Friday, 30 December 2011

Love Wins, by Rob Bell

Photo Credit: Eric Wilcox
"The Final Judgment"
http://www.flickr.com/people/joethelion/


"Why do you pass Judgment 
on your brother? 
Or you, why do you despise 
your brother? 
For we will all stand before 
the judgment seat of God" 
(Romans 14:10; ESV)



Augustine has been quoted to have said, "In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity." Is the discussion of Heaven and Hell an essential to the Christian faith? I suppose that all depends on who you talk to. Personally I'm a little less concerned with all eschatology (end time stuff) and a little more concerned with a proper Christian walk today. Whatever tomorrow does or doesn't hold, I rest knowing that we have a Heavenly Father who has it all sovereignly and perfectly in control. I have peace in that.
“Inquisitions, persecutions, trials, book burnings, blacklisting – when religious people become violent, it is because they have been shaped by their God, who is violent. We see this destructive shaping alive and well in the toxic, venomous nature of certain debates in the Internet. For some, the highest form of allegiance to their God is to attack, defame, and slander others who don’t articulate matters of faith as they do.” (Rob Bell, “Love Wins,” p.183)
Ever since it was released, there has been no shortage of noise on Rob Bell’s controversial new book, “Love Wins.” In my way of thinking, simply jumping in on the bandwagon without actually reading the book for myself would be a huge mistake.

So now I’ve also read it cover to cover. There were a couple times I just about didn’t bother continuing as, like my son also said, I thought of throwing it. However I didn’t throw it. It was, after all, a borrowed book. However, there was another reason that I didn’t throw the book, and that was because I thought it best to finish trying to hear what the author was saying. I guess I just wanted to try and hear his heart in this book, regardless whether I agreed or didn’t agree.

Though Rob Bell doesn’t actually come out and say so, in reading this book one gets the idea that he is a Universalist. Universalism basically says that in the end, all people will be restored to God, regardless whether or not they have personally responded to Jesus. Taken to its logical conclusion, all people regardless of what they believe or don’t believe, regardless of what religious views they hold or don’t hold, regardless of how good or evil they may be – all will be with you and me in glory one day. In such a view there can be no literal Hell because we will all be one giant family in Heaven. Adolf Hitler will be sitting at the same table as Billy Graham, Osama Bin Laden will sing in the same choir with the Apostle Paul, Emperor Nero will be drinking tea and playing cards with Mother Theresa in the courtyard of the Pearly Gates, and the pedophile and his child victim will one day find themselves together again in that big playground in the sky. It doesn’t matter what you and I believe, because in the end, life is one giant funnel depositing all humanity in the same place.

For me, that is the one main negative issue that I see in this book. I do believe in a literal Hell and I do believe that it is a “loving” God who has so ordained it. Rob Bell often appeals to the love of God as justification for disproving the existence of Hell. I think that the love of God actually requires a literal Hell. How so? In keeping with Bell’s style of asking questions, let me now also ask a question. Would it be “loving” of God towards His children to allow all the unrepentant evil people who ever lived to sit in glory with the godly children? I think not! Besides that, there are a host of other Scriptures that Bell does not mention (or conveniently omits) that the church has historically understood to refer to the damnation and eternal punishment of the unrepentant sinner. In this regard, if I’ve understood him correctly, Rob Bell and I are polar opposites. Then again, maybe I’ve misunderstood him. Maybe my own doctrine is somewhat flawed in this area. It could be. There have certainly been other areas in which my faith walk has been revised in recent years.

However, in my way of thinking, “Love Wins” isn’t necessarily all negative either. There were also many parts of the book that I enjoyed and even agreed with. It has certainly challenged my thinking. Being somewhat controversial myself, as well as believing that much of what we hold as orthodoxy today is simply a culmination of years and years of traditions and religious indoctrination, I do enjoy a good read that forces one to think outside of the religious box. In that vein, I would recommend it to those who wish to be stretched out of their comfort zones. However, if such a stretching does not get you excited, then perhaps it’s best that you do not read this book, as you will then most likely also just want to throw it.

Yes, love does win, but love also includes a final judgment. In my way of thinking, the Bible is quite clear about that too. Still, I won’t argue that point with anyone. I prefer to simply learn to walk in love and relationships with whomever Heavenly Father chooses to bring across my path. Love is the trump card.

“The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves.” (Romans 14:22; ESV)

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Careful, Not So Close!


Photo Source: Unknown

 “You shall not put the Lord your God 
to the test.” 
Matthew 4:7; ESV

There was an old child’s joke that said, “There were two morons sitting on the edge of a cliff. One was a big moron and the other was little moron. Why did the big moron fall off and the little one didn’t? Answer: Because the little one was a little-more-on.”

