Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Way of the Manger

If ever there were a holiday that needed deconstructing, it is Christmas. I say this as one who celebrates Christmas as an observant Protestant Christian. And I don't mean that we should seek "the real meaning of Christmas" by eschewing the "consumer mentality" of Christmas. That's a given, and economic events have a way of giving correction to our excesses. (this year consumer spending is down for the first time in years...and it had nothing to do with pastor's making people feel guilty) Christians since the time of the Puritans have decried the various traditions of Christmas as "pagan" and improper. That's not what I'm saying at all.
American Christmas is a gloriously syncretistic affair. I realized this as I tried to explain Kwanzaa to my 10 year old. She had sung the requisite Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Christmas songs at her concert. (For some reason the Kwanzaa song was painfully dreadful, no offense to the holiday. It seems to attract well-meaning white people who sing words in Swahili badly...listen to this for an example. Where is Isaac Hayes when you need him?) In any case, I found myself saying "well honey, Kwanzaa was kind of invented holiday, it is really a synthetic celebration, not properly belonging to one religious tradition. Then I realized that Christmas was exactly the same. Synthetic. like my Christmas tree. Like plastic poinsettias. Put together from so many different cultures, it's hard to find the core truth.
Christmas traditions have gotten so confused that secular folks protest the public display of Christmas trees because it is an imposition of religion. They argue for a name change to "holiday tree." This strikes me as summarily silly, akin to protesting to the eating of French Fries because it is anti-patriotic and Francophile. Sometimes cultures just chew up and digest practices from other countries and cultures and assimilate them into the body politic in a way unrelated to the original practice. Like pizza, or Chinese food (even Ricky Bobby thought Americans invented them) have morphed into their own uniquely American identity.

So I'd like to make my own contribution to the confusion. I'd like to nominate a new image as the iconic, neo-Rockwellian personification of the holiday.
The stone manger.
This may be a slightly more realistic version of little Jesus' first crib. And if "little Lord Jesus No crying He makes" were actually true in a rough hewn bed like this, then I have a Senate seat in Illinois that I'd like to sell you. So why is a baby crying in a stone feeding trough good news, worth celebrating these many years later?
8And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. 12This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."

The manger was a sign. It was a sign to some poor working stiffs who pulled the night shift, possibly in the spring (not necessarily December 25--probably another cultural accretion from the Roman's winter solistice...). The last thing they were thinking about was spiritual reality...they were just trying to get some dumb sheep to follow them. (in other words, they were in management) Suddenly, the sky lit up with the aurora borealis of eternity. Raw, unfiltered spiritual reality is down right scary. No one has to tell us "Don't be afraid" when we look at the quaint creche scenes that seem to infuriate the ACLU. No one has to reassure us when we look at smiling Santa, or pat glowing Rudolph. But when the shiny dudes called angels burst in raw solar energy, radiating good news like a glowing furnace, the guys on the night shift needed a stiff drink and bolstered courage. So like sheep, they followed the heavenly directions.
And they found...a baby swaddled in birthing clothes, lain in a stone feeding trough. This is the germ from which all other Christmas pageantry springs. So unlikely, so shocking, that it is little wonder we have covered it up with saccharine traditions like mistletoe and stockings. Hey, I've got three kids and I have NEVER lain any of them in a feeding trough. They'd call social services on me, and they should. (whoever they are) Who would put their son there?
Well first of all Mary. So marginalized, so far from the center of society, that she had no other choice. Like an undocumented alien, on the run, in the back of a crowded pickup truck, she does the best she can. But beyond that, if you believe the story, God does it. God who's called a Father, lays His Son in a rock crib far from comfort. And somehow that's good news?
How could that be? Isn't it easier to sing "Away in a Manger" and feel good about ourselves by helping the "less fortunate" and going about our lives? Isn't this the easy way to celebrate Christmas?
Perhaps the "true meaning" of Christmas is that no matter where we are, laboring in a meaningless job, caring for children who seem to exalt their own wishes into imperatives, studying in school to enter an economy with no room for us, wherever this synthetic holiday finds us; we are the poor shepherds. We are the invited guests to God's mysterious entry into human history. We are the recipients of the joyful news that no station, no calling, no destiny in all the world is too mean, too humble, too meaningless, for God to pass it by at Christmas. Christmas is for the aliens, the factory workers, the out of work CEO's, the bankrupt, the parent's who regret not being able to afford the "perfect gift" and for the lonely and depressed at Christmas.
The Way of the Manger.
Christmas lies in a stone crib, barely clothed and squawling with full lungs; His every cry a "sign" from a transcendant God that this life can hold eternity. That raw, frightening spirituality can enter the grubby, mundane and often viscious world we all inhabit, and draw us to His side. Our Christmas is synthetic, processed, tame. The real Christmas is a mess...but it is a sign.
What do you think, stone manger earrings? Stone manger sweaters? Stone manger light displays for your yard? You make the call. Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Day I met Dr. Kevin Leman

Hey--who said it isn't fun to name drop? Dr. Kevin Leman came to visit the CBN campus, and I snagged him to come talk to some students about...dare I say it...SEX. Now some folks may think that's not appropriate on a Christian campus. One might imagine that Christian students are so moral, so together that they rarely if ever have trouble with such subjects. There might be people who believe that, AND think that Illinois politics is still dominated by folks with nicknames like "Honest Abe." Not too many, I think.

