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Christmas-PageantThat’s the last thing my kids need! All they think about is Christmas!

I know what you mean. I remember one of our grandkids who, as a three-year-old, took all the toy catalogues that came in the mail and circled everything in each one that Santa should bring!  And, of course, almost everything was circled!

I just wonder if doing some things intentionally with our children to help them remember Jesus might counteract some of the overwhelming advertising that they see every day? 

Let’s do this first:  without any framing or context, just ask your kids why Christmas is a holiday. You might do it like this:

1)      Hey, kids, why do we have Christmas anyway?

2)      Does anyone know how Christmas got started?

3)      What’s the best thing about Christmas?

I’m guessing that at least 50% of the time, you’ll get something about presents. Older kids may mention Jesus, so if they do, here are some follow-up questions for you to try:

1)      So what does the birth of Jesus have to do with Christmas?

2)      Do you think most people are celebrating the birth of Jesus?  What do you think most people are celebrating at Christmastime?

3)      When do you think about Jesus at Christmas?

That’s just the starting activity for you as parents to find out where your kids are.  Knowing what they think will help you prepare for the rest of Advent.

Of course, I don’t know what your kids will say to these questions, so I’m just going to share with you some different activities that you might try to help your kids think about Jesus during this season.  You pick and choose what works for your kids–or discard completely and substitute your own ideas.

 

This first week of Advent is almost over, so use these ideas the rest of this week and on Thursday, I’ll post the second week of activities, and then each week, I’ll give you some more ideas for that week. I’d love to hear the ideas that you add to these. Please share them with all of us.

First Advent Week      God So Loved the World

The Big Idea:

From the beginning, God loved us so much that He planned to send Jesus—to the whole world!

Ideas:

  1. You might find an inexpensive globe—any size—and use it to talk about God making the whole world and loving every single person in every country.  You could take some modeling clay and let your child make a big Earth of clay and then “populate” it with dots.  Message: God planned when He made the world to send Jesus to help us because He loves us so much!
  2. I love advent calendars—you know, the ones with 25 little windows that children can open each day before Christmas. The typical ones have little pieces of candy behind each window.  Candy is part of God’s goodness, so I wouldn’t avoid those. There are also Christian advent calendars that have verses behind each window—or pictures of some nativity person or event.  You can find them at Christian bookstores or online.
  3. I saw a great idea for making your own advent calendar while we were in Germany.  They took a simple length of rope—maybe 4-5 feet long—and then they used very small children’s mittens, one for each day, hung on the rope by a wooden clothes pin.  I don’t think you put 25 up, rather 7 for each day of that week, and then you can put a little verse, a little picture you have cut out, a little figure perhaps—and don’t forget a little piece of candy!
  4. If your kids are a little older, you might try reading Isaiah 9:6-7, and talk with them about the fact that Isaiah is telling about Jesus 700 years before Jesus is born. God loved us so much that He began His plan hundreds of years (really thousands—you can go back to Abraham’s promise(Gen 12:1-3) —or further to the first prophecy of Jesus to Eve (Gen. 3:15).  Then, I’d suggest asking your older child, what could they do that would bless someone in the future, maybe someone who would be born 100 years from now—and let them do it!

I want to suggest some good music each time as well. I myself am a big believer in exposing kids to good classical music, so the first song I’d suggest is from Handel’s Messiah, “For Unto Us A Child Is Born”—one of my favorites.

If you need something lighter, but still classy, Mary Chapin Carpenter’s song “Come Darkness, Come Light” is one that has great words, a simple melody, and it will be new to your kids.  You can find both of these easily online.

That’s enough for the first week of Advent. I’ll have more for you for next week on Thursday.  Let me hear how this first week goes.

 

(Reposted from 2012)

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underthedomeScientists now say that we live in a bubble! According to yesterday’s headlines, our whole solar system exists inside of a hot bubble of gases about 300 light years in length and shaped like a peanut. The thought of living in a bubble makes some people a bit claustrophobic, though 300 light years is quite a lot of space.

The townspeople of Chester Mills might beg to differ. You see, they do actually live in a bubble. Several weeks ago, an invisible dome dropped down, totally surrounding their town. I know it dropped down (as opposed to just appearing) because the rim of the dome sliced cows and houses dramatically in half.

Of course, I’m talking about the fictional town of Chester Mills depicted in the TV series Under the Dome, which is finishing its second season on CBS. The show itself is kind of like Lost for teenagers, with a lot of the show being a bit supernatural. The only mildly interesting part of the show is the reaction of the townspeople to being in the dome and completely cut off from the rest of the world–most of the time. Being under the dome seems to push people to being better people or worse! Of course!

