Today is the day in the United States when we set aside to give thanks and reflect on all the Lord has done in our lives over this past year.
Other countries, like Canada and Ukraine also have national holidays dedicated to giving thanks, but days of thanksgiving have a rich history in Christian groups all over the world, going back before the pilgrims held their famous thanksgiving feast in Plymouth.
In the Old Testament, God instructed his people to hold several days of thanksgiving every year: Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread in early Spring, thanking God for delivering them from slavery and for the beginning of the barley harvest; the Feast of Weeks in early Summer, thanking God for the beginning of the wheat harvest; and the Feast of Tabernacles in the Fall, thanking God for the end of the harvest season. God told them to “Be joyful at your festival…because the Lord your God will bless you” (Deuteronomy 16:14-15).
For us as Christians, Thanksgiving is not only a day we celebrate, but a way of life. Colossians 2:6-7 says: : “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”
Thanksgiving Shapes Us
Spending time reflecting on what God has done for us and giving thanks not only honors Him, it also shapes us. The Thanksgiving meal obviously shapes us into certain kinds of people: slightly rounded than we were before! But the practice of giving thanks also shapes us: the more we give thanks, the more our eyes are opened to see the things God is doing and has done – which builds our faith and trust in Him!
But what about Christmas? Does Christmas have pagan origins?
The Claims About the Pagan Origins of Christmas
Saturnalia and the Winter Solstice?
Didn’t Christians simply take over the Roman pagan festival of Saturnalia and call it a celebration of the birth of Jesus? After all, that’s why we celebrate Christmas right around the same time as the winter solstice, isn’t it?
I used to believe this one myself. However, upon further investigation, it turns out this may not be true. Here’s why:
We don’t know what time of the year Jesus was born. The one thing we know is that it was almost certainly not in late December. The reason for this is because Luke’s Gospel tells us that the shepherds were watching their flocks by night, sleeping in the fields. In Israel it gets too cold in the winter for that; shepherds sleep outside from about March-September. Clement of Alexandria wrote that some believed May 20 was Jesus’ birthday, others believed it was April 19 or 20, others still believed it was in late March. 
Early Christians also did not celebrate birthdays in the same way we do because ancient cultures did not celebrate birthdays like we do in our modern culture. Only two of the four Gospels talk about Jesus’ birth. The early Christian writer Origen dismissed birthdays as something only celebrated by tyrants, such as Pharaoh and Herod in the Bible. 
Things changed in the early 300’s with the beginning of the celebration of Epiphany, which commemorated the revealing of the Messiah to the Gentiles at the coming of the Magi to see Jesus after his birth. This was celebrated in early January in the Eastern church, not because they believed this to be the birthday of Jesus, but because of how it fit into the liturgical calendar which gave a plan for teaching through key events in the Gospels every year.
The Western (Latin speaking) part of the church wanted to have a festival similar to Epiphany, and decided that since they did not know when exactly Jesus had been born, they would have their festival of the celebration of the incarnation and the birth of Jesus in late December, before Epiphany – since the Magi would have arrived after the birth of Jesus.
Again, the decision of this date was based on liturgical calendars, not on the taking over of pagan festivals. It was considered significant, however, that the coming of “the light of the world” should be celebrated at the time of the year which is the darkest in the Northern Hemisphere. After this date, the days get longer and the darkness wanes. This symbolism was not lost on the early Christians, but rather considered to be a great symbol of the effect of Jesus’ entrance into the world.
Here’s what’s so interesting: there is a document from about 350 which tells us that Romans celebrated the festival of Sol Invictus Natali (the birth of the unconquered sun) on December 25, and that same document also tells us that Christians celebrated the birth of Jesus on this same day. There is no earlier evidence or report of a Roman pagan festival on December 25. In other words, it is just as likely that the pagan Romans chose this day for their pagan festivals because Christians were already celebrating the birth of Jesus on this day, and wanted to have their own counter-festival, than that Christians chose this day because of an existing pagan festival.
