WHAT NOW?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

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TRADITION!?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas.

 

May the peace of God be with you.

A NOT BORING SERMON

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

CHRISTMAS IS COMING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

MERRY CHRISTMAS AND HAPPY NEW YEAR

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

A CHRISTMAS STORY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

UNTO YOU THIS DAY…

We in the Western world live in an increasingly pluralistic society where people from all points of the earth can and do suddenly show up seeking to become part of our communities. Even in Western Nova Scotia where I live, our traditional monoculture patterns are being changed by newcomers from around the world. Pluralistic cultures by definition bring diverse cultural patterns together.

What that means for the church is that what we used to consider the mission field is no longer just far away–it is coming to us. How we respond to this challenge will say a lot about our understanding of our faith and it will give an equally powerful message about our faith to people moving into our communities. Yesterday, we looked at the messages we give when we try to resist the dramatic changes we see happening around us.

What is we took the mission of the faith seriously? What if we began looking for ways to proclaim our faith in a positive way in a pluralistic society? What if, instead of engaging in a pointless effort to turn back the clock at Christmas, we began to look for ways to show the true meaning of Christmas in our communities?

If we were willing to become the living example of the Incarnation, we might rediscover the real sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit in our midst because the Spirit of God is definitely at work in the lives of all those who have not yet opened themselves to him. When we as well seek to engage in the ministry we are called to do, we are where the Spirit is and wants us to be, which is always a great place for the church to be.

So, what does celebrating Christmas as examples of the Incarnation look like? Well, it means that we must go out of our way to enter the lives of people who are not part of the faith yet. Many of our Christmas events in the church are designed for us as believers–we hope that we might be able to entice a few non-believers with Sunday School concerts and carol sings but if we really want to be incarnational, we probably need to do a lot more.

We need to plan and implement Christmas events that reach outside our churches and touch people outside the faith where they actually live, which is what incarnation is all about. We need, therefore, to know what people outside the faith need and/or want at this time of the year.

There are some great examples of such incarnation thinking around. Special Christmas musical events attract people. Such events might be even more effective if they are held in places other than church sanctuaries. Candle light services on Christmas Eve seem to meet a great need among many who aren’t a regular part of church life.

Other incarnational events focus on the stress of Christmas by providing free baby- sitting for Christmas shoppers or free wrapping for those like me who can’t make the package look good no matter what. Other churches show the incarnation by dealing with the conflicting emotions Christmas brings–being alone on Christmas day is painful and some churches serve a free Christmas dinner for such people.
Many churches, alone or with other community groups, work to provide Christmas baskets to people who might be struggling at Christmas. This is good–but maybe could be expanded with the church giving the community a gift at Christmas. While this might cost money, it would certainly give a different picture of God than asking the community for money.

Things like this provide a powerful message about the love of God. Certainly, no one of them is likely to result in instant conversions–but most people need to experience the love of God in a number of ways over a period of time before they are ready to make a decision to follow. The more incarnational opportunities we engage in, the more of God’s love we show, the more opportunity the Spirit has to work.

All these are just examples that may or may not work in a particular setting. The issue we need to deal with as churches and believers is how we show the love of God in our Christmas celebrations How do we let people know that God has acted in a powerful and positive way in human life? As we seek and implement ways of showing the reality of the Incarnation, we will be celebrating the Birth of Christ in a much better way.

May the peace of God be with you.

JOY TO THE WORLD

No matter what the alarmists and conspiracy theorists would like us to believe, we can celebrate Christmas pretty much however we want. If we want a good old fashioned Christmas, we can have it, always allowing for the fact that there probably never was a Christmas exactly like the one that exists in our minds. We can wish people “Merry Christmas”, even if they return the greeting with “Happy Holidays”. We can have a Christmas concert at our church, even if the school our kids go to has a “Winter concert”. We can schedule and attend Advent services and Christmas Eve services, even if people we know are more into celebrating the cultural holiday.

But as we celebrate, we need to carefully think about the message we are giving to the non-believing world that we live in. Unfortunately, it seems that the message we have been giving the world in the last few years is probably not the clearest expression of our Christian faith. When we engage in the battle over Christmas, we are giving the message that we have a very weak God who requires his people to be loud, obnoxious and forceful in demanding rights and perks that no one else enjoys. We are saying that unless we are allowed to follow our faith with all the “traditional” trappings, our faith is weakened and our God is threatened.

