Saturday, December 31, 2005

New Year's Resolutions, Ecclesial Edition

New Year’s Resolution for 2001: I will read at least 20 good books this year.
…for 2002: I will read at least 10 books this year.

…for 2003: I will read 5 books sometime before I die.
…for 2004: I will finish The Pelican Brief.
…for 2005: I will try and finish the comics section this year.

It is January 2006, and time to make some resolutions again. Sure, it’s arbitrary. In 46 B.C.E. Julius Caesar established the date as a part of the Julian calendar. Sure, it doesn’t make any sense to start a year in the middle of winter. Beginning of spring would make a lot more sense; that’s when the ancient Babylonians celebrated. And by the way, the ancient Babylonians also began the practice of making a new year’s resolution. Their most common one was to return borrowed farm equipment.

But in spite of all that, there’s no reason not to engage in this annual ritual of self-improvement; it’s always a good idea to try to be better people than we are. In fact, I’ve come up with some resolutions I would like to make on behalf of the church.

- This year, the church will be less about membership than about discipleship.
- This year, Christian unity will be more about the mystery of God’s grace than about the uniformity of human belief.
- This year, the church will be more concerned about how we are growing spiritually than numerically.
- This year, the church will practice radical hospitality, passionate worship, relevant faith formation, risk-taking mission, and extravagant generosity.

How’re those? Admittedly, these are a little more difficult that cutting back on between-meal snacks. But I think they are at least equally as important. So let’s use this totally arbitrary, middle of the winter, just-another-excuse-to-throw-a-party occasion to try to be a better church than we are. With God’s help, the year 2006 may just be our best year ever, on our way to living in the perfect love of God. Happy New Year, everyone!

Friday, December 23, 2005

Birthday Party for Jesus

The Sunday School time on Christmas morning at my remarkable congregation will feature a “Birthday Party for Jesus,” complete with songs, gifts, and birthday cake. When my four-year-old son, Wesley, heard this news, he was quite overjoyed. It blew his mind to think that we would get the rare opportunity to learn about Jesus on his actual birthday! This was a pleasure that was almost too wonderful for him to comprehend.
After several minutes of giggling with delight at the notion, he said, “Yeah, and I’m going to hurry up and eat all the birthday cake before Jesus can get any.”
Now, at first that remark is worth a chuckle. It’s one of those “kids say the darndest things” moments. But listen underneath his words and hear the faith of a child being expressed. Wesley really expects Jesus to show up on Sunday morning to attend his birthday party. He knows with certainty that Jesus will be there and will, in fact, be expecting birthday cake. In his childlike innocence, Wesley has articulated the doctrine of incarnation more succinctly than any theology text book ever could.
What would happen if we all went to church on Sunday morning and really expected Jesus to show up?

Merry Christmas, everybody.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Prophetic Exhaustion

Advent observation: It is easier to preach “baby Jesus” than to preach “John the Baptist.”

This year, I have intentionally gone a little “prophetic” for my Advent sermon series. There haven’t been many fluffy sheep and warm, cozy stables. No “little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.” I have shied away from the stale “remember the reason for the season” messages that do nothing but reinforce rampant consumerism, only now you have a divinely sanctioned reason for it.

No, this year I preached justice. This year I preached faithfulness. This year I preached counter-culture. I named oppression for what it is and got fairly specific: death penalty, racism, homelessness, affluence and poverty, war. I didn’t exactly deliver John’s “brood of vipers” line, but I am hopeful that my four Advent sermons were at least challenging enough to, if not compel people to repent, at least lead them to consider it as an option. I tried to be a little bit of John the Baptist, minus the camel hair and locusts, of course.

But it was hard work. All four weekends left me pretty much wrung out exhausted. Knowing that what I was going to say would upset some people, then going ahead and saying it anyway, then standing in the back of the room to smile and shake people’s hands as they left the service was an exhausting series of events. It is so much easier just to say things that make people feel all snug and sparkly. An old friend, Kurt, told me once that a choral concert I had conducted left him feeling “as though he had been dipped in Christmas.” That’s easy to do. Requires neither valley lifting nor mountain lowering.

But we can’t let our faith get stuck at the level of a nativity set. (Especially one of those big lit-up plastic ones in some families’ front yards.) It is hard work, but we have got to go deep into our own hearts and confront that which separates us from God, name it, drag it up to the surface into the light so that we can once more become the people God desires us to become. And sometimes that process requires the impetus of a prophetic voice in the wilderness, even an exhausted one.

(Pictured: "St. John the Baptist" - Caravaggio c. 1604; Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri; click here.)

Friday, December 16, 2005

Merry Xidays!

A lot of people have asked me what I make of this whole alleged anti-Christmas movement in our society. You know, the retail employees being forbidden to say “Merry Christmas,” the president sending out holiday (means "holy day" ... hmm?) cards rather than Christmas cards, rampant uninhibited heretical denial of the doctrine of the virgin birth, and stuff like that. I understand that some people are very upset by the whole thing, and have made it their personal crusade to spread Christmas cheer with all the vim and vigor they can muster. Cool.

