Lessons Learned From Christmas Visits with the Elderly

Elderly ManEvery year at Advent I visit some of the ‘shut-ins’ of our church.  That is, members who are now physically unable to attend.  I bring them poinsettias and do my best to listen.  Here are four lessons I learned from the experience this year.

1) Life Is Short

You hear this all the time, but it really sinks in when you hear it again and again from people closer to the end. Almost everyone I visited this year expressed it. Time seems to speed up as you get older. It continues to speed up in old age.

2)  Some People Are Given Time To Reflect At The End Of Life

Many people are given a space at the end of their life where they have nothing to do.  They are no longer working, cooking or cleaning.  Their spouse has passed away along with many friends and relatives. The structures that gave shape to their life are gone.

There are two reactions to this empty time. Some people do nothing, give great importance to things that are trivial and often become depressed or at least bored.  Others seek God and truth in the stillness. They pray, drink in information about God, listen, watch and serve in all kinds of creative ways. These people experience spiritual growth even as their bodies fade.

I met a man who entered into a real, vital relationship with God at the age of 84, after a lifetime attending church. When the busyness of life faded he found God waiting for him in the quiet.

3) No One Cares About Their Job Or Their Money At The End

I can imagine there are cases where people do care about these things at the end, but I didn’t find any.  The elderly still have physical needs of course and that can be expensive, but no one talked to me about money or plans to get more. No one talked about the stock market or investments.  Even more striking, no one told me about their former job. The thing they spent most of their time doing in their life was not even mentioned.

What do they care about?  Four things: God, Family, Trivial Details or Nothing. Some talk about nothing but God and Family, others only talk about the minute details of their schedule.

4) Every Life Is Both Worse And Better Than It Appears

Many of the people I visited opened up to me. Some feel the need to share things with a pastor they have never told anyone before.

Every life is worse than it appears. Beneath the surface are deep wounds, anger, disappointment, depression and struggle. And yet, if you listen long enough you can get beyond this. At the deepest level and everywhere you find a God who is constantly watching, leading, calling and restoring. Take a ‘normal’, decent life.  Look deep enough and you will find vast evil.  But do not stop there.  Look even deeper and you will find God Himself doing amazing things that mostly go unnoticed.

Staring at Your Hands – What We Can Learn from Babies this Christmas

Hand zeigt StopRecently while driving on a family trip I was telling my wife about my new habit of staring at my hands. She gave me a strange look and seemed a little embarrassed. But this new habit has had amazing benefits in my life.  Here is how it started and why I do it.

First, I have been reading the book ‘Kept For the Master’s Use’ by Frances Ridley Havergal.  Frances is the woman who wrote the hymn Take My Life and Let It Be. The book was written near the end of her life in 1895.  It goes through the different parts of a human being and imagines how these can be given entirely to God. It includes parts such as our will and mind, as well as our hands and feet. The book is not easy to read unless you are used to old churchy language, but it is well worth reading if you are up to the challenge.

In her chapter on hands Frances notes how amazing and miraculous our hands actually are. And it’s true!  We take so much for granted.  What would my life be like if I were often amazed, full of thanksgiving and joy over my hands? I am full of excitement over a new phone I get, but it is nothing compared to the fantastic miracle of the hands that hold it. So, I spent some time staring at and thinking deeply about my hands, trying to wake myself up to how great they are.

Second, I have been thinking deeply and reading about habits. I want to grow in Christ.  But how do I do it?  When I am full of thoughts of God and truth I have no problem doing many of the things Christ teaches.  When I forget and am distracted by other things then I fail and my life spirals down away from God. Habits must be a huge part of the solution to this problem. If what I automatically do leads my heart and mind toward God then it will be so much easier to imitate Him.

So, I thought, what habit could I build around my hands? They are always with meI decided that every time I washed my hands I would hold them up in front of me, flex them and stare at them like a little baby.   I spend about five or ten seconds doing this, remind myself how much I have been given and how well I am loved by God.  I do this EVERY time I wash my hands so that it has become automatic.

The results have been excellent. God is automatically in my mind more often and I am in a better mood every time I wash my hands. 

The one drawback is that my wife thinks I am weird. But as long as I don’t talk about it too much or tell the whole internet what I am doing I think she will be okay.

The Baptist is Coming to Wreck Your Party

ImageChristmas was great. We watched the kids dress up like sheep and tell us about the baby Jesus. We opened presents and drove a long way. Things aren’t perfect but they are pretty good. Time for a New Years party!

