thoughts on christmas

I don’t know how I feel about Christmas. For the first time in my life, I suppose since I can remember, I am not all too excited. Some people might say that it’s because everything has become so commercialized. Others say that it’s because I’m getting old, thus becoming more cynical. (Old people, is that true?)

I’m not sure. But what I’ve always enjoyed about Christmas are the things I suppose I’ve always had: wonderful friends and family, much laughter and love. For me, this is a cheerful and joyous time. I get to see my loved ones and celebrate with tons of good games, food, and drink. I am blessed beyond a doubt.

This is not the case for everyone. This season can be especially hard for some, as it might serve as a painful reminder of what we do not have, or what we once had, now gone. Husbands and wives departed, kids you haven’t heard from in years. The loneliness is amplified, and broken pieces of ourselves are recycled. It can be a sort of bone-chilling emptiness.

But then one of my mentors told me something profound. He said that if we look hard enough to see beyond ourselves, perhaps we can begin to rediscover what this holiday is about–giving. If we can give, not just well-intended presents, but of our time and energy and hearts to meet the needs of those around us, then perhaps we would recapture the true spirit of Christmas. We would be modeling after the very Christ, who was sent to heal those who are hurting, mend the torn pieces, and bring life to things once dead.

I thought this was divine. Because if we all lifted our spoons to feed not ourselves but one another, then those with less would have more, and none of us would go hungry. And you don’t have to look far to see that the world is starving for our support, love, and attention.

What if God has chosen us to be a part of the remedy? What if we can bring Christmas to strangers and friends around us? What if we actually look to be Christ to those who do not know him?

For those of us who have been given much, this might seem like a tall order. The problems are plenty and overwhelming, and I don’t know where to begin sometimes. But I think upon Christ, about how God’s son exchanged all his heavenly riches to become human and understand our pain, and I guess that’s where I begin.

So, that’s my encouragement to you this year, by the way of my mentor. Pray to have eyes that are opened to the needs of those around you. Should you look hard enough, I’m sure you’ll find a way to seek and fulfill them.

Let us begin.

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Germany, Gospel and Last Samurai

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There are some trips you take that help you to recharge, perhaps to break away from normal routine if nothing more. Then there are others that exist to merely entertain and indulge your senses. Still there are a few that seem to mark your life in a significant way, trips from which you take away lessons or impressions that will stay with you long and true for the next leg of your journey.

When I initially flew out to Germany, I didn’t think it would be that kind of trip. After all, the primary reason for the visit was business, and I was spending only a week in town. I figured, if anything, I’d book an extra weekend so that I might actually explore Germany beyond the view from my office window. To be quite frank(furt), I wasn’t expecting much other than to say I did my 40 hours and stuffed myself with brats and bier. But sometimes these things hit you when you least expect it.

I guess it starts with the country terrain. The land alone is beautiful. Lots of trees, mountains, rivers. (I say this knowing fully that I only explored one region [and a half, I suppose, if you count my day in Heidelberg] and that there is so much more to see.) But as Friedrich would show you, the Germans are inseparable from mother nature. Germany is a biker and hiker’s dream. In addition, there is a lot of history contained in the country, as evidenced by several castles, cathedrals, and government buildings. Not to mention, the people are friendly–most of them speak decent English–and the food was wonderful. If the trip consisted only of this, I’d have been plenty satisfied.

Yet what stood out most was the people. The Germans are a very direct people. They will be upfront with you when pressed with something, and when they say something they mean it. My roommate Matt told me not to greet Germans with “How are you?” because over there it is not a trite greeting. “If you ask, expect an answer that is anything but good.” Because they will tell you how they are doing, really. It was refreshing because I didn’t have to second guess their intentions or what they were really trying to say. Their words are measured carefully. (Which reflects heavily upon me as a man. Do I measure my words carefully? Do I mean what I say, do I follow through on my commitments, is my word my bond?)

So, the few people I met there who considered themselves “Christians” really meant it. They lived out their faith. Their words and actions validated their claims. It was none of this going-to-Sunday-church-but-living-godless-Monday-to-Saturday business. When they say they are committed to being a disciple of Christ, they show what it means to have a definitive break from the world. It means they will say yes to doing some hard things, no to some others, and that persecution from family and friends is expected. They understand they will look weird to the world. They have counted the costs and determined that he is worth it.

Throughout my week, outside of work, I felt like I was on a missions trip, with the main difference being that the mission was me. I felt a bit like Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, where I was coming into contact with a new culture and people that reflected a way of living I had not known before. I experienced sincere kindness from people who consistently sacrificed time and energy to share their lives with me. On a pizza & movie night, I witnessed how a man devoted himself to loving his wife and four kids. I thought to myself, He’s got it right. I want to be like that one day. The German believers made me reconsider how I was living and approaching life, and the beauty in their lives inevitably led me to rediscover the beauty in mine.

