Friday, December 31, 2004

A Do-Over for the New Year

2004 -- like every other year of my life -- was filled with highs and lows. One thing I've learned to count on is this unrelenting law of undulation. Life on this planet is always going to be a mixed bag until Jesus comes back to turn everything rightside-up again.

Until that happens, we struggle, we grow, we dimish. Sometimes we gain ground; sometimes we fall back.

But 2004 seems to have held an extra measure of hardships for many of the people close to me. Now, added to the mounting losses in Iraq comes the unimaginable tragedy taking place in Asia. All this on top of the death and destruction that is so commonplace it doesn't make the news anymore -- places like Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Vietnam (where 280 Christians were murdered in April).

Maybe a new year is exactly what we need. Start the counter over again at zero. Wipe the slate clean. Get some space to work.

Wouldn't it be nice if, when the clock strikes midnight tonight, we all got took one big do-over?

Hey, here's an idea: Justice must be served. I'm not trying to say we should turn a blind eye and excuse the really bad guys. But...what if we decided to give people a do-over for the new year. I'm talking about that guy in your office who said that one thing that one time. Haven't you held onto that long enough? Give him a do-over. And your spouse. And your kids. Your parents. Give them all a do-over, another chance, a get-out-of-jail-free card.

How about this: Give yourself a do-over. Sure, you screwed up a bunch in 2004, but it's a new year. 2005 offers you another shot. You'll probably mess up something this year, too. But the last thing you need is to drag a bunch of baggage into the new year with you.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Living Between the Holidays

The week between Christmas and New Year's Day is the oddest time of the year. Do you go back to work? You're all out of sorts in terms of your schedule. Everything is just weird.

But life goes on for the living. Right now there are children being born. Right now there are families gathered in hospital rooms saying goodbye. Somebody got married today. Somebody else got divorced.

It seems like a lot of my friends are in pain this week. One friend's mother had a stroke. Another friend's mother is in the hospital with Alzheimer's. One friend is struggling with addiction. One friend just lost a baby. One friend is suffering from some mysterious illness, suffering chronic pain that keeps him awake at night.

In the midst of all our Christmas spirit, we dare not lose sight of the Passion of the Christ. The strangeness found between Christmas and New Year's Day is similar to that found between Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday. We live on Saturday. We live between the holidays.

In those between times is life -- life with sickness, life with suffering, life with sorrow and confusion. Life as we know it. We yearn for the dawning of a new day -- a day filled with promise -- a day that will certainly be better than today. And that day will come; that much is certain.

But for now, we cling to the hope that the next holy day is on its way.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

The Angel Gabriel

The word angel means "messenger" in Greek. The Bible says that there are multitudes of these heavenly messengers, but for some reason we only know the names of two: Michael and Gabriel (unless you count Lucifer). Michael is some kind of warrior; Gabriel always acts as a mouthpiece for God.

We don't know too much about angels. Apparently, they are immortal beings. It seems they have some measure of free will. They are not all-powerful, nor are they all-knowing. They must be strange looking -- their first words are usually, "Don't be afraid."

I spent some time this week thinking about Gabriel and his Christmastime mission. Imagine what it must be like -- first of all -- to be called into the council of the Godhead. The Son says, "Hey, Gabriel, it's finally time; I'm going down there. I want you to tell that little girl right there to get ready."

Gabriel says, "But she's a virgin. How's that even possible?"

The Spirit answers, "I'm going to make it possible."

Gabriel looks at the Father, "Is this going to be okay?"

The Father replies, "Yes, it's going to be fine, but it's going to get ugly. Just go tell her."

What must it have been like for Gabriel to watch the events unfold? He didn't know the end from the beginning. He could only watch things happen one step at a time.

One reason I've been thinking about this is because a friend of mine from the past has recently reached out. We haven't seen or heard from each other in more than a decade, but he sent me an email the other day. When I knew him he was Jef (yes, with one f), but now he goes by Gabriel. I had forgotten that was his first name.

