Saturday, December 20, 2008


December 19th, 2008

"Did you get the message?" announced my mother as I burst through the front door of our home fresh from school and ecstatic over completing the last day of classes before Christmas break. "The casting director from the church youth group has called. It's your turn to be in the living nativity scene. What part will you be playing tonight?"
All of a sudden a cloud of doom was cast over what had promised to be an evening of joyful abandon with my friends celebrating the beginning of a two-week vacation from the drudgery of high school. It's not that I was totally devoid of the Christmas spirit, but standing outside for two boring hours in the frigid Idaho winter just wasn't the most exciting way for a teenager to spend the holidays. Unfortunately, as the preacher's son, it was pretty much expected that I would be a part of all the youth group activities, and this particular activity had been a tradition for the youth of our church for years. The only redeeming element in a night of pure torture was the possibility of playing "Joseph" and sitting next to "Mary" whose role on this night was being played by the most alluring girl in the youth group. But, as fate would have it, I was chosen to play the part of a lowly shepherd. Resigned to suffering through an evening of discouragement and tedium, I grudgingly donned my sack-cloth and rope costume and took my place in the back of the scene while the "upfronters," decked out in regal splendor, received all the attention and my best friend reveled in the coveted position of "Joseph." Sometimes life has no semblance of fairness.
The manger scene was crudely constructed with bails of straw for the walls and a roof of canvas that was stretched over unfinished wooden poles. “Joseph” and “Mary” sat on a bail of straw behind a makeshift, wooden manger. “Jesus” was played by a cheap, plastic doll, imprisoned in a tightly wrapped blanket and barely visible in a pile of straw. Due to the extreme cold the actors all wore ski parkas underneath their costumes, giving the entire ensemble the appearance of needing a few months of faithful attendance at "Weight Watchers." The amateur quality of the production was clearly evident as "Joseph" had to be constantly reminded to remove his eyeglasses and the three wise men all had sneakers protruding beneath their royal robes.
Adding to the emphasis of a live show, a local farmer had loaned us the use of a donkey, named Jenny, and a sheep. Jenny was incorrigibly stubborn and refused to be moved anywhere unless we held a handful of hay in front of her nose. The sheep was very old, totally blind, and could be moved only by grabbing her backside by her thick fleece, lifting her hind legs off the ground, and pushing her forward. Getting the animals positioned correctly was a major undertaking. Keeping them in place was next to impossible. Filling out the scene was a chicken-wire and papier-mâché camel, much smaller than the donkey and missing one side of its nose due to an accident in transit from its storage. A dime-store, tree-top star placed above the roof completed the scene which was staged outside the church building next to one of the busiest streets in town. A loud speaker blaring Christmas carols helped to attract attention from passing motorists.
As actors we passed the time cracking jokes, trying to stay warm, listening to the local rock 'n roll radio station on earphones hidden underneath our head scarves, and wondering if the director would ever come to tell us our time was up. It certainly wasn't the most spiritually meaningful part of the season for those of us in the youth group. But I have often wondered if, in our sloppy, haphazard, unprofessional production of a living nativity scene, we actually made a difference for those whose hectic holiday schedules brought them in their stress-filled hearts and package-laden automobiles to spend sixty seconds idling at a stoplight watching a living portrayal of the reason for the season.
That crude production of the Christmas story has been on my mind during the current season's controversy over public displays of the religious meaning of the holiday. Our culture seems to be sharply divided over this issue. For some reason the true meaning of Christmas seems to be offensive to a certain small minority of seasonal "Grinches" who are using the courts to force their secular will upon the majority. But why should we be so surprised over this phenomenon as though it was something new? From an unsympathetic innkeeper and a murderous king Herod up until the present anti-Christian climate in our courts and schools, there has always been a group of Christmas scrooges eager to rain on our holiday parade. While I certainly applaud those who are determined to stand up to such attacks on our religious freedom, allow me to suggest another, perhaps more effective course of action.
I propose we all determine to become a living nativity scene, not seasonally staged at a local church, but continually displayed in our everyday lives; not decked out in first-century costumes, but attired in humble acts of kindness; a fully portable, walking, talking, breathing picture of Christ's coming to earth. Such a scene could be taken with us wherever we went, on public property or private, in local schools or shopping malls, at the office or in a city park. This take-it-wherever-you-go crèche would be far more difficult to litigate against and, in my estimation, vastly more powerful in broadcasting the true meaning of Christmas to a truth-starved world.
Which roles would we all play? Actually, as Christians, we are directed to play them all. We can be a beast of burden bearing the load which others cannot carry by themselves, but our service must be the real thing not a scaled-down imitation full of holes, and we must be led by the Spirit not stubbornly intent upon following the gratification of our own desires. Since we know what it's like to be sheep, blind to the ways of God and resistant to His prodding, we should make wonderfully caring shepherds who with empathy and compassion can lead others to find their places in the scene. As wise men, rightly discerning God's Word, we can guide others who are searching for the light, as long as our "sneaker sins" don't distract them and our footing is well grounded in the truth. Like Joseph, we know the grace of being chosen to play a role in the family of God for which we have no real claim. Like Mary, God has placed in us the seed of ministries we can barely fathom as we look forward to the birthing of Spirit-impregnated, holy dreams.
Whether we serve as an "upfronter" or take our place in the back of the scene we all have many roles in this production, including that of Christ. In fact, we may be the only Jesus our neighbors ever see. Are they witnessing a cheap, plastic, motionless, mostly-hidden Christ, or do they see in us a living, active picture of loving kindness, mercy, peace, sacrifice, and grace? "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me." – Galatians 2:20. "...for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose." – Philippians 2:13.
Perhaps our message would receive more encouraging reviews if we spent less time agonizing over how our secular society has removed Christ from Christmas, and more time wondering how we can be Christ to our secular neighbors—less time fretting over how the ancient symbols of Christmas are being attacked, and more time being concerned about how we can make these symbols come alive in the present—less time looking back at God's miraculous incarnation in the Christ-child two thousand years ago, and more time dwelling on His no less miraculous, continuing incarnation through Christ living and ministering daily in us.

