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The two Christmas gifts the world still needs

When the angel army sang to those shepherds in the field that Christmas night, their song was of two things most needed in the world:

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:14)

Glory and peace.

Giving God glory means recognizing him for who he really is. It means the end of ignoring him, the end of rebelling against him. It means considering him in the small and the large details of our lives. It means obeying his call for justice in the world, so that it will be the good creation he intended in the first place. It means the end of bowing our knees to false gods and pretenders who in their broken humanity attempt to ascend to the place of God. It means the end of fear as we fear/reverence the Lord.

And peace on earth means the end of warring against God, the end of warring against each other. It means the end of bickering spouses, the end of arguing siblings. It means wholeness and wellness. It means healed relationships, healed bodies, healed minds, healed souls. It means purposeful work. It means food on every table and a roof over every head. It means the absence of fear and the presence of laughter. It means a song in the heart and a dance in the step.

Glory and peace. They are the gifts God longs for us to unwrap. They are the essence of the kingdom of heaven come among us. They have already come to us in Jesus but will be fully among us only when the fullness of his kingdom arrives with his return.

They are what we long for. They are what we pray for.

Maranatha! Our Lord, come!

Bring peace. Be glorified.

These are tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy!

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The Door: A Christmas story

“Will you shut that door!

“How many times do I have to say it?

“You’d think we were trying to heat the whole world the way you leave the doors open, letting all the warm air out.”

Jimmy ran over to the front door and pushed it closed with a house-jarring slam.

“Now, what’re you trying to do? Wake up the baby?”

Jimmy was always either leaving the door open or slamming it shut. There were no inbetweens and it never failed to get on Mama’s nerves.

She could count the nickles and dimes and quarters of heat whooshing out of the front door or back door or side door of the house. Things were tight around Christmas every year, but this year things were especially tight, with Papa being laid off again and it taking a whole extra week to get unemployment this time. Mama tried to keep the heat down as much as possible to save as much money as she could, but then Jimmy goes and wastes all her efforts by leaving the doors open.

But Jimmy was a good kid most of the rest of the time. A bit absent minded. It made Mama worried sometimes. He always seemed to be thinking of something else, instead of what he was supposed to be thinking about or doing. Mama figured that was why his teacher wanted to talk with her about him; probably not turning in his homework. She’d find papers from school crumpled up in his pockets when she went through the laundry on Monday mornings. Why didn’t she make him turn out his pockets every day when he got home from school? A good idea, I’ll have to remember that, she thought. But sheesh, it’s just another thing for me to remember.

As the days before Christmas became fewer, the door seemed to be left open more often. Mama would feel the touch of coldness on the back of a bare leg or arm or cheek and immediately know one of the doors was swinging on its hinges.

On Christmas Eve, Mama could hardly turn around without finding at least one of the doors open. Jimmy was hardly around to be seen, running around outside all day.

It was well after dinner before she caught him red-handed.

“What in the world are you doing? Were you born in a barn, leaving doors open like that?

“Are you trying to torment me or something? I’ve had enough of this! Shut that door! This instant!”

Jimmy went to the door and put his hand on the knob, but he didn’t close it. He just stood there, looking out the door.

“Close. That. Door,” she said, biting off each word as she said them.

Jimmy looked back at Mama. His face had gone all funny, all squinched up like he might cry.

“What’s wrong, Jimmy? Close the door and come here, boy-boy. Are you afraid of something?”

“I can’t, Mama. I can’t close it.”

“What do you mean, you can’t close it.”

“I can’t close the door. Born in a barn.”

“Oh, don’t be such a goofball! Close the door and come here.”

“No. Born in a barn. Jesus. He was born in a barn.

“All the doors were closed. So, he had to be born in a barn.

“Mrs. Dori in Sunday school said that Jesus stands at the door and knocks and wants to come in. Mama, I can’t close the door. What if Jesus wants to come in?”

“Jimmy, I think Mrs. Dori means the door of your heart. Jesus wants to come inside of you, not our house.”

“Mama?”

