Sunday, December 24, 2017

Three Reasons Why Christmas Matters

It's Christmas Eve, 2017.  A joyful time!  And here is why it matters so much...

At Christmas, we are reminded God can do anything.  Young Mary was a virgin.  She had saved herself for her future husband.  But her world turned upside down when an angel said she was going to conceive and give birth anyway.  Needless to say, that made her scratch her head and wonder how this would happen.  After explaining that God was going to do a miracle in her life, the angel said in Luke 1:37, "For with God, nothing shall be impossible."  Isn't that awesome?!  God can do anything, anywhere, anytime, with anyone that He wants.  I find a lot of comfort in knowing God is all-powerful and without limits.  That lets me know that whatever we all go through, God can more than handle it.  He's omnipotent, and that's a vital truth to keep in mind.

At Christmas, we are reminded that God's plans are better than our plans.  Joseph was engaged to Mary.  He didn't understand everything that was going on, but he did know this:  Mary was pregnant, and the child was definitely not his.  So, understandably, Joseph was going to quietly walk away from the relationship.  But an angel appeared to Joseph, explained the situation, and encouraged Joseph to stick around.  The Heavenly being told the struggling fiancĂ© to take Mary as his wife and help raise the baby she was carrying.  Now Joseph had a choice.  He could live his own way and leave Mary, or he could live God's way and keep her and the unborn child in his life.  In Matthew 1:24, we see that Joseph "did as an angel of the Lord commanded him."  What a smart move!  He chose to live God's way.  And because Joseph followed God's plan, he got to witness the birth of Mary's miraculous child, name that child, and raise him in his own home.  Joseph experienced amazing, life-changing joys because he lived out God's perfect will instead of his own.  And so will we if we do the same.  Sooner or later, we will get a blessing if we follow God's plan for our lives.

At Christmas we are reminded that God is in the saving business.  In Matthew 1:21, the angel told Joseph to name the baby "Jesus" because "He will save His people from their sins."  And in 1 John 4:14 we read, "The Father sent His Son to be the Savior of the world."  Amen to that!  We've all sinned.  We've all done wrong.  And we're all guilty.  But Christmas is special because it's when we celebrate the birth of Jesus, who came here to save us from our sins.  He saved us by paying for our sins on a cross.  Because of Jesus, we are forgiven and rescued for all of eternity.  What a blessing!  God loves us enough to send His Son, Jesus, here to save us.  That's the best gift we've ever received.

So those are three reasons why Christmas matters.  God can do anything.  God's plans are better than our plans.  And God is in the saving business.  That's more than enough cause to celebrate!!  And that ought to light a fire of joy in our hearts.

God is good.  All the time.  May we remember this at Christmas and all the other days of the year.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Leave A Tip

It's not something I've thought about much before my daughters started doing it.  Then it began to make sense.  All three of my girls have worked in a restaurant here in Sumter over the last couple of years.  And they've all had great experiences doing it.  I've been proud of them for getting out there and learning how to work hard.

I listen to them talking about what it has been like for them and their friends in that line of work.  And here is something I've noticed them talking about:  Some people really understand tipping and some people don't. 

Now that I've watched and listened to my girls, I'm much more aware of why this is so important.  And I interact with waiters and waitresses with more understanding now wherever I go.  I guess I understand them better because of what my girls have told me.

Here are a few quick thoughts to keep in mind when you go out to eat....

That guy or that girl who is waiting on your table does not get paid much money at all by the restaurant.  You'd be surprised at how little they make from their employer.  Their main source of income is tips.  That's how they make money.  They depend on tips.

I remember when I was a kid most folks tipped 10%.  That was pretty normal.  These days it's more like 15% - 20%.  I tend to lean towards 20% now wherever I go.  And if I can't afford to tip that day, I just don't go out to eat.  Please consider doing the same.