What’s more, I think it made me reconsider my bearings on the gospel. Do I truly believe in what Christ has done for me? Do I believe in his power to change my life? How am I reorienting my life–how does it look different–if I claim to be a disciple? I say I believe in God’s all-sufficient grace, but I’m afraid I still live most days with an identity wrapped around what I achieve and what others think of me.

There is still much to process, but I’m thankful for trips like this. God not only gave me what I wanted, but what I needed. It’s like a kid who expected action figures for Christmas and got a shiny bike instead. He went the extra mile to surprise me. Thanks, God.

Only time will tell where this bike will take me.

jeremie. life after

It was a weird time, if there ever was any, to go on a missions trip. Over a year ago, when I first heard about the opportunity, it sounded good. I sponsored a child in Port-au-Prince and I was intrigued by the chance to visit him in his native land. I was further motivated by the devastation brought upon by the earthquake that struck two years earlier.

But much can change in a year. In that span, I’ve lost friendships and rekindled old ones. I’ve had to deal with my waning passion for church work and reassess my direction and vision. And somewhere in there plans to visit my sponsor child fell through. On top of all this I was tired of traveling–this would be my fifth trip in two months.

This all hit me the night before I prepared to depart. My life was busy, but worse, I possessed a busier heart and mind. I was wrestling with a raging man inside of me who gave little sense of purpose and offered no rest. What was my reason for going? What did I expect to discover? Would I actually do more harm than good?

An unbelievable calm came over me once I got on that plane. If but for a moment, all the questions were settled. Love was the answer. “As I receive and extend loving grace through Christ at home, I look to receive and extend loving grace in Haiti.” That was what I had stated as my mission–now I just had to go out there and do it.

My time in Jeremie, a small town along the western coast of Haiti, would challenge me on this very front. During the week I was there, I spent five days on a medical team working intake (triage) for our physicians. This required recording patient vitals: blood pressure, temperature, pulse, height, weight, and general diagnosis. It was sad to see the extent of their pain. Some were seriously sick, many were sick simply because they were hungry and malnourished.

Yet in spite of hardship, the Haitians are a strong and resilient people. They’re no stranger to suffering, and perhaps it is because of it they are able to love and embrace life more openly. More simply. They don’t take for granted the small things. And in many ways, I was envious of what many Christians there possess–a purity and passion to their worship. I won’t over-romanticize it, because they have their own flaws and shortcomings, but when I was around them I didn’t worry about how I dressed or how much money I made. I was reminded of how similar we are, how we all need love, healing, redemption and purpose.

It is hard to admit that I have a very small capacity to love. I thought I loved people, but what I had discovered was that my love was limited: based on my own terms, within my bounds or comfort. When the orphans ran up to me and played with my hair, I was afraid I’d get lice. I wanted to keep them at a distance, at a place where I could love them yet still be safe.

That’s the thing about God that trips me out. I think C.S. Lewis had a great quote about this. “To love at all is to be vulnerable.” To not be safe. As many reasons as God has to not love broken, sinful people, He still does. He reaches out and gets dirty. He does so with no guarantee that love will be returned. His love knows no conditions, no reservations, no bounds.

It seems like God is constantly reminding me to look at the bigger picture, to understand His purposes and live life with a kingdom focus. It is difficult, knowing that inside I am divided in many ways. Pursuits of success, comfort, popularity and other desires. You might think that would change after a trip like this, but really, I don’t think it is that easy. I’m being placed back into the very waters I’ve been swimming all my life. Selfishness is what I breathe.

I don’t know what to do with what I’ve experienced and what I’ve witnessed. I guess things like this aren’t meant to be figured out right away; like they say, it takes time. But I just know that I can no longer come before God and say “I didn’t know.” I hope I figure it out. I hate missing out on a good story, especially the one God is trying to tell through my life.

To all my dear friends, family and fellow bloggers–thanks for reading and thanks for your support. Thoughts of you kept me strong during my time away. I covet your prayers as you so remember. It is a broken place, this world, but let us not be counted among the ones who did nothing to fix it. Godspeed in your journey.

For Better or For Worse

I’m learning about it means to be a good husband. Yes, I am single–in both the technical “marital status” and actual sense. But as a friend had once shared with me, as a Christian I am joined together in a spiritual union with Christ. How I grow and nurture my relationship with Christ provides insight into how I will or will not grow and nurture my relationship with my future wife.

