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Blogger, Christ-follower, Encourager, Friend, Husband, Dad

Friday, December 30, 2011

Half a Hundred

My brief research didn’t give me a definitive answer as to where the phrase “hang half a hundred on them” originated.  I have seen it attributed to both Barry Switzer when he was coaching at Oklahoma and Steve Spurrier when he was coaching at Florida.  The idea was that they were going to keep running up the score against their opponents until they scored at least 50 points.
Well, as of December 24, God has hung half a hundred on me.  I am now 40 years old with 10 years experience.  My family and friends are reminding me that I have seen a lot in a half century of life.  My AARP membership packet has arrived in the mail (hey, I’ll take whatever discounts I can get).  My name has been adapted to Gerry-atrics and Gerry-tol.  And I am finding out that it really is nifty to be fifty.
During my fiftieth year Mrs. Sweetie and I got a son-in-law, our little girl became a High School English teacher, we got our house paid off, and our baby boy turned 21.  My hair continues trending toward gray, but at least it is hanging in there for the most part.  I also had skin cancer surgery and a little bout of shingles. And my doctor has been reminding me of a special procedure that he has been saving as a fiftieth birthday present.  Ok, I’m going to remain in denial about that until I see him in February.
I might suggest that there were some midlife issues to deal with, but since I don’t expect to live to a hundred, half a hundred seems like I might actually be on the downward side of the mountain instead of the middle peak. 
Not that I’m complaining. I actually can’t think of one person with whom I would want to trade lives.  Mrs. Sweetie is still my best friend and biggest fan.  Those grown up kids still love me and will even show it in public.  I have a lot of opportunities to encourage, coach, and mentor pastors and church leaders.  I am looking forward to what is ahead much more than I am pondering what is behind.  Half a hundred is a good place to be.
One other great blessing came to me during my fiftieth year.  My friend and fellow guitar-picking storyteller, Bob Buckel, gave me the wonderful opportunity of Life Matters showing up across the op-ed page from him in the Azle News each week. It has been my honor to share the page with him (and to trust him each week to make my words fit the space).
When he told me a few weeks back that he would be leaving the Azle News at the end of the year, I was both sad and excited.  I’m sad like most everyone that has benefited from his community spirit, fair-minded perspective, and faithful friendship expressed in both print and life for the past 25 years. I’m so glad that Bob the newspaper guy has become Bob my friend over the past few years.  I’m excited because I know that God has a great adventure ahead as our friend moves into whatever is next.
Our lives—birthdays, transitions, friendships, joys, pains, challenges, triumphs—matter to God.  I have lived much in this half a hundred and those with whom I have shared the trip have made it all the better.  Have I mentioned that I am looking forward to what is ahead? And I am looking forward to seeing you here in 2012.
But before I start, I think I’ll go take a nap.  That half a hundred does take a little more effort to carry. 

