The Spiritual Side of The Secret Santa Tradition

secret santaThe “Kansas City Secret Santa” is making waves again this year, as he deputized police officers to give out $15,000 to unsuspecting Missouri residents.  The Secret Santa tradition in Kansas City has been going on since 1979, with an overall estimated $1.3 million dollars given away.  The original Secret Santa, Larry Stewart, got started because someone gave him $20 for a meal when he was “down and out” and unable to pay for his own meal at a Texas diner.

About the same time that Larry Stewart got started in Kansas City, my own family began our Secret Santa tradition. My mom and dad would have us draw names out a hat, and for the whole month of December we would do special things for the person that we picked. Unlike the Kansas City Secret Santa, we would never give cash. We would do things like cleaning, making beds, washing dishes, writing encouraging notes, and buying small gifts like gum or candy. And of course, we would do all of these things in secret, until everything was revealed on December 25th!

A few weeks ago, I decided to resurrect this tradition with my own children because of the spiritual lesson I felt it could teach us. For the past two months we’ve been studying the servant nature of Jesus, and we were particularly convicted through the Apostle Paul’s description of Christ’s nature in Philippians 2:3-11. In verses 3-5 Paul says,

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.  Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus . . .

Especially around Christmas, most children’s focus is only on themselves.  And this isn’t only limited to children . . . everyone struggles with selfishness, pride and sinful ambition. The Secret Santa tradition has been a way for our family to consistently think about someone other than ourselves.  When we enter a store, it’s a reminder for us not to think what we would like, but rather to think about what another person would like.  When we see a messy bed or a dirty floor it’s an incentive for us to serve instead of just passing the problem by.

For one of our children in particular, this has been a huge challenge.  He has a sinful tendency to be very self-focused and has a natural bent to see what others can do for him rather than seeing ways he can help others.  Our Secret Santa exercise has been a useful way for him to examine the humility and servant nature of Christ that Paul describes in Philippians.

Secret Santa doesn’t naturally point to Christ’s servant nature, though.  It could end up just being a nice thing to do, generating little more than temporary good feelings.  But when tied with worship and Scripture studies that are focused on serving, we can participate in a Christmas activity that causes us to grow in humility while focusing on the needs of others.

When the mother of two of the disciples asked Jesus if her sons could sit at his right and left hand, Jesus told her how a truly “great” person lives.  Jesus said,

“But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:26-38).”

It is my prayer that this Secret Santa tradition, embedded in worship, prayer, and teaching, can help us to capture even a small part of the heart of Matthew 20, and that it might ultimately teach us how to serve others in light of how Christ become a ransom for us.

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What Is A Martyr? The Piece Missing From Our Modern Definition

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What is a martyr?

There is a general consensus as to the meaning of the word today, which can be found everywhere from Wikipedia to academia. First, Wikipedia:

A martyr (Greek: μάρτυς, mártys, “witness”; stem μάρτυρ-, mártyr-) is somebody who suffers persecution and/or death for advocating, renouncing, refusing to renounce, and/or refusing to advocate a belief or cause of either a religious or secular nature.

Next, academia (from Jan Willem van Henten’s Martyrdom and Noble Death: Selected Texts from Graeco-Roman, Jewish and Christian Antiquity):

[A] martyr is a person who in an extremely hostile situation prefers a violent death to compliance with a demand of the (usually pagan) authorities.

It is such a familiar definition to us that it can be difficult to detect the crucial piece that is omitted here compared to the way the word is used in Scripture.

We can see from many New Testament passages (like Acts 1:8) the English equivalent for the Greek word, martyr:

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

A martyr is a witness. But a witness to what? Here is where we can detect the crucial piece that is often missing from our modern definition.

For most of Christian history, the answer to the question, “What do martyrs witness to?” was never in doubt:

Martyrs witness in word and deed to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, son of God, as according to the Scriptures.

As Alice Dailey explains in her book, The English Martyr from Reformation to Revolution,

In the Christian tradition, the ideal martyr story is one that replicates as closely as possible the persecutions of pious biblical figures, namely the Maccabees martyrs of the Old Testament, Jesus, and persecuted apostles like Stephen and Peter.

Why is there such an emphasis on exact replication? What is it that Jesus wants to make sure we do not leave out?

What Jesus embodies–and what Stephen and Peter witness to–is described by the preeminent Japanese theologian Kazoh Kitamori this way, in his Theology of the Pain of God:

The living and true God must sentence us sinners to death. This is the manifestation of “his wrath”… This wrath of God is absolute and firm…

The “pain” of God reflects his will to the love the objects of his wrath… Luther sees “God fighting with God” at Golgotha (da streydet Gott mit Gott). God who must sentence sinners to death fought with God who wishes to love them. The fact that this fighting God is not two different Gods but the same God causes his pain. Here heart is opposed to heart within God. “God opened the way for man’s atonement by experiencing unspeakable suffering, going through agonies, and offering himself as sacrifice…

The Lord was unable to resolve our death without putting himself to death. God himself was broken, was wounded, and suffered, because he embraced those who should not be embraced (pp. 21-22).

The thought is hardly unique to Luther; Kitamori goes on (pp. 154-155) to quote at length Calvin’s formulation of the same concept. What is germane for our discussion here is that this is what Christ calls martyrs to witness to in word and deed.

