Archive for the ‘Christmas’ Category

A son is given: Christmas 2019

Annunciation-to-the-Shepherds-Berchem-Nicolaes-Pietersz-oil-painting-2-768x533

Annunciation to the Shepherds by Berchem Nicolaes Pietersz

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. And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them. Luke 2: 8-20 (KJV)

 

The Joy of the Holy Spirit

christmas-2017

This is the month, and this the happy morn, Wherein the Son of Heav’n’s eternal King, Of wedded Maid, and Virgin Mother born, Our great redemption from above did bring; For so the holy sages once did sing, That he our deadly forfeit should release, And with his Father work us a perpetual peace. —John Milton, from his poem ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’

The word Joy is a much-overused in secular communications around Christmas time.  One sees the word frequently on secular Christmas tree ornaments, gift wrapping paper, greeting cards and the like. Joy is an extremely important word for Christians; it appears frequently in the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments. Galatians 5:22 tells us that joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, along with love, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (NIV).

According to one Jesuit explanation of this, a fruit of the Holy Spirit is “an observable behavior in people who have allowed the grace of the Holy Spirit to be effective in them.”  With this interpretation, two things become clear.  First, the fruits of the Holy Spirit do not appear automatically once a person accepts Christ as his or her Savior.  To reap the fruits, we must surrender our right to ourselves and allow the Holy Spirit to work in us.  Secondly, Christian joy is not the same as happiness.  Christian joy can be experienced in the midst of pain and sadness. In fact, James 1:2-3 (NIV) tells us, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.”

In Philippians 4:4, the Apostle Paul tells us to “rejoice in the Lord always.” He penned this epistle from prison.   Some people confuse joy with happiness.  They are not the same.  Christian joy comes from within, while happiness stems from external sources.  I’m happy when my wife bakes her famous apple pie.  I’m joyful in the knowledge that Christ is my Savior. I can savor Christian joy even in difficult times, just like Paul writing words of encouragement from prison.

I recently visited a friend who is quickly approaching death. He’s the godfather of my children and a friend of over 35 years. While it was sad knowing I probably won’t see him again in this life, it was also joyful to know that he is secure in his salvation through Jesus Christ and we will see each other again in God’s eternal kingdom.  

But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. —Luke 2: 10-11

My prayer for you is that you will allow the joy of the Holy Spirit to work in your life. May your heart be filled with the joy and peace of Jesus Christ during this Christmas Season and in the coming New Year!

What can I give Him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part; Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart. —Christina Rossetti from her poem ‘In the bleak midwinter’

 

 

Living by the Calendar

Calendar.jpg

The here-and-now is no mere filling of time, but a filling of time with God.         

I work in the tech industry on a virtual business team.  We have people located across the country from Virginia to Hawaii and many places in between.  The team is run by the calendar.  It’s difficult scheduling conference calls with a team spread across five time zones, so we have to schedule carefully and stick closely to the schedule.

Personally, I would be pretty lost without the Microsoft Outlook calendar on my laptop. Between my work, volunteering, doctor appointments, shuttling grand kids around, birthday reminders, weddings, funerals and the like I simply couldn’t keep track of where to be when without a calendar.

While most adults in the Western World are familiar with calendars, there is one calendar that’s terribly overlooked in many circles.  I’m speaking about the Christian liturgical calendar.  The liturgical year (or Church year) is a continuous cycle of Christian seasons that include various feast days that mark celebrations of the Church.  The liturgical year also has a set list of readings for every day of the year.  Observing the liturgical calendar is highly enriching, providing a continuous commemoration of key events in the life of Christ and the church.  Sadly, many Christian denominations hardly recognize the liturgical calendar at all. 

According to the website The Voice, “The Christian calendar is organized around two major centers of Sacred Time: Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany; and Lent, Holy Week, and Easter, concluding at Pentecost. The rest of the year following Pentecost is known as Ordinary Time, from the word “ordinal,” which simply means counted time (First Sunday after Pentecost, etc.)  (http://www.crivoice.org/chyear.html).

liturgical-calendar.jpg

Let’s take a short tour of the Church liturgical year.  It begins with Advent, which occurs in December.  Advent commemorates Israel’s wait for the birth of the Messiah, which was promised in prophecy.  For modern Christians, it is symbolic of our waiting for Christ to “come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,” as many Christians frequently recite in the words of the Nicene Creed.

