Living Out the Why of Christmas

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” ~ Luke 4:18-19 NIV

A note to my readers:

Okay, so, I am not a big fan of self-promotion.  To be perfectly honest, I loathe it with every fiber of my being. However, I do want to let you all know that I recently wrote a devotional based on the book of Colossians. It’s called Rooted: 29 days in the book of Colossians. It’s available on Amazon in a softcover for only $3.75. It would make a good stocking stuffer. If you have already purchased the book (and you don’t hate it) please consider writing a review. I would really appreciate it!

Rooted Book

Being a Christian and a blogger is tough at Christmastime. 

 At this point in history everyone knows that December is the month the early church chose to celebrate the advent (arrival) of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 12:2). If one is both a Christian and a blogger (and I am both of those things) then the season of Christmas is legitimately a very big deal that warrants at least a mention in said blog.

However.

For whatever reason, Christmas in the Western world has become more of a cultural celebration than a spiritual celebration and that makes Christmas tough for me personally as a Christian writer. Do I write a syrupy-sweet post lauding the shallow but still Christian aspects of the season? Or, do I go the more prophetic route and demand in a cantankerous tone that everyone ditch the fun stuff and worship Jesus in spirit and truth sans the materialistic, godless razzle-dazzle? Or, do I simply pretend there’s no such thing as Christmas and continue on with business as usual?  

It’s my annual Christmas conundrum. 

The soul-searching/navel gazing began early this year when I was asked to speak at a Christmas event in early December. As I prepared for the event I did a lot of thinking about Christmas in general and why we celebrate Christmas in particular. Ultimately, I decided that Christians have (for the most part) lost sight of the “why” of Christmas. In the midst of the feverish gift-giving, cookie-baking and decorating many of us have forgotten that Jesus’ first coming was more than just an excuse to make merry. 

It was the biggest game-changer in the history of forever.

 The birth of Jesus paved the way for the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus’ death and resurrection, made it possible for every human who has ever lived to to get free from the penalty of sin (eternity in hell), the fear of death, the prison of idolatry, and the spiritual oppression that began at the fall (Genesis 3). Furthermore, the values of compassion, charity, justice and equality that Jesus brought to earth caused humanity to do some collective soul-searching. As a result, human rights, women’s rights, poverty programs, egalitarianism and the whole concept of religious freedom eventually became things human beings take seriously enough to fight for.  

That is worth celebrating. 

However, too often at Christmastime we get so caught-up in the hullaballoo that surrounds Christmas that we lose our sense of wonder and astonishment at the beauty that lies at the heart of the Christmas story.  We lose something of infinite value anytime we cease to rejoice and wonder at the crazy-truth that the God of the universe willingly left the comfort and majesty of heaven simply so that He could give a bunch of mostly ungrateful, clueless sinners an opportunity to get right with Him. 

Keeping the why of Christmas in mind this time of year is no easy task and no one needs another to-do list this time of year. That said, there are three really basic things we can all do to keep our hearts in the right place at Christmastime:     

Free yourself from the weird bondage that surrounds Christmas-

 Jesus’ primary purpose in coming to earth was to free humanity from bondage (Romans 6:18, Galatians 5, Luke 4:18, John 8:32). Yet for some inexplicable reason every December millions of people (mostly women) celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior by freely putting themselves into bondage over a bunch of (mostly stupid) stuff that has absolutely nothing to do with God, Jesus, or why we celebrate Christmas. Those things include (but are not limited to) baking billions of cookies, writing newsletters, decorating, gift-giving and unnecessary people-pleasing. None of those things are sinful but neither should they be done out of obligation or in place of the things that help us and other people grow closer to Jesus.    

Read through the book of Luke before Christmas day- 

Weirdly enough, Jesus (the whole point of Christmas), can (and does) get lost in the celebration of Christmas. Reading the book of Luke is a powerful weapon against secularism and spiritual complacency at Christmas.   Luke’s passion for the person of Jesus shines in his writing. He uses words like awe, surprised, marvel, amazed, wondered and astonished almost excessively, sometimes two or three times in a single sentence. As you read through the book take the time to highlight those words. Pray that God will fill you with wonder and amazement as He empowers you to see His hand working in your life and in the lives of the people around you. This tiny act will help you to see Jesus in fresh new way this Christmas. I promise.

Be purposeful about being grateful- 

The materialistic focus of Christmas oftentimes keeps us from being grateful for the things we already have (and most of us have a lot). When we take the time to be thankful for what God has already given us our gratitude serves as a reminder that there is more to life than stuff and more to feeding our souls than getting stuff and we could all use a little bit more of that this season. 

What I Learned From Joseph this Christmas

When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife~ Matthew 1:24 NIV

 I will not lie.

