I spent many years celebrating Christmas like most folks do. Pouring incredible amounts of time and resources into gifts for family and friends. I spent time preparing for office holiday parties and there were several occasions that I spent drinking too much. I am not proud of this yet I have to acknowledge that this is how I chose to celebrate the season. My lack of respect for the holiday was forever changed when I experienced Christmas in Korea.
For starters, only Christians celebrated Christmas. It was a novel experience to live in a society where the holiday was not so commercialized or sensationalized. Those that celebrated Christmas in Korea made it a relatively low key event. Children got one gift and the church was at the center of the celebration. At its core Christmas is a religious holiday and it was treated as such. A mentor and friend, Dr. Mark Krause - Dean of Academics at Nebraska Christian College, recently wrote:
"The celebration of Jesus’s birth brings out many beloved things for us: babies, gifts, music, and family to name a few. But at its heart, Christmas is a theological holiday. It looks at one of the greatest mysteries in human history: how could God become human? Was Jesus God or Man? Or both? In our moments of deepest theological honesty, we look at this mystery of the incarnation and must say, "I don't know. I don't understand it fully, but I am sure glad that it happened."
God is great, and I'm sure he could have come up with another plan for human redemption from sin other than taking on human flesh in the person of Jesus. But this is what God chose to do. So, while Christmas is meaningless without Easter, Easter is impossible without Christmas."
He sums up so eloquently the challenges we face with Christmas in America these days and it was what I so poignantly experienced in Korea; Christmas celebrated as a religious experience. How many of us stop to think about the mysteries of Christmas? How many of us stop and think about who and what we actually celebrate this time of year? How many of us dig into the intricacies of God’s redemption plan and how it was started. How is it possible that a sinful human could give birth to God?
There is a popular phrase this time of year that I scoff at a bit…Keep Christ in Christmas. I want to encourage you to see that there is no need to keep Him in Christmas but to understand and begin to embrace that Christ is Christmas. He is the centerpiece of God’s plan for redemption and salvation and that started at His birth. Just as the angels stated to the shepherds all those years ago…That is good news. In fact, I dare say, it is the best news you will read today.
CGlobal issues are utterly fascinating to me. So much so that I earned a Masters degree in Diplomacy and Communications from The Patterson School at the University of Kentucky. One of the many things that I learned that still rings true today is that the world is much more complex than we can ever imagine.
How many of you have spent the time reading and researching ISIS? Have you just lumped them in with all other terrorist organizations? How many of you have spent any amount of time researching, reading and understanding the complexities of refugee migration or have you just jumped on the bandwagon that seems to be running rampant across our country?
I have to admit and state right up front I do not know all the details nor do I have time to sort through all the dynamics at play here. At risk of oversimplification I will try and unpack the challenges that are before us as an American and as a Christian.
The Islamic State is no joke. In their ideology, they are more fervent and more radical than even a group like Al Quaeda. One of their end goals is to help usher in the “End Times”. They have installed a caliphate and the rules and regulations placed on this religious and political leader are unforgiving. There is no ability to compromise in their governance. Unlike most terrorist groups they live in the open and have a very clear agenda taken directly from the Koran if you have read or choose to read the Koran you too could figure out what their plan is and why they are developing a “country”.
Their tactics are brutal and their treatment of infidels and apostates are barbaric. Which serves to create fear and disgust in the western world and recruitment material in the Islamic world. They have taken to practices of bombing, kidnapping, and public murder to further both agendas. But what most people do not understand that their modus operandi is to first and foremost purge the Islamic world of those who are not puritanical enough in their views of their faith. A similar comparison would be what if a radical christian organization arose and tried to literally live out a faith defined by Exodus and Leviticus. For example, Leviticus 18 1-28 defines every type of detestable sexual situations and ends with this:
‘Everyone who does any of these detestable things—such persons must be cut off from their people. This means that anyone having sexual relations not aligned with Levitical law would be killed. This radical christian group would be coming through each and every town cutting off everyone who was not living according to these laws. This is what ISIS is doing. They are terrorizing the Muslim people who are not in line with their 7th century hermeneutic of the Koran.
