Finding Joy at the Holidays in Spite of Pain

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Stores are playing Christmas carols and songs now. The decorations have appeared exponentially and even your neighbor down the street who never bothered to take his lights down finally lit them up with pride. People are getting into the Christmas spirit everywhere.

As I drive past the LED-lit trees at the entrance to my neighborhood, I wonder how this season sits with some of my friends for whom 2014 was full of pain and loss.

The holidays are hard for so many reasons. Too many friends had a death in the family in the past year. Some had marriages fall apart. Others just have tough relationships with their families. A season about family only makes it worse.

In times like these, the holidays feel like a bucket with a hole in the bottom; you can pour in as much Christmas cheer as you’d like but it still leaks.

I’m not sure that hole can ever be filled. But there is hope for the brokenhearted. In fact, that might be the whole point of Christmas. If so, then maybe there is a way our pain and suffering can draw us into the season, deepening our experience of God in it.

Lament and be Happy

Jeremiah is known as the Weeping Prophet. If anyone in the Bible was clinically depressed it was him so on our hunt for finding joy in the midst of pain Jeremiah seems like a good lead.

Like many of us do when life’s waves crash over us, Jeremiah looked to God for help and rescue. At first all he finds is sorrow. Let’s pick up with Jeremiah in Lamentations 3.

“I am the man who has seen affliction by the rod of his wrath,” he writes.

Jeremiah does not pretend that God has nothing to do with his suffering. He places it directly at God’s feet. And he’s not shy about describing it, either.

Jeremiah says God did things like this to him:

Indeed, he has turned his hand against me again and again, all day long (v. 3).

And this:

He has besieged me and surrounded me with bitterness and hardship (v. 5).

And this:

He drew his bow and made me the target for his arrows (v. 12).

And my personal favorite:

He has broken my teeth with gravel; he has trampled me in the dust (v. 16)

Imagine feeling that way about God. Maybe you don’t have to imagine too much this Christmas season.

I used to have this weird idea that the point of the Bible – and therefore God – was to make my life perfect. Silly, I know, but that’s what I thought. And that perfection looked like an absence of the deep sorrow described by Jeremiah and sometimes felt in my heart and probably yours, too. It was an immature view. The Bible’s point is quite different as Jeremiah is about to show us.

After all of this Jeremiah summarizes:

I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me.

See? Depressed.

But then Jeremiah surprises us by doing something different.

Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope:

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

Notice how Jeremiah addresses God directly for the first time in this passage.

I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion therefore I will wait for him.”

From this point in the chapter on Jeremiah’s perspective changed.

Seeing New Compassions in Christmas

Jeremiah’s turning point came when he reflected on God’s goodness to him. What would happen if you followed his example and remembered the goodness of God in Christmas? I’m not suggesting it will alleviate your pain or change anything in your circumstances. But I am suggesting that like Jeremiah remembering the incredible goodness and mercy of God in the Christmas story will lend perspective to your pain.

What are the graces in the Christmas story that deepen our understanding of God through pain and suffering?

God’s plan is greater than we can imagine. So much of this story of Jesus’ birth was surprising. A virgin? Angels all over the place? The greatness of royalty laid in a common animal trough? Not what you expect. Yet, this is the way God chose to come to His people. Your story may not be what you expected either. Your sorrow might be greater than you dreamed possible. Keep watch, friend. You never know what things God will use to bring greatness from you.

God keeps His promises. When Jesus was born, the Jewish people had been over 400 years waiting for God to speak again. It was somewhere around 1000 years since God promised a descendant of David would rule in Jerusalem forever. It was about 1200 years since their ancestors took over the land promised some 800 years before that. This child fulfilled all the promises of God through millennia.

Here’s why I think this matters if you are in pain this Christmas: God has promised that Jesus is making all things new (Revelation 21:5). We may suffer in the meantime but God will make it right in the end. You can trust Him in this because of a baby laid in a manger.

God has tremendous love and compassion for you. Jesus is proof God loves you. It’s based on something in Him not something about you. The fact that God went to such great lengths to acquire you from the kingdom of darkness means you are valuable to Him.