Now, Gabriel lives in NYC and runs a theatre company. We have taken two very different paths in life and lead different lifestyles. I have friends who might call him the enemy. I do not believe he is. I do not think he is very much different from me. He is a man trying to figure out life, trying to find happiness, trying to make a mark.

Sounds a lot like me.

Whenever the angel Gabriel showed up in the Bible, he brought a message. Whenever the angel Gabriel approached someone, their life was never the same. He didn't know the end from the beginning, but he knew something the person needed to hear.

I wonder what my angel Gabriel has to say to me.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Sleep in Heavenly Peace

In the beginning, God created absolutely everything, and it was all perfect. When everything was ready, he took a deep breath and said, "Watch this." A man and a woman blinked their eyes at each other, and the grand romance was set in motion.

But people ran away for some reason. And God spent the next several thousand years chasing down his beloved. Every time he'd catch them, they'd cry and have a grand reunion. But it never lasted long. Pretty soon, people would get bored or just tired of the same, old thing.

But this God -- he never gave up.

And when the time was perfect, he actually came down here -- wrapped himself in an earthsuit and planted himself as a tiny seed in a teenage girl. It was a rough and bumpy landing, to be sure. Nothing would be very smooth for him during his brief stay here. But he did it.

And because he did, people -- not all of them -- but some of them -- finally relented. He has won our hearts, this tiny baby born in Bethlehem.

Tonight, I pray that you will enjoy perhaps the greatest gift of all: to sleep in heavenly peace.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

For Those Who Don't Really Feel Like Celebrating

Christmas is nearly on top of us now. We're in the home stretch. Last minute shoppers are frantically searching for that perfect gift, every night brings another of those animated Rankin/Bass Christmas specials, the airports are packed to the rafters and my kids are actually counting the days.

And here's something I've noticed this week: Some people are really looking forward to Christmas. Life is good. Jobs are terrific; finances are secure. The kids are healthy, making good grades and keeping their rooms clean. Blood pressure and cholesterol are down. Stocks are up. It's been a great year for them, and they're really looking forward to Saturday.

But not everyone is.

I'm thinking of my friends who just found out that they're going to lose the baby she's carrying. It's just a matter of time. They've told everyone she's expecting. Now they have to go back and tell everyone their tragedy. Their only prayer now is that it won't happen on the 25th.

I'm thinking of the family who ex-communicated their son several years ago. They were following the advice of their church -- make of that what you will. But now they've just discovered that their son has been killed in Iraq. They didn't even know he was there. And now he's gone.

I'm thinking of the father who wonders how in the world he's going to do Christmas with his kids now that his wife is gone.

All around us people are busy shopping and decorating and baking and attending parties. On the surface we may join in the festivities, but deep down we just don't feel like celebrating this year. Many of us find ourselves resonating with old Scrooge's sentiments: "What's Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in 'em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you?"

Some of us are struggling through relationships and wondering if we're going to make it through the holidays intact or stay together in the new year. Some of us are out of work and nervous that we might not be able to pay the mortgage. Some of us are facing illnesses and worried that this might be the last Christmas we spend with someone we love. Some of us are battling addiction and the added stress of the holidays seems to make it impossible to resist.

Seven hundred years before Mary and Joseph ever thought of going to Bethlehem, the world was also crashing down and falling apart. The nation of Israel had divided into two kingdoms, Israel in the north and Judah, with its capital -- Jerusalem -- in the south.

Armies from conquering nations are forming an alliance to destroy Jerusalem and carry the people off into captivity. Ahaz, who is king in Juday, has turned away from God. The situation seems hopeless, and the people are in distress.

Into that scene God sends the prophet Isaiah with a promise. Isaiah begins by declaring that despite how horrible and hopeless the situation seems, "Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who are in distress" (Isaiah 9:1).

