Wednesday, December 31, 2008
O Love beyond Compare,
Thou art good when thou givest,
when thou takest away,
when the sun shines upon me,
when night gathers over me.
Thou hast loved me before the foundation of the world,
and in love didst redeem my soul;
Thou dost love me still,
in spite of my hard heart, ingratitude, distrust.
Thy goodness has been with me another year,
leading me through a twisting wilderness,
in retreat helping me to advance,
when beaten back making sure headway.
Thy goodness will be with me in the year ahead;
I hoist sail and draw up anchor,
With thee as the blessed pilot of my future as of my past.
I bless thee that thou hast veiled my eyes to the waters ahead.
If thou hast appointed storms of tribulation,
thou wilt be with me in them;
If I have to pass through tempests of persecution and temptation,
I shall not drown;
If I am to die,
I shall see thy face the sooner;
If a painful end is to be my lot,
grant me grace that my faith fail not;
If I am to be cast aside from the service I love,
I can make no stipulation;
Only glorify thyself in me whether in comfort or trial,
as a chosen vessel meet always for thy use.
Tuesday, December 30, 2008
mentions a few reasons why so many have viewed Scripture memorization as so essential to the Christian life.
1. Conformity to Christ
Paul wrote that “we all, . . . beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18)) If we would be changed into Christ likeness we must steadily see him. This happens in the word. “The Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord” (1 Samuel 3:21). Bible memorization has the effect of making our gaze on Jesus steadier and clearer.
2. Daily Triumph over Sin
“How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. . . . I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:9, 11). Paul said that we must “by the Spirit . . . put to death the [sinful] deeds of the body” (Romans 8:13). The one piece of armor used to kill is the “sword of the Spirit” which is the word of God (Ephesians 6:17). As sin lures the body into sinful action, we call to mind a Christ-revealing word of Scripture and slay the temptation with the superior worth and beauty of Christ over what sin offers.
3. Daily Triumph over Satan
When Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness he recited Scripture from memory and put Satan to flight (Matthew 4:1-11).
4. Comfort and Counsel for People You Love
The times when people need you to give them comfort and counsel do not always coincide with the times you have your Bible handy. Not only that, the very word of God spoken spontaneously from your heart has unusual power. Proverbs 25:11 says, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.” That is a beautiful way of saying, When the heart full of God’s love can draw on the mind full of God’s word, timely blessings flow from the mouth.
5. Communicating the Gospel to Unbelievers
Opportunities to share the gospel come when we do not have the Bible in hand. Actual verses of the Bible have their own penetrating power. And when they come from our heart, as well as from the Book, the witness is given that they are precious enough to learn. We should all be able to sum up the gospel under four main headings (1) God’s holiness/law/glory; 2) man’s sin/rebellion/disobedience; 3) Christ’s death for sinners; 4) the free gift of life by faith. Learn a verse or two relating to each of these, and be ready in season and out of season to share them.
6. Communion with God in the Enjoyment of His Person and Ways
The way we commune with (that is, fellowship with) God is by meditating on his attributes and expressing to him our thanks and admiration and love, and seeking his help to live a life that reflects the value of these attributes. Therefore, storing texts in our minds about God helps us relate to him as he really is. For example, imagine being able to call this to mind through the day:
The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust. (Psalm 103:8-14)
I used the word “enjoyment” intentionally when I said, “communion with God in the enjoyment of his person and ways.” Most of us are emotionally crippled—all of us, really. We do not experience God in the fullness of our emotional potential. How will that change? One way is to memorize the emotional expressions of the Bible and speak them to the Lord and to each other until they become part of who we are. For example, in Psalm 103:1, we say, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name!” That is not a natural expression for many people. But if we memorize this and other emotional expressions from the Bible, and say them often, asking the Lord to make the emotion real in our hearts, we can actually grow into that emotion and expression. It will become part of who we are. We will be less emotionally crippled and more able to render proper praise and thanks to God.
