Recently there has been talk about making Christmas bigger and better than ever. And something about this just hasn’t set right with me. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas and big family gatherings and all the festivities around the church. But bigger and better than ever? I’m not quite sure those are the values that should qualify Christmas. It almost seems like more and more this is how society is trying to shape what began as something very different. You need to buy this better gift or your friend, spouse, kid, coworker, etc. won’t have a Merry Christmas. You need to make sure your debt ratio is getting bigger and bigger or Christmas won’t be complete. We have to make sure we capitolize on this season in our churches with as many activities to draw people in because this may be the only time of year we get to see them (well at least until Easter). We need to make sure everyone around us knows how big and important this holiday is because otherwise they’ll never understand the true meaning of Christmas.
To me it just all feels a bit off. The idea of shopping and planning and stressing and exhausting schedules seems so far removed from Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago. One of my favorite versions of the Christmas story in scripture was actually written by Paul to the church in Philippi. “Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human.” – Philippians 2:6-7 The Christmas story is best categorized by words like emptied, slave, less, weak, humility, frail, fragile, etc. Not words like bigger and better. When God stepped into our world He became less. God became small. In fact, if you weren’t a shepherd or a magi (I’m not sure if I ever got to be one in one of the kid’s Christmas pageants) you probably didn’t even know about the first Christmas.
You may ask yourself though, why am I taking such issue with this? Because Christmas should represent our values as Christ followers and not as economists. Perhaps we should seek to embody the shepherds and seek out those who appear to be weak, vulnerable, less, frail and fragile this season. And when we find them it might be an opportunity for us to practice a Christmas value as we seek to enter into their situation with them. Perhaps Christmas is more about becoming like the broken, outcast, unloved, untouched, smaller and weaker because that is what God did for us at Christmas. So maybe for a moment this holiday season we all might find a way to try something different. It doesn’t have to be a huge gesture or anything massive, but maybe the smallest thing might become the most Christ-like as we seek to emulate the God who emptied Himself and became smaller and less for our sake.
One of my favorite events in the life of our church here in Odessa took place last night. For one night each year we roll out the red, or should I say orange, carpet in a big way. Our annual Fall Festival is awesome! We have about 50 or so volunteers rally to host over 500 people each year. There’s food trucks, inflatables, face-painting, carnival games, pop-corn, music and costumes…so many cool costumes. I love seeing all of the kids, and “adult kids”, coming to our church in their costumes for a night of fun and festivities. In fact, it seems that more and more each year people are really getting into the Halloween spirit. And yet, sometimes we in the church struggle with what to do with this holiday full of spooks and ghosts and ghouls.
I guess we could start by taking a look at our own history, after all, Halloween began as part of Allhallowtide, a Christian feast holiday. According to HistoryChannel.com, “In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as a time to honor all saints; All Saints Day…The evening before was known as All Hallows Eve, and later Halloween.” Halloween was originally part of a Religious feast intended to honor those who have gone before us. And yet so often we see all of the hullabaloo of Halloween today feeling like something different from it’s Christian roots and often become something else entirely. Even as I am writing this I am thinking about all of those who feel like Halloween is a dark holiday to be avoided at all costs…and I respect your opinion, but think with me for a moment. Try putting yourself in the place of one of the kids who got be at our Fall Festival last night or who looks forward to Trick-or-Treating this coming week. You’re telling me that for a day I get to dress up like someone else, go around to my neighbor’s houses and they give me candy? It’s almost kind of magical. And who doesn’t love another excuse to eat candy?
I have always looked at scripture a little differently and I hope you will amuse me here. To me, one of the saddest verses in all of scripture is found in I Corinthians 13:11 “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” So often we think of this as the natural maturation process, but what if it is talking about the loss of the natural wonder and love that comes with childhood? I think all to often we are ready to grow up and we miss the joy and simplicity of living that can be seen through the eyes of a child. Maybe if we began to see this holiday again through the eyes of a child and all the joy I saw last night we might be able to see it a little differently. Maybe the treat is found through the trick of seeing Halloween as a child. And maybe holidays like Halloween can be enjoyed in a new light as we seek to reclaim the world yet again through childlike wonder and joy.
I remember before my wife and I became parents we would often talk about how we would never tell our kids, “because I said so”. We both had always felt like this was a parental cop-out and were therefore determined to be able to help our children understand the reasoning and the logic behind every request that we placed upon them. As of today however, the running tally of how many times we have said, “because I said so” is roughly about 4,607,322…not that anyone is keeping track. Because sometimes you look at your amazingly beautiful, precious child and the amount of frustration boils up as your patience continues to wear thin and you just want them to understand your request but you really have nothing left and “because I said so” becomes that very necessary trump card.
