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Some people like surprises; I’m not one of them. I prefer to know, or at least have a good idea, how things are going to work out, and when. Perhaps that is what makes me a planner and a list maker—a person who likes to be prepared. Of course, knowing what’s going to happen, or at least thinking I do, doesn’t happen very often, because none of us can truly know the future. But it doesn’t make me want to know any less. Unfortunately, because of our limited perspective on things, we often limit our faith too. Because we don’t know how a particular thing can be accomplished, we doubt God’s ability to do it.

Zechariah was a perfect example of this. (Luke 1:5-20) He and his wife Elizabeth were both righteous in the sight of God (Luke 1:6), but they were also childless, and getting on in years. To be more precise, Luke 1:7 tells us that they were both very old. Since children were seen as a blessing from the Lord, and it was a disgrace to be barren, there is little doubt that they would have been praying fervently for a child. Why then should Zechariah be surprised when an angel of the Lord appeared and told him that his prayers had been heard and his wife would bear a son?

In Zechariah’s defense, he did have reason to be surprised. First of all, it was a once in a lifetime event for Zechariah to be chosen to burn incense in the holy place. (Luke 1:9) It’s like winning a door prize when hundreds of people are at an event; you don’t really expect to. Secondly, the privilege of burning incense didn’t mean that you would have an angel appear to chat with you. Yes, angels had appeared to others before, but even these devoted priests had not heard from God in 400 years. We now call this the intertestamental period—the time between the Old Testament and the New Testament—but Zechariah didn’t have our hindsight. And then, thirdly, this angel tells Zechariah that his wife will have a son. Zechariah could not, from his limited perspective, understand how this could be possible. Given some time, and a calmer situation, he might have thought back to the birth of Isaac, (Genesis 17:15-19) but he didn’t. So he questioned the angel, (Luke 1:18) and doubted God. As a result, Zechariah was unable to speak until after his son was born. (Luke 1:20)

You can be sure that God’s plans are not thwarted by our doubt or inability, even unwillingness, to participate. But think about what Zechariah missed out on because he doubted God. For at least nine months (we’re not sure how long--Luke 1:24) Zechariah was unable to clearly articulate this great event that he had experienced. In his day, oral communication was the primary means of sharing information. Yes, he could make signs, (Luke 1:22) but he didn’t have a blog or Facebook to share his thoughts in writing. He was effectively stopped from sharing in God’s miracle until after it had taken place. Let’s not suffer the same fate. Let’s trust God to do more than we could ever ask or imagine, (Ephesians 3:20) and share the joy when He does the impossible.

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I love to acknowledge birthdays. I love to celebrate the existence of my loved ones and the value of their lives. There is no birthday I am more grateful for than that of Jesus my Saviour. God loved us so much that He sent His Son to earth from His throne in heaven. Jesus came as a baby in the most humble of circumstances (Luke 2:10-11) so that He could experience every single aspect of life just as we do. (Hebrews 4:15) And His coming has provided us with a way to approach our holy God. (Hebrews 4:16) Because of Christ's sacrifice to pay the penalty for our sins, God sees us just as He sees Jesus--one of His children. The full measure of God's gift to us is truly beyond my ability to fathom.

This is why we celebrate Christmas--God's gift of His Son. And celebrating Christmas is why I am posting early this week. I want to wish my readers all the very best this Christmas and for the coming year. I hope that the season will be filled with blessings for you as you celebrate the love of God and the love of family and friends. I will be back to regular posts on January 2, 2013.

Before I sign off for this year though, I would like to make an announcement. I am thrilled to share with you the launch of a new ministry website from Crossroads Christian Communications Inc. It is a new multi-channel online service found at crossroads360.com. There are currently seven channels filled with entertaining and informative content. If you have children home from school for two weeks, and they run out of things to do after the first one, check out the KidSpace channel--lots of videos and even crafts and colouring pages. Other channels include God Stories, Music, Explore Faith, Nostalgia, Everyday Life and News. There are episodes of past television shows, and there is a search function if you are looking for information or inspiration on a specific topic. Clicking on "crossroads 360" at the top of any page will take you back to the home page. I'm sure this new site will be a great resource to encourage you in your daily walk with Jesus. Enjoy! And see you next year!

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Recently, one of my dear friends from book club sent a note to share her thoughts on the lack of compassion in the world today. She shared a personal example as well as the much more public one of Hurricane Sandy. Both involved desperation and need for people who had done nothing to deserve it, and in both cases, there was room for much more compassion to be shown. Not that there was no compassion at all, but there was not enough to meet the needs. Being compassionate has a price.

