Category Archives: Musings

What Happened to the War on Christmas??

It just occurred to me that with the advent of Christmas, something has been conspicuously missing.

img_1131This year there are no angry warning blasts about the conspiratorial War on Christmas! Barely a peep. Every year we hear rants and laments about how our godless culture is removing any religious semblance of Christmas out of the mainstream, to the point that we can’t even mention the word “Christmas” anymore. We’re appalled at retail chains for their “holiday” sales and their “Happy Holidays” banners. We’ve been urged to boycott these stores. Schools and public places are taking down their nativity scenes and silencing Christmas songs, replacing them with paltry “Winter Holidays” political correctness. Christ has been Xed out with “Merry Xmas”. Santa has pushed Jesus aside, too.Heck, Starbucks doesn’t even mention holidays or snowflakes on their coffee cups! Poor Jesus.

What is the world coming to??

But this year, all those familiar gloom and doom refrains have been MIA. Why?

I’ve got a theory: there are weightier issues to fret about. The Middle East is edging towards the brink of explosion with Syria being the fuse. We’re on the other side of the most negative, bitterly divisive Presidential election we’ve ever faced in our lifetimes, leaving many people angry and scared. The EU is close to collapse. More of the world is opting for a nativist, nationalistic populism. Our economy is nowhere near stable. We’ve battled over marriage and bathrooms and sitting out the National Anthem.

When it comes down do it, we are so easily distractable. We talk, post, and tweet about whatever storm, real or fabricated, that happens to be raging in the news and social media. Meanwhile yesterday’s storm is long forgotten. (Ask someone now if the dress is blue or gold and watch how many confused responses you get!) Today, all it takes is a few prominent voices to broadcast a storm warning, i.e. “There’s a War on Christmas,” to get the masses debating the issue.

But this year other storms have taken center stage in our public debate, and no one has taken up the War on Christmas cause.

All in all, our distracted silence demonstrates what a silly issue the War on Christmas has been, and how ridiculously shrill the demonstrators have sounded.

Look, here are some basic facts:

  • I can politely wish someone a Merry Christmas and not worry about being condemned, arrested, or assaulted. If I’m extra polite, I can avoid doing that with folks I know don’t observe Christmas. (After all, who has ever come to Jesus after being plastered with “Merry Christmas” greetings?)
  • I can set up my Christmas tree and nativity scene, put lights on my house, and even set up Christmas stuff on my lawn without fear of the government charging me for religious expression.
  • I can freely go to church and celebrate Advent and Christ’s birth and Epiphany, knowing that my government protects my right to worship as I choose.
  • If it so offends me, I can choose not patronize stores or restaurants that refuse to acknowledge the word “Christmas”.
  • I can write any number of blog posts, columns, editorials and books, and organize demonstrations to end any War on Christmas. However, I cannot stop anyone from calling me an idiot. That’s their right, too.

Frankly, I’m relieved there’s no War on Christmas storm warning this year. That has given many of us tremendous freedom to simply tell and live the good news of Jesus’ birth without having to compete for bandwidth with the doomsdayers. Many of my fellow Christians undervalue the compelling message of Emmanuel, God with us in Jesus Christ, especially when it’s shared humbly, passionately, and in a way that connects with our lives as they are:

God is faithful to keep his promises. God loves us and comes to us just as we are. God was birthed right in the middle of our broken messes to bring us love, grace, forgiveness, and a renewed relationship with him. The greatest gift we’ll ever know is the friend, Savior, and Lord we can have in Jesus. The birth of Jesus is more powerful than any one religion because anyone, anywhere, of any race, culture, or belief can discover him.

Isn’t that awesome? Why rant about a so-called War on Christmas when we’ve got a living treasure that has captivated human hearts for nearly 2000 years?

So… next year, can we make it two years in a row that we don’t bemoan the death of Christmas? Please? Instead, let’s learn and relearn how to tell the glad tidings of good news for a world longing for any kind of good news.

