Monthly Archives: November 2010

The Twelve Days of Christmas Challenge, Part 2

In my last post I laid out the case for how we have totally abandoned the original intent and spirit of Christmas. All that remains anymore for most people is a hollow, broken shell of the celebration of Christ’s birth. For that reason, we must make some radical changes in how we honor God’s gift of Christ.

I want to suggest that a redefinition of Christmas can come about in several ways:

  • Instead of a post-Thanksgiving shopping, party, and event frenzy with an anticlimactic one-day Christmas, we can celebrate a twelve-day Christmas beginning on December 25, preceded by a much quieter, thoughtful Advent season.
  • Instead of gifting others with things and stuff, we can follow God’s example of honoring and blessing them with the gift of ourselves.
  • Instead of overspending on time, money, and energy, we can narrow the field and focus on fewer, but more thoughtful gifts that would honor and bless our loved ones.
  • Instead of falling into the same old typical Christmas traditions and expectations, many of which have lost their meaning over time, we can establish new traditions that mirror the generosity, love, surprises, and grace of God’s gift of Jesus Christ.

Even if you’re not a fellow believer but find yourself somehow participating in the Christmas culture, I think believer and non-believer alike can find some meaning in what I’m about to propose. We all can try this twelve days of Christmas challenge and find ourselves at the end of it far more closer to our loved ones, feeling far more generous, and experiencing the heart and life of Jesus by living out his generosity and grace as a way of  honoring of his birth.

So… hold on to your seats and read on. Here is the twelve days of Christmas challenge:

The Christmas challenge takes place during the traditional twelve days of Christmas, beginning December 25 and ending on January 5.

Here’s how the Christmas challenge works:

1)      Have your family, or a group of friends, neighbors, or office friends decide to go into the Christmas challenge together. Assemble the group as soon as possible.

2)      You each randomly draw the name of someone else in that group.

3)      Beginning on December 25, the Christmas challenge begins, and on each of the twelve days of Christmas, you give one gift to that person whose name you drew.

4)      Each gift you give must be well thought out and designed to truly love and bless that person. A gift could be something like:

  • a note or card that encourages the person or expresses your love and support.
  • a handmade gift—something you made for that person.
  • an object you own that you decide to give the person—something you know they would truly appreciate
  • some planned quality time doing something the person would truly enjoy
  • help with a chore or job
  • a poem, song, or picture that would honor or celebrate that person
  • a mission project or act of service you decide to carry out in that person’s honor
  • a small, purchased gift, but something that required some thought and creativity

If you belong to a family with small children (like ours): small children can participate, too. Modify the Christmas challenge to fit their needs and abilities. Perhaps they can give one or two gifts to a few other family members, and those family members in turn can gift them. And if they are too young to able to participate much at all, have other family members take turns gifting the child for those twelve days. Bottom line is that all people, no matter their age or ability can be a part of the Christmas challenge.

Is there room for traditional gift giving? Absolutely. But note that traditional gift giving should take a back seat to the kind of giving in this Christmas challenge.

Please also note that taking on this challenge is going to require a loft of guts and intentionality from you. If you take it on, you’re bucking a mountain of traditions and expectations, especially from those who might be closest to you. Then again, that’s very much in the mold of Jesus, too. He resisted fruitless traditions and expectations in order to live out and uphold a more authentic, sincere life with God and others. Most of the time, the best, most meaningful things in life come at a high personal price. But in the end, the treasure far outweighs the cost, and the treasures to be found in experiencing the heart and gift of Christmas will be well worth the sacrifice.

Lastly, I’m sure those of you who participate will find ways to tweak and improve upon what’s here. Please do that and share with me and others about your experience, what you learned, and how to build upon it. All in all, however, I’m convinced that if enough of us give in a way that honors the person and spirit of Jesus over the twelve days of Christmas, we’ll discover and rediscover a pattern of living, blessing, and generosity that will carry us throughout the whole year.

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The Twelve Days of Christmas Challenge, Part 1

As much as I love the intended spirit and purpose of the Christmas season and the memories I have of past Christmases, I have grown to dread the whole deal. It has only gotten worse, the older I get. But then, after a few years of rethinking things, all confirmed in a conversation I had with my daughter Kathryn one night, my family has decided to try something that is both ancient and unique this year for Christmas.

