Let's keep the Cross in Christmas

In one of the year's best film moments (note I did NOT say best films), Will Ferrell's "Ricky Bobby" offers an amazing parody of prayer to "Lord Baby Jesus" as grace over the family's spread of fast food. When his wife and her father point out that Jesus grew up and became a man with a beard, he replies that "I like the Christmas Jesus best." What ensues, amid foul-mouthed comments and product placements, is an interesting tweaking of contemporary piety, in which Jesus' prime role is to take credit for the blessings we have been given, no matter how ordinary or excessive.

The scene inflamed many Christians, some to the point of boycotts. But as a reviewer at Hollywood Jesus put it, "The most offensive, frightening reality of the film is that Ricky Bobby’s world is a slightly-distorted mirror of our own." Pastor David Julen, whose First Cramerton Baptist Church was used in the movie, is more pointed: "Do we, like Ricky, really prefer the baby Jesus because He makes no demands upon us?"

Most Christians, of course, answer "No!" But the same is not true of our culture. Battles are fought over public creches, not crucifixes. The secular culture can get behind a helpless infant in a forgotten stall because of his message of peace and love; there's no threat here to the status quo. But the rabbi who called the religious leaders a brood of vipers? Who said his kingdom was outside the government's power?

The church is not exempt from this preference for the "Christmas Jesus." For many years a highlight of my Christmas was singing the second verse of the Lutheran Book of Worship arrangement of "What Child is This?"
Nails, spears shall pierce him through;
The cross be borne for me, for you.
Hail, hail, the Word made flesh,
The babe, the son of Mary.

Many hymnbooks and artists, though, have edited the cross out of this carol. One of my favorite recordings, Caedmon's Call's energetic rendition, substitutes "This, this is Christ the king, whom shepherds guard and angels sing" for this refrain, as does the default text in our presentation program. Sarah McLachlan's beautiful new version simply skips this verse altogether. Perhaps singing "Good Christian, fear, for sinners here the silent Word is pleading" would require an admission that we are not blessed people who welcome a baby as another blessing but sinners in need of a Savior.

Christmas, unlike Ricky Bobby's Jesus, makes demands on us. It calls us into the incarnational work God began in that smelly manger in Bethlehem. It calls us to be Christ's body in the world today, especially in its out of the way, forgotten places. Tonight we will remember the Love that entered the world through a tiny, helpless baby, the incredible sign of how far God was willing to go to restore God's people. Yet we do well to remember that this infant was not just a baby. The uncompressed, uncommercialized message of Christmas, as our bishop notes in her Christmas letter, is even better news:

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. [Colossians 1:19-20]

May we all experience Christ's peace this Christmas and always: not just the absence of strife or war, but the recognition that God is pleased to reconcile us -- sins and all -- to himself through Christ.


Shepherd me, O God!

Shepherd me, O God,
beyond my wants,
beyone my fears,
from death into life!
I first sang Marty Haugen's elegant paraphrase of Psalm 23 years ago, at the funeral of a dear pastor friend. I loved, and continue to cling to its spirit of defiance, its assertion that all the things that attack us -- the things we truly lack and the unmet desires that annoy, the uncertainty that scares us senseless, even death, the only real power this world has -- ultimately bow to Christ the Good Shepherd, the One who leads us to life abundant. To this day, I find it hard to get through this refrain without feeling the tears well up.

I've long had a problem with the image of Christ followers as sheep, of Church as flock. Sheep are stupid and dirty. Can't do much of anything on their own, except wander away and get into trouble. We are smarter than that, right? God has given us brains and hearts and abilities that take us far out of the company of sheep. We're not just fed and watered, we are invited to participate in God's mission.

Yet this makes sense only in terms of the world we can see. We may know what to do with money, or wisdom, or organizational skills in this world. But when it comes to reality -- to the upside down, unexpected kingdom of God -- we are like sheep. We are not able to see the scope of God's action, the intensity of his hope, the depths of his mercy. Sure, we are smart enough to look back and see signs of the kingdom, but can we comprehend enough to think we know what a God who responds to the cries of those at the margins and pushes those at the center off their pedestals will do in the situations we're involved in? Glimmers, if we're lucky, like peering through a dark glass, as Paul said.

In the kingdom, we are sheep. We do not know the path. We cannot go our own way. We do not have the strength or wits to fend off our enemy. All we can do is recognize our Good Shepherd's voice, and follow him.

