Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Is It Really Christmas, or Just Winter? What Narnia Teaches Us About the Awe of Christmas

,Thanks to my friend Adam Feldman for publishing this post Monday on his blog

Our family keeps a rather large collection of Christmas movies in the house,  all of which come out at this time of year.  From classics like Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer and A Charlie Brown Christmas to my personal favorite A Christmas Story, even our Christmas tree reflects the season better when next to one of these flicks projected on the flat screen TV that hangs on the wall next to it.

A favorite Christmas movie in the Rainey house is The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and at the request of our children, we have already seen this one three times this season.  Mom and Dad are happy to oblige this request, and not just because of the family entertainment value.  By God’s grace, we have already seen our oldest son meet Jesus, and we do all we can to constantly expose our two younger children to the Gospel.  Narnia is yet another way we can introduce spiritual themes into our children’s lives.

In fact, each time I think about the true meaning behind the metaphor, I find 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 true focal point of this season, I 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.”

Both book and movie also make clear 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."  Sounds like a familiar context.

When Santa Claus gets more attention than our Sovereign 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!

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!

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, be reminded of His promise to come again.

And in 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 fullness 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!"

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Christmas in Newtown, and in Your Town. Where is the Hope?

Like most parents, I've taken stock the past two days of the time I spend with each of my children.  And like  most, I'm unsatisfied.  In the wake of Friday's tragic shooting in Connecticut, many parents admit that they don't spend the time with their kids that they would prefer.  Still, there are a few dates that have become traditions to block out on my calendar.

Friday morning was just such a date.  Though it was my last day in the office for the year, I took an hour from that day to travel to my 7-year-old's elementary school for "Gingerbread House Day."  I make it a point to be part of this event, and build and decorate a great (and tasty!) gingerbread house with my son.  All of our kids have their own unique areas in which they excel, but when it comes to creativity, my Seth tops us all, and one of many evidences of this is the elaborate way in which he decorates a gingerbread house.  We had a great time, along with other parents, teachers, and administration.  The result was that by 10:30 AM the classroom was filled with gingerbread homes that made it look like a fantasy, winter wonderland.

After this event, I arrived back at the office shocked to find constant CNN news alerts and log-jammed social media, all reporting the unspeakable events that unfolded in Newtown, CT.  It was some time later before I reconstructed the timeline in my head and realized that 20 first-graders were losing their lives in the same time-frame that my first-grader was building a gingerbread house with his dad.  At that moment, the line between fantasy and reality was never drawn more clearly for me.  Even now as I think about it, my heart breaks for those families.

As a parent, I experienced--and am still experiencing--all the emotions that go with bearing witness to an unspeakable massacre like this; sadness at the loss of life, shock at youth taken from us too soon, anger at the pure evil it took to commit such atrocity, and anxiety about protecting my own children from such an event.  And of course, all of this happened in the middle of the "season of hope," but the more I've thought deeply about the events of this weekend, the more I realize that the "Christmas" most of our culture celebrates offers no hope at all.

On a subconscious level, many residents of Newtown know this too, as was evidenced by several families who are taking down their Christmas decorations in response to the shooting. In a sense, we should not only understand this way of processing grief, we should see a sense of appropriateness in it.  For most of us, the Christmas we celebrate isn't real.  Its a fantasy world in which we pretend to live each December.  Whether its pretending we have money we don't that results in consumer debt, seeking joy and happiness in lights and festivities that wain over just a few weeks, or feigning belief in a mythical fat man who will bring us presents, this "Christmas" is a dream that does nothing to bring us hope, especially in tragedy.

When you have lost a child at this time of year, there is nothing hopeful about a beautifully wrapped gift that will never be opened.  And in the wake of tragedy, the facade of tinsel, lights, and eight tiny reindeer fades quickly, and reveals our western, European-imported, American-materialized "holiday" for what it really is; a temporary month-long escape from the real world that provides zero hope.

