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God of Tradition

What do our traditions really have to do with true meaning of Christmas?

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Traditions.

We all have them, especially during the holidays.

We decorate trees, we bake cookies, we play Secret Santa, we stuff stockings, we glaze hams. All in the spirit of Christmas.

But what do any of these traditions really have to do with true meaning of Christmas?

In recent years, I’ve been convicted by just how much I rely on my childhood traditions to enable me to truly enjoy the Christmas season. When I was 21, I moved from the dreamy white Christmases of West Michigan to experience my first holiday season in Cape Town, South Africa. Like a snowball to the face was the realization that Christmas is celebrated far differently in the southern hemisphere than it is portrayed in The Polar Express.

I groped around for familiarity and did my utmost to recreate the absolute essentials that define Christmas. My poor South African husband eyed me with suspicion in our first year of marriage, when I unboxed the three-foot-high acrylic evergreen and proceeded to adorn it with a single strand of multi-colored lights. Never mind that it was the peak of the South African summer and the African sun didn’t set until well past nine o’clock at night, so there was barely time to actually enjoy the lights anyway.

After several years of trying in vain to make Cape Town my own little winter haven, I gave up and began to accept a “new normal” for the month of December.

In lieu of curling up next to the fireplace with a mug of hot cocoa, I grew used to standing around the outdoor braai (the South African version of a barbecue) with an ice cold Coke. Instead of wrapping up in scarves and long underwear to go sledding and sing Christmas carols in the snow-covered streets, I resorted to slapping on the sunscreen and flip-flops and heading to the beach. I savored the emphasis on family and get-togethers over and above the consumerism and materialism that dominates so much of the holiday season in the U.S.

Granted, I have yet to embrace the rich fruitcake that South Africans so fondly refer to as Christmas pudding. I do, however, look forward to the chocolate-dipped shortbread cookies that a certain family at our church give us every year after the Christmas morning service.

Last year, though, my mom passed away, and I found myself struggling to do the “usual” traditions. I thought to myself, “Well, at least there are chocolate-dipped cookies to look forward to after church.” Really? Have I stooped so low?

Imagine my dismay when we left church that morning without a plate of cookies. I saw the cookies — in the hands of other families. But that day, I got into the car without a plate of my own. To my embarrassment, I almost started crying! Over cookies! Am I really so shallow?

Is Christmas really about the cookies? To my surprise (and relief), my husband walked through the door twenty minutes later with our very own plate of chocolate-dipped shortbread cookies. It was as if the Lord allowed that temporary delay to show me just how much I fail to exalt Him alone as my true source of joy and delight.

What do you most look forward to during the Christmas season?

Is it the opportunity to celebrate the birth of the risen King? Or, like me, could it be something else — something manmade, something temporary, something that will disappear like Christmas cookies off a Santa Claus platter?

What defines Christmas for you?

Is it your grandmother’s pecan pie? If you don’t get what you want in your stocking, does that “ruin” Christmas for you that year? How do you measure your enjoyment of one of the most important days of the year?

God of Tradition

A couple of years ago, I was able to hear Noël Piper speak on the topic of her book, Treasuring God in our Traditions.

Until that evening, I had never considered the notion that God is the One who created traditions in the first place.

Think about it. Throughout Scripture, He encourages His people to remember what He has done, and to tell future generations. The people of Israel are commanded to remember certain feasts and celebrations, not just for the sake of tradition, but because of the spiritual meaning that undergirds each event.

In her book, Piper suggests three ways of defining the term “tradition”:

  • A tradition is a planned habit with significance
  • Tradition is the handing down of information, beliefs, worldview from one generation to another by word of mouth and by regular repetition of example, of ceremony, of celebration
  • For a Christian, tradition is laying up God’s words in our own hearts and passing his words to the next generation

I must admit, these definitions shook my thinking regarding why we do what we do.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing inherently wrong with shaking sprinkles onto cut-out cookies or stringing popcorn onto the boughs of a blue spruce. But why do we do it?

If you’re a parent, your toddler has no doubt asked the same question countless times: “Why?” In His instructions to Israel regarding the celebration of the Passover, God says through Moses, “And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them…” (Exodus 12:26). We ought to be prepared to give an answer in season and out of season for the hope that we have and for the reason why we do the things we do as Christian families.

