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Archive for the ‘Special Days’ Category

Dear Santa: I want it all!As I walked into my gym for a workout, I saw this stocking hanging amongst other Christmas decorations and it immediately set my mind racing.

OK, so most of us would never admit to wanting it all. But hey, isn’t that the message our culture tells us? Get, get, get, get. Don’t have the savings? Then put it on credit. Make your Christmas wants clear and make sure your loved ones know it if they don’t come through for you.

In our better moments, we know this isn’t what Christmas is supposed to be about. And yet, the pressure is ON. We’ve been conditioned in ways we can’t even detect to have certain expectations and to keenly feel those expectations from loved ones.

When I think about this, I realize this is part of why I struggle with Christmas and why there are lot of Grinches out there. We just don’t want to be part of this emotional cesspool of expectations and disappointments.

So what do we want? Let me venture a viewpoint: we want a day that is truly HOLY. A day that transcends the numbing daily routine of life – not because we try to make it different, but because it IS different.

If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, where winter tends to be colder and darker, Christmas can be seen as a light in that darkness. Hope in what can feel like a hopeless season for sun-deprived people. In other words, holy.

How is this possible? Let’s consider the spiritual point of view. All the best known faith systems out there articulate what we can (and must) do to connect with our creator. It’s up to us to pray more, sacrifice more, worship more, give more, meditate more. How can any of us know when it’s enough?

Now consider Christianity. At its heart, Christmas is not about us doing. It’s about God doing. Basic Christianity (which I believe) tells us Christmas is about our creator seeing our broken condition and reaching out to us — coming to earth as a helpless baby born in an obscure Middle Eastern village.

We never have to wonder if we’ve prayed enough, sacrificed enough, worshipped enough, given enough. God did the heavy lifting and that child grew up to change the world through outrageous ideas like loving your enemy, forgiving no matter what and making it clear that eternity in Heaven is available to EVERYONE, no matter who they are (or aren’t), no matter what they’ve done (or haven’t done).

So what difference does that make to you and me? When you accept the gift of Jesus Christ — whom serious Christians believe sacrificed His life to make up for all the wrong things we’ve done and the right things we haven’t done — this is what will happen:

  • You’ll see all people with new eyes as you understand they are loved by God just as much as you.
  • You’ll realize that life isn’t about getting rich, buying the biggest flat-screen TV going and getting praise and admiration from others. Jesus explained what it’s about in the Bible, in an account of His life called “Matthew”: Here is a simple, rule-of-thumb guide for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you, then grab the initiative and do it for them.
  • You’ll come to understand that this life isn’t all there is — in fact, it’s just the introduction to eternity.
  • You’ll start to love Christmas because it’s concrete, life-changing evidence of God’s powerful, active love for His creation.

Does this make sense? Yes or no, post your thoughts below and let’s have a conversation.

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Easter 2The facts around Easter – Jesus Christ, whom serious Christians (and many others) believe is the son of God, dying for the sins of all who believe in him, then returning to life three days later – are beyond the sort of simple, quick understanding our culture demands.

Indeed, for a long time, Easter was a great mystery to me. But now, as a relatively new Christian, I can see what is surely good news for every human being who believes in a creator.

Consider the death of Jesus. It’s a death that could have been stopped. To the religious and Roman authorities of Jesus’ day, God could have said words to the effect of “Don’t you touch my boy”. But He didn’t.

As Philip Yancey writes in The Jesus I Never Knew, “I have marvelled at, and sometimes openly questioned, the self-restraint God has shown throughout history … but nothing — nothing — compares to the self-restraint shown that dark Friday in Jerusalem.”

The good news here is the gift of free will is for real. We can go to war against each other; we can spoil our nest through pollution and greed; we can even kill the son of God. Still, God won’t take that gift back. To me, that means He wants a relationship with real (read: very, very imperfect) people, not robots.

Now ponder the moment in the Bible where Jesus, on the cross, asked God to “forgive them (His killers); they don’t know what they’re doing.” In his book For Christ’s Sake, Tom Harpur sees that moment like this: “Jesus revealed there are no limits to God’s willingness to forgive and pardon. In a real sense, we can even stand there with those who nailed Jesus to the cross and, in our rage or despair, join in hammering the spikes. God still forgives.”

All this can be – and often is – written off quite logically by saying, well, Jesus was just another cool preacher who was killed by nasty people. End of story. But it’s not the end. The resurrection celebrated each Easter is as real to me as the computer I used to write this essay.

