Tuesday, December 31, 2013

For Whom the Bell Tolls - New Year 2014

For Whom the Bell Tolls 2013 has been a year of milestones for our family. Our older children have neared or established themselves in their third decade of life, while one daughter reached the magical 21st year mark! Our youngest is one year away from double digits, while Luz and I celebrated 24 years of marriage and press on towards the silver marker of 25 years together. While we have had much to celebrate, my generation has entered that season of life as a caretakers for those who are entering the winter season and culmination of their lives and are stepping into the hereafter having run the hard race and fought the good fight. Not only are we caretakers for those who are passing on, but some of our generation have already heard the bells of eternity toll for them. Those chimes serve as a stark warning for the rest of us that our date with Forever looms as a closer reality than we have thus far allowed ourselves to consider. Psalm 90:12 asks the Lord to, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” while Psalm 39:4 implores God to “Show me, LORD, my life's end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is.” These are not morbid reflections, but rather fresh calls to action. For those who, like me, belong to the trailing end of the “boomers” and the leading edge of the “busters” this is the beginning of the marathon portion of the Triathlon competition! We’ve come a long way and a good bit of our race is recorded, but there’s a whole lot of race ahead and we must still run with focus, determination and devotion. We have reached that opportune time when our mortality is very apparent to us, while opportunities and possibilities to make a difference and impact lives yet remain. We have much work to do and the maturity to understand that time is precious in doing it. With the dawning of a New Year, whatever our stage of life may be, we have new opportunities to shine! Let us make the most of our days, realizing that while our time is limited, our potential impact is not. Let us strengthen our resolve, redouble our efforts and fix our eyes on the prize, serving God and humanity with love, joy and peace firmly embedded in our hearts, souls and minds! May this year be the best ever and may it set the pace for us to have an impact and be a blessing or many years to come! Happy New Year and may the Lord sustain you and bless you in all that lies ahead!

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Create in Me a Clean Heart, O God!

Jeremiah 17:9 reports that: “The heart is deceitful above all things, And desperately wicked; Who can know it?” I am tempted, at times, to challenge that declaration until I confront my own nature. This morning, as we went about preparing for Victoria’s delayed birthday celebration, I found myself becoming unreasonably annoyed with people just trying to get by – a man in a motorized chair desperately trying to cross the street. A woman with a cane struggling to get to her car. A family with groceries trying to juggle kids, goods and traffic, along with countless other like situations. As I encountered these folks and others who were just minding their own business, but causing a delay in mine, I found myself getting highly disturbed. It was at a point where I thought some not so holy thoughts that the Lord convicted my heart and confronted me with this alternate thought: “There is a likelihood that should I be blessed with a longer life that I may require the use of a cane, a motorized chair or just extra time to get from point A to point B. How would I feel if someone looked at me with such disdain in my time of need?” I was cut to the core. I was also reminded of King David’s heart check at the end of Psalm 139 when he asks the Lord, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” As for me, it’s time to do some self-maintenance and to get my heart in tune with God’s. How about you?

Thursday, December 19, 2013

My Cup Runneth Over!!

Our cup of celebration runs to overflowing in December! Victoria has a birthday, Joana has a birthday, our son-in-law Mike has a birthday, our grandson Jack-Jack has a birthday and of course, there’s the glorious celebration of Christ's birth at Christmas! But, with the exception of Christmas, I wouldn’t be celebrating any of these special days were it not for the event that took place on a sweltering Manila afternoon, on December 20, 1989! It was on that glorious day, twenty-four years ago, that Luz Bautista and I began our journey together as husband and wife! Each year, we grow richer as our deposits in the bank of memories mount and our blessings increase. The memories are at times a recounting of challenges and struggles, yet even those recollections provide us with the sweet collateral of time spent together to solve problems and overcome obstacles. Of course, we also recount good times we've spent laughing and loving, watching our family grow and just counting our many blessings! It is with a heart full of gratitude for these blessings that I thank my Luz for loving me and walking alongside me as my friend, partner and true soulmate for 24 years! It is my prayer and deepest hope that the Lord will allow us to enjoy many, many more years together, depositing countless added riches to our bank of love! Thank you family, brothers, sisters and friends for being a special part of our treasure trove of blessing! God is good! With gratitude and love, Sam

