Christmas Gifts

For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, 22 thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within and defile a man.”  Mark 7:21-23

I saw the following article last Saturday, criticizing our own culture of decades past:

When all women wanted for Christmas was a Hoover, and men were after some Pipe Appeal: Cringeworthy adverts show life in the days before political correctness

Was the advertising sexist by today’s standards?  Not as much as the article would have us believe!

The first rule of studying history is to evaluate the subject in its own context, not the present day.  For example, one caption in the article calls the marketing strategies as questionable.  Well, they were used for a while and cost a lot of money to run.  They couldn’t have been too questionable!

Slide2The “Wows the Ladies” ad by Mennan features a fetching young lady in lingerie to tempt men to use their product.  This is different from current commercials by Axe or any beer company how??

For my ten-year anniversary at my company, I did NOT opt for something like a watch or a pin.  I got the extra wide toaster that easily takes bagels.  What homemaker – male or female – wouldn’t want a nice toaster, if they don’t already have a really good one?

Slide1But here’s the thing that really got me going against this article; cost.  How expensive are toasters, vacuums, stockings, or aftershave vs. what is being pitched as prime Christmas gifts these days?  That includes you, Mercedes Benz and Lexus!

And I don’t recall shootings, maulings, and deaths associated with Christmas shopping in those days dominating the headlines as they do now.  I remember people might have a ruckus over who picked up item “X” first, but I don’t recall Christmas shopping being a potentially deadly affair.

Let’s turn the tables on the author of this article: What would the culture of those days say if they could see the crass sexuality, brutality, greed, and godlessness of their future?

Christmas Eve

From The Substance Hoped For and based on Luke, Chapter 2.

Shepherds and AngelsThe shepherds had had quite an evening of it. Barely drifting into a longed-for sleep, they had suddenly found themselves in the midst of a supernatural event. They knew the history of their race and were familiar with the promise of the Messiah. Now angels from God had danced with them and told them where they could see the mythical Messiah now come to them in the flesh.

It didn’t take much discussion to decide that the sheep would somehow be in God’s keeping. If He had told them to go see the Chosen One, surely He would not let any harm come to them or their livelihood. With utter abandon they ran, tripped, rolled, bounced, and otherwise descended the hillside, heading for the faint fires that marked Bethlehem.

Christmas ShepherdsInside the stable was a man standing next to a girl who was seated. She was holding a small bundle, which had to be a child. The shepherds gathered respectfully around them. Some of them were telling the man about what had happened to them on the hillside outside of town. The girl listened calmly, smiling at them as their story unfolded. The other shepherds were gingerly peering into the bundle she cradled. One or two were brave enough to stretch a finger into the swaddling clothes to render a gentle caress.

The girl seemed amused that such rough men were behaving so meekly. Suddenly, she decided to let them hold her Child. She offered Him to the nearest man, who tried to Shepherds and Jesusretreat from this fearsome honor. That a man can fight wolves and bears and make his way in the wilderness alone and yet be cowed by a mewling infant has been a known fact through the ages, much to the delight of mothers everywhere. Enjoying the only entertainment she’d had since before leaving home to come to Bethlehem for the census, she prevailed upon him to hold her Son. Thankful that they hadn’t been singled out by the mother, his alleged friends provided no escape. The mountain man accepted the Child into his arms with a look of intense concentration, lest he break something.

Having been cornered himself, he decided it was now time for someone else to pass through the fire of holding a baby, but none of his compatriots would take Him. Inside, he was just as glad. This was really more fun than he had thought it would be. And this made him out to be the bravest in the group.

Through the accidents of history come the customs of holidays. Some parallels between 20th Century observances and original events are based upon centuries of repeated lore. Others are the result of mere happenstance, not thought of by modern day revelers.

nativity-manger-sceneThere are the manger scenes. Some are life size with real animals and people, trying to recreate the original as truly as possible. Others would be an embarrassment were it not for the fact that the resident nine-year-old made it at school. Gifts are given, whether an unwanted tie in bright paper or the ultimate gift from God wrapped in straw. There are the anxieties of not feeling ready enough and being overwhelmed with the demands of the season, whether it’s trying to get all the cookies made or finding a room at an inn. There is the joy over what lies at the core of the event, however.

