When Starbucks ruined Christmas (or so they say)

STARBUCKS COFFEE CANADA - Red Cup Pre-OrderIt was early November when the latest meeting of the “Angry Christians” club was called to order in a small American town east of the Mississippi. Everyone had come with their list of things to be angry about, and they were ready to discuss.

As the president of the “Angry Christians” club started the meeting, someone burst in.

“You won’t believe it!” the man said. “You simply won’t believe it!”

All of the Angry Christians turned to see a man holding up a red Starbucks cup.

“Christmas is ruined!” the man shouted. “Christmas is gone! America is taking Jesus out of Christmas, and that is obvious because of this red Starbucks cup!”

The Angry Christians’ blood began to boil. They tore up their lists because nothing was worse than this.

“Starbucks hates Christians,” the president said. “Starbucks hates Christians, and it hates Christmas! We have to tell Jesus!”

Meanwhile in heaven, Jesus was sipping on a Starbucks peppermint mocha when one of His angels walked in shaking his head.

“We’ve got another issue from the Angry Christians,” he said. “This time it’s over a Starbucks cup.”

The angel put some paperwork in front of Jesus, who read it, and then sat back in His golden chair. He looked at His own Starbucks cup. Then He looked at the angel.

The angel was tired of waiting for a response, so he said, “Sir, what do we do about this?”

Jesus put His cup down and stood up.

“Is Starbucks a Christian company?” Jesus asked.

“No, sir,” the angel said. “They have no religious affiliation.”

“Did they ever have my name or image on their cups, and now they have removed it?” Jesus asked next.

“No, sir, they simply took off things like trees and snowflakes. They change the design of the cup every year.”

“Christmas is when Christians celebrate my birthday, right?” Jesus said.

“Of course it is, sir,” the angel replied.

“And does a plain red Starbucks cup mean it’s no longer by birthday?”

“Not in the least!”

Jesus was perplexed. “Will any fewer people become Christians this holiday season because snowflakes and trees were removed from this year’s Starbucks holiday cup?”

“I don’t imagine so, Lord,” the angel said. “If the Christians are doing their jobs on earth, they should be the ones leading people to you.”

“Then why,” Jesus said as He picked up His peppermint mocha, “are they letting a cup get them so upset?”

“Well, they feel it just another way America is taking you and your name out of Christmas.”

Jesus looked at the angel and chuckled. “Take ME out of Christmas?”

“Lord,” the angel said, realizing that taking Christ out of Christmas was impossible, “forgive me for even approaching you with this. For I have forgotten that you ARE Christmas. Starbucks can’t remove you from Christmas. America can’t remove you from Christmas. NO ONE can remove you from Christmas because you are God and you ARE Christmas!”

Jesus smiled. “That’s right. And I always will be.”

The angel gathered up the paperwork to bring the news to the Angry Christians, but Jesus stopped him before he walked out.

“And let’s be honest,” Jesus said. “Christians love their coffee. Do you really think Starbucks would purposely try and upset Christians and lose all of that business? Of course not. And if my followers were to boycott every business that didn’t glorify me, I’m not sure they’d have many places to go. Do they research the religious beliefs of each and every place they spend money?”

“Sir, you always have the greatest points!” the angel said, as he left the room.

Jesus sat back down and again looked at the Starbucks cup on His desk.

If the holiday season is about me, how many of my followers are doing things I actually called them to do?  Jesus thought. These people who are angry over a cup, are they feeding the poor, visiting the orphans and widows, fighting for justice of the oppressed? Or are they just looking for something to be angry about….

Back on earth the angel returned to the Angry Christians meeting, but no one was there. He hoped maybe they were downtown passing out free coffee to the homeless or visiting the sick in the hospital. Instead, they had all gone home to update their Facebook pages with anti-Starbucks status updates since Starbucks had ruined Christmas.

The angel shed a tear at the actions of the Angry Christians members who were allowing anything to ruin what Christmas really means. “Christmas is still about Jesus,” he said. “It can’t ever NOT be about Jesus.”

“Stuck” at Christmas

Visiting Santa the year we got the van stuck on Christmas day.
Visiting Santa the year we got the van stuck on Christmas day.

Nice job, mom and dad. Get me a Walkman for Christmas but no batteries.

