A Promise for a New Day (and Year)

I have always enjoyed New Years Day, not only for the bowl games and fireworks and black-eyed peas, but for the new beginning it represents. It’s a chance to press “reset.” You can close out last year’s books, leave yesterday behind, and look ahead with a fresh determination to the changes you know you need to make.

 

There’s something about fresh starts and “do-overs” that all of us like. Sometimes you just want to shake up the Etch-A-Sketch and start over. That’s what New Year’s promises, even if it is just another day.

 

The good news is, though, that every day is like a mini-New Year’s Day. Even if you blew it yesterday, even if your life has seemed like nothing more than a long series of failures, there is the promise of a new day.

 

For those who have struggled through 2017, as well as those just trying to make it past yesterday, I have some wonderful words of promise for the day and year ahead. Hear the words of the weeping prophet, Jeremiah, as he did inventory of his own life and looked forward to a new day:

 

“I remember well my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me. Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope. Because of the Lord’s great love, we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion, therefore I will wait for him.” The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.” (Lamentations 3:19-26)

 

I doubt Lamentations is a favorite reading for most of us, but I am sure that particular passage is still familiar. I would call your attention to one simple word in the middle of it that stands out to me. It comes in verse 21, after he has recounted his affliction and sorrow. “Yet…” In this case, it serves as a conjunction, and accentuates a contrast. It is one of those “neverthelesses” of Scripture. Even still, even though, even in the face of the difficulties I may be facing, “yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope.”
What is it that the prophet is calling to mind? The Lord’s love and compassion, his mercies that never fail, that are new every morning. Life is tough, YET God is good and faithful, and therefore I have hope.

 

“They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” Certainly that brings to mind the words of the great hymn of that same title, written by Thomas Chisholm:

 

“Great is Thy faithfulness,” O God my Father,
There is no shadow of turning with Thee.
Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not.
As Thou hast been Thou forever wilt be.
“Great is Thy faithfulness!”, “Great is Thy faithfulness!”
Morning by morning new mercies I see.
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided,
“Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.”
Now, that’s a promise for a new day, and a new year. May the Lord bless you with a wonderful and blessed new beginning in 2018. I am praying for you.

Make My Heart a Manger

I shared a story last year in a Christmas message that a few people have asked about, and I thought this would be an appropriate place to share it again. It came from Jess Moody, who was a noted Baptist preacher back in the 1960’s through the 1980’s. He preached a “revival” at Southwestern Seminary when I was a student there, and he was one of the most powerful story-tellers I ever heard.
In one of his books, Moody told of meeting Rose Kennedy, the mother of the president and the matriarch of the Kennedy clan. He was teaching a Bible study that she attended, and that night he challenged those in attendance to make their hearts ready to meet the Lord because life is short for all of us, and no one knows what the future may hold.
When the meeting was over, Mrs. Kennedy spoke to Moody privately. “I’ve done what you were talking about tonight,” she said. She went on to say that as a young bride, she had been enamored by the power of money and her life was characterized by selfishness and covetousness.
Then she gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. However, it soon became apparent that something was wrong with her daughter. Medical tests revealed that her daughter had been born with severe mental retardation, which devastated Mrs. Kennedy and her husband Joe, and the decision was made to institutionalize her. Then the devastation turned eventually to enormous anger at God. “How could you have done this to us?” she asked the Lord. The anger became a kind of corrosive bitterness that drained every bit of joy from her life.
One night during the Christmas season she and her husband had been scheduled to attend a social gathering. They decided at the last minute not to go when she realized that her anger had consumed her. She was afraid of what she might do or say if someone asked about their daughter’s condition. And that’s when it happened. A maid who worked for the family spoke to her. “Mrs. Kennedy, I’ve been watching you for the last few weeks and I’ve seen how angry you are. If you don’t do something, it’s going to ruin you. I think you should pray this prayer: ‘O Lord, make my heart a manger where the Christ child can be born.'”
Rose Kennedy told Jess Moody that she was so angry that she fired the maid on the spot. But that night when she went to bed, she couldn’t sleep. Tossing and turning, she couldn’t get that simple prayer out of her mind. Finally, she knelt by her bed, and in an act of deep surrender, she prayed, “O Lord, make my heart a manger where the Christ child can be born.” And in that moment, in the depth of the night, when she cried out in anguish, God heard and answered her prayer.
“I’ve always been religious,” she told Jess Moody. “I’m a Catholic and I’ve always believed in Jesus.” But this was different. On this night, she opened her heart to Christ in a new way, and her heart did indeed become a manger where Christ could be born (again) in her. Love replaced the anger that had gripped her soul. And the end of the story is this: She rehired the maid who stayed with the family until she died many years later.
That’s a prayer that many need to pray this Christmas season. Perhaps you have been religious and have given mental assent to a belief in Jesus. Maybe you’ve sung the Christmas songs, proclaiming “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.” But He has not come into our own hearts, and He is not Lord of your life. And it’s possible that in these days leading up to Christmas, anger, worry, fear, doubt, and other inner distractions are draining all the joy from your heart.
I hope you won’t put a “No Room In the Inn” sign up for Jesus this Christmas. I pray you will accept the invitation He extends to each of us, and open your heart to His love and grace. Let go of your doubts and fears. Give up your anger. Say farewell to your bitterness. Let go of the things that chain you to the past. And pray this simple prayer: “O Lord, make my heart a manger where the Christ child can be born.”
Merry Christmas to each of you. I count it such a joy to be  your pastor, and look forward to seeing you this Sunday as we worship our Savior together.

