Thursday, December 15, 2011

I'm Glad Jesus Isn't Santa

As parents, my husband and I decided when we had children that we were not going to teach our kids to believe in Santa Clause. It's not that we're against Santa... or people whose holiday does include him, but we just decided that was not a tradition we were going to follow in our home - for several reasons.

The main one was this: We were teaching our kids about Jesus, a supernatural being who is omicient (all-knowing), omnipresent (all places), and sees your heart. We didn't want to teach our kids about a fictional character with similar attributes (Santa)only to one day have to say. "just kidding, he isn't real"... but maintain that Jesus IS real. We thought that would be confusing, and we didn't want our kids to know us as parents who mislead them. We also wanted to keep the focus of Christmas on Jesus (the Savior who came to redeem the world) rather than on commercialism, getting stuff, and thinking of self. It was as simple as that. No big deal. Unlike some other people with strong religiious convictions, we don't bash Santa or call him evil. We just simply tell our kids that he is a fun, make-believe character like Mickey Mouse. A fictional character that represents the holiday, but is not real. My kids get it, and they are not the least bit deprived because of the lack of "magic" in our home. They know that their gifts come from people who love them, and they are greatful.

The other day I was riding in my car listening to Christmas music on the radio, and I heard "Santa Clause is Coming to Town". You know, the one about making a list and checking it twice - finding out who's naughty or nice. As those lyrics began to sink in, I found myself a little dismayed. Minutes later, I was at Barnes & Noble and saw a popular new book/toy called the "Elf on the Shelf". The stuffed elf acts as Santa's spy and sits in various locations in your home watching your kid's behavior, and then reports back to Santa so he'll know who to put on the 'naughty list' or the 'nice list'.

Then it struck me. I didn't like the song, and I didn't like the elf on the shelf, and I finally realized why. Santa opperates on a system that I (as a Christian) can't relate to. It's a "works-based" system, and it's foreign to me as a Jesus-follower. My entire faith is built around the idea of grace. Your works don't save you. Jesus doesn't weigh your good and your bad and decide what reward/punishment you get based on your behavior or your performance. He gives on a system of grace - we mess up all the time, don't earn or deserve any favor, but we get it anyway, because He loves us unconditonaly. That's the definition of grace - getting something you don't deserve. Not because of anything we have done, but because of the never-ending love and generosity of the Gift-Giver. That's the foundation of my faith. That is what I teach my children. And that is the culture in which I'm used to existing. That's why the whole Santa thing strikes me as "off". The works-based system of getting gifts because you behaved good enough, or getting overlooked because you didn't meet the mark goes against everything my faith represents, my Bible teaches, and my Savior proclaims. It's contrary to everything I teach my kids about Jesus. And quite honestly, I think it's even a little cruel. Can't we just teach our kids to be obedient and respectful without threatening to take away their Christmas? Shouldn't we expect good behavior from them simply because it's what we value as a family, and it's necessary for success in the world? And shouldn't we bestow gifts on them at Christmas simply because we love them and we're thankful for God's blessings?

I'm glad Jesus isn't Santa. I'm thankful that my Savior doesn't weigh my good and bad deeds and gift me accordingly. I'd have a lot of scarce Christmases. I'm so thankful for the unconditional grace of my Savior, that gifts me with forgiveness of my sins and eternal life - not because I earned it, but because of His endless love. Yep, I'm sure glad Jesus isn't Santa. Merry Christmas!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

It's Bigger Than Breasts

I gotcha with that title, didn't I? Some of you clicked on this link just because you saw the word breasts and you were curious about where I was going with this one. Well good, I'm glad I have your attention.

I saw one of the dumbest things I've ever seen today in downtown Asheville, and my initial anger turned to sadness and pitty as I realized what was really going on. A group of women decided to stage a protest this afternoon in the middle of downtown - topless. That's right, you heard me correctly. They were topless - as in no shirts, breasts exposed, nude from the waist up. What on earth were they protesting you ask? They were demanding the right to be topless in public. They are tired of the double standard that allows men to walk the streets with their chests uncovered while women are forced to cover up. They want equality. They want the same rights men have to bare their chests.

