No Magi Allowed

As I set out to write one last epistle reflection of 2015, there is one meme that I have seen again and again in subtle, and not so subtle, ways on Facebook. Jokes pointing toward the status of characters in the Christmas story who don’t fit with our comfortable sensibilities. Just take a look at this one highlighting who the Magi were. Others have pointed out the refugee status of the Holy family escaping to Egypt, or the poor and lowly status of Shepherds coming in from the fields.

All political joking aside, there is an important and oft overlooked theological truth lurking behind these cartoons—God chooses the least expected people to play the role of heroes of the faith. Again and again, the Bible highlights God working through people like Mary—an unwed teenage mother; the Magi—foreign religious leaders from what is modern day Iran; Shepherds—perhaps the modern day equivalent would be migrant farm workers. All of these are people that we would most likely overlook in our daily lives, as we try to focus on the things and people we would call “more important.”

I suppose that if I have one prayer for you this holiday season, it is that you look to the people that we would cast aside, as the people where the light of Christ is already residing. Looking at God’s history of choosing people, the next hero of the faith probably won’t be a white, middle class, straight, able bodied, Christian boy. God seems to shy away from what the culture tells us is the “norm.” If we were truly wise, we would be looking upon those that the culture ignores, and seeing them as bearers of God’s Christmas light. I hope that you will carry this message with you this season, and be a little more attentive to that store clerk, that person you pass on the street, or that jerk in the car that just cut you off. I hope that especially, you will pay attention to the ones that don’t look like you, don’t sound like you and the ones that make you uncomfortable. If there is anything that we learn from the Christmas story, it is that God is present in the most unexpected of places—like a feeding trough for animals.

A Good Soundtrack for Your Wait

Let’s take a moment and talk Christmas music. Many of my colleagues in ministry are quite adamant that using Christmas music right now during advent is uncouth, inappropriate, or anathema. I understand where they are coming from—we need to spend advent as a season of waiting, we need to prepare ourselves before we welcome the Christ Child, and we need to resist the temptation of the culture to start the Christmas season in October.

All that being said, I think we need Christmas Carols earlier than December 24th. Now, I always cringe when I hear that first Christmas carol in a department story in late October, and I am always tempted to write cranky letters when that inevitably happens. When I hear those tunes so early, I begin to feel that the purpose of the music has nothing to do with the coming holiday, and everything to do with an out of control capitalistic system that wants to turn the holiday into a 4th quarter budget booster. The rule that we live by in our household is that we will start with Christmas music the day after Thanksgiving. I do think there is something to this. Though the season of advent is a season of waiting, a season of contemplation, a season of preparation, there is nothing that says this waiting and preparation can’t be done with a good sound track.

There has been a push in recent years by people in church music circles to create better advent music as one response. Our new hymnal does include about 2 dozen more good advent tunes than the last hymnal. And though I use those, you will have also noticed that I started sneaking Christmas music into the bulletin last Sunday. The advent music is improving, but none of those songs stir the memory like those carols of old do. Frankly, I think that is part of what needs to happen when waiting and preparing—stirring memories of years gone by, and the meaning of what is to come.

Another thing that I think is increasingly important is owning our carols and passing them on to the next generation. The reality is that this holiday has been turned into a secular/civic holiday. If we don’t start intentionally teaching the Church Carols to our kids now, they will think that Santa Baby, is what this season is all about. The fact of the matter is, that because the rest of the world starts Christmas after Halloween, we are all Christmased out by the time Christmastide arrives (the days following Christmas and leading up to epiphany). Christmastide is technically when we are supposed to sing these songs, but the reality of the world around us is that we have moved on by then. We need to make sure there is still a place for this music in our sanctuaries, and that it isn’t just as a footnote after December 25th.

