THE CHURCH MEETS

I am sitting in a coffee shop with a friend. He is drinking real coffee but I have been good and ordered a decaf so I don’t have to pay the extra price of regular coffee later. We have been friends for a long time but haven’t connected for a while so the conversations hops back and forth, covering a variety of topics as we try to catch up and move along at the same time. Because we are both believers and both fairly heavily involved in the work of our respective congregations, part of the conversation concerns our church life and our faith.

I have had this meeting a great many times with various people over the years, in several countries and two languages. And somewhere along the line, a question about the nature of the meeting popped into my mind—not during the meeting because the conversation is too free-flowing and jumps around so much that most of my attention is required to keep up. But after some meeting somewhere sometime, I began to wonder about the nature of the time together.

I wondered if I could properly say that the two or three of us sitting there drinking coffee and sharing and talking could be called a church. On one level, the answer is easy: No way. We were people drinking coffee and talking. We have none of the commonly recognized attributes of a church. There was no order of service, no sermon, no offering, no singing, no membership list. We don’t meet regularly, we don’t have an administrative structure, we have never developed a constitution and bylaws. We have never developed a program, run a Sunday School, conducted a baptism—although in fairness, I do have to say that at some point all of those things have likely been topics at the coffee shop.

That isn’t a good enough answer for me—I tend not to like pat and quick answers. Actually, to answer the question, I needed to ask another question, “Just what is a church at its most basic?” That is a question my analytical, research loving self can really dig into. Obviously, the best place to start is the New Testament, where our faith is explored and described and explained. There must be somewhere where there is a simple, clear definition of what the church is.

Except there really isn’t. It seems that the New Testament is based on several assumptions about the church: it will be made of believers, the believers will join together, they will have problems and they will be filled with the Holy Spirit. The New Testament has a lot of good advice for the church but no real definition of the church, which probably goes a long way to explain the incredibly diversity in churches around the world and throughout history.

But there is one place where I think we have something that comes close to a basic definition of the church. Matthew 18.20 records Jesus as saying, “… where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” NIV And maybe that is what I am looking for, a basic, elemental definition of the church, stripped of all the cultural, theological and ecclesiastical qualifications and requirements and all the rest.

The church exists when two or three people come together conscious of their shared faith. Their shared faith means that they aware of the presence of the risen, living Christ with them and that makes them the church or at least a church. For that time and that space, they are a church, a part of the universal gathering of God’s people of all time and space. I think this provides a very important definition of who and what we are as a church. It takes no more than a couple of people coming together conscious of their shared faith to be the church.

So, whether we need to share a consecrated Cup of wine, a blessed single serving of grape juice or a cup of coffee (even decaf), we can be the church. In this definition, the church is much more widespread, much more pervasive and much more involved in the world than if we see it as only a specific gathering meeting in a specific place conforming to all the specific requirements.

Two or three conscious of the presence of the Spirit—that gathering becomes a church. I like that lot. I will have to give that idea some more thought.

May the peace of God be with you.

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YOU, ME AND JESUS

When I was starting out in the Christian faith and becoming involved in youth rallies and programs, we were introduced to a simple understanding of the way to really live life. We were taught JOY—the way of life was Jesus first, Others second, Yourself third. Some religious supply company or organization even produced a banner that was quite popular among many more conservative Christian groups—I think I had one that I carried around and posted prominently where ever my theological student wanderings took me.

The JOY idea is one of those religious catch phrases that sounds really good and is simple enough that anyone can understand it—and it has the added benefit of providing the perfect three-point outline for a sermon. It works on many levels, which is probably why it became something of a fad among some people for a time. It was also the perfect counter to the open self-centeredness that was becoming a significant part of our culture at the time.

But no matter how many levels it works on, it is a flawed statement. The theology is wrong and the approach to life it fostered was wrong. In many ways, it was a disguised version of the same old selfishness that plagued humanity from the beginning. In one of the perverse twists of apparent reality, putting ourselves last amounted to taking pride in our humility and our ability to take the last place. Following JOY, we all strove to be the least important, which ultimately meant that we are all pretty sure we were really important and therefore had to work hard to present ourselves as unimportant. Selfishness disguised as unselfishness is still selfishness.