Phillip Brooks' timeless Christmas anthem says it well. "O holy Child of Bethlehem! Descend on us, we pray; Cast out our sin, and enter in; be born in us today." Whether we are fully aware of it or not, the Church comprises each year's nativity display, living and dynamic. We may believe our individual scenes are amateur at best, but when the attention is directed toward Jesus, the results can be heart-rending and powerful. "May the God of peace...equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen." – Hebrews 13:20-21.
Did you get the message? The Casting Director has called. It's your turn to be in the living nativity scene. What part will you be playing today?

Bill, a child of God and a grateful member of the cast

Saturday, December 13, 2008


December 13, 2008

A soft knock on my bedroom door barely roused me from a mid afternoon nap. With a frustrated groan and a full body stretch I reluctantly answered the door and was immediately ushered into full alertness by my youngest daughter, Trisha, peering at me pitifully through two of the saddest, eleven-year-old eyes I have ever beheld. At her side was her older sister, Tiffany, supporting her with a two-armed hug of consolation and comfort. Trisha's trembling, cupped hands lovingly caressed a tiny ball of gray, lifeless fur.
"Joy's dead," she sobbed in a halting, high-pitched squeak. "I thought he was sleeping but when I took him out of his cage to play with him he didn't move." Reliving her painful discovery was all it took to open the spillway and release a reservoir of tears which cascaded down her quivering cheeks.
Joy had been a much loved member of our household for almost a year, a long life span for a hamster. When the energetic ball of fluff first came home with us as a gift for Trisha from her school I knew in the back of my mind there would be a day all too soon when we would have to deal with saying our goodbyes. "What will you name him?" I asked.
With a sparkle in her eyes and a giggle of delight Trisha announced, "His name is Joy!" Although we suggested that Joy was a girl's name and might not be appropriate for a male hamster, Trisha would not be dissuaded. Once we saw the extreme pleasure Joy brought to her life we all agreed this special animal was aptly named.
But now Joy's brief sojourn with our family had sadly come to an end and looking at my grief-stricken daughter I wondered if joy would ever again be a part of Trisha's life. We did our best to console her. I mentioned that when she felt ready we could go down to the pet store and pick out another Joy. But to her, Joy was irreplaceable, a one-of-a-kind, treasured friend that was forever lost. Tiffany talked about losing one of her pet goldfish. "It took awhile but I got over it," she offered hoping to stem the flow of tears. Trisha, however, was not convinced and remained inconsolable.
"What do we do now?" I wondered to myself. For Tiffany's goldfish we had arranged a solemn, yet simple ceremony culminating in a "burial at sea.” In other words, we flushed it. Such a ceremony seemed unfitting in this case, especially given the size of the deceased and the tendency of our plumbing to back up. We opted for a shoebox coffin and an interment in our backyard garden. After a tearful eulogy and a family prayer, we laid Joy to rest beneath a maturing redwood tree, a symbol of eternal life, which in years to come would engulf the remains of Trisha's beloved pet. Death would be swallowed up by life.
It comes to mind that Trisha's encounter with the death of Joy is an oft-repeated experience for most of us as we journey through life. It's not that we all have pets named Joy who pass away. But we do have this tendency to attach enormous significance for personal happiness onto earthly possessions, the loss of which can bring us spiraling into an abyss of despair and threaten to forever bury our joy. We place an inordinate amount of hope upon current circumstances which can suddenly turn unfavorable and leave us grasping a handful of empty dreams. And we have a habit of depositing our joy in other people who will eventually, invariably disappoint us. Things, circumstances, and people comprise an unholy trinity of assassins bent on finding any door we leave open, breaking into the inner sanctuary of our heart, and ravaging our joy. At no time is this evil triumvirate more active than during the holiday season.
