The Gift of Christmas

giftWe live in a broken world.

Because we have rejected the idea that there can be one authoritative measure of good and evil that governs everyone, we live in a belief that it is up to each individual or group of individuals to decide for themselves what is right and wrong.  You decide what is right and true for you and I’ll decide what is right and true for me and, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else, who is to say which is correct?  “Judge not” has been translated to mean that no one should impose their view of right and wrong onto anyone else.

This is nothing new.  Judges 17:6b says, “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”

All is fine and all is good until someone speaks up about what they believe.  If that statement goes against what someone else believes, especially to the extent of calling something a sin that they want to believe is good and acceptable behavior – then justice must be served.

As humans we want justice.  Justice is good.  Justice is right.  If others don’t believe what we believe, then, at a minimum, they should mind their own business and keep quiet about it.  If they don’t, then they should be punished, justice must be served.  How dare they speak-up.  They and their kind have just as many things they do wrong, probably more.  What right do they have to call our way of life a sin?  We seek justice.

But who is to be the judge over justice?  Is it popular opinion?  Is it others who hold the same world view that I have or you have?  If there is no universal right or wrong, then who can judge?  And if we are really truthful with ourselves, who of us is qualified to cast the proverbial first stone?  Even when we make our own definitions of right and wrong, we still don’t live within those bounds consistently.  We lie, we cheat, we steal, we do what we should and don’t do what we should.  We lack discipline, and even when we do the things we think are right and good, we could still do the acts more or better or more often.

Before there can be justice, then, there must be forgiveness.  Before I can seek justice for you, I must face it for myself.  Justice would bring to light how I measure up to my beliefs of right and wrong.  Justice cannot be on a sliding scale or curve.  It cannot be a measure of am I doing better or worse than the average – no matter how much I would like for it to be otherwise.  We learned this is grade school science.  While you may find thousands of things to support a theorem, it takes only 1 thing to show it as invalid.  To be able to face justice, requires my own wrongs are erased.  Against that scale, the only truly just scale, we are all guilty and in need of forgiveness.

And, that is why a baby was born of a virgin in Bethlehem.  That is why we celebrate His birth to this day.

As I read the gospels, I am struck by the number of time Jesus gave forgiveness.  He healed, He performed miracles, He taught, He lived and died and rose again.  But through every part of it, He forgave.  That is the gift.  In John 12:47b Jesus said, “I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world.”  That doesn’t mean He won’t be the ultimate judge, but the purpose of His birth was one of salvation, of forgiveness.

That is the gift.

Over and over again during the past weeks I have heard people make comments about “the real meaning of Christmas.”  I’ve heard people talk about giving to others, I’ve heard people talk about coming together with family and friends, I’ve heard people talking about caring for and giving to those less fortunate and in need.  Obviously, none of those things are bad and we can and should do them at Christmas and throughout the year.  But the real meaning of Christmas is not in giving gifts but in receiving a gift.  The gift of forgiveness.

It is not forced on us, it is a gift.  We can accept or reject it.  Accepting forgiveness, however, means accepting the fact that the wrongs in our life are wrong.  If we insist that our way of life is not a sin, then we cannot accept forgiveness.  This, of course, is a gamble because rejecting forgiveness wagers that our discernment of right and wrong trumps that of the one offering forgiveness.

But, there are also two ways of accepting the gift.  One is to take it, unwrapped and put it on the shelf.  The gift is claimed.  But the recipient doesn’t change.  They continue living their life the way they want, using their own judgment and their own moral compass.  They point to the gift and use it to justify the way they want to live or to condemn the way others live, but there is no life change.  This is, unfortunately, an all too common approach.  It is hypocrisy.  It is self-serving.

But opening the gift and truly accepting it is different.  In a sense, it is similar to consuming the gift, to taking it into you.  This doesn’t mean that the gift becomes a part of you, but, instead, you become a part of the gift.  Forgiveness isn’t something in you, you become part of the forgiven.  You take on a new identity.  You become a follower of the forgiver.  Your life is no longer about you.  Why then would anyone accept the gift?

For one simple reason, justice requires forgiveness and forgiveness requires accepting I am not perfect so I should not be the object of anyone’s worship, not even my own.

