Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Santa Claus and Faith Development

"It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble."
Luke 17:2

A few days before Christmas, I was listening to an interview with Brian Scalabrine on the radio. Scalabrine is a reserve forward on the Celtics. He plays just a few minutes a game. The announcers often praise him for his hustle, but no one would confuse him with the stars. I turned on the radio when they were already well into the interview, and apparently they had moved from talking about basketball to more seasonal themes. They were asking him if his daughter, who (I’m guessing) is probably three or four years old, was excited about Santa Claus coming with presents.

He surprised his radio hosts by telling them that at the Scalabrine household, they didn’t do Santa Claus. There were two reasons for this, he explained. First, he and his wife did not want to lie to their daughter. And second, they wanted her to understand what Christmas was really about. He explained it without seeming judgmental or self-righteous. It’s just what they do. No big deal. I was impressed

The Santa Claus idea has always been problematic for Christians. The upside is that Santa Claus embodies the spirit of giving, and of generosity. Those are good things. But the downside is that belief in Santa Claus becomes easily confused with belief in God. And Santa Claus introduces a magical element which is actually antithetical to Christian faith. It seems harmless enough for toddlers, but when kids begin to ask questions, they wonder about everything that their parents have taught them to believe.

A friend told me that when he was a child, his Holy Trinity was God and Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. When he stopped believing in the Easter Bunny, he still had God and Santa, but when he could no longer believe “that reindeer really know how to fly,” he thought that God would be the next one to go. Seriously. It was a crisis of faith for him. And I have come to think that teaching kids to believe in Santa Claus can be a barrier to developing a mature Christian faith as they grow.

I don’t think this means that parents have to declare their homes a no Santa zone, as the Scalabrines have done. But it does mean that caution is a good idea. A little Santa goes a long way. We can allow children their fantasy without promoting it. We can downplay the Santa idea without disparaging the traditions of others. And we can make it very clear that Santa has only a minor part in the celebration of the Christmas season.

Friday, December 25, 2009

It's Nasty Out There

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you;
for this is the law and the prophets.”
Matthew 7:12

On one of our local afternoon sports talk shows, host Mike Felger has been complaining that “this is the worst week of the year.” He has said this every day. Often repeating the very same words for emphasis. I don’t know what he is like in person. He cannot be as miserable as his on air persona. It’s just not possible.

In between explaining why Randy Moss is a bum (although he is going to the Hall of Fame) and the Red Sox should trade Jacoby Ellsbury (the most exciting baseball player I have ever seen) and Mike Lowell is useless (he was the World Series MVP in 2007 and he plays hard every day), Felger gives his analysis of life around us. And his view is, “It’s nasty out there.”

The bad news is, I think he is right.

We have lost the Golden Rule.

Even at Christmas, we have lost it. A woman wrote a letter to the editor, telling how she pulled up to the drive up mail box at the Post Office and discovered that she had not put enough postage on her Christmas card. As she looked for a stamp, the woman in the car behind her honked and yelled at her to “Move it!” She went on to say how difficult the Christmas season had been for her this year with illness and death in her family. And she wondered why people couldn’t remember that the person holding them up is a real person who may be dealing with real problems.

Christmas used to be the time when Christians acted like Christians. For a few weeks, or a few days, we were patient and we thought about the other person. For a short time, we gave up a parking space, let slower cars merge on the freeway, and invited strangers to go ahead of us at the supermarket check out line. This annual display (and often it was a display) of kindness was shallow, but it was better than nothing.

The seasonal display of kindness was as phony as Santa Claus at the shopping mall. But there was also something good about it. We were pretending to be the people we knew we ought to be. And that’s not a bad thing.

For a long time, Christmas has taken on a cultural meaning far different from the announcement of Jesus’ birth. Many of us have lamented the shallow sentimentality of the season. Deep existential reflection was replaced with “nice.” But nice is still better than nasty. And now, too often, we just have nasty.

