Dec 11, 2011

The REAL Reason for the Season

As I entered Sunset Presbyterian Church this morning the sound of our music ministry filled the halls. I love this team. They rock. Seriously. Jay McKinney and his team along with the amazing production of Janet Fraser never fail to reach my heart and move me in profound ways. 

However, this morning something made me roll my eyes. O Come, O Come Emanuel. Not another Christmas service. Ugh.

This time of year the message at Sunset and churches everywhere does a hard right turn. It's the birth of our Savior! The pews are filled with visiting Grandparents and kids home from college. Suddenly, we're singing Christmas carols to a full choir and the orchestra that will be performing at the concert that night. We're hearing stories of angels and virgin births. We're sitting and watching instead of standing and worshipping. 

Yeah, I'm a real bah-humbug. I shared this opinion on the way out of church a couple Sundays ago and was glared at by anyone within earshot. My wife especially. She told me I shouldn't share this opinion with anyone else. Even her.

But I really don't like it. 

This morning I sat there in service pouting because we were sitting. I thought, "Hey May-Decemberers! Welcome to my church. We STAND during service. This ain't Wisconsin!"

I prayed for God to focus my heart. So many things can distract you from worshipping God and hearing his message. I've learned the hard way to ignore them and try to find a place to connect. But I just couldn't do it. I was completely wrapped up in my own inner dialog. 

The words of these songs just don't touch my heart. The Nativity story is wondrous. I love thinking about that time and what it must of been like. I believe it, but it just doesn't seem relevant. I feel like we're trying to PROVE it is real when faith alone is what we should rely on.

Then something profound happened in my soul. About two thirds away through I went from Negative Nancy to a man weak in the knees in worship. A favorite song started. Hillsong's Stronger melted my cold heart.  

The words, focused not on Jesus's birth but on his LIFE revealed to me why I feel so resentful this time of year. I immediately stood to my feet, surrounded by my fellow parishioners sitting on their hands. There were a few others standing and to my surprise the rest of the congregation rose to their feet and sang. The Holy Spirit moved us. 

But this isn't a post about a moment in church. This isn't a story about an Ebeneezer who doesn't get it and is shone the truth about the world. This is the story of the real reason for the season.

It actually began the day before. My good friend Ryan Russell gave me a thank you gift. I could write (and may write) an entire post about how amazing Ryan's company, Cohdoo, is and how those little things really make it an honor to work for him. The gift was Steve Jobs biography. I read a little of it that day and one quote stands out:

The juice goes out of Christianity when it becomes too based on faith rather than living like Jesus or seeing the world as Jesus saw it.

He said that religion was at it's best when it emphasized spiritual experiences rather than received dogma. I think this is what is gnawing at me this time of year.

I believe the story of Jesus's birth are true. But I do not believe they are the truth about Jesus. When I celebrate a friend's birthday, yes I am celebrating their birth. But I am really celebrating their life. When I think about Jesus and his teachings in the bible, I celebrate His life. He was an amazing teacher. Studying the Bible never ceases to produce mind blowing realizations about every facet of life.

It was important (and still is I guess) that Jesus have a birthright. He was the king of kings. Prophets and wise men had to prove he was authentic. Kind of like the ancient version of insisting someone produce a long form birth certificate. The Nativity is an important part of it.

So, for all you non-believers and May-December Christians who get dragged to church for Christmas and Easter: Your missing out.

You're also making it worse for me. You're only seeing part of the story. Sure, it's exciting and those songs are easy sing but they don't really capture what it is to be Christian. It isn't why I worship God. It isn't why I follow Jesus.

I follow him because of his life.


I wanted to thank the folks who have commented and talked with me about this post over the last few days. Especially, my wife Amy. I can't emphasize enough that last Sunday was a profound moment for me. It was a spiritual epiphany.

It left me with a new appreciation for the story of nativity and only deepened my understanding of Jesus's story. While O Come Emanuel isn't my favorite Christmas song, you'll find me listening a little closer to it next Sunday.

Thank you.


Chad Furlong said...

First of all, I agree that the Christmas season at Sunset seems to have taken a turn, but I don't think we have shifted focus. It's still about Jesus. Christmas and Easter TOGETHER celebrate Jesus' life. Without one or the other it would be incomplete. Christmas his birth, and Easter his resurrection. But the birth of Christ is significant and worthy of the entire season because of what it meant. The teachings of Jesus were profound and radical and what we base our lives around, I agree. But his coming and his sacrifice was the ultimate purpose of Jesus, not only to be a teacher of values and an example of how to live your life, but to be our savior and redeemer. That said, I also agree that this season brings a lot of people to Church that may only come to save face or to carry out unauthentic faith. But who are we to say it is any less authentic than our faith? That standing or sitting is more spiritually connected to God? And if their faith is unauthentic or fake when they come during this season, isn't that a good thing? Take Wildfire, for example. We have games and hang out time and food and candy. All of this before we actually talk about God or have any spiritual conversations at all. It's a way to encourage students to gather for fun and to be in community. Most importantly, it brings students in that might not otherwise attend Church and it exposes them to the idea of God and allows God access to their lives. While I'm not sure the regular Church service is planned with community and evangelism in mind specifically this season, don't you think it might be a bi-product of the commercialization Christmas? People coming to Church to look good and finding Jesus instead. That's what I pray for this season. Don't get me wrong, I see your point, but I think people coming to Church who normally wouldn't (just like Middle School students and Wildfire) can be a good thing when God is involved.

Chad Furlong said...

By "worthy of the entire season" I meant the Christmas season, not Christmas to Easter. In fact though, it's worthy of our entire lives, but all of Christ is worthy of giving our lives to celebrate him. Not the point I was making anyway, just wanted to clear that up lol.

David Stewart said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Chad.

I have a lot of friends that are non-Christian. Many of them had experiences early in their lives that turned them off of religion in general. Worse yet, they saw things that distorted their interpretation of Christianity. When they hear about the Virgin Mary or Jesus's resurrection they interpret it in a totally different way. They dismiss it.

I don't live my life for Jesus because he was born of a virgin. I don't follow him just because he died on the cross for my sins (although it is a big part). I live my life for Christ because he has moved mountains in my heart. He is working in my life and his teaching of God's love has rescued me.

In the end, Christmas brings people in to our church that wouldn't normally be there. I want them to witness the spiritual experience that I feel every Sunday. I don't want them to be turned off by religious dogma.

That being said, that happened on Sunday. I came in to the church with a bad attitude. I left renewed in spirit and with a new perspective on Christmas and what we are doing on Sunday. The music wasn't all Christmas and Jay's message really spoke to me. I have no doubt it touched the hearts of many people.

Let's talk about it on Wednesday (or on XBox) more.

Chad Furlong said...

Yeah, I agree, I felt it too. And I also agree that Christmas time at the Church has the potential to turn people off. And I also agree we should talk more about this more. haha I love a good conversation about this stuff, cuz I'm still trying to discover my own faith, so all these conversations are great! Make me think! Even if I sometimes sound like I'm arguing, I'm really just discussing the idea. Sorry if that seemed like an attack or anything, I save that for the battlefield ;)