Have You Kept Christ in Christmas?

Each year, the holiday season brings with it many historic traditions, like the red cups at Starbucks, the bad pop Christmas songs playing in every retail store in the country, and the revived rhetoric among certain Christians about “keeping Christ in Christmas.” Perhaps you have heard talk of this on the news or seen posts about it in your Facebook feed. I assume the underlying concern is that the removal of any religious references from the holiday might indicate a resistance against or stifling of Christianity in our country. I can appreciate that. But, first, I think it’s safe to say that we’ve got multiple holidays happening in tandem rather than one religious holiday being continually corrupted. C.S. Lewis identified three Christmases in his essay “What Christmas Means to Me” from God in the Dock: there’s the “religious festival,” which is “important and obligatory for Christians,” and the “popular holiday,” which is “an occasion for merry-making and hospitality” for many, regardless of religion or background. Lewis calls the third Christmas the “commercial racket” that “has been forced upon us by the shopkeepers.” He elaborates in typical Lewis fashion—smart, concise, funny—if you’re interested in reading the entire essay, but I’ve shared enough to make my present point. Continue reading Have You Kept Christ in Christmas?

Death, Thanksgiving, and the Resurrection

“Keep your mind in hell and despair not.” — St. Silouan the Athonite

I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately. An acquaintance of mine is a widower, and while I knew previously that his wife died several years ago, I only recently learned how: she suffered a sudden and massive heart attack. This woman was in her early thirties and in good health, and she died shortly after giving birth to the couple’s first child.

It’s easy for me to think of tragedy as something very distant and other. Tragedy happens to people on the news. It is sad and horrible, but always in a somewhat abstract way.

It’s easy to put my faith in statistics and regular exercise and my daily vegetable intake.

It’s easy to believe that because I am young and reasonably healthy I have a lot of life ahead of me.

Of course, if asked point-blank, I would not say that I expect to live to a certain age or that my life will go exactly as I hope and plan it will; no rational person can say that with certainty. Tragedy teaches us that life is very uncertain. Yet my underlying attitude comes out in my words: I joke with my husband about “when we’re old and gray;” I muse about parenting strategies and baby names in preparation for “when we have kids.” I use language of certainty when I speak of the future.

Like so many things in a young person’s mind, I often and far too easily relegate death to the far-off “someday” category. It will come when I’m old and after I’ve accomplished everything I’ve set out to accomplish. Perhaps I don’t believe this completely or even all the time, but in some small corner of my heart, I believe that death will come when I’m ready for it.

And so, it seems I have built an altar to my hopes and dreams, to what I expect out of life and what I think I deserve. I rely on a good diet and good luck for a fulfilled life, and in so doing I ignore the reality of death and tragedy, which really boils down to ignoring God and my need for him.

A former priest of mine used to respond to the question, “How are you doing?” with the statement, “Thank God.” That is, regardless of the circumstances in his life at that moment—whether joyous or tragic or somewhere in between—he responded in this way to practice continual thanksgiving. This is a good reminder of what our baseline should be as Christians: thankfulness to God for every good and perfect thing, and, more importantly, thankfulness for his unchanging goodness and mercy despite our current life circumstances.

After my priest’s example, I am trying to change the way I talk about my life. I speak of the future in terms of God’s will instead of my own plans. Rather than saying, “When I’m an old woman,” I’ll say, “Lord willing, when I’m old.” It’s not bad to hope for good things, but it is bad to idolize our desires and expectations.  We must remember who is ultimately in control, placing our faith in God’s sovereignty and grace above all else, especially when life doesn’t go according to plan.

This past Saturday, my church celebrated Christ’s raising of Lazarus from the dead. I was moved by one of the Scripture readings during the service, from the book of Hebrews:

“Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have. For He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we may boldly say: ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear. What can man do to me?’…Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” — Hebrews 13:5-6, 8

In just a few verses there is such a profound and overarching message: that we must be content with what we have, for the greatest thing we always have is a God who will never abandon us, and that is all we could ever need.

While ignoring the reality of death and tragedy can be detrimental, I am not promoting the opposite extreme of being so consumed with the notion of death and mortality that we become hopeless and fail to live our lives well. Rather, we must be mindful of death, our weaknesses, and other realities that ultimately illumine our continual need for God and his grace. The Jesus Prayer, inspired by the parable of the tax collector in Luke 18, is a powerful aid for such mindfulness: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.”

