Shawn McEvoy

Managing Editor, Crosswalk.com

We'd just wrapped a sermon series called "Kind" at Hope Church, RVA. It was a mission-focused series centered around God's lovingkindness, and the way He moves within us to let us be a part of what He's doing in the world. We were even, over several weeks, educated on ministries like International Justice Mission, Compassion International and others so we could, as the Spirit moved, partner in their good work.

My family attends the 8:30 a.m. service. If anyone on our pastoral staff had known about the tragedy in Orlando in the early hours of Sunday, June 12, 2016 yet, they neither said nor showed it.

I myself found out in the lobby right after the sermon, as I absent-mindedly checked my phone. I saw a friend's post atop my FB feed saying, "WHAT IS IN THE ORLANDO WATER RIGHT NOW?' As of yet still unaware of the Christina Grimmie murder, I clicked over to CNN, realizing I was being rude to the couple from Small Group with whom my wife was conversing.

But there was nothing I could have contributed to the discussion in that moment anyway. I was too stunned, completely unprepared for what I was reading.

Really? As many mass shootings as we see these days, as often as some crazed person is pledging allegiance to the Islamic state, or as many times as you've heard of violence against homosexuals, you were still surprised?

This time, yes. Not always. Where some events have overloaded my system and caused me to move on with my life, Paris and Orlando caught me off guard, and I actually thanked God for that - that I could still feel a pain so blinding I had to squint my eyes. As I wandered aimlessly around Trader Joe's with my wife and daughter, debating how much to tell them until we got home, I knew only that I was momentarily silent. Can I admit that I prayed that everyone else would be, too? Too pained by the knowledge of so many lost to articulate any feelings, even if I wanted to, I tried not to do that thing I hate - that thing where we rush to blame or fail to feel or stump for our favorite cause. I'm as prone to these unkind reactions as you are.

I spent a lot of the rest of Sunday breathing. For one thing, we were celebrating my son's having become a teenager on Saturday. I had just written him a letter - posted publicly on this very blog - about facing the difficulties life throws our way. The letter suddenly felt inadequate in light of the biggest mass shooting in U.S. history. Had I told my young man anything to help in the face of such twisted, inexcusable, senseless loss?

On their own, the faces of my LGBT family, friends and acquaintaces drifted through my mind. My smile twisted sourly in one corner of my mouth. I knew I'd been a rock for my sister when she came out. I was pretty sure I'd expressed gratitude to some friends who had helped me at least understand their struggles. But had I ever truly been KIND? Those people left bloodied and broken on the barroom floor - had they died knowing compassion and the offer of Christ's love and salvation? Or, as I suspected, had their final moments included the terrifying notion that they were experiencing another level of the same sort of condemnation and despair that they've heard their whole lives?

I noticed that my fellow OBU alum Jen Hatmaker was recommending a "Don't Say Nothing" approach. At which point I knew that I would write today, I just didn't know about what. I was still wrestling with too many questions. In the end, that's what I decided to say -- that I am, have been, and will be struggling with these questions for a long time. Because we all know we haven't seen the last bit of terrorism, foreign or domestic. We haven't seen the last person or group targeted in hate; maybe a group I belong to will be next. The record number of dead isn't likely to stand for very long, and when the next one happens, will we forget the names and stories of those we mourn today? Already, Virginia Tech and 9/11 seem like ancient history... except, I'm sure, to those who lost loved ones there.

I fear my questions may go beyond the simpler ones some will want me to ask. But my mind is simply not occupied by "the issues" today. Rather, I wonder...

1. WHO is immune from violence, insanity, tragedy, unfairness, being loathed, persecution?

I can't think of a group right now. I know people who actually believe homosexuals had ascended to some kind of "privileged, protected group" status in American culture recently; I have to wonder if their minds have been changed today. We debate endlessly about what constitutes religious persecution, especially domestically, while being unable to ignore that in places like Columbine, the Oregon community college and elsewhere Christians are also targets. Who isn't? Show me a group that isn't disdained by another, or doesn't feel unwelcome in certain places. And yet... I get a very strange comfort from this knowledge. Because it means we're still all in this together. And it gives us an opportunity. If everyone is feeling the pain and dis-ease of suspicion and being unwanted, then each of us - as individuals and groups - has a chance to extend hands outside of our circle to form bonds of friendship, understanding and ministry.

