Archives For Reclaim Christmas

photo-1As promised, this week I’m going to try to answer the questions that didn’t get pulled in this weekend’s bingo sermon questions, Midrash in the Moment.

Here’s a question I did answer in one of the services. I think it’s a good one so I took a listen to what incoherent ramblings came out of my mouth and typed it up here.

Question: I’m not even sure I believe in God. Is there something in the Christmas story for me?

There’s two ways I think you could approach that question.

The first would be to point to the magi. The wise men were astronomers, 1st century scientists, men of reason and objective observation. And they were Gentiles, foreigners. They didn’t believe in God, at least not the God with a capital G. They didn’t anything about the God of Israel. They see an usual constellation in the sky. They do some research and find out about this Jewish prophecy from Isaiah about a king, and they go check it out. They don’t go there intending to worship the God of Israel and yet the grace of God makes them a part of the Gospel anyway.

So you could point to the magi and conclude that there’s a place for unbelievers at the manger.

Or you could point to who’s not at the manger. The scribes.

Remember, the star only leads the magi to the Jerusalem. When they get there, they ask Herod’s scribes- biblical scholars and religious believers- where the King was foretold to be born.

And the scribes don’t know.

They’d forgotten their story. They’d forgotten God’s promises. They have to hit the stacks in the library and look it up in order to find Micah’s prophecy about Bethlehem.

So maybe another way to answer is by pointing out that being a religious person doesn’t necessarily guarantee you a place at the manger.

It’s not enough just to believe in God.

It’s about believing God, making God’s story and God’s promises a part of you such that you never forget them.

So, yes, there’s something in the Christmas story for you. And there’s also something of a warning in it for people like me.

 

 

photo-1As promised, this week I’m going to try to answer the questions that didn’t get pulled in this weekend’s bingo sermon questions, Midrash in the Moment.

Here’s Jeff’s question: Why did Jesus come when he did? As opposed to some other point in history?

That’s a million dollar question. That’s also impossible to answer. I even asked Scot McKnight for a hint and he couldn’t do much better than I’ve got below.

At least from a God’s-eye perspective. Scripture says God sent Jesus ‘in the fullness of time’ which suggests there was something auspicious about when Jesus came.

We can’t really know why from God’s perspective.

What we can do is answer from a human perspective, from scripture’s point of view.

At least as far as the scripture writers’ understood it, God sends Jesus when he does because the oppression and idolatry of Rome had gotten to a point that necessitated or provoked the incarnation.

God heard his people’s cries, in other words.

That’s why Matthew tells his Gospel in a way that makes explicit that Caesar is a new Pharaoh and Rome is the New Egypt.

And Matthew’s Gospel begins with a ‘genesis’ just like the Hebrew story begins. That’s Matthew tells you that Herod kills all the new born sons just like Pharaoh did. That’s why Matthew has Jesus’ life beginning in Egypt just like Moses’ did.

How does Luke begin his Gospel? ‘In the days of ____________________’

All the language in Luke’s Christmas story, that we don’t even think about, is loaded with double-meanings meant to show how Christ is God’s alternative to Caesar.

In the ancient world, Caesar’s rise to the throne was referred to as the Advent of a Golden Age.

He was worshipped as a god.

And the proclamation that was made about Caesar throughout the Empire: ‘Caesar Augustus, son of god, our savior, has brought peace to those on whom he favors.’ 

What do the angels say to the shepherds when Christ is born? Yep, same thing but this time they’re referring to a baby in diapers and not a Caesar in, well, diapers.

From the Gospels’ perspective, then, Jesus is born to deliver Israel from Rome just as Moses did from Egypt. It’s how Jesus delivers that is unexpected.


photo-1This Sunday for our ‘Questions about Christmas’ sermon series I pulled your questions at random from a bingo tumbler and just answered them off the cuff. As I warned, sometimes off the cuff Jason quickly slips into off color Jason but I think I was mostly clean.

This week I will try to post responses to the questions that didn’t get pulled and also summaries of how I answered some of the other questions.

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One thing you have to remember is that the early church was an oral culture. They were good storytellers and, being good storytellers, they would never begin a Gospel with a list of begats unless there was a good point they wanted their listeners to catch.

The first thing Matthew’s audience would’ve noticed is the fact that this isn’t a traditional Jewish genealogy. You can compare Matthew’s list to the lists in the Old Testament. Jewish genealogies were men’s only clubs. But Matthew’s has women in it.

And not just women. Gentiles. Matthew’s constructs a genealogy of Jews and Gentiles, and the only way Matthew can include Gentiles is through women because all the men in Jesus’ family were Jews. So Matthew works in Ruth and Rahab and Tamar and Bathsheba.

Those women aren’t just Gentiles. Matthew also constructs a genealogy of saints and sinners. Tamar slept with her father-in-law, on ‘accident.’ Ruth seduced Boaz. Bathsheba very likely seduced David. Rahab was a hooker.

So what Matthew’s doing isn’t trying to biologically tie Jesus to Jewish history because that would be impossible. What Matthew’s doing is giving you the overture to his Gospel; he’s hinting at the themes to come.

And one of those themes is the compassion Jesus shows women like Tamar and Rahab, who, incidentally, are the kind of women that most would’ve assumed Jesus’ own mother was.

He’s foreshadowing themes: Jesus’ compassion on sinners and women, Jesus’ ministry to Gentiles and outsiders. This becomes more obvious when you flip to the end of Matthew’s Gospel and see that it closes with Jesus giving his Great Commission to ‘make disciples of all nations…‘ Meaning: Jews and Gentiles.

So the genealogy isn’t about Jesus’ biological make-up; it’s about the make-up of his Kingdom. It’s Matthew’s of telegraphing that Christ will be a different of King.

A couple of other points:

The word genealogy is genesis. In the beginning. Matthew begins his Gospel in the same way the Hebrew Bible begins. This is Matthew’s way of saying that Jesus is the beginning of a new creation.

Another thing, Matthew says ‘from the deportation to Babylon to the birth of the Messiah…’ In other words, Matthew’s suggesting Israel’s exile to Babylon never ended, that even though Israel returned from Babylon, their exile never truly ended until Jesus was born. That’s what makes ‘Come, O Come, Emmanuel’ an Advent song.

Lastly, Matthew’s not trying to give a proper, traditional family tree for Jesus, but if he wanted to he could do that through Joseph. As an adoptive father myself, I have a stake in this point. In the same way my boys have Virginia birth certificates though they were born in Guatemala, according to Jewish law, Jesus becomes Joseph’s legal son the moment Joseph claims him as such, which is what makes Joseph’s leap of faith and participation in the Christmas story so vital.

60_BobGoff_1139x541_1When I first read this list by Bob Goff in Relevant Magazine, my reaction was: ‘Damn, I don’t follow hardly any of these principles.’

Sometimes Advent can change everything, including your perspective. Reading over this list again while anticipating Emmanuel’s, God with Us, arrival on December 24, I notice that Goff’s guide to an extraordinary life is largely premised on being ‘with’ people as a priority.

And maybe there’s a theological reason this is the key to a good life. After all, if Jesus is true God and true Man then what it means to be authentically human- our true selves as we were created to be- is to be like Jesus. To be most fully alive is to be the sort of person who makes being with others more important than anything else.

That is, is it not, the priority God makes at Christmas. To be God with us. Indeed, as Barth says, God decides not to be God without us.

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When Bob Goff answers the phone, it’s a bit of a shock. It shouldn’t be. His phone number is one of the world’s most easily accessible—available at any bookstore in the country. He printed it in the back of Love Does, his best-selling collection of stories about a few ways he’s managed to turn each day into a “hilarious, whimsical, meaningful change to make faith simple and real.” As you dial the number, you might expect a hotline, or a secretary, or at least a voicemail. But you’ll get no such thing. Call the phone number, and you’ll be greeted with, “This is Bob Goff!”

If it’s possible for someone to become famous for no other reason than that he loves genuinely and lives fully, then Goff has done it. He’s a lawyer in Washington. He’s the Ugandan honorary consul to the U.S. He’s a professor at Pepperdine Law School and Point Loma Nazarene University. He’s the founder of Restore International, which serves underprivileged children in Uganda and India. His endless supply of stories charm, his overseas work inspires and his demeanor encourages—but the most truly fascinating thing about Bob Goff is Bob Goff.