Monday, December 19, 2011

Keeping Christmas in Christ

No, the title is not a typo. I didn’t get the words out of order. In fact, I will suggest that this perspective may be the key to reclaiming Christmas. I realize that’s a bold statement, but stick with me.
I read an article this week by Donald Heinz, Professor of Religious Studies at California State University, Chico. At first I was impressed that this university had a branch in Wise County just up the road from my office, but then I realized that California also has a Chico.  Go figure.
There are many statements worth repeating, but I only share two.  “Getting Christmas right means getting ourselves right and ultimately getting God right.”  “The renewal of Christmas will not come about through nostalgic returns to a past time of Christian predominance or through prohibitionist scolding, but through an active imagination that makes everything captive and obedient to Christ.”
This is really what I have been trying to communicate over the past few weeks in my thoughts on “Happy Holidays” and Christmas slogans.  Here’s the bottom line.  The only way to take Christ out of Christmas is to make Christmas the featured story.  But if Christmas is kept in perspective as a part of the larger story of Christ, then there is no way to take Him out of the story.  It is His story.  He IS the story.
It is amazing to me that many who complain the loudest about getting the words right will have a hard time making it to church to worship Christ this coming Sunday because it falls on Christmas Day and there are presents to open and feasts to consume.  Or even if they make it for Christmas, they may not be seen there again until Easter.  We sometimes call them the “Chreasters” or the “Flower Children”.  The only time you see them in church are when there are poinsettias or lilies present.
But going to church is not really how to keep Christmas in Christ. If Christ really is the story, then we need to be sure we don’t leave Him as a baby in a manger.  He also lived a sinless life, was crucified to pay the penalty for my sin and yours, was buried and rose again on the third day, was seen alive by many, and ascended into Heaven where He is now seated at the right hand of the Father and intercedes on our behalf.  How could we possibly doubt how much our lives matter to God?
So if He is the story, and we are called (according to Professor Heinz) to have an active imagination that makes everything captive and obedient to Him, then how do we do it?  How do we keep Christmas in Christ?
I was the guest preacher at the First Baptist Church in Perrin, TX this past Sunday and I asked them that very question.  I told them I was enlisting them to help me write my blog this week and needed them to tell me how to keep Christmas in Christ. 
Here’s what they said.  Remember to care about the needy and lonely all year long and not just at Christmas.  Remember that it is love and not slogans that demonstrate the reality of Christ to the world. (John 13:35 – “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.").  Remember that there are people who need to see the story lived out in the lives of Christ-followers before they will be ready to listen to it.
I know a young couple who gave each other a special gift this Christmas.  They spent part of what they would have spent on themselves to send 44 gifts to a ministry in India that takes care of 44 orphans.  This is not just something to make them feel good at Christmas.  They have been involved with this ministry for over two years and have regular contact with them.  This is a part of who they are as Christ-followers.  All they were doing was being sure that they were keeping their Christmas in Christ.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Truth about "Happy Holidays"

Question: Do you promise to tell (1) the truth, (2) the whole truth, and (3) nothing but the truth?  Answer:  (1) Yes, (2) Can’t manage the whole truth in 600 words or less, (3) This is a blog, so this is my truthful opinion. 
Now that we have the disclaimers out of the way, I want to continue with my “Happy Holidays” thoughts from last week. This week’s title is not intended to imply that I am about to give the definitive truth to end all discussions on the topic.  I just want to offer a little perspective.   I posted the following on Facebook a few days ago, “One easy way to undermine the message of Christmas is for Christians to appear angry and petty in response to "Happy Holidays".  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. 
So here are a few truths to remember as we seek to respond appropriately to this crazy culture in which we live.
Truth #1 – There are a lot of holidays this time of year.  One usage of the word “holiday” is a day that you don’t have to go to work.  It is a vacation.  “Going on holiday” may not be used much in our part of the world, but if a person has some extra days off, what is wrong with a pleasant wish that they might enjoy them?
There are also some crazy holidays during December.  I found a website that lists “Bizarre and Unique Holidays” that cover every day in the month of December.  I promise I am not making these up.  National Fritters Day (Dec 2), Wear Brown Shoes Day (Dec 4), Humbug Day (Dec 21), Make Up Your Mind Day (Dec 31).  If someone wishes to celebrate these holidays, they may actually need a little extra encouragement (and perhaps a hobby).
Seriously, almost all of the major religions of the world have some special days in December.  As an unapologetic Christ-follower, those are not a part of my own celebration.  But I believe that I am more likely to have the opportunity to share what is special and unique about my faith when a person of another perspective sees that I genuinely am interested in a gracious dialogue about matters of faith and truth.
Truth #2 – A “Merry Christmas” sign in the window of a store is no guarantee that a business is focused on the true reason for the season.  Some merchants may have figured out that Christians are more likely to shop where they see the magic words in the window.  Is that X-box really more of a celebration of the birth Jesus of because of where you bought it?
Truth #3 – A “Happy Holidays” sign in the window of a store does not in any way prevent me from practicing my faith.  When I see that sign, I interpret it in the light of my own faith perspective and I am grateful for the recognition that this time of year is special.  I don’t need a store or anyone else to share the message of my faith on my behalf.  That’s my job.  When I am met with a “Happy Holidays”, there is nothing that prevents me from responding with a pleasant “Thank you and Merry Christmas” or even “God bless you.”  My own opinion is that a faith that is too easily offended is a rather shallow faith.
Truth #4 – The Jesus whose birth I celebrate is too awesome and wonderful to be contained in slogans.  “Jesus is the reason for the season.”  “Keep Christ in Christmas.”  Those aren’t bad slogans, they are just insufficient to adequately express the glory of the Savior. At His birth, the angels in heaven could not contain their joy.  At His crucifixion, death and the grave could not contain Him.  Our lives matter so much to God that Heaven could not contain Him.  1 John 4:9-10 says, “This is how God showed His love among us: He sent His one and only Son into the world that we might live through Him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
Next time – Keeping Christmas in Christ

