Friday, December 21, 2012

Hope of the World

"I want so much to believe, but sometimes it feels so beyond me. . . . That's when I have to tell the story all over again."

The Hope Of The World from The Work Of The People on Vimeo.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The story behind "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day"

Behind the Music- Christmas Bells from First Christian Church on Vimeo.

Sowing Tears this Christmas

This is a sermon I preached this past Wednesday night at my church's annual Service of Consolation, a worship service for those who are grieving during the holidays. In light of today's news, I thought it might appropriate to share with a larger audience.

Sowing Tears, Reaping Joy

A sermon from Psalm 126

When the LORD brought back the captives to Zion,
we were like men who dreamed.
Our mouths were filled with laughter,
our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
"The LORD has done great things for them."
The LORD has done great things for us,
and we are filled with joy.
Restore our fortunes, O LORD,
like streams in the Negev.
Those who sow in tears
will reap with songs of joy.
He who goes out weeping,
carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
carrying sheaves with him.

The now classic A Charlie Brown Christmas begins with the title character sitting by a wall watching snowflakes fall from the sky. As his best friend Linus approaches, Charlie Brown turns to him and confesses, “I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I'm not happy. I don't feel the way I'm supposed to feel. I just don't understand Christmas, I guess. I like getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I'm still not happy. I always end up feeling depressed.” Whether we’d like to admit it or not, Charlie Brown speaks for a lot of us. Many of us find ourselves each Christmas feeling depressed.

I have a friend who has a little bit of Charlie Brown in her. She says that her least favorite Christmas song is “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” She says the song puts just a little too much pressure on the season for her taste. She says that her Christmases have difficulty living up to all the hype. Maybe that’s the problem – the hype. And I don’t mean here, primarily the non-Christian, commercialized hype that we so often complain about – although that doesn’t help either. I mean the good hearted, old fashioned, Christian hype surrounding the season. The kind we pile on year after year after year. The hype that talks all about the joy of Christmas and nothing about the sorrow. The hype that makes it seem as if we can have peace without pain, hope without patience, love without vulnerability

What I mean is this. It is right and good to stand in awe of the Christmas story. To take time each year and pause at the manger scene, standing with the shepherds mouths agape. In such moments we rightly declare with the Psalmist, “Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy. . . . The LORD has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.” But when we stop the story there in the manger, as we often do, we turn the story from one of good news into holy hype ignoring the fact that neither Matthew nor Luke report that Jesus was born and then immediately move to “and they all lived happily ever after.” This baby that we fawn over and worship didn’t stay a babe in the manger. He grew up to be called a “Man of Sorrows.” Even before then, his childhood was marked by many tears. For all the hype surrounding the first advent, it only takes twelve verses in the second chapter of Matthew for the greatest story ever told to turn horrific:

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: "A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more (Matthew 2:16-18).

You won’t find that scene on too many Christmas ornaments or sung about in too many Christmas cantatas. We’ve made Bethlehem so sentimental that we’ve sanitized it. That’s too bad. For the world we live in looks a lot more like the Bible’s version of Bethlehem than Hallmark’s. There are still a lot of tears in the world today. Tears that can’t be wiped away by simply watching a few Christmas movies. A sanitized Bethlehem won’t do because we need more than a sentimental gospel that fills us with only temporary warmth. We need a gospel that will save. We need a gospel that’s light in the darkness. We need a gospel that can be sown in tears, so that we might one day reap salvation with songs of joy.

Perhaps the reason so many of us have been disappointed with the Christmas story is because we’ve been sold the wrong story, or at least been misled as to what part of the story we are presently in. We keep thinking that happily ever after has already arrived. As a result, we keep being tempted to despair every time evil raises its ugly head. But Christmas, at least the Christmas in the Bible was never meant to be the end of the story. Christmas is the beginning of the story. To borrow from the Psalmist's agricultural image, Christ’s first advent isn’t meant to be viewed as harvest time, but as spring planting. And as our passage makes clear today, spring planting isn’t always a happy time. Think about the farmer. When he sows there is no sign of life. Everything looks dead. If we didn't know better, everything looks hopeless. But looks can be deceiving. That seed, buried in the ground, contains life – and the one who waits for it, even through the tears, shall one day witness life break through.

