Christmas – Holiday or Holy Day?

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Christmas falls on Sunday this year. Even though it’s special to have the birthday of Jesus fall on the Lord’s day, I expect church attendance to be low. Really low. Maybe half, if we’re lucky. Why is that? Let’s be honest: Christmas has become a holiday. It’s no longer a holy day. To understand why this is we have to look back and see what’s changed.

In pre-modern times, there were two approaches to knowledge: symbolic and rational. The symbolic approach was embedded in the religious stories and rituals. It was the expertise of the prophet, the priest, and the poet. The rational approach helped people understand the stars overhead and the ground beneath their feet. It allowed them to craft better tools, engineer better bridges, and raise healthier animals. Both approaches – symbolic and rational – were held in equally high regard. The same was true in pre-modern Christianity. The sacred stories (Scripture) and rituals (sacraments), on the one hand, and sacred beliefs (theology), on the other, were equally important.

The Greeks called these two approaches: mythos (myth) and logos (reason). In our modern, scientific age the word “myth” has fallen into ill repute and means a story that’s untrue. “Myth,” in this earlier sense of the word, doesn’t mean a fairy tale. As one famous anthropologist explained, it’s “not merely a story told, but a reality lived. […] It expresses, enhances, and codifies belief; it safeguards and enforces morality; it vouches for the efficacy of ritual and enforces practical rules for the guidance of man” (Bronislaw Malinowski, “Myth in Primitive Psychology,” 1926). A myth isn’t just something to be understood and believed, like reason. It’s a program for reform. It points to a better way to live.

Myths and rituals are mutually reinforcing. In ancient times the two were always tied together.  As Karen Armstrong explains, “Myth and ritual were thus inseparable, so much so that it is often a matter of scholarly debate which came first: the mythical story or the rites attached to it.  Without ritual, myths made no sense and would remain as opaque as a musical score, which is impenetrable to most of us until interpreted instrumentally” (The Case for God).

By rejecting sacred stories and rituals, secular modern man has lost his core. There’s no more grounding for values and no more source for meaning. Jungian psychologist James Hollis puts it neatly: “When the gods are not expressed inwardly, they will be projected outwardly.” That’s why at this time of year the Christmas cookie has replaced the communion wafer. The materialistic rituals of Christmas (gift buying and giving, binge eating and drinking) leave us emptier than before we filled our homes and stomachs with more stuff.

I’m not a Puritan who wants to cancel Christmas. I like a lot of those outward projections. I don’t want to give them up. But when opening presents or cooking Christmas dinner trumps going to church on Christmas Sunday, I think it’s time to call timeout. It’s time to re-evaluate our sacred myths and re-engage with our sacred rituals. Going to church on Christmas morning won’t solve the problem, but it’s a good place to start.

Merry Christmas!

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(Im)Perfectly Beautiful

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Vase with Landscape and Dinosaurs (2014) by Steven Young Lee

Visiting an art museum always brings surprises. Today I went to the Renwick Gallery in DC to look at art glass by well-known artists such as Dale Chihuly and Lino Tagliapietra. I found impressive examples of both. But what surprised me most were the beautifully damaged pieces of traditional blue-and-white ceramic by artist Steven Young Lee. They’re part of the special exhibit Visions and Revisions: Renwick Invitational 2016.

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Peonies and Butterflies (2013) by Steven Young Lee

Some pieces appear cracked, others exploded, still others melting like objects in a Salvador Dali painting. The combination of traditional craft and contemporary abstraction makes these porcelain vases poignant and haunting. They remind me that beauty doesn’t require perfection. Imperfect pieces can be just a beautiful and even more memorable.

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Vase with Scroll Pattern (2014) by Steven Young Lee

“Deconstructing and imploding the forms creates a visceral reaction that defies the human desire for perfection and confronts the perception of value. It is in this act that I hope to challenge and redefine what is beautiful.”—Steven Young Lee

 

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Saint Benedict’s Toolbox

What do Baptists and Benedictines have in common? Not much other than they both start with the same letter. On second thought, that’s not true. Both movements began as radical attempts to get back to first-century Christianity. Benedictines remained within the established Church but withdrew from the world. Baptists remained in the world but withdrew from the established Church. Only by the early seventeenth century when the first Baptist churches formed, the established Church in England was no longer Roman Catholic but Anglican.

