The Season of Lent begins!
a desert planet by sue wallace
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.
A desert planet....
Once we stood by the clear waters, knowing who we were, who the church was and where we were going....
...now we're in the desert....
...uncharted territory. .
..severe and bleak. .
..but full of Eastern promise.
...the rules are different.
The old ways don't work.
...it is a lonely place, and dangerous.
There are snakes and scorpions.
we have been stripped of our illusions
and we are in the desert.
for God to speak.
Turn these stones into bread.
the instant solution.
the quick fix. If we just..if we just...
change our chairs, change our prayers, fix the roof.
Then everything will be lovely.
The tempter said. Go on. Turn these stones into bread
bread. like the bread used to be, in the old days...
in a warm hearth in Nazareth.
It was so good then. I can almost smell the yeast.
A quick-fix and they'll all come back.
But it is written. You can't live by bread alone.
We need more than that. In this desert planet.
Every word that comes from the mouth of God.
Living God, we need you here, to tell us what to do.
Feed us with your words, we are hungry!
Show us the next step. How to be your church in this undiscovered world.
As we sit in the sand and try to hear you.
And the tempter said. Look. Here are all the kingdoms of the world. I'll give you all of this. If you just worship me.
Yes. Maybe that would be easier.
Maybe we should give up. And join the others.
Worship at Ikea, religiously.
Or Kylie, or Microsoft, or Visa,
I believe in the Holy Catalog Church.
You can have it all. Worship me.
Everything we've ever wanted. At a price. But that price would be too high.
Worship the Lord your God, and serve only Him.
Who else can we turn to.
You're the one who gives us life.
And though we may we walking in the wilderness.
You are here with us.
Let us glimpse a burning bush somewhere on the way.
This is a lonely planet.
He will command his angels. They'll protect you. You needn't even stub your toes.
Our attendance is plummeting but we needn't fear
the angels will catch us.
Someone else will fix it.
We'll leave it up to them. An evangelist with a funny name, or the parish next-door. This desert is too difficult. So maybe I'll just sleep.
Jesus answered the tempter. Do not put the Lord your God to the test.
Jesus Help us.
Its hard to find the energy. When the sand pushes against us.
When we stumble in the wilderness. When we can't see the way.
When the old signposts have disappeared
And all we have are sand-dunes.
But we know...
We can't do a quick-fix
We can't give up
We can't leave it to someone else.
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit returned. The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. Because he has anointed me. To bring good news to the poor.
Good news came from out of the desert.
There is good news.
God has brought us here to hear it.
And God will lead us the Promised Land.
What can I say...you have to read this! Thanks to Greg for this amazingly great post!
The story world painted in the first chapter of the book of Job speaks of Satan showing up at God’s house for a visit. Details are not provided, but we get the idea that Lucifer did not bring flowers.
It didn’t take long before the Prince of Darkness started to condemn Job, one of God’s servants. Reading this story the other day, I was thinking of another way we might imagine the Evil One visiting our heavenly Father—but this visit wound up on the cutting room floor when the final version of the Bible was edited. You may remember comedian Bob Newhart, who often set up hilarious scenes he imagined happening with the phrase “it might have gone something like this.” I think that Satan visited God one day and the discussion went something like this:
Satan: “You know, you talk a good fight, but I don’t see how you could really love the men and women you have created. Why don’t you put up or shut up?”
God: “What exactly do you have in mind?
Pulling out a deck of cards The Adversary gets down to business: “Let’s talk about it over a hand of poker. We’ll put all our chips on the table—winner takes all.”
God: “You really don’t want to play with me!”
Never known for humility, Beelzebub blustered: “Let’s get it on. Do you mind if I deal?”
God: “Deal whenever you want—I AM ready."
Talking trash, Satan begins to deal the cards. God hasn’t even picked his hand off the table before the fast-talking Devil boasts: “When push comes to shove, you will never gamble all that you are and all that you have on those sorry little people on earth who are such miserable wretches. I am going to force you to admit that your so-called love for them has its limits.”
With steely-eyed resolve, looking like Clint Eastwood facing down one of his adversaries, God calls Satan’s bluff by pushing all of his chips into the middle of the table without even taking a look at the cards he had been dealt.
“I’m all in. All I AM and all I have is on the table. No matter what I’m holding, no matter what you’re holding. No matter what cards are left in the deck. No matter what, I’m all in. I AM all in with the ones you call ‘sorry little people.’”
Satan was taken aback, and replied: “What do you mean you’re all in? How do you propose to prove your love for your creation?”
God: “I’m going to go and be one of them. I’m going to live with them just as they live. Wherever they are, and whatever challenges they face, I’m going to pursue them. I will do whatever it takes. My entire creation, you included Lucifer, will be left with absolutely no doubt about my love. What about you—are you all in?”
If he had learned anything, Satan had learned never to doubt God. He picked up his chips and started to walk away, and then he turned and sneered: “Surely you don’t think they’re going to love you back, do you? You don’t think your little story is going to wind up with everyone living happily ever after, do you? You know how hateful and violent those sorry people are—they’ll probably kill you.”
