Not the holiest, but holier than thou.

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But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do;  for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” –1 Peter 1:15-16 

Let’s gather up all the members of our church.  The ones who come every Sunday and the ones who stay home.  Let’s all get together and line up in a straight line.

Line up!  In order from most holy to least holy!

Now clearly, Margaret should be the most holy.  She’s made cookies for everyone in the hospital for the past 50 years.  After that, we should put Jason in.  He’s 15 years old, and he never gets in trouble.  He sings in the adult choir and speaks up in Sunday School, and he’s even nice to his younger sisters.

There will be arguments, and some contentious voting, about who goes where.   Who is the most holy?  Is it the church member who has the most scripture memorized, or the one out in the community, loving their neighbor? One way or another, we’ll figure it out.

As we near the end of the line, there’s some predictable grumbling. Nobody wants to be thought of as less holy than everybody else.  Just the same, we assign numbers for all folks in line, including ourselves.  You got #234.  I got a more respectable  #211.  If you’d like any tips on how to be a little bit holier, just ask me.

As we look up towards Margaret and Jason in front, we see them waving their number cards at the rest of us.  It takes a moment to see that Jason’s number is a #3, and Margaret carries a #2.

Wait–where is #1?

#19 has some high powered binoculars.  Looking far in the distance past Margaret, she sees the vaguest dot of a figure.   #4 and #26 are long distant runners, so they volunteer to scout ahead.

They return, out of breath, with some news you’ve already guessed.  #1, the Most Holy of all, is Jesus.  His holiness is so far beyond every one of us that the numbers we carry seem silly.  When it comes to being holy, we’re all at the back of the pack, together.

#310, last in line, throws down his number, and begins to walk toward Jesus.  “I’ve got a long way to go.  Who’s with me?”

And so, we all head towards Jesus.  Little groups made up all kinds of numbers.  Different paces, different obstacles, but one communal goal:  Not to be holier than the folks next in line to us.

Just to be holier.

Have a great week,

Mitch

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Bad Deal. Good God.

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Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright. –Genesis 25:34

Esau walked into the house and there was his brother, Jacob, making a delicious smelling lentil stew.  His brother said, “I’ll give you a bowl of this stew if you give me your birthright.”  Jacob was always trying to make deals like this.

Esau laughed and said, “I’m hungry, Jacob, but not THAT hungry!”

No wait, that’s what he should have done.  Instead, he raised his fork, and forked over his dad’s inheritance, his leadership and position in the family, all for a bowl of steaming lentil goodness.

Bad deal.

What are some of the bad deals you’ve made?

  • Jan and I bought a used car from a high school kid without taking it to a mechanic.  7 minutes into taking possession of it, flames began to pour out underneath the hood.  Jan got our money back, but that’s a deal I wish we’d never made.
  • When I lived in Kansas City, some guy was going door to door selling alarm system contracts.  We signed up for a 6 year monthly plan, which they held us to…even though we moved after 4 years.   Man oh man I wish we hadn’t agreed to that deal!
  • And more than once upon a time, I’ve given up my birthright, just like Esau.  I’ve turned my back on the blessings God’s given me to do something…stupid.  Self-destructive.  Selfish.  Or even just because I craved something else.

Yep.  I’ve made some bad deals.  I’ll bet you have too.  Well the Good News is that Esau recovered, as can we.  It wasn’t like God was out to get Esau, but more that Jacob was willing to move his life in a direction Esau wasn’t yet ready or willing to take. Bad deal or not, God never gave up on Esau.

Years later, the two brothers unite on a field.  Jacob is ready for bloodshed from his angry brother, but Esau is gracious and forgiving and beautiful.  I don’t know if God so much as helped Jacob steal his brother’s birthright, as he helped set these two young men on faithful courses with their lives.

Bad deal. Good God.

There are many lessons to be learned from the story of Jacob and Esau, but one of those lessons should NOT be that God is some kind of a used-car salesmen looking to take advantage of our shallowness.

Rather, God can work through us even when we’re gullible, shallow, and impulsive.  It was a bad deal, to be sure, but Esau came out alright.  As did Jacob.

The next time you agree to a bad deal, (and there will be a next time) don’t let it eat your lunch.

You’ll likely be hungrier for Good News next time,

so don’t stew in your juices about it.

(if you have a good pun using the word ‘lentil’, I’d love to hear it)

Have a great week,

Mitch

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Could You Handle 800 New Years?

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The days of Adam after he became the father of Seth were eight hundred years; and he had other sons and daughters. –Genesis 5:4

Somewhere between 2019 and 2020, I’m sure somebody shot off some fireworks.  Someone stupidly fired a gun in the air. The whole world celebrated.