This is wonderful comfort, especially in these moments when we don't know what the next step is even in this life. Having a shepherd means we don't have to be in control. Like John the Baptist, we are not the one. We can rest knowing the Shepherd is in charge:
God, my shepherd! I don't need a thing.
You have bedded me down in lush meadows,
you find me quiet pools to drink from.
True to your word,
you let me catch my breath
and send me in the right direction. - Psalm 23:1-3, The Message
Sometimes, when frantic activity sends us running only in circles, or moving backwards, catching our breath is exactly what we need. And we can trust that Christ will watch over us as we rest and heal, and -- when we are ready -- he will send us off in the right direction.

The psalmist is clear: The shepherd knows there are dark valleys, and he will lead us through. He knows we have enemies -- around us and within us -- and he spites them by feeding us richly in their presence. He knows we seek our own way, and he uses his rod and staff to close some roads to us and to pull us out of the brambles when we stray. He knows we will get discouraged, and when our heads droop he gently lifts them up, and anoints them with sweet oils.

The shepherd's kingdom is good, and it is so strange and inscrutable that we can't fathom it -- but we can follow him into it. Its enemies seek to distract and discourage us -- destroy us, even. But in the end, they have no power. Writing about Satan's minions, Martin Luther summed it up defiantly (and I find this hard to sing without tears, as well):
Were they to take our house --
goods, honor, child or spouse --
Though life be wrenched away,
They cannot win the day.
The kingdom's ours -- forever!
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!


Advent labyrinth

Last Friday I walked the Advent labyrinth at Christ's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Oreland, Pa. Pastor Mike Carlson and Elise Seyfried, the director of spiritual formation (what a great title!) created the stations and audio from scratch, focusing on the inner journey from hopelessness to hope that we all experience and that Advent speaks to so well. In my media role with our synod I talked this up with a reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer, who did a nice job covering it in today's paper (though the headline plays up a minor theme of the piece, in my opinion).

I've been walking this journey all during Advent, so it was a real blessing to experience anxiety, frantic activity, rage and God's companionship, among many emotions, through Mike and Elise's wise and comforting choices of words, images and music. Unfortunately, it's closed up for the season...but if you ask nicely maybe they'll do it again next year. :)

Let it be

(Jumping back in where we are, with the pray-as-you go podcast for 12/20/2006, based on Luke 1:26-38)

When I envision Gabriel's visit to Mary, I see something like Tanner's Annunciation, a remarkable image of God's kingdom breaking into ordinary life. I feel for the angel -- like Zechariah, Mary asks "How can this be?" If I were Gabriel (not possessing the certainty of God's mind that an angel has) I would wonder about this message I'm delivering.

But Mary hears the angel's strange explanation, one implausible to skeptical, scientific ears, and says "Here I am. Let it be with me according to your word." A simple, trusting answer, confident in the midst of impending change and great uncertainty. How do I become that trusting when stepping off into the unknown?

Struck dumb

(Trying to get back on track with the Advent pray-as-you-go podcasts...)

I have been resonating with Zechariah of late. Faced with last week's reading of Isaiah 40:21-31, with its promise of renewed strength and hope -- a promise offered by a God so powerful that not a single star can resist his command -- I've struggled with how much I can trust that promise. Intellectually I know I can and must, but in the midst of confusion and facing the unknown, it's hard to really live in that place. So like Zechariah, I have asked "How can I be sure of this?" Zechariah knew that he and his wife were not long for bearing children, so the promise of a son sounds too good to be true. I, too, have looked at seemingly impossible situations and said, what can even God bring out of this?

Like Zechariah, I lost my voice (at least my reflective voice). Silence has been necessary because these Advent themes have hit very close to home for me and required a lot of offline processing. Waiting is hard... Not having control is hard... Expecting God to act is hard... There are times in life when it seems like God is not acting, has turned his face.

