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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Christmas Myths

I am a ridiculously nostalgic person in general but especially when it comes to Christmas. My Christmas Playlist remains defiantly entrenched on my iPod all year round - even though it takes up far too much space (but what do you take off? Elvis' "Blue Christmas"? or "Mele Kalikimaka - Hawaiian Christmas"?! I don't think so!!). But I do like my Christmas traditions truthful. With the help of a couple books & the interwebs ( in particular), I found out some interesting and, sadly, disturbing revelations about Christmas.

Claim: December 25th is Jesus' birthday
Conclusion: Doubtful.
Further info: The Biblical Account of Jesus' birth does not give an exact date for the event; however it likely occurs in the Spring rather than in the Winter. Luke informs us that shepherds were "out in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night" (Luke 2:8). Shepherds guarded their flocks day and night only during lambing time, in the spring. In the Winter, the animals were kept in corrals at night, unwatched. Celebrating the Nativity was first suggested in the 4th century A.D. During this time, the early church fathers were taking Roman ideas, symbols, and holidays and replacing them with Christian significance - it was another way to help people who had trusted Jesus as their Savior to move from their old ways of life to new ones. On December 25, the date of the Winter Solstices, Romans celebrated Natalis Solis Invicti, "Birthday of the Invincible Sun God," Mithras. This would be the date the church picked. One church father wrote: "We hold this day holy, not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun, but because of him who made it."  The apostle Paul would warn Christians not to make particular days holy lest we overemphasize a particular day rather than on the Lordship of Jesus (see Colossians  2:16-17). Nevertheless, celebrating the birth of Christ can serve as an opportunity to utilize a particular day in focusing on the wonderous mystery of the incarnation - God becoming flesh - though it doesn't matter on which day this occurs.

Claim: The modern image of Santa was created by the Coca-Cola Company
Conclusion: Myth
Further info: The idea here is that Santa's costume was changed to Red & White to reflect the corporate colors of Coke Brand. It's not true. Coca-Cola was looking for ways to boost sales during the Winter months as this was not a popular time for cold, soft drinks. And they did turn to illustrator Haddon Sundblom, who created a series of memorable drawings that made a direct correlation between a larger-than-life, red-and-white donned Santa Claus and Coca-Cola (as seen in adjacent picture). However, this modern version was not created by Coca-Cola. Sundblom's illustrations were based on what had already become the standard version of Santa as demonstrated in a New York Times article published in 1927, four years before the appearance of Sundbloms's first Coca-Cola Santa Ad. The article states:
A standardized Santa Claus appears to New York Children. Height, weight, and stature are almost exactly standardized, as are the red garments, the hood and the white whiskers. The pack full of toys, ruddy cheeks and nose, bushy eyebrows and a jolly, paunchy effect are also inevitable parts of the requisite make-up.
To further stress this point, below are some illustrations of Santa from 1906, 1908, and 1925 respectively: 

So while I love a good ole-fashioned corporate conspiracy as much the next bloke, we do not get one here.

Claim: "Xmas" is a disrespectful abbreviation of "Christmas."
Conclusion: Myth

Further info: The idea is that people, at the least, looked for a way to abbreviate the spelling of Christmas and, at worst, secular society pushed this abbreviation to "take the CHRIST out of CHRISTmas." In actuality, this usage of Xmas dates back quite far and involves the Greek language in which the New Testament is written. The first letter in the Greek word for Christ is "chi" and the Greek letter "chi" is represented by a symbol quite similar to the letter "X" in the Roman alphabet. So "Xmas" was really utilized as a way of shortening the name of Christ, not X-ing out His name. 

Claim: The Suicide rate increases significantly during the Holiday Season.
Conclusion: Myth
Further info: Sorry, I don't mean to end on a downer. But can you tell me you've never heard this one before?! And the claim is all the more persuasive when one considers its logic. Christmas and New Years are occasions in which many experience profound joy with family & friends can only serve to accentuate, in others, pain and isolation associated with loneliness. And, yet, this too appears to be a myth as pointed out by the Mayo Clinic in an article originally printed in The Des Moines Register (1995):
Suicide is not linked to the holidays, at least not in Minnesota's Olmstead County, where the Mayo Clinic is located, according to Mayo Clini researchers. A study of all reported suicides in Olmstead County during a 35-year period did not find an excess number of suicides just before, during, or after Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's...holidays. Nor did researchers find a higher suicide rate on birthdays or three days before or after birthddays. However, their work, concluded in 1985, did affirm other studies showing that suicides are most numerous early in the week and least common on weekends.
I should note that there are other studies arriving at remarkably similar conclusions but I'm too lazy right now to quote them. Look it up - heck, you might discover yet another Christmas myth! (If so, please post below).

