Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Why Christmas Is for All Nations

I've heard that China's Santa Claus doesn't make his home in the North Pole. Instead, he lives in Atlanta. 

In addition to chicken feet, machinery and other products, the Asian country is now importing our cultural symbols. The benevolent, bearded man with a red suit and a belly that shakes like a bowl full of jelly is now apparently in such high demand at Chinese shopping malls that they put him up in five-star hotels and pay him enough to live for a year. Seems like a lot of trouble for a taste of Western tradition. 

Yes, it bothers me that when outside observers search for the meaning of Christmas, they are most fascinated by a fat dude who grants wishes, like a Buddha with a sleigh. But that's a rant for another day. More disconcerting to me is the fact that much of the world sees it as a foreign holiday, missing their stake in the story. 

The truth is, Christmas marks the fulfillment of a long-held wish, that things would be patched up between us and God. For those who don't understand God's love or justice, this doesn't sound revolutionary or even appealing. Why does the divine care about how I respond to him, and how would I approach him anyway? 

God knew this, and long ago, he appointed a people, the Israelites, to be his ambassadors to the world, carrying the answers to these questions and the secret of how to get back to him. 

Nowadays, with America's stalwart support of the modern state of Israel and shofars making their way into Protestant sanctuaries, it's hard to remember how foreign God's original chosen people would be to us today. They were tribal, raising animals for a living and worshipping in a tent where the presence of God was kept behind closed doors. The cost of their shortcomings was ever before them, institutionalized in violent sacrifices that put them back in touch with God. 

It's easy to see how "Immanuel" - God with us - was a breath of fresh air to those who worshipped him from behind a curtain of separation. After thousands of years of reaching up to Him, Christmas meant that he had come down to his people, repaying their rebellion with closeness, fulfilling a promise he made early in their history to send a baby boy to make peace with those who willingly became his enemies. 

God Is Global

So Christmas is a Jewish story, but as God fulfilled his promise to a specific people, he also flung open the doors of his kingdom to the world. The exclusive club of God's fellowship was now for all, as the angel told the shepherds when announcing the birth of the chosen one, 

“Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people."
We tend to forget that this was in the plan all along. Even the first Hebrew, God's original covenant partner, was chosen in order to usher God's presence and power into the world. As God said to Abraham
I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me. 
Born to a virgin in Bethlehem 42 generations later, Jesus was the conduit for this promise to be fulfilled. The magi (foreigners from afar) knew it as soon as he was born, and Jesus himself, though he concentrated on the lost sheep of Israel, later in life acknowledged that his Father would bring outsiders into his fold. His parting command to his disciples was that they go into all the world and share the good news that we can all be a part of God's family, taking on his name and sharing in his inheritance, no matter where we're from or what we've done. 

As I've traveled the world, I've seen the various ways men and women approach God. Christ's invasion is God's way of spelling out the right one for us. The Jew who seeks a Messiah can look to Jesus. The ascetic Buddhist can redirect his desires to the source of their fulfillment. The Hindu who sees God in all can begin to fathom the wonders of his specific, personal plan. The Muslim who trusts in God's oneness and justice can also begin to feel his grace. And the atheist can trade cold rationalism for illogical love. 

Christmas is not just for Christians; it's not just for Americans, Britons or Germans. It's the invitation of a global God to all people to partake in his plan to heal the whole world, establishing a universal community of peace and love rooted in him. 

Wherever you find yourself in the world today, Christmas is for you and yours if only you'll take hold of it by faith. 

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Defining Manhood in China and America

In America, masculine stereotypes are easy to spot.

Boy in Xinjiang province
Photo by Brad Kinney, 2006
Being a man is rocking a six pack (beer or abs will do), scoring chicks, driving a nice car - generally showcasing your independence while masking any sense of vulnerability.

Ironically, even though we're sitting on the couch gaining weight as we watch them, Americans worship the Jack Bauers and James Bonds of the world, those heroes who can kill a man with their pinky as quickly as they can get a lady to go to bed with them.

While we err on the side of bullet-proof bravado, Chinese society seems to expect a softer man. In traveling to the country over the past eight years, I've met many demure guys with wet-fish handshakes and designer man purses. In educational and social gatherings, I've seen men stay in the background while the more outgoing girls steal the spotlight.

