January 2017

The Lectionary readings for Sunday have been about John the Baptist proclaiming the arrival of the Messiah and the need for everyone to repent.  Repent means to change one’s mind, to go in a different direction.  Jesus also begins his preaching by talking about the need to repent.  I have often heard repentance being understood as being sorry for your sins, and that is partially what it means, but there is much more to it than that.  It is a fundamental recognition of how our mind- what goes on inside our head- is the key factor in our spiritual life.  Through meditation we begin to purify our mind and recognize when we are stuck in unwholesome thinking patterns, or when we are stuck in negative mental states like sadness, anger, or fear.  The Apostle Paul stated this even more dramatically when he writes in Romans 12 that we need to renew our mind through transformation, or literally our mind needs a metamorphosis.  This is achieved through what the early church fathers called silent prayer or contemplation and is now taught in many hospitals and corporate employee training classes.  They usually call it meditation.  It is found in  all the major religions.  As I like to say, meditation is the treadmill for our minds.

There is a website called liveanddare.com by Giovanni Dienstmann which gives weekly emails about meditation, or what Dienstmann calls self-mastery.  I wanted to share a few things he lists as benefits he has found since he has logged 7,000 hours of meditation.  He says that the skill that is mastered with meditation can be equated to a PhD in happiness.  Meditation brings benefits in four levels, physical, mental, emotional/psychological, and spiritual.  Dienstmann goes on to give his own personal changes that he has experienced through meditation.  First is less reactivity.  There seems to be no more automatic reactions.  Regardless of what happens in the outside world, if an automatic reaction comes up in his body or mind, there is immediately a pause or space right before it.  And there is a clear choice of either going with the reaction or just staying quiet.  Secondly, he has a fearlessness, confidence, and inner strength.  There is a feeling that he can always accept anything that the present moment brings, and the ability to make something good out of it.  This allows him to be more in control, less anxious, and less worried.  Meditation gives you the confidence that you are larger than your demons.  Thirdly is willpower and focus.  The core exercise of meditation is to constantly be aware of what is going on in your mind, and directing your attention as desired.  So the muscles of self-awareness get exercised regularly in the sitting practice of meditation.  Fourth, happiness of meditation is free, always accessible, and never gets boring.  When the mind is calm, and one-pointed, we have access to a happiness inherent in ourselves.  It depends on nothing external, is more long-lasting, and it doesn’t get old.  It’s like being happy for no reason.  Being well in your own skin, in all times and places.  Dienstmann says before taking on meditation, his dominant mood was that of restlessness and anxiety.  Now, years later, his dominant mood is a sense of energetic presence, peace, and contentment.  Meditation has removed almost all of his psychological suffering.  He no longer has negative self-talk, and he can’t remember the last time he felt sad, depressed, anxious, fearful, or bored.

This new year I once again encourage you to repent, change your mind through meditation and realize the countless benefits to your life.  My own understanding and practice of meditation has led me to believe that this is the foundation upon which St. Paul’s admonition is given in Romans, “be transformed by the renewing of your mind, then you will know what is the will of God.”

Pastor Joel

December 2016

Christmas Myths Revealed 

If you are like me, you find it entertaining to see how things change, and how the retelling of stories over time can distort the historical events. You may not share my interest in this so this is a spoiler alert, as Jack Nicholson kind of said, “can you handle the truth?”

Boxing day is for boxing up gifts for return

Lots of people have never heard of Boxing Day. Those who have — and who know it falls after Christmas — often think it’s a day designated for boxing up any gifts you don’t want, don’t like or can’t use, and taking them back to the store. Nice as that may sound to anyone who’s used to receiving bum gifts, unfortunately it’s completely wrong.

Boxing Day is Dec. 26, and it’s a celebration that takes place only in a few countries. It started in the United Kingdom during the Middle Ages as the one day of the year when churches opened their alms boxes, or collection boxes, and doled out the money to the poor. Servants were also given this day off to celebrate Christmas with their families, having had to work for their bosses on Christmas Day .

The holiday changed over time. In the years leading up to World War II, blue collar workers such as milkmen, butchers and newspaper boys used the day to run their routes and collect Christmas tips from clients. Today, in certain countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, Boxing Day is a day when certain sporting events are held, namely horse races and soccer matches. What that has to do with alms for the poor — or boxes — is another mystery

Decorating Trees Has Always Been a Christmas Tradition

One of the most beloved Christmas traditions, especially in America, is decorating a Christmas tree. Most people think it’s been around, well, forever. But the Christmas tree is actually a pretty recent holiday tradition. German immigrants brought the tradition here in the mid-18th century, yet 100 years later it still hadn’t really caught on. In fact, it was downright controversial. The New York Times wrote an editorial against the practice in the 1880s, and when Teddy Roosevelt was president in the early 1900s, he railed against cutting down trees for Christmas, saying it was a waste of good timber. The tradition, needless to say, has become quite popular..