My contemplation of death seems appropriately timed, as we near the end of Holy Week and rapidly approach Easter Sunday. Soon, the Christian world will celebrate Christ’s resurrection from the dead. Death has been defeated, and while it is still a terrible reality of this life, it is not our end. Our mortality and our shortcomings remind us to be humble, but, as St. Silouan says in the quote above, we must not despair. This is not to say that tragedy and suffering are to be dismissed as insignificant; Christ himself mourned the death of Lazarus, which points to how death is unnatural and against God’s will. Death is a horrific thing that tears apart a human’s very being. But thanks to Christ, we have hope beyond death and despite tragedy and suffering, as our savior tells us:

“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” — John 16:33

Thank God.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

By the Parting of the Waters: Reflections on Epiphany and Baptism

On January 6th, my church celebrated the ancient Christian feast day of Epiphany. On this day, as this article from the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) discusses, we commemorate Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River, the revelation of Christ as both human and a member of the divine Trinity, and the subsequent sanctification of mankind and all creation because of this fact. This year, I was particularly struck by the significance of water and baptism in Christian spirituality and tradition. (The OCA article provides a more in-depth explanation of the holiday and provides the source for much of what I say here.)

Epiphany means “shining forth” or “manifestation” (it’s also sometimes called Theophany, meaning “vision of God”). The feast bears this name because it celebrates Christ’s baptism, in which we find a quintessential manifestation of the Trinity:

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, ‘Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.’ — Mark 1:9-11

The service also includes readings from Isaiah that foretell Christ’s coming and the salvation of the world; included is the passage in Isaiah referenced in the Gospel account of Christ’s baptism that speaks of John the Baptist as a voice crying in the wilderness, “prepare the way of the Lord,” (Isaiah 40:3). While there is much to glean from these passages, I’d like to highlight the language of water in particular:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing…the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water… — Isaiah 35:1-2, 7

‘For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it.’ — Isaiah 55:10-11

‘Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the Lord God is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation.’ With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. — Isaiah 12:2-3

In these verses, water is presented as the source of rejuvenation for dry and thirsty grounds and is compared to the word of God that incites spiritual growth and accomplishes his purpose in the world. Finally, in my personal favorite verse among this group of passages, salvation is called a well: with joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. I love the verse’s poetry, and the metaphor makes sense: wells are sources of water, which is the source of life. Spiritually speaking, salvation in Christ is the ultimate source of life, and we must draw upon him continually, daily, faithfully. This verse also beautifully captures the fact that salvation is not a one-time event, but an ongoing process of growth and sanctification.

The overall message is clear: just like water, the salvation of Christ is necessary for life, growth, healing, and flourishing. Jesus calls what he has to offer the world “living water” when he speaks to the Samaritan woman at the well:

Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink,” you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep; where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, and his sons, and his cattle?’Jesus said to her, ‘Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.’ — John 4:10-14

As Christ, God became man in order to redeem mankind. Epiphany celebrates and commemorates this, but it also reminds us that God has dominion not only over humanity, but also over all of creation, as the OCA article points out. He is the author of all life and everything that has being, and when God took on a material form he redeemed every part of the material world:

In the Lord’s epiphany all creation becomes good again, indeed ‘very good,’ the way that God himself made it and proclaimed it to be in the beginning when ‘the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters’ (Genesis 1:2). —  “Epiphany”

Christ brings salvation to the world through his dual nature, and this nature is made manifest at his baptism. Similarly, it is through baptism that Christians participate in the saving work of Christ’s death and resurrection, entering into new spiritual life. As Paul writes in Romans,

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. — Romans 6:3-5

Living water, indeed.

As the Israelites were delivered from their bondage in Egypt through the Red Sea (Exodus 14), as they entered the promised land through the Jordan River (Joshua 3), so are we now delivered from sin and so do we enter into new life with Christ: by the parting of the waters.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Don’t Just Be Yourself; Make Yourself Better

With the arrival of the new year, many of us will take time to reflect on our accomplishments and experiences of the past twelve months and to look ahead into the future. There is a sense of hope that comes with the beginning of a new year: new goals, new dreams. A clean slate. We resolve to lose weight, to write more, to stay in touch with friends, to always fold the laundry as soon as it’s out of the dryer. We head into the first days of the new year with a list of items to check off in order to make ourselves better.

And this is good. Because the fact of the matter is that you (and me, and everyone else) ought to strive to become better. Many popular culture media preach a different message, however: that we are perfect just the way we are, and that we shouldn’t feel a need to change ourselves. Romantic comedies, sitcoms, and the like apply this message to romance, telling us that if we are to find someone to love, we should find someone who never wants us to change and who believes we are perfect, because that is the hallmark of true love.

