Christmas Time is Here

My childhood memories of Christmas include well-decorated trees, wonderful gifts, turkey and trimmings with  immediate family at the dining room table (with good dishes and silverware), and large family gatherings on Boxing Day. And, my heart was captured by “A Charlie Brown Christmas” in 1965.

Don - "Love, Hope, Believe"

When I hear the music from Christmas Time is Here, with or without Vince Guaraldi’s lyrics, those fond memories from childhood arise.

Christmas time is here
Happiness and cheer
Fun for all that children call
Their favorite time of the year

My favourite people were other children. Early on, my cousins, whose company was scheduled for a full Boxing Day celebration, and gradually drifting closer to neighbours along Birkdale Road and friends from school. Maybe because my busy single Mum was working and had three children under her roof; my sisters being eight and ten years older had friends of their own and little time for baby brother. Or maybe it was just normal for a child to find his happiness in the company of other children.

My Mum worked for the Coca-Cola Company, creating another connection with the Charlie Brown Christmas special which Coca-Cola produced. There is much in life for which I am grateful to the Coca-Cola Company.

Snowflakes in the air
Carols everywhere
Olden times and ancient rhymes
Of love and dreams to share

Carols everywhere. I now know that Christmas carols are not the same as twentieth century songs of Santa Claus and snowflakes in the air, but are in fact those ancient rhymes of love. Away in a Manger. Angels We Have Heard on High. O Little Town of Bethlehem. Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus. Silent Night.

Sleigh bells in the air
Beauty everywhere
Yuletide by the fireside
And joyful memories there

The Western imagination has been captivated by thoughts conjured up by dreaming of a White Christmas, Chestnuts Roasting by an Open Fire, Jingle Bells ringing while riding in a one-horse open sleigh or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer making sure Santa Claus is Coming to Town. Even in tiny apartments without chimneys, the mind drifts to yuletide by the fireside and joyful memories there.

Growing up, we sang both carols and songs in school choirs or impromptu gatherings throughout December. I knew more about the Santa tale than the Christmas story, but was struck each year when Linus answered Charlie Brown’s question, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”

“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

Although that was the sum knowledge of what I knew about the Christmas story, at twenty-one I realized it is in fact the heart of what Christmas is all about. The trees and gifts have meaning. Turkey and trimmings with family and friends have meaning. The memories created are special. The truth shared by Linus, found in Luke chapter 2, verses 8 to 14, is what Christmas is all about.

There is no Christmas without Christ. No matter how much effort is put into creating sentimental images of which we may catch glimpses in moments of real-life celebration, there is something missing from Christmas if there is no Christ.

It may be old-fashioned to watch the news on television, but I do. In the days leading up to December 25 there seems consistently to be an increase in reporting of good news stories. They tend to echo the theme of Vince Guaraldi’s final verse:

Christmas time is here
We’ll be drawing near
Oh, that we could always see
Such spirit through the year
Oh, that we could always see
Such spirit through the year

The spirit of Christmas is not in chasing shadows from Christmas past or imagined. It’s not attained in the efforts of men, women and children filling bags in shopping malls or dropping change into plastic bubbles on stands by the door as they exit. The spirit of Christmas is not even sealed by the aroma of turkey roasting and cinnamon-apple pie baking while the table is being set.

The spirit of Christmas is more than that. It’s more than memories, or moments of invention captured in song. The spirit of Christmas is the Spirit of Christ, present because the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger grew to be a man who gave His life on a blood-stained cross, then three days later rose from the dead.

Charlie Brown’s Christmas captured the tension found in an idealized vision of celebration sought after by Canadian – perhaps more broadly, North American or even Western – culture. But, the spirit of Christmas is not a flawless image that evokes the challenge to capture it. Charlie Brown, it’s not about the perfect Christmas tree.

The spirit of Christmas is found in the message that offers hope to the world; hope that God who created, God who knows the state of our flawed and broken humanity, has made a way for us to know His presence, His encouragement, a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Oh, that we could always see such spirit through the year.

What’s in a favourite movie?

“What’s your favourite movie?”