Advent is followed by Christmas on December 25, and Epiphany in January.  Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, Israel’s promised Messiah and God’s only begotten son–the savior of the world.   It is followed by Epiphany, which is translated “appearance.”  Epiphany commemorates the visit by the Magi (or three wise men) to baby Jesus, when they reveal that Jesus is the Messiah and bring him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  Gold represents the kingship of Jesus.  Frankincense, which is sweet incense, represents His earthly priesthood.  Myrrh, a sweet spice used in preparing bodies for burial, represents Jesus’ coming crucifixion and death on the cross for the forgiveness of the sins of the world. The later part of January and the month of February are ordinary time on the liturgical calendar.

Lent, Easter and Pentecost follow the ordinary time in February. Lent is the period of 40 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday, commemorating Christ’s final journey to Jerusalem, where he will be crucified. It is a period of penitence and alms giving for the church.  On Ash Wednesday, many Christians have their foreheads marked with ashes in the sign of the cross.  

Palm Sunday occurs the Sunday before Easter.  It commemorates Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem and his final journey to the cross. He rode into the city on a donkey while the crowds shouted “Hosanna,” which is translated “save us,” and they laid palm leaves in his path. Modern day Christians often celebrate Palm Sunday by waving palm leaves during a processional at the beginning of their church service.  Palm leaves from the Palm Sunday service are burned and the ashes collected to be used during Ash Wednesday of the following year.

At the end of Lent comes a period of three days called the Paschal Triduum, which begins on Maundy Thursday, proceeds through Good Friday, and ends with a liturgy on the evening of Easter Sunday.  These all fall inside Holy Week, the week ending with Easter.  

Maundy Thursday marks the night before Christ’s crucifixion, when he celebrates the Last Supper with his disciples, giving us the gift of the Holy Eucharist.  Good Friday commemorates the crucifixion of Christ for the forgiveness of our sins and his burial.  Easter celebrates Christ’s glorious resurrection and his victory over sin and death.  Christ taught his disciples for 40 days following the resurrection, then he miraculously allowed them to see his Ascension into heaven, which occurred before their eyes; meanwhile, angels promised the disciples that just as they saw him ascend into heaven, they will also him descend back to the Earth to reign in glory forever.

Following the Ascension comes Pentecost. Pentecost commemorates God’s gift of the Holy Spirit to his disciples and marks the beginning of the Church.  Following the season of Pentecost, the months of June through November are ordinary time on the liturgical calendar.  At the end of November, on the Sunday before Advent begins, we celebrate Christ the King Sunday, a day reminding Christians that they owe their first allegiance to Christ, not earthly powers or rulers.

So there you have it.  Observing the Church liturgical calendar is a beautiful way of celebrating Christ’s birth, crucifixion, resurrection and the establishment of Christ’s Church on Earth.  If your personal tradition doesn’t observe the liturgical calendar, consider adopting it to add a new level of richness to your worship.  In doing so you you’ll find inspiration and hope.

 

 

 

Everyone Needs a Savior

Jesus on Cross

Watching the evening news these days can be seriously disturbing.  It seems like every day there’s a new name or two on the list of politicians, Hollywood celebrities and officers of large corporations accused of sexual misbehavior of one type or another.  It sometimes seems like it will never end.

It’s easy to become angry at these individuals—to wag an accusatory finger in their direction. If the truth be told, however, few of us would survive intact after having our lives laid bare before the court of public opinion. Virtually everyone has something in their past or present that they wouldn’t want exposed to public scrutiny, or even to a spouse or other loved one.

While some of us escape public scrutiny of our lives, it’s a sobering thought to know that everything we do is seen by God. 

We are only what we are in the dark; all the rest is reputation. What God looks at is what we are in the dark—the imaginations of our minds; the thoughts of our heart; the habits of our bodies; these are the things that mark us in God’s sight. Oswald Chambers

The Apostle Paul tells us, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23, ESV).  This begs the question, “Then who can be saved?”  It’s important to understand Romans 3:23 in context, because it answers this worried question.  Taken in context, we see:

… there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forth as propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith.   Romans 3:22b-25a

An act of propitiation is a redeeming sacrifice that atones for sin.  In the Bible, this term always refers to an act of God, not a sacrifice offered by man to God. 

