Con Carne Christmas (Advent Devotion for December 15)

I have a feeling that they really just didn’t know what to do with the thing after Halloween.  For where do you store a twelve-foot skeleton with menacing eyes that glow at night, crouching like an ancient T-rex just ready to pounce on its next prey?  

Fortunately, with a looming holiday just around the corner, the owners of that lawn attraction had another idea.  So they stuck a Santa cap on the skull, put a stocking in its bony hands, and added a Christmas tree beside it.  Voila!  Happy Holidays!

As creepy as it sounds, however, that still rather stark lawn decoration may indeed remind us of an essential truth about Christmas.  For our seasonal celebrations are not really about Santa, of course, or those winter wonderlands full of sleigh rides and snowfalls, but about the Incarnation, a word that comes from a Latin term quit literally meaning “flesh.” (Think chili con carne, or chili “with meat.”)  

For centuries theologians have used that phrase to refer to the embodiment of God in the person of Christ.  There’s a simpler way to think of it, however.  For it’s said that a little boy, frightened one night by a thunderstorm, called out to his father and asked him to come to his bedroom because he was scared. His father, already nicely settled into his own bed, called back, “It’s okay, buddy.  God is with you in that room right now.  Go back to sleep.”  And after a moment of silence, the boy called out once more, saying simply, “Dad, right now I need someone with skin on!”

And I suspect that most of us could relate to what that boy was saying.  For when we too are frightened or hurt or anxious, we don’t really need a theological concept to comfort us as much as we want someone in person to sit beside us, kiss our boo-boos, and remind us we are not alone in this sometimes-scary world.

Perhaps that’s why when he wished to sum up the Christmas story, the apostle John proclaimed that “the Word became flesh,” and, as Eugene Peterson has so wonderfully expressed it, “moved into the neighborhood.” (John 1.14) For in Jesus we find a God who was both physically real and even touchable, not just a skeletal framework but a fully embodied savior who stands ready to stand with you and me.

What’s more, our calling as Christians is to continue the mission of Christ to show love to those around us, as well, to any and all who may need to see God with some skin on.  For what else could it mean to be the Body of Christ, as the Church is called, but to be the embodiment of all He came to do?  

Forget the turkey, thus.  Chili con carne may be the perfect Christmas food.  I still wonder, however, just what those homeowners are going to do with that twelve-foot statue in their yard when it gets to be Valentine’s Day and even Easter.

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A Shot In the Arm (Advent Devotion for December 14)

He would tell you that it all started when he was five and his parents took him to see Saturn’s rings through a telescope in a local church yard.  For when he got to middle school, he built his own telescope and entered it in a city-wide science fair, winning second place.  His interest in science continued in high school, and then when he went to college, he got his bachelor’s degree in Mathematical Sciences.

That was followed by medical school and residency in Houston and then eventually by a career in pediatric infectious diseases at a medical school in Tennessee—taking care of patients, engaging in research, and teaching.  But God had still another purpose for him which somewhat surprisingly surfaced in an invitation to leave the academy in order to join a pharmaceutical company halfway across the country.  And in that setting, Bill focused his inquisitive mind on how to prevent diseases which particularly affected the most vulnerable among us, children and older adults.

Building on an earlier quest to develop a vaccine to treat respiratory ailments causing wheezing and worse in kids, the good doctor then turned to the thornier question of stopping the spread of numerous health-care institution related infections, and later to preventing an often-deadly form of pneumonia that quite literally impacted millions around the world.

So when the present pandemic began, it was not surprising that Bill and his equally talented team tried to figure out some way to use all that they had already learned in developing a Covid-19 vaccine as well.  And with the recent approval of the vaccine, the two-stage treatment they produced will hopefully begin today to be used not just here in America, but around the world as well.

One could say that it was only a matter of time until science made the breakthrough, of course.  But I suspect that the Creator of all things was involved as well.  For when the Bible says that we are wonderfully and fearfully made, and that God knew us before we were even born, it suggests to me at least that His hand is in all of our lives, gently guiding us into the pathways He may have for us. 

