Overlooked, He Overcame

It hurts to be overlooked. This morning I received a very polite rejection email for a job to which I don’t remember applying. After racking my brain for a few minutes, I remembered the position – a writer for a non-profit organization – and re-read the email.

It read, in essence, like this:

“Dear Jason – thank you for applying to [company name] for the writing position. At this time, we are moving on in our search. Though your resume had many outstanding qualities, we felt at this time you were not a match for us.”

It went on a little more after that, but that was the gist. I looked up the job posting to see which of my qualifications fell short of their standards. Based on the posted description, none did.

So why was I overlooked? Why was it assumed I wouldn’t be a good fit?

I’m sure there are lots of reasons, and I’m not exactly beating myself up over this. (Obviously, if I really cared about the job, I would’ve remembered applying for it.) But it does sting a little bit when you’re exactly what someone says they need, only they don’t want you. To be overlooked, no matter the rationale, stings. So yeah, I was a bit bummed that yet another job had turned me down.

But then I remembered today is Christmas Eve. All over the world, in various churches, people will celebrate the arrival of a small Jewish child, born some 2,000 years ago in the backwoods of the Middle East. People will sing his name, declare his glory, and salute his birth in a stable, a birth witnessed by animals, shepherds and filth.

Overlooked in his birth, Jesus still changed the world. If we can take no other hope for Christmas, let us a least take this much: the same can be true of us.

When Christmas Sucks

This is a repost of a blog I wrote last year. After cruising through my social media feeds this morning, I felt like today was a good day to repost it. Feel free to share.

Sometimes, Christmas sucks.

It’s not a popular sentiment, I know, but I’ve seen a large number of Facebook posts this year decrying the Christmas season. Lots of people, going through difficult times, don’t want cheer spread into their lives, kind of like how I don’t want my neighbor’s leaves spread into my yard. It’s a war on Christmas of a different sort, and I can understand how some of those folks feel.

See, Christmas is the one time out of the year when we’re supposed to think about good things. It’s supposed to be a time when we tell others how much we love them and discover how much we are loved as well. It’s harmony and charity and family and joy – but some people simply don’t have that in their lives.

The wife grieving the loss of her husband. The child struggling to understand the illness of a parent. The suddenly single person sleeping alone in their bed. The family Santa Claus won’t be able to visit.

They are around us, everyday, and we do well to remember them. I’ve been there. There was a time when I didn’t want to see lights on a tree, or hear songs about joy and laughter. There was a time when all I knew was the freshness of my pain; everything else seemed silly.

Some people get angry over stuff like that. They insist that people in pain suck it up and not “ruin things for everyone else.” But here’s a secret, and it’s something that only those who’ve experienced a sad Christmas season know: hurting people don’t want Christmas to go away for everyone else, they just want it to go away for them.

In realizing that, I’m drawn back to something I read in Frederick Buechner’s book, Telling the Truth. Buechner talks about the tragedy of human life, how each of us will go through dark days that make us feel as though all hope is lost. This death of hope is never more profound then during the season of hope, when the disparity between what the grieving feel and what the populace celebrates seems almost unfathomable. And when your world is filled with pain, the last thing you want is a reminder that for other people, life is joy.

I’m not asking anyone to abate their Christmas celebrations. I’m not suggesting you curtail your festivities, or hide your happiness at the fullness of the season. I guess I just wanted to speak for those who, through the pain of life, might not have the energy to speak for themselves. I know how they feel. I know how it stings. I also know that healing comes with time.

If there’s no other comfort to be found during this time of year, the thing that gave me most comfort during the sorrowful Christmases of my past was the knowledge that the celebration going on around me was due to the birth of a small, helpless child. Unlovely, unknown, he came into this world to alleviate our sorrows, not by pushing past them, but by taking them as his own. He lived and died knowing the depth of human pain, feeling the sting of heartbreak within himself.

Christmas heralds the coming of God as the man of sorrow, well acquainted with grief, who would take our sin and sorrow within his own soul so we might be freed from such things.

There is comfort, however small, in that knowledge. Christmas honors the sadness of the broken by revealing the promise of their healing. May God bring those distraught during this season the peace of knowing that truth.

The Year Without a Secret Santa Claus

It was my seventh grade year. Middle school – that time in a young man’s life when everything revolves around going unnoticed. At least, that’s the way I remembered it. You kept your head down, closed your eyes, and prayed to God that no one noticed you’re alive, because if they did, they’d likely remember you’re a colossal nerd and they’d make fun of you. Or worse.

It’s not often that a young man dreams of being Sue Storm, but my seventh grade year certainly was one of those times.

