The Why of Christmas

Have you ever found yourself doing something over and over, and not even knowing why? I remember reading a sermon illustration many years ago about a young wife who was preparing her first Christmas dinner for her new husband. She took a beautiful, large, honeyed ham and promptly cut both ends off. Then she placed it in her roasting pan, covered it with foil, and put it in the oven.

Her husband watched this with interest. “Why do you cut the ends off?” he asked. She hesitated for a moment, and then replied, “I’m not sure. It’s the way my mother always did it.” Finally, her curiosity got the better of her and she called her mother and asked why they always cut the ends off of the ham. Did it help it cook better? Did it add to the flavor? Did they prefer the ends to be crispy?

Her mother laughed and replied, “Oh, none of those reasons. I had to cut the ends off because my pan was always too small to fit the whole thing.”

Sometimes it helps to know the why.

We have talked a lot about the “who” of Christmas, the “where” of Christmas, the “how” of Christmas, and even the “what” of Christmas. Did you ever think about the “why?”

Titus 3 (Contemporary English Version)

God our Savior showed us
    how good and kind he is.
He saved us because
    of his mercy,
and not because
of any good things
    that we have done.

This passage helps us to uncover why Jesus was born. He came to save us because he is good, kind, and filled with mercy. But most importantly, he came to save us because we could not save ourselves. We are saved by grace through faith, and not by ANYTHING we can do on our own.

Do you get that? You can’t be “good enough.” Thankfully, that also means that you can be “bad enough” to not qualify for God’s grace. You can’t earn it or be ineligible to receive it….thanks be to God for that.

God washed us by the power
    of the Holy Spirit.
He gave us new birth
    and a fresh beginning.
God sent Jesus Christ
our Savior
    to give us his Spirit.

Jesus treated us much better
    than we deserve.
He made us acceptable to God
and gave us the hope
    of eternal life.

Why was Jesus born on that first Christmas? To make us acceptable to God and to give us hope for eternal life. He cleanses us of our sin and gives us new birth through water and the spirit.

The best part of it all is that we’ve been given something so much better than we deserve. Thanks be to God!

Jesus is the Light of the World by Cheryl Lynn Smith

How Beautiful

Last week I had the extraordinary opportunity to film a children’s sermon in a sheep pasture, surrounded by live sheep. This is a first for ya girl. It was a beautiful and startling experience. The plan was for me to sit on a chair in the middle of the open field and read a little story that I had written about Jesus’ birth as told from the perspective of the animals at the manger.

Cue the sheep!

So the kind sheep handler positioned the flock just off camera and was ready to spread out their feed around my chair. The idea was that when the camera rolled, they would be surrounding me as I read, peacefully eating at my feet. It almost went like that. Almost.

The sheep were apparently excited by my reading, which of course included a perspective from one of their own…a sheep named Shirley…who, it turned out, speaks with a British accent for some reason. Or maybe it was the snack being strewn about. In any case, when the camera rolled and the feed was distributed, they charged hard…so hard that my camera girl almost got sideswiped. And then as soon as the snack was gone, so were the sheep. I was alone in the pasture. Two of them eventually returned to give me the side-eye, but that was it.

When I returned home, my dog went nuts. Apparently the sheep residue that I brought in on my shoes was quite the treat for her overactive nose. How beautiful are the feet that announce the good news of the sheep pasture!

In our passage today, the prophet Isaiah raises up the beauty of the messengers who bring good news. The Messiah is coming! Lift up your voices and sing:

Isaiah 52 (New Revised Standard Version)

How beautiful upon the mountains
    are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
    who announces salvation,
    who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices,
    together they sing for joy;
for in plain sight they see
    the return of the Lord to Zion.
Break forth together into singing,
    you ruins of Jerusalem;
for the Lord has comforted his people,
    he has redeemed Jerusalem.

Jesus came to redeem his people….ALL his people. With the birth of the Messiah, the entire world saw the salvation of God in one holy birth. The message of peace that Jesus brought is a message of hope for the world, and that message is as beautiful today as it was the very first time when cows, donkeys, and fleeting sheep heard it in a little town called Bethlehem.

10 The Lord has bared his holy arm
    before the eyes of all the nations;
and all the ends of the earth shall see
    the salvation of our God.

And the glory of the Lord was revealed! So go and share the good news….your God reigns.

