Friday, December 30, 2011

If Only It Was That Easy

According to an AP story from December 28, 2009, scores of New Yorkers and tourists seeking a fresh start for the new year gathered in Times Square to put their bad memories through the shredder at the third annual Good Riddance Day. Participants lined up near the booth where discount theater tickets are sold and pitched their bad memories into an industrial-sized shredder. According the Karen Matthews, people shredded about everything you could imagine: the box score to a losing football game which knocked the New York Giants out of the playoffs, the memory of a counselor on a school field trip who was later featured on America’s Most Wanted, bills, correspondence, memories of ex-boyfriends and ex-girlfriends, and much, much more. But not to worry. If someone brought something which could not be shredded—say a computer or a tin of fattening snacks—a dumpster and a sledgehammer were available them.

People come from near and far for this annual event. The turnout says something about the hunger people have to rid themselves of past mistakes, sins, bad memories, broken hearts, and hurtful relationships. Just smash ‘em with a sledgehammer or put ‘em through a shredder. There! All gone!

If only it was this easy. But it’s not. While there’s much symbolic value in Good Riddance Day, and while it surely feels good for a while, the hurt, the scars, the tough consequences, don’t go away with the swing of a hammer or the push of a button. They linger. They gnaw. They suck the life out of you and steal your joy.

It’s not just what we get rid of that matters; it’s what we embrace in their place that matters more. Jesus told a story about a man that had a demon living in his heart. What a torment that demon was to this poor man! By good fortune, however, the man was able finally to sweep that demons clean—to run it off, to shoo it away, to send it scampering away from his heart. He sure felt better … for a season. But because the man didn’t replace that demon with anything else, the demon came back home to the man’s heart, brought along some friends, and the man was worse in the end than he was in the beginning. See what I mean? It’s not just what we get rid of that matters, it’s what we embrace in their place that matters more.

Could I encourage you on the threshold of a new year to embrace Jesus? He loves you. He forgives you. And He can set up residence in your heart that makes it possible to get rid of your heart-junk once and for all. It’s a process. Jesus does His work over time, but He can fill the void left by the sins, mistakes, and bad decisions that have haunted you for so long. When those demons try to come home, let Jesus answer the door. They won’t stick around for very long.

Getting rid of the junk that weighs you down is never as easy as it seems, but Jesus is the long-term cure. No one does true forgiveness and new beginning better than Jesus. Receive Him. Embrace Him. Trust Him. And this new year could be the best one you’ve ever enjoyed.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Remember the Manger

A couple of years ago, at the end of November, I was driving up Higdon Ferry back to the church and I noticed the message on the sign at Roland’s Barbecue. I wasn’t sure what it meant. So the next time I was in there, I asked the two people behind the counter, “What’s up with the manager?”

“What?” she asked.

“The manager—is everything okay?”

“You want to see the manager?”

“No, I just was concerned that something was wrong because of your sign.”

“Our sign?”

“Yes, your sign. You know, it says ‘Remember the Manager.’ So I just figured the manager needed prayer or something.”

“Our sign doesn’t say ‘Remember the Manager.’ It says ‘Remember the Manger.’”

No wonder they looked at me like I had two heads. It’s not “Remember the Manager.” It’s “Remember the Manger.” You’d think if anyone would be able to read that sign it would be a pastor. Trust me, my antennae are usually pretty honed in to anything of a spiritual nature I see in our secular world. But boy did I miss that one.

Well, here it is Christmas week, and I’m not going to miss it this time. It’s time to remember the manger. In fact, that’s not a bad rallying cry for all believers as we approach that holy night. Remember the Manger! A cry like that rallied all of Texas toward independence as the cry rang out across the plain, “Remember the Alamo!” A cry like that rallied all of America as the cry rang out from sea to shining sea, “Remember Pearl Harbor.”

But the cry “Remember the Manger” is not a call to arms, not a call to make war. It’s a call to peace.

It’s a call to peace with God—a call to receive the gift of salvation and life God has given us in Jesus. Jesus said he came to give life (Jn. 10:10). He can do this because of his death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead. He is a living Savior. So receive this life already and find peace with God. Remember the manger! It’s a call to peace with God.

