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Jesus Before Christmas

Rebekah Simon-Peter —  December 14, 2017 — 1 Comment

Christmas wasn’t always part of the Christian experience.  There’s no record that Jesus or his disciples or the early church celebrated Hanukkah candle on wooden backgroundChristmas at all. In fact, the first Christmas or Christ Mass wasn’t celebrated until the 4th century.  It’s likely Jesus wasn’t even born in the winter.  Rather, it’s thought that December 25 was chosen as a day to celebrate his birth because it coincided with a pre-existing pagan festival. That would make it easy for non-Christians to add a new layer of meaning to their old celebrations. That happens in the history of religion.

The interesting thing though is that December 25 wasn’t just the date of a pagan festival. It also coincides, in a way, with a festival that Jesus did actually celebrate.

Like Jews of his time, Jesus celebrated the Feast of Dedication which occurs on the 25th of Kislev, a month in the Jewish calendar that most closely approximates December.  “At that time,” the Gospel according to John relates, “the Feast of Dedication took place in Jerusalem; it was winter. Jesus was walking in the Temple in the portico of Solomon. Tell us,” the Jews said, “if you are the Messiah.”  Their comments were fitting, for the Feast of Dedication marked the last time a deliverer had arisen to save them from oppression.   It was past time for another; the Roman experience was a cruel one indeed.

The Feast of Dedication commemorates the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its utter desecration at the brutal hands of Antiochus Epiphanes about 170 years BC. Today, that feast is known by its Hebrew name, Chanukah. Although Chanukah only gets a line or two in the New Testament, it actually plays a huge role in the birth of Jesus.

To explain, we have to go back in history over three hundred years before the birth of Christ.  Alexander the Great ruled the ancient world around the Eastern Mediterranean. After conquering the Persian Empire, Greek culture, or Hellenism, spread like wildfire. The Jews living in Israel quickly found themselves surrounded by it and then almost swallowed up by it. Hellenism was to the ancient world what Western culture is to the modern world. Just as you can find a McDonald’s in just about every corner of the world, not to mention American pop music, blue jeans, TV re-runs, Western style Christianity, and the English language, so in that day, you could find Greek culture, religion, and language permeating every other culture of the world. Needless to say, it wasn’t all good, especially for those in the minority, like the Jews.  It put their whole distinctive way of life at risk.

After Alexander died, his empire eventually fell into the hands of one Antiochus IV Epiphanes.  Epiphanes means “face of God,” but a more apt description was the moniker the Jews gave him: “Epimanes” or “crazy man.”  He was the Hitler of the intertestamental period.  Like Hitler, he was obsessed with wiping out the Jewish people.  He began with the slaughter of the citizens of Jerusalem and the desecration of the Temple.  Alfred Edersheim explains what happened in his book, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah:

“All sacrifices, the service of the Temple, and the observance of the Sabbath and of feast days were prohibited; the Temple at Jerusalem was dedicated to Jupiter Olympus (a Greek god); the Torah was searched for and destroyed; the Jews forced to take part in heathen rites; in short, every insult was heaped on the religion of the Jews, and its every trace was to be swept away.”

Bottom line:  Antiochus was bent on genocide. The final straw was the slaughter of a pig on the sacrificial altar in the Temple. Definitely not kosher. This occurred on the 25th of Kislev, the month that generally corresponds to our December.

A Jewish deliverer rose up whose name was Mattathias. Even though they were outnumbered and overpowered, under his leadership the Jewish people began a campaign of guerilla warfare against Antiochus and his Syrian armies to reclaim the Temple.  Mattathias died fighting, but his five sons carried on, including one whose name you might know: Judah Maccabee. He led the fighting till the Temple could be purified and its services restored.

Exactly three years after its desecration, the Temple was rededicated.  This also took place on the 25th of Kislev, about 165 years before the nativity of Christ.  If Antiochus had carried out his plan, there would have been no Mary, no Joseph, and no Jesus.  There would have been no Messiah of Israel, no Savior of the World.  Bottom line:  without Chanukah, there would be no Christmas. Jesus owed his life to Chanukah. In a sense, we owe our faith to it.

In the midst of this Advent Season, let us remember the minor Jewish holiday that celebrates freedom of religion and which makes possible the major Christian one.  Let’s do like Jesus did and re-dedicate ourselves to freedom of religious expression, and to the freedom to dedicate ourselves to God.