God: “No probably about it. I know them. I created them. I’m going down there, and I will kiss them and hug them and love them. Of course, in the end, they will do what humans do. In return for good, they will give me grief. They will hate me because of my unlimited love. They will kill me, but that’s part of my mission. My love is not based on their acceptance. I’m going anyway. I AM all in. I love them because that’s who I AM.”
Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) masterfully conveys the loving pursuit of Jesus in The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky describes the institutional church 1500 years after the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The institution had long since turned its back on the freedom and simplicity of Jesus, choosing instead to reject Jesus in favor of the survival of big business religion. Dostoevsky portrays a surprise visit by Jesus during the time of the religious inquisitions in Spain (lasting several centuries after first being established in 1478).
Dostoevsky pictures Jesus coming to the afflicted, abused—to Spaniards overwhelmed by institutionalized religion, just as he had come to the Jews in the first century.
“The Grand Inquisitor” is a tale within the novel about the rejection of Jesus by organized religion, whether the first-century religion of Judaism or of 16th-century religion posing as Christianity.
Dostoevsky says it went something like this: The day after a hundred heretics were burned alive by order of the Inquisition Jesus walked by the cathedral in Seville as a funeral procession with a little white coffin was leaving. The grief-stricken mother of the little girl who had just died appealed to Jesus, and Jesus resurrected the little girl.
At that moment the Grand Inquisitor arrived on the scene, described by Dostoevsky:
“He is an old man, almost ninety, tall and erect, with a withered face and sunken eyes, in which there is still a gleam of light. He is not dressed in his gorgeous cardinal’s robes, as he was the day before, when he was burning the enemies of the
Roman church ... at this moment he is wearing his coarse, old, monk’s cassock.”
True to the knee-jerk response toward those who dare to challenge Christ-less religion, the Grand Inquisitor ordered Jesus to be thrown into prison for upsetting the religious status quo. Later, having seemingly recognized the actual identity of Jesus, the old man-Grand Inquisitor asks Jesus “Why have you come to disturb us?”
Ironically, 1500 years after Jesus, the established religion that did its business in Jesus’ name was so disturbed and threatened by Jesus’ presence that it responded by throwing him into prison.
Still standing outside Jesus’ prison cell, the Grand Inquisitor audaciously reviled Jesus and then paused to give Jesus an opportunity to answer.
“He [Jesus] suddenly approached the old man in silence and kissed him on his bloodless aged lips. That was His answer.”
When all the implications of Jesus’ arrival are considered, Christ-less religion is still disturbed by Jesus Christ-less religion still denies and rejects the intimate embrace and kiss that Jesus offers. Many within modern Christendom trivialize, diminish and devalue the Incarnation, diminishing it to a birthday celebration and sugar-laced fantasyland. It has little to do with the endless love God offers to us in the midst of the desperately evil places in which we find ourselves. Sugarplum fairies and toy soldiers and gingerbread houses aside, the marvel of the Incarnation is that our Savior comes to us.
He is here and he is after us. Jesus is pursuing us. Rather than opting for the safety and security of a fantasyland castle, Jesus has come to live with and be one of us. It seems for many, Jesus is little more than a harmless plastic front-yard decoration made in China, purchased at Wal-Mart, stored in the attic for most of the year and exhumed and displayed for a few weeks in December.
But Jesus isn’t plastic, and he can’t be stored in your attic. Jesus is alive—he doesn’t fit into the plastic molds our culture shapes for him. The risen Lord is here and he’s pursuing us year round. He wants to be a part of our lives—he offers us an embrace and a kiss.
If we are to truly celebrate Jesus, we will surrender all our religion, bowing before him, from the cradle to cross and beyond. The good news is that while all the tinsel and ornaments are now boxed up and Christmas puddings and concerts have paused until next December, none of these add up to even one small fraction of the enormity and totality of who God is. No matter how wonderful our attempts might be to honor and revere him, the fact remains that the love of God is always greater than we are able to conceive or celebrate.
The message of the Incarnation is, in its totality, a mystery—it’s always far beyond the grasp of our abilities to earn or deserve it. The message of the Incarnation is in his kiss and in his embrace—and his never ending pursuit. He’s all in.
The Season of Lent "What did you give up for Lent?"
I grew up in a neighborhood in Michigan that had two predominant types of Christian experiences and “church” allegiances – Roman Catholic and Lutheran. It was not surprising that we regularly engaged in conversation about “churchy” things…especially when Fridays rolled around (and many of my Catholic friends ate fish…by the way, I didn’t) or when Vacation Bible School, Roller Skating events and Softball leagues at our congregation occurred because everyone in the neighborhood got involved in those activities despite their religious “orientation.” When it came to be late winter and early spring, inevitably somebody talked about the Lenten Season. The season of Lent was talked about, commemorated, and was something that had a significant place in the life of the entire neighborhood. There was a problem though…although I was part of that tradition, I had no clue about it. The Pastor wore purple stoles and there were purple banners hung around the church building…many of my Catholic pals talked about what they were having to “give up” during the season (usually things they didn’t want to give up)…and then, before I knew it, it was Good Friday (something I did “get” even as a kid) and the awesome day of Easter (something of which I still have vivid and wonderful memories). Even so, why we did what we did during Lent and what it was actually all about didn’t really become real to me until years later. Now, that shouldn’t come as a huge surprise especially because Christians often throw words and phrases around that we either misunderstand or assume everyone knows. So, this is what I did…when I got a bit older, I took it upon myself to do a bit of research about the season of Lent…permit me to share a bit of what I learned.
