An unexpected character around the nativity

An unexpected character around the nativity

For youth group this christmas, we are asking students to look at five different characters that were in close proximity to the birth of Jesus.  Although the lesson was rather simple to make, the conclusions were a little more difficult to swallow.

The Distracted:  Luke 2:1-3

1 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3And everyone went to their own town to register.

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Christmas: an invitation to belong

christmas table More than any other holiday, Christmas is surrounded with family warm fuzzies. On the surface it is a month of preparing your house and making it as warm and hospitable as possible. And we brave the strip malls to buy presents as a way of showing love towards our friends and family. Christmas highlights one of the most critical needs humans have, to be known and to be loved.

Yes the birth of Jesus tells us so much about God and his love and plan for humanity, yes the manner in which he was born shatters all of our preconceptions regarding status and power, and yes we have God exegeted in the incarnation of his Son. But all of these great truths are not found in isolation. They are proved a reality by way of invitation, invitation into the family of God.

While we were sinners, broken, outcasts, it is at this time that Jesus left his rightful place in Heaven and became Emmanuel to reconcile us back to God and change our identity and purpose forever. Once we were not a people, but through Jesus Christ, we are the people of God.

As I reflect upon this reality, I am convinced more and more that this invitation into the family of God, to given the purpose of the family business is the thin place our world has to experience the good news of Jesus Christ. People feel more alienated then ever, our students are more isolated then the even know. Even with all their access to social media, they are alone.

An Invitation to Belong:

All humans need connection, need people, need a purpose. As we create these incarnational communities and allows space for students to experience the love of Christ and the joy of partnering with God's work in the world, we must not short change them by never giving them opportunities to transition from guests in the home of God to be actually adopted by our heavenly Father.

With all the emphasis on belonging, we must not forsake the initiation right that is made possible because on Christmas the Word became flesh and the Life appeared. To all those who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God! May this Christmas may we live more fully into our adoptive family, and share the love and grace that has been so lavishly poured out on us with others.

Merry Christmas!

We finally have a generation of people who really have no idea why we celebrate Christmas

christmas-special-for-car-lovers-how-to-write-a-thank-you-letter-to-santa-claus-41453_3 I know it is nothing new that Christmas has become secularized. From the Happy Holiday wars to the removal of the nativity scenes, the reason we celebrate Christmas has finally left the building. I had an epiphany the other night as I was driving around with my kids doing some Christmas shopping listening to my favorite Christmas album, John Denver and the Muppets' Christmas. (It is actually a rough album, but has a high sentimental value for me.)

As we listened to the story of Alphie I was reminded again the wide variety of meaning people have put on Christmas. Well, way back in 1979 we get some strange theology from John Denver and his enormous love for the outdoors combined with a cultural understanding of Christmas.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2bPL3sPSY9A]

What stood out to me was the fact that John Denver is not a Christian by any means. If anything he was a pantheist. But because he grew up in a culture that was generally "Christian" he knew enough that if you are talking about Christmas, you are talking about the the Son of God, peace on earth, and the brotherhood of man.

That was in 1979. Now, over 30 years have gone by and our cultural understanding has increasingly become secular. No news there. But think of the students that you work with, think of their peers. Unlike John Denver, they are growing up in a culture that have absolutely zero space for Jesus at Christmas. So much so, that He isn't even missed.

Of course our "Christian" kids know why we celebrate Christmas and can regurgitate some of the facts back about the original Christmas story and the meaning of it. But even our smartest, most spiritual, Christian kids are missing huge chucks of the story. Their friends, the students that we want to reach with the gospel have zero understanding of Jesus and what happened on Christmas. To get to the why is a gigantic leap.

As adults who work with students it is easy to think that they have a strong cultural understanding of Christmas that is becoming secular. But I would argue that the students outside our churches have absolutely no idea why we celebrate Christmas. In our context, maybe 1% of students have been to a Christian church in the last 6 months. That is an large part of our population that is having a smaller and smaller understanding of the most amazing event in all of history.

Gone are the days when secular artists include songs about Jesus in their Christmas albums. And the ones that do, like my main man Justin B, simply uses religious imagery to express his over the top infatuation with his latest fling.

