Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Card

Nope...not a reflection about Christmas cards, although there's plenty to reflect on when you look at them all. I find it a stretch to think that Mary looked that refined after a 70-80 mile ride on a donkey that ended with giving birth in the smelly stable of an over-crowded inn. But hey...we think what we think, and the sentiment of this e-card is certainly what I wish for all of you.

Click here for your e-card.

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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.

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Bending Low

It Came Upon the Midnight Clear, v. 3: “And ye, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low, who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow, look now! For glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing. O rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing!”

I thought a lot about burdens yesterday. Not because my life is so overwhelmed with them, but because the trees were. If you’ve watched weather reports recently, you know that we in the northeast have been hammered with storms. While I escaped the devastating ice storm, this last snow came in full force, heavy and wet. I looked out in the morning and it was a winter wonderland. I took video. Every tree, every bush, covered in pristine white.

Then I took Ruckus for a walk. Huge limbs were down all over the neighborhood, blocking roads and turning yards into brush piles. The air had a lovely scent of pine, but it came because pine trees were gashed open as their snow-laden branches could take no more and broke from the trunk. Children sledded down a nearby hill, their shrieks of delight melding with the groaning of the pines. One tall, slim tree was bent all the way over in an arch to the top of another tree where the snow pack connected them like Siamese twins. If I were a bit taller I would have hit my head on branches hanging low over even the middle of the road.

I stopped and freed a young oak, bent so that it’s top almost touched the ground. Even shaking the limbs would only do so much. I had to knock off the snow clumps by hand. Then I went back to my yard and did the same, knowing that either high wind or more precipitation would do them in (and maybe do in the power lines as well). Overnight, those weary branches caught their breath and this morning they stand back tall, several feet or more above where the snow had brought them.

As braches shed their snow and sprang back (sometimes whipping my face on their way!), I thought about the Christmas carol, It Came Upon The Midnight Clear. There’s a lot of bending in that carol. In the first verse it’s the angels bending near the earth to pluck their harps of gold so that mortals can hear. In verse three, which I cited above, it is humanity that is bent low beneath life’s crushing load. Our lives often end up like those trees—so much falls on us all at once that we are bent over from the weight and simply can’t spring back up on our own.

What Christmas reminds us is that God noticed and sent help. God bends low first and works in our lives to get the burdens back to a manageable level. It’s a slow process, and sometimes when a branch in our lives finally springs free, we slap God in the face on the way back up, but the stripes God receives from our branches do not deter the work. Branch by branch, limb by limb, tree by tree, God lifts the burden of life’s storms—maybe not completely, but enough that we can make it through.

And what God did for us in that baby in a manger, we are called to do for others. Jesus spent three years in ministry bending low to help those under the crushing snows. But it wasn’t just about those he helped. It was about showing us what a life as his disciple was supposed to look like: Healing the sick, feeding the hungry, finding the lost.

If you look around and see the beauty of Christmas and hear the joy of children in the season, look a little deeper. The very thing that causes the beauty might also be bending some to the breaking point. Bend low with them, and help them up.

“For lo! the days are hastening on, by prophet seen of old, when with the ever-circling years shall come the time foretold when peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling, and the whole world send back the song which now the angels sing.” Amen.

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Sunday, December 14, 2008


Matthew 1:21 “She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

It’s almost Christmas and we’re in the midst of economic crisis. When it’s Christmas time and banks are failing; when Congress is trying to decide if US automakers deserve a bailout, this season gives us stories to ponder.

We’ll get back to the biblical Christmas story in a moment, but there’s another Christmas story that speaks to our situation quite directly. “It’s A Wonderful Life.” We often remember this classic film simply as showing how our lives have ripples out well beyond what we can see. We remember how Clarence the angel gets his wings by showing George Bailey how different (in a bad way) the lives of his family and friends would have been without him, thus convincing him not to end his life.

But what I want to remember now is that the plot device of the story is a large corporate bank (owned by Mr. Potter) trying to own a town and, through scheming and corruption, put the only competition—the Bailey Savings and Loan—out of business. The economic story in “It’s A Wonderful Life” is a perfect education in fundamental banking systems. We see the seamy side as Mr. Potter is exposed as a slum lord who will quickly foreclose on someone to gain a buck and who will steal from the competition to put them out of business. And, of course, we see the good that banks were meant to do when Potter causes a run on the Bailey Savings and Loan and people try to take out all their money.

Faced with angry customers, George tries to explain to them:
No, but you...you...you're thinking of this place all wrong. As if I had the money back in a safe. The, the money's not here. Well, your money's in Joe's house...that's right next to yours. And in the Kennedy House, and Mrs. Macklin's house, and, and a hundred others. Why, you're lending them the money to build, and then, they're going to pay it back to you as best they can. Now what are you going to do? Foreclose on them?

The bank closes $2 in the black and is saved. Potter, of course, is not done and later steals $8,000 during an audit and then threatens to have George jailed for misappropriation of funds. That prompts George’s suicidal thoughts, which is when Clarence the angel steps in. The film closes on Christmas day with the loyal friends that George has made through his generosity bringing as much money as each one can, capped with a telegram from his old buddy, Sam Wainwright, promising a $25,000 bailout.

I think many are offended by the bailout of the financial system because the criterion for receiving funds has been whether an institution is “too big to fail” not whether their practices have been good and fair. By the government’s criteria, Potter would get the bailout and George Bailey would go under. But let’s circle back to the Christmas story. Another way to talk about the birth of the Savior is to talk about the birth of the bailout, because that, in essence, is what saviors do. We call it grace, or mercy, or forgiveness, but we’re all there as sinners with our hands out.

The rest of the Gospels try to give us an insider’s view into how Jesus makes bailout decisions. Moneychangers in the Temple are going home empty-handed. The woman caught in adultery is pardoned with a warning to “go and sin no more.” Blind Bartimaeus, who keeps hollering at Jesus until Jesus pays attention and stops, gets a full healing while presumably those who were not the “squeaky wheel” are left in their condition. Those who fail to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc. step into a handbasket bound for you know where, but a thief being executed for his crime gets full absolution, simply by acknowledging that he deserves what he’s getting and asking Jesus to remember him. The rich young ruler was offered a bailout but turned it down when he learned that the terms included his willingness to bailout others. Of course that is how Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” (The economic “debts” reflects the original Greek much better than “trespasses” or the more generic “sins.”)

Make this Christmas relevant to our time by using it to think about bailouts. Watch “It’s A Wonderful Life,” and think about whether some banks really should get some help and why. Read not only the Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke but the rest of at least one of the Gospels. Think about who Jesus bailed out and why. Then do the hard part. Think about what sort of a bailout you need at this point in your life, and then turn to the one born to “save his people from their sins.” I have always found him to be more merciful than I am. Maybe Lehman Brothers should have thought of that.

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