Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Christmas Lights

With the cooler temperatures finally hanging around and with Thanksgiving just ahead, my thoughts inevitably turn toward Christmas.  I know for some it is too early, and admittedly I twitch just a little when I hear the first few Christmas commercials.  But I do love Christmas, and so it actually doesn't take me long to turn the switch and get into the swing of things.

Personally, our family's tradition is that we usually start decorating the weekend before Thanksgiving....give or take a few days depending on what is going on at that point in our lives.  I tackle the outside of the house, while my wife and daughter transform the inside.  

Now we do a decent little display in the front yard.  Hopefully nothing that qualifies for the once dubious and now touted label of "tacky," though I appreciate this is ultimately in the eye of the beholder.  But we keep it relatively simple.  We have some lighted deer, a sleigh, some lighted trees, icicles outlining the porch roof, and then a star nestled near the peak of the house.  Last year we added some lights in the hedges.  Definitely nothing Clark Griswold would consider proper exterior illumination, but we like it.   Now what we don't have are inflatable Santas or snowmen or red nosed reindeer.  No glowing presents or animated skating penguins.  But also no "Jesus is the Reason" sign or multi-figured illuminated nativity or animatronic wise men.  We have always quite deliberately chosen the more subtle testament to the reason for the season...the main component being the Star of Bethlehem that we place at the peak of the house.  But toward the end of the Christmas season last year, I started thinking...What is the point of the decorating?  Why do we do it?

On one hand, we decorate because Christmas is a celebration.  We decorate as a sign of being festive and joyful.  It is a time of family and friends, of happiness and cheer.  And so just as we decorate for birthdays or other holidays, we decorate for Christmas.  Another reason, I think, is that we decorate to transform our world, at least temporarily, into something different.  We decorate to give things a new look....a sign that this time is different than other times.  We put up lights and hang signs and put out candles and other ornaments to not only help things look different, but to help us be different.  It is challenging for even the biggest Scrooges to not feel at least a little more upbeat and hopeful and kind and generous when you see the bright lights and happy symbols of Christmas.

But ultimately, I think we decorate in order to make a statement. Now I am not saying we do this consciously, but ultimately, I think this is what we are doing...and why we share it with others.  We decorate because we want to show others that this matters to us...that it is important to us.  Now I realize for some what they are saying matters is time with family, or the generosity embodied in Santa Claus, or the wonder and magic associated with this time of year.  And those things are important to me too.  But for those of us who recognize Jesus Christ as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords...as Our Creator and Savior...our statement ultimately should be...and needs to be...about Him.

More than anything, Christmas should be about the incredible, almost unbelievable, Love that God demonstrated through the gift of His Son.  It is a time of declaring from the rooftops...and from our lawns, windows, and mantels that each of us are Loved...that each of us matters...and that ultimately...Love wins.  Of all the days in the year, Christmas is the time we are given the most permission to speak of Him publicly, to share His Love with others openly and directly.  It is a time when miracles and mysteries are celebrated...and hearts are the most willing to believe.

And because of this, I really believe that we need to be a bit bolder in our celebrating...and our decorating.  We need to seize this opportunity and allow the message of Love...the true reason for this season (and all seasons)...to shine through.

Now, I don't say this to suggest that we need to bombard people with heavy messages of "repent and be saved" or that everyone needs to get a giant illuminated "Jesus is the Reason" sign for their yard (not that there is anything wrong with that).   I still very much appreciate the wisdom of the adage often misattributed to St. Francis, "Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary." People generally don't like to be preached at, much less told they are sinful and need to be saved.  So that isn't what I am suggesting.  As I think Pope Francis has very powerfully argued, when we experience the true Love of God the Father, our failings, shortcomings, weaknesses, and flaws become apparent to us...and we desire repentance.   In other words, once we know Love, then those things that are not rooted in Love become obvious...and we want to change them.  The first step, however, is to feel Loved.

