The Truth in Christmas Carols

The Christmas season comes early at my house. We all love Christmas and can’t wait to get started. When you have two children aged 5 and 8, there is a lot of anticipation and excitement – but my wife and I are not much different than them. In fact, last year, we had to wake our kids up at 7:00 because we couldn’t wait any longer to see the joy on their faces as they opened presents.

The planning and anticipation starts long before the snow starts to fall. Lists of gifts to purchase are compiled in October, decorating is finished by mid-November and stores are to be avoided if at all possible after December 1st (I failed this year and didn’t finish my shopping until December 10th.) 

Of course, nothing helps to get you in the mood for Christmas like listening to Christmas music. Music can have a great affect on your mood throughout the year; so, it is no surprise that many of us can’t wait for it to be socially acceptable to listen to Christmas music 24/7. Whether an old carol recounting the birth of Christ or a modern song about gifts or snow, I enjoy most of the sounds of the season.

When it comes to Christmas Carols, I know that some “creative liberties” have been taken with the lyrics: they weren’t kings and there was way more than 3 of them, there is no Biblical reference to angels singing (yeah, that surprised me, too), and Mary and Joseph were first-time parents – there is no way “all was calm.” 

If you look beyond those small details, there are great truths that have been put to the familiar melodies. Here are just a few of the lines that encapsulate not only the events of Jesus’ birth but the Gospel.

Word of the Father,
Now in flesh appearing;
(O Come All Ye Faithful)

That hath made heaven and earth of naught,
And with his blood mankind hath bought
(The First Noel)

With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus Lord, at Thy birth
(Silent Night)

(I was going to pick out a line from Angels from the Realms of Glory, but I couldn’t pick just one, I would encourage you to read the whole song.)

Often, when the words are as well known as many of the carols we sing, the meaning can get lost as we simply repeat the sounding joy. But as you can see, in just a few lines plucked from popular carols, the truth of who Jesus is and what He was born to do are proclaimed. The common refrains heard throughout December are professing the message that the whole world needs to hear.

 

This Christmas, in all the hustle and festivities, I encourage you to take the time to let the timeless words of the Christmas classics remind you the reason for our celebration, and the joy that brings to our souls.

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The Gift of Potential

My children were watching home videos the other day. They get a real kick out of seeing themselves on the TV. The DVD they were watching included my daughter’s 3rd birthday. As I walked by, the scene on the screen was of her sitting with me and opening her gifts. My grandparents had given her a card, and as she opened it, the gift fell into her lap; she quickly picked it up and, with much excitement, exclaimed “money!”

It struck me as peculiar that a 3-year-old, surrounded by new toys, would get excited about a paper bill. As odd as it may sound, cash has no real value – what I mean is she couldn’t eat it, shelter herself, wear it or (at least compared to the other gifts) play with it. My daughter, of course, wasn’t excited about the bill for its current form – she was excited for the potential it held. She knew that she could go to the store and pick out what she wanted and trade the piece of paper for whatever her heart desired.

We all get the gift of potential each day – 1440 minutes to use as our heart desires. Time, like money, is valuable only to the extent of what you do with it. The difference is that time is more precious because you can’t make it up if it is lost or wasted. We all get the same amount each day no matter our status in society.

Every morning we get up and the day is ours to make of it what we want. For most of us, the majority of the minutes are accounted for in our schedules and “free time” is limited and usually allocated to when we just want to crawl into bed and recharge for another day of meetings and chores. We do, however, get to choose attitude for each minute, even those minutes assigned to “job” or “folding laundry”.

The authors of 1 Thessalonians write in chapter 5:15b -18 “always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else. Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” In other words, God wants us to take the opportunity to make every minute count for Him.

Like the crisp bill inside the birthday card, each minute of our day is full of potential. There are many ways we can use those minutes to their full potential: lending someone a hand, saying a short prayer or being joyful and sharing it with others.

As we begin the Christmas season, our time can be even more in demand than normal. At a time when we should be more cheerful and loving, that stress can cause the opposite effect. The words written to the people of Thessalonica can be easily forgotten as we deal with crowded stores, schedules filled with extra events and my personal holiday angst – drivers thinking about everything but driving.

This Christmas, whether it be a stressed-out stranger in the mall, your family around the tree or the driver who just needs you to be patient, we have the opportunity to use our time to make the world a better place and bring glory to God. That is a gift of unlimited potential.

