Tag Archives: christmas

Raise a Yuletide glass?

Christmas is coming, and with it the inevitable holiday parties where food and drink of all sorts will be offered.

I love eating and drinking! Food and drink are among the chief pleasures of this life. Our capacity to enjoy food and drink is a wonderful blessing from our generous Creator. But, like all good things, these blessings can be abused.

In this short reflection, I want to consider the topic of alcohol use. My frame of reference in this post is that of a Christian believer. If you call yourself a Christian, I’m hoping this post will prompt some sober reflection on how we ought to look at this issue.

I grew up in a Dutch immigrant family. In my family growing up, it was considered normal to drink wine at celebrations. Alcohol was offered to adults, but drunkenness was frowned upon. Since surrendering my life to Christ at the age of thirty-four, I’ve given quite a bit of thought to this matter. As a new believer in the late 1980s, I soon learned that many of my new evangelical Christian friends saw alcohol use as totally off-limits for any genuine Christian. So I had some thinking to do. This post is the fruit of those reflections.

I have friends – brothers and sisters in Christ – who are recovering alcoholics, or who are married to recovering alcoholics. For them, alcohol is dangerous. It’s a no-go zone.

I have other friends – brothers and sisters in Christ – who have never touched a drop of alcohol, and who believe and teach that no Christian should ever do so. This conviction stems from their awareness of the potentially destructive power of alcohol.

I have yet other friends – brothers and sisters in Christ – who believe that moderate alcohol use adds to their enjoyment of social gatherings and does no harm.

My friends in the third group would probably see this as a matter of Christian liberty of conscience, much as the apostle Paul did in regard to the matter of clean and unclean foods (Romans 14), which was a divisive issue in the first century community of believers. His position was that as a believer you are free in Christ to follow your conscience in these matters.

But he also said something else, and to me this is the crux of the matter. None of us lives for ourselves alone.

Having given this matter careful consideration, I don’t see any Scriptural basis for forbidding alcohol use. It’s clear to me that wine was a common part of life in the Hebrew scriptures, in the Jewish community from which the first church sprang, and in the New Testament world in general. The use of wine was considered to be normal. I’ve heard the arguments that the wine used in the Bible was alcohol free, but I don’t think this conviction holds water.

Drunkenness, however, was and is absolutely forbidden for followers of Jesus. To live a life that’s led by the Holy Spirit, we need to keep ourselves free from other influences. This means that for a disciple, alcohol use needs to be restrained and moderate. And when in doubt, we need to follow the most important and simple rule of all. Are we walking in love? In other words – is our conduct helping others live well, or does it have the potential to cause harm to another? Is what we are doing aiding or hindering in our primary calling – to display the goodness of Jesus to a needy world?

So, to my friends who exercise their liberty to enjoy a glass of wine or a bottle of beer in moderation, I have a question for you to consider. When you make the decision that it’s OK for you to enjoy a glass of your favourite brew or vintage, can you honestly say that you honour God as the Creator of all good things? If so, good on you. But if you drink to excess, and lose control of your ability to govern your own behaviour, how is this glorifying to God? And even if you’re very careful to stay sober, do you choose to draw attention to your exercise of your liberty, maybe by posting a pic online, or mocking those whose conscience won’t let them join you? If you do, whose good are you thinking of? Is this in any way doing good to your brother or sister? Or is it potentially causing division in the Body of Jesus, and doing harm to someone who can’t handle alcohol at all, and might be influenced by your choice?

And to my friends who never touch a drop of alcohol, I have a question for you to consider as well. Are you mature enough to see your abstinence as a personal choice, an expression of your own obedience to God? If so, good on you. Or are you using it as a measuring stick by which you assess who’s “in” and who’s “out” of God’s favour, presence and Kingdom? If so, be careful. It’s not up to you and me to exclude people that God doesn’t exclude. From what I can tell by my reading of the gospels, Jesus ate food and drank wine with some people that were counted as “unclean” by the religious rule-makers of the day. Their salvation was more important to him than someone else’s external rules about who was in and who was out.

I was trying to think of a good way to end this, but I can’t really find a better way than by quoting, once again, from the words of Paul. Love does no harm to a neighbor (brother, sister). Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. When you get right down to it, it’s not about us. When we think it is, we get messed up. When we keep our focus on giving delight to God and loving those around us, we do well.

Happy Holidays! And may your celebrations make Jesus smile.


