My Actual Year In Review: 5 Things God Taught Me in 2015

December isn’t just a time for the same Christmas songs to be looped on all the muzaks, it’s also the time that all the end of the year lists and reviews come out! Facebook throws together a compilation of all the pictures you posted that got the most likes, Spotify puts together a playlist of the stuff you listened to the most, etc. These are all fun to look at, but how much do they actually tell us about that person’s life over the course of a year? Unless you’re the kind of person who uses Facebook like your psychiatrist’s couch, nobody really knows what’s going on with everybody else on there.

You post some pictures to show you have fun like everybody else, you post your political opinion to show that you’re involved like everybody else, but where’s the real you? This is something I think about a lot. Facebook has created an environment where we can superficially keep up with more people than we ever could have before, and this has wonderful benefits. Unfortunately, it also brings about the devolution of deeper relationships. You’ve heard all those complaints before, and this isn’t some long post about that. That’s just to say that what I’m about to do is let you see more of my actual personality than you ever get from the surface-level things on my wall. I hope this makes you feel closer to me.

2015 has been my favorite year of my life so far, which is essentially what I’ve said about every year from 2012 onward. The reason why 2012 is important was because that was the year that I finally realized that I needed to live my life for God, and not for myself. I was scared of this concept before and I ardently tried to avoid it, but a smorgasbord of circumstances that occurred in 2012 led me to realize what I really needed to be doing: Living life as a mission opportunity for God, delighting in His blessings and creation, and investing in things with an eternal nature.

Here’s the things that God really taught me specifically in 2015.

1. Take Action In Your Faith

I used to not naturally want to talk about religion, or think about it very much. I would rather think about how to level up in the video game I had just bought, or try to figure out out to get some girl to notice just how impressive I was. My life was pretty darn superficial. When I started investigating religion more, I felt more convicted to live differently, but I didn’t act on it. I chalked up a lot of things Jesus said to being “impossible” and something that He wouldn’t really expect of me, so I had a free pass to be an underachieving believer.
This was in about 2013, I’d say.

I was still reeling from the implications I was picking up from the previous year. I felt like I was stuck in a rut of my previous life that I couldn’t escape from. I felt like I needed an actual new start somehow that I couldn’t find. Then God delivered and gave me one. I found out around the summertime that my family and I were finally going to move back to Atlanta, GA after having lived in Orlando, FL for a decade. Talk about a new start! I was slightly sad to leave Orlando, but I mean “slightly” in its most extremely slim form. I was really totally relieved and renewed at the prospect of getting out of Orlando. Don’t get me wrong, there were friends I had to leave behind that really broke my heart. But it was the change I so desperately needed to move on with my life.

For 2014, I essentially took out a year to learn. I actually read 365 books that year, I held a “real” job that involved math and accounting stuff, and I started properly retraining my mind for God. When that year was ending, I felt like it was time to get involved with giving rather than receiving knowledge and wisdom. In March of this year I started up a class on apologetics in my church’s college ministry, and teaching that helped me to see this point more than I ever had before. I felt able to do what I had always wanted to in life since 2012: start sharing the Gospel everywhere I go.

I devised all sorts of ways in my mind to make myself as effective as possible for this. I’m still not perfect at it, and I wish I had done more throughout the year, but it’s something I’m actively trying to improve. One of my best friends, David, told me about how D.L. Moody would make sure that he told at least one person about the Gospel every single day. This is what I want my life to look more like. I try to think about how I can do my best work for the kingdom everyday, but I need to be more active in fully expressing what I believe to someone on a more consistent basis.

This is what I keep teaching my students and telling my friends is the most important thing in life. As Christians, we were given specific instruction on what to do when Jesus left us! He told us to “go and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20). This means that our life’s mission given by God is to go and bring people to Him, and mentor and build those in Him. It’s really very simple. Instead of avoiding the subject of Christ everywhere we go, we should be seeking how to reveal Him and glorify Him to the world everywhere we go! If you want more specifics on what I think we can do to make this a reality, I encourage you to contact me (you can message me on Facebook, or use the phone number I’ll put at the bottom of this article).

I only rediscovered this verse last month, but it’s really the main theme of what God taught me in the last half year.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror  and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.  But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.”
– James 1:22-25

2. Exercise Patience and Persistence

When I was a kid, I was known among my family for having anger management issues. I even had a t-shirt with Donald Duck on it that said “I Failed My Anger Management Class.” That wasn’t too far from the truth. I’ve greatly mellowed since then, but it’s still a struggle to not get exasperated at things. One of the main things that exasperates me is having to be patient. Tom Petty said “the waiting is the hardest part,” and I really wish I had written that. There’s a lot of things in life that I’m waiting for that might never happen, and a lot of things that I’m not waiting for that will happen.