As I reflect on how we have lost our way, I think of the verses that come right after the Golden Rule in Matthew’s Gospel:

13“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. 14For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”
Matthew 7:13-14

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Reflection on Mama Odie

The following reflection is written by Keith Sanzen. Keith offers a different perspective on the Disney film, "The Princess and the Frog."

There may be concerns of race and stereotyping in this film (as with other Disney films) but I take issue with a portion of the review which says: “In a production number that evokes gospel music but with Jesus neatly stripped away, Mama Odie offers up a defiantly American church of the self. Just "dig a little deeper" inside yourself and you'll find what you need to achieve all of your dreams. Sure, there's magic, but it only shows up once you've done everything in your power to get what you desire. Her message is the epitome of works-righteousness, where the only counter to the forces of evil is the good inside the human heart.”

I haven’t seen the movie, but I searched around for some clips and found the song the reviewer was discussing. I hear a different message than she did. Jesus is not "neatly stripped away." I hear him there quite clearly. As a church, Mama Odie's song isn’t always who we are but it is who we should be.

Here is a clip with the song:


Here is what it says …

“Don’t matter what you look like
Don’t matter what you wear,
How many rings you have on your finger,
We don’t care.
Don’t matter where you come from
Don’t even matter what you are…
We get them all in here…

And they all knew what they wanted ..
What they wanted me to do.”

I can hear Jesus singing that. He didn’t care who people were or looked like, it didn’t matter if they were rich or poor. What of today? If we look around is that always true in Christian churches --- even our own?

And they all came wanting something.

The characters in the movie go to the woman to whip up a miracle. Indeed this could be confused with prayer. BUT the genius of it is that Mama Odie doesn’t give them what they want. She shows the misuse of wanting an instant miracle. She says that they first need to find out who they are because they want the wrong things.

The reality is that people come to God because they think they know what they want … what they want God (or a church) to do. Isn't the role of he church to turn those people around and tell them to look at who they are to see what they want is all wrong?

“When you find out who you are,
you find out what you need ….”

Isn't that true of Jesus' message? The power of Jesus was that he knew who he was -- the son of God ... do we know we are children of God so clearly?

God’s response is that we should find out who we are (and whose we are) first then we will find out what we need.
"Prince Froggy is a rich little boy.
You wanna be rich again?
That ain’t gonna make you happy now,
Did it make you happy then?
Money ain’t got no soul.
Money aint’ got no heart. …”

I can hear Jesus here too ... especially in an encounter he had with another young, rich ruler who didn't go away happy. How many churches are filled with people who are fully convinced money ain’t got no soul? It didn’t make him happy then is it “gonna make us happy now?” What have we learned in 2000 years?

“All you need is some self control
make yourself a brand new start.”

Ok that sounds like a little more like Wesley or Paul but still good.

"Your daddy was a lovin’ man ...
Family through and through …
You’re your daddy’s daughter.
What was in him, you’ll find in you.”

Jesus again ... Our Father is a loving God. Loving through and through. You are God's creation, the love of God is found in you. In Jesus that love of the Father was clear ... those who saw him saw the Father.

The female frog was told that at the core of her identity she had a father who loved her. That’s who she is. She can love because she was first the recipient of love.

That’s who we are. We are children of a Father who loves us. God’s love is in us.

How many churches really live out the love (and realize the power that they can do that because they were loved first)… or are they still stuck on what they want God to do?

I find the song catchy (I've listened to it a dozen times while typing this) and as a Christian I hear a lyrical subtext.

When we dig deep enough, after putting aside fear and our own notions about we want God to do and realize that money will not make us happy, we find who we are and whose we are. Then we will know what we need.

Now the writers may not have intended all of that. Actually I’m sure they didn’t intend it. But they weren’t out to tell a Gospel story. The question is, can we use this story to talk about the Gospel with our children?

The reviewer says that the message behind the song is "the epitome of works-righteousness." I disagree. I think it is the epitome of grace. The messages I hear in the song:

(1) Accept everybody no matter what they look like, who they “are” or what they wear.
(2) Happiness cannot be found in money
(3) Before you decide what you want out of life, look deep inside to find out who you are
(4) Love, which is shown to trump magic, is not something we summon or conjure for ourselves but something that is given freely by someone who loved us first.

