“The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.” Luke 2:20
A couple of years ago, we had an opportunity to attend a 4-day missionary retreat and conference with 150 other missionaries serving in places all over the world. Each of those days started with a devotion given by a pastor visiting from the U.S., all of which focused on how to serve in a culture that is different than our own.
During one of those devotions, he challenged us to make a deep search in to our definition – or our mind’s picture – of what we felt was a “good Christian life”. For example, did we believe a “good Christian” should listen to “secular” music, or should dress modestly, or should drive extravagant cars, etc. etc.
Then he asked us to take it a step further, and to look at this question in the context of the culture in which we were serving. He challenged us to ask the Lord to show us whether some of our “Christian life” rules were, in fact, based on the truth and authority of God and His Word, or if they were actually based on our home culture. He then asked us to consider whether the rules we’d setup based on our culture were perhaps inhibiting our being able to better know and understand the culture into which we were called to serve.
One example that came to my mind immediately was cards. I remembered when Charlie and I were in Brazil working and training with some Brazilian believers, that during a break a few of the American kids brought out some playing cards. I remembered how surprised the Brazilians were that the American adults were allowing their children to play cards. According to the Brazilian culture, Christians never play with cards. They believe the risk is too great that a person will start to rely on some sort of chance or fate in a card game, which goes very much against faith in the one true God.
Of course, serving in Russia, one of the most obvious questions for me during this discussion was regarding my judgment of the Russian Orthodox church. Many Protestant believers serving in Russia absolutely refuse to work at all with anyone associated with the Russian Orthodox church. This separation exists for several reasons, actually. But one of the primary issues that I have felt the Lord challenge in my life while living in Russia has to do with a very specific topic, and that is the Orthodox church’s use of icons and incense in their worship.
First, I want to make it clear that I am not advocating praying to or worshiping anything other than the one true God, our Creator. In fact, in conversations with Russian Orthodox believers, it has been confirmed that there are many in that faith who have come to put their trust and belief not in God Almighty, but in the icons to which they pray. This is, I believe, nothing short of idolatry.
This idea has brought me to a couple of other points, however, that I do want to make. First – I don’t believe this was the original intention of these things in the Orthodox church. When I asked her, a Russian Orthodox friend described it very well. She said that one of the core beliefs of the Russian Orthodox church is that worshiping God should involve the entirety of our bodies, which He created to worship Him. She explained that as our senses of smell and touch and sight were given to us by Him as well as our senses of hearing and taste, we should seek to use all of those things in our experience of Him. Originally, the icons and incense were introduced into the Russian Orthodox church so as to assist the worshiper to more fully experience the presence of God in their lives with their whole bodies.
Over the generations, however, many have been brought up in the Russian Orthodox church and it’s customs without ever having entered into a true relationship with God through Jesus Christ. For this reason, many in the church do seek life and joy and peace in their lives through these created objects, and are missing the real source of life in their lives, the Creator God.
Second – and what has actually brought me to think about this “cultural idolatry” in recent weeks – is not something I’ve witnessed in Russia at all, but what I realized I might be seeing among us from the U.S.
In the first week of November, I began seeing something that in all years past until now has never struck me as strange. American advertising media and music stations and even conversations on Facebook began to focus very much on things pertaining to the celebration of Christmas. And now that Thanksgiving is over, it’s everywhere. Whenever I connect online with anything American, I am certain to see running through it some sort of Christmas theme. Everywhere are Christmas lights, Christmas sales, Christmas music, Santa Claus, and on and on.
And I’ve been wondering a bit about these things this year. Why is it that each year we in the U.S. seem to want to start the Christmas music and put up our Christmas trees earlier and leave them on later? We all know the depression that sets in after Christmas is over and all of the lights are taken down. Where does that come from? We’ve just celebrated the coming of our Lord into this world to save us from our sins. We should be entering the New Year with a renewed sense of hope and life. So why are we so down in January?
Further, when people start talking about what excites them about Christmas, they usually mention lights, family, music, shopping. Rarely do you hear a person say how much they love the time of gathering together to remember the birth of Jesus Christ. In fact, Christmas morning – the very day set aside for celebration – is for many one of the saddest days of the year. How can that be?
Then I think back to what I’ve learned from the Russian Orthodox church. How I’ve seen people seek to find life and joy not in the God we’ve come to celebrate, but in the created things with which He’s blessed us. I wonder if the Christmas tradition according to our culture in the U.S. has not become more about finding a sense of life or hope in our lives by doing lots of shopping and parties, and by hanging pretty lights around our houses, and by listening to music that made us so happy when we were children.
I wonder if we’ve not shifted our focus and our trust and our worship away from the God we are seeking to celebrate this season, and onto the things originally created to help us experience Him more fully. I wonder how I would feel if all of those things were taken away – the lights, the food, the gifts under the tree, the music – and all I had was a quiet night with a baby lying in a smelly manger, born of a virgin, who’d come into the world to save me and my children and all of us from death. Where would my hope lie? Would it be enough?
Dear God, I pray that this season you will show us those gifts you’ve given that we have put in front of you. I pray you will show us those things we rely on to bring us joy and peace that are not you. And I pray that in your mercy you will forgive us and grant us grace in the inevitable fall we will experience as these things are taken away. These things are not you – they will fail us. I pray that you will fill us afresh in the empty places that remain with your ever-healing and almighty presence, in Christ Jesus. Thank you, God, for sending your son in this world to die for us. Thank you for this time that we can come together and celebrate his coming again. In Christ Jesus’ name. Amen.