Archive for December, 2011

Kingdom Voices: Karl Barth

The Advent devotional I read yesterday was by Karl Barth.  I found it to be both absolutely fascinating and at times, somewhat confusing.  And yet, there was a section that jumped out at me and just didn’t let go.  Since it was most likely an excerpt from a greater work, I cannot claim to fully understand it, but I loved these ideas of fully communing with God as we go throughout our life:

“Believing is not something as special and difficult or even unnatural as we often suppose.  Believing means that what we listen to, we listen to as God’s speech.  What moves us is not just our own concern, but precisely God’s concern.  What causes me worry, that is God’s worry, what gives me joy is God’s joy, what I hope for is God’s hope.  In other words, in all that I am, I am only a party to that which God thinks and does.  In all that I do it is not I, but rather God who is important.  Imagine if everything were brought into this great and proper connection, if we were willing to suffer, be angry, love and rejoice with God, instead of always wanting to make everything our own private affair, as if we were alone.

Just imagine if we were to adapt everything that gratifies and moves us into the life and movement of God’s kingdom, so that we personally are, so to speak, taken out of play.  Simply love!  Simply hope!  Simply rejoice!  Simply strive!  But in everything, do it no longer from yourself, but rather from God!  Everything great that is hidden in you can indeed be great only in God…

We must once and for all give up trying to be self-made individuals.  Let us cease preaching by ourselves, being right by ourselves, doing good by ourselves, being sensible by ourselves, improving the world by ourselves.  God wants to do everything, certainly through us and with us and never without us; but our participation in what he does must naturally originate and grow out of his power, not ours.  O, how we could then speak with one another!  For whatever does not grow out of God produces smoke, not fire.  But that which is born of God overcomes the world (1 Jn. 5:4).”

I very much want my life to be like that.  Like Barth, I have a vision of being “taken out of play,” so that I am simply God’s instrument.  That is my picture of dying to self. I’m not sure, of course, exactly what that looks like in my life, but I liked Barth’s ideas.

Quote taken from:

Barth, Karl.  “To Believe.”  Watch for the Light:  Readings for Advent and Christmas.  Farmington, PA:  Plough Publishing House, 2001. 137-139.

Sour Patch Kids and Sin

When I was a kid, I absolutely loved Sour Patch Kids.  I would get them every time I went to the movies, and would eat the whole bag by myself…despite the fact that they would inevitably leave my taste buds completely raw by the end (sidenote:  I don’t think that Sour Patch Kids are actually a food product).  Anyway, even though the candy laid waste to my tongue, I would not only polish off the bag, but then pour all the little leftover sour granules into my mouth to cap off the experience.  Mmmm…heavenly.

File:Sourpatchkids.jpgMy relationship with Sour Patch Kids came to an abrupt end, however, sometime in my mid-teen years.  I had bought–and promptly devoured–a bag at the mall…just before I came down with a stomach bug.  Needless to say, after spending hours heaving their acidic goodness into the toilet (you’re welcome), my body was done–DONE!–with Sour Patch Kids.  In fact, it promptly passed an internal decree that we would no longer be eating that candy under any circumstances.  For the next ten years, I could not even look at Sour Patch Kids without my stomach lurching, cringing in memory of The Dreaded Event.

Shockingly, in that ten years, I still caught several stomach bugs, despite not touching Sour Patch Kids.  That’s because, while I wouldn’t necessarily recommend consuming whole bags of Sour Patch Kids, they are not what made me sick.

I was already sick when I ate them.  My sickness didn’t come from them, but from something that was already inside of me.

Perhaps you see where I am going with this.

I happen to love rules.  I see great value in them.  Rules keep me safe.  Rules keep society stable.  Rules help us to survive.  Rules are even instinctive.  My ban on Sour Patch Kids, while uninformed and ineffective, was simply a natural survival instinct, like the birds who learn to avoid the berries that make them sick.  That’s why we still have birds, people.

See, when we suffer, we don’t like it, and we don’t want it to happen again.  Thus, we try to ferret out the cause of our suffering and to make a rule that will prevent future suffering.  In terms of physical suffering, this can be an effective strategy for a safe and harmonious society:  do we not like random murders?  Let’s make murder illegal!  Were some children horribly maimed at the factory they worked at?  Time for some child labor laws!  Did my daughter haul off and smack my son?  No hitting!  That’s a rule!

But there is one area over which rules hold no sway.  Oh, they can control, at least to a degree, our physical behavior, but they have no jurisdiction over our souls.  Paul comes out strong against rules in Colossians:

“Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.”  Col. 2:20-23

Wow.  Mull that one over for a minute.  Paul tells the Colossians here that these religious rules are completely pointless.  They lack any value in actually restraining sin.  And even more than that, Paul says that they are worldly!   I still can’t really wrap my mind around that one, but the bottom line is that he dismisses this attempt to regulate morality.

