Why I’m glad we did a Xmas play

 
I asked a good friend of mine why she thought we were doing the Christmas pageant this year. She surprised me by her response, “Because you wanted us to do it.” While I won’t say this couldn’t have been farther from the truth, it wasn’t all that close to the truth either. I responded, “No, you wanted to do it. I never wanted to do it at all.”

Now I wasn’t ever against the Christmas play, but it was not my vision. It was the vision of another extremely creative and helpful volunteer laywoman.

Our pageant and dinner afterwards exceeded my expectations like Usain Bolt turning the corner in the 200 meters and leaving everyone/everything else looking forward. My expectations could only see reality from a distance, and then simply stand there amazed after the race.

Let me share with you several reasons why I now hope that the Christmas Pageant becomes a regular staple in Redeemer’s celebration.

1.) Gifts. It takes a variety of gifts to pull off a pageant. Acting, administrating, artistic, planning, musicians, singers, technical, audio, “engineery” type people, leaders, followers. Pageants expose gifts in people that they or you (as pastor) didn’t know existed. Now they always expose the need for the fruit of the Spirit (patience), but at the same time they also give Spirit the opportunity to produce fruit of the Spirit (patience). I witnessed that fruit.

2.) Outreach. This is always my concern with most children’s activities: is there an outward component to our activity? We spend much time discipling our children in churches through regular Sunday School most of the year. If you want assistance in discipling your children, you have it. But what about spending a little energy on the kids/folks outside the church who don’t know the hope and forgiveness of Christ? Since it was our first play, we didn’t focus too much on outreach (we wanted to see a little of what we had before inviting those outside the church to see it), outside of ladies printing some very creative invitations. However, our church was packed for the play. Packed. And packed with folks outside the church. Were there unbelievers present? I can assume many were. Next year, we will make a more concerted effort to reach out. Regardless, many unbelieving folks outside the church were invited, and several came. Henderson’s were 0-4, but I know of one woman who batted .333. Not bad!

These are great reasons to do a pageant. But let me tell you one more reason why I so thoroughly enjoyed doing the pageant and it had nothing necessarily to do with the performance last night.

3.) Discipleship. Children today know so much about so many things, but little about the bible. In a season dominated by Santa and toys, it is so important not only to keep Jesus in front of them, but to teach them the Christmas narrative. Isn’t a Christmas play simply for parents to see their kids looking cute in costumes and mention Jesus when they can? I’ll admit they looked super cute dressed up as a donkey, camel, or cow, but I think it can be much more than that.

At the beginning of most practices, I reiterated EVERY week, why we were doing the Xmas pageant: “To teach you guys the story and let you tell it back to us so that we can believe it too.”

In Sunday School, before the pageant was performed, my wife began asking some kids about Gabriel, Mary and Elizabeth. The kids’ thoughts quickly turned to, “Hmm…well first Mary sees Gabriel and is scared and drops her basket, and then….” They started thinking through things that they remembered from the play. They learned the Xmas story through the pageant. It was supplemental discipleship, and particularly helpful for visual and kinesthetic learning types. 

The Holy Spirit saw fit to teach the children the story. We accomplished the first part of our goal! The 2nd part is up in the air and will be less quantifiable. But why not aim big and trust the Spirit to finish the work He started? He may just use our feeble efforts to put people in the path of grace.

I could go on and on about other reasons for such a pageant such as the joy it brings people, the fellowship time it offers, the blessing it could be for the community. But I still can’t get over the fact that the play, at least in part, accomplished what he had hoped set out for it to do. Amen.

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Xmas questions from a Xmas Prude

I will confess something, I don’t think I’ve ever been called a prude. But I’m beginning to think I am one, at least in part. I’m a self professed Xmas Prude. No one has ever called me that, at least to my face, or facebook, but I think I am. 

I must confess I do have strong opinions on how the Henderson family celebrates Christmas and Advent. We have convictions, but God gives me neither the right nor platform (pulpit, blog, relationships) to demand people to conform to our convictions. Our lives, thoughts, desires are to conform to Christ not to the pattern of this world (Romans 12:1-2). But our convictions are the applications of the transforming work of the Spirit, and we know that convictions will differ from person to person (Romans 14). Even to the point where some things might be sin to some and not to others.

