Room for a Blue Christmas

Now that we are deep into the holiday season, you have no doubt heard Elvis Presley crooning about a Blue Christmas more times than you can count. The song has become standard Christmas music fare, and Starbucks has been playing it for over a month now. It’s catchy and sexy, and it is also very real sentiment for many people during the holidays.

It’s kind of funny how everyone knows that the Christmas season can be “blue” for so many people, and yet we hardly ever acknowledge or make space for it. We are supposed to laugh and shop and dream and connect—but we’re never really given permission to grieve.

I know this might sound terribly pessimistic or depressing, but I wonder if our holiday traditions should include some moments for sorrow. I wonder if it would be healthier for our souls to not just soak in the cultural Christmas spirit but to also sit with someone in their sadness.

Remember, deep sorrow was a part of the original Christmas story. Alongside the hope from the birth of a Savior in Bethlehem, there was also great tragedy in Bethlehem. King Herod (a vicious ruler who murdered numerous members of his own household) commissioned a massacre of the baby boys in Bethlehem to eliminate any potential threat to his throne over the Jews. Not only does the Christmas story contain words like, “Peace on Earth” and “Good news of great joy” but it also says things like, “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation” (Matthew 2:18).

I don’t think we should rebel against the wonder and joy that Christmas is supposed to bring; I’m not suggesting that we turn our celebrations into mourning. I just think we need to make a little space to remember and process the pain in our world. Perhaps if we did this fewer people would feel alone, and more of us would actually touch the hope of Christmas.

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Why isn’t goodness more satisfying?

Stolen water is sweet; bread eaten in secret is delicious!

That’s what the ancient proverbs writer said, and it still rings true today. We, humans, love the illicit and the forbidden.

Why is this?

Why is forbidden fruit so tempting? Why do we crave the things that aren’t healthy for us? Why do we want what we probably shouldn’t have?

The answer is…we actually don’t. We don’t want the illicit; we don’t want the counterfeit—we actually DO want the authentic and the good.

The problem is that goodness usually requires some up-front payment, whereas the illicit doesn’t charge us until a little later on—it’s like a quick and easy credit card transaction that satisfies today but makes us pay tomorrow. Goodness and beauty make us work for it on the front end, and if we aren’t willing to pay that price we’ll turn to lesser substitutes that can hurt us on the back side.

King David understood this. Throughout his life, he walked both paths: the illicit and legitimate, and his conclusion was clear. True satisfaction (the kind that lets you sleep at night and brings life to your soul) only comes from what is good. In fact, David said that when our desires touch God’s goodness it’s so satisfying that it’s almost like we start aging in reverse. He said that God “satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagles” (Psalm 103:5).

Jesus agreed with David. He said the Kingdom of God—the reality of the goodness of life in God—was like a treasure buried in a field. It took some work and it cost a life to find it, but once found, it was worth every cent of payment.

Resting from work or working from rest?

lion-restingHow would you describe your time off from work (and by work, I don’t just mean your job, but also all of your personal/family projects and demands)? Do you typically rest from your work or do you work from a place of rest?

There is a gigantic difference between the two. It seems to me that most people use their time off to rest from their work, whereas few people actually begin their work from a place of well-rested renewal.

In his book, The Communicator’s Commentary, David L. McKenna described our situation this way: “Modern society has upset the rhythm of life. Work has been devalued and play has been invaded by the purpose of work. With so much leisure and so many options, play has been subjected to a time-clock schedule with its demand for successful production. In many instances, worship has been eliminated from the rhythm of life and rest has become a dreaded experience on a ‘crash pad.’ The result is that work is a necessary evil, play is work, worship is idolatry, and rest is a short course in death.”[1]

Strong words, no doubt, but they certainly ring true. The Bible urges another way. The biblical idea of Sabbath was not so we could mildly recover from our workweek before starting it all over again—it was so we could retreat to our ultimate source of life.

In the creation account in Genesis the Sabbath day—day seven—comes last. However, for Adam (who was created on the sixth day), it came first. God’s seventh-day Sabbath was Adam’s first day. He was created to begin his work from a place of God’s rest.

Don’t get uptight about the Sabbath and legalistically attempt to carve out an entire day of rest. Just understand and embrace the principle: we find ourselves in God’s presence where our souls get renewed, and then from that place of strength and rest we face whatever comes our way.

[1] David L. McKenna, The Communicator’s Commentary: Mark (Waco: Word Books, 1982), p.77.

Ezekiel’s Muteness

mute-buttonA bizarre, often overlooked element of Ezekiel’s prophetic ministry to the Jewish exiles in Babylon is the fact that God muted him for twelve years. Ezekiel was only allowed to speak when he was uttering an authentic word from God.

Ezekiel was taken to Babylon in the first Jewish deportation in 597 B.C., but the city of Jerusalem did not actually fall to King Nebuchadnezzar’s armies until twelve years later, and for the entire twelve years in between the initial deportation and Jerusalem’s ultimate collapse Ezekiel was silenced.

When word of Jerusalem’s fall arrived in Babylon, Ezekiel’s muteness finally came to an end. “In the twelfth year of our exile, in the tenth month on the fifth day of the month, a fugitive from Jerusalem came to me and said, ‘The city has been struck down.’ Now the hand of the Lord had been upon me the evening before the fugitive came; and He had opened my mouth…so my mouth was opened, and I was no longer mute” (Ezekiel 33:21-22 ESV).

