At Some Point Christmas Becomes About Discipleship

Imagine a well-worn path. We’ve walked this path hundreds, if not thousands of times. The trail leads you to the edge of a precipice. One step beyond the way we know so well and all bets are off. We have no idea where we’ll end up. Will we fall? Is the darkness beyond the final step perpetual? Is there a new path with more significant opportunities and challenges? We do not know. Instead of making the last move we take all that we have gathered on our journey and return the way we came.

It is easier to go home. The fear of stepping forward is too frightening. The comfort of returning home is too enticing. Perhaps next year, when the seasons change, you can take to the well-worn path once again. Maybe then you can follow the faded footprints to the edge and finally decide to step forward, past the path holding you so tightly.

We walk the Christmas path each year. We shop, we sing, go to church, gather as families, and celebrate. These are secular rituals which define our lives. Christmas is so ingrained in our culture and psyche; we could “do Christmas” with our eyes shut. That’s why I call it a well-worn path. We enjoy the stress to a certain point. We know which lights will go on specific houses. Someone always has everything. These events define our journeys. Along we go until we reach the end. It’s somewhere near Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. It happens when the ride is over, the familiar road signs are in the rearview mirror, and Christmas becomes more of an intangible idea with real-world expectations. Suddenly, The Virgin Mary’s asking questions about how we might live different lives. Suddenly, she’s holding the world to account for sins that we find ourselves having committed on the way to Christmas.

At this point, it’s easier to go home. Christmas has left us exhausted and broke. It’s been going on since Halloween, and we’re worn out. We need to go back to work. We take your gifts, warm feelings, and step back from the edge of being asked to commit to something bigger than our enjoyment of an end of the year holiday.

There is another option. We could go forward and step beyond the idea of Christmas as we know it and into the Christmas of uncertainty, expectation, and doubt. That’s Jesus’ Christmas. We call that discipleship. As disciples, we remember: the manger becomes cross, the joyous crowds turn angry, and the questions get harder. That’s OK.

Here’s the thing: God wouldn’t have brought us this far if we weren’t ready. Christmas is about hitting a pause button and starting the cycle over in 10 months. We keep going forward. Because that’s we do.

Richard Lowell Bryant

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Lucky To Be Alive

 

It’s not Christmas unless an ambulance comes to the house.

How do I put this?  Sunday night, the evening of the third Sunday of Advent, my wife nearly had a stroke. Neither she nor I am the type you’d peg as typical “stroke victims.” She just turned fifty, and I’m not quite 45. Though it is stressful to be a pastor (or married to one) in a denomination currently in the midst of an identity crisis.

Our three daughters stood watching the paramedics attach leads to their mother’s chest. We were all helpless. I answered questions, brought them her medicine, and waited for the next step. I had no time to pray. I didn’t know what to pray for. My mind was a jumbled mess of emotions. I wanted the girls to remain calm. I wanted their mother to survive whatever was happening. At this point, we didn’t know what brought her to this point. We were all frightened. The EKG gave us an answer. That being said, blood pressure spikes, especially when they roar past certain well-established norms, specific ratios are indicative of one thing: an imminent stroke or worse. I’d never seen numbers so high. I was terrified.

Bring those numbers down. I found a prayer. It wasn’t elaborate or related to Advent. In fact, it was a personal and selfish prayer. I do not apologize. The prayer was in the imperative. I wanted an answer now. Waiting, patience, and all those things I teach on Sunday mornings; at this instance, they equated to death. I wasn’t in the mood for listening and longing. Please God, show me life now, in color returning to my wife’s face.

The numbers came down. Numbers our doctor said she had rarely seen before. The numbers still scare me. This is how I know that my wife is fortunate to be alive. Today we live like there is a tomorrow. We live like our numbers matter.  That’s all we know to do.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Waiting in the Dark

We wait for Christmas to come;
singing in the dark of night.
As expected as Christmas is, we never see it coming.
We are taken by surprise.
What is the light? Where is it from?
Christmas is a single light, recognizable from everything around it.
The light of Christmas is unmistakable. It can be nothing else.
This is Christmas.
The unopened day on the Advent Calendar is here and still beyond our reach.
Christmas, growing brighter and warmer as it draws closer.
The light is for all who see it, a gift to be shared.
No one owns the light.
The light simply is.
Christmas is the light which cannot be wiped away.
The darkness is overcome.

