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Daniel Hochhalter Posts

The promise of peace

In 2014, I wrote about Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Christmas Bells” in the context of an active shooter situation at a mall near my home in Portland, Oregon. The day after the shooting, I drove down to the mall, watching the police activity, the media frenzy, and the stunned onlookers standing in small groups still trying to grasp what had just happened.

As I drove around the mall, the carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” came over the radio.

That song has stuck with me ever since.

The thought of church bells piercing the grit, darkness, and violence of the times and proclaiming the arrival of a promised Messiah is burned into my mind.

Especially at the conclusion of each of the every subsequent year since. read more

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Darkness surrounded by Christmas

It’s no secret that Christmas falls during the month of December.

What isn’t as clear is the reason why.

“That’s easy,” one might reply. “It’s when Jesus was born.”

Actually, it wasn’t.

Most biblical historians place Jesus’s birth around either October(ish) or April(ish). They argue that shepherds would not have been out in the fields with their sheep in the dead of winter. It would have been far too cold, especially at night. (Fun fact: Christ likely wasn’t born in the year 0 AD either. Because of some miscalculations in the Gregorian calendar, he was probably born sometime between 3 to 5 BC.)

Secularists–and particularly militant atheists–enjoy rubbing that little detail into the face of unsuspecting Christians before adding, with gleeful snark, that the whole Christmas holiday is based on a pagan holiday filled with drunken debauchery, which is true.

To a point.

But the deconstruction of the Christmas narrative into a bunch of uncomfortable half-truths in no way minimizes the power of the Incarnation.

The decision by the early church to set the celebration of Jesus’s birth on December 25 was intentional.

Celebrating his birth on this date is not an attempt to deceive the masses about the actual date it happened, any more than is celebating his resurrection on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the Spring Equinox. It’s merely a date for global body of Christ to celebrate as one.

And–gasp!—Resurrection Sunday was also around the time of pagan holidays.

So why did the early church set the celebration of Jesus’s birth on December 25th? The answer is quite enlightening (pun very much intended).

With the shortest days of the year, December is shrouded in darkness more than any other month (at least in the northern hemisphere–the early church’s known world at the time). December can seem downright depressing. Further, the month also contains a solitary annual event: the winter solstice.

The winter solstice is the day the earth’s northern hemisphere is tilted furthest away from the sun, marking the official first day of winter. It is also the day considered the shortest of the year, with the northern-tier states of the US getting only about eight to nine hours of daylight, decreasing as one goes further north. People in northern Canada and Alaska receive only a few hours of light a day, and must hunker in for the cold, depressing darkness of winter.

However, though that solstice marks the shortest, darkest day of the year, it also marks the point after which the days begin to grow longer.

In other words, light is entering into the world.

Following the winter solstice by only a few days, December 25 marks both the coming of more daylight to dispel our physical darkness, and the coming of the Light of the World who dispels our spiritual darkness.

It feels like the two years following the whole COVID mess have been spiritually dark. It’s like our nation–in fact, the whole world–has been stumbling along, trying to regain our sense of equilibrium. We’re assessing the damage of lockdowns, individually and relationally. We suffered through another election which grows uglier by the year. We now accept lies as truth for no other reason than it’s “our guy” telling them.

Students are woefully behind on their level of studies from where they should be. Many of us who have been able to get by are now living paycheck to paycheck, draining our savings and running credit card balances in order to stay afloat while being told by the highest authorities that everything is peachy. Just this month, there have been mass shootings in both a gay club and a Walmart as well as a brutal quadruple homicide of four college kids while they slept.

We no longer believe anything from our media, government, and academic institutions. And every day, that level of mistrust grows progressively worse. Institutions we normally trust to fix things are themselves broken.

Nothing makes sense. When institutions we should trust are telling us things totally out of line with the reality around us, uncertainty prevails. And with no truth to stabilize, darkness saturates.

There is no solution.

Save one.

The dark reality Jesus entered into the first time is the same reality now.

We don’t need Christmas in spring or summer, when all is warm and bright. But we do need it in the darkest time of the year. Why do you think the most dominant decoration is the light?

As we enter into the Christmas 2022 season, don’t wait to start the season until you feel “festive.” That is the way the world does it, trying to drum up emotions and then falling even deeper into depression and darkness.

That is also putting the cart before the horse.

