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Monday, December 30, 2019

Another Year of Painful Farewells

Have you ever watched the reality television show, Survivor? It has had a remarkable run on network television. Over the years, I admit to being a somewhat devoted fan.

It’s a simple concept. About twenty people get taken to a remote site. They divide into groups. They live outdoor camp life in miserable conditions. And they try to build “alliances” that keep them from being voted off the program.

In the long history of this show, one of the final programs in each season was called the "Fallen Comrades" segment. This is when the last three remaining players were taken through a field of memories to wax nostalgic about players who had exited the program ahead of them. Of course, the earliest departures were people they hardly got to know! But these finalists feigned to miss the dearly departed.

It’s not that way in real life. People we have met and lived with on this journey while on earth truly impact us. At the end of every year, we will be reminded of the rich and famous who are with us no more. Parade Magazine just did so. While some are people with whom we might have connected through their talents, the pain of loss will usually not directly impact us.

It’s the other losses that we grieve. Many are farewells we could not complete because we didn’t see them coming. Sometimes we find ourselves empathizing in grief for others left behind—even if we don’t know the families.

I find myself in that situation quite often. Most commonly, it involves news stories about children. In recent days we learned of an Indiana shooting that killed a four year old boy and wounded his pregnant mother.

Another terrible story in 2019 involved the fatal beating of a 5-year-old Crystal Lake, Illinois, boy, A.J. Freund. The unfolding of this tragedy had long term traction in the news. Only recently did A.J.’s mother, JoAnn Cunningham confess to the abuse and the boy’s death. She had denied it emphatically for several months.

There was no shortage of memorials for this child. Details of the mistreatment leave us wondering about the lack of humanity on the part of both parents. And one can only imagine how a 5-year-old tried to process any sense of self worth while this was happening.

But it isn’t just these kinds of sad farewells that grab us. One of my coworkers had a beloved 22-year-old niece who tragically drowned with her boyfriend earlier this year. Health failures have removed others from our presence in this life in 2019.

It is amidst this kind of pain that people step back and press God for answers. Most times, there are no answers forthcoming. The holidays can then lose the call to be joyful. And sometimes, even hope for a better future seems distant.

My worst Christmas was the first one after my father died unexpectedly. I was 16. In 1993, my mother passed away just a couple of weeks before Christmas, and we buried her in the same grave with my father on a cold snowy December day. I’ve also had a very young grandchild fade painfully away with a genetic disease.

Yet my confidence in a loving, gracious, and caring God is unchanged. The arrival of Jesus on this earth marked the greatest gift of hope we could imagine. In His day, He healed the sick. He kicked out evil spirits. He raised the dead. And then, He defeated the greatest enemy we have—death itself. It proves there is life to come!

I wish I had the capacity to comfort all those who grieve and hurt this holiday season. So often I wish I would turn back the clock and fix broken things before they happen. I wish I could heal broken family relationships that rob us this time of year. But I can’t.

The year 2020 awaits us. For followers of Jesus, we know our assignment:
  • Be bearers of light in a dark world. 
  • Bring hope where it is fading. 
  • Offer love where it is desperately needed. 
  • And comfort for the hurting. 

 Our world will be better because of you in the year ahead. Guaranteed.

Happy New Year!

That’s Forward Thinking. Click on the link to the right to connect via Facebook.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Are the Glad Tidings for You?

In December of last year, a church in the northwest suburbs of Chicago asked me to deliver a Sunday message in preparing for Christmas. The title I chose was, “Peace on Earth. Goodwill toward men.” I’m planning on sharing an abbreviated version at our church on Christmas Eve.

The most common greetings around Christmas focus on joy, love, and peace. If you’re looking for values related to the Creator of the universe, those are high on the list. We like to preach that Jesus came to bring those values to life in every time period since His birth.

Well, not exactly. In fact, in His own words, Jesus said in the same book where His birth story is told, “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I have come to divide people against each other! From now on families will be split apart, three in favor of me, and two against—or two in favor and three against.‘Father will be divided against son and son against father; mother against daughter and daughter against mother and mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’” (Luke 12:51-53, NLT)

But what about the angelic messages that the shepherds received outside of Bethlehem on the night of Jesus' birth? You’ve no doubt heard about them! First, a single angel says,“I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10-12, NLT)

Then a whole group—a “a vast host” of “the armies of heaven” show up and and say “Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.” (Luke 2:13-14, NLT) And there you have it! First, great joy is mentioned by the angels. Then, peace on earth.

How do we reconcile this idea that Jesus brings peace when He clearly admitted His arrival would be divisive? The answer is found in that single verse in Luke 2. In the King James and a couple of other translations, it reads, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” (vs 14)

However, in numerous other translations, we get the real intent of this message. It isn’t about us promoting peace on earth and some good attitudes and feelings toward others. The angels said that peace would come “to those with whom God is pleased.” Other translations read, “on whom His favor rests.”

There is a hard truth here that must be understood. The only people who can truly rejoice at the arrival of the Christ child are those who, by faith, will believe that He is the divine Son of God who came to take down the barrier between their sick souls and a perfect God. Those “saved by faith”—will indeed have peace!