Monday, December 29, 2008
We Become What We Worship by G. K. Beale (IVP, 2008)—This is a brand-new biblical theology of idolatry. Beale states that his hope is “that the biblical-theological perspective of this book will provide greater fuel to fire the church’s motivation not to become conformed to the idols that surround it in order better to fulfill its mission to the world, which is to proclaim that people need to be conformed to Christ’s image for the greater glory of God” (p. 12). [IVP | WTS | Amazon | CBD | Monergism | CVBBS]
Love Divine and Unfailing: The Gospel According to Hosea by Michael Barrett (P&R, 2008)—One of my (JB) favorite classes during my undergraduate years was a study through the minor prophets with Dr. Michael Barrett. I filled the margins of my Bible with notes and cross-references from his lectures, and then somewhere along the way misplaced this Bible. I have deeply regretted loosing it ever since. Now I can revisit those probing lectures once again thanks to the publication of this new study. I’ve not yet obtained a copy, but am confident in recommending any book by Dr. Barrett. [P&R | WTS | Amazon | CBD]
Lloyd-Jones: Messenger of Grace by Iain H. Murray (Banner of Truth, 2008)—This is not a repetition of his two-volume biography, but a focus on key themes in Lloyd-Jones’ ministry and an interaction with contemporary criticisms. [BOT | WTS | Amazon | Monergism | CBD]
Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry & Writings: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship edited by Tremper Longman and Peter Enns. (IVP Academic, 2008)—This series of dictionaries has set a new standard in the industry, and this latest volume will abundantly reward the careful reader. I (JB) have got my copy close at hand and have benefited much from it as I have used it in conjunction with my study of this favorite portion of Scripture. Read the SI review here. [IVP | WTS | Amazon | CBD]
Kingdom of Priests: A History of Old Testament Israel, 2nd edition by Eugene H. Merrill (Baker Academic, 2008)—This has been a standard among conservative and evangelicals, and now it has been updated. This book comes highly recommended to pastors and teachers. [Baker Academic | WTS | Amazon | CBD]
The Promise-Plan of God: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments by Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. (Zondervan, 2008)—This revision and expansion of Kaiser’s Toward an Old Testament Theology is a welcome addition to my library. I (JB) devoured Kaiser’s TOTT some years ago, and have enjoyed following the theme of promise throughout the New Testament. [Zondervan | WTS | Amazon | CBD]
Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary series (Eerdmans, 2008)—The New Testament counterpart to this series issued two volumes in 2005 (Colossians & Philemon and Philippians) and two more in 2007 (1 Peter and 2 Peter & Jude). This year, Eerdmans released two volumes in this Old Testament series: Genesis and Psalms. This new series “is written primarily for students, pastors, and other Christian leaders seeking to engage in theological interpretation of Scripture” (from the series introduction). Each commentary consists of two major sections: 1) theological exegesis and 2) theological reflection. These are not like your typical commentary which gives “careful attention to philology, grammar, syntax, and concerns of a historical nature.” Rather, the result of these commentaries “is a paragraph-by-paragraph engagement with the text that is deliberately theological in focus” (ibid). These commentaries are recommended as supplemental to other technical commentaries. [Genesis by James McKeown: Eerdmans | Amazon | CBD] [Psalms by Geoffrey W. Grogan: Eerdmans | WTS | Amazon | CBD]
Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible, NASB, Wider Margins (Rev. ed., AMG Publishers, 2008) edited by Spiros Zodhiates, Warren Baker and Joel Kletzing—A great study Bible now with more room for note taking. [AMG Publishers | Amazon | CBD]
The Kids Bible: King James Version (Hendrickson, 2008)—This is a very nicely formatted Bible geared to children between the ages of eight and twelve, including easy-to-read 10-point type, 24 pages of color illustrations, words of Christ in red, and special features in the back. The text is the KJV with the Scofield updates. Hendrickson also has a KJV Kids Study Bible due out in July of 2009. For those of you who prefer this translation, these are two very nice options for your children. [Hendrickson | Amazon | CBD]
Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor: The Life and Reflections of Tom Carson by D. A. Carson (Crossway, 2008)—This would make a great gift for your pastor. It will be a great encouragement to all who read it. Read Jason’s review here. [Crossway | WTS | Amazon | CBD]
A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards by George M. Marsden (Eerdmans, 2008)—This is a shorter version of Marsden’s much larger and highly praised biography of Edwards. Pastors ought to be familiar with the life and ministry of great men like Jonathan Edwards. [Eerdmans | WTS | Amazon | CBD]
POPULAR FOR MEN
Fathers and Sons: Stand Fast in the Way of Truth, Volume 1 by Douglas Bond (P&R, 2007) & Fathers and Sons: Hold Fast in a Broken World, Volume 2 by Douglas Bond (P&R, 2008)—There is over a year’s worth of readings in these two volumes. “Strengthens the faith and love of fathers and sons. Promotes Christian leadership and maturity in young men” (from the publisher’s description). These two volumes come highly recommended by one of the pastor’s at Tim’s church. [P&R | WTS | Amazon | CBD]
POPULAR FOR WOMEN
Practical Theology for Women by Wendy Horger Alsup (Crossway, 2008)—This is a fantastic little book written for women. I (JB) have given away two copies to family members and am ordering more. Wendy has provided a great entry point for those who may be intimidated by theology. Our review of this title is forthcoming. [Crossway | Amazon | CBD]
Finally, we would like to suggest a few classics that ought to be in every preacher’s library and in most Christian homes.
