Category Archives: Christmas

smaller and less

pexels-photo-89695

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.

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noisy bells

When our first born son was around four years old we thought it was time to introduce him to the book The Polar Express. After all, he loved trains and it seemed like the right thing to do for Christmas. And in true good parenting fashion we decided we should also introduce him to the movie…which quickly became an obsession. In the midst of all of this we also decided that he needed bell; much like the one received by the little boy in the book. However, a four year old doesn’t always understand yuletide physics and quickly became frustrated. You see, he would grasp that bell with his whole and and shake for all it was worth and yet…there would be no ringing. He couldn’t seem to figure out that holding on to that little bell so tight would mute its noise and so of course in his world, “it broke”. After trying multiple times to help him see how to grasp onto the bell and it not clicking, my wife and I conveniently lost the bell until a more age appropriate Christmas season.

The image of a noisy bell brings to mind one of my favorite passages of scripture. In his letter to the Corinthian church the apostle Paul writes about the greatest of gifts, “f I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” – I Corinthians 13:1 The imagery of a resounding gong could even be translated as an empty, loud annoying brass bell. Paul is saying to us that if we don’t have love, all of our blustering lip service to the world around us is just that…noise. And not good noise either…but loud unproductive obnoxious noise. Our world today is full of noise. If you have been out shopping at all during the Christmas season you know this to be true. People hustling and bustling to get everything they need to make the season bright. But I am wondering if this is a huge and loud misrepresentation of the season.

Charles Wesley, a great hymn writer and one of the theological fathers of our faith, once penned these words to describe the Christmas story, “He left his Father’s throne above so free, so infinite his grace. Emptied himself of all but love…” Emptying, letting go and allowing love to be all. This was the Christmas story of Christ. But I think all to often we find ourselves like that little four year old when it comes to life. We hold on to our things, our loved ones, our dogma, our traditions, our way of doing things so tight that all of a sudden we are just making noise. Love isn’t ringing through us because it has become about us and not about those who we are called to love. Love is a hard thing. It’s the one action where when you know all motives are fixed on another then you finally have it right. And that is what the Christmas story was about. God letting go of everything in order to show us love. Maybe we need to let loose of some things in our life so that we can truly show the love of Christ to those around us this Christmas. Maybe then we will no longer be a noisy gong/bell/brass/cymbal, but instead may join in the angelic chorus, “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”


with abandon

As I sit here in the stillness of the morning I find myself transported once again. I can’t seem to get away from the Bethlehem hills this Advent season…

The night is still and shrouded in darkness while the smell of sheep surrounds you. It’s been a long day and you know the night has potential to be even longer. You and your fellow shepherds get to exchange watch throughout the night to protect your charge against potential threats. So you strain against the darkness not knowing what is out there, but being completely on your guard. Suddenly the darkness is broken by a violently bright and unfathomable light.Everyone is on their feet and yet cowering as well, not knowing what this new danger may be. Out of the light you make out a figure that is both lovely and terrifying and you suddenly hear a voice, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” – Luke 2:10-12

Then it is as if the remaining darkness explodes into thousands of points of light as the messenger is joined by scores of other heavenly beings who burst forth in song, ““Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” – Luke 2:14 It seems as if time is standing still and then all of a sudden it’s over. You and your comrades are left speechless in the cool night air wandering what just happened. Then someone speaks up, “Could it be true? If so, what are we waiting for.” Quickly you make your way into town completely forgetting about your responsibility in the hills and you find everything just as the messenger had said. Here he is…a newborn baby…wrapped in cloths just like your family did with you. The promised Messiah…David’s own descendant and you are some of the first to lay eyes on him. The joy and energy bubbling up inside of you is uncontrollable. As you and your fellow shepherds prepare to leave you know it is going to be a noisy exodus, but you don’t care. Everyone you bump into is going to hear about this story. Friends, strangers, pharisees, tax collectors, drunkards…even the sheep are going to hear all about the miraculous event that you have just been included in. With abandon you become the first witnesses to the redemption of God for all mankind.

