Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas 2009

"Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord." Luke 2:11 “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” John 1:14 . . . Merry Christmas to all!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

What Christmas Means to Me . . .

I apologize in advance for this little meditation -- it consists material and concepts I have published on my various blog sites over and over again over the years. So if you've read this stuff before, I hope you'll bear with me. This is, indeed, the essence of everything I believe in, and who I am.


Its been the subject of many of the Christmas movies and television shows down through the years . . . the "real meaning of Christmas." Whether it's Keenan Wynn's Kris Kringle in "Miracle on 34th Street," all the"Whos down in Whoville" in "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," or even "Phineas and Ferb" in the new Disney Channel cartoon series, the themes are the same . . . Christmas is over commercialized, and we need to get down to the true meaning of Christmas, which invariably turns out to be some sort of altruistic concept of selflessness and a spirit of giving. Often times the scripture from Luke 2:14 (always quoted from the King James version of the Bible), "Peace on earth, good will toward men." Its this "good will" that is presented as the essence of Christmas.

There is, of course, a kernel of truth in this. But there is one Christmas movie/tv show that truly gets it right. In "A Charlie Brown Christmas," Charlie Brown, in his exasperation over holiday pressures, cries out "Isn't there anyone who can tell me what Christmas is all about?" Linus takes the stage, a spotlight hits him, and he recites the Christmas narrative from Luke 2, with an emphasis on verse 11, "today is the City of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord." After he's finished, he says to Charlie Brown, "and that's what Christmas is all about."

Indeed. Its all about a person. Its all about Jesus. Its all about a relationship with this person.

Of course, the perception we have of Jesus at Christmas time is as an infant, lying in the manger. Babies are not very threatening or complicated when it comes to a relationship. Relating to the person of Jesus as an adult -- the one the gospels portray for us -- is a lot more complicated. There is a perception that Jesus, at the Son of God, demands an awful lot of us. A lot of that "altruism" that Kris Kringle and the Whos were looking for. Good behavior. Right and righteous living. Getting along well with others. Unselfishness.

When we think about what we think Jesus expects from us, especially during the stress of the holiday season, it almost seems like we're being watched. Like he's "making a list and checking it twice,"
that he it all figured out, just exactly who is "naughty" and who is "nice."

Wait a minute . . . this is really starting to sound like its related to the Christmas concepts we grew up with.

But the truth of the matter . . . the real, biblical truth . . . is not at all like this.

What is the real meaning of Christmas? Why did Jesus come into the world? In all the hustle and hassle of what we generally face when we celebrate Christmas with our families and friends, I often feel just like Charlie Brown did -- frazzled, under pressure, and feeling like I just don't measure up. I cry out -- "I can't take this any more! Life has too much pressure! What IS Christmas really "all about?"

Jesus has the answer to my question. In Matthew 28:30, he says "Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly." (from "The Message" translation of the Bible).

This is tremendous imagery, reflecting in modern, 21st Century style English the basic message Jesus was trying to tell us. I particularly love the phrase "unforced rhythms of grace" and that there will be nothing "heavy or ill fitting on [us]." That is the essence of Christ's relational style, for anyone who has a real, living relationship with Him.

But the "Message" translation leaves out the most famous part of the original language of this verse -- the part that really has made this verse so quotable over the centuries. Here is the same verses in the NIV:

"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."

Jesus' audience, centered in a primarily rural and agricultural culture of the ancient middle east, would have readily understood the concept of a "yoke." It was usually a large harness made of wood that was fitted over the necks or shoulders of farm animals. It was done either in pairs or larger groups of 4 or 6 animals. The more experienced animals were placed in a position so that what they did, where they went, the things they did forced the other, less experienced animals to go in the same direction and do the same things. In time, the inexperienced animals "learned the ropes" so to speak, and soon were doing and practicing the very same things the older animals did, and they didn't have to think about it. This was a more humane, gentler way to train animals than whipping them or "breaking" them. It was being trained and disciplined in a way that made it seem like you weren't being trained or disciplined. Our relationship with Jesus is like this -- his "yoke is easy." It is in this yoke we learn the "unforced rhythms of grace." Its a kinder, gentler life changing experience. Jesus is SO like that.

