When I was a boy, Christmas Day did not last for merely a day. Rather it lasted until I returned to school. I guess it began when dreary November gave way to December and with it, the appearance of the Christmas tree at our home, the real one which emits that familiar fragrance only that species of Fir can emit - the fragrance of Christmas joy with presents wrapped in cheerful paper together with a ring of fallen pine leaves slowly accumulating at the base of the tree, itself decorated with fragile glass baubles, strings of tinsel, and small chocolate Santas. Then those Christmas lights, wonderful when all illuminating together but one hell of a curse if one of the bulbs blows!
But the sheer excitement was at daybreak after a sleepless night, when the call came and I found myself rushing from the bedroom to the lounge where all the presents appeared as if by magic overnight. Dressed in pyjamas, the thought of washing my face and dressing in day clothes were as far from my mind as the South Pole is from the Sahara Desert. This was around 1960, give or take, when on that particular Christmas morning, I rushed into the lounge to find an electric train circuit already laid out on the main dining table. Over it stood my Uncle, Dad's elder brother, expecting me to make the bee-line to the miniature railway, and failing to notice the stack of wrapped presents piled nearby. As if fulfilling his expectations, he began to deliver his lecture:
Now, if you had a box of sweets just here, and you took one sweet after another, what would you be left with?
An empty box? I answered, nervously at this apparently huge man.
That is right. You'll be left with an empty box. Now these batteries are just like the sweet box. Use up the electricity and the batteries will lose their power. Now just one circuit.
I switched on the control and the train started to move, and rolled effortlessly until it was where it started.
Now switch off.
You don't play any more on this until later!
As to calm the situation, Mum intercepted by lifting the pile of other presents and holding it in front, with the words:
Hey, don't forget all these.
One of the brightly wrapped parcels revealed a Lego building set, which took up much of the morning and sufficient enough to take my mind off the forbidden train set.
Although my Uncle's intentions were good, his attitude with the train set and its batteries did not endear my heart to him. Fortunately, the Lego building set saved the day and with it we all had a very good Christmas. But after my Dad's brother and his wife left our house to return home, yes you've guessed it. I was all over the train set, and once alone in the house, while Mum and Dad were both at work and school was still out, I deliberately left the train set racing round the circuit while I went out to the shops, not just to test the endurance of the batteries, but also to spite my absent Uncle. There it is. The law, meant to benefit my well-being and my parent's finances at the same time, instead brought out the reality of sin, kicking up a rebellion against this R.A.F. Warrant Officer.
Christmas is meant to be a time of joy, the giving and receiving of presents, to remind each other of the love between family members. Surely, there can't be anything more exhilarating for a father than to watch his son's eyes sparkle with excitement as he races to rip off the wrapper and shouts with exuberant joy as his gift is revealed. Then watching away the hours as the youngster keeps himself fully engaged with his gift. A sense of accomplishment for the Dad? Isn't that is what Christmas is all about, rather than arguing over the socks his wife had given him, or about a jumper he wouldn't be seen dead in, or for that matter, having a row over what to watch on TV or whose turn it is to do the washing up? I guess that's the reality. As soon as pandering to self starts to creep in, sooner or later the atmosphere will be spoilt when anger follows.
But the point is this. When a parent gives something to his offspring for Christmas (or for any other occasion) it is a demonstration of love. And that is regardless on how the recepient behaves afterwards. As far as I have ever known, I never had any present withdrawn as a result of poor performance. Neither have I known anyone else losing their present, nor have I ever heard of the keeping or withdrawal of a gift on the basis of behaviour or attitude. The gift is an expression of one's love, and surely this cannot be more manifest between husband and wife, especially if the gift is gotten at a great expense. If our own experience has anything to go by, I love my wife dearly and she knows it. Would she then go for another man just because I love her so dearly? The question is, can she do what she wants, knowing that my love for her would not fail? Yes she can. But would she? That is something very different. If I make such a suggestion, she would take offence. Whenever I leave her alone in the house to go to work, I never have to ponder on what she is up to at my absence.
But just suppose she was unfaithful, how would I respond? Would I divorce her, and separate myself from her for the rest of my life? That depends on how much I love her. If divorce is inevitable, then this shows a performance-based love. That is, my love will flow only if she walks the right way. But if I found that I love her anyway, regardless of her behaviour, how would she re-act? Chances would be that my love and acceptance of her would touch her heart for life, and never want to act that way again. That is grace!
I'm not merely pulling stories out of the hat here. Throughout adult life I have personally known two husbands who were unfaithful to their wives by each sleeping with another woman. One wife had kicked her unfaithful husband out of their home and has dissolved their marriage. But the wife of the other guy had forgiven him, and she stayed with him. As far as I'm aware, their marriage remains robust. Real love covers a multitude of sins, with himself loving his wife with a greater fervour than before.
