2018—It Won’t Be What You Expect.

Sheep II - Free   2018—IT WON’T BE WHAT YOU EXPECT.

   I never expected to get hit with a car. (Who does?) But it happened. I was fourteen years old and just a few weeks from beginning high school, but instead I spent the next three months in the hospital in traction with a broken femur. I also suffered a serious head injury involving six inches of stitches (which can happen when you fly over the back of a car and land on your head). The driver’s insurance company eventually ponied up thousands of dollars in a settlement which, in the end, paid for my college. Until that point, college hadn’t really been an option for financial reasons, but never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine that a college degree would be financed by the front fender of a Buick sedan driven by a 77-year-old man.

   Not what I expected.

   Often God answers prayers in unexpected ways. Of course, that’s an understatement. God’s ways are many times so far beyond our comprehension or even our imagination that when something does happen—which we didn’t see coming to begin with—we often don’t even remotely perceive the connection between the event and the answer to our prayers. In fact, we very often interpret the event as, not just a random non-answer, but as a set-back. Hence the car accident.

   Same with the birth of the Messiah. Scripture predicted a king would be born—and one was—but in a stable?? Not one rabbi, teacher, or Pharisee saw that coming. Even most of the prophets never conceived that their predictions concerning the Messiah meant that he’d begin life anywhere other than a carved ivory cradle in an opulent palace. But he did.

   And the virgin who was prophesied to be his mother would surely be a royal princess, right? And that would mean that this Messiah—whoever he was—would be born into the royal line of King Herod or some other Jewish king. He wasn’t supposed to be born to a poor, nobody virgin from the hick town of Nazareth. But—he was.

Not what anyone expected.

   Moreover, the birth of the Messiah, one would think, would certainly be free from hassles, inconveniences, dangers and threats. After all, God would certainly see to that, wouldn’t he? So no one, especially Joseph and Mary, were anticipating anything remotely resembling what happened. They weren’t expecting to have to travel back to Bethlehem for a census—and on donkeyback when Mary was already nine months along. Can you imagine the conversations with God about that? And they didn’t expect, once in Bethlehem, to find themselves homeless with Mary having to give birth in a smelly barn, laying the Son of God into a less-than-sanitary manger. (You know, where odiferous animals eat?) Certainly God could have arranged for his son to enter the world into better accommodations.

   So—why? It’s not as though God couldn’t control what was happening or had to go to Plan B. Of course, neither did Mary and Joseph expect a bunch of lowly shepherds to appear and worship the baby. That was somewhat novel. Nor did they anticipate several very wealthy astrologer-kings to appear with chests full of gold, frankincense, and myrrh—which made Jesus a very rich toddler.

   But there’s more. No one expected King Herod to kill dozens of little boys in his attempt to kill baby Jesus, nor did Joseph and Mary expect to have to take the baby and flee to Egypt in order to escape Herod.

   Could they have even imagined that?

   Had the will of God had gone awry? Had they done something wrong? Certainly it couldn’t have been God’s plan that so many innocent little babies would die. Can we even fathom the grief that Mary and Joseph must have felt?

   Of course not, but none of those events were random or unforeseen by God. They were all road signs of prophecy distinguishing Jesus from the many others who had or would claim, throughout the centuries, to be the Messiah. Maybe some of those imposters had been born in Bethlehem and maybe, unlikely as it might seem, one or two were even born in a stable during the great census rush. Certainly at least one of them could claim to have been from the lineage of King David (but probably not the same one born in a stable). Nevertheless, it’s probably quite unlikely that angels sang, shepherds quaked or kings bowed down to worship any of them. And there is no evidence that a star appeared when any other “messiahs” were born, that King Herod had tried to kill any of them, or that they had lived in Egypt long enough that Scripture could foretell, “’Out of Egypt I called my son’” (Hosea 11:1, Matt. 2:15).

   God planned all of these unlikely events so that, when taken together, Jesus could be identified, beyond any doubt, as the Messiah.

   Attorney Josh McDowell, in his great book Evidence that Demands A Verdict, once calculated the odds of just eight of the 300 Messianic prophecies coming to pass through sheer coincidence as an incomprehensible one chance in 1023 (that’s 10 followed by 23 zeroes). Not odds you’d want to take to Vegas.

