When the Gratitude Idol Kills Christmas

When the Gratitude Idol Kills Christmas

It’s that time of the year again, when Ghanaian Christendom displays its true character. The billboards started popping up way back in November, some as far back as October, reminding the ignorant (and not so ignorant) of the most important even on Christendom’s calendar. You might be tempted to think I’m talking about 25th December – Christmas day. After all, Christianity throughout history chose that day to commemorate the birth of the founder of our religion – the person who we deem is the saviour of the world – Jesus Christ. But you would be wrong. Neither Christmas nor Easter is the most important day on the Ghanaian Christendom calendar. No, the most important day is 31st December, and I will explain to you why.

Ghanaian Culture in Times Past

Ghanaians by nature are a very grateful people, and being able to go through a calendar year without succumbing to death (or even misfortune) is one of the things that Ghanaians are most grateful for. Ghanaian cultures are mostly deterministic by nature – they generally believe that whatever good or bad happens to them is as a result of God’s (or the gods’) direct intervention in their lives, a concept I’ve written about previously here. This determinism has unfortunately become associated with the biblical concept of “grace”, and scripture is very easily twisted in support of this understanding of grace with tacit approval by many Ghanaians. In many ways, most Ghanaians will fit right into a Calvinistic view of the world. But I digress.

This gratitude for surviving a calendar year is so strong, that many of the Christmas songs of non-European origin (ie. local language songs) are actually more about celebrating the end of a year’s cycle than they are about Jesus or Christmas itself. A typical example that you will hear on Christmas day in Ghanaian churches of all shapes and colors.

Bronya oh, Bronya oh, Bronya oh, afe ato yen biom” – meaning “Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, a year has gone and come again”

In fact the most famous non-European song you will hear in church on Christmas day is again, about the New Year, not about Christmas.

Ye ma mo afe nhyia pa oh, ye ma mo afe nhyia pa … Papa embra, bone enko” meaning “We wish you a happy new year, we wish you a happy new year … may good come to us, may evil be far from us”.

I want to emphasize here that this was the pattern long before I became an adult, before billboards became a thing, whiles we were attending boring old churches Roman Catholic, Protestant and Pentecostal churches. It seems that our attempts to contextualize into Ghanaian culture the celebration of Christmas via music always exhibited this character of gratitude for the yearly cycle more than an actual focus on celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. In fact, nothing prevents most of our local “Christmas” songs from being sung at Easter. I even reminded someone in my office the other day that those songs can as well be sung even when it comes to their personal birthdays. After-all, those songs aren’t about the birth of Jesus, but about a celebration of any 365 day cycle, and birthdays qualify perfectly.

General Christendom Attitudes to Church

Even looking beyond the Christmas period, if one were to ask many ordinary Christians why they go to church on Sunday, a large percentage will give you these standard answers.

  1. We go to church to thank God for the many things he has done for us (the “many things” are never actually defined, but assumed).

  2. Many are in hospital suffering from different ailments, and ‘by the grace of God’ I am healthy, so I must go to church to thank him for that.” (which presupposes that the person in hospital received no “grace” from God).

  3. Many are the plans of the ‘enemy’ against my life, and God has protected me from them, so I go to church to worship him for that” (which presupposes that those who may have died recently have been overcome by the “enemy”).

The favourite phrase by most Ghanaians to capture this notion of gratitude is “Ebenezer, thus far the Lord has brought us”, regurgitating words from the 1 Sam 7:12 of Israel’s defeating it’s Philistine enemies at Mizpah. By the way, if you haven’t noticed, Ebenezer is quite a popular name in Ghana.

All these should tell us to a very important truth about Christendom in Ghana.

At the heart of a large swathe of Ghanaian Christendom is not the kingdom of God breaking into this world and transforming it, but the kingdom of God being used as a tool of self-preservation.

This is easily couched in a sense of false humility – that whatever good things one has is from God, therefore one must always be in a posture of gratitude to God. This false humility leads to the elevation of a particular practice as the most important thing of all – the practice of singing songs of praise and worship to God, mostly centered around him keeping us “safe”, keeping us “alive” and keeping us “prosperous”. Just do a count of the number of Christian “worship” events held in the capital this year, and you’ll realize how important “worship” is to Ghanaian Christendom.

Whereas the Christianity that Jesus models for us is a Christianity that calls us as disciples to self-sacrifice for the benefit of the other, Ghanaian Christendom is about safety. Whereas Jesus calls his disciples to lose their lives in order to gain it, Ghanaian Christendom is about preserving it at all costs to their neighbour, couched nicely under the notion of “gratitude”. It covers these failures up with abundance of religion expressed in the form of gratuitous “worship” and “praises”, but very little action for the poor, the needy, the oppressed and the stranger.