The reviewer assumes that by turning our gaze inward we are celebrating the human self. In the end I believe that God is the foundation of who we are. If we keep digging deeper I think we will find God there waiting.

The reviewer seems to condemn the notion that “the only counter to the forces of evil is the good inside the human heart” … What’s wrong with that? (as long as we realize that the good in the human heart is from God) It is a message that love is more powerful than magic (another theme that was in the Harry Potter books that Christian “moralists” seemed to miss). Biblically it is the love found in the human heart of Jesus which counters the forces of sin.

I think the song has a very Christian message. I think the reviewer needs to dig a little deeper.
Keith Sanzen

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Princess and the Frog

From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!
Traditional Scottish Prayer

“The Princess and the Frog,” by Disney, is one of the big movies of the Christmas Season. And from the reviews, it looks like there are lots of reasons to be excited about it. The animation is great, the songs are fun, and the story line is appealing.

But for parents, there is also reason for caution.

I am typically skeptical of Christian crusades against popular culture. I have never been enthused with the annual objections to Halloween. And I wanted no part of the Harry Potter opposition. (The Harry Potter books present a series of morality plays with themes that are consistent with Christian theology. And the magic is symbolic, pointing to deeper realities and struggles.)

I have not seen the movie, but from the reviews, there are two problems. First there is the voodoo. The characters conjure up dark spirits and spells. For little children (the movie is G rated), one of the difficult things is that that they can confuse this with prayer. And they can confuse magic with faith. Second, the underlying theme, as in so many seemingly “wholesome” popular movies, is the Gospel of success. You can succeed if you believe in yourself. The object of our worship is the self.

It could be worse, of course, in a thousand different ways. In her review in the Christianity Today, Annie Young Frisbie writes:

Sure, this is the message of just about every family film that has come down the pike since the dawn of cinema. But to see it presented in a context that evokes the style of Christianity, Mama Odie's song serves as a stark reminder as to how the American values of self-reliance diverge from the Christian message of humble submission to external grace. Just because something looks and sounds beautiful doesn't make it gospel.

You can read the whole review at:



Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing.
Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.
Romans 13:1-7

In the chaotic protests of the late sixties and early seventies, those verses from Romans were frequently quoted by Conservative Christians. The authority of the government, they believed, was ultimately the authority of God.

Not so much lately.

It would be interesting to hear how Conservative Christians interpret those words today. Today it is the Liberals who want to trust the government to regulate markets, manage health care, and generally order our society. And the Conservatives are deeply suspicious of anything the government does.

It is not the first irony to be associated with those verses. The Apostle Paul told his Christian brothers and sisters that they should be subject to the Empire which would execute him almost before the ink was dry. Of course, many argue that Paul wrote those lines in part because he knew that the Empire wanted to crush the church, and he wanted to minimize all unnecessary conflict. The church had already declared that it was loyal to Christ rather than Caesar, and the Kingdom of God rather than the Empire. They had rejected violence and refused to participate in war. They didn’t need any additional evidence of disloyalty.

Today, the Conservatives distrust government more than the Liberals, but everyone seems to agree that the government can’t run anything (except, apparently, the military).

Recently in the course of running errands I waited in line at CVS, at Dave’s Market, at Panera, at MacDonald’s, and at the Post Office. At Dave’s Market, I stood with a single item in a regular line, because the express line was jammed. A helpful cashier came to open an additional line and motioned to me to come over there, but I was nearly run over by a woman with a full shopping cart, who darted in front of me. At CVS and MacDonald’s the shoppers typically try to form a single line that feeds the several open registers, and people frown as someone inevitably ignores the protocol and pushes in front. The lines were all long, but only at the Post Office did I hear complaints directed at the establishment. And I think that reflects our attitude toward government.

So what? People complain about everything. At one level, that’s true. We are complainers. And when we are not complaining about the weather or the economy, we complain about kids today, and parents today, and the payroll for the Yankees.

