HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH?

I made two trips to our regional shopping area recently. One was shortly before Christmas and the other was a couple of days after Christmas. Neither trip was primarily for shopping but since that is where the biggest stores and best prices are, both trips involved shopping. On both trips, I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of people driving to the stores, filling the parking lots, jamming the store aisles and stretching the checkout lines. I was also amazed at the number of heaped shopping carts.

Of course, I really shouldn’t have been amazed. The first trip was just before Christmas, when everyone was busy completing their Christmas shopping—a task that I also had that day. The cultural norm requires that we spend and spend and fill carts and jam store aisles. If we don’t spend enough, the economy will collapse.

The second trip happened on the day of Canadian Boxing Day sales—the day when everything that was full price before Christmas is now seriously discounted. People need to get to the stores to take advantage of all the deals on all the stuff that they didn’t know they needed but now that it is on sale at 40-60% off, is a must have—and maybe we even need two of them.

I don’t much like shopping and really don’t like shopping in crowded stores and that fact probably affects my thinking about the whole shopping process. But I can’t help but ask myself what is actually going on here. Where does this desire to have more and more come from? And perhaps even more basic, there is this question: How much is enough?

It seems that as a culture, we have decided to answer that question by saying that we will only have enough when we get something at the next sale. But since there is always another sale coming up, we never really have enough. When 50% discounts are dangled in front of us, we rush out to the malls, charge cards in hand, ready to buy more stuff that we just realized we need or might need or might find a use for—after all, a 50% discount saves us so much money that it is worth it to get whatever we can.

I don’t think we actually ask the right questions. For me, a much better question is “Why”, as in “Why do I need that?” or “Why does something being 50% off mean I need it?” or “Why does spending money on something I don’t really need qualify as saving money?” When I get home, I have less money that I started with and more stuff that I am not really sure what to do with or where to put while I decide what to do with it.

I think we have developed a cultural norm that is wrong and even dangerous. We believe that more is always better—and that getting it for less than expected is a good thing. But really, how much do we really need? The continual quest for more simply enriches those who have lots of money and impoverishes those who don’t have as much money. We buy and buy. Our culture has even spawned yard and garage sales to allow us to buy more—we sell off some of the stuff we accumulate so that we can afford more.

How much is enough? My guess is that most of us need a whole lot less than we think we need and much less than advertisers would like us to think we need. Life needs to involve more than just accumulating things. It needs to be about more than just filling shopping carts with discounted stuff that will go into next year’s yard sale. When we fill all the carts and save all the money and fill all our storage space, what do we really have?

Maybe our push to accumulate stuff is an attempt to fill holes in our lives, holes that would better be filled with deeper more significant human relationships and a deeper and more fulfilling relationship with God. Maybe we need to discover that even if we manage to accumulate the whole world, it won’t really fill the holes in our lives that need to be filled with love, faith and hope that really only come from relationships with others and God.

May the peace of God be with you.

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CHRISTMAS VACATION

During the Advent season, the two Bible studies I lead chose to spend some time looking at Christmas, technically from the Biblical perspective but practically from any perspective we wanted. In the course of the discussion with one group, I mentioned the movie Christmas Vacation as the example of how people have unrealistic expectations of the Christmas season. Most of us had actually seen the movie—and the one who hadn’t seen it was quite happy to watch it when I loaned him my copy.

I realized a while ago that although my expectations for Christmas aren’t the same as the “hero” of the movie, I was also in possession of some seriously unrealistic Christmas expectations. I wanted the Advent process to b a deeply spiritual journey for the churches and me. Together, we would explore the wonder of the Incarnation through worship, study and conversation. We would also develop and implement ways of using the Advent/Christmas season as a means of sharing our faith with our communities.

At the same time, I would thoughtfully and carefully choose perfect presents for all the significant people I but presents for. I would participate in both secular and church Christmas events, parties and processes to the full. That tended to involve a great deal more activity when our children were home but even after they left home, there were a considerable number of events to take part in both inside and outside the church.

And then, because all this wasn’t enough, I wanted Christmas to be a time for me to both grow spiritually and get some much needed rest and relaxation so that I would be able to enter the winter church season ready to lead the church well as they continued to follow God and seek to do his will.

