Archive for December, 2016

“Glory to God in the Highest,” Day 31: To Thy Pleasure and Disposal

December 31, 2016

I recently created a 31-day Advent/Christmas devotional booklet for my church called “Glory to God in the Highest.” I will be posting a devotional from it each day between now and the end of the year. Enjoy!

Scripture: Luke 1:38; Philippians 2:5-11

glory_cover_finalUnited Methodists have a liturgy for the new year called the Covenant Renewal or Watch Night service. I’ve never been part of a Methodist church that observed it (frankly, it would be a tough sell against our culture’s traditional New Year’s Eve celebrations), but we often include a prayer from the service on or around New Year’s. Wesley didn’t write it, but he adapted it for this service:

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.
Amen.

The prayer emphasizes God’s sovereignty to a possibly uncomfortable degree. What would it mean, after all, for us to “have nothing” or to be “laid aside” or “brought low” for God? Do you really want to find out? If we did, we might be tempted to imagine that God were punishing us. Not necessarily, this prayer says.

It also challenges us to resist the temptation to imagine God as a sleepy, grandfatherly figure, who may not like what’s going on in the world but isn’t powerful enough to do anything about it. It assumes that what God wants will not be frustrated by human sin or naturally occurring events.

This prayer challenges us to place our lives at God’s disposal, trust that we’ll be O.K. one way or another, and learn to say, “So be it.” Just like Mary in Luke 1:38.

In fact, the prayer puts into words a prayerful response to Paul’s words in Philippians 2, when he urges us to have the “same mind” among us as is in Christ. When we pray, “Let me be empty” and “I heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal,” it’s hard not to think of the self-emptying love of God in Jesus Christ, “who did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself.”

Just think: Christ emptied himself so much that he let himself become the size of a single cell in Mary’s womb. And he let himself be born not in an opulent palace but a lowly cattle stall.

Would you be content to be “laid aside” for God’s sake? Would you be happy if God let you have nothing? Why or why not?

“Glory to God in the Highest,” Day 30: Hope for Dark Moments

December 30, 2016

I recently created a 31-day Advent/Christmas devotional booklet for my church called “Glory to God in the Highest.” I will be posting a devotional from it each day between now and the end of the year. Enjoy!

Scripture: Daniel 3:8-30; Luke 1:38

glory_cover_finalWhen we read in Daniel 3 about God’s miraculous rescue of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, we often think of it as God sparing these men from suffering. But how can that be? The fact is, God made the three friends endure the worst part of the furnace.

Allow me to explain: First, they had to wrestle with the decision to go to the furnace (versus bowing down to the statue) and, second, anticipate the horror of the furnace: What would happen the moment they’re thrown in? What would dying that horrible death feel like?

By all means, the three friends hoped that God would deliver them; they knew that God had the power to do so; but this kind of faith isn’t the same as rock-solid certainty, as they acknowledge: “But if [God doesn’t deliver us], be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”

And so it is with Mary in Luke 1:38: Following her words of perfect submission and faith, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word,” Luke writes, “And the angel departed from her.” Like the three friends, Mary must endure a great deal of suffering before she reaches her happy ending.

Joseph Ratzinger, aka the former Pope Benedict XVI, reflects on this verse:

The great hour of Mary’s encounter with God’s messenger—in which her whole life is changed—comes to an end, and she remains there alone, with the task that truly surpasses all human capacity. There are no angels standing round her. She must continue along the path that leads through many dark moments—from Joseph’s dismay at her pregnancy to the moment when Jesus is said to be out of his mind (cf. Mk 3:21; Jn 10:20), right up to the night of the Cross.

How often in these situations must Mary have returned inwardly to the hour when God’s angel had spoken to her, pondering afresh the greeting: “Rejoice, full of grace!” and the consoling words: “Do not be afraid!” The angel departs; her mission remains, and with it matures her inner closeness to God, a closeness that in her heart she is able to see and touch.[†]

Notice the last sentence: Ratzinger implies that God wants Mary to suffer in this way—to struggle in her alone-ness—for a good reason: to bring her closer to God, to mature her faith.

