Thursday, December 29, 2016

My Bible Reading Trap

This time of year I love making lists. I have a list of lists, in fact. Just moments ago, I created a file called, "Life Lists 2017." And reviewing my list of lists from 2016 is actually kind of fun. *pats self on back*

But this check-it-off mentality gets tricky in real life. I mean the real, eternal perspective. Does God even care about my lists? Part of my spiritual check list is reading the Bible through every year. That works together very well with my goal of reading the Bible every day. Those are important items to check off the list.

Then one Saturday a few weeks ago, I sensed God challenging my pride about my spiritual check list. Could I go for a day without reading the Bible? My Bible reading had become a source of my sense of spiritual worthiness. God needed to show me that my status before him was not contingent upon my effort. I'm still learning that lesson.

Here's my current dilemma. I'm on track to finish the Bible in 2016 (following the devotional guide, Dare to Summit: Read It Thru, by my friend Guy Andrews). I could actually finish the Bible today or tomorrow, which would put me ahead of the game. But if I finish the Bible on Dec. 30, then what Bible reading will I do on Dec. 31? Of course I could read any random passage on Dec. 31. But if I start the Bible over again this year, then it could mean that I don't read the whole Bible in 2017--the first day's reading would have been done in 2016. 

OK, as I write this, I realize how stupid it is. But it shows how weak and fallen my faith is. Do I need to brag that I read the Bible through in 2017? What if I don't quite finish it? What if I miss some days of reading the Bible? It's ridiculous that I put such stock in my own performance.

What does God really want from me? Is he really going to say, "Well done, thou good and faithful list checker?" He really wants my heart, not my check boxes.

More often than not, giving him my heart has nothing to do with my lists. He doesn't love me because I perform. He just loves me. That's what has to sink in to me.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Getting Christmas

It's been a long time coming, but maybe, perhaps, I am finally getting Christmas. For some reason, it has been a life-long struggle for me to embrace this winter holiday, celebrating the birth of Jesus. I have been a scrooge before. I have often found Christmas music annoying. I have watched in amazement as others get so amazed at Christmas. Really?

Today, on the day after Christmas, I don't feel any let down at all. I believe this is a first. And I hope I feel this way because I finally, to some small degree, get Christmas. I'm certain that getting older has helped me. And perhaps being forced (by virtue of my vocation) to be all up in Christmas has allowed God to get through to me.

There are a lot of different ways to view Christmas.

Some ignore it entirely, but that's extremely hard to do in America.

Some tolerate it as an excuse for people to celebrate. The gift giving, excessive partying, ugly sweater wearing, song singing, overeating, and family visiting are bound to happen. It's just what people do. Calling it a celebration of Jesus' birthday works just fine.

Some despise Christmas with all its phony, sentimental claims of magic and seasonal happiness. Everyone knows that Christmas is fake, and only a rare, honest person will actually admit it. But the truth tellers have to be very careful not to express this discovery in the wrong company. The willfully deceived can't stand to have their bubble burst.

Some people persuade themselves that they experience the peace and joy of Christmas, but deep down they realize that they have to suspend their disbelief to get there. It's like a journey to Middle Earth: the magical feeling can only come when you tell yourself that hobbits, elves, and dwarves are real. For them "believing" equals make-believe. But it's worth it, because you can really enjoy the holiday.

Some have tried to experience peace and joy at Christmas, but they never quite get there. They tell themselves that they have not tried hard enough to do Christmas right. They approach Christmas with a deep longing every year, and always find themselves disappointed. Maybe next year.

Some have given up on Christmas. They go through the motions of the holiday, but secretly they can't wait for January. They put on a happy face and pretend to enjoy it all. They wonder if it is really real to all those Christmas lovers, but they doubt it. So Christmas becomes a grand interruption of normal life. You just smile and nod, knowing that it will eventually be all over.

And some people get Christmas.

Christmas is about believing. And there are different levels of believing. Some believe in the shallow aspects of Christmas: the glitz, the stuff. They believe they will have fun, and so they do.  Some believe a little more deeply in the relationship aspects of Christmas: family, sharing, volunteering. They believe that they will love people, and they do. Some believe in the depth of God's love, intimately revealed in the birth of his Son. They believe that God reveals himself, changes hearts, and restores this broken world. And he does.

So how am I finally beginning to get Christmas?

Well, God is doing this work in my heart. I can't take credit for it. But here's what I am realizing more and more.

I am loved. Jesus loves me and that changes everything. The world looks different to me when I remember that I am loved.