God’s Passion for His Glory: Living the Vision of Jonathan Edwards by John Piper (Crossway, 1998)—This book is included as a classic because it contains the complete text of Edwards’s The End for Which God Created the World. Piper’s book is in two parts: Part One (almost the first half of the book) is Piper’s extended introduction to Edwards and his book. Part Two is the full text of Edwards’s book with explanatory footnotes. It pays rich dividends to all believers willing to put forth a little effort and is especially helpful to ministers and other Christian leaders. [Crossway | WTS | Amazon | CBD]
Any good edition of Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan—There are also editions geared toward adults and children in updated, contemporary English.
- Oxford University Press paperback edition (2003): [WTS | Amazon | CBD]
- Hendrickson Christian Classics hardcover edition (2004): [Amazon | CBD]
- Listener’s Collection of Classic Christian Literature Audio CD narrated by Max McLean (2007) [WTS | Amazon | CBD]
The Holy War by John Bunyan—This is excellent book, and there are modern editions available for all ages. It is not quite as easy to find original language versions.
- Whitaker House Publishers paperback edition (2001): [Amazon | CBD]
- Evangelical Press modern English version (1976): This is an updated language edition, divided into chapters with appropriate chapter headings. Very easy to read. [Amazon]
- It seems to be getting more difficult to find an edition of The Holy War in the author’s original words. You will definitely get it if you invest in the three-volume Works of John Bunyan (Banner of Truth, 1992). Volume 3 contains his allegorical works, along with copious notes from his editor and quotes from other Puritan writers. It is a worthy investment for the diehard Bunyan fan.[BOT | Amazon | CBD]
The Everlasting Righteousness by Horatius Bonar (Banner of Truth, 1996)—This is a warm, scriptural study of the atonement. It can be enjoyed by most any Christian and is not hard reading. [BOT | WTS | Amazon | CBD]
There are many more titles that could (maybe should) be suggested to you, but we hope that this will serve as a profitable starting point.
Saturday, December 27, 2008
1 Corinthians 10:20
2) Understanding the Present life: Galatians 4:9.
2 Timothy 2:19
2 Corinthians 4:6
3) Live for Our Future Life: Galatians 4:10-11.
1 Corinthians 15:58
Matthew 5:30 - And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.
In are situation our “right hand” can be the facebook ad’s on the right side of the screen, or the promoted videos section on youtube, or the filth that plagues MySpace. Matt 5:30 will amputate those areas, and many others, from your webbrowsing experience. Then it will replace them with scriptures to help encourage you in your walk with Christ.
TO INSTALL: Double-click and open and chose "Select Program from List" then chose to open the .XPI in Firefox.
Friday, December 26, 2008
- Why did you decide to memorize large passages of Scripture?
- What are some of the passages you’ve committed to memory?
- How do you decide which passages you will memorize?
- You are known for reciting passages “dramatically.” Is there benefit in memorizing Scripture with dramatic recitation in mind?
- What are some of the blessings you’ve experienced in memorizing Scripture?
- What benefit is there in memorizing entire books of the Bible?
- Do you have any warnings or exhortations you’d want to extend to people who are seeking to memorize Scripture?
- What are some longer passages you would suggest for beginners?
- Describe the methodology you’ve used to file away large passages of Scripture.
- Can you share any final tips and tricks that may be useful?
Here is Ryan reciting Psalm 22:
And here he is reciting Hebrews 9 and 10:
Follow the advice of the Psalmist:
In Psalm 43:4 we read, “Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy, and I will praise you…” Do you want to avoid feeling deflated after Christmas? Go to God your exceeding joy. Be very intentional about finding your deepest and sweetest joy in God himself. Don’t look for joy in family, friends, presents, Christmas dinner, or anything else. Find your joy in God.
How do you do this? Here’s one practical suggestion:
At some point on Christmas, spend time with God, your exceeding joy. If you can, spend some personal time reading God’s word and praying. As you spend time with God, you’ll find yourself refreshed and filled with the joy that only God can give.
Don’t let the Christmas blues rule you on Christmas. Go to God, your exceeding joy, and find true satisfaction.
Thursday, December 25, 2008
The Nativity Story
Centered around the birth of Jesus, The Nativity Story is a wonderful film that depicts the true celebration of Christmas.
1 - Are you afraid? (1:29)
2 - Broken no vow (2:24)
3 - God made into flesh (2:56)
4 - I believe you (1:17)
5 - Why is it me? (0:56)
A particular Christmas, or to be more exact, two Christmases, entered the modern imagination in 1868 through a much-beloved storybook, coloring our vision of Christmas ever since.
