Christmas Monkeys

I was trying to figure out what else to possibly say, as I sit and write on Christmas Eve. Much has been said in the last few weeks about the bittersweet authenticity of Christmas and the need to sing more carols earlier. Perhaps the closing thought for this season (and for the year, as I will be gone until the 12th), is the realization that you can’t force Christmas—it just comes, and sometimes it doesn’t look the way it was supposed to look.

We all have memories as children anxiously awaiting Christmas morn. I don’t think I am the only one that ended up trying to stay up all night as a child to catch Santa in the act. No matter how hard you tried, it was going to happen when it was going to happen—an especially pertinent message now that I am the one with a small child who will no doubt be waking me far too early tomorrow morning.

Sometimes forcing Christmas takes the form of desperately holding on to traditions of the past that we can’t make work any longer. Perhaps it was the way Christmas dinner was cooked, or how we opened presents, or what decorations should be hung, whatever the case, there comes a point at which we can’t force those Christmas realities either. Dinners change as the baton is passed from cook to cook. Turkeys get burned. Traditions change depending on which people are with us. Decorations fade, and so do the memories about why that particular bauble was important.

All this is to say, we often set ourselves up for heartache and loss when we try to force Christmas to be whatever it once was. Just think of the Israelites and their expectations of what the coming of a Messiah was supposed to look like—you couldn’t force that either, Baby Jesus just comes—and not with pomp and circumstance, but the lowliness of a manager.

There is the story of a golf course in India that was built in British colonial times. It was a beautiful course, but there was one major problem—the monkeys! The monkeys would wander on to the course and play with the golf balls. At first the course tried to trap the monkeys and remove them. But no matter how many they caught, there were always more monkeys to steal balls. Then the course tried to built a giant fence—you can guess what happened there since monkeys are natural climbers. They tried to tempt them away with fruit, but once the monkeys had their fill, they went back to playing with the golf balls. Eventually the course was forced to adopt a new rule—you play the ball from wherever the monkey drops it! I suppose that it makes for a bit more interesting game when you never know whether the monkeys will look upon you with favor or not!

The point is this: sometimes we have to play Christmas (and other things in our lives) as they lie. We can try all we want to control the monkeys, and the changes around us, but eventually, the monkeys win—things change!

This is a reality that pastor’s families learn early and often. Christmas is almost always a travel day for us. We have had to learn to play Christmas as it lies (wherever the monkey drops it in a given year). At first this came as a bit of a challenge, but now—it is fantastic. Yesterday, we did Christmas with my parents. Grace got to wake up and excitedly open presents then, she will get to do so tomorrow before we pack into the car on the way to San Diego, and she will get to do it again the first morning at Nana’s house. Three mornings of exuberant childish glee! It is pretty wonderful, but not at all like the traditions Tiff and I had as children.

Traditions are wonderful, but be ready for monkeys to get in the works, and when they do, play the ball as it lies. You never know what strange new wonderful tradition may develop in place of the old ones. I am pretty sure that Joseph and Mary, the shepherds and the wise men weren’t expecting what came their way that first Christmas, but I am pretty sure they are all thankful that they just rolled with it—it turned out pretty good for all of us! We can’t force Christmas, but we can trust that God is somewhere in the process no matter how strangely our story may develop.

Authentic Christmas

There is such and interesting mix of emotion that surrounds the holiday season. There is perhaps no greater evidence of this than the Blue Christmas worship service. In contrast to the music, the lights, the joy, the laughter is the more somber tone of those that cannot help but be reminded of loss and struggle during this season.

I have said it before, and I will say it again, I believe Blue Christmas and Maundy Thursday are the most meaningful worship services that the church does all year. Sure, there are no more spectacular services than Easter and Christmas Eve, but there is something so powerful about the authenticity of Blue Christmas and Maundy Thursday. These services give us permission to feel whatever it is we are really feeling—even if that is not the prevailing joyous emotions of the season. It gives us permission to mourn. It gives us permission to be sad. It gives us permission to be overwhelmed. It gives us permission to be… It is real.

When we stop to really look at the heart of the Nativity story that is what it is all about. In a world surrounded by the pomp and circumstance of empire and the ritual and piety of Jerusalem temple, we have the great contrast with a backwater village and poor peasants. Not only that, but the depth of struggle that this young couple must have been experiencing as well. Matthew’s gospel tells us that Joseph was breaking off this relationship. He was done. It literally took divine intervention to hold that marriage together. In the gospel of Luke the story is of holiday travelers whose plans fall apart, dealing with bureaucratic nightmares, and a poor couple navigating a (quite literally) non-existent healthcare system upon the birth of a child. These are human stories. Authentic stories. Even though some of you have recently been subjected to my Christmas quiz and discovered that a lot of the traditions we hold have no scriptural basis, we also discovered that there is something truly real lying beneath—the shared human experience.

That is after all what this season is all about—a shared human experience. In the coming of the Christ Child we have the union of the divine and the human. This is the power of the incarnational message. We have the promise that whatever bittersweet story we are experiencing this holiday season, that God loves us so much, God decided to come deal with the same pains, heartaches, headaches, losses and loneliness that we do.

So wherever you may be this season, whatever emotions you may be experiencing, whatever struggles you may be facing; the message of the coming Christ child is ultimately the reminder that you are never alone—even if loneliness is what you are feeling.