"Joy is dead," we announce as we grieve over our favorite football team's loss in the playoffs, or the loss of a career that has been "pink-slipped" into oblivion by a down turn in the economy, or the loss of a high percentage of our retirement savings in a bear market. “Peace on earth good will toward men? Bah, humbug!” we proclaim through mounting anger after being unfairly reprimanded by a boss, or haggling over the price of a sweater with an uncompromising salesclerk, or quarreling with an unreasonable spouse. "Will we ever know joy again?" we wonder to ourselves as we walk out of divorce court faced with living the rest of our life alone, or as we hear the word "malignant" coming from the lips of our oncologist, or as we watch a loved one being lowered into their grave.
This is the time of year when we should find ourselves singing “Joy to the World.” But how much joy is the world really experiencing these days? We are facing a global recession, corruption in politics, reports of a growing climate crisis, famine, pestilence, warnings of overdue earthquakes, and the war on terror which still rages out of control. Does it seem to you that this year’s Christmas caroling is a little less passionate than in years past? Many people cling to their dreams of the ideal Christmas—peaceful family gatherings, a spectacular pile of gifts under the tree, festive holiday decorations, and the perfect Christmas dinner—only to have reality fall far short of what they envisioned.
My wife has been enjoying watching all the holiday programming on television, especially the mini-dramas on the Hallmark channel. They all seem to end with the main characters joyfully singing around the perfectly decorated Christmas tree, their every concern having just been gloriously resolved, their every conflict having just been miraculously transformed into peace, while snow gently begins to fall outside the picture window. Tragically, life does not always provide us with a happy ending and the holidays seldom live up to our idyllic dreams. In fact, for most people, the Christmas season is by far the most stressful time of the year.
The problem isn't that we latch onto people, circumstances, and things with such passion or embrace the Christmas season with such idealism, but rather that we depend on them for our primary source of joy. Basing all our happiness on this conspiring trio of “joy thieves” sets us up for a nightmarish roller-coaster ride through life filled with breath taking climbs into ecstasy followed by gut wrenching dives into heartache. We become the marble on an emotional roulette wheel bouncing around from one passion to another until the eventual futility of it all drags us down into a slot of despair where our joy is gambled away while someone else walks off with the happiness we crave.
Is there any remedy for this emotional instability? Is there any hope of getting through this life, or even the holiday season, without burying our joy in the backyard? Yes, but only through Jesus. He is the safety strap that keeps us secure through the wild carnival rides of life, the sure bet on the fickle gaming tables of our emotions, the “peace plumber” who keeps the water of life flowing through our lives and labors at trying to prevent our happiness from being flushed, the “heart sheriff” who guards us from that which is determined to rob us of our joy. Placing our hopes on Him and Him alone is the only prescription that leads to everlasting joy. Keeping our focus upon Christ rather than Christmas is the only answer to stave off the holiday blues. What does the Lord of joy have to say about all this?
"I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." – John 10:10. "Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete." – John 16:24. "If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love…I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete." – John 15:10-11.
It seems obvious that Christ yearns for us to be filled with joy—continually, even throughout the Christmas season. "Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!" – Philippians 4:4. Jesus alone can be fully trusted to never leave us or forsake us. Only He can save us from the fleeting emotions of worldly passions. Only He can bring our lifeless joy back from the grave. Much more than a symbol, He is the real "tree of life" that swallows up the death of our joy. Much more than a season, He is the eternal Prince of Peace who continually enables us to bear any burden, endure any circumstance, and suffer any loss without losing any joy.
“The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces..." – Isaiah 25:8. "Everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away." – Isaiah 51:11. “Death has been swallowed up in victory!” – 1Corinthians 15:54. “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” – Luke 2:10-11.
Trisha, I've got good news for you. Joy is alive and well!

