Friday, December 13, 2013

Good News for Christmas Depression

(Author's Note: The final day of the semester has arrived so, as is my custom, I will be taking a break from writing.  WftW will return on January 14th.  May you have a blessed and wonderful Christmas and New Year! Jim)

“The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor 
and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion— to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor.” (Isaiah 61:1-3 NIV).

Depression at and around Christmas is more common than at any other time of the year.  Suicide rates are at their highest in December.  It is ironic that around the time the world is celebrating the birth of a Savior, people are the most depressed.  That probably tells us something about the Christmas holidays.  The “good news” the angels declared on that winter’s night long ago has been lost for many in our celebration.

What Isaiah proclaimed, Jesus declared He had fulfilled in His coming (Luke 4).  It is indeed good news!  Healing of the brokenhearted. Freedom for the captives and a release for the prisoners held in darkness. Justice coming to the unjust.  Comfort and provision for those who mourn.  A lifting up of those who are bent over in despair.

As I write, I can think of people who really need to grasp this good news, people whose hearts have been broken by how they were treated as children; people who are held captive by addictions; others who are prisoners held by the darkness of their own hearts; those who are beaten down by injustices in this fallen world; and those who are grieving the loss of someone dear to them.  

It is particularly for these, those who desperately need some good news, which Jesus came into the world, our world.  He didn’t, however, just make an appearance; He lived a life, a hard and difficult life.  He experienced much of the darkness of this world and its effects.  He understands the struggles of this life. (Hebrews 4:15-16) The good news is He has overcome them!  By clinging to Him, He will bring us through every struggle and set us free from all that holds us captive.  This is the essence of the news the angels brought to the shepherds that night.  

This Christmas season, as we celebrate the birth of a Savior, remember the good news that accompanied His arrival.  It is the ultimate cure for any depression.

© Jim Musser 2013

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Being Known

“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.  Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies?  Yet not one of them is forgotten by God.  Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” (Luke 12:4-7 NIV)

My wife and I were invited out to Colorado last week by some supporters who just wanted to bless us with a week in the mountains and to enjoy a college basketball game.  As we traveled through airports to and fro, and sat in the sports arena with 11,000 other people, it occurred to me that, while 99.9 % of the people I observed during the trip were strangers to me, every one of them was known by God.  

Often, a big stumbling block for people to believe in a personal God is the fact there are so many people in the world.  “How can God know everyone?” they ask.  And perhaps contained within that question is another: “How can God know someone as insignificant as me?”

It occurred to me yesterday as I sat in the airport gate area watching hundreds of strangers walking by, that we see this kind of broad but specific knowledge every day, particularly this time of year.  Millions of packages are in transit during the Christmas holiday season.  Amazon and other online retailers rely on the Postal Service, UPS, FedEx and other delivery services to get their ordered merchandise to where it is supposed to go.  To do that, they have to know the recipients’ name and address.  Out of millions of packages, they know exactly where yours needs to go.  It’s the same with the airlines.  Millions are flying this month and the airlines know the name of each person flying and what seat he or she is occupying.  

So if it is possible for us to be known in this way through innovative technology, is it too much of a stretch to believe the God of the universe could know each of us?  I don’t think so.  If FedEx or UPS can find me practically anywhere in the world, I can easily imagine I am known well by the God who created all things.  

Today, while you may feel like a stranger in a vast crowd, know there is One who knows you well and loves you.  It was for this reason Jesus was born into the world and the reason He died on the Cross.

© Jim Musser 2013

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Smells of Christmas

“So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. 

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’ Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.’ 

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.’ So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.” (Luke 2:4-16 NIV)

If I were to ask what your favorite smells of Christmas are, you would probably say the scent of the Christmas tree or the smell of fresh baked cookies, or the aroma of Christmas dinner.  During my childhood, it was the smell of pancakes.  It was our family tradition to have a pancake dinner on Christmas Eve and then open most of our presents.  

