What’s the reason for the season? Canon PowerShot S80 2010
I remember well making this photograph ten years ago. A little church within walking distance of my home planted a row of pine trees on the edge of their property, I imagine to block the sights and sounds of the busy main road. For many years at Christmastime, they strung lights around them all. It was lovely, especially at night.
It was just ten degrees out that mid-December night I decided to walk over there and photograph the scene. I brought a tripod — I would need to make long exposures with my Canon PowerShot S80, which was my primary camera then. I made a couple dozen photos here that night. I would have made more, but neither the camera nor my hands could abide the cold.
Back at home I sorted through these photos and selected two that turned out well, including this one. I then wrote a post about Christmas that used them both.
That post was about coming to terms with Christmas. Most of my time as a Christian had been in a church that did not celebrate the birth of Christ. The Bible did not expressly authorize it, the logic went, and therefore we should not do it. This is a niche position in Christendom.
I left that church over its legalism and landed in a more mainstream branch of this faith. The churches I’ve belonged to since all celebrate Christmas. I struggled with it for a long time. Writing that post helped me come to terms with it. I’ll re-share that post here tomorrow.
Last year at church it fell to me to give the Christmas Eve sermon. (You can read it here.) How far I’ve come in my journey!
In this blog’s early days I wrote a lot about my faith. I’m a Christian, but I wasn’t raised as one. I wasn’t raised with any faith, actually. I went looking for faith in my 20s and I found Jesus Christ.
I thought faith would be a way to make my life more certain. Trust and obey, and all will be well. But it wasn’t true. I experienced at least as much disappointment and difficulty with faith as without. It almost drove me away from the faith.
But I’m stubborn. I meant to hold God accountable to what I thought he had promised me. I laugh at myself for it now. I spent a lot of time in the Bible looking for scripture that I could wave in God’s face. Instead, I learned that God aches when we experience loss and suffering — but he means for these things to cause us to grow, and to draw us closer to Him. This is the nature of faith.
This story is about the beginning of that transformation in my faith, about how I moved from legalism to grace, from God as cold judge to God as someone who loves me and wants me to figure it out.
Even though I wrote this in 2007 during my blog’s first year, it remains my favorite post I’ve ever written on this blog.
This story and many others are in my book, A Place to Start. I’m working hard to make it available later this month.
On my first day of Kindergarten, my mother walked with me the half mile to school so I’d know the way. I felt anxious about the long walk, but also reassured that Mom was taking me there. When the time came, I held my hand up for her to grasp and we left our house. In the warm September sun we walked uphill past the houses that curved along our narrow street. She led me along the Secret Sidewalk, a shortcut between some houses that emptied onto another street that led down the other side of the hill. As we passed the synagogue, Mom explained how Jews in our area walked to services there every Saturday. As we passed a patch of little sumac trees, Mom warned me not to touch them because they were poisonous. As we passed a wooded lot, Mom warned me to stay on the sidewalk because the hippies liked to hang out in there and she wasn’t sure they were safe. As we rounded the corner and passed the Church of Christ, Mom said that I was not to join the other kids if they shortcut through their property. I took in everything Mom said, fascinated and excited by how much there was to know about this walk to school. When we reached the corner across from the school, Mom explained how to watch and listen for the crossing guard. The guard gave the okay, and we crossed and walked up to the school. Mom left me at the door with a kiss, a hug, and a promise that she’d be waiting at that door when school let out. I felt secure as I walked inside.
On my own twenty years later, I felt alone and lost. I wanted a path to follow that would work better than what I had come up with. I felt sure God would have that path, so I wound up in a Methodist church. The pastor sprinkled water on my head and I was in. I did things I thought I should do as a Christian: I attended Sunday school and services every week, I tried to quit swearing and always be honorable, and I helped with the youth group. I enjoyed the people and socialized heavily with my Sunday school class. But I struggled with God, whom I expected to judge me, eyebrow arched and lips pursed, each time I slipped up.
I also struggled to understand the church’s rituals. For example, every couple months we took communion. We read puzzling texts from the hymnal and then lined up to eat a little wafer and drink a sip of grape juice. But I didn’t know what it was for! I used to pray, “Lord, I don’t know why I’m doing this, but I pray that you will bless it anyway.” God and church weren’t making sense. In time, I had some serious brushes with church politics. It turned me off and I fell away. I used to blame the Methodists, but something the pastor said to me many times comes back to me now: “Each man must find his own path to God.” I sure wasn’t searching so I might find; I guess I expected the church to show me.