God can not only use the curiosity of a five-year old to inaugurate a lifetime of discovery, for instance, but He can also maneuver a mid-life job change that can put a person in just the right place to be ready for a special task some twenty years after that change.  What’s more, if you really want to be amazed, go figure the odds that half a century later Bill’s college roommate Barney would end up likewise performing a parallel role in developing a coronavirus vaccine at another pharmaceutical company, unbeknownst to either one of them.

On the day that the vaccine was announced, Bill told his team that before that moment they had been inspired by hope but that now they were inspired by reality.  And isn’t that just what Advent is all about as well?  Turning hope into reality?  The promises of the prophets into the miracle in the manger?  For indeed, as Phillips Brooks long ago expressed it in speaking of that little town of Bethlehem, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

This year has been filled with a lot of fears, to be sure.  But thanks to the work of my friend Bill and others who have used the gifts God gave them, there would appear to be some light indeed at the end of the dark tunnel we’ve been in for eight months.  For despite whatever twists and turns our lives may take, there is one thing that we can know for certain even in days like these:  Hope always wins in the end.  

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Deflated Dreams (Advent Devotion for December 11)

The only thing missing is a chalk outline around the figure.  For when daylight comes and the air pumps are turned off, those inflatable Christmas yard decorations rather rapidly look more than just a little sad indeed, almost eliciting a “man down!” response by those who see them.

On the other hand, I have to admit that I have a certain sympathy with those deflated Santas.  For life does have a way of knocking the wind out of you sometimes, and particularly at this point in the year, it’s easy to find our expectations for the season deflated as well.

It’s fairly clear, for instance, that the odds of having a white Christmas in South Texas are unfavorable at best, no matter what any of us may dream.  And it’s pretty rare that anyone gets everything they may have wanted at Christmas.  Likewise, whether grandmother lives “over the river and through the woods,” in another state, or just on the next block over, because of the pandemic, family gatherings may not quite take place this year as they have in times past either.

What’s more, if you’re someone who simply loves to shop, you may have found that more challenging in these days, too.  Even online, in fact, it’s been reported that automatic robot programs have bought up all of the available Play Station Five systems–this year’s hottest gift–doubling the price if you really want to get one.

Then again, the original Christmas may not have been what most folks expected either.  For who could have dreamed that when life was at its darkest the light of God would come to such an insignificant corner of the world, to a people whose hopes had long been almost hopelessly dashed?  And while many may have been looking for the appearance of a mighty messiah who could set all things right, who would have thought He would show up as a baby?

In the end, however, Christmas is not about any of us having things just the way we want or expect them perhaps, but about discovering that the One who knows us best knows exactly what we actually need—the way, the truth, and the life– and is more than ready to give it to us.  

And if, by chance, you’ve been feeling like a deflated Santa these days, maybe that can put the wind back in your sails.

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Hershey Bar Heroes

It was not exactly the kind of “white Christmas” about which crooners like to sing or children like to dream.  For the bitter wind and cold whipped cruelly through the cracks in the walls as the harsh winter weather pushed inside the barracks where a young man sat silently shivering.

For weeks it seemed that he and his companions had been alternately starving and freezing to death in that P.O.W. camp.  What a wonderful surprise it must have been thus when on Christmas Eve the first glimmer of encouragement in a long while for those survivors finally came.  For in recognition of the holiday, their captors allowed them at last to receive the Red Cross boxes which had been sent from home.  And in those boxes there was, among other things, a special treasure—a bar of chocolate candy for each man in the camp.  Only somehow a mistake had been made and in one man’s box, the chocolate bar was not to be found.

Quietly disappointed, the young man went onto sleep.  But later that Christmas Eve, he awoke to find that one of his fellow prisoners had taken his own candy bar and put it upon his friend’s pillow.  Who had done it?  The young man had an idea, but his presumed benefactor would not awaken to any of his fellow prisoner’s whispers.  And when morning came, the giver likewise denied any knowledge of the gift, saying it must have come from St. Nicholas instead.

