HAPPY NEW YEAR!

I have often wondered why our culture ended up with New Year’s in the middle of nowhere chronologically speaking.  By that I mean there is really absolutely nothing to mark the transition except an arbitrary mark on a calendar.  Other cultures have clear and explicit reasons for the new year beginning.  Judaism ties the new year to the events connected with the Passover.  Islam connects it to Mohammed’s return to Mecca.  Agricultural societies use planting season as a mark for a new year.

But us, well, we get a new year beginning a week after Christmas.  If we didn’t need to replace calendars, we could easily miss it, except for the parties and so on that go with it.  But even they would be more fun if we had them at a time when we weren’t already partied out from Christmas.

I did some quick research and discovered that according to some sources, the Romans started the practise of using January 1 as New Years Day.  The month of January is named after the Roman god Janus, who is portrayed as having two faces so he can see both forward and backward and therefore that makes him a god who can split time into new and old years.   But even with that insight, our new year is an entirely artificial and somewhat pointless holiday in our culture.  It doesn’t mark the time when I need to get busy planting the crops I need for food next winter.  It doesn’t mark the transition of a season.  It commemorates no significant date in our cultural history.  It just sits there, requiring us to change calendars and remember to change the last digit of dates.      As one of the guys said after worship one day, “The only thing New Year’s does is make you a year older–and I really don’t want that much.”

Perhaps some of my discontent with New Years comes about because many seem to think that I need to preach a sermon about the holiday–and given the realities I have just pointed out, there isn’t a whole lot to say about it in a sermon.  There are a few sentimental poems and stories that I could toss in; I could reflect on the past year and hope for better in the year to come; I could suggest a list of resolutions we would all benefit from; I could even proclaim the coming year “The Year of (Something)” and call people to commit to that.

Of course, all this runs smack dab into one of the painful realities of New Year’s worship services:  the worship service after Christmas is easily the worst attended worship service of the whole year.  I have often suggested that people who attend worship the Sunday after Christmas are probably going to receive a major reward when they reach heaven.  Clergy–well, we get paid to be there so we probably won’t get a reward, unless it is for figuring out what to say that isn’t trite, sentimental or pointless.

So, again this year, I will struggle with what to preach on New Year’s.  I may deal with the New Year and then again, I may follow my more traditional approach of ignoring the day in favour of something more Biblical and more significant.  That I will work out later–I have time still–not a lot but still some time to figure what I will be doing.

But for now, since New Years is coming and it does mark a change in the calendar, I will follow protocol and wish you a Happy New Year.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT NOW?

Christmas is pretty much over for this year.  All the rushing and spending and planning and cooking and giving and receiving–it is all pretty much over for most of us.  Some may have some gifts that still haven’t shown up yet and they will be a pleasant little blip in the after Christmas let down.  But basically, the focus now is on resting a bit, thinking about exercising a bit and wondering when the pack the Christmas stuff away.

For many, there is an inevitable let down after something like Christmas.  All the activity, all the work, all the energy expended has to come from somewhere and when it is over, we need to pay for it.  We are tired and worn out–and the bigger the Christmas, the more tired we are.  It might be tempting for some to lapse into a depression, especially since the after Christmas let down can easily provide a spring board for the beginning of seasonal affective disorder.  And if not depression, then there are other ways to deal with the let down, many of them as undesirable as depression.

I think we should recognize a couple of things.  First and most importantly, we don’t live on a holiday high all the time.  Holidays like Christmas are bright spots in life, times and places when we can have some fun and do something different.  But these high spots take time and energy which need to come from somewhere.  When we elevate our time and energy expenditure, we are draining reserves.  At some point, we have no more reserve and we are forced to cut back to normal levels.

