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Mince pies, Doctor Who and the Queen

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What is Christmas to you? A season to be jolly, for sure. A time of rest, generally with at least a couple of days off work. To me, it’s all that; it also means the glorious taste of mince pies, the lush smell of Spice Imperial tea, a generally cheesy Doctor Who special and, obviously, the Queen‘s message. It means feeling warm and comfy, homely. And, yes, it means the birth of Christ, but if I’m honest that’s not the first thing I associate with Christmas.


Photo: Flickr user quattrostagioni, reused under CC License

In Christian circles, around Christmas time, there’s often talk of “bringing Christ back into Christmas“. Of course, the flip side of this religious frenzy is that officials shirk from calling the mid-winter festivities Christmas, opting rather for Winterval or some such nonsense.

The truth is, Christmas, as a feast, is no Christian holiday. Historically, it coincides with the pagan rite of marking the winter solstice. There’s no credit whatsoever to the notion that Jesus was born in December. Picking the 25th December is as valid as picking the 23rd November.

What then – has Christmas no place in the Christian calendar? Of course it does ! It is part of the rich tradition of the Christian church through the ages. It was celebrated in ages where being Christian was the standard. And so Christmas is not about celebrating Christianity in general, nor is it about celebrating Christ. Rather, Christmas is the celebration of the Incarnation. It is the celebration of Immanuel, God with us. It is the celebration of a God who made himself human for our sake; it is the celebration of a God who is still human when he intercedes for us.

Of course, the Incarnation would eventually lead to the Cross. It would ultimately lead to the redemption of our sins; and it would be a mistake to consider the Incarnation without taking in what it would lead to. But it is just as grave a mistake to make everything about Easter. Doing that would be tantamount to dismissing all of Christ’s ministry up until the Cross. And so, whilst the death and resurrection of Christ is central to Christianity – it is not central to Christmas itself.

That’s why standard evangelistic talks of redemption are not fitting for Christmas. Standard re-hashings of the basic Christian message are not what Christmas is about. Because, let’s face it, if we are to “bring Christ back into Christmas”, it suggests that one needs a special occasion (such as Christmas or Easter, maybe) to remind ourselves of what Christianity is about.

Quite the opposite, actually. Festivals play a part that is akin to the lectionary’s: they take us through the whole wealth of themes and lessons, rather than keeping us stuck on the same old song. Advent is a double-bill of looking at how Christ’s coming was foretold and prepared, whilst simultaneously looking to his second coming. Christmas is rejoicing over an Incarnate, relational God. Lent. Easter. Pentecost. All these have their own focus, and rightly so. Because a Christianity that is solely about the Cross is as stale and dead as a Christianity that does not look at the Cross.

So let’s stop trying to bring Christ back into Christmas. Rather, let’s recognise that the secular aspects of Christmas – mince pies, Doctor Who, the Queen’s message, etc. – are also what makes Christmas what it is. Let’s enjoy these aspects, rather than shunning them as purely secular. And, yes, let’s also remember Christ, but that should happen everyday. No shoehorning is fitting at Christmas, for it alienates more than it welcomes. What’s special about Christmas is the focus on Immanuel. The Incarnation. The human nature of God; rather than what he did or how he preached. And that’s what we should mirror: love, and kindness – in all seasons, but all the more so at Christmas/

That you may believe

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A traditional view of the Bible: Jesus performed miracles. They are proof of His power and divinity. The ultimate such proof is His resurrection. The apostles then performed miracles of their own. They are proof of their authority.

Now additionally to this, each miracle recorded in the Gospels has its own story, and each of them has its own, distinctive nugget of wisdom for us. Arguably, the variation between these nuggets is not about Christ or His divinity (which would be established from the very first miracle). Still, we would be wrong to consider the miracles in the Gospels as nothing more than an anthology on human condition.

The core of each miracle is the mystery of the Incarnation; and it is magnified by those words, used to describe the entirety of the miracles: “that you may believe“.


Photo: Flickr user Al, reused under CC license

The traditional view, which I outlined at the start of this post, would be to say that what we are to believe is that Christ is, simply, God. Yet they also show Christ’s humanity. If your friend gets married and runs out of wine, wouldn’t you try and procure that wine for them? If you see a sick person and have it in your power to heal them, isn’t it the one thing you would want to do? And isn’t it the pinnacle of human condition to be overcome with grief or anger?