I want you to think about some simple things…could you imagine being killed for having mold in your house, for not wearing the correct clothing, for simply eating fat or blood in your meat, for having a tattoo, for wearing the wrong clothing, or for doing any amount of work on the holy day? As ridiculous as that sounds to our ears...this is the plight of the Syrian refugees.
Here we are in the United States…six months ago we crucified a dentist for killing a lion and yet we have not taken the two minutes to stop and think how one bad apple is going to stop us from letting people who have been persecuted for speaking the wrong words or wearing the wrong clothing or not saying prayers correctly. Worse yet are people who claim Christ leading the charge to deny the foreigner any level of justice. Any reading of the bible makes it clear that we are not to let fear rule in our hearts. We are to work on behalf of those who are vulnerable (widows, orphans and the foreigner literally). We are to take up their case of injustice. If fear is our modus operandi for denying Syrian refugees in our country/state then we really have to wrestle with how little faith we have or what political gains are trying to be made. .
Global issues are complex and require a deal of work to get a clear picture of what might be happening in any corner of the globe. However, as a Christian it is clear and quite simple: We are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. It is time for Christians to stop being cowards and start acting more like the man who put His life on the line for us. The Syrian refugees are not our enemies and they need our help and prayers.
This summer as we were settling into our home one of our visitors asked why do you have MYOB on our refridgerator. We have 4 pillars of parenting and within those pillars we have behaviors we are trying to shape within our daughters. It just so happened that MYOB was the character we were focusing on at the time. MYOB (and no, it is not some clever take on BYOB)…it means MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS
We know that if we do not instruct on this character trait early it will be a tough nut to crack later. I mean we all know those busy bodies who make it their business to be up in everybody’s business right? Every college I have worked in, every non-profit I have been a part of, even in the ministry there are those people who make it their business to be about every body else’s business. They show up places to just see what they can get into. They develop friendships simply to access more information. Whoever meddles in a quarrel not his own is like one who takes a passing dog by the ears (Proverbs 26:17)
Having grown up in a small town eerily similar to Harlan (but not being in a small town for over 20 years now) it has hit me like a ton of bricks just how big a challenge this can be in a rural community where everybody’s business is really easy to get into. We can easily compound the challenges by inviting all kinds of people into our lives with the constant use of social media. We live in a place and a time where it is so incredibly easy to get into other peoples business. I think this is why Jesus said, ““Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” Essentially…MYOB. The idea is that we each have enough problems and challenges in our own life that when we go looking or digging into other’s lives for it we become prone to making judgements and it’s those judgements that lead to trouble. But learning the discipline of knowing what is your business and what is not leads a person to much better outcomes for all involved.
It is a healthy habit to learn early but it is a habit that can be learned at any age. There have been many a times in my ministry where someone will come to me with Johnny’s issue and I simply have to say, “If Johnny wants to deal with that issue how about you let Johnny come talk to me”. In a marriage, in a business relationship, in ministry, and in parenting there is incredible power when we can set the boundaries of what IS my business and what IS NOT and when we do so we lessen the power of judgement and open the power of grace.
Having recently moved to Harlan, it has been fun to just observe my new home. I will take the opportunity now to apologize if you noticed a guy creeping you out because you felt like he was “watching” you. My nature is to observe people. I have observed people in China, Korea, Canada, Kentucky, Nebraska, and Iowa. What I will share with you is people here in Harlan are no different than people everywhere. People are people everywhere…irregardless of age, geography, economic status, gender and politics. In other words, there are core commonalities to being human regardless of where you were raised, who you were raised by, and in what decade you were raised. Some would argue that technology changes humanity to which I would argue, technology changes how humanity functions but does not change humanity at the core.
I have seen parents in Harlan laugh with their kids just as heartily as I have seen parents and grandparents enjoy their children in China. I have seen indescribable suffering over the loss of a loved one here in Harlan..just as i have seen in all corners of the world. There are good people everywhere and there are people with bad intentions everywhere too. One observation, strong families promote a healthy society. Where you have strong families crime rates are lower, education is valued, work is valued, and generally there is greater respect, greater satisfaction for life, more harmony, and more peace.
