Regrets

It seems like I’ve done more memorial services than usual the last few months. Memorial services should be times when we do something we don’t do enough of, and that is take time for pondering. Having multiple services occur the last few months has especially caused me to feel called by God to ponder.

I read of a man who did some pondering when he knew he was coming toward the end of his life. He had some regrets over things he had done, but he was bothered more by regrets over things he had not done. He regretted how rarely he had said, “I love you” to people who were close to him. He regretted he had spent so much time working and so little time with his kids and grandkids. He usually said, “Yes” when work asked him to do something but “Later” when the kids asked him to play or read to them. He regretted that “Later” never came. He regretted he had been more focused on building up his bank account than building up people. He regretted he had taken good care of his stuff but not such good care of his relationships. He had been successful at work, but he regretted he hadn’t been so determined to be successful in relating to his family and friends.

Some 20 years ago as I was wondering whether or not to be part of an effort to plant a new church in the Beaverton, Oregon area, a friend told me, “You’ll kick yourself if you don’t at least try.” She was right. Even though things didn’t go the way we had hoped, I’m glad we tried. Often in life the fear of failure causes us to not try to serve God and people, and it leads to regret. We regret that we didn’t stretch ourselves and take on the challenge of trying to serve God in a new way. We regret that we didn’t tell our friend about Jesus because we were scared they might ask a question we couldn’t answer. We regret that we kept on doing what was easy and familiar, even though we felt God leading us to do something that was hard but rewarding. We regret we didn’t check out what gracious gifts God might have for us down the new path.

“Be very careful, then, how you live – not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:15-16). God is going to give us opportunities in this new year to serve Him, to let people know how amazing His grace is, to share the love of Jesus with people. He is going to give us opportunities to live, to take on new challenges, to explore new adventures, to invest in relationships in deeper ways. Don’t let fear be a roadblock that gets in the way of you going down the path God has for you. “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11).

God has great things in store for us in this coming year. Let us fearlessly follow Him and look forward to the adventures ahead.

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Time to play

I got an electric train set one Christmas. Soon after I opened it my dad and I started playing with it. My dad thought he could get it to go a little bit faster, so the screwdriver came out. The train never ran quite right after that. I was okay with it. Getting to spend time on Christmas Eve, playing trains with my dad mattered far more to me than whether the train made its way around the tracks right.

I was fortunate to grow up in a home where my parents took time to play with their son. Adults too often fill up their time with what they think are serious matters, or they get busy playing with their own toys, and have no time to play with kids and their toys.

Another Christmas Eve my dad bought my mom an electric can opener. He didn’t always give the most romantic gifts. Dad and I thought we ought to test it out and we tried to see what kinds of metals the opener could cut through. We discovered the opener wasn’t a heavy metal fan. We broke the opener that Christmas Eve. The day after Christmas Dad and I went to the store to get a new opener. We had to promise Mom we wouldn’t open it on the way home, but bring it to her still in the box.

It’s not a good thing to break other people’s gifts on Christmas Eve, but it’s okay to sometimes “color outside the lines.” We can get pretty confined to doing things the way they’ve always been done and just sticking to the ideas some guy put down in the instruction manual. It’s okay to be creative, be imaginative, try things out at times and see what happens. Helpful discoveries have often come when somebody tried to do something differently.

I was with some friends and their son who had a new Hot Wheels set. It came with a power booster that made big boasts about how it could send the cars flying. The kid and I had the same thought: “Let’s see if this power booster can send the cars flying over the couch and on to some track on the other side.” The booster didn’t quite have the juice to do that, but it was fun trying, and surprisingly we didn’t break anything while doing it.

It’s okay to be unconventional sometimes. Christmas is about when God did things that were incredibly unconventional. The King of kings became a baby in the womb of an ordinary teenage girl. The Lord of the universe had a manger for His first bed. The Son of God took on human flesh and became the Son of Mary. The reason He did all this was not the conventional motivation for service. The conventional motivation for why people serve others is because of obligation or people have been good and are deserving. Jesus wasn’t under obligation and we weren’t deserving. Jesus did all that He did because of the unconventional motivation of love and grace.

