Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Work of Christmas: Revival2011!

If you’ve listened to sermons or paid attention to some of the cards and posters I’ve noticed over the years, you may be familiar with Howard Thurman’s marvelous words that help us imagine a Christmas that does not end, but begins:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.

On my street we see who is the fastest to get their Christmas tree undecorated and out to the curb. This year, one appeared, felled, on Christmas morning! The dumpsters and recycling bins are overflowing, the round of visits conclude and we are back to work, back to school – we’re back to normal.

And yet the normalcy of the time when the song of the angels is stilled is peculiar. We wear a new sweater. We are sporting a few new pounds – so we redouble our resolve to exercise and eat oatmeal instead of Moravian sugarcake. Maybe we make New Year’s resolutions, although I suspect this custom is going out of style – as we are a cynical people, or at least we recall previous years’ resolutions and how they never came to fruition.

And yet maybe, just maybe, the turn in the calendar feels like a new chapter, a new beginning, getting out of bed onto what just might be a new day, that 2011 might be the year we get there, somewhere over some rainbow, and things calm down, we calm down, we find new love, we become fit or finally find work or eventually discover why we exist. Methodists for decades got people to come to worship on New Year’s Eve, and make pretty courageous commitments to become prayerful, holy, to find the lost, feed the hungry, bring peace and make music in the heart.

I believe God told me, when I was in Utah back in August, to make 2011 a year that won’t be just another year, but the year you and I and others get serious about God and the life of faith, when we stop poking around the edges, or play-acting, or dabbling in spirituality, and become joyful, dogged, happy, committed followers of Christ. Revival2011 is this simple thing, and you can think of it as the Work of Christmas: give me 15 days, and I deeply believe that nothing will ever be the same. It’s hard in our skeptical culture to say such a thing – but I really believe this.

On January 9, at 7 pm, we are having a revival, not old-timey in its form (we’ll have cool music, video, dance…), but hopefully compelling in its invitation to make a big decision. But all big decisions live or die by a whole series of little decisions – and over the following 2 weeks I’ll walk us through those little decisions that are big! By January 23, if you’ve given us 15 days, I believe you’ll be glad you invested the energy, to give Jesus and a serious, joyful faith a chance.

It's not about becoming perfect: forget that! It's not about knowing everything; you may well harbor nagging questions - intellectual questions, or profoundly emotional, personal questions - that keep you at some distance from God. I will offer myself entirely to you in person or online to try to wrestle with you on these - and to help us see we don't have to have every answer before we can follow. Every relationship has its questions and uncertanties - but we still love.

And Why Jesus? Spirituality takes countless forms, so why bother with a guy who lived 2000 years ago, and is much derided in bestselling books and movies these days? I will try to share primarily my own personal story of why I care about Jesus, why my whole life is about at least trying to follow Jesus - why I love Jesus. I'm just asking you to hang with me, be open, grow, grapple, dig, reflect, take the time to do Revival2011 with me.

It’s the Work of Christmas, and now it begins. It will be some work, for you to come, or catch our online versions! – and the result will be that music in the heart you might have been missing all these Christmases and New Years.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Christmas Train

Somehow, through the seemingly prehistoric technology of "slides" (later scanned into digital), I have a photo of me, five years old, on Christmas morning 1960, with my prized Lionel train. Like many children, I loved that train, added a few cars and signal crossings for a few years, then forgot about it. But that train made a stunning reappearance, one that brought a healing Santa never had in mind when it was first delivered.

Eleven years ago I was pecking at my computer keyboard, in the throes of trying to devise a sermon for the Sunday prior to Christmas. My week was slipping by, nothing was happening amid the sprawl of books and much grimacing. My five-year old son, Noah, kept playing in the room, showing me toys, grabbing at my arm, making bizarre noises.

Finally (and it is embarrassing to tell you what happened next) in exasperation I said, “Son, you just have to get out of here; dad has so much work to do.” Noah responded very calmly, but with words that worked some violence in my soul: “Okay, daddy, I’ll leave. I don’t mean to annoy you.” As I turned to see him walking out, I saw myself walking away from that same spot, but 39 years earlier.

I shut off the computer and my foolish busy-ness, went into the attic, and pulled out two grey “Red Ball” moving boxes. Inside were wads of newspaper – the Philadelphia Inquirer, dated October 14, 1964. A huge photo of Nikita Kruschev, a box score with Johnny Unitas’s stats, an ad for a Rambler. Nestled in the crumbling paper were chunks of metal track, then a caboose, an engine, a cattlecar – the Lionel train set that had rested untouched in various storage rooms and attics for some sad number of years.

Midway through connecting some of the track, Noah ambled into the room. His eyes flew wide open: “Daddy, what is this?” “This was my train, when I was a little boy, like you – and now it’s our train, together.” He was duly impressed, and after a few minutes, he exclaimed, “This is the coolest toy ever. I bet this train cost a hundred dollars!” I was tempted for 1.3 seconds to calculate the value of those Lionel cars at auction – but instead I told the truth: “Oh no, son. It didn’t cost a hundred dollars. It was free.”

