Deserving and Undeserving

I’ve been meeting some new friends as I continue on my new journey of starting a new church. The experience of meeting new people and getting to know them has been a humbling and learning experience. I have learned of the need to be patient and listen, to hear stories that are shared and to ask questions.

The other day, at a weekly breakfast gathering I attend, a new friend started talking to me about his approach towards helping those in need. It’s funny, people who know that I am a pastor seem to feel compelled or even obligated to share certain things with me. This was no exception.

I don’t really remember what it was that led to my friend’s comments, but he said that some people give to the deserving poor, like widows who have lost husbands or orphans or foster children. He told me that he doesn’t distinguish between the deserving and the undeserving. Some people would call undeserving poor those they encounter on the streets, the ones who might buy alcohol with the money that you give them, the ones that have a look about them.

If we’re honest, a lot of us probably take a look at someone and make assessments of their story before we even hear a word from them. They’ve gotten themselves in this situation, we might think. Why can’t they get a job, we might ask. Let them work just like the rest of us, we might complain.

But my friend’s words struck me. It’s sad that we would somehow elevate ourselves to the place of judge and somehow make assessments without knowing the back story. Somehow, we give ourselves the right to judge whether a person is deserving or undeserving of our charity or grace.

It’s hard for me to not make a correlation here to spiritual things. While some of us may make assessments as to whether or not someone is deserving of our charity, I also think that more of us will choose and judge whether or not a person is deserving or undeserving of grace. How have they treated us? What have they done to deserve this, to earn it?

Funny, the whole premise of grace is that it is something that has been given freely and without merit and yet some of us continue to mete out judgment about it. But if we’re judging whether or not someone deserves grace, then it no longer qualifies as grace.

Now, what would we do if God looked at us and asked himself whether any of us were deserving of grace? What if he said, “I’m not going to give them grace because they’re just going to squander and abuse it. If I give them grace, they might not use it on something beneficial.”

And yet, that’s exactly what we do. We go around labeling people as to whether or not they are deserving or undeserving of our charity or of our grace. We play God.

The words of my friend have plagued me since he said them. I can’t help but think about my own judgment, how I label people, how I somehow become the judge and jury, and I tell myself their story in my head without even asking them.

Sure, there’s such thing as toxic charity, and there is a likelihood that sometimes, when you give something away, the person who receives it won’t respect it and treat it as you had hoped or even thought they would. But what does that have to do with us?

I’m doing my best to stop asking about what a person does or doesn’t deserve. Jesus said to love our neighbors as ourselves, I’m not so sure that I always use what I’ve been given the way that I should or in a beneficial way, so what gives me the right to keep something from someone else?

 

Advertisements

Love People, Solve Problems

As I’ve been on this church planting journey that I’ve been on, I’ve tried to surround myself with some quality mentors and leaders from whom I can learn. I’ve done enough life and ministry at this point that some of the arrogance that I once had in my twenties has been rubbed away and I’ve come to a place of acknowledgement of my own limitations and inadequacies. I have been incredibly blessed to have a few mentors around me who have spoken truth, life, and encouragement to me.

Last week, I met with one of those friends and mentors for lunch. I was updating him on where I am in the process and telling him some cool God stories that had taken place. God stories are the ones that you know could only happen by God’s power and hand, not by my own talents or abilities.

As we shared stories and caught up, he felt led to share some insights with me. He told me that he wanted to share something with me that had been helpful to him which he thought would also be helpful to me.

He said, “Remember, love people and solve problems.”

As the words escaped his mouth, he let them hang there for a minute. I’m sure that the look on my face hinted at the activity in my brain at that moment. I was trying to wrap my head around just what that meant.

When he had seen that I had struggled long enough to decipher his saying, he launched into his own experience of embodying those words. He said that he had at one time tried to solve people and love problems. But he realized that was fruitless and just led to frustration.

You see, ministry in general can be frustrating. Heck, any occupation that deals with people can be frustrating, so who am I kidding. If you deal with people, you will find yourself at times angry, frustrated, and wanting to give up. You will see them as problems to be solved rather than people to be loved. The achievers among us will want to fix them, to solve them, to help them reach their full potential and forget all about one of Jesus’ greatest commands: to love them.