There is one other element of Christmas which the original event shares with all of its subsequent remembrances and no one ever knew about; having company that is welcome but keeps you up past your bedtime. The shepherds were an unexpected surprise at the stable. Their infectious joy was a boon to the lonely family. Mary and Joseph had no one there to celebrate the birth of their Son with them.

Oh, they were more than happy about the birth of Jesus. There was nothing about this evening that they would now change even though they had despaired over their predicament within the last twenty-four hours. No, they were quite pleased with the outcome. This would be a night to tell their Son about someday…over and over again. This was virtually the stuff of legends, the kind of event that would survive generations in the family oral history. They couldn’t help smiling at the thought of their children’s children relating the tense tale of how Jesus’ birth unfolded.

But there was a sense of disappointment all the same. There was the exultation of the moment but no roar of the crowd. Then these wild hill men came to rejoice with them at this most opportune moment. They were all as a family for this night.

So, in keeping with the Christmas tradition of centuries to come, the shepherds stayed late, keeping the Holy Family from their sleep.

cow-resting-manger-11703874Eventually the shepherds left. It had been fun, but in the end Mary and Joseph were glad to see them go. They could now act out the final stage of this particular holiday tradition. The vacuum of the departure of one’s guests leaves the hosts tired and without direction for a while. Fortunately, the mundane tasks of living press upon us at these times. We clear the dishes, put back the chairs, put the cow back in her stall, and fluff up the straw bed. Mary and Joseph moved about in that post-company daze that we all know so well.

merry-christmas-images-1

Excerpt from The Substance Hoped For

Simeon and JesusAnd behold, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon, and this man was just and devout, waiting for the Consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26 And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27 So he came by the Spirit into the temple. And when the parents brought in the Child Jesus, to do for Him according to the custom of the law, 28 he took Him up in his arms and blessed God…    Luke 2:25-35

I’ve always found this to be such a tender, bitter-sweet scene from the Christmas narrative.  I wanted to flesh it out to try and capture more of the emotion of that meeting.  The following excerpt from The Substance Hoped For comes after several pages that introduce Simeon and set up this meeting.  Enjoy!

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Joseph and Mary entered the outermost court, heading toward the temple.  Weaving their way through the crowds, they found themselves confronted by an elderly priest.  Simeon moved to face Joseph.  He looked deeply into Joseph’s eyes, and Joseph felt a warmth that eased any disquiet he had from this odd meeting.

Simeon next faced Mary, who held Jesus tightly to herself.  She saw his face and the years that it wore.  She was a long while getting past the long, white beard and sallow, wrinkled skin.  She looked beneath the grizzled eyebrows and caught her breath.  His eyes!  They were so unlike the rest of him!  They were strong and warm and loving and… they were young!  They shone and twinkled and smiled at her.

A crooked, leathery hand cupped her face and thin lips smiled for her alone.  She felt as though she had been given a blessing.  Or was it a thanks?  She could not tell.

He broke his gaze from her and beheld the Child.  Jesus looked up at him with the sort of quiet, wide-eyed innocence that children save for new faces.  He even seemed to open His arms to Simeon, who slowly and gently lifted Jesus from His mother’s arms.  He nuzzled the Child playfully, eliciting a laugh from Jesus.  Simeon kissed His cheek tenderly as a father would and then cradled the Infant in the crook of his arm.  With his eyes raised to heaven, he spoke in a voice that was strong but pitched only for this small gathering.

“Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your Word.  For mine eyes have seen your Salvation, which You have prepared before the face of all people; a Light for the revelation of the Gentiles, and for the glory of Your people, Israel.”  He looked once more at Jesus, stroking Him as though He was the most Precious Thing he’d ever held.  A sadness entered him, and he turned to Mary.  “Behold, this Child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that is spoken against, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.  And a sword shall pierce through your own soul also.”

Once more, the leathery hand cupped her face, and he gently kissed her cheek.  She locked onto his eyes again, but they had changed.  They had aged.  They were still of the same character she had glimpsed moments ago, but they had succumbed to a fatigue that had been held at bay too long.

He handed the Child back to her.  He seemed like a man who had feasted and finally had his fill.  Regretfully, he pushes back from the table, knowing that the great dinner has ended.  It’s time to sleep.

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I invite you to check out and order a copy of my novel, The Substance Hoped For!

