoned, and tortured for over seven years.
How did he make it through?
What seems counterintuitive is that he said the first people to die in captivity were the optimists, who assumed they would get out quickly. They “died of a broken heart.” He later said, “I think there was a lot of damage done by optimists… the problem is, some people believe what professional optimists are passing out and come unglued when their predictions don’t work out.”
Stockdale believed that the key to survival was to combine realism and hope. “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
Putting it all together, when asked how he survived when he had no idea if he would ever be rescued, he said: “I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”
How great it is to know the end of the story. We are not yet living in the Promised Land. But the One who is returning lives within us today. And for today, that’s enough. That’s our today promised land.
The Promised Land by TobyMac does a beautiful job putting music to this truth, combining realism and hope. I hope you like it.
Waiting for The Rest of the Story
Romans 12:12 (NIV2011) Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.
Psalms 27:14 (NIV2011) Wait for the LORD; be strong and take heart and wait for the LORD.
2Peter 38:-18 (NIV2011) Do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. 9 The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.
11 Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives 12 as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat.
13 But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells. …
18 But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen.
This Sunday at AnchorPoint we plan to be in Matthew 16:21-27, the instructions from Jesus on how and why to follow Him as we wait for His return.
JoLynn and I enjoy the monthly hot date at Costco. Usually, we pull in on a weekend and the place is packed. Still, I’ll find a nice spot close to the handicapped parking. She says, with jealous disdain, “You’re so lucky.”
I reply, “Yeah, well, I had my devotions.”
Is God like that? Does he reward us for following him and make us park a mile away when we don’t? The believers who are having to leave their homes behind in Ukraine as they run for their lives, is God punishing them for something?
Circumstances are not a sign of godliness, or of sin.
Still, I think we all have a bit of Voodoo in us. We believe God will make us lucky. That’s why the baseball player will cross himself before coming to the plate. Or the crude comedian will kiss the cross around her neck before going on stage. Neither may follow God, but they both want luck. They want a 4-leaf clover God.
Who doesn’t want a bit of luck on their side?
One time I took a small group of sharp High School kids to Monterrey, Mexico to do some outreach and construction projects. We loaded up our old 15 passenger youth van in Lake Charles LA with about a dozen youth and sponsors and headed south. We broke down just this side of the border (this side was good), and after wasting a day trying to fix it ourselves, we left the van in the incapable hands of the mechanics at the local Dodge dealership (incapable was bad). We were able to obtain another van for our final 150 miles of travel in Mexico.
Once in Monterrey one of our students decided to run away. In Monterrey. In Mexico. It was supper time, and I asked, “Where is Phil? Has anyone seen Phil?” PANIC. After hours of searching, he showed back up. I didn’t know whether to hug him or kill him.
Parents can get weird when you don’t return their kids.
And then, after spending a couple of weeks in Mexico, we drove north, picked up our “repaired” van from the dealer, and made it a total of 50 miles before it broke down again. After another two days of “repairs,” a couple of folks from our church in Lake Charles drove the 8 hours to Brownsville, TX, and towed us back.
Did we have all those problems because we didn’t have our devotions? Was God getting us back for some hidden sins?
It’s possible I suppose that God wanted to get our attention. He gave us a few extra days together. We learned how to experience inconvenience as a team and not kill each other. Phil learned that Monterrey is a terrible place to choose to run away from home.
So, did God work these tough times for our good? Certainly. Did we go through them because of some hidden sin? Certainly not. God allows challenging times to happen, and it is up to us to choose to follow Him through those times.
I don’t know of any Bible passage that promises that living right will bring good luck or bad living bad luck. There are some verses that show that living righteously can bring temporal blessings, but these are usually proverbs, saying how things normally work. They aren’t promises saying that if you do X, God must cause Y to happen. In fact, you can find plenty of illustrations that following God is just as likely–if not more so—to bring difficult circumstances rather than good ones in the short run as we follow Him.
Take our passage for church at AnchorPoint this Sunday, the parable of The Rich Man and the Beggar, from Luke 16:13-31. In it, a poor beggar named Lazarus is living in front of a rich guy’s house. It’s a gated community, so Lazarus lays in front of the gate, with dogs licking his running sores. But the rich guy was the pagan, and the beggar was the one who followed God. What’s up with that? Why was the rich guy “blessed” and Lazarus unlucky?
Then both Lazarus and the rich guy die, and the rest of the story you can read on your own, or on our Facebook site.
Jesus told us to “pick up our cross and follow,” not “hop in your Ferrari and stay on my bumper.” Jesus promised to forgive us, guide us, and love us into eternity. Unfortunately, there is nothing in there about lucky lottery numbers.
Or Dodge vans.
I like the way the writer of Psalm 73 wrestled with this issue. It’s like he was stuck in Brownsville with a dozen High School kids and a broken-down van when he wrote it.