Obviously, there are some significant and irreconcilable conflicts build into those expectations. It is pretty much impossible to experience cultural and spiritual Advent/Christmas to the full and end the season rested and revitalized. While juggling a full church schedule and full cultural schedule is required at this time of the year, it precludes the kind and amount of time necessary for personal spiritual growth. The need to develop and write compelling and inspiring sermons, Advent Candle programs and Bible studies for the church pretty much eliminates the ability to inspire myself.

And so I tended to end the Advent/Christmas season worn out and somewhat depressed. My expectations were high and unattainable—I was almost guaranteed to fail. I would be able to accomplish some things but overall, the results were much less than I anticipated or wanted, which when combined with the physical fatigue meant I began the new year down, depressed and lacking motivation.

It took a while before I realized that the problem was my expectations. I had to admit that I couldn’t do everything the way I thought it should be done. And so I began to focus and select. There are some things that just have to be done—the churches pay me to preach, for example, and so I do need to give attention to my preaching. That might mean that I have less time and mental space to work on perfect presents—but the truth is that there are no perfect presents and the search for them could actually be cut back.

It was important for me and the church that I come out of the Advent/Christmas season ready to move into the new year of church activity somewhat rested and at least partially prepared—and that would mean that there had to be some careful selection in what I did and didn’t do over the Advent/Christmas season. It also meant recognizing that just as most people in the church pretty much stopped for a few days after Christmas, I could do the same. The sermon had to be written but nobody really needed or wanted a visit from the pastor, unless they were facing a crisis.

These days, I have fewer expectations for the Christmas season. I don’t do as much—but what I do, I have the opportunity and time and energy to do well. And I also have the space needed to rest and relax a bit before things get going after Christmas.

May the peace of God be with you.

NO VISITING

Both our Bible study groups are now on Christmas break. Before we closed down, we switched gears and put our regular topic on hold because so many of our people are travelling and visiting family that it wouldn’t be fair to cover new stuff while they were away—we would just have to do it again when they got back anyway. So, we spent some time looking at the Christmas story, comparing the Biblical story with the culturally accepted version of the story.

Along the way, I was again struck by a part of the story that always catches me. Matthew tells of the wise men calling in at Herod’s palace to discover where the king had been born. While this probably made perfect sense to them, it was a real problem for Herod and anyone who knew him—historical records tell us that Herod was quick to execute anyone who even looked like he/she might someday possible entertain a thought of replacing Herod.

Almost lost in the story of Herod’s attempt to use the wise men as spies and their journey to Bethlehem is the interesting way they discover where this baby was to be born. Herod doesn’t know who or where or what concerning this birth—he just knows that he doesn’t like the idea. So, he calls in his version of the wise men. This would have been the religious leaders, the priests and scholars and temple officials. Herod was half Jewish and so probably has some understanding of the promises that someone was coming at some point. He naturally turned to the people who were supposed to know—the religious leadership.

This was a natural and east choice. These people had spend their whole lives reading, studying, interpreting and understanding the texts that God had given them to help people reach God. They knew the words, they knew the prophecies. Their whole lives were lived in anticipation of the time when God would act decisively and clearly to bring his chosen one into the world. No one else had the potential to answer the question Herod was asking—no other group of people could know where the king would be born.

The story doesn’t tell us if they had to consult their texts or have a conference or hold a long debate. I would have liked to know their process—having spent my entire career and clergy and academic circles, it would be interesting to know how these academically inclined clergy worked. Matthew, unfortunately, was a tax collector and seems to have only been interested in the conclusion.

The religious leaders come through—they know where the king will be born. Their years of study; their learned discussions; their generations long debates—all of it comes together and they know the answer. I can picture the delegation confidently standing before Herod with the relevant scroll open to the spot as they read the prophecy point to Bethlehem as the place where the king would be born. They pacify Herod temporarily, allowing him to make plans to use the wise men.

The wise men happily head for Bethlehem. Herod begins alerting soldiers about a coming mission. The city breathes a sigh of relief—Herod’s well know wrath won’t be expressed towards them. And the religious leaders? What of them? What did they do after giving the answer to this question?

What we know is that they didn’t go to Bethlehem. As far as we can tell from the story, they didn’t even send a delegation of the least senior to check things out. It seems like they went back to their offices, poured glass of wine (not Baptist, remember) and went about their regular business that had been interrupted by this question.

My question is why didn’t they go to Bethlehem? They knew the prophecies; they had the startlingly unusual visit of foreign astrologers; they saw Herod’s apprehension; they above all people knew that God was going to do something—so why, seeing all that was going on, why didn’t they go to Bethlehem to at least check it out?