My Girl Shirl Photo by Island Farm

Hold Fast

Do you have a personal mantra? Is there a phrase or saying that embodies your philosophy, attitude, or belief in a succinct way? The champion boxer Muhammad Ali was famous for “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” You can’t walk past a Penn Stater without someone yelling, “WE ARE!” Yoda teaches us “Do or do not….there is no try.” When my daughter was battling cancer, her mantra was “Go big or go home.” She went big.

The Apostle Paul was a mantra-maker. Almost everything he wrote could be captured on a bumper sticker or emblazoned on a t-shirt. A mantra is something that provides you with words you can live by, so if you’re looking for a new one, choose something from Paul.

Rejoice always!

Pray without ceasing.

Give thanks in all circumstances!

Hold fast to what is good.

Take a look at his letter to the Thessalonians and see what I mean:

1 Thessalonians 5 (English Standard Version)

16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise prophecies,21 but test everything; hold fast what is good. 22 Abstain from every form of evil.

As we say on my side of the pew, that will preach! Of these few examples (and his letters are full of them), which would you choose for a personal mantra?

I have always loved Romans 8:28, which says that God can use ALL things for the good of those who love him and are called to his purpose. But for now, I am choosing verse 21b: Hold fast to what is good.

In this period of isolation, in this unsettled Christmas season that finds us grappling with the fear and grief that the virus has brought to all of us, I am choosing to hold fast to what is good.

Because in the end, it’s all good.

23 Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.

I pray you will hold fast, too.

Hold Fast by Wende Pritchard

The Rock

A recent trip to a place called Dinosaur World was highlighted by a stop at a gem-finding place. It is one of those venues kids love, where you purchase a bag of dirt and pour it into a sluice box. Water runs through the box and washes away the dirt to reveal the hidden gems. Rose quartz, red jasper, amethysts, and other beautiful stones emerge with each washing.

We are like that in a way. Each time we go before the Lord to confess our sins, we are washed in the sluice box of his forgiveness. The beauty of our potential is revealed through repentance. We emerge from this experience as humbled, forgiven people.

Today’s psalm uses a beautiful image of God as the Rock of our salvation. It is fitting. In the bag of rocks at the gemstone place, each gem is a small piece that was broken off from a bigger rock. To realize that God is our Rock is to acknowledge that he is our stronghold, our place of origin, and our constant source of strength and rescue. We are made in his image.

We are invited to come before our Rock with joyful shouts and singing.

Psalm 95 (New King James Version)

Oh come, let us sing to the Lord!
Let us shout joyfully to the Rock of our salvation.
Let us come before His presence with thanksgiving;
Let us shout joyfully to Him with psalms.

God’s greatness is our hope. Everything in heaven and on earth is his.

For the Lord is the great God,
And the great King above all gods.
In His hand are the deep places of the earth;
The heights of the hills are His also.
The sea is His, for He made it;
And His hands formed the dry land.

There is nothing for us to do but bow down and worship.

Oh come, let us worship and bow down;
Let us kneel before the Lord our Maker.
For He is our God,
And we are the people of His pasture,
And the sheep of His hand.

Where in your life do you need to go before the Rock and find his salvation? Are you feeling broken, separated, small, or fragile? Do you need forgiveness to wash over you like a gentle tidal wave?

Let us kneel before the Lord our Maker. In HIS hand is everything we need to make it through one more day.

The Sea is His by Michelle Robertson

Imprisonment

Let me tell you about my friend Lisa. Lisa is the co-author of a book on grief that we wrote together several years ago. (Mourning Break) She is actively engaged in prison ministry. Her dedication to the women in the Georgia state prison system is incredibly admirable. She visits them, writes emails to them, prays with them, prays FOR them, and has helped one write a book on devotionals from prison. With all the ways that she is a true Barnabas who supports and encourages others, she is first and foremost obedient to what Christ has called ALL of us to do.

In this passage in Matthew, Jesus explains how we all will be evaluated at the end of our days. The king in the story has separated the people into two groups: those who are righteous, who are positioned on the right, and those who ignored his call, whom he placed on his left.

Matthew 25 (Common English Bible)

34 “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. 35 I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. 36 I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’

This clearly is the standard by which the world will be judged. Those who fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, and gave the cool cup of water to the thirsty will inherit the kingdom. Taking care of the sick and visiting people in prison also enable believers to receive all the good things the father has to bestow upon his people.

