Monday, December 17, 2012

Sad old thoughts on Newtown

Its now been several days removed from horrible massacre in Newtown. When tragedies like this happen, we all have defense mechanisms to help us cope (I'm talking about we bystanders-not the victims or families of such victims). Sometimes we run to agnosticism: how could God exist in this mess? Sometimes we assume God could have done nothing to stop this from happening. Sometimes we protect ourselves by just not allowing ourselves to feel such pain. I know I do that. Not that we become apathetic, but we don't allow ourselves to go to such despairing depths. 

Much has been written about this tragedy and how to process all this mess. These are simply some of my thoughts, that serve as counsel for myself, a distant bystander, and possibly other bystanders.
This is not advice, but how I, simply as a Christian first, and pastor second, think through this mess, and/or need to think through particularly rough acts of injustice. If you want to know how you can pray,  Scotty Smith gives a great explanation for how to pray for the families involved.

1.) Agnosticism. When suffering and injustice happen, the first response may be one of agnosticism. How can God be real and loving, and allow this to happen?  It makes sense at first to think like this. It really does, particularly when injustice happens to Christians, whom claim to be alone in receiving full favor from God (Luke 2:14). However in order to be consistent with the promise of Christianity, we have to remember that a life of no suffering is not promised to us; in fact, it is very much the opposite. Jesus promises us suffering. So does the writer of Hebrews (12:7-11) and Paul in II Tim 3:12. 

But Tim Keller also reminds us that if we use the existence of evil to conclude that God does not exist, we are ultimately committing intellectual suicide. Either God created us in His image and we know and can declare activity like this wrong, or we are a collection of atoms and chemicals without any way to declare this activity evil. Did precious children die or did molecules and chemicals become re-arranged? If there is no God, nor man/woman created in God's image, we can have no ultimate standard of goodness and cannot call this act evil. And we know this is evil!

2.) God can't control everything. This is comforting at some levels, because it makes God out to be gentle and loving and caring. He would have liked to stop these actions, but He can't because His hands are tied. Remember Free Will? But if this is the case, then you probably should limit your prayers to things that don't cause God to step on anyone's free will. Not sure how that would be possible though. If God can't stop these things, He is not a God worthy of your prayers. So we can't go there.

3.) Protective Apathy. Now I don't know anyone apathetic to 9/11 or this Newtown Tragedy. But sometimes I do try to distance myself from sadness. I don't want to think about it, or guess what, I feel sad too! I honestly don't dig sadness. Who does? But our Savior was no stranger to sadness, even entering into it. When sadness comes upon us, we don't need to protect ourselves by simply focusing on the positives. Below are John Piper's words from his daily advent devotional:

Many of you will feel loss this Christmas more pointedly than before. Don't block it out. Let it come. Feel it. What is love for, if not to intensify our affections-both in life and death? But O, do  not be bitter. It is tragically self-destructive to be bitter....Jesus came at Christmas time that we might have eternal life.

Running from sadness is not life. Jesus is life. Sadness about death can be good when it drives us to Him who is the Resurrection and the Life.

This injustice sucks. People are messed up. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, but there are special punishments for leading children astray (Mark 9:42). I can't imagine what happens to those who murder children. Lanza is not in a better place.

Yet nothing short of the Final Resurrection will bring back our believing loved ones. We grieve with hope, but we still grieve.

I'm actually quite saddened as I write this. I'm ready for Jesus to come back. Today. I don't get a vote, but I do get a prayer, found in the penultimate verse in the bible: "Come Lord Jesus." In Him is life forever more and in Him alone is, as Rich Mullins (whose life was cut short by car accident) sang, "a hope to carry on."

Monday, December 10, 2012

Why I'm glad we did a Xmas play

I asked a good friend of mine why she thought we were doing the Christmas pageant this year. She surprised me by her response, "Because you wanted us to do it." While I won't say this couldn't have been farther from the truth, it wasn't all that close to the truth either. I responded, "No, you wanted to do it. I never wanted to do it at all."

Now I wasn't ever against the Christmas play, but it was not my vision. It was the vision of another extremely creative and helpful volunteer laywoman.

Our pageant and dinner afterwards exceeded my expectations like Usain Bolt turning the corner in the 200 meters and leaving everyone/everything else looking forward. My expectations could only see reality from a distance, and then simply stand there amazed after the race.

Let me share with you several reasons why I now hope that the Christmas Pageant becomes a regular staple in Redeemer's celebration.

1.) Gifts. It takes a variety of gifts to pull off a pageant. Acting, administrating, artistic, planning, musicians, singers, technical, audio, "engineery" type people, leaders, followers. Pageants expose gifts in people that they or you (as pastor) didn't know existed. Now they always expose the need for the fruit of the Spirit (patience), but at the same time they also give Spirit the opportunity to produce fruit of the Spirit (patience). I witnessed that fruit.

