Thursday, December 13, 2018
We don’t know when the original Christmas Day was. Scholars have worked hard to determine Christ’s real birthday, but there is no general agreement. Most scholars come no closer than an estimate of the year: 6-4 BC. We don’t know the day of the week or time of year. Given the weather in Israel, it is highly unlikely that snow lay on the ground.
It is widely believed that Christians have appropriated a pagan holiday that celebrated the winter solstice and designated it as the time to celebrate Jesus’s incarnation. Even though this might not represent actual history, it works very well as a metaphor. Celebrating Christmas in winter is not merely a strategy to break up the dreary winter months. It provides an excellent illustration of the need for a Messiah. Just as the winter is associated with cold and darkness, so this world is cold and dark in sin. We don’t merely need a break from the dreary weather; we need hope and redemption from sin. C.S. Lewis describes our current world as “enemy-occupied territory,” a world under the influence of Satan and enslaved to sin. Christ’s coming is an invasion to reclaim His creation and His creatures, not unlike the Allies’ invasion of France that began the defeat of Germany in World War II. Celebrating Christmas in the winter is an excellent reminder that as Christmas comes in the dark and cold winter, Jesus has come to our dark and cold sin-sick world, and to us. And although the Christmas season is full of twinkling lights, Christmas carols, and decking our halls, the darkness and emptiness that sometimes threaten our hearts and souls need not be ignored. In fact, it makes Jesus’s invasion, as our rescue, all the sweeter and makes our Christmas celebration all the richer. Celebrating Christmas even in the midst of pain and struggle is truly the most genuine way to celebrate Christmas. It is a recognition that we need Christ, and He has come!
Celebrating Christmas at the winter solstice also provides a helpful illustration of the work of Christ. John proclaims Jesus as the Light of the world. And just as daylight begins to increase after the winter solstice, Jesus, once arrived, brings more and more light to the world and to our lives. This brings with it a challenge. As the light of Christ becomes brighter in our lives, more of our sin is exposed, and we encounter more opportunities to confess and repent. This may seem contrary to the spirit of the holiday, but in fact it is at its core: we celebrate because Jesus came to save us from our sin. If we had no sin, we would have no reason to celebrate. As John the Baptist said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” As we submit to Christ’s Lordship, He becomes our ever-brightening light. And in this way, we can pledge with Ebenezer Scrooge “to honor Christmas in our hearts, and try to keep it all the year.”
Christians are often reminded to “keep Christ in Christmas.” I do not believe that this means, as some would have it, that we need to be more solemn about this holiday. In fact, the more we understand the significance of Christ coming to overcome the darkness and cold in our souls and in our world, the more we have to celebrate. Come, Lord Jesus!
Saturday, November 3, 2018
November. Giving Thanks. November seems to require a focus on thankfulness, on gratitude. We celebrate Thanksgiving soon, which gives us an excellent opportunity to gratefully count our blessings before we head into the Christmas rush.
There is a lot to be said in favor of giving thanks. Many of the Psalms reveal that King David, the man after God’s own heart, was a man of praise. In I Chronicles 15 and 16, we read about David bringing the ark of the covenant of the LORD into Jerusalem amid great celebration: David leapt as the ark was brought into the city, and he appointed some of the Levites to specifically thank and praise the LORD God of Israel as the ark was established in its new location. A few chapters later, in I Chronicles 23, we read that of the 38,000 male Levites, David appointed 4,000 to praise the LORD with instruments that David had made specifically for giving praise.
The giving of thanks and praise continues in the New Testament. The Gospels record Jesus giving thanks to the Father as a matter of practice. Those who are touched by Jesus in some way almost always respond with thanks and praise. The Apostle Paul exhorts the believers in Philippi to dwell on those things worthy of praise, and he encourages those in Thessalonica to rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and in everything give thanks. Thanksgiving is more than a holiday for God’s people. It is a way of life.
