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Louis Evans in his book, Your Marriage, Duel or Duet, has a chapter entitled “Finance . . . A Fury or a Fellowship.” In this chapter he points out that money can be a major problem for couples who want to be married. He says that the unwise management of money can cause difficult problems for couples who do not have a well-thought-out program of money management prior to their wedding day.

I have tried in pre-marriage counseling sessions to help couples develop a plan to use their material resources in ways to make their marriage strong, not become a problem. God designed marriage to be “until DEATH do us part”, not “until DEBT do us part.” Some of the reasons money often causes problems in marriages are:

The love of money. There is nothing wrong with owning money – even lots of it. The problem comes when money owns us, when we love money. Acts 5 tells us that Ananias and Sapphira met their death because they loved money. Judas loved money so much that he betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. The bishop of a New Testament church must be one who is “not greedy for money” (I Timothy 3:3).

Misunderstanding the purpose of money. Failing to understand how money should be properly used leads to abuses. Both those who have lots of money and those who have very little of it can lack in understanding how it can be used in wise and proper ways. Using money unwisely can have serious consequences for a family.

Unwise credit buying. Buying on credit has enabled many families to have things they would never have gotten otherwise, but buying on credit more than can be later paid for creates chaos in families. Perhaps you have heard the story of the man who told his friend he had arranged for his wife to have plastic surgery. “I took a pair of scissors,” he explained, “and cut up her credit cards.” It is an idea that lots of other families might productively adopt.

Keeping up with the proverbial Jones family. We are literally bombarded by commercials every time we turn on a radio or television set. We are encouraged to covet whatever we do not have in the belief that it will help us keep up with what others have. Greed takes over and getting becomes more important than giving.

Jack Taylor, in his book, One Home under God, shares a poem by an anonymous author which describes a bride and groom’s determination that money would never become a problem in their marriage:

“The bride, bent with age, leaned over her cane,

Her steps uncertain need guiding,

While down the church aisle,

With a wan toothless smile

The groom in a wheel-chair came gliding,

And who is this elderly couple thus wed?

You’ll find when you’ve closely explored it,

That this is that rare, conservative pair . . .

Who waited TILL THEY COULD AFFORD IT.”

 

 

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Two or three vegetable stands pop up each summer along highway 421 north and south of Clinton. Travelers can stop at one of these stands and buy what farmers in the area have grown – watermelons, cantaloupes, tomatoes, and four or five other kinds of vegetables.

My wife and I stopped at one of these stands several years ago. While we were surveying what we might buy, the owner of the stand began talking with another man who had driven up. Their conversation told me that both of them were, in fact, members of the same Baptist church in the area. Everything that the man who had driven up said to the owner involved his total dislike for the pastor of their church.

Since I was at the time the pastor of Sanford’s First Baptist Church, their conversation quickly caught my attention. I did not know either the name of their church or the name of their pastor, but I do know a few things about how challenging and difficult it can be at times to be a pastor. Finally, the man said to the owner, “I told our deacons all we have to do to get rid of our preacher is to stop giving our money.”

Nothing in their conversation gave me the impression that their pastor deserved the kind of acrimonious criticism being spewed by this negative imitation of what a constructive church member should be. I had heard as much of his diatribe as I could stand. So I said to him, “Sir, your suggestion for getting rid of your preacher may accomplish your devious goal, but it will also do great damage to your church. I know a better way to get rid of your preacher – a way that will work and won’t hurt your church. Would you like to know?”

His interest piqued, he said, “Sure, how should we do it?”

“Pray for him,” I said. “And get every member of your church to pray for him — every day. Ask God to guide him and make him more effective, and then join diligently with every other member of your church in helping get done what God wants it to do. If you succeed in doing this, it will not be long before the ministry and witness of your church will become so effective and widely known that another church, probably much larger than your church, will come along and take your pastor off your hands.”

At that point Jessie and I put what we had purchased in the car, and drove back to Sanford. I have often wondered what this man might have said to the owner of the stand after we pulled away. I strongly suspect that it might have been, “Who is that guy?” My ears were burning! But I was smiling!

I have often wondered if he followed my advice and became a constructive church member. I seriously doubt it. Constant critics seldom take constructive advice. If he had followed the suggestions I gave him, several things would have happened — and all of them are constructive. His church would definitely have become more successful in carrying out its divinely assigned mission. And his pastor’s effectiveness as a Christian minister, wherever he might serve in the future, would have been greatly enhanced.

