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The Most Wonderful Time of the Year?

You know the Andy Williams song, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”  It’s about Christmastime.  There is something special about this season.  Even I, though given to bouts of “grinchy-ness”, feel the excitement of celebration and cheer.  We enjoy the time with family and friends.  We cherish a few days off to eat and rest and give and receive gifts.  For those of us who belong to Jesus, Christmas has an even deeper reason for joy.  We celebrate the birth of a savior.

At the same time, I think we should recognize that for many this is not the “hap-happiest season of all.”  At the holidays many are confronted with loneliness, dysfunction, grief, and pain.  It brings hurtful family dynamics to the forefront.  Losses are magnified at Christmas.  If you struggle at Christmastime, I want to direct you to a much greater promise than presents and family and shopping.  It’s the promise of a returning Savior who will wipe every tear from your eye and make all thing new.  And for those who are blessed to be able to enjoy this season, say a prayer for those who struggle.  When you pray before a family meal, remember those who will not be gathering with family for various painful reasons.

 

Your Wonderful Life

It’s that time of year when classic holiday movies are being shown regularly.  Foremost among them is It’s A Wonderful Life, starring Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey.  He’s runs a bank in the town of Bedford Falls and spends much of his life making sacrifices for other people.  After years of sacrificing for others, George finds himself on the brink of financial ruin and intends to take his own life.  That is when his guardian angel, Clarence, comes and shows George what the town of Bedford Falls would be like if he had never been born.  The contrast is staggering.  George realizes what a difference he has made in peoples’ lives.

It’s A Wonderful Life is a fictional story.  In our lives, we don’t get to see the way we impact others.  We don’t get that glimpse of how our families and schools and offices would be different if we had never existed.  But your life does change the story.  God placed you in your family and neighborhood because of His plan for your family and neighborhood.  You were designed to be who God wanted in your place at this time.  Your life is a wonderful life.  Not just because you’ve done some good things for others, but because God meant for you to happen right here, right now.

 

Transformation

I had the opportunity to see two wonderful plays this weekend.  The first was a production my kids were in called The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.  (I realize I’m a bit biased when I say it was wonderful.)  This play was about a group of unruly kids who crashed the annual church Christmas pageant with surprising results.  The other play was called Justice for Maurice Henry Carter and was the story of Doug Tjapkes’ battle to free a wrongly convicted man.  The first play was acted out by middle school kids. The second by adults.  The first play was specific to the season of Christmas.  The second took place over the seasons of many years.

Despite the differences, there was one important similarity.  They were both stories of transformation.  Imogene Herdman (who fought and smoked cigars and helped herself to communion grape juice) was taken in by the story of Christ’s birth.  The church folk who saw the Christmas story freshly through her eyes experienced the wonder all over again.  Both parties were transformed.  Maurice Carter was transformed by the love and commitment of someone very unlike himself.  Doug Tjapkes was transformed by the wisdom and friendship of an incarcerated African American.  And that is what Christmas is all about – transformation.  The Son of God is transformed into a human.  Humans like you and me get transformed into children of God.

 

Untainted

For many people, Christmas is the best time of the year.  The whole season is full of good tidings and cheer.  We seem to rise above the doldrums and embrace our better selves and the better parts of those around us.  It’s a time of hope, if only because we choose to believe that people are still good and, for a day or two, can channel their generous side.  But it’s not that way for everyone.  For some, Christmas is a miserable time.  Whether it’s because of loss or strained relationships or an aversion to crowds and chaos, some people dread December.  For them, Christmas is far from the best time of year.  It is the worst.

I’d like to suggest that both parties have got it wrong.  Both the “Whos down in Who-ville” and the “Grinches” are wrong for the same reason: they see Christmas from their own perspective.  They evaluate it based on how it affects themselves.  It’s the idea that Christmas is what we make of it.  Sort of like a baked potato.  The potato is just a platform for butter and cheese and sour cream.  The potato itself is rather tasteless and unremarkable.  While we may think that Christmas is what we make of it, we are very wrong.  Christmas is not simply a platform we decorate with generosity and gifts, family and food.  Christmas is the defining event in history.  It requires neither presents nor carols, neither relatives nor eggnog to be remarkable.  We don’t decorate the birth of Christ.  It decorates us.  We don’t make it good.  It makes us good.  Christmas is unenhanced by our revelry and untainted by our humbugs.  So don’t let yourself try to make the best of Christmas this year.  Let it make the best of you.

The Sum of All Experience

Life has been defined as the sum of all experience.  But how do we define our own lives?  What makes us who we are?  Right now I think the answer is this: God pulling His purposes through our experiences.  Yesterday I was in Kalamazoo attending a church where I was a member for about six years before I moved to North Carolina.  I learned to lead worship there.  I got kicked off the worship team for having heretical views.  (These have since been corrected.)  I learned about people and how they respond to different styles of leadership.  I met some people who left deep impressions on my life.

I am who I am because I spent six years at Southern Heights CRC.  I would be a different person without those six years.  Yet it was not just my experience at Southern Heights.  It was God’s purposes at work in those experiences – both the painful ones and the enjoyable ones.  God continues to mold and define me.  What I’m going through today is making me into who I will be tomorrow.  What you’re going through today is making you into who you will be tomorrow.  All this is according to God’s will and purpose for you.  No matter the quality of your current experience, this is the promise: “In all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purposes.”

