Friday, December 18, 2015

Advent: A Time of Joy

Of course it is! The song says so: "Joy to the world!" Everybody has to be happy, right? Look around. Do those people in the "Black Friday at Walmart" videos look happy? How about the UPS driver? How happy does she look? Or the old man sitting alone at the bus stop? Or the homeless mother living in a shelter with her three children? Or the girl who is celebrating her first Christmas without her dad? Well, may I suggest Christmas is not merely an opportunity for those eager to line the churches, to celebrate the birth of Christ. Christmas is a time for those who do not know who this Child is, who do not have a real relationship with Him, to catch a glimpse of what it means to be in a deep, committed relationship with Him and experience the joy it brings. And the perfect way for that to happen is for those of us who do know Him to take our joy to the streets.

I was blessed to have been raised in the church. Church has always been my "Default." I could always tell when I was out of step with the Lord. I'd cry. I'd beg. You may have done some of this yourself: "Lord, if You'd just clean up this mess..." Only to turn right back around and make another mess as soon as I felt it was "safe." Now, I do not mean that's the way this all works -- far from it; but I accepted the existence of God like I accepted my natural inclination for trouble -- both were part of me; equal and at war. To "fall back on" Jesus was to be at home: restful, warm and comfortable -- like PJs. To get into trouble was natural: normal, easy, common -- like my skin. At times I'd cry, wanting to "go home," wishing I would die: the struggle to be good was too difficult. I hated waking up each day knowing what a failure I had been yesterday and what a failure I was going to be today. There is no joy in the "religious" life.

It wasn't until God allowed me to be "brought low," with a lot of time on my hands; I began to search the Scriptures, trying to find out what was so great about God, or being His child. I didn't realize it, but I was looking for my "want to." Why would I want to obey? Why would I want to love others? I found my "want to." I found it in the disobedience of two children in a garden, and the promise their Father made that He would fix it. Because He loved me so. I found it in the sorrow of two widows, and the God who rewarded their faithfulness throughout history. Because He loved me so. I found it in a train wreck of a woman whose shame had left her aloof and cynical; she met a Savior who was not surprised or repulsed by her past, but longed to reveal to her a future. Because He loved me so. And I found it in a Babe sent to die that I might live, because He loved me so. God's kindness had drawn me to repentance, just as His Word says. I had done nothing, I could do nothing to warrant that kind of love. He asked only that I yield to it and trust Him. I will never fully grasp that kind of love: not the love I find in the pages of the Bible; not His love that I find in the moments of my day. But I do know that is why I "want to." I want to obey. I want to love others. I want to worship at His throne and live each day to bring glory to His great name. I want to point others to Jesus.

And what better time of the year to show others that joy comes not from pretending to like those gathered 'round our tables. Joy comes not from feeling obligated to give because they gave last year; not from painting on the fake smile and heading out to the living nativity; not from begrudgingly dropping your change in the bucket hanging before that smiling bell ringer. Joy comes because Jesus is our "want to." And it is at Christmas we celebrate the night when Joy came to the world!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Advent: Time for the Loosening of Tongues!

"But the angel said to him, 'Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son...'" Luke 1:13

"And Mary said: 'My soul magnifies the Lord, And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. For He who is mighty has done great things for me, And holy is His name.'" Luke 1:46-47,49

"So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, 'Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.' And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger.  Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child." Luke 2:15-17

Last year I was left speechless -- no, really. I had surgery which left my vocal cords damaged. Within the confines of my hospital room, surrounded by people who understood my situation, it was "no big deal." In a noisy world where chatting online with the insurance rep only gets you so far and does nothing to relieve the frustration your feeling at having your benefits erroneously canceled, it became a big deal very quickly. Try placing your drive-thru order in a "library voice." When I did try to speak, people would beg me to stop. "Don't hurt yourself!" (It didn't hurt.) "Don't get so upset." (I wasn't.) I hated being patronized. In a world where texting, blogging and social media are such an enormous part of our lives; where people with disabilities are making headlines and legislation recognizing their needs improves everyday, you would think there'd be a little more room for someone with a vocal impairment. But speech is -- even in the twenty-first century -- much more important than we may realize. 

Saint Francis of Assisi is often (mis)credited with saying: "Preach Jesus, and if necessary, use words." If I was going through the toll booth behind you, and was informed by the toll taker that you had just paid my fare, I would think you were a nice person. If I was watching you help an elderly lady with her groceries, I would think your momma raised you right. Point is, how -- unless you spoke of God's love -- would I know that any of these acts was an outward expression of the change the Gospel has made within your heart? Now, words can come cheap if actions do not lend their support; but unless we define for those to whom we demonstrate the Gospel, exactly what our actions mean, they can appear to have their root in all sorts of good things -- not Our Good Father.

If Zacharias and Elizabeth had begin to notice a change in Elizabeth's physique, or Elizabeth had suddenly developed a craving for chocolate covered gefilte fish, don't you think they would have figured out what was going on? Did the angel really have to make an appearance to tell Zacharias? Elizabeth knew Mary's child was of the Lord; even the baby in her womb knew it. Did Mary need to "get her praise on" right then and there? I'm sure it was much louder than her "library voice." And those ignoble, unclean -- by multiple definitions -- shepherds... They made widely known what they knew of this Child. No Facebook. Not even Morse code. (Hey, lighten up -- my grandmother told me about it.) As they moved about with their flocks they told anyone who'd stand still long enough!

