Save Thanks-Christmas!

He came!

“Official reports now confirm, Christ-mas has indeed been hijacked!  The surprising suspects include the beloved Santa Claus and his band of merry elves, the notorious Disney crew, and the Peanuts gang.  And in other news, after attempts by several members of the retail mob family to kidnap Thanksgiving, it has been taken into protective custody at a secure location, until the suspects can be apprehended and returned to Greed Penitentiary.”

I had to earn my United States citizenship, and studying American history was still part of the naturalization process; so as a result, I fell in love with Abraham Lincoln, Thanksgiving Day, and American football…which technically was not in the history book, but was one tradition I readily embraced, along with pumpkin pie and marshmallows, …which I cannot explain.

It seemed to me that Thanksgiving was one of the few things the British refugees and American Indians got absolutely right, whatever happened down the road.  And if  they went around the table saying what they were thankful for, it probably would be some of the same things we hear around our tables; family, friends, provision, and so on.  Then, as now, the true significance is in the choice to put everyday life on pause; to have an attitude of gratitude, despite the struggles and strife of the past, the perils of the present, or concerns about the future.

So, seriously?!  Black Friday shopping on Thanksgiving Thursday?  There are already at least three hundred and sixty-four other days in the year to shop!  It is time for the proverbial frog to jump out of the boiling water; to draw a line in the sand; to take a stand for truth, justice and the tattered shreds of the fabric that remains of the American family way, before we are destroyed by our insatiable appetites for more of…anything and everything.

And even with all those shopping days, I have searched three Christmases now for a lighted Nativity scene display for my front yard, among the plethora of Santas, Mickey Mouses,…or Mice, Charlie Browns and Snoopys, all to no avail. Yes, I may have scared the salesperson at the large department store just a little when my frustration erupted into:

“Whose freakin’ birthday is it supposed to be?!”

I know …I must behave better; exercise more self-control.

Thanksgiving is my yearly opportunity to appreciate the people, and experiences that are part life on planet earth, with all its joy and sorrow, and to turn to God with a heart full of thanks that He keeps on giving. It is the perfect set-up for my most favorite holiday of all, Christmas.

Every year as Christmas approaches, I am overwhelmed by God’s greatest gift of all; packed up in Jesus’ human body, wrapped in strips of cloth for a bow, and laid in an animal trough instead of under a gorgeously decorated and lit Christmas tree. Over and over I play Handel’s entire ‘Messiah’, while I decorate, wrap presents and bake traditional Jamaican Christmas cake, made with fruit soaked for months in so much rum and port wine, the house smells like a bar.

It was Johnson Oatman Jr. who wrote the words of one my favorite hymns describing something that will forever be a mystery, even to angels, and I hope will explain why Thanks-Christmas means so much to me.

There is singing up in Heaven such as we have never known,
Where the angels sing the praises of the Lamb upon the throne,
Their sweet harps are ever tuneful, and their voices always clear,
O that we might be more like them while we serve the Master here!

Holy, holy, is what the angels sing,
And I expect to help them make the courts of Heaven ring;
But when I sing redemption’s story, they will fold their wings,
For angels never felt the joys that our salvation brings.

But I hear another anthem, blending voices clear and strong,
Unto Him who hath redeemed us and hath bought us,
 is the song;
We have come through tribulation to this land so fair and bright,
In the fountain freely flowing He hath made our garments white.

Then the angels stand and listen, for they cannot join the song,
Like the sound of many waters, by that happy, blood washed throng,
For they sing about great trials, battles fought and vict’ries won,
And they praise their great Redeemer, who hath said to them, Well done.

So, although I’m not an angel, yet I know that over there
I will join a blessèd chorus that the angels cannot share;
I will sing about my Savior, who upon dark Calvary
Freely pardoned my transgressions, died to set a sinner free.

For me, Thanksgiving is short-sighted, Christmas pointless, and the entire human experience without meaning or purpose if Jesus is removed from any or all of it.

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in Him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through Him and for Him. He Himself is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.  He is the head of the body, the church; He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He might come to have first place in everything.  For in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Him God was pleased to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of His cross.”  Colossians 1:125-20

So here’s the thing, I absolutely refuse, on principle, to go shopping on Thanksgiving Day; and for Christmas I adamantly refuse to decorate my yard with Santa, Disney, or Peanuts characters in place of Jesus Christ!  On these issues I conscientiously choose to be intolerant and narrow-minded and humbly beg forgiveness if I cause offense. But this is the point at which I feel compelled to say, “Enough!”, if I am to keep on…just living the thing.

