Pastor's Blog

“Keep Christ in Christmas!”  I hear lots of Christians repeat that refrain.  It sounds noble and spiritual. But what exactly am I supposed to do to “keep Christ in Christmas”? 

Some Christians complain that secular commercialism has invaded the holiday and robbed it of its original meaning.  Jesus has lost out to Santa.  Perhaps, but I prefer the commercialism to the ugly scenario that prompted Charles Dickens to write “A Christmas Carol”, which did so much to generate the blessed tradition of buying and giving gifts that has such profound economic side effects that the entire nation looks to Christmas to bring blessing on “Black Friday” (when many struggling businesses expect to get out of debt).  Isn’t that a success against the blight of poverty that Dickens addressed so fervently?

Sometimes we feel that all blessing must be explicitly “religious”.  If it isn’t, then it is somehow not of God or is fleshly or unspiritual.  But all the blessings from God in Israelite life had to do with goodness and enjoyment of everyday life.  And when Jesus told us to love our enemies and so be children of our Father in heaven he pointed to the blessing of rain – tangible physical goodness – that the Father sends on the just and the unjust.

Christmastime, even in its secular form, is a blessing.  It is a blessing to those who receive.  It is a blessing to those who learn to give and who buy in order to give.  And it is a blessing to those who sell to those who buy in order to give – because in selling they receive – and in receiving, they put food on the table, a roof over their heads, and other extra blessings.  And when the economics of business are good, a nation is blessed – and life is good.  Do we really want to oppose that?

Is there some special virtue to being poor?  If poverty is somehow virtuous, why wage a “war on poverty”?  Is it better for us all to be blessed with poverty – or with blessing that moves us out of it?

For others, keeping Christ in Christmas seems to mean “maintain religious nostalgic feeling”.  They see spirituality and enjoyment of life as having to have an explicitly religious root.  If it’s not connected to religion or church, enjoyment of good might just be mere fleshly desire, an evil worldliness. 

Very often this translates either into a tirade against the banning of nativity scenes from public places or more commonly, being sure to attend a religious service so you can say that you attached “religious” meaning to your otherwise secular blessing.   So, keeping Christ in Christmas means going to church on Christmas Eve to an auditorium decked out in evergreens and candles so we can sing the old familiar tunes together and see the old story of the birth of Jesus acted out by children dress in robes and angels’ wings or pretending to be sheep or cattle.  And maybe afterwards we share cookies and hot chocolate as we greet our friends.

These things recreate the nostalgic feelings that we felt as children – when Christmas was made wonderful and special for us by the adults in our lives.  And now we feel good remembering and reliving those feelings and creating the same experiences for our children so they can carry on the tradition and relive those feelings in adulthood, thus keeping Christ in Christmas. 

Isn’t this just another version of “Christmas is for children”.  I think it’s wonderful and important and certainly is a blessing.  I don’t disdain it.  But is the reliving of old nostalgic feelings what keeping Christ in Christmas is all about?

 

I closed my last blog with:  I hang my faith on the witness of the testimonies of those ancient faithful witnesses (meaning the apostles and the early church).  Those are the “two nails” that support my faith.

My faith.

When I left Catholicism and converted to evangelical Christianity during the late 1970’s, faith was presented as being certain about things.  The prophecy movement in the 1970’s was calculating through the books of Daniel and Revelation that Jesus would probably arrive in the 1980’s.  It was a certain thing because God’s Word said so.

Well, we’re still here.  Jesus never came and raptured us away.  The beast and marks of 666 on the hand and forehead never materialized.  All the certainty dissolved away like morning frost in the sunlight.

As I walked through evangelicalism I ran into a lot of certainty.  Lots of talk of God’s promises and answers to prayer if you just have faith and if you obey these laws the result will be a blessed life.  As though religion created certainty.

But I kept running into people who did all those things – trusted God’s promises and prayed in faith and lived obediently – and who still ended up with misery and suffering and with things going wrong in their lives.

