Each year around the middle of November, Christians everywhere enter into X mode.  When you are in X mode, any reference to the letter X or its likeness automatically sends you into a rant as if you have been unfairly outbid on “Storage Wars.”  It’s Christ-mas, not X-mas.  I get it.  I could not agree more. 

However, is it really in the spirit of Christmas to go all “we shall not be moved” in the Wal-Mart parking lot because a toy manufacturer got lazy?  Is it Christ-like to berate everybody that looks like the Monopoly guy because the card in the Community Chest says "X-mas Fund Matures: Receive $100?"  I don’t think so.  Feel free to take your money elsewhere or even write a strongly worded letter, but please don’t make a scene.  That never ends well.

Since I feel like all the Xers out there have “Keep Christ in Christmas” covered, allow to me tackle the rest of the word.  Now, I have never heard anybody alter the last three letters in the word Christmas, but it seems like the meaning is butchered more often than Everybody Loves Raymond reruns air on TV Land. 

Contrary to popular belief, Christmas is not some sort of English-Spanish hybrid that means “more Christ.”  In fact, the word originally meant Christ-Mass.  For those of you forced to go to Catholic school as a kid, you probably know that mass has a more specific meaning than “Catholic church meeting.”

Actually, the word mass actually refers to an observance of the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper.  This observance gives believers a time to reflect of the true sacrifice of Christ, focusing on how He broke His body and spilled His blood so that we may be reconciled with our Heavenly Father.  While Protestant denominations observe the Lord’s Supper in various ways, most of them do it on a regular basis.  However, how often do we associate it with Christmas? 

Usually, during this time of year, we view Jesus as a little baby.  There is so much joy in the celebration of His birth, it can be hard to picture the rest of His journey on earth.  However, without the rest of the story, without the sacrifice, is His birth even worth celebrating?  I know it goes against everything you are used to, but during Christmas this year, take some time to reflect on the bread and the cup.  Make it a point to remember the sacrifice and ultimately the resurrection that makes our salvation possible.  This year, even if you are in maximum X mode, let’s all try a little harder to keep the “mas” in Christmas.

 
If you have paid close attention to this blog throughout the year, you may have noticed that the tone of my writing has probably fluctuated with the ups and downs of my favorite sports teams.  When the University of Kentucky won a national title in basketball earlier this year, I’m sure my posts were all about singing praise, potluck dinners, and break dancing.  Then I got a little bored during the Olympics.

As the college football season has progressed, however, I seem to have gotten grouchy.  Kentucky has had a horrible season, there has never been any hope of improvement, and we finally saw the coach lose his job before the season ended.  It has been the most depressing season I can remember.

However, as Kentucky named a new coach this week that I am excited about, I find myself ready to write about happy things again.  And as I tried to find a way to relate my sports-related joy to my spiritual joy, I was hit right in the face by a Jesus Juke.  However, this one did not come from a fellow Christian, but from the Holy Spirit.

I actually heard the phrase in my head, “Why aren’t you as excited about your faith as you are about Mark Stoops?”  Ouch.  Apparently God didn’t watch the Western Kentucky game.

I completely understand that it is impossible to stay on fire for God 100% of the time.  There are distractions.  Times get tough.  We get tired.  Fortunately, I don’t think God expects us to be perky and jumping for joy all of the time.  In fact, I am pretty sure he encourages us to take some time to rest.  Didn’t He even do that Himself at some point?

However, the point from the Holy Spirit was well-received on my end.  I know that I need to make a better effort at being thankful, showing gratitude (yes, that’s different from being thankful), recognizing blessings, prioritizing my attention, and spending time thinking about who God is and what that means for my life.  If I am able to do more of those things, I am more likely to be filled with the joy of Christ the majority of the time.

Having said that, I think my lesson had everything to do with my focus on my faith and very little to do with my excitement about football.  In fact, I am convinced that God cares about sports.  He just wanted to make sure I had my priorities straight.  And with His grace, I’m getting there.

Do you ever have trouble prioritizing the excitement of your faith?  How are you able to consistently experience the joy of Christ? 

 
I am a man of many interests.  I like watching and talking about movies and television shows.  I enjoy visiting new places and taking in the scenery.  I love watching sports and cheering for the underdog.

And when I get tired from looking at things, I occasional engage in activities myself.  I love playing baseball and church league softball.  I play ultimate frisbee whenever I get the chance.  And I frequent the disc golf course on campus.

Am I good at any of these things?  Not really.  But I play them anyway because I enjoy them and I think it would be really cool if I could get good at them.  I want to make time for these games and I really want to do well when I participate in them.  It would be awesome to be a disc golf superstar, right?