This is not "the sky is falling" observation. It is simply an admission that the Jesus train has left the building. If we are going to communicate the gospel to a context that has no cultural understanding of Christmas, incarnation, humility, sin, redeption, or salvation, then we must be incredibly wise in both the world and the spirit if we are going to introduce this next generation to the King of Kings who became flesh on Christmas morning, to usher in a new kingdom, a new way to live both now and forever more!

Merry Christmas!

Christmas and divorce

Broken_christmas_ball_by_Heart_drops This last week I had a meeting with one of my favorite moms.  Her love for her daughter, for me, and for Jesus is palpable.  And for a verity of reasons, due to long histories, and for things that I really have no idea about, this mom is in the middle of a divorce.  While the ethics of divorce are complex and worthy of lengthy discussions full of truth and grace, this blog post is not about the ethics of divorce.

As the youth worker, no one is coming to me for marital advice, or trying to navigate a difficult situation, asking for prayers, or discernment for whether or not it is time to pull the plug on a marriage.  No, I am the youth worker, my job, my calling, is to be the child's advocate, care for them, make space for them, and help them navigate this new landscape.  I actually believe it is not the job of the youth worker to even take sides and spiritualize the landscape.  Our students are only our students for a few more years, but they will always be the daughters and sons of their parents, whether or not they are divorced.  To use our position of power and influence and pick sides will be disastrous for the long term health and reconciliation between all parties, and for all parties and the church.

With that being said, this conversation did help me realize that because all parents don't expect to be divorced, don't expect to have divided holidays, and now don't know how to navigate the holidays, specifically Christmas in-light of their new divorced situation.  Here are a couple of helpful tips to navigate this new family rhythm:

1) Don't spiritualize your situation.   Both parties are at fault in the breakup of a home.  Just because one blinks first, doesn't mean that one is right and the other is wrong.  It is an awful choice based on awful choices.  Sometime parents see divorce as the only way out, the only way for freedom and happiness.   Whether this is true or not, to spiritualize this choice diminishes the gospel.  God hates divorce, so don't say he endorses your decision.  In fact, I recommend taking the opposite position and admitting your place at rock bottom and needing Jesus' grace and mercy even more as you navigate this new landscape.

2) Don't do things as a "family." It will feel like you are helping your daughter or son by trying to keep some of your traditions going.  Many recently divorced families will still decorate the house together.  They will help, usually the dad, get a tree and stockings and spend a day together getting things together.  There is also a desire to be together for Christmas morning or even for dinners.  From this point on, your family and family traditions are toast.  Having both parents together for anything from this point on only adds anxiety for the child.  My parents have been divorced for over 35 years and whenever they are together, to this day, for a grandkids birthday, I still feel anxious.  For these first few years at least, give space, let each new side establish new traditions.

3) NO SMACK TALK. For at least one of the parties involved, but usually for both there is deep hurt.  And most people who hurt take that hurt out on other people.  Many parents unintentionally use their kids as therapists or at least as mediators in dividing the holidays and life in the future.  The other parent is still their parent and the daughter or son will always want to be in good relationship with their mom and dad and will want their parents love and approval.  PLEASE DO NOT PUT THEM IN A POSITION OF TAKING SIDES!  THIS NEVER ENDS WELL. Invest in a therapist, and maybe for the first time in your life, now that you are divorced you can speak highly of the kids other parent.

4) Time heals all wounds.  It is amazing how the holidays seem to heighten the feelings of grief and despair.  They are the annual reminder that the once held dream of the nuclear family holidays are shattered to the point of destruction.  For newly divorced families this destruction leads to depression, and for some this depression seems like it will never let up.  But when we think back over our entire lives from past break ups with high school sweethearts to the deaths of those closest to us, we know that life does go on.  The grieving process happens and takes work.  Know that this death and destruction that has overtaken your family this Christmas will be redeemed and God will make something new out of this mess.  Every year the spiral of grief and healing will was up as you become more and more whole.  Don't make discussions or use words that will set you and your family down roads that are even more difficult to recover from.  As hopeless as things feel, we must remember that there is HOPE!  We have experienced it in smaller ways due to life circumstances, we have experienced it in our own walks with Jesus at different points in our life, and now we must rely on these memories so we can make it through another day.

