The Beauty of Christmas: Giving is Better than Receiving

I asked our church a question that I need to ask myself again and again. Do we browse the Christmas deals, door busters, or whatever scares the pants off you enough to get you to the store or to drop the item into the online cart before you miss out for our own wish list or for the others that we are shopping for? Hmmm, Kind of a question that puts into perspective our proclivity to selfishness, a little part of that dark underbelly to Christmas in the 21st Century, the not so beautiful side of Christmas. But there is a part to Christmas that is overwhelmingly beautiful–giving.

The beauty of giving is what I love about the times we can get out and serve or bless with no strings attached. We are not giving to a charity that is offering us coupons, or half-off at Knott’s Berry Farm. We are not giving to get but giving to give. And our church has learned over its short lifetime to give and give. One of our favorite traditions comes each Christmas as we give to our partner church to help those less fortunate have a little more love during Christmas. Getting overlooked at other times of the year might be bad enough, but being overlooked at Christmas can simply turn a joyful season into a hopeless time of year. May that never be.

This time of year can be the most impacting, memorable, heart pounding—simply beautiful space on the calendar when we slow down to make it about its real meaning and motivations of kindness, mercy and blessing. This season opens us to  life-changing moments as Christmas runs deep with the work of Jesus. But not just his work once done long, long ago…his ongoing work in us that manifests in goodness shared all around. At least that is what it should be as those who can bless those in who have need.

Christmas should draw us together, rich and poor, privileged and under-privileged, well off or underwhelmed, loved or unloved, difficult or easy, in similar ways that the cross levels the playing field. All are equal at the foot of the cross, and all are equally deserving of Christmas’ benefits as rich and poor gathered around the manger. The story of Jesus is for everyone from all backgrounds with no favorites, no secret codes that get us in early, no membership rewards, no extra benefits. Nope, we all share a common bond as humanity, a common identity as we share in that distinction we all carry as image bearers of our creator. Christmas should remind us to think of those like us but different than us, like us in that essence of humanity but different in background, heritage or story, like us in heart and soul, but different in social standing. Here we can help all have a little more equal footing as the baby born in that manger smiles bright on each of us with his love.

And hopefully reflected through us as we spread love to those in need of more love.

For me, I love the season of joy that Christmas brings. No matter what I might long for in this year, I love the opportunities where we get to be a blessing to others. One of my highlights of the year is how we can demonstrate our love for our partner church in a simple but profound way by giving toys to the children of their community, some in the church and some in the neighborhood.

About this time last year, our church, The Connection Churchpartnered with a struggling, inner-city, under-resourced church—Faith Community Church in South Central LA. The partnership emerged easily and wonderfully as God knit the hearts of two pastors together. Two churches led by pastors who look drastically different simultaneously share a common vision to love and serve their community with all the gusto that they can muster up.

#TruePartnership

As we have aimed to come alongside a church that loves their neighborhood but lacks the resources to fulfill their vision, I love seeing the partnership develop over the year. And this Christmas has shown the fruit of a relationship forged in love. Last year, we were able to share a smidge over 50 toys for the church to pass out to their children and friends of their children. When we heard that some of these kids may not even get one gift for Christmas, our hearts simply broke. How could this be? We have not walked in their shoes, so we could not imagine what it must be like to wake up on Christmas morning to have no toys under the Christmas tree. Perhaps there is not even a Christmas tree at the front window.

50 toys were handed out to 50 children. We saw God use us as an instrument of blessing to those who needed it the most.

But we heard that more could have been done. When we first initiated conversations with Pastor Perades so close to Christmas, too close to do more last year, we asked how many toys would they want/need. He further explained that if they had 50 gifts, they would have 50 children there to receive the gifts, and if they had 100 gifts, they would have 100 children there. As the word would get out, they would see children from the poor neighborhood flood to the Christmas celebration.

Therefore, this year we redoubled our efforts wanting to see twice the number of kids receive a ray of love during their Christmas.  People from our little church plant spread out throughout the shopping center, box-stores, and malls to gather toys and gifts for those less-privileged. They carefully selected toys that could be enjoyed by toddlers, preschoolers, youngsters, boys, girls, tweeners and children of all ages. When the collection time came to an end, we were able to take 107 gifts, plus-or-minus one to South Central. Christmas would not skip these kids once again.

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In serving and partnering, I love how we get to play our role and no more. We deliver the gifts a couple of days ahead of Faith Community’s Christmas service with no strings attached. They get to do what is best for their people, for their community, and we do not have to be there to receive the glory. Faith Community gets to be the visible representation of God’s love to the children and their families.

