Encouragement for Thursday

At this early point in December it seems like I have been hearing Christmas music for weeks. Oh, I have! It starts before Thanksgiving, I believe. I might have heard Andy Williams’ rendition of “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” 37 times already. Actually, I like that one. There are others like George Michael’s “Last Christmas” or Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” that I wouldn’t miss if they were never played again. Toss “Santa Baby” on that pile too. I appreciate songs that capture the feeling and essence of Christmas—especially those that share the true meaning of Christmas that we understand as believers. Some songs are based on fictitious characters, like Rudolph, Frosty, the Grinch or the Miser Brothers. Those songs do not normally share a message about Christ or the Gospel. There is one song based on a fictitious character that does.

In 1941 Katherine K. Davis, under the pseudonym C.R.W. Robertson, wrote and published “Carol of the Drum.” Although there is a traditional Czech carol by that name, the head of the music department at Wellesley College (her alma mater) said that was not the inspiration for her song. It was instead inspired by a French carol, “Patapan.” It was recorded first by the Trapp Family Singers (who would later be popularized in “The Sound of Music”) in 1951, and later recorded by the Jack Halloran Singers in 1957. In 1958 it was recorded by the Harry Simeone Chorale after a slight change in arrangement, renaming it to “The Little Drummer Boy.”

The lyrics tell the story of a young boy led to see the newborn King in the manger. He learns that those leading him are bringing their finest gifts to present to the baby. He is poor and has no valuable worldly gifts to offer, so he simply offers to play his drum. Mary allows him to play, and he plays his best. The song ends with the baby Jesus smiling in approval.

The accounts we have of Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke do not mention a poor boy with a drum. Songs sometimes do not capture Scripture completely accurately. The three wise men, or more accurately, probably astrologers, are understood to be kings in songs like “We Three Kings.” It, “We Saw Three Ships,” and “The Twelve Days of Christmas” were written to recognize the Epiphany, a day established in the church calendar to commemorate the day that the wise men were led to see Jesus. The twelve days of Christmas begin on Christmas day, and go to January 5th or 6th (the Epiphany), depending on which churches’ counting you adopt. Neither the observance or the date of the Epiphany is indicated in Scripture, and are the result of churches creating a liturgical calendar.

In recent years I have learned to appreciate “The Little Drummer Boy” more, especially in view of some of the creative license taken in some of the other Christmas songs and carols. Maybe I am mellowing with age. At the very least the song promotes solid Biblical teaching. Two teachings from Jesus immediately come to mind in considering the drummer boy.

“At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:1-4)

The boy in the song came to see Jesus in openness and honesty, to see and honor Him. Yet the fact that he was poor did not keep him from giving what he could. He could play his drum. This reminds me of another teaching from Jesus. In teaching His disciples about the offering of a widow, He said:

“And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:43-44)

The wise men and others undoubtedly brought Jesus gifts that had been expensive to buy and had great monetary value. Although the drummer boy had nothing comparable he gave all he had– himself and his talent for playing the drum.

Sometimes I get caught up in the hustle and bustle of the Christmas season, worrying about appropriate gifts to give people who are close to me. We like to honor and please those we love. Treating our family and friends well in every way is indeed Biblical instruction. We like to be charitable at Christmas, attempting to follow God’s example. What can we possibly give God, who has given us His Son, and all we have to live for? Like the little drummer boy, ourselves and our talents. Thank you for the lesson in your song, Ms. Davis.

Take heart and be encouraged!

