Archive for the ‘Christmas’ Category

This is a reprint of a post I wrote several years ago. It has been updated since its original posting. Each Advent I read and re-post it here. It is my favorite piece, of all the things I’ve ever written. It continues to challenge me every Advent


A friend of mine was walking through his neighborhood a few weeks before Christmas years ago. Living in Houston it never gets too cold so walks in December aren’t unusual. Anyway, as he approached one house, he noticed the Nativity in the front yard. Everything was in its place; shepherds, wise men, Mary, Joseph, and manger. Only inside the manger was the baby Jesus wearing a Santa Claus hat; fur-lined, red, and with that cool looking white ball thingy at the top. My friend points out that that’s the problem with Christmas – many of us cannot see the difference between who Jesus was, what He taught and did, and the unhinged, consumeristic fervor of America’s most gluttonous season.

It all begs the question: What should we be thinking and doing at Christmas?

Before a renaissance in my own thinking over the last 7 years, Christmas was essentially about getting the stuff that I wanted, the presents under the tree.  A good Christmas meant I got what I wanted and the sweet potato pie was tasty.  It had nothing to do with Jesus.  In my religious tradition we simply did not celebrate Christmas as a religious event.

It was purely secular!

I remember asking my sixth grade Sunday school teacher, Larry, why we didn’t celebrate Christmas and Easter, and why we paid absolutely no attention to the Christian calendar.  No Pentecost! No Advent! Nothing!  Larry told me that no one knew the exact dates of those events so to celebrate them on the dates proposed was outside what we knew from the Bible.  That’s true, I suppose.  However, I also knew that my grandmother, as a black woman born shortly after the turn of the 20th century in Mississippi, had no birth certificate and no one could remember her exact birth date, but she still got older each year and we still acknowledged her life. I applaud Larry and the church of my youth for being concerned about what the Scriptures say, but at the end of the day it taught me that Christmas was about the same thing that Fisher-Price and Mattel wanted Christmas to be about: The stuff!

That teaching has been hard to shake!

Each year as Thanksgiving rolls around, I know that there are very few things that I need. A new pair of pants, some new shoes, maybe, but nothing alluring – no iPhones or new cars.  I tell myself that I don’t need anything, don’t want anything, and that I won’t ask for anything, but I can never keep up with my plans.  Suddenly newer things start shining, old things seem, well, old and in need of replacement.  Those things that seemed like nice hobbies to start “one day” turn into imperatives that need me to invest in them immediately.  So I end up needing, asking and wanting more. Thank goodness for Christmas sales.

Before I know it, this time of year, this Advent season in which the church is to anticipate the coming of Jesus into the world, this time when we are to be looking to the Heavens with expectation about the healing of the world, and the healing of our broken relationships with each other, and our broken relationship with God has somehow become a dime store smash and grab to see what stuff we can make off with.

Have you ever had that experience? Am I the only one?

Recently, I was thinking about my Christmas coveting and reading about Francis of Assisi (these are not two things you should do simultaneously).  Francis was born the son of a wealthy merchant and had visions of becoming a superior fighter. After an illness, however, he began to experience deep religious feelings.  He would go off by himself to pray, wear ragged clothes and give away money from the family business to the poor.  As you might imagine, this made his father a little – um, irritated!  His father took Francis to court and asked that the Bishop force him to give back all the money Francis had given to the poor.  Equally as irritated as his father, Francis stripped off all his clothes, hurled them toward his father and walked out of the court proclaiming that he would only now speak of his Father in Heaven.

From that point, Francis renounced materialism.  Over time, Francis founded several mendicant – which is fancy word for “beggar” – religious orders.  Unlike other orders, Francis and his followers rejected not only individual property, but also communal and collective property.  In short, they had no stuff!  For Francis, poverty was not an end in itself, but a means of aligning with Jesus, the disciples, and the gospel by direct imitation. Jesus owned nothing. Francis owned nothing.  One of Francis’ biographer/followers wrote: “While this true friend of God completely despised all worldly things, he detested money above all.  From the beginning of his conversion, he despised money particularly and encouraged his followers to flee from it always as from the devil himself. He gave his followers this observation: money and manure are equally worthy of love.”

