Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Value of Santa Claus

"...All created beings in heaven and on earth—even those long ago dead and buried—will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ, and call out in praise that he is the Master of all, to the glorious honor of God the Father." (Philippians 2:10-11, MSG)

At this time every year along with the holiday comes the passionately opinionated debate over the jolly old elf himself, Santa Claus. The haters of this Christmas icon usually shake their heads in disgust at the embodiment of materialism he represents. Staunchly committing to make Christ the center of their holiday, those who despise Kris Kringle tend to think that most who allow him into their traditions have completely lost the true meaning of Christmas. This year, in our strange politically-correct society, his weight has even come under fire.

For over a decade I have been longing to share a different perspective. Both a lover of Jesus and a fan of Santa, I have thoughts to share that may not have been considered before.

Let me begin by giving historical background that helps us understand the origins of Santa Claus. His name comes from the Dutch translation (Sinterklaas) of the name Saint Nicholas. This dedicated Jesus-lover served as the 3rd or 4th century Bishop of Myra, Turkey. Since most of what is known of him comes from 8th or 9th century writings, a great deal is left to speculation and legend. Of course, one of the most common stories relating to Bishop Nicholas is that of his generous, secret gift of gold coins to provide dowries for 3 impoverished sisters. His nighttime presents surely saved the girls from the bondage of prostitution as this was the unfortunate outcome for girls unable to provide a dowry or marry in those days.

As with many pagan holidays (study Halloween and Easter), Christians sought to redeem the celebrations surrounding the winter solstice. (Read God's mandate in Ephesians 5:15-17.) Most agree that certain clues indicate that Christ was not born in December. Nevertheless, celebrating God-come-down-to-Earth in human form is an occasion most worthy of a holiday! How natural that a fervent follower of the Lord whose feast day falls near the solstice (December 6th) should be made part of the festivities. Over time, some of the old cultural legends became attached to the Christian saint and morphed into the Western character children celebrate today.

So in a world of materialism, selfishness and greed, why would we want to include Santa Claus as part of our observance of Jesus' birthday? I would contend that when children are appropriately guided by faith-filled parents, they witness a concrete caricature who teaches them much about God.

Santa teaches children about love and generosity. (1 John 3:1) We love him because he first loved us. (1 John 4:19) He gives without any hope of reciprocity.

Santa teaches about God's expectation of good behavior. (John 15:9-14) He also reminds children that there is One who is always aware of how they are conducting themselves. (Psalm 53:2-3)

Santa makes us aware that we don't always get what we ask for. (2 Corinthians 12:7-10) Not always delivering what is on our list or whispered in his ear, he initiates the exercise of learning that life can be quite good even if we don't always get our own way.

Through the emphasis on St. Nick's personal traits, we can help children to see that all are called to be kind even to the least of God's people, and that even "The Big Guy" bows to Jesus and honors him.

While I certainly do not advocate putting Santa Claus at the center of our Christmas, I hope I've opened your eyes to how his inclusion might enhance your children's worship and understanding of their Savior. That has been the case in our home. And we gratefully stand in awe of a God so amazing that He would not only come to save us, but would let us have the presents on His birthday. How can we not be humbled and joyous about a God like that!

We further recommend the following reading materials regarding this topic: The Adventure of Christmas: Helping Children Find Jesus in Our Holiday Traditions by Lisa Whelchel and Jeannie Mooney (Hardcover - Sep 9, 2004); The True Saint Nicholas: Why He Matters to Christmas by William J. Bennett (Oct 27, 2009)

Monday, December 21, 2009

Advent, Week 4: CRAZY LOVE!

But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. (Romans 5:8, NLT)

Here we are celebrating the 4th week of Advent whose theme is traditionally Love. Let me share a little story with you that relates to this theme. A number of years ago, scandal hit our Christian community. A prominent member revealed he was having an affair. Despite having children of various ages and a supportive wife at home, he was deeply in love with this other woman and decided to divorce. To add further disappointment, the woman he was carrying on with was also a member of our faith community who ministered to children, and was a wife and mother herself.

What's your initial response to this story? Is it outrage? Disgust? Pity? What if the unfaithful came to their sense and wanted to return to their spouses? Would you take them back? Forgive them? Love them?

