Saturday, December 31, 2005

the weakest link

It truly is the most wonderful time of the year. I’ve always loved Christmas—the lights, the furry hats, the Christmas cheer, the Christian music. I mean, what are the chances that you hear these words in Starbucks any other time of the year?

Hark, the herald angels sing,
“Glory!” to the newborn King.
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled.

Joyful all ye nations rise.
Join the triumph in the skies.
With angelic host proclaim,
Christ is born in Bethlehem.

Mild he laid His glory by
Born that men no more may die
Light and life to all He brings
Risen with healing in His wings

And if they do the instrumental version, I always chime in, and sometimes I can even get others to join. Fun. I particularly like that last stanza.

Contrary to what some Christians think and one pastor I heard venting, Merry Christmas isn’t a battle cry, but an announcement of peace and good will. The Crusades were not the glory days of Christianity, and the manger scene is not the new “In this sign conquer”. This one sermon has is that if someone greets you with “Happy holidays” that you “shouldn’t be belligerent or rude” but firmly and sweetly put forth that these are not happy holidays, but say “No, it’s Merry Christmas.” Huh? Do you really think that this person who has been on her feet for 8 hours in the busiest time of the year, ringing up gobs of junk for all the cut-throat shoppers is going to say, “Bad me. Bad me. I knew better. I’ll be good. Merry Christmas. I’m sorry.” I doubt it. And I’d bet the reason she said happy holidays was not so she could get a lecture, but so she could avoid one! How does she win? Maybe this might go better: She says, “Happy holidays”. You smile and say, “Merry Christmas. And keep the change.”

See, Christ’s advent was not an in-yer-face move. Not at all. He came silently, at night, as a fragile, little baby. “Holy infant so tender and mild” as one song has it. Amazing. And true. In fact, he snuck in. And once the kings of the world discovered the plot, they sought to have Him destroyed. So his parents did what? They ran and hid. In Egypt. And really, to marvel at the power of Christ is to marvel at restraint. God in the flesh dwelling with men? And men not frying? Amazing. Even at the pinnacle of his life, when He faced his accusers, he didn’t flex his spiritual muscle or assert his rights of Sonship. (Remember how He said he could’ve called 12 legions of angels? That’s about 80,000 angels. Whoa. Especially since 2 wiped out Sodom and Gomorrah, and 1 wiped out 70,000 people in Israel.) But He gave his fragile back to the flogging whips, his beard to those who plucked it out, and his body was crushed for you and me.

I offered my back to those who beat me,
My cheeks to those who pulled out my beard;
I did not hide my face
From mocking and spitting.

Isaiah 50:6

Christ truly did not come into the world to grab up all the power. He came to give it away. And the church is at her best when she is giving power away, not grabbing it up.

I must admit that all this controversy wasn’t my Christmas experience at all. Here’s one example.

I was in line at the post office. It was a long line. I was mailing a Christmas letter to one of our soldiers in Iraq that my daughter has been corresponding with. It was a long line, but I didn’t mind. It was like I wanted to savor the moment of sending this letter off. I didn’t know if it would get to him in time or not, but I knew that whenever he got it, it would really lift his spirit. Those young men get really discouraged wondering if anyone remembers they’re there…that is if anyone remembers they’re there who isn’t yelling how their lives are being wasted over there.

So, I was waiting in this line at the post. Did I mention it was a long line? Lots of people had packages. I smiled. I thought about where those packages must be going—to loved ones that are unable to get together for the holidays for whatever reason. This one lady was having trouble. How can I describe her? She was trim, designer sweats, form-fitting shirt, perfect hair, complete with highlights. The image of together. Except she had five kids between the ages of 2 and about 9. Maybe they were all hers. I don’t know. What I do know is that she was extremely frustrated with them. The older ones were opening the doors for people coming in and out (keeping the doors open way too long). The youngest two were running around and playing. She kept telling the older ones to shut the doors. The youngest two she finally grabbed, drug, and trapped against the counter with her legs. They kept trying to wiggle out—at first they thought this was a game, but after being jerked back a few times, they figured out that—no—they really were in jail. Meanwhile, she’s doing business with the postal clerk, who was a good natured man, patiently weighing and shuffling and doing the things postal clerks do. The little ones cried. And the more they cried, the more the woman set her jaw. The person behind me in line said, “Bet you’re glad they’re not yours.” I just smiled, but I thought, No, actually I’d take them. They are adorable, and good natured. These kids all seemed to care for one another. Honestly, I felt sorry for the kids. They were just doing what kids do. And really, it had made the atmosphere more like a kindergarten than a post office, but honestly, who cares? It wasn’t like anyone was trying to solve a math problem. I felt sorry for the woman, too. I know exactly what it’s like to be stuck for whatever reason with five kids and have things to accomplish. Been there. But that’s not the reason I felt sorry for the woman. I felt sorry for her because she wasn’t enjoying her children.