Lent is one of the oldest seasons or times of observation/commemoration on the calendar that has guided Christ-followers through the life of faith and the ministry of Jesus for centuries. Like all days and holidays that are considered “holy” (i.e. set apart, different), there have been changes over the centuries on how it is observed, but its purpose has always stayed essentially the same: Lent is a season of self-examination and penitence (repentance, contrition, reflection on our essential brokenness) demonstrated by self-denial, in preparation for Easter. A significant leader in the early Jesus movement, Irenaus of Lyons (c.130-c.200), wrote of such a season…but in his time, Lent only lasted two or three days, not the 40 days that we observe today. In 325 AD, the Council of Nicea (yep, the SAME group of people that wrote the Nicene Creed) discussed a 40-day Lenten season of fasting and self-examination that should be observed by Christ-followers. It's not perfectly clear on whether its original intent was JUST for new Christians to prepare for Baptism (which usually occurred on Easter day) or if it was supposed to be a season held dear by the entire Church. Even so, since that time, Lent has become an annual ritual, a healing and powerful time observed by believers throughout the centuries as a time dedicated to self-denial, sacrifice, spiritual formation, spiritual discipline and prayer. In many traditions, fasting plays a huge role. In history, people were regularly encouraged to fast daily (eating only one meal a day). In other traditions, prayer and confession were the primary focus on the 40-day Lenten journey. Though Lent is still devoutly observed in some mainline Protestant denominations (most notably Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, etc.), others hardly mention it at all. However, it is interesting to that there seems to be a rise in the significance of and enthusiasm for the Lenten season. Frankly, there cannot be a better emphasis than for all of us to focus on our relationship with Jesus. Lent is a time to get in touch with that part of us that is broken and needs healing. It is a season to be able to openly acknowledge our deep desire for transformation and Christlikeness. It is a time that is best summarized in some of Jesus’ actual words in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) where He says that we are “blessed” when we are poor in spirit, meek and when we mourn. That’s really what Lent is about. Take Lent seriously this year…continue your One Year Bible reading…make a worship experience or two during the season (starting with Ash Wednesday worship)…read a Lenten devotional book or look for something that can encourage you in your walk with Jesus (or see more ideas below). That’s my encouragement…and tell you the truth, that’s exactly what I’m doing! As you read the following Lenten prayer, make it a part of your inner desire to be more like Jesus.
Lighter of lights – illumine us
Fire of fires – thaw us
Power of powers – strengthen us
Lover of lovers – warm us
Teller of tales – encourage us
Destroyer of darkness – save us
Touchstone of truth – examine us
Summoner of stars – amaze us
Wellspring of wisdom – weather us
Water of life – refresh us
Dancer of days – delight in us
Breath of the universe – bless us
I encourage you this year to join the Lenten commemoration. In other words, why not set aside the next 40 days to do that which brings you daily into the knowledge of your own brokenness, yearning for healing, desire for transformation, and humility/dependence upon Jesus. As a part of being in this order, you might want to: Read the Psalms during the next forty days. Read 4 Psalms a day and you’ll have time to spare! Keep a journal that gets specific in the areas of confession and your need for forgiveness. Not that you want to hammer yourself…but picking up on the A.C.T.S. method, Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication will keep your heart and mind focused in your prayer time. Fast at least one day per week up until Easter. Daily take 10 to 15 minutes simply to reflect on the areas of your life that need transformation. In other words, what will make you a more faithful Christ-follower? What are those areas in your life that “get in the way” of you being who Jesus wants you to be? Continue or start the habit of reading the One Year Bible – yes, you can start now. No problem! Last but not least, take some time each week to confess to another person. That is powerful! James 5:16 says, “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another so that you may be healed”. Take a risk!
Jesus - The One we Follow and Serve
A couple of weeks ago, I was "assailed" by this devotion. It actually took my breath
away when I read it because of its simplicity and profundity. Friends, we make our
relationship with God so complex. We attempt to organize, strategize, "get busy"
for God...we plan, write purpose statements, form ministry teams and small groups.
We get together for worship experiences and bible studies. We DO all sorts of
things supposedly FOR Jesus when Jesus all along needs to be the sole target of
our affection, trust and day-to-day living. Jesus defined a Kingdom of God lifestyle
for his followers very simply - love God, love others, live for Jesus, make disciples.
