What Does Christmas Look Like?

What does Christmas look like? That’s a simple question. It looks like the manger scenes on my desk, on my nightstand, in the living room, in the church narthex, and eventually the pageant on Christmas Eve in the sanctuary. If you were to ask most people at church, they’d say, “Christmas looks like the events of Luke chapter 2”. Some manger scenes are more elaborate than others. Whether the camels are cardboard or real, they all share certain commonalities. Baby Jesus is in the center. In the pageants, sometimes, Jesus isn’t real. Personally, I prefer a living baby to portray Jesus. Nine times out of ten Jesus will be a baby doll. This year, on Christmas Eve, our baby Jesus will be played by young Grady. Go, Grady! It’s a big year for Grady – being born and playing Jesus.

Grady won’t be in a manger. Like most babies (Jesus included) he’ll probably want to be held. The holding responsibilities fall to the next central character, Mary. Mary and Jesus are in the center of the frame. Surrounding Mary and Grady (I mean, Jesus) is a painted a backdrop giving the appearance of being in a barn. At the very top of the display is a plastic star. The three wise men will arrive well in advance of the Epiphany (in about 3-4 minutes) after following our heavenly star. Did I mention Joseph? Joseph doesn’t say much. Joseph has only been to a few rehearsals and isn’t entirely comfortable with his part; as Joseph should be.

The shepherds are an unruly lot. The average age of the shepherd is around four. They are keenly aware of their need for granola bars, orange juice, and when the angel should arrive. Like the original shepherds, their hands are always messy. They roam the fringes of the sanctuary in search of someone called “Noel.” Is this not how Christmas looks? Yes. Christmas also appears more significant than we allow ourselves to imagine. Even though we are playing our small part in retelling this age-old drama, it seems vitally important to the larger Christmas story as a whole. If we don’t do our bit, how will the entire grand event continue?

The events in Luke 2, which we call Christmas, also points to the Christmas beyond Christmas. Christmas doesn’t end at the manger and Advent doesn’t stop when the shepherds arrive. Christmas keeps moving toward something more substantial and expansive. The manger, shepherds, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, point us toward God’s more massive Christmas. What is God’s larger Christmas?

God’s more massive Christmas is in Isaiah 12:1-6. This is as much Christmas as any manger, star, or wise man. This is what we’re supposed to see and how we’re supposed to live beyond the stable. Remember, Christmas isn’t solely for the observing.  We are not passive bystanders watching someone else’s story.  Ultimately, we need to do something with  Christmas. Live this joy, good news, and song in such a way that our lives become different.  Isaiah gives us a clue on what and how to live Christmas.

You will say on that day:
I will give thanks to you, O LORD,
for though you were angry with me,
your anger turned away,
and you comforted me.
2 Surely God is my salvation;
I will trust, and will not be afraid,
for the LORD GOD * is my strength and my might;
he has become my salvation.
3 With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. 4And you will say on that day:
Give thanks to the LORD,
call on his name;
make known his deeds among the nations;
proclaim that his name is exalted.
5 Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously;
let this be known* in all the earth.
6 Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal* Zion,
for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.

That is what Christmas looks like. “I will trust and not be afraid”. We see it embodied in the actions of the Holy Family. Christmas is comfort where anger once rightly dwelled. Christmas is the incarnation of love through song, “Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously, let this be known in all the earth.” God’s love becomes tangible through the purest form of human expression. With joy, we come to our salvation. This is Christmas. Do you hear what I hear? Do you see what I see? No, I don’t think you do. It’s not the nativity scene. The manger points us here, to Isaiah.

Christmas doesn’t look like Bethlehem. Christmas is a life imbued with joy, gratitude, love for others, and a love for God. Yes, I see glimpses of the Christmas vision in the manger scene and pageant. I also see Christmas beyond the barn, in Isaiah’s world, among the community I call home.