I’ve written before about how Ted Mosby gets on my nerves. I’ve found that How I Met Your Mother, while decently funny, is full of sneaky half-truths about what good and healthy relationships (particularly, romantic relationships) are supposed to look like. Television in general, I’ve come to learn, tells us many lies, and HIMYM perpetuates a specific lie in it’s ongoing account of Ted’s journey to find true love: that the person you are meant to be with should be a perfect fit for you from the moment you meet, and that no change or improvement should be required of either of you during the course of the relationship.

At the beginning of HIMYM season eight, Ted has a surreal conversation with his girlfriend’s ex-fiancée about how you know if you’ve found your soul mate. The ex-fiancée, Klaus, tells Ted that there is a (fictional) German word that means “lifelong treasure of destiny.” Ted inquires as to whether or not a person could become that, more and more, over time. At this question, my heart dared to hope for a richer, more meaningful discussion of love and commitment, one that involves mutual sacrifice and growth rather than an unrealistic picture of perfection and ease.

That hope was quickly crushed, though, by Klaus’s definitive answer: no, absolutely not. “[It’s] not something that develops over time,” he says. “It’s something that happens instantaneously…if you have to think about it, you have not felt it.”

Christopher Orr wrote an excellent critique of Love Actually last month, arguing that the fundamental flaw of the film is how it presents love:

…as either absurdly easy—something that strikes you like a thunderclap and requires only a single grand gesture in order to be fulfilled—or all but impossible. Notably absent is the idea that love might ever be worth a little sustained effort: some mutual exploration and discovery, a bit of care and nurture, maybe even the overcoming of an obstacle or two.

HIMYM, it seems, shares this flaw in its presentation of love. This is a pretty grim message, for a couple of reasons (that do not apply singly to romance).

First, it implies that if there is any indication that you and the person you are in a relationship with are not totally perfect for each other (let alone the question of how you’re supposed to discern said “perfection”) then you should call it quits. This completely undermines most wisdom I’ve heard from people in long-term, committed relationships: that it is difficult, that sometimes it sucks, that you will get angry and frustrated, and that it requires constant and mutual work, sacrifice, and humility to be successful and lasting. Yet I myself have been affected by the lies about love propagated by popular culture (HIMYM and Love Actually being two examples), feeling the fear creep in during difficult moments in my marriage. Maybe I’m not perfect enough for my husband, I’ve wondered. Maybe he would be happier with someone else. I don’t think I need to elaborate on how poisonous this kind of thinking can be, both to one’s self-esteem and to the relationship as a whole.

Of course, the most effective lies are mixed with truth, and the message of HIMYM, I believe, stems from a good place: a desire to find happiness, to be accepted, and to be loved unconditionally. You shouldn’t be with someone who doesn’t like you, has nothing in common with you, or wants you to change who you are completely, but that’s just common sense. You also shouldn’t be with someone who worships you as a perfect being capable of bestowing every happiness upon them, which is what I think the show is really saying when characters express their desire to find “the one.” If anyone pulled a Love Actually on me with the line, “To me, you are perfect,” my response would be, “You obviously don’t know me that well, do you?” Unconditional love and the need for growth and change are not mutually exclusive.

The second reason this is a disastrous message is that it lets us off the hook regarding self-improvement. It encourages pride and ego rather than humility and servitude: if someone tells me I need to change, that’s their problem, not mine. True love doesn’t require change, at least not according to popular culture.

One lesson I’ve learned this year is that, as an adult, I alone am responsible for my own self-improvement. When parents and professors are no longer constantly around to keep us on track, it’s up to us to keep moving forward. This year I’ve been mulling over the realization that if I stop trying to get better, the only alternative is that I’ll get worse. I suppose you could say that a second alternative is just stagnation, but “stagnant” and “worse” seem equivalent. Living life well and in a way that makes us better is difficult, but we can’t give up on it because the alternatives are far worse than the effort required to succeed.

So while HIMYM and other pop culture examples like to tell us that we should just be ourselves and embrace who we are, because we are “perfect” as-is (maybe not for everyone, but certainly for our “one”), we must temper that with a dose of humility and accept that we are imperfect beings in need of improvement. This is the sanctification of loving human relationships: not that we achieve everlasting happiness through our own personal “perfect” match, but that we choose to be burdens on each other, ultimately sharing the different kind of joy that comes from learning and growing together in spite of our many flaws and the inevitable challenges we will face. When you love someone, it’s just what you do, and that is the real hallmark of truly loving relationships.