I have been struggling with this question for years and still don’t have a satisfactory answer. But somehow, the answer is a faith issue—and it becomes a larger question. How come we who believe and who know the wonder of God in action, how come we too are slow to move in whatever direction God wants us to move in? Maybe if I can find an answer about the wise men, it might help me understand me and my faith more.

May the peace of God be with you.

NATIVITY SCENES

We tried something new this year as part of our Advent process. One of the church members really likes Nativity scenes and has a considerable collection. She was also aware that others also have such scenes so she suggested that we have a display of them before and after worship. We announced it for a couple of weeks to get people ready. A couple of people had of the display ready when I arrived and added my two Kenyan versions to the mix.

It was really interesting to see all the variations on the theme. There were a variety of materials, a variety of styles, a variety of approaches. Some were elaborate and some were simple. Some would be classed as folk art and some were pretty close to professional artistic standards. I kind of thought one of my contributions would be the most unique one there—it was hand carved in Kenya from a single short branch and opened to reveal mother, child and Joseph along with a star. I was somewhat surprised to discover an almost identical one already on the table—someone had a friend who had been in Kenya who gave them the scene as a gift.

I am rather ambivalent about Nativity scenes. I appreciate the devotional thought that is behind them—the various characters and animals arrayed around the new born Christ, worshipping him who is destined to bring salvation to the world. But at the same time, I know that the traditional scene never happened. There was never a point when the holy family, the shepherds and three wise men were all together in the stable with a star beaming overhead.

There definitely was a stable or barn; there was definitely a new family; shepherds did show up; there was a star and there were even wise men. But the actual story took a lot longer. Mary and Joseph weren’t in the stable all that long, perhaps a few days. They would have been visited by the shepherds—but shepherds working the night shift were not high on the social scale in those days and most likely, their story about the night would have been written off as coming from the empty wine skins.

Eventually, the crowd of people in Bethlehem moves along and places open up. They move to a house, which is where they are visited by the wise men. We actually don’t know how many there were—the number three probably developed because that was the number of gifts. But as anyone who has ever attended a baby shower knows, there is a lot of duplication of gifts and so a simple recounting of how many types of gifts can’t really be used to tell how many people attended.

We aren’t even sure how long after the birth this visit actually was. Herod, in his attempt to discourage a potential rival, kills all the male babies under two years old, which suggests a long stay in the town after the birth. Travelling was difficult in those days and I expect that Joseph found work rather than try travelling with a new born.

None of that takes away from the story but it does make the traditional Nativity scene inaccurate. The traditional gathering of all the characters is a powerful symbol of the events that are so important but it is only a symbol, making use of compression and artistic licence to capture a significant event in an inaccurate but effective way.

I like the idea of everyone being there at the same time even while I know it didn’t happen that way. Symbolically, the traditional scene expressed the universality of Christ. He brings together the socially outcaste shepherds, the cultural outsider astrologers, the new parents and their child. And that bringing together of the diverse and the outcasts is a powerful part of the Christian message—there is room for everyone. We all have a place.

I suspect that we could create a manger scene with another character or two—unknown visitors who represent each of us. We weren’t actually there but since the birth affects us and we are involved in the ongoing worship of the risen Christ, we have as much right there as the wise men.

May the peace of God be with you.

CHRISTMAS RUSH

The other day, I was in a shopping mall for something. Near the front of the store, there were the expected Halloween things–it was, after all, early October. But I was somewhat surprised to discover a whole aisle of Christmas stuff beyond the Halloween stuff. In another example of seasonal creep, the stores were rushing the seasons by having two of them going on at the same time.

However, before I began ranting and fuming about commercialism and putting Christ back in Christmas and all that, I thought about some of the stuff that I had been doing around the same time. I had been talking to one of the musicians in the church about a song she had found that would be perfect for our Advent Candle program this year. I figured that I should talk to her early so that we could make sure we actually could find the song and get it copied in time for the beginning of Advent.

That conversation drew my attention to the blank spaces on my sermon plan for the Advent Sunday sermons, a block that needed to be filled in since I will need to start working on that sermon series fairly soon. That reminded me that I also need to write the Advent Candle program to go along with the great song, although–maybe this year, we could just sing the candle stuff?

