As I think about the Christmas story, I can’t get Galatians 4:4 off my mind.

“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.”

The fullness of time.

Dr. Thom Wolf says that the “fullness of time” relates back to Ecclesiastes 1:9- “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun;” That humanity had progressed as far as we ever would; there would be no new worldviews, philosophies, or ideas (maybe “improvements” and syntheses of old ones). Once we had tried everything, literally exhausted our options at attempts at godhood, Christ entered the picture.

Look around. There really aren’t any new ideas. Looking for salvation, even a temporary one, people still turn to the lusts of the eyes and the lusts of the flesh. While chasing after these things may be easier than ever, they are no more functional as saviors than they were in Jesus’ day.

Jesus’ arrival in the manger so long ago meant salvation for humanity- a salvation we had tried so desperately to earn, invent, discover, buy, steal, or create. God’s timing was this: when we were at our end, He stepped into history to provide a way.

Thank you, Jesus, for lowering yourself to our level.

Happy Christmas, everyone!

I’m still thinking about the ongoing controversy among cultural Christians over whether secular businesses greet them with “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.” A comment from Seminary Wife on my last post has got me thinking:

The Christians who are worked up over this are spoiled.

In the Middle East, Christians suffer persecution. In central Asia, Christ-followers are killed. In China, Christians meet secretly. In America, their greeted with indifference at the mall.

When you’re in the majority, you get used to having things your way. The problem is that Americans decided (some time ago) that they didn’t want to act like Christians. The Christians, however, didn’t seem to notice it until they were greeted with “Happy Holidays” at the Gap.

The Bible says, “Bless those who persecute you.” I’m not familiar with any passage that reads, “Take offense at those who insult your sense of entitlement.”

As I celebrate Christ’s birth this season, I’m choosing to feel compassion for (not frustration with) those who won’t acknowledge that Christmas is about Jesus. I hope you will, too.

And pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ who cannot openly celebrate with us. Pray for those who are losing their lives, even as we lose a bit of our comfort.

Merry Christmas.

Is God pleased when a non-believer says “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays?”

screen-shot-2010-12-20-at-2-13-31-pm-300x126-6309868Lots of people (mostly in Texas and Florida) seem to think so.  First Baptist Church, Dallas recently launched, (HT) a website that posts user-generate lists: businesses that greet customers with “Merry Christmas” make the Nice list, while “Happy Holidays” earns them a spot on the Naughty list.

Nevermind that the idea of Naughty and Nice lists come from the secular Santa Claus myth. Forget that the Grinch is a (trademarked) character in a secular Christmas children’s story with a dubious humanistic moral at the end. Pay no attention to the overt consumerism displayed on the site. What’s especially troubling about this campaign is that these people actually believe that God is somehow honored by Christian-targeted marketing.

I blame John Piper.

I’m sure Dr. Piper would never advocate for something like GrinchAlert. But I can’t help but think that this sort of “boycott lost people for not acting like Christians” mentality has some relation to Piper’s assertion that the greatest good is whatever brings God the “most glory.” While I don’t disagree with his premise, I’m pretty sure we need to clarify what we mean by “good,” “glory,” and, well, “God” for that matter. Otherwise, we get GrinchAlert culture warriors who care more that people act like Christ-followers than that they would actually become Christ-followers because it, you know, brings glory to God.

Is it a “win” for Christians if secular businesses say “Merry Christmas?” Is that part of our mission on this earth? Is a coerced profession of Christmas our mission? I’m no expert in degrees of God-honor, but “If you don’t say Christmas we’ll go elsewhere to buy the Chinese-made junk we don’t need” doesn’t seem like it’d be that high on the list.

It all comes down to marketing. The reason Starbucks insists that its employees greet customers with “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” is that they want to make money.  Their audience isn’t just Christian Christmas-celebrators. “Happy Holidays” covers everyone- Christians, Jews, Qwanzaans, and atheists who don’t believe there’s anything to celebrate, but still take a couple days off work this time of year.

The other side of the question remains: is the non-believer brought any closer to belief by saying, “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays?” Will the clerk at Borders know Jesus better if we include his store on the Naughty list?

By the way, my favorite comment on the GrinchAlert site?

“American Airlines: Excessive use of “holiday”, no mention of Christmas. With a name like American Airlines, come on.”

Why not…

  • Require all church members to have a valid passport and go on at least one international trip every couple years?
  • Invite representatives of unbelieving people groups into your church to speak about what they believe and what they think of Christianity?
  • Send a care package to a missionary you don’t (yet) know?
  • Start a blog on behalf of the workers in restricted-access places that would allow them to communicate safely and anonymously?
  • Advocate for a people group? Make them more than just projects or statistics.
  • Intentionally cross cultures in your city?
  • Use your church van to drive neighbors to the store?
  • Design a logo for your local neighborhood association? Bring it to the next public meeting.
  • Use the arrival of the Christmas season to explain the gospel in a clear way to neighbors and co-workers?
  • Celebrate the good news in your community? You could buy someone’s coffee, post a note on a local bulletin board.
  • Mow your neighbor’s lawn? (Shovel the snow in his drive?)
  • Build a website for another church in town? You know which one I mean.
  • Skip work (let them know) and take your family to a matinee?

0700b_032-225x300-5373598Believers often look to the life and ministry of the Apostle Paul as the model for missions. He did, after all, travel around telling people about Jesus and leave a trail of networked churches in his wake. But Paul isn’t the best picture of a missionary.

