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

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.

ReaderI 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

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.

OppositeOfLoveThen 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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Faith

Getting the love we always wanted from the perfect parent we never had

When we were small, our parents were godlike to us. They had all power over us. We probably thought they had all power in the world.

This experience imprinted on us, and subconsciously we assume that God is like our parents. Better said, we project our parents onto God, and so expect God to treat us and the world like they did.

LoveBut nobody’s parents are perfect. Most lose their tempers or criticize their children unfairly from time to time. Many sometimes place unreasonable demands on their children, or punish them harshly, or control them with shame. Some parents abuse or neglect their children.

And so we may believe God watches over us with a critical eye and is never satisfied with anything we do. Or we may assume God is just waiting to turn his back on us when we screw up. Or we may think we need to work hard to earn God’s favor and love. Or we may figure that no matter what we do God’s not going to care about us anyway, and so we give up trying.

But God’s more like the perfect parent none of us ever had. He wants to see us grow up well. He never loses his temper or patience with us. He knows there is sometimes pain and difficulty in our lives, and he wants us to turn to him for comfort and encouragement through it so he can help us become stronger and more loving. He knows we make mistakes and sometimes even deliberately do the wrong thing, but he won’t turn his back on us, or shame us, or punish us no matter how bad it was.

At our cores, we all want to be loved. God wants to love us. Our fears that God will let us down in the way our parents did gets in the way of us simply accepting that love. We have to keep working on our relationship with God and over time come to see him as he truly is before we can simply accept the love he has for us.

If you are a parent, consider what a service to your children it would be if you modeled your parenting after the way God loves. Not only would your children feel your love for them more strongly, but it would make their image of God be so much closer to who he really is. It might help them more readily accept God into their lives.


First published in February, 2011.

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Faith, Personal, Preservation, Stories Told

A place to start

This happened 25 years ago. I’ve told this story here twice before: in 2007 and 2011, but I rewrote it this time.

Only the rough neighborhoods fit my budget. I’d just graduated from engineering school in Terre Haute and had landed a job in town, but times were tough and the pay was poor.

On the way to see an apartment on the wrong side of the tracks, I passed through the tree-lined Collett Park neighborhood with its American Foursquare and Craftsman Bungalow houses. Built for a growing middle class around the turn of the century, it was a cheerful, well-kept neighborhood of sidewalks and wide front porches. I admired its tightly packed homes as I drove slowly down one of its concrete streets. I noticed a For Rent sign in the front window of a tall house wrapped in red Insulbrick. Even though I doubted I could afford this neighborhood, I stopped and rang the bell.

A view of the neighborhood

A view of the neighborhood

A large, gruff man in a thin, wrinkled, v-neck T-shirt and pale chinos came and looked me over. I asked about the apartment and he disappeared to find the key. He showed me around the side to the entrance and as soon as I entered I was sure that I couldn’t afford the place. It was clean. Hardwood floors glowed subtly around the room’s edge as they framed the fresh rugs. The walls were recently painted or wallpapered. The large, gruff man, who finally introduced himself as Steve, had clearly cared for the place.

Suspicious of this wide-eyed kid, Steve began to size me up by asking where I went to school. When I said Rose-Hulman his voice rose a note toward tentatively cheerful. He said he went there, too, back before the war when it was still called Rose Poly, but he couldn’t hack it and went on to work 30 years at the post office. He talked as he led me through, alternating between Rose stories and calling out one or two features of each room.

In my car, in front of the house (on the right)

I was glad he was talking, because I was excited and didn’t want to betray it. A built-in cabinet and chest of drawers consumed half of one of the bedroom’s walls. In the enormous bathroom, white porcelain tile covered the walls to four feet high. Original antique fixtures were still in place, including a claw-foot tub and a sink with separate hot and cold taps. In the kitchen, an early-1950s Tappan electric stove, gleaming in white and chrome, stood across from a long, shallow farmhouse sink. A built-in table and benches filled a tiny breakfast nook. French doors led the way from the living room to the den. The woodwork was 12 inches tall with corner posts, and the doorknobs were either glass or ornate brass ovals. By this time Steve was telling me that he bought the house in 1935 after he married his wife Henrietta, that it was almost 100 years old, and that the original owner had built the apartment for his mother-in-law by blocking off three rooms of the house and adding the kitchen and den.