The JOY approach did capture one basic truth—that the way to overcome selfishness is to put Jesus first. I suspect that the developers of that idea were not delving deeply into that part of the theology and psychology of the concept—they seem to have been more concerned with having us submit or defer to others.

Theologically, we human seem to have a built in need to serve something or someone. Sometimes, we serve ourselves; sometimes we serve something that benefits us; sometimes we get caught in something that ultimately harms us—but we all seem to need something beyond ourselves to follow and even serve. This gets confused and wrapped up in our selfishness and it sometimes becomes really difficult to determine where we end and the thing we serve begins.

Jesus, however, shows us a way to serve in a way that helps us deal with our selfishness without pretending we are less selfish that we really are. Mostly, he does that by example. Jesus never claimed to be the least of the least; he never developed a sense of false and sick humility. He was the son of God. He was God in human form. He had power and authority and was sinless and perfect and all that.

He was well aware of his place in the universe—all humanity depended on him and his decisions. He put humanity before himself in the sense that he gave up what was rightfully his; he accepted limits and limitations that he didn’t need to accept; he put up with stuff that he could have easily avoided—and all the while, he was aware of the fact that he was divine, powerful and didn’t have to do what he was doing.

He chose to do it as part of his commitment to the divine will. Jesus the son was serving God with his full being. He gave himself to God and for humanity, knowing exactly who and what he was and just how important he was. He was self-aware but not selfish.

That, I think, becomes the goal for us as his followers. We seek this sense of self-awareness of who and what we are and who and what we can be through Christ. Rather than trying to make ourselves unimportant, we can and should recognize the importance we have in God’s eyes. We are valuable to God; we are worth something to him; Jesus was willing to both die for us and rise to life for us.

My awareness of who I am because of God through Jesus allows me to commit to him—and gives me a way to overcome the selfishness that is at the root of all the evil in life. As believers, we are to develop self-awareness of our place with God.

May the peace of God be with you.

MUTUAL SUBMISSION

One of the overlooked themes in the New Testament teaching on the Christian faith is the idea of submission. The idea of submission is clear and not subtle, as we see in Ephesians 5.21, for example: Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. (NIV). The problem, though, is that we western Christians have serious issues with the concept of submission.

That is partly based on our perception that submission is the same as surrender. We tend to see submission as giving up, letting our lives be taken over by someone or something else—and real, independent, self-respecting western believers don’t want to surrender anything to anyone. They will have to pry our independence out of our cold dead hands. Of course, if people want to submit to us, well that is great—it might even be an act of wisdom on their part since we likely know better than them anyway.

But I am pretty sure that the New Testament idea of submission is based on something very different from surrender and giving up. To start with, remember that the context of the teaching on submission in relationships begins with the need to love each other as Christ lives us (John 13.34-35). This gives us a very different context for submission. Submission in the Christian sense isn’t about winning and losing or gaining or giving up power. It isn’t about making people do what we want or giving in and doing what they want. And even more, it isn’t about losing ourselves and becoming mindless automatons controlled by the need to submit to everything.

Mutual submission in the Christian faith begins with a commitment to love each other with the same kind of sincere, powerful love that Christ showed us. He was willing to die for us—and even more, willing to live for us and make it possible for us to be with him always. Along the way, he offers help in whatever we need, while at the same time always respecting our freedom, even our freedom to be stupid and/or sinful.

To love as Jesus loved doesn’t take away from who we are—it actually requires that we know who we are and offer ourselves to other believers, just as they know who they are and offer themselves to us. We seek to be of service to each other, a service that may at times require self-sacrifice but which more likely requires a giving of our real self. We seek to love the other person as they are while being there for them as appropriate. We seek to let others love us this way as well. Christian love isn’t about dominance or control or manipulation. It is about a commitment to each other before God that enables each person to become the fullness of what they were meant to be as we grow towards God.

