Category Archives: Christmas
“God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”
—1 Corinthians 1:25
Dear Family and Friends,
This Christmas, take a moment to consider the difference between intelligence and wisdom.
There were a lot of really smart people in Jerusalem when magi from the east suddenly showed up asking, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him” (Matthew 2:2). Herod the Great was a ruthless but brilliant politician who had turned an insignificant province into a wealthy and prosperous client state. He had innovative architects and skilled craftsman building a Temple and palaces that were wonders of the ancient world. Jerusalem was teeming with religious scholars, legal experts, captains of finance and industry—experts in every conceivable field of knowledge. Yet it is those strangers from the east who are universally regarded as “wise men.”
The magi certainly had academic credentials of their own. They were scholars from Babylonia or Persia who had studied languages, literature, history, culture, religion, and of course, astronomy. But that’s not why we remember them as “wise men.”
The wise men were not merely content with making an academic discovery—the sighting of a star signaling the Savior’s birth. On the contrary, they left their ivory towers to embark on a life-changing journey of faith: a costly and dangerous pilgrimage to find the Savior and bow down before him. A merely intelligent man may know something, but the truly wise man acts on what he knows—even if it means turning his entire life upside down.
For our family, 2015 was a year of academic milestones as we had no less than three of our five children graduate from high school or college. David (20) graduated from Florida State University with a degree in International Affairs. He is now working and getting settled in his own apartment. Through the miracle of dual enrollment and a lot of hard work, Caleb (19) and Bethany (17) earned their high school diplomas as well as their Associate of Arts degrees from Lake-Sumter State College. They are now both majoring in Theatre at Florida State. Thankfully, Alexa (14) won’t graduate for a few years, so we have a little time to catch our breath. Then again, she recently joined the Florida Symphony Youth Orchestra and is already researching colleges that can help her become a concert violinist. We keep dropping not-so-subtle reminders that Florida State has one of the best music schools in the country!
Of all the things our older kids have learned at college, perhaps the most valuable lesson is this: there are lots of highly intelligent, advanced degree-bearing people out there who cannot see the forest for the trees and who therefore make incredibly foolish choices in life. Education is extremely valuable, but it is no guarantee of wisdom.
At the other end of the educational spectrum, our little Jo Jo (6) is now in the first grade and learning the basics of Reading, Writing, and ‘Rithmatic. Yet somehow, he never ceases to amaze us with his ability to connect any subject back to the most foundational truth. One morning at breakfast, we were talking about how Jo Jo shares his name with a Biblical king, and I asked him, “How many ‘kings’ are there at this table?” He pointed at me (David), at himself (Josiah), and then, having run out of people at the table named after Biblical kings, he surprised us all by pointing up to the sky. His meaning was clear and wise beyond his years: God is our King—the King of all kings—and He too is present at our table.
Jesus Himself affirmed that sometimes a child can see things even the most learned of men cannot: “I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because You have hidden these things from the wise and the learned and have revealed them to infants. Yes, Father, because this was Your good pleasure” (Luke 10:21). That was true even at Jesus’ own birth, which was celebrated not by the intelligentsia of nearby Jerusalem, but by the simple shepherds of the “little town” of Bethlehem.
Of course, we can hardly blame all those Jerusalem scholars for overlooking the birth of this “King of the Jews.” What could be more foolish than to expect the long-awaited Messiah to be born in a stable and laid in a feeding trough? Three decades later, those same Jerusalem scholars would see Jesus clearly identified as “King of the Jews.” In fact, it was spelled out for them in no less than three languages on his cross, yet most of them still refused to believe it. Again, who can blame them? Kings are supposed to conquer their enemies; not be crucified by them!
A few decades later, the apostle Paul would ask, “Where is the philosopher? Where is the scholar? Where is the debater of this age? Hasn’t God made the world’s wisdom foolish?” He then explained that the message of a crucified and risen Savior was widely regarded as foolishness by those who claimed to be wise. “Yet to those who are called … Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom, because God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Corinthians 1:20–25).
The magi are remembered as “wise men” not for all their learning, but because, foolish as it must have seemed, they followed a star in search of the Savior. This Christmas, may we all seek that same Savior and bow down before Him. Only then will we be truly wise.