2. What does it take to feel safe?

I am convinced we do not ask this question enough of ourselves, nor the question about what it is we actually fear. But I want to know, at least for myself, and from those I effort to understand, what it takes to bring a sense of peace or security into a life. It ought to be an easy answer for the Christ follower, you'd think. We purport to follow a Prince of Peace, and cite scriptures about counting "death as gain" that would seem to suggest a bravery on our parts; that there is no outcome that doesn't end in victory for us. We believe God wins in the end, no matter how bad things get. We say we believe He's in control, and that no kings have their powers except He allows it.

Does an automatic or semi-automatic weapon add much more to the equation? Would the Pulse clubgoers have been safer if they'd all had such weapons of their own that night? The mental image makes me laugh. And then it makes me cry... And without judgment I really do ask where the line is. Not the gun control line or the bill of rights line but the feeling-of-safety line, and what it takes for each of us to experience it, if ever we can at all.

3. Why would I want to waste time _______?

I've been filling that blank with all sorts of words the past 24 hours: hating... politicking... Facebooking... correcting... envying... clamoring... The time is short. For all of us. And while I do not know, I suspect that if I had been there in Orlando holding the hand of or looking into the eyes of any of the people who lost their lives, that NOTHING would have mattered in that moment except that one of us was leaving this earthly plane for good, and the other hadn't done as much as he could to let the departing soul know he was loved, to make sure his needs had been met, to tell him about Christ's offer of eternal life.

4. Who is my brother, my neighbor, the foreigner, the orphan, the widow?

So, to kind of come full-circle to that sermon series I mentioned, Sunday's message on kindness was looking at the lovingkindness Boaz, whose name means "strength," showed to Ruth - a foreigner - by offering her protection as she gleaned leftovers from his fields.

When he did this, Boaz was living out the following commandments from Deuteronomy:

He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. (10:18)

When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this. (24:19-22)

Three times the command is given, three times the groups are mentioned, and then the reason: REMEMBER. Remember where you came from. Remember your chains. Remember your deliverer. Remember that Christ died for you while you were yet in sin. Because it is when we forget these things that we lose our hope for empathy, ministry, kindness and love.

I wondered, as one who had been a Christian for 36 years, and read his Bible cover-to-cover, how had I never conceptualized those verses this way before? Suddenly so many examples from the Bible filled my mind:

Jesus with the woman at the well; Jesus saying, "Let the children come to me."

How he set women free during a time of oppression, and told the parable of the Samaritan.

How he came so that we, all of us fatherless and lonely, would be restored to a relationship with our Father. And his Church - his people - could have a bridegroom, widowed no more.

I thought of the "orphans and widows" of James 1, and Jesus touching the lepers, the unclean. So many examples of providing for the unprotected.

Without even knowing what had just unfolded so many miles to the south, I had already been asking myself who is the foreigner, the widow, the orphan, the outcast, the unclean in my own world? And almost immediately I was challenged with a terrifying situation that identified so many answers to that question all at once.

5. What the heck can I DO?

Well, here's a start: 3 Ways You Can Respond to the Orlando Massacre

And here are a few things NOT to do: What are 4 Common Mistakes We Make When Ministering to the LGBT Community?

But what I'm really wondering for myself is what I can do for those families, or the next time. I want to be prepared. If it means anything from running towards the terror on one extreme to just being broken-hearted enough to be sincerely moved to prayer, whether the victims are from one of my groups or not, I want to be prepared to share in the grief.

As Russell Moore put it:

Our national divisions increasingly make it difficult for us not just to work together, but even to pause and weep together. We become more concerned about protecting ourselves from one another’s political pronouncements than we do with mourning with those who mourn.

As we gather things up from the remnants of this tragedy, and from the good we go forward to in our lives, we must leave something behind for the foreigner, the widow and the orphan to glean.

