I Wish You A Hopeful Christmas

At FaithWorks of Abilene we answer a lunch question every day. Near the end of the last semester, I asked the question, “What is your favorite or most memorable Christmas present?” As I thought of my own answer, I initially remembered one Christmas from my youth.

I do not remember exactly how old I was; only that this occurred in Gardner, MA, so it was some time in the ‘80s. My family had a tradition of opening one present of our own choosing on Christmas Eve. This particular Christmas, I had one large gift under the tree: it was probably 3 feet by 1 foot by 1 foot. (As a kid, this definitely qualified as “huge.”)

When it was my turn to select my present, I went straight for this large, beautiful mystery. Here is what I remember: I unwrapped the present in one fluid motion. The whole act took less than 2 seconds. All those days of anticipation and I was able to uncover this profound treasure in less time than it takes me to sneeze.

And I do not remember what the gift was.

How can that be? All that excitement. All that anticipation. All that joy. And I remember none of it.

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Christmas this year, as with every other year, is not “merry” for everyone.

This time of year is a painful anniversary of loss.

This time of year is a reminder of the empty seat at the dinner table.

This time of year is a reminder of all the things that some families do not have.

This time of year reveals how little money some families have to spend on their children.

This time of year is an acknowledgement for some families that they will never be what other families already are.

And with all of that pain, it’s hard to say, “Merry Christmas.”

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Christmas is exciting. Sometimes, too exciting. In the midst of all the hustle and bustle and shopping and decorating and baking and caroling and picture-taking and card-mailing and traveling and cleaning and….

Sometimes, it seems to never end. Until that moment after the last present is opened and everyone realizes that all the buildup has led to this: exhausted but still needing to clean up the mess.

Christmas has seemingly become more about the events than THE event.  Christmas has become a battleground of what people should believe, say, or do.

Christmas has unfortunately become about the excitement of unwrapping the biggest present only to forget what that present was.

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As I thought longer about my favorite Christmas present, I remembered one Christmas in New Jersey. I had lost my wedding band at work one night. I was working overnights at a grocery store, my ring slipped off my finger, and I was never able to find it. I even had the floor crew helping me look for it all to no avail.

On Christmas morning, I opened a present from Shawna: a new wedding band. This one is not the traditional gold band, but a thicker ring. It is silver and has the Christian fish symbol all around it.

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I love this gift for many reasons: it looks nice, it was good to have a ring back on my finger, etc. But the number one reason I love it is that it is a gift of hope.

The reason we were living in New Jersey and the reason I was working at a grocery store is because I had made some pretty awful choices. (I wrote more about them here.) I had caused quite a bit of pain.

It may seem insignificant, but the gift of a ring to wear as a wedding band was a gift of a renewal of a commitment; a renewal of hope. Through the gift of the ring, my wife told me she still loved me.

That Christmas was a wonderful reminder of hope.

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Your Christmas may not be merry.

Your Christmas may not be happy.

But I wish for you to have a Christmas that is hopeful.

That is the original Christmas gift: hope.

Hope that a child born to a carpenter and a teenager would bring salvation to all people. Hope that God would be present in this world in the fullest way possible. Hope that no matter how dark our lives may get there is a light that is with us.

And THAT is a present I pray we never forget.

May you have a hopeful Christmas.

Those People

Christians are great at maintaining the status quo.

And that is not a good thing.

Perusing historical documents reveals a number of Christian leaders supporting slavery or opposing people like Martin Luther King, Jr. Because the social structure of those eras mandated one race of people was better than another.

And churches often spoke to perpetuate that structure. Or they did not speak at all.

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For the first several centuries, Christianity was an underground movement. No social standing. No political power. Moving in shadows, meeting in tombs, passing messages in code.

Then Constantine came along. Christianity became acceptable. Christianity became mainstream. Christianity began to have influence.

And too often, Christians have not done well with it.

Once given power, that power needs to be protected. To protect power, we need to protect the status quo. To protect the status quo, we need to prevent change. To prevent change, we defend ourselves, sometimes at all costs.

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Many people view the God of the Bible as two different manifestations: the Old Testament God and the New Testament God. After all, the OT is all violent and bloody and command-filled; the NT is all grace and love and mercy.

But this perspective misses so much of the grace and mercy of the Old Testament.

At FaithWorks of Abilene, we read a Psalm every day. Near the end of each semester we read Psalm 87. These words are attributed to God in verse 4: “I will record Rahab and Babylon among those who acknowledge me—Philistia too, and Tyre, along with Cush—and I will say, ‘This one was born in Zion.’”

