The Christmas Blues?

I was watching TV the other morning before leaving for the office and came across a news story about a burgeoning problem amongst Christmas observers - Christmas burnout. Here was the gist of the story - that people begin the Christmas season with the greatest of expectations and the purest of intentions, but lose the ability to make their plans reality due to the hustle and bustle of American life, especially life at Christmas time. Their missed expectations, then, drive them to discouragement and depression, or at least that's what this author said. They offered some great tips for warding off this Christmas depression - time with friends and family, better planning, blah, blah, blah. It really got me thinking - do that many people suffer from depression at Christmas time?

Ever the contemplative critic, I began to do some soul searching about my own Christmas "heart." I am, after all, a self-proclaimed Christmas "junkie." I love it - the lights, the songs, the tree, the presents, the movies, all of it. As I reflected on my own desires for my Christmas festivities, I saw some similarities in my life with the poor depressed Christmas revelers this author was describing. Allow me to explain.

My Christmas vision each year is rich with tradition and dripping with cultural trappings. I want to take my kids ice skating and shopping in NYC, drive around looking at all the neighborhood light displays, visit winter carnivals, drink hot chocolate, curl up in our PJs and watch Rudolph and Frosty and Elf and all the great Christmas movies. But why do all of those things move me the way they do? Why do I watch "It's a Wonderful Life" and feel the desire to go back to a Christmas season and culture I never knew? Why do my Christmas dreams and my desires for celebration look more like 1940's Hollywood than New Testament Palestine? And herein lies the core issue for me and for those depressed Christmas celebrants in my TV interview. I am chasing a vision of Christmas that doesn't exist in reality and fails to deliver on its promises. The people in that interview are chasing that same utopian Christmas experience and are left broken-hearted when all of their efforts explode into a ball of Christmas chaos (ever see Christmas Vacation?)

As a Christian American (and the order of that title is intentional), I find myself pulled between my culture and my faith on a regular basis. Nowhere is this tension more clear than during the Christmas season. My reflective journey led me to some conclusions this season. Allow me to share them with the 6 of you who actually read this thing:

1. Participating in the American cultural celebrations of Christmas (trees, wreaths, lights, hot chocolate, Clark Griswold, etc.) should be treated as a cultural thing - a fun thing to do but clearly not the substance of our observance.

2. Allow your Christmas "vision" to be saturated with the things that ultimately provide you with the fulfillment and satisfaction you crave. Meditate on the Christmas story in the Scriptures. Light Advent candles and remember the significance of Christ's incarnation. Read Luke 2 with your family. Tell your kids that Santa was a real historical figure and is a fun part of the American Christmas, but is nowhere near as good or benevolent as the God who came to earth out of His love for us to redeem those born under the law. Build your traditions around Christ-centered moments of caroling and contemplation. Stay up late Christmas Eve and allow your mind to drift to a far off place and a young teenage mother and father giving birth in a barn and pray for the ability to see the significance of that moment.

3. Hold the Biblical significance of the season and the American celebration in a proper position of "tension." Don't chase the vision of American Christmases from a bygone era, instead chase the ultimate glory of God revealed in an infant born to a Virgin in Bethlehem.

Christ in his coming will satisfy those Christmas "blues."


a walk through the shadows

as I sit here in my normal morning perch at the Coffee Planet in Ballston Spa, NY, my head is still spinning. The last 10 days of my life have been trying, draining, and flat out exhausting. My wonderful wife and I, most unfortunately, endured a heartbreaking miscarriage. There really isn't anything in life that adequately prepares you for those types of moments, is there? No training, no great life lessons, no past experience that qualifies you to survive that emotional kick to the gut. The pain and grief and shattered dreams are almost as overwhelming as the physical toll it is taking on my wife.