Treasuring God in Our Traditions

How can we alter some of our existing traditions or introduce new traditions to magnify God’s goodness and grace?

Instead of making gingerbread houses with our kids, we could make gingerbread inns and mangers and use the opportunity to re-tell the story of Mary and Joseph searching for a place to sleep.

We can make use of wonderful resources like advent candles and advent calendars to maximize the anticipation and build-up to Jesus’ birthday, to ensure that the focus is fixed on its rightful recipient.

When I was growing up, we had an advent wreath. I remember looking forward to each Sunday leading up to Christmas, when we would sit at the dining room table and light another candle in remembrance of what God has done.

Now that I have my own children, we’ve been making our own advent calendars each year. The kids wake up every morning in December with great excitement, eager to see what is in the next pocket or envelope. We include passages of Scripture each day, which tell the magnificent story of God’s plan for mankind.

With smaller children, we could make a birthday cake to share on Christmas, to emphasize the fact that we’re celebrating someone’s birthday — and not just any birthday, but the birth of our Savior. If gifts are exchanged, we could use the opportunity to teach our children that we give gifts because of the greatest gift of all — the gift that God gave to us through His Son. As they open their gifts, we can teach them the truth of James 1:17, that “every good and perfect gift is from above.”

This year, let us not get so tangled up in strings of lights and shopping receipts that we fail to exalt the true meaning of Christmas.

Let’s be creative and help each other treasure God in our traditions. How have you incorporated Christ into your family’s Christmas traditions?

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Kate Motaung grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan before spending ten years in Cape Town, South Africa. She is married to a South African and together they have three children. Kate is the author of the e-book, Letters to Grief, hosts the Five Minute Friday blog link-up, and has contributed to several other online publications. She blogs at Heading Home and can be found on Twitter @k8motaung.

7 Comments
  • Hey Kate – a lovely article this! I agree wholeheartedly.

    I think there’s loads to say about traditions :-) Personally, I love establishing traditions for the purpose of portraying the gospel. So we do do loads of Christ-centred traditions both at Christmas and Easter (all blogged at http://bit.ly/hayestraditions). I totally see how God has modelled the goodness of tradition to us.

    There is a thought that has been milling around my head for quite some time and the topic of ‘traditions’ has long been mulched up with all the other issues centred around this thought. I wonder if you mind me sharing with you here?

    Disclaimer: this thought is no reflection on what you have said here (totally agree with you)! My thought is: I wonder, if, as with everything else in this world, we human beings can thoroughly ruin traditions too by a) holding onto meaningless traditions “Fiddler on the Roof” style or creating tradition for tradition sake and b) prescribing tradition-forming as a part of the “good” Christian life. What I mean by that is that while I personally love traditions, see their value and enjoy establishing new Christ-focused traditions in my own little family, I am wary of the pressure put on Christian families to do traditions along with all the other “right things to do if you’re a Christian” prescriptions that don’t really have anything to do with salvation. It seems that lately there is a lot of that kind of pressure: online, especially. Somewhere along the line it’s as if the “traditions are great and worthy” has morphed into “Christians should establish traditions if they really are saved”. And so “traditions” are added to the list of “what good Christians do” along with breastfeed their babies, birth them naturally, start the day with prayer for the whole family, do Passover and a variety of other things that have nothing to do with salvation itself.

    Part of me feels that for someone who doesn’t do traditions in an intentional way should be discerning enough not to feel the pressure, but another part of me feels that those of us who are tradition-advocates should always be careful not to be prescriptive.

    Right – now there are some of my as-yet-unwritten-thoughts blurted out on your post! Apologies :-)

    Thank you for your insightful, helpful and not-at-all prescriptive article!

    • Thanks, Taryn, for taking the time to share these thoughts. I loved the pictures on your blog, by the way. It’s so refreshing to see a family having so much fun while practicing Christ-centered traditions!

