How to give: Luke 21

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Today’s reading: Luke 21-22.

“How much should I give back to God?”

Christians disagree on how much we should give in our offerings. Some promote the Old Testament practice of tithing, giving ten percent of their income. Others insist the New Testament doesn’t set a limit but says we should give out of gratitude, as stewards of all God has given us, and as the Holy Spirit leads. The fact is that on average believers give only a small percentage of their income, around three percent among Southern Baptists. Many give nothing. Yet Jesus was emphatic that the man who stored up everything for himself and gave nothing back to God was a “fool.”

Jesus sat down in the temple to rest after an extended dispute with the scribes and Pharisees. He was sitting beside the collection boxes, and many people were dropping in various amounts of money as they passed by.

As he looked up, Jesus saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “I tell you the truth,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” Luke 21:1-4

Jesus didn’t hesitate to make a comparison between the widow and the other givers. He found much about her to commend to his disciples and therefore to us.

She gave by faith in God’s mercy.  “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care” (Matthew 10:29). The two small coins she gave added up to one penny, the cost of two sparrows. The woman gave by faith, not trusting in her own resources but trusting in God’s care for her.

She gave greatly in comparison to the wealthy givers. God “estimates money gifts not by what we give, but by what we keep – not by the amount of our contributions, but by their cost in self-denial … The others reserved what they needed or wanted for themselves, and then gave out of their superabundance (perisseuontos). The contrast is emphatic; she ‘out of her deficiency,’ they ‘out of their super-sufficiency.’ ” – Rev. Arthur T. Pierson

She gave for eternity. The rich gave a little of their abundance, like crumbs from a feast, but they spent the greater part on themselves. The widow invested everything she had in God’s economy, investing for an eternal return and reward, and trusting God to meet her present needs.

Here are a few questions we can ask ourselves about our own giving:

  • Am I giving with eternity in mind, or keeping for my present use?
  • Am I giving with faith that God will provide for my needs, or keeping out of fear of want?
  • Am I denying myself in order to give, or giving the crumbs that are left after filling my own needs?

Reading the whole counsel of God reveals many other considerations about giving. We are told to provide for our families, including our extended families. We are told to give out of our means, and not beyond them. We are to give according to our prosperity. Our plenty should supply those who are in need. Perhaps most important of all, we should give willingly and joyfully, not regretfully.

But I do say again, if Christianity were truly in our hearts; if we were what we professed to be; the men of generosity whom we meet with now and hold up as very paragons and patterns would cease to be wonders, for they would be as plentiful as leaves upon the trees. We demand of no man that he should beggar himself; but we do demand of every man who makes a profession that he is a Christian, that he should give his fair proportion, and not be content with giving as much to the cause of God as his own servant. We must have it that the man who is rich must give richly. – Charles Spurgeon

Image, “The Widow’s Mite,” by Tissot

More, or Less: Luke 19

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Today’s reading: Luke 19-20.

As Jesus headed toward Jerusalem for the final time, his disciples and many others wondered if he was getting ready to bring the Kingdom of God to Earth. They were still looking for a worldly kingdom instead of the spiritual kingdom he had been teaching. Once more he used a parable to open their eyes to the truth.

He told them of a nobleman who traveled to a far country to have himself appointed king. Herod the Great’s son, Archelaus, had gone to Rome in order to accomplish this very thing. Jesus was telling them that he would be traveling far in order to receive his kingship, and he would not be returning quickly. They would have to wait for the worldly kingdom that they longed for.

While the nobleman was away he dispersed his wealth among his servants and told them to “put it to work” until he returned. In the story there were ten servants and each received one mina, not a large sum but only a few dollars. Each received the same amount in contrast to the parable of the talents where one servant received more than another. Each received a small amount compared to the thousands of dollars given in the story of the talents.

Jesus said that the nobleman faced much opposition in his quest to be made king. The subjects of his realm hated him and sent messengers after him proclaiming their displeasure with his wish to be made king. Jesus faced this same kind of hatred during his ministry on Earth and it continues to this day. Such was the environment in which the nobleman’s servants lived. Their master commanded them to occupy themselves by doing business with his money while he was gone, but the reality was that they lived in a hostile world that opposed their master. Still, they did what he commanded and made amazing profits with their few dollars. Some increased their sum by ten times, some by five times.

“Then another servant came and said, ‘Sir, here is your mina; I have kept it laid away in a piece of cloth. I was afraid of you, because you are a hard man. You take out what you did not put in and reap what you did not sow.’ His master replied, ‘I will judge you by your own words, you wicked servant! You knew, did you, that I am a hard man, taking out what I did not put in, and reaping what I did not sow? Why then didn’t you put my money on deposit, so that when I came back, I could have collected it with interest?’ Then he said to those standing by, ‘Take his mina away from him and give it to the one who has ten minas.’ ‘Sir,’ they said, ‘he already has ten!’ He replied, ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what he has will be taken away.” Luke 19:20-26

What is this small sum of money that takes on such great importance in the story? Again, each servant received the same amount, and though it was small to begin with it possessed the power to grow greatly. When the servants gave an account of their profits, they didn’t say “I earned this amount or that” but “your mina earned this amount or that.” The power was in the gift rather than themselves. Many commentators believe the mina represents the gospel or the word of God. While spiritual gifts and abilities vary from one person to another, as in the parable of the talents, each believer receives the same good news to share with the world. Jesus commands us to get to work with the gospel and make a profit for the kingdom.

Summing up the parable of the minas, Jesus taught his disciples that:

  • The kingdom was not coming immediately.
  • But he would return one day to reign as king.
  • They would face opposition because the world hated him.
  • But they were to stay busy in his absence, putting the gospel to work and growing the kingdom of God.
  • He would reward them for their faithfulness, and the reward would involve responsibilities and honor proportional to their faithfulness.

Jesus closes the story with a harsh reality. Those who have will get more. Those who don’t have will lose even the little they hold. It’s true in the natural world, where wealth begets wealth, diligence earns its reward, and practice leads to improved performance. It’s also true in the spiritual realm. Whatever we do for God’s kingdom brings multiplied blessings and rewards and leads to greater opportunities. “You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much.” If we think we can sit on the gospel and do nothing with it, we are mistaken. Unless we are pressing forward, we will fall farther and farther behind. As for those who hated the king and opposed him, Jesus says they lost their lives.

Observe that, whatever the triumph of Christ is to be, his faithful servants are to share in it. He is to be the King of the many cities in the rich provinces of his Father’s domain; but he will give to one of his servants ten cities, and to another five cities. But what a vast dominion that must be out of which he can afford to give such rewards as this! Ten Cities, — can any earthly king give in this fashion? There are royal rewards at the last for those who are faithful now. No pitiful pence shall fall to the lot of those who diligently serve the Lord Christ; they shall have a rich reward, not of debt, but of grace; and, therefore, all the larger. – Charles Spurgeon

Image by Mario Rui on Flickr, CC by

Entitlement vs. Gratitude: Luke 17

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Today’s reading: Luke 17-18.

