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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the www.comereason.org Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Showing posts with label holidays. Show all posts
Showing posts with label holidays. Show all posts

Friday, May 09, 2014

Defending Your Faith May Help Save a Christian



Why should Christians learn how to defend their faith? Many  people think that while specialists like professional apologists can argue for Christianity, it isn't necessary for the person in the pew to know all those things. Perhaps it's better to ignore the Jehovah's Witness or Mormons knocking on your door, rather than get into countless arguments. However, such an attitude may be more dangerous than you know, and we can lose church members because of it.

In this short video, I tell a story about one man who left the Baptist church to become a Jehovah's Witness because his pastor wouldn't help answer the objections they gave him. Apologetics can help keep Christians in the fold as well as provide reasons for those outside the faith.


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Crucial Lesson Taught on Holy Wednesday


Today is Wednesday of Holy Week, the week of Jesus' Last Supper and crucifixion. Many scholars have worked through the Gospel narratives to provide a chronology of the events they record during this week. Most know that on Palm Sunday, Jesus entered Jerusalem as the crowds exclaimed "Hosanna to the Son of David!" proclaiming His messiahship. On Monday, He curses the fig tree and He then cleansed the Temple of the moneychangers, both actions showing how those called by God must be faithful and pure in their responsibility.


Tuesday was very busy, and the Gospels record several different exchanges of Jesus. First, he faced off against those responsible for the spiritual welfare of the Jewish people, the Sadducees and the Pharisees. Jesus then takes some of His disciples up to the Mount of Olives and gives them a two-chapter overview of what they can expect at His second coming and cautions them to be ready. Of course, Thursday is the Last Supper and it kicks off a chain of events leading to Jesus' capture, Friday crucifixion, and His glorious Resurrection on Sunday morning.

What's interesting in all this is that today—Wednesday—The Gospels are pretty much silent on the actions of Jesus. The only thing we know about Jesus' day is that Mary anointed His feet at Bethany (Mark 14:3-9, John 12:1-8). There's nothing recorded about Jesus coming again to Jerusalem or even giving a sermon on this day. It seems a bit strange that, with all the action building toward the climax of Friday, none of the Gospel writes would tell us all that Jesus did this day, as they've done so far.

If you put yourself in the place of the disciples, you might have found yourself a bit confused by Jesus' lack of action on Wednesday. Here, they've achieved a lot of momentum in their ministry. I mean, Jesus has finally allowed Himself to be recognized as Messiah and the crowds were with Him. He faced off against the prevailing power structure and had beat them at their own game. Passover had caused Jerusalem's population to swell, but after tomorrow the Sabbath would take a lot of opportunity to reach even more people away.

Certainly, Jesus shouldn't waste this day and do nothing important, right? Ministry moments are fleeting! But Jesus knew what was ahead for Him. He had greater things planned than the conquering of Jerusalem. His plan was to conquer sin itself. The quiet He cultivated before His final events provides us with two good lessons.

First, quiet times are important in ministry. For most people, ministry isn't one's primary vocation, but a labor of love done in addition to the job that provides the paycheck. Even here, when there's so much to do, it's important to pause and refocus your attention and devotion o what Jesus would have us do. Mary's anointing was a pure act of devotion. It also showed her sensitivity to the things of God. Mark tells us that more than one disciple felt indignant about the costly perfume being "wasted", but Jesus corrected them. Mary had insight that they lacked. We, too, must cultivate our own worship and devotion to God first, lest our business miss the point of ministry.

Secondly, sometimes when God seems silent, bigger things than you realize may be coming! Don't imagine that God's silence means nothing is happening. Many times in apologetic ministry, we think all we are doing is posting things no one is reading or arguing with others who never change their minds. However, you can never know this side of heaven how God is using the faithfulness you show in those areas to His greater glory. Jesus said of Mary, "She has done what she could… And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her."

So, minister, remember to pause and reflect on this week. Think about what Jesus has done for us and remember to take time out for Him. Don't lose faith because He seems still or your ministry seems to not be moving forward. God can do great things with the quiet times.

Friday, April 04, 2014

How to Be Smarter than Google

This week, I've been writing a series looking at some of the objections skeptics raise against the Easter celebration. Although it may have seemed like my purpose was to answer the objections, my true goal was something a bit more ambitious. I wanted to make you, dear Christian, smarter than Google. You may think "Make me smarter than Google? That's impossible!" Ah, but it is possible and let me show you how.

No one doubts that we are now a wired culture. Smart phones account for 74% of mobile phone users, according to Frank N. Magid Associates. We have the Internet at our fingertips no matter where we are, and that isn't always a good thing. As I heard one commentator explain, there used to be a time when as you and your friends were waiting in line at the movie theater, you may have an argument over whether that obscure bomb of a film from twenty years ago had such and such a scene in it. Such conversations may lead to discussions on the merits of the scene itself or other issues, but it would always foster communication and engagement with other people. However, now when a question like this arises someone will simply pullout their iPhone, search for the film clip or synopsis, and say "Here's the answer." That's the end of the story and usually the end of conversation on that point.

Because Google searches are so effective at slamming down an answer to points of detail, people have begun to rely on the search engine to answer everything they have a question on. And that's where the real problem comes in. When a question becomes more complex, such as "Was Easter influenced by pagan sources," simply taking the first two or three results of a Google search may not give you the correct answer. It will simply give you the most popular page. Worse, it limits your ability to critically think through the claims. By relying solely on Google, you're unplugging your brain, and that should never be the case.

But it doesn't have to be that way. You don't need to be an expert in history or on ancient religions to see why many times the claims made by these skeptics are truly ridiculous. In fact, I have been intentionally avoiding "scholar mode" to look at the facts as they are presented. Let's take that article I've been discussing this week by Heather McDougall that ran in The Guardian and just hit a couple of glaring problems. It begins:
Easter is a pagan festival. If Easter isn't really about Jesus, then what is it about? Today, we see a secular culture celebrating the spring equinox, whilst religious culture celebrates the resurrection. However, early Christianity made a pragmatic acceptance of ancient pagan practises, most of which we enjoy today at Easter. The general symbolic story of the death of the son (sun) on a cross (the constellation of the Southern Cross) and his rebirth, overcoming the powers of darkness, was a well worn story in the ancient world. There were plenty of parallel, rival resurrected saviours too.
We've already looked at the supposed connection with the spring equinox, the fact that the resurrection accounts are told in a Jewish context, and that the history of the resurrection accounts could not have evolved over the centuries. But look at that second to last sentence. McDougall writes, "The general symbolic story of the death of the son (sun) on a cross (the constellation of the Southern Cross) and his rebirth, overcoming the powers of darkness, was a well worn story in the ancient world." Uh, yeah. The first piece that McDougall seems to miss is that in the ancient world, no one spoke modern English. What do I mean? The play on words between son and sun only works in our language. You may not know the Greek for son and sun, but if you have taken high school Spanish, you can see that the word son (hijo) and the word sun (sol) are very different. They are not homonyms, and they wouldn't be in the ancient languages either. That play on words only works in English, and I'm pretty sure none of the Sumerians, Babylonians, or Romans spoke it in their day.

Secondly, McDougall ties the crucifixion to the constellation of the Southern Cross. Huh? We know that Romans crucified people, but trying to make such a connection is pretty tough. First of all, it's called the southern cross because it is only prominent in the night sky when you are positioned south of the equator. That's why Australia and New Zealand integrate it into their flags. But, more importantly, the idea of what shapes ANY of the constellations make are not universal. Different cultures would overlay their own images on different star clusters, just as you and a friend can look at the same cloud but see very different animal shapes in it. McDougall is spitting out a bunch of "just so" stories and there's enough here for you to at least be doubtful of them without having to do much research at all.

