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Using Christmas for Christ

Cross wrapped in Christmas wrapping paper (Credit: Pearl via Lightstock)"You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand." ~ Woodrow Wilson

We have entered Advent, the annual celebration of Jesus' birth. This season has never been more commercialized and commodified than it is today. A week before Thanksgiving, nearly half of all Americans said they had already started their Christmas shopping. Consumers are expected to spend $630.5 billion during the shopping season.

How can you leverage your influence for Christ during these hectic, secularized weeks?

Step 1: Know your religious rights

You might be wondering what, if anything, you can do to advance your faith at work, school, or elsewhere in public. The "separation of church and state" has been widely construed to mean that religion must be kept private. If you use your influence for Jesus, will you be subject to cultural and even legal opposition?

Liberty Institute specializes in defending religious freedom in America. Their article, Seven Things Every Business Person of Faith Should Know, is an excellent resource. Here is their summary:

1. You cannot discriminate on the basis of religion. This means religion cannot be used as a factor in hiring decisions, promotions, treating employees unequally, or harassment.

2. You do not lose your religious liberty rights by engaging in business. The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in the Hobby Lobby case quashes the notion that Americans lose their religious rights by engaging in business. The case affirmed that all Americans—including business owners—have the rights to live and work according to their beliefs without fear of government compelling them to violate their beliefs. Perhaps most importantly, the Supreme Court ruled that courts are not permitted to question whether or not a religious belief is reasonable, meaning that your sincerely held religious beliefs are yours alone.

3. A business can be run on religious principles. An employer does not discriminate on the basis of religion by affirming the faith of its owners in business objectives, and business owners are not required to abandon their faith when setting principles and ethics for their company. A businessperson of faith is free to run his or her business according the ethics they have learned via religious instruction.

4. You may engage in religious speech in the workplace. Employers can talk to employees about faith, so long as faith is not a requirement for continued employment or advancement within the company. Employers cannot, however, take adverse action against an employee for disagreeing with their religious views.

5. You may have prayer meetings and Bible studies in the workplace. Employers are allowed to hold prayer meetings in the workplace, so long as attendance is not mandatory. Notices about these meetings should clearly say so, and the meetings are best held before or after work, or during breaks.

6. You may have employee training based on Biblical principles. Employers are allowed to use training programs that are Biblically or faith-based. For example, an employer could require an employee to attend a management seminar that uses scriptural references as a part of its training. However, employees cannot be required to undergo religious training, participate in religious services or religious activities, or engage in behavior that would violate their sincerely-held religious beliefs.

Liberty Institute also notes: "You may be headed for a collision between your religious freedom and the new cultural orthodoxy." It may require courage to stand for Christ, but when you do so appropriately, the law is on your side.

Fact #4 is especially relevant to our topic. So long as faith is not required at your company, or lack of faith is treated adversely, you are free to talk about Christ at work.

Step 2: Submit to the Spirit

God's word commands us to "be filled with the Spirit" (Ephesians 5:18). The Greek text could be translated literally, "continually be submitted to and controlled by the Spirit." When you trusted Christ as your Savior, you became the child of God. This is a once-in-a-lifetime decision. But you must decide every day whether to make him Lord of that day.

So begin every morning by surrendering your day to Jesus. Pray through your plans, challenges, and schedule, submitting all you know of the day to Christ. Ask his Spirit to take control of your attitudes, thoughts, words, and actions. Give your life to Jesus as a "living sacrifice" (Romans 12:1-2).

Submitting to the Spirit is especially urgent with regard to sharing your faith. Jesus warned his disciples that they would be called to testify about their faith before the authorities. But then he offered this assurance:

When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you (Matthew 10:19-20).

The Holy Spirit knows the spiritual condition of every person you know. As he works to lead people to Christ, he knows what each person most needs to hear, see, and feel. He will give you the impulse, opportunity, words, and actions you need for each person whom you seek to serve.

