The Answer to a Painful Christmas is…Christmas

If you’re one of those people for whom it takes everything you’ve got to not hate this season’s guts, I understand.

When I was seventeen, life and Satan hit right where it most often hurts this time of year: family. After that year, we would never again celebrate the holidays as a family. The head count is always one short now.

Some don’t even get the first seventeen years. Others got fifty, yet are now going through their first Christmas without, and finding it just as shattering. It’s difficult to keep our seasonal joy from being diminished by those losses.

Have you ever noticed how vulnerable Christmas is? As inevitable as its arrival is every year, it doesn’t actually offer everyone refuge. For some, it’s the reverse – a reminder of what they don’t have. As long as Christmas is about perishable things, it will be perishable itself.

It’s a good thing that the true Christmas has something to say about those very losses, then.

Imagine if the manger pointed to nothing but another Jewish prophet standing around on hillsides and boats, telling stories and handing out advice. Awfully anticlimatic, don’t you think? Not much worth celebrating there.

But the manger points to much more. It points to the cross that will triumph over the very things that shatter us today. It was the birth of the Conqueror of death and loss, who will return on a white horse to make all things new.

If we make a soft-focus Hallmark family mentality the central purpose of Christmas, we leave it vulnerable to Satan’s attacks. Though God is powerful and good, he has not promised to always protect even that precious jewel in this life.

But if we make hope the central purpose of Christmas – the hope of redemption – then the season becomes as unshakeable as every other promise of Christ.

Christmas isn’t a family reunion, as wonderful as that is. It’s the promise of greater reunions down the road, the reversal of all the theft and death and destruction the enemy has wreaked upon us. It looms large over the damages looming over us. The properly interpreted Christmas heralds victory over its own oppressors.

This is why Christmas is bigger than our opinion of it. It’s why we can truly celebrate: its promise never lay in the present, but in the future. It may be difficult to find joy now. But perhaps the cure to finding that joy, is delving ever deeper in.

 

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The Value of Knowing Your Value

I ran across the following meme the other day (who says the Internet is useless?):

value

It is an incredible quote, for it brings many of our lives into sharp relief. It went straight onto the Facebook page for my blog, for it was propulsive and illuminating, at least for me. All of a sudden, through this idea, many of the regrettable actions we take (or see taken around us) gain an interpretation they never had before.

Most of what we interpret as immaturity are unhealthy attempts to prove our value.

The office worker who stirs up drama is trying to prove his value by bringing others down.

The family member who deflects or passes the buck when called out on a mistake does not realize that she can be valuable and wrong at the same time.

The one who turns every conversation towards themselves is too busy securing their own value to see that of others.

I’ve just described all of us somewhere. Like a dog chasing its tail, we are all trying to capture something that could not escape us if we tried. We cannot attain what is already ours.

Being made in the image of God carries incredible value. We are shredded and dirtied by sin, lost in a haunted house called the human heart, yet pursued by the Cross’ offer of redemption. God went to great lengths to open a way to salvation, all because he calls us valuable.

His ways not only clear us of sin’s sentence, but free us to live wisely in the practical realm every day by revealing our value. When one understands his value in God, they are protected from having to prove it. They are no longer driven by those compulsions. They no longer seek their identity in sports, hobbies, political causes, or cruel and legalistic religion. They can admit errors, break addictions, set boundaries, forgive, help, lead, and love. Since they’ve had their core questions about themselves answered, they can start focusing on others’ questions instead.

This is impossible with the world. They’re not even trying to hide their self-hatred anymore. More openly each day, they celebrate our supposed insignificance in the cosmos, place higher value on animal species than themselves, and embrace pornography. Suicide and self-centeredness are epidemic. Satan loves to claim you have no value, then propose an endless series of hoops to prove otherwise.

God cures all that. And only he can.

Come to Christ and let him break your chains. Whether you are new to him or part of the old guard, there is always something to be mended. He welcomes all comers with open arms, and writes new stories where there were only scribbles before.

 

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Your Greatest Worship Experience Won’t Come At Church

I don’t have much against flashy, neon-drenched worship services courtesy of starched hair and skinny jeans.

That’s because I don’t know the hearts of the hair and jeans. When the great test of worship comes at 3am – when they get the dreaded phone call, or when they simply wake up with the old terror pressing in – for all I know, they pass with flying colors. They trust God. They worship at their bedside. Why assume they don’t?

See, your greatest worship experiences probably won’t come at church.