Up until November, my plan for complete avoidance of all human contact had worked. Nobody paid attention to me, nobody picked on me, nobody remembered my name, let alone that I was small, skinny, and liked to draw and read comic books. But that all changed just before Thanksgiving.

“We’re going to draw names,” my teacher announced, “and whomever you draw, you’ll be their Secret Santa.”

I don’t remember whose name I drew. In fact, I wouldn’t remember anything about this at all except for the fact that, on the last day of school before Christmas break, in the middle of our class holiday party, I was the only kid who didn’t receive a gift.

My Secret Santa stiffed me.

I didn’t cry, though I felt like it. I knew what tears would do: draw attention to the fact I was an utter loser. So I simply sat at my desk in shame and ate my candy. Eventually one or two kids came by to stare at my nothing. I think one of them even tried to apologize on my Secret Santa’s behalf. It didn’t cross my mind at the time, but I think maybe they knew the identity of my Secret Shamer. I do recall my teacher came by and tried to say something comforting to me, even promising to make up for my loss when we returned from break (she did not).

But mostly I remember feeling like an outcast, an unworthy, unloved hunk of human disgrace who not only didn’t get a present but probably didn’t deserve one anyway.

I can’t say it didn’t affect me – its been over decades since it happened and I can still revisit the mind of the little boy seated at my desk that day. I remember the loneliness. I remember the embarrassment. But I also remember thinking very deeply about what might compel someone to be so cruel to a classmate, especially a classmate who never did anyone any harm in any way.

Why would someone hate me so much for no reason?

I still wonder about that, especially when I read stories like the Peshawar massacre or Ferguson. I wonder what it is inside some human souls that makes them seethe with so much disdain and disregard for the life of another.

25 years removed from that middle school classroom, and I’m still searching for answers.

The Gift We Needed

Gift“But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.” – Luke 2:19

Can I be honest with you and tell you what my most distinctive Christmas memory is? It may be a little weird, but this week, as I searched my brain for what was the one thing from my childhood that I simply couldn’t forget about Christmas, this was the thing that came back to mind over and over again.

It wasn’t the year I got the Millenium Falcon and my dad got carpal tunnel from putting on the stickers.

It wasn’t the year I got a television for my room.

It wasn’t even the year I got a computer.

My most indelible Christmas memory is my great-grandmother, for almost 12 years without fail, giving me underwear and socks. Black socks. And white briefs. Just what every gift-obsessed, greed-consumed child wants to find beneath a spool of paper and a mound of tissue.

Socks and drawers.

I remember this gift so distinctly because it was nothing that I wanted. I dreamed of things that required batteries, things that could be played with, things that would make noise or shoot rockets or impress the kids across the street and establish that I was, once and for all, really, really cool. And yet every year, like clockwork, I would rip open the gift marked “To Jason, From Nanny” and my heart would sink as I gazed down upon yet another box full of undies and socks.

Yet, of all the thousands of gifts I’ve received over my lifetime, those annual boxes of practical goodness have remained my most central memory of Christmas. Partly because it makes for a funny story to tell; partly because of the sweetness of my grandmother to make sure that my great-grandmother had something to give us; but mostly because of all the things I got that I wanted, that was usually the one gift I got that I needed.

I read a lot, and so naturally this time of year is filled with blog posts and thoughtful articles from folks who decry the consumerization of Christmas. It’s become a vehicle for greed, they say; it’s become more about getting than giving, they shout; Christmas used to mean something, now it’s just an empty holiday overrun by the never-ending shallowness of the human heart. And I have to say, they have a point.

I realized this when, starting back in November, my son would point to the television every time a commercial came on and scream, “I WANT DAT!” Didn’t matter what the advertised item was: girl toy, boy toy, toy he already owned, toy too advanced for his age, toy too expensive for even Santa’s generous budget – once it appeared on the TV screen, Jon immediately established his desire for it to become his.

After weeks of working with him and reminding him that Christmas isn’t about getting everything insight, but really, it’s about the birth of Jesus and the gift of life to the world, we were finally able to whittle his list down to a few manageable things: lightsabers, a gun, Hot Wheels, a choo-choo train, and a hang glider.

Suffice it to say, Santa will have his hands full on that order.

But I saw in my son my own younger self, when the Christmastime world existed to fulfill my desires, to grant my wishes. Nevermind that I had a thousand needs, what I demanded from Christmas was what I wanted. Forget about socks or shoes or shirts or pants or a college savings account; who needs a CD or a stock certificate that might earn me money that I could only get at some random point in the future? I WANT STUFF NOW. Christmas was when I carefully constructed a master plan to fulfill my every little want – and my great-grandmother’s gift thwarted that plan. It tossed an ugly little monkey wrench into the working of greed in my heart.

