Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Michelle's Christmas List: Faith Like A Child

Yesterday, James and I went to our sixth Christmas party in 8 days. I know school is out, but it seems like life hasn't slowed down yet. After work, I've rushed home, cooked something to take with us, hopped in the car, and headed out to that evening's Christmas destination.

Our Christmas parties are over, but the travels have just begun. I have a date with the laundry room tonight, then tomorrow, James and I work in the morning, pack in the afternoon, attend the Christmas Eve service, head home, load the car, and head for Tennessee. ETA? 3 a.m. The day after Christmas, we'll head to Knoxville to see my family, spend 2 days there, come back to his family's house for one more day, make the 10-hour drive back to Texas on New Year's Eve...where we are invited to two parties that night.

Don't get me wrong. We are both blessed with amazing family, friends and co-workers. Though it has been party overload, we enjoyed ourselves everywhere we went, and we can't wait to see our family in Tennessee. However, as I pulled out my calendar of the busy party week now behind us and our busy travel schedule ahead, I realized something was missing.

My third grade teacher was the first person to introduce me to a planner. We were only required to keep up with our homework assignments, but I also loved keeping track of important dates - holidays, birthdays, etc. That year, I remember drawing a birthday cake on December 25. On the top of the cake, I wrote in my best handwriting, "Happy Birthday, Jesus!"

This morning, fifteen years later, December 25 on my calendar was blank.

Feeling guilty, I pulled out my Bible. Fighting back tears, I opened to Luke 2.

In those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. - Luke 2:1-6 (ESV)

Closing my eyes, I imagined Joseph and Mary traveling to Bethlehem from Nazareth...As I pictured the pain and rejection Joseph and Mary being turned away, the tears finally came. Not because of Joseph's humiliation in feeling like he could not provide for his family. Not because they had to sleep outside. Not because Mary had to give birth without any of her family present. Though that breaks my heart, my tears came because I realized that with this year's chaotic schedule, I'm every bit as guilty as every person that turned Joseph and Mary away. I haven't made room for Jesus either.

I've made every desert and appetizer known to man in the past 2 weeks. I've searched for perfect presents, spent way too much time creating crazy white elephant gifts, fought the mall & Super Wal-Mart, stood in countless lines, wrapped presents, decorated my Christmas tree, perfectly coordinated my schedule...but today was the first day that I've really taken time to reflect on the Christ of Christmas... outside of church.

Sure, I've had my quiet time. I've prayed. But even as a third grader, I had a better grasp of what it meant to celebrate the birth of our Lord, Jesus Christ. That year, my neighbor, who was Jewish, and I were playing outside.

"What are you doing tonight?" Rachel asked.

"We're decorating the Christmas tree!" I boasted proudly.

She looked at me with a blank stare. "What's a Christmas tree?"

My mouth dropped open. How could she not know what a Christmas tree was? "Come on!" I insisted, grabbing her hand. "I've already got one up in my room. I'll show you!"

We scurried up the stairs and into my bedroom to admire my tree (that couldn't have been more than two feet tall).

"It's pretty," she admitted. "But what's it for?"

Without hesitation, I began telling her everything I had learned in Sunday School - everything from the birth of God's son as a baby to His death on the cross and his promise to come back for those who believed in Him.

Rachel nodded along as I talked. We had forgotten to tell her parents where we were going, so it wasn't too long after my story that her mom showed up on our doorstep.

"Michelle showed me her Christmas tree, Mom," Rachel said. "How come we don't have a Christmas tree?"

I remember her mother taking Rachel by the hand and taking her out of our house without another word to me or my parents. Rachel wasn't allowed to come over to our house after that.

But I didn't know that I shouldn't tell her something that was different than what her parents taught her. I didn't know what it meant to be politically correct and religiously tolerant. I just knew that I was telling her the truth and that I wanted my friend to believe in Jesus.