Earlier this year, I was talking with one of my friends at church about some of my disappointments, and he told me to just remember “The two P’s: Patience…. and persistence.” You’re supposed to read that with an extremely heavy molasses-slow Southern accent too, by the way.
This meant nothing to me the first time he said it. Of course, that’s obvious. I don’t need to put thought into it. But he kept saying it over and over! Alright man, I get it already! Patience and persistence! Loud and clear! As our conversation ended he said: “Now you’re going to remember what I said, right? Patience… and persistence.” Yes. Ugh. I will remember it. How many times do I have to hear this?

Well, I got home later and it was still ringing in my head. “Patience and persistence.” These axiomatic words just wouldn’t leave me. “Why is something this simple haunting me?” I wondered. I started to think that perhaps this was the Holy Spirit yelling something important to me and that I had to listen up. What I realized was that I didn’t really have patience or persistence. I wanted what I want right now, and if I didn’t get it when I wanted it I would just move on to something else. Piano playing could be one example. If I can’t play “Rhapsody in Blue” within a couple of days, I must not be good enough at piano and I need to go do something else.

Obviously, this way of thinking is erroneous and harmful. All things worth pursuing in life require a hefty amount of patience and persistence. It could be acquiring a skill, getting healthy, working towards a degree, etc. I’m quite prone to perceiving life as a sort of race. I see all my friends getting to do things I’m not capable of yet, or achieving things I wanted to do five years ago. It makes me feel like I’m falling behind and becoming a disappointment. Life isn’t actually a race though, and most of the time it just takes a whole lot of those good ol’ “Two P’s” to make it through.

3. How To Deal With Failure and Diminished Self-Worth

charlie-brownSpeaking of feeling like a disappointment, I want to address this somewhat-similar topic while I’m at it. If there’s anything I struggle with more than anything else, it’s the idea that I am a failure. When I was a kid my favorite character in Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comics was Snoopy. I related to his boundless imagination and rambunctious sense of humor. Now as I revisit Schulz’s work I’ve realised to my horror that I’ve become Charlie Brown in many ways. “Everything I touch gets ruined,” and other ludicrously mopey things he says suddenly sounded all too familiar to me.

I have a lot of lofty expectations for myself. I think of someone like Emitt Rhodes (who made an album just as good or better than Paul McCartney’s solo stuff at 19 years old) and wonder “Why haven’t I achieved something like him yet?” I’m not just speaking musically either, I mean there’s all sorts of goals that I have that I constantly disappoint myself in. I feel like I’ve barely contributed anything of worth to the world. This is why It’s a Wonderful Life speaks so much to me. I constantly try to imagine a world without me, and it really doesn’t look all that different in my head.

If I express this I know people will try to say things to make it seem like my life has more worth than that, but I know in the grand scheme it really doesn’t. I can’t even remember my own great-grandfather’s name, let alone know what kind of a person he was! I’m his direct descendent and I don’t know a lick about him! You can’t live expecting to have such a wide-reaching impact/legacy that even your grandkids a couple generations down will remember who you were.

When I expressed my sense of failure to one of my friends, they said: “If you did your best, then there’s no need to think you failed. You gave it your all.” That’s a good point, I thought. I responded by asking “But what if your best isn’t what you desire it to be?” No response.

I can answer that. God has given each of us gifts and abilities that make us who were are. We can’t be the best at everything, or maybe even one thing. This is how He meant it to be, though, and claiming disappointment in your best is actually an extremely ungrateful way of thinking. The reason being because that is actually disappointment in God, and not in yourself. If you do your best to use the gifts that God has given you for His glory above all, and you do not languish them away because you feel they’re not good enough, than that’s all you can be asked to do. This is not even to go into the immense power the Holy Spirit gives us when we are in Christ.

To make a great story short, it’s the love and sacrifice of Jesus Christ for my sake that gives my life any worth. Without Him, I am nothing. In Him, I can try my best for His sake. I still struggle with the concept of being a disappointment to God and to my family and friends in my darkest times, but I’m trying my best to not think this way. Prayers would be appreciated on that.

4. Make Hard Decisions Now, Not Later

wishyThese last two points are not as heavy as the previous one, as I’m sure you’re relieved to hear.

The title really speaks for itself here. We all face a lot of difficult decisions in life that create all sorts of back-and-forth dialogues in your head where you’re trying to pick the best option. It’s a confusing process. What I’ve learned in this year especially though, is that we shouldn’t let these decisions languish for too long before making them. My friend Michael recently made a post where he said “ambiguity is never good, and indecisiveness kills.” I fully agree. This reminds me of one of my favorite Charles Dickens quotes: “Never do tomorrow what can be done today. Procrastination is the thief of time.”

