Thursday, December 24, 2009

What Will You Sing Tonight? . . . .

I love talking to youth workers about kids. What I don't like hearing are the seemingly endless stream of stories about churched kids. You know, the ones who have seen, heard, and done it all over and over and over again. Churched kids from Christian homes can be the most apathetic when it comes to understanding, engaging, and appreciating the great drama of redemption that is unfolding in them and around them. I know. I was one of those kids. Familiarity didn't breed contempt. It bred a "ho-hum" attitude.

I might still be one of those kids if it hadn't been for God's great gift to me of hurt, brokenness, and pain. My suffering hasn't been great. But it's been enough to show me how helpless I am in and of myself. Suffering is like an axe in the hands of God which He uses to chop away at the legs of the idols we worship known as "me," "myself," and "I." The brokenness I've experienced has been enough to show me how great and wonderful it is that the Creator of the universe became flesh and blood and - as Eugene Peterson says in The Message - "moved into the neighborhood." When life beats us down and leaves us looking and feeling like an old sea captain who's been thrown around over the years. . . well. . . that's a good thing. . . if we allow it all to force us to drop our arms to our sides and look to God saying, "Okay. . . I've got nothing." God wants us weak. I increasingly believe that this is what prepares us to see and understand and embrace what's great about Christmas.

Tonight at 10pm, my family will worship with other members of our congregation in celebration of the Incarnation. This will be my 54th Christmas. I will sing and hear songs that are way too familiar. And if I'm not careful, I will entertain the ghost of my Christmas's past by engaging in a sentimental reflection that is more about family memories than it is about thinking carefully and deeply about what it is that we sing and celebrate. I'm not sure what deep and great songs of the faith we will sing tonight. In year's past I have been blessed to focus on certain lines in certain carols that have come to have very personal meaning for me. Perhaps we'll sing some of these. . .

". . . He will give to all the faithful His own self for heavenly food."
-"Let All Mortal Flesh"

". . . come to earth to taste our sadness, He whose glories knew no end."
-"Come Thou Long Expected Jesus"

". . . the hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight."
-"O Little Town of Bethlehem"

". . . pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel."
-"Hark the Herald Angels Sing"

And my favorite. . .

". . . He comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found."
-"Joy To The World"

What will you be singing tonight? Do you have a favorite line?

I trust you will have a blessed Christmas filled with a deep knowledge of what God has done for us in Christ. . . and the resulting wonder and awe.

Don't be one of those kids.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

To Give or To Get? . . . .

The other day I was driving down the highway with the 24-hour Christmas station putting out a steady menu of nostalgic old favorites so familiar that I hum or sing-along without really paying attention. Every now and then a new Christmas tune would be thrown in. My unfamiliarity would make me listen. One such tune that's been out for about six years is Ashanti's "Hey Santa." I focused on the song's lyrics and couldn't help but wonder, "Wow! Is this what we've become?"

Ashanti voices the collective request of a culture wrapped up in a Christmas built around wonder, joy, and hope placed in salvation by stuff, rather than salvation from sin. . . . including the sin of belief in salvation by stuff. She sings, "Hey Santa, can you bring me something good?. . . Hey Santa, can you bring me something nice? . . . something new? . . . Like a diamond bracelet or a diamond ring? How about a shiny new, baby blue convertible? . . . Hey Santa, can you bring me everything?"

In Acts 20:35 the Apostle Paul quotes the Savior whose birth we celebrate in a couple of days: "It is more blessed to give than to receive." I heard that lesson from parents, pastors, Sunday School teachers, and others while I was growing up. But I wonder if I got it. Do you feel the tug of war this time of year?

A couple of years ago a large local family taught me a wonderful lesson about Christmas. For a good many years they had been supporting the work of the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding financially. Around this time of year, we always step up our fundraising efforts so that we can begin the next year on a strong note. We received a letter from the family informing us that instead of giving gifts to each other, they would pool the cash they normally spent on those gifts and send it all to CPYU. Enclosed was a check that just about took my breath away. What they had done was humbling. Sadly, it was also unusual and out-of-the-box in today's world. They had challenged me deeply and blessed CPYU greatly.

