The Christmas Tree Tradition

By Wuhazet – Henryk Żychowski (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Back when we were in the One True Church we had two rules.  The first rule was that no one in the church owned a television .  The second was that we didn’t celebrate Christmas.

The great thing about being in an oppressively legalistic church is that you become very creative.  You get to draw upon your sanctified imagination to maintain a front of over-comer holiness on the one hand and nuanced sensitivity that works around the system to get what you want on the other.

When my wife and I were engaged, Brother Serious reached out to us to go to a local coffee shop where they could share with us their experience and wisdom to help us in our forthcoming marriage.  We met them on a Monday night.  Brother Serious sat me next to him on his side of the table.  Our wives sat on the other side.  I looked up and saw that Brother Serious had sat me and him directly in front of a television set playing Monday Night football.  I don’t think I actually learned (or even heard) anything about marriage but my wife did develop into a rather skilled wide receiver.

Some years later after the children were born, we left the the One True Church though the rules to some degree went with us.  Our Sunday school class discovered that we had never had a Christmas tree and thus no ornaments so one evening they put together their used Christmas decorations and showed up unexpected to our house caroling.  At last we could be like other families, form traditions, and even give our kids personalized ornaments for them to cherish.  One of our boy’s personal ornaments is a sparkling Christmas tree that says, “Merry Christmas, Jennifer.”

Some years later, we moved across country to the mountains where Christmas trees are grown.  We had still not gotten a Christmas tree of our own but we were miles away from the judgmental looks of the One True church.  And we had a house that was large enough to accommodate.   It was time for a rites of passage.

Everything was closed down on that Christmas Eve in our small town.  We pulled into a deserted Christmas tree lot where all the trees had been sold.  Over by the dumpsters were some discards.  We looked up the street and down.  We then flung open the hatchback, threw a discarded tree in, slammed the trunk and sped home.  We pulled into the garage, closed the door, drew the blinds, put up “Merry Christmas, Jennifer”.

And we did us a Christmas tree.

Now that the kids are grown, we stopped doing Christmas trees.   We figured that the annual ritual of decorating the house would be less work if we eliminated that one item.  Further, being the materialists we are, we succeeded in covering every square inch of our once spacious house.

But there is a tradition that stayed.  Each year, we put up an apple crate filled with hay.  On Christmas morn, anatomically correct Baby Joey appears in the crate wrapped in a blanket to represent Jesus.  Because this is the profound truth of the season.  Not a philosophy.  Not a moral code.  Not a religion.  Not a political system.

But a Person who stepped into time and space on that day two thousand years ago.  And the One faithful believers believe will one day return in the same physical and tangible way.



The Problem of Being Faithful

When I was in the One True Church, I lived in a Brother’s House.  This was where a bunch of us Christian guys lived together with a family so

By James N. McCord. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

that we could be made into godly men.  We did this by attending lots and lots of meetings and doing lots and lots of stewardships.

Stewardships are basically chores except stewardships sounds much more Biblical – especially if you read the King James Bible.  We had a notebook of index cards called standards.  Each standard gave instructions on how to do the stewardships.  Further, one of the brothers was appointed head-steward so he had the extra responsibility of checking our stewardships to see if they rose up to the standard.

If our stewardships didn’t meet the standard, we got consequences.  The purpose of consequences was to encourage us to take the time to do the stewardships perfectly in the first place by giving us even less time because we had to do our consequences in addition to our stewardships and all of the meetings.

Brother Faithful rarely got consequences.  He always seemed to joyfully uphold the standards.  He was up at five in the morning doing his Bible reading and prayer before we all stumbled out for house devotions.  He made sure we didn’t miss a speck when cleaning the bathroom sink and to finish it off by shining it up with a paper towel.  He made us sing while doing the dishes after dinner.

I, on the other hand, did get consequences.  In one case, my consequence was to work with another offending brother in taking hand-written recipes and typing them onto index cards.

To entertain ourselves, we wondered how creative we could be in our descriptions.  For example, instead of typing one teaspoon of salt, we put down one teaspoon NaCl which is the chemical symbol for sodium chloride better known as salt.  I was toying with the idea of putting in as a fake last step to the chef salad recipe to place all the ingredients in the blender and puree for ten minutes but the other offending brother reminded me such an act could result in doing consequences until Jesus returned.

One evening when the brothers returned from work, Brother Faithful was already in the kitchen making dinner.  He had a medium sized pot full of ice that he was heating up.

“What are you doing, brother?”  asked one of the brothers.

Brother Faithful showed us the recipe card and the place where the standard called for two cups of thawed ice.

We stifled a laugh, held our composure and went on our way.

I wonder if Brother Faithful ever pulled the recipe calling for three cups of condensed steam.




The Worst Sermon Ever

ehudWhen I was in the One True Church, all brothers were expected to be exercised for ministry.  What this meant was that we had to prepare a Bible message for the two weekly meetings that had an open platform – Sunday morning worship and Thursday night prayer meeting.

We weren’t given much direction.  Our leader, Brother Brother-among-brothers would tell us that we had to get on our knees before an open Bible and ask for God to speak to us.  He said that when he was young, he used to be constrained by reading commentaries and by being swayed by systematic theology instead of being taught by God.  This, he thought, led to the pitfall of lifeless ministry where one wears their Bibles on their head.  That’s what worldly denomination churches do, he said – preaching head-knowledge messages without anointing.  That is, of course, when they weren’t preaching psychology instead of the word of God.

