The Secret to Raising Smart Kids

24 12 2011

Scientific American Mind – November 28, 2007

Hint: Don’t tell your kids that they are. More than three decades of research shows that a focus on effort—not on intelligence or ability—is key to success in school and in life

By Carol S. Dweck

A brilliant student, Jonathan sailed through grade school. He completed his assignments easily and routinely earned As. Jonathan puzzled over why some of his classmates struggled, and his parents told him he had a special gift. In the seventh grade, however, Jonathan suddenly lost interest in school, refusing to do homework or study for tests. As a consequence, his grades plummeted. His parents tried to boost their son’s confidence by assuring him that he was very smart. But their attempts failed to motivate Jonathan (who is a composite drawn from several children). Schoolwork, their son maintained, was boring and pointless.

Our society worships talent, and many people assume that possessing superior intelligence or ability—along with confidence in that ability—is a recipe for success. In fact, however, more than 30 years of scientific investigation suggests that an overemphasis on intellect or talent leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unwilling to remedy their shortcomings.

The result plays out in children like Jonathan, who coast through the early grades under the dangerous notion that no-effort academic achievement defines them as smart or gifted. Such children hold an implicit belief that intelligence is innate and fixed, making striving to learn seem far less important than being (or looking) smart. This belief also makes them see challenges, mistakes and even the need to exert effort as threats to their ego rather than as opportunities to improve. And it causes them to lose confidence and motivation when the work is no longer easy for them.

Praising children’s innate abilities, as Jonathan’s parents did, reinforces this mind-set, which can also prevent young athletes or people in the workforce and even marriages from living up to their potential. On the other hand, our studies show that teaching people to have a “growth mind-set,” which encourages a focus on effort rather than on intelligence or talent, helps make them into high achievers in school and in life.

The Opportunity of Defeat
I first began to investigate the underpinnings of human motivation—and how people persevere after setbacks—as a psychology graduate student at Yale University in the 1960s. Animal experiments by psychologists Martin Seligman, Steven Maier and Richard Solomon of the University of Pennsylvania had shown that after repeated failures, most animals conclude that a situation is hopeless and beyond their control. After such an experience, the researchers found, an animal often remains passive even when it can affect change—a state they called learned helplessness.

People can learn to be helpless, too, but not everyone reacts to setbacks this way. I wondered: Why do some students give up when they encounter difficulty, whereas others who are no more skilled continue to strive and learn? One answer, I soon discovered, lay in people’s beliefs about why they had failed.

In particular, attributing poor performance to a lack of ability depresses motivation more than does the belief that lack of effort is to blame. In 1972, when I taught a group of elementary and middle school children who displayed helpless behavior in school that a lack of effort (rather than lack of ability) led to their mistakes on math problems, the kids learned to keep trying when the problems got tough. They also solved many of the problems even in the face of difficulty. Another group of helpless children who were simply rewarded for their success on easy problems did not improve their ability to solve hard math problems. These experiments were an early indication that a focus on effort can help resolve helplessness and engender success.

Subsequent studies revealed that the most persistent students do not ruminate about their own failure much at all but instead think of mistakes as problems to be solved. At theUniversityofIllinoisin the 1970s I, along with my then graduate student Carol Diener, asked 60 fifth graders to think out loud while they solved very difficult pattern-recognition problems. Some students reacted defensively to mistakes, denigrating their skills with comments such as “I never did have a good rememory,” and their problem-solving strategies deteriorated.

Others, meanwhile, focused on fixing errors and honing their skills. One advised himself: “I should slow down and try to figure this out.” Two schoolchildren were particularly inspiring. One, in the wake of difficulty, pulled up his chair, rubbed his hands together, smacked his lips and said, “I love a challenge!” The other, also confronting the hard problems, looked up at the experimenter and approvingly declared, “I was hoping this would be informative!” Predictably, the students with this attitude outperformed their cohorts in these studies.

Two Views of Intelligence
Several years later I developed a broader theory of what separates the two general classes of learners—helpless versus mastery-oriented. I realized that these different types of students not only explain their failures differently, but they also hold different “theories” of intelligence. The helpless ones believe that intelligence is a fixed trait: you have only a certain amount, and that’s that. I call this a “fixed mind-set.” Mistakes crack their self-confidence because they attribute errors to a lack of ability, which they feel powerless to change. They avoid challenges because challenges make mistakes more likely and looking smart less so. Like Jonathan, such children shun effort in the belief that having to work hard means they are dumb.

The mastery-oriented children, on the other hand, think intelligence is malleable and can be developed through education and hard work. They want to learn above all else. After all, if you believe that you can expand your intellectual skills, you want to do just that. Because slipups stem from a lack of effort, not ability, they can be remedied by more effort. Challenges are energizing rather than intimidating; they offer opportunities to learn. Students with such a growth mind-set, we predicted, were destined for greater academic success and were quite likely to outperform their counterparts.