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Live Report: St. Paul Delivers a Speech at General Conference Addressing the LGBTQI Debate

Paul of TarsusFrom the back corner door in a tense, crowded convention hall, a short, modestly dressed middle-aged man appears. He wears a beige shirt and pants with street-worn brown shoes. His face bears jagged, careworn lines from an arduous life of work and great sacrifice, and yet there is an otherworldly serenity about the way he carries himself. His eyes have a sharp intensity to them- critical, sad, and yet longing. He has olive-colored skin, a balding head with sparsely greying dark hair, and a thin beard. He doesn’t have a Conference delegate badge, and yet he confidently walks into the room as if he had always been there. Hardly anyone notices his arrival at first, but in a matter of moments, all of that is about to change.

It is late-afternoon on May 18, 2016 in Portland, Oregon. The delegates of the 2016 General Conference of The United Methodist Church are once again embroiled in an emotionally passionate debate that has eventually taken center stage of every General Conference since 1972. It’s the debate over Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender people. What should the church think about them? Is the practice of homosexuality and transgender people compatible or incompatible with Christian teaching? Is it right or wrong to host and celebrate their marriages? Can LGBT persons be ordained as clergy?

One can glance around the room at the delegates and feel the immense weight of everything they must consider and vote into church law. Whatever they decide could determine the fate of the United Methodist Church as we know it.

Emerging from a back corner of the convention hall, the visitor slowly makes his way up an aisle and to the desk of the presiding bishop. With a hand cupping the microphone, she quizzically engages this stranger. At first the bishop seems annoyed but then suddenly freezes as the color drains from her face. She gazes up at the stranger for a few moments longer and then slowly stands. Her eyes never leave him.

Speaking into the microphone, the visibly shaken bishop says, “Ladies and gentlemen, as you know, our General Conference has voted on parliamentary rules which I am required as your Presiding Bishop to uphold, but I am making an extraordinary decision. I am unilaterally suspending these rules in light of the person I am about to introduce. Brothers and sisters, I yield the floor to none other… than the Apostle Paul of Tarsus.”

Stunned silence overtakes the room followed by a rash of whispering. “Is she crazy?” “Who orchestrated this?” “She doesn’t have the authority to do that!” “Who did she say he is?”

Amidst the clamor, Paul begins to talk in a clear, calm voice. He adds no hint of polish or flourish to his words, and yet he speaks with a methodical, earnest passion:

“My dear brothers and sisters, yes, it is I, your brother Paul of Tarsus, an apostle sent not from any person but rather from the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. I have watched your proceedings with great interest over these last 44 years, and at the bidding of Christ Jesus, I have come to bring you a word from the Lord. May the Holy Spirit enlighten the eyes of your heart to my gospel, which I faithfully preached throughout the world. I now proclaim this same gospel to you.

“Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to embrace any form of legal marriage, but another embraces only heterosexual marriage. The one who embraces both same-sex and heterosexual marriage equally must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not embrace same-sex marriage must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

“One person considers one form of marriage more sacred than another; another considers both same-sex and heterosexual marriages alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards only one form of marriage as sanctified does so to the Lord. Whoever regards same-sex marriage equally sanctified with heterosexual marriage does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever does not, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.

“You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written:

‘”As surely as I live,’ says the Lord,
‘every knee will bow before me;
every tongue will acknowledge God.'”

“So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.

“Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that all monogamous, covenanted marriages are right and holy. But if anyone regards something as not holy, then for that person it is not holy. If your brother or sister is distressed because of your convictions, you are no longer acting in love. Do not let your advocacy for what you deem to be just and holy destroy someone for whom Christ died. Do not let what you know is good to be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of sex and marriage, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval.

“Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of sex and marriage. All legal marriages are good, but it is wrong for a person to advocate for what they deem to be just and holy in a way that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to self-righteously or angrily advocate for your beliefs and convictions or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall.

“So whatever you believe about these things, keep yourselves humble and open, as if this matter was between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if they force themselves to go along with something they believe to be wrong, because their acquiescence is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.

“We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up. For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.’For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.

