Sunday, December 25, 2016

The ghost of Christmas future

He had seen the future, and he didn’t like it one bit. So he set out to change it. By changing himself. See, Ebeneezer Scrooge knew that he had made bad choices in life. He had been so driven to succeed that he had driven away anyone who cared about him. He loved money more than people so he had turned his back on anyone in need. He did not actively hurt them, not physically, anyway. Words were his weapon of choice. Words and indifference. Scrooge did the most damage to others simply by choosing not to see them. But, one Christmas, his eyes were opened. He saw clearly all that he had been missing. All the joy. And all the opportunities.
Scrooge had the power to make a lot of people happy. He had the means to make them happy. He had opportunities to make them happy. He had LOTS of opportunities to make a difference, but, for most of his life, Scrooge had failed to take advantage of any of them. Unless something changed, and changed quickly, all that money that Scrooge had accumulated would simply be wasted. It did not bring him joy, and it did not help anyone.
Not until love was born in Scrooge. Love was just a word. A notion. An idea. And one that Scrooge scoffed at, to be honest. Until it was born in him that Christmas. But once love WAS born in Scrooge, he donated a huge sum of money to charity, bought a prize turkey for the Cratchit family’s Christmas dinner, gave his clerk a raise and pledged to help the struggling family. When love was born in Scrooge, he helped Tiny Tim get the medical care that would save his life. In fact, the reborn Scrooge spent so much time with the Cratchits that he became like a second father to the frail child. That Christmas, love took on flesh in Scrooge.
That’s what Christmas is all about: Word taking on flesh.
The first chapter of John’s gospel tells us that the Word of God became flesh when Jesus was born. The Word had always been there. With God. The Word was there when everything came into being. In fact, everything came into being THROUGH the Word. Without the Word, nothing would have ever existed. Not one tree. Not one snowflake. Not one shooting star. All things came into being through the Word. All things and all people.
One day, God said, “Let us make humankind in our image.” So we were created in the image of the Word. And God led humanity through the Word.
Over the years, God had a lot of good words for the people. Words like victory, love, faithfulness, joy, gratitude, righteousness, equity, peace and justice. But, when you’re living by faith in a God you cannot see, it can be easy to doubt. To get discouraged. Or give up hope.
So the Word took on flesh. At Christmas, the Almighty God, the One who created all things and rules all things, the Lord God Almighty came into our world as a helpless child. God came to us as one of us. The Word took on flesh in Jesus. So we could finally see for ourselves what God is really like.
The Gospels are full of stories of the Word made flesh. In Jesus, we can see the Word at work in the world. We don’t have to figure out what it means to love. Jesus shows us when he heals a man who had been sick for 38 years. We don’t have to figure out what it means to forgive. Jesus shows us when he does not condemn a woman caught in adultery. We don’t have to figure out what it means to serve. Jesus shows us when he washes the feet of his followers. The Word took on flesh.
There are a lot of good words in us. And God calls us to let those good words take on flesh. It’s not enough to say, “You can trust me.” God calls us to embody trust. To be trustworthy.[i] It’s not enough to say, “Peace be with you.” God calls us to embody peace. To be peacemakers. It’s not enough to say, “I am a Christian.” God calls us to embody Christ. To be Christ-like. That’s what it means for the Word to take on flesh in us.
And amazing things happen when the Word takes on flesh. When the Word takes on flesh in us, it becomes real for those around us.
Early this spring, a desperate situation turned deadly when Philippine security forces fired on a peaceful demonstration of 5,000 farmers who were asking for rice.[ii] The hungry people got bullets from the government, but were offered compassion and shelter by Bishop Ciriaco Francisco and other members of the Spottswood Methodist Mission Center. The bishop’s decision to offer sanctuary to the starving families put him in danger, and he was threatened with arrest. But he was adamant. “…it is a sin to deny them food,” he said.
The protesters were blocking Quezon Boulevard, a major road that runs in front of the Spottswood mission center, which is the home of the bishop’s office. When the violence broke out, protesters poured into the center, and the compound was surrounded by police. The violence left three dead and 18 severely injured. Close to a 100 people were wounded, and scores were missing. The center sheltered thousands of women, men and children for three days.