–Richard Bryant

A Note About Advent Music

It’s a challenge to sing Advent. Our hymnal is replete with “the” Christmas carols that have defined Christianity for two thousand years. When it comes to Advent, we’re a little shy of familiar songs to fill up the four weeks until Christmas. That is unless you blur the liturgical lines and start singing the Christmas carols as soon as the tree’s out and the first Advent candle’s lit. More of us do it than we care to admit though deep down in our hearts, no one likes to sing Joy to the World until Christmas day. What’s a pastor to do?

1. Sing a different one of the first four verses of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” during the four weeks of Advent.

2. Sing whatever you want and what makes your congregation happy. I’m sure Jesus has bigger fish to fry than worry about what we’re singing.  Do not deny people Christmas joy  because of your liturgical hangups.  Let God’s people sing.

3. Try to avoid “Joy to the World” until Christmas Eve. It’s just awkward to sing it any earlier.   Your congregation will get the contradiction.  They’d rather wait until Christmas and belt that sucker out.

4.  I live on the Atlantic Ocean.  Even here, on the ocean, no one gets “I Saw Three Ships”.  Stay away from “I Saw Three Ships”.

5.  Teach people a Spanish or foreign language hymn before you use it in worship.  That’s not cool to foist something on people sight unseen.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Who Is Real? Santa Claus or John the Baptizer

John the Baptist or Santa Claus?

Here’s a problem: we are conditioned to stop believing in Santa Claus by a certain age. No matter what kind of answer you give today, most of us have come to a symbolic understanding of Santa. We grew up. Life, for one reason or another, took the real idea of Santa Claus from our lives years ago. So we feast on the symbolic and encourage the lie of the literal in the lives of children; until they too will discover what we know: everyone is deceiving each other for the purposes of goodwill and holiday cheer. Despite our unbelief in a jolly man in a red suit, we keep the fiction alive. It is a secret, a covenant held by those who’ve stopped believing and now embrace the deception. Yes, millions of adults lie to children about a mythical character who resides in an area of the world most at risk from climate change.   That’s got to be healthy, right?

This is what we (as a culture and society) do to keep the idea of Santa Claus alive and well. Santa is the forerunner, messenger, and bringer of Christmas presents. As countless Christmas movies and books remind us, without Santa, there would be no Christmas. What if the church placed this same level of importance on John the Baptizer? Isn’t John the Baptizer the Santa Claus of the Jesus story? If Jesus was the original Christmas present, then John was the forerunner who announced and presented the gift to the world? We, in our infinite Christological wisdom, have focused on birth narratives and John’s presence at the Epiphany so that we’ve trained ourselves to stop believing in John’s importance to the Advent story. We ignore John. He’s the homeless man in the desert. John makes us uncomfortable. Our notions of propriety and order are challenged by John’s preaching. John makes a much better metaphor than he does a flesh and bones character who we must take seriously. Perhaps he’s suitable for decoration in the background, but that’s about it. That’s how it usually goes.

Without eight tiny reindeer and Santa, there is no Christmas. Without John, the river Jordan, and a message of preparation, there is no Good News. Santa needs a sled. The Lord requires a path prepared, a way made straight. Valleys should be filled, and mountains leveled. Curves ought to be made straight and the rough parts smoothed out. John’s calling attention to the need to prepare the path. He’s asking for help, a UMVIM team of prophetic path pavers. We become the means of getting the Good News from points A to B.

The best part about John’s message is there is no deception. All humanity becomes a witness to God’s Good News. No one is living a lie to maintain a lie. If the Good News is done right, everyone is on a level field and has access to God. The Good News calls us to be who we are, where we are. In the wilderness God is preparing: all are welcome and no one is illegal.

Merry Christmas John the Baptizer, I Believe In You.

Richard Lowell Bryant

This Is Now

I am thankful Thanksgiving has ended. It felt like it took forever. We make a one-day orgy of carbohydrates and turn it into one of the most extended shopping weekends of the year. I do, from the bottom of my heart, hope everyone is grateful for the experience.

With that out of the way, I’m ready to move on. No, I’m not putting gratitude or thanksgiving behind me. As I said, those are daily challenges. Whether you’re a Methodist, Quaker, or Shaker; gratitude is an art we practice not an application to download. So what’s next? I would like a more significant challenge.  What?

I’m looking forward to Christmas.

