A PLACE TO STAND

When I was young, both chronologically and spiritually, I lived in a time and place where the physical and theological grounding of life were clear and firm and solid and comforting. Life was easy because there were clear answers and everything was simple. School, home, church, culture all gave the same answers for the same issues and we all agreed on them.

Of course, there was that somewhat confusing set of events when I was 9 or 10 when we switched from one denominational church to another but there was a simple answer for that helped ease my confusion. My father, who hadn’t attended worship decided that it was time to attend but he would only go to the church that was his, or at least where my grandparents attended. That was an acceptable answer because family was always important in our world.

But as I grew chronologically and theologically, I began to run into more and more troubling realities, places where my firm footing was suddenly shaken. The ground under my feet turned from bedrock to sand, gravel or even mud. I discovered, for example, that my treasured KJV Bible wasn’t acceptable for the introductory Biblical studies course—I had to buy and read a different translation. Things got even worse when I realized that I actually liked that translation.

It kept getting shaky. I discovered that some people didn’t actually walk the aisle to become believers. Some weren’t baptized like I was. Some found comfort and encouragement in other denominations. Even worse, there were some people who believed—and practised—the scary idea that a Christian could drink alcohol. And then, somewhere along the line, I discovered that some Christians actually engaged in pre-marital sex. And then, I discovered that some people called themselves believers and were willing to accept the idea that Jesus was more of a mythical figure than a real person. A few suggested that maybe Christians could be found in all political parties and all denominations. And then, the biggest blow of all—some were suggesting that there wasn’t actually any rock in the first place, that everything was relative and flexible and sort of muddy anyway.

Slowly and painfully, the ground I stood on was becoming shakier and muddier and was often more of a trap than a solid support. I sometimes felt that I was wallowing in a mud pit rather than standing on the solid rock—and then I heard a lecture about plate tectonics that told me that even solid bedrock of the earth was in motion. While I didn’t have a crisis of some sort, I did need something, a place to stand that I could be sure of.

One temptation was to decide that the mud I was standing in was actually solid rock. If I called the mud rock long enough and was loud enough and sure enough and strong enough, I could petrify the mud and move everything back to the past when my place to stand was big and solid and comforting. That was a real temptation, one that many people I know have tried to use.

But for me, mud is mud—calling it rock and pretending it was solid really didn’t make it any less muddy. I decided that I needed a different answer. Instead of trying to turn mud into rock, I would find the solid rock, the places where I could stand that were going to support me and enable me to keep going.
I discovered some solid ground—or perhaps it is better to say that God through the Holy Spirit led me to some solid ground. I don’t have a lot of solid ground but what I have is real and strong and unchanging—and most of all, it is sufficient. Standing on that bedrock allows me to engage the mud all around me—and I discovered that I actually enjoy the mud to some extent when I am not in danger of drowning in it or getting stuck.

I don’t have as many answers as I had when I lived in that long ago time of endless solid rock. But I do have some answers, answers that give me a place to stand as I interact with the mud and relativity that marks most of life. And the solidest and most important part of the bedrock is the grace that God extends to me and everyone else.

May the peace of God be with you.

Advertisements

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.

CLOSE THEM DOWN!

Recently, both my wife and I has parishioners in the large regional hospital 2.5 hours away. Our pastoral calling made a trip to the city necessary—and practical considerations made going together in one car a good idea. The fact that we would have some uninterrupted time together while we were doing our respective jobs was a blessing. The five hour drive wasn’t such a great blessing but we were at least together.

On the way back, we stopped for coffee and groceries—whenever we pass near a larger centre, we plan our shopping trip to take advantage of the lower prices and greater selection. While we were having our coffee break, a friend we hadn’t seen since our last stint in Kenya noticed us and came over to sit with us. We had a good time catching up with what was going on in all of our lives.

Except that one part of the conversation upset us both a bit. Our friend knew we were back in Canada but didn’t know what we were doing so we had to do the story of which churches we were serving. It took a while to get across the idea that between us, we serve nine different churches. We had to go through the explanation of how many worship services we do each Sunday; how many people there are in worship; how many in my pastorates go wherever the worship is and so on.

After we got that part done, our friend made the profound observation that it would make a lot more sense to close a lot of the buildings and save everyone a lot of time and effort. At that point, I sort of began looking at my watch, wondering if it we could graciously break off the conversation and head for the groceries and then home.

Our friend’s observation, delivered with such conviction, was the perfect example of armchair pastoring. I am not sure but I suspect that his comments about closing buildings were delivered as if I had never thought of that. He likely felt that he was giving me some important advice that would change the course of my ministry.

