Lessons in catching the real Christmas spirit.

     An article in a local newspaper caught my eye. A columnist had written an article entitled, “A lesson in catching the Christmas spirit.” Like many of us, he was engaged in a pilgrimage of the heart, searching for that elusive destination, the true Christmas spirit. He invited his readers to join him on his journey.

He began in what he felt would be the epicenter of Christmas spirit, a Christmas tree lot. “Christmas-tree lots, by their very nature, are hotbeds of Christmas spirit,” he wrote. “Nobody goes there if they don't have it. So I went to one in Tustin hoping that some would rub off.” But, alas, the only people he found there were several mortgage bankers trying to find a tree for their office.

So he visited Santa in the mall, with the idea that “if he can't get you in the spirit, nobody can.” On the way there, he ran into a family dressed festively, and figured they must have the Christmas spirit. The mother related her personal Christmas spirit preparation. “Let's see, yesterday we put up the tree, put the lights on the house and played all of our Christmas CDs and albums a million times. I'd say we have the Christmas spirit.” Sound familiar?

While they went off to buy Christmas earrings that light up, Bill took off to find Santa. Maybe Santa had a clue to what the true spirit of Christmas was. But he hesitated when he saw all the children in line. Watching the kids eagerly waiting for their chance to meet Santa, he thought, “This is what Christmas is about.” But still, something didn't feel right. On a lark he asked a mall concierge, “Where might I find the Christmas spirit?”

“It's in your heart,” she said, barely glancing up. “It feels warm and glowy, like a mother's love for her child. You can't buy it at any store here, and you can't get it from anybody else. It's in there,” she said, pointing to his chest. “It's in your heart.”

And this is the popular answer to the question: "What is the Christmas spirit?" Conventional wisdom agrees that it is inside of us somehow, in some way. We just have to find it, or rediscover it. It is warm and glowy, a feeling that finally hits us when...when...ah, there’s the rub, isn’t it? What ushers the feeling in and what keeps it out?

At this time of year, we seek to outshine and outdazzle our neighbor with the Christmas spirit. More lights, more ornaments, a bigger tree, electric flashing lights and moving figurines. The more decorations the greater our Christmas spirit, or so it appears. But despite our greatest decorating efforts, we know deep inside, that there should be more—or less. Oddly, we can feel guilty because we think we have overdone Christmas in a crass commercial way. Yet, we can feel just as guilty the next year if we feel we have underdone Christmas in the same crass commercial way.

I decided that if I hoped to rediscover the real Christmas spirit, I would need to re-read the real Christmas story. But this time I would pay attention to the reactions of those who had just heard of the Christ child's birth. It stands to reason that those most closely associated with the first Christmas would in some primitive way, display the Christmas spirit.

When I opened to the gospel of Luke, chapter two, I noticed that the first record of a reaction was from the shepherds, whom we are told “returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen...” (Luke 2:20 NIV) History reminds us that shepherds in the first century weren't the pastoral, gentle eyed, soft-spoken fellows our Hallmark friends have portrayed them as. Their reputation had degenerated over many years. In the first century, shepherds weren’t even allowed to testify in a court of law because their truthfulness was suspect.

Picture a room full of men drinking beer, making lots of disgusting male noises, and watching a football game. They are cheering on their favorite teams with great gusto and excitement. There's lots of yelling and words being tossed around that aren't heard in polite society. That comes closest to describing first century shepherds.

The celebrating these shepherds were doing wasn't artistic praise spoken by highly cultured men, nor quiet reflective praise given by articulate men in expensive clothes. There wasn't an anchorman among them. When it says they were glorifying and praising God it is describing something like the last second of a playoff game in overtime, when the home team wins and the whooping and hollering begins. It was the only kind of glorifying they likely knew.

But further on we find Simeon (Luke 2:25, 28), a much different character. He was a quieter holy man who walked with God. What is his reaction? “Simeon took Him (the Christ child) in his arms, and praised God...” (Luke 2:28 NIV). Here is a much more dignified response, but certainly with a great depth of excitement and feeling. Did he feel any less joy and excitement at the fulfillment of the promise that he would see the coming Messiah before his death? He actually held His Lord in his hands. Did tears flow; did he gaze long upon the Christ child in his hands?

