Have a very Mary Christmas

Mary is unique because God gave her a unique responsibility and mission.  There is confusion about who she is and who she is not between denominations, but there is no doubt that she had a unique role as the mother of Jesus Christ.  She is told by the angel that she was a “favored one.”  Elizabeth prophesied about Mary that she was “blessed among women.”

Mary was given the daunting responsibility to be the mother of Immanuel, God with Us.  Jesus is the “Word become Flesh.”  In Jesus “rested the fullness of God” and he is God taking the “form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”  Mary was the mother of God in the flesh.  And you thought parenting your kids was a big task?

So how did Mary approach this mission and respond to this responsibility?

Luke 2:38 is her response.  “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”  Later in Luke 2 she sings a beautiful passage of Scripture where she says, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.  For behold, from no on all generations will call me blessed.”

A very merry Christmas is one that is lived in absolute and complete openness and obedience to the will of God.

Here are a few questions and thoughts to help you examine your heart and focus your spirit on Christ as we celebrate his birth.

  1. Are you asking God, “What is your will for me?” or “What is your will of me? Mary was open for both.  She received the blessing of this mission along with the burden of this mission.  Are you seeking God for blessings only or burdens also?  They are a package deal.
  2. Are you saying, “God, my soul magnifies You?” or “God, magnify my soul?” Is your desire for worship truly about the exaltation of the Lord or is it about an experience from the Lord?  Such experiences are real, but they are the result of worship not the reason for it.  He is the reason.
  3. Are you saying, “Lord, I am grateful for my estate” or “Lord, give me an estate”? What are you looking for this Christmas?  What are you looking for in life?  The Lord promises to “add all these things (needed things) unto those who seek first his Kingdom and righteousness.

Mary was not this person because she was called to give to be the mother of Jesus.  Mary was called to be the mother of Jesus because she was this person.  Mary was who she was by the grace of God, but God called her to such a faithful task because she was found to be faithful with little.

I challenge you during this Christmas season, a season that has become increasingly self-serving through the ages, to stop and consider the wondrous favor you have received from God.   Commit to obeying him not by compulsion but because of joy in response to “His great love with which he has loved you.”

Here is a good Christmas prayer for the soul.  Consider these words.  Make them your own.  And pray.  Personalize the thoughts to fit your life, your calling, and your struggles.

Heavenly Father, You who are worthy of praise and reign over all things, thank you. Thank you for the wondrous gift of your Son for my soul.  I am grateful for your grace and love.  My heart rejoices because you have called me to righteousness and empowered me to live it out through the Holy Spirit.  I am your servant.  May it be to me as you will.  Your Kingdom is first.  My soul magnifies you because of who you are and what you have done, but I also rejoice because of who I am and the mission you have called me to live.  I am yours and I am grateful that you are mine.  In the name of Jesus, Amen.

Have a Merry Christmas,

Pastor Kirk

Grace Can’t Be Cheap

“Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting to-day for costly grace”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. Grace has a sweet sound to it. Its ever flowing river is ferocious to those who truly experience it, and only admired by those who can see it from a distance. For someone to truly understand what the grace of God has given them through His son Jesus Christ, he or she would have to respond in surrendering all that he or she has. Every day that they live, would have to be a right response to grace. Truly, the only right response to God’s grace, is a completely transformed heart bowing in obedience to Jesus and all that He says.

Sometimes our definitions of grace are cheap! “Grace says I am saved from the consequences of my sin, as long as I confess it once a week!” “Grace has saved me once and for all, so I can live however I want!” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his great work The Cost of Discipleship says that cheap grace “means justification of sin without the justification of the sinner.” He also says that “cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, and grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” The Apostle says in Romans 6:1-2, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” Grace is costly!

You might be asking, “If grace is costly, then why is it called grace? Isn’t it freely given?” Well it is no doubt a gift, but it had to be purchased by someone! “You were bought with a price” according to 1 Corinthians 7:23. “It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life” says Bonhoeffer.

Doesn’t this costly grace have some profound implications? Jesus indeed was tortured, bloodied, crucified, and buried for you and me. The full wrath of God was poured out on his only son, of which none of us could do to someone we love that much. It cost God his son. Jesus rose again 3 days later, proving he is the Christ, and desires for us to come and follow Him. Because this is true, true life is found in Jesus, and the only right response, is to follow him daily. Are you merely hearing the sound of grace, or are you experiencing it fully? Can you honestly say, I once was lost, and now I am found?

“The Kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”

Poverty Is Not A Holiday Project

If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well…James 2:8 (ESV)

Christmas makes people do funny things- things that, at any time of the year, would seem somewhat outlandish. Consider these unique holiday phenomena…

Christmas caroling. No one shows up at anyone else’s home singing merry songs in late April or early September- and leaves without a phone call being made to the authorities. But in December, no one thinks twice about a small crowd of strangers singing “Deck The Halls” on the doorstep.