But you must first submit to the Spirit. Ask him to use you in sharing Christ with those you influence this Christmas, and he will.

Step 3: Find opportunities for witness

Jesus shared the gospel in the natural course of his daily life and ministry. When sick people found him, he healed them and shared God's love with their hurting souls. When a Samaritan woman came for water, he shared with her the living water of the Spirit. When Nicodemus came by night to discuss theology, he showed him how to be "born again." He made the gospel part of his everyday speech and conduct.

We can do the same, especially during Christmas.

The ubiquitous nature of this season makes it a tremendous opportunity for the gospel. As secular and materialistic as the holidays have become, they nonetheless remind us on every hand that it is Christmas. And most traditions and symbols have remarkable Christian origins and stories to tell. If you know the following stories, you can share them with others whenever the opportunity arises.

The Christmas candle was used by early Christians to point others to Christ, the light of the world (John 8:12). They placed candles in their windows to show others that Jesus' light shone in their homes and hearts. In medieval times it was believed that the Christ Child wanders the streets on Christmas Eve, looking for places where he is welcome. Those who loved him put candles in their windows to welcome him home.

According to tradition, the Christmas tree began with the great Martin Luther nearly five centuries ago. One December night, he was walking home through the snow of the German Black Forest. As he walked along, he was struck by the beauty of the evergreen trees, with stars twinkling through their branches. So he cut one down, brought it home, and hung candles on its branches to simulate stars. Germans picked up the custom, and eventually brought it to America. The Christmas tree reminds us of God's creative beauty, and also of the cross on which the Light of the World died for us all.

The Christmas wreath symbolizes the victory of Christ over sin and death. In pre-Christian times, a green laurel crown was used to honor victors in athletic competitions and military battles. Christ's followers soon began placing laurel wreaths on their doorposts to symbolize their victory in Christ. They are especially popular at Christmas, since their evergreen leaves point to the eternal life Jesus has given us.

The poinsettia dates back to the Hon. Joel Poinsett, a member of President Van Buren's cabinet and ambassador to Mexico. While in Mexico, Poinsett was attracted to a particular plant he found growing there. He brought the plant with him when he returned to his native South Carolina. It bears his name today. The poinsettia's beauty, flowering in mid-winter, reminds us of the vibrant joy of Christ. And its red leaves point to his blood shed for the sins of the world.

Finally, the Santa Claus tradition is based on a real gift-giver named Nicholas of Myra. He was born around AD 270 in Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey. He became bishop of Myra, was exiled and imprisoned by Emperor Diocletian, released by Constantine the Great, and died in Myra around AD 350. In AD 987 he was named the patron saint of Russia. In the year 1087 his remains were purchased by Italian merchants and moved to the city of Bari in Italy, where they are still preserved to this day in the church of San Nicola.

Nicholas has been one of history's most venerated saints. By AD 1400, more than 500 songs and hymns had been written in his honor. When Christopher Columbus arrived in Haiti on December 6 of 1492, he named the port St. Nicholas. By AD 1500, more than 700 churches in Britain were dedicated to him.

Why was he so beloved? Because he spent his life helping the poor and underprivileged. He was the first to initiate programs for mentally challenged children. He loved children and often visited their homes at night, disguised in a red and white hooded robe, leaving gifts of money, clothing or food at their windows or fireplaces.

The Dutch especially appreciated his story. They spelled his name "Sint Nikolass," which in America became "Sinterklass," or "Santa Claus."

We know of St. Nicholas today because of Dr. Clement Clark Moore, a theology and classics professor at Union Seminary in New York. In 1822 he wrote a poem for his children entitled, "A Visit from St. Nicholas." It began with these words:

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house,
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In the hope that St. Nicholas soon would be there.

The illustrator Thomas Nast put Dr. Moore's figure to art, creating the figure we know today as Santa Claus. His tradition points us to the greatest gift-giver of all, the Lord Jesus.