Substance Cover

Christmas Feelings

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.   Hebrews 11:1

There was a huge billboard on the main drag going into downtown, bought by a local mega-church. The message was very simple: “Feel Your Faith!”

I hated that billboard. Faith is not about feelings.  Faith often exists despite feelings.  To equate the two is dangerously misleading.

Do you feel saved?  Do you feel loved by God?  Do you feel like God is walking with you every step of your life?  If feelings were necessarily part of faith, we’d have a lot to be worried about.  My answer to those questions is “No” too much of the time.  That’s why I’m saved by faith.

This brings us, of course, to the topic of Christmas spirit. I hear it every year from one quarter or another.  Someone just doesn’t feel that ol’ Christmas spirit this year.  That starts the downward spiral of sadness and depression.

“I just don’t feel it! What if I don’t feel it soon?  What if I don’t feel it at all?  Christmas will be ruined if I’m not in the swing of things!”

A recent court ruling allowed a public school to leave its Christmas decoration up. The crowd went wild!  They had won a battle against the ACLU or whoever that scrooge was.  How, I wondered, did they ever get past that nonexistent constitutional phrase, “Separation of church and state?”

It was very easy, really. The school board argued that Christmas is not a religious holiday.  Christmas is observed by many faiths in many countries around the world.  If nothing else, it’s a legitimate day off work and a reason for family gatherings.  It has nothing to do with Jesus or religion at all.

The court agreed.

*sigh*

That is, in fact, the prevalent view in secular society. They don’t believe in the whole Jesus thing.  They just really enjoy the lights, the gifts, the decorations, and family get-togethers.  It doesn’t seem to even dawn on them that Jesus’ nom de plume is part of the of the name of the holiday!

Most Christians understand that December 25 is not the day Jesus was born. I won’t belabor that topic except to say that the common understanding is that the hope was to convert the pagans to come to Christ by supplanting their beliefs with Jesus by making it the Lord’s birthday celebration.

“And listen to this, Mr. Pagan, sir! You can keep your trees and candle lights and gift-giving traditions.  We’ll just put a Christian spin on all of that.  What do you say?  I say it’s a win-win!  Yes, sir!  We’ll have you taking communion and getting baptized and doing alter calls before you know it!”

Yeah…that didn’t work out too well, huh? Pagans 1, Christians zip.

Put Christ back in Christmas? Was He ever really there?

Now I REALLY understand why God told the Israelites to marry within their nation. The minute you start letting a few things slide in the time-honored go-along-get-along tradition, that’s the minute you start becoming compromised yourself.  Marrying outside the faith is the first blink.  Whoever blinks first loses.

As Jeff Foxworthy is wont to say, “If momma aint’ happy, ain’t nobody happy. And if momma ain’t happy long enough, you’re gonna be unhappy…with about half of your stuff!”

If momma isn’t a) Jewish back then or b) Christian now, guess who’s giving in to keep the peace?

Yup, whoever blinks first loses. The pagans didn’t blink, so they got to have their cake and eat it too.  The Christians blinked, and before you know it, they’re playing hot potato with a decades-old rum cake instead of preaching about Jesus.

So what do we do about Christmas? Should we be so worried about being in the Christmas Spirit?  Do we need to place so much baggage on a holiday not called for in the Bible?

I haven’t decorated or bought gifts for a good 6 years. That started as a necessity when the economy and my life took sharp turn south.  Without the nerves from preparing for Christmas and the depression of taking everything down again, I find my mental health vastly improved this time of year.  What had been a necessity has become a relief.

Don’t get me wrong; I miss the childhood feelings. I love the music.  There are times I still would like to go back in time to those delicious memories.

I just can’t help thinking that Christmas has to be something else.

Let the comments begin…

And So it Begins…In Earnest

And whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him.   Colossians 3:17 KJV

It is 8:37am Central Standard Time as I start to contemplate what I might write today. I thought I’d check the news and see what this morning has brought so far; perhaps an article about lines formed overnight outside big box stores and the financial slaughter retailers hope to enjoy.

Before the cash registers can start to ring, shots ring out, tires squeal, and the human slaughter begins.

