Christmas Surprises


What marks “Christmas” for you? What is the moment that you say, “Ah, now the season has officially arrived!”?

For me, it doesn’t seem like Christmas until I hear my mom tell the story about how I got a letter from Santa on Christmas Day explaining why I did not get a (backordered) Millennium Falcon because Rudolph stepped on it and broke it. (For years afterward, I assumed that the other reindeer did not let him join in their games, not because of his red nose, but because he was very clumsy.)

It doesn’t seem like the holiday is here until I hear Ray Charles sing “That Spirit of Christmas.” (Although I alternate between his version and the one by Ray LaMontagne. Click on their respective names to listen.)

And I have a hard time thinking that we have stepped into the season until I see Hans Gruber take his fall from Nakatomi Plaza.

But one moment that marks the passage into the holidays for me is the recounting of a story from my family. Many years ago, late on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, my brother walked into the room and announced to my parents, “I have a secret.” When asked about it, he said, “Santa is bringing me something that I didn’t tell you about: a Mickey Mouse talking phone.”

This surprise statement created a bit of panic in my parents.

“Oh, is Santa bringing that to you?” they asked through stiff smiles. “Why didn’t you tell him earlier? Perhaps in the letter you wrote to him? You could have mentioned it.”

His only reply was, “Because it’s a secret. But he’s going to bring it; I just know he will.”

Shortly thereafter, we were hustled into the backseat of the car for a quick trip to the mall so that “we could see the Christmas lights.” My mom went inside the mall while my dad tapped his thumb thoughtfully on the steering wheel and sighed deeply. I could only assume it was because he was so overcome with the spirit of the season, what with the Christmas decorations around the mall parking lot and such.

And lo and behold, upon the new dawn, what would you expect to be under the tree?

Yes, yes…a Mickey Mouse talking phone.

My brother was overjoyed. My parents were relieved. And I was slightly confused as to how Santa knew these things, and why we wrote letters to him with our lists. It just seemed like a very inefficient way to communicate if he was capable of telepathy.

But isn’t that Christmas? Secrets and surprises. The unknown and the veiled suddenly made clear. It certainly fits the pattern…

An angel appeared to Mary to tell her that she would bear the Son of God (Luke 1:26-35). Redemptive history for all creation would be carried and cared for by a teenage girl in an obscure, dusty corner of the world.

A divine message was communicated to Joseph in the midst of his confusion and concern over the pregnancy of the woman he planned to marry. The angel told him directly that this child “will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).

And angels showed up all in a moment to announce to the shepherds that the Messiah had finally arrived (Luke 2:8-20).

God still surprises us with his gifts, gifts that disrupt “life-as-normal” for a better, richer and more-glorious result than we could ever imagine (Ephesians 3:20). So often, we can intentionally or accidentally avoid those moments with God by creating safe and predictable traditions and orchestrating complex and rigid schedules.

Maybe God has a secret to reveal or a surprise to show you. He is always good, and all his gifts reflect his character, so you can trust him in the giving (James 1:17).

This Christmas, would you ask God to dislodge you from the common routine for the sake of a fresh revelation of himself?

If you ask him for that, and he answers you, just imagine how it might turn when someone asks you, “What did you get for Christmas?”

You can smile and say, “I got surprised by God.”


Hope Below the Surface



They are called “hunger stones.”

Lying in certain Central European riverbeds, large stones bear messages chiseled upon them hundreds of years ago…

“If you see me, weep.”

“If you will again see this stone, so you will weep, so shallow was the water in the year 1417.”

“We cried – We cry – And you will cry.”

The lack of rainfall and scarcity of water led to desperate times, and the people suffering in those regions marked those occasions with messages for future generations. The stones serve as reminders of harsh times of drought and can only be seen when the levels of the rivers drop.

We need hunger stones in our lives.

Each of us will face hardship, difficulty and suffering. In those dry moments, we need voices around us to whisper that we are not alone. We need to hear with clarity that others have endured the same pain before us, faced attacks on their faith and staggered at the weight of burdens. We need to be shown our utter dependence upon God when we grow all too comfortable with high waters and lush fields. We need to run our fingers over messages chiseled deeply — so deeply than they endure through times of plenty and want — and be reminded that the drought will pass, seasons will change and the rains will return again.

In flood we forget; in famine we remember.

If you have been scarred – if the hunger of your heart has etched an indelible message across the deepest part of your life – don’t waste your pain. Share what Christ has done in your healing with others. Be a voice of hope to another who sits even now on a dry riverbed watching tears fall into the dust.

“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” – Romans 12:15

“Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” – Acts 14:17

“…Knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.”  – 1 Peter 5:9

“…He himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” – Acts 17:25


“There Were A Lot of Things They Didn’t Tell Me When I Hired On With This Outfit…”

A few nights ago at a conference, I sat in a room with a group of other lead pastors. Some carried the unseen scars of many years of ministry; a few still showed a bit of the shine of idealism. The speaker in the breakout session addressed the things we needed to remember in order to make it in the “marathon, not the sprint, of ministry.”