Now, let me explain why this giving gesture and participation with the needy has quickly become one of my favorite days of the year. We get to be a blessing on their terms and not ours. And blessing really becomes the movement of this partnership. The blessing is mutual as we learn and receive from them as well.

To me, the gesture of generosity is nice, but when Pastor Perades receives our gift, he shows such incredible gratitude which profoundly moves me. I tell him that I come just for a chance to eat good food at his favorite restaurants, but really, I come to feel the joy he exudes when God answers prayers. I am always blown away by how touched he is that people would get up out of their comfortable world to enter his and join him on his level for a bit. He shares story after story of how God meets them in their hour of need, never growing to callous to be amazed. Yet, I know his struggle of ministering in South Central is real. But I get to hang out with a guy who shows sweet perseverance through the struggle. His heart is so big, and his joy so great; he knows how to express the beauty of Christmas.

When he grabbed the bags with me out of our car, he just lit up. When we placed the bags down on the table and he lingered to look the toys and unwrapped presents over, while we grabbed more out of the car, I knew he was touched. When he suddenly and joyfully blurted these are the good toys, these are not no dollar store toys. No, these are the primo ones! We get Build-A-Bear, skateboards, Disney dolls, games and on the list goes for all ages to be blessed. He tells me all I need to know to know we are in the middle of a good partnership.

Now, it would be cool to be there when the toys are actually received by the children, some more expressive and others more stoic, but this is not our day it is the children’s day. And St. Nick didn’t wait around to see the faces of people brighten; he gave to give knowing that was simply enough.

But in America, we like happy endings, so I needed to text Pastor Perades Sunday afternoon to catch his summation of how the event went for their church and community. I knew he was putting on the full-court press to get all the neighborhood’s kids there that were in need of a special Christmas treat, not just one more toy to add to their collection, but a real demonstration of love. He was grabbing people on our way out of the parking lot to lunch to make sure they knew what was up.

Thus, I anticipated a good report. But what I got really blew me away as I previously posted Pastor Perades thoughts of realism when it comes to giveaways. He has not found gimmicks to be as evangelistically fruitful as we often think. Yet giving away love should always be at the heart of how we live. After that, the rest is up to God. But when you tie together relationships, community, love, the story of Christmas and a bit extra in the gifts department and a few other factors I am sure I am unaware, you can get a great moment, a beautiful moment, a moment in which 16 people give their lives to Jesus. This is where the church lives out their mission on their own feet with a little nudge from their partners down the way in Orange County. Oh, imagine what could happen if more smaller churches partnered together. Hmm, sounds like a good post for the days between Christmas and New Year’s as we reflect on values for the coming year.

Christmas doesn’t get any better than when people accept the greatest gift into their heart, a gift that forever changes them. And Faith Community got to play a big part in helping see the gift of Jesus actualized in these people. And we played a part in that too, a small but essential part.

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What are your favorite memories of giving this Christmas?

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Reflections from Songkran

As I get a few days away from Songkran, the Thai New Year, I wanted to give some observations of the Thai customs.
Songkran, once a polite and formal holiday in which young people splashed water and went to their families to show honor to their elders. Blessing, cleansing, and honor mark the holiday as people from all corners of the nation of Thailand come together to celebrate with their family. However, I realized through conversations with some of our Thai friends, we come to understand the chaotic water fights have existed always, but the bawdy and wildness has emerged stronger and stronger over the past generation. Last year, teenage girls were taking their tops off; drunkards were making things more edgy, young men look for opportunities to grope the female Songkran participants.
What happened?
People lose their moorings when celebration trumps meaning. When people begin to lose their cultural heritage when they start to forget why they do certain customs. When we decouple the meaning of a tradition, we lose the purpose for doing something.
I have loved watching the church, often seen as a foreign entity, come alongside of Thai culture and help the Thai people hold onto their customs. In some ways, they reinterpret what some of the meaning are or where the blessings come from. However, in Songkran, we do not see the future blessings coming from God.
One example comes from the water pouring blessing, or rot nam dam hua. The young people use this ceremony to show honor to their elders as they go on their knees before their family’s elders. They ask for forgiveness for the things they did in the previous year. They then pour scented water over their elders hands, who in turn pray a blessing over the youth.
The Christians can still participate in this without looking to the spirits of Thailand to bring blessings or curses, but to God. They can see forgiveness coming from Jesus and blessings poured out by their Father in heaven.
We enjoyed watching the church partake in this ceremony, culturally appropriate to Thailand and yet sensitive to Jesus teachings. Thailand has become a party place led by their tourist centers of Bangkok, Pattaya, Chiang Mai, Phuket and others as they jubilantly celebrate their New Year. Others want to fight back against this and hold onto the traditions and the meaning of their deep culture that the New Year starts with a cleansing of the past and openness to the future year. Perhaps the church will play a pivotal role in helping reinfuse cultural meaning into the festivals of Thailand.

