To Live and To Die

“…to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21, NIV).

In his bestselling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, author Stephen R. Covey offers several best practices of leadership. Principles such as “Be Proactive”, “Begin With the End in Mind”, and “Sharpen the Saw” instruct the reader on how to excel in both business and life. “Habit 4” in Covey’s book is entitled “Think Win/Win”. This habit encourages the leader to strive for solutions that benefit all parties in any given conflict or situation.

As a teacher and coach, I tried to implement Covey’s “Think Win/Win” strategy on numerous occasions. I consistently attempted to position students and athletes in the best possible scenarios for success. Instruction and playing time were often structured to mutually accomplish my personal goals of learning and winning games and the individual goals of the student/athlete.

The Apostle Paul found himself in one of the most critical win/win scenarios of life. In his letter to the Church at Philippi, Paul writes, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far…” (Philippians 1:21-23, NIV).

Paul reasoned that either way, through life or death, he had Christ, and that’s all that really mattered to him. While his desire was to leave this earth and live for all of eternity in Heaven, Paul ultimately realized that his God-ordained purpose on earth of reaching the lost was far more important.

What a paradigm-shifting way of thinking! Far too often, I believe, our focus is on the here-and-now of living in the present, not the then-and-there reality of salvation in Heaven. In all actuality though, we have both our witness for Christ while living and our reward with Christ at our dying. May God help each of us see the “Win/Win” opportunity before us!  

Never Alone

“…(Jesus said), ‘the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you’” (John 14:26, NIV).

This March will mark the five-year anniversary of my dad’s passing, and I can honestly say that there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about him.

Dad regularly shows up in my dreams, as if we’ve both stepped back in time prior to the fateful day of his death.

I hear his voice in my mind, his encouragement, his not-so-hilarious jokes, his laughter at stories shared, and his subtle statements of faith and wisdom.

I miss the practical things that come with having a father around. Every time my lawnmower won’t run, the car needs an oil change, or I attempt a home improvement project, I think to myself, “If only Dad were here…”

Dad taught me a lot about Jesus, most often through his actions, at times through his words. He modeled love for his family and friends, and even a few enemies. He was kind-hearted and humble, and lived sacrificially, despite a modest income.

I miss my dad immensely, but my faith and my God tell me that I will see him again. Besides, there’s a part of Dad that still lives within me, so I’m never truly without him.

Jesus knew that his followers would miss him as well. Therefore, he promised that he would send them the Holy Spirit. The Spirit would serve as a teacher and guide and remind them of the things Jesus taught them. Jesus, in effect, was offering his family and friends a piece of himself, so that they would never be truly alone.

We all lose people we love. That’s just part of life lived in a broken and fallen world. Still, our loved ones live on, their memories lodged within our hearts.

Jesus, too, lives on. His Holy Spirit resides in the heart of every believer.

So, thank God today for the people who have made a lasting impression upon you. And thank God for sending us his promised Holy Spirit. Both are incredible blessings!    

Stress Blobs and Burdens

“(Jesus said,) ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest’” (Matthew 11:28, NIV). 

As a kid, I had this reoccurring dream, a nightmare really. I don’t remember many of the details. What I do recall is that I’m standing beside a large body of water. As each of the water’s waves crashes onto shore, it brings with it a huge, what-I-can-only-describe-as, blob, which I must somehow push aside before the next one inevitably arrives. It’s a never-ending, blob-moving, exercise in futility, and proves to provide a pretty traumatic experience for a young boy.

The dream seemed to occur most frequently when I was experiencing a good deal of stress. The burdens of adolescence seem a bit trivial now, especially when compared to the many responsibilities and endless demands of adulthood. Over time, the menacing stress blobs of misplacing my homework and forgetting my locker combination surrendered to the blobs of managing a career and paying a mortgage.

Jesus knew that we would have stress, and he offered some very practical advice, “‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light’” (Matthew 11:28-30, NIV).  

I find it ironic that Jesus commands his followers to take his yoke and carry it, as if we needed something else to weigh us down. But Jesus says that his yoke is not burdensome. In fact, by trading our stresses for his, we will actually find the best possible rest.

This burden-trading experience reminds me of the great exchange that took place at the cross, where Jesus took our sin in his flesh and offered us his perfect righteousness in return. Jesus’ invitation and command it that we would place our burdens, along with our sin, upon his strong shoulders, and experience the freedom and peace that follows.

The God of Silence

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“He says, ‘Be still and know that I am God…’” (Psalm 46:10, NIV).

I have often longed to hear the voice of God, if for no other reason than to confirm what I already know – that he is real, that he is present, and that he cares for me.  Perhaps his voice is deafened by my troubled heart and busy mind.  How I long to hear God’s words of affirmation and encouragement, even challenge and correction if need be – just a word or two.  Yet, I wait, feeling alone and distant from a God who remains silent.

