Sunday, December 18, 2011

Reason for the Season?

I love this time of the year. I don’t love the stores and malls and other places where people pack together to fight over sale items, or yell at their children as patience and dollars run out. I don’t love the radio stations that play back to back to back Christmas songs with all the mixed messages—“Joy to the World!” followed by “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” No, these are not the things I love. I love going to church…and today did not disappoint.

As we began the time of worship together, I looked down at the bulletin and saw those words we often see and hear this time of year around God’s people—“Jesus is the Reason for the Season!” And, frankly, in this first Christmas living in the US after having lived almost seven years in Latin America, I have seen how much Christmas has become so commercialized, even de-Christianized. We hear it in the tepid and tasteless “Happy Holidays!” as we enter Wal-Mart. The quiet rebel in me responds quite purposefully, “Thank you…and Merry Christmas.” As the real meaning of Christmas seems to slip away, the Church and the Christians have responded with the rallying cry of, “Jesus is the Reason for the Season!”

Okay, but what does THAT really mean?? What do we really mean when we say that Jesus is the reason for the season? When I think of ALL that Jesus embodies…well, it can be overwhelming. In Jesus Christ we find forgiveness, salvation, a family of faith (the Church), purpose and direction for our lives and so much more. Yet, while all of these things are true, important and crucial…these are not what Christmas is about…just like the Second Coming is not what Easter is about.

As I sat in worship this morning, the choir sang songs of the birth…the Nativity. The alter candles and the Advent candles burned brightly…the poinsettias with their deep red fairly burned around the chancel…the Chrismon Tree decorations sparkled and glinted in the lights of the sanctuary. We heard readings from the Prophets concerning the Coming One. We all lifted our voices together remembering that night so long ago. As I sat, stood, watched, listened, sang and meditated, it came to me yet again, that simple something that I must be reminded of year after year after year…. “And they will call him Immanuel--which means, ‘God with us’” (Matt.1:23)

Yes! That is the difference, that is what is important about Christmas—God is with us. He not only creates us, not only loves us, is not merely among us…He is WITH us…with you and with me. This is the message of Christmas…this is the Reason for the Season. The Creator steps into His own creation…and reality, life, existence is forever changed. God in Christ is now among us, with us, walking by our side, sitting down and rising up with us. No longer do I have to be alone; no longer do I have to be lonely. No longer do I face fears or disappointments or tragic loss alone. I do not live alone…and I will not die alone. God is with us…and has been with us since that night so long ago.

As the service came to a close, I walked out with my family, I walked out with my extended family of faith, I walked out in peace— sure of God’s forgiveness and certain of a life-unending, sure of my purpose and direction in life. However, more importantly and making all of these possible, I walked out with God…God in my life, God in my family, God in my community, God in my world! Yes, indeed, there is reason to celebrate Christmas…and the coming of Jesus IS the reason for the season!

Merry Christmas—God is with Us!


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Christmas to Remember…and Share

Our family arrived in Guyana in 1969…and Christmas was soon upon us. At the time, the government was of the hard-lined socialist flavor, and they had severely limited any imports. As a result, Christmas trees as we know them were fairly non-existent. My parents, however, were determined to maintain some of our American traditions and practices in our home, so they made sure we had Christmas—one way or another.

That first tree is burned forever into our memories. The government did have some sort of Christmas tree factory…and they did the best they could, I suppose, with the limited resources they had at the time. Basically, the tree was a modified broomstick…about three-and-a-half-feet tall, planted in a music box base that revolved and played a cheesy, plinky popular Christmas tune. The branches were little more than long bottle washers, spray-painted green. The whole tree had probably 20 of these branches…and they didn’t begin to hide the bare broomstick trunk. We had brought some decorations with us…but few. We spread them as well as we could on the scraggly branches. We found some garland and draped it on the branches…and better yet, we wrapped it around the “trunk” of the tree. Since the stick was in a revolving base, that meant no lights on the tree. So, we taped them to the wall behind the tree. If one stood right in front of the tree, and sort of squinted, it looked like the lights were actually on the tree. Welcome to missionary life!

Christmas morning came as usual…sort of. Guyana, South America, sits just off the equator, so a white Christmas was not an option. We got up to bright sun-light and warm breezes. While toys were few, my parents had found a few at Huggins and Fogarty’s department stores. And, they found books…and that was something we always loved! So, Christmas day was a rousing success as far as my brothers and I were concerned. We passed the day playing…reading…eating. “A good time was had by all!”

