Christmas is Especially For Those Who Dread It

Christmas is Especially For Those Who Dread It

When I was a kid, Christmas was the most predictable time of the year. My entire family lives here in the Dallas area. My grandparents’ homes are within two miles of each other. My parents still live in the house where I grew up and my brother and his family live just down the street from them. 

With everyone living so close, we’ve always been a tight-knit family. Growing up, we were saved the hassle of traveling to another city for Christmas. My parents never had to sacrifice time with one side of the family for the other.

Every Christmas Eve, we would open presents from the extended family, hear my great-grandmother’s brother-in-law recite Luke 2, and head home in time for Santa to come down the chimney my Dad to curse the day he was born while putting together our toys.

But over the past decade, a lot has changed in our family. My brother and I are both married and parenting our crazy kids. As a pastor, Christmas Eve isn’t a day off for me anymore. Through the years, some of the family have passed away and our traditions look much different.

Like most adults, my attitude towards Christmas has changed too. I dread pulling down the decorations from the attic. The season is so busy with parties and extra work that I often have a hard time stopping to enjoy it. Meanwhile, every year, we’re searching for that elusive balance between time with my family and hers. 

There’s tremendous pressure to be joyful over Christmas, yet many people truly dread it. The people we once celebrated with pass away. Money gets tight. Family conflict erodes at our relationships. This year, the tension is even greater as many families face the prospect of not even getting to gather. Those crushed under the weight of these pressures often feel out of place in December. Some even feel like bad Christians for not feeling joy when gazing upon the manger scene. But if that’s you, this season is especially for you. 

The Season of Advent

Yesterday marked the start of the Advent season, a time of waiting and preparation. In the four weeks prior to Christmas, we reflect on the period of waiting the biblical characters faced in the years leading up to Jesus’ birth. For the Jews, his birth marked the fulfillment of a long-awaited promise, and it came in a time of oppressive Roman occupation. The birth of their King was a glimmer of hope in a time when they felt enslaved, devalued, and forgotten. You have to wonder if many of them felt completely abandoned by God in their centuries of waiting.

The scene of that first Christmas is that much more profound when you consider that Jesus was born to a poor couple in an insignificant region. It was witnessed by shepherds, a group of people considered so lowly that they couldn’t even testify in court. The kings who came to adorn Jesus with gifts came from far away lands, not from his own countrymen.

It helps to remember that Jesus was born into a time of great darkness. It wasn’t a bright and cheery time. There were no sparkly lights, Black Friday deals, family gatherings, or talk of peace on Earth. It came in a time of political instability, uncertainty, and fear. (Sound familiar?)

Next time you’re listening to the traditional Christmas carols, take a moment to reflect on the lyrics. Notice the minor keys and heavy tones. Both musically and lyrically, they leave you with a feeling of angst and waiting. They combine a sense of deep longing and anticipation, given way to sudden celebration. The Christmas season itself is naturally borne from the basic idea that all is not well in our world. 

Unfortunately, we often omit Advent from our Christmas traditions. We celebrate the joy of Christ coming into our world but ignore the darkness that precluded him.

Our Present Longing

We can’t fully celebrate the coming of Christ without first recognizing our own need for him. It should naturally make us yearn for his second coming. We often don’t stop to contemplate the darkness around us.

We try so hard to engineer happy memories in December, often forgetting that we are living in the darkest month of the year. But ask anyone suffering through depression, the loss of a loved one, poverty, or addiction, and they’ll immediately identify with the idea of Advent and the longing to be made new again.

The human race remains enslaved to sin and death. Paul describes us as “dead in our trespasses.” But God did more than speak through prophets or split bodies of water in half. That wasn’t enough. He loved us too much to leave us in our death. So, he personally invaded the darkness. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis describes it best:

One of the things that surprised me when I first read the New Testament seriously was that it talked so much about a Dark Power in the universe – a mighty evil spirit who was held to be the Power behind death and disease, and sin… Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.