Heaven, cinnamon rolls, and a hand up…

I want to believe that in heaven there will be Cinnabon cinnamon rolls, which taste exactly the same but are miraculously loaded with vitamins, minerals, and everything good for you, while brussel sprouts will not even make it to heaven because they will be full of trans-fats, carcinogens, and ‘evilness’.  Blame it on the episode of Undercover Boss I watched the other day which featured Kat Cole, the young CEO of Cinnabon who has a fascinating story of success that is worth a foray into Google just to check it out.

Throughout the episode she did something I seldom see heads of corporations do; repeatedly expressing her gratitude to the people who recognized and acknowledged her potential, took a chance on her, and did all they could to open up opportunities for her to move up the corporate ladder.  Success did not make her forget the people who throughout her career did not see her as a threat, but were secure enough in themselves to give her a hand up.

So today I woke up thinking about heaven and cinnamon rolls, but most importantly feeling the need, once again, to celebrate and emulate people who look back down whatever ladder they have climbed, or are climbing, and give a hand up to those below them. The people who do whatever they can to stop dreams from turning to dust; who are instrumental in moving us from our, “Aha!” moments to the, “I did it!” shout of victory.

In a culture preoccupied with the myth of being entirely self-made, too many stories of success omit or gloss over the credit due to the person or persons who steered us in a direction, made a phone call, wrote a check, or in some other way made the next step toward a personal or professional goal possible.  And the highest commendation should go to those who give a hand up with grace and humility, not seeking recognition or glory for themselves, but who find their greatest reward in the act of helping, not in the accolades or benefits they may gain from their actions, immediately or in the future.

Which brings me to a reality TV show at the other end of the spectrum, which I could stand to watch only once, Shark Tank; the most accurate portrayal I have seen to date of corporate abuse and greed, attempting to pass itself off as giving a hand up to struggling entrepreneurs.  These multi-millionaires and billionaires offer to risk money they would barely miss, or may write off on their tax return, demand majority share in the fledgling business or outrageous rates of return on their investment, and are rude and insulting in the process.  It was heartbreaking to watch that spectacle.

I will be eternally grateful…literally, that God was willing to offer a hand up to the entire human race solely because of His inexplicable, yet unwavering love for us.

“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.  Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die.  But God proves His love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” Romans 5:6-8

I know you might have been expecting me to quote John 3:16 for a minute there,

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16

But Paul’s declaration to the church in Rome is a much more powerful reminder that God had everything to lose, and so little to gain, yet His perpetual, pursuing, perfect love, compelled Him to make the greatest sacrifice, to give us a hand up; to change our eternal destiny, and He did it while we were still a hot mess!

There is a scene that comes to my mind, more frequently around the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, of a somber meeting between God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Humanity, the crown of Their creation, is in a hopeless situation, destined for eternal destruction, most unaware of their fate, and with no way to save themselves.

Love drives the decision of the Godhead to rescue mankind; to give “whosoever will believe” a hand up out of the quicksand of eternal death. The Son would take on human form and be given the name Jesus, (Hebrew for Savior),

“…for He will save His people from their sins.” Matthew 1:21

He would live a perfect life and then die a horrible death in full payment of the penalty for every sin.  Standing there, on the edge of eternity and time, clothed in the fullness of His divinity, omnipotent and omniscient, Jesus knew.  He knew that in our quest to be gods ourselves, most would reject His sacrifice, use His name as a curse word, and even deny His existence…and… still… He… came; He stepped over the border from eternity into time, arms outstretched, to bring hope to the hopeless.

So here’s the thing,… if life has you barely holding on to hope by your fingernails, have courage and hang in there. Keep your eyes and heart open because help is coming; God always has someone out there willing to be His hands, and able to give you a hand up.  And while you are waiting, do not even entertain the temptation to take a hand up from the person holding handcuffs in their other hand; God did not send them, and it will not end well.

Also, regardless of where you are on the climb of life, don’t be so preoccupied with your own journey that you forget the plight of those who are stuck in places where you have already been.  Look back once in awhile, and be ready and willing to give a hand up, not for reward or glory, but to celebrate and emulate all the people in your past who have given you hand up, and God Himself will be pleased with you for…just living the thing.