The day after Christmas was what surprised me. It was a holiday as well, but it was day for folks to get out and about! People were going here and there…and there seemed to be as much joy in the air as on Christmas…but what in the world was Boxing Day?

Guyana is a unique former British colony, an English-speaking country made up of Hindus, Muslims, Christians and various indigenous peoples. And, as often is the case, they had adopted some of the British practices and customs (tea at 3:00pm!) Boxing Day was one of those adopted practices, a day to box up all the older stuff from the year past and take it to someone less fortunate. So, if I got a new shirt for Christmas, then I should select a shirt from my closet to give away. If I got a new book for Christmas, I should pull a book from bookcase to give to someone who couldn’t afford a book. This practice served/serves several purposes—1) it teaches children to share, to give, 2) it makes us think of others…and to realize that there are those less fortunate than ourselves, and 3) it helps avoid that ‘pack-rat’ tendency that pervades our society! In a small way, Boxing Day becomes one of those moments when we can live out the Scripture—at a special time and in a special way: "If you have two shirts, give one to the poor…” (Luke 3:11).

Unfortunately, we’ve managed to formalize and organize something like this in our churches—and in the process, we’ve cut ourselves off from actually have to come in contact with poor people, and we’ve made it a “big person” thing so the children get to keep ALL their toys. What if we took back the practice and made it a family affair? How about we all celebrate Boxing Day this year—fill a box or two with things and take them to a family in need, to a family less fortunate than ourselves?  Hmmm. That just might capture the Spirit of Christmas!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Can It Get Any Better??


I don’t want my kids to have a better life than mine.

Oh, don’t hear me wrong—it’s not that I wish ill on my children. The truth is, I don’t think there IS a better life than the one I’m living now. My wife and I have a really good life…and I don’t know how it could get any better. Yet, I hear from so many around me that they still want that ‘better life’ for their children…but can we really expect life to get better and better and better?

Is a better life a bigger house? If our houses in America get any bigger, we’ll have to start calling them biospheres! I don’t wish a bigger house on my kids—the taxes, upkeep and cleaning are plenty, thank you, for our 1200 sq.ft. home. And, besides, in four or five years, all our kids will be grown and gone…and this house will suddenly seem big and empty for just the two of us.

Then…more toys?? I’ve seen the children who have been given copious amounts of toys, more than you or I ever received in our childhood. And, the result? Usually messy houses and children with little regard for their things (more toys = more need for space = ‘need’ for bigger house…!). No, I don’t think more toys (for children or adults!) are the key to a better life.

How about a bigger, better car? We’ve already learned in the US (I hope!) that bigger cars are NOT the way to go. So, I can’t hope for my kids to have bigger and better cars. We have a Toyota and Ford…affordable, reliable and economical. If I wish nicer, ‘better’ cars on my kids, then I’m wishing higher insurance, higher repair costs…and is that a better life??

What about a better income?? That memorable study at Princeton University released in 2010 shows us that income ‘buys’ us happiness up until around $75,000 a year…but after that, the more income doesn’t really do that much for us. But, then again, is that really going to do it?? From our travels and lives in Latin American (Venezuela and Mexico), we learned that happiness is not connected to income, cars, houses and stuff. We saw people so poor—even by their own national standards—that were amazingly happy, blessedly content in life. So, more money is not necessarily a better life!

There tended to be a couple of common factors in the lives of our friends…the factors that lead, I believe, to a ‘better life.’ First of all, the people we met and shared with had a contagious contentment. They were simple people with simple lives…and they weren’t plotting and planning to get bigger, better, faster, more, more, more. How refreshing! They were able to be happy with what little they had. My wife and I have learned that this contentment comes through decision—we decide to be happy with what we have. As someone has said it, “It’s not getting what you want; it’s wanting what you’ve got.” And, second, they were a people of faith, a people with a deep, life-affecting trust in God. They lived out well that passage in Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi—“…for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content…” (Phil.4:11). I’m convinced that contentment and faith/trust are inextricably intertwined.

So, can life get any better?? Well, as I sit here in my house with the heat on, I guess the only way life could be better would be a geographic change—towards the Caribbean! But, no, I don’t wish my children a better life than mine…I only hope they have as good a life as I’ve had, as I have—complete with faith and contentment. I hope my children experience all the joys, difficulties, love and hard times that will shape and prove their lives…and I hope that in the midst of that living that they, too, will find the real good life. Does it get any better than this?