“Yes.”

“You sometimes ask me if I want to heat up the whole world.”

“I say that sometimes. Yes.”

“I do. I want to warm up the whole world. And I think Jesus does, too.”

“We can get kinda cold sometimes, can’t we Jimmy?”

“Yeah, Mama. Maybe Jesus could turn on some kind of super heater and make everyone warm. Wouldn’t that be cool? A super blasting heater so that no one is ever cold.”

“That would be the coolest thing ever,” Mama said. “That would be super-awesome. But can we close the door now? It’s getting pretty cold in here.”

“Just a little bit longer, OK, Mama? I’m helping Jesus warm up the world.”

“OK. One more minute. And then come here and warm me up with one of your super-snuggles.”

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The birth of King Jesus & how we celebrate Christmas

My Sri Lankan friend Prabo Mihindukulasuriya has the most amazing name ever. He also has keen insight. And he shares the following words about the birth of Jesus — as King — and how it ought to affect how we celebrate Christmas. It’s not nearly as austere as the most pious among us might expect.

The rest of this post is by Prabo:

Jesus spoke of his birth just once in the Gospels. To Pilate’s question, “So you are a king?” Jesus replied, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world – to bear witness to the truth” (John 18:37a ESV).

A celebration of Jesus’ birth that truly honors him would naturally seek to reflect the significance that Jesus himself gave to it: He was born to be king and to bear witness to the truth.

In our anxiety to elevate Jesus above the seasonal hubbub, we often insist that the “real meaning” of Christmas is spiritual, not secular, traditional, nor commercial. But by doing so, we inadvertently deny Jesus’ kingship over the secular, traditional, and commercial – the very truth that he wants us to live by and proclaim!

That Jesus is king over all of life is the public truth that “everyone who belongs to the truth” (John 18:37b) abides by and rejoices over.

Jesus enjoyed celebration!

He welcomed the grateful adoration and worship of those he had changed. He intentionally received the hospitality and entertainment of both religious and non-religious hosts. His enjoyment of good food and drink did not go unnoticed. But what “everyone who belong[ed] to the truth” remembered and marveled at was the surprising ways in which Jesus turned those social events into occasions of realization and change.

How do we let God’s powerful presence shine in the public square and marketplace? How do our gratitude, contentment, and generosity guide our spending and socializing choices? How can we bring life and newness to traditions in a way that creates surprise and provokes thought?

True spirituality guides us to engage the secular, traditional, and commercial. Jesus is the focus of our celebration when we honor him as king and witness to the truth of his transforming rule.

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White Christmas: an Advent poem

white Christmas“Come, let us reason together,”
says the LORD.
“Though your sins are as scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are as red as crimson,
they shall be like wool.”
— Isaiah 1:18

She bled redly
Among the sheep
And the stink of cattle,
Watching her newborn sleep
After the night-long birthing battle.
Now, the dawn began its lightening creep
And the creatures their barnyard medley —

Life again,
After the pain and dark.
White-wrapped and new, the boy
Was all that was clean — a contrast stark
But still a promise of joy,
A snowy infant to erase the scarlet mark,
Remove the crimson stain.

The Creator became the Savior by entering
Into the world through all the pain of Eden’s curse.

That red Christmas became our white Christmas
As God began to nurse.

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An alternative nativity

Click here for an Alternative Nativity. It is easily the most moving version I’ve seen of the biblical account. Rendered in modern images from the real plight of Syrian refugees, it comes alive for me freshly. Our Lord was something of a refugee himself, fleeing from despotic rule and bounced around by the political powers of his day.

Source: Alternative Nativity

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Missing Jesus on Christmas

I love the Christmas story. But there’s one part of it that haunts me.

It’s the part where the magi make it to Jerusalem, not knowing where to go to finish their journey. No address or zip code came with the star. So, they visit Herod and he calls the Bible teachers to help out and they give excellent directions. But they don’t follow those directions themselves. The pastors miss out on Jesus.

