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Some visual images are so striking and symbolic that they become deeply etched in our memory; like seeing a man walking down the street with a cross upon his shoulder, pulling it along behind him.  That is what I saw a few weeks ago as I was making my morning drive to the church office.  The man was headed west on 71st St. in Broken Arrow.  I was headed east, so I only got a brief glimpse of his face before I passed him and then watched his frame grow smaller in the rear-view mirror. 

I don’t know why I didn’t turn around, pull into a parking lot, and try to introduce myself to the man.  I’m sure that I felt pressed to get to the office by a particular time to get a jump on the day’s activities.  Like priests and Levites, I’m a busy man, you know.  I can’t be bothered by interruptions, no matter how much of a blessing it might end up being for me or someone else!   

I could have at least offered to buy the cross-bearer a cup of coffee or asked him if he had eaten breakfast.  Maybe then I would know his name, where he is from, where he was headed, and what his story is.  I passed on all of that so that I could stay on schedule.  My loss!  My foolish, clock-driven, OCD-induced loss!

I don’t know what this man’s intended statement and message was or if he even had one.  Maybe he was just doing this for the sake of doing it or as some sort of “performance art” in which the meaning is left to the eye and assessment of the beholder.  Regardless of his intent, he succeeded in communicating two powerful messages to me.

He reminded me of Jesus’ call to discipleship.  “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me,” (Matt. 16:24).   The road traveled by those seeking to follow in the steps of Jesus is not one of ease and comfort, but one of self-denial, sacrifice, and endurance.  The Lord was ready to challenge and rebuke anyone, including Peter, who suggested that it would be any other way (Matt. 16:21-23).

Leon Morris offers the following comments on Jesus’ sobering call to follow Him.  “There is nothing self-indulgent about being a Christian.  The disciples had probably seen a man take up his cross, and they knew what it meant.  When a man from one of their villages took up a cross and went off with a little band of Roman soldiers, he was on a one-way journey.  He would not be back.  Taking up the cross meant the utmost in self-denial.”

Also, the man pulling the cross through Broken Arrow reminded me of the burdens that people bear in their lives: long-term illnesses, financial hardship, fractured relationships, mental illness, addictions, guilt, bitterness, shattered dreams, etc.   What if the loads that are being shouldered by those around us were as visible as this man’s wooden cross?  Would we be a little more understanding and empathetic?  Would we speak more kindly?  Would we cut people more slack, give them the benefit of the doubt, and be a little less quick to judge?

It’s not a matter of if we and others around us are bearing burdens, just a matter of what kind and how many.  Everybody’s got one; most of us have more. 

Attached to the base of this man’s cross were two small wheels.  They bore a significant share of the load and contributed greatly to his ability to move forward.  Only very rarely, if ever, will we be able to completely remove someone else’s burden, but we can certainly lighten the load and assist in the ease of their journey.

“Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ,” (Galatians 6:2).

There was a lot of controversy in Tulsa a couple of weeks ago in the days leading up to the city’s annual Parade of Lights on December 11.  The parade, which dates back more than 70 years, has historically been known as the Christmas Parade of Lights.  However, prior to last year’s event, organizers dropped the word “Christmas” from the parade’s title.  This year’s festivities were billed as McNellie’s Holiday Parade of Lights.  McNellie’s Pub, a bar in downtown Tulsa’s Blue Dome District, served as the primary financial sponsor. 

The event drew national media attention when U.S. Senator Jim Inhofe announced that he would not be participating in this year’s parade in protest of the name change.  Inhofe has ridden a horse in the parade for many years.  The Senator was quoted as saying, “I did not do so last year, because I am not going to ride in a Christmas parade that doesn’t recognize Christmas.  I am hopeful that the good people of Tulsa and the city’s leadership will demand a correction to the shameful attempt to take Christ, the true reason for our celebration, out of the parade’s title.  Until the parade is again named the Christmas Parade of Lights, I will not participate.”  Instead, Senator Inhofe rode his horse in Broken Arrow’s Christmas Parade. 

Many others joined Senator Inhofe in crying foul, claiming that the parade’s name change was an affront to Christ and His followers.  Letters to the Editor lamented the ongoing secularization of our society.  Online discussion boards and Facebook pages quickly heated up with passionate comments.  Numerous Christians declared that they would boycott the Holiday Parade of Lights.  Members of the Tulsa City Council were urged to deny the permit for the parade or have their Christian faith called into question.  The Council granted the parade permit by a 5-3 vote in a special session.

My take on the issue?  I rather favored the name change…for religious reasons!     

Let’s see if I’ve got this straight.  The event was sponsored by an Irish pub whose website features a countdown clock to St. Patrick’s Day, not Christmas.  The parade included floats with dazzling lights, marching bands, drill teams, dance teams, giant helium balloons, Miss Oklahoma, and Santa Claus.  All well and good, mind you, but exactly which of these were designed to honor Jesus Christ, the divine Son of God?  By what measure would having Jesus serve as the honorary Grand Marshall bring Him glory and advance the truth of His Gospel?  The parade in Tulsa had about as much to do with Jesus as the $11 million Christmas tree in the lobby of the Emirates Palace hotel in Abu Dhabi.    

All of this controversy had me ready to just go ahead and concede Christmas to Santa Claus; just let the snowmen, reindeer, elves, nutcrackers, and department stores have it.  If we still want to celebrate the birth of Jesus, let’s pick another day, preferably at a different time of year, say June or July.  For those who consider such a celebration in hot weather unthinkable, pause to consider that December 25 is in the middle of summer in the southern hemisphere; always has been!  

Now that my rant is over, let me tell you what else happened on the day of the parade.

I spent the morning at St. Francis Hospital in Tulsa with my Dad.  I was asked to leave the room while he had a PICC line placed in his arm to accommodate the next six week’s worth of IV antibiotic treatments.  I headed down to the main lobby to wait for Kim and Hannah who were coming to switch out with me and spend the afternoon with Papa.  As I got close to the lobby, I heard a beautiful sound.  It was coming from a group of teenagers singing Christmas carols.  From their dress, they appeared to be Mennonites, but I am not certain.  I do know that their young voices communicated an overwhelming sense of sincerity and conviction.  As I stood in the lobby and listened, my eyes began to moisten.  When Kim and Hannah arrived, I hugged them and began to cry. 

I think the emotion of the moment was brought on by a combination of factors:  Mom’s death, Dad’s illness, having my family with me, and hearing the beautiful words of  “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and “Silent Night” sung by a group of young people who had given up their Saturday afternoon to encourage and inspire others with songs of faith.  I could almost hear Linus saying, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

So, I have resigned myself to live with my inner conflicts over Christmas.  The inspired birth narratives of Jesus in Matthew and Luke have been buried under nearly 2,000 years of traditions, customs, and cultural accommodations.  The sacred and the secular have been so thoroughly meshed in the observance of Christmas that they are indistinguishable to many people.  Still, in spite of all the confusion and commercialism, I am grateful for any occasion to reflect on the Word becoming flesh, Immanuel, God with us, and for a season in which hearts and hands are generously opened to those who are in need.

“She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).        

Have a joyous Christmas!  Offer grateful praise to God for sending a Savior!  Count your blessings!  Hug your family! 

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December 2010