It’s ok to cry at Christmas

The story of King Herod killing the baby boys in Bethlehem in his unsuccessful attempt to destroy the newborn King of the Jews might be in the same chapter as the Christmas story in Matthew’s Gospel, but it is rarely told at Christmastime. I’m pretty sure I’ve never sung about it in a Christmas carol nor received a Christmas card with a reference to it. Yet, try as we might to ignore it, there it is told together with the story of the magi (a.k.a. the wise men or “We Three Kings” of whom we like to sing).

Why is such a ghastly story included in the Bible, let alone in our beloved Christmas story? Well, if nothing else, this tragedy illustrates how badly our world needed (and needs) a Messiah. In the pain surrounding death, we need someone to bring life. In the face of arrogance, we need someone to model humility. In the destruction wrought by violence, we need someone to restore peace.

Interestingly, Matthew does not immediately explain why the tragedy in Bethlehem happens. Instead, he provides a lament, quoting the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning…” Hearing this cry of pain suggests to me that it’s ok to cry at Christmastime.

Christmas sadness graphic found at verywellhealth.com


It’s not a holly, jolly Christmas for everyone. For some, there’s an empty chair at the table. For others, the battle with depression clouds even the happiest days. In some homes there’s no holiday from the spiteful fighting or cold hostilities between family members or roommates. Countless 20- and 30-somethings dread being asked in yet another social gathering why they aren’t married or don’t have children as though there’s something wrong with them. Around the world, people live in fear even at Christmastime because of corrupt tyrants, food scarcity, or gang warfare. For all of these kinds of people (yourself included perhaps), the Christmas story includes a paragraph with tears. The tragedy in Matthew’s Christmas story gives us permission to tell the truth about the hurt in our lives and in the world. The tragedy in the Christmas story also gives us permission to lament (like Matthew) the pain in our lives and in the world. And in that we begin to find some comfort, healing, and maybe even joy.

I like how John Witvliet, a professor a Calvin College, puts it: “There is no grace in Herod’s heinous act. But there is grace in Matthew’s truth-telling. Matthew is telling us there is no reason why we should avoid the whole story. We tell it as a candid account of what Jesus came to resolve. We tell it to testify that even this terror cannot ultimately thwart God’s purposes.” May God give you grace this Christmas season to both acknowledge the pain in your life and in the world as well as press on to receive the Good News that Jesus’ arrival at Christmas changes everything, making things new and whole while he lovingly holds on tight to you even in – or perhaps especially in – your pain.

These reflections appear in today’s Rock Valley Bee.
They are a summary of what I talked about
at Trinity CRC’s Blue Christmas service last week.

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Treasured

Jesus loves telling stories. Children think Jesus’ stories are great and adults are still left pondering them long after they end.

There’s one story Jesus tells where this person unexpectedly stumbles across a forgotten treasure chest that had been buried in a field. “Finders, Keepers” was not a familiar custom in that time. Buried treasure graphic found with GoogleAccording to property laws back then, the man needs to buy the field so that everything in it – including the forgotten buried treasure – will belong to him. But land is expensive and the man doesn’t have the cash to purchase it. So he sells all his possessions; he liquidates everything to raise enough money to buy that field. And he doesn’t sell his belongings hesitantly or sadly. No, he’s ecstatic to part with all his old stuff if it means getting his hands on that treasure. And when he finally owns the field and claims the treasure, his joy is complete.

This is a bit like what knowing and following Jesus is like – not that you can buy his friendship like you can buy a field, but that friendship with Jesus is of such great value that it’s worth giving up anything and everything else. In fact, following Jesus eventually and always involves getting rid of old stuff that gets in the way of walking closely with him. He won’t necessarily ask me to sell my house, but he may ask me to give up some “me time” so I can extend hospitality and welcome people into my house for a meal or conversation over coffee. He might suggest that instead of buying that impressive new car, I get something less expensive so I have money to share with the local church or to sponsor an orphan child overseas. He’ll certainly work with me to get rid of things like pride, my desire to be in control, lust, coveting the latest gadget, and selfishness. Friendship with Jesus always outweighs any sacrifices he invites me to make so that nothing gets in between him and me. Jesus’ story helps me remember he is the best treasure I can pursue.

