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This has been A Christmas Carol Christmas season for me. I didn’t go looking for it, but it seems at every turn I have been bumping into it.

It started a couple weeks ago when I was reading an article in Mockingbird by Alison Kjergaard, titled A Christmas Carol and Grace in Practice, which I highly recommend. I was inspired and challenged by it and thought it would be a good jumping off point for a blog post. She focused on the quote above.

Shortly after reading that article I was listening to a Christian podcast about A Christmas Carol (sorry, don’t remember which one). But I do remember listening to the In Our Time podcast with Melvin Brag and his guests who spent 45 minutes talking about Charles Dickens’ Christmas classic. Also the podcast The American Story touched on it. Finally, I read an essay from the Imaginative Conservative by Chuck Chalberg called Christmas Dinner with G.K. Chesterton where he referenced an essay by Chesterton. Chesterton mentioned the “soul of Scrooge and the body of Cratchit”.

After all that, I decided I should gather the family around and watch the movie since I have not seen it for years, and my children never. I forgot how mean and humbuggety Scrooge was throughout the movie and how transformed his life was at the end-a man who ended up keeping Christmas as well as any man alive. I must admit I shed a few tears. Some because of the wonderful change in Ebeneezer Scrooge, and some because of the scroogieness that still dwells within me. I don’t know if it is my culture, nurture or bent nature that occasionally brings out the humbug in me, but I know I don’t like it. I’m still a man in need of a Savior.

The Christmas Carol thing that really got my attention through the Scrooge deluge was the quote above from Jacob Marley which comes toward the beginning of the book and the movie, “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

Isn’t that a great line? Especially hard hitting for a lot of us who are more task oriented than people or relationship oriented. Even though I grew up in a Christian home, it seems to me that the task is what was usually front and center in my developing years. My family lived on a farm and there was always pigs to feed, fields to seed and a garden to weed! That was beside regular household chores and schoolwork. Certainly there was love expressed in various ways between the family members, and the message of the love of God was never far off, but what primarily stuck for me was to accomplish the task. Do the business and do it good. Even after Bible college and 16 years of giving of my time, talents and treasure here at the home for needy children in Oaxaca, Mexico, I sometimes forget the reason I am here – charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, and I end up more focused on planting gardens, watering plants, killing bugs and pulling weeds, since I am the gardener.

So, just as Jacob Marley had to give Scrooge the business about what is the true business of life, I have to remind myself that people are more important than projects, relationships are more important than responsibilities, and the well being of my neighbor is more important than the well being of my garden. Loving and helping humanity is my business because it is God’s business.

I think we should all try to be more devoted to making others lives beautiful rather than our own; living the love of God rather than loving the “good life”; tending to souls rather than careers. If we have these attitudes and actions we will enjoy God more and truly glorify him in our lives, families, churches and world.

Truly he taught us to love one another

His law is love and His gospel is peace

Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother

And in His name all oppression shall cease

From O Holy Night

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Recently I was reading the first chapter of first Peter when a phrase in verse 18 hit me – Empty Way of Life. Peter is telling his readers that now that you are believers you should be holy in all that you do (15) and live in reverent fear of God (17). In verse 18 he reminds them that before they were redeemed by the precious blood of Christ, they were living an empty way of life. Those four words – empty way of life – prompted me to begin thinking of our culture and all the people who think their lives are full, but are really empty. Here are a few thoughts for all of us to consider:

If your checking account, savings account and wallet are full of money, but you don’t know the riches of God’s love, your life is empty.

If your Christmas tree of life has been filled with beautiful ornaments like cars, houses, fine furniture, new appliances and electronic gadgets, but you don’t know the Christ of Christmas, your life is empty.

If your time is full of political podcasts, right wing books or left wing propaganda, and you know powerful people in high places, but you haven’t experienced the power of the Holy Spirit, your life is empty.

If you identify as LGBTQ but aren’t the least bit concerned about WWJD, then your life is empty.

If you give lots of money to charity and spend lots of time promoting good causes, but have not received God’s gift of forgiveness, your life is empty.

If you love things, wealth and power, but don’t love God and people, deeply, from the heart (verse 22), then your life is empty.

As is attributed to Pascal, “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of each man which cannot be satisfied by any created thing but only by God the creator, made known through Jesus Christ.” Or, perhaps more accurately, “this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself”.

This Christmas season may we make a greater effort to read God’s Word, meditate on his promises, ponder the incredible significance of the baby in the manger, internalize the importance of Emmanuel and thus enjoy truly full lives.