What I want for my grandchildren – and for you

This morning, Marion and I got to see Sophie, Livie and Maddie Rose – our three Kansas City cuties – opening the Christmas gifts that we had ordered for them. The wonder of video technology made it possible for us to share this moment with them. It was a joy to our hearts to see each of them respond with delight to the presents we had picked out for them (with a bit of helpful advice from their Mom).  Sophie was thrilled by her new art set. Livie was excited about her dot to dot books and markers. Maddie was pumped about the Paw Patrol books and stuffed toy.

Last night at a family Christmas Eve gathering at my sister’s home here in Ottawa, I delighted to see the awe and wonder in the eyes of my granddaughter Maddie Joy as we read the Christmas story and sang well-loved carols. Her almost-two-year-old heart was captivated by the lights on the tree and the beauty of the music. We have some gifts for her as well, which she hasn’t seen yet, but of course we are looking forward to watching her open them.

Yes, we love our granddaughters to bits. Most grandparents love their grandkids. It’s a pleasure for us to give them gifts. The gifts we buy for them are an expression of our love for them.

But what do we really want for these four delightful little girls?  Mostly things money can’t buy.

We want them to know they are loved – by us, by their parents, but ultimately by the God who made them.

We want them to know that they are made for beauty, truth and significance.

We want them to know that they are more than just accidental blips on the screen of life, that their lives have eternal value and purpose.

We want them to know that despite whatever pain or suffering they may encounter in their lives in this world, God’s glorious plan is to make all things new, that Jesus is coming to rule over a Kingdom that will never end, and that they belong in that Kingdom with Him.

This is the path of hope that was opened up for us by the child of Bethlehem – a child who was destined to die for the redemption of the whole earth, a child who is coming as King to rule the world in righteousness.

We live in troubled, confusing, dangerous times. We need a light for our pathway, and Jesus is that light. What I want for my granddaughters is what I also pray for you – that the True Light of the World will shine in your life and guide your steps into His eternal Kingdom.

Merry Christmas.


Are you ready?

Are you ready for Christmas?

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard those words over the past week.

Usually people are thinking of external preparations – gifts, cooking, decorating, holiday plans.

I have nothing against any of these things in themselves.

I love many things about Christmas.

I love the beauty of Christmas lights against the darkness of a late December afternoon when I walk through the neighbourhood on my way home from the bus stop after work.

I enjoy the opportunity provided by the holidays to get together with friends and family.

I love Christmas baking and all the seasonal foods.

I love the spirit of generosity that motivates people to give at Christmas time. I am not a very creative gift giver, and have never thought of Christmas primarily as a chance to get stuff I wanted (I am grateful for having grown up in a household where this truly was not the focus of the season) but I have come to find much joy in giving gifts to my loved ones – especially when I can find something that will really bless the person to whom I am giving the gift, and not just add to the accumulation of stuff they don’t need.

I love the joy on little children’s faces – children young and unspoiled enough to truly enjoy the simple things that make the holiday special.

I love Christmas carols. In fact, it was through the words of a Dutch Christmas carol that as a young boy I first became aware that the baby Jesus came into the world to die for my sins and thus redeem me. Though it took me almost three decades to fully appropriate that revelation, I will be forever grateful.

I love that at this time of year it is still acceptable, in our increasingly pagan culture, to talk about Jesus and sing songs about Him and to Him.

But there are also things I hate about Christmas.

I hate that this holiday has become an occasion for people to put themselves into debt as they buy gifts for others way beyond their capacity.

I hate that so many missions and charities go underfunded while way too much money gets spent on gifts people don’t need or want. (And to those who say that all this buying fuels the economy I have a simple answer. So does giving to charity. It results in the purchase of goods and services for people in need).

I’m not an ascetic or an anti-materialist. I am grateful for prosperity. I’d just like to see more of its fruits directed towards the things that people really need, and the people who really need them.

I hate that so many people are lonely, grieving and ignored at Christmas time.

I hate that there is so much poverty, oppression, sickness and injustice in a world that is still very much in need of the light of Messiah.

I hate that so many people seem to have so little idea what Jesus truly represents and why He came.

So when I hear those words

Are you ready? 

I think

Ready for what?

Ready for Christmas?

Or ready for Jesus?


Lay down your weapons

Peace on earth.

