Keeping Christ in Christmas…..

For many Americans, the Thanksgiving holiday weekend marks the beginning of the Christmas holiday. Christmas shopping begins in earnest, the Christmas tree is set up, our thoughts turn toward Christmas parties, joy, Santa Claus, and for believers, the Christmas Story.

The reality is, however, the Christmas Story believers around the world celebrate is just that; a story. Historically, there is no evidence whatsoever that any of the story we hold so dear is anything but myth. In fact, much of the celebration we have come to know as Christmas had its origins in pagan worship and practices, some quite brutal and horrific. Knowing this, nevertheless, we too, set up our Christmas tree, hung the stockings from the mantel and lovingly set up the Nativity.

The first ornament placed on our tree is a hidden ornament; a metal “nail” hung on a sturdy branch near the trunk of the tree hidden within the branches. The nail is the first placed to remind us that Christ would later die nailed to a tree for the salvation of all who would believe, and hidden since its meaning is within our hearts. For me, the essence of Christmas has nothing to do with the commercialism that has come to define the season, nor the myth of its origins; the essence of Christmas is the knowledge that I am loved by the Creator of the Universe to the extent that He was willing to sacrifice Himself, clothed in the flesh of the humanity He created in order to reconcile flawed and fallible humanity with His perfection.

As I decorated the rest of the tree, many of the ornaments hold special meaning for me, and for us as a family. Some are angels, some in honor of meaningful events and people in our lives, and some in remembrance of the reason we choose to celebrate. I have ornaments for the names of God and Yeshua; Prince of Peace, Mighty God, Wonderful Counselor, Everlasting Father. As I hung the Prince of Peace ornament my thoughts turned to peace. Would there ever really be peace on earth? I can’t answer that question.

The very life of Yeshua brought division to the world and in so doing His life was antithetical to the concept of peace, and yet He is hailed as the Prince of Peace. Regardless of how any of us may feel about Yeshua, the fact remains His birth, life and death split time. No other religious or spiritual figure has ever done the same.

Will we see peace in our lifetime? Globally it’s not likely. The reality is, however, that peace begins and ends with each one of us. Peace begins in our hearts and projects outward from there. Without inward peace there will never be peace in our lives, our families, our workplace, our communities. Like begets like. Strife in a heart begets more strife and spreads outward. A heart seated in peace begets peace, and that peace will spread outward, as well. Peace will never be born of strife, of hatred, of war. Romans 12:18 says, “If possible, and to the extent that it depends on you, live in peace with all people. “(The Complete Jewish Bible) Peace begins with each one of us. We cannot afford to wait until a day when someone else, a leader, spiritual or otherwise, mandates peace; that is not going to happen. The Christmas season, in spite of its brutal and pagan origins, is a season when the thoughts of many turn to peace; making peace with themselves, within their families, and the desire to mend broken relationships.

Historically, there is no evidence that any of the story we have come to believe as “The Christmas Story” is true; the virgin birth (the Hebrew term Bible translators have coined “virgin” simply means “young woman”), a babe born in a stable and placed in a manager, three wise men and the census decreed by Caesar Augustus that led to the birth of “the Christ child” in Bethlehem are all rooted in myth. That knowledge, however, does not deter me from the celebration of Yeshua, the One whose birth, life and death, split time, the Prince of Peace, the One who would sacrifice His blood to reconcile fallible man to Himself. For me, Christ will remain in Christmas…..

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We Are Not So Very Different…..

People fascinate me. I love people-watching when I am in an airport or restaurant, wherever people are gathered. We are all so very different, and yet we are very much the same.

People tend to break into subcultures and we see this when groups form.  We find people who are like-minded and bond with them and that’s perfectly ok. There are groups of people who like to bowl, people who like to hang out in bars, people who ride motorcycles together or engage in a myriad of different activities, people who attend church and all of the functions related to the church subculture of their choice. There are also people who have tattoos, who don’t have tattoos, who like rock music, jazz, bluegrass, and people who are heterosexual, homosexual or transgender. You get the idea. The people that belong to the various subcultures tend to mirror one another in dress, behavior, and attitude, and when these different subcultures bump up against one another the result is often dissention.

We differ and yet are similar. Our preferences, and culture we were born into may differ, but we are all human at the end of the day, so we are really more alike than we are different. The outward man differs, but the inward man is God-breathed spirit. We are spirit first, clothed in flesh.

