When was the last time prayer left you bruised, bloodied and exhausted?

When was the last time prayer left you bruised, bloodied and exhausted?

It should!

Prayer is not peaceful.  It is not content, gentle, easy, laid back, safe.  Not here.  It is bloody, bruising battle ground.  It is not a place of retreat. It is the frontline.  Here the fighting is fiercest.  Here the battle is won.  Everything else is just picking up the pieces.

“I urge you, brothers and sisters, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me. Pray that I may be kept safe from the unbelievers in Judea and that the contribution I take to Jerusalem may be favourably received by the Lord’s people there, so that I may come to you with joy, by God’s will, and in your company be refreshed. The God of peace be with you all. Amen.” (Romans 15:30-33)

1.    We should expect prayer to require at least as much from us as an exhausting fight with a large, sweaty mammoth of a man.

‘I urge, brother and sisters…join in my struggle…’

‘Urge’ is call to arms.  It means graft and effort and striving for a difficult task requiring grit and determination.  Like Paul uses it in 12:1 (“I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice…”), and 16:17 (“I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way…”)

Struggle means to wrestle, brawl, or scrap.  That is how prayer feels to Paul and he calls us to take up arms and join him in that fight.

2.    We need to cultivate the dual motivations of awe at Jesus’ supremacy and love for Jesus’ people if we hope to see that battle through.

“…by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit…”

It is driven equally by a vertical awe (Jesus is our Lord) and a horizontal love for those around.  A supernatural love for others from the Spirit.

3.    We starve our lives of vital nutrients if we are too proud to ask for prayer for ourselves.

Paul asks them to pray very practically for himself.  The great missionary hero and divinely called Apostle lives up to his self-given name Paul, which means small, tiny, the little man.  He is not too proud.  If Paul knows he needs prayer can we imagine, for a moment, we don’t?

Why might we not be asking for prayer?

·         We think our struggles are just a flesh wound and it is more faithful to battle on alone.

·         We are too embarrassed to ask.

·         We have no one to ask.

·         We ourselves don’t pray so we assume other people don’t.

·         We’ve shared something in the past that has been misused by another.

·         It shows an underlining uncertainty about God and our faith.

Find a friend; ask a pastor; tell your spouse.

4.    We should be practical & explicit with our requests, not vague and ambiguous.  Real life should trump spiritual fluffiness.

“Pray that I may be kept safe from the unbelievers in Judea and that the contribution I take to Jerusalem may be favourably received by the Lord’s people there, so that I may come to you with joy, by God’s will, and in your company be refreshed.” (Romans 15:31-32)

Paul makes three practical and specific requests.

·         Kept safe from angry unbelievers

·         Favorable received by the church

·         Arrive in Rome with joy

There is no crisis or disaster.  It’s normal life – please pray for me he asks.

5.    We save ourselves a whole lot of anguish by knowing God answers our prayers in the way he sovereignly sees and not always in the limited perspective we have.

Of the three requests, one is answered as Paul requested and two not.  Paul is not especially ‘rescued from unbelievers’ and he arrives in Rome but as a prisoner (so potentially not with the joy he hoped)!  The church welcome him though.

God is sovereign – pray details then trust him.

6.    We will find our prayers more aligned to God’s answers the closer we saturate ourselves in the Bible and therefore pray his will.

The essence of all Paul’s requests are answered, though not in the detail he envisaged, because they are prayers aligned to God’s will.

·         The gospel is not stopped by the unbeliever’s anger.

·         Paul is received well by the church.

·         He arrives in Rome and will look back from eternity with great joy.

He knew God’s will because he knew God’s words.  Jesus says the same – the more we remain in his word the more our prayers, aligned to that word will be answered.

“If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” (John 15:7)

God speaks to us in the Bible, and we repeat back to him his own words made specific to our situation, in prayer.

7.    We should say thank you when people have prayed for us.

“The God of peace be with you all” is a polite way of saying thanks!

It’s all about Jesus

Again as a church over the next few months we have some ‘larger’ decisions to discern together.  Where is God calling us?  How is Jesus leading us?  What will it mean?  Jesus continues to be our good shepherd.  God is our father, the head of the family.  The Holy Spirit continues to empower and free us to live for Jesus.  As we journey with God it seemed another good moment to remind us of our values.  This four core realities we have agreed to aspired to and live out together.  Four values which we felt both accurately described us as a church and which we long to become more true of us.  Four values which direct us to continue to be all about Jesus.  Four values which will protect us from losing sight of Jesus as the main thing.

