It’s not a competition.

This past weekend, I participated in two competitions: a chocolate-themed 10-mile road race, and my family’s annual Oscar prediction contest.  Of course, the Academy Awards themselves are also a competition and are surrounded by a number of unofficial competitions of the “who wore it best?” variety.

I am a competitive person, and specifically, I like to win.  This explains why I prefer playing trivia and word games, which I’m good at, over playing card and strategy games, which I’m not.  It explains why I was disappointed not to receive the Dissertation of the Year award last year when I should have been happy just to be done forever with being a student.  It also explains why, although I’m proud of both of my friends who completed Saturday’s race with me and I’m glad we got to have that experience together, it irks me that one of them finished five minutes (and five places in our age and gender category rankings) ahead of me.  I’m not mad at her; I’m mad at me.  I should have trained better.  I shouldn’t have eaten all those fish and chips the night before.  I should have started slower to preserve my stamina.  I could have beat her–that’s what I’m still telling myself three days later.

I have this mantra/piece of unsolicited advice that I frequently use on myself and others: “It’s not a competition.”  Of course, some things, like races and the Oscars, actually are competitions.  But there are a lot of things that we turn into competitions that were never intended to be.  Who contributed the most to this project?  Who’s the busiest?  Who has the most friends?  When I was in grad school, the competition that never stopped happening in my head was about who made the smartest-sounding remark in a class discussion.  Now I host a similar head-competition: Which professor is the most popular with the students?  But that’s just one of my many mental Olympic events.  There’s also “Can I run longer than that guy two treadmills down from me?,” “Do I look more physically fit than that woman my age?”, “Whose food looks the nicest at the potluck?”, and “Who knows the most about [insert topic here]?”

Participating in all these competitions all the time is exhausting.  It’s also antithetical to the way Jesus lived and asked us to live.  When Jesus’ disciples were arguing about which of them would have the highest place in the kingdom of God, he told them that they had to become like little children in order to even enter said kingdom.  Here’s something about little children (older children start growing out of this): They’re not good at games, in part because they don’t understand the concept of competition.  Another competition I tried to get started this past weekend was a relay race in the 3-year-olds Sunday school class I teach.  A very small minority understood what they were supposed to be doing, but most of them just stood there and looked cute at me.  And I got annoyed with them for not being competitive enough.  True, little kids will fight over toys–they can be a bit greedy–but that’s not the same as competing.  They really seem unconcerned about who wins and who’s the best.

I would love to press a reset button and go back to that non-competitive mental mode of childhood.  Because I can’t do that, I have to work really hard to be happy for others who can do things better than I can, to be content with who I am and what I’m capable of (not that I shouldn’t strive to improve where I can), and to be like Jesus, who was perfectly happy giving all the credit to his Father.

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Advent week 4: What Christmas hymns teach us about Jesus

Something that always kind of shocks me is the number of straight-up hymns (multiple verses!) that get played on the radio during the Christmas season–and I’m talking on your average pop/soft rock “mix” station.  I’m happy that Jesus’ name is getting so broadly proclaimed during this time, even if it’s confusingly thrown in with a lot of really stupid songs (which I plan to post about next week), but I wonder how many people understand the sometimes complex theology they’re hearing.  Today I want to write about just a few of the things we learn about Jesus from some of the great Christmas hymns.