I didn’t hear any of it.

I slept. Not out of boredom or depression or anything like that.  I was just sleepy. And not that interest in watching another ball drop.

And…I already had a good idea what I’d wake up to in 2020.  Sure enough, on the other side of a decent night’s sleep, I found the exact same guy staring at me from the mirror.

There I am.  Overweight.  Wart on my foot.  My beard is crooked.  Thus begins another year with myself.  Been there, done that.  Too much anxiety.  Too much a perfectionist and too dismissive of details.

I’ve been around this track 50 times now.  I’ve learned that crossing the Dec.31st finishing line doesn’t really change me.  I may create a few resolutions this year (2 days a week at the gym?), but I know darn well I rarely keep them.

My question is:  How in the world did Adam do it?  800 new years, and that’s only the years AFTER his Son Seth gets born.  Basically, Adam had upwards of a MILLENNIUM to live with his flaws, his idiosyncrasies, his crooked nose, and a curious predilection for low hanging fruit.

Oh, and a messed up world.

Would you even celebrate New Years if you lived to 800?  Or would the years all run together into one prolonged eye roll?  I’ve been awfully eye-rolly lately…

And so, at first I greeted New Years with a yawn, and not because I slept through it.  I felt a little bit…done with it.  Yeah, yeah, new year, new decade.  I’ve been here before.

But I clearly haven’t.  No one has.  I think sleep makes me forget, and a little time with God helps me remember:  We are on the threshold of something new.  Something unprecedented.  This is untraveled territory, this day — every day.

The notice of this week as “New Year” is totally arbitrary.  Just a date on a calendar someone picked, long ago, and we stuck with it.

But we’re not STUCK with anything!  I don’t care how old you are, 8 or 8o, or 800, each new day is for you to explore.  It’s unlike any day that has come before.  On New Year’s Eve, while I was sleeping, the exciting thing that happened was that God was claiming me for another day.

God claims me for all the days, for all the ways I change and grow, and all the ways I stay the same.  For all my bad jokes and all my brilliant ideas.  For the resolutions I make, and the ones I’ll probably break.  God is in it with me for the whole 800+ yards.

I may have slept through the ball drop, but I didn’t miss the important things.  The God of 2019 is the God of 2020, is the God of all time.  And God, through Christ, has invited you and I on the journey of our lives…however long they last, and beyond.

I don’t know why we don’t live as long as Adam did.  Maybe lifespans were measured differently.  Maybe God was still fine tuning creation.  Maybe it’s just a dramatic depiction. Since we never hear from Adam again, it’s possible he lived the rest of his life in boredom or frustration.  It’s also possible he opened himself to receive a marvelous life of challenge and growth and joy.

That’s the one I choose to believe. That’s the new year God wants for me.

I’m going to live 2020 with a little more optimism than last year. A little more faith. After all, if God can do all this while I was sleeping…

I can’t wait to see what happens when I’m wide awake.

Have a great year,

Mitch

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Mary, I Didn’t Know

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To the woman he said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. — Genesis 3:16

In 5th grade, all the guys were led into a classroom down the hall, where we were taught some sterilized version of the facts of life.  The girls had their own lecture.  If I remember correctly, their conversation lasted longer than ours did.

I remember rejoining some of my female friends, and seeing a strange look in their eyes. They all seemed to have aged a year or so in maturity.  I wondered if they had been told different facts than we had.

Indeed, they had.  More than just the rough outline of Male/Female sexuality, they were learning about pain.  The monthly ordeal of menstruation, the excruciating process of childbirth.  I don’t know if any time was given to the discussion of other forms of pain for women — objectification, harassment, abuse.  Somehow I doubt it.

I had no clue.  I knew of none of this, and wouldn’t for years.  Some of it, I’m still learning.

Last week, for instance, I sat with my senior high Sunday School youth at the coffee shop and asked what was meant to be a throwaway question, “The angels said ‘be not afraid’.  What’s your biggest fear?”

One of the young women said, without irony, “I’m afraid of men.”  The other two quickly agreed.  They began to share with me and the other young men there, how difficult it is for them to be out, anywhere, by themselves.  I don’t know what it was about this unexpectedly frank conversation, but as they each gave real world examples of how scary and painful it can be living as a young woman in this world, it occurred to me…

That little wood-carved figure of Mary, there on my coffee table nativity set, is going through some stuff I simply can’t imagine.

Not only do I have next to no concept of what it means to be a young woman in our world today, I am utterly clueless of what that young girl in her teens must be enduring on Christmas Eve.

