Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Don't Bubble-Wrap The Lord

Dear Friends,

I miss Christmas already. I loved going into the most secular retail stores and hearing the words to Hark The Harold Angels Sing on their music system: “Christ by highest heav’n adored, Christ the everlasting Lord. Late in time behold Him come, offspring of a Virgin’s womb. Veiled in flesh the God-head see, hail the Incarnate Deity...”

We all join hands and celebrate that “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” and then we end the season and put Him back in the box. We take the lights off the dried-out tree and carefully remove the fragile porcelain nativity figurines from the stable. We bubble-wrap the baby Jesus and pack him away.

A family was driving by their church the week after Christmas. Their son had noticed that the Nativity Scene in front of the church had been already taken down. The little boy said, “Look they've put Jesus away for another year.”

That's what the world does with Jesus. If Jesus was even a part of their Christmas celebration, He's now packed away with the lights, ornaments and tree stand. But does your celebration of Jesus really end when there’s nothing left under the tree but dried pine needles scattered on the tree skirt? Is your joy and happiness gone after gifts are opened and the trash cans are overflowing with empty cardboard boxes and crumpled wrapping paper?

By the end of the 19th Century, the start of the Christmas season was no longer being determined by the church. The major department stores had hijacked the holy days and reinvented Christmas to be a time of giving gifts. Today the Christmas season is driven by the National Retail Federation and officially begins when the plastic Santas are on the shelf next to the Halloween skeletons. And the season is officially over as soon as the Christmas clearance items have been sold and the January “White Sales” have begun. The baby Jesus is gone but there’s an astounding 30-60% off on all sheets and bedding at Macy’s! 

Let's do something revolutionary and take back the Christmas season. Let’s continue to make it Christ-centered and have it start on the first Advent Sunday. But then let's do something even more radical. Let's have this “Christ Season” never end! What if our celebration and worship of Jesus started every year on the first Sunday of Advent and didn’t end on December 26th? What if the “Season that Jesus is the Reason of” never ended but the season of joy just continued all year long? And then what if, on every first Advent Sunday, the never-ending season of celebrating Jesus just started all over again?

And what if every day of that season, we longed to live our life in the presence of the One who was the Child in the manger? What if every day of that season, we dropped to our knees to confess our sins of the day and prayed that God would make us into the image – the very likeness – of His Son Jesus Christ? What if we took every opportunity we had during our new extended Christ Season to speak with others about Jesus. What if instead of just inviting our family and friends to church with us on Christmas Eve and Easter day, what if we invited them to come to church on February 7th or how about May 15th? Or even August 21th? Or even next Sunday?

Christmas Day is over. Vacuum up the dried pine needles. Pack up the Nativity set. But don’t bubble-wrap the real Son of God and pack Him away. Let's keep the real Jesus right here in our day-to-day life. Yes, Jesus is the Reason for the Season, but let’s be subversive and make His season a season that never ends.  Amen?

From the AMEN Corner archives.

This edited and revised devotional 
was originally published January 2, 2013.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

A Christmas Prayer

Dear Lord God, 
Giver of all that is good.

We thank You today for the gift of Your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who was born into poverty in a hard and cruel time.
Who gave Himself for us on the cross,
and lives and reigns with You in glory.

We thank You for our family, our pastors, 
our friends who have gone before us,
and taught us the meaning of Your incarnation 
that we celebrate today.

With gladdened hearts, we celebrate Your Nativity 
with beloved scripture and Christmas carols and loud rejoicing.

Help us to teach those who come after us 
that Christmas is a holy time. 
It’s about the greatest gift that we could ever receive.
The gift of a Baby in a manger.

Bless us O Lord as we continue to seek Your Son 
and to love Him more each day.

Bless us Lord that through Your Grace 
we can look more like Him and less like us.

Bless us as we seek to honor the mystery of the Incarnation
and as we remember that You made us in Your divine image.

Help us to welcome You 
into the messiness of our humanity with 
Your wisdom, power and peace today 
and throughout our days to come.

Emmanuel.  God with us.  Thank You, Lord.


Wednesday, December 16, 2015

It's OK to Say Merry Christmas!

Dear Friends,

“Happy Holidays” said the sales clerk as I walked away. I turned back to her and looked in her eyes for a moment. “Merry Christmas,” I responded. Her face lit up and she said, “Oh yes! Merry Christmas! Thank you for saying that to me!” No other customers were in line so I asked if (I named the store) told her that she should say happy holidays and she looked a little confused. She said that they hadn’t told the employees what to say but everyone said happy holidays and she assumed that was just what she supposed to say. We had a nice conversation about our Christian faith for a few minutes...

