Everyday Christmas #17: Fatherless

“We’re sending more foster kids to prison than to college.”

That’s a quote from a foster care worker in a special series released this week by the Kansas City Star investigating what happens to kids who age out of the foster care system in the U.S. You can read the main story here, and it’s absolutely heartbreaking and terrible.

We are failing so many children in this country. 443,000 kids are in the U.S. foster system, 23,000 of whom age out every year. 4,000 of those end up homeless, on the way to addiction and sex trafficking. Many more are headed for prison. We do more to investigate families than try to keep them together in the first place.

Foster kids are diagnosed with PTSD at a rate greater than Iraq war veterans. Many bounce from home to home. All they want is love and family and they can’t find it. The story opens with a kid now in prison who has the last name of a family who adopted him from foster care – and then gave him back.

Read the story. I know you don’t want to because it’s Christmas and everything is happiness and light, except it’s not. Lives are being ruined, and we’re not doing enough to help.

I don’t know exactly what that means, and I don’t know how to change the tide (yet), but I do know God’s heart is for the fatherless, and the church can and should do more.

Yes, it will be hard and costly and it will turn your life upside down to get involved, more than you even know. But these are souls made in the image of God who have nothing and no one and they don’t know where to turn and they need help.

You know whose example we should follow? Joseph, the husband of Mary, the father of Jesus. 

He found himself in a situation he did not expect. He was not the biological father of the baby in Mary’s womb, and he may have wanted to run the other way and leave the mess for someone else to clean up.

But he didn’t. He stayed. He took responsibility for a child that was not his own, and he loved him and raised him and provided for him like Jesus was his own flesh and blood.

We need more people willing to do the same, and more people willing to help those people.

Jesus needed an earthly father, and as Joseph held the newborn baby in his arms and looked at the stars that first night,  he must’ve wondered how he was going to accomplish this task. We wondered that when we started to foster, and every foster parent feels the same way, and if you think that’s big, imagine how the kids feel. But the God who called and strengthened Joseph to be a father to his own son can call and strengthen us to care for the fatherless as well.

P.S. Read the story.

Everyday Christmas #16: Disappointment

We’re in the homestretch of buying Christmas presents, and things are busy. With six kids, it’s a challenge to get what they want as we try to stay within a reasonable budget and try to keep things fairly even.

We’re ordering presents whenever we get a few minutes, whether that is at night when the kids are in bed or if we have some time alone in the car. Side note: what did people do before online shopping? (This is a rhetorical question.)

This year, there’s not one major present that is going to blow their doors off (we already got a dog this year), but I think they’ll be happy. You want to avoid the disappointed kid face, where they’re trying to be brave, but they didn’t get that thing they really wanted, or something isn’t quite right or they’re just underwhelmed. And yes, I know presents are not what it’s all about and we do other things for our kids too, but I also want to give them a few moments of fun and delight.

And yet – at some level, every gift we give disappoints.

Toys will break, the fascinating new device will lose its appeal after a few days or weeks or months, the subscription won’t be renewed, the food will be eaten, the strategies for the game will run out, the batteries will die, the newness will wear off, the excitement will fade.

No material thing we give our kids will ever fully satisfy their longing hearts. They were made for more, and the only thing – the only person – who can give them what they need is Jesus. He is the well that never runs dry, the fountain that will never be quenched, the bread that always satisfies, the life that never ends.

When the excitement of Christmas morning fades and your kids are surrounded by piles of crumpled wrapping paper, they will find their true joy not in their earthly presents, but above, in the Giver of all good gifts.

Everyday Christmas #15: Humility

We were humbled recently by something one of our kids did that they shouldn’t have done. The details aren’t important – what’s important is that it reminded us that we are not quite as in control of things as we think we are. 

It’s human nature to try to create a perfectly curated image of ourselves for the world around us (hello social media), so when a kid spoils that image by acting up, we get worried that the people who see the kid misbehaving will think less of us. That’s pride at work in our hearts, and it’s a dangerous and insidious thing.

Jesus was not worried about what people thought. He was in the form of God – he was equal with God, the creator of the entire universe – but he didn’t count that equality as something to hold onto, so he emptied it all out to take the form of a servant and be born in the likeness of men.

But he didn’t stop there. He humbled himself even further, all the way to the point of death on a cross. We get righteously indignant if someone even hints incorrectly that we did something wrong. Jesus took the punishment for everything wrong we ever did by hanging on a cross in front of a crowd who thought he was criminally guilty, and he didn’t say a word.

