sore afraid

Best moment of Christmas TV. Ever.

Yes, Christmas is over, though our family extended it this year quite a bit. Nevertheless, some thoughts deserve revisiting.

Here’s an fyi Linus knew—real angels do not resemble Precious Moments figurines. At all. They do not have sweet cherub faces, they do not hover over people and toss flower petals and good feelings, and they do not await their wings by anything we may say or do for them. (Sorry Jimmy Stewart, you know how much I love you and your movie.) They are also not our dead relatives, but that’s another story.

Real angels, the way they talk about them in the Bible, are big, scary things George Lucas could not imagine the special effects for. They could and should scare the heck out of anyone who happens to be visited by one. They don’t look like my angel collection, however much I love it. They are the material for “sore afraid” to be sure.

In the coming year, I want to focus here on fears—what they are, what they aren’t, and why we need or don’t need them. I figured the Christmas story was the place to start.
“An angel of he Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Messiah, the Lord.” Luke 2.10-11
Whenever an angel greets someone, the first line is often, “Do not be afraid.” Like they are well aware they need to break the ice with something a little disarming. Then immediately, they follow that up with the why. In this case, do not be afraid because . . . here’s the news, and you’re going to like it.
The things that look terrifying to us from our perspective aren’t always. Sure, if you’re on the wrong side of an angel, things could get heated, and you will lose. But the shepherds weren’t. They were just receiving a newsflash from a cosmically cool messenger. They also were being given a job.
The things that terrify us probably look a lot worse than they really are as well. But when we stop covering our eyes, turn around, and look and listen, we can discover the message those things are trying to deliver.
So I’m inviting you to join me on a journey this year. Or just today, your call. What do you fear? List the top five. Write them on a piece of scratch paper, on your bathroom mirror, in your Bible, or right here in the comments. It would be great to share together to know what the biggies are. Then decide which one you’re going to spend time with this week opening your eyes to and listening to the message behind it. Let me know what you discover. It just might be good news of great joy!

we interrupt this program

How many Nativity sets can fit on the top of a television cabinet? I don’t know, but I may be going for a record. This is only one representative of the collection.

I have Nativity sets from Guatemala, Nigeria, Uzbekistan, Ecuador, Israel, Mexico, and probably Walmart. I didn’t actually visit any of these places, but relatives did, and they know I love to collect nativity sets of the world. (Walmart being, of course, a huge part of the world since we know none of those sets were made here, right?)
I have one my mother-in-law made and the one that sat on our shelves when I was a child. I have the first one we bought as a married couple and the one I made several years later for our kids to play with so they would leave the glass and ceramic ones alone.
Obviously, they mean much more to me than nice Christmas decorations that may or may not have all their pieces intact each time I take them out of wraps. They speak of the divine interruption that happened one night in a stable that changed everything with one cry of a baby. They remind me that God doesn’t always work within our expectations, and sometimes he give us the greatest of gifts in the most unlikely of packages.
The international flavor of the collection reminds me of another interruption. The one where he promises to come back and finish the story. “There before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.” (Rev 7.9) I am in awe of the beauty promised in the second great interruption. It will look a lot like the people in my nativities. They are colorful bunch, if you noticed.
God has interrupted your usual programming. Are you listening?
Do you collect a Christmas decoration? What is your favorite symbol of Christmas?  

how many of you?