But we were much better than that because we got messages from the Lord as we were on our knees before an open Bible like Brother Brother-among-brothers had been doing for thirty years.

There were some unwritten but understood rules on Sunday mornings and Thursday nights.  Younger brothers (which was most of us) would go first.  This way, we could be followed up by an older brother.  The last brother to go was always a leading brother – the ones who led the church.  If Brother Brother-among-brothers was in town, he for sure went last.  Or he just took the whole time.

The goal of giving ministry was to encourage the Saints and not to be talked to by a leading brother after the meeting.  Encouraging the Saints was the easy part because the congregation was conditioned to say amen a lot and they pretty much said amen to anything positive you might say about the Bible and the Christian walk if it was not phenomenally stupid.

The older brothers went later.  If they felt a need to correct, they might do so by saying the opposite of a point you may have made earlier.  Oddly enough, the congregation might have said amen to what you said and then to the correction.  If you were off , you would likely get talked to by a leading brother after the meeting.

This set up afforded me the opportunity to hear lots of different preaching – the good, the bad, and the ugly.  From the deft and inspiring to the unskilled and incoherent, we heard it all.   Some expressed a clear progression of thought that I can go back and reflect upon as when I heard it thirty years ago.  Others would get the plane in the air, lose the flight plan, and never find the runway.  On a couple of rare occasions, Brother Brother-among-brothers would ask the wayward preacher to sit down.

It was worth the risk to get up.  It was heady stuff to be a twenty-one year old having the word of the Lord for a captive, amening audience.

One Sunday morning Brother Younger-younger got up.  He was even younger than me because I had by that time graduated to possibly being the second brother up on occasions but definitely not the third.  He made a tactical error of basing his sermon on the text concerning the stabbing of an extremely overweight king named Eglon.

Apparently, that fat surrounding Eglon’s belly and the corresponding stabbing was a picture of the carnality in our life and God’s attempt to cut through our resistance to penetrate the heart.  Brother Younger-younger was up front making jousting motions saying “God wants to get to your heart!  God wants to get to your heart!”  The congregation wasn’t amening at this point but kind of had their mouth stuck between the a and the men.

But there’s more.

Brother Younger-younger posed a question to the congregation.  What does it mean that when Eglon was stabbed by Ehud’s sword that the dying king’s humongous belly created such a vacuum that it swallowed the sword so that Ehud was unable to dislodge it from his bowels?

No one answered because when someone is preaching, you really don’t answer the question they might post. But we didn’t know.

However, Brother Younger-younger knew.  He turned triumphantly to Psalm 119:11 and read, “Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee.”

You see, the Bible, also known by Christians as the sword of the Spirit, must cut through the fleshly resistance of our carnal nature and be sucked in so as to penetrate into the inner being of our heart so that we may be transformed into godliness.   Presumably this needs to happen before we die in our excrement.

Brother Younger-younger sat down yielding the floor to an older brother.

He got talked to by a leading brother after the meeting.

Pilgrims and Strangers and Church Buildings

LordsSupperParkI never was a member of a church that met in a church building.

Back when I was with the one true church, we met at a women’s club.  We prided ourselves on not having a church building.  We were like the nation Israel that were God’s called out people who were also homeless.  Cities, buildings, and permanent residence led to trouble so we thought.

This played well into the idealism of those Jesus movement days.  We don’t need no building.  Or traditions.  Or religion, especially religion.  We just had Jesus.  In those days, we could sit on the grass with our Bibles and rap about the Lord.  If someone had a guitar (or not) we would sing simple love songs to the King.  I heard of some who were out camping on the beach and had communion with slices of oranges – maybe that was taking it a bit far.

After we left this church, we found ourselves at the church of the clean feet.  This church met at a converted elementary school.  The school auditorium served as  its sanctuary.

Later, we moved cross country and joined a nice little fellowship in town that evolved into what is now the doctrinally correct church.  For the first three years, we met in a converted bus station.  Later, we obtained a Christian school building.  We met in the gym doing the best we could to keep up with the big boys with stage lights, dynamic Powerpoint, coordinated banners that matched the bulletins and the sermon’s color scheme, and a professionally mixed worship ensemble.

The vision was cast and embarked upon to build a real church building just before the nation decided to throw a recession in 2008.  By the time we reached our twenty year mark at the church in 2015, our hearts stirred us on to a small, organic, liturgical fellowship.  At this point, the expected building that promised community and discipleship had not yet come to fruition.

This week, our small, organic, liturgical fellowship met in the park for the summer months.  Apparently, liturgy travels well with a few photocopied song sheets and readings.  Some passersby joined us for the singing, a heartfelt sermon, the open free-expression prayers of the congregation, and the communion of bread and wine.

I’m not against church buildings as I may have been in my young, idealistically spiritual days.  I’m thankful for the hundreds of meetings I’ve attended that utilized the space provided.  I love sitting quietly in beautiful church buildings and cathedrals.  Space and facilities dedicated to God’s work is not a bad thing.

Some Christians have lost buildings that were hundreds of years old to terrorists.  Some in my small fellowship had been in churches that lost historic sacred places because they wanted to uphold the Bible as authoritative and their governing denomination had not.  When I was in Kenya, I heard of an evangelist who started a church with two women sitting under a tree herding their goats.

Its nice to have a place to meet.  But if we don’t, we are still the church.  What I learned in my Jesus movement days is still true.  We are the church with or without the building.