As a pastor, that gets me. I don’t want to be those guys. I want to make sure that I don’t just point people to Jesus, I want to encounter him myself.

But it gets me on another level too. Because like them, I find myself waiting and looking for God in the wrong places.

I’m guessing the reason why the Bible scholars and Herod didn’t go the not quite 8 miles to Bethlehem is that the town of David was too small to be of any consequence to them. They were in the only truly important city in the land, after all. They were too high to stoop so low.

But the reality is that most of what God does in the world, both in what we see in the Scriptures and throughout history, takes place away from the seats of power and among the few and lowly.

The important thing doesn’t take place in the Sumerian cradle of civilization; it takes place when Abraham leaves there. The important thing doesn’t take place in Egypt; it takes when Moses leads God’s people away from Egypt. And so on. Story after story after story.

One of my favorite stories is in 1 Samuel 17, where we find the David v. Goliath account.

Everyone knows the stats on Goliath. How tall he is. How much his helmet and armor weigh. What his greaves and javelin are made of. How much the tip of his spear weighs. It’s almost as if they had Goliath trading cards with the stats all listed. But the key to the story isn’t Goliath’s impressive stats, the key is David’s God, who gives forgotten-by-his-father David the victory with a normal little rock quickly gathered from an unnamed stream.

Everything God does flies under the radar. None of it is headline news.

But we spend far too much time gawking at celebrities, shaking our heads over the headlines, angry with or hopeful about politicians, waiting for the next bit of tech to improve our lives.

But the way of God is the way of the mustard seed, the way of Egypt’s Hebrew slaves, the way of rejected prophets, the way of a baby born in a manger who was too insignificant for the self-important ones to waste their time on.

This is a great encouragement to me, since I am among the meek and the weak, the last and the lowly. I am insignificant enough that God just might be able to do something significant through me. Or you.

May we not be so focused on the self-important ones that we miss out on the truly important things God is doing in us and around us. May we be like shepherds and magi who get in on the action.

May we not be so dazzled by the overinflated things of this world (including ourselves) that we miss Jesus on Christmas or any day.

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Christmas lights & the beautiful life

I love Christmas lights. Any Christmas lights.

There’s something to dangling white icicle lights and traditional colored bulbs, something to rope lights and net lights that warms a cold December night for me.

I will always take an overly decorated Christmas Vacation house to one that seeks to retain its dignity by staying undecorated, the garish over the ungarnished.

Bad art is better than no art.

I don’t know who Ananda Coomaraswamy was, but he is the originator of a favorite quote in our house (since I am married to an art teacher): “An artist is not a particular kind of person. A person is particular kind of artist.”

Similarly, Dorothy Sayers, in her excellent book The Mind of the Maker, suggests that to be created in the image of God means being created in the image of the Creator. In other words, it is built into our very nature to be creative.

This is why I prefer a badly decorated home to an undecorated home. One is trying to be creative — even if that creativity is shaped by what’s on sale at Walmart — and the other has abdicated his creativity, leaving his canvas clean, his page unwritten on.

The beautiful life requires art. It requires creative endeavor.

When I look at the art made by my wife’s elementary school students, I don’t stand in judgment over them. “How childish! How derivative! How clichéd!” It doesn’t matter if I appreciate some of their work more than others, social convention keeps me from dismissing those I don’t appreciate so much. And that’s a good thing, because it makes room for trial and error, for poor quality art to exist with the superior. By putting the thoughtless with the thoughtful, we hope to teach the thoughtfulness of art.

But somewhere along the line, we become sophisticated. We begin to reject poorer forms of art, and those particular kinds of artists stop making their art, when what they need is a good mentor. They need to be trained in the way of art and in their own particular expressions of it.

I am not a great guitar player, but I try to play for at least a few minutes every day. And a few lessons here and there have helped me immensely. So, too, has leading the occasional worship service. I won’t be cutting an album anytime soon, but I can keep rhythm, play the right chords, and sing passably well. I make the best art I can with the abilities I have.

I play music because it fills me with joy. It opens up for me the beautiful life.

