Hope And The Here And Now – Reprise


westcoast sunsetWhile I acknowledge that this world is filled with disappointment, I also recognize the beauty of God’s handiwork. Yes, there is sadness, but there are also joys. People get married, and babies come into the world. People get promotions and book deals and raises. People go on vacation and spend an evening with friends.

There are so many joys, I can’t help but be hopeful about today.

There are friends, too, bringing laughter and acceptance and companionship. How about family and loved ones—people who don’t care what our hair looks like in the morning and aren’t afraid to tell us if something is hanging from our nose. They love us in such everyday ways we sometimes overlook them, but when we list what we’re thankful for, they come to mind first.

snow_road-winter-xsYes, the joys and the people are part of God’s handiwork, but of course the natural world can’t be left out. Which of the beautiful things tops the list—the white-capped Rockies, the sunset over the Pacific, the snow-dressed forest, the green and golden fields, the woods clothed in autumn finery, the dew-kissed rose, the yellow-breasted song bird . . . the list is endless.

Joy, people, creation. God’s fingerprints are everywhere, and each one brings hope. If things are this good today, can’t tomorrow be just as good? Or better?

The greatest present hope is God Himself. The amazing truth is that God IS, though all else fails. God is the greatest treasure, so I may be poor in this world’s estimation, but if I have Jesus, I am rich. I may mourn, but joy comes in the morning. I may feel defeated, but Christ is the victor. I may be grieving, but not without hope.

Though the fig tree should not blossom
And there be no fruit on the vines,
Though the yield of the olive should fail
And the fields produce no food,
Though the flock should be cut off from the fold
And there be no cattle in the stalls,
Yet I will exult in the LORD,
I will rejoice in the God of my salvation.
The Lord GOD is my strength,
And He has made my feet like hinds’ feet,
And makes me walk on my high places. (Hab. 3:17-19a)

God, in His great mercy, gives us memorials so that we don’t lose sight of hope. He gives us sun after the rain, spring after winter. He gives us comfort in the midst of sorrow, kindness from unexpected places.

He tells us to remember Him in the broken bread and shared cup at Communion. He established His Church as the “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession.” He gave us the Lord’s Day and reminded us to continue gathering together then.

He gave us His word that is sharper than any two-edged sword—the perfect weapon against the false teaching our adversary throws at us. He taught us to pray and gives His Holy Spirit to interpret when we don’t know what we ought to say.

This is the same Holy Spirit that lives in us—which is why we can truthfully say we are never alone. He is the One Jesus sent when He left earth, promising that it was to our advantage that He go.

God’s presence in the form of His Spirit, His communication with me through prayer, His word, His fingerprints all over the world—these are things I have now that fill me with hope.

Though our society is far from God, why not revival, I think. God changed my heart. He can change anyone’s heart, even atheists putting up anti-church billboards—Nebuchadnezzar was just such a man, and God brought him to his senses. Even people killing others in some mistaken view that they’re doing God’s work—the Apostle Paul was just such a man, and God opened his blind eyes.

With God, there are no limits.

Do you not know? Have you not heard?
The Everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth
Does not become weary or tired.
His understanding is inscrutable.
He gives strength to the weary,
And to him who lacks might He increases power. (Isaiah 40:28-29)

To him who lacks hope, I daresay, He gives that, too.

This article originally appeared here December 2014.

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Published in: on November 3, 2017 at 4:39 pm  Comments (8)  
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Why Bells At Christmas


golden_christmas_bellsI love the trappings of Christmas. I love the light displays, the decorated trees, the candles and stockings hanging off the mantelpiece, I love wreaths and gingerbread cookies (or the idea of them, at least), and I love Christmas carols and candy canes and bells.

But why bells? How did they make their way into Christmas?

I’ve not really researched the issue, but I can speculate based on some of the carols we have. When Christmas was primarily a religious holiday, churches undoubtedly rang their bells, whether for a special service or simply in celebration. “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” a carol based on a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, contains these lines:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,

and wild and sweet
The words repeat

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along
The unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Ah, yes, all those church belfries.

christmas_bells_in_the_snowIn winter climates, during the horse-and-buggy era, sleighs provided a means of transportation during the Christmas season, and apparently bells were part of the adornment. We learn this from a number of Christmas songs that have become classics: “Silver Bells,” “Winter Wonderland,” and of course, “Jingle Bells”:

Bells on bobtail ring’
Making spirits bright
What fun it is to ride and sing
A sleighing song tonight!

