Monday, January 29, 2018

Kickstarter # 4 - "Know Your Audience"

             Over the years, I’ve had a lot of jobs besides ministry, to help pay the bills.  When I was young, I sold meat from a freezer off the back of a pickup truck, door to door.  It was a tough sell, and often quite sketchy.  The guy who trained me showed me how to know your target audience and sell your meat in different ways, depending on who your customer is.  He told me, “If it’s a married man, you sell the steaks, you sell the sizzle.”  I tried it, and I was surprised that it worked.  He told me, “If it’s a married woman, you sell the marinade chicken, you sell the convenience.”  I tried it, and was impressed that it worked.  He told me, “If it’s a single man, you sell the seafood, you sell the romance of a preparing dinner for his date.”  I tried it, and was astonished that it worked.  “What if it’s a single woman?” I asked him.  He told me, “Flirt.”  I decided that wouldn’t work, because I didn’t have much to sell, and this meat was off the market.

            When you’re selling something, it’s important to know your customer base.  You don’t change the product, but you change the way you market it, to appeal to different potential buyers.  Over the past weeks, we’ve talked about catching a dream for new ministry, finding friends and partners to help make it happen, and making capital investments in entrepreneurial ministries to make them successful.  We’ve looked at how Kickstarter[i] connects inventors with investors and funds new business ventures.  The church needs to be in the same business of promoting people with ideas for innovative ministry, matching them up with those who can partner with them in terms of help and funding, and assisting them to launch their new endeavors. But no matter how good the product of the Gospel is, or how helpful your ministry, you’ve got to know your target audience in order to get buy-in from both partners and investors on the one hand, and your ministry recipients on the other.

            For example, the inventors of the Fidget Cube[ii] used Kickstarter to get them in touch with their customer base.  They didn’t market their product as a toy, but as a solution to a problem for people who constantly fidget.  They knew their target audience, and tailored their sales pitch directly to them.  In the same way, BauBax chose not to advertise their travel jacket[iii] as the height of fashion.  Instead, they knew their audience valued comfort and practicality over fashion, so they had no issue with creating four kinds of jackets full of pockets—even a blazer with a hood.  As weird as that is, customers are buying them up.  Knowing your target audience makes all the difference in a successful venture.
            The same is true in ministry.  When Jesus sent His disciples out on mission, He knew that the Gospel isn’t one-size-fits-all.  He sent them to a variety of audiences, each of which would take a different approach.  In Matthew 28:19[iv], Jesus says, “Go and make disciples of all nations.”  Following up on that Great Commission in Acts 1:8, Jesus says, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  All nations.  All people groups.  All kinds of folks, from all races, all orientations, all languages, all socioeconomic backgrounds, all levels of education.  Every little subculture you can imagine—bikers, Rastafarians, school teachers, white supremacists, people in the fitness culture, soccer moms, heavily-tattooed and pierced people, pagans, gamers, liberals and conservatives—take the blessing of God to them.  Remember—the Gospel never changes, but the way we present it certainly changes, depending our audience.  When Jesus ministered to different people, He knew that some people needed physical healing, while others needed a word of grace, and still others needed to be told to quit being so religious.  Some needed to be challenged to live differently, while others needed no challenge, but simply needed to be lifted from despair.  Jesus understood that knowing your target audience makes all the difference in a successful venture.

            The problem is that the church often takes a cookie-cutter approach to ministry. “Who’s your target audience?” we might ask, and the church answers, “People.”  And when you ask them what they want these people to do, their answer is, “Come to church.”  But Jesus’ commission to go to the ends of the earth means more than putting “Y’all come!” on the church kiosk.  It means finding the specific problems that are in your neighborhood or society, and offering a solution.  Fidget too much?  Here’s a solution.  Traveling uncomfortably?  Here’s a solution.  Need a little more meat in your diet?  Here’s the solution.  What if the church understood our target audience and offered solutions and approaches to real needs that are around us?  Illiteracy?  The church offers an after-school program.  Poverty?  Why doesn’t your church offer a clothes closet or food pantry?  Racial tension?  Let your church be the one to bridge the divide and promote reconciliation and real relationships.  To follow Jesus’ commission, you’ve got to know your target audience and offer a solution to meet those needs.

