We used to sleep in the same bed together, my two brothers and me, on Christmas Eve. That alone was a Christmas miracle, given the fact that the other 364 days of the year would find us plotting ways to hurt one another. I remember BB gun fights, where we were running around the woods, shooting at each other. Or we would fight from room to room in the house with spit wads, using thick rubber bands to wing them on their way. To up the ante, we decided one day to shove straight pins through the spit wads. Yep, three little angels, that’s what we were. But on Christmas Eve, we crawled into bed together and tried to go to sleep, keeping one ear tuned for reindeer hooves on the roof, and one foot ready to launch any brother who got too close.
One of my favorite memories was the Christmas Eve we heard the front door open, and the distinct sound of something heavy being rolled across the threshold. Grandpa never used a wheelchair so we knew it wasn’t him coming for a midnight visit. And we had no idea why Santa would be bringing gifts through the front door, when we had a perfectly good fireplace in the den. So we just lay there in bed, whispering about what it could possibly be, and daring each other to sneak downstairs to steal a glance. Nobody wanted to risk being seen by Santa, or worse by Dad, so we eventually drifted off to sleep.
One of my favorite memories of Christmas Day was the next morning when three sleepy-eyed little Fox boys found a brand new yellow mini-bike parked under the tree. We lived on two acres and had a creek behind and beside us, and empty lots and woods all around, so we could not wait to jump on the bike and start blazing trails. But first, Dad needed to give us a lesson on how not to wreck a mini-bike. This is one of my favorite memories, too, as Dad straddled that kid-sized bike with his 6’3” frame, and proceeded to explain to us young boys how dangerous a mini-bike could be. He had barely gotten the words out of his mouth about how sensitive throttles are, when the bike shot off like a rocket and threw Dad into the air where gravity began to work immediately and brought him quite unceremoniously back to the earth. The bike and Dad were perfectly unharmed, but after a few minutes my sides were killing me. Even mom got a chuckle out of that one.
Christmas is a season of giving, and the yellow mini-bike has to go down in the Fox history book as one of the best gifts we ever received. We also got exactly one of them, so we boys had to learn how to share. I have no idea how we worked that out without BB guns or bloodshed. I just remember many happy hours riding that mini-bike, and I suppose my older and younger brothers did as well.
There may not be a mini-bike under your tree this Christmas, or even a reindeer on your roof. But that’s OK, because the best gift cannot be bought in a catalog or brought down a chimney. The best gift, the only one that matters, was laid in a feeding trough in Bethlehem many years ago. Here’s what the angel who brought the news to Joseph said about the gift:
“You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
I know Thanksgiving is a few days away, but it’s really not. Not according to the Bible. The Word says these three things are the will of God for you who are in Christ Jesus: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.” We don’t have to wait until November 26 to give thanks. Also, notice that the Bible doesn’t teach us to wait until we ‘feel’ thankful. The command is to the will, so we don’t ‘feel’ our way into giving thanks; we “give-thanks our way” into feeling grateful. I know that is bad grammar, but it is also good theology. So, the question is, why are we so often found outside His will? Put another way, what are the reasons we are not thankful? It may be that we ascribe everything that happens in our lives either to luck, to fate, to self-effort, or to a mystical combination of all three. The Bible teaches us, however, that God is the Sovereign Lord of all creation, and the giver of every good gift.
May I suggest a few practical steps we can take towards developing a heart of thanksgiving?
First, make a list of the top ten things or people on your “I am thankful” list.
Second, thank God for each one of your top ten. Each one is a work of God, whether you are thankful for His forgiveness or whether you are thankful for your wife. I love Brad Paisley’s song, “Waitin’ on a Woman.” A young man sits down at the mall next to an old man and they get to talking, since they have nothing else to do: they are both waiting on their wives who are shopping. The old man says, “Son, since 1952 I’ve been waitin’ on a woman. When I picked her up for our first date, I told her I’d be there at eight, and she came down the stairs at eight-thirty. She said, ‘I’m sorry that I took so long, didn’t like a thing that I tried on.’ But let me tell you son, she sure looked pretty, Yeah she’ll take her time but I don’t mind, Waitin’ on a woman.” Then the last verse says, “I’ve read somewhere statistics show, the man’s always the first to go. And that makes sense, ’cause I know she won’t be ready. So, when it finally comes my time, and I get to the other side, I’ll find myself a bench, if they’ve got any. I hope she takes her time, ’cause I don’t mind, waitin’ on a woman.” Hey men, maybe listening to that song once a week would help you be more grateful for your wives, even if they are the ‘never on time’ type.