What would you say if I told you that we are those unfaithful spouses? You see our God has held nothing back and poured His life into a committed relationship with us. Yet, we are daily chasing after temptations that seem more attractive. The lures of financial success at all costs, selfish pleasures and disregard for those we feel are beneath us have a way of seeping into our behavior without us recognizing it. We yield to the ease of gossip, lying, holding grudges, losing our temper, and inflicting our opinions on others which all equal a straying from our One True Love. And when we allow ourselves to become consumed with worry, pride or control, we put another before the Person who should come first in our lives.

Now what's so remarkable isn't the fact that we're a bunch of self-centered, scum-puppies. What's truly remarkable is that while we were still "running around on" Him, God humbled Himself to the point of becoming a human being and being birthed in a most undesirable place. He launched a rescue mission, "laid across the train tracks" to get mutilated for our indiscretions. (After all, only a fool would allow there to be no consequences for our unfaithfulness. And God's no fool!) In taking our punishment and rising from the dead, He bought our ticket to an eternal, beautiful honeymoon with Him.

What kind of crazy love is this? It's certainly not anything that we as humans can produce! And when I spend time thinking about it, I'm blown away, left in awe.

You see, I often joke with those closest to me, especially my spouse and kids, that I'm well acquainted with my own flaws. If we're honest with ourselves, even if we would never admit it to another soul, we know that we all miss the mark. But let me encourage you by sharing another thing I confess -- The uglier I'm willing to admit I am, the more beautiful Jesus looks! It's only in my realization that I'm a hopeless, wandering sinner that I can begin to sense the magnitude of what He did for me. When that magnitude begins to awaken my dull mind, things like Christmas, Easter and every little part of the life of Christ on earth become so much more meaningful. He loves me -- He really loves me!

My Christmas wish for you couldn't be worded any better than this: "I pray that Christ will live in your hearts by faith and that your life will be strong in love and be built on love. And I pray that you and all God's holy people will have the power to understand the greatness of Christ's love—how wide and how long and how high and how deep that love is. Christ's love is greater than anyone can ever know, but I pray that you will be able to know that love. Then you can be filled with the fullness of God." (Ephesians 3:17-19, NCV) God bless you this Christmas and always!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Advent, Week 3: A One-of-a-Kind JOY!

You have shown me the path to life, and you make me glad by being near to me. Sitting at your right side, I will always be joyful. (Psalm 16:11, CEV)

On Week 3 of Advent, the traditional theme is Joy. Lighting the pink candle of the wreath reminds us that Christmas is just around the corner. With gladness we anticipate celebration of our Savior's birth.

But is it just the gorging and gifts that make us giddy? If so, then we are missing the entire point! In this season we become reacquainted with that one-of-a-kind joy that only Jesus brings. This is a joy that stands apart from the world's definition. Look back to Week 1 -- We are filled with the pleasant knowledge that relief is near.

It never ceases to leave me in awe when I ponder the notion that the Creator of the Universe loves me so much that He was willing to take on human form just to save me! He left the comfort and glory of His heavenly home just to launch our rescue. And not only did He become one of us, but He became the most lowly of us, being born in a stinky animal pen just to stay out of the cold. Never taking on a life of luxury or prestige, He poured out His life teaching by word and deed. And He took the humiliating, excruciating punishment for all my rottenness. Wow! What a God!

Reread our passage from Psalm 16:11 today. It sums this unique experience all up. "You have shown me the path to life..." After thousands of years of waiting for the Messiah, those who would be willing were clearly shown the guarantee of a full, never-ending life by Jesus. "...and you make me glad by being near to me." The deep joy of realizing that we aren't subject to some obscure, unknowable God, but One who is intimately present to us should fill our hearts to their bursting point! "Sitting at your right side, I will always be joyful." In the ancient world, the person who was most honored, who had the most authority sat at the king's right hand. (Thus, the term "right-hand man".) Realizing that our Maker keeps us close in such high esteem ought to only add to our perpetual inner contentment and peace.

