Happy Advent

Bill Nieporte is a friend from my seminary days, and currently the pastor of Patterson Avenue Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia. This week, he is toying with the idea of creating a “John the Baptist” line of Christmas cards.  So far, here is what he has produced:

Outside card: “From Our House To Yours This Holiday Season…”

Inside: “Merry Christmas you brood of vipers.”

Outside card: “Let’s all pass the cup as we gather round the Yule log…”

Inside: …which burns like the unquenchable fire of hell that is soon going to consume you for all eternity…With Love, John”

Outside card: “Season’s greeting to you from across the miles…”

Inside: “Hey, who told you to flee from the wrath to come?”

This is, of course, straight out of scripture, but not so very Christmas sounding.  John’s words change our focus.  If Christmas is about renewing our hope in the idea of peace on earth and goodwill among all people, John reminds us that we are to be an integral part of bringing such an idea to fruition.   If Christmas is about God taking on flesh and coming to live among us humans, John reminds us of our need to turn our lives toward the One who is coming to us.  If Christmas is about God assuming the vulnerable form of a human infant, John reminds us that being vulnerable to the promptings of the Holy Spirit and open to the weak and vulnerable among us, is how we embrace this infant being born into our lives.  If Christmas is wise men traveling from afar, angels singing, and shepherds being astonished and afraid, John reminds us that our joining the cosmic and timeless celebration means confessing our failures, owning our weaknesses, and seeking healing for our wounds.

Christmas can be a confusing time for many folks for a variety of reasons.  In the midst of difficult economic times, money for presents will be limited for many.  If the focus of Christmas is buying, then, no doubt, there will be some who are feeling like they have not had much of a Christmas. If Christmas is about family, and a family member is ill, away from home, deployed overseas, or has passed away, Christmas will be different at best and impossible at worst.

What John does for us during this advent season is to focus our attention on what the most important item is on our list of things to do in order to get ready for Christmas.  With laser precision, John calls us to look at our own lives, our relationships with God and the ways those relationships impact how we live our lives.  For, you see, if Christmas is to happen, this time it will not happen in a far-away, long-ago stable.  No, if Christmas is to happen, it will happen in the lives of women and men, boys and girls who are ready to invite and embrace the birth of a new experience of the reality of God in their lives.  December 25th will appear on the calendar in just a few more days.  Christmas will come. What John wants to know is whether or not Christmas will happen in you?  Are you getting ready?

Looking for Jesus

The doorbell rang. With Janet out sick, and me alone in the office, it was mine to answer. I pressed the button to unlock the door. Viewing our guest through the monitor, I decided to walk down the hall and greet her at the door.

She was an older lady and she seemed a little agitated. Actually, she seemed quite agitated. Without removing her cell phone from her ear, she told me that she was not from here, she was lost, and she had a doctor’s appointment. There was a problem with her thyroid.

I started to inquire about her destination in the hopes of gaining enough information to help her get where she needed to go. As I was trying to gather information, I realized she had someone, most likely the receptionist at the doctor’s office, on the phone. She was not talking to me at all, but to whoever was on the other end of the line.

I stood there eavesdropping on her conversation. I know, rather rude of me. When I had heard enough, I returned to my study and pulled up Mapquest. With the overheard tidbits gained from eavesdropping on her conversation, Mapquest magically made a map.

Back down the hallway I went, to show her the map and say, “Here is where you want to go.” I can’t do that, though, because she is still on the phone. So I stood there once again eavesdropping on her conversation. As I heard her repeating the landmarks that whomever she is talking to is giving her, I locate and identify them on the map that Mapquest has magically made.

I tried to hold the map in such a way that she could see it while she talked; pointing with my pen to the locations I heard her mentioning. Am I distracting her? It would appear so. I placed the map on the counter and took a step or two toward the other side of the room. Obviously she felt that she gained great insight from her conversation. Evidently she is more verbal than visual.

As she finished her phone call, she seemed to notice me again. Thanking me, she headed for the door. “Wait! Don’t you want the map?” I guess not. She is gone.