This world is the place of service; we are not to be expecting to have the festival here. The great supper comes at the end of the day. This is the time for us to serve, even as Jesus did when he was here; and we are to serve right on till the close of the day, even as Jesus did. – Charles Spurgeon

Pride is one of the three main temptations in life, along with pleasure and possessions. Jesus warned his disciples not to become swollen with pride as a result of their work with him. He knew they would be tempted because of the miraculous things they were doing, and would do, through the Holy Spirit. He wanted them to keep a servant’s heart instead of feeling super-spiritual.

“Suppose one of you had a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? Would he not rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’ ” Luke 17:7-10

The story of the servants points out several truths:

  • Jesus’ disciples remain servants or slaves. Before they were slaves to sin; now they are servants of God.
  • We shouldn’t expect God to thank us for serving him; instead we should be thankful for the grace he has shown us.
  • It is our duty to serve God. This gives some needed perspective to the argument about faith and works. Our faith saves us, but it is our duty to serve God after we are saved. A duty is a task that is required. It is an obligation.

To confirm the importance of gratitude, Luke immediately tells the story of Jesus healing ten lepers. Only one leper returned in gratitude after Jesus removed their disease. Jesus was shocked that the other nine did not express their thanks. In a sense they had a duty or obligation to show their gratitude. Instead they ran off with thoughts of themselves only.

Here are some characteristics of servants that we should model:

  • Servants live to please their master and do his will, not their own.
  • Servants don’t expect thanks for doing their job, but are grateful for the provision their master makes for them.
  • Servants can follow the example of Jesus, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Philippians 2:6-8
  • Jesus said that whoever would be great must be a servant. The commendation we will receive in heaven is for being “a good and faithful servant.”

The institutional church’s idea of a servant of God is not at all like Jesus Christ’s idea. His idea is that we serve Him by being the servants of others. Jesus Christ actually “out-socialized” the socialists. He said that in His kingdom the greatest one would be the servant of all. The real test of a saint is not one’s willingness to preach the gospel, but one’s willingness to do something like washing the disciples’ feet— that is, being willing to do those things that seem unimportant in human estimation but count as everything to God. It was Paul’s delight to spend his life for God’s interests in other people, and he did not care what it cost. But before we will serve, we stop to ponder our personal and financial concerns— “What if God wants me to go over there? And what about my salary? What is the climate like there? Who will take care of me? A person must consider all these things.” All that is an indication that we have reservations about serving God. But the apostle Paul had no conditions or reservations. Paul focused his life on Jesus Christ’s idea of a New Testament saint; that is, not one who merely proclaims the gospel, but one who becomes broken bread and poured-out wine in the hands of Jesus Christ for the sake of others. – Oswald Chambers

Image, “The Idle Servant,” by Nicolaes Maes

Lost and found: Luke 15

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Today’s reading: Luke 14-16.

“How big is God’s heart for lost persons?”

“Every parent is at some time the father of the unreturned prodigal, with nothing to do but keep his house open to hope.” – John Ciardi

“I am the prodigal son every time I search for unconditional love where it cannot be found.” – Henri J. M. Nouwen

Jesus hammers home a lesson about saving the lost with three successive parables. The Pharisees are listening all the while, and are the ones who most need to learn the lesson. Pretend you are a Pharisee as you listen to these stories, especially the story of the Prodigal Son and the Loving Father.

The Lost Sheep. The lost sheep who is found is the sinner who repents. Though he is only one out of a hundred souls, heaven rejoices at his salvation.

The Lost  Coin. The lost coin is also the sinner who repents. God strives to regain the lost person as earnestly as the poor woman who searches for one of her few precious coins. God and the angels celebrate the salvation of the repentant sinner.

The Prodigal Son and the Loving Father. Traditionally the prodigal son gets all the attention in this parable. His redemption from depravity gives preachers a story to inspire all lost persons to hope in God’s grace. Next comes the loving father, God himself, who didn’t stop looking for his son from the moment the boy ran away. He shamelessly runs to the boy as soon as he appears, and proclaims a feast before his son can finish his confession. This is how big a heart God has for lost persons.

Then there is the older brother. Remember the Pharisees? The brother is their kind of man. He’s the legalist, the one who has always done what was expected of him.

 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’  And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’” Luke 15:28-32

Jesus is telling the religious leaders that everything God has is theirs, but it’s time for them to celebrate the salvation of all who are entering the kingdom because of Christ. Instead they keep condemning the lost, even though God has shown his love for them by sending his own son to save them. At the moment that God swings open the doors to heaven, they foolishly try to shut them.

We should be like God, with just as big a heart for the lost, but we fall short in many ways.

  • We lack faith in Jesus’ story and don’t believe that God cares for the lost as much as we have been told.
  • We think God has it taken care of and doesn’t need our help.
  • We give up because it isn’t easy.
  • We look down on the lost because they don’t measure up to our standard.

I want you to think about someone who is very dear to you. Imagine that you were in danger of losing them. Wouldn’t you do everything to rescue them? That’s how much God wants to rescue sinners, and it’s how much he wants us to celebrate their salvation. There were two prodigals in Jesus’ parable. One was the son who was prodigal in his excessive debauchery, but the other was God who was prodigal in his exceeding love.  We should all be God’s kind of prodigal.

Image by Matthew Kirkland on Flickr, CC by-nc 2.0

The Narrow Door to Heaven: Luke 13

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Today’s reading: Luke 12-13.

“Isn’t everyone going to Heaven?”

The world says, “there are many ways to Heaven.” Jesus disagreed. When directly asked if few or many would find eternal life in Paradise, Jesus said many would not be able to enter.

Someone asked him, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” He said to them, “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’ But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’ ” Luke 13:23-25

On another occasion Jesus answered the question more directly, saying that only a few would enter Heaven.

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” Matthew 7:13-14

If there was any doubt about the identity of the door or gate, Jesus also answered that question.

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:6

Jesus uses the definite article “the.” He doesn’t say he is a way, or one of several or many ways. He is the way, the only way.

Few could mean few in absolute terms or few in relative numbers compared to all those who have lived or ever will live on Earth. I prefer to think it is few in number relative to the many who take the broad road to destruction. Either way you define few, it’s clear there are reasons only a few go through the door.

It isn’t easy to get through the door. The word narrow comes from a root meaning to stand. You have to stand straight upright in order to fit through the door. It’s a picture of a righteous person, but whose righteousness? The Bible makes it clear that it isn’t our own righteousness (which is nothing but filthy rags) but the righteousness of Jesus which allows us to fit through the door. It’s a Jesus-shaped doorway, and we have to be Christ-like (clothed in his righteousness) to fit through.