(Aside: There’s nothing like someone wishing you “Merry Christmas” with a chip on their shoulder. There’s no feeling quite like the feeling of knowing that the well-wisher on the other side of the greeting has a militant agenda – “You WILL have a Merry Christmas, so there, you wanna make something of it?”)

Everybody needs something about which to bitch. That’s number seven in my list of axioms for ministry. It means that people are much happier when they have something tangible they can complain about. Ironically, being mad makes them happy. The current hubbub about the de-Christmasification of our culture is the latest on that list. It gives people a good, healthy sense of moral outrage, and a definitive place they can direct it. Sadly, it appears to be a reversal of a formerly en vogue complaint that is now woefully out of fashion.

See, we used to say, “Isn’t it terrible how all the stores have commercialized Christmas? It cheapens and demeans the birth of Jesus to see the holy event used to make a profit.” But now we seem to be saying, “Isn’t it terrible how all the stores have de-emphasized Christmas? It dishonors the Christ child to avoid using his birth to make money, while respecting the beliefs of non-Christian customers.” (Because, you know, respecting other people’s beliefs is not at all a Christian thing – we are all about the imposition of what we think all over your heathen self, and making a lot of money in the process.) And here’s another interesting thing: I saw an add in today’s paper for a “Christmas Party” that was being thrown at a strip club. Whoa! Theologize on that one for a while! You wanna talk about commercialization?

Indignantly, the overwhelmingly huge Christian majority who has a place of worship on every corner of every city and town across the continent, seasonally appropriate music to listen to on the radio since before Thanksgiving, and holiday-correct decorations to purchase in any given store for weeks now (not to mention the strip club parties), is trying to claim we are being oppressed. To paraphrase my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, “O, us of little faith!”

In Matthew 8, the big faith of a Roman Centurion facilitates Jesus’s healing of his servant, whereas his disciples cower in fear as a storm threatens their little boat. This prompts J.C.’s “little faith” rebuke. Seems that today’s disciples are engaged in a similar response to the anti-Christmas storm threat we perceive. “Storm’s a-coming! Jesus, bail us out here!” To which Jesus shakes his head in frustration, sighs a deep sigh, and watches the Charlie Brown Christmas special on T.V., muttering about his disappointing disciples all the while.

So as for me, I will not lament the fact that stores seem to be removing Jesus from their marketing campaigns or the president is removing Jesus from the cards he will be sending to people of many different faiths. I happen to think the church should be insisting on just such a removal (not to mention the strip club parties) and calling for the return of Christmas to the venue of the body of Christ. I long for the good old days when Christians didn’t get so easily mixed up between their local church and their local Wal-Mart.

Ho, Ho, Ho,
Andy B.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Generosity to Spare

Pictured at right is the sight that greeted me as I arrived at church a couple of days ago. It is what it appears to be: a spare tire with a Christmas card taped to it.

The euphoric family sledding down the front of the card is saying, “May you and your family share a world of joy this Christmas.” Pictured are presumably a mom, a dad, their two kids, and grandfather tucked in the midst of them.
That’s three grown adults and two mid-sized children careening straight at the reader on an out of control toboggan to which mom is holding on with only one oven-mitted hand. I’m not sure where grandpa is holding on.

On the card was written this message with black marker: “Dear First United Methodist. Here is something for your next garage sale. See you soon!” And it is signed. The tire itself appears to be a typical, temporary spare tire. In fact, stamped on the side of the tire are the words, “Temporary use only.”

It is definitely one of the most … unique … Christmas gifts I have ever received on behalf of the church. The sight of it leaning there against the door was quite the surreal experience, and I’ll bet will be a singular occurrence over the course of my ministry, however many years I am at it.

The more I think about it, though, the more touching it is. The giver evidently saw the spare tire sitting there (wherever “there” happened to be), and thought, “You know, that Methodist Church has a garage sale every now and then, and I reckon they ought to be able to sell this here perfectly good spare tire for a few bucks. I think I’ll load it up in my trunk and bring it on down. And while I’m at it, why don’t I turn it into a nice Christmas gift?”

After all, this is the season of gift giving, and it is a rare kind of extravagant generosity that would cause a person to look at a dirty spare tire and think of the church. And so I am happy to accept this gift out of the generosity of this kind heart. I suspect that the widow’s two coins were considered an odd gift, as well.

The church will receive more valuable gifts this Christmas, but none more sincere.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

This Busy Advent Business

I’m sorry I haven’t posted in a while. I had a thing. You know, I was “busy.”

How many times have you heard someone mention their busy-ness in the past few days or weeks? I personally have spoken those words more than a few times, in various tones of voice.