The angelic promise of peace and good will is the theme of countless Christmas cards, carols, sermons, hopes and prayers.

Everyone says they want it. Yet the dream of world-wide peace seems as far off as ever.

Over the past few days, I’ve had occasion to reflect on the fragility and imperfection of human relationships. Most of us prefer harmony to conflict, but genuine harmony can be elusively difficult to attain.

As I lay in bed this morning pondering this mystery, I saw in my spirit a picture of Jesus approaching a fortified tower.

The tower was crumbling as its lonely, embattled inhabitant struggled to maintain the illusion of control. Jesus was approaching with far superior power, supremely confident in his victory. He had the ability to destroy the fortified tower in an instant. Yet he held in his hands an offer of peace.

The vision was open-ended. It was like one of those stories where you get to make up your own ending. Would the man in the tower come out from behind his crumbling defenses, lay down his useless weapons, and accept the offer of peace? Or would he continue to try to shore up his once-proud tower, maintain his brittle independence to the bitter end, and die a violent, useless, unnecessary death?

The man in the tower is every one of us.

To a world where strife is a constant, Jesus does offer peace – but that peace carries a price tag. For many, the price is more than they are willing to pay.

The price is surrender.

Surrender of our pride, our fears, our independence, our superiority, and our judgments.

Surrender to His Lordship, His mercy, His kindness, His inevitable victory.

For all who will accept the offer to lay down their weapons, there are two rewards. One is immediate, the other comes later.

The immediate reward is that we get invited into God’s training school. Life with Jesus in this age is a process of preparation, as we allow our bridegroom to woo our hearts, take us by the hand and teach us how to love. He is preparing His beloved ones for the Age to Come, when the promise of world wide peace will finally be fulfilled.

The ultimate reward is far more glorious than we can imagine. Instead of the futile little tower of independence and pride that we once left behind, we will have a place of honour in His Kingdom, in a restored world where there is no more war, pain or death.

One day, he will come in great power to establish that Kingdom openly on the earth. On that Day, there will be no more opportunity to surrender.

But today, He is waiting, calling, pleading, inviting. This is the day of salvation, of invitation, of mercy. Today, He is calling us to come out from our futile towers of independence and pride and fear. Today, He is calling us to let Him teach us the ways of His goodness and mercy and truth.

This is the peace that Bethlehem’s  child offers.

Immanuel – God with us.

If you hear his voice, will you lay down your weapons? Will you let Him lead you into the way of peace?

The wolf will lie down with the lamb, and a little child shall lead them.




Are you ready?

A few days ago, our friend Shannon recounted a wonderful story about her twenty year old son James. Driving to work on a cold December day, he stopped to help a young woman whose car had spun out of control on the snowy roads. He calmed her down, gave her a warm place to sit (in his car) and waited with her until the police came, before continuing on to work.

When James saw this scenario playing out in front of him, he didn’t have to work out what he ought to do. He knew how to respond, and he did it without hesitation.

James was ready. He had been prepared for this moment. His character had been shaped by a lifetime of training. When the time came, he knew what to do.

Two millennia ago, in the village of Nazareth, a young Israelite of the tribe of Judah, a carpenter by trade, was engaged to be married. Joseph was most likely looking forward to a quiet life as a family man and respected tradesman in his village. Both he and Mary were descendants of the great King David, but there was nothing to suggest that their life would be out of the ordinary. Then one day Joseph learned that Mary was expecting a child, although they had not yet come together in marriage. Understandably perplexed by this news, Joseph considered his options.

Before he could take action, an angel appeared to him in a dream, explained the situation, and gave him very specific instructions. Joseph’s response was immediate and unquestioning. The gospel writer records that when Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him.

Joseph was ready. He had been prepared for this moment. His character had been shaped by a lifetime of training. When the time came, he knew what to do.

God did not choose just anyone for this assignment. He chose someone who had been carefully prepared. We are perhaps more used to thinking this way about Mary, but it’s equally true of Joseph. Imagine the thoughts that must have been going through his mind. I am going to be the father of the Messiah?

This would not be an easy task. Among the many character qualities that would be of key importance in this mission – integrity faithfulness, compassion, humility, patience – surely one of the most important was Joseph’s responsiveness to the voice of God. Having heeded the angel’s direction to take Mary as his wife, he would again have to be quick to obey so as to protect his young son from the murderous King Herod.

Joseph was ready. When the time came, he knew what to do.