For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. 1 Peter 1:18-19

Second Chronicles 14 begins by reporting that Abijah, king of Judah, had died and that his son, Asa, succeeded him, and that the country was at peace for ten years. That was primarily because “Asa did what was good and right in the eyes of the LORD his God.”

Verse eight tells us that he had an army of 580,000 men, from the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, and that they were well equipped with various types of arms.

That is a nice place to be in life. Living at peace with everyone and secure. Confident. Well off. No worries. If only it could last.

We are informed in 2 Chronicles 14:9 that Zerah the Cushite marched out against them with an army of thousands upon thousands and three hundred chariots as well. The kingdom of Judah was clearly out numbered and in a tight spot.

What was King Asa’s strategy? PRAY! He called out to the LORD his God and said,”LORD, there is no one like you to help the powerless against the mighty. Help us, LORD our God, for we rely on you, and in your name we have come against this vast army. LORD, you are our God; do not let mere mortals prevail against you.”

Life in the kingdom wasn’t so peaceful anymore. King Asa and his subjects were in trouble. King Asa falls to his knees in prayer. Well, like the words in the song Higher, by Unspoken say, “That’s a pretty good place to be.” It can lead to treasure. It can lead to plunder.

Verse 12 – Good News! “The LORD struck down the Cushites before Asa and Judah. The Cushites fled, and Asa and his army pursued them as far as Gerar. Such a great number of Cushites fell that they could not recover; they were crushed before the LORD and his forces. The men of Judah carried off a large amount of plunder.”

So there you have it. King Asa and the kingdom of Judah were living in peace, not bothering anyone, just minding their own business. And then the bully Zerah the Cushite decides his own kingdom isn’t enough anymore. He wants King Asa’s kingdom, which isn’t really King Asa’s kingdom, but God Almighty’s kingdom. This time Zerah the Cushite picked on the wrong King and kingdom. Asa prayed and put his trust in the One, True God. God honored his prayer and his trust and not only was the Cushite army destroyed, but Judah ended up with a lot of plunder. That’s a pretty good place to be!

Now I’m not saying that (problems + prayer = plunder) all the time; or that (trials + trust = treasure) in every situation, but it does happen more frequently than you might imagine. Remember the story of Gideon and his 300 men going up against 120,000 Midianites? The Midianites were routed and plundered, with God doing most of the heavy lifting, if you know what I mean. (Judges 7-8) Or how about King Hezekiah and Jerusalem under siege by more than 200,000 soldiers under Sennacherib. Hezekiah prays that God would deliver his people, and “that night the angel of the LORD went out and put to death 185,000 in the Assyrian camp. Sennacherib retreated in haste and his camp was plundered.

It pays to pray and trust God!

I wish I could say that our friend King Asa lived happily ever after, but that is not the case. He stopped praying and trusting God. Toward the end of his life he started trusting in men, and not in God. Hanani, a prophet/seer, confronted Asa, and reminded him of the good ole days when he trusted God. He told Asa that the “eyes of the LORD range throughout the earth to strengthen those who hearts are fully committed to him.” But now that Asa’s heart was committing to foreign nations and looking to them for help; he was under the judgment of the LORD. Asa was angry with Hanani and put him in prison. He also began to brutally oppress some of his people. Asa was afflicted with a disease in his feet, but still did not seek help from the LORD. He died two years later. (2 Chronicles 16)

We suffer needlessly when we reject God and rely solely on humans.

Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. Proverbs 3:5,6

Art work by Elaine Croft

Proverbs 16 gives us some important insight into how our words can help other people. It talks about “gracious words”.

The wise in heart are called discerning and gracious words promote instruction. (21)

Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones. (24)

The definition of gracious is courteous, kind, and pleasant.

According to the author of Proverbs, gracious words do three things: promote instruction, are sweet to the soul and are healing to the bones.

What would be the opposite of gracious words? And what do they do?

The opposite would be cruel words; degrading words; sarcastic words; insulting words. Instead of promoting instruction, these words hinder growth. They are not sweet to the soul like honey, but bitter like gall. They do not promote physical well being, but invite sickness and poor health.

When I think of these two extremes, I think of the art work in the picture above. Gracious words are like roses. They are beautiful and sweet smelling and bring life and happiness to the soul. Harsh or demeaning words are like dry, lifeless, dead bones and benefit no one.

This Advent season I want to be more intentional about my words. I want to put kind, courteous and pleasant words into the spiritual and emotional Christmas stockings of those I come in contact with – my family, friends, co-workers and even complete strangers. I want my words to be sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.

