Going home

Very few of us can time our deaths the way our births are timed.

Nine months from conception, there’s a due date. With a natural birth, that’s a pretty good ballpark estimate. For a Cesarean section, the parents get to choose the specific date of birth.

Rarely does that happen on the other side of life.

Every death is sudden, even if it’s expected.

The guarantee

In the span of two days last weekend, five friends or acquaintances breathed their last breath.

They ranged in age from 81 to 43. Four of them had long-term conditions; two were in such severe pain, I’m sure their loved ones saw their passing as relief.

But still.

The fifth friend shocked everybody. He was healthy, to my knowledge – no one saw his death coming. He was 62. (I’m 58; he’s my generation.)

Two of them lived in Northeast Ohio, the other three in mid-Michigan (my old stomping grounds).

Death is guaranteed for each of us.

Later rather than sooner, we hope.

Unexpected deaths are the ones that make the news – traffic fatalities, drug overdoses, crime victims, that sort of thing. Most of us won’t leave Earth like that, thankfully, but there’s no guarantees about that, either.

Another friend’s granddaughter died about two weeks ago. She suffered numerous health issues from the day she was born. She was 21.

No one ever said life was fair.

Homegoing

Sometimes, those who suffer have the best dispositions. They are thankful for the blessings they have, even if good health isn’t one of them. Our 81-year-old friend was like that. He had debilitating headaches his entire adult life, but he looked on the bright side every day.

His strong faith allowed him to do that.

He is in heaven now with his savior, Jesus. He knows that with certainty. So does his wife. They were married 61 years.

We visited her yesterday afternoon to offer our condolences. She said she’s not planning a funeral for him, but a homegoing. We knew what she meant.

Funerals are sad. We mourn the loss of our loved one. Rightfully so. But that’s where the focus remains.

With a homegoing, family members and friends know that death is temporary – just a transition to a better life. Healing is promised in heaven. Physical, emotional and every other kind of healing that each of us needs.

The end of time

We mourn the loss of our loved one here on Earth and we miss him or her terribly, but we know we will see him or her again.

Earth is a temporary home, full of pain and struggle, as well as joy and laughter. We know this. Good vs. evil. Unconditional love vs. selfishness. Right vs. wrong.

These battles are fought in the human heart and mind, aren’t they?

We play them out in society, but the real battles take places inside each of us.

When eternity comes, those struggles will end. For better or worse.

We’ll either stand with God in heaven, or we’ll spend forever without Him. The Bible talks about a lake of fire. I wonder also if hell will be a lonely place. We may not see our friends and family any more. Ever again.

I can’t imagine a worse fate than that.

My choice, your choice

We get to choose where we live forever. We determine our own fate, really.

I can’t choose for you, and you can’t choose for me. This is personal, and it’s individual. I can give you chapter and verse, but you must decide whether to accept the gift of life forever or not.

Life is a gift.

Life on Earth is a gift. Each of us must thank our parents, both mother and father, for giving us life. You and I had nothing to do with it.

Life forever is a similar principle. There won’t be marriage in heaven, but we will have a Father. He’s the one who offers us that gift of life eternal.

Most of my friends who just died will receive a homegoing, a celebration of life on Earth and the promise of a wonderful, perfect forever future in heaven.

We can’t wrap our minds around forever. The end of time. No more alarm clocks or deadlnes.

Nor can we fathom perfection. Beauty for beauty’s sake. No hidden agendas. No secrets. No pain or suffering, of any type. No getting tired at night. Never a cold or fever, much less any other sickness or injury.

Mental illness? No such thing any more.

The big picture

One day, we will see the big picture of life. We don’t now. Each of us sees only our small part in this big universe. There’s so much of life I can’t see or understand. I write to try to make sense of it all, but as the Bible says, now I see in a mirror dimly, but then (in heaven) face to face.

I have strong views on certain subjects, and you may have a differing viewpoint on those same subjects. We both might be right, because we see the issue from different perspectives. Neither of us understands the big picture. We try, but we just cannot.

That’s why we need to talk, to listen, to respect each other, to learn from each other.

One day, all the issues we wrestle with will come together. The God of the universe, the One who created us and everything else in it, will reveal all to us.

For now, God has given us earthly minds to learn and grow. None of us can know everything about life.

We desperately need this perspective today.

We need each other.

We NEED each other.

We can’t make this life work without each other. Even though we try.

Oh, we try.

The more I learn, the more I discover how much I don’t know. Keep teaching me, each one of you. I’ll do the same for you.

Meanwhile, as we do that, I’m ready for my homegoing, when all will be well. I’m not expecting it any time soon – I’m still relatively young and in excellent health, if I can say that. No guarantees, of course, except that I will die one day. But whenever the day comes, I hope you’ll celebrate it with me.

And I’d love to celebrate yours, too.

Just not for awhile.

In the meantime, let’s celebrate this life on Earth together. And remember with gratitude those who are already home.

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Around the bend, a waterfall

Power. Beauty. Change, often slowly. Calm, eventually.

A meandering stream, gentle and pure. Strength and sound as the river transforms into a waterfall. Then, a peaceful near silence as the river continues on.

Each waterfall is different. Some are wider, some taller, some roar, some are gentle.

As different as we are as people.

A river follows the path of least resistance, heading downhill, away from its source. Sometimes over an unexpected waterfall.

It never remains in the same place.

A big splash

The river of my life flowed smooth for many years. A great job, a healthy family with three growing boys, purpose in life, community involvement, some recreation and exercise … it seemed too good to be true. It was easy, too easy, to just coast through life, engaging but only to a point, then pulling back before wounds were exposed.

cascade park 2

Until a huge waterfall changed the course of my river.

Losing a job I’d had for 24 years will do that.

I’ve written about that before, several times. We’re coming up on the 10-year anniversary of that event this spring. It feels like a lifetime ago, with the river of my life twisting and turning repeatedly. Many of you experienced this as well, in varying degrees.

My life sometimes feels out of control, emotionally anyway, heading downstream to an eternal destination that features “the river of the water of life” (Rev. 22:1). It’s easy to get caught up in the struggles of this world and lose sight of what it’s all about.

Shortly before we left Rockford, Ill., I visited the Anderson Japanese Gardens there. It was peaceful, with meandering streams and soothing water formations that the Japanese love. It provided a momentary calm in the months before we moved to Elyria, Ohio, during the last polar vortex five years ago.