In a romantic relationship, people can become better for each other and more unified over time, growing deeper in love and intimacy as the years go by thanks to all of the shared experiences and learning that takes place. So I think Ted’s question regarding the possibility of becoming better over time is closer to the truth: we are still becoming who we are meant to be. We are works in progress, not yet perfected. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.

All of this is not to say that we should hate ourselves or feel worthless; on the contrary, every human being is an image-bearer of God, fearfully and wonderfully made, and inherently valuable and loved by their Creator. This humility, then, should be adopted not along with despair, but with the recognition of our God-given value as humans and the saving, sanctifying grace of Christ that is freely offered and promised to us. We are imperfect, but our Father continually works to perfect us. We must participate in that work—through spiritual exercises like prayer and fasting, but also through the everyday routines and decisions that shape us—always remembering that we do not work alone. We shouldn’t try to become some other person entirely whom we believe to be better than who we are. We should resolve to continually try to become better versions of ourselves.

Be yourself, surely, but make yourself better.

Ushering in 2014: Reflection and the Future

This has been a crazy year for us at Evangelical Outpost. Aside from a plethora of personal events (multiple moves, a wedding, and all sorts of exciting happenings), we’ve found some success putting words out into the cold space of the internet. This marks the first calendar year that I’ve been at the helm of this little corner of the internet, and I’ve been blessed to read and edit so many great posts this last year (not to mention pen a few).

And so, a reflection. During the last year, we thought long and hard about how to utilize our partnership with the Torrey Honors Institute. We came up with taking on current students (for credit), and letting them loose on the public world. We ran into some rough spots, and we had some absolutely excellent writers along the way. It was a great experience, and while we will be constantly tweaking and rounding up some of those sharp edges, we all are looking forward to more interactivity with those students.

In addition, we managed to get featured at The Gospel Coalition twice this year. One article was penned by one of our aforementioned student writers, and I was pleased to write the other. It was a good year for us, in that way.

Since a retrospective is the current goal, here are some of our top posts from the last year:

Just Let Them Think You’re Stupid: Choosing Humility

On Singleness: Six Principles to Keep in Mind

Iceland, Pornography, and What Liberty Doesn’t Mean

Salad, Sex, and Lent: Abstinence for a Purpose

The Expulsive Power of an Addiction: Why Smoking Might Save Your Life

But I didn’t just promise you links to what we’ve already done, I promised a look into the future. So, here’s what the next year holds for us at Evangelical Outpost. First, we’re going to keep mentoring young writers. We’ll continue to work with Torrey students, taking on as many as our current writers can keep up with. This change won’t be too visible, for most people, but it is still something we’re excited about.

The second change–and perhaps the most significant one for readers–is that we hope to do a full fledged redesign. That’s right, the old style of this site will be gone. We’ll have a clearer announcement of this when we get closer, but keep your eyes out. I’m excited, and can’t wait to reveal what we’ve come up with.

As the calendar turns over, we all celebrate living to write the next year on our checks. May God guide us into the new year, no matter what it may bring.

I’m Dreaming of a Non-Pop Christmas

As someone who holds a retail job in December, I can tell you that I listen to more than my fair share of Christmas music on a daily basis: remixed versions of “Let It Snow;” endless ballads recounting the life and times of “Frosty The Snowman;” more renditions of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” than are possibly justifiable.

Like trying to find a parking space close to the Apple Store, coordinating relatives’ cross-country travel schedules, and enduring the crowds and lines that comprise every Saturday at the mall in the month of December, this kind of “pop Christmas” music has become another aspect of the holiday season that seems to stress and annoy rather than inspire and comfort. While many of us have our favorite seasonal songs (“The Christmas Waltz,” anyone?), pop Christmas music provides temporary enthusiasm for the holidays at best, and a pang of annoyance and even cynicism at worst.

But there are two types of Christmas music, and they represent two different types of Christmas. Pop Christmas music represents the Christmas that is about hot cocoa, falling in love, enjoying a fresh snowfall, and caroling in the snow. Beloved Christmas films like Miracle on 34th Street also populate the pop Christmas world, relaying the importance of revitalizing one’s faith in Santa Claus (a fictional character loosely based on historical St. Nicholas) and thus ironically presenting a sense of faith and devotion related to a Christian holiday that is, at best, only tangentially Christian.