Vote, sleep, pray

I grew up in a country where general elections were marked by violence and you could get shot just for wearing the wrong color clothing in the wrong area of town.  My mother and father were staunch supporters of opposing political parties and the loud, animated arguments would go on for hours, frequently deteriorating into accusations and name-calling.  Each government touted new vision and recycled old promises but very little would change, for better or worse; and the carousel went around and around.

The intensity of the angst and animosity aroused by our recent elections gave me cause for concern, though I for one am grateful that the war is primarily one of words, not bullets and I did not have to temporarily ban sections of my wardrobe in fear for my life. However, the inflammatory rhetoric, the broad labels, the deifying of individuals and political parties and demonizing of others compelled me to pray more fervently for our country than I ever have before.

When did we decide to allow our hopes and fears to rise or fall on the fate of any political party?  Why would we base our highest expectations on the good intentions of any human government, make enemies of people who do not see things the way we do, or choose ideological conflict over building community?

The Bible teaches that every government on earth, democratically elected or not, owes its existence to, and will be held accountable by God Himself.  The Babylonian empire ruled the world but its king Nebuchadnezzar was made to eat grass like an animal,

“…until you know that the Most High rules in the kingdom of men, and gives it to whomever He chooses.”  Daniel 4:32

In his letter to Christians living under oppressive Roman rule Paul wrote:

“…For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God…” Romans 13:1

It is a hard pill to swallow that God, in accordance with His divine purpose, would allow evil people like Hitler, the Viet Cong or Idi Amin to be in positions of authority.  You can be sure that is one of the questions I will want answered when I see Jesus face to face.  What is clear now is that God requires those in authority to execute justice and righteousness, and there is a day of reckoning coming for all who abuse God-given authority.

Maybe when we seek hope for our nation and encouragement about our future we should not look to the capitols first, but in the trenches, among the people with ‘boots on the ground’.

Every day people fulfill their life-purpose serving the poor in our gospel missions, soup kitchens, food banks, etc.; faithfully doing their part to restore dignity, give hope and meet the practical needs of those who have fallen on hard times. Teenagers give up their unalienable right to sleep in on a Sunday morning to feed and clothe the poor, and “hope springs eternal” in my heart.

It springs again when the young pastor challenges 686 churches in one county to provide permanent, loving homes for the 686 children in foster care, telling them, “…these are our children!” , and people rise to the challenge.

It is found in those with the passion and determination to be teachers, who go into the profession and into the poorest of classrooms knowing they will never get rich doing this job, but they may influence and inspire some, who could change our nation and perhaps the world for good.

I see it in the people who have no time to debate or hurl insults over the issue of abortion because they are committed to come alongside that terrified young girl who feels she has made the biggest mistake of her life and is all alone, or the pregnant woman who just found out she has cancer and is facing no good options.  Without judgment or condemnation, they give unconditional love and practical support with compassion that cannot be legislated in the halls of government.

Then there are those men and women in law enforcement and our military, who truly find their purpose and calling in careers that are necessary to stem the tide of evil, but are required to put their lives on the line.  No matter who wins elections, they always answer the call to serve, knowing that one day they, and their families, may have to make the ultimate sacrifice for our safety and freedom.

I find hope among people who have refused the poison apple of greed; who work hard every day, are content to live within their means, and sacrifice to live debt-free so they can afford to give generously of their time and money to those who need a hand up.  They pay their taxes, invest their surplus and treat their employees fairly, not because they fear or favor the government, but because they fear God and acknowledge His favor.

So here’s the thing; our faith and hope for the future ought not to be in any government, but in God’s power, plan and purpose, which can never be thwarted, (Job 42:2), continuously being fulfilled in the lives of individuals.  No matter the outcome of any election, God did not stutter when He said:

“If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” 2 Chronicles 7:14

So, as one who has made the choice to be called by His name, I vote, God decides, I go to bed early election night and sleep like a baby, then wake the next morning to begin to pray continually for,

“…all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence, for this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”  1Timothy 2:2-3

just living the thing.

‘Deer Crossing’ Signs, And Me…

Legitimate Question?

