Saturday, December 27, 2014

Is Christmas Over Yet?

December 28, 2014

Dear Friends,

It happened Christmas Eve, but we didn’t know about it until dinner Christmas Day.

We had all filled our plates, and that lovely hush had fallen over the table that happens when everyone is first fully occupied with the serious business of eating Christmas dinner. 

After a short time of this delicious silence, however, one of my guests spoke in a very serious voice.

“You will never believe what happened to me last night at . . ,” he said, and named a big-box store that he had visited the previous evening. What appeared to be a mild look of shock still remained on his face.

Among the friends gathered at the table, this person is known as a famously canny shopper. For adventure’s sake, he occasionally  investigates the pre-post-Christmas sales mark-downs that occur just before stores close on Christmas Eve.

I lack any pretense of such courage. I remain dependent upon first-hand reports of this consumer populated world in the same way I depend upon serious travelers to describe the behavior of penguins at the Pole. However, I remain deeply interested in the behaviors of each (Penguins and people) but from a place of safety, you understand.

Sensing a good story in the making, however, I asked, only half-facetiously, “I suppose you found bargains that the store paid you to carry away?”

“More astonishing that that,” he said. “You will have trouble believing this, but there were no Christmas things left to buy.”

“You mean that the carry-away stunt had been successful?” I asked, following the narrative thread of the story in my mind.

“No. No. You don’t get it,” he interrupted. “Listen: there were no Christmas things left—nothing left to carry away, or to buy, or even to look at. Christmas was over.  The store was as bare of Christmas as it is on Ground Hog’s Day. On Christmas Eve. What do you think about that?”

By this time, others at the table were tuned into the story, and began to raise questions of their own.

“Maybe the sale items were in a different part of the store,” suggested another guest, also a veteran shopper.

“No. I asked,” said the storyteller. “The manager said there were no Christmas things left in the store. Period.”

“Well, where did they put them?” remarked a guest known for her organizational skills. “There has be a place to put things away. Christmas stuff just doesn’t disappear—worse luck—it all has to be put away.” 

“Maybe they have warehouses somewhere," said another person, “maybe they have warehouses and people that just come in and clean up.” (Secretly, I suspected that this guest might have been no more eager than I to think about post-Christmas clean-up).

“Well, I don’t know,” said the storyteller dubiously, clearly dissatisfied with the ending of his story. “All I know is that it was Christmas Eve, and the manager himself said that the Christmas stuff was all gone.” 

Conversation moved on to other topics.

Later, after dinner things were cleared away and guests had departed, I sat with Annie for a quiet time, the room around us filled with soft lights and the lingering scent of good food, my heart warmed by thoughts of these friends and the caring community we share.

However, as you know, I am into a major re-edit of the personal version of the Christmas story I have cobbled together willy-nilly in my mind over the years. Once such a project is launched, there is no predicting the time it may abruptly surface demanding further work. 

There I was, warm and peaceful with Annie asleep on my lap, and my eye was caught by the flickering candle that back-lit the still sculpted figures of Mary, Joseph and the Child Jesus on the dark table nearby.  A white chrysanthemum in the vase behind them had dropped a petal into the Child’s crèche, and one had fallen on Joseph’s robe. 

And, unbidden, the last line of the dinner-table story suddenly popped into my mind.

Christmas Eve—and all the Christmas stuff was gone. 

Christmas Day—and the Christmas story done? 

Only in the silly story that is culturally and religiously compromised in my head.

Those of you who traditionally celebrate Advent in the old liturgies of the church can have little understanding of the sheer shock that first celebration of Advent in a liturgical setting can be for those of us who first began our spiritual journey in the informal, unstructured, and (let’s be honest) the firmly laisse-faire approach to the church calendar adopted by small “independent” Protestant churches.

Eventually, I came to see that if I wished to understand the ancient church calendar I should experience it, and, logically, start at the beginning of the church year: The First Sunday in Advent. This, to my surprise, came immediately after Thanksgiving.  So I found a church that seemed reasonably beginner-friendly, and started my learning curve, cautiously attending services the duly designated First Sunday of Advent.

Christmas surprises began immediately.

I can remember a sample of my own inner dialogue throughout that mind-altering, faith-nurturing Advent season.

What?!!! No greens in the sanctuary until Christmas itself? 

No carols (well, mostly that minor thing about “Come, O Come Emmanuel) until after Christmas? That’s when everybody else is sick and tired of carols.

And what in the world can be meant sensibly by this twelve-days-of-Christmas business? Christmas is one day, the 25th of December, the day that Jesus was born. 

And candles that are purple and pink, with a white candle that can’t be lit until Christmas?

What is this all about?

Now, in retrospect, I can see that God was already answering my prayer for a Spirit-lit heart years before I prayed that prayer in English.  However, the dinner-table story provided a high-contrast screen displaying the competing traditions of the culture and the orthodox understanding of the Christmas story.

