Tuesday, December 22, 2009

We have something to celebrate!

Recently on an online message board that I frequent, the question was asked, "Do atheists and other non-Christians celebrate Christmas?" There are a handful of outspoken unbelievers on the board, as well as a few devout adherents to other faiths, and I think all of them weighed in. All of them basically agreed that Christmas is a great holiday that they enjoy very much. They enjoy the time off from work certainly, but also the special get-togethers with family and friends. Some actually put up a Christmas tree. All of them said they give and receive gifts. They love the whole atmosphere that surrounds this time of year, with its emphasis on joy, giving and love.

All of that is wonderful, of course. I'm genuinely glad that this special season is enjoyable to my friends and neighbors of other beliefs, and of no beliefs at all. But as a Christian, I am glad to say that my celebration of Christmas is more than a "winter holiday" (as the school system now refers to the break between semesters), more than an excuse to take time off from work, see loved ones, open gifts, and get fat on some really great cooking (although I delight in all of the above). It is more than Bing Crosby songs, It's a Wonderful Life, Scrooge's redemption and "You'll shoot your eye out, kid," although I treasure those things as well. It is the time we celebrate a God who did what none of us could have predicted--became one of us--so that we could possess what none of us could have earned--full justification, spotless and perfect in the sight of our Judge for all eternity.

Let's be clear on something: We Christians don't "own" Christmas. We merely took over an ancient pagan holiday. Instead of feasting and gift-giving in the name of gods no one believes in anymore, our forefathers chose to rejoice in the incarnation of Christ, even though the Bible never commands us to do so. For the most part, our observances of Christmas are shaped more by Charles Dickens, Clement C. Moore, and Irving Berlin (and Macy's, Old Navy, and JC Penney) than by Scripture. But take away all the tinsel and tissue paper, and only we Christians still have a reason to celebrate. Even if we can't be with our loved ones at Christmas time; even if our bills preclude us from buying something wonderful for all the people on our list (or if the gifts we receive fail epically at meeting our desires); even if our cholesterol keeps us from enjoying "Roast Beast" with all the other Whos in Whoville, we still have a God who loves us enough to take our place. So celebrate the Messiah this week...intentionally.

This Christmas Eve, we will have two candlelight services, as usual. The 5:30 service is a little shorter to acommodate families with small children. The 7:00 service will be more full (there's a bigger crowd, and a bigger service as well). But you're invited to either one. Make sure your friends know they are invited, too. I will be speaking briefly (10 minutes or so) as I continue our series on "God So Loved the World" with a look at that word, "Whosoever" in John 3:16.

Sunday, we'll conclude the series by focusing on Christ's promise of everlasting life. What difference should it make in our lives if we really believe in that promise?

Let me say it once again: When's the last time you invited someone to church? Now is the perfect time. They need a reason to really celebrate, too.

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Jesus, the One and Only

It was the summer before my fifth-grade year, and I'd just gotten some really disturbing news. My teacher in the upcoming year was going to be Mrs. Rudolph. I had been warned about her. A kid one year older than me had said that Mrs. Rudolph was mean, that she screamed at the kids and made their lives miserable. So, it was with a palpable sense of dread that I entered fifth grade.

This past week, my mom called to tell me that Mrs. Rudolph's husband, Glen had succumbed to a very aggressive cancer. I emailed my former teacher to tell her I was praying for her, her son Brooks and his wife. She wrote back an email that spoke of her faith that God would sustain her through this time. You see, my friend was wrong. While I was blessed with many wonderful teachers in my formative years, Mrs. Rudolph stands out in my memory as my favorite. She was the first teacher to make me feel like an adult. She was very much in charge of the classroom, and did not stand for the typical 11-year-old attitude, but she was never mean. She never screamed at us. Every memory of that year for me is a good one.

Have you ever experienced something similar--finding out that the true person is far different from what others have said about him or her? If that's true of ordinary folks, how much more true is it of the greatest man who ever lived? 2000 years after His birth, death and resurrection, Jesus is still the most important person in history, and everyone from atheists to fundamentalists has an opinion on who He was and what He stood for. Yet even those of us who claim to be strictly biblical can often be guilty of seeing Jesus through the veil of our assumptions and prejudices. There is only one Jesus Christ. As we continue to focus on John 3:16, this Sunday we'll talk about God's only begotten.

Friday, December 4, 2009

My Brother's Keeper

Last night, I attended a Christmas party for a Christian organization in our city that I support. The party was potluck, with the host supplying the meat. Our host, my good friend Nick Howard, has been a missionary in Germany. He has what most of us would consider an adventurous culinary taste...thanks to Nick, I often get to try new kinds of food. So last night, Nick brought meat from the only Bosnian restaurant in Houston. He was pretty vague as to what kind of meat it was...although I'm pretty sure some of it was chicken (but then again, doesn't most meat taste like chicken? Hmm...). It was delicious.

It was a reminder that we live in a very international city here in Houston. Sure, there's good ol' Tex-Mex on every corner, and you can still find Texas-style barbecue easily enough. But you can also enjoy cuisine from just about anywhere on the planet without leaving the city limits. You can also hear just about any language spoken here in our town. That doesn't just make this an interesting place to live. It means the mission field has come to our doorstep.

Most people prefer the company of others who are like them. It's why neighborhoods and churches are often segregated. But God so loved the whole world that He sent His one and only Son to die...and that love compels us to love people who may not be like us at all. This Sunday, as we continue our Advent focus on John 3:16, we'll look at 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, at the profound sense of responsibility we have for our neighbors. See you there.