Might we imagine spending Christmas at St. Francis’ house this year?

I wonder what this patron saint of animals and the environment who married “Lady Poverty” for the sake of the gospel, might say about “Black Friday” – the day after Thanksgiving – when Americans sleep outside department stores to get the first look at sales.  Or what might he offer to a Christian community that essentially sees and treats Jesus like Santa Claus?  Perhaps he would feel uncomfortable with the fact that American Christians, who by and large have too much stuff already, spend the season of Advent concerned about getting more stuff.

Perhaps St. Francis might tweak our practice of Christmas a little.  Maybe he would say that during Advent and Christmas, we shouldn’t focus on our riches but our poverty.  Of course, there are a lot of us who give to good causes year round, but that’s not the only kind of poverty I’m talking about.

I’m also talking about real poverty – spiritual poverty.

I’m talking about the way many Christians display no demonstrative difference in their character than non-Christians.  I’m thinking about Christians who proclaim love for the powerless babe in the manger, but spend each breath of their existence trying to beg, borrow, steal and deal for more power for themselves.  I’m speaking of pastors and church leaders who have no vision for the communities they serve and no love for the sheep of their flock, looking only to the church for what they can get from them.  I’m concerned about people who are made miserable through their own self-concern. And I’m talking about those of us who fundamentally believe that something other than God will finally or ultimately make us healthy and whole.  We are all so deeply, deeply poor.

And that’s why we need to visit friend Francis this year.  We need to strip it all off and look only to our Father in heaven.  If we don’t we will continue to look around the next corner, over the next bend, and under every rock for that “thing” we think will make us whole.  Yet we will certainly not find it.

I enjoyed watching NBC’s “Inside The Obama White House” this week. Rochelle and I always enjoy a peek behind-the-scenes of “the people’s house.” I remember that we stole some Christmas tree ideas from Laura Bush a few years ago. While these specials are typically over-hyped and choreographed (as if the President goes to Five Guys Burgers every week); I was interested in one thing President Obama said in the interview.

When asked about cable news, he mentioned that he did not find the conversations helpful. He went on to say that many of the hosts, contributors and personalities are “set pieces.” What he meant was that the T.V. personalities played characters — the conservative, the liberal, the gas-bag, the funny gas-bag, the crier, the yeller, the out-raged, etc….

I thought it was interesting that the President said he found the conversations unhelpful. In his opinion, when everyone already knows what everyone else is going to say before they say it, the conversation gets stuck and there’s no need to bother to listen. And stuck dialogues are devastating  for any organization.

At times in my ministry career, I have cast myself as a character in the church story. I’ve been the young and naive — and played it masterfully. I’ve been the fly in the ointment, the voice no one wants to hear, you know, the prophet. I learned over time that once you’ve played your role and learned your lines for long enough, most people play President and simply don’t tune in to your channel anymore.

This is the danger of becoming a set piece.

The trouble is that many times the set pieces we become are partly  — if not mostly — us. That means to keep other’s attention, to be a channel worth viewing, we need to keep our perspectives fresh, new and evolving. Which, in turn, means that we must continue growing and developing. Our perspectives need to be challenged and we need to be opened to being challenged. If not, we cannot grow.

As a church leader, I know that people need fresh words from God, and as the human voice that’s given the microphone, that fresh word is expected to come through me. I — nor my church — can afford for me to be a broken record; a set piece.

And in whatever capacity you serve your family and humanity, you can’t become a broken record either. So here’s your challenge: What are you doing today to keep it fresh?

I’ve been attempting to pray the daily office with Thomas Merton’s book, A Book Of Hours. Rochelle gave it to me at Christmas. It didn’t take long for me to realize that my life in no way is arranged to pray the hours. So I’ve been doing what I can when I can.