And it’s a call to peace with one another. This baby in a manger taught us to love one another. At His birth the angel choir sang a chorus of “peace on earth.” And when Jesus became a man He said this peace with one another looks like mercy and forgiveness and encouragement and patience with one another. He said it was by our love for one another that we prove that we love God. By sending Jesus through the virgin’s womb and to the cross when he became a man, God made clear that He was willing to forgive us and set us at peace with Him. If God will love us even though we don’t deserve it and cannot earn it, how much more should we love one another. How much more should we live at peace with one another. Wouldn’t Christmas be a good time to let go of old hurts and old grudges and give the gift of forgiveness to someone who has hurt you?

Remember the Manger! It’s a call to peace with God and to peace with one another. So this Christmas I call you to you peace. I call you to forsake your sins and your grudges and your anger and your bitterness and your ill will toward God and toward others. “Remember the Manger!” Remember the Jesus who was laid there just after His birth. And give thanks. Give thanks that God sent Him. Give thanks for the salvation that He brings us. And give thanks for His peace.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Away in a Casket

Here it is just a few days till Christmas—the story of the most important birth in history—and I’m up to neck in death. This is not unusual. As often as not I spend December doing funerals. I've done two already and another member of our church died yesterday. Away in a manger—yes. Away in a casket—that too.

At least for me death and Christmas are irrevocably linked. My father died the day after Christmas in 1987; my mother died on Christmas Eve 2009; and I do as many funerals in December as I do any other month of the year. Death and Christmas are linked together for me. Do I like it? Not particularly. But that is my reality.

Actually, it’s the reality of all those who love and follow Christ. Even though Christmas is a birth story, Jesus was born to die. Had it not been for the cross and the resurrection, we’d know nothing more of Jesus’ birth than we know of any other child born to peasants in first-century Israel. It was the cross and resurrection that caused Matthew and Luke to learn more about the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. Aside from Mary, Joseph, and a handful of no-account shepherds, no one was the wiser as to Jesus’ identity at the first Christmas. Can’t you hear the conversation in the local beauty parlor a few days later? “I heard there was some commotion around your place the other night, Martha?” And Martha says, “Yes, some poor young couple, pilgrims from Nazareth, used our stable for a maternity ward. I think they had a little boy. But enough of that; what’s the latest with your kids?” No one in Bethlehem had a clue as the identity of that baby born in the stable.

But that’s okay. Jesus wasn’t born to create a holiday centuries later; Jesus was born to die. The birth was important—the eternal Word had to become flesh, had to live life as a man, had to be tempted in the same ways we are and yet never sin, had to reveal God to us in his teachings and his miracles. And when the time was right, Jesus had to die for the forgiveness of our sins. Jesus did that. And on the third day he rose from the dead victorious over sin and death and the grave. The apostle Paul put it this way: “Death has been swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O grave, where is your sting? But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:55-57). Away in a manger—a peaceful lullaby. Away in a casket—there’s peace to be found there too.

I hope that’s encouraging to you if you’re dealing with death and grief this time of year. Grieving is usually more painful at Christmas—the empty chair at the Christmas table, one less stocking on the fireplace, deep sadness in what is supposed to be a happy time, and uncertainty how to celebrate the season or whether to celebrate it at all. When “Away in a Manger” becomes “Away in a Casket” what do we do then?

Let me tell you a story. It’s one of my favorite Christmas stories. I read it in Walter Wangerin’s book, The Manger Is Empty. Walter is a Lutheran pastor and writer. The story grew out of his pastorate of the Grace Lutheran Church in Evansville, Indiana, and involves his daughter Mary, Miz Odessa Williams, and a funeral on Christmas Eve.