And I’ve got a hunch that the Creator smiles when we live beautifully and joyfully. Because that’s what he had in mind when he created us in the first place, isn’t it?

Yes, we could all do with more training in the way of art, for none of us is perfect in it. This is why my kids take piano lessons, drum lessons, and volleyball lessons. (Yes, sports are art forms. In fact, I appreciate sports more as art than as competition, as much as I enjoy that, too.)

The most important thing is that we be willing to do our art badly instead of doing no art at all.

Yes, that line could have been better written. Yes, that brush stroke should’ve had less paint on it. Yes, the actor over-emphasized that line. Yes, the soccer player’s shot was off-target. Yes, that salad could have had less dressing on it. Yes, that house didn’t need the fake polar bear next to the manger scene and the light-up candy cane forest. But at least each of these is making an effort at their art.

(Of course, there is always the possibility of using the arts to represent that which is ugly, false, and harmful. That’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the good-hearted and imperfect and even tacky attempts at expression and exuberance.)

So, light up the neighborhood with your Christmassy art and whatever else your art form is and live beautifully this December.

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Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer & the birth of Jesus

Each December, we engage with the same stories over and over again. On one hand, we’ve got the birth narrative of Jesus. On the other hand, we’ve got a collection of well-loved holiday movies

Year after year, these same Christmas stories are retold side-by-side, yet rarely are they harmonized. So, what would it look like for these stories to be in conversation with one another?

One Christmas special that I’ve seen too many times to remember is the 1964 stop-motion Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The odd 47-minute-long special about misfit toys and a misfit reindeer had its origin in the Johnny Marks song popularized by Gene Autry in 1949. While the movie is often viewed, it’s the song, which is repeated far more often, that I want to focus on.

It’s story is fairly simple. Rudolph has a unique nose. It glows a bright red. The glowing makes him a social outcast, with the other reindeer not letting him in on their games. But the fog rolls in one Christmas Eve, making it too treacherous for Santa to deliver presents. So, the crimson clad elf enlists Rudolph to be the lead reindeer, guiding the sleigh with that fog-piercing beacon of a nose. It works like a charm and everyone loves Rudolph for it.

So, before we get to how it stacks up against the Jesus story, let’s extend the Rudolph story a bit further.

A year goes by and our hero of last year’s Christmas makes his way to Santa’s cottage at the North Pole, ready to resume him spot at the head of the reindeer team pulling the toy-filled sleigh. Santa is packing a few last gifts in and Rudolph comes up from behind.

“Hey-ho, Santa!” belts out Rudolph, causing the Jolly One to give a startled jump. “I’m ready to go!”

Santa turns around, a bit miffed, having bumped his head against the sleigh, and says, “Take a look at the sky, Rudolph. No fog. You won’t be needed this year.”

As Santa turns back to his packing, Rudolph realizes that he’s had his one shot at leading the team and he probably won’t be doing it ever again.

That’s one scenario. Let’s try another.

Now that Rudolph is out of the closet with his red nose and the days of ridicule are behind him, other Lite-Brite-nosed reindeer come out of their nose closets. But red noses are so last year and yellow noses are the thing this year. So, Santa picks a yellow-nosed young doe to lead the reindeer team, leaving Rudolph at home with his out-of-date red honker.

OK. Let’s try another.

Rudolph stays on Santa’s team for a few more years, but those thick fogs never come back again. He does his duty and eventually retires, as do all reindeer at some point. In his retirement, he becomes a regular at the local bar, where he tells anyone who will listen the story about the time he saved Christmas with his glowing nose. People humor him, but mostly he’s become a drunken disgrace, living in a long-faded glory day. Sure, he went down in history, but mostly, he’s history himself.

Here’s a quick one.

Rudolph goes through puberty and his nose stops glowing. End of story.

One more.

Santa assembles the reindeer, lines them up, and launches into a lecture.

