Sunday, December 31, 2006

Christmas is Over: Now What?

The celebrations are over, the last package’s wrappings are landfill, the decorations are about to come down if there are any still left hanging, some toys didn’t quite make the cut and are either now forgotten or broken, and soon the bills will start rolling in for those whose entire Christmas celebration was more a tribute to MasterCard. For all its trappings, however, most of us still come away from our Christmas celebrations with few regrets. We’ve been able to spend time with loved ones, some whom we may not see again until next year and some we may never see again. Even with the “morning after” credit card regret, there is always going to be something special about watching a child’s face light up when an unexpected gift is opened on Christmas morning, that special moment which makes us forget what we went through to acquire that particular gift.

Even still, something is not quite right. The very first sermon I ever delivered was on a Sunday following Christmas and I still remember thinking that if ever there was a raw deal for a new preacher, that would be it! How can Christmas be followed? Christmas is the BIGGIE, isn’t it? After a long year, whether good or bad, Christmas is the climax, isn’t it? I’ve since learned that it is probably best not to even try to preach Christmas. The Gospel accounts pretty much cover the ground, and there is not much left to say that hasn’t already been said. But I think I have also finally figured out why it is so difficult to follow Christmas for preachers and laity alike.

Just prior to Christmas we have our Advent count-down. We begin to focus not only on the birth of Messiah but also on His Second Coming. We teach and we preach to stand prepared just as John the Baptist admonishes us to “make straight the path” for the Lord’s coming. Four weeks (and often more!), three weeks, two weeks; the excitement mounts, the plays and cantata’s are rehearsed, prepared, and presented, the charity collections are in full swing and …. BOOM! We’re there.

After that, what next? Even as Advent is a time of preparation, we have a definitive count-down with a finite ending. We light one of five candles for the weekly count-down, and we reach the climax. It’s over. We’re done. That is, of course, until we begin to approach Lent. Then we begin anew yet another season of “preparation”, but this time the kids are not really as involved. They can more easily and readily embrace the “birth” of the Savior but to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure when anyone is fully prepared to accept the “death”.

It occurred to me as my family and I were driving home from my in-laws that the Church loses some much-needed momentum after Christmas. We Christians are a pretty self-contained bunch when it comes to our holy days. On Christmas should we be holed up at our homes or huddled in our churches, or should we not rather be living according to the dictum of John Wesley who insisted that the WORLD was his parish and that the Good News of the Gospel should be shared out where the masses are instead of inviting the masses to come to us where we are?

The momentum that builds during Advent provides this kind of spirit without fail every single year, and every single year with few exceptions we peter out about 12/27 and lose that precious momentum. I was never more acutely aware of this until a co-worker challenged the concept of “organized religion”. When questioned about her objections – and know that I have typically written off such persons as those who will reach for any excuse not to attend church – she pointed out that her perception and experience with “organized religion” has been more along the lines of forced beliefs and self-contained greed and exclusivity meaning that we are pretty good at ministering to ourselves and perhaps to one another, but we don’t really care to do much more than this. OUTSIDE the Christmas season, that is.

While I am almost certain that Luke’s very brief glimpse of Jesus’ childhood (Luke 2:41-52) has some more profound lessons for us than what I can glean from it, the one thing that stands out to me, especially as it relates to the birth of Messiah, is that the Birth itself is a culmination of nothing. The Salvation story does not end at the manger. Jesus was born, of course, but He did not remain a “babe wrapped in swaddling clothes”; He grew up and He moved on. His upbringing, His education, His faith were all fed and nurtured and developed over time. His special gift was easily recognized by the elders in the Temple, but Jesus was still a child who had some growing up to do.

Then we get to see Jesus as a young man coming to John to be baptized. After this, He enters into His ministry which would necessarily include His encounter with the evil one, perhaps AKA “the world”, which He was able to endure by His abiding faith. Once this moment is conquered, Jesus selects His apostles and continues His ministry.

Is the momentum apparent? All the way up to the moment of His death, the only time His apostles kept to themselves was after Jesus was crucified and they were afraid. For the very first time their faith was tested and with perhaps the exception of John and the women including Mary, the followers of Jesus failed. They fled. And for three days - in the absence of Christ - until the Resurrection, all momentum of what He had begun was lost. Everything stopped. Is the connection apparent?

As we reflect on the full measure and infinite value of the Christian celebration of Christmas, we must not neglect to remember that just at a time when humanity should have been coming to the Lord, the Lord instead chose to come to US. He did not wait until the world would suddenly come to its senses and realize how alone we really are and how desperately we need Him. He watched us suffer long enough and came to us WHERE WE WERE THEN and surely where we are now.