Jesus broke through the darkness to set us free. So if you’re experiencing regret, sorrow, addiction, or pain in your life, this is your hope over the coming weeks. We celebrate the day he invaded this world as an innocent child in a countryside barn. The Jesus we worship wasn’t insulated from pain or darkness while he was here. He dove right into it. The baby in that nativity scene would grow up and feel abandonment, loss, rejection, and even death – just like you and me. But he didn’t come to merely experience it. He came to conquer it.

If you find yourself dreading Christmas this year, know that the darkness you feel in your heart is the exact same darkness every character in Luke 2 felt. Just imagine their joy when they realized the true King had just landed in their own backyard – that he counted them worthy of bearing witness to his invasion. Consider that moment when they finally realized all will finally be well. The same hope is offered to you.

God is here. Let your weary soul rejoice.

Marriage Shines in the Difficult Moments

Marriage Shines in the Difficult Moments

Over the past few months, I’ve had the privilege of officiating a few weddings for young couples tying the knot. It’s always a joy to walk through the engagement season with two people who are preparing for their life together. It’s a time of growing anticipation and excitement. 

I remember when Holly and I were going through that same season. It felt that our life together was nothing but potential. It felt like we would have the perfect marriage and nothing could possibly go wrong. But once the engagement was over and the wedding was in the rearview mirror, all that was left was the two of us. While we were still young and idealistic, the hard work of loving each other “for better and worse” was finally underway.

It’s easy to prepare for a wedding, but living in covenant marriage is an entirely different thing.

Once you begin sharing a toilet together, there’s often a moment just weeks after the wedding when you think to yourself, “Who is this person?!” Once you’re confronted with each other’s weird or gross habits, every missed chore and every unmet expectation is seen as a massive character flaw that must be addressed.

As the years go on and kids come into the picture, life only gets more complicated. The apartment rent is replaced with a mortgage. You eventually face a tragedy and you walk through a season of suffering together. And as the wedding becomes more distant in that rearview mirror, it’s easy to lose sight of the vow you made to each other. It becomes natural to let the relationship switch into autopilot. Before you know it, the person on the other side of the bed isn’t a spouse, he or she is just a roommate.

A Dangerous Lie

If you’re a follower of Christ, you’ve likely learned that your marriage is a picture of God’s love for the world. Your marriage is a living, breathing representation of the gospel to everyone watching you. It’s a potent and heavy calling. It’s a beautiful gift. But it’s often accompanied by a dangerous and subversive lie – that marriage is chiefly about our happiness.

So, if marriage is supposed to drive people to Christ and we believe the chief goal is for us to be happy, then when we feel unhappy, we believe we must be failing or sinning. Suddenly, we feel defeated and dejected within our relationships. Eventually, if those feelings last long enough, and if the foundations of the marriage aren’t strong enough, then we can be tempted to end it altogether.

It’s not that God doesn’t desire joy and fulfillment for us in marriage. But as Gary Thomas brilliantly explains in his book, Sacred Marriage, God has chiefly designed marriage to produce holiness in us, not simply happiness.

In other words, as we faithfully love one another and patiently persevere through both the joyful and painful moments together, God is producing holiness within us. In fact, those difficult moments that we often view as marital failure can do more to produce that holiness than the joyful ones.

When I guide couples through the wedding ceremony, I have them recite the following vow:

“I, _______, take you, _______, to be my wedded wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part, according to God’s holy ordinance; I pledge myself to you.”

I don’t ask couples to take this vow because marriage is always going to be fun and happy. I ask them to do it precisely because it won’t. No one has to commit to sticking it out during the good times. That’s the easy part. The vows are there precisely for the moments, trespasses, hurts, and betrayals that would doom any other relationship.

“Better” in marriage is always better than you ever thought it could be. But “worse” is always worse than you thought it could be too.

That’s why couples commit before God, family, friends, and the Church body that they will never give up on each other. We take these vows because the day will come when they’ll be tested. There will be moments when, by God’s strength, they might be the only thing keeping you together.

