1 In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone; snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow, in the bleak midwinter, long ago.
2 Our God, heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain; heaven and earth shall flee away when he comes to reign. In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed the Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.
3 Angels and archangels may have gathered there, cherubim and seraphim thronged the air; but his mother only, in her maiden bliss, worshiped the beloved with a kiss.
4 What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; if I were a Wise Man, I would do my part; yet what I can I give him: give my heart.
United Methodist Hymnal, 1989
I love this Christmas Hymn, though it creates a picture that is likely very false. Historically, we have no reason to believe that Jesus’ birth occurred on the 25th of December, or even in the winter at all. And even if it was December, it is very unlikely that the Middle-Eastern countryside was experiencing frosty moaning winds or icy waters on the night of Christ’s birth. In addition to Mary, the Bible tells us of others who came to worship that night– the shepherds in the nearby hills. The wise men likely came days, weeks, or even months later to bring their gifts. And Joseph would certainly have been there, as well.
The song is still lovely, and the last verse is the key. Christ poured out all that He was; taking on the form of a helpless baby, He lived among those who rejected and mocked Him. He served those whom He had created, healing their wounds, forgiving their sins, providing for their eternal redemption. He died, betrayed and despised by His own chosen people, and dismissed by the rulers and authorities of the day. He never owned a home, built monuments, carved his name in stone, or wrote books to preserve his legacy. He had no dynasty or even children to carry on his name; at the time of his death, all his friends and followers had abandoned him– all but one disciple and his mother. Yet his birth (the actual date of which has been obscured by history) is synonymous with generous gifting, rejoicing, singing, worship, and renewed hope. So what could any of us possibly give that could even begin to match what His life, death, and resurrection gave us?
He asks for only one thing– everything we have: all the failures, mistakes, good intentions, bad choices, selfish desires, and hurts of the past–and in return, He gives us everything beyond our wildest imaginations: eternity with Him; all the riches of His Glory; all His holiness and majesty imputed to us; peace with Him; rest and restoration in Him; and His Spirit to guide and sustain us!
The bleakness of midwinter may not have been the physical setting of Christ’s birth, but it represents the spiritual setting of our lives without Him. In that sense, Christ comes in the bleak midwinter of our rebellion, our despair, and our isolation, and offers to give us everlasting light, hope, peace, and joy!
That’s worth celebrating every day throughout eternity!
All Hallow’s Eve, or Halloween, brings out the fearsome, garish, gory, scary, and macabre in many people. Movies, costumes, and stories concentrate on death, mystery, nightmares, ghosts, and terror.
I am not a fan of horror in any of its forms. I don’t like to be scared, startled, tricked, haunted, or frightened. I don’t like seeing others being terrorized, tortured, or hurt.
So it is with great interest and some surprise to find that the Bible tells us to fear. Of course, it also tells us NOT to fear– several times, in fact. We are told that we need not fear the future (Matthew 6:34), struggles, battles, or long journeys (Joshua 1:9), shame or disgrace (Isaiah 54:4), terror, evil, and the “shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4), actual death, angels or demons (Romans 8:38), or anyone at all (Psalm 27:1; Psalm 188:6). But there is one fear the Bible does nothing to dispel.
There is a Holy terror that comes from the recognition that God is Holy– and we are NOT. There is a very real, very terrible chasm separating us from an eternally sinless and perfect God. There is nothing we can do on this side of the chasm to close the gap– no way to escape the eternal. hopeless and horrific state of being separated from all that is good, and noble, and peaceful, and joyous. In life, we get glimpses of glory–flashes of amazing grace at work in the world around us. Even though we live in a fallen world, we do not live in a place rejected or abandoned by God.
This should cause us to have a healthy “fear” of God– a soul-deep awe of His “Other-ness”, His Authority, and His Pre-eminence. And it should give us a terror of remaining in separation from Him– especially as He offers the very restoration and renewal we can never achieve for ourselves. And He offers it as a free gift to ANYONE who will receive it!