So I’m sitting in the line at the post office getting kind of emotional. When I got to the front of the line, I looked down at the little girl with the sad face and runny eyes and nose in jail and smiled at her. Her eyes got real big, and she hid behind her mom’s leg. I moved to the right so I could see her and smiled at her again. She moved the other way to hide again. I moved the other way again. We played this game for a while. She wasn’t crying now. She had this look of, “Who is this strange man who keeps following me and smiling at me?” One of the older kids saw us and felt obliged to tell me what was happening. “She has to stay right there.” I smiled at him and nodded that I knew.

Next.

My turn. The clerk who helped me was black, attractive, could’ve been a young grandmother. I told her I had this letter that was addressed to one of the soldiers in Iraq. She typed in the ZIP code, and then told me it was 37 cents, and asked if I wanted to buy a book or if I just wanted her to mail it for me. Oh. I thought it had to have something special to go overseas. She told me that most of the stuff going to the military is just regular postage. It goes to a US zip code and then the Army takes it from there to wherever it really goes. I guess that makes sense—then they don’t even have to reveal where someone actually is. Secrets and all that. I told her I’d buy a whole book of stamps. She asked me if I wanted one of the holiday collections, or a regular book. Oh! Cool. I chose the ones with Saint Nick and paid for them. After she made my change, I told her, “Merry Christmas.” She glowed and said, “Thanks, I needed that.” As I was putting my receipt and my change in my bag, I sort of mumbled through the tears I was holding back, “Don’t we all?” As I started to walk away, she said sweetly, “Merry Christmas.” I walked back to the car with tears welling in my eyes.

Leaving, I wondered why I was so emotional? That this was the first Christmas without my mom? All of my loneliness and rejection this year coming to a head? The thought of the soldiers trading Christmas with their families for a tour through the dust bowl in Iraq? All those packages going to all those separated family members by all those people in line? The lost joy of the children shuffled in with the hectic holiday rush? I never figured it out. I just knew that it was an odd mix of tears of joy and tears of sadness. Only yesterday did I realize what I had felt. I felt like I was an early Christian who had just drawn half the fish in the sand, and this woman, whom I had never met, drew the other half. Somehow in all this crazy, loud world we live in, all in a hurry to go nowhere, to do and get more of everything which comes to nothing, all this competition and selfish ambition that divides everyone, Christ showed up and sort of quietly winked at one white man and one black woman in a post office. In the middle of all this junk that hasn’t gone the way it was supposed to, Christ has a way of putting us back together, doesn’t He?

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Christmas family time

Apparently there was a lot of debate this year on whether to go to church on Christmas or not, being that Christmas had the gall to fall on Sunday. I was listening over some friends talk about it and was curious when the last time we had this crisis. I checked. It was 1994. From what I could tell, not being a news watcher, the argument against keeping church was "Christmas is a time for family" while the other side said "No, Christmas is a religious holiday".

I have at least one insight to offer that maybe has escaped notice. The other half of "Christmas is a time for family" is "Christmas is a time for family, not institution" or "Christmas is a time for the warmth and tradition of family, not the frigidity and mechanics of institution." I would say that every day is a time for the warmth and tradition of family, not the frigidity and mechanics of institution. I wish people would have the same concern for warm, nurturing relationships, turning the hearts of the fathers towards the children and the hearts of the children towards the fathers all through the year. Why do we have to wait for Christmas to have this debate?

