Monday, December 23, 2013

The Ghost of Christmas Future

An imagining and parody of a future Christmas when those who think that there is a "War on Christmas" stamp out everything that is not "Christ-like" in Christmas:

From the Office of Christmas Instructions
To All Citizens of the Land
Date: December 1, 2020

We have finally won the War on Christmas and achieved our goal of establishing a governmental post that oversees the official operation of how Christmas is to be celebrated in the United States of America.  Since Christmas is the day when we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, then we need to establish official guidelines as to how persons residing within the boundaries of the United States of America and its official territories may celebrate and/or observe Christmas.  Listed below are the official rules that now oversee the celebration of Christmas.  All persons residing in the United States of America and its official territories are required to obey these statutes or face the penalty of law:

1. We began this mission with replacing such lackluster greetings such as "Happy Holidays" and Season's Greetings" with "Merry Christmas".  Businesses, Schools, Churches, and Governmental Offices are now required by law to say Merry Christmas during the time period from Thanksgiving Day until Christmas Day.  Persons working it the public arena may not greet others with holiday greetings other than saying "Merry Christmas".  Persons are to report to the authorities any person who uses a greeting other than "Merry Christmas."

2. Since Christmas is the birthday of Jesus Christ and not Santa Claus, then images of Santa Claus are not to be displayed in public.  In addition, shopping centers, malls, and businesses may no longer have persons dressed as Santa Claus, deceiving children into thinking that such a person truly does exist.  We all know that Santa Claus is a lie of commercialism invented to steal some of the glory from Jesus on his birthday.  Advertisements that previously featured Santa Claus are now to have a Manger Scene with "Silent Night" playing in the background.  Those persons who are normally featured in a Manger Scene (i.e., Shepherd, Wise Men, Mary, Joseph, and of course, Jesus) may now be used in advertisements that once featured Santa.  Since Santa Claus can no longer be used in our nation, then other images featuring reindeer are no longer allowed either.  No one wants to see reindeer flying about without a driver and Santa is the only figure that is associated with reindeer.

3. Radio Stations that play Christmas music continuously must play only religious music.  Christmas carols shall be played from Thanksgiving Day through Christmas Day.  Holiday music featuring sleigh rides, walking in snow covered fields, persons wishing others holiday greetings, building snow persons, etc are no longer acceptable.  It is Jesus' birthday, not a time for persons to frolic in snow covered areas.  Snow is our enemy, as is Santa, and we do not want to glamorize the harm that snow can do when one frolics in it.  Our Christmas music will be pleasing to Jesus at the time of his birthday celebration.

4. Christmas Parties at schools and in office buildings shall be solemn remembrances with prayer and singing of Christmas carols.  (See above for officially authorized music.)  No drinking to excess with be allowed and persons will return to their homes at a decent hour and not be out and about being up to no good.  (See rule about frolicking above.)

5. Christmas decorations shall be in good taste and feature images of Jesus and those whom we remember in the celebration of Christmas.  No images of Santa, Reindeer, Elves, or other fictitious figures or storybook characters shall be used as a Christmas ornament.  Using candles attached to trees is suggested rather than electric lighting so as to conserve energy.  No blow up or light up figures shall be seen on lawns in front of homes or offices unless they feature Jesus or his entourage in some way.  Jesus is the Reason for the Season and we must do all we can to emphasize that to others.

6. Persons of other faith traditions or no faith tradition, who insist on celebrating their own pagan rituals (after all we believe in freedom of religion in our country) may hold their celebrations in their homes or houses of worship as long as it does not pour out into the streets or countryside.  Christianity is the official religion of our land (even though we tolerate others) and the one that we officially celebrate with festivities.  Christmas is the official holiday celebrated in the winter and the one that we publicly acclaim.

If you have further suggestions as to how to make Christmas more meaningful to our Savior as he celebrates his birthday each year, please forward to this office and memos will follow to instruct the public in the correct and official way that the holiday may be celebrated.


