The Presents and the Presence

My precious daughter Molly will turn 30 next month, but I’ll never forget one of her first Christmases. It was 28 years ago, when she was about to turn two.

We had purchased some great presents for Molly, who was our only child at the time. It would be exciting to watch her reaction to the carefully chosen gifts we had purchased.

However, to our amazement, Molly showed very little interest in the toys, clothes, and educational materials we had wrapped for her. Instead, she was fascinated with the shiny bows, labels, and wrapping paper. Rather than appreciating the actual presents, she was having a blast as she tore apart the wrappings.

I’ll admit, I was a little disappointed in her reaction. Didn’t Molly realize that the wrappings were insignificant in comparison to the gifts on the inside?

But God convicted me that day about my tendency to do the very same thing with His presents in my life. I’m often more caught up with the wrappings of the Christian life than with the presents He has prepared for me on the inside. If I like the wrappings, I may proceed to examine the gifts as well. If the wrappings are unimpressive, I sometimes fail to even open the packages.

I remember a Christmas Eve service I attended several years ago. The church had gone all out in preparing a dazzling display of special effects. The huge screens up front were filled with a wide array of specially created graphics. To the normal worship team, the church had added a full orchestra of extremely talented musicians. The overall effect was an astounding “shock and awe” experience of holiday lights and sounds, with high energy and an even higher decibel level.

The pastor preached the gospel that day too. I’m sure he did. But I’m having a hard time remembering anything about his message. It all seemed to get lost in the glitzy wrapping paper surrounding it.

I’m certainly not against creativity and modern technology in presenting the gospel message. But it’s sobering to remember that there weren’t any fancy wrappings around the baby born in a manager 2,000 years ago. The scene surrounding the newborn baby Jesus was starkly simple. Basic. Humanly unimpressive.

The point of the Christmas story was clear, and it should be the point of our church services as well: “They shall call His name Immanuel…God with us” (Matthew 1:23).

You, see God’s PRESENT to us was His PRESENCE with us. That’s why it’s such a tragedy when we get caught up in the shiny bows and wrappings and end up missing the miracle of His presence with us.

Yet I’m afraid this happens all too often. After our church services we typically comment on the quality of the music or the pastor’s message, when the more important issue is whether we ever encountered God’s presence during our time together.

I encourage you to take a few minutes today and examine your own spiritual life. Are you distracted by all of life’s activities…events…people…duties? Or are you enjoying an intimate relationship with the Savior who came to open the gateway to God’s miraculous presence?

Don’t be content with the ribbons and wrappings of the Christian life, my friend. Jesus is the Present who unlocks God’s Presence. We can’t settle for anything less.

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You & Me and Our Crazy Family Tree

Christmas is a special time for families—but that doesn’t mean it’s always an easy time. Gathering with relatives over the holidays can either be pleasant or painful, magical or mayhem. While you have great anticipation in seeing some of your loved ones, other members of your family tree may make you cringe.

Picture the family line of a good friend of mine. If the whole gang could somehow be brought together for a family reunion, I can only imagine the sparks that would fly.

  • One of my friend’s female ancestors slept with her father-in-law and bore him twin boys.
  • Another member of the family tree was a prostitute, known for being a very convincing liar.
  • The family line included someone from a despised ethnic group that had its origins in incest between a father and daughter.
  • Two ancestors were involved in an adulterous relationship, and the man ultimately killed his lover’s husband to keep the affair from being discovered.
  • Several ancestors had multiple wives, and others were known for worshiping idols.

And you think you have some crazies in your family lineage?! The good news is that God is able to redeem terrible situations like these and transform them with His amazing grace.

How do I know? Because the Friend I’m referring to is Jesus.

Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew 1 reveals all of the sinful and dysfunctional ancestors I’ve described, and yet this was the human lineage of the Son of God. Instead of being able to boast of a spotless family lineage, the Bible describes our spotless Lord and Savior as “a root out of dry ground” (Isaiah 53:2).

So what does this mean for you and me? Several things:

  1. Experiencing and extending God’s grace. We need to experience God’s grace and then extend it to our imperfect, dysfunctional family members—just as we’re hopeful they will offer grace to cover our If the twisted members of Jesus’ family tree could find grace enough to become a part of His royal lineage, then surely there’s hope for our weird relatives as well.
  2. No more blame-shifting. It’s time to quit blaming others and making excuses for our past. Sure, your family upbringing may have been a mess. But God stands ready to turn your MESS into your MESSAGE—if you’ll let Him. Through divine intervention, your family tree can undergo a new beginning today. You don’t have to fall into the same old sins and strongholds of your earthly heritage, because you’ve been redeemed from the futile way of life inherited from your forefathers” (1 Peter 1:18). In Christ, you’re a new creation, no matter who your earthly ancestors were (2 Corinthians 5:17).
  3. Facing the facts. If I were writing the book of Matthew, I would have been tempted to doctor the records and “sanitize” Jesus’ family tree. Couldn’t Matthew have just listed all the success stories and none of the embarrassments of Jesus’ ancestors? Yet the beauty of the gospel is that it transforms sinners—people like you and me. If people were already perfect, they wouldn’t need to be transformed. So the next time you wish you could erase some names from your family tree, think again. Face the truth, and let it set you free (John 8:32).