And indeed, perhaps it did.  For if there truly is a spirit of Christmas it surely is summed up in the message of selfless and anonymous giving to others, a feat at which the legendary ancient bishop Nicholas clearly excelled.  But had you asked him, the good bishop would likewise have told you that he was, in turn, simply following the example of the Wise Men, who left their gifts but not their names when they visited the Christ Child in Bethlehem so long ago.

It’s not too surprising thus that up until he died, the man who had received the gift of a Hershey Bar that night tried to do the same, sending unexpected checks to others in the mail, donating legal services to those who could not afford them, and even sending a candy bar across the country from time to time to his fellow former prisoner who had pretended to know nothing of that Christmas Eve gift long before.

But how do I know all this, some might wonder?  Only by the rarest of God’s grace.  For the particular gift to me from that man in the P.O.W. camp three decades after that winter in captivity was that of an even greater treasure, his youngest daughter who consented to become my wife.

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Near-Sighted Faith (Advent Devotion for December 9)

Growing up, it was easily my favorite out of the myriad of versions of Charles Dicken’s classic novella.  For the 1962 television program was not only the first animated Christmas special ever crafted for that medium, but it featured the perfect cartoon character, an elderly, short-statured retiree with extreme near-sightedness, as the legendary Ebenezer Scrooge.

What really set Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol apart, however, was that it was a musical cartoon with Broadway caliber songs by Julie Styne and Bob Merrill.  And produced before the advent of political correctness and de-Christianization in our culture, there was even unabashed faith in this version, with the Cratchit family singing “The Lord’s Bright Blessing” at their meager holiday table.

The song that always got me the most, however, was one sung by a young Ebenezer Scrooge while a lonely and forgotten schoolboy, as seen during the visit of the Ghost of Christmas Past.  For like that ghost, the words were haunting ones indeed:  

“A hand for each hand was planned for the world, why don’t my fingers reach?

Millions of grains of sand in the world, why such a lonely beach?

Where is a voice to answer mine back?  Where are two shoes to click to my clack?

I’m all alone in the world.”

And almost six decades later, I suspect there are a lot of folks today who may feel the same.  For especially in this era of enforced solitude and isolation, it’s easy to feel overlooked by others, made all the worse because the culture keeps telling you that this is supposed to be the “most wonderful time of the year,” indeed, the “hap, happiest season of all.”

The message of faith, however, is summed up in the understanding that if there had been no one else in the entire world but you or me that God would still have sent His Son Jesus to come here on our behalf, or to quote the literal words of John 3.16, “to pitch His tent and live among us.”   For though it is immense, God’s love is also intense, and no matter who we may be, it’s meant to be intensely personal.  

The Christmas errand entrusted to all of us who believe therefore is a simple one.  For you don’t have to be a converted miserly money lender to make a difference.  Just find someone feeling left out of all the holiday joy and let them know that no one is ever all alone in this world.  Indeed, it’s doing that, as the Cratchits so cheerfully sang, that can make Christmas “far more glorious than grand.”  

Even if your faith is not exactly blind but just a little near-sighted.

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A Rangifer at Chick Fil-A

They’re not exactly native to this area, preferring the far more frosty mountainous areas that circumscribe the Artic.  So when a full-fledged rangifer tarandus showed up for a promotion at a local fast-food restaurant yesterday, it was worth going out to see, especially since he was joined by none other than a certain red-clad Mr. and Mrs. Claus sitting on a sled on the parking lot.

His handler told me that his name was Prancer and that, just as you might expect, he was one of eight such animals back at the corral which he likewise insisted was at the North Pole, despite the cattle trailer parked nearby.  He similarly said that what we call reindeer are known as caribou elsewhere in the world.  Whatever name they go by, however, they are generally very docile animals, he reassured me, though the antlers would seem capable of more than just ornamentation or even self-defense.