Christmas cards. “Hey, here’s an idea- Let’s pay to have professional pictures of our family taken, then mail them to everyone we know,” said no one ever in the middle of summer. But at Christmas, we get dressed in our best, threaten our kids’ lives, and do just that- sometimes even with an accompanying “family newsletter”!

Ugly sweater parties. A friend of mine recently asked where on earth this tradition came from, and I honestly have no idea. But the things people will wear proudly in public this time of year…well, let’s just say it’s a good thing that Christmas spirit doesn’t extend beyond the new year. Unless, of course, you can wear your normal clothing and fit right in at such gatherings!

While all of these holiday traditions are fun, there is another that I want us to consider for a moment- the phenomenon of Christmas giving, of finding ways to practice generosity toward those in need during the holiday season. Let me first say that I think it is a great thing that there are so many opportunities to help those who are less fortunate during this time of year- and I think it is awesome that so many people seize these opportunities and participate in meeting the needs of the poor. If the alternative is focusing and spending exclusively on ourselves, I think we can all agree we will miss a prime opportunity to love others well.

That said, I want us to be cautious about how we think about such opportunities, because I think if we aren’t mindful, we can easily succumb to a pitfall commonly associated with serving those in physical need. Poverty can too often become a sentimental project about us rather than a genuine ministry before God and to others. Especially at Christmastime, when cultural consumerism is so prevalent and the guilt of overspending lurks in the outer reaches of our hearts and minds, we can tend to use poverty relief efforts- in whatever form they take, as there are many– as a way to take the edge off of that guilt and help us to feel better about ourselves. In this way, loving and serving the poor becomes little more than a “holiday project” along the lines of Christmas caroling, Christmas cards, and the like.

The reason I want us to examine ourselves on this today is because I have too often seen this tendency in myself. I find myself in a season of focusing on me, me, me– and suddenly I feel the twinge of guilt (or more accurately, Holy Spirit conviction) that inevitably comes with it. So I panic, and I begin searching for a way to make that pesky feeling go away. This search often leads me to flip open one of the four or five Christmas giving catalogs I receive every year from various relief organizations, wherein I can find a way to send a gift around the world to someone in need, pat myself on the back for my generosity, and go on about my self-absorbed business.

Now is the action I’ve taken here bad? Not at all. It still helped to meet a legitimate need. But I’m pretty confident that God is just as concerned about why I do what I do as He is in just what I do. Motives matter deeply. And if our motive for helping the poor is so we can simply “check a box” saying we did, then I think we’ve missed God’s heart toward those who are in need all around us. God doesn’t want us to relegate the poor to a project, but instead to see them and love them as people- according to His Word, as ourselves.

In James 2:5, the little brother of Jesus declares to us, “Has not God chosen those who are poor in this world to be rich in faith, and heirs of the Kingdom, which He has promised to those who love Him?” All throughout the Scriptures, it is clear that the poor hold a special place in the heart of God. As those who are called by the name of Jesus, we ought to increasingly reflect this heart and demonstrate love as God has toward us. And in case you didn’t know, God doesn’t love any one of us as a distant, impersonal project, but instead loves each of us in a deeply personal, relational way. This is how we ought to seek to love and serve the poor as well- through genuine, up close and personal relationship. This doesn’t mean we should throw out other ways to help- not at all! It simply means that we shouldn’t be satisfied with “checking a box” and moving on with our lives for the rest of the holidays- and the rest of the year.

Consider these questions this Christmas (and beyond)- How can I make loving and serving the poor a part of the everyday rhythm of my life? How can I build genuine relationships with those who come from a different background than me, learning their stories and impacting those stories in a deep and ongoing way? I know I’m wrestling with these questions myself right now, and it is my hope and prayer that you will too. I’m praying that as we open ourselves up to God and people in a fresh way, we will grow more and more to reflect God’s heart in the way we love, serve, and give. Merry Christmas!

Shelf the Elf?

The Elf on the Shelf phenomenon is too much for me.  Some of you over-achievers out there are making me look bad.  While your elves cause all kinds of hilarious mishaps, ours forgets to move.  Worse is, when he does move, he simply sits down somewhere else in the house.  Our elf is a “Bah, Humbug.”

This blog is deeper than that though.  I am not writing to condemn a fun family tradition.  I am writing, however, to speak a warning and a word of encouragement.  Christmas has become a lot of things in our culture.   Not all of those things are good.  Actually, some of them are quite sad.  I simply want to remind you about some things you want to teach your children this Christmas and give you a warning about where you might be doing the exact opposite.

Grace is a gift not a gimmick.

For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.  Ephesians 2:8

The reality of any gift is that the recipient does not deserve it.  A gift, by definition, is something you have not nor cannot earn.  We are celebrating the birth of Christ, the ultimate gift given to us who are completely and absolutely underserving of such a gift.  I would encourage all of us to consider the gifts we give, how we give them, and most importantly, what we say about why we give them.

