The Death of Christmas Letters and Facebook, but The Good News Keeps Coming

blog - Christmas stationaryThis time of year, your mailbox is a little emptier than it was a decade ago. Why? The Christmas letter, like most snail mail, is almost dead, or at least on the decline…..for two important reasons:

First, the digital age has made possible communication that is faster, cheaper, and sleeker. Many people are now to the point where the idea of having a human haul a letter across a country in order to hand deliver it to another human seems archaic and almost wasteful. Email and social media allow us to contact as many people as we want for free on a daily basis. No stamps. No disgusting envelope glue. No ever-changing address book.

The second reason the Christmas letter seems to be going away is more interesting to me though. And it’s actually the same reason why researchers are beginning to see an exodus of young people from Facebook. Fair or unfair, Christmas letters are perceived by many, much like Facebook posts, to be idealized self-promotion – a way to edit the image you present to the world of how well you’re doing, how beautiful your family is, and how adventurous, witty, or successful you are.

I’m certainly not suggesting that everyone who sends out a Christmas letter or posts an update on social media is doing so pridefully. But I’m suggesting that enough people, perhaps unwittingly, do exactly that, which causes a cynical generation to eventually get fed up. Just look at this portion of a Wikipedia entry for Christmas cards:

“While a practical notion, Christmas letters meet with a mixed reception; recipients may take it as boring minutiae, bragging, or a combination of the two” –

Wherever human hearts exist, wherever human hands touch, the shadow of sinful pride is cast. That includes Christmas cards, social media updates, and any other outlets we may find for talking about ourselves. Regardless of the medium, though, when people recognize self-promotion for what it is, they understandably tend to walk away from it.

So what should Christians remember?

I direct your attention, if it isn’t already there during Advent, to the biblical prophet Isaiah. Without pitting one Bible story against another, Isaiah’s call into ministry remains one of the most helpful to me as one who makes his living by talking about God.

When God came to Isaiah in the year King Uzziah died, Isaiah initially crumbled. Awestruck by the presence of the Lord and his mighty seraphs, Isaiah’s eyes were opened to a humbling reality – he was “a man of unclean lips.” (Isa. 6:5) Now it might seem like an obvious detail, but don’t forget what Isaiah did for a living. He was a prophet! In fact, it appears to be something of a family affair as we learn that his wife was a prophetess as well (Isa. 8:3). So, what is a prophet’s main tool for taking care of business? What is the one gift he/she possessed, that, if taken away, would necessarily cause them to lose their identity as a prophet? Or, in the context of what we’ve been discussing so far, if a prophet were writing a Christmas letter or Facebook post, what do you think they’d be inclined to talk/brag about?

ANSWER: Their “lips” (which is another way of saying of their prophetic voice – the thing which they had over the average person). 

One of the most influential of God’s prophets in the Old Testament, and arguably the most well-educated, who would have faulted Isaiah for self-promotion? Wouldn’t Isaiah’s tweets have been amongst the most insightful and favorited? Wouldn’t Isaiah’s Christmas letter have included name-dropping the various kings he’d recently worked with. Wouldn’t Isaiah, his prophetess wife, and their two boys, all in matching sweaters, have made the cutest Christmas picture?

Isaiah wouldn’t have thought so. Not at this moment. When standing before the holy reality of his Almighty Lord, Isaiah was nothing but humble. The only thing he promoted at that time was his ugly, ruined, unclean lips before his perfect God. The thing which he would have been naturally tempted to see as his “righteousness” (i.e. the thing that made him an “acceptable” person) he now recognized was unclean, more like “filthy rags” (Isa. 64:6) than a trophy to display or status to post before the world.

I think God is telling Isaiah (and us) something about the gifts and talents that he gives us. They are blessings from his generous hand, but they cannot become our righteousness. They cannot be THE things on which we build our identity. They cannot be the basis for which we are acceptable to God, to others, or even to ourselves. They cannot be the theme of our lives that we promote to the world.

Consequently, your ultimate joy at Christmas (or any day) must not come from a job promotion, how well little Jimmy did in school or sports, your European vacation, or even how healthy everyone is. Those are all certainly things to be thankful for. But as sinners in a sinful world, the fact that we experience any joy is the product of generosity pouring down on us from the hand of an infinitely gracious God.

As Christians, our ultimate joy is Jesus, who not only also fell from the hands of the Father but had his own hands nailed to the cross along with our spiritual debt (Col. 2:14). In his Son, God has made a “double payment” (Isa. 40:2), a double gift, at Christmas – a Savior who not only wipes away all of our sins but also gives to us all of his righteousness. While most religions repent of sins in some capacity, Christians are unique in that they repent not only of the dirty deeds, but they also repent of their self-produced righteousness – the thing that they thought made them acceptable, decent, likable, postcard people.

