CHRISTMAS VACATION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

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NO VISITING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

SENSOR CHECK

It’s was about a week and a half before Christmas and I had to go to the town where everyone goes to do their Christmas shopping. Part of the reason for my trip was to finish my Christmas shopping—as much as I like online shopping, I need to check out the real stores because there are just some things I have to see before I know they are just what I want. Beside, the backlog from the mail strike was making delivery times sort of vague.

But the Christmas shopping was actually an add on to the real reason for the trip. I had to be fitted for my new hearing aids and get my eyes tested. I referred to it as a sensor check with a friend which led to an extended conversation about the bionic man and what his enhancements would look like today. But for me, there is something about going for both appointments on the same day that causes me to think and wonder.

On some levels, the reality of sensor enhancements is great. Eye glasses mean that I can read whatever I want whenever I want and enjoy the beauty of our area. Hearing aids mean that I can hear what people say to me without asking them to repeat stuff a million times. When I get around to having my aging knees replaced, I will be able to walk without as much pain and complaining. That part is all good for me and everyone else who makes use of the medical and technological enhancements.

But somehow, combining the two appointments with Christmas shopping made for a very difficult and tiring day. Now, it made perfect sense to join them all together—it is an hour drive one way to the shopping area and I try to be as ecologically sensitive as is possible for a rural pastor serving two different spread out pastorates.

The day didn’t start too badly—as usual, I was early and had time to check out one possible present before the first appointment. But then things started going bad—I used the wrong credit card to buy the present. That was only a minor problem—the real problem was that the five minutes it should have taken to get to the first appointment was taken up just getting out of the store parking lot—obviously, I wasn’t the only person shopping that day.

I did arrive at the appointment on time and had my eyes tested, including having drops which made everything look funny for a bit. But now, the rush was on. There was time for some quick reconnaissance and lunch before the second appointment—and I really don’t like being rushed. I am more of a contemplative, think things through, don’t rush personality which, when combined with my obsession for being early at everything means that I spend the next block of time checking my watch and running the time and travel calculations in my head. Ultimately, the calculations suggested I leave and have lunch at a less desirable spot that had the advantage of being near the second appointment—no need to find another parking space.

Anyway, in the end, I survived the day. I have new hearing aids which I am going to hate, at least until I get used to them at which point I will love them. I have new glasses coming—another trip up the Valley. And I got the Christmas shopping done and even managed to surprise myself with a couple of the selections. But when I got home, I was tired and borderline grumpy.

I realize that I don’t do rushed and stressed and over-scheduled all that well. Some of it is likely a function of age and some of it probably has to do with the fact that most of the time, I am rushed and stressed anyway and therefore don’t have the capacity to add the extra that comes from a day like this one—although, to be honest, I did cope with the day. Maybe most of the problem is my reaction to stress not so much the handling of the stress. Maybe my problem is that I forget I am capable of doing what I need to do and letting myself forget that allows room for counterfeit stress to thrive.

May the peace of God be with you.

NATIVITY SCENES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

CHRISTMAS IS COMING

The afternoon worship a week or so ago started out a little slowly. I arrived at the regular time but the organist who is normally there practising wasn’t there. I puttered around and set up my stuff and cleared a couple of things off the bulletin board until she arrived. The choir director arrived at about the same time and from there, things started getting hectic. Several more people came in at the same time, several of whom had questions and comments. One of the deacons arrived and I immediately passed off the bulletins to him so I could deal with other stuff.

As I rushed from task to task and person to person, I was aware that the noise level was slowly rising in the sanctuary—laughter, multiple discussions, even people talking to each other from across the small sanctuary. I try to greet everyone as they come in but that was difficult—things were hectic and every now and then, when I had time to scan the sanctuary, there were a bunch of people whom I hadn’t greeted. Granted, we are not talking large numbers but it was still hard to connect with everyone.

In the midst of the activity, I checked my watch and realized that it was time to start. The choir and I gathered for prayer but the noise level was so loud that I got distracted in the prayer, which did give the choir a laugh before we started. Eventually, I got to the pulpit and suggested that the snow that we had in the previous week must have put everyone in a good mood because of all the noise and laughter I was hearing. While no one agreed with my suggestion, the noise level was significantly louder.

Later that day, we had a Skype call with one of the kids. The call was somewhat chaotic because our two grandchildren were very active and wound up, making conversation difficult and confusing. The grandchildren had been busy with a variety of things, some of them involving candy, but there was even more activity than could be explained by that.

I am pretty sure that both events I have described are connected with the Christmas season. While the Sunday in question wasn’t an Advent Sunday, it was part of our cultural Christmas build up. I have been noticing lots of ads, the stores are seriously Christmased up, some houses are already sporting Christmas lights and at least one ten foot Santa is already inflated along our road.

Couple that with the snow that we had just before this Sunday and I am pretty sure that what I was seeing was the beginning of the Christmas season. People are being affected. We are in Christmas mode, which is hard to define completely but which seems to me to be a real thing. We are more gregarious, a bit louder when we are together, more focused on the bits and pieces of the season, quicker to laugh, more responsive to helping out and generally more interested in being with other people. Normal stuff, like getting settled down for worship, gets lost in the process.

I think I need to pay attention to what I am seeing and maybe even let it infect me a bit. I have been somewhat preoccupied with the professional demands of the season, getting plans and programs in place to enable people to remember the birth of Jesus and its significance for our faith. And while I think that is important, it does tend to take my time and energy and leave me a bit tired and even unresponsive to all the rest of the Christmas stuff.

I probably need to remember that as well as being a Christian event, Christmas is primarily a cultural event these days and maybe I need to allow myself to enjoy that part of it a bit more. I probably don’t need to get as wound up and excited as my grandchildren but it might be appropriate if I had some of the seasonal excitement that I was seeing among the worship attendees that Sunday.

We all know that after Christmas, we settle into the long, cold winter with all the restrictions and limits that brings (at least for some people who never learned to appreciate snow) so why not have some fun before that? If it makes worship a bit more hectic, I can handle that.

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.

MERRY CHRISTMAS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

A CHRISTMAS GIFT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

HAVING IT ALL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

CHRISTMAS SHOPPING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.