Tag  |  loyalty

The Twelfth Man

A large sign at the Texas A&M University football stadium says “HOME OF THE 12TH MAN.” While each team is allowed eleven players on the field, the 12th Man is the presence of thousands of A&M students who remain standing during the entire game to cheer their team on. The tradition traces its roots to 1922 when the coach called a student from the stands to suit up and be ready to replace an injured player. Although he never entered the game, his willing presence on the sideline greatly encouraged the team.

            Hebrews 11 describes heroes of the faith who faced great trials and remained loyal to God. Chapter 12 begins, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (v. 1)

            We are not alone on our journey of faith. The great saints and ordinary people who have been faithful to the Lord encourage us by their example and also by their presence in heaven. They are a spiritual 12th Man standing with us while we are still on the field.

            As we fix our eyes on Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (12:2), we are spurred on by all those who followed Him.

My Friends And I

John Chrysostom (347–407), archbishop of Constantinople, said this about friendship: “Such is friendship, that through it we love places and seasons; for as . . . flowers drop their sweet leaves on the ground around them, so friends impart favor even to the places where they dwell.”

A Lesson In Worry

My friend handed me a tall glass of water and told me to hold it. The longer I held it, the heavier it felt. Finally my hand grew tired, and I had to put the glass down. “I’ve learned that worry can be like holding that glass,” she said. “The longer I worry about something, the more my fears weigh me down.”

First Things First

When our granddaughter Sarah was very young, she told us she wanted to be a basketball coach like her daddy when she grew up. But she couldn’t be one yet, she said, because first she had to be a player; and a player has to be able to tie her shoelaces, and she couldn’t tie hers yet!

Stand Fast

As I waited to make a right-hand turn at a busy intersection, an ambulance appeared over the crest of a hill, speeding in my direction. Someone behind me honked, urging me into the crossroads. I knew the ambulance would be unlikely to stop and that it could have been disastrous to make my turn. So I kept my foot on the brake pedal and stayed put.

National Pride

My wife, Martie, and I have grown to love England—its history, culture, and people. One of our favorite activities when we visit is going to outdoor concerts (also known as proms) on the sloping lawns of ancient estates. “The Last Night of the Proms” event is the best, with fireworks and hundreds of nationals waving little British flags to rousing patriotic tunes.

A Lock Of Hair

After his return from the moon, Neil Armstrong was often plagued by the media. Seeking greater privacy, he moved his family into a small town. But notoriety was a nuisance even there. Armstrong’s barber found out that people would pay good money to get a lock of his hair. So after giving the space hero several haircuts, he sold the clippings to a buyer for $3,000! Armstrong was shocked at the barber’s opportunism.

Related Topics

> Biblical Studies

Lifeblood

Mary Ann believed in God and His Son Jesus, but she struggled with why Jesus had to shed His blood to bring salvation. Who would think of cleansing something with blood? Yet the Bible says, “The law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood” (Heb. 9:22). That, in Mary Ann’s opinion, was disgusting!

Then one day she had to go to a hospital. A genetic condition had altered her immune system, and doctors became alarmed when the illness started attacking her blood. As she was in the emergency room she thought, If I lose my blood, I will die. But Jesus shed His blood so I can live!

Suddenly everything made sense. In the midst of her pain, Mary Ann felt joy and peace. She understood that blood is life, and a holy life was needed to make peace with God for us. Today she is alive and well, thanking God for her health and for Jesus’ sacrifice on her behalf.

Hebrews 9 explains the meaning of the Old Testament blood ritual (vv. 16-22) and the once and for all offering of Jesus that brought animal sacrifice to an end (vv. 23-26). Bearing our sin, He willingly died and shed His blood to become our sacrifice. We now have confidence to enter God’s presence. How could we ever thank Jesus enough for making His sacrifice our sacrifice, His life our life, and His Father our Father?

What Christmas Is All About

Fifty years ago A Charlie Brown Christmas was first broadcast on American television. Some network executives thought it would be ignored, while others worried that quoting the Bible would offend viewers. Some wanted its creator, Charles Schulz, to omit the Christmas story, but Schulz insisted it stay in. The program was an immediate success and has been rebroadcast every year since 1965.

When Charlie Brown, the frustrated director of the children’s Christmas play, is discouraged by the commercial spirit of the holiday season, he asks if anyone can tell him the real meaning of Christmas. Linus recites Luke 2:8-14 including the words, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (vv. 11-14 kjv). Then Linus says, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

During this season filled with our own doubts and dreams, it’s good to ponder afresh God’s great love expressed in the familiar story of Joseph, Mary, the baby Jesus, and the angels who announced the Savior’s birth.