I think I'll just leave this right here.

Publication date: June 13, 2016

Dear Jordan,

I say it all the time, but I can’t believe you’re a teenager now. In some ways, you’ve always been ahead of your time, an old soul, a young man in a boy’s body. In other ways, I know there is so much you haven’t even begun to know – or even question – about the world and the choices that lie ahead of you.

I realize we talk all the time, and cover deeper topics in our discipleship sessions, but I wanted you to have something special and different for this birthday – a resource to look back on through the years. Nobody ever made a list like this for me, but if they had, I would have kept it forever. If I try to compile one for myself, I can imagine some of the things my mentors told me that might appear on a list I would hand to my 13-year-old self:

  • “Go easy” (Probably the thing my Dad used to say most often to us)
  • Laugh some, cry some, and think some every day. (Got this one from Jim Valvano’s speech at the ESPYs)
  • Prize and request wisdom above all. (Theme of the book of Proverbs – read it)
  • Patience makes the man. (Lesson my pastor told us in high school, which I’m only now starting to understand)
  • Everything in moderation. (Another of Dad’s favorites. He didn’t come up with it, but tried to live it. One unexpected side-effect is how it’s helped me give grace to others)
  • “You never do anything you don't want to do.” (From the most memorable Sunday School lesson I ever had. Ask me sometime, but only if you want to get schooled in free will and responsibility)
  • When in doubt, ironed khakis with a blue blazer. (Dad again)
  • Never give up! Unless it’s time to give up. (Fight for what’s important. But some things aren’t worth it. The key is finding which is which. Like, when a dating relationship is over, don’t lose your self-respect by insisting it isn’t. If she’s moving on, you should as well)

There’s plenty I would ignore, as well, including advice to not do anything with my life because, “The Lord’s coming back any day,” or to err on the side of legalism and extra-biblical rule following rather than grace. I mention this to say that if you ever find that any of the stuff anyone, including me, has told you is complete b.s., note it, know that the words were hopefully well-intended, and, if you get a chance, let them know how you came to know the Truth.

Anyway, the list that follows is not necessarily what I've learned, or all I've learned. It’s what I recommend as guides for YOU, right now, entering your teens.

So what you won’t find here is the kind of things Mom and I have been blabbing about around the breakfast table. Nothing on this list like, "You need to organize your backpack better for 8th grade." Hey, you will or you won't until it means something to you, man. :-)

You may come to notice that many of these items will cover that crux between two intersecting extremes where the balance sits. Here’s an example of what I mean: Don't procrastinate… but maybe this thing can wait until tomorrow. How will you know when the time is right for which side of the equation? You'll know. You’ll grow to know because of wisdom, mistakes, maturity, practice, preference and whether people are involved. You'll find balance the same way you find your swing in baseball, or golf (which reminds me: create ancillary list of 13 movies you should totally watch, like The Legend of Bagger Vance).

It’s basically all part of this (sometimes annoying) process:

Consider it pure joy whenever you face trials of many kinds, because…
The testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that…

You may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. And…
If you do lack wisdom, you should ask God… and it will be given to you. (James 1:2-5)

Or as I’ve tried to put it mathematically: WISDOM + PATIENCE = JOY x PROBLEMS / TIME = COMPLETENESS = NOTHING MISSING

I don’t know if I’ll ever get all the way there. But maybe you will! Which is why I give you this list today. Happy birthday, Son.

***

13 Things You Need to Know at 13

1. "There but for the grace of God go I." It’s an old saying that we’ve unfortunately forgotten today in our rush-to-judgment society. But if you keep it in the forefront of your mind as you observe life, you will value empathy over sanctimony. You will understand your weaknesses, and consequently, your strengths. And you will find it easier to forgive.

