A Christmas Story
By: Mike Furches
Copyright Mike Furches 2014
A Christmas Story is inspired by a story heard on the James Dobson radio show, Focus on the Family back in the early 1990’s. This fictional work is written with many Christian concepts in mind that were once taught in many if not most Anabaptist Churches and still taught in some.
As one who didn't grow up in a Christian home I have come to appreciate and love Mennonites and consider myself a Mennonite in the application of my own theology in my own life. I hope the truth, love and compassion once so prevalent in this belief system is demonstrated here. Hopefully this work will pay tribute to the thousands of Mennonites who died for their faith during the Reformation for practicing simple concepts like adult baptism and living a lifestyle of ultimate love for others no matter what the consequence.
While the Mennonite church has historically loved all people and reached out to them with the love of Christ, many churches, especially in North America, could do a better job at reaching out to inner city youth, the unchurched, minorities and especially those seen as being different than themselves. I have had disagreements with pastors in a church I was attending about who our focus of outreach should be towards. I believe that particular church made a mistake when they targeted a certain age group, from a certain social economic environment, specifically in certain neighborhoods. The neighborhood the church was reaching out too was middle to upper class families and most were home owners. It isn’t that the Church shouldn’t have directed efforts towards this group but the lack of effort to try and understand the culture and lifestyles of those not from higher income communities, absent from an acceptance of a Christian World-View and in some cases, people living across the street who lived in lower income homes and trailers was foreign for me. This was especially true when considering that many lower income neighborhoods was also within the geographical area the church was reaching out to, yet those areas and communities were largely ignored. For one who had studied the incarnational concepts of faith, that is Jesus came and associated with us, was even known of as Jesus of Nazareth. He chose to associate with all people, but especially those who had little, the poor, not just in spirit, but financially.
As is often the case, churches seem to build their attendance around the communities where there is money. Unfortunately, this is one of the areas many Mennonite congregations and Anabaptist groups have moved to in recent years, reaching the wealthy, staying away from the poor, and not understanding the culture around them. While there is urban outreach at times it seems the urban outreach that exists, exists in affluent communities as opposed to the inner cities and impoverished neighborhoods. I have more than a few personal stories about conversations I have had at times on this subject with various church leaders from various denominational groups, both including and excluding, Mennonites.
Churches often reach out to people they expect to be like them, the concept of reaching out to those different is lost, it is one reason it is so easy to do mission work in another country than in your own neighborhood. There are times there is little room or time for grace, understanding and what many people of faith call that concept of incarnation. Many believe the church should make the effort to try and better understand those they are reaching out to and at the very least not show any partiality to income or financial status. Jesus spent a great deal of time teaching and speaking to others about the poor and needy, the orphan and the widow.
Jesus commanded his followers to be fishers of men, not certain men but all men. One obvious conclusion if understanding this concept of being a fisher of men is that one should use the right type of bait when fishing for certain types of men. There has to be an understanding that different types of men may require different types of bait. Most successful fishermen learn to fish for more than one kind of fish, thus learning the traits for each type of fish they are trying to catch. As followers of Jesus and as the Church, we should learn to be fishers of various types of men and women, not just the wealthy, and those like us, but all fish that dwell in our own little part of the ocean. For those who have been diving in waters, whether the ocean or a lake, sea or river, you know, more than one fish occupies any given territory. A fisherman must know the territory, and how to catch the fish, whether a preverbal or allegorical fish, or a real fish.
I have often asked myself why churches seem to only reach out to certain groups while at the same time never making serious efforts, if any, to reach out to the types of people Jesus seemed to so blatantly love and care for? I can’t help but to imagine if Jesus were walking around to day He would reach out to those with drug issues, marriage problems, the homeless, those oppressed by war or societal issues and poverty or money issues among others. Those are the ones often called, The Lost, The Last, and The Least. I have to wonder though, is it those we call this who are the Lost The Last and The Least, or has the Church fallen into those categories? I am not so sure about the terms we used, but I like to call them the hurting, the misunderstood, and those needing Jesus for not just spiritual salvation, but salvation from their circumstance.