That’s what Christmas is all about.

On a Hill Far Away

I often find myself thinking back to the years when my children were young. One particular fond memory is our morning wake-up routine. Every morning I’d go into their bedrooms, tenderly call them by name, and tell them that it was time to get up and get ready for the day.

When I read that Abraham got up early in the morning to obey God’s command, I think of those times when I woke up my children and wonder if part of Abraham’s daily routine was going to Isaac’s bed to waken him—and how different it would have been on that particular morning. How heart-rending for Abraham to waken his son that morning!

Abraham bound his son and laid him on an altar, but then God provided an alternate sacrifice. Hundreds of years later, God would supply another sacrifice—the final sacrifice—His own Son. Think of how agonizing it must have been for God to sacrifice His Son, His only Son whom He loved! And He went through all of that because He loves you.

If you wonder whether you are loved by God, wonder no more.

> Christian Beliefs

A Place of Shelter

Homeless people in Vancouver, British Columbia, have a new way to find nighttime accommodations. A local charity, RainCity Housing, has created specialized benches that convert into temporary shelters. The back of the bench pulls up to create a roof that can shield a person from wind and rain. At night, these sleeping spaces are easy to find because they feature a glow-in-the-dark message that reads: THIS IS A BEDROOM.

The need for shelter can be physical, and it can be spiritual as well. God is a refuge for our souls when we are troubled. King David wrote, “I call as my heart grows faint; lead me to the rock that is higher than I” (Ps. 61:2). When we’re emotionally overloaded, we are more vulnerable to the Enemy’s tactics—fear, guilt, and lust are a few of his favorites. We need a source of stability and safety.

If we take refuge in God, we can have victory over the Enemy as he tries to influence our hearts and minds. “You have been my refuge, a strong tower against the foe,” David said to the Lord. “I long to . . . take refuge in the shelter of your wings” (vv. 3-4).

When we are overwhelmed, peace and protection are ours through God’s Son, Jesus Christ. “In me you may have peace,” Jesus said. “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

It’s What We Do

My father was critically injured when he took a bullet in the leg as a second lieutenant leading his men on Hill 609 in North Africa during World War II. Dad was never again 100 percent physically. I was born several years after this, and when I was young I didn’t even know he had been wounded. I found out later when someone told me. Although he felt constant pain in his leg, my dad never complained about it, and he never used it as an excuse for not providing for our family.

My parents loved the Savior and raised us to love, trust, and serve Him. Through good times and bad, they simply trusted God, worked hard, and loved us unconditionally. Proverbs 14:26 says that “Whoever fears the Lord has a secure fortress, and for their children it will be a refuge” (niv). My dad did that for our family. No matter what difficulties he faced, he provided a safe place for us spiritually, emotionally, and physically.

We parents can provide a safe haven for our families with the help of our perfect heavenly Father, whose love for His children is deep and eternal.

Reflecting God’s Glory

The 12th-century Chinese artist Li Tang painted landscapes animated with people, birds, and water buffalo. Because of his genius with fine line sketches on silk, Li Tang is considered a master of Chinese landscape art. For centuries, artists from around the world have depicted what they see in God’s art gallery of creation: “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork” (Ps. 19:1). The Bible tells us that our creativity as human beings comes from being made in the image of the Master Creator (Gen. 1:27).

God chose artists who worked with wood, gold, silver, bronze, and gems to create the furnishings, utensils, altars, and garments that were to be used when the ancient Israelites worshiped Him in the tabernacle  (Ex. 31:1-11). These artistic renderings of spiritual realities prompted and guided the priests and the people in their worship of the Lord who had called them to be His people.

Through many types of artistic expression, we reflect the beauty of creation and honor the Creator and Redeemer of this marvelous world.

> Christian Living

Constant Kindness

When I was a child I was an ardent reader of L. Frank Baum's Land of Oz books. I recently came across Rinkitink in Oz with all the original artwork. I laughed again at the antics of Baum's portly, irrepressible, good-hearted King Rinkitink with his down-to-earth goodness. Young Prince Inga described him best: “His heart is kind and gentle and that is far better than being wise."

How simple and how sensible! Yet who has not jarred the heart of someone dear to us by a harsh word? In so doing we disturb the peace and quiet of the hour and we undo much of the good we have done that day. "A small unkindness is a great offense,” said Hannah More, an 18th-century English writer.

