Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Today is Matt's Day

Later today our family will make a pilgrimage to Huntington to visit the grave of my brother Matt. And my brother Ben. They are buried in Pilgrim's Rest Cemetery. We make a point to gather there every year on the anniversary of his death. It seems unbelievable that Matt was killed eight years ago on this day - a Sunday morning then. So much life has happened since, and it's happened without Matt. Or Ben.

Now that Jerm and I have kids, we think of Matt and Ben everytime one the six little Hallman's says or does something just like their uncles. Which always causes a big smile and usually a bigger laugh. And then we like to wonder who Matt and Ben would have married, what their kids would have been like...what Christmas' with everyone would have been like.

After our pilgrimage this afternoon we'll get together at our home for a feast and Wii games. And we'll tell stories about Matt and Ben, look at pictures, and watch their legacy live on in their nephews and nieces. For example, Eli rarely will look "normal" when it comes time to take a picture, just like Matt (it was very annoying then, and still annoying now!). Emma has Ben's big booming voice. Lydia and Levi have Matt's mischievious grin and stubborn will. Eva can sing countless songs, much like Ben did (he would usually serenade us with commercial jingles...). And watching Isaac and Levi play together is like watching Ben and Matt play together.

I remember one August when Matt and Ben took their old Halloween candy (years worth...) and had a little porch sale, making deals with the little kids in the neighborhood! Or when the two of them would race through the house with Zeener-dog, letting that disgusting little beast of a dog lick them and lay on them. Ugh! And I remember the van rides when we'd all get laughing so hard... good times, good times.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Art of Dealing with People...

Every once in awhile I need to read through some aphorisms (short, pithy sayings that capture a truth in a memorable and insightful way). Here's some that struck me as timely and relevant.

Appreciation is a wonderful thing: it makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well.
~ Voltaire

We should ever conduct ourselves towards our enemies as if he were one day to be our friend.
~ Cardinal Newman

People are not motivated by failure; they are motivated by achievement and recognition.
~ F.F. Fournies

You can impress people from a distance. You can impact people only from up close.
~ Will Richert

You get more of the behavior you reward. You don't get what you hope for, ask for, wish for, or beg for. You get what you reward.
~ Michel Le Boeuf

I will pay more for the ability to deal with people than any other ability under the sun.
~ John D. Rockefeller

Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.
~ George S. Patton

I hold it more important to have the player's confidence than their affection.
~ Vince Lombardi

Leaders must be close enough to relate to others, but far enough ahead to motivate them.
~ John C. Maxwell

The art of dealing with people is the foremost secret of successful men. A man's success in handling people is the very yardstick by which the outcome of his whole life's work is measured.
~ Paul C. Packer

I'll yet to find the man, however exalted his station, who did not do better work and put forth greater effort under a spirit of approval than under the spirit of criticism.
~ Charles Schwab

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to an ordinary mortal.... It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit - immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.... Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.
~ C.S. Lewis

*all quotes taken from Never Scratch a Tiger with a Short Stick by Gordon S. Jackson

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Sunday Sermon Notes 12.20.09

"That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown."

Linus does a masterful job of quoting from the Gospel According to Luke. Through his recitation we are reminded that "unto us is born this day, in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord." It's a great answer - but what does that mean?

Paul gives it a shot, he attempts (what I think is a really good) answer:
For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him,
and through him to reconcile to himself all things,
whether things on earth or things in heaven,
by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

Once you were alienated from God
and were enemies in your minds
because of your evil behavior.
But now he has reconciled you
by Christ's physical body through death
to present you holy in his sight,
without blemish and free from accusation—
if you continue in your faith, established and firm,
and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel.
Christ the Lord has come, according to Linus and Paul, to be a Saviour who makes peace amongst us. To what lengths will God go to in order to make peace with humanity and amongst humanity? God is willing to have all his fullness dwell within Jesus of Nazareth, He's willing to let humanity do it's worst to Him, and then to forgive them. That's how far God is willing to go to make peace. And that is what Christmas is all about.

