November 30, 2010

O Christmas tree, O Christmas Tree...

Hear what the LORD says to you, people of Israel. This is what the LORD says: “Do not learn the ways of the nations or be terrified by signs in the heavens, though the nations are terrified by them. For the practices of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel. They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter. (Jeremiah 10:1-4)

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, of all the trees most lovely...

As a child, I remember hearing a sermon delivered by Brother Paul Crankypants (not his real name). He used the above verse to tell all who would listen that having a Christmas tree in their homes was a form of pagan worship. After all, as the passage states, we cut down the tree, shape it, decorate it with silver and gold, and fasten it to the floor for stability. We put presents underneath ye old tree so that if anyone wants to grab their goodies, they have to "bow" before this idol in order to get them.

There is a greek word to describe this line of thought: baloney! This passage is talking about Asherah poles outside pagan temples, not Christmas trees.

Although we enjoy our Christmas tree, we don't worship it. But I must tell you that there are some who come pretty close. You see, our family has made an expedition every year, for the past 20 years, to a Christmas tree farm. We would drink their hot chocolate, say howdy to some jolly old fat guy with a white beard, maybe pet a cow someone dressed up like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, and then would deliberate over a hundred acres of trees that all looked alike in order to find "the perfect one."

With a bow saw (because who would let an Average Joe have an axe?), I would cut the tree down, flag down the guy with the four wheeler, tie it to the bumper and let him drag it back to the pay know, just like our forefathers did. Be that as it may, even though it wasn't a Norman Rockwell moment, it was still our "moment" and we cherished it.

However, this year, tragedy has struck. My Children, Kate and Dupli-Kate (not their real names), decided that a nice artificial pre-lit tree would be better for all concerned...except their mom, Mel Griswold (not her real name), who is heartbroken that the tradition of mass murdering defenseless blue spruces has ended. She protested vehemently, but we finally got her to give in after two boxes of Kleenex and the promise of a really special decorating party where we would all wear Santa hats, drink spiced tea, and watch "The Waltons Homecoming."

So I digress...after some shopping, Mrs. Griswold did find a tree that is life-like and beautiful and it appeared that we were all very happy...until this past Sunday.

As my son "Dupli-Kate" tells it, he and his mother were driving home and she spotted an SUV with a murdered tree strapped to the top. His story goes on that she at first pointed it out, declaring its beauty, attempting to wax nostalgic about bygone days of yore. The next thing he knows, her lip is quivering and the water works start. He then does the only thing he can think to do. He says, "Don't cry mom. When we get home, we'll strap our new (very expensive) artificial tree to the top of the car and drive it around the neighborhood. It'll be like old times."

Just so you know, Average Joe made sure that cooler heads prevailed and the tree was not paraded throughout the neighborhood as has been suggested.

I guess I'm sharing all of this to encourage families to create their own traditions for the holidays. Keep Christ in Christmas, but never forget that He is the creator of joy, love, charity, and mercy. And especially, don't let Scrooges like Brother Paul Crankypants steal your joy!

Instead of debating the accuracy of the birth of the Savior, just get excited about the fact that He was born...born of a virgin...made in the likeness of men...tempted in all things like us, yet without sin. Get stoked over the fact that GOD CAME NEAR because He would rather step down out of heaven, than stay there and lose us forever.

At a time when the word "Christ"-mas is on the lips of mankind, most of whom may not know him, realize that this is your golden opportunity to carry out your calling! Show these people Jesus in the way you love Him, them, and each other. And if sharing silly stories and inviting others into your family traditions help them see a Kind and Benevolent be it!

'tis the season to be jolly...

November 29, 2010

...but not destroyed

There is nothing in life that is more Christ-like than to be a person who brings hope to others. To give hope to someone in despair is one of life's noblest deeds. Being a "hope bearer" is not dependent on wealth, intelligence, or background. It is all about heart.