This reminded me of various times in my own childhood being told by my parents, “Careful, not so close,” as I ventured a little too close to the edge of some potentially dangerous spot. We’ve all been there, haven’t we? In one fashion or another, we’ve all sometimes carelessly ventured too close to danger. Likewise, we’ve probably all lovingly said to our younger children, “Careful, not so close” when they’ve also found themselves at the edge of safety and potential danger.

I see a spiritual application in this. Just as a child left playing too close to the edge of a cliff or other dangerous spot is likely to fall and get seriously hurt, so too the child of God left living too close to the edge of the world is likely to also fall and get seriously hurt. I do not believe that worldliness is something to be taken lightly.

Yes, we all have to live in this world, and be a light unto the world, but we must not be careless in how we do that. Sometimes that safety barricade or guardrail of the highway of life is not there. Other times, though it may be there, if we get too close, it still may not hold us back from a fall. Many a Christian, including prominent leaders, have fallen and gotten seriously hurt in the process of carelessly venturing too close to the edge of God’s way and the world’s way. I’m sure that we all understand about the pull of temptations. Even Jesus was tempted. However, the Apostle Paul reminds us, “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” (1 Corinthians 10:12; NIV). Are we being careful around potentially dangerous and tempting situations?

Sometimes all it takes is to be a little careless in that friendship with a member of the opposite sex. Then add a trial or moment of weakness in which the one friend graciously comes to comfort the other, and that friendship suddenly finds itself at a whole new and intimate level. Sometimes all it takes is that second glance at pornography, and the same curiosity that killed the cat, suddenly comes knocking at our door too. Then before we even know what happened, we’re hooked. Sometimes all it takes is getting a little too comfortable with the world, and that already fine line between God’s values and the world's values gets even finer still. They’re all slippery slopes. Then when life adds a little rain cloud, the ground beneath us on that slippery slope suddenly gets even more slippery, and down we go. Then before you know what happened, the church looks just like the world, and perhaps even worse.

God loves you and me dearly and He does desire the very best for us. I’m sure that we would all agree. But He has also given us a measure of freedom to choose our own way through this life. Along with that freedom to choose, there are also consequences. For example, just as the consequences of fornication (premarital sex) might be disease or an unwanted pregnancy, so too virtually all choices in life have some form of consequence attached to them.  Yes, Jesus will always be there after the fall to pick up the broken pieces of our lives, and He may even remove the pain of the fall, but that child born out of wedlock remains.

I suppose it would be one thing if we only were to hurt ourselves by our actions, but inevitably others are hurt by our choices too. Marriages do get broken, diseases do kill people, guilt does plague lives, and unwanted pregnancies do lead to unwanted children. And in the end, the only one laughing is the devil himself.

Is there a fine line between walking the Christian walk and that of walking a worldly walk? Perhaps one would think that there shouldn’t be, but to look at the way many of us live, one also cannot help but to wonder sometimes. Have we chosen to live on the edge of the proverbial cliff? Hmm, I wonder.

“Careful, not so close.”

Friday, 23 December 2011

Christmas Persecution?

Photo Credit: Alan Cleaver
http://www.flickr.com/
people/alancleaver/
With all due respect to Charles Dickens’ 1843 novel, “A Christmas Carol,” has the word “Scrooge” become a modern derogatory word? I am not going to list them here, but for a moment, think of all the other derogatory words that you’ve ever heard and the contexts in which they’ve been used. There have been so many words, often politically incorrect words, that we as a society have used to belittle others simply because in some way they are different than us.

Sometimes derogatory words are actually instruments of persecution whereby someone is oppressed or treated badly, again, often simply because they are different. Has the word “Scrooge” along with its cousin “Bah Humbug” become another on that long list of cesspool-worthy words? I wonder. Though some might find those terms funny, I’m sure that not all do. I cannot help but wonder about how the pro-Christmas camp sometimes, perhaps unwittingly, belittles and even oppresses those who think differently about the Christmas/Holiday ruckus. The opposite is also true. How many times hasn’t the anti-Christmas camp belittled those who enjoy the season? I confess that I’ve sometimes been guilty of this. Are we not sometimes acting like schoolyard bullies to those with opinions that differ from our own? The bottom line is, if we’ve offended, then we have not acted in love.