But I have to put into context what I mean when I say "family". We have largely lost the concept of the "family of God" that Peter and Paul and others wrote about, and that all of the early church seemed to accept as reality. [1] I really appreciate what the preacher at my old church is reported to have said during his Christmas sermon—that Christmas was a time for family, and church is the only family a lot of people have. And that's why they chose to get together on Sunday, December 25, 2005. Where is the family of God? Have you seen it? When you look at Christians, do you see a striking resemblance to the heavenly Father or to the firstborn and full-grown son, Jesus? Do you see people that are as concerned about their brothers and sisters in Christ as their own husband, wife, or children? Or is it “My family is first, God’s family is second.”? Is the family name I got at my first birth or my second birth[2] more significant? more real? more important to me? Just a thought.

On this one, I feel a little like Admiral Kirk in one of the Star Trek movies, the one where the cadets had to face this theoretically unsolvable simulation. Legend had it that Kirk was the only one who ever beat it. But the truth was that he reprogrammed the simulator. I opted out of this debate. We didn’t “go” to church, but then church meets in our home, so we never “go”. But at the same time I admit that our church gathering on Christmas was only biological family—me, my grandmom, dad, sister, wife, and kids. Actually it wouldn’t be right to call it a biological family—both my sister and I were adopted as babies. And maybe that’s part of why it’s easier for me to identify with the family of God than some. Maybe that makes it easier for me to accept the “Spirit of adoption”[3] than some. Maybe.

Anyway, it was just us on Christmas, and it felt like it was going to be really down with Mom gone. Everyone says that the first everything after a loved one dies is especially hard—first Christmas, first anniversary, first birthday, and so on. We really were all kind of sad, and I don’t feel wrong about that at all. But something amazing seemed to happen to us. We shared communion and we read together the awesome story of the Incarnation from Luke 2. I listed the characters in the story—Julius Caesar, Joseph, Mary, the shepherds, the Angel of the Lord, the heavenly host, the Baby, Anna, and Simeon—and asked each one to choose one of the characters and tell us what they must have been thinking, how they felt about what was happening. Dad went first, being Julius Caesar, saying something like, “I’m Julius Caesar, the king of the world, and I have a security problem with all these people that I have conquered…so I have issued a decree that a census be taken…and plus once I count the people it makes them easier to tax into submission.” It was fun to enter into the world he set us in, and we talked about the census and taxes and also about the unlikeliness of Jesus being born in Bethlehem, a city he wouldn’t have been born in without Julius Caesar and his census, a city the Christ must have been born in for the prophecy to come to pass.[4] Grace was Mary, Benjamin was Joseph, Jill was the angel, and I was the stars. Grandmom was Anna the old prophetess in the temple, and that was fun to talk about, too. Dad, the lawyer, said that in law you want to establish credibility of your witnesses, and this account does just that with these two very respectable, known people witnessing the birth and naming of Jesus, and bringing testimony that He was the Promised One. It was great conversation, but more amazing to me was that we really seemed to enter the story. It was like the way the story was written was an invitation for us to jump in, see ourselves there, make it our own story, to be part of the family of God.

I’ve just been thinking: Isn’t it great that God rules us with a story, instead of with laws and endless debates? Isn’t it great that the Bible was written as a collection of stories rather than a collection of statutes? Isn’t it great that God’s greatest revelation of Himself is not as our judge or our prophet or our policeman or our genie or our boss, but our father?

Like I said in a previous post, “spending time with family” didn’t save our Christmas. But our Christmas was saved. It somehow felt like our family was swallowed up in the family of God, and maybe we remembered for a moment that death was even swallowed up in victory, because the family of God even reaches beyond the grave. God decided to raise a family. And not only will he raise my mom, but he will raise all of us to be just like Himself, to be worthy of the Family Name we bear. It’s a good name. It’s a good family.

I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”


Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”[5]



---------------------------
[1] For example, see 1 Peter 4:17, Galatians 6:10, Ephesians 3:15, Hebrews 2:11, Acts 2:44
[2] John 3:7, Ephesians 3:15, Matthew 28:19, Acts 2:38, Acts 8:15-17
[3] Romans 8:15
[4] Micah 5:2
[5] 1 Corinthians 15:50-55

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

the best Christmas

I just read the best Christmas advice ever. Yesterday. Too late. Thanks. Oh well, it was still good advice, and helped make sense of my own Christmas experience and that of some of my friends. So here it is in brief. The full letter is on line here.