I was walking through our neighborhood early one morning this week as is my somewhat irregular custom. I often pray while I walk, but I also try to look for God when I walk. Sometimes I look for things for which to thank Him; other times I pray for the children waiting at the school bus stop; or for the man with the two tiny dogs that yap at me as I walk by.

On this particular morning as I was walking, I looked up at the blue sky and had the strange feeling that we lived “under the dome.” I’m sure these were residual thoughts from having watched the TV show the night before, but it did give me pause.

How do you feel about being in a glass house, where your life is on display? How do you feel about being trapped on a planet with people you did not choose? How do you feel about whoever dropped this dome or blew this bubble around you?

The way different people react to confinement is the stuff of drama. Some feel sheltered, while others feel imprisoned. Some see a chance for personal gain, while others see opportunity to serve the community. And such close community feels like an invasion of privacy to some, while others love the freedom that transparency always offers.

The Garden of Eden was a kind of bubble, at least as it is described in Genesis: naked transparency, perfect community, harmony. After the bubble burst because of sin and Man was driven out, the world became more dangerous, with less commonality, less community.

You may not like it, but Jesus said the people of God live “in the world” but are not “of the world” (John 17). The “otherness” of the people of God makes many, many Christians uncomfortable in this age of egalitarianism. Admittedly, “otherness” has been misused and abused by Christians past and present enough to deserve this mistrust–BUT, the trajectory of human history as we move closer to the Omega, the End, the Day of Judgment–is that God in His love is restoring and will restore the harmony, the transparency, the community of the Garden.

Just as with the dome, some hate the restriction and the loss of “freedom,” but those who know God will revel in the restored and perfected fellowship that surrender brings.

St. Paul said, “Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8 NLT).

So we live in this big peanut-shaped hot bubble, and our sky is a kind of dome–but what a glorious place to be if we can say, “The heavens declare the glory of God.”

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100FootJourney5373a4c3573be-560x373Distances between cultures can be vast, seemingly insurmountable chasms. What cultures–specifically, what cuisines could be more different than French and Indian? Richard C. Morais brought this cultural clash to life in his book The Hundred-Foot Journey, which Oprah Winfrey then recommended in 2010 for her summer reading list. Just a couple of weeks ago, Dreamworks released the film version of this cultural clash. I highly recommend it to you.

You will delight in this film, not because it is great, but because it is . . . . good! Helen Mirren plays Madame Mallory, the somewhat embittered owner of a famous French restaurant where even the French president sometimes dines. Om Puri plays the head of an Indian family with a long history of restaurateurs and cooks, but a family which is currently homeless and looking for a place to open a restaurant in Europe. Because their brakes fail–“and brakes break for a reason”–they decide to stop in a small village in France and open their new restaurant–directly across the street–just one hundred steps away–from Madame Mallory’s renown restaurant.

The “war” between the two restaurants is fairly predictable, but entertaining. The reconciliation of their differences is also predictable, but carries the message of the film deeper than most viewers might expect.

The title The Hundred-Foot Journey began to take on new meaning to me when I thought about the variety of reasons these one hundred feet were crossed during the film other than just to reconcile differences between cuisines.

For instance, some characters walk the one hundred feet to paint ethnic slurs on the outer wall of the Indian family’s restaurant; others cross the 100 feet to the French side, thinking there to find a better future.  And if I tell you more, I will tell you too much, but every time someone makes that 100 foot walk,  something dramatic happens–so watch for it!

If all “wars” just could be solved so easily! I began to think of our trip to Jordan and Israel last spring and how I literally stood on the Arab side of the Jordan River where supposedly Jesus was baptized and looked at the Israeli side just one hundred feet away. The barbed wired, the armed soldiers, and the many warning signs, however, were all meant to remind me that one hundred feet can be a treacherously long distance.

How far apart are the one hundred feet that separate the black neighborhoods from the white neighborhoods today in Ferguson, Missouri?

How deadly is the one hundred foot path between the militant Muslims and the Christians in Kurdish Iraq?

How far is the journey from life to self-inflicted death for someone who has lost hope because of a terminal disease, or because of broken relationships?

How far is the walk from integrity to dishonesty?  Or from dishonesty to integrity?

And lest we just think only other people have trouble with these hundred steps–how far is the walk from legalism to loving kindness, from condemning to reconciliation, or from self-righteousness to

humble submission?  How many steps–and how hard to make that journey!

