To hold on or let go?

Perhaps you will agree that the hardest decision in all of life that we face is when to hold on and when to let go. Alongside that decision is the what question: what should we hold on to and what should we let go of?

As I review the year of 2015, it seems there is much that I really need to let go of if I hope to indeed have a Happy New Year. A few pounds mostly in my mid-section serve as only a single example. This past year started well in that direction but ended with a feast of too many delicious fat grams, calories, and butt-sitting. But worse than this in my own mind is the fear I have carried in my gut of what was wrong with my own country, the USA, in 2015. Or my fear of what “the people of earth” in general are doing that seems all too crazy in my own opinion.

I’d like to shed the heavy weight of these social fears, both national and global, in my own mind. I’d like to let go of them in 2016. I’d like to lose the fears I accumulated from this past year’s events as reported in both private and public media.

But then again, I’m more inclined by appetite to hold on. And to carry into 2016 my fear of what this world is coming to. What the nation is coming to. What the church is coming to. What the human race seems to be coming to.

And so I must choose. To hold on or to let go?

Back in the year 1990, about mid-way in my career as a psychotherapist, I met a couple of fellow MSW’s whose clinic in Milwaukee had developed a practice-theory known as Solution Focused Therapy. Steve De Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg were husband and wife, and together they mastered the art of asking what one might call solution focused questions of their clients in counseling, beginning with: “What are you doing now that you will need to continue doing in the future?” Berg, a Korean-American master of the martial arts, invariably caught her problem focused clients off guard with this question. For couples in therapy for marital problems, the question of “what is your spouse doing now that will need to continue being done in the future?” was equally disarming. Yet, the purpose of such an opening inquiry was to note that we humans can only build upon our strengths. We can only change when we have the strength to change. We can only have the strength to let go when we first have some strength to hold on to. That was the explicit mantra of the Solution-Focused approach to helping people through psychotherapy.

We can only let go if we first have something to hold on to. Our human strength comes from holding on. And from that strength, we can only then let go of our weaknesses.

As I face 2016 with a glance into 2015’s rear-view mirror, I see a mix of my own strengths and weaknesses. I see my weaknesses right away, those heavy pounds and fears I’d like to shed; yet, on second glance I also see some heavy strengths that I’d like to carry forward into the New Year. My ability to love God and to love others, even those different from me, is a strength I will need to continue in 2016. I see it from 2015 as I worked at giving material and emotional support to others in need. And given the choice I am – aren’t we all? — given as this old year gives way to the new, I will choose to continue loving God and neighbor to the best of my ability.

In the Bible’s New Testament, we read these words in I John 4:18, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

We can only let go of fear if we have love to hold on to. Where other people are concerned, whether in our world, nation, neighborhood, or even our own home, we cannot muster the strength it takes to let go of our fears until we first hold onto our ability to love these same “other” people. We get that ability from God’s own Jesus-love of us as His “other” people. That is where our strength will come from in 2016. And with that strength, with that solution that is greater than any problem, we can let go of any weakness as we so choose. This is why I will never be able to let go of fear unless I first choose holding on to my ability to love others as God has loved me.

Which leads me to this question on the verge of another new year: What will you resolve to hold onto in 2016? What will you resolve to continue doing then that you have done in 2015? Just a hunch on my part, but if you and I will work at successfully doing THAT new year’s resolution first, we will surely have the strength to actually complete any “letting go” resolution we then choose to add.

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Careful what we wish for

We’ve all heard it. We’ve all been told. “Be careful what you wish for.”

This has to be the least. Accepted. Advice. Ever. Especially this time of year when wishes abound, and when a large portion of our seasonal stress stems from trying to find whatever it is others on our shopping list are wishing for. Especially where the kids are concerned, paying attention to the wish list seems like the right thing to do. The loving thing to do. And being careful what we wish for seems, well, so misguided after all.

So how about that first Christmas? What was on the wish list then? Well, how about a Messiah who would come to save the Jews from their Roman oppressors and to restore the Kingdom of Israel there in the city of Zion (Jerusalem); the long awaited “second-coming” of King David? Make it a Messiah who would affirm the wealthy class of establishment Jews, denounce the Roman Caesar, condemn the low-life Galileans to the north and their ill-bred Samaritan neighbors.  Pharisees wished for a righteous Judge who would enforce the letter of the Law.  And, of course, the consensus wish was for peace on earth and justice for all, soon as the slaughter of their Gentile enemies was over.   Oh, and a royal family that would surround this coming Messiah with prosperous, popular, well-married and well-prepared parents living there in the City of David (Jerusalem). Definite wish list item!

Surely a loving God would supply all these Messianic wishes! Right?

Well, no. Come to think of it, none of these wishes came true on that first Christmas. Not a one. Quite the contrary, this new Messiah would come from poor, unpopular, unmarried, and totally unprepared parents, stranded travelers from obscure Nazareth in lowly Galilee. Born to a mother who didn’t wish for any of this to be happening. At least, not yet.

