Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Counsel for a Father Who Is Looking to God to Help Him Lead His Family Out of Household Observance of the Feast Day of the Nativity

When a head of household, comes to the conviction that the religious observance of a feast (or feast day) of the nativity is unwarranted in the church, he sometimes comes to the further conviction that it is also not pleasing to God in his home, or an appropriate shepherding of his family's souls. 

This is especially the case if he is one of those blessed men who understands that what is profitable to his family's souls is not so much what he himself does, but which God alone can do. He understands that the reason that we do what we do is not that it somehow mechanically benefits the eternal souls of our dear ones, but because we are entirely dependent upon God to bless it to them. And therefore man's wisdom in application takes a distant, back seat to God's wisdom in prescription with regard to what we do for family discipleship.

From time to time, I receive an inquiry (in this case a prayer request) from a man who is already convicted about religious observance, and has begun to come under the conviction about family observance. Today, I took time that I did not really have for "only" one household's benefit, to give counsel at greater length—in hope that it might be used to benefit many households. And, of course, the strengthening, gladdening, and maturing of one household has a reinforcing benefit to the body as a whole (cf. Eph 4:11–16, 1Cor 12:18–26).

Note well (n.b.!): this is not intended or expected to convince who have not gotten there by Spirit-powered sitting under the Word in secret worship, family worship, or especially(!) preaching in public worship. Yet, such as are not convinced are welcome to read and see if the Lord may help them, while understanding that it is really "someone else's mail" as it were.

The following is my advice to a father whom the Lord is already bringing to conviction and is looking to the Lord for wisdom and grace for how to carry it out, and how to communicate it to his family. May the Lord bless it to you, as well, gentle reader.

When things have been so deeply meaningful, it's hard to let go of them without wistfulness or resentment—and then what happens in the heart negates the honoring of God or spiritual benefit that we were hoping for in the action!

This is a road that our family has traveled. I'm a little ashamed to say that conviction by itself didn't do it for us, but God was patient, and He also gave hindsight that might help a brother.

For us, the thing that He most used to help us was when the 25th fell on a Lord's Day, a few years into His opening our eyes to see what a supreme treasure we have in Him, and therefore what a superlative treasure we have in His day. So, on that year, we tried to do our family traditions on the Saturday and the Monday. But sandwiched around the Lord's Day, those traditions came to be exposed as so much less, as well as—and more importantly—a completely illegitimate way to "celebrate" Christ. I think we may have tried to "do Christmas" one more year after that, but that was the year it died. 

So, I wish I could say that we had been able to come to that conclusion as a couple (the oldest child was 4 or 5 at the time) just through discussion and conviction, but it took such a gentle, patient, merciful providence from God to do it. How good and glorious is our God and Savior!

And, due to His wisdom in how He brought us into it, I can confirm from experience what it looked like to grow out of other aspects of "celebrating" that we were able to grow out of—or at least able to see what "growing out" of them would look like. I hasten to add that we are still very much growing in these areas. BUT, it is important to grow in these areas, lest we justify "keeping the high places—just for monuments, memories, and traditions, but not for worship" as it were. I hope that sounds as hollow (even wicked) to you as it does to me. To me, it seems to border upon irrationality to think that we can keep "in a secular way" that which was formerly religious. I don't even necessarily subscribe to the idea that anything at all in the Christian's life can be done "in a secular way."

One thing to say here about God's prior use, in people's lives, of what they have done at the time of the holiday or in the name of the holiday. God's past, gracious blessing to them was not "because" of their observing a feast of the nativity but "despite" it! We don't have to think "this must be a good thing to do because God blessed me through it." And we don't have to think that we are denying that God has used it for good, just because we are coming to realize that what we were doing was actually offensive to Him. The God of grace works graciously in our lives—even through things in which our good (mixed!) intentions are so confused, by unbiblical thinking, that we don't realize just how greatly we offend Him in what we do. This ought to be a motivation to repentance (since He is so gracious and has genuinely done good to us through these things) rather than an invitation to reluctance (as if we will somehow lose the good that He has previously done by admitting the bad that we have previously done). 

That was a good lesson for us, because the Lord had indeed been so gracious to us in our "nativity feast" celebrating through the years, and we certainly didn't want to deny that He had done us that good, or that He wasn't doing others good (despite themselves) in their continuing observance of it. This also helps to mute any hostility of spirit toward those who continue to observe (since God Himself is being patient with them) while maintaining strong hostility toward their observance (since God Himself is so offended). Of course, God is perfect in His simplicity, and we are not, so we must be vigilant in guarding our own mind/heart in both of those areas.

Generosity. It is so much better to make generosity a way of life with one another, with each trying to afford one another whatever comfort and enjoyment possible—and especially whatever true comfort in God and true enjoyment of God that He might be pleased to use us to give to the others. This transforms the fellowship of the home and is how a household ought to be (I'm increasingly convinced that this is what is meant in various NT uses of "church in the house," although for many years I read it according to what we were learning about the house church movement in China at the time). Also, we began practicing frugality as a family with the intention of being able to be generous in big moments in other people's lives (baby showers especially, for covenantal/presbyterian reasons!), and in response to great providences from God in our own lives.