When God’s Love Shines Best

If you’re in a difficult season in your marriage, it may be tempting to think that your relationship is failing to accomplish what God designed for it to do. It’s easy to believe that, in your imperfect love toward one another, God is not pleased with your marriage.

But it’s in the moments of pain and heartbreak when God’s love shines through the most. In a world of conditional love and transactional relationships, there’s nothing more counter-cultural than a God-ordained marriage that never gives up in the face disagreement, conflict, pain, heartbreak, or even betrayal. In those moments when you courageously choose to keep going in the face of difficulties, you’re doing exactly what God designed your marriage to do. You’re demonstrating God’s unfailing, never-giving-up love to the watching world.

Hope For the Hard Times

The commitment to stick it out and not give up is what sets a marriage apart from any other relationship. So, if you and your spouse find yourselves at an impasse – if it feels like there’s no way forward – if you’re dealing with one frustration or betrayal after another – don’t believe the lie that your marriage is failing. Don’t let guilt, shame, or dejection take hold.

As you keep moving forward and sacrificially love one another through the difficulty, you’re fulfilling God’s design in marriage. Jesus is shining through your imperfect love more than you could possibly imagine.

Quick Social Media Advice for the Morning After the Election

Quick Social Media Advice for the Morning After the Election

Hey everyone, this election is still wide open. To all my friends screaming foul play, saying the other side is corrupt, and claiming we’re seeing the downfall of our country, please do three things for me.

1. Stop posting.

If you’re really into politics, you probably didn’t sleep much last night and emotions are running high. That’s usually not the best scenario for making comments in public forums. Among my Christian brothers and sisters, you’re posting in a way that reflects poorly on Christ to support your political viewpoint. As a pastor, that deeply grieves my heart.

2. Remember what so many of you posted earlier.

Remember those posts about God being in control, no matter who wins the election? About respecting those who don’t vote like you? Your comments today certainly don’t reflect that conviction. The people around you don’t believe you when you follow those inflammatory remarks and claim that your side is being cheated against.

3. Watch your sources.

Don’t be a distributor of false or misleading information. I’ve always believed that if you have to resort to disreputable sources to back up your arguments, your claims must not be that strong.

 

Just breathe… It’s okay.

Why They Stay Unreached

Why They Stay Unreached

A Note About This Article

This post originally appeared at e3partners.org in 2016 to add color to the plight of unreached people groups and explain why it remains such a critical issue in today’s society.

They go by a variety of labels – the unreached, the unengaged, UPGs, or UUPGs.  If you spend more than five minutes with a missionary, you’ll hear some variation of these terms over and over again.  Unreached people groups are the rallying cry for missions organizations.  They’re what make us get out of bed every morning.

So, what are they?

People groups are, well, groups of people.  They are individual cultures who are often defined by a shared language and perspective on the world.  According to The Joshua Project, the leading research organization who catalogs them, there are 9,701 known people groups in the world.  All 7.1 billion of us fall into one of these demographic subsets.

When you hear that a group is “unreached,” it means there are so few Christians that they are unable to substantially spread the Gospel.  Over 3,900 people groups fall into this category, representing over 3 billion people.

But then there’s the even scarier label – “unengaged.”  These are unreached groups who, for whatever reason, don’t even have a missionary presence.  In other words, they don’t know the Gospel, we know they don’t know the Gospel, and yet no one is actively reaching out to them.

It’s every missionary’s dream to cross groups off the unreached and unengaged lists.  So, why are they still unreached?  Or worse, unengaged?

 

1. It’s very dangerous.

David Platt once commented, “Unreached peoples are unreached for a reason. They’re hard, difficult, and dangerous to reach. All the easy ones are taken.”

In large part, this is true.  Many unreached and unengaged groups reside in countries ravaged by violence and oppression.  This includes places like Syria, China, India, and Sudan.  Missionaries going into these regions face opposition from governments and militant groups.  The threat is not just for those who spread the Gospel, but even greater for those who accept it.