It was the Christmas of 1990, and I was dying to listen to my Paula Abdul and Janet Jackson cassette tapes in my new Walkman. Unfortunately, we had no batteries in the house. I would have to wait.

I’ve never been a patient person. While I don’t remember throwing a fit or anything, I can imagine that I was pretty bummed at the thought of waiting until the next day to listen to my Walkman. Mom and dad agreed that we’d pile into the family van and drive around our small town until we found a gas station or something that was open.

We were unsuccessful, but as we drove around, mom and dad got to play with their new Christmas “toy”- a video camera. As dad drove us around, mom videoed the sights of Celina, Ohio: the lake, the courthouse, our church, our neighborhood, and then… my school.

West Elementary was obviously vacant. Not even the parking lots had been plowed, and they were covered in snow and ice. Still, we never imagined that our van would have any problems maneuvering through.

We were wrong.

As mom filmed my school through the passenger side window, all of a sudden we stopped.

Dad hit the gas. We went nowhere. The tires spun. We didn’t move.

We were stuck.

While we laugh about it now, at the time it wasn’t so funny. It wasn’t like we could pull out our cell phones and call someone- it was 1990. None of us had cell phones. Eventually, someone came through the parking lot. I don’t remember what the woman was doing there, but she was certainly our guardian angel. She had a bag of salt in her car, and we used it to get traction under the tires. We were rescued.

It wasn’t the last time I would feel “stuck” at Christmas. I actually think it’s quite easy to feel stuck this time of year. People are stuck working days they don’t want to work, stuck having to make huge dinners for events, stuck with all the gift buying, stuck with credit card bills, and sometimes even stuck being around family they don’t want to be around.

But just like the guardian angel who helped us get unstuck in the West Elementary parking lot, we’ve got a guardian angel to see us through times we feel stuck in life. Not just a guardian angel, but a Savior.

Christ was born to give us hope, and that’s what we celebrate at Christmas. Leading up to the birth of Jesus, God was quiet, and He didn’t speak to His people for hundreds of years. They were struggling and in desperate need of salvation. It came in the form of the Christ child.

Maybe you feel “stuck,” or that God is being too quiet in your life. Remember that He is always there for you, ready to help pull you out of any sticky situation. He sent His Son to save us, to “unstick” us from sin. So when things start feeling overwhelming this time of year, or when you feel stuck having to do so much, remember that you do have a Savior, and that this is the time of year we celebrate His birth.

“She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus,
for he will save his people from their sins.”
Matthew 1:21

Cookie-cutter Christians: Why some of us MUST be different

“I’m not like them.”

It’s a common thought I have around big groups of Christian people with a certain personality.

They raise their hands high and say, “Thank you Jesus!” throughout prayer and worship. I partially lift my hands, close my eyes, and silently shed a few tears as I feel the Holy Spirit.

It was at the Spiritual Retreat in October that made me question my abilities to reach the teens in my classes. But God showed me that He will use me for His purpose!
It was at the Spiritual Retreat in October that made me question my abilities to reach the teens in my classes. But God showed me that He will use me for His purpose!

They quote scripture and often pull it into their prayers when praying in front of everyone. I talk to God like He’s my friend, and I suppose I don’t quote scripture to Him because He already knows it.

After my thoughts of, “I’m not like them,” come the thoughts of, “So I must not be as good of a Christian.”

It’s a struggle I’ve had since college. And it’s a false struggle. It’s one that Satan loves to tell me over and over again: “You’re not like them, so you aren’t worthy.”

It hit me recently how incredibly terrible those thoughts are. I know better. I know that God loves me just as much as He loves them, and I know that I don’t have to be like them to be a good person.

But then a seriously disturbing thought hit me like a hurricane: what if some of my students feel the same way? What if I have students who look at some of the “super spiritual” students and staff at school and think, “I’m not like that. I’ll never be like that. So why bother?”

Some conversations with my students this year revealed that some of them have felt that way before.

I knew I needed to say something. God told me I needed to say something. Yes, even though I’m not walking around quoting scripture and raising my hands in worship, I do talk to God. A lot. He gets me. And He knew it had to be said. So on Friday I said it.

