Thursday, December 31, 2009

Keep Your Hand on the Throttle

A recent review of an aging church directory gave me an engaging idea for this NewYear’s blog entry. Thumbing through the 1967/68 picture directory of the Brookdale Baptist Church in Bloomfield, NJ, I came across the photo of Mr. & Mrs. Archibald Speer. I realized that before that directory had even been distributed, Mr. Speer was no longer in the church or on the earth. He went to be with his Savior on Nov. 1, 1966, and the circumstances of his passing brought into focus the words of an old Southern Gospel song that saw a substantial revival in recent years in the performances of Lynda Ronstadt in 2005 and other Southern Gospel musicians.

Engineer Archibald Speer was a 45-year veteran of the Erie-Lackawanna Railroad and only weeks away from retirement. On November 1, 1966, he was guiding his passenger train west through Dover, NJ close to the end of his customary run. Unknown to him, two joined, untended but active diesel locomotives inched away from their landing seven miles away to the west on higher elevation in Port Morris.

Slowly, then faster, the 200 tons of switcher engines hurtled down the same track as Speer’s passenger train, reaching speeds of nearly 85 miles per hour. Too late for evasive action, Speer saw death racing toward him. Newspaper reports of the accident quoted a spectator at the clean-up remarking, “He must have gone through the tortures of Hell when he saw the train coming.” The articles said that “Speer, of Clifton, NJ…apparently was killed instantly.”

Reports circulated that Speer, knowing what was about to befall him, was in full control of his train to the bitter end. In an age before computerized systems, his hand was still on the throttle and his eye searching the rail with its raging runaways.

Archibald Speer may have seen mortal hell coming, but he was instantly transported to Heaven. “So we are always confident, knowing that while we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord. For we walk by faith, not by sight. We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord. Therefore we make it our aim, whether present or absent, to be well pleasing to Him.” (II Corinthians 5:6-9)

And the believer’s crown awaited him as his soul fled the scene. Revelation 2:10 says, “Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer … Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.”

In the months following this tragedy, which took place only a few miles from our ministry offices in Towaco, NJ, I used this vivid illustration in countless meetings. Erick Webber and I had teamed up as musician and preacher. While Erick strummed an introduction on his twelve string Fender guitar, I told the story of Archibald Speer, recounting how he became the embodiment of an old Gospel song written in the 1890s by Eliza R. Snow and M. E. Abbey. Then, with typical southern style, Erick sang,

Life is like a mountain railroad, with an engineer that’s brave; We must make the run successful, from the cradle to the grave; Watch the curves, the fills, the tunnels; never falter, never quail; Keep your hand upon the throttle, and your eye upon the rail.

You will roll up grades of trial; you will cross the bridge of strife; See that Christ is your Conductor on this lightning train of life; Always mindful of obstruction, do your duty, never fail; Keep your hand upon the throttle, and your eye upon the rail.

You will often find obstructions; look for storms of wind and rain; On a fill, or curve, or trestle, they will almost ditch your train; Put your trust alone in Jesus; never falter, never fail:
Keep your hand upon the throttle, and your eye upon the rail.

As you roll across the trestle, spanning Jordan’s swelling tide, You behold the Union Depot into which your train will glide; There you’ll meet the Superintendent, God the Father, God the Son, With the hearty, joyous, plaudit, “Weary pilgrim, welcome home!”

Blessed Savior, Thou wilt guide us,
Till we reach that blissful shore;
Where the angels wait to join us
In Thy praise forevermore.

Forty-three years ago, Archibald Speer made his last run, but he finished with his hand on the throttle and his eye on the rail. In 2010, we may safely arrive at our human destinations or we may find life’s track bringing a sudden departure. Whatever our lot, we need steady hands and clear vision.

A blessed New Year to you as we travel life’s rails to Glory!

Dave Virkler

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Joy After A Christmas Eve Nightmare

It was the best of times and the worst of times, when the joy of a Christmas Eve birth turned deadly – well, sort of?

They are being called “the miracle mother and baby” after a near horrific incident in a hospital in Colorado Springs. Tracy Hermanstorfer stated, “I got a second chance at life,” and that she did, after she and her newborn were both not breathing just as the delivery was about to take place.

The 33-year old mom had stopped breathing from an apparent cardiac arrest. The medical staff tried to revive her, but nothing worked. A maternal fetal medicine specialist at the hospital said of Tracy, "She had no signs of life. No heartbeat, no blood pressure, she wasn't breathing,"

It was at that crucial moment that doctors told her husband Mike that his wife was likely gone and they were hoping to save the child through an emergency c-section. To the doctor’s shock, when the infant boy was delivered, he too was not breathing. The husband recalls thinking, "I had everything in the world taken from me.”

