Friday, December 23, 2011

Can Christmas Still Change the World? Yes!

Can Christmas still change the world?  Last week, our church concluded its series on the Advent Conspiracy, a book written by a group of emergent pastors who challenged the Western way of thinking regarding traditional Christmas practices (i.e. lavish spending) and instead promoted a more Christ-like approach, centered on the the idea that we should love others as God has loved us. 

 This year, we decided to incorporate our yearly Harvest offering (a BIG offering that we give each year to a certain global project) in with the Advent Conspiracy series, as it suggests for its readers to forego purchasing extra unnecessary gifts and instead give the money to a global need.  So instead of having it around November (which would coincide with the Harvest, normally, except this year excessive rain has forced many farmers to spend time on their combines well into December), we decided to hold the offering on the final Sunday of the series, as a tangible way to apply the message that has been given.

Like most Americans, I have been raised (immersed?  brainwashed?) in a consumer and product driven culture that promotes the Christmas season as being the perfect time to receive all of those things that I've so desperately wanted all year long.  My home (and many homes) echoes with the words "Just wait til' Christmas," which places an awful lot of pressure on the holiday as a time for dream-fulfilment.  I don't blame my family, or any other family for that matter; this is just what culture has taught us.  And in the church, we try to balance that message of "stuff" with the message of Christ.  Which, as I've gotten older, has become an increasingly difficult line to walk. 

And so, to be challenged by such a counter-cultural message as the Advent Conspiracy was an experiment to be sure; we know that Christmas can still change the world, and we know that Christ is changing the world, but are we willing to act on our knowledge, to forsake (or at least modify) our own traditions and practices to prove (with God working through us) that this is indeed true? 

Well, God reigns and breaks the chains of consumer culture!  Our congregation, with a regular attendance of around 180, gave over $17,000 this year to the Harvest offering!  This money, which could've been spent on meaningless frivolities, is now going to be used in mission work in Kenya, Palestine, Uganda, and East Africa to save lives.  As a church, we stood together and proclaimed God over and above ourselves. 

I write all of this not to brag on ourselves; this was not a work of Oak Grove Mennonite Church.  I write this to say that God still moves in big ways; He has worked through his servants, and He is glorified in this.  And creation, whom He loves so dearly, which is subject to the cruelty of greed and selfishness of humankind which seeks its own good over the well being of others, is being redeemed and restored back to God.  Amen and Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Offended by Christmas

Can Christmas still change the world?  This is the question that pastors Rick McKinley, Chris Seay, and Greg Holder ask in their book, and now church phenomenon Advent Conspiracy.  Can Christmas still change the world?  I believe that this is a very valid question, especially in our culture.  Because of the media glut, we have the ability to expose ourselves to the Christmas controversy in America.  Is it Christmas or X-mas, should we say Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Seasons Greetings, and the like?  Is it lawful, right, or even evangelical to have or not have nativity scenes publically displayed at churches or court houses?  Amongst all of the fighting and controversy, I think we lose sight of this essential question, can Christmas still change the world?  I would venture to say that those who champion the right to say "Merry Christmas" at the local Wal-Mart or tote a nativity in the local park believe that it is in this way that Christmas will impact our culture.  And yet, I'm not so sure that God's vision of a world reconciled to Him involves heated debates over these issues, or territory claiming espoused by the Christian groups supporting these causes.

Christmas can change the world, but not the Christmas that the church tends to celebrate which straddles the line between sacred and secular.  Christmas can change the world because it is anti-cultural, it is anti-empire, it is offensive. 

When we think about Christmas, what is it that comes to mind; Thoughts of peace and joy, happiness, family, and a cute little baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger, right? 

 We’ve tamed down the Christmas story so that it can be appropriate for children’s books and nativity scenes, but in doing so, I think that we’ve missed the grittiness of what really happened.  It wasn’t all that silent, peaceful, or cute.  The Christmas event was offensive to the New Testament culture and it is to our culture today. 

The event was offensive to people at the time.  Think about it; the son of God, Emmanuel, who was supposed to come as a warrior king to rescue His people from the Romans was born illegitimately to an unmarried 16 year old girl. Because they could not be housed properly in any kind of room for the birth, they were forced to have the son of God in a cave filled with stinky animals and I imagine a pretty good amount of animal poop. 

And it was there, in this cave-stable, surrounded by animals and dirty straw, with her husband and presumably no midwife, two kids with no experience in childbirth, gave birth to a baby boy, the son of God.  There was no epidural, there were no faucets with hot water and anti-bacterial hand soap, and they certainly weren’t wearing scrubs.  There was screaming, there was sweating, there was blood.  Then, when Jesus was finally born, they placed him in a manger.  A manger, for those that don’t know, is a feed trough, usually made out of wood or carved out of stone.  It would’ve been filled with whatever food that the animals had been half-munching on all day, though Joseph probably cleared that out. 

And then, who were the first people that came to visit the baby savior on the night of his birth.  Not priests, not kings or dignitaries, not angels or heavenly hosts.  A group of homeless, dirty shepherds, who camping in fields nearby crowded into the cave with Joseph, Mary, Jesus, and the animals to worship at the feet of the savior.  I imagine that the stench in that space rose exponentially upon their arrival. 

Around the same time, a traveling group of astrologers alerted Herod, the king, to the probability that the new king and savior of the Jews was being born.  And because Herod feared for his throne, he had all male babies up to two years old slaughtered. 

This might not be the precious story that comes to mind when you think about Christmas, but it’s what happened.  And it was offensive, which is why so many had a difficult time accepting Jesus as Messiah.