Not only is Christmas all about Christ coming to make peace amongst us, but its also about Christ working through us to make more peace on earth. To use one of Paul's metaphors, if Christ is the Head and We are the Body, then we are to be part of the ongoing work in the world to make peace, to do work of reconciliation, to be part of the restoring work that is much needed.

Humans have proven themselves to be creatively inventive, brilliant, diligent, and capable of enormous good, even greatness. And, of course, of terrible evil. What's one thing that humans have not figured out yet? Lots, but one of them is how to make lasting peace between family members, neighbors, and nations. And Christ keeps insisting that he wants to be known for one thing on the earth - and he wants his people to be known for one thing: making peace, for reconciling.

What if these people who follow Jesus applied all their ingenuity and determination and passion into making more peace wherever they live?

Imagine... it's easy if you try.

The Dangerous Book for Boys

What a joy it is to have my Mother-in-Law intuitively know what is the perfect Christmas gift! She asked for a wishlist, and I gladly submitted one (a bit late, though). Much to her glee, she had already purchased for me the book at the top of my list! What is that book?

The Dangerous Book for Boys, written by Conn Iggulden and Hal Iggulden, two British brothers who discovered the wonder and marvel of long Sunday afternoons and imagination. I wanted this tome of danger for me and my boys - a book to spark ideas for adventure and long-marches of discovery.

What makes this book so dangerous? It unleashes a boys sense of wonder - and helps potentially helpful skills like: how to skin a rabbit, how to tan a hide, how to navigate by the stars, how to build a tree-fort, how to make a cipher, how to speak Navajo code-talk, and more! It also includes histories of famous battles, the basics of artillery, and stories of daring adventurers. Not to mention short articles on proper grammar and how to be polite to girls.

The book is designed for boys who are eight through eighty. Hopefully in the next three years I can master some of the dangerous skills, enough to whet the appetite of my three boys, two of whom will be five soon.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Love Always Hopes All Things

It's a snowy-sky morning, driving to my Starbucks, when my mind begins to scroll through the tasks and crisis', the relationships and opportunities that are part of my life. A certain kind of confusion and bewilderment ebbs and flows through my brain as I ponder what to do next. Unwanted uncertainty can quickly descend into fearfulness and anxiety. My morning commute is becoming a moment of angst and frustration.

When I left my office Sunday afternoon, I grabbed Kierkegaard's Works of Love - I intended then to read it Tuesday morning (now). A brilliantly insightful book that requires many hours to read a couple dozen pages (I got in about seven pages this morning...). But the work required to digest the writings of Kierkegaard are always well-rewarded. Particularly when what I ingest is connected with what I was obsessing about. What was it I needed to remember?
Love Always Hopes All Things.

But to hope all things in love is the opposite of despairingly hoping nothing at all, either for oneself or for others.

To hope all things, or which is the same, to hope always. Hoping is composed of the eternal and the temporal; the task of hope in the form of the eternal is to hope all things and in the form of the temporal to hope always.

Through the decision to choose hope, one thereby chooses infinitely more than is apparent, for it is an eternal decision (one that dwells in the future, and thus full of possibility).

It is again quite in order to observe that for most men and women possibility and hope, or the sense of the possible, dwindle away with the years.

Hope depends on the possibility of the good.

...everyone who lives without possibility is in despair; he breaks with the eternal; he arbitrarily closes off possibility and without the assent of eternity makes an end where the end is not...

In possibility the eternal is continually near enough to be at hand and yet far enough away to keep man and woman advancing towards the eternal, on the way, in forward movement. In this way the eternal lures and draws a person, in the possible, from cradle to grave, if he just chooses to hope.

To lure means constantly to be just as near as distant, whereby the one hoping is always kept hoping, hoping all things, kept in hope for the eternal, which in time is the possible.

This is what it means to hope all things. But in love to hope all things signifies the lovers' relationship to other men and women, that in relationship to them, hoping for them, he continually keeps possibility open with infinite partiality for his possibility of the good.

Consequently he hopes in love that possibility is present at every moment, that the possibility of the good is present for the other person, and that the possibility of the good means more and more glorious advancement in the good from perfection to perfection or resurrection from downfall or salvation from lostness and thus beyond.