37 “Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? 38 When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

40 “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’

I think about my friend and her prison ministry when I read this passage. Jesus explains that when we do loving and caring things for others, we are doing them for Christ himself. Can there be a higher goal in life than to do acts of beauty and kindness for Jesus?

You may not have a way to visit someone in prison like Lisa does, but you probably know someone who is imprisoned by their situation, their defeat, their hopelessness, their poverty, or their choices. Can you make a difference? Can you reach out in non-judgmental love and offer a plate of love, a cup of justice, a coat of warm acceptance, or a handshake of welcome? (OK, maybe a wave from six feet away…)

Take this scripture to heart. In a world that is imprisoned in despair, be a Lisa. And when you do, you’ll be serving Christ himself.

You Welcomed Me by Mark Poblete

Know That

Everybody knows so much these days! Google has enabled us to become instant experts on every subject. Just ask someone a question and they will have an answer. But that has been our undoing, in a sense. If person A is quoting resource A to person B, who is only reading resource B, a disagreement is likely to ensue. A and B will never agree because they don’t trust the other’s resources.

Stop and think a moment…what do you REALLY know? I’m not talking about education, research, or reading copious articles on a subject. What do you KNOW?

We know the sun rises every morning and sets every night.

We know the earth revolves around the sun and fall follows summer.

We know that things freeze at 32 degrees Fahrenheit and there is a certain level of humidity that is guaranteed to frizz a girl’s hair.

You know what else we know?

We know that the Lord is God and he made us. We know that we are his people.

Psalm 100 is a beautiful tribute to what we really know. It contains the everlasting truth of what can be known with certainty.

Psalm 100 (New King James Version)

Make a joyful shout to the Lord, all you lands!
Serve the Lord with gladness;
Come before His presence with singing.
Know that the Lord, He is God;
It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves;
We are His people and the sheep of His pasture.

Did you notice that before we are assured that God is God, we are invited to make the joyful shout, serve with gladness, and come into his presence with singing? In Methodism, we call that prevenient grace. Before we are even aware of him, God comes to us with his grace. His unmerited favor, his unconditional love, and his offer of salvation come before we even know who God is. This indeed is a reason to rejoice.

Enter into His gates with thanksgiving,
And into His courts with praise.
Be thankful to Him, and bless His name.

Do you hear the invitation continuing? This Psalm is like a door that is being held wide open so that everyone can come in and set a spell. Come into the gates! Enter into the inner court! You belong here where the truth is made known. The Lord is God, and the Lord is good.

For the Lord is good;
His mercy is everlasting,
And His truth endures to all generations.

So maybe we don’t know as much as we think we do. But if we know the goodness of the Lord, then we know everything we need to know.

Be Still and KNOW by Kathy Schumacher

Worry Warriors

Did you know that over 40 million people a year struggle with some type of anxiety disorder? From Generalized Anxiety Disorder to PTSD, there are many types of anxiety disorders, and it is the most common mental illness. And for the most part, it is highly treatable.

While most of us probably don’t fit in to an Anxiety Disorder category, it can be said of all of us that we worry. And some of us worry too much. Worrying is both a symptom and a catalyst for anxiety, and can absolutely overwhelm you to the point of paralysis. When we worry, our joy is stolen, our peace is non-existent, and our well-being suffers, along with those around us.

The root cause of much of our anxious worrying is fear. When we are afraid of something, we turn that fear into negative thoughts and run through multiple scenarios of what could go wrong. And there are so many things that we fear!

Rejection

Failure

Abandonment

Exposure

Being manipulated

Losing someone or something precious

Losing control

Accidents

Not getting things finished

Being hurt in a realationship

And on, and on, and on.


Did you know that God does not give us fear? Nope. Fear is not from God. We manage that all on our own.

2 Timothy 17 (Modern English Version)

For God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, and love, and self-control.

I think a clue for how to battle worry is found in what God DOES give us. Instead of fear, he gives us power. His power is available to us to help us in our problem-solving. Instead of fear, he gives us love, the strongest emotion a human can give or receive. There is strength for the battle in love. And perhaps most importantly, he gives us self-control, so that when worrying begins to overtake us, we can clang shut that nonsense and focus on things that are going right and the many places we have been blessed.