If all that the miracles were meant to prove was Christ’s divinity, well, then a few smitings would have done the trick. But this is not the only thing that they show. They show Christ displaying at the same time both divinity and humanity.

That we may believe then turns from a conversion power-trip to a statement of love. What we are to believe changes from factual information (that Christ is God) to deeply personal knowledge: that the divine meets the human in the person of Christ. And that is immensely beautiful.

This is the face our own evangelism should adorn. Not one that convinces others for the sake of “winning people over to Christ”. Not one that is simply grounded in the truth of the divinity of Christ; yet rather one that is grounded in the meeting place between  His divinity and humanity; and thereby in a love for all that knows no bounds and no fear. This love cannot be ours to hold on to or to merely dispense. Showing love in evangelism is not merely being nice and caring to others, for this is but a pale image of the love of God. No, the love we display in evangelism needs to see us be mere tools, channels of Christ’s love for others.

Once we realise this, evangelism will, I’m sure, look beautiful rather than dutiful to us.


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Helping others is good. There’s no doubt about that! Whether it is by providing a friendly ear, or hosting a small group, providing tea, leading heretics away from coffee – it is always a positive action.

Repeating these actions with the same people is a way to foster a community, but also to respond to a local need – spiritual or physical. In such cases, structure and regularity is not only good, it is also necessary: it is only in such a way that the people you serve (and those you’re serving with) can build a pattern, and in turn, trust.

Even when the promise of regularity is not explicit, it is there. Even when you warn people it isn’t going to be regular, one repeat occurrence is enough to make that promise on your behalf. For instance, I gave my students the opportunity to improve their grade by completing their test at home on two occasions; and ever since, they have been expecting this second chance at every occasion – despite my initial warnings that it wouldn’t happen!

People come to depend on you and on your action. Which means that, if you stop doing it, you might make things worse for some.


Photo by Edward Betts, in the public domain

In the case of Christian ministry, this is hugely important on two accounts:

1. The need you’re filling is potentially the most important need to fill. We’re not talking about a small monetary income, about a chocolate fix, or even about a tea fix (although the latter is extremely important, too). We tend to be talking about one or more of three vital things:

  • love for the unloved
  • food for the hungry
  • good news for those who haven’t received them

Imagine being on the receiving end of the ministry you’re involved in; and to find that, this week, you won’t get the opportunity to be fed – spiritually, physically, or affectionately. Or at least, not in the safe environment you’ve grown used to, and where you feel you can be yourself, warts and all. You probably wouldn’t have the strength to search elsewhere for a while – and your need would go unmet.

2. When you’re not reliable in your actions, you’re pointing to a God who can’t be relied upon. (tweet this) This is visibly the case if you’re involved in an evangelistic action. But in non-evangelistic actions, it is the case too, as long as people know you as a Christian, and thereby as someone who should imitate Christ.

So reliability is key. Which means that before going for a large undertaking, you should be sure you can keep it up – or that others will be ready to jump in to do so; and that you definitely should think twice before messing with your schedule.

A commitment to discipleship

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Discipleship – being a follower – is central to Christian life. Though the shape that discipleship takes varies, there are some key elements we are all called to: becoming ever more Christ-like. When big decisions come our way, it is right to tackle them as a follower – through prayer and with discernment. This is especially true of discerning our life calling – whether within the ministry or not.


Photo: Miguel Vaca, re-used under CC License

The way I described my response to calling, based on 1 Samuel 3, was this: firstly, hear the call; secondly, discern what the calling is (as Samuel went to Eli), and thirdly, take on the new identity brought on by this call (as Samuel took on the identity of God’s servant). These steps are sometimes muddled up, and the first two occasionally implicit. But a response to a call virtually always includes a commitment.

And here’s where a mistake can be made: to think that it is on that commitment that hinges our call. Or – possibly worse! – that this commitment takes precedence over the calling that it is a response to. This is true both of particular callings to specific action, and to the more universal calling to follow Christ; and it is true both of how we see our own calling and of how we see the calling of others.

