The Joy of Glory

Discovering endless joy in the boundless glory of God…

Category: Gospel

A Shelter from the Storm

I sat at my desk typing frantically. I wanted so badly to finish up the days work and head home…after all…

…it was snowing!

Snow in Alabama! This is not a very regular event, and I wanted to have a fun-filled snow-day with my kiddos like any dad should. I knew that sledding, snow-ball fights, and snow-man construction awaited me at home…and so my fingers put my average “words-per-minute” to shame as they flew across the keyboard.

I would get up every now and then to peer out the window at the growing mass of white. This was going to be a snow to remember.

IMG_8218Then I saw it.

A car had pulled into the our church parking lot and was simply sitting there as traffic backed up on the road with all the motorists trying to get home. I didn’t think much of it, until the next time I peered out the window and the car was still there…then again…and again.

After an hour, I figured I needed to go down and see what was happening. Never-mind actually looking at the weather forecast…ain’t nobody got time for that!

I wanted so badly to pretend the car wasn’t there, hop in my vehicle, and go home to my family. Something told me that if I talked with whoever was in that car I would be opening a can of worms and stuck where I was for a lot longer. Still, I walked up to the car and knocked on the window.

I was met with a smile from a kind lady who told me the road conditions were simply beyond her driving ability and she was waiting for her husband to come pick her up. I offered for her to come and wait in our lobby, secretly hoping she would refuse, and she thanked me…and followed me into our comfortably heated space.

I now found myself stuck, frustrated, and not feeling the least bit hospitable. I went back to my office thinking that if I had to be there I might as well get some work done. I would come down on occasion to see if her ride had arrived only to discover quite the opposite.

IMG_8229More people seeking shelter from the storm were filing into the lobby.

The reality of the situation began to dawn on me as I had conversations with those who found themselves stranded.

Birmingham was shutting down!

The “light-dusting” forecast was a slight miscalculation (I love our meteorologists all the same) and iced streets bring an unprepared southern city to a screeching halt…literally.

I-65, 280, and many other streets looked like a scene out of summer-zombie block buster. Cars littered the landscape, simply abandoned as people sought the basic necessities of life…food and shelter.

For a little while, I continued to throw my personal pity party, lamenting the fun my family was enjoying at home without me. This snow might be a problem for everyone else, but not for me! Home was within walking distance and the only thing standing in my way was all these people in need! I know this may sound heartless, but even I’m a selfish human being with a sinful heart that is all too often content to be self-centered. These people shouldn’t be my problem…none of this was my fault…why should I pay the price to provide shelter for them.

And then in the mid-thought my mind froze and my heart melted because of one thought.

dali-christ-of-st-john-of-the-crossThe Gospel.

“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” – Philippians 2:5-8

The storm brought about by my sin should have been no one’s problem but my own. I should have been left alone to freeze amidst my failures, but Jesus emptied himself. He didn’t just shelter me from the storm within the fortress of his righteousness, he took my place out in the cold. The love of God was lavished on me in Christ and I was saved from a storm of my own making.

Suddenly, I found my heart filled up with a vision of the glory of Jesus and pouring itself out in love toward those sheltering within the walls of SVCC.  For the joy set before him, Christ endured the cross…and that joy was that we may find our everlasting joy in the glory of God!

“Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, TO THE GLORY of God the Father.” – Philippians 2:9-11

Now, I wanted to shelter these people for the joy set before me, namely, having the opportunity to point them toward the ultimate shelter of love found in Christ!

IMG_8207Over the next 48 hours we had the pleasure and joy of housing around 25 people at SVCC. I didn’t get to talk with all of them at length, but I was able to share food, laughs, stories with most of them…and many of our conversations centered on the Gospel.

May God open our eyes everyday to the reality that people around us are seeking shelter from the storm of their own sin, shame, guilt, etc.  May we not be so consumed with our own lives that we shut out those seeking refuge. May we invite them into our lives and to safety under the mighty wings of our Lord.

I don’t know what effect those two days will have on the lives of those who found shelter at SVCC, and the effect is ultimately up to the Lord, but my prayer is that God would bring them to find ultimate shelter from every storm in him through Jesus Christ our Lord.


The “Elf on the Shelf” Who Stole Christmas

I actually do not like controversy.

Elf on the ShelfI am a stereotypical, peace-keeping middle-child. That being said, I think I’m about to jump into a larger mess than I did with my blog about jolly ol’ St. Nick. That’s right…for better or for worse…let’s talk about the elf on the shelf.

Now, if you have somehow managed to go through the last several years of Christmases without hearing about this rapidly spreading tradition…then here is a brief history lesson of the shelf dwelling elf. Apparently, various forms of the elf on the shelf have existed for quite some time, but the modern craze began in 2004 with the writing of a short story by Carol Aebersold and her daughter Chanda Bel.

