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evangelism or serving?

January 12, 2012
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I was recently asked if it is more faithful for a church to pursue evangelism or serving others.

Though it’s a good question, it’s the wrong question. We must ask instead, “What is God’s mission to the world?” and faithfully pursue that.

What is God’s mission? God’s mission is to bring redemption. Matthew summarizes this mission when he says of Jesus: “And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction.” God’s mission is to bring redemption through the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

God’s mission includes the salvation of individuals. God wants people to know him and be forgiven through Jesus. Christian faithfulness includes telling others that, because of sin, they have a broken relationship with God that can be healed through faith in Jesus. Christian faithfulness includes evangelism.

God’s mission also includes a holistic component. God wants people to have beds to sleep in, food to eat, and to be healed of their diseases and afflictions. Christian faithfulness includes doing justice. It includes sacrificially giving to those in need.

Both evangelism and serving are aspects of God’s mission, and it is this mission the Church must pursue. Christopher Wright in God’s Mission to the World quotes Jean-Paul Heldt:

There is no longer a need to qualify mission as “holistic,” nor to distinguish between “mission” and “holistic mission.”  Mission is, by definition, “holistic,” and therefore “holistic mission” is, de facto, mission.  Proclamation alone, apart from any social concern, may be perceived as a distortion, a truncated version of the true gospel, a parody and travesty of the good news, lacking relevance for the real problems of real people living in the real world.  On the other end of the spectrum, exclusive focus on transformation and advocacy may just result in social and humanitarian activism, void of any spiritual dimension.  Both approaches are unbiblical; they deny the wholeness of human nature of human beings created in the image of God.  Since we are created “whole,” and since the Fall affects our total humanity in all its dimensions, then redemption, restoration, and mission can, by definition, only be “holistic.”

tim tebow and christian unity

January 10, 2012
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Tim Tebow is the starting quarterback for the Denver Broncos. He is also an outspoken Christian. He is not a good NFL passer by a long shot. Statistically, he is one of the worst quarterbacks in the league this year. Most football pundits think that he will not succeed in the NFL.

But he keeps winning.  He knows how to lead a team and a locker room. Whatever the “X-factor” is for a winning quarterback, Tebow has it.

On Sunday, he led the Broncos to an overtime playoff victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers are the closest thing the NFL has to royalty. It was a huge upset and a big win for Tebow—the guy who isn’t supposed to succeed in the NFL.

What makes him something of a national spectacle, though, is the way he practices his Christian faith both on and off the field. He prays everywhere, verbally praises God in the middle of games, and begins every interview by acknowledging Jesus’ work in his life.

Off the field, his life is a model of Christian consistency. He preaches regularly, is involved in mission work in the Philippines, and spent at least one college spring break working at an orphanage. People who know him best all report that he is the genuine article. The world would be a better place with more people as genuine in their faith as Tim Tebow.

But here’s where it gets somewhat troubling for me. On Sunday, I found myself rooting for the Steelers. Deep down, I wanted Tebow to lose. You have to understand that I loathe the Steelers. I respect them a lot, but I generally can’t stand them. I have never cheered for them to win a game until two days ago when they were playing against Tebow.

Why did I want Tebow to lose? I think it had to do with the way he expresses his faith. I just can’t imagine myself living out my faith the way he does. Don’t get me wrong, I want my “walk” to match my “talk” like his does. But his overly forward Christian posture is problematic for me.

For example, he awkwardly inserts Jesus into conversations that don’t really have anything to do with Jesus. I try to avoid this behavior in my life. He also prays regularly in front of tens of thousands of people. He prays on the bench, on the field and in the end zone. I’m all for prayer and want to pray more in my own life. But didn’t Jesus say something about going into your closet to pray?

Anyway, you get the picture. For me, the bottom line for me is this: I just can’t imagine living out my faith in the way he does. And not only can I not imagine it–I don’t really want to express my faith that way. I have no doubt Tebow is sincere and loves Jesus. But I am just of turned off by the way he expresses his faith. This is why I rooted against him.