Only a few people in Bethlehem recognized the Messiah at his birth. It was the same throughout his lifetime. Many were affected by him but most continued to follow their own agendas. But to those who received Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God.

Our Christmas celebrations are so often focussed on the trappings of the season rather than on the Person at the center of it all. He is coming on the clouds, and every eye will see him. But when He appears a second time, there will be no time to change our minds about Him. Now is the time to give Him the central place in our lives that is His by right. Now is the time to pay careful attention to Him, and respond daily to His voice with willing obedience.

Are you ready?


Why I celebrate Christmas

A couple of weeks ago, Marion and I watched the 1984 production of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, in which Ebenezer Scrooge is set free from his addiction to greed, and discovers again the joy of celebrating Christmas.

Lots of people have tackled the topic of what Christmas is really all about. Dickens addressed this topic in an uncommonly memorable way. I’m no Charles Dickens, but at the risk of repeating the obvious, here are my thoughts on why Christmas is still worth celebrating.

When you get right down to it, Christmas is about hope. Lately I have been re-reading the words that the angel Gabriel spoke to Mary and to Joseph in the months leading up to Jesus’ birth.  Something unprecedented was beginning! A new age of hope and salvation was about to dawn with the birth of this child.

Earlier this year, my friend Ken Hall lost his son Rob to an untimely death. Rob had been serving as a missionary in Zambia, teaching Bible and sustainable agriculture, when he was killed in a freakish construction accident just shy of his 39th birthday. He left a wife and three children as well as many grieving loved ones and friends.

Were it not for their hope in Jesus, Ken and Lois could easily have given way to despair in the face of such tragedy. Instead, because of their hope in the resurrection, they have been afflicted … but not crushed by these events. In his Christmas letter, Ken writes that he and Lois have found strength in their season of need through meditating on the words of Paul in Colossians 1, where he speaks of the hope that is stored up for us in heaven.

Ken goes on to explain,

The hope Paul was talking about is what comes from the resurrection of Jesus from death.  He proclaimed it as an observable time and space fact, not a subjective religious experience or psychologically induced wish.  He says over 500 people in different places and at different times encountered the risen Jesus […] He said Jesus’ resurrection was the basis of our hope that those who die in faith in Him are not “lost”; that our hope for an age of peace and justice is founded on the resurrection; that an end of the obscenity of sickness, aging and death was assured because of it. He said that from this hope, faith and love would spring […] This year we have been in need of it and no other religion or world-view gives any [emphasis added].

I couldn’t have said it better. If Jesus has truly been raised from the dead, then He is the only Saviour of the world. If not, he is a fraud. There is no middle position. Ever since I yielded my life to Jesus over twenty-five years ago, I have carefully examined his character and the fruit He produces in the lives of those who genuinely love and serve Him, and I am fully convinced that Jesus is no fraud. In the face of sickness and death, personal loss, economic uncertainty, and the rising tide of brutal oppression in many lands, Jesus gives hope that is real, not counterfeit.

No other man has ever had such insight into the human heart. No other man has ever been so truthful and yet kind, so gentle and yet tough and uncompromising, so consistently faithful, so willing to pay the price of his proclamation with his life. No other man’s character has ever qualified him to pay with his life for the sins of the world. No other man has ever been raised from the dead never to die again. The only conclusion open to me is that Jesus is exactly who His first followers proclaimed him to be  – the Messiah of Israel and the hope of all the earth, who is coming again in glory to restore all things.

This is the Jesus of Christmas. This is the one whose birth the angels heralded with their songs of praise. This is the one whose coming we celebrate. All other powers will eventually be dethroned by him. I am fully convinced that Jesus is the only credible hope we have, and there is nothing intolerant about saying so openly. On the contrary, it would be a great injustice to those in need of hope to give them any other message.

So, I will celebrate Christmas.  And it will be Jesus, not Santa, that I am celebrating. Don’t get me wrong –  I have nothing against reindeer and fat men in red suits, I like cold snowy winter days and Christmas lights, I enjoy giving and receiving gifts, I love roast turkey, and I appreciate the other seasonal treats and goodies as much as the next person. But when the angels appeared to the shepherds on the first Christmas Eve, they did not announce a new season of snowflakes, Christmas trees, reindeer, fat men in red suits, cookies and turkey. They announced that the Messiah had been born. So, the focus of my celebrations will be the One who came to earth to bring the hope of forgiveness, restoration and resurrection to a lost race. He, and none other, is our hope.