 I actually enjoy some of the less-than-spiritual aspects of Christmas. I love Jesus (I am not a heathen). I also love the parties, the food, the trees, the decorations, the music, and the traditions of Christmas. I even like some of the stuff I should probably dislike. Things like Frosty, Santa Claus, elves, reindeer, and gift giving and getting. Basically, I like all the commercial stuff that sidetracks us from what should be a simple celebration of the birth of the Savior.

 Because I am drawn to the less-than spiritual side of Christmas I have attempted to discipline myself and spend a little extra time each year focusing on the birth of Christ. This year I started in Matthew and rediscovered an often forgotten hero of the Christmas story: Joseph.

 Like most people, I tend to overlook Joseph because Mary is obviously the star of the show. It’s easy to get caught up in the drama of her story. Mary’s obedient response to Gabriel’s announcement is the picture-perfect example of how we should all respond to God’s call. She voluntarily endured personal loss, hardship and probably even ridicule to become the Mother of the Jesus.

 It’s impossible not to love Mary.

 However, this year it was Joseph that captured my attention. I’m convinced that if we were all a little more like Joseph the world would be a better place.

 The text tells us that God considered Joseph to be a righteous man. That, in and of itself was a fairly rare thing for God to say about anyone in those days. Then we are told that because of his righteousness he did not want to divorce Mary publicly. It’s important to note that at this point in the story Mary and Joseph were legally wed, the marriage was a done deal in the eyes of the law and their religious community. The only thing left to do was to consummate the marriage.

 According to both Roman and Jewish law Joseph had every right to publicly divorce (and humiliate) Mary. They were married and he had what appeared to be incontrovertible proof of infidelity. Her story about the angel was, by every standard, well, more than a little crazy. Most of us would have felt justified in publicly shaming a woman who slept with another man and then told a ridiculously outlandish tale about God and angels to cover-up her indiscretion.

 Seriously.           

 God’s evaluation of Joseph as a “righteous man” tells me that God has a special place in His heart for those who look out for the reputations of others. God blesses those who are willing to go out of their way not to behave in a vengeful way even when they have been legitimately wronged.

 I think my favorite thing about Joseph is how he ignored the opinions of people in order to gain the approval of God. Following the dream where Joseph was commanded to keep Mary as his wife, Joseph had to go back to his family and friends and tell them that he planned to go ahead with marriage to a girl most people were probably convinced was well, a hussy (for want of another word).

 I am persuaded that Joseph’s family and friends were convinced that Joseph was either a fool or a liar. It almost goes without saying that Joseph suffered heartache, humiliation and social disgrace for his choice to stick by Mary.

Joseph’s selflessness is a reminder that the kind of righteousness that pleases God almost always involves a high level of inconvenience and self-denial.

 I do not believe there is anything wrong with the fun side of Christmas celebrations. I am convinced that the God we serve is the originator of fun and joy. My prayer for all of us is that in the midst of all the fun and merrymaking Joseph’s story will serve as a reminder that our response to God’s goodness and generosity should be a life of authentic righteousness and self-denial.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Four Seldom Recognized Ways Jesus’ Birth Changed the World

We love because he first loved us~ 1st John 4:19 NIV

 Three years ago I vowed (in a fit of self-pity) to never write another Christmas blog as long as I lived. I did this mostly because my Christmas blogs have a history of less-than-stellar readership and I prefer to write things I think people are actually going to read. However, I recently concluded that it’s probably time I got over myself and give it another try.

 This moment of clarity arrived as I was participating in a community Christmas celebration. As I watched the display it hit me out of nowhere that Jesus’ first coming changed literally everything about life in the ancient world. Those changes in turn, paved the way for the freedoms and prosperity much of the western world enjoys today. Simultaneously I was struck by how oddly trivial our Christmas celebrations tend to be in light of the impact the first coming of Jesus had on our world.

 It’s not that I have anything against the way Americans celebrate Christmas. I love Christmas and all the things we do to celebrate Christmas. That said, snowmen, sparkly lights, cookies cut into adorable shapes, and even traditional nativity scenes don’t exactly capture the magnitude of the impact that Jesus has had on our world. So, in honor of Jesus and all His birth accomplished, following are four seldom recognized ways Jesus’ first coming made our world a better place.

 Jesus made it cool to care about the poor, sick and marginalized-

 Prior to the advent of Jesus no one cared all that much about the sick and poor. Most believed the poor and sick were poor and sick because they were bad people who had been cursed by their god’s. As a result they were viewed as profoundly unlikable. Little was done (outside the Jewish community) to alleviate the suffering of the sick or to help poor people. Because Jesus cared deeply about the needs of the poor, sick and marginalized (Luke 12:33, Luke 14:13, Luke 10:30-3), so did His followers. From the earliest days of Christianity, charity (caring for the less fortunate) was a fundamental feature of Christian worship and outreach (Acts 6:1-7, Acts 9:36, Romans 15: 25-27, James 2:5-6). As Christianity took root in the Western world caring for the less fortunate became a natural part of life and something even non-religious people do. This was certainly not the case before Jesus came into the world.  