Nothing else could explain how apostles cowering in fear for their own lives could be transformed into world-changing evangelists and martyrs; they must have met the risen Christ.

Furthermore, in one of his letters in the Bible, St. Paul (one of the men most responsible for spreading Christianity in the Mediterranean) cites living witnesses to the resurrection. As Harpur writes, “St. Paul is saying those who do not believe him can go and find out for themselves.”

For me, then, the death of his son is God making a case for complete forgiveness and free will to the court of humanity. Bringing Jesus back to life is the overwhelming proof – how better to forgive someone than to reverse their wrong altogether? Case closed.

Does this make sense to you? Post your thoughts below and let’s have a conversation.

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EasterEaster makes me smile.

It probably makes you smile, too, since it’s the reason so many people had a long weekend with Friday off.

But I have another reason. Whereas Christmas — as a religious holiday — was long ago bought, packaged and cleverly marketed by the Retail Council of Canada, Easter still carries the whiff of something spiritual that our culture can’t quite remove.

All the bunnies and painted eggs in the world don’t change the fact Good Friday isn’t called that just because a majority of us get the day off. It, and the weekend that follows, stands like a sentinel of something important and mysterious.

For people of faith, Easter is the dramatic climax of how God reached out to a broken world. It marks the time when Jesus Christ, considered by Christians (and many others) to be God’s son, is transformed through death and resurrection. Around the world, the story is sung in ancient hymns and new pop songs, explored in sermons and re-enacted in plays.

The Bible paints Jesus’ death on a Roman Empire cross as a sacrifice to make up for all the past, present, and future wrongs committed by anyone who believes in him. Wrongs that imperfect people like me simply can’t make up for on our own.

For pastor Warren McDougall, who I chatted with about Easter, that amazing act can be seen as a metaphor for giving ourselves away — to our neighbor, community, or world. To set aside our egos and selfishness for a greater good. That is what serious Christians believe Jesus did on Good Friday.

“The instinct is to preserve yourself and, yet, the counter instinct is generosity, with your life and soul,” said Ken Davis, another pastor I spoke to about Easter.

“Jesus said if you want to be great, serve. And the people we consider truly great are those who truly serve.”

The resurrection takes us from the enormity of service-through-sacrifice to the joy of renewal.

“It’s about good overcoming evil, life overcoming death and that transformation is possible, even from negative things,” McDougall told me.

For Mark Giancola, a third pastor I chatted with (these folks are almost always great conversationalists), the entire weekend can be seen through the lens of “hope for a new relationship with God and a new future.

“So if someone’s searching beyond eggs and bunnies, Easter offers that. It doesn’t matter where you’ve been in life, this offers a new start.”

Agree? Disagree? Post your thoughts below and let’s have a conversation.

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heartFebruary 14 is almost here and that leads me to asking all the guys out there a question: how many of you like Valentine’s Day?

Now that I’m a happily married stepdad, I don’t mind the day. Much.

But when I was single — and most of the time that meant unattached — Valentine’s Day was something to be endured and ignored. Like a split lip or a bunion.

I felt as if I was walking around with a neon beanie that screamed “I’m alone! I suck! I’m not good enough for anyone with two X chromosomes! Even Princess, the neighbor’s cat, hates me!”

And feeling left out? Let me tell you about that. On February 14, guys like me stood outside, peering in the window at all the attached people inside the grand Valentine’s mansion. They all seemed to be floating on happy pills. I was still hobbling with that bunion.

The day can be treacherous for attached guys, too. The marketing world works hard to convince women they need and deserve certain gifts (or ‘experiences’) on Valentine’s Day. And in some cases, if they don’t receive those gifts, the guy gets a couple of nights to share fleas with Fido. In other words, the best some attached guys can do, is NOT get into trouble. And they can sweat away several pounds thinking, consulting, and shopping to make sure they don’t fall short.

If you consider these scenarios carefully, you’ll probably come to the same conclusion as me: they all address the need for acceptance. Male or female, most single people want a relationship — or at least the opportunity for one — and with that, the collective voice of society assuring them they don’t suck.

For attached people, there’s the desire for acceptance from their mate. And often, this world suggests that acceptance — and, therefore, value — depends on what they received compared to their attached friends. Did they get a Hoops & Yoyo talking card and Toblerone chocolate bar, or 48 roses and an expensive night out?