Having a baby is a big deal.  Having a baby in a cattle stall, with only (I’m guessing) a pretty clueless husband to assist must have been terrifying.  I can only imagine such physical pain coinciding with great joy!

I’m aware there are many women in the world whose pregnancies aren’t successful, due to complications, or lack of assistance, or poor sanitation. Wow. More pain that I can hardly fathom.

I’m reminded of Adam and Eve, expelled from the Garden of Eden.  There were consequences to their disobedience, and one of them was that childbirth would bring pain. I’ll be honest, I haven’t thought much about it before.  The literal pain alongside the joy of Christmas.

I tend to think that God is not inflicting these punishments, but that they are natural consequences for us choosing to live in the harshness of the world.

Regardless, I feel that Eve got the worse end of the deal, compared to Adam.  As did Mary, with Joseph.  As I’ve come to believe more and more, women in general face pain that men aren’t always aware of.

This is not a pity party for the ladies. It’s closer to a celebration of the strong and faithful women I have known in my life, who may have had to struggle more than I know just to celebrate Christmas this year.

In the least, I’m aware that the mother of my Savior deserves some gratefulness on my part.  I’m guessing the same is true for all the other women in my life.

It’s not much, but I wanted to say, on behalf of my 5th grade clueless self, and my 50-year-old slightly less clueless self…

I was thinking of you this Christmas.

Have a Merry Christmas!

Mitch

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If This Were Your Last Christmas

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Last week, my wife Jan and I drove to Wichita to watch one of our favorite movies on the big screen:  A special 75th anniversary showing of “Meet Me In Saint Louis”.

It’s a delightful film that we watch every Christmas.  The film takes place over the course of several months, but the climax occurs on Christmas Eve, when Judy Garland sings the immortal song, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas”.

The lyrics begin:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be bright

It’s beautiful, but do you know what the original lyrics were, before Judy threw a fit to have them changed?

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
It may be your last

It may be your last???  Can you imagine such a sentiment in such a joyful film?  And what if it were true? Picture loud speakers blaring, “Breaking News! This may be your last Christmas. Proceed accordingly.”

How would you respond?

If someone told me I’d have no more Christmas in my life, I’d be more sad than anything.  No more presents?  No more family gatherings?  No more candle light service? These things are supposed to be forever!

Well hang on.  Do you know there was a time when Christians didn’t even celebrate Christmas?  Like the first 300 years after Jesus death! That’s right.  The celebration of this holiday did not exist until Pope Julius made it a holiday in 350CE.

And I’m sure you know that December 25th is not actually the day Jesus was born.  The date was probably picked to coincide with other festivals occurring around the winter solstice.  Some say Jesus was born in the Spring, but who really knows?

And although gift-giving has been associated with Christmas at various times down through history, it wasn’t until the Victorian era that present exchanges began to resemble what we do today.  Similarly, Christmas Carols evolved down through the ages before many of the songs we sing began to take shape in the 1800s.

Each of these components had a “first”, back in history, and they may also face a “last” some day in the future, but none of these pieces add up to Christmas.  If we lost every present, or cookie, or party, or even the date on a calendar, none of these could signal a “last” Christmas.

The thought behind those “It may be your last” lyrics may actually be towards the “Merry” part of “Merry Christmas”.  It may be a suggestion that you’ll have future Christmases, just not  “Merry” ones. Perish the thought!

No, really!  Perish that thought — let it die right where it stands.  Christmas — and especially a Merry Christmas — requires so little of us it’s almost effortless to achieve.  Christmas requires Christ.  Christmas is merely a reminder of an all encompassing, eternal gift Christ has already given.  It’s ours for the taking; we need only be open to receive it.

At the heart of Christmas is the one gift that truly keeps on giving.

So bake your cookies with abandon.  Sing those carols — out of key is perfectly acceptable.  Hug your loved ones, and wave at your neighbors.  Every year the celebration changes some, and that’s a beautiful part of life.

But enjoy Christmas without fear of losing it.  You already have it to keep and to share.  Christ is warming your heart even now as you trim your tree, or wrap your gifts…

and don’t forget to enjoy the Garland.

Have a great week,

Mitch

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Top 10 Essential Apps For Christmas

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Looking for something exciting, challenging, and helpful to take you all the way to December 25th?  Look no further.

We’ve assembled our TOP 10 Essential App List for Christmas this year.  Try these out and we promise you won’t utter a single “Bah Humbug” all season!

HERE WE GO!

10. APPROACH:  You’ll never make it to the manger if you’re not willing to move.  Spend some time in prayer remembering what Christmas is all about, and then get in gear.  Even as you approach Jesus, Jesus is approaching you.

