This Thanksgiving was the first in 34 years that Teresa and I were on our own. Our kids were with other family. My mom was at her home, recovering from knee replacement and not up to the travel. My mother-in-law was in Tulsa with her son, Bill and his family. It was a little strange. We were blessed to have each other - quite a few spent their first thanksgiving alone without their spouses this year.  And of course we did spend Thanksgiving with our extended family – 80 or more of you – our brothers and sisters in Christ. It was a wonderful day in which we publicly and joyfully indulged in the sin of gluttony. We also received into our family a new brother in Christ as Jonathan Gau was baptized that day. It was an altogether happy and heartwarming Thanksgiving. Sometimes life is like a Hallmark channel movie.

            It is the time of year when the Hallmark channel, the Lifetime network, and other cable outlets run Christmas movies 24/7.  Each year these channels roll out a new box of comfits – new movies to unwrap, although “new” is probably a generous term to use.  There are only 5 movies they make over and over again: “A Christmas Carol,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “The Shop Around the Corner,” “Ground Hog’s Day,” and “Made for Each Other” (a 1939 MGM tearjerker starring Jimmy Stewart and Carole Lombard which has spawned a hundred remakes). 

            I notice that three of the movies I mentioned star Jimmy Stewart. I also notice that two of them involve the suspension of time in some way. The protagonists in these movies find resolution, comfort, and strength by going backward, or forward in time. Glimpsing the right moment from the past or the future provides the answers, or the insight needed. If only we had the same ability they do in those Hallmark movies.

            All this has set me to thinking about the apostles, and how they must have felt when Jesus told them, “I am going away,” (John 14.1ff) – how they, like children asked “where,” and “how.” When Jesus asked them earlier if they were going away, Peter responded: Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe absolutely, and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God (John 6.68-69). They have nowhere else to go but to Jesus, and now He says He is going away. How alone they must have felt – but only briefly. They will find that He keeps His promise to be with them “all the way even to the end of the Age” (Matthew 28.20).

            We find the same. The miracle of the Bible is that Jesus is always there. We are never alone, never without Him. He is alive in the four Gospels. Any time we open the Bible we can spend time with Him. We are not bound by the limits of time when we go to the Word. We can be with him as an infant, as a grown man just being baptized, on the cross, or we can watch Him ascend to heaven.  We can move backward and forward in time to visit any moment from His life which feeds us, instructs us, strengthens us, challenges us. Those Hallmark movies are fancy and fiction. The Gospels are fact.

            The fantasies these Hallmark movies peddle often strike a chord, speak to a longing. But they are diversions, entertainments. The moments we spend with Jesus are meaningful, fulfilling, empowering.

            This will be the last Manassas Signal of the year. We will continue to update our announcements online, but will not resume publication of this newsletter until the New Year. As I offer you this last meditation of 2016, I want to encourage us all to spend more time with Jesus. This is all. It is that simple. Let us all resolve to spend more time with Him.

            On behalf of the office staff of the Manassas Church of Christ we thank you for another year of service together, and wish you all a blessed holiday season. May God be with us all.        

                                                           

 

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            I confessed a few weeks ago that during a contentious election season I do some necessary therapy reading.  I turn first to the election of 1952. I have a book of campaign speeches by Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate that year, and from the Republicans I have Eisenhower’s Mandate for Change in which he writes about the election that took him to the White house. The thoughtfulness, civility, and the perfect agreement on values one finds in these two books are comforting. It is good to remember that there was a time when our political discourse was productive – even elevating. If I need a bit more of a boost I read the letters exchanged between Abigail Adams and Thomas Jefferson concerning the elections of 1800 and 1804 which were contentious in the extreme. Partisans (mostly James Callender) accused John Adams of being insane, hen-pecked, and a hermaphrodite. Later some (mostly James Callender) accused Jefferson of fathering children by his slave, Sally Hemmings. We have always had elections which were, in President Obama’s words, “silly season.”

            I turn to Will Rogers as well. His book How We Elect Our Presidents contains his punditry on the elections of 1924, 1928, and 1932.  Much of the humor is dated, but his political analysis is as relevant today as it was a century ago. I am especially fond of a quote from a piece he wrote shortly before the Coolidge inaugural in 1925. Rogers writes:

            “No Element, no Party, not even Congress or the Senate can hurt this country now….Even when our next war comes we will, through our short-sightedness, not be prepared. But that won’t be anything fatal. The real energy and mind of the Normal Majority will step in and handle it and fight it through to a successful conclusion…(the Country) is founded on right and even if everybody in Public Life tried to ruin it they couldn’t.  This Country is not where it is today because of any one man. It is here on account of the big Normal Majority.” (p.46)

            There is much wisdom in that, and thus much comfort. His prescience about the coming war is astonishing. But there are also some glaring omissions. One is that the country is not founded on majority rule – normal or otherwise. Rousseau argued in The Social Contract (1762), that true power in a just government must lie in the “general will” of the people – their shared values. These values must be codified and respected.  Only when we have something beyond ourselves as final authority, like a constitution, will “the people” be treated justly. Our founders believed this too, and thus adopted a representative form of government, with separation of powers, and a binding constitution.  The big Normal Majority is not intended to be the ultimate authority in our country.

