The Joy of Glory

Discovering endless joy in the boundless glory of God…

Category: Critique

The “Elf on the Shelf” Who Stole Christmas

I actually do not like controversy.

Elf on the ShelfI am a stereotypical, peace-keeping middle-child. That being said, I think I’m about to jump into a larger mess than I did with my blog about jolly ol’ St. Nick. That’s right…for better or for worse…let’s talk about the elf on the shelf.

Now, if you have somehow managed to go through the last several years of Christmases without hearing about this rapidly spreading tradition…then here is a brief history lesson of the shelf dwelling elf. Apparently, various forms of the elf on the shelf have existed for quite some time, but the modern craze began in 2004 with the writing of a short story by Carol Aebersold and her daughter Chanda Bel.

The story was published in 2005 and explains how Santa keeps track of who is naughty and who is nice via a personalized elf on the shelf for participating families. Once you have acquired your elf, you name it and then he or she will show up at your house each day to keep watch over you until Christmas Eve. Every night, the elf flies to the North Pole to report to Santa your daily behavior. Thus, every morning you will know the elf  left your home and returned due to the fact that he/she will be in a new location. Now…no kids are allowed to touch the elf as this will cause him/her to lose his/her Christmas magic.

4d23cf1ea84726c20289ab1dda3085a4This short summary describes the manner in which the elf of the shelf is intended to be used. From experience, I know many families use their elves in completely different ways. For instance, there are some for whom the elf is simply a fun mischief maker who pulls daily pranks throughout the holiday season. However, individual family uses of the elf are not necessarily what concerns me…no. My apprehensions surrounding the Christmas Keebler is rooted in its original intent as described by the book…many of you already know what I’m going to say.

The primary issue I have with the elf on the shelf is that it’s central purpose stands in contradiction to the heart of Christmas…the gospel. The elf records your deeds to see if you measure up and deserve presents on Christmas day. But, the true present of Christmas is “good tidings of great joy that will be for ALL PEOPLE” regardless of whether they are “good” or “bad.” That good news is that “a Savior is born who is Christ the Lord!”

Christmas is a day for celebrating grace! It is a day for celebrating God giving himself to us all…freely! It is not a day for earning, meriting, or deserving. No. On the contrary, it is a day for our “deserving” to die and our “undeserving” to be declared as good news…because the undeserving are specifically the people to whom Jesus has been given! None of us deserve Jesus! None of us deserve grace! If we did…it wouldn’t be grace! Meriting something at Christmas does not make the day more magical…it actually steals all of its magic, because the magic of Christmas is grace! Nothing is more wonder producing than gospel grace!

The elf on the shelf does not bring good news…rather, he/she brings bad news that your reward depends on your ability to be good.

phariseeI tend to think the pharisees would have been big fans of the elf on the shelf. I think they tried to promote “the law on the shelf.” Jesus had news for them, namely, that no one can fulfill all the law except him…so he has done it for us. Likewise, I think Jesus would have similar news for the elf, namely, ol’ shelf-boy/girl can watch him for a record obedience…then apply it to our account! That is the only way we will receive the true reward/gift of Christmas…true life, now and forever, through Christ!

Now…before everybody freaks out and thinks I’m trying to tear apart all fun and magical Christmas traditions everywhere…I’m not! Not at all! I simply think the most magical celebration of Christmas is gospel grace, not merit-based rewards. The former is better (more magical) news than the latter. I actually think you can still use the elf if you want, but do so in a way that highlights grace, love, and mercy instead of judgment, merit, and condemnation.

Whether we are talking about the elf on the shelf or any other Christmas tradition, here are three crucial questions I think will help us shape Christmas around the very thing that created it…grace.

1. What are we saying?
Everything communicates. We all know that communication goes beyond our words and extends to our actions. This brings to mind the often quoted saying, “Actions speak louder than words.” In many cases, this saying is true, and we must remember that our Christmas traditions communicate something about Christmas and Jesus.

What-is-the-Gospel-A-Look-at-God-ManWe cannot simply use our words to say that Christmas is about Jesus and the gospel while allowing our actions to undercut that message. The things that speak the loudest are not actions or words, but words that are married to action. As we examine our Christmas traditions, we need to ask what these things are communicating, and is it a message that is in line with the gospel?

2. Why are we saying it?
If our traditions do not support the gospel, or worse, undercut the gospel…then we must ask why we are communicating these things at all? Is it worth the time and effort? Is it worth the risk of ingraining a false message within our kiddos.

I have had people become really angry with me as we have discussed Christmas traditions such as Santa Claus and elf on the shelf. Typically, during the conversation, I ask them why doing these things is so important to them. Some of them have answers, but many cannot explain why they do what they do…or why they even want to do it.

I am not saying that we need to abandon our traditions, but we need to be willing to examine them and ask “why?” Even if you choose to do things such as elf on the shelf, you need to know why and make it a good reason why…a grace centered reason why.

