It is so hard for me to believe that 2011 year is almost over. Time is such a weird thing… It never seems constant. As a kid – I remember always feeling like that the 30 or so days between Thanksgiving and Christmas were the longest 30 days of the whole year. Of course being the little heathen that I was – it was not in anticipation of the birth of Baby Jesus – but instead it was in anticipation of the Stretch Armstrong or Sony Walkman or Atari 2600 I was expecting to get… (Yes for you youngsters those were all real products – just go hit Google to look them up.) And even as I began to grow to be a teenager and became too cool to be “excited” about – well anything – I secretly still lived in anticipation of what gifts December 25th would bring.
I guess that’s why the debate that always come up at this time of year over the phrases “Merry Christmas” vs. “Happy Holidays” somewhat annoys me. If I am honest – the only part Christ really played for me in Christmas was that he was the little baby that was always the center of our ceramic nativity scene on the fireplace hearth. One of my favorite things to do was actually to hide the little guy … or replace him with one of the sheep or to add army men to the manger scene having them do battle with the shepherds. It just wasn’t real to me. It was a playset – but instead of awesome GI Joe figures with kung-fu grips – they were ceramic figurines that didn’t do anything cool. Christmas was really just a very happy holiday to me growing up. The presents were real … but Jesus wasn’t.
That’s a really sad confession… That Jesus wasn’t real to me. I certainly did know about him. We went to a very staunch, conservative 3 services a week baptist church. You went on Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday night. And when it was revival time every year – you went every night at least 1 or 2 weeks a year. And I hated every minute of it. I especially hated it on years when Christmas would fall on a Sunday. AWW MAN! Church before presents. Booo! But like I said – Jesus wasn’t real to me. He was a story in a dusty old book that was crazy boring to read. And His Dad, God? He was a grouchy, mean, vindictive old man who hated all of us. And the Holy Spirit? I didn’t know what to think of Him… Other than I had seen people get what they called “slain in the spirit” at our church and they would fall down or faint or talk funny when they met Him and so I certainly wanted nothing to do with that being haunted by that Holy Ghost. Jesus wasn’t real to me. God was scary. And the Holy Spirit was some kind of haunting spirit that made you go crazy from time to time. No wonder that Rockem-Sockem Robots was all I really wanted Christmas morning to be about. So that very sacrilegious view of the Trinity was what I carried for a great deal of my life. I wish that I could say that when I grew up – I laid down those views of who God is. I mean I did eventually of course but I wasted a lot of time carrying a bunch or garbage and baggage.
I find it really curious to wonder what the pastors at the churches I grew up in thought of me? Or what they thought, I thought about God? Because for the life of me I cannot remember a single one of them ever asking me what I really thought or felt. It was always telling me what to think and how to feel because it was what I was supposed to think and feel. I can remember a few times trying to explain what was going on in my head and always being brushed aside. One time, believe it or not, I got slapped in the face by one of my sunday school teachers because I asked why it was impossible for satan to ask for forgiveness. Ahhhhh memories… Now I could go on and on and on about why it is the fault and the missed opportunities of all of those pastors and Sunday school teachers when I was growing up as to why I didn’t have a good relationship with Jesus … but I won’t… Because ultimately the relationship – or lack of one – is up to me. While there may have been example after example of opportunities missed between a pastor and me over the years – there was eventually one who did take an interest in me. And he began to minister to me and to help me understand who Jesus really is. Who God is. Who the Holy Spirit is. He was truly interested in me KNOWING God – not just knowing “of” Him. And that was when the relationship with Him became real to me. When I took responsibility for walking in the footsteps of Jesus and following after Him.
If I’m honest – I did learn valuable lessons from those early experiences in church. I can still, for the most part, recite a lot of scripture – although some of it is still in my brain in King James version; I also have a very good mental database of the major stories and themes from all 66 books; I can turn to any of those books in the Bible without having to look in the concordance; and, I think, most importantly – I know what not to do as a pastor. I really do count it all as valuable lessons, valuable life experience that makes me the person I am today – or the person I am not. The person I am… loves Jesus. I want my kids to love Him and KNOW Him. I am so proud of how my 5 year old son asks questions like – “How can God and Jesus be the same person?” or “If Jesus is in Heaven how can He be here too?” I hope and pray that he and my 2 year old daughter ask really tough questions of God as they grow up. I hope and pray that they both wrestle with the nature of God and desire to have a better understanding of who He is. I hope and pray that they never encounter anyone who would desire to silence their tough – even sacrilegious – questions. I hope and pray that they both… hope and pray.
This Christmas – I hope and pray that if you get aggravated at someone saying Happy Holidays – it’s because Christmas really is important to you because of who Jesus is – not because of it going against your traditions. I hope and pray – that if you haven’t yet – that you encounter who Jesus really is. I hope and pray that He isn’t just a little ceramic figure in your nativity scene. I hope and pray that you too – are hoping…. and praying. I am hoping and praying for you.