This past Sunday morning after I did final sermon edits, I sat down with Merton and read these words: “The most wonderful moment of the day is that when creation in its innocence asks permission to “be” once again, as it did on the first morning that ever was.”

This struck me for a lot of reasons, the least of which was the fact that at that moment the dawn was just breaking, the sun beginning to rise. These words reminded me of the complete dependency of creation on the will of her Creator — myself included. I was humbled again by humankind’s feeble, immature and useless attempts to reduce God into something quantifiable; something that we can control and/or master. People have tried to control God with doctrine, particular denominational practices, oppressive congregational authority, and any number of hurtful ways. Yet God defies these attempts. How silly to imagine that any of our hermeneutical or theological systems could contain the very God from whom permission to exist must come.

Perhaps when the Scriptures remind us that creation sings the glory of God there is a not-so-subtle reminder for us that God is simply too grand, too big for us to manage or manipulate. After all, most of us cannot manage our lawns, much less the God of creation. And, perhaps, in the face of all our prideful blubbering, boasting, and grasping for power, influence and control, we too, should rejoice in God that He has given us breath and “permission to be once again.”


Footnote: For those of you checking back to read my review of Edward Fudge’s upcoming commentary on the book of Hebrews, the publisher has asked that the review be held so that it will coincide with the release of the book. This is standard. I the same thing when asked to review Dear Church: Letters From a Disillusioned Generation and The Voice: New Testament. As the publication date draws near, I will post the review, as well as an interview with Mr. Fudge regarding the commentary.

All Things New

Posted: December 31, 2008 in Bible, change, Christmas, life, prayer, spiritual formation

“And the One who sat on the throne announced to His creation: ‘See, I am making all things new. Write what you hear and see, for these words are faithful and true. It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. I will see to it that the thirsty drink freely from the fountain of the water of life. To the victors will go this inheritance: I will be their God, and they will be My children.’” (Revelation 21.5-7; The Voice)

As Rochelle and I left a half-empty 24 Hour Fitness last Monday, I bemoaned the fact that next week the gym will be filled to overflowing with resolutions. This January there will be a guy or girl next to me on the elliptical machine dripping with sweat whose workout regiment will become a warm dish of hope melted by the end of February.

I suspect hope springs this time of year because most of us are willing to accept notions of newness. New habits. New ideas. New thoughts. If resolution season does anything for us, it reminds us that there are some things that we would prefer to have another way. So, we resolve! At the core, though,  most of us don’t like change, or else we’d have made changes already. We motor from the tradition-laden seasons of Advent and Christmas and come crashing into the change of New Year’s resolutions. I like Christmas better myself, don’t you?

Resolutions aren’t inherently bad, though. Through the years I’ve actually had a few stick. Resolutions, however, aren’t enough to bring about the robust turnabout that humankind needs most desperately – the change from darkness to light  (Acts 26.18). Real change is transformation.

When it comes to spiritual formation, transformation comes in different packaging than many people think. One of the great secrets of spiritual formation is that no one can make themselves more spiritual. What we do as disciples of Jesus is create space, make room, prepare the way, and orchestrate the conditions wherein God can make us into whatever He would have us become. Prayer, silence, solitude, and other spiritual practices (disciplines) do not make us more spiritual in and of themselves. Instead through participation in certain practices, we invite God to encounter us in formative ways that shape us spiritually.  It is God’s work, through the power of the Holy Spirit, when we share in the practices that connected Jesus to God that changes us.

Even a quick perusal of the New Testament demonstrates that God is the One who changes us. Repeatedly, the Bible illustrates that God, the Alpha and Omega, makes everything new, including us. We are made new by the work of God more than the will of persons.  Like cultivating a garden, humans simply create the conditions for growth while God produces the harvest.

As you reflect on the habits you choose to welcome in 2009, I encourage you to make room for the ancient spiritual disciplines. These are simple ways we open ourselves to God in order that He make us new.

