Thursday, December 22, 2011

Wait, wait. I'm not ready for Christmas.

This morning I had to convince my overly eager children that there were still three days left until Christmas. Sophie saw no need to count one of those days claiming there were only two days left. “Depends on how you count,” she said.

It’s easy to tell, my kids are ready for Christmas. I am not.

All I can think of is how much I have left to do. I have to finish up a couple of sermons. Fine tune a couple of gifts. I have to double check all my lists and make sure I haven’t forgotten anything. I find myself pleading with the calendar, “Could you slow down just a bit? I’m not quite ready for Christmas.” Maybe you feel the same way.

Ready or not, though, Christmas is on the way. It will show up regardless of whether or not my to-do lists are complete. Surprisingly, Christmas’ stubborn refusal to delay is a form of grace. For who can ever be ready for Christmas, really. Not just the day, mind you, but the Christ who came and still comes on Christmas day. How does one get ready for the coming of one’s King?

Sure there’s the repentance and the straightening up of one’s soul. Both good and proper things, no doubt. But after one has done all the cleaning up of one’s heart, a quick look around our lives reminds us that our meager souls are still pretty poor quarters for the Lord of all creation. The closer he gets the more we find ourselves saying, “Wait, wait. Things are not ready. I am not ready.”

And yet, Christ comes anyway for his coming is not about our worthiness, but his mercy. Not about our togetherness, but his care. Not about our worthiness, but his love.

Maybe that’s why kids are always ready for Christmas and adults are not. Children are always ready to receive a gift, even a gift they could never earn. We adults on the other hand, have trouble just standing there with open hands, especially with boxes on our to-do lists unchecked.

But Christmas is coming whether we’re ready or not. Thank the Lord.

What do you have that you did not receive? – 1 Corinthians 4:7

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Get the Thank You Notes Ready

This post was originally published in December of 2009.

What do you think you’ll be getting for Christmas year? Do you already know? Have you already received it? Did you say thank you? Life is full of gifts. It goes to reason that life should then be full of thanks. But sometimes its easy to think what we receive isn’t a gift, but something we’re owed. We’ve worked hard this year, we tell ourselves, so we deserve this. We’ve been good and now it’s time to reward ourselves. That’s fine to a point. However, my guess is that the numbers of things in this life we deserve are far fewer than we imagine. Our lives abound in unmerited gifts.

A friend posted a G. K. Chesterton quote on his Facebook page this morning that made me smile: "When we were children we were grateful to those who filled our stockings at Christmas time. Why are we not grateful to God for filling our stockings with legs?" I don’t know that I’ve ever called what are on my feet stockings, but I get the point. Chesterton said in another place, “The great saint may be said to mix all his thoughts with thanks. All goods look better when they look like gifts.”

Oh to have hearts of humility and eyes of gratefulness! Life would indeed look so much better. Let’s start today. What are some of the unmerited gifts in your life for which you would like to give thanks?

Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you – 1 Thessalonians 5:18

Friday, December 16, 2011

Longing for More (Revisited)

This post was originally published in December of 2009.  I've added several coffee mugs to my own collection since then.

Recently, I sat down in a local coffee shop in the hopes of getting some sermon work done. Alas, there was another person in the place intent on bringing the rest of us along on his own personal quest for the perfect gift. In his thick New England accent, he loudly perused the gift table next to where I was sitting. Carefully he picked up each potential gift and then extolled its many benefits to no one in particular. After what seemed like half an hour (but was probably closer to five minutes), he settled upon some Christmas mugs – on sale no less – for $3.99. He checked with one of the sales clerks, “$3.99? Really? These are great. I have some white ones like them but these Christmas ones are spectacular. They’ll look great with my Christmas dishes. . . .” And on and on and on.

Then an interesting thing happened. When Mr. Boston finally made his purchase and left the store, I breathed deeply and turned my attention back to my work. I expected others to do the same. But they didn’t. Instead, several other patrons left their tables and came over to look at those Christmas mugs. There wasn’t any shoving or pushing, but there was certainly some angling for position. Within minutes every last one of those previously ignored mugs had been sold! I laughed in slight amazement. I wondered to myself if Mr. Boston had been planted by the store to push those mugs.