Many families have seen bitter breakups over the person of Jesus. It has happened as He said. Marriages and families and nations divide over who Jesus truly is.

But what about the first part of the angelic proclamation that offers great news to all people? For the true seeker looking for this answer, I recommend you read Jesus' parable of the wedding banquet found in Matthew 22. It ends with this line, “For many are invited, but few are chosen.” (Matthew 22:14, NIV)

We do a disservice to truth by painting a Christmas picture that fails to yield a call to embrace the Holy One who God sent to earth. Christos (Christ) is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew term Messiah, who is God’s anointed chosen One to save people from sin. Grasp that and you are discovering the Good News.

Without that, this season’s glad tidings are simply falling on deaf ears. And the “Merry Christmas” greetings fall woefully short of meaning.

It’s Christmas. Don’t just “believe.” Believe in HIM. Your eternity depends on it.

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Monday, December 16, 2019

Going Nuts Over Xmas

I have several favorite recorded Christmas oddities. Many of them showed up on the radio on my programs during the “holiday season” in years gone by. These are not from the camp of “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” or “Dominic the Donkey.”

Nah. Mine are much more refined silliness. For example, I still enjoy Stan Freberg’s classic, “Green Christmas” with the chorus, “Deck the halls with advertising.”

Then there's a Scandinavian favorite, “I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas” by the fictional Swede, Yogi Yorgesson. You can search the song title for the lyrics.

Another of my favorites came from the creative mind of Minnesota radio personality Chuck Knapp. He produced the little ditty, “Chipmunks Roasting O’er the Open Fire” replete with crackling fire effects. Lovely.

But on the more relevant side of tolerance and respect are the condensed comments by Ben Stein from a commentary he offered on the CBS Sunday Morning news program. The date was December 18, 2005, and the piece was titled “Confessions for the Holidays.” It’s publicly available. Here’s a good portion of it:

“I am a Jew, and every single one of my ancestors was Jewish. And it does not bother me even a little bit when people call those beautiful lit up, bejeweled trees Christmas trees. I don't feel threatened. I don't feel discriminated against. That's what they are: Christmas trees. It doesn't bother me a bit when people say, "Merry Christmas" to me.

I don't think they are slighting me or getting ready to put me in a ghetto. In fact, I kind of like it. It shows that we are all brothers and sisters celebrating this happy time of year. It doesn't bother me at all that there is a manger scene on display at a key intersection near my beach house in Malibu. If people want a creche, it's just as fine with me as is the Menorah a few hundred yards away.

I don't like getting pushed around for being a Jew and I don't think Christians like getting pushed around for being Christians. I think people who believe in God are sick and tired of getting pushed around, period. I have no idea where the concept came from that America is an explicitly atheist country. I can't find it in the Constitution and I don't like it being shoved down my throat.”

Every year, we get the same forces demanding that visible signs of Christmas be removed. For 2019, we can easily find such stories. One titled “The 72-Hour War Over Christmas” was featured in the New York Times on November 29th.

In short form, the mayor of Charleston, West Virginia, made a decision to rename the city’s annual Christmas parade to the “Charleston Winter Parade.” In her mind, she thought this would suggest that WVA’s capital city was a welcome place for people of all faiths and cultures.

As the Times reported, “Across America, the mention of ‘Christmas' in holiday greetings and decorations has become another measure of political divisiveness.” No kidding.

News of this created a swift backlash from the townspeople. And early on the third day following the mayor’s announcement she retreated. Mayor Amy Goodwin announced The Winter Parade was no more and the Christmas Parade was back. Morning talk show host Hoppy Kercheval reported to Mayor Amy, “Everybody is going to be happy again.”

Well I’m pretty sure not EVERYBODY is happy. The mayor did have her share of supporters. But she did learn the political lesson about the will of the people.

I’m also pretty confident these Christmas battles reveal why Jesus never asked His followers to create an annual birthday celebration for Him. Look what it’s become! Black Friday. A fictional fat man coming down a chimney. Reindeer. Office drinking parties. Holiday stress. And songs like, “I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas.”

Truer words might never have been spoken. Merry Christmas, Yogi.

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Monday, December 9, 2019

I’ve Got a Tip for You

Here we go again. Another round of minimum wage increases will soon be coming to Illinois. Or at least the Chicago area.

The city has set the new minimum wage to $15 by 2021. This will apply to youth, people with disabilities, and other groups that historically earn less money. The caveat in the legislation applies to restaurant servers and other tipped workers. These folk will continue to receive what is known as a “subminimum wage.”

The current minimum wage is $13 per hour. Businesses based in Chicago will see a progressive minimum wage rise to $14 an hour on July 1st, 2020. It goes up to $15 on July 1, 2021. If you are an employer with fewer than 20 workers, you are spared the employee cost increase until 2023. If your business has fewer than four employees, you are exempt.

Outside of Chicago, the minimum wage stays the same for four more years. But we’ll get there. This will pacify the protestors who have been pushing for this wage increase. For now. But only for now.

