Faith and relevance in the 21st century

Category: Christmas (Page 2 of 3)

They said there’ll be snow at Christmas…

“…they said there’ll be peace on earth.” – Greg Lake

I’ve been thinking recently about writing a reflection on how Christmas, and the Christmas spirit, brings alot of peace and goodwill at this time of year. I was going to write about how people are generally nicer to each other and look out for each other a bit more in the weeks leading up to this time of year. John Smith said many years ago that if it wasn’t for Christmas, the violence and suffering in our society would be even greater.

That may have been true back then, but it doesn’t quite ring true after the unimaginable horror of Newtown, Connecticut. The truth about Christmas for most of us is that it is actually a time of great paradox. It is a time when emotions are heightened, both in a positive and negative sense. As Greg Lake sang in his profound I Believe in Father Christmas almost forty years ago, “they said there’ll be snow at Christmas, they said there’ll be peace on earth.” But there is no peace in Newtown this Christmas in the families of those grieving the loss of their innocent children; there is no peace in the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine, and we find no peace in the families of those for whom Christmas is a time when loneliness and poverty are heightened.

I went to a Christmas show at one of the largest churches in my home city of Melbourne last week. It was a wonderful production and I had a huge lump in my throat as they went through the story of the Nativity. But I also felt disappointed that the full story was not told. As usual in church circles, the story they told was a sanitised version. It actually wasn’t the real Christmas story. There was nothing of Herod wanting to kill all boys under two in his attempt to dispose of Jesus; Simeon’s talk to Joseph and Mary did not mention that a sword would also pierce their souls as it would Jesus’; and Mary’s revolutionary Magnificat was not even mentioned.

When we sanitise the Christmas story, we not only do not do it justice, we not only leave out part of the Gospel, but we also distance it that much more from the realities of our own lives. In other words, we bring across the impression that the Gospel of Jesus is not as relevant as it really is. The story they were telling last weekend did not contain as much good news as it would have had they told the whole story. The truth is much more powerful when told within the context in which it happens.

Christmas is not a nice story with fluffy animals and a little smiling baby Jesus who ‘no crying he makes.’ The Christmas story is scandalous. It is both uncomfortable and comforting at the same time. And for these reasons it is incredibly good news for all of creation. Like the rest of the Gospel, it comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.

This Christmas sees much tragedy in the world. That’s why we need to remember the birth of the world’s Saviour more than ever. As John Mellencamp sang in the ’90’s, “Now more than ever, the world needs love; not just a slogan, but the world needs love.”

The Christmas story, with its almost ‘too-good-to-be-believable’ hope, is just what the doctor ordered in a world in which our children are slaughtered in broad daylight, and in which selfishness so often rules the human heart. The Son of God was born into just such a world in the 1st century. The hope he brought then is just what the world needs now. Christmas is more relevant than ever in 2012. Come Lord Jesus. We need you.

And to the people of Newtown, and all others for whom this Christmas will not be as merry as you had hoped, may the truth of the Christmas story, the hope coming out of the horror, soothe your aching souls. Meditate on them as you take in also the words of Greg Lake again, this time sung by Bono (see below for the whole song):

I wish you a hopeful Christmas
I wish you a brave New Year
All anguish pain and sadness
Leave your heart and let your road be clear

Chained to scourge of slavery

Don't Trade LivesAnother great article in today’s Sydney Morning Herald. Slavery in 2012 is a reality. It didn’t end 200 years ago with Wilberforce or with Lincoln. It may have been outlawed then, but it still exists today.

Two weeks ago was Abolitionist Sunday, and as we celebrate Christmas, how much of what we buy has been produced by slave labour?

Campaigns like World Vision’s Don’t Trade Lives, as well as Stop the Traffik, are very worthwhile ones to get involved in if you want to see what you can do to make a difference.

Imagine part II

A few weeks ago we remembered the 30th anniversary of the passing of John Lennon. As we remember his tragic death so close to Christmas, I remember the songs of peace that Lennon sang. Happy Christmas (War is Over) is a song of reflection on the year soon to be gone and of hope for a good one to come ‘without any fear’.

Peace on earth seems a long way away as another Christmas comes around. Another song of Lennon’s, perhaps his most famous, Imagine, speaks of a world which many of us dream of. Earlier this year I wrote my own piece about a world which I also believe many of us would all love to see. This Christmas seems a good time to post it again. Call it a response to John Lennon – ‘Imagine part II’. This is what the Son of God came into the world to bring.

Let’s dream a little. Imagine living in a world where peace, justice and love are the order of the day; a world where everyone is accepted just for who they are and where there is no anxiety, fear or mistrust. Then imagine that the ruler of this world had all of these characteristics and more. Because this ruler is like this, let’s call him God.

