The Christmas Place

Thanksgiving was four days ago, and it’s only twenty-five days until Christmas. Indeed, we are firmly rooted in the rich and fertile soil of the Holidays with all the unavoidable demands. 

Some of the unavoidable demands:

  • over-crowded stores, are there any? 
  • dings in my car door by careless people
  • shoppers rushing and crushing with impunity 
  • catalogs I don’t want from stores I’ve never heard of
  • landfills of daily mail yearning for my holiday dollars

The truth is I don’t shop in stores, and I avoid malls at all costs. My car door doesn’t get dinged, nor do I get rushed and crushed by rude shoppers. I rarely get holiday-induced headaches. But the landfill of seasonal mail and catalogs remains. 

Yesterday, I was asked this question:

“What would happen this Christmas if Amazon went out of business?”

The question subdued me, the prospect being too terrifying to imagine. 

On review, it sounds like I am a modern Ebenezer Scrooge. I assure you it isn’t true. You would need to search far and wide to find someone who loves Christmas any more than I do.

Some of what I love most about Christmas:

  • colors, lights, trees, and decorations 
  • awareness of his birth and nativity scenes
  • Christmas Eve service with candle lighting
  • celebrating with friends, coworkers, and my church
  • Christmas with family

 I have been to Bethlehem several times. It sits a few miles south of Jerusalem, and if you visit the Holy Land, the tour will likely take you there. It is a town of 25,000 people and bears little resemblance to the relatively small village in which our savior was born. 

Of course, there is a church standing over the traditional site where Jesus is believed to have been born; it is the Church of the Nativity. You enter the church, are lead to stairs, and walk down until you reach a cave-like room and stand in line. When your turn arrives, you get on your knees to look inside the covered place he is thought to have been placed at birth. 

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem

Inside the Nativity Church

I don’t know if it’s the place or not. There isn’t enough archaeology to verify it historically. But it could have been. To me, it didn’t feel like the place, but what value do my feelings have? Then you go back upstairs and eventually exit the rather massive church structure. At that moment, you must do something; you must look to your right where you will see the hills of ancient Judea, the fields of Bethlehem. Standing there, I could so easily imagine shepherds keeping watch over their flocks at night. As I did, the birth of Christ felt real to me. I can’t explain why; it just did.

The Hills of Ancient Judea, the Fields of Bethlehem

To Close

So, get online, or brave the real world of stores, and get the gifts for your loved ones. As you do, please take a moment to remember that the presents we give at Christmas are based on the Magi presenting gifts to the infant savior. 

Me? I love Christmas. 

The Hands Have It?

To make a point, I used an illustration that may not have hit the mark. It was a pair of questions asked for effect, and here they are:

“Would you hug your children without using your arms and hands?”

“Would you hug your parents without using your arms and hands?”

 The answer to both is no; we wouldn’t. The questions are better illuminated in the context of worship, of how we reach out to God. 

Psalm 63:4

“I will praise you as long as I live, and in your name I will lift up my hands.” 

Psalm 134:2

“Lift up your hands in the sanctuary and praise the Lord.” 

Lamentations 3:41

“Let us lift up our hearts and our hands to God in heaven…”

In his Psalms, King David had a constant emphasis on lifting hands in worship. Did David imagine reaching out to embrace God; perhaps expressing the sentiments of this chorus from Hillsong Worship, 

“Here I am to worship; here I am to bow down, here I am to say that you’re my God.” (chorus: “Here I Am To Worship”)

It’s a picture of arms and hands extended with the heartfelt hope of touching the face of God. King David would never have embraced his Lord without using his arms and hands. So, why would we? 

As odd as it seems, I was raised in a church culture that didn’t believe in emotions— that “emotional worship” created subjective doctrine. So, emotions were kept out. 

One application was that hands in worship were for holding hymnals. There was no clapping or raising of hands, not ever. It was more than frowned upon; it was expressly forbidden. It was such a strong tradition that to clap in worship was considered sinful. Generations were taught to uphold these beliefs. We believed we were more right than other churches who had turned their worship into an emotional freefall of sinful behavior.  

Resulting from more than a century of such teaching were generations of members afraid of clapping and mortified at the thought of raising their hands in worship. 

Odd, isn’t it? While equipping our members to condemn the use of hands in worship, we abandoned the scriptures affirming using hands in praise. Did we cut off our noses to spite our faces? In our sincere attempt to be more right than others, we ended up being more wrong by ignoring what scripture had to say. Traditions quickly become rooted in the soil of our hearts. Once implanted, they become heritage, and heritage becomes a legacy and a defining element in our core beliefs. Those who follow may fail to see the difference between truth and tradition. At that point, something important is perilously close to being lost.

Please read carefully: Choosing not to raise hands in worship isn’t sinful. However, choosing to judge the ones who do is sinful.

Isaiah 55:12

“You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.” 

This verse reminds me of Jesus in the last week of his life. It was Passover week, and in the temple courts, children were shouting, “Hosanna to the Highest,” in reference to Jesus. The religious legacy types took exception and essentially rebuked Jesus for allowing the children to say such things. They asked if he heard what the children were saying and implied that he should get them to stop. His response was essentially this: “Yes, I hear them, no, I won’t stop them. If they are silent, the stones will cry out.” 