Somehow, using the same 24 hours in a day the rest of us have, Goff has crafted an extraordinary life of adventure, joy and love. It’s an appealing prospect for anyone, and we wondered: What are his secrets? And: Will he share them?

The answer, as with most things in Goff’s life, was an emphatic yes.

1. Don’t Let Anyone Go to Voicemail

“We get really busy,” Goff says. “But the less time Jesus had on earth, the more available He became to people.”

So when Goff put his phone number in the back of Love Does, he made the promise to himself to answer every call—regardless of whether or not he knew who it was. There are practical limits to this, of course. “I don’t feel guilty if I’m on the other line, or on a plane,” he says. But from where Goff sits, Jesus wouldn’t have ignored many phone calls. So neither does he. “If I get a call, I answer it,” he says. “And it’s been terrific!

“There’s a God we can talk to anytime, anywhere, about anything, and I’m so glad He doesn’t screen my calls—because I don’t have anything that’s particularly interesting to say. And I’m understanding that better because I’m available to people.”

2. Don’t Make Appointments

Goff says, “When someone calls me and says, ‘Can we meet two Tuesdays from now at 3 p.m.?’ I say, ‘How about now?’ If you call me two Tuesdays from now at 3, I’ll probably say the same thing.”

That’s right. As implausible as it sounds, Bob Goff, lawyer and Ugandan consulate, doesn’t set appointents.

The benefit of this thinking becomes evident even now—he is, as we speak, driving home from an impromptu meeting with a young man who needed to talk.

“Guess what!” he says, laughing. “I didn’t have any appointments that I needed to cancel … I’ve got all the time in the world because I don’t have any appointments.”

Goff insists when your life is appointment-free, your time is at the service of others instead of your personal demands. Plus, you become a different person when you structure your life around others’ needs.

“Can you imagine a lawyer who doesn’t make appointments?” Goff asks, recognizing the absurdity of it. “But it’s been great.”

3. Be Incredibly Inefficient at Love

“Don’t do an efficient brand of love,” Goff says.

Then he does what he does best—launches into a story without missing a beat.

“The woman who lives across the street from us has cancer. She called me up and told me the bad news, and I told her, ‘I’m not going to call you ever again.’ She’s like, ‘What?’

“I went to Radio Shack and got us two walkie-talkies, and it was terrific. For the last year, we’ve been talking on walkie-talkies every night. It’s like we’re both 14-year-olds and we’re both in tree forts.

“She took a turn for the worse about four days ago, so this morning, I woke up about 5, and I went to the hospital. I sent the nurse in with a walkie-talkie, and I sat in the next room and called her up. I heard her just start crying—because there’s something inefficient and beautiful about it. We were sitting in a hospital, separated by a room, talking on walkie-talkies.”

Here he breaks off and seems choked up for a moment.

Then he continues. “Be inefficient with your love. The more in-efficient, the better. It would have been a lot more efficient for God to not send Jesus to die for us. That was very inefficient love. But so sweet and so tender.”

4. Don’t Have a Bible Study

When it comes to Bible studies, Goff says simply, “I’m done. I’ve got all the information I need.”

But this doesn’t leave the Bible out of his daily routine. To the contrary, he’s upped the ante.

“I’ve met with the same guys every Friday who I’ve been meeting with for a decade,” he says. “And we have a Bible Doing.”

The idea, Goff says, is basically that memorization is only effective if it motivates you to action. It’s great when believers meet together to internalize the Bible, but why not externalize it as well?

Goff is likewise unconventional in his approach to a morning quiet time. “I can’t do them,” he says. “I think I got sent to the principal too much when I was a kid.”

“Instead, I take Scripture, I let it wash over me, and I say, ‘What do I really think about this?’” Then he shares his reflections by sending out a morning tweet.

This morning habit helps his day start on the right foot in front of God and everyone else. “It helps me dwell in Christ,” he says. “But it also helps me not be a pill midday. I can’t send a beautiful tweet in the morning and then be a pill.”

5. Quit Stuff

“Every Thursday, I quit something,” Goff says. It’s one of his more infamous habits, one that he follows faithfully—and, often, dramatically. He’s been known to break apartment leases, throw out furniture and quit jobs. “You can quit cussing if you want,” he says, “but go a little higher up on the tree. It can be something really good.”

His most recent Thursday resignation was from the board of a prominent charity. “I called the guy that runs it up and said, ‘I’m out!’ And he said, ‘How come?’ And then he paused and said, ‘No! Thursday!’”

The idea is not to be a liability to charitable organizations (although that might be part of the fallout). It’s to give yourself room to grow and to give God room to work. The patterns of life can weigh down and hold back. Quitting things forces you forward to explore new opportunities, to try things you wouldn’t have time for otherwise and to fill your life with things that are fresh, different
and dangerous.

6. Do What You’re Made to Do

In today’s functional culture, the common question is, “What am I able to do?” People take tests to determine skill sets and aptitude and then march off to pursue a career based on the results.

But Goff says the better question is, “What am I made to do?” He goes on to say, “It’s as simple as asking, ‘What are the things you think are beautiful? And you want in your life?’ … And then there’s other stuff you stink at, and they cause you a bunch of stress. I just try and do more of the first and less of the second.”

7. Get More Unschooled, Ordinary Friends

For most people, friendship is accidental. You see someone often enough, find a few common interests, hang out and strike up an easy friendship. New friends probably come from the people you work with or go to church with. The childhood idea of “making friends,” a proactive pursuit, has been replaced with the idea of “letting friends happen.”

Goff suggests making friendship intentional and, moreover, risky. Because sometimes you can learn more from friends who stand just left of center than those with whom you share everything in common.

One of Goff’s dearest friendships began with a simple thank you, for example.

“They call me Mr. G at the airport, because I’m there just about every day,” Goff says. And before every flight, the same TSA security guard—Adrian—checked Goff’s ID. After a few months of this, Goff decided to extend his appreciation.

“You start every day for me,” he recalls telling Adrian. “When I think of you, I think of God. You’re so tender and kind to everybody!”

And just like that, the diminutive security guard put his arms around Goff and held him, in front of a line of waiting passengers. “It started this terrific friendship,” Goff says. “We spent the next six Christmases together with his family at our house.”

Adrian tragically passed away last summer, but not before coming to Jesus. “And now, when I think of heaven,” Goff says, “I don’t think of St. Peter. I think of a guy like Adrian, who’s checking IDs. And all of that came because I decided to get more unschooled, ordinary friends.”

8. Jump the Tracks

Goff spends most Wednesday mornings at Disneyland, prepping to teach his courses at Pepperdine University. From his vantage point on Tom Sawyer Island, he watches hundreds of park visitors board the monorail, content to be whisked wherever the train takes them.

And their park experience, says Goff, suffers because of it. The real adventure, both in Disneyland and in life, is when you venture outside the fixed loop.

But Goff is quick to point out there’s a difference between fighting the system and choosing to explore new paths outside the system. He says everyone should be jumping more tracks: “Not with a militancy. Not with a black arm band around your arm, just saying what you’re against. But with a resolve.”

And what can you expect to find off the beaten path? Adventure, and good company. “I’ll know more about my character, and I’ll know more about Jesus,” he says. “I’ll meet a lot of cool people.”

9. Crowd-Surf Each Other

At a speaking event, Goff met a man who had just received word that his 8-year-old son had been diagnosed with leukemia. Someone suggested everyone lay hands on him and pray for healing.

“That means the four dudes next to him put hands on him, and the guy in row 50 is really just putting hands on the guy in row 49,” he says.

Not satisfied with this set-up, Goff called out, just as the group was bowing their heads, “Let’s crowd surf this guy.”

So the man was passed up and down the rows of the auditorium. “That’s the picture that’s etched in my mind,” he says. “This man in agony and delight.”

Goff, who is big on physical touch, doesn’t shake hands. “If we say we’re the body of Christ, let’s act like it,” he says. “Let’s stop treating this faith thing like it’s a business trip. I want us to treat it like it’s a family. Family picks up the phone. Family surfs each other. Family hugs each other.”

Goff’s personal policy is to hug whoever he meets. It doesn’t suit everyone’s comfort zone, but he says it’s part of his identity as a believer. And the benefit of breaking through these bubbles of security is being opened up to a deeper understanding of community.

“I’m the big winner,” Goff insists, on crowd-surfing others. “I understand more about my faith and the idea of being a body.”

10. Take the Next Step

Many people are passionate but often have no idea how to get where they want to end up. Goff says you don’t really have to. You just have to start.

