Friday, December 24, 2010

The Story, the whole Story and nothing but the Story

As I sit here, with my festival service sermon finished, I fret over the emphasis on sin and brokenness. Is it a buzzkill? Shouldn't it be all warm and fuzzy? But I fret over all gospel and no discussion of why it is gospel at all. Do we ignore the reality in which we live? If the current life isn't shown to be lacking in every area that God desires, why do we even need Jesus?

Last night as I sought to refine my sermon I read through Regin Prenter's Creation and Redemption. There I read, "The unity of God and man in the incarnation means that through the man Jesus Christ, in his human death and in the restoration of his human life through the resurrection, God completes the work which he began when he created man in his own image. There God's life-giving and life-sustaining mercy reaches its culmination. This is the only way in which the unity of God and man in the incarnation has any meaning."

And while glancing over at Living Lutheran, I found Pastor Erma Wolf's post on the very same topic... sort of. There she wrote:
While this last song didn’t sound at all like a Christmas carol to my non-Lutheran friends (“But it talks about death!” they objected), it fit perfectly with our children’s programs that began, always, with the story of Adam and Eve falling into sin.

To be Lutheran meant telling the Christmas story, the WHOLE story, from the very beginning. It meant, and still means, telling the real reason for the season: that God had to act to save us from our sins, and that, in the words of another unlikely Christmas song from the South, “I Wonder as I Wander,” that “Jesus the Savior did come for to die.”

And so I sang, then and now, these words:

I was in bondage, sin, death and darkness;
God’s love was working to make me free.
Jesus my Savior himself did offer,
Jesus my Savior paid all I owe.
Therefore I’ll say again, God loves me dearly,
God loves me dearly, loves even me.

Read her whole post here.

And thus I am reminded that we must tell the whole story of what God is up to and how we ever got here in the first place.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas, Community, & Meaning over at Mediation

I have started writing for/with another blog, Mediation, over at The Other Journal. Mediation is a blog that "is dedicated to fostering creative dialogue at the intersection of faith and culture by situating this general discussion within the increasingly pervasive arena of electronic media."

I am pleased to be part of the rotation over there, and it will not be stopping my writing here either. My first post "Christmas, Community & Meaning" is up now.

Gloria in excelsis Deo et in terra pax!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Charlie Brown Christmas in a Box -- Exchange it!

I was out shopping the other day, a mix of personal and charitable. I was enjoying buying German holiday treats like lebkuchen and speckulaas, and I was also picking up canned goods for our congregation's Christmas food basket ministry that we do around all the holidays for a couple of local programs. It was a good day, fun AND fulfilling at the same time. I turned the corner and entered an aisle with several non-food items, gifts and the like, when I saw the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree in a box for sale. I was stunned. I snapped a photo and sent it on to Twitter calling for folks to place it in the "Horribly ironic Christmas decoration" category.

It should not come as a surprise that the Charlie Brown Christmas special is a favorite or mine. Not only is it the only special that centers Christmas on Jesus by reading Luke 2, it also captured a dissatisfaction with the growing commercialization of Christmas forty-five years ago. Now this post is not a rant about the "true meaning of Christmas." After all, Christians themselves participate in a bevy of rituals around Christmas time, not all of which are explicitly Christ-centered. They are ways to celebrate. What motivates us to celebrate is multi-faceted. And when Christians celebrate, others join in, even if they are not as seemingly pure as ours are... whatever that could mean. Christians at any rate over the past few centuries made an effort themselves to strip Christ away so the society around us could partake in the values that we saw in Jesus, but just based on reason alone. Christianity opened the door to this way, and tried to instill values and ethics based on a Christ-less Christianity.

But I do wonder about this tree. Without a distinct understanding of Jesus and his story, I don't know if the tree makes any sense. Under orders from Lucy to get a Christmas tree for their Christmas play, "a big, shiny, aluminum tree" she barks, Charlie Brown goes, but he cannot look past the only real tree on the lot, a miserable-looking tree that is copied almost exactly in the fake tree in the box. The reality that gets overlooked, I think, in this scene is that the tree is supposed to be like that. The tree that Charlie Brown cannot take his eyes off is a miserable tree. He does pick a lousy tree. And if I were trying to sell fancy aluminum trees (Did they really makes those back in the 60's? I suppose folks will ask if we really made and sold fiber optic trees fifty years from now), I imagine that the only real trees I would have around would be the miserable and pathetic real ones with gaps in the branches and a warped trunk, so people would be motivated to buy my modern, perfect and fake trees.

