All I want for Christmas…

It is sometime in the late 80’s.  Maybe 1990.

The only thing I want for Christmas is a new Nintendo. It has the greatest graphics, the best games, and a Power Pad. A Power Pad, people.

I know we don’t have a whole lot of money, but that doesn’t stop me from asking for it. I tell Santa what to bring me even though I know he is only a seasonal mall employee. I tell it to my parents. More than once. I’m sure I make them feel guilty. But it is the NES and a little guilt has never hurt anyone. I need the Nintendo. I’m not positive but I feel like this may make or break my life.

And then The Day comes. Christmas morning. My brother and I come downstairs in our (probably matching) Christmas pajamas. We read the Christmas story to remind us that this day is all about Jesus, but I am too busy looking for Nintendo shaped boxes to be bothered by all that.

The gift opening begins. One of the first gifts I grab is a thin little box. Much too small for a Nintendo. It says, “Open Me Last.” About the time I find it my little brother notices that he too has an “Open Me Last” gift. It is a monstrosity, about as big as the living room or an elephant or the Titanic.

My heart sinks. There will be no Nintendo this year.

We open the remainder of the presents and (hopefully) I convincingly feign gratitude. I’m sure the Ninja Turtle toys will be awesome and the socks are needed, but in my young mind Christmas hinged on getting what I wanted. Disappointment reigns supreme. Maybe I am being selfish, but I’m really good at being selfish. It comes quite naturally.

When we have unwrapped all but the last two presents, my brother opens his mountain of a gift. It is a FischerPrice tool bench. He is ecstatic. Never happier. He dances. He hammers. This moment is most likely the inspiration for the hymn “Joy to the World.”

And my heart sinks even further. I am teetering at Grinch levels of despair. My brother gets exactly what he wanted and it is “The best Christmas ev-er!” and I get a tie box. I am sure it is filled with something lame and/or embarrassing. Like more underwear.

Reluctantly I undo the bow and the paper. I slip the lid off the box and inside I find a single piece of paper. I read something along the lines of “You have one more gift but you are going to have to work to find it.”

I perk up. I read the paper again. It gives a clue as to where I should look for my gift.

Suddenly, there is hope.

I run from the room and find another note. It sends me to another room and another clue. Room to room I run, eagerly in search of what might happen next. Each step of the way raises my expectations. Each leg of the hunt brings more smiles and anticipation. And then I open the kitchen pantry.

A Nintendo Entertainment System.

Santa, it turns out, came through. My parents are saints. Life is good. Christmas is saved. Praise God from whom all blessings flow.

Sure, my parents could’ve just wrapped the game system and put it under the tree. They could’ve left it with the other presents but they wanted to give me something more than just a game system. What they gave me was an experience. They gave me a journey.

And it was the experience and the journey that made that Christmas the most memorable I have ever had.

We would do well to remember that sometimes the journey is a gift.

We tend to know what we want and when we want it. When Santa, or worse, God, doesn’t come through for us how we demand expect we feel rejected. If you are anything like me that can be really frustrating. I tend to think I know best. I know what I need and life would go a whole lot smoother if I just got my way all the time.

But God knows better than that. Thankfully He doesn’t always give me what I want or operate on my time schedule. Thankfully He has much more perspective and insight into what is best for me even when I don’t see it.

So when I don’t get my way or when things seem off kilter or when life hands you a tie box, maybe we need to remember to enjoy the journey. Maybe the journey is the thing that matters more than whatever we find at the end. Maybe what we learn and experience along the way is of far more value to us.

My parents didn’t leave me clues in order to toy with me or drive me crazy, but in order to watch me run and laugh and search.

What if that is what God wants for us? To watch as we enjoy the journey we are on. Maybe there are things He is trying to teach us along the way. Maybe the process is more valuable to our development. Maybe it is in the waiting and the searching that we have the most growth.

Maybe we spend so much time hoping for Nintendos and wealth and security and acceptance and relationships and [inset whatever it is you desire here] that we miss out on what God is doing right now. We miss out on the life we have been invited to live with or without those things.