As we began our descent, the American Airlines pilot informed us passengers that the weather in San Francisco was clear, sunny and 58­˚C so, “they must be having a warm spell”, and that was the first clue that there was about to be a huge paradigm shift in my world. Whoever wrote, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”, could not have been more shocked than I was when that pilot used ‘58˚’ and ‘warm spell’ in the same sentence!

San Francisco was also the ‘classroom’ for another life-preserving lesson I had to learn very quickly.  Apparently, you cannot stare, then point at the girl with the purple hair, black lipstick, 12-inch mini-skirt, and 6-inch heels; you absolutely cannot ask her why she is dressed like that or where she is going; and you definitely cannot wonder out loud to your companions, why she chose to dress like that if she didn’t want attention. Epic faux pas!  I learned very quickly not to ask out loud every question which popped up in my crazy Jamaican head; hence my deepening insecurity issues and my dilemma with ‘Deer Crossing’ signs.

I was living in Castro Valley, and felt a little less homesick in the early spring when everything was lush and green.  Driving through the rolling hills surrounding LakeChabot, I could almost imagine I was back in Jamaica; except for the really nice roads and all those ‘Deer Crossing’ signs.  ‘The question’ popped into my head the first time I saw one, but I refused to ask it out loud since apparently, I could get into all kinds of trouble asking the wrong questions at the wrong time.

All this happened before “Google” was created, so I wrestled with the question burning in my brain for months; paying close attention and searching for clues, frustration building, until one day, without warning, it erupted:

“Aaahmmmm…I was wondering about those signs.  How do the deer know where to cross the road?”

I believe the hysterical laughter that followed…and continued for weeks afterward…may have caused the earthquake in ’89.

Back in those days I was still very insecure and a new immigrant desperately trying to fit into a new culture, so under the polite face mask, I was really hurt and embarrassed.  Everyone thought the question so ridiculous that there was a lot of guffawing, but for a long time no one even attempted to give me an answer.  They were not mean-spirited, but I found the insensitivity irritating and thought:

“Pshaw!  Typical ethno-centric Americans.  No wonder people in the rest of the world don’t like y’all.”

That was such an unfair assessment, but when you are new to any environment, you long for someone on the ‘inside’ to point you in the right direction, say a kind word, or take you under their wing; to be the difference between prolonged misery and a fairly smooth transition.  It is a hard thing to be the only one not ‘in the know’; to be the ‘new kid on the block’, the one on the outside of all the inside jokes, and not to have a single person be sensitive to your vulnerability or discomfort.

On the other hand, I also think outsiders are Jesus’ favorite kind of people.  His angelic birth announcement was made to shepherds; the lowest of the low on the socio-economic, religious, vocational, and every other kind of totem pole.  He irritated the religious movers and shakers who labeled Him, “…a glutton, and a drunkard; a friend of tax-collectors and sinners” (Luke 7:34). His response was unapologetic:

“…Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  God and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13-14)

My favorite encounter in the Bible is the one between Jesus and Zacchaeus, the tax-collector; hated by the Roman government officials because he was a Jew, and hated by his fellow Jews because he collected taxes on behalf of their Roman oppressors.  Zacchaeus had become rich by overcharging his own people and skimming off a portion of their taxes for himself.

But even he was not immune to the notoriety that caused Jesus to draw huge crowds wherever He went, and being too short to see over the crowd, he climbed a tree to catch a glimpse of this Man who healed miraculously, fed thousands with five loaves of bread and a few fish, and silenced the condescending, self-righteous Pharisees with the power of His words. Jesus surprised everyone when He stopped under the tree saying,

“’Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.’  So he made haste and came down and received Him joyfully.” (Luke 19:5-6)

Jesus changed Zacchaeus’ life forever with a single act of kindness and acceptance, and I can imagine he almost fell out of that tree in shock and gratitude.  Outsiders already know they are a hot mess, and are much more willing to accept God’s unconditional love, forgiveness, and power to change their lives.

“Then Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, ‘Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come t this house, because he also is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.’” (Luke 19:9-10)

So here’s the thing, the “Deer Crossing” story is now a ‘classic’ in my circle of family and friends, and though I still maintain it was a legitimate question, I also know it was really funny! Having been an outsider, I hope I always remain sensitive to the plight of other outsiders in any environment.  Of all people, we followers of Jesus Christ should look to the example of the One who loved and accepted us when we were outsiders; always ready to extend grace and kindness with sincerity because we’re …just living the thing.