3. Can we and should we say it differently?
Whether we are talking about the elf on the shelf, Santa, or whatever…can we use these things to speak the true message of Christmas? Can the elf become a pointer to grace…a pointer to Jesus…a pointer to the gospel?

Elf on the shelfI want to encourage myself and all of us to think deeply about our traditions and keep what should be kept, leave behind what should be left behind, and change what should be changed.

None of our traditions are more important than the gospel. If we can use the elf to highlight the gospel, then let’s go for it. If not…then perhaps we really should put him/her on the shelf…permanently.

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Why the Haefs don’t “Do” Santa… (It’s Not What You Think)

Appalled.

That’s the word I would use to describe the general reaction of people when they find out that my family doesn’t “do” Santa Claus.

Now before you go and judge me or think that I am an extremely judgmental-grinch trying to steal the fun of Christmas for children everywhere…allow me to explain what led to the Saint Nicholas censorship in the Haefs household.

I grew up in a home that observed all the typical Santa traditions… stockings, chimneys, reindeer, letters, milk and cookies… you know how it goes. Holly’s family didn’t pay Santa much attention, but neither was he actively discounted. Now, both of us have wonderful childhood Christmas memories, and do not feel like “exposure” to Santa traumatized either of us. So, you would think we would naturally have no problems with continuing Santa traditions with our children. That was the original plan… at least for me.

santa-clausAs Holly and I became more serious in our relationship, we had more serious conversations about our future, including marriage and children. Believe it or not, our largest disagreement was over whether or not we would “do” Santa with our children. I was in favor of Papa Noel…she was not.

Now what was her concern and what won me over to her side? It was not anything you might have heard before…like the fact that “Santa” can be rearranged to spell “Satan,” or that we were worried that if we lied to our children about Santa they would think we lied about Jesus too…no…those things didn’t have any bearing on our decision. There was actually one central factor that changed my mind about Kris Kringle…

Time.

I only have so much time with my children…only so much time to invest in them…only so much time to show them what is important…only so much time to point them to Jesus.

The Christmas season gets so cluttered and crowded with things that do not matter. I already find it difficult to point my kids toward Christ when there are so many other things are begging for their attention. I simply did not want to add and promote another distraction. In the list of things that were important to me at Christmas time…Santa simply lost.

Now, this leads people to ask me a million questions and I want to try and address what are probably the top three most frequently asked. If you have additional questions, please feel free to leave them in the comment section and I’ll do my best to answer.

1. How do you shield your kids from Santa?
We don’t. We want our kids to be knowledgeable about the culture in which they live, able to interpret it and engage it. So our kids are very aware of Santa…in fact they sat on his lap last night at the Brookwood mall. At this point, you might be confused. Here’s the deal…they know Santa is pretend (like a cartoon character), but they still enjoy him as much as they do any other character in a costume (think Mickey Mouse). We let them watch the same cartoons that we did growing up (claymation Rudolph, The Grinch, Frosty, etc) and they are welcome to sit on Santa’s lap…but, in their minds, he is merely on the periphery of the season and nowhere near the center.

For instance, if you ask my kids why they receive presents…Santa will be the furthest thing from their minds. They’d tell you that we give and receive gifts as a reminder that Christmas celebrates the giving and receiving of the greatest gift…God giving his only son Jesus to be received by the world.  I promise you, this makes Christmas morning no less “magical.” If anything…it is more “magical.” I mean…we are celebrating God taking on flesh! A man scooting down chimneys simply cannot compete with that. Santa, the pretend guy, gets to be on the outskirts of Christmas, but Jesus gets the center. This naturally leads to the next question.

2. What do you do in place of Santa?
st_nicholas_myra_500We technically still include Santa…just in his proper place…December 6th. That is the feast day of the real Saint Nicholas. On that day, we tell our children about Nicholas’ life and do a few small things to celebrate his feast day.

That still leaves people wondering what we do throughout the rest of December and especially on the 25th. Well, we observe Advent as a family. Each day, we try to set aside to time (usually at dinner) to light our Advent wreath, read Scripture, and talk about what it means that Jesus came and he will come again. Advent is a season of waiting and longing for the coming Messiah…the greatest gift. Thus, Christmas works as a perfect teaching analogy as your kids wait and long for the coming of gifts.

We still sing songs (primarily about Jesus), go look at Christmas lights (reminding us of the coming light of the world), decorate a tree (much like Jesus would make a cross/tree a beautiful symbol), etc.  We simply try to make Jesus the center of all these traditions.

On Christmas day, we read Luke 2 and open presents. We try to limit the amount of presents to stem the tide of materialism. Each child receives three plus small stocking items…yes we do stockings. How do we explain how they get filled? You know what’s funny?…our kids have never asked that question. Limiting the number of gifts also frees up funds to teach our children how to be generous by example. We spend the rest of the day celebrating, eating, laughing, praying, playing…it looks like a pretty normal Christmas day actually…we just talk about Jesus instead of Santa. It really isn’t complicated. Actually…I believe it is less complicated.