Acknowledge the Christmas season from within the darkness around you. Let the brilliance of Christmas trees and lights remind you that the true Light of the world has come and will come again.

Yes, it’s dark. But Christmas is the reminder that Emmanuel has come.

And the days will start growing longer.

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When Another Receives the Blessing, I Need the Grace

On a recent frigid afternoon, I had completed my weekly grocery run and headed for the parking lot exit. It was a cold, snowy Saturday in November, and I felt chilly on the outside and pretty frosty on the inside too.

I was irritable because I was downright exhausted.

The preceding week had been one of those “perfect storms.” It was just a long week. Every night was a late night. There was no time to turn off my introverted brain before it was time to wake up from a restless night to start the whole thing over again.

By my Saturday morning grocery run, I was what doctors might call “brain dead.” It was solely by the grace of God that the mass between my ears could generate enough willpower to put one foot in front of the other.

And I had yet another commitment later that evening.

My filters were down, and it wouldn’t take much to set me off.

As I navigated my car toward the exit, I fell in behind a white SUV. When it came to the intersection, its windows came down so the passenger could hand some cash to a homeless person standing there with a sign. The sign promised divine blessing.

The homeless person trudged through the snow to collect the money from the vehicle, which sported a fish symbol and a sticker of two nails, intersecting to form a cross.

I was impatient to get home, but as a fellow Christ-follower, I felt I could cut the SUV’s occupants some slack because they were giving to “the least of these.”

We started moving again, but eventually came to a stop at a traffic light. Once again the SUV’s window went down and the passenger held out money for another individual holding another sign, again promising divine blessing.

And the light was green!

A green light is the perfect way to avoid both guilt and eye contact by looking left — you know, “to check for traffic.” Easy-peasy.

Whatever was left of my filters crumbled. The absolute audacity of these people to hold me up for a homeless person. Didn’t those do-gooders in the SUV realize that I had someplace to be?! Even though it was just to be home resting my exhausted brain?!

After making the right turn—carefully “checking for traffic” on my left—I fell in behind the SUV with a hearty scowl and a heart of venom, only then to spot the wide smile on the SUV passenger’s face.

The wind came out of my self-righteous sail.

She gave to “the least of these” in the name of Jesus—twice! She saw a need and responded the way Jesus would have. As a result, she experienced great blessing.

I, on the other hand, did not.

I was turned inward, withdrawn, and focused only on my own stresses. I thought only of my own needs and comforts.

I had a chance to do something for two individuals in need, and I did not. Instead, I complained inside about those who did. I felt horrible. I heard the condemnation of a thousand voices, taunting me in my failure—Satan’s default response when a Christ-follower blows it.

This did not help my day get any better.

Yet, through the cacophony of condemnation, one voice broke through. It was a soft, single voice—a whisper no less—uttering, “I love you.”

I love you.

I — who did nothing to help the least of these, and who clearly sinned by putting my own needs above others’ — had been reminded in that moment that I am loved.

Those in the SUV got a wonderful blessing, but I was the one who needed a reminder of grace.

At that specific moment, God knew I needed grace more than I needed blessing.

John 21 tells the story of the resurrected Jesus appearing to the disciples by the Sea of Galilee. Once Peter recognizes Jesus, he impulsively jumps from his boat and swims to shore.

Three times, Jesus asks Peter: “Do you love me?” Three times Peter answers, with growing frustration, “You know I love you.”

Then Jesus commands, “Go feed my sheep.”

Some days before this dialogue, on the night before Jesus was crucified, Peter had commited one of the most horrible acts of betrayal: three times, he had denied he even knew Jesus.

Peter basically commits the same atrocity as Judas, times three. Though the outcomes were different, Peter had to have felt the same sting of guilt as Judas.

Yet on that beach, Jesus faces Peter, suffering from the worst kind of guilt, and pours grace upon him, restoring him completely.

Jesus finds Peter and forgives him because at that moment, Peter needs grace more than he needs blessing.

Alone in my car that frigid Saturday afternoon, I experienced grace from a loving Savior who saw me in my self-centeredness and forgave me anyway.

Divine blessings are great, don’t get me wrong — but sometimes, being human, we just need a touch of grace.

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So 2020 happened, and God is still good

Today the calendar has turned: 2020 is officially in the books. And most of the world is shouting, “Good riddance!”