I have no qualms about saying  “Merry Christmas” to people after they have just wished me a happy holiday. It always frees people to then tell me, “Merry Christmas.” I do not hesitate to say “Merry Christmas” because I understand the math. The most recent surveys show that 96% of people in America celebrate Christmas! That number may surprise you but even 81% of non-Christians in our Nation celebrate Christmas. That means that eight out of every ten atheists, agnostics and people of other religions celebrate Christmas. One third of American Jews have a Christmas tree in their home. 76% of Buddhists and 73% of Hindus celebrate Christmas. On Al Abrbiya News, a commentator complained about the increasing number of American Muslims who are now celebrating Christmas. Of course most non-Christians view Christmas more as a cultural holiday than a celebration of the birth of Christ, but they are certainly not offended when we wish them a “Merry Christmas.”

When you do the math, you realize that if you say “Merry Christmas” to one hundred people, you may say that to four people who don’t celebrate Christmas. Who are those four? Atheists who prefer to sit out the holiday. Wiccans and other Pagans who prefer to celebrate the winter solstice. And the one million Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Christ denomination who don’t acknowledge Christmas. But of those four percent, only a very small percentage admits to being actually “offended” if someone says “Merry Christmas” to them. According to some atheist websites, most atheists who do not celebrate Christmas, are not at all offended if someone wishes them a “Merry Christmas.” They just say “Merry Christmas” right back.

I was unable to find actual statistics on how many people are genuinely offended by someone saying “Merry Christmas” but a conservative guess would be that 1-2% of Americans might possibly be offended. And that would mostly be those who are obsessed with being politically correct. Those who would be just as offended if they sneezed and a stranger said, “God bless you.” 

If I say “Merry Christmas” to one hundred people and one or two are possibly offended, I’m okay with those odds. That’s because you and I offend people all the time. That’s life. To offend means to cause another person to feel upset, annoyed, or displeased. Let’s just take me as an example. I offend some people solely because I am a white, Christian male. 32-34% of non-White Americans will not like me because of my race. Some women will be irritated with me and instantly dislike me because they simply don’t like assertive males. I offend progressive liberals because I believe in a Bible that they say contains “hate speech.” I’ve offended conservative Christians because I wear a beard. When I order a medium-rare hamburger in a restaurant, I no doubt upset and offend the animal-lover vegan (5% of all Americans) who is picking away at his/her fruit salad at the next table.
And you my friend offend (upset, displease) people simply because of your skin-color, race, religion, economic status, and you really upset them when you remind them of that dreadful ex-wife or ex-husband! Are you okay with eating a hamburger or having a package of boneless, skinless Chicken Breasts in the shopping cart and potentially offending 5% of all Americans? Are you also okay with wishing someone a Merry Christmas and potentially offending 1-2% of all Americans? You offend a greater percentage of people just by being you!

We are letting a very small but powerful political movement in our Nation strangle the Jesus right out of our Christmas season. We need to deflate Santa and the Grinch and put the Nativity back on our front lawns. We need to stop being ashamed of our faith. We need to remind people that Christmas is about Jesus. We need to boldly tell people “Merry Christmas,” and when we do, they are then empowered with the same boldness to tell others “Merry Christmas.” It’s time to let people know, “Hey, it’s okay to say Merry Christmas!” Amen?

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

3 Ways To Celebrate Christmas

Dear Friends,

Have you ever been curious about how Christians around the world celebrate Christmas? In Belgium, Christmas breakfast is a special sweet bread “Cougnou” that’s shaped like the baby Jesus. In Brazil, the poor families who can’t afford a tree use a dry tree branch and put cotton on it to simulate snow. In Finland, at midnight, the Mayor of Turku broadcasts a Christmas peace declaration.The Christmas festivities start with a sauna. Dinner is traditionally boiled codfish or pickled salmon and herrings. In Germany, the lighting of a candle each week on the Advent Wreath is very traditional. After the Christmas dinner of salted, dried fish, German children wait in the dining room until they hear the ringing of a bell and that’s when they rush into the living room to open their gifts. In Hungary, children go to a relatives house and while they are gone, Jesus brings a tree and gifts to their house. 

In Portugal, the traditional dinner is salted, dry codfish with boiled potatoes. (I found many cultures that celebrate Christmas with salted, dried or pickled fish.) In Africa, the most important part of the Christmas church service is the love offering. It’s the birthday gift given to Jesus and each person comes up to the altar and lays down their love offering. On Christmas eve, children in Africa march up and down streets singing Christmas carols and shouting, “Christ is coming, Christ is coming, He is near!” In Bethlehem, the Christian homes are marked with a cross painted over the door and each house has a nativity scene that is handmade by a family member. 

In Russia, Christmas eve is a twelve course meal with each course in honor of one of the twelve apostles and it’s not Santa that brings gifts to Russian children it’s “Babushka.” Babushka means grandmother and the legend is that she declined to go with the Wise Men to visit Jesus because the weather was too cold. However once the Wise Men left, she immediately regretted her decision and filled a basket of gifts for Jesus and hurried to try to catch up to the Wise Men. The ancient Babushka never found the Wise Men or Jesus and that’s why she visits each house leaving gifts for the children.

