Here we are, December 31st.  This is my 261st post of the year.  Averaging more than 400 words per post, I’ve written and posted somewhere between 100,000 and 120,000 words this year.  I feel like that puts a little bit of pressure on these last few.  But hey, I’m clutch.  They don't call me the Knowledge Dropper for nothing.

First, I want to offer a bit of thanks.  I made it my goal to post a spiritual message each weekday of this year, and thanks to your support I have pushed through to reach that goal.  Many of the messages were things that I was personally interested in.  Others were put on my heart by the Holy Spirit.  A few were suggested by friends. And some…were just for fun.

Since I will be moving to a weekly post format in 2013, I feel like this is the end of an era.  So I want to leave you with one final message that I hope sums up my work this year.

Friends, we are way off from the work of the early churches.  Their passion in their pursuit of spreading the gospel is unidentifiable in the vast majority of churches today.  We focus way too much on meeting our own needs, fitting in with popular culture, and trying to satisfy the “tradition” of what has come before us.  We seek to please ourselves and keep our church members content before we think about pleasing God and meeting the needs in our communities.

I really think that we all see this problem.  We notice the missed opportunities and the ministry needs that are not being met.  We identify the church practices that are self-serving and do nothing to advance the Kingdom of God.  We are convicted when we realize that we are living with Christ in our lives, and not living our lives for Christ.

The issue is that we believe that it is bigger than us.  And I agree with that.  Our culture of complacency and selfishness is far bigger than you or me.  Yet, our lack of faith keeps us from realizing that it IS NOT bigger than God.  We say all the time that all things are possible with God.  But we do nothing to show that we believe it.

If you see the mess that I see in the modern church, then the change starts with you and me.  To cause change, we must change.  If we want to see a different brand of Christianity, then we ourselves must be different. 

It is going to be awkward.  It is going to be uncomfortable.  It is going to be painful.  But it must be done.  Join me, will you?

Several months ago, I had a friend tell me about several non-Christian friends that he converses with on a regular basis.  As he shares his faith, they keep throwing up the same road block.  It is a question that I think we all struggle with from time to time.  But it is also one that many non-believers cling to as their “evidence” for not believing.

How can a loving God let so many people suffer and die?

God loves us.  We even claim that God is love.  Yet, thousands upon thousands of people are oppressed, abused, and murdered every day right under His nose.  His creation, under the reign of His infinite power, allows people to suffer in brutal, unimaginable ways.  How is that possible?

Perhaps the most loving thing God has ever done, aside from creation itself and that whole “sending His Son to die” thing, is giving us the power of choice.  Free will gives us the option to choose God or to turn away from Him.  It allows us to make decisions based in love or decisions based in selfishness.  He loves us enough to give us the power to choose.

Unfortunately, there are many ramifications for that.  Since God loves us all equally, He refuses to take free will away from anyone, no matter what they plan to do.  While it may be difficult for us to understand, God loves James Holmes (Aurora, CO), Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech), Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold (Columbine), Osama Bin Laden, Joseph Stalin, and Adolph Hitler.  God loves them so much that He refused to take their free will away.  I know that sounds too simple.  I know it sounds very convenient.  But if you consider the power of choice that God’s love provides, there is no denying it.

As for the disease and famine in the world, I am afraid the answer is a bit more painful.  It is still rooted in free will, but the blame does not lie on a few sinful individuals.  Unfortunately, the blame lies on me.  And you.  And every other person that has more than they need.  I have enough money to share and feed a hungry person or two, and chances are you do too. 

God created us to take care of one another.  Jesus commanded us to take care of the least of these.  Yet, we continue to buy nicer cars and bigger televisions.  We spend our time on hobbies and leisure activities when we should be volunteering and donating.  You and I are responsible for all of the people in need in this world…don’t blame God.

I agree that earth is a pretty messed up place right now.  However, the problems that we see are not evidence that God does not exist.  On the contrary, it is proof of the free will that we have all been blessed with, and the sinful choices that we make every day.  And if we want to see it change, we need to pray to God that He will help us change.  We are the problem.  Not Him.

Let’s play a little word association, shall we?  What’s the first thing that you think of when you think of Jonah?  If you didn’t say a whale, you are probably lying.

That’s what the story is all about, right?  Well…not really.  The story is about obedience (or the lack thereof).  It is about a man that refuses to obey God, and how God deals with Him.  It’s about redemption.  It is about mercy, compassion, and unfailing love. 

God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh and tell them that they will be destroyed because of their wickedness.  Jonah runs the other way and hitches a ride on a boat.  There is a big storm, the others on the boat figure out that the storm is God trying to get Jonah, and they throw him overboard.  That is when the big fish is finally mentioned.  After Jonah prays a prayer of repentance, the fish spits him out and Jonah goes to Nineveh.