This verse is not the only place in the Bible that warns against the pitfalls of external regulations.  In fact, you could argue that the Old Testament Law was a grand experiment in the efficacy of using rules as a path to God.

It didn’t work out so well.

The Law seemed great in theory:  do this, don’t do that, wear these clothes, avoid that mold, don’t eat shellfish…and voila!  You are clean before God.  But in practice, it just didn’t work out that way.  In fact, here’s what one former Pharisee said about his experience with following the Law:

“What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “Do not covet.” 8 But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. For apart from law, sin is dead. 9 Once I was alive apart from law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. 10 I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. 11 For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death. 12 So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.

 13 Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! But in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it produced death in me through what was good, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.

 14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.  For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

 21 So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law;23 but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.”  Romans 7:7-23

Paul concludes by lamenting, “What a wretched man I am!  Who will save me from this body of death!”  Then, he answers his own question:  “Thanks be to God–through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

You can see from his talk in Romans 7 why Paul might have spoken so harshly against external regulations in Colossians.  He had learned through a lifetime of experience that rules just didn’t work.  They didn’t bring him closer to God; if anything, they just made him more aware of his distance from God.  If anything, rules just gave his sinful nature something to rebel against.  In that way, they made him sin even more!  Paul is careful to note that while the rules themselves weren’t bad, they did bring out what was worst in him.  That’s why they failed in their purpose.  The one thing that the law “was powerless to do” was to set us free from our sinful nature (Rom. 8:3).  The spiritual ineffectiveness of rules is similar to my ban on Sour Patch Kids.  I can avoid them all day long, but that will not protect me from getting sick if there is a virus already inside of me.  Similarly, we can make all kinds of rules to keep us away from situations that might lead us into sin, but they are still not going to keep us from sinning if the problem is in our heart.

And yet, God knows we try.  We still do love rules.  At least, I do.  I love them ever so much.  I periodically ban myself from Facebook in an attempt to focus my mind on things more spiritual; I cut myself off from a particular show, or a certain practice.  And I don’t believe that those disciplines, in and of themselves, are bad.  The problem is when I try to make my personal rule a universal rule, when I force my rules upon others.  That’s where the Pharisees ran into problems, and that’s where we in the church can run into problems.

Recently I stumbled upon a Mormon blog post describing their church’s struggle with regulating women’s dress.  As I scrolled through the lively comments section, I was mainly thankful that I wasn’t personally having to figure out the issue along with them!  I was also struck by the futility of trying to solve the problem of lust by telling women what they could and couldn’t wear.  Honestly, it just doesn’t seem effective.  Plus, when you consider religions that have taken this concept to its logical conclusion, it just gets pretty scary really quickly.  Legalism can be quite oppressive.

Thankfully, I think that, for the most part, we Christians realize that.  I am grateful that I have never been to a church that has enforced an actual dress code, regardless of how much they are concerned about modesty.  And I’m glad that I have never been a part of a church that forbade movies or playing with cards that had faces on them, which I have heard has happened in the past.  I’m glad that we seem to be slowly but surely giving up–at least on the church level–the unscriptural idea that we can regulate morality through rules.

But there’s another side, too.  

Sometimes I wish the pendulum could just stay in the middle, you know?  Would that be so hard?

Apparently, yes.  It would seem that we humans love the wild and exhilarating ride that is the extreme pendulum swing, and so we just keep banging back and forth into oblivion.  Now, instead of being hyper-legalistic, we have a strain of anti-legalism.  We can get to where we are skeptical of any challenge to our lifestyle, any claim that might make some demand on our behavior because we fear that such claims might be legalistic.  A friend of mine recently shared how passionate she is for God here lately, and how she feels that God is calling her to a deeper level of service (yes, this is a real friend, and not just a “friend” that is really me:)).  She also, however, expressed frustration at sharing her passion with her dear Christians friends, because she tended to be met with skepticism.  Whenever she shared her suspicions that God might be wanting a little more from her, she was chided for trying to earn her salvation or for being legalistic.

I myself have received a few (very kind and often funny) comments from friends in passing that seem to assume that I now view it as a “rule” that we should not go to movies or buy stuff because of this blog post I wrote.  I was also warned in the comments section of that blog not to make an idol of asceticism or to let it lead to Phariseeism.  I took the comment as the thoughtful, helpful point that it was, but the sum total of the reaction to that blog did make me think.  To be honest, I completely understand the drive to avoid legalism at all costs.  I don’t want to live under the burden of 50,000 rules that do nothing to bring me closer to God.  But when I hear the backlash my friend has received from her passion, and the concerns about legalism as a result of my movie thoughts, it takes me back to my Sour Patch Kids response.  It’s the same story all over again:  something hurts us (in this case, it’s having too many rules); we vow, “Never again!”;  and then, we assiduously avoid any appearance of having rules, at all costs.

But where does that leave us?

