Do They Celebrate Christmas in Heaven?

As a pastor, I get asked a lot of questions that I cannot directly answer. Some questions have no known answer. I suppose other questions have answers that are beyond our comprehension.

Across the years I have been asked a few questions repetitively, such as “where did God come from?”, “where do our pets go when they die?”, and “when will the ‘end of time’ occur?” I have learned to quickly but kindly respond that there are no dogmatic answers to these inquiries.

However, this year, on at least three occasions I have been asked, “Do they celebrate Christmas in heaven?” This is a new question for me. While this question fits in the same category of “does not have a dogmatic answer,” I have reflected on this question within the framework of my imagination, and realize that my proposed response may be more pastoral than theological.

Whatever heaven is like, I tend to think that the residents do celebrate Christmas. Now, I am aware that there are theological problems with such suppositions. For example, inhabitants of the earth operate on linear time, and are subjected to aging and deterioration. Residents of heaven seem to live in the realm of eternal time, which has no beginning, no end, and no lapse.

The fact that December 25 is our designated day to celebrate, and not the actual date of Jesus’ birth, is also problematic for those who are not willing to make the imaginative leap toward envisioning a Yuletide celebration in heaven. Nonetheless, my hunch is that they likely celebrate Christmas in heaven. Here’s why:

First, I think there is a perpetual atmosphere of celebration in heaven. So why not celebrate Christmas? The gospels tell us that the angels in heaven rejoice when a single “lost sheep is found” (Luke 15:6). Therefore, the inhabitants of heaven must receive a least a few news flashes from earth. And if Christ followers on earth are celebrating Christmas, it seems that to some degree a corresponding celebration would occur in heaven.

Second, heaven is a place of ultimate worship. The Bible indicates that believers from across the ages are singing, “Worthy, worthy is the Lamb!” (Revelation 5:12). When believers around the world gather locally to worship, I envision that we are not alone but are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). Especially during Advent and Christmas, when we worship, I can imagine that the great host of witnesses joins us when we sing, “O come let us adore Him, Christ, the King.”

Third, (and I know this sounds a little hokie to some) Christmas would be a great time for a reunion of the original cast of the nativity. Can you imagine Mary, Jesus, wise men, shepherds, angels, other visitors who were not specifically named in the gospel accounts, gathering to recount that historic night? They might even note how different the actual event was from the sanitized “manger scenes” of contemporary lore.

There’s a fourth reason I think they celebrate Christmas in heaven. Although the Son is said to have been present with the Father before the foundation of the world, Jesus was physically born into the world on the first Christmas. I grew up singing, “The Birthday of the King.” So in my prospectus, I can envision Christmas in heaven being the ideal time to gather around a huge cake and celebrate Jesus’ birthday.

And finally, Christmas would be a great time for a reception for new residents in heaven. Maybe that perspective is influenced by my Baptist upbringing…you know, we Baptists will host a fellowship for almost any occasion. But, think about this: A local mortuary in our town, like many around the country, had a candlelight service earlier this week for the families of those who lost loved ones this past year. I would like to think that on the other side of the bridge leading to eternity, the Hospitality Committee in heaven is hosting a party for those who have recently arrived.

Yes, I know it is theologically speculative to suppose that they celebrate Christmas in heaven. However, the Bible does affirm that heaven is a place where all things are made new. “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” Revelation 21:4.

There are other biblical clues that indicate heaven is a place of social interaction, familiar acquaintance, and festive rejoicing. But most importantly, if heaven is indeed a place where there is no more sadness, then our loved ones who have preceded us in death are not looking over the banister of heaven, overwhelmed by the grief of their departure from earth. Of course, it is not that they don’t miss us. It is more like they now have a new perspective on the eternal reality that “is,” while we live more with the longing for “what shall be.”

So this year, when you see that empty chair at the table, or miss that familiar voice around the Christmas tree, it’s okay to grieve and think fondly of the one who is missing. Just don’t stop there. Imagine the chair they now occupy and the landscape where their voice is now heard. Go ahead and dream of what it must be like to celebrate your first Christmas in heaven.

