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Merry Christmas, Nineveh

being other oriented

I like working in CRC ministries because we tend to think and talk a lot about others and their needs. We address our prayers and work to those needs. As part of the church we act in

and support ministries that are supremely about others.

The conversations I’ve had today turned pretty quickly to others, even when I asked, “How are you doing?” Someone answered, “Fine. I hope we see Norma soon. I miss her.” Joel Hogan answered, “Fine. The churches in Eastern Europe are really cold this time of year. . . .” I also heard, “I hope the folks who are leaving [our printing plant] have a nice Christmas” and “I’ve been on the phone with someone from Haiti. It’s tough” and “Such-and-such church is in deep trouble. I don’t know if they will make it.” You see what I mean. We’re all about others—we hope that somebody besides us has a nice Christmas.

Not Natural

You may think being other-directed is pretty commonplace, but it’s not. “The notion of the ‘other’ is a tough one for Homo Sapiens,” notes Time magazine’s cover story on morality (Dec. 3, 2007). Mostly people are by nature self-directed and tuned in to the needs of family and clan, not much aware of or sympathetic toward truly “other” others.

The most astonishingly cruel atrocities of our times have been perpetrated by people in the name of their own tribe against another. Says Time, “Yugoslavia is the great modern example of manipulating tribal sentiments to create mass murder. You saw it in Rwanda and Nazi Germany too. Exploitation of tribalism (love of our own, fear of others) for evil purposes.”

The hills around Bethlehem have been alive with the sound of contractors building 400 miles (644 km) of a 20-foot-high (6 m) wall that will fence off illegal Israeli settlements from Palestinian suicide bombers and everyone else. Us versus them. Each group is other-directed in a bad way: they hate ’em.

A Mother’s Example

If you have philoxenia (Greek for love of strangers/others) that overcomes our natural xenophobia (fear of strangers)—and I think you do—where did you get it?

That’s worth thinking about in our calling of serving Christ by serving others. Worth thinking about at Christmastime when we hope the great story of “God so loved the world” will teach the great lesson “Love one another, love others.”

I got philoxenia from my mother. Couldn’t miss it. For it was my mother’s love of strangers that brought official scrutiny and even disfavor upon us Rozebooms for a while immediately after World War II. My mom (who was the head of our family with my dad off in the South Pacific in the Army Air Corps for years) not only preached concern for others and put into every prayer, “God, please feed the starving children in Europe”—she kept on writing letters and sending packages of food and clothes to the Wilkies, a bunch of strangers living in Germany, not even relatives, none of whom she or any of us had ever before met. It made an impression!

All we had by which to know the Wilkies was my grandma’s creased, faded black-and-white photo of a sad-looking guy, his sad-looking wife, and a bunch of kids who didn’t look real happy either. My mother, being of German descent, heard the Wilkies’ story of need in war-torn and post-war starving Europe through our church or her German relatives. When I asked her later, she couldn’t remember which. Didn’t matter. These people were desperately needy, often sick, lacked decent clothes, and didn’t have two pfennigs to rub together, so my mom sent them stuff via the Red Cross, assisted by me and my sister—stuff packed carefully with love and accompanied by prayers.

My mother ignored the fact that we—living in a cold apartment above a grocery store in Edgerton, Minn., with our father absent—were really poor ourselves. She ignored the fact that after the war, the Wilkies, in their thank-you letters, sung the praises of their new communist state that we knew as East Germany.

The East German propaganda is what attracted official attention to my mother’s care packages and the Wilkies’ responses. Seems all the mail from there was opened by some official snooper who informed the Edgerton postmaster and asked that all our mail be opened and scrutinized before my mother got it. It scared the postmaster, but not my mother. She said, “The government reads all my correspondence with your dad. Why care about this?” There wasn’t anyone or anyplace too much “other” for my mother not to care.

We finally stopped hearing from the Wilkies, and with no sign that our stuff was reaching them, we stopped the relief effort. Mom found other “others.”

That’s where I got it. Couldn’t miss.

More to the Story

It’s Advent, and we all look for signs that the direct, plain-language message of God’s love for the world somehow gets translated into “love each other as I have loved you” (John 15:12)—specifically, physically, sacrificially, intently, helpfully, beautifully, sustainingly. That it’s as important to God that some people who’ve never really had a nice Christmas have one as it is that I have one.

The Bethlehem Christmas story in Luke has tremendous dramatic impact and a lot of appeal: shepherds, angels, music, the holy couple and Christ child in a barn with animals. But the “others” part gets lost, or only comes in at the margins.

Maybe the story as we traditionally think of it is too comfortable, too exclusive

—not explicit enough about the terrible battle Jesus stepped into at Bethlehem for the whole world, the fight to be the Lord whose battle flag, improbably, is the Love of God.

That’s why I cited the Christmas story from the book of Jonah. It’s not hard for me to identify with Jonah’s stubborn reluctance and his anger about being made uncomfortable. I can imagine some persons, neighbors, tribes, and nations who are as violent, indecent, and threatening as Nineveh, the archetype of “otherness.” I cannot miss, though, the way God explicitly expresses deep care that, along with his whining prophet, more than 100,000 repentant Ninevites have a “nice Christmas,” and their cattle too.

Your caring, mine, all of ours, expressed in our personal values and lives and work so that other people here and in hundreds of other places around the world have a really nice Christmas—that is the heart of God.

Thanks. Merry Christmas!

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