Questions for a New Year

Questions cause us to think.  Sometimes they cause us to evaluate our lives. In our fast-paced society we don’t seem to make enough time for either of those pastimes. We wonder who has time for thinking and evaluating when our days are an attempt to play catch up only to feel like we are falling farther behind.

Yet, as you round the corner and anticipate the New Year, here are some questions that may prepare you for what’s coming.

Question # 1: Did I have a proper emphasis on my family this past year? It is one of the rare ironies of the world, in which we live, that we have routine performance evaluations at work, but rarely at home. We will all face retirement one day, but our family we will likely have with us as long as we live. So maybe it’s time for a “family evaluation.” How are you doing as a Dad? As a Mom? Are you properly fulfilling your role as a husband or wife? Before you enter the New Year evaluate your performance for the past one.

Question # 2: Did I have a proper emphasis on my relationship with God this past year?  As a pastor you know I’m going to bring that one up.  Yet, this is the relationship we often forget when things are going well, and attempt to lean on when we are experiencing a crisis. And like every other relationship its strength is dependent upon the quality of time we spend together with God on a regular basis.  Through prayer and reading the Bible we daily grow in our relationship with Him. Unfortunately, when we only run to God in crisis we will not have much confidence in that relationship. When we are attempting to know His heart during the non-crisis times, it better prepares us for the crisis times.  Our two relationships that are most important are often the two that are the most neglected. Let’s make a commitment to make this New Year different. It’s a commitment that may change your life.

Time with God: The right heart, time, place, and plan

When having an effective quiet time, it’s important to have the right heart, time, place and plan.  If your time with the Lord is lacking, consider which of these four elements could stand a little improvement. Several years ago now I came upon an excellent article by pastor Zach Schlegel on the importance of all four elements. He granted me permission to share it with our church family then, and I’m certain you will benefit as well.

The Right Heart…. Expectant – The writer of Hebrews reminds us that those who in faith seek after God can expect the reward of God Himself (Hebrews 11:6; also Jeremiah 29:12-13). Willingness to Obey – If we come listening not for what God has to say to us, but what we want; chances are we won’t hear Him. In John’s Gospel, Jesus reminds us that coming with a willing heart is important (John 7:17). Teachable and Humble – When coming before the King of kings, the proper attitude is humility, not pride; being teachable, not a know it all (James 1:19-21; 4:6; Psalm 119:33-34).

The Right Time…Morning, afternoon or evening?  In deciding when to have your quiet time, choose the time that you are at your best: alert, focused, and fresh.  Jesus’ custom was to meet with the Father early in the morning (Mark 1:35), and for many people, that’s the best way to start the day.  But whatever you decide, make sure to be consistent with it and to schedule it in your calendar as you would any other important meeting! How long will your quiet time be?  If having a quiet time is new to you, start with a shorter amount of time and then build up as your appetite increases.  Everyone is different, just be sure to give yourself ample time to slow down, read, pray, and reflect.  If beforehand we decide and schedule how long (at a minimum) our quiet time will be, it not only frees up our schedule, but cultivates the discipline of slowing down and giving God our best time.

The Right Place…Comfortable and quiet; Good lighting. Free of distractions: Turn off your TV, phone, or internet – anything that would distract. Have a pen and notebook handy to write down the “To do” list that comes to your mind; if you’ve written it down, you can forget it and come back to it later. 

The Right Plan… Why a plan?  Why is discipline so important?  For some type “A” personalities, these may seem like silly questions; but others cringe at the idea of having a plan and being disciplined with it – why not just be free and ‘let it happen’?  Having a plan is not meant to be a rigid set of rules; but many times we don’t spend time with God because we have no plan. 

Elton Trueblood explains the relationship between discipline and freedom saying, “We have not advanced very far in our spiritual lives if we have not encountered the basic paradox of freedom…that we are most free when we are bound.  But not just any way of being bound will suffice; what matters is the character of our binding.  The one who would be an athlete, but who is unwilling to discipline his body by regular exercise and abstinence, is not free to excel on the field or the track. His failure to train rigorously denies him the freedom to run with the desired speed and endurance.  With one concerted voice, the giants of the devotional life apply the same principle to the whole of life: Discipline is the price of freedom.”  —-Zach Schlegel, blog 11.11.2009

Reading through the Bible in a year

As you prepare for the new year I’ve included several Bible reading plans to encourage your time in the Word. They are in PDF format so that you can print them and tuck them in the flyleaf of your Bible for a reminder as you develop the habit of  reading the Bible daily.