It is one thing to strike back when someone is vehemently opposed to Christmas and fights it on every turn. While that still doesn’t make it right (we are told that two wrongs never make a right), one can almost understand such rebuttals. A case in point is the following post that appeared recently on Facebook:
“I get so tired of people being offended this time of year. It's a freakin HOLIDAY to many people of many religious or NON religious backgrounds! SHEESH. If you don't like it, hide in your cave like you probably do anyway and leave the rest of us alone!
I am going to start a new, generic holiday in the month of August where we give gifts, have BBQ's and decorate cactus. Why cactus? Why not? I don't think anyone is offended by cactus are they? Does anyone have a problem with gifts and BBQ's being done in August? Can I do it on August 25th? Am I allowed to do that? Or will someone have a problem with THAT too? Is August 25th an obscure pagan holiday where they massacred African tribesmen trying to save baby seals? Although I am SURE someone will find SOMETHING evil having been done on August 25th and why I can't celebrate on that day!”
Photo Credit: Mind the Goat
http://www.flickr.com/people/mind_the_goat/
Though perhaps written tongue in cheek, if we read between the lines, we can see the hurt and pain. Clearly someone appears to have offended the author of that post.

However, what about those who are simply indifferent to the whole festive time? Is it right to label them with such disparaging slander? In response to a blog post I wrote outlining the origins of Christmas, the following comments appeared on Facebook:
“Maybe you should have started with "Bah, humbug". Eliminating Christmas won't make all those people who only do good things in December for Santa's sake do good things year round. It will just give them an excuse to never do it. And who cares that Christmas is a fairly new holiday or that the tree has nothing to do with anything? It's FUN! Hardly anyone celebrates Thanksgiving the way it was originally intended, as a thanks to God for Canada's bountiful harvest. The only people who do that are the ones who already thank God for that every day. And on Labour day, does anyone really seek out workers and thank them for their work throughout the year? Again, the only people who do are the ones who do it anyway. So what's wrong with a holiday that promotes goodwill for at least a month? Whether you celebrate Christmas for religious reasons, pagan reasons or no reason, who cares? Merry Christmas!”
Another person then added a rebuttal and said:
“No one here is saying everyone should eliminate Christmas. Nor is it being suggested that if you choose to celebrate, it is wrong for you to do so. But are you saying that it is WRONG for those of us who choose not to celebrate? It is a shame that you've taken what is written here as a "bah humbug". Only facts are being presented about the origins of Christmas . No one is trying to rain on YOUR parade.”
No, I wasn’t offended by those comments. If anything, I was saddened that my blog post got someone that upset. It’s amazing to me how testy we can become when someone thinks differently than we do, or in some way messes with their “holy cows!” The point is, we are all different and we all have different interests and different ideas of what constitutes “Fun” (as the Facebook commentator said).

Photo Credit: Marco Moni
http://www.flickr.com/people/mezzocielo/
According to Wikipedia, the name “Scrooge” has become synonymous with a “miserly person.” It seems to me that those who use the term “Scrooge” often assume that just because someone else doesn’t celebrate Christmas that they’re being miserable. While that may be true occasionally, I believe that it is far from the norm. There are many, many people who are perfectly cheerful (at least as much so as any other day of the year) and yet have nothing to do with the popular Christmas festivities. Christmas abstinence does not logically equal misery any more than someone who has nothing to do with the Halloween festivities suggests that they’re miserable. Likewise, is a person who doesn’t observe Ramadan miserable? How about the person who doesn’t observe Hanukkah? Does that mean they’re miserable? Of course not! Then why would someone who doesn't observe Christmas be labeled as a Scrooge? It just doesn't make any sense! Point is, there are many special days and seasons that “some” (but not all) people celebrate. It all comes down to personal choice, not societal choice (unless maybe we're talking about a Communist society). Last I checked, "Freedom" was still an important word.

Two things that will always start an argument or fight are politics and religion. Christmas has become like a religion to many. It has become strangely sacred for some Christians and non-Christians alike. Regardless whether we’re talking about a Nativity scene or a Santa and snowmen, many an atheistic person is just as religious as the Christian when it comes to Christmas. Therein is my point: does everyone share the same religious views? Of course not!

Where is it written that we all have to be carbon copies of each other and blindly follow everyone else’s idea of what constitutes a Holiday Season? When did it become law for everyone to equally buy into the capitalistic notion of a consumerism god called Santa Claus? That’s about as logical as a handful of people dictating a universal Vegan holiday, simply because some people choose not to eat meat.

I think we would all do well to ease up a little. There is no need to cut other people down just because they look at Christmas differently than you do. We are all different, so however we choose to celebrate (or not celebrate), if we have peace in our own homes and with each other, that all that matters. Is time to lose the derogatory “Scrooge” and “Bah humbug” labels?  I wonder.

From my (tree-less, light-less, and santa-less) house to yours, Merry Christmas.