Like my son walking away, we “mourn in lonely exile here until the Son of God appears.” Thank God that God is never busy, never annoyed. And what he gives us costs light years more than a hundred dollars. What he gives us costs so much that it really is free. God gives us no “thing.” God gives himself, on the floor with children of all ages, those who are nice and those who are naughty and those who are a messy but beautiful mix of both. God pokes us with a little finger, with a cry. And the wonder of it was described once by Barbara Brown Taylor:

“His name is Emmanuel – the God who is with us – who is made out of the same stuff we are and who is made out of the same stuff God is and who will not let either of us go.”

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


Closeness. We crave closeness, emotionally and spiritually – but not always. Somebody I don’t know that well gets in my personal space, and I edge back. But the one I love? the one I want to be loved by? I want to get as close as possible.

I think Christmas is nothing more or less than God’s desire to be close to me, to you, to us. We can fairly easily conceive of God as some kind of distant power that made the universe happen. Or – sadly – we harbor a Santa Claus view of God, a jolly guy far far away who does show up once in a great while to give us things we’ve wanted (or need), but then he doesn’t stay, he zooms back to the North Pole. In fact, Christmas (ironically!) may be to blame for our bland, convenient, un-close view of God.

This must grieve God’s heart: we believe in God, but we’ve never let God get close. Somehow I have this funny photo of my mother taking me to Santa when I’m one year old – and I’m terrified; the Santa in question does seem a bit grim... I like this, though, because we should be quite terrified at the prospect of God-as-Santa, that we’re on our own until we think up a request, and then we pray (letter to Santa…) and hope God delivers.

If God merely delivered – even if God always delivered everything on our list! – how tragic would it be? You might be satisfied with a big pile of things, and making your life happen on your own – but I find a hollow place in me nothing in this world can fill. I find my mind stretching beyond the visible. I find my heart yearning for more love than all those who love me can muster. I know I must be part of something larger than me or even the best life I can arrange. I know that whenever I die it won’t have been long enough. God has planted in me a tangle of confused feelings that all add up to a need to be close to God – even if I forget that and get tricked into thinking one more gadget, one more achievement, one more relationship will be enough.

We’re planning this modern day Revival2011 – and what it’s really about is getting close to God, asking God to stay, to stick close, to love, and be loved. Skeptics get puzzled by Christianity, but I would think we might quite naturally gravitate to the love we desperately want. God wanted to get close.

How close? God stepped down, and became quite small, and vulnerable – and stepped down into a young mother’s arms. What is more beautiful, or tender, than a mother cradling her newborn? She hold him strongly but gently; she sings audibly but not loud enough to awaken him; time stands still, and all the wonder of the universe is concentrated in that very small spherical space of her arms around the small boy. All is calm, all is bright.

That is how close God wants to be to you. Can you take a big step toward God in Christ? Can you become small, humble, and let yourself be held, in the quiet calm? Don’t you cherish the possibility of such love from a God you really hope will stay?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Not Embarrassed to Talk about God

A while back I posted a blog about Dorothy Day - but didn't mention one of her most intriguing thoughts: "If I have achieved anything in my life, it is because I have not been embarrassed to talk about God."

Christians talk about lots of things, and even express their admiration for their church or a mission activity (or occasionally even the preacher!) quite readily. But do we say much about God?

In yet another blog a while back, I shared my jittery concern with the state and future of faith, echoing the sentiments of Kenda Creasy Dean (Almost Christian) who says we aren't against God at all, but our faith is not very robust - and God rarely is thought of or mentioned. She says that for the life of faith to be vital, we need to talk, and listen, and listen and talk, about God with others.

Can we begin a few conversations about God? The fear, I know, is we will embarrass ourselves, or somebody else; I don't have a scintillating story, or Frankly I'm confused about God, or I know a little about the Bible but not much - or conversely we might turn the volume up too high, with I had a vision of heaven, or Jesus spoke to me just a few minutes ago, or I've learned to pray constantly even during tedious business meetings.

Maybe our God talk is like children's coloring: there may be lines but they don't really matter, and all drawings are lovely. We say something about our sense of God, our wonderments, the shadows and the light - and it gives someone else permission to share, and we hear ourselves and others saying something about God. Say you're confused; I'll guarantee you your listener is too. Say something positive you've felt or known; your listener probably needs a glimmer of hope. Probably, what God wants most is quite simply to be spoken of, to be noticed, to be a topic of some importance.

At our Church we're planning a modern day Revival early in January (watch for details): one goal will be to free us up to say something about God, and to listen to others, to grow together.

Maybe we practice over dinner, or on the phone, or in an email... Dorothy Day, after all, achieved a fair amount simply because she was never embarrassed to speak of God.