And to better prepare for that occasion, practice, by celebrating Christmas right where you are.

(Barry Howard serves as senior minister at the First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida.)

Don’t Let Darkness Eclipse Your Christmas Joy

On Monday evening December 20 as I was watching the twinkling lights on our Christmas tree, I heard the tv news anchor say something like, “tomorrow could be the darkest day in 372 years.” He sure had my attention.

As the story unfolded, the camera shifted to the meteorologist who began describing the pending Lunar Eclipse and how such an eclipse would not occur on the day of Winter Solstice again until 2094.

The shortest day of every year occurs on December 21 and is called the Winter Solstice. Since it is the shortest day, it is also the day with the longest period of darkness. The Earth’s axial tilt is at its furtherest point from the sun, allowing the least amount of daylight to reach the earth.

This year the darkest day of the year was even a little darker because the earth was positioned at just the right location between the moon and the sun for the earth to cast a shadow over the moon, meaning that even the moonlight reaching the earth was minimalized due to a lunar eclipse.

While it may be merely coincidental that the darkest day arrives just prior to our customary celebration of Christmas, from my experience as a pastor, I am aware that holidays can be very dark days emotionally for some folks. Where there are a variety of events, experiences, and emotions that cast shadows dark enough to eclipse the joy of Christmas, the number one culprit is grief.

Grief comes in many shapes and sizes. In the human experience, we grieve over the death of friends and loved ones. We grieve over disintegration of a marriage. We grieve over friction within the family. We grieve over the loss of a job. And at times we even grieve over the loss of a dream.

Let me be quick to affirm that grieving is healthy as long as you are moving through the grief process as opposed to stalling in the grief process. The Bible never tells us not to grieve, but the scriptures do advise us not to grieve “as those who have no hope.” (I Thessalonians 4:13)

Unexpressed grief can lead to anger, depression, or physical illness. During the holidays, rather than being overwhelmed by the darkness of grief, look your grief in the eye and call it by name. Think of grief as one of the many visitors you will entertain. Visit with your grief, but only briefly, and then move on to visit with other guests. Don’t deny it or ignore it. And for certain, don’t let grief dictate the mood or conversation of your holiday celebration.

After hearing the news on Monday night, I stayed up and watched the Lunar Eclipse on Tuesday morning. The shadow gradually covered the face of the moon and then gradually moved away allowing the nightlight to return.

Perhaps grief is the same. It’s okay to walk through the darkness; just don’t take up residence in the shadows.

Don’t let the darkness eclipse your Christmas celebration. Be aware of the shadows. They are real. But keep watching for the light.

Generous Discernment: Making Wise Decisions about Charitable Holiday Giving

by Barry Howard

As Christmas approaches, our mailbox seems to be stuffed each day with Christmas cards and requests for money. We enjoy personal Christmas cards and letters. After reading them, my wife displays them around the living room with other decorations to remind us of the friendships we share around the country and around the world.

The request letters are a different story. With each one we have a choice to make. We can discard those letters as junk mail, or we can consider the request, and decide whether that particular organization is going to make the cut in this year’s holiday giving.

Most non-profit organizations struggle for funding, even in good years. In this season when we are gradually emerging from a recession, all kinds of non-profits are in a heated competition for charitable dollars. Therefore, this year you might expect more appeals vying for your holiday or end-of-year giving.

Many businesses and foundations have pre-determined guidelines for selecting the charitable causes to which they will make contributions. At our house, we are also developing a list of criteria which helps us to filter through the requests and determine which charities, missions, and ministries will go on our Christmas list.

Here are a few factors that help us make decisions about holiday giving:

1. Our first and largest gift goes to the mission offerings of our church. Throughout the year, our “firstfruit” gifts go to the ministries of our church. Primarily, this is an act of obedience to what we believe the Bible teaches, but we also believe that the cumulative projects of a local church make the most significant impact on individual lives. At Christmas we give an additional gift that supports missionaries around the globe.