I've been thinking about all this over the last few weeks as we're in the midst of our end-of-the-year fund-raising initiative here at CPYU. The economy has been difficult on us all - individuals, families, and non-profit ministries alike. Here at CPYU,we're praying that we end on a strong note so that we can plow ahead as the new year begins.

The generosity of this family has combined with the call of Jesus and our current economy to spark a challenge I'd like to pass on to you. While you most likely have most or your gift-shopping completed, it's not too late to prayerfully consider a sacrificial gift to the Lord's work in your local community above and beyond your giving to your church. Hey, we're always excited to receive your support here at CPYU and I know that many of you who follow my blog are already supporters. But can I encourage you to also consider a gift to someone on this list I came up with the other day? Here are some possibilities to think about. . .

Your local Rescue Mission - These organizations provide physical, emotional, and spiritual support to the forgotten members of your community who so easily fall through the cracks.

The Salvation Army - I can't say enough about this organization. They are the Lord's hands and feet to so many people in so many different ways. You've been passing the bell ringers for weeks now. Why not make one last trip to the store for the sole purpose of sticking a sizable gift into the slot?

Your local Youth Center - We've got them all over the place here in Central Pennsylvania. I am continually blown away by the committed adults who are giving their lives to see that kids who have experienced extreme brokenness and don't normally darken the door of the church have the opportunity hear the Gospel,receive love, and find a place to belong.

A Seminary - Sometimes we forget how needy students and their institutions really are. The fingerprint of the Bible-believing seminary I attended is all over everything we do here at CPYU. Those seminaries that equip students to know and teach the truth without compromise are worthy of our support. . . particularly in today's culture.

A Child Relief Organization - Countless children around the globe are surviving and thriving thanks to the sponsorship of individuals like you and me who sponsor kids through organizations like Compassion International, World Vision, Food for the Hungry, etc. Lisa and I have seen firsthand how child sponsorship through Compassion International transforms individuals, families, and communities. This is something every individual, family, and church youth group should be doing.

Missionaries - ask your church about the missionaries your congregation supports. Find out who among them has the greatest needs. Because of the current economy, many missionaries are very, very close to having to return home due to lack of support. It doesn't need to be that way.

A local Crisis Pregnancy Center - I can't say enough about these organizations. These are usually staffed by a group of very dedicated Christian women who minister deeply to other women and girls who find themselves in great need.

Your Church's Youth Ministry - I know very, very few youth pastors and youth ministry volunteers who couldn't use more in the way of financial resources for their ministry. Budgets are being cut left and right. Again, it doesn't have to be that way.

A local Christian Counseling Center - I have served on the board of one of these organizations locally. If you don't use their services, you most likely don't know how valuable they are. Out of sight, out of mind. But the waiting lists are very, very long. The services are increasingly needed in the midst of our broken and hurting world. Most are over-extended and need more help.

A local Women's Shelter - Again, these ministries are staffed by highly dedicated people who minister to very needy people. . . and they do so with very little in the way of resources. Domestic violence and sexual abuse are on the rise. Sadly, this is what some might call a "growth industry." They need our help.

The other day a friend at Compassion International sent me a copy of an unusual prayer book entitled God Is No Stranger. The book is filled with the prayers of Haitian believers. The prayers have been written and prayed by very, very poor people who are very, very rich in the Lord. Perhaps this little prayer I found in the book can offset the skewed Christmas message of "Hey Santa":

You are our garage.
You give us cool shade.
Make us last longer for service.
Only then do we have value.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Deconstructing Tiger. . .

A few weeks have passed since the Tiger Woods we all knew was eclipsed in our collective consciousness by the Tiger Woods who is. I'm not a golf fan. I don't watch it on TV. I find it boring. I don't play it. . . except once in a blue moon. And then, I'm not really playing as much as I am trying. To be honest, the price of golf balls and the fact that I go through about a dozen-and-a-half per round makes the game unaffordable. All that to say, my knowledge of Tiger Woods is that he's a good golfer and a cultural icon.

