Faith

Things I wish Christians would stop saying: “There’s a war on Christmas”

The Bible tells the story of Jesus’s birth twice: once in Matthew, once in Luke. But in neither telling, nor anywhere else in the New Testament, are we told to celebrate the event.

It is our choice to do this. God does not command it.

What's the Reason for the Season?

The closest the New Testament comes to telling us to celebrate anything is in Luke 22, when Jesus takes the last supper. After sharing the bread and wine with his disciples, he said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” The original Greek carries a connotation of repetition: keep doing this. Most churches interpret this to mean that we should do it, too. I belong to a church that does it weekly. Some churches do it monthly or quarterly. I know of one that observes it annually. It has many names: the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, the Lord’s Evening Meal, and simply communion.

Meanwhile, several Christian groups don’t celebrate Christmas. The United Church of God doesn’t. Neither do Jehovah’s Witnesses or Seventh-Day Adventists. And neither do conservative Churches of Christ, a church to which I once belonged. There are probably others. These churches believe that God doesn’t authorize this celebration, and that we should celebrate and worship him only as he authorizes through his scripture.

I used to agree with them. But over time I’ve come to see that their view on authority is too restrictive. Imaine your five-year-old child drawing you a picture, perhaps one of your family, and giving it to you with a smile — and you rejecting it, because you didn’t authorize it. How unloving. I believe God welcomes and smiles upon our good devotions to him, even when he has not explicitly called for them.

However, those churches contend, correctly I might add, that December 25th was chosen to celebrate Christ’s birth because nonbelievers already celebrated various winter festivals at about that time. It’s not like anybody knew Jesus’s exact birthdate anyway, and they felt sure it would be easier to convert the nonbelievers if the church had a celebration then, too.

Part of the rationale some churches have for not celebrating Christmas is avoiding any connection with those pagan celebrations. I respect their choice, but believe that those origins are so obscure and remote today that they no longer matter. We have infused this season of celebration with new meaning.

But that meaning has been strong only relatively recently. Christians didn’t celebrate Christmas at all for the first few hundred years of the church. When they did start celebrating Christmas, it wasn’t yet the central celebration is has become today. At certain times in history, religious leaders even forbade celebrating Christmas to avoid excessive revelry.

In truth, the traditions Christians follow in celebrating Christmas are only a couple centuries old, and have only become widespread in the last hundred years or so, mostly since the great prosperity that followed World War II’s end.

And so it galls me when I hear Christians speak of there being a war on Christmas, or insist upon greetings of Merry Christmas, or otherwise decry a perceived weakening of Christmas as a central national religious holiday. Christmas is a devotion and celebration of our own creation. We should celebrate it if we want — but we should not force it on anyone who doesn’t want it.

Show people love instead, the kind God gives you despite your sin.

“Things I wish Christians would stop saying” is an occasional series. Read the other entries here, here, here, and here.

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Faith, Personal

For eternity

I baptized my older son on Sunday. His mom and I did, actually.

We belong to churches that baptize only those who confess belief. And in our branch of Christianity, administering sacraments is not limited to any special clergy class. Our interpretation of the Bible tells us that any believer can do such things as we are all part of the royal priesthood (see 1 Peter 2:9).

I’ve seen dozens of baptisms in my time as a Christian, but always from the audience. I had never baptized anyone. But at my son’s request, there his mother and I stood, in the water. My son leaned back, his back supported by our hands. And then, for a second, he was fully submerged. His eyes were closed, his face was still. His hair flowed freely.

He looked dead.

I was struck. This is what baptism is, a kind of death. We choose to leave behind a life guided entirely by what we want and what we think is right, choosing instead to turn toward God from now on, to look for him every day as a small boy looks for his father. We are imperfect; even following God, we will sometimes make harmful choices. But as we keep following God, keep seeking him out, over time we get better and better at loving as he loves.

You’ll hear Christians in my faith tradition say of this things like “put the old body to death,” or “dead to sin, alive to Christ,” or “be born again,” to describe what happens in baptism. I chafe at those secret Christian code phrases; I prefer plain language. But these sayings do directly address the death-and-life nature of baptism.

