Dear Santa

Dear Santa,

It has been a while since we last talked. I would like to think I have grown up from the times I asked for world peace, an end to poverty, or peace and goodwill to all mankind, but this year, I would like to ask for a little Christmas miracle again.

You still do these, yes? I mean, besides annually violating the space-time continuum visiting every house in the span of a single night, and monitoring the behaviour of all of earth’s children without parental consent or supervision like a red-vested NSA, you still perform miracles right?

This year, for Christmas, I wish us Christians would stop being so precious.

We complain about the war on Christmas, as if it is surprising that a generation of non-believers obsessed with stuff would dare turn a celebration about the birth of Jesus into the pursuit of happiness via shopping and family time.

We complain about the Greens’ latest push to remove the Lord’s Prayer from Parliament Houses, as if it pleases God to hear non-believers utter empty prayers.

Many church leaders refuse to cooperate with other churches to host combined Christmas services or carols, because they’re concerned that the product might advance other congregations at the expense of their own efforts to build ministries.

We invented the term “sheep-stealing”, for crying out loud.

(Did the person who came up with that end up on your naughty list?)

This isn’t the spirit of Christmas. This is the spirit of entitlement that pursues advancement.

Certainly, most of the people caught up in these behaviours fervently desire to advance the kingdom of God. And they appreciate that the kingdom of God extends into public spaces, parliament house and local church initiatives. But we are so eager to further God’s kingdom that we spend more energy defending the prestige of the efforts we’ve already made than actually advancing the kingdom of God. This can happen either in the public arena (such as insisting others say “Merry Christmas” and not “happy holidays”) or on a denominational scale (like when we are outraged that a cooler congregation has poached all our youth).

Like a spoilt three year old who sees the latest toy under their tree as a forgone conclusion, we are precious about our efforts and their historical cultural prominence.

Cultural prominence isn’t a God-given birthright, not to any group or tradition. Cultural prominence is merely the natural by-product when something becomes entrenched in a people’s way of life. We can predict it will decline when the factors that produced that popularity decline. In modern Australia, more toddlers believe in you than adults believe in the Christ that the original Saint Nicholas followed so devoutly.

This year all I want for Christmas is you. I want Saint Nicholas. I want a church of Saint Nicholases, people who focus so much on speaking truth and loving their neighbour they forget to fret about their position in society. Ironically, that’s the Christianity that created our now fading social dominance in the first place, so perhaps this year everyone can really get what they want for Christmas after all.

Season’s greetings,

Joshua

PS: I imagine Blitzen doesn’t get much fanmail because Rudolph is a glory hog, so please send him my regards.

 

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Hospitality

Hospitality is a great virtue.

I imagine we could all list times we have been blessed by other people’s hospitality as they invited us to dinner, or to their house for the afternoon, or maybe even housing you overnight between flights in another city.

And the Bible commands us to be hospitable (1 Peter 4:9: “Show hospitality to one another without grumbling.”)

But it’s not as easy as it sounds.

First off, I don’t even have a house to invite people over too. I live with my parents. So how can I be hospitable if I don’t have a home to invite people to? Now, when I was housesitting, I had a house. But I still didn’t invite anyone because I feared my cooking was not up to standard, and because I didn’t think I could play the role of host like I’ve seen my Mum and Dad do.

Now, there are several answers to those problems, such as “Get over it!” and

Abraham Entertaining Angels Unaware
Abraham Entertaining Angels Unaware

“Learn how to cook!” and communicating with your folks so they can help you invite people to your house, because it is your house too. But as good as those answers are, ultimately these problems stem from the wrong understanding of hospitality. Hospitality is not “having visitors over”. That’s just a way of expressing it.

Hospitality is using your resources to intentionally create a space where other people can feel loved. It’s easy to see how inviting people for dinner can do that. But we can do that when we are out of the home as well.

For instance, listening is an incredibly hospitable act. When we listen to other people, then they feel loved. More specifically, they feel safe, because who they are or what they are saying is being shown respect. Your “listening ear”, to borrow the metaphor, creates a space where it is ok for them to show you a little bit of themselves. 

Conversely, if we are poor listeners, then we are inhospitable. If we do not pay them much attention, then they left feeling that their ideas or experiences aren’t valued, so it’s not safe for them to share them. But if they do not share, then they are isolated from other people, and without that connection, how can they feel loved?

Listening is hospitable.

In exactly the same way, kindness is hospitable. If the words we say or the acts we do show them that who they are or what they are saying or dong is valued, then we’re saying that it safe to be and do those things here. With that safety, they can dare to express a little bit of themselves. And with that freedom, we feel loved.

So I want to be a hospitable person. Yes, I probably should learn to cook (my mum is reading this after all!), but more than that, I want to be a walking dinner invitation, so that how I talk, listen and carry myself wherever I go says: “pull up a chair, make yourself at home. You’re safe here.” That’s very hard work. Some people are better at it than others. The key, then, for the rest of us, is to watch the good listeners and figure out how to use our unique skills to follow suit.

That Which They Think Good

After work this afternoon, I was listening to Librivox’s recording of Artistotle’s famous book, Politics which begins with the observation that, “mankind always act in order to obtain that which they think good.”

At first, it might seem a very obvious statement. Have you ever met someone who was doing something because they thought it was bad?

Ok, a teenager might intentionally break the rules because they want to challenge their adult’s authority or because they’re bored. But even then, they are still trying to obtain that which they think good. It’s just that their idea of good (power, authority or attention and thrills) is different to our idea of good (obeying the rules).

That thought experiment demonstrates just how insightful Aristotle’s supposedly obvious observation is. We often forget that everyone is aiming for what they think is good because we all have different opinions about what is good.

It isn’t natural for us to think that the student refusing to do her homework is trying to obtain good, because our idea of good (knowledge, education, a good grade) implies she would do her homework!

I think a lot of conflict stems, or perhaps is escalated, by failure to understand what the other person thinks is good.

For instance, I love debating. I believe that there are two sides to every story, and I discover the balance between the two sides of the coin by pitting the two positions in debate. I suppose that is somewhat similar to being a devil’s advocate.

Alternatively, my parents love to discuss these things with me as well, but they love doing that because they are interested in their son and his (my) growth as a person, and because they believe certain things are true, so given the first premise, they are keen to see that I understand that truth too.

So when we have a conversation together, I often enter playing the devil’s advocate because my idea of “good” includes neutrally evaluating ideas, which is incredibly frustrating for Mum and Dad, who do not have the time or interest to engage in these hypothetical debates, and just want to cut to the chase of what do I, their son, think and where am I as a person. That’s one reason our discussions often turn into arguments.

If we could recognise our conflicting objectives before we began arguing, then things would run a lot smoother. We don’t have to agree or copy each other’s ideas of good, we just have to understand it. If I stopped to observe their idea of good, I could then respect it by sharing a heart-to-heart conversation, while they could recognise that my devil’s advocacy doesn’t represent their son going off the rails, but is simply me processing where I am at. Understanding that we have different ideas of good would help us make our ideas of good work together harmoniously, and we’d all be better off for it.

And that’s the thing. It is one thing to say “mankind always act in order to obtain that which they think good”, and it is another to get to know another person well enough to understand their vision of good. That means investing time and energy into that person. It means adopting an other-centred attitude towards our friends.

So it’s not just a philosophical exercise cooked up by Aristotle to understand impersonal political systems. And it’s tricky sometimes. But its practical value for our daily interactions and its ability to deepen our friendships makes looking for the other person’s idea of good definitely worth it.