When I realized the truth of this statement, I was saddened. For no sooner had I come to see another truth: I would make a terrible husband. Over a decade ago, as a hopeful but naive teenager, when I had first committed to following Christ, I was in essence making a vow that declared my complete devotion to him–for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health–for the rest of my life. Indeed, I was proving myself to be faithful, when it was an easy vow to keep, when it was for the better, and I was in richness and in health.

But then came the trials and temptations of life, and suddenly the very cords of my relationship were being stretched and broken. Through the lusts and greed and pride of life my heart had become hardened. As the days progressed my love subsided more and more. It happens, so slow and subtle. My feelings became dull, my love grew heartless. I kept serving the church, believing it was my duty. That will keep him smiling, I thought. But he was not pleased. After all, shall a wife be flattered when she receives roses bought in obligation?

I admit there were times when I was unfaithful. I had other lovers. Times when I found other things more attractive. Money, respect, relationships. These lovers danced before me so alluringly. They whispered secret pleasures, they spoke of great thrill. For some time I had listened. I would leave in the evenings to flirt with them, coming back home worldly-drunk, not unlike the man with the smell of cheap perfume and faint lipstick on his shirts. Yet I still had the audacity to face God and say, “But out of them all, I love you the most!”

That was what I was. An unfaithful, unloving spouse. Yet in all his right and power to divorce me, God has stood by my side. He forgives, he forgets, and he chooses to love. He waits for me to come around. This is the power of a vow. Not that it is merely kept, but that in every right for him to break it he chooses not to. That is what is meant by the terms “love” and “unconditional.”

So, here I am. I’m thinking I’ve got to get this right. If I’m not good with God, the most patient and perfect lover, then I will never be the husband and father I ought to be.

Pulling Teeth with QTs

I don’t want to read the Bible. A lot of times I’m not even sure I want God. It sure doesn’t look like it, when you look at the way I spend my time and resources. I had to come to that hard realization this morning. If the Bible is like God’s love letter to me, then why do I have such a hard time opening it? It always feels a bit like pulling teeth, even though I know some of the best moments I enjoy with God are priceless.

So, this morning I just asked God to meet me in my quiet time, as I perfunctorily pulled out my hulking 5 pound leather-bound from its irreverent place on the floor.

Now I don’t normally share stuff from my journal, especially quiet time material, but I figured maybe it’ll encourage someone who struggles with the same thing. Who knows what we’ll learn and how filled our souls would be if we pulled out our Bibles once in awhile?

*****

Sept 24, 2010

John 18:1-11 – Jesus and his disciples entered over the ravine of the Kidron. Judas, knowing he was there, went to gather a group of chief officers and priests to betray him. When they approached Jesus, he asked them, “Whom do you seek?” They said, “Jesus the Nazarene.” He answered, “I told you that I am He; so if you seek Me, let these go their way.” What this shows is Jesus stepping up as a leader and shepherd. He was willing to turn himself in so that the sheep might be protected. That is how much he cares for his chosen ones. Application here? Whenever I doubt Jesus’ love for me, all I need to do is look at the cross and be reminded of all that he sacrificed for me. He gave his life for me–how would he not freely give me all things?

Peter, of course, being the brash/passionate/emotional guy that he is, drew his sword and struck the high priest’s slave and cut off his right ear. Peter was ready to scrap, he was ready to defend and die for Jesus at that moment. Which makes his denial of Christ later on all the more interesting. In one moment, he was ready to sacrifice his life for Christ; in another, he cursed and denied ever knowing the man. What gives? I don’t think there might be any more reason other than to say that Peter was just a man who was driven by emotions, instincts, and circumstances. Or maybe it’s because Jesus was yet to be turned in; he was still their triumphant leader and there was still a cause that was worth fighting for. When Jesus was on the cross, maybe he no longer wanted to identify with him–when the going got tough.

I guess in many ways I’m Peter. I’ll follow Jesus when things are good and situations are favorable, but I’m quick to turn the other way when the going gets tough. I am capable of both dying for and denying Christ–I am Peter. This reminds me of a quote from C.S. Lewis who says, “We learn…that we cannot trust ourselves even in our best moments, and, on the other, that we need not despair even in our worst, for our failures are forgiven.” I’m reminded that I can never separate myself from the cross–on it I am dependent and to it I am bound. I am in desperate need of God’s saving work in my life.

One last thought: “Jesus said to Peter, ‘Put the sword into the sheath; the cup which the Father has given Me, shall I not drink it?’ “(verse 11). That is all there needs to be said about suffering and the will of God. If God has ordained a period of hardship in my life, shall I refuse Him? God is the Maker of this universe–He is entitled to do as He pleases. Jesus knew that, and therefore gave his life, even on the cross, in perfect obedience. Complete and total surrender/submission–that’s what God wants.