Jingle bells, jingle bells,
Jingle all the way.
Oh! what fun it is to ride
In a one-horse open sleigh.

Then there are the songs like “White Christmas,” and “The Carol of Christmas” that indicate bells were nothing more than instruments of joyful celebration:

Hark how the bells
Sweet silver bells
All seem to say
Throw cares away

Christmas is here
Bringing good cheer
To young and old
Meek and the bold
Ding dong ding
That is their song
With joyful ring
All caroling

One carol that seems to come closest to capturing all these facets of bells at Christmas is “Ding Dong Merrily On High.” Apparently the music was originally a French dance tune. The lyrics were first published early in the twentieth century. Today we are most familiar with the first verse and the chorus, but here are all three verses:

Ding dong merrily on high,
In heav’n the bells are ringing:
Ding dong! verily the sky
Is riv’n with angel singing.
Gloria, Hosanna in excelsis!

E’en so here below, below,
Let steeple bells be swungen,
And “Io, io, io!”
By priest and people sungen.
Gloria, Hosanna in excelsis!

Pray you, dutifully prime
Your matin chime, ye ringers;
May you beautifully rime
Your evetime song, ye singers.
Gloria, Hosanna in excelsis!

Clearly in this song the bells are a means of celebration, whether on high or here below, and the note they sound is that of glory accompanying the cry of Hosanna. This is worship.

Besides all we learn from the holiday music, I can’t help but think of bells as a means to ask for people’s attention. The Salvation Army bell ringers do this. I imagine town criers of old going along the streets, ringing bells and shouting, “Hear ye, hear ye.”

That use of bells, of course, would fit for the Christian about to proclaim good news—which really is what Christmas is all about. Perhaps, then, bells are one of the most fitting accouterments of Christmas.

This post, minus the embedded video, is one that first appeared here in December 2012.

Published in: on December 14, 2016 at 6:09 pm  Comments (4)  
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Joy And The Holy Spirit


Most Christians have probably heard or read that joy is not the same thing as happiness. I think we’re pretty clear about the distinction.

A quick study reveals that joy is grouped with patience, peace, love, faithfulness, and a few other traits to constitute the fruit of the Spirit.

Why, then, I ask myself, do I think I need to manufacture joy?

And since the Holy Spirit is the source of joy, wouldn’t it be fair to say, if I’m not experiencing joy, I must be quenching the Holy Spirit?

I mean, Galatians 5:22-23 doesn’t make joy an optional piece of fruit. If we have the Spirit, we have the fruit. It’s a matter, then, of walking by the Spirit (Gal. 5:25). Or not.

As I’m writing this, the little chorus “The joy of the Lord is our strength” comes to mind. The words simply repeat that line over and over — a line from Nehemiah 8:10.

The returned exiles, struggling to make a go of it in the homeland most of them had never seen before, asked Ezra, one of their leaders, to read the book of the law. He read from dawn to midday. A group of others then explained the text and taught the people what it all meant.

Their reaction? Nope, not joy.

They were weeping and mourning. The Law exposed their sin, and they were undone.

That’s when Nehemiah stepped in. Stop crying, he said. Today is a holy day, set aside for the Lord. Get up and let the feast begin. Don’t grieve. The joy of the Lord is your strength.

And the people calmed down, got up, and celebrated “because they understood the words which had been made known to them” (Neh. 8:12).

Except, two verses earlier, their understanding caused them to grieve. But now? Celebration. How can that be explained apart from the joy of the Lord?

The Spirit convicts of sin. The proper response should be sorrow leading to repentance. And then comes joy, not a manufactured joy or an inauthentic emotion.

The reality was, their circumstances hadn’t changed. They were still returned exiles struggling to get it together. In their own estimation, they were still slaves:

Behold, we are slaves today,
And as to the land which
You gave to our fathers to eat of its fruit and its bounty,
Behold, we are slaves in it.
Its abundant produce is for the kings
Whom You have set over us because of our sins;
They also rule over our bodies
And over our cattle as they please,
So we are in great distress. (Neh 9:36-37)

Under those circumstances, Nehemiah gave them that salient truth: The joy of the Lord is your strength. Not bitterness or complaining, certainly. But not continued grieving, either. And not what we rely on today, a can-do spirit.

