Sighting in a Rifle…and a Life

A few days ago I went up on Battle Mountain with my father-in-law and brother-in-law so that my brother-in-law could sight in his new rifle. My father-in-law stepped off the distance and set up several clay targets. Meanwhile, my brother-in-law carefully set up his bench rest on a downed tree trunk, set a couple of small sand bags on top of the rest, and did everything necessary to get himself properly situated to get a steady shooting position. He would take a couple of shots, and then, based on the observations of my father-in-law, he would adjust the scope settings up or down, left or right in order to get the scope sighted as accurately as possible.

As I was watching and thinking about this process I realized how similar it is the process for sighting in life, too. We have to read the Bible in order to know how we ought to live. Similarly, someone (I assume) should read the owner’s manual for a new rifle and/or scope in order to understand the manufacturer’s specifications and the proper operation of the equipment. However, simply reading the Bible is not enough, just as reading the owner’s manual in and of itself would be of little value. Only by living out the instructions in God’s Word does the Bible have any meaningful impact, just as only by shooting the rifle will it be of any value. However, living out our lives–or shooting a rifle–is still not enough, because quite frankly it is highly unlikely that we will get it right the first time (in life or with the rifle).

As I mentioned, after a couple of shots there would be an evaluation of how close the shots were coming to the selected target, and then adjustments would be made accordingly. Similarly, we need to regularly evaluate our lives by pausing to see how close we are coming to the target of living in accordance with God’s instructions. When we see that are missing the mark, we need to make adjustments in order to bring our lives closer to the bullseye. We may remember from reading Scripture before what we need to do, or we may need to go back to our “owner’s manual” and remind ourselves how the Designer intends us to live. Then, we take another shot or two before we stop and evaluate again. With persistence and careful calibration we should be able to bring the rifle or the scope to the point that we can hit exactly what we aim at. Likewise, we should eventually get to the point where we live in a manner that allows us consistently hit the mark of living a godly life.

With a rifle, it is fairly obvious whether or not the target is hit. It takes closer inspection sometimes to see how far off the shot was, or in which direction, but even the casual observer can usually see whether or not the marksman hit his target. It is not always quite so obvious in life, though the more attuned we are to God’s Word the easier it should be for us to readily see how close we are to the target. Even a marksman that hits his target dead one with one shot, though, will sometimes miss the next time. When that happens, it is time to reevaluate. In life, we may handle a situation exactly the way God would want us to, and then blow it the next time. That means we need to reevaluate our lives, too. It may be that the scope needs to be re-sighted in order for it to remain accurate. Similarly, we may need to make some adjustments by checking our understanding and studying anew how we are to behave and speak and live out our salvation. Sometimes, though, the scope is still sighted accurately but the marksman shifted as he shot, or closed his eye, or got distracted, or…whatever. Somehow, the one pulling the trigger caused the shot to miss the mark even though the scope was sighted perfectly. Truth is, this is most often what will be the case in our lives. Assuming we understand the Scripture accurately and know how to apply it to our lives, our “scope” will not be the problem. The problem will be us–the flawed and fallible humans “pulling the trigger.” The circumstances of life, whatever they may be, can cause us to miss the mark…even when there is absolutely nothing wrong with our sights. Just like the responsible and effective marksman we must acknowledge our error and do everything we can to eliminate the possibility of that same disruption occurring again.

The marksman may use a stand, a shooting block, sandbags, or any number of other devices in order to help keep his rifle steady as he shoots. Some will be quite effective standing up, shouldering the rifle and taking the shot with no aides. Neither is right or wrong…success is measured only by whether or not the target is hit. In the same way, there may be times when we need to utilize aides to help us stay steady in our Christian walk. These aides may include Christian friends, accountability partners, regular attendance and participation in church, daily Bible reading and time in prayer, Christian music, Christian books, sermons on radio/CD/MP3…and so on. The point is, the aides that I find helpful and necessary in order to keep my life steady and on target may not look exactly the same as yours…but neither of us is right in what we choose to utilize. And, what I need in some situations may be very different from what I need in others; what I need one week may not be what I need the next.

What we do all need, however, is a submissive attitude to the leading and guiding of the Holy Spirit in our lives. The Spirit will inform us–quietly, usually, but accurately–whether or not we missed the target, by how much and in what direction. Then He will tell us what adjustments need to be made, so that we can hit the target the next time.

Memories of Grandpa

Today, in just a couple of hours, there will be a service to celebrate the life of my maternal grandfather, who went home to be with the Lord early Monday morning. Anytime a loved one passes away it is normal to reflect on favorite memories.