The province of Cotabato, where the farmers live, was under a “state of calamity” due to El Nino phenomenon, a weather condition that destroyed crops. The farmers were starving and were asking for 15,000 sacks of rice.
“The farmers gathered for three days in front of the National Food Authority warehouse hoping the governor would listen to their cries,” Bishop Francisco said. “But her heart was callous and she did not listen.”
However, the farmers finally received rice from non-government organizations, private individuals and religious groups. They got help because words like “compassion” and “justice” took on flesh in Bishop Francisco. The Word took on flesh, and countless lives have been forever changed.
That’s what happens when the Word takes on flesh. Lives are changed. Life changes. And we move ever closer to the future God envisioned for us so many years ago. A future of endless peace when the Son of God is seated on the throne, and his authority grows all the time.
It's simple, really. The future changes when we change. God has given us so many good words, words like peace, justice, righteousness, salvation, comfort, redemption, power, life, light, healing, wholeness, joy. What good words are within you just waiting, waiting to take on flesh?[iii]
O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell; O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel![iv]

[i] Parker J. Palmer. “When Words Become Flesh: Risking Vulnerability in a Violent World.” Published Wednesday, December 23, 2015 on the On Being with Krista Tippett website at Downloaded December 23, 2016.
[ii] The story of Bishop Francisco is told by Kathy Gilbert in “Philippines bishop honored for sheltering poor.” Published December 15, 2016 on the United Methodist Church website at Downloaded December 24, 2016.
[iii] Palmer.
[iv] Phillips Brooks. “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” The United Methodist Hymnal. Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989. 230.

The ghost of Christmas present

Sometimes Christmas is not all that it is cracked up to be. We like to sing about a silent night but the reality is something very different. It always has been. When Christ was born, it was anything BUT quiet. Or peaceful.
Palestine and every other country in the Mediterranean was ruled by the Roman Empire, and, even though Caesar was supposed to have been divinely ordained to bring peace and salvation to the whole world, the empire had been rocked by murder and civil war. Conquered people, like the Jews, were kept in line by threats of attack by the massive Roman army. In Israel, Herod was installed as King, cities were named after Caesar, and Jewish priests were required to make sacrifices to him. Numerous Roman temples and fortresses were built, and the Jews were taxed to pay for all of it.
That is why Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem that night. The governor of Syria had decided to count all the citizens, presumably so he could make sure everyone was paying taxes. And, for whatever reason, Quirinius thought it was a good idea to make everyone return to their home towns in order to be counted.
It was a HUGE inconvenience. It’s not like they could jump in a car and make a quick road trip. For Joseph and Mary, it meant walking 100 miles, over mountains to the Sea of Galilee and then south through the desert until they reached the rocky hills of Bethlehem. It was a difficult journey, and a dangerous one. Thieves often attacked travelers on the road. But none of that mattered to Quirinius, as long as he got what he wanted.
He did not care about the Jews. To be honest, no one did. The Romans and their supporters had all the power. They owned most of the land, and they were the only ones who could hold political office, so their interests were the only ones directly represented in the government. The rich lived luxurious lives in the city. They rented out their land in the countryside to tenant farmers, who paid substantial rents and taxes. But the tax revenue was not used to build schools or improve roads, things that might benefit the poor. Instead, it was all used to further the interests of the rich. International trade also focused on the desires of the rich. And, even though others worked the land, rich land owners decided what crops to plant. Of course, they wanted to make the most money possible, so they favored cash crops instead of growing food that the poor could live on. As a result, most people were constantly in danger of hunger or starvation. Since most farms were too small for workers to make a comfortable living, some became day laborers to make ends meet, but work was not steady. Farmers and tradesmen often fell into debt, and failure to pay could be disastrous. The debtor and his family could be sold as slaves, or they might be tortured or imprisoned to force other family members to pay the debt. Anyone without family was extremely vulnerable.[i]
But those were not the only problems facing the people of Israel. God had not spoken to them for 400 years. There had been no word from God, no new prophet, since Malachi.[ii] And their own nation was divided. Four different groups sought to lead the people. Riots were common, and everyone lived in a constant state of stress and anxiety.[iii]
On top of all that, they lived in a highly structured class system that declared some more honorable than others. Associating with anyone less honorable could bring shame on your whole family.
