Racism, Outrage, and the Church’s mission

What happened this weekend in Charlottesville, VA was a shameful, grotesque, damnable display of racial bigotry. There’s no excuse for behavior that proclaims one race to be better than another, that parades under flags representing racial hatred and murder. This behavior is sinful, and anyone persisting in such sin will earn the consequences of unrepentant sin – condemnation.

It feels odd to have to make such strong statements. Not because they aren’t true – they certainly are. But odd because, until recently, I thought it was a given. I thought that saying, “I love Jesus and live to proclaim his Gospel,” would be enough for anyone to assume, “Yep, he’s not a racist.” The Gospel, as a package deal, carries some pretty anti-racism concepts, such as:

  • ALL people, regardless of race, are a part of God’s special creation called “humankind”
  • ALL people, regardless of race, are under the curse of sin, inherited from the first two humans
  • ALL people, regardless of race, are so loved by God that he sent his Son to be the sacrifice for sins
  • ALL people, regardless of race, are treasured by Jesus, who gave everything so we could have everything
  • ALL people, regardless of race, are desired by Jesus to be part of his kingdom and to give him glory

Whether or not you believe in Jesus, the Bible, or trust what the Gospel has to say, at the very least please understand that these are the truths that Christians express when they say, “I love Jesus and I live to proclaim the Gospel.” To any genuine disciple of Christ, the notion that we have to explain why we’re not racist feels like a redundancy. It’s like an AARP member having to state that he likes saving money – it’s just a given!

Then a bunch of guys go marching under Nazi flags and call for racial segregation, while claiming to be Christian. Then we’re told that we cannot claim to be Christian and not denounce them immediately, otherwise we are giving approval and are, in fact, racists ourselves. It’s confusing. You’re sure that the eternal truths you hold to have not changed, yet because of the actions and opinions of a relative minority you have gone from “Disciple of Jesus” to “Closet racist” overnight.

Identity drives purpose

Does that matter? If my black neighbor faces injustice daily because of his skin color, do I really have a right to complain about how people see me?

No, I don’t. However, my reaction to this discomfort does matter, and that reaction is going to be driven by how I see myself. Identity drives purpose, and if I accept the identity of “closet racist” then my behavior will be different than if my identity is “disciple of Jesus.”

This is important.

Yesterday someone sent me this article: How to Tell If You Go to a White Supremacist Church. Here is his basic proposition:

“If your church does not spend a significant amount of time this weekend denouncing, condemning, and speaking out against the actions of the white supremacists gathering in Charlottesville, VA in the strongest possible terms, your church is racist as hell.”

In my church this past weekend, I watched a baby receive the miraculous gift of Baptism, where God pours his Holy Spirit on a child, claims that child as his own, and puts saving faith in the baby’s heart. There was an affirmation of Baptism for two twins who were born early and baptized in the hospital. We confessed our sins and heard the absolute forgiveness of our God. We heard a sermon about the importance of contentment. Having recently accepted a position on this church’s ministry staff, I was received by the congregation, along with my wife and two others who are also serving on staff positions. The congregation prayed for us and encouraged us to faithfully serve them with the Gospel. Throughout the service, the grace of God was emphasized as we gathered around his Word. (Aside, my friend had a pretty good response to this article as well. Read it here. Also, I stole his post picture.)

Now, if I accept the identity of “closet racist” and accept the assertion that my church is “racist as hell,” then my reaction by necessity is to make some major changes. Either I need to find a new church (the advice of the article), or launch a major campaign to fundamentally change the heart and spirit of my congregation. But what would that do? The Gospel is, in and of itself, anti-racism, so why would changing the focus from the Gospel to social action be the solution? It’s like changing a cancer patient’s treatment from chemotherapy to pain relievers in the hopes that feeling better will make him better.

If I see my identity as “disciple of Jesus,” then I want to dig deeper into the Gospel. I gain a better understanding of the great love Jesus has for me, and this translates to a deeper love for others. When I see hatred, bigotry, racism, etc., I am motivated toward action.

How does that action look? That’s up to individual Christians to by led by the Spirit to bear fruit in keeping with their gifts. Some Christians might take to social media to take up campaigns to raise awareness. Some Christians might hit the ground and be involved in their own demonstrations. Some Christians might choose to attend prayer vigils in solidarity. Some Christians might choose to work one on one, helping the disenfranchised and meeting their needs.