On the flip side, there is Christmas music that represents a deeper, richer, more theological Christmas. This genre of music can be a valuable resource for Christians as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ. The weeks leading up to Christmas ought to be a time for contemplation and expectation, not merely gift shopping and baking and decorating. It’s not that any of those things are inherently bad; rather, it’s that we as Christians must remember to make time and space to get into the proper mindset during the Advent season. While this kind of non-pop Christmas music presents a starkly different message than its pop counterpart, most of the songs are still prominent enough to be part of the Christmas music canon, and therefore familiar to many. As we prepare for the ending of the Advent season and the celebration of Christmas itself, we can consider these well-known yet perhaps overlooked songs in a new light and, trite as it may sound, reorient ourselves to the true meaning of Christmas.

Take, for example, “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” Anyone who has ever tuned into the Christmas radio station could probably hum the tune from memory, but the song itself is rather antiquated compared to many pop Christmas hits, dating back to the eighteenth century. The first verse is probably the most familiar:

O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant!
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem;
Come and behold him
Born the King of Angels:
O come, let us adore Him, (3x)
Christ the Lord.

I find the subsequent verses, though, to be more spiritually engaging, particularly the second and fourth verses:

God of God, light of light,
Lo, he abhors not the Virgin’s womb;
Very God, begotten, not created:
O come, let us adore Him, (3x)
Christ the Lord.

Yea, Lord, we greet thee, born this happy morning;
Jesus, to thee be glory given!
Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing!
O come, let us adore Him, (3x)
Christ the Lord.

These verses contain several significant theological references. There is mention of the miraculous virgin birth. The second verse speaks of Christ’s fully divine yet fully human nature, borrowing language from the ancient Nicene Creed (“Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten, not created”).  Finally, the verses convey the miracle of Christology—Christ’s position as a member of the Trinity, co-eternal with the Father—particularly with the fourth verse’s allusion to John 1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made trough him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” (1:1-3)

There are more examples. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is full of Old Testament references to the birth of Christ as the fulfillment of ancient prophecies, specifically the one in Isaiah 7:14: “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and you shall call his name Immanuel.” This song is an excellent starting point for a conversation about how Scripture of the Old Testament points to Christ’s life and works in the New Testament.

I’m also a fan of the poem-turned-to-song “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” originally written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Here is the final verse:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Again, the scriptural and theological allusions are simple yet deeply beautiful reminders of real reason we’re to celebrate this time of year, such as the heavenly hosts’ praises to God in Luke 2:14: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” And, of course, there’s the poignant second line: God is not dead, nor doth He sleep. It’s a reminder that God is real; God is alive; God is present and human in the birth of Christ; God is with us. Immanuel.

These types of Christmas songs can help center us around the divine, mysterious, miraculous reason for the Advent preparation and Christmas celebrations: that God became man so that the rest of humanity could be redeemed and renewed and able to participate in the divine.

In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:4-5)

After Malachi Before Matthew: Long Silences and Christmas

The Harvest is past, summer is ended and we are not saved. –Jeremiah 8:20

A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. – Isaiah 40:3

When I was growing up I was always picked to play a shepherd in the manger scene. I’m a red headed, Caucasian male with not a drop of blood tracing back to the Holy Land, but I could stand still and be quiet (more or less) so I was perfect for the part. Luke 2 was a favorite chapter to act out during grade school Christmas programs, and for the past two decades, on every first Sunday of December I’ve watched the lighting of the first candle of Advent. From a young age I’ve performed rituals that cultivate anticipation.

Growing up I sang lots of Christmas carols about the coming of Christ, but never about the four hundred years of silence previous to his arrival. There was an emphasis on preparedness for Christ’s coming into the world, but there is a significant difference between anticipation for the month of December and waiting four hundred years. How long can you anticipate something without an intermittent status report or confirmation? What is it like to live in four centuries of silence?

I imagine my ancient ancestors, who didn’t anticipate a Messiah, were more familiar with silence then I am. I live in a world where expectation is celebrated every year for itself. Every Sunday the church is preaching, teaching, and singing about God’s love, his works, and his promises for the future. What would it be like for it all that to gradually go silent? And how long does it take for silence to encourage doubt—for it to make me rush to something talkative and loud? Israel once begged Moses for God to not speak to them “lest they should die.” But how long does he remain silent before you feel the anticipation of non existence?

Emmanuel –God with us—hasn’t always been a comfortable concept. “God with us” was a terrifying reality when Israel stood before Mt. Sinai. It was probably a distant memory for the anointed King David when he roamed the wilderness as an outlaw. For Ahab it was a rouge curse as Elijah cut the throats of the prophets of Baal in the light of heavenly fire. Emmanuel is a heavy reality—inviting a submission that can’t be volunteered by a hardened heart, and the obedient are always driven by Kings and nations into the wild places of the land. As Spurgeon says “men will allow God to be everywhere but on his throne.”

