A Cavalcade of Creches

We have a few Nativity scenes in our house...
  • A Playmobil Nativity for young hands to play with.
  • Another wooden Nativity (on display in the bathroom this year), again for young hands to play with.
  • A ceramic Nativity that Anders gave to Beth last Christmas (he had picked it up at a children's Christmas "shopping" event).
  • A simple three-piece set we purchased in Ecuador.
Also (unpacked in our basement) are:
  • Another ceramic set we were given for our wedding.
  • And a stuffed fabric set that I had when I was little.
  • There maybe be one more that I'm forgetting!
We don't collect them, like some people might, but we do have a few sets around. They do set the stage for the Christmas season, after all. And the child-friendly ones are great for the kids to use to re-enact the story.

If there's one that stands apart, it is the Ecuadorian Nativity--simply because it is very reflective of their culture.

But they all are, of course. Most of the figures (with the occasional exception of a magi or two) are pretty white. None look Middle Eastern. Even their clothes tend to take on a western flair at times.

Our pastor recently shared on Christmas Eve how she was bothered as a kid (and adult!) by the Nativity set around growing up. None of the people were wearing authentic Middle-Eastern first century clothing. A shepherd was wearing a fedora! Most had nice leather boots on.

She and her husband recently took a dream trip to Germany for Advent. They saw Nativity scenes everywhere: town squares, store counters, hotel plazas. And she noticed that some had unauthentic clothing. Then she came across one in a church that had the city painted in the background, and it clicked. The Nativity scenes had often been done by placing the event in the crafter's cultural scenario. Emmanuel: God with us. Christ had come to be with us, to live among us, to be one of us.

So when you do an image search for "Korean Nativity," you'll find wonderfully carved sets that look...well, very Korean. If you look up "Nigerian Nativity" you'll see images of shepherd and magi in African dress. Even in my neighborhood you'll see black Santas in the stores (if they sold Nativity sets, they'd feature black characters).

This is the meaning of Christmas and the reality of the Holy Spirit: God lives among us, within us. He can identify with us as He knows what we go through.

Jesus was a first century Jew. That is certain. But He is also a 21st century American, Latvian, Argentinian, Somali, Hmong and Maori. Christ comes into our culture to give us life, forgiveness, grace and love. Not just on Christmas Day, but everyday.


Don't Rush It

I've heard of stores already having Valentine's Day items out (who buys holiday stuff several months before hand anyway?). Don't rush out of Christmas. It's only the end of the third day of Christmas as it is (remember those twelve days of Christmas? They start Christmas Day--not on Thanksgiving or anytime before hand). Christmas lasts until January 6, when we celebrate Epiphany (the revelation of Jesus Christ as the Son of God through the visit of the Magi). In much of Europe, Christmas trees aren't traditionally put up until Christmas Eve and stay up until Epiphany.

So don't rush Christmas. The world (especially commercialism part of it) tries to do that far too quickly for us. We've been waiting for four weeks. Savor the revelation of the new born King. Make room in your heart for Him. And remember we are Advent people--people who wait for Christ to return...and live in such a manner that we are ready for His return.

Most radio stations--even the Christian ones--have stopped playing Christmas music already. Decorations will be down all too soon. The new toys will be broken or tossed aside in a few days. What's left of the Christmas cookies will (hopefully) soon be gone. The holiday (holy day) season doesn't last long (at least the real holy days--not the commercial stuff that is pushed on us)--the material stuff is quickly gone, and we too easily move on from the spiritual implications.

We've got one more family Christmas gathering yet. Our tree will stay up for at least another week and a half. We try to savor the reminders that our Savior has come...that God lived amongst us. I often need those reminders. Maybe you do too--so savor it, don't rush it.

Merry Christmas!



God came to earth;
The Creator became the "created."
He came, not in a way anyone
Would expect the Lord Most High
To come to earth.

There was no pomp and circumstance,
No fanfare, no fireworks, no parade.

He came amidst the smells and dirt
Of a barn, born as a baby--
Helpless, frail, needy.
Livestock greeted Him to earth.
Their feed trough was His bed.