In some way I wish I could "take back" all the times I encouraged people to "join the
church" thinking that religious activity would be the key to their understanding and
lifestyle in Jesus when Jesus is all we need. NOW, don't take this wrong...there is
much to be said about the importance of spiritual community, relationships in the
Body of Christ and the vital nature of the encouragement that we receive as we are
faithful to God's call to walk this journey with others. But MAKE NO MISTAKE
ABOUT IT our lives, lifestyle, mission, calling and passion needs to be focused on
who and what Jesus defined it to be. My encouragement today is for you to read
the following slowly. Let the Spirit of God wash over you with a growing passion
for Jesus. Trust me, as you follow Jesus...keep your eyes on Jesus...have Jesus be
the focal point of your love, life and the affections of your heart, then we will see
together the mission of Jesus accomplished in our midst. I like that this devotional
was originally posted in the "Simple Church" Journal...actually, that's really what
"Church" should be - simple - simply Jesus!
Make disciples who are followers of ... Jesus.
Not followers of doctrines, opinions, or church visions.
Not reciters of creeds or religious points of view.
But followers of the One.
Followers who follow because they know Him. They have tasted, touched, and
encountered Him and now they want to continue to develop that closeness,
intimacy, and relationship with Him. They know no greater joy.
They are not turned into members of denominations, attenders of services, or
clones of the latest way to do Christianity or church.
They remain His and they pursue Him and they follow Him and obey Him out of a
loyalty and passion that comes from deeply knowing Him.
They learn His voice because they love Him.
They lay down their own, personal agenda because they value Him.
They take up His vision to see the restoration of His Kingdom come to all people
because they experience His everyday encounters that restore and free their own
soul and they are driven to see this love transform others.
They know Him, they have found life, and they continue to find life through Him.
And because they know Him, they love Him.
And because they love Him, they follow Him...
Merry Christmas! This will be my last devotional for the year. But this is important, so stick with me.
I've been thinking a lot about Christmas over the past week...and I was thinking, besides all the presents, decorations, etc., Christmas is really one of the most stressful and depressing times of the year for a lot of people. Do you know why?
Ever see a Cinder Block? I have one in my office to remind me of some important heart issues: unresolved conflict, relational breakdown, family arguments, personal grudges. You see, I was thinking if a grudge was something physical, what would it look like? What would it feel like? How would you convey it if it was a tangible thing? So, that Cinder Block, that's a grudge.
We all have things like this that we carry around. In fact, we have pretty interesting language about these things. We talk about them the way that we talk about babies: you can hold a grudge; you can carry a grudge; you can bear a grudge; you can nurse a grudge. Yes, you can actually feed it with real hostile thoughts, angry feelings, distorted perceptions, hostile intentions, and if you do that, I guarantee you, your grudge will grow. The tragic thing about this stuff is that people will walk around and carry one of these for weeks or months or years.
Now, you think about it for a minute for it is kind of ridiculous to carry things like grudges around. If your living metaphor is a Cinder Block, I mean, these things weigh you down. Overtime they are joyless. I don't think I've ever heard anybody say to herself or himself, "I can't wait to get up this morning and pick up my grudge and carry it all through the day. This is going to be a tremendous day, me and my grudge." Nobody says that, but, trust me, people do it everyday.
There was an article that I read in a magazine not too long ago where the author writes,
"When I was young, I occasionally heard tales of sisters who hadn't spoken to each other in years, or of a father who hadn't talked to his son in decades. Back then those stories were a mystery to me. How could anyone reject a member of their family? Family meant love and loyalty, and loyalty meant you never let a fight escalate into a feud. The author goes on to talk about one feud that has become quite public. Has any of you ever read "Ann Landers" and "Dear Abby"? These were twin sisters who for many, many, many years wouldn't speak to each other because of unresolved conflict. Now, one of them has died, the other one has Alzheimer's. Their daughters, who were both attempting to take over their mom's columns, are also carrying on their mother's feuds because grudges sometimes get passed down from one generation to another. One of them has accused the other one of exploiting her mom's death for success and for money. This is amazingly ironic to me. For decades and decades, the two people in our country who get more letters asking for relational advice on how to fix relationships than anybody else, the two who get asked that advice the most, are family members who don't speak to each other now for two generations."
Does this sound familiar in anyway? You know how it is...broken relationships happen. They happen between family members, people who work together, people who are friends....sometimes the hurts go so deep that people avoid each other and don't talk for weeks even years. For all of us, we've heard the stories...for some of us, we've written the stories.
Well, how about this for a pre-Christmas preemptive strike today-wouldn't it bring God incredible glory if we could do something about this? I believe it would....so for next few minutes, read on.
In the New Testament Jesus tells a story to drive home how serious he was about forgiveness. See Matthew 18. I don't have space in this devotional to completely reiterate the story so let me cut to the chase and simply tell you the amazing and bodacious words that Jesus said at the conclusion of the story. Here they are. Fasten your seat belt because the story ends with an unforgiving person being put in jail, experiencing judgment for his unforgiving spirit. Jesus then says, "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart (Matthew 18:35)."