“May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

“Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.”

At that, Paul bowed his head, backed away from the microphone and quietly exited the hall.

Everyone was subdued into stunned silence. No one shouted “amen.” No one protested. No one flinched. Then after a few minutes, an elderly statesman of the church stood up from his seat and said, “Bishop, for the sake of our whole church, conservative and progressive, gay and straight, of any gender, and of any conviction thereof, I rise to offer this motion…”

(The main body of Paul’s speech is a hermeneutical application of Romans 14:1-15:7. This is an edit of a previous post.)

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I Want More Carol Burnett Comedy

This past Friday night Blairlee and I had the rare gift (thanks to a very kindly aunt) of seeing Carol Burnett in person at the Strathmore Music Center. We had center-stage second row seats, too! I don’t think I’ve ever had concert seats like that.

Carol Burnett Live on April 15, 2016

Carol Burnett Live on April 15, 2016

When Carol took the stage, she electrified and captivated the entire audience for a full hour-and-a-half. Not bad for an 82-year-old comedienne. And Carol did something which only a seasoned, veteran entertainer would ever do. She took the stage with no script. Only a handful of video clips anchored her show. Everything else was live Q&A with her audience. Audience members could ask anything they wanted, and she called on people from all over the theater. As a public speaker, believe me, that takes guts… and a wealth of talent.

I can’t remember going to a show and laughing so hard. In all the years I’ve known Blairlee, I’ve never heard her laugh that hard, either. From the moment Carol took the stage until her final bow, we were both non-stop smiles.

A friend of mine commented that Carol Burnett is a comedic genius. That she is. I think it’s a combination of her charm, her wit, the way she uses her body and face, her timing, voice inflection, and this uncanny sense that she’s the everyday woman next door. You can relate to her and deeply appreciate her, too.

And then another thing struck me. Carol Burnett put on a full show without using one vulgarity or profane word. It never occurred to me while she was performing. It was so natural. But once I realized how “clean” her show was, it left me longing for more comedians and comediennes like Carol Burnett- women and men who can make us laugh without dragging us through the basest part of our nature. She could wink at it while not taking us all the way there, and to me, that made it all the more funny. It was like telling a clever joke without having to explain it.

For example, Carol told a story about a skit she performed on The Carol Burnett Show which featured her as a character who lived in a nudist colony. That concept could go in a number of directions! Carol’s character was being interviewed while standing behind a fence, and the interviewer asked her what she and her fellow colonists do for evening entertainment. (The eyebrows just got a little higher.)

Without missing a beat, Carol’s character said, “We go dancing.” [Lots of laughter.] The interviewer then asked how a bunch of nudists dance. Carol’s original line said, “Very carefully.”

Well, that line got scrutinized by the TV execs. So at the last minute she changed it to, “We like to dance cheek to cheek.” Apparently, the TV execs were fine with that. Now that’s hilarious!

And notice: no profanity, no vulgar descriptions. Either you got the joke, or you didn’t.

I’m not one to long for the good ol’ days or to wish we could go back to the happier times. Longing for the past is always through rose-colored glasses. We tend to over-inflate the pleasant things while sanitizing or forgetting the less pleasant things. For example, while television was freer from profanity, violence, and nudity, there was certainly lots more racism and sexism. Smoking was widespread and socially acceptable. Would we want to go back to all of that?

You could convincingly argue that Carol Burnett’s humor was shaped and controlled by much stronger censorship and different viewer sensibilities. Very true. Without those restrictions, maybe her humor would have been quite different. Perhaps. But Carol and her co-actors managed to be hilariously funny in that (controlled) environment. In 2016, it’s still just as funny.

Carol Burnett demonstrated that masterfully last Friday night.

Carol Burnett proves that we don’t have to gaze in the rear-view mirror to find and create good comedy. She and her kind of humor still have a place in American entertainment. Her comedy uses wit, physicality, charm, and off-the-wall antics to make people laugh. Much has changed in the nearly 50 years since her show took the airwaves. But some forms of comedy, like Carol Burnett’s, are timeless.

