Sunday, December 22, 2013

Crazy About Christmas

My heart is racing. My palms are sweating. This is way more intimidating than any public speaking assignment I've ever had. I don't think I've been this nervous since childbirth.

What am I doing? Making plans to attend my first Christmas Eve service since leaving the Churches of God. 

Whether you've been out of the COGs for a while and wonder what's the big deal, or are in the COGs and are disgusted by the previous sentence, I am pretty sure almost every reader out there is silently wondering, "Are you crazy?". 

Yes. Absolutely. Making peace with decades of COG programming and learning to see Christianity through a new lens is driving me totally mad, especially this time of year. Ironically, several friends and family members who ridiculed my decision to leave the COGs hinted that a desire to fit in during Christmas factored into my thinking. 

Nothing could be further from the truth. I don't fit in, and, frankly, I just wish December were over. This first Christmas season out of the COGs has caused me more anxiety than my family and friends will ever know. They would say it is because, deep down, I know Christmas is wrong. I would counter that it's the stress of coming face-to-face with decades of programming and cognitive dissonance about Jesus Christ in the COGs.

I've heard the first Christmas sermons and sang the first carols of my life in the last few weeks. You know what's been unbiblical about them? 

Nothing. 

The worst I can say about my church experience so far is that I'm not a fan of all the Christmas trees, although many claim that the symbolism has its roots in Christianity, not paganism. And, to be totally Biblically accurate, they need to remove the wise men from nativity depictions and songs, since they didn't arrive on scene until much later. But I don't expect evangelicals will scrub their cherished music any more than the COGs will eliminate their teachings on the modern identity of the tribes of Israel, even though genetic research has totally debunked the theory. To each his own spurious tradition, I guess.

A funny little story about altering songs. We were singing a Christmas hymn at church the other week about the angels who sang over Bethlehem, and I couldn't shake the feeling that I already knew the melody. Turns out that UCG borrowed the tune and completely rewrote the lyrics. If you're curious and have a UCG hymnal, turn to hymn 161, "From the Realms of Unseen Glory,", then look up "Angels from the Realms of Glory" on YouTube. It's the same, note for note. I've known the COGs to change a few words from time to time, but never an entire song. I thought it was wrong to Christianize anything with potentially pagan roots! Especially anything to do with Christmas. But I digress.

Every COG article criticizing Christmas focuses heavily on the holiday's materialism and on parents who lie to their children about Santa. Well, there has been no mention of Santa at my church. I'm not saying there aren't parents there who perpetuate the myth, but the church certainly isn't propping it up. Materialism has been discouraged from the pulpit, unlike at the Feast of Tabernacles. And increased discussion of the Biblically factual account of Jesus Christ's birth has not distracted from His death. Every message leads back to the sacrifice He made for each and every one of us.

But the Bible doesn't tell us to celebrate Christ's birth, you say. Well, no one would need to tell you to celebrate if you won the lottery. Receiving the gift of eternal life by grace through faith in Jesus is much, much better than winning the lottery, and the Bible does tell us to give thanks for that (1 Corinthians 15:57). There cannot be a death of our Savior without His corresponding birth. 

And it's not like the COGs don't have extra-biblical traditions. I'll bypass discussion of the man-made practice of taking up an offering on all seven holy days (instead of three times a year as the Bible states) in favor of something a little more touchy-feely. Where is the Blessing of Little Children mentioned in the Bible? It's loosely based on the scriptural account where parents brought their children to Jesus, but Mark 10 doesn't mention a date or occasion on which children should be blessed. The COGs have established this tradition on the second Sabbath after the end of the Feast of Tabernacles (except for the those COG groups that hold their blessing during the Feast so rogue grandparents can't bring non-member grandkids). Church leaders have done nothing wrong in creating this man-made tradition. Besides, of course, the COG leaders who have used it to further divide families, an increasing by-product of life in this religious community. Their actions are shameful.

But blessing children is not a man-made worship tradition, you say. Ok, what about holding opening night church services at the Feast of Tabernacles? That's a worship tradition. As are the multiple services some COG groups hold on other annual holy days. Where is that mentioned in the Bible? Only one holy convocation is prescribed per sunset-to-sunset time period. No extra worshiping God beyond what Sinai commands, or you are in big trouble! 

I've always wondered how the Jews got a pass for creating worship traditions at Hanukkah since it's nowhere to be found in the law. COG pastors have told me Hanukkah is kosher for Christians (pun intended), yet it's not commanded anywhere in the Bible. Still, we know Jesus was at the temple during the Feast of the Dedication, another name for Hanukkah (John 10:22-23). If extra-biblical traditions are wrong, then Jesus should have been nowhere near the temple at that time. Well duh, you say. The Jews created the celebration to commemorate a miracle God performed for His people centuries earlier. 