Immediately he doctors went to work on lifeless little Coltyn as the helpless father held him. But the infant suddenly began to breathe and show other signs of reviving. Meanwhile, the mother’s pulse returned even before she was wheeled out of the room and into surgery. She had showed no heartbeat for nearly four long minutes. But as soon as the child was delivered, her heartbeat miraculously returned. An evaluation was conducted by experts but tests failed to yield anything that could explain the bizarre incident.

Father Mike Hermanstorfer said the Christmas Eve miracle was simply "the hand of God." He stated, “We are both believers. You explain to me how this happened. There is no other explanation."

Some two thousand years ago, there was another “miracle mother and baby". But in this case the miracle extended far beyond the physical. The mother’s name was Mary and Luke 1:35 describes the miracle of the conception of her child. “And the angel answered and said to her, 'The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God.' ”

The miracle birth of Mary’s son was that He was not merely a human child with an unusual conception. Jesus was also a divine child. He was not an odd blend of God and man. He was fully both.

His miraculous makeup is described in theological terms as the “Hypostatic Union” - a mystery explained best in Philippians chapter two. Paul writes there in verses 5-8, “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.” Scripture teaches that Jesus Christ is the one and only, and fully unique, God-man.

Tracy Hermanstorfer believed that she had received “a second chance at life”. But if she was already a Christian before that most stressful Christmas Eve, she had already taken advantage of a second change by being revived from a life of spiritual death to the miracle that is new life in Jesus Christ. Her greatest miracle was not her own physical survival and that of her child’s. But it was primarily the divine revival of her soul through saving faith – a transaction described in Colossians 1:13-14.

“He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins.”

Bill Breckenridge

Astronauts Launch Christmas Mission

A Russian rocket blasted off on Monday from Kazakhstan shuttling an American, a Russian and a Japanese to the International Space Station. When Timothy Creamer, Soichi Noguchi and Oleg Kotov join the two current inhabitants who have been alone on the space station for three weeks, the total crew will be brought to five.

The vessel traveled for about two days before docking with the space station 220 miles above Earth. One of the crew's tasks will be to assist in the delivery of a module, complete with a seven-window cupola for prime Earth gazing.

The space station this week beamed a video Christmas greeting to Earth, and on its website, NASA has created a series of virtual postcards for members of the public to send to the space station with their holiday greetings. Astronaut Creamer has also promised to keep people back on earth up-to-date and send his holiday greetings via his Twitter account. NASA spokesman Rob Navias stated, “This was a spectacular launch, a great Christmas present, and a great way to finish the year."

Most still marvel at the reality that is modern-day space travel and only time will tell how far man will proceed in that realm. And it is equally astounding that man can so easily and effectively communicate to earth even using some of the common technical tools and toys of the day. But this so-called ‘great Christmas present” and the ‘great way to finish the new year’ are but simple reminders of the greatest Christmas gift ever and the ultimate capacity of communications.

Students of the Scriptures know that Jesus Christ created space itself and everything it encompasses. He communicated with mankind, not by sending a message from beyond the stars, but by coming to earth and being born in a stable. And He left to His true followers the single most effective form of communication - the abiity to communicate with the Heavenly Father through the indwelling Holy Spirit of God.

The greatest way to ‘finish the year’, or any year, is not limited to a privileged few space travelers. It is reserved for all who recognize the One who created space and time, and who traveled through both in order to launch the gift of salvation to earth-bound and sin-bound sinners.

NASA may have technology for ‘prime Earth gazing’ and to look deep into outer space. But the unique ability to see and know the God of the universe is the exclusive right of those who have personally communicated by faith with Jesus Christ. The Bible clearly reveals the dual roles of God's Son as both the Creator and the Savior.

"For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist.” (Colossians 1:16-17)

"For to this end we both labor and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe. (1 Timothy 4:10)

As the maker of all, and the Savior of all, He alone remains the all-time greatest gift for all of time and all of eternity!

Bill Breckenridge

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Lord of Time

Christmas represents the time of our Lord while the New Year underscores the Lord of all time. In nearly total sync, calendars for 2009 are discarded, computers and electronic devices automatically reset, and a multitude of people recast their thinking to the New Year’s designation of 2010. All at once, every year, the global New Year focuses on Jesus Christ, the Lord of all time.

Because of His unique divine Lordship, "…at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth. And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." (Philippians 2:10 & 11) Most Bible interpreters assign this to a future time when all mankind, dead or alive, will acknowledge His literal and visible Kingdom rule. But everyone should bow now, and in this New Year’s calendar miracle, they involuntarily do so by instantly changing the year designation.