In the tradition of the church and the calendar of the church year, Christmas begins about the time that the managers in the big-box stores (and some of us slow-learners) begin to put the Christmas stuff away.

I trust that “putting away the Christmas stuff” will be a helpful beginning for you to explore with me in the weeks ahead the continuing Christmas story. 

There’s this muddled up business about the “Wise Men.” Who were those fellows anyway? Were there really three of them?

And what did Joseph (usually a sensible fellow) mean by getting up in the night and bundling up Mary and the baby and taking off for Egypt?  An angel told him to? Really?

And what was God thinking when His plan for this angel-directed trip into Egypt saved Jesus’s life but resulted in Herod’s brutal slaughter of all the two-year olds in Bethlehem and its borders? 

What do we make of Matthew’s use of the prophet Jeremiah as Matthew writes:
A cry of anguish is heard in Ramah—
Weeping and mourning unrestrained.
Rachael weeps for her children,
Refusing to be comforted—for they are dead.
And this church calendar business?

What is the deal about this Epiphany time, and the changing of colors at the altar in the liturgical churches?  Does Epiphany mean that Christmas is really over?

Thinking that I have learned deeply from a consumer icon, a big-box store; I can hear the Christmas story more clearly when the Christmas stuff is put away.

See you next week.


Saturday, December 20, 2014

Getting the Story Right

December 21, 2014

Dear Friends,

As I shared last week, this Advent Season I have been praying for a light-filled heart that would enable me to hear (and understand) the Christmas story in more complete ways with greater measures of truth.

This week’s epiphany came by way of the insight of the pastor of a friend who passed it on to me.

On this side of this year’s epiphany, I now realize the degree to which in the past my own emotional history had shaped my picture of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem and the birth of the baby. 

My life journey has included a great deal of traveling alone (figuratively and practically).  This journey has also frequently included difficult tasks that I confronted without human help (often by necessity, but at times through fear of relationship). 

Predictably, as a consequence, I read such a context into the Christmas story.  Just the two of them (the baby in utero), off alone on a long and dangerous journey; then the birth, again with the two of them alone in a remote place, Mary with only Joseph to help her in the difficult process of birthing her first child.

As given in Luke, the text standing alone can permit such a 'naked' reading of the event. It does so, however, only if the historical context of the passage is ignored, and a sociological context emphasizing individualism is boot-legged into history’s record. 

The cultural context in which I have lived out my life journey has been, of course, one that strongly emphasized the individual, and the story of the individual’s life.  Predictably, I unconsciously supplied such a context for the Mary/Joseph journey and the story of the birth of the child. 

What I have seen this year is that my culturally-biased scenario is not so—or very, very unlikely, at best. 

Mary and Joseph were an integral part of a community that contained others (likely, many others) who were also of the lineage of David. Similar to the later trip to the Temple, Joseph and Mary likely traveled in a group consisting of kinfolk and neighbors. It is highly unlikely they undertook the journey alone.

The “stable” might have been the lower floor of a house where there was no place for them in the rooms above the family animals, but where, true to the obligations of hospitality of the time, Joseph and Mary were offered the shelter that was available in the space where animals were kept safe.

In this situation, Mary would have been accompanied by other women, women who knowing of her pregnancy, would, as women everywhere would do, would look out for her, and aid her in any way that they could.  My scenario, making Mary’s story one of a solitary, unattached female giving birth without assistance in a remote de-personalized setting, is just that—the story placed in a setting made logical by my cultural experience. While this setting appears reasonable in the context of contempory events, it is quite inconsistent with the actual life patterns common to that place and time in history. 

Does correction of this unconscious distortion of historical context matter?  Indeed, it does—very much.

In the historically more likely version, God’s people are still at the mercy of Rome’s imperial policies and the indifference of the powerful to the welfare of the weak and helpless.   

God’s experience in the story continues to be described as God entering into human experience by being born into a family of the poor and the disenfranchised. The shepherds (smelly and unwashed) remain in the story, along with their incredible account of the heavenly context of the event—singing, talking angels and the whole night sky filled with light and song. What then becomes different if we “fix” my mistake?

For one thing, correction permits us to reflect accurately Luke’s historical record—we do not corrupt history by inserting contemporary context.

But most essentially, we correct a faulty impression of God. God did not alter Rome’s imperial indifference, nor alter the hardship that Rome’s policies imposed on the poor.  God did not make Mary’s life easy, nor stage the birth of her first child in sterile conditions to safeguard her or her infant. There was no family celebration, and precious little physical comfort. 

But in the corrected version of the story, we see Mary and Joseph surrounded by God’s people. God gave a place for birth, and God’s people to help, and God’s own personally sent representatives to celebrate (angels and shepherds—God sent an inclusive party selected from heaven and earth). 

Getting the story right does not change the circumstances.  Correcting the story does, however, make marvelously clear that God’s presence and provision do not depend on circumstance.

