Thursday, December 25, 2008

At Which Center?

As I was talking a walk this Christmas Day evening I was listening to an interview with Dr. Cornel West. He commented on Christmas saying that "Jesus doesn't want to be the center of a holiday, Jesus wants to be the center of our lives."

It's been an interesting and full day. After Christmas Eve worship last night we got home around 1 am. I stayed up all night and the rest of the family got up at 5 am, because Kathy was scheduled to work at Methodist. After we opened presents I gave Kathy a ride to work and then Conor, Jordan and I went to bed. Up at 11 am, a little after noon we headed off to Wayde and David's to share in the Christmas Day feast at their place. Among other things David's family shared memories from this past summer's flood in their hometown of Columbus, Indiana. Jordan promptly fell asleep there, Conor helped them set up some new technology, and I went off to make a pastoral call on a member of the congregation who is dying - she's at home with hospice. Kathy got sent home from work early (too many people, too little work on Christmas Day) and we sat down to an earlier dinner than we would have enjoyed otherwise.

On my walk before dinner, in the late afternoon light, I was struck by the presence of a lot of crows. They were flying above the streets that I walked. They were sitting on the top branches of trees, on the roofs of homes, and on the roof of a nearby charter school. This was an oddity for my daily walk through this area -- and it made me wonder at what Christmas significance any of this might offer.

A couple of times today it passed through my mind what a difference a year makes. Since May when Conor's brain tumor was identified and then the summer spent with his surgery and recovery - it seems both normal and very different.

So -- what does it mean in the midst of all of these things to talk about Jesus as the center of our lives. Last night Rachel and I preached together and we talked about how the birth of Jesus marks the beginning of a new age. That new age is witnessed to in his very birth - where the Savior of the World is not born in the halls of power -- but in a stable and laid in a manger -- a feeding trough for animals (later to become the Bread of Life for the world - these Gospel writers knew their foreshadowing!). This new age where Mary sings in the Magnificat not of future possibility, but of present reality - that the hungry are filled with good things, the powerful cast down from their thrones, and the rich sent empty away. And yet, it is absolutely no easier for us to see that today than it was for shepherds, disciples, or followers to pick it up in Jesus' lifetime.

Yesterday morning there was a headline on Huffington Post that said "The Recession is Stealing Christmas." That's ridiculous. The recession can't steal Christmas - it can only steal the world's idea of Christmas. Christmas is the anti-recession. There is so much debate about "the war on Christmas" that those who have pitched this battle are fighting over the wrong thing. As Dr. West pointed out the issue is about having Jesus at the center of our lives. Having Jesus at the center of our lives, means a real effort and straining of our eyes to see that good news to the poor right here and now. It's why I'm very fond of the People's Inaugural I've been hearing about. As I understand it folks from the homeless shelters around Washington, DC will be picked up and given limousine rides, tuxes and ball gowns to attend the People's Inaugural Ball. I love that -- since hearing the Cinderella story I know that magical things happen at balls. And as a follower of Christ, I know he begins his ministry at a party where he turns water into wine, that he was someone who spent a lot of time eating and drinking with sinners and tax collectors, and that he loved to tell parables about wedding feasts (where when the invited guests turned down the invitations -- it was opened up to all). The idea of those who have nothing and those who have more than enough - dancing together, talking around tables, sharing a meal - is to me a possibility and a sign of that good news of great joy for all people -- that the adult Jesus lives out.

So, it seems to me that having Jesus at the center of our lives would challenge us (me) to find myself at the hospital to lay a hand on a sister or brother (a stranger) who just could use a healing touch; a lunch with someone living under a bridge or at the Salvation Army or the Wheeler Rescue Mission, or one with a parent who is struggling to get by.

I keep thinking of Terri Coleman, a friend and neighbor, who walked into the community room on the Saturday of the Christmas Store and said, "I don't see any sign of recession here." I think that's what Jesus says when he looks around. But instead we live as if the real abundance were to be found wrapped under Christmas trees - rather than all around us, every single day - in the gift that we are to one another. That's what should be at the center. If only we can find our way there.

At the end of worship on Christmas Eve we light individual candles and sing "Silent Night." At the end, we asked people to hold their candle high and pause and take a moment to make a commitment to that new age begun in Jesus. I'll try to keep that at the center of my life.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Who Would Jesus Invite to Pray?

I've had some e-mail and conversations with friends over the last few days about President-Elect Obama's choice of Rick Warren to give the invocation and the inauguration. Several e-mails and conversations offered alternative choices -- all of them, religious professionals - clergy. Most of them well known and out spoken. I liked a lot of the choices suggested.

As I was out for my morning walk I got to thinking - Who would Jesus invite to pray at the inauguration? And the answer came to me after a few minutes. It probably wouldn't be a religious professional. It probably wouldn't be one of his disciples. It probably would be someone like a 10 year old homeless girl from the streets of the Bronx. Now that child would have something to pray about (don't we all). And that child probably wouldn't talk with advisers to decide what to pray. If she was really praying (as opposed to say...performing) she would probably offend more than a few folks. But one could be sure it would be real. Real prayer. Real honesty. Something real -- that sounds like something that hasn't happened on an inaugural stage for centuries.

A couple of years ago there was a big fight here in Indiana over the prayers that are offered in the State House. And while the argument was an important one - I thought that the most important thing that was being missed is that whatever name the prayers were being offered in -- it didn't appear to be having any effect. Personally, I think taking prayer away from us professionals in public places and putting it in the hands (and mouths) of what my friend Phil Amerson calls "the genuine articles" -- sounds like a good idea to me.

That reminds me that it was back in 1990 I think when Phil was invited to pray at a luncheon at Indiana Black Expo. Phil prayed, among other things, "for the Children's Museum that cares more about children on the other side of the world than for children in the shadow of its own building." (I'm really just quoting as I recall it) That prayer sure set some things off. People were awfully upset. Out of that some real conversations happened and some things changed. The executive director of the Children's Museum at that time actually came and sat down in a home in our neighborhood and had some real conversation with parents of children who lived in the shadow of his building. And he made some changes.

Prayer does change things -- or at least it can.