In Elyria the stream of my life has taken a couple more abrupt turns. After my 24-year job ended, I never held a job more than 2.5 years (twice). One job lasted eight weeks. I’m now retired, although it still seems funny to say that because I’m “only” 58 years old. (My dad retired younger than that, actually, so maybe it’s not so unusual.)

Hard to see the future

days dam 2

I took one waterfall photo through trees.  I should have known the camera would focus on the branches and leave the waterfall blurry. I thought about going back there and re-taking the photo, but decided not to.

Sometimes the storms of life are blurry, aren’t they? We don’t see them coming. We don’t know why. We feel the fall, then the hard splash of the river as it crashes into the pool at the base of the waterfall.

We submerge, and wonder if we will ever resurface.

We eventually do, don’t we?

But we resurface in a new place, a different place. We are changed.

We didn’t ask for change, but it came anyway.

Some changes are exciting. Some are not. Some are big and powerful. Others are more languid.

Each of us experiences the wide range of powerful and calm, the river always moving, always going somewhere, never static, never staying in the same place.

Some of us travel farther than others do, but all of us travel.

That’s what rivers do.

Can any of us see where we are going? Really see?

I don’t think so.

The greatest adventure

mill stream run 1

Yes, we see heaven, for those of us headed that way. (It’s a destination worth pursuing for everyone.)

But on Earth, the journey to get there … we often can’t see around the next bend.

I hear sermons and speeches sometimes that say the Christian journey should be the most exciting path to travel.

It should be. Jesus offers adventure like no one else does. Serve orphans and widows. Take our faith to different lands, or to the next-door neighbor. Meet the needs of others. Pray. Worship. Don’t accumulate worldly possessions for their own sake, but to share with others. And so on.

So often the waterfalls in our lives aren’t those types of adventures. We tend to fall over them, rather than willingly jump into them. If we would jump into a waterfall of our own volition, perhaps it wouldn’t be such a tall one, with such a painful landing.

How prepared are we for life’s falls, twists and turns? They’re inevitable, so why does no one help us navigate them?

O but the Bible does. It’s all in there, really.

I still fall hard because my faith isn’t what it should be. Just because I read the Bible doesn’t mean I’m prepared for life’s waterfalls, big or small, clear or blurry. What do I do with the information I learn? In the words of a preacher, how do I apply it?

During this week’s polar vortex here in Ohio, a friend who has school-age children collected food for dozens of children who might otherwise go hungry because they get their best meal of the day in school. She organized that food collection in her kitchen spur-of-the-moment, and gave groceries to more than a dozen families as well. Not for her own self-satisfaction, but because she saw a need and decided to fill it.

That’s adventure. That’s faith in action.

If the world saw more Christians doing stuff like that, perhaps we’d be more likable, more believable, more like a river worth jumping into.

Even in the middle of winter.

Quick to judge, except for the third group

Black Hebrew Israelites are in the news after a January 18 video showed members of an unidentified sect interacting with students from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

 

White Catholic teenagers and a Native American have received the lion’s share of publicity from Friday’s confrontation by the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

But a third group participated as well.

Indeed, the third group started the whole thing.

Social media has blown up with the dispute between MAGA hat-wearing teens, in town for the pro-life March for Life, and Nathan Phillips, in town for the Indigenous Peoples March the same day.

Social media rushed to judgment about the motives of both sides, and missed badly, as we know now.

I’m impressed that no violence took place. Dancing, drum music, stares, chants, vulgar words and invading of personal space all did occur. But no one from any of the groups crossed the line into physical violence.

If anything positive happened there, it’s probably that.

The instigators?

But who is the third group in this scenario, the one in the background, apparently, but the ones who taunted both the Native Americans and then the young Catholic students?

They call themselves Black Hebrew Israelites.

The “Israelites” were quoting Bible passages claiming that they are the true descendants of Israel. On a nearly two-hour video that has gone viral, they said Native Americans don’t know God. They told the students when they first arrived on the scene that white people are not descendants of Israel and therefore are not God’s chosen people – only people of color are. At that point, the students walked away, if only temporarily.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t3EC1_gcr34&feature=youtu.be

In the words of the New York Times:

Interviews and additional video footage suggest that an explosive convergence of race, religion and ideological beliefs — against a national backdrop of political tension — set the stage for the viral moment. Early video excerpts from the encounter obscured the larger context, inflaming outrage.

Leading up to the encounter on Friday, a rally for Native Americans and other Indigenous people was wrapping up. Dozens of students from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky, who had been in Washington for the anti-abortion March for Life rally, were standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, many of them white and wearing apparel bearing the slogan of President Trump.

There were also black men who identified themselves as Hebrew Israelites, preaching their beliefs and shouting racially combative comments at the Native Americans and the students, according to witnesses and video on social media.

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/20/us/nathan-phillips-covington.html?module=inline

In a statement on Sunday, Nick Sandmann, the boy in the initial video, argued that the Hebrew Israelites instigated the incident and that his classmates “wanted to drown out the hateful comments that were being shouted at us.”

The Black Hebrew Israelites, meanwhile, have said that they are being used as a scapegoat for the students’ behavior.

Vox offered this on the background of the group:

The Black Hebrew Israelites are an offshoot of a broader religious movement scholars often call Black Israelism, which dates back to slavery and Reconstruction, if not earlier.