It lasted just a second. Quickly he was up, eyes open, dripping, and we all cried. Tears of joy and, at least for me, of relief. My son is now also my brother, a fellow follower of God.

I wish everybody could see what I saw.

Now I belong to Jesus,
Jesus belongs to me,
Not for the years of time alone,
But for eternity.

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Faith

An elders’ retreat

I’m an elder in my church. All that means is that I and a few other elders try to care for the people in our congregation and lead the doing of things that try to make our church a light in its neighborhood. It’s all straight uphill, as we serve a blighted, impoverished part of Indianapolis, and we have limited resources.

While a few of our elders have been part of West Park Christian Church for decades, a few of us are relative newcomers. I’ve been a part of the church for only about four years now, and an elder since last year. Our monthly elder’s meetings and our fly-by discussions on Sunday mornings hadn’t let us bind together as a team. So our pastor arranged for us to spend a weekend away. We all piled into the church van on a recent Friday night for the drive down to Camp Allendale near tiny Trafalgar.

Lake

We spent our weekend in this lodge getting to know each other better, coming together as a team, studying and discussing, praying and dreaming about the future.

Lakeview Lodge

Gray skies and light rain couldn’t cover the land’s beauty. I took my camera out on short walks when we took our infrequent breaks. But we had work to do; the weather outside mattered little to that.

Cabin

Sometimes I’m amazed our church gets anything done. We’re mighty disorganized, and only a tiny handful of us are doing most of the heavy lifting. And the overwhelming majority of our members have deep need and little to give. Our task is to help them find resources to meet their needs, to stand firmly on their own with God’s help — and then help them find a life of service to God in which they begin to give back. This creates such value and meaning in these individual lives, but also makes the whole congregation more able to serve in our neighborhood, to let the light of love shine brighter and brighter.

Office

But there is real crisis among our congregation. I’m seeing how complex and intertwined the problems of poverty are: poor life skills, addictions to drugs and alcohol, undereducation and limited employment opportunities, psychological and emotional damage from abuse and neglect. For many, it’s a long road to reaching life stability, let alone being able to give and serve.

Lake view

We recently opened an infant and toddler daycare. The idea is to have a very low-cost place for the single moms to leave their kids so they can work. Without it, they end up stuck on assistance and never get off. But assistance doesn’t really cover expenses, and so the moms end up living with a parade of boyfriends and roommates to share the financial load. They end up moving constantly as one situation falls through and they find or make another. But because addiction is a pervasive problem in our neighborhood, even a mom who’s clean is likely to end up involved with a user, which creates chaos in the family. So we hope to provide a safe place for the children, allowing the moms to find jobs and hopefully make more money, helping them avoid the desperate living situations. Our hope is to create a generation of children in our neighborhood that knows basic stability.

Getting it off the ground has been shockingly difficult. We thought we’d be overrun with children immediately, but six months in we care for just three babies.

Sometimes the problem is that the mother lacks the life skills to get CCDF, a program in which government pays the bulk of child care expenses. Another problem is that our neighborhood has a large and growing Hispanic population, and they steer clear of churches that don’t speak Spanish.

But the biggest hurdle, we are starting to think, is a catch 22: moms need a job to get money to pay the portion of our fee that CCDF doesn’t cover, but can’t get that job until they put their kids with us. We are talking about letting moms place their kids with us for free for 3 or 4 months while they wait for CCDF to take hold and while they look for work. It will spike our cash burn rate, but we are starting to think we have no choice if we want this to happen.

Checking

But practical matters aside, we elders still needed to come closer together as people, to form a strong and solid team. I think we began to accomplish that over this weekend. We saw each other’s hearts and our practical strengths and weaknesses. The more we work together in harmony, the stronger our church will be in the programs it takes on, and the stronger the church will be spiritually.

We’re all busy people. (For example, the woman at the end of the photo above is also the president of the Indianapolis Public Schools board, and runs the local community center.) It was hard to take a full weekend away. But this critical time investment feels like it will pay off.