Upon further reflection, I think this is a sin and I need to repent. Tebow is a fellow Christian, and this should  mean something to me with respect to how I think of him. I think I am supposed to be significantly more favorably disposed towards him. To put it a different way, I think I need to treat him like a brother.

Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t mean I have to agree with him or try to emulate the way he expresses his faith. It also doesn’t mean I have to want his team to win. But I do think it means I shouldn’t root against him because of the way he expresses his faith. I need to get over myself.

Here is why I think this is significant. Jesus says that unity in the church is of tremendous importance. In a very important prayer at the end of his life, Jesus prayed that the church would display unity (John 17). This means that even when we disagree about important things, we still act like family. Moreover, the church’s unity is supposed to be one of the ways that the world knows that Jesus is for real. If Christians can’t respect and love one another, why should the world want to hear about Jesus? In other words, living out our familial bond with other Christians is one of the most effective evangelistic strategies we Christians have.

As I think about practicing unity with other Christians, I realize that it is somewhat easier for me to extend grace to Christians who are a bit more “liberal” in their beliefs than I am. It is more of a challenge for me to extend the same kind of grace to Christians like Tebow who are more “conservative” or “mainstream evangelical” in their convictions. However, it doesn’t matter what kind of Christian it’s easier for me to extend grace to. I have to extend grace to them all. It is simply another outworking of the gospel that is supposed to be evident in my life.

So I have learned something from Tim Tebow. I’ve learned more about my ability to be judgmental of other Christians. I’ve also learned a little bit more about practicing unity with my brothers and sisters in Christ even when they don’t see the world exactly the way I do.

Lord have mercy on the church.

anxiety

January 5, 2012
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Reflections on Matthew 6:25–33.

Jesus said, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear? ’For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”

I have never met anyone who was anxious and liked it. Makes sense; anxiety is awful. It destroys. It’s uncomfortable. It’s consuming. It’s unbiased. And the worst part is that no matter how much you hate anxiety or try to ignore it, it’s so hard to shake. Like an unwanted guest, it just won’t leave. For all of us, whether it’s in a clinical or non-clinical sense, anxiety is a part of our life.

I am thankful that Jesus talked about anxiety. He said that we shouldn’t be anxious about our life. Easier said than done. It seems impossible not to be anxious in our world, with all our responsibilities and challenges. Regardless of the difficulty, Jesus said not to be anxious. In love, he doesn’t leave it to us to figure out how to overcome but provides insight to this seemingly impossible task of not worrying.

Before I dive into some of the specifics, a caveat. For folks who struggle with clinical anxiety, I am not suggesting that seeking help through therapy or medicine is unfaithful or a cop-out or even wrong. It’s not. Medicine and therapy are gifts from God that are sometimes necessary.

God is present and not indifferent to our circumstances. Anxiety is often a result of believing we are alone. By alone, I don’t simply mean having no relationships, but rather a sense that even with our relationships, we are the only ones thinking about our tasks and needs; we are the only ones who are not indifferent to the quality and details of our life.

Jesus tells us not to be anxious because God is present and aware of our circumstances. He knows that we, like the birds of the air and lilies of the field, need food and clothing. He is not indifferent to our life but is in fact present and concerned. We are not alone.

Anxiety is unfruitful. Anxiety is an addictive coping mechanism because it gives us a sense of control. But what is thought to be control is nothing other than an illusion. Jesus asked, “And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” Of course, we all know the answer. Anxiety accomplishes nothing other than becoming fixated and consumed with our circumstances and being fixated and consumed is not control. Jesus is being practical here. Don’t be anxious because it accomplishes nothing.

Life is found in God. Jesus tells us not to be anxious, even about the essentials, but first seek the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and then everything will be added to us. To understand this, consider our need for food. Some of us are anxious about our ability to provide food for ourselves and those for whom we are responsible. We may be anxious for good reason. Maybe we are unemployed and our savings is quickly being depleted. And yet, Jesus tells not to worry about providing the food but first seek the Kingdom of God and then everything will be added to us. Is Jesus just playing a game? Is he actually suggesting that we simply need to first seek his kingdom and then he will provide food? I know of a number of stories about people, even those of great faith in Jesus, who die of hunger or exposure to the elements. Is it because these folks didn’t seek God’s kingdom first or have enough faith? I don’t think so.