Far from trying to “scare someone into Heaven,” sermons and admonitions about Hellfire and eternal damnation are meant as very real warnings with real and eternal consequences. No horror on earth can compare with an existence devoid of all joy, peace, love, light, help, and hope–and filled with the knowledge of “all that might have been.” Zombies, vampires, ghouls, and monsters can terrorize in the movies for an hour or two, or in books for a week or more, but what makes people willing to entertain such horrors is the latent hope that we will close the book cover, exit the theater, and wake up from the nightmares presented there. The idea that Good will eventually triumph; that order, peace, and justice can be restored; that love conquers all, and “something” will survive, re-emerge, and carry on into the future. All of these hopes are possible because God exists and is eternal. When we reject God’s authority; His sovereign direction and His call to salvation, we reject all that comes with it. While we live on His earth, we will still see the glimpses of glory– we can pretend that it is enough for now, or choose to settle for false “hope” of emptiness in death. But we cannot escape the search for meaning and purpose that drives us to build and plan for a future we have never seen; nor can we know the peace that comes from looking forward and seeing more than darkness, doubt, and destruction.
A widow contacted a local church to come pick up an old rusty car that belonged to her late husband. He had one request– that the car be kept in the old garage at the church parsonage and that anyone who wanted to could stop by and work on it. He had purchased it years before with the intention of restoring it to drive around in during his retirement. But time and ill-health had robbed him of his dream. His hope was that someone might enjoy working on it, and if no one came to work on the car, perhaps the church could sell it to scrappers and at least get some money for it. An ad was placed in the bulletin, and another in the local paper. Hours were set up, when people could stop by to work on the car.
Soon, there was a great stir– several members of the congregation came forward to protest. Some were concerned about the safety and liability involved in having the car in the garage where anyone could get to it. Surely, it would be in the church’s best interest to have the car locked away, so only members of the congregation could get to it. Others were arguing about how to restore the car properly– what was the original color of the chassis and the interior? Could they find the exact parts for that make and model? Who would work on the engine? The interior? The frame? Surely the old man didn’t mean for just anyone to come in and work wherever s/he felt like working…how would the job get done? Detailed schedules were posted and discussed; re-posted and opposed.
Weeks, and even months went by. The church was divided; some threatened to leave. And none of the church members had even visited the old car in the garage– it sat forgotten. Except…
A young man in town had seen the notice in the newspaper. He wrote down the original work schedule and followed it, quietly coming every Tuesday and Friday night after work, and patiently working to restore the car. He cleaned and oiled parts, “tinkered” with others, sanded off rust, fixed hose lines and checked all the panels. He patched upholstery and polished up the old tires. He painted the chassis and found matching window wipers to replace the old ones. He worked on the motor and the exhaust, and even the old AM radio. He made sure the mirrors and windows were not cracked or chipped. He even hunted around to find the right hood ornament to replace the one that was lost. Only the pastor knew of his work, and even he had never joined the man or asked about his progress– he merely opened the garage door every time the young man arrived, and closed it when the young man left.
After eight months, the division in the church had reached a fevered pitch. One group demanded that the car be removed to a secure location and that the labor should be divided based on an elaborate chart that focused on how long someone had attended the church, their skill base, what time they were available to work, and whether they were currently an elder or deacon (or had ever served as an elder or deacon).
When the group arrived at the garage, they were shocked to discover that the car was completely restored, polished and glorious in its restoration. Shocked and angry, they attacked the pastor– How could he have allowed this to happen “behind their backs?” When the pastor admitted that he was as surprised as they were, their attention turned to the young man. They hunted him down and demanded an explanation. How dare he come and work on the church’s car without their knowledge or approval! Who did he think he was?!
The young man’s answer left them stunned. He said, “I read an invitation that said anyone who wished could come and help restore an old car to help out a local church. I came every week, and no one else ever showed up to help. No one from your church did any work on this car. No one ever came to check on it or see if any work had been done. No one from your church gave me a word of encouragement, no one had a helpful suggestion or even constructive criticism. No one offered me a word of gratitude. No one helped hold a lamp or flashlight so I could see the hidden damage as I made repairs. No one helped when I had to hoist the motor or clean off the grease and grime, or polish the chrome. The invitation was clear– whosoever will, may come. I came. I followed the directions I was given– I came on Tuesdays and Fridays, and I cleaned up each time before I left. I put a lot of work into this car, and now I’m done. I hope your church can decide on a good use for it; she’s a beauty, and I think she’ll run really well– I didn’t take her for a spin, but I hope someone will be able to enjoy her for many years to come.”