The despairing person also knows what lies in possibility, and yet he or she dismisses possibility (for to dismiss possibility is precisely what despair means), or even more accurately, he or she rashly presumes to suppose the impossibility of the good.

Here again it is shown that the possibility of the good is more than possibility, for when one presumes to suppose the impossibility of the good, the possible dies completely for him.

The fearful person does not suppose the impossibility of the good; he or she fears the possibility of evil, but he does not conclude, he does not presume to suppose, the impossibility of the good.

"It is possible," says despair, "it is possible that even the most sincere enthusiast nevertheless becomes weary, gives up the struggle, and sinks into the service of the second-rate; it is possible that even the deepest believer nevertheless at some time abandons faith and chooses disbelief; it is possible that even the most burning love at some time cools off, chilled; it is possible that even the most upright man comes to a detour and is lost; it is possible that even the best friend can become changed into an enemy, even the most faithful wife into a perjurer - it is possible: therefore despair, give up hope, henceforth do not hope all things in any man or for any woman!" - Yes, indeed, this certainly is possible, but the opposite is also possible.

"Therefore never in unlovingness give up a person or give up hope for him, for it is possible that even the most prodigal son can still be saved, that the most embittered enemy, alas, he who was your friend, it is still possible that he can again become your friend; it is possible that he who has sunk the deepest, alas, because he stood so high, it is still possible that he can be raised up again; it is still possible that the love which has turned cold can burn again - therefore never give up any man or woman, not even at the last moment; do not despair. No, hope all things!"

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Sunday Sermon Notes 12.13.09

What kind of Christ do you worship at Christmas? Since we want to keep Christ in Christmas, what kind of Christ are we keeping? The shepherds were invited to go and worship the newborn King. These days we celebrate the brilliant arrival of God as a vulnerable baby. The incarnation - God taking on flesh - is pretty important to our understanding of Christmas. But is it enough for us to just focus on Baby Jesus at Christmas time?

How big is your Christ? The Christ you worship at Christmas - what is he capable of? Does the Christ you worship inspire you or is he pretty easy to ignore? Is Jesus just a newborn baby or is he really a Savior able to rescue? Charlie Brown cries out: Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about? And what does Linus provide for an answer? He quotes Scripture. The emphasis is on a Savior who is Christ the Lord.

Paul crafts a poem to capture the vast capabilities of this Savior:
The Son is the appearance of the unseen God,
the firstborn over all creation.

For in him all things were created:
things in the heavens and on the earth, seen and unseen,
whether seen thrones or unseen powers or seen rulers or unseen authorities;
all things have been created through him and for him.

He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

And he is the head of the body, the church;
he is the beginning, the firstborn from out of the dead,
so that in everything he might have the supremacy.

What kind of Christ does Paul worship? One that inspires confidence and prompts hope. This is the kind of Christ that is worth trusting. This is a Christ that is way bigger than any problem you could ever face. You know how big your problems have been, how big they could get. And Christ is bigger.

This Christmas - with whatever problem you are facing, with whatever fears you are harboring, give them back to Christ the Lord who comes as a humble yet very effective Savior. If Christ holds all things together - he can hold your heart together, he can hold your life together. Whatever is breaking or cracking or drifting or ebbing away in your life, Christ can restore and renew and reconcile.

This is what Christmas is all about - trusting Christ the Lord born as a Savior to us. Let him save you; let him use you to save others. Our world - your world, still needs a Savior. Let Jesus be the Savior, you be his hands and feet. Let Christ be the Lord, you be the Anchor.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Where Did Christmas Come From? (Part 2)

Why do we do what we do at Christmas time? None of it traces back to the first Christians - who would have been the ones to celebrate the birth of Christ. Thankfully the Catholic church honored the saints and scheduled feast days, which is why one was chosen for Jesus.

By now you've probably heard why December 25th was chosen? According to the Roman calendar, 12/25 was the winter solstice, the shortest day of year, the longest night, the least light. But that meant it was also the harbringer of longer days, that the nights to follow wouldn't be as long. Thus this day took on festive (feasts and celebrations) of the victory of the sun over the conquests of the night. Apt metaphor in connection with the accomplishment of Christ on the cross.