Strangely enough though, I see a bit of Divine resonance in the phrase, “because I said so”. But I think it is all about where the emphasis is placed (did you see my hint?). There is a Psalm that kind of helped me to understand this a little more recently and it is probably familiar to many of you. Psalm 19 begins this way, “The heavens declare the glory of God…” It then goes through an incredible description of God’s glory and majesty and all that He has created and then it interjects with the following phrase, “The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul. The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple.” Psalm 19:7 It goes from all the splendor and glory of creation to a description of the law…huh? But what I see the Psalmist presenting before us is a case for God being able to say, “because I said so” So often we see the law of God and we simply see it as a list of what not to do and what to avoid and how we will get punished if we step out of line. But for the Psalmist the law was born out of the love that God, the God who made everything, had for us.
Now think about that love for a minute. God gave us stars and planets and nebulas and quasars and all of these amazing things to display His glory. God gave us cells and synapses and electrons and mitochondria and DNA to amaze and grab our attention. And God gave us His law, His instruction because He is the same God who created all those things and He may know a little about how life works best. So His law is not a limitation of life…it is an amplification of how life works best. Often times this is how I feel when I am trying to convey to my children why I want them to do something. I’ve been around longer, I’ve seen more life than you and I know how this all plays out. I don’t want you to do something because I am mean or conniving, but rather the opposite. “Because I said so” is a reflection of my love for you, because it’s me…and I know how I feel about You. May we come to feel the same way about the law of the Lord so that we can reflect alongside the Psalmist in the concluding verse of Psalm 19, “May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.”
One of the most common phrases heard around our house these days is, “that’s mine”. And it really is a rather recent development with our two youngest. Foster kids can really change your perspective…for a bit. Because for a while it seemed like they were super human because they really didn’t claim ownership to much of anything and so “those disputes” didn’t seem to happen. Boy was I naive. Now that #3 & 4 have been in our house for over a year the claiming of property seems to resemble the gold rush of 1849 more than the charitable sharing that typified their initial behavior. “That’s mine”, “I had it first”, “No” and “Give me” have become the calling card of all their interactions as of late. And I can’t help but wonder how much of this I have taught them.
Most of us learn the art of possession from an early age. We learn that things cost money and we have to work for that money and so through our toil these things take on a value that we assign. The problem occurs when we assign these things a greater value than we assign to other people. We don’t want certain people coming into our house because they might mess it up. We horde up or collect nice things because we we worked for it (Even the word horde brings to mind images of Smaug from the Hobbit). Yet at the end of the day, if we don’t even own the very breath in our lungs, do we “own” any of these things? Or do they own us? Jesus had this to say about the things on earth we lay claim to or possess, “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.” – Mark 10:29-30 The crazy thing about that is the inference to the expansion of family and resources in the present age. A lot of folks might try to tell you that this is about God “blessing” you with bigger and better things, but it really is about something much richer.
I’ve begun to see it happen recently due to impending/ongoing threats to people’s homes and security in the United States. In the wake of Harvey and under the threat of DACA or Irma I have begun to see Christians open up their homes, lives and possessions to those who face the unknown. And this is what Jesus really is referring to in the passage above…a shared kingdom life. It’s a life that literally says, “mi casa es su casa (my house is your house)”, because the things that I have come to “own” are actually things that I am a steward of and so they are best used when they are shared. In fact, this is the “hundred times as much” that Jesus refers to in the passage above. It is not about me amassing wealth and being greedy, but about me belonging to something much bigger than myself by realizing I don’t own any of it. There was a wonderful quote from Mahatma Gandhi that describes our world and the need for this type of behavior, “The world has enough for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed.” I hope today you find yourself letting go of the “that’s mine” mentality so that you can open yourself up to see how Christ could use you for those who need you in the worst way.
I am a morning person…there, confession is good for the soul I hear. I am one of those few folks who actually likes the early morning hours around 5 AM or so and I honestly haven’t used an alarm clock to wake up in probably 5 years. That being said, I am not a night person. Around about 9 or 10 in the evening I start to putter out and I rarely see 11 PM. But last night I saw a number on the clock I hadn’t seen in quite some time…1 AM. You see, yesterday evening we received a call from our foster boy’s biological brother’s step-mom (I promise you can keep up). She and her family (including our foster boy’s older brother) needed a place to crash as her husband had to be in town for some job training and their place to stay for the night had fallen through. So my wife and I got home from church, put our kids to bed and began to inflate air mattresses and make up the couch. Then came the waiting as they were having to travel a bit rather late. My wife puttered out around midnight, but I guess you could say I was burning the midnight oil, literally. So our guests rolled in around 1 AM and yours truly actually stayed up to greet them and play host…although this morning I wasn’t up at my usual time.
But in the midst of all the preparations, my wife and I were just smiling and laughing together. Evidently we love practicing hospitality. Even if it is to the step-family of your foster boy’s half brother who lives in a different state. And this morning I was reminded of why. A few hours ago, as our foster boys began to wake and discover the surprise waiting on them, our home began to ring with laughter. And I’m not talking about little stifled giggling, but full raucous belly laughing as they began to play and reconnect and celebrate with their family. I remember my 10-yr-old even asking last night, “So how are we related to them? Are we their brothers or cousins or something?” Nope…not even a little bit. But they are family to our boys, so yeah…it’s something.