That’s humility. He traded his throne for a manger, humbling himself because of his great love for us. The king became a servant, lowly and mounted on a donkey, so let’s let Christmas remind us this year that we don’t always have to be right, we don’t always have to be first, and we don’t always have to be highest. In the end, Jesus’ way is best.

Everyday Christmas #14: Mysteries

We use the phrase “coming to Earth” a lot at Christmas. Jesus came to Earth as a baby, for example.

But wait.

Where did he come from?

How did he get in Mary’s womb? Seriously, how did he end up as a growing baby inside a human being?

Here’s your answer. Ready?

I don’t know.

You don’t either. It’s a mystery beyond our comprehending that Jesus could exist from before the beginning of creation, from before the beginning of time, even, as a Spirit without a body, and that he could then take the form of a servant to come to Earth, the Word who became flesh and dwelt among men.

I can think all day long about this and not get anywhere. Jesus was fully God and fully man at the same time, and I don’t understand.

I don’t have to understand, but I do have to believe. I have to trust by faith that this is true, that his life, death and resurrection actually happened and that I can be saved by grace through faith. There’s the operative word – faith.

It takes faith to believe a mystery we cannot understand, especially when we’re talking about life and death. All available evidence points to a Jesus who was born, lived, died and rose again, but it really just comes down to our belief.

Here’s the thing – it takes just as much faith to not believe in Jesus as it does to believe in him because we can’t believe in nothing. As a tweet I saw recently said,  “Christians believe in the virgin birth of Jesus. Materialists believe in the virgin birth of the cosmos. Choose your miracle.”  – @glenscrivener

So, we have to be okay with not knowing every last detail of how things work, and for some people, that’s too hard to accept. The story of a virgin giving birth to a baby who grew up to become a hero who was killed and came back to life is pretty far out there.

A singer/songwriter named Jess Ray is part of the Behold the Lamb of God tour this year, and she wrote a line in one of her songs that perfectly encapsulates the mystery of God coming to Earth and saving us:

“It may be too good to be understood, but it’s not too good to be true.”

No matter how hard you think, you won’t understand how God became man. But that doesn’t make it any less true, so glory in that undeniable truth this Christmas season.

Everyday Christmas #13: Behold the Lamb of God

It’s nice living just a couple hours from Nashville. It’s a cool city and you get the chance to see some great shows occasionally. One of those times was this past Monday night when my dad and my son Taylor (11) and I went to see Andrew Peterson’s Behold the Lamb of God show at the Ryman Auditorium.

This is the 20th anniversary of the show, which Andrew and his friends do as a tour every year. The show, billed as the true tall tale of the coming of Christ, traces the redemption story from the Old Testament all the way through Christ’s birth, death and resurrection. I’ve seen it at the Ryman five or six times now, and I think it gets better every time.

It’s just a magical place to watch live music. The balcony seats are best, and while the pews are uncomfortable and close together, the acoustics are amazing, the sound is crisp and clear, and you can feel the music in your seat.

If you have never heard the show, do yourself a favor and listen, start to finish. The songwriting and storytelling is brilliant, and you will laugh, wonder and worship. Watching it performed live by a crew of talented musicians who clearly care about the message as much as the music is an incredible experience. The journey from Old Testament prophecy to New Testament fulfillment is thrilling and satisfying, and over the years, it has become a central part of the Christmas season for me. It was really cool to experience it with my dad and my son this year, too.

Andrew always assembles an all-star cast to play the shows in Nashville. When world-class fiddle and guitar and mandolin and banjo and harmonica and bass and piano and string players put their all into a song, you cannot help but rejoice, and when the entire place starts singing as we did on a few songs, well, you’d think you were at church, which is appropriate for a building that started life as a place of worship.

And yet, if something this good can be done in a broken, fallen place, what will heaven be like? As Tony Reinke writes, “Every pleasure in this world is pointing to another world. We live with a memory trace, a prompt that has been encrypted into our hearts, not recalled from our past, but a memory of some future we have barely tasted, of a homeland we have never stepped into.”

A homeland we have never stepped into. Think about that, and then think about how Jesus made a way for us to get home:

Gather round ye children come,
Listen to the old, old story
Of the power of death undone
By an infant born of glory
Son of God, Son of Man

 

 

Everyday Christmas #12: Not a Silent Night

The last couple nights have not been silent at our house.