The year 2020 will likely go down in history as one of the strangest we’ve known. Sure, many years throughout history have been far more tragic; however, in most of our lifetimes, this one ranks near the top for sheer stress and weirdness.

Looking back over the last twelve months, bizarre is the only word I can find to describe it. If it wasn’t Australia in flames from wildfires, it was reports of murder hornets, toilet paper shortages, and coin shortages. If it wasn’t riots destroying Minneapolis, Portland, or Seattle, it was reporters standing in front of the burning buildings, telling us in all seriousness that the protests were peaceful. If wasn’t that fact that it was an election year in the United States, it was that fact that the guy who remained tucked away from the public saying as little as possible was declared the winner.

Of course, if 2020 had a label it would be the “Year of COVID-19,” named after the virus that came out of China and spread rapidly across the planet. This pandemic caused a nearly universal shutdown that brought the world’s economies to a screeching halt. Schools had to recalibrate for distance learning from home, a process that created massive extra work for teachers and found both them and their frustrated, distracted students glued to a computer screen for hours each day. As a teacher, I have to say that distance learning is something I would never choose to do again. In my experience, it has been almost wholly ineffective.

As the year dragged on, government officials mandated rules that we should all stay home, wear masks, keep social distance, and close down most small businesses and religious services. These rules applied to everyone except the government officials themselves and any protesters they agreed with.

While those in the medical field had to deal directly with COVID itself, most of us had to deal more with trying to stay sane. As we followed orders to “stay home,” we were pummeled with endless ads filmed as Zoom calls, and filled with phrases about being “alone together” in “these uncertain/troubling/unprecedented times.” After several thousand such ads, they got pretty old.

The virus also created a new stereotyped group of zombies called “karens,” who considered it their duty to publicly shame, shout down, and even attack anyone not following “the rules” to their satisfaction. Often they recorded their rants on social media to support their noble cause.

Sadly, the most horrific casualty of the pandemic of 2020 has been what was once called “a sense of humor.” One joke about the pandemic, and you’ll be mocked, shamed, and crushed into silence. A few of us are still struggling to keep a sense of humor, but the number is dwindling each day. (Side note: If you take issue with this paragraph because you believe I am belittling the tragedy of the pandemic, then you are afflicted with this malady, and you should seek help. Watching a movie such as “Airplane” or “Blazing Saddles” might be a good antidote.)

Sarcasm aside, 2020 started out very strange for the whole world, and ended up growing very heavy for me personally.

In late September, after a week of a debilitating headache, fever, and lightheadedness, I tested positive for COVID. This fact led to a week of hospitalization that included one night in ICU. Apparently, I got a side order of pneumonia served up with my COVID. I was so grateful when I got to go home, but the symptoms (fatigue, shortwindedness, severe cough) stayed with me for several more weeks.

Then, while still in recovery, on November 6 I lost my father. I sat at his bedside as he passed from this life to the other side. One moment he was breathing, and the next he wasn’t. Up to that point, even after being in ICU with COVID, I had still been able to chuckle a bit over the surrealness of 2020. But after this loss, the whole of 2020 turned very heavy for me. The combination of COVID uncertainties and the loss of Dad was almost too much to bear.

Now, here we all are, staring 2021 in the face. A new year always appears to bring a sense of hope to the world. We believe that the stroke of midnight on December 31 will bring the craziness of 2020 to a halt and usher in an entirely new chapter of normalcy. But that hope may be more superstition than reality, because in truth, we have no idea what this new year will bring. It could be even stranger and more traumatic than the last one. (I think I just threw up in my mouth a little.)

Maybe COVID will finally be conquered, and the world will finally be able to breathe again (both literally and figuratively). But there’s no guarantee we won’t see new strains of it—or the rise of something even worse.

The U.S. will have a new president. But whether that is good or bad remains to be seen. I’m guessing it will be more of the same garbage coming out of Washington. We just don’t know what the new year will bring? Will 2021 be riot-free? Will racism finally be overcome? Will Facebook and Twitter quit annoying us with their community standards? Probably not.

In 2021, I am sure there will be uncertainty. There will be crisis. There will be rage, fear, and loss.

Yet that is not all.

In 2021, there will also be gain. There will be success. There will be triumph, courage, and laughter.

This new year will have all of that—good and bad. And God is still good.