In Matthew 18, the disciples asked who is the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven. Jesus called a child and put him in the midst of the disciples. "Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 18:3-4)

So this morning, I got my planner back out, dug some highlighters out of my desk, and began drawing a birthday cake on the square for December 25. I still have two days left before Christmas, and I'm not going to waste it. Sure, there will still be travels, presents, and family like before. But this year, I'm asking God for a Christmas present. I'll have to earn it, but I'll need His grace and blessing too.

This year, I want faith like a child.

Happy birthday, Jesus.

Friday, December 12, 2008

A Christmas Challenge

This sign is displayed next to a Christmas tree and nativity scene in the Capital Building in Olympia, Washington. The conservative response was not quiet. I couldn't help but become angry when I saw the sign. It doesn't stop at the atheist claim that God does not exist. It says that my personal relationship with Jesus Christ hardens my heart and enslaves my mind. I know Psalm 10:17 says that the Lord strengthens my heart. Romans 8:6 says, "For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace." God doesn't enslave my mind. He gives me peace.

I was not alone. Christians were outraged nationwide. Bill O'Reily called it "political correctness gone mad." The sign even disappeared within an hour of being put up. It was soon found in a ditch on the side of the road. A part of me even felt a little satisfaction when I found out it had been stolen.

However, my satisfaction soon turned to conviction.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said they would replace the sign with a new note saying, "Thou shalt not steal."

"I guess they don't follow their own commandments," Gaylor said.


Gaylor may be wrong in her beliefs about God, but she does have a point that this is not the way God would want His children to respond.

At today's fall graduation, Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, made a fantastic observation. He said, "Isn't it interesting that atheists are so intimidated by the birth of a little baby that they have to put up a sign to refute it?"

What a great perspective. Newborns can't walk or talk. They can't survive if left to fend for themselves. What could possibly be threatening about a newborn baby to an organized group of adults who claim that there is nothing beyond our natural world?

The only answer is that they are afraid that the birth of Jesus Christ disproves everything they claim to believe. He is God Incarnate. He was prophesied throughout the Old Testament. He was born of a virgin conception. He lived a sinless life, died a voluntary death, rose again to conquer the grave, and ascended to prepare a place for us. He will intercede as our High Priest until He returns one day for those who profess Him as their Lord and Savior.

Philippians 2:1-12 says, So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

It is my prayer this Christmas that Christians will not get caught up in the culprits who try to "steal" Christmas, the cost of Christmas, or any other distraction. Rather, let the Christ of Christmas truly be the only focus this year.

Monday, December 8, 2008

God Doesn't Take Short Cuts

I was not a patient child. The classic “baby” of the family, I wanted 100% of the attention 100% of the time. One of the many embarrassing home videos of me is our family at Christmas the month before I turned three. With so many new toys, (not to mention all of the bubble wrap, bows, and boxes), I was making one breakthrough after another. I announced each discovery loudly, right into the camera.

I have to give my parents credit for their incredible patience with me, as I made sure they saw the new teddybear I unwrapped, all of my favorite candy in my stocking (each individual piece, I might add), and my first pair of “big girl” jeans. My sister tore into her present, having each gift unwrapped in about 2.5 seconds. Not me. I savored as much “screen time” as possible. Christmas must have lasted for six hours that year.

When my sister and I were finally done, my parents began to open their gifts. My dad got my mom a beautiful crystal candleholder set that year. As he helped her unwrap the individual pieces and match each candle to its appropriate holder, I grew restless. In the corner of the screen, you can see me desperately trying to find something that I hadn’t debuted to the camera yet.

Finally, I found something. I took off for my sister’s gift pile and lifted her new hairdryer in the air in victory. “You see, Mom?” I asked. No response. I tried again. “Mom, you see?”

It’s hard for me not to laugh as I watch my younger self’s patience wearing thin quickly. I called again, louder this time. “Mommy, you see this?” Nothing.