And here’s the good news: Anyone can become kind. We may be incapable of preaching an inspiring sermon, fielding hard questions, or evangelizing vast numbers, but we can, in time, become kind.

How? Through prayer. It is the only way to soften our hearts. “Set a guard over my mouth, Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips. Do not let my heart be drawn to what is evil [or harsh]” (Ps. 141:3-4).

In a world in which love has grown cold, a kindness that comes from the heart of God is one of the most helpful and healing things we can offer to others.

Beautiful

Picture two teenage girls. The first girl is strong and healthy. The other girl has never known the freedom of getting around on her own. From her wheelchair she faces not only the emotional challenges common to life, but also a stream of physical pains and struggles.

But both girls are smiling cheerfully as they enjoy each other’s company. Two beautiful teenagers—each seeing in the other the treasure of friendship.

Jesus devoted much of His time and attention to people like the girl in the wheelchair. People with lifelong disabilities or physical deformities as well as those who were looked down upon by others for various reasons. In fact, Jesus let one of “those people” anoint Him with oil, to the disdain of the religious leaders (Luke 7:39). On another occasion, when a woman demonstrated her love with a similar act, Jesus told her critics, “Leave her alone … She has done a beautiful thing to me” (Mark 14:6).

While our culture values physical “perfection,” there are no such distinctions in God’s eyes. In reality, we are all in desperate need of Christ’s love and forgiveness. His love compelled Him to die on the cross for us.

May we see each person as Jesus did: made in God’s image and worthy of His love. Let’s treat everyone we meet with Christlike equality and learn to see beauty as He does.

Best Deal Ever!

How much is enough? We might ask this simple question on a day that many developed countries increasingly devote to shopping. I speak of Black Friday, the day after the US Thanksgiving holiday, in which many stores open early and offer cut-price deals; a day that has spread from the States to other nations. Some shoppers have limited resources and are trying to purchase something at a price they can afford. But sadly for others greed is the motivation, and violence erupts as they fight for bargains.

The wisdom of the Old Testament writer known as “the Teacher” (Eccl. 1:1) provides an antidote to the frenzy of consumerism we may face in the shops—and in our hearts. He points out that those who love money never will have enough and will be ruled by their possessions. And yet, they will die with nothing: “As everyone comes, so they depart” (5:15). The apostle Paul echoes the Teacher in his letter to Timothy, when he says that the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and that we should strive for “godliness with contentment” (1 Tim. 6:6–10).

Whether we live in a place of plenty or not, we all can seek unhealthy ways of filling the God-shaped hole in our hearts. But when we look to the Lord for our sense of peace and well-being, He will fill us with His goodness and love.

> Christian Ministry & the Church

Helping Each Other

“The body of Christ” is a mysterious phrase used more than 30 times in the New Testament. The apostle Paul especially settled on that phrase as an image of the church. After Jesus ascended to heaven, He turned over His mission to flawed and bumbling men and women. He assumed the role of head of the church, leaving the tasks of arms, legs, ears, eyes, and voice to the erratic disciples—and to you and me.

Jesus’ decision to operate as the invisible head of a large body with many parts means that He often relies on us to help one another cope during times of suffering. The apostle Paul must have had something like that in mind when he wrote these words: “[God] comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ” (2 Cor. 1:4-5). And all through his ministry Paul put that principle into practice, taking up collections for famine victims, dispatching assistants to go to troubled areas, acknowledging believers’ gifts as gifts from God Himself.

The phrase “the body of Christ” expresses well what we are called to do: to represent in flesh what Christ is like, especially to those in need.

A Hint of Heaven

The world-class botanical garden across the street from our church was the setting for an all-church community gathering. As I walked around the gardens greeting people I have known for years, catching up with those I hadn’t seen recently, and enjoying the beautiful surroundings cared for by people who know and love plants, I realized that the evening was rich with symbols of how the church is supposed to function—a little hint of heaven on earth.

A garden is a place where each plant is placed in an environment in which it will thrive. Gardeners prepare the soil, protect the plants from pests, and make sure each one receives the food, water, and sunlight it needs. The result is a beautiful, colorful, and fragrant place for people to enjoy.

Like a garden, church is meant to be a place where everyone works together for the glory of God and the good of all; a place where everyone flourishes because we are living in a safe environment; a place where people are cared for according to their needs; where each of us does work we love—work that benefits others (1 Cor. 14:26).