A ‘Get Real’ Christmas

I read recently where someone said Christmas brings out the “weird” in all of us: it’s the only time of the year where families gather around a dead tree and eat candy out of their socks!

We do have some peculiar “traditions” associated with the holy-day we call Christmas. It’s funny how a simple celebration of the birth of a baby 2,000 years ago can make us do such strange things. Like decorating our homes with fake icicle lights, hanging old socks on our chimneys or eating fruit cake. Indeed, so much of our Christmas celebration is wrapped up in tradition.
Since I serve a less-than-traditional church like Shelby Crossings, I’ve been asked more than once “How does a ‘contemporary’ church celebrate such a ‘traditional’ holiday as Christmas?”  Truly, it is a delicate balance. But rather than defining what we do by such labels, our key concern is to be “real” (and most of us do live in a contemporary world after all). The bigger question is, how can we cut through all the stuff that comes with our 21st century Christmas and celebrate the birth of the Savior of the world in a real way?
We can do that with age-old carols that bring back special memories of Christmas’s past. We can do that with new songs that point to the freshness of God’s gifts to us each and every day.  We can read His word for real-life truth for our real-life lives—such as how the “good tidings of great joy” and the “peace on earth” apply to where we live today  We can cling to the hope of Christmas future, because of the hope brought to us in Christmas past. And we can do our best to move past the cliches and focus on what the season is all about–the incarnation of Emmanuel, God with us, in the person of Jesus, the babe born in a Bethlehem manger so long ago.
We tried to do all of those things in our churchwide Christmas celebration last Sunday night. And this Sunday, we will gather once again as a community of faith to celebrate a real Jesus–the baby born, the man who lived, the Savior who died on the cross for us–and the real joy that is promised to those who know Him. Whether it be contemporary or traditional, may our expressions of worship be not unlike those wise men of old, who, when they saw the babe, spontaneously knelt and worshiped Him. That would be the greatest birthday gift we could ever give Jesus this Christmas.
I look forward to seeing you this Sunday as we gather in Jesus’ name for a special Advent celebration of worship. O come let us adore Him…Christ the Lord! 

Christmas…His Way

I was watching some Christmas documentaries on YouTube the other night, and came across an old History Channel special on the history of Christmas. I have seen it before, but it reminded me that, when laid out in 2,000 years of sequence, it’s easy to see all the trappings of the world we have allowed to intrude on the way we celebrate the birth of Jesus.
From ancient pagan traditions that were adopted into the earliest forms of the “Christ mass,” to Clement Moore’s St. Nick poem and Madison Avenue’s marketing here in America, we’ve been hit from every side with what I would call someone called the “Disneyfication”of Christmas. There are so many externals we’ve come to accept that really don’t have anything to do with the incarnation of the Son of God. And as much as everyone wants to “keep Christ in Christmas,” the reality is, most of what we do this time of year has little to do with Jesus, other than maybe a manger scene on our coffee table and a few Christmas carols that we hear playing in the mall while we shop.
Now, let me say, this is not intended to heap more guilt onto your shoulders. It is a suggestion, in this season of Advent, to re-evaluate what this thing we call Christmas is all about. What steps can we as the people of God take to do things a little differently? Are there realistic ways that we can remember “the reason for the season” and not get caught up in the commercialization we all complain about, yet most participate in? How can we honor Jesus in our environment of Christian community, and how can we truly put Him first in our family traditions?
My one suggestion: simplify. There’s still time to make some choices–17 days, in fact–that you don’t have to get caught in the world’s trap, stress yourself out, spend all your money, and chase the fantasy that we’ve made Christmas into. Just say no. It’s okay.
Some people will probably think you’re crazy, and no doubt some will call you Ebenezer Scrooge or the Grinch. But that doesn’t matter. To truly be a follower of Christ, you often have to go against the flow. In fact, there’s no occasion in all of Scripture that more confounded the conventional wisdom of the world than the birth of Jesus we are supposedly celebrating.
Who would have thought that the Messiah would be born to an unwed teenage mother, in an animal food trough? The witnesses were not royalty but lowly shepherds–and a few cattle. This was the greatest of stories ever told, yet it unfolded not with great fanfare but in the simplest and most unexpected of ways. So, if you want to follow the Biblical pattern, go against the flow. Strip away all the accessorizing that now comes with our American Christmas, along with all the expectations from the world, and do it your own way. Or better yet, His way.
I won’t prescribe what your Christmas should look like, and how you and your family should celebrate the holiday(s), but I will suggest, strongly, that you not succumb to the pressure of the world to do it their way.
More on this subject next week. In the mean time, have a very joyous season, and may you truly experience “peace on earth” during this season of the year. I’m praying for you, and I look forward to seeing you on Sunday, morning and evening, as we celebrate Jesus together.