Time for a Different Christmas?

We are bent toward enjoying the fun of Christmas while forgetting the Son of Christmas.

WANT A DIFFERENT CHRISTMAS?

Many look at Christmas with very fond, almost magical thoughts, and simply can not wait to celebrate every year. Putting up the tree and decorating the house are activities that truly fill their hearts with joy and excitement. Then there are others who have memories and thoughts of Christmas that are not so fondly held. Knowing that, let me share just a bit of what I think might help you have a different Christmas this year.

 

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Harper Family Christmas Tree 2017

Here’s how a Harper Family Christmas begins. Our family, once again, cut down our own Christmas tree and have it proudly displayed in the living room. Since 1992, my wife and I (joined by our kiddos in ’95 & ’99) have visited a tree farm to choose and cut down our tree of choice. We have visited many different tree farms, including a stretch of 10+ years to the same tree farm until it closed. The day normally involves some drive time, lots of walking, looking at tons of trees, cutting down the perfect tree, hauling it to the truck, and grabbing some lunch before heading home. I can’t imagine not doing this.

Above is our 26th hand-cut Christmas tree, and I couldn’t be any happier with it. When we sit in the house at night, and the lights from that tree are sparkling through the night air, I am in one of my most joyous places of all. The Christmas season really does bring and strengthen my joy!

However, over the last several years, our church has chosen and shared an Advent series for us to read. It’s a short, daily reading to help us focus on the true meaning of the season. The sermons during December go along with the reading and tie the whole season together well. Yet, I have never completed an entire Advent reading. I do look through it as we are deciding which one to use. I also pay special attention to the sections from which I will be preaching the particular sermon.

The problem is, I’ve missed the whole point. The purpose of reading through an Advent series is to help us slow down and focus on Jesus. The design of a small daily reading is to force us to sit down, get in the quiet, and be reminded of the beauty of Jesus…who is Christmas! It is definitely not busy work just to add another thing to our Christmas season. We’re prone to be so busy with shopping, cooking, entertaining, traveling, wrapping, etc. In all the busyness, our flesh is bent toward enjoying the fun of Christmas while forgetting the Son of Christmas.

The Dawning of Indestructible Joy is the Advent series our church is following this year. It is by John Piper, and I hope it will be a blessing to you and your family. Maybe, just maybe, it will be a whole different kind of Christmas in your life, your family and your home. May the peace, joy, and hope of Jesus brighten your Christmas!

Follow A Leader

I was born just months after the Cowboys lost Super Bowl V to the Baltimore Colts, but before I turned one, the Cowboys had dismantled the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl VI. My parents did right by me and raised me to be a fan of the Dallas Cowboys. So, like most other Cowboys fans, I’ve been following the Ezekiel Elliot news. Now, we wait to hear what his season with the Cowboys will look like.

Just a few miles up the road from where I sit, a federal judge is weighing a decision that will determine if Elliot will get his day in court against the NFL. It could mean he plays all season as this process plays out in the courts. It could also mean that the 6-game suspension will begin with the Cowboys’ second game of the season. Either way, it’s a shame this is what the news is full of as the NFL season kicks off.

As all of this news is unfolding, and both sides are throwing jabs at the other, I wanted to give a brief word of encouragement and challenge. Whether or not Ezekiel did physically assault his girlfriend, there is definitely something that can be learned from this situation. Below is a tweet from Drew Pearson that caught my attention the other day.

Drew Pearson tweet

When I saw that tweet, I immediately thought about the importance of having older, wiser, successful people in our lives that we can watch and follow. It reminded me of Paul’s words in the Bible.

Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.   – 1 Corinthians 11:1

Like Jesus, who lived and walked the earth as an example for us, Paul knew that others were watching his life. This verse doesn’t reveal a deep-seated pride or arrogance in Paul. Rather, it points to his understanding that anything he ever did worth imitating was because he was following Jesus.

In essence, Paul is saying that he should only be followed in as much as he was living consistently to the example of Jesus Christ. Truly, the only things in his life that were worthy of emulating would be those areas where he was living faithfully and in accordance with the life of Christ.

When Drew Pearson, (a member of the NFL’s 1970s All Decade Team and the Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor), who played for the Cowboys from 1973-83, says that Ezekiel needs someone like Jason Witten to follow…it shouldn’t be ignored. A person needs others in his life that have been there and done that, and those people should be followed and learned from.

