Stories Are Crucial for Kids (And Adults)

I’ve just finished my first listen-through of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol for this Christmas season. Yes, I said first. I have an audio version read by the incredible Tim Curry. He pours so much into the story that I still find myself tearing up at his performance of Bob Cratchett’s loss of Tiny Tim and Scrooge’s regret at rejecting Belle. That story reminds me of so much that is good in humanity. It reminds me that God made us good and we need a stiff, if frightening, reminder of God’s expectation occasionally.

In some discussions lately, I feel like stories have been getting a bad rap in the church. In particular, it seems like as people grow older, the stories in the Bible seem to feel less meaningful than abstract discussion of doctrine or nuance of interpretation. While I, for one, do enjoy a good roundabout, late-night jaunt through the finer points of theology, kids aren’t really built for that.

Kids go through very specific developmental phases as they age. At each stage their thinking is defined by typical thought patterns that are generally common to that group. For example, children don’t really understand the idea that there is a perspective outside of their own until they are around 7 years old. Think about that for a second. Children typically aren’t wired to handle abstract discussions about things like faith, love, and kindness until the age of twelve – and that’s when the concepts start to make sense. And, remember, these age categories are fluid and change depending on the child. Some hit markers early, and some later.

That said, kids learn best through storytelling. The story of the Good Samaritan makes way more sense of the phrase “love your neighbor” than a discussion about the concept of kindness. Stories help make abstract concepts concrete. But stories do more than that.

Stories help make sense of our faith. Yes, we can talk about trusting God through the toughest times, but the stories of Job, Elijah, Moses, Abraham, and Mary humanize the concept and make it more real. One word that occurs regularly in the law and prophets is “remember.” Whether God is remembering His people’s plight or the people are remembering their covenant, remembering happens in the context of a story. If you were to read the entire Hebrew Bible, you’d notice how often the Exodus story is retold over and over in the prophets. You might even catch that Jesus intentionally places his act of self-sacrifice within the context of that same story. The story, the narrative that God is crafting throughout Scripture tells more about who God is than an abstract discussion. God is active in these stories and that action shows us His nature.

Just because you learned or enjoyed something as a child doesn’t mean it has no bearing on you as an adult. Sure, I grew up, but I still enjoy the foods, stories, and movies I watched as a child. In fact, I get so much more from them now that I have more experience.

So don’t give up on stories just because you grew up. Instead, live in them. Let the stories change who you are becoming. Don’t forget the power of a story to influence who you are.

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A Dirty, Filthy Christmas

(PHOTO: JOE ALBLAS)

It’s been pretty worn out the joke, “But it wasn’t a very Silent Night now was it?” Therefore, I’ll spare you the trite joke at a woman’s expense, especially since I’ve now watched the pregnancy and birth process first hand. It’s clear Silent Night was written by men who probably weren’t allowed in the birthing chambers.

That said, there’s so much more to the Christmas story than, again, pointing out that childbirth is a long, difficult process. Let’s start with the two ladies who God chooses to kick this thing off.

Elizabeth is visited first. The old blessing, “May you be like Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel,” certainly stuck with her. Like those women of the ancient world, Elizabeth found herself unable to have children and getting up there in years. Those around her would have been asking, “What did she do to tick off God?” Or maybe asking the same about her husband. In spite of her plight and faithful suffering, God decides to bless her with a son. Suddenly, Luke kicks off with a nod to Genesis with an angel appearing to Zechariah (playing the part of Abraham) to announce the birth of a son. In a flip on the Abraham story, Zechariah is the one who doubts and receives a rebuke, while Elizabeth faithfully accepts. Luke is getting us ready for an unexpected announcement by using this familiar Jewish formula (Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah, and others.)

And so the story continues with an angel appearing to a woman who was not only unmarried, but had never been with a man sexually. The story of the Jewish matriarch was about to be taken to the extreme as Gabriel announced to Mary. (Gabriel first appears in the book of Daniel, again harkening back to the time of silence, the coming Son of Man, and Jewish hopes!) This Matriarch wasn’t just having trouble conceiving, the very idea of it was impossible! But here God was, taken his own story and filling it full of even more meaning by having a virgin give birth! Those familiar with the Genesis and rest of the Hebrew Bible would find this story shockingly new and yet familiar at the same time!