The angels announced His birth
Not to kings or emperors or emissaries,
But to lowly sheep tenders.
These men with dirt under their fingernails
And manure under their boots
Were entrusted with spreading the news
Of the birth of God's own Son.

He came, unexpected and unannounced
In the midst of dirt and filth
To show us the way to Heaven--
Descending to serve, stooping to love.

He came as one of us,
Showing us how to live and to love;
Loving us fully--even as a babe
Wrapped in cloths and laid to sleep
In a feed trough in a stable.

Great is His love;
Great is our joy.


It Is A Wonderful Life

We had some good friends over tonight. Most of the family (I think all except the husband) had never seen "It's A Wonderful Life"--a wrong which I had to see righted. So we invited them over for our pizza and a movie night.

Watching the movie for the umpteenth time tonight, I noticed something that I hadn't seen before (a good movie always has something new to take away). When George Bailey, now grown up and married, is in his office at the Bailey Bros. Building & Loan, there is a sign below his father's picture. It says:

"All that you can take with you is that which you've given away."

Isn't that rich? Really, it's part of the theme of the movie. George Bailey learns that his life mattered because he had given so much to others. And when he's in need, they are there to give back to him.

When I get to the point in the movie when the angel Clarence is going to grant George's wish to see what things would be like if he had never been born, I get anxious. Not for George, but for me. I have this fear that if I had that opportunity to see how the world would be if I had never been born that I would find out the world would be a better place.

Right now my wife is listening to a podcast TED Talk on "The Power of Vulnerability." So, being vulnerable, I'll share that I have insecurities. I don't feel I'm good enough. I have a desire (as do all of us) to be affirmed, to be needed. At some point in my life, I developed some insecurity in feeling not wanted/needed/good enough. I feel I haven't done that much in my life--that if my life hadn't happened, that the world might possibly be better and instead of worse off.

Now, in my brain I know this isn't true. I know that I've done things that matter (heck, I've brought wonderful kids into this world for one). But (and this is a theme with a lot of my struggles in life), my head doesn't always communicate with my heart well. What I know to be true, isn't always lived out the best.

But at the end of the movie, when Mary has gathered all the people whose lives have been affected by George and they come to rescue him, my eyes are getting watery because I do know that each life matters--that my life matters.

And though some days may suck and be extremely difficult to get through, I do believe that it's a wonderful life (sometimes my heart just needs my brain to remind it of that). And my life will have mattered because of what I've given away: my time, my talents, my gifts and my love.

May you know the wonderfulness and meaningfulness of your life as well.


Winter Solstice

Night comes early--too early--
before it is even time to sit down
to eat a supper meal together.

In the morning it will dig in its claws
and try to last as long as possible--
knowing that its time has come.

Our friends north of here
will see the sun even less;
there are places of perpetual night.

Too much darkness like this
brings on depression and moodiness.
It makes the body lethargic.

But we celebrate today
knowing that the darkness won't last;
that each day we see the sun
just a little bit longer.
We adjust to its presence again,
like getting used to a new friend.

The old church leaders placed Christmas
on the calendar near the solstice
not without reason.
During this Advent season
we wait for the Light to return
just as we wait for the days to lengthen.

There is much winter left
before the sun's rays warm
this cold and icy earth.
There is much darkness left
before the Son returns
to bring righteousness and justice.

So we wait.
In darkness.
But with hope of brighter days ahead.

Joseph Said Yes

Betrothed to a young girl, Joseph hoped that his work as a carpenter would be sufficient to support a new family. We know little about Joseph's life. He is barely mentioned in the Bible--only Luke and Matthew name him. Joseph never speaks. What little we speculate on comes from church tradition and legend.

He was possibly a widower (those who believe Mary was forever a virgin say that Jesus' brothers were from Joseph's previous marriage). As it was it is likely Joseph was likely at least twice Mary's age. One apocryphal church tradition says Joseph was about 90 when Jesus was born, living to be 111. Frankly, that's a bit weird to think that Mary would be betrothed to a man that old. But regardless of Joseph's age, his plans were about to change.