Like well-cared-for plants, people growing in a healthy environment have a sweet fragrance that draws people to God by displaying the beauty of His love. The church is not perfect, but it really is a hint of heaven. 

Power In Praise

Willie Myrick was kidnapped from his driveway when he was 9 years old. For hours, he traveled in a car with his kidnapper, not knowing what would happen to him. During that time, Willie decided to sing a song called Every Praise. As he repeatedly sang the words, his abductor spewed profanity and told him to shut up. Finally, the man stopped the car and let Willie out—unharmed.

> Christianity & Culture

Shaping Your Thoughts

When Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “the medium is the message” in 1964, personal computers were unknown, mobile phones were science fiction, and the Internet didn’t exist. Today we understand what great foresight he had in predicting how our thinking is influenced in this digital age. In Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, he writes, “[The media] supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles.”

            I like J. B. Phillips’s paraphrase of Paul’s message to the Christians in Rome: “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold, but let God re-mold your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity” (Rom. 12:2). How relevant this is today as we find our thoughts and the way our minds process material affected by the world around us.

            We cannot stem the tide of information that bombards us, but we can ask God each day to help us focus on Him and to shape our thinking through His presence in our lives.

Losing Our Way

An online survey conducted by a New York law firm reveals that 52 percent of Wall Street traders, brokers, investment bankers, and other financial service professionals have either engaged in illegal activity or believe they may need to do so in order to be successful. The survey concludes that these financial leaders “have lost their moral compass” and “accept corporate wrongdoing as a necessary evil.”

The Power To Change

Educator and best-selling author Tony Wagner is a firm believer in “disruptive innovation” that changes the way the world thinks and works. In his book Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, he says, “Innovation occurs in every aspect of human endeavor,” and “most people can become more creative and innovative—given the right environment and opportunities.”

> Ethical Issues

Who Are You Defending?

When Kathleen’s teacher called her to the front of the grammar class to analyze a sentence, she panicked. As a recent transfer student, she hadn’t learned that aspect of grammar. The class laughed derisively.

Instantly the teacher sprang to her defense. “She can out-write any of you any day of the week!” he explained. Many years later, Kathleen gratefully recalled the moment: “I started that day to try to write as well as he said I could.” Eventually, Kathleen Parker would win a Pulitzer Prize for her writing.

As did Kathleen’s teacher, Jesus identified with the defenseless and vulnerable. When His disciples kept children away from Him, He grew angry. “Let the little children come to me,” He said, “and do not hinder them” (Mark 10:14). He reached out to a despised ethnic group, making the Good Samaritan the hero of His parable (Luke 10:25-37) and offering genuine hope to a searching Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well (John 4:1-26). He protected and forgave a woman trapped in adultery (John 8:1-11). And though we were utterly helpless, Christ gave His life for all of us (Rom. 5:6).

When we defend the vulnerable and the marginalized, we give them a chance to realize their potential. We show them real love, and in a small but significant way we reflect the very heart of Jesus. 

I’ve Come to Help

Reporter Jacob Riis’s vivid descriptions of poverty in 19th-century New York City horrified a generally complacent public. His book How the Other Half Lives combined his writing with his own photographs to paint a picture so vivid that the public could not escape the certainty of poverty’s desperate existence. The third of fifteen children himself, Riis wrote so effectively because he had lived in that world of terrible despair.

                 Shortly after the release of his book, he received a card from a young man just beginning his political career. The note read simply, “I have read your book, and I have come to help. Theodore Roosevelt.” (This politician later became a US President.)

            True faith responds to the needs of others, according to James (1:19-27). May our hearts be moved from inaction to action, from words alone to deeds that back them up. Compassionate action not only aids those mired in life’s difficulties, but it may also make them open to the greater message from our Savior who sees their need and can do so much more for them.

Speak Up

When I hear stories about young people who have been bullied, I notice there are always at least two levels of hurt. The first and most obvious comes from the mean-spirited nature of those actually doing the bullying. That’s terrible on its own. But there’s another, deeper hurt that may end up being even more damaging than the first: The silence of everyone else.

It hurts the one being bullied because they’re stunned that no one will help. That often makes bullies more brazen, leading them to intensify their meanness. Worse, it heightens the embarrassment, false shame, and loneliness of the victim. So it is imperative to speak up for others and speak out against the behavior (see Prov. 31:8a).

