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24. December 2017 · Comments Off on CHRISTMAS IS ABOUT GIVING · Categories: Christmas · Tags: ,

The other day I heard a television personality say that the “real meaning of Christmas is giving”. Those of us who know and believe the biblical account of the incarnation know that this is true.  Christmas is about giving.  Not just because the three wise men gave gifts to Jesus, but because “God so loved the world, that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”  Christmas is about giving.

But not everyone has received the memo.  As we watch the world around us settling down to “keep Christmas” and as we saw the overcrowded shopping malls in the past days, it would appear that Christmas is more about getting than it is about giving. Indeed, that is how most of us were introduced to Christmas:  we learned to eagerly anticipate it because Christmas Eve, or Christmas morning, depending on your tradition meant a vast assortment of brightly wrapped gifts.  At least it was so, as long as I can remember.  I also remember that some gifts were more appreciated than others, depending on how young or mature we were.  We used to “feel” the gifts before unwrapping them.  If it was soft, it was something that we needed, like pajamas or maybe a shirt or socks.  But if it was hard and rattled, then maybe – just maybe it would be something on our wish list.  And some gifts we received depending on whether we were “naughty or nice” – as if a gift could be earned! Christmas is about getting, but before we can receive, someone had to give, and we figured out soon enough that it wasn’t Santa Claus or “Christkind” as my German heritage taught.

Some people dispense with giving and receiving with gifts altogether, taking the giving and getting out of the equation.  There’s nothing wrong with that, nor is it necessarily more right. When people ask me what I want for Christmas, I always say that I have everything that I need.  I used to tell my congregations, that the best gift that they can give me is to follow the Lord and live in His ways.  That always meant so much more to me than all of the “that was a lovely sermon” comments, and certainly more than the collection of ties, pens, and bric bracs that I have collected over the years. (Although I do have to admit that I miss the tasty treats that people used to leave outside my office door).

When it comes to giving, nobody can out do God.  He gave all of Himself, so that we might receive and have everything, and become joint heirs with Jesus forever.  Certainly God does not need anything that we give Him, but in His grace He receives what we offer Him out of love and gratitude.  And he also receives us when we bring Him our life of brokenness – and even our doubts. 

May everyone experience the true meaning of Christmas this year and always!




12. December 2015 · Comments Off on GRIEF, HOLIDAYS, AND MERRIMENT · Categories: Christmas, Death, Dying, General, Grief · Tags: , , , , ,


Two days ago I got back home from a trip to Africa.  However this post is not about Africa, it is a personal word about grief, Christmas, and related thoughts.  As many readers know, my father passed away in October.  Dad knew that I was planning to go on a missions trip.  I had told him about the plans right from the start when things got serious last winter. As always, Dad was supportive and encouraged me along the way.

Just before he moved into the hospice where he died, I visited Dad at his home on the last Sunday afternoon prior to his move.  As he walked me to the front door, he paused in the front hall, and matter of factly said, “I hope that I am gone by the time you leave for Africa.  If not, then I hope I can hang on until you get back.  But the first scenario would be better because I don’t want to ruin your trip.”  Those words, coming out of the blue, hit me like a thunder-clap.  As usual, Dad was thinking of others, before he thought about himself. A little over three weeks after this incident, he passed away.

The weeks after Dad’s passing were a whirlwind of final preparations for the trip as well as the work that comes with winding up an estate.  Then came a series of distractedness at the beginning of the trip: luggage left at the check in counter at Pearson airport, and retrieved in the nick of time; my laptop with all me work and talks for Kenya and Cameroon left at the security check point in Amsterdam; a jacket with a set of keys left on the airplane, and on the very first weekend of the trip a bad case of food poisoning.

inevitably, there came an evening in Kenya where I felt totally overwhelmed by it all.  Fortunately a good friend was nearby to listen and to pray with me.