I can be very task oriented. I can easily see a problem and move to fix it rather than trying to understand why it’s there. In my effort to move to solution, I forget that there is flesh and blood before me, someone to be loved and not fixed.

This friend and mentor knows me well enough by now to know that this same lesson that had proved some monumental and crucial to him was also something I needed to hear and embrace.

You see, focusing on loving someone and solving the problem pits me against the problem rather than the person. When we see the problem, even if that means there is conflict between us, we join together to do our best to find out how we solve the problem together. If we look at each other rather than the problem, all we will see is each other as the problem and then try to fix each other to accommodate our own preference or mindset.

It’s too easy to get caught up in looking past people to solutions and completely forgetting how valuable and important those people are. Loving people takes time and compassion. It takes empathy and care. Loving them and solving problems means investment. If we fail to love people and solve problems, then when we fail to solve a person, we simply discard them or walk away, excusing this abandonment as necessary because of the lack of growth and movement we saw.

If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that somewhere along the way, someone loved us rather than trying to solve us. They took the time and invested in us, seeking a solution to a very real problem but seeking that solution through us rather than in us.

There is only one person who can solve and fix people, and that is God. I can’t do it. You can’t do it. The more that we try to do it, the more frustrated we will find ourselves becoming.

What will happen if you go into your day seeking to love people and solve problems. I know that in just the few short days since this truth was hammered home to me it has made a significant impact in me. It’s hard to rush towards solutions when you are simply trying to love someone.

 

Why I Hate New Year’s Resolutions

new years resolutionsA long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I think I used to make New Year’s resolutions. Don’t hold it against me, peer and social pressure have a way of influencing us to do things that we don’t like or aren’t completely convinced will work. I’ll just chalk it up to that.

I’m not quite sure just when I realized how fruitless those resolutions had become. It may have worked backwards, discovering the ineffectiveness of resolutions in other areas of my life, at least once a year resolutions.

Now, I’m all for wanting to improve and get better, but my aversion to New Year’s resolutions is just like my aversion to annual reviews in the work world. If you aren’t having a conversation about the things that need to be changed and reformed throughout the year, why do you think in one hour’s time, you’re going to make a long-lasting change?

I like course corrections. I like to change on the fly. I like to find out how we can do better as we are still moving forward. I don’t think that it requires a specific day of the year. In the case of annual work reviews, if your boss isn’t telling you what he or she needs from you as you’re moving along, then your boss sucks! And if you aren’t telling yourself the things that you need to course correct as you are moving through the year…..well, then, you know the rest.

Why don’t we set up quarter year resolutions or even half year resolutions? Why New Year’s resolutions? Doesn’t it make more sense to just do regular check-ins to see where you are so you can know what has to change as you go? It seems that it would be much more effective, at least it has been for me.

I’m all for resolutions, just not big annual ones. What if we resolved some things together?

Let’s resolve to find some people who will tell us what needs changing as we’re making mistakes.

Let’s resolve to choose a few things to work on so that we don’t feel overwhelmed in our improvements.

Let’s resolve to encourage others and find those who will encourage us when we and they see changes that have been made.

Let’s resolve that honesty, though sometimes painful, is going to sting less when it comes sooner than later.

Let’s resolve that every day we are alive, we are given the gift of starting fresh with the new morning mercies of God’s love.

Now, these are some resolutions that I can get into. I could probably come up with a whole lot more, but I like to start small. Start small, gain a few little victories, and then go from there.

Here’s to 2019! And here’s to resolving our resolutions, making a point to resolve ourselves and be resolved as we go.

Above Reproach

I was at the gym this morning and one of the other patrons lamented the further allegations that have come out against Supreme Court judge nominee, Brett Kavanaugh. The words that were uttered were, “This will set precedent for everything.”

It was one of those moments in life when I tried my best not to show what I was feeling inside. I really didn’t want to get into it there in the gym. The words that kept playing over and over in my head were, “But what if?” What if the allegations are true?

