Friday, December 28, 2012

into 2013 - Praxis!

As 2012 draws to a close, let me thank you for reading - and more for the privilege that is mine to join you in this way as we think together, and try to live faithfully together for God. I'm grateful.
      We have exciting plans for 2013 - beginning with an intriguing, hopefully helpful series called Praxis. It's a Greek word, and a noble one; Aristotle wrote that Praxis is the grand destiny of free people.
     Praxis is the way we take theory and knowledge, and apply it, and make it real in daily life. We will consider in some depth the essentials of the Christian faith - and in utterly simplistic ways ask how and why all this matters when you're stuck at a stoplight, getting dressed, sitting down to eat, about to go out for the evening, when you have a little decision or a prickly crisis. The logo says it best: Think like Jesus, Live our Faith.
     I'm looking forward to it. You'll get 3 (hopefully not too long...) emails each week from me, we'll form groups at church - and also offer special programs. The first will be Monday, January 7, 7pm, when my friend Dr. David Chadwick of the Forest Hill Church will join with me in conversation about the essentials of what we as Christians believe.
     I'd also mention that for 4 more days, you can get my new book, Struck from Behind: My Memories of God, at a special discount. Go to the publisher's website page, and at checkout enter the coupon code STRUCK, and instead of $20 the book will only cost $12. The book is also available immediately via Kindle for just $9, and on and bookstores.
     Let's have a blessed ushering in of the new year, and a fruitful 2013!

Monday, December 24, 2012

What does Jesus want for Christmas? Candles, and a prayer

     I hope you will be one of the thousands who will worship somewhere on this sacred day, and perhaps raise a candle.  My most moving, joyful moment of the year comes at the end of worship this day when we sing “Silent Night,” and lift our candles.  There is resplendent beauty in that moment, a sense of solidarity with each other – and a hint of defiance.  Yes, against the darkness that is life in this broken world, we declare that God is light, the Light has indeed come into the world, and the darkness does not have the final say.

     I wish for Christmas we who meet in the blogosphere could visit with each other, like in person, share some sort of beverage and sit around a tree, listen to your life, and share mine.  I do want to wish you a Blessed, Joyful Christmas, and invite you to remember to pray with me and God’s people all over the world for peace, for love, for comfort in the knowledge of God’s love which was and is so immense that God came down and lived among us, showing us God’s heart in the flesh of a small, vulnerable child, held close in his mother’s embrace.  The tenderness of our God moves us, and gives me delight and unflagging hope.

     Thank you for being in my life in this way.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

What does Jesus want for Christmas? #11 Curiosity

Children, as Christmas approaches, harbor an insatiable curiosity. Who’s coming, and when? What’s in the big box under the tree? A child will pick it up, examine it, shake it, plead for hints, and ask leading questions hoping somebody who knows will slip up and reveal what’s inside.

What does Jesus want for Christmas? An inquiring, questioning mind. Some buffoon from decades back pulled one over on us when it was decreed that Christians aren’t supposed to question anything. God loves questions; God even loves doubt, for doubt – if pursued energetically – will take us to a deeper truth. Every scientific advance began when somebody dared to question settled truth.

“Jesus is the answer” – sort of. Jesus also, as it turns out, is the question, his life a riddle, his teaching a gate swung open onto a maze we may explore for a lifetime and beyond.

Consider all the questions in the Bible’s Christmas stories. Mary shudders as she asks the angel, “How can this be?” The magi ask, “Where is the king of the Jews?” In our carols, the angels ask “Shepherds, why this jubilee?” To the tune, Greensleeves, we ask “What child is this? Why lies he in such mean estate?” And In the Bleak Midwinter asks, “What can I give him, poor as I am?”

In the New Year, we will begin a new series called Praxis: exploring lots of questions about what we believe and why, why it matters, how this Christian stuff came to be, who cares – the eternal questions that have given life and hope to inquiring minds and souls that refused to settle for pat answers, oversimplified conventional wisdom.

What does Jesus want for Christmas? Curiosity, the yearning to know more, to ask and keep asking, to knock and refuse to stop knocking, to listen, to wonder.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

What does Jesus want for Christmas? #10 - Remember

   Hopefully, at Christmas we remember, we reminisce, we tell stories of the good old days, hard times, silly happenstances.  I say “hopefully,” because it is only when we remember well, when we can look back and discern the hand of God in the past, that we can turn then in hope to a secure future with God.  If we look back with regret, or guilt, our mood moving forward will be one of anxiety and fear.

   Old stories are fun – although some are painful.  What Jesus wants for Christmas is good and painful stories – but for us to frame them in the perspective of God’s presence.  Can we recall a moment, a sequence of events, and realize (with Jacob back in Genesis 28), “The Lord was in this place, but I did not know it”?