I have the unique perspective of being both a nurse and an ordained pastor. The two professions are actually very similar; both deal with people, often when life is not going as planned. When the chips are down we tend to reach out to whomever may be able to provide comfort, reassurance, answers. I have been with people as they were dying, and I have been with those who are grieving the loss of loved ones. We are very much alike in those moments. We want to know that our lives mattered, that perhaps there is something beyond what we have known here on earth, and we want to believe we will be reunited with loved ones who have gone before us. As we are dying we turn inward and spend time reflecting on the life we lived, sometimes have regrets, become focused on relationships more so than on possessions; life is brought into perspective. Sometimes people who have never given much thought or attention to God want to make amends.

As a nurse I know that people are energy; that which animates flesh is made up of energy. What is that energy? As a spiritual advisor it is my belief that the energy is our spirit, God-breathed and unique in all of creation. When the spirit leaves the body, we leave the flesh behind. The spirit, that which gave the flesh life, is gone. In essence, death is a transition; for those of us who believe, we transition from life to life. Energy as we know it, cannot be destroyed.

Energy has no orientation. Energy does not bowl, or have tattoos, does not attend church, nor is it heterosexual or homosexual. The differences lie in the flesh and our existence while we are here on the earth. The differences don’t really matter in the long-run, so it makes sense that we shouldn’t focus as much on those temporal differences of the flesh, but the reality is that we do.

Sometimes we assign people to their own subculture. We make fun of people because they look different than we do, dress in a way that we may deem odd or unusual. We make jokes about people who are overweight or unattractive. We ignore the fact that those we “joke” about have feelings; they are human beings the same as you and me.

I hear people say that they do not like this group of people, or that group of people, and really what they are saying is that they do not know someone outside their like-minded subculture. What if we spent the time getting to know someone who wasn’t like us, someone from a totally different mindset or subculture? Would we have as much dissention in our world? I suspect not.

The LGBT community takes a fair amount of heat from people who do not understand their preferences, their desire to love another human of the same gender. If we believed, truly understood that the essence of people who identified with that subculture were in love with the spirit of another, perhaps we wouldn’t be so quick to judge and condemn. Likewise, those who choose to spend their weekends in bars,  those who like tattoos, like to bowl, or watch sports, or go to church wouldn’t attract as much condemnation either.

As we move closer to the holiday season, whether we celebrate Christmas as the birth of a Saviour, or Santa with all the trimmings, perhaps we may want to open our minds to the possibility of seeing those we don’t understand as they are; a God-breathed spirit wrapped in flesh, not so very different than ourselves. We all want to be loved, accepted, valued, and respected. We really are not so very different……..

In As Much As It Is Possible…….

We just concluded the single most unprecedented presidential campaign and election in recent history, perhaps in all of U.S. history. It matters not to me how anyone voted, we all have our opinions about who is best suited to serve as president of our nation. What does bother me is how we as a nation have reacted to the outcome. People threatening to move to Canada, protesting in the streets, sobbing, burning images of the president-elect in effigy, and spewing forth all manner of hate speech.

Yesterday, while watching one of the news programs the subject turned to how the evangelicals, the Catholics, and other church-going people voted, or didn’t vote. The various groups within our society have been dissected and analyzed for which way each leaned, who benefits from what, etc. And the reality is nothing really changes much regardless of who occupies the office.

As far as the church is concerned the question always comes round to how is the church to act in light of government rule? Scriptures are thrown out and bantered about, and again, nothing really changes. The church either approves and accepts the consensus vote, or it doesn’t.

Through the years I have heard all of the arguments, pro and con, to supporting the government as believers, but the end result is that ultimately our loyalties need to reside with our Creator. Imperfect beings are elected to office. The hope is that those empowered with the authority to lead our country will make decisions that protect and serve the whole of our nation. The reality is some will perceive the decisions to be in favor of the people and some will not, the church included.

The confusion as to how we are to approach loyalties to government vs. God is nearly as old as time itself. Have not wars been fought, people exiled, taken into captivity, enslaved for generations, been the result of those who occupy the office of “leader”? The answer, of course, is yes. The narcissistic among us believe themselves to be above God, others believe they have been appointed to carry out the wishes of the Almighty, and the remainder, somewhere in the middle. How our new president-elect will perceive his mission is yet to be determined. I am encouraged that he is a supporter of Israel and that Israel is seemingly comfortable with our choice.

In Yeshua’s (Jesus) day those confused as to whom should receive their loyalty asked Yeshua who they were to support by showing him a coin. Yeshua answered by asking whose image was on the coin. The image was of Caesar and so His answer was to give to Caesar what was Caesar’s and to God what belonged to God; a most diplomatic answer! And so it is today, we are to give what is due to those in leadership, but ultimately our loyalty is to God. We trust that God is in control regardless of who is in leadership.