Now comes the culture shock of re-entry into North American life, which I am finding much harder than I thought. The “shock” of coming back to Christmas lights everywhere, and Christmas carols being played over and over again everywhere you go is too much, as is the constant pressure to buy more things so that we have “the perfect holiday season”.  Someone has said that Christmas shopping is buying things we don’t need to impress people we don’t even like. But what if we can’t get into the “Christmas spirit” (whatever that is)?  I have never been an Ebenezer Scrooge, but this year getting into the Christmas spirit is hard for me, as it is for many people who are facing hardships like terminal illnesses or bereavements.  So I’m going to give a few observations and suggestions in the hope that it will help someone.

  1. Grief is not easier than it was the first time.

My mother died in 2010, so this is the second time I have lost a parent.  Perhaps that  experience has helped me to know what to expect, but it doesn’t make it any easier. It is just as difficult, for each person we lose is special.   Just to review my thoughts in an earlier article on this: grief is not some sort of disease or disorder. It is a natural response to any loss that we experience. Yes people do grieve over the loss of  a job, or money, or even a pet.  But the more we loved an individual, the greater will be the pain of that loss.  In the early stages of grief, there is something called shock – which is nature’s buffer that prrevents us form feeling the full impact of the loss all at once.  Shock keeps us going so we can function.  But gradually, the full impact of the loss does bear down on us. In my case it involves coming to terms with the awful truth that Mom or Dad will not be coming back home, and I can no longer talk to them nor hear their advice.

2. There is no right or wrong way to handle grief, at Christmas or any other time.

If you want to help someone who is grieving, try not to tell them things what they should or should not be doing.  The well intended advice that people often give is not always appropriate. What works fine for one person, does not necessarily  work for everyone else.

Take Christmas for example.  When I got back home from my trip, the pile of mail included a card from the funeral home that served our family.  They were inviting us to come to their quiet candlelight  healing service that they have each year.  I knew that I could not be a part of that because I am still too raw; it has been too soon. I remember being at such a service after my mother died. She died in January, and  the following Christmas season was almost a year later.  This time it is just a few weeks or months later.

As for Christmas, I have decided to skip it this year.  There will be no tree at my house, I will attend no parties,  and write no Christmas cards. No turkey and all the trappings that are associated with Christmas in the western hemisphere. Why not? Because all of the above, which we normally have done in other years will just  bring back too many memories that will be too much.  This year after conducting Christmas Eve worship, I will simply go and have some down-time.    But isn’t Christmas the most important time of the year?

Well actually no.  Christians believe that the birth of Christ was a sacred event – when God became one of us through Jesus.  But Christmas Day is not sacred at all (notwithstanding all the “keep Christ in Christmas rhetoric”).  In fact it is because a Roman emperor in collusion with a pope wanted to synchretize and re-define a pagan holiday that we celebrate Christmas every December 25. But the early Christian church got along just fine without Christmas for the first 300 years of its history at least.

3. Time does not heal the wounds of grief.

In fact, if not processed properly, grief can on indefinitely; people actually stop living as they become obsessed with the loss of their loved one. I often liken bereavement to an amputaton.  First there is overwhelming pain and then gradually the stump heals — but the limb does not return.  On the other hand,  the pain of grief does subside – but not because of the passage of time, but because of the way we process and work through our love and and our pain.  People are sometimes afraid of feeling better because they fear that they might forget the person who has died. There are so many resources that are available … support groups, individual counselling, good insightful literature etc. I have always told people: you will never forget the person whom you have lost, but it isn’t going to hurt as much as it does now.

4. Don’t Make Assumptions.

Often bereaved people have their pain increase because of the way that old time acquaintances treat them or ignore them.  That is because  most of us are a little awkward, and don’t quite know what to say.  On that subject, little is actually more.  A squeeze of the hand, a hug, a reassuring touch on the shoulder, all of these speak more eloquently than words.  And if you must use words, keep it simple. “I’m sorry for your loss” or words to that effect. Hold the good advice and the  philosophizing about how the deceased is “in a better place”. (I know that Mom and Dad are in heaven and that I will be there and see them there.  But that doesn’t change how I miss them now, and deal with the fact that I can never ask them anything any more). Oh, and whatever you say, do not say “I know how you feel” (because you don’t, even if you once suffered a similar loss). Don’t make assumptions about what  you think a person’s needs are at Christmas.  Don’t assume that they want to be left alone.  A much kinder approach is to include them the way you always have, but give them the opportunity to  decline the invitation  or  to withdraw.

