Sunday, January 10, 2010

Keeping Watch

Matthew 26:38b "Stay here and keep watch with me."

Over New Year's I was visiting friends in Florida and, as you know if you've been watching the news, Florida has been having record cold temperatures. New Year's morning began with forty-degree temperatures and pouring rain, starting about 5:30 am and lasting all morning. So we got up late, felt lazy, and figured we'd shower and get dressed sometime after the Rose Bowl parade.

Then Dorothy said, "I just saw a dog." Understand that the home I was visiting is out in the middle of nowhere. You drive until the pavement turns to dirt and the dirt turns into their front yard. A dog out there meant a lost dog. It was about 9:30 am, it was still pouring and miserable and cold. I went out on the porch.

Shortly, she came around the corner--a chocolate lab, soaked through and acting as if she had been shoed away from a number of other homes, perhaps with force. But I could see she had a collar and tags, and after some persistence, she came to me. It took awhile, but I managed to get her up on the porch and got the information off her tags. Dorothy called while I stayed with the dog. Her name was Hershey, and her owner was out driving around looking for her when we called. She would come soon.

And so we waited. We got a towel and dried her off and fed her a bit of leftover steak from the night before. We looked down the road and we waited and we watched until Hershey's owner came to claim her. Then, having added "muddy wet dog" to my personal scent, I finally took a shower just in time for the parade.

Waiting with Hershey reminded me how frequently simply sitting and waiting with someone is the best form of ministry. When we sit with someone who has a loved one in surgery; when we keep vigil at the bedside of someone in their last hours; when we visit someone whose house has been empty of company far too long--what can seem like time doing nothing is actually time being Christ for others, being God with skin on.

That's all Jesus wanted during those last few hours before his arrest and death--someone to sit and watch with him. The disciples fell asleep and failed that simple request three times. We often fail as much or more. But with each new day and each new year, there is a chance to get it right--a chance to be there for the frightened, the lost, the wet and the cold. A chance to make a call, to get a towel, and to wait and watch until the One we wait for comes.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Monday, December 7, 2009

When the Church banned Christmas

"It is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shilling as a fine to the county."
From the Records of the General Court, Massachusetts Bay Colony, May 11, 1659

It's that season again when communities get all worked up about holiday displays and what can be shown there and retail clerks get ulcers worrying about whether or not they can say, "Merry Christmas" to those who come into their stores. In churches there is often the angst around who gets to be Mary in the Christmas pageant, whether a Christmas tree should be in the sanctuary and, if so, how it should be decorated.

Church programs are at full tilt, pastors prepare for multiple services, choirs are hard at work on cantatas, and church leaders fret that town regulations no longer allow hand-held candles at their candlelight services. And of course most everybody, both inside the church and out, is participating in keeping the economy afloat by buying things for people who, in most cases, don't really need them.

As many Christians get all worked up over "Keeping the Christ in Christmas," I've come to wonder if Jesus really would want his name associated with the holiday as it stands. And as I wondered that, I remembered my early experience as a Reference Assistant at the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.

The JCB is a rare book library specializing in Americana up to the year 1800, and in my time there I volunteered to work on a Christmas exhibition for our reading room. What I discovered in my research, however, was that Americans did not celebrate Christmas before 1800. In fact, the celebration of Christmas was actually banned in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1659 and anyone caught celebrating had to pay a five-shilling fine.

And who got it banned? Why, the Christians, of course.
The ban lasted 22 years, but it wasn't until the middle of the 19th century before Christmas celebrations were really accepted as appropriate in religious circles. Consider this statement by the Rev. Increase Mather in 1687:

"The generality of Christmas-keepers observe that festival after such a manner as is highly dishonourable to the name of Christ. How few are there comparatively that spend those holidays (as they are called) after an holy manner. But they are consumed in Compotations, in Interludes, in playing at Cards, in Revellings, in excess of Wine, in mad Mirth ..."

Consider also the very earliest Christians. Christmas was not an important festival in the Church for several centuries after Christ's death. The three big Church festivals were Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost. Jesus' birth was relatively unimportant compared to the events that revealed his nature (Epiphany), his death and resurrection (Easter), and the bestowal of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost).

All of that makes me wonder if Christians perhaps should quit worrying about keeping the Christ in Christmas and simply let it be the time of warm sentiment, festive parties, and economic activity that it has become. Suppose we took the Christ OUT of Christmas and instead put Him back in Epiphany where He belongs?

Honestly, are even our Christmas Eve services accurately described as "holy"? They are sentimental, to be sure, and that is fine. I love a beautiful candlelight service as much as the next person. But I wonder sometimes if all our cooing over a baby Jesus isn't a way of guarding ourselves against the older Jesus. Jesus as a baby can't make us uncomfortable. He can't overturn our tables or tell us to love our enemies or to put away our swords. He just smiles at drummer boys, receives expensive presents from important people, and (if you're to believe the carols) doesn't even cry! Who wouldn't want a baby like that?