Remember that if your dining experience isn't everything you want, it's not always the fault of the waiter or the waitress.  They're not cooking the food.  They're not controlling the thermostat.  They're not in control of the noise level.  Be reasonable with them and keep in mind that if something goes wrong in whatever restaurant you're at, it's not always the fault of the waiter or waitress.  So don't financially "punish" that one who has waited on your table just because the experience didn't live up to your expectations.

Christians, that's fine if you want to leave a gospel track.  But do it in addition to a tip, not in place of one.  Yes, a track can help their souls get saved, but it won't help their bills get paid.

Be patient with that one who is waiting on you.  They're human.  They have good days and bad days, just like you do.  They have other things going on in their lives too.  So keep in mind you're dealing with a human being, not a robot.  Also, ask yourself, if that waiter was your son, or that waitress was your daughter, how would you want them to be treated?

I think ultimately, this is about more than tipping.  It's about being good to people.  It's about treating people the way we would want to be treated.  And it's about behaving like Jesus would.  He was loving, kind, patient, and forgiving.  It seems to me that whether we're in a restaurant or not, we ought to treat people the same way.

The next time you go out to eat, be good to that waitress or waiter.  It'll bless their heart.  And you'll have a good feeling for doing it.

Monday, December 18, 2017

My Magic Ears

For years, I've struggled with hearing.  It's been difficult, frustrating, and embarrassing.  At times it's been so bad that I've acted like I heard people when I actually didn't hear them.  Why?  Because I was too ashamed to ask them to repeat themselves again.

Finally, Marsha, a friend of mine, encouraged me to go get my hearing checked and do something about my problem.  After some gentle pushing from her, I gave in and went.  The experience went smoothly.  My hearing was tested.  The problem was identified.  And finally, I got hearing aids. 

Folks, let me tell you something:  It's like I'm living in a whole new world.  Finally, I'm able to hear.  Now I don't have to turn the tv up so loud.  When I go to the movies, I can understand what's being said.  The sound of birds chirping is beyond beautiful these days.  I can even hear Coke fizzing when I pour it into a glass, which I couldn't hear before.  Best of all, when family and friends are talking to me, I now can hear what they're saying with ease.

My family has nicknamed my hearing aids "magic ears".  Ha!  And that's a good name, if you ask me.  This transformation has been absolutely incredible and it has changed my life in some neat ways.  I'm beyond grateful for being able to hear!

With that in mind, here's something to consider:  God hears us perfectly.  He doesn't struggle to make out what we're saying.  Not at all!

Check these out...

I John 5:14 - "if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us"

John 9:31 - "if anyone is a worshiper of God and does His will, God listens to him"

I Peter 3:12 - "for the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and His ears are open to their prayer"

That's awesome news.  When we sing praises to God, He hears us.  When we express words of thanksgiving, God hears us.  When we cry out for help, God hears us.  When we're lonely and just need someone to listen, God hears us.  There's a lot of comfort in knowing that this awesome God of ours hears us.  And not only does he hear us, He responds perfectly in the right way, at the right time. 

Yep, I'm mighty happy about my magic ears.  It's a thrill to hear what's going on around me.  But I actually find greater comfort in knowing that God hears clearly with ease.  That means He's in tune and fully aware of my joys and sorrows on a daily basis.  And He's the same way for you.

Today, let's praise God for His amazing hearing! 

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Why I Believe In Hospice

(Here is my hand holding the hand of a hospice patient under our care)

Since the summer of 2016, I have worked as a hospice chaplain.  Before my work here, I've never had any dealings with hospice.  Since I was brought on staff, however, I've come to really believe in it and appreciate what it's about.

When someone is dealing with a life-limiting illness, and it appears they may be approaching their final season of life on this Earth, a hospice team can come into the home of the patient and their family to provide needed assistance.  The team works hard to help protect the comfort and dignity of the person who is ill.  Also, hospice focuses on the emotional and spiritual needs of the family members who are providing care for the patient.

A hospice team is made up of many different members. Nurses, CNA's, social workers, marketing directors, bereavement coordinators, chaplains, office support workers, and volunteer coordinators unite as one group to help hurting families.  Each role is important, and everyone makes a valuable contribution to the care of the patients.

