Friday, December 31, 2010

Christmas: Self-Examination Time for Stewards

Christmas affords us a wonderful opportunity for self-examination. An opportunity to take inventory of our spiritual and material resources that, in turn, influence our outlook on life, our priorities as God’s stewards, and our hope for the future.

Temporally speaking, the arrival of Christmas near the end of the calender year causes us to reflect upon how well we have utilized the previous 12 months of the year. And yet, Christmas is close enough to January 1 to begin reflecting on our goals for the coming year. As we participate in our daily spiritual warfare of keeping “self” from Christ’s rightful throne of our hearts, we can find great encouragement in the message of Christmas. The Christmas season bids us to slow down and “take time” to meditate on what God has done on our behalf. When we stop in this way, we can hear God’s Word to us. The God of eternity stepped into the time-space world of Bethlehem to deliver us from the tyranny of ourselves and our pride, from our lust for power and “stuff,” and even from our failed efforts to “keep the law” as a means of producing our own righteousness.

But when the time arrived that was set by God the Father, God sent his Son, born among us of a woman, born under the conditions of the law so that he might redeem those of us who have been kidnapped by the law. -- Galatians 4:4-7 (The Message)

Jim Elliott, one of the young men who was martyred while taking the Gospel to the Waodani (Auca) Indians of Ecuador, suggested that one of Satan’s greatest fears is when believers allow time for quietness that fosters deep mediation and prayer. Dr. Al Mohler, in his 11/12/2010 entry entitled “The Glory of God and the Life of the Mind”, emphasizes the importance of quiet study and meditation in the development of a Christian worldview:

"Christian faithfulness requires the development of the believer’s intellectual capacities in order that we may understand the Christian faith, develop habits of Christian thought, form intuitions that are based upon biblical truth, and live in faithfulness to all that Christ teaches. This is no easy task, to be sure. Just as Christian discipleship requires growth and development, intellectual faithfulness requires a lifetime of devoted study, consecrated thinking, and analytical reflection."

This Christmas season, we should especially value the quietness that was also valued by Mary whom the Scripture states on two different instances treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart (Luke 2:19; and see Luke 2:51).

As we ponder the deep significance of God’s entrance into Earth-time at Christmas, may we also realize that His entry as the Incarnate Christ was an entry into the material-spatial dimension of our personal human existence. In the midst of our enjoyment of Christmas trees and the nighttime dazzle of multicolored lights, may we take time to look high and beyond the nearby glow of man-made sparkles and urban lights and gaze into the vast array of stars and galaxies that pierce the dark sky above us. Amazingly, when the brightness of the nearest star gives way to the tiny points of light from billions of distant stars, we can sense more clearly the penetration of their light into the very depths of our soul. Here in the dim moonlight and starlight our souls are laid bare to the greater questions of life – Who am I? Is there anyone ‘out there?’ Or, ‘in here?’ Does God really exist, and if so, did He come to Earth seeking to save my soul?

Christmas lights and the splendor of the nighttime sky do not ultimately bring us answers to the deep questions of life. Indeed, many people we pass during the busy holidays are fearful of being alone in the quietness of the starry night sky. They have no personal relationship with the One Who created the Earth, other planets, and the stars. Many even resent those who believe in God and His Son Whose birth we celebrate at Christmas.

According to the American Atheists Website “Statistics show that nearly 50 million Americans are atheists. Some use names like freethinker, agnostic or humanist to describe or modify their position, but atheism (the absence of a belief in a deity) is broad, and encompasses all those terms. If you don't have an active belief in a god, you're an atheist. It's a very good thing!”

The website goes on to state, “Millions of atheists are closeted, choosing to go along to get along, and feigning religion to their friends, family, and coworkers. American Atheists understands the pressure to fit in, but we maintain that for people to love you, they must know the real you.”

But atheism fails to provide an objective answer to the questions, “Who am I? Why am I here? What’s wrong? What can be done to ‘fix it’?” Thankfully, the Scriptures answer these questions with resoundingly clarity:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1: 1, 14).

The atheistic and materialistic philosophy of naturalism claims that the natural world and the laws that guide it are the only reality, and science can and will eventually answer all of our questions. But the Bible counters with the clear revelation that

...since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. (Romans 1:20-21).

The only hope for “foolish, darkened hearts” is the truth that the Eternal God pierced the darkness and stepped from eternity into Earth-space-time in the form of the Incarnate Christ, conceived by the Spirit of God and born of a woman. Thus, Deity took on the material substance of a human being and signified to us His love of the groaning, sin-cursed creation. The incarnation and the cross bridge the gulf between Heaven and Earth, between the spiritual and the material world. Through the redemption and reconciliation provided by Christ’s coming and sacrifice for our sins, the original sin that came through Adam’s abuse of God’s creation and rejection of his stewardship role (Genesis 3) is atoned for by the Second Adam, Jesus Christ (I Corinthians 15:22). Through faith in Christ, we remove “self” from the throne of our lives and allow Christ to reign. The reigning Christ redeems and reinstates us as stewards, not only of God’s creation here on Earth, but as stewards of the manifold grace of God (I Peter 4:10).

