Why Leadings?

Not to lead, but to be led            -- by the Holy Spirit.

See Leader, Servant, or Slave? in the section below, "Walking the Walk".

Jack in Denali National Park, 2012.

God's Wrath

Why was Sodom destroyed? Ezekiel tells us in chapter 16, verse 49: "This was the sin of your sister, Sodom: Pride, full-ness of bread, and abundance of idleness. Neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy."

That's also why Jerusalem was destroyed.

And now, with greed as our national virtue, what hope is there for the United States of America? We are afflicted by imperialistic pride, obesity, and entertainment addiction, and we are all called to do our part to "strengthen the hand of the poor and needy".

"Strengthen the hand" is the King James wording. Modern translations say "help the poor and needy." And there's a world of difference between the two. Helping the poor = as little as throwing some cash in the Salvation Army bucket at Christmas time. That's charity. It's doing for, not doing with.

My Grandmother was right about charity. On a below-zero day, she went out on the back porch with a skillet to throw hot grease on the back-yard snow. She shivered as she re-entered the kitchen and said, "Wooooh, colder than charity."

Strengthening the hand is much different. We get personally involved with another person who needs help, and we work with her or him to get the needed help. That's risky. You're vulnerable. It takes prayer, time and patience. You need knowledge and wisdom from the LORD. There are great rewards, however. You get a brother or sister.

Strengthening the hand is great work for our churches -- which we ignore far more often than we perform. Why? Because we're afflicted with the Ameri-can curse of individualism. Christians are to be a tribe -- a tribe that takes care of each other. In Galatians 6:16, Paul calls us "the Israel of God" -- the new 13th tribe.

Jesus said, "The poor you shall always have with you." He didn't mean that as a curse -- the notion that the poor are an inevi-table nuisance and expense, to be hidden in the slums. Rather, He was saying, "You shall always be among the poor."

When you strengthen hands, you fulfill Deuteronomy 15:4-5: "However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the LORD your God . . ." It's a glorious responsibility and promise.

And how do prosperous Americans fulfill that promise? Generally, by making sure they have no contact with people who are poor -- and we have been that way from our beginnings in the 17th century. Early villages in Massachusetts solved the problem by out-lawing poor people. Today, we deal with the same problem by confining the poor in urban reservations, our slums.

As the Supreme Court Bailiff says at the beginning of each session, "God save the United States of America..." 

Saturday
Dec082012

LOSING THE CHRISTMAS BLUES

The American way of Christmas is a huge public con game, because the highest retail prices in the year come after Thanksgiving.  We're expected to be extravagant with Christmas gifts for family and friends, and thus, we enrich our economy by impoverishing our citizens.  But you can beat the Christmas conspiracy by following the ancient liturgy of the Christian Church.

In my family, we learned the hard way about our need to abandon American holiday customs. 

On Christmas Eve, 1975, my wife, Margaret, and I finished wrapping packages and decorating the house at 1:30 a.m.  We were exhausted and held each other as we gazed with awe at the beautiful setting we had created for our children's Christmas.  We expected this to be our first great family Christmas.  In spite of our exhaustion, we were as excited as five year-olds.

We were awakened at 6:15 a.m. by our daughter, Christie, 4½, and our son, David, 2¼,  They also managed to wake our 15 day-old baby daughter, Nancy,

We rushed downstairs for the celebration.  Christie could already read a little.  She recognized our names. So, my wife told her, "You can be Santa Claus and pass out the gifts."  She did.  That is, she scrambled through the pile and made nine straight hand-offs to her brother as if she were an NFL quarterback. 

As our son took each beautifully wrapped gift, he was in demolition mode and ripped it open in seconds. He glanced at each gift and then took his sister's next hand-off.  In probably less than a minute, all nine of his presents were littered around him.  He looked up at Margaret and demanded, "What else is there?"

Teaching Them to Be Greedy

Margaret burst into tears.  As I tried to comfort her, she sobbed into my shoulder, "We're just training them to be greedy."  We realized there had to be a better way.

Because Margaret was a Lutheran deaconess and a student of liturgy, she realized that the way to beat the Christmas blues was to stretch out the season.  That way we wouldn't try to cram an explosion of joy into the early morning of December 25.

So, beginning in '76, we experimented with a revised Christmas season, which included more elements from the Nativity reports in Matthew and Luke.  We also added Christmas customs from other cultures. Over the years, our family Christmases evolved into this --

My wife was a life-long Missouri-Synod Lutheran.  She was also a Lutheran Deaconess.  Thus, she appropriately started our Christmas season with Advent, the liturgical season which leads up to Christmas.  She began the practice of using both an Advent calendar and daily readings after dinner. She did so, but not very successfully.

The reality was that our three children and I -- around the house -- were functional beach bums.  We took scant interest in the Advent calendar, and the Missouri-Synod Advent booklets bored us.  We found them preachy, theological, or trivial.

There were two exceptions.  As best I recall, one year we had an Advent booklet which had been written in Switzerland.  It was a succession of brief, excellent short stories.  We enjoyed them.