The first headline I see on The London Daily Mail Online is this –

Black Friday madness: One person is shot dead outside a Macy’s and another killed in a road rage incident at Walmart as stores open their doors ahead of $3.1 billion holiday splurge 

8:37am CST. Not early enough to read the news without a headline like this.  Too late to start the day with good news.

WWJD? Weep, I think.

Last Saturday I wrote And So It Begins – https://jeffreyhking.wordpress.com/2016/11/19/and-so-it-begins/ – describing my ambivalence over Christmas.  I miss the memories and feelings of my youth.  I cherish the traditional carols.  I miss the beautiful decorations and lights.  Not having done any of that in years, no decorations or presents, has been a bit of a relief even as I miss the “Old Ways.”  No pressure at the start, no depression when it’s over.

By the headline, at least two families will wish for the Old Ways. In earnest.  We’ll see what the toll is, financial and human, tomorrow morning.

This morning tells us why Luke and the other apostles only record the story with no more than a hint as to at least the time of year Jesus was truly born. Can you imagine if we were able to nail down the exact date?  It’s bad enough that we at least think we know where He was born.  There has been so much contention over who owns that site!

Personally, I vote for God. But that’s just me.

I would like to tell everyone to do voluntarily what a layoff forced me to do; downsize your Christmas to some favorite music, a favorite meal, a church service or two, the latter followed up by continuous attendance afterward.

I’m going to ask all of you for a favor, something I’ve never asked before. My readership is not yet large enough to have the impact I hope it would for something like this.  I’m going to ask you to re-blog this article just to try and spread this idea just a bit further.  No, this isn’t a bid to promote my blog.  I just feel strongly about getting Christmas back to being…smaller.  Something more meaningful and less dangerous.

If you don’t want to re-blog this, maybe write your own article on making Christmas more of what it should be this year and following years. Put it in your words, your feelings.  Let’s at least make an effort to change the tide within our own sphere of influence.

Will we make enough of a difference to stop these headlines? To paraphrase something I heard years ago, we likely won’t.  But it’s in the trying that we succeed.

Younger and Wiser

Luke 1, Selected Verses

34 Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? 35 And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God…38 And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.

Unlike Zacharias, Mary took Gabriel at his word. She didn’t dispute that this would happen.  She displayed some curiosity, asking how – not if – it would be done.  Then she accepted.

A high priest from the house of Levi, standing in the Holy of Holies should have known better. But he had grown too old and too smart to accept God’s Word on the first go.

Mary, on the other hand, was younger and wiser, accepting this good news as a child, wide eyes and all. She was the perfect embodiment Paul would later try to describe to the Corinthians decades later:

27 But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty;

It’s tough to ignore the experience of years. So much has been painful!  Look to the young and the weak for the sort of wisdom and faith God seeks.

How High?

Luke 1:18-19

18 And Zacharias said unto the angel, Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years.  19 And the angel answering said unto him, I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God; and am sent to speak unto thee, and to shew thee these glad tidings.  20 And, behold, thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed, because thou believest not my words, which shall be fulfilled in their season.

Adam and Eve. They started it.  God gave them only ONE job to do: leave those two trees alone.  As the only two people on the entire planet they literally could do anything in the whole world except that.  I think we all know how that turned out.  For all of us.  Thank you.  Not.

Abram and Sarai. Admittedly, they were old when they got the news that a son would be coming, the first of countless descendants and nations.  Still, they had a good idea of who was at their campfire.

“I hear you laughing in there!”

“Who? Me?  No laughing in here.  Dry throat.”

Whatever.

The children of Israel. Pick a year.  Any year.  Let’s start with the Exodus.  They saw the waters part and passed through on dry ground.  They followed pillars of smoke and fire.  They’re at the foot of a mountain, covered with smoke, fire, clouds, and the ground shakes from His presence.  God says to just chill while I have a chat with my number 1.

What did they do? Take all of the gold they plundered from the Egyptians as they walked out and made themselves one of those Egyptian cow gods.

God told them time and again to just follow His rules. When they did, nothing but net.  When they didn’t, everything they did clanged off the proverbial rim.

This is war, folks. Just as in the book of Daniel, God’s angels battle Satan’s angels.  The contest is fierce, and the good guys sometimes get stalled out, just like in Daniel.  We can’t see it or hear it, but they are battling right there in your room this second!  They do everything they can to protect us, body and soul, from falling for evil’s influence.