It takes an effort to get through. Jesus urges the questioner to make every effort to enter. He’s talking about the kind of effort it takes to win an athletic contest or a battle. In contrast, the path through the broad gate is almost effortless. It’s going with the flow, following the crowd. Does this mean that our salvation requires work? The whole counsel of God teaches that grace and faith are paramount in our salvation, but there are also passages that describe saving faith as faith that does works. “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? … As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” The greatest work, however, is the work of faith. “Then they asked him, ‘What must we do to do the works God requires?’ Jesus answered, ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.’ “

There is a time limit on getting through. The door won’t remain open forever. The word for narrow carries the meaning of getting narrower to the point of closing up like a clogged artery. When the door closes, Jesus says it isn’t closed in a casual sort of way but is purposefully shut against those who haven’t entered (the door is shut fast; they are shut away). God controls when the door closes. It has already closed for each one who has died. It will close with extreme finality when God judges the Earth.

A day is coming when everyone will want to pass through. But on that day it will be too late. People will view the door with hindsight and see how foolish they were to pass it by. There will be no remedy for their sorrow. God’s grace will be complete and judgment will be the result.

Jesus not only said he was the way. He said he was the gate itself.

 “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture.”

He’s the way, the doorway, and he’s the good shepherd at the doorway making sure that only his sheep enter the pen to find safety. Is everyone in the world one of his sheep? No, only those who enter the gate in the likeness of the lamb of God.

I wish I could speak now in words that would burn their way right into your inmost hearts. Alas, I cannot. I must, however, just repeat the text again, and leave it with you. “Many shall seek in that dread day to enter, but shall not be able.” Oh, enter then, enter! Enter now, while yet the gate stands wide open and mercy bids you come! Make haste to enter while yet the avenging angel lingers, and the angel of mercy stands with outstretched arms and cries, “Whoever will, let him come and take of the water of life freely.” May God, the ever-blessed Spirit, without whom no warning can be effectual, and no invitation can be attractive, sweetly compel you to trust Christ tonight! Here is the Gospel in a few words – Jesus suffered the wrath and torment we justly merited. He doubtless bore the penalty of your transgressions if you penitently believe in His Sacrifice. When you trust in Him for pardon, ‘tis proof your sins were laid on Him for judgment! You are, therefore, a forgiven man! A pardoned woman! You are saved—saved forever!  – Charles Spurgeon

Image by William Murphy on Flickr, CC by-sa 2.0

A Chocolate Christmas

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Laura had three problems. Their names were Kevin, Tommy, and Jacob. She loved each of them, but sitting alone in her apartment the weekend after Thanksgiving she made a decision. She circled December 25 on the calendar and determined that by Christmas she would give her heart fully to one of the men and let the other two go.

Don’t be too quick to judge Laura. She was an uncommonly attractive young woman and she attracted an uncommon number of young men to her doorstep. These three remaining suitors were but a drop in the bucket of all those she had rejected. Give her credit as well for her wisdom in deciding to narrow the field even further. No one prompted her to do it: not her girlfriends, her parents, or even the enviable final three. Her own conscience, as tender as her looks, forced the decision on her. Conscience and a healthy dose of Christmas spirit.

For Christmas was gently falling down around her like an early December snow. She felt it coming in the chill of the evening as she walked with Kevin. She saw it blooming red in the holly berries ripening in the park they passed. She heard it in the carols at the mall and in the excited cries of children at store windows as she shopped with Tommy. She smelled it in the balsam scent of a corner lot where Jacob stopped to pick out a Christmas tree. She could almost taste Christmas.

But before the taste sweetened into reality, Laura remembered her dilemma and felt the weight of it smothering her Christmas spirit. The choice she faced discouraged her. It’s true that her looks and character had gotten her into this predicament, but a similar fact kept her from making an easy exit. The men in her life were just as exceptional as Laura.

Should that surprise you? Isn’t it true that the fastest runners race together? That the most talented singers combine for the duet? That the most striking jewel requires the most elegant setting? So the three men racing for Laura’s love not only competed with each other, but also complemented Laura as a fine dessert completes a delicious meal. Each man brought unique strengths to the meal. Each was a rich mixture of qualities that blended together in a mélange that was heady and intoxicating. No, don’t judge Laura too quickly.

The foursome met in college. During school they had been best buddies, and their friendship had kept romance at arm’s length longer than anyone had predicted. Now, to no one’s surprise, they all worked in the same city. Their friendship survived, but the men avoided discussing Laura except on those occasions when their frustrations overflowed into a therapeutic outpouring of “Laura-isms.”

“You know what gets me the most,” said Kevin, “is when she asks me how I feel about something.”

“An open-ended question,” said Jacob.

“Oh yeah, that’s her psych training coming out,” added Tommy.

“Well, how it makes me feel,” Kevin continued, “is like strangling her. But then she looks at me with those big eyes, and I know it’s no gimmick with her. It’s the real thing. She really does care. So who could be mad at her?”

“I suppose you’ve been sidelined by her long talks with random people you meet?” Jacob asked.

“Sidelined? I’ve been put on lay away,” answered Tommy. “How does she know so many people?”

“And how do they find so much to talk about?” Kevin added.

“I used to think it was a woman thing,” said Jacob, “but now I know better. It’s just pure Laura.”

“Face it, guys,” said Tommy, “she’s an extremely popular lady. Which explains why the three of us are still chasing her. Okay, I’ve heard the latest fashion conversation, the ‘who’s getting married?’ conversation …”

“The relatives conversation,” Jacob continued, “the cooking conversation, the ‘last week’s sermon’ conversation …”

“The movie conversation,” added Kevin, “and the book conversation.”

“But don’t you just love to watch her when she gets excited about something?” asked Jacob.

“Or when she’s laughing,” said Tommy.

Kevin’s phone rang and he answered it. Tommy and Jacob could tell by his voice that Laura was on the other end.

“Right,” he said, “see you soon.” He hung up and said, “Look, guys, I’ve got to go.”

Kevin walked quickly from his car to Laura’s apartment. It was more than the cold night or his anticipation that spurred him on. His long stride spoke of an inner drive and purpose with every step. No one who saw him would be surprised to hear of his athletic background, or to learn that he’d advanced several positions since taking a job at the bank. He looked like a quarterback, though he’d never played football. “Too rough,” he’d say if you asked him. Basketball was his passion, and he played every week in one of the city leagues. He loved the challenge of the game and the spirit of the small group of guys on his team. Friends said that he was going to law school when he saved enough money.

Soon he was sitting on the sofa with Laura and listening to her as Andy Williams sang “Happy Holidays” in the background. He listened for half an hour as she told him all about her day and the problems she had faced. Finally the conversation wound down, and Kevin found an opening.

“You said you were going to let me know what you wanted for Christmas. Have you decided?”

“I have,” she answered.

“Well, what is it?”

“Nothing much. I really don’t need anything.”

For once Kevin couldn’t tell if she was being coy or sincere.