I'm sure you're laughing as hard as I was when I first learned of this ludacricy. And I'm sure you're also thinking "only in Asheville"... But it was actually part of a national protest that was taking place in many cities all over the country. The reason we find it so humorous is because they seem to be overlooking the obvious. "Are they serious?" I asked myself as I pondered the statement they were making. "Do they really not understand the difference between a male chest and a female chest?" Why do they seem to be missing something that's incredibly obvious to most of us? The fact is, men and women's chests are different. They look different; they function differently; and they produce very different physical and emotional responses in those who view them. It didn't seem like rocket science to me, so why was it so hard for them to accept - men and women are DIFFERENT.

But this particular group of women did not want to be treated as if they were any different than men. They wanted to pretend that men and women are exactly the same, therefore leaving them no room to feel inferior or less than equal. But just because they ignore the truth, doesn't make that truth any less true. I (unlike them) understand that different doesn't mean unequal, and equal doesn't mean the same. We can be different AND equal at the same time. But this issue was actually bigger than just breasts - There was a deeper issue at play that went beyond the desire to walk around topless. Underneath these ladies' outer facade calling out for "equality" was an insecurity and a dissatisfaction that caused them to not be content with who God designed and created them to be. They claimed that they were being treated as substandard, but really they simply cannot accept and embrace the design and role that God created uniquely for them. And that's what made me sad.

I wished that these women could celebrate their differences rather than resent them. I wished that they could see the beauty in the hand-crafted design of our Creator that would cause them to glory in their uniqueness rather than wish that they were made in someone else's image. I wanted so badly to tell them that we can be equal in value while being different in appearence and even function. All we have to do is look at God Himself to see this truth illustrated. God exists in the form of the Trinity - three distinct persons equal in value, but very different in form and function. The Father, Jesus, and the Spirit all look different and perform unique roles, but I can't imagine the Holy Spirit protesting that he doesn't get to walk the streets in fleshly human form and therefore isn't being treated fairly.

There's no way around it. Women have breasts, and men don't. Women have a unique ability to feed a child with the pure milk of her own body, and men cannot. As a result, their chests look different. And because breasts have a uniquely feminine role (having to do with reproduction), they are viewed by men as desireable, pleasurable, and sexual. That is why women cover them in public. That is why they are usually reserved for the one who partners with them in the sexual and reproductive process (and their babies of course). This protest seemed as silly to me as a gorup of men protesting their right to feed their babies with their own bodies like women can, and feeling unequal because of that inability. They could protest all day long, but it wouldn't change the fact that if they tried to feed their baby on their nipple, the baby would die of starvation.

It's time for us (especially women) to start embracing the way God specifically designed our bodies, our minds, and our hearts, and realizing that they are different from men's for a reason - a divine purpose. If we would only put our whole hearts into becomming the woman God designed us to be instead of trying to become more like men, I believe we would find so much fulfillment and satisfaction. Because after all, He knows us better than we know ourselves. And He created us to fulfill a purpose that only we can. The Bible says it this way: "We are His masterpiece. He has created us in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things He planned for us long ago" (Ephesians 2:10 NLT). The word for 'masterpiece' in the original Greek language of the Bible is "poema", which is where we get our English word for poem. God's literally saying that we are His work of art. We each have a unique and wonderful role to play in this life, and I happen to love the role I play as a lover to my husband and mommy to my children. I enjoy being the steward of a man's vision and a leaver of a legacy to the next generations through my boys. That is who God designed me to be. I understand that not every woman will have the exact same roles and desires that I have, but don't be afraid to be who God uniquely made you to be without feeling inferior to someone else. Just be the best "you" that you can be, and don't wish that God had other things in mind when He knitted you together in your mother's womb.