No, the truth is that Christians, who of all people should have a settled idea of what sex should be used for, the purposes for which it was intended, are just as confused as everyone else on the subject. Dr. Kevin Leman made a strong biblical and practical case that marriage between a man and a woman should be the only context for sexual intercourse.

Now (or as President-elect Obama would say, "Look") I could get into the whole argument of pre-marital sex, same-sex sex, post-marital sex (is there any?) but I think this is not the venue. Suffice it to say that Kevin Leman spoke squarely and frankly to the issue. He did not dodge any questions or pull any punches. Rather, he set the tone for an honest, biblically-informed discussion of a topic that has bedeviled Christian leaders for centuries. And he did it with humor.
Me Laughing at some "Leman Raw" Comments

So the question is: Where can you talk honestly and freely about sexuality and the many challenges it brings? Do you have friends where that is fair game? Classes? Professors? Small accountability groups? It seems that if you don't, we should provide some safe places to ask and have our questions answered. I would be interested in providing that kind of safe environment, but would be interested in what you think.

1. Is our campus an open place to discuss struggles/issues with sexuality?

2. Are we judgmental about struggles in this area?

3. Do we have sufficient resources available for folks who want to grow in their sexual sobriety?

Let me know!

Monday, December 1, 2008

What do you look forward to at the Thanksgiving table? What’s your favorite food item that’s going to be on the table? Is it the sweet potatoes? With the marshmallows that turn a glorious shade of brown on the top? Or is it the stuffing, with your family's special touch of seasoning and ingredients, that puts the finishing touch on the turkey? Or maybe you’re into the turkey itself, deep fried in peanut oil, brined just right, or roasted in the oven the way Grandma did it. Of course there's the cranberry sauce, whether it’s the fresh, raw cranberry salad that sits on my mom’s table, or cranberry served the way God wanted it to be served…on a plate, whole, jiggling in the sunlight, so you can see the little ridges from the can where it plopped out….

But what if there's nothing on your table this thanksgiving? How do you give thanks then? With our economy in the shape it’s in and with the country in an uproar about bailouts and meltdowns and with our 401k’s becoming 201k’s, many folks are looking at less on the table for which to give thanks. How do you give thanks when there's nothing on the table? The answer is that we have to look at the seat of thanksgiving--that we have to pay more attention to who is sitting in the chair than what is served on the table. What do I mean? Listen to this little snippet of Scripture:

"...the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, " Rev. 4:9

(Artist's rendition of Yahweh's Throne)

The angels give us the example--we can give thanks to the one who sits in the Seat of Thanksgiving, even if there isn't much on the table for which to give thanks.

After a number of years in the pastorate I came back to Virginia to help a good friend run his chain of high end jewelry stores. For two years everything was great. But with terrible fourth quarter sales in 2007, our bank called in their business lines of credit. They came in and confiscated the jewelry as collateral. After a valiant effort to liquidate the inventory, we threw in the towel in early July. I had to personally call the 35 remaining employees of our business and let them know that they were the latest victim of our economic downturn. I found out the next day that I had joined them among the ranks of the unemployed. So on the brink of a recession, on the cusp of the biggest drop in the stock market ever, I was sitting at home thinking about my wife, my 3 children, and wondering why the sky was falling. Maybe some of you have been in a situation like that, and maybe you have family who are in that spot. What do you do when the table is empty and the kids are asking questions and the bills are piling up? How do you give thanks then?

My wife Bridget had it right--during that period of time she said to me, “You’ve got to remember Jesus is still on the throne. He has got something better for you, I just know He does.” She like St. John urged me to lift my eyes, and see that despite all evidence to the contrary Jesus was still in the seat of thanksgiving, He was still sitting on his throne, and “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, “Because the throne is a symbol of power, and Jesus sitting on it means that He is able to do immeasurably more than I could ever ask think or imagine.

I don't know what's on your table this year, but from my own life and from the Scriptures I've been reminded that its more important to know who's sitting in the seat of thanksgiving rather than focus on what's on the table. We can give thanks to Him who sits on the throne...no matter what life serves up.

Perhaps St. Paul said it best,

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. Phil. 4:12