One day, the Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked on the door and promised that my Bible could be an open book to me, giving me accurate knowledge of God and His standards for me and for His people, the true Christians. I was nervous because of the Witnesses’ notoriety, but the fun young couple who came to study with my wife and me soon melted those reservations. Steve, a slight man who bobbed and twitched with nervous energy, enthusiastically shared his knowledge. He flipped rapidly through his Bible looking for verses that answered our questions. In counterpoint, Jessica sat like a reference librarian, placid and poised with a heaping gob of thick blonde hair usually pulled up into a bun and glasses perched on the end of her nose. She could clarify in ten words anything Steve said in a hundred, but she always quietly let her husband speak.
My wife and I enjoyed their company and our study. We became excited and encouraged to find that the Bible could be our sole guide to living a life worthy of the name Christian. At last, here’s the path I didn’t find in the Methodist church! It would be all spelled out for me! I could put on Christ like a new suit of clothes and leave my troubled life behind! But it troubled me that the Watchtower Society’s theology and doctrine didn’t always add up. Finally, Steve couldn’t explain a particular doctrinal point to our satisfaction, and we began to lose our confidence. A succession of church elders came to try to explain. Finally one elder brought it all into focus for me when he said, “Look, just come to services for a few months, and then you’ll understand and it will seem natural.” In other words, he wanted us to become a part of their culture, and then we would naturally do whatever the Watchtower Society asked of us. That seemed flat wrong. We ended our studies with Steve and Jessica, and since we had turned away from their faith, they couldn’t see us anymore. We missed them.
Not daunted in finding God’s sure path for us, we found the Church of Christ. Dedicated to following the New Testament pattern for living a Christian life, they looked only to Scripture for their authority and not to any man-made organization. Since part of that pattern required baptism by immersion, my earlier baptism by sprinkling didn’t count. The preacher dunked me, my sins were washed away, and I was in. We did things we thought Christians should do: my wife taught Bible class for children, I created a Web site for the church, and we faithfully attended twice on Sunday and every Wednesday evening
On the one hand, I felt secure in the standards for Christians that the Bible seemed to spell out. Forgive. Love your wife as Christ loved the church; that is, sacrificially. Do not divorce, except for adultery. Give as you purpose in your heart, as you have prospered. Above all, do not forsake the assembly of Christians. I just had to do these things, and others the Bible specified, to be right with God. This was the way I was looking for.
On the other hand, I felt secret shame that I could meet few of these standards well and consistently. I didn’t feel good enough. Truly, because of how much I missed the mark I often doubted my salvation. I compared myself to all the longtime members, most of whom grew up in that congregation, who seemed to be able to do all of these things. Seemed. Much later I saw how many of them had the same secret shame I did.
Shame’s brother is fear, which led to members interpreting the Bible ultra-conservatively to be on the safe side. We practiced only what the New Testament specifically authorized. It led us to have some distinctive practices that included singing a cappella, and not celebrating Christmas. Hairsplitting doctrinal discussions were common. I remember a discussion with a fellow about church leadership. The Bible says that an elder should have children. (Look it up in 1 Timothy 3:4 and Titus 1:7.) My friend asserted that a man with only one child should not seek the eldership, just to be safe, because God might really have meant two or more children. “Oh, come now!” I said. “If you had one child and I asked how many children you had, would you say, ‘I don’t have children, but I have a child?’ How absurd!” Yet he held fast to his fear-based conclusion lest he find himself hellbound.
But I loved those people. They showed my family love during a particularly painful and difficult period of my life. Several men stepped up to encourage me, pray with me, and study with me. Several women reached out to support my wife through the crisis. But a year or so later, fear seemed to seal shut the doors of that love when the elders learned that the end of my wife’s previous marriage ran afoul of the church’s teachings on marriage and divorce. The elders considered our story, reviewed Scripture, and then met with us to say that God didn’t recognize our marriage and we had no right to each other. They were grave yet deflated as they delivered the message; one elder looked physically ill. I felt guilty that this had burdened them so. But our situation had become serious because the church’s teachings spoke of separating and never remarrying. I was distraught. I had hoped for help keeping my family intact, but all these elders could do was tell me their interpretation of Scripture and withdraw awaiting my decision of what I was going to do. When you live by the law, you die by it too.