Christmas and any other high energy event in our lives is going to produce a slow down–a slow down that will express itself in physical, emotional and spiritual ways.  It isn’t that we have done something wrong; it isn’t that we have lost the real meaning purpose; it isn’t that Christmas or whatever event wasn’t good or worthwhile–in the end, it is just because we lived beyond our limits and now we have to get back to our regular pace and rebuilt the reserves that we used up.

And that brings us to the second reality.  When we party, we need to pay.  Now, I am not suggesting that we pay for our sins or anything like that.  Rather, it we use our energy, no matter how much we enjoyed it, we have to slow down and take it easy for a while.  So, relax and take it easy.  Read the new book you got for Christmas and don’t worry about how many times you fall asleep in the process–the words in the book won’t disappear if you sleep more than you read.

Relax–and don’t get too bent out of shape about how much you over-ate during Christmas.  You probably don’t have enough energy to consistently do too much about it right now anyway.  A walk might be a great idea but whether you do it today or after a couple of days of taking it easy isn’t going to make all that much difference.

Relax–things will get back to normal soon enough and if we allow ourselves to rest a bit before that, normal isn’t some soul-destroying rut that we hate and want out of.  Normal is normal and if we rest and relax a bit after the party, we are ready for normal–we will even welcome it because it is normal and comfortable.  We had the fun, enjoyed the party and the season–now we rest and then get back to the reality of normal live which necessarily is lived as a different pace, one that in the end, we probably enjoy more than we want to admit.

So, for now, relax and enjoy whatever slow down and in-between time you can get.  I plan on taking it easy this week, relaxing, puttering in  the workshop, spending time with my wife and enjoying the break.  Christmas is over, things aren’t quite back to normal yet and so I can use the in between to rest from the party that is Christmas and be ready for next week, when things begin to slip back into the normal routine, where I will be until the next high point, whatever that will be.

May the peace of God be with you.

TRADITION!?

For a variety of reasons, we gave serious thought to an artificial Christmas tree as opposed to the traditional fir that we used to cut (with permission from the landowner) and now buy from a local service club.  After some discussion and looking, we opted to stay with tradition this year, although we might look at the sales after Christmas.  When I shared with a few friends, there were two responses:  some were extolling the virtues of artificial trees and others were saying that they would miss the smell of a real tree.

At the same time, I was working on plans for Christmas Eve services.  Since I am still in my first year, I was asking some questions about what has been done and what is expected.  I discovered that I can do pretty much whatever I want, as long as:  it is short, we have everyone light a candle and we close with Silent Night.  I am actually wondering if I plan a service with the congregational candle lighting and Silent Night right after the opening prayer if that would be all I need to do.

This is a season of both the church and secular year where traditions abound.  We have to have the right kind of tree with the right decorations put on by the right people.  We need to right foods at the right times and the right presents for the right people in the right wrapping.  Changing the traditions is hard, difficult and provokes a powerful emotional response, even if the tradition is only a year or two old.

I have a marked ambivalence about traditions.  Sometimes, I see myself on a mission to root out and change every tradition I run up against.   I have my worship notes and sermon on a tablet that I use in the pulpit–no traditional paper and bulletin for me.  I sometimes use Christmas music at Easter and Easter music at Christmas.  I read and use a variety of Biblical translations, some of which I carry with me as an app on my phone.

Other times, I find myself defending and loving traditions.  I love the older hymns in worship.  I wear a suit and tie in the pulpit.  I want our traditional family meal of lasagna on Christmas Eve and turkey on Christmas Day.  And, when I am thinking about Scripture passages, they come to my mind in KJV English not the language of one of the modern translations that I champion and use.

And as I think about traditions, that is likely the way it is for most people.  Some traditions we love and some we can wait to change.  Traditions become traditions because they have a meaning that is important to us.  The meaning is often as much an emotional meaning as anything and because of that, we may have difficulty explaining why it is so important.  And because so much of the meaning is emotional, those who don’t share the tradition have great difficulty understanding why it is so important.