We validated these expectations in a study published in early 2007. Psychologists Lisa Blackwell of Columbia University and Kali H. Trzes­niewski of Stanford University and I monitored 373 students for two years during the transition to junior high school, when the work gets more difficult and the grading more stringent, to determine how their mind-sets might affect their math grades. At the beginning of seventh grade, we assessed the students’ mind-sets by asking them to agree or disagree with statements such as “Your intelligence is something very basic about you that you can’t really change.” We then assessed their beliefs about other aspects of learning and looked to see what happened to their grades.

As we had predicted, the students with a growth mind-set felt that learning was a more important goal in school than getting good grades. In addition, they held hard work in high regard, believing that the more you labored at something, the better you would become at it. They understood that even geniuses have to work hard for their great accomplishments. Confronted by a setback such as a disappointing test grade, students with a growth mind-set said they would study harder or try a different strategy for mastering the material.

The students who held a fixed mind-set, however, were concerned about looking smart with little regard for learning. They had negative views of effort, believing that having to work hard at something was a sign of low ability. They thought that a person with talent or intelligence did not need to work hard to do well. Attributing a bad grade to their own lack of ability, those with a fixed mind-set said that they would study less in the future, try never to take that subject again and consider cheating on future tests.

Such divergent outlooks had a dramatic impact on performance. At the start of junior high, the math achievement test scores of the students with a growth mind-set were comparable to those of students who displayed a fixed mind-set. But as the work became more difficult, the students with a growth mind-set showed greater persistence. As a result, their math grades overtook those of the other students by the end of the first semester—and the gap between the two groups continued to widen during the two years we followed them.

Along withColumbiapsychologist Heidi Grant, I found a similar relation between mind-set and achievement in a 2003 study of 128Columbiafreshman premed students who were enrolled in a challenging general chemistry course. Although all the students cared about grades, the ones who earned the best grades were those who placed a high premium on learning rather than on showing that they were smart in chemistry. The focus on learning strategies, effort and persistence paid off for these students.

Confronting Deficiencies
A belief in fixed intelligence also makes people less willing to admit to errors or to confront and remedy their deficiencies in school, at work and in their social relationships. In a study published in 1999 of 168 freshmen entering the University of Hong Kong, where all instruction and coursework are in English, three Hong Kong colleagues and I found that students with a growth mind-set who scored poorly on their English proficiency exam were far more inclined to take a remedial English course than were low-scoring students with a fixed mind-set. The students with a stagnant view of intelligence were presumably unwilling to admit to their deficit and thus passed up the opportunity to correct it.

A fixed mind-set can similarly hamper communication and progress in the workplace by leading managers and employees to discourage or ignore constructive criticism and advice. Research by psychologists Peter Heslin and Don VandeWalle of Southern Methodist University and Gary Latham of theUniversityofTorontoshows that managers who have a fixed mind-set are less likely to seek or welcome feedback from their employees than are managers with a growth mind-set. Presumably, managers with a growth mind-set see themselves as works-in-progress and understand that they need feedback to improve, whereas bosses with a fixed mind-set are more likely to see criticism as reflecting their underlying level of competence. Assuming that other people are not capable of changing either, executives with a fixed mind-set are also less likely to mentor their underlings. But after Heslin, VandeWalle and Latham gave managers a tutorial on the value and principles of the growth mind-set, supervisors became more willing to coach their employees and gave more useful advice.

Mind-set can affect the quality and longevity of personal relationships as well, through people’s willingness—or unwillingness—to deal with difficulties. Those with a fixed mind-set are less likely than those with a growth mind-set to broach problems in their relationships and to try to solve them, according to a 2006 study I conducted with psychologist Lara Kammrath ofWilfridLaurierUniversityinOntario. After all, if you think that human personality traits are more or less fixed, relationship repair seems largely futile. Individuals who believe people can change and grow, however, are more confident that confronting concerns in their relationships will lead to resolutions.

Proper Praise
How do we transmit a growth mind-set to our children? One way is by telling stories about achievements that result from hard work. For instance, talking about math geniuses who were more or less born that way puts students in a fixed mind-set, but descriptions of great mathematicians who fell in love with math and developed amazing skills engenders a growth mind-set, our studies have shown. People also communicate mind-sets through praise. Although many, if not most, parents believe that they should build up a child by telling him  or her how brilliant and talented he or she is, our research suggests that this is misguided.

In studies involving several hundred fifth graders published in 1998, for example,Columbiapsychologist Claudia M. Mueller and I gave children questions from a nonverbal IQ test. After the first 10 problems, on which most children did fairly well, we praised them. We praised some of them for their intelligence: “Wow … that’s a really good score. You must be smart at this.” We commended others for their effort: “Wow … that’s a really good score. You must have worked really hard.”