In a past discussion on this matter, a visitor to one of my blog sites commented that there is a second cultural angle to this. Its not just an agricultural image, but a culturally religious one. Here is what he had to say about these same verses:

"Jesus was actually using a double meaning for the Jewish word translated into yoke. For a Jew, the word yoke could mean the wooden thing to keep oxen together and go in a straight line. It also means the teachings of a Jewish rabbi. A rabbi would often tour around Israel, and the most famous and well respected rabbis gained quite a following (as we see with Jesus), one of the central marks of a rabbi was their "yoke" their set of beliefs and teachings...from the most famous of rabbis came the formulation of books like the Talmud and it's commentaries. What Jesus was saying there was. Come to me, my teaching is different that what you've seen before, it's not as legalistic as what you've learned, it rests easier on your shoulders. Come follow me and you'll see that the teaching I have to offer is easier."

This is also quite true. It shows how the cultural meaning of the texts offer us a richer tableau to view when we see it through the eyes of those to whom the words were originally spoken, and not just the eyes of a 21st century middle class American.

But it also speaks of relationship. The essence of Matthew 11: 28-30 is Christ's relationship with us. Whether viewed as a connection like oxen yoked together in learning to serve, or a connection to a religious teacher that would offer us a new and better way, the essence is still the same. Its all about relationships -- a mentor walking with his charge, or two persons laboring together. Except the mentor or coworker here is the God of the universe.

Charles Simpson, the internationally known apostolic charismatic leader, said that you can break down everything in the Bible, everything in God's kingdom, to some form of relationship. Any or you who actually read my journal entries on this site regarding the book of Galatians know that this is the essence of what I see coming out of that book -- God's relationship with his people, fulfilled in a promise.

And as I am thinking about Christmas, and what it really means, it is the Incarnation, the concept of God becoming a man in the form of Jesus Christ, that is at the forefront. And this too, is also all about a relationship.

Indeed, the Incarnation is something that is personal to each of us.

There is the anecdote regarding the Mom who finds her preschool aged daughter drawing pictures. Mom asks the little girl what she is drawing. "I'm drawing a picture of God." Mom smiles, and comments "But nobody knows what God looks like." The little girl things for a moment, and continues to draw. "They will now" she says.

That is what happened with Jesus. Before Jesus came into the world, no one had ever truly seen God, or known God, or understood what God was really all about. But when we come to know Jesus, we come to understand . . . we come to truly know "what God looks like."

The essence of the Incarnation is described in John 1:14

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth”

But how is that "relational?"

Well, the "Word" is God, in the form of Jesus.

The concept of becoming "flesh" was viewed by audience that John wrote for as almost vulgar. The Greek word for flesh connotes an earthy, almost scandalous or "in the gutter" type image. "Flesh" means the sensual, the sensuous, the cravings of our natural state. It means being separated from God, inclined to sin, separated from divine influence and control. It was, literally, a "dirty word." I can almost see images from that scene in the movie "The Christmas Story:" where the main character "Ralphie" is helping his Dad change a tire, and uses the "F" word -- the "Queen mother of dirty words." In the minds of the people of Jesus' time, having God come "in the flesh" would have been as shocking as hearing a child use that word. Its like talking about fecal matter -- you can use the word "excrement," or you can use the socially unacceptable word that rhymes with "fit," but you're still talking about the same stuff. That's what the connotation of the Greek word for "flesh" has here.

And think about it. Philippians 2:5-8 says:

"Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature { Or } God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing, taking the very nature { Or } of a servant, being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-- even death on a cross!"

Jesus left the glory of heaven --volunteered for the part, and put on this "fecal," dirty matter and be one with us. If your going to truly relate to someone, you have to be at their level. That's what Jesus did when he was born in the manger at Christmas.