The Aggravation: Charismatism

Despite the fact that this was the state of affairs of Christendom long before I was born, it managed to stay under the radar of Christian piousness for a long time. Many churches still managed to make the Christmas period a bit about celebrating Jesus’s birth, though the society barely felt the impact of such good news as the early church did. I remember my Pentecostal church used to have a potluck of sorts back when I was a child, but it quickly fell out of fashion in pursuit of even more church services in Christmas, couched as “conventions”. Many churches have always had a 31st night church event to commemorate the end of the year, but they were mostly low key events focused on church members simply gathering to express gratitude for the year.

However, the rise of Charismatism in Ghana, with televangelists jostling with each other to attract the largest crowds and establish their credentials as the biggest “men of God”, marked a significant turn of events. Many of these televangelists have resorted to tapping into the already flawed notions of gratitude as the foremost form of discipleship to organize larger and ever more grandiose 31st night “crossover”, “change over” etc services, making even small churches feel the need to pimp up their own events. TV and radio adverts simply use the right phrases of false gratitude, and Ghanaian Christians come running to pay their homage.

If you are seeing this advert, then it means you have survived 2017. Not everybody had this privilege. Therefore come to Tamale Sports Stadium on 31st December and let’s thank the Lord for how far he has brought us and pray to secure our blessings for 2018”.

The impression is created as if a person who doesn’t attend such services will be cursed in the coming year (or might even die before the midnight of 1st January) for being ungrateful. When one complains about these events and what they are turning into, the great excuse of “savings souls” that justifies every activity, expense and abuse is “31st night services are also a means to save souls”. As if God isn’t capable of saving souls on any other day.

The Cure

Whiles talking about this issue of how Ghanaian Christians treat Christmas and New Year celebrations with some friends just last week, I mentioned the Magnificat, the song recorded in Luke 1:46-56, that Mary sang when she was told she was pregnant with the saviour. These friends were surprised that the Gospels actually record a song in the mouth of Mary in response to the news about she carrying the saviour in her womb. That tells me the depth of failure of the church in telling the story of Jesus’s birth, even to its own members born and bred in Christendom.

And so, here is my recommended treatment for this disease of self-centered false humility masquerading as 31st night “worship” events, whiles totally snuffing the life out of celebrating the birth of the world’s saviour because we are more worried about reaching the end of the year and crossing into the next.

  1. Scrap or rewrite the local language songs sung during Christmas. They have nothing to do with the birth of Jesus.

  2. Write new songs focusing on the actual stories as recorded in the gospels regarding Jesus’s birth. There’s a reason why Jews came up with the Psalms. Because it’s a convenient way for them to tell and retell the history of Israel and God’s relationship in song form. If your church members do not know the song that Mary sang about Jesus’s birth (and yet you tell us you are a “bible-based” church), its because we are not learning about how God’s people taught their children to know him well. Make it hip or danceable if you need to, but write it from the Gospels.

  3. When we have birthday parties, we have shared meals. We bring friends together and eat and dance together. Christmas should be less about attending more church services to hear more boring sermons and more about eating together as church communities. It’s a birthday celebration, for the love of peace. How many of us want sermons on our birthdays? There will be challenges in putting it together, but it’s a learning ground for us to do it better, not to abandon it. Our current practices of celebrating Christmas are rather promoting individualism, not unity, and that is what the devil likes – division and selfishness.

  4. Re-evaluate our understanding of the Gospel. The Gospel is a declaration that Jesus is the world’s king, not Nana Akuffo-Addo, nor Donald Trump. Ponder why in Mary’s Magnificat she talks about this announcement meaning that Jesus will lift up the humble, feed the hungry being and bring the rulers down from their thrones. In what way is our Christmas celebration uplifting the downtrodden, whiles also confronting the powerful?

  5. Consider joining the rest of the church worldwide in the practice of Advent, which enables Christians to go through weeks of preparing for the birth of Jesus as a way to focus our minds on the kingdom of God.

  6. 31st December nights have become idols to Ghanaian Christendom. Relinquish it. If one still wants to use it, then turn it into a night of stock taking for the church community together, and not a praying station for individual prosperity and thanksgiving. Every blessed day is a 365 day cycle, and so is 31st December. Its a human tradition that has taken a life of it’s own. It needs to die, or be transformed into a tool for reflecting on the kingdom of God.