But the baby grows up, and as he does, the crowds of Christmas dwindle. Those who want to keep the Christ in Christmas often do not want him intruding at other times of the year. Like tax time, for example. We're only back again when Jesus has gotten through His life and that nasty execution and is safely resurrected and ready to offer us eternal life. Presents given to Him at birth are returned to us in Easter salvation and we get to avoid all those difficult lessons in-between.

Keep the Christ in Christmas if you will, but personally I think it's more important to put Him back in the rest of the year.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Supreme Court Considerations

John 8:7 "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her."

The process of selecting a Supreme Court justice, who serves on the bench for life, is critical to our nation’s health and stability. It’s one of those things we simply must get right. Maybe because the pressure to get it right is so great, we always seem to get a little crazy when that time comes around, although we’re not always crazy in the same way.

A couple of decades ago we wanted our justices to have no personal opinions at all. Then over the last decade it shifted and we insisted they have partisan preferences so they could qualify to replace either a liberal or conservative judge who came before them. Now there’s a new brand of craziness and people are questioning whether it is appropriate to look for a Supreme Court justice with empathy. Hello? Isn’t that the difference between administering the law and administering justice?

Because one of the main Scriptural metaphors for God is that of a judge, and because biblical leaders were also generally called upon as judges, people of faith have an interest in these matters—or should. The best-known Old Testament judgment is the case of the two women claiming to be the mother of a single baby, a case that was brought to King Solomon.

In a case hailed forever after as a sign of Solomon’s wisdom, Solomon uses his experience of a mother’s love to decide the case. He orders that the child be cut in half, with half a baby given to each. When one of the women cried out to spare the child and give it to the other woman, Solomon knew he had the real mother and gave the child to her. One example of empathy at work, resulting in justice.

We only see Jesus acting formally as a judge once, in the opening verses of John 8. A woman has been caught in the act of adultery (although oddly enough they could only manage to bring the woman and not the man for judgment) and the Pharisees bring her to Jesus to judge, reminding him that the punishment dictated by the law is death by stoning. Jesus makes his judgment based on his ability to connect with and understand people—empathy. More than that, he brings about justice by calling those present to empathize with the woman as well. They are all reminded of their own sins and only those who have no sin are allowed to administer what the law requires.

It works, and nobody throws the first stone. Then Jesus, arguably the only one there who could have thrown a stone under the rule, does not. He recognizes her sin and tells her to shape up. But he lets her go, as the Pharisees had obviously already let the man go. What Jesus continually objected to in the Pharisees was their lack of empathy in administering the law. They were legalists, caring only about the technicalities of the law and not the broader concerns of justice. They were concerned with the letter of the law rather than its spirit.

The “Good News” of the New Testament is that our ultimate judge is Jesus and not the Pharisees. We get the guy with the empathy not the one with a literal interpretation of the law. There are plenty of legitimate questions to ask about a potential judge, for the Supreme Court or otherwise; but if empathy becomes an impediment to someone's selection, we could easily become a nation of Pharisees, leaving us all in danger of being stoned to death.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Two Wolves

Philippians 4:8 “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

In the last few days of 2008, media of all types and all ideologies spent time looking back over the year. Everybody had their top ten lists and the re-hashing of both the presidential campaigns and the economic meltdown. After watching one such recitation I heard one news pundit say to another, “Personally, I have never seen a year filled with such huge yet equal amounts of both hope and fear. It’s like they’re battling and we don’t know which one will win.”

When I heard that, it reminded me of an old story, usually attributed to Native American sources, about two wolves. You may well have heard it before. The general story goes that a tribal elder is speaking to a young boy. “My son, there are two wolves who are fighting within every person’s heart: love and hate. You can hear them snarling if you lie very still and when one isn’t looking the other will pounce. It is a great and terrible battle and the outcome will determine who you become.” The young boy’s eyes grow wide as he asks, “But which wolf will win?” The old man answers, “The one you feed.”

I doubt that story ever actually happened, but it is a “true” story nonetheless. And the same truth is reflected in Paul’s letter to the Philippians as he reminds a church facing persecution to focus on the positive—to feed the good wolf, if you will. Remember that Paul is writing this letter from prison, facing execution. The circumstances for both Paul and the church in Philippi are dire. The bad wolves are circling in both cases. But, even so, Paul encourages the church to think on the good, in order to give life to what is honorable, just, and pure even in the midst of great turmoil and evil.

I think the news pundit was exactly right about our contemporary situation. Hope and fear circle each other like two wolves seeking dominance. Right now they are of equal strength and stamina. It will be up to us to decide which wolf to feed and that, in turn, will decide the battle. I think Paul would tell us to feed the hope. The hope wolf may still sustain some wounds in the fight, but if hope goes in better fed and cared for, it will win in the long run.

What Paul advocates is not easy, especially when you are in dire circumstances, but I think Paul gained his strength from exactly that sort of practice. Remember this was the guy that early on in his ministry was found singing hymns in his dungeon cell. He learned to feed the good wolf and it became strong enough to guard against despair, even when starting his own execution in the face.

Welcome to 2009. Hope and fear are on the prowl, looking for food to sustain them in battle. Which one will you feed?

Labels: , , , , , , , ,