Pleasant smells are what we associate with Christmas, but the smells of the original Christmas were not that pleasant.  In the cave or stable where Jesus was born, there was the barnyard smell of livestock.  And there was the odor of human beings.  Joseph and Mary had traveled over 70 miles on foot from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  There were no showers along the way and they were poor and probably didn’t even have a change of clothes.  There were also the shepherds who were also poor, and by definition were filthy because of their work.  Add to that the baby Jesus who dirtied His diapers just like any other baby.  These are the smells of that first Christmas.  

They are the smells of 1st Century life.  What they tell us is Jesus was born into unprivileged real life.  He was not born into royalty, but was born into poverty.  The smells tell us Jesus did not consider Himself too holy to live among us—even the poorest among us.  They tell us He is willing to go to the greatest lengths and make the great sacrifices to make it possible for us to know Him personally.  

Today, imagine the smells of that first Christmas.  They remind us just how much we are loved.  

© Jim Musser 2013

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Avoiding Distractions

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Hebrews 12:1-3 NIV)

New drivers are always told to fix their eyes on the road.  Don’t get distracted.  I once was driving students to a retreat and was trying to change cassette tapes (it was a quite a few years back!).  Suddenly I heard a rumble and looked up.  I was in a ditch going 55 mph. Fortunately, or perhaps miraculously, the only thing hurt was a tire. The tragic subway derailment in New York recently was the result of the conductor not paying attention to how fast he was going.  

Getting distracted can be dangerous and often deadly when driving.  The same is true spiritually.  The Hebrew writer instructs us to fix our eyes on Jesus.  In other words, don’t be distracted by anything else.  When our eyes are fixed on something, it is the focus of our attention.  

One of our enemy’s most strategic weapons is distraction, getting us to turn our focus away from Jesus to something else.  This is not to say that we are not to do anything other than keep our attention on Jesus.  When I am driving, I can still carry on a conversation with someone in the car, but I still keep my eyes and mind focused on the road.  If I get too involved with the conversation, however, then my focus becomes less on the road. Like the time I was driving home from a concert years ago and talking with a student.  I was so engaged in our conversation that I failed to notice we were heading in the wrong direction.  I drove 45 minutes the wrong way before ever noticing we were going north instead of south.  

The goal of the devil is to take us off the path, get us going in the wrong direction and eventually destroy us.  His attempts are not always flashy and they don’t have to be.  Simple distractions are very effective.  

What can easily distract you from Jesus?  Is it school?  A relationship?  A bad habit?  The stress of life?  Whatever it is, know it can be spiritually dangerous, even deadly, to you if it leads you to turn your attention from Jesus.  

Today, fix your eyes on Jesus and stay intent on keeping them there. Only then can you be assured of staying safe on the road that leads to eternal life.

© Jim Musser 2013

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Sustainer of Life

“Surely God is my help; the Lord is the one who sustains me.” (Psalm 54:4 NIV)

From the beginning, it has been the human tendency to look to ourselves or others to sustain us in our lives.  Adam and Eve had a personal relationship with God, but cast that aside when the opportunity came along to rely on themselves.  King Saul was personally chosen by the Lord to lead Israel; however, it wasn’t long before Saul began trusting in himself and his authority instead of the Lord.  

We, too, struggle, as did these ancients, with looking to ourselves and others to sustain us.  We have been told throughout our lives that we can do anything we set our minds to, that nothing is impossible for us.  Movies and television tell us that love and romance can carry us through all life throws at us.  Our culture tells us we are defined by our careers.  All these messages communicate we can sustain our lives apart from God, that He is not needed.  

But the Psalmist warns us (49:12-14) that those who trust in themselves in this life will perish in the next.  While it may appear people do fine with this approach, he warns us there is a reckoning.  It may be long in coming, but come it will.  

God created us to be dependent on Him, and, indeed we are.  Everything in our lives ultimately comes from Him. We can do nothing apart from Him.  It is only His mercy that allows people to utterly reject Him and still be able to live.  