This is a God who longs for his people to be in relationship with him, and not just that, but God longs for his whole creation to be renewed. In this world there is ultimate trust because the ruler is ultimately trustworthy. Therefore it is a world where you love the fact that God is in charge. You realise that this God is both ultimate and intimate. God is both ruler of everything and yet knows and loves each of his creatures with a dignity we cannot comprehend.

Now imagine that this world is not just a far-off hope, but that it has already begun to be put into place. That’s what Jesus of Nazareth came to do. Jesus was God coming to earth, and every part of his life here was a pointer to this new world. It is not yet fully realised, but he is the one who kicked things off. He pulled back the curtain to show us a bit of what it will be like when everything is made complete.

And this Jesus has invited you to be a part of bringing in this new world. Never mind the kind of life you may have lived. Jesus has forgiven you all of that and wants you now to enjoy his presence and be a part of helping him prepare for the full realisation of this new world. What this means is that this world is within your grasp. What’s more, you will never be alone in this new world, for you will be with others who share the same dream as you. You will know what real connection is, with others and with this God. This is God’s new community and it starts here and now. This is a world run by a God who offers not just social transformation, but personal transformation as well. But it calls for your total commitment and sacrifice.

So if you’re tired of the way this current world is, and tired of the way your life is going, this Jesus invites you to a new way of living. It is counter-cultural and asks you to turn your back on everything our current world says is valuable. This new world is open to the lowly, the vulnerable, the poor, the outcast, and even to people like us who, let’s face it, have been rotten in a lot of ways. Because this way of living, this new world, has already begun with Jesus, every act of kindness, every act of love, however little or large, matters to this God. He sees it all, because you are preparing the way for when this new world will be fully consummated.

This is a world run by a God who offers not just social transformation, but personal, inner transformation as well. This is the dream that many people throughout history have had, people like Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa, and going further back, people like Francis of Assisi. And you can be a part of it. It calls for your total commitment and sacrifice. For many who are part of this movement, it is very very difficult. But in the end it is worth it, because in a strange way you will know that this has been what you have been looking for all your life. In some unexplainable way you will know that you are home with others in God’s new community.

Christmas reflection 2010

Singer Jackson Browne – who does not profess a Christian faith – laments the mad consumerism that overtakes us even more at Christmas than it normally does. In his song, The Rebel Jesus, Browne says the following:

Well we guard our world with locks and guns

And we guard our fine possessions

And once a year when Christmas comes

We give to our relations

And perhaps we give a little to the poor

If the generosity should seize us

But if any one of us should interfere

In the business of why there are poor

They get the same as the rebel Jesus

Jackson Browne sympathises with the treatment Jesus gets for raising awkward questions – the questions no one wants to hear, the issues that no one wants to face. Julian Assange would also sympathise with both Browne and Jesus right now. But most of us would rather have it easy. It is the troublemakers who raise these questions, and the easiest way to deal with our insecurity of not knowing how to handle them is to shut them up. We do it with our children too when they constantly pester us with that eternal question, “why?”

Jesus knew the same ridicule, from the beginning of his ministry when he was almost thrown off a cliff for his provocative comments to the religious leaders (Lk 4:29), through to his murder at the hands of the authorities. Even when he was unaware of it, Jesus knew criticism and rejection. With no room at the inn for his parents, the Son of God himself was forced to be born out the back of a pub amongst the smell and grime of farm animals.

Christmas is not a nice story. It has nothing to do with the nativity scenes we see on our Christmas cards or in most of the Christmas paraphernalia in Christian bookstores. Richard Rohr explains it well in the following piece from his Preparing for Christmas series:

Jesus identified his own message with what he called the coming of the “reign of God” or the “kingdom of God,” whereas we have often settled for the sweet coming of a baby who asked little of us in terms of surrender, encounter, mutuality or any studying of the Scriptures or the actual teaching of Jesus.

This is what I am inviting you to this Advent. But be forewarned: the Word of God confronts, converts, and consoles us—in that order. The suffering, injustice and devastation on this planet are too great now to settle for any infantile gospel or any infantile Jesus. Actually, that has always been true.

What we call the Incarnation, God becoming a human being, becoming one of us, strikes directly at the heart of evil and corruption in the world. God becoming human looks evil in the eye and takes it on without flinching. As Bruce Cockburn sang it so brilliantly, it is God “kicking the darkness ‘til it bleeds daylight”.

Christmas is a time of mixed emotions for many people. For some it is a wonderful time of creating happy memories with families, while for others it is a time when, as a pastor of mine says, the poor are poorer and the lonely are lonelier. Whatever it is for you this year, know that it is a time when the Creator of the Universe came running towards us with arms outstretched, as a helpless baby, vulnerable and defenceless. Know also that he lived a life of perfect love, and then died, once more with arms outstretched, to expose evil and to take our sin upon himself. But know especially that that wasn’t the end of the story. Defeated in the eyes of the world, he then defeated death itself when he rose from the grave, inaugurating the kingdom of God into history – a kingdom in which we are invited to work with him to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with Him on the journey.