I, a Baptist, find myself drawn to the Rule of St. Benedict as a practical guide to Christian living. Even though it was written specifically for silent monks a millennium and a half ago, it still speaks to anyone who will “incline the ear of [their] heart.” In fact, Benedict offered his “little rule for beginners” as a gift to all, addressing it to “whoever you may be.”

In chapter 4, the Rule enumerates seventy-two “tools” of spiritual craftsmanship. Among these are some usual suspects such as the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, as well as some of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not kill,” “Thou shalt not steal,” “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” “Thou shalt not bear false witness,” and “Thou shalt not covet.” Others are more monastic in flavor: “Love fasting,” “Love not much talking,” and “Love chastity.” My favorite is number twenty-one: “To prefer nothing to the love of Christ.” In chapter 43, the Rule says, “Let nothing be preferred to the work of God,” referring to the Liturgy of the Hours, the set times of communal prayer in a monastery. Thus, the Rule equates prayer and loving Christ, since both are identified as the pinnacle of Christian spiritual practice—that to which nothing should be preferred.

One thing that strikes me is how Benedict begins and ends his list of spiritual tools. He begins where Jesus began, telling his hearers “to love the Lord God with the whole heart, the whole soul, the whole strength.” That’s number one, and it’s a positive command. He ends with a negative command. Number seventy-two says, “And never despair of God’s mercy.” These two form the bookends of spiritual disciplines. I believe Benedict positioned them intentionally. Those who attempt to love God by obeying his commands and living a good life ultimately fail. No one can love God perfectly, keep the commandments continually, or practice spiritual disciplines consistently, even in a monastery. The temptation then is to wallow in self-pity. Self-pity makes you want to give up, feeling you’re not good enough for God. That’s why Benedict ends by telling us what not to do: never despair of God’s mercy. No one is so far gone they can’t be forgiven and restored. No one.

A monk was once asked, “What do you do there in the monastery?” He replied: “We fall and get up, fall and get up, fall and get up again.” That’s a picture of the Christian life outside the monastery too.

The tools in St. Benedict’s ancient toolbox for monks can help anyone live a healthy spiritual life today. Even a Baptist.

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True Repentance

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Peaceable Kingdom (c. 1834), Edward Hicks (1780-1849), National Gallery of Art

The Gospel reading last Sunday, Matthew 3:1-12, introduces us to the enigmatic figure of John the Baptist. We need to set the record straight about one thing: he wasn’t a Baptist, at least not in the denominational sense of the word. Even though he’s called “the Baptist,” he wasn’t a member of a Baptist Church. His title means that he was known for baptizing. John turned a Jewish ritual bath for converts into a sign of repentance. Let’s keep in mind the Baptist movement originated in England in the early 1600s. John wasn’t the first Baptist preacher. He was the last Old Testament prophet (in style, message, temperament), even though he appears in the New Testament.

John lived in the desert. He wore weird clothing. He ate bugs. Some people thought he was Elijah the prophet come back from the grave. A cross between Grizzly Adams and Jonathan Edwards, John preached hell-fire-and-damnation sermons, telling listeners to turn or burn, get right or get left behind. When the hypocritical Pharisees and Scribes showed up to have their sins washed away, he rebuked them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”

How do we know if we’ve truly repented of our sin? The short answer is that we don’t keep doing it. Since John fits the mold of an Old Testament prophet, it would be instructive to ask a rabbi what repentance means in the Jewish tradition. According to Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, here’s how the famous Rabbi Maimonides answered the question, What constitutes complete repentance?  He who is confronted by the identical situation wherein he previously sinned and it lies within his power to commit the sin again, but he nevertheless does not succumb because he wishes to repent, and not because he is too fearful or weak [to repeat the sin]. How so? If he had relations with a woman forbidden to him and is subsequently alone with her, still in the throes of passion for her, and his virility is unabated, and [they are] in the same place where they previously sinned; if he abstains and does not sin, this is a true penitent.” (Jewish Literacy, rev. ed., p. 608; citing Mishneh Torah, “Laws of Teshuva,” 2:1).