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A Christmas Prayer (in response to violence)

Author Max Lucado penned a brilliant and, in my humble opinion, inspired little prayer in response to what seems like escalating violence all around the world. I hope and pray it provides the encouragement needed to run to a Savior who is intimately acquainted with suffering and alienation (but also triumph!).

A Christmas Prayer

Dear Jesus,

It’s a good thing you were born at night. This world sure seems dark. I have a good eye for silver linings. But they seem dimmer lately.

These killings, Lord.  These children, Lord.  Innocence violated.  Raw evil demonstrated.

The whole world seems on edge. Trigger-happy. Ticked off. We hear threats of chemical weapons and nuclear bombs. Are we one button-push away from annihilation?

Your world seems a bit darker this Christmas.  But you were born in the dark, right? You came at night. The shepherds were nightshift workers. The Wise Men followed a star. Your first cries were heard in the shadows. To see your face, Mary and Joseph needed a candle flame. It was dark. Dark with Herod’s jealousy. Dark with Roman oppression. Dark with poverty.  Dark with violence.

Herod went on a rampage, killing babies. Joseph took you and your mom into Egypt. You were an immigrant before you were a Nazarene.

Oh, Lord Jesus, you entered the dark world of your day. Won’t you enter ours? We are weary of bloodshed. We, like the wise men, are looking for a star. We, like the shepherds, are kneeling at a manger.

This Christmas, we ask you, heal us, help us, be born anew in us.

Your Children

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Word & The Spirit: Why can't we have both?

"Why was the United States invented?" asked our 6-year old son, Gage, at the dinner table last week. "Yeah, dad, you said it was a newer country. What caused people to move there?" chimed in our 8-year-old Mason. Okay, Oelschlager, think. Well there are a myriad of issues but I decided to go for the 1st amendment, which also happens to be in my wheelhouse as a pastor. "Religious freedom." (Come on, Ryan, simplify). "People wanted to worship Jesus in slightly different ways. For instance, some people who loved Jesus wanted to study what God says in the Bible without the government or anyone else telling them how they should understand the Bible (see the Puritans). Their focus was understanding and putting down deep roots in Jesus. But others wanted to celebrate, sing, and worship the Jesus of the Bible without outside interference (see Quakers and guidance by the Spirit or "inner light"). So while the other group focused mostly on the Bible, their focus was on celebration, worship, and the mysterious bigness of God." 

"But Dad," said Gage, "Why can't they do BOTH?"   

"Yesssss! You are exactly right, Gage. They can...and so can we." He smiled really big, just as his dad was.

In some ways, I want to end this blog entry here as it gets to one of our key goals as Christians and in local churches. Preaching, teaching, group and personal study of God's Word that is anointed and empowered by the Spirit and responses of thanksgiving, praise, and obedience (ie. worship) that are prompted and sustained by the Spirit. 

It's not one to the exclusion of the other. Both are needed. Let's look at why.

Reason #1: People find ultimate satisfaction in something containing both truth & power. 

Consider the number of times you've read profound statements in birthday card, on a Facebook Status, or from a good book (maybe even a Christian book). They might ring true but at most you consider how it applies to everyday situations of your life sticking with it a few days and usually you tend to carry on as before. Likewise, you find something that helps you change - for better or worse - but the results (if for the better) are temporary. And even if you get the weight loss you wanted or the discipline with your finances sticks, your inner being still longs to consume something else and your soul remains bankrupt. And usually such changes do not stick. In other words, truth is missing. Truth, in its very essence, is enduring, not transitory.
I was reading about such a man in the Book of Acts recently. It's an account that's easy to pass over (one of those "next-versers" that's easy to gloss over for some bigger and more flashy story). This Roman proconsul, Sergius Paulus, seems to have spent his life trying to find satisfaction in something containing both truth and power. Check this out:
So, being, send out by the Holy Spirit, [Paul/Saul and Barnabas] went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus. When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John to assist them. When they had gone through the whole island as far as Paphos, they came upon a certain magician, a Jewish false prohpet named Bar-Jesus. He was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, a man of intelligence, who summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God. But Elymas the magician (for that is the meaning of his name) opposed them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith. But Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him, and said, "You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you will be blind and unable to see the sun for a time." Immediately mist and darkness fell upon him, and he went about seeking people to lead him by the hand. Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had occurred, for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord  (Acts 13: 4-12).
Before even meeting Paul and Barny, this proconsul - described intentionally as an intelligent man (by which this most certainly implied, at this time, he one who is well-read) - noticed that truths and platitudes were not enough when empty of power. Thus, he had on his staff not one but two magicians (he had Sigfried and Roy)! Thus, through a combination of truth and power - Word and Spirit - this proconsul trusts his life to Jesus. 

