What the Grinch forgot to tell us

recite-10xeq49Perhaps Christmas means a little bit more.

I love the Grinch. I love his yearly television transformation from grumpy misanthrop into loving apologist. On top of Mt. Crumpit, he welcomes the enlightenment of Christmas without gifts. He understands that there’s more. A whole lot more.

And then…

He gleefully returns the gifts. The story ends as he slices the roast beast and joyously claims the gizzard.

He never fills us in on the more.

Our neighborhood has a contest each Christmas that determines the families with the best outdoor light displays. One of the categories is Most Religious. This year, there were exactly two neighbors with decorations focused on the birth of Jesus. Two.

It’s kind of like having a birthday party, and neglecting to invite the birthday boy.

My own light display is lacking. Every year, we go full Griswold. We have an inflatable snowman, a blow up Santa, reindeer, snowflakes, candy canes, and enough lights to serve as a Georgia Power Christmas bonus. There is no Jesus. No wise men. Mary is noticeably absent. Joseph wasn’t invited.

Some of my best childhood memories are of our family trips to Mema’s to share in our holiday anticipation. I would fidget my way through Christmas Eve church services, then try my best to grab a quick five or six winks so Santa could do his stuff. By 9 a.m., the living room floor was hip deep in wrapping paper. By noon, everything new was old again. By the 26th, we were looking forward to the next Christmas.

God has been talking to me this year. Loudly. Firmly.

It started with my daughter’s engagement. She and her fiance allowed that Santa just might not be a part of their children’s Christmases. He was raised celebrating the birth of Christ, not 40% off. At first, I was heartbroken. And then…

One of the youth directors at our church asked me to help lead a class for college students. The title of the lessons says it all.

Christmas: It’s not our birthday.

Then, today, with no knowledge of the struggle I’ve been facing, a friend forwarded me an article written by journalist Kristen Powers. Once an atheist, the Fox News contributor writes about her transformation and how Christianity “ruined” her love of Christmas. Her newfound love of Christ supplanted her childhood adoration for the pile under the tree.

She’s invited Jesus back to His birthday party.

Now, I’m not here to kill Santa. I don’t want to put the big man on trial. Santa represents joy. He represents the spirit of sacrifice for the sake of others. But it’s time for Santa to take a backseat to a baby.

Christmas is about Jesus. It’s about a dirt poor infant born in an uncomfortable place in an uncomfortable situation. It’s about the greatest man ever to walk this earth, who taught us how to give without standing in line at Kohl’s. He taught us about love, unconditional and abundant. Jesus arrived on this earth to command that we love all others, even if they’re big, green, hairy, and hateful.

The Grinch didn’t change all on his own. He changed because of the love and attention offered by a child. Most of the Whos found the Grinch frightening and repugnant. The very characteristics others found repulsive, Cindy Lou Who found appealing. She kissed his dirty warm cheek, and the Grinch was reborn.

Funny. Jesus has a special love for the weak and downtrodden. He looks at the worst in all of us, and finds a reason to give us acceptance and compassion. Our sins, no matter how green or hairy, are instantly forgiven.

What a gift. Why on earth do we need anything else?

Santa is magical. But magic is an illusion. The gift of Christ is so real that I can feel it every time I fail and He instantly grants me grace. I feel it when I’m overwhelmed with stress, and a few moments of prayer lifts my burdens and sends it crashing into a landfill, the very same trash heap that is filled with last year’s Christmas toys. Jesus is not invisible. He’s there in the smile I wear. He’s in the hug I offer those in need. He’s in the meals I will deliver to shut-ins this Christmas Eve.

Christmas is changing for me. Perhaps it should have happened a long time ago. I’m not evicting Santa, but from now on, Jesus is driving the sleigh.

Jesus is the “something more” that the Grinch was talking about.

It’s his birthday. Let’s invite him to the party.

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Bulletproof

recite-by751uGuns don’t kill people.

Hate kills people.

I am a follower of Christ. Jesus provided me with very straightforward instructions when it comes to my relationship with others. He wants me to love. Everyone. He asks me to love even those who don’t love me back. It’s not always easy. Still, I don’t think you have to be a Christian to understand that love is better than hate.

And yet…

Every day, it seems, I read where hate can claim another victory. Death leads to debate. Some are convinced more guns will end the violence. Others insist on new laws that further restrict our ability to obtain weapons. In between, there is a giant void that we fill with mean-spirited dissent. Disrespect. Insults. Our opinions come loaded with gunpowder and a fuse.

An article with President Obama’s reaction to the recent mass killings in California included a comment section.

“I hate that man,” wrote one who disagreed with the president’s stance.

How can we expect others to love us when we can’t even love and respect each other?

It’s no longer just acceptable to hate. It’s become chic. It’s now vogue to express your rancor in a pithy 140 characters and a biting hashtag. In my grandmother’s day, you didn’t talk about someone unless you had something nice to say. Nowadays, you need to whittle your insults into an original sharp jab or it’s just not worth the space on Facebook.

Our issues don’t end with guns. We can eliminate every Ruger, Remington, Magnum, Kalashnikov, and Daisy Red Rider under the sun. If the hate lives on, we’ve still got a major problem. You load a gun with bullets. Hate pulls the trigger.

Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.