Then, I went to a meeting of our local ecumenical council and one of the items on the agenda was our ecumenical Advent Bible study. We finalized the details like dates, place, refreshments and leader. As a result of that meeting, I now have to find people in our church who will donate muffins for the first week’s study and prepare the three studies for the series. All this before Halloween, which is pretty much a non-event for me because I don’t preach about Halloween and our obscure side street never gets trick-or-treaters.

So, am I guilty of rushing the season as well? Of course not. I am just being prudent and organized, making sure that I am ready for what is one of the biggest and most important parts of the church year. If I don’t do advanced planning, things really never come together. I will end up caught in a bind, wondering if it is rude to write my Advent Candle program while I am leading the ecumenical Bible Study—maybe there will be enough time during the discussion to type a few words.

Christmas is a part of both the church and business year. We certainly have different purposes and we are focused on different things and have different goals in mind. But in the end, it is a bit hypocritical on my part to condemn the commercial planning for the season while I am also deeply involved in getting ready for it at about the same time they are.

I don’t actually like the commercialism of Christmas. In fact, I have long suggested that we in the church should abandon Christmas, or at least the commercial season and let the culture have it. We can’t get it back—the Christmas shopping bash is too much a part of our cultural and economy. So, while they are justifiably getting ready for their biggest event of the year, we in the church can focus our attention on getting ourselves ready for one of our biggest events of the year.

Since all we have in common is the name of the season (which is slowly changing in many segments of our culture) and a rush of activity, we can and probably should pretty much move along on parallel tracks. The cultural events are not going to destroy the faith events and the faith demands are not going to change the culture. So for me, part of my advanced planning for Christmas is to plan to basically ignore the whole take back Christmas movement and focus on celebrating the birth of Christ. When convenient and enjoyable, I will join the culture in their celebrations and I will definitely invite the culture to share in our celebration but I am not going to fight for something that isn’t going to happen.

So, in the midst of the regular stuff, I have to write the Advent stuff for the church and ecumenical study, while making sure that the pre-Advent stuff is taken care of as well. I better get back at my planning.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHY BOTHER?

I realized recently that I might be sitting on the edge of depression. While I am normally aware when I start getting to that point, it sort of crept up on me for a variety of reasons. I have been tired since Christmas, a tiredness that wasn’t really helped by our vacation trip—the trip was great but the travel process is always tiring. Also, I am sitting more these days—my arthritic knees are bothering me more and more and being off them feels better than being on them. And, because one of the churches I serve has shut down for three months, I have less to do.

So, it was easy to rationalize not doing stuff—I am still tired from Christmas and the trip, my knees are hurting or will hurt and there is nothing I really have to do. Sitting in the chair and watching Youtube seems justified. And so I wasn’t keeping all that close an eye out for the things that indicate I am slipping into a depression.

I have things to do: the latest woodworking project is underway, the newest issue of National Geographic arrived this week, there is always a need to write blog entries, there are several people I could meet for coffee, I could even hobble my way through a short walk. But with all the possibilities, I found myself sitting in the chair, glued to the screen mindlessly. I would find myself thinking about some of the options and asking, “Why bother?”.

Everything would take a lot of effort. Working on the cabinet would require dragging the saw and sander and other tools outside and it is cold out there. I could read my magazine but that would require using the keyboard to navigate the pages (I get the digital version). I could call or text a friend but that would require getting dressed for the weather and driving to a coffee shop. I could go for a walk but that would require dressing for the weather and finding my walking stick and maybe being in pain afterwards. Why bother?

So, now I have a choice. I can let the depression develop or I can do something about it that might prevent it from developing. The reality for me is that the depression I sometimes slip into is totally dependent on my response to my situation—there is no medical basis for it. There might be a genetic disposition to dealing with life by getting depressed but essentially, the depression I deal with is a result of the way I deal with things and is most effectively dealt with by recognizing it and deciding to things differently.

And while that is incredibly easy to write, the actual practise is much harder. Depression can be self-sustaining and self-perpetuating, at least for me. When I start getting depressed, I begin making choices that sustain and enable the depression. Given a choice between moving the saw outside to create some sawdust from otherwise good boards or staring mindlessly at a Youtube video, it becomes easier to stare at the laptop screen.

The earlier I spot the symptoms of the coming depression, the easier it is to change the behaviours that encourage the depression. Based on my reluctance to change behaviours right now, I am probably further along than I would like to be and therefore facing a somewhat more difficult process that I would have if I had been paying more attention.

