Repeat the Sounding Joy

Have you noticed lately that it’s the Christians who are often most cranky during the Christmas season? Complaining has almost become required. We hear sermons on how to deal with the stress of Christmas. We read ominous-sounding emails and Facebook posts on the so-called “War on Christmas.” And of course, cable news shows ramp up the debates on whether an elderly greeter in Dinkytown, USA, articulated her “Merry Christmas” greeting in a way that satisfies the Westminster Confession.

And let’s not even get into the tiresome annual debate about the chubby guy with the beard decked out in red from head-to-toe. Pastors, as part of their sober calling, are often summoned to decide whether using Santa wrapping paper is grounds for church discipline.

Is it just me, or have we Christians – the ones who know and believe God visited this sin soaked world in the form of a baby so He could save the world from sin – completely sucked the joy out of what should be the most joyous season?

My goal this Christmas season is to call Christians back to joy. Read five reasons why here:

Do You Really Believe This? On Santa Claus, Jesus, and the Unbelievable

It is during this season, the glorious Christmas season, that my wife watches her favorite channel the most. Unfortunately for me, that channel is not one of the ESPN family of networks, but the Hallmark Channel. I’m generally a fan of Hallmark’s usually wholesome television programming, stuff you can actually watch with your nine-year-old in the room, so please don’t misunderstand what I’m about to say.

Here it is: The endless string of Christmas rom-coms I’m forced to watch with my wife makes me want to channel William Wallace in Braveheart, rip off my shirt, and yell, ”Freedom!”

Maybe it’s the very simple plot lines (wealthy developer wants to tear down a small town’s sacred institution to build condos–oh, the horror–until a scrappy heroine saves the day with a pitched local campaign and then falls in love with the formerly evil developer), the overwrought sentimentalism, or the poor acting. Or maybe it’s just the difference between men and women. My wife can’t get enough of the Hallmark Channel at Christmas.

If there’s a message in every new Christmas special (and perhaps every Christmas movie ever made), it’s pretty simple: Do you believe? By “believe,” we typically mean that really joyful, spirited, wonderful people put their faith in Santa Claus at Christmas. And this faith injects a spirit into a normally grouchy, stressed, terrible world.

Christians have historically been all over the map with Santa, from denouncing him as a work of the devil (Santa = a rearranged version of Satan!) to moderate disgust, to passive participation. The latter is where I’d guess most evangelicals are now. And if you’ve read my work for long, you’ll know that I’m no Santa grouch. Like most parents, we make the annual pilgrimage to the mall to have our kids sit on the fat man’s lap. I’ve yet to talk to a prodigal who fingered Santa as the catalyst for his departure from the faith, so I think an honest engagement with Santa Claus is mostly harmless and fun.

But I want to circle back to the theme of most Christmas movies: Do you believe? It seems absurd to most rational people that a man in a red suit lives in a cozy home workshop at the frigid North Pole, and that he could possibly worm down every chimney and deliver gifts to good kids. It’s a pretty far-fetched idea. So rational people don’t actually believe it. Yet this part of Christmas makes us really want to believe it. Because, the story goes, if this were true, all would be right in the world.

Does that not sound just a wee bit familiar to another argument? I’m not suggesting the Santa myth is a perfect allegory of the Christian story or that to believe in Christ is the same as believing in Santa. We know the gospel narrative is not “be good for goodness sake” but that Christ was good for us, satisfying the law’s righteous demands and absorbing the punishment of a just God on our behalf.

But this question, Do you really believe this? Is this not the same question asked of us by the world about the Christian story? 

Of course, the substance of the Christian question is a more robust, more unbelievable premise than Santa: Do you believe God became a man, entered space and time, was born of a virgin, lived a perfect life, was unjustly crucified, stayed dead in a rich man’s tomb for three days, and then miraculously was raised to life and is now the reigning King of the world? 

The Christian story is buttressed by solid circumstantial evidence (many infallible proofs), and yet it is an unbelievable narrative. Perhaps we American Christians have gotten so used to the gospel story that we’ve forgotten just how incredible it is. But an increasingly secular society is asking us the question, Do you really believe this? It’s not an intellectual question they are asking. It’s not a search for archeological proof. It’s a rhetorical question of near incredulity. You can’t possibly believe this. 

Because rational people, educated people, progressive people just don’t believe that this man Jesus was the Son of God, that there really was a virgin named Mary, that the ugly intersection of humanity and divinity at the cross really is the pivot point of human history. Young people spend their parents’ hard-earned money at our finest educational institutions learning just how preposterous this is. Scientists write strongly worded rebuttals to the biblical narrative, because things like this just don’t happen.

And yet …what if it were true? Imagine if the story the Bible tells about Jesus is not allegory or myth, but actual historical record? What if the 500 witnesses who saw the nail-scarred Jesus after his resurrection were right? If this is true, then the world really will be made right. Evil really has been defeated, and a new kingdom awaits those rescued by the King. Lamb and lion really will lie down together. All races will one day come together in praise of God’s glory. Creation will once again be restored from its tumult.