God calls every pastor to be the shepherd of a family of individuals who have accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord. Each pastor, like every member of his flock, is a human being. Humans are not perfect. That includes pastors. Church members need to pray for and support one another. It is the only way any church can carry out its divinely assigned mission in a maximum way.

The person who has never been criticized is not breathing. Those who can – do; those who can’t – criticize. But the best place to criticize is when you are standing in front of a mirror.

 

God paused after the sixth day of Creation to evaluate His work, and, “He saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:25). Only one more task remained. At this point “God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7). Adam would fulfill a role no other creature could – he would have fellowship with God and be the object of His love.

After God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden He observed that something was still missing. Genesis 2:18 tells us what it is: “And the Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.’” Adam was lonely because he had absolutely no one with whom to share the living of his days. It was the first time God said of anything He had created, “It is not good!”

God recognized that Adam had a strong need for contact with another human being – a need He had built into him. Eve would be the object of Adam’s love and would love him in return. She would share the wonders of creation and the responsibilities of stewardship. What this tells us is that by God’s design all human beings have an innate need to be loved and to belong. Through our relationship with family, friends, co-workers and others, we form our sense of individuality and find our place in the mosaic of life. It is when that need for affection and fellowship goes unfulfilled that we become restless, unhappy, and lonely.

If you are struggling with loneliness you are not alone. Loneliness does not develop overnight. It can be the result of a lifetime of influences that shape our personality. Or it can evolve after a major transition or trauma. Often we are unaware of the subtle forces that can slowly lead us into self-imposed isolation. Many things can lead a person to be lonely: unaffectionate parents, social factors, and the influence of technology such as addiction to watching television or cell phone overuse. Loneliness, by whatever it is caused — these factors or others — can lead to alcoholism, drug addiction, family breakdown, and many other negative things.

As the story of Adam and Eve illustrates, God intends for us to share our lives with other people. Both the Old and New Testaments have a lot to say about marriage, parenthood, friendship and church fellowship. But fellowship with God is the relationship of preeminent importance. A dynamic walk with God is a solid foundation for building relationships with others. Karl Menninger, renowned psychologist, said to those who are lonely, “Lock the door behind you, go across the street, find someone who is hurting, and help him (or her).” It is good advice. Helping someone else shifts your attention from your problems to the needs of others. Perhaps this is why Joseph Fort Newton said, “People are lonely because they build walls instead of bridges.”

You have probably heard suggestions from well-meaning friends like these: “Join a club,” or “Do some traveling.” They aren’t bad ideas, but they aren’t solutions to the problem of loneliness either. The following steps will help you break free from the prison loneliness easily becomes: (1) admit your problems; (2) Consider the causes; (3) Accept what cannot be changed; (4) Change what can be changed; (5) Work at developing new habits that build up your inner self; and (6) Give time and effort to the goal of making new friends.

James Russell Lowell, in The Forlorn, wrote these wise words:

“Whom the heart of man shuts out,

Sometimes the heart of God takes in,

And fences them all round about

With silence mid the world’s loud din.”

 

In case you planned to make some New Year resolutions and couldn’t think of any, I suggest the following:

Like the apostle Paul, I will FORGET those things which are behind and press forward.

Like Abraham, I will TRUST implicitly in my God to lead me.

Like Moses, I will CHOOSE to suffer rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season.

Like David, I will LIFT up my eyes unto the hills from whence comes my help.

Like Daniel, I will COMMUNE with God on a daily basis.

Like Job, I will BE PATIENT under all circumstances.

Like Caleb and Joshua, I will REFUSE to be discouraged when superior numbers are arrayed against me.

Like Joseph, I will TURN MY BACK to all destructive temptations.

Like Gideon, I will ADVANCE even though the odds may be against me.

Like Aaron and Hur, I will UPHOLD the hands of spiritual leaders.

Like Andrew, I will STRIVE to lead my brother and others to a closer walk with Christ.

Like John, I will LEAN upon the bosom of the Master and imbibe of His Spirit.

Like Stephen, I will MANIFEST a forgiving spirit toward all who seek to hurt me.

Like Timothy, I will STUDY to show myself approved unto God, a workman that does not need to be ashamed.

Like the heavenly host, I will PROCLAIM the message of peace on earth and good will toward all men.

Like my Lord, I will FULFILL the mission assigned to me by my Heavenly Father.