We found that intelligence praise encouraged a fixed mind-set more often than did pats on the back for effort. Those congratulated for their intelligence, for example, shied away from a challenging assignment—they wanted an easy one instead—far more often than the kids applauded for their effort. (Most of those lauded for their hard work wanted the difficult problem set from which they would learn.) When we gave everyone hard problems anyway, those praised for being smart became discouraged, doubting their ability. And their scores, even on an easier problem set we gave them afterward, declined as compared with their previous results on equivalent problems. In contrast, students praised for their effort did not lose confidence when faced with the harder questions, and their performance improved markedly on the easier problems that followed.

Making Up Your Mind-set
In addition to encouraging a growth mind-set through praise for effort, parents and teachers can help children by providing explicit instruction regarding the mind as a learning machine. Blackwell, Trzesniewski and I recently designed an eight-session workshop for 91 students whose math grades were declining in their first year of junior high. Forty-eight of the students received instruction in study skills only, whereas the others attended a combination of study skills sessions and classes in which they learned about the growth mind-set and how to apply it to schoolwork.

In the growth mind-set classes, students read and discussed an article entitled “You Can Grow Your Brain.” They were taught that the brain is like a muscle that gets stronger with use and that learning prompts neurons in the brain to grow new connections. From such instruction, many students began to see themselves as agents of their own brain development. Students who had been disruptive or bored sat still and took note. One particularly unruly boy looked up during the discussion and said, “You mean I don’t have to be dumb?”

As the semester progressed, the math grades of the kids who learned only study skills continued to decline, whereas those of the students given the growth-mind-set training stopped falling and began to bounce back to their former levels. Despite being unaware that there were two types of instruction, teachers reported noticing significant motivational changes in 27 percent of the children in the growth mind-set workshop as compared with only 9 percent of students in the control group. One teacher wrote: “Your workshop has already had an effect. L [our unruly male student], who never puts in any extra effort and often doesn’t turn in homework on time, actually stayed up late to finish an assignment early so I could review it and give him a chance to revise it. He earned a B+. (He had been getting Cs and lower.)”

Other researchers have replicated our results. Psychologists Catherine Good, then at Columbia, and Joshua Aronson and Michael Inzlicht of New York University reported in 2003 that a growth mind-set workshop raised the math and English achievement test scores of seventh graders. In a 2002 study Aronson, Good (then a graduate student at theUniversityofTexasatAustin) and their colleagues found that college students began to enjoy their schoolwork more, value it more highly and get better grades as a result of training that fostered a growth mind-set.

We have now encapsulated such instruction in an interactive computer program called “Brain­ology,” which should be more widely available by mid-2008. Its six modules teach students about the brain—what it does and how to make it work better. In a virtual brain lab, users can click on brain regions to determine their functions or on nerve endings to see how connections form when people learn. Users can also advise virtual students with problems as a way of practicing how to handle schoolwork difficulties; additionally, users keep an online journal of their study practices.

New York Cityseventh graders who tested a pilot version of Brainology told us that the program had changed their view of learning and how to promote it. One wrote: “My favorite thing from Brainology is the neurons part where when u [sic] learn something there are connections and they keep growing. I always picture them when I’m in school.” A teacher said of the students who used the program: “They offer to practice, study, take notes, or pay attention to ensure that connections will be made.”

Teaching children such information is not just a ploy to get them to study. People do differ in intelligence, talent and ability. And yet research is converging on the conclusion that great accomplishment, and even what we call genius, is typically the result of years of passion and dedication and not something that flows naturally from a gift. Mozart, Edison, Curie, Darwin and Cézanne were not simply born with talent; they cultivated it through tremendous and sustained effort. Similarly, hard work and discipline contribute much more to school achievement than IQ does.

Such lessons apply to almost every human endeavor. For instance, many young athletes value talent more than hard work and have consequently become unteachable. Similarly, many people accomplish little in their jobs without constant praise and encouragement to maintain their motivation. If we foster a growth mind-set in our homes and schools, however, we will give our children the tools to succeed in their pursuits and to become responsible employees and citizens.


Love and Logic Parents not Micro-managers

24 12 2011

“The more a child’s life is micro-managed, the more susceptible he/she becomes to peer pressure.”

Some parents actually train their kids to listen to peer pressure. The process is simply a matter of teaching kids to listen to a voice outside their own heads during the early years when their brains are still operating in a very concrete way.

Granted, there are times when we must take charge and tell kids exactly what to do and when to do it. However, when this becomes a pattern it gradually convinces children that the most important voice is the one that comes from others.

Many parent lock in this belief by responding to bad decisions with, “See you should have listened to me.”

Once their brain starts to develop abstract thinking, kids say, I’m growing up.  I can think for myself.”  Sadly their brain has been trained to listen to the outside voice, and I bet you’ve already guessed where that voice is going to come from: their peers.