Then there was the little town of Bethlehem. Bethlewhat? Bethlewhere? Scarcely heard of the place.  Or how about the dung-scented stable and manger scene? Away in a manger, no crib for a bed? You’re kidding, right? And the low-life shepherds that were the first to see. And the foreign royals from the east who came later, as if to trigger the Jewish flashback to the trauma of Kingly visitors from the east coming to destroy and take captive their King; think Assyria and Babylon. Last thing in the world the Jews of ancient palestine would ever wish for, or ask God for. And speaking of Kingdoms, this was supposed to be a Messianic Kingdom of Israel, not some Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. Wasn’t the Messiah supposed to come to Israel, and not through Israel?

Okay, you know the story. On that very first Christmas, God gave them mostly the opposite of what they were wishing for. Christmas is some times like that. They got nothing they were wanting but everything they were needing. They weren’t at all pleased. But they were all helped, as are we all yet today.

I can’t help but think this is what God’s love is really all about. And maybe what our own love should be all about. Not pleasing people, but helping people. (Jesus was not a people-pleaser; hence, his death by crucifixion.) Not giving people what they are wanting or wishing for, but what they are needing? This is the perfect Christmas love that says, “you need help more than you need pleasure. You need love more than like. You need Jesus more than Santa.”

We may still be careless about what we wish for. But the God of Christmas is careful. And loving. And the Jesus we need is soon coming to help.

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Entering the stable

The stable where Jesus was born and placed in a manger. It serves as such a common part of our Christmas lore that we seldom take notice there was no mention of any actual stable in Luke’s Christmas story. Nowhere in scripture is Jesus ever associated with a stable; only a manger, and that only in Luke’s Gospel (LK 2:7). But for most everyone who reads or hears the story of Christ’s birth according to Luke, there is a stable that we enter in our own minds. In my mind, it is a room inside a barn-like hut or, befitting the times, a kind of cave in the earth covered by walls of timber and floors of straw and filled with the stench of animal dung. But a warm enough place to be in winter. A humble place, yet secure enough to be safe for childbirth.  That’s my mental image of the birthplace of Jesus. The stable.

Of course, there is in this particular Christmas story room for all of our minds to roam, to imagine, to decorate our nativity scene. When our imaginations fail, we easily resort to whatever commercial nativity crèche we attach to our store displays or church décor. The stable is somehow necessary for the story itself in our minds. We cannot picture a baby Jesus without a manger, nor a manger without a stable in which to situate the story.

We will always need a stable to enter in our own minds when we think of Christmas.

Chances are quite high that if you’ve spent time over the years in any Christian Church during the Christmas season of celebration, some preacher somewhere has spun the story of Luke to somehow mean that instead of a room in the Inn, there was an even warmer place available for childbirth. Yep. The stable. Best place to be on a cold winter’s night. And the manger of hay befitting a soft bed needed? Better than any extra firm Serta Pillow-Top when it came to keeping a newborn warm through the night and day to follow.

I always needed that little preacherly spin just to avoid feeling guilty for all those other sermons in which I was failing to make room in my heart for the baby Jesus to be born. After so many “no room in YOUR Inn” messages, I appreciated the relief that the “warm, soft stable, best room in the house after all” would offer me.

We will always need a stable to enter in our own minds when we think of Christmas.

So now fast forward to December 2015. Missed the latest TV news? No worries. Just listen to the person nearby at the table or the office or the store or the party. It’s bad news. Really bad. Missed the latest memes on Facebook? Missed the morning newspaper? Not a problem. Someone will call to fill you in on how bad things are in the world. In our nation. Our state. Our city. Or down the block in our own neighborhood.

Chances are quite high if you’ve spent time this year hearing about, or from, people anywhere, you’ve noticed there’s little room for common sense in our world anymore. No room in that Inn. People are crazy. The world has gone nuts. The planet is in chaos. Things seem so unstable.

And so we need a stable to enter in the midst of an unstable world. Different kind of stable. But just as warm. Just as safe. Just as soft. Yep. We all need some stability in our lives right now.

Enter this kind of stable today with me and I believe it’s where you’ll find Jesus.

When the world itself seems most unwelcoming, most afraid, most violent, most out of control………. most unstable. That’s when, come Christmas, we need to re-enter the stable of Jesus. Nothing high tech. Nothing expensive. Nothing to place on the credit card. Just the stable. Just Jesus. The Christ who comes to seek. To save. To liberate. To proclaim good news for a change. To stable-eyes our world that God still so loves even this December 2015.

Let’s enter that place together right now in our own minds. And let’s worship the gift of His presence.

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Opening God’s Attachment

Have you ever sent an email with an attachment, only to receive a reply from someone who commented on your message but never actually opened and read your attachment? This has happened to me upon occasion. In my frustration, I’ve typically replied back with, “you need to check out the attachment first, and then get back to me.”

I’ve experienced a similar frustration with Facebook memes I’ve shared when clearly the comments returned were made without the writer having bothered to click on my posted link. I want to say back, “please check out the actual story and then send your comment.”