“I’ve had it up to here with your reindeer games!” he bellows. “Every year, I tell you that all of this petty in-fighting has to go. But does it? Nooooo! It’s the same old thing. Over and over and over again. And every year, I threaten to be done with the lot of you. Well, this year, I am. You’re done. You’ve been replaced.”

And then he shows them the Claus 3000, his new space-aged sleigh. It’s unique propulsion system and lighting array make reindeer magic and Rudolph’s nose unnecessary. Not only is Rudolph out of a job, but no reindeer are needed at all.

The sad truth is this: Rudolph is just a nose. That’s all anyone really cares about him.

When he’s not allowed in those reindeer games, it’s because of the nose. When Santa wants him to guide the sleigh, it’s because of the nose. Without the red nose, he’s not rejected. Without the red nose, he’s not recruited. His nose defines him.

That part about “then all the reindeer loved him” is the worst. And Rudolph knows it.

There they were, mocking him and excluding him on Dec. 23. But now that he’s made the big leagues, everyone wants to be his friend. Nice! We know how deep that kind of friendship goes. It’s every celebrity’s nightmare. “How do I know that the people who say they love me actually love me and not my wealth and my fame?”

Rudolph has been functionalized. When his nose added nothing to Santa, he could be ignored. But it’s only when he can do something for Santa does he get the notice he’s been longing for his whole life. And that notice only really boils down to: Can you do this function I need to have done?

This is such an American story, because this is what we do to one another all the time. We mock or ignore people because of their differences until those differences can be useful to us. And when they’re no longer special, we drop them like hot rocks.

The professional athlete who can no longer perform at such a high level is replaced by one of a throng of others just waiting for him to drop off. The actress who has played so many sexy roles gains some wrinkles and some pounds and is nudged out of the limelight. And so it goes. (I’ve written more on our disposable culture here.)

OK. So, how does this connect with the story of the birth of Jesus?

It’s amazing how no one who has an encounter with Jesus in his birth story does so while doing their job.

(I’ve written a brief poem about this called Unemployed at Christmas.)

The sheep herders are not herding their sheep. In fact, they’ve left their flock in the field and have abandoned their jobs in order to see Jesus. This is not helpful for job security. It is, however, what worshipers do, what people in relationships do.

The magi are not doing any magic. (You realize that the word magi is plural for magus, which is Greek for magician, right?) Sure, they followed a star. But when they get to Jesus, all they’re doing is worshiping and giving gifts. No jobs. No functions. Just relationship stuff.

Joseph is known as a carpenter, but he doesn’t even get to make a crib for his firstborn. He lays his child in a feeding trough. And if you know anything about first-time parents, they’re way into making things and preparing things and making sure that everything is ultra-healthy for their first kids. If they have more kids, they’re less uptight about all that. But even with his first child, Joseph is remarkably non-functional. No carpentry. Just a husband. Just a dad.

Even Zechariah the priest doesn’t get to do his job. For the entire pregnancy of his wife Elizabeth before their son John is born, he’s mute. Just think of a pastor not being able to speak for nine months. Talk about a loss of vocational identity! And how does he get his voice back? By writing his son’s name on a piece of paper.

In fact, the only people who continue to do their jobs in the entire story are the Bible scholars in Jerusalem, Herod the king, and the soldiers who kill the babies in Bethlehem. And, yep, they’re the bad guys.

The Bible scholars do their job perfectly. They know exactly where the Messiah is to be born and give impeccable directions — directions they fail to follow themselves.

Herod is quite kingly in his actions. He welcomes foreign dignitaries and he sends out soldiers. But he never meets the child king.

And the soldiers, well, they followed their orders.

The Rudolph story and the Jesus birth story collide in how we treat people. Are we noses or are we human beings? Are we functions or are we persons in relationship?

Jesus came to restore our humanity to us and to invite us into a relationship with the living God and with one another, regardless of how well we function or not.

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Advent & the silence of Zechariah

One of the most-omitted Christmas stories is that of Zechariah and the angel in the temple (Luke 1:5-25). We all want to jump right to the birth of Jesus and focus on either Matthew 2 or Luke 2, with occasional forays into the previous chapters for Joseph’s dream or Mary’s angelic encounter. But where Zechariah is Luke’s starter, we tend to leave him sitting on the bench.