The Skeptic Bears a Burden When he Offers an Objection

It's natural that when Christians are confronted by a friend who questions them about an article like McDougall's, they feel a bit scared. I've received many inquiries by people asking for my help on the charges of the Zeitgeist movie or the supposedly rejected gospels. I get that it can feel overwhelming. But please remember, a lot of those objections are based on others doing their own brain-unplugging. They are uncritically taking any objection to Christianity that they can Google-search and presenting it before you to justify their skepticism.

If the skeptics you converse with are going to engage in a "you must give me reasons" exchange, then they should be prepared to give reasons why they think their "evidence" should be accepted as a real objection. It isn't enough for them to throw out the very first "critical response" they can find. As I've said before, any fool with a login and an opinion can post on the Internet. That doesn't mean the objections they offer are worthwhile.

As Christians, let's be more prepared to engage others by exercising our minds with a bit of practice in thinking through the claims instead of just turning to Google ourselves. Sure, there are going to be times where you need the background or the facts. There will be experts who offer thoughts that you may not have thought about yourself. In fact, part of my ministry is to help Christians by providing some of that information. However, I don't want Christians to be lazy. A little bit of thought can answer more than you may expect, and a quick reply based on your own common sense can help foster more discussion than copy and paste ever would.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Is Easter Pagan? Part 3 - Historical Documentation

This week, we've been looking at the claim that Easter is somehow a celebration with pagan roots. I've previously talked about how such a claim looks very superficially at the supposed similarities and ignores the distinctions. I've also discussed how pagan religious rituals would be considered abominable to the first century Jews who make up the adherents of the early church. On this second point some may argue that it wasn't the Jewish followers of Jesus that incorporated pagan influences, but it was the Gentiles who did so years afterward.


The problem with such a claim is that it ignores the incredible historical evidence we have for the resurrection. Unlike many pagan celebrations, such as the Mithraic rites which were so secretive we really don't have any written documentation about them at all, save some mentions by outsiders or artwork on walls. No books or scrolls exist. The resurrection, on the other hand, is incredibly well documented and its historical roots are strong.

4. The Historical Documentation of the Resurrection Accounts

Of course most people are aware that all four gospels are written with the event as their climax, and each Gospel dates to between thirty and sixty years of the resurrection itself. That means that when the gospels were being circulated, people were alive who could testify to the truthfulness of the accounts they contain. There really isn't much time for pagan myths to "creep into" the stories. Suggestions by skeptics such as Heather McDougall that "the Sumerian goddess Inanna, or Ishtar, was hung naked on a stake, and was subsequently resurrected and ascended from the underworld" somehow influence the resurrection accounts are laughable when you consider that:
  1. Crucifixion was a real punishment inflicted on Jews by Romans in the first century (and we can know that for certain).
  2.  Attracting others to your belief system by saying they were crucified was about as attractive as asking a French revolutionary to follow someone beheaded in the guillotine. Rome used crucifixion as a deterrent because of its abhorrence by the general public.
  3. The concept of the resurrection wasn't one that people of the ancient world took to immediately. For an example of this, just look to Paul's sermon on Mars' Hill. Luke tells us, "Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, ‘We will hear you again about this'" (verse 32). That's not what I would call a rousing endorsement. The idea of anyone being resurrected was just as incredulous to those in Paul's day as it is today. Paul has made a pretty strong case to a crowd who he says were" very religious in all things" (v.22). Yet even they mocked the initial notion of the resurrection. Again, this is not an attractive aspect if you are trying to convert Gentiles.
However, the earliest documented mention of the resurrection is none of those found in the gospels. As I've written before, 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, which contains the full creedal basis for the belief in the resurrection, is dated to within a few years of Jesus' death and resurrection itself. Paul even says that there are saints who were eyewitnesses to the resurrection who were still alive; the Corinthians could go and ask them themselves! There are other signs of the resurrection accounts as historical, but these should be enough to dispel the concept of the resurrection accounts to be corrupted by pagan myths. Tomorrow, we'll finish up this series by touching on some various incongruities of McDougall's claims. Until then, keep thinking!

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Is Easter Pagan? Part 2 - What Do You Get When You Cross a Jew with...

Yesterday, I began a series looking at the claims made by some skeptics that Easter celebrations have their roots in pagan holidays and customs. My goal for these posts is to not dig into a ton of research to disprove these kinds of accusations, but to so you how, given a little time of reflection and focused thought, you can answer such claims without so much as an Internet search. Hopefully, this will give you a bit of confidence and help Christians to become better and more careful thinkers over the plethora of "Google Scholars" that simply add a lot of noise to the channel.


As an example of the "Easter is Pagan" claim, we've been looking at an article written by Heather McDougall that appeared in The UK newspaper, The Guardian. Let's look at a second paragraph from that article:
The Sumerian goddess Inanna, or Ishtar, was hung naked on a stake, and was subsequently resurrected and ascended from the underworld. One of the oldest resurrection myths is Egyptian Horus. Born on 25 December, Horus and his damaged eye became symbols of life and rebirth. Mithras was born on what we now call Christmas day, and his followers celebrated the spring equinox. Even as late as the 4th century AD, the sol invictus, associated with Mithras, was the last great pagan cult the church had to overcome. Dionysus was a divine child, resurrected by his grandmother. Dionysus also brought his mum, Semele, back to life."

2. Too much of everything leads to nothing

The first thing that should stand out to you as a red flag is how McDougall lists Sumerian, Egyptian, Roman, Baylonian, and Greek religions all as sources to the single holiday of Easter. There's something incredulous when one finds that the "real" origins of a very specific and detailed event (the death and resurrection of Jesus) has so many points of origin. It reminds me of when I was a little kid and I used to go to the soft drink fountain to create a "suicide," If you mix enough of everything together, all the distinctive tastes blur and what comes out is bland. Put a lot of various paints in a can and you won't get a vibrant color, but they meld into a dingy brown.

However, McDougall seems to think that everything that has even an inkling of parallel to the resurrection story is proof that the resurrection accounts are derived from that story (a concept we covered a bit more last time.) But religious rituals are not so easily changed, regardless of the ritual's cultural base. The reason a ritual works is because it is passed down. Religious rituals are taken even more seriously. Any changes would have to be shown with some pretty compelling evidence to back it up. McDougall has thrown out a Zeitgeist-type wild claim, but she will need to do more than simply make the claim. We will discuss more on this tomorrow, but the concept of changing religious understanding does lead me into my third point.

3. Jesus, His Followers, and His Detractors Were all Jewish

I don't know if it escaped McDougall's notice, but everyone agrees that Jesus was a first century Jew living in the Jewish state when Judaism was in full swing. Post-exile Judaism would be the de facto worldview for Jesus, His followers, his audience, and even His detractors, such as the Sanhedrin and the Pharisees. Anyone who knows anything about ancient Judaism knows how strict the Jews were not to have anything to do with pagan gods.

This point is underlined in the gospels when the Pharisees try to trap Jesus in asking Him whether they should pay taxes to Caesar or not. You remember the Pharisees, right? They are those people who took the Jewish faith so seriously that they would place a strainer on their wine glasses lest they ingest a gnat and violate the Jewish prohibition against swallowing an animal with its blood. The Pharisees question Jesus on giving money to Caesar as a violation of the Old Testament law. Jesus deftly answers "render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's." Jesus kept His Jewish understanding of serving only Yahweh intact while also showing the flaw in their thinking.