Hold on to the hope that what you are searching for may just be around the bend or at the next turn or come with the next sun rise. Maybe it comes in ways you never expect. Maybe it comes better than you ever imagined.

Don’t miss out on what is to come because you are so focused on what is not yet. Don’t miss out on what is happening right now because you are so focused on what you want to happen next. Don’t miss the joys and the laughs and the memories that can be made right here and now.

Life is a journey. And the journey is a gift.



On Fear & Faith

It starts in a garden. In paradise a man and woman are given everything they could ever want. Yet, they are afraid. They are afraid they are missing out on something even greater. They do the one thing they were told not to in hopes of finding out what they were lacking. They are cast from their paradise and confronted with a world far from what was originally intended. Later one of their sons will murder his brother in a jealous rage.

A husband and wife, unable to have children, are promised God will give them a son and a great lineage. Impatient and fearful it won’t happen in time they take matters into their own hands and a servant girl is brought in to conceive the child, causing great pain and friction in the family.

Recently freed slaves, when faced with what they think are insurmountable odds, ask to go back to chains and forced labor. Imagine desiring to return to slavery. The unknown is too great. The fear in the air is suffocating.

Later, after 40 years of nomadic wilderness living and daily godly provision, the people are unsure they should follow God into the land promised them. It is full of strong, warrior men and, well, look at us. Let’s just wander around a little while longer.

Sometime later a group of fishermen panic in the midst of storm, forgetting that the Son of God is on the boat with them. They are fearful that they will drown. They are rebuked, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?”

One of the fisherman later denies even knowing the Man. He is afraid his outcome will be similar to that of his rabbi’s. He flat out lies to a young girl in order to save his own skin.

After the Man is tried and beaten, crucified and sealed in a grave his followers all hide behind locked doors. They had seen him heal the sick and raise the dead and feed the multitudes. They had followed and learned from him for three years and now, unsure of what to do next, they are deflated and afraid.

Fear is a part of our story.

The people of God have for all time faced scary, difficult, bigger-than-we-can-handle situations. It seems almost on purpose. As if God is saying, “The only way through this situation is if I show up and help you through.” Perhaps God wants us to find our way into a faith that is stronger than fear.

He wants us to trust him. To trust that he is with us. To believe that the things he has called us to are worth doing. Even when it doesn’t make sense. Even when it is costly. Even when we are afraid.

The question then becomes, does God win or does fear? Do we go into the world believing that this is too much for us to handle and believing that’s exactly how God works in our lives? Or do we justify our inaction, our disobedience, because, well, look at us? It is too much. Too hard. Too messy. Too scary. Do we lock ourselves in our homes and churches hoping that if just hold on long enough we can escape all this mess free and clean?

God wants more for us than that. More than survival. More than comfort. More than salvation. He wants to walk with us. He wants to teach us and shape us. He wants to use us to change the world.

If we let fear hold us hostage we miss out on what God could do. We rob ourselves of seeing God do what God does best.

Ours is a God who parts seas and defeats giants and quiets storms. He gives strength to the weak and comfort to the broken-hearted. And best of all, ours is a God who defeats death.

The Man who had been crucified and buried doesn’t stay buried. He doesn’t stay dead. He is resurrected. Jesus Christ conquers sin and death and darkness not by avoiding them but by entering right into the midst of it all and overcoming them through obedience and love. A love that is sacrificial enough and deep enough and courageous enough to follow through all the way to the end.

And those followers of his, the ones locked behind their doors, something changes in them. They are no longer fearful. With death defeated, with a risen Savior, what could possibly cause them to be afraid? They ask, “If God is for us, who can stand against us?”

They leave their upper room and go out into the streets and to the ends of the earth taking with them their story. They call it the Good News. They walk into cultures that are dark and violent. They are beaten and jailed, shipwrecked and snake bit. They leave jobs and families, they leave comfort and wealth. They leave security and predictability. To be right on the edge of what God is doing.