Some Christians might find other causes to champion. That’s another side to all of this, and please forgive this very related tangent. I’ve seen many of my Christian friends stating in no uncertain terms that if you are not outraged and outspoken about the racism on display this past weekend, then you are endorsing it. That if you don’t speak up, then you are no better than the racists themselves.

Selective outrage

What about abortion? What about the sex slavery that underlies pornography? What about the hundreds of drug related deaths per day in our country? Why aren’t we outraged about those things? Why aren’t we speaking out about those daily? Are we endorsing abortion, pornography, and drug abuse? Are we no better than the abortionists, sex slavers, and drug lords?

I’m not saying we are. But I am saying that we are being somewhat selective in our outrage here. Talking with a friend of mine today, he put it this way:

“We as Christians are often selectively outraged, and our outrage isn’t God’s outrage. God gets angry. He is furious. And while injustice outrages us, it’s only certain injustices… oddly enough, often the same ones our culture tells us to get upset about.”

One of the focal points of the January Women’s March was the right not only to have an abortion, but the demand that it be provided as a free service across the country. In other words, women were taking to the streets to say, “I don’t just want to be able to kill my child, I want my country to kill my child for me!” Which is worse? To call for segregation of races, or to call for a national program of selective murder? Why are Christians racist if they don’t openly condemn white supremacy, but anti-woman if they do openly condemn abortion?

The problem is the same in both cases, because both are a symptom of our common disease of sin. The solution is the same – the Gospel, which reveals all the wickedness in all of us and offers the same absolute forgiveness for all of it. We need Jesus. And the Christian who uses the Gospel to fight racism is no better or worse than the Christian who uses it to fight abortion, or porn, or drugs, or any other societal problem.

The Church’s Mission

But it must begin with the Gospel. This is the Church’s mission. Not to make a utopia on earth, but to win souls for heaven. Not to make people nice and better, but to give people eternal hope and an eternal future.

Another thing the Gospel is set against is legalism. Legalism is when we declare that, to be a Christian, one must adhere to a certain set of rules or regulations. For instance, it would be legalistic for me to say that in order to be a Christian, you must give up alcohol (something I’d never say anyway, because frankly, I like beer). It would be legalistic for me to say that in order to be a Christian, you must attend worship a certain number of times per month. It would be legalistic for me to say that in order to be a Christian you must make certain statements about racism, bigotry, and injustice.

Certainly, I would encourage you to denounce such things, just like I’d encourage you to attend worship. But to call your faith into doubt because you didn’t take to social media in the most outraged way, or to claim you harbor sinful racism in your heart because you didn’t speak up enough, would be to go against the Gospel. So, Christians… stop doing this. Stop laying burdens on the hearts of your fellow believers.

The same Gospel that has cleansed you of your sins has cleansed your brothers and sisters. Celebrate that. Cherish that. Come together under that Gospel. And yes, go take action where action is needed. Encourage one another to be the disciples of Jesus that you are and fight for change.

Then come together again… and again… and again as a Church to hear the Gospel that motivates your action. Not to hear rousing speeches about how to fight injustice, but to carry out the mission of the Church. To make disciples of all nations. To carry his love to all people of every race.

Gospel Go

It has millions of followers, with more added every day. It is drawing people together from all walks of life, opening doors of communication, cooperation, and friendship between people who otherwise never would have glanced at each other. It is inspiring people to go out into the world and explore.

And it’s a video game, about made up animals with goofy names. But wow! It’s incredible that a children’s game that first appeared twenty years ago has become a world-wide phenomenon with the release of a free-to-play mobile app, and that it has literally changed the way people go about their daily life!

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m astounded, because Pokemon Go is everywhere in the news, social media, and your neighborhood. I’m not even joking about it being in your neighborhood – to play the game, people walk around towns and neighborhoods, looking at a map on their smartphones, and the program plots the creatures onto the map. Players “catch” the creatures – called Pokemon – and add them to their collection.

They can take the Pokemon to assigned places called “Gyms” (designated locations in towns and cities) and let them compete against other people’s Pokemon, or they can feed them candy to make them change forms. When you visit certain landmarks and monuments in your area you can collect special items. Sometimes you find an egg, which you “incubate” by walking around, and when it hatches who knows what you’ll find!

You’ve probably heard horror stories in the news of people getting into trouble while playing this game – crashing their car or bike because they’re playing while driving. Walking off a cliff while playing. Getting attacked by people because they wandered into the wrong place. These stories might make it sound like it isn’t worth the trouble.