So, would a Jewish audience, one who is so attuned to the strict adherence of their faith that they would die rather than be forced to worship any other god really buy into a story that is perhaps Sumerian in origin? Do you think the Jews would recognize pagan myths that were popular in their day? Do you really think that Jesus or His Jewish disciples would invent such stories in order to gain adherents? The concept is preposterous! This would go over about as well as going to an Orthodox rabbi today and trying to convince him that the messiah is really Mohammad and Islam is Judaism fulfilled.

Tomorrow, I will look at the historical aspects of the resurrection accounts as my final point on why these claims are ridiculous. Until then, keep thinking!

Monday, March 31, 2014

Is Easter Pagan? Part 1 - The Rites of Spring

Recently, I received a request from a friend who asked, "which came first, the Easter celebration: the resurrection of Jesus Christ or all this other stuff about the goddess of fertility and the eggs and rabbits and all that?" As we approach the Easter season, the question isn't uncommon. Modern media loves to plaster the covers of magazines with questions about Jesus or the Bible during this time, since they know such "special" issues are guaranteed moneymakers.


They also look to run some of the most inflammatory tripe passed as fact. For an example, look at the article in The Guardian newspaper that ran a couple of years ago.  Entitled "The Pagan Roots of Easter," author Heather McDougall leads with:
Easter is a pagan festival. If Easter isn't really about Jesus, then what is it about? Today, we see a secular culture celebrating the spring equinox, whilst religious culture celebrates the resurrection. However, early Christianity made a pragmatic acceptance of ancient pagan practises, most of which we enjoy today at Easter. The general symbolic story of the death of the son (sun) on a cross (the constellation of the Southern Cross) and his rebirth, overcoming the powers of darkness, was a well worn story in the ancient world. There were plenty of parallel, rival resurrected saviours too.
So, should Christians worry? Is McGougall right? Does a Christian need to prove that the resurrection came before these other celebrations? The answer to all of these questions is an emphatic no. While one can go on a historical odyssey, checking out dusty books for hard dates, usually answering such claims doesn't take that much effort. If one were to slow down and just think a bit about what we do know, you can see how quickly these kinds of charges fall apart. I want to look at several points, in a series of posts, but we will start with the most obvious.

1. Seasons are Universal

The first point one must realize is that everyone throughout the history of the world experiences the change in seasons. (Folks like me living in California may be an exception, but that's a separate story.) Of the four seasons, spring has always been the biggest deal, because it is the time of more temperate weather, where one can come out from indoors. More importantly, it's the time for planting the food that will feed you and your family for the next year. Spring is the time when the trees and the flowers begin to bloom, so the season is associated with new life. Is it a surprise that various cultures would develop festivals and feast days to their gods at this time? Of course not!

There is a natural reaction to the new life that is sprouting from trees and from the ground. Part of that reaction is to tie the days of spring to the concept of new life. In early cultures, items like eggs and rabbits, which are known for their rapid reproduction, are natural symbols of new life. But because of the ties to new life, ancient people would tie sprint to the sexual cults. So the cult of Astarte (Astoreth in the biblical accounts) with the fertility and sexual prostitutes would have springtime festivals. But the spring is 25% of the entire year! Just because some fertility cults had big orgies and used symbols like eggs and multiplying rabbits doesn't mean there is any tie whatsoever to the resurrection! Think about it — what does a Jewish Messiah who rises from the dead have to do with temple prostitutes and creating babies? The similarities are tenuous at best.

Tomorrow I will go into more detail about the problem of the Jewishness of the resurrection accounts versus pagan spring rites. But until then, one must be mindful for an important principle: correlation does not imply causation. An example I use is the "Redskins Rule." For 60 years the outcome of the last home game of the Washington Redskins has predicted the outcome of that year's presidential election: "when the Redskins win, the incumbent party wins the electoral vote for the White House; when the Redskins lose, the non-incumbent party wins." The accuracy of that predictor over such a long period was Impressive, however anyone can see that one had absolutely nothing to do with the other. (For another interesting case, see the case of the book that predicted the sinking of the Titanic.)

I hope this first point has helped some in dispelling any worry that the resurrection may have ties to ancient pagan practices. Join me tomorrow and we'll see just how flimsy this "evidence" can be.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The First Christmas Eve - A Devotion

The day before the first Christmas was a normal day; it was just like any other. People awoke and began their chores. There were fish to catch, meals to prepare, fields to tend, shops to open. Oh, sure the cities were a bit busier than usual, what with the census causing many people to travel, but that just meant the opportunity for more business in the merchants' eyes. Everyone else was inconvenienced by the crowded roadways and the disruption of schedules. Traffic makes it difficult for locals to finish their responsibilities. But such was part of life in this part of the world.


So, people went about their day not thinking twice about what kind of a day it was. The herdsmen took their flocks to the pastures outside of town to find them food. An old prophet and prophetess sat at the temple in Jerusalem, each praying as part of their daily routine, one that they duplicated for so long they had lost count. They pray that they might catch a glimpse of the power of God to rescue their people. But they don't mark this day as anything more. It's simply one more opportunity to petition the Almighty.

There were the common complaints about politics. Some complained that the government taxed too much, others that we should submit to the status quo. Those that sought to overthrow the power structures were seen as zealots, but even they saw today as another day in their quest for autonomy, claiming God was on their side.

Herod was sitting fat on his throne, probably feeling fairly content. His partnership with Rome had brought him considerable power and success. He felt he had the power to vanquish any threat to his rule and his building and construction projects had made him famous. This day he felt no particular worry about losing his title as King of the Jews.

Everyone across the world didn't note this day as anything more than another day. They did not have the luxury of history that we have today. They didn't know that tomorrow would bring the birth of one child and the beginning of end of their world. They didn't realize that one infant arriving in a small backwoods town would be an event so enormous that all of mankind would reckon time by it. Those shepherds didn't know that tomorrow heaven would be so filled with joy that they would see it burst at the seams and hear glorious praise spill onto the earth. Herod didn't know that he would soon be dead and in less than a century his glorious Temple project would be wiped clean from the mount as well as the Jewish worship rituals it supported. Simeon and Anna didn't know that they would have their prayers answered in just a few days, cradling in their arms the Messiah of the Lord. Even Caesar Augustus didn't know that this child would turn Rome inside out.

That first Christmas Eve was remarkable because it was utterly unremarkable. Today we remember His coming and tomorrow we celebrate with friends and family. But come January 30 or March 22 or September 16 we will be back to experiencing ordinary days. I pray that as we think about the birth of the Savior of the world, we would reflect on God's promise and His deliverance not only on December 24, but on those ordinary days, too. Be like that old prophet or prophetess. Make worship and expectation that God is working part of your daily routine. Because you never know, God may make tomorrow earth-shattering.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Is Christmas Really a Pagan Holiday? (video)


Every Christmas, the charge is made that the holiday and its symbols were originally pagan celebrations that Christians usurped for their own purposes. Is this true? Is Christmas just a cheap imitation of a Roman Solstice celebration? Did Christians attempt to convert unbelievers by allowing them to keep their festivals? As the holiday season approaches, we'll show why such a charge can be easily dismissed.