Often, in my posts and in my conversations, I have mentioned that Jesus really only had two rules—to love God and to love others. Matthew 22:35-40 tells us that all the law and the prophets depend on these two commandments. When we think back to Old Testament Law, we often think of the Ten Commandments, but Jesus’ top two are the essence of all the law handed down from God through Moses. (Deuteronomy 6:4-5, Leviticus 19:18) Therefore all the religious experts who challenged Jesus with questions would not only be aware of this, but would have memorized the scriptures that say so. Many of them would have carried these verses in phylacteries that they wore to remind them to keep their religious law.

So it was no surprise that when a religious expert stood up to test Jesus by asking “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”, he actually answered his own question by quoting that scripture. (Luke 10:25-28) The expert wasn’t sure he wanted to make such a large commitment, so he decided to see how narrowly he could define the term “neighbour”. (Luke 10:29) In response, Jesus told him the story of The Good Samaritan, (Luke 10:30-37) probably one of the most familiar stories from the Bible. A man walking down a long, steep, narrow, winding road, with lots of places for bandits to hide, is robbed, beaten and left for dead. A priest and later a Levite, two people who would know God’s laws better than most, both crossed the street as they approached the victim to avoid the possibility of becoming ceremonially unclean by touching him. They essentially condemned him to death. Finally a Samaritan came along. Samaritans were despised by the Jews, hated because of their race and because of actions taken by their ancestors generations before. If the victim had been in his right mind, he probably would not have even spoken to the Samaritan. Why should the Samaritan waste his time, and his money, to help this man out? Nevertheless, he did. He carried him to the closest inn and gave the innkeeper the equivalent of two days wages to care for the man. That would have been enough money for about a month’s lodging, but it came with the promise to make up the difference the next time he came by. He would pay whatever it took for the care of this stranger.

Jesus finished the story by rewording the religious expert’s question—not, “who is my neighbour?”, but “which one was a neighbour?” The expert answered, "the one who showed mercy". And like the Samaritan did, Jesus tells us to go and show mercy to those in need. (Luke 10:37) Compassion has a price, and it is inconvenient. Jesus was well aware of that when He told us to love each other. We may not be able to do this in our own strength, but if our hearts are willing to love and obey God, and therefore love others, God will give us eyes to see their needs, and the strength and resources to meet them. (Philippians 4:13)

Today's post was written by Rusty Wright with Meg Korpi.
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I laughed so hard, I ached.

A while back, a friend e-mailed me a list of “Worst analogies written by high school students.” I began using them when presenting at writers and editors conferences. They were genuine side splitters, an English teacher’s nightmare.

Here are some:

Laugh Lines

“Her hair glistened in the rain like nose hair after a sneeze.”

“From the attic came an unearthly howl. The whole scene had an eerie, surreal quality, like when you’re on vacation in another city and ‘Jeopardy!’ comes on at 7 p.m. instead of 7:30.”

“The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn’t.”

“He was as tall as a six-foot-three-inch tree.”

“Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever.”

“Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left Cleveland at 6:36 p.m. traveling at 55 mph, the other from Topeka at 4:19 p.m. at a speed of 35 mph.”

“John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met.”

“The thunder was ominous-sounding, much like the sound of a thin sheet of metal being shaken backstage during the storm scene in a play.”

“His thoughts tumbled in his head, making and breaking alliances like underpants in a dryer without Cling Free.”

Source Check

Recently, I decided to track down these shaky analogies’ original source. Turns out they weren’t culled from high school classrooms, but rather were published entries from The Style Invitational, a Washington Post humor writing contest. Apparently, Internet rumors morphed them into high school bloopers.

Oops.

And ouch.

You see, not only am I a stickler for accuracy, but people who spread Internet rumors without checking the facts really irk me. Countless times, I’ve encouraged correspondents to fact check on Snopes.com or TruthOrFiction.com, valuable, if imperfect, resources. I should have checked these analogies before repeating them.

“Physician, heal yourself!” you might say. Guilty as charged. “Any story sounds true,” notes a Jewish proverb, “until someone sets the record straight.” Lesson learned.

The Internet can be a 21st-Century backyard fence or office water cooler. One click can spread interesting, funny, engaging, or juicy gems. Problem is, too often the dispatches contain cyberfactoids—my wife Meg’s coinage for unsubstantiated or inaccurate information, propagated as fact via the Internet. And many will believe these tidbits. After all, they came from a trusted friend.