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Faith

Things I wish Christians would stop saying: “The Bible is our instruction manual”

What do I do now?

We all say this more than once in our lives, at times when we seem to have no options or when all the things we know to do aren’t working. At these times, many of us naturally seek counsel, coaching, or advice.

Those of us who are Christians also turn to God through prayer and Bible meditation. It’s wise even in good times to seek ongoing guidance from the creator of our universe.

But once in a while, I’ll hear a Christian say that the Bible is life’s instruction manual. And I wince. Because it’s really not.

Reader

I used to write instruction manuals for a living. Manuals are about teaching skills and accomplishing tasks. For example, I once wrote a manual for a device that telephone companies used to collect network telemetry. I included a schematic diagram, a line drawing of the device’s front panel with all the controls called out, and paragraphs detailing every configuration option. Technicians used this manual to install and configure the device, and to troubleshoot it when it misbehaved. My manual was factual, comprehensive, detailed, and complete. It covered every situation.

I’ve also written piles of step-by-step instructions. Here are some I whipped up just for this post, about how to save a document as a PDF in Microsoft Word:

  1. Open the File menu and choose Save As. The Save As window opens.
  2. If the window does not show the location where you want to save the PDF, in the pane at left, click the location to use. Then in the folder list at right, click the folder to use.
  3. Type a name for the document in the File Name box.
  4. Click the arrow at the end of the Save As Type box and choose PDF.
  5. Click Save.

Notice how specific these instructions are. If you follow them to the letter, you will have your PDF.

The Bible, in contrast, offers neither step-by-step instructions nor specific configuration and troubleshooting information for life. There are two primary reasons, the least of which is that life, with all its richness and complexity, can’t be boiled down in this way.

The bigger reason is that the Bible is really about revealing the nature of God through his relationship with his people, and about telling the story of his people.

The Bible can, absolutely can, help guide your life. But rather than turning to page 207 and following the five steps you find there, you must rather keep reading the Bible throughout your life, studying what you find there in the context of culture and history in the times it was written, discussing what you read with others who are farther along this path than you, and meditating and praying over what you’ve studied. If you do this, you will gain insight into what it means to be a Christian and the kind of life God wants you to live. You then apply this insight every day, adjusting and adapting as you go, all the while continuing to study, discuss, and pray.

Opening the Bible expecting specific guidance on a specific topic can lead to misapplying God’s word. Some Scriptures are bluntly unambiguous: don’t murder, don’t sleep around on your spouse.

Others only seem crystal clear. Here’s one: Philippians 4:13. “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” (NASB) Do you want to make more money? Do you want to find a loving partner and get married? Do you want to win the big game? Then let yourself be strengthened by God and you can have it! Or, at least that’s how it is sometimes interpreted.

But if you study this verse in its context, you learn some startling things. Paul wrote this book from prison — he was living in oppression. Now consider the verses that lead up to this famous verse:

11 Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. 12 I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. 13 I can do all things through Him who strengthens me. (NASB)

Paul isn’t saying that God will help him achieve all of his dreams. He’s saying that no matter what difficulties come, God can help him through them. The message is that God can help us push through when life hands us loss and defeat.

Study, discussion, prayer, application. Repeat, repeat, repeat, all your life. God’s word will surely change you, as rushing water slowly shapes rock. You will come to know God, you will come to know the people who have followed him throughout history, and you will see how God loves even the most imperfect people, including you.

“Things I wish Christians would stop saying” is an occasional series. You’ll find other posts in this series here, here, and here.

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Faith, Stories Told

Love paves the way

Thirty years ago, my brother used to get me to go with him to the elementary school’s playground to play basketball with the gang. I was terrible at basketball and didn’t like anyone knowing it, but I was often bored enough to play anyway.

The game was open to all, and when one day a group of kids we didn’t know came to play, we cut them in. They played well enough. When the game ended, stacks of religious tracts appeared in their hands. They said they were from the Community Baptist Church and they told us that we had to accept Jesus Christ today or risk a tortured eternity.