            Now, I’ve heard it said, “They won’t listen to the Gospel if their bellies are empty, so you’ve got to feed them to get them to listen.”  While this may be true, this smacks at a disingenuous kind of marketing strategy, where Christians do good things so that people will listen to them, so that Christians can convert them.  Instead, let’s think of it this way: It’s not until you begin living out your faith that anybody’s going to be interested in hearing what you believe.  So instead of clothing the naked for the sake of drawing in a target audience, offer them clothing because it’s the right thing to do.  Go ahead and shelter the homeless or offer English-as a-Second-Language classes or A.A. meetings.  That’s what the church should be doing.  But not so that you’ll look like you care, so that they’ll come to you, so you can evangelize them.  Instead, start with actually caring about your community, learning the needs of your target audience, meeting those needs, and then maybe, just maybe, you’ll have an opportunity to tell them about Jesus.  Because only then will you really be living like Him.  Rather than having a conversation with your Buddhist, Muslim, atheist, Jewish, or Hindu neighbor so that you can give your personal testimony and win them to Christ, how about having an open conversation with them because by doing so, you’re acting like Jesus?  And then, when there’s a true relationship, you can have faith-based dialogue based on mutual respect.  That’s knowing your target audience—because kickstarting ministries doesn’t mean you’re selling something.  It means you’re giving something away—the love of God and hopefully the love of Christ-followers who act like the One whose product they represent.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Kickstarter # 3 - Capital Investment

            When I went on my last cross-country flight of 3,000 miles, I traveled overnight so I could arrive in the morning.  My plan was to sleep comfortably on the airplane—seated in coach.  I thought I could put my seat back into a reclining position, close my eyes, and drift off to sleep.  Furthermore, I expected that everyone else would also be sleeping, so the cabin would be quiet.  I also thought my carry-on was sufficient for all the little items I might need.  Boy, was I wrong in all those things!  The seats didn’t tip back, the cabin lights were too bright, people talked through the flight, and it was so cumbersome every time I needed something, to drag my carry-on out from under the seat.  I wished I had purchased an amazing product for frequent travelers.  The travel jacket from BauBax[i] features a pocket for charging your cell phone, a built-in inflatable neck pillow and eye mask for when you want to sleep, earbud holder in the hood, built-in gloves, a drink pocket, pockets for your phone, passport, and sunglasses, a large pouch for your tablet, a secret pocket in case of pickpockets, and even a pocket for your blanket.  These comfortable, versatile jackets are perfect gifts for friends (or pastors/writers) who travel often.  😉 

BauBax’s travel jacket is one example of the many products made possible by Kickstarter[ii], an online service that matches inventors with investors to help turn great ideas into realities.  For ages, would-be inventors have had trouble getting their ideas off the ground because they lacked funding for the expensive patent process, production, or advertising.  But with Kickstarter, inventors make promotional videos about their potential products and then sell these items before production ever happens.  Investors pledge to purchase the products only if enough investors back the project, reaching a goal that makes production possible.  This way there’s no risk for the investor, and the inventor doesn’t have to worry about refunding potential investments if they don’t make their fundraising goal.  Kickstarter makes investing easy, and maximizes its helpfulness to those inventors who can put that capital to good use.

You might say that kickstarting new things is one of the main topics of the Bible.  God says, “See, I am doing a new thing (Isaiah 43:19).”  Again, God says, “I am making everything new (Revelation 21:5)!”  But in order to do a new thing, God wants us to invest.  Yes, the Bible has a lot to say about how we use our money—how we lend, borrow, spend, give, and invest.  In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells a story about a wealthy business owner who goes away and leaves his servants in charge of his finances:

To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more.  But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money (Matthew 25:15-18).[iii]

            When the business owner returns, he rewards those servants who invest his money and return both capital and profits.  But the servant who buries his bag of gold and returns simply a full but dirty bag—that servant is punished and fired.  Jesus’ point is this: God wants believers to be investors.

            Now, I want you to think about this.  With Kickstarter, investors win in a couple of  ways.  First, they get the satisfaction of knowing that they have helped an entrepreneur get their idea off the ground and jump start a new business.  By pledging their support, they play a part in helping somebody make a success in life.  But they also win because once that product has taken off, they receive the travel jacket or fidget cube or other product that they’ve helped create.  So, it’s a win-win situation.

