Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Genesis 16:13-14

Genesis 16:13-14: Then she called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, “Thou art a God who sees”; for she said, “Have I even remained alive here after seeing Him?” Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; behold, it is between Kadesh and Bered.

Hagar recognizes the angel as being from God. In the earlier passage the angel indicated he was not to be confused with the Lord as he said, “Because the Lord has given heed to your affliction.” Yet, here, Hagar, speaks directly to God who sent the messenger and says, “You are a God who sees.” He sees individuals; He sees needs; He sees our sins and weaknesses; He sees the future. Like Hagar, we can call out to Him and acknowledge, “He is a God who sees.” Not to do so, we miss out on His omnipotence that can be applied to our lives and in our times of distress.

Now Hagar asks herself the following question, “Is it possible that who I just saw was not an angel, but God Himself? And if so, is it possible that I did that and am still alive?” Two things are of interest here. We see no reference in the passage (from vs. 7 forward) that the angel actually “appeared” to Hagar. It is possible therefore, that the angel was always behind her or, because she indicated seeing something, that she only saw the angel’s back. If so, she may have seen God to that extent. Secondly, it is interesting that Hagar becomes the first one as far as scripture is concerned to recognize somehow that seeing the face of God could mean death. Nothing in Genesis so far implies that idea.

Hagar there and then decides to somehow eternalize the fact that God sees us, and her in particular, as she names the well where she was visited by an angel. She calls it Beer-lahai-roi, which in Hebrew means “well of the Living One seeing me.” What historical element do we have in our own experience – some great event, perhaps some treasured artifact that brings back a memory of a time in our lives when we knew without a doubt that the all-seeing God was and is, and that He sees us?

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Sunday, December 23, 2007

My Eight Days of (Christless) Christmas!

My Eight Days of (Christless) Christmas!

By Ken Godevenos

I know it’s been around for years for the majority of the world. I just kept refusing to accept it as part of “my world” and this year I gave up. Here are just some of things that led up to this stark revelation and decision in my own life in 2007:

December 17 – My younger daughter and I, both followers of Christ, had occasion to wish a government employee we had just done some business with best wishes at this special time of the year. I started with the usual “Merry Christmas!” The man did not look either Jewish or Muslim, so why wouldn’t I? My daughter, who often readily shares her faith with friends, echoed “Happy Holidays”. I was a little taken aback, but if I remember correctly the man responded to both of us with a “you, too; see you in the New Year”. Needless to say that incident became a topic of great discussion on the drive home. My daughter taking the position that saying “Merry Christmas” to someone who didn’t necessarily believe in Christmas or celebrate it wasn’t doing Christianity any real good. I, taking the position that wishing someone Merry Christmas (unless you knew that they weren’t Christian) wasn’t about converting anyone, but rather my right to maintain the privilege of freely expressing my joy of this special holiday which is mine – and it’s Christmas – and nothing short of Christmas. My daughter and I agreed to disagree on this one and she simply wrote it off as just another evidence of the generation gap between us.

December 18 – Over and over I kept asking myself where I had gone wrong with how I brought my children up and wondering what I could have done differently. Or better still, was there something I could do as a grandparent to at least save my grandchildren from similar ‘neo-think’ attitudes I was hearing.

December 19 – I attended my six-year old granddaughter’s concert. In a one hour show, mention of the real meaning of Christmas got one line as follows: “Christian families celebrate the birth of Jesus.” Hanukkah got several more references through which the actual story about the origin of the holiday was fully described. Of course, other world religions got considerable mention as well. I should have known better as the evening’s theme for the children was “December around the world.” How silly of me to think this might have actually been a Christmas concert. But what blew my (Christmas) socks off was the following utterance from one of the child narrators: “And in Canada, we celebrate Kwanzaa.”

“Really?” I asked myself. “I didn’t know that.” I decided to listen more intently and learn. It turns out that Kwanzaa is an African American harvest festival holiday observed by African communities throughout the world that celebrates family, community, and culture. It is a seven-day holiday that begins December 26 (thank God, at least they had the courtesy to start on Boxing Day and no earlier) and continues through January 1.