He spoke warmly, sincerely and wisely. He encouraged, challenged and comforted us. As I looked around the room, I saw what I have seen so many times in gatherings of pastors: that worn-out facial expression. I couldn’t help but wonder if I looked as tired as the rest of them did.

When I got home, lying in bed, I stared at the ceiling in the darkened room and thought about what I have learned about being a lead pastor in the last year. Continue reading

A Lifetime in Babylon

A friend of mine held a good job and was able to freely make a difference for God in her position, but she was terminated for no apparent reason. The subsequent positions she has held have been less than what she desires and full of difficulty. She knows that she took the original job after much prayer and careful consideration, but the loss has caused her a great deal of pain and confusion. Continue reading

Muddy Water and Changed Hearts

We often miss what we need most because we refuse to see past the surface concerns of our lives. God will orchestrate events and allow pressures to come in order to expose the deeper issues and give us a clearer view of ourselves and our greatest need. Take the Old Testament character Naaman for instance (2 Kings 5:1-14).

Naaman was a great warrior and was held in high esteem, yet he suffered from leprosy. Hearing that a healing by the prophet Elisha might be possible, Naaman made a trip laden with riches to pay for a miracle. Upon arriving, Elisha sent a servant out with the message that Naaman should go wash seven times in the Jordan River, often-muddy and creek-like, for his healing. Continue reading

A Tomb, Two Spacecraft and a Blind Man From Texas

(My yearly repost of the reason I listened to a particular song just today...)

Blind Willie Johnson seemed to know early on that his future lay at the crossroads of two vocations. He built a cigar box guitar for himself when he was only five and told his father that proclaiming the things of God to the masses was his desire. Continue reading

Bare Spots

A friend of mine lost his wife years ago after a long sickness. He told me that he visited her grave every single day for a year. No matter the storms, sun or snow, he was there.

He said, “Do you know when I knew I had to stop going so often? When I looked down and saw that grass had grown over her grave, but the ground was bare in the place where I stood every day. I was not letting the grass grow over the bare place in my heart either. So, I started going less, and I started healing more.” When you have given something enough time, give it no more. When the healing comes, we feel guilty sometimes about moving forward, as though to take a step is to belittle the importance of what was lost or to disrespect the memory of what once was. We may never be fully free of the grief here on earth, but we can experience a healing that allows us to navigate the “new normal.” There is nothing wrong with thinking through what led you to a place, learning from past mistakes or having regrets, but careful examination can become morbid fascination. When that happens, the autopsy never ends.

When I think of healing and the strange inertia of pain, I remember the story of the man who could not walk…

When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” (John 5:6). The man had been unable to walk for 38 years (John 5:5). It might seem strange that Jesus would ask him such a thing. But if you have slipped down the slope toward learned helplessness and into the deep valley of self-pity, you understand the question.

Jesus then tells him to “get up,” and the man is healed (5:8). Make no mistake, Jesus did heal the invalid, but the man had to obey Christ to know the full effect of the healing.

In other words, he could have been healed, yet never stood up.

Do you want to be healed?

Christmas Plans

“What do you have planned for Christmas?”

That was the message from a friend of mine waiting in my inbox recently. Perhaps others have asked you the same question, and maybe your traditions or your schedule have already determined which relatives’ homes will be visited, what meals will be eaten and when gifts will be opened. Continue reading

Supper Club

Last night, my brother, his girlfriend and I had a little meal together. Dubbed “Supper Club,” we enjoyed fresh Maine lobster courtesy of Huckberry (for winning their caption contest on Instagram), bacon-wrapped shrimp, steamed asparagus and homemade mac and cheese. And, of course, plenty of sweet tea.

I retrieved my grandparents’ old kitchen table from storage and set it out in the field where my brother and I played often as kids. That worn table has been host to countless breakfasts of cinnamon toast, biscuits and grits, lunches of fried chicken and black-eyed peas, and now, I suppose we can add lobster to the long list of meals that have graced that simple wood surface.

The meal was one to remember: full of laughter, reminders from our childhood to “sit up straight,” and nature’s own light show. The crickets chimed along as the sky lit up like county fair cotton-candy as summer slipped away once again.

As the darkness fell, and the last plate was brought back inside, my brother looked at me, smiled and said, “Hey, let’s do this again.”
And we will.

The Preeminent Ordinary One 

Head of Christ – Warner Sallman (1940)

I once saw a mural of Jesus in the classic “sitting-on-a-rock-looking-over-Jerusalem-at-night” pose. The first thing I noticed was the way the painter had depicted the face of Christ: he was not attractive at all. In fact, the face was quite unremarkable in every way and quite unlike the “expected” image of Jesus. Continue reading