For more videos, be sure to visit the Come Reason YouTube channel at http://www.youtube.com/comereason 



Monday, December 09, 2013

Pagan Christmas Trees and the Burden of Proof

Many times when we seek to defend the faith, we can get caught taking on a bigger burden of proof that we should. I was recently reminded of this when a couple days ago I had two Jehovah's Witnesses visit my home. Given that it's three weeks before Christmas, we discussed the Christmas celebration and its roots. The Witnesses pointed to my tree and claimed it was originally a pagan symbol and Christians shouldn't be bringing such pagan symbols into their homes.


Now, I've heard this charge before. We hear tales of the yule log being tied to celebrations of the winter solstice and Christmas trees symbolizing a pagan concept of new life resurrecting through its ashes. This claim isn't limited to atheists; I found the following story on the Facebook page of a man who claims to be a Christian. In his article, he shouts that following holiday traditions is Baal worship and provides the following as "unequivocally historical." I've shortened the section a bit, but the words are his:
"Nimrod of Babylon whose wife Semiramis deified his memory by implementing an observance to replicate his death and this in the Yule log which was also chopped up to a stump, then she birthed an illegitimate child (Tammuz) through another man, and claimed this new child was Nimrod resurrected anew.

"To memorialize this she instituted a brand new young green sappling (Christmas tree) the next morning and sold this lie that on the night before Christmas the slaughtered and quartered former demi-god Nimrod entered into the fire of purification as a cut down tree (Yule log) and through being made pure as the savior of the world, he resurrected and regenerated the following morning as a new being, i.e. the green tree."
Christians who hear such charges are quickly put on the defensive, and they normally seek to explain how the Christmas tree (or Easter eggs, bunnies, or other symbols used in holiday celebrations) no longer holds their original meaning. They have been integrated into the Christian tradition and now carry Christian meanings—at least for the person with the tree in his house.

I agree that such an argument is valid. Even though we call the fifth day of the week Thursday, doing so in no way implies that we wish to exalt the Norse god Thor even if that's the origin of the day's name. But, as I've been researching Christmas origins, I've found that the real problem isn't with the pagan origins of Christmas traditions, but the spurious origins of the belief that Christmas traditions ever were pagan in the first place.

Did pagans ever use Christmas trees?

Let's look at the concept of bringing a Christmas tree into your home. Critics will try to point to some ancient rite or festival prior to Christianity where trees were used and force a connection between them. For example, Jacqueline Farmer, in her children's book O Christmas Tree, writes that the ancient Egyptians used palm branches to decorate their in celebration of the winter solstice. She then points to the Romans celebrating Saturnalia and says they also used evergreen branches to brighten their homes. Both are offered as the genesis for Christmas trees.

But, why should we believe that? It is no surprise that ancient people would decorate their homes to mark significant events, including the beginning of a new growing cycle. It is also no surprise that trees would play an important symbolic role across many cultures. Trees live much longer than people and can be identified as existing from generation to generation. Also, because fruits and nuts will grow on trees, they can be a source of food. Finally, the shedding of leaves and the new blossoms that accompany the seasonal cycle makes trees a natural symbol for these ideas. This is easily shown by looking at the practice of Northwest Native American tribes, who had no connection with Egyptian or Roman culture whatsoever, would take a tree to carve and decorating it as a totem pole.

Assuming the worst

Behind each of the assertions that Christmas and its traditions are rooted in paganism lies the flimsiest evidence. There is just no historical connection to Christmas trees and pagan rites. There are some scholastic works on the history of Christmas traditions that try to make the connections, but these tend to come from the eighteenth and nineteenth century, and are woefully out of date.

Simply pointing to some festival that used a log or a tree and then claiming that this proves Christmas to be rooted in pagan worship is on the same level as one who would point to totem poles and say that their origin lies in the Roman celebration of Saturnalia. The evidence for both is the same: cursory and unconvincing. Why not go even further and argue that since the Bible used the symbol of trees (the Tree of Life, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil) in its creation story, perhaps the Romans borrowed their use of trees from the Bible!

While Christians can make a case for symbols in modern culture adopting new meaning, I don't think it's necessary. It seems to me the burden of proof is on those making the charge of paganism, and I see no evidence to believe their charge has merit.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Why is Thanksgiving an "Accepted" Religious Holiday?

Thanksgiving is a fascinating holiday in the U.S. The overt Christian underpinnings of the celebration cannot be denied (the Pilgrims, were Christians, right?), yet I don't see any complaints of "shoving religion down one's throat" or the worries about offending someone by wishing them a Happy Thanksgiving. Macy's holds its annual Thanksgiving Day parade to the enjoyment of thousands and even Google has a Thanksgiving doodle today, where they seem to be adamant about ignoring Easter.


So why is Thanksgiving considered a "safe" holiday? As I've written before:
"In the very concept of thanksgiving, there's a tacit recognition of giver and receiver. In other words, if you are thankful for your present advantages, you must be thankful to someone. It makes no sense to say that you are thankful, but that thanks is attributed to the laws of nature. Imagine being thankful to gravity for holding you to the earth.  Similarly, it makes no sense to be thankful to luck, for luck is simply a word we use to talk about an arbitrary outcome.  There's no motivation behind luck; it is by definition purposeless and blind. To be thankful for purposelessness is silly."
Don't think the above statement is me stamping my foot and saying "If you're not going to acknowledge God, you can't celebrate Thanksgiving!" On the contrary, I'm glad that Thanksgiving has as far a reach as it does! I'm happy to know that the American culture still embraces this important holiday. Sure, from a consistency point of view I think that when many people express some kind of general thanks today they are fudging a bit on what they are saying, but I am very happy that they do say it at all.

You see, I think the far-reaching acceptance of Thanksgiving acknowledges our inherent understanding that we are not the most important thing in this world—that there is something bigger than us and that on our own we really are small creatures on a speck of dust floating through a vast universe. There is in each one of us at least a tacit recognition of God, even if it is as amorphous as "being thankful." Such recognition is important. By expressing an attitude of thanks it "demonstrates that God's law was written in their hearts"(Romans 2:15)and that He can still reach people.

Being thankful at Thanksgiving means that one is not out of reach of God's salvation, that one is still able to recognize his or her need for Him, even if it isn't identified as such. And for that God, who would build into us such a precious gift even when we didn't believe, I am truly thankful.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Eastertide is High Tide for Apologetics!

People have often commented on the incredibly fast pace of our current culture.  We live in a "get it then forget it" society where we're always looking towards the next thing, but we don't take the time to ponder what we have already. Even in our celebrations, we are sometimes too quick to move on. Take Easter for example. We think of it as a single day. We make some preparations, mark it with a day at church and maybe a family dinner, and then it's over.  Put the decorations away; what next on the calendar? But this approach doesn't do justice to the incredible change that the events of the first Easter Sunday brought. If you only focus on Easter as one day, you will miss out on a joyful and powerful time to reinvigorate yourself as a member of the body of Christ.  You will miss out on the historic Christian tradition of celebrating Eastertide.


What is Eastertide?  It is simply another name for the Easter season, those fifty days between Christ's resurrection and Pentecost.  Most people have heard of the season of Lent, leading up to Easter, but the celebration of Eastertide has somehow fallen out of popular favor, especially with Protestants. While Lent is a solemn time marked with abstinence and quietness, Eastertide can be a time of re-invigoration and joy.