Richard Lowell Bryant

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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

58 Words

None of the caveats and explanations used to justify John Chau’s presence among the Sentinelese islanders matter if the premise which led him there is flawed. We can talk about his plans, purpose, preparation, and calling. You can ask if he is a martyr or a fool? However, if the theology that is motivating him, the Christology shaping his understanding of Jesus and the missiology guiding his call to share Jesus with others are wrong; there we must begin.

Why are they wrong? Because they rely on a faulty Biblical justification for Christian missions for the better part of two thousand years found in two verses of Matthew’s gospel, Matthew 28:18-19. Every church that’s planted (successfully or not) and preacher that’s sent is premised on fifty-eight words (as translated in English) from a book written forty to fifty years after Jesus’ death. How many innocent people have died for those fifty-eight words?

Even the United Methodist Church gives a tremendous amount of weight to these scant words in our own mission statement: “The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” We repeat it at annual conferences, district gatherings, and print it on every conceivable kind of material. Our mission statement is the Cliff Notes version of the Matthew 28. As our own experience shows, even a mainline denomination has trouble letting go of a literal interpretation of Jesus’ marching orders.

18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.

Matthew 28 is a powerful opiate. I understand why bureaucrats, bishops, and missionaries don’t want to let go of Jesus’ command. Reread it. Under the totality of Jesus’ authority on heaven and earth, we are required to make disciples of everyone and baptize them to obey Jesus commands. “Obey” and “command” are strong words. What if they don’t want to obey? Perhaps they don’t follow your leadership? Is it then we use our authority? Sadly, this is the history of the church. In the 21st century, the armies at our disposal aren’t commanded by popes. The church is still a dominant force in that we use our moral authority to shape the world through political and social coercion.

For centuries these verses have been literally interpreted as a Biblical mandate to colonize, evangelize, kill, and conquer – all in the name of God. It worked; large portions of South America and Africa are now Christian, mirror images of the fundamentalist American missionaries who brought them Christianity.
The Great Commission isn’t a carte blanche permission to change cultures or destroy lives. Western Christianity has done too much damage in the name of the so-called “Great Commission” to continue using this dubious scriptural justification as reasoning for planting churches and sharing the Gospel.

We cannot take the Great Commission literally. Matthew puts words into Jesus’ mouth that I’m certain Jesus would have never said. Jesus’ position on divorced people leaves me out of the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 5:31). Matthew loses me there.   Yes, I’m a little skeptical of his sweeping statements.

It’s like watching the President of the United States. You can tell when he’s on the teleprompter and speaking off the cuff. Matthew’s gospel is much the same way. I think you can tell when Matthew’s writing the script and driving the agenda. There’s also no doubt when Jesus is speaking.

Oh, if there’s some unreached people group who hasn’t heard of Jesus or seen the Jesus film there’s this thing called Grace. Jesus will work it out with everyone in their own way in His sweet time.

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation (nor having met a missionary), will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

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

Things To Know When Visiting Our United Methodist Church

My Happy Face

1. You’re probably sitting in someone else’s seat.  Ask them to scoot.

2. We provide Bibles. If you bring your own, I’m guessing you’re a Baptist.

3. Turn your phone off.  I will ask to speak with whomever calls.

4. Today is Sunday. We do this every week about 11:00. Give or take.

5. We pray with our mouths, not with our hands.

6. It’s called a bulletin, not a pamphlet.

7. We have one bathroom. I clean it on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

8. Our communion bread is Hawaiian. You will love it.

9. If your ferry departs at 12:30, you can leave before the Benediction.

10. We’re glad you’re here.  This is my happy face.

Richard Lowell Bryant

A Methodist’s Confessions

I inherited from my ancestors a story about God.

I accepted this bequeathed God as my God.

Faith is a gift, not a mandate.

On receiving of this faith, I understood that I did not possess God nor did God posses me.  God was not something I needed to prove.  God was an experience to live.

I realized I might have personal experiences with God in places like the ocean, forests, or walks home from school,  at church, and moments of serenity while driving home from work.