All of this means we need to be careful around traditions, both our own and those of others.  We can’t just throw them away because they mean nothing to us.  The tradition means something to someone and throwing it away needs to be given some thought and some preparation–and sometimes, that importance means that we simply endure what has little meaning for us for the sake of others.

I happen to like the Silent Night tradition on Christmas Eve–but if I didn’t, I would still follow it because the majority of people who come to that worship would go away unsatisfied if we didn’t use it.  And while there are times when it is good to challenge people’s traditions, there needs to be a good reason–and I have yet to find a good reason to challenge that particular tradition.  But if I ever find a reason to challenge it, I will do so–carefully and with much discussion and planning so that everyone knows why and has a part in the process.  Fortunately, I don’t see anything on the horizon that will cause that challenge to come any time soon.

The traditions of Christmas, the traditions of the church, the traditions of a family or group are all there for a reason.  There are times and purposes for changing them–but as long as the reasons still hold meaning for people, we might as well enjoy the traditions.  So, I will close my short Christmas Eve service with candles and Silent Night and go home to my lasagna, remembering to turn off my tablet when I am done.

Merry Christmas.

 

May the peace of God be with you.

A NOT BORING SERMON

Most of the church buildings I have worked in over my many years of pastoral ministry have had only one door and the few that had more than one often had only one “official” door–there had to be a really good reason to use the other door, as well as someone handy with the key to open it.  While there are lots of security and safety issues associated with such a building, there is one good thing about it from my perspective.

It means that by parking myself near the door, I get the chance to see everyone who comes in or out.  Before a worship service, there is a lot to do and I sometimes miss people coming in but after the worship, I am a committed devotee of the old rural custom of the pastor standing at the back greeting people as they leave.  That means that no matter what happens, I at least get a brief opportunity to touch base with people.

So, one Sunday a week or two before Christmas, one of the congregation meets me at the door.  Since everyone else was busy catching up and talking, we were alone at that point with no one waiting to get out.  As we talk, he said something like, “I came this morning expecting another boring Christmas sermon–but you made it really interesting and worthwhile–thank you.”

I appreciated his words partly because he says what he thinks and partly because I had worked hard to avoid preaching “another boring Christmas sermon”.  But when I was working on the sermon, I was actually only conscious of not boring myself.  I have been preaching for over 40 years and in that time, have been responsible for leading and preaching Christmas worship for most of those years.  Trying to find some way to do Christmas sermons that doesn’t bore me gets harder and harder.

But I hadn’t really thought about the fact that most people in my congregations have heard those 40+ years of sermons–not all from me, of course.  There are certainly congregations where that isn’t true–but for my area and the congregations I serve, this is very true.  And after I thought about it a bit, the whole thing made me a bit sad.

Christmas, stripped of the commercial and cultural tinsel that it has accumulated over the years, is an exciting story.  It is the story of a loving and graceful God shaking up the way things are to step into the lives of a rebellious humanity.  It is a love story of epic and even eternal proportions, a story that has touched lives all around the world since that night when the angels announced the birth.  It is a story of hope, a story as real as today’s headlines, a story that should be anything but boring.

Maybe it doesn’t stack up well when compared to the hype surrounding the latest must have kids’ toy.  Maybe it doesn’t have the drama of the latest political production.  Maybe it doesn’t have the attraction of the most recent sexual scandal.   Maybe it doesn’t produce as much hope as the on and off ceasefire talks in the latest conflict.

But then again, maybe it is a story that outclasses all these stories and the real problem is with the presentation and the presenter, with some of the blame going to the presentees. (I know that isn’t a real word but the symmetry appeals to my preacher side).

There is an old saying, “Familiarity breeds contempt.”    While I don’t think our familiarity with Christmas breeds contempt, I do think that it has produced a bit of boredom, especially when we don’t make the effort to really hear and enter into the story.  We who are preaching and teaching the story probably need to work at opening ourselves to God’s Spirit to find new ways to approach the story.  We who are listening probably need to open ourselves more to the Spirit who is trying to show us new facets of the story that we hadn’t seen or haven’t seen in a long time.

