Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Charlie Brown Christmas - Part 4

Charlie Brown is depressed at Christmastime. He knows it is supposed to be a season of joy and that he’s supposed to be happy. But he isn’t. He tells this to his best friend Linus. Linus, as a good friend does, listens to Charlie Brown and doesn’t offer advice (although he does offer an assessment of Charlie Brown as the “Charlie Browniest”).

Charlie Brown heads over to Lucy for “psychiatric help” (5¢ please). It is here that we get to the heart of the matter. Charlie Brown just doesn’t understand Christmas.

Lucy suggests involvement will help Charlie Brown. He is named the director of the Christmas play. But that doesn’t work.

Charlie Brown tries to set the mood with music, thinking that might work. It doesn’t (but most likely because it isn’t the right “Christmas” music – music might work and often does in many situations).

Charlie Brown then turns to the enduring symbol of the season – a Christmas tree. But when he is not wishy-washy for once, he’s berated by everyone – even his dog – when he brings back a real Christmas tree (albeit pretty shabby).

In anguish, Charlie Brown cries out, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”

And that is our cry as well. Do we really understand what Christmas is all about? At Christmastime we fill our lives with cards, gifts, dinner parties, trees, travel, music, and worship. But strip all that away and what is left?

Linus speaks to all of us, “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

It isn’t about what we do. It isn’t about the proper mood. It is about God loving us so much that He sent Jesus to be our savior.

“That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

©2008 True Men Ministries.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

A Charlie Brown Christmas - Part 3

According to a Gallup poll from 2004, 96% of Americans celebrate Christmas. I imagine that every single one of them will have a Christmas Tree of some kind as part of their celebration.

Real or artificial? The great Christmas debate.

One of my earliest memories is as a very young boy going out on a rainy December day with my mom and dad and cutting down a Christmas tree in the mountains outside of San Francisco. I don’t remember much except that it was really muddy.

After we moved to Lake Villa, Illinois, I remember having an artificial tree. But I missed the real tree smell, going out and looking for the perfect tree with family, the whole experience. So when Nancy and I were married, we both committed to having a real tree each year – and so we have, for the last 18 Christmases.

We have our favorite kind of tree – a fir of some kind. Fraser, Noble, Douglas, that kind of thing.

That’s for us. You have different ideas. Some like Balsams, others like Scotch Pines.

Then there are those of you that prefer artificial trees. Cost, environmental impact and safety are very good concerns in the decision to choose an artificial tree.

I’m not here to argue one way or another about Christmas trees. I respect all decisions for the type of tree that you use.

But when it comes to Christmas trees, there are very many opinions, aren’t there. That’s apparent in A Charlie Brown Christmas.

A Christmas Tree sets the mood like nothing else does.

Charlie Brown knows that Christmas-time is a season of joy and happiness, but he doesn’t feel happy. He’s depressed. He doesn’t know why he doesn’t feel good at Christmas-time. He actually provides himself with the answer but that doesn’t help him much – it’s because he doesn’t understand what Christmas is all about.

So, he goes on a quest to find happiness. This leads him first to Lucy. Her advice is to “get involved.” So, he gets involved as the director of their Christmas play. That’s a good thing, because it puts Charlie Brown in the place he needs to be in order to understand what Christmas is all about, but we haven’t reached that point yet.

Charlie Brown’s direction style hasn’t accomplished what he’s looking for, so he goes in a slightly different direction. He tries to “set the mood.”

This, too, is powerful. Think about Christmas Eve worship services – the “mood” is important, isn’t it? The proper lighting, the proper music. Hollywood figured this out a long time ago – that lighting and soundtrack can make or break a movie.

Charlie Brown tried to set the proper mood with music, but that didn’t work. So he turns to that greatest of Christmas symbols in the modern era – the Christmas Tree.

Like most things in today’s world, opinions abound as to what kind of Christmas Tree Charlie Brown should get. You may have chuckled a little about a “shiny aluminum tree.” As it turns out, the first aluminum tree was introduced to the American market in 1958, only seven years before A Charlie Brown Christmas was first aired on TV and it was still quite popular.

