Reflecting on the The Peace Candle While Reminded of the Violence in Our World – Second Week of Advent 2012

Yesterday as i was waiting to pick up the boys from preschool, I was in the middle of a post about can the message of Christmas really change anything before the news alerts on my phone started breaking about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

As the painful news was coming to light, I got off my social media. Initially I felt guilty for not contributing my condolences publicly but I know myself, I know I’ll scan the updates of others, I know someone is going to say something I like, someone is going to say something I find trite, and someone is going to say something I find inappropriate. Mourning the tragedy was one thing, getting frustrated with friends (and them with me) was unneeded.

We’ll talk about gun control, we’ll talk about the prevalence of violence in our society’s media consumption, we’ll talk about mental health, family pain, and the innocence of children. We’ll talk about Columbine, the mall attack in Oregon, the Aurora theater attack, Sikh Temple in WI. We’ll talk about violence in the Middle East, US Military, NRA, and various other elements of politics. Someone will point out that on that very same moment that networks were covering the Newtown tragedy, news was streaming on the ticker telling us there was also a knife attack in an elementary school in China. Someone will remind us of the many other injustices like children being trafficked, starved, neglected and abused.  This is all needed.

Some of us will also wonder how does this happen in a world where many of us believe that God exists. Some of us will wonder how do we process this on the same week we lit the Peace Candle. Our saddened hearts and our untamed fears would have us convinced that God does not exist, that there is no divine peace, that we really are alone in this evil, sick and violent world. It’s necessary that we confront these thoughts. It’s also necessary to talk about accessibility of guns, safety in schools and all public places, we do need to confront the violence in our hearts and throughout our culture, we do need to talk about our vision of peace and God’s vision of peace.

It seems to me that even if we could ban and remove all guns, focus more on mental health, destroy all violent video games, withdraw all military forces, stop producing and airing all violent tv shows and movies that the number of these tragic events will likely decrease but the reality of evil will still exist.  Certainly there is no benefit in doing nothing so these issues are legitimately worth pursuing.  In fact, it’s part of our social responsibility to do our best to prevent, limit and try to stop such tragic attacks. But evil cannot be locked up, morality cannot be legislated, sadly it would only be a matter of time before something else happened. We would find ourselves in yet another similar moment, who knows the proximity of it this time.

We are horrified on at least two levels. One is the obvious shock of the current moment. And the other is that we fear that there is no end in sight. We often hear others and sometimes ourselves saying, “That could have been us …”

We all wonder where is God in the midst of all of this? And how are we to celebrate Christmas now? Well, certainly the superficial elements of Christmas are irrelevant and exposed as such. But during my prayers this morning I did wonder if the pain and evil of yesterday will help myself and others see a little deeper into the meaning of Jesus coming near. Days like these demand that we acknowledge our frailty and the arbitrary nature of tragedy. Today I see very clearly how the problems of others are also mine. Today I feel the need to search for solutions and answers. It feels very fluid and natural to ask God to comfort and be near those who are finding an unimaginable reality today. It’s actually in these moments the meaning of Christmas not only seems extremely relevant but very poignant.

The Christmas story is about God seeing the death and evil of this world and offering a better way. When Jesus teaches us to pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, we are not only seeking a tragedy-free world, we are being taught to seek a world where there is no need for weapons, or a police force, or locks on our doors, or forensics or funeral homes. Jesus is God’s answer to a better humanity, one that is whole, one that is at peace, one that is redeemed.  It’s what Jesus offers – hope, meaning, redemption and life. Perhaps the meaning of the Advent Peace Candle is the reminder we all need right now.

For Those Not Ready For Advent, Christmas, 2013, Tomorrow …

Maybe you find yourself a bit behind schedule these days. Maybe the To-Do list is out of control. Maybe the last week of November and the first couple weeks of December are your least favorite of the year. They certainly were for me and though these days are better, I still remember how I used to wish I could fast forward to the new year during Christmastime.

Understandably, the thought of Christmas coming up in a few weeks is daunting because it means “We gotta do extra stuff and we can barely do the regular stuff.” Perhaps throughout the year, you told your loved ones that Christmas is going to be different this year – simpler, slower, focused more on family and others so forth. Then as you’ve been hearing the amazing things that others are doing for their families (“We’re bringing the whole family out to Hawaii after fixing up the entire Jersey Shore and feeding all the poor – Praise Jesus!”), you are reconsidering and the anxiety level slowly rises again.