Writing for the Washington Post, journalist Sam Kestenbaum explains that Black Israelism is “a complex American religious movement” whose various sects are loosely bound by a belief that “African Americans are the literal descendants of the Israelites of the Bible and have been severed from their true heritage.”

https://www.vox.com/identities/2019/1/22/18193352/black-hebrew-israelites-covington-catholic-phillips-maga

The Black Hebrew Israelites

The Gospel Coalition lists nine attributes of the group:

  1. Black Hebrew Israelites (also called African Hebrew Israelites, Black Jews, Black Hebrews, Black Israelites, or Hebrew Israelites) is an umbrella term for various religious sects and congregations that believe that people of color, usually African Americans, are descendants of a lost tribe of ancient Israelites.
  2. From the 17th to 20th century, African-Americans’ identification with Judaism was informed, as Edith Bruder and Tudor Parfitt say, “by the social and political orientations of black people in the United States and was often embedded in response to discrimination.” But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, certain African Americans began not only to identify spiritually with the ancient Israelites but also to claim they were their direct physical descendants. This led to the creation of several factions of Black Hebrew Israelites (hereafter BHIs) that spread across America, and later to Africa and Israel.
  3. BHI groups do not align themselves with Judaism. Instead, as Jacob S. Dorman explains, they “creatively manipulate traditions and ideas gleaned from a wide range of sources: Holiness/Pentecostal Christianity, the British Anglo-Israelite movement, Freemasonry, Mind Power, Theosophy, Judaism, the occult, and African American Christianity’s deep association with the Hebrews of the Old Testament.”
  4. BHI groups tend to define an Israelite as a descendant of the biblical patriarch Jacob, a “Hebrew Israelite” as the modern descendants of the ancient Israelites, and a Jew as a person who practices the religion of Judaism. Many BHI groups do not consider Jews to be true descendants of “Hebrew Israelites.” However, they also do not consider all people of color to be part of the “lost tribe” either. As one BHI website explains, “Israel is just one black nation that exist among many. The Egyptians, Canaanites, Ethiopians, babyloians etc [sic] were black skinned but they were not Israelites. . . . To say all black skinned people are Israelites is like saying all Asians are Chinese, or All Europeans are French.” BHIs also believe that the trans-Atlantic slave trade was prophesied in Deuteronomy 28:68(rapper Kendrick Lamar makes reference to this belief in his lyric, “And Deuteronomy say that we all been cursed”), which accounts for why so many “Hebrew Israelites” are found in America.
  5. While there are some common beliefs shared by BHIs, the groups themselves vary widely in their connection to Judaism and Christianity. In a 1973 article for Christianity Today, historian James Tinney suggestedthe classification of the organizations into three groups:
  • Black Jews, who maintain a Christological perspective and adopt Jewish rituals.
  • Black Hebrews, who are more traditional in their practice of Judaism.
  • Black Israelites, who are most nationalistic and furthest from traditional Judaism.
  1. Many BHI organizations around today sprang up in the late 19th century and early part of the 20th century or are offshoots of those original groups.
  2. Many BHIs who include elements of Christianity affirm the King James Version (1611) of the Bible as their only rule of faith and practice, D.A. Horton says. Some groups accept some books of the New Covenant (New Testament), yet many reject Paul’s writings on the idea they were used often by white masters during the American slavery years, Horton adds.
  3. Most, if not all, BHI groups deny the Trinity and the deity of Christ. As one BHI congregation explains, “We believe that there is a distinction between God and Jesus of Nazareth. In particular, we believe that God is THESupreme Being in the universe and that Jesus was merely a human being; a noteworthy prophet (see St. Matthew 21:11), but a human being nonetheless.” [emphasis in original]
  4. The public interaction with BHI groups usually occurs in large cities, where more radical members often stand on streets and sidewalks, debating and berating passers-by.

https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/9-things-you-should-know-about-black-hebrew-israelites/

Did we learn anything?

Three very diverse groups clashed at the Lincoln Memorial, but because all three profess to be peaceful, they restrained themselves from violence. Social media overlooked this, too.

Perhaps the lack of violence is the second-greatest lesson from the confrontation. Yes, we were far too quick to judge, especially the Catholic teens. We weren’t fair to Nathan Phillips. And we’ve virtually ignored the third group.

All three groups have a right to exist – indeed, to thrive – in this country. Discussion leads to truth. Perhaps we can agree to disagree on some issues.

I saw where President Trump invited the Catholic teens to the White House. He should have invited the other two groups to the White House as well.

Trump is the president of all three groups, whether he realizes it or not. (I don’t think he does.)

Trump is the president of all three groups, whether each group realizes it or not. (I don’t think they all do.)

Did we as a nation learn anything this week?

‘That is the whole duty of everyone’

The end of the matter: all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.

Ecclesiastes 12:13

 

So says the wisest person who ever lived, king Solomon. He tried everything: wine, women and song; working hard; seeking pleasure and riches. Nothing satisfied him.

At the end of his days, after he experienced all that life has to offer, he drew the conclusion in this quote.

We still don’t get it, do we?

Solomon doesn’t say that fearing God is the whole duty of the religious, or of a certain nationality or group. No. Every one of us, no matter who we are, must fear God and keep his commandments.

We will be judged. Not by the U.S. Supreme Court, by a fractured Congress or by the court of public opinion. We can argue with our political opponents until we’re all blue in the face, and it means nothing.

Really.

Fear God, and keep his commandments.

That’s it.

That’s what life is all about.

Of course, fleshing that out isn’t as simple as it sounds.

So, how do we do that?

Only one person, in fact, has figured that out.

Since Solomon didn’t get it until it was (almost) too late, let’s look at the life of the one person who understood it right from the start.

One life at a time

That would be Jesus, the sinless one.

His life is explained in the four “gospels” at the beginning of the New Testament. Here’s an overview of Jesus’ adult life as recorded by Matthew, one of his original 12 disciples.

Jesus’ first act was to begin calling future disciples to follow him. He preached to the masses, yes, but he specifically trained a group of only 12 people. Those dozen later changed the world.

As his disciples watched, Jesus preached his most famous message, the Sermon on the Mount, to a big crowd. For example:

 

  • “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
  • “… everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
  • “… Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you …”
  • “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.”
  • “… store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.”
  • “For with the judgment you make you will be judged …”
  • “Beware of false prophets … you will know them by their fruits.”

 

Jesus stepped up our game. Murder is wrong, of course, but so is anger. Adultery is wrong, but so is lust. Stuff like that. Jesus knows our motives, what we think about. That’s where the rubber meets the road.

Next, Jesus proved his authenticity by healing people – a man with leprosy, two demon-possessed men, a paralyzed man, and others.

He spent time with Matthew and his friends. This was a big deal, because Matthew was a hated tax collector. Imagine inviting over your favorite IRS agent who not only collected your taxes but bribed you, taking more than you owe.

Jesus spent more time training his 12 disciples, then sent them out to do cool stuff themselves. He also warned them that they will face persecution because some powerful, influential people will not appreciate them elevating the poor and sick.

