Food for Thought-Are We Able to Take Jesus’ Birth as Seriously as King Herod Did?

King Herod

One of the expressions commonly used at Christmas which never sounds quite right to me is, “can’t we just put it aside for Christmas.” It may not occur in those exact words but the sentiments are the same. There is an expression or desire to put away something (a feeling, emotion, or agenda) which would normally warrant further discussion; but due to the divisive or contentious nature of the subject, we don’t speak of such topics because it’s the holiday season. The holidays, as we all know, are about warmth, love, and togetherness. So, in a spirit of good will, we ignore (or suppress) what’s been festering in our lives for months. In theory this sounds like a great idea. Yet, I’m not sure how emotionally healthy it is nor am I certain that it’s a very Biblical way to approach Christmas.

What if Joseph had taken a similar attitude with his “situation” involving Mary? Nowhere in Matthew or Luke does one find Joseph putting off or sending away Mary until a more convenient time. Joseph doesn’t use the, “it’s the holiday” excuse, it’s tax time, or any number of reasons to delay the realities caused by his pregnant fiancé. It might have been easier and more comfortable to ignore the inevitable. Joseph’s family and Mary’s parents might have had a less stressful holiday season, not having to deal with their pregnant daughter and her unbelievable stories about angels. They didn’t put these feelings, emotions, or problems aside because of any desire to preserve the sanctity of a holiday season. Bethlehem wouldn’t wait until after Mary delivered birth. Emmanuel, God with us, is about reality of Bethlehem in the present. God is moving, acting, and inspiring us now, in the present.

God cares next to nothing about our pro-forma celebrations, routines, and schedules. The events described by Luke (in chapters 1 and 2) are about the immediacy God’s presence. The story of the first Christmas is about families, communities, and the cosmos being confronted then and there with God’s active engagement with humanity. The announcement of the Messiah’s birth is not a message that can be delayed, ignored, or forgotten. Once it’s out there, it’s not something you can push aside. The very nature of the announcement (the content, not the angelic means of delivery) demands our full attention. The history of human civilization and how we define the very nature of religious, political, and social power has been altered by the birth of one child to a peasant couple. If no one else in the Christmas story understands this, Herod grasps this completely. He knows exactly what this news means for himself and those like him. Herod gets the fact that Jesus’ birth represents a change larger than anything he could imagine. In short, Bethlehem can’t be ignored. There is no way to put it aside. History has changed forever.

Herod is the only person in the story who becomes proactive (albeit negatively) and responds to this new reality represented by Jesus’ birth. The shepherds are passive participants at best. They, like everyone else, come to observe. Herod takes the world altering and life changing message of Jesus’ birth seriously. Here’s my question: are we able to take the news from Bethlehem as seriously as Herod did? What if we didn’t show up like the shepherds and wise men to solely listen and watch? What if we took the prophecy and proclamation so seriously that we altered the way we live today? What if we realized that instead of passive gazing on an infant, our world was being turned upside down and we needed to be involved in that turning, not hanging out a stable?

Are we able to take Christmas as seriously as King Herod? Are you willing to take that risk? It’s easier to be a shepherd and just stare and talk about what you’ve heard. It’s much harder to do something about Jesus now. Instead of waiting until things have settled down and people have much more time on their hands, we can take Jesus’ birth for the world altering event it represents and respond to it now.

Food for Thought-Christmas Looks Nothing at all Like the Hymns We Sing

Slide1 Christmas relies heavily on stereotypes. We have the stereotypical Santa, the stereotypical elf, and our well-worn images of the holy family in the manger. Chief among the Christmas stereotypes are the angels. The angels appear in white, winged, and sporting halos. In our more contemporary renditions of angelic glory, one usually finds a person in a bed sheet, wings that appear to be robbed from an over sized Muppet, and a halo created from pipe cleaners or clothes hangers. If we go one step further with our angelic imagery, the heavenly messengers might be playing harps. Where on Earth has this strange hodge-podge of faux togas and heavenly harps come? One culprit is the well-worn Christmas hymn, “It Came upon the Midnight Clear”.