Obviously, many patients who receive hospice care do eventually die.  There are some individuals, however, who do get better, no longer need hospice care, and are discharged.  As one doctor told me, "I don't have a crystal ball and I don't know for sure who is going to live and who is going to die.  I just do the best I can when I recommend someone for hospice care."  So the end result is not always the same for every hospice patient.

Something important to know about hospice is this:  The patient is no longer treated to be cured of their illness; instead, the goal is to keep the patient as comfortable as possible.  If pain can be managed or reduced, that's a good thing.  And that is something hospice workers definitely want to see happen.

I enjoy working with hospice.  That does not mean I enjoy watching people suffer.  Not at all!  What it means is I enjoy bonding with patients and their families, ministering to their spiritual and emotional needs, and pointing them to God, who offers the greatest comfort they can find. 

Yes, I believe in hospice.  Totally.  It's all about ministering to the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of hurting people.  And as a Christian, I believe that is really important. 

Friday, December 8, 2017

No Emotions

Like a lot of you middle age folks out there, I grew up watching Star Trek.  The original series.  And I always enjoyed it. 

Spock was a fascinating character.  While he was intelligent and helpful to the crew, what set him apart was this:  He had no emotions.  Zero.  None.  Because Spock was Vulcan, he did not get happy, sad, scared, angry, or anything else.  He was just the same guy all the time and was 100% logical.  Spock and feelings did not go together.

More than once in my life I've thought, "Man, it would be so good to live like Spock and not have to deal with emotions."  It has really appealed to me quite a few times along the way.  Maybe some of you think that's crazy talk, but I know a lot of you understand exactly what I mean!!

Think about it this way.  With emotions in the mix, many people have a "roller coaster" life with drastic ups, downs, twists, loops, and turns.  Furthermore, the phrase "I feel" is often uttered around drama, foolish decisions, and exhaustion.  It's hard to deny that life is complicated and difficult quite often when emotions are at play.

So what if we didn't have emotions?  What if we, like Spock, had no feelings?  Would that make life better?

Well, when I think about this, my mind always goes back to the same conclusions...

First, God made us in His image.  He created us the way He did for specific reasons.  And, He did hardwire us with feelings.  We are emotional beings because God formed us in this fashion.  He gave us the ability to experience happiness, sadness, anger, fear, and peace.  So when we say we wish we had no emotions, we are questioning God's creative workmanship.

Second, emotions add color to life.  It would be a dull, flat existence if we never experienced feelings.  Feelings strengthen relationships and enhance the journey of life.  They make life special and they add to our time here on Earth.  And feelings can be the spice of life at times.

Third, maybe the solution is in the middle.  Some folks are dominated by their feelings.  Then, on the opposite end of the spectrum, some want a life that feels nothing.  It seems to me that the best life resides somewhere in between these two unhealthy extremes.  I think the answer to all of this is to accept and enjoy the reality of our feelings without falling into the trap of worshipping them.  The key is for us to manage our feelings instead of letting our feelings manage us.  Yes, we will feel certain emotions.  That's just who and what we are.  But we don't have to be controlled by them.  What is pleasing to God and what is wise has to matter more than what we feel.  And we've got to remember that.

So when I think about this, here is my conclusion:  As appealing as it would be to live like Spock and not have to deal with emotions, that's just not going to happen.  God has given us emotions.  And that's more than ok.  The key is for us to thankful for feelings, but not let them rule from the throne of our hearts.  It's far better if God, instead of our sometimes flawed feelings, is the dominant factor and guiding light of our lives.  Feelings can lead us down some dark paths, but God will always lead us the right way.

It's ok for us to have feelings.  Let's just be careful with them.  They can be enjoyed and even helpful.  But they don't have to dominate our lives.  That's God's job.  That's what makes our time on Earth better.  And that's what makes us wiser.