All this certainly seems fraught with peril, like walking through an emotional minefield waiting for something to blow up in your face. Then I remember a pretty cool God thing I read in the Bible: “In Christ’s family, there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us, you are all equal.”

In other words, all of us are accepted exactly where we are, with all our imperfections, fears, and life stories.

We don’t have to give, or receive, gifts or ‘experiences’ to be accepted. In fact, we don’t even have to have a special loved one to be accepted. That’s not what our culture may tell you, but it’s already happened with the most important person you can ever know: Jesus Christ, whom serious Christians believe is the son of God. So if Valentines’ Day brings on decidedly mixed emotions, this may be good to keep mind.

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O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Saviour’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
‘Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth.

I’ll bet you don’t have to think long to match the melody with the lyrics of this well-loved Christmas carol. I’ll also bet that like me, some of the subtleties of the words have passed right by unnoticed.

But someone brought up the verse above at work the other day and pondered the line “‘Til he appeared and the soul felt its worth”. Any idea what it means? I think I’ve figured it out. ‘He’ is Jesus Christ, whom serious Christians – and many others, too – believe is the son of God. The inference in this lyric is that His arrival, and all that it meant,  caused people to feel valued in a new way.

The lyric makes sense to me because according to the Bible, the birth of the son of God was first announced not to the Donald Trumps, Barack Obamas or Lady Gagas of that time, but to a group of smelly sheep herders. It was the first of many, many times when Jesus would level the playing field between the haves and have-nots of this world.

Some faiths adhere to a “caste” system that ranks people’s value. Others faiths advocate violence against those who do not agree with their beliefs.

Meanwhile, the Bible describes how Jesus casually did the unthinkable for a Jew in ancient Israel: he had a very public conversation with a non-Jewish woman, and she was of questionable repute, too. Because of what he did, her soul felt a new worth.

Is that model being carried out today by followers of Jesus? Yes. Consider that a majority of prison ministries are Christian. Why? Because the criminals we’ve locked away as dangerous and useless are of huge value to God. In fact, they have the same value as you and me. Looking for proof? In the Bible, a missionary in the early Christian church wrote this: “Because all people have sinned, they have fallen short of God’s glory.”

Notice how it doesn’t say criminals have sinned more? Notice how it doesn’t say religious leaders or Nobel Prize winners have sinned less? That statement is a great equalizer for all of us, just as it was a great equalizer for the woman Jesus encountered.

The good news that serious Christians celebrate at Christmas is God sent Jesus for all people. The evidence is this Bible excerpt: “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him would not be lost, but have eternal life.”

Again, notice there are no exceptions listed? That’s the unique thing about Christianity. Because our souls have equal worth to God (regardless of who we are or what we’ve done or haven’t done), we all have a chance to accept God’s extraordinary Christmas gift and find new meaning in our lives. So what’s holding you back?

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It was a media release from a Toronto radio station, issued more than a month before Christmas, that did it.

At the time, I was an assistant editor at a newspaper in the Toronto area when this came across my desk: “97.3 EZ Rock is thrilled today to announce they will be playing 100 percent holiday music up to and including Dec. 25,” it said.

Grrr….

I felt my back go up and my eyes roll in disgust.
“Well, that’s one radio station I won’t be listening to until January,” I immediately vowed.

At this point, I guess it’s no surprise to write that Christmas and I haven’t always been best friends. In fact, when that media release came out, Christmas and I were like North and South Korea. I wouldn’t even call it the Christmas season; I labelled it the shopping season.

Then as now, the mass consumption fun quietly kicks off the minute you close the door on your final trick-or-treater. If you have a Santa Clause parade where you live, that’s when the ribbon is officially cut.

By that time, the stores are decking the halls with balls of holly, Christmas commercials are flooding your TV, and obnoxious radio stations are assaulting your ears with insipid music.

In other words, the squeeze is on. Start buying. Start listening. Start watching. Start organizing your social schedule. And start feeling what our culture says you’re supposed to feel.

Shopping season continues to Dec. 25, which is the shopping holiday where we can all relax and look at everything we bought. Just a day later, shopping season resumes for a final, intense week of frantic consumption, followed by a thank-you card in the mail from the Retail Council of Canada.

I’m a passionate church-going man, but in this world, Christmas has so little to do with its real meaning (the birth of Jesus Christ, whom serious Christians believe is the son of God), I’ve sometimes found myself resenting the entire thing.