9. APPREHENSIVE:  This is not a relaxing weekend in Branson.  It’s a life-changing adventure filled with risks, unknowns, and even a little uncertainty.  Hearing the Christmas story should shake you up a little. It’s a good thing to be a little apprehensive.

8. APPETITE:  Cookies and Presents can bring great joy.  They can also bring gluttony and greed!  Be intentional about what you should be craving.  Love, Peace, Hope, and Joy are present in abundance.  Here’s to having a healthy appetite.

7 APPRECIATE.  The sky on Christmas Eve always inspires me, if I remember to look up.  Being with my relatives is fun, if I have the right attitude.  The Miracle of Jesus gives me chills, if I truly listen to the stories.  There’s so much going on that you might miss the whole point of Christmas, unless you focus your heart to appreciate the heart of it.

6. APPRENTICE:  We celebrate two Christmases each year, the cultural one and the Christian one.  Both can be fun and exciting, but it is the Christian experience of Jesus’ birth that can nourish us our whole lives long.  There are young people (and some older ones too) who may only learn this version of the story if you apprentice them.

5.  APPROXIMATELY.   Don’t worship a well-wrapped present or a beautifully set table, when the sole source of perfection is cooing from the manger.  As for everything else?  Approximately good is good enough.

4. APPLAUD.   Children’s programs at church.  Concerts around town.  Carolers at your front door.  Joy is contagious, and the hard work of those who step up front to share their offering can ignite in us a passion we might otherwise have been missing.  Find reasons to applaud this year, especially for the Greatest Story Ever Told.

3.  APPROVE.  What if you gave Christmas five stars on Yelp and shared an amazing review with everyone you know? Christmas doesn’t require your approval, but the Good News spreads all the faster when you make your two-thumbs-up shown.

2.  APPEAR.  The incarnation, Emmanuel, God with us, is more amazing than a magic trick. Don’t look away, and don’t minimize the Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing.

1.  APPLY.  What are some of the most important life lessons you’ve learned from Christmas?  The joy of giving.  Peace on Earth, good will to all.  Go, tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere!  Christmas is supposed to change us, to inspire us all year round.  How will you apply what you’ve learned?

There you have it!  Our Top 10 APPS for Christmas.  Keep in mind — just because they’re free, doesn’t mean they’re not high quality.  Best of all, I’m allowed to offer them right here!

Who needs an actual APP store?

Well, Apple might be appalled to see this page approvingly appreciated.

Have a Great Week,

Mitch

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Would You Hire This Advance Man?

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He’s rugged.  He’s wild.  He’s likes to dunk people in the water.

He is, of course, John the Baptist.

This, THIS is the best Jesus could do for an advance man?  A big scary looking dude wearing a shirt made of camel’s hair? A guy who lives out in the wilderness, and munches on locusts???

In a word, he’s scary.  Right?  Bordering on dangerous.   Would you let your kids head outside of town to play with Sasquatch?  Or Grizzly Adams?  Or Hagrid?  (Okay, that last one might be kind of cool).

It’s hard to comprehend a WORSE person to pave the way for Jesus’ coming.  I mean, wouldn’t you want someone more approachable for such a job?  Somebody with decent grooming skills?  Somebody with a good sales pitch worth listening to?

Oh wait.  John may not have worn a slick suit and $200 loafers, but he had an incredible sales pitch:

“After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  Mark 1:7-8

Here’s this powerful wilderness man speaking about somebody even more outside-the-norm who is coming.  Somebody more powerful, more connected.  In other words, John says, “If you think I’m wild, just wait.”

Perhaps it was John’s unlikely appearance that actually appealed to people.  Or perhaps they thought they saw a resemblance to Elijah.  Or perhaps he looked less imposing standing up to his waste in the water.

John wasn’t just ranting, out there on the outskirts of town.  What he called people to was down right sacramental. The baptism he provided offered hope in ways people were deeply aching for.  A new start.  Forgiveness.  A personal connection with God.  John offered these things people were desperate for, using a method and a locale that took them far outside their normal lives.

Heck, he was such a good advance man that the person he was barking about, Jesus, actually showed up for a dunk in the river, too.  If that’s not validation, I don’t know what is.

So here’s the thing.  You and I tend to sanitize Christmas.  Just take a look at the nativity scene set up in your house, and you probably won’t see a Grizzly Adams-looking figure stuck there between the shepherds and the kings.

But John is as much a part of the Christmas story as any of those other figures.  He represents the break from the status quo.  He reminds us that the beginning of a new story can and should be a little scary.

But if John gives you pause, that’s just to get your attention.  There’s no need to retreat in fear.

He’s the advance man, after all, and he’s all about hope.

Have a great week,

Mitch

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