Throughout the Old Testament Israel’s remnant is pushed into the margins; sometimes the wilderness or as some exiled minority in a foreign city. When this happened Jerusalem became their orientation—it was the city of the temple, the place where God met with man. Inside the Holy of Holies God’s presence dwelled until it was pushed by disobedience into the tongues of the prophets. They prophesied to the nation and were killed by the nation. Zachariah is killed between the altar and the sanctuary. The reader finishes the fourth chapter of Malachi and then it goes quiet.

Four hundred years, roughly the same amount of time between Joseph and Moses. This would have been similar to the generations of Israelite slaves who slowly forgot the God of Jacob as they sweat under the whips of the Pharaoh. This would be four hundred years of building a nation that isn’t their own and giving birth to slave children threatened by population control. Four hundred years in subjection to Egyptian gods, Egyptian rule, and Egyptian scorn with no word from God.

Malachi stops writing and the situations are similar. Israel never regains sovereignty from foreign nations and is swapped between the Gentile kingdoms of the Persians, the Greeks, and then the Romans. Four hundred years—the excruciating pause before Incarnation.

From the barren places of the earth God sends a wild man. John the Baptist emerges—the voice of the nation’s remnant. As if the marginalized, abused presence of God in Israel was shaking with impatience John jumps out of the wilderness with a voice loud enough to be heard across the divide of four centuries. A voice so loud and direct that it could be heard through the span of history, from the ears of Moses to Elijah to the Jew under the Romans washing for repentance in the Jordan River. The spirit of the slain righteous shouts the culmination of their prophecies—the flesh blood reality of Emmanuel.

“He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, Born of the Virgin Mary, Suffered under Pontius Pilate was crucified dead and buried. On the third day he rose from the dead: he ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty…”

There he sits. We wait one season at a time as creation groans. We anticipate and suffer in silence. We light the candles and count out the years, knowing that when he comes, it will be exactly at the right time.

Starving, Going to War, and Giving Thanks

The images that come to mind with Thanksgiving are typically related to food: turkey, gravy, stuffing, a slice of pumpkin or apple pie. Family may also come to mind, along with the occasional Pilgrim. We don’t usually think of bloodshed, cannons, civil war, and patriotism. Yet these were the circumstances under which Thanksgiving became a national holiday.

As with other holidays, memory is vital—in order to properly celebrate, we must remember the reason for our celebration. Our national holiday of Thanksgiving has two origins. The first is with the Puritans, who came to the New World to escape the confines of the Church of England and consequent persecution from James I. Their Thanksgiving was not, as public schools teach, to thank the Native Americans for their help. They were thanking God, and invited the Native Americans to join in their celebration.

Growing up, I sat down with my family every Thanksgiving morning to read portions of Thanksgiving: A Time to Remember, a book which recounts the details of the Puritans’ first few harvests. They were difficult years—almost half the colonists died within the first winter. Their first hard-earned harvest, with which they celebrated the first “Thanksgiving,” was not enough to last the winter for those who had worked all year to grow the food, as well as the hoard of new-comers who had just landed from England with almost no supplies. Yet, true to their Puritan principles, they continued to praise and worship God for his blessings.

Due to reading that book every year, I know that Thanksgiving, like many American holidays, is centered around God. While I associate it with strong religious ties, I don’t automatically think of it as also having strong patriotic ties. However, the original purpose of Thanksgiving was for both religion and patriotism to be combined. This is where Abraham Lincoln comes in.

On October 3, 1863—in the middle of the American Civil War—Lincoln issued a proclamation, instituting a national day of thanksgiving to God. The proclamation itself is not long, but like his famous address at Gettysburg, it is powerful. Within the short text, Lincoln rightfully acknowledges the blessings of God, even in the midst of the devastation caused by the Civil War:

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict…No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gift of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.

Even when the fate of the United States was uncertain, Lincoln wanted to recognize God for his blessings and mercy upon our country. At heart, Thanksgiving is a holiday deeply rooted in the Christian heritage of those who have relied on God to pull them through—the starving Puritans, and the torn armies of the Civil War.

Recently, a professor of mine offered some profound advice: it is crucial for us to not pass straight from Halloween to Christmas, but to fully immerse ourselves in the celebration of the harvest. If we skim over Thanksgiving in our hurry to get to Christmas, we completely miss a season in which we can be grateful for the Lord’s provision and blessings.