A certain wise man once said “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and everything else shall be added unto you”. Is your 31st December a night for seeking the kingdom of God – a kingdom of other-centered love and fellowship with one another for the benefit of the world – or is it a night to pursue religious self-centeredness in the name of  “gratitude” and “worship”?

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The Kingdom of Jesus and National Politics

Ghana is approaching elections again, and guaranteed the airwaves and all other forms of media will be filled with campaign activities, as well as propaganda everywhere in a bid to win the populace’s vote. Of course in Ghana the campaigning and politicking seemed to have started right from the end of the last election, and we seem to be in a perpetual campaigning mode. But just before we everything swings into full gear again, I’d like to share a few thoughts with fellow Ghanaian Christians who will be participating in this election. And my thoughts stem from a phrase I intentionally introduce in my last sentence – “Ghanaian Christians” – because that is the pivot of what I believe to be a problem.

 

Questions of Allegiance

And the problem is the placing of the word “Ghanaian” before the word “Christian”. If Jesus Christ is truly our king by virtue of being saved from the kingdom of darkness into his light (Act 26:20), then we owe our allegiance first to Jesus before we do to Ghana. I do hear many Christian friends of mine engage passionately in political debate and express such disappointment to the point of heartbreak when the politicians fail to live up to our ideals of them.

To some of us Christians, we take our political party affiliation to the point where these parties can do no wrong. Our standard of judgment is not by the standards of the one to whom we owe our primary allegiance to, which is Jesus Christ, but to our political party. Whatever our party leaders say is sacrosanct, and we must always defend them, whether we know what they say to be wrong or right.

Unfortunately matters are made worse when Christian leadership jumps into the fray and refuses to state the king of the world’s stance concerning these issues, but rather let their tribal, political lineages and sentimental attachments drive the witness of the Christian body in addressing topical issues.

 

Learning from World History

And yet this kind of posture – of letting “kingdom of the world” lead instead of the “kingdom of Jesus” – is not new. The German Christians (again putting nationality before faith to emphasize the point) did it in the Second World War, supporting Hitler in his quest to “clean out the misfits”, either by keeping quiet, or by actively supporting the political structure of the day in their quest. Of course we can all pretend that the 1 million Jews that died in the Holocaust subsequently were never arrested by the church and handed over to be persecuted, but when the hue and cry arose against the Jews, they never said a word. Alas how could they, when even some of the high ranking Nazi party members were also prominent church members and leaders? And they even gave up some of their own congregants who were Jews to show how “German” they were in their loyalty. Christian Germans (change in my emphasis) like Dietrich Bonheoffer stood no chance in drawing the attention of the church to the simple maxim of Jesus – love your neighbor as yourself, whether Jew or Gentile, Chinese or German. To this day Bonheoffer and those who followed him have become identified with peace churches, preferring to die for the Kingdom of Jesus, than to live to fulfill party or nationalistic desires.

 

And so we ask ourselves whether we are Christian Ghanaians, or Ghanaian Christians? As we have in the case of American Christians who see no wrong in anything their nation does in the name of policing the world, and who have no qualms when Israelis attack Palestinians but will shout on the rooftops how demonic the Palestinians are when they retaliate, how different are we when we value party loyalty more than loyalty to Jesus Christ? Do not a large number of our political leaders claim to be Christian? Ah, I forget. They must be NDC or NPP or CPP Christians.

I find the rhetoric about “peace” in this country quite boring, and the organization of abundant prayers “To avert impending disasters” as a lot of window dressing, to be charitable. Because if we took our king and his kingdom – which is in this world but not of this world – seriously, then with over 50% of the population laying claim to Christianity, this should be a no-brainer. There will be no need to foul our airwaves with all this attempts at preaching non-violence, because our King has demonstrated his non-violent stance in more ways than one. There will be no need to preach against hate speech, because we know that by calling a person “Raca” i.e. fool (Mt 5:22) we are already condemning ourselves.

 

Living out our Loyalty

So, refuse to be co-opted into the insults, acrimony, name-calling, herd mentality and the like. You are a Christian, before being a Ghanaian, Ga, Ewe, Dagomba or Akan. Judge the politicians by the standards of Jesus Christ, and not by the political ones of the day, whether they belong to a party you identify with or not. Remember, democracy is a good system, but only as good as man can make it. When we substitute the kingdom of God for democracy, it will become our new idol. And trust me; contrary to what your mother told you, the voice of the people is NOT the voice of God.