Does Truth Matter?

So where’s the harm in conveying a little imperfect information? These analogies are just for fun—and they do seem funnier coming from unwitting high-schoolers, rather than contestants intentionally writing “good” bad analogies. Shouldn’t we just lighten up?

If you’re the “trusted friend,” it may depend on whether you want to be, in fact, trustworthy.

If you’re the receiver, you might find wisdom in the old saw: “One who can’t be trusted in small things, shouldn’t be trusted in large ones.” (Luke 16:10)

In fact, carelessness with the truth can blow up on you. Just ask those who ignored problems at BP’s Macondo oil well in the Gulf of Mexico.

A few years after publishing the above analogies, the Post ran another collection of bad analogies, including two by Joseph Romm, who had several entries published in the first batch. One of his entries on the second list:

“Joe was frustrated, like a man who thought his claim to fame was occasional appearances in a weekly humor contest, but in fact is known to millions as a stupid high school student who writes unintentionally humorous bad analogies.”

Sorry, Joe. I really am. Hope this helps set the record straight.
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Rusty Wright is an author and lecturer who has spoken on six continents. He holds Bachelor of Science (psychology) and Master of Theology degrees from Duke and Oxford universities, respectively. www.RustyWright.com

Meg Korpi is a senior research scientist who studies character development and ethical decision-making through the Character Research Institute in Northern California. She holds a PhD in Educational Psychology from, and formerly taught at, Stanford University.

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In Part 1 of this series, I talked about the prodigal son, and how after some hard lessons stemming from his initial pride, and accelerated by desperate circumstances, he humbled himself and came home to his father. In Part 2, I discussed that the older brother was still at the point of pride, arrogance and self-righteous unforgiveness when it came to his non-conformist little brother. Today, I will focus on the father’s reaction to them both.
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How the father’s heart must have hurt when his younger son asked for his inheritance early. It was like wishing his father dead. At the very least the prodigal was saying that he had no more use for his father’s love, wisdom or company. The only thing he valued was the money and the right to make his own choices. The father loved his son enough to give him his freedom. He did not want to force his son to do the right thing, though I am certain he would have welcomed his son’s wanting to do so out of love. That would not happen until some difficult circumstances changed the son’s perspective. When the prodigal son did come home willingly, and humbly, his father did not have to be talked into taking him back. The father’s love for his son was so great that he ran—not something that older men of the East were likely to do—to greet his son. I’m sure the son looked and smelled like he had been spending his time in a pig sty, but his father embraced him and did not even let him finish his rehearsed speech before he sent his servants to fetch the robe, ring and sandals, items that symbolized honour, authority and family status. And then the feast! The fattened calf was not just for a small intimate family dinner. The whole village would have been invited. Considering that the actions of the prodigal son would have brought shame to his family and his village and would have merited being stoned by those villagers (Deuteronomy 21:18-21), this feast would have been a clear message that his son was not only to be spared, but also restored to his rightful position in the family.

The father’s reaction to the older brother was just as compassionate. The older brother must have been certain that he was justified in making the comments he did, but he also was quite insulting to his father. The brother questioned his father’s judgement, and even though, according to tradition, the older brother would have received twice as much inheritance as the younger brother, he selfishly whined about not having enough. As a matter of fact the older brother now had it all. The father had given everything he had to his two sons, and the younger son’s share had been wasted. All that remained belonged to the older son. Surely if he had wanted to have a party with his friends before this day he could have had it. But what he wanted was all the attention, and he was not at all pleased that his father was giving some—a lot—of it to his younger, sinful, brother. Indeed, because of the older brother’s selfishness, the father left the festivities to come out and speak with him. The father did not chastise his older son. He didn’t tell him to stop whining and being selfish. He patiently answered him and showed love to him as well.

We need to remember that this parable (Luke 15:11-32) was shared to teach Jesus’ listeners about the grace and love that the Heavenly Father has for all of His children. That He cares for those that are lost, even when they are lost through their own willfulness. That there is rejoicing in heaven when a lost soul humbly admits his need for a saviour. And that those who think they are above reproach are actually in worse shape than those who know their need. All of this applies to us. Our Heavenly Father loves us so much that He sent His Son to make a way for us to come humbly home to Him. And He will welcome us with open arms. He will run to meet us if we will only take the first steps of the journey. He will not hold our past against us, or even the fact that we were sure we were right all along. All we have to do is accept His invitation to come home, and the rejoicing will begin.

