Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Getting Christmas Right

This December our theme at West Houston is “Getting Christmas Right.” We will focus on Hope, Forgiveness, Peace and Love on consecutive Sundays leading to Christmas. It is easy to let December be taken hostage by the stress of shopping, the anxiety of planning, and the frenzy of doing. “Getting Christmas Right” is a way to seek God and be blessed by his gifts in the midst of the holiday season.

In light of this I thought it worthwhile to share with you an essay called “Letter from Jesus.” I don’t know who the author is, but I know that many of the thoughts he or she places in Jesus’ mouth will help us “get Christmas right.” Enjoy. – Matt Soper

If you want to give Me a present in remembrance of My birth, here is my wish list.

1. Instead of writing protest letters objecting to the way My birthday is being celebrated, write letters of love and hope to soldiers away from home. They are terribly afraid and lonely this time of year. I know, they tell Me all the time.

2. Visit someone in a nursing home. You don't have to know them personally. They just need to know that someone cares about them.

3. Instead of giving your children a lot of gifts you can't afford and they don't need, spend time with them. Tell them the story of My birth, and why I came to live with you. Hold them in your arms and remind them that I love them.

4. Pick someone who has hurt you in the past and forgive them.

5. Did you know that someone in your town will attempt to take their own life this season because they feel so alone and hopeless? Since you don't know who that person is, try giving grace to everyone you encounter; it could make the difference.

6. Instead of nit picking about what the retailer in your town calls the holiday, be patient with the people who work there. Give them a warm smile and a kind word. Even if they aren't allowed to wish you a "Merry Christmas," that doesn't keep you from wishing them one. Then stop shopping there on Sunday. If the store didn't make so much money on that day they'd close and let their employees spend the day at home with their families.

7. If you want to make a difference, support a missionary, especially one who takes My Good News to those who have never heard.

8. Here's a good one. There are individuals and whole families in your town who not only will have no "Christmas" tree, but neither will they have any presents to give or receive. If you don't know them, buy some food and a few gifts and give them to the Salvation Army or some other charity which believes in Me and they will make the delivery for you.

9. Finally, if you want to make a statement about your belief in and loyalty to Me, then behave like a Christian. Let people know by your actions that you are one of mine.

Don't forget; I am God and can take care of myself. Just love me and do what I have told you to do. I'll take care of all the rest. Check out the list above and get to work; time is short. I love you, Jesus.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Essence and Stuff

He is 59 years old and sitting in a medium-security prison making about $1 a day awaiting an appeal of his conviction that levied a sentence of 8 to 25 years. He owes $167 million to the government and various creditors. He has had to sell his $13 million yacht, $10 million mansion, and a $5 million Monet painting to help pay court-ordered fines and restitution for looting the company he led. His wife is divorcing him.

Call him a blessed man.

Dennis Kozlowski wouldn’t necessarily call himself that. I am rendering a perspective from afar about which I do not mean to be cavalier. But the simple fact is that sometimes it takes a spectacular and humbling fall to gain a healthy perspective. And Kozlowski used to be about as far from a healthy perspectie as Yao Ming is from a size 5 shoe. Between 1998 and 2002 he made $300 million as the CEO of Tyco International. He and his Tyco finance chief were convicted of stealing $137 million in unauthorized bonuses from the company and abusing company loan programs. Kozlowski bought a $30 million apartment in New York City and furnished it with $6,000 shower curtains, both of which he (allegedly) charged to the company. And then there is the notorious $2 million fortieth birthday party for his wife and high-level Tyco execs on the Italian island of Sardinia, which featured an ice sculpture of the statue of David dispensing Stolichnaya vodka from a prominent organ, as well as body builders dressed in skin-toned Speedos, models dressed as gladiators, dancing nymphs, ice sculptures, yacht rides and a scavenger hunt.

It was all quite nauseating.

But is any price too big to gain a healthy perspective? He now says about the yacht, mansion and art work he had to sell, “It was just stuff.” Here is a man who worked his way through college and apparently is more of a “working class accountant” than a whiz-bang jet-setter. But he lost his perspective and now he has a chance to get it back.
Few if any of us can relate to such a meteoric rise and spectacular fall. But I do believe there is a lesson here for us “regular” folks. Each of us navigates his way through life juggling what I would call “essence” and “stuff.” The former is the basic, bedrock understanding of who we are and whose we are. It is our identity before God and with our closest family and friends. It is what we can still give thanks for and stand upon even if we have lost everything else. The latter is everything else. “It was just stuff.”

Our accomplishments and possessions and hobbies and travels and luxuries, as satisfying and enjoyable as they are, should not be confused with our essence. And the key is to keep a clear distinction between the two. Who would you be if you “lost everything”? Then that is who you are. The rest is just stuff. And often it takes everything being stripped away (by illness or financial loss or other misfortune) to realize anew (or find out for the first time) who we are. “O Lord, you have searched me and known me,” says the psalmist (139:1). May we give thanks for and stand on that above all else.

Thursday, November 09, 2006


There were more than 300 letters in the flowered plastic shopping bag that an insurance adjustor found bobbing in the surf off Atlantic City, NJ last week. The bag was filled with letters to a pastor, now deceased, of a church in Jersey City, as well as with cards and notes apparently intended to be placed on the altar and prayed over.

