The Phone Call

I received a message on my phone the other day from a concerned parishioner. She is part of the Gab ‘n Grow study group that meets on Wednesday afternoons at the church. At the study group, she has been trying to convince me that Christmas isn’t as bad as I am making it seem. It might have some issues, but it certainly still has some redeeming qualities that cannot be overlooked. So I had to chuckle when I listened to the message that was left.

During group that week, I reiterated the story to them about searching through Target for the word “Christmas” and being sorely disappointed that the only words that seemed to be printed were “Happy Holidays”. (See “Skipping Christmas“ – Part 1 for more on this experience.) She informed me that she had just gotten back from Target and that there was indeed a large printed sign with the words “Happy Holidays” hanging above the rather large section containing all of the holiday ornaments and other holiday paraphernalia. But what I had missed – and what she couldn’t wait to tell me – was that on the other side of this sign was an equally large printing of the words “Merry Christmas”. Checkmate! The game is won! See, even Target still celebrates Christmas!

I openly laughed at the absurdity of the discussion. Here we were having a friendly discourse about the meaning of Christmas and we were using the existence (or lack thereof) of words printed on signs inside of large retail establishments. (“No, really, there must have been a virgin birth. Wal-Mart is still stocking ‘Christmas’ wreaths, not ‘Holiday’ wreaths!”)

It occurred to me at that point that I may be playing the part of Ebenezer Scrooge even though I am not meaning to do so. Have I been looking for reasons to discount Christmas as an exercise in obscene consumerism today? Have I been unintentionally adding to people’s frustration and issues that they have, making it worse for people by pointing out all of the negative aspects of the holiday? Have I set people up for failure rather than for freedom?

This same friend told me in the class that I needed a Christmas miracle. I think she might be right. I do need a miracle. But I don’t think that I am alone.

The more I think about it, the more I understand that Christmas is a personal holiday with a public dimension. I guess that could be said of many of our Christian holidays now, and I’m not sure that this is how it is meant to be. The Christian Church has been spending a lot of time in recent history preaching about Jesus as one’s “personal Savior” whose sacrifice has washed away all of our “personal sins”. So it isn’t surprising that we have become a Christian culture obsessed with our own personal standing with God and not nearly as interested in the societal sin that has permeated (and actually become) our Western (and in particular) American lifestyles. We have added to the inequity that permeates our current economic system by being complicit in the takeover of Christmas by the consumerism of Santa Claus and his orgy of gift-giving to all of the good boys and girls. I didn’t know that Christmas had much of anything to do with the birth of Jesus Christ until I was almost a teenager. Fortunately, I feel that this current reality is being challenged. Miracles are happening.

Many churches are reminding people in not-so-gentle ways of the true meaning of Christmas and challenging people to give money not only to family and friends but also to others. And I’m not just talking about “Toys for Tots” or “Adopt-a-Family” programs. I’m talking about Third World relief efforts, the feeding and clothing of the hungry, and other social and economic justice issues. Churches are using this time of year to raise awareness of global suffering and inequities in our social systems and are challenging people to take action not just financially, but politically and physically as well.

That’s the miracle that I needed to be reminded of – the miracle that Jesus was born and everything changed. This is a season of birth, of beginning. This isn’t the end of the story, this is just the start. The miracle is that it was all begun by the birth of a Savior King so many years ago.

In that moment, I realized that having my “Swiss Christmas” isn’t about skipping anything. It’s about restarting things and acting responsibly in a necessarily fresh and new way. It is a clean slate and a new beginning. It’s not about re-discovering Christmas. It’s about uncovering what has been there all along.

Mail Call!!

If your house is anything like mine, you’ve been receiving all of the circulars and advertisements for Pre-Christmas sales, Black Friday sales, and the ever-popular Holiday sales. I’ve also been receiving a fair amount of email advertisements to try to get me to make my special purchases in time for those special items to be shipped to all of those special people on my list. All of the advertising I can ignore in my effort to maintain my Christmas neutrality. (My new mantra – “I am Switzerland!”) After all, I don’t plan on spending much at all this year. I owe nothing to those Madison Avenue types that are trying to separate me from my money in an effort to make me feel guilty for not taking part in their idea of “spreading Christmas cheer” which inevitably ends up with me owing money on my credit cards well after I get tan lines and mosquito bites in the new year.

