If you watch the news, you would think Christmas is one of the most controversial or despised holidays, but in truth the majority of Americans love to celebrate this tradition. According to Pew Research, 9 in 10 Americans celebrate Christmas; nones, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and Christians in significant numbers all take time each year to commemorate this national holiday.
Christmas is not just a personal celebration; it is a time for family and community to come together. It is a public festival where individual homes and entire neighborhoods post elaborate displays, almost 75% of Americans are open to Christmas decorations on Government property and over 80% find gift-giving brings them joy.
But more important than embracing social conventions and public traditions, is what Americans believe about the historical nature of Christmas. The graphic below indicated that the majority of Americans accept the historical accuracy of key aspects in the biblical account; Jesus laid in a manger, wise men guided by a star, angels announcing the birth and Jesus born of a virgin. In fact, only a tiny percent of people reject all of these key elements.
But celebrating these holy days is not enough… knowing and accepting these historical facts is not enough. Christmas must be for us truth in action. A real life illustration may help us connect these Christmas dots.
In these past few years, studies have suggested that some Christians, like heavy metal Christian rock star Tim Lambesis, have walked away from their faith. For some, the facade of faith is just a means to commercial success or social acceptance. There are certainly a complexity of reasons why some these people rejected their Faith, but one Christian turned atheist explained his reason for walking away stemmed from a disconnect between beliefs and action. Years after turning away from God, and then turning back to God, Mike McHargue observed,
When you lose God through rational analysis, you contemplate life from a materialistic philosophy. This perspective shows you that man’s ideas about God are flawed. I believe again, but I also believe no church sect has figured out the Great Mystery. I have doctrinal beliefs, but I know some of them may be wrong. I just don’t know which ones.
In the midst of emotional conflict, McHargue abandoned the hope of God made certain in the Bible, rejected the materialism of Atheism, and eventually embraced a new faith; a ‘Faith of Confusion.’ McHargue’s new faith begins within himself and is rooted in the unshakable confidence of his own uncertainty. He concludes in his article,
Atheism doesn’t pretend to have answers to every question. Losing God changed me. I no longer feel like I have to have answers to all the questions we face in life. I’m happy to look for an answer without finding one, and I’m comfortable with uncertainty. My faith is an act of simple trust now.
What I know is less important than what I do. Knowing Jesus is not an abstract set of information or a construct of dogma. Being a Christian comes down to the simple of act of dropping my nets when I hear the words, “Come, follow me.”
In short, McHargue argues that the truth which undergirds his beliefs doesn’t matter as long as he takes action on what he believes today.
So what does all this have to do with Christmas?
McHargue’s faith journey is a microcosm of how Americans celebrate Christmas. Like McHargue, many Christians have made one of two mistakes.
We have either concluded that the truth of Christmas means so much that all tradition must be rejected or…
that the truth of Christmas is irrelevant as long as we enjoy the traditions.
Both approaches lead to error and ignore a third approach where Christianity is equally both truth and action; Faith is both doctrine and praxis. We cannot have a lasting Faith that diminishes the value of truth for the sake of action, or action for the sake of truth (James 2:17). In relating this to Christmas, it is a season where both truth and tradition matter. Insofar as “tradition” reflects the necessary action that corresponds to the truth of Jesus Christ, we can make two important statements.
First, the truth of Christmas matters. The Bible does not give a smorgasbord of events where we pick and chose the ones we like and reject the ones we find uncomfortable. From the miracle of Jesus’ first incarnation and the promise of His second; and all that lies between, accepting the historical truth of Scripture is the necessary foundation of our Faith.
Second, the tradition of Christmas matters. By tradition, I do not necessarily mean the specific practice of decorating trees or giving gifts (although these are fine ways to commemorate the day). By tradition, I refer the larger practice of the Church setting aside a season to celebrate the first incarnation of Christ and finding ways to demonstrate that truth by reaching to the world.
Christmas is, and must be, truth in action.
For God, Christmas is the truth of His love demonstrated in the condescension of his Son Jesus to take on human flesh so He might bring reconciliation to mankind (John 3:16; Phil. 2:6). For the Christian, Christmas must be the truth of Jesus as our savior manifest in our love to the people we meet each day; a tangible love that points people to the truth that gives us hope.
Christmas without truth ceases to be Christmas. Christmas without action ceases to be Christmas. Christmas is truth in action.