Today, recognize the Lord is your help both in good times and in times of trouble.  Acknowledge your dependence upon Him for everything.  While the world may offer you another way to live your life, know it is only the Lord who can truly sustain it.  

© Jim Musser 2013

Friday, December 6, 2013

Forming a New Cloud of Witnesses

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” (Hebrews 12:1 NIV)

On campus this is the time of the year where students are stressed out and energy levels begin to run low.  Within our ministry, fewer students show up for our large group meetings and attendance at our small groups begins to lag.  I don’t think it has to be this way, but it always happens.  

As I was reading this verse, what struck me is the “surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses.”  The writer had just listed in the previous chapter people who remained faithful to God in spite of very challenging circumstances.  He was calling his readers to use them as a motivation to stay faithful to the Lord and not to give up.  

I am wondering if we each would strive to be one of those in the “cloud of witnesses” for those around us, if we would see less trailing off of commitment in stressful times.  It seems to me that our culture, and particularly campus culture, reinforces this attitude of “I’m so busy, so stressed, that I can’t focus on anything but what’s right in front of me.”  So everywhere we turn, everyone is stressed out and busy.  I wonder what would happen if followers of Jesus, on campus, in the office, and at home took His words seriously: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27)  What kind of witnesses could we be to those around us, especially those believers struggling in their faith?  

Today, think about the peace Jesus gives to us regardless of what is happening in our lives.  Embrace that peace.  Allow it to flow into your life. Be among a new cloud of witnesses testifying how to remain faithful and committed to the Lord no matter what the circumstances.

© Jim Musser 2013

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Owner of Everything

"Hear, O my people, and I will speak, O Israel, and I will testify against you:  I am God, your God.  I do not rebuke you for your sacrifices or your burnt offerings, which are ever before me.  I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens, for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains, and the creatures of the field are mine.  If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it. Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?  Sacrifice thank offerings to God, fulfill your vows to the Most High, and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honor me." (Psalm 50:7-15 NIV)

For those of us who are task-oriented, it is very easy to get caught up in how much we do for the Lord.  We have our daily devotional times; we are faithfully involved with a community of believers, sacrificing both time and energy; we are sacrificing a lot for the Lord.  Thus, we can begin to think God should be grateful for all we do for Him.  

This was the mindset the Israelites had fallen into.  They had grown proud of their sacrifices for the Lord, and thought He was somehow dependent on them.  In this psalm He sets them straight.  He is God, their God, and He is in need of nothing from them.  Anything they have to offer, it is already His.  He owns everything and needs nothing.  

Our relationship with God is not based on mutual need, as are most human relationships.  Because He already owns everything, we have nothing to offer Him, except our thanks and our willingness to depend on Him for everything in our lives.  And He doesn’t even need that, but He does want it.  

Today recognize you have nothing to offer God that He needs.  What He desires is your total dependence on Him and your willingness to acknowledge the One who provides you with everything you need.

© Jim Musser 2013

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Why Did Jesus Come?

“The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers and sisters. Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.  And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (I Corinthians 6:7-11 NIV)

As we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus, it would be good to understand just why He came.  From some one could conclude He came to make us feel better about ourselves—He came to validate our worth just as we are.  From others one could assume He serves as an idyllic role model—something to strive towards but with no hope of achieving. And probably the biggest assumption is that Jesus came solely to save us from the punishment for sin.

What results from these views is comfortableness with the status quo. One can believe in Jesus, claim to follow Him, but never really change the way he lives.  Men can be saved, but still mistreat their wives. Homosexuals or transgendered people can choose to follow Jesus, but maintain their lifestyles because He loves them just as they are.  People can follow Him and still remain greedy, looking out only for their self-interests.  And there is a lot of this thinking in the church today.  People want Jesus, but on their terms.  

The truth is Jesus came into our world, not only to save us from eternal punishment, but to transform us into new creations with our old ways of living passing away (II Corinthians 5:16-17) Paul makes this clear when he says, after listing many sinful lifestyles, “And that is what some of you were.”  The implication is when we follow Jesus, our lives radically change.  Not only can we change, but we will change.  Jesus did not come to pat us on the head and to tell us how wonderful we are.  He came to transform us into the men and women we were created to be. This is the deal and it is non-negotiable.  If we want to follow Jesus, we must surrender our will and submit to His.  