I attend a church that doesn’t have one of “those” worship experiences every week. We try to stay simple, competent, and authentic. Fortunately, it’s also a church that teaches us to think of ourselves with “sober judgment”, which has helped me check my critical spirit towards other churches and how they operate. We celebrate when other churches succeed.

After all, what access do I have to the hospital rooms in which the rubber of those believers’ faith meets the road?

What access do I have to their last late-night session with their thinning checkbook?

What access do I have when twenty years of isolation finally breaches the dam of their hearts and leaves them curled up against a silent wall, even after all their valiant demeanor from stage?

Your greatest worship experience won’t come at church. It comes unscheduled, unrehearsed, unforeseen, on days other than Sunday, when your character and trust are tested by life’s nastiest assaults. It comes when you’re on the ragged edge of snapping at your coworkers, or when the bottle’s comfort just feels irresistible, or the arms of someone you know you shouldn’t be seeing. The true and only question is simply this: will you choose him? Over despair? Over idols? Over distance?

That’s worship.

Raising your hands on Sunday means nothing if you sin with them the other six days. Tithing means little from a resistant giver. A degree from a Bible college is pointless if it’s not put into practice. This sounds harsh, but I can draw no other conclusion from Jesus’ words.

Worship at its deepest form happens not on the stage, but in the closet.

That’s actually comforting. It means your life doesn’t have to be the internal equivalent of multicolored spotlights and smoke machines for you to come before him. It means that humble churches without such assets can still run to him. It means that the “robe of righteousness” (Isaiah 61:10) is ours regardless of the rest of our wardrobe.

Worship with your life.

And if it’s been a while since you did so, worship with repentance right now, in your closet. It can be done. Jesus awaits with open arms.

 

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The Man with a Cord Around His Neck

A couple summers ago, an unsettling moment intruded upon a random delivery.

In a fading summer twilight, I was bringing pizza to the local emergency room (draped up in plastic amidst a remodel at the time). As I was walking in, I’d noticed a young guy sitting on the curb, head down, but thought little of it. As I came back out, I felt compelled to say hello to him – a risky move for an introvert like myself, but doubly so given this guy appeared to be in some distress.

Pay attention to those little urges to connect. They could shape eternity.

I drew near to this young man and hailed him. He didn’t answer, head bowed, face hidden. Upon drawing closer, I registered sniffling. I asked if he was all right; he again didn’t answer. I asked him his name; he gave it.

It was then that I noticed the iPod cord, twisted tight around his neck. He was pulling on it so hard that it was bruising his skin.

Alarmed, I told him that I was concerned and asked him to stop. He didn’t. I told him that if he continued, I’d have no choice but to notify the ER personnel. He said he didn’t care. I ran inside and announced the situation to the front desk, and they sprang into action; a tall, imposing male nurse quickly sprinted out to the guy carrying a pair of scissors. While that happened, I took my leave and returned to my car.

My thoughts were jarred for the rest of my shift, sinking with the sun. The fact that this young man chose to sit right outside an ER as he harmed himself suggested that he did not want to die, that he was really crying out for help. It wasn’t the way I would have chosen to ask. Then again, I have no idea what pain the man was going through, what his story was. Ans the saying goes, “Be kind; everyone you know is grieving.”

I have not heard news of the man since. I hope he got the help he needed.

Many people would have done what I had the opportunity to do. I just happened to be there because someone nearby ordered cheese and sauce.

What I hope is that, if you are struggling today and you just can’t regulate, if it’s searing to burst from your mouth or body, you will seek help. Seek it from God, who sent his son to navigate himself into a position of “not counting people’s sins against them” (2 Cor. 5:19). And seek it from the people he sends. There are countless people around you – even strangers – who will listen without judging.

May we all be such people.

A Thank-You to Fast Food Managers

If you think about it, store managers play an underappreciated and frankly crucial role in our society.

We all likely have fond memories of our first bosses. Well, perhaps not all so fond. But I do.

At my first job (Taco Johns’, in case you were dying of curiosity), I had a GM named Cyndi. She was hilarious, compassionate, efficient, a great trainer, and on top of her job. Kind of like a mom to us young pups, she listened, understood, encouraged, and kept smiles on our faces. She gave us rides to work when we needed (and may or may not have handed her closing crew a Chaco Taco on the sly every once in a while). It’s so important to have someone like that to guide you over your first steps into the working world.

But their role is far more significant than just herding plebes. During my time in the service industry (or just walking through stores), I’ve seen employees carrying a lot of adversity. I’ve worked alongside people trying to beat theft or substance raps. I’ve taken my lunch from window-workers with obvious speech impediments or severe social impairments. I’ve had my groceries run by folks who couldn’t read or add.