“If I could do this Jedi move over a lot of people, I’d just tell them to take the next step,” he says. “And then the next step. You don’t know all the steps, but most people know the next step.”
And even if not, Goff says that’s no excuse. “I’m not that freaked out about knowing what the next step is. Because I know that if I trip, I’ll fall forward. I’ll be moving toward the next thing.”

20121124-123103.jpgThis week for our ‘Questions about Christmas’ sermon series I’ll be doing a sort of Midrash in the Moment. Randomly selecting your questions and answering them in the time allowed. It’ll be a little off the cuff and a little different than a normal worship service. Hopefully it’ll be fun and edifying too and if not…Dennis gets back soon.

Anyway, every Christmas season and I mean EVERY CHRISTMAS SEASON people ask me about the Virgin Birth and/or tell me they bite their tongue during that part of the Creed.

So I expect to get Virgin Birth questions this Sunday.

Here’s a great, hilarious and insightful spin on how some of our beliefs and scriptures can sound loony to a skeptic. It’s from Mr Deity which all of you should know….This is worth 3.5 mins of your time.

For the denser among us….the guy in the goatee, Mr Deity, is Yahweh. ‘Jesse’ is Jesus and Larry the neurotic OCD character is the Holy Spirit.

Chalk this one down as Worst Sermon Ever. 

I’ve already mentioned here before how my Advent and Christmas sermons are generally panned. The Advent ones for being too obscure. The Christmas ones for resisting sentimentality. P1290750-1

Here’s one I wrote based on the Book of Ruth. In case you don’t know, Ruth’s story finds its way into Jesus’ family tree in Matthew’s Gospel. I tried to imagine the Holy Family telling her story to the little Jesus.

It’s my favorite of the sermons I’ve written….but still everyone else votes ‘Worst Sermon Ever.’

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‘Your father and I read this story at our wedding,’ the young mother told her little boy. And when the boy asked why, his father told him that it was tradition. ‘It’s a love story,’ he said.

The lights from the menorah on the window sill made the boy’s dark room glow. The light of the candles danced off the colored Hanukah decorations. The smells of holiday food lingered in the house. Mary and Joseph were curled up with their little boy.

He’d taken the old, black family bible from its shelf in his room, and it now rested on his lap just as he sat on his mother’s lap. The bible was the kind with the thick, special paper in the front, the kind with gilt lines to fill in important dates: marriages, births, baptisms and, beneath those, lots of lines to sketch the family tree.

Mary had filled in the family tree before she was even properly married, before she started to show. At the time she’d been confused by a great many things, but she absolutely knew that one day it would be important for her boy to know: where he came from, who is ancestors were, and what kind of person they made him.

And so, every night before his parents’ kiss and lullaby, they would read him a story from the bible, a story about one of those names his mother had written on the front, cream-colored page of Joseph’s family bible.

He would point with his little boy finger at one of the names on the family tree. ‘Tell me a story about that one’ he would say. He was just a boy. He liked the adventure stories the best- the stories with action and danger, stories where God spoke like thunder or moved like fire and wind, stories like those of Abraham and Jacob and, of course, David- the boy who would be king.

But on this night the boy pointed to a different name, one he hadn’t pointed to before. ‘Tell me a story about that one.’ And his mother smiled and looked over at her husband. ‘We read this story at our wedding,’ she said. ‘It’s a love story.’ The boy looked skeptically at his mother as she began…

A long, long time ago, in the days when judges ruled… famine struck the whole land that God had promised his people. The stomachs of God’s people were grumbling and empty. Even in Bethlehem where you were born people went hungry.

There was a man on your father’s side of the family named Elimelech. Elimelech had a family and, like everyone else in the land, his family was starving.

‘What did he do?’ the little boy asked, ‘did God provide bread from heaven like in the story of Moses?’

And his mother said, no, not like that. Elimelech had to look out for his family so one night he and his wife and their two sons packed only what they could carry. In the cover of darkness, they snuck across the border and crossed through the muddy river into a new country, Moab.

Elimelech’s wife was a woman named Naomi. ‘Naomi means ‘sweetness,’ said the boy’s father, ‘but Naomi was anything but sweet.’

The little boy asked why that was and his father told him that no sooner did Elimelech’s family arrive in Moab than Elimelech died and Naomi was left alone with her two sons. A widow’s life is hard his mother explained. Don’t ever forget that.

At first things went well for Naomi. Her sons married two girls from Moab, Orpah and Ruth. They weren’t Jewish girls so their marriages would’ve been forbidden back in Bethlehem, but they were happy.  Naomi’s boys were married happily for ten years. They had food and money and work. After ten years both of Naomi’s boys died. Just like that, no one knows why.

And poor Naomi, she always worried in the back of her mind that they died because God was punishing her for something, perhaps for letting her boys marry unbelievers.

‘But God doesn’t do things like that, does he?’ the boy asked. No, his mother said, God doesn’t do that and she kissed the top of his head.

But Naomi felt she was being punished. She was left with two daughters-in-law, in a country where she didn’t belong, in a man’s world with no man, no husband, no sons.

‘What does she do?’ the boy asked. Naomi decided to return home, to go back to Bethlehem. ‘All by her self?’ he asked. An uncertain future seemed better to her than what she could expect if she stayed in Moab. So she packed up her things- again just what she needed- along with a photo of her husband and boys, and after her sons were buried, numb with grief, she just started walking… towards home.

‘Is that the story?’ the boy wanted to know.

No, his mother said and looked at the lights in the window. You see, her sons’ wives followed behind her. At first Naomi simply thought they wanted to say goodbye, to wave to her as she disappeared over the horizon. When they got to the outskirts of town, though, Naomi realized they weren’t just seeing her off. Orpah and Ruth, she realized, intended to stay with her, to go with Naomi all the long way back to Israel, back to Bethlehem.

‘Well, did they?’ the boy wanted to know. Not exactly, his mother replied. First Naomi turned around and yelled at them. She yelled at Ruth and Orpah. She told them to turn around, to turn back, to go home to their own families.

They didn’t belong with her. In her country they’d just be foreigners. They wouldn’t be welcome. I’m very grateful for you, Naomi told Ruth and Orpah; I pray that God would give you happiness and husbands. But go.

Ruth and Orpah, they just stood there- stubborn. Naomi yelled at them again, but she was really yelling at God. When Naomi was done cursing, she fell down weeping, crying in the middle of the road with traffic going by.

That was when Orpah decided to do as her mother-in-law asked. She gave her dead husband’s mother a long embrace and picked up her bags and walked back into town.

But Ruth, your great….grandmother, she wouldn’t budge. She wouldn’t leave Naomi to fend for herself. She just planted her feet in the dirt and put her hands on her hips and told Naomi that wherever Naomi went Ruth would be going too, wherever Naomi lived Ruth would be living there too, and the place Naomi died would be where Ruth would die.

Ruth, your great…grandma, she was willing to leave behind her home, family, country, even her religion just to care for someone else.

And God never told Ruth to risk all this. She never had a special word of calling like Abraham, never a vision like Moses, no dream like Jacob.

‘God really speaks to people in their dreams?’ the boy asked. Yes, he does, said the boy’s father.

Ruth and Naomi walked the long walk to Bethlehem in silence. Naomi didn’t speak a word until she introduced herself to the people they met in Bethlehem, but she didn’t say that her name was Naomi. Call me ‘Mara’ she told people.

‘Why would she change her name?’ the little boy asked. Mara means bitterness; Naomi was convinced that her life was already over. Remember, a widow’s life is hard. God’s Kingdom should belong to them. Don’t ever forget that. ‘I won’t,’ the boy promised.

Ruth and Naomi found a place to live in Bethlehem. Nothing fancy, not even nice, but Ruth tried to make the best of it. Naomi though just sat in the dark corner of the apartment and stared blankly through her tears and through the window. Ruth had promised to take care of Naomi and she wasn’t about to quit.

They still had no food so, after they settled, Ruth went out to the fields to scavenge what the harvesters left behind. She didn’t know it at the time, but the fields belonged to a rich man named Boaz. Boaz was family to Naomi.

Every day Ruth left to scavenge for food and every day she came home to Naomi’s bitter quiet. But one day, everything started to change.

One day, the same as any other, Ruth was working the fields, looking for leftovers.