            In the same way, you win when you invest in the ministries of your church.  Your offerings might go to support the kinds of things your church has been doing for the past couple of hundred years.  Or, it could be that someone in your church has had an entrepreneurial idea for ministering to your community in a new way that nobody has ever thought of before.  Like a Kickstarter inventor, they have a bold vision that just needs the backing of someone like you to support them.  When you invest into the ministries of your church, you win in a few ways.  First, you get the satisfaction of knowing you’ve paid the church’s electric bill, or you pastor’s salary, or funded a missionary, or fed the hungry, or clothed the shivering, or sheltered the refugee.  Second, you win because God says you get blessed when you give (not necessarily in a financial way, but there are many kinds of blessings).  Third, when your church is effective, it will thrive—and a thriving church will make a big spiritual impact on many people.  Fourth, a thriving church will grow in attendees, who will become investors who help more ministries thrive, until God’s influence expands more and more in your community and around the world.

            Now, I want you to know that this article isn’t off the cuff—it’s been fully approved by my stepmom!  I was talking it over with her, and she comes from a tradition where her congregation sold tickets to the highest-attended worship services.  So, she reminded me to tell you that investing in God’s work isn’t all about money.  Sure, there are bills to be paid (and a lot of them!) but when you invest your time and talent into your church, guess what happens.  People are helped, inspired, and challenged to grow.  The hungry are fed, the shivering clothed, and refugees sheltered, just the same.  How does this happen?  Well, maybe your hand is the one that puts free food on the hungry person’s plate.  Or, maybe you help the congregation in other ways that save the church money—dollars that can be put to better use when they sponsor the visionary, entrepreneurial, or daring outreach ministries of the church.  There are lots of ways to invest in the church—and when you do so, you invest in the lives of people who need God the most.

            Sometimes a weary traveler just needs a little comfort—and maybe, just maybe, BauBax’s travel jacket will help somebody find relief along the way.  Kickstarter investors help make that happen.  But life can be far more wearisome than an overnight flight or crowded airport.  Travelers through life need a little help on the journey—and maybe you as an investor can ease them on them on their way.  As Christians, we see people struggling every day, and we believe that, through Jesus, we have the answer.  Through your generosity you can invest in God’s people and the work of your church.  You can provide shelter and rest to those who need it most.  When you do, you can hear the Master say, “Well done, good and faithful servant!”[iv]

[i]  November 29, 2017.
[iii] Scripture quotations are taken from the NIV.
[iv] Matthew 25:21, 23

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Kickstarter # 2 - "Friends and Partners"

            In his blog, inventor and writer Dan Provost writes about the process of creating and marketing his invention, the Glif, [i] a tripod mount for the iPod that doubles as a stand.  Provost tells how he and his friend Tom first designed the simple gizmo on paper, improved the design through a computer program, and got it printed on a 3D printer, working out the bugs along the way. To fund the mass production and sale of their invention, they turned to Kickstarter[ii], an online agency that matches inventors with investors.  Unlike big corporate deals, these investors are generally average people like you and me.  By pledging to purchase an item once it reaches production, they enable the inventors to sell the product based on the idea, rather than having to mass produce the merchandise and sell it post-production.  The investors are actually buyers, purchasing the product ahead of production schedule.  For most inventors, the concept is the easy part.  Finding partners to help create a prototype and fund production—that’s something else entirely.  Kickstarter bridges that gap by crowdfunding, finding partners to help amateur inventors break into a difficult business.

Last week I pointed out that, “God still works through visionaries, Christ-followers who see the problems in our world and have enough faith to fix them.”[iii]  Perhaps, like the Old Testament character Joseph, God has given you a vision of a brighter future.  Or maybe, like another Joseph in the New Testament, you have dreamed of a solution to a problem you seen in our world.  It all begins with dreams and ideas.  For example, the church on your corner or the one you attend was established by someone who had a dream of a place where people could worship, learn, and grow in their relationship with God.  But it took more than an idea.  It took friends and partners to make that dream a reality.  About partnership and friendship, The Bible’s book of Ecclesiastes says:

Two are better than one,
    because they have a good return for their labor:
If either of them falls down,
    one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
    and has no one to help them up.
Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
    But how can one keep warm alone?
Though one may be overpowered,
    two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.[iv]

Throughout the Bible, we read of great heroes of the faith who succeed not on the own, but because they partner with others to make dreams a reality.  In a time of danger, Moredecai relied on his niece Esther to carry out the plan to save their people.  Jesus sent the disciples out two by two, knowing the strength in friendship and partnership.  Paul never did his missionary work alone, but always together with companions like Silas, Timothy, and Barnabas.  These champions of faith knew the secret we find in the book of Ecclesiastes: that a cord of three strands is not quickly broken.

What does this mean?  While one strand may be strong, and two twisted together may be stronger, a braided cord is strongest of all.  Two twisted strands represent friends who work toward a common goal, but the third strand in a braid is a picture of God’s partnership with them.  As God binds friends together, great things can be accomplished. 

Today I wonder, what vision has God given you, and how can you partner with others to make that dream a reality?  Maybe, like Esther, God has brought you to your church or your community “for such a time as this,”[v] so that you can communicate your ideas for new ministries or outreaches with others who can help make them happen. 

In my town of South Boston, Virginia, Bonita Nelson is one such visionary who has partnered with others to make miracles happen.  She told me, “I have been dealing with homeless people probably ten years. About two years ago, God spoke to me and said, ‘You're going open a home for these people.’ I said, ‘No, I'm not. I don't have the resources or the education. I'm old.’ But [God’s voice] kept coming back, ‘You're going to open a shelter.’"  Inspired by the Matthew West song, “Do Something”[vi], she began a ministry of the same name.  That song says:

I woke up this morning
Saw a world full of trouble now, thought
How’d we ever get so far down, and
How’s it ever gonna turn around
So I turned my eyes to Heaven
I thought, “God, why don’t You do something?”
Well, I just couldn’t bear the thought of
People living in poverty
Children sold into slavery
The thought disgusted me
So, I shook my fist at Heaven
Said, “God, why don’t You do something?”
He said, “I did, yeah, I created you” (now listen)
If not us, then who
If not me and you
Right now, it’s time for us to do something

As of December, Do Something has opened a house called the Passage Place, located at 1332 Moore St in South Boston, to serve as transitional housing and an education center for people in need.  In the beginning, a different building was donated for the cause.  Because it required too much renovation, it was sold and the proceeds went into The Passage Place.  Generous donations from other sources including churches, individuals, and organizations, have brought The Passage place to the point of recent opening. 

At the Passage Place, applicants who are approved will receive counseling, Christian teaching, aid for getting clean and sober, classes on budgeting, life-skills, and help being productive citizens.  They will also receive assistance getting jobs and new places to live.  Room and board will be provided free of charge to those receiving care, but will be funded by donations.  Nelson explains that The Passage Place is not a homeless shelter, but a transition ministry.  There, struggling people will move from a “can’t do it” mindset to a “can-do” attitude.  If you would like to contribute, you can make a check out to “Do Something” and send your tax-deductible donation to:

Do Something
P.O. Box 144
South Boston VA 24592

            Just like Kickstarter inventors need partners to get their businesses off the ground, ministries like Do Something need friends to come alongside and give their financial and practical support.  Maybe you’ve got some time or money you can donate to help see a charity like this get started.  Or, maybe like Bonita Nelson, you also have a dream.  I challenge you not to keep it inside—but talk with friends, pastors, and others who can make that dream possible, who can help you to “do something.”

[i] Provost, Dan.  “Idea to Market in 5 Moths: Making the Glif.”  The Russians Used a Pencil: A Blog about Simplicity.  November 22, 2017.
[iii] Smith, Greg.  Spirit and Truth # 553.  Kickstarter: “I Have a Dream.”  2017.
[iv] Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 NIV
[v] Esther 4:14 NV
[vi]Matthew West.  “Do Something.” Warner/Chappell Music, Inc. Released 2012.  November 22, 2017.

Kickstarter # 1 - "I Have a Dream"

            Did you ever have an idea for a project you wanted to undertake, but not have any idea how you were going to fund that project?  Maybe you invented something in your mind, but didn’t have the capital to invest in a prototype, patent, and production costs.  At home I have a copy of the blueprints my Granddad made for a new kind of fishing reel.  He had the whole thing worked out, but because he couldn’t afford to produce it, he could never sell it. 