Celebration of the incarnation. Our Lord gives HIMSELF to us in the celebrations that He has appointed (namely Lord's Day and Lord's Supper, the only NT instances of the actual adjectival form of kurios, as opposed to using the genitive of the noun to indicate possession). Though a man might multiply ways to "celebrate Christ," or join with billions in history to do so in just one great way, he can never "give Christ to himself" by his inventions. It is this awareness and reality that the Lord's Day and the Lord's Supper bring us into more and more, as the Spirit comes in almighty power to bless to us what the Lord Jesus appointed. How marvelous—HOW MARVELOUS—in those two contexts to know as a great and true and experiential fact "God the Son is giving Himself to me in this, and (turning our attention to God Himself in genuinely experienced fellowship) "You Lord are giving Yourself to me right now." To receive His love and reciprocate it and have your heart enlarged with praise and melting in it... when He Himself is blessing what He Himself has commanded to give you Him Himself... 

Family. There is no greater fellowship than worship. And there is no greater worship than public worship. One thing you have already begun to experience is what a blessing God's plan for family worship is. And the more worshipful it is, the more we find fellowship in it. There is nothing so intimate as offering oneself to the Lord. And there is nothing that builds horizontal fellowship so much as doing that together. How great is the family bond, when family worship is more than a ritual of exercises, with each one seeking actively to offer himself/herself to the Lord in the singing, offer himself to the Lord in the praying, offer himself to the Lord in the reading and teaching. This is one reason we separate catechizing out to before the worship time and save discussion (other than timely questions) for after the worship time. While there are several things in this letter that we have only just tasted and have much work to do in, this is one that I can thank God for having richly blessed to us. We have a great fellowship in the home, because worship is the primary/greatest fellowship in our home. And this extends to public worship. Our children don't crave to sit with others in the public worship, because we feel that public worship together is the highest fellowship that we have in this life (see today's H@H in Isa 38!). Even higher than family worship. The more this happens, the less you depend upon the 25th of December. 

Church family. This is also true for church families. One thing that many in our congregation still need to grow out of is this idea that socialization time is "fellowship time." It's actually the lesser fellowship that we have. Public worship is fellowship time! This comes home especially in those service times that are less well-attended. The evening worship (sadly, we still do not have this here, but there are some who take advantage of it as much as we can, without our elders coming to the conviction needed to call a service). The prayer meeting (one of the great intimacies in worship is literally joining our hearts together in calling upon His Name). These tend to be great bonding times in public worship. And then especially at the Lord's Table, where we enjoy our fellowship with His body and fellowship with His blood as those who are members of Him and of one another. This is one of the great benefits of weekly communion: there's so much growing for us to do in attending well upon the Lord in His Supper that when we give ourselves to it in a biblical fashion, we find that "practice makes glorious" and that when the bond of fellowship receives layer after layer of this glory on a weekly basis, it surpasses by far any other merely human bonding. An annual time of "Christmas spirit" has no chance of holding a candle to that weekly time of communion with the Lord and with one another in the Lord.

Extended Family. This has been a difficult one for us, due to distance. But one way that we have tried to navigate it is to schedule times each week that we call each part of the extended family. This reinforces bonds over time, gives us an actual participation in their lives, and communicates to them that even more than taking the time that the rest of the world gives us to spend upon them, we actually make the time on our own to spend upon them. Our execution on this one has not been great, especially with siblings/cousins/etc. We only ever really got it going with parents/grandparents, and one elder from our first congregation who is as much a father to me and Heather as our own biological fathers. I'm not sure that nearer distances would make a difference for us. I just don't take the time to do anything other than ministry and family these days; I'm not sure that I would be able to do so for extended family things if distance made it plausible. 

There is nothing wrong with memorial days for particular providences, attached to that day. But when doing away with idolatry days, it is much better to take anything that was beneficial in them, and find the way that the Lord has actually ordained to give us that benefit (which way will always be superior), or a way to take that which was beneficial in an annual way and bring it into the constant flow and rhythm of the real life as it is lived. Whatever was in "the Christmas spirit" that was good is something that we are commanded and called to in the whole of life, and we need Him Himself for it constantly. And according to the weekly rhythm that He has established in the gospel, where His grace has abounded much more than in the thrice annually rhythm of the time when salvation was sparse and confined almost entirely to one nation.

I write in such detail not to say that every detail is the "right" thing to do, but largely in hopes that a window into our thinking and our experience may help you as you think through things with your dear wife and then discuss with your children.

One word of counsel when it comes to presenting: because of how deeply held the attachments are, it is helpful to emphasize how the Lord actively gives Himself to us in the things that He has commanded. The joy and power of this will hopefully come home to any who know and love Him. I've had the sad experience in ministry of trying to help in this way only to find that the Lord Himself, and His giving Himself to us Himself in reality, is not so much to them as the system of things they think, the intensity of the feelings to which they can attain, or the list of things they do. Truly there is no greater legalism or binding of conscience than manmade religion (those who invent religious days for themselves will claim that Rom 14 or Col 2 refer not to those religious observances that God Himself had previously given and now obsoleted, but as if any man may invent any day and observe it to the honor of the Lord). But the Lord has also given the very happy experience of seeing believers come into a whole new maturity and enjoyment of Him in the simplicity of what He has commanded. There is no greater liberty of conscience than to discover that God alone is the Lord of the conscience, and seeing them come out into the light and breath and freedom of actually laying hold of Him in the way that He has given Himself. And that way is in His Son, by His Spirit. Glory! Hallelujah!

I apologize in advance if anything above is muddled/unclear. I hadn't originally intended to reply at such length. So, I'm not going to take the time just now to revise anything. And I even recognize that you only asked for prayer, so this little tome is unsolicited. But, I do hope that you will find it helpful. And, since there are others who are in a similar place to you, I hope that it will be useful to them for me to throw this onto my blog as well. Perhaps that can be edited/revised/improved/updated later.

No comments:

Post a Comment