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Candle Lighting

In last week's blog posting, I talked about how dark the world is just before Christmas.  The Winter Solstice is almost here and with it comes the shortest amount of daylight of the entire year.  The sun breaks over the horizon somewhere between 7:00 and 7:30 a.m. and disappears in the sunset between 5:30 and 6:00 pm.  Ten hours of daylight and long, dark evenings mark our days until Saturday, when after the Winter Solstice, little by little, in minute increments to begin with, the daylight begins to grow longer each day.  Christmas is celebrated just 4 days after we have the Winter Solstice.  The Early Church thought it was appropriate for us to think about Jesus, the Light of the World, coming into a world of darkness so we celebrate the birth of the Everlasting Light amid a world that is literally sitting in darkness, waiting for the light to return.  

My wife and I were in Austin last Friday and we went to a store that had sent me a card offering me 20% off my entire purchase as a gift for my birthday. We really did not need anything in particular from this store but it was as if the coupon card for my birthday demanded that we go there so we walked around and found a few things, most of which were already on sale and added the extra discount to them, making it feel like it was a good buy.  Among the things we bought were several candles and a package of 100 tealights, small candles that burn only a few hours and are all used up.  That is why you get 100 in a package.  It makes you feel like you are getting a huge amount even though you know each candle burns only a short time.  

Lighting a lot of candles at this time of year is something the people of Scandinavia do.  Norwegians do not tend to be very religious people but their lives have even more darkness than ours during the winter so they light many candles daily to push the darkness out of their lives.  Last week, on the day when I celebrated my birthday, Norwegians celebrated Santa Lucia Day.  On that day, the oldest daughter in each family wears a hand band with candles on it at breakfast as the family eats a special bread in celebration of Santa Lucia.  The family sings a song that tells about this saint.  This custom is repeated again and again in Norwegian society as children in schools and in various groups light candles and sing the song to recall the life of St. Lucia.  Great auditoriums are filled with processionals of girls and boys streaming in holding candles and singing the familiar song.  

There is a saying, "It is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness."  That saying reminds me of the words of Jesus that we are to be the light of the world, up high where everyone can see the light and give praise to God.  Our good works show others the light of Christ living within us.  Each time we say a kind word or do a good deed, it is as if we are lighting a candle for others to see.  The candle shows the light of Christ to others in our dark world.  

All through this winter, we plan to light many candles in our home.  Even after we take down the Christmas 
Tree and store it in its box until next December, we will continue to light candles to remind us that light does conquer darkness and that even when things seem very dark in the world around us there is a light that shines in the darkness that gives us hope.  

John's Gospel begins with the Prologue that sets the stage for what will happen in the Gospel.  John introduces John the Baptist who was a "witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him."  He reminds the reader that John "was not the light, but he came to testify to the light."  Then he proclaims, "The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world."  (John 1: 7-9)  

Perhaps that is why Christmas is needed each year, to remind us that Christ is the light of the world and that the lives we live are to reflect that light to others around us.  Christ is the True Light and the light of Christ shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.  That is the Good News that needs to be shared, not only at Christmas but throughout the year.  

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Darkness Closing Around Us

That magical mysterious day will soon be, I am not talking about Christmas comes 4 days after the day I am talking about.  I am talking about the shortest day of the year, the Winter Solstice, which comes on December 21.  Winter Solstice contains the least amount of daylight of the year.  After that, the days begin getting longer, little by little, bit by bit, each day until we reach the Summer Solstice, which is June 20 or thereabout.  The Winter Solstice also marks the first day of winter.  I have always thought it is a bit strange that the first day of winter has the smallest amount of daylight and then each day during winter the days become a bit longer, day by day.  Shouldn't it be that the first day of winter has more daylight then the last day of winter?  Well, I did not design it this way.  That was the way God made it to be because God knows how it should work out.

When we encounter the darkest day of the year on the Winter Solstice, we are surrounded by darkness much of the day.  Those of us in the southern United States fare much better than those who live in the north.  While our daytime hours stop about 5-5:30 pm, theirs end around 4-4:30 pm.  I remember when our son went to college in Boston, he would call us and tell us how the sun was setting at 4 pm.  It was hard to imagine that small amount of daytime hours.

The people in Scandinavia have even less light than that.  They have built "light rooms" where people can sit in artificial light and soak up some light when it is dark outdoors.  Their culture also celebrates the Winter Solstice with festivals and parades that feature torches and candles and a lot of light.  They party in the darkness and try to bring cheer to a world of cold and night.

