Monday, December 19, 2005

Thankfulness at Year's End

Well, the year must be coming to an end, because I find myself presently sitting in my office, gazing out the window at the melting snow in anticipation of a soon-coming trip to the Carolinas! But as I anticipate the future, I am also contemplating the past, and in thinking over everything that 2005 has brought my way, I have much . . . . MUCH. . . .for which to be thankful!

-I'm thankful that God saw fit to have me lead the effort to plant new churches in what I believe is one of the most strategic areas on the planet!

-I'm thankful for an Association, and Director of Missions, that caters my job description to fit my gifts and passions.

-I'm thankful for a ravishingly beautiful wife, who is exponentially even more beautiful in spirit. I'm thankful that after almost 12 years of marriage, we are still dating sweethearts. She is definitely worth thousands of times her weight in gold. She is my partner in the ministry of Christ's Gospel, and her advice, encouragement, occassional rebuke, and unquestionable loyalty leave me wondering what I ever did to deserve such a wonderful gift from God.

-I'm thankful for an oldest son who started Kindergarten this year. I'm thankful for Sam's inquisitive mind and constant thirst for learning, his sense of wonder that reminds me that adults often take so much for granted, and his intuitive ability to have fun wherever we are. Most of all, I'm thankful for his interest in Jesus Christ, his love for reading his Bible, and his recent deep questions about what it means to follow Christ.

-I'm thankful for a church family in Glenwood Maryland called Gethsemane Baptist Church. I'm thankful for the way they so aptly meet the spiritual and relational needs of my family when I have to be away so often.

-I'm thankful for Dr. Jerry Cooper, my pastor. I'm thankful for the relief of knowing that when I am away, my family is receiving the sound and clear teaching from God's Word that I would expect. Having been a pastor for several years, It was difficult to trust another man to fulfill this role for my family. Pastor Jerry has quickly earned my trust, and my admiration. And he serves with a heart of love that is a rare find, even among pastors.

-I'm thankful for a group of professional colleagues, with whom I shared the experience of three years of research doctoral studies at Southern Seminary. These bright and dedicated men and women are located all over the world in church pastorates, mission fields, and institutions of higher learning, and I am honored to call them "friends."

-I am thankful for Rob and Denise Stephens, dear friends, themselves from North Carolina, who help us maintain our "Southern identity" in the midst of "Yankee country."

-I'm thankful for an extended family in South Carolina who fully supports us in the work we are doing. It can't be easy to be hundreds of miles from your grandchildren, but never have Amy and I heard even one negative remark regarding our obedience in moving away. I probably wouldn't truly appreciate this, were it not for friends of mine in mission fields all over the world who have to deal with the constant "nagging" of a selfish extended family. From both sets of parents, there could be no greater gift than that of unconditional support.

-I'm thankful for the music of Frank Sinatra, Guns and Roses, Steven Curtis Chapman, Rascal Flats, G. F. Handel, Keith Urban, and Eric Clapton. (Yep, I know its an eclectic mix, but God Himself is creatively eclectic!)

-I'm thankful that through movies like Cinderella Man and The Chronicles of Narnia, Hollywood demonstrated that it still has some redeeming quality.

-I'm thankful for the people of Rolling Hills Baptist Church, whom I have served during that latter part of this year as interim pastor, and for the privilege they give me each week of being able to teach God's Word.

-I'm thankful for the birth and quick healing of our newest son, Seth. He was a very sick boy when he came into the world in September. Now he is a robust 15 pounds, and eats like his dad! We can't praise God enough for this miracle!

-I'm thankful for that little black dress my wife owns, and that after almost 12 years, I still get "weak in the knees" when I look at her in it. ;)

-I am thankful for a church I helped to plant in Greenville, SC, now called Sanctuary, and that they continue to impact their community for the sake of the Kingdom.

-I am also thankful for Pastor Chad Howard, who was my "right-arm" during the planting of that church (previously called True Life Church), and for how his continued service to that body of believers builds them up as a crown jewel that he will no doubt receive back from Christ Himself at the end of the age. Also, the friendship of he and his wife Tiffani to Amy and me foreshadows what "community" will look like in heaven.

-I am thankful for the memories left me by a precious friend who passed away earlier this year. (Rest in Christ, Alan Weaver!)

-I'm thankful for mentors past and present, including, but not limited to Bill Cashion, Jim Ramsey, Keith Kelly, George Martin, Walter Johnson, Charlie Draper, Spencer Haygood, and Bill Crowe. I thank God for the men who have invested part of their lives in my own development. My failures are entirely my own. But my success is their success, and ultimately, the success of God, who sent them into my life.

-I'm thankful for the incarnate Christ, whose presence in this world brought about all of the above! But mostly, I'm thankful that His coming, living, dying and rising guarantees me that as wonderful as this life is, I ain't seen nothing yet!

2006 could be even better, or, exponentially worse! That's the thing about the future. We just don't know. But God does. Furthermore, Scripture tells us that He has already declared the end from the beginning, and that regardless of what life brings, good or bad, each is designed to fulfill the good future that God has promised each of us who follow Him. With that in mind, I look forward to 2006 with excitement.