Do you know what Rahab and Babylon and Philistia and Tyre and Cush all have in common? They are NOT Israel. They are not the chosen nations of God. God chose Abraham and his descendants to be His people. All of those other nations are not descendants of Abraham.

Yet God says He will regard them as if they were born in Zion, the holy city of God.

So this violent, exclusive God of the OT is including people outside of Israel as His people? God is already fighting against the status quo of the Israelites. They were comfortable with being God’s chosen nation. (Maybe even arrogant?)

Think about how easy it is to say, “We are the chosen! We are the righteous! We are the ones who have it right!” When you say those things, it is easy to look down and cast aside anyone, or everyone, else.

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In Romans 11, Paul starts talking about this funky looking tree (I have whatever the opposite of a green thumb is, so please pardon any gardening ignorance).

The tree represents God. The branches represent His people. Many Israelites have been pruned off and Gentiles have been grafted in. This tree of God now looks quite different than anyone could have imagined.

So this merciful, loving God of the NT is cutting His people off in order to add all sorts of different people to His Kingdom? Even with that being the case, God is already fighting against the status quo of the Gentile Christians. They were comfortable with taking the place of God’s chosen nation. (Maybe even arrogant?)

Think about how easy it is to say, “You lost your chance! It’s our turn now! We are the ones who got it right!” When you say those things, it is easy to look down and cast aside anyone, or everyone, else.

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It is easy to become arrogant when the dominant narrative states your people are the chosen ones. That basically presupposes that “other people” are not chosen.

And when you are the chosen ones, you do whatever you can to maintain that seat of privilege.

But that was not the message God was delivering to the Israelite nation in the OT or the Gentile Christians in the NT:

  • From the beginning, God wanted His people to provide for the stranger and foreigner.
  • In Romans 11, to make the tree look even more wonky, Paul tells the Gentile Christians that God can graft those Israelites back in at any time because, after all, it’s His tree—He can do whatever He wants with it.

There are no “others.” There are only children of God.

As Christians, we should not be fighting to maintain the status quo.

Instead:

We should be fighting to challenge the injustice we see in the world around us.

We should be working for true unity among all nations of people.

We should be disengaging from the bickering and arguing and speaking words of peace.

We should be quick to offer grace and slow to claim persecution.

We should be using our social media platforms to show love and kindness.

We should be listening to those who are upset with us with a reflective posture, not a defensive one.

We should be looking for the underdog (in gender, race, social class) and stand with and fight for them.

We should be remembering that this is God’s tree—He gets to decide who is added.

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How do we do this?

The first step is to start seeing people as humans and not abstractions. See people as children of God not ideological fodder.

The second step is to recognize that just because “that’s the way it’s always been” is not a good excuse to continue doing something. Do not be afraid to speak up in the face of injustice.

There is nothing sacred about the status quo. There is nothing sacred about earthly power structures.

But there is something sacred about the love God has for His people.

Hashtag: I Stand With…Not Phil

I try, with varying amounts of success, to avoid pop culture vs. Christianity debates.  Not because I do not have an opinion about the topic initiating all the hoopla, but because I think social media is a terrible way to carry on a dialogue.

The issue for me comes down to a simple question:

Do I want to be right or do I want to have relationship?

To be right with no regard for relationship makes one an arrogant punk.  To have relationship with no regard for being right can open one up to all sorts of mistreatment and victimization.

But is it really possible to be right AND have relationship?

Consider the following:

Jesus said it is a sin to commit adultery, but when a woman caught in the very act (more like manipulated and
set up) was brought to Him all that He said was, “I do not condemn you, but go and leave your life of sin.”

Jesus said it is wrong to steal from people, but when he came across Zaccheus (a tax collector, a professional
thief) He said, “I want to go have lunch with you.  Salvation has come to your house.”

Jesus said you should not give false testimony, but after His resurrection when He sends Mary to His apostles,
He tells her to make sure she tells Peter that He has returned.

Jesus said it is wrong to murder people, but He appeared to Paul, at that time known by the name Saul—who was
on his way to murder people—to offer him the opportunity to turn his life around.

There are two elements at play in all of these scenarios:  one, there is right and wrong; two, relationship is more important.

Early in my journey of recovery from alcoholism, I was asked: did I want to be right or did I want to be sober?  The purpose behind this question was to make me realize that I could lose the war by focusing on too many smaller, less significant battles.

I think Christians need to ask themselves a similar question.  As with most major world religions, Christians make many claims they believe to be absolutes.  Many people, who hold to the Christian faith as I do, live life as if there are certain things that are right and certain things that are wrong.