As Dailey notes, however, the focus of the martyr’s witness took a decisive shift during the Protestant Reformation in England. Instead of being what she calls a “strict typological repetition”–the re-presentation of the love of Christ to the martyr’s enemies, as according to the pattern of Christ (and Stephen, and Peter, and Paul), martyrdom became “Charles I’s defense of individual conscience–an abstract, figurative form of martyrdom that survives into modernity”:

In the violent upheaval that marked the Protestant Reformation in England, both Catholics and Protestants labored to inscribe their suffering believers into the paradigm of Christian martyrdom, often under circumstances that did not match those of biblical persecutions.

Martyrs become those who “died for their faith” and refused to “recant their beliefs.” But this idea of dying in order to stay true to one’s faith, one’s conscience, one’s beliefs, while true as far as it goes, does not go nearly far enough. It leaves out the very center of Christian theology. Says Kitamori,

Our task is to witness to the gospel. Before we can talk about the gospel, we must hear it and see it. Our words are empty if we talk about the gospel without hearing and seeing it…

The gospel is the gospel of the cross. This means that God loves the objects of his wrath and that he, in his love, embraces men alienated from him… [W]hat is revealed in the cross is neither the wrath of God nor his love alone, but a tertiary uniting the two.

What is a martyr, then? A martyr is not one who dies rather than giving up the gospel; a martyr is one who dies living out the gospel.  He follows his Lord’s command to take up his own cross so that in bearing it willingly–in unspeakable suffering, going through agonies, and offering himself as a reminder of Christ’s sacrifice–his persecutors might come to see and hear the gospel.

Bruno Damiano writes,

In 1996, Christian de Chergé and his fellow Cistercians
decided to stay in their monastery at Tibhirine, Algeria. They were seized on the night of March 26 and beheaded on May 21. De Chergé left a testament that ends with forgiveness of the man who might murder him and the hope that, God willing, they would meet “like happy thieves” in paradise.

Why does it matter that we do not leave out that crucial piece of the definition of a martyr?

Because otherwise our hearts will only break for the martyrs and not for the ungodly who martyr them–the ungodly for whom Christ died and for whom his heart also breaks, that they too might one day come home to him.

Just as his Father sent him for this very purpose, so sends he us.

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How To Go From One Great Leader in NK To Many NK Leaders Who Are Truly Great

Logo 071414Pastor Tim – This past Saturday, four of our North Korean Underground University students graduated.  This means that we are now sending them out to different ministry roles wherever North Koreans are found.

Much of our UU training has to do with scriptural and theological training, but we also teach a year-long course on leadership as part of the curriculum.  We firmly believe that in order for our UU students to be successful missionaries, it’s essential that they understand how to be Christ-like leaders.

With the wealth of leadership resources that we have in the US, it may be hard to understand just how incredibly rare biblical leadership training is to the North Korean defector.  In North Korea, everyone knows there is only one leader –Kim Il Sung.  He is North Korea’s “eternal president,” making North Korea the only necrocracy (country ruled by a dead man) in the world.

This law of “only one leader” spills over into every household, as every residence in North Korea is required to have spotless portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on the best wall. Every child considers Kim Il Sung to be their true father, above and beyond their biological father.

Dr. Foley, President of Voice of the Martyrs Korea wrote in her article, From One “Great Leader” to Many Leaders Who Are Truly Great,

As “Suryong,” or Great Leader, Kim, Jong-Il is the one mind of North Korea.  The role of everyone else is to obey. One consequence of this philosophy is that leadership involving
independent thought is equivalent to disloyalty. North Koreans are trained not to be leaders (pg. 25).

Often because of this lack of training, many North Korean defectors tend to use shouting, self-defense, and accusations as leadership strategies.  I even remember a former UU student, when faced with a conflict in South Korea, saying, “Either you die or I die!”

That’s why we became convinced of the need for leadership training, and why years ago we worked with John Maxwell and Equip to adapt their leadership training specifically for North Korean defectors.  Throughout the course of the year, UU students learn that leadership is something God designed for us since the beginning.  Genesis 1:26 says,

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

God intended our leadership to be directed not only toward the earth and its creatures but people as well. Matthew 5:16 says,

In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

The first part of the year focuses on character development, and then the class moves on to nuts and bolts issues like how Christian leaders are to work with people, manage conflict, build teams, and maintain healthy communication.

We’ve found these classes not only personally enriching for the students but also professionally indispensable as they get ready to minister in places like Russia, China, Mongolia and Thailand.  They are surprised to learn that leadership is not simply something that a few are born with but rather a skill that can be learned and developed over time.  In The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, John Maxwell says,

Although it’s true that some people are born with greater natural gifts than others, the ability to lead is really a collection of skills, nearly all of which can be learned and improved (pg. 25).

Although you may not be able to physically join us in our Underground University classes, you can participate in training similar to what our NK missionary trainees receive. Periodically there are training events hosted by John Maxwell and Equip that teach the same powerful, helpful, practical, biblical material that we are teaching our NK students.

Just as North Koreans need leadership training, we too, regardless of our nationality, need take the time and make the effort to grow in the spheres of leadership in which God has placed us.

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