"Who knows, maybe a person’s first small rebellion against the Mormon Church will be to sip a cup of coffee. And if this is meant to be at all representative of their budding freedom in Christ, we better make sure that coffee tastes darn good."
The holiday season is nearly behind us! Sarah and I have just returned from spending Christmas with my brother’s family and my parents. We met in Georgia, which actually is new to all the Funnells- my brother’s family moved there in July with the Army, and it made a suitable location for us all to gather to for the holiday. It was a lovely time of rest and we enjoyed seeing my niece and nephew, both of whom have grown so much since we last saw them over a year ago. It was a long car ride down to GA, but Flint did great during the drive! We could hardly have expected a four-month-old to tolerate a 9-hour drive so well.
Christmas has always been full of warm memories for Sarah because of the Smiths’ rich traditions and enthusiasm for the Christmas season. This was the first year Sarah spent Christmas away from them, which was a difficult choice to make, but something we understand to be coming with our future move to Utah. Spending Christmas with the Funnell side this year was both a sweet reunion with my family and a transitional move towards the new traditions we’ll have to make when our new home is a few thousand miles away from family, rather than a few hundred.
One lovely experience during our Christmas in Georgia with the Funnells was a candlelit Christmas Eve service at Ian and Libby’s home church. We enjoyed singing some old Christmas carols and hymns, and having ladies seated in the row behind us fawn uncontrollably over Flint. To be fair, he was (and is) impossibly charming. He was also captivated by the candlelight when the house lights went down, as you can see.
Christmas has been an interesting topic for me (Ned) throughout my life. When I was a boy, the Funnell household didn’t celebrate it in the typical way. There were no trees or lights, nor a legend of a fat man who slid down the chimney at night to give gifts to deserving children. The hyper-commercialization of the season along with thoughts about the possible pagan roots of December 25th as a holiday had prompted a family moratorium on the things that most families in the US would consider central tenets of the holiday. We did have other good things- time together, some gifts, a big family meal, and remembrance that, well, although Jesus was almost certainly not born on December 25th, it was a good a time as any to remember the loving gift that it was for God to descend to earth in human form and live among us.
For Sarah and me, Christmas does include a tree and presents. We actually haven't celebrated our own at-home Christmas yet. We decided to take January 2nd as our own personal, relaxed, at-home Christmas rather than sneaking it in between trips here or there. Our on-sale turkey is happy to wait another week in the freezer, and we don't have to worry about our tree drying out too much, since it's plastic. While Sarah does appreciate a live tree, my practical and frugal sensibilities pulled us to the 6 1/2 foot, pre-owned, pre-lit, no-mess example currently residing in our living room. I have reasons to choose the no-hassle tree. Over the years since my youth, my parents’ attitude towards customary Christmas softened a bit. During one Christmas break in college, my dad bought a leftover tree on sale on Christmas Eve and he and my mom decorated it with whatever could be found around the house- only for it to fall over from the corner where it had been propped (for want of a tree stand, which we did not own), leaving a tree-shaped imprint of needles and mismatched decorations on the carpet. Not a worry with a fake tree with its own stand. The tree could be another sticking point of concern, but we have one anyway on the belief that we control our tree's meaning rather than it telling us what it is about when we take it out of its box. To us, the tree is a traditional reminder of memorable Christmas seasons past and a lovely place to hang a new ornament each year, commemorating what the year held. (This year's ornament is a piece of flint.) There’s more interesting history behind the concerns of pagan roots in Christmas that I’ve been learning about lately. Rather than discuss it at (even more) length here, I’ll just link you to this article from Biblical Archaeology Review that helped me understand how we got the dates we have and put worries of past pagan Christmas roots to bed.
With that bit of church history nerdiness settled, I want to snap back to the idea of God coming to earth, which I think is more mind-blowingly incredible than it often gets credit for. We have to start with a proper understanding of our right relationship with God: we are his creation, he is our creator, in the same way that this blog post is my creation and I am its creator. It’s common for us to think more highly of ourselves than we ought to, so I want to communicate the right perspective here that no matter how awesome of a creation we are (and we are pretty darn neat), we cannot even fathom how much greater our creator must be. After all, he created us- and all life and matter- by merely speaking. Now, think about the one who is able to do that choosing to put off the privileges of being who he is- God- and choosing to be born as one of us, with all our limitations, trouble, and mess. It is appropriate and correct to say that God condescended- came down to something lower- to walk among us. “Condescending” often has the negative connotation of a rude attitude of someone putting someone else down, but realize that in this case, it is a merciful and undeserved grace. The idea that he did so to redeem us after we betrayed him is more mind-blowing still, but we’ll talk about that in the spring. Take a slow moment to read this passage from Philippians 2, wherein Paul describes God’s condescension:
Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.
What must it have been like to put off the privileges of being God, powerful enough to create life just by speaking, and take on a human body? How limiting must that have been? What was it like for God to put his identity and personhood into such a small vessel? These questions probe into mysteries of the Trinity that have been debated for ages. All I can say is that the sacrifice Christ made in coming to earth is more than we can know.