 

2. They’re difficult to access

Google Maps won’t get you to many of these people.  They live off the beaten path.  In Nepal, where less than 1% of people know Christ, many villages are difficult to reach due to the nation’s limited infrastructure.  Likewise, the unreached Bedouin tribes in the Middle East have purposely settled far from large urban centers.  To make matters worse, they’re constantly moving around.  It’s hard enough to track them down, much less get to them.

 

3. Many Christians don’t want to reach them.

As shocking as this may sound, often our prejudices get in the way.  There is no stronger example of this than with Islam-background peoples.  Over 85% reside in unreached communities.  Sadly, some Christians deal with fear, misunderstanding, or even hatred that keeps them from viewing Muslims the way Christ does.   They’d rather avoid them than engage them with the Gospel.

 

4. There aren’t enough people in the game.

Simply put, we need more people to embrace this call to the unreached.  The vast majority of Christian resources are directed to places where the Gospel is already taking hold.  Less than 1% is designated towards the most unreached parts of the world.  There is a dire need for more Christians to pray for them, offer financial support, and go.  If the Church won’t step out of its comfort zone, these people will die without hearing about Jesus.

Despite all of this, the Gospel is still moving forward and exciting things are beginning to happen.  The turmoil of the Middle East is driving many unreached communities into parts of Europe and North America where they can be exposed to the story of Jesus.  As they return home, they are planting new churches in their native communities.  Some might even be closer than you think.  Meanwhile, e3 Partners and other organizations are teaching new believers in these communities how to share the Gospel and multiply.  We just have to seize the opportunities.

Here’s the bottom line – to be unreached is to be without Christ.  It means an entire culture is missing out on the greatest story ever told.  It’s a reality we cannot accept.  But the good news is that the Gospel isn’t bound by political influence, war, or cultural obstacles.  It doesn’t bow down to these things.  It transforms them.

None of these obstacles are insurmountable.  It just means it’s time to step up.

Where Heaven and Hell Collide

Where Heaven and Hell Collide

A Note About This Article

In October 2016, I traveled to Berlin with e3 Partners to serve in one of the many centers scattered across Germany housing over one million refugees. At the time, Germany’s urban centers had become ground zero for one of the largest humanitarian crises in history. This post originally appeared at e3partners.org and is arguably one of the most personal pieces I’ve ever written.

Photo courtesy of United Nations Relief and Works Agency

I’ve seen plenty of gore in movies and on TV shows.  But nothing could prepare me for the photos on Ackmed’s phone.  I wasn’t really sure why he kept them or what made him feel safe to share them with me.  All I know is that I’ll never get the images out of my head.

For the past hour, Ackmed had been showing me the life he left behind in Aleppo – back when there was still an Aleppo.  Without a translator, we relied on a rudimentary understanding of each other’s languages and Google Translator on our phones to make up the difference.

Despite the difficulty of translating through smartphones, neither of us gave up.  For hours, we sat on the bare mattress in his room, going through pictures and learning more about each other.  After telling me about his life and his family, he couldn’t help but show me the hell he left behind in Syria.  He pulled up YouTube videos of the bombing wreckage in his neighborhood with the most gruesome parts censored out.

About halfway through our Turkish coffee, Ackmed began scrolling through the images on his smartphone until he found a particularly horrifying series.  These weren’t from the internet.  They weren’t pulled from BBC or Al Jazeera.  And they weren’t censored either.  These were personal.

The five or six photos showed the contorted, lifeless body of a middle-aged man – eyes still open, bloody lacerations from head to toe, and half naked.  The cable tie that finally killed him was still tightly wrapped around his neck.

In the first photo, doctors frantically worked to revive the man.  The second photo showed the lifeless body on a table.  The remaining ones were taken as officials zipped up the body bag in the makeshift hospital.  They were the last sacred memories of a life lost.

As I looked up at Ackmed, our eyes met.  The 40-year-old, battle-hardened father of three fought back the tears to get just two words out – “My brother.”