Maybe all of us need to chop thorough the tinsel and gift wrapping and culture and turkey and find the story at the heart of it all–the story of how God loves us so much that he comes to us on our terms and on our level so that he can bring us to his level.  I’m glad I didn’t bore my friend with that sermon because the story is too great and too important to be made boring.

May the peace of God be with you.

CHRISTMAS IS COMING

Thanksgiving is over–at least here in Canada.  We now have two things to look forward to:  the first snowfall and Christmas.  I may be one of the few people I know who really looks forward to the first with joyful anticipation but I don’t care.  I like snow and winter and my car already has its winter tires on and the snowbrush and shovel in the back so let it come–my skis and snowshoes have been idle too long.

For most of us, though, it is time to begin thinking about Christmas, as in “what do I get for so and so” and “how do I hint successfully for what I want”.  For me as a pastor, there is also the added issue of “what do I say on Sundays that won’t bore people too much” and “how do I cope with the rush of Christmas events that seem to begin earlier and earlier each year”.

I have been a pastor for a lot of years–I probably preached my first Advent/Christmas sermons in 1974 (yes, they did have Christmas then, although Advent came in later).  The issue I always face is trying to take a fresh and interesting approach to the season–not so much for the congregations who will hear the messages but for me as I prepare them.  If what I say is old and tired and been done several times before, it is really hard for the congregation to get excited and engaged.

And I see the need for creating engagement more and more these days.  Christmas has become such an integral part of our culture that even we in the Christian faith can forget what it is all about.  Christmas has become an economic driver for our commercial economy; an emotional release at the beginning of a long winter; a political litmus test for inclusiveness and multiculturalism; an excuse to ask for and give stuff nobody really needs but everyone wants.  It also justifies the extra eating and drinking that put fitness clubs and exercise sales in the black in January.

Quite a few years ago, I stepped off the “Put Christ back in Christmas” bandwagon.  The sooner we in the faith realize that we have lost the cultural Christmas, the better it is for us.  The season has taken on a life of its own, almost completely cut off from the remembrance of the Incarnation.  We in the church could pull totally out of the Christmas process and our absence wouldn’t be missed, except for the few who do like a good Christmas carol sing but any mall will provide some of that these days.

So, I actually run on two levels.  I live in the West–so I do the cultural celebration.  I brave the malls–once at least, although online shopping is working out quite well for me these days.  I make a list of suggestions for my family to get for me.  I don’t do the whole cultural bash because truthfully, since our kids grew up and the grandchildren live far away, it isn’t as much fun–there is something about new kids toys that really makes the cultural Christmas work for me.

But I also remember that the cultural bash has its roots in my faith and so look for ways within the process to remind myself of that.  The church decided very early that we should remember the Incarnation at this time of the year.  That decision was based on the reality that there already was a major cultural festival going on and the church wanted to give the faithful something to help them avoid some of the excesses of that cultural bash.

And now that the wheel has turned and we are back at the same point, we as believers need to be doing the same thing–looking at the cultural bash and picking and choosing what we can do that fits with the reality of our faith, while at the same time, looking for ways to remind ourselves that Christmas is about God coming into our lives in a very real and very significant way.

I know this is early to be talking about Christmas.  But it we wait until it hits us, we are too busy and stressed to pay attention to anything but surviving.  Now is a good time to plan and design our Christmas so that we can have a balanced cultural Christmas and a significant celebration of the Incarnation.

May the peace of God be with you.

MERRY CHRISTMAS AND HAPPY NEW YEAR

When I began this blog back in late September, I was partly looking for something to do as a way of getting down some ideas that have been rolling around in my head for a while. Some of the things I have written I have worked on before in sermons, lectures and seminars. Others have developed as I have been doing the blog.