Third, tell the people on your list how much you are thankful for them. They need to hear it. We need to say it. Finally, make a list of every circumstance from this past year that would never come close to making your top ten list. Maybe you had a health problem. An accident. A broken relationship. A financial setback. Even an election that didn’t go your way. Now, give thanks in every circumstance, just like the Bible says to do. We say we believe in the sovereignty of God. And that He is good and does good. Then we get sick and we cannot believe what is happening. And everything turns inward. Giving thanks in every circumstance is a way of forcing our hands to unclench, our arms to open up, and our hearts to be clear.
O Lord, you have given so much to us. Give us one thing more: a thankful heart.
Half of the nation was going to be upset by the outcome, no matter who was elected. Either way, let me encourage those who have an eternal perspective, that our marching orders have not changed. Because this nation was never going to be revived by elections. Or demonstrations. It can only be revived by the power of the Spirit at work in the church. Presidents can help or hurt the people they lead but they cannot save them. They cannot change their hearts. They cannot give them lasting joy and hope that does not disappoint. They can preside over a nation but only Christ can reside in the hearts of men and women whom he has redeemed. Our hope is found in nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
Uzziah served as king in Judah for 52 years. In the year that King Uzziah died, Isaiah the prophet didn’t go to the bar and drown his sorrows. He didn’t go to the golf course. He didn’t go home and curl up in a fetal position. Isaiah went to the temple. He went to church, if you will, the place where the people of God gathered. And Isaiah was given a vision; he saw the Lord sitting on his throne, high and lifted up. He heard the Lord speak. He understood his calling, that the Lord was sending him to speak to the nation. The king had died. Not God. Isaiah had work to do. So do you and I.
Jesus said to his disciples, and to us, “If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me.”
What does it mean to deny myself? Here’s what it does not mean. From an unknown source comes an article titled, “How To Be Miserable.” It says, “Think about yourself. Talk about yourself. Use “I” as often as possible. Listen greedily to what people say about you. Expect to be appreciated. Be suspicious. Be jealous and envious. Be sensitive to slights. Never forgive a criticism. Trust nobody but yourself. Insist on consideration and respect. Demand agreement with your own views on everything. Do as little as possible for others.”
No, Jesus taught us a different way. He calls us to deny ourselves so that in losing our life for his sake, we will find it.
“Take up your cross daily.” Let’s not trivialize the meaning here by saying things like, “Well, I have some arthritis in my shoulder that limits my golf swing, but that’s my cross to bear.” No, when Jesus told them to take up their cross, every person in that crowd would have an image flash through his mind. If a man was condemned to die on a Roman cross, the moment he was sentenced to death, if he wasn’t whipped first, he would be given a crossbeam to carry to the place of his own execution. It was a one-way trip. He would not be back. Everyone knew they would never see this individual again, at least not in this lifetime.
The follower of Jesus Christ is called to voluntarily lay down his life every day, so that he is free to think about one thing: how will he live for the sake of Christ and the Gospel that day?
“And follow me.” A disciple followed his master closely enough to the point that when you saw a disciple, you saw the master. They tried to walk like them and talk like them and gesture like them. When the world sees a disciple of Jesus Christ who is running a business, he ought to be able to say, “That’s how Jesus would run a business if he were here running a business.” That’s how Jesus would build a house or sell a product or take care of his customers or raise a child or manage a household.
How should we respond to this call to discipleship? By giving our life to serving Christ and the Gospel where we live and work and study and play. It means we will not be afraid to speak the truth about who Jesus is, that He is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, and there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.
That’s what we need, followers of Christ. An eternal perspective.
I attended a panel discussion a few years ago that was advertised with the title, “Good without God.” Knowing that one of the largest growing groups in the country is the “nones,” those who answer surveys that ask for a religious affiliation that they have none, I wanted to hear what five from academia would say about their own spiritual journeys. I also was intrigued by the idea that there are those who have spent part of their lives seeking to disprove or at least to dismiss the “God idea,” as one of them described what many of you and I embrace.
Let me first say that I respect the panelists and their courage to speak out about what they believe, or don’t believe. I also thank God that we live in a country where that is still permitted. Like the founders, I believe that one of the truths that is self-evident is that human rights come from our Creator, not from government or any other institution of man. May God help us when those rights come under attack.