Encouragement for Thursday

“And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here, I have made five talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’” (Matthew 25:20-21, ESV)

Phillips Brooks was a man who dedicated his life in service to God. He was born in Boston in 1835. He wanted to preach, and ended up becoming an Episcopalian minister. He graduated from Harvard University, and the Virginia Theological Seminary. He eventually became the preacher and rector (a clergyman who is assigned responsibility of a parish in the Episcopal Church) of the Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia. During the Civil War years he was an active supporter and speaker for the abolition of slavery. After the end of the war he was recognized for his sermons after the death of Abraham Lincoln, and to recognize the sacrifice of the Civil War dead. He was a respected and appreciated teacher in schools and universities. Later in life he received honorary degrees from Harvard, Columbia, and Oxford Universities. He is credited with introducing Helen Keller to the Christian faith, and to her teacher Anne Sullivan. He was a man well respected and loved by all who knew him or were affected by his ministry. Despite the impactful life that he lived he tends to be remembered most for something else.

In 1865 he made a trip to the Holy Land. He stayed in Jerusalem and was chosen to participate in the Christmas Eve service at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. It was established around 360 A.D., and was built on the site believed to be the location of the manger where Jesus was born. Before the evening service he rode the distance of approximately 6 or 7 miles from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on horseback. After an approximately 5 hour Christmas Eve service he returned exhilarated. The evening turned out to be one of the most memorable experiences of his life. He later wrote:

“Before dark we rode out of town to the field where they say the shepherds saw the star. It is a fenced piece of ground with a cave in it, in which, strangely enough, they put the shepherds. . . . Somewhere in those fields we rode through, the shepherds must have been. As we passed, the shepherds were still ‘keeping watch over their flocks,’ or leading them home to fold.” (credit: https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-o-little-town-of-bethlehem)

After returning home to Pennsylvania he wrote the words to a ballad that captured his thoughts from his experience in Bethlehem. The music to accompany his words was written by Holy Trinity’s Sunday School superintendent and organist, Louis H. Redner.

The song was first sung by the churches’ children’s choir. That may have been the first time, but certainly would not be the last time his song, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” would be sung.

What additional talents or blessings could a man who seemingly had made the most of what God had given him receive? How about the ability to capture God’s greatness and love for mankind in a Christmas hymn that would far outlive him.

I hope you are as blessed by the message of his song as I am:

Take heart and be encouraged!

Encouragement for Thursday

The picture above might not be a beautiful one. At first glance, it might not be an encouraging one. It is an image of what I saw on the forest floor a few days ago. The leaves signal the impending winter. I will be the first to admit that I do not enjoy winter. As I get older I become an even greater fan of warm, and even hot weather. The leaves that I saw above and all around me initially made me a bit sad. Considering them further made me appreciate God’s greatness and foresight for the Earth.

Why do leaves turn yellow or brown and fall off the trees? In our part of the world, they sense winter coming. Plants thrive on chlorophyll. When there is a lot of daylight, water, and warm weather, like in summer, trees are chlorophyll factories. They produce it to feed themselves, grow, and propagate. When the days get shorter and the temperatures colder, trees go into defense mode. In winter they lose a large amount of water because it turns to snow or ice, and is immediately unusable for their daily health. They don’t have long enough daylight or warmth to keep their chlorophyll factories running. The lack of chlorophyll, which produces the green color in their leaves, causes the other natural pigments to come out. Those are the reds, yellows, and tans we see in fall. As they lose more moisture they become brown. As the colors are changing, trees also create a layer of cells between the leaves and branches. At the point the trees can’t supply enough food or nutrients to support the leaves, the leaves drop off. Our trees remain in this state until the daylight grows longer and the temperatures rise in spring. More liquid moisture comes and trees begin to put out the buds that will become leaves. The cycle refreshes.

God had a considered purpose in designing the trees to operate according to their cycle of growth and temporary decay. Humans have been able to learn to understand this growth cycle. Unfortunately many either ignore or deny God’s role in designing the Earth and its systems. David wrote a poetic testament to God’s greatness in design and anticipation of our world’s needs in Psalm 104. He considered trees:

“The trees of the Lord are well watered,
the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
There the birds make their nests;
the stork has its home in the junipers.”