But those horror stories only make news because they’re sensational – and actually fairly rare, compared to the number of people playing. For more common is the kinds of stories the news media doesn’t find exciting enough. In Kalamazoo the police department shared a story from one of their off duty police officers. He was hanging out one evening in a park, watching people all over the place playing the game. A man in a business suit comparing collections with a couple of goth kids. Dads running around with their kids catching Pokemon. A pizza guy selling pizzas for $5, and someone bought one for a homeless man who spends a lot of time in that park. The homeless guy ended up walking around handing people the extra slices.

Community. Cooperation. Communication. Friendship. And all because of something as simple as a mobile phone game.

Church, I think we should be paying attention to this. See, we have something way more meaningful, way more powerful, way more lasting than Pokemon Go. It unites us, it breaks down all barriers of culture and age and gender and walk of life. It opens doors for communication, it inspires us to go out into the world and work together, and it instantly makes friends – no, brothers and sisters – of everyone who has it.

I’m not talking about a hymnal. I’m talking about the Gospel, the foundation of our faith. It is the simple, beautiful truth that in Christ we have been forgiven all our sins, given life, salvation, and a future, and that through faith in Jesus we are adopted into his family, called sons and daughters of the one true God. In the Gospel we have the promise of a day when we will all spend forever in a world of perfection, with nothing to separate us from each other or to stand in the way of us truly loving each other, and no prospect of it ever being ruined. That knowledge alone already gives us reasons to care for each other, to look for our brothers and sisters in Christ, to communicate and cooperate with them and grow in friendship and community with each other.

If a mobile app about a children’s game can do all this, I guarantee the Gospel can do so much more. But in order for it to do so, it has to take as much of a priority in all of our lives as Pokemon Go does in its players lives. Here’s what I mean: I’ve played Pokemon Go, and so have my kids, and when you start playing it, I’ll tell you, it catches you as much as you catch the Pokemon. You want to have the app open while you walk around, just in the hope that you’ll find something. You want to keep it open so that your eggs will hatch. You assign it a spot on the home screen of your phone so that you don’t forget to open it the second you walk out the door. You think about it and read about it when you’re not playing.

That sounds like a lot of obsession for a silly game, right? But what if we had the same obsession with the Gospel? I know some Christians who do, and it’s evident in their lives. They really live it. And if you ask them, “How do you have such a deep relationship with Christ and his Word?” they’ll answer, “I read it. I think about it. It’s the first thing I look at in my day. I make sure to have ready access to it. The Bible app is on my home screen on my phone. I read books to help me understand it, and I pray about what I read.”

I want to encourage you, Church, to make the Gospel your obsession. Sink into it day after day. Let it change the way you go about your day. You know, God said something like this to his people a long time ago.

These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.  Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.  Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. (Deut 6:6-9)

The blessings of all of us growing deeper into the Gospel don’t stop with those of us who are already part of the Church. See, with Pokemon Go it’s all about us seeking out and finding the Pokemon wherever they’re hiding. An important part of the Gospel is all of us going out and seeking and finding people who need to hear it, looking for the people we can call to know who Jesus is and what he’s done. The more familiar we become with the Gospel, the more eagerly we want to let other people know about it.

Go ahead and download Pokemon Go and have some fun with it. It’s a fun game to play. But all the more, sink into the Gospel and let it guide the way you live day after day.

“This is my body. This is my blood.”

Christianity is more than just a philosophy or a way to live your life. The Gospel is more than simply a theory about the universe and humanity, or an idea to guide you in your actions. It is more than a set of values to live by. The Gospel is news – it is a report about a factual event, and all the implications that flow from the reality of that event. And at the center of that event is a man.

“These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” – John 20:31


On the night of his betrayal, Jesus celebrated the Passover with his disciples, in an upper room of a home in Jerusalem. Where the house was, why that room, and how that scene looked is something we will never know, and don’t need to. But on that night, Jesus gave his disciples – and us – a priceless treasure.

“As they were eating, he took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body.’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. 24 And he said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.’” (Mark 14:22-24).

As the Gospel spread and more people came to faith in Jesus, those early Christians carried on their remembrance of this event, as Jesus had commanded his disciples. Paul wrote at length to the Christians in Corinth about the meaning of this meal, repeating the story and Jesus’ words, so that Christians for all ages would know that when they receive the Lord’s Supper, they are receiving Christ’s true body and blood for the forgiveness of their sins.