In particular seven principles are celebrated during Kwanzaa and the kids knew them all: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. I was really interested in the last one. My research yielded the fact that when the observers of Kwanzaa celebrate faith, they celebrate “Imani” which is defined as the need “To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.” Interesting philosophy. As I listened to the news of a 35 year father get sentenced for the crime of sexually abusing his four-year old daughter live on the internet for the sake of another man (which thankfully turned out to be an undercover agent), I can see that everybody can have ultimate faith in their parents. As I watch teachers be convicted of drug peddling, sexual activities with minors in their class, and other covert activities, I can see that everybody can have ultimate faith in their teachers. As I watch one elected official after another fail to keep the promises they made, I can see that everybody can have ultimate faith in their leaders. As I watch Palestinians and Israelis fight, or Afghanis and rebel forces kill each other, with or without the help of Americans and Canadians, I can see that everybody can have ultimate faith in the ‘righteousness and victory of (their) struggle’. Well, we still can have ultimate faith in our ‘people’. Hello, these teachers, these leaders, these fighting warriors are our people!

But in Canada and North America in general, I’m told we now celebrate Kwanzaa. By the way I wondered whether there is any connection between the word “Imani” and the Muslim faith. A little snooping around and ‘by coincidence of course’ I came up with the fact that IMAN is the acronym for the Iranian Muslim Association of North America. Interesting, but perhaps just a coincidence.

December 20 – I was still smarting from what I had experienced the night before at our public school event. My mind was most uncomfortable with it all.

December 21 – That was the day my wife received an email containing a poem. It was from a woman who was a friend of our daughters in our previous neighborhood when the kids were growing up. The woman always appreciated my wife and now that she has children of her own, has kept up a good correspondence with her. In this particular email, the woman shared, with all her friends, a poem that her own son brought home from school the other day thinking they would find it most interesting. Here’s the poem:
I Believe

Anna E Lawson

I believe in Santa Claus.
I believe that Santa Claus is a Spirit
A lovely, joyous, Christmas spirit
That roams the earth Every December,
And knocks at our hearts, And wants to come in.

Santa Claus Is a Spirit of Love.
Love for the home folks, Great love for the children,
Greater love for the lonely one, And greatest love for those who grieve.

I believe in Santa Claus.
I believe in the Spirit of Christmas.
I will open my heart To Santa Claus, The Spirit of Christmas Love.
And this Christmas I will make people happy Because – it is Christmas.

My wife’s response to her young friend speaks my own sentiment most eloquently. Here it is: “You know J, I read this poem and I appreciate the effort the author is making to bring some higher value to what has become a very consumer driven, materialistic season but as I read I felt very sad because it is Jesus Christ who is the answer to all that is wrong with the world today not Santa Claus. Jesus is the one who is Love, He doesn't just give love, He loved us so much He died for each one of us regardless of who we are or who we have become and it is Jesus Christ who stands - not just at Christmas but all year long - at the door of our hearts longing for us to let Him in to heal our hurts and give us hope and comfort. So instead of 'letting Santa Claus in' it would be so much more real and effective to see Jesus for who He really is - the Son of God who was born to live a perfect life and then die in our place to rise again so we might have everlasting life with Him through letting Him into our hearts. This is what Christmas is really all about and we have completely lost sight of this as a society and every year we pay a greater and greater price for having substituted Santa Claus for Jesus Christ. It must break the heart of God to see us so clearly reject His great love for us. Thank you for sharing this with me. It made me realize once more just how very far away from the truth our world has drifted. God bless you and may you have a meaningful Christmas.”

In fact, if you can stand to read the poem again, try substituting Jesus Christ for Santa Claus and see how well it works, except that as my wife underscored, Christ is not around just in the Decembers of our lives. If one were really cynical, one could argue that the author simply took a Christian idea and turned into a more widely acceptable universal thought. In addition, she may well have been angry at her parents, the Church, Christianity in general, or God Himself.

Here’s what my wife wrote to our children, two of them now with children of their own, as she forwarded the poem to them: “Hi, I just wanted to share this with you as an illustration of why I didn't teach you that Santa is real. I was appalled at the way this author took the spiritual language that we use in talking about salvation through Jesus Christ and applied it to a fictitious 'jolly old elf'. I did write a very nice note back to J that I will forward to you. Love you, Mommy.”

After the concert and then learning that this poem came home from school, I knew that our grandchildren didn’t have a hope in hell [a real English idiom and saying meaning ‘if something doesn’t have a hope in hell, it stands absolutely no chance of succeeding’]. Our grandchildren had no chance at succeeding in living a Christian life as they got older unless we made a point of telling them they will be different, they will be ignored, they will even be criticized, and ultimately may have to pay a penalty for what they believe.