On that day, Boaz came out to look over his property and check on his workers. He said hello and thanked them. Then he saw someone he didn’t recognize bent over at the edge of the field, a woman. He pointed to Ruth out in the distance and he asked his foreman: ‘Who is she?’

And his foreman told him all about Ruth and how much Ruth loved her bitter mother-in-law and how Ruth had risked everything to care for her.

Boaz listened to the foreman’s story, and later that day he walked out to the edge of the field. He said hello to Ruth. Then he did a strange thing.

‘What?’ the boy asked. He urged Ruth to scavenge only in his fields. He promised her that his men would never bother her and that they would even leave extra grain behind for her. Ruth stood in the sun and listened to Boaz tell her all of this.

Now, for the first time since her husband had died, it was Ruth’s turn to cry. She fell down at Boaz’s feet and wept and she told him that she was just a foreigner, that she deserved rejection not kindness.

Boaz just smiled gently and he said softly: ‘May God reward the love you’ve shown Naomi.’

When Ruth returned home that day, she told Naomi everything that happened with Boaz.

For the first time, Naomi pulled her wistful eyes away from the window and she said, almost like she’d been holding her breath for a great long while: ‘Bless you!’

When she said it, Ruth didn’t know whether Naomi was talking to her or to God.

‘Is that it?’ the boy wondered aloud, thinking it not nearly as exciting a story as David and Goliath.

No, his mother said. Nothing else happened to Ruth or Naomi for a while. Then one morning Naomi burst into Ruth’s bedroom and she told her that that day Boaz would be winnowing barley with his workers. Its long work, Naomi explained.

The whole town will be there to help. It’s like a festival. There’ll be food and music and dancing and wine, lots of wine, she said with knowing eyes.

Ruth still looked puzzled so Naomi grabbed her by the shoulders and told Ruth to take off the black clothes she’d been wearing since her husband died. Go take a long shower, Naomi told her. And when you’re done anoint your whole body with perfume and then put on a nice dress. You need to look beautiful in every way.

And when Ruth asked why, Naomi told her what she was to do.

That night, after the day’s work and the evening’s party, Boaz wouldn’t be going home. Instead he’d be sleeping in his barn. You’re to go to him, Naomi told Ruth. Go to him and lie down next to him.

‘What did Ruth say?” asked the boy. ‘Probably something like: let it be with me according to your word,’ his mother answered. Whatever Ruth said, she did everything Naomi told her. When she snuck into the barn that night, the band was still playing outside and Boaz was already fast asleep in the hay.

Before Ruth lay down in the straw next to Boaz, she tried to take off his shoes for him. She woke him up. I imagine he was surprised, said the boy’s mother.

When Boaz startled awake, he asked Ruth what she was doing there. And Ruth blushed and panicked. Naomi had told her what to do, but not what to say.

‘What did she say?’ the boy asked.

Ruth told him that if he really wanted to care for her, if he really prayed that God would reward her kindness to Naomi, if he really wanted to help her care for Naomi, then he would marry her.

‘She asked him to marry her?’ the boy asked surprised.

Yes, and Boaz said yes. And he let Ruth sleep there next to him that night.

In the morning, before the sun came up or anyone else awoke, Boaz told Ruth to meet him that afternoon at the gateway that led into town. That’s where he would marry her.

And before Ruth left that early morning, Boaz gave her a gift of barley. He helped load the bag of barley onto her back. Your great-grandma Ruth, she always told people that that morning, helping her with the barley, was the first time they ever touched.

Mary could see that her boy was drifting asleep. So they married, she concluded. And they had a boy named Obed. And he became King David’s grandfather, and, without them, you might not be here with us…

Joseph crept up and blew out the lights on the menorah, and Mary tucked her little boy into bed. And with half open eyes, the little boy said that God wasn’t even in that story. God didn’t say anything or do anything or appear to anyone.

And Mary kissed the word made flesh on the forehead and she said that sometimes God’s love is revealed to us in our love for one another.

Sometimes God is in the person right in front of you. That’s what the story’s about, she said.

And of all the people in the world, only Mary knew just how true that was.

Christmas is a season for questions:

Why a virgin birth?

Why does Jesus come in the first place? Why can’t God just forgive us?

Is Jesus really human or did he just seem human? Is Jesus really divine or did he just seem divine?

What if there’d been no Fall- if we hadn’t sinned? Would Jesus still have come?

I’ve already received a ton of good questions from you all, more than I can respond to by email.

P1290750-1It’ll be Jason unfiltered, which could lead to a lot of ‘ummmms’ and inadvertent off color vocabulary but it may just be fun and edifying too.

 

 

Every year at Advent, when the Mary scriptures come around, I compose what are generally received as terrible sermons. I don’t intend to but I’m also not surprised by the reaction. You see, Mary’s experience is so unique she is unlike any other character in scripture.  It’s also the case that the Protestant Church generally does her a disservice by ignoring her outright. To address the former and remedy the latter, I always try to write sermons that privilege Mary’s voice. I avoid making her an illustration of a larger point. I avoid making her experience analogous to our own. I avoid distilling her narrative down into ‘points.’

Instead I just try to let her story speak for itself, which proves difficult because that requires a lack of explanation listeners can find puzzling or just downright confusing. Of course, with Mary, there’s also the tricky issue of yours truly, an obviously manly man, assuming the voice of a woman but that’s an issue for another day.

For all their failure as sermons, Mary has given me some of the best writing I’ve done (at least I think so.)

Case in point- and definitely in the Final Four for Worst Sermon Ever- is this sermon,  ‘The Visitation,’ from a few years ago. The text was the visitation of Mary and Elizabeth in Luke. In it, I tried to narratively imagine Mary’s journey to Elizabeth’s house and the thoughts running through her head, having just been visited by the angel Gabriel. In doing so, I also attempted to weave into the text the many Old Testament narratives Mary’s story hearkens back to- something only bible nerds were able to notice because, again, I refused to stop and explain what I was doing.

So, terrible sermon but decent piece of writing for Advent.

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Her hands kept shaking even after he departed from her.

She gasped and only then realized sheʼd been holding her breath, waiting to see if heʼd reappear as suddenly as heʼd intruded upon her life. His words had lodged in her mind just as something new was supposedly lodged inside her.

He mustʼve seen how terrified she was. ʻDonʼt be afraid,ʼ heʼd said to her.

In those moments after he departed, she just stood there, looking around her bedroom. The posters on the wall, the books on the shelf, the homework on the desk, the dirty laundry20121124-123103.jpg on the floor in the corner- in the aftermath of an angelʼs glow, it all seemed very ordinary.

It was an unlikely place for a ʻvisitation.ʼ There wasnʼt anything there in her bedroom to confuse it for a holy place. It was just ordinary.

Looking around her room, she caught a glance of her reflection in the mirror. And so was she: ordinary, not anyone that anyone else should ever remember or notice, not someone youʼd pick out like a single star in all the sky.

Yet, thatʼs just what heʼd told her.

Sheʼd been chosen. Somehow, in the days ahead of her or already right now, God would come to exist in her belly.

The thought made her shake again.

She looked out her window, up at the multitude of stars in the night sky.

ʻDo not be afraid,ʼ heʼd told her.
Those same words, she knew, had been spoken long ago to Abraham.
Do not be afraid, Abraham had been told in the moments before God pointed

to the stars in the sky and dared Abraham to count them, dared Abraham to imagine and believe that for as many stars as there were in the sky so his descendants would be.

She liked the thought, as unbelievable as it sounded, that through her and her baby the whole world would be blessed.

Still, she knew enough scripture to know that the angelʼs words, ʻDo not be afraid,ʼ were auspicious words. She knew the child promised by God to Abraham and Sarah was the same child whose sacrifice God later required.

She knew the story- it was the sort of story you canʼt forget even if youʼd like to- how God one day told Abraham that the promised son would have to suffer and be sacrificed on top of a mountain. How the son obeyed and followed his fatherʼs will all the way up the mount, carrying wood. How they built an offering place up there. How the son was spared only when it was clear how far the father would go.

 

She used to wonder how God could ask anyone to give up something so precious.

But now, looking out at the stars and rubbing her belly, she wondered about Sarah, Abrahamʼs wife, the boyʼs mother, and what Sarah would have done if God had asked her to follow her boy to his death.

The wondering made her shake again. ʻDonʼt be afraidʼ she whispered to herself.

As the late night turned to early morning she resolved to leave home.