Those of us who are in Christ sometimes struggle with a similar identity crisis. We may not mind being uniquely male and female (and I doubt any of us want to roam the streets baring our breasts), but we sometimes envy the roles and positons of other members of the Body - especially those who are more recognized and glamorous. Romans 12:4-6 reminds us that, "Just as our bodies have many parts, and each part has a special function, so it is with Christ's body. We are many parts of one body and we all belong to each other. In His grace, God has given us certain gifts for doing certain things well." The foot shouldn't want to be the hand, and the hand shouldn't want to be the eye. We should simply desire to be nothing more and nothing less than who God designed us to be. It's when we strive to be anything else, that we find ourselves beating our heads against the wall in frustration, becoming increasingly unfilfilled in our service to Christ. We become weary and burned out, eventually giving up.

For years I struggled to "find myself". I grew up never being quite sure of who I was, or who I wanted to be. I was uncomfortable in my own skin. I never had any female role models who actually loved and embraced womanhood with elegance and grace. I was taught to buck against the system that told girls to stay home raising babies, serving in charities, and cooking for their men. I was caught in the middle of an inner struggle between growing into the woman God created me to be and running in the other direction. I didn't relate well with girls, and consequently didn't have many deep friendships with females. To this day I am afraid to raise a daughter because of that long season of discomfort in my female relationships (thankfully God in His infinate wisdom gave me boys!). I was being told I shouldn't be too "girlie", but there was something deep in the fiber of my being that loved the idea of being a picture of femeninity. It wasn't until I fully surrendered my life to Christ in my early twenties that I began to let Him mold and shape my heart in His hands. He cultivated deep desires within me to be every bit of the wife, mommy, sister, daughter, and girlfriend He created me to be. He surrounded me with strong, beautiful, godly women who taught me the immense value in being such a woman. Ironically, today I lead a women's ministry and devote much of my time to teaching, mentoring, and counseling women to fit comfortably in the roles God has chosen for them. I love my ministry, and I love the women I am privileged to serve. It amazes me what God can do to our hearts when we stop looking elsewhere and start embracing and surremdering to His grand design. I am finally right where I am supoosed to be, and I've never been more satisfied in life.

It is right in the middle of His purpose that we find our deepest fulfillment in life. When you find that sweet spot right at the intersection of who God designed you to be and using your gifts to further His Kingdom - stay there.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Country Club Christianity

Let's play a game called "Where Am I?" (And I'm going to warn you up front that there may be hints of sarcasm throughout this blog entry... but it's not because I mean to offend anyone - it's that when I'm passionate about something I tend to lose control a little. I'm working on that.)

So here's how we play the game: I describe a place to you, and you guess where I am. Easy? Ok, good, here we go. I'm walking into a polished white building. There on the announcement board in front of me is a notice about the monthly ladies gathering for crafts. Then below that is another announcement for the upcoming men's biking trip. A calendar is also hanging on the wall that schedules the regular pot-lucks and "Community BBQ/Pic-nics". There's an aerobics class on Tuesday mornings, and childcare on Fridays for "Mother's Morning Out". A baby shower is being planned for Susie, and I can sign up to bring a lunch item if I wish. As I walk a little further I see a board with the names of perspective members listed along with their pictures. And the new member directories are out on the table for anyone to take. I walk into the ladies bathroom and hear a few girls chatting quietly about how they heard that Janie's husband cheated on her and has moved out of the house. As I leave, I put my name on the sign-up sheet for the ladies craft event and I jot down the name of the person I need to call to sign up to volunteer for next week's river clean up.

Where am I? Well, someone might say, "Oh I know... that's my local country club." Another might say, "No, no, I know where she is... it's my local church." Which one is it? My heart breaks at the thought that, for some, it may actually be hard to differentiate between the two. I'm not trying to pick on anyone's particular church here, but I do think we need to take a serious look at our mission as church-goers and evaluate how that mission is being carried out. And if we can't tell the difference between a church and a country club, then something has gone astray since the first church began back in the day of Acts.