__________

A Postscript:

Apparently I ruffled some feathers with this, which resulted in an interesting comment on Facebook.

However, before I offer my rebuttal, I would like to offer a caveat about the way I see social media. I believe that what others post on my Facebook page becomes my property in the sense that I am free to share it elsewhere if I wish (such as this blog). Obviously, the reverse is also true. If I post a comment on your Facebook page, that then becomes your property. If I copy something that I find on a site other than my own, the proper thing is to consult the author and give credit where credit is due. However, the rules change when someone puts their thoughts on my site. That then becomes mine to do with as I choose. Such is the case with this post and with my rebuttal to this Facebook comment:
“I was going to leave this alone, but since you felt it necessary to quote my original post, I'm going to respond. I don't have a problem with people who don't celebrate Christmas. You are welcome to celebrate anything you please, even if it is nothing. What I DO have a problem with are people who feel it necessary to spend December posting things like "We are ruining Christmas with our commercialization!" pictures and "How did Christmas get so greedy?" and "Where is Christ in Christmas" posts. You have basically declared that everyone who loves Christmas for any reason that they are greedy capitalist pigs who hate God. So before you accuse other people of Christmas persecution, maybe you should look up the word “hypocrite."
My Facebook reply was as follows:
“Wow. Obviously someone took this the wrong way! I didn't accuse you of anything. Hypocrite? I fail to see how. Perhaps if you have such a hard time with what I post here, you may want to consider that little "Unfriend" button. I'm sure you can find it. Merry Christmas.”
There is much that I disagree with in that person’s comment, but I will only bother focusing on one point the commentator made. So apparently I’m a “hypocrite” for confessing that, like the commentator, I side with one particular camp on this (albeit a different one). I confessed also that what was needed (including from myself) was a little more “love.” Is that hypocrisy? No, it isn’t. Hypocrisy is simply saying one thing and doing another. Have I done that? No, I haven't. Hypocrisy would be someone speaking against Santa Claus and then sitting on his lap with a Christmas wish list in hand. No, if my anonymous commentator “really” read my heart in this, that person would also have discovered that in most of my blog posts I typically ask more questions than make blanket statements. That person would also have discovered that, if I tar and feathered anyone, I did so to myself as well. "I wonder" is a common expression of mine, which simply denotes curiosity.

Have I offended? Apparently, yes I have. Was it deliberate? No. Then again, perhaps some people are simply argumentative. Perhaps too, that is one of the beauties of social networks; we have a measure of control over what and who posts to our sites. Maybe that “unfriend” button isn’t such a bad thing after all. Unfortunately, real "friendship" seems to be the only hypocrisy I see here. Still, I do apologize to whomever I’ve offended through this medium and ask their forgiveness. 

Merry Christmas.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Joy to the World. Whose Joy?

Photo Credit: GlacierTim
http://www.flickr.com/people/glaciertim/
“Christ in you, the hope of glory”
Colossians 1:27

“Joy to the world! The Lord is come: Let earth receive her King. Let every heart prepare Him room, And heav’n and nature sing, And heav’n and nature sing, And heav’n, And heav’n and nature sing.” So starts off Isaac Watts’ classic Christmas hymn based on the 98th Psalm.

It’s Christmas time again. For some, this is a big event. For others it is a little less so, as I wrote on in a previous blog entitled So This Is Christmas. However, regardless of how you view the season, one of the big Christmas words is the word “Joy.”

Aside from the usual Christmas connotation, what comes to mind when we speak of joy? As I reflected on this I began to think that maybe we tend to often look at joy the wrong way, or at least, partially the wrong way. How do we do so? I believe that we often think of joy only in terms of personal joy. We often think of it along the same lines as the infamous “what’s in it for me” question. So what’s wrong with that? After all, that is exactly what the word means, isn’t it?

There are at least three Greek words for “Joy” used in our New Testaments. First, there is the word "agalliaõ," which basically refers to a corporate, public and rejoicing worship expression. Secondly, there is the word "euphrainõ," which is more like the kind of joy that we’d find at a community banquet, such as at the celebration of a wedding. Thirdly, there is the word "chairõ." This is the most commonly used New Testament word for “Joy.” It tends to be more subjective in that it is focused on the things that bring joy. While “agalliaõ” and “euphrainõ” are no doubt interesting words in their own right, for the purpose of this article, I would like to focus only on the “chairõ” type of joy. What is it that brings us joy?
Jesus said, “I have told you this so that my joy (chairõ) may be in you and that your joy (chairõ) may be complete.” (John 15:11; NIV)
It is probably safe to say that every person who ever has lived desires a joyful life. Other than perhaps the odd weird exception, none of us wants to go through life being miserable. I would like to suggest that before we can properly consider what it is that brings us joy, we Christians need to first consider what it is that brings Jesus joy. If our joy is not in line with His joy, I would argue that we will never be fully satisfied with the joy that we think we’re experiencing. Why? This is simply because if we take Jesus out of the equation, what we’re left with is only a worldly and material-based joy. Such a joy will never satisfy. Such a joy is only a pseudo-joy; it is a phony joy and it is a fake joy.

