THE GREAT HOPE

THE GREAT HOPE

“If you lose consciousness do you want me to stop at the nearest ER or do you want me to keep going to Duke?” We had already made a rapid stop on the side of 501 South near Roxboro to switch oxygen bottles when the first one ran out. My friend Paul was near unconsciousness as I fumbled the valve swap from one to the other.

“Keep going. Take me to Duke,” he said as he sucked down all the O2 from the fresh bottle that his ravaged lungs could absorb. The cancer he had been fighting for seven years was winning.

I hit the gas and tore down the highway, trusting that any police officer who might pull me over would agree with my sense of urgency.

That was April 14, 2013. My friend Paul never came home from Duke University Hospital. We buried him one month later.

Because it feels so permanent, the loss of friends and loved ones can have a devastating effect, creating a lifelong chain of grief and depression, unless we have a source of joy that is beyond the reach of death.

That source is what we celebrate this week. It is the great hope of the resurrection.

If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. [1]

The resurrection changes how we experience all of life, not just the end of it. Let me give you three ways that it has changed life for me.

First, I have no fear of death. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t look forward to saying goodbye to family and friends. I don’t look forward to pain and suffering. But as the Apostle Paul said, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.” (Phil 1:21-24 NIV)

Did you see that? “To die is gain…to be with Christ, is better by far.” The fact of the resurrection tells us that what Christ promised can be counted on. “In my father’s house are many rooms. I go there to prepare a place for you.” I don’t fear that place. I look forward to it.

Second, I live in hopeful expectation, of seeing loved ones yes, and friends who have believed, but the hope is far greater than that. I look forward to seeing Jesus face to face, the living Jesus I have known in his word, the presence I have known in prayer, through the veil, and in worship as “through a glass darkly.” “Now we know in part, then we shall know as we have been known.” No more shadows, no more veil but standing (or kneeling) in the presence of my King, rejoicing with him in the beauty, righteousness and glory of his kingdom, celebrating with him at the great feast of the Lamb and drinking anew with him the Cup of the Covenant.

Finally, every day is Easter to me. Every day is resurrection day. I live in the joy and freedom of the sons of God, for I too have “died to this life and been raised with him to walk in newness of life.” When I take up my own death in Christ (Romans 6) I am free to enjoy all of God’s good gifts on planet earth, good food, good fun, good friends and good love, without the fear that losing any of them to death is a permanent loss of real life. The true source of joy is beyond the reach of death.

My friend Paul knew that hope before he died. Now what about you? Where is your hope? If it is in this world alone, then count on it, you will lose it. But if you have the greatest hope, if it is in the resurrection of Christ, then you will have strength to face the loss of anyone or anything, and no one can steal your joy.

[1] The Holy Bible: New International Version. 1984 (1 Co 15:19–20). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

CORN-HOLE VICTORIES AND PARTYING WITH GOD

CORN-HOLE VICTORIES AND PARTYING WITH GOD

Thunk! “YES!” I fist pumped. Thunk! “Just one more!” I said to my partner, did my wind up, and tossed. Thunk! “We won! We won!” I shouted, threw my hands up and did a victory dance. It was a classic come from behind victory. I could hear Jim Nance intoning, “It was a cornhole tournament unlike any other.”

Everybody at the church picnic turned and looked at their nutty pastor and smiled.

Hey, don’t laugh. At my age, sporting victories are few and far between. I celebrate them whenever I get the chance. In fact, I celebrate—a word with roots deep in worship of God—any time I can think of an excuse to do so, and so should you.

“Joy is the serious business of heaven,” wrote C.S. Lewis. Joy is what heaven is about. It is the driving energy of life. Without it we wither. Partying with God is essential to a happy life.

Have you considered how much joy there is in the Bible? The New Testament begins with it and is filled with it. Do a concordance search on “joy” or “rejoicing” and you’ll be amazed. Maybe that’s one of the reasons Jesus said, “Unless you become like a little child you cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Children do joy automatically.

G. K. Chesterton explained, “Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”[1]

God has an immense capacity for simple joy that we have lost and need to regain. The ability to party with God, the spiritual discipline of celebration, is a crucial step in reclaiming our joy. It is crucial because joyless Christians help no one.

