Thursday, December 21, 2006

Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming

The lyrics to this beautiful (to my ears) hymn are:

Lo, how a Rose e'er blooming
From tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse's lineage coming
As men of old have sung
It came, a flow'ret bright,
Amid the cold of winter
When half spent was the light.

Isaiah 'twas foretold it

The rose I have in mind,
With Mary we behold it,
The Virgin Mother kind.

To show God's love aright,

She bore to men a Saviour,
When half spent was the night.

O flow'r, whose fragrance tender

With sweetness fills the air,
Dispel in glorious splendour
The darkness ev'ry where.

True man, yet very God,

From sin and death now save us,
And share our ev're load.

Those words give me comfort in the days leading up to Christmas. They remind me, both in form and in substance, of the beauty that is so much a part of our faith -- but is so easily and often forgotten.

I often miss the beauty that strays across my path. And then in moments like this I take the time to think on those things of beauty -- of the woman who offered me forgivenss as I passed her in the church office. The fellow who greeted me as we walked on opposite sides of the street the other evening. I think of the dark blue of the sky as I took a walk around the neighborhood last evening. I thought of the sound of the waters as I crossed the Central Bridge to and from the church today. I thought of Jordan's gangly self bounding down the stairs late at night to give his old dad a hug before he headed off to bed. I thought of Conor's beaming exuberance as he walked in the back door heading home from an evening out with his girlfriend. I thought of Kathy lying snug under the covers with her head and her book visible by the light of her bedside lamp. There's a lot of beauty surrounding me these days - in little ways and large. Christmas is coming.

I came across the following Christmas piece by the great African-American theologian Howard Thurman and that I offer to you both in celebration and I suppose, as challenge!

When the song of the angels is stilled
when the star in the sky is gone
when the kings and princes are home
when the shepherds are back with their flocks
the work of Christmas begins
to find the lost
to heal the broken
to feed the hungry
to release the prisoner
to rebuild the nations
to bring peace among the people
to make music in the heart.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Oh Holy Night

Oh Holy Night
The stars are brightly shining
It is the night of the dear Savior's birth!
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till he appear'd and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!
Fall on your knees
Oh hear the angel voices
Oh night divine
Oh night when Christ was born
Oh night divine
Oh night divine
Led by the light of Faith serenely beaming
With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand
So led by light of a star sweetly gleaming
Here come the wise men from Orient land
The King of Kings lay thus in lowly manger
In all our trials born to be our friend.
Truly He taught us to love one another
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name.

I love the sound of this Christmas Carol. Years ago at the Amerson household for the staff Christmas party I would often stand by the piano when it was being played and would theatrically (and badly) collapse on the ground while singing "fall on your knees." Pretty cheesy.

I was recently with my friend Phil in Evanston and he was telling me that he often had to sing this song as a boy (I think it was a solo in church). I remember noticing what Phil reminded me of -- that this hymn is really a hymn of liberation. It is a song that reminds us that the gift of Christ in the world is the announcement that there is now liberty for the prisoner.

I think of how often we overlook the truly joyful message of Christmas that in the very presence of evil (or the spiritual forces of wickedness if you will) that the good news of God is that those forces no longer have predominance -- that they have in fact been destroyed. Now that seems like a pretty hard thing to argue for in the face of what we see in the world...but it also is a real challenge to remember that it is our calling to live as if this is true. We certainly can live as if it is not true -- we can certainly live as if evil and oppression have the upper hand -- but it would be a denial of our faith. So -- how do we work that out in practice?

What would it mean for me, in this week before Christmas, to show that I believe the prisoner has been set free? Perhaps it would mean something like what you can read about in this article.

And So This Is Christmas

And so this is Christmas, for weak and for strong,
For rich and for poor ones, the road is so long.
And so happy Christmas, for black and for white,
For yellow and red ones, let's stop all the fight.

A very Merry Christmas,
And a Happy New Year.
Let's hope it's a good one,
Without any fear.

John Lennon penned these words a few years back and I hear them a couple of times during Advent. As I understand it this was written as an anti-war song.

This year, I don't know why, but all the stuff I've been hearing about "the war on Christmas" has been coming to me in neon lights. At first I just ignored it. And then I started hearing about it on the radio in the car, on the Daily Show, and from more and more people I know around town. Some think it's ridiculous, and some seem to think it's deadly serious. So I got to thinking -- what do I think "the war on Christmas" is about? So here's my best shot.