And now onto the dirty stuff! Ok, so I’m a nerd. (Surprise, that, right?) I am one of those people who find Leviticus and Deuteronomy fascinating. I find them fascinating for what they have to say about the life of Jesus.

So, as you’re probably aware, there were taboos in the Mosaic Law – meaning things that could prevent one from entering the Temple grounds without going through a specific cleansing ritual. One of those taboos was coming into contact with blood or issuing forth blood, such as menstruating, or giving birth. Women went through a specific cleansing ritual (as well as mandatory time off during their period) in order to join the congregation in the Temple after periods or childbirth. (John Goldingay goes into a good bit of detail in his commentary on Leviticus about this topic.)

That said, consider that Jesus entered the world covered in blood. His first act was to become unclean on our behalf. He would continue through life willingly taking on the state of “unclean” or “taboo” on behalf of others. Jesus touched lepers and others with disease – taboo. He visited tombs and walked near the dead to raise them back to life – taboo. He associated with sinners and Gentiles – taboo. Why would Jesus do that?

Well, consider that one way to translate God’s “forgiveness” is for God to “carry” the transgression. Jesus is a metaphor come to life in that he “carries” our filth, uncleanness, and sin to the cross where he destroys it.

Consider in Leviticus where the blood of sacrifices is often sprinkled – not on the people (except for once a year on the Day of Atonement) but on the furniture and altar of the Temple. The sacrifices were to cleanse the Sanctuary of our taboo that we brought with us into the Temple so that God could meet with His people. Now, bring that forward to Jesus – his blood covers us, making us clean so that God can dwell among us, in us. The promise of Emmanuel, God with us, is made more complete by us becoming the place where God dwells, where God meets with His people.

So, no. The Christmas Story is not clean. It’s dirty, covered in blood and messy. And, yet, it’s reassuring.

Protesting Christmas?

If you must know, by the time you’re reading this, I will have been listening to Christmas music for a couple of weeks. Yes, right after Halloween does seem a little early, I agree. And I will also admit that my taste in Christmas music usually errs on the side of older carols and orchestral arrangements (with some Harry Connick Jr. and John Denver added for good measure.) So if you don’t want to hear Christmas music until after Thanksgiving, avoid my office at church until then.

One thought that struck me this July (yes, July) was just how many Christmas songs (modern, anyway) are protest songs. “Do You Hear What I Hear?” was written around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis and was protesting the nuclear situation during which the world sat with bated breath hoping for a peaceful solution. “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is another song that attempts to call the listener’s attention to the problems of poverty, sickness, and a lack of hope that some might feel. There are plenty of lists on websites all over the web with more examples.

It’s important to note that the first Advent song was also pointing out that God sees the poor and lowly and seeks justice for them. Mary sang the Magnificat (Luke 2) which is a song declaring God’s saving power and action on behalf of his people, particularly those who have no voice or power of their own. It’s a song born out of a lingering sense of exile, despite living in the land of promise, despite having a reconstructed Temple, despite having many of the blessings that God had promised, despite their hopes and beliefs. Things still weren’t quite right.

And they still aren’t. But. And I love this “but.” God is working. God is on the move. Jesus has come. Jesus has defeated the great enemies of sin and death. Jesus has risen again, bringing with him new life and the promise of complete restoration! But not yet. (And that “but,” I’m not as fond of.)

As Advent approaches and we think about how God’s people waited for years for God to appear, to return to His people in a new way. We also wait for something similar. We wait for God to appear in His glory to finally make everything right, to bring history to its brilliant climax – bringing with Him justice, along with mercy.

And so we wait. We, too, wait for that day. And we work. We follow. We seek. Keep watching. Keep praying. Keep serving. The King is coming. May you be blessed this Christmas season.

5 Surprising Christmas Heresies

Every year I am shocked and appalled by the number of individuals who spout heretical beliefs about Christmas. These beliefs do nothing but endanger the spirit of Christmas and holiday cheer. I like to consider myself an orthodox Christmas celebrator, but even I may fall victim to having shades of these dark heresies lurking among my celebrations. Be vigilant and know how to guard yourself.