When the people there hear the message from God, they change their ways and God changes His mind.  Jonah gets mad cause he says he knew God would do this.  God then provides an example for Jonah to see how hard it must be for God to wipe out so many people out.

Isn’t that awesome?  The story of Jonah is so deep, and it shows us so much about the character of God.  We see God condemn, forgive, redeem, and work miracles.  Yet, we always talk about the whale.  The fish, however, is but a small detail.

How often do we do this in our own lives?  God provides for us in a mighty way, but we keep looking for “what’s next”.  God helps us through a hurtful time, but we focus on the pain.  God offers forgiveness and redemption, but we focus on our mistakes.

God is awesome.  And if He is going to intervene and display His awesomeness in our lives, then the least we can do is marvel at His splendor.  Yes, the details are important because He is in them.  However, let’s try to keep our focus on His presence and not on our selfish interests.

So [Jonah] complained to the Lord about it: “Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, Lord? That is why I ran away to Tarshish! I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people.  Just kill me now, Lord! I’d rather be dead than alive if what I predicted will not happen.”

The Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry about this?”  (Jonah 4:2-4 NLT)

My wife and I are very thankful for our jobs.  Not only are we doing work that we love, but we also get some great benefits.  One of our favorite benefits is the time off around Christmas.  It makes travel plans flow more smoothly, allows room for family time, and lets us rest a bit.  This year, however, we decided to take on a special project…potty training our two year old.

When we trained our first child to use the toilet, it was a nightmare wrapped in a series of anticipated paper cuts…miserable.  However, our youngest is taking to it rather well.  That’s good in that it has been pretty stress free and will save us money on diapers.  However, it also means we have to stop every 20-30 miles to use the bathroom during holiday travel.  That is an even bigger problem when everything is closed on Christmas day.

Deep down, I fully support closing your business in observance of Christmas day.  Give your employees the day off to spend with family.  Put your focus more on respect and love than making money.  However, boy was I thankful for the handful of gas stations that we were able to find on Tuesday.

Yet, as I exited each establishment, often without buying anything, my eye was caught by the lonely employee spending Christmas at work.  I spoke to a few of them, trying to be cheerful and thankful.  But I felt as though they needed more.  So that gave me an idea.

Since I am pretty sure that the massive closure of businesses only happens on Christmas, I sincerely hope I don’t forget about this before next December.  Wouldn’t it be a cool ministry to drop in on those working on Christmas to bring a little blessing to their day?  Perhaps I could take a gift, or a pastry or some other sort of treat.  Maybe I could get some friends together and sing some Christmas carols.  There are so many ways to bless these people that are not able to be with their families.

At first, I thought this would be a great venture to take on in our travels.  However, that would limit the number of Christians available to serve in this way.  Then I realized that it would actually be more impactful and organized if we did it within our own home towns. 

Find out beforehand which businesses will be open in your area on Christmas day.  More than likely, these will all be gas stations.  Get a ministry team together and figure out how to serve these people.  What kind of ministry would have a big impact on their day at work?  How can we show them the love of Christ when they are stranded away from loved ones?  How can we be Christ to them when they feel all alone?

Let the planning begin.

Merry Christmas!  Today is the day that we celebrate the birth of our Savior.  A miracle birth, nonetheless, with a virgin mother and a host of unlikely visitors.  The Messiah came to earth, not as a warrior looking to lead Israel out of oppression, but a baby prepared to live the perfect life that we couldn’t and die the death that we all deserve.

Today is His birthday.  While I maintain that the celebration of the resurrection is a more important Christian holiday, Christmas represents a time of hope, love, and peace that seems to be a bit more inviting.  Christmas gives us more time to spend with family, showing our love through quality time and, of course, gifts.  Christmas gives us time off of work and that makes the holiday feel more special.  Christmas is full of warmth, joy, and anticipation.

However, we sometimes get drawn in to the pressure of buying the perfect gift, the expectation of making everyone around us happy, and a busy schedule that keeps us from experiencing Christmas as advertised.  We end up focusing on our to-do lists and family obligations more than the love that Christ’s birth represents. 

God wrapped Himself in flesh to come down here and save us from ourselves.  We need to make sure that we keep this significance in mind as we get bogged down in the hustle and bustle of our celebrations. 

Now, go worship our Savior.  Go love on your family.  Experience the peace, hope, and love that this season represents.

How smart are you?  Come on, give yourself a little credit.  Modesty is a fantastic trait, but I think we all believe that we are pretty intelligent.  At least, I know I am.  (Insert laugh track here.)