As we get ready to celebrate the incarnation of our loving Father, who, through the life, death, and resurrection of His son, has made a way to reconcile the entire world, no longer holding our sins against us, maybe we can extend a little extra mercy and grace into some of the most heartbreaking situations of this Christmas Season.

God is forever running after us, forever redeeming the carnage of our lives, and as ambassadors of this God, may we make wide on ramps back to the church and back to Jesus!

Bethlehemian Rhapsody!

bethlehemian rhapsody

A really clever video to get you in the christmas spirit!  And thanks MarkO for some great fun this Christmas season on your blog!  If you aren't already reading whyismarko.com, bookmark him today and add him to your reader.  You will be blessed!  

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pW1pbuyGlQ0&feature=player_embedded#!]

(for more fun, check out his 27 worst nativity sets and growing list as well)

 

Advent: what are we waiting for?

advent This post was originally featured at youthworker.com

There is something magical about the Christmas season. From Thanksgiving on, people spend a significant amount of their free time and extra money preparing for one day. There are cookies to bake, cards to send, music to listen to, houses to decorate, and gifts to buy. After a month of build up, Christmas finally comes. After a month of building expectations, it is next to impossible to have them met. If you are like me, I have grown tired of not having them met, so I have mastered the art of managing expectations. Don’t get wrong, I love Christmas and I love the cookies, but I am very careful to let my heart get all in, because having your expectations crushed can be one of the most painful things in the world.

How Jaded are you?

It is so easy to be jaded when our expectations are dashed, that most of us don’t even realize that it has happened. Every year that goes buy you find your self saying more and more often that it just doesn’t seem to feel like the holidays. However, ever now and then you bump into someone, usually a kid, who could not be more excited for Christmas, or their birthday, or Disneyland, or summer, or whatever. It is usually through the eyes of kids that we get a picture of a life that is really great and worth living.

What has happened over the course of the years to make our heats numb? I think the answer has something to do with self preservation, with protecting our hearts at all cost, and in the process our hearts get even more damaged. I know I am not alone in experiences pain and heartbreak. I am not the first person to have their hopes built up high only to have them crushed. Because it is so painful to have our expectations not met, we gradually lower them until we expect very little if anything from anyone anymore, including God.

Can Chevy Chase be our example?

But this is not the way we were designed to live. It is our expectations that allow us to live life to the fullest. This Christmas season I highly recommend that you watch Christmas vacation starring Chevy Chase. The entire movie is a about a man who never lets go of his expectations. Every event, every moment is a high light and needs to be shared. Even the arrival of his brother in law adds to the narrative of hosting the best family Christmas ever. There is something naive about his character and it is easy to mock him for these expectations, but at the same time we are drawn to him as a person and impressed with his love towards his family. Even his apathetic teenaged kids know their dad loves them.

When we have expectations our hearts are quickened and we are on alert for things to happen, for things to be special. And the same is true in our walk with Jesus. Isn’t it amazing that kids always come back from camps and mission trips profoundly impacted by the Holy Spirit. Part of it is the trip, but the truth is our camps and trips are pretty average. But what isn’t average is that for the month or two leading up to these trips, we have special meetings, special fund raising, and special lessons all preparing for an amazing trip. And after several months of preparing for an amazing trip what happens, we have an amazing trip. Even the kids who threw up the entire week all talk about what an amazing trip it was.

It is one thing to be jaded by the Christmas season. But it is devastating when we become jaded in our faith. This last month I had the pleasure of being in a meeting with several youth pastors to plan our winter camp. For me, this is old hat. I was mostly enjoying an excuse to have coffee with friends. But a brand new youth worker at the table could not contain her excitement about winter camp. She shared stories from last year where kids gave their hearts to Jesus and how excited she was to be on the planning team for such an important event. On my drive home I came to a scary reality, I had become jaded. But thankfully, God used our time together to refresh my soul, and to build a new sense of expectation.

Let us raise our expectations this Advent season:

Expectations are not an accidental thing. God as an integral part of our faith development gives them to us. Expectations are what open our eyes and ears to the movement of God. The entire redemptive history found in scripture is filled with people expectant for God to provide children, free them, save them, bless them. And the culmination is the expectant coming of the messiah, and his return.