How can he say that? Because here's the promise: "The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned" (Isaiah 9:2).

Notice who the promise is for: People walking in darkness -- people living in the land of the shadow of death -- people who probably wouldn't feel very much like celebrating.

That describes a lot of us. We are often the people walking in darkness, the people living in shadows. We need light desperately because in so many ways we live in a dark world. We live in a world of poverty and hunger, violence and death. We live in a world where nations oppress people -- where war and terrorism are a part of everyday life for too many.

We live in a world where people steal and are unable to control their sexuality -- a world where abuse occurs and families are torn apart. This is a world where people step on others in order to get ahead, people lie to win cases in court, people cheat and lie and hurt. People intimidate and disappoint. People are full of selfishness and pride and bitterness.

We could go on and on, but the Christmas story promises that in this land of darkness a light has dawned. A few verses later, Isaiah describes what that coming light would look like: "For unto us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace" (Isaiah 9:6).

Wonderful Counselor. Mighty God. Everlasting Father. Prince of Peace. When you think about it, isn't that exactly what we need? Aren't these the things that we hope for and long for, but sometimes fear that we'll never find? Perhaps you feel like you've been waiting a long time for wisdom or acceptance, for an experience of God's power and peace. At times we feel like we've been waiting such a long time for the dawning of the light Isaiah promised. Some of us are waiting in darkness, clinging by a narrow thread to this promise that the dawn will come.

But now the waiting time is over. The Christmas Story tells us that the Light of the World has stepped out into the darkness with unfailing love and full redemption so that the hopes and fears of all the years are met in him. And the good news of Christmas is that the light Isaiah promised is available to you and me right now. The Light is here for those who are merry and for those who don't really feel like celebrating.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Cleanliness Is Far From Godliness

Question: If you were a shepherd 2,000 years ago and while you were outside watching the sheep one night an angel showed up with a message from God -- well, what would you do?

Answer: Panic.

Shepherds were not highly regarded in those times. It wasn't a very noble profession. You practically lived outside with animals -- stupid animals at that. You were constantly coming into contact with...well...animal stuff. Unclean was not merely a description -- it was a condition for them. They were unclean hygienically and ceremonially.

I bet their first thought when they saw the angel was, "Oh, crap! What did we do now?" They knew that God didn't like unclean people, so they probably assumed that the angel was there to tell them God was mad at them -- or worse.

But the angel begins with the familiar refrain: "Fear not. God's not angry. In fact, I've got good news for everybody -- even dirty shepherds like you. You know all the stuff that's wrong with the world -- all that stuff you wish could get fixed but looks hopeless? Well, God's going to do something about it. He's sending someone to save the day. This Savior is also going to be The King. You can go see him if you want. Here's how you'll know him when you see him...."

Okay, wait. Don't hurry on here. If you're that shepherd, how do you think that sentence should end? This is the one sent from Almighty God to turn everything that's upside-down rightside-up. This guy is supposed to deliver. He's going to be the greatest King you've ever seen. How will you know him when you find him?

He'll be wrapped in satin and lying in a hand-carved crib. In his hand will be a golden rattle, and in his mouth will be a silver spoon.


"He'll be wrapped in rags, lying in a feed trough, surrounded by animals (kind of like one of your kids would be)."

Here's how you'll know the Messiah when you see him: you'll find him in the middle of a big mess. The whole reason this is good news -- to the shepherds and to us -- is because we're all messy people. Every night people come on television, and under the heading "news" they simply tell us how the world got a little messier today.

We manage to mess up every single area of life: relationships, finances, work, family, the environment, the church (especially there), our consciences, our habits. I cannot think of a single place we haven't managed to mess up. And we can't seem to fix it. Try as we may, we cannot put Humpty together again.

So, the angel comes and says, "Here's the good news: God is not afraid of a mess."