      I think your point about being prescriptive is very apt and can be applied to far more than just holiday traditions, as you allude to in your comment. Much of what we are ‘used to’ can masquerade itself as ‘gospel,’ when in fact it is just cultural, or tradition. The way we do church, for example – we may think it *must* be done in a certain way, because that is the *Christian* way to do it, but in actual fact, that may just be what our culture has imprinted on us. The main measuring rod when we are trying to sift through what is gospel and what is culture, is obviously the Scriptures, as you know.

      Take the Lord’s supper, for example — a “tradition” that is prescribed by the Lord Himself: “Do this in remembrance of me.” The symbolism and meaning behind it is the main reason we continue to celebrate it today — yet it may be easy for us to think that the way we do it in our church is the *right* way to do it. We may be tempted to critique other modes or methods of celebrating the Lord’s supper in Portugal or the Philippines because they don’t do it the way we do … but in actual fact, most churches don’t partake in communion the same way the Lord Jesus did in any case. What I’m trying to say is that it is easy to come to something that is different and want to say that it is wrong, but all the while we are using our own method as the measuring stick, as opposed to going to the Word of God to determine whether a practice is biblical or not.

      For me, the challenge is to keep Christ at the center. It becomes an issue if any one of us in the family gets upset if we didn’t get to put the tree up one year, or if we never got around to baking cookies. The important thing is to not let traditions dictate what the day is all about, but to remember that they are meant to point us back to Him and what He has done for us.

      Thanks again for sharing your insights! Would love to keep the dialogue going as we work through these things with time!

      • 100%! You’ve articulated beautifully what I was trying to say. I so identify with having to keep Christ centered and not the cookies that got burned! :-)

  • This was a great article! I love traditions and I love how you weave in how God started traditions for his own people to remember Him by.

    • Thanks, Danielle. May you and your family have a blessed time celebrating the birth of Christ this month!

  • Betsy

    Wonderful article! Thanks for being so transparent, and for the great ideas of how to create meaningful traditions. Merry Christmas!

    • Thanks for your comment, Betsy! May you have a blessed Christmas as well.

Articles

When Doing Justly, Loving Mercy, and Walking Humbly Stand at Odds

If your compassion far exceeds your capacity, here’s one way you can be sure to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly.

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One of my life verses is Micah 6:8, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

It is one of my favorite verses because my heart has been so moved by the love Jesus has for me and the sacrifice He made for me that I am grateful to have a way to express my gratitude through acts of justice and mercy while walking humbly with God.

I have found at times, however, the call to do justice and love mercy come in conflict with the call to walk humbly with God. For me, one of the ways to walk humbly with God is to recognize my limitations. I have to put skin to the fact that I am not God which means saying, “no” to ministry requests. It means going to sleep when I could be spending time advocating for the harrowed and helpless in the world. It means limited seats at my table, limited funds in my bank account, and limited energy in my body cannot be ignored but respected and adhered to.

This is hard for me at times, especially when I scroll my Facebook feed and see friends who are caring for their really sick children, spouse, or other family member all while millions of refugees flee war torn countries and babies are slaughtered by the hundreds each day in our country through the abortion industry.

As I scroll, I receive texts about one family member’s surgery gone wrong and another family member announcing a new baby is on the way. I have in mind my neighbor who has inpatient surgery scheduled this week and another neighbor who is trying to hold down a full-time job, care for twins all while battling profound “morning” sickness.

Folks at church are fighting for their lives in physical and spiritual ways, and strangers who pass me on the road are clearly battling something as demonstrated by their impatient honking because I won’t take a right turn on red. I want to meet the needs of all; I want to do justice and love mercy, but I’m daily confronted by the fact that I am so limited.

What am I to do when doing justly and/or loving mercy seem to come in conflict with walking humbly with my God?

God keeps bringing me to this answer: prayer.

God invites us to cast our cares before Him because He cares for us.
God tells us to be anxious for nothing BUT WITH PRAYER present our requests before Him.
God commands us to pray without ceasing.

And, when I walk humbly with God, I see the immense kindness in His command.
He gives us a way to do justly, love mercy WHILE walking humbly with Him.
It is by praying without ceasing.

I cannot take a meal or give money to every sick person or family I know. I cannot extend kindness to all my neighbors all at the same time they’re in need nor conjure up sustainable solutions for the refugee crisis and contact all the necessary world powers to make it happen.