Such persons seeking both truth and power exist today. We live in an era that has seen the poverty of modernism (the idea that science, truth that emerges from scientific method, and technology can save humanity) and the poverty of its response - postmodernism (no one has a stronghold on the truth, but each must interpret and gain his/her own truth primarily through then lens of his/her own experience). People are recognizing the inherent flaws in the breakdown of the postmodern mode of life and thought as well. It just doesn't hold up - society falls apart unless there are some agreed upon truths and standards. Thus, even if they are unfamiliar with the technical jargon, more people are seeing the need for both - truth and experiential power. I would suggest such persons are, like Sergius Paulus, ripe to trust Jesus. 

Reason #2: Worship, like much of life, works best with a leader and responder. 
Two dancers work best when one of them takes the lead and the other responds. Two people can ride a horse together but only one can take the reigns if they hope to go anywhere. Business meetings work best when a leader sets the agenda & leads allowing for others to meaningfully respond. The pattern we see in the Bible is that God's Word leads and the Spirit then moves people to respond accordingly in worship.  

Like Eugene Peterson once said of prayer, worship of God is "Answering Speech." God spoke, the darkness/formless void responded (see Genesis 1). God speaks His Word and we respond through the Holy Spirit with speech of thanksgiving & praise as well as with ongoing obedience & serving others with our gifts - ie. worship. Or as my good friend and SCC worship leader Lisa Welman, likes to put it: "Worship requires Revelation & Response."

Let me offer a quick but necessary disclaimer before I head any further: I fear making too much of this because this because the Spirit and the Word are likewise so enmeshed. For instance, the Spirit wrote the Bible (II Peter 1:20-21; II Timothy 3:16). This should also give us pause to insinuate that people who love the Bible are less sensitive to the Spirit's leading since the Bible itself was inspired by the Spirit (thus, a person sensitive to the Bible is sensitive to the what the Spirit wrote about living). Also, preaching, teaching and communication from God's Word is most effective when empowered by the Holy Spirit. So Paul in 1 Thessalonians 1:5: "Our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction." Likewise, when we respond to God's Word, the Spirit speaks words through us that are consistent with and "flavored" with God's truth - "When he, the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all truth" (John 16:13). Nevertheless, having made this disclaimer, the larger pattern of the Bible and the exercise of spiritual gifts both seem to point to God's Word taking primacy. 

We see the Word of God take the lead, for example, in the ministry of Jesus. His closing sermon to the disciples at the last supper takes the lead (John 13-16) and they all respond in praise to God - with a prayer (John 17) and a hymn (Matthew 26:30, Mark 14:26). Four chapters of teaching the Word of God and then an opportunity to respond with Jesus in prayer and and singing a praise song to God. Throughout the Book of Acts, we see the Word of God take the lead as it is taught and preached and people responding, sometimes in unusual and miraculous ways, by the power of the Holy Spirit. In the example above from Acts 13 and our pal Sergius, notice even with the miraculous working of the Spirit through making a man blind, it his astonishment "at the teaching of the Lord" that proves to be the conclusive word on that matter. Likewise as we dip into Acts 14: We see the Lord does signs and wonders by the Spirit in order to "bear witness to the word of his grace" (Acts 14:3).

Also if you read the lists in the New Testament regarding gifts of the Spirit, you will notice that the "Word Gifts" have primary position. In his book The Holy Spirit, theologian Sinclair Ferguson puts it this way:
Central to the exercise of any gift of the Spirit is the ministry of the word given to God's people...In the lists [of spiritual gifts] which do exist (Romans 12: 3-8; 1 Cor. 12:7-11, 28-30; Ephesians 4:11; 1 Peter 4:10-11), it is clear enough that the ministry of God's revelatory word is central to the use of all other gifts; it stabilizes and nourishes them; they give expression to that word in various ways (208).
Likewise, Pastor Peter White, in his book The Effective Pastor notes: "It is significant that in all four New Testament lists of the gifts...the 'Word gifts' come first. We do not have to look fare to see the reason for this. God has given us minds. He addresses and changes us by way of them (see Ephesians 4:17-21)" (52). 