In the 1940 Book of Common Prayer used by the Episcopal Church, a responsive acknowledgement of thanks is part of the weekly communion service. The priest says: “Let us give thanks unto our Lord God.” The congregants respond: “It is meet and right so to do.” The priest continues: “It is very meet, right, and our bounden duty, that we should at all times, and in all places, give thanks unto thee, O Lord, Holy Father, Almighty, Everlasting God.” These words ring as true today as when they were written generations ago. But it seems to me that it would be very dangerous to our spiritual health if we stop there. If giving thanks was nothing more than duty, a fulfillment of an obligation, a practice of a tradition, we miss the point, badly.
Giving thanks is not about meeting an expectation or fulfilling a duty. It is the fruit of a genuine relationship with our Lord and our Redeemer. It isn’t something we haveto do. It is something we get to do. Giving thanks is not just about what we do, but about who we are, and who we are becoming. To be sure, it isn’t always easy. We are fallen people in a fallen world. Jesus said that we would have tribulation in the world. The writers of the New Testament did not shy away from the reality of suffering. But we can give thanks that Christ has overcome the world and that He will redeem our suffering and transform it into glory.
As we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving and enter the holiday season, may we, like King David and the Apostle Paul, give thanks as thankful people.
Sunday, October 28, 2018
Once upon a time there lived a hamster. Harriet Hamster was a petite, cheerful rodent with shiny, white whiskers, soft, brown fur, and a cute pink knob of a tail. She was well known in Hamstown for her dedication to her wheel.
Each morning, Harriet would jump out of her cozy nest, wash her face, pop a nut in her mouth, and jump on her wheel. The first rungs on her wheel carried family labels: she would feed her family and see them out the door of their tree root hole. She would grasp the next series of rungs and change the straw in the nests and sweep out her home. The next set of rungs included laundry and gathering nuts and berries. As Harriet trotted along her wheel, she took root soup to her sick mother-in-law, placed a fresh flower arrangement in the neighborhood chapel, read stories to orphaned hamsters, helped a younger hamster line her nests with duck down gathered from around the local pond, and delivered a dandelion salad to a shelter for handicapped hamsters. As her wheel continued to spin under her power, Harriet helped her children with their homework, fed her family dinner, tidied their home, bathed her children, read them a story, and then tucked them into bed. Hours later, she was still turning the wheel, sending a note of encouragement to a cousin who had broken her leg and knitting a sweater for a new nephew. Eventually she would collapse into her nest before it was time to jump back on the wheel.
Harriet was so busy running on her wheel that she hardly noticed that it was expanding as more and more rungs slipped in. She loved how fast she could make her wheel spin, and she loved the admiration and appreciation of those in her hamster family and community. But eventually, her left front foot became sore, and her right back knee began to ache. Harriet persevered like a good little hamster until one afternoon her foot slipped and her knee buckled. Suddenly, she slipped off her wheel and started to fall….
Just as Harriet was thinking that she would never stop falling, she landed with a soft thump on what appeared to be a spinning plate. And then the next thing she knew, she was scooped up into large, brown hands. “Harriet!” said the old man looking down at her. “I am so glad that you have finally come to see me! I have been waiting for you.” The old Potter bandaged her foot and put a brace on her knee. Then He put Harriet gently down on His wheel and started to turn it slowly. The first thing Harriet learned within the Potter’s grasp was to sing the songs she learned as a young hamster in chapel school as she folded her laundry. And when it was time to prepare dinner, she gathered her family to work together. They complained at first, but they ended up laughing like they never had before. The next day, the Potter continued to turn Harriet’s wheel slowly and surely. She signed up for a language class that she had always wanted to take after the Potter assured her that He would find a way for her to use her new skill. And to make time for this new endeavor, Harriet withdrew from a few of her volunteer positions. She then reworked homework time with her children so that the older ones helped the younger. Instead of endless rungs of wheel tasks to perform, there was a continual, slow flow of opportunities for Harriet. She loved it.