On the Sunday night before Christmas the people of the church attended to their annual custom of Christmas caroling in their neighborhood and local hospital. Once in the hospital, a group of children, including Mary, went with Wangarin and found their way to the room of one of their church members, Miz Odessa Williams, an old black lady on her deathbed. She was very weak, but as the children lifted their voices to sing the birth of Jesus, Miz Williams was stirred. Lying on her back, she began to direct the music. She lifted her thin and trembling arm and began to mark the beat with precision. Her thin face frowned with a painful pleasure as she found herself lost in the music.

The children sang for her, yet she caught them—drawing them near to her, their eyes fixed on old Miz Williams. After they finished, Miz Williams drew them still closer and said to them in a weak and husky voice: "Oh children, you my choir. Oh choir, you my children for sure, every las' one of you. And listen me," she said, catching all of them one by one and eye to eye. "Ain' no one stand in front of you, for goodness, no! You the bes', babies, you the final bes'."

The children were fascinated, listening to her as though she spoke with the voice of God. Miz Williams went on: "Now listen me, when you sing, no matter where you be, I be there with ya. And how can I say such a mackulous thing?" She lowered her voice, drooped her eyelids a bit and said, "Why 'cause we be in Jesus. Babies, babies, we be in Jesus, old ones, young ones, us and you together. Jesus keep us in his bosom, and Jesus, no, he don't never let us go. Never. Never. Not ever."

So spoke Odessa in the thin, long light, so spoke Odessa Williams with such love and conviction that the children wept and were not ashamed. The lady won Mary in those moments.

But the tears Mary shed that night were of a different type than the ones she shed on Christmas Eve. For three days before Christmas, Odessa Williams died. It was a long tome coming, but quick when it finally came. And because of the way the days fell, the funeral was set for Christmas Eve morning.

Wangarin broke the news to his family rather hastily over lunch. Mary barely ceased eating. But as Wangarin was leaving for the office, Mary stopped him at the door and said, "I want to go to the funeral." Wangarin nodded in agreement and left.

Christmas Eve morning came. The casket containing Odessa's body was in the church, and people came and viewed the body before the service. At about ten minutes till service time, Mary came in. Wangarin met her at the door. "Dad," she said, "it's snowing." It was. A light powder was falling. "Dad," she said in a more grievous voice, "it's snowing."

"I know, Mary. Are you coming in? It's about time to start."

Mary walked with Wangarin up to the casket and looked at Odessa's face. She reached out and touched Odessa's long fingers. "Oh no," she whispered. She touched them again – this time with her cheek. Then she stood straight up and said, "Oh no, Dad, Miz Williams is so cold. And it's snowing outside – it's snowing in Miz Willliams' grave." And Mary plunged her head into her Daddy's chest and wept. "Dad," she sobbed, "Dad, Dad, it's Christmas Eve."

Wangarin had no answers for her, so Mary wept and went to take a seat. What could Wangarin say to those tears? His Mary had met death on what was supposed to be a happy day. So the funeral and the graveside and a silent, broken Mary.

But it was Christmas Eve, and that night was the children's program at church. Mary was to portray Mary, the mother of Jesus. Wangarin told her she didn't have to if she didn't feel like it. But Mary said she would.

Wangarin watched Mary as she played her part. She was quiet and in grief. So the program unfolded. The angels came, giggled, and left. Mary and Joseph sat at the manger. Mary looked down at the manger and began to frown. She looked as if she was about to burst into tears, but she didn't. She just frowned hard, looking at the doll in the manger. And then quietly, suddenly, Mary reached for the doll and began to play a part not written in the script. She took the doll, walked down the aisle, and out of the sanctuary. Nobody knew quite what to do. People sat in stunned silence. But in a moment, Mary emerged without the doll. She knelt by the crib, her face now radiant and full of adoration. The angels sang, "Glory to God in the highest." And the pageant was over.

Wangarin drove the family home that snowy night wondering what Mary had learned. "Dad," said Mary, "Jesus wasn't in that manger. It was a doll." Wangarin winced at the loss of his daughter's innocence. But Mary went on: "Dad, Jesus doesn't have to be in the manger, does He? He goes back and forth, doesn't He? He came from heaven and was borned here. But when He was done, He went back to heaven again. And because He came and went He can be coming and going all the time, can't He?"

"Right," whispered Wangarin.