What happened there? I thought someone needed help. More than that, I thought that someone was asking for my help. The truth is that she was asking for help, frantically so. She was most concerned about getting where she needed to be and she was quite unsure as to how to get there. Her frustration was so great — near panic — that one voice could not solve her dilemma. She wanted all the help she could get. In a situation like that, it is hard to trust just one person that you have just met to tell you how to get to where you need to go.

After she was gone, I started thanking about our Advent journey. Every year we try to turn our lives toward Bethlehem and find our way to Jesus. Sometimes our need to see Him is great, almost frantic. We desperately want — no, need — to see Him. Other years, our need is not so great. We give ourselves to the hustle and bustle of the season trusting that we will get to where we need to be.

Either way, we are confronted with an abundance of directional signs and voices eager to move our lives to one version of Christmas or the other. We listen. Who knows? We might see Jesus or at least catch a glimpse.

But what if a glimpse is not enough? What if you really need to see Jesus? What if your need to hold Him and be held by Him is great, if not frantic? What do you do? You might try Mapquest; and while you might get directions to Bethlehem, I don’t think the Mapquest folks can show you the way to Jesus.

The troubling thing about Jesus is that He often turns up in places where we least expect Him. He has been that way from the start. You would expect the Son of God to be born somewhere special. Jesus was born in a stable because there was no room for Him in the nicer places. If you really need to get to Jesus this Christmas, you might start in those places where people go when there is no room for them in the nicer places.

Solitude is definitely on the way to wherever Jesus is. In stillness and silence with the abundance of seasonal noise pushed away, the angel can be heard again, “Do not be afraid, for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people. To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Turning down the volume on the wisdom the world offers to us is not an easy thing for us to do. If you do listen to what everyone else is listening to, and you hear what they hear, you might get left out or left behind. Worse yet, you might be thought of as different. Underneath the din of this world’s noise, there is a voice that was born to speak into our lives. Beyond the clanging of our culture’s racket, there is a child being born who calls us to love, peace, joy, and hope. In the listening silence of prayer, we can hear that voice and find our way to Jesus.

People are another landmark along the way to Jesus. If we are to get where Jesus is this Christmas, we will have been with some people. The people who help us to see Jesus may be gathered in a sanctuary on Christmas Eve, breaking bread and drinking juice and remembering why this child was born. It may be the songs of joy, hope, and expectation that those people sing that help us find our way to Jesus. The people who help us see Jesus may be smaller in number. People, family, and friends, gathered around a table, sharing a meal and being with each other, may be the very thing that helps us find our way to Jesus this year.

I hope you find your way to Jesus this year. Do not be discouraged even if you feel lost and adrift. The Good News is that God is always looking for us.

Spiritual Memories

Last Sunday, I had an odd sensation that the clock or the calendar had been turned back a few years when I paid $1.55 a gallon for gasoline. On the news, I heard that O.J. Simpson was on trial. Now it is Wednesday and the electricity is off at the church. I am sitting, writing by the light from unshuttered, unblinded windows. The year might well be 1808, rather than 2008.

However, in the midst of Advent, with Christmas just days away and 2009 drawing nearer each day, our lives are drawn toward tomorrow. There are certainly reasons to be excited. A new year always holds the promise of new possibilities and new adventures. Yet, tomorrows can also come with uncertainties. We all have them. Challenges that are unique to our own personal situations. Tomorrow can be an occasion for dread, rather than excitement.

Recalling spiritual memories can be a helpful thing to do when facing a difficult situation or an uncertain tomorrow. Remembering how God has been present with us in the past can bolster our outlook for today. We should never let those times in our lives, when God has been intensely close to us, slip from our memories. They are rich treasure — treasure that moth or rust cannot destroy.

Once we have experienced the presence of God giving us what we need to face a difficult time, that experience cannot be taken from us. The memory of God loving us and holding on to us through a hard place is always there for us to remember and reclaim. In remembering, we draw our lives closer to that same source of strength and life. We draw ourselves closer to God even as God draws closer to us.