 Jesus gave children value-

 Prior to the first coming of Jesus children were considered disposable in most societies ( Jews were a notable exception). Abortion was a common practice, and live newborns were routinely placed in the foundations of buildings (for luck). In Greece and Rome unwanted infants (mostly girls) were simply left on rocky cliffs to die of exposure. Attitudinal change towards children began with the coming of Jesus. Jesus loved children (Luke 18:15-17) and He was concerned with their physical and spiritual welfare (Matthew 18:6). Early Christians followed in the footsteps of Jesus and forbade the practices of abortion and infanticide among their members. Early Christians also made a practice of adopting the newborns that had been left to die of exposure. Over time, societies touched by Christianity enacted laws to protect children, but it was Jesus who forever changed the way we view the worth of children.

 Jesus gave women dignity-

 Prior to the first coming of Jesus, women were (in virtually every society) thought to be profoundly inferior to men in every way. Respectable women lived cloistered lives and simply did not interact with men they were not closely related to. Unlike other religious leaders of His day, Jesus frequently had meaningful conversations with all sorts of women (John 4, Luke 8:1-3, John 11), and He allowed women to receive the same training as their male counterparts (Luke 10:38-41, Luke 8:1-3). Jesus even entrusted a woman with passing on the message of His resurrection (Matthew 28:1-8, Luke 24:1-12); this was a VERY big deal in a world where women were not considered legitimate witnesses in a court of law. After Jesus’ resurrection women were used in significant ways to build the early church. The Apostle Paul founded the Philippian church along with a handful of women (Acts 16). Pricilla along with her husband Aquila helped to plant churches and train believers in Corinth, Ephesus (Acts 18) and Rome (Romans 16:3). Women acted as deacons in the early church and were entrusted with significant tasks (Romans 16:1-2, 1st Timothy 3:11) and a woman (Junia) is even referred to as “outstanding among the Apostles” in Romans 16:7. Admittedly, throughout history some church leaders have not always valued women or the contributions of women. However, that does not change the fact that Jesus did. Jesus’ high view of women paved the way for many of the freedoms women enjoy today. If you doubt my word, take a look at the way women are treated in societies where Christianity has not made significant inroads. It’s a sharp and ugly contrast.    

 Jesus made it possible for people to actually change-

 Prior to the first coming of Jesus people could change their actions but not their hearts. An evil or an unbelieving person was just kind of stuck that way forever. Jesus’ coming changed that reality. Because, Jesus’ presence indwells the people who believe in Him, His presence gives us the power we need to change not just our actions but also our hearts. Because of Jesus we can be better people tomorrow than we are today.

 That is something to celebrate.

The Key to Making Christmas Merry for Everyone

 For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to the one an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma from life to life, and who is adequate for these things? 2nd Corinthians 2:15-16 NASB

 It is official. Thanksgiving is over and we are in the midst of the Christmas season once again. I am going to run the risk of sounding like a bit of a downer, and say that things in our world are looking a lot less than merry this year.

 Our elected officials are, for the most part, inept bunglers. The economy is stuck. Christians are under siege around the globe. Europe, Africa and the Middle East are reeling from relentless terrorist attacks. The likelihood of further terror attacks is an ever-present concern for most of the world. Many typically optimistic policy experts believe our planet is likely on the brink of another world war. Donald Trump is still the official frontrunner in the Republican presidential race. And, on a personal note, my stupid house still hasn’t sold.

 However, the surplus of gloomy realities does not negate the reality of God’s existence. Depressing truths cannot minimize His power or change the fact that He is still on His throne and has a plan for this world.

 And as tempting as it might be, this is not the time for God’s people to shrink back in fear, become mired in pessimism or withdraw to their holy huddles. More than at any other time in recent history people need to see God’s plan for this world being worked out through the actions and attitudes of His people.

 The turmoil our world is experiencing makes it critical for God’s people to look for opportunities to be salt and light and to be a blessing to everyone— saved or unsaved. Keeping our celebrations centered on Christ is one aspect of operating as salt and light this time of year. But truthfully, most in the culture don’t really care about the details of our Christmas celebrations. They do care about our attitudes and actions. There are three mindsets we can adopt that will enable us to bless our lost and hurting world this Christmas season.