But this is unbelievable. It is, in the purest meaning of the word, incredible. When we eat the bread we are somehow also eating Jesus’ body? When we drink the wine we are also somehow drinking Jesus’ blood? Seems quite impossible. There’s no evidence. You can’t test the elements and find proof. There’s no logic. How can Jesus’ body and blood be given so many times to so many people in so many places?

Yet, there are his words. “This is my body. This is my blood.” Do I believe his words?

The foundational event at the center of Christianity is Jesus’ death and resurrection. If Jesus truly died, and if he truly rose to life again, then the implications are infinite. To explore just this one for now, if Jesus truly died and truly rose to life again, then it means that he is, as he said, the Son of God. If he truly died and rose again, then it means that there is nothing of which he is not capable. If Jesus truly died and rose again, then it means that whatever he says, no matter how incredible, is absolutely true.

If Jesus died and rose again, then it means that when I eat the bread and drink the cup, I receive his body and blood for the forgiveness of my sins.

I believe Jesus died and rose again. Why? I could tell you about the empty tomb and the failure of Jesus’ enemies to produce a body or any evidence that he was still dead. I could tell you about the many witnesses who saw him alive again, and the fact they were willing to die for their testimony. I could tell you about the generations of archeologists who have tried to find proof that Jesus’ resurrection was a hoax and have come up empty again and again and again.

But that’s not why I believe. I believe because a thing resounds when it rings true, and this truth echoes in all the empty places inside of me. A beggar doesn’t need proof that the bread that fills his empty stomach is truly food. To put it plainly, my soul needs Jesus, and when I hear these words, I know it, and I believe it.

And with it, I believe Jesus’ words. “This is my body. This is my blood.”

What has changed?

So now same-sex marriage is legal all across the United States. For some it is cause for rejoicing in the streets. Others hang their head in dismay. Many probably just don’t know what to think or feel. Some think this is the end of America, or the end of marriage, or the end of the world. Some feel like they can finally just be who they want to be.

And now more changes are on the horizon. We’ve changed the legal definition of marriage nationwide, and what’s next? How will this affect our churches, our schools, and our families? What other changes are coming?

These fears and more I’m hearing in conversations and reading all over online, even as other voices urge caution, acceptance, resistance, and temperance. But the question that keeps running through my head?

What really has changed?

Another country has passed another law to vindicate sin. What has changed?

People who live in sin have the legal system on their side. What has changed?

Religious hypocrites now have another “societal evil” to gossip about, while they ignore their own vices. What has changed?

God’s Word is not the source and guide of our culture – human emotion and reasoning is. What has changed?

The Church is asked to abandon God’s Word and embrace worldly philosophies. What has changed?

If the Church is to remain true to its Lord, it will face trouble, hostility, and persecution. What has changed?

I’m called to love, lead, appreciate, and pursue my wife – and I will still struggle to do so faithfully. What has changed?

I’m called to raise godly children who know their Savior and are guided by God’s Word – and I will still struggle to do so faithfully. What has changed?

I’m called to speak the truth in love to my community and the world – and I will still struggle to do so faithfully. What has changed?

The Gospel is the only solution for a fallen world. What has changed?

The Gospel is the only solution for a fallen man like me. What has changed?

Jesus loves sinners, died for them that they may be free, and calls people to himself through his Word. What has changed?

Jesus wants you. Every part of you. And he wants you to trust that his plan for your life is better than anything you could want or think to ask for. What has changed?

What really has changed?

Charlie Hebdo, Mockery, and Honoring God

Two gunmen walked into a French newspaper office and killed 12 people, injuring 11 others, in the name of their God and for his honor. They left the scene declaring their victory, calling out that they had avenged the prophet of God.

Vengeance was needed, you see, for this newspaper had dared to mock their prophet. They had drawn blasphemous cartoons that portrayed Mohammed in a disrespectful manner. Such sacrilege could not be tolerated. The honor of their God and his prophet was at stake.

If you follow the news you already know about all of this, and you’ve seen how some have responded. Some are eager to point out that this is exactly what we can expect from the religion of Islam, that it is, at its heart, a violent religion. Some are trying to be political and claiming the the religion has nothing to do with it, that’s it’s the isolated actions of unhinged extremists. Some stand alongside the cartoonists, voicing support for everyone’s right to  Some simply blame the people at Charlie Hebdo (the French newspaper, ICYMI), saying they brought it on themselves and should have known better.

