Category Archives: Christmas and Holidays

All reflections on Christmas and the major holidays.

Christians and Halloween—Fright, Flight, or Fight?

8BA642DA-3F20-4092-A717-96F5D66EFB5AHappy Halloween? Or wait… should I be wishing you a Happy Halloween? I’m a Christian and a pastor, after all.

So, I’ll admit it, when it comes to major festivities like Christmas or Halloween, we Christians have had our hang-ups and complaints, and Halloween is no exception to the rule.

Depending on what Christian you talk to you about Halloween, you’ll hear various responses ranging from…

  • “Halloween? That’s a completely evil, pagan holiday. We should have nothing to do with it.”
  • “Oh for crying out loud… It’s just a fun day for dressing up, having a good time, and trick-or-treating.”
  • Or… a shrug.

Because I like learning about this kind of thing and then writing on it, I did some research into the origins and evolution of the October 31 festivity we have come to know as Halloween. I wanted to know where it comes from. And I was especially curious about what kind of connections we Christians have to it, since it seems to evoke visceral, cheerful, or nonchalant responses. My findings were quite fascinating and varied!

Want to learn more? Read on with me…

So the first thing I learned is that the origins of Halloween are pretty complex, funkier than a witch’s brew. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) Seriously, it’s a strange synergy of ancient Celtic, Christian, and even Germanic traditions, ginned up in the last nearly 100 years by our American retail and entertainment industries.

From what I can surmise, the earliest roots for Halloween come from the Celtic tradition of Samhain. (That’s the pagan influence which sends some Christians screaming for the exit doors.) It’s actually a beautiful tradition. A friend of mine who practices Celtic-based spirituality described it for me this way:

Samhain has its roots in the end of harvest celebrations around the world, by many different names. On the agricultural calendar it marks the time before the frost when anything in the fields were rendered dead. the dying of the crop- a sacrifice as it were- makes the fields fertile for buried seeds that bring the promise of a new crop to come in the spring- the rebirth. Because of the shorter days and less sunlight, the gate or veil between the living and dead is so thin.

So there it is. Samhain is an end-of-the-harvest celebration and an acknowledgment of the transition from the life of summer to the sleep of winter. This gave rise to the belief that on Samhain, the veil between the living and the dead was particularly thin, which meant that our ancestors along with good and evil spirits would come to visit the living.

Bonfires were lit and turnips were carved into faces to ward off any evil. People would go out mumming– a mix of caroling and gift giving/receiving, disguised, to celebrate the visit of the dead to the living, while attempting to ward off evil spirits. Great feasts were held to welcome the visitation of the dead with the living.

From this you can see some of the early influences of Samhain still at work today– Halloween bonfires, pumpkin carvings, costumes and mask, parties and feasts, trick or treating, and harvest festivals.

But… that’s only half the story.

Once upon a time, the Catholic Church had a fascinating practice of combining Christian and pagan traditions together, in order to make a bridge from paganism into Christianity. They believed that taking something pagan and “baptizing” it into something Christian would be a way to make connections between the church and the existing culture. And they were wildly successful. (Placing Christmas right around the winter solstice is another successful attempt at the same thing.)

In the 9th Century, Pope Gregory IV took the May 13 “St. Mary and All the Martyrs” celebration (which was itself an approbation of a Roman holiday commemorating the dead) and placed it on November 1, calling it “All Hallow’s Day.” All Hallow’s, later called All Saint’s has taken on many meanings through the years, but largely, it is a time to remember and commemorate the saints of God who have gone on before us and to celebrate our ongoing connection and communion with them, as they surround us in the heavens. We give thanks for them, look to their example, and look forward to sharing in their resurrection from the dead with Jesus Christ, joining together in the New Heaven and New Earth at the end of all time.

Major Catholic feast days were always preceded by a day of preparation- an Eve. That made an All Hallow’s Eve on October 31. Since many of our Halloween traditions came to America from the Irish and Scots, All Hallow’s “Even” (“even” is the Scottish word for Eve) came with them. “Even” was routinely contracted to “E’en”. Over the years, All Hallow’s E’en was shortened to Hallow’een and eventually shortened again to our modern day Halloween.

Put all of that together, and as I mentioned earlier, the Halloween of today is a very odd mix of old pagan and Christian traditions, greatly expanded by American commercialism, leaving these pagan and Christian traditions weaved together into this strange– and at times– uncomfortable hodgepodge of culture and religion. Of course, today, most people, even many Christians, are unaware of the Christian roots of Halloween.

So what can be done about that?

It begins by looking at our modern celebration of Halloween. It seems to be made up of several key things:

  • Community. This is the one night of the year that kids happily go from door to door collecting candy from neighbors they might not otherwise talk to. People gather together for parties, community bonfires, and harvest celebrations. I see in all this our ongoing need for connection with our neighbors.
  • A festive burlesque of death, evil, and the things that frighten us. Why do we go after all this stuff? Why so many ghosts, vampires, zombies, witches, and tombstones? I think it’s our attempt to laugh at and even mock the things we fear the most. Death, evil, and our shadows lurk in the outer wings of our lives. At least we like to keep them there as long as we can. But once in a while, we feel an innate need to face our fears and shadows and to parody, mock, and play with them. It seems to me that Halloween has become a major vehicle folks use to do that very thing.
  • An embrace of the changing seasons. This time of year is an ingathering time– something we felt much more profoundly when more of us lived agrarian lives. It’s a time to say goodbye to the life, light, and warmth of summer and to greet the deep, dark, cold sleep of winter. Perhaps this moves us to think of our own lives, specifically how truly thin the veil is between this life, death, and the next life.

I think we Christians can embrace Halloween in a whole new way, very intentionally, without running from it or heedlessly partaking in it without any consideration to our beliefs and unique witness.

First, we must share and live out the truth that through every season of our lives, God is faithful. It’s just a matter of fully embracing the season we are in and trusting that God is fully present in that season (Ecclesiastes 3:1-15). This includes, of course, the passing of summer and our transition into winter, in nature and over the course of our human lives, too.