He had just been told by his fiancee that she was pregnant. It clearly wasn't his. Joseph loved her, but he knew the Law said not to go through with this. He didn't want her hurt, though. He didn't want her disgraced, publicly humiliated, or stoned to death, which was what was required according to the law. So he intended to do it quietly, preserving Mary's dignity as much as possible. I think his actions and intent point to Joseph being a class-act. Other men would have had her stoned. No one would have married a pregnant woman; to do so would have been to incriminate yourself as having defiled her before marriage. Out of love, Joseph wanted to keep everything quiet so that Mary didn't have to suffer.

But then that night an angel tells Joseph in a dream not to divorce Mary, but to go ahead and marry her, raising the child as her own. Joseph could have shrugged the dream off as having eaten too much spicy lamb a little to close to bed time, but he believes it. And he says yes. He agrees to become the earthly father of the Son of God.

I can't imagine the pressure on Joseph. How could he ever live up to being a good father when Jesus knew the Heavenly Father intimately? How could he pass on his carpentry skills to his son, who just so happened to have created the world? How could he love and discipline and raise the One who would save all people from their sins?

Saying yes didn't make his life easy. It doesn't make our lives easy, either. Never trust a minister who tells you that your life will be happier, more prosperous or safe if you accept Jesus as your Savior. Because it won't. Joseph would tell you that as he had to go on the run with his new family to escape Herod's murderous intent. Mary would tell you that as she stood at the foot of the cross.

But they would also tell you that saying yes to God can change the world. It may not always be easy, but it is good in the purest sense of the word (remember Mr. Beaver's description of Aslan in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe? "Of course he's not safe, but he's good).

I don't like living next to drug dealers whose garbage is constantly strewn around my house. But I also believe that my saying yes to God means that I'm supposed to love them (and frankly, sometimes love means calling the cops). I don't like that the packages with Christmas presents that were delivered last week weren't on my porch when I got home. But when we said yes to God, He asks that we be light in dark places. I don't like having to forgive the person who had done me wrong, but if I say yes to God's forgiveness I must also forgive.

Joseph said yes, despite all the possible consequences, and I can't help but believe that Jesus' life was shaped in some way by having Joseph as His earthly father.


Home Videos, Generational Sins and God's Love

Anders was feeling a little under the weather when he came home from school, so he laid down on the couch. After Nils and I had supper and did our Advent devotions, we sat together and I read several chapters from the current Little House on the Prairie book that we're reading (On the Banks of Silver Lake). I pulled the computer over and we watched a few short video clips of the Little House TV show on YouTube. Then I put in a DVD of my grandfather narrating old home movies being projected on a screen that my aunt had compiled. I hadn't really watched the DVD before. It had been about 10 years since my grandfather had died. This was the first time I'd heard his voice since then.

I still haven't watched the whole DVD. It's not easy. I miss him. But it was good to hear his voice. And to see my grandma in her youth, long before the ravages of a stroke. And to see my dad celebrate his second birthday.

Few generations before us in history have been able to do that--to watch their ancestors in their youth. It's a blessing--not just for me, but I think even my boys were blessed by seeing their great-grandfather whom they never met and seeing what life was like 50-70 years ago.

I met with a friend the other night who asked to come over and talk. He's going through some tough stuff in his life. He shared a lot of his life story; I shared a lot of mine. We've both been through some tough stuff and dealt with a lot of issues in our lives. Some of the stuff we've dealt with is stuff that has been passed down in our family.

The Bible warns us that the sins of the fathers will be passed down for generations. This is a hard fact as a father. I know that there are generational curses that need to be broken, and if I don't do it then my boys will have to deal with it.

I also know that God says that even though several generations will have to deal with the consequences of our sins, that He also promises to pour out his love for thousands of generations (Exodus 34:7). If we choose to work hard, we can overcome those generational curses. But no matter what we do, God's love is still present for our families for years to come. This is good news.

And looking back, watching that DVD of my grandpa, I am blessed. I know things weren't perfect. I know he had sin...as does my father...as do I. But I can remember the good times and remember Grandpa as the man of God that He was. Fun loving, hard working, devout, family-focused and even a bit mischievous. Not perfect, but saved by grace...living with the Good News.


Mary Said Yes

Our text at church on this final Sunday of Advent (how quickly even the long-ness of waiting can go!) was from Luke 1: 26-38. The angel Gabriel visits Mary and says, "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you" (verse 28, TNIV).