Perhaps we can all take Mother Teresa’s advice and speak kind words into our world, and then step back and listen to the endless echoes.

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their need, that it may benefit those who listen. Ephesians 4:29

Passiflora Foetida, also know as Wild Passionfruit, Running Pop and Wild Maracuja

I truly believe that God loves us and wants us to be happy. I believe that because the Bible tells me so.

The phrase in the Bible that leads me to that conviction is “The LORD is good, and his love endures forever.” These words are found 11 times in the Old Testament, from 1 Chronicles (16:34) to Jeremiah (33:11). It is found most frequently in Psalms (100:5; 106:1; 107;1; 118:1; 136:1).

Most of the time, this scriptural nugget is preceded by the words, “Give thanks to the Lord” as in Psalms 106:1 and 107:1. “Give thanks to the LORD for he is good; his love endures forever.”

I try to practice that admonishment everyday. When the sun pokes its head over the horizon every morning, I tell myself and those around me, “Look, he did it again!” God doesn’t have to make the sunrise everyday, but he does because he loves us and wants us to be happy!

I am the gardener at a home for needy children in Oaxaca, Mexico. When I see the Birds of Paradise, Hibiscus, Geraniums, Canna Lilies, Bougainvilles or Roses in bloom, I can see how God is so good and loves us so much, and I happily give him thanks and praise his name. He didn’t have to give us all these beautiful flowers, but he did, because he loves us and wants us to be happy.

My wife and I have a little piece of property not too far from the home for needy children. I am constantly planting and caring for many flowers, bushes and trees that I planted. They need a lot of TLC to flourish and thrive (kinda like us humans). I was pleasantly surprised about a month ago, by the appearance of the Passion Flower pictured above. It is beautiful. I did not plant it. God did. Why? Because the LORD is Good and his Love endures forever and because he loves us and wants us to be happy. Just ask Benjamin Franklin.

“The trumpeters and musicians joined in unison to give praise and thanks to the LORD. Accompanied by trumpets, cymbals and other instruments, the singers raised their voice in praise to the LORD and sang:

He is good; his love endures forever.

Then the temple of the LORD was filled with the cloud, and the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the LORD filled the temple of God. 2 Chronicles 5:13,14

Entrance to the Mitla municipal cemetery. The message above is translated to say, “for dust you are and to dust you will return.

I have had death on my mind this last week. November 1 and 2 are the holidays in Mexico called Day of the Dead. It’s a big deal in Mexico, and especially in Oaxaca, the state where I live. The Atlantic magazine had a photo spread with Day of the Dead pictures, and two of them were from Oaxaca, one from a little town down the road named Tlacolula. It’s primarily a Catholic holiday (Mexico is 90% Catholic). It comes from a mixed belief of the Zapotecs and Mayans combined with some Catholic beliefs that the spirits of the dead come back for two days every year. Those who celebrate Dia de los Muertos, usually have a shrine in their house dedicated to the dearly departed, and also go to the cemetery and decorate the grave(s) of those family member(s) who have passed on. They usually spend the night at the cemetery eating pan de muertos (dead bread) and drinking. It is a big tourist attraction, where visitors from all over the world come and tour certain cemeteries during the midnight hours. My wife, Anita, was born in Mitla, just down the road from the home for needy children where we serve. Some consider Mitla the dead head capital of Oaxaca (and I don’t mean Grateful Dead). The municipal cemetery there is normally a hoppin’ place during Day of the Dead, but these last two years it has been closed down due to Covid concerns.

Normally the Mitla cemetery would be decorated with hundreds of marigolds in preparation for Day of the Dead this time of year.
Mitla cemetery closed because of a rise in Covid cases.

Another reason I have been thinking about death is that Anita’s uncle died at the end of October. He had dementia and had been ill for quite awhile when he died. He was Catholic. He lived in Mitla. When a Catholic dies in Mitla, it’s a big deal. The deceased is put in a casket and then put on display in one of the rooms of his or her house. Then family and friends come from miles around to comfort the family. My wife was helping the family prepare food. When family and friends show up you give them hot chocolate and bread. Then, about midnight, you start making the real meal, which everyone eats about one a.m. Finally they leave about two a.m. After the clean up, Anita fell into bed about three a.m. She arose early in the morning to do the whole thing over again. The priest shows up and does a mass for the dead, and everyone walks to the cemetery, but not before packing the casket with extra clothes and food and favorite things of the newly dead. A bottle of water was also put into the coffin. Anita asked what that was for. She was told he would probably get thirsty on his long journey (through purgatory?).