I know it leaves me with several questions.  Specifically,

Is there room any more in the church to challenge  each other without being seen as legalistic?

Is it possible to call each other to higher standards without making “rules” about acceptable behavior?

In what ways can we spur each other to more Christ-like behavior while still acknowledging that only God can transform our hearts?

I honestly don’t have the answer to those questions.  I only know that “anti-legalism” can lead to spiritual inertia, apathy, and irrelevance just as surely as legalism can lead to spiritual ineffectiveness and oppression.  I’m sure that there is a middle ground…and I’m hoping to figure out what that physically looks like.

Any ideas?

I Want In

There is a mother in Uganda praying.

I know she is there, and I know that she is praying.

I know because I am a mother, and that’s what I would do if I could not pay to feed and educate my children.  And so, as surely as I am human, I can tell you that she is praying to God with everything in her soul to please, please take care of her kids.  I know, because that’s what I do every night for my kids…and I can pay to feed them and educate them.

———————————————————————————————————————————————————————

I have long known that there are other countries besides America.  And I have known that those countries have poor people in them.  Like, really poor people.  I have known that there are children who starve to death every day.

I guess that makes me sad.

I say, “I guess,” because it’s not like I’ve been doing a ton about it.  Oh, I sponsor a Compassion child.  Who doesn’t?  And I’m good for a few bucks a month to each of my missionary friends.  Also, I am a sucker when guest speakers come from Healing Hands, or when Samaritan’s Purse sends a mail out.  You can definitely write me down for $20 a mailing.

My friends, this is what we call a Token Effort.

And why has it been token?  I think it’s because the problem is so overwhelming.  Even if I sold every single thing I had and gave it to the global poor, it would be but a drop in the bucket, a drip in the vast cauldron of need.

So since there seems to be nothing truly meaningful to do, I settle for token efforts.  Because apparently I view “meaningful” as “solving the whole problem.”  Apparently, the metaphor of the old guy throwing the starfish back into the ocean and making a difference to “that one” doesn’t really resonate with me.  Or maybe it does, and that’s why I have literally one Compassion child.

Anyway, these past few years, my eyes have been opened to this whole, “Kingdom of God” thing, this idea that God has a kingdom, on earth, that is made up of His citizens who do His will.  And I’ve always known that this Kingdom is global, but for awhile, I had to just focus on the local.

I will never forget this time a couple of years ago, when I heard about a family, strangers to me but family in Christ, who were coming to Charleston with their severely ill daughter because she was having a surgery done at one of our hospitals.  It was when the concept of the Kingdom was just starting to bloom in my soul, and their coming electrified me to an amazing reality.  I knew instinctively that they were coming into my territory.  That was back when I had first conceived this picture of the kingdom of God as a vast network, a spiritual map laid over the physical reality of world geography, a map of spiritual towns and provinces, of spiritual  jurisdictions.  When fellow citizens came into my jurisdiction, it was my duty to take care of them.  I just knew.  And so I did.  It was such a joyful, meaningful time in my life to get to serve God in that way.  I kind of felt like I was being called up to the “big leagues” in a sense, like I’d been handed an important assignment.  I did my best to fulfill my assignment, and in turn, my assignment fulfilled me.

Fast forward to last fall, when I read Radical, by David Platt.  Even though I’m not sure I agree with everything he said in that book, Platt did an amazing job of expanding my picture of God’s kingdom to the international level in a very vivid way.  It set my hair on fire. And so, naturally, I…

put the book away and vowed never to read it again.

I’m serious.  I still have not given it a second look, to this day.

It just moved me too much.  I was distrustful of the emotion that it stirred, because it honestly didn’t seem legit to all-of-a-sudden care so much about the whole world.  It seemed like a passing phase.  I told myself to wait, and if the emotions didn’t pass, then I would act.

The emotions didn’t pass, and Greg and I started to talk about how to act.  We were kind of stuck in a quagmire, though, as our finances really did not permit much leeway for “charitable donations.”  We started to pray for God to show us what the heck to do.

In response, He graciously relieved us of our mortgage and our gigantic electric bills and our separate sewer bill and our yearly HOA fees.  He generously gave us a much more manageable house with much more manageable utilities.  And on my birthday, He gave me renters to more than pay the mortgage on my old house, as well as a swift kick in the pants, via Kisses from Katie.

Reading that book refreshed my vision of the world, a vision started by Radical last year, continued by a close reading of the New Testament this summer, and bolstered by studies of Ephesians and Philippians this fall.  My vision of the spiritual map overlaying the physical, of the cities and provinces and jurisdictions, is back…and it’s global.  I know my local responsibility, but now I’m seeing the woman in Uganda.

I might not see a specific face, but I see the line that connects us, as two nodules in this vast global network (in my mind, the line is electric blue, in case you are wondering whether to commit me).  I see how she and I are connected.  I know that God is hearing her fervent prayers and moving in the soul of one of His “rich friends” in America.  “I have many people in this city,” God told Paul.  “I have many people in this world,” God tells the woman in Uganda.  “I have one for you.”