Jesus said it. In days like this, it’s hard to comprehend. Not only did the guy in the Humvee cut me off, he extended an extra long finger when I tapped the horn. Love him? There’s no asterisk in the Bible that provides an exception for the neighbor with political views that aren’t in line with mine. I mean, he’s always insisting he’s right, and there’s no question that I’m right. It gets even more complicated when we’re talking about organizations with plastic explosives and master plans. Love your enemy. Jesus said it. Not me.

It sure is a lot easier to hate.

It can be so comfortable. You slip into it like a nice warm sweat suit. Your neighbors are doing it. So are the people in the next town, and the next.

Someone has got to be brave enough to go against the grain.

Oh, how Pollyanna of you, Jerry. So, you’re going to bring down ISIS with a hug? Well, not exactly. I don’t have the power to eliminate that kind of white hot hate.

But I can respect my neighbor even when we disagree. I can get to know someone who might be perfectly kind and loving, rather than make judgments from afar based on their skin color or their last name. I can acknowledge that my upbringing and experiences help mold my outlook, and that a neighbor with different experiences is going to have a different view of life. It doesn’t make them a bad person. It makes them different, yet still lovable.

I’m not focused on gun control. My focus is on hate control, and I’m starting with me. Every time I wave a fist at a bad driver, it does damage. Every snarky remark, every haughty political declaration, every time I refuse to offer the forgiveness and understanding that could turn an enemy into a friend, I help spread the hurt. Every act of hate adds more fertilizer to what is already a bumper crop of wickedness.

Wouldn’t it be great if the world were filled with guns, and no one wanted to use them? What if they just sat there, gathering dust?

Yes, it’s a Pollyanna view that I have. Such a pipe dream. So unrealistic. You probably disagree and believe me to be a complete fool.

That’s fine.

I love you.

Knowing Richt from wrong

richtI love Mark Richt.

He deserves my love. He deserves my respect. He’s earned my admiration. Mark Richt has been kicked in the gut, and he is standing tall. Taller, in fact, than the very people who kicked him. During what has to be one of the lowest moments of his life, Mark Richt is a giant. Every time he opens his mouth, he sets another example of decency and virtue.

There is no need to continue the debate over whether or not he deserved to lose his job as football coach at the University of Georgia. That ship has sailed. What’s left is to cling to the standards he set. Mark Richt never compromised. He loved his players. He loved his school. My school. He knew the importance of pleasing wealthy alumni and fickle fans. He also knew it was far more important to honor and please his Lord.

Mark Richt doesn’t know me, and that’s okay. We met once, very briefly, years ago. It was one of the many coach-reporter encounters he’s had in his life, and he won’t remember it. On the other hand, he’s had a tremendous impact on me. I see in him a man of peace. As pressure and criticism rains down on him, he is steady and unafraid. He’s given it all to God, and in God he has assurance. The demands of unreasonable fans don’t scare him. Gators don’t scare him. Yellow Jackets, Tigers, and Rolling Tides don’t scare him. The Lord tells him to fear not, and Mark Richt is an obedient follower of Christ.

I wish I had that kind of faith, that kind of strength.

Mark Richt’s wins aren’t always kept on a scoreboard. His most important victories are measured in character. Talk to his former athletes. Ask Marshall Morgan, the once automatic kicker who found himself short on confidence. Prior to a big field goal attempt, his coach embraced him.

“No matter what happens,” Coach Richt assured his kicker. “I love you.”

Marshall Morgan made the kick.

Richt has booted players for various infractions, but he never abandoned them. Instead, he encouraged and continued to guide the very athletes who let him down.

Now, Georgia has booted Richt. His reaction?

“I love our fans.”

That includes the fans dissatisfied with the lack of championships, the fans who demanded Richt’s ouster.

“I respect the media.”

There were writers who called for Georgia to can Mark Richt.

“I love everybody, quite frankly.”

Not everyone loved Mark Richt. There are people who celebrated after the University of Georgia announced that Richt had lost his job. Imagine people partying over your demise. Mark Richt didn’t deserve such disrespect. Some of his harshest critics pointed to a program that was above reproach.

“We need a football coach,” some would say. “Not a preacher.”

My biggest fear is that Georgia will backslide when it comes to integrity. A national writer actually suggested that the Bulldogs need to soften up when it comes to discipline, that the new coach needs to be “freer” when it comes to second chances. No way. Mark Richt set a high standard for good behavior, and that standard should not be compromised. Georgia doesn’t need to be like everyone else. We should not be ashamed of requiring our athletes to act like decent human beings. They need to know there are rules and consequences, that the world is not one big rug where you can sweep your transgressions. Mark Richt did it right. He lifted his team high in terms of morality, and the next coach should have the strength to keep it high.

I pray that the character of Mark Richt will remain a part of Georgia football forever. It is his influence that caused Georgia to lift Devon Gales after a devastating injury, and turn a rival player into a Bulldog fan. It is Mark Richt’s compassionate spirit that leads his players to charity work. There’s a reason why other college coaches voted Richt as the man they would want tutoring their son.

Mark Richt loves the Lord. He is comforted by God, and that is why he answered questions about his firing without bitterness or resentment.

“I’m really at peace that it was part of His (God’s) plan,” said Richt. “I want to continue to be as obedient as I can be to the Lord.”

Mark Richt isn’t worried about tomorrow. He’s not concerned about the championships he didn’t win, or the fans he disappointed. His eye is on a Lord who loves him, who loves all of us, even as we fail.

Mark Richt is a champion.

And I love him.