A part of her wanted to see for herself the truth of the angelʼs words growing inside Elizabeth.

A still bigger part of her knew the angelʼs news would make her a stranger now in her own home, perhaps a stranger forever.

Nazareth was a small town; in a town that size thereʼs no room to hide.

And she didnʼt want to be at home when her body started to change, when the neighbors started whispering questions about legitimacy.

And she didnʼt want to remain at home and face her fiance, not yet. The angel could say nothing is impossible but she knew, chances were, everyone would suspect the worst about her before theyʼd believe the truth.

With haste, she packed her belongings into a duffel.

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She folded her jeans and some blouses and wondered how long sheʼd fit into them. She zipped her bag shut and sadly glanced at the wedding dress hanging in her closet. Seeing it, she knew it would be too small on her wedding day, should that day ever come.

ʻFavored one,ʼ thatʼs what heʼd called her. Favored one. But now, hurrying before anyone else in the house awoke, it seemed more burden than blessing.

ʻFavored one.ʼ

She hadnʼt known what to make of such a greeting when she first heard it.

ʻFavored one.ʼ

Hannah had received that same greeting. Hannah, who hadnʼt let the gray in her hair or the crowʼs feet around her eyes stop her from praying ceaselessly for God to fill her barren womb with a child.

Eli, the haggard priest, had called Hannah ʻfavored oneʼ just before he spilled the news of her answered prayer.

But packing the last of her things and clicking off the bedroom lights she recalled that even for Hannah a blessing from God wasnʼt so simple. Even for Hannah the blessing was also a summons.

Hannah had prayed holes in the rug for a child but as soon as Hannah weaned her son, God called her to give her boy to Eli, the priest. Hannahʼs boy was to be consecrated.

 

Tiptoeing through the dark hallway, she wondered how Hannah had explained that to her husband. She wondered what it had been like for Hannah, who lost out on all the memories a mother counts on: his first words, learning to walk, the first day of school, homecoming and his wedding day.

Everything Hannah had wanted when sheʼd wanted a child sacrificed for the purpose God had for her boy.

Hannah- sheʼd been called ʻfavored oneʼ too.

Leaving her house in the cold moonlight, she thought that Godʼs favor was also a kind of humiliation, that Godʼs call was also a call to suffer.

ʻLet it be with me according to your word,ʼ sheʼd told him when she could think of nothing else to say. But if she prayed now for God to let this cup pass from her, would he?

ʻLet it be with me according to your word,ʼ sheʼd said.

Standing out under the streetlight and looking back at the house where sheʼd grown up, she realized it wasnʼt that simple.

Things would never be simple again.

Elizabeth lived in the country outside Jerusalem, several days journey from Nazareth. Sheʼd stop in villages along the way to draw water from their wells.

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She knew what others must have thought: a young girl, a single woman, resting at a well all by herself raised eyebrows.

It was in those moments with men and women staring at her, making assumptions and passing judgments, she wondered if the angel knew what sort of family her baby would be grafted onto.

Names like Rahab and Ruth leapt out, a prostitute and a foreigner. Not the sort of family youʼd expect to be chosen.

She wondered what that said God.
And what her boy would one day make of it.
At night she camped out in the fields along the road where the only noise came from the shepherds and their flocks.

She got sick for the first time out there in the fields.
It was then she began to wonder about the stranger she would bring into the

world. Who will this be? she thought. Here is something that is most profoundly me, my flesh and my blood, the sheer stuff of me, depending on me and vulnerable to me. And yet not me, strange to me, impenetrable to me.

Sheʼd asked him there in the room how it would happen. She hadnʼt gotten much in the way of explanation.

“The power of the most high will overshadow youʼ is how heʼd answered. ʻOvershadowʼ was the word heʼd used. She was sure of it.

 

She still didnʼt know how that worked exactly. She hadnʼt felt anything. But she knew that word, ʻovershadow.ʼ

Itʼs what God did with the ark of the covenant when David brought the ark to Jerusalem with dancing and jubilation and not a little bit of fear. The power of the most high overshadowed the ark.

And before that when God delivered Israel from bondage and led them to freedom through the wilderness, in the tabernacle, the presence and power of God overshadowed.

Now, the most high had overshadowed her, and, if the angel could be believed, God was about to deliver on an even bigger scale.

Sleep came hard those nights on the road. Sheʼd look up at the sky and rub her nauseous belly. It made her dizzy trying to comprehend it: how she could carry within her the sign and the seal of the covenant, as though her womb was an ark; how the hands and feet sheʼd soon feel pushing and kicking inside her were actually the promises of God.

Made flesh.

As soon as she saw Elizabeth in the distance she knew it was true. All of it.

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Seeing Elizabeth, it hit her how they were immeasurably different.

Elizabethʼs child will be seen by all as a blessing from God. Elizabeth will be praised, the stigma of her barrenness finally lifted.

But for Mary, as soon as she started to show, it would be different.

A young girl, engaged, suddenly pregnant, with no ring on her finger, no father in sight and her fiance none the wiser? That invited more than just a stigma. She could be stoned to death.

She could see from the end of the road the beautiful contradiction that was Elizabeth: the gray wiry hair, the wrinkled face and stooped back, and the 6 month pregnant belly.

To be sure, Elizabeth was a miracle but it was not unheard of. Sarah, Hannah…Mary had grown up hearing stories of women like Elizabeth.

Mary knew: hers was different.
An unexpected, miraculous birth wasnʼt the same thing as a virgin birth.
With Mary, it was as if the angelʼs message- Godʼs words- alone had flicked a light in the darkness of her womb.

Life from nothing- that was the difference. Not from Joseph or anyone else.
From nothing God created life.
Inside her.

From nothing.

The same way, she thought, God created the heavens and the earth: from nothing.

The same way God created the sun and the sea and the stars. The same way God created Adam and Eve.
From nothing.
As though what she carried within her was creation itself.

The start of a new beginning.
To everything.
A Genesis and an ultimate reversal all in one.

As she walked up Elizabethʼs driveway, she considered the costs that might lie ahead, and with her hand on her stomach she whispered to herself: “The Lord has done great things for me.”

 

 

 

Recapturing Advent

Jason Micheli —  December 1, 2012 — 1 Comment

As stated here previously, Stanley Hauerwas is one of my theological heroes, not the least because he’s paved the way for someone like me to be frequently contrary, often inappropriate and usually badly dressed. Stanley, a militant pacifist, has done much to help the Church recover its identity as a witnessing minority to a world that knows not God. Or, as the Jews put it, to be “a light to the nations.”  Here’s a short reflection that’s worth a quick look see: Recapturing Advent

 

Kirk-Cameron-Mike-Seaver-growing-pains-2It will surprise about no one, I expect, that I loathe those Left Behind novels, the serial fiction that imagines the Rapture (while simultaneously imagining it is in any way a Christian reading of revelation).

Besides the terrible theology of the books, the films are guilty of reviving Kirk Cameron’s acting career, a sin by itself for which the authors should be left behind to perdition.

Even though the books are wrong in their interpretation of scripture, they are-surprisingly to you perhaps- appropriate to this Advent season. 

At the end of the Great Thanksgiving, the prayer I pray over the Eucharist, it says: ‘By this meal, make us one in Christ and one in ministry to all the world until Christ comes back and we feast at his heavenly banquet.’

Whether we know it or not, every time we share communion we’re praying for Jesus to come back.

The direction of our hope is not our departure, it’s his return. 

A major theme of our Christian hope centers on the ‘parousia’ (the second coming) of Christ. It’s this second coming that Revelation prays for when it says ‘Come, Lord Jesus’ (22.20).

Traditionally, the season of Advent- the season before Christmas- is about the parousia, the second coming of Christ, not the first.

This is why the assigned scripture for Advent worship is so often taken from Old Testament apocalyptic passages and harsh passages from John the Baptist.

To many modern Christians, a hope in Christ’s return seems antiquated and irrational. Too many Christians do not know what to make of this hope if it’s not to be cast in the fantastical way contemporary apocalypticism paints it.

But as theologian David Tracy rightly warns: ‘Without the hope of the Second Coming, Christianity can settle down into a religion that no longer has a profound sense of the not-yet, and thereby no longer has a profound sense of God’s very hiddeness in history.’ To lose hope in the Second Coming, in other words, is to accommodate the faith to the world’s status quo.

It’s to grow complacent with the way things are and lose our faithful restlessness with what can be because it will be. 

