Saturday 22 December 2012

Christmas in the warm

Spending Christmas in South Africa as a foreigner is great if it's a planned holiday or chance of a lifetime excursion. However, if your home is elsewhere and you end up staying in a foreign country because of circumstance, then the experience is somewhat different. Though intensely beautiful and such a privilege to be in the warm during the winter, those of us who are not from here, feel the distance from home and family even stronger during this season.

As my wife and I prepare the house for our guests on Christmas day (shopping, cleaning, sorting), we feel that twinge of pain that is felt by all those who cannot journey home for Christmas. It is somewhat compounded by the fact that my wife's grandma died earlier this year, and for the last 10 or so years, we always spent Christmas day with her family at 'gran's house' in the UK.  So, as we speak over Skype with those close relatives that usually join us, we are all feeling somewhat 'out of place' in our various locations.

However, today, as I sit with my coffee to plan the worship music for church on Sunday and for Christmas day, I notice an update to Chris Lautsbaugh's blog (a fellow YWAM colleague). This year his family was able to travel back to the States to see family. But with more than 20 years mission work under his belt, he has spent a fair few Christmas holidays on the mission field. Here are some of the tips that he had, and I think they're worth sharing for anyone who finds themselves away from home this Christmas:

1. Acknowledge Things Will Be Different
In order to succeed in celebrating, you have to be in the right frame of mind, or you start miserable. Don’t deceive yourself into thinking we can make a “mini-Britain” (or wherever you are from) Christmas on location.

2. Establish New Traditions
How does the nation you are in celebrate? Embracing a new custom can be one of the best parts of the season. South African’s celebrate with the braai. A braai is a  BBQ on steroids. It take most of the day while you slowly cook food and socialize. The main course is meat and more meat. Chicken is considered a vegetable. We started a tradition of cooking some nice meat, making a casual afternoon of relaxing and enjoying the company of some of our friends. We have also added a camping vacation to this season as Christmas falls over the kid’s summer school holidays.

3. Something Old, Something New
Find a tradition you can replicate in addition to new customs. We still find a Christmas tree, even though it makes the tree from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” look like a prize winner! Our kids make ornaments rather than pulling antiques out of storage.

4. Find Community
Don’t spend it alone. Let me say this again. Find someone to celebrate with. Self pity and mourning will creep in otherwise. Invite friends, others missionaries, or even some of your co-workers for a meal and fellowship.

5. Use Technology
You can still “attend” the gatherings back home with the increase in technology. As you tell the stories of your celebration, don’t be surprised if people at home are a bit jealous of the nice weather and fun you are having!

So, if you are discouraged. Don’t give up. Keep trying things till you embrace a new tradition. Whether you are home or abroad, invest the time it takes to make this celebration special.

All throughout the Bible, celebrations were times of remembrance. Israel needed to pause and takes stock; remembering who they were and what God had done for them. Don’t let a change in geography rob you or your family from creating memories. And of course, celebrate Jesus breaking into time and space, forever changing the planet.

Merry Christmas!

Sunday 9 December 2012

The real Santa Claus

I'm so grateful to God that he believes in the written word. He created the world, then he got someone to write down exactly what happened. He sent his son to redeem mankind, then he got the witnesses to write it down. These written accounts enable us to get a clear picture of God's nature and character and gives us something to believe in and base our faith upon.

God very clearly wants us to know him and to reveal him to others who don't know him. This is such a joy and why I love my job so much.

I'm debating at the moment what to reveal to Joshua about Santa Claus or Father Christmas. The culture in many parts of the world is to celebrate this jolly fellow who is generous and gives out presents to good children. This story is also attached to mystical idea that he's still alive and travels the earth and is able to perform a miracle of visiting every child.

I thought I'd spend a bit of time reading the written account of the real St Nicholas, who lived in the 4th Century. What I see, if the records are true, are some amazing stories of provision and miracles. A real man of faith. It's no surprise that we've kept this figure 'alive' in our hearts, as he performed so many miracles, yet took no credit for himself. It was others that credited him, but in fact, he only told of how great God is.

There were times of famine, where, through prayer and intercession, Nicolas pleaded with God and harvests were multiplied. He had an amazing heart for the poor children and would bless continuously. He believed in the deity of Christ and defended his faith. He was a righteous man, devout in his discipline and walk with Christ and 'carried his cross' daily.

Yet what do we as society take from the stories? What do you teach your children about God's provision and guidance through obedience and faith? How many stories of God's compassion on the people do you see?

Adventure, excitement and make-believe is all part of a kid's life. I play with Joshua and all of his toys are not real, but 'make-believe'. It's part play, part educational (how to engage with others, how to take care of equipment etc). Each story I tell has to have a good moral undertone that would line up with scripture. We need to value truth.

I can see how this bastardisation of the story happened. It was probably in good faith that parents wanted to get their children to behave themselves, and to do that they needed a mechanism. Rather than "if you're bad, you won't get any Christmas presents", it's "if you're good, Santa Claus might visit and give you lots of presents", thereby offsetting the discipline to a third 'mystical' party who looks on you and decides if you've been good or not.

Current story of Santa Claus: Mystical figure who will give presents to children who are good.
Summary: behave yourself and you'll receive a gift.
Outworking: transactional faith by works. Ultimately selfish (if I am good, I will get what I want)

Original story: Faithful man of God serves God unconditionally, has a fulfilled life and was able to bless others, especially the poor and needy
Summary: Put God first, then serve others.
Outworking: selfless love that has no bounds.

I know which Santa Claus I'd rather teach about. So, as Joshua grows older, I'm not going to stop teaching about this saint that we all hold dearly to, but I'll tell him the true story, so that he's not 'trying to be good' with the aim to receive presents, but put others first before himself.

Thursday 6 December 2012

Winding down for Christmas

In South Africa, Christmas starts appearing in shops in October (like in many countries), where they can't decide whether to put up tinsel and santas, or halloween stuff, or both! But what's different here compared to the UK, is that Christmas is right in the middle of the summer holidays. This has a profound affect on the church and missional community. Naturally many missionaries travel back home for this season, but others (including us this year) won't be leaving but staying. So, whilst the number in the church and Christian activities increase back home during December (the 'busy month'), things are winding down here, with the congregation thinning out and bit-by-bit people stop activities until the New Year.

I went to try and get my car fixed on the 3rd December, only to be told that "it's Christmas" and things are "too busy" to add any extra work on now. "It's not us," said the mechanic pridefully, "it's the suppliers. We can't get the parts, everyone's out of stock. Bring it back in January."
We work in a seaside location (Muizenberg) where many of the houses are let to missionaries and short term workers for 10 months of the year. Many YWAM families have to vacate their property for December and January to make room for the owners to come and holiday here. The YWAM campus will be closed from the 15th December for about three weeks. This means that there are several people who are left in somewhat limbo: in temporary accommodation and outside of the usual setup (no staff meetings, regular fellowship cancelled etc).

In that regard we've decided that a Christmas with just a toddler will be quite depressing. We're opening our house on the 25th December to friends who want to join us to make a wider 'family' Christmas celebration. It will be a different kind of Christmas than the usual, and may involve a barbecue, rather than a roast dinner, let's see!

Wherever you find yourself this Christmas, may God guide you and comfort you and show you what it was He did by sending His Son to be our Saviour. A great reason to celebrate.