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Reflecting Grace

Mercy and grace are 2 sides of the same coin. We often confuse them; or at least merge the 2 meanings together. It is easy to see what that is. In both cases, something is willingly given that isn’t mandated. I use these simple definitions to remind myself of the difference:

Grace – Giving something good that wasn’t deserved.
Mercy – Not giving something bad that was deserved.

For Christians, we understand that God has offered us both mercy and grace. The very foundation of our faith is in the mercy we receive from confessing our sins and the grace God offers to us both now and for all eternity. God’s mercy and grace are one continuous idea – God shows us mercy so he can give us grace.

If I am to reflect God to the world, how do I show mercy and grace? I don’t often find myself in situations where I can show mercy. I am not in a position to negate a punishment, though you could argue that when disciplining my children I could go easy on them (which of course may be to their detriment long term). As for grace, I believe I have plenty of opportunity.

One practical way to share God’s grace is through a personal ministry. I was once told by a friend that everyone should have a ministry, and I wholeheartedly agree. It is through our ministering to others that we give someone something they haven’t earned or paid for. We do it for them, not because we must, but because we want to reflect God’s love into the world.

I believe that we find ministry most effective, and therefore most rewarding, when we are involved in the one we were created for. God has given each of us different abilities and passions. Some of them seem to be ingrained in us from birth; while others are developed through experience and exposure. Either way, God has created and guided us for a special purpose to show His grace to this world.

Most churches have many opportunities to use our talents. You can lead worship, teach Sunday school or sit on a committee. But, we can also look outside of the scope of what a local congregation organizes, which tend to minister to those who seek, and minister to those who need to be sought.

Some people minister with community groups – working with “at-risk” youth, delivering meals-on-wheels or volunteering for a charity. Others have ministries that are simply doing something for someone who needs it – shovelling snow for an elderly couple or visiting with someone who just appreciates a good conversation. Jesus commands us to love our neighbours and through ministering to others we are providing a glimpse of God’s grace – we are showing love in action.

God has granted us unspeakable mercy and has given us immeasurable grace. Our response should be to pass His generosity along; finding a way to shine into the world and live like we have been saved and serve like we want everyone to know it.

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Music to His Ears

Last Sunday during the worship service I had a thought while singing. The congregational song was actually two songs merged together. It started with a new song, Gracefully Broken, and then flowed into the classic hymn I Surrender All. Having grown up in a church that sang old hymns, partly because the new “worship songs” were not in vogue yet but mostly because of tradition, I was able to sing along without hesitation when we transitioned.

The thought I had was “will my children know this song, or any of the classics?” The church we attend doesn’t sing a lot of the old hymns. I don’t miss them so much as wonder if my children will even know they exist and if the classics will be lost to time.

There has been debate over the proper music for a church service. Some believed that only the traditional hymns should be used; if it isn’t in the trusted hymnal sitting in the back of the pew then it shouldn’t be sung in church. Others embraced worship songs with their modern melodies. I am not sure if this debate is still ongoing, but the fact that it ever did seems silly to me.

I have been exposed to many forms of music, but not all of them. I, like most, tend to like the music I grew up with and hear most often. But I realize that there is not one way to worship God through music.

Growing up attending The Salvation Army, I learned a lot of hymns while the congregation sang along to a brass band accompaniment. My idea of music in church centred around the band. I still enjoy listening to brass bands, at least in small doses.

Currently about the only time I hear brass bands is during Woodstock’s Victoria Day parade. It is a family tradition to travel 45 minutes west to where my grandfather is still bandmaster. Every year we go and see him ride by on the float and wave as the band passes by playing familiar tunes. They are just one of many bands in the parade and maybe the smallest of the brass bands I hear that day.

Of all the bands in that parade, the one I look forward to hearing most, outside of grandpa’s of course, is the steel drum band and its Caribbean beat. I have no idea if any of the songs they play have words, but I love the joyful music they produce and can’t help but jam along to it.

When it comes to music, I guess beauty is in the ear of the beholder. Whatever style you prefer is perfectly acceptable. While some people will express their disdain of certain types, others fully enjoy them and find them their prefered genre for worship.