December 22 continued – That was the day I went to do some year-end banking. The staff at my credit union is wonderful and very diverse. One or our regular tellers (of East Indian origin) was off and another delightful young lady with the same ethnicity served me. Discussion turned to the holidays and she shared with me how both she and our regular teller celebrate the Christmas holiday as well as their own faith’s festivals. She mentioned it had to do with the fact that the kids hear about and have to deal with it at school, etc., so rather than fight it, it’s easier to just join in. I indicated that religious holidays should have much more meaning than simply great times and that it is difficult for me to celebrate the holidays of other faiths, although I can perfectly understand adherents of those faiths celebrating on those occasions. The friendly Assistant Manager whom my wife and I adore piped in with “and why not; who wouldn’t want to celebrate Hanukkah for example with eight days of gift-getting?” I see – Christmas and any other year-end holiday, religious or otherwise, is now all about getting gifts.

I was getting very close to hearing the ice crack on the lake of hopes for holding out and believing if we all Christians worked hard, we could still save Christmas.

December 22 continued – The last straw arrived on my computer screen with today’s electronic news courtesy of our metropolitan paper. There was an article entitled “The naughty truth about Christmas” by Sandro Contenta (Toronto Star). It was written just for me as it began, “For those of you who think Christmas celebrations have ‘lost’ their spiritual meaning, think again. Some historians say they never really had any. When the Three Wise Men visited baby Jesus, they brought luxury goods: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Loaded with symbolism, perhaps, but certainly superfluous when a blanket would have done just fine.” Ugh, get a life. At least the writer and the historian quoted accept that Jesus was born and that the three wise men did visit him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Interestingly, that’s what the Bible says. But of course, we only accept portions of Scripture that suit our goal for the day (and today it was to write a story about how Christmas never had any “piety and Christian values” in the first place. From there, the article goes on to describe just how consumer-oriented December 25th has become.

In December 2006, Canadians spent, excluding the automotive sector, $874 per capita (versus $630 each for every other month). With an improved economy, 2007 predictions are we’ll spend even more. The pollster Angus Reid (Dec. 07) found that 85 per cent of Canadians believe Christmas has lost its ‘spiritual meaning’. I wonder why? No here’s the line that gets me: “There's still plenty of love, charity and family bonding at this time of year. But the gift, and the purchase, rule. Without the iPod, the necktie, the flat screen TV or the jewelry, we're forgotten. We don't exist.” And, Contenta goes on quoting a marketing professor, “Christmas is the quintessential celebration of our entitlement to abundance. So how are you going to fight that?”
Let Contenta and his experts enlighten us further: “It certainly isn't the Christian component of the celebration that has propelled it into unlikely corners of the planet, making it what one anthropologist has called "the first global consumer holiday." And more… “Merchants have jumped on the Christmas bandwagon in Japan, Hong Kong, and northern India, and are increasingly catering to the holiday in Beijing, says Russell Belk, a marketing professor at York University. The results are sometimes curious, like the Tokyo department store that decorated its Christmas tree with red women's panties or the one that displayed a crucified Santa Claus. . . . the holiday's Christian context is lost on most people . . . interviewed there. They see it as a piece of modernity, as a part of the West."
Contenta continues: “A new documentary, What Would Jesus Buy?, chronicles a mock evangelical leader in the U.S. trying to exorcise the "shopocalypse" from the holiday spirit. Planetary doom aside, there's no evidence that rapacity and increased wealth has made us happier, according to polling data of the past 50 years complied by Richard Layard, a leading British economist. He quotes Karl Marx to make his point: "A house may be large or small; as long as the surrounding houses are equally small, it satisfies all social demands for a dwelling. But if a palace rises beside the little house, the little house shrinks into a hut." And yet, despite the righteous doom and gloom, the excessive behavior feels right.”
Now, listen to this next part – it’s critical and it’s for all intents and purposes, written about Christians and our holiday, by non-Christians. Here it is almost verbatim:
"I don't think Christmas has ever been primarily celebrated as a Christian holiday," says historian Stephen Nissenbaum, author of the acclaimed book, The Battle for Christmas.
"Christmas has never been controlled by Christians. It has never been Christianized. They didn't control it when it was carnival and misrule, and they don't control it now that it's corporate capitalism," he says. To a certain extent, some Christian churches have only themselves to blame for complaints of how Christmas is celebrated.

“The trouble began early in the 4th century, when the Roman church picked Dec. 25 as the day to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, although nothing in the Bible suggests that date. The church was piggybacking on a well-established festive period. The pagan midwinter festival in ancient Roman times, Saturnalia, celebrated a time of abundance. The harvest was in, the new wine and beer was ready to drink, and the air was cold enough for animals to be slaughtered and meat preserved.