I used to procrastinate constantly. I could get distracted by hundreds of other things. When I realized how short my time was here, and all the important things I needed to do first, it was the first step for recovery from this lifestyle for me. Now I’m much more decisive and focused. If you’re the kind of person who has New Year’s resolutions, I would recommend trying to build your ability to focus and make tough choices. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve personally thought: “Wow, I’m so glad I finally dealt with that problem. I really wish I had made that decision earlier.”

Don’t waste your time away putting important things on the backburner when your whole life could be improved if you had the backbone to make the right choices now. I may feel more and more like Charlie Brown as I grow older, but don’t say I’m wishy washy!

5. Building Relationships Matters More than Anything

Last but most importantly, is the building of relationships.

The thing that just kept reinforcing itself to me throughout 2015 was the importance of maintaining and building relationships you have with others. I tell my friends frequently that there’s only three things you take with you from earth to Heaven:
1. Your relationship with God.
2. Your relationships with others.
3. The memories you made with them.
Because these things are the most important, I try to remind myself to build these on a daily basis in a deeper way. It can be as simple as messaging someone to see how they’re doing, or scheduling a fun get-together. Any interaction with others in this way is going to lead to stronger bonds.

When I moved from Orlando to Atlanta, the main thing I was worried about was making friends. I have a more difficult time making friends than most people do, and I had spent years of hard work and effort to make friends in Orlando. How could I possibly start over and do that again? I felt like I’d be in Atlanta for five years before I had a single friend! For a long time, it seemed like this would be the case. It wasn’t until August of last year that I started to really get connected with my church’s college ministry, and ever since then I’ve become friends with so many people that I unfortunately can’t keep up with them the way I want to! I really appreciate the efforts of the people who reached out to me in this time. They showed me how to meet others and be a good friend.

Not only are your relationships the most important thing in life to invest in (relationships are the most important key to evangelism, which is the most important thing above all), but they’re the thing that brings the most joy. The reason why 2015 is my favorite year so far is because of my growth in God, the relationships I developed, and the friends I’ve made. I’m so grateful for all of the relationships that God has blessed me with this year. I never expected anything like it, and I’m still floored by the opportunities God has given me to experience wonderful times with so many.

I really encourage everybody to take the time to build these relationships with others every day. One way I recommend is simply appreciating others. You don’t know how encouraging it is when someone tells you that they care about you, or that you’ve positively affected their life. I know it makes my day when people go out of their way to say something nice to me, and imagine if you could try to do that for someone every day! Not only is that building them up and giving them confidence in Christ, but it goes a long way in them becoming more open to you. Instead of criticizing yet another thing we find fault with, let’s take time to praise what we love.

With that being said: I specifically want to thank some people who really made this year my favorite so far.

God, who deserves all the glory first and foremost, has made this year one of great joy for me. There is truly no words that can be adequately said of how thankful I am to Him. I fail everyday to properly give praise to Him, and while I know nothing I say will ever be adequate enough, I’ll just keep trying to say it.

To my family, who have always known the best and worst of me, and who influence me more than anyone else. Thank you for building me up and dealing with me another year. The first thing I always thank God for is that He blessed me with that I truly think is the best family possible. If I wrote down what I thought an ideal family would look like it would be you guys. I can’t express how extraordinarily lucky I am to be a son, a brother, a nephew, or a cousin to all of you.

To my Defenders fellows: Kevin, Jonathan, Cody, Bobby, Drew. You guys have helped me grow in ways that I didn’t know were possible. Dr. Craig may have taught me most of what I know about philosophy, but you guys showed me how to live it. God blessed me in bringing to me a group of like-minded guys like you to show me that I’m not the only person who’s a theology/apologetics nerd, but that I always have so much more to learn. Thank you for giving me much-needed humility, advice, and fellowship.

My college ministry peeps, you guys are what made Georgia home again for me. I’ll never forget how welcoming and open all of you are, and to start trying to explain all the various ways you’ve impacted my life would be virtually impossible. You’ve made me feel like there’s a whole group of people who truly care about me, and that I’m not alone. There’s so much more I could say, but I’ll try to thank each of you individually when I get the chance.

To my Facebook friends. I’ve gotten to know a lot of people over the internet who have impacted my life. Some I’ve eventually met in person, and others I haven’t. But I want you all to know that I deeply care about you, and that it’s such a blessing that we have the kind of technology that allows us to build friendships together even when we’re not geographically close. I pray for you all!

To Zach, my best friend always. It truly breaks my heart that I haven’t seen you in person in a year, and that we were both so ludicrously busy all year that we barely got to speak to one another. But the times we did talk affected me just as much as the times where we would talk on the phone every day. The impact you’ve made on my life can’t be overstated, as I’ve told you so many times. I hope you realize that.
I miss you a lot, and I can’t wait to visit you in Chicago sometime in 2016! Make reservations at a fancy restaurant under “Abe Froman” for me!