It costs them everything. All but one of the twelve male disciples of Jesus will be killed for their faith. The other is exiled for the remainder of his days. And it was worth it.

Being a part of the redemption story is always worth it. Obedience to something that is hard and scary and bigger-than-we-can-handle is worth it. This is where God has called his people to live over and over again. These are the places were God is most active. And these are places where God is always faithful.

Fear is an enemy to faith. And I don’t want to be afraid one minute more.

I will not be afraid of missing out on something better. I will not be afraid of missing out on my plans. I will not fear the unknown. I will no longer be afraid of my enemies or those I don’t understand. I will not fear the storms and circumstances that swirl around me.

I will say yes to whatever looks most like Jesus. I will be obedient even when it costs me. I will not ask “what if something goes wrong?” and instead ask “what if God shows up?”

I will no longer be a slave to fear.


On Terrorism & Refugees

In response to the terrorist attacks in Paris many are calling for the United States to halt its plan to accept Syrian refugees within our borders. The concern is that scattered among the refugees will be radicalized terrorists who will carry out similar style attacks here on our soil. They will come under the guise of needing a safe place and will instead rob us of any sense of peace we may have.

This is a legitimate concern. I get that. I wrestle with it.

I don’t want to have to fear for my children’s lives anytime we go out in public. I don’t want to be looking over my shoulder anytime there is a loud noise. I don’t want my kids to live in a world that robs them of their blissful innocence.

And yet, I am opposed to any rejection of Syrian refugees. “Bring them in,” I say.

The things I want for my children are the very same things the Syrian people want for theirs. And the things I don’t want for my children are the very things that they have been living with for far too long. Their fears and worries are much more tangible than mine. They lack food and water, healthcare, education, shelter, and any semblance of stability in their life. They are more likely to be enslaved, abused, and suffer violence in the midst of their displacement. Did I mention that they are on the run from the very people we condemn in these brutal attacks?

In the past days many have been calling for the U.S. to turn them away. In doing so we are leaving them without homes, without opportunity, and without much hope. All because we are afraid.

This is a problem for me. My need to feel secure is not more important than their needs of dignity and basic care and welfare. My desire to enjoy a movie without threat of violence is not more important that a person’s need to be educated and warm and well fed.

But what about our safety? What about us; our people?

We are all too aware of the fact that movie theaters and schools and shopping malls are not bastions of safety any longer. We have seen people from all different belief systems and all shades of color use violence to terrorize innocent people. Terrorism is not something only “they” are capable of.

As a Christian I no longer believe in the categories “us and them.” I believe Jesus came, in part, to erase the barriers we have established between people. Jesus came for all of us.

Some of our presidential candidates have suggested we accept only Christian refugees. I am not sure how one proves their faith to a government official, but I am sure that there is nothing Christian about closing a door on people in need simply because they believe differently than us. It may be the smart thing to do. It may be the safe thing to do. But it is certainly not the Christlike thing to do.

This is where my struggle lies. I want security and prosperity. I want to pursue life, liberty, and happiness without all this extra stuff to worry about. But I am a Christian before I am a citizen. My calling as a Christian is to pursue Jesus, not the American Dream.

When these things are opposed it is too easy for me to want to grab for my flag rather than my cross.

Are there evil people out there who want to bring harm to us? Yes, absolutely. Are we willing to let that stop us from reaching out to our global neighbors to help them in a time of crisis? I hope not.

That’s not who we are as a country. And it is certainly not who we are if we follow Jesus Christ.

I believe the best way to defeat bad guys is to be good guys. The best way to destroy radicalism is to show love. The best way to conquer fear is to be courageous.

Let’s declare war on the ideology that anyone who doesn’t think like us is the enemy. Let’s be a people who have open arms of hospitality. Even when it is easier, even when it is safer to hide behind our locked doors.

Let’s not bow to terror but defy it.

We will not be shaken and we will not cower in fear. We are stronger than those who would victimize others for their gain. We will stand together, as we always have, to receive people who need a place to rest, a place to call home. It is who we are at our core.