— Psalm 104:16-17

He planned for the lives and sustenance of the trees, which had distinct purposes. The cedars of Lebanon were used for building both buildings and boats for people. The cedars and juniper trees (and many others) are used by birds for nesting. Trees of all kinds are useful for both humans and animals.

“He made the moon to mark the seasons,
and the sun knows when to go down.
You bring darkness, it becomes night,
and all the beasts of the forest prowl.
The lions roar for their prey
and seek their food from God.
The sun rises, and they steal away;
they return and lie down in their dens.
Then people go out to their work,
to their labor until evening.”

— Psalm 104:19-23

Although David’s understanding of the specific “hows and whys” of how the world operates may be limited compared to what we have learned in the years since, he fully understands the source and cause of the world operating the way it does. He knows that God established the system in which our world operates– by day, night, and season. Each division or designation works to benefit a different part of His creation. Man generally works by day, while many animals hunt and live by night. The change of seasons brings balance to different parts of the world at the same time. The winter dormancy in our area coincides with the summer growth season in Australia. The moon affects our tides and the balance of the oceans on Earth. The path of Earth as it travels around the sun gives us a concrete measure for the year that is the basis for our measurement of time.

We can be thankful that God had us in mind when He created the Earth for us. The winter we endure here means that someone on the other side of the Earth from us is experiencing summer. The new green buds and leaves on the trees in the spring are reminders of His consideration and planning for us. So are the brown leaves on the ground and bare branches on the trees in autumn. God loves us!

Take heart and be encouraged!

Encouragement for Thursday

Matthew 19:26 is a well-known verse, and one I remember hearing from my youth.

“Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’”

He said this after telling His disciples that it was easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God, in answer to their question, “Who then can be saved?” (v.25).

I have heard and read this verse countless times. I know that it refers to our ability to be saved of our own accord without the sacrifice of Jesus and our acceptance of Him. For those with worldly wealth and status who can depend on their own strength for many things, it is even more difficult. I fear that familiarity sometimes makes me lose the impact of the meaning of Scripture.

By now you might be thinking, “Gee, what does this section of Matthew 19 have to do with mushrooms?” I am not a mushroom expert, but I have been photographing and studying them more the past couple years. Generally you find them close to trees or decaying wood. Sometimes they appear in certain grassy environments where their spores are carried and have enough moisture to provide a good environment. They are most common in shady woodland areas. I saw these in the Headlands Dunes Nature Preserve. This is the first time I have ever noticed mushrooms growing in sand. The nearest tree was about 10-15 feet away and it was a cottonwood, which are generally not known as being great hosts for mushrooms. There was no decaying wood that I could see nearby. They were not close to any sort of shade. By my understanding of mushrooms, they should not be growing there.

Seeing these in that location reminded me of Matthew 19:26. Humans are generally pretty good at learning and adapting to their environment. Being blessed with many of God’s attributes, we can reason, discover, develop, love, and even create in our limited way. We learn and feel confident in knowing how certain types of plants and animals grow. We propagate certain plants like corn or tomatoes and try to promote them and try to kill or discourage others like poison ivy. At this point in life I thought I had a pretty good handle on some things, for a non-expert. Then I found mushrooms growing in sand.

Human reasoning even with the best intentions is limited. We think we know all sides and angles about ourselves and our world. We regularly develop more ways to battle diseases and physical problems. We continue to learn more about the universe and how to extend our reach. Yet the more we explore the depths of the sea, the more we discover that we haven’t seen before.

Lord, thank you for all You have given us, especially Your Son. Thank you for our world, and all of the abilities you have bestowed on us. Thank you also for reminders that so much is possible in ways that we can’t see or haven’t discovered yet. Don’t let us become hardened to the ways you make things, small and large, possible. Help us to be an extension of your possibilities in the world.

Take heart and be encouraged!

A Fighter Verse for Bible Reading

Luke 1:37-38 is from our Community Bible Reading this week and for our Bible reading throughout the rest of the year!