Jesus knows precisely what it feels like to be bullied and to be left to suffer completely alone. Without cause, He was arrested, beaten, and mocked (Luke 22:63-65). Matthew 26:56 says that “all the disciples forsook Him and fled.” Peter, one of His closest friends, even denied three times that he knew Him (Luke 22:61). While others may not understand fully, Jesus does.

When we see others being hurt, we can ask Him for the courage to speak up.

> Evangelism & Missions

A New Purpose

Jacob Davis was a tailor with a problem. It was the height of the Gold Rush in the 1800s American West and the gold miners’ work pants kept wearing out. His solution? Davis went to a local dry goods company owned by Levi Strauss, purchased tent cloth, and made work pants from that heavy, sturdy material—and blue jeans were born. Today, denim jeans in a variety of forms (including Levi’s) are among the most popular clothing items in the world, and all because tent material was given a new purpose.

            Simon and his friends were fishermen on the Sea of Galilee. Then Jesus arrived and called them to follow Him. He gave them a new purpose. No longer would they fish for fish. As Jesus told them, “Come, follow me, . . . and I will send you out to fish for people” (Mark 1:17).

With this new purpose set for their lives, these men were taught and trained by Jesus so that, after His ascension, they could be used by God to capture the hearts of people with the message of the cross and resurrection of Christ. Today, we follow in their steps as we share the good news of Christ’s love and salvation.

May our lives both declare and exhibit this love that can change the lives, purposes, and eternal destinies of others.

I Am With You

When I served as an intern for a Christian magazine, I wrote a story about a person who had become a Christian. In a dramatic change, he said goodbye to his former life and embraced his new Master: Jesus. A few days after the magazine hit the street, an anonymous caller threatened, "Be careful, Darmani. We are watching you! Your life is in danger in this country if you write such stories."

That was not the only time I have been threatened for pointing people to Christ. On one occasion a man told me to vanish with the tract I was giving him or else! In both cases, I cowered. But these were only verbal threats. Many Christians have had threats carried out against them. In some cases simply living a godly lifestyle attracts mistreatment from people.

The Lord told Jeremiah, "You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you" (Jer. 1:7), and Jesus told His disciples, "I am sending you out like sheep among wolves" (Matt. 10:16). Yes, we may encounter threats, hardships, and even pain. But God assures us of His presence. "I am with you," He told Jeremiah (Jer. 1:8), and Jesus assured His followers, "I am with you always" (Matt. 28:20).

Whatever struggles we face in our attempt to live for the Lord, we can trust in the Lord's presence.

The God Who Paints

Nezahualcoyotl (1402–1472) may have had a difficult name to pronounce, but his name is full of significance. It means “Hungry Coyote,” and this man’s writings show a spiritual hunger. As a poet and ruler in Mexico before the arrival of the Europeans, he wrote, “Truly the gods, which I worship, are idols of stone that do not speak nor feel. . . . Some very powerful, hidden and unknown god is the creator of the entire universe. He is the only one that can console me in my affliction and help me in such anguish as my heart feels; I want him to be my helper and protection.”

We cannot know if Nezahualcoyotl found the Giver of life. But during his reign he built a pyramid to the “God who paints things with beauty,” and he banned human sacrifices in his city.

The writers of Psalm 42 cried out, “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (v. 2). Every human being desires the true God, just as “the deer pants for streams of water” (v. 1).

Today there are many Hungry Coyotes who know that the idols of fame, money, and relationships can’t fill the void in their souls. The Living God has revealed Himself through Jesus, the only One who gives us meaning and fulfillment. This is good news for those who are hungry for the God who paints things with beauty.

> Life Struggles

Skywatcher

Unsettled by issues at work and at home, Matt decided to take a walk. The evening spring air beckoned. As the infinite sky deepened from blue to black, a thickening fog spilled slowly over the marsh. Stars began to glimmer, heralding the full moon rising in the east. The moment, for Matt, was deeply spiritual. He’s there, he thought. God is there, and He’s got this.

Some people look at the night sky and see nothing but nature. Others see a god as distant and cold as Jupiter. But the same God who “sits enthroned above the circle of the earth” also “brings out the starry host one by one and calls forth each of them by name” (Isa. 40:22,26). He knows His creation intimately.

It is this personal God who asked His people, “Why do you say, Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord; my cause is disregarded by my God’?” Aching for them, God reminded them of the wisdom in seeking Him. “Do you not know? Have you not heard? . . . He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak” (vv. 27-29).

