Tag Archives: Christmas

Disappointed in Bethlehem: Then and Now

The birthplace of Jesus, as it appears today inside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Palestine.  Courtesy Wikipedia.
The birthplace of Jesus, as it appears today inside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Palestine. Courtesy Wikipedia.

The Christmas season is upon us.  Of course, the world thinks Christmas is already over; a few more sales and the shelves will be making way for Valentine’s Day.  For many folks, Christmas is a disappointment: we don’t get the gifts we want or don’t get to see all the people we want.  On a more serious note, many of us have Christmases whose joy is broken by addiction, grief, anger, or loss.  Christmas comes around each year but no joy ever does.

I take comfort in knowing Bethlehem has always been a disappointment.  Jews, captive under Roman rule, were disappointed when the Messiah turned out to be a humble baby born to a carpenter’s family, rather than the royal conqueror they had expected.  Pagans were disappointed to hear this little sect, based on a supposed miracle in Bethlehem, was pathetic enough to worship a peasant who came from no place special and died in humiliation on a cross.

Today, Bethlehem is still a disappointment.  I’ve visited the Church of the Nativity twice, and both times – though grateful for the experience – I was struck by the ugliness of the place and, especially, the rudeness of the resident monks.  I resonate with Annie Dillard’s observation:

“Any patch of ground anywhere smacks more of God’s presence on earth, to me, than did this marble grotto. The ugliness of the blunt and bumpy silver start impressed me. The bathetic pomp of the heavy, tasseled brocades, the marble, the censers hanging from chains, the embroidered antependium, the aspergillum, the crosiers the ornate lamps – some human’s idea of elegance – bespoke grand comedy, too, that God put with it. And why should he not? Things here on earth get a whole lot worse than bad taste.”

I am often disappointed by what we do with Bethlehem.  Even the church, whose life is based on that dingy miracle outside of Jerusalem, too often turns Bethlehem into something cute, something tame and touching and saccharin.  But the Incarnation – that’s the name we give to God’s invasion of the world in Bethlehem – was never meant to be.

So perhaps Bethlehem has always been a disappointment, and might always will be.  There is hardly a fitting response to such a strange happening.  We do our best with smoky marble and kitschy plays, but our best is still ugly.

Thankfully, God hangs with us anyway – with all those who are disappointed in, and all those who add to the disappointment of – this place, this miracle, this mystery that is Bethlehem.  Dillard concludes her above observation with this line from Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav:

“Every day, the glory is ready to emerge from its debasement.”

May the true glory of Bethlehem be manifest in us and in our communities, and may God continue to bear with us – every day.

watch for the light

Source: “Bethlehem,” by Annie Dillard, in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (New York: Orbis 2001), 220.

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Pope Francis’ Address to the #UMC

His Holiness Pope Francis showing off the exact opposite of a 'funeral face,' courtesy Wikipedia.
His Holiness Pope Francis showing off the exact opposite of a ‘funeral face,’ courtesy Wikipedia.

In, “Wow, he never ceases to amaze” news, Pope Francis just dropped a Petrine hammer on his own inner circle.  The Vatican Curia – the upper echelon leaders of the vast Vatican administrative machine – got some coal in their mitres during what is usually a pretty benign Christmas address.  The short version: he said the Curia was sick. Of the 15 ‘ailments’ he named that are harming the life of the Roman Catholic Church, I thought a few especially applied to my own communion, the United Methodist Church.  The full list, and the original numbering, is found here from the AP, from which the following selections are quoted.  The commentary attached is my own.  See if you think the Holy Father’s words are fitting for today’s UMC:

1) Feeling immortal, immune or indispensable. “A Curia that doesn’t criticize itself, that doesn’t update itself, that doesn’t seek to improve itself is a sick body.”

Going on to perfection is kind of our thing, isn’t it?  In 2012, the UMC showed a remarkable ability to avoid self-improvement.  How can we become a healthy body instead of a sick body?

2) Working too hard. “Rest for those who have done their work is necessary, good and should be taken seriously.”

For too many Christians, lay and clergy alike, busyness has become a status symbol and an idol.  Why don’t our clergy preach sabbath? Why don’t our churches expect it of their pastors?