Second, we can join in the community! Halloween stuff is fun. It’s a special time that people get together, enjoy one another, and hopefully build relationships. It’s within these human connections that the good news of Jesus is shared, both by our gracious speech and the good news of our lives, filled with the goodness of Christ.

Third, we do indeed have good news to share. Death and evil are defeated foes! Through Christ’s sacrificial love on the cross, we have the freedom to resist evil and to move through death into resurrection. Halloween may be one day of the year to laugh off evil and death. But every day we Christians all over the globe openly defy the powers of evil and death through the unstoppable power of God’s Holy Spirit within us and in the world. This segues very nicely into the celebration of All Saints, after the revelry of Halloween is over and packed up. There are so many creative ways to share this awesome good news with an anxious, bitterly divided world. How could we Christians do that, authentically and creatively, without being obnoxiously preachy, during this time of year?

So… Happy Halloween! See the presence and good news of God, even within the strange, growing darkness of the day. It’s the kind of hope and peace that will carry us through all the seasons of our lives.

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What Happened to the War on Christmas??

It just occurred to me that with the advent of Christmas, something has been conspicuously missing.
img_1131This year there are no angry warning blasts about the conspiratorial War on Christmas! Barely a peep. Every year we hear rants and laments about how our godless culture is removing any religious semblance of Christmas out of the mainstream, to the point that we can’t even mention the word “Christmas” anymore. We’re appalled at retail chains for their “holiday” sales and their “Happy Holidays” banners. We’ve been urged to boycott these stores. Schools and public places are taking down their nativity scenes and silencing Christmas songs, replacing them with paltry “Winter Holidays” political correctness. Christ has been Xed out with “Merry Xmas”. Santa has pushed Jesus aside, too.Heck, Starbucks doesn’t even mention holidays or snowflakes on their coffee cups! Poor Jesus.

What is the world coming to??

But this year, all those familiar gloom and doom refrains have been MIA.

Why?

I’ve got a theory: there are weightier issues to fret about. The Middle East is edging towards the brink of explosion with Syria being the fuse. We’re on the other side of the most negative, bitterly divisive Presidential election we’ve ever faced in our lifetimes, leaving many people angry and scared. The EU is close to collapse. More of the world is opting for a nativist, nationalistic populism. Our economy is nowhere near stable. We’ve battled over marriage and bathrooms and sitting out the National Anthem.

When it comes down do it, we are so easily distractable. We talk, post, and tweet about whatever storm, real or fabricated, that happens to be raging in the news and social media. Meanwhile yesterday’s storm is long forgotten. (Ask someone now if the dress is blue or gold and watch how many confused responses you get!) Today, all it takes is a few prominent voices to broadcast a storm warning, i.e. “There’s a War on Christmas,” to get the masses debating the issue.

But this year other storms have taken center stage in our public debate, and no one has taken up the War on Christmas cause.

All in all, our distracted silence demonstrates what a silly issue the War on Christmas has been, and how ridiculously shrill the demonstrators have sounded.

Look, here are some basic facts:

  • I can politely wish someone a Merry Christmas and not worry about being condemned, arrested, or assaulted. If I’m extra polite, I can avoid doing that with folks I know don’t observe Christmas. (After all, who has ever come to Jesus after being plastered with “Merry Christmas” greetings?)
  • I can set up my Christmas tree and nativity scene, put lights on my house, and even set up Christmas stuff on my lawn without fear of the government charging me for religious expression.
  • I can freely go to church and celebrate Advent and Christ’s birth and Epiphany, knowing that my government protects my right to worship as I choose.
  • If it so offends me, I can choose not patronize stores or restaurants that refuse to acknowledge the word “Christmas”.
  • I can write any number of blog posts, columns, editorials and books, and organize demonstrations to end any War on Christmas. However, I cannot stop anyone from calling me an idiot. That’s their right, too.

Frankly, I’m relieved there’s no War on Christmas storm warning this year. That has given many of us tremendous freedom to simply tell and live the good news of Jesus’ birth without having to compete for bandwidth with the doomsdayers. Many of my fellow Christians undervalue the compelling message of Emmanuel, God with us in Jesus Christ, especially when it’s shared humbly, passionately, and in a way that connects with our lives as they are:

God is faithful to keep his promises. God loves us and comes to us just as we are. God was birthed right in the middle of our broken messes to bring us love, grace, forgiveness, and a renewed relationship with him. The greatest gift we’ll ever know is the friend, Savior, and Lord we can have in Jesus. The birth of Jesus is more powerful than any one religion because anyone, anywhere, of any race, culture, or belief can discover him.

Isn’t that awesome? Why rant about a so-called War on Christmas when we’ve got a living treasure that has captivated human hearts for nearly 2000 years?

So… next year, can we make it two years in a row that we don’t bemoan the death of Christmas? Please? Instead, let’s learn and relearn how to tell the glad tidings of good news for a world longing for any kind of good news.

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Christmas Midrash

Merry 11th Day of Christmas! Yes, even though December 26 brought an abrupt end to Christmas music on the radio stations and the stores quickly cleared away Christmas trees for Valentines hearts, it’s still Christmas for another two days.
christmas-greeting-card-nativity-scene-by-dona-gelsingerSo in celebration, I thought it would be fun to recall the Christmas story one last time. It’s a paraphrase. Now here’s the catch: read it carefully to see if anything strange catches your eye.

Once upon a time, there was a woman named Mary and her husband Joseph who were traveling to Bethlehem to register for the Roman census. By that time Mary was very pregnant, so she made the long journey to Bethlehem on a donkey while Joseph walked them along.
Once they made it to the city of Bethlehem, they found the town extremely crowded from all the people trying to register. Then Mary began to go into labor. Desperately Joseph looked in every available inn, but no room was to be found. Finally an innkeeper let Joseph and Mary stay in his stable overnight.

It was a cold, wintery night on December 25 when Jesus was born. So Mary wrapped Jesus in a swaddling cloth and laid him in the warm straw of a manger. Thankfully the other animals in the stable granted them space and their own special provisions. Overhead, the Christmas star was shining brightly.

