Archive for 2009

The Work of Christmas Begins

Sunday, December 27th, 2009

“But this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and staining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind.” Philippians 3:13-14

Christmas tells us that nothing has to be merely commonplace or ordinary. God, the Creator, has come into the world and touched everything with possibility. Everything in the world is capable of reflecting and communicating the beauty and grandeur of God if we have eyes to see and ears to hear.

Several years ago I came across a poem that maybe says it best.

“When the song of the angels is silent,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are again tending their sheep,
When the manger is darkened and still;
Then the work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost, to heal the broken,
To feed the hungry, to rebuild the nations,
To befriend the lonely, To release the prisoners, To make music in the heart…

Hear again the words of Scripture, “The Shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, ….” (Luke 2:20) Will you?

Love is a Christmas Word

Sunday, December 20th, 2009

“This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to clear away our sins and the damage they’ve done to our relationship with God. Dear Friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” 1 John 4:9-11

Recently I read the story of a little girl who had to spend some time in a hospital. She came from a very well-to-do family, and her family showered her with expensive gifts during her stay in the hospital. There were large overstuffed toys, including a 6 foot tall giraffe, dolls and a dollhouse, games of every description. The mother, who was well known in social circles brought something new every time she came to see the little girl. But she never stayed long because she always had to get to some luncheon or party. But she never failed to bring a gift. The nurses complained about the enormous amount toys that made it difficult for them to move about in the child’s room. One day the little girl was particularly unhappy in the midst of all her many gifts, and held desperately to her mother as her mother tried to break free so that she wouldn’t be late to a bazaar she was scheduled to attend. The mother tried to divert the child’s attention to the new toy she had brought. “Mommy,” cried the little girl, “I want you.” Surrounded by gifts, she wanted the most important thing of all, her mother’s presence and her mother’s love

Christmas is a reminder that in the midst of all the “stuff” the world promises us, gives us and surrounds us with, what we really need is God’s love. “Love came down at Christmas” goes one song. Christmas tells us that God has come into our broken and lonely world to love us and show us what true love is. Experiencing the love of God and allowing the love of God to wash over us and through us to others is one of the greatest experiences we can have this Christmas. Will it be yours and mine?

Swimming in Joy

Sunday, December 13th, 2009

“I keep my eyes always on the Lord; because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken. You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy.” Psalm 16:8,11

While attending a 2008 awards presentation at the Strathmore Music Center, a concert hall just outside of Washington, D.C., author Mark Gauvreau Judge witnessed what can only be described as unashamed joy—something we don’t often get to see in a broken world, let alone the church. The scene was made all the more powerful because it included different people from different cultural backgrounds—a Nimiipuu Indian, a saddle maker from Idaho, a Brazilian street dancer, a leader of the music liturgy of the Ethiopian Christian church, an Iroquois choir, a bluegrass band, a master of Peruvian folk art, a quilter from Alabama, a Korean dancer from New York, and a jazz musician specializing in the traditional New Orleans style. Judge writes:

After almost three hours, it was time for a curtain call—one last bow to end the evening. As [the host of the event] reintroduced everyone, [the] featured jazz band played “When the Saints Go Marching In.” That’s when something happened.

The audience at the Strathmore rose to its feet to acknowledge the fellowship winners—it seemed at the time like one last blast of applause before the exit. But as they—we—clapped in time to “When the Saints Go Marching In,” the performers onstage began to dance. … The jazz band, sensing something in the air, got louder, and kept playing. And playing. And playing. Onstage, the performers formed a conga line, led by one of the jazz musicians, then a circle, each person taking his or her turn in the center. The invisible line between performers and audience evaporated. It had turned into one big party—or revival meeting.

The spiritual writer Stephen Mitchell once described a holy joy “so large that it is no longer inside of you, but you are inside of it.” I used to work at a record store and wrote music reviews for newspapers and websites, and I’ve been to hundreds of concerts over the years. I have never seen anything like what happened on that stage at the Strathmore. It was the most totally unselfconscious explosion of bliss I have ever seen in performance; the people onstage were not hamming for the crowd or blowing kisses. They were as lost in abandon as we were. I wouldn’t be surprised if they had forgotten we were there. This was a spontaneous eruption of happiness. …

After about thirty bars of saints marching in, [the host] shut things down. No one wanted to leave; I honestly believe the band could have played for an hour and no one would have moved for the exits. Staggering outside, I heard a woman say she was “swimming in joy.” I myself was speechless. Then I heard someone say, “I hope there was someone from the media there.” I thought of saying that I was in the media. But then I had the decency to admit there were times when language failed. Like everyone else, I just wanted to stay inside the joy. (Mark Gauvreau Judge, “Concert of the Year,” Books and Culture, October 13, 2008)

Maybe you have had an experience like this, I have. A sense of overwhelming joy/happiness/well-being/contentment that transforms the moment. But as I read the article, I was struck by the author’s statement: “something we don’t often get to see in a broken world, let alone the church.” “Let alone in the church” – what a shame. If there is one place that we should be “swimming in joy”, “inside the joy” it should be in the church. Christmas and Christ are all about joy – unspeakable joy, a joy that takes your breath away. My prayer for us this Christmas is that something will grab us and transform us in such a way that the only way we can describe it is as if we were “swimming in joy”. Blessings.

