Saturday, December 31, 2011

Reflections on the Change of Years and Time

For all our days pass away under your wrath;
we bring our years to an end like a sigh.
The years of our life are seventy,
or even by reason of strength eighty;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.
Who considers the power of your anger,
and your wrath according to the fear of you?

So teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom.
Return, O LORD! How long?
Have pity on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
and for as many years as we have seen evil.
Let your work be shown to your servants,
and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
and establish the work of our hands upon us;
yes, establish the work of our hands!
(Psalm 90:9-17)

What a thing time is. We are fully in time. We cannot escape time. It will continue to go, and we cannot stop it. As much as novels fantasize about time travel, we can never go back and redo our actions. This moment passes and does not return. 2012 comes and 2011 will never be again. It will be on the history books, and what was done was done. Things may be forgotten, but the effect of those things will live on into the future, and we certainly cannot add things, as much as historians try. 

Psalm 90, as well as Ecclesiastes and other places in the Bible, brings out the finiteness of our earthly existence. We have perhaps seventy, maybe even eighty years; perhaps twenty. It is easy to forget that in the active life of today, where our culture wants to distract us from our helplessness, and our "science" want to make it seem like we are invincible and one step away from being immortal. But we must all die! I like to remind people that everyone who fought in the Civil War died. In fact, everyone who lived in 798 A.D. also died. Death is a powerful means to make us realize our finiteness and the seriousness of time. Time is ticking away at this moment, and you have decided to use this precious time to look at my blog, and you will always have spent this time looking at this blog. You cannot change that. 

For the last five weeks I have kept a careful schedule of my time, and it is amazing how much I have, how much I can do, and how much I don't do. Did I really spend that much time watching that movie? Did I really check the news that much? Was that worth it? It is humbling to realize where the time has gone, and where we have spent it. And the longer I live, the saying of "to whom much is given, much is required" comes to mind all the more. Did I invest my time in worthwhile things? Did I spend enough time with other people? Did I enjoy God with that time? Did I use what God had given me, or did I bury it hoping to save it for another time? (Did I just use that word again?) 

The issue comes down to whether the time was vain, or if it was fulfilling and meaningful. Moses, the writer of Psalm 90, is keenly aware of this fact, and calls for God to come in fellowship, to return, to not stay away, because without God, not only are our years short, but they are "but toil and trouble". Moses cries out that God would "Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days." Oh! That our days may be full and satisfied! Then we may rejoice. We may write great musical compositions, epic poems, and beautiful books. We may make good and beautiful food, and we may feast, love, and work with a glad heart. We can do these things because they are worthwhile and purposeful when they are done to the glory of God and as ways to enjoy Him. Without God, the work of our hands is not established, and is vain and meaningless. "For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind." (Eccl. 2:26)

So as we enter the new year may we remember several things. First, time passes and soon 2012 will also be finished, never to be again. Second, only God is God. We are finite, must die, and have a limited amount of time to spend. Third, we will be accountable for every moment of our life, "For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil." (Eccl. 12:14) Fourth, while life is vain without God, and while we should soberly number our days to "get a heart of wisdom", when God returns and gives us His steadfast love we are satisfied and fulfilled. The work of the Lord will be shown, and the work of our hands will established. We can celebrate and find meaning in our actions. We can cultivate beauty, love, joy, and excellence. We can "rejoice and be glad all our days." Let us fill our short time on earth with that which is meaningful, that which is found in our relationship with God.

"Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart;
for God now accepteth thy works."
(Eccl. 9:7)

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Fire of Christmas

Behold, see the fire crackle and snap 
Its hot, glowing fingers burst forth and wrap 
Around the wood and its dark blackened face 
The flames dance, vanish, and twist in their place

Around this bright wonder the people sit 
Hardly aware that they all stare at it 
Laughing and talking of both life and dream 
As shoes dry and steam in the fire's gleam 

Above this wonder the stars shine around 
Below and past them the snow's on the ground 
The distant fiddle, the joy in the air 
To these blessed folks, their vigor doth share 

Why is there peace when the dark is unknown? 
Why is there joy when the cold cuts the bone? 
Why do these people all love, laugh, and play, 
While the wet and wind prevail all the day? 

This wonder is caused by blood that Christ shed 
While we were dark, cold, bitter, and dead 
The Winter fled from the flame of His light 
And as King leads us to vict'ry and might


P. S. I wrote this poem the evening of the 10th. Can anyone guess at what real-life location I was picturing myself while I was writing it?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Christmas Tree, An Idol?