I’d like a lot more of that. I’m not asking for her kind of humor to supplant and replace what’s out there now. I don’t want to see Carol Burnett-style humor attempt to prove a point or stake a moral high ground. That’s simply not funny. True humor has a selfless simplicity to it that doesn’t preach or demean. It just brings joy.

Yet there is a sizable audience including people like me who would thoroughly enjoy humor that isn’t demeaning, overtly profane, violent, or pornographic. For me, it’s not moral snobbery. I laugh at all kinds of things. Funny is funny. At the same time, there’s something refreshing and fun about Carol’s humor that would offer alternatives to some of the other modes of comedy out there.

And while comedy is never culturally universal, Carol Burnett’s brand of comedy can unite multiple generations and multiple moral sensibilities to laugh together. Very few things in life can bring people together like laughter. Thank you, Carol, for 50 years of laughter. May others follow in your stead to bring us joy, happiness… and Tarzan yells.

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Christmas Midrash

Merry 11th Day of Christmas! Yes, even though December 26 brought an abrupt end to Christmas music on the radio stations and the stores quickly cleared away Christmas trees for Valentines hearts, it’s still Christmas for another two days.

christmas-greeting-card-nativity-scene-by-dona-gelsingerSo in celebration, I thought it would be fun to recall the Christmas story one last time. It’s a paraphrase. Now here’s the catch: read it carefully to see if anything strange catches your eye.

Once upon a time, there was a woman named Mary and her husband Joseph who were traveling to Bethlehem to register for the Roman census. By that time Mary was very pregnant, so she made the long journey to Bethlehem on a donkey while Joseph walked them along.

Once they made it to the city of Bethlehem, they found the town extremely crowded from all the people trying to register. Then Mary began to go into labor. Desperately Joseph looked in every available inn, but no room was to be found. Finally an innkeeper let Joseph and Mary stay in his stable overnight.

It was a cold, wintery night on December 25 when Jesus was born. So Mary wrapped Jesus in a swaddling cloth and laid him in the warm straw of a manger. Thankfully the other animals in the stable granted them space and their own special provisions. Overhead, the Christmas star was shining brightly.

Out in the countryside, shepherds were guarding their sheep by night. Suddenly a great host of angels appeared to the shepherds and sang about the good news of Jesus’ birth. Excitedly they ran with their sheep to Bethlehem and found Mary, Joseph and Jesus in the stable.

Later that evening, three kings from the east arrived to visit the baby Jesus. They followed his natal star which shone right above the manger stall where Mary, Joseph, Jesus and the shepherds were. There they offered their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

At some point during the night a little drummer boy showed up to play his drum as a gift to the Christ child. Jesus opened his eyes and smiled at the boy.

The end.

Every year we see and hear the Christmas story told in songs, hymns, pageantry, paintings, and pictures. The question is, what is authentic and what is not? What comes from the Bible, specifically Matthew and Luke’s gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth, and what is extra?

This Christmas I’ve been reminded how much tradition has modified the Christmas story beyond Matthew and Luke’s birth stories. These things have been so ingrained in our telling of the story that we hardly question their presence.

My Jewish older cousins of the faith have a word for all the extra stuff. They call it Midrash. Midrash is a collection of stories and interpretations from Judaism’s long oral history that seeks to fill in the gaps of the biblical story. The purpose is to create understanding, meaning and application of the scriptures.

For example, there is a famous Midrash from the Noah story. According to some Midrash the reason why the ark was enormous and took 52 years to build was so that the rest of humankind would look at it, ask Noah about its meaning, hear his preaching and repent of their sins. Of course, they were so sinful that they didn’t even bother to ask. That fascinating story is not in the Bible, but it provides some helpful inference and interpretation of the story’s meaning.