And so, rather abruptly and without warning or consent, our journey took quite an unexpected turn - today, instead of walking a bright and cheery path laden with joy and excitement about a new addition to our family, we find ourselves taking an altogether different portion of this trail to glory - winding ever so ominously through a valley so deep and dark you begin to wonder when, if ever, you'll see the sun again and, at times, if you'll be able to muster up the strength to crawl out of this one. To be sure, life is a wonderful collection of great mountaintop experiences and joys, but every glorious, breathtaking, and cherished summit is acquired the hard way - with long, grueling, and taxing climbs to the top. There are no shortcuts here. The past 10 days, for our family, have not been the kinds of days you want to capture and frame and post for guests to see. No tired but happy faces on a mountaintop; no aura of fatigued satisfaction; no joy providing the backdrop for the discomfort and sweat. This is not that type of "overlook" in our story. However, by grace and in faith I believe that these past 10 days (and the subsequent times to follow) will be the ones that I look back on in my personal recollections as profoundly foundational for me and my walk with our Lord. As the darkness has felt overwhelming and the distress has been crippling, the Light of Christ has provided for me and our family a grounding and tethering and stabilizing force in all of this.

I heard a friend of mine tell me in a great moment of weakness something that I've found myself uttering these past days: "I really do believe my theology." Maybe the Apostle Paul said it a bit better: "I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I've committed unto Him against that day." What does that mean to the sufferer and downtrodden? Quite simply, my faith, far from the crutch that many critics would see, has been for me an anchor holding my soul fast through this present storm. My confidence in the finished work of Jesus on His Cross has been a buttress for me as I have needed it. I believe that our great God, who loves me with an everlasting love, would allow only what I can handle and what ultimately works together for good for those who love Him because He told me so. I believe that, far from punishment, this is to be seen as a gift of grace directly from His hand - however "ungracious" it appears to me in the present moment. I believe that, as Romans tells us, that the present sufferings of this broken world can't be compared with the glory that God will reveal in us and to us. I believe that grace and strength from Christ are found most in my moments of weakness. And I believe, from the Scriptures and from experience, that this walk through the shadows will soon lead me into a clearing - bright and beautiful, alongside a stream quiet and still, where times of restoration and refreshing will come. So, with expectant hearts, we press on in grief and sorrow and hope and faith, trusting that our Guide is an able one; that He too is acquainted with grief and tears; that He too has walked a road of great loss; and that, most importantly, He knows the way out of the shadows because He's been this way before.



Remember the scene from the original Karate Kid movie where Mr. Miyagi and baby-faced Daniel LaRusso were sitting down for karate training and began to trim the bonsai tree? Of course you do. As Daniel watched the wise old sage trim with precision the ancient mini-tree he was curious as to how this trimming was supposed to work. Mr. Miyagi pulls out another tree, hands Daniel-son the small scissors and lets him have his turn. He coaches him to close his eyes and begin to see with his mind's eye a picture of the tree. Then, after he has focused his attention on his revelation of the tree he is to go to work. But how to make it happen? Should he cut here? Or maybe there? Which branch needs to be pruned? He asks Mr. Miyagi how to know if he's doing it right and he says....."just trust the picture."

Yesterday, at a beautiful ceremony at the church I am blessed to serve, I was formally installed as the Lead Pastor, only the 2nd man to hold that position in our church's storied 32-year history. The celebration was wonderful - family, friends, church members united in gracious support of what we all believe the Lord is doing here in upstate NY. I couldn't have asked for a better day. But, just like any good celebration, it must come to an end. So this morning, I got up and drove to my office like I normally do, only today was a bit different. We have passed the biggest hurdle that has come to our great congregation in its history. All of our energy and resources for the last 14 months have been poured into this transition and, by grace, the details of it all have been completed. Today, the burden feels a little more pronounced, the responsibility a little more tangible, and the calling a bit heavier. And I began to wonder what the Lord would have me to do with this task he has given me. How would I make it all happen. What would the next steps be? And that's when Mr. Miyagi came calling - "just trust the picture"

God has burned deep in my soul a picture of what it is I am to do - Love and serve my God with all of my being, selflessly and sacrificially love my wife as Christ loved His church, lovingly tend to the needs of my family, and serve a wonderful group of God's people by leading them to spiritual maturity with what a friend of mine calls the "holy leftovers." Our future will be marked with bold proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus, with passionate exploration of how that Gospel changes my life today as well as tomorrow, with selfless love for one another in biblical community, with sacrificial investment in churches here in the Capital District and around the world, and with an over-arching commitment to the Glory of God and joy of the nations.