We live, or at least I do and probably the few readers I have do, in America. We have American Christmas traditions. As a result, our celebration, will have an American feel to it. And that is fine. The celebration of Xmas is isn’t in the bible per se, but we do say many folks celebrating our Savior’s birth. So it’s probably a good idea to do so.

But our celebration of Jesus’ birth takes place within a culture; if he were born today in America, we wouldn’t be bringing gold, frankinsense, and myrrh. Gifts and celebration would look more American. And they should today.

Yet that is only part of it. Because culture is shaped by people made in the image of God (good stuff will be present) yet fallen (bad stuff will also be present) we can’t simply say, “We’re Americans and this is what we do today.”

So in lieu of a Christmas rant from a Christmas prude, I want to pose a few questions that may be helpful in discerning what God would have you do this Xmas season. I realize people have strong convictions about other issues, so this is how I would want them to treat me. Ask me questions, and trust I’m in God’s Word, prayer, and in community. If we do those things, we can be confident that we’re in God’s will. So here they are!

1.) How does God want us to celebrate Xmas today? It is scary how fewer and fewer professing Christians even ask this question (in reference to anything). We all do a number of things to celebrate Xmas that are culturally conditioned, but the question is to what extent should that be the case? Does he want me to continue with Santa, Elf on Shelf from Hell(f), etc…..? Or in other words, is Jesus really cool with Santa, Elf on a Shelf, Frosty or any other myth we feel the need to perpetuate? On a side note, I think we all need to evaluate what we do each year (did we spend too much on our kids, did we bless other needy families or widows, did we care about others then but now?).

2.) Are these extra cultural figures things which harmlessly add to the anticipation of Xmas Day, or do they detract/distract/take away, serving as replacement saviors? In other words, are they primary or supplementary? I can see how kids enjoy Santa and Elves (though personally they are kind of freaky to me), and how parents find joy in them. But they need to be made supplementary. Just because kids enjoy them, doesn’t make them good. I stole that idea from this article on kids and Sabbath keeping. Novel isn’t it? Anything good can distract us from He who is great, particularly when it is something kept in front of us for a month.

3.) If you decide that they are supplementary, then how will you intentionally make them supplementary? If we don’t intentionally make Jesus big (or rather reveal to our kids He is bigger), then these things will naturally replace or overshadow Jesus. This of course applies to the whole year. Idols are never satisfied with a 50-50 share of the glory. Its probably more like a 75-25 % kind of thing, just enough so that we can still think we’re honoring Jesus in theory without actually honoring him in practice. There are only so many hours in the day, and after that only so many teachable hours in the day, and now we’re really talking more minutes than hours. So it does take effort and intent to pull it off.

4.) Santa traditionally understood- and I”m less familiar with Elf on Shelf but I think its the same deal-seem to promote shallow moralistic manipulation, doesn’t it?  I made it into a question! If you’re good, then you’ll be rewarded. If not, well, tough stuff. But no one ever really follows through on the “if you’re bad scenario,” and I’m glad. However I heard of a kid say, “I don’t want anything for Xmas, so I’ll just behave how I want!” Smart kid. 

Yet Santa could actually be turned into an example of grace, if he were to give good things to bad boys and girls much like God our good Heavenly Father lavishes grace upon His undeserving children. In teaching your kids about grace, how helpful/hurtful are some of these cultural forms of Xmas? Maybe you don’t feel these things hinder, but certainly something each parent has to discern.

5.) Isn’t it presumptuous to assume our kids cannot have the same excitement about Jesus that they do with Santa or Elves or whatever? OK that was rhetorical! Sorry. Now I know my kid gets excited even when a vacuum salesman comes to the door, but isn’t it possible that other kids can still love this season without Santa? My wife did growing up. I know other kids who are full of joy now despite never believing in Santa. I’m talking kids who have faced real trials with joy. You shouldn’t feel sorry for them that the “magic” has been taken away. Perhaps making much of Jesus the whole year had something to do with that? 

And if our kids can’t get as excited, is that an indictment on the faith of the parents (that Jesus isn’t exciting to them)? After all, Jesus is as exciting as He is glorious.