The Nogmenian Heresy

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These heretics are those individuals who purchase and drink Egg Nog before the official start date of the Christmas season – Thanksgiving Day – the earliest a Christmas tree should go up (barring certain special exceptions for accommodating out-of-town family.) These heretics are seeking to earn their way into Christmas instead of allowing Christmas cheer to meet them at the appropriate time. Christmas cheer isn’t something to be earned or striven for, but a free gift of the season. These heretics often have marketing jobs and are leading millions astray by putting up Christmas displays in stores before Halloween. Heresy generally starts small, but can grow to unimaginably horrific proportions.

The Jingle-onatist Heresy

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There is one exception to the Nogmenian Heresy – Christmas music. Christmas music may be played at any time of the year someone needs a short burst of joy and hope. The Jingle-onatists, however, see this is an evil that is unforgivable. Their lack of true Christmas spirit sends them into a rage when Christmas music is played outside of the Thanksgiving – New Year time slot. These Jingle-onatists look down on the lowly, humble, and needy with haughty eyes and cold hearts even during the difficult periods of the calendar. Guard yourself against this lack of generosity and allow yourself to rejoice in the happiness of others.

The Santarian Heresy

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These are those heartless individuals who would go about with “Merry Christmas” on their lips, but despising Santa Claus in their hearts. These are those that… I can barely bring myself to write the words… don’t believe in Santa. They would ruin the Christmas joy for others by relegating a beautiful story about a man so unconcerned with himself that his entire year is dedicated to making gifts to give away for free to children as a story meant for the ignorant and childish. These people say Santa is merely a man, although a quite incredible historical figure, while discounting the more legendary aspects and feats of his life. This heresy is heartbreaking enough when it is kept in the shadowy places of the heart, but even worse when it pours out its venom on Christmas celebrations.

http://wcrz.com/how-to-explain-santa-to-children/

The Cupnostic Heresy

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This truly baffling heresy has taken root in the coffee-obsessed culture, especially of America. Every year now, for the last several years, Cupnostics have taken to social media to protest coffee cups that don’t seem, well, Christmas-y enough. Personally, if someone has enough energy in the morning to complain about the packaging their coffee or tea arrives in, their priorities are confused, and maybe they don’t need the caffeine anyway and should skip this morning ritual. See, these people see a fundamental separation between the matter of the cup and the spirit of the drink inside. Instead of seeing both as a beautiful combination of function and life, they complain about the evil of the cup while celebrating and cherishing the spirit of the fluid inside. This is just tedious and silly. Just enjoy the peppermint-mocha-frap-milky-thing-with-a-drop-of-coffee as you hold the beautiful container containing it.

The Sweaterists

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I must still do research on this particular group to discover whether it is, in fact, heretical, or just a new way of celebrating the season. This group seeks to wear ugly Christmas sweaters… ironically. Suddenly, a whole market has emerged for ironically ugly Christmas sweaters that cater to nearly every taste. Before, ugly Christmas sweaters were unironically given gifts meant to warm hearts, and flush faces with humility during the Christmas season. And let’s be honest, most of the “ugly” Christmas sweaters aren’t so much ugly as just tacky – which we in the South understand and celebrate with glee. We do tacky Christmas better than just about anyone. So I put this group on notice – research and interviews will continue to determine its status as a Christmas Heresy or offshoot of Christmas orthodoxy.

May you have a wonderful Christmas season, free of heresy, and full of joy, hope, love, and cheer. And however you celebrate, Merry Christmas.

I Am Sure Glad Genghis Khan Wasn’t the Messiah!

I’ve recently begun playing an “empire building” game… mostly because my laptop cannot run anything more recent than 2007. Besides the game’s AI playing a horribly ironic prank on me (making my chosen world leader, Genghis Khan, start on an island with no exit…), it’s been an interesting exercise in considering how I would run a civilization. My tendency is to play defensively and work toward world peace and unity… except with the Genghis Khan playthrough, because that wouldn’t make sense, would it? I do pause and consider my actions before attacking another city…

That aggressive method of world diplomacy goes directly against what I’ve been reading in Zechariah. In between all of the promises of blessing, encouragement to complete the work on the second temple, and charges to live faithfully in regards to one another, one passage jumped out at me. On my first reading, I found myself shocked at the mention of Judah being given so much compassion and mercy by God that they would weep at what their hands had done in fighting off the nations around them and beg for God to spare those same nations that had threatened them.