This concept is not to be taken lightly. John 3:16, which says "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." Its a verse that isn't often quoted in the context of Christmas -- we usually get Luke 2, or Matthew 2. The Angels, the Shepherds, or the Magi. But John 3:16 is "What Christmas is all about" to quote Linus from "A Charlie Brown Christmas." God loved us so much, he gave us his son. But how do we measure how much God loved us? When you consider the context of the verse quoted above from Philippians, its almost incomprehensible. God, lowering himself to the level of mankind. I had a good friend in high school, who used to try and explain this by saying that to understand how far God had to "step down" to put on that "flesh," we need to picture one of us coming into the world as a maggot in order to redeem all the flies. No matter how highly we think of ourselves, no one of us, or even the entire race of man, is really of any consequence within the vastness of the universe, and of creation. Yet God chose to be just like us, so we could be right with Him.

And he did this on a personal level. This wasn't a grandiose, sweeping concept that would scoop us all up together as an impersonal mass, like a broom sweeping up all the dust at once. Redemption is as personal as holding hands, as a tender kiss. He did this all as a person, as an individual, so that each of us could get to know him, one on one.

He did this by coming live in with us, right in our neighborhood. The words for "made his dwelling among us" in John 1:14 is the same words used when describing making camp -- Jesus literally "pitched his tents with us" when he became a man. He moved in. So we could see him at home, where it really counted, and he could see the same things with us. This is relational living. Jesus wants to be as close to us, or closer, than our own nieghbors. But think of more than just the next house over. Think best friends. Like Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble. Inseperable, bosom buddies. That's what this language implies.

That is the essence of the Incarnation -- the essence of Christmas. Christ became just like us, as fallible and dirty and slimey as us -- but he never sinned, he never fell into the trap. But he was willing to come down to our level, to stoop as low as the eternal God of the universe could bend over, so we could see Him as he truly was, and he could relate to us on a personal level. So close, you could see Him working in His yard, talk with him across the back fence, and so he could hear it when your kids practiced thier band instruments.

Jesus became part of our family.

That is the essence of Christmas, ladies and gentlemen, and its why I get excited to think about these things this time of year.

Jesus wants to be my neighbor, my bosom buddy, my best friend.

He wants me to take his yoke upon me, and learn his ways.

He wants to share a meal with me.

He wants to have tea with me (another story I have posted before).

And because of this relationship, I have eternal life, and my very nature has been changed to something that can actually begin to come into line with what those Christmas movies see as the real meaning of Christmas -- that "good will toward men" stuff. Without Jesus, I am doomed to fail in my own efforts to be good. But now that I am a new creation in Jesus (see 2 Corinthians 5:17), I can, in Christ, obey his call to help and serve others.

That's what the Incarnation means.

And my family and I wish all of you a very merry, blessed, and joyful Christmas!!!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Favorite Christmas Movies

I need a little diversion in what has otherwise proven to be a very busy week.

A conversation/debate started when I posted that my family was gathering for the annual viewing of "A Christmas Story." A lot of folks love that movie, while others communicated their disdain. But it got me thinking about the rare concept of a "Christmas movie," and the ones that over the years have helped define the holiday season for me and my family.

I was originally going to weigh in with a "best and worst" list of Christmas movies, because there are some real clunkers out there too. But in the interest of trying not to offend my friends who may like one of the holiday films I despise, we'll just make this a list of my favorite Christmas movies.

So, in no particular order, are my list of favorite holiday cinema:

* "Humphrey's Search for Christmas" and "The Littlest Present." Yes, two movies I have actually appeared in make the list! These are two films produced by my church's kids ministry, and they have become a part of our holiday traditions both because they are enjoyable to watch, were so enjoyable to make, and, especially in the case of "Humphrey," have become a part of my own family traditions. When "Humphrey" was released back in 1991 or 1992, I was just starting my family, my kids were little, and they watched the video and listened to the song soundtrack over and over and over. And because of my personal connections to these films, they bring back wonderful memories.

* "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" The first of the Rankin/Bass stop-action animated Christmas specials, and still the best. I remember watching this when it premiered back in 1964 or so, and because it was an annual part of my childhood Christmases, I still enjoy it today. Cheezy? You betcha. But its a great story, and the songs have become part of the annual Christmas music rotation along with traditional fare like "Silent Night" or "First Noel."