The following things happened, plus all the normal stuff, plus things I’m forgetting. (Children shall remain nameless to protect the innocent/guilty):

– One child had at least six stinky diapers in one day, including one at her brother’s basketball game where there was one place to change her in the entire building – the changing table in the bathroom the boys’ team used as its locker room. She thought she was falling off the table every time she moved, so she screamed in terror every time I tried to wipe her. This came after my search for a place to change her, which led me through a door that apparently I was not supposed to go through because it set off an earsplitting alarm, which also caused this child to cry loudly in terror. (This is “funny” because that was the second time in less than 24 hours I set off such a loud alarm. The first was when I got home at 1 a.m. the night before from the Behold the Lamb of God show in Nashville (about which more shall be written later) and the alarm keypad batteries had died so I couldn’t turn off the alarm, which erupted with earsplitting wails of its own, waking up one child and one mama who was gracious but not particularly happy. Not a great day for me and alarms.) Okay, back to the list.

– Situations came up involving two children that we had to talk to other people about. They didn’t really do anything wrong and neither were huge deals, but the situations still took up time and thoughts and phone calls.

– The stinky diaper child needed a bath to cleanse the stinky area, which led to her siblings’ bathroom, which was less than clean, which led to a few moments of frenzied cleaning while the child was in the tub where I lamented society’s future if this room was any indication of the generation to come. There were ridges of toothpaste on top of the toilet seat. How in the world?

– One child needed several items printed for a class the next day but neglected to inform us until the night before, so we got the old printer out which took many, many, many very long minutes to spit out one page except I tried to plug in the computer at the same time and knocked the printer plug out right in the middle of the page. Then we had to start the many long minute process again. I have always had an adversarial relationship with printers. This did not help.

– Because of my lack of sleep and general crankiness, I may have spoken in a less than kind manner to several family members. Approximately 14 of them needed something all at the same time, and, well, you know.

– Our beloved dog must have heard me say in the morning that it had been a long time since he had had an accident in the house, so that evening he proceeded to poop in the dining room.

– One child may have forgotten how to do long division. When I tried to help this child, I may have forgotten how to do remainders. Then I had to go clean a stinky bottom.

– Bedtime is an ever-receding horizon, that may or may not ever be reached each night. I also may have forgotten to say goodnight to the boys.

– I had a conversation with one young child that went like this:

Child: Mommy, why – 

Dad: I’m not Mommy. Do I look like her? Am I pretty and do I have long, black hair?
Child: My hair is brown.
Dad: Yes it is, just like mine.
Child: Your hair isn’t brown.
Dad: It’s not?
Child: No.
Dad: What color is it?
Child: Gray.

Well then. No Christmas presents for you, child.

– I opened the front door to figure out why the Christmas lights outside weren’t working and – I am not making this up – a bird flew straight into the house. The kids got really excited and started chasing the little thing everywhere. He made it to the kitchen, ran into windows, went downstairs and perched near the ceiling upstairs. We may or may not have thrown socks at him and played bird sounds on the tv to get him down. He probably spent at least 20 minutes in the house before we got him out. So teachers, I’m sorry if our kids don’t have their lunches or their homework tomorrow. It’s the bird’s fault.

– We have a Christmas, sporting or church event every single night this week. Mountains of laundry wait to be folded, but one child has managed to grow out of almost literally all of their shirts. Christmas lists must still be managed. Dinner must be made. Other discipline situations arise. The kids have a Christmas program they need specific outfits for. 

This is life, and even though much of it is frustrating in the moment, here’s why it’s ultimately okay:

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation … all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him, all things hold together … for in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” (from Colossians 1)

In him, all things hold together … even stinky, cranky things. He is in every moment and every moment is holy when he is there. We’re not just changing diapers and chasing birds and helping with homework. We’re loving our families with a million small acts every day that may lead them to love Him, and though we might experience surface frustration, underneath it all, we have a sure foundation because the Image of the invisible God in whom the fullness of God dwelled made peace by the blood of his cross. He did that by coming to Earth as a man, which we’re going to hear our kids sing about tonight, and maybe just for a few moments, the night will be silent.