All that to say, December 25th was a feast day for the birth of Christ, but for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years it was just another feast day and a day of worship, alongside all the other dozens and dozens and dozens of saints. Even with the feast day of Saint Nicholas on December 6th, there was no concept of gift giving as we know it, there was no traveling to spend time with family, there was no exchange of cards, no shopping for loved ones.

In fact, the one fact that made December such a wonderful time of the year was that the harvest was collected and it was the one time of the year when you slaughtered the cattle and pigs (it would keep a lot better during the winter...). December was the one month in the year when there was mounds of food to consume, it was a time of leisure for serfs and barons and farmers and slaves. The weather was usually mild enough to not prohibit public gatherings in the village, and it was thus a great time to make merry. Thus some fantastic feasts took place in December. Oh, did you know that December 26th is St. Stephen's Day? Just another day to feast!

But here is what is interesting about the feasts in December. Many of the peasants and serfs would "wassail" through the village to the homes of the rich(er), enter in, sit down at the table, and sing for some food. The "wassail" is our precursor to caroling throughout the neighborhood. But the "wassail" had much more of a dangerous edge: it was a song with a threat. If the "hosts" didn't provide the best cakes and ale in the house, the waissailers might have to get rough. As long as the hosts played along with a smile and generosity, everything stayed merry.

Why would the rich allow this sort of disgraceful intrusion, you ask. It seems it was one of the few times during the year when their was a flip-flop in the social order, when the peasants could tell the land-lords/barons what to do. And the rich allowed it as a way for the peasants to blow-off steam; a hard winter was on its way, and this little "game" of waissaling helped create some good-will.

This scenario led to an interesting development: during December it was expected that you would throw inhibitions out the window, and you would eat and drink as much as you could for as long as you could. It was also a time to make merry, blow off steam, be rowdy, harrass the rich and powerful, frolic and flirt. St. Nicholas Day and Christmas Day were just two days that happened to fall during this December decadence.

The Puritans opposed all this stuff for two reasons: first because the merry-making was tinged with gluttony and lust and drunkeness - too much unholiness! And the Puritans resisted the observation of Catholic feast days; and they led the charge in insisting that nobody knows the day of the birth of Christ (they argued that if God had wanted us to celebrate it, he would have told us when it happened).

In New England, as the Industrial Revolution increased the wealth and eased the hardships of many Bostonians, New Yorkers, Philadelphians and others, the season of December came under scrutiny. The working poor of the factories were demanding time off of work to feast, they were breaking into the homes of the patrician-wealthy to wassail for food, they were getting pregnant out of wedlock, getting stone-drunk, and putting whole cities in uproars with riots. The rich were getting tired of the December decadence. It was time to do something about it.

The result: Instead of the rich focusing on the poor - giving gifts of food and drink, they created a Christmas where adults give gifts of books and simple toys to children. Instead of public festivities that the working poor often turned into riots, a Christmas was created where families spend time together at home in a quiet dinner. Instead of encouraging the decadence of the working poor in December - their gluttony and carousing and ribald waissaling, a Christmas was created where people over-indulged in commercial exchanges, going overboard in their special gifts to children and women.

If you find any of this interesting, be sure to visit your local library and read The Battle for Christmas by historian Stephen Nissenbaum. A fascinating insight into the development of our society - the powerful forces that shaped our concept of the family, of the holidays, of the relationships between the rich and poor, the fusion of civic duty and commercial-capitalism, the tension between religion and pagan festivities.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Where Did Christmas Come From?

I'm curious to know where our modern version of Christmas comes from. Aren't you? Where did the name of Santa Claus come from? How about Kris Kringle? Why does he come down the chimney? Why does he give gifts to only good boys and girls? What possible connection is there between a Santa-centered and a Christ-centered Christmas? Does it matter?

A fascinating book, The Battle for Christmas, by historian Stephen Nissenbaum, starts with the Puritans of New England who outlawed Christmas festivities due to their rowdy revelry, disorderly drunkeness, and obnoxious waissailing.