If Jesus walked across the United States in the flesh today, he’d give us a similar message, would he not?

A new command I give you …

Then, Jesus talked about the kingdom of God, rest for the soul and the meaning of Sunday (the Sabbath, actually).

Now, Jesus had crossed a line. When he taught that Sabbath is not about following a host of man-made rules, “the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him” (Mat. 12:14).

Next come a few parables, stories that Jesus told with a moral. He talked about different types of soil, weeds, a mustard seed, yeast, hidden treasure, a pearl and a fishing net. He used these illustrations to describe the kingdom of heaven and its value.

Then Jesus did a series of miracles – he fed 5,000 men, besides women and children, with five loaves of bread and two fish, then walked on water, then healed many people of their illnesses.

Soon after that, three disciples – Peter, James and John – saw Jesus “transfigured” on a mountain, with his glowing heavenly body next to the heavenly bodies of Moses and Elijah. Jesus was a man, yes, but we can’t forget his divinity as well.

In keeping with his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus then taught about several other subjects:

 

  • Marrying a divorced woman is adultery, except for unchastity. (The point: No one is perfect, including a spouse. Understand what that means.)
  • “Let the little children come to me …”
  • “If you are rich, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor; then come, follow me.” (The riches themselves aren’t sin, unless they supersede God, which they did in this particular exchange.)
  • “… whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant.”

 

The world doesn’t think like this, much less live like this. Christians are to live differently than the world does.

Why follow Jesus?

Next came Palm Sunday, when Jesus orchestrated his own parade and entered Jerusalem on a donkey. He taught lessons for a few more days, then was arrested, crucified, buried and resurrected.

Why death and resurrection?

Because Jesus knew we couldn’t keep his commandments, as Solomon discovered. Jesus said so in his Sermon on the Mount, too: “Be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

Only when we follow Jesus can our hearts be changed to “fear God and keep his commandments.”

This is a daily struggle, as those of us who follow Jesus know.

That’s what forgiveness is all about. As God forgives us each day, we learn how to forgive each other.

We need to learn what Solomon learned.

But let’s not wait until the end of our lives to figure this out. A changed life equals a changed heart equals a changed society. We need that, certainly.

We need that today.

 

The end of the matter: all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.

Ecclesiastes 12:13

 

Law and freedom: Can we have both?

I roll through stop signs if there’s no traffic.

I fudged deadlines all the time as a copy editor to get the latest news in the paper.

I jog in the rain, or in snow with 15-degree temperatures (not this year yet, though).

And yet:

I get at least eight hours of sleep every night.

I’ve never received a speeding ticket.

When I’m scheduled to be somewhere, I always show up early.

So, who am I?

I’m a rule-breaker. But I learn the rules first, so I know which ones I can break. And when.

Two plus two equals …

I came down with pneumonia as a college student, so I don’t have the stamina that most of you do. If I don’t get enough sleep, I get sick.

If I break rules, there are consequences. That’s one consequence I don’t want. So I go to bed early every night.

I drive with common sense. I’ve written blogs on this before. Safety is paramount; I drive the speed limit or slightly above, weather conditions permitting. I fudge the law only when it’s safe, and my eyes are wide open. (But I’ll stop at a red light, even if there is no other traffic in sight.)

I married a math expert. Two plus two is always four to her. I’m a journalist at heart. Two plus two could have multiple meanings. Two apples plus two oranges equals four pieces of fruit, but you still have only two apples.

Are you counting fruit, or apples?

… safety …

This is the source of today’s political divide. We don’t know what we’re counting.

One side is all about laws.

The other side is all about humanity.

What happens when law and humanity clash?

We get a government shutdown.

Laws serve a crucial purpose. They give us structure and order. The trash truck comes every Friday. Our City Council signs a contract with the trash hauler to do that. My tax dollars pay for it. That’s the way government works.

Here’s a better example, actually. My tax dollars also help pay for the local police department. Its primary job is to keep the residents of our city, including me, safe. The City Council, the county, the state and the federal governments all pass laws intended to keep us safe. Opioids and illegal drugs hurt people. Thieves and robbers hurt people. Drivers who weave in and out of traffic and/or run red lights risk causing a collision and hurting people.

Laws protect us, and police and the court system defend the right to live without fear for our lives. That’s the goal, anyway.

… or freedom …

But are laws themselves ever oppressive?

Once upon a time, women were not legally allowed to vote. Other laws enforced slavery. It took time, far too much time, before those injustices were legally corrected.

Today’s hottest debate is over illegal immigrants trying to enter this country through Mexico. Immigrants have been doing this for decades, and I’ve read that in recent years the immigration rate has actually declined.

But we now have a president who wants to cut off the illegal immigrants’ entry into this country completely. Illegal, by definition, means they are breaking a law.

But are the immigration laws of this country fair? And are illegal immigrants as evil as Republicans make them out to be?

The answer to the first question must be decided by Congress and the president. The second question? A resounding, “no.”

… or both?

Illegal immigrants are not an organized band of terrorists seeking to destroy American life, as Al-Qaeda was on Sept. 11, 2001. They are mostly women and children fleeing their native countries because their lives are in jeopardy there. Gang wars and violence have destroyed the culture of Honduras and other Central American societies. These women and children have seen relatives and friends die, and face death and/or poverty themselves.

Americans cannot comprehend this. No one in my community is seeking my life.

Why is it so wrong for such people to seek a place to live where they don’t have to fear death every day?

If crime and terrorism are the reasons why, well, those issues are already here. News flash. Illegal immigrants aren’t going to change society much at all.

My wife and I met a 77-year-old woman on Christmas Day while delivering meals to several families in town. She has custody of her two teenage great-grandchildren, because no one else in her family wants them. The teens’ mother is a drug addict and can’t be around her children. The 16-year-old girl has anger issues and screams at the top of her lungs, forcing neighbors to call the police sometimes. The great-grandmother does what she can to keep her fragile family together. They rent a one-bedroom house – which isn’t legal since the teens are a boy and girl. So the boy gets the bedroom and the girl and great-grandma sleep on mattresses in the living room.

They’ve been in this house only a short time, and likely won’t stay long if they can find a place with more bedrooms.

When children move that often, it’s not surprising that they have trouble keeping up in school.

Building a border wall won’t help this family.