Plant or not, he exposed something of human nature that day. Most of us live with a realization that there is more to life than we’re currently experiencing. We live with a fear that we’re missing out on something that other people have found. We rush to fill up that empty place with all sorts of things – something as silly as Christmas mugs – or as the recent fall of one of my favorite golfers reveals – something as tragic as a relationship with someone other than one’s spouse. But all these pursuits prove to be in vain. Next Christmas, next year, next time our significant other lets us down, without having learned a thing, we’ll be making the exact same searches for new gifts or new people that will momentarily tickle our souls.

But what if we’re taking the wrong approach altogether? What if the longing in our hearts wasn’t something to be fixed at all? What if the uneasiness that there’s something more to this life might instead be a gift from God himself? What if that longing is a gift that’s meant to keep us from settling for cheap imitations of the Kingdom of God? What if, instead of deadening our longings with the narcotic of instant gratification, we are meant to nurture those desires into holy anticipation? The practice of Advent is meant to lead us in just that direction. If we'll take time to embrace the empty places in our lives this season, if we'll resist the urge to fill them up with the first thing we find, we might be able to replace the fleeting desires for cheap ceramics and illicit affairs with a deeper longing for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. Oh Lord, teach us to long for deeper things.

I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me – Micah 7:7.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Learning to Appreciate our Gifts

Shoppers are beginning to get that look of desperation in their eyes. They scramble to and fro on these last days before Christmas, searching now, not for that perfect gift for the ones they love, but simply for a gift so that the tree will not be bare. I’m doing the same. I still lack a couple of gifts before my gift buying is complete. In all the stress and trouble, I wonder: do we even remember the gifts we gave last year? Do we remember the gifts we received? If you’re like me, it takes some effort. If I can’t even remember those gifts, can I really be said to appreciate them?

G. K. Chesterton once wrote, “The aim of life is appreciation; there is no sense in not appreciating things; and there is no sense in having more of them if you have less appreciation of them.” Part of the problem is that appreciating things takes time. We rarely get off the treadmill of consumption long enough to recognize the beauty and the value of the gifts we already possess.

Sometime this Christmas, either before or after you unwrap the packages, pause and do some appreciating. Take time to give thanks for the greatest gifts in your life. My guess is that they won’t be things but people. And the things that matter most, will be the things that are most intimately connected to the people. I think of my grandfather’s watch. It’s not an expensive watch, nor is it a style I’d buy for myself. But it was his, and now it’s mine. And of all my various possessions, it’s probably one of the few I appreciate the most. Which reminds me, the perfect gift is not so much about the one who receives it (his likes, her tastes, their desires), but about the one who gave it (her love, his care, their kindness). At least for me, remembering that truth replaces much of the stress of this season with the joy of gratitude.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son . . .” – John 3:16

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

God as a Toddler (Revisited)

My little boy turns five this week.  With its nearness to Christmas, his birthday is always a time when I find myself reflecting upon the meaning of the incarnation.  Here's a blog post from 2008 in which I pondered what it must have been like for God Almighty to turn two.

He so loved us that, for our sake,
He was made man in time,
although through him all times were made.
He was made man, who made man.
He was created of a mother whom he created.
He was carried by hands that he formed.
He cried in the manger in wordless infancy,
he the Word, without whom all human eloquence is mute.
— St. Augustine

My youngest will turn two tomorrow. Two is already proving to be a tough age. For the last couple of weeks our once happy-go-lucky baby has increasingly become a frustrated and upset toddler. I think the reason is plain enough. His doing and thinking are progressing faster than his speaking (or at least faster than his parents’ ability to interpret his speaking). On numerous occasions John Curtis will say something which makes perfect sense to him but to my adult ears sounds something like “blah-blah” (think a reversal of Charlie Brown’s teacher here).

I’ll ask, “Do you want a drink?”

He’ll respond, “No” – a word he articulates clearly – and then say again “more ‘blah-blah.’”

I’ll try something else, “A snack?”

“No. More ‘blah-blah.’”

“To sit with Daddy?”

“No! More ‘blah-blah.’”

“To go back to bed?”

“NO! MORE ‘BLAH-BLAH!’”