And what is our response? Do we stand with the tolerant, cautiously reminding everyone that most Muslims are very peaceful and that you can’t judge a whole religion based on the actions of a few? Do we stand with the religious, calling out Islam for the violent religion it is and calling upon God and the great forces of the world to finally mete out justice? Do we stand with the scoffers, clinging to the right to free speech and mockery? Do we stand with the stoics, shrugging our shoulders at the consequences of making choices in a sin-fraught world? Is there anywhere else to stand? In the heat of battle, it hardly seems so.

There is a way to look at all this, though, that helps us ferret through the nonsense and actually find the right place to be. That way of looking at this can be summarized by a simple question, “What honors God?” Maybe we could even expand that question into, “What testifies to the truth, gives glory to God, and promotes the Gospel?”

Does taking sides against Islam testify to the truth, give glory to God, and promote the Gospel? At first glance we might say “yes!” because after all, Islam stands in opposition to the Gospel, does not give Jesus the glory he deserves as the Son of God and the second person of the Trinity, and is not based on the truth of God’s Word. But isn’t there a difference between shouting “Islam is a violent and demonic religion! We need to wipe the Muslims out!” and “There is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved”? Certainly, there’s a place for standing against falsehood, but if you don’t follow that with the truth, then all you’ve done is told people what you’re against. They’re no better off.

Does taking sides for Islam testify to the truth, give glory to God, and promote the Gospel? Believe it or not, there are some Christians who would say “yes!” In the eyes of the world, it seems very loving to say that the Muslim world as a whole is not evil, that those people are our fellow citizens on this earth, and that we need to love and respect them. And wasn’t it Jesus who said not to judge? But the problem here is that if we’re going to honor the true God, we can’t pretend that he loves the religion of Islam. He loves Muslims, yes, but his loving desire is that they come out of Islam, not be supported in it.

Does taking sides with the scoffers testify to the truth, give glory to God, and promote the Gospel? I had a conversation with my associate, Tim Smith, this morning about this whole event. “There’s a certain Voltairian mentality,” he said, “that everything – and especially religion – is worth mocking. But the problem with mockery is that it doesn’t help anyone, and it can quite literally get you murdered.” As we talked, we noted that the deeper problem with mockery is that it does nothing to promote the Gospel. I’m not against free speech, but if the line we hold is that there is nothing wrong with mocking Islam, then we’re also holding the line that there’s nothing wrong with mocking Jesus. Maybe we can all agree that Jesus is still God, no matter who mocks him. But do we want to stand with the people who want to mock him?

Does taking sides with the stoics testify to the truth, give glory to God, and promote the Gospel? Going back to Tim’s comment, it is true that when you strike at people who will literally kill for their religion, you’re taking your life in your own hands. We’ve seen enough incidents of repercussion for those who criticize Islam that anyone ought to know better at this point. But with this stance comes a certain sort of apathy, doesn’t it? Do we risk forgetting that these were people, with spouses and children and siblings and parents? When I first heard about the incident, my heart sank. I thought about the families whose lives will be forever changed because of this. And it isn’t the same as a soldier or police officer or fireman losing his life; their families learn to accept a certain level of anticipation that any day they could lose their loved one. A newspaper editor doesn’t say goodbye to his family every morning expecting that it might be the last time. Our love for God inspires us to love others, and in love for others, I think we can see that no matter how much they might have brought it on themselves, it is still terrible and grieving that it happened.

Okay, so we can establish that the various responses we’ve seen from the majority of people in the public eye aren’t necessarily responses we would adopt wholesale. So how do we respond? How do we adopt a stance that really does testify to the truth, give glory to God, and promote the Gospel.

I saw this really intriguing comic by Adam4d:

I have to say, he hit the nail on the head when it comes to the disparity that exists between Christianity and Islam. Most Muslims may be very peaceful, but we have to acknowledge that when people take the Quran literally and seriously, the most committed and radical adherents will take up arms and literally engage in holy war. The Quran calls them to do so. Christianity, on the other hand, calls us to be willing to sacrifice everything – up to and including our own lives – for the sake of the Gospel. It never calls on Christians to wage physical war against unbelievers to advance the cause of the Gospel, and throughout history those who have done so in the name of Christ are falsely claiming the name of Christ.