The first of these Christmases takes place under the shadow of war—the Civil War. A few days before the holiday, the four young daughters of an absent army chaplain mope together in the home that now seems so empty. They ruefully consider their holiday prospects: their "straightened circumstances" have reduced the customary Christmas bounty to a mere dollar apiece, doled out by their mother.
At first, each broods over her meager treasures, planning self-indulgent purchases. But in the end, they spend the money on gifts for their mother.
Each girl has evident talents but also evident weaknesses. The oldest is a motherly sort, perhaps grown up too soon, who works as a governess. Next is the tomboy, an aspiring author (transparently, the book's author) and the family instigator, always writing and staging melodramas into which she drafts the others. Then the gentle third child, a peacemaker and a blessing to everyone, but dangerously frail. And last, a curly-haired, self-conscious beauty who wants to be an artist.
On Christmas morning, each finds a small New Testament with a colored cover under her pillow, placed there by motherly hands. And each becomes painfully aware of the petty, besetting sins that separate her from God and others. Together they rededicate themselves to following in the footsteps laid out in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, a story they have acted out together as girls—up, down, in, under, and through the landscape of the family home.
Downstairs, they join their mother in pulling together as much of a Christmas breakfast as they can manage and placing it in a basket. This they bring to a poor immigrant family with a sick baby. Their selfless act is rewarded when they return home to the gift of a rich neighbor—a lavish Christmas feast with sweets, and flowers to brighten their table.
The book's second Christmas takes place the following year. The family has weathered the near-death of their sweet third sister of scarlet fever and the news from the front of their father's temporary, critical illness. As they gather for the holiday, they receive a joyous surprise—their father returns, well and happy. Together again, they trade gifts and endearments, reveling in each other's company.
The Christmases of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women still shine forth a bright, good hopefulness in the midst of trying times—a hopefulness made solid in the bond of family and the desire to live well in God's sight. What allows Alcott's story to escape the saccharine orbit of many sentimentalist tales and speak to us in deep ways?
Yes, the author's sure narrative touch and vivid characterization. But also this, I think: Alcott knows intimately and presents lovingly truths that were the Victorian era's special treasure.
The foremost of these is the truth we still recall every Christmas season: Every family, whatever its trials and stresses, is a God-given blessing to be treasured and celebrated. Each of us is meant to grow and flourish within a family, becoming all God means us to be. Without family, the way is—not impossible, but harder and colder.
It has become difficult even to write this today, so thoroughly ridiculous has Victorian culture been made to seem in the jaded, secularized world of modern America. The word "Victorian" has taken on the quality of a curse-word, as "Puritan" did in the original permissive generation, the wide-open decade of the 1920s, through the acid pen of such modernizing critics as journalist H. L. Mencken.
Certainly, the critics have their ammunition. The Victorians on both sides of the Atlantic indulged a naive materialism, blind to the complex web of systemic sin that supported their comfortable lifestyles. In their crusading Protestantism, they sometimes slipped into an unpleasant ethnic and cultural insularity. And they had a maddening habit of oversimplifying moral issues, as they stuck their noses in every social nook and cranny in search of vice to purge and souls to uplift.
But Louisa May Alcott's warm tale points to all that was good about that earnest century. It was the age the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) first provided young men newly arrived in the burgeoning industrial cities a haven from those cities' too-available and destructive social vices. It was the time when thousands of Christians worked tirelessly to bring about the abolition of slavery, while others campaigned successfully for thoroughgoing reform of prisons and local government. And it was the era of the successful reversal—by the massive, woman-led temperance movement—of a destructive national trend of drunkenness.
The Victorians did—there's no getting around it—change their society for the better. The reason? The transforming power of the little books under their pillows.
Theirs was, in fact, the last thoroughly Christian society in Western history.
The wars, social problems, and (most damagingly) material prosperity of the 20th and 21st centuries have so far birthed no comparable public Christian culture. We seem more distant than ever from the Victorians, whose celebration of stronger, purer virtues still cheers and challenges us from the poignant pages of Little Women.
This Christmas, let's reawaken to the Victorians' vision of families and societies healed by a gospel not just read, but lived.
Merry Victorian Christmas, everyone.
It's very tough for us North Americans to imagine Mary and Joseph trudging to Bethlehem in anything but, as Christina Rosetti memorably described it, "the bleak mid-winter," surrounded by "snow on snow on snow." To us, Christmas and December are inseparable. But for the first three centuries of Christianity, Christmas wasn't in December—or on the calendar anywhere.
If observed at all, the celebration of Christ's birth was usually lumped in with Epiphany (January 6), one of the church's earliest established feasts. Some church leaders even opposed the idea of a birth celebration. Origen (c.185-c.254) preached that it would be wrong to honor Christ in the same way Pharaoh and Herod were honored. Birthdays were for pagan gods.