But how? Today, the how is heavy. How do I begin to lead our people to that end? By trusting that God, who began this good work in me will indeed carry it to completion. By believing that He who founded His church will sustain His church and empower His church to accomplish all that He has for it. And by trusting that the One who called me to this task and who burned that image in my heart, did so for a reason. My hope today and everyday is that I might have the sense to rest in the God who has given us direction. And to "just trust the picture" of what He has shown us....Bonsai!


a great read

I read a wonderful book recently that seems to have "gotten into" me. From the looks of it this one stands to be here for a long time. It's one of my new favorites on the topic of "God's Will." Forgive me for the "book review" feel of this post, but I assure you it's worth it! It was called "Just Do Something: A Liberating Approach to Finding God's Will."

With precision and insightful candor, Pastor Kevin DeYoung paints an all-too-accurate picture of the unstable, uncertain, and otherwise paralyzed generation of Christians who, under the guise of spirituality and waiting for God to reveal his will, have chosen to do nothing but keep scurrying around frantically searching for God's plan for them. Being one of those "church kids" and a graduate from a Christian College and Seminary, I can relate to his diagnosis. While it appears to be a really committed and deeply spiritual practice of waiting on the Lord, in reality this timidity with which we have approached God's direction for us is anything but a practice of devotion and trust. We have applied this type of "discernment through paralysis and contemplation" to every major and minor decision of our lives. College and Career and Spouse and Ministry outlets are the frontrunners, but others find their way into the grid as well. And we ask things like "Is this God's will?" or "How can I be sure that I'm doing what God wants?"

In addition, while locked in this holding pattern of indecision, DeYoung points out with clarity and convicting accuracy that we have found ways to skirt responsibility for our decisions or lack thereof, essentially blaming God for what we have chosen or not chosen. "God told me not to date you" or "God hasn't given me peace about this." Again, on the surface this appears to be spiritual, but in reality it's a cop-out. It's the easy way of saying "it's not me, it's you" or "no, I don't want to go into business with you because you're not trustworthy" or "no, I don't want to work for you because I want to see if something better comes along."

It was indeed a liberating and challenging read, driving me to pay careful attention to what God has already revealed for us in His word. Below are some summary points that I'm taking with me (and I hope you take with you too). Do me a favor though and, in the words of my childhood companion LeVar Burton (before the Star Trek days), "don't just take my word for it...."

1. God's Will for your life is not some mystical secret that he's hiding from you, that only the "really" spiritual people who are most adept at hide-and-seek can discern. He's not hiding from you until you get yourself fixed and holy so you can finally understand Him. That's garbage. He has chosen, by Grace, to reveal Himself to us in His word and His Son. He is anything but hidden. Those of you looking, like me, for some mystical experience with angels singing and harps playing and Charlton Heston voiceovers to "show you the Way" are placing undue expectations on God and setting yourself up for failure. He's not hiding. He's not dangling some "magic key" in front of you that will unlock this plan for your life. That's not who He is.

2. God's will for your life will always be in line with His revealed word. Start there. God has revealed to us in His word His plan or will for the Redemption of mankind. He has communicated clearly who He is, what He is like, and what He desires of us - to be reconciled to Him through the grace of Jesus by faith. He wants us to be sanctified, and set apart for His glory. He wants us to be involved in a church, serving the body through the exercise of our spiritual gifts and natural propensities. If you are doing those things, then you're in the will of God. Make some decisions. Use your head. Seek wise counsel. Do something.

Some of the best advice I ever received came from a former college Professor. I was inquiring about a ministry opportunity in upstate NY. Should I go? Is this God's will? His advice was great. He asked if I was actively pursing the things that God had revealed to me in His word? Was I growing in my faith? Was I loving my wife like Christ loved the church? Was I serving the Lord through His church? If so, he said, "do what you want." Trust God to change your course if need be.

