For most of us, the Christmas season is marked by more chaos than peace. No matter how old we are, there’s this time leading up to the “big day” that’s marked by increasing expectation. For some, it’s a happy time, for others it can be closer to panic. It seems like it starts earlier every year. We plan, we travel, we decorate, we bake, we shop, we eat, we worry about how much we spent while shopping and how much holiday-weight we’re gaining while we’re eating. Sometimes it seems like we’re bouncing around like a ping-pong ball in a clothes dryer until we’re flung out into the new year wondering where the holiday went!
I’m not railing against busyness or complaining about losing the spirit of Christmas, I’m saying that no matter what we believe, Christmas is more of a season than an event. In the Christian church, we have a word that encompasses that: “Advent.” For us, Christmas doesn’t come suddenly. Each year, there’s a four week lead-up that reminds us, in the midst of the busyness, of the hope, peace, joy, and love that come with Jesus Christ’s coming into our world. It’s a wonderful time of anticipation and celebration of the beautiful mystery that Christ has come, Christ is here, and Christ is coming again.
I’m a bit of a word nerd, so I like to sink into the meaning of things when I talk about them. “Advent” is the same concept that we get the word “Adventure” from. It’s something new coming. Something expected, but somehow unexpected at the same time. It’s a time of profound change where the old passes away and something different takes its place and nothing can ever be the same afterward. Advent is a time that we eagerly anticipate the coming not of presents and turkey, or even the end of insane busyness, but of Jesus Christ.
Once upon a time, the world was Christless, and it waited with baited breath for the one who would make all things new. Then, like a silent ray of starshine, He was here.
That’s what we celebrate. That’s what we still wait for. The old made new. The broken made whole. The greatest gift the world has been given. He was given when He was least deserved and most needed, and that pattern has been followed in countless lives in the centuries since.
This Christmas season, take some time to ponder what the advent of Jesus Christ means, or could mean, in your own life. Look at the world around you. Look up to the stars. Jesus is coming.
I haven’t written for a while. Excuse me while I ramble for a bit.
Each morning (well, most mornings… sometimes afternoons… sometimes I skip it because I’m busy or lazy or in a mood or whatever), I dig into JD Walt’s Seedbed Daily Text. I highly recommend it as a Biblically rich devotional written by a servant of God with a broad intellectual skillset and the heart of a poet.
We’re in the Gospel of Matthew right now, as John the Baptist cries out, “Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is near!” As I process some of my thoughts on his thoughts on God’s thoughts, I’m going to piggyback on some of what he said this morning. I’m just saying that this is mostly me, but he deserves credit (or blame, if you disagree) for the direction and it’s only fair that he get it. If you want to catch up, this particular devo is permalinked here.
Way back in the day (colloquially speaking – it was actually an evening), my youth pastor taught one of many lessons on repentance. This one stuck with me for a number of reasons. First, because it was a time in my life that I was in a weird tension that a lot of Christian teens go through… I had “given my life to Christ,” but had developed excellent compartmentalization skills. I’d given the part of my life that went to church and youth group to Christ, but the part of my life that smoked pot and was committed enough to take the time to download porn on a 28.8k modem and other bad stuff remained firmly separate. The tug of war that ebbs and flows and never seems to quite stop completely was at a high point, and I knew that I needed to “repent.”
I mean, I’d pented at least a few times before, and it obviously hadn’t stuck, so I apparently had to do it again.
Repent is a powerful word. It’s explosive, just in terms of its sound. It gains momentum coming off the lips, pulsing out in a way that leaves an impact. It hangs in the air waiting for a response. Even if you’ve heard it a million times, it sits there, slapping at your conscience, demanding acknowledgement, even it it’s just to turn it away again.
It’s also foreign to our modern language. It’s become the exclusive domain of religiousity, and so, while demanding, its also somewhat amorphous and confusing.
The second reason that his lesson sticks in my memory is that he gave a pithy, one sentence definition of repentance that was easy to grasp. He said that, “Repentance is a 180 degree turn from where you’ve been going,” and had kids demonstrate in an object lesson by walking in a straight line across the room and when he yelled, “Repent!” they’d have to turn around and go back in the other direction. It was a good lesson. It was simple and to the point and something a teenager could understand. And so I repented.
And no matter how many times I did that about-face and turned 180 degrees from where I was going, my course would slowly wander and I’d find myself heading back exactly the way I had been.
Because he was wrong.
And I was wrong when I taught the same thing.
