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Every Christmas of late there seems to be the group that insists on emphasizing “keeping Christ in Christmas.”   Bumper stickers appear.  Buttons are worn.  Sometimes, at church, if one happens to mention “Happy Holidays,” he may be treated  as if he violated the 11th commandment.  It can get intense. 

We should not be surprised; the non-believing world has no intention of keeping Christ in anything.  If we are surprised we have bad theology.  We also should not be surprised since reliable faith-based pollsters have been telling us for years the percentage of Christians in our society is decreasing at an alarming rate, especially among the younger generations.  We recently learned the older generations (baby boomers and the silent generation) are now outnumbered by the younger generations (millennials), who are no longer defined as “Christian” influenced.  All the numbers point to a secular society.  

I decided to check it out in my own neighborhood.  I take the dog for a walk every morning and night.  So, I wanted to see what voice the meaning of Christmas has in a neighborhood that has many church-going Christians as residents.

As of December 10th the following numbers have been verified: 

32 Santa Clauses

54 Reindeer

51 Snowmen

39 Trees

8 Mickey or Minnie Mouses

12 Soldiers

3 Wolves

7 Penguins

4 Yeti

3 Trains

2 Unicorns

2 Grinch

2 Bear

1 Snoopy

2 Ocean Creatures (Whale, dolphin)

14 Other (I have no idea)

and 4 manger scenes

That is 223 other representations of Christmas to 4 manger scenes.  Jesus doesn’t stand a chance.   Now, I will admit, it’s early.  We are 2 weeks away from Christmas.  The Christians can make a come back.  We need to put on the Christmas rally caps for a big inning.  Maybe a Hail Mary is the call of the day sort of like the one the Dolphins pulled off against the Patriots last Sunday.  Sounds a bit crazy doesn’t it?  

The only person that has to worry about Christ being taken out of Christmas is the Christian.  We get all upset that the government bans manger scenes from public property; however, traveling to Asheville last weekend and looking around town the last few days I don’t see too many churches putting out symbols of the Christ in Christmas either.  How we get so harsh with the secular world and don’t hold ourselves to the same standard is one of the very reasons the world looks at us and laughs.

Hold on for a minute!  The very message of Christmas is the grace of our Lord Jesus who leaves the kingdom of heaven to rescue us from ourselves.  Instead of being critical of the Christmas expressions, we should be engaging our neighbors with the love of Christ more than anything else.  Manger scenes say I honor the day.  The love of Christ brings Christ to life the other 364 days of the year.  

It is so easy to get critical.  After John 3:16 comes John 3:17.  Jesus said, “I came into the world not to condemn the world but that the world through me will be saved.”  The lights are beautiful in honor of the one who is the Light of Light.  The decorations all display the joy we can have when we sing “Joy to the World.”  

Christian, be concerned more with the lack of love and grace than the lack of manger scenes.  If one wants Christ in Christmas…put him there.  Do so with great grace and love.

Now, after all that I have one question, “When and how did unicorns become associated with Christmas?” I googled it, and Mr. Google says it is a millennial expression against tradition.  On one hand, I can’t say I blame them.  A manger scene without the expression of Christ’s love is a tradition that needs to end.  But unicorns?  Somethings I don’t quite get.  Oh well, Merry Christmas anyway. 

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Once again I scan the various stores on line and can’t seem to find the right gift for my wife.  She is not easy to buy for this time of year.  She doesn’t wear makeup (she’s naturally beautiful).  She is not a big jewelry person.  I used to buy almost all her clothes, but since styles changed I have no idea. 

Black Friday came and went with no ideas hitting home.  Cyber Monday was full of gifts that hold zero interest.  It’s going to be a very hard Christmas gift-wise.  I could take some guesses.  I’d buy her one of those light up Cowboys sweaters I see on T.V., howeve,r I enjoy being married.  I’m about ready to give up!

I did get an idea last night. We were at our community group meeting.  We are reading and discussing a book titled Caring for One Another.  Chapter 6 talks about building personal and prayerful relationships.  It is almost a lost art these days.  It was a great discussion.

We were talking about the obstacles to a personal relationship.  One of our members boldly proclaimed, “Nobody knows each other anymore.”  He was right!  

It was right at that moment I got my idea for Christmas.  I know it sounds strange, but, as I Iistened to the conversation, it became clear.  Instead of gifts, my wife and my family need time with each other.  With our fast-paced society and many working long hard jobs, the amount of quality time we spend with each other is getting less and less, and we don’t need research to prove the point. 

