Sunday, December 23, 2018

"O Tannenbaum!"

            It's Christmas, and the sights, sounds, and smells of the season are everywhere.  Did you ever wonder where your favorite Christmas traditions came from?  If the first Christmas, the birth of the Christ child, happened over two thousand years ago in the Middle East—how come so many of our traditions have to do with snow?  In one pivotal movement, when the apostle Paul had decided to take the gospel eastward, he had a vision in which a man from Macedonia pleaded for him to bring Christian teaching westward (Acts 16:6-10).  From that time on, Christianity became a predominantly European religion, and its traditions derived largely from Europe as well.  Hence, the cold weather traditions.  The Roman Catholic church celebrated the Christ Mass as a minor observance, but as the faith reached deeper into pagan territory, Christianity began to develop holiday traditions that competed with non-Christian practices. 

Lights.  The winter solstice, called Yule by many pagans, marked the shortest day of the year.  This meant it was the last day that the days grew shorter, and the first day that light would begin to return.  Pagans would light a Yule log to welcome the light.  This seemed to correspond to the Jewish festival of lights called Hanukah.  Likewise, i made sense for Christians to celebrate the increasing light as the time when Jesus, the Light of the World, was born—even though he was probably born in springtime.  All of our Christmas holidays involving lights trace back to these roots.

Mistletoe.  One website says, “According to Francis X. Weiser, in his Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs: ‘The Mistletoe was a sacred plant in the pagan religion of the Druids in Britain. It was believed to have all sorts of miraculous qualities: the power of healing diseases, making poisons harmless, living fertility to humans and animals, protecting from witchcraft, banning evil spirits, bringing good luck and great blessings. In fact, it was considered so sacred that even enemies who happened to meet beneath a Mistletoe in the forest would lay down their arms, exchange a friendly greeting, and keep a truce until the following day. From this old custom grew the practice of suspending Mistletoe over a doorway or in a room as a token of good will and peace to all comers. [p. 104]’”[i]

Holly.  Pagan yuletide celebrations involved decorating with these holy plants.  The Scottish and Irish Society of the Black Hills reports, “To the Druids, it was holly's evergreen nature that made it special. They believed that it remained green to help keep the earth beautiful when the deciduous trees (such as the oak, which they also held sacred) shed their leaves. It was also their custom to wear it in their hair when they ventured into the forests to watch the priests collecting mistletoe.”[ii]  As Christians adopted these plants for their own use, they changed the significance of the red berries from representing the blood of the goddess, to the blood of Christ.

The Christmas Tree. tells us, “Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition as we now know it in the 16th century when devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes. Some built Christmas pyramids of wood and decorated them with evergreens and candles if wood was scarce. It is a widely held belief that Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree. Walking toward his home one winter evening, composing a sermon, he was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles.”[iii]  What started as the German Tannenbaum became the English Christmas tree.

Jolly Old St. Nicholas.  The St. Nicholas Center reports: “The true story of Santa Claus begins with Nicholas, who was born during the third century in the village of Patara. At the time the area was Greek and is now on the southern coast of Turkey. His wealthy parents, who raised him to be a devout Christian, died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young. Obeying Jesus' words to "sell what you own and give the money to the poor," Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need, his love for children.”[iv]  Today, “Santa Claus” gives gifts in honor of St. Nicholas of Myra’s generosity, and to honor the Christ child who is present in all children.

We have so many Christmas traditions that it would be a long article indeed if we were to discuss them all.  What can Christians take away from a discussion of the history of the holiday?  Some Christians believe it’s wrong to incorporate practices from other religions in our celebrations, but I have a different opinion.

It’s good to have traditions.  Just as Christians’ spiritual ancestors, the Jewish people, had traditions to celebrate culturally and religiously significant events, out traditions reinforce those things that make our faith so dear.

Traditions teach our children.  In Deuteronomy 6:4-12, God tells the Hebrew people to impart their heritage to their children, and to do it using holy narrative, sacred song, and even divine decorating as tools for teaching.  As Christians, we do the same thing with our Christian traditions.