Still, I've spent portions of the last three weeks trying to figure out what the Tiger Woods story tells us about ourselves. I don't claim to have any kind of solid grip on this thing, but there are some thoughts that have been rattling around inside this head of mine since the media reports broke about Tiger's wife using a golf club for something other than the game it was intended for.

To me this story has been like a double-edged sword. Both sides are equally sharp and dangerous. On the one side is the edge that's all about our ridiculous obsession with celebrity. . . a celebrity obsession that manifests itself in both our following and our becoming. We adore the rich and famous, setting them up for worship much like the biblical sacred cow. Yes, we were created to worship. The only problem is that we consistently get the object of our worship wrong. . . over and over and over again. In this case, it was a man we thought to be perfect. In addition, our media-saturated world of reality TV and YouTube have made it all the more possible for us to indulge and pursue our ridiculous celebrity fantasies where we take center stage while the whole world watches and worships us as we worship ourselves.

The other side of the double-edged sword is all about denial. What we deny is the fact that we really are rotten to the core. In my faith tradition we call it "depravity." We're broken. Messed up. Fallen. And, we can't get up. . . at least not on our own. At first, the world saw Tiger as a good guy. Now, the world sees Tiger as a good guy who messed up. The reality is that Tiger's a messed-up guy - just like the rest of us - who did a good job at indulging and then covering up his messed-upness. Until now.

With Christmas just a few days away it might be good to reflect theologically on Tiger Woods and what the story tells us about ourselves. . . and Christmas. You see, what we celebrate (which has by and large been forgotten in today's consumer culture) is the coming of the God-Man Jesus Christ into the world to do what we cannot do for ourselves for the simple reason that we're so rotten to the core that we need God to initiate the picking-up. And pragmatically speaking, when I realize God has done that, why in the world would I want to worship anything or anyone else? As Timothy Keller says in his wonderful new book Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters, it is through a living encounter with the one true God that we can have hope and life.

So, maybe we shouldn't be surprised by what's come out about Tiger Woods. Shouldn't we have known all along that he has feet of clay? And shouldn't we know that our feet are made of the same stuff? And shouldn't we avoid the temptation to excuse his and our own immoral behavior with something like, "After all, he's (I'm) only human?"

Following Tiger Woods over the last few weeks forced me to think about some words of warning Gordon MacDonald wrote after the truth about Ted Haggard was told a few years ago (MacDonald, by the way, had the truth told about him several years before): "I have come to believe that there is a deeper person in many of us who is not unlike an assassin. This deeper person can be the the source of attitudes and behaviors we normally stand against in our conscious being. But it seeks to destroy us and masses energies that - unrestrained - tempt us to do the very things we 'believe against.' If you have been burned as deeply as I (and my loved ones) have, you never live a day without remembering that there is something within that, left unguarded, will go on the rampage. Wallace Hamilton once wrote, 'Within each of us there is a herd of wild horses all wanting to run loose.'"

The Apostle Paul said it this way in Romans 7 - "I know that nothing good lives in me. . . I want to do what is right, but I can't. . . Oh what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is Jesus Christ our Lord."

We desperately need perspective on Tiger, on life, on ourselves, and on Christmas. What a joy to know that the Savior has come!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Pop Culture. . . A Sign Of Life. . .

Every now and then I find something positive in pop culture that's worth passing along to our CPYU constituency. This morning I found one of those things while doing some writing for the upcoming January/February edition of Simply Youth Culture that we producing in partnership with our good friends at Simply Youth Ministry.

We're including one of our unique CPYU 3D media reviews in every edition of Simply Youth Culture. Our 3D media evaluation paradigm is something we want to see taught to every child, teen, and adult. A few years ago we produced our How To Use Your Head to Guard Your Heart: 3(D)Media Evaluation Guide for youth workers to use with their kids as they teach them how to think Christianly and biblically about media by funnelling everything they see and hear through the three-step Discover, Discern, Decide process. (By the way, the guides - along with everything else in our resource center - are 15% off this month).