Most of us, if we are honest, can probably recount at least a story or two of incidents in high school or college that we wish could be wiped out of our memory and the memory of those around us. We’ve had our share of indiscretions that we would just as soon forget. But our desire to forget them doesn’t wipe them out of our memory or the memory of those who were involved.

Some of those incidents may have involved alcohol or drugs. Some may have involved behavior that we were guilty of when under the influence of those things. Our regret over that behavior and those choices doesn’t change the fact that what we did still happened, no matter how much we might want to wipe the slate clean.

I believe in the grace of God and the forgiveness of sin, but forgiveness doesn’t change the fact that there are still consequences when we make bad decisions. Just because we receive grace doesn’t mean we get a free pass for the consequences. Yes, we are forgiven. No, we can’t pay for that forgiveness, but sometimes, we still have to deal with consequences.

I’m not saying that Kavanaugh is guilty, nor am I saying that he is innocent. I’m saying that we all have to own up to our mistakes, regardless of how long it’s been since those mistakes happened and no matter how much we may have grown and matured since.

I was a resident advisor in college and I witnessed more than my fair share of indiscretions around campus. I had multiple heavy conversations that dealt with sexual assault and I wouldn’t wish those on anyone, especially not the ones who were the victims. My heart broke every time that I looked in the eyes of a victim.

I’ve heard multiple people trumpet Kavanaugh’s innocence because of the time that has elapsed since the alleged incidents. I’ve also heard some of those same people talk about the lack of proof that exists. After all, these are just allegations.

But what do you do with allegations?

The biggest lesson that I learn in all of this is to do my best to live above reproach. Sure, there are still people who will heap accusations at you when you do this, but if you live above reproach, those allegations shouldn’t stick. If further allegations come out, it seems that there are some people who cry, “Conspiracy” rather than entertaining the thought that these allegations may be true.

We aren’t talking about statute of limitations here either. What has been done has been done and like I said before, there are repercussions to our actions. Are we willing to face those repercussions? Are we willing to admit fault and own up to those mistakes?

I could write a whole other post on consistency here, but that diminishes the need for us to live lives above reproach. There’s nothing worse, in my opinion, when someone is accused for that person to say, “But look at him, he did this too!” That’s not the point. The point is individual responsibility and living lives of integrity.

When I’ve made a mistake or wronged someone, I have to own up to that. If there are repercussions of that, I need to face them, regardless of how long it’s been. Yes, what’s happened in the past is in the past, but if there are past indiscretions that have caused longstanding hurt and pain, and if it’s taken a person a long time to finally muster up the courage to talk about it, does that mean that I am absolved of those repercussions? I don’t think so.

I’m not perfect, none of us are, but I can do my best to live that way. When I don’t, there is grace, but grace still doesn’t cover over all the consequences of my actions. Yes, I believe that I have a savior who has paid the price for my sins, but his paying the price still doesn’t change the fact that some of what I’ve done may require an additional payment on my part, will I own up, admit it, and be willing to take responsibility? Will you?

The Imperfect Disciple – A Book Review

The Imperfect DiscipleOn the last page of “The Imperfect Disciple” Jared Wilson writes, “I wrote this book for all who are tired of being tired. I wrote this book for all who read the typical discipleship manuals and wonder who they could possibly be written for, the ones that makes us feel overly burdened and overly tasked and, because of all that, overly shamed.” And if we start with the ending, reading this page first, it really gives us a synopsis of “The Imperfect Disciple.”

Wilson’s sub-title for the book is, “Grace for people who can’t get their act together.” He reminds the reader throughout the book that discipleship is not just working harder, better, or more efficiently. We can only get to where we need to go through Jesus, not through our own efforts. Jesus is not looking for people who have it all together, Jesus is actually looking for people who can’t get their act together. It is those of us who don’t seem to be able to get our acts together that understand better that we are unable to get to where we need to get on our own.