It’s okay to borrow.  Psalm 24:1[v] says, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.   The world and all its people belong to him.”  Remember, unless you’re 100% Jewish, it’s not just the Jewish people who are your spiritual ancestors.  You are the offspring of the world, and it’s important to remember that all cultures have something to offer.  It’s been said that “whatever is good, belongs to me, as a Christian.”  So as Christians it’s okay to borrow, to adopt, to adapt, and to make something our own. 

Ecclesiastes 1:9-10 says, “History merely repeats itself.  It has all been done before.  Nothing under the sun is truly new.  People say, ‘Here is something new!’ But actually it is old; nothing is ever truly new.”  When Christians encounter ancient traditions that come from outside of our own faith and practice, we have three choices.  We can reject them outright, we can receive them in their totality, or we can redeem them, and make them out own.  This is what we have done with the world’s winter traditions—we have made them Christian.  From donating to charity to decking the halls, from carols to candles, we love our Christmas traditions.  We don’t need to reject them just because we find out where they came from.  All that is good belongs to us as Christians.  If we have “baptized” those traditions and placed them under the blood of Jesus, they become Christian practices for us.    So I hope, if grinches come around to steal the joy of your Christmas traditions, you won’t let their humbuggery get you down.  Deck the halls, light the tree, give your gifts, and do it all to honor Jesus!

Thursday, December 13, 2018

"The Little Drummer Boy"

            For the past five years, Mary Burton has asked me to play the drum while her daughter Barbara plays the piano, as we regale the church with our rendition of The Little Drummer Boy.  Written in 1941 by Katherine Kennicott Davis as Carol of the Drum, and popularized over a decade later, the song tells the story of a young boy who came to worship the baby Jesus.  As the song progresses, we hear him tell about his unorthodox gift.  I’ve included the lyrics, minus the repetition and drumming words:

Come they told me
A new born king to see
Our finest gifts we bring
To lay before the king
So to honor him
When we come

Little baby
I am a poor boy too
I have no gift to bring
That's fit to give our king
Shall I play for you
Mary nodded
The ox and lamb kept time
I played my drum for him
I played my best for him
Then he smiled at me
Me and my drum[i]

            Though this is a favorite Christmas song for many, you might not stop to look at the message it gives.  This message is, I believe, the central understanding the church needs to have, as it looks to the future. 

1.      Holy Curiosity.  As the boy was surrounded by magi from distant lands, diverse races,  and probably other religions, so the Western church finds itself overwhelmed by the world’s diversity that has shown up at our doors.  How we interact with them will determine the future of the church.  The little drummer boy was no doubt from Bethlehem.  He could have tried to shoo away the foreigners who showed up in his town.  Could have roused a mob to do the shooing, anyway.  But instead, he responded to the outsiders with curiosity instead of defensiveness.  Instead of feeling threatened, he decided to welcome and include them.  If the Western church is going to survive the next generation or two, we’ve got to do the same.  Unfortunately, too many Christians have taken a defensive posture against “outsiders,” instead of showing the kind of holy curiosity that will allow us to grow.

2.      Creative Generosity.  As the magi laid their lavish presents before the babe in the manger, the little boy stood by sheepishly, feeling that he had nothing to give.  Then he realized that, if he was creative in his understanding of generosity, he had something quite valuable to lend to the occasion.  What he was lacking in finances, he made up for in enthusiasm, creativity, and willingness to share.  He realized that creative generosity isn’t all bout gold, frankincense, myrrh, tithes, or offerings.  He understood that he could give his heart, his talent, and his time.  And Jesus smiled at that.  If the church is going to continue into the future, we’ve got to practice creative generosity.  The older generation that used to tithe (give 10% of their income) religiously is either dying out, or is on a fixed income and often unable to support the church as they once did.  The younger generation struggles financially like no generation before it, so often they can’t afford to throw money into church coffers.  This could bode poorly for the financial future of the institution—unless we practice creative generosity.  We’ve got to reimagine our personal and our church budgets, giving imaginatively out of more than just our finances, and re-visioning what it means to give to God our very best.