If you are a person who struggles to learn from others, and can’t bring yourself to let others lead you, you will have much more adversity and difficulties in your life. Jesus talks about us following him some 23 times in the Bible, and Paul builds on that by saying we should follow others in our every day lives who are following Jesus.

Having the right kind of people in your life to follow will not keep you and I from making wrong choices. However, not having anyone in your life that you look up to, learn from, and try to emulate is an area of weakness. Realize that you definitely need others in your life, and admit that you are not above needing help. We are all helpers in need of help throughout this journey of life.

Or is it Happy Life, Happy Wife

Here’s another old saying that gets kicked around now and again. Someone mentions it around a newlywed or a group of husbands joke about it (out of the wives’ earshot of course). The underlying thought to the statement is that an unhappy wife casts a dark cloud over the rest of the home, and every single member of the family is affected.

I’ll admit that I like it when my wife is happy. Actually it’s more about when she’s able to rest in real joy. Happiness is such a fleeting emotion that can literally come and go in a nanosecond. It is solely based on how current circumstances are affecting us. Joy, on the other hand, stems from a depth of spirit, and it is something we can rest in no matter what is surrounding us in a given moment. The Bible tells us that the joy of the Lord can be in us, and that it can be full.

These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.        -John 15:11

If it resides in us, and it can be full, it doesn’t matter what things might be happening outside of us. The indwelling joy can overcome whatever we might be facing at a given time. Isn’t that great news?

So, back to happy (joyful) wives. I read some counseling training a while back that included a note from a husband. He was discussing how he attempts to keep his wife happy in normal everyday life. One of his quotes really jumped out to me.

He said, “Happy wife? Are you kidding me? I’m just trying to keep my wife from being hostile, combative, and argumentative. Happy is a pipe dream, and when it happens I’m 100% stunned!”

WOW! He went on to say that despite having that negative mindset he honestly tries to do the things that he knows she wants done. So, while his motives are definitely skewed, he does spend time trying to be attentive to the things that matter to his wife. I found myself thinking that’s a good thing…I guess. She wants things done a certain way, he does them, and everyone’s happy.

However, after spending some time mulling it over, I decided that it’s really not a good thing at all. Our motives matter! The reason we do things is really the most important part. Our actions can often be a facade we use to show others what we want them to see. On top of that, this husband’s actions are actually way more about his desires than his wife’s. It’s ultimately a practice in selfishness. He does particular things just to keep his wife off his case. It’s really all about him.

If you’re thinking, “What’s the problem? Everybody seems to get what they want”, I’ll tell you. This kind of bartering system whereby I do some things and you do some things in order to build some semblance of harmony in the home is a sham. It never works. Both he and she have no joy. What will inevitably occur in this husband’s (and almost certainly his wife’s) heart is a building up of disdain. He will continue to try to do those things to attain his level of peacefulness, but he will become angry, bitter and then resentful. Instead of building a lasting peace and joy in the home and marriage, he will come to resent his wife and the fact that he has to be married to her.

Now, not every marriage in that state ends. Some can sustain that level of cohabitation without many flare ups or confrontations. They continue to do their own things, staying out of each other’s way, and doing enough to stay cordial. They might even experience a passing moment of intimacy together, and no one is the wiser to the actual state of the marriage. Tragically, many marriages end up like this.

What’s missing? Why do so many marriages struggle and others end? The most important ingredient is missing. That is love. We’re talking about the kind of love that brings you joy to serve your spouse. It’s the opposite of this husband’s motive. Instead of just doing stuff to keep peace, and keep his wife quiet, the husband who truly wants to be a source of God’s joy for his wife will faithfully, cheerfully, generously serve her.

25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her… 28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.        -Ephesians 5:25, 28

Learning how your spouse works, what he or she likes, and what he or she doesn’t like is living in understanding and wisdom (1 Peter 3:7). Serving her because you have committed to love her all the days of your life is what it is all about. Do that in a gracious and generous way and see where happiness shows up over and over in your marriage. The joy that comes from the Lord, lived out in your marriage, will manifest itself in repeated moments of happiness.

Stop & Smell The Burning Wood

In a world where time marches on, and things continually change, this chilly afternoon & evening by the fire was such a great blessing. Kym and I sat by the fire, both doing work on our own computers, and watching a few movies. It was very peaceful and relaxing in a world where things move too fast most of the time. Pretty cool just to have a rare day of down time together.