Jesus has conquered sin and death, and he is alive today! He is present with his people in this age by the Holy Spirit, and he is coming again on the clouds of heaven to bring in a new age when all things will be made new. That’s a hope worth celebrating. That’s why I celebrate his birth.

Merry Christmas!


Lighting up the neighbourhood

This year I went all-out on Christmas lights.   Well, all-out for me, anyway.  Back in November I took advantage of Home Depot’s special offer on new Christmas lights for customers who bring in their old lights for recycling, and bought several strings of new energy-efficient LED lights.  Our house is now brightly lit up for Christmas, both outside and inside.

So what?  No big deal.   Lots of people buy Christmas lights.

Still, for me, this was a significant departure.  I have always been a minimalist as far as outdoor Christmas lights were concerned.  Conservation and environmental preservation were important values to me.  We only ever had one small string of lights outdoors, and they weren’t very visible from the street.

This year, encouraged by the fact that our old lights would be responsibly recycled and that the new LED lights would be more energy-efficient as well as brighter, I broke with my minimalist past. Now we have two much longer strings of lights in the front yard, and another two along the fence in our back yard.  The new lights have really made a difference.  Our house looks much brighter and more attractive from the street.  Even the ones in the back, as well as being nice to look at from our kitchen window,  are visible from many of the neighbouring homes, and also from the street behind us.

Marion and I live in Vanier – a part of Ottawa that has been known as the home of crack houses and brothels.  This is an unfortunate caricature.  Although Vanier is not completely free of problems (and probably never will be on this side of Jesus’ return),  it is in many ways a  delightful place to live.  Crack houses and brothels still exist, but their numbers are greatly reduced.  More and more people are fixing up their homes, cleaning up their parks, planting flowers in the summer and flooding skating rinks in the winter, walking the neighbourhood to keep an eye on problem properties, holding community parties and in various ways choosing to love the place they call home.

All of this is wonderful, and to a great extent it is an answer to prayer. But as a believer in Jesus, I am hungry to see community transformation taken to a whole new level. Vanier has been known as a dark place, and Marion and I want it to be a place where the Light of Christ shines brightly as more and more people recognize Jesus as their Lord.

So, I decided to buy more lights.

At first I didn’t quite know why I was doing this.  But gradually it dawned on my that my out-of-character decision to splurge on Christmas lights was a prophetic statement about what Marion and I want to see happen in our home and on our block. We want our home to be a lighthouse – a place where it’s easy to get connected with the goodness of God. We want our block, and the blocks around us, to be full of the glory of Christ as more and more people get to know that God is good and that they can trust Jesus to be the Lord of their lives. Lighting up our home for Christmas was a way of declaring all this – to ourselves, to the Lord, and to our neighbours – anyone with eyes to see.



Jolly old St Nicholas

When I was a child, December 5 – St Nicholas Eve – was an important and tremendously exciting date on our family’s holiday calendar.   In the evening, we children sang our songs to Sinterklaas and put our wooden shoes by the fireplace in expectation that the kindly old man would visit us with gifts of chocolate, mandarin oranges, and other treats.  And he never failed.  At some point during my growing up years, I began to notice some clues that my parents seemed to have a lot to do with Sinterklaas’ annual visit, and it dawned on me that Sinterklaas might not be real.  I remember being quite disappointed at this revelation.

Several weeks later, when Christmas arrived, the centrepiece of our family celebration was a Christmas Eve carol service.  This event took place not in a church building, but in our living room by firelight and candlelight, and was followed by a story which usually conveyed a message of kindness, mercy and hospitality.  And so, in our not-very-devout home, we nevertheless heard each year the age-old story of the coming of Jesus into our world as bringer of forgiveness, light and hope.  Somehow, I absorbed the message that Christmas was not about stuff.  It was primarily about Jesus, and secondarily about showing kindness to each other and to others in need.  My parents were wise enough to realize that it wouldn’t work to completely insulate their children from North American ways, so in deference to the customs of our new land we did also exchange gifts with one another on Christmas Day.  However, I remember the gift-giving as relatively modest – although still accompanied by lots of fun and excitement.