If you made it this far, thanks. I’m fine if you disagree with me. We don’t need to be a people who always arrogantly and angrily have all the answers at our disposal, we but I think we need to be a people who always ask ourselves questions. That is how we sharpen and shape our convictions to conform them to Christ’s design for our lives.
If you celebrate Christmas with or without Santa or Elves or Blake Shelton, just remember to make much of Jesus, because He has made much of us by coming down here in the first place.

Annual Bono Christmas Eve reflection

One of my, or at least my blog’s Christmas traditions, is to post and reflect on this quote from U2 frontman Bono. It never gets old. Just like the Christmas story. Every part of it seems counter-intuitive to me: God in flesh, the use of shepherds (sketchy fellows), magi (also sketchy), that Jesus was laid in a manger. How crazy is that? Where dirty animals feed. The king of the universe laid where animals feed. I hope we never fail to realize how crazy that is. Blaise Paschal hit it on the nose in his Pensees  when he said it is not that God has hidden this message so high so that folks can’t understand it, but so low, as many will look over it.

This reflection on Christmas occurred after Bono had just returned home, to Dublin, from a long tour with U2. On Christmas Eve Bono went to the famous St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where Jonathan Swift was dean. Apparently he was given a really poor seat, one obstructed by a pillar, making it even more difficult for him to keep his eyes open…but it was there that Christmas story struck him like never before. He writes:

Here’s Bono’s quote:

“The idea that God, if there is a force of Logic and Love in the universe, that it would seek to explain itself is amazing enough. That it would seek to explain itself and describe itself by becoming a child born in straw poverty, in s#@% and straw…a child… I just thought: “Wow!” Just the poetry … Unknowable love, unknowable power, describes itself as the most vulnerable. There it was. I was sitting there, and it’s not that it hadn’t struck me before, but tears came streaming down my face, and I saw the genius of this, utter genius of picking a particular point in time and deciding to turn on this.”

Excerpt taken from Bono: in conversation (New York: Riverhead Books, 2005), 124-5.

Make Jesus big and Santa small

Recently, as is custom this time of year, my three year old Connar is being accosted by a plethora of folks asking if he’s excited by what Santa will bring him this year.
In response to his pre-school teacher the other day who told him, “5 more days till Santa comes,” he changed the subject with, “One more day till I get to go Xmas caroling!” How cool.
Here are some of my takes-which may not be super popular in Suburbia-on Jesus and Santa.
Of course his, like mine and like your motivations, are far from perfect. But the truth of the matter is that kids can and do get just as-if not more-excited about Jesus during the Christmas season than they do Santa Claus. We just often don’t afford them such opportunity. As parents, and as a covenant community, and larger body of Christ (I’m surprised at how many Christians talk up Santa to my kid!), we often try to “save room” for Santa. You see signs that say “Keep Christ in Christmas.” But what I’ve noticed is many Christians live out the opposite: “Keep Santa in Xmas.”
Suburban Xmas is often more culturally syncretistic than distinctly Christian. And that is sad.
First of all, I do want to say, I’m not anti-Santa. Christians have a right to include Santa in Xmas. I’m not arguing against the inclusion of Santa in any form. I’m arguing against a culturally conformed, unrestrained, non-prayerful inclusion of Santa.
I remember reading a Sinclair Ferguson book where he seemed quite proud of his job as a parent when his kid didn’t even know who Santa was or what he looked like. That’s more of a separatist mentality that I cannot embrace.
We have Santa hats. We actually have a dancing Santa figure, who sadly only dances now instead of sings. Connar watched The Polar Express the other day with some friends who brought it over. The underlying purpose of that movie is to preach Santa to his skeptics.
But we try to focus on Jesus so much that Santa naturally gets pushed to the side. Where he belongs. There is only so much room. We do a kids Advent book called Beginning with God at Christmas. Solid. We listen to carols, sing them, sing them to others, try to talk about them (though just a bit). Xmas is a busy time. It’s so busy, we don’t have much time for Santa. We rarely ever even speak of him. What if your Xmas was so busy you didn’t have much time for Santa?
Growing up my parents had a figurine of Santa bowing in worship to Jesus in the manger. So simple, yet so profound. That’s really the model I like best, but one that seems missing to me so often in the lives of Christians. There are only so many times a child can be told about getting excited for Santa before he will only get excited for Santa and not for Jesus.
My kid is excitable. I’m excitable, so he can’t help it. But he gets so much joy out of celebrating all things Jesus during this time, that I honestly don’t feel the need to make Santa big. I tend to think other kids can get just as excited.
Connar can sit in Santa’s lap, and I can take (not pay for) a picture if I feel like it. I just think we do our children a disservice by assuming that Santa is NEEDED during Xmas time for their enjoyment of the season. That’s just a lie. He can be used and included, but he is not needed.
People say Christmas and Santa are for kids. That’s really not accurate. It’s for parents. The perpetuation of the Santa myth is done primarily for the sake of the parents. I’ve heard of folks say, “Don’t steal my joy by telling them the truth about Santa.” I think a good part of the perpetuation of the Santa myth is fueled by parents who aren’t very excited about Jesus. They want to be excited and feel joy. But if you already have a joy so great as the shepherds, Mary, the Magi had at Jesus’ coming, would it be that hard to make Santa less? Do you “need” Santa in the same way if you already have joy?
Many want to see kids get excited primarily in order for them to get excited. It’s more selfishness than love. 
I think that’s why its so hard for many to build up Jesus and move Santa down on the priority list. When we get angry, its often that an idol is being threatened. They usually don’t come down easy. Family members will get offended when Jesus is made much of and Santa made less of. Of that you can be certain. But there is a greater cost. We will lose out on joy. I think many forfeit a greater joy this season when we make Santa bigger than Jesus.
Christians are free to include Santa in their Xmas celebration. Just because the Henderson presents come from the Henderson’s, doesn’t mean that I think your kids presents have to come from you. 
But I do think that you owe it to your self and your kids to talk Jesus up MORE than you do Santa. Try to see how often you mention Jesus and how often you mention Santa. Who gets mentioned more? I do think talking more about Jesus is a non-negotiable (of course this goes throughout the year!).