This is the main lesson I have learned from 2020: God is still good. And his goodness is not related to our happiness or our suffering. His goodness transcends everything. Regardless of life’s uncertainties, it is imperative that we always remember and proclaim his goodness.

In the uncertainty and stress of 2020, God is still good. His sovereignty is greater than murder hornets, coin shortages, or a media with an incredible lack of self-awareness. And his goodness is the same “yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8, NLT).

Despite my own COVID scare in 2020, God is still good. I need not fear a virus because, even if I should die, God’s goodness still reigns supreme. And despite the loss of my dad, God is still good. Even as my family grieves, we know that God uses death as a transition from this life to a place without sorrow or pain. Job himself proclaimed, at the height of his suffering: “God might kill me, but I have no other hope” (Job 13:15, NLT).

God is still good. And his goodness is not tied to the turn of a calendar page.

In 2021, no matter what, I pray that we will all cling to him and his goodness.

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Shoehorning Jesus into the great mask debate

These days, across the nation and throughout Christendom, there’s a white-hot theological debate on a topic that I’m sure has been debated for centuries: Would Jesus wear a mask?

This issue is due to the novel coronavirus—a troublesome virus that proves, once and for all, Tommy Lee Jones’s statement from the movie “Men in Black”: “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals, and you know it.”

But I digress.

The great controversy of Coronapocalypse is: Are you pro-mask or anti-mask? Which do you value more—personal liberty, or corporate safety? Do masks really help even if people use them improperly (which, it seems, almost everyone does), or are they just a symbolic tool to make us feel proactive and safe?

And this is a flaming hot issue. Both sides claim to have definitive data on their side. Some people defiantly go out with no masks, causing scenes or attacking store employees who ask them to put one on. Others follow the offenders and post videos of their egregious sin while trying to shame them into compliance.

Pro-mask or anti-mask: which one are you? (I will pause here so you can choose a team.)

And now, not to feel left behind, the body of Christ has entered the fray, leading us back to that burning question which has troubled philosophers since I believe the Council of Nicea…

Would Jesus wear a mask?

Anti-maskers might say: “Of course he wouldn’t. He’s, like, God. Why would he? COVID can’t kill him. And it can’t kill me, either, unless God allows it. So I’m just going to live my life, and follow Christ’s example of trusting God.”

And that actually makes sense.

But pro-maskers might say: “Of course he would. It’s the compassionate thing to do. Even if it doesn’t slow the virus, at least it shows others that we are not selfish; we do care about their safety.”

And that actually makes sense too.

Me? I don’t wear a mask. But it’s not because I’m an anti-masker. It’s because covering my face gives me great anxiety, sometimes almost to the point of panic attacks. I just can’t cover my face, not even to keep it warm in subzero weather.

I’m not proud of this weakness, especially in this era of COVID-19. But I just can’t tolerate face coverings. And it’s not something I can turn on and off. Anxiety doesn’t work like that.

Before anyone says I should do it anyway, let me ask you this: What is the situation that creates the most anxiety for YOU? Is it heights, caves, family? Think of a time when you were in that situation, or imagine that you are in it at this moment. Now do you see how crazy it sounds to just get over it?

This week I had to visit my doctor’s office, which I knew would require me to wear a mask. The mere thought was so stressful for me that I slept only three hours the night before and only after taking some Benadryl. All night long I thought about that visit. I feared I might panic and hyperventilate right there in the office, which would cause a spectacle and embarrass me half to death.

Fortunately, at the office I was given a cloth mask and, when I told them about my panic attacks, the doctor and nurse allowed to use it my own clumsy way: instead of strapping it behind my ears, I held its top edge against the bridge of my nose and let the rest of it hang down in front of my mouth. The doctor and nurse were perfect examples of how to be adaptive and gracious—much more so than most other examples I’ve seen.

And this is what troubles me about shoehorning Jesus into the great mask debate. Jesus is more than a rhetorical point to support either side of any issue. Those who label any given action as “not like Jesus” or “unChristian” are generally missing the complexity of his nature—how gracious he is, how understanding. They are shrinking Jesus into a flimsy, feeble figurine that might be rubbed for good luck.

So what WOULD Jesus say in this debate over masks? First of all, if you think what he would say is directed at the other side, you’re not hearing him.

I believe he would meet each of us exactly where we are.

To the militant anti-masker who sees this as a fight for liberty and personal choice, he might say: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Luke 25:40).

