It happens every year. I do this inspiriting month-long dance with Christmas only to have her kick me to the curb on December 31st like a borrowed prom date. Just one more dance, I beg. But it's too late. Christmas is over. Back to the north pole she goes without even a nod goodbye. Then, with frustrating predictability, I go through the stages of Christmas-is-over grief: the shock and denial - it can't possibly be over already; depression - life was so much better with Christmas decorations; and then finally, usually with much delay, I return to a meaningful life - full of new revelations from the most recent addition of Christmas past.
I'll let you be the first to hear it. I'm back. Back to a meaningful life. Only this year meaningful looks surprisingly different. Like I have for the last several Christmases, I spent this past month focused on the baby Jesus. I wrote about Him. I prayed to Him. I encouraged others to keep their eyes on the manger. Yet, in the closing moments of this year's Christmas dance, I began to wonder just how much of Christmas should be spent focused on the baby.
I hear the gasps. I have pastor friends speed dialing me right now. Christian brothers and sisters are on their knees begging God to retrieve me from Satan's grasp. Christmas isn't about the baby Jesus? I believe he's lost his eggnog engulfed mind.
While you're waiting for your prayers to kick in - and pardon me pastor while I mute your incoming call - please let me explain. In addition to the writing I did this past Christmas, I did some reading. I read the book 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess by Jen Hatmaker. A friend of mine wrote a brief post about the book on Facebook and I was intrigued. I hate it when God decides it's time for me to be intrigued, I usually come away with radical thoughts like too much of Christmas is focused on the baby Jesus.
In the introduction to her book, Ms. Hatmaker explains that prior to her experiment and subsequent book, God confronted her with her "greed, excess, materialism, consumerism, envy, pride, comfort, insatiability, irresponsibility," and other stuff. Maybe the book intrigued me because God has been confronting me with the same things lately. And by lately I mean the last couple of decades. Unlike me, though, Ms. Hatmaker responded.
In summary, she embarked on a 7-month experiment. Each month she and her family tackled an area of excess in their lives in a fairly radical way. The seven areas were: food, clothes, possessions, media, waste, spending, and stress. I'm not going to offer much detail about her book and experiment. I'd never do justice to the life-altering revelations and stories Ms. Hatmaker shared about her experience. I'll simply say God got tired of confronting me about my excesses so he had Ms. Hatmaker write and book. He then asked her to lovingly wallop me over the head with it. Even without knowing me, Ms. Hatmaker complied.
(If you're like me, and you've ever felt stirred to examine your life in terms of all that you have and consume against the backdrop of all that others don't have and will never be able to consume, I encourage you to read this book. It may not lead you to change the way you live, but I promise you it will once and for all explain why you're constantly led to contemplate it.)
Well, my pastor's still on hold, maybe you're still prayerfully evicting Satan from my life, all the while wondering what on earth Jen Hatmaker's book has to do with my suggestion that too much of Christmas is spent focusing on the baby Jesus. Here's the connection. How often when we're talking about the Christmas story do we deeply reflect on the radical lifestyle change God made when he decided to come to earth as that baby? All of the things we spend our time and energies having or dreaming of having: new cars and boats, bigger houses, bigger offices, bigger paychecks, foreign vacations, college tuition, bylines and skylines, and all the other things we chase in the name of health and prosperity - God had them all and unfathomably more. The throne he stepped down from as a king and into a manger as a baby rested smack dab in the middle of a paradise that makes the one we pine for on earth look relatively plain.
The beauty and pageantry of the manger story makes it easy to forget - this is one baby who came to earth with baggage. And all of it was filled with sacrifice.
Since being a child I think I've understood the significance of the baby Jesus. The arrival of a longed for Savior. And for maybe not quite as long, I've been awed by the willingness of that Savior to die on a cross for my opportunity to have everlasting life. But until I read Jen Hatmaker's book during the Christmas season, I don't think I've ever fully comprehended that an equally dramatic moment launched God's plan for our salvation. In an instant God kicked it off by trading in his solid gold accommodations for dirt and straw.
It's possible that's the leg of the story we can relate to most. Can you imagine our reaction if we heard Warren Buffet suddenly walked out on all of his possessions to live in an abandoned house in Detroit? We'd wonder what on earth triggered such insanity. For God, it was us. We triggered his insanity. But here's what I've been pondering the last few weeks. Did God do that solely to demonstrate his love for us, or did he start the story of salvation off by turning his nose up at everything he owns to serve as a larger than life example?
After reading Jen Hatmaker's book I'm convinced the answer is yes. I believe God started the story the way he did not so we could say thank you for what you've done for us, but more so we could say thank you for showing us what we need to do for others. More than "watch this" - God was saying "follow me."
I've been left wondering post-Christmas how I could have gotten the Christmas story so upside down. How I've spent so much time looking down in the manger when I should have been looking up at our God. I'm sure God understands. I'm also sure he's going to be looking behind him in the year ahead to see if I got the message. He's going to be looking to see if I'm following him.
I've adopted a word for 2016. It's plain and simple, yet filled with challenge. The word is sacrifice. I will start every day asking God to help me live my life sacrificially. I'm not sure I'll ever rise to God's level of sacrifice - shoot, I'm not even sure I can meet Ms. Hatmaker's. But I'm quite convinced that's what God's calling me to do. The good news is, I have plenty of excess to part with while I'm working my way towards Him.