For this edition of Simply Youth Culture I decided to find something positive to review. I ran across a wonderful new video from Travis McCoy that premiered last week on MTV. The catchy and upbeat "One At A Time" delivers a straight-on challenge to kids, encouraging them to get involved and make a difference in their world. McCoy - the lead vocalist for Gym Class Heroes - is also an ambassador for MTV's Staying Alive Foundation, a group that promotes and funds grassroots HIV and AIDS prevention efforts globally.

While you and I might not agree with the presuppositions the Staying Alive Foundation holds regarding sexuality and sexual ethics, there's no arguing with the song's challenge to step up, see the world's need, make a difference, and address issues one person at a time. As McCoy walks through the South African landscape issuing this challenge in the video, you can't help but think about Jesus and His heart for the poor. In a world where too many Christians erroneously equate the Gospel with personal salvation and personal salvation alone, it's time we start to think more seriously about the implications of the Gospel in relation to how we function in a world where all things groan and cry out for redemption. Are we called to simply hold on until the end and Heaven becomes real for us? Or, are we called to serve as Kingdom ambassadors obsessed with bringing Heaven into every nook and cranny of the earth? The answer is all too clear. Yet, for some reason, we ignore it.

Travis McCoy's "One At A Time" is worth watching and talking about. It's a great springboard for discussions about what it means to seek justice for the poor, sick, and oppressed.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Sara Groves. . . .

Last night my daughter Caitlin and I shared a wonderful evening out featuring a meal and a concert. Sara Groves and her ensemble were in town to play at the Hershey Free Church (thanks to Bob Sproul and his crew there for making this happen) as a stop on their "O Holy Night" Christmas tour.

I'm not sure how to put into words what the evening meant to me. Maybe the best word I could use is "refreshing." It was nice to slow down and be with Caitlin. And, it was nice to be able to spend time with my daughter listening together to someone who has great talent and who recognizes the source of that talent.

I've never met Sara Groves. I have, however, listened to lots of her music. I didn't realize it until it was over, but last night was one of those nights that reminds you of the way it's supposed to be, along with who the people who represent the way it's supposed to be are supposed to be.

Sara Groves defers to her Maker. She doesn't want to get in the way. It's obvious. She just does what she's called to do with great passion and excellence.

Sara Groves is humble. She doesn't get in the way. Perhaps the most significant moment of the evening came near the end when she thanked the audience for being there. She broke down while thanking God for the opportunity to write and sing. Then, she confessed that she's aware of the fact that the hook could appear to pull her off stage at any time. The way she said it was deeply sincere. She doesn't want to be a celebrity. She simply wants to be faithful and obedient. Why don't more Christian celebrities seek the place outside of the spotlight?

Sara Groves is a mom and a wife. She treasures both callings.

Sara Groves is studious. . . and she gets it. Her understanding of the theology of the incarnation is deep, yet simply stated. She makes it understandable to others. Last night, she made it new again for me.

Sara Groves is plain. No fancy make-up. No fancy clothes. No pretentious attitude. It was like sitting in the living room and listening to your sister play and sing.

Sara Groves - for all the aforementioned reasons and more - is worth listening to.

This morning, my mind is focused on things it might not otherwise be aware of or thinking about two weeks before Christmas. Thank you, Sara Groves, for being a messenger who doesn't get in the way.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Columbine Reality. . . .

Last week I finally got around to a book that's been sitting on the pile for quite some time. I wanted to read Dave Cullen's Columbine before the 10th anniversary year of the watershed school massacre came to an end. Riveting reading, it was difficult to put down. Considered the nation's foremost authority on those who perpetrated the event now known by the simple one-word name of the school, Cullen has spent ten years investigating every nook and cranny of what happened in Littleton before, during, and after April 20, 1999.

I remember where I was when I first heard the news. I was in the car driving from speaking to an English class at Lancaster Bible College, heading a few miles south to speak to some at-risk students in an after-school program at Lancaster City's McCaskey High School. An initial radio report had informed me that there had a been a school shooting in Colorado and a few kids had been injured. By the time I got back in my car a couple of hours later, a more grim story was unfolding fast. I was up all night glued to the TV. Since then - in fact before the bodies were removed from the school - Columbine reality and myth have been woven together in a mix that's allowed the truth to get muddied by chaotic confusion, trauma-fueled desire, misinformation, hasty assumptions, false conclusions, irresponsibility, and lies.

