5 Surprising Christmas Heresies

Every year I am shocked and appalled by the number of individuals who spout heretical beliefs about Christmas. These beliefs do nothing but endanger the spirit of Christmas and holiday cheer. I like to consider myself an orthodox Christmas celebrator, but even I may fall victim to having shades of these dark heresies lurking among my celebrations. Be vigilant and know how to guard yourself.

The Nogmenian Heresy

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These heretics are those individuals who purchase and drink Egg Nog before the official start date of the Christmas season – Thanksgiving Day – the earliest a Christmas tree should go up (barring certain special exceptions for accommodating out-of-town family.) These heretics are seeking to earn their way into Christmas instead of allowing Christmas cheer to meet them at the appropriate time. Christmas cheer isn’t something to be earned or striven for, but a free gift of the season. These heretics often have marketing jobs and are leading millions astray by putting up Christmas displays in stores before Halloween. Heresy generally starts small, but can grow to unimaginably horrific proportions.

The Jingle-onatist Heresy

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There is one exception to the Nogmenian Heresy – Christmas music. Christmas music may be played at any time of the year someone needs a short burst of joy and hope. The Jingle-onatists, however, see this is an evil that is unforgivable. Their lack of true Christmas spirit sends them into a rage when Christmas music is played outside of the Thanksgiving – New Year time slot. These Jingle-onatists look down on the lowly, humble, and needy with haughty eyes and cold hearts even during the difficult periods of the calendar. Guard yourself against this lack of generosity and allow yourself to rejoice in the happiness of others.

The Santarian Heresy

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These are those heartless individuals who would go about with “Merry Christmas” on their lips, but despising Santa Claus in their hearts. These are those that… I can barely bring myself to write the words… don’t believe in Santa. They would ruin the Christmas joy for others by relegating a beautiful story about a man so unconcerned with himself that his entire year is dedicated to making gifts to give away for free to children as a story meant for the ignorant and childish. These people say Santa is merely a man, although a quite incredible historical figure, while discounting the more legendary aspects and feats of his life. This heresy is heartbreaking enough when it is kept in the shadowy places of the heart, but even worse when it pours out its venom on Christmas celebrations.

http://wcrz.com/how-to-explain-santa-to-children/

The Cupnostic Heresy

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This truly baffling heresy has taken root in the coffee-obsessed culture, especially of America. Every year now, for the last several years, Cupnostics have taken to social media to protest coffee cups that don’t seem, well, Christmas-y enough. Personally, if someone has enough energy in the morning to complain about the packaging their coffee or tea arrives in, their priorities are confused, and maybe they don’t need the caffeine anyway and should skip this morning ritual. See, these people see a fundamental separation between the matter of the cup and the spirit of the drink inside. Instead of seeing both as a beautiful combination of function and life, they complain about the evil of the cup while celebrating and cherishing the spirit of the fluid inside. This is just tedious and silly. Just enjoy the peppermint-mocha-frap-milky-thing-with-a-drop-of-coffee as you hold the beautiful container containing it.

The Sweaterists

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I must still do research on this particular group to discover whether it is, in fact, heretical, or just a new way of celebrating the season. This group seeks to wear ugly Christmas sweaters… ironically. Suddenly, a whole market has emerged for ironically ugly Christmas sweaters that cater to nearly every taste. Before, ugly Christmas sweaters were unironically given gifts meant to warm hearts, and flush faces with humility during the Christmas season. And let’s be honest, most of the “ugly” Christmas sweaters aren’t so much ugly as just tacky – which we in the South understand and celebrate with glee. We do tacky Christmas better than just about anyone. So I put this group on notice – research and interviews will continue to determine its status as a Christmas Heresy or offshoot of Christmas orthodoxy.

May you have a wonderful Christmas season, free of heresy, and full of joy, hope, love, and cheer. And however you celebrate, Merry Christmas.

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Calling Jesus Names

Have you ever heard a racial slur come out of a child’s mouth? I haven’t heard one recently, but when you do, trust me, the event will stick in your mind. You’ll ask, “Where did they learn that? Do their parents talk that way? Do they know what that means?”