This gift of forgiveness is the only thing available to us that is truly right and good.  It is not my opinion of right, nor is it your opinion.  It is not my or your opinion of good.  It is simply truth.  Why?  Because it is a gift.  It isn’t sold or purchased; it is the only thing that isn’t given with any expectation of anything as payment.  We don’t change to receive forgiveness, we change because we are forgiven.  It is the first step on the path to real justice.

But being among the forgiven is huge.  Being forgiven gives us the right and power to forgive.  Being confident of our identity, gives us the freedom and power to love and serve.  Being cared for and loved is the path to being something more that we are, because we have confidence in what is good and right and have no fear of repercussion.  Without the confidence of forgiveness, we must look out for ourselves, for me, for number 1.  But with the confidence, we can set that aside and put others first.  This doesn’t mean we become perfect, but it does mean we desire to become that way, not for our own honor but for that of the one who has forgiven us.

So as we look at the true meaning of Christmas, how differently would we act and behave if we start with forgiveness?  What if, before seeking righteous judgment upon others, we first start by forgiving them?  How different would we behave if we counted ourselves among the forgiven?  In whom would we invest?  To whom would we show love and forgiveness?  Who would we help and serve?

What if, instead of using justice as a hammer to beat others into submission, we take it upon ourselves to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humblywith God?

We can make the choice this Christmas.  We can focus on the temporary things of the season: the hustle and bustle, the stress of material gifts, the attempt to find joy and happiness in nostalgia.  Or, we can focus on fully accepting this miraculous gift and living as one of the forgiven?  Your choice.

Top 10 reasons why Noah was a redneck

  1. He named one of his kids after a pork product
  2. He worked construction
  3. He spent every weekend on a boat
  4. He lived in a mobile home for a year
  5. When his vehicle broke down, he left it in the front yard up on blocks
  6. The first thing he did when he got home was light the grill
  7. If it moves, it is food
  8. He made his own moonshine
  9. When he got drunk, he got naked
  10. When he woke up with a hang-over he started cursing the kids

The weaker vessel?

1 Peter 3:7 – Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.

Our study this week includes 1 Peter 3.  There is a lot of confusion and misunderstanding of these verses and verse 7 in particular.  How are we to understand the designation of wives as the weaker partner or vessel?

In Greek, the word weaker is asthenēs (Strongs g772).  This is the same word that is used in other parts of the bible as a word for sick or weak.  Matt 25:43 When did we see you weak or in prison? Luke 10:9 Heal the sick.  Matt 26:41 The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.

In the context of 1 Peter 3, clearly Peter is not trying to communicate that wives are a sickly lot.  Nor can it be that he is considering women to be weak mentally or spiritually because in verse 1 of this same chapter he acknowledges that wives are often quicker to understand and take hold of the revelation of the word than their husbands.  How else could a wife win over a husband to the word if she were not the one who understood it first?

As a result, some scholars fall to a literal translation and profess that Peter means women are physically weaker than their husbands.  Again, I can understand that many women have less upper body strength than men, but is Peter really calling on husbands to open jars and lift heavy boxes for their wives?  That simply doesn’t fit the context of the verses.  And I don’t think upper body strength can be equated to overall physical strength.  Seriously, if men had to give birth, humans would have died off as a species thousands of years ago.

So what then is Peter saying?  In the context of Peter’s writings as well as the letters of James and other apostles we see a reiterated message of encouragement to Christians to take on Christ’s example of getting under people and lifting them up.  We do not lay a foundation by pouring concrete on someone’s head, we do it by putting ourselves under them.  Christ was made lower than the angels.  Christ didn’t pull us up into heaven, he suffered death and descended into the grave to lift us up from underneath.  This was very contrary to the examples of religious leaders of their day who did not want to be soiled by sinners.

In 1 Peter 3: 1-6 Peter is speaking specifically to christian wives to model this behavior in their families – to speak louder with their actions than their words and to communicate with their inner spirit even more than their outward self.  Wives and mothers often make monumental sacrifices of careers, self interest, recognition and honors for their husbands and families.   This is not an easy sacrifice and one that, frankly, most men would not have the fortitude to make – men have a tendency to derive so much of their self-image from work and being able to provide, that it would be crushing to set it aside.

So, lookikng again to the Greek we see the etomology of the word asthenes is alpha (as in before or without) and sthenes meaning strength.  I do not believe Peter is talking about wives being weak by nature of their gender.  In the context of chapter 3, if they follow verses 1-6, they are willingly entering into a position which is without strength. It is a situational position of entering a state that willingly gives up a position of strength (which, arguably takes more natural strength to do).

