Saturday, December 29, 2012

New Name, New Identity, New Year

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." —Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene 2

Romeo and Juliet

Dear Family and Friends,

The Christmas season is here, and with it – I have had names on my mind. Allow me to ask this question from a well-known text: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” What is in a name? Juliet was looking to see Romeo the person, beyond the name. Yet I must admit that I’m deviating from where Shakespeare’s question was headed, because there is much in a name!

Names give us identity and belonging, and how wonderful it is that our God fulfills this identity for us in the person of our Savior. Isaiah prophesied that “the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel,” meaning ‘God is with us’ (Isa.7:14). Jeremiah comforted Jerusalem and told of when God would “make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line,” saying that this man would be called “The Lord Our Righteousness” (Jer.33:15,16). And an angel of the Lord instructed Joseph and Mary to name her son Jesus, “because he will save his people from their sins” since he is the “Son of the Most High” (Mt.1:21, Lk.1:31-32).

God’s name ‘Immanuel’ identifies God with us, the crown of his creation that fell into sin, rejects him, and deserves nothing but death and everlasting condemnation. Yet since the time of Adam and Eve, God promised to bring us to Him by letting us call Him our righteousness. God’s name not only identifies Him with us, but He also has identified us with Him. It is by His grace, His undeserved love, He is our righteousness. And by faith in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ we are the redeemed children of God. How blessed we are! How truly glorious is the name of the Lord!

Perhaps some people would find me weak for admitting this, but I know I wouldn't be able to survive on just my own strength. Yes, to all appearances I'd say I'm a fairly independent person. Yet I know my own failings and how fragile I really am, so with that in mind how could I stand solely on my own? 

And as for depending on someone else... can I really expect another imperfect human being to be my unfailing strength when my own strength fails? No, because at some point, his or her own strength will also fail.

This is why I find such joy and peace, knowing that God has claimed me and that I belong to Him. It is when I lose focus, when I forget that He's in complete control of my life, that I find that day or week to be bleak and depressing. 

It all comes back to God, His everlasting care, His enduring strength, His almighty power that holds control of all that was, is, and will come. 

Snow in the forest
Montana - December 2012
With that focus in mind as I look to this new year in 2013, I must admit that I’m still contemplating my life’s direction. I’m considering whether to pursue graduate or law studies, to travel and teach English abroad in another country, or to finally knuckle down and expand my English creative writing thesis into the full-fledged novel it’s intended to be. Or perhaps all three! 

Whatever my future holds, I’m confident in the knowledge that God is in control of my destiny, and I’m looking forward with joyful anticipation as He is revealing His grand design for my amazing life!

May God continue to bless us all in the coming new year!
"Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God." Cornelia "Corrie" ten Boom

Thursday, December 13, 2012

An American Christmas: Contradictions, Tolerance, and Holiday Trees?

"Unless we make Christmas an occasion to share our blessings, all the snow in Alaska won't make it 'white'." —Bing Crosby
Christmas Day is fast approaching. It’s almost impossible to miss! And how on earth could we be allowed to forget?

Commercialism was in full swing the day after Halloween, and who could miss the Black Friday advertisements that appeared in place of all the political ads? Montana got clobbered by winter storm Brutus on November 8th, and snow just has a tendency to make me think of the holiday season (with songs like “Winter Wonderland,” “White Christmas,” and “Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow,” how is it possible not to start thinking about the holidays?). My dad’s also been asking me whether I’ve found the local Christmas radio station yet, and I’ve been listening online to the K-LOVE Christmas radio or my Mannheim Steamroller (Holiday) station on Pandora Radio while at work.

Christmas Day is certainly almost here! I believe it’s also a season that we have a tendency to clutter with contradictions. The joy of giving gifts becomes overshadowed by the frenzy of trekking through umpteen department stores to find the “perfect” gift (let alone the treacherous journey to and from home when traffic is crazy and roads are icy!). Putting up decorations can start to feel like too much of a hassle, especially with the time it takes to pull everything out of storage and get the tree in its stand and decorated.