If the holidays are hard this year, I encourage you not to run from it. Take your cares to the Lord and then count the ways He has blessed you and remember His mercies.

Do you see any other graces in the Christmas story? What did I miss? What speaks to you? Share in the comments below.

3 Ways to Slow Down and Enjoy Christmas

Does December feel like this to you, too?
Does December feel like this to you, too?

The holidays are now in full swing which means I am constantly asking myself “Am I as busy as I feel?” The second week in December packs in rehearsals, performances, school programs, dinner requests, Christmas parties, and anxiety over undone shopping that need done eventually.

No matter how hard I try every year gets busier. Some of it is a function of the number of people in our house. With four kids and two active, involved parents (my wife and I) we are guaranteed to be busy. Parents of older children assure me it will only get worse before it gets better.

In my honest moments I admit that I do not mind being busy. It makes me feel important, needed, and necessary. (Someone wanted me at a show, event, or party. Yeah!) But during Advent, the preparation period for celebrating the great gift of God in Jesus, busyness is distraction. It takes my mind off the waiting and speeds everything up so that I am surprised Christmas is here already. Busyness siphons the joy out of the season producing the opposite effect it should have.

So what can you and I do to let go of the busyness of the season?

Give it a Rest

God’s answer to busyness is rest. I know. I’m thinking that too: How can I rest when there is so much to do, so many places to be? But rest was so important to God it made the top 10 (Exodus 20:8-11).

Why? There were at least two reasons:

  • God knew that people tend to rely on themselves. Rest requires us to admit that we cannot do it all, we are finite, we are dependent on Him.
  • God knew that humans need rejuvenation. We would work ourselves to death if given the chance. With rest enshrined in our week then we have the chance to unwind and get back in touch with our spirit and His.

There is an interesting passage in Hebrews 4 about Sabbath (the Hebrew word for rest) that gives us some insight into how to reclaim our lives from the cult of Christmas busyness.

In case you were inclined to think that Sabbath was an Old Testament thing that no longer applies to you the author of Hebrews says this:

There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from His.

The writer means rest in both a literal and spiritual sense. The letter to the Hebrews is full of this theme about how the benefits of Jesus are much greater than under the previous covenant. The rest that we’re looking for, then, is in our hearts not only our bodies which sounds great at a reflective time like Christmas.

And then s/he says this:

Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience.

Effort. Work. In other words, rest does not just happen. It takes intention to get to rest. This is useful to us as we try to find some Sabbath time in the next few weeks.

One more:

For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

When I saw that this rather famous passage of Scripture about Scripture was in a section on Sabbath it surprised me. Surely that has some significance.

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Christmas Sabbath Slowdown

Let’s put all of this together into a steaming pot of Christmas/Sabbath stew and see what it tastes like.

Here are three practical ideas inspired by Hebrews 4 to help you slow down and rest this Christmas:

  • Choose meaningful participation – Here is the effort of Sabbath-taking. This one is hard for me because I like saying yes to people but when the commitments pile up with programs here, rehearsals there, and parties next week, it contributes to the chaos. The only way out is to choose. If you had to choose right now the top three life-giving activities you’ll do in the next three weeks, what would they be? Can you choose not to participate in something that you otherwise would feel obligated to do? Give yourself permission and say no.
  • Choose Scripture meaningful to you – The fact that Scripture is part of rest means that it needs to be here. To keep from being overwhelmed, choose one passage to read repeatedly. One year I preached in Matthew 1 which turned out very meaningful. Genealogy doesn’t exactly scream Christmas spirit but as I reflected on God in those lives and saw the larger narrative of God’s work over thousands of years, my faith strengthened. You might choose Hebrews 4, Luke 2, or another passage you like.
  • Choose to create a tradition of peaceful moments – One of my favorite moments during the Christmas season is when we make some cider or hot chocolate, turn off the lights, maybe light up a fire, and sit with the Christmas tree lit up, snuggling under a blanket. In many ways those moments define peace to me. So what about choosing one night a week to create this miracle moment while the tree is up? Or find something else that infuses peace into your soul. The point is to choose peace during a time of busyness.