But then what of Joseph and Mary, who by this time in history had a pretty good idea they had one special child on their hands. “The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him.” (Luke 2:33 NIV) When you consider the miraculous way in which the baby had been born and the angelic visitations they had already received, it would probably take a lot to amaze them. Yet, the more they heard, the more amazed they became. Did Mary and Joseph look at each other and shake their heads in excited bewilderment? Not just their own lives, but the world itself was being changed, and they were closest to the One who would do the changing.

The rough around the edges Shepherds are whooping and hollering in the middle of the night, the holy Simeon reverently blesses God, and Jesus' own parents are just amazed at what is happening. In retrospect, it seems that everyone's reaction was a little different, each according to their personalities, temperaments, and lifestyles.

How can we ever have the Christmas spirit, I wondered, when it seems everyone responded differently? The more I thought about it the more I realized that we could never hope to recapture that first Christmas spirit experienced by the eyewitnesses anymore than we could hope to recapture the excitement of our wedding day, or the birth of our children. It was a one time event. If my wife and I revisited our vows each year, it would be a special time, but it would never be quite as special as the first time. There would never again be a first time. Everything after the first experience would be simply an anniversary.

It seems that some people are attracted to Christmas the same way they're attracted to parties, laughter, and large popular events. Everyone seems to be having fun and the spirit is contagious. Plus, they sense there is a deeper holy meaning to this season, which for many temporarily satisfies a spiritual longing. It's a familiar relief from the grind of everyday living.

They share the emotions of excitement and anticipation, and they are such wholesome emotions that they find themselves irresistibly drawn towards them. And that is why so many people are attracted to the celebration of Christmas, even when they don't really know what it's all about. They feel so good about themselves and what they're experiencing that they don't care what it all means. Like finding relief from the scorching sun, you don't care what causes the shade, you're just glad it's there.

The event that fills our heart with such joy and gladness that we celebrate it once a year with more attention than any other event is the entrance of Jesus into our world. And that is what brings us back again and again to the question that the entire world is still asking. What is the real Christmas spirit anyway? I believe I finally know.

When everything is said and done, and everyone's differences are accounted for, I believe the real Christmas spirit is a deep seated, lingering joy in knowing that the story is true!

And this means that some will come very near to the celebration, and yet never truly understand it. They'll experience warm nostalgic feelings, but never make the connection between their celebration and the real Christmas story. They will be like the people at weddings who celebrate with more energy, laugh louder, and drink more than anyone else, and yet they've never met the bride and groom.

They have no real interest in the marriage, or the people who got married. Their real interest is in the celebration. Take away the party and you remove their celebration. They simply enjoy celebrating, and it doesn't much matter what they celebrate. And there is where I believe the difference lies between those who possess the real Christmas spirit and those who don't. For those with real Christmas spirit, if you removed their trees, and their lights, and their poinsettias, and their decorations, and their presents, and their food, and their music.... the story would still be true, and their joy would still be there!  (Excerpts from In Search of the Real Christmas Spirit, Discovery House Publishers, by Dan Schaeffer).


The Power of Weakness: Embracing the True Source of Strength

My new book to be released in the fall is The Power of Weakness: Embracing the True Source of Strength.  Here is a look at the cover.  My publisher is Discovery House Publishers.  If you feel weak and powerless at times, and are tired of trying to be strong--this book is written for you.  There is a power that God has always wanted us to experience, and it's not just for the super saint.  If you have a blog and would like to review the book, let me know.

"And they lived happily ever after!" Escapism or reality?

Since I was just a little boy, one of my favorite lines in the world is..."and they lived happily ever after."  I've always loved movies and books that have happy endings.  I've read so many books and seen so many movies that didn't have happy endings and at the end I always feel let down.  I began to wonder why that happy ending was so important to me; why it struck such a chord in me.

Is it just escapist?  A desire to escape from the turmoil and suffering I see and experience?  Is it a desire for a type of fantasy comfort food?  Possibly.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that wasn't the real reason.  I'm a Star Trek fan and when a young Captain Kirk was in the Star Fleet Academy he had to take a certain test that determined your fitness for leadership.  It was a required test...and unwinnable.  It was a simulation of a real battle scenario.  Captain Kirk took the test and failed it--twice.  But the third time he passed it, which by the way was impossible without cheating...which he had done.  He had simply reprogrammed the computer program so the potential to win was there.  He got in a lot of trouble for it, but I remember the reason he gave under questioning.  "I don't believe in the no-win scenario."