I cannot heal all, but I know the Healer.

I cannot provide for all the needs, but I know the Provider.

I cannot rescue everyone in need, but I know the Rescuer.

I cannot comfort all the broken, but I know the Comforter.

I cannot speak peace over every situation, but I know the Prince of Peace.

I cannot be all to all, but I can go to the Great I Am through prayer, lay all the people, problems and pleas for help before the Omniscient and Omnipresent God of all Creation.

I can do this through prayer.

Recently, via an Instagram contest of all things, I came upon A–Z prayer cards designed by blogger/author/speaker, Amelia Rhodes. It is a simple concept packed with a powerful prayer punch. It has served me personally in this tension of wanting to do far more than I practically can do. It provides prayer prompts starting with each letter of the alphabet along with a scripture that coincides with the prayer focus. It ranges from Adoption to a creative “Zero Prejudice” for the letter “Z.”

The cards are well thought out, color printed on sturdy cardstock with blank lines for the user to write in the names of people and/or organizations that are personal to them.

If, like me, your compassion far exceeds your capacity, pick up a set of these prayer cards and unload your burdens onto a God whose competence matches His kindness, both boundless.

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Articles

Facing Our Fears in Motherhood

Do you have fears tied to motherhood? If so, here’s encouragement for you.

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“Are you scared?”

I was taken aback by his question. Scared? Of what?

“Of anything,” he answered.

I had just shared my due date with a new class of trainees.

“He has three boys,” another new hire volunteered. So fear is to be expected, I reasoned. I’m just about to face the most frightening experience in my life.

Of course I was scared.

I was scared…

  • I’ll lose my temper.
  • I’ll whine about sleepless nights.
  • I’ll breastfeed too often or not often enough.
  • I’ll leave piles of unfolded onesies in the middle of the nursery floor because I’m too tired (or lazy?) to fold teeny-tiny baby clothes for the upteenth time.
  • I’ll go with disposable diapers when the better choice would be cloth.
  • I’ll work too many long hours at the office and miss precious moments with her.
  • I’ll sign her up for too many activities and push her to become Miss Achieve-It-All.
  • I’ll pass on to her my ugly pride, self-righteousness, and perfectionism like a dreadful contagious disease.
  • I’ll miss countless little joys in life while pursuing worthless dreams.

Facing Our Fears in MotherhoodIn short… I was afraid I was going to fail miserably as a parent.

And now, holding my second-born daughter in my arms, thinking back on that brief exchange just a few years ago, I realize those fears were well-founded. I’ve failed many times. I’ve lost my temper. I’ve raised my voice. I’ve worked too much and played too little. I’ve seen my own sinfulness reflected in my daughter.

Yes, I’ve failed, but over and above it all, God’s grace has covered my parenting imperfections and made me run to the cross day after day. The writer of Proverbs puts it this way:

Whoever fears the LORD has a secure fortress, and for their children it will be a refuge.
Proverbs 14:26

When it comes to fears, we have two choices: Will we fear the unknown or will we fear the Lord? Will we allow the uncertain to grip us in its clutch or will we turn to God’s Truth to set us free?

Scared? Oh yeah. There was so much to be scared of that day. And even now, if I’m completely honest, there are still fears nibbling at the edges of my consciousness. Fear that we won’t outgrow the temper tantrums. Fear that the two girls won’t get along. Fear that I’ll mess them up and cause them interminable hours on a psychologist’s couch.

I’m sure you have fears, too.

But rather than allow those fears to consume and paralyze us, we can take them to the Lord, acknowledging His sovereignty over our parenting, pleading His grace over our mistakes, and entrusting His provision over their futures. He is not only able to handle it all — He is far more capable to be trusted with it all.

If I say one thing to that frightened 9-month-pregnant me standing in that room years ago, I would say this: Don’t let fear rob today’s joy with tomorrow’s unknowns. Each day has enough worries of its own (Matthew 6:34).

Instead, let us keep seeking God, running to Him as our secure fortress and resting in the knowledge that He will care for us and our children one day at a time.

What are you scared of today? Name your fears and bring them to the Lord, allowing Him to replace them with His peace that passes all understanding.