Out in the countryside, shepherds were guarding their sheep by night. Suddenly a great host of angels appeared to the shepherds and sang about the good news of Jesus’ birth. Excitedly they ran with their sheep to Bethlehem and found Mary, Joseph and Jesus in the stable.

Later that evening, three kings from the east arrived to visit the baby Jesus. They followed his natal star which shone right above the manger stall where Mary, Joseph, Jesus and the shepherds were. There they offered their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

At some point during the night a little drummer boy showed up to play his drum as a gift to the Christ child. Jesus opened his eyes and smiled at the boy.

The end.

Every year we see and hear the Christmas story told in songs, hymns, pageantry, paintings, and pictures. The question is, what is authentic and what is not? What comes from the Bible, specifically Matthew and Luke’s gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth, and what is extra?

This Christmas I’ve been reminded how much tradition has modified the Christmas story beyond Matthew and Luke’s birth stories. These things have been so ingrained in our telling of the story that we hardly question their presence.

My Jewish older cousins of the faith have a word for all the extra stuff. They call it Midrash. Midrash is a collection of stories and interpretations from Judaism’s long oral history that seeks to fill in the gaps of the biblical story. The purpose is to create understanding, meaning and application of the scriptures.

For example, there is a famous Midrash from the Noah story. According to some Midrash the reason why the ark was enormous and took 52 years to build was so that the rest of humankind would look at it, ask Noah about its meaning, hear his preaching and repent of their sins. Of course, they were so sinful that they didn’t even bother to ask. That fascinating story is not in the Bible, but it provides some helpful inference and interpretation of the story’s meaning.

When it comes to the Christmas story, we don’t call the non-biblical modification to the story Midrash per se, but that’s exactly what it is. Here is some of the “midrash” from the Christmas storyline I put together:

  • Mary riding to Bethlehem on a donkey– That’s a popular depiction in art and speaks to Mary’s pregnancy during the journey, but there’s no record in Luke’s gospel of Mary’s mode of transportation to Bethlehem
  • The city of Bethlehem was overly crowded– Nothing is mentioned in the Bible about the population of Bethlehem. Things are presumed to be extra busy because of the census and Luke’s note that there’s “no room” for Mary and Joseph. Also, Bethlehem was no city or town. Historically, it was probably a village which Luke figuratively calls the “City of David”.
  • The innkeeper (and his wife)– There was none. He and sometimes Mrs. Innkeeper seem to appear in virtually every Christmas pageant, but not in the Bible.
  • Jesus was born in a stable– Again, no mention of that- only a manger. With the presence of a manger, we might infer a stable for livestock. But there’s also a tradition that the site for the manger was in a cave.
  • Jesus was born on December 25– Though technically not “midrash”, Christmas Day on December 25  was probably set by 4th century Christians as a day to commemorate the birth of Christ. Many scholars agree that Christmas was set right around the winter solstice to compete with pagan rituals. But in reality, we really do not know what time of year Jesus was born, and the gospel accounts offer no clues. All of the winter references in Christmas carols are simply a cultural appropriation.
  • Friendly animals– A beautiful Christmas tradition but not biblical.
  • The Christmas star– Yes, in Matthew’s gospel there was a star that led the Magi to Jerusalem and eventually to Jesus in Bethlehem, but there’s no mention of it appearing on the date of his birth.
  • Angels singing to the shepherds– In Luke’s gospel, an angel appears followed by a host of angels who said, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” There’s absolutely no mention of singing. Contrary to Charles Wesley’s “herald angels singing”, Luke mentions no angelic music to harken our attention. Still, given the hymn-like words of the angels, we have traditionally inferred that they were singing.
  • Three Magi came to visit baby Jesus– This is probably the most elaborated upon story in the infancy narratives of Jesus. Matthew does not say how many Magi there were. Three is given as the traditional number because of the three gifts. However, in some ancient eastern Christian traditions, there were twelve Magi who represented the gentile (non-Jew) equivalent to the twelve tribes of Israel.
  • They were kings– There’s no mention of them being kings. They were Magi- a kind of soothsayer. Many scholars think they were Zoroastrian astrologers from Persia, but Matthew is silent on that detail, too. Chances are the king inference comes from Psalm 72:11, “May all kings bow down to him and all nations serve him.”
  • The Magi were present at the place of Jesus’ birth– The magi wouldn’t show up until much later. This blurring of Matthew and Luke’s story comes from nativity scenes… and the opening scenes of Ben Hur. Matthew records that the Magi came to the house where the Holy Family was living in Bethlehem.
  • The little drummer boy– A popular song from the 1940s, I’m always amazed at the number of nativity scenes with a drummer boy present!

Is all this Christmas “midrash” bad? Not at all. They’re not biblical, but they add an interpretive lens to round out the story into this rich tradition. And they reflect how Christians through the centuries have chosen to approach the birth of Jesus.

At the same time, we must make a conscious distinction between the Bible and extra-biblical traditions. Matthew and Luke have essential stories to tell that proclaim the meaning and significance of Jesus’ birth. They are very different stories which offer two different portraits of the nativity. Let’s get those stories right even while we enjoy the traditions that have developed through the centuries to honor the birth of our Lord and Savior.

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Resolve to be Resolute in 2016

How many of you have made a New Year’s resolution to shed some pounds? Well, there’s at least one gym in America that will not allow it. That’s right. They have banned New Year’s weight loss resolutions.

In Belmont County, Ohio, Source Fitness will not honor their patrons’ goals to lose weight. Owner Justin Green says,”We are trying to get people to understand that someone making a goal of losing weight and gauging it by measuring the pounds lost… is really the wrong way of going about it since all you’re doing is throwing your body in a negative energy balance.” Losing weight badly misses the point. It’s about increasing health by setting overall health goals.
131219131204-new-years-resolutions-diary-story-topBut let’s be honest. How many of us have made New Year’s resolutions only to find them lost in the shuffle several months later? I’m guilty as charged, too. That’s the reason I tend not to set New Year’s resolutions. Why bother? Why pursue something that has a high statistical probability of failure?