When husbands and wives come to the office for some work on their marriage, I guarantee every time there is a deficit in quality time together.  There is a little exercise that has the couple actually say how many hours a week they spend doing various activities during the week.  Let’s consider sleep.  Eight hours a night times seven days a week has an individual sleeping 56 hours a week.  With 168 hours in a week after sleep, it leaves 112 hours.  Add 8 hours a day for work and we are down to 72 hours.  We work this exercise.  Without fail families end up in the deficit, and we don’t even get to time spent dedicated to one another.  The worst one I saw recently was a negative 22 hours.  Something had to change and change quickly.

My family is no different.  Ministry is not a 40-hour a week job.  Both my wife and I are in ministerial positions.  We have double trouble.  Some weeks I spend more time with my dog than with my wife.  That is not good.  

In our world there is another element stealing our time together.  Other people no longer have to knock on the door to interrupt the family.  All they have to do is text.  Ministry might be the worst of all occupations.  Church members will text any time of the day or night about non-essential topics.  We talk a lot about grace.  If only it could be applied to a non-answered text at 10:30 p.m. about the topic being covered in the morning Bible study.  

Even if we choose to not answer, we then disrupt our lives with thoughts and feelings about not answering.  Sometimes it’s just easier to answer the text.  Meanwhile, our family time has just been lost, and those moments lost will not be recoverable.  

The more I talk with my friends I find this is the norm.

This Christmas, instead of giving a nice gift that, over time loses its value, consider giving your loved ones what I believe is the most important commodity…time.  We can make more money, but we can’t make more time.  Only so much time is allowed to all of us.  There is no such thing as a “time” bank.  

So, this year there will be one present to open.  The other ones are dedicated commitments to spend quality time together.  That means saying “no” to others.  It involves making decisions with the other person in mind.  I won’t remember the many Christmas presents I have received over the years.  I will remember the walks on the beach, the laughter as we talk about our crazy family, and the times we turn our phones off and enjoy each other’s company no matter where we are and no matter what we are doing. 

Two weeks ago the Bluffton Book Festival held its annual fair.  Does anybody remember what a book is anymore?  Just kidding.  E-books are a great way to build a library without the cost and cramped conditions.  Being a bit old-school, I admit I love to have the book in my hands and turn the pages one-by-one.  

This year I had the opportunity to attend the V.I.P. book signing event the night before the Festival.  A very good friend provided the tickets.  We got to hear from a few of the authors.  While the festival focuses on local authors, we had the opportunity to meet a few of the invited premier guest authors.  They also signed books for the attendees.  While a lot of attention was on Misty Copeland, the first African-American woman to be promoted to principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, I was interested in Kenny Leon, a Tony award winning director.  He wrote the book, Take You Wherever You Go.  It is his memoirs, focusing on the main influences in his life.  He is quite intriguing and winsome.

I just finished the book.  It got me thinking.  Who were the main influences in my life?  What stories would I tell about them?  What wisdom have they imparted in my life, even though I have not achieved the recognition and prestige of a Misty Copeland or Kenny Leon?  Who are the people who have made me who I am today?  

Sometimes we think about the negative influences in our lives.  The unique feature of Leon’s book is the lack of negative influences.  We all have them.   I’m sure he did as well.  However, Leon made the point that all the influences and experiences in his life molded him to be the person he is.  

In the Christian faith we would take such a thought and relate it to the will of God bringing people in and out of our lives.  Therefore, who we are has been shaped by God.  His son, Jesus, has God accepting who we are, as we are, by his grace.  Too bad people can’t get that one.

Leon’s grandmother was the influence for the book and its title.  She loved her grandson enough to inspire him to be who he was instead of trying so hard to be someone he was not.  Often, when we try to be someone else we fall flat on our face.

As I read his book, I again was brought back to the nature of God’s grace and how much we need to grow in that grace.  The influence of Western Culture has our mindset directed to being the best at whatever we do.  There lives a “got to be first” mentality that often fails to celebrate those who don’t fail but rather finish just a few steps behind.  The difference in a race is fractions of seconds.  The difference in a baseball game is often found in the numbers “1” and “2.”  Move into other life situations and the difference is one choice or one chance meeting.  Yet, all we tend to do is honor 1st place and forget all the others.  

The gospel of Jesus Christ does quite the opposite.  It welcomes in those who would never win a race, hit a homerun, score a touchdown, write a book, or even be in position to take a leading role.  That’s what really attracts me to Jesus.