To Victoria, my best freind. It was really you that made this year what it was for me. I don’t know where I’d be without you, and I really mean that. You inspire me and support me more than anyone else. You ask all the penetrating questions I don’t think of and make me rethink all of my long-held opinions. You helped me step way out of my comfort zone when I needed it (335 feet outside of that zone precisely), and always listened to what I had to say even when I was rambling (your astonishing recall of small details of things I’ve said is unbelievable and somewhat scary). I wish I had more time here to ramble about you, and this is definitely not as good as I wanted it to be, but just know that you made my year. I only wish we had had even more time.

Thanks again to everybody who interacted with me this year and encouraged me, and thanks to people that I didn’t mention. There’s a lot of you out there, and I care about all of you.
Here’s to an even better year in 2016!

Love and mercy to you all!

Other Things From Over the Year: 
Best Movie: The Force Awakens was fantastic, but the best movie this year was definitely Love and Mercy. Watch it. Watch it. Watch it. WATCH IT!!!!
Best Books (from earliest in year to latest): 
Reasonable Faith – Dr. William Lane Craig
C.S. Lewis – Alister McGrath
Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Walt Disney – Neil Gabler
A Room With a View – E.M. Forster
The Law – Frederic Bastiat
The Everlasting Man – G.K. Chesterton
Watership Down – Richard Adams
The Complete Poems – George Herbert
The Gospel According to Tolkien – Ralph C. Wood
Walking On Water – Madeleine L’Engle
Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus – Nabeel Qureshi

Please comment or contact me if you have any questions, or if you just want to catch up more. 🙂
321-948-4542

 

Advertisements

Being More Like Charlie Brown: Finding Love in Complete Hopelessness

charliebrown.jpg

“Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy.” – Charlie Brown

Christmas isn’t always “the most wonderful time of the year.” In fact, for many it can be perhaps the most difficult time of year. It can remind you of loved ones you’ve lost, it can remind you of your lack of love, it can accentuate your poverty, it can frustrate you with its barren commercialism, it can show you how much you hate your job, it signals another year in which you failed to accomplish your goals, and it can make you feel like you’re isolated. Sometimes it can be disappointment in society, but generally it’s disappointment in yourself. You don’t feel the way you think you’re supposed to feel. Isn’t Christmas supposed to be good, or magical? Shouldn’t it make me happy despite how poorly my life is going?

If this is how you feel about the coming of Christmas, A Charlie Brown Christmas was made for you. If not, that’s wonderful! Praise God! But there’s still a lot you can learn from this unassuming little TV special from 1965.

There’s many articles on the internet that examine the fascinating history of the special. There will be even more in the next few days as the special celebrates its 50th anniversary! To summarize, it was produced on a shoestring budget with little to no expectation of it actually succeeding. It was completed ten days before it was due to be aired, and there was nary a person that thought it was a winner. As we know, they all turned out to be wrong, and now 50 years later the special is a staple of the American consciousness. It solidified the Peanuts gang as a worldwide phenomenon, used real child actors for the first time in animation, was an introduction to real jazz music for many, and its message and style spoke so deeply that for thousands of people it is still an annual tradition.

–  What makes the special so, well, special? And how does it speak to issues in my life? 

If you found yourself relating to that opening paragraph, you’ll probably find this opening sentence of the special remarkably accurate.

“Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy.
I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.
I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess.
I like getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy.
I always end up feeling depressed.” – Charlie Brown

philosophybrownTo have the opening line to what is assumably a show geared towards children deal so directly with themes of depression and anxiety in its very first piece of dialogue is nothing short of remarkable. The scene of the show is very clearly set at the get-go. It’s Christmas time. The kids and Charlie Brown’s dog Snoopy are all enjoying the onset of the season. They’re skating around the frozen pond with abandonment singing the lyrically joyful “Christmas Time is Here.” Charlie Brown and Linus take a walk to their favorite philosophizing wall (it’s really the Peanuts version of the ancient Greek Agora), and Charlie Brown poignantly confesses his discontent with the supposed season of cheer.

Charlie Brown is quickly rebuked by Linus, who complains that Charlie is the only person he knows “who can take a wonderful season like Christmas and turn it into a problem.” Unfortunately, Linus mistakenly emphasizes Charlie Brown’s isolation by agreeing with his manipulative sister Lucy’s judgment: “Of all the Charlie Brown’s in the world, you’re the Charlie Browniest.” Just like every human being, Linus is no perfect example. He makes an enormous mistake here. He could have carefully and thoughtfully addressed Charlie Brown’s concerns with Christmas, but instead he foolishly dismisses the issues with an ill-conceived putdown. While we see later that Linus is capable of intellectualizing his faith, he disappoints when he had a chance to put it into action here.