At the cemetery, only the immediate family was allowed to view the burial, due to covid concerns. In July we were at the same cemetery for the internment of Anita’s mom, and everyone was allowed in, but it seems the pandemic is experiencing an uptick and restrictions have reared their ugly head. The immediate family finally came out of the cemetery, but relatives and friends hung around for at least an hour drinking beer and mezcal and eating chips. Anita and I had to get back to the mission for a big birthday party and we left. I have no idea how long they all stayed.

Day of the Dead reminded me of my mothers death a couple of years ago, and my mother-in-laws death in July. I also thought of Anita’s other uncle who died a year ago. Some were Christians, some weren’t. I thank God for the hope that Christians have in the face of death: O death, where is your sting? O grave, where is your victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Corinthians 15:55-57

Cross embedded on the wall of the Mitla cemetery.

“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in Me will live, even though he dies. Jesus – John 11:25

Refresh – give new strength or energy to; reinvigorate

Proverbs 11 has lots of good, happy advice, like:

The righteous person is rescued from trouble (8)

Those who are kind benefit themselves (17)

One person gives freely, yet gains even more (24)

The happy verse that really caught my attention though, was verse 25, “Whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.”

While we all like to be refreshed from time to time, I don’t think that we think a lot about that word, or that concept. At least I didn’t until I read Proverbs 11.

When I think of being refreshed, I think of liquid refreshment, mainly water. One time, years ago, when I lived in the U.S. I was driving and began to feel nauseous, and then I was sure I was going to vomit, so I pulled into a gas station, and parked at the edge, next to a fence. I got out and sure enough I was soon throwing up. I felt terrible; weak and sick. Then a man who lived in the house next to the gas station, approached the fence with a glass of water and handed it to me. What a surprise! What a good Samaritan he was. I drank the water, thanked the man, and within minutes felt greatly refreshed.

On another occasion, about eight years ago, here at the home for children in Oaxaca, Mexico, almost all of the staff had come together to help mix concrete and lay the foundation for a new school. Some were shoveling sand. Others putting gravel into buckets. One guy was running the cement mixer while another put buckets of water in. A few of us were laboring with the wheel barrows, taking the concrete where it need to go. After about an hour we were all worn out and extremely thirsty. And then my wife made a very welcomed appearance. She was the kitchen supervisor and she brought us pitchers of lemonade, which we gratefully guzzled. After the refreshment and a short break, we all felt what? REFRESHED! And with new found energy we went back to the task at hand. Physically, we had new strength.

People also need to be refreshed emotionally. Everyday someone suffers a heart ache over the death of a loved one, or heartbreak from a broken relationship. There are dozens of reasons people feel down emotionally, and sometimes God can use us to refresh those who suffer disappointment or depression. We can feel directed to offer a hug, word of encouragement, or a shoulder to cry on. That can refresh a person, even if only temporarily.

People need to be refreshed spiritually as well. There are those who once felt close to God, now feel that he is a long way off, absent, missing in action. They too are suffering, and God can nudge us to offer some spiritual refreshment; perhaps a card with an uplifting verse or a listening ear and a timely prayer.

And, according to Proverbs 11:25, not only will the one we reach out to, be refreshed, but also the one who does the refreshing will be refreshed. Sounds like a win-win situation to me.

“Repent and turn to God, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.” Acts 3:19,20

Blessed are those who have regard for the weak;

the LORD delivers them in times of trouble.” Psalm 41:1

David claims in Psalm 41 that those who have regard for the weak will be blessed by God in that he will deliver them in times of trouble (times of weakness?). David goes on to say that the LORD also protects and preserves them. And, if that is not enough, David piles on by by proclaiming that the LORD sustains them on their sickbed and restores them from their bed of illness. That is a whole lot of motivation to “regard the weak.”

That also brings up at least two questions: What does “regard” mean and who are the “weak”?

Regard means to consider or to pay attention to, much like one would regard their children or parents or spouse.

The weak could be anyone. It is all kind of relative. A three year old is weak compared to a five year old. A sick person is weak compared to a healthy person. A Jr. High graduate is weak mentally compared to a Ph.D. student. A homeless person is weak financially compared to a CEO. So at any given point, any of us could be considered weak, or strong, depending on whom we are being compared to.

David is King of Israel, a man of power, prestige and influence, yet reading Psalm 41, he identifies with the weak. He is weak spiritually. In verse 4 he says, “Have mercy on me, LORD; heal me, for I have sinned against you.”