But before I get into what we’re doing, I want to give some background in this post about how I came to almost entirely dread and even loath the Christmas season. Some of this is personal, but I think you’ll find yourself relating to much of it in your own way. Then I hope to whet your appetite to join my family in your own version of the twelve days of Christmas.

For me, the veneer of the Christmas season began to wear off during the years I worked retail while in high school and college. Many of those years were spent in the Annapolis Mall at Hudson Trail Outfitters. If you’ve ever worked retail during the holiday season, you know exactly what I mean: hours upon hours of being swamped by shoppers, some far more unpleasant than others, while being pressured by the company you work for to sell, sell, sell! I saw first hand both the materialistic greed of shoppers and retailers, and yes, I was a cog in the system.

I vividly remember my first retail Christmas season. At times, I had to step off the sales floor for a few moments to relieve my people claustrophobia. Week after week, especially on the weekends, I endured those notorious crowds of shoppers intent on fulfilling their Christmas obligations of buying this and that for so and so, most of them with only a tiny sliver of thought or joy behind their purchases.

Then, that same year, I worked the day after Christmas. As I showed up for work that morning, I thought (rather naively!), “Whew, glad all of that is over! Now I can catch my breath.” But that day was an intense reoccurring nightmare. On December 26th, the crowds were back in full force, returning items they didn’t want, exchanging something they were given for something better, spending gift certificates, and bargain hunting. The day after Christmas felt like a bad hangover from a month’s long materialistic binge. I felt dirty even being there that day.

As I became a Christian, I began to appreciate more deeply the message of Christmas. I learned about the promise of Emmanuel, God sending the gift of his own Son to be born among us and to be God with us. I grew passionately in love with that story, and I still am. It’s one of the most beautiful, profoundly impacting treasures I have, and over time, my life began to meaningfully mesh with the story of the birth of Jesus, God’s greatest gift. This, friends, is why I keep attempting to eek out some meaning behind this whole Christmas thing. The reason for and the way in which God presented himself to us in Jesus is the reason I haven’t become a complete Ebeneezer Scrooge.

But then, my encounter with the nativity story began to sour me even more. I looked around at my fellow Christians and saw that while they, too loved the nativity, they were also, along with me, trapped in the cultural web of the Christmas season. Over time, I began to sense a great disconnect between the Christmas message we celebrate in church and the ways we unwittingly participate the culture’s whoring of it. Every year I have heard Christians piously shout, “Jesus is the reason for the season!” Yet for the most part I’ve only seen lip service followed by the normal stew of sentimental spiritual and cultural traditions simmering in the gluttony of materialism.

There was no room for the Holy Family in the inn over two thousand years ago, and there still isn’t in the way most of us disciples of Jesus (myself included) live out the reality of Christ’s birth.

Many of us do a fine job of complaining about this quagmire we’ve inherited, but few of us have had the guts to shake off the shackles of tradition and expectation to do differently. But then again, it’s not merely a question of proceeding differently. It’s more about honoring the birth of Jesus more authentically, sincerely, and in keeping with the heart of God’s greatest Gift.

So, after exploring the various ways people have honored Christmas in the past and probing more deeply into God’s heart behind the giving of his Gift, my family and I have begun to discover perhaps a better way of honoring God and each other by creatively observing the twelve days of Christmas. And even if you’re not a believer but still participate in the Christmas/holiday ritual, you might find something here worth exploring for yourself.

Details are forthcoming in my next post…

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An Ancient Thanksgiving

On this Thanksgiving, I’m not going to get preachy and admonish you about giving thanks to God. (Who wants to have someone wagging a holier-than-thou finger in their face, anyway?) So instead, I want to share an ancient thanksgiving, one that predated our American holiday by at least 2,300 years, give or take a few centuries. And it’s a very Jewish thanksgiving, too. Enjoy, and know that I’m thankful to God for all of you, for your thoughtful contributions to my own growth and learning on this blog.

Psalm 100

A psalm. For giving grateful praise.

Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth.
Worship the LORD with gladness;
come before him with joyful songs.
Know that the LORD is God.
It is he who made us, and we are his;
we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving
and his courts with praise;
give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the LORD is good and his love endures forever;
his faithfulness continues through all generations.