“OK, I’ll agree you don’t need anything, but I’m still going to get you a present. So tell me what you’d like.”

“Chocolate.”

He thought about it a minute. “For Christmas? That doesn’t sound like a Christmas gift.”

“That’s what I want.”

“But I’ve never heard you say you liked chocolate that much.”

“I love chocolate. And that’s what I want you to get me.”

“Well it won’t be much of a surprise, will it?”

“That’s up to you.”

Laura thought he looked a bit hurt as he left that night. There was a little less drive and a lot more consternation in his step as he headed back home. Part of her felt sorry for him, but then she remembered her plan and her resolve returned.

Tommy came next on her list. He brought along a recording of an old Chipmunk Christmas song, and he talked just as much as Laura did. Tommy was the joker in the group. If there was a sad bone in his body he never let it show. Laura loved that best about him. No matter what the circumstance, he laughed about it. And it wasn’t an act. An indestructible confidence backed up his bravado. It was contagious, so whenever she needed cheering up she ran to Tommy.  She laughed inside when he started kidding her about some outrageous gifts he planned to get her.

“Actually, I know what I’d like for Christmas,” she told him.

“Really? What is it? A mini-barn for all your shoes?”

“I’m serious.”

He took a good look at her and realized she wasn’t kidding.

“Okay, Babe. Let’s hear it. I aim to please.”

“I want chocolate.”

“Chocolate? You never cease to amaze me, Laura. That’s hilarious. Chocolate. Do you want a chocolate reindeer? Do they even make such a thing? I can see you now, nibbling on his nose and going ‘Oh, no, what’s Rudolph going to do now!’”

“Laugh all you want, but chocolate’s what I want.”

“Like the heart-shaped thing? Is that what you want? Because I don’t think Santa’s little elves will start working on those for a couple of months yet.”

Tommy kept laughing, but Laura just smiled at him, a sweet but secret smile that sent a chill to Tommy’s funny bone.

“All right, I’m getting the feeling that there’s more to this chocolate wish than just a chocoholic’s craving. Maybe it’s a test of my originality. Am I right?”

“You’re too suspicious. Just get me some chocolate,” she answered.

“Well, it doesn’t matter. I’m up to it either way. If it’s chocolate you want, chocolate is what you’ll get. But start dieting now, because Christmas day you will be swimming in chocolate.”

Tommy headed out that evening singing in his best Chipmunk voice. She laughed at him in spite of herself.

Finally Jacob got his call. Laura stood on her doorstep and watched him as he came up the street towards her apartment. She identified him blocks away by the swinging of his arms as he walked, and by the way his head turned one way and then another. His pace quickened when he saw her and he jumped up the steps two at a time until he stood in front of her.

“I’ve got something for you,” he said.

“A surprise?”

“No, not really, it’s that book of Frost poetry you said you wanted to borrow.”

“Thank you. I’ll get it back to you soon.”

“No rush. Enjoy it as long as you like. I rewrote one of his poems for you on my way over here. Would you like to hear it?”

“Of course.”

He cleared his throat dramatically. “Stopping by Laura’s on a Snowy Evening.”

“Whose house this is, I think I know.

Her name is Laura Grace Barlow.

She will not mind me stopping here,

to watch her rosy cheeks aglow.”

“Pretty good,” said Laura.

“That’s not all,” said Jacob.

“Her neighbors all must think it queer

for such a one to stop right here.

He’s not the kind that she would take

this coldest evening of the year.”

“Oh, wouldn’t I?” she cooed.

“One more verse!” he insisted.

“Her face is lovely, dark, and deep,

and makes me smile before I sleep.

For her, my promises I’ll keep;

for her, my promises I’ll keep.”

“Thank you,” she said softly, and kissed him before opening the door to let him in.

“I’m afraid it’s not very original,” he said.

“I’ve never heard it before. Not that version.”

“Consider it an early Christmas present,” he replied, beaming.

“Jacob…” she started and then hesitated. Maybe the whole thing was a mistake. She felt very deceitful in light of his sweet poem.

“Is everything all right?” he asked.

“Everything’s fine.” She took a deep breath and smiled. “I was wondering if you would like a suggestion for my Christmas present.”

“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather be surprised?”

“I’m sure. I know how much thought you’ll put into it, and I want to do something to make it easier for you.” She winced as she said it.

“Sure,” he answered. “Sounds great. What would you like?”

“Chocolate.”

“That’s an interesting request. I never realized you were a connoisseur.”

“I’m not. I just feel like chocolate for Christmas. Something different.”

“That’s different all right. But different is good.”

“You’re okay with it then?”

“Yeah, I like it. Gives a certain focus to my search. But I’m going to have to bone up on this. My tastes don’t go far beyond what you find on the grocery store shelf.”

“Mine, either.”

“Well, now that we’ve settled that, let’s listen to that CD of the Robert Shaw chorale you told me about.”

Jacob’s exit that night was a reverse of his arrival, with a bit of poetry, arm swinging, and then head bobbing as he wandered back down the street. Laura sighed with relief as he disappeared. Now it was done. Three very different men had each been given an equal assignment, a common task with a very uncommon goal: to help her distinguish them in her heart. She knew that each of them would approach the job passionately, despite all her pretended protests. She had no doubt they were already thinking about what to get her. She only wondered whether she would be able to choose between their gifts.

In Laura’s dreams the three men never learned of her scheme. Christmas arrived, they presented their gifts, and she made her choice privately. They moved on without ever knowing how she made her decision. Dreams, of course, bear little resemblance to reality. Less than a week went by before Laura’s three friends stumbled on the similarity in their shopping lists.

“Why would she tell each of us to get her chocolate?” Tommy asked.

“She just wanted to make it easier on us,” Jacob answered.

“Nobody likes chocolate that much,” said Kevin. “No, she’s up to something, and I don’t think it’s for our benefit.”

“You’re too cynical,” said Jacob.

“You’re too naive,” said Kevin.

“It reminds me of something,” Tommy said. “You know, those medieval quests where the king puts a challenge before all the men competing for the princess’ hand in marriage. Whoever can kill the dragon, or answer the riddle, will be given the princess and half the kingdom. Something like that.”

“Except times have changed and Laura is both princess and king,” Kevin mused.

“And in this case Laura answers the riddle by choosing between us,” Jacob added.

“And whoever finds the chocolate dragon wins!” Tommy shouted.

Kevin shook his head. “Don’t you realize what this means?”

“Of course I do,” said Tommy. “It means the endgame. At Christmas only one of us will be left standing.”

“And that doesn’t bother you?”

“I’m excited about it! Soon the waiting will be over. This long, slow torture will end, and maybe, just maybe, I’ll be the one with the answer to Laura’s riddle.”

“And if you’re not the one?” asked Jacob.

“If I’m not the one, or if you’re not the one, then we’re free to go out and find our happiness somewhere else.”

“I wish I had your confidence,” said Jacob.