In the midst of this time I was blessed to find this great quote from St. John Cassian at the Radical Congruency blog:
But for God’s permission and allowance [for occasional spiritual depression] there is a twofold reason. First, that being for a short time forsaken by the Lord, and observing with all humility the weakness of our own heart, we may not be puffed up on account of the previous purity of heart granted to us by His visitation; and that by proving that when we are forsaken by Him we cannot possibly recover our former state of purity and delight by any groanings and efforts of our own, we may also learn that our previous gladness of heart resulted not from our own earnestness but from His gift, and that for the present time it must be sought once more from His grace and enlightenment.
I don't know why it is so hard not to take "gladness of heart" for granted. It is a gift, and one our heavenly Father wishes to bestow on us often. But when I'm puffed up and assume it I'm vulnerable to doubt when gladness gives way to ordinariness or times of fear and hopelessness. And it takes time to remember that God's presence -- and even the awareness that I am distant from him -- is a blessing, a sign of relationship. And though I can warm or cool that relationship through my state of mind, I can't turn it off, because
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
When I heard the 12/14 reading... "I am holding you by the right hand" ... I couldn't help but feeling like an old man, being helped across the street. I both loved and hated that feeling. I don't want to admit how little my faculties and powers are, how dependent I really am. (And aging images don't play so well with mid-life questions, either.) Yet when the poor and the weak cry out, "I, the Lord, will answer them." That is, really, so much more than I can ever dream of doing for myself. When I try to fix things myself, my "solutions" are so puny, so unimaginative, so ineffective that "understanding no one can fathom" becomes a really good thing!

"How can I be sure of this?" It's a real question. It hits hard when the paths we take seem to be dead-ends, when the questions overwhelm the answers, when seeming certainties betray us. And ask we must. Sometimes answers will take God's time in coming. So we stand, struck dumb like Zechariah, until the One who calls every star by name reveals his power, and gives us back our voice.


A ROSE by any other name?

Business Week has a fascinating article on Best Buy's efforts to transform organizational culture through a program called Results-Only Work Environment. (ht: SBSDiva) Basically, the idea is that in an age of ubiquitous wireless, transcontinental contacts, and increasing stress, employees can have more control and thus be more productive by working when and where they need to. The company describes a ROWE as "one where people do whatever they want whenever they want as long as the work gets done." Best Buy claims significant improvements in productivity in their formerly seat- and face-time dependent culture. They've even formed a subsidiary called CultureRx to evangelize this concept with other corporations.

Their website summarizes the imperative on their website:

"Stop thinking of work as someplace you go... Start thinking of work as something you do."

Hmmm. This sounds suspiciously like the missional church movement to be less "attractional" than "incarnational," to focus less on getting people into our (God's?) house and getting God, through us, into their house.

Imagine if we stopped thinking of church as someplace we go, and instead lived it out as something we are. What if we focused on Relationship-Oriented Spiritual Environments (sm), where we stopped worrying about people's pew time and valued their relationship time with Christ, with their families, with people at the margins, with each other in environments that allow for life-changing spiritual conversation and growth. What if we figured out, like Best Buy, how to relate not just as a group of people occupying the same sanctuary on the same day and time, but as interrelated networks of people on a mission? Could e-mail exchanges and coffeeshop conversations have the impact of "a service?" (Many people, even church people, I think, would already say 'yes.') Can meals, or serving meals, be as sacramental as the official Meal? Can we focus on being part of God's mission rather than just putting in time?

How can we make the faith community's power to form and inform its people something that is available 24/7, at the cabin or soccer field or fellowship hall, rather than an hour a week in the sanctuary? (I've written about this before.) How can we empower each other to have more to say to a neighbor or co-worker who is seeking other than, 'You should come to my church?'

There's nothing really new here other than a language and a perspective that tweaks our conventional wisdom. Given that the church is not a business but is, as is Best Buy, an organization of individuals working together on a mission, there might be something to listen to here. The church's mission -- God's mission -- is a far better thing to devote one's time and energy to, IMHO. But if we looked honestly at our performance in being part of that mission, would we say we're doing better than Best Buy?

This is, according to BW, ROWE's commandment number 1 (there are 13): "People at all levels stop doing any activity that is a waste of their time, the customer's time, or the company's money."

What would it look like if we structured the church so that Christians, "professional" and non, stopped any activity that didn't bring people into a deeper relationship with Christ and God's people, and wasted money that could change the lives of people at the margins?



Wither the grass?

(reflection on the pray-as-you-go podcast for 12/12/2006, on Isaiah 40:1-9)

We bloom.

We fade.

We rise anew and are soon trampled.

No matter. The true promise is joy in God's presence, which swallows up our inconstancy and spits it out whole.

It's our fragile nature as grass that magnfies the heights we have to climb and the depths of the valleys. But if we can accept the comfort of God's perspective they are leveled in the context of the destination, the glory of the Lord revealed.

Debts paid. Broken relationships restored. Why is this comfort so hard to really accept?