When I reflect on my favorite memories of Grandpa there are quite a few. I can remember as a very young boy going with Grandma and Grandpa to the mountain property that they had, where the only housing was a tent. I remember the trips up and back more than the actual time there, playing in the back seat and on the floor of the blue truck–when the wearing of seat belts wasn’t enforced. Many of my fondest memories with Grandpa took place in West Virginia, at Holly River State Park. Our annual week-long trips to Holly River are among the highlights of my childhood, and Holly River remains one of my “happy places.” More than any specific thing Grandpa did on those trips, I remember the freedom my brother Phillip and I were given to explore on our own. Though probably not literally, it felt to young boys like we had free reign of the entire park! Playing in the creek, swimming in the always-too-cold pool and playing softball; feeding the trout, going on hayrides, and walking to the commissary. I do remember the hikes we would take with Grandma and Grandpa, and I remember Grandpa would always turn the flashlight off on the way back from late-night activities at the pavilion and it would be pitch black along the road. Before long, the flashlight would come on again, from under Grandpa’s face, shining up to illuminate his smile.

Grandpa’s long hours building the “cabin” in the backyard of the home we lived in from the time I was 5 until I was 13 cannot be forgotten. I think that will likely go down in history as the most soundly-built “playhouse” any children ever had! And who can forget Grandpa giving Dr. Pepper to our German shepherd, Sampson? By the way, every time I drink soda from a bottle—glass or plastic—I have to blow across the top of the bottle and get a few “toots” just for Grandpa. I suspect I will do that for the rest of my life.

I think more than anything else I loved to listen to Grandpa tell stories. It seemed this happened most often at the table, after a meal or during “treat,” (late-night dessert, which almost always included ice cream!) and I could listen to Grandpa’s stories as long as he wanted to tell them. Most of the stories were of his own escapades, but he seemed to tell stories of his friend Kramer with just as much enthusiasm. I think if I had one wish it would be that we had recorded Grandpa telling some of his best stories. He always got so tickled with the stories himself you couldn’t help but laugh along with him. I imagine none of us will ever forget many of his tales, and I suspect many of them will live on for at least another generation or two, as my generation recalls these stories with one another and with our children.

Interestingly, I still remember the time when we were visiting Grandma and Grandpa when I was in college, and realizing that Grandpa now talked to me like an adult. That was a special feeling. I was not blessed with Grandpa’s gifts of mathematical and scientific knowledge or hands-on talent; I think Phillip got those genes. But it always fascinated me that Grandpa had worked on the Pioneer Venus satellite, and it amazed me to watch how he would figure things out and design systems probably few other people would understand. I also remember sitting on the floor by the kitchen telephone in Minnesota when I was in high school, listening to Grandpa trying to explain my Algebra homework to me from half a country away.

I think there was only one time I had the opportunity to be in Grandpa’s Sunday school class, but it was a pleasure to see the painstaking detail that went into his many charts, and to hear the understanding that he had of Scripture. His example of consistently reading through the Bible each year is something for which I am also grateful.

As I write this, trying to think of what to share, I find my mind filled with lots of memories…far too many to share. I know all of Grandpa’s grandchildren loved him very much, and we all know he loved us, too. We are all blessed with many happy memories of Grandpa…memories we will never forget.

I do not recall having very many conversations with Grandpa on the telephone, but I do remember my last one, shortly after he returned home from the hospital this past fall. We talked briefly about him and how he was feeling, but then he wanted to know about our new home, my new job, and the terrain of South Dakota. It was clear that he was at peace with whatever the Lord’s will was for his health and life. I will miss Grandpa, and I wish I could have seen him again before he went home, but I am grateful for the knowledge that he is in heaven, completely healthy. I know I will see him again someday. I remember that every time Grandpa prayed, he would always say, “And thank you most of all for the Lord Jesus our Savior.” This Christmas, he is in the presence of our Savior, thanking Him face to face.

Lessons from the Shepherds (part 3)

The third thing to notice about the shepherds is that they Announced Comprehensively. Not only did they hear the message, but once they heard it they acted on it. Then, after they had acted on it and seen Jesus for themselves, they announced it. Verse 17 says that, “[W]hen they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child” (NKJV). The Message paraphrases this verse this way: “They told everyone they met what the angels had said about this child.”

The shepherds knew the truth about Christmas, and they went out to share it with everyone they saw. I can imagine them running through the streets of Bethlehem, shouting, grabbing people by the hands and telling them the wonderful news. How many of us have taken the time to share with someone this season–even just one person–that Jesus is what Christmas is all about?