I almost wish there weren’t a holiday season.
I know nobody likes me.
Why do we have to have a holiday season to emphasize it? –
Charlie Brown

peanutsAfter Linus’s missed opportunity, we see Charlie Brown continue to wax philosophic on his seasonal depression. He checks the mailbox to see if anyone sent him a Christmas card this year. No one has, of course. He eventually seeks out the assistance of the town’s self-made child psychiatrist, Lucy.

After pre-paying for her services, he summarizes his problem for her. She proceeds to imitate the psychiatrists she’s seen on TV by trying to “pin-point” the fear so that they’ll be able to “label it.” She’s not as interested in actually helping out Charlie Brown as she is in feeling pride in her ability to correctly label his fears scientifically. This scene is quite funny since it satirizes the modern urge to correctly “label” an issue, or to point it out, rather than to actually just help when you see a problem. Not to mention that when Lucy finally says she sympathizes with Charlie Brown, she says her depression is due to getting toys or bicycles for Christmas instead of the real estate she really wants. Good grief.

Lucy does have one suggestion for Charlie that he decides to try out. The school needs someone to direct the Christmas play, and what better way to get into the spirit than to “get involved in some real Christmas project”? As Charlie Brown makes his way to the school to direct his play, he discovers that even his own dog and sister have both sold out to the commercialism of Christmas. All Snoopy and Sally want this year is “money, money, money.” This disgusts Charlie Brown and furthers his increasing isolation.

Charlie finally makes it to the school to direct the play, and it goes disastrously. Charlie thinks it’s his inability to do anything right, but it’s really the fault of his crew. His direction is clearly superb, but no one is willing to respect him or stay disciplined. They goof around and complain about their parts or their lines. Charlie is clearly losing the battle, and Lucy reminds him that “Christmas is a big commercial racket” anyway (run by an eastern syndicate, no less). But Charlie is determined for his play to not be commercial. He decides that what they need is a tree, so he takes a break from the play to go find one with Linus, not without being instructed to “do something right for a change” from one of his cast members.

treepicking.pngThe following scene where Charlie Brown chooses the Christmas tree is at the center of the thematic crux of the show. The rest has been a build up to this moment. Charlie Brown has been consistently failing to succeed, and this is his big chance to prove himself to his friends and family. He’s been instructed to get “the biggest” aluminum tree with the brightest pink paint, but his convictions are pulling him elsewhere. To bring some Dante Alighieri into this, Charlie Brown could be seen as the Dante figure (the hero undergoing salvation) here with Linus being his Virgil (guide). They descend into the underworld of the most brash commercialism. The lights are bright and the beauty of the Christmas trees surrounding them are literally hollow and fake. Linus taps the aluminum tree and sarcastically quips:
“This really brings Christmas close to a person.”

Charlie Brown isn’t having any of this, and slowly we see the camera pan over the sea of artificiality to finally rest on the sole wood tree of the lot. “Gee, do they still make wooden Christmas trees?” Linus asks with sincere surprise. The rest of the dialogue is worth quoting:

Charlie: This little green one here seems to need a home.
Linus: I don’t know, Charlie Brown. Remember what Lucy said? This doesn’t seem to fit the modern spirit.
Charlie: I don’t care. We’ll decorate it, and it’ll be just right for our play.
Besides, I think it needs me.

Charlie Brown already understood the real meaning of Christmas right here, simply on a general revelation (an understanding of God from nature). After feeling confused and disillusioned with the commercial nature of the season, Charlie sought truth and meaning in the Christmas season. When no one was willing to support him and all of his friends and family had turned against him, Charlie Brown still made the right choice and saved the lost and helpless. Charlie Brown became a Christ-figure in this scene. He was surrounded by the temptation of not fulfilling the duty he knew he needed to perform deep down, but he triumphantly rescued the real tree from its helpless isolation. He willingly sacrificed the approval of the world he so desired in favor of performing the compassionate action that no one else he knew would be capable of making. Not only was he willing to buy the most undesirable tree, but he saw immense value in it! He didn’t care that it didn’t fit what his friends expected, he knew with the proper care that it would be “just right.”

Besides, I think it needs me.”

I remember being floored by this selfless act of love when I was young and I would obsessively watch this special. In fact, it made me feel horribly convicted even then! I remember thinking to myself: “If it had been me, would I have bought the ugly little tree instead of the bigger beautiful aluminum ones I was pressured to get?” My answer to that was essentially a disappointed “no.” I felt like I would have sacrificed my convictions in favor of worldly approval, which deeply bothered me. Charlie Brown made me feel like it was me who didn’t understand the true meaning of Christmas!

Charlie Brown returns from his greatest moment to these words.

