December 25, 2015
Merry Christmas !!
If you celebrate Christmas, and I don’t assume that everyone who might read this does, I wish you a Merry Christmas. Actually, even more, I wish you a meaningful Christmas, a meaning-filled Christmas.
The merriment of Christmas seems more connected to the receiving of gifts, tables full of food, and glasses filled with portions that enhance the merriment, than it is to the birth of Jesus. Of course, the presence of family and friends, the joy of being with one another, is an important part of the day, and those elements alone can be a cause of great merriment.
But even the beauty of family and friends does not quite touch the depth of Christmas. There is something in the moment of birth that transcends almost everything. And here, of course, it is not the literal birth of Jesus that we celebrate, but something akin to it occurring in our own hearts. There is a manger of the imagination that lies within us, and it is into that place that new life is being born. Take the time to notice it amidst everything else that is going on. Give thanks for the gift that is being placed within you.
For as we receive the gift that comes to each of us, a gift of love to be sure, whatever else it may be as well, that gift comes out of the mystery and marvel that is Christmas.
December 18, 2015
I recently heard about a billboard paid for by an atheist group. Upon checking, I discovered that the billboard was posted in at least two places – Raleigh, North Carolina and Colorado Springs, Colorado – and that, accompanied by a picture of a smiling Santa Claus, it said, “Go ahead and skip church! Just be good for goodness’ sake.”
It seems that there has been quite a bit of outrage over the billboard. People are angry with this atheist group for discouraging people from going to church. It is interesting to wonder though whether or not any who are inclined to go to church would really accept advice from an atheist group.
My reactions to the billboard are threefold. First, it should be noted that while the atheists would not proclaim any belief in God, they do apparently believe in Santa Claus. They may or may not know that the origins of Santa Claus trace back to a fourth century saint of the church by the name of Nicholas, who was Bishop of Myra.
Secondly, the placing of the billboards seems to be a rather mean-spirited attempt to dissuade people from attending a church, even while they talk in the text about doing “good for goodness’ sake.” If they truly want to do good, they should encourage Protestants to attend Christmas-eve services, and Catholics to attend Midnight Mass, and Muslims to attend prayers at their mosques on a regular basis. If they want to encourage doing good, they should encourage people to participate in whatever activities help to promote such goodness and growth and giving to others. The billboard is promoting one idea, while showing at the same time that they don’t understand the other.
Finally, let me share with you that people skip church all the time. People skip church because they are tired. People skip church because they have family commitments, or their children are involved in sports activities, or they are helping someone move to a new home. People don’t need permission from an organization of atheists in order to skip church. People do what they need, or want, to do.
But I believe that spending time at a church, or at a mosque, or at a meditation center, or at any of numerous other settings that you can name, gives an important perspective to people’s lives. I also believe that these are places where people can discover hope and experience the care of others.
So, if you want to skip church, then you will. And you won’t get a guilt-trip from me for doing so. But I do know that you will miss something if you do. And, if you are a member of my church, I will miss you.
December 11, 2015
Christmas is about a journey. If you read the story in the Gospel of Luke you get the bare facts of the journey that Joseph and Mary made, ending up in Bethlehem. It is in fact fascinating to read the imaginings of creative people as they describe that trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem. We are introduced to the donkey that Mary rode, the difficulties of the long road to their destination, and the innkeeper who is insistent that there is no room at the inn. Of course, the author of the Gospel is far more matter of fact. He describes the journey this way: “…everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:3-7 NIV) The journey itself is captured in total by hearing that Joseph went, with Mary. There are no more details. And one assumes that if there was an inn then there must have been an innkeeper. But the “mean person” of the story is never even mentioned. Still, there was a journey. They made the trip, and it likely was quite uncomfortable for Mary. They made the journey of many miles and it brought them to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born.
We too journey toward Christmas. Our trials may be more along the lines of difficult gift decisions, congested traffic and long checkout lines in stores. We likely don’t even consider ourselves to be on a journey. It is more apt to be a list of tasks to be done, alongside the list of gifts to be bought. Of course, for some, it is all a great joy. For many though, it is stressful and pulls them down.
But if we reconsider, and look at these weeks, and now these fourteen remaining days, as a journey, it can become something more meaningful for us. When we are on a journey, we pay attention to the sights, and we find joy even if it is mixed in with the to-do lists. When we see ourselves as making a journey to Christmas morning with family, or literally making a trip to be with family who live at a distance, or even a metaphorical journey to the Bethlehem that resides in our hearts, then we will see more than the difficulties. We will see the beautiful lights, the excitement of children and the extra courtesy that people often extend to one another. We will notice the little things that make this season a special delight. And, we may even discover that our journey, like that of Mary and Joseph, brings us to a place of birth. If we have lived the journey fully, then we will truly enjoy the richness of the experience of new life that is at the heart of Christmas.
December 4, 2015
I was invited to a Messiah Sing-Along last Sunday. Such events highlighting this magnificent work by George Frideric Handel are common this time of year. I knew nothing more about this particular event than that a friend was one of the soloists who was performing.
It turned out that it was in an Episcopal Church in Hermosa Beach, California. What I was met with as I entered St. Cross Episcopal Church was an incredible celebration of the arts. Everything was of course set up for the orchestra and choir who were bringing Handel’s work to life. But there was much more. Stained glass was present in abundance. There were windows that depicted parts of the biblical story, and others that told about the roots of the Episcopal Church in Southern California. Then, there was more. Near where I sat was a framed tapestry, a gift of art depicting part of the creation story through beautiful fish swimming on a multi-colored background dominating by blue hues. Across the way, in a smaller chapel area connected to the main worship space, was an icon. The altar area in that main space was dominating by the pipes of the organ and the two elements of the altar that show Christ in the one above and Jesus and the sinking Peter in the one below. Then there was the beautiful architecture of the building itself, which housed all of these other treasures. In that setting, the whole experience of the afternoon was one of being gifted through music, through the visual arts, and thus, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
I don’t really intend this to be a review of that particular church, although if I lived in that area I would visit again. But what was especially striking to me was that I was privileged to experience Messiah in the context of this beautiful church. I know that a similar event featuring the Los Angeles Master Chorale at the Walt Disney Concert Hall will be happening in a couple of weeks. That will no doubt be an incredible musical experience as well, in a very impressive venue. But for me, hearing and singing Messiah at Disney Hall changes it from being a spiritual experience into it being a participatory concert.
There are many instances in which we would never have access to art were it not for the museums and concert halls that invite us in. I am grateful for their presence in our communities. But art. at least a great deal of art, is meant to be experienced in the context for which it was created. This is particularly true of art that depicts the religious and the spiritual. Such art has often been created for a particular community of faith, or, as with Handel’s work, for a particular religious tradition. To remove such art from its context is to lose some of the power that I believe it holds.
I know that when people gather to sing at Walt Disney Concert Hall, they will no doubt be moved in wonderful ways. I am simply very grateful to have experienced Handel’s work in a church, in the place where it seems to me it has a true home.
Welcome to my website. I hope you will discover a connection to the life of small churches, and the richness that the arts can bring to these churches.