That’s the world that Jesus was born into. A world of poverty, prejudice, injustice and violence. That’s the reality of Christmas. Jesus was born in the midst of chaos. In the midst of confusion. In the midst of noise. He was born in a tiny town that was overrun with weary travelers. To parents who were dirty, tired and disgraced. To a nation that was occupied by a powerful enemy. To a land where the rich and powerful exploited the poor and weak. The Son of the Most High God was born into a dangerous and difficult world. But he came! He came! Just as God promised! He came!
Jesus was born like us, into a world full of sin and death and disease. Into a world of conflict and crime and conceit. Into a world that celebrated strength. Jesus was born. He was born as a weak and vulnerable child. Helpless. Defenseless. Completely at the mercy of God and man.
This is the reality of Christmas. It’s messy. It’s scary. It’s hard! It’s life.
And life is what Ebeneezer Scrooge needed to see. He had lived for far too long behind carefully constructed walls that kept the world at a distance. So the Ghost of Christmas Present came and commanded Scrooge to come and see and know.[iv]
Then the Spirit showed Scrooge the world as it truly is, which is what the Spirit will do for all of us, if we are willing to open our eyes and see. That night, Scrooge saw hard work and joy. Simplicity and beauty. Poverty and grace. Everywhere there was hardship and peace. Miners on a bleak desert moor. Lighthouse keepers on a dismal reef of sunken rock. Sailors on a black and heaving sea. They knew what Scrooge had failed to see.[v] The Son of God was born into their world. Jesus had come to save them from the chaos. Jesus had come to them.
Sometimes Christmas isn’t all that it is cracked up to be. We need to see. We need to see the hardworking people around us. The poor. The lonely. We need to see those who are separated from their families. Those who are sick. Those who are in prison. We need to see those who will spend Christmas in a shelter or passed out on park bench or dancing in some strip club. We need to see. We can no longer turn a blind eye to the world around us. Ignorance brings destruction.
But the good news of Christmas is that Jesus Christ is born! He has come like us to live in this world, in this present reality. Right here where we are. Wherever we are. Whoever we are.
The angel told the shepherds living in the fields, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for ALL the people!” Even for dirty shepherds who were considered unclean, unworthy, and unacceptable. To YOU is born this day a Savior!
We cannot turn a blind eye to the world because Jesus is in the world. Jesus has come to save us ALL. Jesus has come into our turbulent world to save us from the chaos. Jesus has come to give us peace. Lord knows, we need it.
On Tuesday, August 16, 2005, Brother Roger, the founder of a Catholic community in Taize, France, was stabbed to death during a prayer service. While the brothers were praying, a Romanian woman emerged from the congregation and murdered the 90-year-old man in his wheelchair. At his funeral service, the brothers lifted up the name of the murderer and asked God to forgive her.[vi] They found peace in the chaos. Jesus gave them peace.
We may not witness murder, but are witnesses daily to the suffering of others. Sometimes, we are the ones who suffer. To all of us, the angels sing, “I bring you good news of great joy! To you is born this day a Savior! Glory to God and on earth peace.”

[i] Much of the history is from “The Life and Times of First-Century Palestine.” Published on the St. Mary’s Press website at Copyrighted 2010 by St. Mary’s Press. Downloaded December 19, 2016. P 7.
[ii] David Schrock. “Darkness: The World in Which Christ was Born.” Published December 12, 2011 on the Via Emmaus website at Downloaded December 19, 2016.
[iii] Schrock.
[iv] Charles Dickens.  A Christmas Carol. New York: Scholastic Book Services, 1962. 57
[v] Dickens, 60-77.
[vi] Matt Rawle. The Redemption of Scrooge. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2016. Location 1153, Kindle edition. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The ghost of Christmas past

He thought she had cheated on him. It was understandable, really. Any other man would have thought the same thing. Joseph and Mary had been engaged only for a short time. They did not live together as husband and wife. But Mary had turned up pregnant, and Joseph knew he was not the father. So he assumed, as any man would have, that Mary had cheated on him.