3.      Worship Velocity.  (I’ll tell you what I mean by that in a minute.)  When the little drummer boy decided to give his best to Jesus, he pulled out his drum and began to bang.  We like to sing about the Silent Night, but just imagine how this impromptu worship service split the silence!  That little boy gave up all pretense of reverence and woke up the cows, donkeys, chickens, and the baby himself as he beat his drum to the glory of God.  He knew something about worship velocity.  Velocity is the speed at which something is carried forward.  “A little child shall lead them,” says the Bible—and that little child did!  He pounded his heart out in worship, moving the magi and the holy family forward with such velocity that they had no choice but to join in the song.

Of course, you know the story of the Little Drummer Boy isn’t in the Bible.  That’s a good thing—because your story isn’t in the Bible, either!  At its core, the Christmas story invites into the narrative those who don’t belong.  The eastern travelers didn’t belong in Bethlehem.  The shepherds didn’t belong in polite company any more than a newborn baby belonged in a stable.  But God’s plan invites and includes all who will come by faith.  So why not add a little drummer boy to the tale?  Why not include YOU, for that matter?  And as for you, why not include all the “others” that you don’t think necessarily fit into your tale?  You’ll be the richer for it, as they bring their unique gifts and personalities and traditions. 

This year, maybe you’ll hear The Little Drummer Boy at church or on the radio.  I hope when you hear it, you’ll be reminded of what the church needs, if it is going to carry the message of Jesus into the future.  We need some holy curiosity, some creative generosity, and we need to move forward with worship velocity.  I hope your Christmas traditions won’t simply be ones that “take you back.”  I hope they will launch you and your church into a brilliant future.

Merry Christmas!

[i] Songwriters: Henry Onorati / Katherine K. Davis / Harry Simeone
Little Drummer Boy lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, International Korwin Corp

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Preparing the Way for the Next Person

This past Sunday, I gave my resignation to the people of Bethel Baptist Church, where I have served as pastor for the past five and a half years.  It's a time of sorrow as I leave them and my family in Virginia, but also a time of absolute joy as I prepare to turn my fiance into my wife by the exchange of vows and rings.  A new social work job in Washington State awaits me, as well as a new life, eventually in Canada, with Christina.

As I reflect back on my twenty-six years of ministry in Virginia Baptist churches, I remember many people saying to me, "We're glad for your ministry at our church, and you need to know that the things you did here were absolutely instrumental to prepare us for the next pastor who followed after you."  Specifically, people have said that to me regarding the last two churches I served before coming to Bethel.

Now, upon hearing this, my ego has said, "Wait a minute!  I believe my job was more than just preparing the way for somebody else!"  Because we all like to think that what we're doing right now is more than just a foundation for another person to build on.  But now that I've had time to reflect on this, I am not just comfortable with that idea--I embrace it.  After all, the pastor who came before me in every church I served was probably told the same thing, that they prepared the way for me.  Generations come and go, and all we ever do is build on what was given to us, and prepare the way for the next.

My morning devotion time led me to the ministry of John the Baptist, who was sent by God to prepare the way for Jesus.  While his ministry was good for its own sake, and many people were touched by it, his mission was to prepare people's hearts for something beyond himself.  In Matthew 3:1-12, there are four phrases that stand out to me, that I'd like to share with you.

