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With Christ in the School of Self-Denial  

Imagine if Jesus opened a “School of Self Denial” right in your neighborhood—and He invited you to enroll. At what grade level would He place you?

Self-denial is not exactly trending these days. Self-actualization or self-assertiveness—there, you'll get some clicks. But self-denial? My Amazon search revealed only three book titles—all written by Puritans more than 500 years ago.

Apparently, today’s Christians don’t care much for self-denial. Odd. Because this was Jesus’ sweet spot, His thing.

  • At the Incarnation, He denied Himself the majesty of heaven.
  • In a prayer life that often began “while it was still dark,” He denied Himself sleep.
  • In a 40-day wilderness odyssey, He denied Himself food.
  • In the never-ending throngs that hounded Him for a miracle, He denied Himself alone time.
  • In the repeated attacks of religious skeptics, He denied Himself the right to His divine reputation.
  • In the ridicule of the Calvary crowd, He denied Himself personal peace.
  • On the cross, He denied Himself comfort, relief—and life itself—trading them all for agony and atonement.

And now, He has enrolled us in His School of Self-Denial. In Matthew 16:24, Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wants to come after Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me.”

But honestly, I struggle just to give up one meal a week to pray. What's with us and our discomfort with self-denial?

How is it we can applaud the self-denial of Christ but avoid it ourselves?

  • Why can't we deny ourselves just one TV show a week—and invest that time in encouraging people who are hurting?
  • Why can’t we reduce our daily phone time just enough to memorize a verse of Scripture?
  • Why can’t we skip one meal a week and invest it in focused alone time with God?

From these small sacrifices, we can move on to larger ones. But—only if we take seriously Christ’s welcome into His School of Self Denial. Class is in session. Are you ready?

 
Our Advent Problem  

Houston, we have an (Advent) problem.

We love celebrating Christ's coming with carols, candles, crèches, and cookies, not to mention cash. And we are right to celebrate so joyously. God came to dwell among us! But there’s another Advent that gets comparatively little enthusiasm. I refer to Christ’s second coming.

Curiously, those who claim to know Christ best often show much more enthusiasm for the babe in the manger than the King on His throne.

Think I’m being too harsh? Ponder all we’ve just experienced with Christmas, the First Advent, and then ask yourself:

  • Where are all the songs about Christ’s second coming?
  • Where are all the creative sermon series about His return?
  • Where are all the special concerts and community outreach events based on the Second Advent?
  • Where is all that excitement and enthusiasm we happily funnel into Christmas?

Here’s what I think. When it comes to Jesus, we love His first coming, but merely like His second coming. Many of us are so comfortable in the here, and now, we don't look for—let alone long for—the return of Jesus.

We love baby Jesus, but Warrior Jesus—Judge Jesus—we don’t know what to make of Him. So, we end up making very little of Him.

Ironically, it is only at His second coming that we enjoy the fulfillment of the promise of His first coming. Only after Christ’s second coming will we finally and forever know “peace and good will toward men.”

In 2 Timothy 4:8, Paul testifies,

In the future, there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing.

So, I ask. Do you love His appearing—or merely like it?

Joy to the world! The Lord is come—and IS coming!

 
Move Me Closer  

What’s on your Christmas playlist?

We enjoy an eclectic mix of childhood favorites like the Carpenters, Living Strings, and the Rudolph TV soundtrack. We also have most of the Mannheim Steamroller albums, with a nod to country artists Carrie Underwood, Martina McBride, Alan Jackson, and many others, in a digitized set of Shell Oil country Christmas cassettes (circa 1989). Natalie Cole's Hallmark album is a must, as are Michael W. Smith, Amy Grant, John Tesh, Mariah Carey, and Michael Bublé. Then there’s Andy Griffith’s delightful collection of Christmas carols and stories.

But one album and one alone is reserved for the moment we decorate our Christmas tree—Evie’s “Christmas Memories.”  The CD, which came out in 2006, features her trademark performance of “Come on Ring Those Bells.”