2. Talk. To. Her. Yes, carpe diem and all that. And no, you DON’T have to tell me who your crush is. But I mean so much more here. My life changed when I finally realized women wanted to communicate, to be noticed, to go out and do things, and it doesn’t have to mean anything at first. The other dudes' jaws will be left hanging. The more you do it, you’ll find the right words, and lose the wrong ones. But the REAL benefit here is that once you get over your nerves, simply talking to women magically turns them into PEOPLE. And when a woman is a person to you, rather than a fear, everything is better. You don’t have to tell yourself not to treat them as objects, because they already aren’t. You don’t have to tell yourself to respect them because you already do. They are half of the human race and generally willing to encourage you through any stammering attempts to say hello. If you trust me on nothing else, trust me on this.

3. Hurry; Don't Rush. You know this one from the ballfield. Patience is so undervalued. Timing is that all-important detail in the crosshairs; comedy, tragedy, and opportunity all happen in that intersection. You’ll never be sorry you took the time to find the right word or opportunity instead of the quickest one. But when you see your lane open up, don’t hestitate.

4. Always have something to read. I’m not saying you always have to be reading. I am saying if you always have a book or your Bible with you, you’ll never be bored, and never feel as alone, even if you have to eat solo in a restaurant. Also, you’re never done learning, or sending your mind to new worlds.

5. Hold your chin high every evening and sleep well. Lie? Cheat? Steal? You're going to encounter them, and the opportunity to do them. They aren't worth it. You have always dreamed clear at night, Son. It's a gift. Truth is not in the many loud voices, but in the still small one. Follow that. A brain cannot rest while trying to cover its lies; a heart cannot rest knowing it’s living for something other than love.

6. Don't hold back. Nothing great happens. Laziness is not your friend. Swing hard. Throw hard. Start your food blog. Don’t settle for “nothing special.” Get organized. Give, generously, of whatever you have to give at the moment. Regrets are simply not allowed.

7. MAYBE you can change the world. But you can absolutely change a life. Or two. Or three. You've changed mine! Keep going. You're needed. Let your heart serve! Will you be a Pediatrician? (Haha, sorry, Mom and I still can’t help seeing you as one). Architect? Editor? Critic? Athlete? Professor? Scientist? App Engineer? Pastor? You have so many resources to do any of them. You don't necessarily have to join “the conversation,” but you do have to join the action.

8. Mistakes aren't forever. Except the ones that are. Your sins are washed away, and there is no condemnation in Christ. It doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences, some of them long-lasting. Most mistakes are inconvenient learning experiences, and I will let you make those. Contrition and forgiveness will lead you away from those renewed. But Jordan – every day, entire lives are lost or reputations ruined by single moments in the lives of otherwise “good” people. The courageous soul considers in advance what he will never allow himself to be known for.

9. Some things just suck. But once they're done sucking, you reach the chewy center of the Tootsie-Pop. Fired. Dumped. Broke. Heartbroken. Depressed. Left abandoned by the death of a loved one. Nobody wakes up any morning hoping for any of these things. Yet they come. Life is hard. It is also beautiful, and you do not walk through these circumstances alone; they are common to all. And then one day, you see… If I’d never been dumped, I never would have met Mommy. If I’d never been fired, I never would have been put on the track to this job. If my heart had never been broken, I would never had learned how to let love heal it. And so on.

10. Know what you like, and never apologize for it. I have this dream where you go off to college and laugh with your friends about your father and his love for a band who nobody else even knows outside of their big hit from 1985. At the end of the dream you actually think that’s kinda cool. And it’s the same for you, man. Locate the things that float your boat, and be aware of what this tells you about the human condition and your place in the world. This goes to art, music, movies, politics, places, food, whatevs. I’ll like YOU regardless of any of those tastes. And by the way, you even like your sister. Don't pretend otherwise. Protect each other fiercely like Mom and I protect each other.

11. Apologize often. And mean it. Contrition and humility are reset buttons. Press them often. Just admitting wrong vents the gas before an explosion. Pride? Let others be proud of you. You wouldn’t think much of me as Daddy if I’d tried to convince you that my actions were always the right ones. When you look someone in the eye and admit failure, somehow, you earn their respect.

12. I will not always be here. Duh. ”You must know your father lost a father, that father lost, lost his.” (It’s from Hamlet).  But I promise you this: You will be ready; you will have everything you need from me. Mortality is real, and part of wisdom is in recognizing the fact. But death is not the winner. “To the organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” I have found that gratitude is the biggest weapon in our arsenal against what death tries to take from us.

