Embracing Life, Letting Our Children Go in the New Year

Marsmet532/Flickr Creative Commons

Jesus didn't teach that we could keep our children safe always Marsmet532/Flickr Creative Commons

April 15, 2013 — it wasn’t tax day that got my attention. It was during my lunch break, in the teacher’s lounge that I first heard of the explosions in Boston. My heart sank. I knew our son, who attends college in nearby Cambridge, was planning to visit the finish line with some of his friends to enjoy watching and cheering on the runners. One of his dreams, to run among them, postponed for a future year when more hours and more miles of practice were available. They had explored much of the course the day prior and especially wanted to see the élite runners cross the finish.

Amid the unfolding awfulness of that day I felt a tinge of guilt as we breathed a sigh of relief at news of his safety. Safe by two blocks and two hours owing mostly to large crowds that had kept him out of close proximity and a study ethic that sent all four of them back to class prior to the 2:49 p.m. calamity. Over the next couple days in my mind, I toggled between distraction and dread as I tried to go about the normality of life while asking God both “why?” and “why not?” questions.

Pope to Visit the Holy Land, But Details Spark Debate

Maysa Al Shaer via Wikimedia Commons/RNS

Overlooking view of Bethlehem, photo courtesy of Maysa Al Shaer via Wikimedia Commons/RNS

Christmas is the one time each year when much of the world turns its gaze to Bethlehem, the West Bank town at the heart of the Gospel account of Jesus’ humble birth in a stable.

But Bethlehem may be in for a second round of global publicity in the span of a few months with the expected visit of Pope Francis in May.

In an interview earlier this month, Francis confirmed rumors that he planned to travel to the Holy Land — probably stopping at sites in Jordan, Israel and the West Bank in the Palestinian territories — and said preparations were underway.

Then last week the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, the top Catholic official in the region, revealed that the visit was set for May.

Given the political and religious combustibility that attends almost any event in the Holy Land, a papal trip was bound to be fraught and a debate over the visit quickly erupted as Israeli newspapers reported that the preliminary itinerary for Francis’ pilgrimage has him spending just one full day in Israel proper — probably arriving in Jordan on Saturday, May 24, traveling to Israel on Sunday morning, then celebrating Mass in Bethlehem on Monday before heading back to Rome.

Muslim Christmas celebrations gain a toehold

Photo courtesy Zeyna Ahmed

Zeyna Ahmed, with daughters Nadyah Abdul-Majid, 13, Hadyah Abdul-Majid, 11, during Christmas. Photo courtesy Zeyna Ahmed

A generation or two ago, when America’s Muslims were new immigrants who made up an even smaller minority of Americans than they do today, they viewed the lights, trees, carols, gifts, and festive spirit of Christmas as a threat to their children’s Islamic faith.

But these days, a growing number of Muslims celebrate Christmas, or at least partake in some ways, even if they don’t decorate their homes with trees and a light show. Indeed, many Muslim families have created their own Christmas traditions.

“I teach my three children, who attend public school and happen to be born into an interfaith Christian-Muslim family, that we absolutely do celebrate Christmas because we are Muslim,” Hannah Hawk of Houston wrote in an email. Rather than putting up a tree or lights, “we celebrate the reason for the season, Jesus, by studying all that is written about him in the Quran and by examining historical theories.”

Our War on Christmas


Herod view Jesus as a rival king. Imagdb/Shutterstock

Every year, a chorus of Christians join together to bemoan the “War on Christmas,” lambasting their enemies for taking Christ out of Christmas, and yearning for the days when everyone remembered the reason for the season.

But have we all forgotten? There has always been a war on Christmas. In fact, conflict lies at the very heart of Christmas. To those who say that Christmas is all about peace on earth, a quick look at the second chapter of Matthew and the largely overlooked story of King Herod reminds us that this peace comes at a price. For it is the kind of peace that can only come through conflict. Before caroling, there was weeping in Ramah.  

It’s no surprise that most Christmas pageants leave out the Herod story. King Herod jealously guarded his power, killing anyone who got in his way. When he learns of Jesus’ birth, he declares the first war on Christmas. Herod doesn’t just want to kill Jesus. He wants to destroy him, taking Christ out of Christmas once and for all. When his efforts are thwarted, he resorts to genocide to ensure Jesus’ demise, murdering every male infant in Bethlehem.  This, for Herod, is a bargain to rival any department store sale: The lives of Bethlehem’s youngest? A mere pittance for unrivaled power.

In other words, Herod gets it. Herod, more than anyone else in the story so far, sees this poor, refugee child for who he really is — a rival king.

Ten Things You Can't Do at Christmas While Following Jesus

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Christmas story is replete with images of people journeying to new lands Maciej Sojka/Shutterstock

Ah, Christmas! The most wonderful time of the year. A time to gather with family and friends, and, with a smile on our faces, pretend we aren’t quietly measuring who received the best present and which relative really, really needs to stop drinking. A time to hang tinsel and baubles from the tree, and a time to hang up our hopes of losing that last 10 pounds this year. Such a joyous season!