            A second problem is that faith in the big Normal Majority is only as reliable as the humans who comprise it. If the big Normal Majority was so trustworthy, we wouldn’t have had to fight a Civil War, nor needed the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Also, it often happens that we can’t even identify a big Normal Majority when we need it most – as when we need to deal with issues like abortion, immigration, or who should be President.

            “It is not in man who walks to direct his own steps,” God reminds us in Jeremiah 10.23. While we are thankful to live in a representative democracy, and thankful to ever soldier, sailor, marine, airman, and first responder who make our democracy possible, we understand that no majority decides what is right. God does. And so our great need is to listen to Him. Any majority, even a “normal,” well-intentioned one - which shouts in an echo chamber babbles to itself alone, and establishes nothing.

            And so the best course of action for us to take is to be still, and listen to God as He speaks to us in His word. This is true therapy reading. 

Because I love your commands more than gold, more than pure gold, and because I consider your precepts right, I reject every wrong path. Psalm 119.127-128

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A call for Care Group participation

            The question that has stirred the hearts of man since the dawn of time begs, why am I here?  It's a natural, innate, and necessary question to ask.  Mark Twain is known to have said, "The two most important days in your life are the day you are born, and the day you find out why."  While Twain held no semblance of faith as far as Christianity is concerned, he did seem to capture the essence of what we as Christians need to ask themselves.   To the Christian, “finding out why” we are here is critical because finding out why suggests the reason for our existence.  So what is the reason?  The reason, in short, is to discover the talents given to us by God, and use them in the service of His kingdom. 

            Jack Swigert was the command module pilot on the failed Apollo 13 mission.  If you remember from the movie of the same name, or from reading the account, Jack was not scheduled to be one of the crew members of that flight.  As a precaution to a supposed impending illness, Swigert takes the place of Ken Mattingly.  We don't know for sure how the mission might have turned out one way or the other had Mattingly been aboard, but that isn’t what Swigert reflected on.  He didn't reflect on the "what ifs" of the situation, he simply acted on the requirement of his talents, and his calling.  Jack went on to pursue politics in his home state, cut short by a losing battle with cancer.  But before he died he said, "I believe God measures your life.  He puts you on earth, gives you certain talents and opportunities, and, I think, you're going to be called to account for those opportunities."  He’s right of course but not just because he says so.  In fact, it should bring to mind a parable given by Jesus.

            In Matt 25:14-30 we find the parable of the hidden talents.  Lest anyone miss the point of the parable, it is not a lesson on finances.  It is about the responsibility, and our accountability of the God given talents we have to serve in His kingdom.  God put no limits on the growth of His kingdom. Jesus said the fields were ripe and that the only thing lacking was the harvesters.  That means the only restrictions that exist are the ones we put on the kingdom by not using our talents; by burying them in the ground.  We all should reflect on the two responses given in that parable: "Well done good and faithful servant," vs "You wicked and slothful servant."  We have talents, we have a purpose, and it is the calling of Christ Jesus to put those talents to work. 

            Not all of us have the same talents.  Were I to be called upon for my carpentry skills for example, we would all quickly revert to the tents of the first century.  I’ll leave that calling for Chuck Leasure.  It is rather the combined effort of all Christians, which is why all of us serving together is so important.   We should remember that service is not participating in worship or attending bible study only, but also serve as reminders and motivators to “spur one another on toward love and good works” Heb 10:24.   A sign in the parking lot of a church building in Florida, viewable only as you leave the parking lot reads, "You are now entering the mission field."  I've always liked that.  It's a reminder that leaving building marks the beginning of our service.

            One of the most important reasons we have Care Groups is to seek out and encourage the use of our God given talents in His service whether individually or as a group.  It is not a responsibility given only to a few - it is everyone's responsibility to find out what their talents are and how best to use them.  Make the effort in 2017 to join a Care Group, to participate. Participate for the fellowship, certainly for the food, but mostly – to serve. Read the parable of the talents, remember the talents to which you've been entrusted, invest them, bring back to the Lord more than you were given!