* "The Toy that Saved Christmas" This is the "Veggie Tales" entry into Christmas -- very clever, very original, and a great message for kids. Larry the Cucumber's "Silly Song," "Oh Santa" is a satiric Christmas classic! Again, this was released at a time my kids were little and very much into "Veggie Tales" videos, so it is imprinted on my family's collective consciousness (along with the Veggie Tales Christmas album!) and was produced before Veggie Tales went "mainstream" after their financial difficulties a few years ago. I consider the earlier Veggie Tale work, when Phil Vischer was still running the show, to be much superior to the current product.

* "Miracle on 34th Street" Here, I mean the original version, with Maureen O'Hara and Keenan Wynn. (The remake just didn't work for me at all). My family watches this every season. Wynn's portrayal of Kris Kringle creates a very human, sincere Santa Claus, and the performance of a young Natalie Wood as a little girl transformed from a Christmas agnostic to a "true believer" is a heartwarming story. Plus, the courtroom scene where Kringle's attorney legally proves there really is a Santa Clause resonates with this usually cynical lawyer.

* "A Christmas Carol" Charles Dickens' Christmas novella about the transformation of the cold hearted Scrooge through the visitation of the three Christmas Spirits has been on of my all time favorite stories -- I have re-read it annually for years. There are several screen adaptations that I have enjoyed. I have not seen the most recent Disney version featuring Jim Carey (I usually can't stand Carey, so I can't imagine that project working),but I can recommend at least five movie adaptations of "A Christmas Carol." The best version from a total cinematic viewpoint is probably the 1951 British production starring Alastair Sim as Scrooge. Very true to the original story, and Sim established the mood and mannerism for Scrooge that have been copied by actors portraying the role ever since. Two more modern productions that were very effective in preserving the original story line and giving us wonderful interpretations of Scrooge and the other characters are versions which starred George C. Scott and Patrick Stewart respectively. The Stewart version took some liberties with the story in setting up the film, but did not take away from the concept, and Stewart is a great Scrooge. In addition, there are two childrens' version of the story I recommend. The "Muppet Christmas Carol" is surprisingly well done, using the muppet characters to portray roles in a way that is respectful to the original material, but still allows the usual Muppet humor to seep through. The musical numbers are fun, too! And who could forget Mr. Magoo? There is a "Mr Magoo" cartoon version of "Carol" originally produced in the 60s. While its probably not a "first class" production, it was an early influence that got me hooked on the story. For that, I will always be grateful, and therefore recommend it.

* "White Christmas" This is one of my family's favorites -- we've watched it every year, and I probably have half of the movie's lines memorized. Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen, and great songs by Irving Berlin. Yes, its a typically cheese-ball Hollywood musical, but its great fun.

* "Holiday Inn" The original "White Christmas." Indeed, while the movie "White Christmas" is much more widely known, this is the the film that originally introduced the fabled Christmas song. Starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, this should be the movie that is remembered and be the big Holiday Classic. "White Christmas" pales in comparison, and is really a more modern rip-off of this film. This was songwriter Irving Berlin's brainchild - a musical about a fellow (played by Bing Crosby) who opens a resort hotel that is only open on each holiday -- hence the name "Holiday Inn." Many popular song classics were introduced in this film -- "White Christmas," "Easter Parade" "Be Careful Its My Heart." The reason why this film has faded from the holiday movie pantheon is obvious, though. The scene commemorating Lincoln's birthday has the entire cast in black-face makeup in the tradition of old minstrel shows, a concept that is patently offensive to African-Americans. Otherwise, the singing and dancing in this film is top notch.

* "A Christmas Story" I have always loved this film, perhaps because the family culture portrayed in it is very close to what my extended family was like growing up, and that it is set in a fictional town that represents Hammond, Indiana, which might as well be the town I grew up in, being so close geographically. I always enjoyed Jean Shepherd's radio monologues and his books, and this movie is a wonder encapsulation of several episodes from his popular book "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash." My family enjoys watching this movie every year, and I know a complete sub-culture has grown up around it. I've discovered that people either love this film or hate it. I think a lot of it has to do with relating to its mid-western, working class concept. For better or worse, that was my life as a kid, and even though this film is set in 1939, I can relate to it in so many ways.