13. Recite Our Man-Creed Often. You’ve known 1 Corinthians 16:13-14 since it was on your wall as an infant. But now, let’s break it down:

Be On Your Guard – Be alert, be ready, be sober-minded.

Stand Firm in the Faith– Be steadfast, but know: doubt is not the opposite of faith. It’s called “faith,” not “knowing.”

Be a Man of Courage

As to the “man” part: Never doubt your manliness whether you hunt, fish, golf, sing, dance, love, fight, give orders, take orders, lead, follow or defend. No one man likes “everything” we associate with “manhood.” Doesn’t change a thing.

As to the “courage” part: This much is clear to me – everyone is braver about something that could happen to them than they know, but on the flip side, nobody would ever hope to admit he’s a coward. It is the test, the circumstance, the heat that proves the brave one or the coward. And it is the pre-planning that determines what happens when the test comes. If someone is being abused, will you stop it? What if a wrong needs to be righted? If there is danger, will you run towards or from? Your answer may depend on several things, but it will almost always be the bravest choice if you have considered the answer (and who it protects) in advance. Think about it like how you play shortstop – you just have to know where you’re going when the ball’s put in play.

Be Strong– Exercise your body, your mind, your spirit, your emotions, and all the muscles you use to smile and laugh.

Do Everything in Love– What’s your motivation? What’s at the center? Whatever it is becomes your god.

So, Son, that’s not all. Obviously there are things we want you to begin to know how to do in the next 5 years before you leave home – see a load of laundry through to completion, for instance. Learn how to balance a checkbook even while you’re learning all this higher math. But those are not the things you’re going to want to go back to on dark days. Some of the things in this letter will be.

So decide. God's will isn't way out there. It's here:

  • He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
  • Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
  • You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength; and your neighbor as yourself.
  • Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.
  • For in Him we live and move and have our being.

So go. Live and move and have your being under His mighty umbrella of Grace. Go and do and don't look back, young man.

Love,
Dad

Bonus P.S.
5 Things You Will Never Regret:

  • Tipping well
  • Laughing at yourself
  • Attending the funeral
  • Letting that jerk driver merge anyway
  • Going to church even when you don't feel like it

I can’t say I’ve ever said, “Darn, I shouldn’t have done that” after any of those.

Publication date: June 10, 2016

Where is God: Grace the Morning after Paris

Grace for everyone today.

ISIS, those cowardly enemies of humanity, have claimed responsibility for seven coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris, France that have taken the lives of at least 128 people on the night of Friday, November 13.

And here in the U.S., early in the morning on Saturday the 14th, all I can think about is how much goodwill I have toward my fellow man. How is it possible that the same feeling I have on days like Christmas and Easter - where I somehow lean further toward making sure that person gets a smile and this woman gets asked if she needs anything and that guy gets an extra fiver and that dude who cut me off in traffic doesn’t bother me and that old friend gets a sympathetic ear - can be just as present, if not more so, in the midst of tragedy? (And why should any other day ever be any different?)

Where is God when atrocities happen and humans suffer? I can only conclude He’s right here with us, working in the hearts of those who remain. He’s found in the togetherness of our spirits. He’s working in my deepest places to help me see the needs of the world and shake me from slumber. He’s comforting my children with prayer and peaceful discussion. He’s welcoming home more of His own children while steeling survivors with purpose against unspeakable evil. He’s giving you and I every excuse to share the story of His Son and His gospel of salvation.

God is nothing if not an active, present, worshipful source of hope.

But what about the French families torn apart? What about the blood-spattered witnesses who survived, traumatized? Grace. Theirs will be the hardest road, but theirs will not be the only road. Others will no doubt walk a similar path soon. As the French stood with us on 9/11, so we will stand with them in their efforts to avenge the rape upon their sovereign home. May our resources – in all their forms – find their way to assisting their needs in all areas. May new friendships be formed, may faith be restored, may we never forget.