(Ben Carson in a commencement speech said..“But, when I got to high school, I ran into the worst thing a young person can run into. It’s called peers, negative peers. P-E-E-R-S. That stands for People who Encourage Errors, Rudeness and Stupidity.”)

So when you hear a parent say that their kid has changed now that he is a teen, you can think, “Maybe not.  He just listens to a different voice now.”

from  Parenting Teens with Love & Logic: Preparing Adolescents for Responsible Adulthood by Foster Cline and Jim Fay.

Only in America……………..

24 12 2011

1. Only in America……can a pizza get to  your house faster than an ambulance.

2. Only in America……are there handicap parking places in front of a skating rink.

3. Only in America……do drugstores make the sick walk all the way to the back of the store to get their prescriptions while healthy people can buy cigarettes at the front.

4. Only in America……do people order double cheeseburgers, large fries, and a diet coke.

5. Only in America……do banks leave both doors open and then chain the pens to the counters.

6. Only in America……do we leave cars worth thousands of dollars in the driveway and put our useless junk in the garage.

7. Only in America……do we use answering machines to screen calls and then have call waiting so we won’t miss a call from someone we didn’t want to talk to in the first place.

8. Only in America……do we buy hot dogs in packages of ten and buns in packages of eight.

9. Only in America……do we use the word ‘politics’ to describe the process so well: ‘Poli’ in Latin meaning ‘many’ and ‘tics’ meaning ‘bloodsucking creatures’.

10. Only in America……do they have drive‑up ATM machines with Braille lettering.

Humorous Questions that Make you think Twice Part #3

24 12 2011

Why the sun lightens our hair, but darkens our skin?

Why women can’t put on mascara with their mouth closed?

Why don’t you ever see the headline “Psychic Wins Lottery”?

Why is “abbreviated” such a long word?

Why is it that doctors call what they do “practice”?

Why is it that to stop Windows 98, you have to click on “Start”?

Why is lemon juice made with artificial flavor, and dishwashing liquid made with real lemons?

Why is the man who invests all your money called a broker?

Why is the time of day with the slowest traffic called rush hour?

Why isn’t there mouse‑flavored cat food?

When dog food is new and improved tasting, who tests it?

Why didn’t Noah swat those two mosquitoes?

Why do they sterilize the needle for lethal injections?

You know that indestructible black box that is used on airplanes?

Why don’t they make the whole plane out of that stuff?!

Why don’t sheep shrink when it rains?

Why are they called apartments when they are all stuck together?

If con is the opposite of pro, is Congress the opposite of progress?

If flying is so safe, why do they call the airport the terminal?

The Christmas Story (The Truth Behind the Tinsel)

24 12 2011

In the book, God with Us, John MacArthur gives two philosophies that are stealing Christmas. One danger is the tendency to secularize Christmas; to make it an excuse for parties and self-indulgence and not consider at all the significance.  The other danger is the effort to mythologize Christmas by embellishing the simple Christmas story with legends of talking animals and confusing fantasy.  If you were from a foreign land or from another planet, what message would you gather on the meaning of Christmas?  Could you get the story straight, even from Christians?


We must remember that Joseph, Mary, the shepherds, Herod, and the Magi were real people.  They were real people playing significant roles in the story of God becoming man.  But truth has always been more surprising than fiction or fantasy.  The truth behind the tinsel of Christmas is that the best gift was wrapped in an unexpected package.  Behind the tinsel of Christmas is the simple truth – that amidst the noisy shoppers, past the glitter, beneath the candy canes and colored stockings, under the printed foil wrappings, shadowed by the jolly smile of Santa and even behind the spirit of giving – behind the tinsel – is the truth of a simple story of a child born in a straw-littered stable.


The truth is profound in its simplicity.  Within it lies the miracle that all our hearts yearn.  God chose to visit us in a form that we could understand.  God revealed Himself in a human being.  God revealed the secrets of heaven and accomplished the mission of salvation in an unexpected way.  God visited us in an unexpected way (in a manger) and accomplished salvation in an unexpected way (on a cross).  God came as a child. He humbly left His throne to die to be our Savior.  This is the simple and profound truth behind the tinsel.


What if we could return to that first Christmas, to the time of the birth of Jesus?  Would we be disappointed?  We can piece a lot of the story together from Scripture and other historians.  From the books of Matthew and Luke and other historians I would like to share the simple story of Christmas.  You may be surprised that the truth could be more exciting and profound than the tinsel.


Listen to the truth behind the tinsel . . .