So if it’s an important hope, as Tracy suggests, what does it have to teach us? The doctrine of the Second Coming first of all grounds Christian hope as hope in someone

We don’t hope to ‘go to heaven’ when we die if what we mean by that is a vague, billowy by-and-by. Confronted by the problems of the world, we don’t hope in abstractions or concepts like justice or freedom or peace. We hope in Jesus. Our hope for things like peace and justice and freedom only find their coherence in our hope for Jesus’ reign.

The doctrine of the Second Coming means our hope for the future is not an unknown hope. The future is not totally unknown to us. Because the future is Jesus’ return, we’ve already seen it in Jesus’ life and death.

If Jesus is the fullness of God revealed in the flesh, then there is nothing about the future we haven’t been given glimpses of in the Gospels. The future will not be at odds with the forgiveness, grace and mercy already shown to us in Christ. 

The doctrine of the Second Coming affirms that God’s final purposes will be consistent with what God has already done. Jesus Christ, who was perfectly faithful unto the Cross, will not abandon us or creation in the future.

We need not fear judgment because the Judge is the Crucified Jesus.

And that Judge has already been judged in our place. 

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What Is Advent?

Jason Micheli —  November 29, 2012 — Leave a comment

It’s been brought to my attention that many (Christians and Non) have no idea what some Christians mean by the season of ‘Advent.’ I guess that’s to be expected. Many Christians in the Reformed Tradition don’t observe Advent or Lent.

Here’s this essay by Rob Bell from Relevant Magazine, reflecting on the meaning and purpose of this season of ‘preparation.’

 

Christmas is coming. It may seem like it’s way too soon to be talking about trees and lights and presents and eggnog and all that. But Christmas is the culmination of Advent, and Advent is about the church calendar and the church calendar is something we never stop talking about.

So that’s what I’m writing on here: Advent. But to talk about Advent, we need to talk about sound, and then time and then Spirit.

First, then, a bit about sound.

If you are quiet enough in your kitchen, you will hear a noise. It is a continuous sound, a long, droning noise with no particular beginning or ending. It has very little, if any, dynamic range. It may go up and down in volume, but those changes are rarely perceptible. It is the same flat noise, and it goes on and on and on, hour after hour, day after day. If it’s loud enough, it can grate on the nerves, but otherwise it’s simply there.

Making that sound, mostly unnoticed, there in the corner of your kitchen.

It is the buzzing of your refrigerator.

Now for another noise. I’m currently listening to the new Jónsi album (he of Sigur Rós fame), which I’ve had on repeat for a number of weeks now. From the first bleeps, squawks and chirps of the first song, the album is full of noises. Drums, voices, piano—the noises stop and start, come and go, they’re loud and quiet. Some notes sustain for a measure or two, others come and go within the second. The kick drum rumbles, the cymbals clang, the strings flutter. All those sounds work together to make something compelling, inspiring, beautiful, evocative, confrontative, urgent, hopeful, honest or peaceful—something that sounds stunning.

And so it is noise, it is the sound—but it is a particular, intentional arrangement of those noises and sounds that make it what we commonly refer to as music.

Two kinds of noise, two variations on sound—one we call music and the other we call refrigerator buzz.

Next, then, a bit about time, because time is a lot like sound. A song works because the noises and sounds and voices and drums are arranged with a precise awareness of time. Music divides time up into beats, giving time a shape, a flow, a pattern, a rhythm.

We’ve all experienced the low-grade despair that comes when our days blend into each other—wake up, eat breakfast, brush teeth, go to school or work or the office, change another diaper, do another load of laundry, write a check, fill a tank, cook a meal and then repeat it all over again the next day.

One day looks like the next, everything starts to feel the same, life starts to feel like the existential equivalent of refrigerator buzz.

And that, of course, takes us back to the Exodus. (Didn’t see that coming, did you?) The story of those Hebrew slaves being rescued from Pharaoh isn’t just a story about the God who rescues people from having to make bricks every day—it’s about the God who rescues people from other kinds of slavery as well. Namely, the one involving time.

Life in Egypt was comprised of making bricks for the Pharaoh every day, all day.

Bricks, bricks, bricks, eat, sleep, more bricks, bricks, bricks. Tomorrow will be just like today: bricks, bricks, bricks.

When the Israelites are rescued, however, God gives them commands, one of the most urgent being to take a Sabbath day a week, a day unlike the others. A day without bricks.

Six days you shall work, but on the seventh, don’t. Why is this so monumental? God gives them rhythm. But not the rhythm of sound, the rhythm of time. Life before was an interminable succession of sevens. Seven, seven, seven.

But now, their time is broken up, measured, arranged with a beat: six and one, six and one, six and one.

God is the God of the groove.

We need rhythm in our time—it’s what makes one moment different from another. It gives shape and color and form to all of life.

The first Christians understood this—that time, like sound, is best when broken up, divided and arranged into patterns and rhythms. And so they created the church calendar. A way to organize the year, a way to bring variance to our days, a way to find a song in the passing of time.

For example, Lent. For the seven weeks leading up to Resurrection Sunday, we practice sober awareness of our frailty, sins and smallness. It starts on Ash Wednesday when those ashes are traced on our foreheads in the shape of the cross, a tactile reminder of our origins in the dust. From there we come, and to there we will go.

You want to really live, the kind of living that drains the marrow from every day? Then start by facing your death, your weakness, your smallness. We spend seven weeks facing our death and despair and doubt, entering into it with the fullness of our being—heart, mind, emotions—we leave nothing behind.

We do this for a number of reasons, chief among them the simple truth that Sunday comes after Friday. Only when you’ve gotten through, not around “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” are you ready to throw the only kind of Resurrection party worthy of the occasion—that Sunday when we run huffing and puffing from the open tomb, beating our pots and pans in that clanging raucous outburst that begins with those three resounding words: “He is risen.”

That day when all the amps are turned up to “11.”

But that’s not the end—don’t let your pastor start a preaching series on tithing or marriage that next week—because Resurrection is just the beginning. On we go to the season of Pentecost—the celebration of the Spirit, the One who moves in mysterious ways. Jesus is not with us in body, He’s with us in Spirit. He’s risen, but He’s also here, in ways that transcend language, and so reflect on this for a season, tuning your radar to the divine presence in every moment of every day.

And so we’re headed somewhere, we’re coming from somewhere else, and we’re doing it together, as a community of disciples, as a church.

Finally, then, a bit about Spirit. Because Spirit, it turns out, is a lot like sound and time.

The first thing Spirit does in creation is move. That tells us the deepest matters of the Spirit are constantly moving, shifting and morphing. The life of the spirit is a dynamic reality, taking us through a myriad of emotions, experiences and states of being.

Sometimes we’re exhausted, other times we’re overwhelmed with doubt. Sometimes we’re on top of the world and everything is going smoothly, other times we find ourselves standing in the midst of the wreckage, surrounded by smoldering flames, wondering how it all went so wrong.

What the church calendar does is create space for Jesus to meet us in the full range of human experience, for God to speak to us across the spectrum, in the good and the bad, in the joy and in the tears.

This is the crime of only singing happy victory songs in church (we often ask sad people to sing happy songs)—half of the Psalms are laments.

The math should move us on that. The Bible is not a collection of war chants from victors—it’s an incredibly varied collection of writings reflecting an intensely diverse amount of postures, moods and perspectives.

A lot like how life is, actually. Sometimes you’re furious with God, other times you’re madly in love.

The issue then, as it is now, isn’t just getting us out of Egypt—it’s getting the Egypt out of us.

Rescuing us from sameness, dullness, flatlined routine, reminding us that however we’re feeling, whatever we’re experiencing, wherever we are in our heart—the Spirit waits to meet us there.

And that takes us to Advent. Advent, then, is a season. Lots of people know about holidays—one day a year set apart. The church calendar is about seasons, whole periods of time we enter into with a specific cry, a particular intention, for a reason.

Advent is about anticipating the birth of Christ. It’s about longing, desire, that which is yet to come. That which isn’t here yet. And so we wait, expectantly. Together. With an ache. Because all is not right. Something is missing.

Why does Advent mean so much to me?

Because cynicism is the new religion of our world. Whatever it is, this religion teaches that it isn’t as good as it seems. It will let you down. It will betray you.

That institution? That church? That politician? That authority figure? They’ll all let you down.

Whatever you do, don’t get your hopes up. Whatever you think it is, whatever it appears to be, it will burn you, just give it time.