3. Do you think “doing” Santa is harmful and that other people should make the same decision you have?
This is always a fun question…because my answer is yes and no. I believe there is a way to “do” Santa that can be potentially harmful, but it doesn’t have to be. If people want to “do” Santa with their kids, I would NOT insist that they make the same decision that my family has or they’re wrong, but I would encourage them to “do” Santa in such a way that points their family toward Jesus.

Here’s what I mean. The traditional concept of Santa stands in direct contradiction to the gospel, which is the heart of Christmas. Santa keeps a checklist of who is naughty or nice…and so you need to work hard, behave right so that you can be rewarded with gifts. This is not the gospel…it is works based righteousness…legalism. Our kids are already hard-wired legalists…they don’t need us reinforcing their natural bent. Christmas…the gospel…grace is designed to counter and contradict legalism. God sent his son to an undeserving world to save us. We were given this gift freely. We could not earn it. We were all on the naughty list and Jesus took our lump of coal so that we could have an eternal gift…him!

If you are going to do Santa, then brainstorm/imagine/dream/think of ways to use him as a pointer to Jesus…a pointer to the gospel…a pointer to grace.

A Prayer for Matt Pitt

1 Corinthians 12:26a, “If one member suffers, all suffer together…”

Today…my heart is broken. Today…I am hurting. Today…I hurt with my brother, Matt Pitt.

I pastor a church in Birmingham, Alabama…the place Matt Pitt calls home and in which he has ministered for many years. Matt was a young man with a troubled past who came to know Jesus in a manner that resembles the testimony of the apostle Paul. One moment Matt wanted nothing to do with Jesus, the next moment he couldn’t stop telling people about Jesus.

the-bHe began meeting with friends in his parent’s basement and over the course of a few years, this meeting grew to thousands of teens meeting in arena type venues. Many people have opposed Matt, criticized his ministry, and made shameless jokes about everything from his theology to his physique. I must ashamedly confess that I am not guiltless in this matter.

Last year, critics felt justified in all they had ever said as Matt was arrested for impersonating a peace officer. He plead guilty and there were minor penalties (primarily probation). Then, last night Matt was arrested for similar charges and apparently tried to evade the police in the process.

Today…my heart is broken, but probably not for the reasons you would think.

It is not broken because of what Matt may or may not be guilty of, but because I went to bed last night and awoke this morning to a social media explosion among Christians discussing the issue. The content and condemnation of these posts is what has broken my heart.

I am not writing this post to defend Matt’s innocence. Honestly, I feel that when it comes to the response of Christians to this incident, his guilt, or the lack thereof, is irrelevant.

Here is our brother in Christ amidst suffering. It doesn’t matter if people from the outside are inflecting it upon him or if it is self-inflected…it is suffering none the less. When one part of the body suffers…ALL suffer together.

Our task is not to add to Matt’s suffering through our words of condemnation…for his guilt or innocence is not ours to decide. Our task is not to add to his suffering through our shameless joking…for this is no joking matter. Our task is not to add to his suffering through feeling justified for our criticisms (past or current)…for he is our brother.

I will be the first to admit that I do not agree with everything Matt has done within his ministry. My own philosophy of ministry is very different from his. My teaching methods and thoughts on discipleship are nearly opposite of what I have been able to observe concerning the basement.

HOWEVER, no matter how much I may disagree or differ with Matt Pitt’s approach to ministry, I do not deny that he is my brother in Christ. We are a part of the same body, and when he suffers. I suffer!

prayer-meeting_wide_t_ntOur task is to suffer with Matt as we pray for his guilt or innocence to be rightly determined and that he be strengthened for the consequences. Our task is to suffer with him as we pray for his family and those to whom he has ministered. Our task is to suffer with him by encouraging him that the body loves him and there is grace greater than all our sin.

Please join with me brothers and sisters to suffer with our brother Matt Pitt. Please join with me to be the body of Christ. Please join with me to pray, love, and extend grace as it has been extended to us.

Sovereign Lord,

I pray for my brother Matt. I cannot imagine the feelings going through his heart and the thoughts going through his mind. I pray for peace. Grant him trust in you no matter what lies ahead.

If he is guilty, Lord I pray for a conviction in his heart to confess his sin and repent knowing that you give grace to the humble, but resist the proud. And, Lord if he is innocent, I pray for clear evidence and a quick release.

May he rely on you while he finds himself in such a place of suffering. May you surround him with brothers and sisters who will suffer with him. No matter what, I pray that through Matt’s words and actions you will ultimately be shown to be great, loving, and glorious above all!

In the name of Jesus…Amen.

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