   St. Augustine prayed to remember well so he would know God:  “How far within my memory have I traveled in search of you, Lord!”  Jesus wants us to sit for a while, thumb through an old photo album, maybe with an older relative or friend – and confess that we are lucky dogs, we’ve reaped benefits we’d forgotten, we were cast upon God’s care when we didn’t know where else to turn. 

   Our souls might be cured if we hear our oldest living kin recall giddily receiving Christmas gifts that were items like a badly needed pair of shoes, or long underwear to survive the bitter winter, not luxury items but simple necessities – beautified because they weren’t purchased thoughtlessly, but in light of the coming of Jesus into our lives.

   The last page of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping shares this hopeful, Christmasy thought:  “Every memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written in the heart in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh, and that the wanderers will find a way home, and the perished, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming fondness, not having meant to keep us waiting so long.”

   Memory is the womb in which hope is born.  We remember our lives, and Jesus, and the future is bright as the morning star.

   My newest book is really about remembering:  Struck from Behind: My Memories of God.  You can get it now for a discount I can get for you!  Go to the publisher’s website page, and at checkout enter the coupon code STRUCK, and instead of $20 the book will only cost $12.  This holds (for you) through the end of December.  The book is also available immediately via Kindle for just $9, and has paper copy in stock now as well.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

What does Jesus want for Christmas? #9 Carols

In the few minutes allotted to me during Sunday’s Lessons & Carols, I tried to reflect on the simple fact that we have a special genre of songs known as “carols.” There isn’t a narrow style or instrumentation that makes a carol a carol – and carols are beloved by fans of classical, rock, country, maybe even hip hop. It’s the time of year, and the content.

It’s also the way everybody knows Silent Night, or Joy to the World, or O Little Town of Bethlehem, and you can sing along; in fact, it’s hard not to sing along. Never is music more unifying, never do we feel so deeply that we are part of something larger than ourselves. Carols are evocative of home, warmth in the cold, light on even the longest of nights.

Way too many artists have recorded Christmas albums. Bob Dylan’s must be the worst… I listened to some of Johnny Cash’s gravelly, smoky versions of carols the other day after reading a Time article chronicling his career: “He sang of specific injustices and eternal truths; he was the deadpan poet of cotton fields, truck stops and prisons. He was a balladeer, a spellbinding storyteller – a witness. Here was a man who knew the commandments because he had broken so many of them.”

Roseanne, his daughter, said his music “combined both elements of light and dark at the same time without negating the other.” I like that, and am reminded of something the great theologian Karl Barth wrote about “God’s harmony,” which is not just light, but also darkness, or the hope discovered in the interplay of the two: “Shadow is not darkness, deficiency is not defeat, sadness cannot become despair, trouble cannot degenerate into tragedy. The light shines all the more brightly because it breaks forth from the shadow. Life does not fear death but knows it well.”

That’s the lesson: a bright angel appearing out of nowhere, swaddling clothes in a shadowy manger, the magi chasing a star. “The light shines in the darkness” (John 1:5).  That's why Jesus loves carols.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Newtown - and what Jesus wants for Christmas

  When I was only a little bit older than the children who were killed in Newtown on Friday, Simon & Garfunkel recorded “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night,” the lovely carol being overdubbed by the awful news of the day.  The dissonance is chilling.
   We shudder, and can’t stop crying, when we hear the names of schoolchildren who were robbed of life just days before Christmas: Charlotte, Daniel, Olivia, Josephine, Ana, Dylan, Madeleine, Catherine, Chase, Jesse, James, Grace, Emilie, Jack, Noah, Caroline, Jessica, Avielle, Benjamin, Allison.  How could this happen?

   We gather and sweetly sing carols about “peace on earth, good will to men,” but we are willing participants in a culture that is rife with anger.  Politicians can’t get along, and there’s rage on the roads, in our cities, in our homes, and even in our hearts.  Flip to almost any channel from the news of Newtown, and you’ll see violence, somebody getting shot or beaten up.  We have a taste for violence.  The shootings in Newtown are appalling, but not surprising.

   If we dare sing carols about “peace on earth, good will to men,” we had best reckon with radical changes we need to embrace.  How do we turn the temperature down on the rancor and learn to be peaceful people?

   And I can’t fathom the politics of guns and the second amendment, but let me suggest as a starting place something I am 100% sure is true:  Jesus does not like assault weapons, and does not wish for us to use them, or have them.  After a mass shooting in 1996, Australia banned rapid fire guns, and saw a steep decline in gun deaths, and have had zero mass killings since.  How can Christmas carolers not even budge on the right to own guns like the one used to slaughter twenty children on Friday?