The crowd from the church still had one question– Why had the young man come in the first place, and why did he keep working on the car all those months? Did he want the car for himself?
“No,” the man said; “when I first read the ad in the paper and I saw the word ‘restoration’, I was deeply moved. Not too many years ago, I was living a very wild and dangerous life. I felt alone and abandoned and I was filled with anger. I was restless and destructive. But one man in town took me under his wing. He gave me a part-time job, and made me promise to stay in school. But much more than that, he and his wife invited me over for dinner several times. They made time out of their busy schedule to come and watch me play basketball after I finally made the team in my senior year. When I joined the army, they sent letters and care packages. The old man used to tell me that I reminded him of an old car he bought and kept in his garage. He said it was an amazing machine that just needed restoration– he said I was an amazing person who just needed some restoration. He told me that Jesus came to bring restoration to anyone who wanted to come to Him.”
“I finished my time in the army; I came back and started my own business. I got busy and moved on with life. I never came back to thank that man for his kindness, and he never asked for anything from me. I guess I expected to thank him some day, but I found out that he had died. I went to see his widow. She was so gracious, asking about my family and wishing me the best, and then she mentioned her husband’s last request. And when I saw the ad in the paper, I knew this was a way for me to thank the old man, but also to experience what restoration really means. When I came to God, I was rusty, filthy, and broken. God has sanded off the rust in my life, mended broken relationships, and given me new life. It’s an honor to be able to bring restoration, no matter the circumstances. God has done so much to restore my life, it’s the least I can do to help restore an old car. I hope that somehow, this car can inspire renewal in someone else’s life the way its owner helped bring restoration to my life.”
I wish I could say that the young man’s story changed the hearts of the angry deacons and elders. A few of them were touched; some even convicted of their pride and selfishness. But most were simply put out.
What have I done with the precious gift of restoration in my life? God, lead me to someone today who needs to hear, and SEE, the miracle of restoration and Grace.
Last Friday, I attended a high school football game in my home town. It was homecoming, complete with floats and balloons, face paint, and screaming fans (myself included).
My hometown team is having a fantastic season so far– their record is 6 and 0, and they are winning by wide margins each week. I’m a little biased, not only since this is my home town, but because I have a nephew and a cousin on the team! They have already qualified for a spot in the playoffs for their division, and they have dreams of becoming state champions.
I hope they make it. I pray that they will play their best; that they will stay safe and healthy, too. I want them to win, and I think they have a good chance. But the season’s not over yet. They still have to play a couple of tough teams in the regular season, and they will face stiff competition in the playoffs.
As good as they have been so far, the teammates and coaches will still drill, train, and learn how to adjust the way they play based on whatever the next game throw at them. Next week’s team may be better at passing, or rushing. Their players may be bigger, or more agile, or more experienced than others. The weather conditions may play a bigger role next week.
All that to say that we all go through seasons– sometimes even “winning” seasons– and each one requires that we prepare, work, train, and persevere until the season is over. Some of us are facing a season of trials and losses–we’re waiting and hoping for the season to end. And it will. But the season’s not over yet. Stay in the game– keep praying, keep training, and keep believing that there will be a new season of hope. Some of us are in a season of victory! That’s great, but the season’s not over yet. Stay focused– keep training and preparing, and learning, knowing that there will come a season of trial. Some of us are watching others in their success–but the season’s not over yet. Stop comparing– reach out and connect. Show respect; show compassion.
