Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Light Bulbs and Cigars

Jesus is often thought of as the Light of the World.  We celebrate the coming of that light at Christmas, and in a sense at Epiphany, which is just around the corner.  With that in mind, I want to tell you a story I ran across, and recently included in a sermon at Parkview Retirement Community.  The story is about a Christmas pageant, which, incidentally, is not my favorite thing.  I’m told the story is true; I hope so.

The parish of the story made an annual event of staging the pageant with the kids of the  parish.  Scenery consisted of well used flats which depicted a stable and was a staple of the pageants.  Not everyone had costumes so some resorted to wearing bathrobes of various colors and patterns with a towel tied around their heads as they try to look as near Eastern as possible.  Had it not been for the flip flops and tennis shoes the illusion would have been complete, but as it was, it was good enough.

Of course there was a little manger constructed out of wood and filled with hay.  In a stroke of genius, someone suggested that Baby Jesus be played by a small light bulb. The bulb couldn’t be seen from the congregation’s viewpoint, just the glow of the Light of the World.  Behind the stable on a short ladder stood an angel who also held a glowing star. Mary and Joseph had taken their places and in the semi-darkness of the chancel and nave, the light bulb washed their faces with a soft glow.  “Silent Night” played softly in the background as parents, grandparents and friends strained to see and hear everything on stage.

The time had come for the shepherds to make their entrance and, dressed in their bathrobes, they marched solemnly down the center aisle to join the others already gathered come to worship the newborn.  When they arrived near the altar, a precocious ten-year old shepherd, in a whisper much to loud for the occasion said, “Hey, Joe, when you gonna pass out the cigars?”

Caught completely off guard, Mary and Joseph burst into laughter, as do all the others who’ve gathered in the little stable.  The angel holding the star completely lost it and fell from her perch, taking the stable with her.  The congregation didn’t know if they should be horrified or not, but they couldn’t help bursting into laughter.  In a moment that would become legendary in that parish, complete chaos set in and the tender moment was irretrievably lost.

But you know what?  Throughout the chaos, the light bulb continued to shine in the darkness.  And so it is everywhere today.  Darkness still threatens us; turmoil seems to be everywhere; evil seems to be pervading so much of life, but as Christians we know the Light still shines.  We may need to look for it a bit harder sometimes than others, but it’s there because He’s here.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


Someone asked me Sunday if I was going to blog about the “Happy Holidays” versus “Merry Christmas” annual dust up.  I hadn’t planned to, but the more I thought about it, I decided to give my “for what it’s worth” opinion.  Here goes.
For a long time, many Christians have bemoaned the growing secularization of Christmas. Frustrated by this secularization, a slogan was developed by some crafty person that is rolled out each year about this time that pertains to remembering “the reason for the season.”  The purpose of repeating the slogan seems to be to remind one and all that the “reason” is the celebration of Jesus’ birth.
Certainly, persons of a certain age can remember when no one had to be reminded, but I think two things have happened since then. The first was the slow, but very real shift in the importance the populace places on church-going in particular and Christianity in general. The second is a cultural shift that is generally called “political correctness.”   Let me begin with a comment about the first one. In 2009, an American Religious Identification Survey was conducted by the Institue for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture.  According to that survey:
  • Fifteen percent (15%) of Americans overall say they have no religion, up from 8% in 1990.
  • Forty-six percent (46%) of Americans between the ages of 18-43 indicate they have no religion.
  • Catholics, Baptists (the perennial powerhouse of growth in numbers) and other mainline Protestant groups all report large drops in membership in the last couple of decades.  At the same time Islam, Wicca and eastern religions, such as Hinduism and Buddism showed gains.
  • The number of people who identify themselves as atheist or agnostic has increased four-fold from 1990 to 2009, from about one million to 3.6 million. [Contrast this with the number of Episcopalians in the US: 2,006,343 in 2009.]

Since many folks don’t really care if Jesus was born, wishing them Merry Christmas seems a little off the mark.  Happy Holidays is a much better fit, right?
And now a word about the second shift. Those same people of a certain age I mentioned earlier grew up at a time when no one had to be reminded of the reason for the season.  That’s not to say there was no secular element to the season.  Santa was the department stores and shopping still took a lot of time and money, if less than is devoted to it today. “The Bishop’s Wife” was a heart-warming movie that was only marginally a Christmas movie, but the bishop’s sermon with which the movie ends, certainly invokes the Christian message. We can contrast this to the much more popular “Frosty the Snowman” and “Rudolph” which have nothing to do with the Christmas message. So though secularization was creeping in, those persons almost universally greeted each other with “Merry Christmas!” 
So how important is it now?  Well, the move away from this clearly religious greeting was fueled largely by the need to not offend those who don’t celebrate Christmas as a religious holy day--as we’ve seen, a growing number.  It fits right into the growing political correctness in which we mustn’t do anything that might offend another or cause them discomfort. Perhaps as Christians, we need to give up our need to remind people of the reason for the season and go with the jolly and well-intended “Happy Holidays.”  No downside risk and everybody feels good about December.
Or perhaps not.  Here's my plan; feel free to adopt or discard it as you wish. You greet me with Happy Holidays and I’ll reply with Merry Christmas.  If you say nothing to me, I’ll still say Merry Christmas.  Why?  Because like it or not, this season is about Jesus, not Frosty, not Rudolph, and not Santa and I feel some obligation to be a witness to that, especially in an increasely secular world.  I really do regret any offense you might take from my greeting, but tens of thousands of Christians have died because they proclaimed their witness.  Since we’ve all been called to be witnesses, even to death, I think I can handle it if I get a little scowl from you.  After all witnessing can be a b..uh, hard to do, but if I don’t do it, who will?
Merry Christmas! Jerry

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Gaudete In Domino Semper

The third candle of Advent is pink.  Know why?  