Three kings visited Jesus shortly after his birth

Gaspar (or Caspar), Melchior and Balthasar, three kings from the east, are said to have traveled a long way to see Baby Jesus, following a freakishly large, bright star and hauling gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh along with them. Alas, according to the Bible this is yet another Christmas miss, despite the presence of a trio of king figurines in all nativity sets.

The Bible says magi came from the east, following a big star, and that they were looking for the King of the Jews. But magi are wise men, not kings. And the number of and names of the magi are never detailed anywhere in writing. Further, the Bible says the men arrived when Jesus was a young child, not an infant, and they found him at home with his mom — not in a manger in a stable.

Scholars believe the men were likely astrologers who arrived a year or more after Jesus’ birth. Because three gifts are listed in the Bible, scholars also say it’s possible that over time, people assumed this meant there were three men. The myth of their names emerged later, after a mosaic depicting the magi was created in the sixth century. The mosaic, housed in the Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy, contains the names Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar.

Santa Claus, St. Nicholas and Father Christmas Are All the Same

This is a tricky one. The three are definitely different, yet sometimes can be considered the same. St. Nicholas was a fourth-century Turkish bishop who spent his life giving money to the poor, and it’s said one of his favored methods was secretly leaving money in people’s stockings overnight. Nicholas died on Dec. 6, and was eventually proclaimed a saint. Thus, Dec. 6 became known as St. Nicholas Day. Various cultures celebrated by instructing their kids to leave out stockings or shoes the night before so “St. Nick” could fill them with gifts like fruit, nuts and candy.

By the 16th century, Europeans were turning away from the idea of St. Nicholas, yet they loved the gifting tradition. So St. Nick morphed into a guy named “Father Christmas.” First mentioned in 15th-century writings, he was a partying dude associated with drunkenness and holiday merrymaking. In the U.S., St. Nick became Kris Kringle. Father Christmas and Kris Kringle generally brought gifts on Christmas, not Dec. 6. When Dutch settlers began emigrating to the U.S., they brought with them stories of St. Nicholas, whom they called Sinterklaas. Soon Sinterklaas became Americanized as Santa Claus.

By the 20th century or so, all of the Father Christmases, Kris Kringles, etc. became “Santa Claus,” uniformly depicted as a round-bellied, white-bearded old guy who brings gifts on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Yet some people around the world, namely Christians from European countries where St. Nick was a beloved hero, still celebrate St. Nicholas Day on Dec. 6 by setting out shoes or hanging stockings the night before. So while Father Christmas and Santa Claus are definitely now one and the same, St. Nicholas is still a toss-up, with some people recognizing him as a distinct individual and others lumping him in with the other gift-bearing men.

Abbreviating Christmas as “Xmas” is Sacrilegious

Don’t take “Christ” out of Christmas! That’s the rallying cry of many Christians, who become quite frantic over what they view as sacrilege — removing Christ’s holy name from the important holiday, and replacing it with a simple X.  But if we take a closer look, writing “Xmas” isn’t  necessarily a slam against the Son of God. Far from it. The word “Christ” in Greek is written “Χριστός.” Notice anything familiar? The first letter is “X,” or chi. Chi is also written as an X in the Roman alphabet. Rather than being an offensive abbreviation for Christmas, “Xmas” is actually a quite logical nickname.

Jesus Was Born on December 25

If Christmas is the celebration of Jesus’ birth, and Christmas is always on Dec. 25, then Jesus was born on Dec. 25, right? Nope. No one knows for sure when Jesus was born. The Bible mentions neither a month nor a date. Yet while Jesus may have been born on Dec. 25, it’s highly unlikely, at least according to Biblical interpretations. Here’s why.

First, the Bible mentions that during Jesus’ birth, shepherds were in their fields. But it’s cold in Bethlehem in December, and nothing much grows in the fields, so shepherds sheltered their sheep around that time of year and stayed inside. The Bible also says Mary and Joseph were traveling to take part in a census. But back in Jesus’ time, censuses were normally held in September or October — after the fall harvest, yet before the harsh winter made travel difficult.

Finally, while Easter was celebrated by the earliest Christians, Jesus’ birth wasn’t considered a special day until about the fourth century, when the church wanted some kind of celebration to take the focus away from the winter solstice celebrations favored by the pagans. Voilà — the church proclaimed Jesus’ birth date as Dec. 25.

Pastor Joel