Advent is not really about preparing our houses for the Christmas season. Advent is about raising our expectations for the messiah to come. I think it is true that Jesus not only loves the world, but also loves you and me on an intimate level and desires to impact our lives. (At least this is what I teach our students) a jaded heart can never hear the still and small voice of God or see the subtle ways in which he seems to often move. An expectant heart is continually straining its eyes and ears for the movement of God, and even the slightest movement increases our faith and causes us to strain even more.

I am pretty tired of having such low expectations of Jesus. So, this advent I am going to add a rule of life to this season. It is pretty simple, but I am expectant for it to rock my world.

1) In the morning ask God to show up, and expect that he will. 2) And in the evening, reflect on the day and the places he did.

A poet in the 1850’s named Alfred Lord Tennyson penned the famous line, “it is better to have loved and lost, then to never have loved at all.” Tennyson got that life happens in the living of it, and this advent I want this to be true for me also. I so want God to show up and have at it with me, and I am going to expect that he will. For, I would rather expect that he would show up and wrestle with the awkwardness and disappointment of when it looks differently, then to be numb and jaded to working of the Holy Spirit and miss out on the coming of Jesus!

Advent: be expectant, because Jesus is coming!

justin bieber: celebrating the wrong love on his new album

Justin Bieber

The most popular album among our students right now is Justin Bieber's latest record, Under the Mistletoe. It is the most popular album in my family as well. After listening to it for almost a week straight, I have come to a couple of conclusions: I Am Still a Big JB Fan: As with everything, I am a total late adopter when it comes to pop culture. I couldn't even name a Justin Bieber song until I ended up buying the movie on a whim and as a joke. But when it turned out I couldn't return the movie, I figured I would watch it. For the next 90 minutes I sat in awe of a youth group kid who went after it and made it big.

Every character in the film was somebody I could relate to. After doing student ministry for so long, I have come to be able to empathize with the single mom, the involved grand parent, the dream for something better. And then when once it happened, it was amazing. I have to confess, I even cried during the movie.

Now, don't get me wrong, I am not a sap and I wasn't born yesterday. I am fully aware how produced he, his image, and that movie are. But at the end of the day he is still a youth group kid who made it. And he is someone most of my students connect with and want to be part of.

Even with a paternity suit pending, I am a fan!

I Am So Thankful To Be Old and Married: The one constant theme that runs through all of Justin's music is his overwhelming passion for the ladies. It is overwhelming how much love can ooze out of one man, let alone one kid. Under The Mistletoe is all of his former musical efforts to express love combined and then some. Seriously, this kid has passion and the ladies soak it up.

Track after track, JB expresses the kind of love that would make Ryan Gosling from the Notebook feel like a heard-hearted bitter man. As I listen through the CD I realized how thankful I am to my wife and for putting up with me and my total lack of romance. Even through I think his passion is over the top and kind of gives me a headache, I do want to live more and more into that passion for my own wife.

I probably won't be facebooking or twittering Katie anytime soon, and thankfully our love songs don't revolve around negotiating a curfew with our parents, but in honor of Justin Bieber, I will be adding some mistletoe to the house this Christmas season.

Christmas, as in Celebrating Christ's Birth, is Officially Dead On a more serious note, this new album makes for some intereting commentary on our cultures continued grab-bag of religions and worldviews. I don't mean to be dramatic or imply that the sky is falling. People could be making this argument for years. As someone who is fully comfortable in reality television and pop culture news, something felt different about this Christmas album than the gazillions before it.

Whether it is true or not, Justin has been portrayed as a good Christian kid and the spiritual part of his life was highlighted on his tour to help us good Christian folk buy in. (Just like we did with Britney before him) What struck a strange nerve in me was not his overly romantic lyrics or his celebration of Santa Clause. What made me think that this was some sort of watershed CD was the way in which the Christmas themes, particularly the Christian themes, were intertwined seamlessly, even when the images were opposed to each other.

In the song, Mistletoe, Justin sings a beautiful song about love and making out. But then in the middle he throws in Christian imagery to express his love for his girlfriend. Not Christmas imagery, but Christian imagery. "The wise men followed the star, the way I followed my heart, and led me to a miracle."

