Friday, December 16, 2011

C Is for Christmas

It's that time of year when you can no longer tell a sacred venue from a secular by its taste in music. "O Holy Night" pipes through urban shopping malls while church choirs sing "Jingle Bells." Many long-ubiquitous Christmas songs, such as Irving Berlin's "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas," were created by Jewish songwriters; and the very custom of extravagant celebrations around the time of the winter solstice (which most scholars believe was months removed from Christ's birth) is rooted in the pagan Saturnalia festivals of ancient Rome. 

Through the centuries, serious Christians have varied in their reactions to "the holiday season." Many have called it a selling out to materialism, secularism, even paganism. Even people with little use for Christianity grumble about the spend-a-fortune, wear-yourself-out, gain-twenty-pounds atmosphere that pervades the end of the year--then feel deprived or guilty if they skip any of it. Enjoying endlessly available pleasures in healthy moderation is a discipline that few ever master; doing completely without is comparatively easy.

With all that in mind, I've tried to keep a balance between festivity and reverence in this week's poem. Before you read it, and again after, pause for 3 to 5 minutes and think about how God does take pleasure in seeing us enjoy wholesome Christmas celebrations--when we truly enjoy them, without piling them on to the point where the joy burns out. Then think of how God loved us enough to send Christ from the glories of Heaven to the squalor of earth. (An example for those of us who think we're being incredibly generous by reserving five percent of our holiday budget for charity.)

Take time to nurture a meaningful Christmas in your heart.

C is for Christmas and all that it brings:
H is for Hymns that the Christmas choir sings,
R is for Ringing each jingling bell,
I is for (God with us) Immanuel,
S is for Stocking that's hung up with glee,
T is for Tinsel that gleams on the tree,
M is for Merry with parties and flair,
A is for Advent, a time to prepare,
S is for Savior, the King Who was born:

God bless us all, on this joyous Christmas morn!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Thorn in the Flesh

It was the strangest be-careful-what-you-ask-for story I remember hearing. A young woman came to her pastoral counselor complaining of an overwhelming feeling of spiritual oppression, of being constantly assaulted with fear, depression, and temptations to anger.

"Did you experiment with anything occult just before this started?" the counselor asked.

"Of course not! I was working hard with spiritual disciplines. I even prayed a special prayer for spiritual growth."

"What kind of growth, exactly, did you pray for?"

"Well"--she thought for a minute--"I wanted to be great in faith like St. Paul, so I asked God for a thorn in the flesh like his."

"Sounds as if you got it and found you asked for more than you could handle," the counselor told her. "A thorn in the flesh isn't something to treat casually. Remember, even Paul didn't want his."

She prayed that her "thorn" would be removed. And, unlike Paul, received a "yes" answer.

It's a rare person who becomes so eager for growth as to pray for suffering to nourish it. And an even rarer person who experiences the heights of vision that Paul notes led to the giving of his own "thorn" (2 Cor. 12:1-10). Nonetheless, all of us have parts of life--physical conditions, family background, talent or lack thereof--we consider "thorns in our flesh." Many of us are too casual for our own good, applying the term flippantly to relatively minor problems. But with others, "torment" seems too mild a word for what the thorn-bearer endures.

We don't know anything about Paul's own thorn (commentators have suggested everything from poor eyesight to active demonic oppression) except that it made his life miserable and that he nonetheless came to regard it as God's necessary instrument, even as a gift, for enabling him to accomplish God's work to a degree he never could have without. He might not have been so humble (or so rash) as to ask for suffering, but he learned to be grateful for it.

Christ wore a crown of thorns on His path to glory. Might not the "thorns" of our own lives be God's ingredients for forging the jewels in our own eternal crowns of righteousness?

Few of us are equal to great St. Paul
In our trials or in the works we do,
But one thing is common to nearly all:
We all have our thorns like the one he knew.

Some of us are sickly and yearn for health
That we might do great things to spread God's name;
But He may call us just to war in prayer,
That in the long run there be greater gain.

Some of us are timid and wish we could
Preach to crowds in public like Billy Graham;
But our own gift may be a written word
Which can go to places no speaker can.

And most of us pray for our thorns to go,
And some may vanish, but some will stay;
We must trust in God, Who alone can know
What things best will lead us along His way.

And when we all stand before His throne
And receive the crowns that are our rewards,
I believe among the jewels in those crowns
Will be some transformed from the sharpest thorns.