Furthermore, there is nothing particularly pagan about celebrating anything at the darkest part of year, right before the days start getting brighter. Judaism, for example, celebrates Chanukah – the Festival of Lights, in which they light candles in the darkness to celebrate God’s faithfulness at this same time of year. Pagans don’t own the symbolism inherent to the orbit of the Earth.
Are Christmas Trees Pagan?
There is some evidence that Roman pagans liked to decorate their homes with greenery during winter festivals, and that early Christians decorated their houses with greenery during Epiphany as well.
It should be remembered that in the ancient world, decorating with greenery in the winter was also common because it was bleak outside and they didn’t have Wayfair.com to depend on for affordable home decor.
Some people claim that these verses in Jeremiah are speaking about the practice of Christmas trees:
“Learn not the way of the nations…for the customs of the peoples are vanity. A tree from the forest is cut down and worked with an axe by the hands of a craftsman. They decorate it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it cannot move.
Sounds like a Christmas tree, right? Except that’s not what it’s describing. What Jeremiah is describing is the creation of a household idol out of wood. Isaiah talks about a similar practice in which people would fashion an idol out of wood, stone, or metal, and then worship the very object they had just created.
The history of the Christmas tree dates back to medieval Europe, in the 14th and 15th centuries, during which December 24 was celebrated as “Adam and Eve Day” which was celebrated with the decorating of “paradise trees” by attaching apples to them (think how much bulbs look like apples) – a rarity during the winter, so they were considered treats. Because it was winter, and especially in Northern Europe, evergreen trees were popular to use for this. 
Modern Pagan Christmas?
Perhaps of bigger concern is the way in which our modern consumeristic Christmas traditions can detract from the celebration of Jesus and the incarnation which Christmas is meant to be about.
May we, even in the joys and the fun of our modern celebrations, not lose sight of what it is that we are celebrating this season: that to people like us who live in deep darkness, a light has shone: the promised Messiah has come to save us from our sins and give us the light of life forever! That is certainly something worth celebrating.
Many Christians are under the impression that Easter eggs and the Easter bunny – and even the word Easter itself are pagan in origin. Is that true? Where do these practices come from, and is it bad for Christians to participate in them?
According to the Roman Catholic Church, All Saints Day (Festum Omnium Sanctorum) is celebrated on November 1, and is a day of remembrance for all those “who have obtained salvation.”
It is followed on November 2, by the Day of the Dead (Commemoratio omnium Fidelium Defunctorum), which is the “day of remembrance for those who have died, but have not yet received salvation, but are currently residing in purgatory.”1
October 31 is known as All Hallows Eve, the night before All Hallows (All Saints Day), AKA Halloween.
In the Protestant world, October 31 is Reformation Day, commemorating the day when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg castle church in 1517, which is generally acknowledged as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.
One of the big questions I’m often asked this time of year is how Christians should relate to Halloween.
Some common reactions:
Ignore it / Protest it. This often manifests in things like refusing to hand out candy to kids who trick or treat, turning off the lights, leaving the house, etc.
Have alternative events for people to attend, such as “Trunk or Treat” in the church parking lot, or a Harvest Festival. These are often billed as “safe alternatives to Halloween”, which implies that going trick or treating in your neighborhood is not safe. Whether this concern is for physical safety or spiritual safety is not always clear, but my assumption is that the latter is in mind.
Besides the fact that teaching children to go approach strangers’ cars to get candy out of their trunk is probably not the safest idea, these events try to create a fun fall atmosphere without the dark/evil underpinnings of Halloween.
To be clear, while many churches host fall festivals, what I have in mind here is specifically those which are held on October 31 as alternative events that compete with Halloween.
Celebrate it. Some churches straight up celebrate Halloween by having parties, etc.
A Missional Approach to Halloween
Here are a few factors to keep in mind about Halloween:
We serve a God who has defeated sin, death and the devil.