Haven’t we found that our own “dark moments” accomplish the same purpose in our lives?

Think of times in your life when God intervened to save you from something that your feared. Did the experience help you in any way? Did you learn something from it? Can you see how God was working through that experience to “mature your inner closeness to God”?

Joseph Ratzinger, aka Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: the Infancy Narratives (New York: Crown, 2012), 37-38.

Christmas Eve Sermon 2016: “Angels, Why this Jubilee?”

December 30, 2016

dreamstime_m_14219263

In today’s scripture, the angels announce good news to the shepherds, not good advice. In other words, it’s an announcement about something that God has done for us, rather than something we do ourselves. As I say in this sermon, this distinguishes Christianity from every other world religion. Apart from Christ’s atoning death and resurrection, we face a crisis in our lives that none of us is able to solve. The good news is that, like any gift under the Christmas tree, God has given this gift of forgiveness and eternal life for everyone. All we have to do is receive it.

[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]

Sermon Text: Luke 2:1-20

A couple of days ago, my boys and I went to see the new Star Wars movie, Rogue One. It began the same way all the other Star Wars movies began—with a black screen and these words: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”

In other words, no matter how much tinkering with computer-generated imagery that George Lucas and others have done to keep the movies looking as visually “realistic” as possible, these ten words may as well read, “Once upon a time…” They remind us from the beginning that, despite the fact that thousands of British people in a recent census claimed “Jedi” as their religion, the world of Star Wars is nothing more than a glorified fairy tale.

star_wars

There’s nothing wrong with fairy tales, of course. But please note that the beginning of Luke’s Christmas story couldn’t be more realistic. True, it does take place long ago and far away—but not so long ago that we can’t date it and not so far away that we can’t pinpoint it on a map. No, it happened in “those days” during the reign of Caesar Augustus reigned—we know when that was—and when he issued a decree that the entire Roman Empire would be registered for a census. And not just any census—this was the first one, Luke tells us, when Quirinius was governor of Syria.

Luke wants us to know, in other words, that the birth of Christ was a real and verifiable event in history.

Why does that matter? Because Luke is reporting news to us—this happened in this time and place, and you need to know about it. He’s not giving us advice. Think about it: Fables, fairy tales, and even science-fiction fantasies can impart valuable life lessons to us. They can give us good advice. Live your life like this, they say. But they can’t give us good news. Read the rest of this entry »

For the sake of my soul, I hope Jesus’ ethical teaching isn’t the “main thing”

December 29, 2016

Just before Christmas, Tim Keller, my favorite contemporary preacher, gave an interview with New York Times. Op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristoff asked him challenging questions, and Keller acquitted himself well.

At least one Christian blogger, Steve Hackman, disagrees. He writes (emphasis mine):

Keller deftly does the difficult job of attempting to navigate 21st century sensibilities while still holding and defending cornerstones of the Christian faith…

…but then he drops one little sentence; one little bit of information that would be easy enough just to zoom past without giving it any thought whatsoever.

But this sentence hit me like a hammer!

I believe this sentence is the root cause of the rumblings being felt right now in American Evangelicalism between the old guard and a younger generation.

This sentence is the crack in the foundation ignored and overlooked for too long.

And what is this sentence?

Kristoff: And the Resurrection? Must it really be taken literally?

Keller: Jesus’ teaching was not the main point of his mission. He came to save people through his death for sin and his resurrection. So his important ethical teaching only makes sense when you don’t separate it from these historic doctrines.

Did you get that?  For evangelicals like Keller, Jesus’ teachings are of secondary importance.  They are “ethical teachings” to be incorporated after believing a death and resurrection occurred…

Now I agree with Keller the resurrection of Jesus is important but the resurrection of Christ is the confirmation (and promise) by God of everything Jesus  taught and proclaimed. Both at Christ’s baptism as well as the Transfiguration, the Father shows up to affirm his love for his son and that allshould listen to him!