There are plenty of scriptures regarding government and the expected response of what those who believe is to be, however, as I have said many times before, the Bible is a living document interpreted by man, and as such, man’s opinions as to what is owed our government. The scripture, in my opinion, that more succinctly outlines our responsibility is found in Romans 12:18 “If possible, and to the extent that it depends on you, live in peace with all people.” (The Complete Jewish Bible)…..

Abba, I Belong to You…..

Several years ago I read a book called Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning. I also had the privilege of attending a couple of his seminars and meeting him. His books, and the messages he taught, resonated within me then and today. Brennan was a forthright, gifted writer, speaker, and very flawed lover of God. His message was simple; God loves us as we are and not as we should be. Let that sink in a minute before reading further.

Brennan held spiritual retreats where he taught contemplative spirituality and centered prayer; he taught people how to be quiet and listen to God speak His love into their spirits. At one of the seminars I attended, Brennan spoke about each of us being a child of “Abba”. Abba is an Aramaic word meaning “Father” and the connotation is very intimate.  Galatians 4:6 says, ….God has sent forth into our hearts the Spirit of his Son, the Spirit who cries out, “Abba!” (The Complete Jewish Bible)

For the vast majority of my life I have never felt worthy; worthy of love or acceptance from anyone, especially God. Nevermind being forgiven for “sin”. If I couldn’t believe that God loved and accepted me, how was I to expect that He would forgive my “sins”? And then Brennan Manning happened. At one of the seminars he had us close our eyes and quietly speak the words “Abba I belong to You”. He said each morning when we wake, and before we went to sleep at night, to settle into a quiet state of being before God and simply repeat that phrase a few times. One day the reality of that simple phrase would take root in our spirits; it did for me.

Life was not good for me at that time and it continued to roll downhill gaining speed. Nonetheless, a simple phrase reverberated within the core of my being helping me to see myself through the eyes of my Abba. God and I have not always been on the best of terms because of the valleys of my past I was drug through, however, since internalizing that my Abba loves me as I AM and not as I SHOULD be, I have known He has never, and will never, step away from me. That is the “furious love of God’ that Brennan spoke of.

Do you know, really KNOW, that you are loved with the “furious love” of the Creator of all? If not, I would challenge you to quiet yourself before God and repeat that simple phrase, “Abba, I belong to You”, as you are waking in the morning and as you slip into peaceful sleep for the night. Throughout the day when life’s stressors begin to mount, silently speak these words into your being. They are not “magic” words by any means, and some have argued they are a “mantra” of sorts; those who participate are dabbling in the black arts and so on, but that is not the case. It is a reminder that we are loved and accepted as we are.

If you think about the “self-talk” we all have running through our brains all day, everyday, most of that dialogue is negative. The self-talk most of us hears tells us we are not good enough, we don’t measure up, we should be thinner, smarter, have more money, be a better mother, father, daughter, employee, friend, spouse; the list is endless. But the reality is that we ARE accepted and loved despite all of the “shoulds” we beat ourselves up with. Will the knowledge that you are Abba’s beloved erase the negative self-talk? No, but it gives us another option. When we find ourselves berating ourselves with negatives we can remind ourselves that there is One who does not need for us to be “better” or “perfect” to be accepted and loved. We are the ones who berate and belittle Abba’s beloved. Our negative self-talk then permeates the thoughts we have about others and we see others through the lens of negativity resulting in dislike, criticism, and ultimately hatred.

Over the years I have read negative reviews from those who do not appreciate the teachings and wisdom of Brennan Manning. There are those within the church, denominational or otherwise, that believe Brennan was a heretic; a wolf in sheep’s clothing because he believed we could be accepted and loved as we are. The negative nellies claim his message was dangerous because it was egocentric; apparently we don’t dwell on our sinful nature enough, don’t flagellate ourselves for a respectable enough amount of time for being human, for not measuring up.

I am fully aware of my sinful nature, of the “sins” I commit on a daily basis, but as I recall the Bible says that God is faithful to forgive us of our sins, and that He has loved us before we breathed our first breath. The knowledge that I am loved regardless of my humanity and all its flaws and warts empowers me to be a little more patient with my fellow man, a bit more tolerant when met with the flaws of others.

I am a ragamuffin, and I am loved with a furious love by my Abba. The “shoulds” and “thou shalt nots” have fallen to the wayside; they are no longer my focus. Rather I choose to focus on my Abba, and the tender love and acceptance He offers me in my fallible humanity. That change of focus has led me into a closer relationship with my Creator; a journey of love and acceptance of myself and all others. There is plenty of room for you and others on the journey……..