Through my own study I came to disagree with the elders’ interpretation of the relevant scriptures. We couldn’t come to a mutual understanding, and so we left the Church of Christ. We soon settled in a Christian Church down the road. Soon one of the elders from the Church of Christ called to ask where we were attending. When I told him, he gasped, said, “Oh! Jim, you were taught better than that!” and quickly hung up the phone. Soon we received a letter signed by the elders telling us that by joining a denominational church, “denominational” meaning “any church other than the Church of Christ,” we had left the faith. Members there were not to associate with us except to help restore us to the faith. As far as they were concerned, we were no longer Christians.
Shortly after we started attending that new church, I had this strong sense that my family belonged there. I heard a voice gently whispering, “Join here.” Today, if I may be so bold as to say so, I recognize that as the Holy Spirit guiding me. I followed that guidance, but I didn’t understand it. This church didn’t fit the approved pattern I learned about in the Church of Christ. They took up special offerings. Women led singing and sometimes read Scripture to the congregation. A piano and a guitar accompanied the singing, and some members clapped and raised their hands with the music. They celebrated Christmas. These practices were forbidden in the Church of Christ and made me uncomfortable. But I was determined to stick with it because I felt God led my family there. Perhaps my service to him might not be about certain worship doctrines. Perhaps he will make good use of a church even if it uses musical instruments and celebrates Christmas. I took the uncomfortable step of letting him lead me without knowing the way first.
My marriage didn’t survive, and I was dragged through a brutal divorce. Not only were church members a great encouragement to me, but both pastors met with me regularly mostly to listen and empathize, but also sometimes to offer a good word of advice, and always to pray with me. The senior pastor, who grew up in an ultraconservative church similar to the Church of Christ, taught and modeled a great deal about moving away from doctrinal legalism to grace, love, and a personal relationship with God. They helped meet my physical needs by letting me move into the church’s vacant parsonage rent free while I worked through the divorce. I have even been on three mission trips because of this group, which has taught me deep lessons in service and in being served. These Christians helped me stand firmly through everything that happened while also encouraging me to grow spiritually.
Trying to find and follow the ready guide, the list of things I must do to live successfully and in God’s good graces, failed me. I tried my best, but I always fell short.
You see, I missed the lesson when Mom walked me to school on my first day. The lesson wasn’t that I needed to strictly heed all of the things she told me about along the way. Knowing about the sumac and the woods and the crossing guard were useful and important. But the crucial lesson was in the simplest and most automatic thing I did on that walk: I held my hand up for Mom to take. I trusted Mom to guide me to school. I didn’t know where it was, how to get there, or what dangers I might encounter on the way. I didn’t have to worry about it because Mom knew the way and she led me there.
I trusted Mom because she had proved herself trustworthy in my early years. Babies naturally seek to trust, but grown men are wary. Grown men even forget that trust is an option. I sought rules and regulations because they seemed sure. It took crisis to reduce me to surrender where I could finally hear God’s voice and take that first tenuous step toward trust. As my trust grows, I am learning that as long as I hold up my hand, God will take it. He will lead the way, and He will tell me useful and important things about living. I will find life fascinating and exciting, and I will reach my destination safely.
I haven’t been to church since the first of March. That Sunday, Hoosiers were just starting to get sick from the coronavirus. We sent messages to all of our members discouraging them from hugging and even shaking hands. We didn’t pass the communion plates but rather asked people to come to the front to take the emblems, which elders handed them while wearing disposable gloves.
The following week the state shut down, and so did we.
You may recall that we hired a pastor early in 2019 but by autumn it was clear we weren’t a mutual fit and he moved on. The elders, including me, had been sharing preaching duties with several guest preachers. Just before we shut down one of those guest preachers expressed interest in preaching for us every week until we found our new permanent pastor. We took him up on it.
We tried to offer worship and connection for our members. Our interim preacher recorded his weekly sermons on video and sent them to me for posting on Facebook. They went live every Sunday morning at 9 am. It wasn’t the same as worshiping in person, but many of our members appreciated the effort very much. We also began to have Zoom gatherings for our members, but they were poorly attended. Many of our members couldn’t make the technology work.
The city and state began to reopen in May. Curiously, they allowed churches to congregate well before they allowed any other large gatherings. We elders were not of one mind about how to proceed. A couple elders wanted to resume Sunday services right away so we could be in Christian community and take care of each other’s spiritual needs. I was staunch: reopening was irresponsible. To resume in-person services could result in our members becoming sick — and, given that many of our members are in high-risk categories, possibly even dying. The elders favoring reopening reasoned that our members should decide to opt in or out based on their own conscience and willingness to tolerate risk. There were good and valid points on both sides, but these difficult discussions were hard on the eldership.