I have come to believe the church often takes the actions it does so it can feel comfortable. However, the Church must ask the questions: If we don’t reach out to unpopular groups of people who are different than what we are accustomed to, who will? Far too often the Church has become like the Scribes and Pharisees of Jesus time. She is critical of those who are not religious, practice a different faith, or have no faith at all, we even at times seem to put a political affiliation requirement on those we are willing to love and reach out to. Many in the church doesn’t want to surround herself with people who are perceived as, "undesirable" because of their, "sinful lifestyles". It is sad but true, our actions are not only driven by our thoughts, but what we think others will think of us for practicing our faith the way Jesus and the writers of the Bible instruct us to.
It is here we need to realize, that yes, while the Church is a building or a location; it isn’t really a church without the people who make up the Church. It is in reality the people who make the Church what she is or is not. Our thoughts and our perceptions either have us doing the right thing, or ignoring the right thing and doing what is for many, comfortable. While this may be the easy road many choose, while there may even be a level of effectiveness to it, it isn't what calls us to.
Think about what the Scribes and Pharisees said? They accused Jesus of being with drunkards, prostitutes, tax collectors, the poor, the sick, outcast and more. These were the very people Jesus and the early Church reached out to. They were not the only people, there were others who fell into the category of middle to upper class, yet, Jesus made specific efforts, to reach out to the ‘sinners’. He went to where they were and related in a way were he showed them he respected and loved them as a people. This concept of relating, of becoming ‘one of them,’ is incarnation.
Often, as people go to church they think everything about their lives and the lives of others who come to the church has to change. For example, only certain types of music may be accepted, others are not, there has to be a set pattern to the rhythms and beats and it is imperative that everyone follow those patterns. Sometimes there are certain dress requirements. While we don’t always come right out and say these things or we may even deny these things in our words, our actions indicate this is church policy. As many churches start targeting groups for outreach they leave out certain populations, it is evident as we look around us that this is the case. I ask the questions, “Who is reaching out to various racial groups? Are our Churches integrated with all ethnic groups? Do we show love to the poor, not just by putting money in the missionary funds, but by spending time with them, face to face, heart to heart, eye to eye? Do we have homeless programs that not only meet the immediate need, but work to establish more for them, more like homes, families careers, etc... Are we giving financially to help those in need as much as we are asking to meet our financial needs such as our building funds? Do we know why someone is a gang banger? When is the last time we hugged a prostitute? What about criminals, do they know what it is like to have a visit from a person of faith? Does the church welcome skaters? Goths? Do we know what these people believe? Do those in alternative lifestyles know us? What about those involved in new age concepts? Do we involve ourselves with the country music crowd? How about Rock n Rollers? We can ask ourselves the question, when the bible says whoever, do we believe it? Does our whosoever’s include people who are Bi, Lesbian, Gay, Transgendered, or even Straight, Religious, Muslim, or Hispanic? What conditions and restrictions do we place on our efforts to reach out to and share Jesus love with others?
Hopefully you get my point. Unfortunately, it is clear; many in the Church do not want to reach out to the above mentioned groups and are not willing to do what is needed in order to be effective in reaching them. Churches, not open to the concepts needed to reach these "different", groups for Christ that should be on their knees asking for Gods forgiveness for their lack of concern and unwillingness to share the "Good News" and in doing the work Jesus and the Scripture commands.
Jesus came and incarnated. He gave His life so "none would perish" and "all can come into the presence of the Lord," "worshipping Him forever and ever." One of the situations at the church I attended was I had a disagreement with one of the pastors around the area of music. We were looking at developing an alternative contemporary worship service that would be a form of outreach to those in the community not going to church using a style many could relate to. Some in the church felt certain types of music was not acceptable and that people in their 30’s and 40’s would not enjoy a more contemporary and upbeat style. I found this attitude humorous. I was in that age group at the time and decided to do some research to find out what was the most popular radio stations in our area for listeners in that age group. The most popular radio stations were stations with classic rock and adult rock formats. This made sense to me because while growing up I listened to groups like Aerosmith, AC/DC, ELO, Van Halen and others with styles popular like this. When I stopped and thought about it, so did most of my friends. Most in this age group and older, they still find this format enjoyable. This does not mean everything I listen to is hard rock but rock and pop are styles many listen to. For different cultures, and within certain segments of various cultures, different styles and formats other than these arise. At one church I was a pastor at the research for our community showed that the Wal-Mart up near us was one of the largest sellers of Hispanic Music in the Country. This certainly played into our decisions when deciding what style of music to incorporate for worship. I have learned that those in the 18-24 age groups within the African American Community listen to different styles of music than most Caucasian listeners between the ages of 55 and 62. While there are always exceptions, they are just that, exceptions.