Colossians 2:15, speaking of the forces of evil, says that He (God) disarmed the rulers and authorities (evil or demonic forces) and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him (Jesus).
God has left us in this world and given us a mission, to reach people in His name. There are certain things which you can only do in this life, which you won’t be able to do in Heaven — particularly: evangelism. Jesus himself is our example in this, that he left the security and sanctity of heaven and entered into our fallen, sinful world, full of evil and darkness, in order to bring salvation to us.
This is the only day of the year, when most of your neighbors are going to come knocking on your door. The only day. This is missional gold! How can you use the unique opportunity that this cultural moment presents?
I certainly would agree with those who say that Christian churches should not host Halloween celebrations, however, I would argue that churches ought to encourage Christians to take advantage of this unique cultural moment for the purpose of God’s mission. Hosting alternative events on October 31 that take people out of their neighborhoods, therefore, is, in my opinion, unwise and communicates the wrong message — both to Christians and their neighbors.
What We Will Be Doing This Evening
Tonight, my two year old will be dressing up as a tiger. She told us last night that her name when she wears her costume is “Adventure Tiger”. We will be going out to our neighbors houses, knocking on their doors, chatting with them, getting to know them — and, as we do every year, we will be inviting them join us at to our church.
After that, we will put our fire pit in our driveway, start a fire in it, brew a bunch of coffee, and invite our neighbors to come hang out and chat, meet each other, talk about life, etc. — and we will pray and trust that God will use those conversations and relationships as inroads for us to ultimately share with them the hope that we have in Jesus.
In his second letter to his protégé, Timothy, Paul mentions Timothy’s mother and grandmother, who played a formative role in his life and his faith:
I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well. (2 Timothy 1:5)
Timothy’s mother and grandmother are also alluded to in the third chapter of that same letter:
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. (2 Timothy 3:14-15)
Here’s what we know about Timothy’s mother and grandmother:
Eunice Wasn’t Always a Woman of Faith
Timothy’s mother was Jewish, but Timothy’s father was a Greek pagan, and as a result, Timothy was not circumcised (Acts 16:1-3). This tells us two things: that at the time of their marriage, and during Timothy’s early years, his Jewish mother was not practicing her faith. Married to a Greek, she would have been “unequally yoked”, and going against Jewish custom and God’s instructions in the Old Testament that Jewish people should not marry people of other faiths.
Perhaps more interesting, is that “Jewishness” is passed down through the mother, and yet the fact that Eunice never had Timothy circumcised indicates that she was not actively practicing her faith during his childhood.
However, what we know is that Eunice at some point became a Christian and joined the church in Lystra. Paul met Timothy on his second missionary journey when he visited the church there. Timothy was likely in his teens at the time, and Timothy then left home to join Paul in his missionary work.
Eunice: A Single Mom?
The fact that we don’t know much about Timothy’s father, and the fact that his grandmother played an active role in his upbringing could indicate that Timothy’s father died or left at some point, leaving Eunice a single-mom raising her son. At very least, it seems that Timothy’s father was not involved in his spiritual upbringing since only his mother and grandmother are mentioned as contributing to his faith by acquainting him with the Holy Scriptures.
Lois as the Mom of a Wayward Daughter
We can only imagine what must have gone on in Lois’s (Timothy’s grandmother’s) life in regard to her daughter Eunice marrying an unbelieving Greek pagan. Perhaps she grieved to see her daughter not living out the faith that she had raised her to have in the God of Israel, or perhaps Lois herself had been a nominal or non-practicing Jew and had raised her daughter in that same way.
Either way, we know that Lois also came to put her faith in Jesus, and then together Lois and Eunice poured into young Timothy, introducing him to the Scriptures, taking him to church, and sharing their faith with him.
The Best Gift Mothers and Grandmothers Can Give Their Kids
We don’t know what kinds of birthday presents Lois and Eunice gave young Timothy, or if they ever took any family vacations, or if they ever bought Tim a pony or an iPhone. The one thing we know is that they gave him the most important gift a mother and grandmother can give to their children and grandchildren: a knowledge of the Word of God, and a heritage of modeling what it looks like to love him, obey him and seek him. This is what changed the trajectory of Timothy’s life.