We need laws, certainly. We need security, of course. The wall might appease some politicians, but it won’t do much – if anything – to improve security in this country.

Can we pass laws to improve security that actually work? Do our immigration laws assist apples and oranges together, or are we defending the apples and trying to remove the oranges?

What is the fruit of our labor?

Do two and two always equal four, or is there another possible answer?

Our country is full of oranges as well as apples.

Can we enjoy the flavors that both bring to this country?

Is there a way to get creative and keep the law at the same time?

A solid vision in a changing world

Each of us has hopes and dreams.

Congregations do, too.

It’s neat when a group of people come together with a common vision. There’s power when many people pursue a plan with one voice.

A rural church near Oberlin, Ohio, had dreamed and prayed for a new home for almost 20 years, since their decades-old site no longer served them well.

Eventually, their prayers were answered.

The 50-member Christian and Missionary Alliance Church congregation purchased a 5,000-square-foot empty former private home “in a serene place tucked away from the machinations of modern-day life,” according to the Chronicle-Telegram of Elyria, Ohio.

“It was the very church they’d dreamed of all those years.”

A new church, of sorts

In a similar way, the much larger, multi-campus church my wife and I attend has dreamed for many years of opening a campus in Lorain, Ohio. The Church of the Open Door operates campuses in Elyria, Avon Lake (where we attend) and Vermilion. The three sites surround Lorain. (If you’re checking my geography, Sheffield and Sheffield Lake stand between Lorain and Avon Lake to the east, and Lake Erie is the fourth boundary, to the north.)

It’s finally happening.

The church hired a Lorain campus pastor earlier this year. Prayer teams, small groups and community outreach have already begun, even before the Lorain building opens.

Unlike the Oberlin church’s dream, our Lorain campus vision is urban.

Our senior pastor offered this explanation for the Lorain vision:

 

Jesus said to the followers, “Let us go to the towns near here so I can preach there also. That is why I came.”

Mark 1:38

 

When the Lorain pastor shared his vision for a multi-ethnic, multi-racial congregation that serves the city, including the immediate community around the new building, I – and several dozen others – caught the vision.

In a way, I’ve been down this road before.

Reality re-shapes a vision

We raised our three sons in Saginaw, Michigan. We were active at Ames United Methodist Church, an inner-city church in the middle of a West Side neighborhood.

One day, when our children still were very young, the denomination did some census-type research for us, and we discovered the average church member was a 65-year-old woman. This was not unusual for a mainline church that had thrived in its community for more than a century.

We were faced with some crucial decisions. We could continue as is, which many churches choose to do. When that 65-year-old woman dies in the next couple of decades or so, the church would fade into history, as many churches have done.

Or, we could take some specific, intentional steps to not only survive, but thrive.

More research revealed that the vast majority of members – including my family – commuted to the inner-city church from the suburbs. When Ames was built in the 1870s, everyone walked. Over time, adjacent houses were torn down and a parking lot was built. The church grew and thrived, topping 1,000 attendees in the early 1960s. By the time my family arrived, attendance was more like 350 to 400 at two Sunday services.

The neighborhood changed; so must the church

And the congregation was aging.

  • Our first decision was the most crucial: Do we move the church to a suburb where many members lived, or do we continue in the city?

God could have used the church either place, but what did He want us to do?

The vote was more divisive than we anticipated: 55 percent to 45 percent. We voted to stay in the city, but not for the right reason. Many longtime members wanted to continue “church” as is. In a world of rapid change, the church was the one solid foundation that stayed the same.

But it couldn’t.

The church would eventually die.

That wasn’t an option.

Even though the vote was close, our pastor at the time took the decision as a mandate to re-connect with our neighborhood. We did a door-to-door survey to assess needs (my wife participated in that).

  • We hired a full-time youth director, even though we had very few active youths at the time.

Why hire a staff person when we didn’t have hardly any young people to attend?

That’s why, actually.

We hired a man to build a youth program from scratch, reaching “church” kids and “neighborhood” kids. In general, the “church” kids had a basic understanding of the Bible, while many “neighborhood” kids did not. That made for – and still makes for – a unique opportunity for ministry, with many successes and failures.

  • We changed the church leadership structure to emphasize ministry and evangelism, and not so much sitting around tables debating issues.
  • We did one more thing that proved to be the most controversial decision of all: We changed the traditional 11 a.m. worship service to a contemporary service. With drums and guitars.

A drum set on the altar is sacrilege to some folks. When you’ve used a hymnbook and organ your entire life, that’s what you’re comfortable with. We kept the 9 a.m. service traditional for them, but some older folks had trouble getting going that early in the morning.

We lost some members over that.

Changing the style, not the message

While the worship style changed, we made one thing clear: The message of the church would not change.

Jon M. Dennis, a pastor in Chicago who helped lead a conference on urban ministry I attended recently, puts it this way:

 

When urban churches are not flexible (usually ending up in decline or closing), it’s often because we’ve confused that which is permanent with that which is transient …

One thing that absolutely doesn’t change is the person and work of our Savior and Lord, for “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8).

Christ + City, p. 178

 

Most of our elderly members bought the vision. They understood that if the church was to survive and even thrive, we had to change our style. We had to connect with a younger crowd. We had to reach out to the transient, lower-economic, multi-ethnic neighborhood that surrounded our building.

The contemporary service worked. The goal wasn’t to bring 1,000 people into the pews, but to do ministry that matters, to develop relationships and connect with people.

Committed to the vision

Some time later, a predominately African-American church in our denomination in Saginaw closed its doors – and merged with ours. Overnight, our congregation became multi-racial as well as multi-ethnic. We welcomed them, not only as members, but as leaders. Several African-Americans took leadership positions in the church. They brought their gospel choir with them, and the Sunday morning music program was greatly enriched as it rotated with the chancel choir and the bell choir (plus the children’s choir).

Sure, there were bumps. Our pastor was 100 percent committed to the merger, and many of us on all sides bought in.

Some didn’t. We couldn’t get discouraged. Those who stayed were committed.

These things happened a decade or two ago. Ames continues to evolve, seeking God’s will in the neighborhood. People have left (including us, due to a job move) and new folks continue to come in.

When our Lorain church opens its doors sometime this spring, we will have the backing of a multi-campus congregation. But Elyria and Avon Lake attendees won’t determine whether the Lorain campus thrives or not.