The darkness of winter is a metaphor of sorts for the world around us and, believe it or not, our festive Christmas season was set to coincide with the ancient festivals that happened at the Winter Solstice so as to utilize the customs of the day to bring attention to the light of Christ coming into the world.  When the world is at its darkest, the light of the world comes in and illuminates everything.  When the day is the shortest, there is a light that emerges to bring about more and more light, just as the daytime hours begin getting longer and longer with each day of winter until finally spring emerges.

Back in the 60s, there was a movie called "Endless Summer" about some surfers who traveled around the world following the season of summer so that they could surf throughout the year.  They were in California in June through August and then began their trek to Australia to enjoy summer December through March.

Our spirits long for the light.   That is one of the reasons why scientists have named a disorder "Seasonal Affective Disorder" or SAD for short.  It affects many people during the winter months because with the shortness of the days also comes changes in their moods and general depression.  These people become SAD because they need light in order to live cheerful, happy lives.  Once spring comes and summer soon follows, they feel much better.  They actually like summer even if it is way hotter than they like it to be, just because there is so much light.

I don't really mind winter weather.  I can dress up with sweaters and coats and stay relatively warm, as long as the sun is shining.  When we experience long stretches of grey, rainy or drizzly days, however.  I long for the sun to shine and to make the grey clouds go away.  I need the sun, as do most of us.

The world is a dark place, if you look at the world situation with so many social problems.  Most people think there is no hope for the world.  That is why we need the sun to shine in our hearts to illuminate our faith so we can be the light of the world for those who wander in the darkness.

"The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness--on them light has shined."  (Isaiah 9:2)
"You are the light of the world.  A city built on a hill cannot be hid...let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.:  (Matthew 5: 14, 16)

Monday, December 9, 2013

On a Quest

Have you ever searched for something and could not find it?  Maybe it was your car keys or glasses or check book.  You search everywhere you can think of and still can't locate the lost item.  It is very frustrating.  Take it from someone who occasionally lays something down and then cannot find it that it can get very frustrating to be on such a quest.  I lay my glasses down now and then and search high and low and finally somehow locate them again.  I told someone a while back that if he would invent something to attach to your glasses so that you could call them to locate them as you do your cell phone they could make a fortune.  This person did not follow through, as far as I know, so if any of you readers are inventors, look into this and see if you can come up with an idea and maybe you will be the one to make the fortune.

Seeking and finding is a major theme in the Bible.  There is a lot of lost and found amid the pages of Holy Writ.  The Prodigal Son is one character who is the role model for the lost child.  He leaves home on his own volition and gets lost in a far country and then he is found once again when he returns home.  Moses is a lost and found guy in the Hebrew Scriptures.  He committed a murder and then ran away from Egypt and got lost in the desert only to be found by a voice coming from a burning bush and to be redirected back to Egypt once again, this time with a mission in mind.

Sometimes people are lost and do not even know it.  Some elderly people who suffer from dementia or Alzheimer's Disease get into their automobile and begin driving and end up far from home, without even knowing that they are lost.  I wonder if they think they are on a grand adventure somewhere or if it is really scary to them to be driving around with no destination in mind.  It is only when they are discovered by a citizen or the police that their being lost becomes apparent.

In this Holy Season, we meet up with Wise Men from the East who are seeking the Christ Child.  They did not know that it was the Christ Child; they only knew that the stars directed them to seek someone who would be great.  When the star stopped over the place where the manger lay, the Wise Men began to rejoice with exceedingly great joy because their quest had ended.  They had found, at last, the object of their search even though they did not know for sure who they were seeking.  They had brought along gifts to present to the great one they encountered so they knelt down and gave the Holy Family their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  That is why we think there were three Wise Men--because they had three gifts. There could have been any number of them but they had three gifts to give.

Jesus himself becomes the lost one in one of the other stories from his childhood when he is left in the Temple when he was about 12 years old.  After a couple of days there, his family discovers he is not with them as they made their way back to Nazareth from Jerusalem so they frantically search for him and find him right where they last saw him, in the Temple conversing with the religious leaders.

We are all on a quest in life.  Sometimes we do not even realize it.  We are seeking meaning in life and do not know where to find it.  Many of us find it in relationships but some find those relationships fragmented and broken after a while and then do not know where to turn.  Some of us try other sources of meaning and find them coming up short.  We often struggle and worry in our quest until finally the source of meaning becomes apparent to us and then we find satisfaction and a sense of peace.