Yesterday, after finishing Cullen's book, I ran across this quote attributed to John F. Kennedy: "Belief in myths allows the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought." Timely. The age of rapid information has combined with our desire for easy answers, our lack of good research, our need for Evangelical heroes, and our bent towards believing what we want to believe to cloud the truth about Columbine. And this bad habit is not only limited to the Columbine massacre. We do it all the time. And Evangelicals - a group I'm a part of that values truth and integrity - is usually no different. Mainstream media, viewers worldwide, Columbine families, and my own Christian culture jumped to some hasty conclusions. Then along comes Dave Cullen, shedding light on the facts and thereby illuminating the truth about Columbine in some undeniable ways. Granted, Cullen doesn't know everything and he has the advantage of post-dust-settlement hindsight. But he's helped us know more than we've ever known before.

Cullen's desire is to tell the truth and to get his readers to learn from Columbine. . . . about the mind and motivation of the school shooter, about the best way to respond, about the way we handle grief, about the need to forgive, and about how to find the truth in the midst of absolute chaos. Like so many others, I was quick to believe reports of a Trench Coat Mafia, jock-targeted killings, revenge on bullies, anti-Christian sentiments, a unified police response, violence born out of disengaged parenting, and modern-day martyrdom. Very little of this was true. Dave Cullen took me on an eye-opening journey into Columbine's before, during, and after.

More than anything else, Dave Cullen's Columbine reminded me to carefully seek, find, and consider the facts in an effort to be a person of integrity. Because we say we value truth, we need to value truth. . . even if it means having to suffer the discomfort of doing an about-face on long-held assumptions and opinions that we'd like to be true.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The "Old Guy's" Necessary Questions. . . .

Sometimes the passage of time brings the clarity that you were erroneously convinced you once had. Thinking, learning, listening, praying, and experiencing combine in a mix that makes the murky waters you once believed and defended as crystal clear, to be seen for what they were. . . murky. And then, clarity comes. I think that what this is called is "wisdom."

I remember some conversations I had with my dad around 25 years ago. I was a fresh-out-of-seminary young know-it-all who was on a mission to challenge the status quo of our church culture - a church he pastored with great insight, skill, and faithfulness. Specifically, I was questioning a variety of issues related to worship. To be fair to my 25-years-ago-self, my motivation was to see the kids I had been charged to minister to in the church embrace the corporate worship experience in more meaningful ways. And to be honest about my 25-years-ago-self, I allowed my youthful idealism and pragmatism to serve as blinders that kept me from seeing the bigger picture and all the related questions that needed to be asked. My recollection is that my dad patiently listened to my concerns, offered some thoughts and pertinent questions in response, and then remained quiet in the hope that eventually my perspective would be informed by something more than my idealism and pragmatism. I remember getting a bit frustrated as other churches I knew were making adjustments that swelled the ranks and made kids happy. Those were the front-end days of making big changes in church. Since then, Evangelicals have turned this type of thinking and doing into an art.

In hindsight, I appreciate my dad's patience. Watching culture, studying marketing techniques and how they're used to manipulate young (and old) people, studying the Scriptures, and thinking theologically about cultural accommodation(thanks to a multitude of older and wiser folks who have committed their thoughts to writing)have all combined to lead to a gradual yet monumental shift in my thinking that I would have said wasn't even possible. Still, here I am.

If my present-day 53-year-old self could somehow travel back in time to sit across the table from my 29-year-old self, I'd work hard to convince the younger version of me to ask the right questions and to think deeply about the answers before pursuing matters of style over matters of substance. I would ask myself, "Do you really think the things you want to have happen will wind up bringing results that are marked by spiritual maturity?"