Christmas is a season to reflect on the incarnation of Christ, the message of God breaking into time and space of Earth, not to take [us] out of the world, but to keep [us] from the evil one (John 17:15). When the splendor of the night sky and the glow of Christmas lights shine on my face, do they reveal an expression that radiates the joy of Christ from deep in my heart? I hope so, for this is the joy that comes from the faith assurance that God does indeed exist. And, He is not only the Creator of the material world and the vast starry sky, but also the One Who gives dignity to my stewardship of His creation. A dignity that allows me to handle the “stuff” of the Earth in such a way that I can enjoy it without becoming soiled by excess; but instead, use it to bring glory to Him and draw others into faith in His saving Grace.

Additional Thoughts and Resources:

1. In what way does the Christian doctrine of the incarnation present a rigorous challenge to the philosophies of naturalism (natural world is the only reality) and major oriental religions (true reality is in the transcendent world)?

2. In what way does the biblical environmental stewardship ethic oppose the extremes of being so earthly minded that one ignores the transcendent reality of heaven; or, being so heavenly minded that one has no reverence or respect for the "natural world?"

3. For an additional reading on the importance of quietness, or silence, in the human experience, see another blog entry by Dr. Al Mohler entitled “‘Where Do All the Colors Go at Night?’ — Children and the Need for Silence”

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Tree Rings Record History

Early December finds us between two great holidays. Thanksgiving has just allowed us to reflect on the past year and give thanks to God for His provision to us. Looking forward, Christmas offers us the opportunity to turn thankful hearts toward the greatest reason for “thanks-giving” – the gift of God’s Son Who was born of a lowly peasant girl betrothed to a carpenter. As we remember the Savior’s birth in Bethlehem two thousand years ago, may His indwelling Spirit stir us in renewed hope for the coming return and reign of Christ, our Creator Who is already at work “to reconcile all things to Himself...whether things on Earth or things in heaven (Colossians 1:20).”

Because God wants his people to remember His deeds and to be thankful, He has provided tools to help us to be remembering, thankful people. Thus, God has given most of us a memory– at least for the younger years of life. Because of the finiteness of human life and our limited capacity to learn and remember large amounts of information, our God-given creativity provides another tool for remembering. Many cultures have gone beyond oral tradition to record information on rock and cave surfaces, or on animal skins (parchments) or on paper made from plant fibers. The Hebrew tradition beginning at the time of Moses involved meticulous hand-copying of the content of God’s special revelation, resulting in the Old and New Testament Scriptures today.

Of major importance to recorded history are trees which provide pulpwood used to make paper. But there is a second way that trees are involved in recording information; namely, by their annual growth rings which provide a record of history that may extend backward for centuries. The examination of tree rings in Rocky Mountain Bristlecone Pines by Brunstein and Yamaguchi(1) have revealed individual trees that were over 2,400 years old. More recently, combining ring chronologies of living and fossilized tree trunks has attempted to extend the span of historic and ecological knowledge backward to over 4,000 years (2).

The science of dendrochronology utilizes the number and width of annual growth rings of trees to determine the ages of trees and forest communities as well as to infer climate trends and ecological impacts such as fire, insect attacks, and disease. Thus, the number and width of rings as seen in the cross-section (or hollow-bore drill samples) of tree trunks and branches provide an indication of each year’s effect on growth, for better or worse.

This past summer, Abby and I removed a large Colorado Blue Spruce tree that had begun to overtop our house and replaced the tree with a perennial garden. When the tree finally rested on the ground, we were greeted with an interesting chronology of its life displayed on the cut stump. I have photographed the stump and marked the chronology back to its first year of life, probably somewhere in a tree nursery. The photo and chronology can be viewed at “Silvius Tree Ring Timeline.”

As you can see from the photograph and the chronology of highlights, our family has experienced some of the same joys and trials as those of many other families. Throughout this time, the tree was steadily growing new wood each year, some years having more favorable growth and wider rings than others. During certain years, our family were forced to “branch out” into new challenges that affected us for years to come. Likewise, tree branches can be seen in radial patterns across the annual rings and they, too, require adjustments in growth of the tree trunk.

We understand that as the winds cause trees to sway and twist they also cause the tree to develop stronger wood in the trunk and branches. Although it is sometimes hard, a thankful family will also thank God for the challenging storms as well as the sunny days of life.

We have recorded only a few highlights of the past 35 years, but as our family grew physically, emotionally, and spiritually through the joys and trials, we have learned more about God’s grace, mercy, and loving kindness. Perhaps you will join us in looking back across time to thank God for His blessings in your life and family; and then, look forward to Christmas with hope and joy. Indeed, one of the main focuses of Christmas is the “Christmas tree” which reminds us of our Creator Who came to Earth as the Light of the World. During His early years, Jesus labored with wood in a carpenter shop. Then, his three years of public ministry ended when He willingly gave up his life as he “hung on a tree” bearing our sin to provide for our atonement with God.

Thank you God for your Word, inspired through your Holy Spirit, and recorded on paper by many different authors. Thank You for trees from which paper and many wood products are made. Thanks for their beauty and grace while they live, providing shade, protection from wind, and an annual growth of edible leaves and fruits to give food to mankind and many different creatures. Thank You also that trees can tower above us and cause us to see our own creations of towers and buildings in proper perspective. Finally, we thank You that many trees outlive us and remind us of our finiteness and dependence upon You our Creator and Savior. As trees “record” our history, may we see that history as evidence of Your work in our lives and families because we trust You as the giver of “every good gift that comes down from above.”

1 See Brunstein, F. C. and D.K. Yamaguchi. 1994. Arctic and Alpine Research 24(3): 253-256.

2 Web Article: Lorey, F. 1994. Tree Rings and Biblical Chronology. Acts & Facts. 23: (6).