Saturday

Did Scrooge have a point?

I’ve been having trouble getting into the Christmas spirit this season and because of this, I find that I can relate to old Ebenezer Scrooge before his conversion in Charles Dickens’ story “A Christmas Carol.”

I read the other day that cynicism stems from being hurt. Old Ebenezer was hurt throughout his early life and it made him cynical. He found his solace in money and in business; unfortunately, he used both to hurt many people. However, Scrooge changed when he found out that his life mattered and that God wanted to use him to help others.

For a long time, I’ve struggled with the pain of the church not being a safe place. During my childhood, it was safe and I loved it, but during my adult years I have found that church was not what I thought it once was.

The safety I felt during childhood created a bond that will never break, I’m sure. I will always seek to serve Christ through the church because I believe in its mission. Unfortunately, however, I believe that mission is in jeopardy here in the United States.

At the beginning of my master’s degree program on spiritual formation, I asked the question, “How can we make the church a safe place?” After much debate, no one in my cohort, including me, could not, or perhaps, dared not, answer that question even after two years of study.

Why is the church not a safe place? I believe this is because the church has failed to love. We are so anxious to get the message out that we fail to allow God to create a depth of character within us. At the root of that depth is love. Why do I think this? Because Jesus said that people would know that we are disciples by our love. Because of this deep, unconditional love for God, each other and for the world, people would either be attracted to us or afraid and I believe neither one is happening.

Some would say that the negative remarks against the church are because of fear, but I don’t agree. A lot of the remarks I hear and read are not full of fear, they are full of anger. People are angry at a church that doesn’t love, that looks down on people who believe differently (both inside and outside the church), that fails to love its own. This element of the church is making it difficult for those who are trying to follow Christ in love and for those who may want to follow Christ. Therefore, the church is not a safe place.

This is not a very chipper Christmas message, but it is something that needs to be said. Perhaps it will become a New Year’s resolution on the part of the church, that we will love each other and the world first. Before the world will hear our message, however, they will have to know that we are making a serious effort and this might take a while. This will only happen when we truly believe, like Scrooge, that our lives matter and that God wants to use us to help others.

God bless us, everyone.

Tuesday

Sacrifice echoes throughout eternity

In 2007, former Massachusetts governor and presidential hopeful Mitt Romney said, “Freedom requires religion, just as religion requires freedom. Freedom opens the windows of the soul so that man can discover the most profound beliefs and commune with God. Freedom and religion endure together or perish alone.”

I like this statement because it is indeed true that both religion and freedom need each other to survive. Religion requires freedom so that it can grow and express itself freely. Freedom requires religion because religious beliefs provide a moral compass by which citizens guide their actions. Without that compass, a society will become lawless and ultimately crumble.

For freedom and religion to survive, our nation has had to fight numerous wars in the interest of democracy. Granted, our leaders have not always made wise decisions about which wars or conflicts to enter, but within those events brave men and women have fought, suffered, and too often died so that our society could enjoy freedom and the freedom to worship as we please.

For that reason, whether a religious group believes in fighting wars or not, it is important for us to recognize veterans because of their sacrifice — of time, of their own freedom to live the way they wanted, of their health and, yes, of their lives. Their sacrifice echoes Christ’s sacrifice, and the martyrdom of the saints, across the generations.

Recently, I watched the movie “Gladiator.” In the beginning of the movie, Russell Crowe plays the part of Maximus, a Roman general who is about to lay waste to rebelling Germanic tribes. Before going into battle, Maximus tells his soldiers “If you find yourself alone riding in green fields with the sun on your face, do not be troubled. For you are in Elysium, and you are already dead!” Maximus also tells his soldiers “… what we do in life echoes in eternity.”

Christ did not consider his equality with God something to exploit, so he died for everyone (Phillipians 2: 6, NRSV). The apostle Paul considered himself already dead (Galatians 3:20, NIV). Paul was willing to do anything for Christ because he had died to his selfish desires. This is a common theme throughout humanity’s conflicts, either physical or spiritual. Matthew Settle, playing Lieutenant Ronald Spiers in “Band of Brothers”, told a young trooper, “… the only hope you have is to accept the fact that you’re already dead”. Veterans who fight for their country die to themselves as well. No one can successfully go into the heat of battle, or to war, without already dying to selfishness. What they have done and are doing for us will echo throughout eternity.

Are people worthless?

I once heard a preacher talk for two hours straight about how worthless he was and about how worthless everyone in the congregation was without Christ. He also said that he – and we – were not worth Christ’s sacrifice. By the end of the sermon I was asking myself if it was true. Does God see us as worthless? Does my worth drastically improve the moment I accept Christ?