Monday, December 5, 2011

Happy Holidays!

Who would have ever thought two little words would stir such controversy?  When I was a kid in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the Christmas season at our house was filled with music.  We would put a record (do you remember those) on the stereo (a piece of furniture that happened to play music) and listen to classic Christmas recordings.  One that I remember most is Andy Williams singing “Happy Holidays … while the merry bells keep ringing, happy holidays to you.”  

Of course as a child I could never understand that the subversive Mr. Williams was really trying to remove the true message of Christmas and usher in a generation of political correctness that would ultimately prevent me from freely practicing my Christian faith.  (That was sarcasm, for anyone who might have missed it).

When I write this blog each week, my goal is to encourage you and remind you that your life really does matter to God.  And while I am not afraid of controversial subjects, I usually don’t deliberately go there in this venue.  But reminding us that our lives matter to God sometimes requires shining some light on things that distract us from that reality.

Which brings me back to “Happy Holidays”.

I am willing to stipulate a couple of things.  First of all, political correctness and sensitivity are sometimes taken to ridiculous extremes.  Secondly, there is ample evidence that, in some circles, the message of Christ is the least tolerated of all religious perspectives. Notice that I said, “in some circles”.  That is an important perspective for those of us who are Christ-followers.

Which brings me back to “Happy Holidays”.

As an unapologetic Christ-follower, I am disturbed by much of what I am hearing during this season.  What may surprise you is that I am most disturbed by what I am hearing from the Christian community.  I am hearing Christians calling for a boycott of any store that posts “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” in the window. There is even a song on YouTube with pretty pictures and a catchy tune that begins with the lovely sentiment of “I believe in Christmas” and then moves to a refrain of “If you don’t see Merry Christmas in the window, no, you don’t go in that store”.  As of the time of this writing, it has been viewed almost 1.2 million times.

As an unapologetic Christ-follower, I always want to remember that the true meaning of Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Christ.  I also want to be consistent in my commitment to daily (as in all 365 of them) displaying the character of Christ in my words, actions, and attitudes.  When I saw and listened to that little song on the internet, my heart was not filled with the joy of my Savior or a reaffirmation of the true meaning of Christmas.  My heart was filled with something else.  The best word I can come up with is grief.

In my years as a pastor, I tried to help people understand that grief is a normal response to any sense of loss.  So what is my sense of loss with this whole “Happy Holidays” controversy?  My sense is that, within a well-intentioned zeal to remember that Christmas is a celebration of the birth of a baby in Bethlehem, we may have lost focus on the reality of Who that baby really is. We have lost a sense of His character, His heart for a broken world, His reputation as one who was accused of being a “friend of sinners” (Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:34).  Our lives really matter to Him, and accurately representing Him really matters to me.

Coming next week – The Truth about “Happy Holidays”