The other exception was a collaboration between Margaret and Nancy, our younger daughter. On Advent Sunday, they put the crèche on a table in the living room – the Nativity scene, but minus the magi. The magi were stationed three rooms away in our kitchen.  Then, each day of Advent, Nancy and Margaret moved the magi a few inches along their journey to Bethlehem.

But on December 6, the Christmas season really began for us beach bums with St. Nicholas Day. Following the Dutch custom, all of us put our shoes outside the bedroom door on the night of the fifth. Then, on the morning of the sixth, we each had small, thoughtful gifts in our shoes. Margaret had been St. Nick for us, and I for her.

After work on St. Nicholas Day, the kids and I went to a nearby woods and brought home a branch. At home, we spray painted it white.  We put it in a holder on the dining room table.  This was our Jesse tree. We hung Bible symbols on it and talked about them. Thus, from their earliest years, our three children had pictures and stories about major Bible figures in their heads.

Jesse  Tree  Symbols

Technically, the symbols are supposed to be just ancestors of Jesus in the line of Jesse, but we included most major figures from the Old and New Testaments, 30 symbols.  Each symbol at left represents a major character in the Bible. The key is at the end of this article.

Our Christmas tree came much later, no earlier than December 20. Because our family lived in voluntary poverty, we couldn't afford a fancy commercial tree.  So, our trees were either low-priced or free.

One year, on the evening of the 23rd, we went past downtown to the market by the Ohio River and the railroad tracks.  Trees were no longer selling, so we were able to buy a nice spruce for $5.

Another December, I was passing the Free Store two blocks from our house.  The Free Store parking lot was overflowing with trees. Walter Huckabee, an old friend, called, "Hey, Jack, come get a tree."  "Thanks, Walter, I'd like one, but I wouldn't feel right taking it.  Even poor as we are, there are other families that have more need."  "Are you kidding?  We'll never get rid of half these trees.  Take two."  So, I took one.

Of course, there's nothing Christian about Christmas trees.  They're hangovers from our Druid roots. Martin Luther sought to domesticate the custom by bringing the tree indoors.  But, our in-house evergreens bless us in several ways – they have a glorious odor for a day, they're lovely seasonal centerpieces, and they litter needles and aluminum icicles.  And every year, to aid our economy and ecology, we Americans slaughter 37 million more trees.

For our family, I suggested we buy a spindly, potted Norfolk pine and decorate it each year with tiny white lights, but I was always outvoted, 4 to 1.

Less Stress

During the November and December Christmas shopping frenzies, we bought a few gifts and made others. But, we didn't stress ourselves.  We didn't have to.

So, what does all this have to do with ancient Christian liturgy and with the Bible? Now the wonder starts. Consider our prime Christmas image:  the crèche, the Nativity scene, with the star, the angels singing, the Holy Family, shepherds, wise men, camels, sheep and cows – a lovely image, which could not have happened that way.

When Jesus was born, where were Joseph, Mary and Jesus?  Next to a feed trough.  That's all Luke tells us.  For centuries Christians have assumed they were in an animal shelter – a stable or a cave.  But, around the world most feed troughs are probably out in the open, prartularly in dry areas, like Israel. 

And Luke tells us more that contradicts our lovely Christmas crèches.  Who visited Jesus and his parents the day He was born?  Shepherds.  Just shepherds.  What gifts did they bring? None. Just themselves. And note that Luke doesn't tell us about the shepherds seeing the star.

Feast of the Poor

Liturgically, Christmas is the feast of the poor, with Jesus showing his poverty and humanity among the poorest of the poor. We can best celebrate the day by celebrating with friends and neighbors who are housebound, alone, or going through rough times.

For Americans Christmas is a season of song, and that's wonderful. But, it's not Scriptural.  Luke makes no mention of singing. Luke reports that an angel spoke to the shepherds, "and suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, "Glory be to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men." The songs are our invention. A glorious one. Not harmful. But also not Scriptural.

Another invention:  Why do we give gifts on December 25?  There are many answers, including customs from the Roman Saturnalia, but those answers don't come from Scripture. Christmas gifts have become unscriptural American marketing.

Luke tells us the details of Jesus' birth. Matthew tells us what came before and after. Mark and John are silent on the subject.

So, according to Matthew, the magi brought gifts. When did they arrive? Not with the shepherds. Our crèche scenes are misleading. Matthew specifically says that the magi found Mary and Jesus in a house. Shepherds and magi arrived at different times in different locations.

The Twelve Days

Here's where the genius of the liturgy comes into play. In the traditional liturgy, when do we celebrate the arrival and homage of the magi? On Epiphany, January 6, twelve days after Christmas. Remember? Twelfth Night? Kings Day? The Twelve Days of Christmas?

"Epiphany" comes from the Greek for "showing forth". When the magi arrived – two weeks or two years after the shepherds – they were the first to recognize and worship Jesus as the King of kings. This was the first showing forth of Jesus' royal authority.

Around the world, many Christians celebrate Epiphany, January 6, as the gifting day. That's appropriate. It fits with Matthew's account.