I empathize with God’s chosen people of the Bible.  From the final words of the Old Testament to the arrival of John the Baptist, God refrained from speaking to the nation of Israel.  This four-hundred-year period of God’s silent treatment toward the Jewish people resulted from their neglect of God and his commands.  I, too, sometimes wonder if I have done something deserving of God’s silence.

But then, I’m reminded that the God I serve is the God of Elijah, who also sought to converse with God.  In 1 Kings Chapter 19, we read, “The Lord said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’  Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind.  After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake.  After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire.  And after the fire came a gentle whisper” (1 Kings 19:11-12, NIV).

Our God is the God of the gentle whisper, and while we might expect him to speak by force and with power, God is often heard within the silent moments of life.  God appeared to Elijah, not in the howling wind, nor in the mighty earthquake, not even in the quenching fire, but in the gentle whisper.

Don’t misunderstand – God can speak however he desires, but often uses his still, small voice to communicate with us, his children.  Maybe that’s why the Psalmist teaches us to “‘Be still and know…’” (Psalm 46:10, NIV), because God is understood best when we still our hearts. 

I would challenge you today, just as I challenge myself, to find some quiet, contemplative time to get away with God.  Find some margin in your hectic schedule and simply bask in his goodness.  Pray and meditate on God’s kindness to you.  Perhaps each of us  will hear what God truly wants to say.

The Characters of Christmas: Jesus

“…when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman…” (Galatians 4:4, NIV).

Of all the players in the Christmas story, Jesus takes top billing. He is Immanuel – God With Us, the Savior given for all mankind.

It seemed such a passive act, simply being birthed into the world. Yet, it was God’s ultimate act of becoming man. The fullness and complexity of God, confined to just a few pounds of infant flesh, Jesus clarified the true image of God. So often imagined as vengeful and vindictive, even petty at times, the most accurate picture of God was now portrayed in the face of an infant.

Eyes that looked upon Creation now gazed into the eyes of Mary. Hands that formed mankind now stretched out to his mother. One day soon, these same hands will extend on a cross to save people from their sins. Jesus was born to die, a difficult reality in such a serene setting. 

And shepherds came from nearby fields, leaving their flocks to worship the one, true Lamb of God. And the wisest of grown men will soon bring gifts and bow down before the Christ child. On this day, Heaven rejoices, and angels proclaim, “Jesus is born in Bethlehem!”



The Characters of Christmas: Herod and the Magi

“(Herod) sent (the Magi) to Bethlehem and said, ‘Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him'” (Matthew 2:8, NIV).

The Biblical writers of the Christmas narrative offer a sharp contrast between those who would honor the newborn Jesus and those who would oppose him. We see this most clearly evidenced in the actions of the wandering Magi and the maniacal King Herod. While each had heard of the new king’s birth, each held differing motivations in meeting him.

The Magi sought to worship Jesus, presenting him with three gifts, each symbolic of Jesus’ eventual fate. The extravagance of gold was a fitting gift for this king above all kings. The gift of frankincense would serve as a reminder of both the Temple and Jesus’ priestly office. Finally, the gift of myrrh, a perfume so strong that it was used to cover the stinch of death, would foretell of Jesus’ eventual sacrifice for mankind.

King Herod, in contrast to the Magi, wanted only to harm the infant Jesus. Herod’s expressed desire to “worship” the newborn king was a front for his desire to have Jesus put to death. In fact, Herod would be so threatened by the baby Jesus that he would order the execution of all the infants in the area surrounding Bethlehem. 

While we may see the extreme contrasts in the Christmas story, I think it’s important for each of us to examine our own motivations concerning Jesus. Certainly, no one today would want to harm Jesus. Still, how often do we worship him solely out of convenience? How often do we call out to him as a last ditch when-all-else-fails-attempt for intervention? How often do we crucify him over and over again with our sin?

May we be evermore like the Magi in the Christmas story. May we seek him out, and, when we find him, fall to our knees in worship. And may we give him the gift of our hearts!  

The Characters of Christmas: Joseph

“…an angel of the Lord appeared to (Joseph) in a dream and said, ‘…do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit'” (Matthew 1:20, NIV).

The phrase “a chip off the old block” seems fitting when it comes to Jesus and his earthly father, Joseph. One can almost picture a young Jesus standing among the saw dust and filings fallen from Joseph’s work bench. From the time of Jesus’ infancy, Joseph served as an example of maturity, sacrifice, and so many other traits that would later be evidenced in Jesus’ life.