And the bell rings in my soul.

Over in America, everything in my life screams, “It’s time.”  It’s time to fulfill some long-neglected civic duties.  My civic duties are not to save the world or even to save one person, but simply to carry out God’s plans when He puts them on my heart.

They are on my heart.  So I chat with Him about it:

It goes like this:

“God, I want in.  You know, to that whole international thing You’ve got going? “

“You mean, My Kingdom?”

“That’s the one.  I want in.

“Good.  It’s about time.”

“What do I do?”

“Well, for starters, you could take that money your parents gave you to buy that new iPhone for your birthday, the one you asked them for, and use it to pay for my child in Uganda’s education and meals for a year.”

“Okay.”

And I realize that I don’t even want the iPhone.  I don’t. even. want. it.  All it is to me in that moment is an obstacle that stands between me and doing something real with my life.  And I am not having that.

“What else, God?”

“You know those Compassion children you’ve been dreaming of?  The ones that your kids will pick out, who are the same age and gender as Luke and Anna?  The ones whom I love just as much as Luke and Anna?

“Yeah…”

“Don’t you think it’s time to go ahead and help those kids?”

“Um, yes. Yes I do.  What else?”

“After that, learn how to pray for the whole world every day.  And then wait for your next assignment.”

“Got it.” 

Now, lest you (understandably) misread this and think that God and I were kicking it at Starbucks having this conversation, let me assure you that there were no external voices and no visiting angels (though that would have been nice).  Nope, this all happened securely in the confines of my soul…you know, that place where God’s Spirit lives?  I just translated the thoughts into a conversation…because I kind of think that is what it was.  My husband preached on the parable of the soils Sunday, and so I guess that God has been using His Word and my prayers to till the soil of my soul so that when the water of Kisses from Katie rained down on it (this metaphor is getting away from me), a plant sprang up.

And so when the moment to act came, I was ready.  (And so, incidentally, was Greg.  For some reason, he likes and trusts me, despite my bizarre visions of maps of the kingdom of God).  Now, we weren’t ready because we were good people.  We weren’t ready because we had worked hard for our money and had selflessly decided to sacrifice for God.  No, we were ready because, just as I hand my kids some money on Sundays so that they can drop it right into the plate, God stuffed some money in our hands and pointed us to how to use it.

And I was ready because my picture of God’s kingdom had returned.  In fact, that’s really the heart of what I’m trying to share right now.  When I think of God’s kingdom, it almost feels like a dare.  It is a dare to take my eyes off my conception of the “big picture,” to take my eyes off my Excel spreadsheets, to take my eyes off my well-reasoned assessments of how much change one person can enact in this world…and to put my eyes on God.  To be a citizen in God’s kingdom is to be constantly reminded that everything hinges on God’s plans, not my plans.  It is to be lead to open doors and to be given the strength to walk through them.  To be a citizen is to have the faith that I am part of a much bigger plan, and that through the good works prepared in advance for me to do, God’s kingdom comes and His will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

The Lord has a powerful kingdom on this earth, a kingdom that will one day reach its fulfillment.  And I. want. in.

A mother in Uganda is praying.

And I click “submit payment.”


Birthday Gifts

Yesterday was my birthday.

From my children, I received beautiful hand-drawn cards:

From my five year old.

My three year old wrote that!

From my husband, I received roses, two fair trade chocolate bars, and two books.

I read a chapter of this one that morning:

Wow–she didn’t pull any punches, did she?  It wrecked me.  I absolutely loved it, though.

After reading a chapter of that one, I turned my attention to other book he got me:

And I read it…um…in its entirety.

All I can say is, Wow.  It will completely inspire you to give your life to God–I mean really give your life to Him–right where you are.  I’m about to ship this one off to a dear friend.

From my parents, Greg’s parents, and our grandmothers, I received sweet cards (as well as some sweet spending money).

From my friends and family on Facebook, I received an overwhelming outpouring of love that made me praise God for His family.

From Luke’s teacher, I received the opportunity to shower love on twenty kids from all over the world as I traced their feet and helped them make a reindeer out of their foot and handprints.  After reading Kisses from Katie, I was dying to go love some children, and this provided the perfect opportunity.

And from God, I received a few things, too:

I received a reprieve from getting a horrible stomach bug.  There have been two in my house in the past two weeks (an inevitable side effect of having oodles of people over), and both times, they have miraculously passed over my family and my extremely-virus-prone self.  On Sunday, I was sure I had one, even before I knew one had been in my house on Saturday…but it passed.  (Maybe that’s also a gift from my immune system, having had 31 years to develop immunities to bugs that mainly affect toddlers.  Way to grow up, immune system!)  The principal at Luke’s school did tell me that they sent eight kids home yesterday with the bug, so we aren’t out of the woods, yet.  But…no birthday bug!