In the second line we read, “From angels bending near the Earth, to touch their harps of gold.” The angels bend “near” the Earth (never coming too close) to touch their harps of gold. They don’t want to come to close to Earth, only near enough to play these overpriced instruments in such a way that we, who live and dwell in the Christmas chaos may hear their joyous words. Here’s the thing. Edmund Sears, the man who wrote these words, was big on the world being solemn and still in the days leading up to Jesus’ birth. “The world in solemn stillness lay,” and the opening stanza, “it came upon a midnight clear,” all point to a world of total peace and tranquility. We got the impression of shepherds and others waiting for the cosmic pin to drop, so the real celebrations could rightly begin. How silent and still was a young woman going into labor? What were the sounds of Jesus’ cries, Mary’s pain, and Joseph’s worry? Could he have been more wrong? Unlikely, I say.

Has the hymn ever taken a long hard look at the reality of Christmas? It’s a cauldron of stress, fatigue, obligation, noise, and constant activity. In the way we lead our lives, there is nothing solemn or still about the modern American journey toward Christmas. Is this because we’ve taken the Christ out Christmas? No, it’s simply how we live 365 days a year. We are a culture which thrives on image over substance. Christmas is list of yearly traditions and manufactured obligations we’ve convinced ourselves must be done in order to have something we believe represents an ideal we’ve never really encountered. Christmas doesn’t look like the world presented in “It Came upon a Midnight Clear”. Hymn such as this tell the story of a sanitized world, a “Silent Night” which never existed. Their lyrics point us to staged recreations (sometimes in our minds and often in nativity scenes) of an event which looks nothing like the reality we claim to remember or want restored to our collective psyche. In a world full of turmoil, chaos, and pain we’ve sung ourselves into a complacency which fits our expectations and deepest desires. We meet a Jesus who will not challenge our complicity in the cultural marathon called Christmas (circa 2014). We encounter an infant who seems light years away from challenging our beliefs about the poor, the weak, the hungry, and the sick. We sit in church and sing words that don’t match the reality of Christmas because these songs are the weigh stations we use to measure how much Christmas resides in our souls.

I will sing “It Came upon a Midnight Clear” in church over the coming days. I will stand behind my pulpit; ask my congregation to turn to page 218 in the United Methodist Hymnal, and sing from verse 4, “The whole world send back the song which now the angels sing.” In the back of my mind, I’ll be saying, “Yes, Lord, I want to send back this song and exchange it for a new one.” I want to send it back so we can sing of Christmas as it is not as someone wanted it to be. Is that the right thing to do or think? I don’t know. I’m an ordained United Methodist clergyperson and I’m not sure I know how to do Christmas “right”. I’m not certain what Christmas is supposed to look like. My guess, however, is that it doesn’t look like what we think we’re celebrating.

Food for Thought-The Interview, The Christmas Story, and What if God Hacked our Emails?

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In the sixth month of her sister’s pregnancy, Mary’s life changed. Isn’t that an interesting way to begin the story? Luke doesn’t tell us that Mary’s life was forever altered and, “oh, by the way, this happened while her sister was also pregnant.” No, Mary’s journey begins within a larger story (the one of Zechariah and Elizabeth), one that isn’t hers at all. Mary’s encounter with God’s messenger begins almost as an afterthought to some other divine grand design. What does this mean? Within the context of someone else’s miracle, the angel greets Mary and tells her who she is. The messenger is saying, “I know who you are and you are different from other people.” And most importantly, being different is ok. Mary is an ordinary girl with an ordinary problem. But that’s where there the difference comes into play because it’s in and with the ordinary where God works.

The thing is, we rarely, if ever, talk about Advent and Christmas in terms of an “ordinary” event. We may throw in terms “ordinary” to describe the stable, manger, or donkey. Ordinary is reserved for inanimate objects and stupid animals. In the mythology we’ve created around Christmas, we’ve created a world where everything was extraordinary. Choirs of angels, perceptive but startled shepherds, and misplaced wise men all testify to the extraordinary nature of that night. Is this because scripture says so? Or is it because we’ve written the script?