As a pastor, I always see various kinds of spiritual resolutions, too. Starting on January 1, people promise to read their Bibles and pray everyday, become more regular at worship services, tithe, etc., etc. I can only imagine how much stronger our churches would be if people actually held to their resolutions. But alas.

One study I found claims that 80% of our resolutions go unkept. Wow…
So what’s the gremlin destroying our best intentions? I think I found him. The gremlin is called “Lack of Resolution.” Or sometimes he goes by the alias “No Resolve”.

Step back a bit and we can see that there’s nothing magical about January 1, 2016. Think of your last few January Firsts. They were days like any other and nothing more. Other than being the start of a new calendar year, is there really anything more inherently life-giving or distinctive about January 1 from, say, August 19? Nope.

What’s needed is a resolution to be resolute. The reason we can’t keep New Year’s resolutions is that we’re no more resolute now than we were on December 31. What’s needed is a deep inner compulsion, an unstoppable motivation that drives our goals to fruition.

For example, let’s take weight loss. It’s not a question of reducing our burden on the poor bathroom scale. It’s a question of health, and if that’s the case, then there are other things that contribute to health- things like getting enough sleep, emotional and spiritual health, and a clear sense of why we want to be healthy. What’s at stake if we’re not healthy? How can God better use me if I’m healthier?

When we look at it that way, an arbitrary date like January 1, 2016 is not the deciding factor. If the resolve behind our resolutions hinges on a mere leaf turning or the fresh start of a New Year, we will fail. After all, what’s to stop us from starting a new resolution at anytime of the year? What’s a date have to do with it? I can choose to do differently and better anytime I’m ready and willing.

I want to have the right kind of resolve behind my resolutions, whenever I make them. That resolve is the reason and purpose for them while also considering what will be lost if I fail. Combine that with accountability, clear milestone markers, and a way to celebrate my successes, and I will succeed. You will, too!

Happy New Year! May our resolutions be kept with the right kind of resolve. And may 2017 find us stronger and healthier because of it.

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Joy to the Cynical World: An Unpreached Sermon

The desert and the parched land will be glad;
the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom;
it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to it,
the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
they will see the glory of the Lord,
the splendor of our God. (Isaiah 35:1-2)

Joy candlesWords like these can seem so sickly sweet, like cheap Christmas ribbon candy. We hear words like gladness, rejoicing, glory, splendor. At best, we could be tempted to gloss over them as fluffy religious sentimentalism. At worst, we could say, “yeah, right…”, sweeping them behind us as contrived, naive notions. After all, look at our world. Sure, we see glimpses of gladness. We feel passing moments of joy. There’s glory and splendor to be found here and there. But to define all of life and our world by those terms? To use a popular expression: Really???

We have so accustomed ourselves to disappointment. People let us down. Politicians don’t keep their promises. Companies are corrupt. Preachers are phony. Lovers leave us. Parents  fail us. And the list goes on and on… From one broken dream to the next, we live in a cynical world that expects the worst, and in that respect, at least, is rarely disappointed.

The truth is, we often see and receive exactly what we expect to see and receive. I once pastored a woman who seemed to live in letdown. She would always complain about the people who failed her- children who demanded much and gave little, friends who abandoned her, church friends who never paid her attention, pastors who failed to follow through, etc. etc. She had suffered some genuine losses, to the point that she banked on everything else turning into eventual grief. I always felt kind of anxious around her. I did the best I could to care for her, but I knew it was only a matter of time before I became yet another form of disillusionment. Sure enough, despite my best efforts, I did.

People who expect the worst will find it. Cynicism spawns more cynicism.

So on a much brighter note, if it is true that those look for the worst will get it, might it also be true that those who look for the best will also receive what they’re looking for? If I’m expecting joy, gladness, splendor, and glory just as readily as the cynic is expecting doom, what is to say I wouldn’t also find all of that?

The cynic would readily reply, “But that’s just it! We don’t get what we’re looking for. Dreams don’t pan out the way we want. That’s the way it is. You can expect nothing and never be disappointed, and you must always brace for the worst.” On that gloomy note, cynics always pride themselves for having purely pragmatic realism. The only thing sacred to the cynic is Murphy’s Law: “…anything that can possibly go wrong, does.”

But there is another sacred truth the cynic cannot (or will not) see. There is also a constant thread of right, of goodness, of love, of blessing, of mercy, of grace that permeates the world. For every wound, there is the possibility of healing. For every lie, there is the possibility for a greater truth. For every set-back, there is the possibility for growth and strength. For every transgression, an invitation to forgiveness. In that way, good always has the last word, if… if… if we listen for it and make room for it.

Looking back at the Scripture reference, notice the setting. It’s in the dry, barren lifeless desert, parched, and languishing for the waters of life. The desert wilderness is the cynic’s playground where everything he looks for is validated tenfold. But then, a strange sight begins to emerge.

Late Winter CrocusIt’s a crocus. A crocus is the perfect image for the kind of hope Isaiah is describing. At my last church, there were crocuses planted in a forgotten flower bed. In the late grey and brown of winter before there was a spot of green or color, the crocus bloomed. The royal purple of this little low flower shouted the promise of life to anyone who saw it. Then, not too long after the crocus appeared, spring began to slowly wake up. After the yawn, spring takes over in an explosion of green, color, life and just fun.

A crocus blooms in the desert. It’s easy to miss or dismiss, but it points to a much greater reality. Those who see it rejoice. Their hearts are gladdened. Then suddenly the great cedar trees of Lebanon and the splendor of Carmel and Sharon pipe in, and before we know it, we see the glorious splendor of the Lord of all life and salvation. It all began in the desert, and yes, it had the last word with convincing power!

†††††††

“So this is Christmas…” John Lennon once sang. What I see in the dead winter of Christmas is not the full bloom of life, but an invitation to shift our vision. In contrast to the stark world of emptiness, shallowness, bitterness, and pain, a child is born. A child on her own doesn’t have the power to change anything, of course. But welled up within her is an explosion of potential, that yes, can move and shake the world.

Nelson Mandela. Ghandi. Rosa Parks. Pope Francis. Billy Graham. Malala Yousafzai. A 7th grade science teacher. A mother. They all started as helpless babies and children. But they grew into individuals who have blessed and healed the world when they were unleashed, fully living into their God-given purpose.