The fact that verse 7 specifically calls out to men to be considerate and respectful of this position their wives are taking speaks less to any weakness of the wives and more to the denseness of the husbands.  We see this in verses 5 and 6 as well when Peter calls on wives to put their hope in God and to not give way to fear.  When wives willingly place themselves in a position of sacrifice and submission for their families, they naturally are exposed and vulnerable.  Ideally, they would be able to trust that their husbands would be considerate of this and respectful, but men tend to be far denser than that.  Wives know it, Peter knew it, God knows it.  Wives may not be able to always trust that their husbands will recognize and honor their sacrifice in these things, but they can trust that God does and will.

When families work together in this relationship with God, vs 7 also tells us that there are rewards for everyone.  He does not call on wives to abandon their thinking and blindly follow their husbands. Entering a position of submission is not to become a slave or to turn off the talents given by God. It is a position that more closely models the example of Christ and utilizes that intellect and those talents from the inside out. Wives are called to lead their families to God (vs 1) but in different ways than the world thinks of leadership.

With that, God calls on husbands and wives to be heirs together – joint land owners in the kingdom of heaven, receivers jointly of gracious gifts and by praying together that nothing will hinder their prayers.

While this may not be the message that many hear in relation to these verses, I believe it better reflects the context of Peter’s letter.

Comments are welcome.

P.S. Thank you to my Godly wife for helping lead and grow me and our family to be closer to God. I appreciate it and honor the sacrifices she makes more than I can show.

People of the Lie

I’m reading the book, “People of the Lie” by M. Scott Peck, M.D.  A fascinating book told from a christian psychiatrist about human evil.

A section that I was just reading and was struck by is talking about “projecting.”  Now, we have a clear visual image for projecting light: a flash light.  But Dr. Peck discusses that people with an evil heart project darkness.  Quick note: he is not using the word evil lightly.  These are not people who sin from time to time but try to do better and to follow the light.  These are people who have decided in their heart to reject the notion that they are sinful whether fully of their own or through the influence of demons.  These are people who may acknowledge God loudly with their words but who deny their own wrongs and, as such, do not need the salvation of Christ and, as such, cannot accept Him into their hearts.  What they do, they do on their own, not with the power of the spirit, although they may use the names and words.

Let me plant the seed first, then you can read a synopsis of what Dr Peck writes.  We have been discussing this week God’s plan and purpose to bring all things under Christ.  Every knee shall bow and every tongue confess – Jew, Gentile, every knee.  So, what does satan plan and purpose?  To keep any knee possible from bowing for as long as possible.

According to the book:

Since the evil (evil people – those with an evil heart), deep down, feel themselves to be faultless, it is inevitable that when they are in conflict with the world they will perceive the conflict as the world’s fault.  To deny their own badness they must perceive others as bad.  They project their own evil onto the world.  By not seeing evil in themselves, the full burden shifts to the shoulders of others.  An evil father who hears his son cuss projects all of the burden onto the son and takes action to cleanse his son’s filthiness, often accompanied by language far worse than what the son said.  The father projects his own filth onto the son and then punishes him in the name of good parenting.

The evil attack others rather than face their own failures.  Strangely enough, evil people are often destructive because they are attempting to destroy evil.  The problem is that they misplace the locus of the evil.  As life often threatens their self-image of perfection (or “being good enough”), they are often busily engaged in hating and destroying that life – usually in the name of righteousness and too often carrying the banner of the church.  The fault, however, may not be so much that they hate life as that they do not hate the sinful part of their own life.

The evil are dedicated to preserving their self-image of perfection/goodness.  They worry about this a great deal.  They are acutely sensitive to social norms and what others think of them.  They dress well, go to work on time, pay their taxes, attend church regularly (if that is the social norm of their area) and live lives that are above reproach.  While they seem to lack any motivation to be good, they intensely desire to appear good.  Their goodness is all on a level of pretense.  It is a lie.  But the lie is not designed so much to deceive others as to deceive themselves.

