Is Church the Best Place to Celebrate Christmas?

 

Where is the best place to celebrate Christmas? Is it at home with family and friends? Perhaps it is around a Christmas tree singing carols? Even with all the ongoing events and holiday distractions, many think one of the best places to observe Christmas is in church.

For centuries, churches had the monopoly on Christmas. Christmas and the church were synonymous. If the church wasn’t involved, Christmas didn’t happen. The events of Christmas gave birth to Christ which subsequently led to the formation of the church. What better place to celebrate the birth of savior with a staged reproduction of the events surrounding his conception and birth? There’s nothing like a mid-20th-century church decorated to look like our preconceived notions of a 1st-century Palestinian village. Perhaps there’s a different way.

I was wondering if the church is the best place to celebrate or remember the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. We take one of the most sacred events in human history and turn it into a syrupy mish-mash of historical fact, myth, American traditions, and Hallmark cards. In the end, what ends up being told, bears little or no resemblance to the story of Jesus’ birth. We tell a Christmas story where Jesus is simply one character among many. This tale makes us feel good about ourselves and our way of life. The gospel narrative of Jesus’ birth is unsettling to the core. It should move us in ways that challenge our notions of justice, fairness, right, and wrong. Christmas services; the way we do them in most churches today is not about challenge. They are about comfort. In this, we (the church and pastors who lead them) are wrong.

There is little comfort or safety in the story of Jesus’ birth. Jesus was born on the streets. His story should be told beyond the comfortable walls of Advent sermons, choral presentations, and candlelit Christmas Eve services. His story is too important to relegate to a once a year extravaganza of color and light. Given the state of the world, our Jesus at Christmas storytelling game is weak.  Children and adults in bathrobes aren’t bringing the world peace we’ve hoped for.

The joy of the angels, the joy we sing to the world on Christmas is a subversive message. It is not a joy which proclaims, “We were right, and they were wrong.” It is a joy that justice has come for those who have been locked away in the prisons, starving from hunger, tortured for no reason, and left to die will now know freedom and healing.

This is no self-serving joy. What we tell from the mountains on Christmas Day will get us arrested on Maundy Thursday. The message is the same. Jesus is Lord. The incarnation is a reality. Say that enough, someone will notice. Live that way, the world will become uncomfortable. You might be arrested, marginalized, and attacked.  You and Jesus will find each other.   I can promise you, wherever you are, it probably won’t be at church.  Why?  Most of the people I know wouldn’t be seen anywhere near the places Baby Jesus and his Mother will have to go to stay alive.  Right after he’s born, he becomes a refugee and has to flee the country.  Some good, God-fearing people have real hangups when it comes to looking after refugees.

My prayer for the remainder of Advent: take Christmas to the streets. Release your monopoly on Jesus. Find Christ in the place where he was born.

Richard Lowell Bryant

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The New Rules for Summer 2018

1. Jesus turning over the tables in the temple isn’t a catch-all excuse for Christian rudeness or violence. Stop blaming your mental health issues on the writers of the New Testament. Get help with your anger.

2. Engage the world. It’s easy to build our own utopias, ignore suffering, avoid evil, and live in our well manicured bubbles. That is not living; it’s existing. Life is found in engaging reality, authentically, one moment at a time.

3. If we keep track of the sins of others, we’ve made a serious decision to take life in an unhealthy direction. Emotionally, physically, and psychologically this will eventually ruin everything we cherish.  Keep track of good things.

4.  What does it mean to live a good life?  Ask hard questions that push your beyond your comfort zone.

5. Remember, you don’t know what other people are going through.  Cut people some slack.  There’s probably more going on in their lives than you realize.

6. Before writing or speaking , ask, “Will any good come from this?” If we can’t say “yes”, something is wrong.  Don’t be that person.  

7. Can the world see behind our sunglasses? Have we carefully constructed an image (not with clothing, cars, houses, or boats), emotionally speaking, to tell the world who we are? Do we deploy that image selectively? Are we able to be ourselves, all day, every day? What stops us?  Be authentic.

8. Everyone falls behind at some point. Because we’re disciples of Jesus, we can’t be selective about who we help. Christians don’t have the luxury of choosing who to assist, raise funds for, and who is deserving of God’s blessings.  Be generous.  

9. Fill up your tank with gas. You never know you when might need to take a trip to the hospital.

10. Don’t limit yourself to 280 characters. Spoken language is also an effective means of communication. Talk (with real words) to (real) people more often, even those with whom you disagree.  

Richard Bryant

This Carpenter Seems To Know A Lot About Love (John 15:9-17)

Most people don’t re-read books.  If you’ve read a book once, you rarely go and do it again.  Unless it’s a classic, like “To Kill a Mockingbird” or something of that quality, we rarely tread the same ground.  On the other hand, we’ll see the same movie countless times.  The books that changed our lives, even the good ones, are usually a one-time encounter.  It’s not as if the endings change.  If you read Moby Dick for a second time Captain Ahab and the whale don’t suddenly become friends.  However, I do know Russians that are continually reading Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.  They are plowing through, a page or two a night, of some of the longest novels ever written.  They do this year after year.  Do you know why they do this?  It snows a lot over there.

