God in our imperfect Christmas

Last week I took my kids to see Christmas lights at a local park. When we piled into the van everyone was happy. Ten minutes in everyone was screaming and crying. We were stuck in traffic and it would be over an hour before we would actually get to see any lights. How did a tradition that was supposed to bring us joy bring us so much frustration and sorrow?

One of the ironies of Christmas is that it is often all our effort to have a perfect Christmas that actually makes us really unhappy. We’re unhappy because we are trying too hard to be happy. It’s not just with Christmas. The harder we try to be happy the more unhappy we become.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with Christmas cheer or trying to be happy. But we need to see God in our unhappiness as much if not more than we do in our happiness. We need to worship God; not our happiness.

What are the things that are making you unhappy these days? Is it your work? Your marriage? Your children? Your politics? Your in-laws? Your social life? Your finances? The real problem is not your unhappiness; it is the fact that you can’t see God in your unhappiness. Somewhere you stopped being a person deeply loved by God who happened to have marriage problems and you became someone with marriage problems who happened to be loved by God. The change was subtle. It is not as if you stopped believing in God or even stopped believing in the gospel. The gospel just stopped mattering as much to you as it once did. The gospel was not enough.

Over 2000 years ago, Joseph received the crushing news that Mary, his betrothed, was pregnant. He knew that he was not the father so it could only mean one thing. She had cheated on him. Imagine his hurt and his shame. He thought he knew her. He thought she loved and respected him. He had trusted her. There was no way he could trust her again. He could have forgiven her and gone through with the marriage, but the pain was too deep. He decided to divorce her.

In ancient Israel a marriage engagement was just marriage without the marriage bed. Joseph and Mary’s engagement would have looked a lot like a wedding ceremony. Joseph didn’t propose in some quiet romantic place filled with personal meaning. He proposed before their friends and family as witnesses and signed a marriage license. The only way to break off the engagement would be by filing for divorce. When cheating was involved it was customary to make the divorce very public, like the adulterous woman in John 8 who was brought out before the whole town to receive her punishment. Joseph decided not to do that. He decided to have a quite private divorce.

Joseph’s honor must have made the divorce all the more painful. Joseph was not wealthy, or educated, or influential, but he was honorable. He knew right from wrong. He treated others as he would want to be treated. All his hopes for a good marriage were being crushed. He didn’t ask for this baby. But somehow God would use this same baby, the symbol of everything that was going wrong in Joseph’s life, to make everything go right.

One night an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream. Matthew uses an important Greek word translated, “behold.” Today it might be translated, “whoa.” The angel told him, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:20-21)

The gospel was literally impregnated in Joseph’s fiancé. Joseph never asked for this baby. He never could. How could Joseph ask God to come down into the womb of Mary? How could Joseph ask God to become one of us? How could Joseph ask God to go through everything we go through? How could Joseph ask God to become our substitute? How could Joseph ask God to die on a cross? There is no way Joseph could have asked for this. There is no way we could have asked for this. But God gave it. God looked down at all our sin and brokenness, everything that makes us sad, everything that harms us, everything that leads to death, and instead of turning away God got closer. He came down as close as He possibly could to live among us.

In the midst of the crushing loss and shame of divorce God impregnated Joseph with hope. On the outside nothing changed. Mary was still pregnant. The scandal surrounding her pregnancy would linger. Jesus was often referred to in public as Mary’s child instead of Joseph’s child (Mark 6:3). Not everyone bought the story that the Holy Spirit had overshadowed Mary’s womb to conceive the Son of God. But none of that mattered anymore. Joseph knew God was with him.

The gospel impregnates us, taking us somewhere none of us would choose, to show us that life could be so much better than we ever dreamed.

Not everything will go our way in this life. We will not be the people we want to be. People will not be the way we want them to be. Christmas, like our life, is imperfect and it’s ok because God is with us in our sins, our pain, and our failures.