Today, the internet makes it much easier for entrepreneurs to produce and sell their own projects.  For example, Fidget Cubes were invented as a device to keep fidgety workers occupied at their desks, but they needed financial backing. helped Antsy Labs come up with the startup money it needed to get the job done.  While the fundraising campaign needed investors to generate $15,000, the developers were surprised when almost 155,000 backers contributed $65 million to producing the product.[i]  By crowdfunding projects, Kickstarter has helped many entrepreneurs get their products and businesses off the ground.

            But it all starts with a dream.  In the Bible’s book of Genesis, Joseph was a dreamer who not only saw a problem on the horizon, but who also had the wisdom and insight to create and implement a plan to fix it.  This resulted in huge profits for the government he served.  In the book of Matthew, another Joseph had other dreams for how to take problems and bring about the best results.  1:20-24 says:

But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.[ii]
            In this case, Joseph saw a problem—that his fiancée Mary was pregnant out of wedlock.  He knew that he could quietly annul the engagement, and he could abandon her to the mercy of public opinion at best, and the merciless court at worst.  Yet Joseph had a dream that told him of a new approach—acceptance and even defense of what appeared to be sin in the eyes of religious society.  He could do this because he knew God had given him the vision—and God was with him. 

Then, after the child was born in Bethlehem, the holy family was visited by wise men who bore gifts.  Little did they know it, but the magi were unwittingly acting as spies for King Herod, who jealously wanted to destroy the child.  Again, Joseph was a visionary who saw a problem and had a dream to solve it.  His quick action saved the life of his young family.  Matthew 2:13-15a says:

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod.

            In both cases, Joseph saw a problem, and was enough of a visionary to also see and implement the solution.  Today God still works through visionaries, Christ-followers who see the problems in our world and have enough faith to fix them.  Maybe this Christmas season has made you keenly aware of the struggles of others around you, and like Joseph, God has given you a vision for how to help those in need.  Or, now that the new year lies before you, it might be that you have a dream for new health, vitality, learning, success, or blessing in your own life.  Perhaps God has placed in your heart the seedling of an idea for new ministry in the community—something that you can or your church can do to spread God’s realm and influence in the community or around the world.  Maybe all you need is something like Kickstarter, to help you get it going.

            Kickstarter is the merging of all the right dreams and dreamers, partners, resources, and customers to make dreams come true.  This month we’ll be talking about a different kind of Kickstarter—your church.  God has likewise equipped your church with all the right dreams and dreamers, partners, resources—and even a target audience—to realize the dream that God has given you.  Unfortunately, we are too often we’re like my grandfather, convinced that success as a church, and as believers, is out of our reach.  But just as the year lies before us, so our lives and those of our neighbors lie as adventures awaited, limited only by the wildness of the dreams we’re prepared to dream. 

            In Acts 2, Peter saw God doing a new thing among his people—the beginning of something that would one day be called the Church.  Reveling in this risky venture, he preached a sermon, quoting Joel 2:28-30, in which God says:

 I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
    your old men will dream dreams,
    your young men will see visions.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
    I will pour out my Spirit in those days.
I will show wonders in the heavens
    and on the earth.

God gave the dream to kickstart an exciting new thing.  Maybe God has whispered a word of vision into your heart in the night.  Maybe you’ve seen the need around you, and watched with open eyes as God unfurls the plan before you.  It all starts with a dream.  What’s yours?  I pray that you’d open yourself like Joseph, to be a visionary, a kickstarter of a brighter future, today.

[i] Moneyish.  10 Kickstarter Products that Raised the Most Money
[ii] Scripture quotations taken from the NIV.

A Christmas Carol # 2 - "Good News of Great Joy"

            For the past two weeks, we’ve talked about Charles Dickens’ Christmas classic A Christmas Carol.  Like Scrooge, many people are haunted by ghosts of their past—but God wants to cleanse that past and offer us a better present.  Both Dickens and scripture remind us that present need is all around us, and that it is our obligation as children of God and citizens of this planet to relieve the suffering of our fellow human beings.  As the shadow of the future looms before us, many of us shrink back in fear—but Scrooge shows that fear doesn’t have to paralyze you.  Instead, it can be a great motivator of change. 