Songkran: A Family Holiday

Our daughter celebrates her first Thai festival this week as Songkran (the Thai New Year) enters the stage in Thailand. Eliana had the special treat of sharing this festival with her nana who is visiting from California. With Thai New Year each summer, comes times of family and blessings. One overarching motif of the Songkran Festival (the Thai New Year, April 13-15) is blessing. Within each family, the younger family members go to their elders to seek a blessing and ask for forgiveness from the previous year’s wrongs. At their elder’s house, they pour jasmine scented water over the palms of their respected members of their family. The water symbolizes the cleansing and renewing from last year’s sins.

As they pour the water, the elders speak a blessing over the younger persons in the family. The ceremony and traditions that come with Songkran tie the families together and cement the sense of community throughout the nation. Everyone goes home for the three-day holiday and often stretch the time into a whole week.

At Our Home Chapel, we celebrated a special Songkran service to honor the elders in the church family. The service’s theme hung on blessing as well. The teaching talked about the practical outworking of a Biblical blessing and how we are all called to bless those around us. At the conclusion of the service, the elders sat along the side wall of the main room while the youth in the church carried their scented water from person to person. Eliana even sprinkled her nana’s hands with water. Nana in turn spoke a blessing over her granddaughter and enjoyed participating in the cultural traditions of Thailand.

 

Observations of Traditional Religion Day 23

As we consider the thoughts of local people when a new life comes into the community, I am reminded of a story from another missionary friend. Ceremonies, rituals and symbols play a vital part in the life of a community during such events as: birth, marriage, death, coming into adulthood and much more.

Our friend, who married a Thai national, told us that after his child was born, his wife’s family wanted them to put specific objects near the new baby. The objects were supposed to help provide a good future for the child.

Thai people will place certain vegetables or fruit to bring good health, put a coin near the baby to bring wealth, and so on. There is a specific place they must be laid around the baby as it sleeps to bring the good fortunes.

The man felt he was in a conundrum. His wife’s family wanted to ensure that their grandchild would be lucky while he didn’t see the need as he and his wife are Christians and believe that God will bless their child. He didn’t want to offend her family, but he didn’t want to invite spirits into his house and around his child. In the end, he insisted that God was more powerful than any spirits who could bring any good luck. He and his wife prayed over their child that God would bless her and then dedicated her to the Lord at church a few weeks later.

Observations of Traditional Religion Day 6

Thai people do many things to bring blessing to their home. Blessing in this context means simply bringing good fortune, wealth, protection and other day-to-day good things. The idea is that evil or calamity is blocked as well as good things are encouraged to come.

One example of this can be a wind chime or something hung in or around the home to bring a blessing. Our first year in Thailand, a new Christian gave us a wind chime for Christmas.

The wind chimes had writing on the bottom to bring riches to our house, literally lots of money as he told us. The chimes didn’t have anything Buddhist on them, so he didn’t think it was anti-Christian, even though the other Christians saw it as a religious symbol calling in Thai spirits to bring blessing. Our friend just wanted to bring us good luck and thank us for being a part of his journey to faith in God.

We were in a conundrum. We wanted to graciously accept the gift, but didn’t want to put up spiritual symbols in our apartment. We knew he would ask us how we liked the wind chime and if we had hung them in our home. We decided to paste a sticker over the words taking away the power and making the wind chimes a fun decoration.

The push for success and the symbols that are used in order to protect and empower one’s life run deep within Thai culture. They are not always seen as religious, but obvious parts of life.

Going to the House of the Elders

This is reposted from last year’s trip to Dong’s family in Fang for Songkran.

 

Songkran comes with one other tradition. The first day is the traditional New Year, the second is family day where everyone goes home, and the third is the day for older people.

We spent the end of Songkran with Dong’s family in his home town. We spent time with Dong and his mother as we went to different Uncle’s houses. We participated in the traditional water pouring ceremony.

 

This ceremony consists of the family bringing gifts for the elders of their family and pouring water over their hands. Then the family one-by-one gets a prayer of blessing as they tie a string around their wrist. The string is to help us remember the blessings spoken over our life for the year.

 

Now, the prayer is not Christian, but we prayed in our heart a prayer from God toward Dong’s family. We appreciated seeing the culture and the tradition that comes more from Thailand then religion. We were blessed by the strong emphasis on family and the respect shown toward the elders.

 

I was reminded of the blessing that Isaac spoke over Jacob and Jacob over his sons. I would like to know more about the origin of the spiritual blessing that was given by the patriarchs of Israel. It doesn’t seem to be mandated by God, but taken as a cultural norm and used by God through his children.