One note asked God to make a certain someone “leave me alone and stay off my back.” Many more were written by anguished spouses, children or widows, pouring out their hearts to God, asking for help with relatives who were using drugs, gambling or cheating on them. One teenager begged God to forgive her and asked for a second chance. “Lord, I know that I have had an abortion and I killed one of your angels,” she wrote. “There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about the mistake I made.” Apparently someone cleaning out the pastor’s home after his death found the letters and threw them on the beach in Atlantic City. [“Unanswered Prayers Wash Up Onshore,” Wayne Perry, A.P., 11/3/06].

There is something quite lonesome and aching about these little prayer missives floating together on the ocean, perhaps prayed over at one time, perhaps not, reflecting peoples’ hurts and struggles and yearnings brought to God in the desperate hope and faith that he answers prayers. I have had occasion to reflect recently on how much pain people carry in their lives. I read it in the note a man gives me in confidence about how depressed he is. I hear it in a man’s anger as he rails against troubling circumstances in his life. I see it in the eyes of people who smile wanly as I greet them on Sunday morning, willing themselves to summons a measure of cheeriness amidst their burdens.

When we began our “Garden of Prayer” time in worship last week, it was an attempt to live out what we often profess but often find difficult: that we worship God together, that we bring our burdens and struggles and joys and victories to him together, and that part of what it means to be the body of Christ is to lean on and lift up one another. Indeed, our mission to “Seek God and Share Jesus” refers not just to sharing Jesus (i.e., the Good News) with non-believers but sharing Jesus (i.e., the living presence of Jesus) with one another. The apostle Paul puts it this way: “Praise be to … the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (II Corinthians 1:3-4). The word for “comfort” (paraklesis) is a very broad word that can be rendered “comfort, encouragement, solace, exhortation,” etc. It is the same word Jesus uses to refer to the Holy Spirit in John 14-15 as the “Comforter” (or Counselor, Advocate, Helper, Friend). The Holy Spirit is the One whom God sends to “come alongside us” in our lives. In our desire to be Spirit-led and empowered, we also are called alongside one another to encourage, exhort, comfort, advocate, help, and be a friend.

I am told by certain teenagers in my life that “Garden of Prayer” is somewhat of a “hokey” name for spending 5-10 minutes in worship praying with one another and personally encouraging one another. I’m open to suggestions! I just know that I want peoples’ needs and concerns floating on the prayers of fellow Christ-followers, not in the ocean surf off Galveston.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

We Are Everywhere

I am talking on the phone with someone. They are playing solitaire on their computer as we converse. I can hear the “bling” of their game every few seconds. Our conversation is never interrupted, per se, but it never quite attains a satisfying fluidity either.

I am sitting in a meeting with six other people. We are having a fruitful and satisfying discussion. Except that one of us keeps glancing down at his Blackberry, reading incoming email messages. He is with us, making a comment every now and then, but he’s not really with us.

Thomas Friedman, a New York Times columnist, reflects on a taxi ride in Paris recently. Arriving at the airport, he is met by a professional driver holding a sign while deep in conversation with someone via a Bluetooth wireless phone clipped to his ear. He and Friedman communicate by hand gestures, head to the hotel, arrive at the hotel, and deposit Friedman without ever speaking to one another except to identify the destination hotel. The driver chats on his Bluetooth; Friedman works on his laptop computer and then listens to his iPod. Friedman feels nostalgic for the days when taxi drivers were great conversationalists and fruitful sources for journalists.

Welcome to the era of personal “communication” technology. We are so connected we’re disconnected. We are so available we’re unavailable. Friedman notes what technologist Linda Stone has named the disease of the Internet Age: “continuous partial attention” – two people doing six things, devoting only partial attention to each one. “We can’t find the off switch on our devices or on ourselves… We are everywhere – except where we actually are physically.”

I am driving through my neighborhood. A mother pushes her (awake) daughter in a stroller while chatting on her cell phone. As I head back the opposite way from my short errand, she is still pushing her daughter in the stroller and chatting on her cell phone. Pretty intimate parenting moment, eh?

I ponder this sometimes vis-à-vis my vocation of delivering twenty-five minute talks to audiences whom I hope will sit and listen attentively without a remote control, cell phone, or computer screen with which to multi-task. The whole thing seems hopelessly quaint.

I think of how much the Scriptures urge us to times of silence and prayer and reflection and listening and “being still before the Lord.” I wonder how in the world we can exercise muscles that we actively neglect in the midst of our hurried and “connected” lives. I find myself thinking of the expression “Pyrrhic victory.” King Pyrrhus of Epirus defeated the Romans in 297 B.C. but suffered such severe and irreplaceable casualties in the process that he declared “Another such victory over the Romans and we are undone.” Any more “communications” technology and we will be unable to communicate.

The friend Friedman is visiting in Paris doesn’t respond to cell phone calls and has to be tracked down (gasp!) on his home phone. Turns out his cell phone was stolen and he elected not to replace it, tired of how often it broke his concentration. He exults, “Since then, the first thing I do every morning is thank the thief and wish him a long life.”

I am wondering if we aren’t robbing ourselves.