Jared Wilson shares stories from his own experiences in ministry as he walks through what discipleship really can look like. We cannot simply manage our sin and think that’s enough to make us good disciples. In fact, if all we are doing is sin management, then we’ve missed the gospel and the essence of discipleship as it goes so much further than simply outward appearance and action. The essence of discipleship and the gospel penetrates to our hearts and souls, changing us from the inside out. That kind of change is not something that we are able to achieve on our own and the harder we try, the more frustrated we will become.

We cannot think that discipleship is all about us fitting God into the nooks and crannies of our lives. But Wilson says, “…God owns all of life, and worshiping God means we must revolve around him, not us. So God shouldn’t be confined to his own compartment in our schedule. Jesus does not abide in his assigned time slot; we abide in him.”

Wilson explores sabbath rest, worship, and other key areas of the life of a disciple of Jesus Christ. He challenges those of us who think we can achieve and encourages those of us who feel like we will never measure up. While there was nothing here that was earth shattering to me, Wilson’s writing style and delivery made this book a worthwhile read. If you’re looking for encouragement after having tried to measure up to impossible standards, the message of grace that is presented here could be salve for your soul and encouragement for the way forward.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Baker Books. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

Grace Is Greater – A Book Review

The word “grace” is thrown around so often that it hardly seems amazing, writes Kyle Idleman. When a word has been around for as long as “grace” and when it has been abused and misused, it’s important to try to breathe new life into it and remember just what it means.grace-is-greater 

In “Grace Is Greater” author and pastor Kyle Idleman reminds people of the importance of grace. As followers of Christ, when we go about doing things without grace, we can easily suck the life from those things. We need to remember just how much grace we have received in order to be reminded of just how much grace we should be extending to others. 

Idleman shares from his own personal experiences and expounds on some accounts within the gospels to speak the message of grace that we all need to hear. We all live with guilt, shame, and regrets, but we can give all of those up when we remember the grace that we receive through Jesus Christ.` 

While a large part of grace is accepting it ourselves despite the things that we have done, Idleman also reminds us that we need to extend that grace to others. That’s easier said than done when we’ve been hurt and wounded by others. We want to see justice, we want to see someone pay for our pain, but we need to move past that, not demeaning the significance of what was done to us but realizing that holding onto things reaps bitterness and does more damage to us than it does to the person that we are supposedly hurting. 

“We are never more like God than when we forgive,” Idleman writes. A true statement and a reminder as we are on this journey of transformation. Forgiveness is not optional, it’s required of us. Idleman shares stories of people who have moved beyond their own bitterness and desire for vengeance and embraced the love, forgiveness, and grace of God. That grace transformed them to be able to do unthinkable things, forgiving people who didn’t seem deserving of forgiveness.

He reminds us that when we hold back our forgiveness, we are forgetting just what we have received ourselves. While we may be expecting a certain level of repentance from people, we can’t forget that our own level of repentance doesn’t match the level of our offense against God.

As Idleman writes, “we’re able to receive God’s grace only to the extent we’re able to recognize our need for it.” We need to examine just how deep our sin goes in order to fully appreciate how desperately we need grace. We may always want to have answers to our circumstances and situations, but there are times when answers won’t be given. We need to look past the lack of answers to see what God has in store for us.

I was pleasantly surprised by this book. Idleman has written a few others books that have been popular. I missed them and may even have purposely avoided them. Given the opportunity to read “Grace Is Greater,” I seized it and I was not disappointed at all. “Grace is Greater” is a reminder again of just what I deserve, what I don’t deserve, and what I have been given. It stands as a challenge and conviction to move past my hang-ups to a place where I see my own need for grace and in doing so, see my need to extend that grace to others as well. 

“Grace Is Greater” isn’t full of deep theological ideas, but then again, it’s often the simpler ideas that can be the hardest ones for us to grasp or accept. Give this book a try if you need a reminder of just how much you have been forgiven. You’ll never look at grace the same again.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Baker Books. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

Give It A Chance

So many things have been swirling around my head over the last week. There have been times I’ve had to simply remove myself from social media and all media outlets because of the things that I was reading and thinking. I’ve seen friends on both sides of the political spectrum crying out. I’ve heard and seen all kinds of different emotions. Fear. Anger. Joy. Relief. And so many more.