Secondly, from God, I received a rental lease on our house in South Carolina, signed by a family who will move in on December 10!  Praise the Lord!  That’s a birthday and Christmas gift in one.

Thinking about the lease being signed on my birthday, I realized that the signing was just the bow on a greater gift God has given me.  In these past few months, He has given me the certainty that He is in control of my life.  He has freed me from so many of the fears that have haunted me for the past eight years…mainly by making them come true…and then showing me that they were nothing He couldn’t handle.  I can’t explain what a burden has been lifted through this whole experience.  I now know, 100% know, that my life and my family are in God’s hands.  I don’t fear so many of the things I used to fear.  I just fear God, and commit my life to Him.  It is such a simpler, freer, and more beautiful existence.  And it’s probably the best gift I could receive on my birthday.

It rained all day yesterday, but the rain just reminded me of the grace that God pours on me everyday.  He showers grace on me through my husband and children, through our physical families and our church families, through the beauty of His world, and through His bountiful provision that we know we don’t deserve.

Thank you God–and everyone else–for a wonderful birthday!

Joy to the World: My Advent Conspiracy

Every year around this time early November, the cultural juggernaut known as Christmas lurches into motion.  From the approximately 20,000 depictions of Christmas I have witnessed in the last month (98% of them being commercials), I have deduced that the culture at large views the purpose of Christmas as “family togetherness.”  It is a time when people celebrate the ones they love, mainly by participating in traditions with them, such as the exchange of gifts.  Since all of us want to be part of a community, and the family is the cornerstone of community, Christmas brings out strong desires in us.  For many who come from broken families or who have lost loved ones, Christmas might even be the hardest time of the year.  And even for those who are part of vibrant families and communities, Christmas sometimes puts an immense pressure on them to live out the cozy, utopian visions of Christmas that are thrown at them all day, every day from advertisers.  The constant commercial exposure, which plays on our deepest desires–and anxieties–often results in consumer excesses, as we attempt to “buy” our way into a good Christmas.  Add to that a packed schedule that apparently comes with the territory of December, and it is easy to become overwhelmed and stressed out by what is supposed to be the “most wonderful time of the year.”

Into this melee enters Christians, most of  whom rightly recognize that family togetherness, while admirable, is not the end goal of Christmas.  Rather, Christmas began as a pagan festival way to celebrate Christ’s birth.  Christians also recognize (at least sometimes) that the economic excesses associated with the holiday are at best deeply ironic and at worst pretty sinful, considering that Christmas is supposed to be in honor of Jesus, a poor carpenter who didn’t seem to really love economic excess.

Faced with the disparity between what culture tells us is Christmas, and what we ourselves believe Christmas to be, we Christians react in different ways.  Some of us get downright polemical, demanding that culture “put Christ back into Christmas,” usually by saying “Merry Christmas,” instead of “Happy Holidays” (for an insightful analysis of this phenomenon, see this blog post by Jenny Rae Armstrong).  Others rebel equally as strongly, but instead suggest that Christians should use the holiday to solve poverty instead of giving gifts to each other.  Still others, like some from my faith tradition, don’t see any intersection at all between Christ and Christmas and actually believe it’s best to keep the two separate.

Believe it or not, I don’t really agree with any of those approaches.

And thinking about all three of them makes me realize that we sometimes make things a little too complicated.  (Yes, I just said that.)  In the past, I have analyzed and re-analyzed with Greg what Christmas means to us and how it should be celebrated by our family.  I think all of that time spent overthinking was a good thing, too, because after the ideas had marinated for a year or two, I came into this season feeling a clarity of purpose that is unusual for me.

So here it is–this is my Advent conspiracy:

I am going to celebrate for a reason.

Ta-da!  That’s it!  That’s all!  My Savior was born (at some random point in the year), and I am going to choose this time to be happy about it.  And even though I’m always “happy” about it, I have learned through reading through the Old Testament that God thinks there is great value in purposeful celebration.  In the Law, he commands such celebrations as a way to remember and acknowledge the wonderful things He has done.  And so I’m going to use Christmas to celebrate with my friends and family the wonderful fact that He sent Jesus.  I’m going to exchange photo cards with my extended family in different states and my wonderful church family back in South Carolina.  We’re going to have parties, and spend time with our new family here in Nashville.  We’re going to bake cookies, and we’re finally going to meet our neighbors and ply them with said baked goods. We’re going to spend time as a family going to the (mostly free–woo hoo!) Christmas events around town, like the Lighting of the Green at Lipscomb.  Basically, in all of our merry-making, we hope to reenact our own version of the angel chorus that appeared to the shepherds.  That in-breaking of joy to the world was not subtle.  Or humble.  Or small.  They celebrated in a big way.