All other religions I have studied say man has to ante up.  Our only chance of redemption is to do better, be better, and so on.  Some institute strict guidelines and rituals.  Deviate one hair from them and you will not be in God’s favor.

Jesus welcomes all the other’s in.  Why?  Man is and always will be incapable of reaching the standard of “holy.”  We will always fall a little short.  In fact, if we were honest, man will always fall way short.  

If Jesus accepts me as I am and fills in the gaps, why can’t we accept those around us?  I loved Leon’s book.  I’m not Billy Graham and never will be.  I’m not anybody in the Bible.  I’m John Ring and you are who you are, formed by the many influences in your life.  My hope is not in being anybody different.  My hope is in Jesus.  

How do we then live?  With grace.  Always with grace.  I am and always will be the prodigal son.  I will always fall short of the glory of God.  My only hope is in the One who gave His life so that I may live.  So, you might not like what you see.  If you ever hang with me, you will discover my shortcomings, and they will add up.  All I ask is that you see me through the eyes of Jesus because, no matter what, as Leon’s grandmother said, “Take You Wherever You Go.”  

By the way, that person that’s getting under your skin,  he is taking himself wherever he goes as well.  Go in grace. 

Here we go!  Thanksgiving has just passed and we are on our way to Christmas.  Not counting Christmas Day we are 29 days away.  That’s right…29 days.  I don’t know what is or is not a shopping day anymore.  I think they all are. 

I wish Thanksgiving could be more than one day.  It is our family’s favorite day of the year.  There is no pressure of gift giving or expected custom other than to be at the table when mom told us to be there.  No schedule other than the Dallas Cowboys game.  I’m not sure anyone was awake at 4:00 p.m.  That’s the joy of Thanksgiving.

We are going away for a few days.  With the grandkids we have tickets to go on the Polar Express Train.  It is inspired from the popular book by Chris Van Allsburg about a magical train ride on Christmas Eve.  I think it’s quite funny we are going on a train ride when Christmas is like a locomotive going full blast through our lives.  All Aboard! 

As the train called “Life” gets going we can get caught in the rush and miss so many and much around us.  Yes, it is a time for family and friends.  Yes, we buy a present to show our love or admiration.  We might do some special things for special people.  However, in the process we can get caught in the rat race of the holidays.  Sometimes it feels like the rats are winning.

Our lives are crazy enough without 3 back-to-back holidays.  I meet so many people who are working hard just to keep their nose above the water line.  I meet many fellow weary travelers on the exhausting road of life.  Now, with the season it gets ramped up.  I’m concerned we are over stimulated and some will break under the pressure.

As a chaplain for the Bluffton Police Department we are very much aware the holiday season can be rough.  Some have experienced loss and grieve their loved ones.  Others have serious  struggles and cannot relate to the “joy” of the season.  It leaves them feeling isolated and alone.  For a few the season propels them deeper into their depression and hopelessness as thoughts of suicide deceive them into grievous actions.

As we hustle and bustle though the season slow down a bit and look around.   There are plenty that not only need to hear of Jesus, they need to see him.

Consider:

  allowing someone to go ahead of you in the long lines

  asking a waitress how you can pray for her as you say grace

  saying “thank you” to everyone who fills our many needs

  actively forgive someone this season you hold blame against

  inviting someone to a meal or a cup of coffee

  being a bearer of peace in times of chaos

  do something out of the ordinary for someone in need

  baking an extra pie and give it away

  buying a few Walmart gift cards, stand out front and give them away to someone who 

looks like they are in need

  doing the outrageous

  making it a point to talk to people instead of walking by them every day

  giving double tips (I’m sure they could use it)

  being gracious, extending mercy and loving others including your enemy (Jesus   

didn’t give us an out)

The greatest gift you can give those around you is to slow down and enjoy them.  Even our kids have enough stimulation from outside sources.  They don’t need more.  They need us.  

There was a young man who I knew many years ago who at the ripe age of 15 was already wound around the axle.  We were walking in King’s Dominion and he was so bent on not being able to ride certain rides for the 3rd or 4th time.  I looked at him and with his parents around bellowed, “Dude, you need to slow down and smell the roses.”  I didn’t realize we were actually in an area with beautiful red roses everywhere.  

This holiday season, slow it down instead of speeding it up.  Say “No” to some parties.  How many do you need to go to anyway?  How many useless gifts litter our shelves?  Instead, make time to look someone in the eye and talk with them.  

Impart good tidings on them.   Let the hustle and bustle of consumerism be drowned out by the love, grace and mercy we can bestow on others as it has been given to us by the one we celebrate on December 25th.  