To the aggressive pro-masker who appears to focus more on the act than on the heart, he might say: “You tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders” (Matthew 23:4).

To the one with anxiety issues who wants to wear a mask but is overwhelmed by panic, he might say: “Then neither do I condemn you” (John 8:11).

Jesus is bigger than any issue you can name.

In the great mask debate, as in all of life, what would he say not to others but to you?

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Why I am silent on issues of race

During this first week of June, riots and protests erupted in cities across America, sparked by the brutal death of George Floyd, an African-American man, at the hands of a cop in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The video of this arrest and death was shocking, and soon after protestors across the country hit the streets, and rightly so.

Sadly, however, these protests were quickly overshadowed by violent looting, rioting, destroying property, and even death. The sadness over Floyd’s death quickly evolved into anger as I thought what is happening now is no longer about George Floyd. read more

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The safest place in a storm

On my office wall hangs a vivid photograph entitled, “Phares dans la Tempete, La Jument.[1]” It shows a lighthouse keeper at La Jument reef, standing in the door of his lighthouse just as a towering wave nearly engulfs the structure from behind.

Original photo by Jean Guichard, http://www.jean-guichard.com/

As retold later in Celtic Countries magazine,[2] the story of the shot goes as follows.

On December 21, 1989, a powerful storm smashed into the area, hitting the lighthouse with gale force winds and with waves reaching up to 30 meters (nearly 100 feet) high. During the night, the massive waves crashed through the lighthouse’s lower windows, flooding its living quarters and forcing the keeper to escape to the lantern room at the top of the lighthouse.

The next morning, despite dangerous flying conditions, a photographer named Jean Guichard hired a helicopter so he could photograph the dramatic storm from the air. The lighthouse keeper, Théodore Malgorn, heard the approaching helicopter and thought it was his rescuers. So he opened the door and stepped outside.

That was the moment the giant wave slammed into the lighthouse.

That was the moment Guichard took the shot.

Fortunately, the keeper was able to slip inside and shut the door, just before it was completely covered.

Original Photo by Jean Guichard, http://www.jean-guichard.com/

This famous picture of safety in the storm was given to me by my wife, shortly after life swept me into chaos. As I endured the greatest turmoil of my life, I took solace in looking at it, wondering what the lighthouse keeper felt that night. Did he shake with fear as the wind and waves whipped into a deadly frenzy, crashing again and again into his tiny stone tower? Did his heart pound in his chest as freezing water shattered his windows and poured into his home? Did he pray to God for survival as he fled to the lantern room—the very last refuge he had?

That night in the lighthouse, the keeper must have felt very unsure of his own safety. Yet in the whole vast ocean, the lighthouse was the safest place of all.

Like the lighthouse keeper, Jesus once faced a violent storm. After a day of ministry beside the Sea of Galilee, he and his disciples set out by boat to cross to the other side. But according to Mark 4:37-38:

“A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, ‘Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?’”

Note the sequence of the disciples’ reactions. Like most of us, first they panic; only later do they ask the God of the universe for help.

But Jesus does not punish them for this lapse by withholding that help; instead he immediately commands the elements to “Be still!”—and they obey. Only then does he turn to his disciples and ask, “’Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?’” (v. 39-40).

The truth is, it is one thing to trust God when things go well. But it is another to trust him from the center of the storm, when our world is upended.

And our world is upended now. Every day during this surreal COVID-19 pandemic, we get hit by wave after wave as we lose travel autonomy, small businesses, and loved ones. Our lives will be changed for months, if not forever.

Original Photo by Jean Guichard, http://www.jean-guichard.com/

I have not yet been touched directly by the virus, nor by the escalating death rates, so I have not felt explicit fear—but I do feel unsettled and anxious in this storm of uncertainty, as I’m sure the lighthouse keeper did at La Jument.

When life is like this, we must take refuge in our Creator, who is far bigger than any virus, news reports, or ventilator shortages.

No matter what happens—even if we experience sickness or death—we are not spiraling helplessly through stormy seas. Instead, we are secure in our lighthouse as the storm rages around us. We are safe in the arms of Christ.

By Falken – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3503077

[1] This French phrase means “Lighthouse in the tempest [at] La Jument.” La Jument (“the mare”) is a treacherous reef near the isle of Ushant in the Iroise Sea, off the northwest coast of France.

