Archive for the 'Christmas' Category

The Unfinished Work of Christmas

On Christmas Day, a colleague in ministry said on Facebook, “I’ve just finished my first Christmas Eve worship marathon.” She’s in her first year on the staff of a mid-sized church. I replied that sharing the Christmas story with all those people in all those different ways reminds us clergy that “it’s not about us”. We’re privileged to open ourselves as instruments to share “…good news of great joy for all the people.” (Luke 2:10)

I didn’t run this year’s marathon. I’ve run a few dozen, including during my Lutheran interim pastorate the past two years. In mid-December, our UM pastor asked for volunteers to help with the 9 and 11 PM Christmas Eve services. My wife started to sign us up. But I said not this year. We’d already planned to share the 5 PM Family service with our family, sing with the choir at the 7 PM service, and then go to our daughter’s home for supper. No Christmas marathon for me this year. I’m retired!

The next day (Christmas Eve) Rufus the Wonder Dog took me for our early morning walk. We hadn’t gone far when we heard sirens. Sirens are a daily occurrence in our neighborhood. We live about a mile from a hospital and not far from major streets. I said a prayer for the people those sirens were racing to help.

Later that morning Dianna and I set out to pick up the tamales we’d ordered for Christmas Eve supper. We stopped for lunch along the way. From our table by the window I watched “Henry” talk to some pedestrians. They appeared to be having a pretty intense discussion. Finally those folks gave him some money and moved on. Henry moved out of my view. A little later we saw “Alice” walk by on the sidewalk. She appeared to be intensely engaged in a spirited conversation with–herself. “Alice” was neatly dressed–down to her ankles. She wore serviceable socks, but no shoes. How long, we wondered, would “Alice” be able to function before some crisis overwhelmed her? How would “Alice” spend this Christmas?

While we ate our lunch, “Henry” moved to the parking lot. We met him when we went outside. “Henry” said he’d been arrested recently on a minor misdemeanor, spent a night in jail, and then released to make room for higher-priority offenders. His papers appeared to confirm his story. He sought enough money to take the bus to his minimum-wage job in a distant part of town. I found his story sufficiently believable. I violated my rule of not giving money to folks who ask for cash. If Henry was being honest, I  wouldn’t let a few dollars keep him from getting to his job on time. If not, it was on him. My wife gave him her leftovers, as she often does with obviously hungry folks. I wonder how “Henry” spent Christmas.

“The Work of Christmas”–Howard Thurman

Around 4 PM we set out for the church and the first of those two Christmas Eve services. When we stopped at a traffic light, we saw a woman we’d noticed before at that corner. On this particular (50-degree) day “Sharon” wore a thin top, shorts–and nothing on her feet. She too appeared to be carrying on an animated conversation with an invisible partner. We wondered about her as we had about “Alice”. How long before some crisis (pneumonia?) overwhelmed her?

Those three “street people” helped me rethink my choice not to “work” this Christmas Eve! Howard Thurman’s prophetic vision of “The Work of Christmas” came alive in those Christmas Eve encounters. “Henry”, “Alice”, and “Sharon”–and those sirens–call us to the true “work of Christmas”. Charity is huge in December. We do toy drives. We organize Christmas dinners for the poor, the homeless, and the lonely. We sing carols in hospitals and nursing homes. We support numerous good causes–and some not-so-good ones.

Much seasonal charity is band-aid work at best. Granted, band-aids may help stop the bleeding and begin the healing. But seasonal charity rarely leads to lasting change. The givers feel good about meeting an apparent immediate need for food, shelter, or companionship. But the new year dawns with the recipients’ situations unchanged. The homeless are still outside in the cold, the poor are still desperately destitute, and the broken are still wounded and vulnerable.

Centuries before Christ the prophet Micah defined the work of Christmas: “…what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8) The work of Christmas calls us beyond charity to justice–and far more. “The Work of Christmas” means doing all in our power to help the ancient prophetic vision of Shalom come true for all of God’s precious children within our reach. Most Christians most of the time the time oversimplify the Hebrew word’s meaning to “peace”. But “shalom” is far richer and deeper. God’s Shalom loose in the world is transformative and revolutionary.

In his book “Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin”, Dr. Cornelius Plantinga described the Old Testament concept of shalom: “The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight is what the Hebrew prophets call shalom. We call it peace but it means far more than mere peace of mind or a cease-fire between enemies. In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness and delight – a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.”

“The Work of Christmas” does whatever it takes to let this Good News loose into every nook and cranny of life, and every dark corner of Creation. In Luke’s gospel, Mary and Zechariah sing of Shalom as they anticipate Jesus’ birth (Luke 1:46-55; Luke 1:67-79):

“Through the heartfelt mercies of our God, God’s Sunrise will break in upon us,
Shining on those in the darkness, those sitting in the shadow of death,
Then showing us the way, one foot at a time, down the path of peace.” (Luke 1:78-79 MSG)

The Work of Christmas is 24/7/365 life-changing, world-changing work, by all who follow Jesus and welcome God’s New Day of Shalom, on behalf of our neighbors and the whole Creation. On our Christian calendar, the Twelve Days of Christmas are almost over. But the Work of Christmas continues. Let’s get to work!