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When I was growing up, I was a younger sister, but I always felt like the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son. My older brother was always pushing the limits as far as what he should and should not do, and my overactive sense of justice always wanted him to be held accountable. I never quite understood why the older brother in this parable was corrected by his father, (Luke 15:25-32) because I thought he, the brother, was right. Why should the son who caused all the trouble get the party when the one trying to consistently do the right thing is seemingly forgotten? The answer is that the prodigal’s older brother, and I, did not understand grace.

Let’s take a minute to look at the context of this parable. At the beginning of the chapter, (Luke 15:1-2) the Pharisees were complaining that Jesus was welcoming sinners and sharing meals with them. In response, Jesus told three parables: of the lost sheep, (Luke 15:3-7) of the lost coin (Luke 15:8-10) and of the prodigal son. (Luke 15:11-32) All of them were intended to show the joy of our Heavenly Father when a lost soul is redeemed. After all, it is sinners that God sent His son to redeem. (Mark 2:17, Luke 5:31, John 3:17) But the parable of the prodigal son goes a step further. This parable also addresses the attitude of the older brother, which was the same as the attitude of the Pharisees. The prodigal son was lost because of his own bad choices, which he soon realized, but the older brother was lost and didn’t even know it. He was self-righteous and full of pride. He did what he was supposed to do, but what were his motives? He was looking for his father’s approval of his works, rather than accepting his father’s unconditional love.

I find it sad that when the older brother came in from the field and heard the festivities inside the house, he didn’t even guess that his brother may have come home. He had to ask a servant what the noise was all about. He certainly hadn’t been watching for his brother’s return, and he refused to celebrate it. He found no joy in what pleased his father, but rather wallowed in his own selfishness. Wouldn't it be great if we could display abundant grace, mercy and forgiveness to the lost souls in our circles? If they are willing to show the humility that the prodigal son showed, let us share our Father’s joy and welcome them home.
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Stay tuned for Part 3, next week. I've saved the best news for last.

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Most people go through a rebellious stage at some point. For many it is in their teenage years, or when they go away to college. It usually represents their fight for independence, or their search for their own identity. The length of the rebellious period varies according to the person. I once had a grade eight student whose rebellious period lasted two weeks. She had been one of my more mature students, until she decided to experiment with a new personality. She became rude, uncooperative and insulting. I was surprised, saddened and annoyed. Thankfully at the end of those two weeks, she was back to her sweet, good-natured self, and I was glad for her return.

Luke 15:11-32 tells the story of a much more involved rebellion. It is the parable of the prodigal son. Many translations call this the story of the lost son, or the wayward son, which would also be an accurate representation of the person in question, but a more accurate synonym for the word prodigal would be wasteful. Oxford American Dictionaries defines prodigal as “spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant”.

The prodigal son, the younger of two, boldly asks his father for his inheritance, and then goes as far away as he can get from family responsibility and accountability. He wants to make his own decisions and live his life his way, but his short-sighted choices and some unforeseen circumstances produce a desperate situation. He finds himself with nothing left when there is a famine in the land. He stoops about as low as a Jewish boy can go when he starts tending pigs for a foreigner. He realizes that he could have tended flocks and herds for his father and been treated much better. Oh how the perspective of experience can change one’s view of things! The independence he had asked for so that he didn’t have to live under his father’s authority he was now more than willing to give up so that he could live under his father’s blessings. For even if he were only a servant in his father’s household, he would be much better off than facing starvation to the point of wanting the pigs’ food and not even being able to have that. Again he had a choice to make. This time he chose humility, and went back to his father. Thankfully for him, his father was glad of his return and welcomed him back not as a servant, but as a son.

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You will have noticed that this parable starts with Jesus saying that “A man had two sons.” (Luke 15:11) Next week, I will look at the other son, the older brother. The following week, I will examine the father’s reaction to them both.

Perhaps you’ve heard of “The Golden Rule”: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. In other words, treat others the way you want to be treated. Unfortunately, we can’t always count on other people to do the same. We know that we are to love our enemies, (Matthew 5:43-48) but that doesn’t mean that they will stop being our enemies. Perhaps they will be so overcome by our good attitude, that their attitude will change, but even if it does, it could be a long, slow process. It is possible that how they treat us may never be the way that we treat them.