* "The Nativity Story" A recent entry to my list of Christmas favorites, this is one of the few decent attempts to actually tell the story of Christ's birth in its proper historical setting. Its fairly accurate from a scriptural standpoint, and the portrayal of Mary and Joseph as fallible humans rather than idealized saints is refreshing. I highly recommend this movie.

* "Its a Wonderful Life" Yes, this movie had to make the list. I find it interesting that when this film was released back in the late 1940s, it did not do well, and was largely forgotten until the early 1970s. Then, because the copyright had expired, public television stations began airing it over the holidays because they didn't have to pay for the broadcast rights. When I was in high school, you could watch this film six to eight times a week during the Advent season on a variety of TV outlets. Today, the movie is as much a part of modern American culture as any other film. The message is timeless, and the performances real and meaningful. And if you really think about it, its one of the few movies of its kind where the bad guy (Mr. Potter) doesn't get his comeuppance at the end. But George finds his place in the world, and that makes for a very happy ending.

* "Mr. Krueger's Christmas" This has to be my favorite Christmas movie of all time. Unfortunately, its really a half-hour commercial for the Mormon church. That being said, you don't really realize that until the very end of the film (the hints might be obvious, with performances by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the story set in Salt Lake City, and a scene set on the Temple Square). Jimmy Stewart (the star of "Wonderful Life") is featured here. He plays a lonely widower who lives in a sort of Walter Mitty like fantasy world, where he imagines great adventures for himself. The focal point of the story is when he is visited by a group of Christmas Carolers who are uncomfortable with his shabby little apartment and lifestyle. A little girl leaves her mittens behind, and Mr. Krueger, in his imagination, tries to find her. The highlight of the film is a scene where he is arranging a nativity set on his table, and imagines himself at the very first Christmas, and has a conversation with the infant Jesus. I challenge anyone to watch that scene to not come away with tears in your eyes. It is a remarkable performance, and one that gets to the heart of what Christmas is really all about in a way that few other films have ever done. I have read that Mr. Stewart demanded that the scene be shot in one take, because he did not have the emotional wherewithal to go through it more than once.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Galatians Journal: Chapter 5, verse 23

Galatians 5:23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

Paul closes out his list of the fruits of the spirit with the last two items.

“gentleness” The King James Version translates this as “meekness.” There has already been a word in this list that could have been translated as “gentleness,” the New International Version translated it as “kindness.” The word here does indeed literally mean “gentleness,” but implies meekness, and especially humility. This is mildness and evenness of temper – not easily provoked, patience under duress, injury or offense; not proud, vain or haughty. Numbers 12:2 speaks of Moses as being meek. I think the key concept to understanding what “gentleness” is, as one of the fruits of the spirit, is humility. That is, submissiveness to God, and humble in spirit. It also implies a strong sense of nurturing – a parental sense of love, and to lead and nurture others in gentleness and humility.

“self control” The King James renders this as “temperance.” This word conveys the essence of a person who has mastered his or her desires and passions, especially sensual desires. This is the utmost in self restraint. Interestingly, one of the primary uses of this word in ancient Greek culture was to describe “continence” – a word that can mean to control carnal desire, but as a medical term refers to the voluntary control of the bowels. Its amusing in a way – the Holy Spirit produces fruit in the believer that amounts to a sort of spiritual “potty training” if you will – we grow and develop in our ability to choose not to sin. This was a big deal in the ancient world. The ability to abstain from vice, to discipline one’s own body and personal desires was probably one of the most highly respected virtues of the ancient Roman world. The fear of lawlessness – the freedom to sin to one’s delight – was one of the primary criticisms of the doctrine of “salvation by grace.” But Paul emphasizes that those who are transformed through Christ fulfill the morality of the Law by the inspiration of the Spirit (see Galatians 5:14).

“Against such things there is no law.” I Timothy 1:9 states that the Law was not designed for the righteous, but for sinners. There is an implication in the English translation of this phrase that there is more – “no law – that can bring a charge.” The power of a transformed life in Jesus is just that – our sins are wiped away and there is nothing to bring a charge against. The Law becomes practically unnecessary, because the fruit of the Spirit produces the righteousness of Christ in us – the “new creation” we are in Jesus comes through the power of the Spirit, not through obedience to the law.