I just want to stop for a moment...let those words sink in. These are what I think are some of the most sobering words in the Bible. There's a whole lot of people--and to tell you the truth, sometimes people in churches--who live as if Jesus didn't really say this; as if Jesus didn't really mean this." I think those are some of the scariest words in the Bible. Jesus says, to us all that if we're walking around with unresolved bitterness and resentment, and we refuse to do the work of forgiveness and to seek reconciliation with other people, we're at severe spiritual risk.
I'll tell you what I think. I think the only thing that allows one human being to withhold forgiveness from somebody else, to walk around carrying a grudge, is when they forget, or when they live in a kind of denial of the infinitely greater amount of forgiveness that they need and receive from God. Let me put it this way...my forgiveness and your forgiveness comes at the cost of the cross. It came at the price of the death of God's Son. The cost of our forgiveness to God was monumental. It cost him the life of his Son to forgive me and to forgive you.
Therefore, there is only one safe place to put a grudge, and that place is at the foot of the cross. Or, because I want to put a Christmas spin on this...the only safe place to put one of these is at the foot of the manger. The wise men brought their gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh. But the greatest gift you can give Jesus is the boulder you're carrying around that prevents you from experiencing freedom in your heart. I'm wondering today, whatever stone you're carrying around, would you be willing today to lay it at the foot of the manger in Bethlehem? Whatever your hurt and your bitterness is, would you be willing to lay it down and remember again the price that was paid for your forgiveness and for mine?
Consider this - when people live in the shadow of Christmas, they don't carry stones. When people live in the daily awareness of what God did for them, when people know the lavishness of God's mercy and grace, why would you carry your stone? Why would you dare?
Here's the truth friends...we all have relationships where there have been wounds...no matter who said what or who caused what, you were wounded to the core. Inside you you're saying, "There's no way....I'm not going to let them get away with that...Set that stone down? Give them a free pass? no way." I want to tell you something. Life is too short. Many of you have been carrying around that stone for a long time. Set it down. It's Christmas time! There is no miracle in the world like the miracle of forgiveness. There is none. I tell you this without apology. There is no miracle in the world like it. You can carry your stone/block to the grave, but I hope you don't because life is too short, and it will kill you. I don't know how badly you've been hurt. I know some of you have been hurt really badly, in some cases over a long period of time. I hope you'll forgive.
This is what we'll do...let's lay down some grudges at the foot of the manger this Christmas. I'll do it if you will. If you need help get help. The best book I know on the subject of forgiveness is a book called "Forgive and Forget" by a man named Lew Smedes, or "What's so amazing about Grace" by Phillip Yancey. If you need to talk to a good Christian counselor, talk to a good Christian counselor. If you need to make a phone call, Jesus says make it right now. If you need to write a note, write it today. Post that private Facebook message. Maybe you just need to go to a door that's been closed for a long time and knock on the door. Well, go there and knock. Do it today. Maybe it will take a lot of time and a lot of effort and a lot of persistence, a lot of wisdom, a lot of counsel. Because just to forgive someone can be quite a difficult thing, and then to seek reconciliation--that's a two-way deal. That requires two people. That's harder yet. Maybe it will take a lot of time and a lot of work and a lot of effort and lot of prayer. Then give it a lot of time and a lot of work and a lot of effort and a lot of prayer. There is no miracle like the miracle of forgiveness. If you're a follower of Jesus, if you love God, you've been forgiven an infinite debt. You have been cleansed of the ultimate stain. What God has given you, you've got to give it. See the manger bed? You know what you need to do!
Since I entered the churchworld as a full-time worker and leader, I have been involved in more Christmas worship experiences that I care to count. In some of the churches, we had two services. At others, up to Seven. It doesn't matter how often or even what "style" of worship on which we worship, Christmas Eve is still one of the highlights of the year. Not only are we looking at the REAL meaning of what Christmas is about, but we are doing it in ways that inspire, convict, inspire focus and a growing heart and soul of love! If you are anywhere near Monroe, Washington, please know that you are sincerely invited to join my faith community for Christmas Eve. If not, follow the Spirit to your own celebration. You won't regret it!
It’s amazing to me how little people really know about Christmas. Yes, we should know that it is all about Jesus and his birth. That’s really the only truth that really matters. But there are many other things that are fun to know. Consider the following:
The word “Christmas” comes from the Old English, “Cristes maesse”, which means "Christ's mass." From the very beginning of the use of the word, it meant “worship”. The Christ-mass was a festival service of worship held on December 25 to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ. While most of us accept that Jesus was born in the small town of Bethlehem a few miles south of Jerusalem, we really don’t know information about the exact date of his birth or even of the specific year. Calendars differed at the time when Jesus was born.
Or how about the infamous, “Xmas”? Some people get offended when they see others call 'Christmas' xmas. However, the X in Xmas, still stands for Christ. The X comes from the first Greek letter in the word, “Xristos” (which translated is Christ). Hence came the word Xmas. It was not intended to take Christ out of Christmas…just to be able to be a bit shorter to write in notes and letters. In fact, many people use the Greek “X” for many other things…Xn (Christian), Xnity (Christianity), etc.