I sat and meditated on that idea for a while. What kind of compassion would we need to have within us to weep for our enemies… as if they were our only child? What kind of compassion and forgiveness would we need to weep for a terrorist killed in action? Or an abuser, oppressor, or someone else who has harmed us? What kind of heart change is that?

We hear of stories where families forgive the murderer of their loved one. That family may go as far as to fight against the death penalty for a lighter (albeit still severe) sentencing. I wonder what that struggle to forgive looks like… Maybe God still has some work to do on me, but the idea of weeping over that person’s misfortune seems so far out as to seem absurd.

And yet, God’s compassion and mercy are so great that we celebrate His generosity every Christmas with the gift of Jesus. Unlike my Genghis Khan, God chose to inaugurate His Kingdom with a child, with a living testimony, with a sacrifice, and with a resurrection. As powerful as God is, the picture He gives to us is a King entering on the back of a donkey, a King coming to conquer with peace, humility, and liberation. As I look at my own daughter, with her beautiful blue eyes, I wonder how hard Joseph’s world was rocked holding Jesus for the first time. Joseph held a King, a Redeemer, the Messiah.  All the hopes, dreams, and prayers of the Jewish people leading to this. Was it what he expected?

And Mary… was her compassion big enough to weep for those who had crucified her son? Did Joseph have enough to forgive those who called his son crazy, or demon-possessed as Jesus began his ministry?

How is God molding you into a picture of His love and grace, compassion and forgiveness? How do you model compassion to your children?

Christmas Is Coming…

Advent has begun.

As I write this, it is mid-November, and I have been listening to Christmas music for half a month now. This year our church has decided to be a little more low-key about the Christmas season. Our huge Bethelehem Walk is on a break, so for this year I get to savor Christmas. I’ve also had two cups of coffee in quick succession this morning, so I’m pretty excited about life!

The original advent lasted hundreds of years, and not just a month before Christmas. The Jewish people were resting all of their hopes on God’s promises of freedom and an end to the exile. Sure, the physical exile was over, Jews once again lived in Judea and Galilee, and there was a Jewish king on the throne and a high priest in the Temple. But things weren’t right… all the way. The king wasn’t from David’s line. The high priests were a wealthy family who had a hand in politics. Oh, and Rome had its grubby little (well, not so little) paws all over the territory. Rome had a special interest in this region of the world because of Egypt and the surrounding area’s ability to grow wheat to feed a gigantic empire. There was peace on earth and goodwill toward men… so long as you stayed in line, were actually a man, not a slave, and had the coveted status of Roman citizen. So, maybe the Pax Romana had a few caveats…

The Jewish people languished under Roman rule. What did it even mean to be Jewish under Roman rule? How long would God wait to overthrow the Romans and reestablish His Kingdom on earth? Hadn’t the seventy sevens been completed? Hadn’t the time arrived for the anointed one to appear, who would lead Israel to freedom and power, and create a new world where the nations fell under God’s generous rule? Maybe if they followed the rules even more strictly, something would happen. Maybe if they created monastic, apocalyptic communities to purify themselves, something would happen. Maybe if they prayed enough, or sacrificed enough, or were faithful enough, something would happen. But all they could hear was the deafening silence…

One young lady, though, received a visit. She was told to not fear, to find joy in the favor God had given her. She was given an opportunity. And, unlike many of the men of Scripture, she asked one question, and accepted her mission. What was that mission? She was to carry the Son of God. She was to give birth and raise a child who would grow up to be both king and high priest, who would represent Israel in Himself, who would shoulder the burden of the curse of the Law in order to break its power. This child would be God with His people – a more concrete presence than Israel had ever experienced, a walking, talking Temple.

Last year at this time, I was waiting with broken heart to hear two words, “I’m pregnant.” I, too, was anticipating a child, but one who hadn’t been promised. I was heartbroken, feeling exiled myself. I wondered what I needed to do to get God’s attention. I knew where God was, though, present with me as He has always been with His people. He sat with me as I wept, angrily pleaded, and finally accepted my situation. He listened, and let me continue waiting. What are you waiting for? What has you feeling exiled, broken, oppressed?