The question was on a list for a social media quiz. None of the movies presented were on my radar. I hadn’t even heard of them. The google machine confirmed each one had, unbeknownst to me, actually made it into theatres. I guess I don’t get out much.

Don - "Love, Hope, Believe"

Do you have a favourite movie? I’m torn between two. Neither has seen recent release, but I have them both on VHS. Yeah, I definitely don’t get out much.

For the longest time, or so it seemed when I was under twenty-five, my top pick was the 1967 movie version of Lerner & Lowe’s Camelot. The songs were earworms, and easy to sing along or alone. Camelot is a tale of hope and of human frailty. No matter how many times I watch it, I find myself hoping that Queen Guenevere and Sir Lancelot will stay loyal to the vows each had made to King Arthur.

I still get a little something in my eye when Arthur, having sent Guenevere to a convent for her protection, reprises a melody he had shared earlier as enticement for then Lady Guenevere to become his queen. He reprises the theme in order to give a hopeful challenge to a young squire, Tom, before engaging the final battle with Lancelot:

Each evening, from December to December,
Before you drift to sleep upon your cot,
Think back on all the tales that you remember
Of Camelot.
Ask ev’ry person if he’s heard the story,
And tell it strong and clear if he has not,
That once there was a fleeting wisp of glory
Called Camelot.

Mournful, yet hopeful. Set to the life tune of human frailty.

I encountered my second top pick on the north coast of British Columbia one Christmas Eve on our 13” black and white tv. Growing a bit weary of Ebenezer Scrooge, I switched channels (back in the day it was necessary to stand at the television, rotate the dial, and adjust the antenna). The late discovery was Frank Capra’s 1946 classic, It’s A Wonderful Life.

Camelot remains a great escape from reality. But Jimmy Stewart filled the shoes of George Bailey in a way that captured my heart. Stewart conveyed with eyes, facial features, and necessary words only, the dreams of youth, and the adult reality of letting them go to fight the daily battle of Bedford Falls.

George watched friends and family fulfill their dreams while he steadily held together “the old Building and Loan,” an independent credit union, all the while not realizing he was actually holding together the whole town. George Bailey was more everyman than Arthur of the Round Table. The similar theme of hope and human frailty pervades, but the Capra-corn movie ends on a higher note than the musical. The closing scene in Bedford Falls reveals that even the by-the-book bank examiner’s heart has been warmed by George’s worth to those whose lives he touches. The crusty examiner contributes from his own pocket to the effort to spare George the long prison term that would accompany evidence of missing Building and Loan funds, the same missing funds that had driven hope out of George’s life on Christmas Eve in my living room.

Hope. To possess it requires more than our human frailty has on offer. For Arthur it was rediscovered in young Tom, a messenger to carry the story of “a fleeting wisp of glory” that was known as Camelot. For George it was realised through the presence of Clarence Odbody, wingless guardian angel, second class. Clarence arrived in Bedford Falls as answer to a suicidal George’s desperate prayer, “Dear Father in heaven, I’m not a praying man, but if you’re up there and you can hear me, show me the way… show me the way.”

There are echoes of some of my own prayers in George’s words.

Do you have a favourite movie? Is it pure escapism or does it speak to you? About you?

Both of these movies speak to me. And both speak about me.

Neither Arthur nor George arrived where the dreams of their youth would have landed them. Still, by the end of each movie, both found that where they were was where they needed to be, for their own sake and for the good of others.

Camelot offered the appeal that someone – Merlin, who lived time in reverse from future to past – had glimpses of how Arthur’s life would unfold. It’s A Wonderful Life presented assurance that Someone – Our Father in heaven – understood the plan for George’s life, the tragedies, trials and joys that stitched together a tapestry to display the importance of George’s life – each life – to individual, family and community.

As a friend of mine says, “It’s about the journey.” You needn’t necessarily set aside your dreams, but you can seek the joie de vivre – the very real joy of life – where you are right now. Seeking necessarily involves more than a glance. Your life is significant, whether you can see it or not. Earnestly seek and you will find.