In a just a few days we will celebrate the nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ.  While we are taking joy in the celebration of the Lord’s birth, we must not forget that he was born for only one purpose—to redeem us from our sins and return us to a natural relationship with God. This return to the natural order as God originally planned it was made possible by Christ’s death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead. This redemption cannot be earned.  It is offered as a free gift to all that place their faith in Jesus as savior.  Through Him we are made blameless before God.

Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy,  to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.  Jude 1:24-25

May God bless and keep us all during the coming Christmas season and New Year!

Give Thanks to God

Thanksgiving Turkey.jpg

May love and laughter light your days, and warm your heart and home.

May good and faithful friends be yours, wherever you may roam.

May peace and plenty bless your world with joy that long endures.

May all life’s passing seasons bring the best to you and yours!

                                                                             An Irish Blessing

Father Desmond O’Donnell, a Roman Catholic Priest in Northern Ireland, recently told the Belfast Telegraph newspaper that Christians should abandon the word “Christmas,” noting that the name has been “hijacked by Santa and reindeer” and commercialized to the point that it is virtually meaningless.  “We’ve lost Christmas, just like we lost Easter, and should abandon the word completely,” O’Donnell said.  

Just go to a mall today and see what he means.  You’ll find Christmas on display everywhere, even though we’ve yet to celebrate Thanksgiving. Check your mailbox today and you’re apt to find a pile of Christmas sale catalogs and flyers.  The Christmas theme is clear—buy, buy, buy!

Sadly, we can say the same thing about losing Thanksgiving.   What was originally a day set aside for Americans to thank God for our many blessings is now often referred to as “Turkey Day,” a time to overeat, over indulge in alcohol, and watch football on television. Indeed, a number of Thanksgiving Day football matches across the country are referred to as the “Turkey Bowl.” Thanksgiving has become irreversibly connected with Black Friday, the day Christmas buyers literally battle one another in malls and big box stores to get super bargain prices on anything and everything.  Some stores have even resorted to open at midnight on Thanksgiving to maximize the Black Friday “spend fest.”    

For many Americans, it might appear that there isn’t too much to be thankful for.  We see reports of multiple mass shootings; police officers are gunned down in our streets; there are dozens of reports of sexual misconduct by politicians and Hollywood celebrities; natural disasters hammer the land; and we have a government run by two feckless political parties that seemingly can’t even agree on when to hold the next meeting.  Sometimes it seems as if our whole system, our entire way of life, could be swept away in an instant (and it can, but that’s the Book of Revelation, which I won’t go into today).

So what does America have to be thankful for?  The answer is truly simple, although not necessarily obvious.  What a pity more Americans don’t travel abroad to Third World countries and countries with oppressive regimes like Afghanistan, Iran, and North Korea.  In such places it takes very little time to recognize how truly blessed we are.  I was blessed that my military career allowed me to see so much of the world. It changed me forever.

America isn’t perfect, but it is great enough that many people around the globe dream of coming here.  If you take time to thank God this coming Thursday, thank Him for these simple blessings:

  • We can go to the faucet and fill a glass with clear, clean water. In Somalia I watched people drink water drawn straight from the muddy Jubba River, where it was not uncommon to see the carcass of a hippopotamus or other large animal floating down the river. Diarrheic disease kills Somalis and other Third World citizens by the score.
  • Our country is relatively free of deadly infectious diseases like plague, cholera, and malaria that devastate many other countries.
  • We light our homes with the flip of a switch. Following the long civil war in the Former Yugoslavia, I was deployed to Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. Most of the city was without electricity when I arrived, and much of it was still without when I returned home 13 months later.
  • We are well-fed compared with much of the world. Even many people living below the poverty level in America are better fed than people in some Third World countries.
  • One can travel freely in America. Oppressive regimes around the world control movement of the population. They use checkpoints with armed officials to prevent unrestricted movement about the country.
  • Americans can speak freely without fear of reprisal by the government. Sure, sometimes there are bad consequences for speaking freely, such as libel suites, but we aren’t silenced by the government.
  • While there is a problem with homelessness in America, most of us have a roof over our heads nevertheless. In Kuwait, Iraq, Somalia and Bosnia I saw thousands of people who had been violently forced from their homes or had their homes destroyed by war.
  • We have the freedom to worship God in the way we choose. While many Christians grumble about losing religious freedom (and some rightfully so), we enjoy more religious liberty than most of the world.