Loving People

We want to be a place where everyone, whatever their background, culture, experiences, age, education, or faith feel welcomed, embraced, accepted and that they can belong.  A place that, even if we cannot fully endorse someone’s behaviour or belief we can entirely embrace them as a person.  We long to be people with big hearts and wide hugs that are truly inclusive.  After all Jesus not only says ‘love your neighbours’ but ‘love your enemies’ too!  (Matthew 5:43-44).

Courageous in Mission

We want to be a place that so loves the good news of Jesus and so loves the people around us we take all sorts of risks so people might know and grow in Jesus.  To be courageous, brave, and bold.  To be audacious and undaunted and gutsy.  To be ready to fail, daring to try and attempt new ways of being church and doing mission that come with uncertainty and danger.  To be that as a church together.  And to be that as individuals.  To be that locally and to be that globally.  ‘Go and make disciples of all nations…’ says Jesus.  (Matthew 28:19).

Bible Saturated

God speaks.  We want the Bible (the place God speaks) to saturate everything we are – not just how we preach (though essentially there), but what we sing, and how we make decisions, and through our conversations, and in the work place and family life.  That the Bible might be precious and delightful and meaningful and profound to us in everything.  Jesus says we ‘do not live by bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.’  (Luke 4:4).

Spirit Dependent

God has not left us alone, but given us his Spirit to guide and strengthen and lead.  And he has made us a team, giving each member an essential gift to share and complete the whole. God’s Spirit reforms and rejuvenates so we become more fully who he made us to be as he makes us more completely like Jesus.  So we want to be dependent not on our own strength, wisdom or resources but on his Spirit.  As individuals and as a community.  Jesus promises ‘another advocate to help you and be with you forever – the Spirit of truth.’  (John 14:16)

Thank you Jesus.

Is There A Stable Rock Under Your Reality?

A Stable Rock under Your Reality?
We know it is a gargantuan claim because of the way he introduced it. ‘…I am a King…for this reason I was born…for this I came into the world…’ Verbal drumrolls don’t get any louder than that!

‘…to testify to the truth.’ (John 18:37)

With the jelly-like strength that the word truth has been reduced to nowadays the word reality helps us better. Jesus has come to witness to reality.

Not realism = the way things are.
Not idealism = the way things could be, according to us.
But rightism = the way things are meant to be.

Not our notional, imagined, or idealistic perception of things, but the actual way things are meant to be. Jesus came to show us that.

‘Those on the side of [realty] listen to me.’ (John 18:37)
Jesus’ words, which he confirmed as the Old Testament (John 5:39) and commissioned in the New Testament (John 15:26-27; 16:12-14) bring us to the side of reality. That is why Jesus is able to say ‘everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock’ (Matthew 7:24). Storms will come and batter us but the house built on rock survives. Houses build elsewhere the same storm leaves crumbled and crushed.

Is a stable rock under your reality?

Hears these words of mine and puts them into practice means what?

Regularly responding to good preaching!
The Bible is a big book. If you have set ideas you want to impose on it you will be able do so. What characterises good preaching is it is not imposition of opinions but exposition of reality. Does the one who preaches to you expose the Bible to your life or impose their thoughts into the Bible?

W.A. Criswell who pastored First Baptist Dallas for 40 years is right: “When a man goes to church he often hears a preacher in the pulpit rehash everything that he has read in the editorials, the newspapers, and the magazines…When a man comes to church, actually what he is saying to you is this, “Preacher, I know what the TV commentator has to say; I hear him every day. I know what the editorial writer has to say; I read it every day. I know what the magazines have to say; I read them every week. Preacher, what I want to know is, does God have anything to say? If God has anything to say, tell us what it is.”

Donald Coggan (Archbishop 1976-1980) is right. “The Christian preacher has a boundary set for him. When he enters the pulpit, he is not an entirely free man. There is a very real sense in which it may be said of him that the Almighty has set him his bounds that he shall not pass. He is not at liberty to invent or choose his message: it has been committed to him, and it is for him to declare, expound, and commend it to his hearers . . . It is a great thing to come under the magnificent tyranny of the Gospel!”

John Piper recently retired after 33 years from Bethlehem Baptist Church, Min, USA (quoted from his first sermon in 1980) is right: “…the source of my authority in this pulpit is not . . . my wisdom; nor is it a private revelation…My words have authority only insofar as they are the repetition, unfolding and proper application of the words of Scripture…My deep conviction about preaching is that a pastor must show the people that what he is saying was already said or implied in the Bible. If it cannot be shown it has no special authority…I have nothing of abiding worth to say to you. But God does. And of that word I hope and pray that I never tire of speaking. The life of the church depends on it.”