I’m not really sure where to start with this post. I had a really great weekend. I celebrated my Scottish heritage up at Maryville College for the Smoky Mountain Highland Games. I watched burly men toss rocks. I watched burly men toss huge telephone poles. I had a plate of haggis and mashed potatoes washed down with an Irn-Bru, which is still the weirdest drink I have ever thrown down my goozle. (If I had to describe the flavor it would be orange rind and bubblegum.) I listened to some old Irish and Scots folk songs and was blasted by a combined Pipe and Drum Corps playing Amazing Grace. I was happy, and full, and very, very warm. The warmth was from the dear sounds of ancestry… or maybe the 88 degree heat, not sure. I enjoyed celebrating a culture, but I know that not everyone can with as much open pride.

God created us in His image, which gets called the Imago Dei (Latin) in the pop Christian lingo right now. I have to hand Gen X and Millennials one big high five for bringing back early church fathers and mothers and incorporating more Latin and Greek into teaching and popular theology. As God’s images, we are designed to reflect God’s glory, authority, and love into the world around us and reflect Creation’s praise back to God. (I’ve tread this path before on this blog.) God encourages culture. In fact, read through the Hebrew Bible and New Testament and you’ll rarely find God or His prophets and apostles calling out the culture (food, clothing, artwork, language, etc.) Instead, you’ll see God calling His people and others to a right attitude of justice, mercy, care for the poor, proper worship of God, to repent and seek forgiveness while offering it to others.

So it pains me greatly when I hear God’s people who are supposed to praise God with their mouth and not slander their neighbor talk about “those people.” “Those people” often come tied to some pretty nasty assumptions, and are usually poor or have little power to affect the kind of change they need. “Those people” are listed in Matthew 25 as appearances of Jesus. See, “those people” need a cup of water, need a decent meal, need clothing and security, need a safe place to sleep, need a visitor in their prison cell or their hospital bed. When we as God’s people begin to dehumanize and speak about “those people” with anger derision, refusing to help or speak out, or allow the powerful to continually take advantage of them, we may just be speaking the words, “But, Lord, when did we see you thirsty, or hungry, or naked, or in prison?” And our own reckless words will condemn us.

I beg you to come with me on a nuanced journey. Let’s work this out. If you get uncomfortable, you can stop at any time… but you’ll have to face this at some point.

You are made in God’s image.

Your most hated co-worker is made in God’s image.

Your in-law that drives you nuts is made in God’s image.

Prisoners are made in God’s image.

Death-row inmates are made in God’s image.

Your pastor is made in God’s image.

The pastor you disagree with is made in God’s image.

The President is made in God’s image.

Immigrants are made in God’s image.

Migrants are made in God’s image.

The Ayatollah is made in God’s image.

Kim Jong Un is made in God’s image.

Police officers are made in God’s image.

Black Lives Matter members are made in God’s image.

Every person you fear might shake up your comfortable life and status quo is made in God’s image.

Are you uncomfortable? Do you see what God’s image does? It places us in an uncomfortable place where we share the exact same foundation with every single other human being who has ever lived and who ever will live. We are all made in God’s image.

The Benedictine monks had a practice of bowing to guests to their monasteries. They bowed in reverence to the presence of Christ in their guest. They recognized that welcoming someone and showing hospitality was welcoming the presence of Jesus into their midst.

We seem rather quick to draw lines that Jesus didn’t draw. Jesus, who defined his primary ministry as to His people, the Jews, still served the Roman Official, the Syro-Phoenician woman, the Samaritan woman, and chastised his disciples when they threatened Samaria in their anger.

If we can look at another human being and see anything less than a human being, loved by the God who longs to show them mercy and love, maybe our eyes haven’t been made complete in Jesus’ image, yet. If we can hate and denigrate and name call and demean and ignore, maybe our hearts still need work until we’re made complete in Jesus. If we can look at the image of God and speak hate over it, aren’t we really speaking hate to the One who made them in the first place? Aren’t we throwing our voices in with the crowd shouting and mocking Him as He hung on the cross?