I wonder where you find yourself today, 2,000 years later? Do you need to experience the in-breaking of Heaven again? Do you need to be reminded that there is nothing to fear? Do you find yourself caught up in praising and glorifying God as witnesses to God’s redemption brought about through the birth of Jesus? Or do you find yourself fearful of what others might think or whether or not this story could even make a difference in the world around you. Take heart! The angelic announcement still rings true today and we are now ambassadors of that same gospel announcement, “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.” May we find ourselves proclaiming this same message with abandon for the sake of the world that God has not abandoned.

 

 


there’s Jesus

I’m a Christmas Spirit junkie….there I said it. After all, the first step is admitting you have a problem, right? But man do I get wrapped up in the trees, presents, warm drinks, holly and ivy, carols, nativities, Santa visits, cookies, garland, mistletoe ;), pageants, decorations, smells, sights, and sounds of Christmas. Even last week during our kids performance at the church I found myself fighting back tears as these children sing about Jesus and Christmas (confession again….tearing up slightly now). And I love the fact that my kids are at the perfect age to get excited about all of this stuff!  This year we have even been visited by an Elf on a Shelf and my kids think its the most magical thing they have ever seen! But one of my favorite things that happens takes place while we are driving in the car. If we pass by an outdoor nativity scene, yes they still have those, one of my kids, without fail, will yell out, “There’s Jesus”. And I promise this was not prompted by me at all. I don’t even know where it comes from. But all of a sudden, “There’s Jesus”. And I love it. It warms my heart a little more each time.

But it got me thinking; wouldn’t it be something if whenever someone drove by our church (feel free to place your respective church here), they looked out and yelled, “There’s Jesus”. Without a nativity scene, or a giant sculpture like that church between Dayton and Cincinnati on I-75, they still felt compelled to shout out, “There’s Jesus”. Not because of our facilities or our programming or our music or our preaching, but because they as a community knew that this church embodied Christ to them. Jesus was a man of compassion, grace, love, and truth. What if this is what our communities came to chiefly identify our churches as? After all, Jesus said in John 13, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Love. Love is what characterizes us as Jesus disciples.

This season is also known as the season of The Incarnation; God becoming flesh. As disciples of Jesus it should be our goal to become incarnations of Jesus as well. One of my favorite passages that talks about what it means to be Jesus incarnate to the world around us is in Matthew 25. “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” When we as a church feed, give water, practice hospitality, clothe, heal and visit the imprisoned we become Jesus to those around us.

Maybe then, if these become our chief characteristics, people will find themselves driving by and declaring, “there’s Jesus” for in our church we find the Spirit of Christ defining everything we do. This is my prayer as we move throughout this Advent season and into the years to come.


happy birthday

So I apologize if right off the bat I start offending people with this one. I have always found the whole reduction of Christmas into a “Happy Birthday Jesus” party a little off putting. It’s not that I don’t realize the whole meaning of the season, but when I think about Birthday parties I can’t help but think about balloons, cake, favors, presents, etc…are these really the things we want to associate with the God who created the universe stepping into human flesh in order to redeem humanity unto Himself? My wife and I were even talking about this the other day in reference to the presents that are given in and around Christmas and she helped me see this in a new light. On one’s Birthday usually that person is the recipient of the gifts and yet, on Jesus “birthday”, we are the ones who receive presents. And here is where my wife is absolutely brilliant. “Maybe Christmas is not so much Jesus’ birthday as much as it is ours…and then giving gifts to each other makes a little mores sense.”

Holy cow! That blows me out of the water. Christmas really is a celebration of our birthdays. Our birth into new life, our birth into right life. All of a sudden the people living in darkness have seen a great light. They have passed from death unto life…been born again. All of a sudden Jesus rooftop conversation with Nicodemus becomes the Christmas story. John 3:5-8 puts it this way, “Jesus answered, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit’.”

So Christmas maybe can be reduced to a birthday celebration (still not to keen on the idea of balloons and cake regardless of my lie for sweets). But not so much the birth of Christ as much as the rebirth of his Children and the promise of the life to come. So if anything, Christmas becomes a reminder of being born into new life and living like those born of the Spirit.