What Jesus was teaching was not of secondary importance.  It was the MAIN thing!  Evangelicalism has been crippled by forgetting to keep the main thing the main thing.

Did you catch that?

As Hackman himself might say, Hackman drops one little sentence; one little bit of information that would be easy enough just to zoom past without giving it any thought whatsoever.

But this sentence hit me like a hammer!

This sentence is the crack in the foundation of American mainline Protestantism that has been ignored and overlooked for too long.

(Sorry, couldn’t resist…)

Keller says the main thing is Jesus’ death for our sins and resurrection, both of which are necessary for our salvation. Hackman responds by saying he agrees that Jesus’ resurrection is important. Wait… what about Jesus’ death for our sins?

Does anyone think that isn’t an intentional oversight? Why doesn’t he mention Christ’s atoning death on the cross? Does Hackman not believe that is important?

Does he not believe the angel who told Joseph in Matthew 1 that he is to name him Jesus “for he will save his people from their sins”?

Anyone who reads the Sermon on the Mount, for instance, without realizing how utterly impossible God’s standard for ethical behavior is, how thoroughly we fail to live it out, and how desperately we need a Savior to save us from our sins, has missed the point of the gospel.

So, yes, I hope Keller is right that Christ’s death for our sins and his resurrection are the main things.

“Glory to God in the Highest,” Day 29: An Unexpected Gift

December 29, 2016

I recently created a 31-day Advent/Christmas devotional booklet for my church called “Glory to God in the Highest.” I will be posting a devotional from it each day between now and the end of the year. Enjoy!

Scripture: Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23

glory_cover_finalIn keeping with the spirit of Christmas, the holiday classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer begins with the birth of an unconventional child: baby Rudolph has a glowing red nose! Unlike in the Christmas story, however, Rudolph’s parents are not happy about it. In fact, the first thing that Rudolph’s mother, Mrs. Donner, says  when she sees her son’s glowing nose is, “We’ll simply have to overlook it.”

Overlook it? Why can’t Rudolph’s mother conceive that this unusual feature of her son’s anatomy, far from being a problem, might actually be a gift or a blessing in some way?

rudolph
In a new book he wrote with his wife, an English pastor and theologian named Andrew Wilson reflects on his experience parenting his two young children, who have autism. Having children with special needs, he writes, is like being at a dinner party at which all the other guests receive a “chocolate orange” for dessert. (A chocolate orange is a British candy in the shape of orange wedges, which are wrapped in foil.)

While you watch all of your friends receive creamy, sumptuous chocolate oranges, the host of the party hands you an actual orange instead. Wilson writes:

Special needs, like the orange, are unexpected. We didn’t plan for them, and we didn’t anticipate them. Because our children are such a beautiful gift, we often feel guilty for even saying this, but we might as well admit that we didn’t want our children to have autism, any more than we wanted them to have Down’s, or cerebral palsy, or whatever else. Give or take, we wanted pretty much what our friends had: children who crawled at one, talked at two, potty trained at three, asked questions at four, and went off to mainstream school at five… So there are times, when we’re wiping the citric acid out of our eyes and watching our friends enjoying their chocolate, when it feels spectacularly unfair, and we wish we could retreat to a place where everyone had oranges, so we wouldn’t have to fight so hard against the temptation to comparison-shopping and wallowing in self-pity. We know that oranges are juicy in their own way. We know that they’re good for us, and that we’ll experience many things that others will miss. But we wish we had a chocolate one, all the same.[†]

So oranges are good, he says—they’re delicious, they’re nutritious, there’s simply nothing wrong with having an orange—any more than there’s something wrong with Rudolph’s having a shiny red nose. In fact there is so much that’s right about it!

But we look around and what happens? We “comparison-shop”: Why can’t we have what they have? What we have is great, but… it’s more difficult, more challenging. It’s not what we expected.