If you want hope, you have to look to the real Christmas! Trouble is, the real Christmas doesn't cover up our sin with shiny gift wrap.  It exposes it and crucifies it.   My friend Russ Moore wrote a profound piece yesterday reminding us that the context of the first Christmas actually looked more like the scene in Newtown on Friday than the fantasy world we live in every December. King Herrod's murderous rage resulted in a blood-soaked Bethlehem, and while Jesus escaped death at this early moment in his life, the world into which He came was not safe.  The hope of the real Christmas is that Jesus willfully entered human history to personally experience the very fallen world from which we try to escape, and to redeem us from the real cause of it all: ourselves!

Such is another reason we are so turned-off by the real Christmas.  Rather than dress us up in red and green, it reveals our true nature, and our deepest need.  During moments like this, its much easier to stare down gun manufacturers and mental health professionals than it is to look in the mirror.  But blaming guns for this tragedy is as  ridiculous as the tendency of some fundamentalist preachers to blame Budweiser for every drunk driving accident.  Similarly, assuming every act of evil is a mental health problem is to deny the reality of demonic influence.  It is understandable why so many in our modern world would reject the existence of these spiritual realities, but followers of Jesus have no excuse, and if you can witness events like those that transpired this weekend and still not believe in demon possession, something is seriously wrong with you.  The problem is spiritual, and located precisely in the human heart; Adam Lanza's, yours, and mine.

Jesus' coming reminds us of how deeply we all stand in need of redemption.  The fake Christmas fairy tale our culture has invented covers up that nature.  But the Gospel presented in the real Christmas story reveals that each of us, apart from the grace of God, is capable of the very kind of atrocity that was committed this past Friday.  Its easier to believe in hell when you see something like this.  Its harder to fathom that you and I deserve it as well; that the same sin-sickness that motivated the perpetrator of this massacre resides in each of our hearts.  Societal sin is easy to believe in.  Corporate sin makes a good target for our rage.  But the truth of the Gospel is that you, personally, suck just as badly, and that's a hard pill to swallow.

The real Christmas doesn't make things look prettier than they really are for a month.  Instead, it redeems the ugly, the repulsive, and the sinful, and makes it truly beautiful for eternity.  Jesus came into a world of violence, walked among the worst of our sin for 33 years, and then willfully gave His life, bearing the wrath of God in our place, and giving us the hope of being fully restored to the people God created us to be.

Christmas is the incarnation of the God-man, and is thus the inauguration of the eventual elimination of the very evil that brings us the kind of facade-destroying sorrow that has been experienced in Connecticut this weekend.  Justice will be served, wrong will be righted, and people from every nation, tribe and tongue redeemed because of the real Christmas  The best thing followers of Jesus can do is ditch the fairy tale, and embrace the reality of Jesus.

So let's have a conversation about the state of mental health in this country.  Let's talk openly about how to keep firearms out of the hands of mentally unstable people.  Those are not illegitimate subjects of discussion.  But let's not pretend that treatment of the symptoms will cure the disease.  And as followers of Jesus, let's refuse to play the worldly game of wrapping our sin up in shiny paper every December and pretending that it doesn't exist.

The deaths of these precious children, their teachers, and principal have destroyed "Christmas" as we know it--the "Christmas" most of us have invented and celebrate each year is gone, along with the false hope it provides.  Now, its time to turn to the real thing and offer Him to the world.

