For posterity sake, I am writing this it is 2:55 PM on Friday, December 25 2020. This Christmas holiday came at the end of a very trying year.
I have said before that I am in my early 40s, I celebrated Christmas with my parents as a child. I longed for Christmas morning. I longed for my mom’s Bagels with Cream Cheese, Swiss cheese, bacon and tomatoes for breakfast. I longed to see what gifts were under the tree for me. And I loved being Santa handing out gifts to my family members. So you might be asking, what’s with the number 13 in the title?
I played Joseph in a Christmas pageant at a public school when I was in first grade, probably only people born in my generation and older can say that. We attended Catholic church on Christmas and Easter ,growing up , but I didn’t quite understand the meaning of it all. My parents weren’t very religious.
I became a Christian when I was about 12 or 13. I was in Boy Scouts and became my troop’s chaplain. I loved reading about the man who showed us how to be better amd how to love each other. I fell in love with The Sermon on the Mount. I don’t know if I actually accepted Him as my savior as a child or a teen. He was my teacher and He was divine. But the words “born again” and “saved” really didn’t mean much to me.
I went to Edgewood Catholic High School. It did not nothing for my faith. I was bullied, and I was treated worse by the staff at Edgewood than I ever was at Memorial Public High School. I basically was going through the motions, spiritually. But I started to believe and understand in my early 20’s, that Jesus wasn’t just a teacher, but a transformer. I realized I could not change on my own. I needed a savior to save me from myself. I needed to see the world in a whole new way. I needed to be born again with new eyes.
The Boston priest sex scandal broke in 2002 and my spirit broke as well. I left the Roman Catholic Church. I didn’t want to be a Protestant because I thought Protestants were those that were either on the street corner yelling that everyone was going to Hell or they were on TV blaming gays and liberals for 9/11 and hurricanes.”No thanks,” I said. I became an agnostic. I still thought Jesus was a great teacher but felt there couldn’t be a God who would allow people to so much evil past and present in His name.
I still celebrated Christmas as a secular holiday and a birthday, but nothing holy or special in a spiritual way.
All that changed the last week of September 2008, I was born again. I was sick of all the hypocrisy but I still longed for the connection of a loving and living God. I wrote to evangelical leaders asking about the hypocrisy of supporting policies that go against Jesus’ teachings. Of the 15 people I contacted, only one got back to me. In a 20 minute conversation, a pastor from the Saddleback Church in California explained to me that I didn’t have a spiritual home. I then felt like an outsider criticizing the banquet without actually trying to go inside.
So I walked to the nearest church to where I live, Christ Presbyterian Church on Gotham and Brearly in Madison WI. I found my spiritual home. I was welcomed in a way that I experienced only a few times before. These people were not hatred spouting bigots only talking about a Heaven in the future. They were true followers of Christ focusing on how Jesus is here with us now. How He is a transformative figure and when you let Him in your life, he protects you and builds you up. He guides you to become more like the person you were meant to be before sin entered the picture.
I reread The Sermon on the Mount.(Matthew 5:7) I also discovered Matthew 23 that described Jesus attacking hypocritical faith. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+23&version=NIV I prayed that Sunday. I prayed harder than I have ever prayed before. And on that day, I was born again.
It is hard to describe. I felt a warmth flow through me. I heard a choir singing, “Let there be Peace on Earth and Let It Begin With Me”, my favorite Catholic hymn growing up. I knew in full certainty, YES THERE IS A JESUS CHRIST! And He wasn’t just a teacher. He is divine and he wants me as one of His own. That is a great feeling, knowing you are part of a grand lineage of believers. Knowing that sin has no power and death has no sting.
I loved that first Christmas that year. I wasn’t just celebrating the birth of a teacher or a secular view of Christmas. I was celebrating the birth of a King. I was celebrating an infant that would grow up to die on the cross for my sins but also to show me how to overcome my sins, my anxieties, and my depressions. I haven’t overcome them all but Jesus and I are still working on it with the help of the Holy Spirit.
And for every Christmas Eve these 13 years, I was in awe. God did not send His son to be born from a queen or a princess, or to born in a mansion in a wealthy family. But He was to be born to a lower class working family. That Jesus was a messiah for the rest of us, one who would tear down the proud and lift up the humble.
This Christmas was the toughest of the 13. Covid was a big part of it. Not being able to be with my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ in person hurt. My church has a tradition of ending the service in darkness and then everyone sitting in an aisle seat would light a candle and turn to light the next person’s and so on until the sanctuary was filled with light.
Watching Pastor Tom Robinson, Rev. Sharol Hayner, and choir musical director Kathy Otterson light candles in an empty sanctuary made both me and my mom cry.
https://youtu.be/xOfQCmIR0y8 This was my church’s Christmas Eve Service. If you want to see what Jesus is all about, give it a try. The candle lighting starts at 56:33
And most of all, it was hard because the American Church has been co-opted. I am not speaking about all churches in America but the American Evangelical Church. They have given up serving the Prince of Peace. They serve a new orange god. Even if they turn their backs on him now, the terrible damage has already done.
They represent everything that I thought Christianity was when I didn’t believe in Jesus the Messiah King. And I wonder how many have watched Franklin Graham, Eric Metaxas, Jerry Falwell Jr, and others bow and scrape before Trump and thinks, what I used to think, that Christianity is nothing but a hypocritical sham.
Eric Metaxas and Franklin Graham. Two of the biggest disappointments in all of Christiandom. Metaxas wrote a book on my spiritual hero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who died standing up to the Nazis. Franklin Graham is the son of one of America’s best evangelists.
So on my 13th Christmas as a born again Christian, I pray that those who believe in Jesus the King, but no longer believe in Jesus the Teacher, accept the Teacher into their hearts and transform. I also pray that those who believe that Jesus is a great teacher but deny the redemptive transformative power that Jesus, the Messiah gives, accepts the Messiah into their heart.
God loves you both. He wants you both with all his heart. Christmas is a great day to start. Let today me your first true Christmas.