The pressure is put on Charlie Brown to get the right tree, as the opinion is that only the right kind of tree will do to set the mood. This is typical human nature – that our opinion on things is most important. This leads us to what one person told me about two weeks ago – the “sin of expectation.” If our opinion is not considered and used, then things are ruined, that we are “doomed.” This, of course, is based squarely in our self-centeredness and not in being disciples of Jesus. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have your opinion or that your opinions don’t matter. What I am saying is our opinions – indeed our whole lives – should not be inward-looking but outward –leading. As Jesus put it, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind,” and “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 19 & 22).

That certainly doesn’t fit the modern spirit of humans. My feelings, my opinion, my way, my thoughts, - that’s what’s important. The stark and unnerving mirror of God’s Law reveals this about ourselves and it isn’t comfortable. So we hide behind all our opinions, our ideas, and our feelings – especially at this time of year. That has led so many to feel just like Charlie Brown feels. There is a solution, and I’ll get to that in a moment.

The modern spirit of Christmas seems to be based on the type of tree one chooses.

Charlie Brown and Linus go out to get a tree. Linus warns Charlie Brown about following Lucy’s advice. Charlie Brown – for all his wishy-washyness – stands his ground and picks a real tree.

Charlie Brown recognizes that the tree “seems to need him.” And that’s interesting to me. The tree seems to call out to Charlie Brown. Perhaps it really has. God has often used parts of His creation to get the attention of people.

Charlie Brown doesn’t realize it but this tree chooses him because it moves Charlie Brown ever closer to the place where he will need to be to truly understand what Christmas is all about. When Charlie Brown gets to that place he will find the peace, happiness and joy that he – and us – are looking for at Christmas-time.

Charlie Brown says that he thinks the tree needs him. The reality is that we need the tree! And not the Christmas tree, but the Tree that the Christmas tree points to.

When you look at a Christmas tree, what do you see? I see a symbol of the Christmas season. But like most symbols this is a complex symbol. There’s more to it than initially meets the eye.

Some see a Christmas tree and see the mess of needles that will need to be cleaned up the rest of the year. Some see a frightful expense. Some are reminded of Christmases past. But consider this:

The Christmas tree is an evergreen. It is green and “fresh looking” year round. It isn’t a deciduous tree that loses its leaves and is bear every winter. This points us to the never-ending nature of God Himself, that Jesus is “the same yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).

The shape of (most) Christmas trees is also a symbol. To me, it is an arrow shape, pointing up to heaven, pointing us to God, the source of all good and perfect gifts. Which is why we also put gifts under the tree each year, yes?

But the most powerful symbol that is the Christmas tree is that it is a tree. What’s the big deal about that?

23When they hurled their insults at [Jesus], he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. 24He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. 25For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls (1 Peter 2:23-25) (emphasis added).

The ultimate symbol of the Christmas tree is that Jesus Christ was hung on a tree to die to save us from our sins. And that, my friends, is what Christmas is ultimately all about and where our true joy will be found. Not only at Christmas but throughout the year and throughout our lives!

©2008 True Men Ministries.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

A Charlie Brown Christmas - Part 2

We need to be involved, both with God and with others. This is how A Charlie Brown Christmas starts. Charlie Brown is not happy even though he knows he should be at Christmas time. Lucy’s advice to him is get involverd as the director of the Christmas play.

We need to be involved, both with God and with others. This is the heart of the 10 Commandments – Love God and Love Your Neighbor.

God gives us the power to be involved with Him and our neighbors by first becoming involved with us – He became one of us when Jesus was born.

What we do with that involvement is important, not only to having the Christmas that God wants for us, but also to have the abundant life that Jesus came to give us (John 10:10).

The problem is that when we are not involved with God, when we don’t realize just how much He is involved with us (by becoming a human being just like us), we try to find involvement on our own. That leads to a happy-go-lucky existence or a self-centered existence.

Charlie Brown is looking for happiness at Christmas time. He knows he should be happy, but since he doesn’t really understand what Christmas is all about, he can’t find that happiness. Lucy’s suggestion of involvement is a good one, because it puts Charlie Brown where he needs to be to understand what Christmas is all about – but more on that at another time.