"The manger is empty," Mary said. "And Dad, Miz Williams' box is empty too. We don't have to worry about the snow. It's only a doll in her box. It's like a big doll, Dad, and we put it away today. And if Jesus can cross, if Jesus can go across, then Miz Williams, she crossed the same way too with Jesus."

Choking back the tears, Wangerin recalled Miz Williams words to the children at the nursing home: "Babies, we be in Jesus, old ones, young ones, us and you together. Jesus keep us in His bosom, and Jesus, He don't never let us go. Never, never, not ever."

Not in life. Not in death. Not in grief. Not ever.

The Advent hymn-writer caught a glimpse of the very same hope:

O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by thine advent here.
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Immanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Of Gifts and the Gift

We’ve pretty much made Christmas all about the gifts. And we have no one to blame but ourselves. Some want to blame the Magi: “They started it with those gifts to the toddler Jesus.” And their gifts were no dollar store trinkets or stocking stuffers either. They gave the Christ-child gold, frankincense, and myrrh—expensive gifts, elaborate gifts. So, some want to blame the Magi for our Christmas gift-giving madness. “That’s what happens when you get pagans involved. All Mary and Joseph brought to Christmas were their obedience and faith. All the shepherds brought were praise and wonder. Leave it to those pagan Easterners, those Yankee Gentile materialists to clutter up Christmas with a bunch of presents.”

But I’m not buying that, are you? There’s one huge difference in their Christmas gift-giving compared to ours: they give their gifts to Jesus; we give our gifts to one another. And that’s really kind of weird when you think about it. Last Saturday, my granddaughter Reece turned seven years old last Saturday. And when Dayna and I were working on our gift list for her birthday, she was the only one on the list. We didn’t take a gift to her father or her mother or her brother. And Dayna and I didn’t give gifts to one another to celebrate Reece’s birthday. We just gave our gifts to Reece, and nobody found that strange. When we gave our gifts to Reece, her dad didn’t say, “Hey! Where’s my gift?” It wasn’t his birthday; it was her birthday.

What if we who follow Jesus decided that since Christmas is Jesus’ birthday, we’ll give our gifts to Him instead of one another? A few years ago, a couple of pastors broached that idea with their congregations. They call it the Christmas Conspiracy—make Christmas giving about Jesus instead of about ourselves. What if we adopted that idea? Retailers wouldn’t like it, and who could blame them? They need a big Christmas to make a profit for the year. Children wouldn’t like it. There would be tears and anger and maybe they’d go on strike or something. And some of us wouldn’t like it either because we very much enjoy the give and take of Christmas.

So I’m not proposing any of us adopt this idea cold turkey—there would be too many painful withdrawals. But what if we scaled way back on one another and raised the bar on our gifts to Jesus? It’s a teachable moment for kids and a way to build new traditions for them and for their kids someday.

But what do we give to Jesus? Talk about trying to find a gift for a person who has everything! But really, Jesus is easy to give to. You give Him the things that are close to His heart: gifts to mission is close to the heart of Him who came to seek and to save the lost. A gift to any charity that cares for the poor and the homeless or the sick and the troubled and the orphan is a gift close to the heart of Him who loves those people and wants to lift them up. But what if you have no money? What can you give Jesus then? How about your heart? How about giving some time to the church or to charitable organizations that do Jesus-work in your community? I’m not saying don’t give gifts to people you love at Christmas, but what if you gave a little less to them and a little more Jesus? It’s Jesus’ birthday, after all, not ours.

And besides, Christmas isn’t so much about our gifts as it is about God’s gift—the gift of His Son Jesus who lived for us and died for us and was raised from the dead for us too. Jesus didn’t leave heaven and come to earth so we could have this big party every December. Jesus came not for Christmas but for Good Friday, not for the cradle but for the cross. Jesus came to give us life. To do that, He had to die for us on the cross. That’s how God can forgive our sins and still be true to himself and His holy, loving character. Jesus was born to die. The crude timber of the manger foreshadows the crude timber of the cross. And please don't be put off by that because that’s where Christmas was heading all the time.