Even so, it can remind us that real integrity, sincere concern for others, honest communication,  and a belief that we are part of a greater community than the one on my side of the road–these go far in answering the questions of why we should walk one hundred feet to the other side.

Didn’t Jesus tell us, long before this film, that if a man needed you to go with him one mile, then you should go two?  I suspect he would say, if it will bring peace, don’t draw the line at one hundred feet.

Go as far as it takes.

 

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extreme prayer If we were playing Family Feud, and the word to play was PRAYER,  I would guess that one of the top responses from the audience would be POWER.  Have you read the Christian end times books that have the heavenly hosts completely handcuffed in their last battle against Satan, bound in helplessness until they are released by the prayers of the faithful on Earth?

I read one of those books once and found myself wondering if we are not turning prayer into a power tool that we wield rather than kneeling humbly and letting our requests be made known to Almighty God.

 Asking, knocking, crying out, seeking, supplicating, longing, beseeching, calling out, these don’t sound like power words to me; rather, they sound like words of neediness.

But we don’t want to be needy; we want to make things happen, so we Christians want to turn acts of worship, of submission and surrender into acts that compel or instigate or change.

Greg Pruett has written a wonderful book Extreme Prayer: The Impossible Prayers God Promises to Answer, published by Tyndale House, and available through Amazon.com.

Greg is the president of Pioneer Bible Translators in Dallas, Texas, but before that he and his wife Rebecca, along with their three children, served as Bible translators in West Africa for over twelve years.  I met Greg a few years ago, but we had never really had much time to talk until the North American Christian Convention in Indianapolis earlier this month.

At the end of our time together, Greg gave me a copy of his new book, which I began to read on the plane home, and it captured me with the opening pages.

He begins with a dark time in his ministry, his faith, and his marriage. One of the characteristics of liturgical churches that I wish our churches would imitate is that their liturgy often begins with, but in every case includes, a confession of our own sinfulness and our need for the grace of God before one more song is sung or one more prayer is spoken.  And so it seemed to me a wonderful thing that a book on prayer begins with a confession of unworthiness even to be in the presence of God—which in turn makes His gracious gift of prayer even more precious.

Drawing from many of his experiences in West Africa, Greg teaches us to pray. “This book is centered on . . . extreme prayer—the discipline of maximizing Jesus’ promises about prayer. Each of the following chapters unveils a different kind o prayer that Jesus backs with a blank-check promise (“whatever you ask”—mw). “

I might have been a little nervous about the book still to this point, but then Greg really reveals his message:  “But watch out! Don’t read this book to get your own wishes out of prayer.  God wants something so much bigger than that.

Greg makes prayer about God and not about me!  And that’s the way it should be, but often isn’t.

He teaches us what it means to pray “in the Name of Jesus.”  He teaches us to pray in “faith and faithfulness,“  not making the answer to our prayer the condition of our faith.  Even his shorter chapter on what he calls “shameless” prayer teaches us that persistence is not from entitlement but from the humble acknowledgment of our total dependency on God.

As the small book draws to its close, the writing becomes more specific, more concrete.  We need that kind of instruction, not just the inspirational.

Extreme Prayer taught me about prayer in a way that has grown my understanding of and my faith in Almighty God.  If you read this book—which I highly recommend–you may not hear exactly the same message because it is full of words of Truth, but you will hear the Word, and you will be changed because of it.

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Boy with menacing shadowHave you read Malcolm Gladwell’s book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants?  Gladwell has been one of my favorite authors since Tipping Point was published in 2000.  Having said that, I would say, however,  that you can’t read his books uncritically. He typically takes either statistics or limited studies, draws unusual conclusions from them, then illustrates those conclusions with selected anecdotes.

The scope of his conclusions are broader than the evidence that he gives to support them, BUT what makes his writing so captivating is that while small samples don’t always prove large truths, sometimes they do.  Much of what Gladwell writes rings true and has proven itself true for some people—hence, its appeal.

While the “David and Goliath” story has taken on archetypal qualities, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Gladwell does more than just borrow the metaphor.  The first section of the book actually explores the biblical story and offers some unique insights without being purely imaginative.

For instance, Gladwell goes into the story and speculates (as have many) that Goliath may have suffered from acromegaly, a disease related to giantism, which is quite common in people of excessive height.  One of the symptoms is poor vision, sometimes double vision.  For Gladwell, a vision disorder explains why Goliath seems to need to be led by someone else and why he at first seems a bit slow to recognize that David is not a fully-armed warrior.  You can hear Gladwell tell the story himself at this Ted talk from 2013 http://www.ted.com/talks/malcolm_gladwell_the_unheard_story_of_david_and_goliath .