Fruit of the Spirit: Faithfulness

At the heart of the fruit of the Spirit lies the idea that these fruits set us apart.  As children of God we have been given the Spirit.  That Spirit produces this fruit in our lives.  That should make us different.  We should be people who love more deeply, exude joy more abundantly, carry ourselves more peacefully.  As we come to the fruit of faithfulness, we have a great opportunity to set ourselves apart.  We’ve often assumed faithfulness meant having great faith or belief.  However, as it’s used in this passage it refers to the quality of being reliable.  Faithfulness is a person who is true to his or her word.  It’s a person who is faithful to commitments made.  It is someone you can count on.

This quality is growing more and more rare in our world today.  People so easily blow off their commitments.  If something doesn’t fit into their schedule, they skip it.  Commitments get made but are not kept.  And this is an easy opportunity to express the fruit of the Spirit in a way that makes us different.  By keeping the commitments we make, we will stand out.  I also want to note that sometimes reliability is not the issue.  Overcommitment is.  So think hard about what you are willing to commit to.  Then express faithfulness by God’s Spirit.

 

Magic Bullets

It’s human nature to look for an easier way to do something.  And thank goodness!  Otherwise we’d still be using stone tools and living in caves.  If necessity is the mother of invention, then our desire to have it easier is invention’s father.  We regularly look for the quick fix, a short cut, a magic bullet.  This is especially true when it comes to our spiritual growth.  We go to conferences looking for the magic bullet.  We read books looking for that nugget that will radically change us.  But the spiritual highs wear off.  The promise of quick results fails us.

Let me save you a lot of time.  There is no magic bullet.  First of all, spiritual growth is a gift from God.  Times of accelerated growth are blessings that God bestows on us.  We don’t command them through a secret formula.  Second, spiritual growth happens as we follow Jesus over time.  As you read the Bible regularly for months and years, you begin to change.  A regular connection to God through prayer will transform you.  Just not overnight.  So stay with it.  There is a lot of joy and satisfaction in looking back a year and thinking, “I’m not the same person I was a year ago.  God has changed me for the better.”

 

Paying Attention

Sunday was week two of the School of Prayer. We talked about how God is all around us. He’s always present. In fact, He’s so present that we often fail to notice Him. As we pray to an invisible God, seeing God’s subtle activity can really help us pray with more confidence. We need to train ourselves to see God in the details. We assigned some homework to help us with that. Each day this week, we are challenged to be able to complete this sentence: Today I experienced God when ______________. This is great dinner table conversation. Share with your family or your spouse or a friend how you experienced God that day.

I realize this could be a little intimidating for some. We tend to think of big coincidences and mighty acts. But most often, God is in the small things. We find Him in a movie that evoked an emotional response. We see God is a funny situation that gave us laughter and joy. We experience God in beauty and in rest. Think of one moment from your day that stood out or was memorable. Chances are that God was in it, revealing himself to you.

Fruit of the Spirit: Goodness

One of the most generic and non-descript words in the English language is the word “good.”  About the only specific thing we can take from this word is that it describes something that isn’t bad or unpreferable.  It simply gets us above the zero-line.  One of the things the Spirit produces in our lives is goodness.  This fruit of the Spirit has a more specific meaning in the passage than it does in the modern vernacular.  It is the Greek word “agathosune.”  We can think of this goodness in two ways.  First, it is an inherent goodness.  It is a goodness that goes to the core.  It’s not a rich oak veneer over chinsy particle board.  It is solid, through and through.

Second, this is a goodness that applies to all situations.  It applies goodness appropriately to each situation.  When we look at Jesus’ life, we see goodness when he rebukes the Pharisees and when he welcomes little children and blesses them.  It is goodness applied rightly to all circumstances.  A few verses before the list of spiritual fruit, Paul says this: “Live by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.”  The only way to express goodness is by allowing the Spirit to direct you in each circumstance.  So let me challenge you to express goodness by living by the Spirit today.  With each situation that arises, what would God have you do?

 

Simple Prayer

Yesterday we kicked off our fall series called “School of Prayer.”  Over the next six weeks we will be learning about prayer – what it is and how to do it.  Since it’s a school, we were assigned some homework for this week.  We are asked to practice Simple Prayer regularly throughout the week.  Simple prayer consists of two things: 1) Telling God what you want and 2) telling God where you’re at.

First of all, we tell God what we want.  We don’t filter out less noble desires.  We let God know whatever we want.  Tell God about the girlfriend you want.  Tell God about the outfit you want.  Let him know how you’d like to feel or what you wish your kids would do (or not do).  Let it rip!  Second, we tell God where we are at.  This isn’t about our physical location.  It’s telling God where we are at emotionally.  Are you excited?  Tell God.  Are you feeling insecure?  Let God know.  Tell God if you’re battling temptation.  Tell him that you’re angry with someone.  Tell him how grateful you feel.  One way to do this is to use meals as a platform for Simple Prayer.  Whenever you sit down for a meal or even a snack.  Take 30 seconds to tell God what you want and where you are at.  The goal is simply to get us praying.