Let me point out to you that joy does not always equal happiness, as we often falsely believe. Psalm 4:7, NLT says "You have given me greater joy than those who have abundant harvests of grain and new wine." This means our joy in Christ is a joy that transcends the circumstances of this world. Jesus gives a joy that surpasses the happiness of the wealthy, famous or successful. What He offers is deeper than the fun of the latest party or possession.

"...The joy of the LORD is your strength," says Nehemiah 8:10, NIV. This means that this solid connection to Jesus, this inner knowledge that God has you close, cares deeply for you and has everything under control can strengthen you and bring you joy despite any trial you may face. The Christmas season can be difficult on so many levels for different people. Grasp that unique joy that Jesus came to Earth to bring! It will make this holiday celebration so much more meaningful, no matter what you face!!!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Advent, Week 2: Peace on Earth... At Least in December!

You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you. (Isaiah 26:3, NIV)

As we continue on in our Advent Season, the theme of the second week is peace. What’s got you most stressed this holiday season? I don’t know about you, but I sure could use more of this perfect peace around the holiday season! But how do we get it? Yeah, we can talk about it all we want and it sounds nice, but how do we really get our hands on that peace? After all, there are so many demands on us... deadlines to meet, small kids to manage, must-attend events, difficult people we have to be around, baking and shopping and card-sending and wrapping. It seems, quite frankly, an impossible dream. But it’s not impossible.

Let’s revisit today's verse: You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you. Who will be kept in perfect peace? Him (or her) whose mind is steadfast. What does that mean? Steadfast? Well, American Heritage Dictionary defines it as "Firmly loyal or constant; unswerving." There are ways we can keep ourselves constant and unswerving.

First, get your priorities straight. Start with prayer. Continue with prayer. End with prayer. Sometimes I have to cry out in the middle of my chaos, "Lord, give me your grace!", because I want to reach out and touch someone, and it isn’t to make a phone call!

Second, a good little acrostic to remember: H.A.L.T. Never get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired. I don’t know about you, but going to bed early and eating something other than a steady diet of Christmas cookies and fudge would go a long way for me!
Third, keep things in proper perspective. What will happen if we don’t get those cookies baked or cards sent out on time? Will the world end? You know, Jesus told us when he walked the earth, "In me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world." (John 16:33) There we go with that steadfast focus again. He’s bigger than presents, bigger than cookies, bigger than any hard time someone can give you for not making it to their party.

Fourth, remember how Jesus would want you celebrating his birthday. In John 14:1 he tells us, "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me." Do you think he wants you all stressed out and miserable? Author Max Lucado tells us in his book, Experiencing the Heart of Jesus, "Are you aware that the most repeated command from the lips of Jesus was ‘Fear not’? Are you aware that the command from heaven appears in every book of the Bible?" Wow! What are we doing to ourselves and to those around us? Chill!

Fifth, don’t expect perfection from yourself or others. Find someone who hasn’t made a mistake. I make them daily and I’ll bet if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll admit you do too. If we were all so perfect, that little baby wouldn’t have had to been born in a barn.

Sixth, enjoy the season with more humor. Laugh at yourself and other crazy situations. My dear husband Steve has blessed me over the years by reminding me, "Don’t take life too seriously... None of us are getting out alive!"

Lastly, practice peace. We never get good at something unless we practice and make mistakes along the way. Exercise that "No, thank you" muscle. It gets stronger each time we use it.

I’d like to give each one of you that gift, that peace. But you see this gift requires no middle man. All you have to do is reach out and take it from the one who offers it to you. The giver is the one who cared enough about you to set aside everything glorious and wonderful to humble himself and come to earth enduring birth in a barn, scorn from friends, family and community members. He even endured the torture of the cross for you, yes, you. Will you receive that peace? It’s yours for the taking! Will you continue to rush around cramming too many parties, baking, cleaning, shopping so that we can’t even see the gift held out to us? Will you live up to everyone else’s expectations this holiday season or nestle into the chest of the one who can shelter us from the storm?

Jesus said, "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid." (John 14:27) Let’s leave with that peace by closing in prayer. Heavenly Jesus, God of order and peace, come into my heart this Christmas season and grant me your peace during this holiday season and forevermore. Amen.