Ps 73:13 (NIV2011) “Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure and have washed my hands in innocence. 14 All day long I have been afflicted, and every morning brings new punishments. 15 If I had spoken out like that, I would have betrayed your children. 16 When I tried to understand all this, it troubled me deeply…”
Then he comes to his senses and says “21 When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, 22 I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you. 23 Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. 24 You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory.”
The Psalmist gets it. There is no promise of a lucky life if we follow God. Instead, we follow God because He is always with us, forgiving us, holding our hand, guiding us, and finally taking us into glory. Righteous living does, generally, bring good results, if only temporarily—but the real reward is knowing and enjoying God, starting now, and lasting for eternity.
I got off the “L” in Chicago (short for elevated railway), and said to myself, “self,” I said, “I don’t know where I am, but it looks like the worst slums in America, and I’m pulling a suitcase. This could be a bad day.”
It almost was.
It had been one of those weekends. The year was 1997. We were living in Tucson, but I was taking modular classes at Moody Bible Institute, Chicago. Back then, you couldn’t receive an accredited degree unless there were 40-hours of in-class instruction for each 3-hour semester class. As a result, Moody structured their master’s classes so that you could do pre-class work, fly up and get all your hours in one week, and then go home for your post-class assignments. A very gracious friend and United Pilot supplied me with “friends and family” tickets to complete my degree. There was just one hitch.
The tickets were “standby.”
This meant that I never knew if there would be room on a flight for me (there was no online check-in at that time). I also had to pack everything that I needed for the week, including my books, into my carryon, as I couldn’t check any baggage. It was good Haiti training.
I had a class starting on Monday, so I went to Phoenix after church on Sunday and tried to fly out to Chicago.
Nothing doing. All the flights were full. All day.
At the end of the day, I took a flight to some bigger city in California to try and fly out from there. That worked, but it was a redeye flight to Chicago. I landed around 6am with no sleep, and, trying to save some money, I decided to take the L for the first time in my life instead of calling a Taxi.
Lack of sleep can make for low IQ decision making.
There was no one on the L except for one African American guy the size of a Suburban, and he hadn’t an ounce of fat on him. He just stared at me like, “This is my train boy. Sit if you dare.”
I was tired. I dared.
Now is when my issues started. I knew where I was going, but I had no idea how to get there. The maps on the side of the train showed all kinds of “blue lines,” and “green lines” and places to switch trains to different lines. It was worse than trying to figure out our governor’s Covid color restrictions. By the time I realized I knew nothing about Chicago except that Moody was somewhere close to Lake Michigan, the train had started moving. I was stuck.
I figured the announcements might be of some help.
I figured wrong.
The announcements sounded like someone talking with their mouth full of marshmallows, played back at full distortion, speaking Arabic. By now the train was getting packed with people, but they were city people going to work. They didn’t look like folks you wanted to talk to. Besides, I’m an introvert. So, I did the next most logical thing I could think of.
I stayed on until I could see the lake and things looked kind of familiar and got out the next time the train stopped. It turns out I wasn’t too far away from Moody; I was just several blocks Northwest of the school.
But Northwest of Moody was Cabrini-Green.
If you are unfamiliar with Cabrini-Green, count your blessings. It was a massive high-rise housing project that started in the 1940s. The city put aside the money to build it, but not to maintain it. It became known as “Little Hell.” For decades it was in the media for gangs, drugs, rapes, murders and was called, “one of the most feared places in America.” In 2000, Chicago decided to tear it down, and the last building was demolished in 2011.
But I was there in 1997.
So, I, a skinny white guy, got off the L in the middle of one of the most dangerous projects in America, pulling my suitcase behind me. I was the first one off, and I assumed the only one who got off. That’s when I realized I was lost. I had no idea which way Moody was located. The high-rise apartments all around me made it feel like walking in a canyon. The smell and look of the place made me realize I was in a dangerous place. The streets were silent and empty. All I knew is that I should start walking. Fast. I went down the street and took my first left. And there he was.
The mountain of a man who was on the train when I first got on, was standing about six feet in front of me, like he was waiting for me to turn left and run into him. I never saw him get off the train. He was sitting behind me, so he would have had to have gotten off after me, but he never walked past me. And yet, here he was.
“You’re lost, aren’t you boy?” he asked.
Gee, how did you know?
“Yes, this is Cabrini-Green?” I asked.
“Yes, we need to get you out of here. Where are you going?”
“Moody Bible,” I answered, “Do you know where it is?”
“Yup, come with me,” he answered. You don’t argue with mountains when they give instructions. He walked me around back to an underground station, didn’t kill me, and instead got me through the ticket thing and told me to get off on the second stop, I think. Anyway, it worked.
This week I’m speaking at Anchorpoint about the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin from Luke 15. Lost people matter to God. And if they matter to God, they should matter to us also.
I’m sure glad this lost, tired suitcase-pulling idiot mattered to someone else. I still wonder how he got past me, or if he was an angel (Heb 13:2). Either way, he was an angel to me.