I’m not fearful of others trying to re-introduce Santa to my three year old. My incredibly awesome Uncle even apologized for it! I’m not worried when people mention it to him. I already see that he has a framework for thinking of Santa. He’s a fun, fat, old dude who comes out around Xmas time each year. But he’s no Jesus.

On shepherds and ladies

I was going through my advent devotional for today, available here, and stumbled over the shepherds. I guess you could say I’ve been picking up on the cues from scriptures lately that God really writes His story in a way that is altogether different from what we consider normal, respectable, upper class, or even pragmatic. 
The shepherds were the first witnesses to Jesus’ birth. They could confirm this birth account. But ironically-or maybe not so ironically at all if we thought God’s thoughts after Him-shepherds didn’t get a vote in court because of their reputation of “confusing” their sheep with others sheep. Yet they are the first witnesses.
And consider the first witnesses at Jesus resurrection: ladies. They also couldn’t testify in a court of law. Yet they are God’s first witnesses, testifying to the veracity and fulfillment of Jesus’ claims. 
It just shows us God thinks quite differently than we do. And He wouldn’t have it any other way. The birth narrative, the resurrection narrative, as well as the narrative of Jesus’ life, just isn’t written the way a middle class suburban deity would write it. His reputation and fame probably “took a hit” because He used shepherds and ladies as to testify. But he was cool with that, and still is.
Let’s be reminded that God’s identification with these shepherds (handpicked to be Jesus’ first eye-witnesses) gives us hope that He is still pleased to identify with such witnesses as us. Fortunately the one who ultimately wrote the birth narrative is still writing such a story, and still using such people. 