Who do you need to rethink? What groups have you denigrated? What kind of language do your kids hear when it comes to minorities, immigrants, or those that look or think differently than you? Do your children know anyone different than them?

Keeping Off the Evil Eye, or Why I Haven’t Published a Blog in a While

Here I am!

I am still alive!

Not without some struggle and pain along the way. Short story to suffice, I’ve been struggling with some eye issues the past three weeks, which are now under control. Eye pain is one of those things that is hard to explain its severity if you have never experienced it firsthand. It truly is a thought-crushingly oppressive ache and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. After seeing five, yes five, doctors we finally have an answer(?) and things should start seeming normal again.

Something I have been challenged about through reading Scripture and a book called “Subversive Sabbath” by A.J. Swoboda is that Christianity has truly lost the concept of Sabbath. Swoboda points out that we hit hard 9 out of 10 Commandments, but tend to skip right over the idea of keeping a Sabbath holy. Notice, the Sabbath is holy to begin with, the issue is whether not we’re obedient enough to keep it that way.

Much like my oppressive eye pain, we’re all working under a system that requires us to put out much more than we get. Our American mindset scoffs at the idea of a day off, really. I’ve said it before, but I have heard so many people brag (including myself) about how many days we’ve worked at a stretch without a real rest. We’re bragging about living in Egypt, really. “Come to me all who are weary and heavy burdened, and I will give you rest,” says Jesus to the working men and women of his day. He welcomed them, and welcomes us, into a Sabbath rest of our own.

I know well the hectic schedule, the tyranny of the urgent. But even Jesus rested. We have clear indications in the Gospel accounts that Jesus took time to rest with friends – Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Jesus took time to head back to base, like when he returns to Capernaum. It’s really a kind of idolatry and arrogance to even consider that we could function longer, stronger, more determinedly than Jesus.

I could tell you why Sabbath is important all day, but if we are a people who can accept, “Be baptized,” and “Take, eat and remember me,” resting should be one of those things we do to signal to the world that we are different, that God’s order has come at last.

Some Sabbath suggestions:

Pick a day. As a minister, Sunday’s not really a choice for Sabbath. So my baby girl and I take ours on Thursday. We keep the TV off. We listen to stories and play. We go for a walk. It’s a day for me to turn off work world and simply be. Now, I’m not perfect and usually end up trying to do chores and what not, but each week I get a little better.

Say no. This is a dangerous one to say as a leader of volunteers. Say no if you need a Sabbath. Protect it as much as you can. People won’t understand at first if you say, “Hey, it’s my Sabbath and I have to say ‘no.'” They won’t understand until they try it themselves.

Invite your kids to Sabbath with you. Kids’ schedules are so busy. Parties, gymnastics, cheerleading, baseball, wrestling, you name it, your family probably has it on the schedule. What are you teaching your kids about good balance in life if your family never takes a day off? How do your kids begin to develop expectations of how life works if rest is never included?

Start small. Can’t turn off everything? Start with the TV, or the tablet, or maybe just your phone. Get outside for a few minutes. Whatever you decide, just start. Whatever intentional time you can devote to rest God will honor. Remember, Sabbath is holy because God made it, but it’s our choice to keep it or not.

No shame. Sabbath isn’t about guilt or shame. It’s about rest. Do what you can and let God transform your life.

The real question is: are you willing to trust God enough to let Him be God, or will you put yourself in His position and try to continue on pretending to be limitless? Which would you choose for your children?

Don’t Leave Kids to Face the Battle In Their Devices Alone

It’s been a while since I talked about Social Media. I’ve been enmeshed in it for the last couple of months dealing with the logistics of running a church’s accounts. There are a lot of rules, and very few reliable sources to learn those rules before the rules change entirely. At the same time I’m diving in head first, I also find myself avoiding social media like the plague on a personal level. Why? Because it makes me angry. I don’t really enjoy being angry… but it’s a little addictive. There’s a kind of rush, a dopamine hit every time we find ourselves outraged and indignant. We get to feel holier than thou for a few moments as we mentally crush the argument or other comment… some of us do a little more than just mentally engaging.