Being part of a smaller group of family or friends who help you act on what you have learnt.
If you have them this is first your spouse and children. Then a couple of good mates. Maybe an organised group within the church. The point is a smaller group around you are constantly asking: what have you learnt and how can I help you act on it?

For those who can, regularly reading the Bible yourself.
Ability and capacity mean not all of us can manage this. It’s suggested as a good idea in the Bible but not an essential (like listening to preaching is). But if you are able it is a great and valuable thing to do. As is reading good books about the Bible and living it out.

Above all it means doing what it says, especially when you don’t want to.
It is never a problem that we don’t know enough (there is always more to know and understand). The problem is we don’t act on what we do know. Each week listen to a talk on the Bible and do at least one thing you learn.

Three great books about Jesus’ death

Three great books…
On Sunday mornings we are back into John’s historical, best-friend account of Jesus’ life. It’s the home-stretch. Between now and Easter we will reach the end. Amazingly 42% of John’s 3-4 year account focusses on Jesus’ death and the few days around it. First as Jesus teaches about what it will mean (chapters 13-17) and then the events themselves (chapters 18-21). John’s massive magnification of Jesus’ death (above his birth and life and miracles and teaching) should tell us something. It really matters! It’s the most important thing we should know about Jesus.

To help us on this journey I am recommending three books on Jesus’ death – they are all excellent and full of truth and grace and awe and wonder. I’m recommending three because we are all different in what and how we like to read (and of course some of us won’t choose reading, and that’s fine!).

Death by Love, Mark Driscol & Gerry Breshears
Do you naturally think “people”? Is your default care and love and understanding how people are feeling and thinking? Do you love to spend hours talking with and learning about friends and are generally fascinated about life stories? Do you enjoy biography and TV documentaries?

Then ‘Death by Love’ by Mark Driscol and Gerry Breshears (2008) could be for you. It is twelve letters written by a pastor to (mostly) real people about how the cross of Jesus answers their life realities. It unpacks Jesus’ death for real people in real life. Some of the situations and letters are deeply emotional and painful; as rich in truth as in love. All are hope-filled.

The Cross of Christ, John Stott
Do you like to understand things – ideas, concepts, solutions? Do you like to be able to explain clearly and precisely what is going on? Are you more naturally drawn to logically working through ideas and being able to ‘understand the workings’ of an answer? Do you enjoy sustained wrestling with concepts? Does clarity matter to you?

If so the The Cross of Christ by John Stott (1986), a modern day classic might be for you. A careful but very readable and wonderfully enlightening study of Jesus’ death which as much clarifies our thinking as causes us to respond with joy and gladness at what has been accomplished for us.

Cross-Examined; the life changing power of the death of Jesus, Mark Meynell
Are you somewhere in the middle! Do you like to understand things and you love to understand and know people? Do you like to read and grapple with ideas but know there are also things to get on with and a life to live and the diary is busy? Do you need a book that can be interrupted and put down and picked up without it losing you?

Then Cross-Examined by Mark Meynell (2001) which also comes with a study guide you can use might well be for you. The shortest of the three books it is easy to read with plenty of illustrations and real life stories sown throughout.

Putting gravity back into your life

Putting gravity back into your life
Vision might mean something like “seeing something worth seeing”. Much is worth seeing. There is not a lack of good to fill our sight; and a ton-weight of the not so good thrown in for measure. What would do us the most ultimate good if we saw it clearly? What should be our vision?

The wonderfully valuable and important sight of who we want to be – our identity, character and depth?

The essential and purposeful rehearsal of what we want to do – our mission, strategy and stewardship?

They are big. But they are not ultimate.

Ultimately worth seeing
A stunning vision of God must supersede any vision from God and gives gravity and life to the planets of our existence.

In Isaiah 6:8-13 Isaiah receives a vision from God: a true vision, though bleak and hard. God does not always (or even often) call us to ease and comfort but fight and purpose. It is a mission with minute prospects of success (6:9) that will take Isaiah’s lifetime (6:11-12) leaving only a shattered stump for the future (6:13). Is there anyway Isaiah would have accepted his mission without first seeing who God was? It would produce a terrified no from even the most stable and strong and yet Isaiah yells ‘Here I am Lord. Send me!’ (6:8) because he stands the other side of a stunning vision of God. Having seen truly who God is, intimidation and cowering is replaced with blazing hot and so Isaiah’s story does not end at chapter 6 but chapter 66.

