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Start Christmas with a Thanksgiving Gift

At last: A Christmas devotional for incredibly busy people.

Each December day until Christmas, in one minute or less, you can capture inspiration that will enrich your journey toward Christmas day. Everyone's busy—and the holidays only add to the list of things to do. Yet Christmas is something more than a celebrated ancient ritual or a modern holiday centered on shopping.

God is still speaking through the Christmas story: the gospel narratives of Jesus’ birth are filled with encouragement and revelation: they proclaim the love of God and his wisdom for us today.

The practical eBook format means you can catch a devotional moment on the go: from your e-Reader, at your desktop, holding your tablet, or on your phone. If you can create enough space to read these one-minute devotions, you can carry their thoughts and ideas with you the rest of the day. Best of all, it's just ¢99:  Available for Amazon Kindle and Kindle Apps.

The paperback format is for bedside, fireside, or children-by-your-side reading. It’s also something novel—a Thanksgiving gift: imagine walking into your Thanksgiving meal and giving your host a Christmas gift. Or (if you are the Thanksgiving host) imagine your table with this devotional at each place setting. No one will forget the year they received a Thanksgiving gift. Available at Amazon.com.

Here’s a sample of the devotional:

From the Life of Joseph:

DAY TWELVE

Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. (Matthew 1:19)

The narrative shows us what a righteous man looks like. In his confusion and pain, Joseph’s first concern was for Mary. How many of us would have this priority? Perhaps this is why the scripture labels him a “righteous man.” Joseph's righteousness is rendered not in terms of his relationship to God, but in terms of his relationship to Mary. True righteousness extends two directions—toward God and toward others.

Crackpots

Walk among the tombstones in any cemetery and you’ll see signs of the sure and certain hope of resurrection. Apart from Jesus, the grave is a place of grief and finality. But, to borrow Michael Card’s neat phrase, in Jesus the grave became a place of hope.

Our Lord had a way of turning things around. The cross, that Roman instrument of terror, became the sign of love without borders. The cross was built to bend others into submission; in Jesus the sign of the cross is an invitation to a kingdom filled with righteousness, peace, and joy.

One sure mark that “Jesus was here” is where the signposts of despair are set on their heads and become the evidence of his presence.

Nor is the mark of Jesus consigned to history: in Jesus, his people gather the sick to hospitals where we will pray for them, and if we cannot see them healed we will care for them. If our care is not good enough we will remain with them, because no one should die alone. We make a place for the orphan; the very ones cast aside by fate or the corrupted values of society become the objects of our affection and treasure. We go into the streets to find the homeless and hungry, and—even if they have no interest in our gospel—we give them food and warmth day after day in the hope that one day the message will take root.

All the while we ourselves are a disordered people, in need of these very ministries and more. We, who bear the good news, struggle to believe that anything this wonderful applies to us as well. Sometime God’s people will share news so good we dare not believe it ourselves. This means we ourselves are markers of the kingdom: flawed, broken, incapable, and often ridiculous, we are the vessels of unspeakable grace. We are the cracked pots who carry and leak the eternal treasure poured out from heaven.

This is why I love His church, because even as we carve hope into tombstones, we ourselves marked for death. Though we work in places of healing, we ourselves are subject to sickness. Even as we open our homes to others, we ourselves struggle with feelings of alienation. Who else would choose to use so mixed and fragile a collection of misfits? Only him who delights in turning refuse into treasure.

We ourselves are the markers of God’s kingdom who declare, “we have absorbed the worst the world and the devil have to give, and in Jesus, we have seen darkness give way to dawn.”

Blinded by Beauty

Once there was a man who could not see beyond his wife’s great beauty. And beautiful she was: deep-set eyes, high cheekbones, porcelain skin, rich red hair, and the picture of health. Yet she was more than this. She was kind and gentle, strong and determined, insightful and wise, but these qualities he did not see. Her manner of life was more beautiful still. She moved with grace between the roles of woman, wife, mother, and friend. What’s more, she possessed the rare ability to teach and encourage others in all these skills. But he was blind.

“I’m the luckiest man in the world,” her husband said, and even though he was indeed correct, he saw a mere fraction of his good fortune. Blinded by her beauty, he was insensible to the thousand other values she possessed.

Eventually he grew old and died: happy and ignorant of his true wealth.

What if we are that man? What if we live in the company of beauty—and grace, and wisdom, and strength, and vision enough for a lifetime and beyond, but we receive only a portion of our good fortune? What if, in Christ, we are partakers in the divine nature but we stop at the beauty of the cross?

We love the cross because it is the place forgiveness. We love the cross because Jesus paid a debt he did not owe, and paid a horrid price we could never ourselves pay. Because of the cross we live forgiven and free, our sin is washed away. What if we are blinded by its beauty?

The work of the cross is complete. Through its divine exchange we will live with the Father forever.

But Jesus was more than the cross. He did more than die. His manner of life was beautiful as well. He is kind and gentle, strong and determined, insightful and wise. What’s more, he has the rare ability to teach us all these skills. Jesus is more than the cross. His life is a gift to us as well.

If we see the cross as the ultimate expression of the Lord’s purpose we limit his mission to forgiveness. If we see ourselves as only recipients of his ministry, we stop at the cross. His mission, his aim, his gospel began before the cross, and extended beyond. What a blessed span are the days between Good Friday and Easter, yet it took Jesus more than a weekend to accomplish his work. The cross is a great gift, yet it is more, it is a portal—an entry-point into a new world, a new kind of life.

To become a child of God everyone must come to the cross. There is no other path. But there is beauty beyond the cross; the new life it offers is only the beginning. Can we see more?