“I can empathize with your feeling,” says Allan Baker, pastor at a church in Ontario. “It’s similar to how I feel — ‘oh my goodness, here we go again’.”

Rev. Baker says ambivalence towards Christmas is not a rare condition.

“Maybe it’s because I’m older that I encounter more and more people disenchanted with the micro-thin depth of Christmas. That’s part of the reason me and my (pastoral) colleagues find more people in church this time of year.”

Rev. Baker notes he’s a citizen of this world and of the Christian world. “It’s a tension in one’s life — there’s all this pressure of the commercial world, but I need to remember there is a real God I’m devoted to. So I can go shopping and know there is a god higher than the marketplace.”

Even in December, many mainline Christian denominations (United, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Lutheran, etc.) consider themselves not to be in the Christmas season at all. They’re in Advent, “the period of preparation for the celebration of the nativity [birth] of Christ”, according to Wikipedia.

In other words, it’s a time of waiting, generally stretching four Sundays.

“We try very hard to stay in the Advent season,” says Dawn Hutchings, pastor at a Lutheran church in Ontario. “It’s really about emptying oneself and realizing our need for God. We don’t sing Christmas carols in church until Dec. 24.”

Rev. Baker calls Advent a time of discipline. Could that be any more radical in a culture that, at this time of year, stresses the exact opposite in everything from gift-giving to office parties to your entire social schedule?

“When we tell a 2,000-year-old story of Christ’s birth and ministry, it’s sometimes a challenge for people to find it relevant,” admits Rob MacIntosh, another church pastor. “But it is. If we would live that part of Christianity — bringing (the Christmas message of) peace and relationship into our homes, then we could spread it to people around us. If we can get the love part working right, then we’ll have the authority to speak to people about our faith.

And doing that, in a way that emphasizes God’s equal love for every single human being on this planet, could bring us to a place of seeing Christmas as a life-changing light in the darkest season of the year.

What’s your story when it comes to Christmas? Do you struggle with the season? Or have you found what Christians might call a “peace that passes understanding”?

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I almost missed the irony. There I was, at my car dealership, pondering a Thanksgiving blog while mentally fuming about the repair cost and what I thought was the endless wait for my Ford Focus.

Finally, a few synapses in my brain connected and I grudgingly admitted how thankless I was for having a career and the resources to buy and maintain a vehicle.

Famed novelist Aldous Huxley (best known for Brave New World) once said “Most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted.”

I think I’m a charter member of that group.

Journalist Robert Brault notes, “There is no such thing as gratitude unexpressed.  If it is unexpressed, it is plain, old-fashioned ingratitude.”

Wow, I have a gold-plated, lifetime membership to that club, too.

This past summer, my wife & I visited an RV dealer to inquire about repairs to our two-year-old, storm-damaged tent trailer. While there, we happened to check out some new models on the showroom floor and fell in love with a trailer which didn’t have to be put up and taken down, and came with the luxury of a full bathroom.

Were we grateful for the tent trailer we already had? Are you kidding? We talked about that showroom model for weeks, examining potential payment schemes, considering our other  financial obligations, how much we could get in trade for the tent trailer, how much longer and more comfortable our camping season could be, and on and on.

Gradually (I think the glaciers lost a few inches while this process meandered along), we concluded the purchase didn’t make sense and the tent trailer was quite adequate. Indeed, we used it in September for a wonderful week of mountain camping.

What happened to us? For awhile, we bought into the message our culture pushes with hurricane-like relentlessness: You deserve it. Go ahead and be selfish.

This message suggests we should have everything. Now.  No matter what the financial, relational, or environmental cost. Because we’re worth it. And – goes the subtle inference – since we’re worth it, why should we be grateful?

My commitment to following Jesus Christ (whom serious Christians believe is the divine Son of God) tells me that, on my own, I don’t deserve it. I drop the ball more often than a bad outfielder. I’m worse than a blindfolded darts player when it comes to hitting the target of what I’m meant to be.

But, if you take any stock in what’s in the Bible, consider this excerpt: God loves the world [that includes me and you] so much, “He gave his Son, His one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in Him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.”

This means Jesus, God’s son, makes up for all my screw-ups, all my pettiness, all my selfishness. And by following Jesus, I’m opening the door to Him making me a better person.

So, when my wife and I sit down for Thanksgiving dinner, we know we have a lot more than a tent trailer to be grateful for. And we’ve figured out to whom we should express thanks. Have you?

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