Every "Happy New Year!" carries a subtle worship of Christ. On New Year’s Eve, much of the world will watch the huge crystal ball in Times Square slide down the enormous pole to be electrically set ablaze with "2010." At that moment, believer and atheist, Christian and pagan, young and old, rich and poor, all universally bow at the Bethlehem manger. Indeed, as someone once said, "The door of history swings on the hinge of the Bethlehem stable."

Secular people, even atheists, will bow on unwilling bended knee each time 2010 is written into a business contract, inscribed on a check or printed on a school paper. Almost no one realizes it nor do secular analysts understand why, but the world’s business is done according to the Christian calendar, counted from the birth of Christ in a lowly cow stall in a tiny obscure village in southern Judea.

There are countless alternate ethnic and historic calendars that could have become the global timekeepers, but somehow the world has been irresistibly drawn to using the Christian calendar, which honors the great bisection of time accomplished by the birth of Christ. No parliament voted it, no monarch imposed it, no army marched to enforce it, and no global body decreed it. Yet, every knee is subtly bowing to the Lord of time, celebrating His birthday every day of every year.

This global designation crystallized only about 200 years ago, meaning that some 1,800 years after His birth, a global influence was growing. Our Jewish friends reject the Messiahship of Christ but tangentially honor Him by using he terms BCE and CE to designate "Before the Common Era," and "Common Era." Both precisely correspond to BC and AD, which meaning "Before Christ" and "the year of our Lord."

2010 AD means "two thousand and ten, the year of our Lord," and "Lord" is not Mohammed, Confucius, Bhudda or even Abraham, but Christ. The founders of the United States of America dated their Articles of Confederation and U.S. Constitution with "In the year of our Lord," and American presidents have concluded their many proclamations with that same stunning line. (In case you are wondering about the Declaration of Independence, it is dated "July 4th, 1776," and refers to God four times.)

Revelation 1:8 & 11; 21:6 and 22:13 all refer to Christ as "Alpha and Omega," which are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. In other words, Jesus is "the beginning and end."

As 2010 dawns, every knee may not be bowing as it should, but every knee is bending as it must. Welcome to the New Year of 2010 AD, another year of our Lord, who is clearly Lord of all time. And the New Year is always happiest when He is not only a historical Lord but our personal Savior.

Dave Virkler

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Nazareth’s Poverty and Heaven’s Riches

Just in time for Christmas, news is out of an amazing archeological find in Nazareth, Israel. A humble structure dating back to the time of Christ was discovered, and the experts say it is the first ever of such a dwelling to be uncovered from that era.

Knowledgeable authorities say it gives them newfound insight into the life and times of Jesus, pointing out that the structure indicates a comparatively poor town where Christ spent his boyhood years. Experts describe Nazareth as “Probably a small hamlet with about 50 houses populated by poor Jews.” Pottery remnants indicate that the first-century occupants were “a simple Jewish family.” Although no one claims that it is the actual home of Joseph and Mary, they point out that the boy Jesus would have likely known of the house and could have visited there.

Although modern Nazareth is a bustling city, even today some of the poorer residents still occupy caves as we saw them some years ago while touring the city. Our guide said that it was entirely possible that the Holy Family lived in a cave when they returned there after the birth of Christ in Bethlehem and the temporary sojourn in Egypt.

In our local paper, the article about the Nazareth house discovery mentions that the Archangel Gabriel broke the news of the virgin birth to Mary in that city. We appreciate any Bible-substantiating news from the secular media but smile at their overall biblical ignorance. Reading Scripture, we know that Michael is the archangel, not Gabriel. In 1 Thessalonians 4:16, it says the return of our Lord will be with the “voice of the Archangel.” Jude 9 identifies him as Michael. Perhaps the article’s author simply repeated the often-spoken error of church tradition that Gabriel blows his horn to signal the world’s end. It is often in public parlance and occasionally finds its way into spiritual songs. Even 1 Thess. 4:16 does not say that Michael blows his horn but only that his voice is heard.

Regardless of the minor error, believers should rejoice that the reports of the current finding in Nazareth support the historicity of Mary, Christ, and His boyhood home. Further, the poor dwelling indicates the truth of 2 Corinthians 8:9. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich.” Born in a stable, of poor parents, and growing up in a poor town, Christ later spoke of His personal lack of life’s basic comforts. “And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head’" (Matthew 8:20).

Believers are lavished with Heaven’s riches. “The eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that ye may know what is the hope of his calling, and what the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints…” (Ephesians 1:18). In eternity beyond, Christ is afforded all Heaven’s wealth and we with Him.

“Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne, the living creatures, and the elders; and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice: ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, To receive power and riches and wisdom, And strength and honor and glory and blessing!’” (Revelation 5:11-12).

“But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:4-7).

Dave Virkler

Monday, December 21, 2009

A Deeper Darker Reason For The Season

He is known in some circles as “The Lights Murderer” – a title that aptly describes a senseless and dreadful seasonal crime.

In Louisa, Virginia, Timothy Sanner was sentenced last Monday to life plus three years for first-degree murder and felonious use of a firearm. Back in January, the 54-year old Sanner shot his wife with a .22 caliber rifle after she demanded that he leave their Christmas lights up a bit longer. He wanted them down – period! An argument ensued and moments later Dawn Smythers was dead from a gunshot to the head. The defense called it an accident but the jury did not buy it. Now he faces life behind bars – a terrible Christmas-related tragedy!

Some might feel the Sanner incident had little to do with Christmas itself. It was just a terrible and typical case of domestic violence, something all too common in modern American culture. But the reality is, it had everything to do with Christmas. Christmas is, among other things, very much about murder. This may sound odd, but it is theologically undeniable.

Those who fully understand Christmas know that the Child of Bethlehem would become the Christ of the cross. The highly moving Christmas song, “Cradle In The Shadow of A Cross,” is more than just a beautiful and inspiring tune. It is a deeply significant spiritual truth!

Jesus did not come to merely be the perfect role model of a perfect man – though He was. He came to deal with human sin – all sin, including murder! He came to deal with the one who tempted and tricked mankind into sin, judgement, and eternal death. (John 8:44) And He came to do God’s specific will as proclaimed in 1 John 3:8. “For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil.” For that purpose to be fulfilled would require an unfathomable act of sacrifice.

Jesus Christ took on human form according to John 1:14. The verse reads, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” That is what He did at His birth. What He did at His death is revealed in Philippians 2:8. “And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.”

The beautiful and uplifting message of that first Christmas is fully intertwined with the deeper and darker message of the cross. Those who fail to see that all-important link may love the season of light, but live in the spiritual shadows. Christ came to bring God’s great light into man’s dark world. (John 1:9, 1 Peter 2:9) And all those who comprehend, and fully accept, this can sense great joy even while living in a sin-cursed world. The basic reason for such a miraculous ability is recorded through Paul's perceptive words in Romans 5:20-21. "But where sin abounded , grace abounded much more, so that as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord."

Luke 2:11 offers up the primary purpose of the eternal God coming in human flesh. “For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (1 Timothy 4:10, 2 Timothy 1:10)

But this wonderful story of hope and deliverance in the Gospels must always be filtered through the 'darker' message taught in the Epistles. "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." (Romans 3:23) It is then, and only then, that the ‘deeper’ meaning of God's profound personal peace can be known. "Being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. " (Romans 3:24)

"For unto us a Child is born, Unto us a Son is given; And the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace ." (Isaiah 9:6)

Bill Breckenridge

Treasures of the Snow

Opinions on the huge snowstorm that pummeled the mid-Atlantic and northeast states this past weekend vary immensely. Some folks like it, especially the ski resorts. The day after the storm hit the New York area, talk show host Bob Grant voiced the feeling of others when he declared that he hated snow. "I despise it," he rancorously said.

When a snowstorm happens on a school day, kids tend to love it since it means that school begins late or not at all that day. I can relate to that since we lived in the lake-effect snowbelt in central New York State when I was a kid. A severe Sunday snowstorm often meant an extended weekend while plows cleared the rural roads. My brother, Jim, and I would peer through the frosty windows to observe the enormous plows charge the snowdrifts that went completely across the road in front of our house. If the plow went through on one pass, we went to school. If a second charge was required to plunge through, it was a "maybe." If three were necessary, school was off that day.

As I grew older in years and in the Lord, I came to view snow as a stirring Bible illustration of being washed in the blood of the Lamb. Motorists, business men and necessary travelers may indeed dislike the white stuff, which can delay or eliminate vital functions, but Christian believers may take heart that God is refocusing on recurring redemption themes.

God quizzed Job about his understanding of "the treasures of the snow" (Job 38:22), and they are many. Each snowflake is a different six-sided wonder. Meteorologists in storm-prone areas examine snowflakes’ composition to determine how much snow will fall and how long the storm will last, perhaps a subtle "treasure."