Can you imagine having those restrictions placed on your speech? Can you imagine holding your tongue for twelve years?

Sometimes I can barely hold my tongue for five minutes…and I almost always regret it when I start talking again.

I’ve seldom ever regretted the things I haven’t said, but I have often regretted the critical, gossipy, pretentious words that I let slip out. The real problem though is not just my regrettable utterances it’s the fact that those things were already in my heart to begin with.

Our speech betrays us; it reveals the internal condition of our soul. Conversely, silence can be a purifier that tests the metal of our soul, revealing what is pure and what is dross. Perhaps we should practice some Ezekiel-esque silence, resolving only to pour unashamed words of life into the ears (and souls) of our listeners.

 

 

When to binge when to fast

bingeingBinge

Noun: A short period of time devoted to indulging in an activity to excess, especially drinking alcohol or eating.

Fasting

Noun: A movement of willing abstinence or reduction from some or all food, drink, or other activities, for a set period of time.

You and I are living in a “bingeing” culture wherein excessive indulgence is the norm. We’ve even coined a new social term called “binge-watching” to describe how we devour new TV programs as they become available on Netflix or other outlets. We binge-watch TV programs, we binge-eat sugar, we binge-drink alcohol, and we pursue our entertainment and leisure times with a bingeing level of fervor.

It’s not how we were designed to live. Although I too love binge-watching a really great show, and having days where I eat McDonald’s for breakfast, nachos for lunch, and pizza for dinner, the level of bingeing in our society is both out-of-bounds and unhealthy.

From a Scriptural, God-ordained perspective, we humans were designed to live lives of moderation marked by times and seasons of both feasting and fasting. Moderation calls us to discipline and restraint—two virtues that are essential for long-term health and excellence; fasting allows us to re-boot both our physical and spiritual lives; and feasting allows us to celebrate God’s goodness and supply.

Unfortunately in a bingeing culture like ours all three of those elements get lost. Moderation gives way to the pendulum swings of excessive bingeing and crash dieting; fasting gives way to instant gratification; and the joy of feasting gets lost because we are already fully satiated.

There really is a better way to live and I think we need to rediscover it. I think we should engage in a binge fast, wherein we willingly reduce or abstain from some or all of our bingeing activities for a set period of time. Remember the Apostle Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians 6:12 “I have the right to do anything…but not everything is beneficial. I have the right to do anything, but I will not be mastered by anything.”

Eating pizza and binge-watching a really great show can be a perfectly valid form of occasional reprieve; however, to the degree that any form of bingeing has gained any level of mastery in our lives we need to fast. We need to renounce its control over us, retrieve command of our lives, and enjoy the beauty and cleanness of a life of moderation.

Waiting to exhale

starting blocks

“Runners, take your mark…get set…”

 

Now hold it right there.

 

Have you ever noticed the peculiar rituals that Olympic sprinters go through at the beginning of their races? They not only perform weird—probably superstitious—stretching routines, but they also take forever before they stop fidgeting and fussing in the starting blocks.

 

It’s a common thing for sprinters to do.

 

The reason they take so long getting settled is because they know that once they’re “set” they aren’t allowed to move again until the gun signals the start of their race. They also know that a set position is really tough to hold.

 

When a sprinter stays set for too long their arms get shaky, their stress levels spike, and they risk incurring a false start.

 

It seems that a lot of people today are stuck in the set position. They’re holding their breath, wondering what will happen with our global instabilities, our shaky financial institutions, and our exhausting presidential campaigns. They’re poised and taut, ready to run their race, but not exactly sure where the lane in front of them is taking them.

 

Fortunately Easter weekend has an answer. To every stressed-out sprinter still in the starting blocks, Easter cries out: “You’re still waiting to exhale…but God already has! While you hold your breath, fearful of tomorrow, God has already made provision for your future.”

 

The closer we move toward Jesus Christ the more freely we can begin breathing again. The more we exhale our anxiety, by inhaling His peace, the more strength we receive to run with fresh purpose, smile at the future, and help make our world a better place. Let’s go for it. Let’s lean into Jesus, and let’s run the race assigned to us.

 

God bless you this Easter weekend!

 

The Gift Nobody Wants

painSeveral years ago a doctor wrote a small book entitled Pain: The Gift Nobody Wants. Understandably, the publishing company balked at the title, asserting that no one would purchase a book that hailed pain as a gift. Consequently, after a brief run, the word “pain” was dropped and the book was simply published as The Gift Nobody Wants.

The doctor, Paul Brand, had worked extensively with leprosy patients and was among the first to realize that leprosy did not specifically cause the sufferer’s extremities to rot away, but rather the disease caused the sufferer to lose the ability to sense pain.

This inability to discern pain caused men and women with leprosy to live boundary-less lives, wherein they routinely hurt themselves and didn’t even realize it. The essence of Dr. Brand’s message (along with his co-author Philip Yancey) was that pain is actually a gift that protects us.

Rather than an unpleasant sensation to despise at all costs, pain is a gift that lets us know when we’ve crossed certain boundaries. It allows us to discern when we’re at the end of our limits, and when we need to retract or regroup.

I hate pain. I wish that I and my loved ones would never have to touch another moment of it as long as we live, but I also know that it is indeed a gift. It’s a boundary former and a protector that forces us to live within healthier limits than we might otherwise choose.

If you’re hurting I pray that you would heal. But I also pray that the pain would draw you ever closer to God’s ultimate good will for your life, and reposition you for a lifetime of greater fruitfulness.