Rejoicing in the wasteland

(A day late and probably more than a dollar short -- my reflection on the pray-as-you-go podcast for 12/11/2006, based on Isaiah 35.)

"The wastelands will rejoice and bloom..."

Driving through the bleak pre-winter in Pennsylvania, trees' naked arms twisting toward heaven, leaves and plants shriveled and brown, looking quite barren in the harsh, low-angle sun, Isaiah's account of God's promise to let waters flow and beautiful flowers bloom in the desert brings a smile. I know the landscape will get more sterile, darker, before it blooms with life. I think of the friends whose lives and spirits are parched, the regions of the world whose arms reach to the sky pleading for release, of people I know waiting with a loved one for death.

"The wastelands will rejoice and bloom..."

I'm amazed that Isaiah doesn't phrase this the way I would say it: In my wasteland I want to bloom, and then rejoice. I want fruit to come, live-giving waters to flow into the desolation, before I will rejoice. So that I can rejoice. But Isaiah says it's the other way around. The desert will stop despairing of being a desert and rejoice in the midst of its desert-ness. And in so doing it will bloom. Because without the One who created it and who causes it to rejoice, no fruit can come.

It's so human to want fruit to confirm God's promise rather than to just trust it; to want the blessings before the thanksgiving. But God's way is so much better... By making our hearts not to fear, we live courage. By losing our lives we find them. By looking past the desert to the oasis God will bring and rejoicing, we help loose the cleansing stream and bountiful crop that is God's kingdom.


Anxiously unaware

(Playing catch-up...a reflection on today's pray-as-you-go podcast):

Our world rolls on its course each day, filled with treachery, and love affairs, desperate hunger, and conspicuous consumption. For the most part it is unaware – though this unawareness hardly brings it bliss – that its creator gazes lovingly onto each corner of the globe. Waging war, doing business, seeking pleasure, deteriorating and dying, people just like me, living day to day. God smiles the small kindnesses, the moments of heroism, the generosity in which humans reflect God’s nature, and must be angered by the ways we find, in the midst of bounty, to manipulate, objectify, hurt and ignore one another. Yet it is into this awful and beautiful world, filled with sinner-saints, that God comes, vulnerable to the worst we can do in order to give us better than we can imagine. And few see it; few are like Mary, able in awe and wonder to give herself fully to God’s strange and beautiful will.

What do I desire?

(Oh, well. Less than a week in and already behind. Such is a busy life. Still...a reflection on pray-as-you-go podcast for 12/7/2006):

How much do I really desire justice? The idea of our man-made hierarchies and status being flung in the dust sounds good, because I know how unjust those levels really are. While I am not in danger of needed the services of “wealth preservation” experts nor of having power to change the nation’s political structures, I am relatively high up in the citadel. It is humbling to know that God cares not a bit for prestige, degrees, accomplishment or wealth, but desires a safe place for all God’s people.


Already ... and not yet

(Reflection on the pray-as-you-go podcast for 12/6/2006. I tried to post this at 8 am, but blogger was down, and I'm just getting back on the computer...)

Isaiah paints a picture of the world as God intended: All people as God’s children, the shrouds that divide nations removed, every tear dried, every shame covered by God’s mercy. The problem for us is that we live in in-between times. The Lord has spoken. He will personally wipe away every tear, destroy death and include all people at his table. But we are not there yet. We are journeying on a promise, and it is hard to keep a promise so radical, so foreign to our daily experience, as our beacon.

Our world, our lives, are not as God intends them to be. Wars rend the world, and anxiety and despair plague many of us. While God will bring God’s intention to pass, Jesus invites us, today, into bringing that kingdom about now – in part.

We don’t live in a world where people’s tears are dried, where nations are not blinded and divided, where all people sit together at the Lord’s table. But if I show compassion to those who are hurting, to work for understanding rather than enmity between nations, to include “others” rather than exclude or simply avoid them, the world becomes, bit by bit, more like God intends.

We don’t live in a world where the poor, the wretched, the grieving, the not-quite-together are blessed. But if I act generously, am open to God’s presence in everyone, and work for equity, the world becomes a little more like Jesus described. The kingdom is at hand and may, for a few moments, become visible. And that vision of the destination helps keep me focused on the next steps to take.

Lord, help me to take actions today that will bring your kingdom nearer, not farther away.


Wolves and lambs

(A reflection on the pray-as-you-go podcast for 12/5/2006, based on Isaiah 11:1-9. A little late because of a late event last night.)