            As the hooded, Grim-Reaper-like Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come appears to Ebenezer Scrooge, it shows him three wealthy businessmen joking about the death of some nameless person.  Next, Scrooge sees that dead person’s belongings being stolen and sold off.  He sees that person’s shrouded corpse, and begs the hooded ghost not to unmask the deceased.  He begs the ghost to show him somebody who has emotion for the dead person.  The ghost shows him somebody who owed the dead man money, glad to have extra time to pay off the bill.  Then the ghost shows him the family of Scrooge’s clerk Bob Cratchit, grieving the death of their sickly boy Tiny Tim.  Finally, the spirit takes Scrooge to a cemetery, where Scrooge sees his own grave, realizing himself to be the dead man that the people had mocked.  Scrooge is terrified by this glimpse into his own future and implores the spirit for an opportunity to change and

“sponge away the writing on this stone.”  ... "Good Spirit," he pursued, as down upon the ground he fell before it: "Your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life!"

            When Scrooge awakes from his vision, his heart is changed and warmed.  Filled not just with Christmas spirit but charity and goodwill toward his fellow human beings, Scrooge is inspired to renew broken relationships, and provide the financial support necessary to save Tiny Tim’s life.  Though Scrooge had to face his fearful future, that same fear became the means necessary to work necessary change in his life.

            When you think about it, the Christmas story is a pretty fearful one.  In Luke 1, an angel appears to Zechariah to foretell the birth of John the Baptist.  But in verse 13, the angel tells him not to be afraid.  He and his wife Elizabeth have wanted a child their whole marriage, but were unable to conceive.  Now that they are old, certainly there are fearful aspects to childbirth.  But the angel’s words reassure them that God’s plan is at work.  They do, however, have a choice whether or not to participate in that plan.  But the angel’s reassurance shows them that, though the future may be fearful, God is still in control.

            Also in Luke 1, the angel Gabriel appears to Mary, to predict the conception of the Messiah, God in the flesh.  Certainly this is a fearful announcement, considering she is a virgin engaged to be married, and there are social and legal repercussions for conception outside of marriage.  But in verses 28 and 30, the angel says, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you…Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God.”[i]   Mary is not forced into premarital motherhood—God gives her a choice, and she willingly submits, declaring, “I am the Lord’s servant…May your word to me be fulfilled (verse 38).”   In both of these accounts, Elizabeth and Mary are told about their own futures which involve difficult circumstances, yet they are reminded not to be afraid, because God is with them.

            Like Ebenezer Scrooge, sometimes our pasts can conjure up images of pain and disappointment.  Our present circumstances can call us to unfamiliar action that puts us outside of our comfort zone.  Our futures may loom like a specter before us so that, like Scrooge, we ask whether the future may yet be changed by an altered life.  However frightening the ghosts of past, present, and future may be, they are the agents that call us to repentance, change, and redemption.  Maybe this holiday season, you find yourself haunted by frightening memories, current challenges, or fears of the future.  Rather than being daunted, may these apparitions give you cause for celebration.  As the spirits who appeared to Scrooge ultimately brought him hope, so the angels who manifested to Elizabeth and Mary promised God’s blessing.  So also the Lord tells you not to fear—for what lies before you is an opportunity to say “yes” to God’s call.

[i] Scripture quotations are taken from the NIV.

A Christmas Carol # 2 - "The Christmas Present"

            Last week we talked about Charles Dickens’ book, A Christmas Carol, how the ghosts of Christmases past still haunt us today, and how God wants us to break free from imprisonment to our past.  Today we continue to Dickens’ story, to the Ghost of Christmas present.  One article describes him thus:

According to Dickens' novel, the Ghost of Christmas Present appears to Scrooge as "a jolly giant" with dark brown curls. He wears a fur-lined green robe and on his head a holly wreath set with shining icicles. He carries a large torch, made to resemble a cornucopia, and appears accompanied by a great feast.  He states that he has had "more than eighteen hundred" brothers and later reveals the ability to change his size to fit into any space. He also bears a scabbard with no sword in it, a representation of peace on Earth and good will toward men.
The spirit transports Scrooge around the city, showing him scenes of festivity and also deprivation that are happening as they watch, sprinkling a little warmth from his torch as he travels. Amongst the visits are Scrooge's nephew, and the family of his impoverished clerk, Bob Cratchit. Scrooge takes an interest in Cratchit's desperately-ill son, Tiny Tim, and asks the Ghost if Tim will live. The Ghost first states that "If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die," and then – quick to use Scrooge's past heartless comments to two charitable solicitors against him – states, "What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."
The spirit finally reveals to Scrooge two emaciated children, subhuman in appearance and loathsome to behold, clinging to his robes, and names the boy as Ignorance and the girl as Want. The spirit warns Scrooge, "Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom unless the writing be erased." The spirit once again quotes Scrooge, who asks if the grotesque children have "no refuge, no resource," and the spirit retorts with more of Scrooge's own words: "Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?"
The Ghost of Christmas Present, having already aged, reveals that he will only exist on Earth for a single year's Christmas holiday as the Present only takes place on the one day of the year. He finally disappears at the stroke of midnight on Twelfth Night, and leaves Scrooge to face the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, as it approaches "like a mist along the ground."

            We tend to despise Ebenezer Scrooge for his heartless attitude toward the poor, but many of us have grown callous to the needs of the underprivileged in our own community.  On our way to the shopping mall to buy Christmas presents, we ignore the plight of the waifs and ghosts of Christmas present.  The need lies right before us, yet we avert our gaze lest we make eye contact and feel a sense of social responsibility.  Perhaps we even suppress our feelings of guilt by saying or thinking, “Get a job!”  But as the ghost of Christmas sought to change Scrooge’s heart, so the Spirit of God wants to change our own.  Isaiah 1:11-15 (NLT) says:

“The multitude of your sacrifices—
    what are they to me?” says the Lord.
“I have more than enough of burnt offerings,
    of rams and the fat of fattened animals;
I have no pleasure
    in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.
When you come to appear before me,
    who has asked this of you,
    this trampling of my courts?
Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
    Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
    I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.
Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals
    I hate with all my being.
They have become a burden to me;
    I am weary of bearing them.
When you spread out your hands in prayer,
    I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers,
    I am not listening.
Your hands are full of blood!

            As we gather in our churches to sing Silent Night, many in the silence can hear the sound of their teeth chattering and stomach rumbling.  We like to enjoy our Christmas presents, but this present Christmas, Ignorance and Want stand before us, waiting for a hand.  Will we, like Ebenezer Scrooge, say it’s better that they should die, and decrease the surplus population?  Will we ask, “Are there prisons, no workhouses, or welfare lines?”  Or will we allow our hearts to be broken for the sake of the needy. 

            In Isaiah’s day, God said He despised the smell of animals burned for sacrifice when that same meat might feed the hungry.  In the Christmas present, God would have us know that He loves our prayers, pageantry, and gift giving, only as much as we’re giving to the poor and needy as well.  If we’re not doing that, then our celebration is sin and our festivity is a farce.  Our hands are stained with blood—but just like there’s hope for Scrooge, there’s hope for us.  Isaiah 1:16-18 (NLT) says:

Wash and make yourselves clean.
    Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
    stop doing wrong.
Learn to do right; seek justice.
    Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
    plead the case of the widow.
“Come now, let us settle the matter,”
    says the Lord.
“Though your sins are like scarlet,
    they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson,
    they shall be like wool.

            As Scrooge had a choice to make, so we must decide as well.  The Ghost of Christmas Present presented Scrooge with an opportunity to change.  So this present Christmas, we have the chance to repent and respond to those in need.  Instead of relying on welfare programs to do our charity for us, God calls believers to treat others with a charitable heart and a giving hand.  Otherwise, Christians and Christmas are indeed humbugs.  Just as the ghost lasted for only one day and disappeared in mist, so too is our opportunity to give.  “So, as the Holy Spirit says: ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts’… But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called ‘Today,’ so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. (Hebrews 3:7-8a, 13 NIV).”  As a Christmas present, God gives each of us the present moment, to do spread peace on earth and good will toward men, or to hoard our gold like miserly Scrooge.  What will you do with your Christmas present?