The kitchen – boy, did I need to take out the trash

The history charmed me as I noticed some of the place’s shortcomings. The hallway wallpaper had a hideous check pattern with large bright yellow flowers, the bathroom walls north of the porcelain tile were painted bright pink, I would have to supply my own refrigerator, the house had one furnace and Steve controlled the temperature, and Steve made clear that tenants could have all the friends over they wanted as long as they were white.

Whorehouse pink bathroom

I wanted the place. I decided I could live with the faults and I would cross the color line should it become necessary. I drew a breath, sure he was going to set a price beyond my budget, and said, “I like it. How much?”

Steve drew back and narrowed his eyes at me for a minute. Then he said he’d had a lot of trouble with recent tenants; he had just evicted a “coupla girls from Indiana State” for having a string of different men staying overnight. He wondered aloud if I could afford it and if I would cause him any trouble. He examined me — and in that instant I was sure that he was setting the rent just outside what he thought I could afford. After a long pause that made me fidget, he barked: “250.”

I reeled, dizzy with disbelief. That was less than what I’d pay for a dump in the rough neighborhoods. “I’ll take it,” I said quietly. He leaned well into my personal space, frowning. “Are you sure? I said the rent is $250.” I pulled my checkbook out of my back pocket and said, “I can pay the first month’s rent right now.” He backed off, took the check, shook my hand, and that was that. I had a home.

At my front door

I can’t imagine renting on a handshake today, but I lucked into a great situation. Steve and Henrietta were honorable people who stayed out of my business and kept the apartment in good repair. They even got rid of the pink bathroom walls, peeling away nine layers of wallpaper under that paint! Steve passed away within the year; after that, Henrietta took care of things herself. “If you’re happy, I’m happy,” she said to me several times, and never raised my rent.

I could furnish the place only sparsely at first. I owned a bed, a dresser, a desk, and a broken black-and-white console TV. I bought a recliner and some tables at a used furniture store. I accepted charity from Mom. Soon I had the place suitably appointed.

Just moved in; light on furniture

I started building my budding adult life in my little place, and invited my friends in. My girlfriend spent many of her evenings there with me, relaxing, watching TV, talking, sharing companionship and company. My parents visited from time to time. My brother would drive to town and we’d go out for drinks, or an old college friend would come up from Louisville and we’d order dinner and watch movies all night. An old girlfriend came to see me from Bloomington, and a dear old friend flew in once from Toronto. I had a close friend and some of her friends over for a toast of sorts when she graduated from St. Mary-of-the-Woods. I even made a nice dinner for my boss, his girlfriend, and my girlfriend (by this time, a different one). We all squeezed into the little breakfast nook to eat. My little apartment was at the center of many of my activities and so of my world.

Easy like a Sunday morning

But I’d soon suffer some sad and lonely years. My relationship with the first girlfriend fell apart at about the same time another friendship ended very painfully. These passages let me see some ways I wasn’t healthy in my relationships. Most of my other friends were graduating and moving away, and I found it hard to make new friends. I felt lost and stuck; I grew depressed. I used to beat myself up over not working harder to push past these challenges. Fortunately, I have since forgiven myself for being human.

Breakfast nook

I took lots of long drives to escape my feelings, but at the end I always had to go home and face myself. In that, my apartment was a blessing for reasons beyond the hardwood floors, the low rent, and the good landlord: it was a a comfortable and safe place learn to be me. I did a lot of things there that I enjoyed and that helped me figure out who I was and what I liked. I taught myself how to cook. I watched a lot of late-night cable in the dark with a beer in my hand. I lay on the floor in the den listening to album after album, singing along at the top of my lungs, thankful that Henrietta was hard of hearing.

I finally made some friends, through the local computer bulletin board community, and we routinely gathered in person. Still, I frequently wished for companionship, thinking that it would make the rest of my problems go away. When I found companionship, to my confusion the rest of my problems were still there. I found myself unable to make things better on my own. I entered therapy for the first time. And I started looking for God. I’d never sought him before, but my problems were bigger than I was and I figured if anyone could handle them, the creator of the universe could.

In my room

And so the seeds of change were planted in me in that apartment. Between God and therapy, I began to heal where I was wrong and see where I was all right to begin with. I started to learn how to be content with my circumstances even when they’re not ideal. Those days tried to show me, though I still struggle with this lesson, that part of humanity’s core beauty lies in its limitations and its imperfections.