The problem with viewing repentance as a 180 degree turn from the way you were going is that it still focuses on you and the way you were going. It’s like trying to drive by looking in the rearview mirror. It’s appealing to a self-absorbed, self-addicted people because it maintains our self direction – even if we’re directing ourselves by not going somewhere. It’s our direction – anchored by our former direction – dependent on our vision and our conscience and our experience. Our new direction is entirely dependent on our old direction. That doesn’t work well.
The whole idea of trying to navigate by going away from something is just profoundly stupid. And that’s kind of what John is saying.
The good news is that the true point of navigation is near. It’s not ephemeral. It’s not abstract. It’s among us now.
Yes, repentance is a firm re-orientation, but it’s not reorienting away from something, it’s changing direction to move towards something. As long as we’re moving towards it, it doesn’t matter what we’re moving away from. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done. It doesn’t matter what we’re inclined to drift towards. It doesn’t matter what we… what we… what we… what I.
It matters what God.
Repentance isn’t about us. It’s about him. It’s about Emmanuel. It’s about God With Us. JD says it better than I can:
To be clear, behaviors will change but that change will come from a far deeper place than mere compliance with the rules. It will come from the deep wells of our transformed dispositions, affections, desires and from the Holy Spirit inspired dreams of the beautiful, good and powerfully loving lives we were created to live. To repent means to realign our entire lives to become the remarkable kind of people Jesus would be if he were you and me. Repentance does not start with a stinging self examination of our shame-filled selves. No, it begins by beholding the face of God in Jesus Christ, inhaling the Holy Spirit breathed Word of our own beloved-ness and exhaling the breathtaking beauty of the now-appearing-all-things-are-possible Kingdom of Heaven.
That’s probably enough for today. I’m not done thinking about it. It feels important.
Because there’s something in me that needs to be pent. It needs to be contained and constrained and confined because it has its way with me in a way I don’t like and I don’t like myself when it does. I’ve pent it. I’ve repented it. I’ve repented it again. The only way it’s going to stay pent-up is if God does it. To stop moving away and move towards. To stop being defined by it and get a new definition.
So that’s my prayer for me this morning. It’s my prayer for you. That we be defined not by our failing, but by our calling – by the one who succeeded on our behalf. That we be defined not by what we don’t want to be, but by what we were made to be, and the one who made us. That we be moving towards the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.
Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
In recent breaking news, Starbucks has given in! Christians have won! Christ is back in Coffee Christmas! The infamous coffee chain has acknowledged their nefarious plot, bowing to the righteous indignation of Red Hat Guy and his friend Donald. CEO Joe Starbuck was quoted as saying:
Yeah, they caught us. You can’t hide anything from the internet. The recent influx of angry patrons named Merry Christmas has forced us to give up on the Red Solo plan and come forward with an offering filled with real Christmas spirit.
Despite a 23% spike in sales due to outraged Dunkin’ Donuts regulars switching to Starbucks to stick it to the man in the name of Jesus, the coffee giant has hired famed guerilla artist Akiro Arukiddingme to bring together an amalgamation of the designs that captured Christmas past for coffee loving evangelicals. In his first media appearance in years, he told reporters:
I believe that Starbucks needed to make a true, meaningful apology in this cup. White on red graphics have come to mean so much to so many people at this time of year, so I have reached into their hearts to give them the vision they have craved. I may be punished for saying so, but Starbucks was ill-advised in using so much red. Red is the colour of anger. White has brought peace, so I combined the white designs of past years. I overlaid them on this year’s red cup to bring a vision of the peace of Christ, because what is in the hearts of Evangelical Christians passes all understanding.
Hailed as the most Christmassy cup ever, Arukiddingme’s design incorporates every Christmas image used before, and should satisfy even the most demanding Evangelical:
In other news, come on, people.
Sometimes my life seems like a constant string of reevaluating opinions and attitudes and stupid things I say. Sometimes they’re things that I’ve been taught and never really thought too hard about. Sometimes they’re things that seem obvious on the surface, but there’s a lot going on underneath that I ignore. Sometimes it’s not that I’m wrong, it’s just that I’m just arrogant and graceless and went too far in what I said.
I’m not sure where this falls on the spectrum, but for the past few days, I’ve been thinking more and more about the Pew Research study (supposedly showing the decline of American Christianity) and the spins that various media outlets are giving it. The popular consensus seems to be the one that Ed Stetzer puts forward: that committed, or “convictional” Christians aren’t going anywhere, while “nominal Christians” (Christians in name only), or Default Christians as I put it in a recent post, aren’t checking the box any more. That’s basically what I said, and I likely wouldn’t have bothered saying it if I’d already known the number of much “larger” names saying the same thing.