I was reminded of all this the other day when I was catching up on my magazine reading. While leafing through the November issue of Christianity Today, I ran across a column by one of my favorite writers, Philip Yancey. I was surprised (and saddened) to learn that the November column was going to Yancey's last for CT. He actually started writing "The Back Page" back when I was a seminary student in 1983. In fitting fashion, Yancey used this last installment to make some observations on the evangelical movement that he and CT have been a part of for so long. The entire article - "Oh Evangelicos!" - is worth reading. Since it's Saturday night as I write this, perhaps it's worth reading before you take your seat in worship tomorrow morning, or at a Saturday evening service tonight. With apologies to Philip Yancey, I appreciate the wisdom he's passed on to us younger folks as an older guy who's done some pretty serious thinking on his many trips around the block. In particular, I like the questions. . . the necessary questions. . . he asks in these few paragraphs.

"While staid churches change slowly, evangelicals tend to be light on their feet, adapting quickly to cultural trends.

The Jesus movement, the house-church movement, seeker-friendly churches, emergent churches—evangelicals have spawned all of these. In their wake, worship bands have replaced organs and choirs, PowerPoint slides and movie clips now enliven sermons, and espresso bars keep congregants awake. If a technique doesn't work, find one that does.

Although I admire the innovation, I would caution that mimicking cultural trends has a downside. At a recent youth workers conference I attended, worship meant a DJ playing techno music at jet-engine volume while a sweaty audience crowded the stage, jumping up and down while shouting spiritual one-liners. At the risk of sounding old-fashioned, I couldn't help questioning the depth of worship. Seminaries now recommend 15-minute sermons in light of shorter attention spans. Publishers want slimmer books, with simpler words and concepts. Will we soon have a 140-character Twitter gospel?

Perhaps we should present an alternative to the prevailing culture rather than simply adopt it. What would a church look like that created space for quietness, that bucked the celebrity trend and unplugged from surrounding media, that actively resisted consumerist culture? What would worship look like if it were directed more toward God than toward our entertainment preferences?"

This weekend I had the privilege of spending time with a bright and energizing group of United Methodist youth workers and some of their best and brightest kids in Louisville, KY. As we chatted back and forth about what it means to do ministry as cross-cultural missionaries in today's world, I had the sense that these kids want to go deep. I'm hoping and praying that they'll embrace substance, and then make style subservient to that substance. . . not vice versa. I'm hoping they channel the wonderful blessings of their youthful idealism into asking and thinking long and hard about the right questions. More than anything else, I hope and pray that they are faithful to the unchanging Gospel and the power that exists in the simple, straightforward preaching of God's Word. I hope that they don't fall into the market-driven trap of thinking that just because a messenger is gray up top, he or she has nothing to say that anyone who isn't gray up top would ever want or be able to hear.

If this keeps up, we're doing nothing other than making sure that style trumps substance. And when that happens, we have to think twice about what kingdom we're really promoting.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Lie of Christmas. . . .

It's getting crazy around here. . . . Christmas crazy. I look around and see - as Dave Matthews sings - "ants marching." It's the craziness of the Christmas rush. Why? Rather than ponder this anew, I thought I would pass on something I wrote several years ago about what is at the root of all this craziness. . . .

I believed it would change my life. Even though I began my impatient wait for its arrival sometime in September, it usually arrived in our mailbox at 1162 Beverly Road a few weeks before Thanksgiving. Its shiny full-color pages consumed my thoughts and attention for weeks. I ignored the first two-thirds of the book. Those pages were covered with boring pictures of clothing, tools, artificial Christmas trees, and a potpourri of boxed holiday fruits, candies and nuts. For me, “glory land” was contained in the back third of the book - those pages that quickly became tattered and worn from the constant perusal by me and my two very wishful younger brothers. The back third was where we would spend our time drooling over page after page of the latest in games and toys.

If you were a child in the 60's or 70's, my story is probably similar to yours. I would sit with that book for hours, using my signature colored pen (keyed for my parents as “Green = Walt”) to circle anything and everything that I’d like to find under the family tree on Christmas morning. During my younger years, I wielded my pen with reckless abandon. As I got older, I would sit under my covers with a flashlight and the catalog, secretly breaking curfew while ranking my material desires numerically and calculating prices while wondering just what “Santa” might be able to afford that year. The fruit of my labors was a neatly written and ranked list to pass on to my parents.