But it occurs to me that I can hear this story another way, too: What if Jesus is the treasure finder and I am the treasure? What if I am not the seeker but the one being sought? Jesus’ story also reminds me how Jesus went and sold all he had so that he might buy me. He gave up everything he had – his life even! – to pay the price of my sin so that I could be friends with him. It was the hardest thing ever, but still he did it willingly – with joy, even – so that he and I can be friends. Anything he calls me to give up so I can follow him more closely pales in comparison with him sacrificing his life for me. And you could say that before I decide to pursue Jesus like a treasure, I discover he has already been pursuing me. I am his treasure.

That’s a story that will keep me smiling today. Hopefully you too.

I wrote this for today’s Perspectives column in the Rock Valley Bee.
I’ve preached on this parable and you can read the manuscript here.

Pointers for praying

Praying child graphic found via Google

I just read an article mentioning a Dordt College professor who was well known and loved for the way he opened each class with prayer. (The writer did not say who the professor was; I wonder if someone reading this knows.) He’d look at the students in the room with a big smile on his face, say “Let’s talk to God,” and then start praying a prayer like this:

Hi, God. What an awesome day you made today. The raindrops fed all the flowers, and the puddles are perfect for jumping in. Thanks for shady trees and yoyo strings. Thanks for giving us elbows so we could bend our arms in so many ways. How do you think of such cool things, Lord? Please watch over our friends who aren’t here today. The ones with runny noses, the ones who are feeling sad, and those who are far away. And, God, we’re sorry for hurting people’s feelings and not doing the stuff we’re supposed to do. Thanks for loving us even when we mess up. We love you, Lord. Amen.

What personal yet meaningful times of prayer for that college class! It turns out prayers do not have to be formal and loaded with thees and thous (though God certainly hears and answers those, too). Yes, knowing the person and work of the almighty God instills reverence within me, but reverence need not exclusively be expressed through formality. The God who created and rules the universe is the same God who wants to be friends with me.

Prayers do not need to be fancy. Just as I don’t always have to first rehearse and edit what I say to my loved ones (though that sometimes prevents me from blabbing something dumb!), God is happy when I stop what I’m doing, acknowledge his presence, and simply tell him about something great that’s happening or something that’s worrying me.

Prayers do not need to be perfect. God does not grade my prayers. All he asks is that they are heartfelt. And having an eye open to details and beauty around me doesn’t hurt either. Just as the Dordt professor thanked God for yoyos and elbows, I can thank God for everything from corn plants bursting through the soil and a friend’s last chemotherapy treatment to my favorite flavor of ice cream and for how I have opposable thumbs.

So please be careful with your comments when a person prays out loud. When you tell someone (a host at a meal, for example) they did a good job praying, you’re revealing that instead of praying with them in your heart, you were evaluating them. Or if you laugh when someone (a child, perhaps) prays for their sick cat, they may doubt the truth that God cares about every aspect of our lives, to say nothing about them becoming self-conscious and maybe refusing to pray aloud again. If you feel compelled to say something to the one who offered a prayer, a simple “Thank You” will suffice.

I wrote this column for this week’s Rock Valley Bee.
It was adapted from
a post on the CRC Network which also
lists several practical ways you can try praying.

Talking together about creation

Grand Canyon photo found at Reader's Digest (rd.com)

Jesse and Maria are visiting the Grand Canyon for the first time. Both are Christians and marvel at God’s masterful work in the immense canyon.

Jesse sees within the beauty around him evidence that the earth is very old. He finds convincing the arguments that the various layers of the Grand Canyon together with the fossils contained therein suggest a slow, orderly deposit of rock and bones over millions of years. He cannot dismiss the radiometric dating analysis scientists have done which suggests the Grand Canyon could be up to 70 million years old. Instead of the result of a cataclysmic global flood several thousand years ago, Jesse sees within the grandeur of the canyon evidence that over a long period of time God carefully and beautifully “laid the earth’s foundations.”

Maria on the other hand takes in the same panoramic beauty and is increasingly convinced that God made the “basement” layers of rock on his third day of creating the universe when he said, “Let dry ground appear.” Maria finds compelling the evidence that the remaining layers were then deposited by the waters of a global flood in the days of Noah and the ark approximately 4,500 years ago. The beauty of the Grand Canyon is redemptive for Maria: Even though it was God’s judgment on sin (the flood) that created the chasm, over time it has become beautiful, reminding Maria of how God can heal the worst of circumstances.