For our church, the practice of Church Discipline is an important to our longevity and health as a Christian community. The book of 1 Corinthians 4-6 helps us understand what it means to live as the incarnation of God’s holiness. Discussion of Church Discipline can been tough, but I know they make our church Family stronger. In leading discussion of this with my previous church plant, my Sister Amber summarized these lessons in community.
So, the past couple of weeks you have mentioned that the topics are difficult ones. I just wanted to say that I am thankful for the times that you speak about those things because I feel that the hard topics are the ones we grow from the most. There isn’t as much difficulty in living some of the gospel because being kind and living well are things that most human beings strive for anyway. Yes, it is easier with the help of the Spirit of God, but they are things I would strive to do whether following Christ or not. It’s the “difficult” topics that are more challenging and grow my faith deeper. It’s the tough stuff that makes me think and question what I need to change in my life.
Sports is a great microcosm for looking at life. If you are like me, you are sick of hearing about coaches who coddle rich players and neglect to discipline the team. These shortsighted coaches put the immediate gratification of “winning now” over the long term satisfaction of building a strong team. BUT… not all coaches take this approach. The Church can learn a lot from Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Tomlin offers a much different approach to discipline.
Tomlin deactivated wide receiver Santonio Holmes for a Oct. 26  home game against the New York Giants — a game the Steelers lost. Tomlin was not happy with Holmes’ level of professionalism. Tomlin wanted more. He got it from Holmes.
Holmes said of their meeting: “He told me how he was going to handle it; I did not want to hear that. But he did what was best for the team and for me.”
This is the key thing about Tomlin’s decision, the beauty of it. What he did in requiring more of Holmes affected his team as much as it did Holmes, the Super Bowl XLIII Most Valuable Player who made the winning touchdown catch.
“I think it took real guts for coach Tomlin to do that with such a big game on the line and knowing how much Santonio means to our team,” Steelers safety Troy Polamalu said. “When he did that, he put action behind the words he had been preaching. He did something that raised the accountability of everyone. That was a decision that had a lasting impact on this team.”
How many of us in the church have the boldness to discipline our “star” players?
Have we let fear of hurting people’s feelings prevent us from bringing people to full maturity?
Have we put the short term goal of “peace” ahead of the long term goal of health?
Before we go too far, remember that good discipline is not just about correcting bad behavior, it is about encouraging good behavior that opens you up to risk, but promotes long term gain. In his first year as Head Coach, Tomlin was faced with another defining moment. Winning games is what the NFL is all about and most coaches put winning above everything. The following story is a good illustration of how Tomlin does not fit the mold. Much like his mentor Tony Dungy, Tomlin has shown his ability to put his player’s spiritual needs above the profit of victory. He risked the physical readiness of star Linebacker Troy Polamalu so that he could guarantee Polamalu’s spiritual readiness.
Tomlin allowed Polamalu, a Greek Orthodox Christian, to worship at a monastery more than a one-hour drive away from Phoenix in the early morning hours on the same day of a September  road game at Arizona. Tomlin kicked curfew aside for Polamalu so that this player could fulfill a wish, a personal mandate that meant everything to him.
So, tough love, admiring love — little difference for Tomlin. Every situation with his players, he knows, requires its own clarity.
The Steelers went on to lose this game against Arizona, but Tomlin did not regret his decision. He recognized that discipline sometimes means sacrifice for a greater good.
Have you sacrificed meaningful relationship in the service of temporary rules?
Do you allow the Holy Spirit to bring clarity to situations that require church discipline?
How do you demonstrate both tough-love and admiring-love?
Dave was orphaned in Vietnam when a land-mine took the life of the person carrying him–most likely his mom or dad, but he can’t remember now. Dave lost his leg in that accident, but was rescued by American soldiers and taken to an orphanage. Dave was adopted by a family in America, where he became my roommate, and one of my best friends, at Penn State University.
Even in college 15 years ago, Dave walked with a cane, but since then he has grown weaker due to a degenerative disease that hinders his mobility. Dave shot this picture of these old stairs to represent his struggle. I share both his photo and his comments with you today; first, because they touch me deeply and second, because they remind me to embrace God’s blessings in the midst of my own trial.
“There are gifts that we are unconscious of … until the day they are demanded back from us. It is then that we discover the infinite number of times we had thoughtlessly used them … and it is then that they cease to be gifts. They become … little daily miracles.” — Dave Young
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