Tuesday, December 25, 2007

In Praise of a Secular Christmas

The Church has wept many a crocodile tear over the War on Christmas - a bogeyman invented by marketeers with a genius for demagogury. Their story goes that the secular humanists hate Christ and Christmas so much that they would like to stuff them both back up the chimbley and dump them off the top of Mount Crumpet. Instead of costuming themselves as St Nick, these Grinches have fashioned a hat and a coat out of the so-called separation of church and state.

Now, I'm sure that the war on Christmas has been a great fund-raiser for somebody, but behind the cynical smokescreen hides a truth that the Church dreads even more than her imaginary conspiracies - I refer to this: Christmas belongs to the world, not to the church. I will weep through Silent Night with the best of them as the candles light the darkened sanctuary on Christmas Eve, but in my heart I have to admit that Christ's incarnation must have been done with more than this comforting ritual in mind.

Our great fear may be not that we will lose Christmas, but rather that we will loose ownership of Christmas. Because the church belongs to Jesus, we feel that the opposite should be true - Jesus should belong to us. But God's heart is too great to be contained in so small a vessel as Christianity. The secular world seems determined to wrest Christmas from our grasp. Perhaps it is doing God's work. God may be moving to restore stewardship of Christ's nativity to the world to whom it was given. Our grief may be for the loss of an ownership to which we were never entitled.

The world belongs to its Creator. We - that is, the Church - are only a small part of God's plan. We presume too much when we insist that Christmas must be as we see fit.

And so I take up my pen (this message was drafted the old-fashioned way, in honor of the day. ed.) on this clear Bluegrass morning to praise a more secular Christmas.

Luke's narrative describes the root of God's Christmas tree, but the fruit is not buried in the dark soil - it is out in the light. Many of the sweetest of those fruits are secular, not religious. The evangelists of this secular Christmas are known to every American and to many parts of the rest of the world: not only Dr. Luke, but also Dr. Seuss and Charles Dickens and Clement Moore. The creche reminds us what Christmas is, but George Bailey's wonderful life teaches us what it means.

Linus knows that Christmas is all about shepherds and a manger - he also knows that it is all about compassion for blockheads. The Grinch, with his hand cupped to his ear, learns that Christmas comes without packages, boxes, or bags. Somehow or other, It comes just the same without these things.

The true meaning of Christmas is not the fact of the incarnation, it is the fruit of that holy event. Because God became humble and was laid in a manger, Christmas is the day when we ought to remember to walk humbly among God's children.

At the end of the year, there are three great holidays in Christian America. At Thanksgiving we celebrate creation - giving thanks for all the things that we have.

On New Years Eve we celebrate life - rejoicing in the great wheel of birth and death that frees us from yesterday and allows us to hope for tomorrow as we remember the Auld and welcome the New with banging pots, popping corks, and laughter at ourselves in our funny hats.

And here at the center of the holidays is Christmas - the high holy day when the delight of receiving a present is exceeded by watching our loved one's eyes light with happiness at they accept our gift to them.

In that joyful moment, we encounter the true meaning of Christmas. This is the day when we celebrate one another. At Christmas, our joy comes from what we give, not what we receive. I hand you your beautiful combs and you give me my watch fob and what passes between us is more precious that those expensive, useless trinkets. We have given a part of ourselves to one another . If only for a moment, we have given one another the fleeting, loving gift of happiness.

The secular world owns the manger because Christmas belongs to the world.On that holy,silent night,a man and a woman gave the best of themselves to God, to one another, and to the world. When shepherds came to see what had happened, the spirit of Christmas was there in their joyful faces.For a few hours in a stable in Bethlehem yesterday's troubles and tomorrow's terrors were put aside. For a few hours, grown men and women gazed in wonder at a beautiful gift - and God's heart will filled with the joy of a child who has given his best, and brought it happiness to the receiver.

Keep Christmas in your own way Church, and let the world keep it in hers. Secular Christmas has done us good, and will do us good and I say God bless it. God bless Blockheads and Grinches - lonely misers and disappointed Building and Loan executives - snowmen who can talk and reindeer who don't fit in and jolly old elves. God bless us, all whos far and near. May God bless you and me this Christmas and may each of us know the joy of giving.

God bless us, every one.


The image of the Nativity is by Brian Jekel

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Bonhoeffer on Advent and Prison

A wonderful post on Kingdom People, a blog I am really coming to enjoy.


A prison cell, in which one waits, hopes… and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside, is not a bad picture of Advent.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Advent 2: The Ax at the Root

I think of Matthew as the great storyteller among the evangelists. In my imagination, Mark's action packed gospel makes him God's screen writer, while Luke's chronicles of the life of Christ and the early church remind me of Homer's epic poetry. Mystical John stands outside the narrative tradition of the other three - his story is one of cosmic forces colliding. Together, they form the Gospels - and at the beginning of Matthew, just after the story of Jesus' birth, we meet John the Baptizer. Like a Shakespearian prologue, John sets the scene for the drama that is to come. His appearance, illustrated in this 6th century Byzantine icon, is as memorable as any Greek chorus could ever be.

