Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas Bling

Abu Dhabi’s seven star Emirates Palace Hotel is expected to set a Guinness World Record with their display of the most expensive Christmas Tree in the world, valued at $US 11 million. The tree is lavishly decorated with 181 pieces of jewelry and precious stones including diamonds, pearls, emeralds, sapphires and other precious stones. The 13 metre faux evergreen is located in the gold leaf bedecked rotunda of the hotel. Emirates Palace Hotel has also announced a special weekend package, where you can enjoy the tree and also the services of a private butler, a chauffeur-driven Maybach luxury car, as well as accommodation and a private jet available for trips to other countries in the region. The cost of the weekend package is a cool $US 1 million and though they do not mention it in their publicity, you would hope that you might also get free breakfast, valet parking and a late checkout.

What a tragedy that as a hotel in a Muslim country looks to the West and their Christmas tradition, all they can see is bling! How sad that they don’t look back a little further in the Christmas tradition and realize that the whole thing actually has a very Middle Eastern flavour.

After all Joseph and Mary were a couple of teenagers growing up in what some today call Israel but others call Palestine. The stargazers (the Magi who we often refer to as the Wise Men) of the ancient world came from the East – which probably means they were Persian or maybe Babylonian, from what is now modern day Iraq. There were gifts of precious stones and perfumes, but the gifts were a bi-product of the story, not the story itself.

Of course the clash at Christmas between East and West also goes right back to the historical source of the story. The Magi clashed with the Roman (Western) ruler, Herod, whose desire for intelligence stemmed from his political insecurity, which sounds rather similar to current dramas between East and West. The pact between Herod and the Magi resulted in deceit, denial and ultimately threat and intimidation, all of which are much more central to the Christmas story than fir trees from Germany.

It is hardly surprising that all the wrong elements of the Christmas tradition get emphasised, as the truth of the story remains somewhat politically and culturally dangerous. The birth of a Saviour implies that we need rescuing. The declaration of peace suggests that our conflict with God has descended to war. The picture of humility remains a challenge to a people obsessed with power and bling. The divine claims of a baby in a manger threaten our view that even if there is a God He is supposed to serve us. The worship and adoration of a bunch of rough country lads (shepherds) suggests these events were much more important than most soppy Christmas cards let on today.

We can’t blame Abu Dhabi for being overwhelmed with bling when we too have done everything in our power to avoid the birth of Jesus.

“Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” Luke 2: 11

Monday, December 13, 2010

Sins of the Fathers

Mark and his younger brother Andrew grew up in New York with privilege that knew no bounds, with outrageous wealth and with the status of a father whose brilliance as a money manager guaranteed their lifestyle. Not surprisingly Mark and Andrew both joined their father’s business from college and rose to senior positions. Mark seemed to have a life that was envied by most: a beautiful wife, two children and an apartment in the up market SoHo district of Manhattan, all evidence of his multi-million dollar lifestyle.

Then just a few days ago on 11th December, Mark was found dead with a suicide note explaining his despair. The date was significant as it was the second anniversary of the arrest of his father, Bernie Madoff. Madoff senior is serving a 150 year gaol sentence for operating the largest fraud in the history of the USA. The family business was in fact a $40 billion (no one knows the exact figure) Ponzi Scheme that operated for over two decades. The scheme never invested any money – it simply paid generous returns on any money invested by using the next person’s money in the scheme to pay the interest for the last person who invested. Much like a game of musical chairs, it worked until the music stopped - but when it did stop, everyone realised that the chairs had been stolen. The scheme conned thousands of people including famous investors like Stephen Spielburg and many huge Jewish charities and banks from all over the world. Mark Madoff and his brother had repeatedly claimed that they knew nothing of what was going on, but in recent times they had been named in a civil lawsuit and speculation was growing that the sons would face criminal charges. With his father in gaol, his mother forfeiting the family's $80 million worth of assets and apparently now working delivering meals to housebound people in Florida, and with pressure building up, it all seemed too much for Mark.

It is a tragedy all round. When the Bible talks about the sins of the fathers passing down the generations, people assume that God is vindictive in His judgment. In fact, the Bible warns us repeatedly about sin and its dangers precisely because God wants us to avoid the pain that our sins can cause to us, and sometimes, our descendents. The language of sin in the Bible is unfashionable today, as we like to ignore evil and its consequences. But every so often our sinfulness and the sin of others stares us so aggressively in the face that we cannot ignore the ugliness of what we see.

The Bible’s call to repent is not some outdated irrelevance, but an ever present warning that what we do in secret may one day be revealed for all to see. The Bible's call to avoid temptation is not a wowserly whine but at a courageous declaration that character matters more than income, that integrity matters more than success, and goodness is better than evil.

Do not hold against us the sins of the fathers; may your mercy come quickly to meet us, for we are in desperate need. Help us, O God our Saviour, for the glory of your name; deliver us and forgive our sins for your name’s sake.” Psalm 79: 8-9

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Fading Gods

What has happened to the Australian cricket team? After almost two decades of domination of the cricket world, it seems we have come back to earth with a thud. For the past 20 years we have witnessed some extraordinarily brilliant cricketers playing for this country and now we have come back to reality. In the current series against England we seem to have three main problems: Firstly, their bowlers are better than ours; more experienced, more talented and more likely to cause trouble in all conditions. Secondly, their batsman also seem better than ours; younger, more at the peak of their game and more confident. Finally, even their fielding seems better than ours. It's not that long ago that the West Indies were the most feared cricket team in the world and then their glory faded. Our team dominated next with the likes of Warne, McGrath, Gilchrist, the Waughs, Ponting, Hayden and so many others providing supremacy. But that era is now over and who knows, a new golden age of English cricket may now be upon us?

In the last 20 years in much of the western world we have also witnessed an era where bankers and financiers have been the superstars. Money has promised victory at every point. New and inventive ways of financing our world promised an era where prosperity would grow forever, even if our income did not match this prosperity. But this era of endless affluence, much like the Aussie cricket team, may have its best days behind it. Huge personal and corporate debt threatened to derail the party when the Global Financial Crisis hit in 2008. The danger was averted by government stimulus packages as well as governments guaranteeing the banks. Governments kept the party going by taking on for themselves huge borrowing. Instead of fixing the problem, the excessive debt passed from private and corporate balance sheets to the government's balance sheet. And now the problems have exposed a number of countries like Greece and Ireland, with many fearing that Spain, Italy and others may be next. Once again the problem has been moved, with groups like the EU (a collection of countries) bailing out these heavily indebted countries. But again the problem has not been fixed – it has only moved to a higher body. Much like a sporting team that refuses to face the reality that the glory has faded, the western world keeps trying to convince itself that better days are just around the corner.

Maybe at a time where the material dream is fast becoming a nightmare, it is time for a comeback of spiritual values and hopes. Though most of us love winning, experience also suggests that character and meaning are more often discovered in defeat, rather than victory. To learn to pray may yet prove a more enduring quality than spending. Thrift and patience, with its companion of contentment, may even challenge the supremacy of a gold Amex card. Worshipping the Creator rather than the creation may yet be resurrected.

They say every dog has its day. We may realise in time that materialism itself – the god of bling – is indeed a dog.

“Look, here comes a man in a chariot with a team of horses. And he gives back the answer: ‘Babylon has fallen, has fallen! All the images of its gods lie shattered on the ground!’”” Isaiah 21: 9