3. All of this waiting to discern God's will reveals a deep, core-level presupposition. Namely, that perfect fulfillment is to be found here in this life. And here is where the real issue is with all of our indecision. We really believe that Heaven and Utopia are available for us here on earth if we can just find our way to the perfect will of God for us. Then we'll have the house, the cars, the cookie-cutter American family, etc. We have forgotten entirely (due to our comfort and ease) that this world is not our home, we are just passing through. In essence, we're just afraid that we'll choose wrongly and walk through Door 1 instead of Door 2 and "miss out" on God's best, like a reality-based version of "Let's Make a Deal." We don't want to be left high and dry holding a goat when we could have won a Corvette. Really? How much trust does that demonstrate? Do we really believe that God knows the end from the beginning? That He knows the plans He has for us? That if He's willing to clothe the lilies of the fields and feed the sparrows, He'll surely care for us? Convicting and challenging all around.

Powerful little book. I recommend it to all of you. It will be a primary resource for me in future counseling on God's will. Buy it - or not. Pray about it first and then see if He gives you peace. If not, then consider it His perfect will - or maybe not. Maybe just bad lasagna last night. (read it)


the End

Solomon tells us in Ecclesiastes 7:8 that "Better is the end of a thing than its beginning..." Stop and read that again. Better is the end of a thing than its beginning. That statement has been stirring in me for the past few days. Why is a thing's end better than its beginning? What is contained in the beginning and in the end how is that eclipsed by something else? I started to think about the "beginnings" in my life. I began college with great expectation, great hope, great dreams. At its end, 9 years ago, the reality of it fulfillment was quite different than anything I had expected. I entered school pursuing a degree in History Education at Penn State and single. I left engaged to a wonderful woman who had become my best friend, with a degree in Religion and Biblical Studies, in Lynchburg, VA on a different course altogether. Soon after (7 weeks to be exact) I entered into marriage with great joy, great hope, great expectations. Nearly 9 years later, we find ourselves about a million miles from where we thought we'd be, doing something quite different than we ever imagined. A few years ago I entered Seminary with great hope, great expectations, great dreams. Last Friday, I completed my coursework and finished my degree. And today, the end, is truly better than the beginning, like it always is. But why?

At the outset of a "thing" the exhilaration of trying something new, the anxiety of the unknown, and the optimism of the unfamiliar all combine to create an environment drenched in hope. Starting something is a hopeful exercise, isn't it? No one begins something so that it blows up in their faces and leaves them worse off than they were before. We launch ourselves into something new, pregnant with excitement and expectations, with the hope that what we finish will be rewarding and satisfying and, most of all, worth the effort. And it almost always is, isn't it? At the end of thing, you have the blessing of retrospection. And looking back is sweet - you see the turns, course correction, the hand of God weaving through the storyline of what was. You see firsthand the benefits felt along this journey, you notice the critical points when it all could have unraveled, and you marvel in the Sovereign grace of Providence that kept you on course. And the end is truly better than the beginning.

But, as I continued to think about it, it became clear to me that you can't linger too long at that scenic overlook, because you only get to exist in a state of "finish" for a short time and something else awaits. To be sure, the end is fun and a sense of accomplishment in enjoyable, but o so quickly you are pulled into another thing's beginning. As I was reminded in the late 90's "every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end." So, in light of all that, what is my point here? Enjoy the end of a thing. It truly is a joyous thing. It is available to those select few who had the patience and endurance to stay the course. But don't get hung up there too long. There's more new beginnings into which we will launch ourselves. There are more "ends" to be attained, more hope, more dreams, more expectations to be pursued. I can only imagine the joy and satisfaction that await us at the end of our current "things." Friends, stay the course. Finish well. The end is better than the beginning. Solomon says so...


friends like these

I think everyone needs to have a group of friends who are completely different from you. People who don't look like you, think like you, act like you, but still, for some unknown reason, love you nonetheless.

Earlier this week I had the privilege of sitting down with some of our church members who are in quite a different stage of life than I find myself in. I taught a Bible study for our "seniors" on the subject of prayer and received much more of a blessing than I could have given. I spent nearly 90 minutes with some of the most encouraging and supportive members of our congregation. We talked about prayer, and by that I mean I asked them questions and tried to stay quiet long enough to soak up their insight and wisdom.