Luke starts with Zechariah because his story is ultimately his son John’s story. And all four gospels give John the Baptizer significant ink early on in their Jesus stories. Why? Because John was more well-known and more universally accepted than Jesus among 1st century Jews. That primary position was soon eclipsed by his younger cousin as he hoped it would be, but John’s message and baptism were widely known throughout the Jewish community around the Mediterranean Sea. He was the first prophetic figure to arrive on the scene for several hundred years, after all.

So, we get Zechariah’s story because of his son. But it’s a brilliant story on it’s own right.

Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth had been trying to have children for years. Lots of years. And as is the case with my friends now who struggle with infertility, this inability to have children tore at them. From the telling of the story, we hear of their many prayers throughout the years and of the “disgrace” Elizabeth says she felt among the people around her.

As the fifth of five children and the father of four, infertility isn’t my story. But we all know barrenness in our own ways. Feelings of emptiness and failure and shame come at us from many different angles.

But what strikes me about Zechariah and Elizabeth is that they don’t stop praying. The angel Gabriel refers to their many prayers throughout the years.

Two things are important about their prayers. They didn’t stop praying them. And God didn’t stop hearing them.

Jesus taught on this more than once, telling stories about people who bugged neighbors in the night and pestered judges who were slow to hand out justice, urging us to pray and not give up (Luke 11:5-8; 18:1-8).

I confess that I am quick to stop praying, quick to give up and move along. Even though all of the evidence points to the contrary, I trust myself and my strength more than I trust God and his strength. It’s foolish. I know that. And yet, that’s what I tend toward.

Zechariah and Elizabeth challenge me, in the face of their pain, to keep praying and not give up.

But not only that, the exteriors of their faith were also exemplary. They kept the Torah’s commands to the letter and Zechariah continued to serve diligently as a priest. Personal emptiness didn’t lead to religious or vocational emptiness. He pressed on faithfully.

Faith provides its own wells in the barren land of our lives. Even when it doesn’t give us the thing we’ve set our hearts on, still it nourishes and strengthens us. It keeps hope alive, even if hope grows thin.

But not only had Zechariah’s hope grown thin, so too had his trust.

When Gabriel appears to him in the temple, he goes knock-kneed like everyone else in the Scriptures who is confronted with the angelic. Even a reflection of the Glory is enough to induce panic in us humans, and Gabriel gives the typical angel response: “Don’t be afraid.”

Gabriel then gives a fairly long speech about the son that Zechariah and Elizabeth will have. And somewhere during this speech Zechariah regains his composure enough to ask a question.

Interestingly, his question is quite similar to the one asked just a few verses later by Mary. He asks, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years” (Luke 1:18). Later, Mary asks, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34). Notice the similarity? Each includes a “how” followed by a significant physical obstacle to conception.

But where Gabriel responds to Mary’s question without questioning her motives, he calls out Zechariah for lacking trust.

But hasn’t Zechariah continued to pray for all these years, where God was silence if not unhearing? Hasn’t Zechariah continued to obey the Law of God? Hasn’t Zechariah remained faithful to his priestly duties and to his wife? Aren’t these signs of abiding trust?

I can only assume that the angel is privy to the inner workings of the heart and sees a difference between the questions of Zechariah and Mary that is not obvious in the words themselves.

Somewhere along the line, a switch has been turned off in Zechariah’s heart. Even though he has continued to mimic the signs of trust in his outward behavior, a measure of mistrust has darkened his heart toward God.

After all those years of unanswered prayer, I don’t blame him. This is “blameless” Zechariah, after all. But the angel does chastise him for it. The angel speaks speechlessness to Zechariah. Not believing God’s words to him means Zechariah will speak no words of his own until the words of God are shown to be true and trustworthy.

Zechariah is given the gift of silence to meditate on just how solid the words of God are.