Back in those days there was no gift-giving, no Christmas carols, no Santa with reindeer, no Nativity scenes, no exchange of cookies. December 25 was just another day at work - mostly only Catholics marked it as the day of the Birth of Christ (but to which Puritan Protestants protested...). St. Nicholas' day of veneration was December 6th, but again only Catholics did much with the day. Actually New Year's Day garnered more attention and festivities.

Without giving too much of the book away (I'm only in the third chapter), Nissenbaum discovered that our modern version of Christmas is tied to the famous (and apparently subversive) poem: "A Visit from St. Nicholas" written by Clement Clarke Moore in 1822. Moore, in collaboration with a wealthy New York merchant named John Pintard, set about to create a myth about Christmas as a way to alter the social landscape. What they did (to summarize vast amounts of detail...) was create Christmas as a commercialized event meant to domesticate the family and create childhood. Whoa!

So what? Well, for the curious-minded folks like myself, the details and implications are thought-provoking. Our American Christmas is domesticating, it perpetuates an invented form of childhood, and it is purposefully commercialized. It is completely incompatible with the Nativity Story. And Santa Claus was invented to perpetuate this paradox. Fascinating indeed!

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Sunday Sermon Notes 12.06.09

"Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?"

It can be easy to get a cynical around Christmastime. The commercialism and the schedule can get overwhelming. And there's the fretting over purchasing just the right gift - both for those you love and for those you're obligated to be kind to; purchasing with either money you don't have, or money you shouldn't be spending, or spending more than you ought. And then there's the nostalgic whiff of Christmas you are hoping to capture at some random moment during the holidays, a moment that is almost grasped, and then its gone. Oh, and don't forget the painful memories that regularly emerge in your mind during this season...

Is there a better alternative than becoming cynical or overwhelmed at Christmastime? Yes. It's way better to keep choosing joy and gratitude. Obviously. Yet, strangely, too many of us don't...

When Paul writes his friends in Colosse - families and neighbors who knew what it meant to be overwhelmed, to be cynical, to be grasping... - Paul writes out his prayer for them: that they would have great joy and much gratitude. Here, read it for yourself:
For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you... giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his people in the kingdom of light. For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

We may not identify too well with talk about kingdoms and kings, but we can relate to the ideas of light and darkness, or rescue and redemption, of love and forgiveness. We may not think much about it, but we do sing about a newborn King quite often. Interestingly, it may help to recall the Jesus we sing about at Christmastime. Maybe you didn't know this: Jesus came as the Jewish King, Israel’s Chosen One, God’s Anointed to deliver His People from the Dominion of Darkness. He did. And He still does.

Jesus came as the newborn King of Israel at a very dark hour in world history. And though the night sky was briefly alight with angel-glory, Jesus through the long decades was just one tiny light of love and rescue in his world. But then, one by one, more lives became lit by the same kind of forgiveness and peace, and the vision expanded for what people could see and become.

One light at a time... you may not think it makes that big of a difference whether you choose joy or gratitude. But you may also have no idea how many people NEED you or desperately WANT you to make that choice. Once you make that radical choice, once your life is lit up, you begin to see the other lives lit up by the Spirit of Christ, masses of individuals who, when gathered together, illuminate the world in a new and beautiful way.

"That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown."

Linus quotes Luke, who quotes the angel-army: peace on earth, goodwill to men; Christ the Lord, our Saviour is born in a barn. Do you need rescued? Is it dark in that hole you're stuck in? Do you know anybody who needs rescued? Do you fear to forgive? Do you recoil from redeeming others, of setting them free from what enslaves them? Do you want to live in the Spirit of Christ? Masses of people are in need of Christ-ones to come be light, come and rescue, come and bring peace. Let it start with you, in your heart, in your home, in your world, in your Christmas.

