What’s it all about, anyway?

The Birth of Jesus - Luke 2:1-20

JESUS MAFA. The birth of Jesus with shepherds, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

A number of years ago, there was a popular song that said “What’s it all about, Alfie?” That question seems appropriate at this time of year. What’s it all about, anyway?

I struggle sometimes with what to post…especially now. It’s a time of year when everyone wants to feel good…to enjoy the season.

But not everyone gets to do that.

And I’m not really sure the season is all about making us feel good.

After all, the child whose birth we celebrate came to shake the world up…to turn the existing expectations on their heads.

We’ve tended to sanitize that…to romanticize it. And so when someone posts a picture that makes us uncomfortable, we tend to want to immediately ignore it…or cry “foul!”

But what if we could all step back a minute…perhaps step into our time machines…and think about what was going on then? What would we see?

We would see a young pregnant woman, making a difficult journey with her fiancé to meet the demands of an occupying government. We would find them in the middle of a chaotic situation, desperately trying to find a place to stay…a quiet and at least somewhat secluded place where she could give birth.

We would see shepherds…unclean, unkempt. While the Bible positively acknowledges the shepherding background of some of the more famous individuals, shepherds didn’t have a good reputation generally. They were often considered to be thieves…and at the least were on the low end of society. And yet they were the ones the angels appeared to.

Later we would see magi–students of the heavens–coming and asking about this child, not knowing that their questions would trigger the deaths of innocent children by a frightened king.

We would see a family fleeing across borders, desperately trying to find a safe place to raise their child.

It’s not necessarily a feel-good story.

And so I think that some of the contemporary nativity scenes that we see–the ones that make us really uncomfortable…and maybe even angry…are appropriate for this time of year. They are what the story is all about…questions of dealing with “the other”…desperate families seeking safety for their children…genocide…

It’s not just something that happened approximately 2000 years ago. It happens today.

And the story…ultimately a story of hope for a new world…is all about what it means to live in this world…in this time…and a challenge to us. Who are we in the story? And how will we let it impact us?

What’s it all about anyway?

Holy Family in cages

Being Bethlehem…

Last night I sat in sacred space in Independence, Missouri (USA) and through the miracle of technology shared in an Advent worship with friends in

  • Oregon, USA
  • Australia
  • Zambia
  • Honduras
  • Germany
  • Philippines
  • French Polynesia
  • Canada
  • Dominican Republic

I heard prayers, music, and scripture read and sung in

  • English
  • Bembe
  • French
  • Spanish
  • German

And I was challenged with the questions of “How far is it to Bethlehem for me this Advent season?” and “How will I–and the place(s) I worship–be Bethlehem, the birthplace of Messiah, this Advent season?”

“Bethlehem” translates as “place of bread” or “place of meat”…a place where one is fed and nourished. If I choose to be Bethlehem this Advent season, that calls me to be a place where individuals can be fed and nourished–not just physically (although that is important), but also to feed their souls and spirits.

To be Bethlehem calls me to recognize the worth of those who look different from me…who worship in ways that are not necessarily my way…to see them as brothers and sisters.

It is not always easy. In fact, most of the time it is difficult. But if–as in last night–I can share in worship with others in different cultures through the miracle of technology, then I can also use that miracle to learn more about them…to find the ways in which we are alike…and to work with them to create a world that can be Bethlehem–a place of bread or meat–for all people.

Santa…it’s not just a job…

Santa and Mrs ClausI know a wonderful man who has been a mall Santa Claus for the last 15 years. That’s a lot of time–and a lot of people!

Occasionally someone derides what he does or–worse–complains that by doing so, he’s ruining the spirit of Christmas. They don’t really know what happens…

Yes, for some folks, being Santa is just a job. But others find ways for it to be a ministry as well. Not a ministry of conversion…but a ministry of caring. Charlie’s had a number of those experiences.

He  encouraged a young teenage boy who was going to be going to court for something (Santa didn’t ask–didn’t need to know). He was concerned that he had really messed up–but Santa told him he believed in him…that he could turn his life around. And when he left the Santa set, his heart was lighter and he had confidence in himself.

He has given hope to children whose parents were not with them–either in prison or overseas in the military.

He has brought smiles to the faces of sick children in hospital.

He has shared Santa joy with senior citizens who have never had a chance to visit Santa before.

He has had pictures taken with parents bringing their new babies home and wanting something to commemorate that joy.

And this year, he had a young boy ask him to pray for someone with leg injuries the boy had seen at another store.

Those experiences don’t happen every day–nor do they happen with every Santa. But the best ones–in my opinion–provide a ministry that expresses the joy and hope of the season.

Merry Christmas

joseph-mary-and-jesus

And so the day is here…the day that we’ve been looking forward to.

But it’s not the end; it’s the beginning. It’s a reminder that the journey is not finished…that we still have a long way to go before we are living in the peace that the angels came to proclaim.

On this day we celebrate one child born so long ago–a child who had no bed to lay in, born to parents who would find themselves fleeing to another land to escape violence.

As he grew, he challenged the status quo. He loved the unlovable…taught that all were of worth…brought healing and wholeness.

We might not be able to do all the things he did–but we can do a lot. We can look back in celebration to the birth…and forward to a time when we can celebrate a world living as he wanted us to:

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why:

I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.’

“Then those ‘sheep’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?’ Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.’

And so…as we celebrate the birth of this Jesus, let us live Christmas all year.

Joy

Advent 4

On this last Sunday of Advent, we light the candle of joy.

What is joy?

Perhaps we should start out by saying what it is not. Joy is not necessarily happiness. Happiness can be fleeting, dependent on events happening in our lives–or the lives of our loved ones. If circumstances change, happiness may disappear.

But joy…joy is an emotion that comes from deep in our heart. We can find joy even in the most difficult of life circumstances…even when common sense says we should be completely down in the dumps.

So what makes the difference?

Joy may include happiness, but it goes deeper. We have joy when we know we have a firm foundation we can build our lives on–someone we can trust to always be with us through both good and bad times…someone who loves us, no matter what.

Joy acknowledges that life is not always easy, but it also knows that we are never alone, even when it may feel like we’ve been abandoned. Our human family, our friends may turn away from us–but the One whose birth we are preparing to celebrate never does.

I’m reminded of one of my favorite stories (and movies) this time of year–Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The Cratchit family lacks much of the “things” that we tend to think are necessary to find happiness, and also are dealing with the illness of the youngest child–and yet when they are preparing for their Christmas dinner, Bob Cratchit (the patriarch of the family) is still able to offer a toast of thanks and gratefulness for what they have…the love of family. They have joy.

And so…as we light this candle of joy, my wish, my blessing for each of you is this quote from Tiny Tim: “God bless us, every one!” And may you be blessed with true joy, not just this day but throughout the year.