Adapted from “Christmas through Jewish Eyes”, by Rebekah Simon-Peter.

The bad boy culture is alive and well. We see it in real life: prominent men who sexually harass women and get away with it; home grown Young Boys In Playing In Parkterrorists who blow up buildings; shooters and mass murderers who kill with impunity. We see it on the silver screen: anti-heroes abound, armed with superpowers, deadly weapons and ill intent. Sometimes the heroes that take them down are almost indistinguishable from the anti-heroes.

I used to think: “What is wrong with those men?” Thinking of my grounded, compassionate, spiritual husband, I would breathe a sigh of relief: “Boy, am I glad I got a good one.” Implied in my thought process was that, like an invisible cancer, something was mysteriously wrong with those particular individuals.

Turns out it’s not that simple. We may all play a role in creating the bad boy culture. And, like any culture we’ve had a part in making, we can have a hand in re-making it, too. That’s especially true for the church.

What’s at the root of the bad boy culture? Niobe Way, a developmental psychologist at New York University, believes that the problem is the way boys are raised. She writes about it in her book, Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection.

“We essentially raise boys in a culture that asks them to disconnect from their core humanity,” Way said in a recent radio interview, “which is their desire for relationships and all sorts of things the boys articulate that they want.” She goes on to say that the larger culture reinforces that disconnect by looking askance at boys that are too emotional and relational. We give them the message that they are not real men.

Our societal expectations then lead to a culture “that accepts lonely and aggressive boys, and ultimately puts them in positions of power.” These lonely and aggressive boys not only commit sexual assault, but all kinds of violence. Most telling was this insight of hers: “We look at mass violence and we’re all writing articles about mass violence. Then we have a rapist and we’re all writing articles about rape. The we have an article about police violence and we’re focused on police violence, without understanding there’s a common root across these problems. If you raise boys to go against their nature, some of them will grow up and act crazy.”

So, what are we to do about these boys who grow up and act crazy? In the church, there is much we can do. We are an intergenerational intersection of spirituality and morality, belief and meaning. We regularly interpret both ancient wisdom and contemporary culture in order to derive enduring meaning. Ours is a perfect location to address and re-make the kind of culture we raise boys, and girls, in.

Here are some things we in the church can do.

  1. Turn up the volume. Right now, we are in the phase of naming and seeing the bad boy culture. So, turn up the volume. If girls and women, (as well as boys and men) have been violated, encourage them to give voice to their experiences. It takes courage, strength, and self-respect to speak truth to power in the bad boy culture. Especially if the males in question are in positions of personal or professional power.
  2. Involve men proactively. Women are often victims of the bad boy culture. But men have a large say in it. So, involve men proactively. Challenge men to call each other out. It’s one thing for women to say what happened to them. It’s another thing altogether for men to say no to male behavior that threatens the common good. Men, draw attention to it before it escalates.
  3. Befriend lonely and aggressive boys. Men especially, take these guys under your wing, reach out to them, and help them find a place of meaning in the larger society. In my community, there is a popular program run by a local church called Pop in the Shop where older men mentor at risk youth in the art of car repair.
  4. Re-interpret God gone rogue. Look afresh at passages from the Bible that seem to reinforce or uphold a bad boy culture. Bring a new interpretive lens to texts like these, especially when they relate to God going rogue: God deciding to drown all of creation in a flood, or wiping out the Tower of Babel, or condoning killing off other tribes, or proclaiming exile on his people. Be sure to distinguish the historical and religious context of the story, instead of preaching as if ancient societal norms and ours were exactly the same. The same goes for dealing with apocalyptic passages in the New Testament. Remember your hermeneutics classes, as well as the ins and outs of historical, literary and textual criticism. Not sure how? Consult modern and post-modern commentaries for help with this.

There are no easy answers here. But Niobe Way’s insights can point us in a direction worth exploring.

The conversation about who and what women can be has changed dramatically over the years. For the better. We have so many options about how we work, play, love, marry, live and lead. We can be stay at home moms, or president of the United States. We can sit on the Supreme Court bench or preach from the pulpit. We can marry or be single, we can have kids or not, we can work or not. We can even choose to be sex objects if we like.