   What’s it all mean? Simply that God is in charge. He orchestrated each and every unexpected, “random” circumstance, situation and event surrounding the birth of Christ—no matter how unlikely, outrageous or tragic those events may have seemed at the time in order to do one thing: lay the groundwork of prophecy to identify, beyond dispute, Jesus Christ as the promised Messiah. No doubt Mary and Joseph (and all of their friends and relatives) were, at one time or another, shocked, ashamed, worried, frustrated, angry, disappointed, overwhelmed, grieved, depressed, and certainly scared—terrified even—by those “random” events but it was because they didn’t understand the full scope of God’s plan.

   God simply wasn’t behaving the way one would expect.

   The Nativity is not just a “nice” story; it’s a powerful lesson as to the ways of God. Our Father in heaven is always doing two things: looking out for us—even when circumstances seem overwhelmingly senseless and/or impossible—and moving in ways that bring glory to him. Why? So that we can believe. So that we can know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he is real and that, no matter how bad things look, he is behind the scenes and causing “all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28, NASV).

   I guarantee that 2018 won’t be what you expect. It’ll be better.

 

 

 

The Scrooge Inside

Ghost of Christmas Present

THE SCROOGE INSIDE

   We all know Ebenezer Scrooge. He may not be a filthy rich old man living alone in a cold, dark mansion, but we all know him (or her). It’s the cold, stingy person with a heart the size of a peanut and a bitterness that entombs him like a pall. It’s the person who always has a word of criticism, deserved or otherwise. It’s the person who can always be counted on to prophesy the dark side of any situation. It’s Scrooge—the personification of all that’s wretched and miserable.

   Maybe this Ebenezer, like the original, hates Christmas and all it stands for—worship, love, gratitude, and generosity and giving—perhaps that last most of all. This Ebenezer Scrooge hoards his possessions, money, and time as well as any encouragement, mercy and love that might be lurking in some dark corner of his shriveled heart. His only response to invitations to laughter, fellowship or celebration is a scowl and some venomous version of “Humbug!” 

   We all know Ebenezer Scrooge.

   Ol’ Eb is not easy or fun or comfortable to be around and often, despite our attempts to love him—or maybe because of them—he seems to become more angry, more bitter, and more pitiful over time, just like the original Scrooge.

   But the story doesn’t end there.

   If you’ve never read Dickens’ classic tale of Ebenezer Scrooge, here’s the one-page: Scrooge is visited first by the ghost of his long-dead business partner Jacob Marley who comes to warn him regarding his path in life. Marley is doomed to drag with him forever the “ponderous” chains he’d forged in life—one link for each evil or corrupt deed he’d done—or good deed neglected. Scrooge is confused as to why Marley is being punished since he was such a “’good businessman’”. In response, Marley screams, “’Mankind is my business!’” To prove his point, he shows Scrooge the poor and suffering of the world and laments that he is condemned to walk the earth for all eternity watching them suffer and yet not permitted ever to help.

“’Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never once raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode…?’”

   He warns that the only way Scrooge can be saved from a similar fate is to change his ways and so, to that end, Marley sends three spirits to “haunt” Scrooge that night…

   Enter the Ghost of Christmas Past.

   This spirit takes Scrooge on a painful tour of his past, exposing some of the reasons for his hatred of Christmas: scenes of the lonely Christmas breaks at boarding school when Ebenezer was the only boy left there for the holiday; a reminder that his beloved sister died around Christmastime; and the scene where his fiancée breaks their engagement at Christmas because she perceives that Scrooge has grown to love profit and money more than herself.  At this scene, Scrooge rages at his younger self to reassure her that she’s wrong but alas, he does not. Scrooge then demands that the spirit leave him; he cannot bear to relive the pain of his past. But even more, he cannot bear the anguish of his sudden regret.

   Next appears the Ghost of Christmas Present.

   This ghost invites Ebenezer Scrooge to “know me better, man!”, insinuating that Ebenezer doesn’t know anything about what Christmas is really all about. To remedy this tragedy, the spirit takes Scrooge on a behind-the-scenes tour of the homes of family and friends to peek in on how others keep Christmas. First they visit a very merry home where his nephew, Fred Scrooge, and his wife and friends are feasting, singing, and playing games—all of which Scrooge was missing, having rejected Fred’s dinner invitation earlier.