It is during these fifty days that Jesus showed Himself to His disciples on multiple occasions. It is here that Jesus reveals Himself to Thomas and recommissions Peter.  It is here that Jesus explains Himself to the two walking to Emmaus. It is here appears before five hundred brethren and promises the disciples that the Holy Spirit will come upon them in power not many days from now. It is here that Jesus ascends to the Father to intercede on our behalf forever.

Because of all this, Jesus' followers were engaged and excited.  Look at how the two Emmaus disciples reacted after they realized they had been with Jesus in Luke 24:31-35. They felt their hearts burn within them as they gained clarity about Jesus and His mission. They couldn't wait to tell the other disciples that they had new insight into the Lord, immediately turning around and travelling back to Jerusalem, even after they had planned on retiring for the evening. The knowledge that the ultimate consequence of death no longer had any power over Jesus gave them confidence and conviction. They would draw on these in the days, weeks, and years to come as they faced a hostile world with the message of the saving Christ. Yes, the days between Easter Sunday and Pentecost Sunday are to be embraced and celebrated.

I think Jesus' actions during this time show us how we can celebrate Eastertide.  Jesus was always specific in his actions. Prior to the crucifixion, Luke 9:51 tells us that Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem. After the Resurrection, He focuses all His attention on preparing the disciples for the task that is now set before them, to "be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth." This is a good model for us to follow.

I think that the fifty days between Easter and Pentecost are the perfect time for Christians to prepare themselves for engaging an increasingly hostile world. Apologetics provides the perfect platform to do just that. 1 Peter 3:15 reminds us to "always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is within you" and that's exactly with apologetics does. So during Eastertide, perhaps you can subscribe to an apologetics podcast, like one of these top podcasts that Brian Auten has put together.  Maybe you could begin an apologetics study at your church. You may wish to simply read a book defending the Christian position on an issue you feel strongly about, or you can plan on attending an upcoming apologetics event in your area. What you choose doesn't matter as much as simply engaging in new ideas that can prepare you for the future.

We all need reminders to do those things that are important but often neglected in our lives. Just as we use the changing of the clocks at spring time to remind us to change the batteries in our smoke alarms, the season of Eastertide can serve as a good way to remind ourselves we need to recharge our intellectual reservoirs. Easter declares that He is risen. Eastertide allows us to celebrate why that matters. Let's steel ourselves for the task set before us.  Pentecost is coming; will you be ready to go when the Spirit moves?

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Was it Necessary for Jesus to Rise Again?


In his monumental Summa Theologica, Saint Thomas Aquinas presents a fully developed theology of the Christian church. Aquinas did this in a kind of Socratic method, posing each topic as a question, offering certain objections against the doctrine and then answering the objections raised. His Third Part focused specifically on Christ and in Question 53 he looks at the necessity of Jesus to rise from the dead.

Aquinas offers five specific reasons why the Resurrection is crucial to the faith. He writes:
 First of all; for the commendation of Divine Justice, to which it belongs to exalt them who humble themselves for God's sake, according to Lk. 1:52: "He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble." Consequently, because Christ humbled Himself even to the death of the Cross, from love and obedience to God, it behooved Him to be uplifted by God to a glorious resurrection; hence it is said in His Person (Ps. 138:2): "Thou hast known," i.e. approved, "my sitting down," i.e. My humiliation and Passion, "and my rising up," i.e. My glorification in the resurrection; as the gloss expounds.

Secondly, for our instruction in the faith, since our belief in Christ's Godhead is confirmed by His rising again, because, according to 2 Cor. 13:4, "although He was crucified through weakness, yet He liveth by the power of God." And therefore it is written (1 Cor. 15:14): "If Christ be not risen again, then is our preaching vain, and our [Vulg.: 'your'] faith is also vain": and (Ps. 29:10): "What profit is there in my blood?" that is, in the shedding of My blood, "while I go down," as by various degrees of evils, "into corruption?" As though He were to answer: "None. 'For if I do not at once rise again but My body be corrupted, I shall preach to no one, I shall gain no one,'" as the gloss expounds.

Thirdly, for the raising of our hope, since through seeing Christ, who is our head, rise again, we hope that we likewise shall rise again. Hence it is written (1 Cor. 15:12): "Now if Christ be preached that He rose from the dead, how do some among you say, that there is no resurrection of the dead?" And (Job 19:2527): "I know," that is with certainty of faith, "that my Redeemer," i.e. Christ, "liveth," having risen from the dead; "and" therefore "in the last day I shall rise out of the earth . . . this my hope is laid up in my bosom."

Fourthly, to set in order the lives of the faithful: according to Rom. 6:4: "As Christ is risen from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we also may walk in newness of life": and further on; "Christ rising from the dead dieth now no more; so do you also reckon that you are dead to sin, but alive to God."

Fifthly, in order to complete the work of our salvation: because, just as for this reason did He endure evil things in dying that He might deliver us from evil, so was He glorified in rising again in order to advance us towards good things; according to Rom. 4:25: "He was delivered up for our sins, and rose again for our justification."
To restate these reasons:

  1. Jesus' resurrection demonstrates the Father's acceptance of Christ's humility in sacrificing Himself for our sins.
  2. Jesus' resurrection shows us that He is almighty God, vindicating His authority and our submission to Him.
  3. Jesus' resurrection provides proof that death has no power over the Christian.
  4. Jesus' resurrection gives us the impetus to live holy lives for Him.
  5. Jesus' resurrection is part of His salvific work.
How truly great is our salvation! How truly magnificent is our Lord! How truly important is the Resurrection and how worthy is it to reflect on it this Easter.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Ritual and Christian Tradition

Today is Maundy Thursday, or the celebration of the Last Supper before the Lord's crucifixion. The term Maundy seems strange to Protestant ears, but it basically means "a new commandment" and is derived from the first word of the Latin version of John 13:34 that reads "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another." It was before the Last Supper that Jesus demonstrated His servant approach to love by washing the disciples' feet. He also establishes the sacrament of communion and stated "do this in remembrance of me."


In reflecting on all this, it strikes me that ritual played an important role in the early church. Today, many evangelicals tend to shy away from ritual as some kind of remnant of the old, staid way of the denominational churches. They feel that expressions of faith should be free and heart-felt instead of scripted and that ritual became an empty substitute for a true relational interaction with God.

To some extent I understand this. I've seen more than my share of people who would go through the motions each church service thinking that's all they had to do to remain a "good Catholic" or a "good Episcopalian" or something else. There is a temptation to reduce worship to a series of movements and responses that are just as empty as any script reading.  But I think we overact when we think that ritual has no import in the life of the believer.

Human beings have always marked the most significant changes in their lives with ceremony. Think about the marriage ceremony for a moment. A wedding is one of the most important events in one's life, as it signals the bonding of two persons into a single unit, and we show this through the ritual of exchanging vows and exchanging rings. It makes a difference when you can point to that ceremony, that day, and say "here is when I entered into my new life with my spouse." Marriage is a public profession of love and a public promise of fidelity.

Similarly, Christ gave us the rituals like baptism to also mark the transition into the community of the church. He established communion for reflection on His sacrifice, so we don't forget why we follow Jesus. And He gave us the example of the foot washing to teach us how to treat one another. While many churches will perform a foot washing ceremony today, I believe that Jesus didn't want this to be only a ritual performed once a year. I think that just as our celebration of communion sharpens our focus on His death and sacrifice for us that we can then we carry with us daily, the foot washing needs to help us focus on our service to others that we may perform such on a daily basis as well.