Regardless of how intelligent you think you are, I think we can all agree that it is always a good idea to be surrounded by smart people.  If you are looking for advice, or fresh ideas, or just help with a project, it’s great to have people around you that can support and contribute to your productivity.

As legend has it, and by legend I mean the Bible, Solomon was the wisest man that has ever lived.  God gave him wisdom because that is what he asked for.  Yet, the Bible also tells us that Solomon surrounded himself with trusted advisors.  He had people that he trusted to give solid advice and input.  Even the smartest guy alive sought wise counsel.  You’d have to think this was an all-star team of advisors, right?

After Solomon passed away, his “cabinet” stayed around to help the new king, Rehoboam, Solomon’s son.  Talk about a setup for success.  That’s like being drafted by the Chicago Bulls in 1995.  There is very little you can do to screw things up.  However, Rehaboam found a way.

When confronted with his first issue about the labor requirements of the people of Israel, Rehaboam tried to figure out whether to make the burden lighter on the workers, or to push them harder.  He sought counsel from Solomon’s advisors, and also asked his friends for help.  After three days of deliberation, he opted to listen to his contemporaries and make life harder on the labor force.

And to this day the northern tribes of Israel have refused to be ruled by a descendant of David.  (2 Chronicles 10:19 NLT)

Rehaboam’s inability to listen to wise counsel led to great dissention, and ultimately destruction, of the Israel that David built.

I know that you and I not necessarily rulers of nations, but our decisions do affect people.  Our choices have an impact on the lives of others.  That impact has both immediate and eternal implications, and should be taken very seriously.

Thankfully, we have the opportunity to surround ourselves with Godly, wise, prayerful individuals.  We can choose to take advice from those that have more experience, can see the bigger picture, or have a stronger leading from the Holy Spirit.  We have a chance to be smarter than we are by simply allowing others to play a role in our decision making.

We all play our own parts, and serve in individual roles in the body of Christ.  But let’s make sure that we utilize the other parts as well. 

If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.  Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.  (1 Corinthians 12:26-27 NLT)

I often tell my students that finals week provides one of the greatest feelings in the world.  When you finish your last exam, you feel like a giant weight has been lifted from your shoulders.  You have zero academic obligations: no papers, no tests, no readings, no assignments whatsoever.  What an amazing feeling!

What I fail to tell them is that, less than a week later, a great deal of stress may creep back in as they await the posting of final grades.  For some students, they are stressed about possibly not getting straight A’s.  Others are shooting for the Dean’s List.  And some are just praying they did well enough to avoid suspension.  Stress is relative, I suppose.

Getting graded, or being judged in any way, is rarely an enjoyable experience.  You work hard for 16 weeks only to have all of your effort summed up with a single letter.  Even for my job, I am regularly evaluated by my boss.  We have a few meetings every year where we set goals for my work, and then we check back in to see how I’ve done.  I work hard to make sure those “judgment meetings” go well, just as college students work hard for their grades.

Why is it, then, that while the use of our time often reflects the importance of the outcomes of these things, our priorities do not necessarily reflect the importance of the only judgment that really matters? 

I am not a big fan of “hell fire and brimstone” evangelism, so I am not going to go into that debate.  I’m talking about doing what is asked of us.  Seeking to meet the goals set for us by the Bible.  Meeting the expectations of the Holy Spirit.  Living as though our relationship with God really matters.

I think one problem with our “spiritual performance” comes from the lack of accountability.  We do not have a scheduled assessment.  We don’t know when grades will come out or when our eternal evaluation will be.  There seems to be an out of sight, out of mind type of mentality when it comes to us believing that our actions really matter.

Obviously, having accountability meetings with other believers can play an important role in helping us overcome this challenge.  I am a huge advocate of participating in accountability groups with fellow Christians.

However, until we get it in our heads that God is always with us, and that pleasing Him is the most important thing we can ever do, I fear that we will continue to fail.  And it can’t just be a thought in the back of our heads, it has to be on the forefront of our minds at all times.  But how do we do that?  You tell me. 

Seriously… tell me what helps you focus on God in the comments section below.  Please and thanks.

And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today.  Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up.  Tie them to your hands and wear them on your forehead as reminders.  Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:6-9 NLT)

Now that I’ve established my stance on Christmas music, I bet you are wondering about my views on other Christmas traditions.  Well, I’m glad you asked. 

If you asked my wife, she would probably tell you that I am the closest thing to a real life Ebenezer Scrooge.  She threatens me regularly and tells me that I have to get into the Christmas spirit for our kids.