Seeing must come before hearing
In the language of Isaiah, he had to see God before he could hear from God: I saw the Lord (6:1)…then I heard the Lord (6:8).

The planets of our lives
Imagine the planets of the solar system without the gravity of the sun at their centre. Chaos, uncontrolled collisions, lifelessness. With the sun present there is the settling, ordered gravitas of its weight and the warming, bright light of its life-giving rays. God is the sun. Without a clear vision of God there is no gravity to the cosmos of our lives, and no warmth and light to flourish and fertilise. Without a clear vision of God the planets of our lives collide and lose their purpose and life shrivels.

Five glimpses of God Isaiah saw within the first few seconds (Isaiah 6:1-3)[1]

God is alive
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord…’

Uzziah is dead but God lives on. Uzziah, like every head of state that has ever lived is dead. Every mighty figure today will be dead in 50 years time. In a fleeting 130 years the seven or eight billion people in the world will not include one single person breathing today. The entire planet will be populated by an entirely new set of people – everyone existing today vanished like vapour. But not God. He lives.

God is in charge
…I saw the Lord, high and exalted sitting on a throne…

The King is dead, his throne is empty but God is on his throne. He is sovereign: high and exalted above all others. He is in charge. And he sits – a finished, settled, confident, un-paniced authority.

God is resplendent
… and the train of his robe filled the temple…

Imagine a bride whose train did not simply flow behind her, or need gathering up and carrying by an army of maids but instead stretched and billowed and folded into every corner and rafter of a battle-ship sized cathedral! In Israel’s day the temple was the most splendid place. Yet every part is surpassed by the splendour of God. What is your place of most splendour? The splendour of God once seen would make that previous breath-taking sight ugly and chintzy by comparison. Instead of stand and stare it would become not even worth a second glance.

God is honoured
Above him were seraphim, each with six wings; with two they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying.

No one knows what these creatures are. They are not chubby winged babies fluttering about. The scene is of grandeur – nothing puny or silly here. When one of them speaks, the foundations of the temple shake (6:4). They are more like the Red Arrows diving in formation before the royal entourage and cracking the sound barrier as they sweep past with even the experienced guard involuntarily cowering. They would terrify us with their brilliance yet they hide themselves in reverence of God.

God is knowable
And they were calling to each other ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty…

Holy means set apart. Utterly different. Not the same as. Hidden. Repeated three times it emphasis above everything this is the core reality of who God is.

Yet …the whole world is full of his glory. Glory is the public display of God’s holiness. Imagine the opening of the Oscar’s envelope. What was hidden is now made public and seen by all.

Go hard
Go hard after a stunning vision of God that supersedes any vision from God. A vision of God that dominates and subjugates everything else that crowds into our eye-line of life. A vision of God that brings ordering gravitas and bright warmth to the planets of your life.

Fast
One way is to fast – from food or media or screens or sex or cigarettes. To allow the pain and weakness of hungry to drive your need for God. To allow the delight and sustaining power of the feast that follows to ignite your delight and dependence on God. This might help: http://lionheartedandlamblike.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/hungry-for-god-fasting-and-feasting-on.html