But guilt started to set in the other day as I went through my mail. I received my first Christmas card of the year. Now I’ll be honest. I have never been really good about getting out my Christmas cards most years. But I at least look them over in the store and talk to wife about the possibility of getting them out at some point before Christmas most years. But as part of my “Swiss” Christmas, I am not even planning on sending out cards this year. To be honest, I hadn’t given it much more than a passing thought until I went to my mailbox that day.

So here I sit contemplating what to do about this Christmas card. How do I maintain my neutrality toward Christmas in this situation? If I open it, do I somehow waive my position by taking part in this Christmas ritual? If I don’t open it, is that rude on some level? And what if I don’t contact this person by sending a return Christmas card? What if I see them at some event and they ask me if I received their card? What do I say then? This is suddenly getting more difficult. Okay, maybe this “Swiss” Christmas thing was a bit drastic. Maybe we can do a “French” Christmas instead. You know, we could talk a good talk but then end up caving in the end.

But wait. Why am I doing this in the first place? I’m not skipping Christmas to avoid the season all together. I’m pretty sure that Robyn and I want to rediscover what Christmas is actually about. I don’t exactly know why this person sent me a Christmas card, but I don’t think it was to give me a moral dilemma or to make me feel guilty. On the contrary, it was probably sent out to take this opportunity to say “Hi” to friends that don’t see each other too often in this far-too-busy world. It was probably just a way of saying “we’re thinking of you” and “we miss you”.

So I’ll open this Christmas card (and all of the other ones that come) and I’ll say a prayer of thanks for people that love me and my family. And some night in the not-so-distant future, I’ll take a moment to write them a note letting them know that I’m thinking of them, too. Maybe I’ll even wait until next month so they can pause just as I’ve done and be thankful for the community of love and friendship that surrounds them as well.

The Search for the Slogan

Early on, I tried to capture the idea behind what I was doing to a Bible study class I was holding. They asked me why on earth I was skipping Christmas. I tried as best as I could to explain it to them, but the right words just wouldn’t come. I said that I expected to have new traditions and new purpose next year, but that I needed a year off. It was a year to clear my Christmas brain and figure out what was important. I think I even said something about Jesus actually being born in April or something.

But the more I spoke, the more perplexed and troubled everyone looked. Was I crazy? Was this just some reason to be controversial? It seemed like such a great idea at the time, but now I wasn’t so sure. I said that this year I was indeed throwing the baby out with the bath water, but that it was okay. I’d find the baby next year. (Given that I work with Child Protective Services in my secular job, this analogy didn’t go over very well.)

So I asked my wife how I might be able to explain it to people. She has a knack for coming up with analogies that set people back for a moment, but make really good sense in the end. I told her that I thought this year was kind of like a “Christmas enema” – it might not be the most pleasant thing to go through, but it can be very cleansing in the end. Thankfully, she didn’t think that sounded too good.

She decided that this would be our “Swiss Christmas”. I have to admit, I thought she was going somewhere with a cheese analogy at first. But she was thinking more along the lines of the geo-political spectrum. This year, we would be Christmas “neutral”. We weren’t really going to celebrate, but we weren’t going to skip it either. We were going to stay out of the way and let others do their thing.

There it was. A slogan was born. Now I could tell people that I was having a Swiss Christmas. It was so much better that telling them that, “No, I was in fact not getting ready for Christmas.” I was able to say a much gentler, “We’re keeping it mellow this year.” No big political statement. No looks of utter confusion or, worse yet, fear. No, this was a year to just observe and take it all in.

And then, the mail came.

The Word Gets Out

I’m a pastor. Pastors don’t just “skip” major holidays on the Christian calendar. Advent was coming in about a week, and I had to make some quick decisions. How was I going to break it to the congregation about my bold, new initiative to skip one of the most holy days of the year? As grace would have it, there was a way to start the conversation.