  1. Jesus is God, and he didn’t stop being God when he was born as a human.  Appropriately, Christmas hymns are packed with statements of the divinity of Christ.  Some go a little too far in asserting this, like “Away in a Manger” (“no crying he makes”?  He was a baby; pretty sure he was crying), but others hit the mark in beautiful statements like “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see / Hail the incarnate Deity” (from my favorite Christmas hymn, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”) or simply “the Word made flesh” (a direct quote from the gospel of John, found in a later verse of “What Child Is This”).
  2. Jesus knows what it’s like to be us.  Also appropriately, many Christmas hymns are about God the Son’s humbling himself to dwell with us (any song with “Emmanuel” in it counts here) and his sympathy with our pain and frailty.  “O Holy Night” says that Jesus was “born to be our friend” and then goes on to say that “he knows our need / to our weakness is no stranger.”  “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” is, again, a little more complex: “Pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.”  All the songs that talk about Jesus’ humble surroundings at his birth also fit in here; one of my favorite descriptions is from the beautiful Appalachian song “I Wonder As I Wander”: “When Mary birthed Jesus ’twas in a cow stall / With wise men and farmers and shepherds and all.”  Farmers–that word choice brings the story close to home for a lot of people.  Jesus could have been born down the road from here.
  3. Jesus is coming back to rule the world.  As my pastor pointed out a couple of weeks ago, one of the best-loved hymns of Christmas, “Joy to the World,” is actually, for the most part, about Jesus’ future second coming.  We see this especially in the last verse, which begins, “He rules the world, with truth and grace.”  Of course, this is also what Handel’s famous “Hallelujah” chorus is about.  The other day, it occurred to me that when Handel’s Messiah was first performed, there probably were some lords and at least one king in the audience, which makes the repeated line “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” all the more impressive.  In fact, according to legend, it was a king who started the tradition of standing up during the chorus.  Wikipedia says this story probably isn’t true, but what’s not in doubt is that Jesus is superior to all “principalities and powers” as the New Testament says.

I hope that over the next few days, you hear some of these songs (maybe on one of those normally lightweight radio stations) and maybe even get to join a congregation in singing them.  As you sing, think about the words and what they tell us about Jesus, our God, friend, and king.

Jesus’ 30th birthday

Here’s an interesting fact: The English Romantic poet John Keats died when he was 25 years old, but not before he’d written some of the greatest odes in the English language.  I sometimes share this fact with my students, with a mild joke to the effect that they’d better get busy over the next few years.  Although I’m not trying to make my students feel like they’ve wasted their lives up to this point, I sometimes feel that way myself when I look at what I’ve accomplished and compare it with the accomplishments of luminaries in various fields.  The disparity is particularly striking when I compare myself with people, like Keats, who died very young.  Heath Ledger, for example, was only 28 when he passed away back in 2008, and he’d delivered a few stunning, even epoch-making performances in the few years prior.  [Did his Dark Knight tour de force usher in the dominance of the mischief/chaos-making villain in present film?  I think so, but that’s another blog post.]  And then, if you went to Christian school like me, you also have some big-name servants of God (I hesitate to call them rock-star martyrs) with whom to compare yourself, like David Brainerd, who died at 29 after wearing out his health in service to the Native Americans back in the 18th century.  It’s hard not to look at people like that and think, “Basically, I’ve accomplished nothing so far.”

I’m going to turn 30 next month.  So I took notice this morning when I read Luke 3:23a: “Now Jesus Himself began His ministry at about thirty years of age.”  Until that point, Jesus had been living in obscurity, probably working alongside his adoptive father Joseph in the “secular” profession of carpentry.  During that time, we can assume that his heavenly Father was quietly preparing him for those crucial–and short–three years of ministry that would follow.  God the Father didn’t look down at Jesus on his 30th birthday and say, “You’ve been messing around building tables long enough; now it’s time to do some real Kingdom work.”  In fact, because we know that Jesus was sinless and that his whole life was directed toward a mission, we can confidently say that the tables were not a waste of time.  Backed by Colossians 3:23, we can go so far as to say that they were an act of worship to his Father.  Building tables was part of what Jesus was born to do and part of how he readied himself for the history-shattering events to come later.

It may be helpful to ask from time to time, “Have I accomplished anything that’s made an impact?”  It’s a tricky question, though, because our actions have effects that we don’t see and that we can’t control.  I think it’s more useful to ask, “What kind of person am I becoming?”  That, with God’s help, we can control.  So as my birthday approaches, I’m trying to tell myself that it’s okay that I haven’t written a poem to rival “Ode to a Nightingale.”  Here’s what I should really be asking myself: Am I loving?  Am I joyful?  Am I thankful?  And am I ready for whatever big things may come later?