Our theme for this year is working together. We began the year in Ephesians 4:11-16, first to see that it is God’s will that we work together but then answering, how does working together work? The answer, beginning with Ephesians 4:11, is that working together works when our pastor works…correctly.

Yes, there is a way that our pastor is to work correctly. Ephesians 4:11-16 teaches us that the pastor who teaches, teaches to equip the saints. This equipping (supply, re-supplying, repairing) is to equip you and me for the “work of the ministry,” that is, the work of serving others (ministry is the word deaconing, a word used for waiting on tables, like in a restaurant. And notice it is described as work). This “work” builds up the body of Christ, the church.

It is important to remember that it is Jesus who builds the church (Matthew 16:18). He actually said, “I will build my church.” And he builds the church in giving the church two gifts – you and the pastor. You as a Christian are uniquely gifted by Jesus with a spiritual gift (Ephesians 4:7). This gift is for the working of the church. The second gift is described in four varied ways – apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers (quite likely the pastor who teaches). In that second gift, we (hopefully) experience regularly the pastor who teaches. So, think upon it: working together includes you with your spiritual gift and the pastor who teaches to equip you. And it is not just any teaching that equips. It is teaching doctrine that equips, teaching doctrine in love that equips (Ephesians 4:15).

And in order for this to happen two things must happen. First, you must see that our church vitally needs you. And second, you must see that you vitally need our church.

This Sunday will be related to last Sunday. We will be in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18. We work together knowing God’s will together.

These two Sundays are important Sundays for our year of working together.

We will soon be back in our study of the Gospel of Luke.

Also, as the year begins, consider the joy of our gathering together each Sunday. It begins at 9:30 am with prayer together. And then at 10 am it continues with our worship together.

I love you.

-James

Encouragement for Thursday

In his fighter verse discussion about 1 Corinthians 13:4 this week Pastor James asked the question, “Does this describe YOU?” The Scriptural connection that comes to my mind from the description about love always seems to be to Ephesians 4. It takes the foundation of love described in 1 Corinthians 13 and builds on it the application of how love would appear in our lives as believers.

“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3).

As Paul continues in Ephesians 4, he reminds us of the basis for our standing as believers:

“There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6).

Paul takes this principle further. As a result of the basis he presents in verses 4-6, we are all considered necessary parts of the body of the church. It is the interaction of all of us that enables us to mature, and to fulfill the purpose of the church. Just as we wouldn’t allow a part of our physical body to intentionally restrict or injure another part of our own body, we shouldn’t restrict or injure another part of our church body.

Paul summarizes his thoughts in Ephesians 4 with the following instructions:

“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:31-32).

Like many principles we must follow, sometimes they seem to be easier said than done. Many of God’s instructions through the Bible can be simple to understand, yet difficult to follow due to our human nature.

I think there are a couple of behaviors that can help us in showing the entire body love and help it to operate more smoothly.

1) Appreciate yourself and your own abilities

We are blessed with different abilities and personalities. We all have value to the body of believers. There are things we do well, and things we don’t. We often tend to feel that we are lacking because we can’t do everything, or at least something that we wish we could. Realize that God loves you. Recognize what you can do well and what contributions you can make, and serve the church with them.

2) Appreciate others and their abilities

Just like we are blessed with certain abilities and personalities, others are blessed with a different combination of them. Sometimes we see what others can do and feel either inadequate or jealous. Sometimes it might cause us to feel superior because someone else can’t do something we can. Looking at others in the body with love helps to conquer these feelings. Legs are visible and important to our physical body, but if we had five of them and no liver or pancreas we wouldn’t be able to survive.

I am thankful that we are all different and supply different strengths to the church. Love yourself because you are God’s child and Christ’s brother or sister. Love your fellow believers because they are God’s children and Christ’s brothers or sisters. It’s all part of being a part of the body of Christ.

Take heart and be encouraged!