Another humorous component of this issue is I have looked at and researched Church growth and revival. At churches who have experienced major growth. Most of the new worship music across the world experiencing growth spurts are churches that have updated their music and mode of worship. An obvious example of this is the Brownsville Assembly of God in Pensacola Florida. As of the writing of this book they have experienced a long running growth spurt. While there is appropriate debate as to if this is a growth revival, there is no denying the impact the church has had. Whether you agree with their doctrine or not they have had people standing outside in lines waiting to get into the church for sometimes days in advance. One can not question the impact this church has had on America and the world. People are getting saved in record numbers and changing their lifestyles from drugs, prostitution, gangs and other sinful lifestyles. Many have given their lives to Christ and made Him their Lord and living lives of holiness and love for others. One of the components bringing people into this church is the style of music which allows and encourages authentic worship. Songs like ‘Saved’ by Bob Dylan and other contemporary artist fill the worship experience as well as a blend of occasional old traditional hymns. Again, under a pure definition of revival it is speculative as to whether or not Pensacola falls into the 'Revival" definition. There is also no doubt though, that for legitimately defined revivals like the Wesley Revival, The Jesus People Movement, The Asbury Revival and others, that music has had an impact. Even contemporary revivals featuring such evangelists as Billy Graham and others has understood the importance of contemporary music.
Christianity has for over two thousand years now used the music of the culture to reach the people of their generation. From “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” to songs like “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks” culture has had a tremendous impact on the style of music used in church gatherings. One should for example consider the standard, “Amazing Grace.” It has gone through changes and was written without music. It was years after John Newton pinned the lyrics when the tune was given to the song and it is likely that Newton, the songs lyricist never heard the version we sing.
Do churches need to find ways to reach out to fringe groups which may not be popular in some church formats? I think so. That is not to say the Church has to accept a sinful lifestyle. For example, I believe that areas not based on Biblical truth need to be seriously questioned. The Mennonite people which are featured in this story are people of doctrine and they as well as other members of the Christian faith should hold firm to their doctrines. In Christianity we certainly have absolutes and it is important to practice our beliefs and if those beliefs are Biblically solid there is nothing wrong with holding firm to those beliefs. We should not be ashamed of the Gospel nor the teachings of Christ and the absolutes He stood for, preached, taught and lived. While not all churches may be able to adapt to these changes, they must at least be willing to consider planting and starting churches which make it possible for people within alternative circles to worship in a way that brings joy and purpose to their lives. We like Jesus must take part in and encourage, incarnation. Of course in all of this, it is also important to do serious study, not just on the words and text of scripture, but the cultural issues being addressed in scripture. In today's world it is also quite easy to go back to the original languages and determine the likely meaning of the writings we are basing our beliefs on. It may not take long that when doing this, we may discover that not all is has it has been taught over the years.
Today’s Church needs to learn to decipher the difference between Biblical absolutes and cultural differences; we cannot let a cultural difference prevent us from finding ways to reach those who are different. It is moronic for many in the church to make the comparison that ‘Rock N Roll’ or ‘Hip Hop’ is the music of the devil. There are many within the Christian faith that still use this type of argument. They need to look at the historical fact of where many of our hymns come from.
The above is one example of a cultural difference when making worship decisions. When accepting people into church fellowships other cultural areas might include length of hair, certain types of dress, piercings, tattoos and other things. For example, contemporary skaters have a dress style that many do not like but certain aspects of the style of dress have nothing wrong with it other than the fact that many of us who are older didn’t or don’t dress that way. Regarding hair, in today’s culture it may be more undesirable to have extremely short hair than long hair depending on where you live due to the racially motivated skinhead movement. Many in the Church may not realize it but many in today’s contemporary culture make the comparison of men and or women with close cut or shaved heads as being racially bigoted. Is this to say that short hair in and of itself is wrong? Certainly not, it is to say there are cultural issues which make these questions we have to ask more difficult than many realize. Some will remember the days when some said the Beatles hair was too long, they looked like girls. The times have changed since they first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in the early 1960’s. By today’s standards their hair would be considered short and in some circles even considered a business cut if styled a little differently.