Paul didn’t seem to0 concerned with contextualization- mostly because he stayed within his own context. Sure, he moved in and out of different societies: Jews, Gentiles, Greeks, Romans. But these were the subcultures he lived among well before his call to mission. We don’t see Paul having to learn different languages, for example, his Hebrew served him well among the Jewish community, and his Greek allowed him to communicate everywhere else. He traveled within the Roman Empire, where, as a Roman citizen, his was the dominant culture. For the most part, Paul was already a member of the tribes he ministered to. That’s not to say that he wasn’t a missionary; let’s just consider him more of a “home” missionary than a “foreign” missionary.

The best example of a missionary? Jesus.

The Incarnation was the greatest mission trip ever. When the eternal Word became a human being, He left His home to live in a very different place in order to communicate God’s love for mankind. He didn’t hang on to his divine cultural identity, instead he traded it for the humiliation of being a helpless human child. We consider it “extreme” when an American missionary adopts indigenous dress; I wonder how long it took for God to get used to the confines of the human form. Some missionaries spend years learning the local language- Jesus probably took what, two, two-and-a-half years? He didn’t even have a foreign accent!

Jesus’ whole life was about context. When He was tempted by the Enemy, he could have smited (smote?) him with lightening bolts from His fingers, but He didn’t because that’s not how we did things in human culture back then. When He was nailed to a cross, He could have given the signal for a million angels to swoop in and take Him down, but He didn’t, because He thought it was important to suffer on our terms. Without the credibility of being recognized as God, Jesus entered the human conversations around religion, social norms, philosophy, and politics. He did this so that we would believe in Him.

Of course, Jesus also gave humanity glimpses of his culture of origin. He healed and forgave people, and He bucked even the most deeply ingrained customs if they contradicted His message. Jesus stood up against social inequality, dead religion, oppressive leadership, and political ideologies. He followed our rules for things like time and space and the need to breathe air so that we would be able to relate to Him and begin to understand what He was saying. He played the part, but only until the time was right.

At just the right moment, Jesus broke the cultural rules. Big ones, too- like death and gravity and walking through walls. He did this because it was time to show that was was, indeed, not from around here. He had come for a reason, motivated by love and a clear mission. That makes Him the best missionary of all.

Merry Christmas, dear reader.

Syncretism is a key missiological concept that refers to the all-too common practice of overlaying one set of beliefs with another, disparate one. People often go to great lengths to reconcile different, even opposing, belief systems in order to make sense of the world around them.

When African tribes were (forcibly) “converted” to Christianity by imperialist missionaries in the 18th century, tribal leaders responded by adding the Holy Spirit to the collection of spirits they depended on to keep them safe. As the “Holy” Roman Empire expanded, nations were assumed into it by renaming their pagan gods, saints, and feasts after Christian ones.

This kind of syncretism is bad because it ignores the transformative power of Christ. It creates a veneer of Christianity that is devoid of the character of the Most High. The result is a broad misunderstanding of what life in Christ truly ought to be. Jesus isn’t just another prophet. Mary isn’t analogous to “Mother Earth.”

Of course, it isn’t always the pagans adopting Christian language and imagery; syncretism works both ways. December 25 was the date of a Roman pagan festival having to do with stars long before it was selected by the Church for the celebration of Christmas. Easter wasn’t always a holiday of remembrance of Christ’s resurrection- it began as a celebration of Spring, fertility, and an Anglo-Saxon goddess called ?ostre.

syncretism-7729708The problem with this “reverse” syncretism is that changing the name of a holiday doesn’t necessarily replace the object of worship with Jesus the Christ. Equating freedom in Christ with political freedom grossly understates the true meaning of freedom and makes too much of the worldly version.

Adopting cultural forms and methodologies without retaining a prophetic voice is syncretistic mimicry. But interjecting the God narrative into the culture is different from syncretism.  As Christians engage the cultures in which they live, they retell the culture’s stories back to it from God’s perspective.

The culture’s worship looks to the stars? We can’t say, “At least you’re looking up!”  We can say, “Let me tell you about the star that led wise men from the East to worship a baby in a feed trough.”

The culture celebrates new beginnings? It isn’t enough to encourage that celebration- we must point people to Jesus, whose resurrection makes possible the ultimate new beginning for humanity and all of creation.

Our culture values freedom? The Bill of Rights can only get you so far (and can be amended!). Only Jesus can make you truly free.

Jesus did this with Jewish law in the “You have heard… but I say to you…” sayings of His Sermon on the Mount. Paul filled in the blanks of Athenian religion when he addressed the philosophers at the Aeropagus. It is the spiritual takeover of a worldly stronghold. This isn’t syncretism, it’s redemption; reclaiming the truth that can be found in all cultures as God’s truth.

Image HT: Eric G. at Circular Thoughts

The birth of Jesus is the greatest plot-twist ever. Maybe you’ve read a book where the story seems to be going in a certain direction, (maybe the identity of the killer seems obvious), but then, in a crucial and defining moment, the entire thing is turned upside-down. The rules are changed, the focus shifts, and you realize that you were wrong about what you think you thought you knew.

In a really good story, you never see it coming. Maybe the seemingly objective narrator is actually the protagonists’ long-lost uncle. Maybe it turns out that the hero was dead the whole time but didn’t know it. Whatever it is, there is a unique sensation when the plot twist hits you. For a brief moment, before it all becomes clear, you feel sort of giddy and light-headed.

You realize that the author had laced the story with clues about the dramatic shift. Upon a second reading, it seems so obvious. Of course the support-group-addicted insomniac and the charismatic anarchist cult leader were one and the same!

God becoming a little Hebrew baby. Is a brilliant twist to the story of His interaction with humanity. With Jesus, it all suddenly makes sense. So it isn’t about being born to the right parents or being a good person! There is hope! God know what He was doing all along!

And the clues were so, obvious!  How did we miss it? Beautiful in its simplicity, the Christmas story is about divine temperance. It’s about the mystery of His ultimate plan.

Merry Christmas.