Have Yourself a Mature Christmas

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Merry Christmas!

I know you’re accustomed to a video on Mondays, however this week is going to be a little different. (However, I did include a slideshow for you!) It is Christmas time after all. :) A time when all schedules melt like snow off mittens by the fire. A time when best-laid plans morph into better endings through the course of multiple alterations. Do you know what I mean?

I’m typing this post from the study in my sister, Kelsey’s, house. For the moment, her little ones are napping and Kelsey, too, is recuperating from our many Christmas-induced outings to see lights, Santa, the mall, a “Walk to Bethlehem” at a local church and more. So, I’ve sequestered myself and am doing my best to be quiet, which is oddly challenging even for a “mature” adult.

But that’s what we’ve been discussing lately, right? Maturity.

My new Bible study, Beyond Belief: Jesus Saved You, Now What? is due out on June 2, 2015, and though the manuscript is complete, I’m still gathering thoughts and taking notes on what spiritual maturity looks like, how it acts in a variety of social situations and truly, who can claim to have it.

No doubt, the bustle of the holidays has the potential to bring out the most immature side of people. Just read the Black Friday headlines and you’ll recall what I mean. (Or take a peak: Mall Riots, Walmart Riots)

And then of course, there are the arguments about whether to stay at the in-laws, in a hotel or just not to visit at all. There are the squabbles over new toys and tears over the wrong ones.

Those are minor examples, but what about the deep-seated issues, the traditions and even convictions that we hold close?Tempers and immature behavior can erupt, even among Christians, over disagreements about how Christmas is celebrated or observed.These thoughts bring to mind Paul’s words in Colossians 2:16-17:

“So don’t let anyone condemn you for what you eat or drink, or for not celebrating certain holy days or new moon ceremonies or Sabbaths. For these rules are only shadows of the reality yet to come. And Christ himself is that reality.”

There are absolutely, no doubt, solid-as-a-rock, nonnegotiables in the Christian faith. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that Christianity is the most exclusive faith there is. No, no one is excluded by virtue of race, gender, age or any other variable known to man. The exclusivity is in Christ and Christ alone. He is the exclusive way to the Father and eternal life. And that truth starts in a stable.

We must stand firm, without wavering on the truth espoused in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,”.

And again, the Gospel began in a stable. We must guard, with all diligence the truth of Christ’s birth, life, death and resurrection.

BUT, or perhaps I should say and, because this is not a contradiction, but rather a continuation, the overflow of our conviction concerning Jesus:

When it comes to tradition and preferences, whether it’s okay to sing “Frosty the Snowman” or only “Silent Night”, whether it’s okay to put cookies out for Santa Clause or if that will warp our children’s ability to discern fact from truth for the rest of their lives–Christians must respond with maturity.

Does it really matter if Jesus was actually born in December?

Does it matter if there were 3 wise men or 15?

Does it matter?

Does it matter if the whole family is together on Christmas morning or not? Really?

That’s what mature Christians must ask themselves before they take a stand. Does it matter?

The answer is decidedly yes on one thing: “Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice.'” John 18:37

“The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” 1 Timothy 1:15

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How Christmas Can Tear You Away From Christ

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christmas-gifts-2-1121740-mThere is a widening fissure between the modern American Christmas and biblical theology.
And while I agree with the movement to “put Christ back in Christmas”, that’s not what I’m getting at. I am concerned with the fundamental distortion of grace played out in gift giving.

Most of us can define the word “gift” easy enough. Dictionary.com puts it like this: “something bestowed or acquired without any particular effort by the recipient or without its being earned.” Biblically, this is described in Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Our salvation, our righteousness is a free gift—unearned—to us from God the Father through Jesus.

The first problem arises with good old Saint Nick. At the beginning of December, or perhaps depending on the amount of leverage needed to coerce good behavior, we begin telling our children that the only way Santa will favor their stocking is if they are good.