The Lang Gang
David, Lisa, David, Caleb, Bethany, Alexa, and “Jo Jo”
“Oh, the depth of the riches and
wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable are his judgments
and how inscrutable his ways!”
Dear Family and Friends,
Lisa and I had been looking for a reliable second car for the better part of a year. Our oldest son, David, had begun taking dual-enrollment classes at the local community college, and we needed something he could drive to school. Unfortunately, we struggled to find a good used car that was not ridiculously overpriced.
Our youngest daughter, Alexa, was with us when we found a cherry-red PT Cruiser convertible. We test-drove it with the top down and my wife and daughter began grinning from ear to ear. I told the car dealer I wanted to act all cool and disinterested, but I knew my girls’ giddiness would betray me. We bought it the next day for a very good price.
Lisa had always thought these cars were “cute,” and the fact that it was a convertible made it especially fun to drive. I always scoff at the car commercials that promise happiness and serenity during a busy morning commute, but it’s hard not to smile when driving with the wind in your hair and the sun on your face. After years of minivans, I was excited to get Lisa a car she could really enjoy—and doing that without breaking the bank seemed too good to be true. We regarded the car as a gift from God, and we repeatedly thanked Him for it.
You can probably guess where this is going. Over the past year, our “fun car” has turned out to be anything but. A string of major repairs has hit our pocketbook hard (in spite of our mechanic giving us generous price breaks), and each time the car has been in the shop it has been a challenge getting everyone where they needed to go. Thankfully, my mom and dad were gracious enough to loan us one of their vehicles for much of that time.
Each time we thought it was over, a new and costlier problem would arise. It can get very discouraging and confusing. Will one more repair do the trick, or are we simply throwing good money after bad? We’ve done our best to take it all in stride, but there have admittedly been times we have wondered how this “gift from God” could present so many challenges!
God’s gifts often bring challenges. When an angel told a young Jewish girl she would give birth to the Savior, he made it clear that she had “found favor with God” (Luke 1:30). What a gift! What a privilege! But what a challenge! How would she explain her unexpected pregnancy to her fiancé? What would the neighbors think? Her cousin Elizabeth would call her the “most blessed of women” (Luke 1:42), but I imagine Mary didn’t always feel that way when faced with the disapproving glares of her family and friends.
When God gave me Lisa to be my wife, I marveled at how richly he had blessed me. Yet over the last eighteen years, she has challenged me more than anyone else. She balances out my excesses, softens my rough edges, inspires me to try harder, and helps me see things from a different perspective. That can be terribly frustrating when I want to be rash, grumpy, lazy, or selfish, but that’s all part of the gift. God loves me too much to leave me that way, so he gave me a wife who could help me become the man he intends.
When God blessed Lisa and me with five children, they certainly presented their share of challenges. Having David (17), Caleb (16), and Bethany (14) before our fourth anniversary really kept us on our toes, and any illusions we had of being perfect parents were shattered early on. Having three teenagers in the house now presents a new set of challenges. Yet by the time Alexa (11) and Jo Jo (3) came along, we had plenty of capable helpers. Our house is sometimes noisy, but it is a noise made up of music, laughter, and good conversation. We also have our moments of bickering, but loneliness is never a problem.
Too often in life, we focus all of our attention on the problems we face, the trials we endure, and the little annoyances that come with every relationship. We wonder why God didn’t make life easy and carefree. We look around at others and wonder why they seem to have things so much easier. Yet when we do that, we lose sight of the gifts from God those challenges accompany.
Each time our car was in the shop and I would see another PT Cruiser on the road, I would joke, “There’s a PT Cruiser that works!” But all kidding aside, if God chose to give us a “fun car” with challenges, I’ll have to take the setbacks in stride and enjoy the fun whenever I can. After all, doesn’t having car problems result from having a car? A lot of people in this world never have car trouble. But then, those are the people who walk everywhere!
In the same way, whenever you get frustrated with how difficult your job is, remember that not everyone has one. Whenever you get annoyed with your spouse, remember that it sure beats not having someone to love. Whenever your kids are driving you crazy, ask yourself what life would have been like without them. So often, life’s challenges are merely the flip side of life’s blessings. Would you give up the blessings to avoid the challenges?