Everyday Christmas #11: The Wonder of Christmas

This is a guest post for this series by my dad, Tim Hoak …

There is often a lot of talk during this season about the wonder of Christmas. What that usually means is the decorations and lights and trees and glitter and parties and good will and the right music and family and friends and just the right gift (how did you know??) and spectacular Christmas specials and endless Hallmark Christmas movies and that unexpected blanket of soft snow on Christmas morning and the glow of candles and bright, expectant children’s faces when they see the presents under the tree and the watching of It’s a Wonderful Life for the umpteenth time and the food – oh, the food! And the winter wonderland neighborhoods sparkling with more lights than you can count and the wonder of Alabama not making the college football playoffs, and the sweet sounds of children singing in their church or school Christmas programs and … you get the idea.

But the real wonder of Christmas has nothing to do with those kinds of things, as wonderful and enjoyable as they are. The wonder of Christmas, once you get past the sky splitting open with angels and wise men being guided by a star, has no remote resemblance to anything we would classify as wonder.  

It looks more like poverty. It smells like a stable. It’s being hunted by Herod and fleeing to a foreign country. It’s living in a no-account town out of which nothing good has ever come. It’s being misunderstood and maligned and falsely accused and relentlessly badgered and finally rejected and abused and slapped and spit upon and whipped and stripped and nailed to a cross to die.  

That and more ought to drop our jaws and widen our eyes in wonder because it happened to the Son of God so that the likes of us might be rescued not only from the wrath of God, but from the delusion of thinking that the wonder of Christmas is as shallow as an inch of snow or as thin as a piece of wrapping paper.

The wonder of Christmas is nothing less than the incarnation of the Son of God so that sinners – yes sinners – might begin to reflect something of the glory of God in a dark and broken world. The wonder of the incarnation is seen in lives that have been changed forever. It is seen in visiting the fatherless and widows. It is seen in a child’s bedroom where a father pours out his heart in prayer to God for the conversion of his sleeping child. It is seen in a mother’s clinging to Jesus when her heart is breaking over the loss of her infant. It is seen in taking the Gospel to the local homeless shelter week after week.  

And it is seen in a thousand other ways and places where the message of the Gospel has come. So, the real wonder of Christmas is the glory and power and beauty of the Gospel because without Christmas, there would simply be no wonder at all.

Everyday Christmas #10: Waiting

Sometimes it seems like Christmas is all happiness and light, but it’s not that way for everyone. In the midst of joy and brightness, there is sorrow and suffering, made even darker when suffering saints inevitably compare their circumstances to the jolliness it seems everyone else is experiencing.

But maybe you’re not jolly at all. Your marriage is falling apart, and you don’t know what’s next because your spouse doesn’t seem to care. Your doctor has no answers, and neither does the next doctor or the next, and while you wait, you’re scared because you don’t know what the problem is. Bills stack up, and there’s stress about all the presents you’re supposed to buy. Anxiety creeps in and won’t leave. The ache from your missing loved one is unbearable.

It’s not just your own life – the world is dark too. Persecution grows, wickedness abounds, divisiveness increases, and there is distress everywhere you look.

You’re waiting for the trouble to end, for the happy-ever-after to get started, but life isn’t a fairy tale, and it’s hard to face the fact that things aren’t turning out like they were supposed to, like they seem to be for everyone else.

It’s not easy, and there’s no magic answer to make it better, but this is not the first time God’s people have waited. Between the Old and New Testaments, they didn’t hear from God for 400 years. Four. Hundred. Years. That’s a while, and they must have been filled with despair on many days.

They knew God had made promises to his people that a Messiah was coming to deliver them, but he put no time limit on his words, so they just had to wait. They must have searched the scriptures, reading those promises over and over.

And then, finally, after centuries, the promises began coming true. The virgin conceived, the child was born, the angels sang, the shepherds worshiped.

We’re waiting now, too, for more of God’s promises to be fulfilled, the promises that say he will come again, that he will gather his children to himself, that he will end Satan once and for all, that death and pain and sorrow will be no more.

We long for that reality to be true, and as we wait, we’re in the in-between. Christ has already come to Earth once, but he has not yet come again. Knowing he is returning doesn’t make the waiting easy, but it gives hope when hope is in short supply, when all around us is crumbling and the dark threatens to extinguish the light.

Hold on, the promises are urging us, hold on. Wait through tears, but wait with hope because God came once as a baby so that he could come again as a conquering King to make all things new.

Everyday Christmas is a series of Advent meditations designed to connect the everyday happenings of our lives to the coming of Christ to Earth as a baby. Find links to the entire series here.