The main class I needed to say these things to were my seniors. They’re an interesting bunch. Yes, I teach at a Christian school here in Uganda, but not all of our students are Christian. Many are simply “Christian” only because they’ve been forced to be. There are two boys who don’t even believe in God and have serious issues with Christianity and Christians in general, there is a Hindu girl, some who have a strong faith in God but are not charismatic like a lot of their peers at school, and a few who are.

When I finished sharing, they clapped. That’s a huge thing for this group of ten 12th graders. Their enthusiasm is typically non-existent. But then one of my seniors, who detests most Christians, said, “I just got more from what you said than anything I’ve heard in chapel all year.”

Part of me didn’t want to post that. I don’t want to hurt our chaplain or anyone else who has spoken in chapel. They’ve put their heart and soul into presenting for these kids. However, the fact that he said that completely drives home the point I made to my students: the point they so eagerly accepted and understood.

My overall point was this: Christians are not all the same. We’re not supposed to be.

It’s tough. If the Christians you’re surrounded by all act the same way and that’s just not your personality, it can be discouraging. And from the discussions we had yesterday in class, I discovered that it can be especially discouraging for teens. They think, “I’ll never be like that. That’s just not me to do that or say that.”

And so the next types of thoughts are, “Maybe I’m not a Christian.” Their overly hyped-up Christian classmates also inadvertently make them feel inadequate. They attribute the problem to their “level” of Christianity, when in reality it’s more of a personality difference.

I’m not saying anyone needs to “tone it down” or anything- not students or staff. But the kids who aren’t like that need to know that it’s OK. You can still have an awesome relationship with Christ without being so eccentric.

I also shared with the students the number one way that I’ve shared Christ with people: love. Simply put, love. Love people. Forgive people. Show grace towards people. Have mercy and compassion for people. Love. Love. Love.

I’ve never had someone say to me, “Natalie, thank you for telling me that I need Jesus. It’s made me want to be a Christian.” But I have had people say, “Thank you for loving me and for loving others as unconditionally as possible. I know this is because you’re a Christian, and that helped lead me to Christ.”

 “And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.” Colossians 3:14-15

We’re different. God wanted us to be different. While Christian organizations tend to be flooded with similar personality types, sometimes you need a misfit like myself who can reach out to the people who are different.

Do your thing. Be the person God created you to be. Be a Christian and be YOU. Don’t change your personality to match those of people who appear to be “better.” God loves us all the same!

“I’m not like them” is a legit statement to make about how I feel when I compare myself to most of my co-workers. Thank God for that. If I was exactly like them, I wouldn’t have reached some of the students God used me to reach yesterday. The same goes for them- God has used those people to reach many students this year as well! God uses ALL of us.

I encourage you to read 1 Corinthians 12:12-26. Part of it says, “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ.”

I choose to reach people through love and compassion. What works for you? What do you do that brings people to Christ? As long as it does the job, well done! Use your God-given gifts to be a light for Him. And remember, just because you’re not exactly like the Christians around you, that doesn’t mean you aren’t as spiritual or important in the body of Christ. Do your thing. All that matters is what God thinks of you. And He thinks you’re awesome enough that He sent His Son to die on the cross for your sins.

“For God so loved the world that He sent His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.” John 3:16

A different kind of Valentine’s Day

IMG_20140214_092651I was in the 8th grade when I had my first Valentine’s Day with a boyfriend. His name was Ben, and we were on our second-round of being girlfriend and boyfriend.

“Check your mailbox,” Ben said when I answered the phone.

“Why?” I asked.

“Just do it!” he said, and hung up the phone.

I walked out to the mailbox and opened it up. Inside was a rose, a card, and a small box. The small box contained a necklace. It was the ugliest necklace I’d ever laid eyes on. I can still picture it to this day. It was a gold chain, and on it hung a gold bow with what appeared to be fake opal painted on parts of the bow. It was hideous.

Ben and I didn’t last. Well, we broke up a few weeks later and then got back together a few weeks after that. This happened probably another four times throughout the remainder of my 8th grade year.

Valentine’s Day has ripped me apart some years and other years it’s made me smile. In college we had “S.A.D.” parties on Valentine’s Day- “Single’s Awareness Day” parties. They involved a lot of booze, dancing and some poor choices. That was ten years ago, and I must say, my feelings about this day have changed drastically.

