Christmas Lights

2153123974_e75e4ff4f9Do you share my frustration with Christmas lights?   Every December, I pull out strings of lights and hope that they will work.   Sometimes the whole string lights up.   Sometimes a couple of sections light up.  Sometimes the whole string is dark.   I have spare bulbs, and I try to make repairs, but usually I do not succeed.

More often than not, I realize that I have strings of bulbs, rather than strings of lights, and I drive to the store and get some actual, functioning lights.   The old strings go in the bag of old strings, or perhaps out to the recycling pile in the shed.

Sometimes we put a whole string of lights on the Christmas tree, load the tree with ornaments, turn it on and the string stops working, or only one section works.   We’ve also seen this happen with lights around windows and eaves outside our house.   It’s very frustrating.   The strings of dead bulbs make the tree or home look less attractive.  They are an annoyance rather than an inspiration.

Do you every share my frustration with Christians?   We are the ones who have received the Light and who are to be lights in the world, but we are often burned out, unable to shine, or only shining in part, but not as a whole.

If we are shiny, the Father is glorified.   If we are not shiny, and yet we are asking others to join us, we are like a broken string of Christmas lights, and we make the kingdom of heaven less attractive than it would be without us.

Christ says to us,

Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.

We can interact with Jesus and learn from Him and increasingly reflect His light.   We can practice the doing things that He said to practice.   We can bless people who curse us, stop cultivating lusts, and do good to those around us.   This is the life of Christ, replacing our selfishness with something so unusual that it shines brightly in a broken, consuming, never satisfied world.

For a great study on this problem and its remedy, see Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart.    See also The Divine Conspiracy chapter 5 on Salvation Confusion.

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Lost and Found

A happy family lived in a nice town near a big city. The mom, dad, and the two boys were the sort of people you would want next door.   On Saturday mornings, they walked on the beach  with the dog.   On Sundays, they went to church together, came home to a big lunch, and watched football.
The older son was a model student. His grades and SAT scores  got him into the prestigious university in the city. He came home on weekends for time with family and church.
The younger son was a likable kid who did not try to match the achievements of his brother. When he reached his senior year in high school, he didn’t fill out college applications. The day after high school graduation, he asked for the money his parents had saved for college. “I need a year to see the world and think about what I want to do with my life.” The boy kept asking all summer. His parents were not happy with the idea, but they finally relented, despite strong objections from older brother.  They moved the money to a checking account in the boy’s name.   He promptly booked a flight to Paris for the following weekend.
On the trip to the airport, the younger son talked excitedly about his upcoming adventure. His parents were quiet, and his older brother was sullen. At curbside, Mom tried to hide her tears while embracing the boy and reminding him to call home as soon as he landed.
He did not call home that day or week or month. His parents made some ineffective inquiries with friends in Europe, and they were desperate with worry. Finally a post card came from their boy. “Hi Mom and Dad. Lost my phone. Sorry I didn’t write sooner, but having a great time, meeting amazing people, and seeing the world. More later.” The postcard was from Bangkok.
Mom and Dad were relieved somewhat, but their worries grew again as they heard nothing from their boy for the following months.
Their older son continued to thrive in his studies and landed an internship at a large company. He visited Mom and Dad regularly, but he often harped on about the insanity of letting his little brother choose travel over college, and they felt the loss of his respect and love.
A year went by. The older son graduated with honors and took a good position with  the company where he had been an intern. There was only one more post card from the younger son, this time from L.A. “Hi Mom and Dad. Back in the good old USA. Going to get a job in Hollywood. More later.”
Older brother was disgusted. “Obviously, he wasted all your money. He’s really going to make our family proud, flipping burgers in L.A.  He should be getting his degree! I can’t believe you let him do this!”
Another year went by. The older son bought a house and got married to a sophisticated young lady he met at a company party. The wedding was perfect in every way, except for the absence of the younger brother. None of the guests had heard anything from him, and Mom and Dad were sick with worry and fear.
On a Saturday morning in July, Dad took the dog for the walk on the beach. Mom rarely joined them any more.  Only the dog was there to see the tears Dad shed while walking and praying for his lost boy.
They neared the north end of the beach. There were some weathered cypress on the hillside just above the dunes, and Dad could see a tent among the trees. “More homeless people every year,” he mumbled to himself.
A gaunt, bearded man came out of the tent and stumbled down the hill toward them.  The dog bounded up, knocked him over, and licked his grimy face and hands mercilessly.   Dad rushed to join the puppy pile, weeping and laughing with joy.  He grabbed his phone while still hugging the man, called Mom, and burst out with, “Guess what I found at the beach!    Yes!  Do that!  I don’t care who you invite or what it costs!   Our boy is home!”