Certainly, on the level of simple logic, closing buildings makes perfect sense. But the practical realities of closing get twisted together with social, cultural, personal, family and theological ties that create a knot with deep and powerful roots. Closing church buildings isn’t an easy process—it is a Gordian knot that even Alexander’s chopping solution won’t work for.

There are valid reasons and effective processes for closing church buildings—but the process is long, slow and inefficient to the extreme. And that is because the process doesn’t involve economics and efficiencies and logic. It actually involves feelings and traditions and hopes and dreams and a bunch of other non-logical and hard to measure stuff. Any pastor who approaches the process of closing a building steps into a mindfield protected by lasers, machine guns, trained attack scorpions, dive bombers and super ninjas—and that is just the normal level of protection. Threaten the building and the people really get serious about its defence.

I learned a long time ago that ministry in rural areas and small churches is going to have to be done in the context of too many and too much building. The demands of buildings are going to consume lots of time and energy and money. Long term, some of them must and will close. But in view of the difficulty and poor return on time and energy investment, I decided to ignore buildings and focus on ministry. I use the buildings, I appreciate the history, I even try to take part in repaid and clean up days—but the building isn’t the focus of my ministry. The people are—and if they want to continue with too many and too much building, that really isn’t a big issue for me. I will encourage them to look at their building status, I will encourage them to think seriously about their buildings, I might even suggest that the church isn’t a building—but I will do that in the context of trying to remember which building we meet in this week and which building is going to need repairs this week and all the rest.

My friend’s suggestion was a much too simple solution to a much too complicate issue that I generally choose to ignore because there are better ways to spend my ministry time.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE YARD SALE

Like most small congregations, the churches I serve tend to be underfinanced. One in particular has had some serious financial issues over the years. The financial crunch has eased a bit because we have sold the unused parsonage and shifted to a part-time ministry position, But we still carry on some of the fund raising activities that were crucial our church when finances were tighter.

One of these is the annual yard sale. All year, we fill the unused upstairs Sunday School area with the bits and pieces that people no longer want but can’t quite bring themselves to throw away. The actual preparation for the sale involves carrying everything downstairs, spreading it all around the hall, the sanctuary and outside and putting prices on it. I have to confess that I am not much use in that part of the process—my bad knees seriously limit the number of trips I can make on the stairs and I have absolutely no sense of what used stuff is worth. But I was there, doing what I could.

The day of the yard sale, I really didn’t have an assigned job. I did take charge of making tea and coffee for the staff and initially was assigned to accept payment, I job I held until we actually had people buying stuff—my math ability is seriously limited. There were some things that needed to be moved around, some people needed help with carrying things out and there were occasional requests to help find something or identify something that someone wanted to buy but didn’t actually know what it was.

But mostly, I found myself wandering around talking to people. Early in the day, I talked to the church people working at the sale. I would find myself near their work site and would chat about the weather, their family, their plans, and so on. Now and then, we might spend some time talking about the church or the Bible study and I think one person might have actually mentioned a recent sermon.

As the sale got busier, I found myself talking to customers, sometimes about where to find something or the price of something but often about the building (This is our new building, put up on 1833….), our ministry (yes, we actually hold worship here on a regular basis), how they are doing (the surgery went well and the chemo isn’t that bad…). This was punctuated by spells of making coffee and tea, moving things around, carrying stuff to cars, taking a few pictures and infrequently, taking money for people who didn’t really want to go back to the cash desk.

Now and then, I would slow down to breath and notice the rest of the church people doing similar things. Over the course of the day, I saw pretty much all of our church people involved in conversations with each other and with people coming for the sale. As I watched, it was clear that some of the people they were talking to were good friends—but it was also clear that a lot of times, our church people were talking with people who simply showed up for the sale—sunny Saturdays inspire some people to make a circuit of all the sales in the area. I heard them talking about the weather, their family, their plans and so on. Now and then, I heard them talking about our building, our ministry and how the people were doing. We were all doing pretty much the same thing, except that most of the other church people were a whole lot better at handling money than I was.

What did we accomplish with the sale? Well, we raised some money which will help with our continued ministry. Since some of that will undoubtedly end up on my pay cheque, I am happy about that. But I think that we also did some serious ministry. We met people, we spent time with people, we talked and listened. There were no dramatic spiritual events during the day but we did, I think, provide people with something of our faith. We spent time with people, not just because we wanted them to spend money but ultimately because we wanted to—and in the process, I think we showed something of our faith and what we believe. I think we were witnesses, which might be the most important thing we did that day.