Sunday’s Old Testament reading from Isaiah describes the future Peaceable Kingdom, so beautifully illustrated by the painter Edward Hicks:

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.

I always assumed God will take away the predatory instinct from these animals. But maybe, just maybe, the miracle is that the wolf still wants to eat the lamb but chooses not to and the lion still wants to devour the calf but refrains. This is a picture of true repentance.

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Mind Blowing Art Glass

Some artists attempt to mimic nature; others draw inspiration from nature without trying to copy it. Glass artist John de Wit takes the latter approach. His playful abstract pieces blend color and texture in surprising ways while subtly evoking natural forms such as tree bark, cascading water, and bird nests. The following images are from the website of Seattle’s Foster/White Gallery, which represents the artist.

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These asymmetrical forms are both whimsical and sophisticated. This isn’t your grandmother’s Tiffany vase. There’s something more organic and spiritual going on here. I’m blown away by this blown-glass artist.

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Thankful for Suffering

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What would you have tomorrow, if you only had what you thanked God for today? Would you have health? A roof over your head? What about clean drinking water, breathable air, and the ability to read? Would you have freedom to worship and express your opinions?

The Bible tells us to give thanks “always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:20). Yet we take so many of God’s blessings for granted.

Luke 17:11-17 tells the story of a leper who was thankful for being healed by Jesus. Ten lepers were healed but only one turned back and thanked him. What would have shocked the original hearers most was the fact that he, the hero of the story, was a Samaritan, not a Jew. It’s a lesson about racism as much as gratitude.

It’s wonderful to thank God for healing, but what about those who aren’t healed? Almost 50 years ago Christian author and radio host Joni Eareckson Tada was paralyzed in a diving accident that left her in a wheelchair as a quadriplegic. She begged God for healing but no healing came. Here’s what she wrote in Charisma Magazine about that experience:

God’s “no” answer to my physical healing more than 40 years ago was a “yes” to a deeper healing—a better one. His answer bound me to other believers and taught me so much about myself. It has purged sin from my life, it has strengthened my commitment to Him, forced me to depend on His grace. His wiser, deeper answer has stretched my hope, refined my faith, and helped me to know Him better.

It isn’t easy, but many people have learned the wisdom of being thankful not only in suffering but for suffering. I haven’t mastered this art. Not by a longshot. My natural reaction when God allows hardship into my life is to wallow in self-pity and ask, Why me? What I have I done to deserve this? That approach reveals a misunderstanding of God’s will. God wants what’s best for us, not what’s easiest.

People who haven’t suffered are insufferable. People who endure hardship and suffering have an opportunity to become better people, but it doesn’t work automatically. Suffering can make us better or it can make us bitter. The choice is ours. We must make up our minds how we will choose, because suffering is universal. Eventually everyone suffers in this life. It’s as inescapable as death and taxes.

There’s much good that can come out of suffering. For starters, suffering humbles us. It’s difficult to remain proud, when pain and hardship has laid you low. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is one of the oldest churches in the world. It sits over the cave where ancient tradition tells us Jesus was born. To enter and see the place where Jesus was born, you have to go through a small door called the Door of Humility. It may have been built small to keep people from entering the church on horseback. It has an important effect on those who walk in. The tiny door forces visitors to bow as they enter. By bending down as they approach the holy site, they symbolically check their pride and egos at the door. Suffering is the real door of humility.

Not only does suffering promote humility, it changes lives for the better. History is full of stories of people powerfully transformed and made better by suffering. Our lives can be changed by suffering too, if we offer our suffering to God and allow God to use it for our good.