Well like I said, these are just my suggestions.  They may not work for you.  If you think of something that HAS helped you along those lines, feel free to leave a comment.

grief at Christmas

untitledToday’s post will be very short.  It’s intent is to wish everyone a joyful and blessed Christmas, wherever and however you are observing it. Here in Hamilton it is a wet and gloomy looking weather. Christmas joy of course, is not dependent on what is on the ground, nor can it be found in duplicating Christmases “just like the ones I used to know”, although last night, on Christmas Eve, I did reflect on the ones I used to know.  They are gone, but what remains are the fond memories of great times.

Today I am not venturing outside at all.  Family will be joining me later for Christmas dinner, so there is work to be done!

Finally, I wish everyone the PEACE of Christmas.  In my Christmas message at church last night I reminded everyone that Jesus came to give us Peace with God, Peace with others, and also peace within ourselves.

My gratitude this year also extends to those of you in the “blog” family who have read and supported my “Musings” since the launch of the blog in June. Some of you have corresponded, and others have posted your comments online, something that is always welcome. The blogging software allows me to see where readers are in the world.  And while most are here in North America, it has been great fun making contacts with people in other parts of the world also. Pray for peace in our world, and may God use you in the part of the world where you are.





22. December 2014 · Comments Off on BORN OF A VIRGIN… · Categories: Christmas, General, THEOLOGY · Tags: ,

imagesQK4Q1PHCSilent Night, Holy Night, All is calm, all is bright ‘Round yon virgin mother and child! It is a beautiful carol that was first written in my mother tongue (German) and that is how I first learned it and sang it. Many people are or will be singing it in these days.  But I wonder how many will believe it, and how many will sing it without believing it?  You know, those words about a “virgin mother”.

The doctrine of the virgin birth is hard to explain, and even harder to believe. It was so for those who were first involved.  When the Angel Gabriel came to Mary and announced to her that she would be the mother of God’s Son, she was understandably surprised and puzzled “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34) The Bible tells us that she was “betrothed” – a social standing which in those days was somewhere between what we think of as engagement but not quite married.  It was legally binding, but the couple did not live together, and there was no physical intimacy.  We have no reason to disbelieve Mary’s words.  But when Joseph found out, he was understandably skeptical, and had in mind to dissolve the relationship with a quiet divorce.  It took the intervention of an angel to convince him that Mary was indeed truthful, and that he should take her to be his wife. The whole idea of bringing a child into the world without the process of conception was a hard idea to get your head around, and it still is.

Unless you believe in miracles that is.  The explanation that the angel gives to Mary is exactly that. “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” (Luke 1:35 NIV)

For about 1800 years of Christian history, the church believed this and other miracles.  The earliest creeds, the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed confirm that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary.  And as the Protestant Reformation dawned, Martin Luther included this belief in his Small Catechism.  It wasn’t until the 18th and 19th century that the belief of the Virgin Birth came under serious attack question in the rise of scientific rationalism during the Enlightenment. Men such as Thomas Paine and the French philosopher Voltaire led the charge against the Virgin Birth. Theologians that followed the so-called “new rationalist” way of dealing with Scripture took up the battle.  And it continued into the twentieth century as part of the modernist controversies over the authority of the Bible. In 1952 the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, one of the first modern translation, translated the verse found in Isaiah 7:14 this way: Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel-el.

Scholars and theologians who deny the virgin birth of Jesus point to the Hebrew word Almah that is used there in Isaiah 7:14 as meaning “young woman”. But that is not entirely accurate. The more accurate meaning of that word is a “young woman who is not married.” In Hebrew culture, such a young woman would have been chaste, i.e. indeed a virgin.  So one commentator that I read, haughtily maintains, “the doctrine of the virgin birth rests on a false translation of Isaiah 7:14” in other words, Matthew mis-translated it when he tells the story.