Our God doesn't care how messy your life is. It couldn't be any messier than his was. He was born in a mess -- wrapped in rags, laid in a manger -- and he ended his life in a mess -- wrapped in rags, hung on a cross. And in between the first day and the last day, he mostly hung out with messy people.

Christmas proves that you don't have to clean up for him. Cleanliness, it turns out, is far from Godliness. It's our messiness that draws him.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Have a Scandalous, Stress-Filled Christmas

No one ever wishes you that, do they? But that's one I can handle. It's one I could actually accomplish without much effort.

I've had lots of conversations lately about how simple Christmas should be -- how we've made too much of a production out of it. Maybe it's time to reform Christmas.

But in doing so, are we running away from something fundamental and inherent in Christmas itself? Think about how stressful that first Christmas must have been for Joseph. He's a good guy -- "a righteous man" the text calls him. He was known among the people in the village for how strictly he upheld the Law. It was more than just a descriptive term; it was a title. Joseph was a tsadiq -- a "righteous one".

But now he's got a problem: his fiancee is pregnant, and he wasn't the father. That's not acceptable. The text literally says, "Being a righteous man, he wanted to avoid a scandal." Most translations miss this and end up making Joseph nicer than he was and less upright at the same time. Probably the best way to translate that sentence is: "Although he was a righteous man, he didn't want a scandal."

Talk about stress! Joseph knew that the right thing to do (under the old system) was to expose the scandal. Sinners should be excluded, standards should be upheld. The righteous people should be separate from the sin and the sinners.

Yet, in spite of the fact that he was a "righteous" man, Joseph couldn't bring himself to do it. He would just divorce her quietly. That way he could avoid a big mess and still maintain his status as a righteous man.

But Joseph, with the help of an angel, decides to embrace the scandal. He does this knowing that his reputation may never recover from it...and it doesn't. By marrying the girl who got pregnant while they were engaged, everyone believed what we would believe today: Joseph did it.

So, this very first Christmas probably wasn't much like we imagine: quiet and peaceful. Obviously, unexpected -- unimaginable -- blessings came in the wake of this stressful scandal, but don't kid yourself. It was stressful and scandalous, and it leads me to a theory.

I have a theory -- it's probably not original to me. But I think I know what Jesus may have written in the dirt when they presented him with that adulterous woman in John 8. I think he may have written one word:


Maybe in that moment, Jesus thought back to a scared 13-year-old pregnant girl in a scandalized village. Maybe he thought of a strong young tsadiq who gave up his reputation in order to stand by that girl's side.

Maybe this is what he had in mind when he said, "I tell you the truth. Unless your righteousness (your tsadiq-ness) exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven."

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

God With Us

I was wrong. I had no idea I'd get as much feedback as I received. Thanks for all the comments and email.

One thing that many of you mentioned is a more incarnational approach to evangelism. Interestingly enough, isn't that the whole point of the season we're in? God could have given us a written document explaining the way back to a relationship with him. Instead, he sent a person.

He sent his Son who didn't just die for us -- he lived for us, showing us the true potential of life in the kingdom of God. He confronted evil and did his share of talking. But most of his teaching was done in the context of relationship. He laid the truth on the table and allowed people to walk away from it if they chose to.

Remember the rich, young ruler. Jesus says, "You need to go sell everything and give your money to the poor." The guy walked away. And this is the best part: Jesus let him. Jesus didn't chase him down. If that was us, we'd be tempted to run after him and say, "Hey, maybe that was too extreme. How about we start with just 10%?"

Here's the truth: Jesus usually behaved in unpredictable ways. He told people to keep quiet when we'd think it would be best to brag about the miracle. He told a crowd of people, "Before Abraham was, I AM." If I'd been there, I would have been saying, "Esus-jay, ot-nay ow-nay. Ix-nay on the alking-tay."

He rarely approaches two different people in the same way. So, any approach to evangelism that says, "Here's how you always respond when someone says this" is just way off. There's no such thing as cookie-cutter evangelism.