We celebrate Christmas on December 25th…do you know why? Because there was no knowledge about the date of Jesus' birth, a day had to be selected. Early on, there was a bit of a divergence in dates. The Eastern Orthodox wing of the Church in the early centuries of Christianity chose January 6. That day was eventually named Epiphany, meaning "appearance," the day of Christ's manifestation. The Western church, based at Rome (i.e. Roman Catholic Church; Catholic meaning universal) chose December 25. It is known from a notice in an ancient Roman almanac that Christmas was celebrated on December 25 in Rome as early as AD 336. The actual season of Jesus' birth is thought to be in the spring, but when the date of Christmas was set to fall in December, it was done at least in part to compete with ancient pagan festivals that occurred about the same time.
What about gift giving? How did that become a part of Christmas? The truth of history is that gift giving is one of the oldest traditions associated with Christmas. Some people actually believe that it is older than the holiday itself. The Romans, for example, celebrated the Saturnalia on December 17. It was a winter feast of merrymaking and gift exchanging. And two weeks later, on the Roman New Year--January 1, houses were decorated with greenery and lights, and gifts were given to children and the poor. As the Germanic tribes of Europe accepted Christianity and began to celebrate Christmas, they also gave gifts. In some countries, such as Italy and Spain, children traditionally do not receive gifts on December 25 but on January 5, the eve of Epiphany. In several northern European nations gifts are given on December 6, which is the feast of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children. Yet, you have to remember, gifts were given the moment the newborn Savior was born. The Magi bought gold, frankisense and myrrh. The Shepherds brought their hearts in prayer and praise. The angels gave praise to the King as well.
There are some things you should know about trees and decorations. Ancient, pre-Christian winter festivals used greenery, lights, and fires to symbolize life and warmth in the midst of cold and darkness. The use of evergreens and wreaths were symbols of life and aspects of a wide-array of ancient cultures.. Tree worship was a common feature of religion among the Teutonic and Scandinavian peoples of northern Europe before their conversion to Christianity. They decorated houses and barns with evergreens at the New Year to scare away demons, and they often set up trees for the birds in winter. I’ve been putting up trees for years and there are still “demons” (usually in the form of teenagers) that haunt my house. The modern Christmas tree seems to have originated in Germany during the Middle Ages. The tree was the main prop in a medieval play about Adam and Eve. The “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” was a fir tree hung with apples. In these plays, the tree was called the "Paradise tree," and it represented the Garden of Eden. German families set up a Paradise tree in their homes on December 24, the feast day of Adam and Eve. On it they hung wafers, symbolizing the bread distributed at the celebration of the Eucharist in churches. Because the Christmas holiday followed immediately, candles representing Christ as the light of the world were often added to the tree. Eventually cookies and other sweets were hung instead of wafers. The Christmas tree was introduced into England early in the 19th century, and it was popularized by Prince Albert, the German husband of Queen Victoria. The trees were decorated with candles, candies, paper chains, and fancy cakes that were hung from the branches on ribbons. German settlers brought the Christmas tree custom to the American colonies in the 17th century. The use of evergreens for wreaths and other decorations arose in northern Europe. Italy, Spain, and some other nations use flowers instead. Holly, with its prickly leaves and red berries, came into holiday use because it reminded people of the crown of thorns worn by Jesus on the way to his execution--the berries symbolizing droplets of blood. Two hundred years before the birth of Christ, the Druids in the pagan side of Celtic culture (British Isles) used mistletoe to celebrate the coming of winter. They would gather this evergreen plant that is parasitic upon other trees and used it to decorate their homes. They believed the plant had special healing powers for everything from female infertility to poison ingestion. Scandinavians also thought of mistletoe as a plant of peace and harmony. They associated mistletoe with their goddess of love, Frigga. The custom of kissing under the mistletoe probably derived from this belief. The early church banned the use of mistletoe in Christmas celebrations because of its pagan origins. Instead, church fathers suggested the use of holly as an appropriate substitute for Christmas greenery.
How about the Manger scene? This is interesting - a custom originated in southern Europe centuries ago where people erected what was often referred to by its French name, a crèche. This is a small model of the stable where Jesus was born, containing figures of Mary, Joseph, the infant, shepherds, farm animals, and the three wise men and their gifts. The custom is said to have been started by St. Francis of Assisi. On a Christmas Eve in 1224 he is supposed to have set up a stable in a corner of a church in his native village with real persons and animals to represent those of the first Christmas.