I am blessed. God speaks good things over me. He doesn't keep me from struggle or all harm, but he constantly reveals his goodness to me. I can trust him.

He is with me. Whatever I face, whatever mistakes I make, whatever evil is aimed at me . . . he is walking with me. Not only is he for me, he is with me.

When I am secure in Christ, I have real freedom. I can smile. I don't have to fix people. I can let his goodness flow through me to others.

I'm not expecting magic at Christmas. I'm learning to receive what God pours out in my life, every day, including the Christmas season. So Christmas doesn't annoy me so much anymore. My attitude is better. On the day after Christmas, I still feel his joy. Maybe, just maybe, I'm getting Christmas.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Welcome, Jesus!

As we enter the night of Christmas Eve, we remember that Jesus broke through from heaven to earth. He came helpless, vulnerable, humble, and powerless. Yet this powerless baby was and is the most powerful person ever to walk this earth. We often fail to recognize this real sort of power.

He calls everyone of us to participate in his goodness, live the truth, and see his beauty. Here, in Jesus, God pierces the veil between heaven and earth. He is now God with Us, Immanuel. He has not forgotten us.

He reminds us that life is not about collecting toys or power; life is not about comfort or privilege; life is found in relationship to him. This life overflows to the world around us.

We celebrate the new life of the Baby Jesus at Christmas. And he brings real new life. He reconciles the world to himself. He completed this work by giving his life on the cross and rising from the dead.

God is with us. God is for us. God is in us. We celebrate this Jesus!

Friday, December 16, 2016

Christmas on Sunday: Uh oh...

Occasionally Christmas falls on a Sunday--about one-seventh of the time, I would think. I have to admit that I don't like it. It messes with our Sunday routine and our Christmas routine. This interruption forces us to make choices, and it may make us think a little more clearly.

How is a Christian to celebrate Christmas on a Sunday? Some will bag the church service entirely; some will opt for part, but not all, of the Sunday services; some will probably go all out for Christmas at church.

Of course that will depend on what their church is offering.

Some churches have cancelled services entirely on December 25.
Some churches will have streamlined services, like we will at Crossroads.
I imagine that some churches may have even more elaborate services than usual.

Christmas on Sunday brings to my mind some questions.
Isn't Christmas all about Jesus? Isn't church all about Jesus? If so, wouldn't it be twice as celebratory to have both on the same day?

Or maybe Christmas is about family, food, decorations, music, and gifts. We have to consider our stated beliefs in light of our practices.

But at the same time, there is grace and freedom in Jesus. Celebrating Christmas (which is never called for in the Bible) should not become a legalistic requirement. Even Jesus missed some weekly synagogue services. Can we skip church on Christmas, and truly celebrate the freedom we have in Christ?

Do we really celebrate Jesus in our Christmas family gatherings? Or is Christmas just a good occasion to gather family and friends?

Maybe I'm the only one to get so analytical here. Or maybe a lot of believers are thinking this, and I'm just saying it.

Here's my encouragement to you: Let Jesus break through to you as you celebrate his birth on Sunday this year. Enjoy your freedom in Christ, purchased for you on the cross. Know that he came for you and longs to enjoy your fellowship--whether that is around the fireplace, the dinner table, or in a worship service.

Receive the blessing of Jesus this Christmas!

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Stop Picking on Millennials

Please excuse all the broad brushstrokes below.

I'm getting a little tired of hearing people dump on millennials. They are depicted as spoiled, arrogant, easily offended, coddled, and idealistic. They live in their parents' basements and play video games all day, wearing pajamas.

They are searching for themselves, but don't know where to look.

I'm at the tail end of the Baby Boom, and I never felt like I really fit in that generation. Most boomers are older than I, and I always felt like the little brother. But boomers were well known for disagreeing with the older generation. I remember hearing constantly about the "generation gap." Old people just don't get the young folks.

Now the boomers are the old folks, and--shocker--the old folks don't get the young folks. But we boomers have taken on the challenge of putting millennials in their place. We ridicule the youngest adults for their participation trophies and "safe spaces." Heck, I remember getting a participation trophy for baseball in 1972, and I was glad to get it. I don't think my team won any games.

Yes, millennials have different perspectives than their elders, but that doesn't mean they are stupid. It doesn't mean that they have nothing of value to say. It means that they can see what we are blind to.

Part of what ticks off boomers, at least in church world, is that millennials point out the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of typical Christians. The evangelical church is built for comfort, not justice; for big numbers, not big impact; for big budgets, not sacrifice. We have an Americanized version of Christian faith, and it is, necessarily, a distortion of the true gospel.