So give your gifts this Christmas. Give to those you love; give gifts to Jesus too. But in all that giving, remember this: Christmas is not really about our gifts; it’s about God’s Gift. And when you can get your heart and mind around that truth, it will change your Christmas … and it just might change your life.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Chasing the Perfect Christmas

I read an article on last year that made this startling claim: Christmas day is better than any other at murdering us.

Between 1973 and 2001, Christmas Day netted 53 million deaths, making it the #1 killer on the calendar. And when you look at its weapons of choice, it's almost as though the entire tradition was intentionally calibrated to snuff you out with a quiet efficiency.

Picture a perfect Norman Rockwell Christmas morning—family around a crackling fireplace, including Grandma and all the relatives. Mom fixes dad an eggnog while preparing the Christmas ham, just two of the many traditional holiday foods known outside of December as "the worst things you can put in your body that aren't a live hand grenade." You've got the Christmas presents under the tree that Dad spent all night putting together, and that Mom spent the past month freaking out about buying. We’re talking stress on top of stress, and that along with exhaustion is a great way to kill your heart.

Which brings us to the crackling fire, or as your heart calls it, "my chance to test drive the body of a pack a day smoker." According to a 1999 report on what cardiologists call “the holiday effect"—"pollutants from wood-burning fireplaces trigger cardiovascular irregularities."

So according to science, you might be the only thing in your living room that's not trying to kill you this Christmas.

And yet more of us than not will be chasing a perfect Christmas once again this year. I’ve never understood the yearning for a perfect Christmas, especially since I’ve never seen one and especially since the original Christmas was anything but perfect, at least according to human standards: an unwed pregnancy, a nine-day overland journey for a woman up against her due date; a birth in a musty stable amid dusty straw, steaming animal dung, and the mother away from home and mom and everything familiar and comfortable. Just perfect, huh? Hardly.

Yet many of us still chase that perfect Christmas. How long will it take us to learn that the perfect Christmas is an illusion; it’s fool’s gold, it’s a chasing of the wind? All it does is set us up for disappointment and a post-Christmas depression—over the child who didn’t make it home or over Uncle Frank who did, or the failure to give or get the perfect gift, or the decorations that didn’t quite stack up to your neighbors, or a Christmas with no snow yet again. And the truth of the matter is that the more we chase the perfect Christmas, the farther we run away from the perfect Christ.

Why don’t you quit chasing the perfect Christmas and start chasing the perfect Christ? He is not so hard to find, you know. You might find him at work, at school, at church. You may see him in a neighbor or in the lady ringing the bell at a Salvation Army bucket. You might find Jesus in the homeless man you pass on the city street or the checker at the store. Keep your eyes peeled, your antennae up, and your heart open to see the living Christ this season. You will find him for sure.

And as you chase Christ you’ll finds something even better: you’ll find that Christ is chasing you. Isn’t that the Christmas mission after all? Jesus come to earth to save the likes of us, to grace us and forgive us and set us right with God and one another. Didn’t Jesus say to that scoundrel tax collector Zacchaeus, “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save the lost”? So quit chasing the perfect Christmas. It could flat out kill you. Here’s a better idea, a Christian idea: chase the perfect Christ who is chasing after you. That chase ends in salvation. That chase ends in life.

Advent is upon us once again. Decoration boxes have been pulled from the attic or the garage. Christmas lists are being made. Some of you have already lost a night’s sleep doing Black Friday shopping. Some of you have already waded into debt buying things you can’t afford, and others of you will soon join them. You’re fretting over getting out your Christmas cards on time. Your calendar is full of parties to attend and year-end work to be done. Your stress level is heading to the danger zone, and your blood pressure is not far behind. The Christmas hype is upon us, and the chase for the perfect Christmas has begun as if Christmas won’t come if you don’t get all that stuff done. It’s like a mission. And for what? I mean really, for what?

Would you just cool it? If you are a disciple of Jesus Christ, here’s your mission in this season: chase the Christ who’s chasing you. Or to put it another way: worship Christ, not Christmas.