Yes, I Believe in Santa Claus

It’s like it happened yesterday. I woke up Christmas morning. It was still dark outside. No one else was awake in the house. I made my way from my bedroom, through the living room, to the dining room where my family always placed the Christmas tree. My eyes must have been as big as saucers as I saw the bright blue Rex Rocket wagon beside the tree. Santa had come! And I didn’t get a red wagon like everyone else had. I got a blue one! This was special!

I would have been no more than six or seven on that Christmas mornings. Some things about gifts from Santa continued through most of my life. Even in my forties, my mother still wrapped Christmas presents with tags that said, “From Santa.” Of course, like other children, I knew when I was a child that there was no guy in a red suit living at the North Pole. But more than fifty years later, I still believe in Santa Claus.

Of course there is the historic Santa Claus: good ol’ St. Nicholas, the bishop of the port city of Myra in a land known as Lycia – now part of Turkey. Nicholas, born in the third century, inherited his family’s wealth. He understood the teachings of Jesus and used that wealth for those in need. There’s the story of the merchant who lost all of his money. His plan was to sell his three daughters as indentured servants. Nicholas stepped in and provided dowries to enable the girls to marry. There are other stories of Nicholas caring for children including one about a boy saved from slavery and another about Nicholas providing food for children in time of famine. As the bishop of a port city, Nicholas was also known for his good deeds toward sailors and travelers. To those in need, Nicholas was generous and extended himself in exceptional ways. He was also a lover of truth and justice for the marginalized who then like now often received unjust treatment in society.

Our modern-day Santa Claus is rooted in the legacy of St. Nicholas of Myra and draws on other legendary figures including the Norse deity Odin The jolly man in the sleigh with reindeer began to emerge in the consciousness of the United States in the 1820’s with the publication of Clement Clark Moore’s ’Twas the Night Before Christmas. The image of the man in the bright red suit living at the North Pole came later in 1863 in drawings published in Harper’s Weekly. But the true nature of the American Santa Claus was not fully revealed until 1897 when an editor at the New York Sun, Francis Pharcellus Church, responded to a letter from a little girl named Virginia O’Hanlon. (http://www.nysun.com/editorials/yes-virginia/68502/). To quote part of this beautiful letter, Church wrote:

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence.”

My belief is Santa Claus is not about a belief in a person who flies around the world one night in a magic sleigh. My belief in Santa Claus is a belief that in a world where people continue to struggle and die from the lack of basic necessities; with countries torn by war, neighborhoods by violence, and homes by abuse; in the midst of corporate greed, financial legislation to benefit the rich, and mean-spiritedness toward the poor; with people divided one from another based on gender, race, nationality, sexuality, and religion; that with all the horrible things people do to each other, it is possible to be generous, kind, jolly, warm, welcoming, compassionate, and kind. Santa Claus embodies something of our best selves. Santa Claus reminds us that it is better to give than to receive, to care for others rather than to look out for ourselves, to share what we have rather than horde our riches for selfish purposes. Santa Claus reminds us that there is nothing more important than to bring joy and happiness into the world. Just like Santa Claus, we have the ability to be generous each and every day of our lives.

As long as my mother had the ability to wrap Christmas presents, she always marked the gift tags “From Santa.” Indeed, as an adolescent I thought, “That’s just stupid! We know she wrapped it!” But I got over my self-absorbed teen-age self and came to realize that my mother had it right. She knew that a gift from Santa Claus was given freely, without the expectation of reciprocation. Giving something “From Santa” was meant as a gift to bring joy and was shared with generosity.

Yes, today, more than ever, I believe in Santa Claus. I believe we are able to be generous people who extend ourselves for others. Yes, we can start at Christmas. But the lesson of Santa Claus is to live generously throughout the year.

© 2014, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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The Christmas Story: Lessons from Ordinary Lives

I suspect that I’m like most people. While I can see that there are many serious problems in the world, I often feel that it’s beyond my ability to change any of them. What’s one person able to do? Often, many people feel powerless in the face of the complex problems like war, racism, genocide, and the various ways people and nations treat others so very badly. I’m sure that people have felt the way I do in the past. They probably will have the same kinds of feelings in the future. The problems may change or be different in various eras and millennia, but really, what can one person do?