What about the person on the other side of the political aisle from me who will, probably sometime later today or tomorrow, stop grieving alongside me and spin this horrifying event toward his or her own agenda? Grace. This person is not my enemy, neither in the biblical view nor in the situation at hand.

What about that spouse I’ve been arguing with, that prodigal child who won’t yet return home, that boss who doesn't understand me, that coach who won’t play my daughter at the right position? Grace. Obvious, incredible grace!

What about me? What about all my worries? What about my financial troubles, heartaches, sickness, wounds and needs? Grace. Today is a chance to tackle these topics indirectly, to focus on others and somehow find that you have softened the sharp edges of your problems or even encountered a solution. May your remaining days here, however many in number, be spent with eyes outward and upward, and may the grace and hope and blessings God is always pouring out be yours to cling to in abundance this Thanksgiving season.

What about my Muslim neighbor? Grace. Please, for the love of God’s children, grace.

And finally, what about ISIS?

Phew. That’s where the wind gets punched out of me. Would it be "grace" to wish their network of fear and terror a swift and graceful end? Their twisted ideology is incompatible with a free world. Their unloving existence should not communicate a lack of a God over humanity, but proof of His real spiritual enemy. Pride was his downfall, fear is his currency, repentance is not his game. Yet he exists, for now, powerful but powerless, hungry but toothless, often appearing as an angel of light but rarely showing his true face so obviously as in the past 24 hours. In God’s ultimate show of grace, he has already lost and his days are numbered. May the same be said for ISIS.

Grace. What else do I have to give?

I'm angry. But not with you. Not anymore.

At least, in the midst of all this darkness, there's that small light.

Shawn McEvoy is the Managing Editor of Crosswalk.com.

Publication date: November 14, 2015

I'm a 43-year-old American Christian male with two kids in "the sweet spot," a lovely faithful wife, and a major crush on Christmas. So I don't know much anymore, but I do know what's awesome about this holiday, and what regulations I've placed on myself and my family to ensure we, like the reborn Scrooge, know how to keep Christmas. In no particular order, here are my 25 Christmas Rules:

1. If you don’t like something about Americanized Christmas, like it anyway... your way (the 'keep the Grinch away' rule). The whole idea for this article started on Black Friday, when I arrived home about 5 p.m. and wrote the following Facebook status: “I always loved Black Friday. But that was before it was called Black Friday, and before stores started opening at midnight, or Thursday evening. What I always loved was simply "day after Thanksgiving shopping at the mall." And with a great open-air mall right across the street from our neighborhood, it's still a great thing here. I slept in until 11:30, and the four of us went mall-ing around 12:30. Smiling kids. Hot cups of Starbucks in our hands. Salvation Army brass playing Christmas songs. Daddy saying yes to a couple small impulse buys (like a Frozen t-shirt for Lauren). The Boy weaving an RC car in and out of customer's feet in the toy store at the urging of a store clerk. Learning what Mommy looks gorgeous in (clothes from White House | Black Market). Sunny but chilly. Chasing each other around the giant Christmas tree. Washed down with a hot meatball sub from Jason's Deli. Yep, Black Friday ain't so bad...”

2. Go easy on the snacks. Nothing ruins a feast like gluttony; nothing squelches festive cheer like being overly full and weighed down. Take it from one who knows and is only now learning.

3. Every year is someone’s last Christmas. So go all out. Rent that cabin in the mountains. Make up with that long-lost friend. Pray with that parent who may not have as many years left as you think.

4. Santa rocks. And Santa stinks. If either is your position, I agree with you and support you. Because I know that if you think Santa rocks it’s because you find mystery and magic in Christmas, that you appreciate who Nicholas of Myra was as a real person, and you love the idea of a benevolent, generous person in charge, and Christmas is in these things. And because I know that if you think Santa stinks it’s because he’s mostly Madison Avenue, a distraction from the Incarnation, and a morality-based record keeper, and Christmas is not in these things.

5. One present at a time. This is non-negotiable, and always has been. If you can’t watch someone else opening his or her gift with nearly as much anticipation as you have opening your own, you need a cheer adjustment.