We are facing different challenges in the twenty-first century than the Puritans faced in the seventeenth century or the Union in the nineteenth, but God is still good, and He is still with us. If American Christians could thank God through starvation, sickness, war, and slavery, we can certainly thank him through our own grief and struggles. While feasting is an appropriate—and self-gratifying—activity for the holiday, Thanksgiving is not just about sweet potato casserole and mashed potatoes. It is about giving thanks to our Creator, who in his rich mercy, has granted us the privilege of living in a country that allows us the opportunity of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Who Stole the Turkey? or Why Thanksgiving Should be Reclaimed

Merry Christmas! And it’s only mid-November. Or right after Halloween. Or maybe even mid-July. Sound familiar? This is the American commercial tradition, classifying and celebrating the season of late fall to early winter as the ‘holiday season’, but we really just mean Christmas for the most part. After all, we look forward to ending the year with that merry time of peace on earth and good will to all, which for Christians is just fine, so long as baby Jesus gets to stay in his manger on the church lawn without the secularists filing lawsuits. Almost any tension can be reconciled, in some form or another, in this happy time.

Meanwhile, the other major holiday of the season (before the New Year and besides ethnic holidays like Kwanzaa and Hanukkah) only gets remembered in the brief span of a week or two before it actually arrives. In that space, we think of turkeys and joyous/awkward family get-togethers where we stuff ourselves with magnificent feasts before rushing madly to the store for Black Friday sales on Thanksgiving afternoon. Not even the holiday itself is free from the looming lights and gifts, from thinking of what comes next instead of what is already here.

This is nothing new. After all, it’s difficult to give thanks when so much misery falls on us in the world, like being stuck with last year’s gadget. Or, more seriously, our lives could have been ruined by hurricanes, fires, tornadoes, and disintegrating health care laws. It’s also hard to get into the spirit of a holiday, beyond food and family, when the mythical side of it involves a group of Protestant white Europeans that over three centuries ago celebrated safely arriving to a wilderness continent, feasting for days with a group of Native Americans. Santa just seems more inviting than such distant history, which might not have happened anyway.

However, there is more to it than just the Pilgrims. After all, the actual holiday was not instituted until the time of the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln, like many of the Revolutionary Fathers (including Washington), often proclaimed that the nation should pray for God’s blessing. In Lincoln’s time, he encouraged prayer specifically for the endeavor to reunite the country and to thank God for the blessings He was giving in the midst of the sufferings, and even to ask His forgiveness for the sins that incurred the scourge of bloody war. Such language is totally foreign to a modern society that largely disapproves of being asked to participate in religious ceremony, unless they are allowed to follow whatever ceremony they choose.

While Lincoln certainly wasn’t one to compel a sectarian understanding of his holiday, he was expressing a generally Christian one. In the first proclamation (on August 12, 1861) among several that led to the official Thanksgiving, he declared:

…it is fit and becoming in all people, at all times, to acknowledge and revere the Supreme Government of God; to bow in humble submission to His chastisements; to confess and deplore their sins and transgressions in the full conviction that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; and to pray, with all fervency and contrition, for the pardon of their past offences, and for a blessing upon their present and prospective action…

All of which an average American living in 2013 will not readily believe. The idea that our nation celebrates a day to humbly come before God, to ask forgiveness of sin and recognize His superiority, would strike the casual observer as the most radical, fundamentalist, right-wing distortion of American culture.

That’s why we have turkeys and food, so that the giving of thanks turns into a general good will, spread among our loved ones, rather than the uncomfortable religious intentions of its founder, Lincoln. The spiritual overtone to Christmas is much easier to forget when the holiday results in receiving new possessions rather than striking a pose of contentment with what we already have. The focus of Thanksgiving may not be wholly stripped of a graceful posture, but it does seem particularly dimmed when Yuletide themed ads roll out the beginning of November, and Black Friday gobbles up more and more, until it doesn’t seem far-fetched if we just skip the formality altogether and end up with a Black Thursday.

More importantly, Thanksgiving was intended to bring people together, and our divisive self-minded culture is not inclined to find reasons, much less religious ones, for reconciling with fellow Americans, beyond the family. On October 3, 1863 Lincoln gave another proclamation wherein, speaking about similar objects of gratitude, he says, “It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.” He saw the holiday as a means to unify the people, one of his greater goals during the fractious war he navigated, but that need sounds hollow to the 21st century Americans who are bitterly divided on race, culture, and politics. The Macy’s parade might bring New Yorkers together, but the spirit of national union is far from Thanksgiving or even the festive ‘peace on earth’ conclusion of the year.