I have to confess, though, that even though I can see where I am, it is still difficult to motivate myself to deal with it. Depression is somehow comfortable in its familiarity—I have been here enough that I have developed a tolerance for a certain level of depression, maybe even some sort of psychological habituation to it. It might not feel good but it feels familiar. The temptation is to let the familiarity have more say in the process than is healthy.

Based on past experience, I know that I will eventually come out of this developing depression. I don’t actually like being depressed, not even if it feels familiar and comfortable like an old, well worn pair of jeans. I could start dealing with it right now—I just have to convince myself that it is worth the bother.

May the peace of God be with you.

MERRY CHRISTMAS

Christmas Day–even for people like us whose kids are grown and far away, this can be a busy day.  I was up early to put the turkeys in the ovens–the church my wife pastors is having a free Christmas dinner and I volunteered to look after the turkeys.  For me, cooking a turkey is part of the Christmas process.

Between the Christmas dinner preparations and all that go with hosting 30-40 people for dinner, this is a busy day.  There is a lot that we have to squeeze in:  our traditional bacon and egg breakfast; checking the stockings that Santa filled sometime during the night; finding time to open our presents; watching the grandchildren open some of their presents via Skype.  We also need to find time for the obligatory nap after we finally finish at the church as well as at least open the new Christmas books–that does combine well with the nap sometimes.

We will also probably eat some stuff that we shouldn’t; watch a movie or at least sit in front of the TV while a movie plays; try to clean up the wrapping paper and maybe even do some exercise–my wife’s dog will begin to insist on that at some point.  I will take a lot of pictures, find some time to check the news on the Internet and TV–although that also might get combined with the nap.

Today is a busy day–and we are not alone in being busy.  There is so much to do and so many things that we want to do that it is hard to fit it all in.  Christmas is busy and active and filled with fun and traditions and customs and indulgences.   It is a busy day, a good day, a stressful day, a tiring day, a wonderful day.

And we, like most of the people celebrating the day will probably end up forgetting why we have this day in the first place.  That statement isn’t meant to be the introduction to a rant about losing sight of God or letting culture replace faith or losing Christ from Christmas.  There have been times in the past when I would have probably followed that route–and in reality, there may be times in the future when I am tempted to go that way.

But right now, I am seeing one of the real implications of Christmas.  The Christmas story tells us that Jesus will be called “Immanuel”, a name which means “God with us”.  The story of Christmas is part of the bigger story of the Gospel, which assures us that because of Jesus Christ, God is with us.  His presence is dependent on his grace and love–and isn’t dependant on our recognition of his presence.

Certainly, it is probably better for our faith development if we work at being conscious of the presence of God in our lives but the deep and powerful reality of the Gospel is that God is with us and will be with us and nothing can change that.  When I remember that, I can seek and realize the evidence of the presence.

But in truth, on Christmas afternoon, after I have helped provide a meal for 30-40 and helped with the clean up, come home and spent time on Skype and the phone with the rest of the family and am sitting in  a comfortable chair pretending to be reading the new Christmas book a as a cover for an unofficial nap, God is still with me whether I am thinking about him or not.  If I manage to read the book or if I more likely fall asleep, God is with me.  If I rouse out of the post meal stupor and consciously open myself to his presence, he is with me.  If I spend the day busily accomplishing all the things that “need” to be done and don’t ever consciously think of God’s presence, he is still with me.

That is the important thing:  God is with me because of Jesus.  He is here, he stays with me, he isn’t dependant on what I am doing or not doing, what I am thinking or not thinking.  Immanuel–God with us.  Merry Christmas.

May the peace of God be with you.

A CHRISTMAS GIFT

Christmas is almost here.  The outside decorations are in place, the tree is up, the presents are (sort of) wrapped.  And like any good pastor–and even the not-so-good ones, I am busy trying to keep my head above water as I deal with all the stuff that churches and our culture have built into this season of the year.  There are extra worship services, extra social events, extra shopping, extra cooking–it seems like there is extra everything except time.

I realized a few days ago that I am waiting impatiently, which seems to be a culturally  acceptable response to Christmas.  We expect it mostly in children but it is still acceptable for adults, even senior-discount qualified adults.  However, I am waiting impatiently for something different.  I am eagerly awaiting the lasagna and movie that are our Christmas Eve ritual.  It will be nice to open the presents on Christmas day.  I am looking forward to cooking the turkeys and making the gravy for the church sponsored Christmas dinner.  I am even happily planning on turkey leftovers.