If I could remember to be this thankful in my worship of God, I don’t think I could imagine the joy and peace I’d inherit.

From my family and me to you and yours, Happy Thanksgiving!

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The Doubting Pastor Who Didn’t Get Thrown Under the Bus

After my last post wrestling with my doubt over how Jesus Christ truly does reign over this seemingly chaotic mess of a planet, the time came on Sunday morning to share my message explaining the reign of Christ. Yes, I got through the sermon, both times. I have to tell you, though, some of that was easy, but most of it was very difficult.

On the one hand, I love the ancient biblical promises that point to the reign of God and the great “day of the Lord.” I’m firmly convinced that these promises are realized in Jesus of Nazareth. I can whoop and holler with the best of them about these things. (No, I don’t whoop or holler, but you know what I mean. The passion is there, at least!)

But on the other hand, it was very difficult when it came time for me to talk about how the reign of Christ affects us now. I had no solid answer to give because I’m not so sure myself. I wasn’t about to put on a show and say things I wasn’t convinced were true.

So… I took a great risk. I went off script and publicly confessed my doubt. I shared with my church family that while I want to believe that the reign of Christ is in our midst and then show convincing evidences of it, I couldn’t. It got very quiet.

And then I looked around, and in most peoples’  faces I saw sighs of relief, not astonishment. I heard a few people quietly say, “I struggle with that, too.” The moment illustrated to all of us that doubt is not a plague to be avoided, that it’s okay to struggle with how our dearly held beliefs intersect the world around us. We can learn that seasons of doubt and wrestling solidify a deeper, more authentic faith, not detract from it.

Then something beautiful happened which I did not anticipate. As I was sharing my doubt, suddenly Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed came to mind. (Thank you, Holy Spirit!) This simple, pithy little parable tells about the mustard seed and how even though it is the smallest of garden seeds, it grows to become the greatest in the garden, so great in fact, that the birds of the air come to perch on its branches. Jesus was talking bout the kingdom of God, but might this also encompass and describe his reign, too?

I think this parable is somehow wrapped up in my quest, although I’m still not quite there yet. Those nagging “how” and “what” questions still abound and deserve further wrestling. But then again, this parable is an excellent starting point. If Jesus and his early followers were convinced that this is the method in which God’s kingdom takes root and form, then there must be something to it I still have yet to discern and see in my context and in our world.

Yet overall, as the title suggests, this is one pastor who didn’t get thrown under the bus for expressing my doubt. Not that I’ll be doing this every Sunday, but once in a while, honesty like this gives some much needed breathing room for questions, wrestling, and genuine growth. Spiritual maturity is never possible within the carefully fabricated, highly controlled world of shallow propositional certainty about everything.

P.S. Then again, even if I was temporarily thrown under the bus for my doubt, I shouldn’t really complain. The Apostle Thomas has had to perpetually live with “doubting” in front of his name for 2,000 years now! Poor Thomas… (Poor us, really!)

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Sometimes I Truly Question

It’s been a while since I’ve updated my blog… too long, in fact. But that’s life, at least for me. Other things take priority, or I find other avenues to write and connect with people. But for whatever reason– and I’m sure the Holy Spirit has had something to do with this– I have felt compelled to wrestle with something in the forum of this blog. Of course, that makes the wrestling public and thus open to scrutiny (by all 5 people who might read this!), but that’s okay. If I can’t be publicly honest about where I struggle, then am I being sincere with myself or with God?

Tomorrow, I’m preaching on the reign of Christ. This theme fits within the liturgical calendar on the last Sunday of the liturgical year, the Sunday before Advent begins and a new liturgical year begins. Mind you, I’m not married to the supposed preponderance of the liturgical calendar, but the theme of the reign of Jesus Christ is a good one. So why not share with my congregation the meaning and significance of this crucial theme in our theology?

Then it hit me like a loud thud, and the struggle began in earnest. It was doubt. Do I truly believe in the reign of Christ? Do I believe that at this very moment Christ reigns over all things? That old adage, “God is in control”… Do I honestly believe that, not just as a theological maxim but in my heart of hearts?

To be honest, I’ve been seriously questioning. That’s not to say that I doubt God’s existence or the promises of the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s not to say that I disbelieve the gracious power of God manifest in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. And that’s not to say I disbelieve Christ’s return and hope of a new heavens and earth. Those convictions run deep within my being.