There are a lot of pros and cons for young people and social media. On one hand, kids can begin to learn internet citizenship and responsibility in engaging in polite, respectful dialogue with perspectives from all walks of life. They can also learn reactionary anger and impulsiveness as they try to engage with the greatest single collection of hatred, anger, vitriol and filth ever created by human hands. They can learn how to impress the importance of an idea while receiving instant feedback for their creativity and artwork. They can also find themselves on the receiving end of instant mockery and name-calling simply for sharing their love of something dear. Kids can drink deeply from the well of knowledge and experience that lives on the Web, or they can find themselves sucked into a well of lies, deceit, and smut that lurks in plain sight.

A point was made recently that regardless of how private the settings on a child’s account are, that child can still access the wide range of offerings on social media sites. Sites like Tumblr, Twitter, and Reddit don’t often do enough to gate off more lewd or dark content. Other sites are very similar in that the user has nearly all the responsibility for what they see, even if they cannot themselves be seen.

I don’t want to fear monger – so I tend to advocate for parental presence. Parental Controls can be a nice tool, but it’s not the all-powerful genie that solves all of the potential risks. Instead, parental presence, while taking a lot of work, can often head off problems otherwise ignored for ease of use.

Presence creates a sense of comfort, safety, and security. A child can explore knowing that their parent is nearby and that they can ask questions and seek understanding. However, the ability to ask questions is entirely based on how safe a child feels asking that question without fear of being mocked or judged harshly. Can your child ask you anything and receive a clear, effective answer without mockery or overreaction? No, really, anything? Ok, imagine your child (regardless of age) asking the following questions:

“Mom, somebody asked me to send naked pictures… what do I do?”

“Dad, what does the word $#@* mean?”

“What is [insert sex topic here]?”

“Someone said I was fat and ugly. Am I?”

Do you have an answer? How do you feel right now?

God is present with us. It’s one of His greatest gifts to His people. He was present with Abraham, in the Tent of Meeting, in the Temple, in Jesus, in the Church. We are the recipients of “God with Us.” God doesn’t balk at our questions, our doubts, our angry shouting. God’s presence is constant, even when we cannot feel it. God suffers alongside us, he hurts with us. And, as parents, we get to do the same. We ache with our sick children, our heart is broken when theirs is. We take the pain as well as the joy of parenting.

Put in the effort. Be present with your kids. Trust and communication are based on relationship. The more time you invest early, the stronger your relationship will be.

A Nation of Scaredy Cats

We, as Americans, have become scaredy cats. All of us. Home of the brave, my foot. You and I both know we can’t turn on the TV or radio or open our homepage without some new Chicken Little remarking about how another piece of the sky has fallen. Sure, it’s been a long time coming, but what frustrates me most is who seems to be the most terrified about life right now: Christians.

Really? The people who serve the King of the Universe, the God who made the earth and everything in it, the Savior who faced down Rome’s wrath and rose on the third day victoriously condemning, deposing, and defeating the wickedness and violence that he bore on the cross, are the ones sitting in abject terror at every newscast and Facebook story?

Sorry… I get a little worked up on this one. Fear is the perfect opposite of what a Christian should base their life. We’re told that perfect love drives out fear. Why? Because fear leads to contempt and hatred – which often leads to violence and destruction. Fear caused Peter to deny his very best friend and mentor. Fear causes us to deny our savior, too. Love leads to understanding and compassion – which leads to service and generosity. Love led Jesus to welcome Peter back with a fish fry on the beach.

Matthew 25 makes a strong case for getting outside of ourselves and serving others – the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the poor, the prisoners, the outsider, the children. Do we recognize Jesus in the least of these? Or are we afraid because we see where one bad day could land us?  Do we reach out our open hands in generosity, or clench our fists, avert our eyes, and pretend everything is fine?