[2] Celtic Countries magazine, January 18, 2011, https://celticcountries.com/culture/245-la-jument-brittany-most-famous-lighthouse.

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That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown

A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS (1965)

On November 30, 2015, the ABC television network aired the 50th anniversary special of “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” This annual animated TV show, based on Charles Schultz’s comic strip “Peanuts,” has traditionally aired shortly following the Thanksgiving weekend to kick off the Christmas season. It tells the story of Charlie Brown’s depression and angst at Christmas as he tries to find the point of it all amidst the shallow emptiness of commercialism.

The show is a big deal for me—so big, in fact, that I consider it the start of my Advent season. My tradition is that my Christmas tree and lights must be up and glowing before the program airs.

I want to kick of my Christmas celebration with the whole Peanuts gang.

That year, in 2015, the 50th anniversary special included a message from then-President Barak Obama. He said that this beloved Christmas program teaches us that “tiny trees just need a little love and that on this holiday we celebrate peace on Earth and good will toward all.”[1]

“A Charlie Brown Christmas” is about a tiny tree? Did the President miss the part where Linus walks onstage and quotes Luke 2:8:14?

That moment was pretty hard to miss. After Charlie Brown laments the stress and anguish of the holidays while staging a disastrous Christmas play, he cries out for anyone to tell him what Christmas is really all about. His friend Linus responds matter-of-factly, “Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.”

Linus walks onto the stage and quotes the gospel of Luke:

“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not: for behold, I bring unto you good tiings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.'” read more

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Bring on the schmaltz, hallmark!

I just watched my first Hallmark Christmas movie for 2019.

It’s not the first one I’ve watched. Last Christmas, somehow [the Christmas elves did it?] my television got glued to the Hallmark Channel, and I am pretty sure it is again. I freely admit that I am addicted to these movies; I cannot get enough of them, which is odd given that just days ago before Halloween, I was discussing the theological profundities of such movies as “The Conjuring” and “The Exorcism of Emily Rose.”

For the life of me I don’t know how I got hooked on Hallmark Christmas movies, or why they melt my butter the way they do. They are sappy/goopy and clichéd and have only one or two storylines that usually goes something like this: Just before Christmas, a beautiful businesswoman from the big city, highly successful but missing something, gets stuck in a small town – sometimes even her hometown – in a quaint little community that looks like Thomas Kinkade threw up on a Norman Rockwell painting.

There, she meets a ruggedly handsome widower with a sugary kid (think Beaver Cleaver) who helps her rediscover what matters most in life. She must choose between returning to her successful-but-empty career or finding true fulfillment in the quaint community, with the rugged widower person thrown in as a bonus. After a moment of misunderstanding, everything gets sorted out at the Christmas Eve gala. Beautiful businesswoman and rugged widower embrace and kiss. Then It snows.

The end.

Smarmy? Yes. Schmaltzy? Definitely. Warm and fuzzy? Sure. Blissfully wonderful? Absolutely!

What is it about these movies that completely draws me in? For that matter, what is it about them that draws in so many other people too? Last Christmas, Hallmark totally dominated the ratings.[1]

Why? What is the draw?

First, Middle America is respected. For the rest of the year, Hollywood depicts its residents as backwards, bigoted simpletons who lack the style and sophistication of the Coasts. It gets exhausting to be told by Hollywood how much we suck. But in Hallmark Christmas movies, these folks and their simpler, slower life is celebrated. Rural wisdom is acknowledged. Instead of fleeing in horror to the major metropolises, people actually find fulfillment in the small towns. For a couple of months each year, Hallmark movies truly connect with the values and traditions of the heartland.

See the source imageSecond, the stories show innocence and unity. Their sole purpose is to show people enjoying Christmas as a community. Nothing can tear the townsfolk apart; they all truly want the best for their families, their children, and their neighbors. If they disagree with one another, their differences are never mentioned because celebrating the season together is far too important; there is no “us-versus-them.” This shows us that there is life beyond divisiveness, that true community is people caring for each other because they want to – not because they are forced by government policies to do so.

Sooner or later, I will hear the objection (because that’s the type of people we are): “These stories aren’t real! They’re completely made up!”

True. But the same applies to Jesus’s illustration of the Good Samaritan. It’s a story—a parable. That doesn’t mean there is no truth in it.