The Lord loves undeserving sinners like us. He longs to shower grace – unearned blessings – on us. God’s grace is incredibly unconventional and incredibly wonderful. Thanks be to God for His unconventional love!

Immanuel

It was the end of November 1997. My brother had died earlier that year. My sister and mother had died the year before. It was the beginning of the Advent season. My parents and siblings were gone and gone for me as well was excitement over the coming of Christmas. It seemed every time I watched TV it was full of commercials that featured warm loving family gatherings that caused me to be envious.

The Christian musician Michael Card was having a concert in Portland. He is one of my favorite musicians so I went to the concert. One of the songs he sang that night was Immanuel. The words Michael sang were just what I needed to hear: “Immanuel, our God is with us.”

The promise is given in Matthew 1:23: “‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ – which means, ‘God with us.'” God has come to be with us. He doesn’t leave us on our own to try to deal with the challenges of life. Jesus promised He will never leave us. He rose again from the dead, so we do not fear that death will ever separate Him from us. Jesus said, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” (John 14:18).

It seems sadly inappropriate that Christmas is the loneliest time of year for many. Christmas is about God coming so that we never have to be alone. Immanuel – God with us – is a glorious truth we get to cling to.

Some people don’t get to enjoy warm family gatherings. It can be miserable to be alone on Christmas Eve, but what helps a person endure is knowing Immanuel. God has come to be with us in the miserable times. He is with us when others aren’t. He sympathizes with our hurts and He offers hope that the hard times are not eternal but His love is.

The words of the song that comforted my heart in 1997 still ring true today: “On earth there is no power, there is no depth or height, that could ever separate us from the love of God in Christ. Immanuel, our God is with us.”

Belong

Someone growing up in another country, like a child of a missionary, faces some unique challenges. In some respects they are children of two cultures. Those who’ve grown up as children of missionaries in Brazil are fluent in both English and Portuguese and can get along in both cultures. But in some ways they don’t belong to either culture. Often they don’t feel or get looked at as fully Brazilian or fully American. It can be a challenge because we all want to belong.

Jesus belonged in the kingdom of heaven. He enjoyed the glorious comforts of that culture since before time began. But He left those comforts and came to this earth. He came to a place that spoke another language – the language of sin and suffering. In many ways He, the sinless One, didn’t fit into this culture.

Jesus became like a person of this culture. “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity … he had to be made like his brothers in every way” (Hebrews 2:14, 17). He learned the language of hunger and thirst and pain. He learned what it was like to not belong. “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him” (John 1:11). He left the culture He belonged to and was rejected by the culture He came to.

It is not only the children of missionaries who struggle with belonging. Many of the commercials and advertisements at Christmas say this time of year is all about family. But some don’t belong to a biological family. Many of the activities and things associated with Christmas remind them of what they lack. They wish there was a group of people they could call their own. In some ways God created all of us with a longing for belonging. We long to belong to a group larger than just ourselves.

Jesus speaks the language of being rejected, not belonging and being alone. We try to avoid learning that language but Jesus chose to learn it. He chose to become one who “was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering” (Isaiah 53:3). When we struggle with not belonging we can turn to Him with confidence that He understands. When we hurt from rejection we can run to Him and know He chooses us to be in His family. When we suffer from feeling alone we lean on Jesus who came to this earth and promises He will never leave us.

The songs and the shows and the commercials can make us feel alone at Christmas. But in some ways Christmas, more than any other holiday, is the time when we should have the least feeling of being alone. Christmas is about Jesus taking on flesh and dwelling among us (John 1:14). Jesus came so that we never have to be alone.

Christmas is about family time. It’s about Jesus coming so that we can belong to the family of God. The Lord chose to be despised and rejected so that you could receive a loving welcome and know you belong in the family of God.