Much of our fear is rooted in disappointing our family/loved ones. And that may be our first mistake this Christmas [Read more…]

Santa Claus, Rudolph, The Virgin Birth, The Lies & “TMI’s” We Tell Our Children

Every time I see a picture like this of Jesus and Santa Claus together, I go out of my way to say “Season’s Greetings” to a fundamentalist.  I get asked quite frequently what we tell our children about Santa Claus. Our kids are a  bit young so we only give them the 101 – Santa lives at the North Pole, he’s got reindeer that pull his sleigh and he gives good boys Christmas gifts and takes “Blue Bear” and “Elmo” away from the naughty boys (each family has their own traditions you know).

Every so often, someone either politely implies (or states matter of factly) that we are lying to our children. Perhaps in some sense this is true but when we are talking about toddlers and pre-schoolers, their reality is a bit clouded so much of the scope of truth is often irrelevant for them. However, I did see Talladega Nights and I am committed to telling them before they become race car drivers praying to the Baby Jesus (fortunately, it will be easier because they’re not being raised in the South) ;)

Still, I find myself thinking about this. We “celebrate” pretty much everything in the Ghali house because generally, it’s fun. Halloween? Absolutely. I’ve said it numerous times – getting dressed up as your favorite superhero and getting free candy from your [Read more…]

Thankful For Donald Trump – Thanksgiving Series – Post 5

If you have read earlier posts, you might be tired of me saying that I made this list of things I was thankful for. As I went from the big picture things and shifted contexts (like “Conveniences I am thankful for …”), I eventually got a little sarcastic. If you know me, my cup of sarcasm probably “runneth over” more than my cup of a grateful heart. So to some extent, it’s no surprise that I wrote down “Donald Trump”.

While I don’t have the honor of knowing “The Donald”, he is among the personalities that has gone out of his way for you and me to get to know him … at least on some level. How accurate the image he projects of himself is something we’ll likely never really know. In all honesty, I hope he goes home to his penthouse and laughs at some of this because his lack of self-awareness is much scarier than any boardroom firing he’s televised.

So for the purposes of this post, I am critiquing my perceived caricature of Trump that I have observed. Trump is one of those guys that is hard to avoid. Who hasn’t seen at least one episode of The Apprentice? After the Sopranos concluded, there wasn’t much on Sunday nights. And then when it wasn’t football season, oh man, I was a helpless fool. Further, having lived the last 5 years 30 miles from Trump Towers, you couldn’t avoid the mention of the guy. I had to laugh the day it was “breaking news” when he issued the statement that he wouldn’t run for President. Not sure the expression “only in America …” could have handled this one.

Trump reminds me of some pastors – only he’s got better hair than some of them. I’m sure there is that wanna-be type in every sector and industry and maybe you have a few in mind. There are a couple of characteristics to identify them. One is that undeniably successful in some sense. Two, is that they are extremely diligent in their self-seeking interests. Three, they thrive on the idea that there is never enough power and glory to satisfy and so their personal “empire” must continue to expand. Otherwise they wouldn’t know what to do with themselves. And lastly, having stated somewhat positive attributes, they have significant flaws that those around them are well aware of but their egos have either numbed or killed their self-awareness. These flaws include arrogance, womanizing, blind greed and severe relational deficiencies to name a few.

If we are honest, there’s a bit of Trump in all of us. Believe me when I tell you how much I hated writing that sentence. But what I’ve described in the paragraph above are based on American virtues that I’ve tweaked. Are there not numerous examples throughout our society that state you can get away with anything as long as you are successful? It’s the football player that keeps winning, the movie-star that keeps selling in the box office, the rockstar that sells out arenas, the televangelist that makes men cry and women empty their pocketbooks. From the articulate politician to the beautiful fashion model, we learn that your level of “untouchability” is directly related to your success. Generally, these examples are immune to accountability from those that care about them because they perceive their advice-givers as people who don’t get it. And while they wouldn’t call themselves “gods”, they enjoy their “super-human” status that they feel they’ve achieved with their blood, sweat and tears.

For the Christian, we can learn a lot here, I know as leaders we certainly can and this is why I am thankful. When our ambitions mutate and become self-serving rather than Kingdom serving, we become Trump Wanna-Be’s. When we treat ministries like an empire, we don’t even look as good as those televangelists with their fancy suits and their names written in gold hanging over the stage. When we treat our blogs as divinely anointed pulpits and hit “publish” as if we just walked off Mount Sinai, we not only risk blasphemy, but even worse, we risk losing our spiritual self-awareness.