Jesus didn’t fear having his reputation questioned for the good of others. He touched lepers. Spoke openly with women and welcomed them as disciples. He ate and drank with tax collectors and other miscreants – to the point that some groups called Jesus a drunkard and demon-possessed. Sure, Jesus was wise and chose his battles with intention and purpose, but he didn’t fear the repercussions.

If we are following the lead of Jesus, comfort should never be an expectation. Expecting an easy ride should be seen as the exception to the rule, rather than the rule itself. Jesus’ path drove right through the cross – and so does ours, for that matter.

There are so many things that drive us to fear, but if we fully understand the love of God and His command to love others we will be able to proceed with a Spirit of power, and not fear, that God has placed within us. Don’t fear those you serve. Don’t cower before the wars and rumors of wars. Don’t allow fear to become your god – the thing that drives all of your thoughts and actions.

How do you model courage- or fear – in your life? Which of your political, theological, or social views are built on a foundation of fear? How can you rethink them? What can you do today to help your child live courageously in Jesus?

So How’s Your Easter Going?

Well, here I am coming back, blinking in the bright light of day after being holed up for several weeks in preparation for Easter. (If the minister comes out of his hole and is scared of his shadow, is that 6 more weeks of winter? Or is that just the groundhog?) Anyway, I hope your Easter was full of joy, hope, explosive worship (metaphorically, of course) and time with family.

Remember, though. Easter isn’t just one day. Easter, traditionally, is a long feasting period between Lent and Pentecost. And if we’re intellectually honest, Easter is, well, always. See, we meet on Sunday to celebrate and remember our risen King. Each week we tell the Easter story through communion/Eucharist and the proclaiming of the good news – Jesus is alive and is King!

But do we leave Easter on one day a year? Do we live like we serve a King who has expectations, who has a mission, who has a clear guiding purpose for His church? Or do we slink back into the before times?

Celebration is great, but Easter is a starting gun. Sure, it’s the ultimate defeat of the powers of sin and death and we fear them no longer. It’s also the starting point for a lot of work. Jesus is King. It’s our God-given role to let the world know that fact. It’s also our God-given mission to live like ambassadors of that King. Ambassadors live honorably, generously, and in such a way as to bring honor on the ruler or nation they represent. An ambassador can make or break a diplomatic mission.

May your Easter continue on through this season. May you celebrate the beginning of Jesus’ reign and may your life as an ambassador bring Him honor. May the powers of sin and death bring you no more fear.

(And may your Easter candy last juuuust long enough while adding no calories to your diet.)

Death and Grieving

Living in the wake of death is a difficult thing to do. Watching a body retire from this world is not an easy process. The reminders of that person’s life come in small ways. A missing car. An empty chair. A daily phone call that never comes. Little things here and there that add up to the now empty space where a mind, a heart, a soul once occupied. These things aren’t the person by any means, but normal is shattered.

It’s been a rough couple of weeks. In the midst of excitement and movement as things seemed to be shifting, growing moving forward, we received several blows of the hammer of death. It’s a part of living – the dying, but no matter how many times I see it, it never becomes any easier to accept.

Kids feel this loss, too. We do worship responses which include written prayers praising God or asking Him for help, comfort, or wisdom. I read these because I want to see where our kids are, what questions they’re asking, what their prayer lives look like. I have seen so many that are dealing with loss and death. Sometimes they need to write, or draw, or play to deal with the complex emotions that come with experiencing loss. A new normal will need to be built, a different life continued.

Give kids the opportunity to grieve in their own way. Be vulnerable with them while allowing them to still feel safe. Say how you feel, let them know it’s ok to feel sad, or angry, or upset. Take time and let yourself and your family process.

May the God of peace grant you and your family rest, opportunities to process and strength to build the new normal.

Your Racist Language

You know, language and words have a life of their own. Some words can change meaning drastically, taking on so much weight, baggage, and connotation that they become nearly unusable unless prefaced by a huge contextual aside to clarify the meaning. The common example here is “thong.” Now, a certain age group will see that word and picture a sandal to be worn on the foot. Before then, a group would have seen a strap to tie town luggage. Now… well… the artist Sisqo had a very particular type of underwear/swimwear in mind when writing his famous “Thong Song.”