It’s widely believed the North Korean government was involved in the hacking of Sony Pictures to retaliate for their film, “The Interview”. The plot, which deals with an assassination attempt on Kim Jong-un, has understandably infuriated the regime. It’s got me thinking; what does God think of all the movies, programs, plays and scripts we churn out each year which purport to tell the story of Christmas? Sometimes I think if God could hack our emails and embarrass us for making crummy movies and plays about Jesus, we might do a better job at telling the story and getting the facts right. We like to do our version of “big budget” productions. Even though we have supreme confidence in our ability to tell the Christmas story, are we accurately telling the story? Are we telling a story, when compared to reality, which might be considered offensive to the main characters or characters because it makes them appear as something they are not?

Food for Thought-Let’s Keep the Christ Out of Christmas

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I need to say something:  I am an ordained United Methodist Minister and the expression, “Keep the Christ in Christmas” troubles me greatly.  Hear me out before you decide I’m going straight to Hell.  I am frustrated by the knee-jerk response to Christmas (held by many in this country) that the Christian nature of the holiday is perpetually under attack from secularism. I simply don’t believe this proposition to be true. In fact, I’m going to go so far as to say, it’s a lie. It’s not happening. Indeed, I believe this sense of persecution is something invented by certain Christians in order to make the celebration of Christmas an ideological tool in America’s ongoing culture war. If we don’t question such statements and ask, “Do these assertions make sense?” we becoming complicit in the lie. In the end, we end up distorting the reality of Christmas by pretending to defend something which doesn’t need defending.

One of the central slogans in the “Christmas is always under attack” arsenal is the annual rallying cry to “Keep the Christ in Christmas”. I believe there are good reason for keeping the Christ out Christmas, especially Christmas as it exists in the United States. Christmas, as it is celebrated by most in this country, has little to do with the reality of celebrating the birth of Jesus. Though year after year, we try to make the church’s calendar fit and adapt to the secular season called Christmas. If we want to co-exist with a world that has been hijacked by money and consumerism, we can’t use fear and guilt to proclaim the wrongness of a world we’ve helped create. The world can spot a religious double standard a mile away. In many cases, the world knows more about Jesus than we realize. They know his attitude towards money, the poor, and service. They see good Christian folk shopping and buying into the consumerist ideal like everyone else. Then we proclaim, “Keep the Christ in Christmas”. The Christ we say we’re keeping doesn’t match the Christmas we seem bent on saving. Expressions such as, “Keep the Christ in Christmas” point to an inherent hypocrisy in how we see ourselves, the church, and relationship with Jesus. The good news is that we don’t have to speak or live that way. We can do and be better.

Our Christmas celebrations don’t realistically reflect Jesus’ character or the humble nature of his birth. There’s nothing in the original Christmas story about gifts, money, festivities, or excessive pomp. It’s the story of a simple, silent night in which a teenage girl gave birth to a child in a room normally reserved for animals. Humble doesn’t even begin to describe the circumstances of his birth or the life he would later lead. Jesus’ entrance into the world was the essence of humility. For someone who would change the world, on that night, the larger world had no idea about the events in Bethlehem. People in that region, in that place, were drawn to witness his humility. The shepherds, we are told, decided to go to Bethlehem. They encountered Jesus because they chose to go to Mary, Jesus, and Joseph.

Yet, when we post on our Facebook pages or put up signs which read, “Keep the Christ in Christmas”, what are we doing? Are we promoting religious choice? Do you believe we are reflecting the same humility embodied by Christ’s birth by telling others to “Keep the Christ is Christmas”? Instead of pointing to the humility of the manger and He who occupies it, we appear angry and resentful that people have forgotten that “Jesus is the reason for the Season”. Is this the time of year to let our faith be portrayed as one driven by anger and resentment?

By displaying these words, “Keep the Christ in Christmas”, we are saying that guilt, force, ridicule, and pomposity are the best paths for us to urge people to see the essence of Christmas. The infant Jesus had no signs, banners, or social networks to remind people to come and worship Him. He was powerless. Jesus was humble. Jesus never tried to be pushy or force others into recognizing who he was or what he came to do. Yet, when we use the statement, “Let’s Keep the Christ in Christmas”, we’re engaging in an activity completely at odds with Jesus’ life and ministry. What’s wrong with inviting people, in love, to embrace the Jesus of the Gospels? Why not keep the humility in Christmas by refraining from looking arrogant and self-righteous? The innocent child who we remember, would he have us remember slogans or the simplicity of that Silent Night?