Then what does Jesus mean? We desire life and not just any life, but a flourishing life. In a way, when we are anxious, what we are really seeking is this flourishing life. However, throughout the Bible, particularly the Gospels, we are told repeatedly that the life for which we long finds its meaning and fulfillment in God through Jesus. When Jesus tells us to first seek God’s kingdom and all these things will be added to us, I think he is simply saying to seek God, and the thing we really want, life, will be found. The implications of this are massive. Life does not consist in the essentials (food, shelter, etc.), or possessions, or success, or anything else. It is found in God and God alone. Because of this, we don’t need to be anxious because the thing we want and need most, life, is found only in God through Jesus.

goals

January 3, 2012
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This time of year, a lot of people are thinking about New Year’s Resolutions. Many of us take the turn of a new year as an opportunity to assess what we would like to change in our lives. I’d like to expand the conversation about resolutions and make it bigger. I want to talk about goals. Do you have personal goals for 2012? Why or why not?

Like many of you, I have a complicated relationship with goals. I don’t really want anything to do with the triumphalist “self made man” who progresses from one accomplishment to another. I’ve also had God prevent me from achieving some of my most deeply-cherished goals in the past. In hindsight, this has often been a very good thing. For these reasons, I had not set formal personal goals until a couple of years ago.

At the same time, I have come to believe that goals can be a very helpful thing. I am fairly capable and can get a lot of things done in the course of a year. Goals, however, keep me from just mindlessly jumping from one thing to the next. In other words, they help me avoid “competent busy-ness” and instead push me towards living and laboring in a very intentional way. This is a good thing.

I believe one can make a solid Biblical case for the need for goals or some other kind of intentional way of living our lives. Psalm 90 asks God to “teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom”. The idea is that we have a very limited time available to us in this life. Instead of wandering aimlessly, there should be a method to our madness. Goals are a very good way of doing this. Incidentally, this whole notion of living in light of our mortality is one of the driving forces behind the Rule of Benedict–a very ancient way of living a disciplined, intentional life.

It’s important to point out that I am not saying having a set of life goals is a biblical command. Rather, I think it’s a good idea. I think the biblical command is to intentionally live in a manner that is consistent with the trajectory of the gospel. Having personal goals is one good way to do this. It is very helpful to be able to distinguish between a good idea and a biblical command. Unfortunately, not all preachers make this distinction and sometimes try to bind peoples’ consciences with good ideas.

Here are some practical tips on setting goals.

1) Be comprehensive. My goals are constantly evolving, but I try to cover all the bases. My categories right now include: God, personal holiness, marriage, my children, my job, physical fitness, money and my house. I will no doubt adjust these categories in future years. You could have categories for friendships, creative endeavors or education. My point here is to address the significant areas of your life.

2) Dream. Don’t just look at what is. Think about what could be. What would you like to happen in the next five years? For example, when you think of character development, you may want to consider the Fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5. Which aspect of the “Fruit” would you like to see more of in your life? What can you do to pursue that? Or, maybe you’re in debt. Think about what it would be like to live a life not hindered by debt. And, then, think about how can you start to move in that direction.

3) Re-structure Your Life Accordingly. You will need to change things to pursue your goals. Pursuing goals will affect your calendar, your money and your free time. Essentially, this means changing the “liturgy” of your daily life. What is the rhythm of your life structured around now? What would you need to add to your life to change directions? What would you need to subtract?

Over the past several years, there have been a couple of ways I have restructured my life to pursue goals. These changes have made a tremendous impact.

First, back in 2009, my wife and I started pro-actively budgeting our money for the first time in our marriage. We have always had fairly disciplined spending habits, so we weren’t up to our eyeballs in debt. This change required about 5 hours per month of my time to crunch the numbers and plan ahead. That’s 5 hours that I can’t use doing other things, but I think it is time very well spent. It also creates an environment where I am forced, every month, to think about where our money is going. This change has had significant repercussions. By becoming more forward thinking and forward planning with our finances, we have really been able to do more things with our money and even give more away.