A New York Times article today discussed how boys are being left behind in China's education system. Girls in urban areas, perhaps thumbing their noses at society's preference for sons, are outpacing their male counterparts in a variety of subjects and on the all-important gaokao, or college entrance exams.

Tasked with carrying on the family name, boys in China are squeezed by the pressures of growing up as "little emperors."

On one hand, they're coddled. But the investment in their development raises the entire family's expectations for their future. Immense pressure to achieve leads to countless hours of study starting at a young age. With all this on your shoulders, who has time to ponder things like masculinity?

Apparently, 16-year-old Wan Zhongni does, and he's not liking what he's seeing.

“I should have used my free time to play sports, to play basketball. I think I lack masculinity. I need to improve," the NYT article quoted him as saying.

The piece goes on to enumerate reasons for the gap in male/female performance, but I couldn't get past the honesty and uncertainty in his statement: "I think I lack masculinity." How many of us could say the same thing?

It struck me that whether it's Chinese guys spending days immersed in Internet games or Americans collecting tattoos, deer heads or polo shirts, their problem is the same: Manhood in each culture is a moving target. No one is defining it, and few men in either society are inviting boys into a higher calling for their masculinity, which should be focused on submission to God and sacrifice for neighbors.

Where are the Chinese fathers? Many of the rich send their kids off to the best schools, while the poor go to find work in the cities, leaving their sons to be looked after by grandparents in the villages. Divorce isn't as prevalent as in the U.S., but Chinese families are practical. They will split up if it means better careers and more money for kids' education and parents' care.

Where are the American fathers? Many are parked in front of the TV, while some sit staring at computers in the offices where they spend 60-plus hours per week. Others left minutes after their child was conceived and never came back.

In America, it's well-documented that kids from fatherless homes are more likely to commit crimes and drop out of school. Many Chinese are worried that their country is losing its moral compass and sliding into materialism.

In both countries, it's going to take men defining manhood for boys like Wan Zhongni to avoid rough sailing ahead.

For a clearer view of manhood, read "Making Men: Five Steps to Growing Up" by Chuck Holton, which I edited. I've also found the teachings of Robert Lewis helpful. They're encapsulated in the book "Raising a Modern-Day Knight". 

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Debtors to History

What makes me who I am?

I've been wrestling with that question over the past few years.

As I approach the age at which my father died, and I've had a growing urge to know my history, the story before my story began. I want to dig deep, to unearth the roots of my family tree like a curious scientist seeking an elemental glimpse at what made its fruit grow.

When I was in Mongolia last year, I had a chat with U.S. Ambassador Jonathan Addleton about his memoir. I had ample time to read it on a 30-hour train ride from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian capital. As I flipped the pages, I was struck by how deeply he understood his family history and how he  relayed vivid stories of events that happened before he was born.

The key to getting such detail, he said, was humility - a deep respect for how the lives of his forebears laid the path for his own and how his experiences seemed to afford him advantages for each new stage. His upbringing in Pakistan gave him an international outlook. The zeal of his missionary parents solidified a strong sense of faith. His journalism degree helped him communicate better than many of his peers. He was, in his own words, a debtor to history, barely able to take any credit for his own accomplishments.

I can see the same pattern in my life. As much as our American mindset tells us that we are masters of our own destiny, and though our faith reminds us of the truth that we were customized in our mother's womb, we can't really understand ourselves if we don't tip our hats to what happened before and beyond us.

Maybe this is real to me because my father's absence has shaped my journey probably as much as his presence would have. In a strange way, I've been guided by lacking his guidance. I have searched for my Father because my father wasn't there. I've been driven to understand manhood because there was always a missing piece in mine. Some call this fate. I call it grace and providence.

In some Asian cultures a person's role in the family defines his identity. There's a piece of universal truth to this. We're all letters on the pages of a great novel, forming words and sentences that make a story when bound together. Without context we're nothing. With an author we're captivating.

It can be maddening not knowing what's on the next page, but I take comfort in being connected to the plot. My debt to history is one I'm glad to leave unpaid.