2.) Outreach. This is always my concern with most children's activities: is there an outward component to our activity? We spend much time discipling our children in churches through regular Sunday School most of the year. If you want assistance in discipling your children, you have it. But what about spending a little energy on the kids/folks outside the church who don't know the hope and forgiveness of Christ? Since it was our first play, we didn't focus too much on outreach (we wanted to see a little of what we had before inviting those outside the church to see it), outside of ladies printing some very creative invitations. However, our church was packed for the play. Packed. And packed with folks outside the church. Were there unbelievers present? I can assume many were. Next year, we will make a more concerted effort to reach out. Regardless, many unbelieving folks outside the church were invited, and several came. Henderson's were 0-4, but I know of one woman who batted .333. Not bad!

These are great reasons to do a pageant. But let me tell you one more reason why I so thoroughly enjoyed doing the pageant and it had nothing necessarily to do with the performance last night.

3.) Discipleship. Children today know so much about so many things, but little about the bible. In a season dominated by Santa and toys, it is so important not only to keep Jesus in front of them, but to teach them the Christmas narrative. Isn't a Christmas play simply for parents to see their kids looking cute in costumes and mention Jesus when they can? I'll admit they looked super cute dressed up as a donkey, camel, or cow, but I think it can be much more than that.

At the beginning of most practices, I reiterated EVERY week, why we were doing the Xmas pageant: "To teach you guys the story and let you tell it back to us so that we can believe it too."

In Sunday School, before the pageant was performed, my wife began asking some kids about Gabriel, Mary and Elizabeth. The kids' thoughts quickly turned to, "Hmm...well first Mary sees Gabriel and is scared and drops her basket, and then...." They started thinking through things that they remembered from the play. They learned the Xmas story through the pageant. It was supplemental discipleship, and particularly helpful for visual and kinesthetic learning types. 

The Holy Spirit saw fit to teach the children the story. We accomplished the first part of our goal! The 2nd part is up in the air and will be less quantifiable. But why not aim big and trust the Spirit to finish the work He started? He may just use our feeble efforts to put people in the path of grace.

I could go on and on about other reasons for such a pageant such as the joy it brings people, the fellowship time it offers, the blessing it could be for the community. But I still can't get over the fact that the play, at least in part, accomplished what he had hoped set out for it to do. Amen.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Xmas questions from a Xmas Prude

I will confess something, I don't think I've ever been called a prude. But I'm beginning to think I am one, at least in part. I'm a self professed Xmas Prude. No one has ever called me that, at least to my face, or facebook, but I think I am. 

I must confess I do have strong opinions on how the Henderson family celebrates Christmas and Advent. We have convictions, but God gives me neither the right nor platform (pulpit, blog, relationships) to demand people to conform to our convictions. Our lives, thoughts, desires are to conform to Christ not to the pattern of this world (Romans 12:1-2). But our convictions are the applications of the transforming work of the Spirit, and we know that convictions will differ from person to person (Romans 14). Even to the point where some things might be sin to some and not to others.

We live, or at least I do and probably the few readers I have do, in America. We have American Christmas traditions. As a result, our celebration, will have an American feel to it. And that is fine. The celebration of Xmas is isn't in the bible per se, but we do say many folks celebrating our Savior's birth. So it's probably a good idea to do so.

But our celebration of Jesus' birth takes place within a culture; if he were born today in America, we wouldn't be bringing gold, frankinsense, and myrrh. Gifts and celebration would look more American. And they should today.

Yet that is only part of it. Because culture is shaped by people made in the image of God (good stuff will be present) yet fallen (bad stuff will also be present) we can't simply say, "We're Americans and this is what we do today."

So in lieu of a Christmas rant from a Christmas prude, I want to pose a few questions that may be helpful in discerning what God would have you do this Xmas season. I realize people have strong convictions about other issues, so this is how I would want them to treat me. Ask me questions, and trust I'm in God's Word, prayer, and in community. If we do those things, we can be confident that we're in God's will. So here they are!

1.) How does God want us to celebrate Xmas today? It is scary how fewer and fewer professing Christians even ask this question (in reference to anything). We all do a number of things to celebrate Xmas that are culturally conditioned, but the question is to what extent should that be the case? Does he want me to continue with Santa, Elf on Shelf from Hell(f), etc.....? Or in other words, is Jesus really cool with Santa, Elf on a Shelf, Frosty or any other myth we feel the need to perpetuate? On a side note, I think we all need to evaluate what we do each year (did we spend too much on our kids, did we bless other needy families or widows, did we care about others then but now?).