Within the context of Christian love, we learn to submit to each other. This submission is a willingness to recognize that we need each other and at times, one or the other is going to have a better sense of God and his desire in any given situation. Mutual submission recognizes both the weakness and the strength of individuals and makes choice that are appropriate in each context.

When the gathering of believers meets to discuss the colour scheme of the sanctuary, I submit to the leading of fellow believers who can actually see colours. The reality of my colour-blindness makes any comments about colour I make worthless. On the other hand, when the discussion of which colours to use gets heated and threatens to get out of hand, the group might be wise to submit to my attempts to help us move to a more loving process—one of the things I do know how to do is help groups have positive discussions about difficult topics. As we recognize each other’s gifts, strengths and weaknesses in the context of loving each other in the way Jesus love us, we learn how to submit to each other.

Far from being a surrender, mutual submission is a powerful expression of the reality of our faith. We can and do love and respect each other enough to let the Spirit work through each as appropriate in the situation. Mutual submission among believers isn’t about some winning and some losing but about all winning as we together seek to help each other grow closer to each other and to God.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHO AM I?

The classroom was hot, stuffy and basic. We didn’t even have a blackboard—just a square of black paint on the white wall. But we were working hard. Some of the students were sure that Jesus’ main message was one of judgement and demand. I was asking them where love and grace fit into the picture. The discussion kept going around and around, with each of us making claims and counter-claims.

As the teacher, I realized I was losing control and had better do something to get things back on track. So, I suggested that all of us were making a mistake—we were trying to define Jesus based on our desires, our cultural perceptions and the theology we had absorbed over the years. I suggested that had better stop and take to time to read the Gospel accounts of Jesus because unless we made use of that basic and most primary of resources, we were all arguing from ignorance and personal preference.

Since issuing that challenge, I have spend a lot of time looking at what God has told us about Jesus. I began with the Gospels, which gave me a firm and solid base. It also moved me into the rest of the Scripture as I discovered the need to know how the rest of the Bible tied in with the Gospels. My abilities in reading Greek and Hebrew were sufficient to pass both courses in university but truthfully, not all that good in practise. I compensated by reading a variety of translations to see how others had understood the texts. I very quickly realized that I could read the Bible through in about a year if I could discipline myself to followed a basic and simple reading plan—three chapters of the OT and 2 of the NT every day. I supplemented this basic reading with more focused reading and in depth study at various times along the way.

The results have been important and significant and crucial to my faith. Often, the most important things I learned was what Jesus wasn’t. Jesus wasn’t a white westerner, for example. Jesus wasn’t a capitalist—or a socialist for that matter. He actually wasn’t even a Baptist, although some suggest that his cousin was and that gives him a family tie with us Baptists. I discovered that Jesus wasn’t particularly conservative or liberal when it came to politics.

I also discovered that Jesus was deeply and powerfully concerned with the reality of the human condition—and he mostly dealt with the human condition one person at a time. I also learned something that has made me increasingly uncomfortable over the years. I learned that Jesus tended to have hard and pointed words of disapproval for religious people and leaders who refused to distinguish between their wants and desires and what God was saying in and through Jesus. Trying to appropriate Jesus for personal means gets some serious negative comments both from Jesus himself and others in the Bible.

The more I have tried to discover Jesus, the more I discover how hard to is to discover Jesus. This isn’t because Jesus is hard to discover. It is true that there is lots of stuff about Jesus that is hard to understand mostly because Jesus is both the fullness of God and the fullness of humanity. But most of the problem with understanding who Jesus really is comes from my inability to fully differentiate Jesus and me. I want Jesus not only to love me but also to approve of me and validate me completely.

But Jesus keeps frustrating me. He loves me with an undying and eternal love—but he keeps calling me to become something I am not. He accepts me with a basic acceptance that assures me that I am with him always—but he also keeps pointing at beloved parts of me and suggesting that with his help, I can do better. He gave of himself completely so that I could be with him—but he also keeps suggesting that that great idea I have might not be completely valid or acceptable.

There are some days when I might rather have the Jesus I used to follow, the Jesus who followed me more than I actually followed him—but in the end, most of the time, I prefer to follow the Jesus I have been discovering, Jesus revealed to us by God.