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            I have no digital footprint, and I intend to keep it that way. When I was pressured early on to get on Spacebook, or Myface (just kidding) my visceral protest was “the brethren are up in my business enough as it is.” My decision, upon reflection, was reinforced by my realization that people misinterpret, misunderstand, and take offense with alarming regularity. Since my organic disposition is sarcasm, I felt it unwise to give my inner musings a public voice. Recently, however, my reason has changed. People on social media have so eschewed any filter for what they say, or the pictures they post that I prefer not to see what the brethren put on display. I don’t want to know what harsh comment someone made in the name of the culture wars, what was in that red solo cup someone was holding, where they were after hours, or who they were with. I prefer the bliss of my ignorance, and thinking of you all in your church clothes.

            I have experienced a similar change of mind about preaching Galatians 5.1-12.  I know the whole counsel of God must be preached – but it is also true that some passages are not suitable for thorough discussion when children are present. The rape and dismemberment of the Levite’s concubine in Judges 19, or the attempted gang rape of the angels in Genesis 19 are two examples. The dual incest between Lot and his daughters that ends Genesis 19 is another. I have had the same feeling about Galatians 5.1-12 because its topic is circumcision, it mentions foreskins, and it ends with Paul wishing his opponents would castrate themselves.

 Paul is agitated in the whole book of Galatians. Many Jewish-Christians are preaching that Jesus is not sufficient – that one must keep the laws of Moses as well as follow Christ. They have influenced Peter, James – even Barnabas (Galatians 2.11-21). Paul’s agitation reaches full pitch in Galatians 5.1-12. His sentences are shorter, his phrasing emphatic, his vocabulary extreme. He ends the passage in verse 12 by saying, “I would that those who are troubling you would castrate themselves” – not the kind of self-expression we want to encourage in small children.

            But nowadays our children have heard much worse on the political commercials that ran all day during the recent election. Beyond that, we seem to be at ease with hateful, vulgar speech. Not that we Christians engage in such (although if you do on your Facebook page, or twitter account I’ll never know…..until some calls me to snitch on you), but we seem to accept such from our public figures as a matter of course. I just don’t think the language of Galatians 5.1-12 will seem so shocking anymore. So, I have gone ahead and decided to preach on the passage next week.

            The passage is important.  Our Sunday sermon series this year is “Faith, Hope, and Love”, and this passage is likely the earliest use of the three together. Galatians 5.1-12 is about Faith versus Works, and Love versus Law. I am anxious to explore it with you, but I must admit I am ambivalent about the new-found freedom I feel to share this passage on a Sunday morning.

            When we Christians become accustomed to coarseness - when we support it with our silence, or our vocal approval – we communicate to our children that such coarseness is acceptable. This, more than anything else that has transpired during the political season, makes me worried and sad.

            Jesus clearly equates hate-speech with violence (Matthew 5.21-26). Paul constantly insists that our speech edify (Colossians 3.17, 4.6; Ephesians 4.29 – whatever else his speech in Galatians does, it edifies), and Peter tells us that even when we are interrogated by the authorities we need to answer with gentleness and reverence (I Peter 3.15). The New Testament establishes a standard we need to keep – and to apply. 

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 These are some of the things he says:*

            Why don’t you listen to me?

            I talk to you day by day but you won’t listen.

            How long does it take you to do something?

            Does this seem fair to you?

            Listen to me!

            Don’t always be so hard on me.

            How long will you forget about me – forever?

            You’ve hurt me deeply.

These are the some of the things David says to God in the Psalms. Of course there are other things David says in the Psalms, things like:**

            The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want….

            My soul waits in Silence for God alone; my salvation is from Him.

            My soul thirsts for You, my flesh yearns for You…

            My soul is like a weaned child on his mother’s lap

            I will give thanks to You with all my heart.

            These things David says to God are honest and bare. David praises and complains, makes promises and threats, cries out in elation and despair. The thing David doesn’t do is stop talking.  David never gives God the cold shoulder. This is the lesson we need to take from the things David says to God.

            I don’t believe anything in human literature compares with the psalms of David. They represent the pinnacle of poetic expression. No other writer has been so brutally honest about his feelings, his flaws, his vulnerabilities. No one has marshaled such direct, powerful, beautiful language to express these honest emotions.  Nothing in our own hymnbook compares.  Perhaps it was when, as a shepherd boy, he spent long hours with only his harp and his God as companions that he grew so willing and articulate.  Willing and articulate he became, and we continue to be blessed.

            We are blessed because he shows us God listens to whatever we have to say.  We need not worry about being less skilled in self-expression as David – the Holy Spirit makes sure we communicate clearly – even when there are no words for our feelings (Romans 8.26). Whatever we have to say to God we must say – because by communicating we hold on. What we can-not do is clam-up.  To stop communicating is to kill a relationship. We know this. We have to keep communicating.  If David tells us anything in his Psalms, he tells us – “Talk to Him!”

            Indeed. Talk to Him – say what it is you have to say – but say it! Talk to Him.

            Pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5.17)

*Psalms 4,5,6,7,13,22,35 and 39

**Psalms 23,62,63,69,131, and 138

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