Their strength came from what only the Spirit could provide — joy from the Lord.

Ironic, then, that quenching the Spirit leads to the opposite of what someone going through difficult circumstances needs — strength. The little recap of Jewish history in Nehemiah 9 spells it out:

You gave Your good Spirit to instruct them,
Your manna You did not withhold from their mouth,
And You gave them water for their thirst. (v. 20, emphasis mine)

Indeed, forty years You provided for them in the wilderness and they were not in want;
Their clothes did not wear out, nor did their feet swell. (v 21)

You also gave them kingdoms and peoples … (v. 22)

You made their sons numerous as the stars of heaven … (v. 23)

So their sons entered and possessed the land… (v. 24)

They captured fortified cities and a fertile land… (v. 25)

But they became disobedient and rebelled against You (v. 26, emphasis added)

Therefore You delivered them into the hand of their oppressors who oppressed them. (v. 27)

Listening to God’s Spirit strengthened the people; rebelling against Him, didn’t.

So what was it those Israelites Nehemiah addressed, understood that made it possible for them to calm down, stop grieving, and celebrate?

Not a change in their circumstances, as I’ve noted. Not the promise of a change in their circumstances either. Rather, I believe they understood how faithful the Lord is and how He had not left them or forsaken them, and that He would not. They had the Lord, so they had His joy which gave them strength.

This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in August 2011.

Eyes On The Prize


Peter014I don’t know how other Christians feel, but me, I get tired of living in a world that is so broken. When Jesus said, the poor you’ll always have with you, He wasn’t kidding.

The poor, the brokenhearted, the insecure, the lonely, the abused, the misused, the victim, the addict, the spiritually poor, the deluded. And then there are the wicked—the greedy, the covetous, the murderous, the takers, the users, the immoral, the bullies.

Honestly, it gets depressing. The news tells us all about the people who have been displace or injured or killed by the latest storm/earthquake/fire/flood/war/terrorist attack. It tells us about the spread of diseases we don’t know how to cure, about people who have been in horrific accidents, about people robbing or raping or brutalizing others.

The news is not fun!

And the longer I live, the more I realize I’m going to hear bad news from my friends and family too. Loved ones die or get sick or lose their jobs or face disappointment.

Without a doubt, life is also filled with many, many joys, but in the end, after the Super Bowl parade, comes free agency and the loss of well-loved teammates. In other words, our joys are temporary.

Except for one. The joy of the LORD is not fleeting. Instead, it is everlasting because its source is not circumstances or stuff or even people or my well-being. The joy of the LORD is based on the LORD, the King of Heaven, whose works are true and whose ways are just.

Because of who He is, we can have joy here and now. We can have joy because God is with us and will not leave us or forsake us. We can have joy because He is faithful to walk with us through the waters, through the fire, through the valley of the shadow of death.

We can also have joy because we don’t carry the weight of sin and guilt. We don’t have to look over our shoulders to see if we’re about to be caught in the midst of our sin. God’s Holy Spirit is in us and He will guide us and convict us and teach us. Further, God has forgiven us. That’s not a future thing for Christians: If we sin we have to come groveling back to Him and beg Him to let us return to the banquet table. NO! We are in right standing with God because of what Jesus did at the cross, and our sin doesn’t change that fact.

Granted, sin can disrupt our joy because it disrupts our fellowship with God. But that’s the key: the friendship we have with God is the source of joy. When we pray about the things that trouble us, God doesn’t snap His fingers (generally) and change the circumstances. But He does take us by the hand and tell us He’ll go with us wherever those troubles take us. We aren’t alone and we can trust Him to turn ashes into joy.

Job went through horrific loss, but God gave him a glimpse of Himself, then restored what he’d lost. Ruth suffered the loss of her husband, then gave up her homeland and her native culture, and God replaced her loss with a husband and a son in the Messianic line. Abraham “lost” his son Isaac who he’d waited for, for decades, only to have him restored and become the beginning of nations. Peter was a miserable failure, unable to stand up to the jeering crowd, but instead denying his Lord and Savior. Yet, the risen Christ restored him to his place as one tasked with feeding God’s sheep and proclaiming the truth about Jesus as Messiah. I could go on and one.