If you’re a non-Christian perhaps your joy is found primarily in God’s material blessings, even if you don’t acknowledge that those blessings come from the hand of God, or if they are even rightly called “blessings” at all. However, even if that “thing,” whatever it may be, gives you some kind of joy now, it will be short lived. A classic example of this is looking at what the world finds pleasurable and joyful. Money, cars, houses, and all the latest toys - all of which will rust and disappear. If your hope is built on this, you will never have enough and whatever joy you do have, will soon evaporate. Once the money is gone, then what? However, I’ve digressed.

Back to our question: What is it that brings Jesus joy? Is it not to “do” the will of the Father? What is the will of the Father? Perhaps Heavenly Father’s will is best summed up in Micah 6:8, “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” No doubt living that kind of life gave Jesus joy. Does it give us joy as well? I wonder. Let’s consider a couple more Scriptures.

Jesus received joy at finding the lost sheep. “And when he finds it, he joyfully (chairõ) puts it on his shoulders” (Luke 15:5). What are your thoughts on relational evangelism? A common theme in Luke is that Jesus takes the initiative to seek out lost people. One of the best ways to do that is by building relationships with them. He was often accused of eating and drinking with “sinners.” Despite the accusations, finding and bringing a lost soul into the kingdom brought Jesus joy. Does it do likewise for us?

Jesus received joy simply because of His connection to the Father. Jesus prayed, “I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy (chairõ) within them” (John 17:13). Did you notice where Jesus said His joy was? It is “within” the believer. As Jesus prayed, and as we near the end of our brief walks on this earth, does our awareness of the approval of the Father and the knowledge that we have accomplished that which He has called us to accomplish bring His joy deep within us? As with Jesus, does the expectancy of glory and of soon seeing the Father face to face create a real joy in us?

Jesus’ joy sustained Him even on the cross. “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy (chairõ) set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). On the one hand, this verse is a little problematic, for how could there be joy in the cross, in that horrible Roman instrument of torture and death? Yet I believe that Jesus was able to look through the cross and see all the coming joy of salvation that His cross would bring to those He loved. He endured the cross because He knew the joy in the bigger picture. Likewise, are we focused on the bigger picture? If so, His joy will bring us joy as well.

The Apostle Paul said that Christ is now in you (Colossians 1:27). One of the things that this means is that the things that gave Him joy also now give you and me joy. What gave Jesus joy? It is in those very same things that the Christian finds true joy. Unlike the non-Christian, a Christian’s joy is produced by the Holy Spirit residing within him or her. The focus that brings joy is now the very same thing that brought Jesus joy. The joy of the Christian is now also obediently “doing” the will of the Father (Matthew 7:24, Matthew 12:50, John 7:17, John 14:23, John 17:6), just as Jesus was obedient to the will of the Father (John 14:31, John 15:10, Romans 5:19, Hebrews 10:9).

Even when things get difficult and persecutions plague us, circumstances strangely have no effect on the Christian’s joy. The early missionaries (or “apostles” as they were first called) knew this full well. Despite their constant persecutions, “the disciples were filled with joy (chairõ) and with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 13:52). Despite the persecutions, Paul was able to say, “I am greatly encouraged; in all our troubles my joy (chairõ) knows no bounds” (2 Corinthians 7:4). Likewise, James 1:2 says, “Consider it pure joy (chairõ), my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.” How is it possible to be joyful even in persecutions? It is possible only by the Spirit of Jesus dwelling within the believer.
Photo Credit: Rob Wood
http://www.flickr.com/people/worobod/

Yes, “Joy” (chairõ) is subjective in that it is in the eyes of the beholder. However, for the Christian, true joy is found, not so much walking as Jesus walked, but rather being sensitive to what He is doing in and through us right now, and then walking that path. I believe that failure to do that will only result in disappointment, a lack of peace, and a lack of joy.

Jesus said, “Ask and you will receive, and your joy (chairõ) will be complete” (John 16:24).

  • How’s your joy? Is it complete, or is it missing something?
  • If joy is still missing, is it because you’ve failed to ask?
  • What brings you joy? Is it the things of God, or the things of man?
  • Do you have joy in your spirit, even in the midst of economic recession, persecution and oppression? Why or why not?
  • Is joy a choice?