How much more momentum do we require before the sleeping Church will awaken and realize that those who oppose our “organized religion” can see us more clearly than we can see ourselves? How much more momentum do we require before we realize that just as the Lord came to us when we needed Him the most, we AS HIS BODY must go where we are needed most? And not just at Christmas time but throughout the year.

The boy Jesus still had a lot to learn as a child; so did His parents and so do we. May we continue to find ourselves always and regardless of biological age as inquisitive 12-year-olds in the Temple seeking and searching and growing.


Saturday, December 16, 2006

The Magic of Christmas

The best recollections I have of Christmas are from my childhood, and I must honestly say that the only way church time really fit into the excitement of Christmas for me was when we went to midnight Mass. For me, it was quiet and reflective. I have distinct recollections of a sense of awe and wonderment during the Mass, the church seemed always much quieter than during a typical Sunday Mass, and of course there was virtually no life outside during that time since most folks were home in bed. I must also admit, however, that the hour-long Mass was a great way to kill some time before Christmas morning!

On Christmas morning there were the presents, and my parents usually went all out for us even though I learned years later that they really could not afford it. I cannot remember a Christmas in which I was ever disappointed for not having gotten what I asked for. And I also distinctly remember opening packages that said, “From SANTA to Michael” and not really caring much about Santa Claus or where the gift came from; I just wanted what was in the box!

Over the years and for a variety of reasons, I’ve grown somewhat cynical about Christmas. I still get a thrill from buying – hopefully – the “perfect gift” for those whom I love, and I am especially gratified to watch their faces light up when I realize I did well with my selection. But something has to happen before I can get very excited about Christmas anymore. That “something” can be almost anything, but it is the “something” which serves as a catalyst that helps me to remember what Christmas is all about.

Many are fond of saying that Christmas is “all about the children”. Others remind us that Christmas is about “family and friends”. The Church, of course, is always there to remind us that Christmas is about the Messiah. For different persons, Christmas can mean different things and not all necessarily good things. I remember an episode of the popular TV show M*A*S*H in which a soldier was brought to the hospital having been severely wounded in battle – on Christmas Day. Even though the situation was hopeless, the doctors worked tirelessly to try and keep the soldier alive until the day AFTER Christmas so that his family would not always remember Christmas as the day when their loved one was killed, but we all know that there are many in real life who have experienced tragedy even on Christmas Day.

But whatever Christmas is all about to any one of us, there is an element of magic that gives Christmas its special place in our hearts. It does not matter whether we are talking about the “magic” of the birth of the Savior or the “magical” myth of Santa Claus. There is a mystical, almost surreal quality about Christmas that makes us want to be a little friendlier, a little more generous. It is a time of year when many of us realize that we have an inherent need to believe in something whether it is belief in a God who presented Himself to man as the Holy Son, a jolly old elf who gives presents to all the little children, or humanity that has the potential to be good.

What happens to us, though, if we reach a point in our lives when we do more worrying about the holiday season than rejoicing? What happens when we reach a point in which this holiday season is nothing more than a day off from work? What happens when there is no more magic, no special something to look forward to, to embrace and to cherish? What happens when we finally realize that we’ve crossed the line into adulthood and Christmas no longer has that magical, mystical quality it once held special just for us?

All these questions may be answered very simply: we’ve grown up too much for our own good. As we grow physically, emotionally, and mentally we soon learn that there are few on this earth who will put their lives on hold for us, so we have to learn to take care of ourselves and depend on no one. We learn self-reliance, and soon the only “magic” we may care anything about is that of David Copperfield, my favorite illusionist. At this point Christmas is nothing more than a date on a calendar that falls between December 24 and December 26. For all intents and purposes, we have lost our sense of wonderment and awe, and we gain a level of cynicism which teaches us that no one really cares. We lose faith. And once faith is gone, it is difficult to regain.

There is profound wisdom in what Jesus offers to His disciples in Mark 10:15 that goes far beyond the moment: “I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little children will never enter it.”

It may be that Jesus is acknowledging the difficulty some grown ups may have in grasping the concept of an “other worldly” kingdom, let alone such a place that may hold some level of attraction for us. It may be that Jesus is acknowledging that being a “grown up” is not that it’s cracked up to be. I know that I’ve tried to tell my children so many times, especially when my baby girls wanted to wear make up, not to be in such a big hurry to grow up for that reason alone. So much gets lost somewhere between adolescent and adulthood, and we are the poorer for it.

All is not lost, however, as we move through the Advent season and quickly approach Christmas itself. There is still hope even as Jesus talks about the seeming hopelessness of those who are unable to look at life and faith through the lens of a child’s eye. “Let the little children come to Me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to SUCH AS THESE.”

Jesus is not quoted as having said that the kingdom of Heaven belongs ONLY to the little children, the biological ones. “The kingdom of God belongs to SUCH as these…” could well be a statement of hope even for those who biologically mature but who are also spiritually child-like in a perfect willingness to believe the best that is to come. There is no room in this statement for cynics unless we are willing to surrender something.