This is true in all areas of life– there are seasons in our education, seasons in parenting and relationships, seasons in our careers and service, seasons in politics, economics, and even in our faith walk. And in every season, God is there. Like a proud parent or an ardent fan, He is cheering you on; like a great coach, He gives guidance and instruction; like a cherished teammate, He has your back. In all of this, God roots for all His children– not that some will “win” and others will “lose”, but that all will learn to play their very best and become “victors”.
No matter what kind of season we are in, or where we are in our season, we should remember a few things:
Life is both an individual and a team activity. None of us can “win” on our own, nor can we expect the team to “carry” us to victory without any effort on our part.
We can’t see the end from the beginning (or even the middle). But God can. And we can trust His guidance and His timing, even if we don’t see the whole picture.
God goes not see “winning” and “losing” in the same way the world judges it. What looks like “winning” to us may be superficial and false. What feels like losing may be building a Godly character that will overshadow the temporary struggles of this season.
Seasons come and go, but not everyone experiences them the same way or at the same time. In other words, don’t compare your winning swim season to someone else’s losing soccer season, or your dry summer to someone else’s monsoon season. Instead, focus on your own season and your own growth. Don’t close yourself off to others– you may have an opportunity to give or accept help, advice, training, and encouragement along the way–but don’t let others become more powerful (or less worthy of respect) than they really are.
At the end of the “season”, if we know Jesus Christ, we will share in the ultimate victory. The celebration that occurs over each person who comes to Christ makes any celebration here on earth seem dull and timid–no amount of parade floats, lights, fireworks, screaming fans, balloons, or other excitement can compare to the joy of welcoming a lost soul into the Kingdom of Heaven.
I witnessed a blow-out high school football game last week. The final score was 57 to 0! Once the point differential was over 50, they invoked the “mercy rule.” The game clock would not stop for downs; there would be no more “time out” calls– as this happened late in the game anyway, it just meant that the end came quickly and “mercifully” for the losing team. It also meant that players were less likely to take dangerous risks in the forlorn hope of scoring big points.
High school football has a “mercy rule” so that struggling teams don’t become victims of absolute despair. This team deserved to lose, and they did. They lost big; but they could’ve lost by a wider margin. And they didn’t lose for lack of effort– they pushed hard and gave it a mighty try. But they were not up to the challenge of a better team.
In life, when we come up against Sin, we can give our best effort, and still lose big. Oh, there are certain sins that seem easily “tamed” or “defeated,” but there are others that end up crushing us– maybe it’s an addiction to porn, or a tendency to spread rumors; maybe we harbor bitterness or doubt, or we can’t control angry outbursts.
In the end, we are all losers in the game against Sin– whether the loss seems like a close shave or a blowout, the result is the same. But the consequences are much more dire. The penalty for Sin is Death. Not just a single lost game, but an eternal loss of life and hope and light and love! We are no match for Sin, and Sin shows no mercy. Even with a mercy rule, our situation seems hopeless. But it is not.
Death may seem like a a harsh and undeserved judgment. We “can’t” win. Or, more correctly, we will always lose. Even a “mercy rule,” while it may mean that we don’t get the death we deserve, wouldn’t keep us from being “losers.” This is how many people see God’s offer of salvation– as some sort of mercy rule that keeps us from the fate we can’t avoid. But even if God only offered mercy, it would be infinitely better than we can imagine. Because God’s mercy is not just a “rule”, it is a priceless gift of restoration. We can be free from the “loss” and penalty we deserve, no matter what the “point differential.” Even a close “loss” to sin is wiped out by God’s mercy.
God’s offer of salvation doesn’t just stop at mercy, however. It includes something that will never happen in a football game or anywhere else in life. God extends His Grace– all that we don’t deserve, and never could deserve–above and beyond the already infinite and superior mercy we needed to escape the judgment of Death. We don’t just escape the horrors of death and hell. We are gifted with all we need to win the game– to be co-victors over Death and Sin. God, in His mercy keeps us from losing. In His Grace, He coaches us, plays alongside us, cheers for us, and gives us the power to become all that we need to be to play our best. AND, He has already secured the victory. Far from being in a position where we “can’t” win– God offers us the opportunity to be in a position where we can’t LOSE!