Evangelicalism seemed a religious “power of positive thinking” movement – and I got tired of it because it didn’t seem to reflect reality.  There were promises of certainty, of knowing things for sure, of things working out for sure – and a lot of looking the other way and shrugging of shoulders when things didn’t pan out in the lives of the faithful – which was often.

Some of those experiences led me to believe that Christianity was a lie, and that was, in part, what led me to want to abandon Christianity.  When I found my way back I decided that I simply couldn’t accept the notion of certainty.  Instead I have come to believe that faith may know a few things – there are a few solid nails on which to hang your confidence – but there are also a lot of gaps, a lot of uncertainty – not only where you don’t know things, but you don’t need to know.

Evangelicalism taught me the Bible had all the answers.  But to which questions?  I have stopped looking to the Bible to answer every question – because it doesn’t.  Yes, I still believe it’s God’s Word but the important thing is not that God has to answer every question that I have here in the 21st century.  The important thing is what has He said and about which topics – because those are the important things.  And many times I find that I have questions about things which aren’t really all that important to Him – apparently -- since He’s completely silent about them.

My entire approach to life changed when I stopped insisting on certainty, when I stopped thinking that I every problem had to have a divinely-provided solution, that every question had an answer, that every question had a right answer.  Sometimes there are several right answers – and sometimes there are no answers at all.  And there do not have to be.

Christianity provides direction, but it’s more like a trail of bread crumbs left for us.  And between the crumbs I trust – I have faith – that there is a next crumb – and I walk the best I know how with what I have been given.  I have grown much more comfortable with unpredictability and uncertainty.  That, as far as I can tell, is the way faith operates.

We cannot escape the sense of “should” in a universe where, if there is no God, the sense of “should” has no reason to exist or be useful.  And yet there it is in all of us.  And that is what made me turn away from embracing atheism and back to Christianity.  If you can’t live with your worldview, there’s something wrong with your worldview.

Not that I found Christianity overwhelmingly convincing.  I think atheists ask important questions and I don’t have answers for everything that is asked.  I no longer believe I need to.  Atheists don’t have answers for all my questions either.

But there are some things in Christianity that strike me as very true and those things are, for me, the nails on which I hang my faith.

The first is the lives and deaths of the apostles.  In all religions there are people willing to die for their beliefs.  But the apostles and martyrs didn’t die for religious beliefs.  They didn’t die for a cause.  The first believers were willing to be tortured to death in excruciatingly painful ways because they insisted and refused to deny that they had witnessed an historical event – a man risen from the dead.

The take of unbelievers is usually that the disappointed apostles made up the story of the resurrection of Jesus because they believed in the cause.  I’ll buy that. 

But then we are also asked to believe that when the Jews came to stone them, or the Romans came to imprison, torture, and crucify them, the disciples – who knew that their accounts of Jesus’ resurrection were complete fabrications – would willingly, to a man, suffer and die for that fabricated story.  I find that very difficult to swallow.  It’s just not true to human nature.

The second nail on which I hang my faith is the existence of the church.  The educated critics claim that there never was a Jesus and the events recorded in the New Testament were concocted by second or third generation believers.  But where did the second and third generation of believers come from if there was nothing to believe in?  And like the apostles, the second and third generation of believers – and a great number thereafter – were imprisoned, tortured, and put to death for a refusal to renounce their faith in the resurrection of Jesus.  Why would they do that if they knew that they themselves had made up the stories out of whole cloth???  It simply is not true to human nature.

If there were second and third generations of believers in the church, there had to be a first generation.  And why was there a first generation of believers if there was nothing to believe in, if there was no Jesus or nothing exceptionally unusual about Jesus?

If there was no historical Jesus and no events that made Him worth believing in and dying for, how did the whole movement get started?  I could understand it if what was being passed down was a tradition of religious beliefs.  But Christianity was not initially about a set of religious beliefs, but about a historical person and events surrounding Him.  How did they get traction if they weren’t true?  What did the first believers believe in if there was nothing to believe? 

As absurd as the resurrection of Jesus sounds, it provides a better explanation for the existence of the apostles and the early church than anything else that I have seen proposed.  I hang my faith on the witness of the testimonies of those ancient faithful witnesses.

 

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