Of communion, Spurgeon said, "Never mind that bread and wine unless you can use them as poor old folks often use their spectacles. What do they use them for? To look at? No, to look through them. So, use the bread and wine as a pair of spectacles—look through them and do not be satisfied until you can say, 'Yes, yes, I can see the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!' Then shall the Communion be really what it ought to be to you." While one would be amiss in only staring at his spectacles, one would be equally amiss in shunning them and having his viewpoint fall out of focus.

I know that I can forget about Jesus washing His disciples' feet all too easily. It's in my nature. To have a bit of ritual as a reminder can do me much good. Let's not be too hasty in throwing out such practices as so much dirty water. For in so doing, we may be tossing the thing that helps us see our relationship with God and our relationships with others more clearly.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Does Easter have Pagan Origins?

This week is known as Holy Week, since it marks the events in Jesus' life between Palm Sunday and Easter morning.  Millions of Christians will be observing the pivotal events of the death of the Savior and celebrating His resurrection on that glorious Sunday morning. I've had people challenge me on the origin of Easter, claiming that its roots are not found in Christianity. 


Here's a fairly typical example sent to me by a skeptic who Google-searched for an objection and copied the page whole. The essay, entitled "Christian Feast Days and Their Relationship to Pagan Holidays," was written by Donna-Lynn Riley for an Intro to World Religions class at North Virginia Community College. The professor liked it so much she reproduced it on the course's page as a resource.

Discussing the origin of Easter, Riley writes:
"For Christians it is the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. But the very name of this holiday shows pagan origin. The term "Easter" has been said to be derived from Estre or Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring and dawn. The festival for Eostre was celebrated on the day of the Vernal Equinox, the first day of spring."1
So, Riley claims here that Easter has its origins not in the resurrection of Jesus, but the holiday's very name "shows pagan origin." Really?  Then how did Christianity get started at all? Riley doesn't seem to take into account that Christianity relies on the resurrection for its origin.

Let's first look at the historical context of the events that lead to the beginning of Christianity. As has been clearly shown by the research of Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, the vast majority of New Testaments scholars hold at the very least:
  • Jesus died by crucifixion
  • Very shortly after Jesus' death, His disciples had experiences that led them to believe that Jesus had been resurrected and had appeared to them.
  • The Christian persecutor Paul dramatically converted to Christianity. Paul stated the reason for his conversion is because he too experienced the risen Jesus.2
These three facts are held as historical bedrock by scholars who run from the very conservative to the very liberal.  Even atheists who are New Testament scholars will admit these facts. Going one step further, Jesus' death and resurrection are clearly tied to the timeline of the Jewish celebration of Passover. Jesus' last supper (on Holy Thursday) was the Passover meal. Therefore, the celebration of Easter would naturally also be found to be in close proximity to the Jewish Passover feast, which is in the spring.

In writing her paper, Riley took the name of Easter and said the holiday pulls its origins from the "Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring and dawn." But even this isn't quite right.  First, Easter existed long before Christianity was introduced to the people of ancient England.  In most of the world the word used for Easter is "Pascha", which is a derivation from the Hebrew word for Passover.3 So if the Anglo-Saxons tried to link Easter celebrations to their spring festival, the pagan origin is a late-comer and the word not found within the majority of Christendom.

But even the existence of the goddess Eostre has been questioned by British history scholars such as Ronald Hutton.  He writes that all the accounts of the label of Easter originating with a goddess are stemming from the monk Bede's writings, published in the eighth century. Hutton writes that the idea of Easter referencing a goddess celebration "falls into that category of interpretations which Bede admitted to be his own, rather than generally agreed or proven fact."4 He goes on to write:
"It is equally valid, however, to suggest that the Anglo-Saxon 'Estor-monath' simply meant 'the month of opening' or 'the month of beginnings', and that Bede mistakenly connected it with a goddess who either never existed at all, or was never associated with a particular season but merely, like Eos and Aurora, with the dawn itself.

"With the removal of this shadowy deity from the canon of historical certainty, there evaporates any reliable evidence for a pre-Christian festival in the British Isles during the time which became March and April. It may be that there was none, the ancient inhabitants being wholly taken up with ploughing, sowing, and caring for young livestock." 5
So, we have the possibility that Easter refers not to a pagan goddess at all, but to the season in which its marked.  And if there was a goddess Eostre, the holiday may not be referring directly to her, but to the name of the month instead. However, we do know that the Pascha celebration dated hundreds of years before the Christianization of the British Isles.

It is evident that Ridley is unfounded in trying to link Easter to any kind of pagan celebration. What's more troubling is that her professor was so enamored with her paper, that she keeps it as a published resource on her Intro to World Religions web page. She should know better.

References

1. Ridley, Donna-Lynn. "Christian Feast Days and Their Relationship to Pagan Holidays." Written Feb. 9, 2003.<http://www.nvcc.edu/home/lshulman/rel232/resource/RileyPaper.htm>.Accessed March 25, 2013.
2. Licona, Michael. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. (Downers Grove, Il.: IVP Academic, 2010). 463.
3. "Pascha" Wiktionary Entry. http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Pascha Accessed 3/26/2013.
4. Hutton, Ronald. Stations of the Sun:A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996). 181.
5. Ibid. 182.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Top Ten Christian Breakup Lines


Last week, in celebration of Valentine's Day, I published my list of Top Ten Christian Pickup Lines. It was my little gift to those who didn't have anyone to celebrate the holiday with. Now, I thought I also should do a good turn to those who were expecting to celebrate the day with that special someone, but the wretch was a no-show. So, here are my Top Ten Christian Break-up Lines. These are seasoned with just enough humility and holiness to sound genuine, while getting that good-for-nothing out of your life. All in the name of Christian service.
  • 10. "You're my sister (or brother) in the Lord, and I just don't feel right about dating my sister."
  • 9. "I'm Calvinist and we just weren't predestined to be."
  • 8. "I'm going to purify myself from all earthly pleasures."
  • 7. "My Old Testament studies will be taking up more of my time—in Qumran."
  • 6. "I'm modeling my life after Jesus, and he was celibate."
  • 5. "You're egalitarian and I'm complimentarian, so I just can't see how it will work out."
  • 4. "God loves me and must have a better plan for my life."
  • 3. "I've read C.S. Lewis' Four Loves and you're not one of them."
  • 2. "I feel like Peter: I used to walk on water when I thought of you but now I'm sinking and just need to get back into the boat."
  • 1."Your price isn't above rubies."

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Top Ten Christian Pickup Lines

Photo by Steve Evans
For a little fun on this Valentine's Day, I thought I'd compile a list of Christian pickup lines you'll probably never hear. Enjoy these with someone special!

  • 10. "I didn't believe in predestination until tonight."
  • 9. "If I was choosing, you'd be my ark-mate."
  • 8. "Hey girl. You really are a fisher of men. And baby, you just reeled me in!"
  • 7. "If I march around you seven times, will you fall for me?"
  • 6. "I gave my heart to Jesus, but I'd like to give you my number."
  • 5. "You can be the bread and I'll be the fish and we'll see if Jesus can make a miracle out of us."
  • 4. "Is it a sin that you stole my heart?"
  • 3. "I've waited the last seven years to find someone, but for you they feel like only a day."
  • 2. "Let's go to a coffee shop, and open our Bibles together. We just may find some divine revelation."
  • 1. "What's an xBox?"
Also, check out the Top Ten Christian Breakup Lines.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Should Evangelicals Celebrate Ash Wednesday?