Our Buddhist friends describe the quest as a matter of letting go.  The more we let go of earthly things that tie us down, the more we find peace.  In Christian circles, we often say the same thing.  We describe it as letting go of those things and placing our trust in God, in whom we find solace.  When we give up the need or desire for things that do not really matter, we find peace in the absence of the desire.

The holiday season may be good for the economy but the consumerism that drives it is not always good for individuals.  We can never buy enough products and give them away to enough people to bring us peace and satisfaction.  We can find joy in giving to others but may learn that it is not the gift that counts but the act of giving itself.  Being satisfied within oneself is the greatest gift we can acquire.  

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Peace on Earth....another wish for another Christmas

There is really nothing I want for Christmas.  This is the same as for the last two decades or so.  Somewhere about the time I reached the age of 40 suddenly I found out that I really did not want anything for Christmas or my birthday or for any special occasion unless someone just wants to give me whatever they desire for me to have.  I like receiving food products because I can eat them.  I like receiving cologne or after shave because it has a practical purpose.  I like music, and anything musical is okay too.  But, the idea that I really WANT any of those things is long gone.  What I really want, and none of you can supply, is peace on earth.

Yes, I know it sounds trite to request Peace on Earth for Christmas because not one of you can really give it to me or to the world.  That is the gift that is so fantastic and special and extraordinary that no member of humanity can supply it.  It doesn't stop me from wanting it though.  Every Christmas someone will ask me what I want for Christmas and I will usually reply, "Peace on earth, of course, but if you cannot give me that, whatever you want to give will be great."

There is a song that I first heard when I attended a conference of persons from across the world in Kansas City, Missouri back in the 90s.  It was a religious conference of church people and the music was church music, of course.  The song was a new one and was introduced at the conference to the delegates.  It was written by the modern song writer Shirley Erena Murray who has written many new songs that have been included in modern hymnals.  It is called "Star-Child" which is the name that describes Jesus, the one whose birth we celebrate at Christmas.  I can hardly sing the song without getting a lump in my throat because it describes the great love of God in sending this gift to the earth and the ones for whom he came to earth.

"Star-Child, earth-Child, go between of God, love Child, Christ Child, heaven's lightning rod"--that's Jesus, alright.  Like a celestial visitor, he took up residence among earthlings and became the lightning rod that sparked all who witnessed his life and heard his words.

Then, Murray describes all he came to earth for..."Street child, beat child...hurt child, used child...Grown child...old child...sad child...lost child..."  Many of us have been one or more of that group of kids.  Even if we do not think of ourselves as children any longer, each of us have that inner child that remembers the past and tries to live with the present.  We are the ones who long for the love that only the Star-Child from heaven can provide.

"Hope-for-peace Child, God's stupendous sign, down-to-earth Child, Star of stars that shine"--that's Jesus again.  Jesus is the hope for peace.  Jesus is the sign of God's love for humanity.  Jesus is the brightness that illuminates the path we all must walk.  Jesus is the hope of the world for peace that only God can bring.

The refrain repeats the hope that it will come soon...."This year, this year, let the day arrive, when Christmas comes for everyone, everyone alive!"

"Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me," we say in reply.  Let me work for peace in my corner of the world.  Let me pray daily that God's will be done on earth, even as it is done in heaven.  Let me reach out to those who are like all those children who feel used and sad and lost that their wounds will heal until they see the world differently than it has been in years past.

So, if you are wondering what to give me for Christmas, you know what I really want...but I doubt if Santa will have it in his bag for me on Christmas morning, at least this for this year.  Some Puppy Chow (the kind with the chocolate and powdered sugar not the kind you give to the dog) or a great bottle of virgin olive oil may substitute.  I will have to look upward with my request for the thing I want most and know that the one who can give that gift also wants humans on earth to have it, even more than we want it.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Does Your Faith Have an Expiration Date?

