Giving Up Christ for Christmas—an experiment

Christmas has always been a difficult season for me. As a pastor, I was adamant about Advent as preparation for the coming of the Christ child—knowing all the time that most members of the church were preparing for something else. As a husband and father, I found often myself at odds with the rest of the family about Christmas decorations, the amount of money sent on gifts, and the place and role of Christmas cards. I wanted to pare down the externals and keep focus on the true meaning of the season. That being said, I never found myself supportive of the effort to deride the use of the term “Xmas” by those who wanted to put Christ back into Christmas.

Recently a friend told me that she was celebrating the Christmas season differently this year by taking religion out of her celebrations. Her focus would be on enjoying the season as it is, instead of how it should be. This was not an anti-religion action; just a pro-Christmas one. I decided to follow, in my own way, what this wise woman had suggested.

So, this year I am consciously focusing on the holiday season without trying to make sure that I can shoe-horn Christ into the celebration. Instead, I am going to recognize the holiday season for what it is—a folk holiday with its own folksy stories, songs, and practices.

I am willing to acknowledge that the Christmas that I had hoped would happen in the past, was a figment of my imagination (and the church’s). In truth, the story of Jesus’ being born in a manger in Bethlehem, shepherds gathering around, and wise men eventually arriving from the east is also a folk tale. The Advent and Christmas hymns we sing in church are folk songs.

If we sing Christmas hymns in church during Advent—a definite No! No! during my tenure as a pastor—the world will not come to an end. Nor will a global tribunal be summoned to adjudicate the severity of the theological damage done to the kingdom of God.

So, I have started off by doing something that I have dreaded and or avoided for most of my adult life—I have decorated my apartment. My small tabletop tree has a prominent place in front of the fireplace. (It’s small enough that it doesn’t block the TV that is directly above it.) I recovered the ceramic Nativity set that my mother made in 1981 and it is the first thing I see when I come in from the outside. In the hallway, outside the bedrooms, I have a table covered with ceramic and glass angels. And I have a pine wreath on my apartment door.

Yesterday, our church bulletin had a listing of about 15 shut-ins. I, who has never been in favor of sending Christmas cards, will be sending a Christmas card to each of them. I have never been a big fan of elaborate lighting systems for homes during Christmas. While I can’t decorate the outside of my apartment, I am going to spend a couple of evenings driving around to enjoy the lights. Hearing this, my daughter asked if they could go along.

I even went Black Friday shopping on Thanksgiving evening—a No!No! in the past. As a result, all my Christmas gifts are purchased and wrapped. As a confirmed introvert, I often find excuses for NOT attending Christmas parties. No turn-downs or lame excused this year, I am looking forward to 5 parties.

Nativity sets, angels, Christmas trees, multi-colored lights, and even Advent hymns do not change the reality of this folk holiday. Children are flush with anticipation and excitement. Many adults are sad or depressed because of losses, broken relationships, or unfulfilled dreams. And then there are the multitude numbers of men, women, and children who are homeless or facing life-changing illnesses or other circumstances that will prevent them from attaining their fair share of joy and wholeness.

Experiment with taking Christ out of Christmas is not about walking away from faith or rejecting religious traditions. It is, however, an admission that the Christmas season is not under the church’s control—and it should not be. If Christ is to come, it will not be because we have celebrated Christmas properly. If Christ is to make an earth-shaking difference in the world, it will not be because we have deleted Xmas form the vocabulary, with everyone saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.” If Christ is to come, those of us who care about the Christ are going to have to be as concerned about that coming in July as in December. If Christ is to come, that coming will only be accomplished when those who claim to be followers actually do follow and treat life as if the reign of God were already here.

The good news of the season, my friends, is that we are not waiting for anything that is not already here. Whenever you show care for someone else—feeding them, sheltering them, or caring for them—Christ has come. Whenever you bring a smile to a young child, or companionship to a shut-in, or compassion for a family faced with illness or death, Christ has come.

What are you waiting for? Actually, if there is any waiting during this season of waiting for Christmas to happen in human hearts, it is God who waits—waits for you!

Happy Holidays!

Thin Places or Thick?

I have always been fascinated by the Celtic concept of thin places—where the world seems to light up with a dynamic sense of Mystery, an extra-ordinary presence that can take us beyond ourselves. Beautiful sunsets can be thin places. For me, standing at the edge of Niagara Falls, on the Canadian side, watching the power of the water as it cascades to the waiting canyon below has always been a thin place. So was the place in the woods, at camp, where I, as a young teen had a circle of trees transformed into my own chapel in the woods by the presence of radiant sunbeams.

These days, however, I find myself continually finding thick places instead. Most prominent of those thick places are: a Republican Congress and Executive branch that refuses to pass any legislation unless it undoes actions and initiatives of the previous administration; A Democratic Party whose only vision is to depose the sitting President and win the next round of elections; and the corporate enterprise formerly known as the news media that is remarkable proficient at chasing down rabbit trails. Thick places!

Thick places are the walls we erect between our differing points of view, chasms that open between the various ways we live our lives. The building blocks of those walls and the bulldozers digging those chasms are our fears. Then we begin to be afraid of the walls and the chasms themselves. In fear, we back away from them, becoming increasingly unable to see the people they represent—the people on the other side.