As her days on the Potter’s wheel continued, Harriet noticed that she had more energy without even needing those coffee beans. Her fur was thicker and softer, and her eyes were brighter. But still, there were days when she missed the powerful way she felt about herself as she ran on her own wheel from task to task. She missed the admiration from the citizens of Hamstown, and she cringed when she disappointed someone. Occasionally, she would look up from the Potter’s wheel and catch glimpses of her old wheel, motionless. She wondered what it would be like to return to it.
The next few days made Harriet wonder even more about returning to her life on her own wheel. The Potter seemed to be quite sleepy and unengaged, and Harriet was restless. No one paid her any attention as she went about the Potter’s tasks for her, and she felt less and less powerful, and less and less important.
One night, Harriet had the most terrifying nightmare. Her old wheel came to life and hovered over her. Flames sprang from its rungs, and its expression was angry as it shouted at her. She tried to obey its commands, but it was never satisfied, never happy. Harriet tried harder and harder and trotted faster and faster to please the wheel. But the harder she tried and the faster she went, the more the wheel glared and screamed.
Harriet awoke in a cold sweat, quivering in her nest. Although it was still very dark, she could just make out the outline of the Potter’s quiet wheel in the middle of the room. Her old hamster wheel was nowhere within sight or sound. Harriet lay awake for a while, contemplating her dream and her life. As she fell back asleep, she was very, very grateful that she had fallen from her hamster wheel onto the Potter’s wheel.
And she lived happily ever after.
Thursday, October 25, 2018
Sunday, September 16, 2018
Wednesday, September 5, 2018
My husband and I were recently blessed with our fourth grandchild. It was a dramatic event: by the grace of God, a Caesarean section was conducted just in time to avoid a situation that would have threatened the lives of both mother and baby. We are beyond grateful for the Lord’s sovereign mercy and grace that were so evident on the evening of July 12.
The stress regarding this grandchild, though, started a few weeks before her birth. The baby’s parents had decided to try a home birth with a midwife, and they had asked us to take child care responsibilities for their 18-monthy-old son as well as cover any support duty needed. We were thrilled at the prospect of participating in such a special event even though it meant running to Massachusetts at a moment’s notice.
The original due date was June 22, and so by early June I was as packed and ready as I could be: clothes for us, food for the new parents, new toys for the big brother. I had my cell phone with me and on at all times, and the stop, drop, and roll drill (stop what we’re doing; drop everything, roll up to Massachusetts!) was never far from my mind. June 22 came and went. Our other son and his family came to visit, expecting to meet the latest addition to the family; they left a week later—on July 11—disappointed. As the days and weeks passed, the pressure became increasingly intense, and I could not help but compare waiting for the coming of this baby to the coming of Christ.
The Bible is quite clear: Christ will return. Matthew records Christ’s admonition in Chapter 25: we are the bride waiting for the groom: we are to be ready and waiting, with lamps lit at all times, even if the bridegroom delays. It is essential to remain alert and prepared to avoid missing the Event.
And I now understand better than before that it is hard to wait and remain prepared. Waiting and watching take focus and energy, and it is easy to become distracted or grow weary. But I also understand better than before that the waiting and watching comprise a small price to pay in order to be able to attend the party. In our busy lives—even lives filled with prayer and God-focus—it is easy to lose sight of the Bridegroom and the initiation of His kingdom.
The truth is that maintaining a fixed gaze on the horizon of the Lord’s coming is essential not only so that we can join the party in heaven but also to inform our day-to-days lives of faith. Maternal care during pregnancy and preparations for birth are conducted to achieve the end goal of a safe delivery of a healthy baby. I packed for Massachusetts and listened for my cell phone because I knew the end was in sight. And even though we do not know when our Lord will return, our efforts to serve the Lord must look toward the end goal: the culmination of the new covenant initiated by Christ and the establishment of His eternal kingdom.
To be sure, our waiting for The Call was different from waiting for Christ’s return. My Massachusetts preparations had to take into account my responsibilities at home and a return to “normal” life. When Christ comes, our earthly responsibilities and what we see as normal life will be irrelevant. Still, I cannot ignore this lesson: our lives on this side of the kingdom must include prayerful, watchful waiting. Come, Lord Jesus!