And if you had siblings, the Sears and Roebuck Christmas Catalog - a.k.a. “The Wish Book” - was the source of numerous family fights. The fights weren’t just over who got to study the book and when, but why three selfish kids from the same family couldn't circle the same item with their respective colored pens. If my brothers wouldn’t comply when I tried to pull rank based on seniority, I would hijack their pen(s) and alter their wish list by going to the first two-thirds of the book and secretly circling an itchy shirt or some other article of clothing that - if it appeared under the tree - would ruin their Christmas and force them to feign a disappointed “thanks” on the big morning.

Then came the night before the day that would change my life. If there ever was a time when my mind was totally sidetracked during a worship service, it had to be Christmas Eve. All I could think about - besides “when are we going to sing the last hymn?”- was toys, toys, and more toys. I can still remember the excitement of getting home, ripping off my Sunday clothes, and slipping on my pajamas. We’d stay up later than usual running the HO trains, sipping on non-alcoholic eggnog, eating my Aunt’s famous Christmas cookies, snarfing down chocolates from a Whitman’s Sampler, and chewing on a piece of one of the many fruitcakes bestowed upon my pastor-father from his grateful parishioners. But the only thing in our house thicker than those fruitcakes was the excitement of those three little boys.

Bed time arrived - which was only a signal for us to take our excitement and move it from a vertical to a horizontal position. There were never any sugar plums dancing in my bedded head on Christmas Eve. Instead, my eyes remained as wide as saucers for what seemed like an eternity. And when sleep finally came, my anxious conscious thoughts of what I’d find under the tree soon yielded to unconscious dreams of the same stuff. Those wishful thoughts and dreams that had consumed me for weeks could be summed up in one thought: “Tomorrow morning, my life will be complete.”

At my house, we were usually up long before the sun on Christmas morning. It was my mom’s responsibility to repeatedly tell us to “Wait at the top of the stairs!” while my dad took what seemed like forever to set up his 8mm movie camera while shouting “Not yet!” over and over in response to our endless impatient shouts of “CAN WE COME DOWN NOW?”. When the words “Okay, now” were finally spoken, we began our trek down the steps to the living room. The descent was always somewhat hairy as the three of us were blinded by the moose antler-sized rack of heat radiating spotlights on top of my dad’s movie camera. But once we reached the bottom of the steps and our eyes adjusted, we beheld the promised land right there under the Christmas tree.

Just as I remember those excited feelings of pre-Christmas anticipation, I also remember the empty and disappointed emotions I felt in the minutes and days after all the wrapping paper had been ripped off and thrown away. Don’t get me wrong - I was happy - but only for awhile. Some of the stuff under the tree just didn’t look or work like it had in the Sears Catalog or on the television commercial. Other gifts broke. And it wasn’t long before the novelty wore off and everything wound up in the back of my closet or bottom of my toybox. I had believed, in my childhood naivete, that all that stuff under the tree would somehow make me feel better, make me happy, and make me complete. It was nothing but a lie. But stupid me. . . each and every year it was the same thing as my yearning for completeness, peace, and satisfaction led me to buy into the great “lie of Christmas” one more time.

Even though I know better, I sometimes still find myself unknowingly falling back into those same old patterns. You think I would have learned by now. Maybe it’s not the stuff that appears under the Christmas tree. We don’t even get a Sears Christmas catalog anymore. Now it’s any of a number of attractive lies floating around the cultural air we all breath that are full of nothing but empty promises. Yes, the “lie of Christmas” lives on strong in our culture year-round.

Saint Anselm prayed about the “lie of Christmas” about a thousand years before I was born: “Lord, give me what you have made me want,” he prayed. “I praise and thank you for the desire that you have inspired; perfect what you have begun, and grant me what you have made me long for.” Anselm knew that the longings and desires we all experience originate in God and can only be filled by Him. He had discovered the only truth that can satisfy the hunger we all try to fill with the lie.

