Archives For Christmas

For many living under the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus’ birth, there was only one ruler, and that was Caesar. Following years of war, infighting, chaos, and uncertainty, Augustus Caesar’s reign brought historic peace and unity to the empire. His military triumphs and political successes caused Roman citizens to view him not just as their leader but a god, a “messiah.” He was so revered that in 27 BCE, the Roman Senate changed his name to Augustus, meaning “worthy of veneration and worship.” And whenever Augustus’ feats were announced, they were described using the term euangelion, the Greek word for “gospel” or “good news.”

But Caesar wasn’t the Promised One. Built on the backs of slaves and conquered peoples, his rule elevated the powerful while oppressing the vulnerable, relied on peace begotten by violence, and, ultimately, was centered around himself. Despite his conquests, Augustus wasn’t the savior. He wasn’t the one worthy of worship.

In the surprising story of God’s faithfulness, Israel’s rescue—and our own—didn’t come through an emperor but through a child, born to a teenage girl in a smelly stable. Hardly a place fit for the King. But this is the mystery of our faith. This baby is the only one who is, in Isaiah’s words, our Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. He is the one who rescues and redeems. He is our Messiah, the only one worthy of our worship.

This Christmas, let’s turn from lesser rescuers to adore the Christ Child about whom Isaiah prophesied—the King who has come and who will come again, just as He promised.


For more on the cultural and political context of the Roman Empire during the time of Christ’s birth, read “Behind Luke’s Gospel” by Kurt Willems.

It may be the end of summer, but already, ’tis the season for planning Christmas compassion projects. From filling shoeboxes to setting up angel trees, churches and organizations around the world are thinking about how to launch these elegantly simple ways of caring for others during the most wonderful time of the year.

There is so much that is right and beautiful about these annual giving traditions.

I love that they offer a way for whole families to practice generosity together. I love that they’re an invitation to think beyond our me-centered, consumeristic desires and recognize that there are significant material needs in the world. I love that they invite us to share some of what we’ve received. And most of all, I love how they provide a glimpse into sacrificial love and service, reminding us of the story of Jesus.

At the same time, there are shadow sides to many of these projects, particularly if they don’t extend beyond one-time charity distributions. 

For those of you who might be exploring what you should participate in this year, here are three questions to ask as your church and family seek to love and care for others well by getting involved this Christmas:

1. Is it a Band-Aid?

Charity-based giving typically addresses a perceived need of the moment—a can of cranberry sauce for a Thanksgiving meal, an action figure for a Christmas stocking, a check to cover the electric bill. But ultimately, these one-time handouts fail to address the underlying issues of poverty. Food gets eaten, toys break, and there’s always a new electric bill coming. The goods that we give over the holidays will be used without a way to replenish them. We should be concerned with immediate needs, but we should be even more concerned with what happens when the tinsel is taken down and the ornaments have been carefully stowed back in the attic. Are families and communities any better off after our projects?

For a one-time initiative to have a more substantial impact, it’s critical that it be coupled with long-term efforts. Is it truly supporting a local church or organization, which will do the harder and less glamorous work, of engaging in long-term relationships throughout the year?

2. Does it truly help?

Providing gifts for people in need is an important activity – and it feels good for those who are doing the giving. But on the ground, free milk donations can put the local dairy farmer out of work, undermine families by keeping parents from providing for their children, foster attitudes of entitlement, or deepen dependency on aid.

Further, if poverty, at its core, is rooted in broken relationships, then how can we ensure we’re also thinking about relational restoration, and deepening long-term relationships?

3. Does it perpetuate false perceptions of poverty?

It’s easy to picture poverty as being an utter and total lack—that, without us, “poor people” would have nothing or would be unable to fix their problems. While God does call His followers to minister to and bless others, God has already given everyone something to give. It’s through recognizing the gifts God has already put in our hands and in the hands of others that we begin to understand how to eliminate poverty.

As you seek out organizations to partner with this year, my hope is that you will explore ways to ensure that your short-term gift is matched with long-term relationships and that the ultimate outcome of your charity will be to empower a family to become independent of their need for it.

Once again this Christmas, let’s find ways of celebrating the hope of Christ by showing compassion in ways that will let His kingdom come.

Santa Clause, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle. But Saint Nicholas has another lesser known moniker—the patron saint of pawn shops.

How could this jolly old fellow be known as the patron saint of such a seedy business?

Pawn shop

In the Middle Ages, montes pietatius were charities similar to urban food banks.  And they were created as an alternative to loan sharks.