Advent confronts this corrosion of the heart with the insistence that God has not abandoned the world, hope is real and something is coming.

Advent charges into the temple of cynicism with a whip of hope, overturning the tables of despair, driving out the priests of that jaded cult, announcing there’s a new day and it’s not like the one that came before it.

“The not yet will be worth it,” Advent whispers in the dark.

Old man Simeon stands in the temple, holding the Christ child, rejoicing that now he can die because what he’d been waiting for actually arrived.

And so each December (though Advent starts the last Sunday of November this year), we enter into a season of waiting, expecting, longing. Spirit meets us in the ache.

We ask God to enter into the deepest places of cynicism, bitterness and hardness where we have stopped believing that tomorrow can be better than today.

We open up. We soften up. We turn our hearts in the direction of that day. That day when the baby cries His first cry and we, surrounded by shepherds and angels and everybody in between, celebrate that sound in time that brings our Spirits what we’ve been longing for.

Here’s the post 

Christmas Movies be damned. How many times can you watch Die Hard? And Chevy Chase just isn’t funny.

No, the best thing about this time of year is David Sedaris. He’s my muse.

If you don’t know him, you should. Sedaris is a comic essayist, popular enough that he reads his essays to packed concert halls. He’s also a frequent guest on This American Life, my favorite part of Saturday mornings.

Sedaris has this Christmas essay, 6-8 Black Men. It originally appeared in Esquire. You can listen (I’d recommend it as his voice makes all the more enjoyable) to a YouTube recording below. If this doesn’t make you piss your pants laughing you have no soul.

Seriously, give it a listen. This could be the best 14+ minutes of your holiday season.

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Originally published in December 2002

I’ve never been much for guidebooks, so when trying to get my bearings in a strange American city, I normally start by asking the cabdriver or hotel clerk some silly question regarding the latest census figures. I say silly because I don’t really care how many people live in Olympia, Washington, or Columbus, Ohio. They’re nice enough places, but the numbers mean nothing to me. My second question might have to do with average annual rainfall, which, again, doesn’t tell me anything about the people who have chosen to call this place home.

What really interests me are the local gun laws. Can I carry a concealed weapon, and if so, under what circumstances? What’s the waiting period for a tommy gun? Could I buy a Glock 17 if I were recently divorced or fired from my job? I’ve learned from experience that it’s best to lead into this subject as delicately as possible, especially if you and the local citizen are alone and enclosed in a relatively small space. Bide your time, though, and you can walk away with some excellent stories. I’ve heard, for example, that the blind can legally hunt in both Texas and Michigan. They must be accompanied by a sighted companion, but still, it seems a bit risky. You wouldn’t want a blind person driving a car or piloting a plane, so why hand him a rifle? What sense does that make? I ask about guns not because I want one of my own but because the answers vary so widely from state to state. In a country that’s become so homogenous, I’m reassured by these last touches of regionalism.

Guns aren’t really an issue in Europe, so when I’m traveling abroad, my first question usually relates to barnyard animals. “What do your roosters say?” is a good icebreaker, as every country has its own unique interpretation. In Germany, where dogs bark “vow vow” and both the frog and the duck say “quack,” the rooster greets the dawn with a hearty “kik-a-ricki.” Greek roosters crow “kiri-a-kee,” and in France they scream “coco-rico,” which sounds like one of those horrible premixed cocktails with a pirate on the label. When told that an American rooster says “cock-a-doodle-doo,” my hosts look at me with disbelief and pity.

“When do you open your Christmas presents?” is another good conversation starter, as it explains a lot about national character. People who traditionally open gifts on Christmas Eve seem a bit more pious and family oriented than those who wait until Christmas morning. They go to mass, open presents, eat a late meal, return to church the following morning, and devote the rest of the day to eating another big meal. Gifts are generally reserved for children, and the parents tend not to go overboard. It’s nothing I’d want for myself, but I suppose it’s fine for those who prefer food and family to things of real value.

In France and Germany, gifts are exchanged on Christmas Eve, while in Holland the children receive presents on December 5, in celebration of Saint Nicholas Day. It sounded sort of quaint until I spoke to a man named Oscar, who filled me in on a few of the details as we walked from my hotel to the Amsterdam train station.

Unlike the jolly, obese American Santa, Saint Nicholas is painfully thin and dresses not unlike the pope, topping his robes with a tall hat resembling an embroidered tea cozy. The outfit, I was told, is a carryover from his former career, when he served as a bishop in Turkey.

One doesn’t want to be too much of a cultural chauvinist, but this seemed completely wrong to me. For starters, Santa didn’t use to do anything. He’s not retired, and, more important, he has nothing to do with Turkey. The climate’s all wrong, and people wouldn’t appreciate him. When asked how he got from Turkey to the North Pole, Oscar told me with complete conviction that Saint Nicholas currently resides in Spain, which again is simply not true. While he could probably live wherever he wanted, Santa chose the North Pole specifically because it is harsh and isolated. No one can spy on him, and he doesn’t have to worry about people coming to the door. Anyone can come to the door in Spain, and in that outfit, he’d most certainly be recognized. On top of that, aside from a few pleasantries, Santa doesn’t speak Spanish. He knows enough to get by, but he’s not fluent, and he certainly doesn’t eat tapas.

While our Santa flies on a sled, Saint Nicholas arrives by boat and then transfers to a white horse. The event is televised, and great crowds gather at the waterfront to greet him. I’m not sure if there’s a set date, but he generally docks in late November and spends a few weeks hanging out and asking people what they want.

“Is it just him alone?” I asked. “Or does he come with some backup?”

Oscar’s English was close to perfect, but he seemed thrown by a term normally reserved for police reinforcement.

“Helpers,” I said. “Does he have any elves?”

Maybe I’m just overly sensitive, but I couldn’t help but feel personally insulted when Oscar denounced the very idea as grotesque and unrealistic. “Elves,” he said. “They’re just so silly.”

The words silly and unrealistic were redefined when I learned that Saint Nicholas travels with what was consistently described as “six to eight black men.” I asked several Dutch people to narrow it down, but none of them could give me an exact number. It was always “six to eight,” which seems strange, seeing as they’ve had hundreds of years to get a decent count.

The six to eight black men were characterized as personal slaves until the mid-fifties, when the political climate changed and it was decided that instead of being slaves they were just good friends. I think history has proven that something usually comes between slavery and friendship, a period of time marked not by cookies and quiet times beside the fire but by bloodshed and mutual hostility. They have such violence in Holland, but rather than duking it out among themselves, Santa and his former slaves decided to take it out on the public. In the early years, if a child was naughty, Saint Nicholas and the six to eight black men would beat him with what Oscar described as “the small branch of a tree.”

“A switch?”

“Yes,” he said. “That’s it. They’d kick him and beat him with a switch. Then, if the youngster was really bad, they’d put him in a sack and take him back to Spain.”

“Saint Nicholas would kick you?”

“Well, not anymore,” Oscar said. “Now he just pretends to kick you.”

“And the six to eight black men?”

“Them, too.”

He considered this to be progressive, but in a way I think it’s almost more perverse than the original punishment. “I’m going to hurt you, but not really.” How many times have we fallen for that line? The fake slap invariably makes contact, adding the elements of shock and betrayal to what had previously been plain, old-fashioned fear. What kind of Santa spends his time pretending to kick people before stuffing them into a canvas sack? Then, of course, you’ve got the six to eight former slaves who could potentially go off at any moment. This, I think, is the greatest difference between us and the Dutch. While a certain segment of our population might be perfectly happy with the arrangement, if you told the average white American that six to eight nameless black men would be sneaking into his house in the middle of the night, he would barricade the doors and arm himself with whatever he could get his hands on.

“Six to eight, did you say?”

In the years before central heating, Dutch children would leave their shoes by the fireplace, the promise being that unless they planned to beat you, kick you, or stuff you into a sack, Saint Nicholas and the six to eight black men would fill your clogs with presents. Aside from the threats of violence and kidnapping, it’s not much different from hanging your stockings from the mantel. Now that so few people have a working fireplace, Dutch children are instructed to leave their shoes beside the radiator, furnace, or space heater. Saint Nicholas and the six to eight black men arrive on horses, which jump from the yard onto the roof. At this point, I guess, they either jump back down and use the door, or they stay put and vaporize through the pipes and electrical wires. Oscar wasn’t too clear about the particulars, but, really, who can blame him? We have the same problem with our Santa. He’s supposed to use the chimney, but if you don’t have one, he still manages to come through. It’s best not to think about it too hard.