The reality of Christmas- the Messiah born to a peasant virgin and laid to rest in a manger somewhere in the Palestinian village of Bethlehem- has the power to shift our focus from the cynicism of this world to the bubbling wellspring of life that can quench the thirst and revive the spirit of anyone who drinks deeply. It has the power to turn depression into joy.

“Like a crocus, it will burst into bloom…”

If you think about it, our favorite stories of Christmas are all about redemption. Scrooge went from tightly clenched money hoarding to extreme generosity. George Bailey went from hopelessness to seeing the wonder and value of his life. The Grinch went from despising all things Christmas to seeing that Christmas, as Dr. Seuss so subtly put it, “means a little bit more.” Note: in each of these hallowed stories, nothing in the world changed… at first. But through a changed heart, the world would be indelibly changed through them.

“Joy to the World” has nothing to do with claptrap Christmasy junk and sentimentalism. Joy is a changed heart that can see and create redemptive good, no matter the circumstances in which it finds itself. Joy, like a crocus in the wilderness and a Child in a manger, can blossom within tears, depression, and loss. (I know, because I’ve experienced that several times.) Joy can be sung in simple quiet or in rapturous shouting. That’s because joy is simply a shift in attitude from cynicism to thankfulness. From there, new life begins.

My prayer for us this Advent and Christmas is that we would all open ourselves to being shifted away from cynicism and towards the joy of Jesus who is Emmanuel, God with us. Even a little shift in the right direction can go a long, long way towards blessing ourselves and others with the gift of Christ’s life.

May the love and life of Jesus Christ fill us where we are empty, sooth us where we are hurting, sing with us where we are happy, walk with us in our everyday coming and going, forgive us to offer forgiveness, and bless us to be a blessing to others, this day and always. In all these ways, through Christ in us, may joy indeed come to our world. Amen.

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Why I’m Opting Out of the Christmas War

No SantaYes, in the eyes of some, I am committing high treason or at least a serious abdication of my moral responsibilities as a Christian, but I’m declaring an end to my participation in the so-called Christmas War. If I was the commanding general of the Christmas War, I would call for an immediate cease fire. Why is that? It’s a completely unnecessary war and one more thing that makes us Christians look ridiculous.

You know the Great Christmas War I’m talking about. It has been waged on several major fronts which are once again picking up in intensity this time of year:

  • The Battle of the Name  What do we call Christmas? And what seasonal greeting do we offer others? Is it Christmas? Is it Xmas? (And by the way, X is a valid shortening of the name. Contrary to popular belief, X is the first letter of “Christ” in Greek, so yes indeed, it stands for Christ. It’s not some conspiratorial attempt to X out Jesus.) Do we wish people a Merry Christmas, or do we wish people a generic Happy Holidays, not wishing to offend our non-Christian neighbors? (On another aside, “Happy Holidays” originated as a way to combine a Christmas and New Year’s greeting, especially since for a long time the New Year celebration was the main event, not Christmas. Christmas did not become a widely celebrated event in the form we now have it until sometime in the 19th Century.) Do we want the department stores to make their profits from Christmas or the Holidays?
  • The Battle of Town Square Every year, Christians complain that secular society is running poor baby Jesus out of full display on the town square. In the name of separation of Church and State, he’s being thrown out of schools opting for a more secular or multicultural holiday celebration. Or he’s having to share the town corner stage with a Jewish Menorah and a Kwanzaa Mishumaa Saba. Worse yet, he may get no mention or space anywhere in a public forum.
  • Kneeling SantaThe Battle of the North Pole For many Christians, Santa Claus has become the symbol of all things secular and commercial about the Christmas season. I’ve seen Christian t-shirts with a crossed out Santa bearing the words “Jesus is the Reason for the Season.” I’ve also seen statues and pictures of a full red-suited, white-bearded Santa Claus with his red Santa hat by his feet, kneeling before baby Jesus in the manger. (Yes, I get the sentiment, but really? Do we need to show an Americanized, fictitious version of Saint Nicholas bowing down before baby Jesus? I know the Scriptures say that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, but does that really include Santa Claus? I digress…) Nevertheless, for many Christians, Santa Claus and the whole secularization and commercialization of Christmas is a menace and disgrace to the observance of Jesus Christ’s birth. While leaving poor Santa alone for a moment, I agree. But why keep whining about it, as if shaming people towards Jesus’ birth will change the hearts of anyone?

Here’s the reality: Christmas is indeed an important Christian feast day and season which begins Christmas Day and concludes with Epiphany. Just as pronounced- if not more!- is the reality that we are now immersed in a highly cultural phenomenon far more intense and unlike any other time of the year. Can you think of any other season with more music devoted to it? Can you think of any other time of the year as highly saturated with parties, festivities, trappings, family, and economic activity?

It is simply a losing proposition to think that somehow battling a powerful cultural phenomenon most all of us partake in, based on the celebration of Jesus’ birth, will change anything for the good. Do we really think that forcing people to say and accept “Merry Christmas”, forcing Jesus into public squares and schools, and stomping out Santa Claus are going to somehow restore the joy of Christmas into the hearts of our neighbors? Don’t bet on it. Is there really some kind of idyllic Christmas to which we can compare? Not really. Christmas has always been a cultural celebration that is both religious and secular, and to some degree Christians have continually lamented that. You can see how successful we’ve been turning the tide!
NativitySo instead of loudly warring against society in a fruitless effort win back the heart and soul of Christmas, I want to practice something much more Christmasy. Quiet love. Jesus’ birth was a quiet, largely unnoticed event, in poverty, among the clamoring hustle and bustle of that day. The angelic proclamation of Jesus’ birth wasn’t even a public event. The angels came to a few ragamuffin shepherds on the outskirts of Bethlehem village to announce the good news. Once the shepherds found and saw Jesus, they went out to share the good news, much to the amazement of all they told, but there’s no evidence that anything more came of it. Jesus still entered the world in humility and simplicity.