We sat across from each other discussing various facts and philosophies of life.  We meet weekly, sharing ideas and thoughts with great freedom.  As we sat there I asked what I thought was a simple question.  “What is your dream?”  He surprised me with his answer, and then he knocked me out with his question.  He asked me, “Are you living your dream?”

I wanted to lie.  But I resisted.  “Honestly,” I began, “No I am not living my dream and my dream is closely connected to my calling.”  I began to tell him my story that I would like to share with you.

I didn’t go into ministry till I was close to 40 years old.  I do not consider what I do a job.  In fact, I have had a lot of heated discussions with fellow ministers over the topic.  We are called.  Money should be the last question not the first one.  Once a minister looks at his position as a job, he loses the calling.  I believe the calling to be serious and important.  

I spent my first few years in youth ministry.  For some reason, I was either attracted to the “least of these” (Matthew 25) or they were attracted to me.  Since I spent my first career in education and business, I think I do not approach ministry like the professional pastor.  Anyway, the attraction to the troubled, non-church kids created problems.

The church I was at actually started an alternative Sunday school class and youth group for the church kids.  They didn’t like their kids hanging out with gang members, those with bad reputations, drop-outs, and others that tend not to be welcome in the local church.  It’s kind of funny if you think about it.  If we understand the Christian faith, it is the Christian who should be impacting the world instead of the world impacting the church.  Amazingly, we believe that, but practicing it is a different story.

Let’s just say the conflict caused constant friction.  One elder told me he liked me but not the kids I attracted.  I asked him if he knew any of the kids he was talking about.  He replied, “No, I don’t.”  With my blood boiling, I probably said some things I should not have.  I regret that.  Grace for the wayward is grace for the Pharisee.  I learned that over the years.  I think.

Anyway, it reached a point I decided I wanted to reach people the church tends to miss.  We tend to miss modern day lepers.  It isn’t necessarily the fault of the Christian.  Lepers struggle to find comfort in the church as well.  It’s not about blaming anyone.  It’s about taking steps to touch the lives of those who seldom get touched by the redeemed.

In this short version, let’s just say it is with this desire I ended up in South Carolina instead of sitting comfortably in Maryland.  God provided a way and eventually a church that wanted to reach the unreachable as well.  The stories are incredible.  I wish I had the room to tell a few.  They include federal inmates, adulterers, single parents, the homeless, addicts, the mentally ill and more.  Their stories are not mine.  I have no right to tell them.  All I can say is I’m the lucky one, if there is such a thing in the Christian faith.  I get to see God at work in places most people don’t even get to see.  I get to see love, grace, and mercy win the day.  

Now, this is where the dream can disappear.  Let’s be honest.  The situation in Maryland is the battle all churches face along the line.  Instead of givers we become takers.  The needs, often assumed instead of real, move outreach into in-reach.  Often it’s hard to see.  We wake up one day and realize we spend most of our ministry time inside the church walls and very little outside.

Lives cease to change and we somehow role into making the parishioners happy instead of challenging them to forfeit themselves for the sake of others.  When we focus inwardly, our contact with those whom we tend to miss diminishes greatly.  And we wonder why church growth ceases and we lose our voice in the community.  

I’m there right now.  So my answer about living my dream is honest.  I spend most of my time with fellow Christians who struggle to admit their sin, brokenness and pain and have less and less contact with the truly broken and hurting.  Church people hide their issues. The only difference I can see between a Christian and a non-believer is God’s grace of which I am the most unworthy but the most fortunate.

  It is nobody’s fault but my own.  The prophet Jeremiah never got off point as he ministered to a people that wanted compromise and feel good ministry.  He held the line.  He rested in the promises of God instead of the desires of the people.  I have to make some changes.  Not because I have to.  It’s my calling.  Anybody want to join me?  

This is one of the maybe four times a year I have to preach a sermon.  Those who are close to me know I prefer the private ministry of the Word over the public ministry.  While there should not be a difference between the two, I am much more comfortable talking to one or a few than a bunch.  It’s not that I can’t.  I enjoy the interaction.  Conversation is engaging.  Preaching is far from a conversation.  It’s too one-sided for my personal tastes.  

This week I’m going to look at the Hebrew word “Shalom.”  I paid no attention to the word for most of my life.  I’ve heard it referenced from time to time, and, occasionally, when I am in the presence of my Jewish friends it is spoken.  For the most part, it’s like saying “hello” to me.  Thinking about it deeply…that’s a different subject.