Secondly, at around the same time, I began exercising in a much more disciplined manner. To help jump-start this process, I started using the P90X exercise program. I know, it’s inundated with all the Southern California body image cheese. But the reality is, I needed the structured program to get me off the couch and motivated again. This required several hours per week to devote to exercise and it also triggered a change in the way I eat. But I am much healthier than I was before. I also sleep better at night and have more energy.

4) Take a Long View. You need to dream and push yourself, but don’t try to accomplish everything in one year. Maybe there are one or two areas that need specific attention in a given year. Pursue those goals with gusto and cut yourself some slack in other areas. Also, pay attention to your current phase of life. If you are slammed in grad school or have a bunch of kids in diapers running around the house, there are some things you will not be able to do for a while.

5) Remember the Gospel. Goals are a way of “working out your salvation”, not earning it. If you fail at a goal, it doesn’t touch your identity in Christ. Also, if you fail, you have to be open to the fact that God might be trying to re-direct some of your deeply held ideas about what your life should be about.

Happy New Year!

the twelve days of christmas

December 27, 2011
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Important Caveat: How you celebrate Christmas, or even whether you celebrate it, is a matter of Christian freedom. You can celebrate Christmas on one day, two days, twelve days, or zero days. For this reason, I am not trying to bind anyone’s conscience with this post. Instead, I want to shed some light on the historic Christian observation of Christmas. I also want to point out a few ways this can positively impact congregational practices and our individual lives. So, take this post for what it’s worth. It’s not a law to be followed. Rather, it is something to get you thinking about how you celebrate Christmas.

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about how Grace didn’t sing Christmas songs during Advent. Instead, we were following the ancient practice of Advent First, Christmas Second. During Advent, the 4-week period leading up to Christmas, we weren’t singing songs of celebration like “Joy to the World”. Instead, we were singing songs of longing and expectation like “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus”.

By doing this, we were learning (through our congregational worship) the difficult practice of waiting on God. To use an Old Testament metaphor, we weren’t leapfrogging into the Promised Land. Rather, we were intentionally placing ourselves in the desert so we could practice the skills of directing our unfulfilled longings and desires to the Lord.

Truth be told, we haven’t mastered the skill of waiting on God yet. The virtue of developing patience in the desert isn’t something one masters in four weeks. So next year, we will “worship through longing” again during Advent.

But, as you all know, Christmas was two days ago. So now what?

The answer is pretty straightforward. The long wait of Advent is over, and the Christmas celebration has begun. And here’s the beautiful thing: you don’t have to limit Christmas to one or two days. The traditional Christmas celebration lasts for 12 days–from December 25th through January 5th. This historic practice is what gave rise to the popular song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas”.

The Twelve Days are when we get to fully celebrate the birth of Jesus. It’s a time of singing carols, reading the gospel stories of Jesus’ birth, being with friends and family, working less (if possible), eating great food, and thanking God that in Jesus, “the Word has become flesh and came to dwell with us”. (John 1).

I want you to notice the contrast between the common cultural approach to Christmas and the church calendar’s approach to Christmas. Our common cultural approach to Christmas feels like a mad dash to get everything ready followed by a very intense 48-hour period where we try to squeeze in all of our celebrating. It can be, well, a bit counter-productive.  No wonder we put Bourbon in our egg nog. 🙂

But this is a place where the church’s historical practices can really help us. Instead of being like a frantic sprint followed by a collapse, the traditional observance of Christmas is more of a leisurely stroll. You don’t have to get in all of your celebrating over the space of two days. You can spread out the feast over nearly two weeks. This not only takes some of the pressure off, it also teaches us something about true celebration. Our culture knows a lot about fleeting moments of euphoria. But observing an entire season of celebration teaches us something about developing lives of sustained joy. I really believe this is something that both we and our culture desperately need.