Under Siege: how and why I authored this book

This is a shorter version of the blog Under Siege: What it’s About originally published March 22, 2017 at Word Alive Press.           UNDER SIEGE: Religious Freedom and the Church in Canada at 150 (1867-2017) is my first book.

Writing and publishing Under Siege was intimate and personal, and also not possible without intentional interaction with others in the Body of Christ.

under siege HR

In April 2016 I was invited to speak at a pastors and spouses conference taking place in October 2016. The request was for two keynote talks on religious freedom, a subject that has been woven into my adult life through education and experience. One talk would be about religious freedom in Canada and other about the global persecuted church.

Somewhat uncharacteristically, I started work on the project early. Long before the deadline was even on the horizon, I was praying, outlining, researching and capturing thoughts—I sleep with a notepad on the nightstand. Waking early one morning with the idea of turning the Canada talk into a book, I scribbled out three section heading ideas and many of the chapter titles before going back to sleep. Beginning that morning in May, work on the talk was combined with work on the book.

At the same time, I was finishing teaching a course on living a public faith; part of the apologetics training year at Ottawa School of the Bible—OSB is a practical understanding and application Bible school that is an initiative of the Lifecentre, and is accessed by students and pastors from across the city. I was teaching those in or interested in Christian leadership, and in October I would be speaking to pastors and their spouses. As a result, I found myself writing for Christian leaders, pastors and their spouses.

There are well written books on religious freedom in Canada for lawyers and academics. Distinct from those who engage the courts and in universities, missing was something designed to equip the troops who are engaged in the daily frontline spiritual warfare of 21st century Canada. Christian leaders minister in a human rights minefield, both real and imagined. They are the people who will primarily benefit from an accurate understanding of the Canadian situation. Under Siege is written for them, for us.

It wasn’t until late August or early September that I convinced myself I was actually writing a book for publication and willing to accept the responsibility to finish the task. I’ve written blogs, opinion pieces for newspapers, and had a regular column in Faith Today. But I hadn’t written a book until Under Siege. As a result, I started seeking advice from people who had written, edited, published and marketed books.

When I was about seventy percent of the way through the writing process (and thinking I was ninety percent done) I invited input into the process from members of my target audience, pastors and Christian leaders, and some constitutional law lawyers. The lawyers were qualified to review my comments in the specialized constitutional law area of religious freedom. The pastors and Christian leaders gave me feedback on how to better communicate various concepts I was writing about.

Finally, when the draft was complete, I invited a couple of dozen people to read and comment on the full unedited text, including most of those who had input at the earlier stage. They had a four week deadline, which coincided with the deadline for approving the final edit of the text. I am exceedingly grateful for all who accepted, including those who ran out of time.

As each one was also invited to consider writing an endorsement, I ended up with seventeen endorsements from a good cross-section of Christian expressions and experience. I was excited— I cried when I read them all together at the deadline.

For editing, it was a privilege to work with an experienced, young Christian author/editor who was interested in the topic of my book. He held me to task on improving my footnoting, strengthened grammar and made good suggestions for adjustments in the text. Cover design and layout were done with similar thoughtfulness and professionalism.

Throughout the process I asked for advice from both the Word Alive Press team and a small group of personal-friend advisors—people praying for me while I was writing—who shared their thoughts on what they read, and were also invited to comment on cover design and layout.

In the end, Under Siege is available in offset and print-on-demand paperback, and a variety of electronic formats.

I applied for and received a license to use the Canada 150 logo based on the theme of the book, which only allows printing with the logo until the end of 2017. Extra fees would be required to remove the logo from print-on-demand and electronic formats effective January 1, 2018, so the offset press paperbacks printed by Word Alive Press are a kind of special edition Canada 150 cover. Get ‘em while they’re here!


Blessed are those who mourn

Today is my Dad’s birthday. I spoke at the memorial service for a friend’s father on the weekend. I’ve modified those words slightly, but thought I would share them with you. Miss you, Dad.

Don and Dad1

In January 2014 I enjoyed the privilege of my first visit to Israel. One of many special experiences was time to reflect while visiting the Church of the Beatitudes, located at the top of the mount where Jesus of Nazareth spoke to thousands assembled down the sides of the big hill.