At home in 1992

At home in 1992

For more than 20 years, when my days were troubled my dreams were filled with this apartment. It represented comfort and a place where difficult things can happen safely. I still miss the place.

When I’m in Terre Haute, I try to drive through the old neighborhood. The last time was a few years ago. I found the house now sided in gray vinyl, the concrete steps beginning to crumble, the painted trim peeling, the hedges overgrown. Much was the case up and down the block; the first signs of decline. Houses in neighboring blocks showed serious neglect. The neighborhood was becoming rough.

Unloved and uncared for in 2007

By that time, Henrietta’s health declined to the point where she had to sell the house, after having lived on that street all her life. Henrietta passed away a couple years ago, well into her 90s.

Henrietta’s life moved on, and so must mine. But still, when I drive by, I want to park and go in. I would probably be surprised not to see my brown recliner there, the TV remote on the arm, waiting for me to sit and watch the evening news.

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Faith

Things I wish Christians would stop saying: “Joy means putting Jesus first, others second, and yourself last”

I first heard this phrase when I first taught Sunday school at a particular church. A plaque on the door read “J.O.Y. Classroom.” I had to ask what J.O.Y. stood for. Outspoken Shirley, unofficial class spokesperson, shook her head at me as if I had been living under a rock since my baptism. “How have you never heard this?” She counted on her fingers: “Joy means putting Jesus first, others second, and yourself last. See? J-O-Y. Joy!” She beamed triumphantly.

I grimaced inside. Spare me a platitude-strewn faith. Give me depth and meaning.

Worse, this particular platitude is just dead wrong.

But I get it: this saying discourages self-centeredness. I support that. Christians are meant to serve. As Paul said in Phillipians 2:3-4 (NIV):

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

As with so many things in the Bible, however, you can’t just take one scripture and run with it. You need to see what other verses say on the subject and look for the bigger, and usually more nuanced, picture they paint together. Jesus takes a slightly different view in Matthew 22: 36-40 (NIV):

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Jesus is on board with us loving God first: he calls it the most important commandment. But then he goes and places others on par with ourselves. Love your neighbor, he says, as yourself.

Why don’t these two verses perfectly harmonize? Well, Paul was writing to a group of Christians who lived in the Greek city of Philippi. They were in disagreement over some matters. Paul urged them toward harmony and unity.

Jesus, in contrast, was talking to a Pharisee, someone who had deep knowledge of Jewish law. The Pharisees felt threatened by Jesus and kept trying to trip him up on the law so they could have him arrested for blasphemy. Jesus deftly sidestepped an ensnaring question while sharing a profound truth.

Within that truth, Jesus used a key word, agapao. It’s translated as love, and it carries a strong sense of caring, of doing, of serving — even of sacrificing self. This is God-powered love, the kind he offers to us. He wants us to give that love back to him first. But then he says we are to give it to others as well as to ourselves — to borrow and adjust some of Peter’s words, to look to others’ interests and ours.

When I survey the wondrous cross

Jesus gave all — and he had infinite resources to give.

If we unfailingly put others first, we will soon run out of gas. We restock our resources when we love ourselves. We can’t serve others to the exclusion of eating and sleeping, or of paying our bills — we need to love ourselves at least this much. If we keep giving away all of our money and food, we will stay homeless and hungry. I can’t imagine that God calls any of us to that.

We also need to love ourselves enough to fully live the life God has granted us. Sometimes this is about reaching out and achieving, working hard to accomplish a goal. Other times this is about recovering from past life difficulties. It even involves enjoying and embracing the good life has to offer. All of these things give us strength and experience we can share with others.

And we should live our lives in the way God made us to live it. If you were given boldness, live boldly. If you were given quiet thoughtfulness, live quietly and thoughtfully. However you live, turn daily to God so he can shape you for his service.

In no way do I mean to promote a selfish life. I promote living to serve and living to have rich resources to give.

And in case it isn’t clear, I condemn an ongoing selflessness that depletes and diminishes you. You may temporarily be called to such heroism, but nobody can sustain it as a lifestyle. I worry that platitudes like this create a standard that nobody can keep, and lead Christians to feel needlessly guilty.

You are just as important to God as the next person. Jesus acknowledged that when talking to the Pharisee. Take good care of yourself, and generously give your resources to serve others.


Other things I wish Christians would stop saying: “God won’t give you more than you can handle” and anything whatsoever about homosexuality.

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