But wait a minute, I thought Santa was bringing gifts! When did this become remuneration?

The misconception continues far beyond the Santa myth of childhood. We bribe our teenagers with better Christmas gifts if they get good grades, abide by curfew or don’t gripe about their chores.

Now, I’m not suggesting we do away with all the festive manipulation, but perhaps we need to change our vocabulary. If a gift is necessarily free and unearned, then we must term our holiday exchanges as just that—exchanges—good gifts for good behavior.

Moving on from all that, and assuming we’ve glibly acknowledged the truth but will most likely continue wrapping up “gifts” to place under the tree, let’s consider for a moment the equality and fairness of such a thing.

I remember as a kid overhearing my parents and grandparents discuss the ideas they had for my sisters and me. There were always careful calculations to ensure absolute fairness. If my presents cost $50, then by all means they must find enough things for my sister to make sure the same amount is spent on each child. I think once or twice this became such a challenge that they simply purchased gift cards of equal amounts and told us to pick our own presents.

Dictionary.com doesn’t have much to say about the fairness phenomenon, but Jesus did. In Matthew 20, he told a story about a land owner who sent workers into his vineyard. Throughout the day he hired more laborers, but at the end of the day, he paid them all equally, regardless of the number of hours each worked. I love how he concludes the story:

“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’” (Matt. 20:13-15)

In this case, the owner was paying wages for services. To the workers he first hired, he paid the agreed upon wage—they earned every cent. But, to the last ones hired, he paid them what they earned and included a gift—money they had not earned. The master administered justice to the first group and grace to the second group. Neither received injustice.

When we tell our children that we buy them gifts for Christmas and at the same time tell them they must be good, subconsciously but not so subtly, we are teaching them that gifts must be earned. If then we say the “gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord”—does that mean they must earn His favor too?

When we play tit-for-tat at Christmas, what does that do to generosity? What does that teach our children that a gift really is?

This mentality is not something we can simply nod our heads about and resolve to do things a bit differently next year. By blurring the lines between gifts and wages, generosity and fairness, justice and mercy, we make it infinitely harder for our children to understand the sovereign, merciful, holy justice of God. If we aren’t careful, our distorted Christmas theology can lead our kids right into the arms of a works-based salvation and a universalist perspective of redemption.

Where’s Waldo in the Land of ED?

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[This was initially written for a non-profit publication ministering to girls with eating disorders in the UK. I wrote it very early this year as they promoted Eating Disorder Awareness Month.
While we’re headed into the holidays and February 2015 seems a million years away, those who deal with eating disorders find this time of year particularly agonizing. I hope this increases your alertness during this emotionally-charged season. Without going on a “witch hunt” pay compassionate attention to the young girls in your life and be willing and ready to help them if you see them struggling with food and body image issues.]

Remember that game we used play—Where’s Waldo? In a sea of colors and confusion, one nerdy little guy hides. But he’s just doing what everyone else is doing. His disguise is ordinary, his activities similar to the crowd’s. But he’s still so hard to find!

How much harder would it be if you didn’t know that Waldo always wears a red and white striped shirt? The search would take so much longer if you didn’t know about his blue jeans and signature glasses.

February is Eating Disorder Awareness Month and the theme for 2014 is/was “I Had No Idea”.

It’s a common lament among the loved ones of those dealing with eating disorders. I think the difficulty in recognizing eating disorders quickly enough to treat them effectively is two-fold.

First, many people don’t know what an eating disorder looks like. And if they do recognize the symptoms, they are often afraid to acknowledge them.

But the second reason is more insidious. Sadly, eating disorders are becoming so prevalent that they’re difficult to spot. A lesser-known category of eating disorders is called Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS). It’s as if everyone in Waldo’s picture were wearing a red and white striped shirt, or as if all the tiny characters wore glasses.

