This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Christmas Vacation.

My favorite Christmas movie is “Christmas Vacation,” in which Clark Griswold devotes himself to producing the “perfect family Christmas,” based on his rosy  childhood memories.  His aspirations collide with reality and the film gets hilariously crazy.  A lot of us can relate to Clark’s sentimental wishes for the holidays.  I remember and cherish the beautiful and happy family Christmases I knew when I was a kid.  

At the same time, I wonder if those memories aren’t more sweet and warm than the reality was.  At one point in the movie Clark’s dad confesses that he got through those fondly remembered family Christmases of yore with “a lot of help from Jack Daniels.”  I experienced Christmas rather differently when I was a student, parent, and pastor than when I was a child.  

In the church we seem particularly prone to nostalgia.  I suspect that this is because the church is often a place that people expect to be immune, or at least highly resistant, to change.  In church the tendency is to do things the way they have “always” been done (even if it has only been for the last few years).  The surest way for a pastor to get fired is not to do the candlelight “Silent Night” thing at the end of the Christmas Eve service.  If any institution is about preserving the past, it is supposed to be the church.  Right?  Can’t we at least depend on that?  

Well, no.  The church is always and only about Jesus Christ, whose ministry was hardly about conserving, maintaining, preserving, and sustaining the traditions, laws, and institutions of his time.  He got himself crucified for being an alternative to the religious and political establishment.  If you wanted comfortable and familiar religion, Jesus was not the guy to hang around with. 

The irony here is that the Advent and Nativity seasons, from the perspective of Scripture and the church, are about the future.  They are not nostalgic reveries concerning something that happened in the distant past; they are signs of the world to come, which Christ reveals and brings.  Many of the traditional Scripture readings for Advent are about the end of the world, for heaven’s sake!

The familiar creche scene, while it depicts a past event, points to a different, upside-down world in which the true King is born of a virgin in a stable, worshipped by poor shepherds and foreigners, and opposed by the supposedly legitimate rulers.  That is a vision of a different world that has yet to be fully realized among us.  But it is the truth to which we aspire and in which we trust.

Jesus calls us to a new life of love and justice.  Rather than Clark Griswold’s unrealizable fantasy of the “perfect family Christmas,” maybe we need to embody Jesus’ vision of a new world of compassion, healing, forgiveness, and peace.  It would be like taking a permanent Christmas vacation from the broken and violent world as we know it.  

So what would that look like? 

I wonder if it wouldn’t involve witnessing to Jesus’ economy of “give what you have, receive what you need.”  

What if it is about: 
  • blessing without judging?
  • healing without blaming? 
  • generosity without indebtedness?
  • welcoming without borders?
  • giving without spending?
  • sharing together in a new a future, rather than grieving over the past?
  • celebrating diversity, rather than enforcing uniformity?
  • cultivating hope and joy, rather than stoking fear and anger?
  • Jesus Christ?    

Maybe the best greeting for the Advent and Nativity seasons is a line from an old song by REM: “It’s the end of the world as we know it… and I feel fine!”  


Tuesday, December 18, 2018

What to Say.

The other day I was solemnly informed that if I wish someone “Happy Holidays” I am explicitly denying Jesus Christ.  I am supposed to say “Merry Christmas,”  which is now some kind of faith-statement, apparently.

I find that to be alarming and sad, not to mention ridiculous.  

With this mindless argument about what we are supposed to say, we are adding, to an already often difficult season, this rancid layer of political sludge.  It effectively mucks up much of whatever joy and hope remained.  How did wishing each other well become such a minefield? 

When I worked for Barnes and Noble in the mid-80’s, the manager told the staff that we were to say “Happy Holidays,” as customers paid for their books.  It didn’t occur to me to be bothered about this at the time.   I needed the job; so I did as the manager instructed us.  

Plus, as a minister I knew that what goes on in the mall in December has nothing whatever to do with Jesus or his birth.  What, exactly, does Jesus, a poor 1st century Palestinian Jew who preaches simplicity and compassion, and never approves of a market-based approach to anything, have to do with Black Friday?  Isn’t he the guy who kicked the money-changers out of the Temple?  What is particularly Christian about saying “Merry Christmas” at a cash register to people who buying the latest Danielle Steel or Stephen King novel?  How does selling reflect life and teachings?  Am I missing something here? 

I admit that I have this eccentric idea that Christianity needs to have something to do with Jesus Christ as he is attested in the New Testament.  Just because some find it convenient and profitable to slap Jesus’ name on something, does not make it Christian.  That is actually a form of taking the Lord’s name in vain.   

Now that it has been twisted into a political slogan, I have pretty much stopped saying “Merry Christmas.”  It just doesn’t feel like a way to wish people a blessed and meaningful spiritual celebration.  I don’t sense that it inspires or encourages real discipleship. 

In the end, it is not about what we say anyway.  What we do is what matters.  The best way to communicate “Merry Christmas” is to live according to the commandments and example of the One whose birth we are remembering.  We don’t welcome the Light into the world by merely talking; we let that Light shine in and through us by our actions, so that we become ourselves the light of the world, as he teaches.

Rather than arguing about what should be said, let’s set ourselves in this season to expressing the compassion, generosity, welcome, forgiveness, peace, and joy of Jesus Christ.  He is the Presence and the love of God, he is God-with-us.  In his Spirit, we need to be Christ for each other.