In a desperate final attempt, I stomped the ground, took a deep breath, and said, “Do you see, MARY RUTH?”
My mom’s mouth dropped at the sound of her first name from her two year old’s mouth. She and my dad immediately burst into laughter. “Yes, Miss Michelle,” my mom said, between giggles. “I see.” Satisfied, I placed the hairdryer down and went back to playing with my toys.

I’ve gotten older. It no longer tests my patience if my mom is unimpressed that I can lift a hairdryer. However, I still consistently battle responding impatiently toward those who love me most…especially my God.

In high school, I was impatient with God when he moved my family from Memphis to Knoxville. By the end of my senior year, I loved Knoxville so much that I stayed there for college. In college, my friends were surrounded with boyfriends while I remained unattached. Now, I am so grateful that I never gave my heart away before I met James. Why do I never learn that God’s plan is better than one I could ever imagine?

God’s people have a history of impatience with their Creator. After God delivered the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, Exodus 13:17-18 says, “When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near. For God said, ‘Lest the people change their minds when they see war and return to Egypt.’ But God led the people around by the way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea. And the people of Israel went up out of the land of Egypt equipped for battle.”

I’ve read over this passage dozens of times in my life, and I’ve always missed the depth of the meaning here. God didn’t take them to the nearest land. He didn’t want the quick fix to their problem. He wanted the best solution.

Naturally, the Israelites did not understand why they had to go through the wilderness. Numbers 14:1-4 says, “Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. And all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The whole congregation said to them, "Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the LORD bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?" And they said to one another, ‘Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.’”

I admit it. I’m not exactly a fan of sleeping on the ground and traveling on foot all day. But I can’t imagine a camping trip so bad that I would want to go back being a slave. The Israelites had some growing up to do, and God knew it. Remember, the passage in Exodus said that God led them around by the way of the wilderness. He never left them. But He wasn't just concerned with their final destination. He was intentional about experiences they would encounter who would determine the people they were to become along the way.

Over Exodus 14-17, God provides the Israelites with one miracle after another. He divides the Red Sea to let the Israelites cross safely, and lets the waters crash back into the middle to drown the Egyptians' chariots and horsemen. (I hope heaven has HD DVR - I really want to see that!) He provides water, manna, and meat. He promises to protect them from disease if they obey His commands.

But how quickly the Israelites forget. After they affirm a covenant with God in Exodus 24, they turn right around in Exodus 32 to build a golden calf to worship instead of God. This is the point where the Israelites make me want to call them, "The Boneheads of the Bible." Seriously. How do you walk across dry land on the bottom of the sea with water held up on either side of you by an invisible force and days later, turn to doubt God?

It's the same way I can become impatient with where I am in life - even though God has proven Himself to me over and over again. At different times, I've wished life had a "Fast Forward" button. "God, can I just blink and be done with school? I mean, can't I just write a book and get it published without a degree?"

Imagine falling asleep in the car as someone else drove you to a party. You arrive and begin talking to people. Apparently, there was a huge construction project that caused massive delays on the Interstate. Everyone has a story about what they heard, and what they saw. You cannot relate, and you have nothing to contribute.

My experiences in life, though I may not have understood them at the time, have always prepared me for the next step God guided me to take. It is along life's journey that He teaches us truth, molds us to be more like Him, and gives us time to grow. I may not have made the Bible, but I'm just as much of a bonehead as any of the Israelites.

The prophet Nehemiah offers some explanation of the amazing and patient God we serve. Nehemiah 9:17,They refused to obey and were not mindful of the wonders that you performed among them, but they stiffened their neck and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt. But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them.”

He didn't forsake them. He had a plan.

Sometimes, it may seem like God isn't paying attention. He doesn't notice that you can lift a hairdryer by yourself, and you think that justifies your ability for a better assignment than where He has you and His undivided attention. Don't let yourself grow so impatient that you miss it when God parts a Red Sea in your life. He is always at work. Expect delays, and learn from them.