While eight flying reindeer are a hard pill to swallow, our Christmas story remains relatively simple. Santa lives with his wife in a remote polar village and spends one night a year traveling around the world. If you’re bad, he leaves you coal. If you’re good and live in America, he’ll give you just about anything you want. We tell our children to be good and send them off to bed, where they lie awake, anticipating their great bounty. A Dutch parent has a decidedly hairier story to relate, telling his children, “Listen, you might want to pack a few of your things together before you go to bed. The former bishop from Turkey will be coming along with six to eight black men. They might put some candy in your shoes, they might stuff you in a sack and take you to Spain, or they might just pretend to kick you. We don’t know for sure, but we want you to be prepared.”

This is the reward for living in Holland. As a child you get to hear this story, and as an adult you get to turn around and repeat it. As an added bonus, the government has thrown in legalized drugs and prostitution — so what’s not to love about being Dutch?

Oscar finished his story just as we arrived at the station. He was a polite and interesting guy — very good company — but when he offered to wait until my train arrived, I begged off, saying I had some calls to make. Sitting alone in the vast terminal, surrounded by other polite, seemingly interesting Dutch people, I couldn’t help but feel second-rate. Yes, it was a small country, but it had six to eight black men and a really good bedtime story. Being a fairly competitive person, I felt jealous, then bitter, and was edging toward hostile when I remembered the blind hunter tramping off into the Michigan forest. He might bag a deer, or he might happily shoot his sighted companion in the stomach. He may find his way back to the car, or he may wander around for a week or two before stumbling through your front door. We don’t know for sure, but in pinning that license to his chest, he inspires the sort of narrative that ultimately makes me proud to be an American.

I’ve received a number of questions this week, asking exactly when we started celebrating Christmas.

 

Here’s my answer:

Time was important for early Christian worship beyond the weekly Sunday gathering.

The first Christians inherited from their forebears a calendar of Jewish feasts and seasons. Taking this way of arranging the calendar, the early Christians reconfigured it according to their witness to the Risen Christ.

The Christian year quickly became an annual rehearsal of anticipation, incarnation, resurrection and indwelling. Interestingly- and surprising to many North American Christians today who think of Christmas as the most important holy day- the original feasts of the church year were:

Epiphany, when, having been met by the magi, Jesus is glorified by the gentile world.

Easter: when God raises Jesus from the dead.

Pentecost: when God sends the Spirit to indwell the Church and send it into the world.

Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising considering what the Gospels themselves seem to stress and value. After all, only Matthew and Luke narrate what could be considered conventional ‘nativity’ stories. For all four Gospels, Jesus’ baptism is the catalytic scene, Easter is the lens through which the entire story is read back and Pentecost is, as St Augustine called it, the ‘season of joy.’

As the Church grew and spread further from Jewish soil the Church took care to routinize the Christian year and ground time more firmly in the context of Christ’s story.

By the end of the third century the Christian calendar looked like this:

Epiphany——————Easter———————Pentecost

In just another century though the Christian calendar looked like this:

Epiphany Easter Pentecost
Christmas 12.25 Palm Sunday Ascension
Jesus’ Circumcision 1.1 Maundy Thursday Pentecost
Epiphany 1.6 Good Friday  
Presentation in Temple 2.2 Holy Saturday  
  Easter Day  

It wasn’t until the 4th century, after Constantine converted to Christianity and effectively made it the established religion of Rome, that the Church started celebrating Christmas. We did so by co-opting the Roman holiday of Saturnalia. 

The winners get the holidays, in other words. Christmas was originally not an essential holy day to the Church just as 2/4 of the Gospels do not mention Jesus’ birth.

Recognizing this, it’s important for Christians not to abstract the incarnation out of the larger story the Gospels seek to tell and the early Church first celebrated: the resurrection and ascension of Jesus as Lord and King.

 

One of John Wesley’s mandates to his pastors was that they be ‘punctual’ in all things. In fact, this is one of the vows the bishop asked me to make at my ordination- along with another Wesley mandate to avoid unseemly debt, which we all sniggered at, weighed down as we all were/are by student loans.

I’ve been thinking about that mandate to be punctual, to never tarry too long, to never be late. Specifically, I’ve been wondering if maybe Wesley’s point should be applied to more than just church meetings and worship services?

Perhaps JW’s mandate forbids us Wesleyans from being behind the times too?

Just as my vow to be punctual in all things meant I shouldn’t show up late to a Trustees meeting, I wonder if maybe it also means my Church should stop- routinely- showing up late to the marketplace of ideas, should stop tarrying so long in the past that it misses present cultural trends, only to belatedly make an appeal for ‘relevance’ that inevitably smacks desperately of just the opposite?

Alright so I’m a Tamed Cynic, but I’m still a cynic. How can I not be?

For example,  the United Methodist Church has recently jumped on the Bill O’Reilly ‘Take Back Christmas’/Mike Slaughter ‘Christmas Is Not Your Birthday’/Emergent Church ‘Advent Conspiracy’ bandwagon….several years behind the curve.

Before you know it we’ll be putting ‘Lord I Lift Your Name on High’ in our hymnals…oh wait…never mind.

If the UMC truly wanted to get ahead of the curve, we’d ditch the Heifer Project model and praise regular ole materialistic gift-giving as a way both to boost the economy and model the inner life of the Trinity in which Father, Son and Spirit are constantly exchanging gift and grace to one another (maybe that’s a bit heady for Xmas).

Macro-picture rant: the very suggestion we should Reclaim/Take Back Christmas implies that everyone who celebrates ‘Christmas’ (ie, the culture) is Christian. That lie, and it always was a lie, died sometime during the Ike Administration if not at Plymouth Rock. Christmas is the story of the incarnate God revealed in the flesh of a peasant baby to a shamed teenage mother in a small pocket of the globe to the very least of society and was ignored, written-off or outright rejected by…people like you and me.

Not to mention the whole Reclaim/Take Back language suggests none of us participate or encourage the very capitalist system from which we need to rescue Christmas (as if Jesus needed our rescuing…).

So let everyone do what they will at Xmas time. Maybe we Christians should just worry about how we- not others- celebrate the Feast of the Incarnation.

Anyways, here’s a post I could’ve written myself by a Jesus Lover/Cynic after my own heart:

Am I the only one who is shaking my head at what our friends at Rethink Church are doing this season? The marketing arm of the United Methodist Church is now joining in the battle to “Reclaim Christmas.” It was bad enough that the whole Rethink Church thing happened at almost exactly at the same time that famous chicken join (not the homophobic one) launched their “Unthink” campaign in the same font and colors.

It is quite possible that the words “rethink” and “Christmas” put together are almost as tired and loaded as “Christmas” is by itself. No comment yet from evangelical publishing house Zondervan who started using this marketing gimmick on Facebook in 2009. Or from Benjamin Husted and family who wrote a book about it in 2006. Or from Keep Christmas Alive who started it in 2005. Or the RETAILERS (you get that?) who tried to do the same in 1999.

One ally may be a woman that I helped by loading her groceries in her car in 1993. She had this bumper sticker on her 1977 Plymouth. I’d imagine she is delighted. But she’s also likely dead, and the bumper sticker had little chance of surviving the Cash for Clunkers purge.

It is fitting for my church to be 20 years behind on this, because it is on everything else, too.

Seriously friends, what do we really need to “reclaim” about Christmas? For years, I’ve been one of those jerks who has been saying that if we need to reclaim anything it is Advent. It is impossible to understand what a “Christ” celebration means without also understanding why Christ came and will come again. It is impossible to get what the incarnation means without examining that for which your spirit and all creation longs.

Let the kids have Christmas. Let it be a cultural thing. Let Macy’s decorate their store windows on Halloween. Let the city put up a giant tree on public property. Sing trite songs about other dead and gone things like sleigh bells and Yul Brynner Yule logs. And have fun with it.

But, if we are going to claim to be followers of Jesus, we also must know our Christ. And a marketing campaign isn’t going to make that happen any more than “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” made the UMC open and affirming of all people. So let’s save the clever stuff for people selling cars and bunless chicken sandwiches, and let’s get back to the business at hand: promoting personal piety and spreading scriptural holiness. Like Advent, that is something worth reclaiming.

Here’s the full post.