There has been a little glimmer of hope as I’ve watched people process through the election and the state of our country. The refreshing part has been watching people working together, encouraging one another, listening to one another, crying with one another, hearing one another’s story. Difficulty and adversity has a way of bringing people together, causing them to see what’s most important. As I’ve watched some of my friends vent and process their emotions, I’ve noticed a change in some of them and those around them, including me. That has been encouraging to me.

While there’s been some encouragement, there have been a lot of troubling things to me as well. The most troubling thing to me has been that people have been wishing that the president elect would fail. Before the inauguration, before he actually takes office, they’re hoping he fails.

Wow!

In the midst of all of this, I’ve thought, “These are my friends?!” Yes, it’s a question and a statement. I’ve sat in stunned disbelief that there is no grace in that wish, the wish for someone to fail. Regardless of how much I disagree with someone, no matter how much I might dislike someone, how gracious is it to wish for their demise and failure?

My biggest thought with some of these friends has been, “I feel bad for their children.” Is this the same kind of attitude they take with their children? Are they wishing for their failures? Or is it just the people with whom they don’t agree, and if it is just those people, what kind of level of maturity are we showing when we wish for the failure of anyone who “wins” when we fail to get our way?

But this is what we’ve come to, a place where we draw lines in the sand, where there is a definite “winner” and a definite “loser” in the struggle. Why can’t we find a middle ground? Why can’t we find and extend grace?

Yes, there is hurt. Yes, there have been horrible things done and said. I understand that, but wishing for the failure of the leader of your country?

After September 11th, living just outside New York City, I watched the City respond. I watched people come together. There was a unity across ideologies, across party lines, across ethnic lines. In those days after the terrorist attacks, we weren’t blacks, white, Asians, gays, straights, Republicans, Democrats, or whatever, we were Americans. There was a coming together that people somehow knew was more important.

I’m not comparing our election to the tragedy and disaster of September 11th, but the response could be similar. Like I said, I have been so proud of so many friends on both sides of the political spectrum who have understood the importance of listening. I’ve done my best to listen and observe, to hear the things that I’ve been missing all along. I’ve tried to put aside my own discomforts and listen to what’s making others uncomfortable. It’s hard, I want to talk far more than I want to listen, but that’s growth.

I’m not sure what the next four years will hold. I’m skeptical. Heck, I was born in Brooklyn and raised in New England, skepticism is part of my DNA. But I also have an otherworldly hope, a hope that isn’t in a president, a government, or a country, but in a King and a Kingdom.

I know that I can’t convince anyone of anything, so this post may be simply a release of hot air to those who disagree with me. But I do think that we all need to ask ourselves some things. Have we ever said something stupid, something that we’ve regretted? Have we ever had viewpoints that changed, morphed, and evolved over time? Have we ever been given a second chance? Have we ever given a second chance to others? If we had failed miserably and acted unkindly in the past, wouldn’t we want someone to give us a chance to show that we could act differently.

No, my confidence in the president elect is not at 100%, but I know that I need to give him a chance. That’s what I would want someone to do for me. Like I read somewhere in the last few days, wishing him to fail is almost like wishing a heart attack on the pilot of the plane in which you are flying. I’ve found myself praying more since last Tuesday, and I will continue to do so. Among my prayers is the prayer that we might find a way forward….together, and that when given a chance, maybe, just maybe, we might find ourselves pleasantly surprised that failure was not on the horizon.

How Many Times?

This time of sabbatical for me has been restful, but it has also been challenging. Not only was it a challenge for me to step away and disengage from work and my world in ministry, but I have been challenged as I’ve spent time alone with God. It’s not that I don’t spend time alone with God during other seasons of life, it’s just that the time during sabbatical is different. When everything else in your life is stripped away, there’s really nowhere to hide when you begin to look in the mirror and see some of the flaws that need to be addressed in your own life.