Saturday, 10 December 2011

God of the Second Chance

Photo Credit: Martin LaBar
http://www.flickr.com/people/martinlabar/
"Today, if you hear his voice, 
do not harden your hearts."
Hebrews 3:7

I had a conversation with someone recently in which I said that I sometimes hear voices. What I meant and what they heard, were two vastly different things. What they heard was that I may be schizophrenic; what I meant was that God still speaks via that still small voice. Interesting how, depending on where we come from (Christian versus non-Christian), we can have a vastly different view of voice(s) in the head. No doubt there are many for whom the voices in the head are demonic and for which the secular psychiatrist's diagnosis is often, right or wrong, schizophrenia. However, when Christians hear the voice of God, that's a very different thing.

"Be still, and know that I am God."
Psalm 46:10

Could it be that the main reason many people do not hear that still small voice of God is because they do not know how to be still? I am not talking about stepping off planet Earth and away from all earthly distractions. What I am talking about is cultivating a regular quiet time with the Lord in which we can learn to hear His voice. The old timers used to call this one of the spiritual disciplines. If we discipline ourselves in quiet devotional times, could it be that we then are more likely to hear His voice even in the not so quiet times of our daily routines? I wonder.

"Heal the sick, raise the dead"
Matthew 10:8

Jesus said this to the twelve disciples when He sent them out. Do we believe that the same instructions can and do apply to us today? In the video that follows, I would bet that the man who suffered the massive heart attack was glad to have a doctor who believed that Jesus' words still applied today. Obviously this is a doctor who believed in listening to the voice in his head and who knew enough to realize that Jesus was ultimately the real Great Physician.



In speaking about this with my wife, we discussed the fact that sometimes these types of things still surprise us, when really they shouldn't. Why should we be surprised if God chooses to give someone a second chance at salvation by raising him from the dead? Fact is, God loves us so much and desires that all mankind would come to know Him. Obviously not all do, but as in this case, it's nice to know that God is sometimes also the God of second chances.

As miraculous and wonderful as this story turned out to be, I do have one concern. In the video the doctor repeatedly speaks about his part in this healing / raising from the dead. He makes mention of the nurse who screamed, "what have YOU done?" What disappoints me is that he nowhere gives the credit and glory to God. Maybe I'm wrong, but the impression I was left with was all the sensationalism of what the doctor had done. I missed the part of his testimony of giving glory to God for what HE (God) had done. 

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Christian Money?

Please forgive my sarcasm; this post is meant as a joke, and I mean no harm or disrespect to anyone. I simply could not resist this one.

I am having a little difficulty with something that I hope you can help me with. Can a building be Christian? In this case, what is it that makes this credit union Christian? Does it have Christian doors and Christian windows? Maybe it's that Christian blue trim and roof. Perhaps it's their Christian vault which, no doubt, contains Christian money.

Is this building "saved?" Did Jesus die for the sins of this building? I wonder what sins this building repented of. Perhaps this is where Judas stashed the money that he stole from the disciple's common purse before he hung himself.

Maybe you're thinking that it is the people who work there that are Christian. If that is so, then shouldn't other places that Christians work at also be called Christian? Hmm, the Christian grocery store, or, the Christian Hockey arena. Perhaps the Christian car dealer, or, Christian public library. Yes, Ethel, we get our garbage collected by a Christian garbage truck. Maybe trucks can be Christian too. Do they haul the garbage to a Christian dump? Hmm.

If this building is Christian, are there other Christian buildings too? Are institutional church buildings Christian? If so, then perhaps a Christian credit union is where they launder their money. After all, as Jesus said, "You cannot serve both God and money" (Matthew 6:24). Maybe once the money washes through a Christian credit union it becomes OK for Christians to have and to fall in love with.

OK, enough with the sarcasm. I've got to go now and get my Christian supper on my Christian stove before my wife comes home from her Christian job and I catch her Christian wrath.
J

Saturday, 3 December 2011

So This Is Christmas

Photo Credit: Hannah Swithinbank
http://www.flickr.com/people/swiv/
Have you ever thought it possible that there could actually be God-fearing, born again, and Spirit filled Christians who do not celebrate Christmas? Does that possibility seem strange to you? Does my suggesting this shock you? I would suggest this is not just an anomaly but is actually much more common than many people may suspect.