In eighteenth century New York (formerly New Amsterdam), where Dutch and English speaking settlers lived side by side, Sinterklaas morphed into Santa Claus and became part of North American Christmas tradition.  Over the years, many layers of mythology and tradition were added.  My wife having grown up in a more typical Canadian home, the Santa Claus tradition was deeply embedded in her family’s Christmas observances, and as a young married couple we had discussions about how we would observe Christmas.  Both of us wanted the main focus of our Christmas celebration to be on Jesus, not Santa Claus.  I also had a concern about telling our children stories which we would later have to retract.  So, after much discussion in the early years of our marriage, it was decided that in our home, we would give Christmas gifts to one another and to those in need, but there would be no gifts from Santa.

We did, however, read our children a variety of Christmas stories.  Among them were a couple of renditions of the life and deeds of the historical St Nicholas, who was a pastor in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) during the fourth century AD.  Although it’s difficult to accurately separate legend from history so many years after the fact, the web site of the St Nicholas Centre paints quite a believable picture of what the real Nicholas may have been like.  If the stories are reliable, it seems that Nicholas was known as an advocate for victims of injustice, and a friend to the poor who often gave financial help to those in distress.  Was he jolly, as the Santa Claus legend indicates?  I don’t know, but I hope so.  The Bible says that God loves a cheerful giver.  When our children were young, our family went through several years of living on a very modest budget.  Still, as a father, one of the Biblical values I wanted to impart to my children was the value of giving to those in need.  We used to have an offering box for missionaries, to which our children all contributed out of their allowance and other earnings.   I loved the story of St Nicholas partly because it reinforced this core Biblical value, and helped provide a balance to the consumerism that has infected Christmas in our culture.

My children are grown up now, and two beautiful granddaughters have been added to the family circle.  I love giving gifts to my children and grandchildren.  I know that the best gift of all is Jesus, and I know that he takes great delight in lavishing His mercy on us.  But I also know that he doesn’t care only about me and my family.  He is delighted when our lives overflow with generous love towards those in material or spiritual need.  I’m grateful for the example of Nicholas, a man who was a generous conduit of God’s love to the lost, poor and oppressed.  I want my family’s values to reflect the generous heart of a good God who has taught us that it is more blessed to give than to receive.




Letting Jesus shine through the cracks

I grew up in a Dutch immigrant family.  When I was born, my family had been in Canada for only two years, and during the early years of my childhood, the Dutch identity was quite strong.  I grew up speaking Dutch, though by the time I went to school, English had become predominant in our home.  But the differences went deeper than language.  Not that I realized this at the time – young children don’t reflect on how their family operates, they just accept it as the way the world is – but looking back, I realize that even though we were light-skinned like all our neighbours, in many ways we were quite different from the other families around us.

One of the times of year when the differences were most evident was in the way we celebrated Advent and Christmas.  Although my family was not particularly devout, during December we had regular times of singing Christmas carols, using an Advent calendar as a worship centre.  The Advent calendar in our home had nothing to do with chocolate.  It was made of coloured cardboard (bristolboard) with a wax paper backing, and consisted of a Bethlehem scene, showing the shepherds on a hillside overlooking the town, with a dark blue sky full of stars.  The stars were cutouts, so that at the beginning of Advent there were no stars in the sky, and then on each day of Advent another cutout piece would be removed and another star would appear.  There were larger stars for the four Sundays of Advent, and the largest one of all – situated right over the stable in the Bethlehem scene – was reserved for Christmas Eve.  In the evenings, the family would gather around the Advent calendar, the youngest child would remove another star from the sky, an older child would light a candle behind the calendar, we would turn out most of the lights, and the light from the candle would shine through the wax paper backing in the places where the cutout stars had been removed.  We would then sing a few Christmas carols by candlelight.   We did this most evenings during Advent, culminating in a special family Christmas Eve service of readings and carols.

As a young child, I didn’t fully understand why we were doing this, but I used to find it tremendously exciting.  The beauty of this observance awakened a sense of wonder in me, and a simple understanding of the gospel message was planted in my heart through the Christmas carols – some in Dutch and some in English.  Of all the Christmas customs that I grew up with, this is one that I have been able to pass on to my children.  Marion and I have had an Advent calendar in our home for years, and when our children were growing up our family, too, used it as a focus for family worship every December.