When it comes to the celebration of Christmas, history tells us some more provocative truths. In ancient times, the last day of winter in the Northern Hemisphere was celebrated as the night that the Great Mother Goddess gives birth to the baby Sun God. It was also called “Yule”, the day in which a huge log is added to a bonfire around which everyone would dance and sing to awaken the sun from its long winter sleep. In Roman times, the Yule party became something that honored Saturnus (the harvest god) and Mithras (the ancient god of light). Essentially, the celebration had morphed into a form of sun worship that had originated from Syria a century before with the cult of Sol Invictus. These festivities announced that winter was not forever, that life continues, and was a yearly invitation for people to stay in good spirit. The last day of winter in the Northern Hemisphere occurs between the 20th and 22 December. The Roman celebrated Saturnalia between 17 and 24 December. As Christianity emerged into the Roman culture, Christmas as we know it started to take shape. To avoid persecution during the Roman pagan festivals, early Christians decorated their homes with Saturnalia holly. As Christians increased in numbers and in influence, their customs prevailed and the ancient festivals started to take on a distinctly “Christian” feel. Something you should know - the early church actually did not celebrate the birth of Christ in December. It wasn’t until Telesphorus, who was the second Bishop of Rome from 125 to 136AD, declared that Church services should be held during this time to celebrate "The Nativity of our Lord and Savior." However, since no one was quite sure in which month Christ was born, in the earliest of celebrations, the Nativity was often held in September (which was during the Jewish Feast of Trumpets, modern-day Rosh Hashanah). In fact, for more than 300 years, people observed the birth of Jesus on a wide variety of dates. It wasn’t until the year 274 AD, when the winter solstice fell on 25th December, that the Roman Emperor Aurelian proclaimed the date as "Natalis Solis Invicti," the festival of the birth of the invincible sun. That gave occasion for the Church to act. In 320 AD, Pope Julius I specified the 25th of December as the official date of the birth of Jesus Christ. It became official but still not generally observed. It wasn’t until 325AD that Constantine introduced Christmas as an immovable feast on 25 December. He also introduced Sunday as a holy day in a new 7-day week, and introduced other movable feasts days (e.g Pentecost, Easter, etc.). In 354AD, Bishop Liberius of Rome officially ordered his members to celebrate the birth of Jesus on 25 December. However, even though Constantine officiated 25 December as the birthday of Christ, Christians, recognizing the date as a pagan festival, did not share in the emperor's good spin on things. Because of that, Christmas failed to gain universal recognition among Christians until only recently (of course, this is relative given the span of history). Even in “religious” England, Oliver Cromwell banned Christmas festivities between 1649 and 1660 through the so-called Blue Laws, believing that Christmas should be a solemn day not associated with paganism. Christmas “took” when many Protestants escaped persecution by fleeing to the colonies all over the world. It was only then that interest in a joyous Christmas celebration was kindled. Still, Christmas was not even a legal holiday until the 1800s.
The popularity of Christmas was spurred on in 1820 by Washington Irving's book The Keeping of Christmas at Bracebridge Hall. In 1834, Britain's Queen Victoria brought her German husband, Prince Albert, into Windsor Castle, introducing the tradition of the Christmas tree and carols that were held in Europe to the British Empire. A week before Christmas in 1834, Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol (in which he wrote that Scrooge required Cratchit to work, and that the US Congress met on Christmas Day). That book became so popular that neither the churches nor the governments could further ignore the importance of Christmas celebrations. In 1836, Alabama became the first state in the US to declare Christmas a legal holiday. In 1837, T.H. Hervey's The Book of Christmas also became a best seller. In 1860, American illustrator Thomas Nast borrowed from the European stories about Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of children, to create Father Christmas (Santa Claus). In 1907, Oklahoma became the last US state to declare Christmas a legal holiday. Then it became a landslide across the world. Year by year, countries all over the globe started to recognize Christmas as the day for celebrating the birth of Jesus.
And last but not least - Santa Claus! The original Santa Claus, St. Nicholas, was born in Turkey in the 4th century. He was a very pious and spiritually upright man who, from an early age, devoting his life to Christianity. He became widely known for his generosity to the poor. In other words, he was a Missional Christian! Even with his generous and loving heart, the Romans held him in contempt. He was imprisoned and tortured. When Constantine became emperor of Rome, he allowed Nicholas to go free. Constantine is said to have become a Christian (that can be debated in some instances) before his famous, “Edict of Milan” which proclaimed Christianity as the official religion of the empire. After that, he convened the Council of Nicaea in 325. Nicholas was a delegate to the council. He is especially noted for his love of children and for his generosity. He is also the patron saint of sailors, Sicily, Greece, and Russia. He is also, of course, the patron saint of children. The Dutch kept the legend of St. Nicholas alive. In 16th century Holland, Dutch children would place their wooden shoes by the hearth of a fireplace in hopes that they would be filled with a treat. The Dutch spelled St. Nicholas as Sint Nikolass, which became corrupted to Sinterklass, and finally, in Anglican, to Santa Claus. In 1822, Clement C. Moore composed his famous poem, "A Visit from St. Nick," which was later published as "The Night Before Christmas." Moore is credited with creating the modern image of Santa Claus as a jolly fat man in a red suit.
Remember, Christmas is all about memories, gifts, celebrations, and love. Yet, isn’t it true – if it wasn’t for Jesus, why even know the facts about Christmas? You see, once you know about Jesus, that’s really all the facts you need to know.