These charities provided low-interest loans to poor families. Started by Franciscans, they became widespread throughout Europe.

Even the pope (Julius II) gave an edict endorsing montes pietatius.

In folklore, Saint Nicholas generously provided a poor man dowries for his three daughters, gold coins in three purses. The symbol of gold coins in three purses became the symbol of pawn shops and fit with his title of patron saint.

In the 1300s, people in poverty met caring friars when they entered the doors of pawn shops. The shops existed to help the poor get back on their feet. These friars had their best interests in mind.

Today, often the opposite is true.

Over time, pawn shop owners lost sight of their identity. Created for good, pawn shops have drifted away from their purpose. From caring for the needy to an instrument often preying on families in distress, pawn shops have lost their original intent.

Here’s the reality: Mission Drift is the natural course for industries and organizations. Having a clear founding identity and purpose, having initial zeal for the cause, and even having Father Christmas as your patron saint are insufficient safeguards from Mission Drift. It takes focused attention to sustain your mission.

“It’s the exception that an organization stays true to its mission,” said Chris Crane, president and CEO of Edify. “The natural course—the unfortunate natural evolution of many originally Christ-centered missions—is to drift,” he said.

My colleagues Chris Horst, Anna Haggard and I have been studying Mission Drift in Mission Drift: The Unspoken Crisis Facing Leaders, Charities, and Churches, being released January 14. We’ve discovered some prominent examples of Mission Drift—Harvard, ChildFund, and the Y.

Mission Drift is recognized as the normal direction for faith-based organizations. In a survey of hundreds of Christian leaders at the Q conference in Los Angeles in 2013, 95% said Mission Drift was “a challenging issue to faith-based nonprofit organizations.”

Realizing the seemingly inevitable drift, it became our passion to find organizations which have protected their core identity for generations. By researching and sharing their practices, we hope to equip many other organizations to faithfully stand the test of time.

This is a personal issue. I care deeply about the work I do with HOPE International. Founded by a local church in response to needs in the former Soviet Union, our mission has always been to address material and spiritual needs in places of intense poverty. My aim is to ensure the decisions we are making today help this organization stay true to its founding ideals. My desire is that it does not follow the slippery path of pawn shops and so many other organizations.

This Christmas, every time I see a photo of Santa Claus, I’m reminded how easy drift occurs. Let’s be involved in building organizations that remain focused on what matters most.


 

There are a lot of people talking about giving during this final week of the year, but my favorite “talk” on charity comes from the Jewish scholar Maimonides.  He describes the “eight levels of charity” according to the Mishneh and articulates the uncomfortable truth that not all charity is equal in intent or impact. The levels are as follows:

8. When donations are given grudgingly.

7. When one gives less than he should, but does so cheerfully.

6. When one gives directly to the poor upon being asked.

5. When one gives directly to the poor without being asked.

4. Donations when the recipient is aware of the donor’s identity, but the donor still doesn’t know the specific identity of the recipient.

3. Donations when the donor is aware to whom the charity is being given, but the recipient is unaware of the source.

2. Giving assistance in such a way that the giver and recipient are unknown to each other. Communal funds, administered by responsible people are also in this category.

1. The highest form of charity is to help sustain a person before they become impoverished by offering a substantial gift in a dignified manner, or by extending a suitable loan, or by helping them find employment or establish themselves in business so as to make it unnecessary for them to become dependent on others.

I love working with HOPE for the simple fact that we get to see the impact of giving that enables individuals to no longer be dependent on others. Check out the “normal” story of Semplice Victorine Zengui who is living in the Republic of Congo:

Semplice

A widow, Semplice suffered from high blood pressure and leg problems that left her unable to walk and in need of medical care.

Relocating 240 miles from her home to the capital city of Brazzaville for treatment, Semplice needed to pay for her medical bills and opened a small pastry shop.

It quickly grew successful, but she lacked capital to invest in its growth. A $500 loan from HOPE Congo in October 2010 enabled her to stock her bakery with high-quality supplies and employ an assistant to meet the demand for her delectable pastries.

Today, Semplice now earns enough to provide for herself and to be generous to others in her community.

  • When the two young nieces she supports got malaria, Semplice could pay for their treatment from her savings.
  • She’s doubled her tithing as she places her faith in God’s provision.
  • She also pays the transportation fees for a nursing student who is already using her medical skills to help many people in the community.

Semplice says she wants her success to inspire others to pursue their dreams. She describes her partnership with HOPE as a blessing from God, and now is passing along the gift of effective charity to others in her community.