The essential component of evil is not the absence of a sense of sin or imperfection but the unwillingness to tolerate that sense.  At one and the same time the evil are aware of their evil and desperately trying to avoid the awareness.  They are continually engaged in efforts to project the wrongs onto others or sweep them under the rug.  Everything they do has a rationalization.  They are not lazy or unengaged, in fact they are likely to exert themselves more than most in their continuing efforts to obtain and maintain an image of high respectability.  They may be willing, even eager, to undergo hardship and pain, particularly to strike out at the evil they clearly see in others and in the world.  There is only one pain they cannot tolerate: the pain of their own sinfulness and imperfection.

I think we can see this action in the “righteous” jews who tortured Paul.  We see it in the hateful words spoken by “defenders of the faith.”  And, painfully, we see it in our churches in those who step into leadership to right the wrongs of others without transparency of their own sinful nature.  I am not proposing that it is right to keep quiet about the wrongs in the world or to not take action – but the lessons we are learning through the word of the bible is before you open your mouth you should drop to your knees in submission to the Lord.  Today is a good day to pray for knees that bow and hearts that confess.

Online Resources

I like doing my lesson online and thought that it might be good to share some tools I have found that make it easier and a more rich and in-depth study.

Obviously, bsfgroups.org (now preview.bsfinternational.org/lessons) is the official location for getting the lesson in a pdf format with space to type in answers on the form.

bsfonline.org goes lesson by lesson and provides all of the bible passages referenced in the lesson in one concise place.

blueletterbible.org is my favorite source for getting deeper into the word.  With one click I can see dozens of different versions of any passage.  It also links to the Greek and provides translation and interpretation through Strong’s Dictionary.  There are also links to sermons and study materials from pillars of faith.

dropbox.com is the tool I use to store my lesson.  Dropbox automatically puts a copy on my work computer, home computer and even provides access via web if I am somewhere else.  No more excuses that my lesson is at home so I can’t work on it over lunch at the office.

wordpress.com is, obviously, the blogging tool I use.

biblegateway.com is not only a great bible site but it reads the passages.  This is not a mechanical, computer voice but a voice actor.  On the long passages (like last week to read 2nd Thes) I can turn it on while doing other chores and get the joy of hearing the word.  This is also helpful to learn the pronunciation of many of the towns.

atozmom.wordpress.com is another bsf lesson blogger who has been doing this for a few years.

If you have others, please share them for everyone reading this to see.  Do you have favorite blogs, websites, tools or especially mobile apps that you use?

Fear and Faith

As we read the letters to the Thessalonian believers we see a continued message of “do not fear” and “strengthen your faith”.  Fear and faith. 

The early church had much they could fear: persecution, jail, lack of understanding, lack of trained teachers available daily, lack of access to scripture, misinformation, lies and outright attacks by Satan.  But Paul again and again strives to set their mind on one thing – the goal – the second coming of Christ.

I recently read a small book called The Shark and the Goldfish by Jon Gordon.  It is a motivational book targeted to help people who are going through major life changes (such as loss of a job).  The basic message is that what we sometimes see as falling off the edge of a cliff is nothing more than one side of a wave picking us up and putting us somewhere else that God needs us to be. 

The reason I bring it up is this dialogue between Sammy (the mentor) and Gordy: 

“Do you know what fear and faith have in common?” asked Sammy.

“The letter F,” answered Gordy.

“Nice try,” said Sammy.  “What fear and faith have in common is a future that hasn’t happened yet.  Fear believes in a negative future.  Faith believes in a positive future.  Interestingly enough, both believe in something that hasn’t happened yet.”

An interesting thought that living in fear requires just as much belief as living in faith.  But for fear the power behind that belief is from within man’s nature and darkness that dwells there.  We even say, being afraid is just human nature.  Whereas the power behind the belief in faith – in a positive future –  is God’s Holy Spirit. 

Fear isn’t something to be battled and overcome.  It is a wrong perspective to be replaced with the correct one: Faith.  You don’t need more belief to have faith, just different belief.

I’m Back – Understanding the need for discipline

You won’t find me bad-mouthing the Israelites in the desert.  God understood their immaturity and, as a result, provided the daily bread they needed on a daily basis.  I have the luxury of being able to spend time with God at any time, read the bible one day – or skip doing it for a day or week.  I started off using this online media to help with my discipline of doing a daily study, but as soon as we took a break from the study, my discipline faded.  I’m grateful that I’m given the provision to brush off and step back up and do better.  So, here we go.