Christmas Music War Games

This is not a scientific survey. But here are the facts: Yesterday (Black Friday) I was in six stores which played music–three big box stores, two grocery stores, and a drug store. They were dotted along a 150 mile route home from our family Thanksgiving celebration. So this included both a big city and small towns. I happened to notice that the first store wasn’t playing any Christmas music. It was just standard Muzak.

So I began to listen for Christmas music. Only one of the six stores played Christmas music–and it was religious, not just secular. Just one out of six stores on the biggest holiday shopping day of the year; a big box store in a big city. The rest played the typical blah stuff. Nor did I see any Salvation Army bell ringers at any of the locations when we visited. There was no competition for the Muzak outside the stores.

I wonder, could this be another cultural shift? Here’s a hypothesis:

Old Rule: Christmas music puts shoppers in the mood to buy. Therefore play as much Christmas music as possible. 

New Rule: Christmas music puts Christians and atheists in the mood to fight each other. The store gets caught in the middle, which is a no win situation. Therefore play as little Christmas music as possible, preferably none. 

The celebration of Christmas in recent years has been bogged down by controversy. At first the question was whether merchants in the marketplace should greet customers with “Merry Christmas” or stick with a safer “Happy Holidays.” After all, there is a Jewish holiday about the same time as Christmas. Besides, not everyone shopping is a Christian. Then about a decade ago, the pendulum swung back and merchants were under pressure to promote “Christmas” rather than the generic “holidays.” The season may be profitable for stores, but it’s not comfortable right now in the enterprise. It seems impossible for business to stay out of trouble. This year Starbucks is under fire because of the color of their coffee cups. Corporate offices are walking an impossible tightrope.

Thirty-some years ago a cheesy movie called War Games pitted a teen techie against a renegade computer which was trying to launch nuclear missiles. I don’t remember most of the plot, but toward the end it involved a game of tic-tac-toe, which always ends in a draw unless a player makes a mistake. At the climax, the computer seemed to realize it can’t win–either in tic-tac-toe or in thermonuclear war. The computer then ended the stand-off with a memorable line: “The only winning move is not to play.” In the movie this conclusion made everyone happy, even the computer.

Is that the the next round of the “Merry Christmas vs. Happy Holidays” war games? Is it possible that the only winning move is not to play? Is that why stores didn’t play Christmas music for their shoppers? Is this the logical dead end of political correctness, a complete musical muzzle?

Again, this is a very small sample and not at all scientific. But I think it raises some good questions. It seems like the vacillating pendulum of public free speech may be stuck. Since there’s no way to win, businesses may be declining to play the Christmas Music War Games. How far removed is this from the original Christmas message!

“An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:9-12)


An Open Letter

John Stumbo, President of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, New Life’s church family, has posted a letter to believers in France following the terrorist attacks in Paris. It expresses our solidarity as brothers and sisters in Christ, our grief, and our prayer for the future. Here is the link:

Our prayers are with all the people of France. From the bloodied sidewalks of Paris, may the Lord raise up from himself a people of grace, forgiveness, and courage.


Thanksgiving has a unique history. It’s the only American holiday which is political in origin but religious in expression. A civil thanksgiving feast originated with the Pil­grims in 1621. It was renewed by George Washington in 1789 and codified by Abraham Lincoln in 1863. On each occasion there was explicit mention of God in the state proclamation.

Atheists are not excluded from celebrating Thanks­giving. It’s universally recognized that grateful people are happier, healthier, more productive and longer-lived than their unappreciative, self-centered, ungrateful counterparts. People whose lives overflow with thanksgiving make better spouses, better parents, better coworkers, better bosses, and better friends. There’s no dispute. Grateful is better.

Our nonreligious neighbors tend to focus more on giving thanks for rather than giving thanks to. But if you listen closely, even secular expressions of thanksgiving imply a Giver of the gifts we appreciate, even if that giver is nature itself. Thanksgiving is helpful for thinking about our origin and our purpose. It points us inescapably toward God.

The big idea in Sunday’s message will be that giving thanks is rooted in Jesus (Colossians 2:6-7). Get ready for a shock. If you’re not a Jesus person and you’re already thankful, God has been active behind the scenes in your life. Having created you in his image, he has planted spiritual qualities in you, preparing you for a life of faith. By building gratitude inside you, God is pursuing you, preparing you for a life of faith and worship.

If you’re not a person of gratitude, is it possible that it’s not because of your suffering and difficult circumstances? Could it be that ungrateful people are just resisting God’s work in and around them? Some of the most humble, thankful people you’ll ever meet are those who have suffered the most in this world.

We might argue that gratitude is the first spiritual quality from God. Thanksgiving is not listed as a fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22. Perhaps that is because thanksgiving is a root of the Spirit. In fact, gratitude is so rooted in Christ that the celebration of what we call communion is known around the world as the Eucharist, which means “Thanks­giving.” Jesus gave thanks for the bread and cup. Thanksgiving is the essence of worship. Stated negatively, the first stage of depravity is a refusal to glorify God or give thanks to him (Romans 1:21). Ingratitude causes us to miss the very purpose of our existence.