And I do not think we need to change that.

However, I do think we have to ask ourselves, “Do we want to be right or do want to be Christ-like?”

The most recent flare-up involves Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty, a show I have never watched (I have no desire to watch any reality TV shows that are not on Food Network).  Is there some truth in what Robertson said?  Perhaps.  Is there truth in how he described the Jim Crow South?  Perhaps not.

But to me, the issue is not the truth or lack thereof in what he said.  The issue is people were hurt.  He relegated people with same-sex attraction to nothing more than a sex act.  He discounted the pain and rejection of a large number of people based only on his personal experience with a few people.

And that dismissal, that hurt, cannot be overlooked.

The way we talk about sin (and the people who sin) matters.  The way we talk affects the type of relationships we can have.  When we cast people aside, put them down, and treat them as “less than”, we short circuit any opportunity we may have had to be a witness for Christ to them.

What I understand the Bible to say about any particular issue is not what I lead with in a relationship.  That does not mean I do not think it is important.  But what I believe to more important is the opportunity to build relationships with as many people as I can.

I do not need to be right.  Because I am not right.  I have a life full of not-right-ness that a litany of witnesses can attest to.

But I need relationship.  Although my life is filled with sin, my relationship with Christ has provided me with an opportunity to live different.  Because of my relationship with people who desired to see me get sober I have continued living without giving in to my addiction again.  Because of my relationship with Godly men and women my faith has been strengthened.

Because of my relationships, I have learned that it is more important to love and be loved than it is to be right.

So I cannot join a number of my Christian friends who #standwithphil.  Because, no matter how right he may have been, his words do not build relationship.

Christmas Songs 2013, Part III: Joy!

This is the last of three lessons taught by my daughter, Rheannon, and me at Freedom Fellowship in Abilene, TX.  What a blessing and honor for me to do this with her!  You can read the text of the first two lessons here and here. 

Rheannon:

In this third week of advent we celebrate joy. When I think of joy I think of two of my good friends-Landry Bonneau and Jacob Hutton. Landry is just so bubbly and happy all the time. Every time I see her, she has a big smile on her face. Jacob is just… fun. He is always able to joke around and make people laugh. They are some of the best people I know. I hate to see them sad, because it makes me sad. But even they get disappointed or upset. And when they do, when they come out of that feeling, they are even better. Joy is them. They are joy.

Another thing I think about when the word joy comes is a line from The Grinch “I hate this music, it’s joyful and triumphant.” And yet, moments before, he was singing. But after that, he goes to extreme measures just to not hear the music. He puts screws in blenders, gets on a jackhammer, and turns on a giant monkey that plays the cymbals. See? I believe he over-exaggerates his point. I mean, a monkey? Really? Because, deep down, in his small heart, he wants to feel joy. At the end of the movie/book, his heart grows three sizes bigger. He learns to love the Who’s. He seems like a grumpy old thing, but he still feels. The joy is always there.

Paul:

So where are tonight?  Not physically, we all know where we are sitting.  But where are you; better yet—how are you?  How are you tonight?  How are compared to how you were on January 1, 2013?  Do you feel as if you are in the exact same place you were at the beginning of the year?

I don’t ask that question to make you feel guilty.  I ask you to create the space necessary to answer it honestly.  Some of us have had a great year.  Things have just fallen into place in ways we never could have imagined.  And for others, this year has been difficult.  Some of us can join with the writer of this song and say we are in the exact same place as New Year’s Eve.

Remember the time in the Gospels with John the Baptist sends some of his disciples to Jesus?  He wants to know if Jesus is really the One.  You know, the One he was preparing the way for.  “Hey, Jesus?  You know how I did all that preaching and preparing the way?  Remember how I said I wasn’t worthy to tie your sandals?  You know how I became less so that you could become more?  Well now I’m sitting in prison, I’m probably going to die, and I just don’t know anymore.  I believed everything I said.  I believe I have fulfilled God’s role for my life.  But now, I’m wondering.”

Can you relate to John?  Have you ever had those questions?  I have.  And even though I know God has worked in my life before, I still feel like exactly where I used to be.

So what do we do with that?

Rheannon:

As my father said, thinking back on my year, I feel like it could have gone either way. I could have made some better. But thinking of where I am now, I feel joy. I’m meeting my goal for getting 6 million words well. I’m making all a’s, and I’m able to teach here, the place I love with the person I love. Just thinking about this year, I wish it was longer. Some of my choices haven’t been the hottest. So thinking of where I am, I am happy. I came a long way since January. Many of you may feel the same way. Others may wish you had done something different. But however you feel, you still have next year. If the year has been great- keep it that way, and if it was bad- use it to your advantage. And when you do, you will feel joy. You will be able to look back and tell whatever it is that hurt you, and tell it that it lost. That feeling feels amazing. Joy is findable, but you must be willing to look.