Boy, are you stupid, Charlie Brown.
What kind of a tree is that?
You were supposed to get a good tree. Can’t you even tell a good tree from a poor tree?
I told you he’d goof it up. He’s not the kind you can depend on to do anything right.
You’re hopeless, Charlie Brown.
Completely hopeless.

When you go against the wisdom of the world, the world kicks you down.
This cacophony of lies causes Charlie to seriously doubt his decision. He mistakenly believes he’s once again caused a disaster. He’s gone from his greatest moment of triumph to his darkest all in one fell swoop. He finally bursts out in agonized frustration, begging for an answer.

Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?

After being more or less a neutral deterrent for the majority of the episode, Linus speaks up with what he should have said at the very beginning.

Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.

PeanutsChristmasWhat follows is without a doubt one of the most transcendent moments in television history, because Linus answers that question with nothing short of perfection. Instead of systematically explaining the reason for Christmas, he tells the story of a boy not too unlike Charlie Brown. A boy who was born into a world where He was more isolated than any person ever has been. The world hated Him, in fact, they attempted to kill Him on multiple occasions! But instead of bringing sadness, He brought great joy and love. This boy is the answer that Charlie Brown is seeking. Not only is He as authentic and uncommercialized as anything can conceivably get, but He saves the isolated and hated from their misery, and brings them the greatest possible joy. He is everything that Charlie Brown is looking for, and more.

Charlie Brown thus receives his special revelation (an understanding of God through the supernatural) of what the Christmas season truly means through hearing the Word of God. Its meaning is a celebration of the birth of the world’s Savior: Jesus Christ the Lord. What Linus recites is Luke 2:8-14, the scene where the angels tell the shepherds of the Messiah’s birth: “And the angel said unto them: ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring unto you good tidings 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.”
“That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

Charlie Brown is rejuvenated by this discovery of Christmas’s true meaning, and he sets out into the night to show everybody just how great his little tree can look. He discovers that Snoopy won the first prize in the contest which promised oodles of money, but he refuses to let this lavish commercialism impede him. He takes one of Snoopy’s ornaments and attempts to dress the tree with it. When this causes the tree to completely droop over, he thinks he’s “killed it” and that “everything he touches gets ruined.” He runs away in shame.

When all his friends come back, they find Charlie’s tree and begin to appreciate it. “It’s not bad at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love.”
They take Snoopy’s first-prize-winning decorations and dress the tree up into a magnificent piece of art. Charlie Brown returns, and is stunned. His friends wish him a Merry Christmas, and they all join together to sing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”

“I know nobody likes me.
Why do we have to have a holiday season to emphasize it?”

This is the point of the holiday season, Charlie Brown. It’s there because of the one person who will always love you even when the world hates you. Just like a little bald boy loved a sad looking tree in the middle of a lot when no one else wanted it, this person completely sacrificed everything out of His deepest love to save the smallest and ugliest trees. He doesn’t want to see you waste away in a lot where you don’t belong, feeling unloved and forgotten. That’s precisely why He was born on that Christmas day long ago, so that He could come down and rescue you from your death: your loneliness and alienation: your fear and anxiety.
In His love, these things are no more.
You’re not completely hopeless after all, Charlie Brown.

 Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!” 

a-charlie-brown-christmas.jpg

Thank you so much for reading all the way through this post! It’s a bit longer than I was expecting, but I felt like I needed to make all the points I did. I hope it encourages you to be more like Charlie Brown this season. Not by feeling depressed due to whatever may be going on in your life, but by seeking the answer that will make all of your problems null. Charlie Brown actively seeks answers to the things in life that bother him, and he takes radical action in showing the love for others like him that he seeks for himself. I pray we can be more like that this season.

This is the second post I’ve done surrounding Christmas this month, and I’m planning on doing a few more (my next one I’m planning is about my favorite Christmas book that barely anyone has read). If you have any topics or questions that interest you about Christmas, send them to me, and I might turn my answer to you into a post!

Thanks again for reading, and I pray that this Christmas is one of discovery of true meaning for you.

Joyful, all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies
With the angelic host proclaim:
“Christ is born in Bethlehem”

A Counterfactual Christmas: God, George Bailey, Scrooge, and Alternative Futures

counterfactualchristmas

As The Beatles once said: Christmas time is here again! That means it’s time to crank the Phil Spector Christmas album and deeply ponder philosophical issues surrounding the direction your measly existence is taking (and whether you can change it or not): putting the “merry” in Merry Christmas, obviously!

I’ve decided to address/consider some of the philosophical/theological questions that may arise around the advent season through a short series on my blog. The first question that we’ll be exploring is:

Does the concept of alternative futures based on possible choices make sense with Christian theology?