The Brutal Horror of Christmas

The brutal horror of Christmas
‘…weeping and great mourning…weeping for children…[mothers] refusing to be comforted because they are no more.’
This is not the Christmas story we are familiar with.  It is neither the sticky sweet secularised Christmas of ‘holiday greetings’ and garish lights; nor the commercialised Christmas of mountains of presents and food; nor the religious Christmas of candle light and carols.  This is a Christmas story with brutal murder of innocents; of genocide by a ruling ego out of control.  This is a Christmas of countless tiny coffins.
Evil at the Nativity
It is taken straight from Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth.  Not joyful songs of a baby’s birth but the bitter weeping of babies, so many countless babies, murdered.  Of bereaved mothers’, hearts torn and shredded and empty.
We are familiar with many of the nativity characters – angels and shepherds and Mary and Joseph and the donkey.  Our cute Christmas story books and children’s nativity sets and much-loved carols are full of these characters.  Rightly so.
But one character is often forgotten, perhaps as we unconsciously swerve away from his repulsive actions?  He’s not in any toy nativity nor pre-school drawing nor popular carol.  Yet in Matthew 2 he makes up a major portion of the story (30% – more than Mary and Joseph put together).  He is sinister and evil and dark.  He is filled with hatred and fired by jealousy.  He is power hungry and ruthless.  Secular history knows him as brutal and heartless with no mercy or love.  His name is King Herod.  Insecure and threatened by the birth of a new king yet unable to identify precisely who Jesus is nor able to hoodwink the wise men to reveal his location he sets about the systematic slaughter of all boys under the age of two.
‘When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”’  (Matthew 2:16-18)
Humanity’s Desperate Need
Christmas must be about humanity’s heart of evil so the miracle of Jesus is infinitely bright and beautiful and clung to and dreadfully, frantically desired.  Human nature has not changed.  The world is still as it was – broken, filled with evil and wickedness.  And as desperately in need of a Saviour now as it was then.  Peter encourages us to be ready to give a ‘reason for the hope that we have’ (1Peter 3:16).  Hope we can offer even in the midst of the most horrific of events.  The world needs a Saviour, and God loves us so much that in Jesus he has come as that Saviour.
Especially at Christmas the Bible is not blind
God does not turn a blind eye to horror.  God does not whistle in the dark nor look through rose-tinted glasses.  The birth of Jesus is not detached from reality – some moment of escapism, as if denying the horror and heartlessness of the world, and our part in that for a week of ‘peace and good cheer’ somehow compensates.  Jesus comes, he is born, because the world is in dire need.  Jesus comes because Herod lives still today.
Making more of Christ at Christmas
Certainly and essentially fill your Christmas this year with joy and gladness and celebrating.  But escalate and magnify that joy beyond the shallow, anti-climatical focus on presents or carols or family this year.  Allow the full story; all its characters including Herod to inform your understanding of Christmas.  There is a reason God allowed Herod’s actions and a reason God had it recorded into the biblical account.  A brutally stark reminder that the world is broken, and we broke it.  And God came into the very heart of that evil and wickedness as Saviour.  Herod and his actions should repulse us.  And drive us with joy and desperation to Jesus, God with us, the Saviour of the world we so urgently need.
Tell your children the truth they already know
Tell your children.  Show them what they already know: that the world is broken and they and you broke it.  Cecil Alexander in ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ was wrong.  “Christian children all must be; Mild, obedient, good as He.”  We are not mostly like Jesus in the nativity.  We are mostly like Herod.  Blackened hearts needing light.  Evil intent restrained only by checks and balances Herod’s power enabled him to disregard.  Our children know it.  They will see through our pretence and will grow thinking God must be blind to what is blazing obvious to them (and that perhaps we, their parents, are foolishly whistling away as the darkness encroaches too).
Don’t miss Herod out of your Christmas this year.  The world is dark – Jesus is the light.  Tell them it all so that the light might shine in all its darkness-crushing intensity.

‘The light shines into the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it…The true light that gives light to everyone was (has now!) come into the world.’  (John 1:5,9)

The stable matters

The stable matters
Christmas?  Love it or hate it we cannot avoid it.  It is the largest grossing global festival of the year and, especially if you have children, can seem all-encompassing.
What is your Christmas about?  How are you making sure your priorities are not overwhelmed by everyone else’s – the shop-keepers’ especially?  How are you pressing the pause button for you and your children so that something stuns us (not simply numbs us) at Christmas?  Can you name a goal you have for Christmas?  Have you a plan to make it happen?
A stable
This year I am stunned by the stable!  Does that sound odd?  ‘Had he never realised Jesus was born in a stable before?’ you snicker.  ‘Not much of a pastor if he missed that!’
But it is a shock!  I’m thinking about how to help our children be surprised by it too.
There is a big difference between a palace and a stable.  A palace has restricted access, high fences and armed guards.  You get in my invitation only, if you are lucky or rich or famous.  And once in just a brief appointment.  Hardly anyone gets in to see a baby in a palace.  Have you met Prince George?
A stable!  Anyone gets in there.  It’s a farm yard.  Cows, donkeys, shepherds, wise-men – anyone and everyone can come and pay their respects to a baby in a stable.
The stable is a shock.  A shock because if there ever was a king; someone who should be born in a palace, its Jesus.
Names
His names give it away.
Jesus means ‘God’s Saviour’.  Its Hebrew version is Joshua (same name, different language).  Jesus, meaning ‘God’s Saviour’ is named after Joshua one of the greatest military leaders ever seen.
Emmanuel means ‘God with us’.  That’s some laden expectation by his parents!  ‘What a bundle of joy you have there – what’s his name?’ asks the kind passer-by.  ‘It’s God’ you say!  A little arrogant perhaps.  Somewhat unfair on the poor baby.  Crippling expectations.  No wonder in Jesus’ day no one named their child ‘Emmanuel’.  In Islamic culture it would be like naming you child ‘Allah’.  Unheard of.
Christ (or Messiah – same word, different language) is a title, like ‘sir’ or ‘doctor’ but far more weighty.  It means ‘anointed’ or ‘unique’ one and was reserved for only the crème-de-la-crème.  Like someone being canonised as a saint, or knighted as a sir.  Rare, unique, special.
History Agrees
History shows those names were not wrongly attributed.  We decided to re-start the calendar to mark his birth as his wake in history was so great.  Even our greatest only get a day set aside to remember them – Jesus got the calendar!
Napoleon sees it: “I know men and I tell you that Jesus Christ is no mere man. Between Him and every other person in the world there is no possible term of comparison. Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and I have founded empires. But on what did we rest the creation of our genius? Upon force. Jesus Christ founded His empire upon love; and at this hour millions of men would die for Him.”
Contemporary historian James C. Hefley affirms it “…all the armies that ever marched, and all the navies that ever were built, and all the parliaments that ever sat, and all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of man upon this earth as powerfully as has that One Solitary Life.”
The stable matters
‘God’s Saviour’; ‘God with us’; the ‘unique one’; ‘that One Solitary Life’ – born not in a palace (where no-one would get to pay their respects) but in a stable (where everyone and anyone can search him out or stumble upon him).  The stable matters.
Somehow this year I want to press pause on the stable.  To say what does this mean?  To really see it.  From the moment Jesus enters the world it was orchestrated we would realise everyone and anyone, and you too, are welcome and expected to pay your tributes.