An Advent Prayer

Posted: December 16, 2008 in Christmas, missional, prayer

Today, we return to the pen of Walter Breuggemann and his wondeful book of prayers, “Prayers For A Privileged People.”

Newborn Beginning…after Caesar

The Christ Child is about to be born,
the one promised by the angel.
Mary’s “fullness of time” has arrived.
Except that the birth is scheduled
according to the emperor:
A decree went out that all should be numbered.

Caesar decreed a census, everyone counted;
Caesar intended to have up-to-date for the tax rolls;
Caesar intended to have current lists of draft eligibility;
Caesar intended taxes to support armies,
because the emperor, in whatever era,
is always about money and power,
about power and force,
about force and control,
and eventually violence.

And while we wait for the Christ Child,
we are enthralled by the things of Caesar –
and all the well-being that comes from
such control, even if it requires a little violence.

But in the midst of the decree
will come this long-expected Jesus
innocent, vulnerable,
full of grace and truth,
grace and not power,
truth and not money,
mercy and not control.

We also dwell in the land of Caesar;
we pray for the gift of your spirit,
that we may loosen our grip on the things of Caesar,
that we may turn our eyes toward the baby,
our ears toward the newness,
our hearts toward the gentleness,
our power and money and control
toward your new governance.

We crave the newness.
And while the decree of the emperor
Rings in our ears with such authority,
give us newness that we may start again
at the beginning,
that the innocence of the baby may
intrude upon our ambiguity,
that the vulnerability of the child may
veto our lust for control,
that we may be filled with wonder
and so less of anxiety,
in the blessed name of the baby we pray.


Preaching Christmas

Posted: December 15, 2008 in Christmas, church, life

A lot of ministers love preaching during Advent. For those of us in free church traditions, this is a time of year we can unapologetically turn to the lectionary and no one will give us grief about it. People also like preaching Advent sermons because words like peace and hope are easy to grab ahold of. Plus, the folks in the pew are typically glad to be worshipping together, congregations are filled with visitors, and sanctuaries are decorated in red and green. There are lots of good feelings around Christmas, and there should be.

At the same time, though, I fear that some of the preaching done during Advent is selective in it’s approach (a temptation even when it’s not Christmas). This year as I’ve re-read the birth narratives within the gospels, I’m shocked again by the scandal of the story; a story that is truly unbelievable without the asset of faith. It doesn’t stop at the scandal though. Just think about all those mothers clutching their little boys as King Herod’s minions draw knife and sword. And then, like in this past week’s lectionary reading, there’s John the Baptist, this wild man of the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord, while looking like the last person you want to be around. John also reminds us that life in the service of Jesus doesn’t necessarily mean a happy ending.

Christmas, I’m reminded, is a scary holiday.

It’s not kid’s stuff.

The birth of Jesus presents a threat to power; a revolution of hope bought with the blood of someone’s son — both God’s and many others; it’s about a pregnant teenaged mother; and a earthly father given an offer he couldn’t refuse. The birth of Jesus is about lives turned upside down. It’s about one kingdom’s clash with another and the cold, hard truth that our personal and professional kingdom’s cannot be aloud to stand either. 

In my house are several Nativity scenes. When I’m not thinking, these pieces of wood and marble are quaint, almost sentimental tellings of a wonderful tale. But when I am thinking, the scenes strip away the armor of my heart and remind me that when Jesus was born nobody wanted him. And I have to ask myself again, Do I want him? Do I want to invite in this man who’s birth causes such upheaval into my well manicured life (even though my life is not that well manicured). Christmas tells me that I am not the center of the universe, though so many other people want to tell me that I am. Christmas tells me that in some ways, from last year to this year, I have tried to leave the King out in the cold, and because of it, I’ve missed the angels rejoicing.

So, Christmas for me has a double-edge. While I love watching my daughters get excited about Santa and trees and decorating the house, there is a King coming, and he’s coming to turn the world upside-down.