But such scholarship ignores the fact that Matthew was not quoting the Hebrew Bible at all.  He was using the Septuagint version of the Old Testament, which was a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures.  It was made by a group Jewish scholars for the use of Hellenistic Jews.  It is a version of the Bible that Jesus would have been familiar with and quoted from, for it had been made centuries before Jesus’ birth.  That Greek translation renders the Isaiah passage with an unambiguous word that means “virgin”. Moreover the Septuagint translation was made not by one translator but by a group of scholars. Those Jewish scholars say that “virgin” is the correct way to translate that word in this context.  That’s good enough for me!

Of course there are other reasons given for disbelieving the virgin birth such as Jesus never having spoken about it, the early evangelistic sermons recorded in Acts never mentioning it, and the apostle Paul not mentioning it in his writings either.  Now if you don’t want to believe something, you can find any number of reasons.

The important thing to remember here is those of us who believe in the inspiration of Scriptures by the Holy Spirit, this becomes a non-issue.  So why is this important?  Does it matter whether we believe it or not?  I would argue that yes, it matters a lot. And the one reason that I would cite is that by denying the virgin birth, we are just one step away from denying a divine Jesus.  Mary and Joseph, or any other man and woman, could not have produced the God-man – the perfect Lamb of God without sin that Jesus needed to be in order to become our Saviour.

And THAT is the miracle of Christmas.  You will hear a lot of people talking these days about “getting back to the real meaning of Christmas.” If you were to ask them just what they mean by the real meaning of Christmas, you will sometimes hear warm fuzzy things like “giving, loving, being with family, remembering the less fortunate, peace and good will etc.”  These things are all wonderful and necessary things.  But they are not the “point” of Christmas.  Christmas means that God became flesh, became one of us in Jesus, without becoming like us.  He became one of us so that he could be our Saviour. The angel commanded Joseph,  “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; 21 she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matt. 1:20-21 NIV) That is the “point of Christmas” and anything less than that misses the point totally.


This post is a summary of my message on the Virgin Birth, delivered Dec. 21, 2014 at Mission Baptist Church in Hamilton, which you can listen to here.

13. December 2014 · Comments Off on GRIEF AND THE HOLIDAYS · Categories: Christmas, Death, Funerals, Grief, LIFE AND DEATH · Tags: ,

318640-depressaoIt was one day before Christmas Eve. The casket stood at the front of the decorated church, almost literally under the Christmas tree. In less than 24 hours the place would be packed to capacity and ringing with joyful carols and other festive music. But today it was the scene of the funeral of a prominent church member. In the casket was a 51 year old father of three: two teenagers and a twelve-year old. For them and their widowed mother this scene was surreal. The husband and father had died of cancer. The family had hoped he would at least make it to Christmas. A few days earlier, when I met with them in the home, the widow bitterly remarked, “some Christmas this is going to be.” What does a young preacher in his twenties say in such a situation? Seminary had not prepared me for this (or a lot of other things still to unfold in my ministry). Fortunately – or not—there had been some preparations. I had been handed a piece of paper, on which were written, in the handwriting of the deceased, Scripture Readings, hymns, and a terse note: “I want you to preach on the following text which I have chosen.” That paper was indeed the framework for the service and it allowed us not to have to comment on the obvious by referring to Christmas. That was more than 30 years ago. And while I never again had something quite that dramatic, I did have to again and again comfort people who were facing the first Christmas without a loved one, or the last Christmas with a terminally ill family member. And hence, these little pointers.

The first thing I would say is that there is no right or wrong way to handle grief at Christmas, or at any other time for that matter. What is helpful to some, will be useless for someone else. How you choose to handle the holidays will depend on your religious beliefs, your cultural customs,how you are emotionally “wired” and many other factors. What follows is intended only as some pointers to liberate you from the fear of the holidays.