And maybe all of our celebrations won’t name-drop Jesus overtly (Scripture doesn’t tell us exactly what kind of dwelling Jesus was born in, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a gingerbread house), but we are going to make it clear to our family and anyone else interested that we are happy because our Lord came to earth.  And so we are going to celebrate!

The celebration part is easy–everyone is celebrating.  The tricky parts comes with the “for a reason” segment of my resolve.  Honestly, what first motivated me to get back to the purpose of Christmas was my kids.  As I thought about how I wanted to raise them, I realized that I wanted to teach them that the true meaning of Christmas was a way to celebrate what God did for us.  Then I realized that really, that’s the true meaning of life.  I realized that I wanted to teach my kids how to put Christ in everything, not just Christmas.  I realized that if Christmas meant radically restructuring our lives to shoehorn Jesus in, then we were doing it wrong.  I wanted the Jesus part to come naturally, just as it should come throughout the rest of our year.

Thus, as we take special time this year to celebrate Christ’s birth, we want the “Christ” part to be as seamlessly integrated as He hopefully is in the rest of our lives.  Here are some of the specific ways we have tried to do that:

For one, I have started reading an Advent devotional book as part of my normal, everyday quiet time.  The one I’m reading is the first one I’ve ever read, so I can’t compare it to others.  Even so, I think it’s pretty incredible.  It is called, Watch for the Light, and I first bought it because the Amazon reviews were so amazing and  because I could get it for .75, plus shipping, at half.com.  (Sorry, apparently that deal is gone.)  The book has some deep stuff in it, and reading it has really opened my eyes and mind to the miracle that we celebrate at Christmas this year.

With the kiddos, we do an Advent calendar.  Because I waited to shop for one on November 30, the day before the calendars start, I couldn’t find one of the cheapo cardboard ones, and certainly not one with the Bible verses on the back of the doors like I was wanting.  Instead, I caved and bought a reusable one from Target and filled it myself.  My children are super into it because they love Jesus candy, but I also printed out the Christmas story in 25 separate verses, and added one of them for each day.  Each morning, we read our story, and then Luke reads the newest verse to us.  (Added bonus:  reading practice!)

Another thing I hope to start if it ever arrives is this devotional for bedtime.  We have a yearly devo book we do with the kids at night already, so as part of our conspiracy to seamlessly incorporate baby Jesus, we are simply going to replace that one with this Jesse tree one at Christmas.  Apparently, it does involve making 25 ornaments or something, but I read some suggestions that you can just use a piece of felt with printouts from the computer.  That is going to be our route...if the book ever comes (next year, I’m writing this post in October).

As far as the whole Santa thing, we don’t try very hard to keep up the charade, though we do play it all out like a game.  This year I read the kids this book about St. Nicholas that I got for 75% off after last Christmas, and in emulation of St. Nick, I think we are going to be “Sneaky Santas” for one of our friends.  Since my kids love sneaking and secrets, I think they’ll get a kick out of it.

And…I think that’s it.  That’s how we are going to celebrate Christmas this year.

Looking over our ways of celebrating Christmas, it appears that my go-to solutions to problems usually involve either books or candy, and I’d say that’s a pretty accurate description of my approach to life.  Mainly, we just want to model joy and love to our children…joy that we have a Savior and love that tries to emulate Him.

How do you celebrate Christmas?

Paul Has Big Dreams for You

Have you ever had someone sit you down and tell you that they believed in you and that they thought you could do great things?

It doesn’t happen often (at least not to me; you might get these kind of talks every other day), but when it does, you feel

ten feet tall

like you can do anything

ready to go out and conquer the world

soooo good.

There really aren’t words to describe it that don’t sound incredibly cliché, but the feeling that someone believes–really, truly believes–in you is kind of overwhelming.  And wonderful.

And terrifying.

You leave feeling great, but also thinking, “Wow–I hope I can live up to that!”  Sometimes, years later, I want to go back and just ask, you know?  “So how did I do?  Did I turn out as great as you thought I would?

But then again, I kind of don’t…because maybe I don’t want to know the answer.

I like to call those talks the “I have big dreams for you” speech.   I vividly remember such talks from my father, in his ongoing bid to keep his teenage daughter’s ego up as she battled through high school, while we sat on the back porch of our trailer.  And one time in high school, my brother gave me such a talk while we sat across from each other at the kitchen table, his eyes full of tears and his hand clutching mine.

Because I have gone on to give such talks to various teens, I understand my brother’s emotion in the moment.  You feel like you have a vision of what this person could be, and you want so desperately for them to see that vision, to see their potential for themselves.

Usually, the “I have big dreams for you” speech is loosely organized into two parts.  Part one is, “I think you’re great, and here’s why.”  Part two is, “I think you can do great things with that.”  Sometimes one part gets more air time than the other, and there is a wide range of specificity in the delivery…but the basic concept is the same.  The overall message is:  I love you, and I’m excited to see how you are going to turn out.