When is your Christmas tree the most beautiful? When is it best to drive through the neighborhood gazing at the decorated homes and trees? At night, when it is dark. When is the best time to choose joy and gratitude? Yeah... you guessed it: when it is darkest. The choice to give thanks and be joy-full when you feel crushed or confused, exhausted or in a hole - that is what fuels the light of Christmas, it's what other people need to see. Too many people are only thankful when the going is good. Too many people will only be happy at Christmas when everything goes their way. Good luck with that.

Choose joy instead of cynicism, choose being grateful instead of being overwhelmed. It'll make you stand out like a Charlie Brown Christmas tree. It's what the world needs now...

Friday, December 04, 2009

The Western Way of War

"War is a human experience that will always be with us."

So says Victor Davis Hanson, quoted in Imprimis 11/09. To his point, war has been a constant companion of civilizations and tribes throughout the past many millenia. If past is prelude, we can expect war to be with us for many generations to come. Hanson doesn't delve into why war is always with us, but goes on to argue why the Western way of war is superior. And under girding his argument is the assumption our way is morally-superior. And under girding that is the obvious: if there is going to be war, the West had better find a way to always win.

What is the Western way of war? Davis summarizes: Superior fighting and defense capability because of our prosperity in times of peace. He lists five factors: Constitutional government was conducive to civilian input when it came to war; it gave birth to a new definition of courage; usage of advanced technology; impatience for victory as well as tradition for dissent within the ranks.

Hanson fails to mention a very very obvious factor of the Western way of war: it is predatory.

Alexander the Great was predatory. The Caesars were predatory. European kings and princes were predatory. Empires of Spain and Portugal, France and Britain, Denmark and Germany were all predatory. The United States of America has inherited a Western way of war that is inherently predatory, whatever else it may be. If war is going to be a constant within our culture, then the key factor will be to limit or subvert the predatory nature of our way of war.

I totally understand the need for armed guards and trained soldiers to protect and defend from other peoples who would steal what is not theirs, to destroy what they envy and cannot attain. And I understand the theory of "preemptive strikes" as a way to deter the "enemy" before they make their intended and otherwise undeterred attack. However, when military and civilian leaders remain blind to the predatory nature of Western war, and when they intend to grow the economy through warfare upon others, their dismissiveness towards those who are anti-war is unconscionable. It's obvious that war is good business for capitalism. The Industrial Revolution and Empire Expansion are at the heart of our modern way of war in the West.

And now the Western way of life is threatened by non-Western peoples who would like to be as powerful as the West. Who are we in the West to deny for others what we have killed to attain for ourselves? Free-market capitalism, constitutional democracy, a Bill of Rights, embrace of reason have all been a blessing to civilizations, especially ours. But we corrupt them when we assume our way of war is always justifiable; our way of war rooted in the expansionism of Greece, the crucifixions of Rome, the genocides by the European knights, the enslavement of Africa by the Empires of the West.

If there is to be war, then the United States of America has an opportunity now in World History to reconfigure how we are to do war. With all the investments being done now to alleviate poverty and hunger in the world, with all the efforts being put forth to raise standards of living and educational levels, with all the global sacrifices being made to end diseases and heal the crippled, now is the time for our nation to revise our way of war. Especially for Christians, now is the time to creatively and realistically reshape the Western way of war. I suppose it could be a way of making amends for all the times the Church has used the sword.

Lastly, there might be elements to our way of life that need correcting - so much so that without a severe adjustment we will provoke non-Western nations to attack us. It might be that America is reaching an age where our way of life is unsustainable apart from war. If this unsustainability is now the way of the West, then our way will descend into the valley of the shadow of death. And there will be no One to comfort us.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Sunday Sermon Notes 11.29.09

"Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?"

That's the famous cry of Charlie Brown, on stage, after his directing debut goes awry. But it's not just the frustration of haggling with the trials of pulling off a Christmas play. It's a question we all ask ourselves at some point during the holiday season, especially when it starts off with a big push to buy stuff. When we start to feel like Christmas has become commercialized, there's a certain part of us that winces. We want the nostalgic Christmas to prevail... But is even that what Christmas is all about?

How to think about what Christmas is all about? Here's a question to consider:
What if Christmas was not just about the gift giving of stuff, but also about you becoming the gift of Christ to others?