The First Church of Central Perk

I have a friend who works as a house painter.  He is the kind of guy who is not afraid of confrontation, especially when he thinks that shocking someone might be the best way to bring a reality check.  One day the job site he met another guy who claimed to be a follower of Jesus.

My friend: “Really?  Where do you go to church?”

New Guy: “Everywhere.  I want to hear what the Holy Spirit is saying, so I go to lots of different churches—I don’t want to be tied down.”

My friend: “You know, you ought to go to one church, and stay there long enough until you get offended by the people in the church.  I think that’s what God wants for you.”

New Guy: “You think God wants me to be offended?”

My friend: “Oh yeah, there’s no question about that, but I think He really wants you to be offended by people that you go to church with regularly.”

My friend was trying to illustrate an important point: we can’t really claim to be the kind of person who loves God unless we learn to love others. We hear it all the time: God loves everybody. Well, that may be fine for God, but for most of us love is a good idea in the abstract and nearly impossible in the everyday world.

We don’t have very many people we could claim as close friends, much less as people we love. The pace of our life does not provide many places where we can really get close to others. There are even fewer settings where we can learn how to love others.

Learn how to love? Isn’t love supposed to just happen? In romance, in friendships, in finding a community that feels “safe,” most people expect that love will be organic, natural, and self-generating. We would like to think that if we walked into Central Perk as a complete stranger, we could walk out with a whole new set of friends. But Central Perk closed down when Friends did, and we’re not in Manhattan anymore. Love is a great ideal, until we have to work it out with other people, then we begin to wonder if love is worth all the grief. It’s time-consuming, expensive, and worst of all, it’s not all-about-not-me.

But love is a way we can imitate God:

Ephesians 5: 1 Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

The Apostle Paul called for followers of Jesus to live a “life of love,” which sounds great until you actually try to do it. Jesus lived a life of love, and it got him killed. Wanna try to be like Jesus?

The word “therefore” indicates that Paul was reaching a conclusion, not starting something new, and the stuff before Ephesians 5:1 provides a not-so-easy road map to living a life of love that imitates Jesus Christ.

Not-so-easy Step One: Give up your life as an individual: (Eph 4:17-19)

These verses describe a life lived for the self. If ever there was a futile way of life, it is a life lived for ourselves alone. Living for ourselves hardens our hearts, and brings us into darkness. If our goal is a new kind of community, then living for ourselves really is futile. Many people long for community but live for themselves. When we are separated from God the only things we become sensitive to are our own desires.

Not-so-easy Step Two: Put on a new, godly self: (Eph 4:20-22)

The gospel Paul presented in Ephesus was about more than personal forgiveness. He taught the sacrificial Jesus who declared a new commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.” Paul presented Jesus as the one who did not follow his own desire but demonstrated love. When we consider others we are acting like our heavenly father. This choice is intentional: we have a part to play. We can choose to put off our individualistic ways and put on ways of thinking and acting that include others.

Not-so-easy Step Three: Express your “new self” in terms of you ability to relate to others:

We put off falsehood and speak truth because we are members of one body.

He does say, “don’t get angry,” but rather we should work through our anger together.  It’s hard work!  Stealing (presuming upon the generosity of others) needs to be replaced not by working with the goal of  “getting mine,” but having something to share with others.

Not-so-easy Step Four: Create a welcome community for the Holy Spirit

Godly community is marked by wholesome communication, and communication doesn’t become wholesome magically: it happens only if we choose so. Our concern should be for building up others and benefiting others. In fact, this is the proper context for the phrase “grieve the Holy Spirit”, it’s about treating God’s people as people who deserve our best intentions. When God’s kids play nice together, the Holy Spirit shows up.

That’s why my friend suggested an environment full of opportunities to be offended. How else can we learn to forgive? It’s called “the church,” and it’s filled with people that will drive you crazy. If we hang out in one place long enough, we are sure to be offended, and

Invasion of the (Heavenly) Body Snatchers

I did not grow up a church-boy. After becoming a Christian I wandered through backyard Bible studies, late night prayer meetings in odd places, and lived my Christian life among strange, semi-cultic fellowships of networked home churches. I was baptized by a college kid, who dunked me into a suburban swimming pool just after midnight. One of the people who got baptized that night shouted, “Hold me under a long time--I’ve got a lot to die for!”

I must have been 25 years old before I ever saw a proper church baptism. When I did, I was fascinated with the phrase repeated over and over again, “Arise to walk in newness of life.” The words rang with freshness and truth. They also sounded vaguely familiar, so I used my New American Standard Bible and tracked down the words to Romans, chapter 6: “Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

It’s an amazing assertion: that the born-again experience produced an entirely new creation, a new order of being. My amazement, though, gave way to an observation: these words were too good to be true. Most of us gently changed the meaning to something easier to grasp. “I’ve been cleaned-up by God,” or, “My sins have been washed away,” or, ”My past has been forgiven.” All these things are true, but they are something very different from a new creation. Eventually I began to wonder, what good is it to have your past forgiven, if you are essentially the same person? When someone is only forgiven--merely forgiven--the recidivism rate for sin is sure to be 100%. We will do it again.

But imagine a new creature, something--someone--born from another realm, with different desires, different needs. Someone who feeds on different food, breathes different air, and drinks from an entirely different fountain. Imagine that the change is wrought inside out, so that the outer appearance is unchanged, but the spiritual body chemistry is otherworldly. What if we could be redeemed versions of the pod people from Invasion of the Body Snatchers?

It’s worth asking: what if newness of life actually meant a life of another kind? But that would be too weird, right?