I want to say that I've been to many excellent churches that don't look anything like this example I gave, and I am impressed by the growing number of ministries that are right on target with the true mission of Jesus for His church. However, I've also seen some that sadly look more like an exclusive social club than anything Jesus ever implemented. Why is that? How did we get so off track that we got the idea that church is supposed to be a place for meeting social needs and learning how to knit? I run the risk of offending with my sarcasm here, but I just can't imagine the early church - or the church Jesus went to - having a craft night for ladies. Is that what some people's Christianity has been reduced to? I just can't help but wonder how the point is being missed.

In some countries, Christianity is illegal and people cannot worship God freely and openly without fear of persecution or death. They go to underground churches and risk their lives to open a Bible and tell others about the saving grace of Christ. As those Christians sneak into dark apartments to meet in secret to pray and read their Bibles by candlelight, I just can't imagine them breaking out the crafts or enjoying a game of Bingo. They have serious work to do, and they can't afford to waste any time on frivolous social gatherings.

I'm not suggesting that we can't have fun and be social at church, or that every time we get together it has to be all serious work and no play. The fact is, we are free to worship and we don't face persecution, so we don't have to act like we do. But let's not take that so for granted that we neglect to do God's business either. Church is a family - after all, we're brothers and sisters in Christ. And we all have an automatic bond based on that truth. It's perfectly fine to enjoy that bond by having fun together - I've had some of the best times of my life hanging out with my church family. But we can't get so focused on ourselves that we forget what we're there to do. We have a mission, and Jesus should be the forefront of everything we do. He should always be the reason we gather. If we're not making disciples - either by growing in discipleship ourselves or contributing to the discipleship of someone else - we shouldn't call it church.

If the ladies are going to gather every month - great. But open a Bible and talk about God's plan for being a godly wife, mother, sister, daughter, friend, employee, etc. Spend some time praying for one another's burdens and strengthening/encouraging one another as you run the race together. Then others can look on at your life and your character and hunger for what you have, which is the spirit of the living God dwelling within you. You learn to live out the gospel by wearing it as a display for the world to notice. My life was changed on a women's retreat (vacation) with my church when I was in my early 20s. That was because we spent just as much time (or more) as we did lounging on the beach, intensely studying God's word, learning from the experience of other wise women, worshiping without distraction, and evoking the power of the Holy Spirit through prayer and laying on hands. There was shopping, and tanning, and it was a lot of fun. But more discipleship happened than anything else. Jesus was the focus, and my life is different today because of it.

I remember when I worked at my church years ago, someone called the church to see if we offered aerobics classes. I thought, "Oh you're looking for the gym - this is a church." It seemed silly to me that anyone would expect the church to be the gym. I know of another church who does have a work-out class for women, but they spend half the time in Bible study (building their spirit) and half the time working out (building their physical bodies). After all, the Bible does say, "Bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things, holding promise for both the present life AND the life to come" (1 Timothy 4:8). I think the Bible makes the point that the things that benefit us in this life are fine, but not nearly as important as those which benefit us eternally.

So if you want to do crafts or go camping, great. Go and have a blast. But don't call it church. Call it what it is - hanging out with friends. And make church look less like a country club and more like what Jesus built His church to be: a hospital for the hurting, a refuge for the outcast, a school for those hungry for wisdom, a house of prayer for those needing healing, a place of counsel for the sinner, a temple for those who want to worship with their whole hearts, and a place of love for the unlovable. A place where the Spirit of God leads in everything that is done there. A place where disciples are made. A place where life transformation is the main event. In our society, we don't suffer from too little time to socialize. We suffer from too little time to worship. So why do we go to church to do more socializing and less worshipping? It's time we get back on track. Time is short, and we have a mission before us: "Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19).