He wasn’t born in a palace, he was born in a stable.  Have you consider what that means for you?

Santa: Saviour, Warrior, Protector

Santa Claus: Saviour, Warrior, Protector?
Christians have three options when it comes to culture, including culture’s approach to Christmas.  We can reject it and try to have no part with it, segregating ourselves.  We can receive it and accept it as good.  We can redeem it, seeking to transform what we can for good without necessarily endorsing the whole.
Since Santa and Father Christmas are pervasive in our culture it is nearly impossible to reject them outright, especially in terms of our children’s experience at school and nursery and among friends. They are here to stay. That does not mean as parents we can only receive the entirety blindly.  The third option is to redeem.
Fact that is better than fiction
The historical roots of Santa Claus are one example of redeeming Christmas.  The historical roots behind today’s Santa only increase our children’s excitement and thrill at Christmas.  The facts are better than the fiction – by a mile!
We have told our kids these true stories behind the ‘mythical’ Santa Claus.  We play-act his heroic deeds, wonder about his motivations, draw pictures of ‘Santa Claus’ not bearded and jolly, but facing danger and saving people and helping others – the true Santa Claus.  And of course talk about how that original man was driven to such acts because Jesus was his forever king.
So who was the original Santa Claus?
The Truth about Santa Claus
Santa Claus was a real person, though many of the aspects of today’s character have been added such as the flying reindeer, living in the North Pole, and delivering presents to every child in one night.  Today’s Santa is a combination of a true man and some mythical extras.
A Gift-Giver
The myths surrounding Santa Claus derive from the very real person of Saint Nicholas.  Nicholas was born in the third century in Patara, Turkey to an affluent family.  When young his parents died tragically but had raised him as a Christian, which led him to spend his significant inheritance helping the poor. He frequently gave gifts to children, sometimes even hanging socks filled with treats and presents.
A Courageous Leader
As an adult he was a well-loved Christian leader, eventually voted the Bishop of Myra, a port city Paul visited (Acts 27:5-6). Nicholas reportedly also travelled to the legendary Council of Nicaea to defend the deity of Jesus Christ in A.D. 325. He died on December 6, 343 and was canonized as a saint. The anniversary of his death became the St. Nicholas holiday when gifts were given in his memory. He remained a very popular saint among Catholic and Orthodox Christians.  Some two thousand churches were or are named after him. The holiday in his honour eventually merged with Christmas and moved to December 25th.
A Freedom Bringing Saviour
Nicholas also risked his own life and freedom intervening to rescue young girls and women from being forced into the sex trade.  One story records how he saved three sisters by secretly placing gold coins in their stockings, hung out to dry, until they had accumulated enough money to buy their freedom.  Their ‘owners’, knowing their example might encourage other girls to do the same, them sort to imprison then.  Nicholas led a group of men in a midnight raid, freeing the girls and paying for them to begin a new life elsewhere.
A Forgotten Hero
During the Reformation Nicholas fell out of favour with Protestants who did not accept canonising certain people.  In Holland his legend as Sinterklass lived on though most countries gradually forgot him. In Germany, Martin Luther replaced him with the ‘Christ-child’ as the object of holiday celebration called ‘Christkindl’. This became pronounced Kris Kringle and became another name for Santa Claus.
Mythical Extras
Legends became attached to this historical figure.
There was a myth in Nicholas’ day that a demon was entering people’s homes to terrorize children and that Nicholas could cast him out.  There was a Siberian myth (isn’t that near the North Pole?) that a magical-shaman entered people’s homes through their chimneys to leave them mushrooms as gifts. He would hang them in front of the fire to dry where reindeer would eat them and become intoxicated. The shaman and his deer were believed in be able to fly. Hence our modern image of Santa Claus traveling from the North Pole to slide down chimneys and leave presents on fireplaces before flying away with reindeer.
Redeeming Santa Claus
The real Saint Nick was a wonderful man who loved Jesus and served him faithfully, generously and bravely. We do not need to reject Santa Claus nor receive him as culture as defined him.  We can and should redeem him, especially for our children as he points to Jesus and true devotion to Jesus.  It’s a true story of a great Christian full of adventure and fun and victory – what child won’t enjoy that Christmas reality told them?
How Santa Claus became Father Christmas is a whole other story more to do with popular fizzy drinks and an emerging market of teenagers in the mid-20th century!
 

