COVID-19, Faith

Church homeless

I haven’t set foot into my church since early March of last year, just before Indiana locked down for the pandemic. That level of lockdown ended after several weeks, and West Park Christian Church decided to reopen last July.

WPCC

It was challenging to arrive at that decision. Some of our elders wanted to open sooner, saying that we shouldn’t live in fear, and that us staying closed was starving our members of Christian community.

I took offense to the first point — it’s prudent, not fearful, to avoid a disease that can kill you, or leave you with chronic health difficulties, or at least lay you up for a solid two weeks while it has its way with you. God won’t protect us from it simply because we gather to worship him. Anyone who thinks so has a gross misunderstanding of faith and the nature of God.

I conceded the second point. I’ll come back to that in a minute.

Other elders, including me, took the position that our first duty is to keep our congregation healthy, especially given how many of them are elderly or have health conditions that put them at serious COVID risk. I wasn’t eager to stand before God one day explaining the people who suffered or died because I voted to open too soon.

We reached a compromise: we would ask at-risk people to stay away, require masks for all who enter, and alter the service to limit physical proximity. I’m naturally drawn to compromise so I said yes, but soon after I felt a regret I’ve never shaken.

Margaret and I have not been willing to expose ourselves to COVID risk, so we’ve stayed away. Most Sunday mornings we take in the services of North Point Community Church on our TV via our Roku. We both value the teaching of North Point pastor Andy Stanley; even before this, we often listened to his sermons on long car trips.

But a sermon is not the complete church experience, and it is not the main reason to attend church. We go to church to be a part of a community where we can encourage each other in the faith. Hebrews 10:24-25 lay it out very well:

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another.

West Park CC Sanctuary

Sure, a sermon is part of the worship experience. So is singing, and praying, and giving — other Scripture provides for all of these practices. But the point of these verses in Hebrews is that we’re meant to be Christians in community. This is a faith we do with others, if for no other reason than we can help each other stay with it and keep growing in it. Classically, we find Christian community in church.

That’s what’s been missing for Margaret and me as we’ve watched Andy Stanley preach every week. I can’t write with certainty about Margaret’s experience, but I can about mine: I feel increasingly isolated in my faith. I’ve lost feeling connected to fellow Christians. In parallel, the habits of my faith have fallen off, or feel increasingly stale. I don’t pray as often. I’m not in the Bible as much, and when I do study it, the words often fail to connect with me. And I’m not doing very much that expresses my faith. My faith is action-oriented: what mission am I on and what am I doing to move that in service to him is critically important. I’m not doing anything related to God’s mission right now. Margaret and I have our hands full holding things together with some family challenges during a time when everything is more difficult anyway.

For a long time, I believed that God wanted me to be a part of my church’s urban mission. We did our best to meet our neighbors, most of whom know the problems of poverty, lift them up as best we could, and introduce them to Jesus. My ability to organize and run things helped my church execute on its mission more effectively.

Since the pandemic, I’ve become disconnected from that mission. What is right in front of me is my family, whose spiritual needs have been underserved and often unmet for months now. I feel compelled to give all of my attention to us.

It’s become clear to me over the last couple years that my church’s leader’s need to live in its neighborhood. People like me who don’t live there just can’t be fully involved, and full involvement is needed. We live a good 30 minutes away. And we don’t feel at all led to move there.

Moreover, as an elder it’s my duty to minister to our people. But I and my family need ministering. We’re out of spiritual gas.

I think that my time at West Park is coming to an end. Margaret and I agree that when we think it’s safe for us to return to in-person worship, that we will choose a church together. (I was at West Park long before we met, and she is technically still a member at the megachurch she attended with her children for nearly 20 years.) We want to find a community of Christians where we can make friends and find mutual encouragement in life and in the faith.

As we contemplate and (soon) search for a new church home, we feel church homeless.

Standard
Faith

I came to believe

I’ve been reading a book that a friend wrote called Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help Or Hurt Social Peace (available on Amazon here). It’s about the nature of belief, why we believe the things we do, and how things that seem obviously true to us seem obviously false to others. It’s a challenging and fascinating read. I’ll write more about it in an upcoming post. Reading it has repeatedly reminded me of this post from 2011 in which I explained my faith in God. The friend who wrote the book is one of the bloggers I mention in the first paragraph below.

I’ve been thinking for months about writing a post called, “Why I follow God.” It all started when two bloggers I follow began discussing God’s existence with each other on their blogs. In short, one believes and the other doesn’t. I wanted to add to the discussion, but the more I thought about it the more my faith deconstructed. It created a minor crisis in my faith, until I finally realized that I believe in God because I want to, and that I follow God because I have decided to.

That would be my shortest post ever. So I decided I should explain.

I think we curious humans naturally look for answers to big questions: How does the universe work? How did life begin? Is there a supreme being? We weigh evidence and draw conclusions against the backdrop of our predispositions.

Some end up predisposed toward God and others toward reason and evidence. I came to be predisposed toward God, I think, as a boy when my parents briefly sent me to a church’s Sunday school. They spoke of a loving creator, and I rather liked that idea. Later unsatisfactory encounters with people professing their faith did deter me for a while.