Over the summer, we cleaned out the church. When I say “cleaned out”, that’s what I mean. Almost all of the junk that had accumulated over the past ninety years or so was either sold, given away, or thrown out. Included in all of that was all of the old Christmas decorations and the fake Christmas tree that we used in the sanctuary. I took the opportunity to make an announcement in church on the Sunday just before Thanksgiving. This year, we were not going to spend money purchasing new Christmas decorations. We would do something different; something to get us back to the true meaning of Christmas. We were going to decorate the sanctuary with all sorts of nativity sets provided by the congregation.

I also announced that Robyn and I would be skipping Christmas in our own home. This would mean that the parsonage would be undecorated, there would be no Christmas tree at the parsonage, and that we would not be getting gifts for anyone.

Unfortunately, this announcement in the middle of a worship service did not come as good news to everybody. After the service, I was approached by a few people wondering why we would not have a tree in the sanctuary. The problem, it seemed, was that a tree was needed to supply the names and gift ideas of the people for whom we were purchasing gifts.

I also seem to have miscalculated the willingness of the family to go along as well. Some of my family members were in the congregation that day, and had already purchased Izzie some Christmas gifts. They were upset and worried that we were taking Christmas and away from her. It seems that my announcement did not go as smoothly as I had hoped.

So I backtracked, a little. The following Sunday, I told the folks in the congregation that a Christmas tree was fine in the sanctuary, but that we would not be spending church money to purchase it. To ensure that my craziness didn’t spread any further, I put someone else in change of decorating the sanctuary. As it ended up, I actually let the church use my own personal fake tree in the sanctuary. After all, I wasn’t going to need it.

As for presents, we let everyone know that it was fine for them to purchase gifts for any of the three kids, but that it wasn’t a necessity. To my shock, this came as a relief to most members of my family and congregation. Even more surprising, there are more than a couple of people joining us in our “Christmas skipping” revolution. And almost everyone I know is taking a fresh new look at what they have done in the past and are opting for reduced Christmas activities this year. (It’s amazing what $3/gallon gas and $5/gallon milk will do to a budget.)

But “skipping” Christmas sounds so harsh. And it’s not even accurate. We’re not skipping it. We’re trying to find the true meaning this year. What we needed was a catchy slogan…

In the Beginning

It all started out as a simple enough idea. All we were going to do was skip Christmas this year. We had no reason not to. We are both broke; Elisabeth is only a little over a year old, so she won’t remember; Rebekah and Caleb are staying in New York with their mother and step-father this year; and Robyn and I have been extremely busy over the past few months. Not having to deal with all of the additional work of decorating, buying gifts, and generally being “jolly” was going to be a relief. On top of that, we have both been desperately trying to fight the tide of consumerism in our culture. Taking a break from Christmas this year would go a long way to breaking that cycle.

Or so we thought.

As I sat and pondered exactly what to do with this newfound resolve, I realized that skipping Christmas was going to be difficult. Yet I was even more sure that it was the right thing to do. But my mind wasn’t completely made up until that last trip to Target.

One evening, Robyn and I took the baby to Target to pick up a few needed items. It was before Thanksgiving, but they had all ready put up their “Holiday Season” display. There were a full twelve aisles of “holiday” decorations, “holiday” necessities, and various fake trees in all sorts of “holiday” colors. Upon closer inspection, I found the word “Christmas” printed in a few places such as on some of the “holiday” wrapping paper and “holiday” cards. And way in the back, on one four-foot section of shelving, I found the three different nativities that were being sold in that store.

To be honest, I was neither upset or surprised by all of this. Retail stores have been struggling with the secular nature of the “Holiday Season” and have wondered what to do about the “Christmas” part of it. Some companies, like Wal-Mart, have chosen to stay with the traditional “Merry Christmas” while many other companies have chosen to go with the more politically-correct “Happy Holidays”. I wasn’t even bothered that the nativities were neatly hidden in the back of the store.

But what did bother me is that there wasn’t any sign of any of the other holidays in the “Holiday Season” display. Nothing at all existed for those that were celebrating Kwanza. And what little existed in the store for Hanukkah wasn’t found in the “Holiday Season” section. I found it all halfway across the store on the end of the office supplies aisle.

So it seems that the “Holiday Season” according to Target has something to do with the birth of Christ, but they don’t want to come right out and say it. It’s the hidden meaning behind it all. Which made it easy for me to skip Christmas this year.