This in itself is shocking. We have no biblical account of angels showing up since the days of Daniel. Nearly every time an angel does appear to someone, their response is fear. Angels aren't cutesy beings--they are awe-inspiring and fear-inducing. So when one appears to a lowly teenage girl from the streets of Nazareth, we can assume Mary was probably a bit frightened.

And to have an angel tell you that you are highly favored, one can understand why Mary would be "greatly troubled at his words" (v. 29, TNIV) and wonder what this means. She's got to be thinking, "Uh, oh, this can't be good...what does God have up His sleeves now?"

And then Gabriel tells her that even though she's a virgin, she's going to have a child. Not just any child. Mary is to become the mother of "the Son of the Most High" (v. 32). He will sit on David's throne, ruling over the house of Jacob for all eternity. Mary knows that the angel is referring to the Messiah: the Savior whom the Scriptures foretold would come, bringing a kingdom of justice and righteousness.

So here's an unwed teenage girl, being told that God would like her to become the mother of His Son--the Anointed Saving King. There's a lot of pressure in knowing that. There are a lot of feelings of inadequacy. There is fear, confusion and probably even denial going on.

Mary can turn her back on the angel and say, "No way! I'm not worthy and I'm certainly not ready for that to happen." She has that option. But she is open to God's will. So she asks how all this can be possible since she has never slept with a man.

So the angel tells her that it will come about through the Holy Spirit. As evidence that the miraculous can happen, Gabriel tells Mary that her elderly cousin is beginning her third trimester of pregnancy. He assures Mary that what ever God says will happen won't fail.

So Mary, clearly full of humility for a teenager, simply says, "I am the Lord's servant. May it be to me according to your word." Clearly, there is something special about this girl.

But even saying yes to God does not mean things will be easy...or perfect. An unwed mother faced stoning at the worst; at the very least shunning and life-long ridicule for her son. Saying yes could have meant death. But she does it anyway.

Mary doesn't know what lies ahead. She doesn't know that she'll be alone with only Joseph in a unfamiliar city when the labor pains hit. She doesn't know that she'll give birth in a barn, surrounded by livestock and their manure. She doesn't know that her family will have to flee to a foreign land as essentially illegal immigrants in order to escape Herod's murderous plot against baby boys. She doesn't know that she will see her son beaten and killed in the most cruel fashion. It is not an easy road that lies ahead of Mary. She may have been better off saying "no".

But she said yes. And the world was changed because of her decision. And despite all the trials and hardships, I believe Mary--one who treasured and pondered things in her heart--would say that she lived a good life. Not a safe life, but a good life.

May I be willing to say yes to God as well.


Pagan Rituals, Christmas and Transformation

Every Christmas (and at many other holidays as well), the anti-religious like to point out that Christmas is a made up holiday. Jesus wasn't born in December (probably in the spring since the shepherds were out in the fields). And the church just made Christmas in December to Christianize some of the many pagan festivals that happened around that time.

And, yes, Advent isn't in the Bible, nor does it tell us to celebrate it. Some within the church may think that observing Advent isn't something Christians should do. But to me, Advent is important. It helps shift my focus off the commercialization of Christmas which begins around Halloween now, into being focused on having a slower, more meaningful pace not focused on making lists of presents I want. Observing Advent, as well as the church calendar as a whole, helps establish rhythms to our family's life. Advent also reminds me to be prepared for Christ's return, helping me not get lax in my faith

And yes, the critics are right about Christmas. It is a made up date that likely had been some pagan observance. And some of our symbols (such as the Christmas tree) may have had pagan meanings initially as well.

But does that matter? So what if our religious celebrations were once pagan? Isn't Christ about transformation? Isn't that what He does? He takes our "pagan" souls and transforms them. He pours His Spirit into us helping us to live as new creations. Why shouldn't we transform holy days as well?

Someday we will be perfect. For now we are still sinful beings, forgiven and given grace, but still sinful. The Holy Spirit transforms us daily, more and more into Christ's image, if we allow His will instead of our own. That transformation will be complete when Christ returns...which we await for during Advent. Actually, Advent is just a strong reminder for us to live the rest of the year waiting for Christ to return. Which is part of why I celebrate it.