Not only is there a promise here, but there is also a responsibility for us as disciples of that baby boy. We are called to be the Shepherds and Magi. We are called to gather at the stables of those who have been struggling, those who are alone, those who are dealing with nightmares, those who are in pain. What’s more—it doesn’t matter your qualifications, it doesn’t matter your skill, it matters that you show up. You could have all the wit and wisdom of somebody paid to watch sheep, or you could be a spiritual leader and mystic astronomer—those things don’t matter. It matters that you show up for the lowly, the hurting and the sad. Take this as a challenge to be mindful of those who are hurting in your midst right now.

All of this is why I am so moved by Blue Christmas. It is real. It is a real human story. It is filled with the same realities that the Christmas story is filled with. Yes, it has it’s tears that sometimes seem out of place to the rest of the world at this time, but surely the story of the Christ child had those tears as well, and we would later declare that child to be out of place in our world as well.

Take some time this season to unwrap your own feelings, and those of the people around you. Make space for what is real that lies beneath the tinsel. Before the songs of joy ring out, get in touch with where the aches and pains of the world lie. It is this complicated mixture of great joy and great struggle that make the Christmas message so deeply meaningful for us all.

Wassailing

I’ve got a bone to pick with many other pastors—get off your high horse and sing some Christmas carols! You’ll notice that we have already been slipping them into worship at Covenant.

You may not be privy to these conversations, but I have heard many a discussion amongst pastors (especially Presbyterian ones) who insist on holding off on the Christmas carols until right before Christmas—some even insist on not singing Christmas carols until Christmas eve!

The reasoning for this goes something like this: “Advent is a season that teaches us about waiting, so we need to wait to sing Christmas Carols.”

To which I respond: No Advent means Coming (Remember that one from years of children’s messages at Covenant?). Advent is about Christ coming, not just on December 25th, but all the ways in which Christ is constantly coming into our lives. It is about anticipation, it is about preparation, but there is nothing that says you can’t sing joyous carols to prepare yourself for the constant coming of Christ. We totally miss the point when we make advent a long slog to the finish line—it’s not that Christ only comes on December 25th, it is that we should be preparing our hearts for the constant arrival of Christ. We should be aware that every day and every moment are filled with new opportunities to invite Christ in, to rediscover the Christ Child in our lives.

Frankly, to insist on waiting on Dec 25th is foolish to begin with. There is a strong likelihood that Jesus was not born anywhere close to December 25th. According to the gospel of Luke, Mary was visited by the angel to announce the conception in the 6th month. In the Jewish calendar that is Elul which falls sometime in August or September by our calendar, meaning that a birthdate somewhere around May or June is much more likely (not that this even matters).

I really don’t think the date is so  important. I think what is important is that we are constantly looking for ways to open our hearts to the Christ Child in our every day lives, and if singing Christmas Carols does that for people, then we ought to be singing them a lot more often.

Lastly, this is still one place where the church has a profound impact on secular culture. Just tune in to your local Christmas station this time of year. Why we would forfeit one of our last bastions of influence for a foolish notion of what it means to wait? We should be embracing this and welcoming people in to sing with us!

That is why we are partnering once again with 1st Pres, 2nd Pres, SOTV, Placitas, La Mesa, and Camino De Vida to go Wassailing. Next Tuesday, December 16th at 7pm we will gather with sisters and brothers in Christ at LaCumbre Brewery to sing out our favorite Christmas Carols for all to hear.

What is Wassailing you ask? It is the age old practice of singing to the orchards and enjoying the fruit of fermentation so that the orchards will produce an abundant crop the following year. The practice of Caroling grew out of this tradition, as did many of our favorite Christmas Carols.

We will be replacing the orchard with a brewery, but there still promises to be carols to sing and beverages to enjoy. Everyone’s welcome, so invite your friends! We hope to see you there!

If you choose to drink, please do so responsibly.

So let’s prepare ourselves for Christ’s continual coming by singing joyously! Look forward to joining you all in song next Tuesday!

The Pope and the Patriarch

Tonight I sit in a hotel room in Claremont California after a day of connecting with staff, faculty and other students at Claremont Lincoln University. I have recently started a Master’s Program in Interfaith Action that is designed to work alongside the work I am doing as the pastor of Covenant. This is one way I have committed to growing as a Spiritual Leader, and I have to say, I made a good choice. The work that is being done here is groundbreaking and vitally important to the world we live in today.
Not so sure about how vitally important it is? Well check this out. For nearly the last 1000 years the Christian Church has been suffering from something called the “Great Schism.” Long before the Protestant Reformation, in 1054 there was a split between what became Western Christendom (Roman Catholic and Protestant) and Orthodox Christendom. This divide has been profound and deep within the fabric of the Christian faith (I won’t go into details about the theological implications). This division was so nasty, that the Fourth Crusade by Western Christians never made it to the Holy Land, but instead focused on sacking Orthodox Constantinople! The point being this has been a long-standing and nasty division.

However, this week something miraculous and long overdue happened—the pope sought to mend the relationship! Check it out:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/11/30/pope-francis-ecumenical-patriarch-bartholomew-_n_6243414.html

Should we protestants be ready to engage this kind of healing with the Roman Catholic tradition as well? Just sayin’…

This week’s scripture speaks to part of our calling as God’s people to work for this kind of healing and wholeness: “They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.”

We have a long way to go, but part of the vision that Isaiah has shared with us is that each of us is being called by God to work for this kind of peace in the world. Of course, these recent events with the pope are just within Christianity, and Isaiah’s vision is clearly one of all nations and peoples. But it’s a start… Thank you Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew I.