Which brings us to the Christmas story. Think of Joseph. Talk about not getting what we expected! First, he has to deal with his hurt and bruised feelings when he imagines that his fiancée has cheated on him. Then he has to deal with the fact that his first-born son won’t be his own—that he will only be the child’s adoptive father.

Again, there’s nothing at all wrong with that; it’s just not what he expected.

Then he has to uproot his family and move to Egypt, when he finds out that the jealous King Herod is out to murder his son. Finally, even after that Herod dies, he still can’t return to his ancestral home of Bethlehem the way he plans, because another Herod is on the throne there—and this Herod is even worse than the first.

This isn’t at all what Joseph expected. His life is a thousand times more difficult than he thought it would be. But has any man in history been more blessed? No way!

The point is, God will often give us “gifts,” which, from our perspective, we would just as soon return for store credit.

But the question is this: Will we trust that what God gives us will be good for us—whether it’s what we want or not?

Do you ever “comparison-shop” when you look at what someone else has? Does it make you feel better or worse about yourself? Do you trust that God knows what he’s doing?

Andrew Wilson, “The Life You Never Expected,” thinktheology.co.uk. Accessed 01 December 2016.

“Glory to God in the Highest,” Day 28: Forgiveness Is the Meaning of Christmas

December 28, 2016

I recently created a 31-day Advent/Christmas devotional booklet for my church called “Glory to God in the Highest.” I will be posting a devotional from it each day between now and the end of the year. Enjoy!

Scripture: Matthew 1:21

glory_cover_finalLast year, Rob Manfred, the commissioner of Major League Baseball, announced his decision not to lift the Pete Rose’s lifetime ban from the game—a ban put into effect 25 years ago after Rose was discovered to have bet on baseball, both as a manager and player. To be fair, as best anyone can tell, he only bet on his team to win, which, if anything, would have given him more incentive to do well.

Nevertheless, Charlie Hustle, the all-time hit leader who sprinted to first base even on walks, who is easily one of the best to ever play the game, and who—from the perspective of a kid growing up in the ’70s and ’80s—was never less than a great role-model on the field, has been excluded from the Baseball Hall of Fame. I’m not minimizing his particular sins, I promise. But something about this story scratches the “grace itch” within me. Why can’t baseball forgive him?

I feel this way because I know who I am; I know what’s in my heart; I know I’m a sinner. I know what it’s like to try and fail, and try and fail, and try and fail again. I know what it’s like to want something so badly, yet at the same time know that I’m unworthy to receive it. And I’m talking about a prize far greater than admission into any sports hall of fame: I’m talking about admission into God’s kingdom, into God’s family.

God knows I deserved to be admitted there far less than Pete Rose deserves to be admitted into the hall of fame. The difference is, when I knocked at the door of God’s kingdom, I found a God who was “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” He was eager to forgive me and eager to welcome me in.

Have you received the healing that comes from the forgiveness of your sins? Are there sins that you need to confess right now? Read 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

“Glory to God in the Highest,” Day 27: A Gift, Not a Wage

December 27, 2016

I recently created a 31-day Advent/Christmas devotional booklet for my church called “Glory to God in the Highest.” I will be posting a devotional from it each day between now and the end of the year. Enjoy!

Scripture: Ephesians 2:8-9

glory_cover_finalI have a friend who’s a non-practicing Jew. Last year, he asked me the following question: “So are your parishioners upset about Starbucks not putting Christmas decorations on their holiday-themed coffee cups?”

I said, “No! In fact, the only Christians I know who are upset are those Christians who are upset about Christians being upset!” Or something like that… The point is, every Christmas season we hear about some new battle in the “War on Christmas.” While there may be battles worth fighting in that particular war, a trivial thing like a coffee cup or a cashier saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” isn’t one of them.

If we’re going to get upset about something related to the “War on Christmas,” let’s get upset  about that very anti-Christmas, anti-Christian song that plays on our radios round the clock during Christmas season. I’m talking about the song “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”: “He’s making a list/ He’s checking it twice/ He’s gonna find out who’s naughty and nice.”