Strangely enough, we who have come close to losing our own sense of hope can be of great help to others who are watching theirs fade into oblivion. All I usually have to do when I write a message of hope is to sit back and recall my past. What was it that someone said or did for me when my hope was at stake and I felt it silently slipping away? Who or what revived my dying spirit and gently renewed my passion for life again?

From personal experience I can testify that often hope is renewed by a friend's simple spoken word, gentle hugs or caring touches, or most of all, from one insightful line written in a note that reaches beyond our pain and brings up a wonderful surge of optimistic expectation from within us.

Keep in mind that when people believe, think, or feel that all hope has finally vanished, surrender is lurking nearby. They see absolutely no logical reason on earth to get out of bed in the mornings and must spend the days reminding themselves to breathe in and breathe out.

However, since we have been called by God to witness His goodness to the world, surrender is not an option. And a few kind actions or words from us can sustain and encourage the soul until real hope returns to the heart, making it strong enough to beat on its own again.

In my life, I've been handed many seemingly fatal blows to my spirit. But my experiences have also taught me that life is lived in cycles and God works in seasons. God works to remind us that just as Winter appears in everyone's life, His grace and mercy will eventually allow us to bask in another Spring.

May we all be "hope bearers" for there is not greater calling. After all, God really is good...all the time!

"we are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed." ( 2 Corinthians 4:8-9)

November 25, 2010

Kindness and Cold Water

"No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted." - Aesop

It's Thanksgiving Day. For Average Joe, this thanksgiving is somewhat different. I'm spending it caring for my mother who is very ill. (Just so you know, the Turkey at Baptist Hospital in Nashville gets 4 out of 5 stars...pretty good for hospital food...haven't found any pecan pie yet, but they do have Starbucks coffee)

Throughout the last few days following her unexpected illness, I have been incredibly impressed with her friends and church family who have created a steady stream of visits, calls, and gifts. My stepfather's phone battery was depleted in record time by all of the calls. I am also very appreciative of all the texts, emails, and calls from my own friends and family. I've learned in the last few days how encouraging a phone call, email, or text message from friends back home can be.

Simple kindness has a powerful effect. Solomon wrote, "Like cold water to a weary soul is good news from a distant land." (Proverbs 25:25) As Christians, our responsibility is to be Jesus to the world.

But in a world that is constantly hurting, and knowing that we will have the poor with us always, the sheer number of "weary souls" can be overwhelming to those of us who possess a limited amount of "cold water." We will never be able to heal ALL the hurting, feed ALL the hungry, and encourage ALL the hopeless. But we can be Jesus to people "one cup of water" and "one weary soul" at a time. Jesus said, "And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.” (Matthew 10:42)

To all my friends, "thanks for the cold water!"

November 16, 2010

One Wish

I was once asked the question, "if you had one wish, would you ask for your hair back?" (being bald is part of Average Joe's charm, by the way) I was taken aback by the question and then answered this one-parter (pun intended), "Although I miss having hair, there are advantages to baldness. I don't need shampoo or a blow dryer and I can drive with the windows down on my car without ever messing up my scalp!"

However, there are times that I wish I had this kind of power. The power to be granted just one stark raving crazy wish. You know, to be able to get back something that you miss. To just wish for it and it would be so. There are many things that I miss.

I miss having a brother and playing basketball with him on those cold days when you can't feel your fingers. And the goal you're playing on has no net, so you have to take one another's word for whether the shot went in or not. Mine's been gone too long. . . I miss being able to run so fast that I could hear the wind whistle by my head. That was long, long ago and it seems the older I am the better I used to be . . . I miss eating chocolate gravy and biscuits at my mother's table on Sunday mornings. She still treats me to this delicacy from time to time, but it just ain't the same.

Compared to these, hair is pretty unimportant.

Honestly, I wouldn't waste my crazy one-time wish on any of the things mentioned above, though they are quite tempting. The reason? Because there is one thing that I miss more than any of these. To me, it's the only desire within me that is as powerful as the power to grant wishes.