That in a word is the Christmas story. It’s God sticking his finger into the sorrows of this world and dropping Jesus right in our midst. To walk our sod and breath our air (to borrow a phrase from Chris Rice) - to be one with us, in all our sorrows and grief, that he might bring us new life. On the cross, like a seed splitting in half, Jesus reminds us that their will be no easy victories for love in this world. As he’s covered up in the grave, like the seed in the field, it looked like the end. But it wasn’t the end, was it? The shoot of Jesse sprung forth and the resurrection gave us the first sign that new life was on the way.

St. Paul would use a similar image in his letter to the Corinthians, “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. . . . But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.” This is not hype – it’s hope. Hope that even though we die, yet shall we live. Hope that the wrong, though strong, will not prevail. Hope to keep facing the sorrows of this world without giving way to despair. Hope that motivates us to keep engaging the world in its most broken places. Loving its most unlovable people. True hope doesn't avoid grief, it embraces it. For grief reminds us that this world is not yet as it should be. True hope, then keeps on sowing in tears, yes, even at Christmas, trusting that thanks to Jesus we shall one day reap with songs of joy.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Why I'm still in favor of exchanging gifts

I don’t need to tell you it’s almost Christmas time again. All the advertisements warn us well in advance of December 25 that Christmas is on its way. They want us to know, it’s time for the buying and sharing of gifts. For all of the times that you and I need to hear that we’ve made this season too commercial, that we’ve mistakenly bought into the fact that things will make us happy, we also need to hear that the impulse to give gifts to the ones we love is not an evil impulse. In fact, it is an impulse born straight from the heart of God. After all, this season is the season in which we celebrate God’s greatest gift to us, his own son.

When we love someone, we want to give them good gifts. In fact, few things give me more pleasure than giving good gifts to my children or to my wife. I think I have more fun on Christmas morning as a dad than I did as a child. This creates two issues that push me in the direction of over-consumption. One, the joy I get from giving my kids presents at Christmas or on their birthdays is so rich that I find myself tempted to give them more than I should. Two, I love my children so much, that I feel as if what I give them is never enough. Like I said, those emotions push me towards buying too many gifts that have too little meaning. The answer to this problem involves not less gift giving (although it may involve fewer gifts), but rather, involves the giving of better gifts.

In regards to the first temptation, I need to realize that it isn’t actually a gift to my children to spoil them. It’s a detriment to their souls. It is good to teach them how to receive presents with gratitude. It is also good to teach them how to appreciate good gifts. After all, all of life is in one way or another an exercise in learning to appreciate the good gifts God gives each one of us. On this front, simple, meaningful gifts probably go further in symbolizing our love for one another than in a multitude of thoughtless gifts hastily purchased. This is an instance where less may really be more. One of my favorite possessions is a small, simple pocket knife given to me by my grandfather before I was even old enough to handle such a tool. As such, it was a gift I would have to grow into in the best sort of way. As a child, this was a gift that displays his trust that I would indeed one day grow up. That was meaningful to me as a child. As such, it’s been a gift I’ve appreciated across the decades, even as many other gifts have come and gone.

The second temptation, which was to give my kids too many gifts as an attempt at expressing my love, can be combatted by realizing that I simply can’t give them enough things to accurately reflect my love for them. That’s not how love works. Giving a multitude of material gifts is no replacement for learning how to give them true spiritual ones. How can we give good spiritual gifts? Richard Foster writes, “If we truly love people, we will desire for them far more than it is within our power to give them, and this will lead us to prayer.” What’s one of the best spiritual gifts I can give my children this year? One has to include the taking their needs and their souls before the Lord on a regular basis. His hands, after all, are bigger than mine; his gifts, far better.

The advertisers are correct. It is the season of gift giving. I pray that the gifts we give be the absolute best they can be.

Every good and perfect gift comes from above – James 1:17

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Will we ever get home in time for Christmas?

In case you were under the impression that a busy Christmas season is a challenge people have faced only just recently, here is G.K. Chesterton lamenting the rush of the season way back in 1929:

"The Christmas season is domestic; and for that reason most people now prepare for it by struggling in tramcars, standing in queues, rushing away in trains, crowding despairingly into teashops, and wondering when or whether they will ever get home. I do not know whether some of them disappear forever in the toy department or simply lie down and die in the tea-rooms; but by the look of them, it is quite likely. Just before the great festival of the home the whole population seems to have become homeless" - from The Thing: Why I am a Catholic