The greatest example of God using suffering for a greater good is the passion of Christ. The suffering of Jesus brought about the salvation of the world. It provided a channel of mercy through which the healing streams flow from God to man. Because he suffered on the cross in this life, we don’t have to suffer separation from God in the next. That’s Good News worth believing and sharing.

But there’s another benefit of suffering that most have never heard of. God invites us to participate in Christ’s saving death not only by believing but also by joining our suffering to the suffering of Christ for the good of others (Colossians 1:24). Don’t ask me how that works. I don’t know. But I believe it because it’s in Scripture.

Mother Teresa dedicated her whole life to serving the poorest of the poor in the slums of Kolkata, India. Here’s what she said about suffering: “Suffering is nothing by itself. But suffering shared with the passion of Christ is a wonderful gift, the most beautiful, a token of love.”

As we count our blessings this Thanksgiving for all the good gifts God’s given us, let’s not forget to thank God for one of his greatest gifts: the gift of suffering.

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Scared to Death

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I’m scared to death of dying. Not because I’m uncertain of where my soul will go but because I’m concerned about what will happen to my body. Funerals can be impersonal, expensive, and hard on the environment. With the professionalization of the funeral industry in America loved ones and churches have been largely removed from the preparation of the body and its burial.

Funeral homes are staffed by good people but aren’t charities. They’re in the business of making money. The national average for a full-service funeral is $7,000 – $10,000. Cremation lowers the cost to $2,000 – $4,000. For those who have the money and desire, a full-service funeral can show the family’s love and respect for the one who has died. But funerals don’t have to be expensive to be respectful and meaningful.

It seems crass to shop around for a deal on a funeral as if you were buying a car but it’s perfectly acceptable. Some areas of the country have funeral co-ops that will do the bargaining for you.  Members pay a small one-time fee to join a funeral co-op. At the time when the services are needed the co-op negotiates a discount with funeral homes. Typical savings range from several hundred to over a thousand dollars. Another approach has been nonprofit funeral homes, which keep costs down by removing the profit motive. For areas without a co-op or nonprofit there’s the Funeral Consumers Alliance (www.funerals.org), “a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting a consumer’s right to choose a meaningful, dignified, affordable funeral.” A quick perusal of their website led me to a helpful article titled, “What to Do When You Can’t Afford a Funeral.”

Another concern about full-service funerals is their impact on the environment. First, there’s the toxic embalming fluid pumped into bodies that poses a threat to the environment. (Embalming became popular in America after the Civil War when it was used to preserve the war dead until they could be shipped home, but it’s rarely practiced in Europe.) Second, each year millions of pounds of metal, wood, and concrete are made into caskets and vaults and put in the ground to shield bodies from their surroundings (ashes to ashes and dust to dust?). The caskets and vaults must be manufactured and transported, adding to the environmental impact. Finally, cemeteries must be mowed, watered, and sprayed with insecticides indefinitely. All of this adds up to a huge impact on the environment, since almost 2.5 million people die each year in the US alone. Natural burials or “green burials” have a low impact on the environment. Typically, the body is wrapped in a shroud or placed in a biodegradable coffin and buried in “natural cemetery” without a manicured lawn, often in a peaceful, wooded area.

My final concern about the funeral industry is the way it separates the dead from their loved ones and religious communities. When a person dies, the body is whisked away almost immediately and prepared for burial apart from the family by professionals. The entire process, except the religious service itself, is handled by funeral directors and their staffs. For centuries families prepared the bodies and churches buried them without the assistance of a funeral home. Thank you very much.

Home funerals, which were common until the mid-20th century, allow families to care for a loved one’s body without using the services of a funeral home. Home funerals are legal in all but eight states. Burials on private property outside a cemetery are also permissible but check with the county or town clerk and the health department to understand the applicable laws.

Joseph of Arimathea lovingly prepared Jesus’s body for burial and laid it in a tomb (Mark 15:42-46). We can follow his example by caring for our loved ones’ bodies after death. How we do so is a personal decision. My goal here has not been to tell anyone what to do but only to give some options to consider.

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