In a church fight, a wise man told those of us on the other side: “When you look at the lineup of those on my side of the issue, you tend to pay more attention to the most radical ones at the back of the line. Likewise, when I look at your side, I tend to see the most radical of your proponents. The backs of our lines can’t talk to each other; but those of us toward the front can.”

When we have built walls and dug chasms, there is only one way ahead—stiles over the walls and bridges over the chasm where those of us toward the front of our separate lines can meet. But what do those stiles and bridges look like? What does it take to put them in place?

First, it means that I refuse to paint those who disagree with me as enemies. And I no longer assume that they all agree with the most radical position I oppose. I have encountered in recent years many responsible gun owners, members of the NRA, who want restrictions on military-style automatic rifles, large clips, and bump stocks. Furthermore, they support more stringent regulations about purchasing and registering guns, including training in gun safety. I can no longer assume that all gun owners support the dogmatic rhetoric of the NRA.

Second, after decommissioning my inflammatory enemy name calling, I find that I am now in a position to broach the possibility of conversation across the divide. While we may not be able to meet initially half-way between our two opposing positions, we may be able to meet on the stile over the wall, or on the bridge that crosses the chasm between us. Before we can talk, we have to take a step or two toward each other—shouting at a distance has never been a very good way to communicate. Too much is lost in the transmission and reception.

Third, I’m not sure where it goes once we start talking. But that’s the point. Conversation , in and of itself, can lead somewhere—even if it is more conversation. At least we aren’t tearing at each other’s jugular.

And our fears. They are not going to magically disappear. If, however, we begin to engage one another across the divides than maybe, just maybe, instead of backing away from our fears, we will move toward them and through them. We can acknowledge and embrace our fears, acknowledge and embrace our differences, as well as acknowledge and embracing one another—even if we don’t immediately and forever solve the issue dividing us. Such reaching out across the divides that separate us—finding a way to live together in the tension of differences— is the American dream. When we reach out to one another, we begin to heal the spiritual disease that is infecting our society.

Who was right—Chicken Little or F.D.R.?

 

Chicken Little“The sky is falling! The sky is falling!”
F.D.R.“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Chicken Little:  But, you don’t understand. The sky is falling; the world as we know it is coming to an end.
F.D.R.:  Slow down and take a deep breath. Why do you think the sky is falling?

Chicken Little:  Because it hit me in the head. Paul Ryan tells me that his new tax plan is going to save me lots of money; but the New York Times tells me that Paul Ryan’s plan is selling me down the drain. I can’t believe anyone anymore.
F.D.R.:  Granted that truth is being bent, but how does that equate to the end of the world?

Chicken Little:  When our leaders can’t agree on anything and government is deadlocked, we are in BIG trouble.
F.D.R.:  But, the United States has always been rather resilient. The pendulum swings in both directions—sometimes too far to the right or to the left. We, the people, always seem to find a way to bring it back to the middle.

Chicken Little:  But it feels different now! No longer is Congress a place when pragmatism thrives. It’s ideology verses ideology. And now, we-the-people seem to embrace racism, xenophobia, and white supremacy.
F.D.R.:  There you go again, jumping to the most radical conclusion. What about all the good that our nation has done in the world.

Chicken Little:  And now we are the laughingstock of the world. No one respects us. Other nations see our president as a child having tantrums when he doesn’t get his way.
F.D.R.:  Do you think that we’ve totally lost our positive leadership role in the world forever?

Chicken Little:  Well, to be truthful, I’m wondering if we are well on the way to the demise faced by other great nations in world history—Rome, the Golden Age of Greece, the British Empire, and so many more.
F.D.R.:  Maybe, instead of full collapse, what we are experiencing is the finding a new role in international politics. Maybe we have had too much influence, for our own good and the world’s. Maybe this is the opportunity for the rest of the nations of world to step and take their rightful place as leaders.

Chicken Little:  And, as that happens, maybe we will collapse internally—socially, economically, and politically. In fact, maybe we have already collapsed spiritually.
F.D.R.:  What do you mean when you say that we may already have collapsed spiritually.

Chicken Little:  The American spirit has always been a “can do” pragmatism. If something is wrong, we fix it—maybe not perfectly, but we continue to make little adjustments along the way. Now it seems as if the only option is an ideological one. It’s either my way or the highway!
F.D.R.:  I wonder if a part of our problem is that we have become afraid. On the one hand, it looks as if we are afraid of each other. But what we really fear is the boxes, the ideological harangues, we have locked ourselves into. We have been caught up in fearing our fears.

Chicken Little:  You may be on to something. Say some more!
F.D.R.:  Maybe those we disagree with are not the enemy. Maybe the enemy is the distance we have put between ourselves, the walls we build to keep us apart and isolated from one another.

Chicken Little:  Maybe if all of us who feel that the sky is falling—on both sides of the issues facing our nation—got together and actually talked as neighbors…
F.D.R.:  Exactly! What if we began our conversation together by sharing our fears—fears about family, jobs, health, growing older, social solidarity, …—maybe we would find more in common with each other. Maybe then, and only then, could we begin to think about the big issues that face our society.

Chicken Little:  So, maybe the suspicion that the sky is falling is the impetus we need to begin talking with one another.
F.D.R.:  And , maybe our most fearsome fears are the beginning place for those conversations.