  1. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.  That word "repent" simply means "change."  You can't encounter Jesus without there being some kind of change in your life.  Too many Christians expect to enter heaven without any substantial change to their lives or personalities--but the presence of Christ in our hearts demands change.  It means more than embracing God.  It means embracing all people, and learning to love unconditionally, the way that Jesus does.  Because heaven is "at hand," (meaning HERE and NOW), our lives ought to be fundamentally changed.  Instead of resisting change in our lives (and in our churches), we need to embrace it.
  2. Prepare the way of the Lord.  In other words, it's not about me, and it's not about you.  It never was.  It's about the realm of God expanding in the world.  It's about the Way, the Truth, and the Life coursing like blood through the veins of the universe, pulsing and drumming a beat to which we can all dance.  My job, your job, is not to make it happen, but simply to prepare the way.  We can't make it happen.  We can't force it.  As ministers--as Christians--all any of us can do is prepare the way for God.  
  3. Bear fruit.  It's impossible to call yourself an "alive" kind of Christian without bearing fruit.  The living God wants living disciples to produce good things.  This fruit is described as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  When you let the Spirit of God change you--really change you to your core--then you'll be fruitful.  And this fruit will nourish other people, so that they, too, will be ready for the coming of Christ into their lives.
  4. Do not presume.  The longer phrase is, "Do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father, for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham." John is telling them not to rely on their heritage, which can bog them down in religiosity, but to seek the things of the Spirit.  This applies to Christians today as well.  I think that the simple phrase "do not presume" simply reminds us not to go through life presumptuously.  It's an invitation to be open to what God is doing, rather than assuming we already have it all figured out.  Maybe God is doing a new thing, that your fathers and mothers never dreamed of!  Be open--and so prepare the way of the Lord.

As I shift from full-time Christian ministry, to become a case manager who helps homeless people, I'm having to come to terms with my sense of identity.  I'm aware that my calling hasn't changed--only the setting.  I'm still ministering.  This is still Gospel work.  It's just the nature of ministry that has changed.  And even if my job were in a button factory, I'd still be a minister.  We all are ministers, if we take up the call of John the Baptist.  We all are evangelists, if we embrace change, if we prepare the way of the Lord, if we bear fruit, and if we faithfully refuse to be presumptuous.

So as I leave Bethel, and as I leave the full-time pastorate, I hope people will tell me, "Our next pastor is doing such a great job!  The church is growing and flourishing!"  Because in part, I hope I've contributed to the success of the next man or woman to fill the pulpit, just as the pastor who preceded me contributed to mine.

And I hope that you will see that your job as a parent, as a teacher, as a manager, laborer, helper, employer or employee, or whatever your role is on this earth--is all about preparing the way for the next person to come along.  It's about giving them something to build on.  And it's about preparing the way of the Lord.

Be blessed.  

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

"Baby, It's Cold Outside"

            As you listen to Christmas songs this season, you may hear “Baby It’s Cold Outside.”[i]  The song a duet, typically between a male vocalist who is referred to as “wolf” in the score, and a female vocalist who is called “mouse” in the score.  As the catchy tune frolics on, the woman insists that she has to go home, but the man tells her it’s cold outside, and she really should stay the night.  She says that her family will be worried, and he insists on pouring her another drink.  She says that the she’s concerned about her reputation, but he doesn’t listen, continuing to pour on manipulative compliments.  She says that he ought to say no to his advances, but he moves closer, asking, “what’s the sense in hurting my pride?”  She threatens the reprisals of her family, but he waves that off.  At one point she asks, “Say, what’s in this drink?” indicating that she believes that he’s drugged her to get her to stay.  The more she resists, the more he insists.  Finally, he gets his way and she decides to stay—but one is left wondering whether with all the pressure it really was her choice. 

            Now, I know I’m treading on thin ice by slaughtering this sacred cow—but just because it’s a popular Christmas song with a catchy tune and long tradition, that doesn’t make it right.  In fact, I’d say it’s not a Christmas song at all—it’s just a winter song.  And no matter what time of the year it is, it’s never too cold outside for a man to respect a woman’s wishes, and it’s never the wrong season for a woman to expect that a man should understand that her “no” means “no.”  In fact, the man in the song doesn’t really love the woman.  He’s not genuinely concerned for her warmth and safety—he’s just trying to get his way so he can have his way, if you know what I mean.