But as nice as these things are, they are not what I am impatiently waiting for.  They will come in due time and I will enjoy them.  But what I am impatient for begins on the day after Christmas.  No, it isn’t Boxing Day sales.  What I am really waiting for is the free time that comes between the week between Christmas and New Years.

That is a great and wonderful time.  All the special stuff in the church is over.  Even the regular programs like Bible study take a break.  The cultural bash takes a break as we digest Christmas dinner and wear out batteries.  New Years is coming  but we don’t need to do much about that.  People tend to hunker down and rest up from the strain and stress of the holiday.

And all that means that aside from working on a sermon for the next Sunday, I don’t have a long list of things to do.  As long as the sermon and worship service are put together, my week is pretty much free.  We have some plans but mostly the week will be about unwinding, relaxing and taking it easy.  We will likely take a day to see a movie that we want to see, which will include a meal of course.

We will sleep in.  We will watch movies.  We might go cross country skiing, although the weather predictions make that look less likely.  We will eat at strange times.  We will spend some time reading the books we got for Christmas and eating the goodies that showed up in the Christmas stockings.

I am looking forward to that relaxing and relatively unscheduled time.  The Advent/Christmas season is busy and hectic and demanding.  I do what I do voluntarily and willingly but it is tiring and gets more tiring each year.  But I learned long ago that that week between Christmas and New Years is another gift, a gift of time.

Somehow, our church culture and our actual culture have come together to produce a week of dead time, a few days where nobody expects much of anyone–and that includes pastors.  I could call it a happy coincidence.  I could spend a lot of time exploring how the church and the culture end up with a space at the same time.  I could research the development of this time in history.

But truthfully, I am not likely going to do any of that.  I am going to enjoy it to the fullest.  I will write a sermon and plan a worship service.  But for the rest of the time, I am going to treat that precious time for what it really is–a gift from God to all of us who are tired from the Advent/Christmas activity and who need some space and time before we step into the New Year and all its activities.

However it came about, these few days are too valuable and important not to see them as a another sign of God’s grace.  And so, I wait in eager anticipation of the time to relax and rest and sleep and do whatever.  I like Christmas–and I really like the break following Christmas.

May the peace of God be with you.

HAVING IT ALL

Unlike many people I know in  the more conservative part of the Christian faith that I affiliate with, I am not at all interested in an annual ritual.  This time of the year, it is not unusual for people to point out some cultural trend and use it as a symbol of the continual secular conspiracy to take Christ out of Christmas.  The obvious antidote it to work hard to put Christ back in Christmas.  There will be sermons, Christmas newsletters, social media rants and on and one telling us that we need to do this.

Early in my ministry, I was one of the people trying to put Christ back in Christmas.  As time passed and I learned more about Christmas traditions, Christian  history and theology and the reality of North American demographics, I became less and less vocal about the need to put Christ back into Christmas.  I began to realize that there are some people for whom the whole Christmas scene is depressing.  There are others who don’t celebrate Christmas for a variety of reasons.  And increasingly, there are many whose cultural background doesn’t have a Christian component.  As I learned things like this and realized some of the implications of these realities, I spoke less and less about putting Christ back into Christmas.

And eventually, I began to think that maybe we as believers just might be better off if we actively worked at taking Christ out of Christmas.  What we call Christmas is really nothing more than a huge cultural event sponsored primarily by commercial enterprises.  The glossy veneer of Christianity that gets plastered over the whole mess is actually demeaning to our faith.  Do we actually want the name of Christ associated with the riots that happen in shopping malls on Black Friday, which somehow marks the official beginning of Christmas shipping?

It is probably time for us to realize that there are two events going one here:  the cultural festival that sort of grew out of a Christian celebration and the Christian remembrance of the birth of Jesus.  The events were once related but in truth, the only real connection these days is the fact that both happen at the same time.  They may have once been closely related but today, the connection is slim and tenuous and is an actual problem for those trying to really focus on the love and grace of God shown in the Incarnation.

Since we can’t put Christ back in Christmas–our culture has gone far beyond that–we might well be better off to take Christ completely out of Christmas.  Let culture have the holiday.  As Christians, we can live with “Season’s Greetings” and “Happy Holidays”.  The faith can survive when schools have “Winter Concerts”.  Holiday shopping can happen without Joy to the World in the background.