I’m just fine with keeping the Christ out of Christmas. Given what I know about Jesus, I’m reasonably sure that “Let’s Keep the Christ in Christmas” wouldn’t be anywhere on his Facebook wall.

Food for Thought-The Prophet Speaks

JohnTheBaptist

The prophet speaks,
and people weep,
they travel far,
past the bazaars,
into the heat,
waiting by river,
they cool their feet,
then John comes,
to say his peace,
about one greater,
a marked increase,
beyond what he can do,
more than water,
a Holy Spirit,
which works like glue,
permeating your soul,
steering clear of the shoals,
binding your scars,
wherever they are,
still we wait,
the one who comes,
can’t be far.

–Richard Bryant

Food for Thought-Leadership Lessons from Antonio Stradivari

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What makes a Stradivarius so special?

1. Stradivari is considered to have been the finest maker of stringed instruments the world has ever seen. In a lifetime spanning the mid 17th to 18th centuries, he made over 1000 violins, cellos, and violas. The quality of the sound has been variously attributed to the type of wood used (an available to him) as well as various chemical treatments he may have used to protect the wood from woodworm. Stradivari used the best available resources to make his masterpieces. He knew how and where to start. Are we using the best resources we have available to create the masterpieces in our life? Do we cultivate the young saplings in churches, organizations, families in order to build something that will stand the test of time? Have we identified ways to protect our resources from decay? Are we encouraging Sabbath practices, prayer, and common fellowship?

2. The shape of an instrument will determine much about its eventual sound. Stradivari knew that his violin, violas, and cellos would be played in some of the largest concert halls (and palaces) of Europe. The challenge was to create an instrument which could project the sound but also allow for subtle expressions to be heard. It’s one thing to be heard, it’s another listen to the nuances in Bach’s cello concertos. A good stringed instrument must be able to do both. How about us? Can we speak to be heard, but still convey the emotion, pathos, joy, and sorrow of everyday life? That’s a skill which takes fine tuning which means we take the time to listen to ourselves. How do we sound? Do we come across as shrill and impatient? Does the world hear us as out of tune? Thankfully, we can be brought back on key, in pitch, and in harmony with the world around us.

Food for Thought-What Really Matters at Christmas

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1. Christmas means that I take the opportunity to ask real questions of myself and others. As I excavate the deeper meaning of my faith, I urge others to grab shovels, axes, and any available tools so they may do the same. Christmas, a season when God moved the existing boundaries of everything we thought possible, should be a time when religious paradigms begin to shift. For example, I shouldn’t have fear at the idea of telling anyone there are parts of the Christmas story with which I have real issues; like the virgin birth. We should be able to ask why we believe what we believe, why we do what we do, and do so with love.

2. Christmas means that I urge others to look beyond the superficial symbolism we’ve attached to our holiday celebrations. Christmas means we ask the “Isaiah 61” questions. In light of God made man, are we bringing good news to the poor, binding up the brokenhearted, proclaiming release to the captives, and liberation to the prisoners? These are not symbolic statements. They are action items on Jesus’ agenda which includes seeing them as part and parcel of our Christmas celebrations. If we can’t see the poor, brokenhearted, those held captive, or imprisoned in Joseph, Mary, and Jesus then we are blind.

3. Christmas means that I repeat, with a mantra like frequency, that Christmas is not a play, pageant, or feel good drama. Christmas is the story of humanity clinging to hope and having that hope restored as God acts through the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

Food for Thought-How Many Have I (Blank) Today

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1. Number of written semi-colons used today 7
2. Number of implied, mental semi-colons used today 19
3. Number of left turns made today 2
4. Number of right turns made today 12
5. Number of times I used a thesaurus 1
6. Number of pictures taken 5
7. Number of poems written 2
8. Number of times I had lunch 1
9. Number of times I wished people would stop talking about how cold it is 1456
10. Number of shoes I’ve worn today 3

Food for Thought-Anger, Reason, Apathy and Passion

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Anger, reason, apathy and passion,
Reason impels one reaction,
Being, time, and actions feel,
As the embodiment of our will,
Impassioned questions we cannot ask,
Surrender this reality to our past,
Beyond the ancient deeds of mortal man,
The essence we know lies at hand,
Now is the day when time surrenders,
Hope is born and mortality rendered.

–Richard Bryant