When you decorate your home and office space for Christmas, you can then point to these symbols and explain their Christian meaning. Look for chances to share God's love in yours, and you'll find them every day.

Step 4: Speak the truth in love

St. Francis of Assisi is said to have encouraged his followers to "preach the gospel at all times—when necessary, use words." While we are indeed to "preach the gospel at all times" through our attitudes and actions, our words are also essential. People need to know the facts of the gospel, the intellectual decisions and practical actions by which they can become the children of God.

But the spirit in which we share God's word is critical. We are taught by Scripture: "In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you" (1 Peter 3:15a). However, the text continues: "Yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame" (vs. 15b-16).

Said differently, we are called to serve Jesus by "speaking the truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15a). Such an attitude indicates the maturity of our faith and commitment to Jesus (vs. 15b-16).

It's been said that evangelists are "beggars helping other beggars find bread." We are no better than those who have not yet come to Christ. What we were given, everyone needs to receive. As the bumper sticker says, "Christians aren't perfect—just forgiven." When we show God's grace in ours, others are more open to receiving what we have to share.

Ken Medema, the blind Christian singer and songwriter, says in one of his songs, "Don't tell me I have a friend in Jesus until you show me I have a friend in you."


Consider a parable:

Imagine that you're touring Carlsbad Caverns when an earthquake strikes and the roof caves in. You're trapped in total darkness. At first you're too shocked to react, then you realize your oxygen will run out and you need to do something. So you and the rest of your group begin yelling for help, pulling at the rocks blocking the exit, digging at the walls, anything you can think of to do.

Then you turn around and notice something no one else has yet seen—the tiniest pinprick of light off in the distance. You climb to it and discover that it is an opening in the wall, a way out.

You run back and tell the others, but they refuse to listen. They continue their efforts to dig their way out of the cave. So you are saved and they are lost. You are no better than any of them. The light is available to everyone trapped in the cave. It's just that you believed in the light.

Will you share the Light this Christmas?

Let's close with one of my favorite Christmas prayers. I invite you to make it your commitment to Christ today:

Heavenly Father,
Christmas began
With the gift of your Son,
Who in turn gave the world
The gift of his life.
Let us remember, O God,
That Christmas remains
A matter of giving,
Not parties, not presents,
Not material wealth,
For Christmas is Christmas
When I give of myself.

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The Church's greatest threat

Dennis Union Church under blue skies and blanket of snow on Saturday afternoon in winter, Cape Cod, Dennis, Massachusetts, February 16, 2014 (Credit: Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism via Flickr)These days you hear a lot about the problems the Church is facing from threats located outside of its walls. Unfortunately, far less is said about the more pertinent and persistent threats that wreak havoc from within. Often these problems can have the greatest negative impact on the health of a church because they go relatively unnoticed. And while there are numerous ways that such issues can creep into a congregation, the most damaging is when they come in the guise of God's will. It is with that perspective in mind that we need to have a frank discussion about the manner in which spiritual gifts are viewed and used within far too many churches today.

Before we do that though, if you don't know what your spiritual gifts are, I'd encourage you to take some time once you're done reading this to take the free assessment our ministry provides. Knowing your gifts is an essential part of using them as God intends.

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Just war and personal conflict: a Veterans Day reflection

Veterans Memorial Park: This beautiful new memorial is dedicated to all veterans, but specifically to recognize the first flag-raising on Iwo Jima, on February 23, 1945, with the centerpiece featuring a large statue of Cpl. Charles W. Lindberg who was one of the four Marines to raise the first flag (the more well-known photo of the flag-raising depicts the second flag), Veterans Memorial Park. Richfield, Minnesota, July 30, 2009 (Credit: jpellgen via Flickr)
"To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country's service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations."i

With these words, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed November 11, 1919, as the first commemoration of what we today call Veterans Day. According to the Census Bureau, there are more than 21 million military veterans in America. Each of them deserves our gratitude, this day and every day.

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