I teach a small Bible devotion for a company with Christian owners. Once a month, they invite their employees  to join together and spend fifteen or twenty minutes with a bit of encouragement and reflection from the Scriptures.  I love this idea, but on more than one occasion folks there have commented to me that it's difficult to "switch gears" from sales calls, production worries, and accounting headaches to a quiet time where they can absorb all the devotion may have for them.

I can completely see how this would be so. It's hard to turn off all the cares and worries of our ever busier lives and just focus in on what God has to say. Many churches begin their services with an extended time of worship music for just that reason; it helps prepare our hearts and minds for the teaching. So, we learn to quiet ourselves in preparation for the tasks of the day with our daily devotional time and we learn to quiet ourselves in preparation for the week in our worship services.

I write all this today because it's Ash Wednesday, which marks a forty day period of reflection prior to Easter. Many people today, especially those in non-denominational churches, don't see a big significance in Lent. Some have left Roman Catholic or other traditional denominations who had a more formal observance of the day, and they feel that Lent is part of the "ritual" that was part of the "old school" way of doing things. But, is this the right way to think about Lent?

It seems to me that Lent is a very biblical idea.  God had the Israelites spend time reflecting and thinking about how He rescued them at least twice yearly (Passover and Sukkot).  The Psalms are replete with God pointing to the fact that He is the one who delivered Israel from Egypt. Paul in Ephesians 2:11-14 instructs us to remember how we, who were once cut off and separated from God were then reconciled to Him through Christ's sacrifice.

Lent is the perfect time, then, to quiet ourselves and prepare our hearts for the celebration of Easter and another year of living new lives in Christ. So, it makes sense to fast, to sacrifice some of what adds to our busy days, or to sacrifice some of the desires and distractions that crowd our lives. We need to remember how fragile we are and that our lives and our salvation are a result of God's good grace.

I urge you to see how you can make the time of Lent one where your hearts and lives are quieted before the Lord. A little ritual is not necessarily a bad thing—and it may help you to appreciate the enormity of Easter a little bit better

Monday, December 24, 2012

What is the True Spirit of Christmas?



Important moments in life have been marked throughout the ages with ceremony and tradition. I recently told my just-married son that his wedding day is the one day in his life where more of his friends and family will gather together to celebrate his life-change than any other. We recognize that marriage changes you; you must abandon living for only yourself and put the needs of another above your own.  You are no longer a child but a fully engaged member of society who will be expected to contribute to the community. And as parents, we want to see our progeny grow into mature adults. So we celebrate the event with a wedding… a ceremony filled with ritual, symbols, and festivities.

It is through celebration and tradition that we mark significance and pass our culture to future generations.  Certainly we may write about the importance of certain occasions, but it is only when we vest them with our time and efforts that we most powerfully convey the depth of their magnitude. Think about it. Does a congratulatory card mean more than the presence of a loved one at your wedding?

Because purposeful celebration is important, we even mark our national heritage with nationally recognized holidays such as the Fourth of July or Thanksgiving. But no holiday eclipses Christmas. It is simply the single largest celebrated event in humanity, with weeks of preparation and anticipation by Christian adherents and many others. There are vast amounts of time devoted not only to shopping and parties, but to preparing meals and treats ("the way our mothers made them for us"), reflection, attending church services, or traveling thousands of miles to simply be with friends and family.  Our media is saturated with songs and movies that supposedly capture the "true spirit of Christmas." But what is the true spirit of Christmas? Since Christmas holds such a high place in human culture, it is important for us to correctly understand the message these ceremonies and traditions are trying to communicate.

Misunderstanding Christmas is easily done.  Just this year, the group American Atheists placed a billboard in New York with the images of Santa and Jesus and a caption that read "Keep the Merry! Dump the Myth!" Of course, it wasn't Santa but to Jesus that the myth reference referred. The group issued a press release saying "The true beauty of the season — family, friends, and love — have nothing to do with the gods of yesteryear. Indeed, the season is far more enjoyable without the religious baggage of guilt and judgmentalism." Much of the made for TV holiday fare also boils down the true meaning of Christmas to some similarly amorphous "be-kind-to-others" message. But these obviously do not convey the true spirit of Christmas when you consider how the holiday is celebrated and how it is held in such high regard. The traditions associated with the holiday simply speak to a different meaning. There must be something more, something bigger than a simplistic axiom we all learned in kindergarten.

No, Christmas captures so much attention because it celebrates a fundamental change in humanity. The coming of Jesus is a milestone in the history of mankind unlike any other. While Christians would argue (and I would agree)  that the death and resurrection of Christ are more central to our salvation, the Incarnation marks a shift in the way God reaches out to His sinful creation. In the fullness of time God sent His Son to be born of a woman so that we could be freed from the curse of sin and adopted into God's own family. Paul doesn't say that such an action was for the Jewish people only, but that God did so for all of humanity. That's why the angels proclaim it as good news for all people,     and we reflect that in our traditions.  We adopt the German tradition of the Christmas tree, celebrating the life of Jesus among us. We give gifts to one another to recognize the importance they play in our lives mimicking the Magi who gave gifts to the Christ-child to signify His importance. We also deem Christmas significant enough to want to share it with those whom we cherish the most.  We understand that it is difficult to spend Christmas apart from them.  We know that this celebration unites not just family, but strangers in some way that is different from any other time of the year.

Christmas celebrates humanity because it recognizes that God offered the first gift in Jesus Christ, and began the process of reconciling us to Him. There can be peace on earth because the Prince of Peace has come; there can be joy to the world because Jesus, the Joy of Man's desiring is here. And even the fact that the atheists want to keep Christmas demonstrates its power within humanity. We have even marked all of time in reference to His birth.

Though the glory of our technical advancements and medical breakthroughs is trumpeted, we can find ourselves poorer than past generations. All the noise and wonder of the modern age can distract us and make us miss the message our traditions bring, offering the poor substitute of "be nice, love one another."  Don't miss the message of Christmas this year. The real meaning of Christmas can only be found in Immanuel, God with Us. Jesus has come and He changes who we are and what our position with God can be: those in whom God finds favor. May you and those you love celebrate a very Merry Christmas and may your traditions speak more about the true meaning that Christmas brings.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

What Does Thanksgiving's First Mother Want Us to Know?

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving and Americans of all faiths or no faith will come together to feast and perhaps reflect on their thankfulness for the blessings this nation provides. As I've said before, the very concept of being thankful requires someone to thank. Someone who had a keen understanding of this is also the one who more than any other is responsible for our annual celebration of Thanksgiving, though it's someone you have probably never heard of. The Mother of Thanksgiving is Sarah Josepha Hale.

