It’s Christmas Time! Are you weary and burdened?

You know what I usually do when I get tired?  I keep going.  Then I get sick.

This is a pattern that repeats itself several times a year.  You’d think I would learn, but I never do.  I always think I can do just one more thing.  Eventually, God draws the line for me and sends me to bed.  In no uncertain terms.

It’s especially easy to get rundown this time of year.  There are still the things I have to do (my job comes to mind).  And then there are all the things I want to do (it’s Christmas time, after all!) I do find it a little interesting, though, that all this bustle is in preparation for a day which originally had about as little preparation as we can possibly imagine.  Can you imagine telling your guests this year, “Oh, hi!  Sorry we weren’t expecting you and the house is full, but help yourself to the stable out back.”  Or consider the probability that the wisemen didn’t even show up until a year or two after Jesus’ birth! (This makes me feel better about sending my Christmas cards in January.)

Despite the seeming lack of preparation, I can only imagine that the Creator of the universe who orchestrates every detail of every human life paid extra special attention to the birth of His Son.  Which means that it must have transpired exactly the way He wanted.  If that’s the case, then maybe we need to rethink the kind of commemoration He wants today.  Maybe he wants us, like the wise men, to set down our gifts and worship Him.  Maybe He wants us, like the shepherds, to proclaim the good news and rejoice in God.  Maybe He wants us, like Mary, to ponder all of these things in our hearts.  Maybe He wants us, in fact, to not prepare at all, but to show up, just as we are. “Come to me” Jesus says, “all who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). 

This sounds pretty good.  Why on earth don’t I take Him up on that offer more often?  The answer, I think, goes something like this.

There is a dark underbelly to the Christmas story that we don’t talk about during our brightly lit festivities.  We don’t mention what other ramifications were brought about by the wisemen’s visit to worship Jesus.  We don’t mention, in fact, that Jesus also said, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34b).

What??

Jesus Himself, of course, never wielded a sword, but He knew His very presence would be divisive.  And it didn’t take long for the sword to manifest itself.  When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi (Matthew 2:16). It was the original sin all over again.  It was a man fearing his power would be overthrown by this “King of the Jews.”  It was a man, once again, trying to place his own power above God’s.  Herod did not want to take on Jesus’ yoke.  He wanted his own.

On some level, we all waiver between Herod’s grasp for power and the wisemen’s giving of their burdens to Jesus in worship.  When we focus too much on earthly matters, we are like Herod, concerned only with ourselves or with things that don’t really matter.  But if we allow the Holy Spirit to intercede on our behalf, we are able to release our burdens to Jesus and experience His peace. “For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace (Romans 8:7). It is not something we can do on our own.  Paul knew this when he cried out, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?”  But Paul also knew the answer. “Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord”(Romans 7:24).  We can come to Jesus anytime we are weary and burdened.  Like the wisemen, we can set our gifts down and worship Him.  Like the shepherds, we can proclaim the good news.  Like Mary, we can ponder all of these things in our hearts.  Indeed, when we set our minds away from our selfish desires and onto the Spirit of Jesus, we will find that His yoke is easy.  It is, in fact, life and peace itself.                                                                                        

For today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is Christ the Lord (Luke 2:11).

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A Tale of Two Mountains

In 2010, I made my first trip to Alaska. More than six years in the planning, it was more than a vacation.  It was a celebration with two friends to culminate the end of my Ph.D. program.

Needless to say, by the time I finally arrived in Alaska I was nearly uncontainable with excitement.  With 20+ hours of daylight to burn, we’d tour an area during the day and drive most of the night to our next destination.  “This is so cool,” I would say.  And two minutes later: “This is so cool.”

We had planned our trip so the final few days held the thing I was most looking forward to: Denali.  At 20,320 feet, Denali (or Mt. McKinley) is the largest mountain in North America.  In the years leading up to our adventure, Denali had taken on near-metaphysical proportions in my mind.  I knew only 1/3 of the visitors to Denali actually got to see the mountain.  Denali is known for creating its own weather pattern and hiding itself in broad daylight behind a screen of clouds.  But I didn’t care.  I wanted to stand in the presence of the mountain even if I couldn’t see it.   I was so excited that just the thought would set my heart to thumping.

It was nearing midnight when we finally pulled onto the Talkeetna Spur Road towards our campground.  Just ahead of us, someplace, was Denali.  I will never forget driving down that road, straining to look ahead.  It was dusk and the clouds were glowing.  Off on the horizon it was nearly impossible to tell: was that a cloud?  Or a mountain?  Mountain?  Cloud?

And then we came around a corner and it was THERE, hovering above the clouds like a mystical floating island.  After six years, I was staring into the face of my mountain.