Bypassing Advent

Sunday, December 6th, 2009

Hear the promise of Jesus: “These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

The late Vancouver native Stanely Grenz once wrote an article in Christianity Today entitled “Drive Through Christmas.” Here is an adaption of what he wrote:

“On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me.” Tony Bennett’s voice wove its subtle magic throughout the shopping mall. How appropriate, I thought, as I watched the shoppers scurry from store to store. The advertisements promised “just the right gifts at just the right price,” allowing us to “give like Santa and save like Scrooge.”

As I listened, I was struck with how we have turned Christmas around—not so much by commercializing the season, but through something deeper. Our McWorld of drive-through expectations has replaced patient waiting, followed by heartfelt joyous celebration, with the idolatry of instant gratification.

As members of the fast-food generation, we have become so eager to get to Christmas that we bypass Advent. Whereas an earlier generation encouraged fasting and reflection, we try to enjoy days filled with more Christmas festivities than we can endure. Christmas has displaced Advent on our calendars.

But our bypassing of Advent runs deeper—altering our attitude to the story of Christ’s birth. We know how the story ends. Knowing the end of the story so well, we want to rush through the long and tortuous details of how God prepared a people—of how “God sent his Son…when the time had fully come” (Galatians 4:4). Rather than entering into the sense of expectation lying at the foundation of the story of Christ’s entrance into human history, we read only the story’s glorious climax. Rather than savoring the plaintive mood of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” we immediately want to hear a robust version of “Joy to the World, the Lord Is Come.” In short, we have our Christmas early and create a drive-through Christmas.

What Grenz is lamenting is the fact that for many people there is no time or room for Advent. It gets in the way. But Advent is important. It helps prepare us for Christmas with its emphasis on expectation and hope, peace and joy and the need and search for real love. So let me encourage you to not “bypass Advent.” Enjoy the four weeks leading up to the celebration of Jesus’ coming. Let this time bathe your soul and help you to really enter into the joy of the celebration of God’s greatest gift.

Choosing Hope

Sunday, November 29th, 2009

“Through Christ you have come to trust in God, who raised Jesus from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God.” 1 Peter 1:21

The 1995 movie Dangerous Minds is based on a true story about high school teacher LouAnne Johnson (played by Michelle Pfeiffer) making a difference in the lives of troubled but smart inner-city students. In one scene, while LouAnne is in front of her class teaching, the students are upset with her because they felt she “ratted” on three students for fighting. LouAnne asks them if they want to discuss the issue. There is no response. Fully calm and composed, she tells them if they feel so strongly about it, they should leave the classroom. No one is forcing them; they can stay or leave.

One of the students objects and tells her they don’t have a choice: “If we leave we don’t get to graduate. If we stay, we have to put up with you.”

LouAnne tells the student that’s a choice—not one they like, but it’s a choice.

Another student angrily objects and says, “Man, you don’t understand nothing. You don’t come from where we live. You’re not bussed here. You come and live in my neighborhood for one week, and then you come and tell me if you have a choice.”

LouAnne, with a slight tinge of anger, firmly replies, “There are a lot of people who live in your neighborhood who choose not to get on that bus. What do they choose to do? They choose to go out and sell drugs. They choose to go out and kill people. They choose to do a lot of other things. But they choose not to get on that bus. The people who choose to get on that bus, which are you, are the people who are saying, ‘I will not carry myself down to die; when I go to my grave, my head will be high.’ That is a choice.”

Then in a slightly louder and angrier tone, she says, “There are no victims in this classroom!”

The camera shows one student seriously considering her words.

Another female student says, “Why do you care anyway? You’re just here for the money.”

LouAnne quickly responds, “Because I make a choice to care; and honey, the money ain’t that good.”

We all make choices in life. This is especially true with the way we choose to live our lives and especially our spiritual lives. God loves us and wants to be a part of our lives. He offers us life and hope and joy and so many other things, but we have the choice of whether or not we will experience them. We can choose to complain, or spend our time and money on things that we think will bring us happiness, or we can choose to cultivate our relationship with God which the Bible makes clear is the most important relationship and choice we can make in life. It is more important than the choice we make about school, relationships, money, jobs, you name it. Happiness and joy and life and hope are in your hands. What will you do with the gifts that God wants to give to you? How will you choose? Christ says, “I have come that they might have life in all its abundance” (John 10:10). The best choice is Christ. The choice is up to you.