In addition, Gladwell argues that “slingers” were a part of ancient armies in the same category with archers. He maintains that a rock in a slinger’s sling traveled at such velocity that it would have about the same effect as a 45mm handgun and that they were accurate up to 200 yards.

Gladwell is not trying to debunk the biblical story at all. His point is that David, an experienced slinger (remember the bear and the lion), was not a total underdog when he went up against the visually-impaired giant.  With what he believes is a better understanding of the story, Gladwell is trying to make the point that there are reasons to expect victories even in the face of what appear to be overwhelming circumstances.

Gladwell would like for his audience to rethink the David and Goliath story and come away with two important points:

  • For people who think they are strong:  “the same qualities that appear to give them strength are often the sources of great weakness.”
  • For people who think of themselves as weak or underdogs:  “the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty.”  

Don’t Christians often feel like underdogs in the post-Christian world we live in?  Don’t individual Christians often feel defeated by the gigantic evil in their lives?  Don’t we all wonder where the promised victory is when we look at the trends in the world around us?

If you were to place yourself in the story of David and Goliath, who would you be?  Would you be the person who relies on size and armor, and those you surround yourself with?  Are you the one who relies on experience and previous success and who scorns those smaller than you, those who are beneath you, those you can so easily defeat?

Or perhaps you are just a soldier, standing on the hillside far removed from where the big battle will take place, unwilling to be tested, hoping that someone else will win the battle for you, perfectly willing to wait passively and just hope you are on the right side at the outcome?

Or are you a little young or a little inexperienced for the big battle, but you have some skills and gifts that you know can be decisive.  You don’t really have all the right gear—but sometimes the right gear is a hindrance, so you think you can do without it.  You don’t really have a following; people like you, but they think you are a bit foolhardy.  But your confidence causes you to step out and take on challenges that nobody else seems to want to do?  And that confidence comes from great trust won from great experiences with a God who is never defeated!

Who are you in the story of David and Goliath?

Malcolm Gladwell is certainly not categorically a “Christian” author , but in writing this book, he was changed.   In an interview with Religious News Service, he described a rediscovery of faith:

I had drifted away a little bit. This book has brought me back into the fold. I was so incredibly struck in writing these stories by the incredible power faith had in people’s lives; it has made a profound impact on me in my belief. That’s been the completely unexpected effect of writing this book. I am in the process of rediscovering my own faith again.

We are surprised by the power of God and His Word like we are by David’s victory over Goliath.

Gladwell’s book is about why improbable victories might be more probable than we think.  God’s book is about why victory is certain! 

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edgeoftomorrow Perhaps it’s the threat of random terror and/or the post-modern lack of confidence that anyone has the answers to anything anymore, but something is stealing our vision and hope of a future—and our films are the popular expression of our general anxiety.

Two of the big summer movies currently in the theaters deal with time travel issues.  The first Edge of Tomorrow, starring Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt, is a military thriller, but really it is about what it would mean if we could really start all over again every time we mess up badly—and that’s appealing at a certain level, isn’t it!

X-Men: Days of Future Past, delivering the usual ensemble of stars, but focusing on Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), tests the idea of whether going back in time and manipulating historical events can change the future.

Both films play with the threat of total annihilation of the race.  Seems like we are getting more and more films like this, that is, films like the 1950s movies about the invasion of aliens and/or the mutants from atomic wars overrunning the earth, all of which expressed the newly feasible, but very real existential fear of atomic destruction.

Edge of Tomorrowsets up a scenario where a reluctant soldier (Tom Cruise) repeats the same day over and over again, resetting to that day every time he is killed.  When he realizes what has happened to him, he tries to learn from each lethal experience in order to save the world.

Through hundreds of iterations of the same day, he finally figures out what to do and what not to do in order to win the war against the aliens—at which point he has to start the NEW day over again and try again from the beginning to win the girl.

Fortunately, the director and editors of this film spare the audience the boredom of watching the same events happening over and over again, all which would have to be repeated so carefully because even one forgotten detail could result in needing to reset all over again.

That boredom and the tyranny of details when trying to change history were better demonstrated in Stephen King’s recent book 11/22/63: A Novel about a time traveler’s attempt to change history by preventing the assassination of President Kennedy.  Although the time travel and resetting is quite similar, because the novelist has more than two hours to tell his story, the difficulty and tedium of using repetition to get everything right are much more pronounced.  In fact, it proves to be almost impossible.

