Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas Chaos

Last night as I was sitting in the 10:30 pm Christmas service at my church (which was beautiful thanks to all the people who worked so hard to make it that way!) listening to the gospel for the second time, I came to a realization. I happen to have the beginning of the Luke 2 passage that is read at pretty much every church ever, because when I was in first grade at Lutheran school, it was the job of my class to do that part of the reading in our Christmas program. I've had it memorized ever since, which makes it pretty easy not to think about what's being said.

"In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn." Luke 2:1-7

What is this really saying? The ruling emperor of the people who had conquered the Jews called for a census, and so everybody had to travel to their hometown to be registered. This was a bad enough reminder that the Hebrew people were being occupied and ruled by outsiders, but then imagine the travel and disruption as thousands of people traveled to their hometowns. Businesses would have to be closed, the roads would be clogged with people, and probably bandits hoping to earn a buck on weary travelers. All the businesses open along the way would be overwhelmed by people trying to buy food or stop for the night. And here's poor Mary, probably fourteen or fifteen years old and nine months pregnant, ready to explode was being dragged on foot by her reluctant fiance marrying her despite all the whispers behind his back. This is pretty much the most chaotic scene I can even imagine.

I won't wax too poetic, because you all know this story. This is the beauty of the Incarnation: a baby and savior appearing in the midst of all our crap and chaos. I've had my family at my house for a week, and although I love them, my life feels pretty disrupted, but you know what? This is where Jesus is. Christmastime often feels hectic and chaotic or maybe just lonely and depressed. I just want you to take a second and bask in all of the craziness and exhaustion and fights and feuds and messes and grief for people not celebrating with you this year--and then think of Mary screaming in the night as she births her first extremely unexpected child, and all of the blood and guts and political chaos and family drama that Jesus was born into, and know that whatever battle you are fighting, and whatever sadness is overwhelming you, and whatever fears, frustrations, or pain is consuming you right now, Christ is with you. Christ came into the crap of his time, and Christ comes today and every day into all your crap, in order to be a savior, in order to reconcile, in order to heal, in order to transform.

Merry Christmas, friends! Remember he came for YOU!

Monday, December 9, 2013


I've been thinking about what it's like to wait for Christmas. My older brother has two daughters that are 8 and 9 and the younger one's birthday is a couple days before Christmas. While I was visiting my parents, the younger one was expressing her enthusiasm for her upcoming birthday and Christmas and all the presents she will get. It struck me that their innocent experience of waiting for Christmas is so vastly different from what it's like to wait on things now. The end of their wait will be toys and games and entertainment and a feeling of being very loved. But as adults, our lives are often filled with apprehension, fear, and uncertainty as we wait for test results, news, job callbacks. Sometimes we don't know what we're waiting for, which can be terrifying.

The Psalmist writes in chapter 27 that enemies gather around and all sorts of evil closes in, and yet concludes in verse 14 that you must: "Wait for the Lord, be strong and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!" Such a poetic phrase, but one much easier said than done. In Advent, we're waiting for a day, which represents the arrival of our Savior. We know when December 25th hits (it's usually the same every year) and we know what's going to happen (family, food, presents, cheesy Hallmark Channel specials), but we don't know when we're going to find out if it's cancer and what the prognosis is, and we don't know if we'll be able to take care of an aging parent and our spouse/children or if we will still have a job in a month. Even though we are assured that Christ will return and that everything will be okay, there's a lot of what if between this and that, so how do we wait constructively? How do we wait without fear? What do we hold onto?

For me, the answer is Christmas. It's not just a day, but it's a remembrance that Jesus not only came, but comes daily, Incarnate in our lives each moment through the Holy Spirit. Wait for the Lord doesn't mean 'eventually' it means 'just a second!' It means God is working in your life, and in the lives of those around you, to bring you joy when you are being swallowed by despair, even if it's just one good belly laugh. It means that Jesus is with the doctors and nurses who are overseeing your medical care even when you don't know that outcome. It means that the Lord is making God's self known to you in each moment, and especially in the dark moments. I know that when I'm most down or scared, the thing that gets me through is not 'it's going to be okay' because who even knows if it's going to be okay? It's knowing that God has promised himself present in that crap, so when I'm afraid I can fall before Jesus and weep with that fear trusting that he sees my tears, even if I don't know when or if my grief will end. It's knowing that he came once, and because he came once, he will come again and again right now, tomorrow, and for the rest of eternity. It's knowing that when Jesus shows up, things do change.

