How do you feel after the Christmas season has ended? Sad? Relieved? Wistful? Lonely? Frustrated? Bloated? Excited that there are only 347 days, 7 hours, 43 minutes, and 2 seconds left until Christmas Day 2018 (according to xmasclock.com as of this writing)?
Until this year, my dominant experience was a kind of let down that reached its zenith during my yearly ritual of un-decorating the Christmas tree. All those wonderful ornaments laden with significance, collected over the years, that won’t see light for another eleven months. No warm glow of tree lights in the midst of a dark living room. No more Christmas music (OK, I occasionally sneak a mid-year listen to Over the Rhine’s extraordinary Snow Angels). All the anticipation, now gone. Days off, used up.
But this year my experience was different. Perhaps it was some significant family health concerns that helped keep my creeping nostalgia at bay—I don’t know. But as I carefully put each ornament away, instead of feeling let down I had a sense of anticipation, of moving forward with Jesus into the new year. It was a pleasant surprise. As much as I normally might want to hoard certain celebratory moments and live out of them, perhaps even trying to use them to shield myself from harsher day-to-day realities, time doesn’t stand still. I think of C. S. Lewis’s description of Narnia under the White Witch: “always winter and never Christmas.” I need to be careful I don’t have a longing for the opposite—a life that is “always Christmas and never winter.”
Churches that follow a liturgical calendar have moved from the season of Advent/Christmas/Epiphany and have entered “Ordinary Time” (the weeks between Epiphany and the start of Lent). In fact, the majority of the church year is spent in Ordinary Time (at least 33 weeks, including the time after Lent/Easter/Pentecost that ends with Advent). I find that significant. Our surrounding culture is enamored with the next celebration around the corner—our local drug store started displaying Valentine’s Day cards on Christmas Eve! But most of the Christian life is lived apart from the feasting of the Christmas season.
The same was true for Jesus. After the hubbub of a manger birth, awestruck shepherds, a star, and Magi bearing gifts, about thirty years of ordinary life awaited. Learning and practicing a trade. Growing in how to love his siblings and honor his parents. Plumbing the depths of Scripture. Luke describes it this way: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (2:52). Jesus was not simply marking time; each day was a significant opportunity to grow in love for God and neighbor. Each day was a flagstone on the path to complete the work the Father had given him. It is no different for us.
The surrounding culture is looking ahead to Valentine’s Day. Not me (with apologies to my dear wife). This year I was content to stow the ornaments and lights and wonder at the bare tree whose green color (albeit fading) represents Ordinary Time. It may be winter and no longer Christmas in Glenside, PA, but each ordinary day is charged with significance. Perhaps like me, you hear the psalmist whispering in your ear as you move into the new year, “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Ps 90:12).
The word addiction is open to all kinds of theories, which is one reason some Christians try to avoid it. Slavery is more specific. But the word addiction is a useful point of contact that essentially says, “I like this, or at least I once liked it, but I certainly never planned to be owned by it.”
How do you approach addictions in your church? Here are eight questions for pastors to consider.
1. Would those who are struggling or trapped in sin come to your church?
2. Do leaders in your church know what to do if someone confesses addiction to them? Does everyone know what to do?
3. Do you have enough of a relationship with local law enforcement to know what kind of addictions are in your area?
4. Do you have someone in your church who has a special affection for those who struggle with addictions? If so, how do you encourage this person in ministry? Pastors frequently ask about starting an addiction group in their church. If you are interested in one, a group usually begins with one or two people who pray together for themselves and others.
5. Is there a standard testimony in your church? Does it suggest a victorious life in which struggles are eventually behind us? This can inhibit openness. Or does the standard testimony in your church suggest that you have to hit bottom before you can really know Jesus? This can inadvertently become the prescribed way of coming to Christ. When possible, we hope for a growing cache of diverse stories.
6. Do you have conversations with other pastors about their experiences and how they approach addictions in their church?
7. What guidelines do you have for your care of those who are enslaved to pornography or drugs?
8. How is the person and work of Jesus Christ meaningful in your care of addicts? Do you use everyday language and accessible images or do you fall back on theological jargon?
I think about ladders during the Christmas season.
In the beginning, the Lord dwelled, in all his fullness and glory, in heaven. Yet he came to earth and began to fashion it into his dwelling. There was a ladder—a vertical bridge—between heaven and earth. The full project would take time, but God made visits and walked with us during those visits.
When we turned from the Lord, the distance between us became greater, and human history then became one long obsession about that distance. Life could only be found in being close to God, yet we preferred to get close on our own terms. The tower of Babel was the first of many aborted attempts to make a ladder to God in our own strength. Now, instead of towers, we try to create righteousness in ourselves by our haphazard attempts at being good or religious, but our attempts to climb the ladder still fail.