The story was published in 2005 and explains how Santa keeps track of who is naughty and who is nice via a personalized elf on the shelf for participating families. Once you have acquired your elf, you name it and then he or she will show up at your house each day to keep watch over you until Christmas Eve. Every night, the elf flies to the North Pole to report to Santa your daily behavior. Thus, every morning you will know the elf  left your home and returned due to the fact that he/she will be in a new location. Now…no kids are allowed to touch the elf as this will cause him/her to lose his/her Christmas magic.

4d23cf1ea84726c20289ab1dda3085a4This short summary describes the manner in which the elf of the shelf is intended to be used. From experience, I know many families use their elves in completely different ways. For instance, there are some for whom the elf is simply a fun mischief maker who pulls daily pranks throughout the holiday season. However, individual family uses of the elf are not necessarily what concerns me…no. My apprehensions surrounding the Christmas Keebler is rooted in its original intent as described by the book…many of you already know what I’m going to say.

The primary issue I have with the elf on the shelf is that it’s central purpose stands in contradiction to the heart of Christmas…the gospel. The elf records your deeds to see if you measure up and deserve presents on Christmas day. But, the true present of Christmas is “good tidings of great joy that will be for ALL PEOPLE” regardless of whether they are “good” or “bad.” That good news is that “a Savior is born who is Christ the Lord!”

Christmas is a day for celebrating grace! It is a day for celebrating God giving himself to us all…freely! It is not a day for earning, meriting, or deserving. No. On the contrary, it is a day for our “deserving” to die and our “undeserving” to be declared as good news…because the undeserving are specifically the people to whom Jesus has been given! None of us deserve Jesus! None of us deserve grace! If we did…it wouldn’t be grace! Meriting something at Christmas does not make the day more magical…it actually steals all of its magic, because the magic of Christmas is grace! Nothing is more wonder producing than gospel grace!

The elf on the shelf does not bring good news…rather, he/she brings bad news that your reward depends on your ability to be good.

phariseeI tend to think the pharisees would have been big fans of the elf on the shelf. I think they tried to promote “the law on the shelf.” Jesus had news for them, namely, that no one can fulfill all the law except him…so he has done it for us. Likewise, I think Jesus would have similar news for the elf, namely, ol’ shelf-boy/girl can watch him for a record obedience…then apply it to our account! That is the only way we will receive the true reward/gift of Christmas…true life, now and forever, through Christ!

Now…before everybody freaks out and thinks I’m trying to tear apart all fun and magical Christmas traditions everywhere…I’m not! Not at all! I simply think the most magical celebration of Christmas is gospel grace, not merit-based rewards. The former is better (more magical) news than the latter. I actually think you can still use the elf if you want, but do so in a way that highlights grace, love, and mercy instead of judgment, merit, and condemnation.

Whether we are talking about the elf on the shelf or any other Christmas tradition, here are three crucial questions I think will help us shape Christmas around the very thing that created it…grace.

1. What are we saying?
Everything communicates. We all know that communication goes beyond our words and extends to our actions. This brings to mind the often quoted saying, “Actions speak louder than words.” In many cases, this saying is true, and we must remember that our Christmas traditions communicate something about Christmas and Jesus.

What-is-the-Gospel-A-Look-at-God-ManWe cannot simply use our words to say that Christmas is about Jesus and the gospel while allowing our actions to undercut that message. The things that speak the loudest are not actions or words, but words that are married to action. As we examine our Christmas traditions, we need to ask what these things are communicating, and is it a message that is in line with the gospel?

2. Why are we saying it?
If our traditions do not support the gospel, or worse, undercut the gospel…then we must ask why we are communicating these things at all? Is it worth the time and effort? Is it worth the risk of ingraining a false message within our kiddos.

I have had people become really angry with me as we have discussed Christmas traditions such as Santa Claus and elf on the shelf. Typically, during the conversation, I ask them why doing these things is so important to them. Some of them have answers, but many cannot explain why they do what they do…or why they even want to do it.

I am not saying that we need to abandon our traditions, but we need to be willing to examine them and ask “why?” Even if you choose to do things such as elf on the shelf, you need to know why and make it a good reason why…a grace centered reason why.

3. Can we and should we say it differently?
Whether we are talking about the elf on the shelf, Santa, or whatever…can we use these things to speak the true message of Christmas? Can the elf become a pointer to grace…a pointer to Jesus…a pointer to the gospel?

Elf on the shelfI want to encourage myself and all of us to think deeply about our traditions and keep what should be kept, leave behind what should be left behind, and change what should be changed.