I’m sure you’ve got lots of good news to share with loved ones this year. By all means, share it, and don’t worry about what cynical people may or may not think. But keep in mind, there’s still only one piece of Good News that rises above the rest again this year. Seriously, what’s a better status than this?!?! – “your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” (Isa. 6:7)

Merry Christmas!

A Theology of Body

ht_fit_mom_sr_131204_16x9_992I suppose I should probably take the “high road” and post something this week regarding Nelson Mandela and his legacy of gospel-flavored anthropology.

Nope. I’m going to write about moms working out.

It’s interesting that this topic has struck a national nerve twice in the past couple of months. Apparently it’s an issue.

Back in September, “Fit Mom,” fitness enthusiast Maria Kang, posted a social media photo of her herself, sculpted and toned, flexing next to her three children, all under 3-years-old. She captioned the picture, “What’s Your Excuse?” While I have no evidence, my guess is that this triggered a collaborative effort of Facebook ladies plotting the first ever assassination attempt on a non-profit-founding young mother. Nonetheless, Kang survived the vitriol of like 3 billion middle-aged women, and has since gone onto international speaking tours defending her message as promoting a healthy lifestyle, not just “fat-shaming.”

More fuel was thrown onto the discussion this past week when Caroline Berg Eriksen, a Norwegian soccer player’s wife, posted an Instagram selfie four days after giving birth. She not only looked like she hadn’t been pregnant, but that she’d been spending 3-4 hours in the gym each day.

Where am I going with all this? Well, it’s not going to be “Is Jesus okay with me despising these women?” Rather, health and fitness is actually a topic I’ve been meaning to address for quite some time. However, like most pastors, I haven’t had the guts to speak on the issue – not because there’s no biblical ethic on the matter, but rather that I know we’re obviously hypersensitive to weight issues.

But it’s time.

Let’s start by acknowledging that our society has collectively wavered on the issue of weight and physical fitness. In the 1990s, fashion magazines portrayed supermodels such as Elle Macpherson, Cindy Crawford, and Christy Turlington as the female ideal, fluctuating around 100 pounds and a size 0 to 2. After an obvious spike of eating disorders in young women, including multiple deaths, America wised up. Or did we. There became a “fat acceptance movement” and national personalities who had struggled with weight, like Oprah, and even former supermodels, like Tyra Banks, became outspoken proponents of how “Big is Beautiful.” Okay. So, we perhaps publicly became less vain. But now we’ve smartened up to the health issues related to obesity (or simply being overweight, as studies indicate hardly anyone considers themselves “obese”). Shows like the Biggest Loser exposed the fact that obesity, leading to heart problems, diabetes, and becoming one of the country’s major contributors to death today, is not okay and, in fact, an epidemic in America right now.

Hmmm. Why can’t we seem to find any healthy balance?

The problem is that we were stilling viewing our bodies as our own. In other words, the gaunt, waif supermodel was saying – “We’ll if I’m super skinny, even to the point of deathly thin, I can garner millions of dollars and tremendous fame.” But the overweight person was saying, “I don’t care what other people think. It makes me happy to eat. So, I’ll eat whatever I want and exercise as little as I want.” You see, it’s essentially the same problem – MY life, and MY body, are MY own. Looking at your life as your own is the single issue that causes the most problems in your life.

How is the Bible different?

Look what the Apostle Paul says to the Corinthians (who I’m convinced were just ancient Americans): You say, “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.” The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body…Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies. (1 Cor. 6:13, 19-20) Now what is the principle that Paul is establishing here? It isn’t that we shouldn’t have sex with people who are not our spouses. That’s certainly true, but that’s his application of the principle, not the principle itself. The principle is YOUR BODY IS NOT YOUR OWN. If your body was purchased by Jesus Christ, then it no longer belongs to you. You don’t just get to do with it as you please. Rather, the way you manage your body – the single most important physical gift you’ve been given – is an opportunity to glorify God. “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” (1 Cor. 10:31) See?

This means that, for the believer, vanity is not an option (Prov. 31:30; Jer. 4:30; 1 Sam. 16:7). However, gluttony and sloth are also not options (Prov. 23:20-21; Phil. 3:18-19; 1 Tim. 4:8).

What’s your motivation to flee such things? Well, I’ll admit that fitting into an old suit or dress in time for a wedding can be influential, but only for a time. You see, once such events are over, all motivation is lost. Furthermore, when the endgame is simply to make yourself look better or even feel better about yourself, if the goal is accomplished, it will invariably cause you to feel superior to others and look down on those who haven’t worked as hard as you. So, let me offer a purer motivation.

Only when you see Jesus use his body to your glory will your heart be melted to use your body to his glory. His body took whips, spit, thorns, nails, and crucifixion all so that your body could one day be raised to be more glorious than you can imagine. (1 Cor. 15:42-44)

The way we manage our bodies is a big part of how we express gratitude for that and testify to that new body’s impending arrival.