Nice children get toys, the song says. Naughty children get lumps of coal.

Think about it: According to this song, Santa isn’t the giver of gifts. He’s in the business of doling out rewards and punishments.[†] You’ll get rewarded if you behave well—if you perform good works.

By contrast, when we talk about the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the gift of forgiveness, grace, and salvation, good behavior and good works have nothing to do with it: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Salvation is a completely free gift.

I admit we Methodists, of all people, often struggle with this idea. We get confused because we talk so much about what happens after salvation—that process called sanctification. As a pastor, I talk about it, too. But please, please, please… make no mistake: The gift of salvation—forgiveness of sin, eternal life, adoption as God’s children—is not conditioned by what we do after we’re saved.

Consider a Christmas gift: What if you forget to send a thank-you note right away? Or, when you do, the note is poorly written or insincere? Or what if you never send a note at all? Will the gift-giver come to your house and take the gift away? Of course not! If the gift-giver tried to take it away, then he or she was just proving it wasn’t a gift after all.

In fact, we have a name for those kinds of “gifts”: they’re called wages.

A wage is a payment for services rendered. If God paid us what we deserved to be paid, based on what we do, we wouldn’t be able to read this: because God would have wiped us off the face of the earth already.

No. The gift of salvation isn’t given because we deserve it. It’s completely free.

The gospel of Jesus Christ begins with this premise: Every single one of us is on the “naughty” list. We are, in other words, sinners. The question is, what are we going to do about it? Or maybe a better question is, “What is God going to do about it?”

Think of the God’s gift of eternal life in Christ as a present under the tree. The giver has written your name on the tag. He purchased it for you because of his great love wants you to open it. But he won’t force it on you. He wants you to receive it freely. It’s your choice.

Are you ready to receive this gift? Begin by praying the following prayer:

Almighty God, I confess to you that I am a sinner in need of your forgiveness. I know that because of my sins I deserve nothing better than death and hell. But I also know that you loved me too much to leave me this way. I am sorry for my sins and with your help I am turning away from them now. I believe that your Son Jesus is Lord. I believe that through Jesus—through his death on the cross and through his resurrection form the dead—you are offering me forgiveness and eternal life. Enable me to receive that gift now. I promise, by your grace and power, to be a faithful follower of Jesus for the rest of my life—in this world and in the world to come. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.

If you prayed this prayer, please let me or someone else know. My email address is brentlwhite@gmail.com. I would love to help you as you begin this journey as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

This idea, along with some of the language, comes from “The Gift that Never Stops Giving,” mockingbird.com, Accessed 11 December 2015.

“Glory to God in the Highest,” Day 26: Chip Off the Old Block

December 26, 2016

I recently created a 31-day Advent/Christmas devotional booklet for my church called “Glory to God in the Highest.” I will be posting a devotional from it each day between now and the end of the year. Enjoy!

Scripture: Matthew 1:20-24

glory_cover_finalThe movie Elf, starring Will Ferrell, has recently become a beloved holiday favorite. It tells the story of Buddy, a human child who grows up among Santa’s elves in the North Pole. Buddy becomes a hero in his own right, but I want to take a moment to appreciate an unsung hero of this story: Papa Elf, played by Bob Newhart. He is the adoptive father to Buddy.

Think about it: Buddy becomes the person he is, and is able to do the heroic things that he does, in part because of the role that Papa Elf played in his life.

If that’s true of Buddy the Elf, don’t you think it’s true of Jesus, too?

Before we answer that, let’s think through the mystery of the Incarnation: Jesus didn’t emerge from the womb on that first Christmas endowed with superhuman knowledge, power, and wisdom, fully equipped from birth to be Messiah and Son of God. On the contrary, after the 12-year-old Jesus visits the temple in Jerusalem in Luke chapter 2, Luke writes that Jesus “increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.”[†] While he was without sin, Jesus grew physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

elf-buddy-bob-newhart

That’s why, by the way, I never understood the line in “Away in the Manger” about “the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” He was as helpless and vulnerable as any baby, needing the love and care of his parents. Of course Jesus cried! Why wouldn’t he cry?