When I was growing up my family had a tradition. We would get up and open presents at home on Christmas morning–my parents, my brother and me. (This is before my sisters were born). Then, we would drive eight minutes away to my paternal grandmother’s house. There we would eat brunch (which always included what we called “egg bake casserole”) and open presents with Grandma. After we had been there for a while we would drive 40 minutes to my maternal grandparents’ house, and there we would spend the rest of the day–opening presents, eating dinner, and so forth. But when I got to Grandma’s house in the morning I couldn’t wait to tell her what presents I had received from Mom and Dad. And when I got to Grandma and Grandpa’s house later I couldn’t wait to tell them what I got from Mom and Dad and from Grandma. Then, a day or two later, when I saw my friends, I would tell them everything I got for Christmas from Mom and Dad, Grandma, and Grandma and Grandpa! I had received these presents, and I wanted everyone to know about these great gifts.

Every believer has a wonderful gift from God–the gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. And yet for some reason, most of us don’t seem too excited to tell anyone about that gift. We’ll tell people–even as adults, many times–about our new clothes or our new car or our new “toys,” but we won’t tell them about our new life in Christ…and the fact that they can have that gift, too!

The other thing that I think is worth noting about the shepherds announcing Christ’s birth is that there is no indication in the biblical account that anyone paid any attention to what they said. The only thing Luke tells us is in verse 18: “Everyone was surprised when they heard what the shepherds told them” (ESV). That’s it! They could have been surprised as in they were in awe of the birth of the Messiah, or they could have been surprised as in they thought the shepherds were crazy. Either way there is no indication that anyone else went to see the Baby for themselves. No where do we read that the stable was suddenly overwhelmed by crowds of people wanting to see Jesus for themselves. And remember, it’s not like there was no one in town! The whole reason Mary, Joseph and Jesus were in the stable in the first place is because all the inns were full!

Yet, and this is my imagination again, I suppose, I do not picture the shepherds being slowed down at all by whatever reaction they received from the people they told. Whether people smiled and nodded, said something like “Wow, that’s cool!” or told them to shut up and go away, I suspect the shepherds were still overcome with joy and still told everyone else they saw. Let that be a lesson to us, too–regardless of the reaction we may receive when we share the Good News, we need to keep spreading the Word!

Like the shepherds, we need to attend to God’s message, act on it, and announce His gift. John MacArthur calls the shepherds the “first New Testament evangelists.” “The shepherds’ story is a good illustration of the Christian life,” he writes. “You first hear the revelation of the gospel and believe it. Then you pursue and embrace Christ. And having become a witness to your glorious conversion, you begin to tell others about it. May God grant you the life-changing spiritual experiences and the ongoing attitude of enthusiasm and responsiveness that cause you to tell others that you, too, have seen Christ the Lord.”

It is easy to get caught up with the activities of Christmas time. There’s a lot going on. There is plenty of good, fun things to do. But if we forget or neglect what Christmas is all about then we will have ruined it. If we forget Christ, then we miss the point entirely. May we be like the shepherds and share the truth of Christmas, the truth of God’s Christmas present to the world, with everyone we meet.

Lessons from the Shepherds (part 2)

The second important lesson that we can learn from the shepherds is that they Acted Quickly. (If you’re a note taker, you’ll recognize immediately that “quickly” starts with a “q” not a “c,” but it works phonetically). The shepherds not only had the message, but they obeyed the message. Verse 16 tells us that “they came with haste.” That means they were in a hurry. They did not look at each other and say, “Maybe we should go check that out tomorrow.” No, they heard, they got up, and they went. And as far as we know–as far as the Scriptural account indicates–the shepherds were the only people who went to see the Savior that night.

The shepherds were the first to hear the good news that the Messiah had been born, and certainly having the news announced in person by a heavenly host of angels would have been an awesome experience. However, we too have the message of the angels. We know the good news that the Messiah was born…and we have the rest of the story, too. We know that He lived a perfect, sinless life, that He died on the cross, that He rose again three days later, and later ascended into heaven where He sits today at the right hand of God the Father.

I am guilty, though, of not always acting quickly in response to the message of Christmas. I am careful to remember the real meaning of Christmas and to be sure that it remains at the center of our family celebration, but I do not always remember, or take time, to share that true message with others. Having the good news is wonderful, and remembering the true meaning of Christmas is imperative. But in and of itself that is not enough. We must not keep that message to ourselves…as we will see tomorrow in the final lesson from the shepherds.

Lessons from the Shepherds (part 1)

Now that we have concluded our examination of the Dangerous Distractions that can prevent us from focusing on the Design of our Deliverance, I would like to take at three important lessons that we can learn from the shepherds. The shepherds who were tending their flocks in the fields outside of Bethlehem on that first Christmas night were the first individuals to ever recognize the Design of their Deliverance and the first to celebrate the true meaning of Christmas.

Luke 2:15 reads, “When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.'”