So what happens next?

What comes after the baby Jesus?  The answer is John the Baptist.  He lives in the wilderness. He eats bugs. He wears clothes that rub his skin raw and he breaks into beehives with his bare hands. His hair is all matted and he has a crazed look in his eyes. Run!  The Baptist is coming to wreck your party.

Here is the deal.  John the Baptist lived a life that should scare us sober.  He was Jesus’ cousin. An angel told his parents that he should follow certain rules for his entire life, the rules of a Nazirite.  You can find these in Numbers chapter 6.  He couldn’t eat or drink anything made from grapes.  But people drank wine at every meal and ate a lot of raisins.  No parties for John. He could never be near a dead body.  If his mom died he couldn’t go to the funeral.  And he could NEVER cut his hair. Just like Samson.  Samson had long braids.  In John’s case think dreadlocks.

At about 13 he left home and lived in the wilderness.  Hot, desert-ish scrubland. He was alone there for 15 years!  What did he do?  He prayed, listened and looked for God.

Around the age of 30 he began yelling a message from God.  Word spread and thousands of people went to hear him.  He yelled at them and then he baptized them. Jesus came. John screamed something about this guy being a lamb and saving the world.  About four people paid attention.

After that he called the king a godless sinner.  They arrested him and chopped off his head.

What kind of life is this?  No friends. No family.  Virtually no childhood. No job, no parties, basically no food, no stuff, no nothing. An entire life devoted to just one word:  REPENT.

And what does that mean?  It means recognize that something is wrong. The world is not just okay. Your life is not just okay.

We are so used to the things being wrong that we put on a smile and ignore them.  The people John spoke to lived in a world filled with evil, corruption and oppression.  But that is how its always been right?  Can’t do anything about that. Just do your best and enjoy what you can.  John said NO.

It’s the same for us. We are blind to the things we do wrong. We shake our heads at the news every day, but do nothing. And just think of all those family issues you ignored last week. John says NO.

The baby Jesus came to bring peace.  But no one can receive Jesus unless they accept what the Baptist has to say.

 

 

Stop Putting Dresses on the Heavenly Host

no angels

Most modern translations of the New Testament are excellent.  There are however a few places where you are completely surprised if you read the text in the original Greek.  Several of those places have to do with the Christmas story.  The verses that tell this story are so well known that many translations have chosen to keep old words that most people don’t understand, even if they think they doThe worst offender of all is the first half of Luke chapter two, the story of the Shepherds and the Angels.

The New International Version reads in verses 13 -14: Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

A “heavenly host” appears and they say something that looks like a poem or song lyrics. Notice it doesn’t actually say they sing.

Christmas cards, songs, movies and virtually everyone imagines in this verse a magnificent heavenly choir, arrayed in their glowing robes and singing four part harmony while floating in the sky. That is ABSOLUTELY NOT what Luke is describing.   

The Shepherds are Terrified

The first clue is the reaction of the shepherds to the angel that appears in verse nine. The NIV says ‘they were terrified’.  The old King James calls them ‘sore afraid’.  The Greek literally says, ‘they were terrified with a great terror’.  They aren’t just surprised.  They are scared out of their minds. This is always the reaction when people in the Bible see an angel. Maybe they aren’t so friendly looking?

What exactly is a ‘host’?

Many people would say a host is a large number of people, or angels. But in that case Luke would be repeating himself when he says there was a ‘great company’ of the heavenly host. In fact, the word host has a very specific meaning.

The Greek word translated host is the word stratia. It is where we get our word strategy. It has only one basic meaning in New Testament Greek.  It means AN ARMY. Not a choir. It means soldiers in full battle gear formed up for war.

Battle Cry

If this is an army then why are they singing a song?  The answer is they aren’t. Luke doesn’t say they are singing.  They recite a kind of poem together. Did armies do that?  Yes and they still do. ‘One, Two, Three, Four, I love the Marine Corps!  The angel army is chanting a battle cry.  The battle cry is simple. We can paraphrase it like this, “Glory to God in Heaven.  Peace here on the earth to those who are His friends.  The war is about to end. The Enemy is going to die.”

Why is the war over?  Because a baby is born.  The army marches behind its most powerful weapon, its First Soldier, the death blow to Satan and the enemies of God, the baby of Bethlehem.

Isaac Whiting

Leave me a comment and tell me what you think.