It’s funny that some fundamentalist Christians would suggest that teaching our children to believe in Santa Claus can be spiritually harmful when it seems to me that maybe we are teaching our children that there is something worth believing in, something “magical” that gives the true Spirit of Christmas an opportunity to move into our souls and teach us that being all grown up is not all it’s cracked up to be.

Merry Christmas to all.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Divine Activity

There are essentially two schools of thought as it pertains to theology, that which defines the relationship between the Lord and man. One suggests that the Almighty is far removed from humanity and does not get actively involved in our day-to-day activity. The other holds that the Lord is this huge cosmic force who manipulates nature and even the hearts and minds of mankind to achieve a particular end. Both have merit to a degree but like anything pertaining to the Lord and to the study of theology, neither can be definitively proved one way or the other.

To suggest that the Lord does not get directly involved with humanity is to dismiss so much by which the Lord has revealed Himself to us. We have the covenant with Noah, we have the Exodus, we have David being chosen as king out of all his older brothers, and we have Christmas. And lest we forget, we have the promise of the Holy Spirit to be with us as we endeavor to live and work and worship. Each of these and so many more instances shows us a God who is hardly removed from our lives. Yet there is rarely a day that passes in which we do not directly or indirectly witness evil in our midst. We see children starving around the world or being emotionally or physically abused in other ways, we see refugees running to escape the horrors of war, we see people even right here in America living under bridges for lack of other shelter. Those who witness such things and who lack faith ask what to them is a legitimate question: how can this “good” God allow such things to happen?

We must also remember that if we are talking about a God who is actively manipulating these cosmic forces by which man and nature are set to act in conflict with perhaps how we are predisposed to act, we are dismissing the concept - if REALITY - of free will. But if free will is indeed a reality, how can we read such a text as Exodus 7:3 in which Moses is fulfilling his calling to confront the pharaoh and work to get Israel released from her bondage and pharaoh is resisting because the Lord “hardened his heart”. By what is written, Moses has had a direct encounter with the Almighty and is doing what he was sent to do. Yet it would also seem that the Lord is manipulating the minds and hearts of man by intentionally “hardening” pharaoh’s heart thus making Moses’ journey even more difficult than it already was.

So what? Did the writer have a direct encounter in which he had inside knowledge of the intent and mind of the Lord, or was he reporting something that would simply be incidental? If pharaoh released the Hebrews, Egypt would suffer because a lot of work was being done for cheap. All pharaoh had to do was keep the Hebrew slaves well fed as any good rancher would do with his live stock. So did the Lord become actively involved with the mind of the pharaoh, or was the pharaoh simply of his own greedy mind and had made a free will decision to resist Moses’ call to release Israel? After all, he had a lot to lose!

Advent is a relatively constricted period of time in which we are called to prepare ourselves, but what are we to prepare for during this time aside from what we should be preparing for during the other eleven months of the year? In Advent we are encouraged to pray – are we to pray less during any other time? In Advent we are encouraged to fast – should we fast more than during any other time? In Advent we are encouraged to be generous with everything we have – are people only hungry or naked or homeless during the month of December?

John the Baptist calls on the people now just as he did during his own time to “make straight the path of the Lord”, to prepare for His coming. Well, we know that John and Jesus were about the same age, so John could not have been talking about the impending birth of the Messiah. We can also see from various texts in which John seems genuinely surprised when Jesus shows up even as he has proclaimed that “there is one coming after me Who is greater than I, Whose sandals I am not worthy to loose…” We can’t say that John never saw it coming, yet he seemed somehow unprepared for the encounter, a DIRECT ENCOUNTER with the Divine which changed everything not only for himself but also for the entire human race.

The Lord is coming but not necessarily in early January which would necessitate that we prepare ourselves only in December. Let this be a time when we are mindful of the needs of those around us for the need is great. Let us be mindful that even if we cannot agree on the fundamental tenets of Advent, we can surely agree that preparation for that Day – whenever it may come – is a never-ending task that requires much but blesses in abundance and far beyond the day.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Working it Out

A thought occurred to me not long ago in class in which we were discussing education policy in the US and, specifically, in Arkansas. Not long ago the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled that Arkansas education is neither adequate nor equitable. The ruling came as a result of a suit filed by a school district that was in academic and financial distress. To make a long story short, the court ruled that the state is not fulfilling its constitutional duties to educate Arkansas children.

As a result of this ruling, the state legislature convened to answer the shortfall. Although I don’t necessarily agree with everything the legislature offered, there is one particular idea that is being tried in some school districts that does interest me: teacher bonuses for improved student performance on standardized tests.