How many of you dropped your child off at school today, said “I love you,” and thought for a moment, ‘that could be the last time I ever see her?’ I did. How many of you held someone, anyone, just a little tighter this weekend? I did. How many of you cleaned sloppy gross hair from your shower drain this weekend and, for the first time, were grateful you could because of the child who left it? I did. Yes, really.
Like a lot of people, this is not the blog post I had planned for today. And I hesitated to write anything at all about Connecticut because so many have done so already and written better.
The usual sides have been taken and lines have been drawn. Some good conversation is being had; some bad won’t go away. But what if, amid good and bad conversation, the most important conversation never happens?
We’ve read so much already. Taking sides is easy. Blaming ‘the system’ is easy. Coming up with plausible reasons and solutions is easy. And some of those things are partially correct and needful. But nothing should be easy about this conversation. Nothing.
We all know what will happen here. People will feel terrible. For a while. People will cry for solutions. For a while. People will shake their heads and wonder what’s next, and we now know we will inevitably find out, because this is becoming not uncommon. So it anesthetizes us all too quickly, making our tears and resolutions to be more appreciative and “do something” dissolve into “real life” before the New Year rings in.
The most important conversation? It’s the one with the person in the mirror. The one where we stop distancing ourselves from evil and look it in the eye. Where we quit trying to blame everyone and anyone and look into our own souls. Where we admit the world is terribly broken, not just slightly sprained, and ask ourselves why we spend our lives running in fear and denial of that fact. And what effect that collective running is having on our culture.
Today. And tomorrow. And every day we need to remember and not go back to business as usual. Look in the mirror and ask yourself, “How long have I known the world was broken, and what have I done to fix it?” Not fix as in lobby the government for more programs or proffer opinions on Facebook. Not fix as in bury into my own safe little world so at least my family can survive intact. But what have I personally done to push back the iron force of evil in at least one person’s life? If only starting with my own.
Easy answers? If the answer was easy, the Son of God would not have had to be born on this earth with the intention of dying. “Easy” doesn’t end up in a virgin’s uterus and a trough with wood that stinks of manure. “Easy” doesn’t end up on a cross that reeks of blood. There’s nothing easy about innocence giving its life for evil. It’s complicated and messy. It happened two thousand years ago voluntarily. It happened three days ago horrifically.
To borrow from last week’s sermon, “Christmas is not a reminder that the world is really quite a nice place. It reminds us that the world is a shockingly bad old place. . . Christmas is God lighting a candle; and you don’t light a candle in a room that’s already full of sunlight.” – NT Wright
Christmas isn’t really for children. It’s not for the meek and mild at all. It’s for hardy souls who are willing to admit that the world needed a healer and mender. It’s for those courageous enough to take that redemption into our lives and the lives of people we contact. In ways that matter. And not just today.

just grace

The greatest happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved; loved for ourselves, or rather, loved in spite of ourselves. 
Victor Hugo 

What’s the last 700-page book you read?

Yes, I’m aware ninety percent of you, if you have read a 700-page book, just responded with something in the Harry Potter series. Few authors have the guts to attempt this feat. She is one who did it well.
But mine is different. I fell in love with the story of Les Miserables watching the nonmusical version. I took up the book with some trepidation, noting its bulk. It’s rare that I’m going to say a book is totally worth all 700 pages. I’m one of those people who believes if you can’t say it in 25 minutes, you probably haven’t thought out what you needed to say. An appreciated quality in a preacher, but Les Mis would have suffered considerably by turning it into a novella. It was totally worth it. All. 700. Pages.
Going downtown Chicago to see it on stage followed, naturally, as I am a fan of musicals in general and this story is particular. Now, the movie.
But what is it that makes me love this massive story so much? Yes, it’s a fascinating study in character, which is what I’m all about when I read or write. But more, its point is also what I’m all about in life. Les Mis is about second chances. About looking at someone others have written off and saying, “God hasn’t written you off. So neither will I.” It’s about giving them dignity and another shot. And yet another if that one fails. It’s about looking people in the eye and communicating, ‘You my well let me down, but I’m going to love you anyway and extend as much grace to you as I’ve had extended to me.” Which is more grace than any single one of us deserves. That Hugo’s story does this all while feeling more like you’re listening to a great symphony than poring through a book adds immeasurably to the enjoyment level.
So while we’re still thinking about Christmas, I invite you to do a couple things.
One, extend grace. Give a second chance. Do what was done for you at Christmas—go out of your comfort and personal space to love someone else. Not just a little and not just because they deserve it, but with genuine sacrifice on your part, because they don’t deserve it at all.
Second, if you’re looking for someone to help this year, whether because you’ve been grabbed by the Christmas spirit or because you need a write-off before any more great fiscal cliffs, check out a couple organizations that specialize in second chances. These people are on the front lines of loving those others have written off. Give them a look this year. Love sacrificially through those already doing it. Love this group. I’ve organized angel drives for years. No one feels more unwanted than prisoners and their families. Working to free people from modern day slavery. Yes, it still exists, and not only overseas. Working to empower and encourage refugees. Definitely a forgotten and unwanted group in so many places.