 

7 Lessons from Lance Armstrong, Barry Bonds, and Roger Clemens

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Lance Armstrong, Barry Bonds, and Roger Clemens are back in the news. Now that the allegations of using performance enhancing drugs is old news, the media is buzzing with debate about their legacy. How should we remember their accomplishments? Is there a possibility for redemption or forgiveness at this point? What can we learn from this era? Here are seven lessons that I have learned:

1. Winning is not everything.

In the end, we want success to mean something. We want to be able to say that winners are successful because they deserve it. When that trust is violated, the experience of winning itself is cheapened and lost.

2. No hero is heroic all the time.

We want to believe in the possibility of heroism. So we lionize our heroes. We make them into saints. We rationalize away their flaws. The truth is that no one can live up to their reputation, good or bad. No victory is completely pure. There is no such thing as a truly level playing field. As Malcolm Gladwell shows us so convincingly in his book Outliers, there are always a host of factors outside anyone’s control when a person experiences success.

3. No cheater cheats all the time.

The words sociopath, arrogant, and cheater come up over and over again whenever the legacy of Armstrong, Bonds, and Clemens is debated. But no cheater cheats all the time. Yes, some people cheat more than others. But even the worst cheaters understand that life cannot be sustained through cheating. There needs to be some honesty somewhere. Somewhere, there needs to be trust. Labeling these people as cheaters may give us the moral distance to judge them, but the truth is that they are probably a lot more like us than we’d like to admit.

4. Shrines are by nature, unforgiving.

When an athlete is inducted to the Hall of Fame we say that they have been “enshrined.” You can argue that the Hall is just a museum, but the fact remains that there is something reverential about the place.

They don’t admit mediocre players into the Baseball Hall of Fame because the Hall represents pure baseball excellence. The Tour de France is supposed to represent pure cycling excellence. Shrines are by nature unforgiving.

At it’s essence, the debate over how we should remember our athletic heroes from the PED era is about the possibility of offering forgiveness in an unforgiving institution.

5. True forgiveness is undeserved.

Who has the right to forgive our athletic heroes? What does forgiveness look like? Is it the chance to compete again? Is it the chance to redeem themselves on some other stage? Is it a qualified admittance into the hallowed shrine of their chosen sport? Is it popular support?

Lost in our musings is the reality that true forgiveness is always undeserved. The moment you say, “I deserve another chance” you are no longer looking for forgiveness but recognition. Someone seeking true forgiveness is not defiant or defensive but transparent, humble, and penitent.

6. Redemption is a better story than recognition.

One of the interesting storylines in Lance Armstrong’s fall is how some of his Livestrong supporters continue to stand by him (not his organization but the people who wear his yellow bracelet). There was nothing dishonest about his victory over cancer. Armstrong didn’t conspire to deny, mask, or hide his cancer. He admitted his sickness and fought it. He came back from cancer. He was not supposed to survive, but he did. Lance Armstrong would not be Lance Armstrong without his cancer. He gave hope to legions of people hoping to survive cancer – people hoping for redemption.

7. The only hero who deserves a place in the shrine gave it up for us.

None of us can have it all. None of us are as good as we look. None of us are as bad as we look. None of us deserve to enter any shrine. All of us want forgiveness. All of us want redemption.

Winning is not everything.

This is what makes Jesus such a compelling person. He is the one person who doesn’t need forgiveness. He is the one person who belongs in the true and eternal shrine – heaven. He is the archetypal hero. Yet His greatest accomplishment is not making it in the shrine, but giving up the shrine, being crucified, and rising from the grave to open the shrine to undeserving sinners. When our sins are exposed, Jesus offers us forgiveness in an unforgiving institution by crying out, don’t crucify them, crucify me! He is the only hero we can safely worship.

Should Christians Celebrate Halloween?

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Halloween can be a polarizing time of year for Christians. Some Christians believe that Halloween is inherently evil while others believe that it is harmless. Some churches prohibit their members from celebrating Halloween, some churches offer fun Halloween night alternatives (Reformation Nights, Fall Festivals, etc.), some churches encourage their members to “redeem” Halloween.

What is a Christian to do? Should you dress up? Should you give out candy? Should you go trick or treating with your children?