This holiday season, let’s build a tower of Thanksgiving, rooted in Christ Jesus.

Should compassion come with a gratitude test?

Giving thanks is a funny thing. We notice when gratitude is missing in others, but not when it’s missing in ourselves. Maybe it’s because we judge ourselves by our motives, but we judge others only by their completed actions. We give ourselves credit for our good intentions, but not others.

I think God would say most of us aren’t very grateful, especially those of us who are materially rich. There’s a story in the Bible about Jesus healing ten lepers. Only one of them returned to give thanks (Luke 17:16). Nine others were healed and went on their way without looking back at the person who helped them. Just one out of ten expressed gratitude. Maybe the other nine intended to be grateful, but they didn’t show it. If they did intend to give thanks, Jesus didn’t give them credit for it. Apparently it’s what we do, not what we intend, that counts.

Sometimes when I help someone who’s ungrateful, I get judgmental. My own ingratitude shows. Again, it’s something we can see in others, but not in ourselves. I notice when people don’t say thanks, but I don’t notice it in myself. I wonder how many times I have failed to express thanks and didn’t notice. If I were truly grateful, I wouldn’t be offended by ingratitude in others because I’m not entitled to anything, including their appreciation. People who are offended by ingratitude in others probably are ungrateful themselves.

That’s why I don’t think compassion should come with a gratitude test. There may be times when it’s best to withhold help to someone in need, but it’s not because we’re offended by their ingratitude. Michelle Singletary has an interesting post about this. She emphasizes the proper attitude we need when we’re helping people in need. You can find it here: 

What do you think?

What have you forgotten lately?

The pastor of New Life Church has some strange personality quirks. He’s forgetful. He can be so focused on a given task that he misses subtle social cues or works past a scheduled appointment. At the other extreme, he can be so scatterbrained that he becomes forgetful. Sometimes he’s working at the church and discovers he needs something at the house. Maybe it’s a book or a flash drive. So I run around the corner and rush in the back door. Then I get distracted—usually by something delicious in the kitchen— and return to the church without the book or flash drive.

It works the other way, too. Like several in our congregation, we get our drinking water from the church. Sometimes Carol sends me over to the church for water. I arrive with a gallon jug swinging from each arm. Then I think of something to do in the office and return home a few minutes later—without the water.

Leaving on long car trips are particularly adventurous in our family. We forget things so often that we congratulate ourselves when we don’t forget anything. Sometimes we pat ourselves on the back too soon. Through the years we’ve forgotten food, water, wallets & purses, cameras, audio CDs, coats, gloves, sunglasses, boots, jumper cables, tents, towels, matches, money…. On our last trip to Ohio, we forgot a phone charger cord at Carol’s parents’ house. We’ll pick it up on our next trip—if we remember.

Before you get too high and mighty about your good habits, you should admit you forget some things, too. In fact, the best story I know about forgetting something happened to an elder in our first church. They had seven kids, five still at home. One Sunday they arrived for worship like they always did, in a little hatchback sedan. The two youngest girls rode in the trunk. True story. That day they left church without their youngest daughter, who was about eight years old at the time. This was before cell phones, of course, and they lived in another town. So Carol and I took Rebekah home and fed her lunch, laughing the whole time, while her unsuspecting family drove all the way home, only to discover they had forgotten something rather important in their trunk.

We’ve never stopped laughing about that, but the truth is, some of our worst moments come when we forget something. I’m sorry to report I’ve even slammed my fist into the steering wheel and said a bad word. If you do that, too, you’re taking yourself too seriously. Take it from one who knows. Been there, done that. And I have several T-shirts to prove it.

If there’s more than one of you in the car when you’ve forgotten something, this is when the blame game begins.

“I thought you were going to bring that.”

“No, I thought you had it. That was your responsibility.”

That’s just the part of the conversation I can print. Have you ever blown everything out of proportion and lost something you couldn’t afford to lose around your family—your temper?

People who take themselves too seriously don’t take God seriously enough. They just can’t stand it when they make mistakes. That’s me and that’s you. And it’s also Jesus’ disciples. They took a trip and they forgot something important.

Mark 8:14—The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, except for one loaf they had with them in the boat.

Carol and I went to Montevideo this past Tuesday, intending to eat lunch in the car. True to form, we forgot the food. But it was no big deal. We just ate a little later when we got home. It wasn’t that easy for the disciples. They weren’t on a one hour excursion away from home. Rather, they were on an extended trip out on a lake. No McDonald’s, no lunchboxes, no fishing poles. And no chance to turn around and grab the grub. It’s pretty obvious what happened next: the blame game. They started complaining and arguing. Then one of them, probably Judas, held up a loaf of bread, waved it at them teasingly and said with an impish smile: “Hey fellows, look what I brought!”

