Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Let the Little Candledrippers Come Unto Me

The church where I go recently moved into a new building, our first. (We're a relatively "new" congregation: 10 years old.) This move has encompassed many of the things all moves entail: Deciding where to put stuff, getting new furniture, assigning particular people to particular rooms, etc.

We've been waiting for our chairs to arrive. (We went with chairs rather than pews because our facility is "multi-purpose": the room where you receive Communion will be the same room where we have dinners and large events of all shapes.) The chair company was slow in getting us our chairs, but no big deal. We have been using temporary, plastic, folding chairs which have served us just fine.

The day finally arrives when the chair company calls to give us the day and time we can expect the load. "They'll be here Saturday at noon." Saturday is Christmas Eve. Like many congregations, we have a Christmas Eve service that evening. Ours will be at 5:30. Should be plenty of time. (I must confess, I had visions of a late-arriving 18-wheeler, our folks scurrying around to unload the chairs and get them in place while running into arriving worshipers looking for a seat. No such mayhem ensued, however.)

But we DID have our own special "issue". The Christmas Eve service is a candlelight service. A large proportion of our congregation is kids. Most of our candles are kind of old and really drippy. Get the picture? New chairs. Drippy candles. Kids.

We didn't realize what an impact such an equation could make till after the service. "Pastor," several of our ladies couldn't wait to ask me afterwards, "have you seen the wax on the chairs?!"

Now I have to confess, my first response was NOT one of spiritual euphoria and bliss. I didn't quote scripture and see this as a "teachable moment". I muttered something about the plusses and minuses of having lots of children around and mainly skirted the issue, moving on to something a little less emotionally charged. It was, after all, Christmas Eve, the service was over, and I was looking to get home too.

Looking back now, one scripture does come to mind. Jesus had been teaching, preaching, healing, and generally, doing "Jesus stuff". A group of kids had formed around him, wanting his time and attention. Jesus' disciples were playing bouncers and tried to keep the kids away. I imagine them saying something like, "Jesus has more important things to do," or "Jesus is talking to the adults right now".

But Jesus wouldn't have any of it. "Suffer the little children to come unto me," reads an older translation. "Suffer": sometimes it is, I suppose. But is wax in the new chair too great a price to let a kid hang out with Jesus? I can just see these runny-nosed little rugrats climbing all over the Messiah. And Jesus loving every minute of it. May God give me the grace to enjoy what matters most and not get bent out of shape over the stuff that occasionally gets messy.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Competing Christmases

There has been so much discussion and arguing about "Happy Holidays" vs. "Merry Christmas". But I have my own internal war going on regarding Christmas.

For me, Christmas has often been about warm, sweet images. You know the kind I'm talking about: chestnuts on a open fire, a newborn wrapped in a cloth and lying peacefully as an adoring mother looks on and "ponders these things in her heart". It's all quite the Hallmark-type of moment, isn't it? Sweet as syrup. Gentle as a breeze on a warm summer's day.

But there's another side to Christmas. A radical, turn-the-world-inside-out-Christmas. The prophets who wrote before Jesus was born, and are quoted by the biographers/Gospel writers after Jesus was born, use such imagery. "Every valley will be exalted and every hill made low." Think about that. If your life is a valley, filling it in, lifting it up, that sounds pretty good, right? But what if your life is a mountain or a hill? What does it take to level a mountain? Some bulldozers, heavy equipment, and a few sticks of TNT. (At least that's what they used on the old Bugs Bunny cartoons to level, smash or demolish.) If your life is a "hill" and is going to be "made low", that doesn't sound so good. If you have a comfortable life, money in the bank, a good job, decent education, happy family life, and are in good health, who wants to have their life "leveled"?

Or what about the words Jesus co-opts from the prophet in his first sermon in church. (BTW, do you realize Jesus had relatively few recorded sermons/teachings in the synagogue? The vast majority of what we have him saying occurred in homes, at parties, along the road, or at the beach in a boat, or on the side of a hill.)

This day Jesus says, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. He has appointed me to preach good news to the poor, He has sent me to proclaim the captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the downtrodden will be freed from their oppressors, and that the time of the Lord's favor has come."

Again, this is good news IF you are the one who is "poor" or "downtrodden" or a "captive". But NOT so good if you're the one actually doing the oppressing. Jesus promises a revolution; a major renovation of the world order.

This same idea shows up in our Christmas songs too. "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" contains a verse I love. "Hail the Heav'n-born Prince of Peace. Hail the Sun of Righteousness. Light and life to all he brings. Ris'n with healing in his wings. Mild he lays his glories by. Born that man no more may die. Born to raise the sons of earth. Born to give them second birth. Hark the herald angels sing, 'Glory to the newborn King'."

That's radical stuff. The Sun of Rigthteousness rising with healing in his wings is out of Malachi, in the last chapter of the last book of the Hebrew scriptures. The last thing the Christian canon has before the birth of Jesus. They were longing, waiting, for one to come who would have healing powers and abilities, so the legend went, who would have healing abililty in the very fringes of his being. (Gives a new meaning to the story of the woman in Mark who reaches out to Jesus, hoping to simply touch the hem, or "fringe" of his garment.)

Or what about Handel's beloved "Hallelujah Chorus"? "The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ. And he shall reign forever and ever!!"

These images aren't quiet, meek and mild. These images are earth-shattering. They completely destroy the current power structure; setting into motion events that change the destiny of the world and all its inhabitants.

All this makes me ask, "Has the Church missed it?" Do we get hung up on how we're greeted at Wal-Mart rather than freeing captives and setting prisoners free? Seems to me if we were giving sight to the blind and delivering good news to the poor, we wouldn't worry about Merry Christmas vs. Happy Holidays. There'd be an army of formerly oppressed, now freed people to tell the story of the Christ of Christmas.

Maybe if the sweet, syrupy image is all I have, my picture of Christmas is incomplete. I need a radical, sledghammer, TNT Christmas that destroys the powers of a broken world and establishes peace on earth, good will to men, women, and children. THAT'S the type of Christmas our world needs. THAT'S the type of Christmas worthy of your life.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays

“She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21)

Merry Christmas vs. Happy Holidays

You’ve probably heard all the conversation and debate about particular places referring to “holidays” in a generic, secular sense rather than Christmas, as has been done traditionally. So the Wal-Mart greeter now might say, “Happy Holidays” when you walk in the store rather than wish you “Merry Christmas”. Or the tree outside the White House might be referred to as a “holiday tree” instead of a “Christmas tree”.

Is It About Your Talk or Your Walk?

Do we have to be on guard against secularists who want to rip out any signs of faith from the public arena? Probably so. Are there those who would like to strip away any reference to God or religion from our conversation? Yes.

But there is a larger issue with which we must concern ourselves. Does my celebration of Christmas end with the words I use to greet people in December? Or does it reach into my wallet and determine how much money I spend and on whom I’ll spend it? Does my adoration of the Christ child stop at calling the evergreen a Christmas tree? Or does it force its way into other aspects of my life, such as offering forgiveness to those with whom I’ve had a dispute. Is Christmas simply about how I talk and act in this season? Or is it about the historical fact that God stepped into our world, and has begun to reshape EVERYTHING?

Maybe Christmas is Too Small

Jesus came to “save his people from their sins.” All of their sins: Sins of worshiping the god of consumption; Sins of pointing out the speck in our brother’s eye when we are staggering around with a pole in our own; sins of thinking everyone needs to look and act like us and see things our way; sins of laziness or complacency or idolatry of leisure and comfort. If we don’t let Christ make everything in our life new, then Christmas is too small, and we’re simply arguing about a greeting at the local retail store.
Grace & peace