But I think it does matter. Our distrust of government undermines the effectiveness of government. Trust, of course, must be earned. But it also must be given. That is true in a family and it is also true in a society. If we do not believe that our government is capable of solving some fairly large problems, then we are all in more trouble than we thought.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Tiger, Tiger, Not So Bright

The wise are cautious and turn away from evil,
but the fool throws off restraint and is careless.
Proverbs 14:16

O how the mighty have fallen!
II Samuel 1:19

Tiger Woods has never entertained the nation as thoroughly on the golf course as he has in the national media over the past two weeks. Everywhere you turn; it’s all Tiger all the time. And with each new revelation, it gets worse. The man who had everything has apparently thrown it all away.

When the story first began to some out, it looked to me like one more example of our cult of celebrity run amuck. Those who had been worshipping at the Temple of the Tiger felt betrayed, but I was mostly amused. I am not a golfer and I have never had much invested in Tiger as an icon. Then, as more details emerged, I felt sorry for his wife. No one, I thought, deserves to be treated like that. No matter how many millions (billions) they have, it’s not enough. And I realized that the story would last long enough to haunt his children in later years.

But it’s not fun anymore.

And I have come to believe that it actually matters.

There are children who will see the story on TV or read about it on the internet, and it will become part of the raw material from which they construct their view of the world. They will hear the jokes about how now every guy REALLY wishes he could live the life of Tiger Woods. It will shape a part of how they understand male-female relationships. This is what rich and famous married men do. And this (wink, wink) is what all married men wish they could do.

Heroes matter. Kids need people they can look up to. In a perfect world, they would all look up to the right people. The adults in their lives would be their heroes. And those adults would be worthy of that adulation.

In the meantime, this is an important and painful reminder. Just because you can hit a golf ball into the next area code doesn’t make you a great human being.

In his semi-apology, Tiger said, “I am not perfect.” In our cult of fame and fortune, that is what passes for a confession.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Remembering John Brown

Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.
Hebrews 13:3

John Brown was executed 150 year ago this week, on December 1, 1859. The New York Times remembered that event with two very different essays. One compared him to the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center. The other argued that he was “Freedom’s Martyr” and should be given a posthumous Presidential pardon.

Brown was a martyr and a terrorist. He was a fanatic and a freedom fighter. And he was a devout Christian. In his essay comparing Brown to the terrorists of 9/11, Tony Horwitz calls Brown a “bearded fundamentalist who believed himself chosen by God to destroy the institution of slavery.” Of course, Christian Fundamentalism was not developed as a theological system until many decades later, but Brown did see himself as acting out of deep Christian convictions, and he believed that he was chosen by God to free the slaves.

Brown maintained that he was living out the biblical injunction to, “Remember them that are in bonds.” With hundreds of biblical passages accepting slavery as normal and natural in biblical times, Brown focused on one of the few verses that seem to point in the other direction. Those words are the first phrase of Hebrews 13:3 in the King James Version of the Bible. They are more accurately rendered in the New Revised Standard Version as “those who are in prison.” What this means is that he based his Holy War on a false reading of the text. (One might pause here to ponder the perils of literalism.)

Of course, it wasn’t really the one phrase. Brown, like the other Abolitionists, insisted that though there were many passages seeming to condone slavery, the whole thrust of the Bible was toward freedom. And it was the second part of the verse which reveals more of Brown’s motivation. He really did identify with “those who are being tortured, as though” he himself “were being tortured.”

In the fall of 1861, Julia Ward Howe visited Washington, D.C. and saw a parade of Union troops. On her way back to her hotel, she heard regiments singing “John Brown’s body lies mouldering in his grave, but his soul goes marching on.” She did not care for the lyrics, but the marching tune stuck with her and early the next morning she woke up and wrote the words of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Ironically, the song was not originally about the famous abolitionist. It was first sung to tease a young Massachusetts militia man who shared the same name. Later, the song spread to other regiments who had never heard of the young man from Massachusetts. More verses were added and the Massachusetts man was forgotten.

John Brown leaves a complicated legacy. We cannot condone is fanaticism, but we should not forget the compassion behind his violence.