The largest wild herd anyone knows of is halfway around the world from us here in Texas, found in Siberia and numbering somewhere between 400,000 and a million.  That may also help explain why reindeer in Fort Bend County seem a bit out of place.  But then lots of elements of the Christmas story seem a bit out of place as well, don’t they?

Far away from their home in Galilee, for instance, Joseph and Mary ended up ninety miles to the south where Mary gave birth to Jesus in a storage area intended for animals. (Despite the presence of a clearly unbiblical Christmas llama found in many Nativity pageants these days, we can be pretty sure at least that no reindeer were in the manger that night.)

Similarly when the shepherds showed up, they were probably not exactly who the Holy Family expected to see after the birth of their son before they even opened up their guest room for visitors.  And as far as those wise men from the East, well, those guys were at least 500 miles away from where they belonged, unwittingly getting their last set of directions from an often-erratic ruler whom everybody else knew enough to try to avoid.

In short, God seems to have a way of moving folks to unplanned places to meet His eternal purposes, sometimes in the most unexpected manner imaginable.  And as we get closer to Christmas itself, it may well be worth remembering that idea.  For even if you’re not where you thought you might be this year, is it possible that you’re exactly where the Lord would have you?  After all, if reindeer can show up in Fort Bend, what else do you suppose the Lord might do?

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No Surprises Here (Advent Devotion for December 7)

The conventional wisdom is that nobody saw it coming, that when the attack began on a quiet Sunday morning some 79 years ago today that it came as a complete surprise to the naval forces stationed on the otherwise paradisiacal island.  But the vulnerabilities of Hawaii had been well known for decades, and almost a year before the attack on Pearl Harbor, a coded cablegram reported that Japanese military forces were planning a preemptory mass attack there to keep the Pacific Fleet from interfering with its expansion across Southeast Asia.  

Likewise, on March 31, 1941, a Navy report suggested that if Japan made war on the U.S. that they would attack Pearl Harbor without warning one early dawn, using aircraft from a maximum of six carriers, exactly what they did.  And intercepted cables between Toyko and their ambassador in Washington suggested that Japan might indeed be gearing up to bomb the island on Sunday, November 30, one week before the actual attack took place.  A confidential memo from Naval Intelligence was likewise delivered to the President’s desk that same week, cautioning that the Japanese were focused on assessing American strength in Hawaii.  But in the end, of course, nobody believed that something so bold or massive could actually occur.

Perhaps that’s why when a large fleet of aircraft appeared on the radar at 7:02 a.m. on that December 7, it was dismissed as just a flight of U.S. B-17 bombers due to arrive in from the mainland.  Within just forty-six minutes, however, the first wave of more than 180 Japanese planes appeared in the otherwise quiet skies.  And when it was all over some ninety minutes later, of the approximately 100 American ships in the harbor that day, eight battleships were damaged with five sunk and 188 American aircraft were destroyed. More significantly, 2,335 servicemen and 68 civilians lost their lives, with the wounded numbering some 1,178.

The President called it a “day that will live in infamy” and the fact that we still remember it almost eight decades later suggests that he was right.  But Pearl Harbor also reminds us that it’s remarkably easy to ignore the warnings of others sometimes, especially when we may be caught up in the frantic frenzy of our daily lives, or blindsided by false confidence about our own supposedly superior strength.

And in that respect, Advent is not only a season for remembering when Christ first came to earth as a child, but for anticipating His return as the King of Glory one day as well.  For indeed, the Second Coming of the Messiah is suggested in hundreds of Old Testament prophecies, and it’s a major theme in both Thessalonians and the last book of the Bible, Revelation.  Jesus Himself told His followers to keep watch, and Paul repeated that same admonition to stay awake for “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.”  