I then began thinking about the parables of Jesus, particularly those of the Lost Coin and the Pearl of Great Price. These parables depict people who are going to great lengths to search for something. In the church we often interpret the parables of the lost coin and the pearl of great price as how we, as humans, should respond to the Kingdom of God. I think these are good interpretations.

However, what if we were to look at these parables as how God responds to us? If we were a valuable lost coin, God would ransack the house looking for us. If we were an extremely valuable pearl that God found he would literally sell everything he owned to buy us and to make sure that we were safe from others who wanted to buy us. In reality, God did this. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us,” (Romans 5:8, NIV). Does that sound like we human beings — either believers or pre-believers — are worthless?

A few years ago my denomination revised its hymn book. In that revision, one hymn that had the line “for such a worm as I,” was changed to “for sinners such as I.” As a traditionalist I was upset about this at first. I like the original form of songs, but when I began to think about the change, I realized that the denomination had a point.

A worm is defined as an unfortunate or unhappy person; a despicable or contemptible person. It is true that we can be these things as sinners, but are all sinners like this? No. Some people who don’t know God do good things and some are even happy. If we are honest, all of us, believers and pre-believers alike, must admit that we have issues. This is because we were born in a fallen world under the curse of sin. I hardly think that this condemns the human race to a state of worthlessness. If we were, God would have wiped us off the planet eons ago rather than sending his only son to die for us.

The church would do well to take a more positive view of humanity. Yes, human beings have definite problems. We can even be despicable; some are evil. However, most of us spend our weeks getting beaten down. No one wants to go to church and hear that they are worthless. The church should be saying that although everyone is a sinner, Jesus died for us at just the right time even before we believed in him. The preacher that started this thought process was dead wrong. Jesus obviously not only thought we had worth, he thought that we were worth dying for.

A 'non-religious' Christmas

On a recent Christmas shopping trip, an interesting thing happened. I was making my purchase and before leaving I said “Have a Merry Christmas” to the friendly clerk.

“Thank you!” she said enthusiastically. This happened more than once that day. In almost every store in which we shopped, the clerks did not wish us a Merry Christmas, but joyfully received our good tidings.

For years, the common greeting “Merry Christmas” has been scorned for its religious overtones and this year the adjective “non-religious” seems to have been attached to the Christmas season.

For example, in the New York Times there is an article describing how the White House’s current social director told former social directors that the Obamas would not be using the traditional creche in the East Room. The reason? The Obamas wanted to celebrate a non-religious holiday this year. The article said that there was an audible gasp from the audience. To keep a long story short, the creche is in its traditional location once again.

In the Los Angeles Times there was an article about humanists groups launching a $40,000 ad campaign that says “No God? No Problem.” Smiling people — some wearing Santa hats — adorned the brightly colored ad. There is even a Web site so that other humanists will know that they’re not alone.

Christmas without God. This is an unattractive yet interesting concept to someone who has spent most of her life in church. How can you have a “non-religious” holiday that is based on one of the most significant religious events in human history? I don’t, however, feel threatened by the concept. After all, we live in a pluralistic society in which everyone is supposed to respect each other.

The problem is we don’t.

How many times have we heard about Christian groups who are “outraged” over, say, an ad, a movie or a book? There is name calling, vandalism and rage all in the name of Christ. Christian groups even attack stores that don’t say “Merry Christmas.”

On the other side of the coin, some groups want to erase Christianity from our culture. The Obamas didn’t want to celebrate a “religious” holiday because they wanted to be “inclusive.” How does that fit? We exclude one group — a group that has great significance to our history — while including all the others? That doesn’t make sense.

According to the 2008 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey conducted by The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, approximately 78 percent of the population considers themselves “Christian.” Only 4.7 percent categorize themselves under “other religions” and 16.1 percent consider themselves “unaffiliated.” If such a large percentage of the population aligns themselves with a certain way of thinking and living, why are their fellow Americans attempting to shove them aside? That is definitely not what the founding fathers had in mind constitutionally speaking, and everyone – Christians, non-Christians, atheists, and even Presidents – really must keep that in mind.

So this Christmas season, I still intend to bid others a “Merry Christmas.” If someone chooses not to wish me the same, I’ll respect that, but I hope that they respect me as well. If someone chooses to celebrate the season without God, that’s their prerogative. However, I agree with what Rabbi Elliot Dorff told the Los Angeles Times: “They are depriving themselves of some really rich resources for moral insight.” Merry Christmas, everyone!