He had a problem with the game itself, with the idea behind it, the reason they were being made to take it and this was his response to it.  In the same way I believe in happy endings, not just for amusement or inspiration, but because God is the Author of our story--and He is the author of happy endings.  We have to experience great struggle and much disappointment in life--but for each of us who believe, God does have a happy ending planned.

One of my favorite authors, J.R. Tolkien, a Christian who wrote, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings, and other books insists that all of us really sense that happy endings aren't just escapist, but somehow true to reality.  He said that stories like his that had happy endings actually point to an underlying reality.  When we read these kind of stories we are being told that yes, the world is full of danger, sorrow, and tragedy, but nonetheless there is a meaning to things.  There is a difference between good and evil and one day evil will be defeated and truth and good will win.

Like Captain Kirk, I don't believe in the no-win scenario either.  That's why I believe in happy endings.


What if it's too late to ask forgiveness?

When I was a young boy, I had a babysitter in the little town of Santa Rosa, California.  I stayed there most of the day after school till my mom arrived to take me home.  There were other children there as well.  One day one of the boys took me out to the front yard to show me something.  He pointed to a boy on a bicycle across the street.  He whispered to me, "that kid's blind!"  I didn't believe him, because he was riding (or at least sitting on) a bike.  Then my friend said, "I'll prove it!"

Then he took a rock and threw it near the boy, and the boy's head jerked towards the noise.  But it was clear he could not see us from across the street.  While probably not completely blind, he was definitely legally blind.  Then my friend egged me on, "throw a rock, and see for yourself!"   I hesitated because it didn't seem right or kind, but finally I did it.  Who would know?  I threw the rock and saw the boy's head jerk around.  It looked funny.  He couldn't see me, so it seemed "safe."  Then my friend and I proceeded to throw more rocks near the boy, his head jerking back and forth, fear welling up in his eyes.

When the little boy realized what was happening, probably because we were laughing across the street, he called out plaintively, "Stop it!  You aren't being very nice to a blind boy!"  But we didn't stop.  We were young and thoughtless and being incredibly cruel.  Then, suddenly, I felt a vice grip on my shoulder and the husband of my babysitter twisted me around and said sternly, "What do you think you're doing?  That's just mean!"

And all of a sudden, I knew it.  I had never felt good about doing this cruel thing, but the desire to have fun and get away with something wrong was stronger than my young conscience.  He lectured us both sternly and made us apologize, but the worst punishment was the conviction of my conscience.  I probably did a lot of bad things as a kid, but I remember this 50 years later.

It was a cruel, heartless, mean thing to do.  I was one of those people who had scarred him for life, ruined his trust in people.  I wish  now that I could go back and really apologize for what I did, but it's too late.  I never saw the boy again, we moved away.  I never even knew his name.  But as a Christian I realize that every sin I commit is first of all a sin against God.  God told me I was to love my neighbor as myself, and I had broken His law by doing what I did.  My youth was no excuse, I knew full well what I was doing was wrong.

There are some sins it is too late to apologize and receive forgiveness for from people, but since all sins are sins against God, it is never too late to find forgiveness from the One we have truly sinned against.  And Jesus is the friend of sinners.  Even sinners like me.

Is Visionary Leadership all its cracked up to be?

It is almost like a knee reflex for pastors, we must have and be able to constantly articulate a "vision" for our church and our ministry.  If we don't, something is wrong with us (or we're just ignorant, uneducated, or backwards).  I've always identified a bit with George Bush Sr. when he was campaigning for a second term as President and was questioned about what his vision for America was.  He said he wasn't sure he really understood "this vision thing."  He came off looking bad and without any plan for the future, but I, for one, empathized.  I can't help wondering if this "vision" thing is often more of a curse than a blessing, more like handcuffs than a road map.

The idea is that the pastor (or leader) is supposed to have this divine compass that knows precisely what direction the church should go in to fulfill its calling.  How we're supposed to have come by this ability is beyond me.  I echo the feeling of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who warned in Life Together that "God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious.  The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself.  He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly...He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together.  When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure.  When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash.  So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself."

I speak from experience as the church I am now pastoring had languished for a number of years with no pastor before I showed up.  I teamed up with a guy with 20+ years of successful pastoral experience, and I had the same.  We had a vision of what the church should be.  We communicated that vision many different ways in different settings.  The church bought our vision and dove in.  Then it all tanked.  Nothing worked.  No one was being brought to Christ, disunity was ripe, confusion was rampant and despair was palpable.  I was tempted to put the blame on the stubborn people who were in the church, or the leaders I had inherited, or that God Himself was just through with this church, and finally, that I was just an unmitigated failure, thus fulfilling Bonhoeffer's words, "first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself."