Nothing. Or more precisely - everything.

One of the things that is weird about this for me is that I have friends who are absolutely convinced there is a war on Christmas. And while I believe there is one, too -- it is a completely different one than they talk about.

I keep thinking that this is reminiscent of a battle recorded in the Gospels that I like to call "The War on Sabbath." Who was the leader in the war on the sabbath? Well -- the good religious folk thought that it was Jesus. You see, Jesus healed someone on the Sabbath. And when he was confronted by the religious authorities he asked them -- "Were people created for the Sabbath or the Sabbath for people?"

I think that it drove Jesus nuts (not clinically so) that folks made religion into something that could overlook a brother or sister who was hurting -- simply because it was "against the rules." I think that was Jesus' problem with what religions become. Religions become boxes, prisons if you will, where we hold one another hostage to the whims and dictates of those who have gone before. And while those who have gone before may have been guided by the Holy Spirit - they were also human beings who made mistakes (see Galileo, Copernicus, The Crusades, etc...).

But I do think that there is a very real War on Christmas. When you think that Christmas itself is this reminder of God's incarnation in the world - God putting up a tent with us, well then - we can see where the threats to that incarnation are present can't we? They are present whenever we have people who are homeless languishing on our streets, while we have empty beds in our homes. That's certainly a front in the war on Christmas (especially in celebrating a Christ who was born in a manger -- today, as my friend Chad told me it would probably be in a grocery cart down at Wheeler Mission). The war on Christmas is happening in Darfur, Sudan where children are watching their parents being raped and killed; where brothers and sisters are tortured in front of one another or their parents are; it kind of embarrassing to claim that someone saying "happy holidays" to you pisses you off, after that isn't it?

How about the War on Christmas that is happening when a city builds a new stadium for a professional football team full of multi-millionaires (not to mention sky boxes for multi-millionaires who don't play), but can't be convinced to invest in the lives of low-income people whose gifts and energies and dreams are being wasted simply because someone has to sell $4.50 hot dogs for $5.25 an hour. Why do we know that is part of the War on Christmas? Because we know how to read Matthew 25.31-46.

How about the War on Christmas that happens when in the midst of war we bomb civilian areas "because we have to" -- and little children are considered "collateral damage" by leaders who call themselves Christian. Jesus must weep. Weep.

How about the War on Christmas that happens when we lock up an extremely high percentage of our population and keep forgetting that one of the signs of God's realm that Jesus announced at the beginning of his ministry was "freedom for the captives." Churches and other faith communities do plenty of work to "counsel the prisoner" when he or she gets out of prison -- but ask them to "set the prisoner free" and they look at you like you are crazy.

How about the War on Christmas that happens when people have to hide their love for one another, the simple act of walking hand in hand downtown as one celebrates an anniversary, or the act of dancing together at any party -- because people might be offended -- or worse, respond violently. Yeah, Jesus would be real happy about that celebration of his birthday.

Yes, Virginia there is a War on Christmas. Unfortunately, it is being waged in the words said over a cash register and not in the wounded places of our communities and world.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Gloria In Excelsis Deo?

Every Sunday at Broadway we pray for one another and we pray for the world. A member of the church called me yesterday and sent me to the Internet to watch an ad about the genocide in Darfur, Sudan. It shows people from around this country reading words of those who are dying and watching others die around them. My friend asked me, “What does it mean that we pray for Darfur every Sunday?”

It’s a good question. What does it mean to pray on Christmas? The ad ends with the words “400,000 in Sudan haven’t lived to tell about the genocide.” You can see the ad by clicking on this Word.

The Church, our church, and others are called to bear witness to hear the voices, to hear the songs, of all those who struggle and yearn to have a chance to live lives of hope and meaning even in the midst of violence and struggle. We not only hear the songs, but we sing them ourselves.

When I was talking with Rachel about this today she said -- "Can't we do more than bear witness?" Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Can't we? And then I thought...well maybe really bearing witness is much more than the empty meaning it seems to have all too often today.