Let’s take note, along with the Isaiah text:

  • the mountains will burst out in song
  • the hills will burst out in song
  • the trees will clap their hands
  • the children will shout Hossana
  • and if not, the stones will shout out praise 

What about us? Will we remain content to sit silently and worship quietly? The heavens proclaim the glory of God, so why aren’t we? For what are we waiting? 

God is waiting for us to get past our hang-ups, our inhibitions, and to put to rest the decades of unfounded rules and judgments. 

Easier said than done? I know. It has been for me too. But I am making progress and enjoying freedom in my worship that I have longed for but been afraid to do. 

TO CLOSE

The stones shouldn’t have to give the praise that God wants from me.

Would you hug your heavenly father without smiling, warmth, or using your arms and hands? 

David wouldn’t.

Where Did My Happiness Go?

People kept saying that things would get back to normal when the elections were over. The elections were seventeen days ago, and other than my phone no longer blowing up with unwanted political texts, emails, and calls, nothing seems normal.

A friend was telling me about some struggles. Some were personal, and some were work-related. The word happy found its way into the conversation. Is happiness a choice; can we choose it or not.

Do some of us choose sadness? 

My friend mentioned there used to be more happy days. Now, there are more sad ones. I agreed with my friend, realizing I felt the same. There is a longing to be happy again, a returning to a time when we don’t feel so heavy- burdened and discouraged. Will it ever return? 

Our world is different. To me, it seems upside down, and I can’t exactly explain what that means.

At the very least, this past year has been challenging. 

  • Covid-19 with all of its ups and downs. 
  • Race riots, social upheaval, violence, and anger.
  • Financial reversals, foreclosures, and bankruptcies. 
  • Joblessness, lay-0ffs, spiking unemployment. 
  • Quarantines, families unable to gather, events canceled.

Just as we hoped for an uptick after the elections, people are now expecting better times in the new year. Will the turning of the calendar coincide with a miracle restoring us to a better whatever? Is that true hope or child-like superstition? We know that the only thing that will genuinely change from December 31 to January 1 is getting a day older.

But that doesn’t stop us from saying things like, 

“I can’t wait for this year to be over; it has been the worst year ever.” 

And yet, 2020 could easily duplicate in 2021. The pandemic is nowhere close to being extinguished or curable. Our social unrest will not suddenly be resloved as if a magic wand had been waved over the issues. We yearn for the economy to improve, but we also know it could deteriorate further.

About now, you are asking,

“Good grief, is there anything positive to offer?”

My answer is yes.

My answer is based on faith. None of us has any power within ourselves to make things better. But believers have power from divine sources. We have the gift of the Holy Spirit as well as the higher will and purpose of God. And that should matter to us. It should provide a living hope.

My challenge has been adjusting to a lesser lifestyle, of accepting fewer choices and smaller opportunities. I want my church to flourish again. I long to see the hundreds of people who stay in their homes on Sundays and watch online. I long for the day when the hundreds who are coming in person to no longer wear masks or be socially distant. 

Our usual is walking into stores, shops, and restaurants without masks or concerns. It’s visiting family and friends in the hospitals and seeing sporting events packed with fans. Normal is getting our jobs back and working to provide for our loved ones.

Yet, our heavenly father knows all this. In some sense, my challenge is less with God and more with being an entitled American coping with the idea of life in the “home of the brave and the land of the free” being a bit harder and less convenient. 

However,

  1. Am I suffering to the point of shedding blood? 
  2. Do I go to bed with an empty stomach? 
  3. Is my home a house of tarps with a mud floor? 
  4. Will my family face the fear of violent, religious persecution? 
  5. Are my loved ones at risk for dysentery, cholera, or starvation?

No, those things I don’t have to worry about.

I’ll finish with the words of one who knew suffering more intimately and immensely than anyone I’ve ever known or heard of. 

Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship and said, “Naked, I came from my mother’s womb and naked I will depart. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” 

In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.

Job 1:20-22

God bless you all. Have a good weekend. 

Do I Look Taller in Person?

She was adorable, cute, and twelve years old. She walked up and said, 

“Mr. Rick, you look taller in person.” 

I wasn’t sure what she meant, so clarification was requested. She offered again, 

“You look taller in person.”

She was smiling when she said it, and hers was a heart-melting smile.

I wondered about the following:

  1. Did I look taller because we were closer?  
  2. Had she seen me on TV in a live stream service?
  3. Was it possible that I had suddenly grown three inches?
  4. Was I wearing my shoes with elevated heels?  
  5. Do I have any shoes with elevated heels? 

I decided the reason didn’t matter. What did matter was that this precious girl felt comfortable saying it. So, I replied with, “Thank you, sweetie.” It was a fun moment.

If you follow my blog, then you know that children are often featured in my posts. The reason is that kids are my favorite people. Over the forty years that I have been in ministry, I have discovered that in much the same manner as Jesus, children have become significant to me. Among other things, they make me smile and warm my heart. 