The six-day format will take you through the Bible cover to cover. The seventh day can be used to make up one of those days you might have missed or to reflect upon passages studied earlier in the week.

Thru the Bible in a Year – Reading 6 days a week

If you’re just starting your Bible reading adventure you may want to simply read a key chapter of the Bible each day. While using this approach will not allow you to read every verse in the Bible in the course of the year, you will move  through the high points without getting lost in the “lists of names” or Old Testament prophecies that often require greater cultural study for understanding.

A Chapter a Day – 365 key chapters of the Bible

Typically when we read a book we expect the events to be communicated  in chronological order.  However, the Bible groups its various books by genre or style of writing (i.e. histories, poetry, prophecies, etc.). For instance, the events of Job’s life probably occurred during the time of the events in the book of Genesis, but the book of Job is placed about half way through your Old Testament (because it is considered poetry). Reading the Bible through chronologically will open up some insights you otherwise might miss.

Reading thru the Bible Chronologically

If you would like to read the events of the Bible chronologically, but prefer to read a chapter a day then the following Bible reading schedule is for you. 365 key chapters placed in chronological reading order.

A Chapter a Day – 365 key chapters of the Bible in chronological order

Perhaps you would like to read the Bible in the morning, and in the evening. The following schedules arrange your morning reading from the New Testament, and your evening reading from the Old Testament.

Morning Readings -New Testament in a year

Evening Readings-Old Testament in a year

Whichever reading format you might wish to choose, the most important choice is the one you will make daily as you strive to read, learn and apply God’s Word to your life. May He bless you in your endeavor.

Having my heart moved by the world’s need for the gospel…

One of my earliest memories of my grandparent’s house, were the missionary prayer cards taped on the inside door of their kitchen cabinets. Every time you wanted a glass of water you were reminded to pray for the missionaries.

When it comes to our responsibility to the share the good news about Jesus with the world, John Piper has said, “Go, send, or disobey.”

While neither of my grandparents were missionaries, their prayers and financial support were part of the sending process that touched multiple countries with the Gospel.

As we enter the new year, this video serves as a convicting reminder that each of us is to play a part in the spreading of the good news in the  hour in which we live. If you are receiving this via Facebook or email you may need to go to the homepage to view  the presentation.

What we can learn from Church history…

One Sunday morning I took a chance. I did something I’d never done before, and that I’d never seen done before. We took the morning teaching time and studied church history. I confess I was a little nervous. History isn’t known as a subject that inspires most of us. After all the dates, places, and names of the past may help us with a game of Trivia Pursuit, but that’s about all they can do. Not so with church history. It can inspire.

As we study Christians from the past that put their careers, their families, and their very lives on the line for Christ we are encouraged to live more Godly lives.

Take Ignatius and Polycarp for instance. Two leaders in the early church whom when asked to turn their back on Jesus Christ and live, chose to remain faithful to Him and die. And others followed suit. You see, as those in the early church watched their leaders die for the faith they too were inspired to surrender their lives.

The best example? Take the Christians who lived in Rome under Nero’s reign. The historian Tacitus reminds us that the citizens of Rome believed that it was Nero himself who started the fires that broke out on June 18th, A.D. 64. These fires burned for six days and seven nights destroying ¾ of the city. When it was all over, Nero began looking for scapegoat – someone to blame for the fires. His eyes fell upon the 1st century Christians. Although they were guilty of nothing, Nero sought creative ways to take their lives. He had them dressed in furs to be attacked and killed by dogs. Others he would crucify.  Others he would impale upon stakes and light his gardens by night using them as human torches. And still the Christians refused to deny Christ and worship the Roman gods.

What they had found in a personal relationship with Christ sustained them through great suffering. Those early Christians not only discovered a Person worth living for; they had also discovered a cause worth dying for. May we learn our commitment from those who counted the cost and lived like it mattered.

It’s Christmas day…the waiting is over.

This morning children of every age will awaken with this thought: The waiting is over. For days now they have been staring at the packages under the tree, and waiting. Perhaps some have even succumbed to their own curiosity, and haven’t waited.