I suggest that we as believers accept the inevitable–this season has been effectively severed from  its tenuous Christian roots.  Great–that means we can actually focus on the remembrance of the birth in our terms in our worship and private devotions.  We don’t need to force our culture to celebrate the birth of Christ.  We do need to give witness to the love and grace of God shown in the risen and living Christ, something that gets harder and harder to do when we are fighting our culture for a season that we are never going to get back.

I would suggest that we treat the cultural celebrations as we treat all the rest of our culture.  We can take part as responsible believers who are attempting to live and show the reality of our faith in all situations. As believers, we can and should use our faith as a guide to our celebrations, seeking the Spirit’s leading on things like how much to spend on what for who.  We probably avoid rioting at the shopping mall when  the must-have toy is no longer in stock–and maybe in the spirit of turn the other cheek, we give the one we manage to snag to someone else.

We can’t put Christ back in Christmas, at least not like we thought we could.  But we can put Christianity in the seasonal celebration.  It takes some thought and some work and some changes, all of which the Holy Spirit will help us with but we can have the celebration of Christ and the cultural festival without one having to win over the other.

May the peace of God be with you.

CHRISTMAS SHOPPING

We did something this year that I don’t remember ever doing before.  We went shopping on Black Friday.  We needed something that we could only get in the city with its big box stores and after comparing schedules and calendars, we found the one Friday in weeks that we could go.  As the day got closer, we realized that it was also Black Friday.  Now, in our defence, remember that I live in Canada and our Canadian Thanksgiving in is October so Black Friday for Canadians is an imported idea that isn’t tied to anything in our national culture.

But given that this was the only time we could both go, we decided that the trip was on. Predictably, traffic was heavy and got heavier as we got closer to the city.  The store parking lot was well on its way to being full when we arrived mid-morning.  The store was huge but in spite of its size, it felt crowded.  And while some of that crowded feeling was certainly due to the fact that in our rural stores, three other people in the store makes it crowded, most of it was due to the fact that it was crowded.

The line up for lunch was long–there were probably more people ahead of us in line that both of us together would have in all four of our respective worship services even on the best Sunday.  The checkout lines were mercifully short probably because the checkout area was huge and  most sales points were occupied.  Getting out of the city was okay, because although there was a lot of traffic, it was moving well.

But the bottom line is that we went shopping on Black Friday, joining what was probably the majority of North Americans in the annual ritual to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.  Or at least that seems to be how our culture thinks we should celebrate.

But in the last few years, I have been having more and more trouble with this.  Using Jesus as an excuse to spend money doesn’t fit in really well with my theology.  Our culture has made a significant shift in the meaning of Christ that we in the faith don’t seem to really comprehend.  Instead of worshipping Jesus as the Saviour of the world, we are encouraged to see him as the economic saviour of our economy.  We worship by spending money–and the more we spend, the better it is and the salvation of the economy is assured for another year.

On the other hand, there is the reality that we do have this great cultural event every year which demands some sort of response–and it is kind of fun to watch the grandchildren get excited about new stuff and all that.  And I do enjoy a turkey dinner, not to mention the culturally sanctioned excuse to eat more chocolate and chips than is probably good for me.

The cultural part of the season pre-dates the Christian part of the season. The dark days of December in the Northern Hemisphere are a great time for a party.  A good party in December probably counteracts the lack of sunlight which can produce all sorts of problems.  Unfortunately, when the church fathers developed Christmas in the fourth century, they created the context for our modern day mess where Silent Night and marketing jingles compete for air time and we are told that the power and wonder of the Incarnation can best be expressed by battling our way through crowded stores and beating everyone else to get the latest and most important thing.

I can’t stop the cultural festival–and don’t actually want to.  We probably need a party in December.  But I would like to get Christ out of Christmas–or at least what Christmas has become.  I think this year, I won’t do any Christmas shopping.  I will shop for holiday gifts, maybe even in the overcrowded store.  I will enjoy the parts of the seasonal party that I want to–some of the parties are fun and some of the traditions are enjoyable.

And I will also celebrate Christmas–by discovering and doing things that honour Christ and his love and grace.  It is unfortunate that both things have become so twisted together but I can work at untwisting them for myself.

May the peace of God be with you.