On this Mother’s Day, may I encourage you mothers and grandmothers that whatever good gifts you give your children and grandchildren, the very best gift you can give them is to point them to Jesus.
Teach them the Word of God. Present Jesus to them in all of his goodness and beauty. Explain to them how you came to surrender your life to him, and why you love him. Help them to see Jesus and his gospel as the most desirable, wonderful, source of joy and hope – as he indeed is!
I never thought I would be a New Year’s resolution type of person, but over the years I have learned a few things about myself and about New Year’s resolutions that have changed my mind.
Here are some quick statistics for you:
One study shows as few as 8% of people accomplish their resolutions.
However, that same study shows that people who make resolutions are as much as 10x more likely to achieve their goals than people who don’t.
People who make resolutions are as much as 10x more likely to achieve their goals than people who don’t
In a way, the New Year is a strange holiday. We aren’t celebrating a grand event in the past which changed the course of history, as we do at Easter or Independance Day. We are not celebrating the birth of a great figure as we do at Christmas or Martin Luther King Jr. Day. We are not celebrating a class of people as we do on Labor Day, Veterans Day or Mothers Day. All we are really celebrating is that the Earth went all the way around the sun again; which we could theorertically celebrate any day of the year. We have gotten to the end of our calendar, which begins on an arbitrary date.
However, I have come to greatly appreciate this holiday, because it gives us something to measure time by. And albeit slightly contrived, it does give us the sense of a new beginning, a fresh start.
On my desk in my office, I have a book stand, and on that stand is a notepad. For the past 2 years, I have been writing down several goals for the year, ranging from personal goals, to items related to my marriage and family to ministry and prayer topics, which I would like to see come to fruition in that coming year. Then for the rest of the year, I leave that notepad right there, always in constant view, so that I see it every day when I sit down and get to work.
The reason I started doing this was because I read somewhere that goals which get written down are much more likely to be accomplished. I think there’s more that goes into accomplishing goals, but that’s a good start.
Over the past 2 years that I have been doing this, I have been amazed how at the end of the year, almost all of the things which I wrote down have become reality. 2016’s list had about 20 items on it, and at the end of this year, only 2 of them remain unrealized. Those items will be rolled over into 2017’s list, but even those are not to be considered failure, as having them on the list for the past year led to them being topics of prayer that I brought before God almost daily and asked for His will to be done.
The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps. (Proverbs 16:9)
Why You Should Make New Year’s Resolutions:
If you set a goal and write it down, you are 10x more likely to do it than if you don’t.
If done right, it can guide your prayer life and help you to see and rejoice in God’s faithfulness.
If you set God-honoring goals, planning and working towards them are acts of faith and obedience to God.
Setting goals which you cannot accomplish on your own keeps you on your knees and dependent on God, pushing forward and asking Him to do great things.
How to Actually Accomplish Your Resolutions:
Without a strategy, your resolutions will likely only remain a good intention, and we know what those pave the road to… This Forbes article points out that the huge difference between “intentions” and “decisions”: stating that most people don’t follow through on intentions, but they do follow through once they’ve actually made a decision.
This year one of my goals is to run a half-marathon. Rather than just writing it down, I’ve also gone online, picked out the race I want to run, signed up and paid for it, and signed up for a training program. Whatever your goal is, don’t let it remain only a good intention, make a concrete plan for how it is going to become reality.
Use Your Calendar.
Time is kind of like money: you’ve only got so much of it, so you’ve got to budget it. Be strategic and schedule things that are important to you into your calendar. If you want to pray and read the Bible more, scedule it into your day. If you want to spend more time with your kids, schedule it into your day. If you want to read or write more, schedule it. You can still be flexible, but at least having it on the calendar will give structure to your days and keep your on track towards your goals.