What do you do to try to keep some balance – and therefore joy – during December?

Finding Joy in the Middle of a Consumeristic World

The holidays are that time just before Thanksgiving all the way to the let down the week after New Year’s Day when you realize you have to work an entire five days in a row. I don’t know if this is the official designation or if it’s just something I made up. This stretch of about five weeks is the hardest of the year for many people, myself included.

I hope that the series of posts published in the next few weeks will help you find joy during this consumerized, busy, often painful time of year.

Uncle Santa Wants You

Consumers Get Crazy

The day after Thanksgiving is known as Black Friday, so named because it is the day when retailers begin making their profits for the year. We also know it’s the day American consumers go absolutely crazy. They shop at all hours of the night. They wait in massive lines. Every year there is at least one story of someone getting trampled to death in a Wal-Mart (why is it always Wal-Mart?) trying to get a 54” TV for $5.

Smack in the middle of this you try to shop responsibly, resourcefully, and respectfully but the chaos is everywhere. Advertisements abound on radio and television, in print and billboards, and even the sanctity of your email inbox. Nowhere is safe from marketers trying to get you to spend. Every year it seems to get harder to maintain a sense of balance, a perspective of Christmas that is actually about Christ and the joy of his birth instead of the trappings, meals, gifts, and decorations.

How do you maintain joy in a consumer culture?

Fortunately for us, the Apostle Paul shared with the Philippians a secret that will help us with this very issue.

The Joyful Secret

Before I dig into what Paul wrote to them a little context will be helpful. When Paul wrote to the church at Philippi his situation was desperate. He had been in prison for some time and wrote from Rome under house arrest. This was not like our prison system where prisoners are given three squares, a bed, and cable TV. If he wanted to eat he had to support himself.

Primary support came from churches. You can imagine in a world before Paypal, Skype, and email how slowly news travelled. A request for funds took months.

What does Paul’s apparent poverty have to do with our materialistic abundance? It’s all in what Paul wrote to Philippi when they sent him a gift. (By the way, their generosity stood out because it was rare…another lesson, Philippians 4:15.)

The church knew Paul needed support and sent him some money through a mutual friend named Epaphroditus. The “book” we know as Philippians is better thought of as a thank you note back to the church for the support they recently sent to the Apostle.

Paul wrote:

I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 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. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

Sound familiar? If you have spent any significant time in the church you have probably heard this passage quoted to support all kinds of things.

Paul was telling the Philippians that he trusted God no matter how much or little he had to eat, live on, or give for Christmas. I may have made up that last part since no one celebrated Christ’s birth for the first three hundred years or so, but you’re getting the idea now, right?

The key to joy in the midst of consumerism is choosing contentment because you know that God will provide for everything you need.

Choose Contentment over Consumerism

In the end it’s not about whats, it’s about whos. Paul knew this and I have to believe this is why he is so delicate with the Philippians. Even though he could get by with whatever he had the gift represented something about the Philippians joy in giving to the Apostle.

Here are three applications of Paul’s secret that will help you forget the consumerism and make Christmas joyful this year:

  • Praise God for what you do have. Take the old saying “count your blessings” literally and make a list of things you can praise Him for. Get away if you can to a cozy, creative place, set a timer for 30 minutes and don’t let yourself stop until time runs out. You will be surprised how long yours list ends up.
  • Be lavishly generous to someone. Don’t ask for anything in return even a thank you. In fact, if you can, do it anonymously and see what happens. Trust God with your wealth and the outcome of your generosity. By the way, lavish is relative so even if you cannot afford to give away cars like Oprah give what you can.
  • Decide that what you can afford is enough. Three years ago my wife and I barreled into Christmas Day so busy that we forgot to buy anything substantial for the kids. We travel to our home state and put off our Christmas until after we get home so we just didn’t worry about gifts for Christmas morning. A little guilt-ridden I woke up early and shuffled across the street to pick up some candy and small things from Walgreens. With my wife’s help we crafted a scavenger hunt for them to chase down. They loved it so much that we do it every year now. My oldest son said this week that the hunt is his favorite part of Christmas. Trust me, your kids’ experience of Christmas isn’t about the tangible things they receive as much as it is the heart they receive it from. Do what you can and be content with God’s provision for you.