I’m not an economist. But I know a few good ones and have done plenty of interviews over the years. Enough to conclude that life will improve very little, if at all, for those who get the small hourly increases for which politicians trade votes.

Simple logic tells us that if a business incurs increased costs, something has to give. Or in this case, someone has to give. That would be the customer. Profits must remain intact or there is no point of being an employer.

Most minimum wage jobs are paid to low-skilled or entry level workers. Even a federal minimum wage has problems. Costs of living vary significantly from state to state. A number of companies who want to really help employees get a better life offer incentives to attend college or gain new skills.

Another reason why I don’t like government managed minimum wage is because it encourages automation. Replacing workers to reduce costs is a potential downside of unwieldy labor unions that demand benefit packages out of reach for many employers. It makes the cost of producing goods higher and less competitive.

The interesting twist in this latest round of increases is in the restaurant trade. Th mayor of Chicago is setting the subminimum wage for workers who receive tips to $8.40 an hour on July 1st of next year. They currently receive $6.40. The tipped wage will be set at 60% of the minimum wage so it rises as well.

This gets really messy. At present, an employer is legally required to make up the difference if an employee’s tips don’t add up to the regular minimum wage. Some workers claim that bad record keeping and other dishonest practices often keep this from happening. So what’s nest? The tip police?

And only certain restaurant workers are impacted. Fast food employees get only the minimum wage. Higher service restaurant workers get tips—some of which can make for a pretty decent living. Great service deserves recognition!

At the end of the day, the cost of living will likely outpace the gradual minimum wage increases. The paychecks earned will require a supportive living environment because American life does not function well on minimum wage. But it is a start for many. Years ago, I interviewed Dave Thomas, the creator and former CEO of Wendy’s. He started out as a “hamburger flipper.” There are all kinds of similar stories. It’s part of what makes America a great country. Opportunity still exists.

Hobby Lobby puts its mission statement this way: “We are committed to: Honoring the Lord in all we do by operating the company in a manner consistent with Biblical principles.”

With God looking over your shoulder, best take good care of those employees in your charge. God keeps good records.

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Monday, December 2, 2019

Thankful … for the Above and Beyond

Thanksgiving time has become memorable for some unusual blessings for us. It happened on a snowy trip in the 1980s. A second round of good fortune came together in 2000. Now, we can add blessings of this year.

That first item came about after we visited my in-laws near Las Vegas at Thanksgiving time. En route home, we encountered a powerful snowstorm just a few miles out of Tonopah, Nevada. Despite my snow driving skills honed in Minnesota winters, I was out of my league. And not dressed for the occasion. With three young children and a concerned wife aboard, I was getting desperate not being able to tell where the road was. And virtually no traffic to help find my way.

Of course I prayed. Fear will force that upon you even if you weren’t in the mood.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, I saw faint red lights off in the distance. Cautiously but optimistically, I sped up until I was only about ten car lengths behind a semi. How that driver could see I have no idea. Another ten miles and the storm subsided and the roads improved with the change of elevation. The truck was my saving grace.

Our second season-specific blessing happened during the first Thanksgiving in our home in Flossmoor, Illinois. Our son and daughter-in-law were set to come visit us from Pittsburgh—something my wife was greatly anticipating.
Wednesday night prior to the big feast, we received a call from our son explaining how his car had broken down on his way home from work. There were no repair shops open. And he was too young to rent a vehicle. We were out of options.

I did what a desperate dad would do. I called my best friend in Pittsburgh and explained the dilemma. Calmly, he described his solution. He would loan Marshall HIS car at no charge to make the weekend journey. What a blessing!

But wait! Thanksgiving day as we waited the arrival of the Chicago bound couple, our oven caught fire! And the blessing of a quick fire department fully dressed in gear came to our rescue. Miraculously, the meal came together and the festivities were most memorable.

That brings us to this year. A few days ago, our furnace began acting up. Just some intermittent clicking and a failure to start properly. We thought we would wait until after the holidays. Bad idea.

Fortunately, we bought a Trane unit from a reputable dealer—the Air Guys. We called on Thanksgiving Eve to say we were without heat. The company principal, Alfredo, drove from near downtown Chicago to our Plainfield home. He explained it was a simple maintenance issue and it was fixed within minutes. He asked about our family in ways that either tested his memory or some well-kept notes. And then he left, charging us—nothing! Who does that?!

To add frosting to the the blessing cake (or pie, as it turns out), another friend made our Thanksgiving a bit more tasty. For several years, I interviewed the head of a ministry based in Texas on issues related to troubled teens. As a way of showing appreciation, the ministry would send me a delicious pecan pie packed carefully in a wooden box.

Since my radio days seem to have ended, I felt a little sad about not getting this anticipated treat. But, behold! My friend in Texas asked for my home address via Facebook. And a few days later, my favorite pie arrived! Another Thanksgiving blessing. Undeserved, but given by a generous heart.

We always have so much for which to be thankful. And especially in this season, I’m grateful for those who are willing to serve beyond the call.

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