2. We tend to give to organizations that are faith-based, organizations that share many of our concerns and passions.

3. We try to give to organizations that focus on the “least of these,” providing a boost to individuals who are disconnected, disadvantaged, or disenfranchised.

4. We select organizations that have low overhead and administrative costs. We don’t want to support an organization that exists to sustain itself. Rather, we want to give to organizations that provide a monumental service to people in need or that serve as conduits to get funds and resources to people in need.

5. We give to organizations that have demonstrated accountability, those who have a reputable board of advisers and a reporting mechanism to let us know where previous gifts have been used.

6. We determine to avoid “guilt giving” and “arm-twisting requests.”

7. We do not give directly to persons on the street, at intersections, or interstate ramps. Our experience is that people are most effectively helped through missional organizations and relationships. (However, we do offer to help get persons on the street to our mission center for assistance, or we offer to buy them a meal, but we do not give money, simply because of the high rate of manipulation and addiction among full-time panhandlers.)

8. We recognize that some good organizations will be left out of our giving plan and that we cannot give to everyone.

9. We set a total dollar amount and then appropriate specific amounts to our chosen causes.

10. Each year we re-evaluate our recipients and do not automatically give to the same groups as the previous year.

Thousands of organizations, ministries, and causes are trustworthy, accountable, and effective, but we cannot support all of them. There are hundreds we would like to support, but our resources are limited. So we choose around 10 or 12 beneficiaries that fit our criteria and we give to them cheerfully.

As we grow and learn better stewardship practices, we realize that we are not liable for supporting every worthy cause. However, we are accountable to God for the resources placed within our care. We have the privilege, especially during the holidays, of generously discerning from among many worthwhile causes those projects and organizations we will support. Then we hope and pray that other organizations receive contributions from discerning benefactors as well.

Years ago Elbert Hubbard wrote, “To know when to be generous, and when to be firm –this is wisdom.” As you designate your holiday giving, don’t select just the causes that make the most emotional plea, and don’t be overwhelmed with guilt for not supporting every single cause. Be generous, but be discerning. Give to those causes that have a proven track record of ministering effectively to spiritual, physical, and emotional needs.

(Barry Howard serves as senior minister of the First Baptist Church of Pensacola.)

I’m Dreaming of an Allie Yniestra Christmas

The pastor’s Advent reflections….

I remember as a child sitting in the living room at my grandparent’s house watching The Bing Crosby Christmas Special on their black and white Philco television. One of the highlights of the show was when Bing Crosby began crooning “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.” For those of us who grew up in the south, most years, we could only dream of a white Christmas.

This year at First Baptist we are dreaming of an Allie Yniestra Christmas. During the past couple of years as we have focused on ministry and outreach opportunities in our local community, our partnership with Allie Yniestra has been a meaningful and engaging missional project for all ages within our church family.

Allie Yniestra Elementary School serves children and families in an area heavily effected by poverty. In fact, the Allie Yniestra bus route stops at Loaves and Fishes to pick up children who are temporarily living at the shelter.

The administration and faculty at Allie Yniestra are well-acquainted with the social and economic challenges of their locale. Principal Sheree Cagle considers herself a missionary to Allie Yniestra and Hallmark, the two schools that are merging to become one effective downtown elementary school.

Our First Baptist Partnership with Allie Yniestra is making a difference in the school, and as a result, we are making a positive impact on families in the downtown community.

To kick off our partnership, FBC members refurbished the teacher’s lounge, creating a positive and pleasant atmosphere for teachers to re-energize. Throughout the year, FBC members pray for the faculty and students, and FBC volunteers operate The Success Store, a venture to promote academic achievement, life skills, and fiscal responsibility.