The conversation went downhill from there. It became a window into their hearts. Then Jesus stepped up and challenged them with one statement and eight questions. The questions were designed to help them understand the statement. Yes, the disciples had forgotten something important. But it wasn’t bread. Food was just the conversation starter. They forgot something else. It’s something we forget, too. Yes, the disciples forgot the food, just like we often do. More importantly, they forgot that the bread of life was with them in the boat.

When the bread of life is with you, everything changes. So why do we keep forgetting that?

We’ll talk about it this Sunday.

The Widow Maker

Whenever Carol leaves home for a few days to visit her parents in Ohio, I don’t like being alone, even if she has filled the refrigerator with ready-to-zap gourmet meals. Without my amazing bride, the home is just a house. But she always returns and the house becomes our home again. The last time she took a trip, I invited people over to eat three times. I probably called her a dozen times trying to find items in the kitchen, often with a guest waiting expectantly nearby. It really wasn’t fun being a widower for a week. I actually did pray fervently for God to bring her back safely.

I work with widows almost every day in my pastoral ministry. Some of these women have been widows for decades. Others have lost their husbands more recently. Widows and widowers have my highest respect. Most of them are courageous and faithful. Not all of them are elderly. More than a few were suddenly thrust into the hardest and most painful challenge of their life through a sudden accident or illness at a relatively young age. They signed up for marriage. Now they’re a widow or widower. Most of them live alone whether they want to or not. They can’t pick up the phone and call for help finding the baking soda or putting up storm windows.

We all know death is coming someday to everyone. We just never think it’ll be today. But someday it will be our Day. Like a cosmic game of hide and seek, death will taunt, “Ready or not, here I come!” We’ll not be able to hide, try as we might. At best, a few of us may be able to delay death for a brief time through advanced medicine. In a fallen, broken world, death will be the final victor in our life stories under the sun. (Death will be conquered on another Day, but that’s a different post.)

For married couples, except in rare cases of simultaneous passing, death makes an instant widow or widower. Usually it’s a widow. And more often than not, they’re not prepared. The first order of business is to have a valid, up to date will. If you don’t have a will, stop reading and fix that problem. If you don’t have a will, you’re in denial. Recently I heard about a young man with a terminal illness who refused to face the fact he was dying. He spoke to his family only about getting well. He died in denial this past Easter morning without a will to provide for his wife and young children. Get a will. NOW!

The second order of business is to put all your finances into joint accounts. Separate his and hers bank accounts are double trouble when the widow maker pays a visit. There is no such thing as “his finances” or “her finances” in marriage. There is only “our finances.” His business is her business and her business is his business. Some time ago I was talking with a church elder who told me he had no idea how much his wife made or what she did with her money beyond paying a few household bills. That’s a really bad system. If you have financial accounts or bills your spouse can’t access, change it. NOW!

As we’ve watched our parents age in recent years, Carol and I recently determined to be intentional about the inevitable. The dark period of bereavement is a terrible time to learn how to balance a checkbook. So we agreed to fix that. For us, that means getting Carol involved in the family finances. In Dave Ramsey parlance, I’m the “nerd” of the family. I eat numbers for breakfast. I pay all the bills, keep all the records, maintain the budget, and prepare the taxes. It’s second nature to me and I have almost four decades of practice. Carol is hardly a “free spirit” (Dave Ramsey-speak again). Nobody is thriftier than Carol or can do more with less. Nobody can squeeze a grocery dollar better than Carol. If you ever see her at work in a grocery store, watch and learn. Stand back and get ready to be amazed. She can buy more food and pay less for it than anyone I’ve ever seen. Carol has been known to walk out of grocery stores without buying anything because the deals aren’t good enough. Here is a woman who makes her own cereal, salad dressing, and ketchup. But Carol does not touch anything requiring math outside the kitchen. Her only financial question is,  “How much money do I have left in the food budget?” There’s an obvious imbalance here.

When I’m gone, Carol won’t need to maintain the elaborate budget I’ve created over the years. She needs to do only three things, but they’re huge: 1) Pay the bills. 2) Reconcile the checkbook. 3) Pay the taxes. Today for the first time in over 37 years, Carol “helped” me reconcile the bank statement. I could have done it myself in 90 seconds. In fact, I already had it done. I just created a second Quicken data file for her to do it herself. But this is foreign territory to Carol. With me as the teacher and Carol as the student, we managed to reconcile the monthly bank statement in about an hour. Carol is no slouch. She was salutatorian of her college class. But she has never been taught how to do this stuff.

OK, here’s the point. If death is going to make her a widow, we’re going to make her a good widow. A good widow must be able to manage her finances. I’m in fine health and I hope for another fifteen or twenty years of fruitful ministry. Maybe there will even be a few years of sound mind and body beyond that. We may still have plenty of time for Carol to learn how to pay the bills, reconcile the checkbook, and solicit one of our sons to do her taxes. (OK, she only has to do two things.) Fortunately, most of the bills are paid automatically. But the next bank statement is less than a month away. We’re getting ready now.

Anybody else?