None of our traditions are more important than the gospel. If we can use the elf to highlight the gospel, then let’s go for it. If not…then perhaps we really should put him/her on the shelf…permanently.

Man of Steel?

*Don’t worry…there are not that many movie spoilers below.

“Space Jesus…” That was the nickname my friend gave the man of steel as soon as we exited the theater at 3am on June 14. Yes, I was crazy enough to go see the movie at midnight, but that is beside the point. A conversation ensued among the five of us about all the Christ imagery used in the film.

Superman has always been a very “Jesus-esque” character, but there were several moments this seemed to not only rise to the surface…but blatantly jump off the screen. Here are just a few examples of what I’m talking about:

  • Man-of-steel-Christ-poseKal-el (Clark Kent/Superman) was born in a unique way on Krypton. It wasn’t a virgin birth, but the parallel is still there.
  • He was sent by his father to earth as a savior to bring hope.
  • He grew up in obscurity.
  • There was a scene in a church where Clark was talking to a priest and the stained glass Jesus behind him was practically sitting on his shoulder.
  • At one critical point in outer-space, Kal-el was told by his real father (Jor-el) that he must save the world and he began his flight back to earth in a slow-motion-explicitly-cruciform-shape.

I could keep on going, but it is clear that the film makers want us to catch the association they are making between their superman and Jesus. And why not? This association has long existed in the minds of comic book fans…including myself…that is until recently.

As the release date for man of steel approached and more and more trailers released…I found myself thinking a lot about why we like superheroes so much, and specifically about why superman has really fallen from the heights of his popularity throughout the years.

After all, the man of steel reboot itself has been marketed as an update of the superman mythos with a greater appeal to todays audiences. What makes superman different from the other characters we love and why the need for the makeover?

Many of you may not care or think that putting this much thought into a comic-based movie is a foolish waste of time, but I think within these questions we discover important truths about ourselves. I think I discover my desire to be my own savior.

Superheroes like batman, spider-man, the black-widow, the hulk, the x-men, etc. appeal to a wide audience, and the reason is because we find them easy to relate to due to their flaws. Each of these characters has faults or a dark-side. They are far from perfect and yet they still get to be the hero. This appeals to something deep inside me. I am able to put myself in their place and imagine that I am the one who saves the day.

I love a broken hero because that is the only type of hero I could ever be.

old-Superman-comic-cover-superman-84977_590_816The good ol’ man of steel is not like this. We find it difficult to relate with him because he is too perfect. He has every power, perfect character, perfect hair, and on and on. His only weakness has historically been rocks from his true hometown…again, not relatable.

In the truest sense, superman seems like a savior coming from the outside to rescue us. The only place for us in the superman mythos is to imagine ourselves as the one being rescued…we could never be the rescuer in the red cape.

I believe that is why the new Man of Steel movie really goes out of the way to connect Kal-el with humanity. In more or less words it is said that he needed to be “truly human” so  he could serve as a bridge between Kryptonians and humans. There is a much greater emphasis on his relationship with his earthly father, Jonathan Kent, than with Jor-el. Even the title of the film emphasizes his ability to identify with humanity…the first word is MAN.

Yes, he has amazing strength and abilities, but they want us to think of him as a MAN of steel. Here is a superman that we can hopefully identify with…a savior we can hopefully accept so that he can fly back to the heights of his former fame.

That’s all well and good for the world of comic book storytelling…but in reality…is this what we need? Do we need a MAN of steel?

We want so badly to save ourselves and our make-believe media keeps trying to tell a story where that is actually possible. We, humankind, can become the hero/heroines we need to be and, despite our character flaws, save the day. But is that truth? Can we become men/women of steel? Is that even what we need?

I believe we need just the opposite. I believe we have been given just the opposite in Jesus. When you really think about it…Jesus and Superman are not alike…they are actually completely different! And this is good news…because…

baby jesus in mangerWe don’t need a man of steel…we need a God of flesh.

God himself took on flesh. He could identify with us in every way, yet he was without sin. He stepped into this world not made of steel, but made of skin. He was tempted, he cried, he sweat, he bled…he died.

He took on our greatest enemies…the enemies within that corrupt, and the enemies without that kill. He took on sin, death, and the devil…and defeated them all by rising from the dead! He alone is our savior! The one who knows all our weaknesses for he was born, truly human, yet he was and is truly God.

We DO need a savior, not from the stars, but from among us. We need a savior who is one of us, but is not us. The good news of the Gospel is that we have been given one such savior…only one…Jesus Christ. He was not a man of steel…

He was and is the God of flesh.

*PS – I enjoyed the movie. Not the greatest film ever, but I thought it was worth seeing once in the theater.

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