In America, we have a number of wonderful Christmas traditions as we celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. And, I love the two Finnish ladies who attend our church, but I’m personally grateful that none of our traditions have anything to do with salted, dried or pickled fish! So how can a Christian believer celebrate the birth of Jesus that would truly honor our Lord and Savior? By telling others about Him just as the shepherds did 2,000 years ago. Luke 2:15-17 We have so many opportunities to talk with others about Jesus at this time of year when people are immersed in the Christmas season. Many people struggle with issues of faith, and more than at any other time of year, their ears are open to hearing the Gospel message.

And what was Mary doing this whole time while the shepherds were exclaiming the good news that the Messiah had come? In the middle of the busyness and fussing going on around her, Mary took a break to relax and think. The Christmas story tells us that “..Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.” Luke 2:18-19 There was the Angel Gabriel’s shocking message, the difficult journey and finally the birth of God’s Son in a manger. It must have been overwhelming for this little teen-age girl. In the midst of the most intense drama in human history being played out in the stable, we might imagine Mary lying down on some clean straw, closing her eyes and giving herself a spiritual timeout while pondering the meaning of it all. 

Mary shows us that the second way a believer can celebrate Christmas is to spend quiet time with God. Get away from the busyness of the holiday, make yourself a cup of tea and open your Bible to the first two chapters in Luke. We can take a break from the gift buying, home decorations, baking cookies and, like Mary, give ourselves a spiritual timeout. Perhaps we also need to take a deep breath and just ponder the wonder of it all.

How can we celebrate Christmas? We can tell others about the true reason for our celebration. We can take frequent times during the season to just stop and contemplate it all. And the third thing we can do to celebrate Christmas is to praise and worship God for the redeeming gift of His only Begotten Son. “Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them.” Luke 2:20 The shepherds praised God for the birth of Jesus. At Christmas time, there is no other response more appropriate than raising your hands to heaven and crying out in praise to our Almighty Father for the gift of Jesus. Amen?

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Gospel According To Linus

Dear Friends,

There was a time in my adult life when layers of Christmas traditions had obscured the meaning. As a young boy, I knew it was about the miraculous birth of Jesus, but it was also about the miraculous coming of Santa Claus. Christmas was a time of mystery and wonder until someone punctured my belief about Santa with the truth and all the mystery and wonder leaked out. As I grew into adulthood, my Christmas became a sloppy mixture of sentimentality and materialism. It was a time of year when things in the world became nice again. Nice decorations, nice songs, nice movies, nice dinners, nice gifts and the miracle of Jesus’ birth was overshadowed with the miracle of people actually being nice to one another. 

We long for the hope, peace, joy and love that we often find in our sentimentalization of Christmas. We express our love for each other by giving gifts and the more the better. That’s all good. But Christmas is more than nice, warm thoughts and what we got at Walmart on Black Friday. 

Christmas is about a Creator entering into His Creation to redeem us and bring us true hope, peace, joy and love. Christmas is about the incarnation, literally meaning “God in the flesh.” And when we return to the spiritual riches of Christmas, the sentimentality and materialism of the season is now eclipsed with the majesty and mystery of the incarnation. Our childlike wonder has returned. Thank You God!

Advent is the season of expectation. The word Advent is from a Latin word meaning “coming” and we celebrate the first time Jesus came to earth in that Bethlehem manger as we look with full expectation to His second coming. ‘Tis the season  to decorate, shop, cook, bake, give, receive and spend time with family and friends. That’s what we love about Christmas but none of those wonderful holiday traditions have anything to do with Christ. Advent reminds us to take a timeout from the holiday busyness to spend time with Jesus.

I love the Christmas movies. I laugh at the irreverent humor in THE CHRISTMAS STORY and cry at the same sappy places you do while watching MIRACLE ON 34th STREET and IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. But of course those classic Christmas movies are about an eccentric family, the “real” Santa Claus and guardian angels. Nothing about Jesus.

My favorite holiday movie is a cartoon that was introduced to the world on December 9, 1965. Its overt religious theme was out of place on TV then, and no major studio or televison network would even think about producing this today. The miracle is that, not only was it made, but that networks must show this politically-incorrect cartoon every Christmas because it’s so immensely popular! I’m talking about the cartoon called, CHARLIE BROWN'S CHRISTMAS. Here’s an excerpt:

Charlie Brown: Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?

Linus Van Pelt: Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.  [moves toward the center of the stage]

Linus Van Pelt: Lights, please. [a spotlight shines on Linus]

Linus Van Pelt: "And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, 'Fear not: for behold, I bring unto you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.' And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.'"

[Linus picks up his blanket and walks back towards Charlie Brown]

Linus Van Pelt: That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.