   Next Scrooge and the ghost visit the very humble home of his employee, Bob Crachit, where Scrooge sees all of the Crachits (and there are many) celebrating Christmas with the rare treat of a small goose and even smaller pudding cake for dessert. Scrooge is astounded that the Crachits can celebrate Christmas or even find anything to be thankful for, given their poverty. Moreover, for the first time, Scrooge learns that Crachit has a small son, Tiny Tim, who suffers from a crippling disease. He watches in amazement as, despite all of these misfortunes, the Crachits proclaim a toast of blessing upon “Mr. Scrooge!”

   Afterward, despite Ebenezer’s pleas to return home, he and the ghost visit a ship at sea where poor French sailors are celebrating Christmas by singing a heartfelt rendition of “Silent Night”, and then, the next moment, Scrooge finds himself standing inside of a cold jail cell where a solitary prisoner celebrates Christmas by playing carols on a flute. Nevertheless, in the midst of it all, Scrooge cannot fathom how, without money, any of them can be happy or merry or have anything at all to celebrate. Having expressed his disbelief to the ghost, Ebenezer Scrooge abruptly finds himself alone, in the midnight of a cold and shadowy graveyard, watched from the darkness by a pair of glowing eyes.

   The Ghost of Christmas Future.

   This spirit does not speak but rather catapults Scrooge into a bleak future characterized by death—his own and Tiny Tim’s. Scrooge finds that while Tiny Tim’s death is mourned, his own is celebrated…

   The tale of Ebenezer Scrooge is a sad one, and one many times played out in the course of history by countless characters who view Christmas simply as a means of profit and/or a waste of time. Perhaps that Ebenezer we all know is one such character.

   In the end, it’s clear that Ebenezer Scrooge’s disillusionment with Christmas and with humankind in general stems back to the disappointments and losses he suffered young. As a result, he substituted money for God and the pursuit of profit for his calling. Still, he found himself more miserable than ever. But the story does not end there. 

   Scrooge learns his lesson—that being that there is much more to life than money and that money can even be a hindrance to real life. He finds, instead, that real joy and fulfillment come with doing the “business of mankind” and so, waking on Christmas morning (and discovering that he was not dead), Ebenezer wastes no time in making up for all the years of despising his fellow humankind; he resolves to “keep Christmas” —that spirit of charity and love and generosity—that day and all the year long.

   Perhaps our Ebenezers will come to know the true meaning of Christmas which the poor, piteous Marley grieves eternally at having missed…

   “’Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never once raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode…?’”

   The greatest message we can learn from Scrooge? That it’s Christ, symbolized by that “blessed Star”, who is the one who saves us from the miserly and miserable Ebenezer inside of all of us—the only one who can save us.

   But there’s one more lesson—one that is exemplified in Scrooge himself: It’s never too late to keep Christmas.

   It’s never too late to change.

    Merry Christmas!  May we keep it well.

Fearless.

Lydia Darragh

FEARLESS

   Most Americans have never heard the name Lydia Darragh but if not for her, the American Revolution might have ended very differently, and we might be paying taxes to the British royal family to this day.

   During the Revolution, Lydia Darragh operated as a member of Washington’s spy network in Philadelphia where she owned a home. Her spying career began when the British took over her house as a meeting place, a move which inspired Lydia to begin hiding in a closet and eavesdropping on their conversations. Afterward, she’d send her son to relay the enemy’s secret plans and strategies to the colonists. One such intel interception is said to have saved the life of General George Washington himself.* Lydia Darragh knew she was risking her home, her freedom, and even her life to spy for the Americans, but she didn’t care; liberty was infinitely more precious than safety.

   There’s power in not caring.

   History has demonstrated that, throughout the ages, there’s absolutely no limit to what a person can accomplish if they simply don’t care what other people think. Take, for example, Abraham Lincoln. Here was a man who had lost election after election—over a dozen at least—and yet still ran for president. He didn’t care that there were many who mocked him, called him a “loser”, and made him a national laughing stock. Then later, once in office, President Lincoln was apparently not obsessed with amassing power or being voted “most loveable” because he pulled the plug on slavery, knowing full well that millions would despise him for doing it. Moreover, he had to know that he was putting his very life at risk. But he didn’t care. He only cared about doing what he knew was right.

   The same is true of King David and Queen Esther in the Bible. David, scorned as a lowly shepherd boy, nevertheless faced down a giant because Goliath had dared to mock the living God. David was so horrified by Goliath’s blasphemy that he was willing to endure ridicule: the jeers of the whole Israeli army and the outrage of his own brothers who accused him of arrogance for having the audacity to believe he could do what seasoned warriors feared to do. Yet David didn’t care what they thought; he did what he had to do.