Six hundred years later, the French philosopher Blaise Pascal pondered the same thing: “What else does this longing and helplessness proclaim, but that there was once in each person a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? We try to fill this in vain with everything around us, seeking in things that are not there the help we cannot find in those that are there. Yet none can change things, because this infinite abyss can only be filled with something that is infinite and unchanging - in other words, by God himself. God alone is our true good.”

The gnawing desire to fill Pascal’s “God-shaped vacuum” isn’t limited to kids at Christmas. It’s a daily battle for all people, of all ages, in all places in today’s culture. On a trip to Barnes & Noble, the cover of an issue of Men’s Journal caught my eye. This “10th Anniversary Special” edition of the magazine promised readers the same thing I longed for at Christmas. Inside I found “the list of a lifetime - the sixty things every man must do at least once.” The article promised male readers that by experiencing everything on this definitive list, you’d wind up living a life that’s fulfilled, peaceful, and complete. In fact, “it could be the last to-do list you’ll ever need.” After reading through the list, I realized I’m only batting a measly and less-than-manly .150 and therefore, pretty far off from experiencing complete fulfillment. The nine listed things I’ve done in my lifetime include owning a dog, watching your child arrive (truly amazing!), riding a motorcycle, acting like a kid (something some say I’m pretty consistent and good at!), building something, and planting a tree. Apparently I’ll be a miserable and unfulfilled failure until I do the 51 other things on the list including living like a king (renting a $6500 a night suite in a Hong Kong hotel), reveling in the “raw sensuality” of Rio’s Carnival, wrestling a bear, climbing Kilimanjaro, and experiencing sex with two women at once. Yes, the great “lie of Christmas” lives on in today’s culture. We believe we can fill the gnawing hunger with anything and everything but the one right thing. What a lie!

Without a doubt, the greatest inheritance we can pass on to the kids we know and love is the truth about the lie. Not only that the “lie of Christmas” is a lie, but that the “truth of Christmas” is the truth. My parents passed on that truth in many ways. But as I think back on my memories of childhood Christmas’s past, it was their Christmas lists that told the truth so clearly. Every year, when I would take a break from my selfishness to ask them what they wanted for Christmas, the answer was always the same - “We don’t need anything.” Then, when Christmas morning would arrive, I would feel bad for them as they opened boxes of socks, sweaters, tools, kitchenware, and itchy shirts - all stuff from the first two-thirds of the wish book. Much to my surprise, they were never disappointed. Why? Because they had already been satisfied by the truth of Christmas. . . . they had embraced the gift of the baby whose Birthday we were celebrating. Sure, my parents thought Christmas gifts were nice and they appreciated every one of them. But the hole in their souls had already been filled. Because they didn’t want anything, I quickly learned they already had everything.

Shortly after Blaise Pascal died, someone found a piece of paper sewn into the lining of his jacket. Pascal had placed it there as a constant reminder of what the “truth of Christmas” had meant to him when he first believed and experienced it. On the paper were recorded the words he had written when the God-shaped vacuum of his life had been filled by the baby Jesus: “From about half past ten in the evening to about half an hour after midnight. Fire. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob. Not the God of philosophers and scholars. Absolute Certainty. Beyond reasons. Joy. Peace. Forgetfulness of the world and everything but God. The world has not known thee, but I have known thee. Joy! Joy! Joy! Tears of Joy!”

The old man Simeon waited in great expectation for the arrival of the promised Messiah. He knew what it was he longed for. The Holy Spirit had shown him that before he died, he would see the baby Jesus. Eight days after Christ’s birth, Simeon held “the truth of Christmas” in his arms and praised God with these words: “God, you can now release your servant; release me in peace as you promised. With my eyes I’ve seen your salvation.”

While the “lie of Christmas” lives on strong, it can’t compare to the life-changing power of what Christmas is really about. This truth of Christmas is the very thing - the only thing - that answers our deepest of longings and fills the most empty of lives! Perhaps as you gather around the tree this Christmas you’ll make it your prayer that the kids you know and our culture-at-large would behold the same “glory land” that filled Simeon’s eyes and countless hearts since the day God became man.