The tree that Charlie Brown picks is not at all suitable for a celebration of the birth of Jesus. This tree is not at all suitable for anything, not even bearing a bulb when after being criticized by his friends for choosing such a tree, he drags the tree home and tries to place one little ornament on it. Charlie Brown's efforts are miserable. But his friends do ultimately show pity on him. They follow him and find the tree abandoned in the snow. They use the award-winning decorated doghouse of Snoopy to transform that tree into a real beauty.

My friend Phillip over at Said Another Way had commented to me a few years back that this scene is a wonderful image of the Blessed Exchange of which Luther spoke. Luther comments in a sermon:

Is not this a beautiful, glorious exchange, by which Christ, who is wholly innocent and holy, not only takes upon himself another’s sin, that is, my sin and guilt, but also clothes and adorns me, who am nothing but sin, with his own innocence and purity? And then besides dies the shameful death of the Cross for the sake of my sins, through which I have deserved death and condemnation, and grants to me his righteousness, in order that I may live with him eternally in glorious and unspeakable joy. Through this blessed exchange, in which Christ changes places with us (something the heart can grasp only in faith), and through nothing else, are we freed from sin and death and given his righteousness and life as our own.
Luther, M. (1999, c1959). Vol. 51: Luther’s works, vol. 51 : Sermons I (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther’s Works (51:III-316). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

The tree is us. We are imperfect and not at all suitable for any celebration of Jesus' birth. But we are real. We are not artificial marvels perfected by technology, which removes our blemishes. We living human beings with whom Christ trades places. I just don't know if buying a fake Charlie Brown Christmas tree fits... a perfectly reproduced fake Christmas tree. The tree can be a reminder of the Blessed Exchange, but I do think it gets missed. Instead we turn the special into a lesson about being compassionate toward one another. Not a bad thing at all. A most certain improvement over the way we are most likely to treat one another without any assistance. But how great that the compassion we show to others is firmly rooted in the compassion the Father shows us in Jesus.

We don't need to be self-righteous, as people on both sides of the "Christmas wars" are. But we can be present in the celebrations for others keeping our eyes out for a moment to share the good news present in this holiday, and at the same time looking for God's compassion to transform us, remembering that Christ has given us the gift of his very self.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Pearls Before Swine...

I check in on the guys over at the comic strip, Pearls Before Swine. I was very surprised at the comics yesterday and today... introducing Father Gus, a "real authority" on religion.

From yesterday,
Pearls Before Swine

and today.
Pearls Before Swine

I wonder what tomorrow will bring...

Monday, December 06, 2010

Saint Nicholas... emphasis on the Saint

I was awoken this morning by shouts of joy coming from my two boys, ages seven and four. They had found presents under the tree, left there by Saint Nicholas. My wife and I had instituted the celebration of this day as a way to temper the Santa Claus fever that runs rampant this time of year. December 6 is the big gift giving day in Germany, along with other countries. Gifts come from Saint Nick on this day. On Christmas day, gifts that appear come from the Christkind, the Christ-child. How successful we have been on that front still remains to be seen. But we have followed this tradition for several years now and we will continue on.

Because we have gone this route, I am always drawn to stories of Saint Nicholas, images of him, churches that bear his name and so on. Saint Nicholas is one very popular saint. Something I read a while back and cannot lay my hands on right now claimed that there were more churches named after Saint Nicholas than any other figure. In some ways, this move is surprising since very little is actually known. Most of what passes around comes from legend. But we do know a few things.

He was a bishop in Myra, a city of Lycia in Asia Minor. We know that he was at the Council of Nicea in 325. There we get the tale that he slapped the heretic Arias and was saved from any discipline because all the other bishops had experienced a vision of Mary and Jesus, where Mary pleaded for the bishops to excuse Nicholas' actions since they had been done in zeal for her son.

The red robe is the bishop's robe. His symbol is three bags of gold due to the story where a poor man was faced with the possibility of selling his daughters into prostitution because he was too poor to provide a dowry. Nicholas, having inherited wealth from his parents at a young age and vowing to use it to for charity, slips three bags of gold into the bedroom window of the daughters, thereby providing the necessary money for the dowry.