I also think there is a social justice element to this as well. Increasingly, this has become a season that sends the, “spend, spend, spend,” message. It has become a season where the message is that if there aren’t keys to a Lexus under the tree, then there is something wrong with you. One of the ways that we can stand witness against the over-commercialization of Christmas is by being that singing voice that calls our attention back to what is truly important—not diamonds or LED TV’s, but the promise of a new creation that comes with that Christ child laid in a manger. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying gift giving is wrong, and I have done my share of shopping this season too! However, there is so much more meaning to be had from God becoming flesh and dwelling among us! The best way we have to combat this over-commercialization is the message that is inherent in Church Carols—an arrow pointing our hearts and minds back toward the coming Christ Child.

While I know I will not be winning over any of the hard core advent enthusiasts here, I think that for the rest of us, there is a deep need for the singing of carols, and especially doing so in church. The world is an increasingly scary place, and nothing brings us the message of hope and the promise of God’s presence in this sometimes dark and scary world, than the powerful music of church carols that strike at the chords deepest in our hearts and remind us that this is a season of hope—even amidst the darkness!

Stop. Listen. Think. Then Let’s Talk.

Here we are again. I write to you in the wake of yet another bout of mass violence in our country. Information is still coming in as to what exactly happened in San Bernardino, but suffice it to say, it should not have happened.

Of course, in the wake of those shootings, the usual politicians and pundits are lining up to use this to support their cause, whether that be arming everyone (from the right) or gun control (on the left).

We could all learn a thing or two from our scripture passage this week. Instead of trying to be the first one to say something clever, or being the one to start the Twitter storm and get all the attention, perhaps it is better to stop and listen.

This week we are looking at the story of Zechariah. Now, many of you may not be familiar with this story, because unfortunately, it is left out of the lectionary and we don’t focus on it very often. However, every year, we get to the second Sunday of Advent, and we yet again focus on John the Baptist, and the same sermons are preached all over the country about ‘A voice crying out in the wilderness.’ Don’t get me wrong, it is important scripture, but I felt we should take a break this year and look at how we get to John’s voice crying out in the wilderness.

Zechariah was a temple priest who was descended from Abijah and Aaron. He was an important guy. We know this because very few people are allowed to enter the Holy of Holies where the story takes place. Zechariah is lighting incense when the angel Gabriel shows up and proclaims that even in Zechariah and Elizabeth’s old age, they would have a baby—John. Zechariah’s response is to start yapping at the angel and insisting that the laws of nature don’t allow for such things. Let it be a lesson to us all, that you don’t start telling God’s staff how the world works. Gabriel strikes Zechariah dumb, and he is unable to speak until the day when they are to name John. The crowd is insisting on honoring Zechariah and naming the baby after him, but Zechariah proclaims what the angel told him to—HIS NAME IS JOHN.

The whole story is written to be funny; from the comical scenes of the people trying to communicate through Zechariah using gestures (he isn’t deaf, just mute), to the fact that one of the biggest loud mouths in all of scripture came from a mute man. We are supposed to laugh at this story.

The other thing that we are supposed to get from this story is the importance of listening. The importance of paying attention and hearing the people we are talking with. Listening for God’s voice amidst disconcerting news that we may be hearing.

I am so tired of listening in the wake of these mass shootings because all I hear is people screaming at each other. It is as if the people on the left and the right think that their position makes so much sense that if they just yell a little louder at the opposing side, they will somehow hear what they have been saying all along. When will we learn that is the last possible thing we can do to cause substantial change in the midst of yet another tragedy.

What we need in this situation is not louder and more condescending voices crying out in the wilderness, we need listening. We need to learn the lesson of Zechariah that sometimes the most important thing to do is not be clever, but be thoughtful and discerning. Something is seriously wrong in this country. There is no question about that. The left wants to talk gun control, and the right wants to talk mental healthcare. They are both issues worthy of conversation. But snide voices that demean each other will ultimately only lead back to a deafening silence that settles in until the bullets find new victims. Stop. Listen. Think. Then let’s talk.