When I was a kid, I loved Christmas movies a lot. I would watch just about anything that had people dealing with various struggles around Christmas. Most of the time it was saving Christmas (it apparently needs a lot of saving) or changing someone’s negative opinion of Christmas. There were a few “adult” (i.e. no Mickey Mouse) Christmas movies I would watch that I didn’t feel like I fully understand the point of, but I watched them anyway because I enjoyed aesthetic aspects of them. There are two movies on which my whole opinion has utterly shifted as time has passed: It’s a Wonderful Life and Scrooge.

I loved both movies as a child, but it took time and maturity for their meaning to seep into my soul. Obviously there are a hundred versions of Charles Dickens’ masterful A Christmas Carol (which if you haven’t read yet, you absolutely must this year), but I specifically mention Scrooge because it is the best version, and I will fight you over that.

It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol are both a bit similar when you get down to it. They’re both movies that involve a character being granted a chance to see “what could have been and what could be.” George Bailey is on the verge of committing suicide, and Ebenezer Scrooge leads a meaninglessly greedy existence. Both characters receive a visit from supernatural creatures that reveal what their life choices mean in the grand scheme. Bailey is shown an alternative future where he never existed, while Scrooge is shown the way his choices in life would and could affect the world.

Getting back to the question: does this idea of alternative futures make sense in Christian theology? Depending on your theology, yes!

First of all, we’ll say that God is omniscient. This is a standard attribute that we believe God possesses, but what does it mean to know everything? According to Dr. William Lane Craig, omniscience “is defined in terms of propositional knowledge of knowing only and all truths, but not necessarily having all non-propositional knowledge.” To say that in lay terms, it means that God knows all truths, or facts. There is no true statement that God does not know. For instance, “I am Garrett Cash” is a truth that He knows. But this does not mean He also has all non-propositional knowledge, since that would cause Him to think erroneous and absurd things. Instead of me just being Garrett Cash, now He also thinks that I’m William Lane Craig, or Brian Wilson! Maybe non-propositional knowledge isn’t so bad after all!

Joking aside, having all non-propositional knowledge would certainly be a “negative property,” as Dr. Craig points out. What I do believe that God has, however, is something called middle knowledge. According to Kirk R. MacGregor, middle knowledge is “God’s foreknowledge of all things that would happen in every possible sets of circumstances, both things that are determined to occur by those circumstances and things that are not determined to occur by those circumstances.” If you could read through the philosophy-ese there, you’ll see how this relates to our tales of Christmas!

This is to say that not only does God know all of the things that will happen in the world, but He knows all of the things that could happen! For instance, if you walk into the bookstore you’ll meet someone who’ll end up being your best friend. If you don’t walk into the store, you’ll never meet them and you’ll never be friends. God knows all of the various circumstances that could arise from the decisions you make over the course of your life. These circumstances that God has knowledge of are called counterfactuals in philosophy. To get technical, counterfactuals “refer to conditional propositions in the subjunctive mood and assume the following form: if something were the case (when in fact it may or may not be the case), then something else would be the case. This encompasses not only statements that are contrary to fact, but also true conditionals in the subjunctive mood.”

potstatNow are you seeing how this relates to the stories? A large portion of both It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol focus on what could have been and what could be. In the former, we see a dystopic present world that exists only in the possible world where George Bailey was never born. In the latter, Ebenezer Scrooge revisits the past and the present through the new lenses of his ghostly companions, and eventually sees the possible world where he perseveres in his avarice. These are all glimpses of counterfactuals that they are permitted to see. These things would be true under certain circumstances (e.g. George Bailey not being born, or Scrooge being greedy), but under other circumstances they become false.

Are there any examples from Scripture that would attest to this doctrine of middle knowledge? One of the most frequently cited passages, that I greatly enjoy, comes from 1 Samuel 23:6-13:

 “Abiathar son of Ahimelech fled to David at Keilah, and he brought an ephod with him.When it was reported to Saul that David had gone to Keilah, he said, ‘God has handed him over to me, for he has trapped himself by entering a town with barred gates.’ Then Saul summoned all the troops to go to war at Keilah and besiege David and his men. When David learned that Saul was plotting evil against him, he said to Abiathar the priest, ‘Bring the ephod.’ Then David said, ‘Lord God of Israel, Your servant has heard that Saul intends to come to Keilah and destroy the town because of me. 11 Will the citizens of Keilah hand me over to him? Will Saul come down as Your servant has heard? Lord God of Israel, please tell Your servant.’ The Lord answered, ‘He will come down.’ Then David asked, ‘Will the citizens of Keilah hand me and my men over to Saul?’ ‘They will,’ the Lord responded. So David and his men, numbering about 600, left Keilah at once and moved from place to place. When it was reported to Saul that David had escaped from Keilah, he called off the expedition.”