I thought it would be best to talk to some of my Jewish contacts about the meaning of the word.  They have been using it a lot longer then we Americans have.  As I asked around, I was surprised.  This is one of the Hebrew words that does not translate well into English.  I’m not sure it translates well into any language.   It is a Hebrew word that has a meaning and expression that takes a lot more words than the standard, “peace,” to gain it’s meaning and understanding.  “Shalom” has something few American words have.  It has depth.

A better translation, as far as I am concerned, is “harmony.”  Harmony requires multiple parts.  When applied to music, it’s a four-part harmony.  When they gel there is a unified tone where not one part dominates the other but they are heard as one.  Ahhh, Shalom.

Now I am musically deficient.  When I think of “shalom,” I think in baseball terms.  By the way, congratulations to the Boston Red Sox and their fans on winning the World Series.  Back to baseball.  I loved to play baseball.  I could field and throw above my peers.  However, I could not hit all that well.   There was this one time, when I was using a wooden bat that the fastball met the sweet spot and sprang like a rocket deep into centerfield.  I remember the feeling.  I remember everything about that moment.  It was like everything came together for an incredible moment.  Shalom…the fastball hitting the sweet spot to dead center-field. It was beautiful.

As I look into the Word of God, I find the word in the Hebrew Old Testament, but the depth of the word is hard to find in the New Testament.  In a sense, the only time man experienced pure shalom (peace, harmony, safety, wholeness and a lot more) was in the Garden of Eden.  There, man was in “shalom” with God, fellow man, and nature.  Shalom’s even deeper meaning is “lack of conflict.”  All was a living harmony.

I see “shalom” as being an element of holiness.  It is when all of man (body, soul and spirit) are at peace in wholeness, without conflict with the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit).  We thought perfection was the demand.  No, holiness is.  It is when our motives are in line with our actions and peace at all levels is in accordance with the Will of God.  Now I don’t know about you but I get brief glimpses and that’s about it.

Shalom ended quickly with one decision.  The decision was to eat the fruit of the tree.  Since that moment, man has struggled to find any sense of shalom.  Man was made at all levels to be at shalom with the Godhead.  Instead that harmony has been plagued with sin and depravity.  God told his people “stop your sacrifices.  I want your heart.”  Obedience is not the goal.  Being in a state of shalom with God is.  

Do you have a feeling we are left with an impossible goal?  You are right!  The sin plague has left us way short of the glory of God.  Yet, that’s the whole basis of belief in Jesus Christ.  It isn’t that I can somehow be at shalom with God.  It’s that God is at shalom with me through the blood of Jesus Christ.  

Jesus made it possible to get those few glimpses of shalom.  One day they will become complete when we are on the other side of glory.  In the meantime, I worship the living Jesus who made it possible for me to have shalom.  We don’t have to check off the boxes.  We don’t have to do whatever, wherever.  Christ did it all on the cross.  

As we creep closer to the Christmas season, the angels cried out, “Peace on Earth, Good Will to man.”  Shalom at it’s best! 

We carefully opened the front door.  Originally, we tried the back door; however, it would not budge.  The old house was fragile, to say the least.  There were not any “No Trespassing” signs.  Being the picture hounds we are, we thought it was worth the adventure.  It was.  The late day sun barely crept in the windows.  The odd paint colors contrasted as we went room to room.  Like most abandoned buildings we have surveyed, the kitchen ignited the imagination.  The old sinks and tubs in the old houses always invite thoughts of a functional family that many moons ago lived in the old house.

My friends and I have explored many old abandoned buildings together in our various excursions.  While the Sheldon church remains are the top of the list, there have been plenty of other interesting places.  We have been in three old abandoned churches, one middle school, a few barns, various warehouses, and too many houses to count.  The one referred to earlier was built in the 1800’s and was barely hanging on.  

There is something about abandoned buildings.  It doesn’t matter how many “No Trespassing” signs are posted, there is a draw that cannot be resisted.  I have not been to an abandoned town, but I sure would love to.  If anyone knows how to get to one email me.  NOW!  

Recently we vacationed in Disney World.  We caught a show over at the campground.  Next to the campground is the long abandoned water park, River Country.  I remember taking our kids there.  Now, it’s fenced off and left to nature.  I could not just walk by.  No possible way.  With camera in hand, I found holes in the fence.  There wasn’t much to see from that venue.  If only there was an opening in the fence.  Then again, I would not want to be exiled from Disney.  My family would not be too happy, especially my wife! 