It’s an oft overlooked irony that the great joy, peace, and life of the world, the Word of God born in human flesh, the desire of the nations, entered the world largely unnoticed. Our gaudy, triumphant celebrations badly miss that point. For that reason, of all the Christmas hymns we sing, “Silent Night” best captures the essence of Christmas. In darkness and silence, the wonderful, radiant holiness of God was born.

What would it look like for us Christians to drop our anxious, self-righteous war for Christmas and move through the Advent and Christmas season in the way of Jesus’ birth, in quiet love? What if we embodied the peace, joy, hope, love and goodwill we sing about every year in the ways we talk to people, care for them, and serve them? What if we quit worrying about Merry Christmas vs. Happy Holidays, public displays, and how the rest of the world carries on with its version of the season? What if we became the light of the world- not a blaring, angry, shaming spotlight, but the inviting, warm, glowing warmth of Jesus for cold, weary people looking to find their way?

That’s a far cry from the way we’ve carried on Christmas!

Humble, quiet, hopeful, peaceful, simple, joyful, self-giving… Now that sounds like a Christmas worth having.

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The Things of Auld Lang Syne

2012-2013Auld lang syne… That’s a Scottish phrase that means “old long since” or “once upon a time”. It’s a way of introducing the things of the past. The New Year’s song that derives its namesake from this phrase assumes a wistful, nostalgic look on “auld lang syne”. I’m not so sure that’s the way people nowadays think of the year that’s just past.

In our cynical age, I see most people all too happy to slam the door on the past year while placing great expectations on the year to come. My thought has always been, How can you do that? How can you just sweep the past out the back door while predicting a rosy picture of the future? Didn’t you do that last year only to get the same result?

I guess that’s the reason I’m reluctant to set New Year’s resolutions. If I couldn’t or wouldn’t set and keep resolutions last week, what’s to say I’m going to be any more successful setting and keeping resolutions on January 1? January 1 is no different from June 18. It’s just another day. Now don’t get me wrong. I do set goals for myself and resolve to meet them. I’ve just learned that there’s no magic to January 1. The magic– the juice of a goal set and kept– is discipline, motivation and accountability. There’s no extra stock of those things on January 1!

Nevertheless, there is significance to January 1, 2013 being the beginning of a new year. It can be just as much a fresh slate as any other day, so why not? What can be different this year from the things of auld lang syne 2012?
There are things I’m going to leave behind in the darker, less dreamy shadows of auld lang syne, and things I will take up with greater resolve.

The Things I’m Leaving Behind in Auld Lang Syne

  • cynicism- I’m done with negative, downcast attitudes, talk, and expectations. Enough whining and complaining about the people or situations I can’t change or the people and things I’m tempted to manipulatively change to the way I want. No more framing things in worst case scenarios. I’m going to shut off and ignore pessimistic, gossipy, slanderous talk. I’m not going to stoke up my self-esteem by criticizing and deflecting blame to others.
  • anticipation– Good or bad anticipation is a crutch I don’t want or need anymore. Who can accurately predict the future? Pundits, weather forecasters, politicians, and doomsday prophets can’t do it. So why fool myself into thinking I’m any better? Instead of anticipating, I’m going to take things as the come, in the moment, one day at a time.

Jesus said, “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? … Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:27,34)

  • doubt- This would be doubt of myself, of God, and in those I love. Doubt can be an honest time of wrestling and deliberation. More often, doubt becomes a convenient escape. It’s a state of inertia. If I doubt myself, God, or others, I can stay where I am or retreat. But if I turn off doubt and turn on belief, I’m obliged to act on the best of myself, God, and others.

The Things of Greater Resolve
(No, I will not call them resolutions!)

  • hope- Because God is God and is mysteriously immersed in all things to bring about his good and perfect will, there is goodness that can abound in and through all things. No one and nothing is God-forsaken. Therefore there is always room for God-sized potential and possibility. This calls for the patience to wait in hope (versus the cynicism of panicky, got-to-have-it-yesterday impatience). Look for the best and remain grateful for whatever good that comes.
  • faith- This is trust, especially in the things I know to be true but can’t see right in front of my face. So, if I know that God loves me and is faithful, I’m going to trust in that reality, even if circumstances seem to dictate something completely different. (This is completely unscientific and foolishly irrational, I know. It’s also deeply human and divine– Christlike.) If I trust that my loved ones love and believe in me, even when this love isn’t perfectly manifested, then there’s no room to worry about that. In fact, there’s no room for worry, anxiety, or anticipation in the presence of faith.
  • love– Unconditional love for God, for others, and for myself. Love intimately links me with God, with others, and myself with more than just sentiment or emotion. Love is my choice to bless and cherish God, others and myself. In the words of the Apostle Paul,

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (1 Cor. 13:4-7)

I know all this sounds pretty highfalutin and overly idealistic. But these ideals become reality when I make the conscious decision to let go of the lesser things and live into the best things. It’s a steady-streamed progression of fits and starts, humbling victories and glorious failures. But it’s possible!
Faith, hope and love… All the makings of an excellent 2013!

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An iPad or Lots of Jesus for Christmas?

Over the last couple of years, I haven’t had much of a Christmas list. Of course that rendered the annual, “What do you want for Christmas?” conversation with family members a frustrating one. I’ve been told I’m difficult to shop for.

But this year was different. I experienced a conflict between my inner-child and my adult self. The inner-child Ralphiebegan to strangely resemble Ralphie from A Christmas Story. My internal Ralphie had his heart set on the impossible dream of Christmas gifts: an iPad. And believe me, the iPad ranked right up there with the “Red Ryder carbine-action, two hundred shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time”.

No, an iPad wouldn’t shoot my eye out, but I’ve never received a Christmas gift that extravagant. That just doesn’t happen. At the same time, my adult, more sober self kept saying, “You have all you need already. And besides, just as you’ve preached and taught so many times before, Christmas is not about getting a bunch of stuff.” Yeah, I know, I know…

So all through Advent the Raphie side hoped on for the elusive iPad while the adult side looked for greater, more intangible, spiritual things. What  came next were memories of Christmas Days I had in the past. What lessons did I learn then?