The time has come to expand the conversation for boys and men. It’s time to open up new options for friendship and relatedness, for caring and connection, for meaning and masculinity. And we can do it without shaming or looking askance at boys who choose non-traditional ways of expressing their masculinity.

After all, Jesus had 12 close male friends. He didn’t go it alone. Our boys shouldn’t have to either.

It’s been a helluva year.2017

Powerful men in every walk of life, from politics to government to entertainment to journalism, have been accused of sexual assault. Even National Public Radio, that bastion of rationalism, has been hard hit. We have endured two more mass murders—one at a Las Vegas concert and one in the Sutherland Springs TX Baptist Church. Before that, multiple hurricanes battered the Gulf Coast and shattered communities. While Texas and Florida are making a decent recovery, much of Puerto Rico is still without power. Depressing displays of white supremacy made the headlines. And all this is just in the last 3 months or so. In the background of it all is the wearying stream of distracting tweets, bullying posts and head-scratching opinions coming from the White House.

Is this really a year to be grateful?

The answer is, surprisingly, yes. It’s not just that these difficulties often bring out the best in us. It’s this: cultivating an attitude of gratitude puts us in the legion of saints, and in the realm of the divine.

It’s easy to cultivate gratitude when things are going well. It’s a natural response to bounty and blessing. Yet, gratitude doesn’t require any extra muscle or intentionality when things are going well. However, gratitude is an exceptional response when life is bleak, when things aren’t going your way, and when you can’t quite imagine how good could come of a situation.

Still not convinced? Here are five God-sized reasons to be grateful:

  1. Gratitude makes us more like God. Being grateful when the chips are down forces us to seek out what is right in the world. It requires a great deal of intentionality which in turn builds the muscle of unconditional love. Here’s what I mean. God’s love for us does not falter when we make mistakes, upset others, or wreak havoc. It doesn’t even falter when we do evil. It’s unconditional—it doesn’t require a certain set of conditions to be activated. It’s simply and eternally constant. When we are able to practice gratitude in the midst of tough circumstances, we begin to enter into the realm of the divine.
  2. Gratitude honors free will. Free will is a signature dynamic of the universe. God doesn’t force any of us to do “right” or to do “good” or let God in to our lives. Neither can we force others to do our will, or to act according to the norms or beliefs we uphold. Practicing gratitude in the midst of annoyingly free will allows us to move into a higher flow of the universe.  It doesn’t mean we abandon our standards. It does mean that we honor the free will of others to do the same.
  3. Gratitude increases the light. Sure, it’s been a tough year for a lot of us in a lot of ways. But in each life impacted by loss, grief, evil, insensitivity or just plain stupidity—there were also transcendent moments and blissful blessings.   To focus only on the dark obliterates the light. The more we focus on what is lovely and good and beautiful, the more of it there is to focus on.
  4. Gratitude hands us the keys to the kingdom. When we cultivate an attitude of gratitude in the tough years, it reminds us of the constancy of the Kingdom of Heaven. It is still near. It is still at hand. It is still within. And the doors are still open. Each of us has the choice to cultivate a Kingdom consciousness, regardless of the circumstances around us.
  5. Worry weakens; gratitude strengthens. Constant worry and fear tear down our ability to be strong for the long haul. They weaken our ability to counteract injustice, and to stand for a better future. Gratitude, on the other hand, strengthens the immune system, clarifies the mind, and grounds the spirit.

It’s okay this year to revel in what is good in the world. It’s more than okay to dwell on the blessings you have received and made possible for others this year. In fact, it’s a necessity. The work of gratitude allows us to amplify the love in the world. Consider it the perfect counterbalance to the energy we’ll need in the coming months and years to speak up for justice, act with courage, speak up for the common good, and to envision a life-giving future.

 

 

Gun shots rocked yet another church over the weekend.  Sunday services inchurch doors2 Sutherland Springs TX turned into a blood bath, with at least 27 dead.  Before that horrifying incident, the folks of this small town felt protected by their rural setting.  But as we’re discovering, even those things don’t prevent gun violence from unfolding.

What’s a church to do?  I want to share with you 7 practical tips from Rev. Derrek Belase, a former certified police officer turned pastor, with two degrees in criminology.  He is now the Director of Discipleship of the Oklahoma Annual Conference.  His current portfolio includes coordinating the Safe Sanctuary Training.