Maybe this could be the reason why such a large percentage of the population don't attend church, nor accept the Bible as authoritative. They perceive God's love to be a performance-based, and not much good at that either. There is even a line of thought among the churches that natural disasters such as the Indian Ocean tsunamis which wiped out countless thousands exactly ten years ago was God's judgement on sin. Such a reasoning does not draw anyone's heart close to God at all, but does instill fear of punishment, and with the distant feeling which matches exactly the relationship between my Uncle and myself in 1960, which was manifest at his funeral in 1998, when I showed respect for his widowed wife's sake, but inwardly felt no sense of loss.
And as I write this blog, there has been some consideration lately whether I want to remain at my local church, the place I call my spiritual home. This has developed due to a strong dislike felt towards me by another person in our church. This guy from London believes in a pretty miserable and truculent God, who I have no desire to follow, let alone worship. This is a direct result of Probational Salvation, or Conditional Security. Perform, perform, perform, or there is a danger of Hellfire. In fact, according to this Londoner, at the Judgement I could well be one of many who will stand outside crying, "Lord, Lord" of Matthew 7:21. I have been told by him that I was wicked, deceitful, blind, wilful, and have driven some out of the fellowship, and many more have complained about me to him (but no one came to me.) So what was this great evil I was so guilty of? Oh yes, showing affection to other men by hugging them.
Yes I agree to a certain extent that there were a few who, over the years, I was insensitive. And to one of them I have apologised. That was several months before he left the church altogether. But according to this brother from London, it was I who drove him out, along with his family. But that did not seem to be the case, as they stayed on long after I made the apology. Rather they left our fellowship because they did not feel right about worshipping God at a racecourse, a national venue for gambling. This kind of attitude is quite common among those with a Pentecostal upbringing, from which this family came.
Why have I "washed the linen in public" so to speak? To show how effective this "Conditional love" can have on our perception of God and with others. This Londoner's God is perceived by him as thin-skinned, critical and judgemental towards all those who don't walk the straight and narrow. No wonder he sees me in exactly the same way. How you see God is how you treat others. However, through prayer and insight, my intention is to be less insensitive, and show a greater respect for the right of others. In the weeks to come, I'll see how that works before I may even consider leaving.
But here is the point. I could never be drawn to a God whose love is conditioned by performance, which includes holding faithful and abstaining from sin. The trouble is, we sin all the time. For example, am I sinning against God by eating pork? I eat pork nearly every day. Or wearing a woolly over a cotton shirt? (Leviticus 19:19) - Or even failing to grow and keep a beard? (Leviticus 19:27) - "Oh," you may say. "The death of Christ on the cross has dealt with all that, we are no longer under the Law." Perhaps not. But what if I were to say that before I married, not a few times I embraced a homosexual and held him tight in my arms. "Ah! Now that's different," I hear you say. Then out comes a quote from 1 Corinthians 6:9, saying that all homosexual offenders shall not inherit the Kingdom of God. Never mind that this verse is taken out of context, and Paul was discussing about saints taking disputes to unbelieving magistrates. Rather in my case I have crossed a line between not growing a beard and giving comfort to a gay man, and receiving comfort from him too. No sex involved, instead just locked in a tight embrace.
And all this would make a very interesting scenario if Jesus Christ would be around today. To those who believe in Conditional Security, Jesus would strike dead the two of us locked in a tight embrace, and send us tumbling into Hell, while giving commendation to the family who thought that worshipping at a racecourse was wrong and unholy. Ditto with the poor guy not wearing a tie in church, but to the one smartly dressed, he will reserve for him a place in Heaven. What a load of tosh all this is!
Rather, I believe in the Jesus who would heartily embrace a homosexual man, who would socialise in a tavern, who would talk to hard-core gamblers at a casino, to the down and out in scruffy clothes, to the smoker and heavy drinker. I'm sure he would find himself at home at an A&E of a city hospital, giving hope to the drunken yobs who were caught in a street brawl. In short, God so loved the world.
These are the very people the Lord laid down his life for, to atone for all their sins. This is the love that wins the heart, making the follower wanting, in his own will, to cease from sin, and not by instilling a fear of punishment. This is the love that shines so bright, that all his own righteousness becomes less than nothing by comparison. It is a love that draws, which brings a response.
Like the child with a new toy. That's why I believe that giving of gifts should be done at other times of the year as well as at Christmas. Let the parent demonstrate his love for his son or daughter. Giving a gift is the same as God giving us the gift of salvation, fully free and totally without merit, but with much love. Unconditional love, without the threat of taking the gift away if the child misbehaves. Sure enough, I do believe in discipline, but that should always be for the child's own good, and not to satisfy the lust for revenge. The thing is, the lad can tell the difference.
And so a self-righteous pharisee in our fellowship has been a heavy burden to my soul. In no way could he edify me by his methods. Sure, I give my insensitivity a think-over, but he could never muster love in my heart, because he has no love in himself for God, for himself, or those like me who happen to walk a different path. So I was left with no alternative but to throw his heavy yoke off my shoulders, because it was hurting my heart. And that's how tragic on how the world sees the church. They don't stay away because they are so evil and wicked. They stay away because they cannot see love, only judgement, hypocrisy and self righteousness.
Oh, for the love of Christ to shine in us so brightly, all our fears and doubts would melt away, and be as excited over his gift of salvation as the young lad with his Christmas present.
Happy New Year!