Ahem. Was Jesus' conception and birth a miracle that would bring great joy to all people (Luke 2:10-11)? Has there been any greater miracle in the history of, well, history? And Who do you think put Him there? If that wasn't God's intervention in human affairs, then I don't know what is. 

I suspect the main reason we in the COGs rarely discuss Jesus Christ's birth, besides anti-Christmas programming, is that He does not play a very prominent role in our theology. Yes, His sacrifice made our forgiveness and salvation possible. But in COG theology, our actions going forward from that initial point of forgiveness are the means by which we maintain our salvation.  As a result, we focus on our works, and Jesus Christ becomes like a spiritual debit card we swipe when we slip up and sin. He becomes the gate code we enter to have our prayers accepted by the Father. We take him off the shelf at Passover, then more or less put Him back and leave Him there until the Feast of Trumpets. This marginalization of Jesus is alarming when you consider He Himself said He was the way, the truth, the life, and the only way to the Father (John 14:6). That He is the door to salvation (John 10:9). The Vine to which we must be actively connected to grow (John 15:5-6). 

In contrast, evangelical Christians believe the Bible teaches salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8-9). That they are saved by the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross (John 19:30, Hebrews 10:10). That the debt of their sin - past, present and future - is cancelled at the moment God justifies them, declaring them righteous in His sight (Colossians 2:13-15). That the righteousness of Jesus Christ is credited to them when they renounce any faith their own goodness and place their full faith for salvation in Jesus (Romans 4:4-5, 2 Corinthians 5:21). Good works and a transformation of the heart should increase as evidence of justification, but this is not linked to our justification, that we might boast (Ephesians 2:9). Understanding the magnitude of our debt that has been forgiven through Jesus Christ's sacrifice naturally results in placing a higher value on the praise and worship of our Savior (Luke 7:47), something the COGs neglect, I fear, to their peril. 

I'm not trying to convince you to keep Christmas. I am only trying to show you that rehearsing a Biblically accurate account of the birth of our Savior is appropriate for Christians. Angels rejoiced on that night, and they had no skin in the game. How much more should we, the redeemed, join the angels and shepherds in praising God and giving thanks that He entered the world?

Uncomfortable with focusing on Jesus' birth in December? I totally understand. I'm not super warm and fuzzy on that point either. Still, people who are a lot smarter than me believe the date has merit. I know it's pretty close to the winter solstice, although it's not on the solstice itself. The COGs have emotionally linked solstice worship to anything that goes on in December and early in January, even though there's only one actual solstice day. If proximity to the solstice taints any gathering where family and friends share meals, fellowship and offer extra praises to God, then the COG splinters have some explaining to do about their various Winter Family Weekends. On the other hand, maybe they've read Romans 14:14 and know that nothing is inherently unclean. Yes, the verses that immediately follow it discuss food, but the ones that precede it specifically mention esteeming specific days.  

If December freaks you out, pick another time to to read about Jesus' birth and give thanks for that miracle. Or don't pick a day at all - instead, do it every day (Romans 14:5-12). Thankfully, our salvation doesn't depend on determining proper dates for Jesus' birth. It doesn't even hinge on whether Pentecost was on Sunday or Monday, or Passover is on the 14th or 15th of Nisan. Good thing, since the Jews have changed their calendar a bit since Sinai. We are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8), not through keeping holy days on the right day, or keeping them at all.

There is no day of the year on which it is inappropriate to read the Bible, praise Jesus Christ, or give thanks for the birth that made His sacrifice possible. It is programming and false guilt, not logic, that make contemplating Christmas so nerve-wracking for me. If God has declared me to be righteous in His sight (Romans 3:21-22), whom shall I fear?  I am grateful beyond words for what Jesus did for me every day of the year, whether that day is February 21, July 18 or December 25, and there is no wrong day to express that. 


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It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; ) Acts 17:11
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13 comments:

Anonymous said...

For 13 long, arduous, tearful years I strained to both keep enough of the Mosaic Law to keep from being tossed alive in the Lake of Fire, and maintain my marriage, to a wife who believed nothing of Armstrongism.

Two periods of the year were especially trying, Feast of Tabernacles and Christmas, for all the understood reasons (at least understood by those with “unconverted” spouses).

In 1995 I was able to leave Armstrongism and re-affirm my earlier beliefs in salvation by unearned grace. I was able to return to my mainline Protestant denomination, and resume functional roles in that local church.

But to this day I suffer from PASSD, Post Armstrongism Spiritual Stress Disorder. It’s extremely difficult to suppress. I no longer believe that my (or anyone else’s) salvation rests upon adequate (whatever that was) adherence to Jewish and Armstrong perceptions of selected portions of Mosaic Law. But as the poster here has touched upon, the celebration of Christmas still has private and personal difficulties.