Derrek believes that you can’t completely prevent gun violence from erupting.  Even with the best laid plans or the best legislation.   Then what?  How can a church adequately protect itself?  Here are 7 practical tips that can help any church prepare for the unexpected.

  1. Establish relationships with the first responders and other key people in your community.  Get to know the Sheriff, Chief of Police, Chief of the Fire Department as well as the Mayor and County Commissioners.  Let them get to know you and exchange cell phone numbers.  That way, they’ll know if they get a call from you on a Sunday morning, it’s a bonafide emergency.  That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t call 911 if violence or threats of violence break out in your sanctuary.  But also call them.
  1. Invite them to come tour the church buildings.  Let them see the lay of the land, and the way your buildings are set up.  If they have a mental picture of your facilities, they’ll be able to respond with foreknowledge, if the need should arise.
  1. Be sure to have ushers, as well as greeters.  Greeters can keep an eye out for folks who may look troubled.  They can alert the pastor, or if need be, the authorities.  Once worship begins, greeters are seated.  That’s when ushers take over.  Once ushers are done seating people, they can serve as a vital link between the worshiping congregation in the sanctuary with its closed doors, and the outside world.  They can walk down the hall to the nursery and make sure everything’s okay there.  They can keep an eye out for stragglers, suspicious looking folks, or someone with a gun.  Make sure they can access the church office and a landline phone if need be.
  1.  Consider the layout of the building and the property, and what might happen if…  How far is the nursery from the sanctuary?  Do they have a landline where they could make phone calls out?  Do you have a landline in the sanctuary?  Do cell phones work in the sanctuary?  Do you have a lot of doors that are unnecessarily open during worship?  Are there places outside that people could hide?  Your first responders can give you helpful feedback on that.
  1. Does your church building have an accurate sign on it so first responders can respond quickly? You may be known as First Church to your own people, the Methodist church to the larger community, and the downtown community church with the big spire to the neighborhood locals.  Make sure your sign matches your website, Facebook page, and bulletin.  Also, make sure you have your street address handy.  That’s how ambulances will find you.
  1. Resist bringing in a security expert.  They’ll suggest things most churches can’t afford, whether that’s a security guard or metal detectors, which will ratchet up expectations and fears.  Instead, make these practical moves.
  1. Focus on what you’re there to do:  preach the Gospel, build the Kingdom, help people grow spiritually, connect with the community and with God, give hope, share love, pray and practice the presence of Christ.

For more solutions, check out FEMA’s resource for protecting your house of worship.  As in football where offense is the best defense, there are additional ways churches and other communities of faith can respond.  Next week we’ll look at how to shift our larger culture which gives rise to lone, aggressive shooters.

In the meantime, let’s do more than send our thoughts and prayers.  Let’s make sure our own houses are in order.

Just because pastors and key laity are called leaders doesn’t mean we are practicing effective leadership. Take me, for example. By theIliff grad (2) time I graduated from the Iliff School of Theology in 1998, I had an M.Div. and an M.A.R with a healthy cumulative GPA of about 3.75. I had studied Hebrew, Greek, Old Testament, New Testament, theology, church history, preaching, worship, and Christian education. I learned how to read and interpret the scriptures, lead prayer, organize a bible study, serve communion, baptize babies, visit the sick, bury the dead, counsel the distressed, call meetings, administer the life of the church, and under duress, consult the Book of Discipline.

I was prepared to manage the church, but not to truly lead the church.

What’s the difference? A manager helps an organization survive. A leader innovates so it thrives. A manager dots the i’s and crosses the t’s. A leader generates a brand new vocabulary. A manager makes sure everything is in order. A leader envisions a brand new order. Managers tend to people and processes. Leaders build up new people and craft new processes. If managing is sufficient when things are going well, leadership is crucial when things are not going well.

What I learned in seminary was sufficient for when things are going well. But we all know that things haven’t been going well. At the same time that I was honing and expanding my skills, there was a larger dynamic at play: a culture of decline in the church. Not just my church—but the denomination as a whole, mainline Christianity as a whole. Since the early 70s, we have seen a significant loss of membership, attendance, giving and influence. At the same time, we’ve seen a concurrent rise in the ranks of church alumni, the spiritual but not religious.

