Practical theology

My favorite gift

ImageOne of my most vivid Christmas memories is getting a used car stereo from the junkyard.  Strange, right?  Not if you were the particular kind of strange like me.  From a very early age, I so enjoyed taking things apart.  It began with my toys and quickly graduated to electronics.  Investigating the inner workings of radios, TVs, speakers and VCRs fascinated me.  How were they able to do all the wondrous things that they could do?  I assumed that if I took them apart, their secrets would come pouring out.  Unfortunately—for me and for the poor blighted piece of equipment I set upon—it never worked out that way.

As gifted as I was at disassembling and destruction—and I must say it truly was a gift—I was thoroughly inept at putting the pieces back together.  I could pull the most complicated device apart in seconds, but I was at a total loss at returning said pieces to anything resembling a working condition.  This deeply frustrated me.

I would stare bewilderedly at the pile of rubble before me; never able to fully restore what I had so deftly demolished.  Finally, my last option was to petition my father to sit with me and help.  He had ran a local Radio Shack, was the Audio Visual Director at our local high school and had as much affinity for repairing electronics as I had for dismantling them.  It didn’t matter how badly I had wrecked things.  He knew exactly where everything should be placed.

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I can remember one time in particular when he sat down beside me, “Wow.  That’s quite a mess you have there.  What say I give you a hand with that?”

It didn’t happen often, but when he had the time, putting things back together with him was some of the sweetest times of my childhood.

This is the story that came to mind when I was reflecting on the gift of Jesus.  Like my “gift” with electronics, humanity has an innate ability to wreck things.  Our sin nature gums up the works and makes it impossible to repair all the beautiful broken things in and around us.  Like a dejected child, we all huddle over the piles of our destruction wishing desperately to reassemble, that which was rent.

Into this despair, steps the Father.  He understands our nature, our ability to ravage, but never to redeem.  The God of creation compassionately enters into our plight and whispers, “Wow.  That’s quite a mess you have.  How about I give you a hand?”ImageThat is the message this year of Christmas for me.  Immanuel…God with us.  He enters into our mess.  Pulls up a chair and begins the beautiful heart surgery of restoration and redemption.

What is broken in your life?

What have you been trying in vain to repair?

Have you sought the Father’s help?

Have you swallowed your pride, confessed your inadequacy and opened yourself up to God’s restorative plan?

That is the gift that is most important.  Accept it.  Unwrap it.  And share it with others.

May you have a merry, merry, Christmas!

Joel Thomas

More and more and more

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“More and more and more.”  Seems like it should be the title song for today’s modern Christmas.  As the father of four I struggle mightily with shifting my children’s focus away from “getting” to “giving”.  It is no easy task.  The relentless barrage of ads, jingles, coupons and “for a limited time only” sales overwhelms me.   When I get the mail at the end of the day, I no longer really look through it.  It nauseates me.  All the “Black Friday Deals”, “Limited Holiday Savings”, and “Extended Cyber Monday” junk goes straight to the circular file.

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Before you categorize me as one of those, “Holy roller, anti-fun, anti-Santa” Christians, ease up.  I love giving and getting presents at Christmas.  I love filling my kid’s stockings on Christmas Eve and I love staying up late with my lovely wife to put together that ridiculous toy that always seems to be missing one critical piece.  It is all wonderfully aggravating…and worth it come that sweet Christmas morning.

What I cannot stand is our ability as modern Christians to celebrate Christmas without Christ.  More and more I sense that He has been relegated to the role of tiny Caucasian plastic figurine.  He is less and less the prophesied Messiah that all of creation has groaned and yearned for.

One response was given by the innkeeper when Mary and Joseph wanted to find a room where the Child could be born. The innkeeper was not hostile; he was not opposed to them, but his inn was crowded; his hands were full; his mind was preoccupied. This is the answer that millions are giving today. Like a Bethlehem innkeeper, they cannot find room for Christ. All the accommodations in their hearts are already taken up by other crowding interests. Their response is not atheism. It is not defiance. It is preoccupation and the feeling of being able to get on reasonably well without Christianity.

Billy Graham

Have all the accommodations in your heart been taken up by crowding interests?  Have your schedule, your pace of life and your family become so full of Christmas that there is nothing left for Christ?  If you and I were to peal away the decorating, presents, parties, pageants and often-awkward family gatherings, would what is left be enough to elicit our devotion, rejoicing and worship?  I wonder.

Last night our family gathered around our Advent candle and read Isaiah 9:6

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What an amazing passage.  So clear, so mysterious and so powerful.  Yet it is the first three words that mean the most, “For unto us.”  It wasn’t for a worldwide holiday filled with tinsel, ribbons and presents that Jesus came.  It was for us.  You, me, our wives, children, family and friends.  The Incarnation, God humbling Himself on our behalf, is the point.  So rejoice mightily!  Celebrate without limits!!  And love overwhelmingly!!!  For unto YOU a Child is born, unto YOU a Son is given.  Enjoy your traditions.  Enjoy the gift giving.  Enjoy the silly toys that bring simple joy to your children’s faces.  But guard your heart and your family from allowing any of that to become the point of Christmas.

Joel Thomas

I hate home repairs.

Last summer I woke early and began cleaning up the kid’s toys when I walked into the “toy room” from the kitchen.  The floor around the threshold was soaking wet.  At first I assumed that one of my little angels had spilled water from the night before.  Yet when I asked my wife about it she said she had tried cleaning up water from the same spot days before.  Yikes.  We soon discovered that the water line behind our refrigerator had been leaking for some time.  It had damaged a sizable portion of the kitchen floor, dining room floor, basement ceiling, carpet and drywall.

