Presents

By Aaron Elder

The Christmas season is here and that means only one thing: Presents! Actually there’s a whole lot more to Christmas, but as a dad of young kids, presents do much to illuminate the inner lives of all ages. 

I have two girls (7 and 2) and a boy (4). My girls are much more difficult to shop for. It isn’t that they are picky, but actually that they are surprising. The gifts my girls receive that I expect they’ll like, they do, but it is often something else that captivates their minds and imaginations. My son is quite the opposite. Last Christmas, he was giving us adults a tutorial on how to experience life. Quite literally, EVERY present he opened was met with the words, “this is the best present ever.” This wasn’t the adult version of people pleasing, he was absolutely enthralled in every gift he received.

As I prepare for another Christmas with my kids, the shopping becomes a delight. For my girls, I know that what I choose they will like, but I also know that I will get further insight into who they are. For my son, I know that he’ll be caught in wonder and imagination with anything he receives.

All of this makes me think differently about that first Christmas and the gift of Jesus. I imagine God as a giddy father watching the world unwrap his most precious gift. As he watches, he sees the way each person responds to the gift and he gets to interact with each on a very personal level. In a sense, he gets to know us by how we respond.

And I imagine God, with sheer delight, preparing and wrapping his precious gift. Like me with my son, he waits in eager anticipation for the joy that will spring forth. And like my girls, he waits to see what will capture their imaginations. In many ways, it feels like the present is still being unwrapped. Some have seen it for what it is and have received it, but are still discovering the fullness of what it is. Some don’t see it fully yet because their vision is clouded in some way. My prayer is that, like the apostles, we too will all see the gift completely with unveiled faces and our joy too be made complete.

A Jumbled Mess

By Aaron Elder

Christmas in the real world might be described this way. It certainly looks much different than the Christmas cards for sale or even the ones we’ll send and receive. As I write this, I’m staring at the foot of our Christmas tree. Scattered are three ornaments fallen from the tree. Jumbled into a heap is the kids’ nativity set. Two of the magi lie face down, a donkey rests unassuming on a toppled palm tree and baby Jesus lay upside down inside the tipped over manger scene with two other figures and a plastic bale of hay. And one gift from an extended family member sits just behind with its view obscured because of my angle.

Shooting up from the floor is our Christmas tree – medium bodied and raw from the forest yet full of ornaments, every one with a story to tell. Many of them look a bit awkward or bruised. Tucked to the left is a brown and green snowman I made at around 8 years old whose head was broken off – but now glued – hanging firmly on a branch. A silver ball handed down from generations prior rubbed and worn. And several made by our kids (ages 7,4 and 2) with a mix of colors and varying degrees of stability.

As I ponder this scene, my view turns to the cross of Jesus. Scattered like ornaments were those standing aloof beneath the cross, unattached to the event taking place. Jumbled into a heap were the hearts and lives of Jesus’ relatives and friends. Broken. Crushed. Prostrate on the ground. And, obscured by the view, was a gift. Shooting up from the ground, that tree, once an instrument of scorn, now held the whole world as a set of ornaments. Those scattered will be added. Every one with a story and every one wholly dependent on the tree for life, beauty and meaning. And just as I can restore the nativity scene with little effort, so too Jesus rose from the dead as if waking from sleep.

For now, though, I leave the scene as it is. It is advent season. We are waiting. We are hoping. It is busy. It is a bit of a jumbled mess. It is in the midst of this jumbled mess that we find Jesus, even now, making everything new.

Psalm 1 – Subtleties

By Aaron Elder

When I read the Psalms I’ve begun to notice subtle, but dangerous, tendencies in my response and reaction when reading. Psalm 1 hit me a few years ago, and it has become a great checkpoint for me.

As I read over Psalm 1, my first thought is “I want to be the man described in verses 1-3.” This is a noble aspiration – a worthy thing to desire. Here’s where things get dangerous for me: If I’m honest with myself, I’m far more interested in being viewed this way by others than I am in actually knowing God more intimately. I often end up doing spiritual activities, not because I think it will create added intimacy with God, but so that I will build “street cred” with other (read: certain) Christians whose praise I desire most.