When I make the mistake of considering my commitment to my calling first, here’s what happens too:

  • I consider my resolve as more important than the one from whom my calling came.
  • When my commitment wavers – as it is bound to, from time to time – I have to question my entire sense of calling, and go through the whole discernment process again.
  • I don’t know where to draw strength from: my commitment is my own, my responsibility and, in short, my business.
  • My actions become goal-oriented, rather than identity-oriented. In short, I am doing this and that in order to reach whatever goal I have committed myself to (e.g., ordination, or getting a specific job, or helping a specific group of people). I have stopped doing this and that because that’s what I should be doing. And that’s a dangerous thing to be doing.

Don’t get me wrong – commitment is necessary. But not at the expense of knowing that it is just a response: a response to the God who equips those whom he calls.

So consider your own calling as a Christian – or your story of how you became a Christian. Does it revolve around the moment you decided to follow, or does it revolve around the ways God called you, and your redeemed identity?

And if you agree that God’s call is far more important than a commitment, then why do we continue to describe evangelistic success primarily as “people giving their lives to Jesus”?

Evangelism is weird


Most churches, now, have outreach activities. Some Christian bodies are geared uniquely towards evangelism, too. Alpha courses have grown in popularity, as have other introductory courses to the Christian faith.


Photo: Chris Downer, re-used under CC License

Churches (and therefore Christians)  should grow in all three directions of the famous “in-up-out” triangle. Growing in community and being inwardly edified, worshipping up towards God and reaching out towards the NYCs (not-yet-Christians).

This approach, sadly, dissociates three essential parts of growth. Sure, we should have personal spiritual growth in order that we may reach out, etc. – but we sometimes forget that when we are reaching out, we are simultaneously growing inwardly. (And, yes, it is also simultaneously an act of worship – but the permeating nature of worship is not  the point of this post)

Alpha courses (and I’m taking this example because it’s the only one I roughly know of) have “facilitators”. Outreach events have speakers. And in the relationship between them and the seekers/recipients of the free beverage/food/whatever else, is akin to a teacher-student relationship. And as such, it leads to expectations that the teacher “knows it all”. In such events, the role of the “Christian” is to state and to answer, whilst the role of the NYC is limited to listening and asking questions which will find a rebuttal. Ironically, in such situations, the Christian is the one who is quick to speak and slow to listen.

All this leads to three undesirable effects:

1. It forces the creation of three rather artificial categories of people: the NYCs, the Christians, and the Christian leaders – i.e., those who have reached enough enlightenment to talk about their faith with others.

2. It discourages the less confident from participating in outreach activities. And when they do participate (out of a sense of oughtness, more likely than not) they put on a persona – because they are forcing themselves not only to do outreach, but also to be the type of people who do outreach: confident and knowledgeable.

3. It gives off the image of people who are sure of their entire worldview. Of course, being firm in the hope that is set before us – the hope of redemption and salvation – is great, and I’m sure it is the case for most, if not all, who get involved in any form of outreach. But do we have the same confidence in, say, the End Times? Hell? Predestination? Creation? Why the Psalmist is sometimes angry with God? The necessity of attending church? I know I don’t. Don’t get me wrong – I do have a bit of an idea about how to answer these questions; but I’m nowhere near as sure of them as I am of salvation.

Of course, it’s not deceitful to be ready to answer questions with our opinions on such matters. After all, we hold the views that we outline in our answers. But from the NYC’s perspective, it can be very off-putting: they are at a place where they are ready to re-evaluate their worldview. That is to say, their current metaphysical stance is shaky at best. And all we offer them, in appearance, is a pre-fabricated, solid, indigestible worldview. That can be appealing to some (although I believe it is a twisted perception, and it can be damaging to approach Christianity with such expectations); but, crucially, it can be threatening to others, and off-putting to many. Threatening, because it cannot possibly coexist, or draw on, the current worldview the NYC hasn’t quite brought himself to shed; off-putting, because how are people who have a fragile worldview meant to identify with people with an apparently solid one?

Evangelism is weird because, when I try to help people understand and embrace Christianity – and therefore me as a Christian – I pretend to be more confident of  my answers than I am. Evangelism is weird because when I should be celebrating the Truth, I bring other statements to the same level. Evangelism is weird especially when it fails to truly listen.