This is my first Valentine’s Day in Africa, and I feel like it’s the first year I’m truly aware of what Valentine’s Day should be about: love.

When I think about it, Valentine’s Day could easily be a Christian holiday. Do you remember the story from the Bible about the religious leaders asking Jesus which commandment was most important? His response was this:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Mark 12:30-31

For Christians, showing love isn’t something we should just be doing on Valentine’s Day. Showing love is what God wants us to do every single day.

IMG_20140214_092810We also need to take note of the fact that Jesus wasn’t specific about which neighbors we should love. He didn’t say to love our Christian neighbors. He didn’t say to love our American neighbors. He didn’t say to love our straight neighbors or our Caucasian neighbors or our neighbors who don’t do drugs. There are no footnotes in the Bible when it says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” God wants us to love our neighbors, the very people He created, no matter what their situation, race, or sexual orientation is.

Not everyone is easy to love. I know this. I’m a teacher, and I’ve had more than 1,000 students cross my path over the years. They haven’t all been easy to love. But what better way to be a witness for Christ than to love everyone?

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
John 13:34-35

I have a student right now who some teachers might find difficult. He knows he’s difficult, but I tell him on IMG_20140214_092929almost a daily basis that I love him. He’s told me that he doesn’t understand why. It perplexes him how I could possibly love him given some of his behavior. This student is also an atheist. What if I didn’t show him love? What kind of an example for Christ would I be if I didn’t love him?

Valentine’s Day doesn’t have to be about romantic love. It can be about the love we have for all the people of the earth. It’s easy to remember the importance of love as I sit here in Uganda, surrounded by people who were strangers to me seven months ago and are now people I love with all my heart.

Don’t feel sad if you don’t have a “Valentine” on February 14. God loves you more than any Valentine ever could. And if you love Him back, you’ll show love to everyone around you.

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
1 Corinthians 12:4-8

You don’t have to be in Africa…

Sometimes here in Uganda… we can feel guilty. We look around at our beautiful international school campus and think, “This place is amazing.” We think about our remarkable students and their privileged backgrounds and think, “Why would God want me to help here? Should I maybe be in a village somewhere helping poor children?”

Our beautiful campus!
Our beautiful campus!

On January 10, my co-worker’s husband, Glen, spoke to all the teachers about our calling, about our influence and about how what we do is important. We don’t have to be living in a village and helping the poor to be a light for Christ.

“Declare His glory among the nations,
His marvelous works among all the peoples!”

1 Chronicles 16:24

You’ll notice that in most verses about spreading God’s love, God wants us to spread His love to everyone- not just the poor. And after hearing Glen speak a few weeks ago, I really realized that what we do at our school is important.

Our school’s students come from one of three backgrounds: missionary families, government employee families, and families who own major businesses in and around Kampala. We have students from nations all over the world: America, Australia, Singapore, North Korea, Congo, Kenya, Eritrea, Columbia, England, Sudan, and more. Some will stay in Uganda after they graduate, but most will go back to their home countries to attend college. Our hope is that they take their experience at our school and use it to impact the world around them for Christ.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father and Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

Matthew 28:19

Don’t get me wrong, I love helping the poor. I love our trips to the village where we play with the kids at the jigger clinic, our Saturday afternoons we’ve spent with the babies at the orphanage and cleaning the place up. But I do realize that first and foremost, I am here for the students at my school, the well-off students with a roof over their heads and plenty of food to eat.

In October we took the high school kids on a spiritual retreat.
In October we took the high school kids on a spiritual retreat.

Think they don’t need just as much support? I’ve got students whose parents have never come to a sporting event because they are too busy. I have girls with eating disorders. I have Muslim students questioning their beliefs. I have students who have suffered the escape of war-ridden countries to come to Uganda. I have a number of students who live completely by themselves because their parents are never home; their house help and drivers are a bigger part of their lives than their actual parents.

These kids need us. No, they aren’t poor, but they need us. Privileged kids aren’t any less in need of the Gospel and of good role models than poor kids. Often they’re in need of it even more.

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you,
and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria,
and to the ends of the earth.”