That said, there are so many other examples of words that have changed or evolved over the course of history. English is a living language, meaning that new words are added and definitions can change over time as words are used. I ran square into this my first time through “The Lord of the Rings” as the Hobbits and others would regularly refer to bundles of sticks as faggots. Now, my middle-school brain had a hard time with that one – until the context clued me into what was actually being said. I have since come to discover that this particular word which is a slur used for a particular minority group, also had connotations with smoking.

Some words have subtle meanings to certain groups – which would be referred to as coded language. You may have heard the term “dog whistle” to describe some of these terms – the metaphor being that these words are indistinguishable to anyone without the code or specific knowledge.

For instance, the term “Nazi” has a very specific meaning. We, as Americans, have probably overused the term for a joke’s sake (“grammer nazi,” for example) but that may have been an attempt to degrade the power that the Third Reich held for a short, but devastating period of history. The term “Fascist” also has a very particular meaning, also bandied about a bit too much and has probably degraded in its descriptive power over the years. Now, individuals and groups who ascribe to the social policies of Nazism and Fascism would prefer the terms “alt right,” “white racialist,” “white nationalist,” etc. America didn’t do as good a job ridding the world of these groups as originally thought or celebrated at the end of WWII. (And on the other side, America has such a checkered past with “communist” that the word hardly has a meaning in today’s society. It could almost be defined as “enemy of the U.S.” for the way its used in common speech.)

That said, there are some coded phrases that are used, even by well-meaning people that tend to mean something other than the textbook definitions. I’m a believer in clear communication. If we’re going to speak to one another, let’s try as best we can to use the same meanings so that we can both walk away with the same impression of a conversation. Let’s take “urban” for example. Urban can mean, simply, “of the city.” However, it’s often really just code for “black,” as is “inner city.” Take a moment and think about the picture those words conjure up for you. Do you see a diverse group? Or one color of skin? And the word “diverse,” what picture does that draw in your mind? Is it multicolored? Does it include lighter and darker shades? Does it include age, gender, or ideas? What about the word “immigrant?”

Take this verse, for instance, and replace the word “stranger” with “immigrant:”

“When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 19:34 (JPS)

Or maybe replace “stranger” with “refugee.”

The problem with the world is that it tries to paint human beings as objects, often using language to accomplish tat goal. In some ways, we are fighting against our own minds to keep this from happening. Between racism, sexism, porn, abuse, politics, and misconceptions of religion, the idea that human beings are all made in God’s image gets lost. People are not problems… they’re people. It’s very easy to sit or stand in a place of privilege, and point a finger at a group, dehumanize them and see them as an object, or a problem. It’s much harder to look into the eyes of another human being and see the face of Christ there.

There is a sentiment often attributed to Joseph Stalin, though it has been stated many times in many eras, “One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” This, sadly, has often been the case in history. Jesus, though, did the opposite, he approached the individual, dealt with the human aspect of any situation. He praised a Roman for his faith, interacted with women, welcomed foreigners, and accepted people as they were. (He never left them there, but did accept them as they were.) Jesus didn’t see numbers, he saw human beings.

Until we see others as people, as being made in the image of God, we will be lacking that love of God so crucial to life in the Kingdom. As long as we see numbers, problems, statistics instead of faces, stories, and suffering, we will ultimately miss the work God has set out for us.

Our language needs to reflect God’s love. We should all look at our language and ask what we mean when we discuss with others. When someone challenges us and points out our racist language, we need to be humble submit to one another in love and change our habits.

Your children listen to what you say and what those you respect say. What are they learning about how to speak with others? Are they learning love? Respect? Peace-making? Humility? Are they learning to speak of others as human beings, loved and cherished by the God who made them? Or are they being trained in the world’s mindset – to see people as numbers, statistics, problems?

May we speak truth, love, and peace to our children.