Last Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, we wanted to have some good ole fashioned country food.  You know how it is--you eat all that good food on Thanksgiving Day, rich foods, sweet foods, and something inside you longs for simple food from your past.  So, I cooked up a pot of red beans, made healthy with vegetables and garlic but no fatty meat, and some brown rice to go with it.  Then, I decided to make some cornbread.  That would make it a real tasty country meal.  I like to jazz up the cornbread with the addition of some creamed corn, some mild jalapenos, and some cheddar cheese but this time we decided to leave out the cheese so it would be a little more cholesterol friendly.  I looked in the cabinet to find some canned creamed corn and none could be found so I thought I would run to the grocery store and buy a can while out doing a few errands.  I found the vegetable aisle in the store and located the creamed corn.  There were two choices--a national brand and the store brand that was a dime cheaper in price.  I picked up the less expensive store brand and as I was walking to the check out counter I decided to look at the expiration date.  I stopped in my tracks because the can I held in my hand had an expiration date that had run out two months before.  I returned to the veggie aisle and got the more expensive national brand and checked its date and it was good so paid for it and went home.  The cornbread turned out great and it was a wonderful down home country dinner with beans, rice, and cornbread.

Expiration dates are on products as a guide.  They help us rotate our stock so we will always have the freshest products on our shelves.  The product does not suddenly blow up or disappear just because we have let the expiration date pass on a product we own.  Many times we have used products with expired expiration dates and the food we ate has been safe and tasty.  That information serves as a guide for us so that we can use products in a timely manner.

We in the Church have made a commitment somewhere along the way to our church and to God.  If we have been baptized or become a member of a congregation, we stood before a fellowship of faith and made promises to God and those who witnessed our vows.  In some congregations the question is asked if the one joining the church will support it with their "prayers, presence, gifts, and service."  In other congregations, persons are asked to give of their "time, talent, and treasure."  In others the question is more vague but still very valid, "Will you be faithful to its congregation and support its ministries?"  All of these questions that receive an affirmative answer are asking for a promise to be made that the one being baptized or confirmed or joining a specific congregation will be faithful as members attend and support a congregation.

Those questions and answers seem so long ago to many, however.  If a person is about my age, 60 or so, and he/she was confirmed at 13, then 47 years ago those promises were made.  A lot has happened over that many years.  Do those promises ever expire?  Are they like that warranty you buy on a television or a piece or furniture that are valid for a specific length of time?  Perhaps we need to rephrase the questions so that we allow people to no longer be liable for the vow the made.  Perhaps something like, "Do you promise to give of your time, talent, and treasure to this congregation until you are 55 or die, whichever comes first?"

For some reason it seems that some forget all about the promises they made at an earlier point in life.  Their names remain on the church membership roster, and they would become angry if someone dared to remove it, but they rarely attend worship or support the ministries of the church financially, or serve in any way to contribute to the life of the congregation.  Why do some become what we call "inactive members"--members in name only, a name on a roster, but never really involved in the Christian community that they seemed to treasure at the time in life when they made the decision to become a part of it?  That question is as ongoing as the other hard questions of life.

Maybe it is just human nature to become part of an organization and then forget why we joined in the first place.  Many of us have experience that when we joined a gym as a New Year's resolution.  We were determined to "get in shape" in January but as February led to March we found our way to the gym less and less and then finally decided to give up on that idea.  We often have the best of intentions but lack the will power to carry through with our goals.

The Church is a volunteer organization.  It is largely led by volunteers.  Sure, most congregations have a pastor who is paid something to be there, and maybe even a church secretary or custodian but outside of those positions, unless it is a very large church, most roles in the organization are filled by volunteers.  Church members serve on the church committees, give of their funds to keep the lights on and the a/c working, and help others in one way or another through their efforts.  When the volunteers begin to stay home and stop their support, then the church either has to recruit new volunteers or energize those who have fallen into neglectful patterns.  If neither can be done, then soon the church will cease to exist.

I have been the pastor of my church for almost ten years.  In that length of time, we have said goodbye to many devoted faithful members, people who were present in worship almost every Sunday and who gave of their resources to support the church.  Those people were part of the backbone that made the church successful over its century long history.  Now, we need others to step up and take over where those who are gone have left off.  We need faithful members who will be present most Sundays and who will give of their time, talents, and treasure cheerfully because they believe it speaks of their love of God and neighbor.  We have many who are active and involved but we need others to join them.

How do we encourage faithfulness?  How do we create new habits to replace the ones that hinder some from being involved?  How long does a faith commitment last?  Does it ever expire?  Or is it meant to be an eternal commitment because it was made to an eternal God?