“He’s just deluding himself,” said Kevin. “Celebrate as much as you like, Tommy. I’m glad you’re satisfied with second place, because I’m not. There’s work to do. And since I may not see either of you for a while, let me go ahead and wish you both a Merry Christmas.”

With that he winked and was gone.

“Do we let her know that we know?” Jacob asked.

“Are you kidding?” Tommy yelled as he followed Kevin out the door.

 

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Tommy’s first stop was Laura’s apartment.

“Hello, Mr. Chipmunk, what brings you to my corner of the woods?” Laura asked as she let him in.

“I’m on a quest.”

“For acorns?” she teased.

“No, something much more important than that.”

“You’re not kidding, are you? What’s so important?”

“You’re hurting my pride,” Tommy said. “I’m serious about a lot of things. Like you, for instance.”

“It’s nice to hear you say that. Is that why you came over here?”

“Not just that. Talk to me about chocolate.”

Laura paused to think. “If you’re fishing for Christmas gift ideas, you’re heading up the wrong creek.”

“But if I don’t use the right bait, how can I hope to land the gift you want?”

“If I give you the fish, how can you call that sport?”

“Then maybe I should give you a chocolate fish,” he protested.

“Not if I have to clean it,” she answered.

“Do I have to scale a mountain to find your gift?”

“I don’t think the trail to my gift goes so high.”

“High in price, you mean?” he quizzed her.

“You’re fishing again,” she told him.

“And you’re putting up a good fight.”

“I may have taken your bait,” she said, “but you’re not landing this fish.”

“Not today, you mean.”

That got her attention. “What do you mean, “Not today”?”

“Ah, now who’s fishing? Sorry to cut bait, Laura, but I’ve got to run. Like you said, no point fishing up the wrong creek. Talk to you later!”

Before she could reel him back he was gone, leaving her thoughts in tangles. What was he up to?

Jacob decided that he needed more facts before he could unravel his Christmas conundrum, so he made a few phone calls and then headed to “The Chocolate Collection.” Raoul Muret ran the downtown store, which sold imported chocolates as well as its own confections. The title after Muret’s name said chocolatier, and Jacob thought that sounded expert enough to start him on his search for the perfect present.

“You say you need to become a connoisseur of chocolate quickly,” Muret said, summing up Jacob’s story.

“That’s right. Tell me what I need to know to pick the best chocolate gift on earth.”

“And how many years did you say you have to learn all this?” Before Jacob could answer, Muret held up his hand and said, “Just kidding. This is for Christmas, yes? So our time is short indeed. Let me begin with the raw ingredients, and proceed from there to the finished product. The finest chocolates require the finest ingredients. That means no substitutes, nothing artificial. We begin with the cocoa beans.”

“Which are the best?” Jacob asked.

“The Venezuelan. Cocoa beans only grow in the tropics, and like the tropics the best beans are full of passionate flavor. The beans are fermented…”

“Fermented?”

“Yes. Many of the most flavorful foods require fermentation – such as cheese, wine, and chocolate. Even love, at its best, is not fresh, but full of experiences, some sweet and some sour.”

Muret paused to look at Jacob, but saw only a blank expression.

“Well, then. The beans are fermented, sun-dried, roasted, and ground. Then they are melted and stirred, and this is the crucial part where many so-called chocolatiers fail their craft. The stirring, or conching, must be continued for days; otherwise the chocolate will be gritty instead of smooth.”

“Is that all?” Jacob asked.

“No, that is certainly not all. The best chocolate does not come quickly. You must wait on it patiently. Even the cooling of the cooked chocolate must happen properly so that it keeps its smooth surface.”

“All right, Mr. Muret. Let’s say I’m offered a chocolate. How can I pick a great one?”

“Start with its appearance. The chocolate should shine. Smell the chocolate. The aroma should be powerful. Then, when you bite into it, there should be a sharp snap to the surface. The texture of the melting chocolate against the roof of the mouth should be smooth, and the taste should linger long in the mouth like a…like…”

“Like a kiss.”

“Exactly!” Muret shouted. “My boy, now you are learning something about chocolate.”

“Thank you.”

“Jacob, before you go, tell me why this chocolate gift is so important.”

“Because I want to show the woman I love how much I care for her.”

“Listen to me,” Muret insisted. “Chocolate, for all its romance and allure, is no substitute for love. You cannot create great chocolate with artificial ingredients, and you will not prove your love unless the gift comes from the heart. Now, take what you have learned here today and use it to give your gift that extra something, that something special. But the gift itself, that must come from you.”

While Jacob gleaned the wisdom of Mr. Muret, Kevin sought the expert advice of his basketball teammates. He pumped them for ideas as they downed burgers and fries after a Saturday afternoon game.

“I don’t get it. Why are you coming to us for help?” asked Donnie.

“Yeah, Kevin, you should be talking to some of Laura’s friends instead,” said Stuart, the team’s center.

“Look, I know what I’m doing,” Kevin assured them. “First of all, I trust you guys. I trust your opinions, and I trust you to keep everything we talk about strictly between us. I’m not sure I could say the same for Laura’s friends.”

“Smart thinking,” said Lamar, the point guard.

“You guys have got some experience I lack,” Kevin continued. “Stu, you’ve been married a couple of years now, and Andrew, how long has it been for you, five years?”

“That’s right,” said Andrew, the other forward besides Kevin. “Five wonderful years.”

“See, you two are not only married, you’re happily married. Help me out here. What’s the secret to winning the woman of your dreams?”

The two men looked at each other and shrugged.

“I don’t know, man,” said Andrew. “Once you make the commitment it just flows, like when you decide to go for that lay-up and flat-out beat the other guy to the board.”

“Or like when you shoot that three pointer and you know it’s going to fall as soon as it leaves your hand. Real love is like that,” Stuart added.

“So you’re saying I need to choose Laura’s gift like I play basketball. Go with the flow, be quick, beat the other guy to the board? I don’t think that’s going to work, guys.”

“Hey, they’re just telling you to do what comes natural,” Lamar suggested.

“Not specific enough,” Kevin countered. “Let’s brainstorm a minute. Do you think I should go for size and overwhelm her with a huge volume? Or should I go for the highest quality and just buy what I can afford?”

Kevin looked around and saw blank stares.

“Come on, guys, don’t crash on me now. Do I need to pump some more caffeine into you? Talk to me.”

“Okay, it’s not about amount, and it’s not about price,” said Lamar.

“All right. Tell me more,” said Kevin.

“It’s about connecting to her emotion, hitting her in the gut if you know what I mean, and creating a memory that sticks with her long after the gift is gone.”

“That’s good. Can I use that, too?” Donnie asked, as the whole team gave Lamar high-fives.

“How about this,” Andrew said. “Connect to her emotion and make her picture how wonderful a future the two of you will have together.”

“Swoosh!” Donnie shouted.

“Three points!” Stuart echoed.

