A Lighter Burden

What will the new year hold? One thing is for sure – it will be different than the past year. I don’t know about you, but I’d like to travel lighter this coming year.

Let’s stipulate that 2022 delivered dispiriting events on the national and world scene. If those burdens weren’t enough, you have your own freight to carry. Life can make you feel deserted, hurt, lonely, or hopeless. Your burdens intensify if you have marginalized the God of the universe. Life’s burdens are evidence for this piece of theology: This is a fallen world, enslaved to corruption (Rom. 8:21). The good news is that you can travel lighter.

That’s what Tennyson expressed with these verses: “Ring out the old, ring in the new. Ring, happy bells, across the snow; the year is going, let him go. Ring out the false, ring in the true. Ring out false pride in place and blood, the civic slander and the spite. Ring in the love of truth and right. Ring in the common love of good.” These sentiments from 1850 express the cry of our hearts today.

People who travel heavy with burdens rightly yearn for the new, the good, the true. It’s true that that life is less about what happens and more about how you react to it. You can manage the burdens you carry. To that end I offer three truths, actually blessings, which will help you travel lighter in the new year.

  1. You are valuable to God. He made you in His image and renews you by faith in Christ Jesus. It is, as C. S. Lewis wrote, “almost incredible and only possible by the work of Christ, that any of us who really chooses, shall find approval, shall please God. (You are) loved by God…delighted in as an artist delights in his work”! If God is for you, who can be against you (Rom. 8:31)?
  2. Your life has meaning. Having a central organizing purpose for life is your reason to stand strong. The highest and most sublime purpose is not to possess things, but to know God. “I count all things as loss,” Paul wrote, “in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ” (Phil. 3:8). To know God is to have everything.
  3. You are created for community. Poet John Donne tells us “no man is an island.” There’s a reason the Bible emphasizes loving your neighbor. Shared burdens are lighter. With whom are you living life? Are you sharing the journey with other travelers?

Prepare for the new year by embracing what’s right and true. Lighten your burden by receiving these blessings from God. As Isaac Watts wrote, “No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground. He comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found.”

The Nativity

Two figures, bundled against the stiff cold, shuffle past the streetlight. “Only college students go out on a night like this for coffee,” Joan said, glancing at her friend Kara. “Well, only college students are crazy enough,” Kara said, “to wait to the last minute to finish their assignments, then need a java to make the final push!”

The young ladies laugh, hoping the distracting moment of truth would help ward off the cold. There’s another bit of chill, which they have been avoiding. Joan brought her Christian faith with her to college. She had invited Kara to the Christmas program at her church the weekend before finals. “That’s the last thing on my mind. No thanks!” Kara had said. She was content to leave any thoughts about God back home.

Joan still felt the sting of Kara’s rejection. She also had other things on her mind, not uncommon for a first-year student. Was she at the right school, in the right major? Would the student loan debt be worth it? Would she fit in? Would her classmates dismiss her small-town ways as quaint? Those are the thoughts that can push childhood traditions aside. But Joan knew her faith had something to say about her future and who she would be, now that she is on her own. That’s why she found being with fellow believers in church comforting, familiar. Why wouldn’t she share that with her new friend?

They continued along the downtown sidewalk in silence, anxious to huddle over a steamy brew and a warm blueberry scone. They were approaching that church near the coffee shop, the one with the tiny front yard squeezed between two old, red brick store buildings. Kara remembered Joan’s invitation. “You know, I’m sorry I responded that way when you brought up the Christmas program. It’s just that, well, I don’t know what I believe anymore. I just want to focus on finishing the semester.”

“I understand,” Joan said. “I just thought it would be a welcome break for you. Besides, if I care, I should want the best for you, not just in academics, right?” Kara felt a bit put upon, but she knew Joan was sincere.

“I’ll be honest with you,” Kara said. “I don’t know if God is really there. I mean there’s so much pain and darkness in the world. If he is there, why doesn’t he do something about it?” Joan wasn’t prepared to answer that, so she prayed for insight. To hear such transparency from her friend was a gift.