Of course, this transformative process is life-long and it always happens within the context of God’s grace and mercy.  There will be numerous stumbles along the way.  But the truth is following Jesus leaves no option to remain as we are.

Today, recognize Jesus came into the world to make it possible for you to become what you were created by God to be.  But for that to happen, you must follow Him on His terms and not your own.  

© Jim Musser 2013

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Dinner and the Gospel

“Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but being a short man he could not, because of the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. 

When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.’ So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. All the people saw this and began to mutter, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a “sinner.”’  But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, ‘Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.’ 

Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.’” (Luke 19:1-9 NIV)

I know a couple in a large city who invite people into their home for a meal as a ministry.  Being from the Midwest, they discovered people in this city rarely had dinner in other people’s homes.  Instead, they typically met at restaurants.  This couple saw the opportunity for a ministry.  It’s referred to in the New Testament as “hospitality.”

Pastor and theologian Eugene Peterson observes in his book, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, that much of Jesus’ ministry took place where food was served.  Think about it.  In Simon the Pharisee’s house where the woman wept at Jesus’ feet (Luke 7).  At Matthew’s house where He ate with sinners (Matthew 9 ). The Last Supper (Luke 22). And, of course, his meal with Zacchaeus. (We know there was a meal because invited guests were always served a meal in the 1st Century culture.)

Jesus could have talked with Zaccheaus on the street, but He invited Himself to his home because there was intimacy there.  To be a guest in someone’s home is to be, at least for the moment, a part of that family. And what really makes one feel “at home” is to eat together with your hosts.  As you share a meal together, you feel part of the family.  This is the power of hospitality and Jesus made great use of it, even though He never hosted anyone.  

We are told in Acts 2:46-47 that the believers continued this practice of hospitality.  It only makes sense.  The very message of the Gospel is one of intimacy—God desiring reconciliation with human beings.  And Jesus exemplified this during His life on earth by spending time with sinners in their homes eating at their tables.  As Peterson points out, Christians in this culture often seek to proclaim the Gospel without any intimacy. Tracts and evangelistic events are often the method of first choice.  In reality, from observing Jesus, perhaps a home-cooked meal would be a lot more effective.

Today, consider whom you might invite over for dinner.  If Jesus made hospitality a central part of His ministry, shouldn’t it be a part of ours as well?

© Jim Musser 2013

Monday, December 2, 2013

Loving the World

“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world.  The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.” (I John 2:15-17 NIV)

When I opened up my computer this morning, this was the headline I saw on Yahoo: “Kim Kardashian Goes Without Underwear, Takes Bathroom Selfie With Kanye West: Picture.”   Another talked about an actress who “rocked a teeny bikini” and also promises a picture.  John referred to things like this as “the lust of the flesh and of the eyes.” 

Daily, we are inundated with images intended to produce lust, whether it be for sexual arousal, material possessions, or power.  It is the world in which we live and it differs little in its essence from the world in which John lived.  His warning was not to love what the world offered.  And the Greek word he uses, agape, is used to express the highest form of love. It comes from the same word as used in John 3:16.   It means to have esteem or affection for another.  So John is warning us not to esteem or have affection for whatever produces lust of the flesh or eyes, or, as he says, the pride of life.  

The only way to do this in such a saturated world is to view what the world is offering up through the eyes of the Lord, and then decide whether or not it deserves our affection.  If the conclusion is no, then we move away from it, averting our eyes and our thoughts, and focusing on what is godly.

This is a difficult task and requires us to be intentional.  Otherwise, we will just be carried along by the standards of the world.  Today, think about to what your heart, your thoughts, your eyes are drawn.  Are they godly? Do they align with the will of the Lord as expressed in the Scriptures?  If not, then you have some changes to make.  

© Jim Musser 2013