X-Men: Days of Future Past is the better film, primarily because the complexity of the characters plays a larger role in the outcome of the film.  In spite of political, racial, and philosophical oppositions, the key for saving the world becomes hope!  That hope is essential to the survival of humanity rings true, doesn’t it!Xmen

A cousin of mine is a hospital chaplain. He has told me that his main job is to offer people in his care hope, that when a patient loses hope, death becomes more probable.  He says that if he can just help them hope for tomorrow or next week,that they often rally.

Ultimately, time-travel films are terribly inconsistent, sometimes inconsequent, because no cause-and-effect event can be ignored, not even the smallest, without downstream consequences.  That is the great comfort Christians take in being in the hands of the Great I AM.

Our hope rests on the sole First Cause, in the hands of the Beginning and the End, in the Author and the Finisher.  Our hope is not in ourselves or dependent on our tomorrow; our hope is not in learning all we need to learn to achieve perfection or in getting it all right. So Christians can live without that existential fear that lies behind films like these because we have been given true hope.

May the God of hope fill you with joy and peace in your faith, that by the power of the Holy Spirit, your whole life and outlook may be radiant with hope” (Romans 15:13, Phillips).

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fatherHappy Father’s Day to all of you fellow dads! One of the moments I enjoy the most is sharing the postings of new fathers to Facebook.  The scores of pictures of that unique little baby, almost always wrapped around gushy, sometimes tearful, praises for the amazing woman who made you a father!  I’m not making fun of you guys because I was exactly the same way on three wonderful days in 1974, 1976, and 1978.  And, honestly, I have re-lived all of those emotions  when our nine grandchildren were born, watching our sons (including Tim) become fathers!

The strangest thing happened to me after my father’s death twenty-five years ago this week.  For a period of time after his death, I found myself talking to him in my prayers.  It was not anything mystical or intentional. I would be talking to my Father in heaven and conversation would just merge into talking to my dad.  I don’t really have a theology that supports praying to saints, so at first I was a little shocked and felt slightly guilty to realize what I was doing, but the phenomenon didn’t last long.

As you can tell, however, I’ve remembered this vividly for twenty-five years and have actually come to believe even more strongly that God has always intended for earthly fatherhood to be a first experience for both fathers and children of His relationship to us. If He has bound His Fatherhood and ours so closely together, then perhaps it is not so unique or unnatural for our hearts and minds to merge the two.

God as Father was a gift from Jesus His Son. Yes, there are a handful of references to “Israel my son” (Ex. 4:22) and David “my son” (2 Sam. 7:14), for instance, but such references are extraordinarily rare in the Old Testament.  On the other hand, God is called Father over 160 times in just the Gospels. In his letters, Paul talks of the fatherhood of God over forty times. Peter and John also use the same word they had been taught to use by the Lord. That Jesus taught his followers to understand God as father is special and uniquely Christian.

I have a sweet story to tell you to illustrate this point.

Sherrylee and I were in north Africa in a predominantly Muslim country. One night we met for prayer with a group of Christians, and there was one young woman present who told us this story.  She had been raised in a Muslim family, having no contact with Christians. One night, however, as a young girl, she had a dream about God. She dreamed that God appeared to her and told her that He was going to do something special for her. He was going to allow her to call him “Father.”  She treasured this dream in her heart and in her own prayers and meditations, she secretly and silently called God “father,” thinking she was the only one with this privilege.

Years later, as a young woman she traveled to a western country where she made friends with another young woman who was a Christian.  At some point they were talking about God and the young Christian woman said something about God, calling him  “my Father ” The Muslim woman was shocked—not because her friend had blasphemed or disrespected Allah, but because she had used the Muslim girl’s most special, secret words as if they were her own.  The Muslim girl asked her friend why she had called God father and thereby discovered the special relationship that all Christians have with God. It was not long until she too was adopted as His child, and her dream became reality.

And for those who have had abusive, troubled, unfaithful, sick fathers, I can only imagine that it is extremely difficult to relate to God as Father. Someday all that is broken in this world, including fatherhood, will be made right again.  The first taste of this perfection is allowing God the Father to renew you, to re-birth you, to adopt you into His family. Your pain is real, but God’s willingness to be a loving Father to you is real too!

Today is Father’s Day!  Our gathered family is going to grill and talk and watch the World Cup today in celebration.  But first we are all going to spend time in praise and prayer to God, thanking Him for being our Father.

Our Father, who is in heaven, holy is your name!”  

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