I could be wrong, but this is the first time, or at least the most famous time ,to lower Christian images and use them as illustrations to paint a picture of teenage love.

The strangest song on the CD is when Justin sings as the Little Drummer Boy. The original song which is a precious song about a little boy who doesn't have great gifts to bring, like the wise men, will offer his simple gift of his only talent on his only possession in honor and deference to the new born King.

The song begins well with Justin singing beautifully, but then all of the sudden, with zero recognition of what was just sung, Justin and Busta go off on how great they, how tight he is, he's about to go psycho! At the end of the day they bring it all together to celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa by participating in a can drive.

I know none of this is new or shocking. But since this CD is taking over my life, I needed some outlet to process some of my thoughts. As I have asked around, it turns out no one shares them with me. I guess we live in a world that is more than ever jumbled and amoral. We believe a smorgasbord of ideas to create our own theology, and at the end of the day give a can to a can drive and feel pretty good about ourselves.

As I lean into Christmas this year, I will be enjoying this CD, but even more so, I will be actually enjoying the real reason for Christmas, the birth of the true King, the true Savior of the World, and not just the author of Love, but of Love incarnate.

thank you artists! (the good and the bad)

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sghwe4TYY18] i am always impressed with the creativity of people.  as a frustrated artist, i find such joy when others produce quality art.  whether it is music, painting, poems, movies, or youtube videos, there is something compelling about a story told through fresh lenses.

although there is a chance that this video is already dated, it was a fresh reminder to me that there are many ways to tell the same story.  and with our changing mediums of communication, i am thankful for the creative people in the body of christ to continue to find fresh ways of telling the greatest story ever told!

it should be a crime to make the christmas story sound like charlie brown's teacher.  the birth of jesus, in incarnation, emmanuel, is too amazing for simple words.  bring on the artists!  help us left-brain people move past the logical and analytical and help us see the beauty, depth, and emotion of this amazing story.

i am soaking up every christmas link i can find.  some are compelling, some have made me almost cry, and some are just awful.  bring on the flash mobs singing, the exterior lighting mayhem, elf clips, even a wham! christmas video.  but in all of it, i am appreciating the multitude of ways that people connect to the chistmas story and am diving afresh into it myself.

may we all die a little more to cynicism and hardheartedness and live into light, beauty and hope!

have a merry christmas and a happy new year!

"in him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.  the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not ovecome it."   - the apostle john.  (1:4,5)

what jay-z and job taught me about loving others

jay-z

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K6_-OvbMFM8] disclaimer: i am a poser. i came across this video after i bought jay-z’s new book, “decoded.”  and what makes it even worse, i only bought this book because it was featured on oprah’s favorite things episode.  even though i am a poser, and i came across this book in an embarrassing way, i do think that this is one of the most creative, artistic, and compelling books i have read in a long time.  and believe it or not, god has used it to rock my world. :end disclaimer

this christmas season god is using two stories which are different in just about every way to rock my world. one is a story of success, and the other is a story of devastation.  and in both there is a common desire from the storyteller to be known.

this video gives you a great snapshot of the first story.  in jay-z’s book, “decoded,” he brings the reader, and the suburban white boy with zero touch points to the hip hop scene, on a journey behind his image of success and what you know, or think you know about his life.  the reader is treated to a masterful story of a young mc, turned hustler, who develops into a successful rapper.  and through grit, determination, and some near death experiences, a nobody from marcy projects in new york finds himself to the top of the billboard charts and on top of the world.

the story of success. it is quite a treat to be invited into the life of a celebrity like jay-z.  everything about his life is foreign and therefore intriguing to me.  but this book isn’t about showboating his success.  the assumption of the author is that you are well aware of his success.  this book is about walking the reader through the formative history of jay-z.  it is an introduction to the people and experiences that shaped his values and world view.  and as jay-z finds success he finds that people in his life don’t know what to do or how to interact with this this complex person.  is he a low-ball hustler who really belongs in the projects, or is he a high-class music mogul who uses his influence to shape the music and pop culture scene?