There’s a lesser-known song on the album written by Evie herself that we particularly love. It's called "Move Me Closer."  Intended to portray the shepherds' reaction to seeing the infant Jesus, the chorus goes,

Move me closer, move me closer.
Move me closer to the Child.
Let me see Him
Let me hold His Hand.
Move me closer to the Child.

Having seen Jesus for a brief moment from a distance, those shepherds wanted to see more. And they wanted to see Him closer. Is that our reaction?

Honestly, I suspect many of us are more preoccupied with surviving Christmas than seeing the Christ of Christmas. Rather than draw closer, we move faster—and in the end, feel further. Further from the Christ who came to us.

Our cookies are baked, our cards are sent, our gifts are wrapped, our sermons are preached, but our hearts are cold. If that be so, the fault is none but ours.

Do you want to see Him?

Do you want to see Him closer?

Close enough that you can hold His hand?

It’s your move!

Move me closer, move me closer.
Move me closer to the Child.
Let me see Him
Let me hold His Hand.
Move me closer to the Child.

 

(C) Evelyn Tornquist Karlsson
 
Lessons from a Christmas Concert  

Imagine sitting in the middle of a 41-piece orchestra clutching your french horn while just a few feet away, a large choir brings favorite Christmas carols to life. After a zillion rehearsals and two performances, I walk away with four lessons from our Community Christmas concerts.

Lesson #1

True satisfaction doesn’t come from hearing your own instrument but from hearing the sound of others. While I like my French horn, being immersed in the string section is a magic I would almost pay for. Reminds me of Philippians 2:4: “Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.”

Lesson #2

Knowing WHEN to play your part is as important as knowing WHAT to play. Almost every rehearsal, I came in a bar too early or half a bar too late. Proverbs 15:23 underscores, “How good is a timely word. “

Lesson #3

We never outgrow our need to follow the Conductor.

For the most part, our carefully rehearsed repertoire went off without a hitch. Still, there were moments when the rhythm got just a bit out of sync. But following our fearless conductor, Dennis Criser, immediately solved the problem. Pretty sure you can guess the spiritual lesson here.

Lesson #4

Listen to the lyrics!

Christmas carols are classics for a reason. I was arrested by this invitation from Verse four of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”:

 

O rest beside the weary road

And hear the angels sing.

 

We’re all on the road.

We’re all a bit weary.

But only some will hear the angels sing.

 

Take a moment and listen!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Charlie Brown Christmas  

On December 9, 1965, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” aired for the first time on television. Most everybody knows that Charles Schulz was the creator of the iconic cartoon strip called Peanuts.  

 

But what fewer know is that when the animated Christmas special was under discussion, Charles Schulz stood toe to toe with television network executives insisting the program include a reading of Luke’s gospel account of the Christmas story. The biblical passage was necessary, said Schulz, to counterbalance what “had been lost in the eternal good-time frivolity.”

After serving in World War 2, Schulz became a Christian and taught Sunday School in churches in the Midwest and California. As life went on, though, Schultz’s faith began to fade. To the point that he referred to himself as a secular humanist. In one of his comic strips, Sally asked Charlie Brown if people went to heaven after they died. “I like to think so,” was Charlie’s underwhelming answer. In an ironic tragedy, the creator of Charlie Brown fell away from the Great Creator. 

 

But don’t we see that very thing happening around us today? A third of America’s evangelicals don’t believe Jesus is God. Shockingly, almost 70% of today’s born-again Christians don’t agree that Jesus is the only way to God. Many evangelicals now accept and even defend clearly unbiblical behaviors. The younger Charles Schulz might look at our warped theology and call us blockheads!

 

But Schulz’s sad ending reminds us that when it comes to Christmas, there are at least two dangers. The first is that we may never really come to know the Christ of Christmas. The second is that having known Him, we could walk away. 

 

Drawing near—or pulling away. Where are you with Jesus?

 
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Jon GaugerJon Gauger

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