So, how did our family fit its Christmas season to the liturgical pattern?  Well, we too had non-Scriptural customs.  For example, my wife was so excited by Christmas that she couldn't wait for Christmas morning.  So, the evening of the 24th, we went to the Christmas Eve service.  Then, we came home – and each of us opened one gift.

And on Christmas morning?  We'd gather, pray, and would say to the youngest child who could read: "OK, you be Santa and pass out the gifts." We each opened two. But, the gifts of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were small, fun gifts.  Nothing expensive.

The Christmas Spirit

My mother, ElDean Towe, told me that Santa was the spirit of Christmas giving.  Which, of course, was nonsense.  But, it was useful nonsense.  I never believed that Santa was some guy who came down the chimney – only later to be terribly disillusioned, as my mother had been.

My mother was wise.  Telling me as a boy, "you be Santa", still made Christmas magical, but it protected me from bad hurt later.  Of course, in my lifetime, the past 76 years, Santa Claus has become the spirit of Christmas merchandising – not only here, but around the world.

For most Americans, Christmas is over on the morning of the 25th.  Once the presents are opened – and the children have texted their friends to see who has the most bragging rights – what do you do then?

In contrast, Christmas didn't stop for us on the 25th.  Our Christmas tree had special decorations – a dozen envelopes, numbered one to twelve.  Each day, we'd open the next envelope.  Each day would be different. Examples:

"Go visit Heddy."   (A retired missionary friend who had served in India)

"Go to the Zoo."

"Help with the community dinner at Prince of Peace"

"Invite Tonu to dinner."  (Tonu Lohmussar, an Estonian DP, was like an uncle.)

"Go to a movie"

"Visit the McKechnies"  (Friends who adored the kids)

"Open a gift"   (etc)

So, our Christmas season became a time for our family to do special events together – for Jesus and with each other.

Big Epiphany Gifts

Then, in January, we bought our big gifts for Epiphany.  Consider the results:

1.  We didn't go into debt.  We used the January check.  We avoided financial free fall.

2.  By then, there are parking places downtown and at the malls.

3.  The whole Christmas season has been fun, relaxed and mostly stress free.

4.  We paid much less for our big gifts.

We all know that most sales between Thanksgiving and Christmas are bogus marketing gimmicks.  For the first 20 days of December, prices are high.  Then, three days before Christmas the sales become real.  Then, in the week after Christmas, the sales are really, really real.  But, in the week after New Year's Day, the sales are really, really, really real.  By then, the retailers are desperate to get rid of merchandise.  That's when we bought our Epiphany presents.

And on Epiphany?  In the morning, Margaret rose early and made us a delicious breakfast with Swedish pancakes.  Then, we opened our big presents and wished each other God's blessings for the year. In the evening, we followed the Portuguese custom and had a Kings' Day party.  It was a fun get-together, with one addition – a Kings' Cake.  The Kings' Cake is a regular, delicious cake with an extra item embedded – e.g. a quarter wrapped in aluminum foil.  The person who finds the quarter is supposed to be king for the year.

Not Amused

One year, two friends distressed Margaret by wrapping half a dozen quarters in foil and stirring them into the cake while she wasn't looking.  She was not amused.

What's Scriptural about "King's Day"?  Only their arrival.  Matthew says the visitors were "magi", Zoroastrian scholars.  Not kings.  There were three gifts.  How many magi?  Matthew doesn't say.  Could be any number from two on up.

So, in spite of the clear testimony of Scripture, do we still put up the Nativity crèche?  Sure.  Do we still sing with gusto "Angels We Have Heard on High,"  "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear", and "We Three Kings"? Sure. Do we celebrate Christmas Day?  Sure.  Why not?  We're Americans.  We have national Christmas myths, along with the Bible Nativity stories.  They differ; the differences don't much matter – as long as we clearly explain them to our children.  I think our American customs are extravagant and strangely funny.

What does Jesus think about the way we celebrate His birthday?  Perhaps He feels ignored, amused, sad or angry.  But I suspect that He greatly values our Birthdays – yours and mine – the day we received Him in our hearts.  That's the day He'd really like to have us celebrate.  Do you celebrate yours?

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All this has been a survey of Margaret's method for beating the Christmas blues, stress, rush, and expenses. If you want to share the joy she received from the Christmas season, you now know how to put a lot more Jesus, Bible, and fun into December and early January.  You too can be liberated – and you don't have to go broke.  Enjoy. 

Key  To  The  Jesse  Tree  Symbols

1.   Moses.  Exodus 3:2

2.   Joseph  I.  Genesis 37:7

3.   Peter.  Or Peter and Andrew.  Luke 5:4-11

4.   Joseph  II.  Matthew 13:55

5.   Jeremiah.  Jeremiah 38:6

6.   Elijah.  I Kings 17:4-6.  Or Noah.  Genesis 8:7.

7.   Jesus.  Or David.  Isaiah 11:1

8.   Solomon.  I Kings 5 Through 9

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Purpose of this blog is to compile several books for my grandchildren to read in 25 years.

Copyright © 2002 by Jack Towe

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