Sarah Josepha Hale was a poet, an editor, and a writer. Every school child has heard her nursery rhyme "Mary had a Little Lamb", but few know that it was this author who was determined to see Thanksgiving reach beyond its traditional New England roots and become an official holiday for all of the United States. She campaigned tirelessly and her efforts proved successful when her editorials and letters reached President Lincoln. On October 3, 1863 Lincoln set aside the last Thursday in November "as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens…  offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience." 1
Hale was pleased with the recognition of an annual day of thanks. She also had a true understanding of the danger that such a holiday could become focused on the trivial.  In her book Traits of American Life, published in 1835, she paints a thoroughly modern picture:
It takes but little to make one happy when the heart is right: but a repining disposition never yet enjoyed a Thanksgiving. There is always some accident or occurrence that mars the festival. The turkey is over-roasted, or the sermon has been too long; or, perchance, the ball-dress of a young lady has not been sent home; or the hair-dresser has failed in finishing the beau; — many are made wretched by trifles light as these. But the heart is not in such troubles. It is sheer selfishness that makes the grief and vexations of which two-thirds of the world complain. It is chagrin, not sorrow, people feel; and they endure it, because they will not cultivate the disposition to be happy.2
In either 1835 or 2012, Americans worry about the food presentation rather than God's deliverances and blessings. They concern themselves with the latest fashion rather than humble penitence. And they seek personal happiness rather than obedience. Of course Hales prescience is underscored when she writes "There is small danger of being starved in our land of plenty; but the danger of being stuffed is imminent… You may indulge any childish propensity with less injury to the intellect than gluttony."
May we humbly remember our God in Thanksgiving and reflect on the true meaning of why this holiday is set aside. God bless you and your family this Thanksgiving.
Many are the sayings of the wise,
In ancient and in modern books enroll'd,
Extolling patience as the truest fortitude.
But with the afflicted, in his pangs, their sound
Little prevails, or rather seems a tone,
Harsh and of dissonant mood from his complaint;
Unless he feels within
Some source of consolation from above.
Secret refreshings that repair his strength.
And fainting spirits uphold. 3
-Sarah Josepha Hale.
If you would like to know more about the life of Sarah Josepha Hale, page through this article from The Pilgrim Hall Museum.

References

1. "President Abraham Lincoln's Thanksgiving Day Proclamation of October 3, 1863 (Presidential Proclamation 106)., 10/03/1863 - 10/03/1863", National Archives. http://research.archives.gov/description/299960. Accessed Nov. 21, 2012.
2. Hale, Sarah Josepha. Traits of American Life. 
Philadelphia: E.L. Carey & A. Hart, 1835. 210. Available online at https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=hjrY9eWC4lIC&printsec=frontcover&output=reader&authuser=0&hl=en&pg=GBS.PA210
3. Ibid. Page 226-227.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Another (Not Too) Serious Christian History Quiz

Given the historic significance of October 31 in both the Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions, last year I published the first (Not Too) Serious Christian History Quiz.  It was meant to be an entertaining yet instructive way to help Christians learn more about their history—something that's vastly under-appreciated in the church these days. It was a big success, so I thought I would write another one this year.



Check out the questions below and see how many people, places and events you recognize. Look up some that you don't. You'll be the better for it!

1.   Justin Martyr is famous because:
  1. His name sounds so close to Justin Beiber that all the teen girls love him, too.
  2. If he didn't live, then persecuted Christians would be called "tertullians".
  3. He set the model for Jewish mothers everywhere by complaining how much he had been put out by his children.
  4. He was one of the first Christian apologists, using philosophy and reason to defend the faith against heretics and skeptics.
2.   367 is a significant when discussing Athanasius of Alexandria because:
  1. That was the number of formulas he tried before creating the world's first soft drink.
  2. He was staying in room 366 and the adjoining room's noise kept him up all night.
  3. During Easter of that year he wrote a letter to the churches in Egypt, which included the oldest known complete list of the NT canon.
  4. The phone company decided to split North Africa in to multiple area codes and that number was assigned to Alexandria.
3.   The last Gladiatorial fights were fought in 404 A.D. because:
  1. The league owners and the players could never come to an agreement on the division of profit percentages.
  2. The reality genre didn't yet have the incredible talents of Snooki behind it yet.
  3. An extreme doping and steroids scandal was uncovered, eliminating all of the games' contestants.
  4. A single Christian monk named Telemachus stood his ground on the Coliseum floor and begged the crowd to stop the barbarous practice.
4.   The heresy of Donatism taught that:
  1. All business principles can be gleaned by watching The Godfather movies.
  2. All sacraments, including the baptism of new believers, are only effective if the priest administering them is morally pure.
  3. All-girl bands from San Francisco can stay on top of the charts despite changing record labels.
  4. All clothing labels in one's closet should read "DKNY".
5.   Saint Patrick sought to convert the Irish Druids because:
  1. He had been captured and enslaved by them, yet his love for God and his compassion for these people brought him back to Ireland.
  2. They had developed a delightful new breakfast food that was magically delicious!
  3. He knew that the Roman Catholic university would need a contention-worthy football team.
  4. He was never a big fan of Spinal Tap's music.
6.   The "Great Schism" of 1054 refers to:
  1. The first debate on whether or not Christians should vote for a Mormon.
  2. The final division of the Chalcedonian churches into Western (Roman Catholic) and Eastern (Eastern Orthodox).
  3. A description of the part in Donald Trump's hair.
  4. A super-hero whose impossible task is to save the printed comic book from extinction.
7.   William Tyndale is famous for:
  1. Teaching little Billy Shakespeare how to properly hold his quill.
  2. Creating the children's rhyme "Mary and Julius sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g".
  3. Translating and printing the Bible in English so expertly that even the King James Version is considered up to 70% Tyndale's translation.
  4. Developing gold-leafed pages to guarantee that paper cuts would be extremely painful.
8.   St. Anselm's argument for God's existence hinges on:
  1. The idea that greatest possible being must be one that exists in reality.
  2. The bathroom graffiti: "God is dead --Nietzsche." with a reply written underneath: "Nietzsche is dead -- God."
  3. If coffee exists, it is a blessing. Coffee exists, therefore it is a blessing. Since only God can provide true blessings and blessings exist, God must exist.
  4. Reading arguments promoted by the New Atheists and figuring that, given this level of reasoning, he'd rather be associated with the other side.
9.   Luther nailed his famous 95 theses to the Wittenburg door on Oct 31, 1517 because:
  1. He wanted to begin a student protest about excessive homework assignments during the Halloween season.
  2. On the back of each he had written "Starting a punk band. Need bass player (preferably with edgy monk haircut). Please call monastery for audition."
  3. He was trying to start a new song to sing in the car: "95 Wittenburg theses on the wall, 95 Wittenburg theses! Take one down and pass it around..."
  4. He wanted to protest the clerical abuses he saw within the Roman Catholic Church, particularly the sale of indulgences.
10.   John Ray, the father of naturalism who set up the classification system for plants and animals is famous for saying:
  1. "Look how God spends His time. Forty-three species of parrot!"
  2. "By calling bats something other than birds, I will single-handedly create a contradiction in the Bible that was written thousands of years ago. The YouTube atheists will love it."
  3. "A wonder then it must needs be,—that there should be any Man found so stupid and forsaken of reason as to persuade himself, that this most beautiful and adorned world was or could be produced by the fortuitous concourse of atoms."
  4. "Platypus?!? What the heck am I supposed to do with THIS?"
11.   William Wilberforce is best known for:
  1. Being an unsuccessful politician who had to pay trademark damages to Lucasfilm for his campaign slogan "may Wilberforce be with you!"
  2. His association with a talking horse.
  3. His tireless, determined twenty year quest to have the slave trade abolished in England.
  4. The lone red shirt to ever survive as an away team member on Star Trek TOS.
12.   Dietrich Bonheoffer returned to Germany in 1939 because:
  1. Those Nazis were really snappy dressers!
  2. At least the trains ran on time.
  3. He wanted to live somewhere where people didn't constantly say "you mean like the coffee?"
  4. He believed that "the ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation shall continue to live."
Answers:  1:D,   2:C,  3:D,  4:B,  5:A,  6:B,  7:C,  8:A,  9:D,  10:C,  11:C  12:D.
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