What does this mean for SCC? Due to the primacy of God's Word in leading us and the mission of our church to introduce people to the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, our primary objective in corporate worship needs to be faithfully preaching God's Word in a way that reveals our need for Jesus or how to respond in faith and obedience to Jesus. Then respond in song, thanksgiving, prayer, and praise as the Spirit leads.

As the Spirit has clearly been at work (doing overtime) at Sunrise, I think it's also important that people have opportunity to exercise all the spiritual gifts. We should provide safe places for people to experiment, experience and potentially grow practicing these gifts as well, especially since some of these gifts are more of the mysterious sort (and often misunderstood - see tongues, prophecy and prayer for healing). Two venues seem especially appropriate: Community Groups and Simply Worship. Regarding the latter, when I was a pastor at a Vineyard Church in North Chicago a number of years ago, we were keen to keep the Word of God primary in its leading position during the Sunday AM corporate gatherings. The first Sunday of the month, however, we would hold a Sunday Evening Service to which all were invited. As preaching had already taken place that morning, this service was dedicated to worship and gift ministry. People would pray together, offer prophetic words in a responsible manner, and speak words of encouragement/knowledge/wisdom. And because it was a safe atmosphere, where there was error and misunderstanding (especially when people had little knowledge or experience in using such gifts), the intimate environment allowed for gentle but genuine correction. Perhaps our next "Simply Worship" service might provide such an opportunity - in fact I pray that it will. "Simply Worship" will take place at the Harquail Theatre this Sunday, December 16, 7:00-8:30 pm. 

Reason #3: To defeat a false dichotomy of Word=Head & Spirit=Heart
One of the great frustrations for Christians who tend to side with one camp or the other on this matter is how one is characterized or thought of by the other. I've witnessed those in "The Word" camp view the Spirit camp as less stable, less intelligent, less deep, and often misguided by their emotions. Likewise, I've witnessed those in "The Spirit" camp view the Word camp as dry, lacking in love & emotion, and far less open to work of God's Spirit. 

Let's look at what God says about this false dichotomy: 
Point #1: How can you say you are a person of God's Word and not possess a full heart of emotion & passion?
Most would agree, no New Testament book contains the lucidity of doctrine and theology as that of the Book of Romans. Justification by faith, human bondage to the sin nature, the purpose of the law in pointing us to our need for Jesus - awesome truths without which we'd be all mixed up about living for God and where we stand with Him. But Paul closes this portion of doctrine & theology not with some home-run hitting doctrinal zinger but with praise, glory, zeal - HEART:
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen (Romans 11:33-36).
Point #2: How can you say you are a person full of the Spirit and not consistently read and think hard on God's eternal words? Paul criticizes those who possess a lot of passion when it is not based on knowledge of the truth. "I bear witness that they have a zeal for God, but it is not according to knowledge" (Romans 10:2), or as the New Living Translation puts it: "I know what enthusiasm they have for God, but it is misdirected zeal." What a waste! Zeal thinking it's for God but has no direction - because it is not guided by God's truth. Likewise, those who are especially open to the Spirit, also open themselves up to "other" spirits (of the non-godly origin). Having encouraged prophecies, Paul says to "test everything; hold fast to what is good" (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Likewise, the apostle John: "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world" (1 John 4:1). How does one test the spirits? According to the Word of God!
Let my final word on this be that spiritual people need the mind of Christ and the truth of God and word-y people need to submit to the Spirit to understand any of it. I take my cue here from from 1 Corinthians 2:13-16:
And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned..."For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?" But we have the mind of Christ.
I have no problems boldly declaring: (1) Those who love, sing, praise, & pray to God with great sensitivity to the Spirit are missing out on depth and are far more open to deception without an abiding faithfulness to reading, listening, and then responding to God's truth. 
(2) Those who love, study, read, meditate on and listen to good preaching and teaching from God's Word are missing out on unseen opportunities and far less open to God's doing more than we can ask or imagine without consistently asking for the Spirit's leading in prayer, His help in service, and His anointing in speaking.  

Word-Spirit / Truth-Power / Head-Heart. With respect to each of these, I gotsta agree with my son:  Why can't we have both?