When it comes to the Christmas story, we don’t call the non-biblical modification to the story Midrash per se, but that’s exactly what it is. Here is some of the “midrash” from the Christmas storyline I put together:

  • Mary riding to Bethlehem on a donkey– That’s a popular depiction in art and speaks to Mary’s pregnancy during the journey, but there’s no record in Luke’s gospel of Mary’s mode of transportation to Bethlehem
  • The city of Bethlehem was overly crowded– Nothing is mentioned in the Bible about the population of Bethlehem. Things are presumed to be extra busy because of the census and Luke’s note that there’s “no room” for Mary and Joseph. Also, Bethlehem was no city or town. Historically, it was probably a village which Luke figuratively calls the “City of David”.
  • The innkeeper (and his wife)– There was none. He and sometimes Mrs. Innkeeper seem to appear in virtually every Christmas pageant, but not in the Bible.
  • Jesus was born in a stable– Again, no mention of that- only a manger. With the presence of a manger, we might infer a stable for livestock. But there’s also a tradition that the site for the manger was in a cave.
  • Jesus was born on December 25– Though technically not “midrash”, Christmas Day on December 25  was probably set by 4th century Christians as a day to commemorate the birth of Christ. Many scholars agree that Christmas was set right around the winter solstice to compete with pagan rituals. But in reality, we really do not know what time of year Jesus was born, and the gospel accounts offer no clues. All of the winter references in Christmas carols are simply a cultural appropriation.
  • Friendly animals– A beautiful Christmas tradition but not biblical.
  • The Christmas star– Yes, in Matthew’s gospel there was a star that led the Magi to Jerusalem and eventually to Jesus in Bethlehem, but there’s no mention of it appearing on the date of his birth.
  • Angels singing to the shepherds– In Luke’s gospel, an angel appears followed by a host of angels who said, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” There’s absolutely no mention of singing. Contrary to Charles Wesley’s “herald angels singing”, Luke mentions no angelic music to harken our attention. Still, given the hymn-like words of the angels, we have traditionally inferred that they were singing.
  • Three Magi came to visit baby Jesus– This is probably the most elaborated upon story in the infancy narratives of Jesus. Matthew does not say how many Magi there were. Three is given as the traditional number because of the three gifts. However, in some ancient eastern Christian traditions, there were twelve Magi who represented the gentile (non-Jew) equivalent to the twelve tribes of Israel.
  • They were kings– There’s no mention of them being kings. They were Magi- a kind of soothsayer. Many scholars think they were Zoroastrian astrologers from Persia, but Matthew is silent on that detail, too. Chances are the king inference comes from Psalm 72:11, “May all kings bow down to him and all nations serve him.”
  • The Magi were present at the place of Jesus’ birth– The magi wouldn’t show up until much later. This blurring of Matthew and Luke’s story comes from nativity scenes… and the opening scenes of Ben Hur. Matthew records that the Magi came to the house where the Holy Family was living in Bethlehem.
  • The little drummer boy– A popular song from the 1940s, I’m always amazed at the number of nativity scenes with a drummer boy present!

Is all this Christmas “midrash” bad? Not at all. They’re not biblical, but they add an interpretive lens to round out the story into this rich tradition. And they reflect how Christians through the centuries have chosen to approach the birth of Jesus.

At the same time, we must make a conscious distinction between the Bible and extra-biblical traditions. Matthew and Luke have essential stories to tell that proclaim the meaning and significance of Jesus’ birth. They are very different stories which offer two different portraits of the nativity. Let’s get those stories right even while we enjoy the traditions that have developed through the centuries to honor the birth of our Lord and Savior.

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I’ve Decided I’m an Atheist

No GodSomething has been brewing within me for several years now that I have been too ashamed, too embarrassed, and very afraid to admit.

I’m an atheist.

After a long journey of thoughtful introspection through a continuous strain of disillusionments, disappointments, but also eye-opening clarity, I’ve concluded that there can’t possibly be a supernatural deity who somehow controls and influences things.

Interestingly enough, I learned this lesson in the church through my work as an ordained pastor.