2.) Are these extra cultural figures things which harmlessly add to the anticipation of Xmas Day, or do they detract/distract/take away, serving as replacement saviors? In other words, are they primary or supplementary? I can see how kids enjoy Santa and Elves (though personally they are kind of freaky to me), and how parents find joy in them. But they need to be made supplementary. Just because kids enjoy them, doesn't make them good. I stole that idea from this article on kids and Sabbath keeping. Novel isn't it? Anything good can distract us from He who is great, particularly when it is something kept in front of us for a month.

3.) If you decide that they are supplementary, then how will you intentionally make them supplementary? If we don't intentionally make Jesus big (or rather reveal to our kids He is bigger), then these things will naturally replace or overshadow Jesus. This of course applies to the whole year. Idols are never satisfied with a 50-50 share of the glory. Its probably more like a 75-25 % kind of thing, just enough so that we can still think we're honoring Jesus in theory without actually honoring him in practice. There are only so many hours in the day, and after that only so many teachable hours in the day, and now we're really talking more minutes than hours. So it does take effort and intent to pull it off.

4.) Santa traditionally understood- and I"m less familiar with Elf on Shelf but I think its the same deal-seem to promote shallow moralistic manipulation, doesn't it?  I made it into a question! If you're good, then you'll be rewarded. If not, well, tough stuff. But no one ever really follows through on the "if you're bad scenario," and I'm glad. However I heard of a kid say, "I don't want anything for Xmas, so I'll just behave how I want!" Smart kid. 

Yet Santa could actually be turned into an example of grace, if he were to give good things to bad boys and girls much like God our good Heavenly Father lavishes grace upon His undeserving children. In teaching your kids about grace, how helpful/hurtful are some of these cultural forms of Xmas? Maybe you don't feel these things hinder, but certainly something each parent has to discern.

5.) Isn't it presumptuous to assume our kids cannot have the same excitement about Jesus that they do with Santa or Elves or whatever? OK that was rhetorical! Sorry. Now I know my kid gets excited even when a vacuum salesman comes to the door, but isn't it possible that other kids can still love this season without Santa? My wife did growing up. I know other kids who are full of joy now despite never believing in Santa. I'm talking kids who have faced real trials with joy. You shouldn't feel sorry for them that the "magic" has been taken away. Perhaps making much of Jesus the whole year had something to do with that? 

And if our kids can't get as excited, is that an indictment on the faith of the parents (that Jesus isn't exciting to them)? After all, Jesus is as exciting as He is glorious.

If you made it this far, thanks. I'm fine if you disagree with me. We don't need to be a people who always arrogantly and angrily have all the answers at our disposal, we but I think we need to be a people who always ask ourselves questions. That is how we sharpen and shape our convictions to conform them to Christ's design for our lives.
If you celebrate Christmas with or without Santa or Elves or Blake Shelton, just remember to make much of Jesus, because He has made much of us by coming down here in the first place.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Brady Quinn, Real Relationships, and Aunt Bessy's Hemarrhoids

I have to say I never was much of a Brady Quinn fan. First of all he came from Notre Dame, and then there was some weirdness with he and Tebow in Denver. But after yesterday, count me among the converted.

In case you didn't hear, Kansas City Chief's linebacker Jovan Belcher murdered his girlfriend and then committed suicide at the Chief's complex this past Saturday. The Chief's then turned around and played the next day without their starting linebacker and beat the Carolina Panthers.

What "converted" me was not his ability to help lead his team to only their 2nd victory but what he said in the post game comments. Comments that had nothing to do with football but instead everything to do with relationships.

“The one thing people can hopefully try to take away, I guess, is the relationships they have with people,” Quinn told reporters after the game.  “I know when it happened, I was sitting and, in my head, thinking what I could have done differently.  When you ask someone how they are doing, do you really mean it?  When you answer someone back how you are doing, are you really telling the truth?

“We live in a society of social networks, with Twitter pages and Facebook, and that’s fine, but we have contact with our work associates, our family, our friends, and it seems like half the time we are more preoccupied with our phone and other things going on instead of the actual relationships that we have right in front of us.  Hopefully, people can learn from this and try to actually help if someone is battling something deeper on the inside than what they are revealing on a day-to-day basis.”

Here are some of my thoughts on his comments.

1.) First of all, I love how he is willing to try and learn anything from this malfeasance without assuming blame. Several folks noted that they deemed nothing wrong with Belcher or his relationship with his girlfriend. But obviously there was something wrong with Belcher, if not with Belcher and his girlfriend. And it is clear that someone knew about these problems and was seeking to do something about it. Apparently.......