The real point here is that Christmas is what we make of it. For Christians, however, there are some very specific things you can’t do if you want to actually honor and follow the person we celebrate this season. So, I give you my “10 Things You Can’t Do AT CHRISTMAS While Following Jesus.” As with my other “10 Things” lists, this is not intended to be a complete list, but it is a pretty good start.

White People Need a Non-White Jesus

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Christ is in every person Attila Jandi/Shutterstock

In the wake of Megyn Kelly’s statement that “Jesus was a white man,” critics have quickly and unanimously responded that Jesus was not a white man. Here at Sojourners, Rev. Laura Barkley has debunked Kelly’s statements, noting that Jesus “was a Palestinian Jew in first-century Nazareth.”

In his article over at The Atlantic, Jonathan Merritt argues that Jesus is not only not a white man, but that scripture is mostly quiet about Jesus’ racial makeup. Quoting Martin Luther King Jr., who once said, “The color of Jesus’ skin is of little or no consequence,” Merritt agrees with historian Edward Blum, who draws from King’s statement that “Jesus transcends race.” Ultimately, Merritt points to the universality of Jesus, focusing on Christ’s availability to all, to individuals from “every tribe, nation, people and language.”

Yet in pointing to the universality of Jesus, it is easy to pass over his particularity to a certain time and place.

When Christmas Gets Real

Alexander Hoffmann/Shutterstock

Maybe a picture-perfect nativity scene isn't the whole story. Alexander Hoffmann/Shutterstock

Last December, I decided to run after dark and entertain myself by running through neighborhoods, looking at lighted Christmas decorations as I passed by. It was a novel twist on my regular exercise, and I enjoyed gazing at the beautiful, the creative, and the tacky alike. 

Then, I started noticing the insides of houses, too. The Christmas trees were lit and decorated; the insides of the houses seemed warm and inviting. Suddenly, instead of an independent adult on a crisp winter jog, I felt more like a homeless orphan from a George MacDonald Christmas story looking in at something I did not have and of which I could not be a part. Needless to say, the run lost its sense of adventure.

Recently, it has struck me how strange the situation was, both in what I saw Christmas to be and in my decision that I “didn’t have it.”

The NSA's Need to Know, Your Privacy, and Jesus' Path

Rena Schild/Shutterstock

A sign displayed during a rally against mass surveillance. Rena Schild/Shutterstock

I was encouraged by the findings of U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon on Monday who granted an injunction to plaintiffs Larry Klayman and Charles Strange that will temporarily stop the National Security Agency from continuing their data-gathering program that mines information from our mobile phone calls.

The injunction was issued because the judge believes that Klayman and Strange likely will win their lawsuit against the federal government, claiming that the phone record collection practice is an unconstitutional violation of personal privacy.

The whole storyline is made that much more dramatic since the otherwise secret program was leaked to the public by former NSA contract Edward Snowden, who is now on the run, seeking asylum in exchange for shared intelligence. And while some perceive Snowden as a hero of individual liberty, others vilify him as an enemy of the United States, much like any other terrorist. Interestingly, people’s opinions about the NSA — and, frankly, the Obama administration and the government as a whole — diverge in similar ways.

Is It Possible to Celebrate Christmas and the Birth of Jesus on the Same Day?

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Can we celebrate Christmas with Santa and Jesus? RomanYa & zphoto/Shutterstock

There is certainly a warm, nostalgic feeling about the Christmas season. Social media fill up with pictures of Starbucks holiday cups and we get the play-by-play of Christmas trees being purchased and filled with homemade ornaments. Holiday parties become about as frequent as breathing and there is a general sense of camaraderie among people who wouldn’t otherwise interact. 

As a local practitioner and neighbor, I’d even go as far as saying this season brings about the most opportunity for new relationships and shared life in the realities of everyday. 

Last week I was talking to my 3-year-old daughter about Christmas. She knows we are going to see grandparents and cousins and even knows a thing or two about gifts being exchanged. 

And then I asked her, "Whose birthday do we celebrate on Christmas?" With a big smile, she said, "Santa!"

Now, I get it. She’s 3 years old, it’s kinda cute and harmless and whatever. 

But there is something to this. 

Our family never talks about Santa Claus, but we regularly talk about Jesus and even go as far as trying to live like him as best we can. When we do talk about Christmas and presents, we try to talk about how we will be giving them away to friends, family, and people who need them. 

But, despite our best efforts, Christmas is associated with Santa Claus. Now, if it were the historical “Santa Claus” who gave away his best to save the lives of some children, that’d be awesome. But, no, this is the Santa Claus of consumption who promotes values of selfish acquisition rather than sacrificial giving.