We just heard the story of Stephen, the first Christian martyr who died for his faith.
Audrey was looking for bulletin cover material, and this is what we decided not to use:
Getting stoned for a simply preaching a sermon is pretty intense persecution, if you ask me. But, as a follower of Jesus, I guess he expected it, because Jesus said,
“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Matthew 5:10-12.
Fast forward to present day.
Every year at Christmas, we all receive Christmas cards from political leaders and businesses, and we all are bombarded with ads to go and buy stuff. But recently, if you listen carefully, it’s quite interesting to see who uses the word “Christmas”, such as “We are wishing you a Merry Christmas!”, and who uses a more generic greeting with the word “Holiday” or “Season”. Examples include “Happy Holidays!” or “May the Spirit of the Season fill you with all the good things you can imagine.” Or something awesome like that.
Historically, most people in Canada have identified themselves as Christian, so the word “Christmas” was acceptable. Now, we are a little more diverse, so people are a little more cautious to use that word. I understand that.
But what’s really funny is that some people who identify themselves as Christians get really excited and worked up about people not using the word Christmas. We see posts on social media about keeping Christ in Christmas, and Jesus is the reason for the season, and most of them involve bearded guys from Duck Dynasty (please, Christianity needs better spokespeople than the Duck Dynasty dudes). Some people have even called it a War on Christmas. And it doesn’t really happen up here in Canada, as we’re a little more chill, but In the States, there are actually efforts to boycott the stores that don’t use the word Christmas. And much of this is rooted in this idea that Christians are being persecuted for their faith.
Very bluntly, claiming persecution because people don’t use the word Christmas is a bunch of hogwash. Stephen having rocks thrown at his head? That’s persecution. Listening to an ad on the radio wishing me a safe and happy holidays? Not so much.
So why do some of us care so much about cards and advertising at Christmas? Why are some of us so quick to claim persecution when clearly we’re not in jail, our lives aren’t at risk, and we still receive charitable tax receipts when we give money to our church?
Father Thomas Keating, an American monk, describes three “programs for happiness” which are all a part of our inner landscape. The apostle Paul calls them the “old self”. Some theologians call it “the false self”. Whatever we call them, they are deep within us.
Our need for security and survival.
Our need for affection and esteem.
Our need for power and control.
These programs of happiness are sometimes hidden so deep within us that we often don’t see how they are driving our actions. In the pursuit of happiness for ourselves, our family, our “tribe”, we often seek these programs, and often at horrific costs.
Do you see Christmas commercials in there?
Our need for security and survival. If we can’t use the word Christmas, we’re doomed!
The need for affection and esteem. If I don’t hear the word Christmas, do people not like me because I’m a Christian?
The need for power and control. Who’s protecting my rights and privileges?
Ah… So the conflict really isn’t over Christmas advertising. The conflict is over our souls. Well, now those Facebook posts make a lot more sense, don’t they?
And these programs for happiness are inside all of us. Christian, atheist, “none”, liberal, conservative, rich, poor… All of us.
When we believe that happiness comes through power, control, affection, esteem, survival and security, we’ll probably do all sorts of well meaning things to get that happiness.
Like stone people.
That was a leap, wasn’t it?
But maybe not…
Here’s the story on Stephen. He was chosen to serve food to the widows in Jerusalem. Between feeding the hungry, and new people choosing to follow Jesus, this Jesus movement was gaining steam. The religious and political leaders felt like they weren’t in control anymore, so they worked very hard to get Stephen killed. And after Stephen called them stiff-necked and accused them of disobeying the law, they dragged him out of court and killed him.
Stephen struck a cord with them. He named their programs for happiness, their need for power and control, their need for affection and esteem, their need for security and survival. He was a threat to their happiness, so they eliminated him. I guess they could have just boycotted his store and signed an online petition, but the rocks were really handy.
It’s often easy for us to distance ourselves from rock throwers or religious fundamentalists… We’re not like that. But when we start thinking of it in terms of defending our programs for happiness, I wonder how different we really are…
The following is an conversation between Donald Miller and his friend Tony, in the book Blue Like Jazz. I read it 10 years ago, and it has still stuck with me.
“It’s terrible,” I told him. “In the Congo, two and a half million people, dead. In one village they interviewed about fifty or so women. All of there had been raped, most of them numerous times.”
Tony shook his head. “That is amazing. It is so difficult to even process how things like that can happen.”
“I know. I can’t get my mind around it. I keep wondering how people could do things like that.”
“Do you think you could do something like that, Don?” Tony looked at me pretty seriously. I honestly couldn’t believe he was asking the question.
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
“Are you capable of murder or rape or any of the stuff that is taking place over there?”
“So you are not capable of any of those things?” he asked again. He packed his pipe and looked at me to confirm my answer,
“No, I couldn’t,” I told him. “What are you getting at?”
I just want to know what makes those guys over there any different from you and me. They are human. We are human. Why are we any better than them, you know?”
Tony had me on this one. If I answered his question by saying yes, I could commit those atrocities, that would make me evil, but if I answered no, it would suggest I believed I am better evolved than some of the men in the Congo. And then I would have some explaining to do.
“You believe we are capable of those things, don’t you, Tony?”
He lit his pipe and breathed in until the tobacco glowed orange and let out a cloud of smoke. “I think so, Don. I don’t know how else to answer the question.”
I wonder what we would do if we had stones that were readily available? Are we that different from anybody else? What are we clinging to that gets us riled up?
I had a fascinating conversation with 2 remarkably self-aware teenagers 2 weeks ago, and they asked me a question. They noticed something in their lives that, when they saw it, felt the hatred rise up in them. In my opinion, they had good reason to be frustrated, but they didn’t want to let those feelings consume them and dictate their attitudes and actions.
Remarkably self aware high school students. They’ll turn out just fine as adults.
My response was that often, we come at life with fists clenched. We’re holding on to something, we’re defending something , we’re clinging on to something. It could be our possessions, our programs for happiness, our need to be right, our anger, our desire for revenge. The first part is naming our clenched fists. And the second part is opening them.
I think the spiritual life is actually one of opening our hands before God, of letting go, of “slowly relaxing the tension which squeezes your hands together and accepting our existence with an increasing readiness, not as a possession to defend, but as a gift to receive.” (Henri Nouwen in Open Hands)
read a great book a decade ago (A New Kind of Christian, by Brian Mclaren) that says churches are really good at telling people what to do, but often do a terrible job at doing it with them.
And so, today, we’re going to spend a few minutes unclenching our fists…
If you’re able to, sit up straight and put your feet flat on the floor.
Think back over the past week. When you get to something that caused you frustration, that made you angry, clench your fists.
I am so afraid to open my clenched fists!
Who will I be when I have nothing left to hold on to?
Who will I be when I stand before you with empty hands?
Please help me to gradually open my hands and to discover that I am not what I own, but what you want to give me.
And what you want to give me is love – unconditional, everlasting love.
As you let go of what you’re clenching, slowly open your hands as if you’re receiving a gift. A gift of unconditional, everlasting love.
(Thanks to Henri Nouwen and Garth Friesen for this prayer).