Everyday Christmas #9: 90 Miles

A few weeks ago, I accomplished a project I had wanted to do since we moved to our house more than two years ago. Our neighborhood is on top of a hill surrounded by woods – we have about an acre of yard, and then the woods begin. Behind the woods near the bottom of the hill is a small pond where our kids like to fish. Sometimes they even meet their friends who live on the other side of the pond.

The problem is that the woods are choked with underbrush, which makes it hard to fight through to the pond. It was a struggle anytime someone wanted to go.

So I built a trail through the woods from our house to the pond. I had the boys show me the basic path they took, and then I raked out the beginnings of the trail. A friend brought a couple chainsaws over, and we cut through the underbrush and branches to make the way passable. We finished by running a mower over the trail and blowing it off to make the path visible.

The results were great. A meandering trail down the hill, through trees, over and around bends – it’s a delight to walk, even if it only takes three or four minutes to get to the pond. The kids can head back whenever they want with no trouble at all.

I have always loved hiking a trail in the woods, and now we have our own. It’s a joy to walk back through the trees, to watch them drop their leaves, to be connected to the land, to get the kind of nourishment in your soul that only comes from being outside.

Mary and Joseph had to undertake a hike before they had a baby, but it wasn’t for fun, and it wasn’t easy. The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem was about 90 miles, and Mary obviously wasn’t able to travel quickly, so it probably took them anywhere from four to 10 days on foot.

They likely traveled along the Jordan River and then through the hills surrounding Jerusalem before reaching Bethlehem. It may have been cold, it may have rained, and they may have had to keep watch for lions, bears, and wild boar that roamed the Jordan River valley. They would have had to carry food and water with them. Once they arrived, the only accommodations to be had were in what was probably a cave-like area used to house the animals.

All this to say: Mary and Joseph were not pampered royalty. They knew the hard realities of life. Mary likely worked long, hard days just keeping up with cooking, cleaning, building fires and doing laundry. Joseph was a tradesman who worked a physically demanding job as a carpenter, callouses building up on his hands. They knew how to work, and they knew what life was like for normal people.

And when it came time to have a baby, they traveled by foot and donkey, with no first-class seating available. They dealt with the weather. They basically stopped at campgrounds all the way to Bethlehem. They slept on the cold, hard ground and woke up stiff and sore to face another day of travel.

These are the kinds of people God chose as parents of the Messiah. Not ivory-tower academics, not kingly royalty, not celebrities, but real, ordinary, everyday working-class people who knew right from wrong and who had the faith to obey God’s call.

They put one foot in front of the other for 90 miles until suddenly, the moment was upon them and they met their son, the Savior of the world.

Everyday Christmas #8: Number the Stars

One of the unanticipated benefits of having a dog is taking the dog for a walk. I knew he would need to walk, but I didn’t really think about how good it would feel to be outside more often.

We all take turns walking him, and I have been surprised at how cleansing and refreshing it is to regularly spend just a few minutes outside. The air is cold and fresh, and watching the seasons change in front of you as you get away from the busyness of the house for a few minutes is a great reset for your soul.

I’m usually the last one to take him out at night, and if the sky is clear, I can see thousands of stars scattered on a velvet background. I saw Orion tonight, the ancient hunter, one of the few constellations I actually know.

I look at those stars, and I think about how Abraham turned his gaze to the sky as God told him if he could number the stars flung across the heavens, he could number his descendants. Oh, and he had exactly zero children at the time.

Abraham had faith. Faith that God’s promise to him would come true when all evidence suggested otherwise. Faith to pack up and move his entire life to a land he knew nothing about. Faith to believe that from his children would come the Savior who would reckon that faith to him as righteousness.

Yes, his faith wavered at times, but doesn’t that ring true to your experience? That’s why it’s called faith – you believe even when it doesn’t seem true, even when you don’t feel like believing.

God’s covenant with Abraham wasn’t only for Abraham, but for all those descendants who would follow after him, heirs not just according to blood, but according to the promise God made that he would bless the world through his family – namely, through Jesus.

One of my favorite Rich Mullins lyrics says, “Sometimes I think of Abraham / how one star he saw had been lit for me.” That’s amazing. When I’m walking the dog and looking at the stars in the Kentucky sky, I’m connected, through promise and faith and a baby born in Bethlehem, to Abraham, who numbered the stars in the Canaan sky.

God sealed his promise to Abraham with a flaming torch passing between sacrificed animals. We won’t see a torch, but we can see the stars, and rejoice at God’s faithfulness through the ages.