   Then there was Queen Esther who breached protocol and approached the Persian king uninvited to plead for the lives of the Jewish people (Esther 4:11). And while such an emergency might seem to be an extenuating circumstance and so trump the royal protocol, it wasn’t—one simply did not appear before the court without a royal summons. In fact, such insolence often ended badly for the poor, misguided reprobates who’d attempted it in the past. Still, Esther’s attitude was, “‘If I perish, I perish.’” She didn’t care enough about the consequences of her “presumption” to compromise her mission. And because of that attitude, she saved the entire Jewish race.

   That’s the power of not caring.

   Fear of man and his opinion is the death of many destinies.

   Who is willing to face down ridicule, rejection, ruin and even death to accomplish that thing they were born to do? On the other hand, how many people have caved to the pressure of another man or woman’s opinion and abandoned their destinies?

   We’ll never know because their names have been lost in the dark void of compromise and fear.

   Jesus never caved. Even when the Pharisees called him crazy, a fraud, a criminal, demon possessed—whatever they could conjure to destroy him—he never flinched. In fact, he struck back, exposing them as hypocrites, “white-washed tombs” and even murderers. Why? He simply didn’t care what they thought. As a result, he revealed corruption in the highest ranks of the Jewish leadership and shone a bright light for the poor, deceived people of Israel.

   But what if Jesus had cared about what people thought of him? He certainly would not have chosen to hang naked upon a cross to be spit upon, mocked and humiliated before throngs of people. Moreover, he knew that scripture pronounced a curse upon anyone “hung from a tree” and that that curse included the family of the condemned; therefore, he would never have consented, by hanging upon that wooden cross (tree), to bring shame upon his family—that is, if he cared about what man thought of him.

   Not that that decision was easy for him. Just imagine what his notoriety did to the reputation of his mother, his brothers and his sisters. Did they live in shame forever after? Did his sisters have a difficult time finding men who would marry them—daughters of a cursed family? Possibly. I don’t know for certain but the only one of Jesus’ siblings who is ever referenced by name is his brother, James. But even James was not present at the cross to comfort their mother. None of his siblings were (which is why Jesus entrusts his disciple John to care for Mary). So did the rest of his siblings desert him, renounce him, disown him? I have to wonder because only once are his brothers and sisters ever mentioned in the Gospels and none by name.

   Even so… Jesus could not afford to care about what people thought about him or even about his family; if he had, he would have quit. Thankfully, he did not.

   I daresay that behind every tale of success throughout history from the ancients to this very hour, there comes a moment when a person has to decide which he (she) cares more about: his reputation or his destiny. If he fears the opinion of man and caves to the detriment of what is right, then destiny is lost. But if he moves forward past the “group think,” not caring about his critics or their speculations, then history is made. Fear of man has never inspired anyone to set a new trend or to blaze a new trail but instead, sadly, only to follow behind—even if it’s over the cliff he goes. 

   There’s great power in not caring what others think—and freedom. It’s the freedom to express yourself, to explore all opportunities, and to be who you were created to be.

   It’s the end of fear.

 

  • Kyla Cathey (“9 Women Who Helped Win the American Revolution”)

Lonely—Or Empty?

Piano and Rose (free)LONELINESS—OR EMPTINESS?

   Vanessa (not her real name) had never been without a boyfriend since she was thirteen years old. By all counts, the score was two bf’s in junior high, three in high school (roughly one per year), and a serious three-year relationship in college—followed by a quick rebound relationship in senior year. After college, Vanessa’s trend continued. She dated pretty regularly and by 25, was engaged. However, that didn’t last—Vanessa broke it off—and continued exploring relationships. By 28, Vanessa was married, by 32 she was divorced, and by 35 married again. The one common denominator in all of her break-ups over that 22-year stretch was Vanessa: She was the one who always initiated the break-ups. And why?

   Vanessa was empty inside.

   Unfortunately, Vanessa represents thousands of people in our culture who travel from relationship to relationship looking for someone to fill a void inside of them. Often people believe that if they can just find “the one”, they would finally feel “complete”. And that rarely ends well.