Power, love, and self-control. Next time you find yourself starting to worry, remember that you have these weapons in your battle bag. You are a worry warrior.

Fear Not, for God is With You. Photo by Michelle Robertson

What, Me Worry?

Over the holidays I spotted a holiday edition of MAD Magazine. I was standing in the grocery store checkout line and there he was, gap-toothed Alfred E. Newman, grinning up at me. MAD Magazine is the iconic snark-fest, anti-establishment publication from the 70’s that was the delight of every sarcastic kid in my South Jersey neighborhood. Somebody would score a copy and it would be passed around like a precious loaf of homemade rye on a Bronx street corner. You would feast on every word and graphic until it was somebody else’s turn and you had to reluctantly give it over. If you were the lucky one to be at the end of the breadline, you got to savor it for weeks. I think (unfortunately) that a lot of my humor was formed in that savoring. I’m kind of proud and ashamed at the same time.

Alfred E. Newman was the de facto mascot, and he answered every satirical cultural problem with “What, me worry?” Everything was met with that response: the nuclear arms race, Watergate, the Vietnam War (Lordy, I am dating myself here)…no matter what was wrong, his response was the same. What, me worry?

Oh, how I long to have that attitude. Wouldn’t you like to be Alfred E. Newman for just one day and say back to every problem, “YOU CAN’T WORRY ME.” Instead, I think we actually go about our day looking for things to worry about. We succumb to a highly contagious disease known as what-if-itis and just what-if ourselves to death.

Meanwhile, God says to us, “What, you worry?”

Joshua 1 (New International Version)

”Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”

This incredible passage is God’s response to Joshua upon the death of Moses. MOSES. ‘Young Joshua, I want you to continue Moses’ work and lead the people into the promised land. There will be rivers to cross, Hittites to battle, hunger to address, and the people you are leading are not particularly known for their compliance and cooperation, not to mention that you are replacing MOSES, but you go, young Joshua! Take my people into a foreign land.‘

And we think we’ve got trouble!

God’s word to Joshua is the same to us today. Take another look at that problem you are worried about, and remember that God is telling you to not be afraid. He encourages you to not be discouraged. His COMMAND is to be strong and courageous. How can God make such an outrageous request of us as we stand here with our knees knocking? Because he promises to be with us wherever we go.

Wherever you go. The operating room, the divorce court, the psych ward, the funeral home, the test room, the angry conversation, the teenager’s bedroom…God is with you. Be strong. Be courageous. You are not alone.

What, you worry??

Look at the birds in the air. They neither sow nor reap, yet God provides for them. Who among you can add one single hour to your life by worrying?
Photo by Michelle Robertson

Mary Poppins’ Bag

Do you remember the wonderful scene from the original Mary Poppins movie where she plops her large carpet bag on the table and begins to pull out things like a hat stand, a large wall mirror, a potted plant, shoes, clothing, and a very special measuring tape? I remember as a child being fascinated by her bag. Can you imagine being able to reach in to your carpet bag and get whatever you needed?

Many decades later, Hermione Granger one-upped Mary with a small and elegant beaded bag that had a lot of useful things, including a large multi-level tent and an invisibility cloak. And her bag was small enough that she could hide it in her sock.

This notion of magical bags is something that children innately understand. Think about it; how many times does your child expect you to instantly produce what they want, often making unreasonable and unrealistic requests? And when it’s possible, don’t you make every effort to respond?

In the same way, we can treat God as though he has a magical bag. We operate under an assumption that we can make requests and God will supply them. All of us are guilty of treating God like a big ATM machine in the sky at one time or another. We use him when we need something, but when our pockets are full, we pass on by. Is this a good practice? Do you ever feel guilty about asking God for things beyond your ability to provide for yourself? Check this out:

Luke 11 (NRSV)

5 And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6 for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7 And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ 8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

9 “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12 Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

Good gifts. We know how to give good gifts to those whom we love. In most people’s minds, this season is all about getting and receiving good gifts. Look at the advertising all around you. Lexuses wrapped in big red bows, overly expensive and lush outfits that dance across your screen, flashing diamond jewelry featured in commercials where the husband/boyfriend gets a big reward of love for choosing the right piece…and in each case, the bigger, the better.

But the question remains, should we/may we/might we treat God like a department store Santa, and go sit on his lap with a big list of “gimmes?”

The answer is yes. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus-like aspect of God. And that’s all right.