With that in mind, it may be the perfect time for Christians to reclaim Thanksgiving, for themselves and for their secular neighbors, as it was intended. Believers, in their own personal celebration, can remember the godly heritage of their forbears, supplanting the ambiguous reasons behind its holiday traditions. Furthermore, we can remind others that Christmas music shouldn’t start until December 1st, or Black Friday at the earliest. We can also use Thanksgiving to reach out to those whom we might otherwise avoid, because they are pro- this or anti- that, and by so doing begin to heal the cultural scars and pave the way for unbelievers to receive the hopeful message of that baby who comes next on the calendar.

Salad, Sex and Lent: Abstinence for a Purpose

I’m a virgin. You may have heard of us.

My understanding of sex is based on a combination of fifth-grade conversations with my mom, accidentally running into people in the park who thought they were alone, and watching HBO. Not much on the personal experience end.

While I have no problem admitting to my current state of sexlessness, I hate the modern conception of what a “virgin” must look like. I don’t live with my parents; I don’t play World of Warcraft in a basement. I’m not overweight. (I also have a job in the film industry, which I have been told is “sexy.”)

The fact that I’m a virgin comes up, now and then, in unexpected conversations—at work, while on a camping trip, at a party. The reactions vary, but the most common is something along the lines of “Whoa…I respect that, I just didn’t know anyone could do it!”

In Christian contexts, I’m much less of a social unicorn: plenty of the people I know from church are still “doing the abstinence thing,” despite living in a city that thrives on hook-up culture. And the number of people from my alma mater whose engagements pop up on Facebook each week keeps the rest of us hopeful for a sanctioned, sexy future.

But the thing that bothers me about the church approach to chastity is that many youth groups—including my own—have felt that the only way to keep teenagers out of each other’s pants is to present abstinence as a magical money-back guarantee. “Here, put on this purity ring! It will guide your future husband right to you!”

I appreciate the sentiment of things like “true love waits,” but I’d rather be part of an abstinence that doesn’t sit around pining. Sometimes people never get married. Sometimes they do and the “plumbing” doesn’t work.

Most likely there will be someone, sometime, who finds my big blue eyes and charming wit irresistible. But if there isn’t, I will legitimately end up dying a virgin. Which, as we have learned from TV shows, is actually a fate worse than death.

So if the goal of abstinence is “better indulgence later,” then we have a problem. Which leads me to look outside the sex issue for a bit.

I’ve taken part in Lent, or at least the less-liturgical Protestant version, for a couple of years now. Each time it’s helped me to refocus things in my life that were a little out of balance: MySpace (circa 2007), chocolate, etc. This year I decided to give up alcohol—and for the first time, didn’t make it through.

I convinced myself that I could make an exception for a really big party I would be attending for work. Afterwards, I was a little unhappy, but not in a guilty “I just failed God” sense. I was mostly just bummed that I would no longer be able to brag about my perfect Lent record to all of my Christian friends. Plus, now that I had a drink once, should I just scrap the whole thing and get wasted?

And that was when I realized that I might have this “abstaining” thing all wrong.

The purpose of Lent was never to build up to a self-righteous Easter binge.

But in our society, the only thing that gets us to curb our appetites is the pursuit of another appetite. We switch from burgers to salads, for example, so we can lose weight and look good enough to get laid. Not just because it’s good for us. Not if we’re being honest. Restraint for its own sake—without some kind of physical payoff—has been branded lunacy. Because why would you not want to be happy?

Which leaves me sitting here, crying into my kale salad, asking God why he can’t just zap me and take my desire for physical intimacy away.

Fortunately (like every other modern evangelical in a dilemma), I found a C.S. Lewis sound byte to re-orient my brain:

 “If anyone says that sex, in itself, is bad, Christianity contradicts him at once. But…when people say, ‘Sex is nothing to be ashamed of,’ they may mean ‘the state into which the sexual instinct has now got is nothing to be ashamed of’. If they mean that, I think they are wrong. I think it is everything to be ashamed of. There is nothing to be ashamed of in enjoying your food: there would be everything to be ashamed of if half the world made food the main interest of their lives and spent their time looking at pictures of food and dribbling and smacking their lips.” (Mere Christianity)

If you need any further fleshing out of that metaphor, think about that friend that always Instagrams what they’re having for lunch.

I have a God who wants me to meet him outside my desires. To pause from all of the other things that I take in that are not him, and find security outside of them.

Because only then can I realize that my appetites are not what define me…nor should they be.

We are not (just) what we eat.