ten things we can learn from a hobbit

This week, I will be doing something I rarely do. I’ll be following the crowd. Into a theater filled with people, smelling like imitation popcorn butter and gross gumdrops (that is a redundant phrase). It will be very loud. If you cannot see many things wrong with that scenario, you are not a flaming introvert with sensory overload issues. But I will do it because . . . I love the magic combination of J.R.R.Tolkien and Peter Jackson. Love as in, I own Lord of the Rings Trivial Pursuit, and I will dominate you at it.
Why the big deal over The Hobbit? A fantasy creature barely three feet tall? Admittedly, it is not the epic its sequel is, literarily or theologically. It’s just a good adventure story, written for children. But in its own different way, it is so much more.
Ten things we can learn from a Hobbit:
10—Every enemy has a weak spot. No matter how big and fierce our nightmares are, they are vulnerable somewhere. Find the spot, employ the right weapon, and watch them fall.
9—Don’t leave the path. If you’ve been given a path to walk on, stay on it. No matter how tired you are or how endless it seems. Regardless of how good another path looks. Just keep going forward.
8—Something that appears insignificant to you may prove very important in the future to someone else. Pay attention to the insignificant things right under your feet.
7—Never laugh at a live dragon. It pay to remember that no matter how smart or fast you are, showing it off can give you a warm backside.
6—Never leave home without your pocket handkerchief. I don’t know why, but Bilbo seemed to think it important.
5—No matter how small or worthless others may think you, take up your job and do it with courage. They may be surprised.
4—When you don’t have an obvious or easy way to accomplish something, think creatively. Rafting in barrel may not be one’s first choice of transportation, but it got the job done.
3—The word “mine” will always get you in trouble. A tunnel focus on “what I deserve” rather than “what I can offer” ends badly. Always.
2—Sometimes the biggest thing we fear is not the dragon but our own reaction to it.
1—Home never looks the same after a real adventure, but it always looks good.
Bonus lesson—Stay away from large spiders. Really, why should anyone have to tell you this? It should be obvious.
And . . . watch this space (and my website and facebook page) for the upcoming devotional/youth group study based on Tolkien characters written by–yes–me! 

We’ve always done it this way

This year, child #2 flew to Atlanta for a wedding the day after Thanksgiving. She missed the Great Tree Cutting last year on account of being a couple thousand miles away in Guatemala. I could not let her miss it again. We could not go before the flight because child #3 had gymnastics practice at school. (Turns out, we should have skipped practice and cut the tree, since she sprained her elbow that morning and was out for a week, but hindsight, you know.)
Parents of older children, you know this drill. It’s called “My Kids’ Schedules Are More Complicated than a NASA Liftoff.” With one in college, one working full time, and one in a sport in high school, getting all three in the same place at the same time is like trying to get Halley’s Comet to jump through the rings of Saturn.
But I’ve noticed a funny thing. The harder it gets, the more they want it to work. It’s like the farther they go away from the things of childhood and make their own futures, the more they cling to the solid things of their past. Those things that just always were. Like a tree on Friday. A gingerbread extravaganza sometime in the vicinity of Christmas. (That one’s not so particular on time. We’ve been known to do it in January.) A birthday breakfast out with mom.
I remember having to cook the huge Thanksgiving dinner the year my mom died. Keep in mind, cooking was not then nor is it now one of my spiritual gifts. I hadn’t a clue. But I knew somewhere inside it had to be done, then more than ever. So I invited all the siblings, I cooked, and no one got poisoned so far as I know.
I don’t mean we need to keep traditions in a legalistic sort of way—like “you will do this or else be cut out of the will.” We got our tree on Sunday. Faced with the choice of doing it on the traditional day or doing it together, we chose together. Modifications and compromise become absolutely necessary.
It’s so much more difficult to keep these things solid as they get older and go on to their own hopes and dreams and traditions. But I’m realizing, that’s when it gets the most important. We think it’s when they’re little we need to keep the traditions alive the most. Really? We need to when it’s the hardest. Whether that be because of illness, death, or distance, the time to keep the solid things solid is when everything else is too fluid to walk on.
It’s worth fighting for those rock solid things that make you the “whole” you are together rather than just individual people joined by DNA. Keep up the fight. 
What’s your favorite family tradition?