In memory of those slain at Sandy Hook Elementary School:

Charlotte Bacon, age 6

Daniel Barden, age 7

Rachel Davino,  age 29

Olivia Engel, age 6

Josephine Gay, age 7

Ana Marquez-Greene, age 6

Dylan Hockley, age 6

Dawn Hochsprung,  age 47

Madeleine F. Hsu, age 6

Catherine V. Hubbard, age 6

Chase Kowalski, age 7

Jesse Lewis, age 6

James Mattioli, age 6

Grace McDonnell, age 7

Anne Marie Murphy,  age 52

Emilie Parker, age 6

Jack Pinto, age 6

Noah Pozner, age 6

Caroline Previdi, age 6

Jessica Rekos, age 6

Avielle Richman, age 6

Lauren Rousseau,  age 30

Mary Sherlach, age 56

Victoria Soto, age 27

Benjamin Wheeler, age 6

Allison Wyatt, age 6

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Building Relationships Like Jesus: a Review of "Bold as Love"

 Over the past five years or so, two men have influenced my understanding of missions and cultural engagement.  One of those men is long-dead, the other still alive and kicking, and living what he preaches in a big time way!

The dead guy of which I speak is Abraham Kuyper.  Kuyper was a 19th and early 20th century Dutch Reformed theologian and pastor, but was also a politician, journalist and statesman who served as Prime Minister of the Netherlands from 1901 to 1905.  His influence even after his death was long felt among the Dutch, and his ideas about "sphere sovereignty" forwarded the notion that education, business, the press, the arts, and science are areas created by God with their own unique purpose of bringing glory to Him, and thus has its own created integrity.  

Practically applied, "sphere sovereignty" means that every sector of society, like the human beings which make up those sectors, is created in the image and likeness of God, and simultaneously fallen in sin.  Thus, Jesus is determined, not only to bring individuals to salvation, but to redeem and proclaim His Lordship over every area and domain of society.  Reading and grasping these concepts over the past five years has revolutionized the way I view missions and how the Great Commission mandate is to be accomplished.  In particular, it was Kuyper's book "Wisdom and Wonder: Common Grace in Science and Art" that turned my world upside down!

One guy who is living out this vision is my friend Bob Roberts, and Bob has just written a new book entitled "Bold As Love."  The book recounts many of Bob's own experiences in seeking to engage the world, and in particular, those in the world who adhere to faiths other than Christianity.  I've spoken much recently to my own efforts at engaging, in particular, Muslim peoples, who have in turn invited me into their lives, and Bob has been a great teacher and encourager during this period.

The primary thesis of the book is, quite simply, that Jesus meant what He said when He called us to love our neighbor.  If Christians are to faithfully engage the world, such action will also mean engagement with the faiths of the world, and the people who adhere to them--people that we believe Jesus died to save.  Apologetics are important, as is the accurate and faithful proclamation of our message.  But these mean very little unless we are willing to do what Jesus did--incarnate ourselves among people and live with them in friendship.  Bob's book teaches the reader how to do this using the best educational approach I know--example!

This isn't a book that encourages abandonment of faith.  It is about living your faith in a way that vindicates the truth of its promise to redeem.  Its a book about building relationships in the face of fear.  Its a book about listening to the hearts of those who believer differently so we can understand and walk in friendship. 

The evangelical church in the west is--on this issue--at a very critical crossroad.  The United States is more diverse than it has ever been in our history, and we are surrounded by people from nearly every walk of life, and by adherents to nearly every religion that exists in the world.  In short, God has brought the nations to our front door, and we can only react in one of two ways: in fear, or in faith.  Bob illustrates this contrast in vivid detail as he recounts how people at his own church reacted to their attempts at building bridges with the Muslim community:

When we began to have Muslims come to our church, many of our members were fearful that we would be blown up.  Some left, most stayed, and all received according to what they sowed.  Those who sowed fear still live in fear and want others to live in fear.  Those who sowed bold love have built friendships and serve as bridges for others to cross over.

I believe in the message of the Bible and thus, don't believe God has given us a spirit of fear. (2 Timothy 1:7)  So be brave in your engagement.  Be bold in your love.  Honor Jesus in the way that you honor and befriend those He created in His image, and whom He died to save.  And if you are looking for greater encouragement to do so, or some practical examples of what this looks like, pick up my friend Bob's new book, Bold as Love.