We can only imagine how much that must have hurt. In those days, marriage was generally a business deal instead of a romantic affair, so we do not know whether or not Joseph loved Mary. And we do not know if her imagined infidelity broke his heart. But it certainly would have wounded his pride. Mary had brought shame upon him. She made him look bad in the community. Everyone would be talking, making unkind comments. Saying things like, “What kind of man can’t keep his woman in line?” You know how people talk….
It was the worst kind of betrayal. By law, Mary could have been stoned in the streets for adultery. But Joseph was a righteous man, and he was “unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace.” Like the God he worshipped, Joseph was gracious. Merciful. Kind. So he decided to break the engagement privately, perhaps making it possible for the “other man” to “do the right thing” and “make an honest woman” out of Mary. There was no other man, but Joseph did not know that. He was about to blow apart a family because he believed something that was not true.
But God intervened. God sent an angel to Joseph in a dream, with a message. “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. She has not cheated on you. She has done nothing wrong. In fact, she has been blessed! The child she is carrying is a gift from the Holy Spirit. Her son is the one your people have been looking for. He is the Messiah! He will save your people from their sins.”
It was a powerful dream. Very convincing. So, when Joseph woke up, he did what the Lord had told him to do. He set aside his anger and took Mary as his wife. A whole family was saved by the power of forgiveness.
If you stop and think about it, the birth of Jesus is all about reconciliation, bringing people together in peace. Joseph forgives Mary for what he believes is her indiscretion. And Mary forgives Joseph (and everyone else) for believing the worst about her. And, of course, God forgives the whole world for our sins. That’s why Jesus was born: to heal broken relationships.
Lots of people will tell you that Christmas is a time for family. But, for others, it is a time for family drama. And that is exactly why some people dread Christmas. Getting the whole family together can be such a hassle. Just dealing with everyone’s schedules is hard enough. And then there are the different expectations. And interesting personalities! And conflicting opinions and traditions and dietary preferences. Not to mention in-laws, politics, and finances. When you come to the dining room table, you’re already sitting on a powder keg of emotion. Add a spark of ill will, jealousy or pure old indigestion … and the explosion can level a home in minutes. Perhaps you have been there for a few of those….
Behind the drama are unresolved issues. Many times, we have not dealt with the past. It seems easier to just walk away. But, like Scrooge, we may be haunted by memories.
Sometimes our memories are sad ones. The first thing Scrooge recalls is an incredibly lonely childhood. Unwanted by his parents, he had been sent away to boarding school and left there, even during the holidays. But the other boys went home, laughing and singing, and forgetting all about poor Scrooge. The only company he had been left with was his own imagination.
In those days, Scrooge would have loved for someone to notice him and show him any kindness. And, suddenly, with that memory comes the stunning realization that, earlier in the day, when someone DID show him kindness, Scrooge did not appreciate it. In fact, he pushed people away.
He hadn’t always been that way. Scrooge also remembered a time when he had been part of a happy, loving surrogate family of sorts. Mr. Feeziwig had taken Scrooge under his wing and given the young man a start in business. But the old man and his wife had also opened their hearts to Scrooge. Their kindness and unsuppressed joy and love of life had transformed his own miserable existence, turning him from a lonely boy into a happy young man who had friends and even a fiancĂ©.
Scrooge had never intended to push them all away. But he was driven by a need to succeed. He had thrown himself into his work and was overwhelmed by greed. He lost himself! He lost himself and everyone he had ever cared for. Many years later, it was hard to face the truth, but it was necessary.
When we face the past and acknowledge unpleasant memories, bitter disappointments, and old wounds, we can learn powerful truths about ourselves. Truths that help us to take control of the present. We can choose how we will live today instead of being controlled by the past.
One thing to keep in mind, whenever we pause to look back, is that our memories are incomplete. They can even be misleading.[i]
One of the best Christmas presents I received as a child was a set of clothes for my Barbie dolls that my mother had sewn by hand. Night after night, after my brother and I had gone to bed, my mother had stayed up, cutting and sewing stylish clothes for my dolls out of scraps of fabric left over from other projects. I was really proud of those clothes! I thought they were beautiful! And I felt special knowing that my mother had worked so hard to make them for me. That is my memory of it.
What I don’t remember, what I could not have known then, is the shame my mother felt because my parents could not afford to buy us gifts. That is the kind of truth you only learn when you look back and try to see things from a broader perspective. And perspective is important.