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
`Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.'"

Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, `We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

"I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

Matthew 3:1-12

In the quiet Advent season of waiting, I was startled to hear John's warning about the ax at the root. There are roots in my life's tree that have grown long and deep. I am comfortable with them. They define me. I don't mind lining up to be washed in the Christmas river like the pharisees at John's riverside revival meeting, but I am not so excited about having parts of me chopped away and thrown into unquenchable fire.

Just when I'm starting to get cozy with hot chocolate evenings in my big chair, Mrs P across the room reading quietly, Sniffy the cat snoozing on my chest, visions of sugar plumbs and all that -that's when the crazy man in the camel hair coat and the honey breath reminds me that the Gospel isn't just about salvation, it is also about change. I can wade in the water of John's baptism if I wish, but I have to be prepared for the consequences of that bath. Advent is more than just a way to "holy-up" the weeks before Christmas. Advent is time to let go. A child is coming who will gather up the dry husks and chaff -the dead, useless by-products of my life - and throw them into the fire.

I can choose to let go of the useless things that comfort me.

Or I can choose to be destroyed with them.

That's straight talk from a wild man in the desert. Not exactly the stuff holiday TV specials are made of, but it is an important part of the Christmas story. Whoever encounters the Baptizer in the Jordan or the Babe in the manger is confronted with a choice - live as if these stories were fables, or as if they were true.

Confronting the implications of Christ's incarnation for my life may begin with a sprinkle, a splash, or a dunk in the river - but discipleship does not end there.

God, grant me the vision to recognize the chaff in my own life, and the grace to accept your judgment as you cast it away to make me your more perfect servant.


Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Gospel according to AIDS

The end of all things is near; therefore be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers. Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining. Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen. Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ's sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.
1 Peter 4:7-13 (NRSV)

As usual, the wisdom of the lectionary amazes me. This is part of the epistle from today's Daily Office.

Today is World AIDS Day. I remember the first article I read in Time or USNews about some sort of "gay cancer" that was killing young men in terrible ways. The connection between the community and the suffering gave license to many of our culture's deepest fears and prejudices. The problem was not the disease - the problem was the behavior. Righteousness distracted us from doing right.

And so many, too many died without the church's loving presence.

Now things are different. Celebrities have kept AIDS in the public's consciousness. Experience has taught us that HIV doesn't just kill gay men. Decades of research have made "living with AIDS" more than just a euphemism. Like so many cruel diseases, there still isn't a cure - but there is more hope and less ignorance than there used to be.

Peter was not writing about a disease, he was writing to a persecuted church who suffered at the hands of righteous people. His counsel? Love one another. Cover one another's sins with the love of God. Be stewards of one another, for the steward of another's heart cares for a child of God. Offer holy hospitality, speak godly words, serve as Christ did, with all the strength God gives you because serving one another gives glory to God.

So much of the church's initial response to AIDS was not about the disease either. It was about sins and sinners. Many offered shame in the place of service - condemnation instead of compassion. As a consequence, the people who needed Christ's church the most were pushed away. Such failure of charity grieves God's heart.

Peter's exhortation to rejoice in suffering is a tough pill to swallow. On the one hand, we feel ashamed to compare our suffering to Christ's. At the same time, few of us are faithful enough to keep our eyes on Jesus when our own bodies or minds are in pain.

A friend of mine who lives with deep depression episodes once told me that the one thing that comforted her at her darkest hour was knowing that the darkness would not last forever. Our suffering, and the pain of those who love us is not an eternal curse. In the glory of God our trials will come to an end.

While Peter seems to joyfully anticipate the end of the world, he also gives good counsel for the time between now and then. As long as it is possible to glorify God, it is possible to rejoice, even in our own brokenness.

As they were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him. There were two blind men sitting by the roadside. When they heard that Jesus was passing by, they shouted, "Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!" The crowd sternly ordered them to be quiet; but they shouted even more loudly, "Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David!" Jesus stood still and called them, saying, "What do you want me to do for you?" They said to him, "Lord, let our eyes be opened." Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they regained their sight and followed him.
Matthew 20:29-34 (NRSV)

The blind men in today's gospel remind me of two things - persistence and faith. I have had friends who refused to let the disease define them. They were not victims of HIV, and they did not allow themselves to be labeled as people with AIDS. They found the courage to insist on living - the virus was incidental, not central to their lives. Their strength and will to go on was not a cry for mercy, but a demand to be allowed to exist. Like the blind men from Jericho, they refused to be discouraged or shouted down. They knew that Jesus would feel their suffering. They believed in life, and many of them believed in Jesus. Though their bodies failed them. their faith never did, and I believe Jesus never did either.

Our compassionate savior suffers with us and desires the health of our hearts as well as our minds and bodies. My friends' hearts are no longer under my stewardship, they are in the arms of Jesus. I pray that God will judge my service to them to have been faithful.



The beautiful portrait of Jesus is by horseman. Please visit http://www.jesusweptart.blogspot.com/