So what is music going to sound like in Heaven? Hymns or worship songs? Rock and Roll, country or rap? Brass bands, Steel drums or pipe organs? Not to mention the myriad of different styles and sounds from around the world and throughout history that have been lifted to God for millennia or new ones that have never been heard before. I don’t know the answer, but my guess – all of the above.

Just like the music we lift up to God in praise now, I believe that we will worship God and bring praise to him in ways that are both jubilant and diverse. Our creative side, the basic DNA of our ability to compose, is a direct reflection of our Creator. Just as each of us has our own tastes and preferences now, I believe that God enjoys every note that is lifted to glorify Him.

So, whether my kids ever learn the words to How Great Thou Art or And can it Be doesn’t really matter. What matters is that they learn to lift up praise to God and bring a joyful sound that is pleasing to His ear.

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The Silver Core of Lamentations

Reading through Lamentations is not my idea of an uplifting time. It is not a book filled with wonderful thoughts on God and spiritual ideals. The book is called Lamentations because it is filled with Jeremiah – you guessed it – lamenting. It is understandable, he is writing as he watches Jerusalem fall to the Babylonians and many are killed or taken into slavery. It is not a good time for God’s people, and Jeremiah describes the utter pain and disappointment he feels. He knows that Israel was given every chance to live up to their calling as God’s people but because of their failures was paying the price for those sins.

As I was about halfway through reading the 5 chapters, and thinking to myself, why did God include this book in the Bible, I came to Chapter 3 verse 22 and 23

“Because of the Lord’s great love, we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.”

Talk about your change in perspective!

We use the phrase “every cloud has a silver lining” when we want to convey that even in a bad situation there is some good. Here in the middle of Jeremiah’s lament he pauses from focusing on the situation around him and remembers that God is good. He is allowing His people to go through pain as a form of loving discipline – to get them back on track. He is not abandoning them forever; He will bring them back to Jerusalem and restore them as a nation.

We all face trials. They come in all sorts of areas: health, relationships, employment and depression, just to name a few. Not every hardship is discipline; most trials aren’t sent our way as a punishment for sin, at least not in the way God was dealing with Israel back then. But like the Israelites, God can use our times of struggle to help build us up. We grow through adversity and are better prepared for the next time we face a tough circumstance.

Things happen to and around us, often completely out of our control, and we have to live with the consequences of them. Life can be difficult, but we have a God who loves us and will always be with us. Our situations are, more often than not, temporary. We can choose how we let the situation affect us – and our response to it.

We can even share our experience to help others around us in their times of struggle. How many times have we been encouraged by the “survival story” of someone who came through a similar storm that we were going through?

Jeremiah reminds us that God’s love for us never fails. We are never outside of his care. Every morning we wake up and have a new day that He has created, and we can choose to focus on the negative, or we can praise God for all the blessings we have. God is our strength and through Him we can conquer anything that comes our way.

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The Good Father

One of the highest rated sitcoms of the late 90s/early 2000s was Everyone Loves Raymond. I didn’t watch it very often while it was airing original episodes. I didn’t find it funny.

I have caught a few episodes in syndication since and now find the show to be hilarious. I think the reason why I didn’t find it funny before and do now is that the show ended in 2005, and I got married in 2006.

Many of the shows jokes were exaggerations on the dynamics of married life. Until I was married, I didn’t understand why the situations and reactions were truly funny. The same is true about how Ray reacts to and interacts with his three children on the show – it is much funnier when you can watch through the lens of being a dad.

Growing up I had a typical kid’s view of my dad. I knew he deserved respect, he provided me with all that I needed (and a lot of what I wanted), and I knew that he loved me. I also tested his patience with me and the limits of forgiveness. In truth, I have been extremely blessed to have the dad I have. He is not perfect, but he sacrificed so much so that our family could have a comfortable life. He still to this day helps me when I come to him, whether it is for a handyman project, advice or free babysitting when my wife and I need a short break from our children. I have what many people don’t – a very positive image of what a father should be.

Even with that image, it wasn’t until I had children of my own that I was able to understand love from a father’s point of view. I took for granted that my dad wanted to provide for me, would have infinite patience (again, I really tested this) and would be the superhero that I thought he was. Now, with my children, I know that I want to give them everything they need, most of what they want, keep them away from harm, push them to be their best, succeed in their endeavors, but not be scared to fail. I want to have patience with them, forgive them when they need it and ultimately love them so they will have no doubt that I do.