The first thing we see about the shepherds is that they Attended Carefully. The word “attended” here means that they listened. The shepherds listened to what they angels had to say. They recognized that it was a messenger of the Lord who was speaking to them, and they listened carefully. There are far too few people today listening carefully to the message of Christmas. They think that the message is all about glad tidings and giving presents and Santa Claus and snow and fruitcake. And those things are all good and fun. (Except maybe fruitcake). But those things are not what Christmas is about. People who focus on these things miss the real meaning–they miss the true gift–because they do not attend carefully to the message of the manger.

With the hustle and bustle of the Christmas season it can be very easy to let the meaning of Christmas get drowned out by all of the noise and distraction around us. Even when we do pause to read or listen to the Christmas story from the Bible, we may even be tempted to let it go in one ear and out the other. After all, for many of us it is a story that is very familiar, and it can easily become just something else on our Christmas “to do” list. This year, let me encourage you to slow down, eliminate all distractions, and give your full attention to the wonderful message of the Christmas story. I am sure that if you will attend carefully to the message you will be blessed and encouraged by the reminder of the real Reason for this season.

The Design of our Deliverance

While Luke’s account of the Christmas story provides us with several examples of Dangerous Distractions, it also provides us with the real meaning of Christmas–God’s Design for our Deliverance.

The Old Testament is full of prophesies that the Messiah would come–that God would provide a way for man to be delivered from the bondage of sin. As the song says, “Long lay the world/in sin and error pining/til He appeared and the soul felt His worth. A thrill of hope, a weary world rejoices/for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!”

So many people alive at that time, however–just like so many people alive today–chose to remain weary in sin and error, choosing to ignore that indeed it was “the night of our dear Savior’s birth.”

God designed a plan for sinful man to be delivered from sin and to have the opportunity to choose to spend eternity with Him. He had been providing advance notice of that plan for generations. And yet almost no one, as we will see over the next few entries in the blog, took any notice of this event.

If the Distance to the Destination, the Details of the Day, or the Demands of our Duties keep us from seeing God’s Design for our Deliverance then we too will miss the true meaning of Christmas. Our celebrations and parties and singing will all be for naught, it will all be meaningless and hollow with no significance beyond the pleasure of the moment. In the midst of a dark and sinful world, much of which is intent on denying the Reason for the Season, do not fall victim to the Dangerous Distractions! Remember the true message of Christmas! If you keep Christ at the center, I suspect you just might find that you have the opportunity to share that message with someone else, too. After all, could there be a better or more appropriate way to celebrate Christmas than to show someone God’s Christmas Gift?

Dangerous Distractions (part 3)

The third example of Dangerous Distractions that can interfere with our ability to actively recognize the true meaning of Christmas is this: the Demands of our Duties.

Remembering our passage in Luke 2, just think about the innkeeper. This man was likely beside himself even before Mary and Joseph knocked on his door. His inn was packed full. There was NO vacancy. Surely he was overwhelmed, and likely asked himself at least some of these questions: How was he going to feed them all? Did everyone have a pillow? Should he have upped his rates in order to take advantage of the crowd in town? Where was he going to park all the donkeys and camels? This man made his livelihood running the inn, but he had probably rarely, if ever, had so many guests at once. And not only the inn, but the entire town was full of people. And let’s not forget that his family had to register, too. There were many duties demanding his attention. And he had no idea what was about to happen.

Sometimes today we are the same way. We let our duties, our jobs, our responsibilities occupy all of our time. We have things to do at work, at church and at home–and more than likely they are all very valid and even very important things. But if we are not careful, they can divert our attention from what Christmas is all about.

In his book God’s Gift of Christmas, John MacArthur writes about the innkeeper: “Not only did he turn Mary and Joseph away, but he apparently didn’t even call for anyone to help a young mother about to give birth. The Son of God might have been born on his property. But he missed Christmas because he was so preoccupied. There is no indication that he was hostile or even unsympathetic. He was just busy, that’s all. Millions of people today are consumed with activity–not necessarily sinful activity, just things that keep them busy. At Christmas, people are especially busy. Shopping, banquets, parties, concerts, school activities, and other things all compete for attention. And in the clutter of activity, many preoccupied people miss the Son of God.”

Thinking of my own current and past experience, I know that December is one of the busiest times of the year. Right now, as a school superintendent, I have a perfect storm of end-of-semester activities, athletic events for winter sports teams that just started their seasons, musical performances for the Christmas concert, and a Christmas program at church. That’s not including anything on a personal or family level. When I was at the children’s home it would have been typical for there to be a dozen choir performances and at least half a dozen Christmas parties between Thanksgiving and Christmas, plus a staff party and things at church. As MacArthur wrote, there is nothing sinful about any of these things, but they keep people busy. And when we get so busy that we lose sight of what Christmas is all about–when the Demands of our Duties interfere with celebrating the true meaning of Christmas–we have a problem.

So this Christmas season, be on guard against the Dangerous Distractions that so easily find their way into our lives.