The good news is that for all those who love the Lord that day will not be one of infamy but of simply glory, when we will be with the Lord forever (1 Thessalonians 4.18).  And in these months of both mind-numbing monotony and continuing Covid-19 challenges, that’s a promise worth holding onto.  Indeed, Advent should remind us that the last chapter has not yet unfolded in the story of our lives.  For even if He should tarry, the time is coming when God will not only make all things right and restore all that has been lost in these days, but He will also wipe away every tear from our eyes.   So let us “ne’er forget,” as that hymn of old expresses it, “that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.” 

And He is not about to be surprised by anything.

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A Saint for All Seasons (Advent Devotion for December 4)

His feast day will be on Sunday, though it will probably pass right by most Americans.  For long ago, the fourth-century bishop of an obscure town in Turkey was transformed into a commercialized and confusing symbol of the season who currently sits enthroned behind plexiglass in many stores or malls.  What’s more, the annual remembrance of him now comes some nineteen days after the day he died on December 6 in 343 A.D., almost seventeen centuries ago.

We should also say that he was probably neither fat nor particularly jolly.  For during a time of Christian persecution in the Roman Empire, the bishop became known for being a fiery and wiry defender of the faith, imprisoned at times for defying orders to renounce his beliefs or surrender bibles to be burned.  It’s said that he once intervened in a court proceeding to stop an execution, berating the judge until he admitted that he had accepted bribes and the sentence was reversed.

Another legend suggests that at the first ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, the good bishop got into an argument with a well-known heretic from Egypt named Arius who had been arguing that Jesus was not co-eternal with God.  But after he could no longer stand what he was hearing, the bishop got up, crossed the room, and slapped Arius across the face, only afterwards asking God for His forgiveness though he did not waver in his faith.  

(To be sure, the story is a bit suspect as Arius might not have even been at Nicaea as he was not himself one of the 300 bishops gathered there.  But that, of course, hasn’t stopped modern memes from depicting a rather stern-looking Byzantine saying, “Deck the halls?  Try deck the heretic.” Or as one version of the song has put it, “I Saw Santa Punching Arius.”)

When it comes to kids, however, the tales about Nicholas of Myra are far more endearing.  For in the most well-known of them, he saved three young girls from a life of poverty by secretly delivering three bags of gold to their debt-ridden dad in order to pay for their dowries.  And in the Middle Ages a popular story even told of how Nicholas not only solved the murder of three young boys in one town but restored them to life as well.

It’s no wonder thus that Nicolas became known as the patron saint and champion of children, then sailors and whole countries, including Greece and Russia.  And even though he was ignored by many after the Protestant Reformation, the Dutch refused to give him up as the ultimate gift-giver, bringing “Sinterklaas” with them to the New World colonies.  Later still, poets and writers completed the transformation and relocated him from the Mediterranean to the North Pole for reasons that still aren’t very clear to anyone.

Before Christmas comes thus, and the real story is overshadowed once more, perhaps it’s appropriate to remember the actual saint on Sunday.  For like the Lord whom he followed, Nicholas knew that it really is more blessed to give than to receive, just as God so loved the world that He gave us His only Son indeed.

What’s more, I’m fairly confident indeed that St. Nick would have been the first to tell you that the journey from Heaven to Earth was longer and more incredible than any one-night gift-giving jaunt around the whole world could ever be. 

Especially if you don’t stop to slap a heretic along the way.

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Birds of a Feather (Advent Devotion for December 3)

They’re ducks all right but as naturalist Jo Alwood has said, they don’t seem entirely convinced about it.  For black-bellied whistling ducks not only look like geese–with their long legs and necks and finishing school erect posture–but they also form pair bonds for life, something which most ducks don’t do at all.  It’s their almost fluorescent coral colored bill that really gives them away, however, most obvious when they toss them skyward to emit their soft, high whistle which only becomes ear-piercing if people like you or me try to get too close.