Dr. Craig comments on this passage in his book The Only Wise God:
“This story was understood to show that God knew that if David were to remain at Keilah, then Saul would come to get him, and that if Saul were to come get David, then the men of the city would hand him over. For if God’s answers through the ephod are taken as simple foreknowledge, we must conclude that his answers were false, since what was predicted did not happen. But if the answers are understood as implications of what would happen under certain circumstances, then they were true and serve as proof of God’s middle knowledge.”

I had always assumed that God has middle knowledge just from my general conception of His sovereignty, and also from, you guessed it, movies like It’s a Wonderful Life! It only makes sense that God would know what would happen to you given any circumstances He places you in, considering His divine foreknowledge. What gets more contentious than simply affirming middle knowledge is the way it gets applied to the problem of divine foreknowledge and human freedom. Far from being a pointless debate, the implications of God’s middle knowledge in relation to this issue are precisely what gives these stories so much of their power and meaning for me! 

ghost_of_christmasA Christmas Carol is really the best example to use here. Here’s two questions that determine the way you view the situation theologically:

1. When Scrooge sees the future of his own making, is he seeing a future that is not actually possible because God had already predestined Scrooge to have a change of heart? This would mean that the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is simply showing Scrooge an illusory future intended to frighten Scrooge into his predetermined fate where the real future will take place. This view would be theological fatalism.
Or:…
2. Is Scrooge seeing a future that is actually possible and will take place if he decides not to change his heart? That means that he is still capable of freely choosing whether or not he will live in such a way that the dark future shown to him will take place, or he can freely decide against that.

This is not to say in option two that God is not aware of which one Scrooge will actually pick (this position is called open theism). Luis de Molina, the 16th century Spanish theologian that founded the concept of middle knowledge, would have said that God foreknew which path Scrooge would take. In fact, God predestined Scrooge to be in the certain circumstances he was in so that he could bring about the effect that God wished for him to have.

Does this idea affirm theological fatalism, that because God knew this and predestined it, that Scrooge’s becoming a new man wasn’t a free act? Quite the opposite! Because of God’s middle knowledge, He was able to give Scrooge an absolutely free choice, knowing for certain which one he would actually choose. This doesn’t mean that Scrooge couldn’t have chosen otherwise; the nightmare of a future that Scrooge saw wasn’t an illusion! That was an entirely possible reality! For instance, I could choose to run out in front of traffic today and die. This option is entirely available and I am fully capable of carrying it out. Nothing is stopping me. But will I do it? No! Just because I know I won’t choose a certain circumstance doesn’t mean I don’t possess the free will to carry it out if I wanted to.

What this all means in the spirit of Christmas is what the stories embody. You have the power to make the right choice, and to change the future to be the one you will be proud of. Saying things such as: “I guess my *insert life shortcoming here* was meant to be” doesn’t make any sense on this view. You don’t have to be Scrooge: grouchy and dissatisfied with life. You don’t have to be like George Bailey either: deeply disappointed and dissatisfied with life. Each of them had remarkable blessings despite their personal hardships.

As Christmas comes around this year, let’s try not to grumble about all of our “first world problems” and other varying struggles of no consequence. Let’s also not let the big stressors like Mr. Potter or a history of broken relationships make our lives crippled and destitute. You have the free will to choose to make the most of your hardships by making a difference to other people, like Tiny Tim, or Ernie the Cab Driver. What if George Bailey had been aware of the impact he had on others? What more could he have accomplished if he had been aware? You have the same influential pull with many people, and you most likely don’t even realize it!

To choose a “Christian” life lacking vigor for being Christ-like is empty and meaningless. James says that people who say they believe in Christ without doing anything about it are “deceiving themselves” (James 1:22).
Let us remember these words from Deuteronomy 30:19-20:
“I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, love the Lord your God, obey Him, and remain faithful to Him.”

Choose life! Use your God-given free will to make the past you’re proud of, the present you’re making a difference in, and the future you want to see.

Its-a-wonderful-life

I’ll be posting again soon on another one of my favorite Christmas staples: A Charlie Brown Christmas! But unlike most Christian considerations of the great TV special, this post will focus on Charlie Brown instead of Linus. Can’t wait to discuss, as usual!

Works Cited:

Craig, William Lane. “12 – Middle Knowledge.” The Only Wise God: The Compatibility of Divine Foreknowledge and Human Freedom. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1987. N. pag. Print.
Craig, William Lane, Dr. “Is God All Knowing? – Robert Lawrence Kuhn and William Lane Craig.” ReasonableFaith.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Dec. 2015.
MacGregor, Kirk R. “A Theological Reformer for the Universal Church.” Introduction. Luis De Molina: The Life and Theology of the Founder of Middle Knowledge. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. Print.