15 Dec 2008

Redeeming Christmas

Submitted by Paul Brown

This weekend, Holly and I went to the mall to pick up a couple of things at Target, and it was full to the brim with people. Few places remained in the parking lots, and the mall was packed with people shopping for gifts for family, friends, and even pets. It is amazing to me the amount of stuff that is purchased to give to others as part of the traditional Christmas celebration.

Then yesterday at church, Pastor Chris Little spoke about ways that we can take advantage of the various Christmas symbols that are used in our culture and how we can use them to tell people about Jesus during the holiday season. He spent some time explaining how Christians had taken previously pagan symbols and appropriated them to represent gospel truths, then encouraged us to do the same.

This all got me to thinking about how I could respond to Christmas. It seems to me that there are four different approaches that we can take to the traditions of Christmas:
1. Embrace the traditions without question. That is, just follow the crowd and do whatever your family "usually does" without considering why you do it or what the traditions mean.
2. Embrace the traditions but try to fill them with Christian meaning. I think that this is what Chris was getting at in his message yesterday. This means buying trees and presents and putting up lights but then attempting to use these as tools to share the gospel with our family and friends.
3. Reject the traditions and boycott Christmas.
4. Re-evaluate the traditions and formulate new traditions that flow from your Christian values.

I don't think that it is necessarily an issue of sin to take any of these approaches. I find the first approach to be troublesome in that while the traditions may have value in providing a sense of family togetherness and the warm fuzzy feelings that we all love, it fails to transcend the tradition itself to point to ultimate truth. The second approach may be good, but I wonder how much people really buy into it when we try to tell them that Christmas lights represent Jesus as the light of the world or greenery as representing true life in Christ. And who's to say that the way things have always been done is really the best way? For some people and some contexts, it might work, and at least this is better than the first alternative.

The third option throws out Christmas altogether. This is radical, but I admit that I've sympathized with the Puritans and others who applied the Regulative Principal vigorously and gotten rid of Christmas. You get rid of all the baggage that comes along with the holiday, all the frenetic shopping, the massive investment of resources in what may be marginally fruitful activities. Yet for all the draw of this type of radical simplification, I wonder if doing so would waste a good opportunity to engage in a significant cultural celebration and lose the opportunity to form good traditions.

The option that I lean toward—though I don't know what it might look like—is the fourth. I would love to formulate my own family traditions for the Christmas season that help us fix our eyes on Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith (Heb 12:2), and that position us to be counter-cultural in a positive way. I'm not going to attempt to propose what that might be like for me and my household in this post, but I do want to start thinking about it. What should Christmas really stand for? What would help reinforce that true meaning for myself and my family? How can we make traditions that will be a blessing to our neighbors and point them toward the true rest from the holiday rush?

11 Dec 2008

Psalm 103

Submitted by Paul Brown

Praise the LORD, O my soul;
     all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
Praise the LORD, O my soul,
     and forget not all his benefits-
who forgives all your sins
     and heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit
     and crowns you with love and compassion,
who satisfies your desires with good things
     so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's.
The LORD works righteousness
     and justice for all the oppressed.

He made known his ways to Moses,
     his deeds to the people of Israel:
The LORD is compassionate and gracious,
     slow to anger, abounding in love.
He will not always accuse,
     nor will he harbor his anger forever;
he does not treat us as our sins deserve
     or repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
     so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
     so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion on his children,
     so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him;
for he knows how we are formed,
     he remembers that we are dust.
As for man, his days are like grass,
     he flourishes like a flower of the field;
the wind blows over it and it is gone,
     and its place remembers it no more.
But from everlasting to everlasting
     the LORD's love is with those who fear him,
     and his righteousness with their children's children-
with those who keep his covenant
     and remember to obey his precepts.
The LORD has established his throne in heaven,
     and his kingdom rules over all.

Praise the LORD, you his angels,
     you mighty ones who do his bidding,
     who obey his word.
Praise the LORD, all his heavenly hosts,
     you his servants who do his will.
Praise the LORD, all his works
     everywhere in his dominion.
     Praise the LORD, O my soul.

Selah.

24 Nov 2008

"Holiday Season" is Here

Submitted by Paul Brown

As the month of November progresses, it becomes more and more apparent that the so-called "holiday season" is upon us. Stores have brought out the Christmas music and decorations and sales abound. I personally wouldn't mind if the whole cultural phenomenon of Christmas just went away. It's not that I think tradition is a bad thing, and I do enjoy the focus on family and friends that often appears. What bugs me is that a holiday (literally "holy day") set aside to reflect on the incarnation, the miracle of God come to earth to walk among us, and eventually going to the cross to die for the sins of those who would believe in him has been hijacked and turned into a huge cultural phenomenon that dominates more than a month of the year.