Robyn and I made a promise to each other as we stood in those aisles trying to find the word “Christmas” associated with all of those decorations and fake trees. This was NOT how we were going to raise Elisabeth. We would not succumb to the temptation of making Christmas something that it is not. Now, more than ever, it was important for us to put our foot down. We were going to SKIP CHRISTMAS!!

Now, what am I going to tell everyone.

I’ve been reading Brian McLaren’s newest book, “Everything Must Change”. I am not all of the way through it, but it is incredible. I had felt as though his previous books lacked a sense of clarity. This work brings much of the cloudiness of his vision of the Kingdom of God into sharp focus. On top of that, this book gives a finely crafted theological argument upon which to build this vision.

There is so much to say about this book, but I don’t want to jump the gun. My mind has been racing while I’ve been reading and I need some time to let it all soak in.

So, have you ordered the book yet? I got my copy at Overstock.com.

McLaren vs. Osteen

I just ordered my copy of Brian McLaren’s newest book, “Everything Must Change”. I can’t wait to get it. I read the first few pages at Border’s the other day, but they were selling the book at full price, so I went online and ended up buying it for $5 less after shipping on Overstock.com. It should be here in a couple of days.

In the meantime, I’ve been doing some comparative analysis. McLaren’s book came out within about a week of the release of a new book by “America’s Pastor”, Joel Osteen. What a stark contrast between the two pastors and about the messages contained in these books.

When I did a search for each book on Amazon.com, I found editorial reviews from Publisher’s Weekly for both books. Here is what they said about McLaren’s new book:

“Starred Review. McLaren, a leader in the emerging church, issues a salvo of arguments for radical hope in the face of profound dilemmas. The prolific author and pastor identifies the earth’s four deep dysfunctions that have created a suicide machine: crises in prosperity, equity, security and spirituality. What could change, he asks, if we applied the message of Jesus—the good news of the kingdom of God—to the world’s greatest problems? Here McLaren builds on the theme of his 2006 book The Secret Message of Jesus—that bringing about the kingdom means transforming the world we live in—to propose that we create a hope insurgency. Using a close reading of the Gospels to challenge conservative evangelicals’ emphasis on individual salvation, not to mention end-times theology and, by implication, the prosperity gospel, McLaren argues for establishing a beloved community based on justice, peace, equality and compassion. McLaren’s conclusions are not new, but his ability to be clear and persuasive—and get the attention of a segment of America’s Christians—are exceptional. While his critics will find yet more material for challenging McLaren’s views, his supporters will consider this book a riveting call to a new conversion. (Oct. 2)” – Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

And about Osteen’s new book, “Become a Better You”, Publisher’s Weekly had this to say:

“Megachurch pastor and bestselling author Osteen follows up Your Best Life Now with this disappointingly unoriginal Christian self-help book. The seven subtitular steps to improvement include instructions to develop good habits, better relationships and an inner life. Osteen balances mind-over-matter pep talks with claims that God wants to bless faithful people with successes. The future is always promising, because God never performs His greatest feats in your yesterdays. At the same time, in order to receive God’s blessing, one must back up prayers with action, obey, maintain a positive attitude toward life and do the right thing with the right motives. Some of Osteen’s advice is sound; for example, he suggests that if you are forgiving and kind to colleagues and friends, they’ll cut you slack when you have crabby days. Other suggestions—like writing down a big goal and posting it on your mirror or desk—are unremarkable. Laced throughout are anodyne first-person vignettes; Osteen struggled with frustration when his favorite restaurant announced a 45-minute wait. The hurried Osteen went to a nearby burger joint, only to have a brief encounter that changed another customer’s life. Voilà—God turned Osteen’s disappointment into blessing! Though this book is destined for strong sales, it offers nothing innovative. (Oct. 15)” – Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Even a search of their respective websites has much to say about each of them as pastors and as individuals. The website for McLaren’s church, Cedar Ridge Community Church, has a simple design and talks about the activities and community of the church on its home page. The website for Osteen’s church, Lakewood Church, has at least three pictures of Osteen and a very prominent link to where we can buy his latest book. It also has a few prominent story leads about Osteen’s recent appearances of Good Morning America and the church’s status in Outreach Magazine.