But here is where the example breaks down. We cannot go peering into every person’s pantry, spying on their exercise habits or telling them to smash their scale. Unlike Waldo, the point is not to hold everyone in suspicion. It’s not fair to assume that everyone with a dietary restriction, or exceptionally large appetite is anorexic or suffers from binge eating disorder, respectively. Not everyone who gets sick after dinner is bulimic.

The solution to avoid the sad, too late, “I had no idea” is to be educated about the symptoms of eating disorders, to be involved in the lives of loved ones and to be assertive enough to speak up when we notice a problem. And perhaps to change our “clothes” so eating disorders can’t blend in so easily.

Truthfully, I believe there are many, many eating disordered individuals that slip by unnoticed because more and more people are engaging in eating disordered behaviors long before they exhibit the dramatic health consequences. Our culture as a whole, not only accepts but encourages food fears, extreme exercise, fad diets, dangerous weight-loss pills, and stoic self-discipline.

How many headlines did you count at the supermarket yesterday proclaiming the virtues of a new weight-loss trend? Just last month, how many of your conversations with friends centered around your intent to “get skinny” in 2014? We want to wear “skinny” jeans, not just jeans that fit well. Our special diets makes us feel unique and strong. We applaud people who run 12 marathons a year, and brag about getting up at 4 a.m. to squeeze in an “insane” workout.

Speaking for myself, “I had no idea” about my eating disorder for a good while. And even once it had been identified by doctors and my parents, it was difficult for me to see my behaviors as dangerous. After all, many people marveled and praised me for my commitment to working out. Others told me that they envied my self-control around food. A few even said, “I wish I could be anorexic for a day.”

These are the trends that blur the lines. These are the habits and conversations that dress eating disorders up in innocuous clothing and let them walk unhindered down the street, or sleep innocently in your daughter’s bedroom down the hall. Maybe, an eating disorder even lurks in your bathroom, huddled near the scale. You know, the one that tells you details about your body composition that you don’t even understand? That’s another trend—not only are we obsessed with a low weight, but now that weight must be composed of just the right percentages of fat, water and muscle mass.

Where does it stop? How can we clear the image, sweep away the confusion and rightly recognize disordered eating in ourselves and loved ones before it’s too late?

We need to “change our clothes”. Not literally, but in the way that Waldo’s peers might. If a few more of us dropped our eating disordered behaviors and quit acting like this obsession with bodies and food was normal, perhaps the real problems would stand out.

Our Star Spangled History

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Are you ready for fireworks? What will you be thinking about while you twirl your sparklers or cover your eyes against the deafening “boom!”? What will you talk about while you sit in lawn chairs on the evening of the Fourth of July and taste homemade ice cream and watch the city’s fireworks display?

I made wonderful memories on those summer nights, many sticky-hot Fourth of Julys. Sometimes, when my sisters and I went to bed, we could still hear the neighbors setting of their fireworks and occasionally a really big one would light up our windows and keep us awake.

Now, think of the loudest, brightest firework you’ve ever seen and multiply it by millions. Then, you might begin to be able to imagine what Francis Scott Key saw the night he wrote our nation’s national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner.

It was during The War of 1812, when many brave men were fighting for America’s freedom from Great Britain. On the night of September 3, 1814, Mr. Key and another gentleman named, John Skinner, courageously boarded an enemy ship to try and convince the British to release another friend of theirs, a doctor by the name of William Beanes. While they were on board the enemy ship, Mr. Key and Mr. Skinner overheard the British’s battle plans to attack Baltimore. To keep them from warning the Americans, the British forced Key and Skinner to stay onboard until after the battle.

That night, Francis Scott Key stood on the deck of the enemy’s ship and watched as they bombed Fort McHenry which protected Baltimore’s harbor. As darkness fell, he could just barely make out the outline of the flag still flying proudly over Fort McHenry. As long as the flag flew, he knew that the Americans had not surrendered.