Not all of Origen's contemporaries agreed that Christ's birthday shouldn't be celebrated, and some began to speculate on the date (actual records were apparently long lost). Clement of Alexandria (c.150-c.215) favored May 20 but noted that others had argued for April 18, April 19, and May 28. Hippolytus (c.170-c.236) championed January 2. November 17, November 20, and March 25 all had backers as well. A Latin treatise written around 243 pegged March 21, because that was believed to be the date on which God created the sun. Polycarp (c.69-c.155) had followed the same line of reasoning to conclude that Christ's birth and baptism most likely occurred on Wednesday, because the sun was created on the fourth day.
December 25 Choice
The eventual choice of December 25, made perhaps as early as 273, reflects a convergence of Origen's concern about pagan gods and the church's identification of God's son with the celestial sun. December 25 already hosted two other related festivals: natalis solis invicti (the Roman "birth of the unconquered sun"), and the birthday of Mithras, the Iranian "Sun of Righteousness" whose worship was popular with Roman soldiers. The winter solstice, another celebration of the sun, fell just a few days earlier. Seeing that pagans were already exalting deities with some parallels to the true deity, church leaders decided to commandeer the date and introduce a new festival.
Christmas in the West
Western Christians first celebrated Christmas on December 25 in 336, after Emperor Constantine had declared Christianity the empire's favored religion. Eastern churches, however, held on to January 6 as the date for Christ's birth and his baptism. Most easterners eventually adopted December 25, celebrating Christ's birth on the earlier date and his baptism on the latter, but the Armenian church celebrates his birth on January 6. Incidentally, the Western church does celebrate Epiphany on January 6, but as the arrival date of the Magi rather than as the date of Christ's baptism.
Another wrinkle was added in the sixteenth century when Pope Gregory devised a new calendar, which was unevenly adopted. The Eastern Orthodox and some Protestants retained the Julian calendar, which meant they celebrated Christmas 13 days later than their Gregorian counterparts. Most—but not all—of the Christian world now agrees on the Gregorian calendar and the December 25 date.
The pagan origins of the Christmas date, as well as pagan origins for many Christmas customs (gift-giving and merrymaking from Roman Saturnalia; greenery, lights, and charity from the Roman New Year; Yule logs and various foods from Teutonic feasts), have always fueled arguments against the holiday. "It's just paganism wrapped with a Christian bow," naysayers argue. But while kowtowing to worldliness must always be a concern for Christians, the church has generally viewed efforts to reshape culture—including holidays—positively. As a theologian asserted in 320, "We hold this day holy, not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun, but because of him who made it."
See also: Jesus was born June 17, say scientists
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
The wreath seems to represent a convergence of two lines of tradition. One one side, it's probably related to circlets worn on the head. In cultures of the ancient Persian Empire, nobles wore diadems of fabric and sometimes jewels, and Greeks rewarded Olympic victors and other high achievers with laurel crowns. It's unclear how such headgear was transformed into wall decor, but perhaps people just hung their crowns up as souvenirs. Neither Christmas nor Advent wreaths are worn as headbands, though for the Swedish festival of St. Lucia, on December 13, the family's eldest daughter wears a headpiece decorated with greenery and nine lighted candles.
Though early Roman Christians used laurel in their Christmas decorations because it symbolized victory, glory, and cleansing from guilt, Europeans largely favored evergreens. This shows the modern wreath's other heritage: German and Celtic solstice festivities. In cold, northern climates, people latched onto anything that represented light and life against darkness and despair. As a result, their favorite winter symbols included torches (analagous to Advent candles) and plants that stayed green all year. A wreath with burning candles, then, is related to the Yule log—a good-luck charm held over from the 12-day Norse winter festival of Jol. Christmas candles may also be related to Hanukkah candles, as both of the nearly concurrent observances celebrate holy light.
Though wreaths have no direct connection to Christ's crown, holly does. European Christians in the Middle Ages said that its prickly leaves and red berries represented thorns and drops of blood. Some also believed that the cross was made of holly, though others believed it was made of oak. Holly used in Christmas decorations was often kept after the holiday for protection—against witchcraft in England and against lightning in Germany.
Decorative mistletoe, too, usually lasted beyond the Christmas season, until Candlemas (February 2) or even until the next year, when a new sprig took its place. The kissing tradition stems from an old Scandanavian custom whereby enemies who met under mistletoe in the forest would lay down their weapons and maintain a truce until the next day. Mistletoe is usually excluded from church decorations, for the obvious reason, but also because the plant was worshiped by Druids, who believed it could cure all diseases.
