Merry Christmas

Wishing y’all a very Merry Christmas from our little corner of the internet.

For this reason was He both born and manifested as Man, for this he died and rose, in order that, eclipsing by His works all other human deeds, He might recall men from all the paths of error to know the Father.
St Athanasius, On the Incarnation

For Those Having a Blue Christmas

Like many, the holidays are a difficult time of year for me. A few years ago, my family spent our final Thanksgiving together and then, just before Christmas on December 13, my Dad lost his 5-year battle with pancreatic cancer. Truth be told, while Christmas carols and hymns proclaim “Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men,” the harsh reality is that the season doesn’t place a pause on the hardships of the poor, the homeless, the sick, the orphan, the widows, the lonely, the unclothed, the hungry, the thirsty, the jobless, the war torn, and the needy. In this season of Advent or “Expectation,” will peering into the manger bring lasting peace or further reminders of regret, loss, disbelief, and discouragement?

It’s important that we catch the true meaning of Christmas by creating gospel moments by announcing the birth of Jesus to those around you—inviting them to join you at Christmas celebrations: in your homes and in your churches. It’s fine if Santa Claus and snowmen are present in your home as long as you exalt the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes laid in the manger. The birth of Christ is the gift of God to be celebrated.

I often reflect back to one of the most treasured Christmases that I cling to which was my last Christmas with Dad. My Dad and Mom found themselves in a hospitality apartment in Houston, Texas while my Dad received his cancer treatments. They were eleven hours away from our hometown at Christmas time and couldn’t return home because of his treatment schedule. My wife and I decided to take “Christmas” to them in Houston. We gathered a small nativity set, bought a small pre-lit tree, some Texas themed ornaments, special mugs, a Christmas wreath for the door, and made some other things to make their apartment a little more “Christmassy,” like home during the holidays.  When we arrived, we brought our Christmas surprises inside and got it set up. We even put a couple of presents beneath that little tree. The small gesture meant the world to my parents. To anyone else they might have seen a “Charlie Brown” Christmas, but to us, Christ’s birth gave us hope and strength.

The following day, we planned a Christmas dinner for the other residents of that hospitality house. We cooked and cooked and fed so many cancer patients–too sick to travel home, alone for the holidays, and too poor to pay for Christmas dinner and their caretakers. It was a Christmas miracle! God took our little and multiplied it to meet so many needs that day. And he gave my Dad the strength and health to participate. We experienced the Spirit of Christmas through loving Christ and loving others. I even preached a Christmas message of hope and peace found in Jesus Christ to those able to gather in the clubhouse. That day, I was reminded that Christmas isn’t what is found in boxes beneath a tree, but the love of Jesus, the Savior. I will never forget that Christmas.

Seek to serve the less-fortunate during the Christmas season and display the love of the Savior to those who desperately need a reprieve from life’s striving.

God used the Birth of Jesus to make an eternal impact.
Do the same.

Suturing Wounds with Mercy

“I’m starting with the man in the mirror. I’m asking him to change his ways.”

Ever sing the classic Michael Jackson song? It’s catchy. There is one real problem with the song, however: it relies on self-reflection and the self improving the self.

I often look into the mirror first. I often catch myself believing the lie that I can somehow begin with my own failures and create change in myself. I will find an issue and then want my own reflection to change itself. Many Christians, no doubt, have taken up this same mantra of self-improvement.

As is so often the case with other secular worldviews, we may even notice a modicum of success. Positive changes can come by sheer strength of will sometimes! The problem with self-willed self-improvement, however, is that sin and failure do not posses the ability to heal our broken souls.

God does not use sin to bind up the wounds of life. Sin is a gangrenous sore festering at the core of our being. Such infections cannot be removed by human willpower. Sin must be cleansed by grace. The stitches which God uses to suture our lives is mercy.

Hebrews helps make the point clear:

Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
Hebrews 4:16

Self-improvement and sanctification stem from different places. Self-improvement focuses on the self—specific sins and failures to be overcome. However, sanctification—Christian growth—ought not begin with self-reflection, but rather with self-abdication. There can only be one man in the mirror—Jesus or myself. We do not change by focusing on failures and sin. We change by drawing near to God. We grow by kneeling before the throne of grace.

That which is true about ourselves is true of our neighbors as well; relationships heal when mercy flourishes. As we are to draw near to the throne of grace with confidence, others should be equally confident in drawing near to us. Reminders of past failures and sins should not frequent our marriages, friendships, or our families.

Below are two suggestions for helping cultivate a relationship built on mercy rather than self-reflection:

1. Sacrificial Love Heals

The consequences of sin are real. Equally real are the consequences of sacrificial love. Prodigal sons don’t need a laundry-list of changes to be made before being welcomed home. The parable from Christ is clear—the Father runs to and embraces the prodigals. When we sacrifice our right to anger or justice upon the altar of love, we let God’s example (the example of his Son) heal our wounds. Convalescence begins with mercy.

Let mercy be the outward flourishing of all relationships. Just as the Father forgives, forgive. Sin cannot unite. Reminding people of their past sins cannot unite. Mercy alone binds us to Christ and therefore to each other.

2. Mercy is Fruitful

Do our children trust us with their tough emotions? Can a friend come to us in confidence? God’s mercy leads the psalmist, David, to come boldly before God to ask for mercy. God has shown himself to be merciful. Since we know God is merciful, we can come with open hearts and confess our sins to him—sins he already knows. Therefore, by cultivating mercy in our relationships, those who know us can come to discuss the deepest wounds of sin.

When we allow sin to keep our relationships at arms-length, we make mercy superficial. Keep in mind Jesus’s parable. If we choke everyone who owes us a penny, should the King (our Father in heaven) forgive us of our mountains of debt? If God used the same measure of mercy that we use, could we come to his throne confident in his mercy?

Herein lies the real problem. In order to have mercy on someone, we have to be wounded by them. With such deep wounds, how can we be as merciful as God? That’s a man-in-the-mirror question. And we all have a tendency to start with the man in the mirror. But, if instead we begin with Christ in the mirror, we can know his mercy will change our ways. Our mercy to others ought to be a pure reflection of God.

“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” Luke 6:36