Each generation has its own cultural issues which are difficult for the preceding generation to accept. It has been this way since the beginning of time and will continue until Jesus return. It is human nature and a part of the growing up process for youth to explore new ideas and concepts different than their parents. Often times these youthful ideas push the buttons of us who forgot what it was like to be young and what it was like growing up. It is not to say all aspects of growing up and trying new things are right. Our children will make mistakes just as we made mistakes. However, the challenges of today’s youth are in many ways greater than they were for us. The development of technology has not helped. Neither have the changing cultural norms. Many believe and I am among them, that this generation with the advent of cell phones, chat rooms, Instagram, Twitter and more are influenced more by outside factors than factors at home. As parents or older adults we can try to win a battle we are guaranteed to loose by forcing our views and opinions on others or we can find a measure of success by trying to understand the culture and then in the understanding of that culture adapt or yes, even incarnate where possible.
One of the difficulties today for many is that today’s culture does not believe in absolute truth. Many of our absolutes are concepts that have been passed down through every vein of our lives. The truths many people have are difficult for the post modernist because they do not recognize nor have they discovered what they believe to be ultimate truth. This is why we must do our best to understand our children and raise them to the truth and understanding of God’s love as exemplified in his Son’s death, resurrection, teaching and Holy Word, the Bible. We have to in the process again, incarnate to create a better understanding between us and them. In other words, it is imperative that we live the words of Scripture and model our lives after Jesus if we are to be effective in sharing Jesus with others.
What does any of the above have to do with the story you are reading; "A Christmas Story"? Shortly after I came to have a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ I read the book, ‘In His Steps’ by Charles M. Sheldon. This book, as it has for many Christians, has left a dramatic impact on my life in the decisions I make. While hearing the story of a family that was robbed during Christmas in the early 1990’s on the radio program, Focus on the Family, I begin thinking about what Jesus would want me to do if I was robbed, especially at the worst time for a family with children, Christmas. As I thought about what God would want me to do the idea for "A Christmas Story" was birthed.
While the story looks at other areas such as racial understanding, the justice system and others it does not take place entirely at Christmas time. For those of us who have chosen to follow Jesus we understand the significance of Christmas. It is without a doubt one of the three most important days for the Christian. Christmas is a reminder of many things, including the example of Jesus that shows us why and how we should live all of the time. It is with this in mind that "A Christmas Story" was written. I cherish that Jesus was born as a babe in Bethlehem. He chose to live among us as one of us. I value the ultimate gift God gave humanity on that first Christmas. That gift gives me reason to live but it also inspires me to give to others. Jesus spent so much time with people and taught with such passion while he was on the earth, there is much we can still learn. He gave us a new commandment, the 11th commandment that "We love God with all our heart, soul and mind and strength and that we love our neighbor as ourselves." We are told in Matthew that what we have done for the least of these we have done for Him. God makes it clear, we show Him our love by loving others.
I have looked for human role models who exemplify Gods’ love and by living Jesus’ teachings. In a former job I often interviewed people for employment and one of the last if not the last question I asked was that if they could have dinner with one person, either living or dead, real or fictional who would it be and why. Most had the predictable answers of Jesus, or a dead parent, maybe even a president like Abraham Lincoln. Those who know me are not surprised by my answer. It would not be Jesus, I am with Him everyday and have access to his teachings in the Bible, for me the answer to the question is the real Saint Nicholas. He was an individual who historically and in reality, understood what God had given him and what he should in return give back to others. It would be interesting to ask his thoughts on what he felt about the observance of Christmas in today’s society. "A Christmas Story" gives my take on what I believe God would have us do in part in today's society with Christmas.
Hopefully this story helps you consider what Christmas is about and what can come about if we understand and accept the significance of that first Christmas and every one since. I pray this story helps you understand not only culture but also how to reach out to others in a loving way. God has already given us the potential to have a Merry Christmas and a wonderful year. It is up to us in part to have one by recognizing the value of the gift but it is also our responsibility to help others see the meaning of Christmas too. May this Christmas, this life, be filled with the wonderful gift of Jesus and opportunity to fall so much in love with Him today that you can't help but share him with others.
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