In a nutshell, I said that it was a good thing. I said that nominal Christians shouldn’t be called Christians anyway. Then I went another step further to say that there are still a lot of nominal or default Christians in our pews that should basically go home and stop pretending. I said that if they did, then our churches would be more free to follow Jesus. I compared them to the fat of the church. Sometimes I’m an ass.
It’s not that I’m entirely wrong in what I said (I don’t think). Having pews full of marginal and uncommitted people who aren’t willing to commit to following Christ—becoming “real” Christians—does “weigh our churches down” and leave a less effective witness. I’ve been convinced, though, that my attitude towards it is unChristlike.
A big part of that was a reevaluation of Jesus’ “outreach” program, particularly as referenced in Matthew 9:11 —
When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
and, lest there be any confusion about exactly what kind of people these Pharisees meant, Matthew 11:19 —
The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’
Those passages are nothing new to most Christians. I’ve heard them a million times. I’ve quoted them and taught from them. I think about them as I think about the people that to all of the obvious things that we assume people outside of the Church do… those filthy “non-Christians”… the sweaty unchurched. I think about Jesus going into bars and building relationships and teaching them grace. I think of it as an example or a metaphor for us going out into “the world” to “reach people” for Jesus.
The thing is, that’s not what happened.
By simple arrangement of geography and priorities, Jesus rarely, if ever, hung out with the “unchurched.” If we want to look for examples of outreach to the Gentiles, we need to look at Paul and the post-ascension apostles. Jesus, in his own words, came to seek and save the lost sheep of Israel. The tax-collectors, the drunkards, the whores and the sinners, they were Jews. They were people that knew God, born and raised in the synagogues, but lived contradictory lifestyles. They were backsliders. They were the nominals. They were the default Jews.
I don’t know what went on behind closed doors. I don’t know what Jesus looked like at their feasts and parties, and I’m not going to presume to. I do know that Jesus wasn’t rejoicing over them leaving. He certainly wasn’t coming down on them with God’s own thunder for their “sinfulness”. He loved them. He spent time with them. He was Jesus to them.
So much of the time my grace runs out at the door of the church. When I look at nominals as a pastor, especially long-term nominals, I get frustrated. I have a get-in-or-get-out mentality. I want to pour my effort into the people that seem to be “getting it,” and not waste it on the people that don’t. I want them to drop their crap and commit so that I can lead them. I’ll give all sorts of room for non-Christians to be messy. It’s expected. Sinners gonna sin. When it comes to people that have claimed the Savior, though, I have different expectations, and I don’t know what to do when my expectations aren’t met, so most of the time I ignore them. If I don’t ignore them, I want to preach at them so they’ll stop frustrating and embarrassing me.
Because it’s about me. My frustration. My embarrassment on God’s behalf.
Apparently Jesus has a lot more grace for nominals than most of us do. Maybe instead of wanting to clear them out so that the faithful can move forward to reaching the unchurched, we should be “coming to seek and save the lost sheep of Christianity.” Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what that would look like. I do know that it probably looks like something that could get a “good Christian” a bad name or a pastor a reputation for lackadaisical faith.
I know that there are plenty of times that scripture calls out the “lukewarm,” and Jesus calls for extreme commitment, but there’s something else going on too. It’s something I need to learn and explore. I know I’m going to tend to waffle around between extremes, but a pursuit of Christlikeness means continually adjusting my aim. Right now, I feel like God is reminding me of something important.
Jesus, friend of nominals, loves them. I can’t throw them under the bus.
I work at a church. This means that I know a lot of Christians. In fact, despite my best intentions, it seems that most of the people I’m facebook friends with profess the Christian faith. Some of them are youth that I’ve worked with. Some of them are people I’ve gone to church with. Some of them are friends/acquaintances from school. You get the idea. The upshot is this: I get more trite, Christiany pictures and statuses popping up in my feed before 9 am than most people get in a week. Honestly, some of them I appreciate. Some are inspiring. Some are insipid. Some are just wrong, and make us all look really, really dumb. If that offends my Christian friends, I’ll borrow a page from a mom that I know and say this, just as she does when talking to all her kids at the same time: I’m telling this to all of you. If you feel that it applies to you, then take it to heart. If you feel that it doesn’t, then assume that I’m not talking to you.