How committed are we to our neighborhood, to the city?

At least a dozen of us pray on Tuesday mornings for the new church and for people connected with it. That’s just one thing that we’re doing.

We’re off to a great start, even before the building opens.

Urban ministry gets messy, but it also can be extremely rewarding. We’ll see where God leads us.

A litmus test for evangelicals that shouldn’t be

Honduran migrants cross the U.S. border wall to San Diego from Tijuana, Mexico, on Dec. 16, 2018, before turning themselves in to U.S. border patrol agents, standing at the top. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

 

President Trump, along with Republican and Democratic U.S. representatives, have forgotten that immigrants, legal and especially illegal, are human beings. They have turned the immigration issue into a political football.

They threaten a partial U.S. shutdown later this week over whether to pay for Trump’s border wall with Mexico (which, by the way, during his presidential campaign Trump promised that Mexico would pay for). Trump wants $5 billion for it. Democrats are offering $1.6 billion for border security.

Those numbers are peanuts compared with the trillion-plus-dollar budget that Congress oversees.

The stalemate has nothing to do with dollars and budgets.

It’s all about the politics.

Worse, for many Americans, it’s become a litmus test of evangelical Christianity. Many outspoken proponents of the border wall are evangelicals who support Trump’s for-the-most-part conservative social agenda.

https://www.vox.com/2018/10/26/17989084/christopher-maloney-in-god-we-trump-evangelicals-trump

Many staunch opponents are “social justice” Democrats who see the immigrants’ “caravan” in Mexico, heading for the U.S. border, as displaced Latin Americans fleeing poverty and, especially, violence in their home countries.

https://www.wsj.com/articles/fleeing-poverty-and-violence-central-american-women-explain-why-they-join-caravans-1543947664

I am an evangelical Christian who supports the Democrats on this issue.

Why?

Because Jesus would.

The kingdom of God has feet

Jesus’ primary mission on Earth was to introduce us to the “kingdom of God.” He offered us a personal, one-on-one relationship with his Father. In the Old Testament, God came and went, offering support to specific individuals for specific events or short periods of time. In the Gospels, Jesus said God would come and remain with us at all times, not come and go as he did previously.

To do that, Jesus did not require us to get our act together spiritually or socially before we could let God into our hearts full-time. No. God met – and still meets – us right where we are.

In other words, Jesus Christ was – and still is – the “social justice” God as well as the “evangelical” God.

Very few Christians understand this, even though the message is obvious throughout the New Testament.

Jesus called several fishermen as his first disciples (Matthew 4:18-22). Not exactly upperclassmen. He also hand-picked a hated tax collector (Luke 5:27-28), who left a lucrative job to follow a charismatic leader and his band of nomads. His other disciples were not exactly household names or community leaders when Jesus called them (Mark 3:13-19).

Jesus the social activist

Once he had his chosen twelve, Jesus did some surprising things. He visited Samaria, which no self-respecting Jew would have done, and talked with a woman who had been married five times (John 4:1-42). He acknowledged her past but didn’t condemn her for it.

Same with a woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). And a mentally disturbed caveman (Mark 5:1-20). And an inquisitive political leader who met him at night because he didn’t want to be noticed (John 3:1-21).

He healed numerous disabled people, including several who were blind and others who had physical deformities (read the gospel of Luke, for example).

All of these folks were outcasts. Yet Jesus met them right where they were, healing them and encouraging them to “go and sin no more.” (John 8:11)

Jesus the leader

Jesus also interacted with the religious and political leaders of his day, who were the Pharisees, Herodians and Sadducees (Mark 12:13-40). Those religious leaders also were the local political leaders, serving the oppressive Roman government in return for keeping the peace in their communities.

They tweaked Jewish laws and customs to keep themselves in Rome’s good graces, picking and choosing Scriptures to fit their agendas.

To put it mildly, Jesus didn’t like that. He called them blind guides and hypocrites (Matthew 23:13-36).

Jesus didn’t attack the Pharisees and Sadducees on a political level, but on a spiritual level. On politics, he said: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mark 12:17)

On Palm Sunday, the crowd thought they were hailing a political king who was entering Jerusalem to overthrow the hated Roman government (Matthew 21:8-11). When Jesus didn’t do that, they deserted him – and crucified Him.

What does all this have to do with immigration?

Jesus the servant

For people outside the church, Jesus was compassionate and gave them the benefit of the doubt every time. For people inside the church, Jesus spoke harshly for their judgment and hard-hearted attitudes, because they knew the Scriptures and should have known better how to treat people (including Jesus Christ himself).

If Jesus walked across the United States in the flesh today, he would give us the same message. We still haven’t learned it.

Immigrants need us. They are fleeing for their lives, often with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

In contrast, many Americans are richer than we think we are. Globally, if your wealth (assets minus debts) is in the $100,000 to $1 million range, you are among the 7.3 percent of the world’s population that has about 40 percent of the world’s wealth. If your wealth equals only $3,210, you are wealthier than half of the people across this planet.

https://www.chicagotribune.com/business/ct-richest-people-in-the-world-20160121-story.html

Our response

What are we afraid of? That we might lose political influence?

Blacks, Hispanics and other minority groups already are gaining influence in this country. So are women. Are we truly worried about immigrants who have nothing materially, but who just might have the gifts, talents and work ethic we need to make this country run?

Is there not room for all?

I recently attended a conference in Chicago on urban ministry. One speaker pointed out that white Americans will not get involved in any project or event unless they lead it. That means whites will not allow any minority individuals to lead whatever they are involved in.

Whoa. That’s an eye-opener.

Are we afraid that a minority person might actually have leadership skills? As white people, are we not willing to submit ourselves to a black, Latino and/or female supervisor or other type of leader?

In the words of a decades-old slogan, what would Jesus do?

Jesus’ response

Jesus hand-picked a group of outcasts and under-the-radar people to train as the leaders of his future church. (If you read the book of Acts, there are women and couples who are leaders in the early church, as well as the more well-known Paul, Peter and James.)

No one is an outcast in Jesus’ eyes. Not disabled people. Not mentally disturbed people. Certainly not immigrants.

In a dispute between outcasts and church leaders, Jesus sided with the outcasts every time.