The Christmas event is still offensive today.  First of all, it speaks about God breaking in upon the established “empire” and creating his own kingdom, by way of a baby.  Herod was afraid, and rightly so, that his power was going to be usurped by a king and kingdom whose message of love was radically different than any existing kingdoms.

God’s kingdom is still breaking into the kingdoms of the world today.  It speaks a different word than any empires, including America, speak; a word of love, equality, and help for all those in need regardless of racial, ethnic, gender, or economic status.   

We live in a capitalist, democratic society that controls a good portion of the world’s wealth.  Culture has attempted to absorb Jesus’ message of love for the poor and marginalized into itself, saying that the Bethlehem Christmas night can sit alongside of Santa Clause and Black Friday and the need for more things.  And yet what did Christ do?  He threw the money changers out of the temple.  He said that man cannot serve money and God.  The empire of wealth cannot sit alongside of the empire of Christ.    

Culture teaches us that good Christmas memories and celebrations are proportionate to the gifts we purchase for one another; that, if we really love each other, we should be willing to go into debt to prove it.  And yet Scripture tells us that there is no greater love than this; that a man should lay his life down for his friends.

We have been taught, or have taught ourselves, in the church to walk the fine line between celebrating a worldly Christmas and celebrating a godly Christmas.  We want so badly to be able to celebrate Christ fully without sacrificing the traditional American Christmas.  Because we live in this culture and have been inundated by its message, Christmas is not only offensive to culture, but it is offensive to us as well. 

But being offended by the self-giving, self-sacrificing message of Christmas is the best thing that could happen to us because it is through this challenge that we can grow.  If we aren’t offended, then Christmas will never change us.  And if Christmas doesn’t change us, then it cannot change the world through us. 

"Can Christmas still change the world? 

Now you get to answer the question."  (AC)

So, as this season continues to approach, let's champion love instead of divisiveness, equality in goods instead of greed and a "I'm getting what's coming to me attitude, and grace to all, the wealthy, the middle class, the poor and marginalized, the sick, the dying, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, gays, straights, liberals, conservatives, Evangelicals and Mainline, Catholics and Mennonites, those dying of AIDS through personal decisions and through no decision of their own.
"For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whosoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life."
-John 3:16

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

I Lost Against Merton in a Slap-Bet

I was reading through "New Seeds of Contemplation" today, and like Barney losing the slap bet to Marshall in "How I Met Your Mother," this statement came out of nowhere and hit me hard. 

"Instead of worshipping God through His creation we are always trying to worship ourselves by measn of creatures.  But to worship our false selves is to worship nothing.  And the worship of nothing is hell."
-Thomas Merton "New Seeds of Contemplation"

I don't have many developed thoughts about it yet.  But I think that Merton is hitting on something important here:  the nature of the world around us.  If God created everything and God is in everything, then as Merton says, it is not that creation is evil, it is our "false self" that distorts creation and transforms something beautiful into evil.  So how does this affect the way we view and interact with life?  Any thoughts?  And, if the worship of nothing is hell, then what does that say about emptiness in our present lives?  Do we live in hell in trying to find fulfillment and joy in things without seeking God in things?

Friday, December 2, 2011

Mystic from Kentucky Knows My Soul

This next week I am transitioning out of my Mennonite Church History and preparing to enter into an intensive January course on Thomas Merton, and monk and mystic writer out of Gethsemani in Kentucky. 

In some ways, reading contemplative theology after a semester immersed in history is like jumping into a cold pool.  At first, it's very different, pretty uncomfortable, and I initially wish I had stayed on the side of the pool.  But after a few minutes, my body gets used to it, and pretty soon I'm out again, ready for another cannonball. 

That being said, I was struck today in my reading by Merton's discussion on our slavery to our external, personal needs and wants versus the will and desire of and for God.  In his book, "New Seeds of Contemplation," he wrote a few statements that are really challenging me.

"For how can I receive the seeds of freedom if I am in love with slavery and how can I cherish the desire of God if I am filled with another and an opposite desire?  God caanot plant His liberty in me becasue I am a prisoner and I do not even desire to be free.  I love my captivity and I imprison myself in the desire for the things that I hate, and I have hardened my heart against true love."
-Thomas Merton; "New Seeds of Contemplation" pg. 16

In my own life, I more often than not feel like I'm struggling against sin tendencies, those lusts and desires which often seem like a tangibile habit that I could just kick, if I try hard enough.  But Merton is suggesting that I, we are not even struggling against those forces, but we are struggling against the struggle.  We aren't even to a point where we are fighting against our own turmoils, but we are fighting the urge to fight.  We can't step up to the plate because we're still sitting in the dugout. 

I don't know why, but this really struck me.  Maybe it's my tendency to want to give myself a self-righteous pat on the back for fighting my demons, realizing that in the end, I don't want to fight my demons.  If I were really intent on this, then I would just do it!  But I don't; do I enjoy being a prisoner?

There must be something in all of us that is content with complacency.  We like the idea of righteousness but not the work that accompanies it.  I've always been drawn to Paul's words about this in Romans.

Romans 7:19
19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.

Is he talking directly to me?  It sure seems like it.  Well, those are some thoughts.  I'm going to continue to drink my pot of coffee for the day and listen to the screeching yet beautiful tones of The Velvet Underground, thinking on these things.  Am I alone in this?  I think not.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Here I Am

Well, due to my negligence (and maybe a hint of laziness), I've been locked out of my previous blog.  So, this is the reboot.  Or maybe a reimagination.  I love to think and write, but something always seems to bar the way between my mind and the keyboard (again, probably laziness).  So here is my second try at expressing my faith via words, and hopefully in doing so, allowing others to explore their faith as well.  So, check it. 

"...what kind of people ought you to be?...make every effort to be found spotless, blameless, and at peace with Him."

-2 Peter 3:11,14