I've always loved Edward Hicks' paintings on the theme of "The Peaceable Kingdom" taken from Isaiah 11. (Experts surmise that Hicks, a Quaker, painted this theme about 100 times!) The odd juxtaposition of the wolf and the lamb lying down together -- resting, almost snuggling, rather than in a kill or be-killed fight to the finish -- points out just how odd the kingdom of God really is!

This text is about God's promise that the world one day will be the way it was created to be. Not only will the endless contending to survive at the expense of others be over -- contention that manifests itself in war, in greed, in econcomic survival of the fittest and social Darwinism, and in the narrowness and self-focus that it is so easy to slip into (I know it is for me!). In its place will be not just the absense of contention but the Presence of Peace, the ultimate reality that the poor, marginalized and non-conformists truly are blessed, that life can come out of loss and death, that God is doing a new thing!

Our world cries out for justice, and Isaiah tells us it is coming...but not in the way we expect. I often want the world to be much as it is but a little more fair or calm. But God's peace and justice turns our understandings on their heads. Our world is not just off the mark, it is upside down. Our task is not to refocus a bit or amp up our efforts, but to learn to see the world as God made it: A place where those who think they have nothing in common are truly sisters and brothers; a world where wealth is not ultimate value but just another kind of value, like creativity, the created value of each person, and the value of those who lack to tweak those of us who have.

The question for those of us who follow the one who said that God's kingdom is at hand is: If God's reality is better than "all of us are created equal, but some are more equal than others," if lambs and wolves can lie down, if children can lead us, if a righteous leader will enter a verdict for the poor, how do we live in this reality and not the one we see around us?

I can think of no better prayer than to be shaped to the point where the fear of the Lord is our breath.


Thinking upside-down

(A reflection on the pray-as-you-go podcast for 12/4/2006, based on Isaiah 2:1-5.)

It's hard to imagine today the nations of the world, even many people in our so-called "Christian" culture, spontaneously surrendering our ways to the Lord's. Yet that is what Isaiah sees: a time when all peoples will seek to learn the Lord's ways not because they are our ways but better, but because they are so radically different, so upside-down from our conventional ways of thinking, that they actually offer transformation and hope.

Isaiah's vision is one of peace, unity and justice. He prophesies a time when nations will not take up arms and beat swords into plowshares -- not just a call to give up war but to give up the seeking of one's own advantage, of bringing others under power military or economic or political, that is at the root of much of the manipulation and dispute in our world.

What would this look like in our time? Each of us would have our own vision. Mine would include people coming together to ponder the Lord's ways, to question our own ways, and to learn to walk together in the light of the Lord. Whatever they look like, realizing Isaiah's prophecy starts with recognizing the gospel not as a tonic for the anxiety and dis-ease in our way of life but as a radically different way of life that God offers to share with us.

What's your vision?


Selective focus

(A reflection on the pray-as-you-go podcast for 12/1/2006, based on Isaiah 53.)

Heading into Advent, I find it important to remember not to look forward only to the manger, but to (and through) the rough-hewn cross.

As a human being, I have only to look inside to see the stubbornness and pride that makes it easy to overlook God's love. We're stiff-necked, as scripture says, and in love with our own insight. As incredible as it is that God would himself come to be with us hard-headed and -hearted beings, it is so much more amazing that he would die to do all the work of reconciliation with us.

It's God's transformative nature to bring light out of darkness, life out of death, reconciliation out of hostility and violence. A classic Christmas carol puts it well:
Nails, spears shall pierce him through;
The cross be born for me, for you.
Hail! Hail, the Word made flesh,
The babe, the Son of Mary.
I've always been surprised that so many songbooks omit or amend this refrain of "What Child is This," and that congregations sometimes skip this "unpleasant" verse in the midst of Christmas pageants. The Nativity is a great story, but it's the cross -- and the resurrection -- that gives it its transforming power. Power not just to change the story, but to change our lives, here, now.

World AIDS Day

Today, I remember in prayer:
  • Martha ... and all the grandparents, aunts and uncles, and other extended families that are caring for Africa's AIDS orphans.
  • Audax, Justa and Jonson ... and all the children who are also "heads of households" as a result of the epidemic.
  • Denis ... and all the children born with the disease.
  • Sr. Renathe ... and all of the church as it struggles to be the hands and heart of Jesus in the midst of an overwhelming situation.
Lord, have mercy!