May the peace of God be with you.

BLEST BE THE TIE

I am probably the only pastor I know who still wears a suit and tie when I preach. That is simply a statement, rather than an introduction to a rant about people who don’t wear a suit and tie or the beginning of an introspective post on how I am about to change the habit of a lifetime so that I can become more relevant in my ministry. I wear my suit for my reasons—I am pretty comfortable taking off my jacket on warm days but unless the government passes an anti-suit and tie law, I will likely continue to do that until I retire—and if I preach anywhere after I retire, I will probably still wear my suit and tie.

This is all somewhat ironical, though, since I really don’t like ties and am much more comfortable wearing jeans and a t-shirt, which is my general attire when I am not working. I have been known to spend a lot of time telling people why ties are an anachronistic, pointless hangover from a long past cultural tradition that has as much validity as making women wear hats to worship. I have made significant progress towards modernization, though—I don’t wear a suit and tie for regular stuff like visitation and Bible Study and meetings and so on. But for all that, every Sunday I am leading worship and preaching, I put on my suit, pick out a tie and head out to lead worship.

And with that, we can get to the real point of this post—the tie I pick out. As befits someone who really doesn’t like ties, I don’t have many of them—and since I no longer own a brown suit, several of the ones I have don’t get worn any more. I am not a fashion expert but I have it on good advice that some of my ties simply don’t “work” with my navy suits. Ultimately, I have about seven ties I actually wear—but since one is specifically for Christmas and one works best around Easter, I have about five that get worn regularly.

And interestingly enough, each one has a lot of emotional content. Two were given to me by a former parishioner who has since passed away. She saw the ties in a thrift shop and they reminded her of me. One has a depiction of Mt. Kilimanjaro and a rhino painted on it and it makes me homesick for Kenya every time I wear it. The other has a bright sun and paintings of children from around the world, which always puts me in a good mood.

Another was given to me by my mother many years ago—and I still feel a strong connection with her when I wear it, along with a touch of sadness because I miss her. Another tie has the cast of the Peanuts cartoons—my wife gave it to me for a Valentine’s present a long time ago. Each character is paired with the character they were closest to, making it a great present—and since I learned most of my theology from the Peanuts characters, it is totally appropriate for me.

I have another that I wear occasionally. The only distinction it has is that it is my oldest tie—I think I have had it since shortly after I began in ministry. I really don’t know where it came from but its persistence keeps it in my closet and around my neck on a regular basis. It also represents my rebellion against the accepted practise when I began ministry—way back then, pastoral ties were supposed to be dark and unadorned but this one is a bright multi-coloured mosaic that signifies nothing.

I don’t much like ties—they really don’t serve much purpose beyond satisfying some ancient forgotten social need. But for a variety of reasons, I still wear them and will likely wear them, at least for formal church functions until I die—and will likely be buried in a suit and tie. And if I am going to keep wearing an anachronistic and seriously pointless strip of cloth, I am going to wear something that has meaning to me. The fact that congregation members find most of the ties I wear interesting is good but mostly, I wear them because they mean something to me.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE POTLUCK

            One of our well-established traditions at both the pastorates I serve is the potluck.  At regular intervals, we get together after worship to eat together.  Such meals are a basic part of our church culture–not just our churches but most churches in our area.  More importantly they are a vital and basic part of our spiritual growth.

This is not an attempt to equate the inevitable overeating that goes with potluck meals with some sort of spiritual blessing.  I over eat at the potlucks because I have to try everything and have extra of some of the dishes that I really like and only get at the potluck.  There is no spiritual blessing in overeating–there is a physical blessing from enjoying the good food and the physical consequences that I need to deal with later.

The spiritual blessing comes from the fact that we are together, sharing food and fellowship.  We eat together; we talk together; we laugh together; we support each other.  This fellowship time draws us closer to each other in a safe, comfortable, warm environment.  The act of eating together is always a sign of a comfortable relationship.

Our potlucks at one of the pastorates even have a way of extending the fellowship.  When everyone has been through the main course line as often as they want, there is a pause in the process while the main courses are removed and the desserts are put out–our hall isn’t big enough for two separate serving tables.  This change over takes a bit longer than in some places because several plates are filled with food.  These plates are taken to community members who can’t get out–and it doesn’t matter whether they are part of our or any church.  Some of the plates are also given to people who are there but who we feel should have some take out from the meal.  A similar process happens after the desserts have been  sufficiently sampled.