Do I succeed all the time? No. I am an imperfect father just like every other father. Well, not quite every other father – there is one exception.

Throughout the Bible God is referred to as Father. While our earthly fathers all have faults and shortcomings, our Heavenly Father does not. God is much more than just a father; the metaphor is used to give us a picture of the relational nature and desire that He has. He is not a watchmaker, who simply winds up the universe and lets it go, or a Superior Being sitting on a mountain top ready to zap us with lightning bolts if we get out of line. He genuinely wants to have a loving relationship with each one of us.

Our minds cannot fathom the love God has for us, and the relationship between humanity and God is clouded due to our sin. So to help us understand God uses the imagery of the paternal relationship to help us comprehend His nature. He wants us to come to Him with our burdens and tell him what we need and want. He is patient with us, and has offered us unconditional forgiveness.

I have been a son my whole life and have understood what it is to receive the love of a father. In becoming a father myself, I have gotten a glimpse of how much God loves me. Though my vision is marred by my own sinful nature, my understanding of the symbolism has been taken to a new level. I have a better understanding of how desperately He wants to meet all our needs, guide us in His way and wash away that sinful nature so we can one day find perfect rest in Him.

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All the Evidence I need

Last week, I read an article on how scientists working at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research, famous for the giant hadron collider) had stated that according to their findings, the universe should not exist as we know it. In a meticulously controlled environment, their hypothesis of how the universe came into being has so far been unsubstantiated.

When I first saw the headline, my immediate reaction was that this is further evidence that God created the universe. In reality the findings, or lack thereof, do not provide any proof that God did or did not create the universe. I firmly believe that we will never have proof, at least scientifically speaking, of how the universe came into being. The reason for this is quite simple – scientific proof involves repeatable experimentation and observation. There is, of course, no possible way for anyone to observe the beginnings of the universe. There is also no way to know what exact environment and circumstances were present at that time. Even if scientists could find a way that the universe may have come into being it would never be more than a theory because there is just no way to know for sure that is the way it happened.

That got me to thinking about my own beliefs. I believe that the Bible tells us that God made the world, but it doesn’t tell us how. The Genesis account reads more like a baseball boxscore than an instruction manual. You can read how things progressed and what happened when, but there is very little on how it was done; even when there is some description, it is an overview and vague. The focus of Genesis 1 is on the “who” not the “how”.

The Genesis account, in some ways, is similar to many ancient stories of how the universe came into being. I remember learning about an Aboriginal creation story when I was in grade school. My classmates all got a laugh (and then a lecture on respect from our teacher) out of the story of how the world was created on the back of a turtle. Origin stories have been passed down for generations and to the skeptic the Genesis account could be viewed in the same light.

So why do I believe the biblical account? What about it makes it so compelling that I stand firm on my belief without the proof that my curious mind demands in just about every other area of my life? Why do I come back to it after every doubt I have that it is true?

Maybe the best place to start is the Gospel of John. John states in chapter 20:30-31 that the purpose of his writing is that we may know that Jesus is the Messiah so that we may gain eternal life. John 1 starts at the beginning, or more accurately, before then. John declares that through Jesus, who is God, all things were made.

Of course, this is no more proof than the original account in Genesis, but it does give another piece of evidence. The Creation story written down by Moses is corroborated by John. John’s Gospel is corroborated by the other Gospel authors. Those writings fit together with the Old Testament writings of Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah and David; you see that they point to the fact that Jesus is who John declares Him to be. The evidence keeps mounting.

You could argue that I have only used one source, the Bible, for all the evidence. That is true, but remember, the Bible is not just one book by one author written over a short period of time. Every book can be looked at as a different source. The fact that they have been compiled into one is because together they tell the whole story. It is no different than having several witnesses in a court case. The more of them that give the same story, the more credence the story has. It is not like a jury would say, “well, all their testimonies seem to support each other; so, we really can’t trust any of them.”

There are also many outside sources that confirm the accounts of the Bible, from other ancient writings to recent archaeological finds. In other words, there is plenty of reason to believe the individual parts of the Bible on their own as well as part of a complete story.

Does this evidence meet the burden of proof? That is what each one of us has to decide for ourselves. For me? It does.

Scientists will continue to keep looking for how the universe was created, and along the way, they will make great discoveries of how magnificent and mysterious the creation is. My prayer is that in the searching they will give some thought to the question of who – and find the Creator.

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