So my point here is that as we all embark on another Christmas season, we should consider how we are contributing to the message of God's Love that so permeates the Christmas Story.  No doubt an important part of that is decorating.  And while yes, this absolutely means decorating our lives...our attitudes...our spirits...with kindness and joy and generosity.   It also means, I think, that we should make sure that along with all the other exterior, material symbols of Christmas, we are sure to include the most beautiful and powerful symbols of Christmas....those pointing explicitly to God's Gift...to God With Us...to a child in a manger.  Who knows...maybe for some, the only opportunities they will have to "hear" that message is in the Nativity displayed in your front yard, or the star hung on your front door, or the Kneeling Santa displayed on your mantel.  Ultimately, maybe these decorations will be the tool that God uses to pierce through whatever barriers are in a person's life and to carry His message of Love to that person.  Maybe....just maybe...we should adapt that old adage and give it a Christmas flair:  "Preach the Gospel at all times. Use Christmas Lights when possible." 

And early Merry and Blessed Christmas to all of you!

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Too Blessed?

Have you ever opened the refrigerator and immediately had a bunch of things racing eachother to tumble out...flinging liquid all along the way into places you can't imagine being reachable? Or what about finding that the house you spent the day cleaning for a party now somehow appears to be even filthier than before you cleaned it....and to top it off at least two things are now broken? Or have you ever been nagged by your child (or niece, nephew, younger sibling, cousin, etc.) to play with them while your trying to get something important done?

We are all faced with these kinds of frustrations. Stuff continually confronting us...compelling us...through guilt or obligation or whatever...demanding that we spend time and energy to accomplish whatever it is. I don't think too many people would argue that the number of frustrations each of us face on a daily basis can be down right crushing sometimes. We have all heard the expression, "No one ever said life was going to be easy." Often that seems like a cruel understatement.

Well...the other day I was having exactly one of those kind of days. From the moment I woke up, I was plowing through a ridiculously long list of things to do. No sooner did I get one done that something new got added to the list. Cook breakfast, clean up from the night before, fix the computer, walk the dog, prepare the meat for grilling later, get showered, get dressed for church....it went on and on. And yes, while all this was going on, the leaning tower of Tupperware in the refrigerator came tumbling down, my daughter was continually asking "is it time yet" for us to finish our game of Monopoly, and I was feeling more and more overwhelmed as the morning droned on. I just wanted to relax, but instead I grew more and more frustrated that I had all this stuff to do...and I kept getting interrupted. It was maddening. That is...until this series of thoughts pierced through my cluttered mind....

I am frustrated because my refrigerator is too full. I am frustrated because I have too many friends. I am frustrated because my child wants to spend too much time with me.

Suddenly, all these frustrations didn't sound so horrible. In fact, now I suddenly felt foolish. How misplaced were my priorities? How blind was I that I could not appreciate all the blessings staring me...or maybe slapping me...in the face?

Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Ephesians 5:19b-20

It is so easy to get caught up in the day-to-day business of life. That's probably why time seems to move so quickly...our focus is not on the experience of the moment, but on accomplishing the task at hand so we can move to the next one. Life tends to focus us on getting stuff done rather than fully living each moment. And as a consequence, we fail to appreciate all the reminders that God loves us....that He cares about us individually...that we are His children...and that He desires our good...each and every moment of our lives. All the evidence is right there in front of us. Blessings hidden in "to dos".