The ability for Zechariah to voice his mistrust in the face of such an obvious display of power — a display that had caused him to cringe in fear — points to the need for these months of meditation. He needs this time to turn on the heart switch that had been turned off.

And so I think about the disappointments, the failures, the unanswered prayers, the unmet expectations, the thousands of hours of service that seem to have gone unnoticed — I think of all these things that have undermined my own trust in God and I am grateful for this season of Advent.

Advent is the 3+ weeks leading up to Christmas, starting four Sundays before Dec. 25. It’s meant to be a quiet time, a reflective time, a penitential time. Where our culture bounces off the walls with shopping and music and outward expressions of excess, we are called inward. (Sure, we can take part in the cooking, eating, buying, decorating, singing, and partying of the season — we don’t want to be Grinchy about it — but it’s essential to protect and retain the heart of Advent, with its meditative preparation for the coming of Jesus.)

Zechariah reminds me of the older brother in the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). After years of towing the line, he finds himself outside in the dark, angry, and referring to himself as a slave while a party is going on inside his father’s house. A switch in his heart had gotten flicked off.

He reminds me, too, of Jesus’s story of the ten virgins (Matthew 25:1-13). Half of them had been foolish, not buying oil for their lamps, and ten of them had been wise, buying oil. But all ten of them fell asleep. Even in his faithfulness toward God, Zechariah’s heart had fallen asleep.

The Scriptures are filled with this theme. And so, too, are our lives. Advent is the gift which comes in the darkest part of the year, prodding our souls to wakefulness and renewed trust. For the Light is coming and he is brighter than all of our hopes and expectations.

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Unemployed at Christmas

Unemployed at Christmas

Joseph the carpenter
Did not build his baby’s bed///
Shepherds left their field
And their flock
No longer shepherding
But chasing the angels’ call instead///
Magi followed a star
Not their career goals
Giving gifts instead of dispensing wisdom///
Each of them unemployed
at Christmas///
God-defined
Not job-defined
Each finds Jesus
While the king and the Bible scholars
Work their jobs
Fully employed and fully missing out
On the Babe who changed everything///
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The power of No — resistance is not futile

A while ago, I passed by a guy wearing a black t-shirt with the one-word sentence on it: “No.” I was tempted to ask him a question that he would have to answer with a “Yes.” But I said, “No,” to myself and walked on.

“No” is the most powerful word that we have at our disposal. Just watch any two-year-old. She’ll use it to great effect, wielding all kinds of power over much older, stronger, and wealthier people than herself.

“No” is the word that starts revolutions. We say No to conditions, to ideas, to structures of power, to people, to all kinds of things. That initial No is essential to the turn, the change that ultimately leads to a whole new string of Yeses.

But the most important No that we have to say is to ourselves. There are so many destructive thoughts, practices, desires, expectations, dispositions, habits, and other attachments that we have for ourselves that we need the personal revolution that a simple but well-timed No can provide.

No to that second helping. No to that drink, because I’ll be driving. No to that unneeded purchase. No to that lustful thought. No to the fear that keeps me from doing what I need to be doing. No to that video game or that time-wasting internet surfing. No to that abusive relationship. No to that angry retort that will cut the other person down to size. No to holding that grudge.

In the Bible, Paul wrote about this essential nay-saying in his letter to Titus — For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age.  [Titus 2:11-12]

Of course, the purpose of No is to get to Yes. And not to just one Yes, but to a whole string of new, life-giving Yeses.

And that leaves us with what Paul wrote to the Corinthians — For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God. [2 Corinthians 1:20]

A No here and there to myself to get in on a whole string of God’s Yeses? Now, that’s something I can easily say Yes to.

In the Christian calendar, there are whole seasons of saying, “No,” to ourselves. Not just Lent, even Advent was originally a time of fasting, leading up to the celebration of Christmas, with its 12 days of feasting. As we draw closer to the super-consumerist and overindulging seasons of Thanksgiving and pre-Christmas, why not start practicing of saying, “No,” so that you’ll be ready for the incredible Yes of Christ on Christmas.