Christmas in America can certainly be filled with a lot of self-inflicted stress from commercialism and travel. Yet we still encourage one another to “be of good cheer” and proclaim “peace on earth” because “it’s the most wonderful time of the year!” We try to focus on others, invest in family traditions, and work to be less selfish.

So I find it mind-boggling, when I read and watch the national news, that a number of people in this free country are infusing this season with prejudice. Since when did we become a nation of intolerance? When did we become the people who choose to be offended?

I’m talking about the cultural conflict that crops up in America during this time of year. At risk of being “politically incorrect” and offensive to others, we’ve been told by our society that “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings” are the only appropriate holiday greetings for December. Personally, I celebrate Christmas, and I like to wish others a “Merry Christmas.” Am I going out of my way to offend you? Am I trying to force my religion on you? Of course not! 

Yet if you are offended by this, I want to ask: why are you jumping to these negative conclusions? I’d honestly like to know.

For that matter, this year while answering phone calls at my job, I’ve been wished “Happy Hanukkah,” “Merry Christmas,” and “Happy Whatever-Holiday-I’m-Celebrating” by various individuals. Now, I’m not Jewish, but do I take offense at the woman who wished me a Happy Hanukkah? No, why would I? She was simply wishing me joy in the season, and sharing with me her reason for celebration. I have no problem with this.

Some negative news stories this year also have me puzzled. The headline for one such story from November 30th reads: “One Complaint prompts removal of a Mass. RMV's Christmas decorations.” Apparently, the Registry of Motor Vehicles in Braintree, Massachusetts took down their decorations, only to have many more people complain at the fact that they were taken down at all. 

Another story that received national attention was Rhode Island’s Governor Lincoln Chafee insisting on calling the state’s tree a “holiday tree” for the second year in a row, among protests from some Rhode Island citizens and other state officials. Some are in favor of the change, others are not, and there has been such a high concentration of controversy around the issue that the lighting ceremony was announced only 1/2 hour before it took place (See December 5th CNN News article by Jon Street).

Some may argue that there’s nothing wrong with the term “holiday tree,” but I’m wondering what was wrong with the term “Christmas tree” in the first place? Why was it deemed necessary for the evergreen to be called something else?

With traditions of Santa Claus and gift-giving during this season, no matter what you believe (or don’t believe), it can hardly be argued that our society hasn’t placed secular elements into our idea of Christmas. Yet does the word "Christmas" universally and exclusively put in our minds the idea that it celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, and nothing else? Much as many Christians would like this, I must argue that for many individuals, "Christmas" has no religious significance to them. 

Yet if we choose to be offended by the idea of a "Christmas tree," then is our next step to rename the menorah because it’s representative of Hanukkah celebrations? What about renaming the kinara or mkeka for Kwanzaa? ( And I'm sorry, but "O holiday tree, O holiday tree..." just doesn't seem to have the same musical ring to it.)

Sometimes, when we try so hard to change the customs and traditions of this season in order to be inclusive, we end up excluding just as many groups in the process. And at the same time, we destroy the history and tradition that these customs and names symbolize.

It is ingrained in us that Americans demand the separation of church and state. Last time I checked, though, a greeting of “Merry Christmas” and the lighting of a state or national Christmas tree has never been the government’s tactic to force Christianity on anyone. The United States still remains a country independent from the control of any religious body. Am I wrong?

American society has tried to teach me to be tolerant and accepting of others… yet where is the tolerance for me and my beliefs? I’m having a harder time finding it. Maybe we need to shed this “Scrooge-like” pessimism that turns up during this season, and instead appreciate the Christmas decorations and the festive joy they bring. Perhaps as Americans we can choose to be accepting of all the holidays being celebrated at this time of year, including Christmas.

If you choose not to celebrate any holidays this season, if you don't have any religious beliefs at all, then alright. It's your choice. I have no problem with you.

So in this spirit of tolerance and my American freedom of speech, found in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, allow me to keep and freely proclaim my reason for the season: the birth of my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Merry Christmas! And enjoy this wonderful holiday season!

"The first principle of a free society is an untrammeled flow of words in an open forum." —Adlai E. Stevenson