Similarly, though they are considered to be a tropical bird, they apparently think Texas is in the tropics.  For perhaps on their way to winter in eastern Mexico, a flock of them showed up recently at the pond near my house where they have been happily living ever since, foraging at night for plants, insects, as well as corn, rice, and wheat. What makes them entertaining to watch, however, is their clearly gregarious nature, for unlike other species, these whistling ducks not only love a crowd—sometimes gathering in flocks of a thousand or more—but they seem to enjoy one another as well, dipping their bills and flicking water on those around them just like junior high boys in a swimming pool.

And I wonder if they might not be trying to tell us something as well.  For while we may not exactly whistle while we work–or even whistle or work much at all these days–there’s something to be said about learning how to find our footing among the flock of God’s people.  It’s not that we can’t take care of ourselves, for even those ducks are almost independent immediately after they hatch.  But there are seasons when we clearly do better together than we do apart. 

There’s a period of time each year, for instance, when those ducks become flightless while they are molting and replacing their worn-out flight feathers with new ones.  And during that period of extra vulnerability, the ducks stay not only closer to each other, but they whistle more sharply if any one of them senses danger nearby.

Perhaps this rather odd Advent season of extra vulnerability might be an appropriate time for us to likewise learn how to lean on each other and stay closer to the flock, even if we are socially distanced by six feet or so.  For just as you will seldom see a single black-bellied whistling duck flying alone, long ago Solomon warned us too, saying, “pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.” (Ecclesiastes 4.10).  St. Paul too reminded us that Christians are called to not only encourage one another and build each other up (1 Thessalonians 5.11) but even to bear each other’s burdens (Galatians 6.2).

In thinking about the people of God and our place within that flock, therefore, we may want to take another look at those wonderfully winsome whistling waterfowl.  For as winter approaches–if they don’t keep heading to Cancun, that is–even those ducks are going to figure out that this is not the tropics and Solomon was right when he asked, “how can one keep warm alone?”

Or in short–and you must have known this was coming–maybe Advent really is a time to get all our ducks in a row.

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Opening the Door (Advent Devotion for December 2)

To be certain, his theological writings about such ideas as “religionless Christianity” and “cheap grace” were profound. But it was his private correspondence from prison that actually introduced him to the world some six years after his death on April 9, 1945.  For those letters made it plain, as Timothy George has said, that whatever else he might have been—professor, preacher, activist, conspirator and even martyr—Dietrich Bonhoeffer was “first and foremost a pastor.”

His last act before being executed for his role in a plot against Adolph Hitler, for instance, was to lead his fellow prisoners in a worship service.  But long before that day, he took delight in being able to share bits of bread or fruit with those around him in that Nazi prison camp, slipping it to them through the wooden slats that divided their cells.  

He wrote to his fiancée Maria and reminded her to be brave, that “God is in the manger, wealth in poverty, light in darkness, succor in abandonment…whatever men may do to us they cannot but serve the God who is secretly revealed as love and rules the world and our lives.” He even managed to smuggle out to Maria an Advent poem he had written, concluding with the words, “By powers of good so wondrously protected, we wait with confidence, befall what may.  God is with us at night and in the morning and oh, most certainly on each new day.”

In another missive, he told his parents to celebrate Christmas “despite the ruins around us” and to do it “even more intensively,” in fact.  For of all the seasons of the Christian year, Bonhoeffer loved Advent the most, believing that only those who know themselves to be poor and imperfect can look forward to something greater to come.

And as that season approached a year before his death, Bonhoeffer penned these words to his best friend Eberhard Bethge that “life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent.  One waits, hopes, and does this, that, or the other—things that are really of no consequence—the door is shut, and can only be opened from the outside.”

I have a feeling that a lot of folks today may understand that sense of waiting for a door to be opened from the outside.  For the vaccine to come and be distributed.  For the hospital numbers to go back down. For the economy to go back up. In short, for life to find its balance once more.  So in that sense, Advent is a good season indeed for all those who are waiting.

Only here’s the thing: if you listen closely enough…you may even be able to hear the doorknob beginning to turn.

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