Put yourself in the position of someone looking for answers in life. You’re looking around at the people you know, the people you see in the hair salon, the other moms at the baseball field. You’re watching them because you know they go to a church that says there is more to this life. Yet you don’t see any joy. You see crabbiness. You see selfishness. You see someone who can find the fly in every ice cream cone of life. Are you going to be interested in her spirituality?

Somebody out there in the spiritual world wants you to find all the faults in others and all the sadness you can swallow, but it isn’t Jesus Christ. Francis de Sales wrote, “The evil one is pleased with sadness and melancholy because he himself is sad and melancholy and will be so for all eternity. Hence he desires that everyone should be like himself.”[2] Misery loves company.

Joy is an absolute necessity for healthy spiritual life. Without it we shrivel and become vulnerable, more vulnerable to temptation than ever. Fulfillment, contentment, and dare I say it, pleasure, are essential elements for a strong soul. When we fail to find these good things God wants us to have, and then celebrate the goodness, sin seems better than what He has to offer. Temptation’s power is multiplied in an unhappy soul.

So, I urge you, learn the spiritual discipline of celebration. Learn to take each good thing out of each good day, even the corn-hole victories of life, and revel in the goodness of God.

[1] G. K. Chesterton, quoted by John Ortberg in The Life You’ve Always Wanted, p. 61

[2] Francis de Sales. Quoted by Ortberg in The Life You’ve Always Wanted. P. 64.

 

ELUSIVE CHRISTMAS JOY

Joy, for many of us, is elusive at Christmas. Instead of mounting happiness as October fades and November cools, our moods fall like spent leaves, wind drifts of brown on grass no longer green.

Reasons for sadness pile up as the year runs out.

“Holiday sales” burnout plays a part. Holy awe, and the joy it builds, is dulled by crass commerce that begins before Halloween ends. Only in America, where glitz is king, can the latest Mercedes induce more wonder than the Word made flesh.

But that’s not all the sales and marketing do. They remind many of us of things we’d rather forget, visual cues of tragedies past. Loved ones lost as the holidays arrived, graveside services in the snow. Or simply beautiful seasons of life that have come and gone, and will never come again, as children grow and jobs carry us away.

Then there is the actual gathering of family members, long dispersed and often better off that way. Seasonal expectations of heightened happiness against the backdrop of broken promises and dreams create a special kind of emotional dissonance. It’s hard to sing NOEL when your heart is full of Lamentations.

It was to people like that that the angel announced “good news of great joy.” People just like you and me. “For all people,” this news was come, “peace on earth, good will toward men.”

Ponder those words.

Men have peace with God. More to the point, God has declared peace to men. The relationship broken in the Garden of God, the fellowship lost when our first parents were banished from the place of blessing (read “Joy”) has been restored–restored not by man returning to the Garden, by earning or breaking his way in, but by God leaving the Garden and coming into the world. Truly, those who walked in darkness have seen a great light.

And the good news is “for all people.” Not for some, but for all. Not for the elite, but for all. Not for the powerful, but for all. Not for the popular, the famous, or the merely well-liked, but for all. Not for the religiously pure or the morally righteous, but for all. Not for one race, or kind, or nation, but for all. Not for someone else, no, the good news is for me, and for you, and for all.

A great assumption lies behind the angels’ news: That our estrangement from God is worse by far than all of the stress, all of the loss, all of the tragedies, and burnout combined. Indeed it is, because that estrangement is the root of all other alienation. And the reconciliation made possible by the babe of Bethlehem, the first step of God again into the world, was the beginning of true hope, the well-spring of lasting joy.

This Christmas, don’t look for joy from a brightly wrapped package under a tree, in family, or parties, or songs. These are just the trimmings. Look for joy in the face of Jesus. He has come to reconcile all who will believe, and he will come again to restore all things.

THE CAT’S IN THE CRADLE

Three little towheaded girls tossed me back two decades last Sunday. I was waiting my turn at Dairy Queen while their mom patiently absorbed and sorted through their excited chatter to find just the right treats. The other graying men standing near me were all smiles, utterly charmed by these beautiful innocents who couldn’t have been more than four or five years old.