Snow is a special feature of the Holy Land. The snow pack on 9,230-foot high Mount Hermon in northern Israel soaks into the porous rock and is graciously metered out as one of headwaters of the Jordan River. The river satisfies human thirst, irrigates crops and trickles into the Dead Sea, creating a reservoir of billions of dollars in chemicals for global use. This downflow is likely referred to in Jeremiah 18:14: "Will a man leave the snow of Lebanon which cometh from the rock of the field or shall the cold flowing waters that come from another place be forsaken?" The snow pack on Mount Hermon often lasts into early June and affords downhill runs for skiers, a real commercial "treasure."

In Bible times, shepherds in Israel would wash the harvested wool by snow-washing; that is, cleansing the fibers with water melted from fallen snow. A more modern example, for those who live in the north at least, is seeing the corroding salt on automobiles washed away as snow cover slides off one’s car.

Cars are one thing, but souls are another. They are cleansed by God’s spiritual snow pack. In a day of dire spiritual declension, Isaiah prescribed a unique cure. "Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool." (Is. 1:18) This could be a reference to the snow washing of wool.

Another specific spiritual catharsis is obvious in the pained confession of King David. Guilty of adultery and murder, he cried, "Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow." (Psalm 51:7)

Even the eventual snowmelt, with its guaranteed subsequent crop-growing potential, is a treasure. Christian witness is treated to the sustaining promise of Isaiah 55:10-11: "For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven, And do not return there, But water the earth, And make it bring forth and bud, That it may give seed to the sower And bread to the eater, So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me void, But it shall accomplish what I please, And it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it."

Snow is like the Gospel. It comes from above and refreshes the earth. Its ultimate treasures are enjoyed in the food we eat and the water we drink.

Years ago in the Mexican jungle, I heard a group of Tzaltal Indians singing an old hymn in their native language. When I came home to New Jersey, I checked the words in English.

Blessed be the fountain of blood,
to a world of sinners revealed,
Blessed be the dear son of God,
Only by His stripes we are healed.
Tho’ I’ve wandered far from the fold,
Bringing to my heart pain and woe.
Wash me in the blood of the lamb,
and I shall be whiter than snow.
Whiter than the snow, Whiter than the snow,
Wash me in the blood of the lamb.
And I shall be whiter than snow.

Those Indians had never seen snow, but they had been washed whiter than snow. Without seeing it, they understood the analogy. All who have seen snow should understand it even better.

Dave Virkler

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Christmas TV - What's The Point?

For many Americans, Christmas would not really be Christmas without watching their favorite seasonal shows. For some, these beloved programs actually kick start the holidays more than any other thing.

Over the years, the many classics have entered the nation’s living rooms geared either at youngsters or adults – sometimes both. Often the older generations still adore the versions they grew up with and enjoy watching their childhood favorites over again through they eyes of their own children.

Some of the more recognizable children’s classics would include, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and the now popular Polar Express. And In more recent years it seems that nearly everyone has gotten into the act with titles such as A Dennis the Menace Christmas, Winnie the Pooh Christmas, A Flintstone Christmas, Muppets Christmas, Garfield Christmas, Pinocchio’s Christmas, and even The Little Rascals Christmas. The list is nearly endless and the story lines sometimes a bit bizarre like Merry Madagascar, The Munsters’ Scary Little Christmas, The Dog Who Saved Christmas, and even Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey.

Hallmark has produced numerous programs over the years, some of which are quite well-done and moving. And then, of course, Hollywood has its more modern entries like The Santa Clause 1-3 and Home Alone 1-4. These newer seasonal mainstays now accompany the all-time adult favorites like Miracle on 34th Street, It’s a Wonderful Life, White Christmas and, of course, Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

The current inventory of Christmas specials has become vast and the stories varied. Unfortunately, many of them have very little or nothing to do with the one whose name makes up the very title of the holiday. But with all efforts in producing Christmas-related media, still nothing ever seems to compare to what is arguably the most simple, most effective, and likely the most inexpensive program of all time - A Charlie Brown Christmas. Using simplistic graphics, genius Charles Shultz somehow captured the imagination of young and old alike. He somehow managed to say more in his brief low-budget cartoon than most all other productions combined!

What few know, however, is that the beloved show almost ended before it even started. Schulz wanted his story to have the religious meaning that was central to his own Christmas experience. But others in the TV industry were far less than enthusiastic. Actually, most executives hated the entire concept from day one.

The now idolized broadcast was criticized as being ‘too religious’ because little Linus quoted Luke 2:8-14 - straight from the King James Bible, no less. How dare he? Few of today’s programs would ever have to be concerned over that criteria. It was criticized for featuring contemporary jazz background music in a cartoon. How could that work? And it was blasted for not having a laugh track and for using the voices of real children except for Snoopy. How could all of these factors ever begin to be overcome? But ‘overcome‘ they did and to the surprise of most everyone except maybe one - Charles Shultz himself.