“Make her picture it. Thanks, guys. Now that I can take to the bank.”

 

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The weeks leading up to Christmas were quieter than usual for Laura. The men who usually occupied so much of her time were busy, so she took advantage of their absence to spend some time with her mother, Ann. They talked about a million things, but Laura’s mother noticed the absence of any mention of the three boyfriends.

“You seem very excited today,” she told her daughter.

“Because I’m talking so much? I’m just making up for lost time.”

“No, it’s more than that. You seem nervous. You’re not worried about anything, are you?”

“No, Mom. Everything’s fine.”

“You haven’t broken up with one of the boys, have you? You haven’t said a word about them all day.”

“They’ve been busy.”
“Too busy for you? Now you’ve really got my curiosity up.”

“What do you mean?” Laura asked.

“Well, can you think of a time when those three weren’t practically knocking down your door? I don’t know if one of them has even been out-of-town without you since you moved back here. And when have you failed to tell me, first thing, something about Kevin’s work, or Jacob’s writing, or Tommy’s jokes?”

Laura sat speechless, and Ann let the silence linger.

“You’re very observant. You know that, don’t you,” said Laura.

“And you’re stalling,” said her mother. “Come on, Laura, what’s up?”

Laura’s chin sank to her chest. “I’ve decided to choose one of them and tell the other two goodbye.”

“Oh, dear,” Ann said as she came over to comfort her daughter. “And when are you going to make this decision?”

“By Christmas,” Laura answered, tears beginning to roll down her cheeks.

“And you’re scared, aren’t you?” her mother said.

Laura nodded.

“Scared you’ll make the wrong choice,” her mother continued. “I’d say you couldn’t go wrong with any of them, but I know that’s not the kind of advice you want. Do they know about this?”

Laura shook her head. “I haven’t told them.”

Ann sat back down and thought about her daughter’s predicament. “I wish I had an answer for you, but if it was easy you’d have already made your choice. I can tell you about a hard decision of mine, if that would help.”

“Yes,” said Laura, “tell me.”

“Well, it was another Christmas, while I was still in college. I was planning to work during the holidays to make some extra money. I had to make a choice between two jobs. I wanted both of them, but of course I had to pick just one.”

“Why were you so excited about a part-time job?” Laura asked.

“Well, these were not your usual part-time jobs. One was stage managing the community theatre’s production of A Christmas Carol. The other was an office job for a local delivery company. And I know what you’re thinking. Doesn’t sound like a hard choice. But the delivery company paid twice as much as the theatre, and a boy I liked an awful lot happened to be working there as well.”

“So what did you decide?”

“I picked the stage manager job.”

“Why?”

“The delivery job was all about me – more money, time with my boyfriend – but the other job meant a chance to give to others, and I knew that would be more rewarding in the long run.”

“Sounds like you made the right choice, Mom.”

“Yes, I’ve never doubted that.”

“But how does that help me?” Laura asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe it doesn’t. I don’t know anyone else who’s ever faced a choice like yours. But I do know one thing,” her mother continued. “You’re going to make the right choice. I have no doubt about that, either.”

Everyone talked about the Christmas spirit that December. “It’s the early snow,” some said, while others credited the brisk economy. Most people didn’t try to explain it. They saw the smiles on faces and accepted it as fact. They heard how much farther the sound of the Salvation Army bell seemed to carry. Their own feet carried them more quickly on their errands. Their appetites quickened with every Christmas cookie they ate. But it wasn’t snow, smiles, or cookies that powered the Christmas spirit. It was the energy of three young men scurrying through the town’s shops and streets.

Soon Christmas week arrived. Laura carefully scheduled her time so that none of her meetings overlapped. Kevin came first on the schedule. He took her to a re-creation of an Old English Christmas feast, with real figgy pudding, roast pig, and servers singing Christmas carols in traditional costumes. Then they took a horse and carriage ride through the park before returning to Laura’s apartment. She felt like an eight year old on Christmas morning as she waited to open Kevin’s present, but the box he brought out surprised her. It was flat and square, about two feet on each side, and it looked like an ordinary chocolate candy box. She hesitated when Kevin set it in front of her.

“Well, aren’t you going to open it?” he asked.

“I’m just savoring the moment,” she told him.

“That’s fine. Take your time, but you know I’m just as excited as you are.”

“All right, here goes,” she said, and she carefully pulled away the wrapping paper. A bright white box lay inside. She slowly lifted the lid and smelled the strong scent of chocolate rising up to meet her face. She peered inside and saw…

“It’s you and me!” she shouted.

“Yes,” Kevin answered, have you ever seen a sweeter picture?”

A chocolate relief of Kevin and Laura covered the surface of the giant confection. Swirls of milk and dark chocolate intermixed and spiraled in and out through the couple, who were cheek to cheek and looking out at their real counterparts with wide smiles and arms clasped around each other.

“It’s the picture from my birthday party!”

“That’s right,” said Kevin.

“But how in the world did you get it on the chocolate?” Laura asked.

“I didn’t do it. I had someone enlarge the picture and make a bas-relief carving of it. Then they made a plastic mold of the carving, and the chocolate was poured into the mold to create the final masterpiece.”
“It’s beautiful.”

“And it’s made to be eaten.”

“I couldn’t eat it. I want to keep it forever.”

“Look underneath,” Kevin prompted her.

She carefully lifted the corner of the chocolate square, which sat on a cardboard backing, and saw another identical chocolate portrait in the bottom of the box.

“One to eat, and one to keep,” said Kevin. “Now why don’t you try a piece.”

She broke off a corner and tasted it. The strong flavor filled her mouth.

“It’s so smooth and sweet,” she said.

“Like anyone you know?” Kevin asked her.

“And there’s a hint of coffee, too. You know how I love coffee,” she told him.

“Laura, do you see how close we are in the picture? That’s how close I want us to be. You see the two types of chocolate swirling through the picture? That represents you and me, and I want the two of us to be mingled together like that. And when you take a piece of this chocolate, and eat it, and it becomes part of you…I want to be part of you like that.”

He took her hand and she thought, “I’m glad I’m not made of chocolate, or I’d be melting.”

 

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Tommy took her ice skating and then to his parent’s home. His brothers were there with their wives and children, and the family continued their tradition of decorating the house together. They hung evergreens, put up stockings over the fireplace, sprayed flock pictures of stars and snowflakes on the windows, and set out nativity scenes on every available shelf or table. Tommy’s father played Santa Claus in full costume. As Laura watched him delight the children she saw where Tommy had gotten his jolly nature, and it made her wonder what their own children might be like.

“Who wants to go see the Christmas lights?” Tommy’s mother asked. It was another tradition of theirs to drive around town to see the brightest displays.

“Mom, you all go ahead,” Tommy said. “Laura and I are going to stay here. I’ve got something to give her.”

“All right, we’ll be back in a little while.”