I can understand why the boy gets frustrated. I get frustrated for him (and in weaker moments with him). I’d like to comfort him with the thought that he’ll soon outgrow this particular limitation. He will, but the truth is, there will be others. So goes the constraints of our humanity.

As I pause this Advent season and think once more of the incarnation I wonder what it was like for God Almighty to be God-the-toddler. Was it frustrating for the God who spoke the universe into being to be forced to learn to use lips and tongue to form the most basic of requests? Did he get frustrated when Mary and Joseph looked down at him in their own frustration, not having a clue what he was talking about? Like any two year old (but unlike any of them, as well), I’m sure he did. Why did God submit himself to such troubles and many more? St. Augustine put it well, because he loved us.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us – John 1:14.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Frustration

Alyson and I were talking the other day about the way things were when we were a kid (a sure sign we’re getting older). We were remembering life before cell phones and e-mail and instant messaging. We remembered with some nostalgia back when you didn’t even have cordless phones in your house. Both of us can remember as children, talking on the kitchen phone wondering around the kitchen stretching that long, curly and often kinked cord to its full length (which was quite long). With such limited telecommunication tools available, you couldn’t talk to anyone at anytime. Sometimes you had to wait. 

We’ve come along way. Information flows at the speed of light. Life seems speed by at the same rate. Just this week, I marveled at the speed with which certain college football programs fire and hire head coaches. Sometimes the transition took only hours. In one case, I’m pretty sure the previous coach hadn’t even cleared out his office yet. Obviously, the speed with which we talk to one another has had unintended consequences. 

As a society we have become an impatient people. And yet those who long to encounter the miraculous must be a patient people. Just think of Mary hearing the angel’s words, “Mary, you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.” The thing with the miraculous (not to mention the thing with being pregnant) is it can’t be rushed. It happens according to a heavenly schedule that can’t be hurried or fast forwarded.

So we patiently wait for God to move. What unexpectedly happens for the patient person is they discover God not just in the moving but also in the waiting. Henri Nouwen put it this way, “The word patience means the willingness to stay where we are and live the situation out to the full in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself to us. Impatient people are always expecting the real thing to happen somewhere else and therefore want to go elsewhere. The moment is empty. But patient people dare to stay where they are. Patient living means to live actively in the present and wait there.”

Let us be a people who have the guts to stay where we are and seek God there.

“Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; 31but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” Isaiah 40:30-31.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

It Doesn't Feel Like Christmas

For most of us, family traditions surrounding the holidays are what make the season feel like Christmas. There’s just something about us humans that loves doing things the way we’ve done them before. And for what it’s worth there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Putting the decorations in the same places every year, eating the same foods, seeing the same folks can all serve as a wonderful way to knit a family together and emphasize their collective values. At our house, we know it's Christmas when the advent wreath shows up on the coffee table. The kids enjoy the lighting of the candles and the reading of a Christmas devotional. Actually, what they enjoy is blowing out the candle each night! Alyson and I trust the truth of the stories is sinking deep into their hearts even if their immediate focus is elsewhere.

But, traditions alone do not make Christmas. For one thing, the very best of our traditions can be undone by life’s circumstances. Alyson’s sister likes to tell the story of how my coming into their family’s life thoroughly messed up their Christmas. Growing up, after all the festivities of Christmas Eve, Alyson and Lindsey would crawl into bed together and read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. Obviously, that wasn’t going to work now that Alyson and I were married. They tried reading it to one another over the phone, but like every family who’s ever had to adjust one of their cherished traditions, they lamented, “It’s just not the same.”

Truth be told, no tradition lasts forever. This year, families in our church are having to change treasured traditions because of job loss, illness, kids growing up and moving away, divorce, death, and more. Perhaps, your family is one of them. You have my prayers. A word of encouragement, though, don’t give up on Christmas. Christmas is more than our feelings about the season. Christmas is primarily God sending a light into our darkness. Henri Nouwen puts it this way, “Songs, good feelings, beautiful liturgies, nice presents, big dinners, and sweet words do not make Christmas. Christmas is saying yes to a hope based on God’s initiative, which has nothing to do with what I think or feel. Christmas is believing that the salvation of the world is God’s work and not mine.” Nouwen has hit it on the head. Christmas is so much bigger than our family traditions, Christmas is about the salvation of the world. So, when our traditions fall apart, and the world around us darkens once more, that’s we need Christmas more than ever.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Semantics of the Season (aka. "The War on Christmas")

“The War on Christmas” has made quite a few headlines over the last few years. This battle, according to those doing the reporting, pits secular humanists against religious zealots in an all out fight over the semantics of the season. “Happy Holidays” vs “Merry Christmas” dominates the Christmas e-mail rounds among other things so that one almost feels like a heathen if one’s Christmas card happens to use the wrong phrase.