This morning, the Advent calendar is in place in our home, ready for the annual ritual.  There are no stars showing yet in the night sky, and the cardboard scene is stiff and stands up easily.  As the cutout stars are removed day by day, one of the side effects is that the whole structure becomes more flexible because it is full of holes.  The star-shaped holes are what make it beautiful – they allow the light to shine through – but they also mean that the calendar has to be handled with care and a gentle touch.   At the beginning of the annual ritual, the whole structure is fairly strong and stable.  It can stand by itself with no problem.  By the time Christmas comes, and all the cutout stars have been removed, it is full of holes and therefore much weaker and more flexible.  But if the candles are lit and the light is allowed to shine through the cracks and holes, it is also far more beautiful than in its original state.

This morning it occurred to me that my life is like that Advent calendar.   If I want the light of Christ to shine through, I have to be willing to let the cracks and holes in my life be uncovered.  We all like to present the image of ourselves as strong, self-assured, in control, with our weaknesses well covered up.  But Jesus exalts those who humble themselves.  If I succeed in convincing those around me that I am capable, knowledgeable and in control, they may be impressed.  But if I humble myself and allow my cracks and weaknesses to show, without pretending to be more than I am, then the light of Christ can shine through my life in increasing measure, bringing glory to Jesus and hope to those around me who also have lots of cracks in their lives.

For Christ’s sake I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:10)



More than a fairy tale

Last night Marion and I had the privilege of participating in a Bar Barakah ceremony for Evan, a young man whose family have become good friends of ours.  Bar Barakah is best described as a Christian Bar Mitzvah – a family ceremony of blessing and releasing into adulthood for young men and women.  Having done something similar for each of our own children, Marion and I thoroughly enjoyed being invited to share in another family’s rite of blessing over their son.

Many good words were spoken over Evan’s life last night, and there was much merriment as members of the family celebrated his life, described his unique personality, and chuckled over inside jokes and stories.  This was all good fun, but the evening – while thoroughly enjoyable – was much more than just an excuse for a party.  In celebrating Evan’s life, we were celebrating life as God intends it to be lived.  This was more than just a “feel good” time – there was real weight and substance to it.  In the presence of those who mean most to him, this fortunate young man was called to take his place as a disciple of the Coming One, and challenged to live out his life as a man of honour and purpose.  The underlying conviction that anchored this wonderful event was the conviction that there truly is hope, that life makes sense, that being human is a journey with a purpose and a destination.

Such a ceremony only makes sense if we believe that we have a real and substantial hope.  Otherwise it’s just empty words.

To put it another way, such a ceremony only means something if we realize that Jesus is more than a fairy tale.

People who live with no awareness of God the rest of the year may still have a place for a cutesy, fairy-tale Baby Jesus in their Christmas celebration, right alongside Santa Claus and the elves.  But we all know Santa isn’t real.  If your parents told you Santa was real, and later he turned out to be just a fairy tale, what about Jesus?  Do you think of him as a fairy tale character too?  If your faith in Jesus is like your childhood faith in Santa Claus, it won’t take you very far.

My son Reuben is getting married one week from today, and our whole family is full of anticipation. We are all looking forward to this wonderful event.  In just a few days, Reuben and Jess will exchange their vows of faithfulness and begin a new life together.  Of course, like every couple that falls in love and plans to marry, they have been building a relationship for quite some time now.  Still, the making of a marriage covenant is a pivotal moment, an act of great meaning and power, as the bride and groom exchange promises of life-long faithfulness in the hope and expectation that those promises will be kept.

Marriage is not a fairy tale, as anyone who has been married for a few years can attest. In fairy tales, everything always turns out right.  In marriages, it sometimes doesn’t.  In fairy tales, everything seems sugar-coated and too good to be true, but every real-life marriage has its challenging and unpredictable moments.  There are real risks, but there is also real promise.   A good marriage can lead to much joy and has the potential to bring forth a family line that blesses the earth for generations to come.

When Reuben and Jess exchange their wedding vows, they will promise to forsake all others for the sake of the one they love, and they will anchor their hope on the faithfulness of their marriage partner. They will promise to be faithful to one another for life. This is no small commitment, but I know God is faithful, so I have every confidence that as they place their reliance on the Holy One, Reuben and Jess will find the grace to keep their vows, and will find much joy and blessing in their marriage. My hope and prayer for them is that as they walk the road of life together, they will walk with the real Jesus, who is no fairy tale but absolutely real, and will anchor their ultimate hope not in each other but in Him who is faithful even when we are not.

That’s my prayer for you as well.  God bless you.