Just so we’re perfectly clear, this is not on the good side of Christiany posts.
I’m going to come at this from a couple of angles: First, why you really shouldn’t ever say this or post it. Second, how it came to be, and why it’s less stupid than I make it out to be in the first part. Confused yet? Read on.
Jesus is not the reason for the season. He’s not. Take a deep breath. The athiests are right. The festive season around this time of year was around long before Jesus. It spans cultures, not in terms of people trying to steal the Christ from your Christmas, but in terms of completely unrelated religious beliefs. Why would all these other religions–the pagans, the mystics, the tribal spiritists, whatever–want to celebrate Jesus’ birthday, you ask? Because it’s not. And most of you know that. It’s one of the worst kept secrets in Christendom, and one of the dumbest myths that we perpetuate to our children. Best guess, Jesus was born in September. Beyond that, even if he was born on December 25th, why would people have been celebrating that before the nativity came to pass?
I know people that have had a “house of cards” faith (refer to the earlier “mom phrase”). They’re not Christians any more. What I mean by “house of cards,” is that as they came up in the church, people fed them certainties. They were taught things, perpetuated in the church, that sounded good but had little theological or historical basis. Like Jesus’ birthday. They then went out into the “real world,” and cards started getting flicked. Things like the Christmas story were called into question as people said to them, “did you know that Christmas is actually the pagan festival of Saturnalia?” and they responded “NO! JESUS IS THE REASON FOR THE SEASON!”
They had two choices: bury their head in the sand or find out the truth – that people celebrated this time of year because in agrarian cultures, this was downtime. We approach the winter solstice. The shortest day of the year. December 21st. Lacking a good and accurate calendar, the way people knew it had come and gone was that the day started to get longer. YAY!! THE RETURN OF THE SUN! We’ve turned the corner! Spring is coming! And how easy it is to ascribe religious significance to it when you believe the seasons and all aspects of nature are governed by gods. The god of warmth and sun has triumphed again over the god of cold and night!
And what happens to those rational Christians when that card gets removed from the house? What else might be wrong? … How can I give the benefit of the doubt to the unproven, when the things I was taught were certain are OBVIOUSLY wrong? … How can a rational faith teach this?? … We would have been celebrating this season if Jesus had never been born.
And they walk away.
And I have a hard time blaming them.
I blame the sand-head-repeaters, because there is a good reason for it. Just because a teaching has gotten twisted, doesn’t mean that it didn’t start as rational.
You see, the early Christians didn’t have any illusions about this season being their idea. If they were Jewish, they grew up with Hanukkah (what Jesus would have celebrated, by the way); if they were Hellenistic gentiles, they would most likely have been lighting up bonfires against the dark, bringing in evergreen boughs against the winter, giving each other gifts (yeah. Long before St. Nick. Once again, get over it), upsetting social norms, having all sorts of sex, and watching for the victory of the Sun.
Then they decided not to celebrate those things. They thought, hey, what a perfect metaphor for the the coming of the messiah! They figured that the coming of the small new light when everything seemed the darkest was a brilliant parallel for the Light of the World coming as a baby into a spiritually dark world. They said that the rest of the world could celebrate what they wanted to, but they were going to take that time and remember that when all seems the darkest and the quietest, and it seems like the winter will never end, God is moving and is coming to save.
The season was the reason that they celebrated Jesus.
I feel that I need to be clear again: I believe that the nativity is a historical event, just not as it tends to be portrayed by Christians today. We ignore the Bible for a more picturesque, easy to tell story. Sometimes I’m kind of okay with that… there are Wise Men in our nativity creche at the same time as the shepherds*. But let’s talk about it.
Let’s talk about why the story of Jesus’ birth and the events of the years surrounding it are celebrated at the Christ Mass just past winter solstice–the way the story comes together is too powerful to ignore. Let’s talk about what an awesome point of dialogue this metaphor is for relating our faith to the world! Let’s not dumb stuff down for our kids in such a way that, when they become old enough to process the metaphor, it sounds like a lie. Let’s not attack the people around us, directly or with passive-aggressive Facebook posts, for celebrating a season that we’ve co-opted for our own. They can take the Christ out of Christmas… we put it in. Without Christ, it’s just a “mass” – a feast, and they were doing that long before us.
Above all, let’s not let the trite overcome the profound. Let’s not build straw men that make our faith look ridiculous. As the world looks toward the hope of the new year, let’s be able to offer the reason for the hope we have in Christ Jesus.
*They weren’t. GASP! *house of cards falling*