If you have never received some form of the “I have big dreams for you” speech, well, then first of all, shame on your mentors.  Secondly, I have good news:  you are about to hear daddy of all “big dreams” speeches.  

And it’s for you, as a member of Christ’s church.

It’s not just from anyone, either.  I mean, don’t get me wrong, I can give some pretty good “big dreams” speeches, but let’s be real:  would you care that I think you have great potential?

Exactly.

But what if the dreamer was Paul?  Like, the guy who wrote Ephesians?  What if he thought that, as a part of the body of Christ, your potential as a human was mind-blowing?  

What if it was Paul sitting across from you at the kitchen table, with his eyes full of tears and his hand clutching yours, while he looked at you and said,

You have been “blessed…with every spiritual blessing” (Eph. 1:3).

You have been chosen “before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight” (Eph. 1:4).

You are part of a church that is Christ’s “body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” (Eph. 1:22-23).

God has “raised [you] up with Christ and seated [you] in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to [you] in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6).

You were “created in Christ to do good works, which God prepared in advance for [you] to do” (Eph. 2:10).

You are “a fellow citizen with God’s people and member of God’s household” (Eph. 2:19).

As part of the church, you “are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (Eph. 2:22).

God’s “intent was that now, through the church [like, the one you are apart of], the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms” (3:10).

“I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ,  and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (3:17-19).

God has given you gifts “to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (4:12-13).

While “speaking the truth in love, [you] will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is Christ” (4:15).

As a Christian, you have a new identity, one that is “created to be like God in true righteousness in holiness” (4:24).

Wow!  That is incredible!  Can you believe that Paul thinks that about you?

Now, you might be sitting there thinking, “This is bunk.  Paul didn’t write this to me.  He wrote this to the Ephesians.  This is bad exegesis.”  To which I will respond maturely, “Your mom is bad exegesis,” before I theorize that because of Ephesians’ impersonal nature, it is believed to be a circular letter to be sent to lots of churches*.  That would make its message much more general to all believers…which includes you, my friend:)!

So…if this isn’t bunk, what are you…scratch that, what are we to do with those words?  On the one hand, Paul’s words give me confidence.  They make me feel very equipped.  I have every spiritual blessing!  I was created with a purpose!  I am part of a big, huge, dramatic plan to show God’s power to the world!

On the other hand, I kind of think, “Wow, I hope I live up to that.”  I mean, what does it even mean to “be filled to the measure of the fullness of God” or to “attain the whole measure of the fullness of Christ”???  Whenever I try to answer that question, I just stammer incoherently for a few minutes and then fall back into silence.  So if I cannot even grasp the end goal, how the heck am I supposed to reach it?

The beauty of Paul’s letter, though, is that I don’t have to.  All of these blessings are through Christ.  All of the plans are God’s.  It is God who creates me, who transforms me, who plans my “good works.”  I just seek.  And follow.  And worship.  And then…Paul’s big dreams happen.  

Paul has big dreams for you…because God does.  God dreams as one “able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.”  And even though I can’t even grasp such dreams, my prayers are with all of us as they come to pass.

Other than from Paul, have you ever received (or given) the “I have big dreams for you” speech?  Do you find such talk inspiring or intimidating?

*see Carson and Moo.  (probably not how I should cite that)

My Kind of Materialism

In some ways, I can honestly say I am not very materialistic.  When I see huge houses or fancy cars, there is not the smallest part of me that would want one.  You could give me a huge house, but unless you also give me a maid service to clean that thing, I’m not interested!  And that’s just it:  stuff makes life more complicated, and I don’t need any extra complications in my life.  Now don’t get me wrong; it’s not like I live by spartan standards.  At the same time, though, I just don’t have an inner desire for a ton of stuff.  I don’t often think, “You know what would make this situation better?  Going out and buying something.”  Oh, and that might be a part of it, too:  I hate spending money.

It would be easy, then, to think of myself as non-materialistic.  But I’m really not.  I just have a different type of materialism:  instead of things, I like experiences.  It sounds better, doesn’t it?  When I seek experiences, I feel more like I’m embracing life instead of just amassing junk.

Here’s the thing, though:  experiences come with a price tag, too.

Case in point:  My mom spoils my kids like crazy.  It’s not always a bad thing, but during one of our visits this summer, I did talk to her about easing up on the random trips to Toys R Us with the kids.  I told her that if she wanted to spend money on them, why not take them to do something cool, rather than to buy something?  For example, what about the Georgia Aquarium?  Luke loves aquariums, and it would be a great learning opportunity for both him and Anna.  Mom readily agreed, and a few days later, we headed off for a day of fun at the aquarium.

Friends, can I tell you how much that day cost?  Now, my mom didn’t cut any corners, but let’s just say, she could have gone to Toys R Us every day for a week and not spent as much money as the aquarium cost!