Sometimes we assume that the way things were for US is the way things were SUPPOSED to be. In fact, we can be so invested in recreating the past that we even find ourselves repeating mistakes.[ii] But, as Matt Rawle notes in The Redemption of Scrooge, what we remember might not be the best picture of what they SHOULD be.[iii] And we can get very frustrated when our picture of what Christmas SHOULD be does not measure up to what IS.[iv]
My childhood Christmases were all about family. We had big family gatherings that lasted for days. I thought that was how it was SUPPOSED to be, and I spent much of my 20s fighting off depression and resentment during the holidays because, once my brother got married, we no longer had those grand affairs.
But the thing I realized this year is that I was letting my happy memories make me sad. Instead of appreciating the storybook gatherings of my childhood and letting the memories bring me joy year after year, I was using them to find fault with the present.
When we face the past, we are then free to forgive it. Sometimes the person in the past we need to forgive is ourselves. And sometimes we need to forgive others. It can be very hard to do either one.
But the best present you can give yourself, or anyone else, is forgiveness. Bitterness, anger, resentment … they keep you chained to the past. Forgiveness sets you free.
An Iranian woman was consumed with thoughts of retribution after her teenage son was murdered.[v] But, in a dramatic turn at the gallows, literally moments before the killer was to be executed, she made a last-minute decision to pardon the man. Now she is free to remember her child’s life instead of focusing on his death.
Matt Swatzell had worked a long shift at the fire department. On his way home, he fell asleep while driving and crashed into another vehicle. A pregnant mother was killed, and her 19-month-old daughter was injured. Instead of seeking the maximum punishment under the law, her husband, a full-time pastor, asked for a diminished sentence for the firefighter. The two began to meet for coffee and conversation. Many years later, they remain friends.
Pascale Kavanagh survived an abusive childhood, but she never thought she would ever reconnect with her mother, the woman who had abused her. However, in 2010, her mother suffered several strokes that left her unable to communicate or take care of herself. With no one else to help, Kavanagh began to sit by her mother’s bedside and read to her. Over time, the hate she had for her mother melted away into forgiveness. And love.
Forgiveness sets us free.
 In Isaiah 11, God promises the people of Israel a savior. Even though they had once turned against God, God chose to forgive them. God did not hold the past against them. Instead, God gave them a chance to repent and return to the Lord. God wanted to heal their broken relationship. On that day, people will rejoice. There is joy in forgiveness. There is peace in forgiveness. There is hope in forgiveness.
Jesus was born to heal broken relationships. Perhaps that’s the gift you can give yourself or someone you love this Christmas.

[i] Matt Rawle. The Redemption of Scrooge. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2016. Loc 663 e-version.
[ii] Rawle, 610.
[iii] Rawle, 617.
[iv] Rawle, 617.
[v] The stories of Samareh Alinejad, Matt Swatzell, and Pascale Kavanagh are told in “10 Inspiring Stories of Extreme Forgiveness” by Jane Claire Hervey, which is published on the Reader’s Digest website at www.rd.come/true-stories/inspiring/extreme-forgiveness. Downloaded December 10, 2016.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Feeling more Scrooge than Santa

If ever a man walked in darkness, it was Ebenezer Scrooge. He had one friend, his business partner, Jacob Marley, who had died some years back, but Scrooge never shed a tear. In fact, all he ever said about “the sad event” was that Marley had been an excellent businessman until the very day he died. There was no funeral. No memorial. No celebration of life. Scrooge observed the death of his business partner by going to work. They say he struck quite a bargain.
Sound cold? Oh, he was surely that. Scrooge was “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner.”[i] “No wind that blew was bitterer than he….”[ii]
Why, Scrooge was so cold he believed that poor folks belong in prisons and workhouses! And, in the dead of winter, he lit such a meager fire in his office that his clerk had to wear a coat indoors and warm his hands over a candle. If the poor man tried to put even one more lump of coal on the fire, Scrooge threatened unemployment.
It’s easy to see why no one ever asked ANYTHING of Scrooge. Even blind men’s dogs knew to steer clear of him! But Scrooge did not care. He liked the solitude. He pushed away anyone who reached out to him in kindness, and made his way alone through busy city streets.