   Perhaps the more important conversation we who sing of “good will to men” must have is about mental illness.  Thirty years ago we rolled back support for programs for the mentally ill; slashed budgets for a generation have made help for the mentally ill hard to access, and we as a people avert our gaze instead of dealing with troubled souls.  When Jesus came, he made it a top priority to help the mentally ill.

   Mike Huckabee placed blame for the Newtown horror on the removal of God from the schools.  God is not removable from any place, thankfully.  We are not big enough to shove God out – and we forget this until tragedy strikes.  At 9-11, and on Friday, crowds flocked to places of worship, and even secular newscasters kept muttering, “We need to pray.”

   Indeed:  the worst news drives us to pray as we might when the news is good, the kind of prayer that listens to the desire of God that we enact what we sing in our carols and Christmas Scripture readings.  “Peace on earth, good will to all.” 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Newtown - today, tomorrow, the next day

Today and tomor- row, we shudder, we grieve. The next day we talk about all the rage, the rancor, among our leaders, in traffic, in our homes, everywhere - and we talk about violence in the entertainment industry... and then admit we should be horrified but not surprised. And the next day, promise ourselves we will change, and prove our carols about "peace on earth" aren't just blowing smoke.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

What does Jesus want for Christmas? #7 Gratitude

     Here are two brutally sad Christmas morning scenarios.  1. A child (or a grownup) surveys the gifts he’s received amid the ripped paper and flopped open boxes, and whines, “Is that all?  Why didn’t I get the mini-iPad I wanted?”  Or, 2. A child (again, of whatever age) clutches a handful of gift cards, like a full house in poker, and gleefully asks “Is the mall open today?”

     What does Jesus want for Christmas?  Gratitude – and not the kind Ms. Manners might insist upon, a polite thank-you note.  Gratitude isn’t a mood that rises up (or doesn’t) spontaneously, the way craving for ice cream or a swirl of romantic desire might strike.  Gratitude is a choice.  I choose to look at life, and to be content, grateful, lucky if you will; or I choose to complain, I find fault, I want more (or newer stuff); I assume I “deserve.”

     Gratitude is a discipline, a habit.  Gratitude isn’t natural.  We learn gratitude, over time.  Children are taught gratitude, and so are grownups.  I choose gratitude, then choose it again, and again, and after some time it turns out that I am a grateful person – and thus a person of peace, a person not easily thrown off balance, a person others enjoy being around, a person pleasing to Jesus.

     To Jesus the teacher we ask, Can you show me how to be, inside?  To the Spirit we pray, Lord, make me grateful.

     Christmas wars against gratitude, as it’s all about getting more stuff, or the bogus gratitude that greedily is pleased we have so much.  Genuine gratitude is grateful for what Jesus, Mary and Joseph had that first Christmas night:  breath, love, stars shining, hope, mercy, affection, a roof over their heads, enough food for the day, a keen awareness of God, a visit from some neighbors, and even a little concert of angels singing.
     We can give Jesus what he wants for Christmas – by simply realizing the great gift Jesus himself is, and being... grateful.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

What does Jesus want for Christmas? #6 - FAMILY!

     A peculiar wonder of the Thanks- giving-Christmas time zone is the way we get together, not as we usually do, with friends or neighbors of our own choosing, those who share our interests or are fun to be with – but with family.  Say the word family, and some faces light up, others stifle a grimace.  No matter the state of our relationships, we make that drive, we puzzle over what to give, we cook and eat with people we’ve quite literally known all our lives.  We stick with those we’re stuck with.
     And sometimes it’s hard, subterranean emotions surface, fully grown men revert to juvenile boyhood, and a puzzled shudder is all we can muster when we hear mom, dad, sister or uncle declare a political opinion.  How am I related to these people?  It must be God’s good humor, or something of a hazing.

     Or training in holiness.  We are in relationships we cannot escape; we know the worst about each other, but we have to deal with it, and we have no choice but to learn mercy, and humility.

     What Jesus wants for Christmas is for us to grow into the surprising, arduous holiness that just might evolve from these seasonal visits to those we cherish and adore, those whose minds have grown clouded and confused, those who’ve hurt and been hurt, the strangers who share our DNA but not much else.  They are your past, the big hidden truth about yourself. 

     And they are your future.  I love Judy Garland singing “Have yourself a merry little Christmas” in Meet Me in St. Louis – and its lyric which invites us (if we’re diligent, patient, and a bit lucky) into a more holy life:  “Faithful friends who are dear to us, gather near to us once more… Through the years we all will be together.”  Of that we can be certain; I suspect Jesus ordained things to be just this way for us.