Perhaps the only Christmas plant without pagan superstitions attached to is the poinsettia. Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett, the American ambassador to Mexico, brought the flower to this country in 1829. Mexicans call it the "flower of Holy Night" because its red bracts (they're not petals) make a shape like the Star of Bethlehem. According to a Mexican legend, long ago a poor boy was afraid to enter the church on Christmas Eve because he had no gift to bring the baby Jesus. In prayer, the boy told God that he really wanted to bring a gift but could not afford one. When the boy opened his eyes, a poinsettia bloomed at his feet. He joyfully brought the plant inside, an act that might relate to the practice in many churches of decking the altar with poinsettias.
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
Youre no stranger to the charm and beauty of the Christmas story. But there are glorious truths surrounding Christs birth that are easy to overlook in the busyness of the holidays.
This year, how can you avoid missing one of the greatest truths of Christmas? How can Christs birth change the way you live today?
Everybody has "traditional" Christmas ornaments. The tree at my parents' house traditionally features a patchwork-covered-styrofoam turtle and a Wonder Woman ball (blue with silver glitter stars). The large tree at Wheaton College traditionally bears decorations sent in by alumni missionaries around the globe. Germans traditionally hide a glass pickle in their trees, while Ukrainians opt for a silver spider. But what would a truly traditional-as in historical-Christmas tree look like?
To answer that question, we would first need to pin down the date and location of the first decorated Christmas tree. Unfortunately, at least two candidates vie for that distinction, not counting the many pagan tree customs that may or may not relate to modern practice.
Riga, Latvia, claims to have been the site of the first decorated evergreen, which was displayed in the town market in 1510. Why Latvia? Riga's Web site offers this explanation:
"In the 7th century a monk from Crediton, Devonshire, went to Germany to teach the Word of God. He did many good works there, and spent much time in Thuringia, an area which was to become the cradle of the Christmas Decoration Industry.
"Legend has it that he used the triangular shape of the Fir Tree to describe the Holy Trinity of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The converted people began to revere the Fir tree as God's Tree, as they had previously revered the Oak. By the 12th century it was being hung, upside-down, from ceilings at Christmastime in Central Europe, as a symbol of Christianity.
"The first decorated tree was at Riga in Latvia, in 1510."
The monk was Boniface (680-754), but he worked almost exclusively in Germany, so I'm not sure of the Latvian connection. The Riga story also makes no mention of what the 1510 tree was decorated with.
The person more commonly credited with bedecking the first Christmas tree is Martin Luther (1483-1546). Supposedly, while he was walking outside one night, he was so inspired by the stars twinkling through the trees that he cut down a tree and decorated it with candles, to recreate the outdoor effect. No contemporary record of this event exists, so it may never have happened, but if it did, that makes candles the most traditional ornament of all. (Note: Christian History does not recommend exposing trees to open flame.)
Two more ornaments can be traced to the Middle Ages as well. Medieval mystery plays, designed to entertain the masses while teaching them Christian doctrine, often featured "paradise trees" decorated with apples. Apples and other fruits made their way onto Christmas trees quite early, first in natural forms and later made from marzipan, glass, and other materials. Mystery play trees also featured unconsecrated Communion wafers, representing the antidote to the forbidden fruit. Wafers appeared on early Christmas trees, too.
If candles, apples, and wafers don't seem quite festive enough, it's also historically accurate to add paper roses and shiny foil shapes. All of these decorations appeared on the first tree about a which a written description remains, a tree set up in a home in Strasbourg in 1605. For an authentic mid-17th-century German tree, you can get even wilder, loading up the boughs with nuts, cookies, and sugary sweets.
» Riga's story appears here: http://www.rigalatvia.net/market.html#history.
» It's almost impossible for any one account of a folk custom like tree-decorating to be absolutely authoritative. These sites offer some different ideas:
"Captain Jack's Christmas Tree Farm," http://www.christmas-tree.com/where.html.
"O Tannenbaum," http://www.serve.com/shea/germusa/xmastree.htm.
Monday, December 22, 2008
Youre no stranger to the charm and beauty of the Christmas story. But there are glorious truths surrounding Christs birth that are easy to overlook in the busyness of the holidays.
This year, how can you avoid missing one of the greatest truths of Christmas? How can Christs birth change the way you live today?
If there is one image of The Salvation Army that comes immediately to the public's mind, it is that of a bell-ringing volunteer tending a Christmas kettle on a city street.
The kettles were started by Salvation Army Captain Joseph McFee in December 1891. The Captain had resolved to provide a free Christmas dinner to San Francisco's poor. But how would he pay for the food? Remembering his days as a sailor in Liverpool, England, McFee recalled seeing a large pot, called "Simpson's Pot," into which charitable donations were thrown by passers–by. He secured permission from authorities to place a similar pot at the Oakland ferry landing, at the foot of Market Street. Its success encouraged other local corps to do the same, and by 1895 the kettle was used in 30 Salvation Army corps on the West Coast.