If our service was in Latin, the first word you would have heard Sunday in the traditional mass would have been from the Introit and it would have “Gaudete” which is Latin for “rejoice.”  The traditional introit or entrance hymn begins with, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice,” from Philippians.  And it is echoed in the epistle reading of the day of I Thessalonians which begins, “Rejoice always” as well as the Isaiah reading.
While in recent times the season of Advent has emphasized expectation, historically it has been a penitential season.  The idea of penitence during the season is tied to expectation in that we want to be prepared spiritually for the celebration of Jesus’ birth.  More than that, it includes the idea of being ready for the anticipated return of Christ, usually referred to as the Second Coming. 
Perhaps you’ve noticed, the readings for Advent tend toward a somber tone, especially the first Sunday. The typical purple vestments and purple candles in the Advent wreath call Lent to mind, the major penitential season of the year.  But on this Sunday, now at the half-way point of Advent, the mood lightens a little and the pink or rose candle is a reminder of that.  We are encouraged to continue our spiritual preparation, especially through prayer and fasting, but done in a spirit of joyful anticipation.
Oddly, it seems the way modern Christmas is prepared in the States is with the emphasis on rushing and hurrying as we try to beat mailing deadlines and miss black out dates with our air miles, which means we are more likely to be unhappy rather than joyful.  Our shopping for gifts is too often frenzied either with trying to get the “perfect” gift, the “hot” item for the year, or just trying to get a gift for all on our list. The lines at the mall and post office are longer and the clerks may not be as cheerful as we’d like. Websites crash as we try to make a purchase on line forcing us to start over again. A common result is we approach Christmas Day harried, near exhaustion, and in a bad mood rather than with a sense of joy.
But this third week in Advent can be our time of relief.  All we have to do is shift the focus back to the real purpose of Advent and spirit of Christmas, at least for a bit.  “Rejoice in the Lord” is the message.  The introit doesn’t end there. The wonderful message that is ours for this week and for the season continues with, “...the Lord is near at hand; have no anxiety about anything...”  
Joyfully, Jerry

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Anniversaries And Opportunities

Anniversaries seem always to command our attention.  We remember the anniversaries of our birth and the birth of those we love. We remember the anniversary of our wedding day, maybe even the anniversary of our engagement.  We remember the anniversary of the founding of things, such as, when we established our home or our church or our business.  Some of these anniversaries are deemed more significant than others, especially those that end in a zero or a five.  At each of those the clock seems to make a more important tick than at other times.

Certainly the anniversary of the birth of Jesus is one such remembrance, even those we don’t know exactly when he was born.  Added to that, prior to the 4th or 5th century, Christians seemed not to make much, if anything, of the day set aside to remember his birth.  After that, it took on more importance, so much so that the season called Advent began to come into existence across Christendom.  If we’re paying attention, we’ll have many reminders to think about and remember his birthday in the coming days.

But, as I write this, there is another anniversary that is commanding my attention.  Today is 7 December, a day declared to be “a date that will live in infamy.” As indeed it has.  Additionally, today is one of those special years, the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the event that resulted in the U.S. entering what would come to be known as World War II.

As I thought there would be, there was an article on the front page of my morning paper about that day.  It was a relatively small article and it focused primarly on the wish of men who were aboard the Utah and the Arizona who survived.  Recently two had died as old men and a dying wish was that they be interred in the ruins of their sunken ships along with their shipmates who didn’t live 70 years more.  I also expected a lot of television programming about it, but outside a special tonight, there didn’t seem to be much. I’m a little surprised.

I was barely a year old when the attack happened.  Within a year or two, my two older brothers were in the Army, one fighting in Europe.  That one, Roy, was a model airplane builder and before he left, he finished a large model of an older fighter aircraft which he left behind for me.  On the side of it was a decal that said, “Remember Pearl Harbor.”  It was several years before I really understood the significance of that command--a command which became the rallying cry for a nation. 

Over the intervening years, the meaning of that national motto changed for me.  Early on, like many others I hated the Japanese and felt as if the fire bombings and the atomic bombs were only “what they had coming.”  As time passed and I understood more the dynamics of the time internationally and nationally, my loathing disappeared to be replaced by great sadness at our ability as humans to do so much harm to each other. 

There was a national sense at the end of the war that WWII would be what WWI hoped to be--the War To End All Wars.  Learning how to harm so many so quickly would surely turn us all from war.  It did not, as you know only too well.  What will it take? Jesus’ birth seems to have been seen by him as a mandate to proclaim a message that was primarily about something called the Kingdom of Heaven, or to put it differently and more aptly, the Reign of God.  That reign is to be here on earth. And we are to be subjects of that King.  

Speaking for myself, I have to admit I’m not the best subject God could have and absolutely am not doing all I can to bring in the Kingdom. Advent is the time for reflection and preparation for that Kingdom.  Perhaps this special year will be an unusually good time for me to reassess what it means to be God’s subject, in particular what it requires of me and each of us as we live in this complex and increasingly dangerous world we’ve developed.  I plan to use the time doing that. You might want to consider doing it as well.
Peace, Jerry