5) Working without coordination, like an orchestra that produces noise. “When the foot tells the hand, ‘I don’t need you’ or the hand tells the head ‘I’m in charge.'”

It is easy to look upon other corners of the church as backwards, our out there, or fruitless, or whatever.  But we are all in this together, folks. (By the by, Bishop Grant Hagiya recently had some great things to say about the Pacifict-Northwest, often dismissed by Methodists here in the Bible Belt, on episode #7 of the WesleyCast).  Moreover, coordination – aligning our ministries, resources, and energies – is critical to accomplishing our ministry.  See also #1.

6) Having ‘spiritual Alzheimer’s.’ “We see it in the people who have forgotten their encounter with the Lord … in those who depend completely on their here and now, on their passions, whims and manias, in those who build walls around themselves and becomes enslaved to the idols that they have built with their own hands.”

Ask about rescinding the Guaranteed Appointment and watch our clergy suddenly develop ‘spiritual Alzheimer’s.’

7) Being rivals or boastful. “When one’s appearance, the color of one’s vestments or honorific titles become the primary objective of life.”

We are too damned competitive with each other.  The megachurch pastors all want the number one spot.  The mid-size church in town competes with the large downtown church.  On a charge, the smaller church or churches feel inferior to the larger.  Clergy boast about “God’s work” in their church, sharing posts on social media about all the amazing things going on but really we just want our colleagues and superiors to think better of us. In internet parlance, this is called a “humblebrag.” All of this is poison. Pure poison.

9) Committing the ‘terrorism of gossip.’ “It’s the sickness of cowardly people who, not having the courage to speak directly, talk behind people’s backs.”

Christians should not be gossips, and we in the UMC are as guilty as anyone. We talk behind the backs of our pastors, our lay leadership, our bishops, etc..  We of all people know the power of words to make and unmake lives, galaxies, families, and churches.  Clergy should take the lead in condemning gossip in all its forms.  Dave Ramsey’s (I know, I know) take is helpful.  If you think Ramsey is too strong on this, remember – the Pope just called this terrorism.

12) Having a ‘funeral face.’ “In reality, theatrical severity and sterile pessimism are often symptoms of fear and insecurity. The apostle must be polite, serene, enthusiastic and happy and transmit joy wherever he goes.”

The subtext for too many of our denominational gatherings – international, national, and local – is death.  We Methodists wear the funeral face well. We shouldn’t.  As another Bishop of Rome, John Paul II, said, “We are Easter people and hallelujah is our song.”

14) Forming ‘closed circles’ that seek to be stronger than the whole. “This sickness always starts with good intentions but as time goes by, it enslaves its members by becoming a cancer that threatens the harmony of the body and causes so much bad — scandals — especially to our younger brothers.”

If all or most of your friends are on the same side as you, in the church or in the world – you need to rid yourself of this sickness.  Caucuses (such as the IRD, RMN, Good News, and Love Prevails) have done the UMC precisely what some of the Founders – quite correctly – warned that parties would do the the US.  If you want to affiliate with some sub-group of the UMC, fine; but we are contributing to the dissolution of the church and our own spiritual myopia if we only associate with like-minded folk.

There’s my annotated, partial list of Pope Francis’ recommendations for United Methodists.  What do you think?  What should be added? Might the UMC benefit from a similar speech from one of our Bishops?

Incarnation Roundtable (#ICYMI)

cpost

Some young Christian thinkers have an interesting project going over at Conciliar Post.  They are hosting regular “Roundtable” posts on major points of Christian doctrine or church practice, featuring voices from a wide swath of Christian traditions.  It’s refreshing to see such effort put into substantive engagement with doctrine and church teaching.  Clickbait and fluff are the stock-in-trade of the blogosophere, and Jacob Prahlow and the team over at CP should be commended for offering something so against the grain.

I was honored to be asked to contribute a Wesleyan voice to the latest Roundtable discussion which focused, appropriately enough given the time of year, on the Incarnation.  You can read my  Wesleyan/Methodist offering, as well as Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican perspectives, here.