Many years ago I was a devout Beatles fan, and more specifically, a John Lennon fan. In thinking of this topic I was reminded of John Lennon’s famous Christmas song, “So This Is Christmas (War Is Over).” The first two verses were,
“So this is Christmas, And what have you done? Another year over, And a new one just begun. And so this is Christmas, I hope you have fun. The near and the dear one, The old and the young.” (John Lennon)
But what is this Christmas that he sang about? Is it about "The War Is Over if You Want It" as depicted by John Lennon and Yoko Ono in the early 1970's?  Is it, as suggested by Lennon’s VIDEO associated with this song, about being concerned about victims of war and poverty in the third world? Is it about gift giving and receiving? Is it just about some fat man in a red suit playing with reindeer and little people with pointed ears? Is it a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, as is the traditional Christian view? Is it just an excuse for over eating, for too much drinking, and questionable office parties? Is it, as I’ve often joked about, a conspiracy by the greeting card companies and the toy manufacturers? Is it just another holiday? What is Christmas?

Photo Credit: Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig
This year we got our first Christmas card of the season on the last day of November. It was promptly followed by a discussion between my wife and myself concerning the sender’s use of  “xmas” instead of “Christmas.” We talked about how some people, Christians primarily, balk at “xmas” believing that it is some sort of conspiracy to remove Christ from Christmas. We talked about how other Christians have no problem with “xmas” believing that the letter “x” is really the Greek letter “chi” which looks much like our letter “x.” In their way of thinking, “x” (or “chi”) is just another way of saying “Christ.” While that may be true, I side more with the former on this one. I do not believe that those who use the term “xmas” are for a second thinking of the Greek “chi” as simply a different way to say “Christ.” In that sense, “xmas” is more likely simply laziness or the deliberate act of trying to take Christ out of Christmas.

Others say that Christmas is really “Christ’s Mass,” thus tying the whole event back to the Roman Catholic celebration of the mass of Christmas. So is this what Christmas really is? Perhaps this is what Christmas has evolved into, but earlier history teaches us still something else.

The interesting thing is that, despite the birth narratives in the Gospels, the Christian church didn’t even celebrate Christmas until about its fourth century. For the first few hundred years of its existence, to the best of my knowledge, there is no recorded evidence that the Christian church observed Christmas at all. The church’s primary focus in those days was not the birth of Jesus, but rather His crucifixion and resurrection. Easter and Pentecost were the big observances of the church, not Christmas. So where then did Christmas come from? Perhaps a little history is in order.

Photo Credit: Nick Thompson
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Way back in the third century, there was an emperor by the name of “Aurelian” who built a huge temple to the “Unconquered Sun.” This temple essentially became the center of the empire’s religious life. A popular and more western twist of this “sun worship” was centered around the Iranian deity of the Morning Sun, “Mithras.” All of this was a part of a huge pagan revival in the third and fourth centuries known as Neo-Platonism. Historians tell us that this pagan revival had its roots in the teachings of Plotinus (205-270) and that it became a great source of opposition to the claims of Christianity.

By the fourth century, the Christians decided that they needed some way to combat this growing pagan movement. They decided to use the winter solstice (December 25), which (perhaps ironically) also happened to be the pagan deity’s birthday, as the day to celebrate the birth of Jesus. They reasoned, what better way to deal with the popular pagan feasts than to adopt them and convert them into a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ?

And so Christmas was born in Rome approximately 400 years into the church’s existence. But what about other events and customs often associated with Christmas? Epiphany, what some call the eastern Christmas, also had its roots in paganism. It began with the worship of the pagan god Dionysus. Likewise the popular traditions of holly, mistletoe and yule logs, all came out of paganism.

Even the Christmas tree is suspect. Many believe that this tradition came to us from Martin Luther.  Other historical texts speak of the German mystery plays in which there was a “Paradise Tree” which symbolized Eden. Others speak of its “roots” (pun fully intended) in 17th century Strasburg, France. From there it spread throughout northern Europe until it was introduced into Great Britain in about 1841. However, regardless where it came from, the point is that the Christmas tree did not make it’s appearance until fairly recently.

Photo Credit: Darren Cullen
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Though the pagan cults that originally led to the birth of Christmas are long since gone, in some ways we could say that paganism continues to be alive and well in many of the observances of Christmas today. Though Christmas was birthed deep in paganism, for many of us the modern version of those ancient pagan rituals has become our normal winter solstice custom and tradition. The consumerism god, Santa Claus, has kept the paganism alive and well for us in our modern culture. In many ways, it has evolved into a new religion, even for those who do not consider themselves religious.

Is all this modern consumerism religion just another innocent tradition? Please understand that I am in no way suggesting that some people are more or less spiritual simply based upon their Christmas traditions, but I am wondering about the possible negative effect of man made traditions on our Christian walk. Jesus actually went so far as to say that “for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God” (Matthew 15:6; ESV). Does this apply to our Christmas traditions as well? I wonder.