Truly America has its problems, but our country is blessed in many ways.  Despite its faults, it is still a place where many oppressed people dream of coming to.  Take time to pause and thank God for blessing America. May he continue to do so in the coming year!

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free

‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,

And when we find ourselves in the place just right,

‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.*

*Lyrics from “Simple Gifts,” a traditional Quaker Tune

A Message of Hope – Christmas Eve 2016

christmas-2017

“Oh come let us adore him!”

“My dear friends, on this Christmas . . . let us seek, in the Babe of Bethlehem, the One who came to us in order to bear with us everything that weighs heavily upon us. . . . God Himself has built a bridge from Himself to us! A dawn from on high has visited us!”

Rev. Martin Niemoller
Dachau Concentration Camp, Germany
Christmas Eve, 1944

Isaiah 9:1-7    For to Us a Child Is Born

But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

2 The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
    on them has light shone.
You have multiplied the nation;
    you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
    as with joy at the harvest,
    as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
For the yoke of his burden,
    and the staff for his shoulder,
    the rod of his oppressor,
    you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
    and every garment rolled in blood
    will be burned as fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon[d] his shoulder,
    and his name shall be called[e]
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
    there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
    to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
    from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

Click for a Christmas message from the Archbishop of the Anglican Church in North America:      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bSs4Nk1RlOw&feature=youtu.be

 

 

A Christmas Alternative

Christmas Gifts

The cornucopia (or horn of plenty), a symbol from Greek mythology, is widely recognized as representing food and abundance.  Over the years, it has become associated with certain religious holidays in Christianity, Judaism and Islam—Christmas, Hanukkah and Eid al-Fitr respectively.

Most Americans enjoy a cornucopia of blessings every day.  The majority of us have enough to eat and adequate clothing and shelter to meet our basic needs. Some have far more than they need. Unfortunately, not everyone is so blessed.

Have you ever struggled with selecting a holiday gift for a relative or friend who has almost everything he or she needs?  Far too many people end up purchasing unneeded or unwanted gifts that eventually get stuffed in a drawer, tossed in the trash or simply set aside and forgotten. There’s a better way!

Alternative Gifts International (AGI) is a way to give meaningful presents to people who have virtually everything they need.  The AGI movement was begun in 1980 by Harriet Prichard, director of a Presbyterian children’s ministry in Pasadena, Calif. AGI started in a small market where shares of goods and livestock for needy people in Third World countries were sold.

The idea was to give gifts that could make a real difference to an individual, family or village. For instance, a present of a milk cow or a means to purify water can truly change lives for impoverished people living in remote areas of Africa.

Prichard’s idea was so popular that five Pasadena-area churches held markets the next year. By 2004, there were more than 325 Alternative Gifts markets in the United States. The movement has now spread to Britain, the Netherlands, Japan and Korea.  There are opportunities to give both domestically and in foreign countries.

Here is how Alternative Gifts works:  Instead of buying that symbolic gift that might soon be put away or discarded, consider making a donation to AGI on behalf of a friend or loved one. Instructions are located on the “give a gift” tab of AGI’s website at www.alternativegifts.org.

When you make a donation through the website you can write a short message to the individual you want to honor. AGI will send that person a card announcing your alternative gift.

Perhaps you would prefer helping people in your local community; the needs are great and the opportunities plentiful in whatever town you live in.  During this Advent season, when some of us tend to overeat, there are many who haven’t enough food.  You might consider supporting a local food pantry. Many of these are experiencing significant shortages.  Many local churches host food pantries that could use your support as well.  The Salvation Army also offers gifts of food, clothing, shelter and various other services to the needy in most areas.  Donations of time and treasure are all welcome.

Even if you’re short on money, you can still give a gift of time. Consider spending Christmas day volunteering at a local soup kitchen or homeless shelter.  I promise you will find it rewarding—a gift to yourself more than a gift to others.