Two years later, Officer William A. McIntyre took the novel idea to Boston, but his fellow officers refused to cooperate for fear of "making spectacles of themselves." So McIntyre, his wife, and his sister set up three kettles in the heart of the city. That year the kettle effort in Boston and other locations nationwide resulted in 150,000 Christmas dinners for the needy.
Kettles have changed since the utilitarian cauldron set up in San Francisco. Some new kettles have a self-ringing bell or a booth complete with public-address system to broadcast the traditional Christmas carols. Salvation Army officers and soldiers still tend the pots, but so do community volunteers, and paid employees.
But the purpose of the kettles remains the same. When The Salvation Army "puts out the kettles" today-from the United States to Japan to Chile-millions of dollars are raised. While the days are past when a sit-down dinner in Madison Square Garden brought in thousands from the street, the homeless poor are still invited to share holiday dinners and festivities at hundreds of local Salvation Army centers. Other people are given grocery checks so they can buy their own dinners. The kettles provide about one-third of the money used to aid over 4,500,000 persons annually at Christmas.
The Christmas kettle stands as a symbol of service, a refreshing reminder amid the hoopla of Christmas that people do care for one another.
Sunday, December 21, 2008
[Re-light two purple candles and the pink candle.]
This Sunday: We Remember the Meaning of Advent
Advent is a word that means "coming" or "visit". In the Christian season of Advent we prepare for the "advent" of Christ at Christmas. Our preparation includes many things:
• We remember Israel's hope for the coming of God's Messiah to save, to forgive, and to restore them.
• We remember our hope for the second coming of Jesus.
• We remember our need for a Savior to save us from our sins.
• We prepare to welcome Christ at Christmas into our world . . . and into our hearts.
By lighting one candle each week of Advent, we help ourselves to get ready for the birth of Jesus. So far we have lit three candles. The first reminded us to wait for God our Shepherd. With the second we asked the Lord to come and forgive our sins. The third, pink, candle signified our joy as we wait.
Today we focus on the coming of the Son -- the son of Mary, the Son of God!
A prayer for God's Help
Dear God, thank you for this season of Advent that helps us to prepare for the coming of Christ at Christmas. As we read the Bible and light a candle, may excitement for Christ's coming burn in our hearts. Amen.
This psalm celebrates God's covenant with David and with the descendants of David. He even calls God "my Father" (vs. 26). But the psalmist composed this psalm at a time when God's blessing upon Israel seemed very far away. He calls upon the Lord to remember his covenant to David.
Deliverance will come for God's people through the "son" who is given to them. He will sit on the throne of David and his kingdom will last forever.
The angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she is pregnant and will give birth to a son. Her son will also be "the Son of the Most High" and will sit on the throne of David. He will be the reigning Son of David and the divine Son of God!
Lighting of the Candle
[As someone lights the final purple candle, the following should be read or paraphrased. If you're doing this online, click on the wick of the final purple candle.]
We light this candle because we look forward with eagerness to the birth of a child, the son of Mary and the Son of God! The purple color reminds us of how serious we are in looking forward to the Son's birth.
Prayer of Hope
Dear God, as we light this candle, we look ahead with hope to the birth of your Son -- the Son of David, the son of Mary. May we be prepared to welcome him with open arms and open hearts. O come now, Son of David! Amen!
[To be sung to the tune of "O come let us adore him" from "O Come All Ye Faithful."]
O come now, Son of David,
O come now, Son of David,
O come now, Son of David,
Christ the Lord!
Saturday, December 20, 2008
1) The Elements of Christ’s Coming
A) The Timing of Christ’s coming: Galatians 4:4a. GOD’S TIME
B) The Origin of Christ’s Coming: Galatians 4:b. FULLY GOD
C) The Manner of Christ’s Coming. Galatians 4:4c. FULLY HUMAN
D) The Condition of Christ’s Coming: Galatians 4:4d.
2) The Reason for Christ’s Coming. Galatians 4:5
3) The Benefits of Christ’s Coming Galatians 4:6-7
Ephesians 1:3-5; 7-8, 13-14
The Evergreen Tree
The evergreen tree was an ancient symbol of life in the midst of winter. Romans decorated their houses with evergreen branches during the New Year, and ancient inhabitants of northern Europe cut evergreen trees and planted them in boxes inside their houses in wintertime. Many early Christians were hostile to such practices. The second-century theologian Tertullian condemned those Christians who celebrated the winter festivals, or decorated their houses with laurel boughs in honor of the emperor:
"Let them over whom the fires of hell are imminent, affix to their posts, laurels doomed presently to burn: to them the testimonies of darkness and the omens of their penalties are suitable. You are a light of the world, and a tree ever green. If you have renounced temples, make not your own gate a temple."