Seeing in new ways that the story is indeed about Immaneul, God with us.

See you next week.


Saturday, December 13, 2014

Story-Formed Truth

December 14, 2014

Dear Friends,

Recently as we shared coffee a friend and I were discussing the use of story to express and to conserve truth. We were thinking about the way in which truth expressed in story exists in paradox—the concrete that expresses material reality yet simultaneously serves as metaphor at the liminal threshold of knowing.

Later I was thinking about the ways in which this paradox occurs in the Christmas story.

The whole thing begins concretely enough: Caesar Augustus (yes, that specific Caesar) required that a census be taken, and everyone be registered. Luke dates the event with historical precision—this happened, Luke notes, when Quirinius was governor of Syria.

Luke’s story proceeds in flat realistic detail. 

Responding to Caesar’s edict, Joseph took his very pregnant wife and set out from Nazareth for Bethlehem because he was of the lineage of David.  By the time they reached Bethlehem, Mary was in labor. Bethlehem inns were already filled with travelers and Joseph could find no room for them. Faced with necessity (babies are not easily postponed), the couple took shelter where they could—in a stable—and when the birth was accomplished, Mary wrapped the new born infant in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger.

Up to this point the story reflects the “real” world of that distant time as history documents it: Rome, the rule of the Caesars, religious conflicts, political edicts and policy decisions that held little consideration for the well-being of the poor and no concern for their hardships. 

The story moves forward matter-of-factly. 

There were shepherds camping in the fields surrounding Bethlehem keeping watch over their sheep, Luke continues.  At this point we might expect an explanation indicating the reason the shepherds watched their sheep at night, a factual detail that would fit well into Luke’s account. 

Instead, Luke abruptly abandons the reality represented by Caesar’s political program, crowded inns, pregnant women and babies being born at inconvenient times in unsuitable places.

Without a pause, with no anticipatory warning, the story moves into a reality in which angels talk to the shepherds (apparently in their own language) and angels report real-time, real-world events (the new baby sleeping in a manger in the cave) and give geographically specific directions so that the shepherds could go to see the new born child. 

At the end of the visit, the talking angels were joined by a great crowd of singing angels surrounded by glorious galaxy-reflected light beyond description. Careful about every detail, Luke reports that the songs these angels sang were about God’s greatness and peace and good will.

Then in the story, Luke abruptly returns to Caesar’s world. 

The amazing light vanishes from the night sky and the angels go away. The narrative resumes with the shepherds holding a lively discussion between themselves. At the end of the discussion the shepherds decide to go into Bethlehem and check out the angels’ story.

The directions given by the angel proved to be reliable. When the shepherds arrived at the stable they found the baby lying in a manger just as the angels had said.

Luke reports this in the same factual tone in which he dated his story “. . . when Quirinius was governor of Syria.”  When hearing this story, people commonly regard the census event Luke reported as a “true story” because historical records support Luke’s account of the event. 

However, they find it more difficult (particularly when talking with a scientist-like person) to know how to think about the talking-singing-angels-event in the story. They will concede that the angel event is an interesting story, but they are less certain that it is a “true story.” 

Without conscious awareness, they are reflecting the belief that truth—all truth—will be evident through quantifiable data and historical documentation. This assumption about the way in which we know truth is largely the product of the Enlightenment era. 

Postmodern criticism has successfully pointed out the faulty nature of this assumption. Nevertheless the idea still continues to confuse the way we identify and internalize truth. Additionally, it diminishes our ability to profit from story. 
Although Luke was a physician and a scientist in his day, he did not have this faulty assumption to confuse him. He lived as a reporter of truth in whatever form he found it. In his story Luke moves seamlessly between two different manifestations of truth.

There was the truth of human experience that he documented historically (the census); that which he observed (sheep and shepherds and inns with no vacancies); and natural phenomena—men and women and pregnancy and babies. 

However, Luke also observed something that appeared to flow out of a different reality—angels that talked and gave directions and sang songs.  Luke’s story delineates both realities, but Luke did not make the difference between the census event and the angel-song-event a matter of truth vs. imaginative invention. Luke reported both census and angel song, both as real and both as true. 

God loves stories. His book has so many great ones. Story telling was one of Jesus’s favorite teaching tools when He was with us. 

I think that one reason God loves stories so much is the capacity of story to weave many forms of truth into an integrated whole meaning that becomes embodied in human understanding. 

“And it came to pass that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus. . . .And there was no room in the inn. . . and the angel came. . . the shepherds were very frightened. . . and the angel said. . . .you will find the baby lying in a manger. . . and the shepherds came in haste and found Mary and Joseph and the baby lying in a manger. . . and the shepherds returned [to their sheep].”

I am asking this year for the gift of a light-filled heart so that I can hear the Christmas story and all the truth that it proclaims.

Blessed Advent.  See you next week.