For 12 hours, the battle raged and the small American fort held its ground. In the middle of the night, bombs lit up the sky and rockets flashed through the air. Finally, before daylight, the bombing stopped. It was strangely quiet, and Mr. Key couldn’t see if Fort McHenry had been captured or survived.

Suddenly, very early in the morning, the mist cleared away and Mr. Key caught a glimpse of the red, white and blue flag still flying proudly over Fort McHenry. He was so excited, he felt like singing! Quickly, Mr. Key dug a piece of paper from his pocket; it was an unfinished letter. He began to scribble down a poem on the back of his paper.

Several days later, on September 16, Mr. Key, Mr. Skinner and their doctor friend were released. Safe in a hotel that night, Francis Scott Key finished writing the words to The Star Spangled Banner.

The poem was a hit and quickly put the tune of a familiar song. It was sung in many places and gained popularity, but it wasn’t until March 3, 1931, 117 years later, that President Herbert Hoover declared The Star Spangled Banner to be the official national anthem.

Most people know the words to the first verse of The Star Spangled Banner. And most people also know that our country was founded on biblical principles and the desire for every person to have the freedom to worship God as they wanted to. But very few people have heard, or remember the words to Francis Scott Key’s fourth verse. It is a beautiful poem that reminds us that God is the giver of freedom, our protector and the one in whom we place our trust.
“O thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war’s desolation.
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the Heav’n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!”

To read all four verses of The Star Spangled Banner and read some more history, click here.

Easter is for Remembering

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communion-1-941675-mHow do you remember something? Do you tie a string around your finger? Make a note? Write it on your bathroom mirror or say it out loud to yourself over and over?

Just moments ago I folded up an eight-page letter that my grandparents wrote to me almost 25 years ago. I found it when I was going through my parents’ basement. I was helping them prepare to move, so we opened dozens of boxes that had been tucked away for years. As we opened each box and unwrapped the contents, it felt like Christmas discovering old toys, out-grown dresses and dusty photo albums. I was a little sad as we separated out many things to give away, but it was also a precious time of reliving special memories.

As Easter draws closer, it’s important to remember what it’s really about—remembering.

You’re heard of The Last Supper, right? It was the last dinner Jesus shared with His disciples before His death and resurrection. You’ve also probably heard of Passover. But did you know that they are related? Did you know that the Last Supper and Passover are memorials?

Just like my grandparents’ letter helps me to remember them, and just like the boxes in my parents’ basement bring special memories to mind, these two meals were given by God to help us remember.

The Israelites had been slaves in Egypt for almost 400 years. After a series of plagues designed to force Pharaoh to free His people, God sent one final punishment. In order to separate out His people, to mark them and keep them safe as those who believed in the One True God, the Israelites killed a lamb and painted their door frames with its blood. Then, they ate their final meal in Egypt quietly inside their homes. That meal consisted of the lamb, unleavened bread and bitter herbs. That final meal became a feast that the Israelites celebrated every year called The Passover.

Exodus 12:25b-27 says, “When you enter the land the LORD has promised to give you, you will continue to observe [Passover]. Then your children will ask, ‘What does this ceremony mean?’ And you will reply, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the LORD, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt. And though he struck the Egyptians, he spared our families.’”

Centuries later, in a quiet, upstairs room, Jesus and his disciples sat down to eat the Passover meal together and remember how God freed the Israelites. But, as Jesus broke the bread and poured the wine, He told the disciples something new:

“…and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’”
(1 Corinthians 11:24-25)

Jesus still wanted the Passover to help them remember, but now He wanted them, and us, to remember something different. When Jesus died on the cross for our sins, He became our Passover Lamb. Because He died, God now “passes over” us; He forgives us and we don’t have to pay for our sins. Those who do not believe in Jesus, just like the Egyptians did not believe in The One True God, will not be passed over and they will face punishment for their sins.

This Easter, when you sit down to a special meal, stop for just a minute. Bow your head and remember what Jesus did for you, for me and for everyone who believes in Him.