Here's something to think about today...consider the Good Samaritan parable. Think about that powerful story of Jesus illustrating to us what life looks like from a Kingdom perspective. You may even want to read it (see Luke 10). Great story! Now, what does it mean? REMEMBER, in biblical interpretation, CONTEXT is key. In the context of this section, a religious "expert" ask Jesus about eternal life. Now, the translation of "eternal" here is a bit deceptive because it would probably be BEST translated "abundant" life (something that Jesus talked about often...Kingdom life is eternal life but it is life here and now AND in the future). This "religious" guy is trying to figure out the way to live the best life possible. Jesus say, "live by God's design." You see, the LAW (Torah, first five books of the bible) are really books that lay out God's design for human life. Many people see the Torah as restrictive when Torah was said, at the time of Jesus, to be "the way, the truth, and the life" (sound familiar?). Jesus quotes the Old Testament which he says is summarized as "loving God and loving our neighbor" (a friend of mine, Dr. Scot McKnight calls this "The Jesus Creed").
The expert could be seen as looking for a loophole with his question about the neighbor. You see, for most people loving God is easy...it is a journey that many people feel good about in terms of their worship and prayer life. I don't know many people who would have a problem with God. The BIG problem has to be in loving our neighbor. People, well, they are messy and it is difficult to really love someone else when they are often seen as the source of all our anguish. I've told numerous people that life would be absolutely great if we didn't have other people around. Most of the problems I have in my life are because of people. Think about it...you know I"m right!
Seriously, the issue of, "WHO IS THE NEIGHBOR I'M SUPPOSED TO LOVE" is the contextual background to the parable. The answer Jesus provides in the parable is pretty clear...anyone who is in need. Loving others includes those who we feel comfortable with as well as those who, once we are involved in their lives, "costs" us something. The Samaritan (in the Jews eyes the LEAST LIKELY PERSON to help a Jew who is in the ditch) is the one who loves the broken, outcast and "left for dead."
Maybe you and I feel like we can't make a difference in the world. We are ONE PERSON living on a planet where there is so much suffering and pain. Jesus says, "loving our neighbor" is powerfully healing. We don't see too many people lying in ditches, but we DO see people all the time with needs. For example, TODAY as you share Thanksgiving with your family, there will be someone who is in need. It would be easy to "walk right by" that suffering and hope it goes away on its own. But Jesus is calling you to love the broken. Yes, that might make you uncomfortable...it will cost you something to engage that family member or friend who is seen by some as a real "downer" on a day of celebration. But according to Jesus, loving that "other" is the way TO EXPERIENCE life to the fullest. It just seems to make sense to me. From an interpretive perspective, looking for Jesus in this parable is good but not really the point. Yes, it is good to see how Jesus can be the one who heals the broken or is the broken. I get that...but the CONTEXT tells us differently. The context is about OUR actions and OUR loving of others. It is time, according to Jesus, for us to "go and do the same." Today is a day of thanks...show some mercy to those who push your buttons, or that relative who always complains, or to the person who overcooks your favorite part of the meal. Show some mercy to that child who isn't behaving or to the family member who only wants to sit and watch another football game. For whatever reason, many of the people you may hang out with tomorrow will be "lying in some proverbial ditch"...love them anyway. Jesus says that's the way to really living! Happy thanksgiving friends!
Friends and readers, this is the last update I will give you via MY blog. I encourage you to follow abbyupdate.com for updates. As of TODAY, it looks like Abby will be going home. She does have to return to the hospital three times a week for further chemo treatments, injections, and blood level measurements. But for NOW, a day or two at home will be a HUGE blessing to her and our family.
Yesterday, Abby was verbally "crying out to God" for healing and understanding. From what my wife Vicky told me as well as my daughter Tiffany and son-in-law Mark, it was said "out loud" and continual. I've joined her in the vocalization of those prayers! Our family continues to covet your prayers as this journey continues. I'll let my daughter Tiffany fill you in with this post:
Well, Abby isn't quite ready to go home. Her phosphate levels are too high without the help of IV fluids to keep them down. If her nausea gets better, she may be able to drink enough liquids to keep them flushing out of her body. Her uric acid levels are too high as well. She is too nauseous to eat anything and hasn't kept anything down yet today. So, all of those things together mean she needs to stay in the hospital a bit longer. We will see how the week unfolds. She has more chemotherapy tomorrow and Wednesday and Friday (all of which include those nasty shots in her legs). Hopefully we can find a good combo and/or plan for the anti-nausea medicines so that she can get more on top of it. Her port sight is getting less tender so that's good. Her spirits are low. She is trying to work through so many things right now. We had a wonderful visit from her previous oncologist, Dr. Smith, and his nurse Sara, that were as good for Mark and I as they were for Abby. As Sara sat and talked to Abby she emerged from her shell and for that we are very grateful. Sara is a very special lady. She saw Abby through the whole ordeal last time. She and I were pregnant together with our third babies. She has the rare gift of being able to gently assess what's going on, take charge of the situation, and stay on a heart level with you the whole time. She is very perceptive and has a ton of experience with cancer kids and a ton of experience with Abby. Dr. Smith (deemed "Dr. Sniff" by Abby back when she was 3) is wonderful too, we are so glad he is on the team to fight this with us. So, right now Abby is sleeping, with the help of some medicine. Mark and I went out to dinner last night while my wonderful mom stayed with Abby. So many lovely people on this road. We couldn't do this without each of you.