6. Leaving work after dark is no fun, but coming home after dark is. We've never even put lights on the outside of our house (neither did we when I was a kid), but this is still exciting. There will be little people jumping up and down, and hugs, and probably soup. Soup is very Christmas.

7. It’s not about the destination. In fact, life hardly ever is. I estimate that 73% of my Christmases have been spent in Tucson, Arizona or Abilene, Texas. Nobody sings Christmas songs about these places. Yet I have an amalgam of Christmas memories as wide and deep as anyone’s. Why? Because while setting and experience are important, Christ and people are primary.

8. A Christmas Carol is the reset button I press to remember who I want to be as a Christian. Not because I am afraid of the doom that awaited Scrooge if he remained a miser, or because I think I can earn my way, but because there is no better depiction of what it looks like to replace greed/self with giving/others.

9. Make your Christmas movie Mount Rushmore. Mine includes the aforementioned A Christmas Carol (doesn’t really matter the version), Christmas Vacation, and two films that take place at Christmas but are more about love (but Christmas is very big on love) – The Family Man and Love, Actually. It’s not really Christmas until I’ve seen all four.

10. The older I get, the less I want. Or rather, the less I want to spend and get, and the more I want major needs to get met elsewhere. I’m not fighting this, even when relatives threaten me with pain if I don’t get a wish list to them by November 15. If you’re in that much of a rush to finish your shopping, put my name on a donation to your favorite Christian charity. Seriously. (We all know I’m going to buy myself that pair of pants, that eBook, that piece of exercise equipment I won't use next time I need it anyway).

11. Christmas is family time, but if intolerable dysfunction is ruining your family Christmas gathering, have it out. HAVE. IT. OUT. I’m not kidding, Frank Costanza was on to something with the Airing of the Grievances at Festivus. It won’t be easy and it won’t be pleasant and it’s probably unfair for me to list this here when a whole article could contain my explanation, but the year my family locked everyone in the same room and put all the cards on the table was, in hindsight, a time of healing and understanding, and makes that Christmas feel enriched, not ruined. (And this story gets even better when my wife tells it, as she was in the bathtub when the shootin' started, and we were so loud she assumed we were in the living area right outside her bathroom, when in fact we were downstairs. So she stayed in that tub turning into a prune for two hours, when she could have come out unseen at any time).

12. Outside is the best. Fresh, brisk, cold, invigorating. Seeing Christmas lights, smiling at neighbors, throwing snowballs (where applicable), and remembering that Christmas began outdoors, among animals and shepherds, and probably wasn’t in Winter.

13. Inside is also the best. Fires, blankets, movies, Charlie Brown, hot cocoa, and remembering that Christ came to make his home inside each of us, and give us peace.

14. Be a kid at some point. It doesn’t have to be prolonged. Ain’t nobody got time for an immature 40-year-old demanding presents and sneaking bites of sugar cookie dough and ruining carols with questionable lyrics for 25 days. But at some point, act like Will Ferrell in Elf about going to the mall, or making dinner, or seeing an old friend, or spending a team-building day with fellow editors traveling to the local amusement park all lit up for Christmas (we're going tomorrow! Ohmigoshohmigoshohmigosh!).

15. Let a Christmas song bring you to tears at some point. I know it’s gonna happen, I just don’t know the moment. What will probably do it is "Fall on your knees" in O Holy Night or "if only in my dreams" in I'll Be Home for Christmas or, of all things, Boy George belting out, "Throw your arms around the world at Christmastime!" in Do They Know it’s Christmas?

16. Faith has to be a part of this. Let me get preachy (preachier?) for a moment: if you aren’t attending church during Advent, when are you fellowshipping? If you are going to celebrate Christmas without Christ… wha? Why? If you are beyond considering, like Charlie Brown, what the whole point of it is, you’ll never know what the whole point of it was. Your faith tradition is doing something this month. Be a part of it. And say "Merry Christmas" to those who celebrate it, but not because I angrily insist upon it as some horribly self-righteous clod ready to sock you in the gut with the fruitcake of condemnation. Say it because it's not like you won't say "Happy Halloween" to someone, even though we know you don't really believe in or celebrate the religious meanings of Halloween. On the flip-side, are we srsly going to let a nice, polite, well-meaning, catch-all "Happy Holidays" tossed our way undo all our Joy to the World?

