Small essays about faith and life to lift your spirit and give you hope.
Small essays about faith and life to lift your spirit and give you hope.
My neighborhood was all a-glitter this Christmas, or part of it was anyway. One heavily secular display was besotted with clever animated lights that stretched through half a cul-de-sac, spilled around the house (where a fire-breathing dragon held sway) and then strewed lit-up holiday cheer across the backyard, which barely could be seen from the street. This was in contrast to another neighbor who had set out two six-foot lighted palm trees with a polar bear between them, either in a bid to be the Christmas decor outlier or to make a social statement (either way, my young grandchildren loved the incongruity of it). Further afield, a large county-owned park went all out with a massive technological light display that included fishing penguins and a full-size, bulb-encrusted steam locomotive among other seasonal extravaganzas. It took the best part of an hour to creep as far as the ticket booth (with these same increasingly tired and impatient grandchildren in the back), where we and a gazillion others trapped in the traffic then paid for the privilege of winding our way past example after example of illuminated Christmas pictographs that must have taken six months to set up. As we finally exited the park in a tea-steeped rush to the nearest Starbucks’ restroom, I was reminded of what a friend had to say about his Alaskan cruise experience a few years back. “It was my first cruise! And my last.”
There was, however, another Christmas display in our town that either was new this year or never got on my yuletide radar. It was a bit off the beaten path, which made it fun to find and that much more enjoyable when you got there. If anyone had told me I’d look forward with the enthusiasm of a ten-year-old to repeated viewings of a small frame house with 40-thousand Christmas lights hung on and around it, I’d have wondered what she'd put in her hot chocolate.
The still picture I submit herewith hardly does this display justice. The lights changed colors (how this is accomplished I do not know except it probably had something to do with computers). They pulsed to carols playing on your car radio. A waterfall of lights cascaded down the front porch steps. An elegant silver star shone high above the house. “Peace on Earth” declared itself in a simple script out front. The overall effect was enchanting (Clark Griswold would be red, blue and green with envy).
As the savings-saturated week after Christmas roars toward New Years Day, it is a blessing to have some quiet time to reflect on the meaning of peace: not the mock peace that shows up only when life’s concerns aren’t chewing at your mind, but the peace that passes all understanding. It’s a peace that endures, that enlivens your being and gives you hope in spite of the world’s attempt to crush the spirit out of you. It is Christ’s perfect peace, the one alluded to by Luke when he talks about “peace, goodwill toward men.”
Some years ago during a particularly intractable time in my life, I was on the near edge of awakening one morning when a clear inner voice assured me that the storm clouds swirling through my life would pass. Then, almost as an afterthought, the voice said “Isaiah 26”. I was not familiar with this verse so looked it up:
Thou dost keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee, because he trusts in thee. (Is. 26: 3)
During the more than 20 years since my early morning message, the Lord has seen fit to see me through more than a trial or two and on occasion has chosen to take me to the end of my road – or so it appeared at the time. Yet, I have never since been without his perfect peace. Despite whatever fix I find myself in, I have a deep well of peace to call on. My only task is not to mess things up by trying to push through the problems on my own, an all too inviting (and all-too-human) choice in a charge-ahead, get-it-done-now world. In a sense, I have become fearless – not recklessly so but mercifully so. Because, like the star lingering over the Christmas house, I know there will be Light to guide the way.
When confusion and doubt stalk, my green pasture is quiet time, a place in which I can clear mental space and find the peace promised by Isaiah 26:3, where Scripture calls on us to keep our minds on the Source of perfect peace rather than whatever circumstances may rise up and try to mess with our heads.
As I struggled with that very thing this morning, I was blessed to have stumbled on a radio interview with a woman who has started a home-based business with her husband in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Their online video shows a typical suburban home with a child’s bicycle on the porch, two practical cars in the driveway and – for all I know – a white picket fence surrounding the backyard.
It’s clear from their story that not every day has been filled with sunshine as this couple embarked on the path that God set before them, but their faith not only is strong and sharply focused but uniquely reflected in their product: three sizes of hand-hewn wooden Surrender Crosses with nails hammered into their surfaces. The purpose of their business, called Rad-Joy, is to “further God’s kingdom by encouraging others to deepen their relationship with Christ through a life surrendered.” Radical Joy.
The surrendered life does not come easy. We can believe we’re there and then find ourselves falling back on our old worrisome ways. As Jackie and Rick write on their web site, “We often talk about ‘giving it to God’ but so frequently choose to carry the heavy loads of life” ourselves. But that’s not how the Lord would have it. Instead, he calls us to himself and invites us to give our worries over to him:
“So do no fear, for I am with you.” Isaiah 41:10 proclaims. “Do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
Rick and Jackie’s Surrender Crosses acknowledge that God’s truth isn’t always easy to embrace in a world that seems determined to create as many worries as it can. Even us believers (perhaps especially us believers) will have our worrisome moments and wearying challenges, which Rad-Joy suggests we write on bits of paper and nail to a Surrender Cross, reminding us afresh of the Savior and Lord who promises to guide our steps, even on days when mind and heart don’t seem to be quite in sync.
“So be strong and courageous, all you who put you hope in the Lord, “counsels Psalm 31:24. And when your old nemesis worry shows his gnarly face, remember to Whom you are surrendered.