At the center of a strong family is a strong marriage. Strong marriages are based on the abilities of each individual in that relationship to distance themselves from their selfish desires and intentionally pursue the interests of their spouse/family. The only power I know that can stand up to the power of self is the power of Christ. It is for this reason that Christ has to be at the center of a marriage. Play the logic out…when Christ is not at the center, marriages will struggle, selfish desires will rule, open up the gate for the decline of family and community. When politicians misdirect and mislead, when more and more kids are disrespectful to parents and teachers, when there is an increase in crime and so on there is a reason for it. I am just not sure many are making the connection.
Here is my point. My observation is that Harlan is not much different that the rest of the world…The truth about the strength of our society is dependent upon the home and whether or not Christ is at its center.
If you have paid attention to any christian social media or in general the christian response to the world in the past month or so you might get the idea that the second coming of Christ can’t come fast enough. With our national courts redefining marriage, the Vatican recognizing the Palestinian state, and the recent tragedy in Charleston, SC many followers believe the world is just falling apart, literally the world is going to hell in a hand basket. The shear volume of noise Christians create expressing fear and paranoia is staggering and confounding. Admittedly, there are times it is hard to see God in all the perceived chaos. What appears to be a lack of interest on God’s part might actually be an opportunity that far to many followers of Christ are missing.
Martin Luther wrote some wise words (words that serve as a great reminder for the post-christian world we are entering), “God our Father has made all things depend on faith so that whoever has faith will have everything, and whoever does not have faith will have nothing. There are times in our world God may simply be asking his followers to trust Him. Let me encourage any and all followers of Christ today. The world has always been falling apart to one degree or another but our God is in charge of yesterday, today and tomorrow. There is no need for the faithful to be a modern-day Chicken Little screaming from the top of our lungs (or even in the quiet of our home) “The sky is falling”. Psalm 89 is a wonderful reminder of how mighty is our God…
1 I will sing of the Lord’s great love forever;
with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known
through all generations.
2 I will declare that your love stands firm forever,
that you have established your faithfulness in heaven itself.
9 You rule over the surging sea;
when its waves mount up, you still them.
10 You crushed Rahab like one of the slain;
with your strong arm you scattered your enemies.
11 The heavens are yours, and yours also the earth;
you founded the world and all that is in it.
There is no need to have anxiety. In fact, we are called to live as if we believe our God is in control. Our God who conquered death still has his finger on the very pulse of our world. It is time for the faithful followers of Christ to take their faith off the shelf, dust it off a bit and live life with confidence that our God is still in charge
Where has the year gone? I don’t know about you but the holidays, by their very nature…a break from the regular grind, tend to usher in a time of reflection. With the Thanksgiving holiday just around the corner, I have begun to think about what this holiday really means to me. I know the cliché answers such as we remember a good harvest or the historical celebration between the natives and the pilgrims but in truth those reasons fall short of why I celebrate this holiday.
Thanksgiving or giving of thanks. It is an act, generally speaking, we do every day as a routine part of politeness or general civility. Thank you for getting me that report or thanks for helping with the flat tire but that is not really what this holiday means to me…that is just being polite.
For me, as it is I suspect for so many of you, it is a time to be with family. It is a time to share meals with loved ones, catch a football game or two and see how you can spend your hard earned money on cheap goods at crazy hours. But even that falls short.
I recently came across Psalm 50. It’s an unusual Psalm written in God’s voice asking this question, “What do you give a God who has everything?” He simply asks for thanks by the singular dedication of our lives to Him. He asks for a giving of thanks from each and every one of us by the dedication of our hearts to him.
A friend of mine was in his church recently and looked over at his wife, his 3 children and 4 grandchildren (with two more on the way) and just buckled under the weight of what has been given to him. He is a recovering drug addict and survived not one, not two, not three but four attempts at suicide by overdose. He shared, "The only thing I could give back to God was thanks in the form of the giving of my life to my Savior."