It is my ongoing prayer that if you are reading this, you have already responded to God’s invitation, through Jesus Christ, to be victorious; that God’s spirit would guide me to write what will be helpful in encouraging you and strengthening your faith (as well as my own). I pray that you will grow in faith and make the pursuit of prayer part of your daily walk in Faith. If that is not the case, and you have not accepted both God’s mercy and His grace, I pray that you will take that opportunity today.
Don’t wait for a “mercy rule”– accept the mercy of the Ruler!
Smack-dab in the center of Sin and Pride;
You could find me in Peril, Intrigue and Rebellion–
Guilt surrounded me, pain and despair held me fast.
But I was not in Repentance, Mercy, or Grace.
I had die to “I”– let it go and let the Son redeem the Sin
Trade Pride for Prayer, and Hype for Hope.
But I am no longer lost or dead– and no longer a slave to sin or pride.
I can now be found in Faith, and Charity;
I thrive in Fellowship, I have a Friend in Jesus,
A Spirit to guide me, and a vision for Eternity.
It is not “I” who lives, but “I AM” who lives in me.
Salvation, forgiveness, life, and victory are all mine;
Alive in Him, I am found in Christ– sanctified,
And never alone.
Romans 8:1-5King James Version (KJV)
8 There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.3 For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh:4 That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.5 For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit.
1 Corinthians 15:57New International Version (NIV)
57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
A brief note about Scripture references and quotes: I try to give scripture references and quotes in various translations, though I give most in the New International Version (NIV), the English Standard Version (ESV) or the King James or New King James versions (KJV or NKJV). I don’t intend to cause confusion by doing this. There are several excellent translations/versions available, and for a good comparison, there are several wonderful Bible study websites (two of my favorites are Bible Gateway and Bible Hub ). I simply find that there are some nuances that make for easier reading or use in the blog. Often, one translation will have notes and cross references that are wonderful for further study, but confusing to include as part of the blog quote. I encourage anyone to read the verses in whatever translation they have available, feel most comfortable using, or feel is most trustworthy. I also welcome comments or corrections.
It is a great reminder that, as followers of Christ, we always have a reason to be happy and to sing his praises, even when circumstances are confusing or situations are trying.
I love this old song, but sometimes, even though I have reason to be happy, I don’t feel like singing. The same happens with prayer. Some days, I’m just not feelin’ it. It’s not necessarily that I’m miserable or angry. Sometimes, I’m distracted, or even happy doing self-centered things.
I find it easier to pray when I’m sad or needy– my brokenness brings me closer to God. When things are going along just fine, I sometimes forget the true source of my joy and strength. I take for granted that God and I are close, not realizing that I haven’t spoken to him lately, or that I have whispered a quick, shallow prayer, but I haven’t spent much quality time with the lover of my soul.
There is an old Chinese proverb that says: “I don’t sing because I am Happy– I am happy because I sing.”
At first, it may sound like this is a contradiction of the beloved hymn, but really it is a complement. I sing because I’m happy, but if I sing no matter how I start out feeling, I find myself happier! I pray because I want to be close to God, but I stay closer to God because I pray. When I was younger, I used to base my prayer life on how I felt. It’s yet another reason I now use a prayer journal. Read more about keeping a Prayer Journal It keeps me disciplined and helps me maintain a stronger prayer life. We all know that prayer is a key element in building a strong relationship with God and others, but it has to be practiced to be effective. Other key elements are:
Reading the Bible/doing a Bible study
Fellowship with other believers
Obedience– Actively following God’s example
Any of these elements can become lackluster and difficult, especially if we aren’t practicing them daily. And all of the elements will become stronger through practice. Not only that, but they will blend together better, and the end result is a stronger, healthier, happier you.
Several years ago, it became incredibly fashionable (literally) to wear t-shirts, necklaces, and especially bracelets with the four letters, WWJD– which stood for “What Would Jesus Do?” This was supposed to serve as a reminder that the wearer was an ambassador of the Kingdom of God, and was supposed to be a follower of Jesus, and thus should act in accordance with what Jesus would do in any given situation. Stuck in traffic–What would Jesus do? Presumably, we would not lose his temper, honk and scream obscenities, or rudely try to cut or push others off the road. Tempted by the scantily clad actors and actresses in a new R-rated movie– What would Jesus do? Presumably, he would not attend R-rated movies filled with sexual situations in the first place, or, finding himself tempted, he would leave the movie.