Before you get excited and expect to see lights draped on the fence and reindeer dancing on the parsonage roof, hold on to your Blitzens. I’m not talking about “Christmas” or the “Christmas” you’re picturing. To be honest, I’m ready for Advent. People, even Christians, use the word interchangeably and it’s almost lost all meaning. Even at church, I’ll catch myself saying “Advent/Christmas.” Despite my hardcore, old school liturgical high church upbringing, I actually say “Advent-slash-Christmas.” Sisters and brothers, forgive me for this concession to the War on Advent. I pray you’ll give me strength this year to fight the good fight and sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel’ for four weeks straight.

I need Advent because I need Jesus. I could do without Santa. Santa is a creepy old man in a red suit. He’s an amalgamation of so many northern European folktales and religious traditions; the only people who really know what Santa means are the marketers who make money from his image. Santa’s story makes us feel good about ourselves and the choices we’ve made. Santa causes us to look inward. Jesus’ story demands we look at the world around us.

We must rehear Jesus’ story. Jesus is an impoverished child from a part of the world most of us think we understand. His mother is a teenager. A local gang leader murdered every male infant in his village because he was threatened by Jesus’ birth. When all is said an done, they are a mother, father, and infant fleeing for their lives. Jesus is born into violence. Jesus seeks sanctuary. Jesus asks for asylum, not only in hearts but in our churches. Why? The incarnation is a present tense reality. This is us. This is now.

If we do not see him, we are ignoring him. I am prepared to deny Santa and all he has come to represent. I cannot reject Jesus, in all his many forms, moving in our midst.

Richard Lowell Bryant

I Am So Glad It’s Over

I was repelled by my response to the conclusion of the great celebration known as Advent.  As the waning hours of Advent drew to a close, I could not wait for the moment to arrive.  It wasn’t because of Santa Claus’ impending appearance bearing gifts.  Nor was I overwhelmed with spiritual fervor at an additional opportunity to greet the arrival of the Christ child.  Like Milton, I had “no verse, no hymn, or solemn strain, to welcome him to this his new abode.”  I was spent and I knew it. However, you know when you’ve been camping for three days  and you’re aware you smell like a dead possum and it’s repellent to everyone except dead possums and you don’t really care?  I wasn’t bothered at all.

I was simply tired.  When yesterday came, I was glad it was over. I’d fallen twice, in the chancel, on Christmas Eve morning, my root canal still hurt, and I’m not sure anyone’s listening to me anyway.  With a visible limp and from where I’d landed on my arm, it was all I could do to raise the bread during communion.  Quasimodo does the Eucharist; how liturgically sound is that at “Christmas experts at the Board of Discipleship”?

It’s the kids they want to see.  I know this, God knows this, and Jesus (both baby and adult) knows this. For the moment, trying to sell a skeptical world on Advent when everything says Christmas could take a break.  It needed to end peacefully, like the third verse of Away in a Manger.  That’s how Advent should become Christmas.  To quote Frank Sinatra, it should be “Nice and Easy”.

This morning, when I went to eat breakfast, I heard a few other survivors express their gladness that “It’s over”.  Here’s the bad news.  Cultural Christmas is never over.  The holiday fires lay dormant for a few months until we need them to burn bright again.  Christmas takes a pause.  A few people say, “Why can’t we celebrate Christmas each day?”

No one, even the most devout “Merry Christmas” wishers want Christmas to be every day.   Celebrating Christmas year round means being a Christian 365 days a year. I’ve yet to see people who are willing to give church that kind of emphasis eleven months a year, the way they say claim to between mid November and late December.   In truth, celebrating Christmas everyday would be a hassle and inconvenience to most people.  Their lives and priorities would change in ways most are unwilling to consider altering.   That’s the way functional atheism works.

For most people, God is functionally dead and irrelevant to their lives.  Until the societal pressure caused by the holidays forces them to confront ancient beliefs which others may still hold.  Why sit for nine innings (especially if you hate baseball or aren’t fond of the coach/team) when you can come in for the bottom of the ninth and enjoy the game winning home run?

Most of the western world gives little thought to what Christians call Christmas and whether it’s Merry, Happy,  Holy, or not.  Christmas for all its commercial and marketing appeal is really just a way station for overfeeding  and starching up, so we can drink harder, faster, and longer on the Wise Man highway to cultural debauchery called New Year’s Eve.   And like it or not, New Year’s Eve is the one holiday we have no trouble mass producing and keeping alive in bars, hotels, and people’s hearts all year long.

New Year’s Eve won the War on Christmas, one shot at a time.

I will be glad when it’s all over.

Richard Lowell Bryant