The Danger of a Familiar Christmas

Going to use several guests to prepare us for Christmas this year.  Advent is often skipped in the mad dash of “preparation.”  Heed the warning of J.B. Phillips:

“According to an old saying, familiarity breeds contempt. Of course this is not always true! In particular, it is often not true of people with whom we are familiar. Indeed, with the best kind of friends, the more we know them the more we grow to love and respect them. It is only the people who are superficial and at heart unreal who let us down when we grow familiar with them. It is then that our previous admiration can turn to contempt.

But the old saying was not intended to apply only to human relationships. There are situations where human beings are at first filled with awe, and then as they grow more and more familiar with them they experience first indifference, and then contempt. The “spiderman” who works on scaffolding hundreds of feet above the ground, has to be on his guard against this over-familiarity. The man who works with high-voltage electricity must also beware of becoming contemptuous of his danger. And anyone who knows the sea will say to you in effect, “By all means love the sea, but never lose your respect for it.” Whenever familiarity breeds contempt there is potential danger.

The particular danger which faces us as Christmas approaches is unlikely to be contempt for the sacred season, but nevertheless our familiarity with it may easily produce in us a kind of indifference. The true wonder and mystery may leave us unmoved; familiarity may easily blind us to the shining fact that lies at the heart of Christmastide.

What we are in fact celebrating is the awe-inspiring humility of God, and no amount of familiarity with the trappings of Christmas should ever blind us to its quiet but explosive significance. For Christians believe that so great is God’s love and concern for humanity that he himself became a man. Amid the sparkle and the color and music of the day’s celebration we do well to remember that God’s insertion of himself into human history was achieved with an almost frightening quietness and humility. There was no advertisement, no publicity, no special privilege; in fact the entry of God into his own world was almost heartbreakingly humble. In sober fact there is little romance or beauty in the thought of a young woman looking desperately for a place where she could give birth to her first baby. I do not think for a moment that Mary complained, but it is a bitter commentary upon the world that no one would give up a bed for the pregnant woman?and that the Son of God must be born in a stable.

This almost beggarly beginning has been romanticized by artists and poets throughout the centuries. Yet I believe that at least once a year we should look steadily at the historic fact, and not at any pretty picture. At the time of this astonishing event only a handful of people knew what had happened. And as far as we know, no one spoke openly about it for thirty years. Even when the baby was grown to be a man, only a few recognized him for who he really was. Two or three years of teaching and preaching and healing people, and his work was finished. He was betrayed and judicially murdered, deserted at the end by all his friends. By normal human standards this is a tragic little tale of failure, the rather squalid story of a promising young man from a humble home, put to death by the envy and malice of the professional men of religion. All this happened in an obscure, occupied province of the vast Roman Empire.

It is fifteen hundred years ago that this apparently invincible Empire utterly collapsed, and all that is left of it is ruins. Yet the little baby, born in such pitiful humility and cut down as a young man in his prime, commands the allegiance of millions of people all over the world. Although they have never seen him, he has become friend and companion to innumerable people. This undeniable fact is, by any measurement, the most astonishing phenomenon in human history. It is a solid rock of evidence that no agnostic can ever explain away.

–         J. B. Phillips  (From “The Dangers of Advent” in Watch For the Light:  Readings for Advent and Christmas, pp. 20-24.)

Thanksgiving or Thanksreceiving?

Philippians 1:3 – I thank my God every time I remember you.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!  Wanted to share a little thanksgiving humor today from another blog titled “Turning Thankgiving into Thanksreceiving” by Paul Johnson.  It is a tongue-in-cheek (I hope) look at people that do their best to impress at the Thanksgiving feast.  He suggests hosting the meal because “Thanksgiving is the perfect opportunity for you to leave subtle clues around your house about being an impressive person.”

He suggests:  “Making your medicine cabinet as impressive as possible.”  “…removing the embarrassing products, why not replace them with all your trophies, college transcripts showing your outstanding GPA, and a solved Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle?”