I guess I'm not really against visionary leadership, only finding that vision within ourselves.  After all our failures, our little church went back to the basics: what is a church, and what are we here for?  About 5 years later we are averaging over 10% conversion rates in all ages, children, youth, and adult.  We are beginning cutting edge ministries in our little hamlet that reach out to our urban barrio.  The church has grown, unity has replaced disunity, and we are really enjoying ministry and fellowship.

We found our vision: Jesus came to seek and to save the lost.  It wasn't original with us, but we decided that piggy-backing on that vision was a pretty safe way to go.  When we did that, doors opened up that have never closed.  We dared to assume that as Jesus said, "the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few."  So we began seeking ways to reach the people we believed God was already leading to Himself.  Those cutting edge things we tried came about not from me being a "visionary" but from all of us adopting the heart and mission of Jesus.  Our mission statement is predictably simple: to help people find their way back to God.  It is also responsible for dozens of new lives in Christ, and a new passion for a once old dying church.

My advice to those struggling with finding their "vision?"  Chuck it.  Chuck the whole idea of it.  When you start doing what Jesus is doing, He will show you myriads of ways to reach people.  When you sit and try to pontificate a "vision" you will only get a bad case of balloonius headius.


Jesus and Aragorn!

            Most people who know me are aware that I am a J. R. Tolkien fan.  I absolutely love the Hobbit, and the trilogy, the Lord of the Rings.  One of the main characters in the Lord of the Rings trilogy is a man named Strider.  He is a Ranger from the north, tall, lanky, quiet but with a definite authority about him.  He is fearless, but not a bully.  The Hobbits call him Strider because of his long legs.  When he enters the story, no one is really impressed with him.  He seems a bit suspicious, a bit strange, but he knows a lot about what is going on in the world, and he seems much older than he is. 
            Many people treat him with disrespect and disdain, but the longer this Strider is around the more you become impressed with him.  Slowly throughout the books you learn that this weather beaten Ranger, is actually Aragorn, the rightful heir to the Kingdom of Gondor.  At the end of the book, He comes to Gondor to claim his rightful kingdom, but the Steward of Gondor, the man who was reigning until the rightful king should return did not want to believe that Aragorn was that man.  He wanted to hold on to his power, he didn’t think Aragorn was worthy of the position.  So there is a conflict of Kingdoms, the Kingdom of the Stewards who had been entrusted with leading the kingdom in the absence of the King, and the rightful King who returns to receive His Kingdom.  It’s a great picture of Jesus coming into our world, and I’m not sure that Tolkien, a Christian, didn’t have that in mind. 
            When Jesus returned to the world He had made, He had the same kind of problem.  He came off as poor, unlearned, without any social standing and yet He was the rightful King come to inaugurate a new Kingdom.  But the people in power, the religious leaders who considered themselves the stewards of the Kingdom didn’t welcome Him.  His authority challenged theirs, His claims angered them.  And we see that the story of Jesus is the story of Kingdoms in Conflict.  A new Kingdom is being inaugurated by Jesus, but this new Kingdom challenges the old one, resulting in constant conflict.  
             But that's not the end of the story--because we experience the same things in our lives.  Each one of us are our own kingdoms, and we reign over them, we’re the Kings and Queens of our little fiefdoms.  And then along comes Jesus claiming that He is King over us, and we balk, we hesitate, or we strike back in anger.  Our kingdoms are also in conflict.  
             Aragorn wins his kingdom back, and so will our Lord.  For us, the question we need to ask is: does Jesus have to win His kingdom back from me, or will I gladly hand it over?  Am I being a good steward of the "Kingdom of Dan?"  Will I give Him the keys to my kingdom?  Will I truly allow Him to rule over my kingdom, or try to keep part of it back?  We enter His peace when we surrender, we enter His joy when we give up what we cannot rule effectively anyway.  