Or take our experience last week during Thanksgiving break.  Luke was so excited to have three days off of school, and he was even more excited that his cousins were coming in town Wednesday morning.  When they couldn’t get on their flight, the kids were disappointed…and we suddenly had a huge, empty day in front of us.  We wanted to make the most of Luke’s vacation from school, and so we thought, “Why not go see the Muppets movie?”  The four of us hadn’t seen a movie in the theater in a long time, and Greg loved the Muppets growing up, so it seemed like a great family activity.  As a special treat, we even told the kids we’d get popcorn.

Yeah.  Bad idea.

The movie tickets cost us $34, and that was a matinee!  The popcorn was $8, and a small bottle of water was $4.75.  Holy.  Cow.  The cashier handed me my $13 popcorn-and-water combo, and asked if I wanted a receipt.  “Nope,” I said as I put my card back in my wallet, “I don’t want any record that this ever happened.”  Besides, believe me, when I go to do my budget, I’m not going to see $46.75 spent at Regal Cinemas and think, “Hmm, what was that?  Is Regal Cinemas some kind of charity I donate to?”  I will remember what that was.

While I stood at the concession counter, with my gargantuan container of popcorn and tiny bottle of water, apparently taken from the fountain of youth, I began to be afflicted with a curse that strikes me from time to time.  It is a curse I like to call, Knowing What the Bible Says.    Apparently, there is a little section of my brain that spends all of its time filing away inconvenient parts of Scripture and then spitting them back out at me at inopportune times.  Things like, “Man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires,” or,  “Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me,” or  “Among you, there must not even be a hint…”  You know what?  I’ll stop there.

Anyhow, my annoying, Bible-spitting brain chose this moment to offer up the Parable of the Talents.  You know the one:  the king gives his servants money and then comes back and judges them for how they use it.  The good servants make their money into more money,and the bad one just buries his in the ground.  We rightly interpret the message as pertaining to more than just money, but I think that money is definitely one of the resources to which it applies.  So anyway, here’s how the internal dialogue went from there:

Brain:  Parable of the Talents.  Think it over.

Me:  [Thinks]  Oh man, I’m not even burying my talent in the ground!  I’m squandering it on wild living, like the Prodigal Son!

Brain:  Hmm.  Something to think about.

Me:  Oh, come on!  I’m so sure the prodigal son spent his money on the moral equivalent of a Muppet movie.  This is family time!

Brain:  Family time for $50?  When your kids would have honestly been just as happy with renting a movie from Redbox and making some Pop Secret at home?

Me:  Going to the movies is not morally wrong.  Hush, brain.

Brain:  “From whom much is given, much is expected.”

Me:  Dang it!  I hate that verse.

This one is my brain’s trump card, and it reminds me of it regularly (again, usually at the most inopportune times).  If God’s expectations are proportional to the blessings He has given me, then, man…He expects A LOT out of me!

Anyway, I told my brain to shut it, and we went to see the movie.  It was pretty good, and we all had a pleasant enough time.  I do believe that building up your family and spending quality (and quantity) time with them is Kingdom work.  Even with that in mind, though, I’m not sure that our little movie-going experience would survive a cost-benefit analysis.  The cost was disproportionately high to the enjoyment we got out of it, especially considering the alternatives that would have been significantly cheaper and just as effective.

My movie angst, while a fascinating story in and of itself (tell me you weren’t riveted), is noteworthy because of the larger question it raised in my mind.  It is a question with which Greg and I wrestle very often:  how does God want us to use our resources?  I believe that God gives us everything we have in order to be used for His glory, and while there are no hard and fast rules precluding leisure time (have I mentioned how much I love watching movies?), I do believe that every expense we make as Christians has to be weighed in the light of eternity.  Maybe that sounds a little too deep…but I think that it’s true.  Greg and I even struggle with how much God would want us to spend on things that we know are good things–things like education for our kids or family time–when we have a sneaking suspicion that God would want us to do even better things, like helping His people who need it.  And honestly, I think that the struggle itself is good.  Maybe you are reading this and thinking that I completely overanalyzed the whole movie situation, and you might be right.  However, I tend to believe from reading the New Testament that if you are not wrestling with how you spend the resources that God has given you, then you may need to reexamine the gospel accounts.  Maybe it’s just me, but they kick my tail every time I read them!

In closing, I will share yet another quote that convicted me during the Muppets incident.  It is from C.S. Lewis, a man with whom I apparently have a passionate and tempestuous relationship (more to come, by the way).  Regarding the use of our resources for God’s kingdom, Lewis speculates:

“I do not believe that one can settle how much we ought to give.  I’m afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare.  In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little.  If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small.  There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charities expenditure excludes them.”

Based on those words, our movie experience would not have passed the Lewis test, much less the Kingdom test!

So, I guess the obvious question to end the post is,

How did you like the Muppets movie?:)

(Oh, and if you want to add something about using your resources for God’s kingdom, that’d be cool, too.)

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