He also suggests leaving “complex scientific notes lying around.”

He also says to :  “Hide tools around the house so people will think of you as handy and masculine.” “Why not leave a drill under a couch cushion?  When a guest sits down he’ll immediately jump back up to pull the drill out from under him.  “I was wondering where I left that drill,” I nonchalantly tell him.  “I totally forgot it was under the cushion when I finished building the couch.”

He also suggests leaving an open datebook in the bathroom that looks like this: 

Check out the entire hilarious blog:

As I read this I can think of some gifts we can give the guests at our feasts today:  the benefit of the doubt, their point, their moment in the spotlight, our forgiveness, our attention… our love.

Be a Thanksgiver today!

Confessions of a Department Store Santa

1 Thessalonians 5:18

“Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

What warms the heart of Kris Kringle?  Never thought I would be in a position to know.  But I had the opportunity for the last two Saturdays to don the beard and hat and spread some Christmas cheer at a local department store.  I must say I learned a lot filling in for the “big guy.”  I first learned that even small children aren’t afraid to throw their friends under the… umm… sleigh.  The first child I came up (about 4 years old) had an urgent message to tell me:  “My friends…  have been bad.”  Ouch!  Squealing on your friends to Santa!

The second thing I learned is that adults are far more gloomy than teens and kids.  I heard plenty of “It’s not Thanksgiving yet!”  and “You’re an awful skinny Santa.”  One lady told me to get away from her until after Thanksgiving!

Lastly I learned how important a good reputation is.  Saint Nicolas (270-346) had such a reputation for charity and love, that all one needs to do today is don a costume in his honor and that individual will be showered with warm hugs and ‘I Love You’s.  I feel I have received blessing after blessing based upon the virtue of another man.

But what warms a Santa’s heart?  It is this… witnessing gratitude.  I walk around our little store and hand out peppermints to everyone.  When I hand one to a child you would have thought I had given them a bar of gold.  Some parents have to remind, but most of the time I hear from these young ones those magic words:  “Thank you, Santa.”  Some of the teens and adults say this as well.  It warms my heart that such manners are still being taught and executed.  This lesson will take these children… and adults far.

How about you?  Do you have someone that you are thankful for?  Have you told them?  Bet it would warm their heart!

Thanks a Lot!

Psalm 95

“Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song.” 

I love the brute honesty of author, Don Everts, who wrote;  “Thanksgiving has been difficult for me because so much of the well-being of my soul tends to depend upon my day-to-day circumstances.  I am a slave to my own personal weather systems.  If it’s been a good week, I have an easier time feeling good about what Jesus has done for me on the cross.  But if I am a little depressed or frustrated, my soul is anything but thankful.”  (Everts, God in the Flesh, p. 121.)

We don’t mean to be fair weather friends, but how we express our gratitude reveals our heart.  Sometimes when things are going wrong we will look up to heaven with a sarcastic:  “Thanks a lot!”  We step over blessing after blessing in our race to get to what we want in life, yet at the sign of our first obstacle we forget about all that which has come before.

In Psalm 95 we have a contrast of grateful hearts and ingrates.  Verses 1 through 7 are crescendo in praise…  for the mountain, the sea, etc.  We are told to praise God for all of creation.  We are told to bow before him and worship him.  We are indeed a flock under his care.

Verses 8 through 11 contrast this picture of trust with the negative example of the Israelites during their desert wanderings.  “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the desert, where your fathers tested and tried me, though they had seen what I did.” (95:8-9)

What had they seen?  The parting of the Red Sea.  The budding of Aaron’s staff.  The provision of food and water throughout the journey up to this point.  And yet facing a new wasteland withoutwater they begin to quarrel with Moses and Aaron.  But it wasn’t leadership they were really arguing with at all… according to Psalm 95, it was God they were testing and trying!  Fairweather gratitude indeed!