Boomers pointed out the hypocrisy of our parents. Anybody remember, "Don't trust anyone over 30"? The younger generation has a knack for pointing out those bothersome gaps between principles and practice. Boomers objected to the Vietnam War. What were we really fighting for? Boomers rejected arbitrary rules about guys having long hair. And I think we objected to some other equally important things.

Then boomers turned 30. Over time, boomers became the establishment. But we are not acting like our parents, just ignoring the silliness of the young. Boomers are offering open ridicule of a new generation, because they are idealistic. They want to save the planet, fight for justice, end racism, feed the hungry, cure diseases, etc.

They don't want to sit in pews to hear excellent music and inspiring sermons, and just leave their faith there. They want to make a difference. They want to head into the danger of fighting systemic injustice. They want to engage in fair trade. They want to help create sustainable economic health in developing countries. They see that Americans don't have all the answers. They see that Americanizing the world is not a desirable goal, and certainly not the role of the Church.

I think it's time for the boomer generation to stop picking on millennials and begin to listen to their hearts. Yes, they lack our experience, but that's a good thing. It helps them look at the world's issues more open-mindedly. They don't take for granted that more stuff is better. They don't really want--dare I say it?--the American Dream. Christian millennials want to see Christ's Kingdom come.

After all, this is not an "us vs. them" thing. It is us together, the Body of Christ. We really need each other: old and young, rich and poor, American and international. We can do better at making disciples of all nations. We can do better at loving orphans and widows. We can do better at using our resources. We can do better than merely counting people in pews on Sunday mornings. We can engage in this world with the power of Jesus.

A Daughter named "Not Loved"

Reading through Hosea this morning, I was struck by God's command to the prophet. God told him to marry an adulteress. And when she conceived her second child, a girl, Hosea was to name her Lo-Ruhamah (Hosea 1:6). Translated from Hebrew into English, the name means "Not Loved," or "Not Shown Compassion." A few verses later we learn that she was weaned. Other than that, we know nothing of this person.

God used the names of Hosea's three children as object lessons for the nations of Israel and Judah. He also used Hosea's marriage to Gomer as an object lesson. God had a bigger purpose in mind. Hosea willingly obeyed the Lord, and the prophetic message went to the Hebrews and endures forever in scripture.

But I feel compassion toward this little girl born around 750 B.C. I want to imagine that Hosea loved his (only?) daughter with great tenderness and strength. Surely she needed the warm, loving embrace of her father, and surely Hosea found the time and heart to show her God's love. Apparently she would never find that attention from her mother.

My point is that we don't always understand what God is up to. When he leads us into dark places and situations we want to avoid, we need to shine his light even brighter.

May those today who feel like Not Loved find the Lord's ambassadors and know that they truly are loved--by God and by his people.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

How to Write a Christmas Family Newsletter

Here they come. Those Christmas Family newsletters, folded neatly into so many Christmas cards. (I suspect that we see fewer of them now, with social media offering instant updates...) In fact, the happy-faced, polished profiles on Facebook look like ongoing stories inspired by actual Christmas newsletters.

This Baby Blues comic from Dec. 5, 2016 sums it up perfectly.

It may be annoying to read about the perfect lives of friends and family, but it could be worse. We could read about all the dysfunction and disappointment plaguing the world, and this delivered with a personal touch.

Yeah, this year was even worse than last year. Joe lost three jobs, and Jane gained another 50 pounds. The kids are flunking, and their friends reject them. But when the house burned, we did save three photo albums and an iPod. Everyone's got the flu now. Maybe that's why the dog ran away...

So, how do you craft a sincere, honest, uplifting newsletter? I offer these as theoretical suggestions, because we don't send out a family newsletter, and never really have. And we DO like to receive them from others, even if they are airbrushed.

Keep the focus on gratitude.
Yes, the kids made good grades, but aren't the teachers extraordinary? We are blessed with a great school!

Little Johnny is loving his basketball team, especially his encouraging coach.

Share some growing edges for the family.
Times are still tight for us, but we expect to see the family business turn the corner next year.

Mary's cancer has returned, but we have so much support from our friends. We couldn't do it without them!

Acknowledge the big picture.
We are thankful that we have this time of year to reflect on God's love for us and you.

In the joys and the struggles, God has shown us such goodness. We rejoice at being part of his story.

So, enjoy all the holiday greetings, and don't get too proud if your family is better than mine.