So you can imagine how Scrooge felt about Christmas. To the mean old miser, the season of giving was nothing but an inconvenience, a total waste of money, maybe even a scam! While others planned holiday parties and big family dinners, Scrooge ate alone in a local bar, preferring his newspaper and account ledger to the company of merry-making fools. There was one brave caroler who began a cheerful tune, but Scrooge ran him off with a ruler.
Man, that’s cold! But that’s what happens when you live too long in a world without light. Your heart freezes over. And Scrooge’s life consisted of nothing but numbers. Dollar signs. Money. He didn’t trust anything that he could not count so there was simply no room in his life for kindness. No room for love. No room for compassion. As a result, he had become stingy. He was greedy, and he was mean!
It happens that way, sometimes. The hardness of life can turn us cold. But, sometimes, it leaves us despairing. We once lived with hope. We dreamt of true love, better days, and peace on earth. But the endless grind of work and bills wears us down. Death and disease take their toll. Our hearts get broken. Our heroes fall down. Our friends betray us. Our leaders disappoint. Lovers leave. Children forget. And the light of hope slowly dies. You try to pray. You go to church. You do “the right things.” But, deep in your heart, you wonder, “Has God forgotten me?”
And then, the unthinkable happens. A tornado rips apart a church. Forest fires blaze through the Smoky Mountains. Gun shots are fired outside of YOUR home. And, with that, your last shred of joy is gone. Your last shred of patience is gone. Your last shred of hope is gone. Like old Ebenezer himself, you find yourself shaking a fist at carolers and muttering in disgust, “Bah! Humbug! What reason have you to be merry?”
It’s a good question. One we really ought to consider. What makes it a merry Christmas? Is it the lights? The music? The gifts? Is it the glitter and holly and mistletoe? Is it figgy pudding, wassail and fruit cake? No! If those were the only reasons we had to celebrate, we really would be in a sorry state. But at Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus! God sent us a Savior! We have not been forgotten.
The prophet Isaiah tells us that there was a time when it looked as if God had abandoned the people of Israel. They were supposed to be God’s children, but they had rebelled against the Lord time after time after time. They were evil and corrupt and disobedient. They had abandoned their faith. They ditched the Lord!
Man, did they suffer for it! Their country lay barren. Forsaken. It had been overrun by enemies and destroyed by fire. The people were broken. All hope was gone. And then God had mercy on them. God did not abandon them in their hour of need. God came to them. Isaiah 7:14 tells us, “A young woman will bear a son and name him Immanuel.” God is with us.
God is with us! That is the light. That is the light that shines in the darkness. That is the reason we celebrate Christmas. God is with us! God came to live here on earth with us. Whatever we are going through. Whatever obstacle we face. Whatever hardship we endure. God is with us.
And the God who is with us is not sitting idly by while WE work for justice and peace. The God who is with us will establish God’s kingdom WITH us. God is right here with us, helping us DO the work of the kingdom. The God who is with us will uphold that kingdom with justice and righteousness. The God who is with us will uphold that kingdom forever! And that is good news!
But time is a tricky thing with God. And we see that clearly during the season of Advent. We gather now in the present moment to ponder the past as we look toward a future hope.[iii] Sounds complicated, right? During Advent, we are preparing ourselves to receive the Christ Child. But he was actually born years ago. And we live in hope of his triumphant return.
That’s why “Advent is like living in the wilderness between what was and what will be,” Matt Rawls writes in The Redemption of Scrooge. “Even though the Promised Land may seem far off, we hold tightly to the promises of our God, for ‘he who promised is faithful.’ (Hebrews 10:23 NIV).”[iv]
God promised the people a Savior, and that Savior was born in a manger in Bethlehem. “The big reveal has been made.”[v] That is not what we, the Church, are waiting for. We are not waiting, wondering what God is going to do. We already know what God has done. God sent us a Savior. Colossians 1:19-20 tell us that all things have been reconciled to God through Christ.
But the story isn’t finished yet. The work of reconciliation is still being done. And that is what gives us hope. God is still at work in the world. God is still at work in the Church. And God is still at work in us.