The “unchurched” often understood Jesus better than the church folks did. They certainly connected with him in a more real way.

We forget this at our own peril.

The real Christmas story (hint: it’s not warm and fuzzy)

red-dragon.jpg (1280×1024)

I first published this post in December 2015. Worth repeating. Enjoy!

 

The true and accurate Christmas story isn’t the serene manger scene with the nice shepherds and the friendly barnyard animals surrounding a sleeping baby Jesus with one big star in the sky and three wise men looking on.

No. That’s not how it happened at all.

I’ve never heard the true Christmas story in a Sunday sermon, or in a Christmas Eve service. It’s too controversial. And violent.

The true Christmas story is found in the Bible, of course. But not where we expect to find it. The Bible works that way sometimes.

To find the real story of Jesus’ birth, we must read Revelation 12. Yes, a chapter in the last book of the Bible, a vision that God gave to the apostle John.

The vision is very real. It takes place in the spiritual dimension – which we ignore at our own peril.

Here we go.

The pregnant woman meets her enemy

“A great portent (omen) appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth.”

Here is the mother of Jesus, bright and beautiful, ready to give birth.

“Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems (crowns) on his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth.”

This great red dragon is Satan – he will be named in a minute – and he’s in attack mode.

“Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born.”

Why? What’s going on?

Satan had rebelled against the living God, hoping to overthrow him one day. But he knew that once this child was born and grew to adulthood, his days would be numbered.

God was declaring war on Satan with the birth of this child.

Giving birth

“And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne; and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred sixty days.”

As soon as the male child was born, God protected the baby from the red dragon. The new mother fled to a place of protection as well, but a different place – in the wilderness, for 1,260 days, or 42 months, or 3.5 years.

I can’t say what the specific meaning of that number is, except that it also is mentioned in the chapters before and after this one. In Revelation 13, the red dragon is allowed to exercise authority on earth for 42 months.

Are we living in this time period now? I think we are.

War in heaven

“And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world – he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.”

Not exactly a silent night, is it? The multitude of heavenly host that freaked out the shepherds when Jesus was born in Bethlehem were praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (Luke 2:14)

And for those whom he does not favor …

I do not want to be on the wrong side of this battle, on the side of the red dragon.

This revelation is frightening. And encouraging.

War on Earth

Satan was defeated and cast out of heaven; the battle between God’s angels and Satan continues on Earth, even today. A glance at the nightly news reveals this war being waged on numerous fronts.

Yes, today’s news events are spiritual battles. There’s no doubt about it.

How is this encouraging? For two reasons that I see:

  1. Satan is not God’s equal. He is a fallen angel, on the same level as Michael. God is much stronger than the Devil is. We cannot forget this.
  2. The red dragon was given authority on earth for 42 months, or 3.5 years. This means his time here will end at some point. Satan knows his reign is finite; that’s why he’s stepping up the pressure, making the battles increasingly intense, to take as many of us with him to hell as he can.

Back to the Revelation vision:

“Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming, ‘Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah, for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God …’ ”

Jesus is born. The battle ensues.

Satan will lose, guaranteed

Next, the apostle John describes what will happen to us:

“… Rejoice, then, you heavens and those who dwell in them! But woe to the earth and the sea, for the devil has come down to you with great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!”

When the dragon saw that he could not kill the child – Jesus is protected by God’s throne, and the dragon was cast out of heaven – he went after the child’s mother:

“So when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle, so that she could fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to her place where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time.”

When Satan realized he couldn’t reach Jesus’ mother either, he turned on us:

“Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus.”

Do you wonder why God allows evil in the world? It’s because of Christmas.

God declared war on Satan with the birth of Jesus. Satan is returning fire. But only for a time.

Don’t be surprised. This is the way God planned it. The red dragon is having his moment now. But his clock is ticking.

Merry Christmas.

The circle of life in one day

A young couple I know announced their first pregnancy.

A (slightly) older couple celebrated their anniversary.

A friend’s son is hoping to get into an addiction detox center.

Another friend’s younger brother died from complications of a stroke.

I received word of all four events on the same day.

The circle of life.

Birth, anniversary, struggle, death.

I received word of those events in that order, ironically.

The first two were announcements of joy.

Birth

New life is a miracle. It happens the same way every time, but it’s still a miracle. One cell becomes two, then four, then … a living, soon-to-be-breathing human being.

I still remember the birth of our first son. I held a camera in my hands to take photos of the new arrival.

I was so in awe of the moment of David’s birth, I froze. The nurse shaped her hands like a camera and pantomimed taking a picture. I snapped out of my reverie and took a few frames.

Our lives changed forever.

New birth does that.

Anniversary

Anniversaries are special, too, as the couple celebrates thriving through the inevitable ups and downs of marriage – hopefully more ups.

Long-lasting marriages tend to stand out in today’s society, don’t they?

Marriage is not easy, and involves plenty of compromises. But if husband and wife are both committed to the relationship, it grows and deepens.

That’s the ideal, anyway.

The second two events were presented as prayer requests.

Struggle

My friend has prayed for years that her son would overcome his addiction. Apparently, the severe side effects have finally forced him to seek help.

Sometimes we have to hit rock bottom before we can get better.

I’ve thought about that every so often over the years. Do I have to hit rock bottom before my life can truly change? Why else would I ask Jesus Christ to change me, if I didn’t realize I needed changing?

I’ve never had a chemical dependency (except for the caffeine in coffee, I admit it) or faced a crisis for which I see no way out.

Or, have I?

When my family moved out of state before my ninth-grade year, I was afraid. Since I knew no one in my new school on the first day of class, I searched for something or someone to lean on – and found nothing. The following summer, I was introduced to Jesus in a very personal way, and that began a lifelong process of getting to know Him as my Lord as well as my Savior.

In a sense, then, I did hit rock bottom. I reached a point where I knew I needed something I didn’t have. This is not envy or jealousy. No material possession was going to answer my deepest need.

My friend’s son is at that point too, whether he realizes it or not. If he eventually comes clean from his addiction, that would be a wonderful answer to prayer. But then what? How would he fill that vacuum in his life? The answer to that would determine whether he relapses or not.

That’s down the road for him. Life is a process, not a one-time-decision-live-happily-ever-after moment.