These are just games.  I realize there is nothing wrong with trying to be good at them.  Unfortunately, I feel like I sometimes have that same attitude with ministry.  There are some things that I desperately want to be good at.  There are opportunities that I want to partake in, or even lead, that I end up getting in the way more than helping.

There comes a time when you need to realize that your time could be better utilized staying within your talents.  I would love to be able to lead a worship set, but I have zero musical ability.  I would really like to take a leadership role in ministry to children, but large groups of kids drive me crazy.  It would be awesome to be able to volunteer to rebuild homes for people in need, but I assume they want these homes to be thunderstorm ready and I can’t make any promises.

Sure, I can contribute in small ways to all of these ministries.  But for the big ones, the ones that I pour my passion into, I need to choose opportunities that allow me to make a bigger contribution.  I need to let the Holy Spirit lead me into these ministries instead of finding things that I think I would enjoy or that I would like to be good at.

What are your talents?  Are you utilizing your talents in ministry?  Or are you too busy trying to be a disc golf superstar?  

In his grace, God has given us different gifts for doing certain things well. So if God has given you the ability to prophesy, speak out with as much faith as God has given you.  If your gift is serving others, serve them well. If you are a teacher, teach well.  If your gift is to encourage others, be encouraging. If it is giving, give generously. If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously. And if you have a gift for showing kindness to others, do it gladly.  (Romans 12:6-8 NLT)

 
My friend and I co-teach the middle school Sunday school class at our church.  Recently, we led our students through a study of the movie Facing the Giants.  Since many of our students hadn’t seen the movie, it was a good experience as there are so many lessons to draw from the film.  It seemed like we were pausing the movie every few minutes to talk about some insightful spiritual wisdom covered in the plot.

However, there was one story that we overlooked that I would like to revisit here.  When Coach Taylor is preparing his defense, he talks about the story of rebuilding the city wall from the book of Nehemiah.  He tells his players that, like Nehemiah, they should all build a stone wall in front of their own areas and ultimately that will create a great wall that will hold up against enemies…or the west coach offense.

It was more of a passing comment in the movie that that scene seemed to be more about football than their spiritual lives.  But it worked that way.  Each player took care of his own responsibility.  He did what he was supposed to do individually, and it made them successful as a team.

That’s a great lesson for life.  Each of us has our own responsibilities, our own tasks that are set before us.  And if everyone held up their end, the world would be a much better place.  It would be a great place where crime would be minimal and fluff pieces would dominate the news.  Unicorns would still exist and I could get unlimited, free steak from the guy in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.

That world does not exist.  Because sin is a real thing, we cannot count on ourselves, let alone other people, to live out Godly lives.  Handling your own “to-do” list is not what this story is about.  Nehemiah leading the people to rebuild the wall is about doing what is necessary to be obedient.

Doing what is necessary goes above and beyond handling your own business.  I, myself, have often been guilty of saying, “That’s not my problem,” “That’s not my job,” or “That’s none of my business.”  That is a lie.

I am not talking about arrogantly inserting yourself into other peoples’ lives.  I am not talking about interfering in situations where you are not welcome.  However, any time you see a need or witness injustice, that situation instantly becomes “your problem/issue/job/business.”  It is your job to seek righteousness in all things for the glory of God, and passively observing others peoples’ unfortunate circumstances is anything but righteous.

Yes, take care of building the wall in front of your own home.  But if you see your neighbor struggling with his wall, it is 100% your responsibility to lend a hand.  So we all need to stop using excuses and trying to mind our own business.  That is definitely not what Nehemiah was all about.

Unless you are playing football.  In that case, listen to the coach.

 
Fear is paralyzing.  There is no doubt about it.  Some people end up living their entire lives with a fear of failure that prevents them from achieving anything great.  Others fear germs to the point of quarantining themselves as much as possible.  Yet some let their fear of embarrassment keep them from ever sharing who they really are.

Me?  I’m scared of paper cuts.

Whatever you are afraid of, do you realize how irrational that is?  Jesus’ disciples found themselves in a dire situation, fearing certain death from a vicious storm.  And what was Christ’s response?

He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.  He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” (Mark 4:39-40 NIV)

These guys were literally on the brink of losing their lives, and Jesus still asked, “Why are you so afraid?”  He called their faith into question because they were filled with fear with the presence of the Almighty God right there.  But hey, they had Jesus physically there with them.  They should have known He’d come through, right?  That makes it more justifiable for us to give in to fear, doesn’t it?

Whether you can see him or not, if you have accepted His grace and handed your life over to Him, Jesus is with you always.  He is with you when you lose your job and don’t know how you’ll pay the bills.  He is with you when temptation is starting to win the battle.  He is with you when you lose a loved one and can’t fathom living without them.  He is right there when you find out bad news that will change your life forever.