 

 

 

 

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Alaska Journal 3–The Power of Weakness

I intended to write this soon after Part 2, which I posted nearly a month ago. But Life intervened, first in the form of my granddaughter’s curiosity about the Frank Schaefer trial. She stimulated me to write “This Is Our Witness?” Impulses that strong usually generate some of my best writing, so I’ve learned to go with them. Life also intervened in the form of family Thanksgiving, including grandchildren, travel, and miscellaneous fun. Life’s apparent interruptions also put me in sync with God’s timing, which always trumps my hyper-scheduling and micro-managing. I think you’ll agree that this last part belongs in the Christmas season.

Two churches, Galena Bible Church (GBC) and St. John’s Roman Catholic Church, serve the 500 people who live in Galena, Alaska, the town where I worked last summer as one of 80+ United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (UMVIM) helping with Yukon River flood recovery. Our team worshiped with GBC both Sundays we were in town. (Some will say we went to church in order to share the potluck feast that followed worship each week.) A few of us built shelves for GBC’s community pantry one day. This church of 21 members facilitated the work of another 220+  volunteers. Their cots, sleeping bags, and luggage were stacked around the edges of GBC’s multipurpose room all week, sometimes even during worship on Sunday. One Sunday a power tool battery sat in its charger on the platform just a few feet from Pastor Chris Kopp as he preached. The Altar Guild didn’t revolt because of the unorthodox liturgical decoration. For me the “functional” décor proclaimed that worship is meaningless if it doesn’t fuel and focus the church’s ongoing involvement in the life of its community—power tools and all!

Battery charging on the platform during worship.

I wanted to know more about GBC’s engagement with its community. But our team was involved with our work and Pastor Chris was rushing madly in all directions much of the time. After returning home, I emailed him and asked him to tell me more about the church and its ministry. He described how the church had called him as their pastor three years earlier. Eighteen months into his ministry he began working with GBC’s leaders to discern the church’s future direction. Study, dialog, prayer, and fasting led them to affirm that “…our gospel goal was that in five years we wanted any long-term resident of Galena to say two things about us: first, those are a group of people that love and care about each other. Second, those are a group of people that love and care about us.”

“Those are a group of people who love and care about each other.” It’s not rocket science, folks! Our life together is our most powerful witness to our immediate neighbors. Pastor Chris led that GBC congregation beyond “liking one another” to loving each other: “Just as I have loved you, Jesus told his disciples, “you also should love one another.” (John 13:34).By the way, Pastor Chris would insist that at most he’d led folks to be open to the Holy Spirit. That in itself is huge.

The quality of a church’s common life speaks powerfully to its neighbors, for better or worse. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples,” Jesus continues, “if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35). Tertullian was a bishop in North Africa in the late second and early third centuries. The Christians under his care generously shared food, clothing, jobs, whatever they had that others needed. Love erased boundaries between believers and non-believers. Tertullian wrote that such love moved non-believers to say with amazement, “See how these Christians love one another!”

 GBC has grown (and continues to grow) into a community of people who deeply and truly love each other.  GBC had also unknowingly positioned itself to respond to last May’s disastrous Yukon River flood. Pastor Chris says that when the flood came, “What else could we do but respond according to the burden that God had put on our hearts?”  GBC partnered with parachurch mission agencies, its supporting churches, local, state, and federal government agencies to bring help and hope into the stricken community. How did this church of 21 members, most of whom were coping with flood damage to their own homes and to the church, pull it off?   “It is impossible to explain…,” according to Pastor Chris, “other…than to say it was the power of God made evident in our weakness. “

Sounds like Christmas to me. Peel away the layers of tradition and commercialism and we find two peasants welcoming their first child into the world in a stable far from home and family. We who follow Jesus see in this story God’s limitless, world-creating love going to incredible, unfathomable extremes to heal the brokenness between God and humanity. Love empties itself, sets aside power and privilege, and takes on our human weakness in an out-of-the-way corner of the Roman Empire. Thirty years later this baby grows up and starts traveling through the countryside teaching people a whole new way to understand life, God, and one another. His enemies engineer his execution, but he doesn’t die. Jesus’ followers insist that his life continues in them and beyond them. An early Christian hymn affirms “…in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” (Colossians 1:19) At Christmas “all the fullness of God” chose to enter our world in “…the power of God made evident in…weakness”. “All the fullness of God” focused in one human life lived in very humble circumstances: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” (John 1:14 MSG) The people of Galena, Alaska know that as the people of GBC love and serve their neighbors day after day through “the power of God made evident in our weakness”.