Buildings become abandoned for various reasons.  Some lose their usefulness as time and community change around them.  Others become dilapidated over time.  A few are simply left to rot by their owners.  Occasionally, an event of some sort forces the evacuation of the area, and, due to the consequences, no one can seem to figure out what to do.  There might be legal issues.  There are often financial difficulties.

Behind every time-warped structure is a story.  If only the walls could talk.    

Along with abandoned buildings, there are abandoned lives.  We see them from time to time.  They sit on street corners, live in nursing homes, and wander the streets.  It’s harder to find some in rural settings.  They camp out back in the woods hiding from society.  These are, without question, are the “least of these” Jesus referred to in Matthew 25.

There are others right in front of us.  Divorce has created a whole group, mainly consisting of moms and kids struggling to keep their heads above the water.  Addiction isolates and moves many into the abandoned column.  They wear out their families and often live in isolation, some functional, many not.  The depressed, mentally ill, and disabled are often abandoned to their thoughts, building a wall, keeping many at bay.  One of the largest abandoned groups are those convicted of a major crime.  The list can go on and on.  

Just like buildings, their lives often are mired in the past.  They wear their loved ones out as well as anybody else that comes in constant contact with them.  While writing this article, I can see what happens.  It’s “us” and then “them.”  Yet, I have learned we are all one decision, moment, or event away from being abandoned.  Our usefulness and relativity to our community may change.  We age.  Just like the old buildings, forces out of our control, a legal or financial crisis, can move us into the unwanted category.  It does not take much in this fast-paced world to have one looking on the outside in.  I haven’t mentioned sin that always separates and isolates us. 

I find no reference to Jesus being attracted to abandoned buildings like I am.  He was constantly reaching out to isolated, marginalized, abandoned men, women and children.  Instead of demanding they get their act together, he poured his love, grace and mercy out to them.  His call to “Follow me” was one that brought the unclean back into community.  In Him we find our value and purpose.  He doesn’t put on a coat of paint, he redeems and restores us.  The Master architect is at work.

I appreciate it when someone asks me to write about a certain topic or event.  That takes the weekly guessing game out of the equation.  It also allows me to focus on one topic instead of rumbling around on several hoping one rises to the top.  

There is a men’s study/conversation group that meets on Friday mornings.  We generally open the Word and focus for a few minutes gaining insight from each other as to the Scripture’s application.  It’s an eclectic group.  Most are from different denominational backgrounds.  Nobody hijacks the meeting.  We all come from different backgrounds.  That leads to a discussion that usually has many turns and twists.  Some days, it’s quite challenging.  I don’t say that negatively.  It’s good to be challenged.  As we learn from Proverbs 27, “iron sharpens iron.”  

I was telling the guys a story from my youth ministry days.  We realized that very few of our students were touched, literally in a positive affirming manner.  Few were touched at all.  They lived isolated lives.  Mom’s and Dad’s have become so busy chasing the rabbit down the rabbit hole that kids were seldom spoken with, seldom encouraged and never affirmed with anything such as a hearty pat on the back.  

Often we would come across students who did not hear encouraging words.  They didn’t hear them because they were not spoken.  We heard story after story of homes where parents only spoke when they were disciplining.  From time to time they only touched their child out of anger and frustration.  No wonder the word “love” is confusing.  

As a youth ministry team, we learned to touch every child and offer words of encouragement as often as we could without placating them.  The touch might have been a light squeeze on the elbow or a soft hand on their shoulder.  For the guys, patting a guy on the back while we played games in the gym was highly encouraged.  We could tell the new kids.  Their look when we touched them would stop a speeding locomotive.  

Along with a proper touch, we wanted to encourage them along the way.  The Bible talks a lot about encouragement.  The writer of Hebrews (we don’t know who it was) implored the believers of the day to “encourage one another daily.”  Why?  It’s a discouraging world, and don’t for one second think we live in encouraging days.  We live in a critical society.  We now have forums where anyone can be critical of anyone at anytime day or night.  

Proverbs 4 says to be careful how you think; your life is shaped by your thoughts.  Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “You are what you think all day long.”  Live in a world of criticism and that is who you become.  

Recently, I was with a group discussing ministry.  I asked, “Is your ministry a place of calm or chaos?  Do you purpose to energize or deflate?  Do the people around you find ways to encourage or micro-manage life to the point where nobody can do anything?”  I don’t have the space to write their answers, so I will sum them up in a few words.  They hoped they were positive in nature but when we went to the next level and asked them to give examples the room went silent.  