There is no escaping the fact that Christmas as we know it centers around the giving and receiving of gifts. And for Christians, this includes at some point inserting the Nativity Story into the traditional activities. But when we pause from being so busy, we ought to remember that Christmas is not about stuff, is not about giving and receiving, it's about God becoming Human. Which means that people, not stuff, are the most important part of our Christmas celebrations. If we are going to keep Christ in the center of Christmas, then we ought to consider how we can become the gift - the best gift - the one gift that "stuff" can't replace.

There is a fascinating letter that Paul sent to his friends, and in one part of it he encourages them to become the kind of person that is a gift to others in their life. Here's what he writes:
For this reason, since the day we heard about you,
we have not stopped praying for you.
We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will
through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives,
so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way:
*bearing fruit in every good work,
*growing in the knowledge of God,
*being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience

[Colossians 1v9-11 TNIV]
Paul wants his friends to imagine a life where - now get this.. - EVERY good work bears fruit. Think about that - what an inspiring and beautiful vision of how life could unfold for you and your family and friends and... Every good work you do bears fruit. Amazing. What an incentive to keep on doing the good work you know you ought to do, the good work you want to do, the good work you need to do. Imagine a Christmas where you knew that every good work you did in the Holidays would bear fruit... what a joy and delight you would be to others.

Of course we're not talking about microwave results - more like apple tree results. From the time an apple falls to the ground, its seeds imbed in the dirt, a sprout emerges, and a blossoming apple tree graces the garden - well we're talking years and years. But if that is how life works, and if we want to live with the promise that good fruit WILL come from our good work... what a way to move forward in life, bolstered by the promise of long-term fruit.

Paul also wants his friends to imagine a life where they know God. Not just know about God, or know people who act like they know God. Imagine a life where you know God. How encouraging. Think about your family and friends that you like for how this works: the better you know someone, the better you know what they want (and need) from you and what they want for you. At some point you know them so well you can finish their sentences for them, you know what to get for them before they ask, they join you in finishing a task without a request for help because they just know.... Now imagine that kind of relationship with God. What assurance for your place in this world, what confidence for making decisions about tomorrow and the years to come, peace about who you are and what you can contribute to the community.

Paul then wants his friends to imagine a life where they are strengthened by God's Spirit so that they have all the energy and ability they need to accomplish all the tasks they are given. I know (and you do too...) what it's like to be exhausted from the daily routines of running a household, of having a job, of being a friend, etc. Imagine a life where God's Spirit sustains us, guides us, empowers us to become the kind of person the world needs, that God made us to be.

Linus answers Charlie Browns question by quoting Scripture, by retelling a story about Jesus of Nazareth. Here's a link to the clip.

Here's a quote of what he recites:
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, "Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger."
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."
"That's what Christmas is all about Charlie Brown."

What will you make Christmas be all about? Will it be about stuff again? Or will you help it become about a gift - about the kind of gift Christ can help you become? Become the gift of peace to your friends and families, to your neighbors and coworkers, and even to your enemies.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Get to Know Your Neighbor Up North (that's Canada... in case you were wondering)

Here's a simple overview of the Canadian provinces, some helpful insights for which region you may want to visit or relocate to in the coming years. My Ontario friend Brian Magnus sent me this fascinating summary, therefore it must be true.

1. Vancouver : 1.5 million people and two bridges. You do the math.
2. Your $400,000 Vancouver home is just 5 hours from downtown.
3. You can throw a rock and hit three Starbucks locations.
4. There's always some sort of deforestation protest going on.
5. Weed.

1. Big rock between you and B.C..
2. Ottawa who?
3. Tax is 5% instead ofthe approximately 200% it is for the rest of the country.
4. You can exploit almost any natural resource you can think of.
5. You live in the only province that could actually afford to be its own country.
6. The Americans below you are all in anti-government militia groups.

1. You never run out of wheat.
2. Your province is really easy to draw.
3. You can watch the dog run away from home for hours.
4. People will assume you live on a farm.
5. Daylight savings time? Who the hell needs that!