If you should choose to adopt one or more of these resolutions as you enter 2019, the time to do that is now. The inscription found on an old sundial entitled, “The Sundial Speaks,” makes this abundantly clear:

“The shadow by my finger cast

Divides the future from the past;

Before it stands the unborn hour

In darkness, and beyond thy power,

Behind its unrelenting line,

The vanished hour, no longer thine.

One hour alone is in thy hands,

The NOW on which the shadow falls.”

 

It is true! It happened! God has visited our planet! He entered into the dimension where we live. We have no worthiness that made it possible, and we lack the ability to comprehend just how or why it is true – but God, Eternal, All-Glorious, Infinite Spirit, has come to us – as a baby!

As incredible as it seems to us who live in the twenty-first century, it was to a young Jewish girl, probably around fourteen years of age, that God sent the angel Gabriel with the earthshaking announcement that she had been chosen to be the mother of the promised Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Can you imagine the ways that Mary might have received and processed the message from Gabriel that she, a virgin, would give birth to a child? “How can this be possible? What will Joseph, the one to whom I am betrothed, think, and what will he do? How will my parents respond? Will anyone else, both now and in the future, believe such a story?”

It is logical for us to assume that Mary would have had difficulty believing and accepting the angel’s message. Instead, she accepted the unique honor to become the mother of the Savior of the world. It happened just as the angel said, and this poor, otherwise insignificant girl became what millions of Christians believe to be the most significant and heralded woman in history.

Her humility and willingness to embrace the role for which she was chosen by God is significant in and of itself. Yet, her greatest significance is due to the fact that she would give birth to the One of whom the prophets had spoken, and whom the children of Israel had anticipated throughout the centuries. The child in a manger, God-incarnate, the Word made flesh, was destined to draw a sinful human race back into the loving orbit of God, providing joy and peace and significance to all who would believe in Him and accept Him as Savior and Lord.

It is God’s coming to us through the birth of Jesus in the little town of Bethlehem that gives Mary, a Jewish teenager, an honor and significance bestowed on no other woman in history. It also gives all persons throughout the more than twenty centuries since that day who have accepted Him as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords the distinct honor of becoming a member of God’s family.

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary said in answering the angel Gabriel, “May it be to me as you have said” (Luke 1:38 NIV). It is that kind of humble prayer that every Christian should pray in responding to the will of God for his or her life.

The people around the Bethlehem event were real: Caesar Augustus, Cyrenius, Mary, Joseph, the Magi, and the Christ Child. The story of that first Christmas needs to be told again and again. It is a message desperately needed in today’s war-torn world, and it never grows old.

Yes, it really happened! God has invaded our planet! Perhaps the manger happening is the only way God could have come to us. At least it is the way He chose to come. We, being sinful, could never approach the holy and righteous God on our own merit any more than we could draw near to the sun located millions of miles out in space.

The God who came into our world as a baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in Bethlehem’s manger, was on the way to a Roman cross. It was upon that cross that God’s Son would take the penalty for our sins upon Himself. Just as He presented His body as a living sacrifice, demonstrating once and for all the length, depth, height, and breadth of God’s love, even so we who believe in Him are called upon to offer up our lives as living sacrifices by spreading abroad the good news of God’s love.

Christians must never forget that beyond the warmth and glow of the manger in Bethlehem was the excruciating pain the Son of God endured on a Roman cross. I tried to express this thought in a poem I wrote several years ago that I entitled simply, “The King.”

“The rulers of this world march by

In purple and in gold;

They rise, they flourish, and they die,

And their entire story is told;

One king alone is divine,

One banner triumphs still;

He is both King and servant – and His sign

Is a cross on a hill.”

 

 

“The star was so beautiful, large and clear,

That all the other stars of the sky

Became a white mist in the atmosphere.

And by this they knew that the coming was near

Of the Prince foretold in prophecy”

Thus wrote Henry Wadsworth Longfellow concerning the Star of Bethlehem. Of all the signs and wonders surrounding the birth of Christ it is perhaps the most mysterious. It is certainly the most interesting.

After the birth of Jesus men obviously interested in astronomy came from the east to Jerusalem and inquired, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him” (Matthew 2:1-2). They were very likely astrologers, persons who consulted the stars to make predictions about future events. As they studied the night sky they saw something to indicate that a king had been born in Judea.