Here’s my point:  I never re-read John Grisham.  I re-read the Bible.  I come back to these words day in and day out.  If I’ve read them hundreds of times before, it doesn’t matter.  I will read them again.  All the rules of re-reading books are null and void when it comes to the Bible.  The ending may not change.  We change.  How we hear and receive the stories evolve over time.  No two encounters with the Bible are ever the same.  So yes, when you read the Bible, it’s as if the whale and Captain Ahab can become friends.  Some days you’re Ahab and other days you’re the whale.  That’s how life works.  That’s how the Bible works.

One of the passages I’ve returned to, whether by assignment or curiosity, is John 15.  This is the IKEA furniture assembly instructions of the Gospels.  On the surface, it appears so simple.  The words look easy to understand and follow.  I should be able to get this and reproduce the instructions exactly as follows.  Do this, say this, stand here, and the finished product should be Christ like excellence.  I’m here to tell you it’s hard.  It’s never as easy as it looks.

My first observation is this:  how does a carpenter know so much about love?  Each time I return to this passage, I marvel at the depth of his knowledge and wisdom.  How should I put this?  He uses words sparingly, meaningfully, like a carpenter choosing from a small supply of wood.  The finished product is designed somewhere in his mind.  We only witness the individual pieces of being cut, formed, and shaped.  Each new piece, in and of itself, is a work of art.  Each begins to connect to the other in such a way that it quickly becomes impossible to imagine a time when these two pieces of wood were not united to form part of the larger whole.

Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth, says “I too have loved you”.  Jesus loves us, this we know.  Do we?  Is it possible that we can understand the depth of love the carpenter from Nazareth hold for us?  Even as it on display and crafted by hands; do we see and understand what we claim to know?

What keeps us from knowing Jesus’ love?  Why do we say “this we know” but actually don’t believe him?

We live in a sometimes depressing world that pushes our self-esteem in the gutter.  Whether we realize it or not, our self worth is attached to the way others respond to our existence on social media.  Jesus’ love doesn’t equate to money in the bank.  We’re condition to think that real love is somehow tied to real money.  We, like countless country songs tell us, look for love in all the wrong places.  The list could go on and on.  The point is this:  we don’t believe that Jesus loves us because we allow the world to make a convincing case for not believing Jesus.  Once the joy’s been removed from your life, the cynicism creeps in and you’ll believe anything but the simple truth of the Gospel:  Jesus loves you.

Jesus goes on to say, “I love you” because he wants us know joy.  He links knowledge of his love to a realization of joy.  The two dovetail together like the corners of a cabinet.  Jesus wants us to be joyful.  Joy is the antidote to the cynicism which works destroys the simple craftsmanship of Jesus’ love.

Jesus loves us and we are to love each other.  Jesus’ love is a reflective experience.  Love leads to a joy that doesn’t exist in a vacuum.  Jesus’ love is lived and shared with others.  When we go to an art museum, we stand before a great work of art.  Looking at a painting is an intensely personal experience.  What’s happening, at that moment, is between you and the artist.  It’s not that way with the carpenter.

Jesus’ love fosters a sense of joy that is simultaneously personal and communal.  We cannot be in relationship with Jesus without also being joyfully engaged in the lives of others.  If both aren’t present, we’re not in loving relationships, either with Jesus or those around us.  Isolationism, narcissism, and artistic dead ends will not be found in his craftsmanship.   If you can only see yourself in Jesus’ work then something is wrong.  This is my commandment, he says, “Love each other as I have loved you”.

Richard Lowell Bryant

How To Declare Your Own Independence

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1. When in the course of human events: the time is now. There is no time like the present to take charge of your life and make better decisions.

2. We hold these truths to be self-evident: it’s staring you in the face. You know what you need to do; whether it’s mend a broken relationship, stop smoking, lose weight, or simply make an effort to be a happier person.

3. Deriving their just power from the consent of the governed: things go better when we are together. Agreement, ownership, consent, and friendship are the key to success. Talk things out.

4. We are all created equal: for too long equality has been where we start and finish, not a place to be in the middle. Be happy for the success of others; bring others along who aren’t doing as well. Get to know people as people. Listen to their stories. They’ll not be much different than yours.

5. Among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness: there’s more to life than getting drunk, sleeping it off, and existing until you crack the next bottle of hooch. What defines being happy today, tomorrow, and beyond? What makes life a multi-dimensional, emotional reality rather than a monosyllabic stare down? It’s the pursuit. Make the pursuit about a lasting sense of joy.