When Gabriel comes to Mary, and tells her she will give birth to the Messiah, at first she is hesitant to believe him. But as soon as she does, she is overjoyed. She sings a beautiful song. She cries out to God, thanking him. She is just so excited. When she races to tell Elizabeth, her baby jumps for joy. Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit, happy for Mary. And that joy, knowing that you were chosen to bring the One True God into the world. I would have been so excited.  Though Mary was looked down on from just about everyone, she didn’t care. And when she is forced to give birth in an old stable, (or cave, or any other not-great-places) she handles it. She gives birth, and rejoices.

But after that, she must run. She has to run from a powerful king, who wants her son dead.

Paul:

Advent.  The hope of a Savior.  The hope of a Messiah.  The hopeful expectation that God is moving in this world in a way that only God can.

“And so this Christmas I’ll compare the things I felt in prior years; To what this midnight made so clear; That you have come to meet me here.”

That’s the message of Christmas.  That’s the hope of Advent.  That God has come to meet us exactly where we are.  And He does it by living the human experience completely.

Do you remember the answer Jesus sent back to John the Baptist?  He doesn’t say, “Of course I’m the Messiah!  How dare you question me?”  He says, “Tell John what you see:  the deaf hear, the lame walk, the blind see, the lepers are healed, the dead are raised, and the Good News is preached to the poor.”

Immanuel has come.  God is with us.  When we ask ourselves where we are compared to last year, the answer may not be as happy as we want it to be.

But Christ has still come!

Rheannon:

Hope, peace, joy. These are things Christmas stand for. It’s not all about presents and food. It’s about a savior who came to save. A God who sent his only son to save us. But there is still sin. There are still school shootings, people who won’t get presents, who won’t have a good meal.

I hope for a day when young men and women don’t have to fight, where we have no enemies. I hope for a day when parents don’t have to worry about their children getting shot. I hope for a day when I can go to school, and not have to worry about what people might say about my clothes, or hair, or whatever else is considered important. I hope for a day when people don’t have to worry about their parents, or grandparents, or great-grandparents are dying.

I want to be at peace with my friends, and not have to watch what I say. I want a day when we can have peace with all our enemies. I want a day when peace is an understatement to the way people are.

I wish for a day when people are so joyful they can’t describe it. I wish for a day when there is no disappointment, anger, or upsetedness. I wish for a day when everyone has a smile from ear to ear, all the time.

But most of all I hope for a day when a young woman can give birth to the Savior in peace, and be joyful. That is the day I want to live to see.

Paul:

And that is the day the gives us joy.  Throughout Advent we hope, we wait.  But when Jesus comes, we celebrate!

Jesus may not have had any idea what was going to happen the first time He took a breath.  But one day, I was going to pray to Jesus to save my life.  And He would do it.  And for that I celebrate.

I celebrate the day the He was born.  I celebrate the heart of Mary and Joseph.  I celebrate the gift of God.  I am filled with joy and get to the point when praise just has to break out in any way possible.

We are going to close this lesson, this series, and this calendar year with a time of praise.  We are going to express our joy to God for the gift of His Son, Jesus.

Christmas Songs 2013, Part II: Peace

Paul:

Peace, perfect peace, in this dark world of sin?
The blood of Jesus whispers peace within.

Peace, perfect peace, by thronging duties pressed?
To do the will of Jesus, this is rest.

Peace, perfect peace, with sorrows surging round?
On Jesus’ bosom naught but calm is found.

Peace, perfect peace, with loved ones far away?
In Jesus’ keeping we are safe, and they.

Peace, perfect peace, our future all unknown?
Jesus we know, and he is on the throne.

Peace, perfect peace, death shadowing us and ours?
Jesus has vanquished death and all its powers.

It is enough: earth’s struggles soon shall cease,
and Jesus call us to heaven’s perfect peace.;

 

We seek peace.  We seek quiet.  Why did so many of us in Texas get so excited when everything was shut down last Friday and Saturday due to the ice storm?  Because we were all forced to have peace.  Granted, our peace probably still involved a lot of noise and technology, but our schedules were cleared.  For many of us, our daily tasks were put on hold.

We were in desperate need of peace.