The service sector is peppered with low-skilled, down-on-their luck types who can barely do the jobs they were hired for. If upper-level human resources types had their way, we’d probably see only the bright, brisk, friendly, and fully competent types manning the front counter and layaway desk instead. It’d make sense.

Instead, we see the struggling and under-qualified as well – ecause some store manager somewhere made a different call.

And I am so glad they did.

It can be risky to employ those who struggle with people or competence, especially when safety issues are involved (e.g. food). To be sure, a business has the right to hire the best.

But a manager who invests in people, who believes in second chances and will work to hand their people the tools that need…that’s love. Struggling people are completely reliant on that goodwill to get back into the realm of the employed game. I don’t want to get poisoned as a customet, but if my biggest problem at the checkout line is getting held up because the cashier’s hands are shaking, I can count my blessings.

Store managers are gatekeepers in our society in a very real way. McDonald’s store managers, hold your heads high – your job carries more eternal significance than you may have realized. Given that there seem to be more and more broken folks pounding on these gates with each passing year, you could do more good in the world than a CEO making ten times your salary.

Such managers often lead pretty thankless existences. They have to deal with constant turnover; a competent crew lasting months would be a dream. They often don’t make much. They’ve got families they battle to feed, just like us. They get plenty of abuse from their own bosses and have to bear the weight of firing people (which, hopefully, is a weight for them, no matter how much the fired deserve it). They can’t please everybody, and there are days when it seems they can’t please anybody. And if anything goes epically wrong – the product, an employee, something completely out of anyone’s control – guess who gets blamed?

Of course, not every manager is an angel. As Spiderman often heard, with great power comes great responsibility. You’re not ruler of a henhouse, but a steward of the poor and suffering. You have not gained power and authority by accident; you’ve been given it by God. Treat your employees as more important than yourself. Their livelihoods depend on you. God does not give a person power for his or her own comfort or control, but for the welfare of those beneath you.

And God brings it back around to you. I’d be glad to help out most of my former bosses even today. Remember the saying: we are judged not by how we treat our peers, but by how we treat those beneath us.

To the bosses who have helped salvage lives by bringing in the misfit, recovering, recently released, or marginally skilled, and getting a paycheck to them and their kids, you are part of what keeps the world turning. Thank you.

Just figured you wouldn’t mind hearing such things on a Monday. May your grills be hot and your hands fully washed.

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Sometimes You Just Have to Declare

I asked a co-worker today if there was anything I could pray for him about this coming week.

He looked at me for a moment, then dropped his eyes to his phone, shook his head almost imperceptibly, and mumbled words no doubt borne from decades of unremitting disappointment: “There’s nothing anyone can do.”

Lord knows those words have tried to gnaw their way into my soul. Too often, I’ve let them.

But something about hearing them from outside my head, from another’s lips, lit a fire in me. And I’m glad for that.

I do not know why some people are asked to walk this earth without basic love, without functioning bodies, without full bellies.

But I know my God is the God of mid-life crises – and all-life crises. The God who healed ailments of twelve (Luke 8), eighteen (Luke 13), and thirty-eight years (John 5). Who healed people blind and lame from birth. Imagine waiting for your answer that long. Most of us would go about our business in that time, give up, cut our losses, buy the wheelchair and accessible house and call it final. Or maybe walk away from God entirely.

Not us. I pray it is not us.

Sometimes we need to get angry…not at God, but at our disbelief. We need to stand straight, face the letdown, gird ourselves, and slap back. We need to claim and declare that the Lord is faithful.

Not claim and declare the outcome we want – claim and declare the character of the one we’re beseeching. They’re different things. The first leaves room for, “I am dependent on this answer for my well-being and might shelve God in weariness if it doesn’t come.” The second says, “I love God.”

At some point, the answer is irrelevant. What matters is what we believe.

Sure, we struggle to be satisfied with making it a “mere” soul exercise, especially when the tragedy actively burns your soul on a daily basis. So try this: which statement gives the better chance of eliciting the miracle from God? I’d say the latter. It loves the giver rather than the gift.

But I’ve found it’s an iffy question to ask. It invites a mercenary, transactional attitude.

At some point, like William Wallace rallying the Scots, we have to admit that the stand matters more than the result. If you run, throw in the towel, or shelve your faith, how will you look back on that decision for the rest of your days?