I think the intention was good in the beginning– even scriptural in a sense. The Children of Israel were commanded, in Deuteronomy 6: 8 to “tie them (God’s commandments, laws, and decrees) as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the door frames of your houses and on your gates.” Throughout the Bible, the patriarchs, prophets, Jesus, and the apostles, often spoke of keeping God’s Word in our hearts and on our minds as we go through our daily routines. This short reminder should help us do just that– redirect our thoughts to the One we are to follow. As far as it achieved that goal, it was a good thing.
The problem is that it didn’t work that way for most people. The jewelry or the t-shirt didn’t serve as a reminder to the wearer, but as a symbol to everyone else. “Hey, look at me! I’m wearing a fashionable accessory with a cryptic message that lets you know that my thoughts and actions represent Jesus here on earth!” Ironically, Jesus would have been the last person to wear such an item– not only because he wouldn’t have to ask the question (BEING Jesus, and all), but because his focus was on others–Jesus didn’t wear his heart on his sleeve, or his wrist, and he didn’t call attention to his own righteousness. Instead, he spoke to outcasts, and touched lepers. He acted in accordance with God’s wishes, not because he had decided what he thought God would want him to do, but because he knew who God wanted him to become.
One of the worst casualties of the WWJD craze is that many people substituted their own wisdom for a study of God’s word– in other words, they imagined what Jesus would (or might) have done, instead of learning and following what he DID. Of course, Jesus was never stuck in a traffic jam. But he did face demands on his time, and stressful situations. He was never tempted by movies or internet porn, but he was surrounded by a culture that had “religious” “temple” prostitutes, along with sexual immorality not that different from what we see today. The Bible doesn’t give us a picture of Jesus planning and executing a strategy for specific temptations– it DOES give us specific examples of people over a long period of time who failed or triumphed over temptations, big and small, and of people who turned to God for strength to overcome temptation and grace when they had fallen. It also gives us a picture of Jesus living a life that was perfectly pleasing to God– including a life of prayer.
What would Jesus pray? Look at John 17. Look at Luke 11:1-4 or Luke 22: 39-48. Look at Mark 14: 32-42. There are many examples of Jesus’ prayers– prayers that pour out his heart to his Father– in faith, in pain, in grief, and in hope. In fact, it would be appropriate to say in answer to the question, “What would Jesus do?”– Jesus would take it to God in Prayer!
Jesus didn’t come to earth and live his life to make us great, or successful, powerful or popular by the world’s standards. He came to seek and to save those who were lost. He asks us to do the same– not in our own strength or success, but in the overflow of the grace and power he has poured into us. T-shirts and jewelry are nice, but Jesus used his life–his time, his love, his talents, his words and his actions in accordance with God’s will and God’s wise commands to bring people to himself. Then he did what none of us could do– he fulfilled God’s law, becoming the perfect sacrifice for our sins, and conquering Sin and death. What would Jesus do? He DID IT! It is FINISHED! Our part is not to do what only God can do, but to what he has asked of us and trust him to do the rest.
This is also true in our pursuit of prayer. I often get side-tracked in wondering if my prayers match up to what Jesus might have prayed in the same situation– and that shouldn’t be my immediate focus. Prayer is, as I have to keep reminding myself, a pursuit. It is a process and a journey, and an ongoing, deepening conversation with the one who loves me best. And it is not a one-sided conversation– God answers my prayers, not just by meeting immediate needs or changing circumstances. He speaks through his law, through the Psalms and prophets, through the Gospels and the Epistles, and through the godly wisdom of friends and counselors and ministers of his Grace. And in doing so, he teaches me to pray.
May I stop worrying so much about the length or the style or the “worthiness” of my prayers. May I instead listen, and learn, and continue the pursuit.