Richard’s Summer Survival Tips

Frightening Bible Comics

1. Be nice for no other reason than niceness itself.

2. Take more deep breaths.

3. Think before you say anything; whether good, bad, or indifferent.

4. When speaking to others, before you speak, ask “how are you?” Try this before you say “how you are.”

5. Recall the last time someone expected you to be perfect and how crummy that felt. Don’t make others feel bad because you hold unreal expectations. This could apply to family members, wait staff in a restaurant, or coworkers.

6. Give people the benefit of the doubt, even if they’re rude or mean. This may be the most difficult one of all.

7. If you’re flustered, think of it like a summer breeze. It will blow through, pass by, and eventually die down. Flustration (the combination of flustered and frustration) is not a permanent state of mind. Sit down, count to ten, close your eyes, and breathe deeply. Flustration feeds on fear. The moment you take charge of your surroundings, you deprive flustration of the oxygen it needs to survive.

8. The hymns which talk about joy coming in the morning or at dawn are beautiful but wrong. Joy can come at any time of day. You don’t need a cup of coffee and a sunrise. You need to be a human being open to life without preconditions. You don’t even need a “happy place”. Joy is not dependent on physical geography. If you have a soul, you can find joy.

9. Take out your mental trash in appropriate ways. Sharing our problems and attacking others are two different ways of coping with stress.

10. Remember, you are not alone. You share the world with others. Be aware of the lives of those around you. People love you and care about you.

Food for Thought-Living Out Loud

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I am learning how to live out loud.  When I say, “live out loud”, I don’t mean I’m finally embracing life’s fullness as a post-menopausal woman.  I see lots of memes on the internet directed toward women of a certain age encouraging them to “live out loud”.   I’m not sure what this means; other than frequent trips to the beach, drinking wine, and wearing certain stules of clothing choices.  For me, it means living with loud.

Teenage daughters bring their own, unique kind of loud to living.  Wherever two or three or gathered, a “loud off” is soon to follow.  This is a contest (with unspoken rules, no fixed starting time, nor approximate ending) to see who can become the loudest while all three talk at once.  Hearing a “loud-off” is about as much fun as watching hockey on the radio.  However, loud-offs are a blast to watch.

Justin Bieber’s new single will create one level of noise and response between the contestants.  The Canadian pop singer is a sure bet to get a comment from everyone in the room.  Someone will love him.  Others will tell you he “sucks”.  You can’t say Justin Bieber “sucks” in an inside voice.  I think this is one of the unwritten rules. This is simply how the game is played.  (I’m old enough to remember when all three of my daughters were unified in their love of the British Man Band One Direction. Each ferociously argued over who loved the band the most and which boys were the cutest.  Halcyon days, those were.)  I’ve grown adept at identifying Bieber level noise.  It’s close enough to what I’m willing to term as a “generic joyful response to what I think is the best music ever (but only for a week of two)” loud.   Yes, I’m confident of my ability to identify the music portion of the loud off.   When it’s just about the music, a new band, or a new song; things stay simple.

Clothing choices generate a whole new level of joyful loud.  Did you know leggings make girls happy?  Socks make me joyful.  Colorful leggings recreate Christmas morning each time a new pair arrives from Wal-Mart or a family member.  Let’s listen to this new single while we talk about the beautiful new leggings.  Yes, that’s how it goes.  By this time, the exultant joy (at the leggings) and the ever increasing decibels are starting to frighten the younger of our two dogs.  The smallest lab has begun a sneezing fit, which auditory veterinarians tell me is a reaction to Justin Bieber.  Again, a sneezing dog, colorful leggings, and Justin Bieber with commentary, ever escalating in three stereophonic directions; you have to see this.  Don’t settle for the radio app.  I’m selling tickets.   If you can’t get in, window seats are available.

The last level of loud is indefinable.  Sometimes the loud gets so exciting, I don’t know if it’s Justin, clothes, a teenage boy, or even a new pair of shoes.  If I’ve stepped out of the room and can’t determine what the origin of the loud is, my default reaction is to become Liam Neeson.  Albanian perverts have burst in on the parsonage and taken my daughters hostage.  I, a pastor with a special set of skills, must call the chief Albanian pervert to get the kids and mom back.   Much to my dismay, I come back to find everyone home, no Albanian perverts, and Jordan practicing for her exam; a test on the prologue to the Canterbury Tales.  Have you ever seen someone with green hair read Middle English?  Loud, I tell you.  This is living out loud.

Food for Thought-How To Find Your Happiness

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How to Find Your Happiness

(with suggestions and your chance to fill in the blank)

1. Think of where you last saw it

Was it here?

Over there?

Under the bed?

By the tree?

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2. Check if it’s still there (Retrace your steps)

Go there

Back here

Look under the bed

Walk by the tree

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3. If it’s not where you left it, ask yourself, why would your happiness leave?

Did your happiness have a better place to be?

Did you make your happiness unwelcome?

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4. If it’s still there, hiding by the tree, ask yourself, “why didn’t you stay with your happiness?”

 

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