On Thursday, December 9, 1965, A Charlie Brown Christmas was seen in more than 15 million homes. That was a hefty viewer number almost a half century ago. It was nearly half of the potential audience of that day and was number two in the ratings, after TV’s hit series, Bonanza. Soon thereafter Shultz’s gem won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Children's Program and a Peabody Award for Excellence in Programming. He had basically fooled the experts and fully inspired their viewers.

The Shultz classic is a simple masterpiece containing a simple message. He was a man of character, talent, and vision. But most of all he was a man of simple faith. As such, he fully recognized the implications and impact of Linus’ great Bible quote when he boldly responded to Charlie Brown’s famous question. “Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?"

For many, it was little Linus who introduced them to the pure and personal reason for the season. It was the adorable cartoon character who perhaps first conveyed the true meaning of the incarnation and of the truth of Emanuel - “God with Us”, through his Luke chapter 2 proclamation.

"Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them,"Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: "Glory to God in the highest,And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!" (Luke 2:8-14)

A Savior, who is Christ the Lord.“

That is exactly and exclusively what Christmas has always been about - and always will be!

Bill Breckenridge

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Mass Kidney Swap

Surgical transplants are not normally thought of in terms of a record-setting kidney swap – until now.

Surgeons at Georgetown University and Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C., gave the hope of new life to a group of 13 desperate kidney recipients after performing the twenty-six operations required to complete the task. The six-day surgical marathon was a record-setting feat and part of a pioneering effort to expand transplants to patients who would normally never qualify.

Often a kidney is donated by a relative or very close friend if the physical match is adequate. Sometimes it is not. And often the wait for the right organ goes on indefinitely. But in this case, a ‘pool’ of organs widened the opportunities since many otherwise incompatible issues were solved by the mixing and matching of all the donors and recipients. Upon meeting her own donor, one happy recipient stated, "It's a large gift to give somebody, something so selfless. God bless you." At present, there are 88,000 people on the national waiting list for a kidney.

Medical advancements have provided a second chance for some who would have no hope otherwise. But in the case of organ transplants, the surgical know-how is just part of the equation and is insufficient without those willing to make a huge sacrifice.

As impressive as this personal and sacrificial gift of extended physical life may be, it cannot begin to compare to the length and quality of the life offered through the ultimate donor of life - God’s Son.

In his first letter, the Apostle Peter spoke of how Jesus Christ provided spiritual healing through the giving of His own body as an offering for sin. 1 Peter 2:24 reads, “Who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness — by whose stripes you were healed.” Then, too, Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:25 related Christ’s own words about the part His own physical body would play in the redemptive plan of God. Just before His betrayal by Judas He declared, "Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me."

Scripture reveals the mind-boggling exchange of ‘sin for sainthood’ offered to every man by Jesus Christ. Paul makes that abundantly clear when he writes, “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21) God’s Son is the stand alone supreme donor as contended in 1 Timothy 2:4-5. “For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus.” And there are absolutely no compatibility issues whatsoever associated with the exchange of sin for salvation. “For "whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved." (Romans 10:13, John 3:16)

At this Christmas season millions of gifts will be thoughtfully given and happily received. Most will be joyfully exchanged under a tree. A few select others may even come via some surgeon’s skilled and life-extending hands. But no gift will ever match that of being the precious recipient of the One for whom the holiday is named. His love compelled Him to freely donate His all and to give His very best even while we were at our very worst.

“But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:7-8)

Bill Breckenridge

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Cost of Christmas

Christmas is becoming extremely costly especially if you take literally the folklore of "The Twelve Days of Christmas." I ran across a newspaper article listing the song’s itemized costs and wondered how our outlays for the incarnation holiday (holiday actually means "holy day") got so out of hand.

The article’s author took as a benchmark the "Twelve Days of Christmas" and, pricing each gift, made a comparison between the 2008 and 2009 shopping costs for the dozen items "my true love gave to me."

This exercise is obviously a total secularization of Christmas since the daily items have nothing to do with Christ except by accepting questionable tradition or simply promoting wild stretches of the imagination.

The traditional view is that the twelve days of Christmas are December 25 through January 5 leading to Epiphany on January 6, which celebrates the arrival of the wise men. It is observed by the Eastern Orthodox Church. Some believe that the gift items are analogies of God’s serialized love for believers or even veiled encouragement for the faithful in times of persecution.

But back to the high cost of financial fantasy for Christmas in 2009. As Bill wrote in the previous blog, Dan Hephin reveals the full bill for the gifts of the twelve days of Christmas is $87,403, up less than one percent over 2008.