  1. Don’t let anyone tell you what you should or should not do. It is possible that you will receive unsolicited advice from people who have good intentions, but are lacking in courtesy and tact. Listen if you must, but DO what you think is best and helpful to you.
  2. Should you “Skip” Christmas? It may surprise some to hear me as a minister say, “by all means—if that is your way of coping.” No one is under any obligation to “keep Christmas”. I reminded my congregation that the early Christian church got along quite fine without celebrating Jesus’s birth, and nobody knows the date on which he was born, except that it more probably than not wasn’t on December 25. If Christmas is just too much to handle emotionally one year, go easy on yourself and dispense with all of it…sending cards, buying gifts, going to parties, or even going to church. The family that I wrote about above did not attend the Christmas Eve service the day after the funeral, and nobody faulted them.
  3. If skipping Christmas is not for you, then consider a “different” Christmas. While some people take comfort in keeping old traditions alive, others find it more helpful to invent new traditions. Moving the venue of the celebrations can give a fresh perspective on things. I remember the first Christmas after my mother died, we moved the family   celebration from my parents’ home to my home. For me the added work was a wonderful distraction and it acknowledged that family  Christmases would permanently be different.
  4. Try not to mask your grief. Some people do that by throwing themselves into as much activity and as much merriment as possible. Others avoid mentioning the name of their loved one thinking that will bring “bad luck” or make things worse. But the contrary might be true. Christmas is a nostalgic time and some have shared with me how helpful it was to remember the good Christmases past, even if that brings on tears. You mightfind yourself crying one minute and laughing the next, even as you remember some of the fun times with your loved one.
  5. Go Easy on yourself. Particularly if you are the caring and nurturing type who likes to take care of everyone else. It is not selfish to look after one’s own needs, especially during a time of grief.
  6. Accept Gestures of Help and Support. This is a double edged sword. People who are bereaved often feel neglected and left out after the funeral. On the other hand, people have told me how they tried to reach out to bereaved friends only to be repeatedly rebuffed. Finally they gave up. If someone offers to do something for you like provide a meal, a gift, or help with a chore do accept it graciously…or ask for a rain check if the time just isn’t right.

And How Can You Be Helpful to Someone Who is Grieving Over the Holidays?

  1. Don’t Assume that  someone wants to be excluded from social functions because they are in mourning. Let them make the decision about whether they are up to taking part in something or not. Perhaps being included, especially in things they used to do with a group of friends, is just what they need. Do invite them, but give them the freedom to decline if that is better for them.
  2. Don’t Pretend that the Deceased Never Existed. Friends are sometimes afraid to mention the name of someone who died, fearing it will upset the family. The truth is, they are thinking about their loved one a lot, and some have told me how hurtful it is when others behave as if the person was forgotten. Mention the deceased by name, when it would naturally come up in conversation, such as talking about memories – Christmas or otherwise.
  3. Should I send a Christmas card? There is no right or wrong answer to that. It would depend on what your usual custom is, how close to Christmas the death or funeral is etc. If you always exchanged cards, it might seem unusual to your friend if you suddenly stopped. In addition to the pre-printed prose that comes in the card, a hand-written note that you are thinking of them in a special way will probably by meaningful. As in other expressions of sympathy, avoid clichés, and unhelpful platitudes.
  4. Avoid saying, “If there is anything I can do, please call”. Most people will not take you up on it, thinking they are imposing or otherwise inconveniencing you. Also many people who say that, do it to ease their own conscience (at least we offered!) even if they have no intention of doing anything. It is much more thoughtful to find a need and meet it. Don’t ask if you can bring over a meal or shovel their snow or whatever. Just show up and do it. Or keep in touch with phone calls, emails, or visits, depending on your relationship. Perhaps you will become aware of something that “you can do”.
  5. Be Persistent but not overbearing. Be there when you are needed, but give your friends space when they need that. Be a ready and willing listener, but don’t ask prying questions.
  6. Invitations to small gatherings or perhaps a lunch with just the two of you might be more helpful than a large party (although consider # 1 above)
  7. Don’t Pretend that Everything is fine like it used to be. This Christmas will be different for your friends, and perhaps it will be difficult. The mirth and the joyful celebration of others may underscore the pain your friend is feeling. Don’t pretend by telling them to “get their mind off things” or say “you’ll feel better if you do this or that” . Help your friend to make the best out of a difficult situation. They will remember your thoughtfulness…or your insensitivity for years to come.

This post also appeared as a “guest blog” on   Confessions of a Funeral Director.

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