At the cross

“If you haven’t accepted Jesus into your heart, if you died today you’d go to hell, which the Bible calls the lake of fire! You would be in the lake of fire for all eternity! Can you imagine how awful that would be? Won’t you pray with me right now to accept Jesus into your heart so you can be in heaven?”

I was not going to be pressured; I said no. But they persisted, trying to draw me into logical arguments, pushing hard to close the deal. I finally had to walk away from them.

A few years later, a friend of mine asked me to visit her church with her. She said her youth group was a lot of fun and I’d enjoy it. Happy to be asked, I said yes. She said she’d arrange to have the church bus come pick me up on Sunday. I didn’t know where she went to church, but I had not forgotten my past experience with Community Baptist Church when their bus pulled up. I felt on my guard, but everybody was friendly.

The next Sunday afternoon, three high school boys rang our doorbell and asked for me. They wanted to know why I hadn’t been to church the day before. I said that I just visited that one time with my friend. They said, “God wants us to worship him every Sunday. Don’t you want to worship the Lord?” I thought I had just gone to visit with my friend one time, but they acted like they expected me to come back every week. I don’t remember how I got them to go away. But they were back the next Sunday, pressuring me to return. When they came a third Sunday with the youth leader, my father told them that if they ever returned, he’d get a lawyer and sue them for harassment. We didn’t see them again.

I didn’t want anything to do with Christians after that.

Angel lighting the way

Mark was an upperclassman who lived in my dorm my freshman year of college. He always said hello when we passed by. We chitchatted sometimes. And then he said it: “Hey, I’m a Christian. I like to talk about it with people. Would you be willing?”

Fear stabbed at me. “I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t want to be pressured about God.”

“Whoa, don’t worry,” he said. “I’m not going to try to push you into anything you don’t want. It’s just that I’ve found that following Jesus is pretty good. It’s made a big difference in my life. I think it can make a big difference in everyone’s lives.”

I’m not sure why I agreed to talk with him. He told me how it was for him to start on God’s path, how he still messed it up a lot, but how God had been patient with him. He told me that God would be just as patient with me, and that he wanted me just as I was. He asked me about what fears I had about starting on that path. We talked at length about them, and he was patient and kind. But my fears were considerable, and I was not ready to give them up. And so our talks came to an end.

But Mark made me feel welcome and accepted at the edge of surrender. When I was ready to take that step years later, Mark had given me a good idea of how to find the path God had prepared for me. Because of Mark, I knew that I should look for simple acceptance, because it was evidence that God’s love was present.

Wherever you are, Mark, thanks, man. I hope to live up to your example.

I’ve told this story twice before, in 2008 and 2010. But I rewrote it this time, to be spare and direct.

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Faith

The opposite of love

When I was young, I thought the opposite of love must be hate.

This seemed obvious to my forming mind. Love is a strong emotion at one pole, and hate is an equally strong emotion at the other. But as I grew up, I started to see that the fires of love and hate need the oxygen of focus and effort, or the fire dies. While the ends are different, love and hate share a key similarity. Maybe the two aren’t so opposite after all.

OppositeOfLove

Then I read Elie Weisel’s famous quote that the opposite of love is indifference

Ah! Of course! If I am indifferent to someone, I feel nothing toward that person and I will do nothing for him or her. I won’t encourage, I won’t build up, I won’t help. I just don’t care. The focus and effort love requires is absent.

Later I heard that Pope John Paul II said that the opposite of love is use.

This caused me to pause and reflect. Using or taking advantage of someone treats them like a thing and not a person, which denies their infinite worth. Things are meant to be used; people are not. Using someone takes focus and effort. It may be accompanied by feelings of indifference or hatred.

But then I read 1 John 4:18 and wondered if the opposite of love is fear.

That passage says, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” Every time I’m afraid, I am indifferent to the needs of others around me. I may even use someone in trying to secure my safety. In extreme cases, I may choose to hate, thinking I’m protecting myself.

Now I’m not so sure there is an opposite of love. But thinking about this surely has highlighted for me some key ways it can be distorted and blocked.

First published in July, 2011.

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