Matthew 5 records the event, with these opening words:

Seeing the crowds, he [Jesus] went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.

And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted…”

This talk was shared with what was perhaps the largest gathering of people ever to hear Jesus speak. It kind of makes you wonder, why would Jesus start perhaps the most significant public talk he ever gave with words of blessing for the poor in spirit and those who mourn?

The Teacher begins his monumentally important message, delivered from high above the shore of Galilee, with words of promise for those wrestling with the realities of life’s challenges, including some of life’s most difficult questions.

“Why has this happened?” “Why did events unfold the way they did?” “Why do I feel so powerless?” “What can I do about it now?”

It may seem little consolation to know that we live in an imperfect world, where difficulties and death are very real parts of life. Even for those who accept the story of a long ago garden where the first sin plunged our world into disarray, it may be of little comfort to consider the truth that our lives are daily impacted by the brokenness of living in a fallen world. That truth is most difficult to grasp when the brokenness is directly impacting us in ways that cause almost uncontrollable emotion within us.

The pain, questions, even feelings of helplessness are balanced by one thing. Realizing that God is Lord over all of it. He knows. He knows us. He knows what we are experiencing. In and through it all, He remains God. The God who is ready, willing and waiting for us.

Remarkably, He is a God – He is the God – who hurts. He hurts with us, and hurts for us, in our difficulties. He doesn’t back away from us in our struggles and imperfections. He draws nearer with words that remind us that our weakness is known to Him; and, He responds to us in our weakness.

Do you remember the shortest verse in the Bible? It’s just two words. “Jesus wept.” (John 11:35)

Jesus’ friend had died. Jesus wept.

Jesus knew He was about to perform an amazing miracle that would bring his friend Lazarus back to life. But, He wept.


Did Jesus miss His friend? Or, were those tears for Lazarus’ family and friends? Tears of empathy and understanding in their loss.

God knows when we are hurting. He knows each of us is hurting with varying degrees of hurt. God knows that it is the rare death where the survivors, those who remain to carry on, don’t have regrets about words unspoken or deeds undone – whether their own words or deeds or those they hoped for from the deceased. But, time ran out. The words remained unsaid. The deeds undone. Future plans not able to be fulfilled.

The question is, “Are we willing to admit that we’re hurting?” God isn’t just aware of the hurt, He feels the hurt right along with us. He knows we need reassurance in our time of loss, and He offers it. He guaranteed it in public before thousands of witnesses.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

We. Will. Be. Comforted. But, only if we let Him comfort us.

I’ve spoken at a lot of funerals. I didn’t know the man whose funeral I spoke at on the weekend and I don’t know most of you, your life’s story. I do know that when death intervenes, you will consider that your relationship with your loved one or friend could likely have been better than it was, and also had some shining moments you hope you will never forget. And, I know that there are and will be moments when you will need a sense of comfort as you reflect on the relationship. Those moments continue long after you think they should have come to an end.

God has promised His comfort. But, only if we let Him comfort us.

More than comfort alone, God Who is empathetic and understanding is also loving and wise. If we trust Him, He will make use of the troubles of life, and the mourning that comes with life’s ending, to meet with us and build into our lives something good that wasn’t there before. Although, often we won’t realize it until sometime later. If we’re not looking for Him, we might not even realize it was God who met us in our moment of need.

For now, let me encourage you to rest in the simple understanding that God is good, even when life seems bad. He cares for us, even when we don’t know He’s there. He has promised to comfort those who mourn. He keeps His word. He is committed to connect with those who admit their need of His love and care, and to build a relationship with us when we do.

Condiment Christians in the hands of a Bar-B-Que God

Mmm, those mouth-watering, appetite inducing commercials. “Have it your way.” “Special orders don’t upset us.” How about the Canadian chain that promoted selecting our condiments and then naming our burger after ourself! That didn’t work. The second time back, I had to describe “the Don burger” all over again.