They’re the hostage rescue team come to get us. The last thing they need is for the hostages (us) to give them any pushback while they’re trying to help us escape with our souls.  Which is exactly what Zacharias did when Gabriel told him about his impending fatherhood.

Gabriel is not some rank and file angel. He stands – stands, mind you – in the very presence of God Himself.  He didn’t come all the way from heaven with a personal, special delivery message from God to play twenty questions.

When will we EVER stop forgetting that all God wants to do is to have us accept the free gift of salvation held in His outstretched Hand, and then spend eternity with Him? We’re not some trained monkey that He has do tricks for Him.  When He says “Do this,” He’s not having us entertain the neighbors.  He’s trying to get us to cooperate with the whole rescue operation.

So when a loving, doting, caring, caressing God says He’d like us to jump, there’s really only one appropriate response.

And So It Begins…

Luke 1:3-4

It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus, That thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed.

I’m taking vacation days to have all of Thanksgiving week off, as I have done so many years before. Formerly, the first part of the week was spent putting up the tree.  I always say we are in an uncontrolled free-fall toward Christmas and the year’s end after Thanksgiving.

We haven’t decorated for 6 years now. The last year in my home town there was no celebration for us.  We were preparing for our move to Memphis and hopefully a fresh start.  We went from 2100 sq. feet to about half that.

That’s been a blessing of sorts. I’ve had no stress putting everything up.  I’ve suffered no depression taking everything down.  There have been no gifts for at least as long.  We simply go to Christmas Eve and/or Christmas Day services, have a nice brunch Christmas morning, and spend the rest of the day watching favorite movies and napping.  It’s all become very low key, very non-commercial.

My only problem right now is a lifetime of conditioning. I love Christmas music, especially as I gaze into the light-filled tree.  I miss our daughters and their anticipation.  I miss the traditions of my childhood.

The first Wednesday Advent service was the official beginning of that final countdown to Christmas Day. We never missed a Wednesday Advent service throughout my childhood.  Every week I felt more anticipation as another candle on the advent wreath was lit.

In my twenties, my best pal, Rick, and I would spend Christmas Eve attending as many Christmas Eve services as we could get to, ending with a mid-night service that bridged us over midnight to the big day itself! Later that day, I’d go over to his house, pretty much my second home and family, to celebrate a bit with them too.

Now it’s more about surviving the commercialization of the whole thing and the ever-increasing rudeness of people during this season of gifts. Work continues to intrude upon my private life.  I’ve spent more time in hotels than my own bed this year.

I have no time for the still-available Advent services. I have no time to hold to some of the traditions and feelings of my childhood.  Even if I did, my family doesn’t feel quite the same anymore.  Julie is understandably tired, plus works retail.  One daughter is still with us, but her health problems keep her lying low too.

My youngest is still in Ohio. She informed us several years ago that she doesn’t believe in all this shit anymore and is an atheist.  Now she swears she said she’s agnostic.  Two names for two roads going to the same destination, but whatever helps you sleep at night.

I’d like to travel the road of my youth as well as the road of our early marriage. We were all pulling on the oars to the same beat, heading in the same direction.  Now, who is or is not working?  Who is or is not too tired?  Who does or does not have room to put up even small decorations?  Maybe I’d like a little bit.  Just some sort of nod to my memories, something to soothe them.

Here’s the part where I remind myself to stop circling the drain of my naval, which I’ve figuratively contemplated long enough. Here’s where I get back to what God has to say about all of this.  Here’s where I remind myself that I’m allowing the psychotic-like aspects of the season to wreak its havoc between my ears.

Every Gospel has its purpose, it’s intended message of the Gospel framed in its individual way. Luke starts out all about Jesus’ birth with all of the close calls and nefarious schemes of a holiday blockbuster.  Luke knows Jesus’ entire story, from Alpha to Omega.  He knows getting this part as well as the rest is important.

Should we have started celebrating said birth at all, let alone on a pagan holiday, even if it was the best of intentions? Dunno.  I’m thinking God is just as glad we say thank you, regardless of our timing.  It might be nice to do it daily, come to think of it.

Is Christmas music OK? I guess that would depend on the song.

Maybe I’ll just contemplate the story all by itself. One blog post at a time.