I tried to describe the incredible difference between God and us, but I don’t want you to think that the message is that we, humanity, are worthless. In fact, I think that properly thinking about Christ’s first coming can show that we are very valuable when we ask the question: why? Why did God cross that incredible distance between us? This is why- he decided that you were worth so much that even though you have nothing to offer him but your love, that he freely chose to descend to the form of a man, and later redeem you with his life. All of the words we toss about freely: fantastic, incredible, awesome, amazing- fail to capture the magnitude of this miracle: a baby born in a stable millennia ago who was God.
It was that miracle that I was thinking of as I held my baby boy in one arm and a candle in the other, singing “Joy to the World”. It is truly an unfathomable joy to consider when I think about the undeserved grace that it is for God himself to have come to us in our form and walk with us. He became a helpless infant like Flint, the complete opposite of an all-powerful creator of universes, because he loves us and wants us to be part of his family.
Think for a moment about how the biblical Christian view on Christmas contrasts with the Mormon teaching. Biblical Christianity teaches that out of a heart of love, a perfect God sacrificed by descending to be with us and served us humbly, even to death, in order to make it possible for us to know him face-to-face, in perfect harmony. Mormonism teaches that a man must always be going about the work of perfecting himself, slowly ridding himself of sin and, by degrees, advancing through the process of "eternal progression" until finally he has exalted himself enough to attain godhood himself, like the Mormon god did himself, and endless gods before him. Note that the 'he' used here is deliberate and exclusionary- this path is not available to LDS women, they can only join men in the LDS version of heaven by marriage in a temple. Which of these two sounds more like a loving father in heaven? Reaching down to his children, messy though they are, to pick them up in love, or climbing up a ladder ahead of them, leaving only judgement and confusion behind? Please help us reach these people who have never known anything but this.
To get back to Funnell news, we have a report about support-raising. Several people have responded generously to our request, and we’re now at 1.4% support. Huzzah! We’re just getting started, so we’re not afraid of the 98.6% still to go. Thank you, friends, who have partnered with us to bring the message of good news to the people of central Utah. If you want to be a part of our mission too, check out the Take Action page on our website. There, you can find information on making one-time or recurring gifts, networking with us, or subscribe to our newsletter. One way in particular that you could help us, if you are somewhat local: would you consider inviting friends to your home and having us present to the group? This is a great way for us to build our network beyond those we already know.
Thanks for reading, and happy new year!
Ned and Sarah Funnell
This post was published on Ned's personal blog on May 28, 2015.
Sarah and I have some exciting news to share! Yes, we are expecting a baby, but that’s not the news- it’s that we are also expecting to join the staff of Tri-Grace Ministries as full-time missionaries, and that we are beginning the process of building a support network. You may know that our little boy (due in August) owes his existence to Tri-Grace, because that is where Sarah and I met almost five years ago while working as assistant staff. When we left Utah after the 1-year program, we were in love, both with each other, and with Utah. As we spoke about our hoped-for future together, returning to Utah was always part of the conversation. Today we are pleased to announce that Tri-Grace has invited us to join their team as full-time staff as soon as we are able.
One big question is “when?” The main determinant of that is paying off student debt. With a return to Utah in mind from the beginning of our relationship, we have been steadily paying off student debt for over three years, and are about 75% done. Although our current rate would forecast us being debt-free about a year from now, there is also a baby coming, and little Funnell’s impact on our finances is difficult to predict. We need this time, though, to prepare for the new roles we’ll be filling, and to build a network of supporters before we can go.
The other big question is “why?” Answering that question could be an all-day conversation, but the simple answer is that Sarah and I are convinced that the truth Jesus Christ taught is essential for all people to know, and the people of Utah have been uniquely disadvantaged in hearing it. For over a century, people in Utah have been sheltered from the outside world by a cult which misrepresents and distorts what Jesus taught, and replaces it with a system of performance and self-glorification that leaves people hopeless. The culture of Utah presents a façade of success and wholesome living, but there is very real turmoil under the surface. Utah is a frontrunner in the US for antidepressant use, high stress levels, suicide in all age groups, pornography consumption, prescription substance abuse, and other heartbreaking statistics.
Sarah and I have seen the way this can play out- a person has a thin veneer of perfection they are attempting to hold up as their church and culture demand, but inside they are full of repressed questions about why they exist, who they are, and what the truth really is. 21st century technology has made answers available to many through the internet and media distributions, and the LDS church is in a crisis- people are losing their faith in their man-made religion en masse: either actively denouncing their association with the church or slowly losing their faith and fading away. We are ecstatic to see a false church crumble, but are also keenly aware of how this affects its members. When a person’s entire worldview has hinged on one thing- a prophet, a church, a conviction- and that thing crumbles, it is devastating. What will happen to the people of Utah, already struggling with in incongruity between the expectations of their faith and reality, when the primary thing holding their culture together collapses?
Tri-Grace has seen an influx of ex-Mormon traffic in their ministry, and have a need for additional staff to help handle the changing situation. God has done so much in little Ephraim, Utah, where no light shone 25 years ago- there is now an active and growing church of 110 with a coffee-shop outreach ministry to the small college in town. Sarah and I want to go there and put our shoulders to the wheel to save those who have never known true hope.
We are taking first steps to partner with Tri-Grace Ministries in Ephraim, Utah, but there is still quite a lot of work left to do. Expect to see more news and information from us in the months to come. We will be establishing a separate blog to share our journey and hope you will follow us.