"What you've got is a combination of an unusual amount of leisure time, because the men had finished their work, and plenty of food and drink. That's a very combustible mix – and it combusted," says Nissenbaum, a professor at the University of Massachusetts. The result was several days of wild outdoor partying in late December, what Nissenbaum says might today strike us as a sexually charged blend of Mardi Gras, Halloween and New Year's Eve. Fuelling the revelry was a tradition of freeing some slaves during the festivities and allowing others to make demands on their masters – a ritual social inversion acting as a safety valve that reinforced the master-slave relationship the rest of the year, Nissenbaum says. The festivities struck even some contemporary observers as a bit excessive, according to The World Encyclopedia of Christmas, by University of Manitoba historian Gerry Bowler. It quotes the 4th-century Greek pagan Sophist, Libanius: "The impulse to spend seizes everyone. He who the whole year through has taken pleasure in saving and piling up his money becomes suddenly extravagant."

“Bowler notes King John of England's grocery list in 1213 for his Christmas festivities: 3,000 capons; 1,000 salted eels; 400 hogs; 100 pounds of almonds; and 24 casks of wine. Bowler adds that in 1861, the 50 inhabitants of a fort in northern Canada consumed 105 gallons of rum and brandy in one week. Piggybacking on existing cultural festivals was one way Christian churches spread their religion across Europe. But it meant grappling with the festivals' customs.

“In the 17th century, Puritans, who had long seen the holiday as a Catholic manifestation, concluded that attempts to tame or "Christianize" Christmas had failed. They managed to get Christmas banned for several years in England and Massachusetts, which was then an English colony. The holiday returned in the 1660s, picking up a tradition of "wassailing," which in New England involved drunken bands of men banging on the doors of the rich, demanding entry and singing songs in return for food and alcohol. "It was a rough version of caroling," Nissenbaum says. "It made for a lot of tense interaction."

“The modern version of Christmas, Nissenbaum argues, began in New York in the early 19th century. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing and the rich were beginning to segregate themselves in exclusive neighborhoods. More than ever, they wanted to end wassailing, which by then exhibited overtones of class conflict. A group of wealthy, reactionary members of the New York Historical Society launched a campaign to domesticate Christmas, Nissenbaum says. Their most powerful tool was The Night Before Christmas, a poem written in 1822 by one of the group's members, Clement Moore.
The widely reprinted poem – with images of children snug in their beds, stockings hung by the chimney, and a reindeer-riding, chimney-squeezing, gift-bearing St. Nicholas – became the roadmap for taking Christmas from the wilds of the outdoors to the family-centred serenity of the indoors. "That poem was the basic transformation that produced Santa Claus as we know him and Christmas as we know it," Nissenbaum says.

“Santa's gift-giving role paralleled the strengthening of childhood as a distinctive phase of development, particularly with the advent of mass education. Until childhood's "invention," children were largely seen as miniature adults. Merchants were quick to capitalize on the trends, using the Santa Claus image to lure customers and advertise presents for children by the 1830s. A decade later, men dressed as Santa Claus are in the big shops of New York and Philadelphia. He first enters a Canadian store in New Brunswick in the 1870s. "As soon as the Christmas ritual became privatized, domesticated and child-centred, it also became commercial," Nissenbaum says.

“New York began cracking down on street rowdiness, particularly after an 1827 Christmas riot where wassailers invaded houses, tore up fences and broke up religious services. New York's first police force was formed a year later, permits were required to parade the streets, and rowdy Christmas behavior was criminalized. By the 1840s, the United States was in a depression and newspaper editorials began encouraging people to shop at Christmas to improve the economy. Complaints about what to buy people who have everything were already common. Christmas as we know it – domesticated, family-centred and commercialized – was firmly in place by the 1840s.”

December 23 – The first thing that comes to my head after rereading the above article is this: “If that is true, why then do we as Christians, with the encouragement of our churches, continue to celebrate what clearly is not a Christian holiday?”

In response, my mind yields arguments like these: “why can’t we use it to gain access to those that yet have not heard of Christ?” Or, “it’s a great way to introduce Christianity to our own children.” Or, “too great a portion of our own constituency, that is the merchants among us, depend so much on it for their economic survival now.” Or, “we can’t admit we made a mistake now.” And so on.

December 24 – The family starts to arrive for the traditional Christmas Eve dinner at our house. For the third year now, we enjoy several fresh lobsters that the children enjoy boiling themselves. Everyone stays over so we can be together to open our presents Christmas morning. And then the thought hits me: “Am I being a hypocrite?”