Lost in the pricing is the real cost of Christmas to the original participants. I wrote about this last year, but it’s worth repeating.

First, Joseph had to struggle with marrying an expectant wife without the baby being his child. Maintaining celibacy until she delivered was a costly exercise in self restraint.

Mary gave up a community-accepted pregnancy, probably attended by incredulous sneers. She would live her remaining years in the shadow of shame and expecting her Christ child’s Cross. Mary twice traveled the 70-mile journey south, first to meet Elizabeth and then with Joseph to Bethlehem. To avoid a murderous Herod, the family would flee at night for the arduous round trip to Egypt.

Earlier, Zecharias’ part as John’s father cost him his ability to speak for nine months.
Faithful Messiah-watchers Anna and Simeon voluntarily paid the price by regular Temple visits and were rewarded with seeing their long-awaited Savior.

Shepherds left their midnight vigils over their flocks in the fields to make an impromptu visit to a humble cow stall and then shared the news with what were likely incredulous hearers.

Wise men traveled as long as two years for their brief gift-giving visit, and then found their lives jeopardized by a raging jealous King Herod.

Countless children under the age of two and their bereaved mothers would pay with life and grief as Herod’s soldiers rampaged through the area. Years ago, I visited a grave crypt near the Church of the Nativity where piles of infant skulls were interred. Our guide said they could have come from that distant infant slaughter.

Spiritual stress was borne by the nativity characters as demonic forces collided with angelic throngs over Bethlehem, a warfare obliquely seen in Revelation 12:4 which says, "…and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born."

All these costs, grim as they were, pale in comparison with God the beneficent Father and His given Son, who volunteered for the harsh journey from Heaven to earth. John 3:16 has it, "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life." When the Second person of the Trinity left Heaven for earth, it was a forgone conclusion that He would die and shed His precious blood, a priceless act providing access to redemption for all men.

Christmas cost God His Son and it cost His Son His life—all to give us the gift of eternal life (Romans 3:23, Ephesians 2:8 and Titus 2:14).

Accepting God’s gift is the ultimate immediate thanks. Living for Christ out of gratitude dignifies His gift on a continuing basis. Let’s all think about the cost of the gift this Christmas, receive it if we haven’t and live for Him if we have.

Dave Virkler

Terrible Tempest In Tigertown

He is the most recognizable single sports figure in the world and has earned nearly a billion dollars to date. But now, some of his staggering income may vanish forever in what may become the single biggest fall from sports grace ever!

He is Tiger Woods, the golfer who has dominated his sport more than any other. He may, in fact, have dominated his sport more than anyone has ever controlled any sport for that matter. His name has become synonymous with golf and has single-handedly lifted the sport to heights it enjoys today. But the recent scandal revealing his extra-marital activities may not affect his skill, but has surely begun to scare off a host of endorsers now that their prized athlete’s clean image has fallen into the gutter.

The Wall Street Journal has reported that advertisers have not aired TV commercials featuring Woods since shortly after the scandal broke. And Bloomberg News said that marketers have pulled all Tiger Woods ads from prime- time television broadcast networks, and 19 cable channels did likewise. The loss of income due to endorsement deals gone south is huge to Woods since estimates show that a whopping 90% of the golfer’s billion dollar earnings have come via that route.

Sin brings consequences. They may come soon. Or they may come later. But they will come. But the outward effects of sin are not always detectable in this life. In his letter to young Timothy, the apostle Paul wrote, “Some men's sins are clearly evident, preceding them to judgment, but those of some men follow later. Likewise, the good works of some are clearly evident, and those that are otherwise cannot be hidden.” (1 Timothy 5:24-25)

The bottom line is that while the knowledge of, and judgment for, sin may escape the eyes of finite men, the Bible assures in Hebrews 4 that nothing gets past the notice of an all-knowing God. Verse 13 reads, “And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.” As Moses put it in Numbers 32:23, “and be sure your sin will find you out.”

No doubt millions of adoring Tiger fans will quickly forgive and forget. They may write off their idol’s actions as understandable. After all, he is filthy rich and he is the world’s most famous sports figure. That makes him a helpless target by scores of thrill-seeking and money-seeking women, making resisting all the temptations impractical. Some will turn their heads because they are blinded by the love of the sport. And there are those who feel that all eventually ends well since his offended wife stands to get some $300 million of his estate, should the couple part ways due to the high profile mess.

But what is most serious and most tragic is that some will make light of the golfer’s repeated indiscretions because they are simply blinded to the seriousness and consequences of sin. Scripture is clear that all sin is an offense to a Holy God and worthy of His judgement. (Romans 1:18-20) But it also reveals the increased level of seriousness when it comes in the form of Tiger Woods’ offense. 1 Corinthians 6:18 records the apostle’s words of warning. “Flee sexual immorality. Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body.”