“…In five years we wanted any long-term resident…to say two things about us: first, those are a group of people that love and care about each other. Second, those are a group of people that love and care about us.” It’s a worthy mission/vision for churches of all sizes, shapes, styles, and settings. It’s a great way to proclaim Good News without getting too many words in the way. It’s a way to celebrate authentic Christmas: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” Your neighborhood. My neighborhood. That neighborhood we’re afraid to drive through, especially after dark. Every neighborhood. Everywhere. For ever and ever. Amen.

Living Toward the Light (Flood Journal 2)

The house we’re living in while our “water incident”-damaged home is repaired is only about three miles away. But it feels much farther. We’re a little higher up the mountain. The neighborhood is more densely wooded. The houses are farther apart. It gets much darker much more quickly.

That’s why Carson and I walk less at night. Neither my aging eyes (yes, I admit it!) nor his nine-year-old dog eyes work well in the dark. Our eyes need light to see! I have no desire to run into four-legged strangers larger than a rabbit, especially a coyote or javelina with a temper—and an appetite for a 17-pound Shih Tzu. Carson’s self-image is “Fierce Invincible 100-lb. Rottweiler Lap-Dog”. But four-legged strangers don’t always see that side of him.

Our ritual morning walks continue. Lately, however, they’ve started in “deep darkness” as the days have grown shorter. We walk east the length of our quarter-mile driveway to the road. Our “light” as we set out is at most a very faint hint in the east. By the time we’ve followed Carson’s meandering route and turned back toward the house, the light has begun to grow. As we turn around and walk west, the light is rising behind and around us. The light reveals the true identity of menacing shadows. They are rocks or bushes—just as they were yesterday, last week, and last year! Now, ten days past the winter solstice, we celebrate the light’s growth each day.

We longed for the light this past Advent season. Many people honestly wondered whether it would come. On a personal level The Flood dislocated us literally and spiritually. Newtown shocked the nation, even more so because it was the week’s second mass shooting, following the previous Tuesday’s incident in a Portland, OR mall. Congress again displayed its dysfunction as it failed to solve the “fiscal cliff” issue and left other critical legislation untouched. [I give our legislators minimal credit for today’s Band- Aid, assuming the House has sense enough to add its consent.] Syria and Egypt continued to be unstable in the Middle East with little hope for peace on that patch of earth. Extreme weather hammered much of our country while climate-change denial continued unabated. You can write the next verse as well as I.

But “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5 NRSV)  The Sunday after that horrific Friday our Methodist choir joined with Catholic and LDS singers in a community Christmas concert. It’s a long-standing annual tradition here in Chino Valley, Arizona. Some Christians in the community don’t care to associate with such a doctrinally-diverse group, but we just keep on singing. The young LDS missionary from Ogden, Utah who sang next to me struggled to fit this unique gathering into his worldview. We don’t agree on everything, but we agree on the joy of Christmas. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” After the concert, Dianna and I watched the Newtown Memorial service we’d DVR’d. Again we saw people transcending deep divisions to share comfort and hope. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” TV journalist Ann Curry invited us to do “26 Acts of Kindness”, one for each Newtown victim. Thousands of people responded. (I’m among those who count 28 victims, including Adam Lanza and his mother.)  “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Serious conversations around the issues of guns, mental health, and the pervasive violence in American culture are happening and will continue. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  It’s early, but some politicians show signs of growing enough backbone to confront ideological extremists with common sense. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  Recently my colleague Rob Rynders posted a blog titled “Why the UMC Needs an Era of Innovation.” It‘s so boldly visionary that I hear “realists” refusing to believe, mumbling, “It’ll never happen”. But Rob’s next post, “Innovative United Methodist Ministries”, lists eleven innovative ministries already in progress. That’s by no means all the newness blossoming in the wilderness, United Methodist or otherwise (cf. Isaiah 35). “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

I started writing this nearly two weeks ago, before Dec. 21 and the Winter Solstice. Shortly after Christmas, we experienced a period of extended moonlight. Carson and I really appreciate moonlight in the “deep darkness” of this land we now call home. The moonlight can be nearly as bright as the sun. But that brightness never lasts. That brilliant light happens because the earth, moon, and sun are aligned so that the maximum surface of the moon catches the sun’s light and reflects it to earth. But as the heavenly bodies move, that alignment shifts. Eventually we have moonless nights and “deep darkness”. (That’s more than I know about astronomy, so no follow-ups, please!)

On a recent morning walk (Carson calls it “Dawn Patrol”), I thought about how our lives of faith reflect Christ, the Light of the World. When we’re aligned with Christ, the light is as brilliant as that full moon that turns darkness to daylight. Folks see Christ in and through us with laser clarity. But when things get out of alignment, the darkness deepens. “Christ-in-us” is anything but clear and inviting. “Deep darkness” covers everything.

If I were a resolution-maker, 2013’s one resolution would be: “I will do all in my power, and be open to God doing all in God’s power, to keep my life aligned with Christ, the Light of the World, so that Light may shine through my life for all to see and live by”. We who follow Jesus are “The people walking in darkness [who] have seen a great light”. We know on this side of Christmas and Easter that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Never. Not ever. Thanks be to God!


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