In other words, if the real story of Christmas, the Incarnation, is true, it changes everything. In fact, I would argue, even if you don’t believe it to be true, you might wish it to be true. Maybe this is why we cling to fantasies like Santa Claus, like the Disney fairy tales. It reflects within each of us a deep, heart-felt longing for things to be made right.

Could it be that the nostalgia for the good old times is really us missing our original home, Eden, before sin and death destroyed what God made perfect? Could it be that our hopes for a world where things are magical and beautiful is a yearning for heaven? Perhaps this inspired Phillips Brooks when he wrote the famous words of “O, Little Town of Bethlehem” and the line, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee (Christ) tonight.”

To believe in Santa defies logic, to be sure. But to believe in the Christian story is also to believe the unbelievable. Not that Christianity cannot be logically explained. Not that the wisest believing scholars haven’t given it weight. But at the end of the day, to follow King Jesus, to be a Christian, is to bow the knee to a baby turned man, God in the flesh, fully human and fully divine. And the question of Christmas becomes rhetorical: Do you really believe this? 

Yes, with my life, my heart, and my mind, I do. And I hope you do, too.

 

The Power of a Mentor

You can’t underestimate the power of a mentor. I know that because six years ago, a man came into my life who would shape me in profound ways. This month I had the chance to write about this man, Bill Swanger, and his impact. Here’s an excerpt:

Bill became one of my best friends during my five years of pastoral ministry. On several occasions, early in my tenure, he saved me, literally. He showed me how to pursue change in a way that didn’t alienate members. He taught me how to deal with conflict in a graceful, humble way. More than anything, Bill showed me what it looks like to shepherd God’s people. “Make the ministry about God and about people, Dan, and you will do well,” he frequently said.

In my years of ministry I’ve had the privilege of meeting many church leaders. I’ve learned a lot from their years of experience. Some people collect baseball cards, artifacts, or books. But I collect mentors, downloading wisdom and grace for crucial life choices.

But none have impacted me like Bill. He never once said, “Want me to be your mentor?” He just stepped right in, meeting me for monthly breakfasts, lifting me up during trials, and serving me as a coach. Bill cried with me. Laughed with me. Grew with me. He opened up his life and shared his deepest frustrations and greatest triumphs. And even though he and I ministered in two different generations, the gap never hurt our friendship. It only enriched it.

Read the whole thing here: 

Preach the Gospel and Forget Politics?

Evangelicals are evaluating their posture in an increasingly post-Christian age. This is good, but there are some myths we’ve adopted that are unhelpful. In my weekly post for ERLC, I tackled five of these. Here is a common one: We should only preach the gospel and make disciples and not worry about politics. Here is my answer:

It’s true that no political party or movement can change the world. Sometimes political activism on both the left and the right can be overly triumphalist. Only the gospel, not political ideology, has the power to change hearts. Yes and amen.

But the gospel, if you notice, is a rather political statement itself. The gospel declares, first of all, that Christ and not Caesar is the ultimate King (Mark 12:17) and that even the most powerful rulers serve under the authority of King Jesus (Rom. 13:1). Even the most popular prayer in the world, the Lord’s Prayer, is really a prayer of revolution, declaring that there is another King and another kingdom that is not of this world (Matt. 6:9-13).So you can’t really preach the gospel and avoid politics. Politics are embedded in the very heart of the gospel. Furthermore, think about Jesus’ words in the Great Commission. The imperative is to “make disciples” and teach them “all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20).

The gospel doesn’t simply punch your ticket to heaven; it empowers Christians for a radical new lifestyle, one that is at odds with the world (Jas. 4:4; Rom. 8:7).  The most nonpolitical Christian, if he is faithful, is a political statement to a world system that is under the temporary and restrained rule of Satan (Eph. 2:2).

The Church is to be an alternate society, an outpost of the kingdom to come (1 Peter 2:9). This means the gospel calls us not simply to make converts who have no effect on the world around them. The gospel calls us be agents of reconciliation, to be the hands and feet of Jesus, to live and work toward justice and righteousness, to seek the welfare of our cities, to advance human flourishing. In fact, a Christianity that has no impact on the world around it, according to James, is a dead, lifeless faith (Jas. 2:14-16).

I’m glad, for instance, that men like William Wilberforce and Martin Luther King Jr. and Deitrich Bonheoffer had a gospel big enough to demand justice for the innocents. To ignore injustice is to say to the 19th-century slave in America, to the 20th-century Jew in Germany, to the 21st-century unborn baby: “Be warmed and filled.” It’s a diminished gospel, a lifeless faith.

What our generation of evangelicals has to understand is that love of neighbor doesn’t mean only the politically safe endeavors of charity that everyone affirms. It might also mean having the courage to get involved in the socio-political structures that either advance or hurt human flourishing.

You can read the entire article here: 

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