When God Just Isn't Good Enough

           CS Lewis, in his book, God in the Dock, answers a question about Jesus this way:  “What are we to make of Jesus Christ?    This is a question, which has, in a sense a frantically comic side.  For the real question is not what are we to make of Christ, but what is He to make of us.  The picture of a fly sitting deciding what it is going to make of an elephant has comic elements about it.” 
            The reason Lewis brings this up is that most of us do believe that what we think of Jesus is the most important thing.  For all the irony this thought entails, we do judge God.  We decide whether or not He is worth believing in, whether or not He lives up to our expectations of what our God should be, whether or not He is moral enough, powerful enough, relevant enough.  It’s really a rather tragic farce.  For many people, the honest truth is that, to them, God just isn’t good enough.
            When you begin to talk to people about God, listen to them talking about God with others, you get the clear impression that God just isn’t good enough—at least the God of the Bible.  It’s an interesting statement isn’t it:  God isn’t good enough.  The Bible tells us that God visited our planet to help us to understand Him better, and to rescue us from our sin and the judgment it entailed.  So God came to visit us in the person of Jesus—and when He did, we deemed him not good enough.  Perfect God walked the planet as perfect Man and we deemed Him not good enough for us to believe in, and worship.  Hell will be filled with people for whom God wasn’t good enough.  They will have heard of Him, learned about Him, perhaps even called themselves religious—but Jesus was still just not good enough for them.
            They wanted something different.  They wanted something more.  They wanted someone tamer.  They wanted someone more PC.  They wanted something and someone…else.  Fredericka Mathewes Greene, a writer, and Christian intellectual wrote a book called At the Corner of East and Now: A Modern Life in Ancient Christian Orthodoxy.  In it, she recalls how she came to faith, more importantly, how she at first resisted and dismissed Jesus and Christianity. 
“Back in my college days I was pretty dismissive of Christianity.  To be more accurate, I was contemptuous and hostile.  Though raised in a minimally Christian home, I had rejected the faith by my early teens.  I remained spiritually curious, however, and spent the following years browsing the world’s spiritual food court, gathering tasty delights.  The core of my home-made belief system was “the life force;” the raw energy of life, I’d concluded, was the essence of God, and the various world religions were poetic attempts to express that truth.  I selected among those scraps of poetry as they pleased me.  “My senior college year I gained a startling insight: I realized that my selections were inevitably conditioned by my own tastes, prejudices and blind spots.  I was patching together a Frankenstein God in my own image, and it would never be taller than 5’1. "
Greene finally realized that she was making a god of her own.  Eventually she met Jesus and gave her life to Him.  He was so much more than she had thought He was.  Initially for her, and for so many others, God just wasn’t good enough.  When Jesus returned to his hometown of Nazareth, the placed He grew up, everyone was impressed and excited He was back.  They heard Him speak, make some amazing claims, and were still impressed.  Then, quickly, the script changes and He is chased out of town.  Within a few moments the friendly welcome is gone and the wheels fall off their relationship with Jesus.  It happens so abruptly it’s disconcerting.  What in the world happened? 
          What happened is precisely the same thing that has been happening ever since.  We can see here: The Anatomy of Rejection.  Few people start off hating Jesus and what He says.  Something makes it happen.  
           In Luke 4:14-30 we can see the Anatomy of a rejection through the actions of his home town.  It starts off good, and everyone is excited, until Jesus starts talking about things that aren't complimentary to them.  Here is the downward progression.  

Good Vibes:  The reputation of Jesus attracts me (v.14-15)
Enticing Ideas: The words of Jesus fascinate me (v.16-22a)
Troubling thoughts: The claims of Jesus bother me (v.22b)
Unwelcome Realities: The truths of Jesus insult me (v.23-28)
Ultimate Rejection: The Jesus of the New Testament repels me (v.29-30)

          Jesus told them the truth, even when He knew how they would respond to it.  That's why today, most people are both impressed and skeptical of Jesus.  They can't help being impressed with what He did, but can't help being offended by what He says about them.  This helps us to understand why Jesus is both admired and reviled in our world.  

           God is good enough.  It just seems strange to have to affirm that kind of a truth.  

Jesus--the Rosetta stone of our faith

Scholar Richard Niebuhr once compared Jesus to the Rosetta Stone.  For years Egyptologists could only guess at the meanings of the hieroglyphics. Then one day they found the Rosetta Stone, and on this stone they saw the same text reproduced in Greek, ordinary Egyptian script, and hieroglyphics.  By comparing what they knew of the other languages they could finally decipher the hieroglyphics.  Now they could know what they could only guess at before.  Niebuhr said that Jesus is like that for us.  When God is confusing, when we’re not sure what He’s really like, or what He really wants, we can gaze steadily at Jesus, because He’s the image of the Invisible God, the Rosetta Stone of our faith.  
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