You see I think this is the real reason for this season of Thanksgiving. It is a time to reflect on the blessings God has given you. If you would take account of the blessings: maybe you or a member of your family survived cancer, maybe your grandchild survived a traumatic birth event, maybe your family was released of the suffering brought on by Alzheimer’s, maybe you have found love again or for the first time, maybe you were blessed with work. There are so many reason to have a deep, genuine thankful encounter with the God who has everything. Can I encourage you to take a moment and think about your blessings? Then with a heart of gratitude (not a simple notion of politeness or civility) but with a humbled heart give God a heart-filled thanksgiving for all He has done for you.
Something amazing happened to me today. Before I go too much further let me confess a couple things. I am a geek/nerd in disguise and I have some neanderthal tendencies in life. Clash of clans is a borderline addiction for me. I fell into a great group of people who love Christ and enjoy playing this game together. As part of the game we play against other teams (clans) on a regular basis. The last team we played made it quite clear they were not too fond of our faithful stance on life. Using their bases to communicate some pretty strong messages. So foul in fact I had to report them. In our group we have teens and pre-teens and what the other clan was communicating was clearly not appropriate.
We lost the game against these neanderthals and they continued to taunt us…something about Jesus being on their side. So I left our clan and joined theirs. Before I left we had one guy cursing them in an unintelligible language, we had people battening down the hatches, pulling up the draw-bridges, and closing off the castle. It was a hunkering down isolationist type of attitude…keep the enemy out mindset.
The first thing I want to address in this…when I jumped clans…those neanderthals welcomed me with open arms. Chatted me up like I was the best thing since sliced bread. Laughed with me, chided me, and accepted me as one of their own after they deemed me “cool”.
What bothered me most in this and what I found so amazing is the Christians were acting like the neanderthals…and the neanderthals were acting like Christians. Full confession…I was one of the neanderthals posing as a Christian. The past 24 hours I have spent time in 1 Corinthians 13. Love. Love Love. As Christians we have to lead with love. God is quite clear that we we are nothing to him but an annoyance unless we lead with love. Even though we may have differences of opinion on the standards of life…those who have a different (and by different I mean lower) standard should not be seen as the enemy. In fact if you do a deep study of Matthew 5:38-48 you can discover this truth that works hand in hand with 1 Corinthians 13. The Christian does not have an enemy. There should be be no us vs. them mentality in the Christian. Those that are not yet followers of Christ are still God’s creation (kids)…and if they do not see themselves as His own,the Christian is called to an even higher standard of being Christ to them. So no matter how we consider people who are not followers of Christ, no matter how their behaviour and how low their standard…"Enemy" is never a description nor attitude we should put on.
The Christmas gift return drives me insane. They irk me. They drive me nuts. (I feel better for getting that out there). There is the occasional needing of a new size or an item needs to be returned because it was damaged. I get that. However I cannot imagine that the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on returns the day after Christmas are all wrong-sized or damaged goods. Nope, the number one reason people return gifts is they wanted something different. When was the last time you gave a gift and not had to find out before hand if the gift was “ok” or “preapproved”? Are we that narcissistic, that self-involved that even our gift giving has to be tailored perfectly? The answer is yes.
What is really lost is not the art of gift-giving but rather the art of gift-receiving. What is lost is the humility and grace and appreciation that someone has thought enough about you that they have invested their time, emotion, and money into a gift. We have lost the fact that we are valued in their lives to the point where a gift of their choosing is an expression of the value of that relationship. This is why the personalized gift, the one that really requires something from the gift giver is being lost. The best gifts cost us something. They require us to think about the person and their likes and needs. They require us to give a piece of us away, a true investment. I love to give packages of beef jerky away. I cut the steak. I marinate it. I dehydrate it. Nearly everyone who has received my gift loves it. They love it (I hope) because they know I have invested into it. Think about that, especially the next time you reach for a gift card.