What stands out most from Christmas Days in the past were not the presents I received but the relational gifts. I remember getting up first thing in the morning with my siblings before my parents were awake to wait for that magical stroke of 7 AM when it was okay to wake up Mom and Dad. I remember warm, festive family gatherings at my grandmother Owens’ small two-bedroom apartment packed with 15 people for Christmas morning brunch followed by Christmas  dinner just a two miles away at my grandmother and grandfather Henderson’s house.

When I became a Christian, those beautifully powerful Christmas Eve services complete with carol singing, candlelight, Holy Communion, and inspiring preaching of the Christmas story stand out in my mind. I have loved the anticipation of the Advent wreathe with its subtle message that Christ is coming. I am captivated by the mystery of the Word of God made flesh and born to a virgin within a manger stall.

*******

nativitysceneSo this year I found Jesus in some powerful ways:

  • My church hosted a Blue Christmas worship service at the beginning of Advent. Far from an Elvis thing, it was a time for grieving people to come to terms with the holiday season. I love this service because we discover how the joy of Christmas is more than the trappings and festivities of Christmas. All of that gets lost on grieving people. Christ was born into poverty and pain and can be born anew in our grief, too.
  • During the second week of December, my church once again hosted 30 homeless men. Over the years of this ministry, I have looked more intently for the face of Jesus in our guests. This comes from something Jesus said about how the things we do for the least in our world, we actually do for him. Yes, I saw and encountered Jesus in some powerful ways. Strange as this may sound, I enjoyed doing the guys’ laundry. Blairlee came home every day with a few loads of the guys’ clothes. They were often every bit as smelly and grungy as you’d imagine. But somehow I found it to be an honor to wash these guys clothes, dry them, and fold them up. I got to do Jesus’ laundry, after all. One night I got to stitch up a coat that had gotten badly ripped, and as I sewed it, I spent time talking with its owner.
  • My family went through some rough times in December with illnesses and some emotional growing pains to work through. It unfolded into an experience of the healing grace of Jesus.
  • A week before Christmas, a clergy woman I had been guiding and coaching died. Her funeral was one of the most awesome send-offs I had ever been a part of. Far from the gloom and doom that characterizes most funerals, this one was packed with joy, promise, and worship. Jesus was there and his resurrection was front and center.
  • All of this made for some meaningful Christmas Eve services. Having experienced the reality of Jesus as Emmanuel (which means God with us), I had plenty of juice to preach the good news of the birth of Christ.

And what of the iPad? Well, that will have to wait, unfortunately. But all that I received from God of Jesus in this season of Advent and Christmas well overshadowed what I didn’t get from this world. That is well more than good enough.

(Of course, the ever hopeful Ralphie side reminds me that there are still nine days of Christmas left! I’m not all that optimistic, but who knows?)

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A Christmas Card from Muslims

‘Tis the season for sending and receiving Christmas and holiday cards from family and friends. I’m always grateful for those who remember my family and me with a card. But this year, I opened one of the most unusual and touching Christmas cards I have ever gotten. It’s from the Islamic Education Center in Potomac, MD. A few of my other clergy colleagues reported getting this same card.
Islamic Christmas CardHere’s the front of the card.
The inside of the card reads:

The Quran has only one chapter named after a woman; Chapter 19 is titled “Mary”, or as it is translated in Arabic– Maryam. The Quran tells us that the infant Jesus, (or Isa as it is translated in Arabic), spoke from Mary’s arms:

“…He said: Surely I am a servant of God; He has given me the Book and made me a prophet; And He has made me blessed wherever I may be, and He has enjoined on me prayer and charity so long as I live; And dutiful to my mother, and He has not made me insolent, unblessed; And peace on me on the day I was born, and on the day I die, and on the day I am raised to life.” Quran 19:30-33

While Muslims don’t partake in Christmas celebrations, we believe in the awesome and miraculous birth of Jesus, in the miracles he performed by God’s Grace, and in the message of love and peace Jesus brought into the world.”

The Islamic Education Center

How unusual is that? I think it was a beautiful expression.

Undoubtedly, some cynics would spin this as some kind of devious underhanded ploy. But for what? To convert me? I hardly think one card will do that. To place Islam in a more positive light? What’s wrong with that? Islamic extremism has colored Islam so negatively in the eyes of many. Outreaches like this would only help reclaim Islam from the bad publicity of extremism. Are they trying to draw me into conversation? Well, what’s wrong with that? Perhaps if we had more open-ended conversations, there would be fewer misunderstandings and tensions between our two communities.

I’m taking this card for what I believe it is. It’s a neighborly, thoughtful way of reaching out and honoring another faith community’s most sacred times of the year. I got to learn some more about Islam and receive a wonderful blessing from an Islamic community.

So what am I going to do about it? I’m going to acknowledge and thank them. Potomac is not right around the corner from me, but if they invite me to some conversation and ecumenical dialogue, I would be very open to that. Perhaps if more of this kind of thing happens, the heavenly pronouncement of

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:14)

at the birth of Jesus would become more of a reality. My Muslim neighbors rightly pointed out that Jesus came to bring the peace and love of God.

Shouldn’t Christ’s living body, his Church, be the preeminent, living example of the same?

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It’s the Most Politically Correct Time of the Year

I never thought to exert any effort addressing this topic, or worse yet subject you, my patient readers, to this dribble. Yet every time I think it’s gone away, it starts barking again. I recently posted a question about this on Facebook and got overwhelmed with the varied responses. Yes, I’m talking about the battle over Christmas.

Every year, this time of year, without fail, it goes something like this:
Do we have a Christmas Tree at the town square or a non-sectarian Holiday Tree? Do we put up a Nativity there, scrap it all together for lights and snowflakes, or maybe put up a Nativity alongside a Menorah and a Kwanzaa kinara? Oops… forgot to add the Festivus pole… oh yeah, and the Yule Log.