My three daughters, all grown-up now and making lives of their own, came rushing back to me just as charming and sweet–full of happiness and curiosity as little girls. My heart gave a lurch as I yearned for just one more of those long gone days.

But life and time doesn’t work like that, so I thought I’d take a few minutes to encourage you younger dads and moms to enjoy those fleeting moments with your kids. I know you need the encouragement because I know the pressures you face and how easily they distract you.

Children require nurturing in every way. Every day is one of learning, testing, trying, and needing, so very much needing your attention. “But there were planes to catch and bills to pay, he learned to walk while I was away,” to borrow from Harry Chapin’s poignant hit, “The Cat’s in the Cradle.” It is all too easy to let the pressures of providing, the stress of disciplining, and the other demands of life rob you of the joy of the moment, the excitement of the ice cream shop, the thrill of the zoo, and the silliness suffused in the life of a child.

Don’t miss those minutes, moms and dads. Don’t let your preoccupation with your boss, your business, your spouse, or yourself distract you from the tangible joys that are already yours in the lives of your children. Give thanks for every minute that they are home, for the time will come, and all too soon, when childhood waves goodbye.

As the mom and her girls turned away from the counter, treats in hand, our eyes met and I smiled, “I had three just like that. They are beautiful.” She just beamed, God bless her. And God bless you too, moms and dads, as you nurture your kids. Thanks for sharing them with us.

BLUE CHRISTMAS Rx

Depending on whom you ask Christmas is either the best or worst time of the year. For some, “it’s those holiday greetings and gay happy meetings when friends come to call!” For others it’s anything but.

True, the oft-quoted myth that suicides peak during Christmas is just that, a myth. The rates actually go down.

On the other hand, WebMD reports that “Holiday blues are a pretty common problem despite the fact that as a society, we see the holidays as a joyous time,” says Rakesh Jain, MD, director of psychiatric drug research at the R/D Clinical Research Center in Lake Jackson, Texas.

In other words, we’re less likely to do ourselves in, but perhaps more likely to think about it.

Those of us who have lost family members, or been through the trauma of divorce are most prone to the Christmas blues. Reminders of loved ones gone come in as many colors as gift wrap, and the complications of conflicts with step-families and feuding parents are well documented sources of holiday unhappiness. Add to that the amped up expectations for joy, the stress of preparations, travel, shopping, lack of exercise and extra eating and it’s no wonder some of us get grumpy and sad.

So if Blue Christmas is your holiday hymn, here are a few ideas to help you change your tune.

Change your geography. We humans are creatures of habit and highly sensitive to our environments. When we do the same things the same ways in the same places year after year it can be difficult to associate Christmas with joy, especially if the people who were part of that joy are no longer present. Change your geography. Do Christmas in a new location, the beach, the mountains, any place, so long as it’s a different place that you enjoy.

Change your traditions for the same reason. Change the routine. Drop some old traditions and build some new ones. Never baked Christmas cookies? Try it. Tired of baking? Stow your cookie sheets, send the kids to the store and tell them to be creative.

Change your attitude, about grief that is. Grief is like the tide; it comes in and goes out on its own schedule, unpredictable for us. We don’t think it’s appropriate for the holidays so we try to restrain it, but that’s the worst thing we can do. Like an ocean wave, grief has energy and that energy will find an outlet, even if we try to suppress it. Anger, bitterness, resentment, depression can be the results. Better to adopt a new paradigm for dealing with grief, to ride the wave rather than stand against it. When we do that it can take us to new places of healing and yes, joy. “Blessed are those who mourn,” Jesus said, “for they will be comforted.” We can’t be comforted if we refuse to mourn.

Finally, change your theology. Remember that the first Christmas wasn’t all angels singing, shepherds kneeling and Magi giving gifts. It was also Joseph doubting, Mary wondering, Rachel weeping, and the family fleeing into Egypt. They were stressed out by Christmas too.

And while you’re remembering that, remember this: The true joy of Christmas can’t be found in the food, the gifts, the family and friends. These are only the celebrants and the elements of the celebration. The true joy is in the Christ child who came to “save his people from their sins,” and in the knowledge that God on high has declared “peace on earth to men on whom his favor rests.”