Parents, a word of caution about the Naughty or Nice discussion.  If your kid is naughty, are they going to still get gifts?  Would you ever even consider that decision?  You are telling them that is how one receives gift.  Gifts become rewards.  The problem is that many are being rewarded for doing exactly what we said would be punished.

The real truth in all this is that gifts are grace.  If you celebrate Christmas with the Santa tradition, he does represent a graciousness that is special and unique.  The modern version of Santa, however, seems to overplay the naughty or nice theme.  I encourage you to spend some time with your kids discussing the grace that any gift is.  That every gift is undeserved.  This conversation is a beautiful way to discuss the real meaning of Christmas.

For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  Luke 2:11

Christ means Messiah.  The Chosen One.  The One Who was Promised.  The One who would Deliver His People from their Sins.  Jesus Christ is the greatest gift.  He is an undeserved gift.  Speak grace this Christmas.

You do not have to put the elf away, but you might want to put some lies away.  Don’t tell your kids consequences you will never uphold.  Don’t attach behavior to deserving grace.  Teach the richness of grace.   Teach the truth that Naughty or Nice…it’s all grace.

Are we really pro-life?

A question arose in response to a recent sermon at Fellowship Church, and I paraphrase: If we are so pro-life, then why didn’t we even mention animals. Sure, the pro-life position has enough nuance already in the human realm with ethical debates on birth control, point of conception, abortion, euthanasia, just war, self-defense, governmental authority and capital punishment. But for many, the protection of animal life (and perhaps plant life) should be as high a priority as the protection of human life.

Let me begin with some bad news for those over-the-top animal lovers:

Animals and humans are not equal according to Scripture.

Animals are good, fun, enjoyable companions (some more than others). Still, animals are not humans and are not equal. Dressing your dog in clothes and carrying her through the park does not make your dog a baby. It makes it a clothed dog. Still good. Not human.

The scriptural basis for this understanding of the priority of humans over animals, and all of nature, is evident in the creation account. Several indicators are given and a value assessment is made.

  •  Genesis 1:24-25 – God creates the beasts of the earth “according to their kind” and saw that it was good.
  • Genesis 1:26-29 – God creates humans and gives them dominion over all of the animals of the sea, air and land. He creates humans different than animals as He creates man “in the image of God”.
  • Genesis 1:30 – God instructs all creatures with breath to eat plants
  • Genesis 2:20 – Adam names all of the animals, but a helper is not found that is fit for him. So God creates woman.

What do these passages tell us about the relationship between humans and animals as well as the rest of creation?

  1. Humans were not made to be equal with animals
  2. Humans were instructed to rule over the animals
  3. Before sin, neither humans nor animals were intended to die and only replenishing plants would be eaten
  4. God created woman partly because man was not intended to find relational fulfillment with animals

So again, animals are not humans and are not equal to humans. An animal life is not equivalent to a human life. I can almost feel that spiteful gaze I’m getting right now through the computer screen from those who LOVE their pets. Let me move quickly to the next point:

Scripture does not allow humans to hate animals.

1-month-old_kitten_43This is a tough one for me. I really don’t like cats. I’m allergic to them and they annoy me. Still, I’m called to love cats. Notice again in the passages above, humans were given dominion over animals before sin. That means the dominion would not have been one of spite, pride, harm, or abuse. Dominion over animals, along with all of creation, was a stewardship entrusted to mankind.

The first account of any bloodshed in Scripture is not Cain’s killing of Abel; it is God’s killing of an animal to cover the nakedness of man and woman after their sin. We see in the law given to Israel and Peter’s vision in Acts that animals are good to eat. The stewardship of man over creation, and animals in particular, is no longer as gentle and peaceful as before the consequences of sin took effect. That stewardship, however, still exists. Mankind is called to steward this planet along with all of the plant and animal life within it.

Based on all of this, here are some Pro-Life take-aways for all of us:

  • Care for all of creation. Don’t cut trees unnecessarily. Conserve energy and recycle where possible. Care for animals as you have the opportunity. Don’t needlessly kill anything. Respect and protect life.
  •  We are living in the effects of the fall. Animals eat each other and we eat them. Some animals seem to exist only to do harm or damage. Not all resources are renewable. Recognizing this as a tension in our stewardship of this earth is critical. Christians should be leading the way in protecting this world without exalting creation to a godlike or even humanlike status.
  • The height of relationship on earth is between humans in the church, the Body of Christ. That might sound self-promotional, but it is scriptural. Those who are in Christ have a unity that transcends heredity or emotion. They are being transformed into His likeness. They will share eternity in His perfection. A priority on the protection of human life is appropriate. Beyond protecting human life, we should value human relationships first. Call those who are not in Christ to surrender to that calling. Consider those who are in Christ as the most valuable gifts on earth.

God sent His Son as a human. Humans are greater, but are called to live out that privilege with great responsibility toward all of creation. This is yet another way that we can truly be pro-life.