God’s word will never lead you away from Him.  There are so many good lessons about His character and how we should relate to Him and one another.  And in His infallible word, God says, “Do not fear” in some form or fashion 365 times.  He must really mean it.

In the scope of eternity, there is nothing in this ole word that should cause us to give in to fear.  God is in control.  I know it is hard, but if we truly believe that He is who we claim that He is, we must trust Him.  Do not fear…

 
Everything you read about the holiday season is that it should be a joyful time, full of love, rainbows, and puppies.  You aren’t supposed to be sad or upset during this time, or you’ll ruin the fun for everyone.  (Note:  By holiday season, I mean the span of time that contains Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Don’t get all judgey on me.)

I hope I am not the first person to tell you that this is not true.  The pressure to be happy during this season is false and sometimes it can make your circumstances more painful.  Perhaps this is your first Thanksgiving without a loved one that passed away.  Maybe this will be your first Christmas without getting to see family that moved away. 

There is a chance that you may not feel at all like celebrating this holiday season, and that is okay.  It may be that, instead of looking to share joy with everyone, you’d just like a hint of peace.  But how do you find peace when things seem so hard?  Paul gives us a pretty clear explanation on how to begin the process here in his letter to the Colossians.

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.  Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.  And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:15-17 NIV)

We often think of peace as a passive act, or even the lack of an action at all.  That makes it easy for us to read this passage and totally miss the power of peace that Paul is talking about.  He says that the peace of Christ should rule our hearts.  He doesn’t say that peace should camp out in our hearts or occasionally visit our souls, but it should take control of and command our every word and action.

Fortunately, he also gives insight on how to give way to peace so that it may stand a chance in our hearts that have a tendency to be selfish and full of worry.  In order to allow the peace of Jesus Christ to rule our hearts, we must continually soak in His word and His spirit.  Verse 16 says that we should let His word dwell in us richly, as we teach, spend time in discussion and fellowship, and sing songs of praise.  If we truly put our hearts into these things, and do them solely for the glory of God, then our hearts will be open to the peace that comes with knowing that God is in control.

As soon as we allow the Lord to take the lead in every aspect of our lives, we will spend much more time giving thanks to Him and will spend much less time dwelling on our pain.  Who ever thought that letting go of controlling your own life would be such a peaceful thing?  The Apostle Paul did.  Let’s follow his lead as we go throughout this holiday season.
 
It’s Thanksgiving.  What on earth are you doing reading a blog on the internet?  You should be spending time with your family and loved ones.  You should be eating lots of food and watching lots of football.  You should be finding ways to love the people that need it the most.

While we should be thankful every day, today is set aside for us to give thanks to God for everything He has given us.  We are supposed to not only verbally give thanks, but to spend time thinking about our blessings and truly experience thankfulness in our hearts.  Let God see what His love means to you. 

Also, let others see that you are thankful for them and how much they mean to you.  I challenge you to tell everyone in your life that you love them today.  If you cannot get over your pride or your grudges to do that, do you really have thankfulness in your heart?

While I would never tell anyone not to read my blog, I am going to stop here because I think your time could be better spent showing love today.  So go do that.  Happy Thanksgiving!

 
Language is a tricky thing.  It can be hard to learn a new language, even with intensive study.  I, myself, am bilingual.  I speak American English and Appalachian English, and often serve as a translator of the latter.  But no matter how many Spanish courses I have taken and how much Dora the Explorer I have watched, Spanish just doesn’t seem to work for me.

The Bible has several references to people speaking different languages, and there are two fantastic stories that show God relating to us through the difference in languages in two completely opposite ways. 

First of all, look at the story of the Tower of Babel.  Everyone in the world spoke the same language.  And a large group of people got together to build a huge city and a tower to heaven.  God did not like the idea and He confused their languages so that they could no longer easily communicate.  But they were doing this to be closer to God, right?  What is wrong with that?  Why would He punish them for seeking Him?  Well, their motives may have been suspect.

Then they said, “Come, let’s build a great city for ourselves with a tower that reaches into the sky. This will make us famous and keep us from being scattered all over the world.”  (Genesis 11:4 NLT)

They are seeking to build a great city for themselves and they are hoping to become famous.  It seems that their motivation in this venture is strictly selfish.  They wanted to be famous.  They wanted to reap the fruits of their labor.  So God decided to make it hard for them.  They probably could have spent some time learning from each other and ultimately gotten back on the same page, but they chose to give up because God made it more difficult for them to work for their own glory.

In a situation that could not be more contrary, we find a group in the book of Acts come together in an upper room to pray and seek God.  They were trying to figure out how God wanted them to move forward with spreading the good news of Jesus Christ.  With what we refer to as the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came down and filled the followers of Christ to empower them to fulfill the great commission.

At that time, many people in the city of Jerusalem spoke different languages.  It was a fairly diverse place.  However, God made it so that, no matter who was teaching in what language, everyone could understand them.  God opened their ears to understand His message in all languages. 