Now, we have a goal of providing a Christmas gift for each of the 252 students in the school. We are inviting FBC members to adopt one or more children from Allie Yniestra by taking paws from one of The Allie Yniestra Trees, located in the Atrium and Children’s Ministry Department. You are asked to purchase a hoodie (hooded sweatshirt) and gloves for each child you adopt, to wrap the gift and bring it to the Children’s Ministries Department by Sunday December 12. Then on Wednesday evening, December 15, join us in Chipley Hall as we host the Allie Yniestra Choir and their families, and present their gifts to them.

With your help, the dream of an Allie Yniestra Christmas will come true.

Advent: Setting the Stage for Christmas

by Barry Howard

In the close-knit rural church of my upbringing, we didn’t observe Advent. Not by that name, anyway. We naively made a huge leap from Thanksgiving to Christmas. The important liturgical dates on our church calendar other than Christmas and Easter were Church Conference after worship service on the first Sunday, Gospel Singing on the fourth Sunday night, Revival during the second full week in August, and Homecoming the last Sunday in July. Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Passover, and Pentecost were not specifically listed.

Our biggest holiday event was the annual Christmas play. Each year, right after Thanksgiving, we started setting the stage for the Christmas program. Tryouts were held for the annual play, the stage was set, and decorations, featuring a fresh cut cedar tree wrapped in strands of garland and big colored bulbs, were all put in place as our little sanctuary went through a bit of a seasonal transformation.

Prior to the renovation of 1972, the sanctuary of our country church featured knotty pine paneling, hardwood floors, a pine pulpit, and slat-back pews. The same pews were aligned on the platform to the right and left of the “sacred stand” in rows of three, facing toward the center much like an antiphonal choir, except that the choir sat on the right side and the deacons formed an “amen corner” on the left side. On both the east and west wall, precisely even with the front edge of the platform, there were sturdy eyehooks strategically mounted about 12 feet above the floor. Near the back of the platform, the same style of eyehooks hung on the east and west walls at the same height. The first step in setting the stage was to hang wire cables across the front and rear of the platform, cables similar to those used as guide wires to secure large utility poles.

The second step was to retrieve and install the velvet purple curtains that hung on the wire cables. The rear curtains formed a backdrop, hiding props and concealing characters until their time to enter the stage. The front curtains served as traditional theatrical stage curtains, opening to indicate the beginning of the play and closing between scenes and at the end of the program.

On most years, the Christmas play was a mini-drama based on the episodes in the biblical nativity narrative. Beginning with the appearance of a prophet foretelling the birth of the messiah or perhaps an angel visiting Mary, the play would progress scene by scene until finally, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the wise men, and a menagerie of animals surrounded the manger. For a couple of years, the script involved a more contemporary setting with a plot built around a 20th century family’s saga in re-discovering the meaning of Christmas, but even then, the play always ended with a living nativity.

Gradually and methodically the stage was set, and finally, after weeks of planning, practice, and preparation, the play would be presented on a Sunday evening to a packed house.

Although at the time, I didn’t know the meaning of Advent, looking back, I think we were sort of observing Advent all along and just didn’t know it. Advent is really a time of setting the stage for Christmas, a season of preparation, culminating in that grand night when we celebrate the birth of Christ.

Today, I am convinced more than ever that as mission-driven Christians who live in a fast-paced, market-driven culture, we need the reflective soulwork of Advent to subvert stealth forces like materialism, busyness, and greed, those illusive Grinches who would love to steal away the real message and gifts of the season and replace them with superficial slogans and glamorous counterfeits.

This year in our church, we will set the stage for Christmas by re-visiting the prophets, singing the carols, re-reading the gospels, and lighting the candles that call us to focus on peace, hope, love, and joy. Then we will be better equipped to empathize with the anxiety of Mary and Joseph, to feel the labor pains of God, to celebrate the birth of the world’s most pivotal newborn, and to hear both the singing of angels and the sobs of Rachel weeping.

If we take the time to set the stage, recounting the biblical stories from Advent to Christmas, we may find that we are more than ready to celebrate the birth of the messiah, and to follow Christ from the cradle to the cross and beyond.

(Barry Howard serves as senior minister at the First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida.)