My Mountain 2010

 

This past fall, I had the opportunity to travel back to Alaska for work.  I added a vacation day onto my trip and headed north from Anchorage along the now familiar route.  I was going to visit my mountain!  It was crystal clear and cold and the moment I turned onto the spur road, Denali was visible.  Its massive white face loomed shining against the dry blue sky.  That was too easy, I thought.  Where was the mystery, the anticipation, the straining to see it?

I stopped the car and got out to marvel at it.  And then a horrible thought suddenly occurred to me: that is not the mountain I have hanging on my wall. 

Wait…

Denali

I scanned the horizon.  Surely not!  Had I really taken a picture of a different mountain on my first trip?  That mountain that had burned itself indelibly into my memory – was that not even Denali??

When I got home I compared photos, and sure enough “My Mountain” was not Denali.  As near as I can tell, it is actually Mount Hunter, the next tallest mountain to Denali’s south.  Denali, on that first night, must have been hiding in the clouds.

You know, there are times when God hides mountains in the clouds.  Sometimes physically.  Sometimes metaphorically.  This is probably good.  If I knew the size of every mountain looming in the mist I’d probably never set foot outside my bedroom door.  Instead, God has a way of showing us just the path ahead, just the mountain we need to contend with right now.  When we peak one, no matter how tall, there is always another.  Even among the tallest mountains in the world, climbers will argue which one is the toughest, which route is the most technical, which face is the hardest. There is always bigger.  There is always tougher.

Hunter vs Denali

 

Sometimes what we think is the highest mountain we’ve ever seen is really just a foothill to something more.  Praise God we do not have to climb it alone.

I lift up my eyes to the mountains – where does my help come from?  My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth (Psalms 121:1-2).

The Five Things I’m Thankful For

Is it possible to be thankful without feeling thankful?

The answer, I think, is: Of course.

The Bible tells us that we should give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18).  I’ve heard more than one sermon on this passage that suggests God doesn’t tell us to be thankful for everything; He tells us to be thankful in everything.  I have to contest this theory with Ephesians 5:20 which says we should be always giving thanks to God the Father for everything.  God, I think, wants us to be thankful both in everything and for everything.  God is in control, which means everything will ultimately be used for His glory.  Even when we don’t like something, we are to give thanks recognizing 1) there is always something to be thankful for, and 2) even the very thing we don’t want to give thanks for can be used for God’s good purposes.  Even if others mean it for harm, even if the Devil himself is after us, God can use it for good.  We know that for those who love God all things work together for good (Romans 8:28).  Even the things we’re a little less than thankful for.

With all these verses on thankfulness, I got to thinking how I’ve never seen one that says we are to feel thankful.  Which got me thinking some more.  Sometimes I go about this all wrong.  I act as though thankfulness is something I should be receiving, when in actuality, thankfulness is something I should be giving.  I shouldn’t be sitting here waiting for God to give me that full-to-bursting feeling.  I should be saying, “God, even though I don’t feel very thankful today, I am still glad you’re in control.  Thank you.”

It’s not easy to say thank you – and mean it – when you don’t feel it.  It’s a bit like walking a familiar path in the dark.  The “sunny” days I dash off thanksgivings without a second thought.  I love everything!  I am thankful for everything!  But when the dark days come even the major gifts don’t seem quite so bright and shiny.  I may have the exact same things to be thankful for – everything I loved in the daylight is still there – but I no longer see it.  Outwardly, nothing has changed.  It’s the same path.  But in the dark, my feeling is different.  And this is where we hear Paul say: In everything give thanks.  For everything give thanks.

I am blessed to have a friend with whom I randomly exchange thankful lists.  Sometimes by phone; sometime by email.  One of us will say, “Today I am thankful for…” and we will each list five things.  The other day I dashed off an email that said, in essence, “I am in need of an attitude adjustment, so today I am thankful for…”  and I am sad to say that out of the millions of blessings I should have been able to dash off, it took me several minutes to type out five.  You might say I was in the dark and even though I knew the blessings were there, I just couldn’t feel them.  But it doesn’t matter if I don’t feel them.  I can still give thanks in the dark.

We were talking about that tonight, this friend and I, and she was laughing that she had been thinking about all kinds of things for me to be thankful for.  “Just think of that email transaction,” she said.  “You could be thankful for the computer and email and internet and your eyes to see it and your fingers to type it…”

“I know.  I know,” I interrupted.  And then: “I’m glad at least one of us is thankful!”  But as I hung up the phone I thought, Carry one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2).  Sometimes that means helping each other to be thankful.

Tonight I not only am thankful, I feel thankful.  For a friend who called and talked to me about being thankful.  And also for pillows, breakfast, carpets on cold tile, and indoor plumbing.

It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to your name, O Most High; to declare your steadfast love in the morning, and your faithfulness by night (Psalm 92:1-2).