By the way, we are not giving people the ragged ends and skimpy leftovers.  Real potluck culture requires that everyone bring enough food to feed army battalion and so even after everyone has gone through the serving line as much as they want, there is still more than enough of all the food to feed everyone there again–or to share with lots of people who aren’t there.

And while the food is great, the time together is even better.  People talk.  Since I am a deeply committed people watcher, I spend a lot of time watching the groupings and connections and conversational groups.  The seating arrangements are open and who sits where tends to be random.  Couples don’t always sit together.  The same people don’t always sit near each other.  Visitors and new people don’t end up by themselves because they aren’t part of an established group.

We get our food, we grab an empty seat and we talk.  We might change seats in the lull between courses.  We might engage is a conversation with someone at another table.  We likely take a long time to get to the serving table for seconds because we need to talk to several people on the way there and back.

We eat and laugh and catch up on news and share stories and make plans and ask about families and offer help and discuss cars and recipes and grandchildren.  We spill coffee and tea and tease each other about the number of trips we make to the serving table and we offer to carry the empty plates to the cleaning area.  We spend time together and we enjoy each other’s company.

And in the process we grow as individuals and as a church.  We grow as individuals because we are discovering how to express our faith in the context of others, which is a basic Biblical requirement for real faith.  We grow as churches because we are getting to know and appreciate each other more and more, developing trust and closeness and understanding.  When we have eaten and joked together, it is somehow easier and more meaningful to worship together.

It is no coincidence that Jesus instituted what we now call Communion at a meal.  There is a powerful and profound connection between the process of eating together and our ability to express our faith.

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.

I AM A…

I grew up in a small town that had at least five different denominational congregations with at least one independent congregation.  I also grew up in the era when basically, everyone when to worship on Sunday–as far as I know, we didn’t have any Seventh Day groups in the community.  That meant that everyone in the town “belonged” to some group or another.  It also meant that we generally knew why we didn’t belong to one of the other groups.

Of course, the reasons we didn’t belong to one of the other groups were always because of something our group did much better.  We Baptists, for example, were proud of the fact that when we worshipped, it was under the leading of God, not some canned worship program written long ago by people who obviously weren’t Baptist.  We were also convinced that those groups that actually used wine for Communion were just opening the door to alcoholism.  And of course, we allowed ourselves to be lead by God, not the Holy Spirit because the group that talked a lot about the Holy Spirit was definitely off base.  And we certainly were holding to the true Gospel, unlike that group that was moving off the theological base into liberalism.

So there we were–at least six separate groups, meeting at about the same time on Sunday morning, listening to each other’s church bells peel around the same time, singing many of the same hymns, reading from the same Bible (although some were using the RSV not the KJV), worshipping the same God of love and grace and working really hard to make sure we all knew how different we were.

Except, we really weren’t that different.  Our Baptist insistence on extemporaneous prayers rather than a prayer book tended to fall apart when you actually listened to the prayers we made–the prayers tended to sound pretty much the same from week to week.  We didn’t have written prayers but we did a lot of repetition and saying the same thing week after week.

And more seriously, we all had our theological strengths and our practical weaknesses.  The “liberal” denomination was trying to actually show God’s love in concrete ways.  The “Holy Spirit” group was trying to open themselves to the movement of God in daily life.  The liturgical worship approaches were trying to tie is together with the deep historical roots of the church.  Our Baptist group, well, we were trying to make sure that there was room for individuality in faith.

Together, we has a deeper, fuller and more complete understanding of what God was trying to show us and teach us and ask of us.  Together, the churches in our community came close to understanding the fullness of the Gospel.  Unfortunately, we were too much interested in our own small insights and understandings to really benefit from the things that we could learn from each other.  We had to be right and they had to be wrong.

I am deeply appreciative of the fact that I live and work in a very different church climate.  I am aware that there are still many places where the church or parts of it are more concerned with division and difference than unity and similarity but I don’t work there and don’t want to be there.

I think the process of moving to a new place began when I started to understand that it was alright to question my own group, to be open about the things that we did and didn’t do that caused problem for the faith.  I moved from there to realizing that others had similar realities–there was some good and some bad.  And I realized that I was free to challenge the bad in my group and import some of the good from other groups.  I didn’t stop being Baptist–but I did begin to realize that before I was Baptist, I was a follower of Jesus Christ.

And as a follower of Jesus Christ, I am united with all other followers and can look at what others do in their journey in a different light.  When their journey helps someone else’s journey, it is great.  So I can borrow printed prayers, new translations, emphasis on the Holy Spirit and couple it with extemporaneous prayers, traditional hymns and grape juice–the goal is God, not Baptist.

May the peace of God be with you.