 

Walking Away From Everything

For decades, Ackmed enjoyed an average middle class life in Syria.  His beautiful wife, two daughters, and son had it all – a nice apartment in Aleppo, education, and a wonderful community.  Ackmed often travelled across the Middle East.  From Lebanon to Saudi Arabia, he built and performed quality inspections on data towers.  On the side, he designed custom men’s dress jackets.  Aleppo was more than a place to live.  It’s where the entire extended family called home.

But in early 2011, things began to change.  In the swift political movement known as the Arab Spring, once powerful totalitarian regimes began to fall like dominoes.  What started as protests in Tunisia began spreading into Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Iran.  But while many regional leaders looked for concessions to prevent violent overthrows, Syrian President Bashar Al Assad doubled down.

On March 15, 2011, protests broke out in the capital of Damascus.  The people demanded the release of political prisoners and a democratic government.  Bashar Al Assad responded with gunfire and arrests.  Later that month, protesters burned down the Ba’ath Party headquarters, leading to mass chaos.

Military operations soon began in the 20 cities where protests took place.  Tanks and heavy artillery filled the streets.  Thousands were killed or detained.  Eventually, rebels organized, seized weapons, and began an intentional armed conflict later that summer.  Within the next year, the United Nations would officially declare Syria in a state in civil war.

Today, few cities have seen more violence than Aleppo and Damascus.  Government and rebel forces have struggled for control ever since the rebellion began.  Using his considerable air power, Assad has indiscriminately bombed his own people, even targeting children’s hospitals with chemical weapons.

The United Nations has predicted that Aleppo will be completely destroyed within months if a cease fire agreement is not reached.  But the people face violence from more than just their government.

Rebel and terrorist groups continue fighting tooth and nail for Syria’s remaining territories.  When moving into new cities, all sides of the conflict resort to the same tactics – torture the men until they agree to fight, sell off the women as sex slaves, and separate the children.  Neutrality isn’t an option.

The conflict has displaced over half of Syria’s 24 million citizens, contributing to the largest humanitarian crisis since the Holocaust.

 

“Boom! Boom!”

Across from us, Ackmed’s wife described the horror at home to my teammate, Kathleen.  Without any background in English, she used hand motions to describe her experience.

Motioning dramatically, she yelled, “Boom! Boom!”  She pretended to remove her own arm, throwing it across room.  Then her other arm.  Finally, her head.

I asked Ackmed, “Body parts everywhere?”  He closed his eyes in resignation and bowed his head.

“Yes”

We soon learned they weren’t describing just any body parts.  They were explaining how their own parents died.  With their extended family gone, they had no other choice but to leave Syria or die.

Over several months, they made a journey familiar to the 1,100 other residents living in their small refugee center.  With Mohammad, their now fatherless nephew in tow, they walked thousands of miles until a smuggler could get them across the Aegean Sea.  Ackmed had to revive his wife on the raft when hypothermia took over and she stopped breathing.  The children, distressed beyond belief, vomited while they watched their mother nearly die.

They joined millions of others snaking across the European countryside on foot.  Today, refugees still push through border fences and police checkpoints, all hoping to make a new home in Germany where Chancellor Angela Merkel has thrown the doors open to them.

As they arrive in cities like Frankfurt, Munich, and Berlin, they are processed by the police and sent to nondescript refugee centers funded by the government and staffed by local NGOs.

Ackmed and his family completed the journey over nine months ago but they still take refuge at a former municipal government building in Berlin.  He and his wife sleep on thin mattresses laid out on a tile floor while the children share bunks in the next room.  A thin metal chair in the corner and a fold-out end table serve as their pantry.

Once a week, volunteers offer laundry service.  Each member of the family qualifies for a small government stipend, a subsidized transit pass, and bi-weekly access to a clothes closet stocked with donated shoes and apparel.  Daily meals are provided and a small play room is available to the children.