“Give me your tired, your poor/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free/ The wretched refuse of your teeming shore./ Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,/ I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”


On Veterans Day

Today is Veterans Day. As we fill our social media pages with terms of endearment and perhaps swoon with pride that our country is so ripe with brave and self-sacrificial individuals who boldly stand up in our defense, we have an under-reported problem.

Our young men and women go off to war or are stationed around the world for years at a time, only to come home to be forgotten. Not completely forgotten, because, hey, we have November 11th. But forgotten often enough and frequently enough that we have left many of them out in the cold.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimates that 49,933 veterans are homeless on any given night. Almost 50,000 of our veterans, every single night.

50,000 people who volunteered to defend you and me. Who put themselves in harm’s way. Who trained and equipped themselves, who spent time away from family and friends. People who have dreams and plans and hopes for tomorrow. People with stories to tell and skills to contribute to our society. 50,000 people with real, touchable needs. And if you believe like I believe, 50,000 people made in the image of God.

Many of our homeless vets struggle not just with holding a job or finding a permanent home, but with the ability to function at a level many of us take for granted. 51% of homeless veterans have disabilities, 50% have serious mental illness, and 70% have substance abuse problems.1 We cannot be okay with these numbers.

The good news is the number of homeless vets is declining. The number of veterans suffering from homelessness has dropped 33% since 2010.2 That is progress. But we need more.

We need more than just Facebook statuses and flags at half-mast. We need more than, ahem, blog posts. We need more than a spirit of thankfulness.

We need to step up to meet these needs. In the public sector and in the private sector. As citizens and as neighbors. We need to support programs that come alongside our veterans to give them education, job training, healthcare, and treatment.

I happened to meet a homeless veteran a few weeks ago. He was living under the bridge by our church. He walked away from a bad situation, made some rash decisions, has struggled to find work, and has gone cold and hungry for far too long.

He picks up odd jobs as he can. During the summer months he offers to dry cars at the nearby car wash. He has a few arrangements with restaurants in the area who gently throw away the leftovers at closing time so he can find them at the top of the dumpster. He lost most of his belongings when the police removed him from the last place he had hunkered down. He didn’t have a coat or a blanket or a friend.

We were able to help him with a few items and he came by the next day to help us paint during a work day at our church. He connected with one of the gentlemen in our congregation and now the homeless vet has had a roof over his head, access to food, a sense of friendship, and he has a found a job as well. All because one guy was willing to go out of his way, have a conversation, pull some strings, and see this guy not as a problem, but as a brother.

Most of us are proud to live in a country that is “the home of the brave.” But let’s not stop there. Let’s be home of the caring and compassionate. Home of the grace-filled. Let’s be a country that doesn’t just sign up for war but who signs up to care for each other (veteran or otherwise). Let’s be a country that doesn’t forget those who have stood on our behalf.

Let us be a people who are known for our ability to see the needs of those around us and our willingness to meet those needs.

If you are interested in getting more involved or donating to causes like these, here are some veteran related organizations that have high ratings from Charity Navigator.

I did not find Charity Navigator ratings for these veteran homelessness specific groups:



The War on Christmas

I suppose it is okay if I talk about Christmas this early…

Because Hobby Lobby sent me an email saying all Christmas décor was 50% off. Because radio stations are already dedicating their playlists to Christmas music. Because my daughter has been practicing her Christmas program in my car for weeks.

I’ve already seen stories shared and emotions flare around this particular topic. Starbucks, for instance, doesn’t have “Merry Christmas” on their famous red cups. One Facebook post I saw said it’s because “they hate Jesus.” Another group was boycotting a mall because they changed out Christmas trees for glaciers.

Grab your ammo. Circle the wagons. The war on Christmas is in full swing.

Soon we will be inundated with “Happy Holidays” and forced to buy X-mas trees and our kids will be out of school for “winter” breaks and all of this is points to the fact that our culture despises Christians and should rally us to use our buying power to shop elsewhere this holiday Christmas season.