I hate home repairs.  Whenever anything breaks around my house I feel incredibly inadequate.  Though my dad taught me a powerful work ethic, he was not particularly handy.  Therefore I never learned any of typical home repair skills.  Plumbing, electrical, woodworking, flooring, etc.; all are mostly mysteries to me.  So when confronted with the reality of major water damage I not only have to deal with the inherent frustration of an impending repair, but my latent father and personal insufficiency issues.  Joy.

The culmination of this is that it wasn’t until two weeks ago that I actually began to repair the damaged floor.  In defense of my stalling I should point out that it took my dad took roughly seven years to hook up a second faucet in my brother and sister’s bathroom.  So postponing this repair was practically a genetic certainty.  My wife had patiently put up with my procrastination, but stated, “everything must be finished” by Thanksgiving.  It was therefore at approximately 1:45am on Wednesday morning that I finished installing the new tile floors.

I learned a couple of lessons from this experience.

  1. I have wonderful friends who were willing and able to help.
  2. Installing tile is hard, frustrating work, but totally doable.
  3. Blessings often masquerade as hardships on the front end.

Our linoleum floors were reaching the end of their life.  They were stained, yellowing and curling up as the glue had dried out over time.  As much as we knew we needed to replace them, we also knew we didn’t have money in our budget to put down the tile we hoped to replace them with.  Funny how God works these things out.  As I write this, I’m sitting in my kitchen looking over the freshly installed tile floors that God perfectly provided for.  Not only did insurance provide the needed funds, but several dear friends provided tools, time, guidance and the encouragement needed to make the Thanksgiving deadline.

I am humbled how God so faithfully takes difficult situations that are initially painful and redeems them into something beautiful.  Julie and I spent time last night listing out a few of God’s bigger “masqueraded” blessings over the past twelve years.

  • A heartbreaking miscarriage that was redeemed through a “surprise” redheaded blessing years later.
  • A long drawn out adoption process that resulted in a second adoption and  a family of six that I can’t imagine any other way.
  • My dad’s excruciating battle with cancer that was used to bring him to a destiny changing relationship with Jesus.
  • Eleven months of unemployment that allowed for me to be near my family during my dad’s illness.

This Thanksgiving, take a few minutes and thank God for His masqueraded blessings.  The real trick though, is in choosing to thank Him before the blessing is revealed.  I am hopeful that an obnoxious home repair job will result in a powerful lesson learned and a deepening ability to choose a posture of thanksgiving before the blessing is revealed.

What a stack of blessing you have piled up for those who worship you, Ready and waiting for all who run to you to escape an unkind world. Psalm 31:19 The Message

Happy Thanksgiving to you all!!

Joel Thomas

Things I won’t change

It is not the things you cannot change that hold you back.  It is the things you won’t.

This phrase popped into my head as I charged up a beautiful autumn hillside outside Santa Fe, New Mexico.  A close friend of mine had invited me to come and spend a few days of rest and renewal.  It was in the midst of this much-needed “r and r” that the Holy Spirit dropped these two lines in my head.

Since that trail run two weeks ago, I have returned to these sentences often; asking God to reveal the truth and depth of them in my life.  Here is what I have learned thus far.

1. I am not a victim.

We live in a culture that would have us believe that the difficulties in our lives are the result of forces leveraged against us.  Whatever the pain in your life, you are not the cause of it.  You are a simple and innocent bystander in the story of your life.  If you’re overweight, it’s a glandular problem—not your fault.  If you’ve been passed over for promotion, it’s because someone else is keeping you down, and you’ve been taken advantage of—not your fault.  If your marriage has fallen apart, it’s your spouse’s responsibility.  She just won’t take the time to communicate better—not your fault.  Your sex life with your wife is unfulfilling, if only she understood your needs better—not your fault.  If your children are bitter and distant, it’s because of their rebellious natures, not because of your parenting skills—not your fault.  Too often our culture tells us to take a pill, read another “self help” book, or move on if the going gets tough.  That is so rarely true it’s laughable.  Nine times out of ten, I am responsible for the circumstances in my life.  If I want things to change, I need to get on my knees, seek the Father and get busy becoming the Man of God He calls me to be.

2.  I have made some unhealthy agreements.

I have become such a masterful liar, that I can even lie to myself.  I’m sure you can relate.  There are so many things that I’ve “agreed” not to change or address about my life.  See if any of these ring true for you.  “I’m too busy to have a daily time with Jesus.”—baloney.  “My kids will understand that I can’t play with them right now.”—phooey.  “My wife knows I need this promotion.  She’ll understand if I can’t be there.”—bogus.  “I have to lie a little if I’m going to get ahead.”—wrong.  There is much more that each of us control than we like to admit.  Unhealthy agreements delay self-actualization and holy redemption.  They must be avoided at all costs.

This past weekend I attended an event titled, “The Rising – men rising to meet the challenges of tomorrow.”  If any of us are to truly rise, we must wholeheartedly embrace points one and two.  I am always the largest obstacle in the way of becoming all that God has called me to be.

Questions:

What are the things in your life that are “holding you back”?

Be painfully honest and evaluate if rather than being something you “cannot” control, its something you won’t.

List out some unintentional unhealthy agreements that have been shaping your attitudes.

Take each on that list and offer them as a prayer to God.

Example:

Dear Father I have unintentionally agreed that I cannot change my circumstances.  Give me the sight to see beyond that lie.  Help me to own my mistakes and help me to move beyond them.  Give me the courage and the strength to change.  In Jesus name, amen.

Joel Thomas