The point is, Jesus grew into the person that he did in part because of Joseph—his love, his example, his instruction, his discipline. Jesus wasn’t simply a “chip off the old block” because he was like his heavenly Father—although he was that, too—but also because he was like his earthly father, Joseph.

In fact, every time Jesus spoke of God as a loving Father—for example, in the Parable of the Prodigal Son—he did so in part because of his experience of Joseph as a loving father. I can only imagine that God chose Joseph to be Jesus’ father because he was the greatest earthly father who ever lived!

To say the least, this challenges me to think more soberly about my role as a parent! What about you?

If you have a child, have you ever considered that God chose you to be that child’s parent? What an awesome responsibility! But if God chose you, that means he’s also giving you the grace to be successful at it!

Luke 2:52

“Glory to God in the Highest,” Day 25: Veiled in Flesh the Godhead See

December 25, 2016

I recently created a 31-day Advent/Christmas devotional booklet for my church called “Glory to God in the Highest.” I will be posting a devotional from it each day between now and the end of the year. Enjoy!

Scripture: John 1:14

glory_cover_finalAt around noon on May 30, 1984, my eighth-grade classmates and I stood in a field near our high school to witness an annular solar eclipse. For a few moments, the moon passed in front of the sun. It appeared as if the sun were completely blacked out. Our teachers warned us repeatedly: “Don’t look up at the sky! You might go blind!” Or at least, they said, the light from the sun that isn’t blocked by the moon could damage our vision.

So instead of watching the eclipse directly, we watched it indirectly, through pinhole projectors made from shoeboxes.

As exciting as this was—and as happy as I was to be excused from class for most of the afternoon—I was too worried about being accidentally blinded by the sun to enjoy the experience. After all, if someone tells you not to think of pink elephants, what do you think of? In the same way, if someone tells you not to look up at the sky, what do you do?

Fortunately, I didn’t go blind, nor was my vision damaged. But the experience reminded me of an important Old Testament truth: It’s dangerous for us sinners to see God—even to get too close to him.

In Genesis 32, for example, Jacob is grateful to be alive after he realizes that he had been wrestling all night with God. In Exodus 33, when Moses asks to see God’s glory, God shields Moses’ eyes when God’s glory passes by. Otherwise, God tells him, the experience would kill him. In Isaiah 6, the prophet Isaiah has a heavenly vision and shouts, “I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips!” He realizes that he is in God’s presence, and he knows that sinners can’t get close to God without being destroyed.

Something changed, however, when Jesus came. In his hymn “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” Charles Wesley describes it this way:

Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with men to dwell
Jesus our Immanuel

Not only could humans get close to Jesus Christ—who is God-made-flesh—when he was on earth; now, because of Christ’s atoning death on the cross, we can be close to God all the time.

Remember what Christ did: He took our sins upon himself and suffered the penalty for them. (See 2 Corinthians 5:21.) He lived the life we were unable to live and died the death we deserved to die. In exchange, we who place our faith in Christ receive his righteousness as a gift.

From God’s perspective, then, it’s as if we’re no longer sinners at all. We are instead God’s beloved children.

Think of how much parents want to be close to their children. God desires that kind of relationship with you!

Do you believe that God longs to be in a close relationship with you? Do you believe that God wants to spend time with you in prayer and speak with you through his word, the Bible? Do your actions reflect this belief?

I’m praying right now that you and your family and friends will have a wonderful Christmas Day!

“Glory to God in the Highest”: Foreword by J. Matthew Chitwood

December 24, 2016

matthew

My friend Matthew wrote the following as a foreword to this year’s Advent/Christmas devotional booklet. A great Christmas message! Enjoy!