 Joy-

 Joy is not at all like happiness. Happiness is typically fleeting and always dependent on circumstances. Conversely, joy is the byproduct of right relationship with God. Joy is also a choice; one can have nothing and still be joyful. Joy happens when we cultivate a relationship with God and choose to focus on the positive rather than the negative. We demonstrate joy to others when we resolve to see the good in people and situations and and by refusing to get bent out of shape over stupid stuff like the seasonal decorations on coffee cups or whether someone who may or may not be a Christian says “Merry Christmas” as opposed to “Happy Holidays”.

 Generosity-

 Generosity is typically defined by how much money one gives to charity, and without a doubt that kind of giving is good and necessary. But generosity is about more than the size of the checks we write. Generosity is also an attitude of the heart that is reflected in the way we treat others. The fact that retail workers and wait staff have an almost universal loathing of Christmas says something profoundly unpleasant about the way our culture celebrates the birth of Christ. Striving to be open-handed and big-hearted with our time, money, empathy and praise is one of the best ways to reflect Christ to a world that has become accustomed to meanness and greed.

 Self-control-

 It’s always struck me as odd that we celebrate one of the holiest moments in human history by spending more than we have, eating like fiends, drinking like college students on spring break and generally living like there is no God from Thanksgiving to New Years. Extreme behavior of any kind is unpleasant to observe and will inevitably lead to ugly consequences and broken relationships (Ecclesiastes 7:18). Conversely, self-imposed limits have a protective effect on relationships, bank accounts, health and reputations.

 God’s people can do more than curse the darkness this Christmas season. We can step out of our holy huddles and adopt a mindset of joy, generosity and self-restraint and be the peace our world urgently needs this Christmas season.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Being the Season

We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us~ 2nd Corinthians 5:20a

 This last weekend boredom, a rare kid-free afternoon, a beautiful sunny day, and a case of cabin fever conspired to make me break a self-imposed rule that has served me well for years. I left my house (a.k.a. fortress of sanity) and headed out to the local mall on black Friday.

 Because I wasn’t really there to shop, I was free to engage in some intense people watching.

 The shoppers seemed to be divided into two distinct groups: those who were stimulated and exhilarated by the crowds, and those who were not. The first group wore big smiles, had an abundance of energy and were clearly very happy to be there. However, most of the shoppers looked weary, more than a little frantic and painfully over-stimulated.

 One woman who was clearly a member of the second group caught my attention. Initially it was her festive Christmas sweater, cute boots and jingle bell necklace that I noticed. Ultimately, it was the bitter rant she directed at a harassed-looking salesgirl that seized my attention. The woman went from weary to enraged when the salesgirl politely declined to honor a coupon that had expired. 

I will not bore you with all the details of the long drawn-out moral debate I had with myself as I struggled to decide whether or not to use this poor woman as an example in a blog post. I do not know her, nor do I know how she typically conducts herself.

 It is possible that she is normally a really pleasant person who just happened to be having a really bad day. It is also possible that she was dealing with some personal issues that contributed to her crankiness. Heaven knows there have been some singular moments of bad behavior in my own life that I do not wish to have judged by the general public.

 All that being said, my decision to share this story had more to do with something she said rather than with what she did. Six words uttered by a grumpy stranger, on the foulest shopping day of the year got me thinking about how I view the celebration of an entire season …

 “I’m just trying to celebrate Christmas!”

 You need to understand up-front that nobody on earth loves Christmas more than I do. My husband and kids are convinced that I should be named the official poster child for Christmas celebrations. I love the lights and decorations (the tackier, the better), the music (the louder, the better), the food (the richer, the better), the movies (the cornier, the better), the traditions, the parties (the more the better) but most of all I love the giving and yes, the receiving of presents.

However, even I have to admit that the humble Christ-child and His much-needed message of reconciliation and peace can and usually does get lost in the midst of the celebration and merriment.

 I am not, nor would I ever be rash enough to call for an end to the celebration of Christmas. It’s just too much fun. And I believe with all my heart that the God we serve is the author of fun, celebration and merriment. Old Testament law called for and even commanded the joyful celebration of frequent Holy days.

 However, the irritable woman in the mall got me thinking. Maybe Christmas is a thing I should endeavor to be rather than a thing I celebrate and enjoy for one month out of the year.

 So this year as we celebrate the holiday and relish the fun and feasting that has become such a big part of the commemoration of our Savior’s birth, I do not want to do more this year. Like most Christians in our culture I already do way too much at Christmas time.

 My goal this Christmas is to be more.

More than anything else I want to be the promise of hope that Jesus offers. I want to be the peace that Jesus embodied as I interact with my weary neighbors and the harried salesclerks and the cranky shoppers. My goal this Christmas is to make a much greater effort to model the love and grace that Jesus came to show us.