(Note: This is where people will almost always pull out the Old Testament directives God gave to his people to go to war on particular nations. I could spend hours writing about why God directed his people in those ways at those times, but I think the most compelling point to make related to that is that he gave a specific nation specific directions in a specific historical context. These were not open-ended directives to all believers for all time, but limited divine judgments. It’s further interesting to note that God also used foreign nations against Israel at times to discipline them for their idolatry as a nation. In other words, God wasn’t just playing favorites. False religion has always been a problem for him, no matter who engages in it.)

Going back to Adam4d’s comic, I think it actually addresses our question from before. How do I honor God in response to the Charlie Hebdo incident? God calls us to be willing to lay everything on the line for the sake of the Gospel. Yes, that includes my life, if necessary. But think of that as up to and including my life, which then encompasses being ready to let go of everything else as well. See, out of those four main responses we’ve seen, the one I’ve seen from other Christians far and above all the others is to point out that Islam is not a religion of peace, and should be called out for its violence, and on top of that, we’re American and we believe in free speech, and there should be nothing wrong with poking fun at Islam, because it isn’t true anyway. But if I’m called to lay down everything for the sake of the Gospel, doesn’t that include laying down my “right” to be scornful of other religions? Once again, isn’t there a difference between mocking a false religion and preaching the Gospel?

Shouldn’t I be ready to let go of anything else as well? Like letting go of my self-righteous criticism of others, so that my hypocrisy doesn’t get in the way of my preaching of the Gospel. Like letting go of my need to be liked by being relevant and political, so that my tolerance and relativism doesn’t get in the way of my preaching the Gospel. Like letting go of my mockery of others in the name of free speech, so that my arrogance doesn’t get in the way of my preaching the Gospel. Like letting go of my blasé, karmic approach to life, so that my apathy doesn’t get in the way of my preaching of the Gospel.

In the end, that’s the real answer to the question. How do I testify to the truth, give glory to God, and promote the Gospel? By saying what is true: Jesus, the Savior from sin, is the only true peacemaker between God and man. No other religious philosophy preaches or achieves true peace. By giving glory to God: Jesus said that when we honor him, we honor the Father (John 5:22-23). Jesus is the true God and the only Savior. By promoting the Gospel: “So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God” (2 Timothy 1:8). The question is the answer. Nothing else matters. We do this when we respond to this incident with compassion for the victims, with boldness for the truth, and with a clear message of our own hope.  Let everything else go, and lay it on the line for the Gospel.

4 Tips for Keeping the Gospel in your Christmas



Christmas is a few days away. Maybe you’ve already attended a few parties, had a few family meals; maybe you’ve already opened some presents. For most of us, the next few days will involve quite a lot of that. Between presents, programs, food, family, and travel, will we let the stress take away the whole point of Christmas altogether? And does the idea of missing the point of Christmas just add to the stress that’s taking away our Christmas joy?

Well, here are some things to keep in mind so that through the next few days, you can keep your eyes on the true joy of Christmas – the knowledge that because of Christmas, you are a loved, forgiven, redeemed child of God.

1. Let the fun of gift-giving and gift-getting point to the gift of Jesus. Have you ever had to ask yourself how many times you’ve told your kids that it isn’t about the presents, while secretly (and guiltily?) admitting to yourself that you are pretty excited about what they’re getting? Or maybe you threw in the towel on that long ago and you just make it all about the presents, and can’t wait to see what other people got you. Here’s an idea: Enjoy the presents to their utmost. It’s a blessing to give and to receive gifts! But while you do so, let your kids know why we give gifts.  Talk about who they point to, and who they’re from. The two can work together.

2. Don’t sweat the Santa stuff. If you’re a family that does Santa, maybe you’re tired of hearing people turn up their noses as they explain why they don’t do Santa in their house, and maybe you’re worried that this is the year the kids will catch on and the whole Santa thing will be (pardon the pun) out of the bag. On the other hand, if you’re a “No Santa” family, you’re probably irritated by all the people who keep asking your kids, “What do you think Santa is getting you?” when they know perfectly well that you don’t do Santa! It would be easy to start a Santa war over all this. Here’s my advice: (1) If you do Santa, remember that it’s just for fun. Don’t let your need to have fun with the game overshadow your children’s need to see the Savior. Keep it light, and don’t get upset if the kids figure it out. (2) If you don’t do Santa, go for the alternative and tell your kids about the real, original St. Nicholas. Then when that family member who just won’t quit asks, “What did Santa get you?” your kids will be able to say, “Gee, Uncle Dave, can I tell you about the real St. Nick?” and your job is done.