Sometimes when an individual stands up and leads with the purpose of encouraging the troops to move forward they are seen as an extremist. The words are muttered that I have heard way too often over the years, “You are too passionate.”  

Jesus walked into a very critical culture.  The basic laws set forth in the Old Testament had been misused and multiplied.  Last time I checked ,the law was not encouraging.  The law is critical, and we think making more laws will make a difference.  The law separates people instead of binding them together.  That was Jesus’ world.  So what did he do?

Jesus focused on his love, grace and mercy.  Against those, it says in His Word, “there are no laws.” 

Touch a life with encouragement.  Touch a weary soul with peace and patience.  Provide a sense of calm in a world of chaos.  Bring hope where there is fear and doubt.  Be a peacemaker when war breaks out.  Be kind when everything in your mind roars to be critical and mean.  Practice self-control in a world that has very little.  Against these characteristics of God…there is no law.  They also have a way of driving criticism out the door.  It’s amazing what a smile can do, a touch can calm, a word of encouragement can energize.  

What did the AT&T jingle say, “Reach out, reach out and touch someone.” 

This past week I had the honor of attending a training on Critical Incident Stress Management.  Sounds complicated, doesn’t it?  Not really.  We all face stress.  I personally believe that all the technology we have does not alleviate stress.  It probably adds to it.  We do not have to personally experience a major event to be stressed.  Watching a shooting, terrorist attack, or anything that disrupts our personal shalom (I love that word) causes stress.  Right now, reading this article on stress can cause stress.  

We were made to be at peace, or better yet, shalom.  In shalom with God, man, and creation.  Well, that didn’t last all that long.  Man chose to go his own path, and shalom was totally disrupted.  Now we wrestle with God instead of walking with him, hate our fellow man instead of loving him, and cannot seem to be in harmony with the creation God gave us.  Shalom is more like STRESS!

We often associate stress with certain events.  Avoid them or make changes in our lives and we can be functional again.  If we can’t avoid it, we medicate it.  I don’t think we can stay isolated, nor is there enough medication to bring us shalom.  It’s a state of being we were made to have but will not find  this side of the glory land.  We might think we can obtain such a state, but we really can’t.  Don’t let a preacher tell you otherwise.  In fact, studies have shown that the three professions with the most stress are:  1. Military,  2. First Responders, and 3. Ministers.  If they are not stressed, they aren’t doing their job.  

Talking about all the stress, the teacher made a profound statement.  He said, “Hurting people hurt people.”  I knew that desperate people do desperate things, but his statement hit me like a ton fo bricks.  

The person screaming at you is expressing his hurt, and it might not have anything to do with you.  The individual who constantly is a thorn in your side is either poking you where you have past hurt or is expressing her hurt by poking somebody else.  The one pulling a gun, wielding a knife, bringing death and destruction is hurting others in his own hurt.  We know this!  We don’t know what to do.

The more I read psychology, I see a diagnosis of hurting people who have adapted to their pain in certain consistent forms.  We aren’t necessarily plagued with brain damage.  We are finding ways to find a sense of shalom.  Add relativism to it and the only peace we are concerned with is our own.  Add more stress avenues than ever before and it’s a mess.

No wonder people don’t want their doorbell rung once they enter their peaceful home.  No wonder moms want help.  No wonder dads are stopping to get a beer or escaping on their smart phones even when it isn’t very smart to do so.  No wonder no one wants to engage anyone anymore…they are trying to survive their own stress in their vain attempt to discover the long lost shalom.  

Jesus talked a lot about unity and shalom.  I love the story of the disciples thinking they were drowning when they had the Prince of Peace asleep in the boat.  They wake him, and what does he say to the creation?  “Peace, be still.”  Look at it another way.  The word “peace” is translated in some versions as “silence.”  Silence.  Peace.  Shalom.  There isn’t very much anymore, especially when we carry a source of noise, chaos, and destruction right in the palm of our hands.  

So what are we to do?  In some respects there are ways to minimize some stress.  We can exercise, turn off some of the external sources of stress, and studies actually tell us to drink more water.  Some need to take their preferred lifestyle and drop it back a level or two.  We all tend to live over our heads.  But with all the “answers,” we will still have stress in our lives.  This is where the church comes in.  