The message we need to be giving is far different. Consider the message of the angels found in Luke 2.10-11, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” (NIV). This is a powerful message, touching on themes that go deep into the human situation and human heart.

It deals with removing fears, providing good news, offering salvation, giving joy–themes that resonate in the hearts and lives the majority of the world’s peoples. These themes focus on what is wrong in the world as a whole and individual lives in specific. The angels are providing a clear and powerful message–God has done something amazing and unprecedented–he has challenged all that is wrong in the world and provided a way for all to find joy and peace and comfort and salvation.

Now, compare that for a moment to some of the messages that the church or parts of the church are giving today.
• The disposable coffee cup I mentioned in an earlier post is removing Christ from Christmas
• We are being persecuted because culture is saying “Season’s Greetings”
• Having a school “Winter Concert” instead of a “Christmas concert” is anti-Christian
• We must take back Christmas from our culture

What message does that give? Well, I don’t see much joy; I don’t hear anything to lessen fears; I don’t pick up any hints of good news; I don’t perceive any sign of the wonderful working of God in history–I just see the whining of unhappy, miserable people whose faith really doesn’t tempt me to give up what I have for what they have.

Christians were never called to defend Christmas–remember, we actually stole the holiday in the first place. We are called to proclaim the good news of God’s activity in Jesus Christ. We are called to help those who don’t yet follow Christ discover what he can and will do in their lives. We are called to help people see the joy that has become possible because of Christ’s coming. We are called to help people who seek God see the real presence of God in Jesus Christ. Whenever we get sidetracked from the proclamation of these messages, we have missed the point of God’s intervention in history–but even more seriously, we have made it more difficult for people to hear and respond to what God has done in Jesus Christ.

So, a review is in order. While it would be wise to review all that we do as believers, since this is Christmas, we can begin there. We need to look at our Christmas and look for the things that show the true themes of Christmas, the activities that point to the joy that came into the world. We seek to build those and develop those both for ourselves and for the world so that we proclaim the real wonder of what God has done.

That will mean we might change some things; we might do some new things and we might stop so things. Tomorrow, we will focus on some of those positive ways to proclaim joy to the world.

May the peace of God be with you.

PERSECUTED DURING CHRISTMAS

One time when we were working in Kenya, the leaders of the church located on our school compound began sharing the information that our church was going to have a very special visitor in a couple of weeks. Now, this information reached me in Kiswahili and I have to confess that when the special visitor was described as a “nail”, I got confused. With a couple of questions, the confusion cleared up and I got interested in the visitor as well. In Kiswahili, the word for “nail” and the word for a member of the Somali tribe are very close and since I dealt with a lot more nails in the village than Somalis, I can allow myself this confusion.

The Somali who was going to visit had recently become a believer–which was at that time a death sentence among many Somalis, who are Muslim. According to the story, when the man became a follower of Christ, his family held his funeral and several relatives vowed to kill him. To protect him, various church groups and leaders were moving him around the country and providing protection as he developed his new faith.

I begin with that story for a reason. It has become relatively common for Christians in North America to talk about the persecution that we believers are facing in our culture today. I find there is an increase in this kind of talk at this time of the year. We have seen our culture downplay and remove overtly Christian aspects of the Christmas season and replace them with more generic elements: “Season’s Greetings” or “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas”; schools calling Christmas concerts something different; manger scenes being removed or banned from public places; “White Christmas” being played in malls rather than “Away in a manger”.

All these things plus all the things that I haven’t mentioned are signs of organized, sanctioned and ruthless persecution of Christians, at least according to some vocal believers, who often go on to tell us how much worse it will get, how it is all a sign of the end times and how we need to resist and push back against it.

I tend to get very irritated with this line of reasoning. We are not being persecuted for our faith in North America, especially when we consider the case of the Somali Christian who I talked about at the beginning of this post.

What we are seeing happen is not a persecution of Christian believers but the removal of privileges and perks that we have enjoyed as part of the Western culture that are being seen as unfair in a culture that has become more and more multi-cultural and less and less influenced by any one cultural line.

