Christmas in the Invisible Church
No Christmas Celebrations in Turkey
There will be no Christmas Celebrations in Turkey, this year!
Rebecca and I visited Turkey (Asia Minor) this summer, where Paul spent most of his time planting churches. It is also where the famous Seven Churches of Revelation existed, which his why we toured the country, and when we visited all seven of these sites, we were dismayed at what we saw.
The Seven Churches of Asia Minor no longer exist. I am not talking about church buildings—I’m talking about congregations, the fact that there is no visible Christian presence of any kind in these cities. There may be small groups of Christians celebrating Christmas there, but they will do so quietly, in small groups of a dozen or less, keeping a low profile. In the large city of Istanbul, a few churches will be allowed to be open, but there will be no public celebrations to speak of.
Islam began to crush the church in Turkey in approximately the year 1000 and completed its mission after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. When we were in Turkey five years ago, my devout Muslim guide said that just as Christianity demonstrated its superiority by overcoming paganism, in the same way Islam has demonstrated its superiority by overcoming Christianity. And overcome Christianity it did.
Never in history has a culture dominated by Islam given equal rights to Christians. What is more, Islam keeps its subjects bound by threatening them with death if they adopt a different religion. This compassionless religion is willing to burn down churches, persecute Christians, and kill them, thus destroying the visible Christian presence.
Which leads me to my point: we must not take for granted the opportunity we have here in America to celebrate Christmas in our churches and in our homes. Here we can declare our faith despite opposition we might receive (such as those who want to ban the Nativity scene from public places). Our brothers and sisters in Muslim countries do not have such privileges. They can rejoice in the birth of Christ in their hearts and with a few other believers in private, but if they attract public attention, they will suffer the consequences.
Our challenge in America is not the crushing opposition of Islam (at least not yet), but rather the equal devastation of the commercialization of Christmas. We have diluted the message of Christmas and turned our celebration of Christ into a celebration of ourselves. We give each other gifts rather than giving gifts to the One whose birthday we honor.
This Christmas let us remember to pray for our fellow Christians in other countries who live with threats, repression, and persecution. I suspect they have a better understanding of Christmas than we do; Jesus is exceedingly precious to all who have to pay the price of devotion to Him, amid opposition and persecution.
Make Christmas More Meaningful this Season
Our brothers and sisters in Muslim countries can’t celebrate Christmas—or any aspect of their faith—openly for fear of persecution and death. And yet we, with all our freedoms, often choose to make Christmas a celebration of commercialism! With our best wishes for your most meaningful holiday ever, here are some suggestions on how your Christmas can be transformed into a celebration more attuned to honoring the One whose birthday we celebrate.
Choose some country or region of the world and pray for the Christians who live there. If you have children, encourage them to study how Christmas is celebrated in that country. You will find that each country has its own traditions and expectations as the Christmas season approaches. For example, when Rebecca and I were in Belarus just before Christmas a few years ago, we discovered that the giving of gifts is, for the most part, not a part of their celebrations… for the simple reason that the stores were empty and people had little money. Yet, we were told that the Christians gathered in homes and worshipped Jesus and encouraged each other through carols and Scripture readings. Christmas was meaningful, but low-key.
Think outside of the box—bless people who least expect it. Rebecca and I have discovered that our celebration can easily become too predictable, too self-focused. We enjoy getting together with our children and grandchildren, but if that is the extent of our generosity and involvement, we have missed the true “reason for the season.” So invite neighbors to your home for a Christmas celebration, or even better, share Christmas with a needy family. Jesus made it very clear that if you show hospitality to those who can’t repay you, you will be “repaid” at the resurrection of the just (Luke 14:12-14).
Give creative gifts. “What do you give someone who has everything?” is a question that can only be asked in America or in a few other prosperous countries. So my advice is to give someone who has everything something they would not expect: tickets to a favorite play, or a personalized item that you made. Our oldest daughter creatively gives us gifts that she herself made, perhaps a collage of special pictures or a personalized CD album, or handmade pillows.
Remember, many Christian organizations that benefit the poor also allow you to give financial gifts in honor of a loved one. Let them know you recognize the support they’ve given you, by passing that support on to someone who needs it!
Participate in the Angel Tree ministry to children who have a parent in prison. Here at The Moody Church we have participated in Angel Tree for many years. Begun by Charles Colson, this ministry gives gifts to children who are living with the shame of having a parent behind bars.
Some time ago, when I visited a prisoner at our Cook County jail, I was deeply stirred when I saw mothers bring little chldren to the jail to see their “daddy” behind the bars of a jail cell. I wondered what memories these children would take with them into adulthood. Angel Tree helps us share the love of Christ with such children to remind them that there is hope and redemption for all the families of the world. I hope your church is participating in this program.
Give a Gift that Costs You Something! For many of us, purchasing a gifts is relatively easy, especially if we can buy now and pay later! More difficult is thinking creatively so that we might not just give our money but rather give ourselves—that is the best Christmas present of all.
Why not take the time to give a home-cooked meal to a needy family, or volunteer to baby-sit for two evenings, or bring blessing to those who will spend Christmas in a hospital. When we give our time, our effort, and our special touch to others, we say most loudly, “I care!”
That, after all, is what the story of Bethlehem is all about!