Depending on your perspective, it’s tempting to write off either Jesse or Maria and their interpretations of science and scripture. We might label one as an out-of-touch conservative or the other as a truth-denying liberal. The fact is that both Jesse and Maria are representative of faithful Christians – including many scientists – who subscribe to the authority of the Bible while also taking seriously how God speaks through his creation. Some Bible-believing Christians defend the view that Genesis teaches God created everything in six 24-hour periods and then rested on the seventh day. Other Bible-believing Christians see within the opening chapters of Genesis elegant poetry refuting the false ancient religions that taught the universe was created haphazardly by many gods; therefore the “days” of creation do not need to be understood as 24-hour periods any more than one has to believe God is made of granite or quartzite because the psalmist declares God to be a rock (see Psalm 18).

It’s sad but true that Christians are often harsh and uncharitable when they disagree over matters of creation. However, it’s also true that both Jesse and Maria and all the Christians they represent are together Christ’s ambassadors on earth and will be together for eternity in the new heaven and earth. So it makes sense that, even if it means agreeing to disagree, we begin figuring out how to get along here and now! And it makes sense for both adults and students at school to examine and evaluate the various biblical and scientific perspectives on creation, not fearful of them, but eagerly expecting to grow in appreciating and understanding God and his creative work.

I wrote this column for this week’s Rock Valley Bee
where I noted that I find Deborah and Loren Haarsma’s book
Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution,
and Intelligent Design
helpful in thinking about this subject.

A different sort of king

Palm Sunday cross graphic found via Google

Probably to the surprise of some, Jesus does not arrive in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday riding on a stallion with guns blazing as people might have expected a king to do. Rather, as the church remembers this weekend, he enters on a colt. And his eyes are filled with tears, knowing the trial and death that awaits him. Jesus is a different sort of king than the people are expecting.

Jesus had sent his disciples ahead to fetch the colt and bring it to him. If anyone asked what they were doing with the animal, he instructed them to say the Lord needed it and would return it shortly. In those days kings would not have asked to borrow an animal; a powerful ruler would simply have taken it and added it to his stable. But Jesus is a different sort of king.

As Jesus rides the donkey into Jerusalem, a crowd gathers – ordinary citizens with their children waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna!” It’s a word that means “Save us!” The crowds probably mean to say “Save us from the Romans occupying our land!” Jesus, however, has his eyes on a bigger enemy than Rome: He is entering Jerusalem to battle sin and death itself. Jesus is indeed a different sort of king.

Looking at the pieces of this story, I can’t help but wonder about the owner of the colt. Did they have any idea who the animal’s rider would be when they loaned it to the disciples?

It reminds me of a 19th century Sunday school teacher in Boston named Kimball who introduced a shoe clerk named Dwight L. Moody to Jesus Christ. Dwight L. Moody became a famous evangelist who influenced someone named Frederick B. Meyer to preach on college campuses. Meyer led someone named J. Wilbur Chapman to the Lord. Chapman, while working with the YMCA, arranged for Billy Sunday to come to Charlotte, North Carolina to attend revival meetings. This led to community leaders in Charlotte scheduling a second revival with someone named Mordecai Hamm. Under Hamm’s preaching, a young man named William gave his heart to Jesus Christ. You knew this man as Billy Graham, who preached to more people than anyone in history. I am certain that that 19th century Sunday School teacher in Boston had no idea what would happen from leading a shoe clerk to Christ.

It’s amazing what can happen when you and I welcome the Lord to work through our lives. I might think I’m just letting someone borrow a colt or that you’re just having a nice conversation with a shoe clerk. But don’t underestimate Jesus’ ability to take little things in life and use them for great purposes. He is ruler over all, yet he knows, loves, and guides you and me individually. What’s more, he had you and me in mind that day as he entered Jerusalem to conquer sin and death. Do you know any other rulers who relate to you like that?

As I said, Jesus is a different sort of king. He’s one worth worshiping this Palm Sunday.

I shared these thoughts in this week’s Rock Valley Bee.

Disturb Us

Somebody once asked me as their pastor not to make them uncomfortable in church. They didn’t want any surprises in the worship services or the church’s ministries. They were comfortable with routine and things remaining predictable.