Let our prayer be similar to John the Baptist when he says that he must decrease so that He might increase. Let us confess our sins of our pride and may we seek the Lord’s will in the way we spend the time, talents and energy that He has graciously given us. Lastly, may we learn from the foolishness of people and pray that God might use His church to show the world a better Kingdom, a better way and a better life.

Christmas Reflections Part 3 – Have Yourself a Snobby Little Christmas

Warning  – if you don’t get sarcasm – Stop reading ;-)

I was done talking about this but from various conversations and looking at facebook status updates, I guess I’m not ready to drop this.  What is it about Christian holidays that gets everyone so angry? Is it all the talk of peace? Is it the joy to the world blessings? Is it the adorable personalities like Santa, Rudolph, and Buddy the Elf?

I know that people have a lot emotionally invested in the Christmas holiday. I realize that for most people, it’s an important part of their childhood. And for many there is a longing to return to the way things were – whatever that means. Further, as a Christian, I certainly understand its significance. But because I do, I find myself restraining my frustration from those that get angry this time of year. It seems obvious that our responses should be joyful and grateful.

The other day while standing in line at Barnes and Noble, I heard a couple of people venting about how terrible all the tacky lights on people’s trees inside and outside.   One noticed the book I was holding was spiritual and a conversation began. Wouldn’t you know it – they were fellow Christians. “What has happened to this holiday?” the one asked me.  I tried consoling them by saying, “Well, what do you expect when you borrow from pagan traditions?” but that only seemed to upset them further. Really, what do you say? “Yeah, you know what Leviticus says about that mixing colors on trees.” or “That’s why I stopped celebrating the coming of Jesus.”. To fit in, I guess I should have said, “That’s why this country is going straight to hell. Why when I was growing up, everyone celebrated Christmas and only used red and green lights, like Mary and Joseph did.  And then we’d all go and build a church, and then an orphanage, and then a Christian ice cream parlor.  After we were done, we’d drink some hot chocolate (at the ice cream parlor) then go caroling in the nursing homes in Antarctica. Those were the days.”

I couldn’t help but think they were snobby. To retaliate, I didn’t invite them to our Christmas Eve services (Yeah, what’s up? Who’s snobbier now? ;-)

Someone else had made passing comment to me regarding the title of a message that I was going to preach, “Incarnation and Imagination: What Elf, Charlie Brown Christmas, and the Gospel of Luke can Teach Us About Christmas”.  (See all I gained from Pete Enns.  I know this reference only works for a few people). Anyway, it was for our Second Mile service which is a monthly Saturday night service geared for those in their 20’s and 30’s. Unfortunately we had to cancel the service because of the snow but it was probably going to me my best message ever. Now we’ll never know. Anyway, I am sure this person was just making conversation with me and it was not an attempt to critique the title but the comment implied that it wasn’t suitable for a holiday so sacred. I was like, “What’s wrong with the Gospel of Luke?”.

Again, I thought that was a bit snobby. To be spiteful, I think next year I will add National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation to the title. (That’s how we roll in Montvale. Shove that in your stocking. ;-)

Although I give a lot of evidence to the contrary, I can be a pretty serious and reflective person. I love Christmas. I love its meaning. I love its beauty and I love much of what surrounds it, including the cheesy decorations, odd characters, and some really hard to sing carols. What I despise is when we take the peripherals of it too seriously.  I suppose I am sensitive to that because that used to accurately describe me.

There was a time where anything that did not scream “holy, Holy, HOLY!” seemed like an attempt to cheapen Christmas to me.  I really felt I was honoring God more by “guarding” the sanctity of the holiday if I condemned the non-sacred elements of it.  All I could talk about was the commercialization of the holiday and how it had lost its high place in the American landscape.  And while I was always annoyed of when someone would call Santa, Satan, it bothered me that kids wrote letters to the fat man as opposed to offering prayers to the Almighty One.

I am not sure what exactly the turning point for me was but it had a lot to do with observing the time of Advent.  I know this now – taking the time to prepare my heart for Christmas allowed me to take in more of the joy of the holiday.  It allowed me to look at the rich and beautiful meaning of Jesus’ coming and it offered me a healthier way of celebrating it.  It even opened my eyes to enjoying our feeble attempts of demonstrating our happiness.  I found myself not taking everything about it so seriously, yet still loving God more for the purpose of His coming.  It’s probably not a coincidence that I stared loving the movie Elf.  To me, Elf is not just a hilarious character played by Will Ferrell but also the child-like response of the innocent in love with the amazing.  (And yes, Ferrell is hilarious).