Like the Psalmist, I know that: "If my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up" and "I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living." Because of that, we know that even though our enemies do gather around us, and even though our hearts are heavy with sorrow and pain and anxiety, God is here. And because God is here, we know God keeps promises, and that is how we can have hope that it really will be okay in the end.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Gospel According to the Muppets

It's snowing like crazy today here in Minnesota and I had to be home for the internet repair people to check out our cabling, so I took advantage of being stranded indoors to put up Christmas decorations--and you can't put up Christmas decorations without Christmas movies, in my opinion! So I popped in The Muppet Christmas Carol, and as usual it made me cry like a baby. Charles Dickens was a secular humanist, but Jim Henson was not, and his theological approach to the classic story of A Christmas Carol really shows.

This story speaks to a lot of modern issues. Ebenezer Scrooge's greed is legendary, and in the midst of our November to January national shop-a-thon, we could discuss Scrooge learning about the value of generosity or thankfulness. Maybe next year I'll write that post. Right now, however, I want to think about Tim Cratchit the lesson that Ebenezer learns from a dying boy.

Ebenezer Scrooge is no stranger to pain. After all, in the play, his mother died giving birth to him, causing his father to resent him and send him away. His only source of familial warmth was from his sister, who also died. He goes on to meet Belle, the love of his life, only to let her slip away because of his endless pursuit of financial security. Jaded and pained, Scrooge closes his heart to caring about anybody but himself and becomes the iconic bitter old man we're familiar with.

And then, miraculously, God or fate or something intervenes upon this destructive path and sends three spirits to break his heart open and show him what Christmas is really about: love. Not just the love that's exemplified by the Cratchit family, although that is certainly an important aspect of Christmas, but the kind of love that becomes incarnate in the present moment and dwells with us. He learns this by seeing the gratitude and faith of a little boy whose future is pretty unsure.

Tiny Tim Cratchit is dying, or at least he is very sick and can't afford treatment, but unlike Scrooge, whose bad experiences caused him to close his heart, Tiny Tim shows kindness even to Scrooge, who severely underpays his father, thus causing his family to suffer. In the Muppet movie, Bob Cratchit proposes a toast to Scrooge as the "founder of the feast" and Mrs. Cratchit takes exception to it and goes into a minor tirade, sarcastically toasting him despite him being "odious and badly dressed." But Tim interrupts her and toasts him earnestly, where they begin to sing what is probably the most profound song ever performed by hand puppets:

One line in this song makes it clear where Tiny Tim's kindness comes from: "I look into the eyes of love and know that I belong." Love isn't just a feeling, but something that is personified in the present, someone that gathers Tiny Tim and his family up in their sickness and poverty and pain and grief and wraps them up. In the midst of that, Tiny Tim famously prays: "God bless us, everyone!" making the source of his joy and peace clear. Scrooge had closed his heart through his suffering, but Tim opened his, because he was aware of Jesus, light of the world, walking beside him in his suffering. Where once Scrooge had lost love (shown so beautifully in the song 'When Love is Gone'), he had finally witnessed real Incarnational love in action through Tim's acknowledgement of love as a person rather than a thing, which broke him out of his own anger and greed. When Scrooge sings at the end in "When Love is Found" he's not just singing about regaining Belle or even gaining a community of friendship, but he's realized that Christmas is about love that comes to the present in order that the past might be repaired and the future might be changed for us and for all those around us!

That's what Christmas is all about! It's about a baby in a dirty, grungy stable offering hope for a future of freedom. It's about a man talking with a tax collector and dining with a hooker, transforming radically how they see themselves. It's about being forgiven when you hurt your spouse, or finding love after loss. It's about peace birthed from political unrest and revolution. Christmas is about your broken past being grieved and healed and transformed into something life giving and glorious.

I know everybody laments the consumerism of this season, but I really think it's okay. Buy your gifts. Watch them make your friends and family glow as they experience love. Because Christ's love transforms and because of that, your love transforms the world too. Just remember that the gifts aren't what the season is about--it's about a green, tender shoot coming from a dead stump. It's about the eyes of love staring into your life and recreating you each and every day.

Happy Advent!