Tag Archives: worship

Christmas Is Not A Christian Holidy

We are now in the full grip of the holiday season, sprinting with cheerful (or not-so-cheerful) determination towards that almost platonic ideal of a perfect Christmas:

Tree lit, candles in windows, presents (preferably a lot) under the tree, cards sent, carols sung, family gathered, food (again, preferably a lot) eaten, everyone satiated after binging on the delights of the season.

Sounds wonderful.

But – is there anything of a homeless single mother giving birth to a baby in a barn, next to a crapping cow, in that?

In other words, is it Christian?

There’s a shadow side to our cultural celebration, one that I’m sure Jesus does not approve of.

It’s the call I got almost every year with someone (generally single, generally poor, generally with kids, generally a mother) saying, “I have no money for presents! My kids won’t have Christmas this year!” (Because everyone knows that presents make the Christmas.)

It’s the relentlessly positive Christmas cheer which only serves to silence everyone who experiences a renewed feeling of grief and loss when loved ones aren’t present.

It’s the narcissistic consumerist orgy that consumes people who are otherwise kind and generous; people who will then go into mountains of credit card debt to buy their children that tenth present, even when many in their community go hungry or are alone.

It’s the unquestioning adoration of Santa Claus – a religious figure who loves you only if you’re nice and demonstrates your value by giving you stuff. Presumably, the more stuff you receive, the more you are valued, which means that children from rich (or debt-ridden) families inevitably are worth more than those who come from families who are poor (or frugal.)

Even when you add in the advent calendars, packed worship services, and Jesus-themed Christmas carols, this Christmas celebration bears nothing but a slight cosmetic resemblance to the religious celebration I hold dear.

And honestly, that’s fine.

There’s much in this season that’s good.

I  want to celebrate anything that can encourage our culture to stop, to connect with strangers, to demonstrate generosity, and to cultivate gratitude.

If you want to participate in our culture’s festival celebration, that’s great. I certainly will.

But, if you want to celebrate Jesus’ birth, I think he amight say to you, “Before you sing me carols, stick plastic figurines of me on top of your mantel, or stack up presents, go out and feed some hungry people, befriend some lonely people, or exercise some compassion for those who may not be as blessed as you are.”

Here’s praying that you get caught in the grip of feeding the hungry, befriending the lonely, and exercising compassion this holiday season.

That’s the type of celebration that I think Jesus would be pleased with.

Part Four: A Beautiful Mess

Sometimes you get run over by something beautiful as well.

We once held an Easter sunrise service in GAR Park, near the center of the city.

The park was a leftover from Urban Renewal: an open field, a couple memorials, and a sad looking concrete hatchshell for all the public concerts that never ended up happening. It was home to the dregs of the city: the prostitutes, the addicts, the chronically homeless, and anyone else considered too disreputable for the better kept parts of town.

For all those reasons, we decided that it was the right place to celebrate Easter.

Before worship, we invited several people who were sitting around the park to come and worship with us, if they were interested and to eat our donuts afterward, if they were not.

There was one man who I invited very tentatively.

His name was Rob. He was in his sixties, with a large white beard that looked like it was eating part of his face, and a pair of crutches that he belligerently stumped around town on.

He was also known as one of the more violent people in the homeless population.

Someone had told me that he had been kicked out and banned from all the homeless shelters because he frequently got into fights.

I did not particularly want to invite him to our gathering. I did so anyway, not because of the love of Jesus beating in my heart, but because I felt like I had to.

Rob declined my invitation and walked by to sit underneath the overhang of the local citizen’s center, where people frequently found shelter from the elements and took advantage of the unprotected outdoor electrical socket to plug in their radios and listen to music.

As the service progressed, I noticed that Rob was circling us. He seemed to me like a great white bearded vulture, occasionally swooping in to see if our service was dead yet and if there was any food he could get from it once it was freshly deceased.

This did not bother me. It was not the first time that someone on the edge had hovered around the edges of our gathering.

We came to our closing community prayer.

I closed my eyes. Suddenly I heard a big voice booming, “Lord, we thank you for your resurrection!”

I opened my eyes. I had never heard that voice before.

There was Rob, eyes closed, praying with authority, passion, and confidence, as he thanked God for the gift of Jesus and prayed for the suffering world..

My wife opened her eyes too.

We looked at each other.

We gave a collective shrug and let him keep going.

He was praying better than we ever could have.

After worship, Rob cheerfully chattered to our group while he munched on a donut and drank a cup of coffee.

He noticed my guitar, which I had brought for the service.

“Hey! I used to play the guitar. Can I play it?”

My stomach clenched.

This was the guitar that I bought, when, at age nineteen, I had entered a guitar-makers shop with more disposable income than good sense.

It was a beautiful classical instrument in great condition, far more guitar than I was ever going to be able to play well, and one of the most expensive possessions I owned.

I gulped.

Jesus said if you had two coats give one.

He hadn’t said anything about guitars.

But there, standing around me were a bunch of wide eyed new Christians from that R-Rated Bible study, with whom I had inconveniently studied that very teaching not a few weeks before.

I wish I had picked a passage that was at least slightly more theoretical.

I winced and handed him my guitar.

He picked it up and began to play and sing.

It was beautiful.

A smile transfigured his face.

He probably played better than I did, even if all he seemed to know was one song, which he performed over and over for the next twenty minutes.

When I finally got my guitar back, (very quickly putting it in my case and returning it to my car: I didn’t want Jesus to get a second chance at that one,) I reflected that that was probably the best hour that Rob had spent with anyone in a very long time.

The fall after, we heard that Rob had planned to beat someone up, so that he could be thrown in prison and therefore have a place to spend the winter.

I didn’t see him that winter, so I assume that he succeeded.

That was the work: a lot of messy moments.

I was not comfortable with messes.

I wanted everything to be respectable, well ordered, and well planned.

I expect I’m not the only one who feels that way.

But sometimes, in our efforts to systematize and organize, we organize out the very things that God values the most.

I did not understand this when God threw me out of my well-ordered church bubble into the wilds of Haverhill.

But it was on the edges, in those wilderness spaces, where no respectable church person dared travel, that I encountered God in beautiful, wild ways that I had never seen before.

Sometimes beautiful moments are just that: moments. They’re there for a flash, they’re gone in a heartbeat, and before you know it, you’re not sure whether it was real or you just imagined it.

I like to think, for all those people we interacted with, sometimes for precious few hours or precious few months, that when the moment was gone, and their brokenness again took hold: whether that be in sex, drugs, drinking, co-dependence, or just general screwed-upedness, that they carried something different with them, even if it was just a memory of one brief better moment.

It was a mess.

But – it was a beautiful mess.

Even if it was only for a short season before it came and was gone, that didn’t make it any less beautiful.

What Do You Think?

1) Church is not the only place beautiful messes happen. Where have you experienced a beautiful mess? With family? At work? While serving others?

2) What gifts do messy situations offer us?

Coming Saturday! Church Is As Simple As…

Coming Tuesday! Part Five: And the Glorious People of the Vine (1/2)