On Sunday mornings, I have preached wonderful sermons about God and Jesus. I learned that I could tell all these stories with great conviction without really having to anchor my life to any of it. I tried this, just for kicks- preaching powerful, passionate sermons about things I had struggled to believe. I found I could put on a great show. The people would walk away inspired. “That was a beautiful sermon, Pastor!” But then nothing changes. Everyone goes back to life as usual. I did this for weeks on end and realized that I didn’t need a god to do any of it. Great, emotional shows. Happy people. Same people. Week after week. Where is the divine in that?

Then I noticed that there was no need for deity in any of the church’s activities. People talked about God. I talked about God. We said nice little prayers to God. But I looked around and realized that it was just decent religious people doing good people things. This went on for month after month, and then I concluded that if there really was a deity, there should be more than this- a lot more. But there isn’t. I could have started a wonderful charity group or a recreational club, made no mention of deity and have done the exact same things.

I looked at the way we learn. I have taught lots of Bible studies. I do love to teach, and for many years, I walked away stimulated by the deep discussions we were having. People get jazzed about discussing things, often in painstaking detail, bringing history and the writings of scholars into our learning. We eat it up! People walk out thanking me for a thought-provoking, powerful study. Those same people would come back, week after week, but I began to notice over time that nothing would change. We’d end up talking about the same things. The same kinds of speculative questions would be asked. It was all superficial. People spoke in generalities about God, people and the world. Still, nothing new happened. I didn’t see any real changes of heart that led to improved behavior or priorities.  There were no grand ideas generated that would lead to anything positive or constructive. Thus, there was no deity needed or involved in any of it! Once again- no god doing anything supernatural.

And then I looked at they way we pray. Prayer time in worship is more of a support group and story-telling time than what I would imagine prayer to be– getting on our faces before God in submission, fully relying on the strength, power, mercy, and love of God. No, we turn in prayer cards for this hurt, that surgery, this and that struggle, and say nice little prayers with tears, hugs, and tissues to go around. And there is never any evidence of supernatural intervention, other than what a doctor could do. After a while, I thought our time might be better spent creating a doctor and patient support group for mutual encouragement. Meanwhile, there was no real evidence of a god or deity; anything people described as “God’s intervention” I could find a natural cause for. I could see that! Why couldn’t these people see it?? No god, no deity… just religion wrapped up in emotion and speculation.

But what really led me to conclude that there is no god is the suffering of the poor all around us. We read and study in our Bibles that Jesus loves the poor and fills their mouths with good things. But there is not a smidgen of evidence for that anywhere. I looked at the priorities of my church and other churches in our neighborhood. Sure, we all do canned food drives, fill poor kids’ backpacks once a year, and maybe even serve a meal in a homeless shelter. But anyone can see– an atheist like me can see!– that these are token gestures. Lives aren’t changed. No one is removed from poverty and suffering because of a canned food drive. I had always heard that love, relational love, changes lives. I had heard that communities bound together in a common cause for the kingdom of God changes lives. That would take no less than the work of a deity through people who claim this deity as their god. But it doesn’t happen. The poor still suffer while we religious people sit in our church buildings. Why say we believe in a god and carry on about religion when our neighbors still go without a home, without good food and water, struggling in addictions, alienated, and alone. If there is indeed a god whom people claim works through them, then this “god” has failed.

So, it’s very simple. If I can be a Christian and have no real need for God other than self-help– and I can get a therapist or read a good book for that– then there is no need to bother with the notion of a sky-god who controls and influences things. Leave that to nice ancient story books like the Bible.

Oh by the way, Bible discussion group will be held after Sunday morning story time and mutual support group… A creative, able-minded, talented atheist like me can lead all of that!

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April Fools! But… my point is far from a joke.

 

 

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Why I’m Opting Out of the Christmas War

No SantaYes, in the eyes of some, I am committing high treason or at least a serious abdication of my moral responsibilities as a Christian, but I’m declaring an end to my participation in the so-called Christmas War. If I was the commanding general of the Christmas War, I would call for an immediate cease fire. Why is that? It’s a completely unnecessary war and one more thing that makes us Christians look ridiculous.