That detail was among the troubling revelations about a relationship that had more problems than previously realized. According to Kansas City Police Sgt. Richard Sharp, the team knew about their issues and was “bending over backward” to help.

And so it cannot be construed in any way to be the fault of Brady nor any of his teammates, nor anyone else that Belcher followed through on such machinations. In my mind he avoids the "We can't learn anything from this" and the  "It was our fault and his blood is on our hands," response that comes with situations such as this. Yet why not try to learn from the situation?

2.) In regards to "what we can learn," his wisdom exceeds his age (and career touchdowns) by a wide margin. More specifically as how it relates to truth in relationships.

When you ask someone how they are doing, do you really mean it?  When you answer someone back how you are doing, are you really telling the truth?

A. Do you mean it? I appreciate his challenge to ask and answer questions with a deeper concern for the truth. We could all do a better job at that. As Christians who live in the time after Jesus' first coming and before His Second Coming, we experience both the joys of redemption accomplished and applied to us now, and but still groan and long for the final redemption of our bodies in new world then (Rom 8:18-27). So we can say, "Yes I'm doing well," or "No life is rough right now." Both are consistent of our Christian experience now

B.Truth WILL ONLY be divulged in safe relationships. The deeper and more personal truths will only be revealed in really safe relationships.  Surface relationships will lead to shallow truth about someone. What you will/can tell about yourself and what they will/can tell you about themselves is probably only going to happen, at least on a regular basis, if you and they engage in deep and safe community. And deep and safe community only results when folks make time and commitment to be in such a deep and safe community.

C. Deep relationships don't necessarily lead folks to know you. 

I've been in community groups where I've come to know stuff about people. Sometimes more than I wanted to know (though I'm glad I did). I've been in community groups, as well, where I've known next-to-nothing about others. In such cases if they were to divorce or murder or commit suicide, or become depressed, I would have no idea. And that is sad but true. Deep relationships and community may be available and offered but just the presence of such a community does not mean folks will automatically take advantage of it. You and I may be in place to share our lives but stay silent or on the surface.

On the flip side you or I can be a part of a deep and safe community, but others may not divulge any poverty of spirit, material, joy, etc....Some folks, even despite deep and safe community, will divulge nothing. And it will be to their great loss.

D. Deep relationships and community always involve you taking the lead.

If you want to take seriously Brady Quinn's concerns, and he's only reiterating what it means to love your neighbor (you probably have heard that one before), then there is something you can do which may foster others being honest about their struggles. Someone has to take the lead. Such deep and safe communities/relationships don't automatically spring up. People will only go so far as you lead them. Yes there are exceptions for the guys/gals who wear hearts on their sleeves (or jackets for this time of year), but as a rule, people have to be led to share truth. And often they will only share something that is on the same level as that which has already been shared. For instance if you share, "I need prayer for Aunt Bessy, because she has hemarrhoid surgery," then don't expect to get back an, "I'm struggling with my child right now, as he is in a very difficult phase in my life, and I need prayer to love him through this, because right now I don't." Aunt Bessy's hemarrhoids will be covered in prayer, but the struggle of a parent to love his/her child will not. You won't even know that problem exists until you take the lead in sharing your personal struggles first. And this is hard. Very hard.

Deep relationships and community take time of course. But time alone is not enough. No one makes the "jump" unless you first lead them.

E. Technology and actual relationships don't naturally coexist. They don't appear to fight like cats and dogs, but the latter slowly loses that fight unless we intentionally value and prioritize real relationships. Emails and facebook can be very helpful, but they are at best only supplemental. You don't know someone, nor are you known by status updates. You know and are known by spending time together. The question is, "Is it worth it?" Brady says yes, and I think the "one another" passages in scripture suggest he didn't say it first. Again this is hard, and we have to get creative amidst certain seasons of life (and no matter how creative we get, some seasons don't afford much community/relationship development), but well worth it in the end.

We could all benefit from Brady's advice to intentionally put ourselves in the path of potentially deeper relationships not only to know but also to be known. Who knows what good could come? I would say a lot.

Consider me a Chief's fan for the rest of the season.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Two Advent Devotionals

Yesterday I preached on preparation, and how to prepare for Xmas. I neglected to mention anything specific about devotionals, due to the fact that I forget.  So I want to commend a two to you.

Here is one from The Church at Brook Hills church designed for families. Short, scriptural, sweet. I ran out of "s-words." I'll take "s-words" for 200 Alex....

Here is one from John Piper called Good News of Great Joy. Also, short, scriptural, and sweet. You can get it as an E-book or as a PDF. I've been digging this one.

Do yourself and your loved ones (and even the ones you don't love or who don't love you) a favor and take a look a these or other devotionals this Advent season. You'll be glad you did, and they will too.