A 1953 work, Lives of Saints (not Butler's mind you), put together by Franciscans, speak of Nicholas being imprisoned under the persecutions of Diocletian, after being chosen to be the Bishop of Myra. He was released only after Constantine ascends the throne and establishes Christianity as a legal religion of the empire.

This same work gives a nice account of Nicholas' work in the wider world.
Nicholas was also the guardian of his people in temporal affairs. The governor had been bribed to condemn three innocent men to death. On the day fixed for their execution Nicholas stayed the hand of the executioner and released them. Then he turned tot he governor and reproved him so sternly that he repented. There happened to be present that day three imperial officers, Nepotian, Ursus, and Herpylion, on their way to duty in Phrygia. Later, after their return, they were imprisoned on false charges of treason by the prefect and an order was procured from the Emperor Constantine for their death. In their extremity, they remembered the bishop of Myra's passion for justice and prayed to God for his intercession. That night Nicholas appeared to Constantine in dream, ordering him to release the three innocent officers. The prefect had the same dream, and in the morning the two men compared their dreams, then questioned the accused officers. On learning that they had prayed for the intervention of Nicholas, Constantine freed them and sent them to the bishop with a letter asking him to pray for the peace of the world.
Lives of Saints, ed. by Fr. Joseph Vann O.F.M., 1953, p. 39
In this time where merchants are begging for our money, and airwaves are filled with vapid Christmas specials that speak about the "spirit of Christmas" in terms of universal values like peace, and giving, and family, and the like, we have the stalwart Nicholas. One of the things we must remember about universals is that they really only mean something when immersed in the concrete reality of the particular. How the particular carries the universal makes all the difference. In the Christmas specials, the universals are left open for each to carry however he or she chooses.

Nicholas' life points to the universals played out in a particular worldview. His encounter with Arias at the Council of Nicea earned him the title of Confessor. He defended orthodoxy because he understood that all of these universal values obtain their maximum value from Jesus Christ. What does "peace" mean apart from the peace offered in Jesus, true God and true human. If Arias was right, that notion of peace would mean something else. Giving and charity are rooted first in who Jesus is, as the one who is sent from the Father.

Saint Nicholas would be most surprised at what his image has become. His particular life has been turned into something else. This is a day to remember what his actual life meant. If you have kids, break out the Veggie Tales' DVD about Saint Nicholas. It is a good introduction for kids about St. Nick. And pray for the peace of Christ in all the world, giving thanks for Nicholas' example.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Comfortable Lives and Advent

Tonight, at our midweek Advent service, we sang the hymn "Comfort, Comfort, Now My People" which allowed us to join the prophet Isaiah who said,
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:1-5)
The time of Advent is a favorite of mine. The reflection of the coming of Jesus to usher in the fullness of the Kingdom is a great source of hope for me. But all too often, Advent is short-circuited. We turn it into just a holding pattern for Christmas. We use it as a preparatory season for Christmas and we shop and consume and buy and spend. We fill our lives with a massive amount of luxuries that make our lives comfortable. Are we able to hear the words of Isaiah in the glare of our iPads? with our earbuds cranked up? bellied up to the all-you-can eat Chinese buffet?

And believe me when I use the first person plural, I mean it... it is not just a rhetorical device. I struggle with my desires and my relatively comfortable life. My home. My blackberry. High-tech athletic gear. Video games. Means and ability to buy quality, organic, local food at the farmer's market. My attempts to rationalize greater consumption. When I face it all I have to admit, I have a very comfortable life.

Do our comfortable lives interfere with our hearing the hope in the return of Christ? Can we hear that the lives we believe are comfortable are in fact not. Is this a reason we more often than not we think about Advent as nothing more than a pre-Christmas warm up? Where is the urgency in praying "Amen! Come Lord Jesus!"?

The coming of Jesus at the end of time is not just about our eternal life. There are real and concrete realities for our us and our world. Jesus' birth, death, resurrection and return all point to a cosmic upheaval that will transform the world into a truer and deeper reality where the world and us along with it are made into the people God has always meant us to be. This Advent I would hope we are all given a glimpse of that vision, so that we might see the power sin has over us, and turn to desire God's vision for real and abiding life, rather than the vision presented to us in high-def.