But by the early Middle Ages, the legend had grown that when Christ was born in the dead of winter, every tree throughout the world miraculously shook off its ice and snow and produced new shoots of green. At the same time, Christian missionaries preaching to Germanic and Slavic peoples were taking a more lenient approach to cultural practices—such as evergreen trees. These missionaries believed that the Incarnation proclaimed Christ's lordship over those natural symbols that had previously been used for the worship of pagan gods. Not only individual human beings, but cultures, symbols, and traditions could be converted.
Of course, this did not mean that the worship of pagan gods themselves was tolerated. According to one legend, the eighth-century missionary Boniface, after cutting down an oak tree sacred to the pagan god Thor (and used for human sacrifice), pointed to a nearby fir tree instead as a symbol of the love and mercy of God.
Not until the Renaissance are there clear records of trees being used as a symbol of Christmas—beginning in Latvia in 1510 and Strasbourg in 1521. Legend credits the Protestant reformer Martin Luther with inventing the Christmas tree, but the story has little historical basis.
The most likely theory is that Christmas trees started with medieval plays. Dramas depicting biblical themes began as part of the church's worship, but by the late Middle Ages, they had become rowdy, imaginative performances dominated by laypeople and taking place in the open air. The plays celebrating the Nativity were linked to the story of creation—in part because Christmas Eve was also considered the feast day of Adam and Eve. Thus, as part of the play for that day, the Garden of Eden was symbolized by a "paradise tree" hung with fruit.
These plays were banned in many places in the 16th century, and people perhaps began to set up "paradise trees" in their homes to compensate for the public celebration they could no longer enjoy. The earliest Christmas trees (or evergreen branches) used in homes were referred to as "paradises." They were often hung with round pastry wafers symbolizing the Eucharist, which developed into the cookie ornaments decorating German Christmas trees today.
The custom gained popularity throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, against the protests of some clergy. Lutheran minister Johann von Dannhauer, for instance, complained (like Tertullian) that the symbol distracted people from the true evergreen tree, Jesus Christ. But this did not stop many churches from setting up Christmas trees inside the sanctuary. Alongside the tree often stood wooden "pyramids"—stacks of shelves bearing candles, sometimes one for each family member. Eventually these pyramids of candles were placed on the tree, the ancestors of our modern Christmas tree lights and ornaments.
Nicholas and Wenceslas
It also took a long time for trees to become associated with presents. Though legend connects the idea of Christmas gifts with the gifts the Magi brought Jesus, the real story is more complicated. Like trees, gifts were first a Roman practice—traded during the winter solstice. As Epiphany, and later Christmas, replaced the winter solstice as a time of celebration for Christians, the gift-giving tradition continued for a while. By late antiquity it had died out, although gifts were still exchanged at New Year's.
Gifts were also associated with St. Nicholas, bishop of Myra (in modern-day Turkey), who became famous for giving gifts to poor children. His feast day (December 6) thus became another occasion for gift exchanges. During the early Middle Ages, Christmas gifts most often took the form of tributes paid to monarchs—although a few rulers used the holiday season as an opportunity to give to the poor or to the church instead (most notably Duke Wenceslas of Bohemia, whose story inspired the popular carol, and William the Conqueror, who chose Christmas 1067 to make a large donation to the pope).
Like trees, gifts came "inside" the family around the time of Luther, as the custom of giving gifts to friends and family members developed in Germany, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia. Often these were given anonymously, or hidden. One Danish custom was to rewrap a gift many times with different names on each wrapper, so that the intended recipient was only discovered when all the layers were opened.
In the English-speaking world, the union of gifts, trees, and Christmas was due to the influence of Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert, a native of Saxony (now part of Germany). German immigrants had brought the custom of Christmas trees with them in the early 1800s, but it spread widely after Victoria and Albert set up an elaborate tree for their children at Windsor Castle in 1841. At this point, Christmas presents were usually hung on the tree itself.
German and Dutch immigrants also brought their traditions of trees and presents to the New World in the early 1800s. The image of happy middle-class families exchanging gifts around a tree became a powerful one for American authors and civic leaders who wished to replace older, rowdier, and more alcohol-fueled Christmas traditions—such as wassailing—with a more family-friendly holiday. This family-centered image was widely popularized by Clement Moore's 1822 poem, known today as "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" (which also helped give us our modern picture of Santa Claus).
As many of us make trees and gifts the center of our own Christmas practice, we would do well to remember that they are ultimately symbols of the One who gave himself to unite heaven and earth, and who brings all barren things to flower.