Even as Christians who recognize the "reason for the season" I think we get caught up in worshiping romanticized little baby Jesus rather than standing in awe of the Christ who was and is and is to come. Was it really a silent night? Is it really likely that there was snow in Palestine when our savior was born? Why do we sing so much about starlight and candles? Certainly there are some Christmas hymns that do reflect upon the true significance of Christmas, but there are also many others that have no real content, only romantic imagery that makes us feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

Advent Conspiracy Logo

A few weeks ago I added a banner to my sidebar for the Advent Conspiracy. I think this project offers a great alternative to the consumerism and hollow romanticism of the holiday season. Check out this promo video:

The idea is this: instead of spending your time and money giving gifts to people that they may or may not appreciate, use this as an opportunity to give of yourself. The best gift you can give isn't to be found at the mall; it's your love, your time, your presence. Then, instead of spending money shopping, invest in projects that really help people in need. Advent Conspiracy is encouraging people to support Living Water, a ministry whose mission is to "help communities acquire desperately needed clean water, and to experience 'living water'—the gospel of Jesus Christ—which alone satisfies the deepest thirst."

Here's another idea that was passed on to me from my friend Cassie (modified according to info from Snopes): Add a serviceman or woman to your Christmas card list by sending a card to Holiday Mail for Heroes. (Must be sent by Dec. 10 to be delivered.)

However you choose to do it, I hope that this year you are able to avoid the press of the holiday rat race and to invest in things that really matter.

12 Nov 2008

Make your voice heard

Submitted by Paul Brown

I am not yet totally jaded about the capability of our government to respond to the concerns of the people. President-Elect Obama is soliciting our vision for the future of America. Here's what I wrote:

I dream of an America with innocent lives are protected, be they ever so small, ever so defenseless, ever so young. I dream of an America where children are valued and cherished and where families are strong and united. I dream of an America where abortion is both illegal and unthinkable.

Many in the pro-life camp rallied behind Mr. Obama for his promise of change and the hope that he will be able to address social problems like healthcare and poverty. I urge the administration to take a conservative tack on abortion policies. Emphasize and support the family. Discourage divorce. You have proven yourself to be a great communicator; provide the nation with strong moral leadership on these issues, and help us move toward constructive consensus.

I wish you the very best as you work together with Congress to advance our country toward a better future.

What is your vision for America?

(HT: ReadWriteWeb)

P.S. Better results may be achieved by contacting your Representative or Senator since they have fewer constituents.

10 Nov 2008

And now Obama?

Submitted by Paul Brown

In the primary elections, I liked Mike Huckabee. In the general election, I was behind McCain, though with more reservation. And now, Barack Obama has won the general election and in January will become President of the United States of America. Some Christian conservatives are lamenting his victory, mostly because of what they expect that President-elect Obama will do to support so-called abortion rights. More extreme conservatives are predicting that the USA will turn Marxist/socialist/authoritarian under Obama's leadership.

It seems to me that we must first recognize what Obama's victory represents. No matter what we think of Obama's politics or even his person, there is no doubt that the election of the first black president is historic and means a great deal to a lot of people. America has come a long way from where she was fifty years ago on the race issue, and that is something to celebrate.

It seems to me that we must also recognize that Obama has won the election and will be our president. He was elected fair and square, and now he will be our rightful head of state. As Christians and as citizens, we are called to submit to his leadership. This includes praying for him and asking that his governance be good and just. Like all human governments, the administration that takes power in January will be a mixture of good and evil, and we owe God our thanksgiving for the good things that President-elect Obama will do. Eric Redmond cites this passage from John Calvin's commentary on Romans 13:3:

Let us then continue to honor the good appointment of God, which may be easily done, provided we impute to ourselves whatever evil may accompany it. Hence he teaches us here the end for which magistrates are instituted by the Lord; the happy effects of which would always appear, were not so noble and salutary an institution marred through our fault. At the same time, princes do never so far abuse their power, by harassing the good and innocent, that they do not retain in their tyranny some kind of just government: there can then be no tyranny which does not in some respects assist in consolidating the society of men.

Nonetheless, I think it is appropriate to lament what the Obama election means for the abortion issue, both in terms of the policies that are likely to be implemented and in terms of what it indicates about where American culture is at on the issue. Abortion is a travesty against human life, and by no means should we stop caring about the issue. As long as we have the ability to vote for our leaders and influence government action, we can continue to work against legalized abortion. However, with culture seemingly shifting to support abortion rights—or at least not oppose them so strongly—we must take a "both/and" approach to working against abortion. The goverment is not the only means to oppose this moral evil, so let's not throw in the towel just yet. Russell Moore of SBTS, as an example, argues that Christians can work to promote life by developing a thoroughly pro-life counter-culture in our churches. Scott Klusendorf of the Life Training Institute (also previously at Stand to Reason) also provides some direction for how pro-life advocates can continue their work in the Obama era.

My own prediction: Obama will do OK. I think the charges of inexperience are correct, though I think he is a smart man and will choose good advisers. He campaigned by telling people what they want to hear, even if it contradicted other things that he had said to other people; this works for speeches but not for policy. I don't think Congress will play dead, and they may even take advantage of his inexperience to press their own agenda. He is likely to take us backward on abortion, but I don't expect that it will be as bad as it could be. In my opinion, his statement about FOCA to an abortion-rights advocacy group is more likely to turn out to be a political expediency than a true statement of purpose. America is not yet fully committed to abortion rights and abortion-on-demand, so I don't expect the government to forge far ahead of us on the issue.

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