Earlier in the week Rachel and I were talking about the liturgy for welcoming new members into our life together at Broadway. In my original draft we have this question (in part): Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness...? It led to this great question about whether people would understand that language these days. I struggled with it because I believe that it's hard to understand things like what is happening in Darfur without calling it...well..."wickedness." Or what words to use to describe what is happening to African-American young men in this country.

At Christmas this year, I ask you to find, in a magazine, a newspaper, a poem, a web site, a book – somewhere -- the voices of those whose lives seem very far from your own. Listen to a new voice. Listen to that song.

I'd like to think that our prayers in the sanctuary on Sunday morning, and throughout the week we are in hospitals, schools, homes, streets, businesses, lead us into acting out of the commitment we have heard and voiced in our prayers. The ad that I have the link to on this page is a very powerful communicator and it makes me wonder how we can be more visual in leading us into and out of prayer -- in leading us in and through our liturgy.

Gloria in Excelsis Deo. The words are from one of my favorite Christmas hymns -- "Angels We Have Heard on High." It's words challenge me to make sure not just to mouth them, but to sing them with my life. Gloria in Excelsis Deo? I sure hope so.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Do You Hear What I Hear

Consider this posting a beginning homage to Christmas music. I love good Christmas music. Okay, I love cheesy Christmas music, too. But I digress. I was writing a letter to some of my friends who I share life and work with and I was musing about what we need to keep at the heart of our Christian life and mission around our church. I was writing to Carmen, and Marc, and De'Amon and I wrote to them about the three things that I think we need to keep at the heart of things. The final one was that we needed to have a little creativity going. And the truth is that we have a lot of creativity going. But creativity is not about much else than blind eyes seeing from my perspective. Creativity is about discerning -- how to use the gifts of God in the people of God. And so -- we have been looking around at the people in the congregation -- the people who come through our doors. We have a yoga group meeting at the church tonight. I wonder what it might be to ask them to tell us what they think we ought to know about health and spirit. I bet they would have something to say. But the question is how we do that in a world that is not in the practice of listening. But listen we must. And listen we shall. Or at least listen we shall try.

We should be praying for each other more. Okay, I should be praying more. We have a prayer group at the church -- we should be using them for more prayer. Please, we should say to them, please pray that we can see and hear the gifts of God in the people we come across. Why? Because, as Walter Wink says, history belongs to the intercessors. At least if you know that some people are praying with you and for you -- well -- who knows. It sure can't hurt. And it is one of the practices of our faith. Prayer, as William Stringfellow once said is not about asking God for things -- it is about becoming aware of the unity of all things (he said it much better than that).

One of my favorite Christmas songs was given to me on a cd of the Three Blind Boys of Alabama from Troy and John. It's called "I Pray on Christmas" -- some of the words go like this:

I pray on Christmas
That the sick will soon be strong
I pray on Christmas
The Lord will hear my song

I pray on Christmas.

The Answers to Poverty

Someone in our congregation e-mailed me last week. At the end of her note she added this question "and what are the answers to poverty?" Wow -- what a great question (I of course had the answer -- ha!). It was a wonderful reminder that life is about asking interesting and good questions. How blessed I am to get such questions. Anyway...what follows is my response.

The answers to poverty? Hmmmm. I watched an interview last night with Muhammed Yunus (Grameen Bank) on the Charles Rose show. One of the things Yunus said is he believed we could do away with poverty. Gotta admit – the man blew my mind with that one. Maybe so, maybe so, maybe so. But I believe that one of the “answers” to poverty is to believe what Mary sings in the Magnificat. “That God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich empty away.” And that the answer to poverty — is to live as if that were true. It is to do what Jesus said in John 15 (“no longer do I call you servants, but friends”)...that is to say that the answer to poverty is the kind of friendship that Jesus talks about — the kind of friendship that pays attention to the life of the person before you... The person that the world sees as poverty — but you know as one of those hungry who has been filled with good things — so you sure as heck better start hangin’ out with that person and bein’ a part of all the cool things that God is doing in their life...which draws me back to the first question — and through this we will help one another see that the gospel is indeed truth in the life of the world (and the church as a part of that larger world). It is why I don’t have any problem with seeing God’s grace at work in the lives of all of God’s creatures — it is because it isn’t, at all, dependent upon us — what is called forth from us is the eyes to see and the ears to hear — so that we can dance in joy — so we who live in darkness can see a great light. It’s here. It’s shining.