As I’ve had time to think and reflect, I keep thinking about grace. I’m really not the best at meting it out. Although I’m always grateful when it’s extended to me, I don’t seem to so easily dispense it to others, especially when I feel like I should be seeing something significant in them. If there isn’t forward progress, if I don’t see the kind of progression that I think should be there, I seem to be very judgmental and often put myself in the place of God.

As I thought about it, I couldn’t help but wonder how I could really put myself in the place of God. No matter what, my perspective is always going to be jaded and skewed to be very subjective. I’m never going to be able to see things clearly, at least not on this side of eternity. Something will always shift my vision and if I’m completely honest, make me be a judge and jury.

I remember when my dad was alive and would counsel people who were stuck in the throes of addiction. It seemed that they would take three steps forward and four steps backward. They would seem to be doing well for a while and then they would eventually fall off the wagon and find themselves back in the addiction that they had been trying so hard to avoid.

Through it all, my dad always seemed to be gracious to them. Despite the chiding of my mom, he would always continue to love on these people and extend them grace. It didn’t matter how many times that he had seen the scenario play out, he would keep extending that grace.

Looking back now, he set an incredible example for me. He wasn’t supposed to determine whether or not he should keep extending someone grace, he was just supposed to extend it. Yet somehow I’ve managed to convince myself that it’s my place, that I’ve earned the right to do the judging. How did I earn it? How did I find this pedestal that I’ve managed to put myself on?

How many times? How many times should I extend grace? How many times is enough? What’s the limit to the number of times that I extend grace?

If I’m really honest about it, the answer to that question should be the answer to the question that I need to ask myself, “What’s the limit of the grace that should be extended to me for my repetitive sin?” If I can’t put a limit on that for myself, why should I come up with a limit for someone else? And if I can come up with a limit for someone else, why shouldn’t that limit be applied to me?

So I sit here realizing that there really should be no limit to the grace that I extend to others. That’s not to say that I make myself a doormat for the world, but it also means that I can’t limit grace to others while fully basking in it myself.

May I learn more and more each day just the extent of the grace that I require, the extent of the grace that is given to me every day. When I come to that realization, may I freely dispense that grace to others as I hope and pray it will be extended to me.

Grace

I’m two weeks into my sabbatical and I feel like so much has happened in that short amount of time. Some of my days have felt like two or three days combined into one. I’ve had some great conversations, some great experiences, some great rest.

My wife and I spent nearly four years in a place not too long after we got married. My wife had married an engineer and then I was called to be a pastor. It was a big shift for both of us. That call involved a move far away from our family and all that was familiar to us. I was green and inexperienced in the new world in which I found myself. I made mistakes, I spoke too quickly, I offended, I probably thought that I knew way more than I really did.

When things ended in that place, there was hurt, there was anger, there was confusion, there was uncertainty. We didn’t know for sure where we would end up, but God did. He opened the door for us to a new place. We left behind many great friends and I felt like I was leaving a bit of my heart there as well. We had made an investment and to leave it all behind was hard for me to do.

This past week, I spent some time with some of the people who were part of our experience there in that place. I’m not even sure what words to use to best describe the meaningfulness of that time. Healing. Growing. Learning. Moving on. Grace.

Grace.

It’s a word that came up in our conversations and a word that I continue to go back to. If we are truly growing in our faith journey and in our spiritual depth, grace should be something that naturally pours from us. We shouldn’t tout that we have grown up in the church and been Christians for 40 years and then fail to exhibit grace. We shouldn’t expect grace to be given to us and then refuse to extend it to others. Grace has been given to us and to whom much has been given, much is expected.

Grace.

I feel like I experienced an immersion of grace over the last week. As conversations took place and we shared, I felt that grace and I was so grateful for it.

I still have many weeks to go as I move through this sabbatical. It’s always hard to come hard out of the gates, it can easily set your expectations high for what else is to come. But I don’t think I should worry. Much of what I have experienced over the last week was not planned, at least by me, but I know that God orchestrated it, he made it happen, he gave me the privilege of experiencing it.

This is going to be a fun ride!