Bill, a child of God, filled with His joy

Saturday, December 06, 2008


December 6, 2008

"For the hurt of the daughter of my people I am hurt. I am mourning; astonishment has taken hold of me." – Jeremiah 8:21.
One by one they are set ablaze, lit from the single "Christ candle" on the altar. Eighteen candles, eighteen children, eighteen tiny lives taken before they saw the light of day, ushered from the womb directly into the arms of their heavenly Father. The darkness of the church sanctuary this evening cannot extinguish the light of eighteen candles. The darkness encompassing the hearts of eight women cannot dim the hope of eighteen flickering flames. For weeks these hurting souls have gathered together to re-open chronically raw wounds of the past and expose them to the healing power of an infinitely compassionate and merciful God. Tonight they are ready, ready to pack up years of depression and despair, ready to turn their backs on anger and bitterness, ready to walk away from self-condemnation and shame. Tonight they have gathered to say goodbye to eighteen candles.
Lovingly, prayerfully they have chosen names, eighteen names for eighteen candles – eighteen names that will never grace the pages of any official documents – eighteen names that will never appear on a signature – eighteen names that will never graduate, make a scientific discovery, compose a song, preach a sermon, get married or bear children – eighteen names that will never answer on earth when called.
Tenderly, gently they hold on to eighteen candles with eight pair of grieving hands – hands that will never change the diapers of their missing children – hands that will never tuck them into bed – hands that will never soothe their hurts, calm their fears, applaud their achievements, braid their ponytails, tie their shoes, pack their lunches or lead them to their first day of school – hands that ache to caress what they cannot touch, long to feel the warmth of an embrace they will never know, reach for tiny fingers they will never grasp – hands that instead cling to the tragic reality of eighteen candles.
Mournfully, wistfully eight pair of eyes stare into the flames of eighteen candles and fill with tears – tears of regret for years of mothering that will never be, and tiny lives which will never grow up – tears of remorse for the burden of knowing their own decisions have led to this tragedy – tears of grief for their own lives which have suffered overwhelmingly with physical complications, the break up of marriages, mental and emotional instability, and self punishment by not feeling worthy of marriage or having more children or being loved by anyone including themselves. And there are tears of anger – anger over spouses, parents, doctors and well-meaning friends who talked them into a decision they will eternally regret – anger over those who never told them the truth about what they were doing – anger over being caught up in the world's most horrific holocaust – anger over eighteen candles.
"Oh, that my head were waters, and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!" – Jeremiah 9:1. “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more.” – Jeremiah 31:15.
But there are also tears of release – tears that well up from the deepest recesses of their souls and, moved by the Spirit of the God of mercy and grace, wash away a raging torrent of anger, bitterness, self-condemnation and shame leaving behind an ocean of peace – tears that reflect the joy of knowing their darkest secrets, their most wicked sins, have been forever removed (“as far as the east is from the west" – Psalm 103:12) and forgotten by the God who gave His only Son to bear our sins in His body and suffer death on the cross in our place – tears that touch the heart of the God who is "a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief" (Is. 53:3), who keeps an account of them (Ps. 56:8), and wipes them away with His everlasting love (Rev. 7:17).
Slowly, deliberately, with the calm assurance of knowing their lives are forever redeemed, miraculously transformed and joyously renewed, eight women rise to their feet and walk to the front of the sanctuary carrying in their trembling hands eighteen candles. One by one with a tearful farewell and with the certain knowledge that they will one day be joyfully reunited with their children, they extinguish the flames of eighteen candles into the one flame representing the light of Christ.
The memorial service has finished. Burdens have been lifted. Divine healing is well underway. Eight women are walking taller, smiling more profusely, making plans more confidently, and basking in the warmth of God's unfailing love, a love they have not allowed themselves to fully enjoy until now – a love they have never fully understood until now – a love they would not have fully known were it not for eighteen candles – eighteen reminders of how great was their sin – eighteen reasons to rejoice that God's grace is greater. Yet even now they cannot possibly comprehend the full measure of His love. Even now the brightness of God's presence cannot diminish the light of eighteen tiny flames freshly raptured from an earthly sanctuary and now dancing upon an altar of gold, frolicking in celestial clouds of glory, flickering in the gentle breath of the Almighty, reflecting in the pure water of the "crystal sea."
Suddenly, myriads of angels cease their winging. Cherubim and Seraphim hush their singing. All heaven turns toward the throne in reverence and awe marveling to see the Father, with His head in His hands, weeping – weeping over eighteen candles.

Bill, a child of God, privileged to be called to mourn for our lost children