P.S.  May you all live long and prosper.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Learn To Take A Compliment

I've noticed this tendency in people for years.  And so has Dustin Wax, who is someone I don't even know.  Check out this brief statement he posted on a website I stumbled across:  "A surprisingly large number of people do not know how to take a compliment."

Since I've become a pastor in 1996, I've witnessed this in numerous churches I've served or visited.  When people get complimented for singing a song, preaching a message, overseeing a project, leading a ministry, or doing something really well, they just don't know what to do in response. 

Often times I hear folks say, "Don't thank me. It was a team effort."  A handful of times people have said, "Don't thank me because then God won't give me my reward in Heaven."  Sometimes folks will say, "I didn't do it for thanks, so you don't have to say that."  Once I saw a singer in a church service almost chastise a congregation for clapping after a song.  He said, "No!  Don't you clap for me.  Give God the glory."

Some people mishandle compliments because they wrestle with a low self esteem or various insecurities.  Other people do this because they're theologically confused.  And a few people fail to receive compliments well because they're unsure of whether or not people are sincere in praising their efforts.

If you're someone who does this, please hear me out.  I'm not picking on you.  I'm not down on you.  I just want to help you understand a very important truth:  It's ok for people to compliment you, and it's ok for you to receive it with a grateful heart.

Paul opened up the book of Ephesians in the sixteenth verse of the first chapter by telling his audience, "I have not stopped giving thanks for you."  He's paying them a compliment.  The missionary is acknowledging something good about them and is expressing gratitude for the church of Ephesus.  You see what's going on here?  God told Paul to compliment fellow believers! God is behind the words of affirmation.  I sure hope the Ephesians didn't write Paul back with the words, "No!  Please don't thank us."  Ha!  No, I've got a pretty good feeling they accepted his words and were just thankful for the meaningful message.

When someone gives you a compliment, it may be that God is blessing you through their affirming words.  Possibly He's whispering words of comfort and approval into your heart at that moment.  After all, everyone from time to time benefits from being told they're making a difference.

If you are a person who constantly shoots down compliments that come your way, you need to be careful.  Your response, though well intentioned, can actually be a turn off to the person who is trying to bless you.  It can come across as ungrateful, rude, or self-righteous.  Think about it this way:  If you gave someone a gift and they quickly said, "No, don't give me this", you'd be offended or confused, wouldn't you?  Well it's the same way when someone is pointing out something good that you did.  They're extending you a gift and you're saying "No, don't give me this."  It's possible you're confusing or offending the person who is simply trying to be good to you and encourage you.

Folks, it's important to be humble.  And certainly we do want God to get the glory and praise in our lives.  But with that being said, it's still completely acceptable for people to tell you that you did a good job with something.  And it's equally appropriate for you to take their words to heart and simply say, "Hey thanks for your kind words.  I really appreciate it."

In Matthew 25:23, we are introduced to the idea of God giving a compliment to one of His people.  "Well done, good and faithful servant", He says.  God deems it appropriate and right to affirm this man.  When those words are uttered, I think two things.  First, I'm sure the servant is thankful and wouldn't dream of telling God, "No, don't thank me."  Second, I'm reminded that the offering of appropriate, well-deserved, compliments is acceptable in God's eyes, and should be in our eyes as well.

Work on this, ok?  Learn to take a compliment.  Accept it as a gift that is intended to make your day a little brighter and your life a little better.  Ultimately, know that it's ok to kindly say, "Thank you" in response to the one who gave you a word of praise.  See it for what it is:  A special, blessed moment for you to cherish and enjoy.

Monday, November 27, 2017

A Family Of Togetherness

It was a neat moment that a lot of folks probably didn't see.

Yesterday at church, we all were singing a worship song.  God's presence could be felt in our little sanctuary in a neat way.  About halfway through the song, I noticed something.  Two senior adult ladies were standing beside one another in the choir loft.  They've been friends and known each other for years.  As they sung out together, one of them reached down and held onto the hand of the other.  They both looked at each other, smiled, and sang out, united by their hands.  There they stood, connected in friendship and Christian love.  Sharing a moment together of praising their God as one.  Experiencing a bond as sisters in Christ.  Then after a minute, the song ended, they let go of each others hands, and the service continued.  It was a neat moment for me to see.