In a way, what is happening is a direct result of the influence the Christian faith has had on our culture. As a faith, we have taught things like equality of all before God; love and respect for all; individual freedom; concern for the oppressed and so on–our faith message seeks to remove oppression in all forms beginning with the internal life of the individual and moving on to the cultural life of a nation. While the church has a history of some very bad choices, we also have a history of influencing our culture in a positive way when it comes to the respect of others.

Losing privileges and perks is painful–but it is not persecution. When we are a part of a culture that celebrates Hanukah, Kwanza, Christmas and other cultural and religious events all around the same time, why should one have any more privilege than another? Certainly, we as Christians can claim historical precedent–but that is a very shaky claim since many of the perks we enjoy are not that old historically.

The situation we face as believers in North America is not persecution–it is the leveling of the playing field so that everyone has the same rights and privileges, which is a very Christian perspective on life. To call the natural working out of Christian love and respect for others within our culture persecution is to make two mistakes. First, it tries to go back to a mythical time in the past when unfairness was called Christian.

But more than that, it cheapens and demeans the real persecution of believers who live and believe in places where jail, beatings and death are the direct result of a decision to follow Christ. We should pray for God’s help for those who face real persecution and as well, give thanks to God that our faith has helped our culture become a more accepting place for diverse people to live.

May the peace of God be with you.

REMEMBER WHEN?

Most Christmas seasons, there are two things that I try to do as part of my own personal preparation. I try to listen to Handel’s Messiah–not one of the shortened versions but the whole thing. And, just to assure you that I am not completely strange, I also try to watch National Lampoon’s “Christmas Vacation”. While there is a great deal I could say about the “Messiah”, I want to write about “Christmas Vacation” today. If you haven’t seen the movie, I highly recommend it as part of holiday viewing.

I don’t think it will spoil the movie by saying that the whole movie is about Clark’s quest for a “good, old fashioned family Christmas”, which he feels he achieves in the end. The quest for this provides for a hilarious movie–but it also highlights the deeper realities whenever we seek a return to the past.

I often think of this “the good old days syndrome”–that feeling we get when we look around ourselves and begin to think that things were better at some point in the past. If we could return to those days, everything that is wrong today would disappear and the world would be right. I ran into a version of this while I was a theology student many years ago. In those days, it was trendy and exciting to talk about getting back to early church, doing things like they did. That was, according to many, the good old days of the church when people really understood their faith and practised a version of the faith that made the church what it was supposed to be.

I have seen the same things working with small churches where its older members remember the “good old days” when the church was full, had lots of money and old Rev. So and So ensured the purity and strength of the faith. We see it a lot at Christmas time, when people tell us that we need to go back to the time when Christmas was about Christ and not about buying and parties.

The trouble with this thinking is that when we look at the “good old days”, we are looking at them with very selective memory, memory that forgets the full reality of those days. The early Christian church did have some good things going on–but we must never forget that a good portion of the New Testament was written to correct mistakes that the early church was making. Most of the letters in the New Testament deal with serious problems that threaten the stability and health of the church.

Similarly, congregations that long for the good old days forget that in those days, attendance probably wasn’t much better and many people attended because of social pressure. And old Rev. So and so probably wasn’t as great as memory makes him. As well, Christmas was never really about Christ alone, at least not in the days of anyone alive today.

The good old days are definitely old but in the end were probably no better overall than today. Spending our time and energy trying to recapture what we think was means that we have less energy and time to live today, dealing with the realities of what is. Focusing on our unrealistic yesterdays means we don’t focus on the very real today. Mind you, spending our time and energy trying to recreate an idealized past is sometimes easier and more appealing than trying to deal with the all too messy present, which is probably why we spend so much time doing it.

Jesus dealt with this issue in a slightly different context. He appears to have been dealing with people who were looking to tomorrow for things to be better. What he tells them is found in Matthew 6.34: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (NIV)

Like tomorrow, yesterday had its own troubles and issues, troubles and issues which are easy to forget when we look back. Too much focus on either tomorrow or yesterday means we miss the reality of today. The best advice is that which Jesus gives in Matthew 6.33, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness….”

My guess is that Clark would have had a much better Christmas if he had focused on the reality of his life and family rather than the idealized dream. I know that the church and the faith are much more powerful when we focus on God’s kingdom than on our idealized memories or rosy dreams.

May the peace of God be with you.