Within God’s creation, I exist among all life.

I believe in Jesus of Nazareth, son of Joseph the Carpenter and his wife, Mary.

Jesus was a carpenter, teacher, preacher, healer, and instigator of change.

Friend to ill-defined sinners, his life and work serve as role models for every Christian community.

Neither at home among his people or welcomed by the Romans who occupied his country, Jesus found his place among the outcasts. His work with the sick, homeless, impoverished, and marginalized of Galilee provides a foundation for the church’s ministry.

Jesus embodies the totality of God’s love for humanity.

I believe God’s spirit is the unseen reality of God’s presence.  To be open to God’s spirit is to be open to God’s presence working in the lives of other people.

I believe the church is a community and a place to proclaim new life and God’s love for all people; regardless of race, sexual orientation, worth in dollars, or any other factor used to discriminate human beings.  

Richard Lowell Bryant

Truth Telling Jesus

Did Jesus Ever Wave a Bible Around When He Preached?

Human beings have the unique ability to create fear and crisis from thin air.  I think this a gift unique to our species.  If there is no real threat to our lives, way of life, or ability to worship; we will find one, exploit it, and draw others toward the fear.  For some reason, we seem happier when we’re afraid.  If we tell others about our fears and they agree that our concerns are valid, even better.  What are we afraid of?  Our Methodist anxieties range from the innocuous as a bump in the night, or our understanding of traditional marriage, at other times it’s a caravan of migrants from Honduras.

Because an idea isn’t real doesn’t mean the concept can’t be shrouded in the garments of truth; especially if I want your vote, money, or to attend my church.  It takes work to make a lousy lie seem respectable.  Look at the political ads, rallies, and speeches over the past few months.  They are full of outright lies, half-truths, and deception. Despite the apparent distortions, we allow ourselves to be lied to and consider lies as part of our rational political (and in some cases theological) discourse.   Enough money, television airtime, and words spoken at the right time can make some lies seem accurate.  We tolerate lies (“they all do it”) because no one expects to be told the truth.  The truth is undermined at critical moments.  Is there anywhere to go but down?  Where do people of faith turn for the facts in a world full of willing distortion? What do we do if we’re sick of the lies?

First, we commit to living as truth-tellers.  Then we turn to Jesus of Nazareth.  Jesus’ description of himself as the “the way, the truth, and the life” in John 14:6 provides an appropriate benchmark.  Jesus is our standard for truth, truth-telling, and truth-living.  If something doesn’t measure up adequately with Jesus’ standard of truth, then we know we’re dealing with plans, propositions, and ideas which run counter to unfolding Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.

Jesus’ ideas about truth aren’t confined to the pages of the Gospels.  They are to be applied to the pages of our life journey.  Jesus’ truth should be a lived experience.

We read scripture to understand Jesus’ embodied truth.  Jesus lived in an era before the Creeds and Ecumenical Councils.  His truth was not a doctrinal statement of faith.  Instead, his truth was built on relationships with those who could not read statements of faith, would never be allowed near altars, and lived on the margins of society.  Jesus believed in the truth of economic justice and fair wages for lower-income workers in Galilee.  Those closest to the land were closest to God.  Subsistence farmers and local fisherman lived the parabolic truth that Jesus spoke into being.  Jesus believed that the truth of God’s love could be best experienced by restoring the physical and mental health of hundreds upon hundreds of people.  Jesus believed in the truth that said real wealth could not be measured by traditional means.  The truth about prayer said Jesus, was nothing like it was done, taught, or practiced.  Jesus’ truth taught that forgiveness is more significant than any distance perceived between humanity and the being we call God.

Next time someone has a plan, perhaps to start a new denomination or build a huge fence with beautiful barbed wire, ask yourself, “How do these plans measure up against the truth-telling, life-giving, all-loving, never Bible-waving Jesus?”  Do you want to try and answer the question?

Richard Lowell Bryant