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Christmas Beauty in a Halloween Ugly World

I love watching reruns of the show “Sanford and Son”. I especially enjoy the verbal jousting of the main character, widower Fred Sanford, and his sister-in-law Esther. One morning, on the way to church, as an oldies station played Christmas clips from various 70’s shows, the Sanford and Son clip took the prize as the most memorable. Full of holiday cheer, Esther enters the Sanford home and cheerfully announces, “I have the feeling of Christmas!” As expected, Fred cannot allow Esther’s greeting to go unanswered and retorts with mischievous glee, “…And the face of Halloween!” I spent half of the morning laughing about that exchange and thinking of the contrasts of Christmas and Halloween. Later the same day, I stumbled across a friend’s posting on some of the horrible, diabolical and evil challenges that challenged Christians during the Roman Empire. The evil described was absolutely disgusting to the point that it would not be appropriate to even name here the issues that were addressed in the posting. Nevertheless, the point the article presented and my friend supported was this: The Good Ol’ Days weren’t very good. Every generation has faced crushing evils of one sort or another and has had to make hard choices that were costly to combat the treacherous aspects of their day. The ongoing reality is that we long for Christmas beauty in a Halloween ugly world. This was certainly the case during the First Christmas. It was Halloween ugly when Joseph and his wife Mary set out on a journey mandated by a crushing, heartless empire that had no category in its statecraft for “mercy mild” or reconciliation with God or anyone else. It was Halloween ugly for this holy family in their poverty to have no means to access the finest inns in the land, but rather establish their lodgings in a stable cave that had all of the medical amenities and luxuries of the most primitive of barns. It was Halloween ugly that this family would eventually have to take flight and become refugees as the corrupted leaders suspected the arrival of another King and a different Kingdom and launched a brutal plan to squash this unseen rebellion! It was Halloween ugly that the first Christmas was not set in a tranquil picturesque nativity scene, but rather in a cold, hard, real world setting that was tough, troubling and that sorely tested the faith of those who had to endure it. This reality of the true nature of the First Christmas is often just too much for us to handle. For this reason, Christmas often becomes a platform for a saccharine sweet, artificially sentimental presentation of a magical time where reality is suspended and humanity pretends that just wishing away evil by focusing on the positive will allow the good times to roll and for spontaneous fairyland joy to overcome all! We present Christmas in a sanitized bubble of settings similar to "Leave it To Beaver", "The Andy Griffith Show" or "Happy Days". While I love those shows and celebrate their wonderful presentations of a slice of Americana, just consider the reality of what was occurring in the United States during the times those shows were either produced or represented. It was the reality of a segregated nation, the threat of nuclear annihilation and the looming specter of a painful South East Asian War that would redefine the way the United States saw itself and its place in the world. It was a daily reality that was certainly much more complex and difficult than the Hollywood fantasy presented episodically. The on-going reality is that our daily lives are difficult and our existence is tainted with the ugliness of sin and its fruit. Nevertheless, though we are deeply troubled as human beings, like Hollywood, we are constantly attempting to conceal our problems or deny them entirely, especially during Christmas. The bad news is, if we live in this fantasy existence, we miss the true significance of Christmas and the powerful and redemptive truth that the unvarnished story makes available to us! The Good News is that the Bible refuses to hide truth, but relentlessly presents truth and ultimately exposes The Truth right smack dab in the middle of the chaos and confusion that dominates daily human life! The unstoppable beauty of Christmas is, in the words of an old Christmas musical, "The Very God Who watched as Adam chose to go the rebel’s way, and saw His perfect world destroyed by sins decay, BECAME A MAN!" The Bible states that, “…God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” The beautiful Baby born in Bethlehem didn’t appear for a Kodak moment family portrait but rather came to serve and to die… for us! The Bible further states that for those of us who follow Him, His way MUST become our way too! Here is the FULL message of Christmas: “So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” We are called to fight the ugliness of Halloween – selfishness, cruelty, hatred, hunger, divisiveness, and all the other rotten fruit thereof, with the undying pursuit of the beauty of the holy Christmas fruits of encouragement, joy, love, unity, selflessness, humility, and obedience to God to the point of surrendering everything - up to and including our very lives - that others may know the Reason for the Season. The Real Message is stark. The Real Message is arresting. But, the Real Message of Christmas is beautiful. Imagine a world full of Jesus followers who dedicate themselves to this Real Christmas Message every day – a world with people willing to go to the hard places, take on the hard subjects, perform the hard jobs, and face the hard people not for their own agenda or fame, but simply out of love for God and love for those they’ve been sent to reach! A people who are committed to this kind of message will break the artificial bonds of December 25th and truly celebrate Christmas all throughout the year. This is God’s desire for us: He desires that we, like the post-Ghost Scrooge, “keep Christmas” beautifully and completely every day that we live. So, as we engage our holiday traditions, let’s not leave behind our everyday duty to proclaim the Message – God sent His Son into an ugly world to shine with a beauty not built on pageantry or pretense, but on the beauty of His holiness, where Good takes on evil and doesn’t let go until Good wins. Christmas is beautiful but only if you keep it real! So, as you put up your tree, don’t forget to take up your cross! Merry Christmas! Until Next Time, Sam