After they left Tommy made Laura cover her eyes while he brought out her present.

“You can open them now,” he told her.

She looked up to see a huge box covered in striped paper that reminded her of candy canes. Dark brown ribbons covered the box. They looked like…

“Chocolate?” she asked.

“Yep. Have some. You’ve got to get through them to open the box.”

She broke off a piece and tasted it. “Peppermint,” she exclaimed.

“Keep going,” Tommy said.

She pulled away the ribbon and paper and opened the box. Once again a familiar aroma surrounded her. Several inches of cocoa powder filled the bottom of the box, and another box made of pure chocolate lay nestled in the center of the cocoa.

“Don’t throw away that powder,” Tommy told her. “That’s some of the best European cocoa.”

The inner box was an enormous chocolate cube. Each side of the box was as big as one of Kevin’s chocolate squares.

“Don’t stop now,” Tommy urged.

Laura touched the box gingerly. The top moved, and she took it off and looked inside. More powder, and more chocolate boxes. Some were small and some were larger. There must have been twenty or more, and each one was unique.

“One box for every Christmas of your life,” Tommy said.

Laura jumped up and hugged him. “I feel like a little girl in the candy store,” she said.

“A very fancy candy store,” he added.

She picked up one of the tiny boxes. This time the top did not come off.

“Go ahead, try it,” said Tommy.

She felt the sharp crack of the box’s chocolate shell as she bit into it, but inside another flavor spilled into her mouth.

“Lemon! Is every one different?” she asked, her mouth still half-full of chocolate.

“They are, but you don’t have to eat every one today.”

“Thank you,” she said with relief.

“I told you to start dieting. Now, are you going to finish opening your present?”

“I thought I had finished.”

“You haven’t opened all the boxes.” He picked up another small chocolate box, larger than the last, and handed it to her. She took off its tiny chocolate lid and found another surprise inside.

“A chocolate cat,” she giggled. “It’s Whiskers!”

She quickly opened several other boxes and found that each one held a chocolate reminder of something that she and Tommy had shared.

“Laura, I’m a lot like this present, you know.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“You think you know me, but open me up and inside there’s another box, and inside that another box, and every one holds a card that says ‘Tommy loves Laura.’ ”

“I love you, too. But now you’re making me cry.”

“There’s more to me than laughs. Does that surprise you?”

“Maybe. You’re full of surprises tonight, aren’t you?”

“Just like you’re going to be full of chocolate.”

 

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“Hi, this is Jacob. Be sure to be home at six tonight. See you soon.”

That was the entire message on Laura’s answering machine. Jacob said nothing about where they were going, so when the doorbell rang that evening, she ran to the door expectantly. When she opened it, Jacob wasn’t there. All she saw outside her door was a package wrapped in plain brown paper, and a card with her name on it.

She brought the package inside and began to open it, putting the card aside for the moment. Inside the paper she found a plain box with “Jacob” written on top. She opened the box and found … nothing.

“What does it mean?” she wondered. Was the box from Jacob, or for him? And why was it empty? Had something been forgotten? She remembered the card and tore it open looking for answers. All she found a brief note which said:

Do not be afraid to follow the trail of chocolate. Love, Jacob.

Before she could ponder the message, the doorbell rang. This time someone greeted her, a kind-looking older man in suit and tie, but a stranger nonetheless, holding a small present.

“Laura Barlow?” he asked.

“Yes,” she answered.

“This is for you. Please open it.”

She did so as she stood in her doorway. Lifting the lid on the box, she pulled out a small chocolate angel.

“That figure of an angel is a gift for you, a real angel. Now, will you come with me?” the well-dressed gentleman asked.

“Did Jacob send you?”

“Did you read his note?” the man asked.

“Yes.”

“Then you know Jacob sent me. Aren’t you coming? We don’t want to keep him waiting.”

She grabbed her coat and followed, excited and a little fearful at the same time. Outside they climbed into a panel truck and headed off through the ornamented streets of the city. She learned that her chauffeur, William Brown, operated a delivery service in town.

“So you see, I’m an angel myself,” he told Laura.

“What do you mean?”

“An angel is a messenger, delivering words from God to men. And I’m not only a delivery man, but a preacher as well, so I’m an angel two times over.” With that William laughed out loud, a belly shaking laugh that shook the truck.

“And you’re delivering me to Jacob,” Laura added.

“That’s the ticket, young lady. An angel delivering an angel.” He laughed some more.

“And Jacob put you up to this?”

“Of course he did. He told me to tell you how much he looks forward to seeing you, how heavenly you are, and that you should go ahead and eat the chocolate because it might be a while before you get a real meal.”

Laura was hungry, so she took his advice. The chocolate angel delivered a warm, rich message as it slowly melted in her mouth.

“Here we are,” William announced. He pulled over, hopped out of the truck, and ran to open Laura’s door. As she got out she looked around and saw nothing but an empty sidewalk and a bus stop sign.

“There’s no one here,” she protested.

“There will be. Now you have a Merry Christmas.” With that William hopped back in his truck, waved, and drove quickly out of sight. Before Laura could turn back around, someone tapped her on the shoulder.

“Miss Barlow?”

She whirled around to face a tall bearded man in a gray overcoat that nearly reached to the sidewalk. He held a package identical to the one Mr. Brown had given her, and as she stood there dumbly he offered it to her.

“Please open the package, Miss Barlow.”

She quickly obeyed, and this time found a small chocolate figure of a wise man.

“Who are you?” Laura asked.

“I’m Dr. Phillip Pryor, one of the professors at the college. According to Jacob, you make him feel like the wisest man in the world whenever he’s with you. Now, will you come with me?”

“Yes, but how are we going?” she asked, seeing no cars on the street.

“We’re going by bus, of course.” And no sooner had he said it than the bus pulled up.

“Right on schedule. Shall we go, Laura?”

Dr. Pryor paid her fare and they settled into their seats, side by side behind the driver.

“Do you mind if I eat?” Laura asked. “I’m kind of nervous and that tends to make me hungry.”

“Go right ahead.”

“Would you like some?”

“That would be wonderful.”

They agreed they had never eaten a better chocolate wise man.

“Tell me, Laura, what do you think it takes to make a really good decision?”

“Well, I’d say you need the right facts to make the best decision.”

“Fair enough, but assuming one has the right facts, then what?”

“A way to combine those facts and come to the right conclusion.”

“Exactly,” the professor exclaimed. “You’re talking about wisdom, which is simply skill in handling facts. Just as a craftsman uses skill in handling tools, a wise person understands how to handle knowledge. Some people are given an extra measure of wisdom at birth, but most of us must learn it by study and experience. How about you, Laura? Have you studied your subjects extensively?”

Laura felt that he was referring to Jacob and the other two men.

“Yes, extensively,” she replied.

“And you have lengthy experience with them?”

“Yes, lengthy.”

“Well then, you have the necessary wisdom to make this decision, don’t you?”