If I've offended you with my sarcasm, I am sincerely sorry to have hurt you. But the Bible (and Jesus) is an equal-opportunity offender. At some point, everyone who reads it will have their toes stepped on a little. And that's a good thing. I hope my passionate exhortation of truth has pushed you a little further out of your comfort zone, and you respond by evaluating your current mission as a Christian. I am passionate about the things of God, and for that I do not apologize. Now let's go and get some work done!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Life Is a Roller Coaster

You know the song, "Life is a highway, I want to drive it all night long..."? Well, I've never found that to be true. Life, in my eyes, is more like a roller coaster than a highway. Highways are usually long and straight and mundane. My life has never resembled that. I think life is more like a short, crazy ride full of ups, downs, twists, turns, fun and fear. So I think the song should have said, "Life is a roller coaster, I want to ride it all night long."

A few years ago, when my oldest son Jonah was five years old, we went to Disney World. He was just starting to enjoy "grown up" rides, and he still had some reservations about some of the scarier ones. It was a fear of the unknown - he didn't know what to expect. He was walking into something that he had never been through before and he honestly wasn't sure what would happen to him. It was dark inside the "Pirates of the Carribbean" and there was fire. He didn't understand that the fire wasn't real and the entire ride was being controlled. He didn't quite understand that it was meant for our enjoyment and there was no real risk of getting hurt. His concerns were very real to his childish mind. What if he got captured by the pirates? What if the fire burned him? What if the boat sunk? He didn't quite understand the concept of "rides", and he was genuinely worried for his safety and well-being.

I, on the other hand, was not afriad at all. Why? What was the difference between his fear and my ability to enjoy the ride without any fear at all? It was our understanding of the situation. I knew that I was not going to die. I knew the ride wasn't going to hurt me in any way. I knew it was carefully crafted and orchestrated by experts who planned every little detail of the ride. I also knew it was short and would be all over in a matter of minutes. And when it ended, I would walk away, unharmed. It was just a ride. My son, on the other hand, didn't understand that the designers and engineers made the ride in such a way that it was completely controlled and harmless. He didn't realize that nothing in the ride was actually as it seemed. That there were workers sitting at computers controlling every operation. I had been on the ride several times - I knew exactly what to expect. It was all new to him, so he didn't know what was around every dark corner. I not only had no fear, but I was able to enjoy the ride - even the parts that seemd momentarilly scarey. My son and I went on the exact same ride, but we had completely different experiences. Mine was relaxed, easy, and fun. His was feardul and stressful, and he couldn't wait for it to be over.

Life with God is much the same. We have a maker - an engineer - who is at the controls and carefully orchestrates every operation. He knows exactly what is going to happen to us and when. When we're going through a trial or a situation that seems scarey and turbulent, we're actually still on the ride and He is still very much in control. He knows it's just a short ride and we'll be off it soon. He also knows we're not really going to be harmed. But so often we walk through it in fear and stressed out about what's around every next corner.

Just like me and my son on the ride at Disney World, two people can go through the same situation in life and have completely differnet experiences. The Christian who knows that God is in control and keeping him safe will ride through a trial or struggle with no fear. He will simply take in the scenery along the way with a comforting realization that he'll be out of it soon enough and he's not going to die (at least not spiritually, since a physical death would only result in everlasting life with God in heaven). That person may expereince discomfort, but not terror. he may even be able to enjoy God's presence along the way, knowing that it's just a ride. Another person, however, who doesn't have the same perspective will be consumed with fear and worry with every twist and turn.

My son is eight years old now, and he's learned to love amusement park rides. In fact, the scarier the better for him. I, too, have been walking with God long enough to have learned to like the ride too - even if at times it's scary. I've learned to be confident in the ride Operator and the fact that He upholds the entire universe in His hands. "I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord; plans to prosper you and not harm you; plans to give you a future and a hope." If we really believe Him, we can sit back and enjoy the ride, even when the 200-foot drop causes our stomaches to rise up into our throats. I can almost hear Him saying, "it will be over soon - you will walk away unscathed - I am in control."