A Broken Toy Christmas

Christmas with Steve and Jon-2I’ve had so many people make reference to this story that I’ve shared personally, via sermons and my old blog, that I felt the need to dig it out, dust it off, and retell it for the sake of those who have never heard it before. Maybe also for the sake of those who have heard it because sometimes a retelling can make you notice something else.

One year, when my brother and I were probably about 11 and 7, respectively, we had been pretty terrible in the months leading up to Christmas. We were constantly fighting and getting at each other and my parents had constantly warned us that if we didn’t stop, “Santa” would be bringing us nothing but broken, old toys for Christmas. Now, regardless of the fact that we didn’t believe in Santa Claus (nor had we ever), we still used that language for whatever reason. My parents knew that both my brother and I were not believers in the big, fat guy in a red suite.

My parents were jokers, although not many of our friends and some of theirs didn’t believe it. They could joke with the best of them and I think my brother and I thought that they were kidding in this instance too. Our parents would never dream of withholding presents from us at Christmas, right? After all, everyone should get presents, right?

Regardless of their constant threats, Christmas morning approached with little to no improvement in our behavior. I guess we were just stupid enough to believe that our parents would never dream of holding out on us.

Christmas morning finally arrived and we woke up with excitement to see what might be waiting for us under that tree. Imagine the surprise on my brother’s and my face when we arrived at the Christmas tree to find that the only thing underneath it was a pile of broken and old toys with a note that said something to the effect of, “You’ve been naughty, and here’s what you get!”

My brother and I were devastated. Me being the younger of the two of us, I think that I was probably more so. I remember whining and crying and trying to convince my parents that this was unfair and unjust (trying to capitalize on the biblical notion of justice, because that’s what pastor’s kids do to win an argument, invoke the “God” excuse).

I’m not sure how long my parents let this whole thing go on. Like most things that happen when you’re young, it probably went on for far less time than it felt like it had gone on. Finally, after my parents had felt that their point had been sufficiently made, they went to a closet and pulled out all of the “real” presents. Replacing all of the broken toys under the tree were these beautifully wrapped presents. Of course, my brother and I played it up as if we knew our parents would do this all along. We were overjoyed by this gracious act, telling our parents that we knew all along that they would never do this to us, while secretly taking in a deep sigh of relief.

No matter how far I get away from this story, I just can’t forget it. Years go by, both of my parents are gone now, but I still remember the Christmas which has affectionately become known to my brother and I as “The Broken Toy Christmas.”

Parenting experts may call the exercise cruel and unjust, some people may think that it was harsh, and to be frank, I’m still not exactly sure how I feel about it. My leaning is towards the fact that my parents showed my brother and I an incredible amount of grace. What we deserved, based on our actions and behavior, was the broken toys. What they gave us were the presents that showed that despite our imperfections, they loved us. My parents had shown grace in a way that rarely gets seen in this world.

Too many people cower to the whines and complaints of their children. There rarely seem to be consequences when behavior that is less than stellar is displayed. Instead, parents idly threaten their children and then give them what they never deserved with no hesitation.

I didn’t have to go through years of counseling to get over this and yet I still remember the Christmas vividly. In a lot of ways, I can’t help but connect what my parents did to what God did for us when he sent Jesus to the world. The history of God’s people is full of stubborn and obstinate people who thought that regardless of their behavior, a loving God would never turn his back on them and would never mete out justice on them. They were right, but someone still had to pay the price. That someone was Jesus. He is the gift of grace that God gave to us. When we deserved nothing but “broken and old toys” God gave us the best thing that he had to offer: his only son.

As I raise my kids, I hope and pray that I can instill in them the fact that Christmas isn’t about getting what we deserve, it’s about receiving the gift of grace from God. Christmas isn’t about all the commercialism that is preached at us from Black Friday on, it’s the realization that no gift could ever compare to what we receive in and through Christ.

May we come to the realization that the best thing that we can get and give is the news of this gift of grace. May our hearts always be reminded of what we deserve and be thankful of what we receive instead through grace.

Merry Christmas!