May the peace of God be with you.

FOLLOWING JESUS

I have been doing a lot of thinking these days about what it means to be a follower of Jesus. And mixed in with the questions and ideas and possibilities was a nagging and annoying thought that just wouldn’t go away. I would much rather spend time on other questions but this one keeps popping up both in my thinking and in my reading. And it probably should keep popping up because it is actually an important question.

The question that annoys me and stops me is this: If I want to follow Jesus, which Jesus do I follow?” It might seem like a pointless question—there is only one Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, who lived, died and rose to life, at least according to my sort of middle of the road theology. Unfortunately, the reality isn’t as simple as that. There are a variety of Jesus models out there. Basically, Jesus has been edited and redefined by everyone and their neighbour.

So, we have the gentle and mild Jesus who tells us to love everyone and be nice to each other but who can’t really seem to get any traction in dealing with drug addiction, family violence and the endemic lack of plaguing our culture.

We could switch to the militant Jesus whose tough, no nonsense approach demands obedience and is backed up by the threat of hell. This Jesus confronts the painful realities of human life with a big stick—but doesn’t offer much in the way of compassion and comfort.

Or we could follow one of the innumerable cultural versions of Jesus, the Jesus figures who support any culturally sacred idea that we want supported. There is a Jesus for carnivores and vegans; a Jesus for savers and spenders; a Jesus for hunters and animal rights activists; a Jesus for activists and pacifists. We live in a glorious age where there is a Jesus for everyone, a Jesus who can be counted on to support whatever we want supported and to condemn whatever (and whoever) we want condemned.

This multiplication of Jesus isn’t anything new—our culture might have a bit of an edge on the actual numbers of alternate Jesus models but there have always been multiple versions of Jesus. Even before the actual incarnation, there was serious disagreement over the nature and person of Jesus. The Old Testament prophets predicted one Messiah and the popular religious thinking wanted another.

When Jesus was teaching and preaching, there was serious disagreement over who he really was. Some saw him as a miracle worker who could feed people for free. Some saw a political liberator. Some saw a threat to the status quo.

After he died and came back, the number of versions increased. For some, he becomes a mythical figure whose life and resurrection probably didn’t happen but whose words have some great stuff behind them. Others see him as a shining example of what people who really know themselves can do. Over the years, more than a few have even claimed that Jesus is exactly like them because they are actually Jesus.

And in the midst of all of these confusing and often conflicting claims and counter claims, I want to follow Jesus. Would the real Jesus please stand up? But this isn’t a TV quiz show and the real Jesus isn’t going to stand up to the applause of the audience and the rest of the contestants who willingly reveal their deception and congratulate the real Jesus.

Finding the real Jesus among the fakes and frauds is both an important and demanding task. For me, the real process began many years ago with an interchange in a class room in Kenya. A couple of the students were setting me straight on the real Jesus and I found myself struggling to answer them. I was pretty sure that were wrong but didn’t know for sure how to deal with what they were saying.

I made a suggestion to the class that I at least have appreciated and have been using every since. I suggested that we shelve the actual discussion for a bit while we all took the time to re-read the four Gospels, which are our primary source material about Jesus. Where that that went is the focus of my next post.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHOSE SIDE IS JESUS ON?

I have been involved in learning about my faith from the very earliest beginnings of my faith journey. I have had a lot of teachers: my parents, pastors, professors, writers, friends, parishioners. Being a perpetual student allows me to learn from almost anyone and almost any situation. I have learned that I need to be discriminating and willing to evaluate what I am learning, though, because not everything I learn has equal value—and in the end, not everything I learn is true.

And that is important because it seems that the amount of information about faith has exploded. Mostly, this is a result of the increase in media options. Everyone today had an opinion and a way to make that opinion known. And so we are inundated with information about faith. And if we are not willing to think about what we hear and read, we are likely in trouble.