Okay, so here it is . . . I wish I could rock my babies just one more time. I miss rocking them. You see, my children are nearly grown, they aren't babies anymore. Every now and then my daughter, who is almost twenty, still sits in my lap and lets me rock her. But as good as this is, it is not the same. I miss rocking them when they had nothing else to do, nowhere else to go, and could think of nothing that they would rather do than be in my arms.

My kids will continue to mature, Lord willing. That's as it should be. And as long as I have a lap, they will always have a place to sit. But I sure miss our intimate moments when they were first wrapped in a blanket and then wrapped again in my arms. . .

. . . I often wonder if God's most overwhelming desire is akin to my own. When He said "be still, and know that I am God," is He saying that he desires special moments when we aren't thinking of other places to be or other things we would rather be doing? In a hectic world where most folks ignore Him, does he look forward to the times when we totally focus on being in His presence? I think so...or at least that's what I want to believe.

Sometime today, I hope you'll make it a point to "be still" by being uninterrupted and wrapped in His presence. And I hope you experience a closeness with him that will leave no doubts that He is not only an all-powerful God, but He is a loving Daddy who cherishes His moments with you.

November 10, 2010

Church and State (of confusion)

I recently received an email asking what my response would be to someone (a friend) who felt that public prayer and prayer in schools is a violation of the Constitution's section on the separation of "church and state."

I usually don't share my political views. Honestly, I consider most politicians like professional wrestlers, entertaining but fake. But since I was asked, I thought I'd share my feelings with everyone...just so you know where The Average Joe stands on the issue.

It seems that people who want to squeeze God out of their lives, feel that us having God in ours is offensive. Usually, they hide behind the "separation of church and state."

The problem is that the constitution says nothing about public prayer or teaching the Bible in schools in the section regarding church and state. Its two major points are: 1) " religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States..." and 2) "...congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."

The section's intent was to prevent a national religion like the Anglican Church in England. It would seem to me that public prayer is a RIGHT under the constitution (free exercise thereof).

Nobody has ever made me pray...they have made me bow my head, they have made me be silent and respectful of others, but the decision to pray is wholly mine. School prayer is the same way.

I'm not sure you could ever say anything to your "friend" that would change his/her mind. We believe in a Benevolent but Fierce God...they don't. We use a book that was written and compiled over the course of 1000's of years as a guide in matters of living and faith...they don't. Even though I have access to many studies on Christian Evidences, I still find that people believe what they want to believe and that the Bible teaches that we are seed sowers... and the job of creating conviction in the hearts of the unbelieving is the work of the Holy Spirit.

However, it seems evident to me with our children killing each other over IPODs, our teachers spending more time disciplining students than teaching them (and the parents of the unruly children feeling that being a jerk is a right under the constitution), the number of teens who are addicted to alcohol, drugs and pornography, and an economy that is in the toilet because of the greed of CEOs (who I'm guessing bowed their heads, but didn't pray), we probably could use a dose of wisdom from a God who knows how to best live our lives, not to mention an opportunity to speak with Him whenever necessary or desired...including in school.

Recently, a group of people were arrested for offering Christian tracts to passersby. Nobody was forced to take one and no laws were being broken. Why were they arrested? They were standing in front of a hotel where a Muslim gathering was taking Detroit! (I hope your friend can speak Arabic, by the way)

And while I'm on the subject, I find it interesting that the same people who detest school prayer, and religion being forced down their throats, will move their entire families to the Middle East, have the women cover their entire body in public because of the misogynistic views of the native religion, and subject their children to public ridicule because of they are Americans...all because the money is right! (OK, Alex...I'll have "A Spine" for 300, please)

Constitutionally, even though a court may disagree, the founding fathers never intended for an education system to be considered as part of the "state." The rotunda in the US Capitol was used for church services by a number of different denominations. In God We Trust is imprinted on our money. God's name permeates the writing of our founding fathers who would be ashamed of what our country has become.