Mom immediately flurried a huge breakfast, contacted friends and relatives with the news, and called the catering company to order food for a party that night.

They didn’t hear from the older brother until later that morning.”Yes, I got your message.  What do you think you’re doing giving him a party!   I don’t seem to remember getting a party when I landed this job.  No, we’re not coming.  I have work to do.  You can’t reward him for being an idiot!”

Dad put the phone down slowly and went over to Mom.  She looked up to to listen. He held her hands. “We’re having the party.   Our young son was lost and now is found.  Now we must find his brother.”


Waiting for Christmas

BLACK FRIDAY hit us even earlier this year. It came at dawn on Friday just a few years back, then midnight, and now the frenzy invades Thanksgiving day itself. Black Friday is important!  Devoted consumers must move rapidly from the sentimentality of Thanksgiving to the core business of the season. We hope to get more stuff for less money to leave more money for buying more stuff.

Two days later comes the first Sunday of Advent, and we light the first candle. The purple represents the amazing contradiction of Christ’s suffering and his royalty. God’s people watched, waited, prayed, and were awed by the thought of Messiah coming.   We join them in these things as we think about His past, present, and  future coming.   A pink candle will move us from quiet waiting to joyous celebration.  ‘Joy to the world!  The Lord is come!  Let earth receive her  King!   Let every heart prepare Him room, and heaven and nature sing!”

Not many of us have bothered with advent wreaths, or church services, or any other Christmas traditions of the older, quieter, religious sort. We have places to go and presents to buy. We don’t care much for waiting or for thinking. Our season began with a frenzied Black Friday, and we’ve maintained our frenetic pace ever since. Many of us will be relieved to be done with Christmas. The pace and the spending are just too exhausting. Other more devoted and energetic consumers will be up and shopping feverishly on December 26, hoping for even greater success than on Black Friday.

I hope for my family and for yours that we will slow down enough to catch some glimpses of God’s glory during this holy season. The tinsel and trappings and presents are meaningful when they help us be grateful for the Divine Gift who changes everything by becoming one of us and bringing lasting joy, and peace, and love. Christmas comes on a Sunday this year, and we will light a white candle during a simple time of worship at our church.  It will be a quiet and blessed moment, and it will give us an opportunity to look past the wrapping paper and to see the Gift.

For more information about Advent, see http://www.crivoice.org/cyadvent.html

From Tantrums to Thankfulness. Thoughts for Parents November 2011.

Thankfulness is extraordinarily powerful. It blesses the one who is thankful, and it blesses the thankful person’s friends, family, and leaders. In fact, it is so powerful that it can bless anyone the thankful person meets. When a thankful person walks into a room, it changes everything.

The problem with thankfulness is its very high cost. Like most powerful and precious things, it costs so much that we often choose something else.  To have thankfulness, I must give up something that is near and dear to me. I must give up my selfishness.

Our children are watching us all the time, and they are particularly curious to learn what we really value and how we will spend our treasure. When we treasure selfishness and refuse to spend it down to gain thankfulness, our children notice, and they learn, and they imitate. When they are very young, their imitation plus their natural tendency toward selfishness results in tantrums. “Mine!” and “No!” and “Gimme that!” are among our darling toddlers’ favorite words.

Some children remain so selfish that it stunts their growth, and they continue or resume their tantrums even as young adults. This is dangerous and debilitating. A teen having a tantrum or another powerful manifestation of selfishness can wreak havoc in a family, or class, or group of friends.

As parents, we become frustrated if our children are typically angry, stubborn, or even just whiny. When our kids our stunted and drowning in their own selfishness, it can cause us deep anxiety and alienation.   We wonder where we went wrong. We remember our sacrifices. The sleepless nights with the baby. The thousands of diapers and dozens of band-aids. The birthday cakes and piles of Christmas presents. The rides to soccer and ballet. The house or car we could have had if we hadn’t been paying tuition.