Are you among those who have a Christmas secret in your past?  You looked to the left, then to the right, carefully unwrapped the gift prior to Christmas morning, and then rewrapped it quickly and hoped no one could tell the difference?

I had a gift like that once when I was a child. It was a packaging box in the top corner of the closet that drew my attention. When I pulled it down and took a peek inside I discovered a set of ceramic bookends. One was a baseball glove, and the other a football. I kept returning to that box when no one was watching. One day when I got that box from the closet it slipped from my hand. When I looked in the box what had been two bookends was now three. I put them back in the box and never looked again. When I opened the gift I saw that the baseball glove had been put back together.  Although the observant eye (and my guilty conscience made mine very observant), could still see the fracture and the thin line of glue that now held the left bookend together. Later that day, my mother pointed out the glue and shared a curious story. She recounted that when she had first ordered the bookends they were in one piece, but when she went to wrap them one was broken. I guess I wasn’t the only one with observant eyes that morning.

There are two characters in the post-Christmas  story that had been waiting: Simeon and Anna. When the baby Jesus was brought to the temple for his dedication (40 days after his birth) Simeon appears. He had been “waiting on the consolation of Israel”  (Luke 2:25).  The word consolation means to bring comfort. That’ not only what the nation of Israel needed, but what we all need as well. Jesus is meant to bring comfort to the soul that is anxious, troubled and hurting this Christmas day.

Anna was prophetess. She had been a widow for 84 years.  And that entire time she had been “waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38). That’s a long time to wait for something. The word redemption means to “buy back and set free.” Jesus bought us back from the addicting slavery of our selfishness and set us free to fulfill our God intended purpose — bring glory to God.

So this Christmas, as you open those gifts, pause to remember the gift that was worth the wait. The One who brings both comfort and redemption.

What angels must have thought…

You ever wonder if the angels might have been just a little confused about the Christmas events? Think about the message they were told to proclaim. Perhaps you remember hearing the message spoken by 8 year olds dressed in white with garland halos from Christmases–past. Here’s the angelic proclamation:

Do not be afraid, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign to you: You will find the Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger (Luke 2:10-12).

If you were an angel wouldn’t such a message seem a bit confusing?

Why was God taking such an interest in those from the human race? From the moment they were placed in the Garden of Eden they were succumbing to temptation and seeking ways to rebel. When God gave them His law, they only devised more creative ways to break it. As an angel it sure would be difficult to understand God’s love for these people.

Even more confusing might be the appearance of their Creator. The message they proclaimed is that Jesus had come as a baby. Can you imagine an individual more dependent than a baby? A teenage mom would be caring for Him. An earthly father would be providing for Him. And then there’s the matter of his birthplace. Had they misunderstood the message? He was in a stable? Lying in a common feed trough? The whole ordeal must have certainly confused more than a few angels.

But then again they had spent their entire existence in the presence of their Creator. Perhaps they had seen his love in action before. Perhaps it didn’t surprise them at all that God would go to such extremes to express His love to a people who were in such need of a Savior.

What the first Christmas might have been like

The mother’s scream ripped through the darkness.  She bit her lip, her body tense, her mind focused. The pain for this first-time mother was beyond anything she had anticipated. She tried to recite the verses she had learned as a child. “My heart rejoices in the Lord! The Lord has made me strong…There is no Rock like our God.” 1

She felt the uncontrollable tightening across her back, as her body strained to release the physical burden that had grown heavier these past months. Perspiration beaded on her forehead. She fought back the fear of panic that was rising in her chest. With greater intensity she kept repeating…”The Lord has made me strong. The Lord has made me strong. The Lord has made me strong.” The contraction subsided, and she rested.

She had labored through the night, only her husband by her side. No mother would ever know the physical pain she bore to birth this son.  She was a young mother after all—her womb—a virgin’s.

Between contractions her husband tenderly stroked her hand. His deep voice began to hum a familiar melody. It was just like him to hum only the tune so she would have to voice the lyric. Between contractions she quietly sung the words she herself had written months earlier. 

How my soul praises the Lord. How my spirit rejoiced in God my Savior! For he took notice of his lowly servant girl, and from now on all generations will call me blessed… 2

She smiled. Joyfully remembering the day she discovered she was pregnant.