Christmas traditions

Why are some traditions repeated year after year at Christmas? Here are some reasons behind the traditions that have been held dear for centuries:

Origin: Mention of celebrating the birth of Christ did not appear in church literature until 200 C.E. and there are two theories as to why Dec. 25 was chosen, according to “Biblical Archaeology Review.” The most noted reason is that the date was borrowed as a substitute for pagan celebrations taking place during that time of the year (this was suggested in the 12th century). The second is that Dec. 25 is nine months after March 25, which is the Feast of the Annunciation, or the commemoration of Jesus’ conception. Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. The second reasoning seems to have existed in the 200s.

The Twelve Days of Christmas: the period between Dec. 25 and Jan. 6 (Epiphany).

Nativity set: St. Francis of Assisi created the first living Nativity in 1223 because he wanted to enact the birth of Christ “in all of its impoverished glory” (www.livingcatholicism.com). Before this, mangers bedecked in jewels and gold were set out in churches to represent the king who laid there. Living Nativity enactments continue to this day and there are many different types of sets available for purchase. Many people display the entire set throughout the season, but others try to be more realistic by adding certain characters on certain dates (for example, they place Baby Jesus in the manger on Christmas day and add the wise men around Epiphany).

Santa Claus: The legend of Santa Claus is derived from the beneficent character of Bishop Nicholas of Smyrna, who lived in the 4th century A.D, in what is now modern Turkey. Bishop Nicholas used to give gifts to poor children to encourage them. Bishop Nicholas was later named a saint and became the patron saint of children and seafarers (www.historyofchristmas.net)

Wreath: Hanging a wreath at Christmas is also a century’s old tradition. “Most wreathes are circular, and the circle has long been symbolic of the unbroken span of eternity, as well as the circular nature of life itself. Used in mid December at the time of the Winter Solstice, the circle symbolizes the certainty that the endless cycle of seasons will once again bring the return of light,” Elisabeth Ginsburg wrote on www.naturehills.com. Both the Romans and the Germans used this tradition in their homes and early Christians adopted it as a symbol of life and eternity.

Trees: Since ancient times, people have been using greenery to brighten their homes during winter to remind them that spring was coming and to stave off evil spirits and sickness. In 19th century Germany, devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes as a symbol of hope and faith. It is also said that Protestant Reformer Martin Luther first used candles on his Christmas tree after taking inspiration on a starlit evening. Christmas trees became popular in America after German-born Prince Albert, Queen Victoria of England and their family posed before a Christmas tree for a newspaper sketch. Because Queen Victoria was so popular, fashion conscious East Coast observers brought the concept to America (www.history.com).

Holly: According to allthingschristmas.com, legend has it that holly plants sprang up from the earth wherever Christ stepped. “The pointed leaves were said to represent the crown of thorns Christ wore while on the cross and the red berries symbolized the blood he shed,” the Web site said.

Stockings: “The stockings were hung by the chimney with care …” Clement Clarke Moore wrote in his famous poem “The Night Before Christmas.” But why? This story comes from ancient times when the generous St. Nicholas heard the plight of three young women whose mother had died and their father could not afford a dowry so that they could get married. The young women, who did all of their own chores, used to hang their stockings by the fire to dry. One night, while the family was sleeping, Saint Nicholas placed a bag of gold into each one, thus giving the father enough money to afford a marriage for each daughter. Since then, children have been hanging Christmas stockings “in hopes that Saint Nicholas soon would be there” (www.allthingschristmas.com).

Mistletoe: Mistletoe has always been revered because it had no roots and stayed green all winter. Ancient cultures believed that mistletoe had “magical healing powers and used it as an antidote for poison, infertility and to ward off evil spirits” (www.allthingschristmas.com). The Romans saw the plant as a symbol of peace and Scandanavians associated the plant with Frigga, their goddess of love. “Those who kissed under the mistletoe had the promise of happiness and good luck in the following year” (www.allthingschristmas.com).

Candy Canes: This sweet treat has been around since the 17th century, despite what anyone tells you about a candy maker from Indiana who wanted to create a candy that symbolized his faith. It’s a nice story, but that’s all it is. Folks from Europe began decorating their Christmas trees with cookies and candy confections, including straight white sugary sticks called candy canes. The red stripes were not added until the 20th century. The one religious connection may be found in a legend that says that candy canes were shaped into crooks to represent the shepherds. These crooks were passed out to children during the living nativity scene at the request of the choirmaster at the Cologne Cathedral in Germany so that they would be quiet (www.allthingschristmas.com and www.snopes.com).

“Xmas”: Should Christians be alarmed when the term “Xmas” is used? Absolutely not. The letter X represents the Greek letter “chi,” which is the first letter in the Greek word for Christ. The symbol is similar to the letter “X” in the modern Roman alphabet. “The usage is nearly as old as Christianity itself,” according to Snopes.com.