The birth of Jesus is the same. It was not the expected gift from God; it wasn’t the anticipated revealing of the Messiah. Christ didn’t come with world-wide fanfare and trumpets blaring, with every king and his nation bending the knee to acknowledge him. Humanity didn’t get what it wanted when it came to its own salvation, but thank God, we got exactly what we needed.

It’s taken me years of thinking about my great-grandmother’s gift to be able to put it in the proper perspective. So let me encourage you tonight, as you leave and head into the rest of your Christmas celebration, to take a moment and consider the greatness of the God who gives us exactly what we need, and so much more than we could imagine.

God With Us

* This is the manuscript to my sermon from this morning. I delivered this message at my church, Chestnut Grove Baptist, for our final Advent candle – the Christ candle. I post it here for those who might be wondering, in the wake of current events, just where God is when we need Him.

* * * * *

baby jesus“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel (which means, God with us).” – Matthew 1:23

It has been a very long week for our country and community. Between the Newtown shootings on the 14th and the murder of Paul Sampleton on Wednesday, a whole lot of people have been asking the collective question:

Where was God?

In the face of any tragedy, this is the almost-universal human impulse; both believers and non-believers alike instinctively turn their minds to the question of, if there exists an omnipotent, omniscient God, where was he when we needed him?

Professional theologians call this theodicy; the more understandable version is the problem of evil and suffering. Whatever you choose to call it, the issue is one of the great intellectual and emotional barriers to the Gospel. It is an issue that must be addressed carefully and with great wisdom.

While I want to be brief today, let me summarize for you the basic structure of the problem of evil: if God is all-powerful and all-good, then evil should not exist because God would have the power to stop it and the moral imperative to do so. However, based on our simple powers of observation, we see that evil does, in fact, exist. Therefore, either God is not all-powerful (meaning he can’t stop evil from occurring) or God is not all-good (meaning he has no moral imperative to prevent evil), or God is okay with evil and suffering. None of those seem like truly great options.

The rhetoric on this issue runs deep, much deeper than we have time for this morning, but I bring this up because it is such an ingrained part of our human experience whenever we encounter tragedies such as Newtown or Paul Sampleton’s death. We experience it even more personally when things in our life don’t go according to plan; whether it’s the illness of a loved one, the death of a friend, the loss of a job, or the plain reality that life is harder than we would like for it to be, we run headlong into the problem of evil and suffering at almost every turn.

In fact, if I were to take a quick survey of the people in this room, asking if anyone here has struggled with some form of suffering or evil in the past few days, I believe almost every hand would shoot up toward the ceiling and stay there. Pain, it would seem, is a constant companion.

The Apostle Matthew knew this. Being a Jew, and a tax collector at that, Matthew was well acquainted with the realities of suffering and evil. And when he sat down to pen his Gospel account of the life of Christ, he did something remarkable: he bookended the story of God’s Messiah with the generations of Israeli suffering and the massacre of innocents.

Take a quick look at Matthew 1, and you see that he begins with the genealogy of Jesus Christ, tracing his Jewish roots from Abraham down to Joseph. Three sets of fourteen generations, a highly symbolic accounting that pointed not only to the divinity and fulfilled prophecy found in the birth of Christ, but to the history of God’s people who suffered faithfully while looking forward to that same birth. While many modern readers would tend to skip the long lists, there is so much to be gleaned from them; not only the remembrance of the more famous individuals, but the collective perseverance on the part of God’s people. To read those lists is to face first hand the pain and suffering (much of it self-inflicted, but pain and suffering nonetheless) of the chosen people of God, a pain and suffering that the author of Hebrews said was credited to them as righteousness.

We dismiss this part of the story at our own peril. Often times, our suffering is seemingly made worse by the idea that we know/believe that God is powerful enough to end it, and yet chooses otherwise. We have been conditioned to believe that somehow, God SHOULD end our suffering because we have become his adopted children through Christ, a less-than obvious twist on the blasphemous “prosperity gospel.” History tells us, as does Jesus himself, that our sufferings are not anomalies to be quickly dispatched, but instead are circumstances in which we are to learn the character and faithfulness of God.

For a specific example, consider the apostle Paul, who, we learn in Acts 9:15-16 was Jesus’ “chosen instrument.” As Jesus told Ananias, Paul was “to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”

So the prelude to the birth of Christ is the historic suffering of God’s people. Suddenly, after generations of patient endurance, Christ arrives and enters into history as promised.