Charlie Brown knows that Christmas-time is supposed to be a time of joy and good feelings. I wonder if that isn’t ingrained in us from the beginning of our lives. It certainly is a promise that God made a long, long time ago. God has promised us that Christmas is supposed to be joyful. The messengers of God tell us that Christmas is “good news of great joy, which is for all people.”

The prophets Isaiah and Nahum said, centuries before Christmas, record the promise that it would be Good News.

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, "Your God reigns!" – Isaiah 52:7

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners…. - Isaiah 61:1

Look, there on the mountains, the feet of one who brings good news, who proclaims peace! Celebrate your festivals, O Judah, and fulfill your vows. No more will the wicked invade you; they will be completely destroyed. - Nahum 1:15

Christmas is a time of joy, of Good News, of happiness. The first step to finding that happiness is involvement. But it has to be involvement the way that God intends. We cannot invent our own. We can’t go about this our own way.

Sarah tried that with Abraham and Hagar.
Rachel tried that with Jacob and her handmaiden.

In A Charlie Brown Christmas we see that the kids have their own ideas about “involvement” and what happiness at Christmas should be. For the kids it is doing what they want to do. If there is anything “dated” about A Charlie Brown Christmas, this might be it. In the middle of the 60’s “do your own thing” was all the rage. Whatever makes you feel happy, do that. I don’t think this story is quite that blatant about it, but it does hint at this philosophy – if it makes you happy, do it. Of course, that isn’t really “dated” at all. It is the original sin!

Whenever, that is tried – and that happiness is not tied to what God has done for us in Jesus – than happiness is rarely, if ever, found. True joy can only be found in God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. When you are involved in God through Jesus, joy is found every single time. Every single time!

Let’s get back to director Charlie Brown. He starts assigning parts – shepherds, in-keepers and their wives, and the animals. We all have a role to play in this life. God is the great author of this epic story of salvation and life. A story that began long before we were born, in which God gives us a part that is our very own. We have been given the costumes, props, and lines, if you will. We all have a part. But remember that Christ is the star, the lead character in this epic story. We have supporting roles.

Yet, we tend to try to make our role the starring role. This is what I call self-centeredness. Lucy is a great example. Her part is “The Christmas Queen.” She’s made her part up, hasn’t she? I mean, I don’t remember a Christmas Queen in the Bible, do you?

Making our part greater than it’s supposed to be, and doing things our own way, is all part of the “problem of Christmas” that Charlie Brown has identified. It is about expectations. Remember what Lucy wanted for Christmas? Sally – Charlie Brown’s little sister – also has expectations of what Christmas is supposed to be that is based on self-centeredness. Making up our own role is part-and-parcel of having unrealistic expectations.

When it comes to Christmas, many people have expectations that, if not met, seem to ruin Christmas. Or at least disappoint us about Christmas.

I was the king of expectations when it comes to Christmas. Growing up, even into my young adult years, there were certain things that I felt must happen for me to have a joyful and happy Christmas.

- There must be snow on the ground – because of one of my favorite songs (White Christmas).
- I must be able to watch
o A Charlie Brown Christmas
o It’s a Wonderful Life
o The Bishop’s Wife
- I must be able to walk down State Street and Michigan Ave. in Chicago sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.

Those of you who know me might be thinking that nothing has changed for me. I still do all these things at this time of year. Which is true. But what has changed is my expectations of Christmas. You see, there’s nothing wrong with doing these things, just as there is nothing wrong with dancing like in A Charlie Brown Christmas. It all comes back to the heart of the matter. Why do we do these things?

Do we do them in order to make Christmas a joyful time of year? Or do we do them in response to the joy that is ours at this time of year because of what God has done for us?

Charlie Brown tries to make things go his way. He tries to do things the way he thinks they should be done. And we see the result. Good grief!

But if we truly understand the great gift that is the heart of Christmas, everything we do will be a response! If we start with the Gift of Jesus Christ and the salvation He brings through His death and resurrection, then this truly can be the most wonderful time of year.

©2008 True Men Ministries.