He is weak physically, mentioning in verse 8 a “vile disease”.

I think he is weak emotionally because a close and trusted friend had turned against him and that betrayal has sapped his strength (vs. 9).

In response to these weakness, he calls out to God to regard his situation and have mercy on him (vs. 10).

Whatever our lot in life, we are all weak spiritually, desperately in need of a Savior; a Helper; a Rescuer. God graciously regards our situation and condescends to intervene and lift us up. Make us stronger. Our response should naturally be to look around us and see the weak; consider the weak; help the weak.

We should also remember, like Paul, that we can boast in our weaknesses because that’s when God’s power most rests on us.

“That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weakness, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” 2 Corinthians 12:9-11

considerate – showing kindly awareness or regard for another’s feelings, circumstances or wishes.

I was studying 1 Peter last month, and there is one phrase from that letter that keeps coming back to me – “Be considerate.”

That is not a word that we use a lot anymore. It is not a concept that we devote much thought too. That’s too bad. The world could use more considerate people.

The Bible doesn’t use that word too much either, although the concept is found throughout the New Testament in verses like:

“Love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)

“In everything, treat others as you would want them to treat you.” (Matthew 7:12)

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.” (Philippians 2:3)

Those at the top of the list that we should be considerate of and considerate to, are those in our family, both biological and spiritual. Our spouses should be the first person to whom we are considerate, but, unfortunately, they are too often taken for granted and wind up on the bottom rung of the considerate ladder.

This should not be, and that seems to be the way Peter felt about it as well. When he wrote “be considerate” he was addressing husbands and how they are to treat their wives. Specifically he says, “Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect…” (1 Peter 3:7)

I have read 1 Peter dozens of times and I don’t ever remember him saying this, but this last time it stuck. Maybe God is trying to tell me something! I think about it often, and guess what? I have been more considerate to my wife. I see dirty dishes in the sink, and I think, “What would be the considerate thing to do?” Wash the dishes! And I do. I make coffee in the morning and consider whether or not my wife would like a cup. I ask her and she tells me that she would enjoy a cup of coffee with cream and sugar, thank you very much. I am walking down the street in Tlacolula, Mexico, running errands, and I see a flower vender. I consider my wife, and the next think you know, I am putting a dozen roses in the car.

These are just a few, small examples, but maybe, if we all were a bit more considerate of others, and did a couple extra considerate things everyday, the world would be a happier place. After all, God wants us to be happy and considers our needs, wants and wishes, and blesses us beyond all measure, so let us bless others (especially our spouses) by being considerate.

“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God doth so clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you. Therefore do not be anxious about anything.” Matthew 6:28-31

Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t go back to sleep. When that happens I reach for Thomas a Kempis’ classic book, The Imitation of Christ, and before I know it, I’m sound asleep. I know that doesn’t sound like much of an endorsement for such a wonderful book: “Read The Imitation of Christ and fall asleep.”

But I do heartily recommend this book because normally when I can’t sleep the reason is I have crazy, nonsensical, weird thoughts bouncing around in my mind, that I can’t stop, so I read the deep, yet down to earth, thoughts of Thomas a Kempis. I read a chapter or two until I hit upon a phrase or a sentence that speaks to my heart, and I memorize it. I repeat it over and over until it drives out all other insanity coursing through my brain, and then I am back asleep.

This last week there was a night that I couldn’t sleep and I started reading The Imitation of Christ, chapter 26, which Thomas a Kempis titled “Of the exaltation of a free spirit”. That is where I encountered the sentence “Give me courage to resist, patience to endure, constancy to persevere.”

That is a great prayer for all kinds of different situations that we might find ourselves in, but what Kempis had in mind is the Christian’s struggle between fleshly consolations with present delights and the love of eternal things. Kempis is praying for God’s help that he stay focused on eternal things that will never fade away, like love for God and man, paying attention to heavenly things, and the sweet unction of the Holy Spirit, and that he not be entangled by the necessities and pleasures of the body, or deceived by the world and its short glory.

That is a prayer that we should pray everyday because we live in a world that tempts us in every way to focus on the hear and now, to attain pleasure because we deserve it, and to indulge our desires because we only live once. Those are lies from the world and the devil and our flesh is most ready to believe them.

People talk about being free spirits, but we can only truly be free spirits when we cast off the weights of pride, untie the ropes of immediate gratification and break the chains of materialism. God give us the courage to resist worldly temptations, patience to endure to the end, and constancy to persevere in Your Way, no matter what the cost. Amen.

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