How then do you explain the promise found in Luke 6:38: Give, and it will be given to you? How do we know that our kindnesses will be returned if we can’t depend on other people to do their part? If people are going to treat us like dirt anyway, why should we bother to go out of our way to be nice to them? The answer is God. Not only should we live as though we are working for God, (Colossians 3:23-24) but God is in control, and He is the One who will reward us for what we do. We can’t count on others to repay us for our good deeds, but we can count on God. He may not repay us as soon as we would like, or in the way that we expect, (Ephesians 3:20) but just as He says that vengeance is His, (Romans 12:19) and He will repay for the hurts we receive, He will also repay us for the kindness we give. (Galatians 6:9)

The Bible not only says that this reward will be given to you, but that it will be given in “good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over”. What does that mean? I am not well-known for my fabulous culinary talent—as a matter of fact, perhaps the opposite is true—but I have attempted to do some baking from time to time. What I figured out from my limited experience is that if you measure brown sugar, you can fit a lot more into the cup if you press it down. The same is true for flour. There seems to be a lot of air mixed with it until you tap it or shake it down. When you press down and shake together, you can fit a lot more in your cup. That’s the way God is willing to give to us, until our cup is overflowing and we can’t hold any more.

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Today is Good Friday. It is the day that we remember the death of Jesus by crucifixion—a horrifying death of slow torture, ridicule and public humiliation. He had committed no crime, and yet He endured the worst punishment known to man. He died by being hung on a tree, a symbol of being cursed by God. (Deuteronomy 21:23-24) So why do they call this Friday Good?

It is good because Jesus chose to endure this agony so that we would be spared eternal punishment. He took the curse upon Himself so that we would not have to bear it. While He hung on the cross, the rulers, the soldiers and one of the criminals hanging beside Him all mocked Him and told Him to save Himself. One of the criminals added that He should save the two of them as well. The irony of this is that if Jesus had saved Himself at the moment, the rest of us would not have been saved at all. The sin of the world demanded the atonement that only comes from the blood of a perfect sacrifice. Jesus’ enduring the suffering of the cross was our only hope for salvation. Despite the injustice of Jesus’ death, the innocent man dying in place of the criminal, God was still at work. He brought the ultimate good from this situation.

Even while dying, Jesus was not concerned for His own life, but for the lives of those around Him. This was His whole reason for coming to earth. As they were crucifying Him, He was asking for mercy on their behalf. “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:33-34) If anyone had reason to seek revenge and the ability to elicit the wrath of Almighty God, it was Jesus. But He did not. Instead He asked the Father to forgive His abusers. Jesus was following His own precepts, and He wants us to follow His example too, (John 13:15) to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44) and to forgive others. (Colossians 3:13) By the grace of God, and the working of the Holy Spirit within us, we will be able to do just that. Let’s demonstrate the good every day. Are you willing?

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Most Christians, whether they actually practise it or not, would tell you that we are supposed to give 10% of our money, a tithe, to God. We think of it as our money, and by giving 10% we are either fulfilling an obligation (like paying a tax) or we are being generous and giving to charity. Financial expert and author Michel Bell would tell you that it is all God’s money, and we are just managing it while we are here on this earth.

The Clever Steward in Luke 16:1-9 was doing something very similar. He was the manager of his master’s household and was in charge of managing his master’s finances. But the manager started acting as if he were the owner and used the money for his own benefit. The master found out and fired him. What was that manager going to do now? Who would hire him? He was used to having a desk job, so he didn’t think that his back could take doing manual labour, and he certainly didn’t want people to think he was poor, so he didn’t want to beg. He had to come up with an idea fast, and so he did. He went to the people who owed his master money, and made deals with them. He cut one person’s debt in half, and another’s by 20%. I can’t imagine that the master was going to settle for a lower amount, so I believe that the manager paid the difference. This accomplished two things. He arranged for the master to get his money back more quickly, and he also won some friends by charging them less. That meant that when he was jobless there would be people willing to help him out. His master commended him for shrewd actions. His master certainly wasn’t commending him for his dishonesty. That is why he fired him in the first place.

What does Jesus want us to learn from this? I’m sure He doesn’t want us to imitate the manager’s bad qualities—dishonesty, selfishness and pride. But the manager had some good qualities too. He was quick-thinking, decisive and focused on his future; he knew that he could make use of his money to win friends. If we were to focus on our future, it would include eternity. Jesus is telling us that we need to use our wealth in ways that will reach people for Him. Instead of spending it on things that have no eternal value, we could buy Bibles, take missions trips, or support organizations that are already working to further the Kingdom. The more people who are saved because of our use of money, the more friends we will have in our eternal home.