The labor pangs of pregnancy were at their final stages.  The long awaited arrival was causing anxiety.  It was the fullness of time – time itself was pregnant.  God has prepared the whole of history like the stage of a cosmic theater production for His own physical birth.  God chose the time He would be born on earth.  He chose the proper time when history was ready.  The language was common, travel was easy, peace ruled but hearts were begging for a Redeemer to save them from the hollowness of pagan religions.  And so it was that God had set the stage to prepare for the curtain to open and for God Himself to make His entrance.


The Roman Empire had stretched its control to become one of the largest empires this world had ever seen.  It had proudly announced that the entire known world was within its grasp.  This powerful empire had little concern about a tiny finger of land on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, the land of Palestine.  The only concern was to make this land called Judea part of the Empire – to swallow it up into the power of Rome.  Two of the most important steps to take Judea into the grip of the Emperor Caesar Augustus were these:


The first was that Caesar would heavily tax the people to press them in line with the rest of the Empire.


The second was to transfer the power of judicial execution (the power of life and death) from the Jews to the Roman Empire. To the world these steps seemed unfair or perhaps insignificant.  But from the decrees of this godless emperor, God’s plan would be accomplished.


Because of those two decrees Christ would be born in prophesied city and would die in a prophesied way.  Caesar had no way to knowing that his decrees would fulfill the 800-year-old prophecy that Bethlehem was the city where the Messiah would be born and crucifixion on a cross would be the manner in which this Messiah would die.


History would take a peculiar twist.  Few would remember Caesar Augustus who was worshiped as a god in Rome.  His name would forever be shadowed by a child to be born during his reign, in a rundown section of his more obscure providence behind an old inn among some cow flops and moldy hay.


So Caesar Augustus sent his decree from Rome to the distant land of Palestine which was governed by the self-acclaimed Herod the Great.  Now this was a strange sort of man.  He called himself a Jew, but he hated the Jews and the Jews hated him.  He had an extravagant hobby of architecture and even had the great Jewish temple rebuilt in Jerusalem.  This was to promote himself rather than the Jews, and obviously not God.  He probably reinterpreted Caesar’s edict of taxation to make it sound like a patriotic duty instead of a foreign order.  To return to one’s hometown and see relatives was probably Herod’s idea to make the order more attractive and more easily obeyed.


So it was that the roads were busily crowded with travelers returning to their hometown.  A poor carpenter and his pregnant fiancée traveling from Nazareth now enter the story.  It was a three-day journey to Jerusalem and then a two-hour walk to the obscure town of Bethlehem.

If you were Joseph, what might be on your mind?


Joseph had endured a deep inner struggle.  He had just finished making the most difficult decision of his life.  The sequence of events is unclear from Scripture as to whether Joseph heard that his fiancée was pregnant before or after her visit to her cousin, Elizabeth.  The shock was the same – his fiancée, the woman he loved, was pregnant.  He must have thought the story of a Holy Spirit causing conception was a bit too much!


Joseph was a righteous man and this whole situation was a very embarrassing dilemma.  To marry her now would dishonor God.  The ancient law in Deuteronomy prescribed that a woman pregnant outside of marriage should be put to death by stoning.  Had they been living in the time of Moses, Mary would have been immediately stoned.  But because of the laxness in the Jewish theocracy and the infiltration of Roman law, Joseph had two other options.  He could make her an example in a public court.  Thus, she would be shamed and have a destroyed reputation the rest of her life.  The other choice was to quietly write a bill of divorce.


You see, every Jewish couple desiring marriage would be betrothed for a 12-month period to prove their fidelity.  If any unfaithfulness or problems surfaced, these problems could be resolved before the marriage was consummated.  Evidently Joseph had discovered Mary’s unfaithfulness but still deeply loved her.  Joseph chose the more merciful way to sever the relationship – a quiet divorce.


And then an angel appeared to Joseph and gave him an unexpected and unheard-of command.  This command would break tradition and probably cause both Mary and Joseph to be the brunt of mockery for the rest of their lives.


The angel said to take Mary as his wife because what was conceived in her was from the Holy Spirit.  The angel even told him the child would be a boy, what the child’s name would be, and what this child would do with His life.

If you were Mary, what might be on your mind?


Mary had just returned from a three-month visit with her cousin, Elizabeth.  Both Mary and Elizabeth had a common situation.  Elizabeth was a barren old woman disgraced and humiliated all her life and suspected of some hidden sin because she could not have children.  As you can imagine Mary was also the object of gossip.  You see, both Mary and Elizabeth had something in common.  Both were surrounded by the chatter of gossip and both were miraculously pregnant.


The writer, Doctor Luke, tells of their time together.  It was a time of consoling each other, praising God and waiting for their husbands to understand that the Lord works in unconventional ways.  To make matters more unbelievable, to the Jewish mind God did not work through women.


But God’s plan weaved four other surprising women into the genealogic listing of the Messiah:


Tamar – who dressed as a prostitute and conceived two sons (Perez & Zerah) from a shameful act of harlotry and incest.