I’m guessing that you have a practice, saying, or tradition that helps you keep grounded during the crazy, consumeristic season we call Christmastime. What do you do to maintain balance during the holidays?

Thoughts on Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Day

Ah, Thanksgiving! Here again and I can hardly believe it.

It has become trendy to make lists of things you are thankful for especially on Facebook everyday of November. I have never done so but do not discourage the practice. More gratitude is never a bad thing.

Instead of joining the list-making chorus I decided to offer you some thoughts on thanksgiving. They are random and in no particular order. Just my musings on a holiday tradition, what it has become, and where I hope it goes.

The big hubbub this year has been stores opening on Thanksgiving. Black Friday is now bleeding into Thankful Thursday. The trend escalated several years ago and I wonder where it will stop. Here’s hoping stores will start offering awesome deals the entire week of Thanksgiving and forget this Black Friday midnight shopping melee.

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Honestly, I don’t care if stores want to be open on the holiday or if people want to shop. Go for it. The market will correct any missteps in open hours. However, I do feel for the people who work for the Scrooges and would prefer to be home with their families.

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I trot this out every year because it impacts me deeply. One of my spiritual advisors once said to me “Gratitude is always good prayer.” As receivers from God abundant goodness there can be no other appropriate response.

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Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. “THOSE AREN’T PILLOWS!”

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The holidays are a chance to remember what life is about which is one of the travesties of the Black Friday mess. The people flooding into Wal-Mart at 4:00 AM have clearly misplaced the source of joy. I know the flooders are buying things for their people but chances are good those people just want them, not stuff.

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It is supposed to be nearly 60 degrees in Denver on Thanksgiving. That’s why I live here not in my native Iowa. Just saying, Hawkeye Staters.

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What hits your thankful list beyond the obvious? For me, obvious is family, Jesus, and Bon Jovi (don’t judge). But there is much more. I just read an obituary for a guy a year younger than me. I’m so thankful to even have made it this far in life, let alone with relative health and life.

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I complain a lot about not being in the position in my career I’d like to be right now. But I’m really thankful God has never let us down and we have more than enough to get by.

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Increasingly, I am taken aback by the idea of Jesus’ righteousness imputed to me. Sin is so much more insidious and deep than I ever realized. Yet, in Jesus I know I am righteous before God. See Romans 8:1-4. It’s my favorite passage by a long stretch.

What are you thankful for? How are you celebrating Thanksgiving this year?

God is NOT an ATM

Here is your god?

When I was about to graduate from seminary I had one last hurdle to jump over: the oral theology exam. This delightful exercise is how I know my theology will fit into 20 double-spaced pages.

After turning in my paper, the date for the exam was set with two professors who would read the amazing work of theological brilliance and prepare to pepper me with questions. On the appointed day I entered the office, took a seat, and nervously sat down. The professors welcomed me, explained a few procedural items, and then asked the first question.

“Does God change?”

Oh good! A softball.

“God never changes in He essential character or purposes,” I said. They were satisfied but I wanted to add more. “I have to believe, also, that God is a personal being and does change His mind. He responds to prayer. Anything less and God becomes a machine.”

The professors, happy with this answer moved on and did not ask any further questions on the topic. An hour and a half later they informed me I had passed the exam. Insert crowds cheering here.

The experience sticks in my mind because at that moment I realized the implications of a personal God. Many theological systems treat God as if He is a machine. Too much Christian preaching does, too. As much as I wish it were not so, many of my own attempts at building a relationship with Him are marked by a “pull this lever, expect that result” mentality.

God’s people have always struggled with the difference between having a mechanical god and a personal relationship with God. In fact, a wise prophet once challenged another god to make this exact point. I’ll share the story with you and draw some applications for us.