This Christmas, take some time to thank God for the gifts he has given you, even if they come with challenges. You may not understand everything he is up to. You may ask with Mary, “How can this be?” (Luke 1:34). But if you are wise, you will also say with Mary, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled” (Luke 1:38). Then you’ll be able, like Mary, to face whatever comes and to “treasure” it, “pondering in your heart” (Luke 2:19) the wonderful “depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God” (Romans 11:33).
May you experience that wonder this Christmas, even if you have to deal with car trouble!
The Lang Gang
David, Lisa, David, Caleb, Bethany, Alexa, and “Jo Jo”
“…the chuckle with which [Scrooge] paid for the turkey, and the chuckle with which he paid for the cab, and the chuckle with which he recompensed the boy, were only to be exceeded by the chuckle with which he sat down breathless in his chair again, and chuckled till he cried.”
One of my family’s Christmas traditions is to watch the movie Scrooge, one of the earliest film adaptations of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I have never seen a better Ebenezer Scrooge than Alistair Sim. He is absolutely loathsome in his pre-Christmas scrooginess, and thoroughly delightful in his Christmas day warmth and generosity. Playing Scrooge requires the ability to play both a heartless miser and a generous philanthropist. Yet it’s not just a matter of being able to play two radically different characters: you have to convince the audience that these two characters are really one man whose life has been forever changed.
I think I love the story of Scrooge so much because it so beautifully captures the reality of redemption. As a sinner saved by grace, I understand how book-Scrooge could chuckle until he cried, or how movie-Scrooge could say, “I don’t deserve to be so happy!” That is the wonderful experience of new birth (John 3:3), of becoming a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17), of dying to sin and being made alive with Christ (Romans 6:3–11).
If we really understand it, redemption in Christ brings with it an emotional roller coaster of laughter and tears. With our burden of sin and self-reliance lifted, we can feel with Scrooge that we are as “light as a feather.” With our debt forever paid, we can feel as “giddy as a drunken man.” Finally released from slavery and despair, we shed tears, not altogether sure whether they are tears of sadness over what we were, or tears of gladness over what we are now destined to become. When we ponder what it means to be redeemed, we, like Scrooge, simply “don’t know what to do.” The reality is too wonderful, too overwhelming, and seemingly too good to be true.
But it is true, and whether the truth of it makes you laugh or cry, may you “keep Christmas” as Scrooge did: forever changed and forever grateful.
“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”
—1 Timothy 3:15
In February of this year, Lisa and I traveled to Israel for a whirlwind tour of places we had previously only read about in the pages of the Bible. (Lisa’s mom went above and beyond by staying with “the gang” for two weeks.) When we returned home, I began writing a series of meditations in an attempt to process everything we had seen and experienced. The result is a 31-day devotional called Feet to Follow, Eyes to See which I hope to have published soon. This Christmas, I’d like to share with you the meditation I wrote about our visit to Bethlehem:
Ever seen a Christmas card depiction of Bethlehem? It is usually portrayed as a quaint little cluster of mud-brick buildings—most flat-roofed, but a few with graceful domes—surrounded by green fields dotted with grazing sheep. If it is shown at night, those domed roofs are silhouetted against a clear sky, brilliantly lit by the natal star. We imagine Bethlehem to be a peaceful place. We sing about Jesus’ birth on a silent, holy night. We’re so enamored with this fantasy of a peaceful nativity, that even when we imagine the baby Jesus waking to the sound of lowing cattle, we tell ourselves, “No crying he makes.”
A visit to modern Bethlehem presents you with quite a different picture. The area around Manger Square is noisy and chaotic, with Muslim street vendors hawking cheap jewelry and touristy kitsch. You bustle past them to arrive at the Church of the Nativity, which preserves the traditional location of Jesus’ birthplace. The building itself is a bewildering compound made up of two churches—one controlled by the Greek Orthodox and the other by the Roman Catholics. The Grotto of the Nativity is located beneath the Greek Orthodox basilica.
Entering the grotto was an exercise in holding one’s ground as countless pilgrims tried to squeeze into the narrow doorway. I must confess I was more focused on preventing a pushy French couple from shouldering their way past us than I was on contemplating the birth of my Savior.
The floor and walls of the original cave are completely covered with marble and stone. A silver star marks the spot where Mary is believed to have given birth to Jesus, and pilgrims crowd in to press their hands or lips against it. In order to enable the members of our tour group to snap unobstructed photos of it, we acted as blockers for each other, holding back the other pilgrims until each of us had taken a turn. I imagine they had to be thinking, “Who do these pushy Americans think they are?”