One of the most popular carols of the Victorian era was “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” It was first sung by English peasants who, on the surface of things did not have a lot of reasons to rejoice.[vi] But the word “rest” means “keep” or “make.” And “merry” means “mighty.” So the carol is a reminder that it is God who makes us mighty. It is God who KEEPS us mighty. We have no reason to fear. And no reason to give up hope. Because Christ our Savior was born to save us from ALL the power of Satan. May that truth bring you comfort and joy.
God rest you merry, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay.
Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas day
To save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray
O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy!

[i] Charles Dickens. “A Christmas Carol.” New York: Scholastic Magazines, Inc., 1962. 2.
[ii] Dickens, 3.
[iii] Matt Rawle. The Recemption of Scrooge. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2016. Location 207 e-version.
[iv] Rawle, 231.
[v] Rawle, 372.
[vi] Ace Collins. “The Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas.” Published online at Downloaded December 2, 2016.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Do the Hard Stuff: Exceed Expectations

You can’t do that. How many times have we heard it? You can’t do that. That’s too hard. It costs too much. We’ve never done it that way before. You’re too young. And you’re too old. And you are not a man. The world is really good at telling us no. So good, in fact, that we often find ourselves living up to low expectations. Instead of seeking the things that are above and putting ourselves into every task as though we were doing it for the Lord (which is what we are instructed to do in Colossians 3), we settle for good enough.
In their book, “Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations,” Alex and Brett Harris note that our society doesn’t expect much from young people – except trouble.[i] As a result, teens become blinded by complacency.[ii]
“But don’t kid yourself,” the Harris twins write. “The cost of complacency is real, and it can be tragic. We slide into habits of mediocrity and excuse making. Life gets boring, and we’re not sure why. We know, or at least suspect, that there’s a lot more we could do or be. But floating along, there’s no way to be sure.”[iv]
So how do you know if you have become blinded by complacency? ShareFaith magazine offers five warning signs. 1. You depend on tradition instead of the Holy Spirit. 2. You tolerate sin. 3. You see no fruit, no evidence that your life of faith has accomplished anything. 4. You are not pursuing spiritual growth through prayer, Bible study, worship, or service. 5. You remain focused on yourself and not on others.[v]
Is some of that hitting a little too close to home? I confess. I found this chapter on complacency very convicting. There are a couple of areas of my life where I have settled for good enough. Perhaps you have, too. Take heart. We don’t have to stay where we are. We can move beyond the expectations of the world around us. We can strive for more. We can strive to please God.
One way to exceed worldly expectations is to do what is hard for us.[vi] What is hard for you might not be hard for me, but I may not be any good at the things that come easily for you. You might be very disciplined when it comes to diet and exercise. I am not. But I can become more disciplined in those areas. And you might find it very hard to talk to people about your faith, where I find that really easy to do. But you can start praying that God will help you take advantage of the many opportunities you have to share your faith with others. It might be scary at first. But that’s kind of the point. When we do what is hard for us, we are relying on God, and that’s when faith grows. And that pleases God very much.
One way to exceed expectations is to do what is hard for us. Another way is to be known for what we do.[vii] As followers of Jesus Christ, it is not good enough to simply refrain from doing what is bad. We must do what is good. Micah 6:8 spells it out. What does the Lord require? To do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. And that pleases God very much.
We can exceed expectations by doing what is hard for us, and we can exceed expectations by doing what is good. Another way to exceed expectations is to pursue excellence, not excuses.[viii] If there are areas of your life where you are settling for just getting by when you know you could do better if you really tried, then you are not pursuing excellence. If there is some aspect of life that you have decided will always be this way even though you have never put forth the kind of effort that really changes things, then you are not pursuing excellence.[ix] And that does not please God because it shows a lack of faith.
Remember, in Philippians 4:13, Paul exclaims, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
The world says we can’t. But God says, "Oh yes, you can!" Jesus calmed a stormy sea, made the lame walk, gave sight to the blind, and brought the dead back to life. Jesus could do such things because God was at work in him (John 14:10). But Jesus says in John 14:12 that everyone who believes in him will do even greater things than he has.
Now, I don’t know if David did GREATER things that Jesus, but David did great things. He certainly did far greater things than anyone expected of him.