Hallmark Christmas movies are a wink to the audience. They don’t pretend to be real (and the joke is really on those who take them too seriously). Instead, these movies show not what is, but what could be—if we all just reset our priorities, cut the drama and vitriol, and put people and community first.

If you hate Hallmark Christmas movies, don’t worry. Soon, there will soon be a whole ten months where everybody can hate on each other again.

P.S. Full disclosure: As I write this, the Hallmark Channel is on in the background. I look up just in time to see beautiful businesswoman and the rugged widower embrace and kiss. Then it starts snowing.

[1]Toni Fitzgerald, “Behind the Hallmark Christmas Movies Juggernaut: Ratings Just Keep Rising.” https://www.forbes.com/sites/tonifitzgerald/2018/10/26/behind-the-hallmark-christmas-movies-juggernaut-ratings-just-keep-rising/#760f2a9051ed Accessed, 11/3/2019.

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Dear Lord, help me not to be a jerk today!

This week, while preparing to teach in a new state, at a new school, for a new school year, I taped a poignant prayer to my computer monitor.

It wasn’t the masterful, insightful words of a Francis of Assisi, or Teresa of Avila, or even an average pastor on an average Sunday morning. It did not ask God to glorify himself through me, or to make me a better man, better teacher, or better Christian.

It was far more basic and less spiritual:

“Dear Lord, help me not to be a jerk today.”

That’s all. I wish it were something more profound, but the truth is – sometimes I can be a jerk.

There are a number of reasons my jerk nature erupts. Sometimes it’s because I just disagree with someone about something. Or I’m ticked off about the way something went. Or – here’s a big one – some authority over me (say, my employer, or my local government) implements a policy that I hate.

Most often, I become a jerk when I feel I am not in control. This is pretty scary, because when am I actually in control of anything? So opportunities always abound for me to be a jerk. I can think of too many relationship moments I have blown because – instead of being the approachable, trustworthy person I want to be – I was a jerk.

And I am a good one. I suspect “being a jerk” is one of my spiritual gifts, and I am sure it is in the Bible somewhere. I can be an aggressive jerk that picks fights over the silliest, most trivial things, or a critical jerk that tells everyone they’re off the mark. If my arguments are proven wrong, I am put to shame – but even if I am proven right and “vindicated,” what good is that if I’m a jerk about it?

I can also be a passive-aggressive jerk – being nice to people’s faces, but bashing them behind their backs. I can be gossipy, sarcastic, or just plain mean. It feels good, but it does not enhance my spiritual growth or build trust with others.

So I taped this prayer where I can see it every day.

When I pray, “Lord, help me not to be a jerk today,” I am thinking only of myself. Narcissistically speaking, this prayer is all about me, and me alone.
Sure, it always feels better to point out how others are being jerks and how they should stop. Sadly, I absolutely love doing that! But the whole splinter-vs.-plank-in-the-eye thing that Jesus taught kind of sucks the fun out of it. In fact, my desire to call out others for being jerks probably says more about my own jerk status than it does theirs.

So I can only discuss me being a jerk.

I don’t want to be a jerk. But the truth is, sometimes I can’t help myself. Giving in to my jerk nature is too easy, and at times I don’t even know I have given in until it is too late. I immediately regret it, but often the damage has been done.

Unfortunately, my jerk nature is yet another embarrassing symptom of my sin nature. It is a part of my brokenness. And no matter how I try, I cannot just wake up one day and get rid of it by will-power.

Instead, I must lay my jerk nature at the cross. I must give it to the one who has conquered all sin. Every day.

So this little prayer begins with “Lord,” establishing who I serve: my Savior, not my sin nature. It is Jesus who brings peace amidst the turmoil that triggers my jerk nature.

The prayer continues with “help me,” reminding me that I cannot stop being a jerk simply by my own effort. I need the power of the cross to overcome this sin. I must give my jerk nature to Jesus. To this day, I am amazed at his unconditional acceptance of me. There is no sin so big that the cross cannot cover it – and conquer it.

Then the prayer asks that I not be a jerk. This is the heart of it – what I want the most.

Finally, the prayer ends with “today” – a reminder that I need Christ’s power now, today, every day. Without the word “today,” I could be overwhelmed by all the days ahead of me, and also waiting a long time for help. I need victory today, not tomorrow.
And when tomorrow does come, my prayer will be the same:

“Dear Lord, help me not to be a jerk today.”

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