“I would never sneak down a chimney. It would totally smudge my stole.”

A note about Santa: Something to keep in mind when playing the Santa game is that there are some real spiritual and emotional concerns with taking it too seriously. For one, since Santa’s giving is based on works (“He knows if you’ve been bad or good”), this can cause some real spiritual confusion for a child, and detract from the free grace of God. Along with that, consider the child who has been good all year, but doesn’t get the cool toy he wants, only to find out that his friend who was not as good did get that toy. What might that do to a child’s self-esteem? Here’s a suggestion I saw once – let the little stuff or the stocking stuff be from Santa, and the big toys be from mom and dad. That gives you a chance to talk about what really matters without creating the sense that your child has to earn love from someone by good behavior. This will help them see the nature of God’s love much more clearly as well.

3. Don’t let your “Merry Christmas” sound like a “Bah Humbug!” Have you ever noticed that sometimes people respond to “Happy Holidays” by saying “Merry Christmas” like a nun correcting an erring school child? Or they just spend far too much Facebook space reposting memes about they’re unapologetic about saying “Merry Christmas”? Has that ever been you? Yeah, me too. It’s en vogue for Christians to want to “reclaim Christmas” in America as a reaction to the more inclusive and generic “Happy Holidays.” And when it’s a family member who goes the progressive route… But not only does this make Christians look like a grouchy bunch, it robs us of our joy. And it doesn’t really further the cause of the Gospel. How many checkers at Target have had their lives changed because someone snippily insisted that it’s “Christmas,” not “Holiday”?

“Your biting tone has totally made me rethink my religious convictions! Thank you!”

Say Merry Christmas with a smile on your face and a cheer in your voice. Most people, even if they don’t celebrate Christmas, will happily accept it. If they don’t, let that be their issue, not yours. And if they say, “Happy Holidays,” you can say, “Thank you! You too! Merry Christmas!” Remember Jesus is good, but there isn’t a verse in the Bible that says, “You shall say Merry Christmas around December 25th.” Being polite and gracious does a lot more to show Jesus to the world than drawing lines in the sand that don’t come from Scripture.

4. Remember the “one thing needful.” You remember the story of Mary and Martha, how one was busy getting supper ready and the other was lounging listening to Jesus talk? You remember how Jesus in frustration told Mary to get up off the floor and get to work helping out in the kitchen, because that roast wasn’t going to cook itself? Yeah, that wasn’t the version I read either. Jesus wasn’t too worried if the potatoes were perfect. He was mostly concerned with spiritual matters. Do you think Christmas will be ruined if you have to skip on a side or people have to get cookies out of a tupperware? It won’t, especially not if your focus is on Jesus and sharing his love. So spend your time enjoying your family and friends, reminding each other why we celebrate Christmas, and don’t let “what needs to be done” crowd out what has been done by a God who loves you more than life itself.

Here’s the point of Christmas: The Son of God loves you, his creation, so much that he chose to come down from his throne in heaven, to make himself one of us, to live as one of us, to die on behalf of us, to make us glorious. Nothing you’ve done, nothing you are, and nothing you will ever do can change that. He loves you too much for you to make him love you more or less, and Christmas is a sign of that love. It’s part of the big story of redemption that God wants us to know. It’s his story, and it’s your story.

Merry Christmas.

Bible Study for Boys (Review and Suggested Use)

Frugal Fun for Boys is a pretty cool website if you have boys, with lots of great ideas for activities and ways to encourage and build up your sons. I was a little excited when last week I saw that they are planning a Bible study series designed for boys, to encourage them in their daily walk and help them to grow up to be godly men. The first was released today, and I’ve had a chance to look it over. I’d like to offer my thoughts on it, as well as some suggestions for how parents can put it to good use.

Summary of the Study

This first Bible study is focused on the importance of being a diligent worker and not being lazy, slothful, or a sluggard. It has five days’ worth of activities that include readings from Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, and Proverbs. Activities range from fill in the blanks and questions drawn from Scripture to journaling and reflecting on personal behavior, and even drawing a picture illustrating what the Proverbs are describing. The study can be found on this page and involves a couple clicks to download a printable form.