We are easily tempted to forget God. Our problems won’t disappear with an evening stroll, but we can find rest and certainty that God is always working toward His good purposes. “I’m here,” He says. “I’ve got you.” 

Good Medicine

Careless driving, rising tempers, and use of foul language among some taxi and minibus drivers are a constant source of traffic fights in our city of Accra, Ghana. But one traffic incident I witnessed took a different turn. A bus was almost hit by a careless taxi driver. I expected the bus driver to get angry and yell at the taxi driver, but he didn't. Instead, the bus driver relaxed his stern face and smiled broadly at the guilty-looking taxi driver. And the smile worked wonders. With a raised hand, the taxi driver apologized, smiled back, and moved away, the tension diffused.

A smile has a fascinating effect on our brain chemistry. Researchers have found that "when we smile it releases brain chemicals called endorphins which have an actual physiological relaxing effect.” Not only can a smile diffuse a tense situation, but it can also diffuse tension within us. Our emotions affect us as well as others. The Bible teaches us to “get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another” (Eph. 4:31-32).

When anger or tension or bitterness threatens our relationship with the Lord and with others, it helps to remember that "a cheerful heart is good medicine" for our own joy and well-being.

No Fear

Nearly every time an angel appears in the Bible, the first words he says are “Do not be afraid!” (Dan. 10:12, 19; Matt. 28:5; Rev. 1:17). Little wonder. When the supernatural makes contact with planet Earth, it usually leaves the human observers flat on their faces in catatonic fear. But Luke tells of God making an appearance on earth in a form that does not frighten. In Jesus, born in a barn and laid in a feeding trough, God finds at last a mode of approach that we need not fear. What could be less scary than a newborn baby?

                  Puzzled skeptics stalked Jesus throughout His ministry. How could a baby in Bethlehem, a carpenter’s son, be the Messiah from God? But a group of shepherds in a field had no doubt about who He was, for they heard the message of good news straight from a choir of angels (2:8-14).

                  Why did God take on human form? The Bible gives many reasons, some densely theological and some quite practical; but the scene of Jesus as an adolescent lecturing rabbis in the temple gives one clue (v. 46). For the first time, ordinary people could hold a conversation, a debate, with God in visible form. Jesus could talk to anyone—His parents, a rabbi, a poor widow—without first having to announce, “Don’t be afraid!”

                  In Jesus, God comes close to us.

> Marriage & Family

His Choice

When our children were small, I often prayed with them after we tucked them into bed. But before I prayed, I sometimes would sit on the edge of the bed and talk with them. I remember telling our daughter Libby, “If I could line up all the 4-year-old girls in the world, I would walk down the line looking for you. After going through the entire line, I would choose you to be my daughter.” That always put a big smile on Libby’s face because she knew she was special.

Bring The Boy To Me

I don’t believe in God and I won’t go,” Mark said.

The Girl In The Yellow Coat

It was her yellow raincoat that caught my attention, and quickly I became increasingly interested in this cute freshman with long, brown hair. Soon I worked up my courage, interrupted Sue as she walked along reading a letter from a guy back home, and awkwardly asked her for a date. To my surprise, she said yes.

> Relationships

The Gift of Encouragement

An old Merle Haggard song, “If We Make It Through December,” tells the story of a man laid off from his factory job with no money to buy Christmas gifts for his little girl. Although December is supposed to be a happy time of year, his life seems dark and cold.

Discouragement is not unique to December, but it can be amplified then. Our expectations may be higher, our sadness deeper. A little encouragement can go a long way.

Joseph, a man from Cyprus, was among the early followers of Jesus. The apostles called him Barnabas, which means “son of encouragement.” We meet him in Acts 4:36–37 when he sold a piece of property and donated the money to help other believers in need. 

Later, we read that the disciples were afraid of Saul (Acts 9:26). “But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles” (v. 27). Saul had recently been trying to kill the believers, but Barnabas defended him as a man transformed by Christ.

All around us are people longing to be encouraged. A timely word, a phone call, or a prayer with them can bolster their faith in Jesus.

The generosity and support of Barnabas demonstrates what it means to be a son or daughter of encouragement. That may be the greatest gift we can give to others this Christmas.     

Changing Hearts

On the last day of the US Civil War, officer Joshua Chamberlain was in command of the Union army. His soldiers lined up on both sides of the road that the Confederate army had to march down in surrender. One wrong word or one belligerent act and the longed-for peace could be turned to slaughter. In an act as brilliant as it was moving, Chamberlain ordered his troops to salute their foe! No taunting here, no vicious words—only guns in salute and swords raised to honor.