The smile quickly melted under the growing strength of another contraction. Her weary muscles bore down, and Mary’s sweet song was driven from her mind with God’s promise to Eve, “I will sharpen the pain of your pregnancy, and in pain you will give birth.” 3

The final contraction was the worst. The young girl’s body stretched between time and eternity by two invisible powers. The first, denying her son entrance to the world, and the other, insistent that the boy be born precisely on time.

With eyes squeezed tightly shut, she pushed hard, and heard the infant cry of her newborn son.  His tiny human lungs inhaled earth’s air as a human for the first time.  Amidst the chaotic noise of an overcrowded Bethlehem night, she heard her husband’s gentle voice, “We will call Him Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”

Years later, the apostle John would capture this event with nine simple words. . . and the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us. . .

1 Samuel 2:1-2. Taken from Hannah’s prayer when she discovers she is pregnant with Samuel the prophet. It seemed reasonable to me that an expectant mother would have known and learned this passage.

2 Luke 2:46-48

3 Genesis 3:16

Curious and Joyful…the story of Mary

Traveling isn’t recommended when you’re nine months pregnant. The airlines won’t take you. Your doctors will discourage it, and who would want to be that far away from medical care when your first contraction could be less than a minute away?

Yet, there Mary was traveling 85 miles side-saddle on the back of a donkey, when her due date could have been yesterday. What were her thoughts on the way to Bethlehem?

To say that she was experiencing some physical discomfort is probably an understatement. Every rut the donkey stumbled into drove the Christ-child ever closer to leaving the womb and entering the world.

She probably felt fear. Why else would the angel have told her, “Do not be afraid.” Perhaps she was fearful of new surroundings, new friends, and <Ouch! > those new contractions!

She certainly   felt joy.  Although there were no ultrasounds she already knew the sex of the baby. The angel had said He would be a boy!

She probably was curious. The angel had said that her Son would be great and would reign over an unending kingdom (Luke 1:33). What exactly did that mean? Joseph’s angelic courier said their Son would  “save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). How could that be? Who was this baby growing inside her?

Perhaps you, like Mary, find yourself curious this Christmas.  Just who was Jesus Christ anyway? Why does the whole world stop to celebrate His birth? Can I encourage you to pick up your Bible and discover for yourself?

You’ll find his birth in Luke chapter two, but from there jump forward one book to the Gospel of John. As you read about His life don’t be afraid, for just like Mary your curiosity will be satisfied and your joy will be full.

Looking for opportunities in the rush of the season

A friend of mine challenged me with a great question. He asked, “If Christmas is Jesus’ birthday why is it we spend all our time hunting for gifts to give to others?” He paused and added thoughtfully, “It would be a little like your friends insisting they help you celebrate your birthday, and then they bring a bunch of gifts to give to each other while never bringing one for you!” He asked the question sincerely. There wasn’t an ounce of Scrooge in his voice. And I confess the question got me thinking. Had Christmas simply become the greatest retail surge our financial markets feel? Could I find a way to give a gift to the Lord?

I pondered the characters that surround our manger scene. The shepherds didn’t have much, but they gave their worship to the Lord. The three wise-men were certainly busy, but they took years out of their schedules to find the newborn King and give their gifts. And of course the words of Jesus Himself haunted me, “. . . for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not take me in.” (Matthew 25:42) Could it be that we missed the meaning of Christmas because we were too busy preparing to celebrate?

When my daughter was six years old we had a doctor’s appointment in Philadelphia around Christmas time. But the doctor’s appointment was only the event God used to schedule a divine appointment He had for us. As we were returning home, Ashlyn spotted a homeless man sitting on a mattress along the curb. “Daddy, can we help him?” she asked. “No, honey, not today, we’re too busy,” my mind racing through all the things I had to jam into the days before Christmas occurred. “But daddy, it’s Christmas time” the little voice whispered from the back seat.  I looked in the rearview mirror, and saw the tears filling the corners of her eyes. I decided it was an appropriate time to rearrange my busy schedule. A stop at a vendor, a cup of hot coffee, a six-year-olds smile, and a pamphlet sharing how someone could be at peace with God brought a smile to the lips of a man who had no home. I rethought the meaning of Christmas.

Could it be that God has divine appointments for each of us this season? Opportunities for us to give our gifts directly to Him?  I hope this season you’ll be looking for them – those divine appointments with your name attached.