They neared the church. It was hard not to notice. The church had placed a simple nativity scene in the yard, well-lit by floodlamps. Joan caught Kara’s hand and stopped. “There’s your answer!” She pointed to the child in the manger. “He did do something about it.”

True Light

We who never suffered blindness take sunsets, children’s faces, and everyday tasks for granted. Imagine living in darkness, then having the surgical bandages removed.

William, a Liberian man, is a husband and father of four. He suffered blindness for three years and was unable to provide for his family. When he heard of a Samaritan’s Purse surgical team in Monrovia, “I was filled with hope for the future,” he said. The procedure worked. “I can read again!” he exclaimed. “I can begin to fish again and send my daughters to school.” With bandages off, he had new life.

Stories and metaphors of seeing and light are a well-trodden path to discerning the things of God. Centuries before Christ the prophet wrote, “The people who walk in darkness will see a great light” (Isa. 9:2). Darkness yet looms because evil persists in our world. But we have hope! History confirms the prophet’s words. “The true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him” (John 1:9-10). The Light is the Creator, entering His creation lying in a manger.

The world suffers with (a sometimes willing) blindness. But people, even the physically blind, are enlightened by the truth about Jesus. As that great theologian Hank Williams crooned, “I wandered so aimless, life filled with sin. I wouldn’t let my dear Savior in. Then Jesus came like a stranger in the night. Praise the Lord, I saw the light!” The bandages are off!

To believe in the true Light is to reflect it. “Every Christian is part of the dust-laden air which shall radiate the glowing epiphany of God, catch and reflect his golden Light,” writes Evelyn Underhill. “Ye are the light of the world – but only because you are enkindled, made radiant by the one Light of the world. And being kindled, we have got to get on with it, be useful.” Your light is not meant to be hidden under a bushel, Jesus said. “Let your light shine before men” (Matt. 5:16).

Each Christmas we celebrate the Light that pushes back the darkness. It’s our annual reminder that wars, hurricanes, and pandemics do not have the last say. It’s your reminder that whatever darkness this year has wrought in your life, the true Light appeared in your world to forgive and give life.

That makes Advent a season of hope and anticipation. To celebrate the coming of the Christ Child long ago is to anticipate His return. As surely as the prophet Isaiah got it right, Jesus will fulfill His own promise to return. Until that second Advent, we rejoice because we see eternity just over the horizon. Look! I see that wondrous glow in the eastern sky even now!

Advent Vulnerability

The CDC issued a Level 2 Alert about a new outbreak of Ebola in Uganda. You may recall the Ebola plague of 2014 in Liberia. During that outbreak, Dr. Kent Brantly was serving in a hospital in Liberia with Samaritan’s Purse. Because of his love and dedication, he chose to stay and face the risk of treating infected people. Despite his meticulous attention to safety protocols, he contracted the disease. He received an experimental treatment and eventually recovered at Emory Hospital in Atlanta. To Dr. Brantly, love meant being vulnerable.

Vulnerability is not the same as weakness.  “The world does not understand vulnerability,” writes Brennan Manning.  “Neediness is rejected as incompetence and compassion is dismissed as unprofitable. The great deception is that being poor, vulnerable and weak is unattractive.” In fact, it takes courage and sacrifice to be vulnerable, whether it means facing risk, admitting need, or telling the truth.

Christmas recalls the historical moment when God became as vulnerable as a baby. The Word became flesh and embraced the risk of the human condition, but not just to reveal truth. He made Himself vulnerable to death on the cross to pay the penalty for your sin. Why do that? “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Love moved God to become vulnerable.

For you, being vulnerable may never mean fighting Ebola in Africa. It does mean loving someone enough to own your mistakes, to admit your contribution to the situation. It means loving God enough to confess your need. In “It’s A Wonderful Life” George Bailey prayed, “Dear Father in heaven. I’m at the end of my rope. Show me the way.” That is raw vulnerability. What happened next changed his life. Then he prayed, “Please God. Let me live again!”

In a mysterious, joyful moment, our Savior who is Christ the Lord, was born for you. Your response is to trust Him for what you need most – forgiveness and a renewed life. Could you be so vulnerable?