Thursday, December 6, 2018

"We Didn't Know Who You Were"

There is a Christmas carol called “Sweet Little Jesus Boy.”  Mahalia Jackson used to sing it.  It’s been recorded by a lot of people since then.  (My family had it on the Andy Williams Christmas album.)

The song has always made me uncomfortable because of the repeated line, “We didn’t know who you were.”

I hear in that an implication that had we only known Jesus was the Lord God we would surely have given him a better welcome.

This strikes me as somewhat disingenuous.  Yeah, maybe God is incognito in Jesus.  But that is a fact that reveals how we treat everybody, especially poor, refugee babies.  I mean, seriously: we are separating infants from their mothers at our own borders as we speak.  We sure don’t appear to have any idea that these are human beings with rights and value.  We most certainly do not see the presence of God in these people who have been defamed as violent lawbreakers.

The point is not that we didn’t know who Jesus was; we don’t know who anybody is!  We don’t treat hardly anybody with the decency, grace, acceptance, and welcome we now decide Jesus deserved.  It’s not like we’d be off the hook if only people back then treated this one kid like the royalty he is.  Not if it didn’t change how we deal with others who are like him today.  

Lately, I noticed the middle verse that gets a bit more to the point:

The world treats you mean Lord
Treats me mean too
But that's how things are down here
We don't know who you are.

Changing the phrase to “We don’t know who you are” opens us up to the fact that this is not just about Jesus, a long time ago.  It is about how we treat people now.  We are failing to see Jesus Christ in everyone, every child, today.  

When some godless congressman complains about how “we can't restore our civilization with somebody else's babies,” it makes my point.  If we don’t know who he is, that sweet little Jesus boy is nothing more than “somebody else’s baby” who threatens “our civilization.” 

We need to start seeing the sweet little Jesus boy in every child, especially those tossed into the meat-grinder of our political and economic dysfunction.  We need to see Jesus in the refugee boy washed onto the Mediterranean beach, or the kids blown up by a Saudi bomb in their school bus, or the 40% of American children who live in poverty, or the Palestinian children arrested by Israel, or the children forced to kill as soldiers in Africa, or the Rohingyan babies that Myanmaran soldiers threw into fires, and so on.  Until we start welcoming and treasuring and protecting and serving them like we know who they are — precious and miraculous children of God — we should stop pretending we care so much about the sweet little Jesus boy.

So if you put a nice little manger scene on your lawn this December, but still tolerate or even advocate for the oppression of “somebody else’s babies,” I submit you still don’t know (or care) who the sweet little Jesus boy really is.  You’ve reduced him to an excuse to have a big dinner and max out your credit card on Amazon.

In Advent, we have to start with repentance.  Like at the end of that song where it asks for forgiveness.  Wake up and start with that.  Go.


Sunday, December 2, 2018

Advent as Sabbath.

I hope to experience the Advent season as a shining, quiet, open, and expectant time of wonder and joy.  In Advent, we consciously and intentionally make room for the coming of Christ into our lives.  We do this by divesting ourselves of the clutter, the detritus, the non-essential, the superficial, the busy, and the exhausted.  We are making an open space into which the Lord may emerge with, within, and among us.    

Maybe Advent is a kind of Sabbath: a time liberated from the demands of the economy and productivity; a time dedicated to God’s transcendent peace/shalom.
A time anticipating the End of time, the fullness of time into which the Lord Jesus comes.

Instead of a hectic, over-scheduled, frantic, exhausting time, how can we use Advent as an opportunity to clear our schedules.  Slow life down.  Pay attention.  Look, listen, watch, feel.  Go deep.  Simplify.  Enjoy.  Give thanks.     

Marie Kondo talks about doing an inventory of our possessions.  When evaluating something, she advises giving thanks for it…  and then letting it go.  If something does not give us joy, we should let it go.

What if we didn’t do anything this season that did not bring us joy?  
What if we undertake to see that whatever we do take on this season does bring us joy?
Not a superficial sugar-high of satisfying every craving… 
Not the usual addiction to consumption… 
but joy:
An inner contentment and peace.

I am reading about “Swedish death-cleaning”.  In Sweden, this is something older people do, to make life easier for those left behind when they leave the planet.  It is about preparing for the end.  Losing our baggage.

In Advent we are preparing for the End of the World: Jesus Christ.
He is the world’s end, goal, purpose, meaning.

What can we lose?
What can we give away?
What can we share?
    • Old clothes?
    • Junk from the junk drawers?
    • Excess books?
    • Other stuff we will never use again?
What if we used Advent to do a thorough house-cleaning? 

What can we let go of? 
    • anger
    • fear
    • resentment
    • negativity
    • bitterness
    • criticism
    • judgment and condemnation
    • greed
What if we took a break from the news, or from social media?
What if we tried not to use the car?

What can we not consume?
What if we didn’t even require someone work for us, cater to us, serve us?
Or made a point to recognize and appreciate and thank those who do!
Who collects our trash and recycling?
Who delivers our mail, newspapers, and packages?
Who works for water, sewage, utility, and cable companies?
Who serves our food? 
Who pumps our gas?
Who repairs roads and works in our yards?
Who educates or cares for our children?
Who works in retail?

What if we devoted more time to serving others?

How can we be open to the spiritual meaning of mundane and boring practices like, well, raking leaves?

And if Advent is about receiving Jesus Christ,
how does that happen?
If he is the One we are making room for,
what does that mean?

He is the One who comes
when we make room for him.