Rahab – a Canaanite prostitute who helped Joshua win the battle of Jericho.

Ruth – A Moabite who became a Jew.

Bathsheba – the woman who David committed adultery with.


And now Elizabeth is pregnant with the one who will announce the coming of the Messiah. And Mary, a pregnant fiancée of a poor carpenter, is ready to give birth to the Son of God.  God is saying; “Watch out, for I work in unexpected ways.”


But strangely enough, the prophet Isaiah spelled out how the Messiah would enter this world.  “Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and His name shall be called … Emmanuel.”


This was a clarification of a previous prophecy made outside of the Garden of Eden.  God pronounced the curse on the serpent by saying; “I will put enmity between you and the woman and between your seed and her seed.”  The only time in Scripture where the seed of a woman is mentioned … hinting something special.


Perhaps Mary and Joseph were mulling and pondering these events as they traveled the road to Bethlehem.  We do not know how they traveled.  Tradition says she was on a borrowed donkey as he walked.  It would be common for a poor family to borrow a donkey, especially for a woman almost in her labor. But the irony of this is that a few hours before birth Jesus would humbly enter the city of Jerusalem on a borrowed donkey and that a few days before death Jesus would enter triumphantly into Jerusalem on another borrowed donkey.


So this couple with hearts filled with wonder passed through Jerusalem and then south to Bethlehem.


Why Bethlehem?


Yes, it was the decree by the proud emperor in Rome reinterpreted by the Jew-hating Herod. Possibly Joseph and Mary desired to escape the gossiping tongues of the people of Nazareth.  But more importantly, it was to fulfill an obscure prophecy made eight centuries earlier in the book of Micah foretelling that this was the place the Messiah would be born.


Without knowing it, all these people were running an errand for God – the most important errand for the Lord of Heaven.


Bethlehem means “house of bread.” and Bethlehem was, indeed, as insignificant as a dry loaf of bread.  But this unexpected town was the place God chose to accomplish His will.


Ironically, 1500 years later this small village would run an insane asylum at the Monastery of St. Mary’s.  For a small admission price people would actually go to heckle the inmates.  In time, the name St. Mary of Bethlehem would be shortened to Bethlehem and pronounced….bedlam.  And in time the word “bedlam” came to refer to the noise and confusion that symbolized the insane asylum.  The name that once explained the peaceful village where Jesus was born now described the anxiety, stress and mindless scurrying around people feel at Christmastime.


It might have been bedlam in Bethlehem that night since many travelers crowded the streets.  As Joseph and Mary entered Bethlehem, Joseph’s hometown, why did they seek an inn?  There is a possibility that Joseph had rented out his house or that his family had died or could not be found in all the bedlam.   But most likely Mary was in her final stage of labor and they needed a place quickly.


An inn during that time was most undesirable – a low-class tavern and flop house.  It could have just been a house opened by its owner to take advantage of all the census travelers.  The Bible makes no mention of an innkeeper, but apparently Joseph asked someone.  Perhaps the owner thought a woman giving birth was not good for inn business.  In any case, the couple was rejected.  There was no room for the presence of God. It should not strike us strange because even today most people do not have room for God in their preoccupied lives.


They found refuge in a nearby stable – a rough wooden lean-to or small cave – just basic protection from the elements, fit for animals.  No hot water, no heat, no light, no pain killers, no doctors, no midwife.  While most in the city were enjoying the reunion of families, Joseph sat in a corral which reeked of manure.  As most were rejoicing, Mary was suffering in a hay-filled stable giving birth to a baby.


Then in the darkness of the stable a new sound was heard.  For the first time deity expressed sounds directly through a human body.  The sound of crying is the natural sound from a baby that is fully human.  It was the sound of a baby that God chose to speak through.  And those hands that had fashioned the universe were now the tiny helpless hands of a newborn baby.  God packed in a baby.  God in a manger.  They laid Him in swaddling clothes.  Those strips of cloth were probably one of the few comforts this child had as the couple laid there on coarse straw.


If you were a mother you may wonder why Mary stopped holding her newborn.  In a dark, smelly stable one might have held the newborn.  But the reason why she put Him in a feeding trough was to be a sign – a clue – for a group of people soon to enter the scene.


You see, that same night there were shepherds watching their sheep.  The sheep near town were raised for only one purpose – for sacrifices.  Little did they know that a baby born that night would be The Sacrificial Lamb that would take away the sins of the world.  This would fulfill their heart’s desire and also ruin their occupation.  You see, raising sacrificial sheep was the most worthy activity shepherds could do.  Otherwise shepherds were seen as despised, untrustworthy, incompetent, and personified filth.  To buy wool, milk or anything from them was forbidden because it was assumed it was stolen.  They were unclean people.  The rabbis constantly struggled with the dilemma of the despicable nature of shepherds and why God was called “My Shepherd” in Psalm 23.