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Extreme Benefits!

As we neared the end of our Sunday service, the time came for members of the congregation to share testimonies of God’s faithfulness. A familiar hand, went up and all of our regular attenders smiled. The hand belonged to Mrs. Charity Lewis, the mother of our church and the person who had walked the walk of faith longer than anyone in the assembly. Mrs. Lewis began a familiar account of how she had been hit by a speeding car in 1954, thrown almost 50 feet, landed on the hard streets of Cleveland and somehow lived to tell the tale. She vowed as she did each Sunday, that she would never forget the harrowing experience and she would never fail to share what God had done for her whenever she had a chance. After the service, someone asked her if she thought that her sharing this same testimony every week wasn’t just a little extreme. Mrs. Lewis without hesitation responded, “Young Lady, I should already be dead. God in his mercy saved me from a certain death by delivering me in an extreme fashion. The least I can do is to go to the extreme to thank Him and make my miracle known!” Psalm 103 begins with this soaring exclamation of thanksgiving: Bless the Lord, O my soul; And all that is within me, bless His holy name! Bless the Lord, O my soul, And forget not all His benefits! Every year at this time, Luz and I are reminded of an extreme benefit the Lord delivered to us by way of our youngest daughter Victoria. Nine years ago, we languished with great apprehension as my incredibly dynamic, active and vibrant soul mate, utilized all of her strength trying to remain virtually motionless so that the little one inside her might have a chance to survive. Her water had already broken weeks earlier, and we were reliving nightmares of having lost our daughter Samantha-Luz at birth under similar circumstances less than two years before and a set of twins we miscarried a few years before that. Our situation was not optimum and the shadow of the possibility of death seemed to hang over us like a storm cloud that would not dissipate. Yet, we persevered in prayer and waited. At exactly 28 weeks gestation, on December 7, our Victoria entered the world. At 1 pound, 13 ounces, she roared with a voice that sounded more like a mouse squeaking than a baby crying, and began a 3-month fight for her life. Due to the wonderful care and attentiveness of the St. John NICU staff and the prayers and support of precious friends, the fight ended in a victory to which her name testifies! After being the recipients of God’s mercy in such a rich way, Luz and I vowed that we would follow Mrs. Lewis’ lead and continually share the story of God’s goodness to us through our Victoria’s birth each year! We also vowed that we would never fail to thank those who fought so hard for her through their tender medical care and unflinching prayer support. So, in accordance with our vow, we thank the Lord for His extreme mercy towards us by sparing our Victoria and through her life, extending our youthfulness for just a bit longer. We also thank the Lord for the medical staff that ministered to our family with loving professionalism that never lost the tender touch of humanity and who have become our friends and a sweet part of our life’s journey. We also thank all of you who either fought that tough battle of faith with us, or who have joined with us in celebrating with us as we continue to discover just what a blessing Victoria is! We cannot conclude this testimony without thanking our 3 older daughters – Victoria’s “other others” – who walk alongside us in helping to shape Victoria into a woman of strength, substance and beauty just like themselves. We have known heartache and loss, yet Victory has not eluded us. Thank you for letting me share yet again of the goodness and mercy of the Lord and letting me recount with you, all His benefits! Until next time… Sam.