1. You wake up one morning to find that you suddenly have a beachfront property.
2. Hundreds of huge, horribly frigid lakes.
3. Nothing compares to a wicked Winnipeg winter.
4. You can be an Easterner or a Westerner depending on your mood.
5. You can pass the time watching trucks and barns float by.

1. You live in the centre of the universe.
2. Your $400,000 Toronto home is actually a dump.
3. You and you alone decide who will win the federal election.
4. The only province with hard-core American-style crime.

1. Racism is socially acceptable.
2. You can take bets with your friends on which English neighbour will move out next.
3. Other provinces basically bribe you to stay in Canada .
4. You can blame all your problems on the "Anglo A*#!%!"

1. One way or another, the government gets 98% of your income.
2. You're poor, but not as poor as the Newfies.
3. No one ever blames anything on New Brunswick .
4. Everybody has a grandfather who runs a lighthouse..

1. Everyone can play the fiddle. The ones who can't, think they can.
2. You can pretend to have Scottish heritage as an excuse to get drunk and wear a kilt.
3. You are the only reason Anne Murray makes money.

1. Even though more people live on Vancouver Island , you still got the big, new bridge.
2. You can walk across the province in half an hour.
3. You can drive across the province in two minutes.
4. Everyone has been an extra on "Road to Avonlea."
5. This is where all those tiny, red potatoes come from.
6. You can confuse ships by turning your porch lights on and off at night.

1. If Quebec separates, you will float off to sea.
2. If you do something stupid, you have a built-in excuse.
3. The workday is about two hours long.
4. It is socially acceptable to wear your hip waders to your wedding.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

What if Christianity is a Farce?

This morning I had an invigorating conversation with a friend of mine about the origins of Christianity. He's done some intense research on the transition from Jewish Christianity/James the Brother of Jesus to the Gentile Christianity/Paul the Apostle. There are scholars out there who have proposed alternative ways of reading the New Testament, using the writings of Josephus and fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls (and other documents). When other ancient texts are brought to bear on the New Testament characters and events, new interpretations emerge of how history may have unfolded. What if everything we have been taught is wrong?

For those of us secure in our faith, we dismiss this question easily. We believe what we have been taught is true, it is reliable and thus we have plenty of assurance. But there are obviously lots of people who aren't sure about the reliability of what they have been taught. And when investigations begin into ancient history, timelines get messy, stories contradict, and alternative perspectives emerge. How do you know what is the truth?

What happened in the centuries following Jesus prior to the ascension of Constantine to the throne of the Roman Empire and his endorsement of Christianity as it's official religion? How did Christianity change following that co-option by the Emperor? What do Protestants do with the "Catholic" and "Orthodox" centuries of church history? What do Evangelicals do with our fascination with the First Century church - what if the book of Acts and the Epistles aren't the only sources of reliable information?

Do any of these questions really matter in light of the real-life issues we all have to endure as the weeks swiftly accumulate into years? Don't we have better things to do with our lives than probe into archaic issues? Granted, these questions aren't for everybody to delve into. But they interest me. My friend has prompted some good questions, provoked a quest of sorts to dig and discover more about the origins of Christianity. What is the connection between Jesus and his brother James (the bishop of the Jerusalem Church)? What is the connection between James & Peter and Paul? What about the Church Fathers of the second and third century (100AD thru 300AD) - what were the variant views in existence and how is it that we decided what was "orthodox/correct" and what was heresy? Still today there are many, many, many divergent views of everything within Christianity (thus the existence of THOUSANDS of denominations, sects, and branches). This is not going to fade away anytime soon.

Maybe there is a new Christianity that is emerging; it is post-Evangelical, post-Anabaptist, post-Protestant, post-Catholic, post-Orthodox. It is a Christianity that is unfettered by the whims of Empire, it is able to hold together a mosaic of theologies, it is again the religion of the poor and working-class, it is refocused on a Jesus of Nazareth that is a Prophet (according to the Gospels) and the Christ (according to the Epistles). As we rediscover more details about the emergence of Christianity two-thousand years ago, we may be able to embrace what Christianity will become in the millenias ahead of us.