When Jesus offered His words about forgiveness in Luke 6, He was helping us understand the difference between people of grace and people without grace. Those who know His forgiveness are to be strikingly unlike everyone else. We must do what others think impossible: Forgive and love our enemies. Jesus said, “Be merciful, just as your Father in heaven is merciful” (v. 36).

 Imagine the impact in our workplaces and on our families if we embrace this principle. If a salute can make armies whole again, what power there must be in Christ's grace reflected through us! Scripture gives evidence of this: in Esau's embrace of his deceitful brother (Gen. 33:4), in Zacchaeus's joyful penance (Luke 19:1-10), and in the picture of a father racing to greet his prodigal son (Luke 15).

With the grace of Christ, may we let this be the final day of bitterness and dispute between our enemies and us.

Visible Vulnerability

As I ventured out several weeks after shoulder surgery, I was fearful. I had become comfortable using my arm sling, but both my surgeon and physical therapist now told me to stop wearing it. That’s when I saw this statement: “At this stage, sling wear is discouraged except as a visible sign of vulnerability in an uncontrolled environment.”

Ah, that was it! I feared the enthusiastic friend who might give me a bear hug or the unaware friend who might bump me accidentally. I was hiding behind my flimsy baby-blue sling because I feared being hurt.

Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable can be scary. We want to be loved and accepted for who we are, but we fear that if people truly knew us, they would reject us and we could get hurt. What if they found out we are not smart enough . . . kind enough . . . good enough?

But as members of God’s family, we have a responsibility to help each other grow in faith. We’re told to “encourage one another,” to “build each other up” (1 Thess. 5:11), and to “be patient, bearing with one another in love” (Eph. 4:2).

When we are honest and vulnerable with other believers, we may discover we have mutual struggles battling temptation or learning how to live obediently. But most of all, we will share the wonder of God’s gift of grace in our lives.

> Retirement

Age Is Not a Factor

After owning and working at his dental lab for 50 years, Dave Bowman planned to retire and take it easy. Diabetes and heart surgery confirmed his decision. But when he heard about a group of young refugees from Sudan who needed help, he made a life-changing decision. He agreed to sponsor five of them.

As Dave learned more about these young Sudanese men, he discovered that they had never been to a doctor or a dentist. Then one day in church someone mentioned the verse, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it” (1 Cor. 12:26). He couldn’t get the verse out of his mind. Sudanese Christians were suffering because they needed medical care, and Dave sensed that God was telling him to do something about it. But what?

Despite his age and bad health, Dave began exploring the possibility of building a medical center in Sudan. Little by little, God brought together the people and the resources, and in 2008 Memorial Christian Hospital opened its doors to patients. Since then, hundreds of sick and injured people have been treated there.

Memorial Christian Hospital stands as a reminder that God cares when people suffer. And often He works through people like us to share His care—even when we think our work is done.

> Spiritual Growth

The View from 400 Miles

“My perspective on earth changed dramatically the very first time I went into space,” says Space Shuttle astronaut Charles Frank Bolden Jr. From four hundred miles above the earth, all looked peaceful and beautiful to him. Yet Bolden recalled later that as he passed over the Middle East, he was “shaken into reality” when he considered the ongoing conflict there. During an interview with film producer Jared Leto, Bolden spoke of that moment as a time when he saw the earth with a sense of how it ought to be—and then sensed a challenge to do all he could to make it better.

            When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the world was not the way God intended it. Into this moral and spiritual darkness Jesus came bringing life and light to all (John 1:4). Even though the world didn’t recognize Him, “to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (v. 12).

            When life is not “the way it ought to be” we are deeply saddened—when families break up, children go hungry, and the world wages war. But God promises that through faith in Christ anyone can begin to move in a new direction.

The Christmas season reminds us that Jesus, the Savior, gives the gift of life and light to everyone who will receive and follow Him.

Strengthening the Heart

The neighborhood fitness center where I have worked out for years closed down last month, and I had to join a new gym. The former place was a warm, friendly facility, patronized by older folks who liked to socialize while they worked out. We hardly ever broke a sweat. The new gym is a hard-core facility filled with serious men and women, earnestly invested in building better bodies. I watch these people strain and toil. Their bodies look strong, but I wonder if their hearts are being strengthened with grace.