But since we have asked God to leave our homes, schools, and lives...being the gentleman he is, he is obeying our wishes. And people like your friend are the reason why.

I just pray (publicly) that God will be merciful to us all.

November 3, 2010

Pompous Piety...

I have yet to find an American author who could describe people with more clarity, animation, and hilarity than Mark Twain.

On a trip to the Holy Lands (I can't imagine Twain in the Holy Lands), he served as a correspondent to the San Francisco Alta California newspaper. While aboard a ship enroute, he overheard a conversation between the ship's captain and one of the Christian passengers. The passenger wanted to know if the ship would be stopped at sea in order to observe the Sabbath.

As if the legalism inherent in the passenger's question were not enough, Twain's description of the passenger told the story even better. He described the passenger as "a solemn, unsmiling, sanctimonious old iceberg that looked like he was waiting for a vacancy in the Trinity."

To me, this description is so funny! And so sad. Who on the face of the earth has less reason to be sour, gloomy, and spiritless than one who has built his hopes upon Jesus? Isaiah wrote, "With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation." ( Isaiah 12:3) We stand daily and enjoy the waters of salvation that come from God's never ending flow of blessings. It is not good for the world to see Christians as folks who appear to have been weaned on dill pickles and raised in a freezer!

How could we ever become "solemn, unsmiling, sanctimonious old icebergs?" Yet, some good hearted and well-meaning Christians do just that! They forget that there is a difference between "being in the world and not of the world" and "being so heavenly minded that they are of no earthly good."

How do we remedy this'? Paul wrote, "as you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him," It would be a good idea for every Christian to stop their busy lives just long enough to make a mental visit back to the day they began their journey with Jesus. Remember the excitement and joy of this new relationship? That inexpressible joy is what Paul is talking about in Colossians 2:6. The world will be drawn to our joy, not our piety!

November 1, 2010

Eternal Church Camp...

A long time ago, my daughter figured out that my mother's husband isn't really my father. I think his last name being different from mine was her first clue, and from there she began noticing that I look nothing like him.

After some careful observation, she confronted me about this and displayed a serious interest in the grandpa she had never met. I showed her pictures of my dad and brother and told her as much about them as I could remember and she could comprehend at the time. Without any discussion on the subject, she assumed that they are in heaven.

While putting her to bed one night, she looked me in the eye and asked a very thoughtful question. "If your real daddy is in heaven, what is he doing up there?" The question was simple. She understood what keeps people busy in our world, but what is there to do to pass the time in a place where the only measurement for time is eternity?

You don't work because everything is provided. You don't fix things because everything is made new. You don't worry because there is no crying or pain. So what do you do?

This is a tough question no matter who asks it. But try explaining this deep subject to a six-year old. What goes on in heaven? Well, we are given several glimpses into the throne room of God. The Hebrew writer gives us a peek in Hebrews 12. In this description, he places the saints who have gone on before in the outer part of the throne room. Yet, he doesn't describe what they are doing there other than focusing on the altar of God. Other places in scripture teach us that heaven is a place of joyful assembly. A place where there is unending fellowship, spirit-filled singing, and awesome praise to God. It's like the best spiritual experience you have ever had multiplied and amplified by infinity! So I reckon that's what heaven is like.

But how do your tell a six-year old this. They have yet to have a real spiritual high point, so how do you describe worship. . . like a church service? Church services aren't fun to little ones (and sometimes not-so-little-ones) because it's a place where you have to sit down and be quiet, so I threw that idea out.

So I went with a simpler approach. . . church camp. Olivia would stay with me all week at camp if I'd let her. So I said heaven is like a great camp. There's singing, worship, and fun with friends. And you never have to leave. Unending church camp seemed a good idea to Olivia and she was satisfied to know that my dad and brother are having such a grand time.

Then she asked another question, "What else is your real daddy doing up there?" Without batting an eye, I answered, "waiting to meet you, Pumpkinhead, waiting to meet you."