As we enter this season of thanksgiving, let’s take inventory of all that we have seen the Lord do in our lives. A man name Bud runs a homeless shelter for women and children named New Life.  He writes:  “Before eating together, we gather in a circle, hold hands, and sing a prayer: “Our God is good to us.  And so we thank our God, for giving us the things we need, the sun and the rain and the food we eat.”  A visitor once asked if that kind of song was appropriate for homeless people.  Let me tell you, it is abundantly clear that the people in that room have more sense of thanksgiving and praise than many people in the average suburban pew.  They pray unashamedly, just to survive, and thank God for every little blessing that comes their way.  (Quoted by Philip Yancey in Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference?, p. 277.)

With all sincerity cry out to God:  “Thanks a lot!  Thank you for the mountains!  Thank you for the sea!  For the sun, the rain and the food we eat!  Thank you, Lord!  Thanks a lot!”

Sacrifice Without Love is Worthless

1 Corinthians 13:3

If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Now, the Corinthians continue… how about charitable work?  We love to give to worthy causes.  Doesn’t this qualify for maturity?

Paul says: Without Love Giving and Sacrifice are Worthless.

We all know how  important giving is.  We keep the lights  on, support foreign missionaries, throw Harvest parties for the children of our city, feed the poor… what could be more blessed than that?

Now in Paul’s day the Jews saw alms giving as one of the greatest  acts of devotion.  The early Christians continued with that tradition and saw it as an important display of piety.  In Galatians 2:10, the early church said it was okay for Paul to go to the Gentiles and minister… just for him to continue to remember the poor.  Paul isn’t saying that giving is wrong… he just says it needs to be done with love.

In fact in Paul’s example he goes to the extreme:  Suppose someone gave their body to be burned… A martyr for the cause of Christ.  We not have many people doing such things today… but we do have people “burn themselves out” for the Lord.

Paul says that even one that possessed such devotion… without love to motivate it… it would be of no value to the person that sacrificed.  It will just leave your pockets empty and your flesh charred.

World Vision Founder Bob Pierce lived by the motto that God’s workers should “burn out, not rust out.” The man’s intense devotion
to have his heart break with the things that break the heart of God… led to a highly successful ministry to the world’s poor.

But author Tim Stafford writes:   “The same intensity led to his downfall. He had an ungoverned temper and frequently clashed with the World Vision board, particularly over his insistence on making financial commitments on the fly. He traveled as much as 10 months of the year, and his family suffered. “I’ve made an agreement with God,” he said, “that I’ll take care of his helpless little lambs overseas if he’ll take care of mine at home.” In 1963 he had a nervous breakdown. For nine months he almost disappeared, preferring to travel the world rather than return home. In 1967 he resigned from World Vision, bitter at those whom he felt interfered with his organization. On a 1968 good-bye tour of Asia, his daughter Sharon reached him by phone. She asked if he could come home, but he refused, saying that he wanted to extend his trip to Vietnam.
His wife, Lorraine, started home immediately, but by the time she arrived, Sharon had tried to commit suicide. Later that year, she tried again and succeeded.  By then Pierce was hospitalized in Switzerland. He would stay there for a year, treated with insulin and other drugs. The following year, he took over a small hunger organization that became Samaritan’s Purse. In 1970 he legally separated from his wife. His daughter Marilee wrote that his memory was “badly crippled” and his mind “frequently unclear.” Just
once, in September 1978, the family was able to gather for an evening of reconciliation. Four days later, Pierce died.  (Tim Stafford, “Imperfect Instrument,” Christianity Today (March 2005) p. 56

Maybe “burn out” and “rust out” aren’t the only two choices one can make.  So let’s put this together… we want to know, what’s love got to do with it?

You don’t have to possess eloquence to be called mature… You may a beginning Bible student… but you can love people.

You may not be first to think of a bold new advance for the kingdom… and not have as much to give as much as others do… but you can love people.

Maybe you haven’t “flamed out for the Lord”… but you can still love people… and be more mature than the best public speaker, greatest scholar and most respected philanthropist.