The good

  • The study relies on Scripture and uses passages that are possibly not as familiar to all children; they aren’t your typical memory work passages that kids will learn in Sunday School or Christian Day School. This means that boys going through the study will be delving deeper into the Word than just touching on well-known passages.
  • The variety of activities is an awesome way to keep it engaging, especially for boys who probably don’t need another piece of “homework” to do. It also makes it inclusive of different learning styles and talent levels.
  • The explanations of the Scriptural wisdom is very appropriate for the passages. They don’t try to shoehorn meaning into the passages that isn’t there, but rather just draw out what the passages say and how they apply to our lives.
  • I love that they included journaling as an activity concept (but I have some thoughts on their approach below). Application questions can only take learning and growth so far. To actually assimilate a concept into your life you need to process it personally, and journaling is a very effective way to do that.

The not-so-good

  • Holy Law based Bible studies, Batman! This study has zero Gospel involved in it. To be fair, the page where you pick up the printable study does have at the bottom of it a single bullet point about pointing your kids to the cross. But in the wider context of the whole study and all the stuff on the page before it, that does feel a little like a token Gospel and not a predominant undercurrent. You can kinda forgive that kind of thing when you have a study that is intended to use the Law as a guide. The problem I have with this is that the study is actually designed to really expose a young man’s guilt over his potential slothfulness. The cure the study offers is just to try harder. It’s sort of the Veggie Tales syndrome – good Biblical wisdom and morality, but missing the most critical component of Gospel motivation. The truth is, the Law by itself only breaks us down, and while it might sometimes change behavior, it doesn’t change the heart. The Gospel is what truly changes us from within.
  • The presentation is pretty stark. I get that it’s a homebrewed thing and doesn’t have any kind of big budget behind it, so you can forgive it not having fancy graphics and well designed clip art. But since it is aimed at boys, I think it needs a more appealing visual style.
  • Call it a minor point, but I did not care for the Day 1 activity of listing excuses and work well done. The main reason is because the nature of excuse making is that we try to justify ourselves, so encouraging a boy to write down both his excuses and his victories could easily just turn into him writing down all of the reasons he feels perfectly justified in making his excuses, and patting himself on the back for doing well. Or he will internalize his failures and not be able to think of things he’s done well, making him feel like a failure. Either way, it’s a risky activity.
  • Another really minor and picky point, but I feel like there should have been some suggested answers for some of the stuff. A spiritually mature and well learned parent could probably guide their child through it successfully, but some parents feel like they really struggle to dig deep into Scripture. Giving them the resources to help their kids along is critical for keeping them doing it.

Suggestions for use

Despite those not-so-good things being pretty significant shortcomings, I think it’s a fair start and a worthwhile concept. So, if you’re not going to reinvent the wheel and create your own study for your kids, and you’d like to make the most of this one, here are my suggestions:

  • Get the Gospel into it. The study begins with a story about a young man failing to live up to his father’s expectations. What a perfect place to contrast the way that Jesus lives us to all of the Father’s expectations on our behalf! Point to Luke 2:51 where it says, “Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them” and talk about how Jesus’ obedience to his parents was credited to us. Then talk about how Jesus wept in the Garden at the thought of having to go through the suffering of the cross, but still did it because it was his Father’s will. Let that set the tone, and then throughout the week point your child back to those stories as the undergirding principle – You don’t have to do it to be right with God, Jesus already did it to make you right with God.
  • Invest your own time. If you’re going to use this well, I think it’s going to take as much time for you as the parent as it will take for your child. And that’s okay. You’re investing in your child’s character and future. But don’t shortcut yourself. Spend the time to make sure you feel confident about how you would answer all the questions and be able to help your son work through these things.
  • Teach your son to journal reflectively. If you’ve never done this before, it might be hard to teach, and the temptation would be to just use what they have provided. But as I said, I don’t think the activity the way they’ve set it up is effective. Reflective journaling is the process of saying, “What do I see in myself and what do I want to change?” A starter point for reflective journaling is always to simple describe the days activities, without commentary on the rightness or wrongness of them. After they’ve written that out, then they can comment on where they missed the mark or the standard of Jesus’ perfect example (usually just describing the events will help them see that clearly), how it feels to know that Jesus has hit the mark in their place, and what they hope to do better.

I believe that this concept of Bible studies for boys is a great one, and I am interested to see what else the folks at Frugal Fun for Boys bring out. I hope that future studies bring home the Gospel a little more clearly. Time permitting, I intend to keep reviewing their stuff and making my own suggestions. Blessings on your parenting!