God willing of course, 2006 will definitely bring more writing on this weblog. But for the next month or so, I and the family are enjoying the season, and prayerfully getting ready for God's best in the New Year. I wish each reader the same, and pray that our Lord gives you a Merry Christmas and joyous New Year!

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Christmas in Narnia: The Way to Truly Celebrate

Early this week I and my family were able to see the motion picture version of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. As a family, we have anticipated the release of this film since the first preview, released almost one year ago. Also, our oldest son Samuel and I had just finished reading this book during the summer, so he was anxious to see how the adventure he loved so much would be portrayed on the silver screen.

As we expected, it was a great experience. As I thought of the true meaning behind the metaphor, I found myself quite emotional. Yet this Christmas season, one line taken from the book struck me as particularly profound. And as I continue to ponder the focal point of this season, I finally understand the tragedy of living a life reflected by the setting described by the faun Mr. Tumnus, in which it is "always winter, but never Christmas."

Of course, the tale is fictional, but C.S. Lewis intended his allegory to be exactly that from the start. In fact, his goal was to be able to read the entire story to a child, and simply say to the child at the end "Aslan is Christ," resulting in the child understanding the Gospel of Jesus Christ in its fullness. Consequently, the story rightly centers around the coming of the great Lion and the fulfillment of the prophetic freeing of Narnia.

As much as we enjoyed the film, movie screens can never depict with the same depth and precision what the human imagination can conceive with a book in hand. For example, when Mr. Beaver tells of the coming of Aslan, there was no possible way for movie makers to portray the following reaction by the children:

At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in its inside. Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer.

In this part of his masterpiece, Lewis rightly captures the juxtaposed whole of what should permeate the heart of a Christ-follower--delight and adventure, excitement and horror--such are the appropriate extreme emotions in the presence of the King of Kings!

Yet as believers approach the coming Christmas season, I fear that our emotions might in fact be the opposite of that expressed by young Lucy. Rather than feeling the holidays have begun because of the name of Christ, we feel the obligatory pull to somehow recognize Christ because of the holidays. This not only puts the "cart before the horse," it dishonors Him who is to be adored above all things, and that at all times, not just at Christmas.

The lack of awe that many professing Christians have for the sovereign Christ is a year-round phenomenon, but is amplified at this time of year, as so many seem more impressed with the lights at Rockefeller Center than with the Light of the World--more fearful of the prospect of stolen gifts than of the reality of the Incarnate Word. Now is certainly the time of year to remember the warning of Mr. and Mrs. Beaver. Responding to Lucy's question of whether this Lion is "safe," Mr. Beaver asserts "if there's anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they're either braver than most or else just silly . . .don't you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King I tell you!"

The movie, as well as the book, also makes clear the fact that Christmas is inaugurated by the coming of Aslan, and until his coming, the White Witch has cast a spell over all of Narnia, so that it is "always winter, but never Christmas."

This is something to think about as we ponder the meaning of the "Christmas culture wars." The desire by businesses, governments and schools to eliminate Jesus from the holidays is, ultimately, their attempt to officially allign our nation with what has likely been reality for many years now . . . it is always winter, but never Christmas!

Rest assured; when Santa Claus gets more attention than our Sovereingn God, that isn't Christmas, just winter!

When families merely tip their hats toward the Bethlehem manger on their way to open gifts and commit gluttony, never again to pick up a Bible and reflect deeply on how God Incarnate fulfills every redemptive promise that assures me of an eternity in His presence, that isn't Christmas, just winter!

Make no mistake: Christmas is because Jesus is! In Narnia, Father Christmas makes his appearance in this fantasyland only after it is announced by the Beavers that "Aslan is on the move." Without the coming Son of God, there is nothing to celebrate. Conversely, because He has come, there is much to celebrate! No doubt 2005 has been especially hard on many. Some have faced financial hardships, others sickness, others the death of a spouse, parent or other relative, and still others the anxiety that comes with knowing their loved-one is serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, or some other area of the world. (Lewis was accutely aware of such anxiety, and set the timeline for Narnia in the midst of World War II).

To these, it will be a difficult time around the tree this season, and apart from a renewed awe for the baby in the manger, this season, even with the gifts and decorations, will be "always winter, never Christmas."

But those who have faced hardships this year as well as those who have simply minimized the meaning of this season are presented with the same solution: Stand at the manger. Meditate, as did Simeon, on the identity of this child. Tremble with fear at the One who is infinitely more than a baby. Remember with trepidation the words of Mr. Tumnus that "he isn't a tame lion." Moreover, remember that He isn't a baby anymore, but that Christmas, in remembering His first coming, also reminds us of His promise to come again.

And on doing this, let your heart feel brave and adventurous. Let your soul delight in the sweetness of His presence that Scripture tells us is the fulness of a joy that cannot be duplicated by even the most tight-knit family. Most of all, let your excitement over the coming holiday be fueled by the salvific miracle of the incarnation. And know that the holidays have truly begun, not because of parties, gifts, or even the presence of family . . . .

. . . .but because "Aslan is on the move!"