Those two wonderful senior adult ladies unintentionally reminded me of something:  The church is to be a family of togetherness.  We are to love, comfort, and encourage one another.  We are to assure each other that we all matter.  This can be done by the holding of hands or a number of other ways.  And this is all done under the grace, protection, and leadership of our awesome Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. 

Church can become a lot of things for people.  It's easy to lose sight of its purpose if folks aren't careful.  Because of that, may God help us all to remember who we are:  A community of faith and a family of togetherness. 

I'm sure they didn't intend for anyone to see it.  And it only lasted for about sixty seconds.  But I'm glad God let me see that special moment those two senior adult ladies shared.  It was a needed reminder that we all who make up the church should care about each other and be willing to show it one way or another.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Whatever It Took

Three of us were sitting in the living room of their little home out in the country.  The husband was asleep in his recliner.  And the wife was talking with me.  A time or two I glanced over at the poodle that was asleep in her husbands lap.  The wife noticed me looking at it and she said, "That dog really isn't supposed to be here."  Then she proceeded to tell me, "A few years ago, we had another dog.  She got pregnant.  But she also had health problems.  So one day she crawled up under the house.  One of my sons kept a close eye on her.  Then, one day, she died.  We knew that she was pregnant and something had to be done or we'd lose the puppy she was carrying.  My son quickly pulled the dead dog out from under the house.  Then he took his pocket knife and opened up her stomach.  He pulled out the unborn puppy, quickly wiped it as clean as he could, and he did CPR on it.  That dog started breathing and he lived!  This dog, on my husband's lap, is that unborn puppy which my son saved." 

That story blew me away.  What an inspiration her son was.  He did whatever it took to save that little unborn puppy who was unable to save himself.

That has me thinking about our God.  He did whatever it took to save us.  We were born with a sin problem.  Because of this sin problem, we were guilty and condemned. Also, we were bound for a hopeless eternity in Hell.  Just as that little puppy was stuck inside of his dead mother, we were stuck inside of sin.  But God, in all of His goodness, didn't leave us in that position. 

Here's what He did about it:  God sent His Son, Jesus, down here to Earth.  He was born in Bethlehem to a young lady named Mary.  Then, a little over 30 years later, God sacrificed His Son on a cross.  Why?  God allowed His own Son to suffer, bleed, and die, so that our sins could be forgiven and our souls could be saved.  In a radical series of events, our loving God did what was necessary to rescue us.  And because of this, our lives have been changed for the better.

Thanks be to our God.  He did whatever it took to save you and me.  What an awesome expression of love it was!! 

I'm pretty impressed with what the young man did to save the puppy.  But I'm far more blown away by what God did to save us.  By all means necessary, He got the job done.  Let's thank Him for doing whatever it took.  And let's honor Him with our lives as long as we are on this Earth.  What an awesome God He is!!

Friday, November 17, 2017

Sometimes, People Get On My Nerves

I find myself getting frustrated with people every now and then.

When I'm driving, I wish people would use their turn signals.  Travel would be so much simpler and the roads would be so much safer if people would simply take a second and let others know they are turning left or right.  That gets on my nerves. 

When I'm sitting in a movie theater, I wish people in front of me would quit looking at their cell phones.  The light from their phones shines right into the eyes of everyone sitting behind them.  That gets on my nerves.

When things like these happen, I find myself tensing up and wanting to vocalize my frustration.  I imagine really throwing out some verbal zingers.  But normally I just keep it to myself, shake my head, and move on.

When I calm down after a minute or two, I have to remind myself of some important truths.  And maybe if people sometimes get on your nerves, these could be helpful for you to consider too.  We all ought to keep these in mind...