*Edited version of an article I first wrote December 2012.

Christmas is coming, don’t let it pass you by…

Christmas is huge – the largest grossing global festival.  It’s enormity means, swept up and carried along it passes us by without containing all we wanted it too.  It just happens around us.  We end up out of control, our Christmas and our children’s, family’s and friends’ Christmases are shaped not by our choices and decisions and priorities but the priority of our culture and media and shop-keepers.  It becomes about…about what?
 
How can Christmas not pass us by?
There are three ways that we can approach culture, including Christmas.  Some things we might choose to receive – to accept them as good or neutral and enjoy them.  Some things we might choose to reject – separating ourselves from them.  Many things we might choose to redeem – to turn, adapt, transform, change, adjust, or alter for good and for God.
Caught in the cultural tsunami that is Christmas we can end up dead in the water – receiving by default, failing to redeem, rejecting what should be a priority.  Whose the major figure for your children – Santa or Jesus?  What’s your family’s main understanding of Christmas – a time to get, or a time to remember what we have received in Jesus?  What is your major understanding of Christmas – a time to when people come and stay, or the time that God came to dwell?
We can take control, especially if we plan now.  What can we receive?  What should we reject?  What (and how) can we redeem?
 
Redeeming Christmas – how today’s normal was yesterday’s radical!
Christianity’s great heritage of redeeming things for God and for good should not surprise us.  It is at the very heart of the gospel: ‘For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world (that would be reject!) but to save the world through him’ (John 3:17).  Many aspects of Christmas as we celebrate it today are rooted in radical acts of redemption by our fore-runners.  They took aspects of culture and turned them to be used for God and for good.
Here’s three examples:
 
The date
There is no biblical data to accurately locate Jesus’ birth.    December 25th originated in the reign of Roman emperor Constantine (AD306-337) who after a vision of Christ was converted and adopted the culturally significant pagan festival of Saturnalia to celebrate Christ’s birth.   Saturnalia celebrated the rising of the sun from the darkness of winter.  It parallels the Bible’s metaphors of Jesus bringing light into our dark world and light into our dark hearts.  Constantine and the early church simply took the most important pagan festival of the time and redeemed it for Jesus.
 
The lights and baubles
During Saturnalia lights and lanterns were spread around a home in a protective hedge to ward off evil spirits.  Sometimes gifts were offered to appease them in the hope they would leave your home.  There are even stories of people leaving trails of gifts to the homes of people they wanted to curse, hoping to entice the evil spirits to haunt their enemies’ property.
Consciously or not Christians redeemed these practices, taking the lights and glitter and baubles and associating them with celebrating Jesus, the ultimate light of the world and defeater of evil.  So decorate your tree with all the lights you want, string them across the mantel piece and hang them from the curtain rail in celebration that Jesus is the light of the world, the protector from evil.  Use them not to ward off evil but welcome Jesus.  Give gifts to celebrate Jesus, God’s greatest gift.
 