Monday, December 10, 2012

What does Jesus want for Christmas? #5

“Holy infant so tender and mild.” “Silent night, holy night.” “Infant, holy, infant lowly.” “Pour over me your holiness, for you are holy… Breath of heaven.” During December, we sing the word “holy” often enough to lead us to believe there is something “holy” about Christmas.

While we may harbor some negative, smug connotations when we hear the word “holy,” I suspect that each one of us has a deep desire to be holy, even if we feel we’ll never get there. Mary was holy. She wasn’t perfect, but she kept her mind focused on God, she avoided things not pleasing to God, she strove for a match between the will of God and her daily routine; she examined her motives, she thought carefully about God before she acted, she imagined her body to be a vessel for God to dwell in, and to use.

What does Jesus want for Christmas? The first face he saw was Mary’s – so his first Christmas gift was the holy, tender face of his mother. Jesus wants us to be holy, or at least to try. He wants us to be “good,” not in that loose sense of generally “doing the right thing” in society’s eyes, or not breaking the law. Holy, as in my thoughts, words and actions are watched carefully by God, so I try to keep them in sync with God. I want to be clean. I don’t mind my behavior being an open book – for it certainly is to God.

“O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray.” And what do we sing next? “Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.” This is what Jesus wants for Christmas: to begin to become holy.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

What does Jesus want for Christmas? #4

A fruitbasket.  Now that’s a nice gift.  Paul imagined a basket of fruit, “the fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5), sweet evidence of God’s life-giving power – including generosity.  This year, for Christmas, Jesus wants generosity.

   Hey, that’s easy:  I’m already quite generous at Christmas!  I give grand things to my family, we drop off goodies for the Christmas collection, I catch up on my year-end giving. 

   But wait:  Jesus?  You say that type of generosity is all about me?  Hmm.  Now I recall that slogan Mike Slaughter dreamed up:  Christmas is not your birthday.  All our lives, we’ve acted as if it were – and have felt rather noble and downright spiritual about it.  Jesus’ birthday party! – with gifts for me and mine.

   Generosity, the kind Jesus wants for Christmas, is different.  It’s not about me; it’s about Jesus, it’s about the people Jesus cares most about.  Sure, he loves us all – but he has a special affection for the hungry, the homeless, the depressed, the impoverished, those facing their first Christmas after a marriage dissolved, the ache of grief made worse since ‘Tis the season to be jolly.

   Generosity is very close to joy, for it is very close to Jesus’ own heart, and the closer we can get to Jesus’ heart, the more joy we will experience – not the faked “fun” malls and parties offer.  Real joy.  Real peace.  Real generosity.  It’s not about me.  It’s not my birthday.

   What is my budget for Christmas?  If someone studied my December tally, would there be evidence of Jesus?  Just a trace?  My goal is to give much more (and more each year!) to the causes Jesus espouses than to the Howells who already have more than they could possibly handle.

   Where the Spirit is, the Spirit of Christmas, there is generosity, the kind that pleases Jesus, what he really wants for Christmas.

Monday, December 3, 2012

What does Jesus want for Christmas? #3

   Through the centuries, artists have tried to figure out how to paint or sculpt that shimmer- ing moment when the angel came to Mary and asked her to let Jesus take on flesh in her.  Almost always she has an open book – God’s Word, the Bible.  The angel didn’t flit into her life in a vacuum.  Mary was a student of God’s Word, and when asked to become the mother of God, she replied, Let it be to me according to your Word (Luke 1:26-38).

   What does Jesus want for Christmas? He wants the blueprint of my life, the content of my calendar, to be the enactment of Let it be to me according to your Word.  For me to let God’s Word be the main thing, I need to know what’s in there.  I need God’s Word not to be something I read like a novel I stuck on the shelf when I was done.  I need to know more than a verse or two.  I need the living Word to be alive now.  I need to study.  I need to harbor the ambition of being a Bible scholar.

   But how to begin?  Maybe I begin when Jesus began, with the Christmas story.  I could just procrastinate and hear it on Christmas Eve.  But maybe I read right now.  Luke’s story is a grand total of 4 pages, Matthew’s just a page and a half.  Can I work that in? 

   We might please Jesus even more if we use our gadgets to download the story and listen while driving or on the stairmaster.  The terrific recording of Luke’s narrative in The Bible Experience takes just 10 minutes.

   St. Augustine was converted when he heard a voice tell him, Take up and read.  Twenty six days until Christmas.  For Jesus, I’ll take it up, and read.