My two cents for what it’s worth. I understand that most good Christian folks in this fight have good intentions. They want people to know the true reason we as Christians celebrate Christmas. Nevertheless, the whole fight seems a little silly to me. If we are truly going to have a battle for Christmas shouldn’t it be a little more substantive than this? The words we use are important, but only if they reflect our true values and our actual actions. It’s one thing to say “Merry Christmas,” it’s a whole other thing to allow the Christ of Christmas to reign in one’s heart and home. 

The true battle for Christmas has to be in our own hearts and souls as we try to determine which call we will respond to, the call of Christ or the call of the shopping mall. I just don’t think that a fight over the words we use for a holiday greeting are going to bring a lot of folks to the true meaning of Christmas. Second, in light of the way Christ came, doesn’t the whole concept of a “battle” for Christmas seem a little odd? A battle is exactly what the Jews of Jesus’ day were expecting - a messiah who would come and wipe the Romans off the face of the earth. Instead, God sent a baby in a manger. Hardly, a leader ready for war. 

The late Madeleine L’Engle put it this way in her poem about Christ’s birth, “Like Every Newborn.”
               Girded for war, humility his mighty dress, 
               He moves into the battle wholly weaponless. 

If you’re really concerned about the state of Christmas this year, follow the example of Christ. Humble yourself, discard your possessions, and give of yourself to others without regard for how they will respond or what words they will say. Against all expectations, it worked for Jesus as his gospel took hold and changed the world. Such unlikely methods would probably work for us as well. 

“Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!” – Philippians 2:5-8.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Finding God this Christmas


Every evening in December, as lie down to sleep, I notice that I am more exhausted than the night before.  School programs, extra services at church, family get-togethers, the shopping: these are all good things, but they take their toll.  Fatigue sets in and then frustration.  The simplest of troubles cause you to start to lose your cool.  What’s supposed to be a season of reflection and joy passes by at such a frenzied pace that we find ourselves like the people of Bethlehem – close to Christ, but ignorant of his presence in our midst.

We do trust that Christ is near, even if we are unaware.  That is the message of the season. But how do we tune our hearts so that we might be sensitive to his presence in our lives?  Three suggestions for finding Jesus this year:
  1. Schedule a day of peace – We schedule days for parties and for shopping and for family.  Schedule a day of reflection (or even half a day).  When others invite you to do something on that day, politely respond, “I’m sorry, I already have plans for that day.” Unplug the TV, turn off the computer and the cell phone (all of your emails and texts will be there the next day).   Spend the day reading a good book (include The Good Book), listening to your favorite Christmas music, and resting in God’s presence.
  2.  Look for God in the busyness – I know, this sounds weird, but hang with me.  Yes, God is often found in the quiet moments of our lives, but he’s also there at the parties, family get-togethers, and church services (Lord, we pray!).  We just need to be on the lookout for him.  One thing I’ve gotten in the practice of doing before I go into any setting with other people is to pray, “Lord, help me find your presence among the person/people I am about to interact with.”  It’s amazing how that simple prayer changes tasks on my to-do list into opportunities for experiencing God’s presence in my life.
  3. Do something for someone else – I don’t mean just give money to someone in need.  That’s one thing we can do for other people. Giving money is a good thing, but there are many others.  Take time to visit someone in nursing home who doesn’t get many visitors.  Invite someone who can’t go home to see their family to enjoy your family’s Christmas celebration.  Write a letter to someone letting them know what they mean to you.  As you do things, remember that Jesus said, “Whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”

 At Christmas, we celebrate God with us.  Trusting he is here, let’s not forget to be on the lookout for his presence in our lives.