Thank you, Father, for your constant whispers of love. Thank you for surrounding me with reminders of just how much You love me. Thank you for all the blessing in my life...those I see and recognize...and maybe especially those I don't. And forgive me for all those I don't see...or choose not to see. Open my eyes, Father, to what is real all around me. Make apparent all Your gifts...all Your Love. And let me live today more joyfully than I did yesterday. Afterall, this is the day You have made. Let me rejoice and be glad in it! (Psalm 118:24)

Friday, October 30, 2015

Measured by Death

Have you ever wondered how much you really love someone? Or perhaps more likely, have you ever wondered how much someone really loves you? I have been thinking about this lately (both questions really), and as is often the case, I think the answer lies in something I already "knew" but never really allowed to transform my thinking.
Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:13)
If you want to know how much you love someone (or how much someone loves you), you have to measure it in death. Are you willing to die for this person? Now before we drift off into imagining some heroic act of selflessness, like pushing someone out of the way of an oncoming train or volunteering to take someone's place so that they live instead of you (a la Maximilian Kolbe...or if you prefer, Katniss Everdeen), that isn't really the kind of death I mean...or that I think Jesus means.

On one hand, yes...we should be willing to physically die for those we love. And I don't want to minimize the difficulty and anguish that comes with physical pain and suffering. But I think sometimes...and maybe most of the time...the tougher measure is not would we die for them, but how often would we die for them. And right there, that implies some other kind of dying (as most of us only physically die once).

The death I am talking about here is the kind of death you feel when you seek forgiveness, even though you don't believe you really did anything wrong. The kind of death that occurs when you bite our tongue instead of pointing out that their great idea wasn't really theirs, but was actually yours. It is the death that happens every time you choose against your own self interest...your own desire...in favor of someone else's. It is a death of the self....of the ego. And in many ways, I think this is the harder kind of death...because it isn't one and done, but something that repeats over, and over, and over.

Ultimately it is about being selfless, about putting someone else's needs or wants ahead of your own. And really that is what love is...what true love is. It is about the other person. As I am sure you have heard, love is not just a feeling. And love is not about how someone makes you feel, or what they do for you. No, love is about what we do for them. And so the measure of that love is death. Are we willing to die for them....not just once, but over and over. Because as we all know, the opportunities to fight against (and ultimately "kill") our selfishness, our ego, are abundant....and daily. But that's what it is all about. If we truly love someone, that is, if care about them more than we care about ourselves (and that's what all those Valentine's cards say, right?!), then we should be willing to endure whatever pain we need to, in order to allow them to have their need met or their want realized. Our happiness, our joy, should be found in bring them happiness and joy. But then, that is easier said then done.

Why? Why is it so hard to let someone think we are wrong when in fact we know we are not? Why is it so difficult to humbly seek forgiveness for whatever offense someone feels we brought against them, even if whatever we did was unintentional or the other person is only offended because they are being overly sensitive? Why are we so unwilling to put in the work necessary to change that thing about ourselves that frustrates the other person? And why are we so quick to reject the idea that we should have to do any of this?

The bottom line is that we are selfish creatures. Our default setting is to take care of ourselves first and foremost. And with that comes the desire to avoid things that are painful or uncomfortable. In other words...our first instinct in almost every situation is to avoid pain...to avoid death. And so when it comes time to love, to those acts of selflessness...of choosing someone else over ourselves...of deliberately choosing the suffering that goes along with self-denial...well...those moments...those actions..just don't feel right to us. That choosing against our self, that dying to self that is the measure of love just feels wrong. It's almost like we are programmed to not love. But that's a lie. That is our rationalizing, sinfulness talking. Love is a choice, but it is one we have been freed in order to choose. It is the choice that ultimately leads to our greatest happiness. But there is no denying, loving means dying. The more we do it...the more more we die...the more we love.

Father God, sometimes my soul feels like it is literally screaming when I try to deny what I want for the sake of someone else. And it is even worse when my "choice" in the situation is only to not resist or fight against what may be the other person's selfishness. I see that love...Your Love...is about giving...and sacrificing...and dying. But also see that it doesn't stop there. Because what we always seem to find on the other side of that dying to self, is life. When we love, we often find that we are loved. When we give, we find that we receive. We when allow ourselves to be last, we find that we are the first to realize that being first isn't what matters. Yes there is death, but there is also resurrection! Please, Father, continue to transform my thinking...and my acting. Let me die...as you died, so that I can love....as You Love.