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.  (Romans 8:28 NLT)

In Babel, God intervened to make it hard for the people to achieve their selfish plans.  Since they only sought to glorify themselves, God chose to make it difficult for them.  He did not support their efforts in any way.

Because the Christians in Acts were seeking God, He worked for the good of His purpose and made their jobs easier.  Because they were willing to sacrifice their own desires for His glory, God gave them what they needed to effectively serve Him. 

Are you seeking to build your own towers?  Or are you praying for God to help you build His?

 
If you are connected with me at all on social media, you are probably aware of the battle that took place in my home this weekend.  Since we will be out of town after Thanksgiving, my wife wanted to go ahead and put up Christmas decorations in our home.  I strongly opposed, but of course I lost.  So this is me trying to get into the Christmas spirit so my family will stop calling me Scrooge.

Christmas takes on many different meanings to different people. For many children and, unfortunately, some adults, Christmas is a selfish holiday. They focus on what they want and how they can make sure they get it. On the flip side, many parents and grandparents make Christmas all about the children, working to ensure that they get all of the gifts they could ever want.

For the many non-Christians that celebrate Christmas, while they spend their time talking about Santa Claus instead of Jesus, the focus is on making people happy. Sometimes it is family, sometimes friends, and sometimes good deeds for the less fortunate.

Many Christians, on the other hand, try to keep Christmas old school and focus on the birth of Jesus. While there are some disagreements about how much to include secular traditions in our celebrations, we all agree that Jesus deserves to be the center of attention. It is His birthday, after all.

But how do you think Jesus, Himself, would celebrate? Based on His teachings, I believe that the answer is pretty clear.

There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:13 NLT)

So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. (John 13:34 NLT)

And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’ (Matthew 25:40 NLT)

I believe that, while He would spend all of His time doing it, Jesus would make a special effort to celebrate His birthday by loving people. He would make sure that everyone celebrating His birth feels His love. He would meet their needs and wrap them in His loving comfort.

Since our goal as Christians is to be as much like Jesus as possible, why is it that we don’t spend more time celebrating His birth by loving one another? Sure, we send cards and occasionally exchange gifts. But how can we claim to love God if we are not meeting the needs of our fellow Christians? How can we celebrate Christ if we are not obeying Him by taking care of “the least of” our brothers and sisters?

We love each other because he loved us first. If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a Christian brother or sister, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their Christian brothers and sisters. (1 John 4:19-21 NLT)

Let’s all focus on fulfilling this command this Christmas season by showing the love of Christ to our fellow Christians that need it the most. And yes, that includes doing so on Black Friday.

 
My son is four and a half and having conversations with him is a lot of fun.  He often says random things that seem to come out of nowhere.  He repeats things that I didn’t think, and sometimes really hoped, that he didn’t hear.  He uses words that I didn’t know he understood, and it’s even more fun when he doesn’t really understand how to use them. 

I’ve also noticed that he has words and phrases that he has made a regular part of his conversational repertoire.  To be more specific, he finds a way to work the word actually into every other sentence.  It takes great effort for him to pronounce it correctly, but he usually makes it work.  After he had done this for a few days, I started to wonder where he picked it up and I started paying more attention to the words and phrases I use regularly.

As it turns out, I actually do say actually a lot.  I also tend to mumble things like daggum and dangit when things aren’t going well.  When things are going my way, though, I turn to words like awesome and woo-hoo.

We all have “catch phrases” that we tend to use over and over.  It’s usually something we think sounds cool at some point, or a phrase that we’ve heard others use a lot, or just something that we are comfortable with.  Some of them are pretty consistent when stepping on Legos and getting cut off in traffic, while others indicate a victory by a favorite team or a Todd Agnew song coming on the radio.

In my daily reading recently, I came across a passage that made me think about those daily catch phrases that I use.  Just after David drops a hot Psalm to celebrate the ark of the Lord, we get an immediate response from everybody in ear-shot.

Then all the people said “Amen” and “Praise the Lord.” (1 Chronicles 16:36b NIV)

Amen and Praise the Lord were responses that were ready and waiting on the lips of God’s people.  These phrases were obviously something they said regularly as they all shouted them in unison. 

Yes, I hear people saying these things in church and around Bible studies.  But why is this not our response to a well-cooked meal or hitting consecutive green lights?  Why do we choose to save our Godly catch phrases for what we consider to be Godly situations?

The next time you get the chance to proclaim a victory or celebrate a joyful occasion, try to remember to give a shout out to the Lord.  After all, shouldn’t we give credit where credit is due?  If we do it often enough, it might even become one of our go-to catch phrases.  I'd say that's a pretty holy habit to have, wouldn't you?