You see, God longs to hear the desires of our hearts. God wants the intimacy of a trusting child who goes to a parent in the hope and anticipation of getting a Red Ryder BB Gun. Will he give you things that might harm you? Nope. Will he give you what you need instead? Yup. It is the relationship of love, trust, and honesty that blesses the Lord. When we ask, seek, and knock, we are demonstrating our belief that God is able to respond. That demonstration of faith is vital to us, and to God.

So in this season of preparation, while we anticipate the greatest gift to humankind that the world has ever known, go to God in prayer. Ask away. Watch him reach into his carpet bag and pull out the very thing that you need, even if you didn’t ask for it. God invites us to ask, seek, and knock. It’s pretty much in the bag.

Well, Hello There by Mary Anne Mong Cramer

Black Friday

The history of “Black Friday” includes several versions of how the day after Thanksgiving was named. For a long time, the story was told that retailers operated at a loss all year (written in the books in red ink) until the Friday after Thanksgiving. On that day, holiday shopping pushed profits into the “black,” i.e. written in black ink. This is not entirely accurate, but it is true that with the advent of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade heralding the beginning of the Christmas shopping season, (cue Santa’s arrival at the end of the parade) the holidays are indeed the most profitable time of the year.

But another account has emerged that tells a different story. Back in the 1950’s, Philadelphia police officers dubbed the day Black Friday due to the chaos and crowds that poured onto the streets of the city in advance of the Army-Navy game, which was held in Philly every year on Thanksgiving Saturday. (Go Navy!) The additional traffic and crowds meant that all the police officers had to work that day, and were scheduled for extra shifts to manage the large numbers of people. In addition, shoplifters took advantage of the situation, making law enforcement even more challenging.

Whatever the true reason, Black Friday has emerged to be a day of chaotic shopping, where people arrive at stores as early as 2AM to score that one must-have for Christmas. And coming on the heels of a day full of prepping, cleaning, cooking, baking, and serving, we end up absolutely exhausted after Thanksgiving “break.”

Even retailers without brick and mortar locations are jumping into the shopping frenzy. We have received offers of Black Friday deals on hotel rooms and rental cars this season, and many of us will be scouring Amazon for those incredible deals that are the make-or-break of our Christmas season.

Since we are talking about Fridays and gifts, wouldn’t we be smarter to take a beat and focus on the gift of Good Friday instead? If any day should be called Black Friday it was that day. The day of the crucifixion was black indeed, even to the point that the sky went suddenly dark and the sun did not shine from the sixth hour to the ninth hour. The tomb was sealed shut in blackness for three days. But on that third day….on the third day, he arose, and everything changed forever. So how dare we call any day black, when we have the resurrection to look forward to? Once he arose, all the darkness of the world shrank back in respect for the Light. That’s why we call the day of Jesus’ death Good Friday. It was good indeed.

Lest you think I am jumping the gun straight to Easter just days before Advent begins, consider this. What was Christmas for, if not for Easter? Why did the angels sing and the shepherds rejoice? Because the Messiah was born, and he came to save us. Easter arrived wrapped in the swaddled cloths of a cooing baby lying in a manger. In the fullness of time, he turned black days into good days. All of them.

So how can we turn Black Friday into a Good Friday? Maybe by finding some way to do good:

1 Timothy 6:17-19 The Message (MSG)

17-19 Tell those rich in this world’s wealth to quit being so full of themselves and so obsessed with money, which is here today and gone tomorrow.

Tell them to go after God, who piles on all the riches we could ever manage—to do good, to be rich in helping others, to be extravagantly generous. If they do that, they’ll build a treasury that will last, gaining life that is truly life.

Do good and be rich in helping others. Be extravagantly generous. This is the way to build up an everlasting treasury that brings life that is truly life.

On Black Friday, you can either be a buy-out or a sell-out. Sell yourself out for the one who made all Fridays good, and go after God with all your gusto. Buy someone’s groceries, pay for someone’s fast food order in line behind you, hold all the doors open, smile more, donate to your favorite charity….find a way to bring light into the black. And if you are brave enough to go shopping, please be especially nice to the store clerks!

In giving, you receive all the things you will ever need. God indeed piles on all the riches we could ever manage. Do you, and the people you are buying for, really need any more?

Early Light by Patti Kohl Kohler.