I want to stand. I want to shout into the howling dark that God is coming for it, treat it like the glass-chinned bully it is. I want him to have my best love, one that’s given even when hope is deferred.

So I will snarl at the lies this week. May God give me breath. And I will pray for my co-worker, that God might surprise him.

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Let Your Inner Rhoda Talk

storm-4582219_960_720For this I’m grateful: my denominational tastes put me in position to drink a lot of sound Bible.

My social media feeds are culled inlets of soulful Scriptural truth. I get a foundation of obedience and surrender. Names like Tozer, Chambers, Piper, ten Boom, and Elliott roll through my feed, highlighting the narrowness and ache of Jesus’ path. I get it. Life is not a flowery bed of ease, a get-rich scheme, or a catapult to political power, or about me. Though this isn’t pleasant news, it’s true, and I would rather know up front than blindsided later.

But on occasion, it can be such a drag. (Yeesh. Is that okay to say?)

There’s plenty in this vein on how to handle a “no” from God. We know he is not a vending machine. We learn that sometimes perseverance in prayer is needed. We understand that God has his sovereign reasons, that he’s up to things above our pay grade. We accept the immense value of patience and suffering in shaping and refining our souls, in teaching us to rely on the giver rather than the gifts. It worked for Jesus (Hebrews 2:10).

To be in both worlds full

Is more than God was, who was hungry here

– George Herbert

And if we read Scripture with ice-cold objectivity for long enough, we eventually pick up the idea that, quite frankly, disappointment in our lives is sometimes the only thing that will keep our wandering hearts bound to God.

See, I’ve learned my lines.

Meanwhile, we broach the topic of miracles and answered prayers oh so gingerly. Certainly not with boldness. We’re too uncomfortable for that; it feels vaguely immature. Risky. You know what I mean. Perish the thought of that health-and-wealth business. We’re determined not to get our theology wrong, and that’s excellent, because we value getting Jesus’ words right (not always a fashionable practice).

But sometimes I wonder…

Are we just having a hard time hoping?

Are we just making excuses for our unbelief?

Are we just trying to muffle a voice deep down that’s wearily confessing, “I just don’t expect much from God. He doesn’t work that way anymore. Let’s just obey now and we’ll get heaven later.”

It occurred to me that I feel better equipped to handle a no from God than a yes.

Then Peter came to himself and said, “Now I know for certain that the Lord has sent His angel and rescued me from Herod’s grasp and from all that the Jewish people expected.” When he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark, where many had assembled and were praying. He knocked at the door in the gateway, and a servant named Rhoda came to answer. She recognized Peter’s voice, and because of her joy, she did not open the gate but ran in and announced that Peter was standing at the gateway.

“You’re crazy!” they told her. But she kept insisting that it was true. Then they said, “It’s his angel!” Peter, however, kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astounded. (Acts 12:11-16)

It’s hilarious. The fledgling church is praying, but when God answers, there’s no confident grinning, no “yep, I knew he’d come through.” They’re floored. God supernaturally keeps Rhoda from bringing the evidence inside so that the story will record them almost resisting good news, coming up with alternative explanations. These downtrodden Roman citizens weren’t used to shining angels and chains falling off wrists.

I can relate. It’s not a “no” that would surprise me from God these days; it’s a “yes”.

How bad is that?

Miraculous events have taken place in my church in the last year and I hardly know what to do with it. God is moving powerfully through South Asia and I’m shaking my head like a dog getting out of the water. He really does this stuff?

But I know why. I’ve witnessed my share of “no’s”, as have we all. Perhaps it’s that disappointment that I’ve wrapped around myself like a cloak for my heart. It’s a practice that walks a very fine line between guarded heart (Proverbs 4:23) and lack of faith.

There are days when I need to read less about the lack of a miracle, and more about miracles.

Fortunately, Scripture’s up for that. Remarkable displays of power, signs and wonders –  Scripture loses vast swaths of its educational value to us if they’re no longer active. They’re for God’s glory, of course, for pointing people to him. But they’re also out of his generous heart and his desire to come through. Why cannot I simply sit back like a little child and let him…?

Like water sloshing back and forth in a pipe seeking its level, I find myself sliding back towards balance in God’s Word – its hope and its surrender.

I won’t accept a fortune-cookie Christianity that outdoes itself every week in predicting exciting new bombshells for your life and never presages anything bad. But neither am I going to truss up my heart in resignation and call it holiness.

How, Lord? How will my inner Rhoda convince the rest of my heart?

Through his Spirit. Only way.

So I will pray, study, and let God do the answering.

Who knows what will happen?

 

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