For those who are able, I encourage you to share your blessings with others and consider giving alternative gifts this Christmas. Make a donation to AGI or one of the many worthy charities in your area. Better yet, consider alternative gifts throughout the year and make a real difference in someone’s life the next time you give.

Whatever you do, never forget the real meaning of Christmas as expressed in John 3:16:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have eternal life.” (ASV)

May God bless us all in the coming year!

The Trouble With Stuff

“A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it.”  –George Carlin  

The final casualty reports are in:  one dead and over 40 seriously injured by a combination of hostile fire, chemical irritants and hand to hand combat.  In case you’re wondering, this isn’t a report from Afghanistan. It’s the end results of America’s obsession for stuff that was so graphically acted out on Black Friday last week.  The casualties occurred in malls and big box stores across the country as American consumers, driven into a greedy frenzy by the mere thought of cheap stuff, attacked each other with guns, pepper spray and fisticuffs, all in the name of shopping.

From the women’s intimate apparel section to the aisle with the XBox 360’s, tempers were boiling over and fists were flying.  Things were so bad that the media broadcast images of  American greed  around the globe.  My barber, an immigrant from Italy, even received a phone call from his brother-in-law in Sicily who asked him, “are you Americans crazy?”

That’s a great question, because by all indications our overly materialistic society is slowly slipping into some sort of psychotic consumer abyss.  We just can’t seem to get enough stuff. Like the late comedian George Carlin, who is quoted at the beginning of this post, I have lots of stuff.  I bet you do too.  I used to have more stuff, but I got rid of a lot of it before I moved back to Pennsylvania. I used to have a two-car garage, but I could only fit one car into it because I had too much stuff.

I didn’t want to get rid of any of my stuff, because deep inside me there was a small voice whispering that I might need some of that stuff someday.  Most of my neighbors had two-car garages too. Many of them couldn’t fit even one car into their garage because of their stuff.  After I had accumulated enough stuff, I realized that weekends were made for taking care of my stuff.  But most weekends weren’t long enough to take care of all of my stuff, so I had to take care of some of it in the evenings when I got home from work. I even took an occasional vacation day so I could take care of my stuff.

Unfortunately, our society tends to measure success by the amount of stuff one possesses–big boats, fancy cars, gigantic homes, and corner offices. Truth is you can have all of these and still be the most miserable person on Earth. The Scottish theologian Oswald Chambers said, “The test of the life of a saint is not success, but faithfulness in human life as it actually is. We will set up success in Christian work as the aim; the aim is to manifest the glory of God in human life, to live the life hid with Christ in God in human conditions. Our human relationships are the actual conditions in which the ideal life of God is to be exhibited.” 

I challenge you to avoid buying a bunch of stuff for friends and family this Christmas season. Sure, go ahead and get those special toys for the kids, but don’t buy “stuff” for the adults on your list.  Who hasn’t struggled with buying a gift for a friend or loved one who has almost everything he or she needs?  Here’s a suggestion.

Alternative Gifts International (AGI) was begun in 1980 by Harriet Prichard, director of a Presbyterian children’s ministry in Pasadena, California.  AGI began as a small market where shares of goods and livestock for needy people in the Third World were sold.  The idea was to give gifts that could make a real difference to an individual, family, or village.  For instance, a gift of a milk cow or a means to purify water can truly change lives for impoverished people living in remote areas of Africa.  Ms. Prichard’s idea was so popular that five Pasadena area churches held markets the next year.  By 2004 there were over 325 Alternative Gifts markets in the United States. The movement has now spread to England, the Netherlands, Japan and Korea.

Here is how AGI works.  Instead of buying that symbolic gift (scarf, gloves, socks, tie etc. ) that might soon be put away or discarded, consider making a donation to AGI on behalf of your friend or loved one. Instructions on how to donate are on the “projects” section of AGI’s web site at www.alternativegifts.org. When you make a donation through the web site you can write a short message to the individual you want to remember.  AGI will send that person a card announcing your alternative gift. Gifting in this fashion will significantly simplify your Christmas shopping and will provide gifts that truly impact the lives of the recipients.

May you and yours enjoy the true spirit of Christmas this year.