It is Christmas time, and that apparently means it is time for another round of the Christmas debate. While not all of you might be aware, there is a debate between those who think that Christmas is a pagan holiday and those who think that Christmas is a Christian holiday. I do not have time to make a "in defense of Christmas" post, but this year I want to make a few notes on the tradition of the Christmas Tree.

That the pagans did worship trees is not disputed. But if we say that because pagans worship evergreen trees, we cannot have Christmas trees, we run into some problems. Are we saying that because a pagan might have a picture of a natural scene and worship it, we cannot have a picture of a natural scene and marvel at God's creation? Are we saying that because many modern day materialists might worship houses and cars, that we should live in a cave and ride a bike? Many pagans do worship things like trees, rocks, flowers, etc… But doesn't stop from God from using His creation, including evergreen trees, in very many illustrations, symbols, and examples.

"The trees of the LORD are watered abundantly, 
 the cedars of Lebanon that he planted." (Psalm 104:16)

"I will be like the dew to Israel; 
he shall blossom like the lily; 
he shall take root like the trees of Lebanon; 
his shoots shall spread out; 
his beauty shall be like the olive, 
and his fragrance like Lebanon. 
They shall return and dwell beneath my shadow; 
they shall flourish like the grain; 
they shall blossom like the vine; 
their fame shall be like the wine of Lebanon.

"O Ephraim, what have I to do with idols? 
It is I who answer and look after you. 
I am like an evergreen cypress; 
from me comes your fruit." 
(Hosea 14:5-8) 

"And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?" (Matthew 6:28-30) 

Also look up Job 38-41. We even see almond blossoms used as decoration in the Temple (Exod. 25:31-35). I am not saying that evergreen trees cannot be used as an idol, and I am not saying that there are not times when having a Christmas Tree could be a stumbling block. If you are living in a culture (like ancient Germany) that worships evergreen trees and views them as sacred, then cutting down a few on your land and tuning them into firewood might be better. This goes back to Paul's discussion on food offered to idols in 1 Corinthians 8. Symbols do mean things, and you do not want to damage the conscience of the weaker brother. We have a right to eat food offered to idols, because idols are nothing, "But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak" (1 Corinthians 8:9). So if I was evangelizing a culture that worshipped evergreen trees, I would probably not have a Christmas Tree, "lest I make my brother stumble". But I would teach the true way to view an evergreen tree, and I would hope that 1300 years later that Christians would be able to used God's creation for His glory.

"I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing." (John 15:5)

"Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates." (Revelation 22:14)

[Note from 2023:]

I wrote this post twelve years ago, and I thought I would update it with a couple quotes on the origin of the Christmas tree, including a reference to Martin Bucer, a Reformed pastor you can learn more about from this blog post and this two-part lesson series
The Christmas tree as we know it seemed to emerge in Lutheran lands in Germany in the sixteenth century. Although no specific city or town has been identified as the first to have a Christmas tree, records for the Cathedral of Strassburg indicate that a Christmas tree was set up in that church in 1539 during Martin Bucer's superintendency. (Frank C. Senn, Introduction to Christian Liturgy, 2012)
The modern Christmas tree, though, originated in western Germany. The main prop of a popular medieval play about Adam and Eve was a 'paradise tree,' a fir tree hung with apples, that represented the Garden of Eden. The Germans set up a paradise tree in their homes on December 24, the religious feast day of Adam and Eve. They hung wafers on it (symbolizing the eucharistic host, the Christian sign of redemption); in a later tradition the wafers were replaced by cookies of various shapes. Candles, symbolic of Christ as the light of the world, were often added. In the same room was the 'Christmas pyramid,' a triangular construction of wood that had shelves to hold Christmas figurines and was decorated with evergreens, candles, and a star. By the 16th century the Christmas pyramid and the paradise tree had merged, becoming the Christmas tree. (Encyclopedia Britannica, "Christmas Trees")
There is something obviously natural about decorating with evergreen branches and trees in the winter time when so much else is dead or drab. In addition to this, we can use it to remember the birth of Jesus, who was born that he might bring life to a world under bondage to corruption. He came to restore fallen man to that life once symbolized by the tree of life, a symbol that appears again at the end of the Bible in Revelation. Jesus is himself the source of eternal life to all who partake of him.