But it was to these outcasts, in the context of religious snobbery and class prejudice that God again broke his 400-year silence.  God spoke to Zechariah to tell him of the son he would have; God spoke to Mary, to Joseph and now to shepherds.  And fitting it was to have shepherds first hear of the birth of the Savior.  For the Prophet Micah foretold that out of Bethlehem would come a ruler who would shepherd His flock in the strength of the Lord and in the majesty of the name of the Lord.



And so it was that an angel appeared to these shepherds and told them the Savior had just been born.  The angel was joined by a heavenly army of angels who praised God by saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.”


There is no mention of angels singing here.  In fact only twice in the Word do angels sing.  They sang at creation before Adam sinned, mentioned in the book of Job and they will sing when history culminates, mentioned in the book of Revelation.


The angel gave the shepherds only one clue to find the Christ “He would be wrapped in cloth and lying in a manger.” The shepherds were so excited they left their flock and hurried off to find this treasure.


Could it be that these filthy people disgusted the city people?  Or could they have just blended in the crowd?  But they entered the city seeking their Savior with little thought of what they left behind and what people thought.  How they found the infant with the clues they received is difficult to imagine.  But they found Mary and Joseph and the baby.  They found what they sought because they sought with their whole heart.


The shepherds left and spread the word around the city of what they had found.  They praised God, excited about what they had seen.  But Mary treasured these things in her heart.  That little town of Bethlehem was probably so busy in their activities that even the voices of the shepherds were given no mind to.


Eight days later, when it was time to circumcise the child, He was properly named.  It was then that He was given the name that Joseph had been told to give Him.  The name was a testimony to God’s salvation.  He was called Joshua, Jehoshua (Jehovah will save) … Jesus.  This child would save the people from their sins and would restore fellowship with God.


Joseph and Mary were devoted Jews who followed all the legal customs of the Law.  Perhaps it was because they had a high priest, Zechariah, and a godly woman like Elizabeth in the family. So about a month later they traveled to Jerusalem for Mary to be purified after giving birth and to offer a sacrifice as a consecration of their first-born.


It was then that two elderly people spotted Him.  Years before, Simeon was told that he would not die till he had seen the Messiah, and time was running out.  When the moment came, one look through his cataract lenses was all it took.  He saw in this child the fulfillment of the promised salvation … and pain.  The old widow, Anna, also recognized this Messiah wrapped in a baby.


While most did not realize what was happening, two devout people recognized and worshiped God even when He was packaged as a baby.  And there were others yet to come.


Mary and Joseph and the God-child journeyed back to Bethlehem and found lodging in a house.  Little did they know that an incredible incident would happen in Jerusalem.


About two years later a parade of Magi entered the city of Jerusalem.  These men were masters of science, religious disciples, and astrology.  Their teachings became known as “the law of the Medes and the Persians.”  They were the mathematicians, philosophers, doctors and legal authorities of their culture.  From their name, Magi, comes the term magic (representing the wizardry, sorcery and soothsaying they performed) and the term magistrate (representing the authority and power they had).  These Magi, government officers from Persia, had the duty to choose and elect the King of the realm.  These Magi were not kings but, rather, King-makers.  They entered the city on Persian steeds or Arabian horses with the force of all the imaginable oriental pomp and adequate cavalry escort.


Herod’s small army was probably still on duty with the census so this was no time for an invasion.  And worse, Herod was on his deathbed.  He had long feared that the oriental forces were planning a revolt against the Empire.  All of Jerusalem was probably alarmed by their presence. They came to see Herod to ask him a question.  “Where is the One who has been born King of the Jews?  We saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.”  Being wise astrologers and knowledgeable in Jewish Scripture they followed the star.  No one knows what this star was, but it was most likely a manifestation of the Shekinah glory of God directing these Magi just as Moses was led by a pillar of fire to the Promised Land.


Herod’s paranoia was legendary.  He had killed two of his ten wives, three of his sons, and a brother for fear they desired to steal the throne from him.  Herod was insulted that another would seek to take his throne.  In agitation he asked all the Jewish priests where this Messiah King was supposed to be born.  It took a crazed pagan King to get these so-called holy priests to search the Scriptures.  They discovered that Bethlehem was the place.  He told the Magi to check things out so he could worship this king.  Even the priests could see through this lie.


These Magi entered Bethlehem and found the house where the child was.  They gave Him gifts – strange gifts for a child and strange for a king.


Gold – Something valuable, showing great honor.

Frankincense – Incense used in medicine, healing, and to

preserve the potency of other perfumes.

Myrrh – A liquid used for embalming purposes.


The gold for the valued life, the frankincense for the healing He would bring, the myrrh would be given again later mixed with vinegar when He would die on a cross and also to use as glue in the burying process.