As God’s grace and mercy fill your heart this Christmas, I pray you will enjoy your family members and your heritage more than ever before. May the Lord use you to bring hope and healing to those who need it most.

 

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Outrage & Hope

Why We Need Heavenly Vision in Order to Enact Earthly Change

I’m outraged by recent events in Ferguson and in New York City, and you probably are too. But I’ve found that many folks are only selectively outraged—mad at the police or mad at Michael Brown and Eric Garner…mad at the looters or mad at the so-called civil rights leaders who stir up more strife rather than promote unity…or mad at politicians who seem to use these tragedies to promote their own influence.

Let’s be honest: There’s plenty of blame to go around. Some of the blame is attributable to how the recent incidents have been handled, but the bigger problem is distrust stemming from decades of friction, misunderstanding, and prejudice.

As a preacher, I can’t help but bemoan the fact that none of this is God’s intention for His people. The Scriptures are full of instructions about how to seek justice and get along: These are the things you shall do: speak each man the truth to his neighbor; give judgment in your gates for truth, justice, and peace” (Zechariah 8:16).

The older I get, the more I’m also struck by the stark contrast between life on earth and what life is like in heaven. You see, there won’t be any racial divides in heaven. There will be complete unity among people redeemed by God “out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation.” And rather than divisions between rich and poor, the powerful and the powerless, every one of us will reign as “kings and priests to our God” (Revelation 5:9-10).

People of faith are frequently accused of being so heavenly minded that they are of no earthly good. Although I’ve met some people who match this description, that is actually the exception rather than the rule. In fact, I would argue that we desperately need more heavenly minded people if we are going to transform troubled communities like Ferguson.

Martin Luther King Jr. was a leader who modeled this well. Yes, he was well aware of how American had fallen short of its ideals. Equality under the law was far from the reality for many minorities, especially in cities still marred by segregation.

In King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech in front of a crowd of over 250,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, he contrasted the continuing plight of many black Americans with the American dream envisioned in lofty documents such as our Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Emancipation Proclamation. MLK referenced such things as poverty, discrimination, segregation, and police brutality as ongoing problems even 100 years after Lincoln signed the Emancipation.

However, while Dr. King didn’t shy away from honestly addressing the difficult issues of his day, his message was also filled with abounding hope:

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

It’s important to notice that MLK saw his dream as being “deeply rooted in the American dream.” Dr. King wanted to see America transformed into the shining city on a hill that its founders proclaimed. In a nutshell, he was calling the nation to live up to its own dream and potential—to “walk its talk” and reflect its highest values. “I have a dream,” he said, “that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed—‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’”

Dr. King’s closing crescendo painted an awesome portrait of what race relations could look like in our nation:

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood…

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama…little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith that I will go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.

With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

This will be the day, this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning: “My country, ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.” And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania! Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the curvaceous peaks of California.

But not only that.

Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and every molehill of Mississippi, from every mountainside, let freedom ring!

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” 

Notice that Dr. King’s dream was not only rooted in the American dream. He was a preacher of the gospel, and his message of hope and change was tied to his scriptural perspective that God is the ultimate Liberator. Why should people of all racial groups be treated equally? Because God is their Creator, and they all have a right to be His children.

Many people today claim to share Dr. King’s objective. Yet often there’s something missing. While their mission typically is fueled merely by well-meaning humanism, King’s was energized by holy zeal and a sense of divine purpose. Nothing less will get the job done.

Over the decades following MLK’s speech in 1963, his dream has often been hijacked by corrupt demagogues on all sides of the political spectrum. Some of these leaders claim to be preachers of the gospel, but their actions seem more like wolves in sheep’s clothing. Instead of advancing the unity and brotherhood Dr. King envisioned, they have stirred the pot of racial prejudice and distrust.

Every time I hear MLK’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, I get inspired—and angry. I get inspired  by his powerful and lofty vision of a better world, where racial harmony is the norm rather than the exception. Yet I get angry  because we’re still a long way from the fulfillment of that dream.

There’s plenty of blame to go around, of course. Politicians, preachers, activists, educators, rappers, media executives, and self-described “civil rights leaders”—we’ve all fallen short of our responsibility to further the cause of racial harmony.

As we seek to address our remaining divisions on earth, may God give us a heavenly vision, as Dr. King so nobly demonstrated.

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