            If you don’t see a problem with this song, then you’re probably a part of the problem.  Ours is a culture that sexualizes and disrespects women, a culture that empowers men or at least excuses them if they treat women as sexual objects rather than precious treasures that they are.  Unfortunately, demeaning and devaluing women has a long and glorious history that goes back to Old Testament times.  Women in those days were bought and sold in marriage.  Women were seen as such a burden that a father had to pay a dowry in order to convince a man to marry his daughter.  In other cases, if a woman was to be valued, she was treasured as an object of property or wealth.  Her virginity had a dollar amount attached to it.  Exodus 22:16-17 says, “If a man entices a virgin who is not betrothed, and lies with her, he shall surely pay the bride-price for her to be his wife. If her father utterly refuses to give her to him, he shall pay money according to the bride-price of virgins.”[ii]  The reason the man must pay her father is that he had defiled her, and that she is used goods, so to speak.  So we have a long tradition of treating women like they are sexual objects, whose virtue is to be bought, sold, or just grabbed by men.  Unfortunately, popular Christmas songs bear that out.

            In Deuteronomy 22, a woman’s desirability as a wife was measured by whether or not she was a virgin when she got married.  And if she wasn’t a virgin, she’d be stoned to death.  People didn’t believe a woman’s testimony.  A rape was only considered a rape if she cried out, and if there was someone who heard her.  Rapists could get the death penalty—a harsher sentence than today—but there was a way out of that.  If the woman was unmarried and he seizes her and lies with her, and they are found out, then the man who lay with her shall give to the young woman’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife because he has humbled her; he shall not be permitted to divorce her all his days (vv. 28-29).”  So if your daughter is raped, she’s lost her value—so the best thing is to get her rapist to pay you and then to marry her, and she can never divorce him.  You see how women were devalued in those days?  Do you really think it’s much better today?

            Right now, celebrities, politicians, and well-known businessmen are being called on the carpet for sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape.  The #MeToo and Time’s Up movements are all about confronting sexual harassment and sexual assault, declaring that it’s time for these things to end, and calling men to act like men, not animals.  Now, I’ll be the first to say that sexual harassment and assault isn’t always perpetrated by men, but that is the overwhelming majority of the case.  We’ve got to teach our boys that when a woman says “no,” that means “no,” and that saying, “Baby, it’s cold outside,” and arguing and manipulating is wrong.  We’ve got to teach them that if she has any reason to ask, “Say, what’s in this drink?” you’ve already gone too far.  No woman should ever feel unsafe around a gentleman—in fact, God gave gentlemen to women to keep them safe, not to make them feel vulnerable. 

            Instead of following the sexual mores of his day, Jesus always treated women with respect.  He valued them, and treated them as equals—even and perhaps especially those women who had been sexualized by society.  He taught people to treat others the way they want to be treated (Matthew 7:12).  Men, this means respecting, honoring, defending, cherishing all women, and never treating them as sexual objects, worthy of harassment, assault, and rape.  It means treating all women the way you’d treat your mother or sister—with dignity, respect, and godly love.

            Not only do we need to teach our boys to treat women well—we’ve also got to teach our girls not to be mice who fall for wolfish words.  Don’t let “Baby, it’s cold outside,” or any other convincing, harassing, or manipulative words talk you into giving up what you’re not ready to give away.  Don’t be afraid to meet force with force—because if he’s treating you the way he wants to be treated, and he’s sexually assaulting you, then you have the right to use force to get away.  And if he takes what you never meant to give, don’t ever let shame tell you that it’s your fault or that you’ve lost your value.  You, my dear, are a daughter of the King, and are always precious in God’s eyes. 

            In Matthew 5:7, Jesus says, “But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.”  This means saying what you mean, and meaning what you say.  It also means respecting another person’s “yes” as “yes,” and letting their “no” mean “no.”  It means being a person of integrity—in the good weather and the bad, and even when it’s cold outside.

[i] “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”  1944.  Words by Frank Loesser. 
[ii] Scripture quotations are taken from the NKJV.