Snow and "It's a wonderful life" are not my things. Ok, I don't mind snow for a limited time frame around Christmas; I just don't really miss it. The movie "It's a wonderful life" on the other hand, I find painful to watch. This was apparent grounds for one of my colleagues to ask me, "Do you even like Christmas?" (To her credit, I may have overstated my case with "It's a wonderful life" saying that it made me "suicidal".) In response, I told her that I'd soon be stealing Christmas trees.
It's not every day that I have to defend my love for Christmas, but it made for a good laugh and made me a bit reflective about what I DO miss about Christmas in the States. This December will be my third Christmas in another country (not successive), and though I miss family and all the holiday traditions greatly, there is something about "remaking" Christmas that I really enjoy.
The distance that Mali provides from my typical Christmas celebrations, enables me to reflect better on the earth-shaking reality of what happened that day 2000 years ago. In the sadness that comes from being away, I'm forced to celebrate, not in the happiness of all the accessories we've added to Christmas, but in the joy of His birth.
His birth shapes our life purpose and is what has brought me here, to the other side of the world. His birth allows me to have a new family here, not of blood, but of spirit. It speaks of transformation and change in a world dead-set on self-destruction. It breathes joy into a world full of hurt. His first coming gives light enough to see the glorious hope that is His second coming, when a world full of injustice and evil will be set aright. I have trouble imagining a place that makes these realities more crystal clear.
But it goes even one step further in remaking our existence, and it is this step that has been brought back to mind this morning.
Earlier this week, Christianity Today carried a quote from a pastor in Pennsylvania who spends 7 months a year in Uganda as a mercenary trying to hunt down Joseph Kony and leaders of the Lord's Resistance Army. (Where does he get the finances for this?) As just the latest in a string of quirky pastors doing off-the-wall things, he stated that people opposed to his work were just thinking too much of the God of the New Testament.
I mean the irony is so thick I'd have laughed hysterically, but for the fact that I too once wanted to do the same. In my junior year of college, I did some research on the LRA and Joseph Kony. The evil and atrocities of that organization (mass murder, rape, and child soldiers to name only a few) are sickening and frankly, enraging. On a run with my good friend Adam Thada, I proposed the idea that we ditch college and train to become "Christian Mercenaries." It made for a fun conversation during our run and a good joke afterwards, but we didn't seriously entertain the idea for long because our theology didn't permit us and neither of us would have made great mercenaries.
When I saw that quote, I immediately copied it into an email to Adam, who is currently working in Bolivia with an organization that provides dignity and a way-out for women trapped in the sex trade. Tongue-in-cheek, I lamented the fact that someone had beaten us to the punch and that if only we'd known we just needed to ignore the God of the New Testament, we'd be doing the same thing. I further complained that we had, since our college days, gone soft, him working with prostitutes and me with sick children.
However, that is precisely the point. When God chose to do His most important work in the world, He started with the humility and vulnerability of a child and completed it not as a military-commanding king, but with submission even to death. His is a Kingdom of love, charity, hope, and humility, and these characteristics rarely seem "winning" in this world. Yet, Christ's birth does not leave open to us the option of accomplishing the work of the Kingdom in typical "winning" fashions—coercion, dominance, and deception. His birth dictates to us not only what we do with our lives, but also how we do it.
Don't get me wrong, the elimination of the Lord's Resistance Army would be a great advancement in the world of social justice, but in light of Christmas, becoming a mercenary to accomplish this feat seems a bit wrong-headed.
This Christmas season, I'm finding that the story of His humble birth is continuing to remake my ministry here in Mali. I would be lying to say that our work here progresses without hitch and that we've only got winning stories. We have medical errors, sometimes repeatedly. With some in our staff, we've got lack of buy-in to the vision. Antiquated and dangerous ideas and attitudes persist. We have cross-cultural conflict and inefficiency and poorly structured systems.
And in such a milieu, Christmas reminds me that during moments of frustration, departing from the way of love, charity, hope and humility, even to accomplish the good, is to be off-track and wrong-headed. It is far more Grinch-like than disliking snow and "It's a wonderful life."