On the one hand, I completely empathized. I don’t like surprises either. I’m not likely to embrace change when it sneaks up on me unexpectedly. When something comes of out left field, I’m more likely to put my guard up and resist it.

On the other hand, I could hardly keep from laughing. I’m very mistaken if I think I can always predict how God is going to work and what he might call me to do next. If I demand things always go the way I prefer, the way that keeps me comfortable, I’ll miss out on opportunities in which God desires to stretch and challenge me so that I can learn and grow.

I suspect there are many things with which God would like to see me be uncomfortable. His Spirit wants me to be uncomfortable with complacency in my walk with Jesus perhaps caused by getting stuck in ruts of routine. His Spirit wants me to be uncomfortable with the selfish things I do that strain my relationships with others. His Spirit wants me to be uncomfortable with the consumerism in our culture that would have me believe that buying more stuff will make me happy. His Spirit wants me to be uncomfortable with the racism in this country’s institutions as well as in my heart.

Comfort Zone quote found with Google

Recently I discovered this prayer attributed by some to Sir Francis Drake, the English sea captain of the 16th century. Through these words the Holy Spirit prompts me to become uncomfortable while he simultaneously reminds me of God’s presence – which is truly comforting.

Disturb us, Lord, when we are too well pleased with ourselves, when our dreams have come true because we have dreamed too little, when we arrive safely because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, Lord, when with the abundance of things we possess we have lost our thirst for the waters of life; having fallen in love with life, we have ceased to dream of eternity; and in our efforts to build a new earth, we have allowed our vision of the new heaven to dim.

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly, to venture on wider seas where storms will show your mastery; where losing sight of land, we shall find the stars. We ask you to push back the horizons of our hopes, and to push us into the future in strength, courage, hope, and love.

I shared this in this week’s Rock Valley Bee.

Rare contentment in an epidemic of affluenza

Celebrating Thanksgiving Day? That’s traditional. Living thankfully year-round? Now that’s counter-cultural!

Our culture encourages you and me to want and grab more and more. It’s practically an economic virtue. Depending on who you ask and what you all include, you’re exposed to between 4,000 and 10,000 ads every day whether you’re looking at Snapchat or the logo on your shirt. Combined, all the advertisers in the US spend nearly $200 billion a year to get their products and services in your face. And while each one may offer something unique and even good and useful, together they give the same message: “You will not be content until you buy what we’re selling!”

Advertisers know that, in general, we have a lot of buying power, whether using our savings or racking up credit card debt. More than ever before, they know we have the ability to take them up on their offers. Yet, ironically, never before have people been so discontent. I think it’s crazy the whole phenomenon of Black Friday immediately following (even usurping) Thanksgiving Day. We pause to be thankful for what we have… only hours later to frantically grab for more!

Author Peter Schuurman refers to all this as “affluenza.” He writes: “We are sick. Sick not from some sort of deprivation, but rather from an excess, an overabundance.” In general, we have so much more than we need, but at the same time, our culture trains us to feel like we never have quite enough. To be thankful, to be content is rare in an epidemic of “affluenza.”

I receive the antidote for this sickness from a surprising source: A prison inmate languishing in jail. This inmate’s name is Paul and what he writes to the church in a city called Philippi is just as relevant to the people of Sioux County: “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” Even in the slammer, Paul experiences more freedom than a lot of people on the outside shackled to their discontent. He has a contentment that gives him joy even in the worst circumstances (like a cruel Roman jail).

What’s the secret? “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” Another way you could put it is like this: “I have everything in him who gives me strength.” Paul is so thankful for what Jesus has done for him: He is a forgiven child of God through Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection on the third day. Being blessed like this is better than anything else Paul’s world (or my world) can offer. No matter what happens to him, Paul knows God is with him and for him. That finally gives him contentment.

Contentment will not come from taking advantage of a Black Friday sale. There will always be something new to buy. I’ve learned that contentment comes from allowing the Holy Spirit to nurture within me the reality that Thanksgiving is not simply a day on the calendar but a lifestyle God invites me to experience in Jesus.

Thanksgiving graphic found via Google

I wrote this for this week’s Rock Valley Bee.
Of course, my Canadian readers will have celebrated
Thanksgiving Day back in October!