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We’ve seen quite a few things change in the past couple years as our children have grown, and are often busy with their own things. I’ve written (here) about how that hasn’t been exactly easy on this dad’s heart, and how it’s been a learning stage of life for both Kym and myself. Funny how God is always teaching something and stretching us.

Seems like today God wanted to show a glimpse of what life might have in store every now and then during this new stage. Thankfully, by his grace, I didn’t miss the beauty and ease of this day. He gifted our crazy North Texas area with a chilly day, and we enjoyed the sounds of a crackling fire for hours.

I’ll see your rudeness, and raise you kindness.

I guess the dude had been forced, unnecessarily, to wait for an extended amount of time (like 52 seconds) before someone noticed him, and asked what they could do for him. I mean, really. C’mon! He had decided to patronize your establishment, and you ignored him for nearly a whole minute? What is this world coming to, when you can’t walk in to a store and be immediately served? Heavy sarcasm definitely intended.

Lately I’ve made several trips to a certain coffee shop, and come to know some of the morning employees. I’ve also seen some of the usual customers who stop in regularly in the early morning hours. It’s always been cool to me to build customer/worker relationships at my favorite places. Ever since I first watched some Cheers episodes, I’ve wanted to be a “Norm”.  I like getting to know people, and you’d be amazed at what you can learn from others.

At this particular java spot, I’ve been in awe of one of the managers. The way he handles customers, and seems like he genuinely wants to help people have a good day is inspiring. I wish I could say I’ve been shocked by some of the customers’ attitudes and actions, but unfortunately rudeness and anger are all too common these days.

This manager’s gentle and kind way of handling even the most aggravated and frustrated customer has reminded me of a simple truth- how you respond is your choice. Just this morning the man who had to wait almost a whole minute without being served felt it necessary to berate the manager. He clearly decided that he was justified in treating this manager so poorly. Yet, this manager responded with kindness, and did his best to help this man have a better day. He literally said he was sorry for this man’s wait (52 seconds) at least three times, gave him a free coffee, and said he hopes that he has a much better day. In the face of this jerky behavior, I was amazed at the self-control and appearance of genuine kindness of this manager.

I’m not sure if he is a follower of Jesus or not, but he definitely acted like it. The Bible tells us in Romans 12:9,

Never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”

Ephesians 4:32 tells us to treat everyone with kindness. It doesn’t say we should do it only when others are kind to us. In fact, the Bible says we are to “love your enemies” in Matthew 5:44.

Truth: people are going to treat you badly. They will put themselves before everyone else, and take out their frustrations on you, sometimes in a very nasty and ugly way.

Another truth: you do not have to repay that sentiment with ugliness of your own. In fact, try the kindness route and see just how many times you can defuse their angst. You’ll be surprised at what a little kindness will do.

Now, do not expect every angry, belligerent person to soften in response to your kindness. Sometimes they’re just too far gone, and lost in the middle of their bad attitude. But, remember, you’re choosing kindness as a matter of principal, and not just to change the other person. More times than not, it will work wonders. And, even when it doesn’t work, you will know you did what you could to help them.

I’m a Pastor & a Sinner

Thankfully, the concept that pastors are somehow more spiritual and closer to God has been blown to pieces over the years. Unfortunately it has happened due to gross sin being exposed in the lives of pastors and ministry leaders. Even so, it’s a great thing to get fixed in your mind…we are all sinners.

Sin appears in my life daily. Often they are sins of commission, where I am very aware that I have missed the mark of godliness by my direct actions. Other times they are sins of omission, where I again am aware that I missed the mark, but by my inaction. Then, there are times that I miss the mark, but I do not realize it at the moment. In every case, I have lived out my life in a way that falls short of the glory of God.

By God’s grace, and thanks to his mercy, I am able to see my sin. Granted, I do not always see it or even admit it easily, but God has a way of bringing people into my life who help me recognize my sin. This allows me the honor of working on growing in these areas.

What I struggle with (just behind dishonoring God with my sin) is the pain that my sin causes others. This is never more evident than in my own nuclear family. God has richly blessed me with three wonderful gifts to be part of my family. These people know me best, and neither of them have run for the hills. They see the faults, the struggles, the angry moments, etc.

Sometimes I am more concerned with being right than listening. Other times I seek my own agenda rather than seeking to lead and love well. My reaction to tense situations and discussions is often to protect my own interests. When I have messed up, or I need to answer for something I did or said, I tend to defend myself at all costs. In these moments, my family feels the pain of my sin.