#1  Everybody can be irritating at times...including us.  The older I get, the more I realize I have my own habits, quirks, and idiosyncrasies that can grate on people.  I'm just as weird as the next guy.  And before you get too smug, remember you're weird too.  Ha!  Ha!  We all are.  None of us are perfect.  All of us can be aggravating occasionally.  So let's stay humble and avoid putting ourselves above other people.

#2  Patience with others is a must.  Look, I get it.  We're emotional beings that can't help but feel frustrated at times.  That's normal.  But we still can choose to stay calm and conduct ourselves in the right way.  James 1:19 tells us "Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry."  Before we make matters worse by shooting off at the mouth inappropriately or blowing our stack aggressively, let's slow down, take a couple deep breaths, collect our thoughts, and maybe even whisper a prayer.  Why?  Because when we do this, we have a much better chance of reacting wisely instead of saying or doing something that we later will regret.

#3  God sets the best example.  Always remember how He deals with each of us.  Psalm 103:8 tells us, "The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love."  Did you catch that?  God doesn't flip out with knee-jerk reactions.  Not at all!!  He gives us time and opportunities to learn and grow.  He shows us grace.  And He loves us immensely.  That's how God handles us, and that's how we need to handle each other.

Yeah, sometimes, people get on my nerves.  And I'm pretty certain the same thing happens to you.  During those moments, let's stay humble and remember that we're not perfect either.  Let's stay calm and be patient.  And let's look to God for help in handling people the way He does.  If we do these things, we will handle stressful moments a whole lot better.

PS - But please use your turn signal when driving and stay off your phone during movies.  Ha!  Sorry, I couldn't resist.  :-)

Monday, November 13, 2017

Cremation. Ok or no way?

Because I'm a pastor, hospice chaplain, and have experience working part-time in a funeral home, I get asked about cremation quite a lot.  Some people are fond of the idea.  And others quickly reject it as an option for consideration. 

Just in case you don't know what cremation is, it is the process by which a dead person's remains are exposed to intense heat.  This process reduces the body to a pile of ashes.  Then the ashes are placed in a container and given back to the surviving family members.  At this point, the family can decide what to do with the remains.  Of course I have simplified the process in my description, but that is basically what happens.

With that in mind, I'll share a few quick thoughts on it now...

(1)  To state the obvious, the person being cremated does not know they are being cremated.  They are already deceased.  So he or she does not feel any fear, anxiety, or pain because they have already died and their soul has left their body.

(2)  On a financial note, cremation is normally a few thousand dollars cheaper than a burial.

(3)  The Bible does not address cremation.  There is no verse that calls it a sin.  And there is no verse that says it is a good thing.  Simply put, the Bible is silent on the topic.  If you're looking for a verse on cremation, you will not find one. 

(4)  Cremation ultimately comes down to your personal preference.  There is no "right" or "wrong" when it comes to this.  You should do what makes you the most comfortable in this matter.  That is why I do not tell people they should or they shouldn't be cremated.  It's a personal choice, and either way is totally ok.  Do what works for you.

Ultimately, I'll say this:  I'm glad to know that in the eternal perspective, it won't matter whether we are cremated or buried.  Regardless of how we're laid to rest, we are going to get a new body in Heaven anyway.  So it won't matter if we're buried or cremated down here because we're all getting a big time upgrade in Paradise!!  1 Corinthians 15:53 tells us that these new bodies will be "imperishable" and "immortal".  Also, Revelation 21:4 tells us these new bodies will never cry, hurt, or die.  So there we have it!  If Jesus Christ is our Savior and Lord, we will have a new body in Heaven.  And a far better existence than we have down here on Earth.

Do whatever you think is right and practical when it comes to cremation or burial.  Do what you are at peace with in your heart.  And know that neither option is wrong.  It's ok either way.  Find comfort in knowing there is eternal life with God in Heaven when our time on Earth comes to an end.  And rejoice in the truth that new bodies await us all, regardless of how we died or were buried.

What a glorious, positive, safe, perfect future awaits us because of Jesus Christ!!