You know the Great Christmas War I’m talking about. It has been waged on several major fronts which are once again picking up in intensity this time of year:

  • The Battle of the Name  What do we call Christmas? And what seasonal greeting do we offer others? Is it Christmas? Is it Xmas? (And by the way, X is a valid shortening of the name. Contrary to popular belief, X is the first letter of “Christ” in Greek, so yes indeed, it stands for Christ. It’s not some conspiratorial attempt to X out Jesus.) Do we wish people a Merry Christmas, or do we wish people a generic Happy Holidays, not wishing to offend our non-Christian neighbors? (On another aside, “Happy Holidays” originated as a way to combine a Christmas and New Year’s greeting, especially since for a long time the New Year celebration was the main event, not Christmas. Christmas did not become a widely celebrated event in the form we now have it until sometime in the 19th Century.) Do we want the department stores to make their profits from Christmas or the Holidays?
  • The Battle of Town Square Every year, Christians complain that secular society is running poor baby Jesus out of full display on the town square. In the name of separation of Church and State, he’s being thrown out of schools opting for a more secular or multicultural holiday celebration. Or he’s having to share the town corner stage with a Jewish Menorah and a Kwanzaa Mishumaa Saba. Worse yet, he may get no mention or space anywhere in a public forum.
  • Kneeling SantaThe Battle of the North Pole For many Christians, Santa Claus has become the symbol of all things secular and commercial about the Christmas season. I’ve seen Christian t-shirts with a crossed out Santa bearing the words “Jesus is the Reason for the Season.” I’ve also seen statues and pictures of a full red-suited, white-bearded Santa Claus with his red Santa hat by his feet, kneeling before baby Jesus in the manger. (Yes, I get the sentiment, but really? Do we need to show an Americanized, fictitious version of Saint Nicholas bowing down before baby Jesus? I know the Scriptures say that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, but does that really include Santa Claus? I digress…) Nevertheless, for many Christians, Santa Claus and the whole secularization and commercialization of Christmas is a menace and disgrace to the observance of Jesus Christ’s birth. While leaving poor Santa alone for a moment, I agree. But why keep whining about it, as if shaming people towards Jesus’ birth will change the hearts of anyone?

Here’s the reality: Christmas is indeed an important Christian feast day and season which begins Christmas Day and concludes with Epiphany. Just as pronounced- if not more!- is the reality that we are now immersed in a highly cultural phenomenon far more intense and unlike any other time of the year. Can you think of any other season with more music devoted to it? Can you think of any other time of the year as highly saturated with parties, festivities, trappings, family, and economic activity?

It is simply a losing proposition to think that somehow battling a powerful cultural phenomenon most all of us partake in, based on the celebration of Jesus’ birth, will change anything for the good. Do we really think that forcing people to say and accept “Merry Christmas”, forcing Jesus into public squares and schools, and stomping out Santa Claus are going to somehow restore the joy of Christmas into the hearts of our neighbors? Don’t bet on it. Is there really some kind of idyllic Christmas to which we can compare? Not really. Christmas has always been a cultural celebration that is both religious and secular, and to some degree Christians have continually lamented that. You can see how successful we’ve been turning the tide!

NativitySo instead of loudly warring against society in a fruitless effort win back the heart and soul of Christmas, I want to practice something much more Christmasy. Quiet love. Jesus’ birth was a quiet, largely unnoticed event, in poverty, among the clamoring hustle and bustle of that day. The angelic proclamation of Jesus’ birth wasn’t even a public event. The angels came to a few ragamuffin shepherds on the outskirts of Bethlehem village to announce the good news. Once the shepherds found and saw Jesus, they went out to share the good news, much to the amazement of all they told, but there’s no evidence that anything more came of it. Jesus still entered the world in humility and simplicity.

It’s an oft overlooked irony that the great joy, peace, and life of the world, the Word of God born in human flesh, the desire of the nations, entered the world largely unnoticed. Our gaudy, triumphant celebrations badly miss that point. For that reason, of all the Christmas hymns we sing, “Silent Night” best captures the essence of Christmas. In darkness and silence, the wonderful, radiant holiness of God was born.