When God Almighty walked the earth, he was known as the friend of sinners. The outcast and the poor flocked to him because he loved them as they were. People who feel like they are on the outside – people like Jackson Browne – are those he welcomes:

Now pardon me if I have seemed

To take the tone of judgement

For I’ve no wish to come between

This day and your enjoyment

In a life of hardship and of earthly toil

There’s a need for anything that frees us

So I bid you pleasure

And I bid you cheer

From a heathen and a pagan

On the side of the rebel Jesus

If you are one of these people sung about in The Rebel Jesus, or if you feel like you are on the outside, Christmas is for you.

May you have a blessed, wonderful, and meaningful Christmas. May you know his love more deeply, so you can live more meekly, and share more widely in the wonderful privilege of working with the King of Kings who became the Man of Sorrows, to bring the kingdom of love, justice and peace to this ailing planet. The Author of Life is the Giver of Life. As we give gifts to each other this Christmas, enjoy them and, as Richard Rohr would say, remember above all not the presents but the Presence!

Sweet baby Jesus, no crying he makes. Really?

I love people like Richard Rohr who are so warm and Christlike, and who just say it as it is. I am tired of the way Christians have gone along with the sanitised ‘sweet baby Jesus, no crying he makes’ version of Christmas that we have been fed. The reality is far from that. Let Richard Rohr explain it better than I ever could:

Jesus identified his own message with what he called the coming of the “reign of God” or the “kingdom of God,” whereas we have often settled for the sweet coming of a baby who asked little of us in terms of surrender, encounter, mutuality or any studying of the Scriptures or the actual teaching of Jesus. 

This is what you are invited to this Advent. But be forewarned: the Word of God confronts, converts, and consoles us – in that order. The suffering, injustice and devastation on this planet are too great now to settle for any infantile gospel or any infantile Jesus. Actually, that has always been true.

The scandal of Christmas

A couple of weeks ago I volunteered to share on Advent at my place of work. As I studied the passage where Elizabeth greets Mary, I was reminded that the story of the birth of God is not a nice story. We have sanitised it beyond belief – literally. We sing carols like Away in a Manger with lines like ‘no crying he makes’. Really? He’s a baby for goodness’ sake. Babies cry. Don’t get me wrong; Away in a Manger is a beautiful carol but some of it betrays the smelly, shocking, subversive story of the birth of the Saviour.

A colleague of mine has recently spoken about Mary becoming pregnant and the dread she must have been feeling, thinking ‘how do I tell Joseph about this?!’

She probably ran off to her cousin Elizabeth with mixed feelings. She would have had the typical joy of being an expectant mother, but probably more so the dread of how she would explain this to everyone.

I reckon the scene in the picture opposite wouldn’t have been when they first saw each other. If this was a photo, it would have been taken well after Elizabeth had comforted Mary with her sense of joy at the whole occasion. Mary wouldn’t have been smiling much when she first turned up to see Elizabeth.

When we look in a bit more depth at passages like this, we soon see that the whole Christmas story speaks of scandal. As I mentioned, this is not a nice story. The images we have of the nativity are of gentle baby Jesus in the manger with fluffy farm animals gathered around. But consider the story. An unmarried young woman, a virgin, gets pregnant. And then we have the story of her cousin, an older woman, known as being childless. The Jewish culture of the time regarded being childless as a misfortune; it showed that you were cut off from God, and it was therefore grounds for divorce.

Despite all this, we have the joyful outburst from Elizabeth, followed by the even more amazing cry from Mary, known as the Magnificat. Their response was quite different from that of their menfolk. Joseph must have been thinking, ‘what do I do with Mary, now that she’s pregnant?’, and Zachariah was quite literally struck dumb at the news of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Us blokes tend to be more skeptical than our women and we can learn alot from them.

So, it is into this setting of scandal, disbelief and unspeakable joy, that we have the birth of God. Born in a horse’s trough because there was no room at the inn – rejected from the day he was born. Some years ago, Joan Osbourne asked the haunting question, ‘What if God was one of us?’. She was dead right in her lyrics – ‘just a slob like one of us, just a stranger on the bus trying to make his way home…nobody calling on the phone’. The God who is rejected and crucified by a brutal Roman regime is the God who is resurrected and defeats the powers of evil to establish his kingdom – creation reborn. This is what we celebrate at Christmas.