Knowing how I’ve felt about people who read my emails but don’t open my attachments, or my FB posts but don’t check out the link on my meme, I wonder how God feels when we respond to His words in scripture without checking out His Word in Jesus Christ. How might God take it when we fail to open His attachment, or check out His link?

In many respects, Christmas is really about God’s sending us an attachment that needs opening before we reply or “get back to” God with our comment. Placed in biblical perspective, the Bible itself is like the body of an email with the Gospel being the attachment. The Gospel story of Jesus found in Matthew – John of the New Testament is God’s principle attachment which the actual email is pointing toward. In similar analogy, Advent itself is like the email sent to introduce God’s attached file marked Gospel of Jesus Christ.

And now let me offer up a confession.

There are times when I have skipped over the reading of someone’s email, or even Facebook posting, and gone straight to the attachment or the link further down in the meme. That’s what I’m tempted to do every December where Christmas is concerned. Forget Advent. Cut to the chase. Skip the preparations. Just open the attachment and then reply. Only I’m not sure my reply then makes a whole lot of sense to God. And I imagine God may say back to me, “please go back and read my email first and then open this attachment.”

It’s a mistake either way whether we get only the front end or back end of the biblical God story.

Jesus is God’s text within our own human context. He is God’s Gospel attachment but He will never make complete sense to us if all we do is click on that attachment. So while we can’t make complete sense of God without opening the Jesus Christ file He has attached for us, neither can we make sense of that Gospel attachment if we don’t read God’s actual email leading up to it.

We need the rest of scripture to understand the Christ. We need to understand humanity before we can fully understand the Son of Man born in this deepest darkness of that lowest Bethlehem. We need the context before we can grasp the text itself. And we need to open and read the Advent message of humanity’s darkest Night before we can grasp the Christmas story of God’s brightest Light. We need to fully take in both of these before we “get back to God” with our comment and reply.

It’s about opening God’s attachment. After we’ve read the email subject: Re. Advent.

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It’s a Matter of Give or Take

Matthew’s birth story concerning Jesus involved, as you may know, three men who came representing an unnamed eastern Kingdom, each bearing a gift for the Christ-child. Historically, these were the first ever Christmas offerings. They were part of the first Christmas worship service concerning Jesus, the new Kingdom leader born beneath the great heavenly Light above the land of Judea. They gave an offering of gold, incense, and myrrh as they bowed before this new King.

The importance of this story for the Jews to whom Matthew was writing cannot be understood apart from the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, where we learn the meaning of men coming as representatives of eastern kingdoms into the land of Israel or Judah. By history, such men came not to give but to take. By this I mean the taking of prisoners as slaves into exile. Eastern Kings, specifically from Assyria and Babylon, came not to bow down but to beat down. Not for worship but for war. And when the Jewish people saw such high officials coming from the east, their own Kings were taken from and not given to. Now, with the birth of Jesus, Jewish history was turned upside down. Now the eastern emissaries were no longer oppressive but submissive.

Such is the power of Christmas.

It was so for the Jews of the 1st century. It is no less so for us in the 21st century.

A word often associated with the Kingdoms of our world is “control.” Those of us who live in a nation without any royal traditions or acting King or Queen may hardly understand the word “Kingdom,” but we all understand the word “control” and its meanings. By our most wishful and magical thinking, we each fancy ourselves as being “in control” and, especially where circumstances are not of our liking, we would each like to “take control.” A great part of today’s western culture in December of 2015 involves a fear of losing control to forces of big government or big business for some, big terrorism or big war for others. Or all of the above for many. Fear. Then anger. And the desire to take control.

In that we are perhaps more like the traditional Old Testament Kings from the East. Given the choice of give or take, we’d rather “take control over others” than give control to a new King in some foreign land.   Like the one born on that very first Christmas.

But wait!

What if that new King, the Christ of Christmas, came Himself representing not any earthly King for the purpose of taking control but rather the Heavenly King above, like the Star itself, and here only to give but not to take? Only to cause love but not fear? Only to influence others but not control others? Only to offer peace but not to threaten war? Such was the significance of the three Kingly representatives from Matthew’s birth story. As they came to see this new King, they, too, were made new. So new as to turn the very traditions of Eastern Kingdoms upside down. So new as to now represent the heavenly Kingdom and to identify with this new infant King Himself. Yes, these three men were made new!

The Christmas story has the power to make us new as well!

The New Testament’s Christmas narratives tell of God’s own  new Kingdom.  Even God Himself is made new!  His is now a Kingdom of giving rather than taking. Now a Kingdom of influence rather than control. Now a Kingdom of serving rather than being served. Now a Kingdom of love rather than fear. Now a Kingdom of peace rather than war.

Advent is a journey to this new Kingdom.  Heaven’s Star Light has come down.   If we go there, like all who made that original journey, we too will be made new.  We must choose whether to go or not.  It’s a matter of give or take.

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