Oh, for the good ol’ days, when Christmas was less a debate and more a gift to be discovered and unwrapped on December 25th! Growing up, we Catholic and Protestant kids had heard about the “reason for the season” in cold, crisp (but not always snowy) New England, but in truth we didn’t know much about it, despite the belief our religious traditions attempted to imbue in us. We DID, however, know about and embrace the whole Santa-milk-cookies-stockings-presents thing, which our Jewish friends got into just as enthusiastically.
It’s not as easy to feel warm and peaceful about Christmas these days, despite the twinkling lights and soaring chorales, given (a) the event’s near manic commercial aggressiveness and (b) the hurt feelings that have arisen in recent years as people with other traditions (or an ideological ax to grind) work to substitute Christmas greetings with Holiday greetings or some other expression of seasonal sour grapes, and America complies so as not to offend -- without acknowledging or perhaps even realizing what “holiday” means in the first place: Holy Day. And so the season of Great Joy finds itself sunk in controversy at the insistence of an increasingly vocal minority, with the Great Good of it all but lost in the murk of political correctness and orgy of consumption that kicks off just after Halloween, blasts through Thanksgiving practically without pause and finally screeches breathlessly to a halt at the Christmas Eve finish line.
Compared to “how things used to be,” it can all be just plain disorienting to those of us who came up in a more sanely paced time. But it’s only that way if you let all the hullabaloo and nay-saying creep into your heart. I simply choose not to.
So, have yourself a blessed and serene Christmas filled with peace, joy, love and hope. Give from deep pleasure, wrap yourself in family, allow others their space and reflect the Light. Remember that Christmas is not a season but a Flower that opens in your heart, a Promise that applies to men, women, children, babies, relatives, friends, acquaintances, business associates, poor relations, incessant skeptics, old humbugs, politicians, talking heads, advertising execs, kittens, puppies and anyone else who may choose to partake.
“And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
One of the knottiest issues Christians have to grapple with in conversations with non-believers and even fellow believers is the “one way” idea. That God has finally, completely and intentionally fashioned a single path to redemption in the person of Jesus Christ, who redeemed a great many people while on Earth and uncounted millions since. He also upset more than a few cultural, political and religious apple carts, was executed in a mean and visible way and yet lived again to redeem … even us.
“I am the way, the truth and the light,” Jesus declares from the pages of Scripture. “Nobody comes to the Father except through me.”
There lies the stumble stone for people who are repelled by the idea that Christianity claims the exclusive path to God, inferring (of course) that all other would-be paths to God are invalid. Such an audacious statement either must be true on its face or completely without merit, as many skilled and holy Christian apologists have argued. But neither is it my intent – nor within my ability – to unpack the logic of this truth exegetically, except to wonder why God would have bothered creating just one more path among many and then have played it out in such an extraordinarily cruel way.
I choose instead to present the reality of Christ’s singular way from a completely different perspective, one with the power to bring me to tears given the magnitude of its truth, the image of which has enveloped and guided my life now for a long time.
Abraham plays in my imagination, Abram as he was known then. I see Isaac, his beloved son, carrying kindling up a mountain where his father planned to light the fire that would consume his boy (Isaac thought he was to participate in an animal sacrifice). Now, in the cruel garden of my mind, I see my own son, or perhaps one of my daughters or grandchildren. I am forced to choose between them, to mark the one who will be sacrificed to the flames. I am expected to do so as a matter of faith, trusting in God that no harm will befall any one of my precious offspring. But I do not have the courage of Abraham, I do not have the faith. I cannot choose. I would rather die myself in some piteous, wretched manner than sacrifice my son. MY SON …
God had a problem, symbolized by Abraham’s dilemma: How can I redeem my people? How can I forgive them of their lifetimes of sins against me? How can I see my justice done? I could wipe them out and start over. I could kill their sons – as cruelly as Herod killed those boy toddlers in his deadly search for the newborn Savior.
“No! I cannot do these unspeakable things,” God may have thought. “I will kill MY Son instead. My Son, the Light of the world, the One who existed since before there was time. I will commit the unthinkable act. I will choose Him. I will have him beaten without mercy, place a crown of thorns on his innocent head and twist it until the blood blends with his tears. I will turn my back on him. And then I will hang him on a Roman cross in the bright light of day. He will die slower than any sacrificial bull or lamb or goat and will have his side pierced by a sword to prove that he is dead. I will sacrifice my Son willingly so that others, in embracing His singular sacred act, will -- in turn -- sacrifice their own lives on my altar and be born again.”
I do not picture God as a remote, larger than life character but more like a person you’d meet on the street. He would look a lot like me. Or you: kind of average, approachable. And after a few obligatory comments about the weather, he probably would get right to it:
“I do not ask your son of you,” He would say, “or one of your daughters or a grandchild. That is far too much to ask. Instead, in my great mercy, I ask you only for your obedience and surrender - in total trust. I ask you for yourself, given over completely and irrevocably to me and my purposes: your hopes, your dreams, your future. Even the ones you love so much more than yourself: your children, your grandchildren. All of it, holding nothing back. Like Abram.
“That’s step one,” he would conclude, giving me one of those smiles that only Michelangelo could paint.
“Because until you do that, it’s all just words.”