The Christmas tree
A pagan symbol of eternal life is the fir tree.  As other trees appear to die in winter losing their leaves and colour the fir remains bright and living; eternally green throughout the year.  The early church adopted the fir tree as a celebration of eternal life brought by God in Jesus, bringing it into homes and churches as the culturally familiar symbol of eternal life.  The distinct cone shape of a fir tree meant ‘spire’ shapes symbolised eternal life in pagan religions.  So early Christians went further and struck spires on top of their churches as a visual, culturally understood signal that here, in the church and its gospel, eternal life was to be found.  Hence throughout every village in England (and much of the world) a pagan symbol for eternal life (a spire) is redeemed and rises high proclaiming eternal life is found in Jesus.  And in countless front-rooms bright shining symbols of eternal life are decorated and enjoyed.
 
Courage and Creativity
Instead of unconsciously accepting our culture’s approach; instead of aggressively rejecting and segregating ourselves from culture; could we bravely, creatively, lovingly redeem?  Our fore-runners had courage (because many would have questioned their actions) and much creativity (to see how these things could be redeemed).  Let’s emulate that courage and creativity and be those who redeem all we can for God and for good.  After all should Christians not be those in our society most wild about Christmas?
 
Called first to family
Of course few of us will have such an impact through our attempts to redeem Christmas culture that it changes the very fabric of how society approaches this festival.  But how about our family traditions – ‘the way things tend to happen’.  What is good about how things tend to happen at Christmas in your family?  What is not so good?  How can you redeem it all – turn the negative and the neutral and the positive so they are used for God and for good?
 
Neither poopers nor pacifists; but planners
If we are always those who ‘reject’ we become party-poopers – the kind of people no one wants around and who end up in an isolated ghetto of negativity.
If we are always those who unthinkingly receive we become pacifists – those who just go with the flow, unreactive to the world around us.
Being those who redeem means being planners – those who are intentional and purposeful and come up with all sorts of ‘better-than-the-alternative’ Christmas traditions that are loved by our families and friends, keep the Christmas magic (or better still the Christmas miracle) central, and point toward God and his gospel this Christmas.  In essence this is what the church tradition of ‘Advent’ is – a period to prepare and plan so to make the most of the arrival of Jesus.

Jesus & Halloween – empty lies and worthy answers

There are many things we could say about Halloween – there are things we might want to reject and things we might courageously and creativity redeem.
Halloween raises big questions and that is good.  It puts at the forefront of our culture, for a few days at least, issues of death and evil and power. But Halloween only gives lies as answers and that is not good. The questions are about serious issues and Halloween targets children or teenagers.  It makes it doubly important.
Halloween reflects a growing tweenager and teenager trend in our culture too – the fascination with the ‘darker’ side.  Buffy the Vampire Slayer back in the 1990s began a trend that has birthed The Vampire Diaries and The Twilight Series.  If you have children or teenagers you will know these are the highest grossing and most popular films and programs for younger people today.
The questions raised by these popular programs and Halloween are good.  Questions about good and evil, death and life, right and wrong, strength and courage, and a world beyond ours.  But perhaps we need to work harder to counter the wrong answers that are given.
Let me take four of those questions:
Where is evil found?
The lie is that evil is outside of us. Ghastly creatures and horrid historical figures come banging on doors. Evil is threatening but something that is outside what we are. It is not something that comes from within but something we can take off and on as we please, with us ‘in control’. Yet the really dangerous evil comes not from outside but from within. Jesus said, ‘For out of the heart come evil thoughts – murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander’ (Matthew 15:19). Evil is not solely external.  Every human heart is infested.
How is evil identified?
The lie is that evil makes itself know as evil.   That evil identifies itself as such and is easy to recognise and avoid. Yet the most dangerous form of evil is precisely that which appears harmless. The Bible tells us that ‘Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light’ (2 Corinthians 11:14). Evil is far more subtle, far more sinister and far more seductive than Halloween suggests.  And it certainly is not contained to one night of the year.
How serious is evil?
The lie is that evil is a trifling, laughing matter for children’s entertainment.  The Bible and common sense teach us that evil is a serious matter. Whoever does evil does real damage, not just to their victims but also to their own souls. Not least all the skeletons, zombies and murder victims on view at this time of year should remind us death is no joke!
Who wins, and how?

The lie is that evil wins, and wins by fear.
Those who knock on our doors in their hair-raising costumes do so assured that their demands will be met: a threat brings a treat!  Might and fear and evil win.  Yet Jesus defeated all the powers of evil. ‘And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross’ (Colossians 2:15).  Jesus wins and wins by love.
An opportunity for better answers?

The tragedy is that having raised these questions the only answers Halloween gives are empty and dangerous lies. Let us be those who raise these questions, but respond with the ‘truth that sets us free’ and not settle for the lies Halloween gives.  Let’s not run scared from Halloween but instead redeem it – take the good questions it asks and respond with the answers that point us toward Jesus.