Elijah Issues a Throwdown Challenge

The days were dark in Israel. The kingdom promised to Abraham and ruled by David’s family split in two. The queen was a Baal-worshiper and the King went along. Everyone went along it seemed, all except Elijah. The prophet grew weary of the people worshiping other gods so he decided to do something about it.

He called the prophets of Baal to a throwdown sacrifice. This was before Bobby Flay made throwdowns cool. Each would prepare the sacrifice of a bull as usual but with a twist. (Every good story has a good twist!) The fire for the sacrifice had to come from the deity they served. Elijah graciously offered to let the Baal worshipers go first.

The prophets of Baal cut up their sacrifice, placed it on the alter, and began to pray to Baal. It took awhile. They got a little worried so they shouted. Then they danced. They cut themselves in an effort to get Baal’s attention. They carried on like this all day while Elijah taunted them.

It was getting late so Elijah decided to take his turn. He repaired the alter, which had fallen into disrepair from disuse, and prepared his sacrifice.

Then Elijah did something strange. He dug a trench around the alter and ordered large amounts of water poured on the sacrifice. It would be impossible for it to catch fire without a miracle.

Elijah prayed.

At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.

Can you hear Elijah’s heart for God and the intimacy they shared? The passion for God’s name, the repeated “answer me,” and the desire to see others worship God again show Elijah’s love for the Lord.

God answered Elijah’s prayer. He sent fire and the entire sacrifice including the bull, the stone, the wood, and the water were consumed.

Open all night

God is Not an ATM

Did you notice the difference between how the prophets of Baal and Elijah interacted with their deities? The prophets of Baal tried increasingly desperate tactics to manipulate Baal into doing something. Elijah merely prayed and trusted God to send fire.

How often do you try to manipulate God as if He is a machine? I call it “God is my ATM syndrome” and it happens to me all the time.

I believe that if I insert my faith card, punch in my “PIN” of Bible reading, prayer, and holyish living that God will be obligated to spit out the blessings I ask for. In the process, I’ve made God a cosmic ATM, a machine to be manipulated, just one more device in my life to help me get what I want which sound suspiciously more like the prophets of Baal than the prophet of God.

You do not have to squint too hard to see the attraction of a god like Baal. Do a little dance. Sing a little song. Shout a bit. Earn a scar or two and he’ll do anything you want. You just have to find out what gets his attention today.

God is nothing like that. He notices genuine faith and has compassion on His people. No need for manipulation with Him.

If you want your relationship with God to grow then you have to stop manipulating Him and begin interacting with Him on a personal level.

What does that look like? Here are a few ideas:

  • Stop trying to manipulate God and trust Him. No more negotiations. He wants to bless you and, in fact, already has. He loves you and paid the price to bring you close. His desire for you is not dependent on your church attendance, the number of minutes you spend in prayer or the Bible, or what you have done for Him so stop expecting God to bless you because of what you do or avoid doing.
  • Accept that God is in control even when you do not understand Him. How do you approach a friend when they do something you don’t understand? If the person is really a friend you talk to them and see what they were thinking. Things do not always turn out the way you want them to. It is hard to understand why God does intervene in some situations and not others. But the answer is not trying to control Him or worse blame Him for illness, divorce, or death as if everything ultimately rests on your shoulders. Rather, follow the example of so many in the Bible who took their complaints to God and see what He says. He just might surprise you.
  • Build God’s Kingdom not your own. Intimacy is inherently other-centered. Elijah’s prayer shows his heart for God. “Answer me, Lord, answer me…” Elijah longed for God to be glorified and worshiped in Israel. The good news is God will probably not ask you to build a huge, soaking wet, bloody alter so He can destroy it with fire. But He is asking you to use your gifts and abilities for His name wherever you live. Maybe you have a step of faith in mind now that God wants to use to bless someone else? Just trust Him and do it.

The fact that God is a living God, personal, and relational sets Christianity apart from other religions. It also will bring your faith to life.

How has God shown His personality to you in your life?