Acts 1:8

Glen also talked to us about our “mountain of influence.” Ours is here in Uganda at our school. In the same way that I don’t feel called to spread the Gospel in the villages for a living, maybe you don’t feel the need to come to Africa. And that’s OK! Africa isn’t your mountain of influence.

My roommate and I cheering on my students at a basketball game.
My roommate and I cheering on my students at a basketball game.

What if all Christians came to Africa? Who would be left to witness to the people in other places? We can’t all come to Africa or third-world countries.

God wants you to serve Him right where you are, and He thinks it’s beautiful when you do.

“For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And who are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’”
Romans 10:13-15

Don’t wait to move to Africa. Don’t wait to meet a homeless person. Be a witness for Christ in your mountain of influence, showing God’s love to EVERYONE you meet.

Not good enough for some, but good enough for One…

The maker of this beautiful Ugandan sunset loves me despite my many flaws.
The maker of this beautiful Ugandan sunset loves me despite my many flaws.

“Does he have a girlfriend now?”

My stomach did a flip-flop as I looked at the picture my friend sent me on Facebook. It was a picture of the guy who had a tight grip on my heart for more than two years… and his girlfriend. The guy who didn’t even want a girlfriend was looking as happy as ever in a selfie with a beautiful, petite girl by his side.

I once again realized what I knew all along: it wasn’t that he didn’t want a girlfriend; it was that he didn’t want me as a girlfriend.

It can be a tough pill to swallow. The thought that someone can be so attracted to you, enjoy your company so much, and can trust you with anything, but yet not love you in a romantic way, is quite a mystery.

I’ll never understand it. My friends will never understand why he and I had such chemistry and yet he didn’t want to be with me. It boils down to his selfishness and being shallow, and me not being the “ideal” woman for him to be seen with. He has admitted this.

I accepted the truth more than a year ago, but that doesn’t make it hurt any less. And until August, I thought I had at least escaped the hurtful situation with a lifelong friend (silly me). Then some information was presented to me by a mutual friend, and I learned that even our friendship was a lie.

It’s all a reminder that people will hurt us. Not to say that you shouldn’t ever trust anyone, but you should never trust someone more than you trust God. You should never put all of your heart and soul into a person, only God.

For years I’ve allowed this guy to hurt me, to make me feel terrible about myself and to remind me that I’m not the poster child of the perfect-looking girlfriend. But guess what? I’m also not the poster child for the superstar Christian. I’m damaged, imperfect, flawed, defective… every word you can possibly think of that makes me not worthy of God’s love. He loves me anyway.

So while this guy from my past has made it clear that I’m not good enough to be his girlfriend, God has made it clear that I am a child of His and that He will always love me, no matter what. Only God’s love is perfect, and that’s all the love I’ll ever need.

“…nothing will ever separate us from the love of God…” Romans 8:39

Not alone in brokenness…

“It’s just been really tough.”

I couldn’t believe the words that were coming out of her mouth.

“I’ve really been struggling with that,” someone else told me the next day.

I nearly fell out of my seat.

I have this tendency to think that everyone around me is perfectly happy. I see their positive Facebook posts, the smiles on their faces each day at school, and I assume that they’ve adjusted to Africa with ease. I then tell myself that I am a lesser person because I am not adjusting as well.

There’s another lie I often tell myself about other people, especially other Christians- that their lives have been magically perfect. That they’ve never made a mistake. That their families have no problems. That their lives have always been easy.

But I’m learning, the more I get to know my co-workers and become friends with them, that we’re all struggling in our own ways. We each have a story to tell. In some way, we are each broken.

Everyone on this planet is broken, but only some of us have discovered the glue that keeps us from completely falling apart when things get tough: God’s love and grace.

It’s comforting to know that many of my co-workers who, like me, are living in Africa for the first time and are feeling somewhat “broken.” And honestly, it’s a beautiful thing. If we didn’t feel broken, what need would there be for God? If we aren’t broken, we don’t need God to hold us together.

I’m learning to be content with being broken. I know I am only broken in a sense of this world, and that God is the one who makes me complete. I also know that no matter what the Facebook updates show, other people are broken as well, and with God leading our lives, we’ll get through this transition together.

“I am forgotten as though I were dead;
I have become like broken pottery.”

Psalm 31:12

“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted
and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”

Psalm 34:18