The Apostle Paul said, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ” (Colossians 2:8; NIV). Now I know that I’m going to step on a lot of toes with this, but could it be that in all our attempts to make the Christmas celebration about Christ, we have actually fallen captive to a hollow and deceptive philosophy? Again, I wonder. Even the church gets itself held “captive” to the pull of the consumerism god.

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People speak about “keeping Christ in Christmas” as if to suggest that He was always in Christmas. Yes, His name is in “Christmas,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Christmas had its genesis in Jesus. Among some of the more liberal church groups, the first Sunday of Advent is often viewed as the New Year’s Day of the church calendar. However, as true as all that may be, what I keep coming back to is this 400-year period of time in which the church did not appear to celebrate Christmas. Why was the early church so silent about Jesus’ birth? Perhaps it is because the early church typically has viewed Pentecost as the birth of the church, not Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem.

Then again, perhaps I’m being too harsh and we need not concern ourselves with this. After all, Christmas was created for a good reason, wasn’t it? After all, paganism was alive and well, and was in fact actually gaining momentum in the world, so the creation of Christmas to combat the advance of paganism must have been a good thing, right? Not necessarily. Ends do not always justify the means.

I would suggest that perhaps the creation of Christmas was actually a big negative. Along with the legalization of Christianity under Constantine earlier in the third century, I dare say that Christmas actually became a part of the downward slide of Christianity from the simple organic fellowship that it began as, into the institutionalism that would ultimately become the Roman Catholic Church, and more recently, Protestantism.  At the very least, it’s an ironic coincidence. Still, I will not argue that point; it is just something that I’ve often wondered about.

So there we have a very brief history of the origin of Christmas. Is there a right or a wrong approach for us today? Does all this mean that we should simply throw the whole thing away? Is that what I am suggesting? No, far from it! Consider the words of the Apostle Paul, 
“One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living. You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat” (Romans 14: 5-10; NIV).
While this text deals primarily with dietary issues, I think there are a couple lessons for us here that we can also apply to the observance of Christmas. First of all, not everyone observes special days and seasons. We would do well to remember that one is not right and the other is not wrong. Lest we forget, in Christ there is freedom. Personally, I do not observe special days. For me, every day is exactly the same; for me every day is the day that the Lord hath made and I will rejoice and be glad in them all equally. However, I do recognize that not everyone thinks that way, and that’s OK.

Photo Credit: Gabor Kiss, littdown
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Another lesson from Paul’s text is that none of us lives to himself alone; we all live in community (or ought to). As such, there are bound to be differences of opinion, including the observance of commonly held Christmas traditions. What are we going to do about them? One thing that Paul tells us that we are not to do with them, is to judge each other based on those differences. As Christians, we all belong to the Lord. First and foremost, we are called to walk in love and relationship with each other, even if we think differently on a few points here and there.

Augustine is quoted to have said, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” The observance of Christmas traditions is most definitely a non-essential to the faith, as evidenced by the approximately 400 years in early Christianity in which there was no Christmas observance at all.

So for those who wish to observe the Christmas tradition, go ahead. Yes, it had its roots in paganism, but obviously that is not necessarily what Christians who practice Christmas are observing. Likewise, for those who do not wish to observe the Christmas tradition, feel free not doing so. There is only one wrong view about these non-essentials and that is if they are handled out of love towards those who hold the opposing view. 
“So this is Christmas, And what have you done? Another year over, And a new one just begun. And so this is Christmas, I hope you have fun. The near and the dear one, The old and the young.” (John Lennon)
So this is Christmas. And what have I done about it? Nothing really. Contrary to what some people think, I’m not really a Scrooge. No, perhaps I don’t have your version of “Christmas spirit,” but I do participate with other loved ones in as much as I feel that I need to in order to bring joy and happiness to them. When I do, I do not do so for myself; I do so out of love for them.

Yes, I buy gifts, but I also don’t wait to do so only in the Christmas season; I do so all year long. Yes, I worship Jesus, but I don’t do so only in the Christmas season; I do so all year long. Yes, I think of the Incarnation, but I don’t do so only in the Christmas season; I do so all year long. Yes, I believe in peace on Earth and good will towards man, but I don’t do so only in the Christmas season; I do so all year long. For me, the joy of Christmas, whatever that means, is a 365-day per year observance. For me, every day is a day where I can and do seek to bless another person. I don’t need a special day per year in order to remind me to do that which I should be doing every day of the year.

Is Christmas important to you? Well then all I can say is, in the words of John Lennon, “I hope you have fun.” I also hope that you do not judge too harshly other Christians who perhaps take a different slant on Christmas than you do.

Merry Christmas.