Right now, I’m struggling with how these realities play themselves out in the here and now, not just on a personal level, but on a systemic, macro, global level. Sometimes I even wonder how much of the reign of Christ is active within me, especially when I stand back and notice how out of control and chaotic my life can be. The world and my life seem more like a whirling dervish than an orderly kingdom in which Jesus Christ, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, reigns.

At this point I can anticipate two distinctly different responses.

One response, the typical Christian response, will begin to say, “Well, Chris, of course everything seems out of whack. Everything is going to get a whole lot worse before Jesus returns, and then he’ll set it all right again.” In other words, ignore the violence, disease, broken lives, families, communities, schools, and political systems, and the ever-growing economic disparities in the world. Just keep holding out for “the great by and by in the sky.” I’m sorry, but that doesn’t work for me– not one bit. For one, I cannot ignore suffering and evil, and I have a hard time believing that God does, either. How can God sit in heaven far away, awaiting the opportune time to jump in? Meanwhile his creation decays and dies. That’s not the God I trust and live for.

The second response, the atheist/agnostic response, will begin to say, “Chris, Chris, Chris… Why do you keep clinging to your god and your religious system of belief when the painfully obvious truth stares at you right in the face: there is no god, or even if there is, it’s not the kind of god you say there is. As for Jesus, hey, he was a great teacher and role model, but this stuff about his death and resurrection has been a Pollyanna-like religious projection at best.” Really? I’m not going to argue with skeptics here because it’s fruitless. But when I consider the countless number of people who have laid down their lives over their conviction of a crucified and risen Lord who defeated the powers of sin and death, I know there is something going on there worth my shared conviction. When dispirited disciples of Jesus became passionate, energized apostles who preached about a Risen Lord and built the church all around the known world at a whirlwind pace, something other than a delusion had to propel them.

So I find myself somewhere between these two poles of shallow faith propositions and sheer disbelief, somewhere in the shadowy wilderness of doubt. I want to hold onto what I know to be true, but I struggle with that belief, too. I want to believe that Christ does reign and will reign forever, but I’m not sure how to apply that belief in a plausible way, considering the state of the world, the church, and even my own life.

One middle ground approach that has worked for me in the past is the “already but not yet” proposition. This proposition says that the kingdom of God and the reign of Christ is both an “already” but “not yet” reality. In other words, we see evidences and sparks of Christ’s reign and the presence of his kingdom, but so much more is yet to come. This description fits the ambiguities, but how is that anything worth getting excited about? How is that a highly motivational vision for us disciples of Jesus or for anyone else? “Hey, come join this movement called the kingdom of God! It’s not a whole lot to talk about now, but just you wait…” Hmm… That’s not the tone the first apostles took in their preaching about Jesus Christ.

Nor is it the tone of someone like Mary in her stunningly beauitful Magnificat from Luke 1:46-55

My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.

Mary says all this after she knows she bears the Messiah and when her cousin Elizabeth acknowledges it, too. Notice the verb tense Mary uses. It’s the past perfect tense. She’s talking about a reality that has already happened, the effects of which are still reverberating in the present. I interpret this to mean that God has already made due on all his covenantal promises to Israel, and by extension to the rest of world, within this embryonic Messiah in her womb. Nothing seems to have changed. (In fact, our world hasn’t seemed to improve at all over Mary’s ancient world.) Yet Mary has the audacity to speak as if all the wonderful things Messiah will accomplish have already happened.

I just wish I had the faith or the wisdom to be able to see and believe the way Mary did. She was no fool. She was not deluded. I hardly take her for having a shallow, “God said it– I believe it– That settles it” kind of faith. After all, she struggled before and after this moment in her life. Mary sees and knows something absolutely powerful that celebrates the reign of her unborn child. I pray I can see what she witnessed.

In the mean time, I’m taking the sage advice someone once gave John Wesley when he struggled with his own faith: “Preach faith ’til you have it.” That does not mean talking oneself into submission to a belief. But I do believe it means that in sharing the faith, it just might help me to see and understand a truth I can’t currently see. If I can get there, it will be better than shallow, propositional faith or disbelief.

It will be faith that has been tested and tried and seasoned into something worth staking my life upon.

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