I can’t help but think, though, that the way we receive gifts today is quite representative of our spiritual state. I really don’t know that many people who are not demanding God give His gifts in ways that are pleasing to us. He gave us Jesus, his only son and yet here we are trying to define Jesus the way we want him to be. Jesus the “My God of the Vending Machine” (put a prayer in…get out what you want), or the “Cash Machine God” (I waste all my money but I want you to give me more), or the “Sex Machine God” (give me someone to fulfill my needs without any investment or commitment on my part). We have turned God’s greatest gift into nothing more than an impersonal gift card exchange. Are we losing the ability to fully accept and receive His gift?
I invite you this season to be a better gift receiver. Accept your gifts with understanding and appreciation. Loosen the demands on the gift giver and I think you will be amazed at how rich this season will be. Know that the best gift you can receive is your savior. Accept Him for who He is and know that the gift you have been given, the gift that we celebrate at Christmas, is the best kind of gift because it really cost someone to give it!
You are familiar with William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, right? Educated boys from “good” homes are marooned on an island and struggle to survive. There are no adults in their space to guide their decision making, raising this critical question about human nature, “In a place and time without rules and guidance, would you descend into the abyss of human depravity (the beast in the story) or would you rise to elevate the value of human life in the midst of trial?”
What makes this book so fascinating are the characters and the moral dilemmas they encounter. They are all schoolboys. They vary in age but by any measure they are children…kids. They are trying to survive on an island isolated from the rest of the world. They try to figure out what really matters in life and how best to do life. Many of the characters wrestle with how far they would go as they shape a “new” morality. When I first read the book I remember barely being able to finish the book because of the inevitable outcome.
As I keep tabs on headlines locally and nationally, I can’t help but think we are raising a “Lord of the Flies” generation. With far-too-great regularity we are reading headlines about children (kids) who are left to their own devices on the internet; a virtual island without adults and we are seeing and living through the projected “Lord of the Flies” outcome. Children are dying because of other children living out their lives without any adults to be found on the island.
I can’t help but think of Cain and Abel; one who takes the high road and one who takes the low road…no parents in sight.
Out of no where the adults show up in the Lord of the Flies to stave off the inevitable. Those who take the low road have to confront the depravity they embraced. I imagine the two young girls (ages 12 and 14) in Florida are experiencing a similar reality. They are going to pay a heavy price for their alleged choices (role) in another child’s death. Cain paid a heavy price for his depravity and so too will all of those kids on the internet who embrace the beast inside each of us. What will it take for parents to get on the internet island with their kids to save them from the depraved masses? When are the adults going to show up to save the kids who have taken the high road? The reality is we are living in a time when more and more parents really don’t care (they say they do, but their actions don’t correlate with their words) about
their kids and have turned them over to the internet, a cyberspace island. How close does the disaster have to be before you involve yourself in your child’s internet island?
If you have children in your home who spend time on any social sites, can I encourage you to take an ACTIVE role there? Don’t let one more child suffer needlessly because “I thought they were a good kid.”
“Here, invisible yet strong, was the taboo of the old life. Round the squatting child was the protection of parents and school and policemen and the law. Roger was conditioned by a civilization that knew nothing of him and was in ruins.”
William Golding, Lord of the Flies
The following are some excerpts of a spoken word event and there were a few of the lines that really caught my ear...
God’s people, don’t look at me like that.
Your pupils look like firing bullets, knocking
us out one by one by one, saying you can’t come in
because you never learned how to pray.
God's people, don’t look at me like that. Your
iris’s look like vortexs of instability rolling
our ground like an earthquake telling us to
we can’t come in.
God’s people, don’t look at me like
that, don’t shake your head at my
appearance just because I have ink on my arm doesn’t
make me less of a person, just because I have color on my
eyelids, just because my skirts above my
knee, just because my fists don’t unwind and
interlock doesn’t make me less of a person.
I know there are many in society that feel this way. They feel as if they will be judged for how they act, dress, look, talk, and so on and that keeps them from Christ. Please know that as Christians we fail to live up to the standard set forth by our savior. Though at times we fail to be as loving as He is, to be as accepting and non-judgmental, He will never fail to love you just as you are. It is the standard we are trying to achieve at Christ's Church. It is not our intention to put up barriers on yourr way to Christ, we sometimes just don't get it right.