Amazingly this King was recognized and worshiped by foreign astrologers and rejected by His own.  When the Magi did not return to Herod, he was angered.  He sent an edict to slaughter all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old or younger.  Fortunately Joseph had a dream that warned them to flee to Egypt which would yet fulfill another prophecy made hundreds of years earlier.


The streets were filled with tears and wailing as children were slaughtered to please the desperate, paranoid Herod. Little did Herod know that he again fulfilled the words of the prophet Jeremiah when he spoke of the Babylonians who captured the people of Jerusalem and marched them past Rachel’s tomb in the area called Ramah. There was great sorrow in each incident.  Rachael died giving birth to Benjamin, but her death was not without purpose – Israel would rise again.  There was hope even during this time of sorrow.


These slaughtered children in Bethlehem were the first casualties of a cosmic war that would focus around one person – the person of Jesus Christ.  It would be 30 years later that Herod’s son would meet this Christ face to face.  But again God’s purpose would be accomplished when Jesus would die and rise again to become the Savior.


After Herod the Great died, Joseph and Mary returned to Nazareth.  Nazareth was a crude, small town which had the reputation that nothing good could come from it.  The Messiah was raised here to further place Him under the scorn of His own people and thus fulfill the prophecy that said He was despised by His own.


So behind the tinsel of Christmas is the truth of…..


A peasant carpenter father


A woman pregnant out of wedlock


A moldy shelter as a birthing room


A motley group of despised shepherds



An army of pagan astrologers


A fugitive family running from a crazed King


A child raised in the slums of Nazareth



But God chose to enter history as a fragile human child who later, in the prime of life, would suffer and die for the sins of the world.  It all started in a manger, a surprise package – the love of God wrapped in a baby named Jesus.  Matthew says, “You shall call Him Immanuel which means God with us.”


So you see, the truth behind the tinsel is not the presents under a brightly lit tree, but God’s presence in a dim-lit stable.  The truth behind the tinsel is that the secret of Christmas is not giving but receiving the gift of salvation.



Next Time It Will Be Different

The First Time Jesus Came:

He came veiled in the form of a child.

A star marked His arrival.

Wise men bought Him gifts.

There was no room for Him.

Openly a few attended His arrival.

He came as a baby.

The Next Time Jesus Comes:

He will be recognized by all.

Heaven will be lit by His glory.

He will bring rewards for His own.

The world won’t be able to contain His glory.

Every eye shall see Him.

He will come as sovereign King and Lord of all.

The Truth Behind the Tinsel

24 12 2011

by Bob Bishop

 Truth has always been more surprising than fiction.  But for some reason we are tempted to cover the truth with tinsel.  Here are some tidbits that may tantalize your quest to look behind the tinsel.  Did you hear the truth . . .

  • That one of the greatest mysteries of Sherlock Holmes is that Holmes never once said, “Elementary, my dear Watson?”
  • That you can watch Casablanca time after time and never hear the words, “Play it again, Sam?”
  • That Uncola, the drink with no artificial ingredients, once contained lithium which was useful for treating mental disorders?
  • That the phrases “Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” “Know thyself,” and “God helps those who help themselves” are not in the Bible?

Just interesting facts?  Perhaps they should be reminders that behind the tinsel of Christmas is the simple truth … that amidst the noisy shoppers, past the glitter, beneath the candy canes and colored stockings, under the printed foil wrappings, shadowed by the jolly smile of Santa and even behind the Christmas spirit of philanthropy …that behind the tinsel is the truth of a simple story of a child born in a straw-littered stable.

The story is that the most valuable gift mankind has even been given was wrapped in an unexpected package.

The “untinseled” truth is that God worked in an unexpected way.  Unlike the Hollywood glitter, God’s program had greater impact.  You see, when God enters a scene, He often comes unobtrusively to catch us off-guard and to show us that He is not limited by convention or humility.  He uses unexpected methods like … a peasant carpenter father, a woman pregnant out of wedlock, a moldy shelter in Bethlehem, a motley group of despised shepherds, some Gentile astrologers, a fugitive family running from a crazed king and a child raised in the slums of Nazareth.

Perhaps as we clean up the wrappings and take the tinsel off our Christmas trees we will remember that the greatest gift came in an unexpected package.  Perhaps if we were a “Director” we would have filmed it differently.  But God chose to enter history as a fragile human being who later, in the prime of life, would suffer and die for the sins of the world.  And it all started in a manger, a surprise package you might say – the love of God wrapped in a baby named Jesus.  You might remember the words of Matthew, “You shall call Him Immanuel which means God with us.”  So you see the truth behind the tinsel is not the presents under a brightly lit tree, but God’s presence in a dim-lighted stable.  It was the truth behind the tinsel that changed history and continues to change human hearts.

May God bless you this Christmas.