I define walking uprightly by how many boxes I can check in my spiritual life. Rather than delighting in God’s law, I parse it out to define more easily who is blessed and who is wicked. In place of prospering in Christ, I can’t stop thinking about how important I am.

The irony is that the man of whom these things is described is one who is lost in the depths of his relationship with God and uninterested in his status. We would think it silly if we waxed poetic about marriage yet were rarely home to get to know our wives. So too with God.

As I write this I find I’m lacking in this way with both my wife and with Christ. I do look forward to growing in this way that I might know my wife and my God more deeply.

A Journey Through the Psalms

By Aaron Elder

I’m not completely sure why, but I’ve felt a strong desire to write about the Psalms. I do know that over the past 3 years or so, I have found great joy in reading the Psalms. I think what has drawn me in particular is that we probably get the most real, tangible and obvious display of emotion than anywhere else in the Bible. It is definitely there in other places, but it is front and center in the Psalms.

Personally, I think American Christians struggle with what to do with emotions. We’re often not given permission to deal with negative emotions in particular so we suppress them only to see them come out in highly destructive ways in the future. I think we need the whole Bible as much today as ever, and I think the Psalms may be as important as any book to our spiritual and emotional well-being.

So I want to take a journey through the Psalms. One at a time. I’m not a theologian so I will not be writing a commentary. What I will be doing is reading them and, based on a number of factors, I’m going to respond. You’ll get to know some patterns in how I think and you’ll get a sense of what I’m working through in my everyday life. I will also likely being throwing in some other thoughts in between.

What I hope to give through this process is two-fold: 1) Permission to walk into your emotions in a healthy way knowing that God is strong enough and loving enough to handle all of them and 2) An invitation to look beyond the surface. We’re used to making Scripture fit into our own systematic theology and frankly, it just isn’t that simple. I hope you feel me challenging your systematic theology because, well, mine is challenged with every Psalm I read.

With that – enjoy!

This is Our Final Destination: Do You Have the Right Map?

By John Busuego

How important is it to have the right map? I recall the days traveling across the country with my family, on these epic road trips to visit relatives in Illinois, driving hundreds of miles from the warm coast of California, through the mountain ranges of Colorado and across the undulating terrain of the Mid-west.

Long before the days of smart phones and GPS dashboard attachments – you know the ones where the robotic-like lady voice told you to make a U-turn one too many times, yes those…we had a map, a hard copy printed map. A Rand McNally map that you could buy at the gas station. This one was crispy and tattered: one my father had someone hand him, and it was a grand old piece of equipment we never traveled without. It listed all the highways, backroads, towns and major cities. And when we hit a city that we were not familiar with, we also had a map of the area. It seemed simple enough that by having the right map, we could travel hundreds of miles, and without the slightest deviation could make it to our final destination.

 

How often do we turn to others, self-help books, or do-it-yourself videos on YouTube for direction and guidance in this life? Or do we use the Bible as our guiding map or moral compass? I find that I treat it as another “app,” conveniently tucked away in a folder. I am convicted. Why have I been using it merely to seek out answers to find places I have not ventured to. I may have it all wrong. How do I even know what the right direction is in life, and how am I using God’s Word to provide the poignant direction towards salvation?

 

It seems that our lives are directed by the things we feel are “right” to do. We use these as proverbial landmarks to inform us that we are on our way to reaching where we need to go. It may have been imposed by our parents, the church we grew up in, or even what society tells us. How often do we feel that getting a college degree, marrying our spouses and raising our children in the church still doesn’t feel enough or sufficient? That our road map of life hits some sort of speed bump, and we scratch our heads and ask ourselves, “am I even going the right way?”

 

I recall the conversation Thomas had with Jesus and the other disciples about the Father’s house. Thomas did not understand and asked Jesus, “we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Jesus replied, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:4-6). In this word, we can begin to understand why we have the Word. Not only does God describe the direction, he explicitly describes the final destination!