This is where Jesus instructed constantly, and the disciples carried it forward.  He taught us and encouraged us to “Love one another.”  That love was to be expressed with great grace and mercy.  Instead of inflicting more pain, we were to be the givers of grace and mercy, knowing that the love of God is the only thing that can truly help mitigate the stress of this fallen world and fallen people.  By incarnating Christ, we extend a hand, offer an ear, give a shoulder, and offer words of shalom.  It’s kind of interesting.  When we purpose to walk with another in his or her hurt and stress, it softens ours as well.  

Jesus said, “Come to me all who are stressed and I will give you shalom.”  As we go to Him, we, as his people, incarnate his teaching.  Are we bearers of calm or chaos in these crazy days?  

I came across an article by Dr. James Emory White in which he listed the top 10 books that helped shape his faith.  I’ve written that one before.  I must be a slower learner.  My list of 10 is really about 18.  

At about the same time I read Dr. White’s article a dear friend dropped off a worn copy of Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son picture.  He and I are constantly discussing the amazing story Jesus told to give a picture of his great redemption.  We talk about how we often demand our lot from God and run away squandering it.  Rembrandt’s rendition catches the attention of  both of us.

I don’t want to list the top 10 books that almost everybody reading this article will not read.  If you want to know email me.  I don’t want to list my favorite verses.  Why?  They are mine not necessarily yours.  I would like to talk about the Prodigal Son story.  Tim Keller, author and theologian, calls the story the Prodigal Father.  He’s right.  Prodigal means “wild.”  It’s not about the wild son.  It’s the wild nature of the Father who welcomes his son back to the family with no questions or demands.  The Scriptures are fulfilled in this story where we read in Psalm 103:12, “as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us,” and Hebrews 8:12, “For I … remember their sins no more.”  

Rembrandt’s picture details the love, grace and mercy in such forgiveness.  It is consuming and mysterious at the same time.  Henri Nouwen, author, had an opportunity to sit for hours with the original painting.  It humbled him and inspired him at the same time.  

The hands of the father bring comfort to the weary son whose shoes and feet reveal his troublesome paths.  We like to think we can hide the paths we have taken.  If only our feet and shoes could talk!  So often those paths are far from a loving God.  We like to think we know better than the young boy.  But, it’s the hands of dad that bring safety, drawing the smelly, stained and broken boy to his bosom.  

The eyes of the Prodigal Father look downward with compassion at his long lost boy.  He isn’t looking for a response from the onlookers.  He isn’t rolling his eyes as if to say, “What do I do now?”  No, they look to his boy.  His son!  Yes, “all we like sheep have gone astray.”  But, He, as the Good Shepherd welcomes the wayward one home.  No questions.  No demands.  The safety of His embrace is all that is needed.

Meanwhile, the onlookers are watching every move.  The older jealous brother of the prodigal is shadowed in the darkness that surrounds the embrace.  Their faces speak volumes of questions.  Those questions often like ours are not ones of redemption but rather ones of judgment.  

Can you hear those questions?  Where has he been?  What is wrong with the father?  Will he not have to give account?  They go on and on.  All questions whose answers cannot satisfy the one asking.  After the questions come the comments.  We have all heard them.  He must pay!  He is not allowed in the house smelling like a pig!  He needs to take a bath?  His father is out of his mind!  

From the Father come no words. His actions are more important than his words.  Few understand it is not the actions of the son that are the center of this story. It is the actions of his father that are the emphasis!  For his actions say more than words can.  Anybody can say, “I love you.”  What they do in the name of love will reveal them as true or not.  

Of course this picture and story reveal the nature of our faith in Jesus Christ.  Christianity has forgotten that the faith is not about the Christian.  It is about the Christ.  HIs love transcends the expectations of a fallen people.  HIs grace is limitless.  HIs mercy is so profound a wayward son can’t help but be on his knees.

Left in the shadows is the brother.  His attitude and words reveal that he doesn’t understand the heart of his father as well.  He thought it was about obedience.  His love of the law kept him as well from the love in the heart of his father.  So, he stays in the background.  He should be on his knees as well.  

Our world is full of questions.  It’s full of condemnation and criticism.  What will it take to turn it’s focus as in the Rembrandt masterpiece, to the love, grace and mercy of the Prodigal Father?  We know the answer.  In the end of the Good Samaritan story, when mercy was given,   Jesus gives a simple command.  He says, “Go and do likewise.”  As we embrace the love of the Father, the words echo again, “Go.”  There’s more.  “Go and do.” Nope we are not there yet.  “Go and do likewise.”  Like whom?  His name is Jesus.  We can’t be known for our obedience.  But we can be known for our love, grace and mercy of which the Father through Jesus gives immeasurably to us and desires for us to give to others.