To say that Joseph overcame the many challenges of fatherhood would be a bit of an understatement. The announcement of his betrothed that she was pregnant, along with an angelic visit corroborating her seemingly preposterous story, would have been more than most men could handle. Still, Joseph remained faithful to Mary and to the God-given task at hand, raising the Savior of all mankind. 

It’s likely that Joseph died at an early age, before he could witness all that Jesus would become. Still, Joseph’s example lived on in the life of his son. Perhaps Jesus recalled Joseph’s treatment of Mary as he stood in defense of the woman caught in the act of adultery. Likely, Jesus considered his earthly father’s compassion for others as he arranged from the cross an informal adoption between Mary and John, who would now be the one to take care of Mary into her old age. 

I wonder if Joseph, as he stood beside Mary and the manger, understood the influence he would have upon Jesus.  Could Joseph have known that this child wrapped so warmly in cloths was his Savior? I’m certain that Joseph, like Mary, pondered these and so many other things in his heart as that first Christmas night surrendered to the light of a new day.




The Characters of Christmas: The Angel

“…the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord'” (Luke 2:10-11, NIV).

What an awesome and terrifying sight it must have been for the shepherds, when suddenly the night sky was illuminated by all of Heaven’s glory! An angel stood before them, prefacing the announcement of Jesus’ birth with the words, “Do not be afraid.”

“Of course, we’re afraid,” I imagine the shepherds saying to one another. “We’ve never seen anything quite like this!” But, the angel meant not to alarm them, but to bring them the very best news – a Savior had been born for them!

I personally have never seen an angel, at least that I’m aware of, for they do sometimes come in disguise. To see an actual angel, even one bearing good news, would be quite memorable, and likely a bit scary.

I think a lot of people have the same fearful feelings concerning God. And who could blame them? We often view God as judgmental at best, and petty at worst. At other times, God seems distant, and some people prefer to keep him that way.

But, God came near in Jesus when he took on human flesh and lived among us. He didn’t come to earth to instill fear in our hearts, but to bring us peace. He came, not in judgment, but in mercy and grace. Perhaps this is why Jesus appeared to man in such a non-threatening way – a baby gift-wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger, God’s gift to us all. 

The Characters of Christmas: Mary

“But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19, NIV).

There are so many things for a new mother to treasure concerning her child. There are the firsts – the first sound her baby makes (even if it’s crying), the first moment her newborn gazes into her eyes, the first time he (and she) sleeps through the entire night. Then, there are the firsts to come – the first stumbling steps, the first mumbling words, the first time he says “I love you”, and the not-too-far-down-the-road first day of school. There are so many first time experiences that both thrill and overwhelm even the most prepared of mothers.

Jesus’ mother, Mary was anything but prepared, it would seem. Just a child herself, Mary was charged with the awesome and overwhelming task of giving birth to the Savior of the world. A frightening visit from an angel, the scandal of teen pregnancy, and an expecting mother’s long trek to Bethlehem would have been too much for most to handle. Mary, however, seemed to take everything in stride. She was, after all, God’s chosen vessel to bring Jesus into the world. 

There was so much for Mary to treasure in Jesus, God’s gift to her and to all of mankind. And there was much to ponder. This baby of hers was special. He was the Messiah, the Savior to Israel, God dressed in human flesh, and she adored him. Still she pondered.

Perhaps Mary mourned in the dim light of that moonlit stable. Although she did not fully understand all that her son would face in life, she knew that God had some sort of special plan for her boy. The baby she held so close would one day be held to a cross. The life she gave to her child would be given for all. For now, however, Mary treasured Jesus. She pondered. And she worshiped him.   


The Characters of Christmas: The Bethlehem Shepherds

“‘This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger'” (Luke 2:12, NIV).

I find it ironic that a few lowly shepherds were the first to hear of Jesus’ birth. Shepherds were hardly included in the upper crust of society. In fact, they were despised by most people. But, perhaps, it is for this very reason that God chose them to be the first to encounter the living Christ.

The shepherds in the surrounding fields of Bethlehem had the special task of breeding the lambs that were selected for Temple sacrifice in nearby Jerusalem. Only the choicest of lambs was offered. Therefore, once a lamb was born, the shepherd would wrap it tightly in cloths to keep it from injuring itself. It’s quite possible that the very stable that became the birthing suite of Jesus was also the birthplace of countless lambs before him.

When the angel told the shepherds of the sign given to them, that they would find the newborn Christ wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger, these shepherds would likely have known where to find Jesus. The Lamb of God, who would take away the sins of the world, lay in a stable where multitudes of sacrificial lambs had been born before him. Unlike the temporary atonement they offered, however, Jesus’ one day, once-for-all sacrifice would change the world.