As it turns out, I am not that cynical.  I enjoy the season very much, actually.  I love watching people open gifts.  I love sharing the miraculous story of Christ’s birth.  And boy do I love the food.

My only two qualms, really, come with the music and the Christmas cards.  The music really gets on my nerves.  But, as for the cards, I really just don’t get the point.  You are going to send people a card to tell them Merry Christmas?  A card?  With words written on it?

Why on earth wouldn’t you just tell them in person or call them on the phone?  My goodness, with modern technology, there are hundreds of ways to get in touch with people.  And we buy little pieces of paper and postage just to say Merry Christmas?  Seriously, it just doesn’t make sense to me.

Also, there is the fact that over $2 billion are spent on Christmas cards in America annually.  I would go into how many homeless people could be helped, hungry people fed, and so on but that may be a little much.

Regardless of my thoughts on the subject, my family fully participates in the Christmas card madness each year.  As my wife requires my participation, I make sure that we have high standards.  If we are going to spend time and money on this, we have to do it right.

This year, this is what we came up with:

What do you think?

Does your family get excited about Christmas cards?  Do you decorate your fridge or a door frame with them?  Can we still be friends now that you know how I feel about them?

Are there any other Christmas traditions that you just don’t get?

Have you ever met anybody named Grace?  I’ve known a few ladies by that name.  They were all very sweet, kind, and friendly.  I have always assumed that they became that way because of their name.  God’s grace is beautiful, warm, amazing, and gentle…or is it?

As part of a recent Faith Element Bible study with my Sunday School class, we were treated to a clip from Schindler’s List.  In that clip, Schindler was talking to Amon Goeth about what it meant to be powerful.  He had the power to kill and/or torture anyone for any reason, and did kill many.  He was considered to be a very powerful man.  Yet, his definition of power surprised me.

Power is when we have every justification to kill, and we don't.  -Oskar Schindler in the film Schindler’s List

Have you ever thought of power that way?  Do you think that is an accurate definition of the word?  That definition certainly seems familiar enough, but is not often tied to power.  In fact, that matches up pretty well with the definition of grace.

Think about it.  God’s grace comes in the form of forgiveness, understanding, and unconditional love.  Through our sin, we give God every reason to forget about us, be angry at us, and even destroy us.  But in His infinite grace, He offers forgiveness and gives us a chance to repent

How hard would it be for us to offer such a reprieve?  While we usually think of grace as a passive, gentle act, the constitution that it takes to ignore our instinct and opt for love and mercy is often unfathomable. 

God is able to offer such unimaginable grace only because of His limitless power.  And His power is shown perfectly through that grace.  Wow…His grace really is amazing.

I have recently been blessed with a cool opportunity.  Since early November, I have been part of the broadcast team for Berea College men’s basketball.  We do a live internet feed and I get to handle the play-by-play responsibilities for all home games.  This has been very exciting for me, and I have spared no details in sharing my excitement with everyone.

Yet, on my priority list, this obligation is very near the bottom.  I have a few dozen people listen to me talk about basketball for a couple of hours per week.  While it is exciting that I get to do it, the overall importance in my life is minimal.  So why do I act as though it is a big deal?

Unfortunately, I often feel like I take my significant blessings for granted.  I have a home, a job that I love, vehicles to get me back and forth, a wonderful church, great friends, and an amazing family.  These are all blessings that many people don’t have.  Yet, I still find myself going through the motions.  The excitement I once had for all of these things comes and goes with circumstances.  I am spoiled.

Perhaps the thing that I take for granted the most is my relationship with Jesus Christ.  I know God, the Creator of everything and the One who gave me life.  I get to talk to Him, hear from Him, and experience His love every day.  And because of Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection, I get to spend eternity in His presence.  This is a blessing so great that it should make it impossible for me to calm down.  Yet…I go on about my day.

When we share Christ with people, we do so because we know the importance of having a relationship with Him.  Sometimes we are able to show our excitement for the gospel, but all too often we end up just trying to provide convincing evidence.  The gospel should be the most exciting thing in our lives.  It is, in fact, the most exciting thing in the history of creation.

And now this Good News has been announced to you by those who preached in the power of the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. It is all so wonderful that even the angels are eagerly watching these things happen.  (1 Peter 1:12b NLT)

Or, as it reads in The Message version of the Bible:

Do you realize how fortunate you are? Angels would have given anything to be in on this! (The Message)

Literally, aside from creation itself, the story of Jesus Christ is the biggest event in the history of everything.  The fact that we are not always buzzing about the news, even 2,000 years later, is an obvious byproduct of our sinful nature.  If we truly believe this good news, then we all need to take some time to realize how big of a deal it is.

"Preach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words."  -Francis of Assisi