According to various media sources, for example, if Jesus were alive today, he would support banning assault weapons or he would be carrying an AR-15. He would be in favour of opening immigration doors wide or he would support restrictive regulations that protect our homes. Probably, he would speak in King James English—or maybe he would rap the Gospel. Jesus would be a capitalist—or a communist. He would be a conservative voter—or a liberal one. Jesus wants the unborn protected—but he also stands for reproductive rights. I personally am pretty sure that Jesus was left-handed but there are many others who suggest that he was right-handed.

Jesus and our faith get drafted by everyone and everybody who feels that their ideas and causes need a bit of a push. And the real tragedy is that no matter what side drafts Jesus, there are believers who are prepared to accept what they are told without question. The underlying reality is that we all want to assume that Jesus is like us and believes like us and that gives us a divine supporter for our side. The fact that the New Testament is silent on many of the major cultural issues allows us to pick and choose and cherry pick bits and pieces that we can weave into a divine approval of our side.

To see Jesus and the rest of the Christian faith as simply a support and confirmation of what we already believe and want is really to miss completely that reality of Jesus and the faith. Jesus didn’t come to us to confirm what we want confirmed. Jesus came because not one of us was getting it right. The best of us still weren’t what we were supposed to be. And if we couldn’t get it together individually, there was and is absolutely no chance that we can get it together as groups—our cultural standards are as shot through with wrong and evil as our personal standards.

Jesus came to rescue us from ourselves—and there was no question that we needed rescuing. We were going to hell in a handbasket. Jesus came to deal with our wrongs, beginning with the individual personal wrong in our lives and moving out from there to the cultural wrongs. To treat Jesus as anything but a divine statement about our inability to get it right is to miss entirely the point of the Christian faith and reduce Jesus to a personal and cultural flunky that we can use to support our stupidity, wrong and evil.

Jesus isn’t the supporter of our ideas that we often want him to be. In reality, he came to point out just how wrong we are and that even at our best, we are still a long way from what we were meant to be. He came to rescue us from our self-induced messes and at the same time, to stand as a clear and powerful statement in opposition to our self-centered wrongness. Rather than use Jesus to support our ways, we need to see Jesus as standing outside our lives, existing to show us a better way than any culturally, politically or personally correct idea that we might have.

May the peace of God be with you.

THAT’S FUNNY

 

One of the interesting tasks I had one time was to be a reader for a doctoral thesis that was looking at the topic of humour in the Bible. Since I like humour, I was looking forward to the process—I was hoping to get a good laugh out of the thesis. Unfortunately, the thesis, although well written, well researched and well presented was no funnier than any other thesis I have read, which is to say it wasn’t very funny at all.

There seems to be within the faith a strong tendency to minimize the place of humour. I think that some feel that since our faith deals with big, important themes like eternal destiny, there isn’t much room for humour. We are engaged in serious stuff and laughter is frivolous and maybe even sacrilegious.

And yet, the Bible is a book shot through with humour. Of course, it seems that commentators and preachers and others have worked hard over the years to minimize and hide the humour that is present, almost as if there is a conspiracy to prevent faithful people from having a good laugh.

Take the comment Jesus makes in Matthew 19.24 for example: “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (NIV). Most commentaries spend lots of time discussing the possible references Jesus in making here, drawing on possible nautical and cultural themes supposedly from that day and age. But very few highlight the absolute humour of this passage. The absurdity of a camel trying to get through the eye of a needle conjurors up hilarious images that would not be out of place in a Saturday morning cartoon.

Or take one of my personal favorites, found in Matthew 7.3, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (NIV) The essential humour in this passage is lost as we deal with heavy issues like hypocrisy and human sin and confession and all those other important themes that we can draw out of the passage.

But this is funny. The idea of a man with a 2×4 stuck in his eye trying to help another with a piece of sawdust in his eye is the premise for a skit worthy of the Three Stooges or some other great slapstick comedy team. Picture the chaos that accompanies a person with a 2×4 trying to help someone: there will be smashing and bashing and crashing and breaking glass and head bangs and gloriously funny mayhem.