How to not only survive but actually enjoy the holiday season:

1. Resist it. That is, the madness of it. The rush to fit it all in. As C.S. Lewis said, "It gives on the whole much more pain than pleasure. You have only to stay over Christmas with a family who seriously try and 'keep it' (in its commercial aspect) to see that the thing is a nightmare. Long before Dec 25th everyone is worn out by the effort to remember all the right recipients and the think out suitable gifts for them. They are in no shape for merry-making; much less to take part in a religious act. They look far more as if there had been a long illness in the house."

2. You can't possibly please family. Not all of them. Jesus knew that. Jesus came from one of the most family-centric cultures in the world, those family systems where it is simply assumed you will drop what you're doing and go to them. Not Jesus. When his mother and brothers show up and want to speak with him He responds, "'Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?' Pointing to his disciples he said, 'Here are my mother and my brothers.'" Oh my. This isn't what any of us expected. He taught us that his true family are those who are in the family of God, that there are two realities we live in, and one is truer than the other. (And isn't that the story of Christmas???)

3. Let the longing bring you to God. Isn't there this internal conflict of emotions associated with Christmas? Doesn't it awake longings that you both love and hate? Aren't there moments, especially at night, when everything seems so beautiful? especially Christmas eve? Aren't there moments when relationships do seem to reach beyond the barrier, and connection is so good? There is time off to enjoy it all. Life seems about to come together the way we always wanted it to. But it never does. You can hate that, or you can let that desire take you deeper into God. You can bring this part of your heart to Jesus.

4. Lavish on someone. Some one. Not every one. This is one of the funnest parts of Christmas--to go over the top for someone you love, put something under the tree that just blows them away. Don't you love it when someone does this for you? Now, it's not doing it for everyone or you're back in the madness again. But some one. "It is more blessed to give than to receive."



Again, the whole letter from John Eldredge on the ransomed heart website under community/newsletters.

I still have more thoughts about Christmas being "a time to spend with family" which was so widely trumpeted this year with Christmas falling on Sunday. I don't know who decided it was "a time to spend with family" and I rather think that does more harm than good, contributes to the depression and anxiety of the season, and shifts the focus away from what Christmas is all about (as Charlie Brown and I found out). I will post on that later, but for now I would say that this year was a very hard year for me and my family with my mom passing away in July. It was our first Christmas without her, and very difficult. I wrote my dad that I felt like an amputee, only it's not just an arm or a leg missing, it’s like a little piece of everything is missing. And Christmas morning had all the signs of being a real kick in the pants until Jesus showed up and brought new life to this family--not because we "spent time with family" but because our family was spending time with Jesus. And really, it's not because we included the story of Jesus in our family time, but because Jesus included our family in His story.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

free or busy?

Busy. Look at your calendar. You're either free or you're busy. The opposite of busy is free. Jesus Christ came to set you free, not to set you busy. If you're busy, you're not free. You're in bondage. Maybe you don't even realize it.

I'm sorry.

I really am.

Mostly because you're in bondage to a lie anyway. Being busy means all your time is used up by something. But all of everybody's time is used up by something. The truth is you always make time for the people and things you want to and are not afraid of. Everything else is just BS.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

the perfect person

Pedestal
by BarlowGirl

You're the coolest person
That I have ever seen
So perfect with your pretty face
On the TV screen

You're a god I know it
How you stand above them all
You are my perfect person
Man I'd hate to see you fall

Chorus
I want someone to believe in
Yeah well don't we all
In this life of imperfection
I need someone who won't fall

Got a magazine today
That was full of you
Shocked to read the words they said
Tell me they're not true

Add you to my fallen list
One more has hit the ground
The fault was mine
I held you too high
Your only way was down

I always thought this song was about someone else, some idol. I was right. It was about me. Super-me. And super-me has to die before the real me can live.

Here's the rest of the song.

Bridge
I can't deny this need inside
I have to find the perfect one
But I wonder if behind my need
There might just be a reason

Is my life just one big searching
For the one I can adore?
It never works
And I'm just left here wanting more

Could it be this hunger's there
To drive me to the one
Who's worthy of all worship?
Would my searching then be done?

The death of super-me is more than just "I'm ok, you're ok." It's more than just "All I can be is all I can be, but I you can be is good enough." I have a deep abiding sense that there should be this perfect person, that if this perfect person exists then somehow everything is right. And it seems like this perfect person should somehow, some way be me. This perfect person should live in my skin. But somehow, super-me is fighting the real perfect person for preeminence. Super-me has to die. Will the real Perfect Person please take the throne?