Second, I was also intrigued by any idea that good can exist outside of God, or that we can call something good or bad without appealing to an objective standard of morality. If we do not have an objective moral standard, then how do we determine whether the Red Cross is good or the Third Reich was bad? If we do not have an objective moral standard, how can we ask others to believe that our beliefs are good? If we don’t have an objective moral standard, and don’t care if anyone else on the planet believes the way we do, then of what value is our belief?
Third, the elephant in the room that evening was Jesus. His name never came up, and yet Jesus is the only founder of a “world religion” who claimed to be God. Buddha, Confucius, Zoroaster, and Muhammad came not claiming to be God but to be a way to God. Jesus alone said, “Truly, truly I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” One of the panelists said that the whole “God idea” only dates back to Abraham, but that people were good for tens of thousands of years without God. Laying aside the argument over creation, Jesus plainly says he existed before Abraham, even though when he made this claim, Jesus was only 33 years old.
The problem with Christianity has never been Jesus, but it has always been us. We Christians sometimes give it a bad name because of our pride, our prejudice, or our ignorance. But make no mistake. It is to Jesus we must look to validate Christianity. If Jesus is found to be a fraud, or a lunatic, or self-deceived, Christianity crumbles. If Jesus did not rise from the dead after three days in a tomb, then all we who put our hope in him are fools at best.
So, here is the challenge. If you would see yourself with feet firmly planted with the nones, would you at least be willing to attack the resurrection of Jesus with every molecule in your body? Do what Lord George Lyttleton, Frank Morison, C.S. Lewis, Josh McDowell, Lee Strobel, and many others have done. Each of these former atheists were scholars, college professor, journalists, or members of Parliament. Each of them sought to disprove the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Each of them came to believe in Jesus after carefully examining the evidence with a desire to know the truth.
Be careful. The elephant in the room loves when people seek the truth.
Dr. Ben Carson was in town a number of years ago, and he spoke at Elon University. Dr. Carson, now the United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, was then the world’s most famous pediatric neurosurgeon, the first to successfully separate Siamese twins who were joined at the head. Carson told us in Whitley Auditorium that night that he performs nearly 500 brain surgeries a year. He said people are amazed at that, but they shouldn’t be.
“You can do much more than you think you can,” Dr. Carson told the packed house. “Your brain is a marvelous creation of God that we cannot even begin to understand.” To illustrate this point, Dr. Carson said that he could lead a blind-folded person who had not seen the audience onto the Whitley stage and take the blind-fold off for one second. Carson said he would put the blindfold back on, lead the person away, and wait 50 years. He could then do brain surgery on the volunteer, find where that one-second memory was stored, and the person could tell him where everyone in the audience was seated, what they looked like, and what they were wearing. “Your brain can process 2 million bits of information per second,” Carson said.
Dr. Carson looked at the stunned audience and asked, “So what are you talking about when you say, ‘I can’t?’ As my mother loved to tell me,” Carson continued, “Son, you are not a victim.”
Besides operating more than 500 times a year during in his career as a surgeon, Dr. Carson spoke at least 75 times at colleges, churches, and anywhere else he believed there would be an attentive audience. He told us that night at Elon that people often ask how he can give 75 speeches a year. Carson said he likes to reply, “Well, it’s not brain surgery!”
Dr. Ben Carson kept us riveted that night as he talked about the marvels of modern science and the complexities of the human brain. But he was interrupted by applause when he talked about moral values and spiritual foundations. He said that the turning point in his life came when he was 12 years old. He lived in a broken home with his mother and a brother in Detroit’s inner-city, and his nickname at school was “Dummy.” He and his brother were continually getting into fights, and one night his mother prayed that God would give her wisdom to know how to raise these two sons by herself. She came up with the idea to turn off the television and only allow one or two programs a week. She told her boys they had to read two books apiece each week from the Detroit Public Library, and they had to turn in book reports to her on each one. She couldn’t read, but Ben and Curtis didn’t know that. Within a year and a half, Ben Carson went from the bottom of the class to the top. His life changed and he credits God with making the difference.
In his book, Think Big, Carson uses the title as an acronym for what he believes are the eight keys to excellence in life. The last letter, G, stands for God. Ben Carson, recipient of 24 honorary doctorates, said, “You never get too big for God. I pray before every surgery. I figure if he created the body, he sure knows how to fix it.”
The Bible says, “A faithful man will abound with blessings.” Ben Carson is greatly blessed, in part, because he has been faithful to give God glory for all he does.
Image by Carsonscholars.org