Our pastor, in his current sermon series, calls this “discipleship.” It’s the lifelong process of growing ever closer to God after making the decision to follow Him.

We find our purpose in life through that process. The end game is very real, but so is the journey.

Where are we going?

Addictions are extremely difficult to break. You and I both have seen this over and over.

Experience is not always the best teacher. Not all experiences are worth having. Why can’t we learn from the mistakes of others?

Death

Eventually, we all die. It’s inevitable. Our bodies will wear out sooner or later, unless something unforeseen takes our lives suddenly.

Strokes happen to many people, but that doesn’t make it any easier to accept. My father-in-law suffered a heart attack followed by a stroke in his mid-50s that incapacitated him. For a man who owned a business and was a leader in his field, that was a difficult pill for him to swallow. He lived for about 15 years after that.

My friend’s brother survived only a couple of days after his stroke.

Either way, life is not fair, is it?

Every one of us can lament something. Perhaps it’s physical health, a relationship that didn’t work out or is causing us pain, a job loss, family issues … something traumatic and/or something chronic. Each of us can identify something that we’re lamenting.

Choices

How do we handle such struggles? With grace and optimism, or with anger and blame?

Do we seek help when necessary? Or do we fight through it, unwilling to even admit our issues? Frequently this is my problem. I am not good at asking for assistance, even though there are a number of people in my life I could turn to if I truly needed them.

But it’s hard to admit need, isn’t it?

Which brings us back to the baby our friends are expecting next summer.

So pure, so beautiful, so dependent … that’s what babies are.

What kind of a world will he or she be born into? Will that baby know joy, or sorrow?

Probably both. The soon-to-be parents know Jesus as their Savior and Lord, so their child will get off to a great start. He or she will be loved and will learn to love in the deepest sense of that word.

As the child grows, he or she will learn the struggles of life, and hopefully how to overcome them.

There will be anniversaries, and eventually death.

The circle of life continues.

Is your circle bright, or is it gray like the rain – or worse, black?

The night is blackest as it nears dawn. Sunrise is coming.

Eventually, the rain will stop, the clouds will disappear and the sun will shine brightly.

In these days of partial sun and plenty of clouds and rain, I’m preparing for full sunshine. Are you?

The best Christmas gift

I tried to do a little yard work yesterday, but it rained all day. Squish squish. Not good for raking.

Later in the afternoon, the rain turned to snow. We woke up today to this, taken from our front doorstep.

It’s pretty. I like winter.

The 14 mph winds make it cold, however. I can handle the 29-degree temperatures, but the biting wind cuts through me.

Since winter weather was predicted, the city was ready for it. The main roads, including through our neighborhood, are fine. I had no trouble running a few errands this morning.

But those final leaves got buried. Will the snow clear in time to rake them to the curb, where the city will collect them? Yes, I imagine so, since the leaves already at the curb are buried too.

I was hoping to mow the yard one more time before winter.

Right.

I know a guy around here who mowed his yard last February – in between snow showers. I’m not kidding.

I still might mow, if the ground hardens enough after the snow melts. I’ve mowed the first week of December before (after a late-November snowfall, as well). I’ve also stopped mowing at Halloween and called it good.

We’ll see.

According to weather.com, we’ve received almost 6 inches of precipitation this month. The average for November is 3.38 inches.

https://weather.com/weather/monthly/l/44035:4:US

No wonder my yard is slushy under the snow cover.

georgetown3

The city repaved the street in front of our driveway this summer. Hopefully we won’t see the potholes this winter and next spring as the temps warm up and the road thaws.

Safe at home

I’ve met a few of the neighbors in the year and a half we’ve lived in this neighborhood, but not very many, really. I see them doing yard work in the summer, when I’m outside too. A good New Year’s resolution might be to meet a few more of them, to learn their stories.

But most of the time, we remain inside our well-insulated houses. It’s easy to not get involved.

Since no one trusts each other anymore, I wonder how successful efforts to talk with neighbors might even be.

I can’t forget a trip I took to Mexico City almost 30 years ago where I saw Third World poverty up close.  It wasn’t unusual to see three generations living in a one-room shack. In crowded Mexico City, neighbors lived very close to each other, with thin walls between them.

When one family had no food to eat, the neighbors shared what little they had, because the favor would get returned. Neighbors took care of each other, literally.

Those Mexicans were some of the happiest people I’ve ever met.

Rich materially, poor in spirit

Americans, in contrast, are lonely. Depression, stress, suicide, overeating, bullying … so many of us hide our true selves. It’s easy behind the walls of our mansions. All of us – and I mean all of us – live in mansions compared with most people in the world.

We don’t know how rich we are. And how poor in spirit.

The Christmas season emphasizes both extremes. We spend money we think we have on relatives who don’t need what we’re buying for them, while we miss the whole point of the holiday: Christ’s birth as a baby. God’s gift to us was a child who, when He grew up, showed us how to live in harmony with God and with each other.

Getting personal

Jesus didn’t give material possessions.

He and his father were carpenters. They could have built something tangible and offered that as a gift to their close relatives. Perhaps they did that.

But that’s not Jesus’ legacy. His gift to us? Himself.

A human’s heartbeat doesn’t wrap well under the tree. But I have nothing better to offer you than … me.

Perhaps this is why I struggle with Christmas every year. I’m horrible at figuring out what material gifts are meaningful to those closest to me. (I don’t buy much for myself either. I suppose I should buy new sneakers one of these days, since my everyday shoes have holes in them.)

I’m also not good at giving myself as a gift. It’s easy to stay inside my warm, comfortable house, like everyone else around here does.

When we moved into the neighborhood last year, my wife baked some cookies and took a tray to several of our immediate neighbors. We rang their doorbells and introduced ourselves. The neighbors all said thanks and chatted with us for a few minutes, but nothing has developed since with any of them.

We stay in our own shells, in our comfort zones.

We live in our own worlds, and don’t connect with others who may think differently than we do.

Where’s the common ground? What connects us?

If we don’t share our lives with others, we’ll never find that common ground.

As an introvert, I use that as an excuse to keep to myself. I wonder if many extroverts are hiding insecurities, so that’s their reason not to take the next step. We all have our reasons, don’t we?

Perhaps we need each other anyway.

There’s a Christmas gift worth sharing.