But in the midst of all this talking we find the account of Zacharias' disbelief; it had rendered him dumb. Unable to speak until when? Until credit was humbly restored to Whom credit was due. Until he proclaimed, that which the angel had foretold had come to pass: the time was right, the way was prepared for the arrival of Messiah.

Advent is a time to prepare our hearts; to stop and reflect on a God so mighty He controls the wind and waves, but so gentle and loving He would send His Son to Earth as a helpless, vulnerable babe, that we might be reconciled to Him. Advent is a time to lift our voices in praise, and proclaim His goodness to all. Preach Jesus; let your actions defend your words!

Monday, December 14, 2015

Advent: A Time of Obedience

"And it came to pass in those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.  This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria.  So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city." (Luke 2:1-3)
Consider the soldier leaving his home and family to lay down his life in battle, to defend his county's borders, to protect the rights of those who will spit on him when -- if -- he returns home; to protect the legal rights of those to burn the very flag he is willing to forsake everything to defend. How about to protect the rights of a corrupt government who supplies rebel forces in other countries with arms in order to overthrow governments from the inside, looting the spoils of espionage and extinguished innocent lives? Or to protect the rights of a government that has completely exploited its people and abandoned the ideals upon which it was founded, with the intent of further lining the pockets and advancing the agendas of one percent of its population, and enslaving the weaker ninety-nine? Consider the average citizen's willingness to obey the law or surrender his rights to life under such circumstances.

The reign of Caesar Augustus, under which Jesus was born, was one of dictatorship rooted in the soil of dominance. The Pax Romana ("Roman Peace") for which Augustus was known, was established by putting down through violence anyone who opposed the emperor's decrees or "divine" authority. Had Joseph refused to embark on the arduous trek to his ancestral town, had he argued the journey would be too much for the expectant Mary, it would not have bode well for him.

This is why I find it incredible the story with which we are so familiar -- almost to the point of eye rolling and distraction -- begins with a cruel, oppressive, sacrilegious, and corrupt government, once again forcing its unreasonable demands on  its subjects for the sake of prospering itself and a select, favored few. God used such a time to bring about a miracle, the Way to salvation and eternal life! All it required from humanity was a few obedient "unknowns." Years later, when Paul was to ask God to remove the burden which afflicted him, the Holy Spirit would assure him, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." (2 Cor. 12:9) The Almighty God is masterful at gaining victory through unlikely means.

In today's current international and national climate, when we are tempted not to obey, we must remember that God is not governed by the limitations that govern us. Authorities were established by God; it is He who sets the limits on those who govern us in this world! And He can do great work and give to us a blessing, when His people are obedient -- open, willing, faithful, and unmoved by the natural. Advent is a time when the most miraculous, unbelievable event occurred, in the midst of a most unreceptive, unconducive political climate, using the obedience of a few unremarkable, underprivileged people. Let us never be discouraged by what we see on the news, read from the skeptics, fear in the darkness of night, or hear from the enemy who would see us in chains. Let us obey the King who will one day reign forever.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Advent: A Time of Boldness

I'm a bit under the weather today, so admittedly, I might just be a little cranky. I am annoyed. I'm annoyed, because people assume I should be annoyed. Or offended. Starbucks uses plain red cups. Every other meme on Facebook proposes being rebellious: offering "Merry Christmas" when somebody wishes me "Happy Holidays." Atheist billboards suggest Christmas is all about Santa Claus. "President Obama is the anti-Christ because he promotes abortion rights and the LGBT agenda." STOP! STOP!

I am so sick of Christians whining and making excuses for what we have failed to do! How can any Christian suck their teeth or shake their heads at the condition of the world today, and not feel one ounce of responsibility? "Not me. I became a Christian at the age of four, have been evangelizing and feeding the poor ever since. I've never spoken a hateful word, or coveted my friend's Nintendo, or watched an R-rated movie, or ignored a beggar, or failed to share the Gospel, or..."
"But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." (Romans 5:8)
 Don't you get it? We were "the world"? At some point we have all shared their fears, goals, misconceptions, desires, insolence, pain, apathy... We have been there! How quickly we forget that someone had a meaningful dialogue with us, demonstrated grace toward us and showed us the Lord!

And even then we didn't always get it right. There are Christians who do not see how materialism impacts their desire for God. There are Christians trapped in legalism. There are Christians who wrestle with addictions and bad choices. We come in all shapes and sizes, but our eyes should be fixed on Jesus as we move through this life. That is the tie that binds.

And that is far more important than taking offense every time a non-believer, pre-believer, immature Christian -- whatever, whoever does something with which we disagree. Or even with which God disagrees. Fine to recognize -- even hate the true enemy of us all, but as Christians we have been graciously spared his destruction, and inducted into Christ's service. If we can't speak in love to those who have not experienced God's grace, if we can't see this as an opportunity to do for them what was done for us, at least let us keep our eyes on our own paper.

In reference to politics and religion, an outspoken atheist I know said, "Let them fly their flags. Let them identify themselves loudly and boldly. That way I know just who I'm dealing with!" I answered, "Amen!" because that idea has never applied more to those who revile my Savior and scoff at what I know. Let them identify themselves. And begin a conversation I am obligated to have with them.

Rant over. Please return to your regularly scheduled Christmas festivities.