When we see our children hurting themselves, hurting us, and hurting others, we are in danger of becoming passive. We don’t know what to do, so we may withdraw into our own doubts and gradually become more and more emotionally and spiritually distant.

But there are some things we can do to help ourselves and our children. I believe that one of the most powerful is to invest ourselves in thankfulness. It will cost us a lot, but the rewards are worth considering. Imagine the impact in your home if your words and choices become dramatically more thankful than they are now.

What would it be like if your child begins to imitate you as you seek God’s help and gradually become a very grateful person? Imagine the effect on your child’s team and class if you become a parent who steadily expresses thanks to the coach and the teachers. What if you look for good things in the homework assignments your child brings home? What if you regularly demonstrate thankfulness for each good thing your child learns, even if this learning comes through difficult circumstances (like getting a disappointing grade, or sitting on the bench during a game).   What if your thankfulness becomes contagious, rubbing off on your child, his friends, the teacher, the coach, and the other parents?   What if it becomes a tsunami of blessing, washing away selfishness throughout our community!   What if the blessing flows back to you through your child?

It helps me so much when my child is actively thankful. When I am exhausted from a difficult day, just three little words, “Thank you, Daddy,” and a hug from Joey changes everything.    It’s one of those moments where God’s kingdom comes and His will is done on earth as it is in heaven.   It’s a sweet and healing moment.

So, Happy Thanksgiving 2o11!   May it be a holiday (a Holy Day) like no other!    I’m praying that God will help me to deeply and gratefully enjoy the football and turkey and relatives.    And, I certainly hope any relatives reading this will forgive me for grouping them with the turkey and football.   Like thankfulness, forgiveness is powerful and necessary.

A Tail of Five Goats part 1

I’m still not exactly sure why I thought Emily should have a pet goat. She loved the outdoors and she loved animals, and our home bordered an overgrown hillside that needed some gnawing.  The idea of a goat blossomed as Christmas approached when Emily was 11. I dropped lots of hints about the virtues of goats to Becky and the kids for a few weeks. They weren’t exactly enthusiastic, but I was pretty sure that a goat would capture their hearts.  They didn’t think that I would actually get one, and that was rather motivating. But I had other motives, as well.

A dad doesn’t want his child to miss out on something good or interesting or challenging that he had experienced as a child. I think back to when my dad purchased Rumples for us.  Rumples was a large, mostly white, ill-tempered billy goat with impressive horns.  We had missed out on an agrarian childhood like Dad’s, and he hoped Rumples would help. I remember having mixed feelings about the beast. It was fun to have an animal unlike any of my classmates, but he was an escape artist, and my brother Joe and I had to catch and drag him by his horns up the hill and into his pen.  It took both of us pulling with all our might to get him to budge. One time he escaped and butted our baby sister Mary unceremoniously onto her diapered derriere. That was the last straw. Rumples was gone the next day.

Twenty years later, I was the dad thinking about getting a goat for the good of his kids.  What’s the deal with that?  You would think that Rumples had inoculated me, but as I mulled things over, I realized that the problem was not that Rumples was a goat.  He was just the wrong sort of goat.  I could do better for my kids.  Each generation enjoys an opportunity to improve.

Another explanation is that I just like it when something a bit unusual is added to a situation.  I like finding out what might happen. As a boy, I liked those chemistry kits that had the little warning signs about mixing certain substances. Clearly, the makers of the kits were using reverse psychology. Tell a little boy that it’s dangerous to stir A into B in a test tube, and he’s certain to do it. Thankfully, no one was nearby the time A plus B began to boil, and I chucked it out the window.

Sometimes we can just nudge things along just a bit by adding unusual ingredients.  My older children still remember the pomegranate omelet I made for them 20 years ago.   It’s a good thing to create happy family memories, and adding a some pomegranate seeds or a goat to nearly any situation improves the chance that something memorable will happen. Just imagine a goat with you in at the office. The average goat can easily perch on file cabinets, while sampling the ficus tree, while making droll comments, while processing large numbers of confidential documents.