We stayed closed for several weeks, reopening the first Sunday in July. But I and one other elder have not attended. We remain unwilling to place our families at risk.
Additionally, serious family stress has taken my attention almost fully away from West Park Christian Church. Except for the elders’ meetings over Zoom every couple weeks, I have neither time nor energy for the eldership.
Being an elder is not meant to be primarily an administrative role. Elders are meant to be involved with the congregation as shepherds. That was challenging enough for me before the pandemic because I live 30 minutes away from West Park, which is really a neighborhood church. It is impossible now.
I don’t know why it’s not been clear to me before, but it’s clear to me now: West Park’s elders really need to live in or near the neighborhood. Maybe the situation at West Park has evolved to this and I’m just now catching on. I don’t live in the neighborhood. I don’t believe I’m called to live in the neighborhood. I don’t want to live in the neighborhood.
Since lockdown Margaret and I have been watching the online services of North Point Church in Georgia together every Sunday morning. We both love the teaching of their pastor, Andy Stanley. He brings such a fresh perspective, always well reasoned from the Bible. We’ve benefited greatly from his sermons during these months.
But we both know we want to be in community with Christians again. We miss it greatly. But it’s not clear to us that we will return to West Park. We feel like our lives are leading us in a new direction, yet to be determined.
While my church continues to search for a pastor, those of us in leadership are having to do all sorts of things a pastor normally does. It falls to me to bring the message during our Christmas Eve service tomorrow evening, which boggles my mind. I’ve been working on that message during my normal blogging time for more than a week now. I may try to cut down that message into a blog post for Christmas Day; wish me luck that I’ll find time. Meanwhile, the blog must go on, so I’m rerunning this Christmas post from December 23, 2015.
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.
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 Greek from which this is translated 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 communion.
Meanwhile, it might surprise you to know that 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 some Churches of Christ, which is where I became a Christian. 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. Imagine 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 correctly contend that December 25th was chosen to celebrate Christ’s birth because nonbelievers already celebrated various pagan winter festivals at about that time. It’s not like anybody knew Jesus’s exact birth date, and they felt sure it would be easier to convert nonbelievers if the church had a celebration then, too.
Some modern churches that don’t celebrate Christmas say they won’t honor a celebration based on something that isn’t true, or something with roots in 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, valuable 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 become widespread only in the last hundred years or so, especially since the great prosperity that followed World War II.
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.
First published 23 November 2013. I’m not by nature a happy person. That doesn’t mean I’m an unhappy person. I just don’t go around all day thinking sunshine, rainbows, and unicorns. I see the good and the bad.
I’m also a bit of a type-A personality. I have a considerable internal drive to make things better and to fix what is broken. I spend a lot of my time frustrated because I just can’t fix it all. Sometimes the problems are beyond my abilities, and frequently I lack the resources I need.
So you see where my focus is: more on the bad than the good. I’m aware of the good but I feel the bad.
The other day in some words in a psalm caused me to stop dead. From Psalm 50, verses 14-15 and 23:
Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and perform your vows to the Most High, and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.
The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me.
A sacrifice of thanksgiving? I know all of these words individually, of course, but strung together in that order I struggled to understand them.
So I asked, because this came up during a Bible study. The leader said, “One way to look at it is that you’re giving up ingratitude. But thanksgiving itself really is a sacrifice.”
It left me more puzzled than satisfied.
But as I studied it and thought about it, I came to see that just because something is always wrong, and some things are very wrong, it is a sacrifice to set it aside for awhile and be grateful for what is good and right.
This helped me realize that I had lost touch with something important. 15 years ago, my life fell apart. And as I put my life back together, the bad days and bad things dwarfed the good. I had to search hard for the good. They were usually very small things, and they were always very few in number. But I looked for them, because finding something good in every bad day was the knot at the end of the rope to which I clung.
Thanks to a lot of hard work over the past several years, there’s way more good than bad now. But I’m still that guy who wants to fix and improve things – and often that’s all I can think of.
It’s hard to sacrifice it and offer up thanksgiving to God.
Perhaps that’s why it’s a sacrifice. When things are truly going poorly, when the biggest thing I have to be thankful for is mighty small, it can really hurt to thank God for it. And for some reason, at least for me, when more is right than is wrong it’s easy to focus on the wrong. It is still surprisingly hard to thank God for what is good.
And a sacrifice – you should feel it. Otherwise it’s not a sacrifice.
First published July 17, 2013. It makes me crazy when I hear it said (especially by preachers or others teaching the Christian faith) that when you forgive someone, you must reconcile, returning the relationship to where it was before. It’s not true.