17. Create wonder. Whether you have kids of your own, or just nieces, nephews, or neighbors, do something to put stars in their eyes. Take them to the Nutcracker. Or, if that isn’t your thing (sorry, the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies scares me in the same way clowns do), wake them up one night around 11 or midnight with the following items already in hand: tons of blankets, a thermos of hot chocolate, and a telescope (and maybe a Bible and a flashlight?). Come home one day with an early surprise present for the whole family (“It’s a puppy!”). Pull them in on creating a surprise gift for Mom. Or even just take them on a pajama ride for egg nog ice cream and a few neighborhoods full of Christmas lights when they thought they were bound for bed.

18. Put up an Advent calendar. Let the kids fight over whose turn it is to open a day. Change up the things that are found there – Scripture verses, challenges, treasure hunts, coupons for cookie baking, tasks like cookie-taking, stories about faith, and lessons about those who have less.

19. Adopt. This one little word is so full of meaning for the Christian. We have been adopted into the family of God through the miracle of what began at the first Christmas. And this is truly the ultimate way to give a gift – offering a sense of belonging, of family. This can be done literally, of course, by adopting orphans, and remembering families who have. Or symbolically, through charitable organizations around the world. Or you can offer to let someone far from home share in the warmth and festivities of yours. Or you can rescue a pet. Or…

20. Make money manageable. We like to let our kids in on the family finances. We wondered if, at Christmas, this might rob from the magic a bit. But it hasn’t. And I suspect it has been the same way for many of you. I have seen a lot of “proud parent” moments on Facebook in the last couple years, kids who volunteer to give up all presents so children in Africa can have mosquito nets… sons who tell their mom at bedtime one evening that one gift is plenty… daughters who urge their family to try Advent Conspiracy this year… and so on. Part of the joy of letting kids in on money is a smaller, more intimate Christmas, but one punctuated by saying yes to a few impulse surprises like dinner out or a used Wii game.

21. Let your spouse off the hook. Whatever pressure you can relieve is only going to make the whole experience better for everyone.

22. Prepare your heart. Some of us don’t like how early the Christmas decorations come out in stores, or how soon the Lite or Kiss station changes over to all-Christmas tunes. But really, this holiday season isn’t long enough. There’s only a good 3-4 weekends if we’re lucky. Most of those get booked in September with parties, travel, and other requirements. So if you don’t wake up each morning with at least some sense of optimism or reflection, you’re going to miss it. My own strategy at this stage of life is to be the kids’ alarm clock. Every day at 6:30 I wake them with hugs and kisses and encouragement and some sense of what it means to celebrate Christmas and know Christ. I think I get more out of it than they do.

23. Load up your pockets. You know it, Ebenezer, it’s time to be prepared to fill that Salvation Army kettle with loose change from your car or couch, and hand that suspicious looking homeless guy an extra fiver or fast food gift card at the very least.

24. The best toys never go out of style. Legos, Crayolas, board games, karaoke machines. Give 'em, and break out the old ones all December long.

Candid Christmas photos (even ones taken when someone isn’t looking) are much preferable to stiffly posed pictures of twenty people in front of a fireplace, tree or church. (Okay, this is a personal bugaboo, but I love my mother-in-law anyway. And I didn't include it as an official number in the list).

25. Finally, go with the flow, Dad. We’ve all seen what happens when Clark Griswold insists upon taking control and forcing square people into the round hole of his "fun old-fashioned family Christmas." So, sure… I liked my birth family’s Christmas morning madness and unkempt hair more than my married family’s rule that everyone showers and shaves and puts on make-up and eats a full breakfast and takes a nap and runs to the store and does a load of laundry and checks email and talks about the weather and goes to the bathroom one more time before a visit to the living room can be made, much less a present opened. But it’s all good… it’s all good…

Publication date: December 5, 2013

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