And of course, there’s the seasonal salutation question. Do we keep to a faithful “Merry Christmas” or offer an all-inclusive “Happy Holidays”? If we ask that, we might as well consider whether to boycott those ungodly, anti-Christian stores who refuse to acknowledge Christmas with that secular “Happy Holidays” garbage or perhaps shun the stores who sold out to the Bill O’Reilly evangelical fundamentalist right-wingers and now emblazon that bigoted “Merry Christmas” hate speech all over their stores. How oppressive!

You get the idea…

Now, just to turn down the heat with a reality check, let’s keep three things in mind.

First, Happy Holidays was originally shorthand for Merry Christmas and Happy New Years. While it’s become a polite, non-sectarian seasonal greeting for most people, some still use Happy Holidays as a catch-all for Christmas and New Years.

Second, the widespread celebration of Christmas with Santa Claus, decorations, Christmas Eve services, gift giving, and the whole nine yards is a fairly recent phenomenon. Ironically enough, 200 years ago, most Protestants could have cared less about Christmas or even wrote it off as a “papist” folly. Christmas is the Christ-Mass, after all. That’s why, historically speaking, it’s pretty amusing to hear us evangelical Christians coming to the rescue of a once-avoided Catholic feast day.

Third, for Jews and Christians, Christmas and Hanukkah are not the most important religious celebrations of the year, despite all the hoopla. For Christians, Easter Sunday is by far the foremost feast day, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And for a long time, the January 6 celebration of Epiphany was more prominent than Christmas. (I know some folks who out of principle purposefully still honor this.) For Jews, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the most important day of the year, followed by Rosh Hashanah. Hanukkah, a far less important Jewish celebration, has earned a place of unintended cultural prominence for Jews living in the clang and clamor of Christmas, which again, once upon a time, was never all that important to a significant segment of Christendom.

So why all the fuss over Merry Christmas versus Happy Holidays or whether or not it’s appropriate to have a Nativity on public property?

This is part and parcel of the ongoing culture wars. Looking at the scope of human history, the transitional years between major periods of history have always been politically, economically, and culturally turbulent. I believe we are in that time of turbulent transition from Modernity to the next thing. That’s why we speak of everything now as post—post-Enlightenment, post-Imperialism, post-Christendom, post-Western, postmodern. These are not definitive, concrete terms, only negations of what used to be, making way for the next thing. Meanwhile no one seems to know what that next thing is. Until the next thing comes, we get to endure the culture wars of our times, the struggle between what we conserve versus what we change or simply throw out.

The struggle over Christmas is over the identity of Christmas and the place of Christmas, among many other traditional things, in an increasingly pluralistic culture. When we see the bumper sticker slogan “Jesus is the Reason for the Season,” we’re dealing with a strictly contemporary sentiment that would have seemed patently absurd to people just forty years ago. That’s recent past, really.

But there’s another oddity about our post-everything age. When dealing with cultural differences, we have set up an incongruent paradigm. It’s kind of funny, actually.

On the one side of this paradigm, it is increasingly poor manners to “judge” anyone or anything. Live and let live. I don’t have the right to tell you how you should live, what you should think, and what you should do, most especially if it doesn’t directly affect me. Nor do I have the right to enter your personal space with my values and beliefs without your explicit permission. Personal freedom, privacy, and tolerance are the basic, inviolate interrelational virtues of our day.

However, on the other side of the paradigm, we hold a fundamental right to never be offended. Maybe that’s why we get so cranky! Someone says or does something that clashes with my life and values, and I feel personally violated, as if what was said and done was explicitly intended to attack my personhood. For example, I wish you a Happy Holidays, and you might interpret that as my trivializing your Christian holiday or even your Christian faith. Or if I wish you a Merry Christmas, you might interpret that as a manipulative form of proselytizing. So much for tolerance. (For the record, I don’t know of anyone who ever became a born again believer or who was ever coerced into Christianity after being wished a Merry Christmas. And no, I don’t buy the argument that saying Merry Christmas is a necessary preservative of Christmas. Unpretentiously working in a homeless shelter on Christmas Day, however—now that’s preserving the gift of Christmas.)

So, we live in this paradigmatic tension of tolerance versus never offending or being offended.

Strangely enough I live with this same tension in the church culture. On the one hand, we mainline Protestants pride ourselves for practicing “Open Minds, Open Doors, and Open Hearts” (a recent United Methodist slogan). But on the other hand, the baseline question that drives the bulk of our decisions and behaviors is, “That won’t offend anyone, will it?” Unfortunately, all too seldom do we ask, “What is the right thing, the most holy thing, the most Christ-like thing?” Instead we walk on eggshells, neurotically sanitizing everything we say or do, lest this group or this person should get their panties in a bunch (oops, that last image might have offended someone!) and walk out… with checkbook in hand, of course.

Getting back to Christmas, all sides of the debate have made it a politically correct nightmare. Both Christians and non-Christians want tolerance but are offended when their sensibilities are violated. Christians cannot charge non-Christians and secularists with a politically correct tyranny of Happy Holidays and non-sectarian winter solstice festivities and at the same time turn around and demand carte blanche for Merry Christmas and Nativities. Both demand tolerance while simultaneously filing a public grievance over the cultural violations of the other.

So, how do we go forward? I think we need to ask a question to ourselves. We need to go beyond the question, “Can’t we all just get along?” That question asks for basic toleration, and toleration isn’t enough. We must ask ourselves, “How can I fully embrace the other, honoring them while remaining true to myself?” That doesn’t mean I agree with all they believe, do, or say. But I don’t have to let those incongruities bother me. Instead, I can appreciate them for the gift from God they are and the gifts from God they offer, and fully value and include them for that.

That would mean you could see me out on the street and wish me a Happy Holidays, a Happy Hanukkah, a Happy Kwanzaa, a Happy Winter Solstice, a Happy Christmakwanzukkah, or just a “Hey there, Chris!” and I would receive that as your blessing to me, and receive it with joy because I receive you with joy. At the same time, I could joyfully wish you a Merry Christmas in my excitement over the birth of Christ, and you would receive that and me for what they were intended to be: a blessing and a gift to you, however you choose to receive me.

All this would be a significant down payment on the angels’ proclamation to the shepherds of “…good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all the people” (Luke 2:10).

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