“So roll up your sleeves, put your mind in gear, be totally ready to receive the gift that's coming when Jesus arrives. Don't lazily slip back into those old grooves of evil, doing just what you feel like doing. You didn't know any better then; you do now. As obedient children, let yourselves be pulled into a way of life shaped by God's life, a life energetic and blazing with holiness” – 1 Peter 1:13-16, The Message

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Go Stick Your Head Under a Tree (Again!)

I realized this year that I've been doing Christmas devotionals for enough years now to have one for almost every day until Christmas.  Mainly for own enjoyment, I'm going to re-post several again.  Hopefully, they'll be a blessing to you, as well.

The following was first blogged in December of 2008.

The other day I walked into the living room and chuckled. Out from beneath the newly decorated Christmas tree stuck two little bodies. The heads of those two little bodies were tucked deep underneath the evergreen branches. My children, Sophie and John Curtis, looked up mesmerized at all that glittering, sparkling Christmas glory. Laying aside my to-do list, I joined them for a little Christmas tree gazing. It had been a long time since I’d stuck my head under a Christmas tree just to enjoy the view.

Aided by the eyes of my children, the tree was as beautiful as I remembered my own childhood tree. After all, my brother and I used to do the same thing when we were little. We’d stare into the depths of our tree for hours finding an ornament we’d never seen before or one we’d long forgotten about. Every day the tree seemed to reveal some new view. It didn’t matter that we stared at that tree for twenty-five straight days, it never got boring. It had more beauty than could be exhausted during the month of December.

The scriptures that tell the Christmas story capture my attention in much the same way. At first, as I pull these passages out for another look, I think to myself, “I’ve seen these before. We read them last year and the year before that.” But as I stick my head beneath the branches of these stories of fearful young teens comforted by heavenly host, of a tyrant of a king and some wily star gazers, of patient old prophets and a baby who is God-With-Us, inevitably I see something I hadn’t seen before or something I’d long forgotten. God speaks to my heart once more and it is beautiful.

“She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” Matthew 1:21.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Getting ready for what?


It’s Advent again. Advent literally means arrival. It is the season in which we remember Christ Jesus’ first arrival and anticipate his second. The church has historically used this as a time for preparing our hearts for Christ’s arrival. But which arrival are we preparing for? I was amused by the response of our youth minister’s son Evan, who upon having Advent explained to him once more by his father, replied, “Wasn’t Jesus born last year?” It can be confusing. In the season of advent, we practice waiting, but what is it we wait for? Jesus to be born once more in the manger? No. We do await the celebration of his birth, but our waiting is for so much more than the coming of a holiday. We wait for Christ to come again.

Why do we tend to emphasize the first advent over the second? Simply put, waiting for Christmas is fun. There are the decorations, the lights, the presents and the fun, the family in from out-of-town. There is the story of the infant Jesus who has come to save from our sins. Good news delivered via the least intimidating way possible – a newborn baby. Waiting for Christ’s return is not so much fun (at least not in the way we usually think of fun). In the second coming, the old creed tells us that Jesus comes to judge the quick and the dead. Not quite as warm and fuzzy as the nativity story (which wasn’t as warm and fuzzy as we make it out to be!).

Despite our preferences, the true preparation of the Advent season, in fact the true preparation of the entire Christian’s life, is for Christ’s second coming. Evan was right. Jesus has already been born. That truth has changed our lives in countless ways. But one of the ways is by transforming our concept of history from being a story that goes on and on forever without any ending, to a story that is headed towards a definite conclusion, Christ’s return. But how do we prepare for that Advent? What does it mean to wait for that day? It means keeping our attention on the kingdom of God and it’s values as it breaks forth into the kingdom of this world.

Keeping our attention fixed upon God’s kingdom come, changes our waiting in this life from self-centered, passive twiddling of the thumbs to a waiting that’s an active, God-focused time of preparation. First, there is the inward preparation of introspection, confession, and repentance. We allow the Spirit to search our own hearts and determine what in our lives is incompatible with the kingdom Jesus is bringing to fore. Second, there is also the outward preparation of sowing mercy and justice, kindness and compassion, generosity and forgiveness to those we encounter. More than Christmas trees, more than garland on the mantel, and lights on the house, it’s these kinds of preparations that helps us to be ready for the day our king arrives, again.

“Men of Galilee,” the angels said, “why do you you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” – Acts 1:11.