Some Practical Outworkings

How does observing Christmas in this way change things? I will briefly answer that question from two perspectives: 1) congregational and 2) personal.

From a congregational standpoint, this means that worship on January 1st is going to be a lot like it was on December 25th. We will continue to rejoice that God has sent Jesus to the world. It gives us another week to sing great Christmas songs and also takes a little pressure off expectations that Christmas worship be mind blowing and warp the fabric of space-time. Believe me, pastors, worship leaders and musicians really appreciate this. Normal we can do. Out of body experiences are harder to deliver on cue.

But, in all seriousness, most of us instinctively know that Christmas ends too soon. Observing the church calendar during Christmas season keeps the feast going one more week–and this is a good thing for the worshiping life of a congregation. Just as we need Advent worship to teach us how to live in the “Not Yet”, we need Christmas worship to teach us how to live in the “Already”.

From a personal standpoint, our family has embraced this tradition full-on. I’ll give you some of the highlights:

1) We try to do something devotionally on most days. I’m not a family devotional super-hero, so I need all the help I can get. The structure of the 12 Days helps me a lot. We often use the “Twelve Days of Christmas” song as a teaching tool and branch off from there. For example, last night we read the stories of Jesus’ youth from Matthew and sang the new song Jess & Annie wrote.

2) We spread out presents out over the 12 Days. This really helps with some of the over-materialization of Christmas (it also means I get to sleep at a reasonable hour on Christmas Eve). The kids still get presents and we love that, but the gifts take place within a larger context. Also, some days the “present” is a family activity like going to a movie or going sledding. On one of the 12 Days, we do some kind of family service project. We do things like bake cookies for homeless people and bring them to a local shelter. In other words, there is something to look forward to every day.

3) We spend a lot of time with friends and family. It’s a great time for playing games, discovering new iPad apps and watching completely meaningless college football bowl games. Spreading out our celebration also enables us to “open up” our family on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Because we know we’re going to be spending a lot of time together for 12 days, there’s not as much pressure to be “alone as a family” every single day.

4) Observing the Christmas season really “institutionalizes slacking” in a way that is helpful. Face it, not a lot gets done during this time of year anyway. Calling the whole period a holiday really just simplifies things. I know not everyone can take time off from work (I am working more than I would like today). But it is a great relief to call it a holiday and lower our expectations for what we can get accomplished.

Conclusion

To sum things up, I think there is a great deal we can learn from the way that Christians have observed Christmas in the past. Adopting some of these older approaches can help us navigate through this time of year in a more intentional and helpful way. But please don’t be bound by any of the particulars. If I can boil down this post down to its essence I would say thi: Christmas is bigger than one day; it’s a season. Embrace it.

Joy to the World, the Lord has come!

alldredge fam – ‘christmas’

December 24, 2011
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My wife and I just finished a simple recording of some Christmas tunes this last week and we’d love to share them. It has been the driest December on record in Seattle this year (pretty cold too) and there has been an abnormal amount of fog in the mornings. Fog can be unsettling. It changes and disguises the appearance of the world around us. But after the morning, the fog lifts and the sun reveals what has been covered up and unclear. My hope is that these songs do the same thing. Though our lives can be bleak and at times unclear, the son of God has come down to reveal His truth, love, hope, and grace to us. Love came down at Christmas.

christmas, culture, and love

December 23, 2011
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If you watch The Office, you probably saw the loveable Stanley Hudson’s speech a couple of weeks ago. Instead of a Christmas party, the office had a holiday party. Stanley was bothered and went on a tirade about some of the effects of political correctness.

Most of us are familiar with the cultural trend of modifying specifically Christian Christmas practices and vocabulary to become general and inclusive. We say “Season’s Greetings” instead of “Merry Christmas.” We go to Holiday, not Christmas, parties.

Also, if you were once unfamiliar with other religious practices that take place this time of year, that has likely changed. We now know more about Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and winter solstice and the celebrations that go along with them.

As I reflect on this trend and the Christian response, I have observed two different groups of people: Christians who care and Christians who don’t.