The point is simple: our circumstances don’t have to dictate our level of joy. God has given us His forgiveness. God is giving us His presence. And God will give us our future inheritance—the joy from the ashes. We have the hope of heaven and an eternity with God. That’s the greatest source of joy a person could ever want.

But there is a catch. It’s easy to take our eye off the ball. Ask any athlete. When you are anticipating what comes next or when you’re evaluating what you need to change, it’s easy to be distracted by past mistakes or at expected successes. Either one can cause you to drop the ball that’s right in front of you.

We need to keep our eye on the prize which is Jesus Christ Himself. He will not disappoint. He will not fail us. He will not forsake us.

I found a very, very cool verse in Zephaniah (the minor prophets are filled with little unexpected gems) which lets us know more about God:

The LORD your God is in your midst,
A victorious warrior.
He will exult over you with joy,
He will be quiet in His love,
He will rejoice over you with shouts of joy. (3:17)

A victorious warrior! How cool is that! But how amazing that He rejoices over us, that His emotional response to us is love and joy. I don’t know about anyone else, but I find it hard to be in the presence of joyful people without some of their joy infecting me. How much more so God, who lives in my heart and who exults over me with joy.

Can I turn my back on Him and put on my grumpy face and say, Leave me alone! Well, apparently so, because Scripture tells us not to grieve the Holy Spirit and not to quench the Holy Spirit. So when we take our eye off the prize, when we stop looking into the face of Jesus, we can fall into the tumult of our circumstances. Ah, dear Peter also gave us a great illustration of that when he bravely stepped out of the boat to walk on water to Jesus. But he took his eyes off the prize and started to sink. It’s easy to do, what with the wind and the waves swamping the boat. But it’s certainly not inevitable. We can keep our eyes on the prize instead.

Published in: on May 13, 2016 at 5:57 pm  Comments Off on Eyes On The Prize  
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Pollen


I was a hay fever kid. Every spring, especially during recess or P.E. class, newly mowed grass gave me fits. I was allergic to ragweed, too, but apart from those two plants, I managed just fine.

Unlike others, I neither out-grew the condition nor became worse, though I discovered one more thing I’m allergic to — more than anything else I’ve ever encountered. And it so happens I am living right next to it.

Just beyond the fence is a beautiful tall, full tree that offers wonderful shade in the summer. In the fall, which is usually in December here in SoCal, the tree begins to lose its leaves. Sometime after the first winter rain, it starts growing little blossoms which eventually produce new leaves. In the process those tiny yellow flowers release a fine yellow pollen, visible on our car windshields, porch, stairs.

It is that pollen I am allergic to.

Mind you, I’m not complaining, though some times I fall into a bit of a grumble. Except, I don’t want that tree gone. How many people live in the Los Angeles basin and can look out a window without seeing another apartment building or house? Plus there’s that extra shade which makes a ten to fifteen degree difference in the summer temperatures. I like this tree. I just don’t like its pollen.

Except, of course, the tree would have no leaves if there were no pollen. And Science 101 says pollen is important for bees and such — the whole eco-system. I’ll have to take the word of the experts on that one. I just know, I have to take the bad if I want the good. And I do.

This whole pollen thing seems a bit like an illustration of all of life. Things happen — a broken wrist, a rejection notice from an agent, a promotion that goes to someone else, a fender bender on the way home from work. All such things are much like the pollen — those are not things anyone wants. Except without them, we don’t have the growth needed that can get us through the days when the temperature rises. The tough things train us.

“Consider it all joy,” James says, “when you encounter various trials knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance” (James 1:2-3).

Peter says positive things about hard times too:

In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:6-7)

For a little while things might be hard, but rejoicing is still possible because there will be a reveal.

Writers like reveals. It’s something we need to put into our novels to create those A-ha moments for readers. And of course the biggest and the best reveal is saved for last. So too in real life.

Now the days of pollen (which are almost over — we had some rain today, which clears the air) will serve as more than a reminder that new leaves are coming on the wonderful shade tree that will cool my place in the summer. Now I have one more reminder that God makes joy and rejoicing out of the various trials He allows because the great A-ha is coming!

This post originally appeared here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction in February 2012

Published in: on February 10, 2015 at 6:43 pm  Comments Off on Pollen  
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