Rheannon:

What child is this?  A baby, a peasant.  Nobody special.  But he is special.  He is the King of Kings.  He will save us.  His life if pretty much mapped out.  No time for peaceful naps.  Even when he wants to go rest, the people follow him.  And then again, that is peaceful.  He knows the people will listen to him and hopefully do what he says and make the world a better place.  That would be peaceful.  Peace is an odd emotion.  It can come from anything.  Depression, love, anger, etc.  The person who wrote the song was depressed and out of that came a beautiful song.  He may be critical that Jesus is the Messiah, but then he writes the song and has eternal peace.

Paul:

“What Child is This?” was written by William Chatterton Dix in the 60’s.  The 1860’s.  When he was almost 30 years old, he became sick.  He almost died.  He was confined to his bed for several months and even, as Rheannon mentioned,

entered into a period of pretty severe depression.  Yet out of that depression he wrote this hymn.

Which leads me to think that the question this song asks is somewhat cynical.  What child is this?  This is the Messiah?  This is the King?  This is the one that is going to bring peace to my life?  The baby lying in a manger in a stable?  The baby held by its mother, herself only a teenager?  This child?

Let me tell you something:  I need more than a baby lying in a manger.  I need something more than a carpenter and a teenage girl.  Do you know what is going on in my life?  Do you know what I am facing?  Do you know how much help I need?  And you want me to look at this child?

This questioning followed Jesus throughout His life, as well.  When He spoke in Nazareth, remember the crowd saying, “Who is this guy?  Don’t we know his parents?  How can he talk to us as if he is someone important?”  When Philip goes to get Nathaniel to tell him about Jesus, Nathaniel’s response is, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

Peace?  In this dark world of sin?

What child is this?

Rheannon:

So a story that makes me think of peace would be the Hunger Games Trilogy.  The main character plays in the Hunger Games and they must settle the uprising.  Soon after, she needs to help the rebellion.  But after all that, she has a chance to just live.  At first she can’t do anything because she is mourning the death of someone close to her.  Then, an old friend comes and she must bandage an old relationship.  But after all that, she is able to settle down and live a real life.  She grows up being at peace.  She has a family and her children play peacefully.  And even it is just a book, think about her life.  Ups and downs (mostly downs) and yet life is going to be good for her.  Peace can be found at the most unlikely of places.

Another story that is peaceful would be Harry Potter. The main character(harry potter) at first doesn’t know he is a wizard. He is abused by his aunt, uncle, and cousin. He then learns that he is a wizard. He goes to the magical world and knows just about nothing. He makes friends and has a semi-normal wizard life. But the thing is, he must battle the powerful You-Know-Who.  When He-who-must-not-be-named rises to his healthiest state, harry must defeat him, or be must be defeated. But after all that, he can settle down and have a family. And he does. He grows into a man, marries, and has a family. He can forget the battles, he can forget that the scar on his head used to cause him pain. Peace. Even from a bad background, he prospers. He has a new peaceful life.

Paul:

When we are seeking peace, we are filled with questions.  Characters like Katniss and Harry Potter seek answers.  Fans of TV shows like Lost seek answers.  In our lives we look for answers.  We struggle because we have no peace and we want to know where it is going to come from.  We are left, filled with questions.

But the questions get answered.

What child is this?  This, this is Christ the King!  Peace, Perfect Peace asks all those questions, but they are answered.  Ultimately, it is enough; He is enough!  Jesus is the answer to our search for peace.

Often, we need to remember that the answer Jesus offers is simply His presence.  There are problems we face in life that no words can solve.  There is pain we suffer that no words can relieve.

But the presence of Jesus brings peace into our lives.

Rheannon:

But all books aside, life is still peaceful. We grow up and die, but in that lifetime, we find peace. Even if we do things that are not good, inside we can find peace. Inside we can forgive ourselves for any mistakes we have made. Forgiveness and peace are like best friends. They are tied together by not-so-invisible strings. Holding a grudge makes our insides bubble with hatred every time we see that person. Well I’m here to tell you that that hate is not a good feeling. I felt that hate toward a girl in my class last year. She was the coolest person in my class. Me on the other hand… I was the victim to much teasing and insults. But then I moved to a different school district. I wouldn’t go to the same middle school as she would. So I started the school year with a grudge against her. But man, that feeling was the worst! So I had to let that go. And when I did, I felt as light as air! That forgiveness made me feel eternal peace. So I’m asking you to let go of all your grudges. And I mean that for real. Don’t just tell me, my dad, or even yourself that you let go, do it for real. Because I want you to feel that peace that fills you to the brim. And the person that you are forgiving, tell them. They will feel that peace as much as you do. Mend that relationship, please.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GyyRLv0mFa4