This year, though, is full of joyful expectation as I look forward to celebrating my little girl’s first Christmas. Don’t read into this that God always grants our requests. Read into it that I had hope over three years of trying and waiting. And my hope did not disappoint. Hope and trust are our greatest gifts, our greatest tools for dealing with the difficult times of life.

We must, like the 1st Century Jewish people, continue to hope against despair. We must stare into the face of the oppressive forces of this world with hope and trust in God firmly in our hearts, minds and hands. We must work and carry on, and day, one hour, one step at a time.

I encourage you to find time this Advent to stop and rest in God’s peace. This time of year can be a struggle, but look for the peace. Look for the moments of quiet anticipation. Maintain hope. Maybe, like Mary, you too can carry Jesus with you through this season.

Do your Christmas plans make time for calm, stillness, and peace? How does your family’s holiday schedule form your child’s priorities?

A Magical Christmas… Exorcism

Christmas morning is usually a time of magic, of romance, of joy and excitement. It’s a time when families connect around shared traditions and happiness. It’s usually a time when couples share tender glances over coffee and the delighted screams of children. A fire may be roaring in the fireplace, or gentle music playing in the background as the tree sparkles with all of the magic of Christmas.

I am a firm believer in the power of atmosphere to create a romantic mood. So, I wanted my wife and I’s first Christmas together to be perfect. The only downside was that we would have to get up much earlier to have a slow, romantic Christmas morning because we had church that morning. But I got to bed as early as possible after making sure all of Kristie’s gifts and stocking stuffers were tucked away in an easy-to-retrieve spot in my office. Anticipation made it hard to rest, but I tried my best.

Christmas morning arrived with a crack of light peeking through the darkness. I crept out of bed, threw on my soft gray robe and began setting the mood. I prepped for breakfast, which was going to be French toast royale. You should try it. It’s French toast covered with sliced bananas and doused with a cream cheese and maple syrup mixture that should only be legal on special occasions like this. I also, importantly, turned on the coffee pot. This was well before our Keurig ever became an integral part of our lives, so we had an old drip coffee maker that was on its last few legs and brewed quite slowly. But I added some special spices into the coffee to make the morning just that much more special while contributing a lovely rich smell to the house.

I rushed to my in-house office, which is really more a catch-all room, and grabbed the gifts and prepared them in a perfect balancing act of a heap in her usual spot on the couch. Once satisfied with this artistic feat of engineering, I turned on the tree, and placed our music into the stereo. Now, oddly enough, I have a very slow, gentle Celtic Christmas album that is quite soothing, followed by a slightly peppier instrumental album, and followed by Manheim Steamroller once things get rolling and everyone’s awake.

Now, the moment I have been waiting for. Like a prince in a Disney epic, I enter the room of the sleeping princess, and I tenderly place a kiss on her lips to awaken her from her rest. Her eyes flutter open, and I cheerfully say, “Merry Christmas!”

Now, in my preparation, I did not take into account whether or not to have a priest on standby for an emergency exorcism. I don’t know who responded to my, “Merry Christmas,” but it certainly wasn’t my beautiful, sweet, loving wife.

A deep, throaty growl summoned up from the bowels of hades itself roared out of my wife’s mouth, with a demanding, “What time is it?”

“A-about seven o’clock…” I stammered, endeavoring not to make any sudden movements for fear of retribution.

The voice replied with an aggressive growl, “Is the coffee ready?”

“Yes,” I said, keeping my tone and breathing level, making sure that this creature could sense no fear.

“I’ll be in there in a minute,” said the voice before my wife’s body rolled over under the covers. I backed away slowly, keeping my eyes on the small bundle of covers to make sure that no surprises would come from that quarter.

I sulked back into the living room, somewhat defeated, but still hopeful that the morning would be salvaged. After a few minutes, my wife stalked into the kitchen and prepared her coffee. She sipped it and the joined me in the living room, cradling the holy water that would banish the demon. She glanced at me and gave me a half-smile, and I breathed a sigh of relief knowing that I had escaped to live another day.

Moral of the story: Compromise and thoughtfulness are key to marriage. Another key is to be able to laugh together when things go slightly sideways and figure out a way to make things better. To be fair, the past four years I have come bearing prepared coffee to her night stand and have been much less energetically, obnoxiously cheerful in my Christmas greeting, and I have not heard the disturbing voice since.