   How many times have we heard that premise—the idea that if we can just find that “soul mate”, that “other half”, then we’ll finally feel complete? Remember Tom Cruise’s famous line to Renee Zellweger in Bridget Jones’ Diary where he stares across the room at her and declares “You complete me!” The problem is that that’s a fallacy—the myth that any person can fill that void inside of us and give us that “happily ever after” that Bridget and her Prince Charming presumably enjoyed. Bridget and the Prince are fiction.

   Does that sound like the rantings of some bitter and jaded skeptic? Of course it does, but it’s not. The truth is that, yes, Virginia, true love does exist and brings great fulfillment and joy. But here’s what a relationship cannot do: fill the God-shaped void inside of us. The fact is, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, there’s a huge difference between emptiness and loneliness.

Loneliness results from a separation from people, and emptiness results from a separation from God.

   Feeling empty actually means that we’re lonely for God.

   In Genesis 2, God said of Adam, “‘It’s not good that man [ad-am] should be alone…’” (vs. 18). Adam had, at that point, enjoyed the most intimate relationship with God possible for a human to experience; in the pre-Fall, there were no barriers between God and man. Adam had a spirit-to-spirit relationship with God the Father. Still, Adam was lonely; he desired human companionship—someone to love, both emotionally and physically; someone to share ministry with (ruling over creation); and someone with whom to imagine the future and explore destiny. Adam ached for an “Eve” but he wasn’t empty; he was full of his God and therefore complete. How do we know? Because Adam wasn’t experiencing any of the symptoms of emptiness: an identity crisis—he knew who he was: a son of God. Adam wasn’t questioning what was “wrong” with him because he didn’t have a girlfriend—he was simply wondering when and where he might find one. And Adam wasn’t at a standstill waiting for life to start until he got a wife; he was enjoying his relationship with God and moving in his destiny. Adam wasn’t “lost”, insecure or depressed. He was just lonely. He simply wanted what all of the animals seemed to have—someone to compliment him.

   Loneliness is not a bad thing. Lots of times it’s not fun but that emotion exists for a reason: to remind us that we need other human beings, that we’re part of the family of God, and that we can’t go it alone because we’re not equipped to do that. Loneliness nudges us to create family, community and to engage in interactions, relationships and commitments with other people. Imagine what the world would be like if we didn’t feel the need to participate with others. I can only surmise that far fewer people would populate the earth. In fact, I believe (don’t know for certain because I haven’t asked) that God created the feeling of loneliness so that humans would be motivated to “be fruitful and multiply.” If God hadn’t allowed loneliness, I can only imagine the conversation in Eden:

   GOD: “Adam, would you like a wife?”

   ADAM: “What’s a wife?”

   GOD: “You know, a mate, kind of like the elephants have, only more like you.”

   ADAM (thinks for a moment): “No, thank you. I’m happy with the elephants.”

   How do you know whether you’re empty or lonely? Clue number one: If you don’t have a relationship with God, that part of you that was created specifically for that purpose is going to be empty and you’re going to feel the pain of that. For example, if you have family and friends and/or a spouse and they’re good people and they love you—and yet you still feel “incomplete”, that’s emptiness, not loneliness. Or if there is a relationship with God but you find yourself “too busy” to spend any time with him, emptiness will happen.

   Clue number two: A very telling symptom of emptiness is a feeling that you just don’t belong. You might feel separated and depressed and, in some cases, as if something is wrong with you. This is probably one of the most painful feelings in the world. And it’s dangerous; who knows how many people have turned to drugs, alcohol and/or depression meds because of the pain of it? The good news is that nothing is wrong with you. You just miss God.

    The even better good news is that there’s a cure for both emptiness and loneliness. If you’re feeling empty, get with Jesus. It’s that simple. Allow his love and peace and security to surround you like a blanket. Breathe it in and let it get deep down inside of you. If you’ve never experienced that feeling, that’s nothing that can’t be fixed—all you have to do is to ask God for it and he’ll give it to you. God says, “‘I love those who love me; And those who diligently seek me will find me’” (Proverbs 8:17). On the other hand, if you’re lonely, get with people. My mother used to say, “If you want friends, be a friend.” Good advice. Invite someone over for dinner or call someone to see how they’re doing or join a club or go to a Bible study. It’s not hard.

   Being empty and/or lonely are common feelings. Just remember that if you’re lonely for God, no human relationship on earth can ever fix that. Fill up on the presence of God and then you’ll be ready to give and to receive the love of other people.

   Then you’ll be complete.