Yet God’s plan was to bridge heaven and earth, and he was still going to do it. He came close and spoke to people—Abraham, Moses, Job and others. He made promises that he would bless, which means that he must be close because blessing is dependent on his presence.
When Jacob had doubts about God’s promises, he was given a glimpse into heavenly realities. He saw a ladder, and “the angels of God were ascending and descending on it,” and the Lord stood above it. (Genesis 28:12–13). The vision is clear: heaven will, in fact, come to earth. The two will connect.
With this vision in mind, Jesus spoke to Nathaniel. “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (John 1:51).” The ladder is the same. Angels are freely going between two realms. What is different is that God, once seen at the top of the ladder, is now on earth. The Lord—the Son of Man, the Ancient of Days, Jesus the Christ—has descended, in all humility and love. In the weakness of a baby, he came to us and the distance between heaven and earth was forever changed.
Just one more ascent. In his death, resurrection, and ascent into heaven he became the enthroned One. From there, his first official act was to give us his Spirit, who descends and is present with us while we remain on earth. Christ did this for those who trust in him, and he did it with us. When we trust him, our life becomes wrapped into his, so we ourselves now traverse the ladder with him.
Christmas is the time we remember that God came down, which had always been the plan. The ladder, once the domain of angels, has become a level path—a well traveled highway—on which we walk freely with Immanuel.
I wrote a series of meditations for men and women whose anger has hurt others—A Small Book about a Big Problem. This, certainly, includes us all. Yet there is a version of anger that these meditations only touch briefly and recently someone raised it with me.
What about angry victims?
My first response to an angry victim would be: “Help me understand what happened.” In my experience, the problem for victims is rarely their anger. Their anger is more often a front for the pain of betrayal and harm. It is their temporary protection. When victims speak with someone who actually cares for them, their anger typically vanishes. Otherwise, I look for anger that victims might unleash on themselves: “I am so stupid. How could I have let that happen?” Or, since victims have often been coached by perpetrators to feel responsible for perpetrators’ behaviors, victims can mimic the abusers’ degrading words and actions.
But what if a victim can persuade you that his or her anger against the perpetrator is a priority? The challenge is that there are ten different ways that Scripture could help. Do you leave room for God’s wrath? Do you consider how Jesus gave matters of justice over to his Father? What about those “burning coals” Paul talks about in Romans 12:20? And so on. With so many options, the task becomes a joint venture in identifying what God says that is most important. Most likely this will include at least this one sure thing for the victim—speak to the Lord. Speak to the God who hears and who even gives you words for your misery and the oppressive acts done against you. If you are the helper and are searching the psalms for help, Psalm 5 is the first of the imprecatory psalms. Victims will recognize themselves in it. Though it might take years to master and be mastered by this psalm, they will be years in which the Lord both invites our words, shapes our hearts and brings us into his heart.
May we all grow in knowing God’s heart for the oppressed and shamed, even when they seem angry.
My son-in-law was praying before dinner at our home. Meanwhile, my four-year-old twin grandsons continued their conversation. So it was appropriate for me to say something.
“Guys, when we pray it is time to listen, not talk.” I spoke in a normal, conversational tone.
Immediately, one of the boys erupted into inconsolable tears—pitiful, barely-being-able-to-breathe silences followed by ear-piercing screams. Grief that came from the depths of his soul. He turned to his mother, who was sitting next to him, to seek some physical consolation, but he realized that was not going to help and fled to another part of the house.
Most of my grandchildren cried the first time I corrected them. We would talk about what happened, all would be fine, and by the next correction they had immunity to the thought that my correction was personal rejection. This grandson, however, has affection for me that goes deeper—even deeper than his desire to hoard his Halloween candy. For him, correction communicates that his grandfather is not pleased with something about him, and the perceived interruption of love is too much to bear.
I went and found him. “Buddy, we are fine.” The moment the words were out of my mouth, he was tranquil and smiling. I then spoke about the whole talking-while-someone-is-praying thing. He might have heard; I’m not sure. What he did hear was that the breach in the relationship had been mended, and things were back to normal. Nothing was more important to him than that.
Though my words at the dinner table were not spoken in anger, my grandson had not yet learned to distinguish between my correction and my rejection and he assumed the worst. Correction, rejection, anger—they felt the same to him, and he is not alone. If we think we are innocently saying, “You are wrong and I am going to correct you,” we might be heard saying, “I DO NOT LOVE YOU.” Add anger to correction and the message is unmistakable. Perhaps, when spoken to a four-year-old who loves you more than life itself, he will cry, and you will have an opportunity to bring healing. Sadly, most victims won’t say a word because this is not the first time. They have become accustomed to the rejection.
If your correction of your children is not offered with explicit words of love and encouragement or if you express your “legitimate frustrations” to those around you, then you are most likely saying “I DO NOT LOVE YOU.” Then it would be right for you to cry.