Hey, God is with us. That's the Immanuel promise of the incarnation. He hasn't left us as orphans. We have his abiding presence -- his Holy Spirit living within. As we walk with integrity and listen to the prompting of the Spirit, we may find ourselves boldly sharing our faith or quietly asking questions about someone else's. Our approach may begin to look more like the approach Jesus took. Sometimes asking direct questions. Sometimes giving vague answers. More often than not, telling stories and moving on.

Something tells me that might be the best thing we could hope for.

Something also tells me that this conversation isn't over yet.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Is This Evangelism?

I got back late last night from Charlotte, NC. Normally, travel provides me with a lot of alone time -- something I seem to need more than most people. That means that while I may return from traveling tired from the trip, I'm usually refreshed at the same time. This trip, however, provided none of that. And I am exhausted as a result.

Charlotte is beautiful -- well, parts of it are. The part we were in certainly is wealthy, and the houses are all decked out with enough lights to be seen from outer space.

I had a good time catching up with some old friends. But a question came up that I'd like your opinion on. This is risky, because I'm not sure I have the reader-base to formally ask for input. I may end up getting no feedback. But here goes....

If you grew up going to church youth rallies or Christian camps, I'd like your memories of evangelism training. Personally, I remember getting up early on Saturday mornings to go doorknocking with my parents. Some churches still practice this, but it's a ridiculously ineffective method these days.

It seemed that this was the primary means of evangelism in the 70s and early 80s. I also remember passing out Bible tracts on the streets of Cardiff, Wales. They had titles like, "Is There Really Just One Way?" and "How Do I Know I Am a Christian?"

As I look back now, I'm sure we were doing our best. We had our Bibles marked up with our version of the Romans Road. We had reduced Christianity to a math equation and could explain it to you in just a few minutes. At the end of our presentation, we would always end up with the Ethiopian in Acts 8 asking, "Here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?"

If you didn't get in the water that day it was because something's wrong with you. Either you're a little slow or stubborn or dishonest. Possibly we weren't being effective salesmen, but that's what evangelism came down to -- or so it seemed. Evangelism was sales.

I remember distinctly at a youth rally in my home church. We used drama -- cutting edge at the time. It wasn't much more than camp skits, though. There was one that had a couple of guys meeting up at the Pearly Gates. They have a warm reunion -- hugs and laughter -- sharing pictures of the kids. Then one of them turns to face an unseen Judge. He is told that he's going to hell. He can't believe it.

Oh, I'm breaking out in hives recalling it.

He turns to his friend (who was always involved in stuff at church) and asked why he never bothered to share the truth with him. He's angry and sad and really lets his "friend" have it. "How could you? You knew I was going to hell, but you never told me."

He storms off the stage, and we see the other guy turn now to face the Judge. Blackout. Then we would sing a terrible song called "You Never Mentioned Him to Me". Guilt. Guilt. Guilt.

It was supposed to scare us into sharing our faith with a sense of urgency. Was anyone else subjected to this kind of thing?

Apparently, teenagers rarely get this kind of thing anymore. I think that's good. But how will they understand the urgency of sharing their faith with others? Should they feel that urgency? Are we doing an end-run around the sovereignty of God? Are we absolving them of personal responsibility?

These are the questions I'd like your input on.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Christmas Is Coming

In case you haven't noticed, Christmas is coming. Starbucks is playing their continuous loop of holiday music (have you ever heard what you would consider a "good" rendition of "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus"?), houses are decorated with strings of lights and inflatable snowmen, traffic is especially bad around the mall and people feel completely comfortable wearing Santa hats and sweaters with reindeer stitched on them.

Ah, 'tis the season.

Now, when you hear the phrase, "Christmas is coming," most of us start to hyperventilate. We're 2 1/2 weeks away, folks. The countdown has begun. I still don't have a tree or any decorations. We've barely begun shopping. We don't have our plans in place -- don't know what we're getting my Dad (he's always the hardest) or my Mom. My sister and brother-in-law are coming from northern California. We don't know what we're going to eat or when or where.