I pastored local churches for more than 11 years. By the time I left, I was frustrated and burned out—even with all the love and good ministry that had transpired. What happened to the grand calling I had? Why was the church in decline even though I put everything I had into it?   In the 11 years since then, I’ve immersed myself in mastering the principles and practices of effective leadership in the church. Here’s what I’ve discovered including 5 confessions of my own.

1.  Leaders may be born, but even more than that, they are formed. Some of us naturally possess a personality style that others equate with “leader.” We get things done. We have an air of confidence. We connect with people. As important as those qualities are, though, they are not enough to constitute effective leadership. An effective leader doesn’t do it all herself. She also knows how to empower others to get things done. Jesus intentionally authorized and empowered those around him to do what he did. That’s why his movement is still alive while the things I began in the local church most likely are not. I didn’t fully understand how to turn things over. Church leaders, it doesn’t matter if you’re a born leader or not. We can learn those skills. In fact, we must if we are to fulfill our callings.

2.  Effective leaders have high emotional intelligence. Self-awareness, empathy, motivation, social skill and self-regulation are five commonly accepted attributes of EQ. Jesus had all these qualities in spades. He knew himself. He had empathy for others. He understood what motivated others, and had the skill to move people in the direction he wanted to go. Finally, he knew how to regulate his own actions, motivations and fears to accomplish higher ends. The Gospel stories of his interactions with friend and foe alike illustrate his EQ.

While I had self-awareness and empathy, I wasn’t always clear on what motivated others, or how to move everyone in the direction I sensed God was calling us to. That means my ability to self-regulate was limited.   I did what I knew how to do—persuade, cajole, inspire, push—trying harder and harder. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. I didn’t know sometimes people need facts and figures rather than emotion and inspiration. I didn’t know sometimes people need advance notice to figure things out and get on board.

Doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results is one definition of insanity. It’s a prescription for burnout, too.

3.  Church leaders can’t save the church, and shouldn’t try. Decline is bigger than we are. Instead of our sole focus being on boosting giving, attendance, and baptisms, we need a focus that is larger than ourselves. That means keeping one eye on our current constituency and another on the needs and possibilities in the communities around us. If we attend to those things well, the church will likely thrive too.

Jesus had his eye on the Kingdom of God which required a complete re-focusing of spiritual and religious energies. Out of this vision emerged not only the creation of a brand new movement now called Christianity, but a stronger, re-invented Judaism as well.

I took decline personally. I figured the answer was to do more, demand more, spend more time, take less vacations. That didn’t work; it’s a recipe for burnout. Decline is overcome with a bigger vision and a change in consciousness, not more effort.

4. Leadership development for leaders is not an oxymoron or a redundancy. Most of us get 3-9 semester hours of leadership development in seminary or course of study. The rest of it comes from intentional continuing education. That’s how I became a leadership developer. I wanted to upgrade the conversation church leaders devolve into about leading and the church. Instead of slogging alone through years of nagging self-doubt, disempowerment and victimhood—like I had—I wanted to create a new conversation. So I developed what I learned into a useable, accessible format for others.

5. The culture of decline cannot produce a culture of renewal. Because we church leaders—locally and nationally—are used to operating in a culture of decline, our thinking is unconsciously limited by that. We’re more used to scarcity than abundance. It’s easier to tick off reasons why we can’t rather than reasons why we can. Effective leadership development is grounded in a different kind of culture. Creating a culture of renewal requires a focus on Jesus’ own empowerment of us and the structures he employed to cultivate it. That includes high expectations, life-giving accountability, miracle-making, acknowledgement and celebration.

I confess that I didn’t know any of this when I graduated seminary, or when I pastored three churches. I knew what didn’t work. But I couldn’t quite figure out what would work. That took lots of trial and error. In the 11 years since leaving local church ministry, fellow travelers have joined me on the journey and discovered their own path to effective leadership.

If you would like to learn how to step into greater leadership by becoming an emotionally intelligent, Jesus-empowered, visionary leader who can create a culture of renewal, let’s talk! Email me at Rebekah@rebekahsimonpeter.com, call me at (307) 320-6779, or check out my website: www.cultureofrenewal.com