Since refugees are not permitted to work while under asylum status, they have no other option but to live off the welfare system while they await immigration interviews and permanent placement.  The men eagerly look forward to working again and providing for their families, yet remain in political purgatory while the overwhelmed German government searches for new ways to accommodate them.

I asked Ackmed if he ever thought he’d return to Syria.

“There is no Syria anymore,” he replied.

 

Where is God in this?

The nine days we spent in Germany with these incredible people, while a privilege, were spiritually and physically exhausting.  After the 15 hours of flight time back to Dallas, things didn’t quite feel the same.  It was hard to relax.  I could easily fly off the handle at any moment.  I couldn’t even concentrate.  It was hard not to internalize their trauma.

How can millions of people be this desperate?  They trek through the desert, sometimes stopping only to bury their dead children in the sand.  They cram into overstuffed rafts and cross the Aegean Sea by night, led by the same human traffickers who sell little girls for sex.

For the average family, the migration costs between $2,000-5,000.  Over 10,000 children have gone missing along the way.  Thousands more have drowned off the coasts of Turkey and Greece.  And this still remains a viable alternative to the fresh hell they leave behind at home.

It’s enough to wonder, where is God in all of this?

Many of the Muslim refugees we met wonder this same thing, disillusioned by a religion that seems to only encourage such violence.  How could our Creator, in his sovereignty, allow this crisis to unfold?  Entire cities lay ruined and the lives within them shattered.

But something incredible is happening among these refugees.  Many of them hail from unreached people groups, cultural communities that have little or no access to the Gospel.  They come from countries that restrict the spread of Christianity, making it nearly impossible to reach them.

But as they’re arriving in Europe, the barriers are lifting.  Among some of these unreached people groups, new believers are being baptized for the first time in over a century.

I spent two hours processing 20 loads of laundry with a Kurdish man who fled Iraq 18 months ago.  When he joined us two nights later for a worship service, it was his first exposure to Jesus.  As God began working in his heart, he told one of the long-term workers, “The first time I saw you, I felt as if you were a brother.”

In just one week, we saw four Muslim refugees drop to their knees and give their lives to Christ.  We witnessed dozens of others wrestle with the Gospel message at the invitation of their neighbors in the refugee centers.

God has taken the snow globe of modern civilization and shaken it.  As a result, Muslims are seeking answers while meeting followers of Jesus for the first time.  At a global level, it’s often difficult to understand how God could allow something like this to happen.  But when you encounter these people on a personal level, it’s hard not to see how he has orchestrated this for his glory.

For many of the Muslim-background believers who have come to faith as result of this movement, the violence at home and the treacherous journey are all worth it.  They know Jesus now.  They know peace and joyfully celebrate what God has done.

They’re homeless and stateless.  They have nothing more than what could fit in their backpacks along the journey.  They’ve buried loved ones and left others behind at home.  They’re hated by many of the people around them.

But they still celebrate their new life in Christ.  They give thanks for their new spiritual brothers and sisters.  They pray for the salvation of their fellow refugees and seek God’s will at all cost.

 

The Gospel Lived Out

At its most basic level, this refugee crisis is the Gospel in action.  Death, violence, and slavery cast their shadows over the Middle East, driving the most broken and vulnerable victims into encounters with Christ.  In complete chaos and utter darkness, his light still shines bright.  Even at our worst, he is still at his best.  The brokenness is clearly on display, but so is Jesus’ commitment to making all things new again.

Their experiences are nothing short of traumatizing.  You don’t have to live their stories to understand that.  You must only hear them.  But as Ackmed sat across from me, tearfully showing me the memories of a life that no longer exists for him, I could see God at work in his family.

That afternoon, we prayed over him and his wife.  Unknown to us, she had been sick all week, yet told us she was miraculously better after our visit.  And while they never came to know the Lord, their hearts were clearly open to his Gospel.

“You weren’t alone in that boat in the Aegean Sea.  Jesus was still there,” Kathleen explained to them.

Neither are the rest of the refugees still fleeing their homes.  Just ask those who found Christ in those dark hours.