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He Gives Shade To The Weary

If anxiety is a struggle for you right now, remember that He gives shade to the weary.

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Do you ever have those moments of fear because you don’t know what lies ahead? When do those thoughts tend to happen to you?

For me, most of those thoughts happen when I lay my head down to sleep at night. The vulnerability comes forth every time. That’s what happened the other night to me. I shut my eyes and immediately anxiety welled up inside me.

What if we don’t succeed in this new venture? What if we have to move? What if we can’t pay our bills?

I laid there with the covers drawn tight over my head (I still think that I am safer if the covers are over my head), praying scripture over my anxious heart. Assuring myself that God sees me and that He cares.

In the morning, I turned to Isaiah 41, specifically verses 10-20.

“Do not fear, for I am with you; Do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you, Surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.” (Isaiah 41:10, NASB)

Yesterday, the “what if’s” piled up as I anxiously looked about me. My daughter needs tutoring, however at this point in life, tutoring feels like a luxury we can’t afford. So I listed some items online to sell hoping to make just enough to cover the tutoring. I’m buying groceries on a Visa reward card. I’m holding my breath until the next paycheck comes. But what did God speak over me: Do not fear. Do not look anxiously about you.

“For I am the Lord your God, who upholds your right hand, Who says to you, ‘Do not fear, I will help you.’ Do not fear, you worm Jacob, you men of Israel; I will help you,” declares the Lord, “and your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel.” (Isaiah 41:13-14 NASB)

Why shouldn’t I be anxious? Because God will hold me up. God will help me. When I first read the word “worm” as a description, I took it as a slam against Israel. Like, gesh, God. What animal does He relate me to? But through further study, He calls them a worm because worms are helpless. They are viewed as insignificant, despised and weak. God will help me — seemingly insignificant, helpless me — because He is my Redeemer. He is my go’el — my next of kin. The Redeemer is the one who provides for all my needs. Rent. Car payment. Credit card bill. Gas. Food. Clothes. Debt. God will redeem.

He Gives Shade to the Weary

“Behold, I have made you a new, sharp threshing sledge with double edges; You will thresh the mountains and pulverize them, And will make the hills like chaff. You will winnow them, and the wind will carry them away, And the storm will scatter them; But you will rejoice in the Lord, You will glory in the Holy One of Israel.” (Isaiah 41:15-16 NASB).

God is transforming me from a helpless one to a powerful one. The description of that type of threshing sledge is like a modern day earth mover. Powerful. Strong. Immovable.

“The afflicted and needy are seeking water, but there is none, And their tongue is parched with thirst; I, the Lord, will answer them Myself, As the God of Israel I will not forsake them.” (Isaiah 41:17, NASB)

He will come to our rescue. God, Himself, will answer you and me. Can you hear how personal that sounds? Have you ever pleaded with someone important whether your boss, public figure, or even a parent, and they responded to the need themselves? You expected for them to send their assistant, but instead they — the most important one — responded to you.

“I will open rivers on the bare heights And springs in the midst of the valleys; I will make the wilderness a pool of water And the dry land fountains of water. I will put the cedar in the wilderness, The acacia and the myrtle and the olive tree; I will place the juniper in the desert Together with the box tree and the cypress.” (Isaiah 41:18-19, NASB)

This passage describes the wilderness-like times in life. You are barren. You are thirsty. You are hot. You are in need. God will provide what you need. God will quench your thirst. He will provide shade when you are weary. During those times, God can provide in creative, innovative ways. He can provide something out of nothing. Doesn’t that give you great hope? Even when you can’t answer how He will do it, He is creative enough to figure it out even when the odds are stacked against you.

“That they may see and recognize, And consider and gain insight as well, That the hand of the Lord has done this, And the Holy One of Israel has created it.” (Isaiah 41:20 NASB).

God will do all of this so that His glory will be put on display. People — including yourself — will see that He is powerful.

So you can see how after a night of wrestling with fear and anxiety, reading this was like shade and water for my soul. God is a god who sees. And God is a god who acts on your behalf.

What do you need His help with today? What are you fearful about today? What keeps you awake at night? Where do you need some shade?

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God of Tradition

by Kate Motaung time to read: 5 min
7