There is the too-tired-to-move, “Oh, I’m so busy…”

There is the there-is-no-way-in-heck-I-will-ever-get-this-done, “Arrgh, I’m so busy!”

And then the ever popular my-Advent-has-got-to-be-so-much-more-hectic-than-your-Advent-so-get-out-of-my-way-you-pathetic-slacker, “Sorry, I’m just so BUSY!”

This is the time of year that clergy and other church staff smile at each other and say, “It’s that time of year, isn’t it?” then we chuckle and go right ahead with whatever insane busy-ness we were up to before pausing those few moments to comment on the insanity itself. The season of Advent just seems to fill up with business (and busy-ness) that we can’t avoid, … and maybe we shouldn’t.

Remember that bumper sticker that said, “Jesus is coming: Look busy!”?

Is there some kind of a spiritual discipline in ordering the busy seasons of one’s life? All of this burst of activity in preparation for the birth of God’s Messiah – maybe, like all things, it’s okay in moderation. After all, this is a pretty significant birth for which we are preparing, isn’t it? Our activity is driven by no less that Christ’s new entrance into our lives, something for which we have quite a bit of preparing to do. Our “to do list” is long, and we had better get busy: open up, get into receiving mode, spruce up our lives a little bit (or maybe even a lot).

This is not to say that we are to participate in a kind of holiday style works righteousness. The things we do do not earn our salvation. All of this Advent activity is voluntary. We choose to vacuum the living room when guests come over; it is not required. Similarly, we choose to engage in Advent business when the Guest is coming over, though it is not required. And some Christians would do well to recall that faith without works is dead. Or said another way, The grace of God does not imply passivity on the part of the receptors.

I am tired tonight, and a lot of my weariness is due to the preparations that are a part of this Advent season, and a part of ministry in general. But it is, as my mom sometimes says, a “good tired.” It is a tired resulting from Advent activity in preparation for Christmas. It is a tired with a sense of accomplishment behind it. I’m not going nuts; I know when to slow down and when to take Sabbath rest. It's all about balancing activity and rest - the both/and - the yin/yang.

Yeah, sure I’m busy. But - Jesus is coming! So let's get busy!

Friday, December 02, 2005

The B.F.F. of I.D. - The Saga Continues

More on University of Kansas Religious Studies Department Head Paul Mirecki's Intelligent Design course: as of yesterday, it has been withdrawn.

Well, now we know why K.U.'s mascot is a chicken!
(Just kidding! It's a joke, relax!)

Professor Mirecki himself requested that the course be pulled. In the K.C. Star, he is quoted as saying, "Students with a serious interest in this important subject matter would not be well served by the learning environment my e-mails and the public distribution of them have created. ... It was not my intent when I wrote the e-mails, but I understand now that these words have offended many on this campus and beyond, and for that I take full responsibility." So he is pulling the class, which already had 25 students enrolled, by the way.

Is he chickening out? (shrug) Maybe. But the chairman of the faculty senate was quick to say that while controversial issues are not avoided at K.U., they should be addressed in an "appropriate, respectful manner ... Making fun of individuals is not part of the way we as a faculty want to conduct ourselves." So it is not WHAT Mirecki was saying, but HOW he was saying it that led to the current bru-ha-ha. And that's what Tim Sisk was saying in his comment on my last post. (Nice call, Tim!)

So many issues to dwell upon ... so many questions I could focus on here ... let's see ... Oh! I've got one!

In the mix of all this crud, Wichita Representative Brenda Landwehr said this: "It's hard to teach religion if you don't believe it." Go ahead and read that statement again, because it is an important topic. Can you teach religion at a public university without "believing in" the religion you are teaching? Could I as a Christian teach a class about Islam, Buddhism, Judiasm, etc.? Could a Muslim teach about Christianity? Could an agnostic teach religion? Could an athiest?

Ironically, Rep. Landwehr was trying to ensure that professors at K.U. are not guilty of religious intolerance when she offered this quote. She wants professorial bias eliminated on the one hand, but on the other seems to want only believers teaching about the religions they believe. See the disconnect? If she really wants unbiased, seems to me that an agnostic would be the perfect person to teach about religions at a public university, so long as they were equally skeptical of every faith!

We also need to carefully distinguish between teaching about religion and teaching religion. I teach Christianity in confirmation class. A college prof teaches about Christianity in a university class. The distinction is that teaching Christianity attempts to instill belief whereas teaching about Christianity attempts to impart knowledge. One is for churches, one is for schools. Let's keep it that way, okay?

And in another story in today's paper, it seems that "'Intelligent design' advocates plan to introduce proposals in Missouri next legislative session." CRAP! Now we won't be able to make this thing all about "as big as you think" Kansas! Get ready Missouri, the anti-intellectual kettle of ultra-conservate Kansas is leaking, and it is heading our way!

Bok-bok Jayhawk!

(Joke, relax!)