A sobered and repentant David realized the extent of his similar act in Psalm 51 where he confessed his hideous sin and did so to the one he offended most. Verses 3-4 read, “For I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against You, You only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Your sight.”

Tiger’s future, at least in the forum of public opinion, is up for grabs. But his primary problem remains not the regaining of his scared reputation, the loss of his highly lucrative endorsement deals, or even the repairing of the scared broken trust with his wife and family. His most crucial need now is to see what David saw and do what David did. What matters most now is that he ask God what David asked God in verses Psalm 51:910. David cried out, “Hide Your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God.”

Because the God of the Bible is also a God of love and mercy, David’s desperate plea is a miraculous possibility. It is within reach of any sinner - whether he be poor or rich. But the full spiritual repair of the eternal breech between God and man requires something huge and something personal. It requires the full admission of one’s own sinfulness. And it requires a fully faith-based acceptance and trust in Christ’s sacrifice for sin – something motivated by a full understanding of the words He Himself offered in Matthew 16:25-26.

“For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?”

Bill Breckenridge

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Give The 12 Days of Christmas?

With Black Friday 2009 in the books, the Christmas rush is off and running. And for those searching for the most unique gift ever, price notwithstanding, perhaps giving the proverbial “12 days Of Christmas” items would do the trick.

According to the annual "Christmas Price Index" compiled by PNC Wealth Management, the final cost of the various items bought repeatedly according to the song’s lyrics would top $87,000. The figures are meant to be humorous. But no doubt someone somewhere will give in to the temptation of impressing someone they love with what would be the most unusual and unique gift on earth – or is it?

To say that Christmas has become primarily a commercial venture would be a gross understatement. Even in the midst of an ongoing economic downturn, retailers were happy about 2009 Black Friday sales as evidenced by the scores who stood in long for days to seal the deal of their choice. Some will no doubt still owe on items bought this year when their repeat performance approaches new year. Perhaps Lucy, in ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’, had the general concept right when she said of the commercialism at Christmas, "It's all run by a big eastern syndicate, you know."

Everyone can grasp the words to the old song, “Christmas is for children”. In many ways, it is just that, since to kids the holiday seems so magical. But not nearly as many know, or care to, that Christmas is for far more than about those who are the chronologically challenged. It is far more than giving or receiving gifts. And it lies far deeper than decorations, parties, and family gatherings - as wonderful and warming as those things may be.

At its core, Christmas is not primarily about the ‘select’ giving from one person to another person even though the basic idea is derived from the Bible's account in Matthew 2:7-11. Christmas is about the giving. But it is about the giving of the Creator God to the creatures to whom He gave life. His gift is so unique, and so costly, as to be infinitely beyond the purchase of even those who could easily afford to give the literal “12 Days”. Considering the very name, it should be obvious that Christmas is the gift that is Christ!

To say that God’s Christmas gift to man was costly to Himself would also be a major understatement. No mortal can ever comprehend the spiritual depths experienced by God’s Son when He willingly and lovingly fulfilled His destiny – the one spoken of in 2 Corinthians 5:21. “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us.” Then Romans 5:16 briefly reveals the reason, price, and the miraculous result when God’s supreme gift is personally embraced through faith. Paul writes in verse 16, “For the judgment which came from one offense resulted in condemnation, but the free gift which came from many offenses resulted in justification.” Never has there been a gift that costs so much on one end and yet is so freely offered on the other.

Towards the end of the cartoon Christmas classic, a highly frustrated Charlie Brown finally breaks down and cries out , “Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?" It is then that little Linus Van Pelt steps into the stage spotlight and replies:

“Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about. 'And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, 'Fear not: for behold, I bring unto you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.' And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.'"(Luke 2:8-14)

Christmas gifts may be large, expensive, thoughtful, and personal in nature. Then, too, they can at times be the polar opposite. But the gift that ‘is’ Christmas represents perfectly the essence of pure love with a divine purpose. (Romans 5:7-8)

Sometimes at this wonderful season, bumper stickers and mailboxes will offer the now well-known phrase, “Keep Christ In Christmas” or “Jesus Is The Reason For The Season”. These are lofty and lovely words and a reminder to say the least. But practically speaking this need not be said. A Christmas minus the ‘Christ’ leaves only a ‘mas’ – or better yet, a ‘mess’.

When there is more concern about the financial aspects of Black Friday than the spiritual events of Good Friday, there really is no reason for the season - other than a futile and fragile focus on temporary material things!

Bill Breckenridge