Only he comes as a child. A tiny, defenseless infant incapable of anything more than the most basic of human functionalities: breathing, eating, moving.

To underscore this point, Matthew shares with us a second look at suffering, a foreshadowing of what awaited the infant Christ: the suffering of death. Matthew carefully records King Herod’s command to kill all of the boy children under the age of two in Bethlehem and surrounding areas. And the soldiers execute the order — and execute what many historians estimate to be around 20 small boys. Church history has rightly called this the Massacre of the Innocents, with an Orthodox day of observance on December 27/28.

Many people have rightly connected this historic atrocity with what happened in Newtown last week.

We shudder at the death of children. We consider the lost potential, the tragic cutting short of life before is allowed to blossom, and we weep for what could have been. Mostly, we think of those children to whom we are close and we despair that it could have been them. The world offers no illusions about the fragility of life; when we think of the smallest, weakest, and most innocent among us being wantonly killed for reasons either unknown or incomprehensible, we feel the world spin out of control and we ask again: where is God?

Matthew surrounds the narrative of Jesus’ birth with two accounts that ask the question “Where is God?”, and in so doing, he magnifies God’s answer: the birth of Christ. Where is God in our times of patient suffering? Where is God in the midst of our horrific tragedies? The answer is as simple as it is profound: he is with us. In our midst. One of us, inhabiting our flesh and bone and suffering beside us.

The mystery of the Incarnation isn’t merely that God became man, it’s that God chose to live among our sin and feel it for himself. As the writer of Hebrews wrote, Jesus was “tempted in every way we are, yet did not sin.” He was “a man of sorrows, well acquainted with grief.” Yes, he came to put an end to the sin that destroys us, but he didn’t do it as we would imagine; he didn’t come and conquer the world and turn it immediately into paradise.

He was born as a baby. He had to grow as we all grow, slowly, painfully, one day, one week, one month at a time, until the time was right for his ministry to begin. Then, he still took three years to invest his life in the lives of the apostles, pouring out his wisdom and insight into men and women who were – admittedly – a little slow on the uptake. He died an excruciating public death, was buried in a public tomb, was resurrected and appeared to numerous people, all to show humanity that the faithfulness of our souls was made possible by the faithfulness of God.

In other words, nothing about the birth, life, death or resurrection of Christ points to God being in the quick-fix business. And while we know that suffering is not something that we’ll endure in heaven, it’s part of the journey that takes us there.

But if you listen to some of our most basic, everyday church language, you see that we don’t understand that idea. If you really pay attention to what we say as Christians, you will hear that we really don’t believe that hardship has a place in the Christian life, or in the immanence of God. We pray all the time for the alleviation of suffering, instead of our enlightenment through suffering. We pray for God to be with us, when he already is.

And while these heartfelt prayers don’t come from a place of malice or malevolence, they still speak to the fact that we simply do not understand some of the most fundamental truths of our faith, truths that are revealed from the beginning of Scripture and are most obvious in the life of our Savior.

If God didn’t spare his own Son suffering, but brought about our redemption through it, will he not do the same with ours?

It would be easy to go off the rails at this point and address whether or not suffering was part of God’s plan. You can chase that particular rabbit all day and never come away with the obvious answer: regardless of the plan, the reality is that we suffer.

But we do not suffer in vain, and we certainly do not suffer alone.

The birth of Christ, the birth of the one called Immanuel, wasn’t merely the ticket to eternity that we have sometimes mistakenly made it out to be. It was an invitation to walk with God again as in days of old. It was an invitation to understand anew that the Father God who made us is the Son of God who walks with us and the Spirit of God who fills us. We see this in the outpouring of support for the families in Newtown; we see it in the way people have responded to Paul Sampleton’s death. As my friend, Ayubu Hashiguchi, one of the youth pastors at Grayson UMC said, it is in our sufferings that we find God revealed through the people who come alongside to comfort, assist, and pray with us.

Where was God at Newtown? Everywhere. Where was he in the case of Paul Sampleton? Right in the middle of it. Where is God right now, in the midst of your struggle? Inside you, beside you, walking with you through every moment of pain and doubt.

Don’t mistake the absence of easy answers for the absence of God. As my friend Dawn Hood is fond of saying, “Life is hard. God is good. Don’t get the two confused.”

The Christ candle we lit today serves to remind us of the most amazing of all our theological truths: that God so loved the world that he sent his one and only Son into our midst, into our flesh, to show us himself and remind us that we are not alone. Ever.

God is with us. Right now.