As I listened to the house fill with laughter and the playing ensue I was reminded of a verse from the last chapter of the book of Hebrews, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” – Hebrews 13:2 To our boys, the guests we gave shelter to last night were angels. They became messengers of light reminding them that their story is being redeemed. That their lives are not defined by the brokenness of what was, but by the promise of what could be. A little back story might be necessary here. You see, as a fifteen-year-old teen he was having to care for his infant and toddler brother and he knew something wasn’t right. His love for them has led to their story being made whole. And now to see him being able to celebrate their healing and restoration, and to see them get to play and laugh together truly is to see the laughter and presence of angels in our lives.
So maybe it is worth staying up till 1 AM sometimes…if it means you get to be in the presence of something angelic.
Today my little girl graduates from Kindergarten. Now I realize that for some of you this may not be that big of an accomplishment. Perhaps you may think that learning to write one’s name, reading a few sentences and mastering the art of coloring and cutting is not something that deems a ceremonious occasion. As a father of a beautiful six-year-old princess, I would have to respectfully disagree. Perhaps you are one of those who thinks that our society has become soft…that we celebrate kindergarten graduations and everyone gets a participation trophy and we don’t celebrate true achievement anymore. And I would have to simply reply, “Okay, let’s celebrate”. As a Christ follower I see no greater justification for a celebration than that which you deem unworthy of said celebration. Why you may ask? Grace.
Grace is defined within the Christian tradition as unmerited favor. It is that which God bestows upon us in a lavish manor even though we are undeserving. Someone once said it is getting what you don’t deserve and not getting what you do deserve. The apostle Paul put it this way in his letter to the church in Rome, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” – Romans 5:8 Christ died for us while we were powerless and unworthy. The highest and loftiest ideal in all of Christian tradition is the notion of grace. We sing songs, write poetry and stories and even create movements and name our churches based on the idea of grace. And what is it, but a celebration of something we didn’t earn; of something that we cannot achieve.
At the close of his letter to the church in Philippi we read these words from Paul, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Philippians 4:8. Might I suggest to you that kindergarten graduations and participation trophies and celebrating people in all facets of life is a practice of Paul’s challenge to the church and to us. The church has bought into the idea that we need celebrate only merit and things that can be achieved (an idea born out of our western consumerist culture)…but this is the exact opposite of grace. And if we are called to think about the noble, the good, the pure, the lovely, then shouldn’t our thoughts, our celebrations, our trophies, our graduations, our reasons to party be based in grace. There is no higher aspiration and the best part about it…we did/can do nothing to earn it. So bring on the Kindergarten graduations. Bring on the participation ribbons and celebration of what you may call mediocrity. Because in this “lack of merit” I see the truth about the only thing that truly matters. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound. That saved a wretch like me.”
My daughter has a big heart; particularly when it comes to animals. Even now, at 6 years of age, she has declared herself a vegetarian because she doesn’t want to eat animals. And this doesn’t just apply to her dietary habits either. I’m afraid our house may eventually be declared a state refuge or sanctuary as any animal she comes into contact with gets “adopted” into the Arp household. Her most recent acquisition is a lizard, named Lizzy of course, that she and a friend rescued from the sink at their home while we were having lunch earlier this week. Of course, although it is my daughter who “rescues” these animals, it is most often yours truly who gets to care for them. But I think I may have the same love for all God’s creatures great and small. One of my favorite stories I like to tell people is from the time my wife and I got to visit an animal sanctuary in Florida called White Oak Conservation.* One of the members of our church worked there and so we got to get a VIP tour…which was amazing.
I love the idea of animal sanctuaries. Who knows…maybe our house may be declared one someday (With four kids it already feels like a zoo most of the time). But the use of the term sanctuary as being a safe place developed almost as quickly the use for it being a place of worship in the English language. The term was derived from the Latin term sanctus which meant holy, but the usage for sanctuary as being a refuge or a safe place derived from the church early providing a safe place for those who sought shelter from oppressive authorities or city-states from as early as the time of Constantine. So now today you find the term being used for wildlife sanctuaries and even sometimes in correlation with political places of refuge. But I wonder how often our own church sanctuaries are actually safe places for people. How often do people come into our churches discouraged, beat-up, labeled, slandered, disenfranchised, alienated, etc. and feel more of the same?
When God was in flesh on earth his main hangup with the way things were going was with the religious folk. If you struggle with this idea, just read through the Gospels again. In Matthew 23 you can kind of tell that Jesus has reached his boiling point and before he launches into what we call the Seven Woes against the religious experts we read this, “They (the religious teachers) tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” – Matthew 23:4 I wonder how often our churches do much of the same. When broken and hurting and abused and different people come into your church do they feel much of the same? Are we quick to continue to pile upon them burdens and labels and restrictions and separations and more ways of making them feel unloved? Or, when people come into our sanctuaries do they feel safe?
Maybe my daughter has a point as a 6-yr-old vegetarian. She lives this way because she loves animals. Maybe our churches could/should create more space where people don’t keep getting devoured but where they feel safe and can truly come to experience what life in Christ is all about.
*You can check out this amazing place here: https://www.whiteoakwildlife.org/