Is it wrong to celebrate Christmas? If angels can celebrate the event, so should real Christians. But the ominous threat of losing one’s salvation by the merest mis-steps or law-keeping inadequacies imposed by the Armstrongs, Hoeh, the ministry, and all the church literature seared themselves on my brain. I’m still wrestling with all of it, in what I’ve designated as the PASSD mentioned above.

One extremely helpful experience has been my study of the CD, The Star of Bethlehem. I am a retired biologist, with training in earth science. I know science well, and this CD’s wonderful presentation of star and planetary arrangements at the birth of Christ, as computed by modern astronomy programs, was able to allow me to finally dump the multiple Christmas falsehoods imposed by Armstrongism. I will not review or describe in detail any of the revelations of the CD here; only to mention that they are all substantiated to the most minute detail by the now-known movements and alignments of stars, planets, and constellations in the years surrounding the birth of Christ, as viewed by knowledgeable scholars of the heavens at the time, the magi of the East.

The Armstrongs, Hoeh, and all the rest, had virtually everything wrong about the birth of Christ. As it happens, Catholic and Mainline Christianity have it very accurately, in concordance with real history and astronomic alignments of the period.

Examine the text info here:
http://www.bethlehemstar.com/

Once again I’ll be playing my trumpet with the organ for several Christmas carols at both the early and midnight Christmas Eve services of my local Protestant Church. Time and again my scarred Armstrong memories and thoughts will cause me to fearfully question what I’m participating in. But today, I have an authentic Biblical understanding of The Advent. And each year I’m able to more honestly rejoice and be thankful for how God the Father made all of this happen.

All of us who continue to battle Post Armstrongism Spiritual Stress Disorder are in my daily prayers. Oh, that we might fully rejoice, casting aside the toxic and contrived Armstrong doctrines that so nearly destroyed the spiritual life of my family and myself.

Merry Christmas, Believers.

–John of Ohio

xHWA said...

Very touching testimony, John. I relate to your PASSD. (Great phrase, by the way. I hope you don't mind if I use it.)

Hearing from you really lifted my spirits. May your progress in the unearned grace of God continue fabulously!

Merry Christmas and God bless - to you and yours!

Martha said...

John,

What an encouraging blessing to read your story tonight! I am so sorry for what you had to endure during those long years. It's wonderful that you came back to grace, but it's a shame that you (and others) are still haunted by the PASSD Armstrong echoes. I pray that you were able to bring praise and glory to God in your services today with a joyful heart absent of false guilt.

We just returned from our Christmas Eve service. It was beautiful and surprisingly anticlimactic for me. For several months, and especially the past month, I had built it into something so negative in my mind. I think even my Armstrongist relatives would have had difficulty criticizing it, save the trees on stage and the fact that we were gathered on December 24.

I look forward to further exploring the Bethlehem Star site, thank you so much for recommending it! I'm thankful for resources that help us lift the veil of ignorance Armstrongism created in us. This Christmas season has been one of just coping and internalizing the fact that giving thanks for Jesus' birth does not condemn us to the Lake of Fire. I am hoping by next year we will be able to celebrate with more joy.

Thank you so much for sharing, and Merry Christmas!

Anonymous said...

Feel free to use the PASSD phrase. It would be good to get it into general usage and understanding by those of us who wrestle with it.

And so tragically, perusing Armstrongists who encounter the phrase will so self-righteously and arrogantly think to themselves (well, probably not—they will “share” their spiritual insights with other Armstrongists, saying), “Well, if that guy thinks he’s got Post Armstrongism Spiritual Stress Disorder now, just wait until he has the stress of being tossed into the Lake of Fire, where he so deservedly belongs.”

Do you suppose many of the Armstrongists pray daily for our “restoration” and “repentance,” and “recovery,” in the manner of the shepherd and his one lost, found, and recovered sheep?

In the hundreds of sermons I endured in the WCG I can never recall a single one instructing us how to connect with and help restore the righteousness and membership of departed members. Instead—as with us—they were all regarded as enemies of the Living God (well, Herbert W. Armstrong) and were to be shunned, avoided, and discarded.

There were so many really fine, otherwise innocent people in the WCG congregation I left in 1995. Nary a day passes that I don’t sincerely pray for the spiritual enlightenment of these people, hoping that they, as did I, could come to a Biblical understanding of how one pleases God, and attains eternal life with Christ.

I struggle (I think now successfully) with suppressing thoughts of anger and resentment against the ministry that imposed upon me and the congregants the wounding and scaring doctrines of the Worldwide Church of God, the self-serving heresies of Herbert W Armstrong and his colluding compatriots.

Time and again, while listening to instructive sermons, I privately came to the conclusion, “Now that can’t be what that scripture really means. How does he see that?” But my eternal life depended on seeing things exactly the way HWA and ministry did. I utterly feared (with consequent tears) being sinfully wrong. I discarded reason and biblical scholarship to save my hide. I deluded myself into trying to believe ever more so the unique doctrines of the church.