What would it look like for us Christians to drop our anxious, self-righteous war for Christmas and move through the Advent and Christmas season in the way of Jesus’ birth, in quiet love? What if we embodied the peace, joy, hope, love and goodwill we sing about every year in the ways we talk to people, care for them, and serve them? What if we quit worrying about Merry Christmas vs. Happy Holidays, public displays, and how the rest of the world carries on with its version of the season? What if we became the light of the world- not a blaring, angry, shaming spotlight, but the inviting, warm, glowing warmth of Jesus for cold, weary people looking to find their way?

That’s a far cry from the way we’ve carried on Christmas!

Humble, quiet, hopeful, peaceful, simple, joyful, self-giving… Now that sounds like a Christmas worth having.

 

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Pastor Appreciation from Atheists

The month of October was “Pastor Appreciation Month”. As the title suggests, it’s a month designated to thank and honor pastors and clergy who have had an impact on our lives. Some years, I’ve received touching notes and cards from parishioners. Other times, the church would put on a potluck supper in my honor. Then there were some years in which October came and went with very little. That never bothered me, really. I don’t anxiously sit around waiting to be accoladed and thanked.

This year, however, I received two notes of appreciation from some friends of mine. They are not my parishioners. In fact, they are no one’s parishioners. That’s because they are atheists. Here’s what they wrote:

I understand that October is Pastor/Clergy Appreciation Month. To be honest, I don’t particularly appreciate clergy in general, since I’m essentially opposed to organized religion. However, I want to make exceptions for clergy members who make an effort to help people here on Earth and not just in a supposed afterlife, and who try to lead by example rather than just mouthing the words. Shout-out to our friend Chris Owens–we may not always agree, but I appreciate his honest efforts to see the other side’s perspective.

I also got this one from another atheist friend:

Dear Chris,

Thank you for being my friend and my internet pastor. Knowing you and talking with you has meant a great deal to me – even when we disagree, I always feel I learn something from you, and for all those times we turn out to agree (which is delightfully more often than I feared) it gives me a wonderful sense of perspective about the Christian community today which I find is lacking among many atheists, and broadens my world view greatly.

You are, indeed, an individual very worthy to hold the title of “pastor” and you bear the mantle of responsibility, authority, and vulnerability well – better than many I know who hold that title.

Wow… I was deeply touched and humbled by these words. It’s one thing for a church member to say these things. But for people who are not members of my faith community- folks who do not believe in God and reject organized religion!- to affirm my ministry and me that way, it resulted in one of those rare moments of beautiful pause.

Now some Christians may scoff at any pastor who gets a warm response from atheists. Perhaps I’m compromising myself. After all, I should be preaching the truth boldly, without compromise or apology, especially to unbelievers. Of course, this thinking assumes that part of my job is to offend and alienate people who don’t agree with me. Whatever… There are enough Christian jerks out there who spout off their truths and slam people who don’t see God and the world like they do. I refuse to be one of them, even as I have my differences with people who think and see differently than me.

BridgesMaturing as a Christian has led me to the great value of connecting with people who aren’t like me. It’s a wonderful gift in my life, actually. I learn a lot. I see whole other perspectives which help me to understand how people think and why they think that way. After all, I can’t be a good pastor who effectively shepherds and teaches the good news of Jesus without that. More importantly, I’ve found the gift of loving and being loved by people who would most likely never be my church congregants. Those human to human contacts in which I see the face of God in people, especially those don’t acknowledge God’s existence, is a priceless treasure which draws me closer to Jesus and closer to them. That alone is a precious gift.

So to my friends, Ed and Sophie and the many others I have friendships with who are not Christians or even theists, thank you for being a hallowed treasure in my life. Thank you for the things you teach me, for challenging me, for helping me to think more critically, carefully, and with increased sensitivity and awareness. And thank you for loving and at times forgiving me. You’ve made me a better person, disciple of Jesus, and pastor. You are also much, much appreciated.

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