Oh and by the way, if the church were busier spending its money on its members than it was collecting it to build universities that most members will never be able to afford to send their children to; we will complain less about poverty and unemployment in our nation. The church will indeed have less and less a reliance on the governments of the day, if we took Jesus Christ’s maxims of caring for one another in community seriously, instead of giving to our churches to build inaccessible and unaccountable empires. This should be our pursuit if we are to make the future kingdom of Christ visible in the current age, whiles we wait for the final and full revelation of that glorious New Jerusalem coming down from above. The simple truth is that the more a people care about the kingdom of God being made manifest amongst men, the less they will care about political systems and who is at the helm of affairs. The last time I checked, Christians were supposed to live above the law (by the Spirit), not by the law (including the laws of the nation).

Indeed, we need to question our loyalties.

Religion – An Endangered Species?

“I just saw ‘Angels & Demons’ and this is my questions, if religion is flawed due to man’s imperfections then why do we still believe”?

This is in answer to the above question that a friend asked, and I’ve quoted them here verbatim.  You can download this article from here. Since Angels & Demons is a fictional story about events in the Vatican during the election of a new Pope, I will seek to make comments only in the light of Christianity. I cannot and will not hold brief for any other religion.

Let me start off by asking a question of my own to this one. When you say “why do we still believe?” the question I ask is “believe in what”? Are we talking about believing in Christianity as a religion, or believing in the church or believing in Christ? Answering this question well is critical to the whole discussion, and must not be trivialized. Therefore in that direction, I’ll digress a little bit by talking about the basis of the Christian’s faith – Jesus Christ.

When He was leaving his disciples he gave them a command to go to the ends of the world and “make disciples” (Mt 28:19). Note that he didn’t say “believers” but “disciples”. And what was the cardinal standard and evidence of this discipleship?

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (Jn 13:34-35).

Another thing which Jesus himself said will mark his disciples out is that they will always be in the minority. It has always been, and will always be the case, that the righteous who live by faith are always a remnant, and not part of the larger norm. Doesn’t that remind you of what Jesus Christ said about the narrow and wide gates (Mt 7:13-14)? Or that out of the 600,000 (counting men only) people who left Egypt to go to the Promised Land, only 2 out of that generation made it? And yet, were they not all saved by the blood of the lamb used to mark their doors during the passover night? Jesus said “many are called, but few are chosen”. Ah, guess what James said about the same calling – “Simon has described to us how God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself” (Ac 15:14), not “taking all the Gentiles”. Interestingly, it matches perfectly with what God told the Israelites when he set them free from Egypt – “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession” (Ex 19:5)

A third characteristic that he gave of his disciples is that they will be a people of much suffering because of their faith. (Mt 10:24-25;Lk 9:23-24; Lk 14:25-27). This came to existence in the lives of the early disciples and they were never under any illusions about it (Ac 14:22), and neither should anyone who lives by faith. Abraham lived by faith, yet neither did he nor all the great men of faith who came after him receive the promise of an eternal city in the eternal kingdom in their lifetimes, a promise to all who are of the faith of Abraham (Heb 11:13-15). Were they living for a reward on this earth, or living like strangers on this earth, they looked forward to their inheritance – “a city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb 11:10)?

I could go on and on about what Jesus himself said, but then you will get bored. So let me cut to the chase – we must always be mindful of the fact that religion which becomes institutionalized, highly formalized and increasingly hierarchical always exists for the purpose of self-perpetuation. As a result, such religion seeks to exert inordinate control even outside its own bounds and instead of serving as a conduit for expressing a certain faith, becomes the faith itself. It becomes more enthralled in outward symbolism and pretence, pride and hypocrisy. Like the Laodicean church of Rev 3:14-22, it becomes so naked that those who do not belong them even see this hypocrisy, yet they themselves will deny the existence of such a state. Ultimately, such religion moves away from its original purpose and becomes full of man-made rules and regulations. A classic symptom of such religion is that it begins to court the attention and support of the state and the world and abandons it’s simplistic focus on the original basis for its existence.

In this light, let’s look at a portion of Wikipedia’s definition of religion which I find interesting, and note my emphasis.

‘Religion’ is sometimes used interchangeably with ‘faith’ or ‘belief system’, but it is more socially defined than personal convictions, and it entails specific behaviours, respectively”

As stated above, although we may interchange faith with religion, we can see clearly that religion is more encumbered in the social and not in personal convictions, which rather defines faith. There will always be a conflict between faith and religion, and it is increasingly more difficult for faith to triumph over religion when religion has become a conduit for achieving man’s dreams, not God’s.