“I do,” she answered, as much to herself as to the professor.

“Then my work is done. Merry Christmas, Laura. It’s been a pleasure to meet you. This is your stop, I believe.”

The bus pulled up to the curb, and Laura said goodbye before climbing out. As she stepped onto the curb she found a man with a dog waiting for her. The dog was a border collie without a leash. The man wore a wool sweater, and as she expected he held a familiar package.

“Hello, Miss Barlow,” he greeted her.

“Hello, Mr. …”

“Bethel, David Bethel. And this is Shalom. Say hello, Shalom.”

The dog barked, but remained firmly in place.

“Merry Christmas, Mr. Bethel, and Shalom. Is the package for me?”

“It sure is. Go ahead and open it, but let’s walk as you do.”

“We’re walking?”

“Yes, it’s a lovely evening for a stroll, and you haven’t got far to go now.”

Laura unwrapped the box as they walked and retrieved another chocolate figurine, this time a shepherd.

“Mr. Bethel, I don’t suppose you’re a shepherd, are you?”

“That’s right, and Shalom is my sheep dog. I see you’ve figured out Jacob’s system.”

“Where did Jacob find you?”

“Oh, he’s good with a telephone, and very persuasive. Besides, who could turn down an adventure like this? It’ll be a story to tell, won’t it? Let’s turn here.”

They were making their way to the very heart of town as they wound through a maze of streets. Laura recognized the buildings they passed, but she could not figure their final destination.

“How’s the chocolate?” Mr. Bethel asked.

“Wonderful. Reminds me of something I’d eat hiking in the mountains.”

“Now you’re making me homesick for the high pastures in summer,” he said.

“Do you have something you’re supposed to tell me?” Laura asked.

“Yes, ma’am. Jacob wanted you to know that he will always be there to guide you through whatever life throws your way, and that you’ll never be lost for long, as long as you’re with him. Let’s turn this way.”

They rounded a corner and Laura saw the city park across the street. A life-size nativity stood on a hill in the park, and one figure in modern clothes stood beside the manger.

“Jacob!” she shouted, and the figure waved back. “Goodbye, Mr. Bethel. Thank you.”

“Goodbye, miss. Merry Christmas.”

Laura was already running across the street. She didn’t stop until she reached Jacob.

“Right on time,” he told her as she ran up. He hugged her and said, “I see my helpers did their job.”

“Yes, they did a great job. But what’s this all about? Do I get my present now?”

“You already did,” he answered.

“You mean the chocolate figures?”

“No, the very first box.”

“But it was empty,” she protested.

“That’s right,” he agreed. “Come over here, Laura.”

She followed him to the manger.

“I brought you to this nativity for a reason,” he began. “When Jesus decided to come to earth, he gave up everything. He completely emptied himself. That’s how he ended up as a baby in a manger. That’s why I gave you an empty box. Laura, I’m pledging to empty myself for you.”

“You’re giving yourself,” she whispered, trying to hold back tears.

“Yes, I am. It’s not exactly what you asked for. What do you think? Did I make a wise decision?”

“A very wise decision,” she answered. “And I’ve made a decision, too.”

Jacob took a deep breath. “All right, what is it?”

“Jacob, I choose you.”

“Yes!” he shouted.

“Jacob, do you know what this means?”

“Yes, I do!” Suddenly he dropped to his knees and pulled out a final present. “Open it,” he told her.

She quickly ripped off the paper and opened the box to reveal one more gift, a chocolate ring.

“Will you marry me, Laura?”

“Yes, Jacob, yes.”

He stood up and embraced her, and they kissed while wise men and shepherds and angels bore witness, their love as timeless as the baby in the manger and as fresh as the newest snow.

“You knew, didn’t you?” Laura asked.

“About you asking each of us for chocolate? Yes, we all knew.”

“And you knew why?”

“We had a pretty good idea.”

“I bet you think you’re pretty smart, don’t you?” she scolded.

“No, just pretty fortunate, and very happy. And Laura?”

“Yes”

“Don’t try to eat that ring. There’s a real diamond inside.”

What color would you choose for Christmas? Would it be silver and gold, the green of mistletoe and holly, or the red of Santa’s coat? Maybe you’d choose the white of snow and angels. But ask Laura and Jacob what color they choose, and the answer will always be chocolate brown. Yes, theirs will always be a chocolate Christmas.

 

A Chocolate Christmas, by Robert Dellinger

© 2004 by Robert Dellinger

Image by Qi You on Flickr, CC by-nc-sa 2.0

Image by stefans_box on Flickr, CC by-nc-sa 2.0

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Legalism: Luke 11

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Today’s reading: Luke 10-11.

A pharisee is hard on others and easy on himself, but a spiritual man is easy on others and hard on himself. – A. W. Tozer

The Pharisees probably began with the best intentions. They were the guardians of the Law. Israel had kept the Law so poorly and suffered tremendous losses for so many centuries. They took it upon themselves to set an example of devotion to the Law, in order to please God and set an example for the nation. At some point, however, their zeal gave way to pride and unbending legalism. They lost sight of God as they focused more on their own system of righteousness. The Law, with hundreds of rules they added, became their God. Jesus condemned their legalism repeatedly.

“Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone. Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces … And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.” Luke 11:42, 43, 46

Legalism magnifies the outer appearance while ignoring the inner heart attitude. The Pharisees were famous for their zeal in hand washing. In one famous case a Pharisee in prison almost died of dehydration because he used his water ration for hand washing rather than drinking. Legalism focuses on what can be seen and measured. Today it may criticize the style of clothing or length of hair. It ignores the inner spiritual life which gives meaning and purpose to the outer behavior.

Legalism magnifies the rules while downplaying the relationship with God. The Pharisees were so attentive to the rules that they would give a tithe from their kitchen spices, but then they would bend the rules to suit their own purposes. The Sabbath rules were the most stifling and also the best example of how they could work around the rules. As Jesus discovered, they had no compassion for healing on the Sabbath, since it was work, but God had ordained the Sabbath for good. Today a Christian given to legalism might think that whether he goes to church on Sunday is all that matters; the rest of the week he may do as he pleases.

Legalism magnifies self rather than God. The constant observing and measuring of outer appearances inevitably leads to pride. It becomes a contest. Who is best at keeping the rules? Who looks the best? People can put on a wonderful “game face” that hides a world of hurt inside. True faith begins with humility and a continuing recognition of personal sinfulness. It exalts the gracious God who forgives us.

Legalism magnifies what I do to earn righteousness while forgetting that only Jesus can pay the penalty for my sin. Legalism is, at heart, a works-based religion. I earn my salvation by what I do. I earn God’s favor by how well I keep the rules. Nothing could be further from the heart of Christianity. Jesus paid the price to redeem me from my sin. Any good thing I do is a thankful response to his gift of salvation. My obedience maintains a healthy relationship with God, but by itself it cannot save me.

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