The Advent Conspiracy

There’s some great stuff out there on the web if you’re tired of the consumerist madness that characterises this time of the year we call the ‘silly season’. I recently came across the website of a group called Advent Conspiracy. They are a group of concerned pastors in the US who want to take us back to what Christmas is really about – the birth of the Prince of Peace, the One who gave himself for all. I love their logo on the left. Such a prophetic message, showing a shopper with a trolly full of goods coming face to face with one of the 3 wise men, come to worship the King. The Advent Conspiracy movement is catching on, as you can see from a map on their website showing others who are doing what they can to celebrate Jesus at Christmas. Here’s what they say about themselves:

The story of Christ’s birth is a story of promise, hope, and a revolutionary love.

So, what happened? What was once a time to celebrate the birth of a savior has somehow turned into a season of stress, traffic jams, and shopping lists.

And when it’s all over, many of us are left with presents to return, looming debt that will take months to pay off, and this empty feeling of missed purpose. Is this what we really want out of Christmas?

What if Christmas became a world-changing event again?

Welcome to Advent Conspiracy.

They want to take us back to giving in the real sense, back to relationship and love. The slogan at the bottom of their website is quite brilliant. It says ‘give presence’. This clip will give you more of an idea of what they’re about:

Get the Flash Player to see this content.

I feel inspired when I hear about groups like this, people who want to steal Christmas back from the ‘Grinches’ who would have us believe that it’s all about how much you can buy. A Galaxy survey in 2008 showed that

“Gen Y[ers]…would spend an average of $245 on their partners, $264 on a child, $65 on a friend and $220 on themselves [and] other Australians said they would spend $189 on their partner, $196 on a child, $35 on a friend and $107 on themselves.”

The same would be true this year, and maybe even more so as business confidence is on the rise again.

I love Christmas. I love it because, despite our addiction to stuff, it gives me hope that there is a better way, a more excellent way, as the apostle Paul put it. The way of love inspires me to subvert what Christmas has become and try to live in a way that honours the babe in a manger who grew up to walk and talk the way of the cross, and then the way of resurrection, the life that is truly life.

Christmas Reflection – 2009

My wife and I recently saw the movie, What Would Jesus Buy? It’s a brilliant spoof of all that Christmas has become for millions of people trapped in the shopping frenzy that is the silly season. The film follows Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir throughout the United States as they try to help consumers open their eyes to the madness that they are participating in every December.

One of the scenes that captured me the most in this movie was when the choir would roll up to the front door of unsuspecting families and start singing their carols. How nice you might say, until you heard the brilliantly farcical take on some well known lyrics. Take their version of Joy to the World:

“Joy to the World!

In the Form of Goods!

Consume! Consume! Consume!

Bright Plastics This and That’s!

For Screaming Little Brats!

Take the SUV to the Mall

Take the SUV to the Mall”

The unfortunate truth is that these words are a more accurate description of Christmas for most Australians than the traditional lyrics of this beautiful carol.

I’m not even sure if Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir claim to be Christians but they sure get the message across that we have done something terrible to this wonderful time of year when it is all about clamouring all over the person in front of you to get that special bargain.

What Would Jesus Buy? shows how far we have digressed from, not only what Christmas is all about, but also the origins of Santa Claus, or Saint Nicholas. How ironic it is that Saint Nicholas, a young man raised by Christian parents in the 3rd century in what is now Turkey, was known for taking literally Jesus’ words to “sell all you have and give the money to the poor”. It is documented that

“Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need, his love for children”.

Many centuries later, the memory of Saint Nicholas and his beautiful spirit is as unfamiliar as snow in an Australian summer. The fact is that the majority of parents in this country now dread Christmas because of the stress it creates in terms of what on earth to buy the kids this year.

How different all this is to the God who came as a babe in a manger, relegated to a smelly stable out the back because there was no room for his parents at the inn. At this time of year we celebrate a God who came as a person, a God who made the ultimate sacrifice to involve himself in the poverty and oppression of what is life for much of this planet’s population. As my pastor pointed out this week, from the time Jesus was born he was hunted. Forced to flee as a refugee to a foreign land, resulting in the deaths of all boys in the Bethlehem region aged under 2 years, Jesus’ days were numbered from a very young age.

Christmas for so many is a painful time, and for many others it is a joyful time, and for others still it is a time of stress they could well do without. If it is a painful time for you, then remember the One who came to stand beside you in your pain, the One who understands what it is to be rejected, to have nothing, and to be told he doesn’t belong in his own neighbourhood. If Christmas is a joyful time for you, then thank the One who gave all he had to come and eat at table with us, to offer us grace upon grace, even when, no, especially when, that is the very thing we do not deserve. And if you can’t wait for Christmas to be over so you can relax, then allow yourself to be set free by giving yourself this Christmas. May your gift be in the form of love and community, and gifts that have meaning.  Your gifts may be in the form of a goat or literacy skills through TEAR, World Vision or a number of other aid organisations. The options are endless, and you may just find that you are giving to Jesus himself. May you have a meaningful Christmas, filled with the Spirit of the Christ who gives to all without measure.

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