I like my women a little on the trashy side

Yesterday I preached a sermon called “A Scandalous Christmas.” The title change was a last minute change from my previous title: “I like mine a little on the trashy side.” I had three people very close to me encourage in me that direction. Since I figured I could have been wrong to unnecessarily offend folks, I willingly, though somewhat begrudgingly, changed it.
And I’m glad I did. But what ended up being more controversial than the song-I still referenced the song “The Trashy Side”-was the fact that I attributed it to George Straight instead of Confederate Railroad. That might be the last country song reference I make. If I do, I will be sure to google its origin!
I first heard this passage preached-actually the only time I’ve heard it preached at mega-church Northland in Orlando, FL. I was in seminary at that time, perhaps 7 or 8 years ago. I couldn’t believe how scandalous the genealogy really was. God didn’t shy away from the scandalous and would use people such as I in His plan of redemption.
Then I forgot about the message. I don’t think I necessarily ignored or forgot the truth altogether. But in some sense it didn’t seem to resonate as much. I’ve had plenty of opportunities to preach during the advent season and even on Xmas Eve (this Xmas will be my first time preaching on Xmas Sunday), but never even thought about the passage again.
I don’t think this is all that abnormal. While its not abnormal to forget such a passage as this, it is terrible.
Let me explain. We realize that our lives are messed up and sinful. Some of us look worse than others on the outside-though we’re all in the same boat in reality. Then God says, “I can forgive your past, present, future, and offer you my righteousness in place of your sin and trash.” And we’re declared righteous and holy.
Then our life changes a bit, and we think we really ARE righteous and holy. We forget that we are DECLARED righteous and holy NOW, but that one day we will BE righteous and holy. But not now.
Someone told me that he preached this passage for Mother’s Day and got quite an uproar from the church. Perhaps it wasn’t the best timing on Mother’s Day? But people get really offended when you talk about God’s love for trashy people. And its God’s people who seem to get most offended.
They forget how trashy they really are. Jesus is just as offensive to religious people as he is to irreligious people. As much as it might make us uncomfortable, we have to talk about God’s love for those who are, according to the world’s as well as the church’s eyes, trashy. If we never talk about such people (and thus keep everyone feeling good and comfortable), we will never believe the truth that by faith God STILL washes such people. Prostitutes, adulterous, murderous people do by faith enter into the Kingdom of Heaven (I Cor 6:9-11). If we never talk about such folks, we will very quickly forget this truth.
When we’re offended by the mention of God’s love for prostitutes, adulterers, murderers, all of which he clearly displays in the scripture, then we can rest assured it’s not out of an elevated concern for God’s Holiness, but an idolatrous celebration of our own.
God doesn’t stop showing love for trashy people even though His people, including myself, often have. But this Xmas, remember your Savior entered the trash to save-and continue to save-trashy people. And his character doesn’t change. 
God does like His women and men a little on the trashy side.

Carols sung and Carols believed

I’m a huge fan of Christmas carols. I’m also a huge fan of the folks who take the standard Christmas carols and tweak them a bit. I mean, how many, “O come, O come Emmanuel’s,” can one hear before it seems like his Ipod is on “repeat?” So I’m thankful for the many good albums I’ve collected over the years, particularly for those free on noisetrade.com. Recently I’ve been really digging all of Joel Rake’s Christmas music and some of Drew Holcomb and the Neighbor’s Xmas album.
What amazes me with many of the Christmas carols is their rich lyrics. Aside from “Away in a Manger’s” apocryphal description of Jesus not crying (hate that one), I’m blown away by almost all of them. I mean look at these:
Joy to the World:

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.

Hark the Herald Angels Sing:

Christ by highest heav’n adored
Christ the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come
Offspring of a Virgin’s womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel
Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”
 

What amazes me the most are unbelievers who sing these songs, but simply don’t believe that Jesus is who He says He is. To sing of something so sublime, but to think of it as little more than a fairy tale, is to me surprising at best, and disingenuous at worst. 
Nevertheless it reminds me of the times when I, as well as many other brothers and sisters in the Lord,  sing such great truths in our carols and hymns but don’t actively believe what we’re singing. For instance, when I sing, “My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed Thee,” how much of that do I believe? If I hold my tongue when I need to say something hard but remain quiet due to fear of man, have I really believed the truth that the gospel sets me free? If I refuse to love an enemy, have I really “bought in” to the saving and transforming power of the gospel? Thinking and feeling the lyrics are a great first step. But actually believing, and then living out the implications of the truth found in such great carols is something even harder. I think that only comes as we bring the carols with us throughout the week. They’re too good to only think, feel, believe on Sunday.

The unbelief of a Christian is of a different variety altogether, but it should still shock us just as much. I think the church singing “Silent Night” is different than Faster Pussycat (an 80’s hair band) singing “Silent Night” on Monster Ballad’s Christmas album. Nevertheless, the unbelief of the “musical artist” (and I realize that is getting a little loose with the language), can still remind us of our unbelief and the disconnect between the gospel we sing and the gospel we live out.