I am enjoying the opportunity to write–and what makes it especially enjoyable is that there are people reading what I write. While there may be some writers whose enjoyment comes solely from the writing, I think most who write (or maybe only me) need to know that there is a reason for the writing, a reason provided by people who want to read what we write. Some of you who read this blog have passed along your comments directly when we meet, others have done so via email or even third party messages and a couple have even used the comment section of the blog site. While I have always enjoyed writing, the fact that you are reading what I write “makes my joy complete” as Paul phrases it in Philippians 2.2.

But this is Christmas and I am planning on taking a break to enjoy the season. I have some ideas to work on that are not quite ready to write out yet–and I just want to relax and enjoy the season, as much as possible given the lack of snow in the forecast. My guess is that you who are reading will have other things to focus on as well.

So, thank you again for reading and may you have a great Christmas and New Year.

May the peace of God be with you.

A CHRISTMAS STORY

In early December, 1978, we arrived in Kenya for the first time. My wife and I and our 15 month old daughter along with another couple and their two children were there to work with the Africa Brother Church as teachers in their training school. But before we could teach, we needed to learn language, culture and church. The first month was to be an orientation to the church, which meant that we stayed in a church guest facility, with the couples sharing the common spaces.

Being somewhat aware of cultural issues, we quickly realized that Christmas in Kenya in 1978 wasn’t a major celebration–there were no carols, no sales, no parties and no snow. We agreed that our Christmas would therefore be subdued and quiet–maybe some presents but nothing big. Since we were in the guest house, it probably also mean no decorations and no tree.

As the month progressed, we were carried around from church to church, sampling the life of the ABC. We also got tired of not being in our own space, disoriented by the new culture, frustrated by the language barriers and seriously homesick. We got physically sick, we got testy with each other but pretended that everything was fine and that we were doing great–after all, we were missionaries and serving the Lord was the important thing. We could live without a North American Christmas–it was really a small sacrifice compared to what God has done.

Fortunately for us, we were working with a denomination whose leadership was very wise and very caring and they saw the state we were in even if we didn’t. Their wisdom provided us with one of my more memorable Christmases.

One day near Christmas, we were out on another of the church visits, which always involved hours in the hot car travelling over rough dirt roads to go to a place where one of us would preach and other people would say lots of stuff that we probably didn’t understand because of the language issue. At the end of the long day, we arrived back–tired, grumpy, hot and still homesick but still pretending that everything was great.

The church has assigned a prospective student to babysit us for the month. She hadn’t gone on the trip that day and when we got back, I noticed her sticking branches of a thorn tree in a bucket of sand. My curiosity overcame my fatigue and I asked her what she was doing, expecting to discover some obscure Kenyan custom that I could file away. Her answer was a wonderful gift to all of us.

She was building us a Christmas tree. The church leaders has seen our homesickness and wanted to help. In building us a Christmas tree, they gave us permission to have a better Christmas that we had been planning to allow ourselves. Those thorn tree branches formed one of the most memorably Christmas trees I have ever seen.

From that beginning, we went on to make decorations for the tree and the guest house common room. We planned a Christmas dinner with chicken as an adequate substitute for turkey–making sure to invite our babysitter. We bought presents and relaxed–even got less grumpy with each other.

We didn’t get a white Christmas, although we may have been able to see the snow capped peak of Mount Kilimanjaro at some point. But we had a Christmas because of the care and concern of the church, who went out of their way to help us overcome our homesickness. Our thorn branches were the only Christmas tree on the church compound and probably one of the few in the whole town. But that tree represented the true love of Christmas–not because of the paper and popcorn decorations but because of the care and concern of people we barely knew but who showed us the love of God in a very powerful way.

That thorn branch Christmas tree has stayed with me all these years. For me, it represents the best of Christmas, not because someone gave us a tree but because several people showed a powerful love to us at a time when we really needed it. What more can you ask of Christmas celebrations?

May the peace of God be with you.