And I am pretty sure that this humour isn’t some unintentional coincidence that crept in while the super serious God of all creation was distracted by the seriousness of human sin. I think the humour we find scattered through the Bible is intentional and deliberate and there because God also has a sense of humor. After all, he created us with the ability—and need—to laugh. When he relates to us, he shows flashes of marvelous humour. Having a donkey speak to a somewhat stubborn prophet (Numbers 22.28) is funny on a lot of levels, including the part where the prophet argues with the donkey oblivious to the weirdness of the situation.

Life is serious and heavy and often painful. In the faith, we deal with some pretty serious and heavy duty topics, like the point of life and eternal destiny. But we also need to balance this heaviness with the lightness provided by humour and laughter, a reality that God seeks to teach us in the Scripture. God created us with the need and ability to laugh—and then, he writes some pretty good material for us to laugh at.

Certainly, there is a serious side to God’s humour and there are deeper lessons in all the jokes and pratfalls—but they are also funny and the humour deserves to be given the laugh it deserves and that we also deserve. I think it adds to our ability to understand and relate to God when we realize that God, like most humans, appreciates a good joke now and then and he isn’t above sneaking a good one into the most serious of material.

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.

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.

ADVENT

As a pastor of two different sets of congregations, much of the year is consumed with trying to juggle the different needs of the churches I work for.  They are different enough that I have different sermons, different Bible studies, different meetings and so on.  Only rarely do I get to use the same stuff in both places at the same time.  Most often, even when I can use something similar, it needs serious re-working to fit into the context of the other setting.

Except for Advent and Easter-or at least that is the way I am approaching things.  Advent is the part of the church year set aside to help prepare the church for the remembrance of the birth of Jesus.  I am a member of the Baptist tradition and while we don’t have to pay much attention to the church year, I do like to use the Advent season.  So, when advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, I get to do one set of sermons, one set of Advent candle programs, one Candlelight Christmas Eve service.

And this Advent season, for some reason, I am pretty much ready for everything.  I actually have each week’s Advent Candle program written, I have the sermons planned for each week, including the Sunday after Christmas.  I have the Christmas Eve service roughed out and just need to get a few bits of input from other participants to have that ready.  I am ready for Advent.

Except I am not really ready for Advent.  I am ready to help lead other people through the Advent season, which is part of my job.  But personally, I am not all that sure where I stand on the readiness issue.  Part of my problem is figuring out what the whole Christmas/Advent thing actually means to me and my faith.

Christmas as a celebration has been becoming less and less significant for me the last few years–since the kids all moved out and away, there hasn’t been the same level of excitement with gift giving and over eating and all the rest.  On those occasions when some of the family gets home or we are with them, some of the excitement comes back–but that would be there if we were together in July.

The whole gift process is less interesting.  Neither of us has much of a wish list.  We are at the point in our lives where we have lots of stuff and if we want something, we can and do buy it when we want it.  The eating part of the event–well, I am pretty sure that over-eating is an over-rated sport, given the fact that it is so much harder to get enough exercise to compensate for the extra calories.

Theologically, I am happy for the birth of Jesus–but I find that my thinking is more in tune with the early church.  There is pretty good evidence that the birth of Jesus wasn’t much celebrated until after the time of Constantine, about 350 years or so after Jesus.  They focused on the resurrection, which makes sense–life was difficult and Christianity was technically illegal and so they focused in the really important thing, the resurrection.

But for all that, it is Advent.  I do need to prepare for the celebration of the birth of Christ.  And I need to do it not just for the people who have called me to be their pastor but for myself.  The part about leading the church through Advent I have pretty much ready–it is all either written or will soon be written.

The personal part, well, that it a work in progress and has been for the last few years.  I try to focus not just on the birth but all its implications.  For me, that includes the rest of the story.  Seeing the birth in its context is important–we don’t worship the baby because he is a baby, we worship the risen and living Christ whom he grew into.  The baby in the manger isn’t important because of being a baby in a manger–he is important because he rose to life on the third day.

So, I will give and receive gifts; I will light Advent Candles; I will listen to the Messiah.  I will help the churches celebrate Advent and Christmas and I will continue to work on my own celebration of the process.

May the peace of God be with you.