 

So be encouraged; we are going the right way! We have the right map, and we know what our final destination is. We want to see Jesus. We want our family to see Jesus. We want others to see Jesus and know what everlasting life is. We have the right tools, and we have the know-how to get there.

Light Keeper

By Rand Kreycik

I love lighthouses. I’ve threatened to drag my family on trips to see every lighthouse in New England, for example, or on the Great Lakes (there are dozens!). They like them too, and would probably follow me gladly, only beginning to complain after the 100th or so!

Why are lighthouses such a draw? I’ve been contemplating them lately and understanding what a strong spiritual picture they give us of our life in Christ. One needs only to understand the purpose of these vital sentinels to begin to see the parallels.

What is the number one job of a light keeper? To make sure the beacon never, never goes out! You see, in the days before reliable radio communication, those shafts of blazing light, piercing the darkness, often meant the difference between making it to safe haven or facing a watery grave on unseen rocky shoals. To mariners, the light shouted, “Stay back; there’s danger here!” And it spoke comforting words: “Here is the way to safety!”

Jesus told his disciples, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16) In this same passage, he warned believers not to put their light under a basket. That would be absurd and go against what the light was made for.

We are light keepers, and our bodies (these transitory dwellings) are lighthouses! That’s the truth that has been animating me now for weeks. It makes sense. What’s my most vital job, besides simply loving God with my whole heart? It’s loving my neighbor by shining Light and speaking Truth into his or her life. It’s keeping the light lit in my heart (staying powerfully connected to my Father through his Word and prayer). It’s shining that light as brilliantly as I can – making sure the lenses of this lighthouse (the body that has been loaned to me) are kept pure, clean, polished, never blocking the light. Jesus also told us, “The eye is the lamp of the body.” (Matthew 6:22) and that we are to watch what enters these lenses. What goes in is what will come out. Evil will cloud our lenses and dim the light.

I’ll spend the rest of my life contemplating this powerful picture, but each day it helps me to understand that I am a light keeper, my body is a lighthouse of which I’m the steward, my eyes are the lenses through which the light shines to those lost in the darkness and storms of life. They need to see the light! They need to see the danger coming their way! They need to see the way to safety. They need to see the way home.

Strong and Mighty Worrier

By Rand Kreycik

“How’s the battle,” I asked my wife as she was sewing a hem under time pressure.

“Why’s it a battle?” she looked up, quizzically.

“Hmm, guess I always think of things as a battle,” I replied. ” But aren’t I supposed to be a warrior?”

“Yes, but most of the time you go around all hunched, worrying.”

“A Strong and Mighty Worrier, eh,” I joked.

Are you like me? Do you have trouble understanding and applying Paul’s admonition to the Philippians:

do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7)

“But you see, Lord,” I might counter, “I’m responsible for many things. I’ve got to love my wife, raise my kids, provide for my family. If I don’t worry about these things, who is going to? Well certainly not God! When will I learn that He’s got this? That I’m called to work hard, yes, but in the end, I’m also called to let go, cast my cares on Him (1 Peter 5:7), and rest.

“Peace I leave with you,” Jesus told his disciples, just before he surrendered His life to the cross. “my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” (John 14:27)

Wow, with all these promises and exhortations from Scripture, what’s my problem? Seems like a no brainer, doesn’t it?

Control, that’s my problem. When it comes down to it, I want to be in charge, and if I’m in charge – frankly – I’ve got a lot to worry about!

Surrender is the key. Surrender to His love, surrender to His grace, surrender to His plan. If He is in charge (and ultimately He is, whether we accept it or not!), then I don’t have to be. As I trust and rest in Him and His good plan for me and for my family, His peace will come. As I speak with my good and loving Father daily, lifting my concerns to Him – His peace will naturally begin to rule my mind and heart.

Now that sounds like a better place!

Lord, please help me trust and rest in you … so I can be the Strong and Mighty Warrior that I long to be … loving and fighting for my King, my wife, my kids, and my neighbor, near and far. Amen.