Their individual websites continue this same pattern. Osteen’s personal webite has more links of his speaking on Larry King, the CBS Early Show, and Good Morning America as well as links to purchase his books. McLaren’s personal website is simple in design and does have a very prominent link to his book. But it also has links to liturgical resources and invitations to dialogue and get involved.

Okay, I may be a little skewed toward McLaren. I’ve read many of his books and agree with his take on the current state of the Church and the direction that we must go now. But more than that, I simply have a problem with the way in which Osteen presents himself. The message of Jesus Christ was not meant for us to become a “better you”, it was meant to change the world. And Osteen’s use of the term “America’s Pastor” is disconcerting.

But I think what has gotten me most uptight is that Osteen’s book is currently one of the best selling books in the U.S. McLaren’s book has hardly made a ripple. But among young pastors, I think that we will almost all be reading McLaren’s book and I can’t think of one person that will pick up Osteen’s. In other words, Osteen may be able to make a lot of money, but McLaren will have a far more lasting impact on the Church.

When I get the book, I’ll let you know.

The video from Izzie’s birthday.

More video at YouTube.

And you can see pictures at Flickr!

The hands of faith have a hold on me

It has taken some years to feel it’s grip

I struggle to understand what it all means

Some of it’s pain and some of it’s joy

It comes and it goes no matter my mood

The questions I have I may never know

I just hope that someday

I will see

How the hands of faith got a hold of me

Matthew 26:36-39a”Then Jesus went with them to a garden called Gethsemane and told his disciples, ’Stay here while I go over there and pray.’ Taking along Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he plunged into an agonizing sorrow. Then he said, ‘This sorrow is crushing my life out. Stay here and keep vigil with me.’ Going a little ahead, he fell on his face, praying, ‘My Father, if there is any way, get me out of this. But please, not what I want. You, what do you want?’ When he came back to his disciples, he found them sound asleep.”

As most of you know, I work another job on top of my duties as pastor of this Church. I have the distinct privilege of being with a company which works with parents that are in the process of reunifying with their children after they have been taken into custody by the State of Maine. It is mentally trying work, but it can be very rewarding at the same time. Seeing children leave our care and go back home to live with their biological parents after as much as two years away is an incredible thing to witness.

Unfortunately, I have seen the other side, too.

I have worked as a Family Visit Supervisor for almost one and a half years now. In that time, I have taken part in five “goodbye” visits where the children have been removed from the home permanently because the parents have been unable to recover from their mistakes and problems. Those visits are very difficult, even when you know deep down that it is probably for the best. One mother broke down and sobbed uncontrollably as I drove away with her two young children in my car. Another one couldn’t handle the pain and simply asked that I take away her infant son back to the adoptive home very early in the final visit. Still another father welled up with tears as he gave his three-year-old daughter a picture of himself and asked her to “always remember” him.

As I said, it can be a mentally difficult job.

Whenever I do these visits, I always struggle for words to say to ease their pain. Most often, the kids are not the ones that are hurting at that moment. It’s the parents. The parents understand the enormity of the moment. They understand that these “goodbyes” don’t lead to another “hello”, at least not for a very long while. I still haven’t found anything that I can say that would seem to make it any easier or give them a sense of hope. But I have found that an empathetic smile, a touch on the arm, or a simple look into their eyes has a way of calming them. For a pain that is so obviously beyond words, it only makes sense that words cannot contain a sense of hope.

I think that is what makes Jesus’ statements in the Garden of Gethsemane so profound for me. Jesus knew that the most difficult moment in his life was coming, and he simply wanted someone to be there with him. He wasn’t looking for anyone to say anything. He didn’t want someone else to do it for him or share the pain. He wasn’t looking for anyone to do anything, except maybe God. He was simply looking for someone to be there with him and care enough to not fall asleep. And he couldn’t even get that. He faced all of the pain of the cross completely and totally alone.

As I’ve said many times, we live in a world that is losing hope. But I think more than that, we live in a world that is losing “touch”. We can talk and debate and communicate and argue all day long, but we seem to be losing our sense of community. As our understanding of the world gets larger through the use of technology and media, our strong personal relationships seem to be suffering. As we are bombarded with images from across the globe, we struggle to know our neighbors, our friends, and our families.

Jesus would say that we have fallen asleep.

Is that an alarm clock that I hear?!

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