It’s from this feeling of powerlessness that I’ve been reflecting on the sacred stories from the Christian tradition about Christmas. I know from my studies that the narratives found in the gospels of Matthew and Luke – two accounts of the birth of Jesus that present very different events – that much of what we know today as the story of Christmas isn’t based on historic facts. There’s some historic evidence that Jesus existed. His mother was likely named Mary. But beyond that, we just don’t know very much about the events of his life other than what’s contained in the written narratives known as gospels. When the gospels are compared to one another, there are many contradictions. Roman history shows no record of a census or any of the other historic details conveyed in Matthew and Luke’s writing. Many parts of the two different gospel stories seem to be drawn from various parts of the Hebrew Scriptures. However, we do know this: since Jesus existed, he was born. He had to have a mother. In his culture, there would have been a father, too. There would also have been a host of other people who were involved with his birth and early life.

It really doesn’t matter to me whether Luke was correct that shepherds heard the songs of angels and made their way to the stable to see the newborn Jesus. Nor is it important to me that Matthew got it right about the astrologers who followed a star. While the stories are beautiful and poetic, my faith isn’t based on the accuracy of the reports. Instead, there’s something much more important to me in the sacred stories of the nativity of Jesus.

Two thousand years ago, people in the Near East lived a very harsh life under the control of a brutal foreign government. The conditions of life were difficult and primitive. Yet the people in the early life of Jesus were part of something that changed the world. They didn’t know it at the time. Instead, they led their lives doing their daily tasks as best as they could. Because many women died in childbirth, someone must have cared for Mary. While the rate of infant mortality was high, Jesus thrived and grew strong. People whose lives are not recorded in any historic record took care of the family we now call holy. These people were responsible for each other and did what they could for one another. Somehow, through all the difficulties of life in that ancient place, a remarkable teacher emerged. While clearly his teachings grew out of Jewish religion as practiced in that era and the distinctive culture of first century Judea, his message continues to transform lives and challenges us to be the best people we can be.

Maybe his father’s name was Joseph. Or maybe that name was used as a reminder of the Hebrew patriarch Joseph who became a deliverer of his family. I don’t know if Jesus had an aunt named Elizabeth, or if there was an inn keeper, or anyone else we know about from the sacred stories who played the roles we know so well today. I am certain that many people who were poor, uneducated, and good hearted, provided care, support, and nurturance to Jesus and his family. It’s because of them that Jesus grew to be the teacher of truth and wisdom whose message has profoundly shaped my life and the lives of countless people.

The sacred story of the life of Jesus was called in the movies, “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” What I find great about the story of Christmas isn’t the larger than life aspects of angelic choirs and celestial signs but something much simpler: ordinary people who were living difficult lives in a world full of problems who did the best they could. Somehow, just by doing the best they could, they were part of something that changed the world. We will never know who all these people really were. But they were part of supporting the life of Jesus as he grew. The result is that today many people continue to be inspired by a message of peace on Earth and good will toward all.

Many people probably feel a lot like me: I’m not sure what I can do in the face of the complex problems of the world. But I can lead my life well – showing care and respect for others while doing what I can to make the lives of others better. In doing so, I may not know the long term impact of my actions. However, the greatest story ever told began with simple people just doing the best they could.

© 2014, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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Advent and the Challenge of Ferguson

The events of the last two weeks have given me a great deal to think about. Two weeks ago, the country was poised in vigil waiting the announcement from the Grand Jury in St. Louis on whether changes would be made against Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting of Michael Brown. Since that decision, there have been numerous protests of various sorts throughout the country. While some in the country are filled with rage, others are bewildered. Of course, there’s a wide mix of emotions in between.

I used to live in St. Louis. I’ve been watching the events in Ferguson unfold with great interest not just because of the window it provides to how the US is dealing with social justice but because I know the area. I’m familiar with Ferguson, ate at a great little breakfast place there and knew people who live there. A friend of mine recently drove through St. Louis and telephoned to comment on her impression of the city. It was something I knew quite well. There’s a very noticeable racial inequity in the St. Louis area.

I don’t know what events actually transpired that led a police officer to shoot a young black man. It’s a tragic situation no matter how one looks at the event. What I do know comes from having lived in several parts of the country. There was clear tension in St. Louis about race. Being part of a bi-racial couple made me aware of that tension and how the division was viscerally different from other places I’ve lived.