Except no. Not really.

The North American Church has wasted far too much energy on this issue and it is to our detriment. Somewhere along the way we have decided that our culture owes us something. We’ve somehow come to believe that the way Target makes its billions of dollars needs to cater to us and our beliefs, and everyone else just needs to get on board. We’ve made a decision that anything short of that is unacceptable, sinful, and/or proof the world hates us.

The early church, the first followers of Jesus, would have no framework for this mentality. They were a persecuted minority. They had no voting power. Politicians weren’t interested in courting their vote. They had no say in any process. They had no influence. They had no rights.

Back then stores didn’t send out coupons with “Happy Holidays” on them. Instead many marketplaces required an offering of worship to Caesar for the opportunity to buy goods. Many employers required you to declare “Caesar is Lord” in order to work for them. Failure to comply, failure to bow to the empire, meant it was likely you couldn’t engage in the economy of the community. You were pushed to the margins, forced underground, and left with the decision about what was more important: feeding your family or faithfulness to God.

Fast forward 2,000 years and Christians are stomping their feet and throwing temper tantrums because our empire is now less likely to wish us a “Merry Christmas” when we check out at the grocery store. Never mind the fact that the White House is selling the official national Christmas ornament for just $18.95. Never mind that fact that Christmas is a federally recognized holiday. Or the fact that 96% of the U.S. (including 81% of non-Christians) celebrate this day.

Never mind the fact that term X-mas originated with the church. And that holiday means holy day.

And of course, never mind the fact that our culture owes us nothing.

Somewhere along the way we came to desire and demand position and influence. We enjoyed being the majority and being in control. We liked having a say in how things worked. And we are unwilling to let these go. At least not quietly.

We have become gluttons for power and privilege.

Unfortunately these things, as fun and comfortable as they are, look nothing like the life of Jesus. Jesus gave up his privilege and his power and humbled himself, becoming a slave for the sake of others (Philippians 2). And right there in that passage it says that we are to have the same attitude as Christ Jesus and look to other people’s interest and do everything without complaining and model the outrageous love of Jesus.

Ours is a story of Savior who lays down his rights, makes room for those pushed to the outside, and dies for his enemies. Ours is a story of wanderers in search of a home, slaves in need of freedom, exiles longing for home, and a small band of faithful followers who believe losing your life is the way to find it.

We could stand to remember that around the world people are experiencing actual persecution for the sake of following Jesus. If you feel persecuted because your non-Christian neighbor says “Happy Holidays” or because your town doesn’t put up a manger scene anymore, maybe take a moment and reflect on just how much freedom and privilege you have.

What if we responded to these things with the humility and graciousness the way Jesus demonstrated? What if this is the way to keep Christ in Christmas? What if that is how we change the world?

Hallmark is not the enemy. Atheists are not the enemy. Even Starbucks, with the overpriced, delicious, generically labeled cups, is not the enemy.

If there is a war on Christmas it’s in the fact that we celebrate the coming of a humble Savior, born to a poor family in a barn by spending $600 billion on gifts while it would take just $10 billion to bring clean water to the world. If you want to boycott the eggnog latte do it not because of what is on the cup but because you have the disposable income to bring clean water to other humans. (check out charity:water for more information or to get involved)

The war on Christmas most likely occurs when we overlook peace on earth and goodwill to men to rush out on Thanksgiving Day in order to buy cheap televisions and video games. Or when we pack our December schedules so full that we have no time to enjoy relationships with the people around us, racking up debt and anxiety.

This year instead of demanding our way or taking offense to the fact that the world doesn’t feel the same way about Jesus as we do, maybe we can do better. Maybe we can respond lovingly in each circumstance. Even when we don’t get our way. Maybe we can remember that Jesus came for us while we were still a mess and far from God. Maybe we can focus on the needs of others and point them to the hope of Christmas.

Let us take the initiative to bring good news of great joy to all people.

Not through our greeting cards or the places we shop, but in the way in which we love, the way in which we order our priorities, and the way in which we lay down our lives for others.