And that is why I welcome a movie like “Angels & Demons”. Unlike its precursor, which was purely sacrilegious because it distorts historical fact which all historians and archaeologist will not dispute (by saying Jesus had wives and children), this is one that makes you stop and ponder what we as Christians belong to and associate with all the time – the church. In this movie, a group called the Illuminati is deemed to have originated within the Roman Catholic church when the latter stood against Galileo’s observations that the earth was round. According to the same Wikipedia article on “Religion” under the section “Religion and science”,

The Roman Catholic Church, for example has in the past reserved to itself the right to decide which scientific theories were acceptable and which were unacceptable. In the 17th century, Galileo was tried and forced to recant the heliocentric theory based on the medieval church’s stance that the Greek Hellenistic system of astronomy was the correct one”

Here was a church that was basking in the glory of state support, and at the height of it’s power. As a result of Emperor Constantine’s explicit support, Christianity had become state religion and all men in the Roman Empire were required to convert (what happened to “called out”?). Instead of being a suffering church, they were busy ruling over worldly affairs and enjoying the best the world had to offer. They had replaced a priesthood of all believers (“you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood” – 1 Pe 2:10) with an unscriptural separation called the “clergy” and “laity”. They had appointed for themselves a capital on this earth (what happened to “our citizenship is in heaven” – Phil 3:20, and “You have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem … to the church of the firstborn whose names are written in heaven”?). They had been given their own country and city, the Vatican (Abraham must be having second thoughts – “why did I live like a stranger when I arrived on the promised land”). They were busy acquiring property for the clergy through active taxation of both business and their membership, yet the poor membership were left to their own means. They were not feeding the flock, they were feeding on it. They had become the faith. How different were and are they from the Pharisees of Jesus’ time? Oh, and don’t take this as a “Roman Catholic Church” bashing, because I believe majority of the church is guilty of this Laodicean self-deception. The RC church has only been at the forefront of the general march in the wrong direction, that’s all.

Granted that they were not even supposed to be ones deciding on what the scientific world should accept or not, simply because that has never been the mandate of the church of Christ in the first place. If they were not so obsessed at defending their worldly acquisitions and power, they would have been led by the Spirit of God to simply commission a study into the word of God to know what the Word which we Christians believe to be complete and final said about that. They would have noticed in the first place that there is nowhere in the Bible that states the the earth is flat. On the contrary, there is rather Biblical evidence that suggests that the earth is round.

He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers.” (Is 40:22).

And to digress a bit further into the topic of science and religion, as someone said, the fact that the Bible does not mention insects, does not mean that God didn’t create them. The fact that the Bible did not mention dinosaurs does not mean that from the Bible’s standpoint, they did not exist. In fact there is evidence to suggest that the Bible does talk of certain huge animals in Job 40 & 41 and the Psalms (Behemoth and Leviathan). In Job 40 the behemoth is described, and a few of those descriptions are captured below.

He moveth his tail like a cedar” (Job 40:17 KJV)

Behold, he drinketh up a river, and hasteth not: he trusteth that he can draw up Jordan into his mouth.” (Job 40:23 KJV)

I’m not too sure how many hippos and elephants have tails “like a cedar” or trust they can draw up the Jordan. But we might want to take a further look at these chapters and an even more critical appraisal of our Bibles that we keep under your pillows instead of in our hearts henceforth.

But I’m not here to be the apologetic, so I’ll leave my digression here. I believe that the most endangered species of people in this day and age are not those who don’t believe in God and think life is just a passing thing and science will explain all and solve all problems. No, those who need to be preserved are religious Christians, who claim a faith in God but actually only claim a faith in religion.

Because we who claim a faith in God have absolutely very little knowledge of Jesus Christ and what he really stands for, much to the joy of the devil. We are educated Christians with Bachelors, Masters and PhDs in “Rocket science”, and yet cannot discern the simple fact that it is about knowledge of God himself, something that if we will submit to His Spirit, the latter will reveal to us.


This is what the Lord says: Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me …” (Jer 9:23-24).

I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better” (Eph 1:17)


Because if God does not give us this, then in spite of all our advanced education and knowledge, the prophecy of Isaiah will be very true of us.


For you this whole vision is nothing but words sealed in a scroll. And if you give the scroll to someone who can read, and say to him, “Read this, please”, he will answer, ‘I can’t; it is sealed.’ Or if you give the scroll to someone who cannot read and say, ‘Read this, please,’ he will answer, ‘I don’t know how to read” (Is 29:11-12).


It is good to have watched Angels & Demons, and I guarantee you personally that you should expect even more books and movies that question our “religion” in the future. The only question is whether we are ready for the onslaught that exposes our duplicity, or if we’ll do the soul searching ourselves before the Mighty Searcher himself arrives, whose eyes like blazing fire (Rev 1:14), already see through us.