Watching the news coverage of demonstrations in Ferguson and throughout the country, I couldn’t help but reflect on the ways in which the country is divided today. I remember the demonstrations in the 1960’s, demonstrations for equal rights, against the war in Vietnam, and the beginnings of the gay rights movement. These demonstrations all took aim at the ways that American society wasn’t working for people. This week, I’ve felt a sense of …. well….let’s call it a feeling of déjà vu. We’ve been here before and it’s not pretty. Given all that divides the country, I fear that it could get much worse before it gets better.

As a Christian, I find myself in the first week of Advent with Ferguson in my prayer and reflections. In many Christian churches this past Sunday, a reading from the Hebrew prophet Isaiah was heard. It included these words: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”

The United States today is a divided nation. Our divisions are based on race, class, socio-economic status, gender, sexual orientation, religious belief, and generational differences. Many of us wish someone would fix it and make it better. Tragically, we have leaders who, as a group, don’t lead and a system dominated by special interests while ordinary people bear a heavy burden of living in a country that seems to be characterized by rancor and discord. If only someone would do something to solve it! “Tear open the heavens and come down. Fix it!”

The tough lesson in this is that God doesn’t provide magical answers to our problems. Whether they are social problems, political crises, or the individual challenges we all face, we aren’t “saved” from the messes of life. Rather, the understanding of the Holy One in the Judeo-Christian context is of Emmanuel: God-with-us.

Many people wonder why God doesn’t save us from tragedy. That’s been true in every age. But it’s also been true that over the millennia the Judea-Christian tradition has contended that God is present with us as a source of strength and hope in the midst of life’s difficult and challenging times. God doesn’t change external circumstances, including those caused by human beings. Instead, God is a source of strength and hope in times of trouble to empower us to bring about solutions to the mess we, as a human community, have made of things.

Despite this foundational belief in the presence of God in us and around us, most of us simply aren’t aware of the Divine Presence in our lives. I think that part of our problem as people is that we live from moment to moment without a particular awareness of the sacred dimension of life. Day to day, hour to hour, our lives are caught up in ordinary things and we’re just not aware that there’s something more in our lives: another dimension, something of God’s presence, something that’s luminous.

Where do we find that luminous presence? As George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, said so eloquently: There is something of God in everyone. That Divine spark, an inner light, is at our core. When we nurture the Inner Light, we bring healing and transformation to ourselves and to others.

As we become more aware of the inner spark of the Divine within us, we must also be aware that it is in others. Consider the care one takes with things that are sacred and holy. We need to treat ourselves and each other with that same care, that same respect – recognizing that we are each the living presence of the Holy One for each other.

Lastly, our awareness of the Divine Presence in our lives and the lives of others should cause us to be mindful of our actions. You may be the only Light, the only image of God, that another person encounters. What does that mean for how we make our way day to day? Does the way we greet others, work with others, speak to others – and speak about others — reflect a belief that we are living lights for them? Or do we make the lives of others more difficult to bear?

When I think of the events of this past week, not only just in Ferguson but the many problems around the world, I know that I can’t solve them. What can I do? I’m just one person! But if I wake up and pay attention, I can better assure that all my interactions convey that Inner Light. As each of us begins to treat others with respect and reverence, the tide of social injustice will begin to be reality for those who experience marginalization. When we do what we can, rather than focusing on our lack of ability to do great things on our own to change the world – but instead really focus on doing the simple things that we can — then we begin to bring change in the world.

In this Advent season, I ask the question posed by Rhineland mystic Meister Eckhart in the 14th Century. A great preacher in his day, often at odds with the institutional church, and someone whose writings were a great inspiration to the great Reformer, Martin Luther, Meister Eckhart asked in a Christmas sermon: What does it matter to me if Mary gave birth to Jesus hundreds of years ago if I don’t give birth to Christ in my time and in my culture?

In the midst of a very troubled world, the Advent journey is to give birth to Christ today, in our time, and in our culture. The Advent journey is not about a baby born two thousand years ago. That’s already happened and done. It’s an historic reality, so there’s nothing to anticipate in a past historic event. Instead, what we watch for, what we anticipate, what we are called to give birth to is the healing and transformation of Christ’s coming in our world today. We’re the ones who can make it happen. We birth Christ in the world today by recognizing that the Divine light is within us, that we must allow that Divine light to illuminate the world, and that we must also reverence the light of God in each person we meet. That’s how the healing, restoring life of Christ will be born anew this Christmas.

© 2014, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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