Updated: Dec 29, 2020
I’m spending this unique Christmas opening a different gift everyday (though I’m a bit late in getting started because I’ve been getting our house ready for our newest member: Silver Fir Dahlstrom, as seen in the photos). I’m sharing these twelve days of Christmas with you because for too long, my Christianity was too small. It was as if what I was looking at for so many years was a lovely piece of rock, not realizing that what was being offered was Half Dome itself - a vast, stunningly beautiful creation that exceeds imagination and so must be experienced to be appreciated. Jesus himself calls our inheritance the “treasure hidden in a field” that’s worth everything! We might not have family gatherings, perfect health, children who always do the right thing, confidence in our politics, or assurance that 2021 will be better (please let it be better!). But we do have these twelve gifts, available to be unwrapped, accepted by faith, enjoyed, and shared.
December 25th - The Gift of God with Us - My parents were married on December 25th because it was Dad’s day off from WWII. When the war ended, Dad took up teaching and Mom got pregnant, only to lose the baby at birth and nearly bled to death herself and from then on couldn’t bear children, so my sister was adopted in 1952, and me in 1956. My adopted dad, stricken with pneumonia numerous times before adulthood, lived with compromised health his whole adult life before dying in his fifties of pneumonia, leaving me wallowing in loneliness.
The single most important lesson I learned through all that time? That God loves us, seeks us, and is with us. Decades of serving as a pastor has shown me that none of us are granted immunity from suffering, loss, and death. Those who promise otherwise are selling something stinky. The promise is presence, which can, if we allow it, translate to profound companionship.
You won’t always feel God’s presence.
You won’t always even believe in it.
In these moments when you prefer self-destructive choices, you won’t even like it!
None of this changes the reality: Emmanuel: God with us!
The message of Christmas, though, is that God IS with us, and with us in ways that identify with our suffering, whether we’re in poverty, or on the run from a corrupt regime, or sick, or lonely, or unjustly accused, or afraid, or frustrated. God became human and ‘identifies with our weakness.'
Though all the gifts of Christmas are profound and important - this foundational gift remains the headwaters, the source from which everything else flows: We are never alone. We’re made for union with our creator. God entered humankind, and remains “with us” so that through every joy and sorrow we are not alone. This companionship is the basis of confidence, peace, and joy.
December 26th - The Gift of Reconciliation - Romans 5:10a
The theological language of being “reconciled through the death of God’s son” can be tricky, for lots of reasons, not the least of which is that theologians have debated it's meaning since the beginning. Since it’s Christmastime, I won’t bore you with all the various arguments, but the bottom line is a priceless gift. Embrace this reality: God’s not mad at you!
My worst Christmas as a child was the one where, coming home from relatives, I was carrying my mom’s brand new mixer into the house for her, complete with the glass bowls. Frost had settled on the sidewalk, a rare occurrence in my California hometown, and I slipped, sending the bowls skyward before crash landing, and shattering utterly.
I knew, somehow, that failure’s not OK, so immediately ran to my room, crying, dreading the impending punishment. Sometimes I think I’m still running, or at the least prone to run from God, out of a deep sense of inadequacy, like I’m made to paint Rembrandts but instead my life is the random scribbles of an infant. “Not enough” is one of the bad tapes that plays easily in my head.
It’s a lie. God’s not mad at me, and if I John 2:1,2 has anything to say about it, God’s not angry at anyone. Maybe that’s why, when Jesus intervened to prevent the execution of a woman caught in adultery, after hearing her say her accusers had all left, he said, “neither do I condemn you - go and sin no more.” Let me be clear here, that when Jesus says, ‘sin no more,’ he’s not instituting “two strikes you're out.” He’s wanting her to live the life for which she’s created, which isn’t a life diminished by adultery. God’s motive is always for our well-being, so we can stop running and hiding when we fail, and instead run to God so that our journey of transformation can continue.
December 27th - The Gift of Salvation - Romans 5:10b
If we’re reconciled (so that God’s not mad anymore) by Jesus’ death, we’re saved by his life! This message was missing in my faith experience for many years because I’d been taught that the whole point was to where I’d go when I die. “Receive Christ as your personal savior and go to heaven instead of hell.”
The point, though, is that reconciliation is like the first step, like receiving the backpack so that you can now go on the journey, with God as your companion and guide. But salvation? That has to do with everything else about you! The word salvation means, “to be delivered from...”
Is there anyone needing deliverance from anything:
Fear that kills confidence and courage?
Lust that kills self-control and love?
Greed that kills generosity and service?
Cynicism that kills hope and kindness?
Pride that kills vulnerability?
Worry that kills your capacity for presence and peace?
Violence that kills de-escalation
Oppression that kills justice?
I could go on, but you get the point. Jesus Christ’s intentions for our lives are much larger than we’d imagined, with the change of destiny at the end only a small piece of the puzzle. Of course you need all the pieces to complete the puzzle, but evangelicalism has, too often, made this the only piece.
When the story’s over, everything will be saturated with the glory of Christ, so all that ugly stuff that makes this world an ocean of pain will be gone. That work begins with God transforming each of us so that our personalities look more and more like unique expressions of Christ.
It doesn’t stop here! There are nine more days of Christmas! But these three pieces are foundational to everything that follows! - and to get us fully caught up, I promise a post by the end of the day for December 28th....