10 Advent Outreach Ideas Better Than Train Communion (@GNJUMC)

train communionDesperate times call for heretical measures.  The Greater New Jersey Conference has announced an Advent outreach event designed to share the love of Christ with commuters at busy train stations throughout the Garden State: give the bread and cup to passers-by.  Building on a a similar practice increasingly embraced on Ash Wednesday – taking liturgical rites to public places – the Greater NJ Conference hopes to meet people where they are:

As a part of the All Aboard for Advent Campaign, pastors and lay leaders who live near train stations throughout the Greater New Jersey area are being called to bring communion to daily commuters at train station platforms.

“I think it ties in with our belief of having a ministry without doors,” said Rev. Frederick Boyle, the senior pastor at Old First UMC in West Long Branch. “To give communion to commuters will come as quite a surprise to them for sure. But I think spreading God’s blessing is important and we need to do that whenever and wherever we can.”

I hate to rain on the Christmas parade, but this kind of practice is implicitly forbidden by the official (General Conference-certified) document expounding the UM theology and practice of Communion, This Holy Mystery.  All throughout, THM presupposes a gathered community for the celebration of the Eucharist.  For reasons I explained at length here during the debate over “online communion,” the gathering of a community is essential to the nature of the act (and visiting the sick and homebound is not so much an exception to this rule as it is an extension of the table in proper pastoral circumstances).  As THM makes clear throughout, Holy Communion is indeed a communion:

Holy Communion is the communion of the church-the gathered community of the faithful, both local and universal. While deeply meaningful to the individuals participating, the sacrament is much more than a personal event. The first person pronouns throughout the ritual are consistently plural-we, us, our.

Since train communion (unless done as a full, public worship service, which doesn’t seem to be what is proposed) is a bad idea, I don’t want to leave my NJ colleagues hanging.  Here are ten ideas (in no particular order) for Advent outreach that are better, and far less offensive to UM theology and practice, than train communion.  I owe this idea, in part, to Carol Bloom who proposed several of these alternatives during a recent discussion in the UMC Worship Facebook group – so thanks, Carol!

  1. Prayer Stations: Pray with and for people.  Very few people – even the nonreligious and nominally religious – will punch you in the face if you ask to pray for them.
  2. Blue Christmas: Sometimes called a Longest Night service, these worship services are a great way to offer hope to the many in our communities who are hurting during the holidays.
  3. Free Hot Cocoa/Coffee:  Who doesn’t love a hot beverage in the dead of winter?  Also pairs well with #1.
  4. Gift Wrapping: Many of us (your humble author included) are terrible at wrapping gifts.  Offer a free gift wrapping station at a local shopping center.
  5. Advent Calendars/Devotionals: Advent gets too easily run over by the commercialism of the holiday season.  Hand out Advent calendars or devotionals to help people remember Jesus in the midst of the hustle and bustle.
  6. Parents’ Night Out:  Sponsor a parents’ night out for the community; get some Doritos and board games, throw on Elf, and let the parents drop off their kids so they can have a date night and do their shopping.
  7. Free Bibles:  If you give out whole Bibles you’ll already be doubling the effort of the Gideons.
  8. Christmas Meal: Odds are there are people in your community who either can’t afford a Christmas meal or don’t have family to celebrate it with, or both.  Reach out to them in with Christian love…and mashed potatoes.
  9. Go Caroling: Pick a neighborhood, a nursing home, or a homeless shelter and spread some Christmas cheer.  Against such things there is no law.
  10. Thank the Train Employees: Okay, this one is specific to Jersey, and other places with lots of public transportation.  The idea is very transferable, though. Pick some public servants in thankless jobs and show them some appreciation and holiday cheer.  Take care packages to the local police station.  Send cards to the neighborhood fire house.  Do something for the nurses that will be working while the rest of us celebrate.  You get the idea.

There. Ten ideas for Advent outreach that do not run afoul of This Holy Mystery, many of which could even be done in and around train stations.  How about it, GNJUMC?  Are you #allaboardumc with a slight change in plans?

I close with the words of Brian Wren from one of my favorite Communion hymns, I Come With Joy.  He reminds us that the sacrament, for which we gather and by which we are united, sends us out to fulfill the Missio Dei in a variety of ways – but hopefully none which deny the nature and dignity of the Eucharist itself.

Together met, together bound,
by all that God has done,
we’ll go with joy, to give the world,
the love that makes us one.