As I sit back and dwell on this fast approaching season of Advent and Christmas, I have plenty to be thankful for: I have a roof over my head, food on my table, a family that loves me unconditionally, and friends that support me in all aspects of my life. As we retell the story of the walk to Bethlehem through the coming weeks, I’m able to look at the walk I’ve taken in my short 25 years on this earth. I examine the struggles, the successes, the times when I felt lost, and the times when I felt invincible (“confidently stupid” probably better describes this feeling).

More often than not, during my twenties, I’ve found myself looking for divine purpose. There was the time, for example, when I left college wondering, “What in the world am I gonna do now?” I struggled emotionally for months as I went to interview after interview, hoping that I would find the right fit for my skills and my personal goals. That compounded with the other decisions I wasn’t prepared to make—like which insurance plan to choose and how to set up for retirement. And then having to answer to my mom for why I was so picky with women and when she could expect grandkids… These made for some stressful times! A little chat with God was the only thing that kept me grounded.

A particular story I think about from time to time is one that involves some early childhood Christmases of mine. On February 20, 1996, I was given the gift of a baby brother, a gift I could’ve given back a few times during our teen years (just kidding). Anyway, as Anthony was growing up, it seemed as if he was on a schedule for getting sick. Like clockwork, every Christmas and birthday until he was about 4, we would have to take him to the hospital for pneumonia. Sometimes it would be on the day of Christmas, but on this occasion it was a couple days before. As I was probably 5 or 6, my parents sent me to stay with my grandparents, who only lived—and still do—about a mile and a half from our house.

Although I’m sure my brother’s health was somewhere on my mind, my biggest concern was how in the world Santa was gonna find me if I wasn’t at home! I mean, why would Santa leave gifts at an empty house? So, as Christmas approached, I started to stress a little bit. I went to bed on Christmas Eve with many unanswered questions. But they were all soon to be answered: I woke up Christmas morning, walked to the living room of my grandparents’ house and found a single leaf of paper written in a style very similar to my granddaddy’s handwriting. I don’t remember the exact words, but it was something like this:

Dear Matthew,

I know things have been pretty busy around your house, but know I haven’t forgotten about you. I left all your gifts at your house, and they will be there for you when you get there. Thanks for being a good boy!

Love,

Santa Claus

I’m sure I totally butchered the letter, but you get the idea. Later that day, my dad came and picked me up. We went by the house to see if the old bearded man was telling the truth. We pulled up to what I will always remember as my favorite childhood Christmas gift. There was a big red go-kart sitting in our front yard, with a helmet lying on the front seat. Needless to say I was ecstatic. So for the next couple hours, as all my fears and questions were thrown aside, I was Dale Earnhardt cruising the hard turns in the snow around my house. It turned out to be one of my most memorable Christmases.

I tell you all this because I feel like this story is a lot like our walk with God. I’ve often felt like I wasn’t good enough to get my life right with Christ—like I had created a standard for where I should be as a Christian, and unless I reached that standard, I felt unworthy to approach God with my problems. I was under the delusion that God couldn’t see me at my lowest points, and only after I got back on my feet would I be able to recommit my life to him.

This obviously is not the case. The God we serve is omnipresent; he knows every move we make before we could fathom making it. And in some cases it is in our lowest of lows where we can find the greatest victory. When we are at our most powerless, that is the perfect stage for God to show his mighty power—which is far greater than any earthly demons or struggles we might be facing.

As a result, I can imagine God’s letter to us this Christmas sounding a little like this:

Dear Child of Mine,

I know life can be tough sometimes, and it seems like all hope is lost. But please know that I haven’t forgotten about you. My Son was sent to Earth, and his blood was shed, for the sins of many. I left all your gifts at my house, and they will be waiting for you when you get here.

Love,

God

Let’s use this season, not only to heal our relationship with our heavenly Father, but also to tell others the good news of Jesus Christ in a deliberate way—so that all of us may find our many gifts waiting for us when we get home.

Merry Christmas and God’s Blessings!

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