Yes, I love their parents too, but parents are grown-ups and have lived long enough to become a mess, just like me. There are some excellent reasons that Jesus often preferred kids:

  1. Once they know you, you have a friend for life. 
  2. Innocense is bound in the hearts of children. 
  3. They are buckets of fun. 
  4. Children love to laugh.
  5. The kingdom of God belongs to them. 

From Mark 9:36-37

He took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me.”

From Mark 10:13-14

People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”

From Mark 10:16

And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them, and blessed them.

In no way am I comparing myself to Jesus. But I am comparing myself with Jesus. Children were essential to him. Not because they were cute and fun and adorable, but because they were the rightful citizens of the kingdom he came to build. 

Finally, from Isaiah 59:21

“My Spirit, who is on you, and my words that I have put in your mouth will not depart from your mouth, or the mouths of your children, or from the mouths of their descendants from this time on and forever,” says the Lord.

Children are the hope of future generations. They were to Jesus, and they are to me too. 

She said I look taller in person. She was so sweet. 

Shalom 

Bad Blood Between Brothers?

A favorite movie has a scene about an embittered man named Ronnie explaining the cause of his bitterness. It had to do with a meat slicer. One day he was slicing some meat when his brother Johhny came in to talk. During the conversation, Ronnie became distracted and sliced off his hand. Tragically, his fiance broke off the engagement wishing not to marry a one-handed groom. He lost his hand, his bride, and his happiness. 

Years later, when Johnny became engaged, he sent his fiance to invite Ronnie to the wedding. The brothers had not spoken in five years due to the slicer indecent, and her conversation with Ronnie did not go well. There was “Bad Blood” between the brothers.

Ronnie couldn’t be happy for Johnny. He said, “Johnny has his hand, he has his bride, and I should be so happy for my brother? Where is my hand? Where is my bride?” 

It’s a good scene and in no way was grisly; no fluids were lost in the making of the film. It’s a romantic comedy about the ups and downs of a New York Italian family. It’s funny, sweet, and heartwarming.

However

In the past two Sundays, I have delivered sermons on fractured relationships due to political differences; and other differences that have torn friendships and families apart. They were not easy to give. 

The religious, racial, and political climate in our country has been quite stormy. We appear to be at an all-time low for patience and tolerance. We have traded empathy and acceptance for judgment and condemnation. I know, not all of us, just most of us. We are tired and beat down. Not our best.

Perhaps the most disagreeable levels have been forged on Social Media outlets where we have taken sides, joined the fray, got down into the mud, and aligned ourselves with those who think as we do. We listen to no other voice but our own and to those who say the same things over and over again. 

Is that the echo chamber? 

We have argued and disagreed about Covid-19, about masks, about Presidential candidates and political platforms. Many of us have felt awkward about the racial divides and the BLM movement. Some think our government has been heavy-handed in diminishing our God-given rights as American citizens. Others say, “No, it hasn’t.” 

Our culture, as of late, has been acrimonious and acidic.  

I spoke with a member yesterday who was in tears about a political disagreement that ended a dear friendship. Like Ronnie and Johnny, they have stopped talking to each other. 

Stories such are becoming too familiar and sad. 

Maybe some of it can be placed on the hook of the disruptions, interruptions, and cancelations from the Corona Virus. Maybe we are becoming a little less human and a bit more something else. I don’t know, but it isn’t healthy.

Have we cast off: 

  • personal responsibility
  • character development
  • basic human civility
  • the pursuit of humility
  • a desire for unity

There are solutions to our problems; that’s not the problem. The challenge is doing it, and it begins with me. Yesterday morning, I confessed to my church that I have struggled with several sinful behaviors and attitudes over the past eight months. In the confession, I also stated that I was repenting of them. 

Here is the list:

  1. gossiping about church members
  2. saying disparaging remarks about others
  3. tearing others down to build myself up
  4. holding on to ill-will towards others related to disagreements
  5. pride & ego that has hardened my heart to God and others
  6. having a sour, negative, and critical spirit 
  7. making poor choices based on selfish desires

These have challenged me in big and small ways, and sometimes every day and sometimes not. I finally reached the end. It needed to stop. 

What would your list be? Be honest. Are you willing to redirect your heart and mind to a God-centered place?

It’s Easy To:

  • ignore our sins
  • focus on the sins of others
  • look if someone is present who “really needs to hear the sermon.”
  • live in denial about our weaknesses 
  • always find ways to make it about someone else
  • condemn behavior in others that we know exists in our lives

In Closing

To my Christian friends, be reminded that we are called to a higher standard, not a lower one. 

“Love one another as I have loved you.” 

“The world will know that you are my disciples by your love.” 

“Pray for one another and carry each other’s burdens.” 

“Love your enemies and do good to those who hurt you.” 

“Be my light in a darkened world.” 

“Serve one another in love.” 

“Make sure no one pays back evil for evil.” 

“As far as it depends on you, live in peace with all people.” 

“Forgive as I have forgiven you.” 

“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit.”

Sooner or later, Johnny and Ronnie had to reconcile. And they did. 

What about us?

Shalom