In my last post I wrote about why and how to forgive – to suffer the loss and bear the pain, to no longer hold anything against the person who harmed you, and to give up your desire to get even. You forgive so you can be at peace.
Reconciliation is a separate step. Where forgiveness is about letting go of the past, reconciliation is about committing to a future – and sometimes it is best for a relationship not to have a future.
Even among people who haven’t harmed us, there are some who are a fit for us and some who aren’t. We routinely choose our intimates, friends, and associates based on any number of factors – shared values, common interests, demonstrations of care and concern for our well-being, and simple appeal. We don’t have to be tight with every person we encounter. We can’t be; there are simply too many people!
God can be tight with everyone; he is perfect and infinite, after all. God’s ideal is forgiveness and reconciliation, and that’s what he offered us at the cross. Jesus’s death gives us both forgiveness from and reconciliation with God, if we accept it as a gift from him. We get to be in relationship with him again, and he will not retaliate against us for our sins. I think God feels deep, deep sadness over every one of us who won’t accept his gift of reconciliation. It is much how we would feel if one of our children thumbed his nose at us and never came home again.
God wants us to live in peace with everyone, but I don’t think he means for us to keep opening ourselves up to harm. When Jesus preached at the mount, he said something that is frequently misapplied to justify reconciliation with someone who will harm us again and again.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”
That’s Matthew 5:38-42, NIV. Jesus was exaggerating a little to make a point; his whole sermon was filled with such hyperbole. Seriously, do you think he means for us to find to a mugger in a blind alley and say, “Here’s my wallet and my phone, and have a nice day?” Jesus himself was struck in the face in John 18:22; he demonstrates his point in John 18:23 where he doesn’t present the other side of his face to his aggressor. He doesn’t hit back or argue, either; he remains peaceable. Jesus is only trying to tell us to let God have vindication and mete out justice.
I think God wants us to love ourselves enough to choose people who treat us well and build us up.
So when someone harms you, ask yourself:
How much did you value the relationship? Highly, moderately, lightly, or not at all? You probably value highly the relationship with a parent, a child, or your best friend of 30 years. You probably place much lower value on the relationship with a distant acquaintance.
How much damage was done? Extreme, moderate, or light? For example, someone deliberately burning your house down is far worse than someone casually saying something offensive to you.
What does what the other person did say about their character? Was what they did way out of character for them, a one-time deal that is inherently unlikely to be repeated? Or was it consistent with who they are? It’s pretty simple: keep people with good character and shed people with bad character.
How well did the other person make amends? Fully, partially or imperfectly, or not at all? When someone harms you or lets you down, trust is damaged. Trust needs to be restored before reconciliation can be complete. Making amends is the first step in restoring trust. Trust builds over time as the other person continues to behave well.
The answers to these questions help you decide whether to reconcile fully, to end the relationship, or to redefine the relationship.
Let’s look at redefining the relationship for a minute, because it’s not an obvious outcome. It’s when you change the rules of the relationship to protect yourself.
In college, a buddy used to lend me his car sometimes. Once I brought it back with a slightly dented fender. I apologized all over myself. He told me it was all right, and that the little dent didn’t make his old beater look any worse. But he also said that he’d like it if I didn’t ask to borrow his car anymore. He was just as friendly to me after that, but there was this one limit to our relationship. Perhaps in time I could have rebuilt that trust and he might have let me borrow his car again, but college ended for us before that day came.
I once knew a woman with an alcoholic husband. She finally told him that while she loved him and didn’t want to leave him, she couldn’t tolerate his drinking anymore. She told him that when he came home drunk she would kick him out, change the locks, and cancel his debit card, for increasingly longer periods each time. When she let him come back home, she would treat him with love and respect. He eventually got into AA and got sober, but only after being kicked out like this a handful of times, the last time spending many months unwelcome at home.
Still, there are just going to be times when it’s right to call it quits permanently. Many years ago someone who was supposed to love me hurt me instead, repeatedly, in breathtaking ways. It took me several years to forgive and heal from the abuse, and to be at peace again. There have been no amends made, not even an acknowledgement of what happened. I sometimes encounter that person. I am polite, but I keep interactions short and move on. I think it unwise to let that person be close to me in any way.
I’m thinking again about the college roommate who stiffed me for the $400 phone bill, whose story I told in my last post. He called me trying to apologize. He tried to rebuild my trust by sending me money every couple months towards the debt. Yet I spurned him until the debt was repaid in full. My heart was in the wrong place.