the answer in this book is yes.  the people in jay-z’s life now only know him in his current, successful role.  but what it appears that jay-z longs for is to be known as a total person.  a person with a past, a present, and a future.  he worked hard for his success, and because of that success people from his past no longer know how to relate to him.  and with this success, the people in his present, don’t know how to relate to his past.  and this book is jay-z’s way of being known.

the story of devastation. another book that tells the opposite story is found in scripture in the book of job.  job’s story is one of a successful person with plenty of wealth and influence who has it all taken away.  in the same way that jay-z’s community has a hard time relating to his success, job’s community had a hard time relating to his devastation.  job’s friends who knew job at the hight of his success find themselves scratching their heads in an attempt to understand what happened to their friend, what sort of offense did job commit to deserve this sort of devastation.

throughout the book of job, his character never changes.  the core of his being never wavers.  he is the same person, but is living through hell.  his family has been killed, his farm destroyed, and his body is deteriorating.  and in this season of devastation, job is even more wrecked that his friends are rebuking him instead of walking with him through this valley of death.

the purpose of the story is to be known. job’s desire is to be known.  job did not need his friends to put him in a box based on the externals of his life.  his character has been formed and he needed his friends to see him.  to see his past, to understand his present, and to be hopeful for this future.  and i think jay-z’s desire is the same, to be known.  he doesn’t need friends to judge his success or to see him only as someone they can use for their own gain.  he needs people who see his past, so they can understand his present, and to be hopeful for his future.

which brings me to christmas.  for as much as their is total crazy materialistic mayhem during this season, there is also good will toward men.  it is in our dna to be soft hearted toward those “less fortunate,” at least for december.  and i even have on my calendar a couple of special events this christmas season to do just that.  but these stories help me realize that my fellow humans deserve so much more than my charity or judgement, they deserve to be known.  so instead of offering charity to those in need, or hoping my successful friends invite me to their christmas party, i am going to attempt to treat all people as if they have their own compelling story, and are not just as props in mine.

we bump into a wide variety of people and we only get to see a very small slice of their life.  whether we see them during a season of success or a season of devastation, we need to see them.  the more we can know their past, the better we can understand their present, and then maybe even offer hope for their future.

how great it is that we worship a god who is all about knowing us fully.  he knows our past, and understands our present, and, for sure, offers hope for our future.

merry christmas!

 

an advent experiment

as i was approaching this holiday season, i realized something strange happening inside of me. somewhere along the way i had become jaded about chirstmas. it could be that decorations have been us since before halloweeen, it could be the never ending emphasis on materialism, it could be that i haven’t gotten over that one present i was hoping for and didn’t get. however it happened, the sad truth is that it has happened. while i agree that there are plenty of things to be jaded about christmas, it is awful when that actually spills into my walk with jesus. the holiday season really isn’t the holiday season, it is the season of advent. the season where we are expectant for the coming messiah. and since jesus hasn’t come back on any christmas i remember, it is easy to become jaded about that too.

well, managing my expectations, being jaded, and hating on christmas ends today. this is the first day week of advent and i am adding a rule to my life to kill the dark hole inside of me. advent is about raising our expectations for the messiah to come. i think it is true that jesus no only love the world, but love me too. a jaded heart can never hear the still and small voice of God or see the subtle ways in which he seems to often move. an expectant heart is continually straining its eyes and ears for the movement of god, and even the slightest movement increases our faith and causes us to strain even more.

i am pretty tired of having such low expectations of jesus. so, this advent i am going to add a rule of life to this season. it is pretty simple, but i am expectant for it to rock my world.

  1. in the morning ask god to show up, and expect that he will.
  2. and in the evening, reflect on the day and the places he did.

a poet in the 1850’s named alfred lord tennyson penned the famous line, “it is better to have loved and lost, then to never have loved at all.” tennyson got that life happens in the living of it, and this advent i want this to be true for me also. i so want god to show up and have at it with me, and i am going to expect that he will. for, i would rather expect that he would show up and wrestle with the awkwardness and disappointment of when it looks differently, then to be numb and jaded to working of the holy spirit and miss out on the coming of jesus!

(an adaptation from an article i wrote for youthworker journal, and can be found here.)