We shouldn’t take every treat every aspect of our spirituality so seriously. Indeed, humor can degrade important matters but it’s also used in celebration. For example, a birthday party. Because we cannot always hire carolers to sing on our front lawns all day (although that would help unemployment), we hang up lights. Because the human heart cannot literally talk about Jesus all day, we create characters like Santa (based off a Saint that provided for orphans), Rudolph (based off a children’s story of acceptance) and Buddy (who I think is based off a monk in the 4th century who was raised by … ok, I’m making that one up) but to help remind us to keep the “holiday spirit”. Because the lighting and relighting of the advent wreath at some point loses its beauty (and becomes a potential fire hazard), we watch the Christmas Story and Miracle on 34th Street. And yes, a twenty foot blow-up Homer Simpson is now part of Christmas and according to some neighborhoods, he was a part of the Magi.

No one will have any trouble convincing me that some have removed Jesus totally from Christmas, but a few things are worth mentioning here. One is that Jesus would not respond with anger and frustration but instead with grace and love. Two, we Christians remove Jesus from His own holiday when we fight over Christmas rather then just celebrate and graciously share it.  And lastly, Christmas can never be taken away. Its redemptive meaning are for all those who dare to come from wherever they are and celebrate.

An Encouragement to Particpate in the Advent Conspiracy

I’m one of those no Christmas music til after Thanksgiving people. I have made a few exceptions like Bob Dylan’s new Christmas album and the amazing Sufjan boxset but what I am really thinking about is Advent. Really, I am. For many years, I’ve always felt unprepared for this season but not this one, friends. I even considered writing a pre-advent devotional book entitled “Get Ready to Get Ready” but I got pretty discouraged that the material pretty much was the Christian life. You know stuff like, “As we prepare our hearts to prepare our hearts, let us reflect on what it means to have the presence of Jesus with us now.” Currently, I’ve retitled the project to “Just Another Devotional in Distribution”. My imaginary editor told me that acronyms are sellers in the Christian retail world so “JADID”.)

Well as you can tell from the deep outpourings of my heart that I am ready for Advent. Similar to last year, I’ll focus on certain parts of Scripture, use a particular devotional, and am considering a couple other practices that I do not know how to communicate properly. But among them will be the Advent Conspiracy.

As a youth group, we have set a goal and I am hoping the Second Mile community will participate in some way too. I keep sharing our experience from last year, hopefully not out of a sense of self-righteousness but last year was one of my favorite Christmases. The short story and to keep it specific to AC was that Susan and I simply bought bags of fair trade coffee (from One Village) for most people, a few books (ask my sr. pastor which Tony Jones book he got), a restaurant gift certifcate and donated the money we saved. We bought a couple “normal” gifts for Nathan and each other (Susan got a macbook …. in October and I bought books that I would have bought anyway but this time … even more guilt-free. But they were great answers to people who measure your goodness by what you purchase for loved ones at Christmastime ;-) Anyway, I think I went to the mall twice: once we took Nathan to see Santa (which he didn’t enjoy) and once to buy something for a non-coffee drinking person – fruitcake of course. This year I plan on giving coffee, subscriptions to magazines like Generate and some Invisible Children items.

Everyone I know, and I think I mean literally everyone, has lamented to me at one time or another the absolute frustration of Christmas shopping and has complained of its commercialization. I am sure they have complained to you too.  So everyone we know feels this way. The Conspiracy helps counter that. I know some will think, “You don’t understand, I have a family that expects Christmas gifts – nice ones!” – yes that makes you American, welcome. Or more common, “I just don’t have anything left to give” – seriously, that’s what the Advent Conspiracy is about. Spending less, so you can give more and spend that time that you would have thinking what to get for the person that doesn’t want anything, shopping anyway and wrapping the stupid thing so at the end of it all, you can be closer to Jesus. You now get to redeem that time and hopefully do something constructive with it – you may even choose to worship (and I don’t mean just on Sundays and I don’t mean just in “quiet times”) but imagine worshipping during the Christmas season and spending time with people you love and maybe even showing love to those you don’t know.

Know that I and others like me are not trying to create a new legalism here. It would be easy to do that and may the Lord guard our hearts from that. If your Christmas is fine the way it is, disregard the advice and worship the way you would normally. But if you curse every time you hear “So This Is Christmas”, it may be time for a change.