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-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-Initial Thoughts on John 1:6-8, 19-28

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John is one of many prophets who spoke from beyond the boundaries of conventional Israelite society. Even in our own country, people like Henry David Thoreau have removed themselves from the traditional rhythms of life and work in order to critically observe the world they inhabit. Inherent in this act is gaining a perspective which is impossible to have from within mainstream society. From the periphery, they are able to observe and comment on realities which the rest of us have ignored or forgotten. At a distance, their voices are amplified and heard above the white noise which inhabits our lives. In the remote regions which they inhabit, the prophets’ message is given greater weight because they live in desolate and demanding circumstances. This is where we meet John the Baptizer. In fact, it’s the last verse in this week’s lesson which tells us about his location. “This encounter took place across the Jordan in Bethany where John was baptizing,” reads verse 28.

1. John’s place in the world matters. Location is everything. He is in the world but not of the world. John’s location offers perspective. Where can we find a similar place, in our lives, to offer the Gospel today? We too compete with the “white noise” and sounds of modern life. How do we talk about the kingdom of God and who Jesus is without shouting to be heard or turning others away?

2. People were coming to hear John. John’s message wasn’t turning people off or repelling listeners. Despite the remoteness and hardship involved to reach John;  persons from all walks of life were attracted to his message. The crowds were genuinely interested in what he said (others more curious) and sought to be baptized. John’s message, while delivered on the fringe of society by someone living on the fringe, was appealing to large numbers of people. From within our society today, is it still possible to deliver the Christian message without alienating people?

3. John was clear about his identity. The visiting delegation of Jewish religious leaders asked him, “Who are you?” They ran down the list of possible suspects. Was he Elijah, the prophet, or someone else? The religious leader’s questions were rooted in authority. What authority did John have to preach and baptize? Who gave him this authority? Surely, he had to be someone returned (like Elijah) or incredibly special to speak so powerfully. John knew from whence his authority came. That wasn’t the issue in his mind. When John hears that question, he’s thinking, “Who am I in relation to the one who is coming after me?” John’s thinking big picture; where do I fit in the grand plan?

4. John doesn’t show them a driver’s license, passport, or other identification. He doesn’t even give them his name. He answers their questions by quoting scripture. He repeats a passage from Isaiah, “I am a voice crying out in the wilderness, Make the Lord’s path straight.” He is the living embodiment of the word of God. He is acting out, living out, and being obedient to scripture. He has no identity other than the text itself. He cannot explain himself other than through scripture. John’s life doesn’t make sense unless it is in the context of God story becoming God’s reality. Who are we? Do our lives make sense apart from God’s story? Is it possible for you to talk about who you are without talking about Jesus? I can’t explain any of my reality until and unless I explain God’s reality in my life at the same time. Think of the man born blind, whom Jesus heals later in John’s gospel. It is impossible for him to explain his healing without talking about Jesus. For the rest of his life, he must explain this miracle by talking about Jesus’ intersection with his life. The story is incomplete and cannot be understood otherwise. John can only discuss what he’s doing by talking about the word of God becoming a three-dimensional reality. Are we able to talk about our lives in the same way?

Food for Thought-5 New Testament Passages Which Help Form My View of God

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1. “Unless you change and become like children” (Matthew 18:13) Children are more open to trusting and trying new experiences than we cynical adults. Jesus knows this. Children are willing to embrace others without prejudice or preconception. They come “as they are” with nothing other than a desire to be near Jesus.  Children have no agendas.

2. “the truth will make you free” (John 8:32) Discovering the truth about ourselves and our relationship to God is the ultimate freedom.

3. “…there is no longer Jew or Gentile…slave or free…male or female…for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) This is what the kingdom of God looks like, what humanity should look like from God’s perspective. Remembering to be church, see the world, and live this way is as much of a challenge today as it was in the 1st century.

4. “…but while he was still far off, the father saw him and was filled with compassion, he ran.” (Luke 15:20) God is looking for us while we are where we are. Sometimes we force God to look in faraway places. God searches for us out of compassion; not a desire for vengeance or guilt.

5. “…your life is hidden with Christ in union with God” (Colossians 3:3) There is nothing to prohibit humanity from being in relationship with God. Nothing stands between ourselves and God.  Jesus life, death, and resurrection restored the broken lines of communication and removed all the obstacles between humanity and God. The only obstacles now are the ones I create.

Food for Thought-Morning Prayer for the 1st Friday in Advent

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As we enter the immeasurable beauty of this new day, we are reminded that you are doing something new in the world and in our lives. The prophets of old spoke about your love for, your faith in, and your readiness to make all things new. The undeniable reality of this moment is that your compassion and comfort have brought us into this newness. When we survey the changing landscapes of our souls; we see dramatic signs of you at work. The raised valleys, flattened mountains, and level ground of our lives do not pave the way for a greater sense of grief, sorrow, pain, and longing. No, they call out, God is doing something new; something far beyond our finite realities and expectations. We thank you today for the opportunity to embrace God’s newness as we journey towards Bethlehem. May the newness of God’s unfolding Kingdom take root and grow within our lives today.

In Jesus’ Name,
Amen

Food for Thought-The Cruciform Center of My Faith (A Poem to the Trinity)

Margery-Kempe-Statue

The cruciform center of my faith,
Is inhabited by one the three,
Intersecting wood unites,
This mysterious Trinity,
Within the nailed reality,
My soul begins to ignite,
I know not how to begin,
As I confess my sins,
In day or night,
Without and within,
These three persons,
Gracefully contend,
With my soul,
As the God of old,
Who made me whole,
Releases me,
To be free,
Among his family,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

–Richard Bryant