Physiologically, the heart is a muscle—the muscle that keeps the other muscles going. It’s good to build and tone our other muscles, but the essential thing is doing whatever keeps the heart strong.

So it is with our spiritual heart. We must strengthen and tone the heart through the Word of truth, receiving its message of God’s goodness and grace. Keeping our spiritual heart strong and fit must be our first priority, the one thing we do above all others.

Paul would agree: "Train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come" (1 Tim. 4:7-8 esv).

Time to Grow

In Debbie’s new home, she discovered an abandoned plant in a dark corner of the kitchen. The dusty and ragged leaves looked like those of a moth orchid, and she imagined how pretty the plant would look once it had sent up new bloom-bearing stems. She moved the pot into a spot by the window, cut off the dead leaves, and watered it thoroughly. She bought plant food and applied it to the roots. Week after week she inspected the plant, but no new shoots appeared. “I’ll give it another month,” she told her husband, “and if nothing has happened by then, out it goes.”

         When decision day came, she could hardly believe her eyes. Two small stems were poking out from among the leaves! The plant she’d almost given up on was still alive.

         Do you ever get discouraged by your apparent lack of spiritual growth? Perhaps a frequently lost temper or that spicy piece of gossip you just can’t resist passing on. Or perhaps you get up too late to pray and read your Bible, in spite of resolving to set the alarm earlier.

         Why not tell a trusted friend about the areas of your life in which you want to grow spiritually and ask that person to pray for and encourage you to be accountable? Be patient. You will grow as you allow the Holy Spirit to work in you.

> When Life Hurts

An Invitation to Rest

At a friend’s bedside in a hospital emergency ward, I was moved by the sounds of suffering I heard from other patients in pain. As I prayed for my friend and for the ailing patients, I realized anew how fleeting our life on earth is. Then I recalled an old country song by Jim Reeves that talks about how the world is not home for us—we’re “just a-passin’ through.”

  Our world is full of weariness, pain, hunger, debt, poverty, disease, and death. Because we must pass through such a world, Jesus’ invitation is welcome and timely: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). We need this rest.

There is hardly a funeral ceremony I’ve attended where John’s vision of “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1-5) is not quoted, and it certainly holds relevance for funerals.

But I believe the passage is more for the living than the dead. The time to heed Jesus’ invitation to come rest in Him is while we are still living. Only then can we be entitled to the promises in Revelation. God will dwell among us (v. 3). He will wipe away our tears (v. 4). There will be “no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (v. 4).

Accept Jesus’ invitation and enter His rest!

When Things Don’t Go Well

The first words that many people like to quote when misfortune hits are: “We know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28). But that’s hard to believe in hard times. I once sat with a man who had lost his third son in a row, and I listened as he lamented, “How can this tragedy work for my good?” I had no answer but to sit silently and mourn with him. Several months later, he was thankful as he said, “My sorrow is drawing me closer to God.”

Tough as Romans 8:28 may be to understand, countless testimonies give credence to the truth of it. The story of hymn writer Fanny Crosby is a classic example. The world is the beneficiary of her memorable hymns, yet what worked together for good was born out of her personal tragedy, for she became blind at the age of 5. At only age 8, she began to write poetry and hymns. Writing over 8,000 sacred songs and hymns, she blessed the world with such popular songs as “Blessed Assurance,” “Safe in the Arms of Jesus,” and “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior.” God used her difficulty to bring good for her and us and glory for Him.

When tragedy befalls us, it’s hard to understand how anything good can come from it, and we won’t always see it in this life. But God has good purposes and always remains with us.

God’s Good Heart

Roger had been through a lot. He had open-heart surgery to repair a leaky valve. Then, within just a couple of weeks, doctors had to perform the surgery again because of complications. He had just begun to heal with physical therapy when he had a biking accident and broke his collarbone. Added to this, Roger also experienced the heartbreak of losing his mother during this time. He became very discouraged. When a friend asked him if he had seen God at work in any small ways, he confessed that he really didn’t feel he had.

            I appreciate Roger’s honesty. Feelings of discouragement or doubt are part of my life too. In Romans, the apostle Paul says, “We can rejoice . . . when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation” (5:3-4 nlt). But that doesn’t mean we always feel the joy. We may just need someone to sit down and listen to us pour out our hearts to them, and to talk with God. Sometimes it takes looking back on the situation before we see how our faith has grown during trials and doubts.

            Knowing that God wants to use our difficulties to strengthen our faith can help us to trust His good heart for us.