Don Hutchinson

In Ottawa, we have a burger chain that made its reputation on its vast selection of condiments, from avocado and sliced beets to sundried tomatoes, or kraft dinner (yes, it’s KD) and peanut butter. The menu boasts “over 14 million topping combinations.”

We live in a fast food world. The instant gratification of placing an order and receiving it before sitting down isn’t just about burger toppings. It drives a lot of our twenty first century decision making, even in the Church.

We’re condiment Christians. We want what we want. We want it fast. And, we want it our way.

The choice between double pickles or hold the lettuce might work in the hamburger world but it doesn’t work as well when we’re trying to structure the Living God into our own quick response, made the way I like him, personal god.

We grow impatient with a god who doesn’t deliver what we consider success. Deliver it the way we want it. And deliver it fast.

We question a god who doesn’t free us from temptation, at least the temptations we want to be freed from. The Good Book says God redeems us from our confessed sin, not from living in a world that surrounds with distractions that challenge us to focus on Him or fall because of having it our way.

In an instant gratification, fast food, choice of condiments world, God chooses to invest His time – Himself – in the main part of the meal, not the garnishes.

I have a friend who is seriously into bar-b-que. He makes his own rubs (seasoning for items to be bar-b-qued) and he has a smoker, a kind of slow bar-b-que. There are no quick meals when seasoned meat needs several hours to cook to perfection.

Another friend worked at a smokehouse restaurant. He talked, with a twinkle in his eye, about the planning that went into smoking their main menu items for up to half a day before final preparation and serving.

In the Old Testament we read detailed exposition about the effort required to prepare sacrifices for God – burnt offerings. Page after page, the Bible gives the impression our God is more interested in getting things cut, sized and seasoned properly so that, when placed over fire, the fragrance of the offering would be sweet.

Matthew’s gospel records Jesus saying to those who thought He was a reprobate for dining with sinners, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13)  He was quoting the prophet Hosea who wrote these words spoken by God, “For I desire steadfast love(the Hebrew word may also be translated “mercy”) and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6)

Jesus was saying that when we consider the intricacies of preparing a sacrifice for God, we need to step back and focus on the fact that God is even more concerned with us demonstrating our love for Him, a process of learning and growing in loving Him with all our “heart and soul and mind and strength,” by loving our neighbours as ourselves. (Matthew 22:37-39; Luke 10:27-28)

The offering God now asks of us is… us.

When I was younger, having read the Bible a few times and studied it a bit, I was certain I knew God and what He wanted. I had the burger god I desired, with my personal selection of condiments. I had the meat of it right, but was fairly impatient with others’ difference of opinion on secondary matters. You might call it a divergent preference in condiments.

But, it’s not about the pickles or the lettuce.

It’s about whether my life is an offering.

The old joke says the problem with a living sacrifice is that it keeps climbing off the altar.

My friend Ken Norberg has written and recorded what he calls a “little ditty celebrating the sometimes painful process of walking out our sanctification” (sanctification is us becoming more like Jesus in the way we think and live). In Burnt P.H.L.E.S.C.H., Ken captures the essence of living our lives as an offering to God. The chorus says of my life being lived for Him,

You gotta put it on the altar, let it roast, burning with the fire of the Holy Ghost.

Shake it and bake it, let the smoke arise, let the Lord smell that sweet sacrifice.

Ken concludes with an expressed expectation that serving the Lord “with a heart that is fervent” will receive the Lord’s commendation, “Good and faithful, thou well done servant.”

That’s how life feels at times, a little on the well done side of God’s bar-b-que. The perfect grill marks but a little crispy at the edge from me needing more time to learn a particular lesson, perhaps burnt at spots because, well, because I did it my way instead of His.

Here’s a hint about how to avoid a few of the singe marks I’ve acquired. When you hear the words “Pray as if everything depends on God and work as if everything depends on you,” reflect on Jesus’ words, “the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing.” (John 5:19) Following can be more challenging than taking the lead.

Our bar-b-queing God is a coals and wood Guy. Our God is a slow smoker Who custom spices each and every life for its perfect fragrance. And, our slow smoker God gives every one of us time to decide whether we really want to know Him; and, whether we truly want to follow Him.