 

Christians who care. There are some Christians who, out of personal conviction and a desire to be faithful, refuse to give in to this cultural trend. Standing firm, they exclaim “Merry Christmas” to everyone in their path and may even wear a T-Shirt or drink from a coffee mug that reads, “Jesus is the reason for the season.”

For many, their struggle is less about Christian faithfulness and more about the difficulty of adjusting to a changing world. They grew up in a time and place where the majority of folks celebrated Christmas in a Christian way. Everyone went to church and commemorated God becoming flesh in Jesus Christ. It can be a very disorienting experience to have accepted habits and vocabulary become unacceptable in the span of only a few years.

Regardless of why they care about this cultural trend, fear is often a part of the equation.

 

Christians who don’t care. There are other Christians who, because of personal history, don’t care that this season’s practices and vocabulary are no longer strictly Christian. They feel no loss when the departing word from a friend is “Have a great holiday.” They may even wear a “Jesus is the reason for the season” T-shirt, but not out of personal conviction, rather in an effort to be ironic.

If I’m honest, I tend to fall into this camp. Christians who don’t care are usually cynical. They may have been hurt or embarrassed by mainstream Christianity and, as a result, try to avoid giving the impression that that they’re “one of those people.” This way of living is often less about loving neighbors and more about protecting one’s image.

 

Christians who love. I think that both sets of people, Christians who care and Christian who don’t, have it wrong. I want to propose a third way: Christians who love. This way does not come with a script or specific commands. It requires wisdom derived from Christian principles as taught in Scripture.

First, Christians who love should pray and think critically about this issue because, in essence, it is a discussion about how we ought to live in the world. This includes praying and thinking about how to be present at work, in our neighborhood, and with family and friends. Whatever one decides must influenced by a desire to serve God and others (not oneself).

Second, Christians who love make the main thing the main thing. Jesus did not come to establish a holiday but to offer his life a sacrifice on behalf of humanity. Our passion is not for a culture that celebrates Christmas but one that has a relationship with Jesus.

Third, Christians who love, love their neighbors. We may do this is a number of ways. I will mention two.

We may love our neighbor by making the main thing the main thing. Most of my neighbors, though not Christian themselves, are familiar with Christians. Their familiarity isn’t always accurate. In fact, it is usually a caricature. I asked my neighbor once what he thought about Christians. He said, “I think Christians are crazy and care about the strangest things.” To be sure, Christianity is weird, but it needs to be weird for the right reasons. It needs to be weird because we believe that God came to earth, lived and died and is coming back to make all things new. Christianity should be weird because followers of Jesus refuse to participate in popular, accepted activities that go against God’s commands. Christians should not be weird because they make their neighbor, who isn’t a Christian, practice Christmas in a Christian way.

We may also love neighbors by not demanding our own way.  In recognition that there are other religious holidays celebrated at this time of year, we do need to be sensitive. There are some people who actually do get offended that we say Merry Christmas. Loving those people means not demanding that they do what is best for us.

Fourth, Christians who love celebrate Christmas. To live faithfully means to live distinctively Christian lives. In the context of Christmas, we do this by celebrating the birth of Jesus. We should do this with freedom and without apology.

At the same time, Christians do not need to scoff at our culture’s belief that the true spirit of Christmas is love, peace, family and giving. Such things are gifts from God and to celebrate them, whether acknowledge as being from God or not, is good. Nor do we need to have a defensive posture toward non-Christians because “they don’t get it.” I recently read an article written by an atheist whose point was that Christmas is not just for Christians. In a way, I agree with him. He celebrates Christmas by decorating a tree, listening to Christmas music, making Christmas treats, and spending time with loved ones. We have solidarity even with those who don’t have the same theological convictions because what they celebrate is good.

Fifth, Christians who love are not cynical. Cynicism can be a very powerful force in one’s life. It can start small and blossom into full-blown indifference. Cynicism during this season may mean you miss out.  Though it is not a command for the Christian to celebrate Christmas, it can be a means to experience God’s grace.

My point: Be faithful, love people and celebrate.