A couple of quick anecdotes to remind myself what this looks like. I had just stopped by the Dollar General store to pick up a couple of supplies the week of Christmas. After I came through line I noticed a very expectant Latino woman and her probably 2 year old son. She was attempting to buy a toy she thought was on special only to realize it wasn’t. Without even thinking twice I pulled out $20 (some money left over from a generous Christmas gift from a family at our church) and handed it to her with a quick “Merry Christmas”. The very next day I saw a guy walking near the church in the cold over-burdened with a couple of grocery sacks. I pulled up to him and offered a ride. He still had two miles to go in 20 degree weather and the bags weighed at least 40 lbs between the two.

I am not telling these stories in a brag fashion at all, but I can’t help but think about that idea of those who come and go living born of the Spirit. I don’t think that God moves people into our path at random. He aligns our present into His future. And our rebirth should continually dominate our thoughts in the present. Maybe we need to be reminded of our rebirth and become sensitive to the Spirit’s prodding during this season. You never know what He might bring your way.


regifting

So my wife and I can’t ever wait till Christmas. And this year it was last night. It was time for the exchanging of our gifts. And of course it is a competition…why wouldn’t it be? And of course every year I win..why wouldn’t I? But maybe that is because of my extreme particularities when it comes to gifts. My wife seems to always hand me a gift with the caveat, “Now I won’t be offended if you want to take it back.” My wife on the other hand…she is the best person to give a gift to. She loves receiving anything. The more thought (or in my case sneaking around on her Pinterest or listening over the last few months) that goes into the gift, the more amazing her reaction. It really is the best. And so I try to mimic her reaction…although most of the time I am pretty sure she can see through me if my reaction is less than genuine (she did do good this year though).

Now although I am given the caveat of being able to return stuff, there is one alternate method that I know I am never to explore with my gifts: regifting. We all know how invaluable regifting can be. In fact I am sure many of you have closets or storage spaces for those gifts you receive that I am sure are on someone’s Christmas list for the next year. Of course there is an art to regifting. You absolutely, under no circumstances, can ever regift a gift back to the original giver. It’s tricky I know. But have you ever perhaps thought that regifting is divine.

I think a lot about the origin of gift giving with Christmas and I am pretty sure the gifting at Christmas traces back to the original gift (that probably goes without saying). This can become a tricky subject theologically speaking. What was the ultimate gift given through the birth of Christ. Was it Grace, Presence, Peace, Joy, Hope? Yes. But the principal thing, in my opinion, that was brought about through the birth of Christ (and thousands if not millions of people can argue with me on this) was Forgiveness. The reason I am so quick to name forgiveness as the ultimate gift offered through Christ is because it is something so contrary to who we in our humanness often are. After all, Alexander Pope once wrote, “To err is human; to forgive Divine”.

I think about the one story where Peter thinks he is going to one up the disciples in front of the master by illustrating how he goes beyond the law. In Matthew 18:21-22 we read, “Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?’  Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times’.” You see, Jewish law required a person to forgive someone for the same offense three times, but not the forth. So Peter thought he was going beyond the law and therefore would appeal to the Rabbi’s sensibilities. But of course Jesus takes it from the carnal to the Divine quickly. Forgiveness is something that you offer and give again and again and again.

The worst part about forgiveness..we can’t do it. Our memories* and our sense for justice based in this life keep us from being able to forgive on our own. Otherwise he world would be a lot more peaceful. But (and I apologize if this gets a bit too ethereal) we can participate in the Divine Forgiveness offered to us and the rest of humanity. We can regift that which was given to us again and again and restore right relationship with each other through the right relationship that was restored between God and us through the gift of forgiveness offered through Jesus Christ. It really is the ultimate regifting. And the best part about it is you will never offend the original Giver by offering this gift again and again. In fact, regifting may be the only way by which we understand the ultimate gift offered us through the Advent of Christ. So get to regifting Forgiveness and participation in the Divine Life.

* I could write an entire blog post about our misconception of God’s memory and sin and scripture that we quote that isn’t there…but that will be for another day.


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