This Is The Last Fighter Verse

I hope you are encouraged with this week’s fighter verse – the last fighter verse of 2020. It will require some time not just with memorization (which is simply recalling the words when needed) but in reading 1 Corinthians 11, 12 and 13; then reading 1 Corinthians 13:4. And concluding with a question: does 1 Corinthians 13:4 describe me? Specifically, does 1 Corinthians 13:4 describe my relationship, my interaction with my local church?

Remember how we began 2020? It was 10 things to remember throughout the year. Remember where we always begin (Luke 1:4); Remember that one Sunday each month; Remember that we are in this together; Remember to be us; Remember that it is about changed lives and how those lives really change; Remember to dream, pray, plan – in love – all kinds of ways to reach all kinds of people; Remember the pastor (he is to remember people); Remember to pray; Remember to pray together continuously; Remember to pray together continually.

How will we begin 2021? First, we will spend time this Sunday in Ephesians 4:11-16. Then we will spend time the following Sunday in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18. And finally, on Sunday, January 17 we will return to the Gospel of Luke.

Also, Children’s Church will resume this Sunday (January 3).

Looking forward to gathering with you!

-James

Encouragement For Thursday

I have heard the account of Christ’s birth in Luke 2 read by countless people over the years– men, women, preachers, teachers, and even myself. Yet none of them seems to touch me as much as this reading by Linus in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Even as a young child when I first saw this special, this reading captured me. I think this is for a couple of reasons.

First, it comes from someone unexpected. Here you have a cartoon about kids attempting to put on a Christmas play, and being distracted by all of the trappings of the play itself. Then out of the blue, one of the more unassuming characters in the story, Linus, steps forward and presents the focus and reason for not only their play, but for Christmas celebration itself. Linus gets it. His clear, simple presentation brings attention to the account and not to the presenter.

Second, the reading by Linus comes in an unexpected place. Luke’s account here isn’t presented in a church setting, and isn’t read by someone in a “Scripture reading” voice. It is on a school stage, told by a child. It may not have been common for a reading like that to happen in that setting even back when the show was created. Today I think it would be nigh unto impossible in a public school setting.

I am thankful that we have Luke’s wonderful descriptive account of Jesus’ birth. I am also thankful that Charles Schulz loved it enough to include part of its text in his story about a bunch of common kids putting on a play and trying to appreciate Christmas. I suspect that for many children who see this special, it might be the only exposure to Jesus and scripture that they have during the year.  I pray that it might influence many.

“Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14).

Take heart and be encouraged!

We See God’s Glory

Christians are to be the merriest on Christmas!

In this week’s fighter verse, part of the application is to read the Christmas event (Matthew 1; Matthew 2; Luke 1; Luke 2; John 1) whether Christmas Eve or Christmas Day or Christmas Night. And to read it knowing that we see God’s glory. How is it that in reading the Christmas event we can see God’s glory?

For the third Sunday in a row, the plan is to be in Hebrews 4:14-16. I really, really, really think it will happen this time. BUT…God’s plans the last two weeks have been better (as always).

We will be enjoying communion together this Sunday, too!

On Sunday, January 3, I would like to look ahead at 2021 or how we need to look at 2021.

We are really, really, really looking forward to being with you this Sunday!

-James

What Happened To Us Sunday?

One question to consider: what is grace?

I cannot wait to hear your answer.

Our fighter verse for this week is Matthew 5:16. I love it.

The plan this Sunday is to be in Hebrews 4:14-16. Our family is doing well. Cam is getting better each day (actually, today she sounded like her self). Breathing has greatly improved. Her fever subsided a couple of days ago, but she still has no sense of taste or smell. Friday will be our last day of quarantine as long as no one develops any symptoms.

I was (and still am) grateful to have a Sunday to listen. How rich is that very first verse of Matthew’s Gospel? And how well does that verse fit our fighter verse from last week? How well does it partner with rejoice in hope? be patient in tribulation? be constant in prayer?