Monon Bridge

I wrote long ago about how, as a young adult, achieving my dreams left me unfulfilled and failed relationships left me sad and lonely. In despair and depression I decided to seek God. My search led me down a winding road that has ultimately left me with faith, which has sustained me through later, even more difficult times.

It’s not that I don’t dig reason. When I was a young student, my best subjects always included math and science. I followed that path to engineering school, where I graduated with a degree in mathematics. So I came to Christ with a good grounding in logic, reasoning, and the scientific method. That knowledge tells me that you can never prove God.

To prove something requires evidence that makes the conclusion certain. Unfortunately, evidence for and against God is incomplete and imperfect. We may weigh it and draw our conclusion; we may even say that, to us, it proves or disproves God. But what we really mean, even if we deny it, is that the evidence resonates so well with us that we are willing to step over the gap of imperfection and incompleteness. For example, some argue that the universe’s intricately balanced design is evidence of an intelligent designer and therefore proof that God exists. Even my brother, who calls himself an atheist, considers our improbable existence in this mean universe and admits to a creating god. He steps that far over the gap. But he is correct when he says that nothing about this evidence points to a personal God, such as the one the Bible describes.

We draw lots of reasonable conclusions every day from the evidence available to us. We’re wired to do it; we have to do it because so much is uncertain or unknowable. I sometimes stop at a donut shop near my office and buy a dozen to share at work. It’s reasonable to conclude I can do this any morning I want. Unfortunately, the shop burned to the ground early one morning last autumn. Good thing I didn’t make a donut run on my way to work that day. So with any reasonable conclusion, we take some step of faith to believe it.

Rainbow Bridge

I think God hasn’t left conclusive evidence of himself lying around because he wants us to take a step of faith if we are to believe in him. My experience with God is that he loves me and wants my love back. In human relationships, love can fail. People you love can betray you, abuse you, or leave you destitute. Even if none of those things happen, someone you love could die before you, leaving you to grieve. Such are the risks you take when you choose to love. In choosing to love God, you risk him not being real. You risk the whole thing having been a sham.

Some won’t take that risk. Some who take that risk end up feeling gypped. If God is real and loves us, why is the world in such a sorry state? Why do so many people suffer? Why do I have to face pain, injustice, and loss? Everybody who contemplates God one day faces these questions; some reach them and turn away. My experience is that patience and determination carries a nascent faith through this crisis.

The worst thing I’ve ever been through was my brutal separation and divorce. I prayed for years that God would heal my marriage, but things just kept getting worse between my wife and me and eventually she hired a lawyer. How could God have ignored my desperate prayers? Doesn’t he hate divorce? I could easily have turned away from God in anger and disgust. I considered it. Yet facing crippling pain and loss, I decided to keep turning to God. I am not entirely sure why. During this time, I repeatedly suffered consequences from destructive choices, sometimes mine and sometimes my estranged wife’s. Each time things could have gone much worse for me than they did. It seemed to me as though somebody was placing soft pillows beneath me each time I fell. And then during this time I had an experience that felt to me like God was loving me directly. Read about it here.

Broad Ripple

I perceived a pattern of intervention too strong for me to write off as a string of coincidences, and I chose to attribute them to God. This time of difficulty actually cemented my faith. I’m God’s; there’s no turning back. Some might argue that I am drawing too heavy of a conclusion from scant evidence. I freely admit that my conclusion involves a big step of faith.

The only way I can explain this is to compare it to the way we bind to our mothers when we’re newly born. Our ability to perceive the world is extremely limited. We don’t even see our mothers as separate from us. Yet as we grow, the love that our mothers hopefully showed us through touch and care seeds in us. We know our mothers love us. And so, through my limited ability to perceive God, I have experienced what I believe to be his loving involvement in my life. I have concluded that God is real and loves me.

And so it goes, I think, for anyone who determines to patiently follow God. Sooner or later they experience God in their lives. At that moment, God starts to become as real to them as their mother.

Unfortunately, you can’t get there without making that step of faith. You have to choose to believe and decide to follow. God can be nothing but elusive, mysterious, and maddening until you make that choice. He becomes less so as your faith grows.

Do you enjoy my stories and essays?
My book, A Place to Start, is available now!
Click here to see all the places you can get it!

Standard
What's the Reason for the Season?

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!

If you’d like to get more of my photography in your inbox or reader, click here to subscribe.

Photography

single frame: What’s the reason for the season?

A lit cross at night.

Image
Faith, Stories Told

Holding up my hand: A story from my next book, A Place to Start

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.

This story is in my book A Place to Start, available soon.

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.

James Monroe School
The elementary school I attended

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.

God disagrees.

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.

The house I grew up in as it appeared in 2010

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.

To get Down the Road in your inbox or reader six days a week, click here to subscribe!
To get my newsletter with previews of what I’m working on, click here to subscribe!

Standard
COVID-19, Faith

Attending to spiritual needs during the pandemic

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.

West Park Christian Church

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.

Standard
Faith

A brief history of Christmas

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.

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 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.

To get Down the Road in your inbox or reader six days a week, click here to subscribe!
To get my newsletter with previews of what I’m working on, click here to subscribe!

Standard