Of course, we were only there a few moments. We yielded the floor and were carried out of the Grotto by the inexorable flow of humanity.
Visitors who expect Bethlehem to be idyllic and pastoral are sure to be disappointed by the relative chaos of the place. All the people there are seemingly at cross-purposes with each other. Different religious groups control different areas of the site. Some Christians are there to venerate a spot they regard as sacred. Others merely want to visit the place where Jesus entered the world. Some Muslims want to profit from the tourism Jesus brings. Others want to assert the supremacy of Islam. Then there are the political tensions of this Palestinian area of Israel.
Modern Bethlehem is a far cry from what we see on Christmas cards, but it may be far closer to the Bethlehem into which Jesus was born. That Bethlehem was crowded with Jews who had traveled there to take part in a Roman census. Some of the local residents would have been thrilled at all the extra business, while others would have resented the disruption to their daily lives and the constant reminders of Roman supremacy. The Romans meanwhile, wanted to keep the peace and further their careers among a people who despised them. Mary and Joseph just wanted a place to have their baby. As it is today, first-century Bethlehem was all bustle and cross-purposes.
Jesus also arrived in Bethlehem with cross purposes: He “came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15), drawing them to Himself by being lifted up on the cross (John 12:32–33). Shortly before His crucifixion, Jesus made it clear He had been born for that hour:
The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I assure you: Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains by itself. But if it dies, it produces a large crop. … Now My soul is troubled. What should I say—Father, save Me from this hour? But that is why I came to this hour. Father, glorify Your name! (John 12:23–24, 27–28)
Our Christmas card mythology presents us with a tranquil Bethlehem and a joyous nativity, but Christ’s birth foreshadows His cross. The death He died so that we might live is the reason we rejoice in His birth. Worship Him today for accomplishing His cross purposes for you.
While Lisa and I enjoyed every moment of our time in Israel, our greatest joy was returning home to our children. Whether your Christmas this year is as idyllic as a Christmas card Bethlehem, or as chaotic as the real one, we pray that you will cherish your family and worship your Savior.
The Lang Gang
David, Lisa, David, Caleb, Bethany, Alexa, and “Jo Jo”
Every year at Christmastime, we receive cards and letters from dear friends, family members, and people about whom I have to ask my wife, “How do we know these people again?” I’m sure you get them too. In the days before blogs and social media, cards and letters were how people kept up with each other, and the mailing of these things became somewhat obligatory around major holidays like Christmas. It’s a nice tradition, and I would argue that it’s still more fun to get something in the mail than it is to receive a push notification about someone else’s Facebook status. Yet there is also a darker side to this holiday custom: some people use it as an excuse to brag, and to do so quite shamelessly.
I figure it started innocently enough, with parents writing letters to grandparents telling them how much the kids had grown and what they were up to; but at some point, this sort of catching up turned toxic. Now people seem to think it okay to send letters which could reasonably be subtitled, “Christmas with the Perfects.” You know the kind of letter I mean: one which details Mr. Perfect’s business successes, each child’s athletic victories and extracurricular activities, and Mrs. Perfect’s ability to balance a million responsibilities while still finding time to knit sweaters for needy children in Outer Mongolia. Oh, and there’s usually a paragraph or two detailing the latest family vacation to Europe or Hawaii.
It’s not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with sharing good news or counting one’s blessings. I’ve read a few letters which manage to do that in an entertaining and heartwarming way. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Christmas letters simply read like an exaggerated résumé. They don’t give a real picture of the character of a family, but a carefully Photoshopped one in which every blemish has been removed. The net effect is to make people who are well aware of their own blemishes feel downright inferior.
Having read far too many “Christmas with the Perfects” letters, I’m determined never to write such a letter myself. Instead, I try to write a Christmas letter which reads more like a devotional than a yearly catalog of my family’s accomplishments. When I talk about my family, I try to give an honest glimpse into what life with the “Lang Gang” is really like. I would much rather share a funny story or two than boast about something we’ve done. After all, the best thing about my family is not the amount of time we spend atop some award podium, but the love we share and the Lord we serve. He’s the only “Perfect” worth bragging about—especially in a Christmas letter.