What exactly did they see? There have been many different theories. Some Christians have speculated that the star was a supernatural light – something never seen before, and would never be seen again. Some have conjectured that it was a comet, or a conjunction of planets. Johannes Kepler thought it was a supernova – an exploding star. Still others think it could have been a meteor shower.

What are we to make of these theories? And there have been others. The place to start is with biblical facts. First, we know that it was a heavenly object, and that it made a sudden appearance in the east (Matthew 2:2). Presumably the Magi had never seen anything like it before. Otherwise, they would not have followed it.

Second, it disappeared as suddenly as it appeared. This explains why the Magi stopped in Jerusalem to ask for directions instead of going straight to Bethlehem. Then the star reappeared. This is the implication of Matthew 2:9-10. The most convincing explanation is that the Magi witnessed several conjunctions of Jupiter, the planet they considered to represent kingship. A number of such conjunctions took place in the years leading up to the death of Herod.

In September, 3 B.C., Jupiter came into conjunction with Regulus, the star of kingship, the brightest star in the constellation of Leo. Leo was regarded to be the constellation of kings, and it was associated with the Lion of Judah. The conjunction between Jupiter and Regulus was repeated, not once but twice, in February and May of 2 B.C. Finally, in June of 2 B.C., Jupiter and Venus, the two brightest objects in the sky except for the sun and the moon, had an even closer encounter when they appeared to touch each other in the sky. To the naked eye they became a single object.

The Magi followed the star, whatever it was, to Jerusalem, and then five miles further to Bethlehem. Though no one knows precisely what the Star of Bethlehem was, it was a remarkable demonstration of God’s sovereignty. It means that from the beginning of time, God organized the entire universe in a way that would herald the birth of His Son, and our Savior, Jesus Christ, into the world.

It also means that the greatest event in human history was not when a man walked on the moon. It was when God walked upon the earth.

 

Tony Campolo, professor at Eastern University in Pennsylvania, once asked a student in his class this question: “How long have you lived?” The student instinctively answered, “Twenty-four years.”

“No! No!” Campolo responded. “I didn’t ask you how long you have existed as a breathing, functioning member of the human race. I wanted you to tell me how long you have been really alive.” That is an entirely different question than the one the student thought he had been asked.

Occasionally something happens that shakes people out of their mundane existence and introduces them to the hidden potential that can be discovered in life. It is precisely the kind of experience that changed the life of the nineteenth-century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky. He had never been an ordinary man, but it provided him with a powerful new insight that became a part of his genius.

As a young novelist, Dostoyevsky believed that political revolution was the essential route for the life God had willed for him. He joined one of the militant socialist movements that seemed to be omnipresent in nineteenth-century Russia. But his efforts to create the kingdom of God by overthrowing the czar came to naught. His mini-revolution failed. He was immediately imprisoned by the czar and, so he thought, sentenced to death. But to his surprise, he did not die.

Those who challenged the czar’s totalitarian power were sometimes subjected to a cruel psychological trick designed to break their spirits. He and others who had challenged the czar in one way or another were blindfolded and put before a firing squad. The commands, “Ready . . . Aim . . . Fire,” were given. The sound of shots would ring out. But then – nothing! The bullets were blanks.

This scary process was designed to destroy the emotional life of the czar’s victims, but in the case of Dostoyevsky it ironically provided a whole new way of living it. Facing death without dying gave him a new perception of reality and an ability to apprehend and appreciate life with a passion he had not known before.

As the moment approached which he was certain would be his last, he found himself living life with a hitherto unknown heightened awareness. Since he did not die, every event in his life, no matter how apparently ordinary or seemingly insignificant it had been, took on an extraordinary level of importance.

As he ate his last meal, he concentrated on the taste of every bite, savoring each morsel, because he believed this would be the last food he would ever eat. As they marched him into the courtyard to be executed he studied the face of every soldier charged with the grisly task of shooting him, because he was convinced they were the last faces he would ever see. Because he was totally convinced he was living his last hour on earth, he was making the most of every moment he had left.

A prayer that parents for centuries have taught their children to pray before going to bed at night includes these words: If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” The death of any child during the night before the next sunrise is considered an immense tragedy by his or her parents.

What is an even greater tragedy, however, is for someone to live threescore and ten years or more and never really learn to live. No person need ever die before he or she learns to live. If you are not a Christian, know this: “God sent His one and only Son into the word that you might live through Him” (I John 4:9).