How can I justify doing what I’m doing knowing what I know and feeling what I feel? Do I blurt it out loud – so loud in fact that my eldest daughter and family who could not be with us this year hears me down in South Carolina? What will the children really think? Then there’s my church and the mission I help oversee. What will they think? Can I find another way out?

I agonize the rest of the day. Thank God, while Santa Claus is making his rounds, I have the night to think it out clearly. I retire for the night while my darling fills everyone’s stockings placed so wonderfully on the hearth. This year our eldest granddaughter has taken the trouble of putting the appropriate names on each stocking just in case anyone gets mixed up. The two oldest children know that Santa Claus is really either daddy or me. The three younger ones aren’t there yet. I can’t sleep. I roll over and catch a glimpse of the clock – 3:10 a.m. I can’t believe it.

December 25 – There never is a need to set the alarm for Christmas morning anymore. My wife is always up early making sure everything is just right. Sometimes she wins the race of who gets down to the tree first and sometimes the grandchildren get there first.

Meanwhile, I’m still trying to work it all out in mind. I’m called downstairs. I dress with trepidation. I know there’s an expectation to join in the festivities with real zeal. Children and grandchildren have a real ability to detect ‘acting’ in their parents, never mind straight disinterest. I give my head a shake and wish everyone a Merry Christmas as I commence collecting my kisses from each one. But my mind is still going like crazy.

The traditional Christmas Story is read from one of the Gospels in the New Testament. And then with the help of the youngest grandchild capable of helping, the Christmas gifts are distributed. My paper company stock rises as we collect two or more green plastic garbage bags full of wrapping paper, tags and bows. The joy is excruciating for several minutes that hour. And slowly, one gift after another gets abandoned as something new steals the attention of most of the receivers.

It’s almost seven in the evening. The festivities are over. Some of the family has moved on to the other side of the relations; others have gone home; and some want to stay another night. All are accommodated with love.

So, what then did I decide about Christmas? Glad you asked. Let me present you with my new Christless Christmas Manifesto:

1. I believe Christians joined the festivals of their culture many years ago with every good intention.
2. I know we celebrate the birth of Christ at the wrong time of the year.
3. I know we overdo the gift receiving and giving thing.
4. I know many Christian merchants depend on Christmas for their part of their livelihood.
5. I know Satan has via Santa Claus and other aspects of Christmas, been able to completely deplete it of any Christian religious meaning it may have picked up during its existence; but then again, why shouldn’t he for it wasn’t our holiday from the start.
6. I admit all of the above; but I will still continue to celebrate it because I do believe that Christ can be shared effectively with many during this period.
7. I will continue, because there is yet no law against Christmas and truth, to stand up for what I believe at all costs, including the following:
a. My right to say Merry Christmas whenever I feel like it and to anyone I feel like, save and except those I know are practicing Jews or Muslims or from some other know faith which categorically rejects Christianity.
b. My right to teach my children that Santa Claus is not real and to tell my grandchildren what I believe if and when they ask me. (I am also not responsible what they tell their friends.)
c. My right to remind people that Christmas still has both a religious and Christian meaning for many.
d. My right to object to non-Christians imposing their values on the Christmas holiday; let them use their own for such purposes.
e. My right to try and convince my fellow Christian brothers and sisters of what I believe the Christian church has to accept as being true about Christmas and how and where we may have gone wrong.
8. Finally, I will pray for Christ’s return to earth to bring an end to all this mess we have created because of our own sinfulness.

Going Forward – I think it is time for Christ followers to somehow re-establish their special ownership of Christmas. I believe we were successful when we reclaimed Easter from the Easter Bunny and the commercialism surrounding that holiday. We did it with our own very special greeting to replace what has become the world’s “happy Easter”. We started saying, “Christ is Risen” and fellow Christians would reply, “He is Risen Indeed.” Granted, we are said to have taken our lead in that from the first-century Christians and thus it was a natural for us.

But maybe we can do the same thing with Christmas – 21st century Christians can make a new greeting their very own and those that follow after us can consider it a natural in the years to come if the actualization of our greeting’s response has not yet happened. Here it is. . .

Next time someone says, “Merry Christmas”, try saying “Christ has come!” And when eventually others start saying that to you, respond with “And will come again!” That in a nutshell is the true message of Christmas. In that simple exchange of greetings Christians can somehow reclaim the holiday named after their Lord and Savior. Let us become “good Grinches” for the sake of the Baby.

And by the way, “Christ has come!” To which, I’m sure you can reply, “And is coming again!”

Ken B. Godevenos, Newmarket, Ontario, 2007

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