Anyone ready to panic?

Here's the amazing thing about Christmas: It comes. Ready or not, here it comes. Whether I panic or push or prepare everything meticulously -- Christmas comes. Just like it did way back when, Christmas doesn't need much help from us. There was no parade at the first Christmas. There wasn't much of a fuss. As far as we know, there wasn't even a midwife to help usher in the little life that would bring so much hope to the world. Without any assistance from the powers-that-were, Christmas just showed up.

There's nothing wrong with going shopping or planning a fantastic Christmas dinner. There's absolutely nothing wrong with making a list and checking it twice. Unless it gets in the way of you experiencing the joy of the season. Unless it actually robs you of the peace that this Christchild came to bring.

So, let's all take a deep breath and remember: Regardless of what we do or do not get accomplished...Christmas is coming -- thank God.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Redefining Abundance

I already told you that Christmas this year will be lean. I can't blame that on anyone, so I guess I'll stop trying. And I'm going to try to stop beating myself up about it.

Last night, I sat in my living room with the Blackwells, the Booths, the Thons, the Lees, Yuri and Nadia, David Wells -- people you might now know but who provide encouragement to me in ways I could never begin to describe. We sat and watched Ray Vander Laan tell us about Bethlehem, Herod and the birth of Jesus. He talked about how the power structures of this world often overshadow and obscure a clear vision of true power. He mentioned the humility of God as seen in the lowly birth of Jesus. He challenged us to renew our search for true significance and re-define words like majesty.

Afterwards, as we discussed the ramifications of this in our own lives -- especially during this season of Advent -- I filled with warmth as I looked around the room. What was I thinking saying Christmas would be lean? How can I use the word lean about a season that provides the very basis for the rich fellowship I gorge myself on every weekend?

I can afford to eat a little less this year -- you can too, probably.

I can afford to buy a little less this year -- you can too, probably.

I can afford to bask in the glow of the unity of the Spirit this year -- you can too, probably.

I can afford to reflect more on the first coming of Jesus this year -- you can too, definately.

The problem isn't with my scarcity this year. The problem is with the way I have been defining abundance.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Perspective and Humility

Okay, so sometimes it doesn't happen the way I thought it would. Sometimes I feel self-important and self-sufficient. I think I've got it all figured out and under control.

It's usually at times like this that the roof comes crashing down around my ears, leaving me standing in a pile of rubble with nothing but my self-importance and self-sufficiency. All my plans, all my dreams evaporate like steam off a tea kettle.

I'm disappointed. I'm discouraged. I'm discontent.

Christmas will be lean this year. I've given away too much for free. I've counted on things that didn't pan out. I've made foolish choices, and I'll learn from this. Hopefully, I'll be more gracious after this. I know I'll have a better perspective.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

How Much Would It Take?

And the calls keep coming in. Maybe it's a seasonal thing, but periodically I get calls and emails from people -- usually friends of mine -- who want me to move from my new comfortable house to some remote place and solve their church problems for them.

I used to think that when people come looking for me (instead of the other way around) it was a sign that God may be involved. I'm pretty sure that's bad theology.

Anyway, all of this brings up one of my favorite questions: How much would it take? Maybe that sounds crass, but it's still helpful to ask questions like this every once in a while. Sure, I might sell my beautiful house and move across the country to work work with a church. I might. And so might you...if they ponied up enough money, right?

So, how much would it take for you to move to...say Amarillo, Texas? Or St. Louis, Missouri? Vancouver, British Columbia?

What would it take to get you to stop doing what you're doing, pack up the family and move somewhere else?

Let me tell you this: I bet it will take more than they're willing to offer.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Who Knew?

According to the readers of this blog, I am apparently also something of a whiner. And I seem to have offended the Burl Ives fan club.