David was the 8th son of a small town farmer named Jesse. The family was loyal to Saul, the king of Israel. In fact, three of David’s older brothers were already serving in Saul’s army, but David was too young for that. He was still a boy. He worked out in the fields, taking care of his father’s sheep. Sometimes, David was also called upon to play music to soothe King Saul when he was having one of his “episodes.” One day, Jesse called David and instructed him to deliver food and supplies to his brothers on the battle front. David goes, leaves the provisions with the baggage handler and runs out to greet his brothers on the battle field.
For 40 days, Israel and the Philistines have faced off against one another. These are two great powers who have repeatedly vied for dominance in the land. Both have had victories and defeats. At one point, years ago, back before Saul was king, the Philistines had captured the ark of God! But they learned, just as Israel had, that no one can manipulate God. Either you serve God, or you don’t. Those who do, find favor with God. Those who do not … suffer.
It didn’t take long for the Philistines to give up the ark. And Israel had finally wised up. They had turned away from the foreign gods they had been serving, and they turned back to the God of the ark, the God of their ancestors, the God who had delivered them from slavery in Egypt. And, once more, God had intervened to protect Israel from attack. The Philistines were driven out, and all of the territory that Israel had lost was returned to them. For as long as Samuel served as judge of Israel, the hand of God was against the Philistines. But things had not gone so smoothly after Saul was anointed king of Israel. Ever since then, there had been hard fighting between the two.
And now they are at it again. They have faced off in the valley of Elah. But this time, the Philistines have a mighty warrior on their side. A champion named Goliath. He stands almost 7 feet tall, and he is strong enough to bear the weight of a full suit of armor. His coat alone would have weighed 126 pounds. This man is a powerful force, and he knows it. “Why are you lining up to fight? Am I not a Philistine? And you are servants of Saul. Tell you what. Choose someone to represent you. Send him out here to fight me. If he wins, then we will be your servants. But if I win, you will serve us.”
For 40 days, Goliath taunted Saul and his army. All that bragging did just what Goliath intended. Saul and his entire army were intimidated. They were afraid. They were very much afraid. But the shepherd boy was not.
When he arrives with the provisions for his brothers, David hears Goliath’s taunts, and he says, “Who is this guy? Who does he think he is? Does he honestly believe that one uncircumcised Philistine can stand up to the armies of the living God?”
 “Don’t be afraid,” David tells Saul. “I will go fight the Philistine.”
And Saul tells him, “You can’t do that. You are just a boy!”
Low expectations. Saul had very low expectations. He did not believe there was any way possible that this young, untrained boy. A musician, no less! There was just no way this child could defeat a massive, fully equipped, trained and seasoned warrior. But, see, that’s the problem. Saul was looking for a person he could trust. David was trusting God.
David knew that the Lord had been with him out in those fields when he was taking care of the sheep. Whenever a bear or a lion had attacked the flock, David had taken it down. But he knew that it was God who had given him the power to do it, and David had faith that God would save him now. “The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.” Now that is faith!
In fact, David had so much faith in God that he refused to wear the body armor of a soldier. He didn’t even carry a sword. All he needed were his shepherd’s staff, five rocks, and a slingshot. “The battle is the Lord’s,” David said. God will give us the victory. And that is exactly what God did.
David exceeded everyone’s expectations. Because he trusted God. He had faith in God. He had faith that God could and would work through him. David had faith that God could and would do miraculous things through him. And God did.
God can also do miraculous things through us. I don’t know what giants you are facing today, but I know there are a lot of giants out there in the world. Maybe you are facing a giant called cancer or depression or anxiety. Maybe the giant you are facing is debt or loneliness or bullying. Maybe the giant standing in your way is bigotry or injustice or drug abuse. I don’t care how big that giant is, stand up to it. Exceed expectations. Have faith. Remember: the battle is the Lord’s.

[i] Alex and Brett Harris. Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations. Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah Books, 2008. 36.
[ii] Harris, 90.
[iii] Harris, 91.
[iv] Harris, 91.
[v] “5 Signs Complacency is Killing Ministry.” Published by ShareFaith magazine at Downloaded September 9, 2016.
[vi] Harris, 92.
[vii] Harris, 93.
[viii] Harris, 93.
[ix] Harris, 101-102.