The fun began on a rainy Christmas morning.  We were cozy and warm with Becky’s homemade rolls in our tummies, a fire in the fireplace, the second chapter of Luke’s gospel read, and a pile of packages under the tree. The brothers opened a few more presents than Emily, because her big present was hidden outside, chewing on shrubberies. The blessed moment finally came, and I presented Emily with Gretchen, a lovely brown nanny goat with an apparently sweet disposition. I had hoped to find a nanny goat without horns, but Gretchen had such a fetching personality that she won me over.  The real clincher was that she was a sturdy, mature goat who would not only be a wonderful companion and landscaper, but she would be able to help Emily with her paper route.  She would be the ideal pack goat.

I couldn’t have been more pleased. Becky was rolling her eyes a bit, but she was a good sport about the whole thing.  It was Christmas.  Emily was genuinely surprised and doting on Gretchen, and she thought the paper route idea would be worth a try.  She grabbed her raincoat and boots,  and we loaded Gretchen with hefty bags of Christmas edition newspapers.

Halfway up Seville Drive, Gretchen was handling the load nicely, and Emily was coaxing her along.  I was trailing  along behind, happily enjoying a dream come true. Emily had a truly useful and companionable goat.

The moment was short lived.  The customers’ flowers were becoming an irresistible distraction. Emily was yanking on Gretchen’s lead, trying to keep her on task. I ran to the rescue and helped drag Gretchen home. Visions of Rumples danced in my wee little head.

So Gretchen would not be a pack goat. Emily finished her route, and we consoled each other. She still had a delightful companion goat who would eat poison oak on the hill.

It was just a couple of days later when I had to admit defeat.  Gretchen tested her horns on Emily’s little brother Joey, and it was Rumples all over again.

As I was arranging Gretchen’s return to the farm in Half Moon Bay, I  remembered that the problem was fundamentally one of choosing the wrong goat. What Emily really needed was a little goat without horns that could be trained and properly socialized. I reassured her that she didn’t need to give up on having a pet goat. We drove down to the farm,  and traded Gretchen in for little Heidi and Bridget, a darling pair of Nubian sisters who were just four months old and ready for some proper training. They had adorable, floppy ears and no horns, and I figured that they would tame the wilderness twice as fast as Gretchen. A win-win situation. 


My Teacher

Teachers that love me are the ones I tend to believe.  Christ is the example.   He loves with a love that is complete in time and space.   He is the Alpha and Omega.   He loves me with agape love, the master love, understood in my weak language as the love that seeks the ultimate good of the other, even when this means self-sacrifice.  In His agape, Christ sought me out, forgiving me for my selfishness and hatred and introducing me to the living curriculum of love.   

He teaches me through His words and through what He has made.  He fashioned me so that He can teach me through reason, conscience, intuition, spiritual insight, discourse with Him (prayer) and dialog with other people.  His teaching through all these means is coherent, and its coherency is founded in agape.   Other teachers are reliable to the extent that they are aligned with Him.  

These other teachers are made in His image and have access to truth He reveals in so many different ways.   They potentially can become increasingly aligned with Him in various realms of truth.   However, their understanding of things is flawed and incomplete. I should be eager to learn from them in all the areas that they have found truth, but I must test all things and hold on to the good.   I must subject my own ideas to the same test.

I will critique my teachers in various ways.   I will seek to know how they have come to believe what they believe.  I will look for evidence that they are honest and curious to discover truth.   I will look for places where they close the door on their own learning.   If they individually or collectively insist on beliefs that decrease their capacity for growth in agape for God and man, my skepticism for their reliability will grow.  However, their explorations into realms of truth are potentially of great value.   I must be humble and curious about these things.   I must love truth and love my teachers enough to learn from them.    And I must look closely to find their errors, their misalignment with the Master Teacher, the Living Word, the Creator Christ.   These errors endanger us.     

Because I rely so heavily on Christ’s special revelation, I must also be very careful to distinguish between this revealed truth and my ideas about it.   To say this more plainly, because I rely on the Christian scriptures, I must be determined to understand them truly.   The ink on the pages of the Bible is not magical.   The word is not the same as the Word.   This brings me back to agape.   There is an amazing connection between agape and truth that can help me in reading the scriptures rightly.

My prayer today is that I will grow a little in understanding  Christ’s love and His truth, and that this will help me learn well in this university called earth.