However, they don’t give up on me. They don’t beat me down when I mess up. Somehow they still love me, care for me, and help me work towards being more like Jesus. Talk about a man being blessed way beyond what he deserves. Wow!

I think that is because they understand that they too are sinful. They understand that we all, no matter how hard we strive to honor God, fall short (Romans 3:23) of the standard set by Jesus. Having these kind of people around you is paramount in helping you realize your sin, and push you to grow in Christlikeness. Because God is so awesome, he has also placed others in my life that have license to speak directly into my life.

One question for you as you read through this short post: Do you realize that you are a sinner, and do you let people in your life have license to help you grow? That’s more like two questions in one, but it’s okay.

To my family: Thank you from the bottom of my sinful heart for sticking with me, by my side, and allowing God to use you in my life. I’m not sure where I’d be without you.

 

Tebow Time & His Airness

It’s super late, actually just really early…1:15am to be exact. Yesterday, during his first professional baseball game, when he saw his first pitch, Tim Tebow promptly deposited it deep over the center field fence. Yes, he hit the very first pitch he saw out of the ballpark. Now, this fact has nothing to do with what Tim’s baseball career might or might not be. If you know anything about baseball, you know it is a difficult game, and it can take years and lots of hard work for a minor league player to make it to the big leagues. Then, it takes even more hard work to stay there.

So, again, I am not saying this proves that Tim Tebow is the next baseball phenom. However, that one swing, and all the hoopla around it did get me thinking. Truth is, I’ve been perturbed ever since Tim announced that he was going to tryout for major league scouts. What bothered me was the way so many people (experts and amateur fans) quickly and summarily dismissed Tim’s chances.

It reminded me of the Sports Illustrated cover that convinced me to never pick up another issue. bag-it-michael-si

In 1994, the magazine decided to sell a few more thousand copies by slamming  Michael Jordan for his attempt to play professional baseball. He cut off all communication with Sports Illustrated, even to this day.

Both of these men have something in common- they are winners. In their professional lives, whatever they’ve attempted, it seems something inside them wills them to win. Michael Jordan is considered the best basketball player of all time. Tim Tebow was one of the best college football players ever. He was the first sophomore to win the Heisman Trophy, and he lead the University of Florida to 2 national championships in three years. Even in his very short NFL career, Tim had a knack for getting his team the win.

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However, critics can’t seem to say enough bad things. Michael didn’t make it to the major leagues, and maybe Tim won’t either. But, it seems to me that every man and woman should be given the opportunity to try something without being lambasted and denounced as a failure before they even get started.

Honestly, some people are probably dissuaded from even attempting something new just because of the very real chance they’ll be trashed by others. This cynical approach to life, and seeming joy we take in bashing those who dare to stray from what we think they should do is a sad trend in our society. It makes me wonder just what would magazines, blogs, and sports talk shows be filled with, if negativity and cynicism didn’t exist.

So, let me give you this quick bit of encouragement…DO IT NOW! Whatever it is that you’ve been wanting to try, dying to see if you can accomplish, hoping you could find the courage to try…just get up off your couch and get started.

As a believer and follower of God, I’m inspired and motivated by this verse in the Bible,

And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.     -2 Corinthians 9:8

Whether you are coming from a foundation of faith in God or not, you will need inspiration. You will face cynicism, and you need to be able to shake loose the doubters and haters. Then, pick yourself up and get started. I am reminded of another story that challenges and inspires me ever year on May 21st. That day in 1982, a 21-year-old Cal Ripken, Jr. was inserted into the starting lineup by Baltimore manager Earl Weaver, where he would remain for the next 2,631 games. He played every single baseball game for the Orioles for more than 16 years.

The only way a story like that happens is by someone getting started. So, when the voices are telling you that you’re not good enough, and they say you can’t do it, that you’ll fail if you try, that’s when you will be faced with a decision- go forward or give up. You’re likely to face that kind of decision many times in your life, but it can be an especially difficult one when you’re changing course, or trying something new.

Just tell those cynics…well…on second thought, don’t tell them anything. Instead, ignore them, turn around, and walk away. Stay away from people like that. Seriously. The world has way more than enough, you don’t need that kind of influence in your life. Surround yourself with people who believe in you, care about you, and root for your success. They also have to be ready and willing to speak truth into your life. That’s for your protection. But most importantly they must have your back.

Make the decision. Turn away from, ignore, and remove the cynicism from your life. Then, get started. DO IT NOW!