I wish you could have been there with us, listening to them explain the benefits that God provides them through regular and also sporadic prayer times. To hear their stories of wrestling with God for a long season only to be told "no;" of interceding for prodigal sons and finally seeing a breakthrough; of being woken up in the middle of the night so overwhelmed by a particular burden and committing themselves to prayer for the remainder of the night; of being so thankful for the gracious provision of our God - all of it was wonderfully encouraging.

We shared personal reflections, patterns and habits that aid us and also some that hinder us. And I left that meeting blessed - thankful for the living contribution that a previous generation continues to make in my life, my family, my ministry, and proud of our church that we are still a place that ministers to the young, the old, and everyone in between. It is my personal conviction that a truly healthy church will look like a truly healthy family, with generational inter-connectedness. That, by God's grace, is what I see happening in our midst at Temple, and for that, I am quite thankful. I am honored to call them my friends. I think everyone should have friends like these.


Breaking Trail

Today I had the glorious Northeast privilege of taking my kids sledding in about 2 feet of snow. We were visiting my parents and I couldn't wait to get them out on those hills that I used to love as a kid. The conditions were perfect for creating a wild ride sure to scare the mess out of any otherwise normal 3 and 5 year old. What a time - bundling up, snowpants, ski jackets, mittens, hats (definitely looked like Ralphie's little brother in A Christmas Story- "I can't put my arms down."). We hit the hills fast and furious, but were unprepared for what awaited us. The massive snowfalls in Southeast PA the past couple of weeks had left ample snow for a great sledding run, but the lack of little ones at my parents' home had left the snow untouched. My kids couldn't move in the stuff. They were standing waist deep in snow and unable to put one foot in front of the other. They were unsteady and falling; overwhelmed by the difficulty; overcome by the resistance. I realized rather quickly that this could turn bad on me. A cold and unhappy 3-year old is no pleasant experience, and I just knew that if they could make it up the hill and if we could get the snow to cooperate they would have a great time. Just like I used to. The cold air rushing past their heads, the reckless and out-of-control feeling as they approached speeds too fast for any pre-schooler, the rush of bailing off a sled into 2 feet of snow and the euphoria of looking up the hill and seeing how far they'd come---they had to see it for themselves, had to experience it, had to taste it. I just knew that if I could get them there they would feel it too. But all this snow was slowing them down, hindering their progress, robbing them of this great experience. So what to do?

I ran down the hill and got in front of them and started to "break" the trail. I took small but forceful steps with my huge size 12 boots and started to give them a place to stand, a stable place to move around. The snow was deeper than I perceived and the hill was bigger than I had remembered and the work was exhausting. Slowly, methodically, intentionally, I plugged away up the hill, creating a small but maneuverable place for the kids to walk, ensuring that our sledding experience would not be in vain, that they would be able to continue to move up and down the hill without great distress, and at last we made it up. I was spent. My heart was pounding, my chest was burning, my legs felt like jell-o, and I just collapsed into the snow. After some recovery time, we all jumped back on the sled and raced down the hill again, faster and farther than before and started up the hill again. Each time we did, I took the lead, I stamped down the snow, I broke the trail, I gave them a place to walk. Just follow Daddy, we'll get there - I promise. What an amazing day.

As I was thinking about the day (sitting on a heating pad, with my feet propped up), I saw a lot of life parallels from my sledding experience with my kids. So often, as a husband, as a father, as a pastor, I have tasted and seen something that I want others to see. I have been given a glimpse of what is "not yet" and am tasked with the job of guiding others to it. It is the blessing and burden of leading - you get to see it first, but then you must help share it, whatever the cost. My desire for my kids to experience the joy of sledding (like I used to) drove me to waste myself breaking the trail, to sacrifice comfort and energy and ease in order to see it come to fruition. Successful parenting is selfless work. Successful marriages are selfless marriages. Successful pastoring is selfless pastoring. All of them require the grit and determination to press toward the mark, even when it has not yet been realized, even when it costs us, even when it is uncomfortable, and even when (as my 5-year old wanted to) those behind us ask to turn back. These callings (that we all share) are not for the faint of heart or those short on endurance. The only way they (whoever "they" are that you lead) will ever see and experience what we have seen and experienced, is if we're willing to pay the price to guide them to it. Dads, moms, leaders - break the trail, lead well, give those behind a firm place to stand.