Post Armstrongism Spiritual Stress Disorder, PASSD is being wrestled with and being conquered. I pray that all who deal with it will come to joyful and thankful salvation.

And I continue to pray for those who chronically wrestle with all forms of ASSD, Armstrongism Spiritual Stress Disorder. It’s the psychological (sometimes psychiatric) debilitation confronted chronically by those who still hold the original and derived doctrines of Herbert W Armstrong.

For 13 years I had ASSD. It’s now PASSD.

–John of Ohio

Anonymous said...

Great story! I was a second generationer, in for about 30+ years, out for at least 10. Well, this year, driving around town, I always have my XM radio on, and they always have a classical station that plays only Christmas music. One evening I felt thunderstruck with the realization that almost ALL of these beautiful hymns/songs have one clear message: Hope, love and unbounding joy that we DO have a Savior and He came here for us! After almost 50 years I got it! I got the message of the carols! Ever since, I freely sing all the ones I know the lyrics to, and listen intently to the words of those I don't. Such beautiful music!

Dillon said...

Since birthdays are sinful, why did the angels celebrate the birth of Christ? Why did they rejoice? Since angels know all of Scripture, won't they have boycotted rejoicing at the birth of Christ at the manger? Shouldn't God have said,"Angels, since Tammuz's birth was celebrated every year, we should not celebrate the birth of My Son."

Penny said...

Thank you Martha and everyone else, for bringing into focus the experience of the season for those who have not yet embraced the New Covenant. It was a pivotal moment for me as well when I read with my own eyes that the angels in heaven likewise rejoiced at His birth. As has been said, they dwell in the very sight of God. That moment brought tears to my eyes, knowing how important it was to God.

Anonymous said...

Hello

I struggle too. I am alone as far as being the only one called and torn. It seems cogwa does not focus on those who are saling silent solo. I am suppose to be excited about fot etc...but am not because I am away from family...not with. But then you are challenged with am I being true and must give up family..just thinking these days. Why only baptized members can celebrate passover? I am fearful more than joyful...which makes me sad in numerable ways as in have I lost the holy spirit.

Any insight appreciated.

Kid in the corner in class

Baihleyg said...

Hey Martha,

Thank you for this; for your honesty especially. I grew up not celebrating Christmas because it was "not biblical, and pagan" and my parents and siblings still feel this way. But in the last year I've been researching more and more (your site has been very helpful!) and as I warm more and more to the idea of celebrating it (with my soon-to-be fiancé and his family) it still is an anxiety-ridden emotional experience. It helps to know that it's not abnormal to feel this way--that it's not an indication necessarily that the guilt and fear stem from "it's because I know deep-down that it's wrong," like you said.

Martha said...

Baihleyg,

Thank you so much for your kind words! I'm so glad this site has been a help to you; it was a blessing for me, too, back when I was in your shoes.

I'm excited for you but I understand your anxiety. Keep reminding yourself that feelings are temporary. And give yourself permission to feel them. Enjoy yourself, but don't feel like there's something wrong with you if there are times when you're not having fun. Or can't relate to everyone else's warm feelings and nostalgia. Don't feel foolish if you don't understand someone's traditions. There are some silly traditions, and that's ok! But it's ok to giggle at them, too, even if it's silently.

Since you're about to be engaged (and congratulations in advance!), consider trying to create a new tradition that's totally your own with your fiance. It can be silly and totally unrelated to gifts or trees or anything. It could be a special snack, or a midnight walk, or a silly string fight, a board game contest, anything! Those are the kind of things you will remember best years from now.

A wise man I know whose initials are xHWA 😉 told me that it takes about five years to totally leave behind the anxiety. I think that's about right - this is my fourth Christmas and it is probably the first I have really looked forward to it. I'm sad that I can't share it with my extended family, and that things get awkward with us this time of year, but that's about the only negative thing I feel anymore. You will get there, too. I'll be praying for you over the coming weeks. Merry Christmas and God bless you!

baihleyg said...

hey Martha,

Gah, I'm having trouble posting comments it seems! I'd replied to this a few days ago, but it doesn't seem to have gone through. I'll email you :) Thank you so much for your kind words. God bless you!

xHWA said...

Baihleyg,

Blogger has been very odd lately with the comments. Well, with a lot of things. They were/are doing changes to the system behind the scenes. Might have something to do with it. I can tell you that I don't see a comment from you at all, whether waiting for approval or accidentally caught in spam. Sorry about the difficulty!

baihleyg said...

Ah, I see. That's ok! I'll keep trying to post 'em, and if it doesn't work I'll know it's Blogger, and not me being totally inept ;)