Well let me tip my hand by stating that we do not offer a Halloween alternative at New Life. We don’t tell our members to “redeem” Halloween either. We believe the question that should dominate every Christian’s heart and mind during this season is not “Should I celebrate Halloween?” but “How can I love God and neighbor?” Christians have the liberty to love God and neighbor by celebrating Halloween or without celebrating Halloween. This is not an ethical question. It is a question of conscience.

Biblical Principles

1. Halloween is no more inherently evil than Christmas.

Paul’s instructions to the Christians in first century Corinth is very instructive:

“Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘an idol has no real existence,’ and that ‘there is no God but one.’ For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth – as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’ – yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” (1 Corinthians 8:4-6)

If you bought food at the public market during the first century, there was a good chance that it had been offered at a pagan temple to some pagan deity. Some Christians believed it was evil to eat food that had been offered to idols. Others believed eating food that had been offered to idols was harmless. The church in Corinth was divided.

Paul told the Corinthians that there is nothing inherently evil about food offered to idols. Christians could eat food from the public markets with a clear conscience. Why? Because the false gods represented by the local idols don’t really exist!

Paul didn’t tell the Christians at Corinth to “redeem” the food. He just told them that they could eat it with a clear conscience. There is no “holy” food or “unholy” food. There is just food, and all food comes from God.

Is Halloween a pagan holiday that needs to be avoided? Is it a medieval Christian holiday (“All Saints Eve” or “All Hallows Eve”) that should be redeemed? History suggests Halloween has roots in both paganism and medieval Christianity. However, the Bible suggests that it is neither pagan (since there are no real pagan gods) nor Christian.

In this sense, Halloween is no more evil than Christmas or Easter. Christmas and Easter also have roots in paganism and medieval Christianity. The Bible  never commands us to celebrate “All Hallows Eve,” “All Saints Day,” or even Christmas or Easter for that matter. The only day that the Bible commands us to celebrate is the Lord’s Day (Sunday).

As long as you are not worshipping Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, or Samhain, there is nothing wrong with celebrating Christmas, Easter, or Halloween. You can enjoy these holidays the way you would savor a good meal made with ingredients once offered to idols.

2. Don’t violate your conscience.

“However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.” (1 Corinthians 8:7)

Paul recognizes that some Christians might still feel guilty eating food that’s been offered to idols. In this case, Paul says Christians should not go against their conscience. Your conscience comes from your desire to do what is right. When you go against your conscience, you train yourself to ignore your desire to do right. You train yourself to not care about right or wrong. You train yourself to not care about God. It is never a good idea to go against your conscience.

3. Don’t judge people who celebrate Halloween.

“Food will not commend us to God.” (1 Corinthians 8:8a)

Paul is not a legalist. If you feel guilty about eating food offered to idols you shouldn’t do it. But you need to realize that avoiding that food does not make you more mature in your faith, more obedient to God, or more loved by God. In fact, it means you have a weak conscience (1 Corinthians 8:7). Therefore, anyone who makes the tough decision to avoid food offered to idols should be humble about their decision.

It may be difficult to explain to your kids that they can’t go trick or treating when other kids in the neighborhood (or even in your church) get to go trick or treating. It is so much easier to tell them that you are right and they are wrong. But don’t pass judgment on others. You are not making an ethical decision. You are making a decision of conscience.

4. Don’t judge people who won’t celebrate Halloween.

“We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” (1 Corinthians 8:8b-9)

It is also easy to look down on people who aren’t celebrating Halloween. You have the freedom to celebrate Halloween, but your Christian liberty does not make you better. You need to be humble. You should not look down on people with sensitive consciences. You should not try to pressure them to celebrate Halloween with you. If you have the freedom to celebrate Halloween, they have the freedom not to celebrate Halloween. Do whatever you can to encourage them.

What should you do this Halloween?

1. Whatever you do, make sure you are driven by love not fear.

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” (1 John 4:18)

Christian obedience is not motivated by fear; it is motivated by love. Remember that your identity is in Christ. When y0u think about how you want to spend Halloween, start with the truth that you are richly loved by God. Then figure out how you can love him back!

2. Consider how you can love your neighbors.

Once a year, your neighbors invite you and everyone else in the neighborhood to knock on their doors. This is a really great opportunity to get to know your neighbors. One the biggest reasons I take my kids trick or treating and pass out candy at my home is so we can get to know our neighbors better.