The problem that some teachers and citizens see is that such a measure may compel some teachers to “teach to the test” rather than just fulfill their noble calling. Whether this idea will work in its present form or be modified in some way down the line remains to be seen. The general consensus of those who oppose this idea is that teachers are supposed to teach children HOW to think rather than WHAT to think, believing that test scores could do nothing but improve if students were just encouraged and taught how to use the mind the Lord gave them. In math and the sciences, there are certainly facts that must be known, but is it enough to just know that 2+2=4 or will this figure have greater success in serving a purpose if children are shown HOW and WHY 2+2=4?

The “thought” that crossed my mind in class is this: in the history of religion, perhaps in the history of mankind, teaching our children WHAT to think is what we’ve been doing all along, especially in religion. Most of us grew up with the familiar Bible stories and “how it was” and we’ve been taught about Jesus’ life and what He meant by the things He said, but I also think that we were – more often than not – told WHAT we should believe and what we should know. I, for one, do not remember ever being encouraged to engage a story and think for myself.

Is this a bad thing? How can we impart our knowledge without our biases? How can we teach our children about the Lord without slanting our observations toward what we believe to be true, confident that we are “right” and that anything which deviates from what we believe to be true is heresy? It may be nearly impossible because of the subject matter. There are some moral and spiritual absolutes that don’t leave much room for interpretation. Some things are wrong, have always been wrong, and will always be wrong.

What are the “absolutes” and who sets the standard? As a theological conservative, I used to see most things scriptural in a “black-and-white” context. Over time, however, I have learned to look at the texts a bit more broadly. My more liberal friends would call that “becoming enlightened”. I call it utter confusion. I have now reached a point in my spiritual development in which I actually envy some who seem stable in what they believe even though their seeming inflexibility is sometimes maddening.

At one time I thought I was loosing my faith; in some ways I still struggle. It is a gift, you know. We cannot know that the Lord even exists unless this knowledge is imparted to us by Divine means, by the Lord’s own good grace. This is to say, I can tell you that the Lord is and will always be but I cannot give you absolute proof which would leave no room for doubt; the Lord Himself would have to grant this to you. So it is a somewhat unsettling matter to consider that this gift has somehow been misused so much so that it is being withdrawn.

By such reasoning, it is possible to consider that maybe the reason so many come of age and choose to leave the Church is not because of “those hypocrites” or “that preacher” (some of the more popular excuses) but because the knowledge and the faith they believe to have once possessed turns out to be the faith and the knowledge that actually belongs to someone else. They were never fully able – or enabled – to embrace that knowledge or that faith because it never quite became their own. Why? It may be because they were taught WHAT to think and not HOW to think for themselves.

What does this mean for preachers and Sunday school teachers? Stop teaching? Modify what is being taught? And if so, in what way do we modify? Teachers and preachers are expected to make a point and help us draw certain conclusions, and the point would be somewhere along the lines of what is right and what is wrong. This is what we expect because our doctrines are geared toward this end. Doctrine teaches us what is and what isn’t. Do we need more evidence beyond conflicting Christian doctrine on, say, Baptism and Holy Communion to see that someone has to be wrong or that everyone is right but only to a degree?

One of my instructors maintains – in the realm of government policy development – that truth is relative to what we believe to be true up to that point in our lives and that the opposite of truth is in this context is “intent to deceive” which is to say that we don’t really possess the knowledge we think we do but we will argue to the point of obnoxiousness to try and convince others that we are “right”. How can this be so? It is because the knowledge that we think we have is knowledge that has been given to us but that we’ve not bothered to think through for ourselves. Depending on who presented the information or how it was presented or in what context will determine whether we will simply accept it as is without question, or we will look more deeply into it and draw our own conclusions.

Is this dangerous? I think it is potentially so especially when we are talking about the spiritual and educational well-being of our children. They need to know that there are some moral, spiritual, doctrinal, and social absolutes. This, I think, is foundational. It is something upon which to build, but it cannot and must not end there. Children have to be given the foundation as the starting point, but then they must also be taught how to reason through things. It is akin to defining the difference between simply memorizing a fact for no rhyme or reason or actually dealing with it, experiencing it, engaging it, and working through it. Which has the greater potential to stay with the student?

We are about to enter into what is one of the Church’s most holy seasons. We are preparing to celebrate and commemorate the birth of the Messiah. And we enter into this season with more than a little anticipation and with certain expectations about what this season will bring, but how much thought do we give to such a statement as “heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away” (Luke 21:33)?

Consider how much time and attention is devoted this year to customs and traditions and, yes, even TEACHINGS of man and compare this time against how much we spend with and for the Lord and His moment, that moment when Light entered into a very dark world in which we were hopelessly lost and were somehow found.

Merry Christmas, dear friends. This is my wish; this is my prayer.