If you choose not to celebrate Halloween, consider staying home to pass out candy. Or leave a bowl of candy out while you go to your Halloween night alternative at church.

3. Whatever you do, have fun!

Let the thought of loving God and loving your neighbors dominate your heart and mind. He has saved you from your sins. Neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord! (Romans 8:38-39)

Whether you celebrate Halloween, go to a Halloween alternative, or stay in and watch a movie, have fun and glorify Jesus! Don’t hole yourself in your house with the lights out. Fall is a beautiful time of year. Enjoy what God has given you in creation and redemption, and consider how you can share that joy with others!

A Christian Halloween Poem

This great video captures how Christians can celebrate the silliness of Halloween and glorify Jesus!

http://vimeo.com/75045602

New Year Absolution

It is the season of resolutions. As we look back on the past year and look forward into the next year we think of ways to improve ourselves. We resolve to be better – to look better, feel better, work better, love better, play better, believe better. Beneath all our resolutions, whether they concern our health, appearance, ability, or even religious devotion, is a profound belief that we are not good enough – we need to be better.

Some of our resolutions are very attainable – go to gym 3 times a week, read 6 new books this year, pay off my credit cards, quit smoking, travel outside the U.S., read the Bible from cover to cover. But just because a resolution is attainable doesn’t make it attainable. Most of us don’t keep our resolutions. More importantly, even when we attain them, we don’t attain them. Keeping a resolution may give us a sense of accomplishment. But deep down we know we are not really better people. At the end of the year there are more resolutions to make.

We could all benefit from learning to celebrate the New Year the way the ancient Hebrews did. In the Hebrew calendar New Years is a month long celebration. It begins with Rosh Hashanah (the first day of the seventh month), continues into the Day of Atonement (tenth day of the seventh month), and culminates in the Feast of Booths (fifteenth day of the seventh month). Each day centers around the theme of absolution.

Rosh Hashanah (also known as the Feast of Trumpets) is a “solemn day of rest” (Leviticus 23:24). On this day it didn’t matter if you were successful or struggling. It didn’t matter if you were holy or unholy. It didn’t even matter if you were a foreigner who followed a different religion. Everyone rested. This day was a break from the day to day routine of to-do lists, grades, performance reviews, and profit margins that drive us. On this day everyone stopped thinking about what they had accomplished or what they needed to accomplish to reflect on what God had accomplished. It was a day to gather to worship the Redeemer God who loved them unconditionally. We could all benefit from taking a break this New Years to reflect on all God has accomplished in history and in our lives.

The Day of Atonement (also known as Yom Kippur) was literally a day of absolution (Leviticus 16). This was the most important part of the Hebrew New Year. On this day the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle (later the Temple) to make atonement for the sins of the people. In the first days of the New Year, absolution not resolution would inspire and strengthen the people of God. What drove them was not the hope of becoming better; but the hope of forgiveness. They didn’t occupy their minds with promises but confessions. This was a day of repentance and grace. We could all benefit from taking time to confess our sins to God and to people we’ve wronged this New Years. God is quick to forgive.

The Feast of Booths was a time to remember that we are on a pilgrimage. For seven days people lived in tents, just like their forebears who traveled through the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. The first and last days of the week were devoted to Sabbath rest. This feast was a reminder that none of us have arrived. Yet it was also the promise that all who believe in their gracious Covenant God would arrive one day in the true Promised Land. We could all benefit from taking time to remember that the best this life has to offer is no better than the tents the ancient Hebrews lived in during their wilderness travels. We could benefit from taking time to long for heaven.

All the ancient Hebrews hoped for in the Jewish New Year has been fulfilled in Christ.

And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. (Hebrews 10:11-14)

Absolution, not resolution. More than anything else we need absolution for the New Year. God is glad to give it. He delivered up His only begotten Son to absolve us of all our guilt and failure. Take time this New Year to rest in the mercies of God. Take time to confess your sins and thank God for forgiveness. Take time to long for heaven. Write down the New Years Absolutions which are most precious to you. And begin your New Year knowing that you are deeply loved by your Savior.