Over the course of a lifetime, a collection of spiritual memories can become a rather potent force in our lives. When we remember challenges that we faced together with God, our present difficulties can seem a little less daunting. However, remembering those times when we have experienced the presence of God in an especially close way is not always an easy thing to do. In fact, it can be quite difficult. The difficulty comes from the circumstances of the situation we are remembering. When have I felt God’s presence in an especially intimate way? When I have lost a loved one. I love to remember Mammaw, Pappaw and Daddy. I do not like remembering when they died. The hurt and the grief at those times was heavy. Yet, it was when the hurt and the grief were at their heaviest that God came nearest to me. In remembering when God felt so close, I cannot help but remember why I need for God to be near.

The clock and the calendar only move in one direction — forward. There is no going back to another time or place. Yet, we can remember, and it is good that we do. In remembering, we cherish again the special people who have touched our lives while at the same time, we strengthen our grip on the hand that has held on to us all these years.

Will We Remember?

When did we start calling the day after Thanksgiving “Black Friday?” I heard such a reference or two during Thanksgiving week and could not recall having heard it before this year. I must have missed it. Of course, I am not much of a shopper on any day, much less the day after Thanksgiving.

When I heard the phrase “Black Friday,” I thought of Easter and Good Friday. Good Friday I know. A man died on Good Friday. That being the case, I have always thought it odd that we refer to that Friday as good.

Black Friday is different. It is not the Friday before Easter at all. It is the Friday after Thanksgiving. Good Friday only makes sense as a name for the day that Christ was crucified because we live on this side of Easter and resurrection. On humanity’s darkest day, Good Friday, God was at work to do the greatest good that could ever be done. Black Friday, now that I know it exists and has its own name, is slightly more perplexing — even disturbing.

Black Friday is perplexing and disturbing because giving a name to the biggest shopping day of the year seems to formalize the long held practice in this country of seeking to satisfy our deepest needs by consuming and possessing stuff. In a nation that so often seems to find its greatest satisfaction in buying stuff that it does not really need, is there a more important day than Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year?

Black Friday is perplexing and disturbing because presumably Black Friday happens in preparation for and in anticipation of Christmas and the birth of our Savior. Really? We get ready for the birth of the One who said to an inquirer, “Go and sell all you have,” by buying all we can? Can we get ready for the One who said, “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry,” by filling our lives with all the material possessions that we can grab? How do we prepare for the One who said, “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled,” when we have already filled our lives to suit ourselves?

I don’t think so. Granted, Black Friday happens in preparation for something. However, that something is not Christmas. It is not the birth of Christ. Maybe it used to be that way. Maybe all that has become of the American experience of Christmas used to reflect what God was doing in Christ on that long ago Bethlehem night. Now the reflection is muddled at best. Now, when we so need to see Jesus, recognizing Him is not so easy in the market-driven, one-day-only, 50-percent-off-sale that Christmas has become.

The American Family Association is up in arms because Costco does not use the word “Christmas” in their in-store advertising. Many see Costco’s practice as a slight toward Christmas and Christianity. I wonder though if they and other retail outlets don’t do the church a favor by creating some distance between buying stuff and observing the birth of Christ. I wonder if the followers of Christ are not better served by letting those who have no particular interest in Jesus do whatever makes sense to them during the holidays. This might well free believers in Jesus to rediscover the meaning of an ancient and holy day.

Black Friday is perplexing and disturbing because now, as on Good Friday, a man has been killed. While the testimony at the church has for 2,000 years proclaimed the significance of the One who died on Good Friday, there is no such testimony for the one who died on Black Friday. Why did Jdimytai Damour die on the Friday after Thanksgiving? What was in that Wal-Mart that was worth a man’s life? Was it the $798.00 Samsung 50-inch plasma HDTV? It could not have been the Bissel Compact Upright Vacuum for $28.00 or the men’s Wrangle jeans for $8.00. He died because a mob got out of control. He died because a group of people were so determined to get what they wanted that they no longer considered the welfare of others.

In just a few weeks we will celebrate the birth of the One who came to us and died for us so that we might know the everlasting love of God. I wonder if by then we will have forgotten the one who died so that we could buy stuff at really cheap prices, Jdimytai Damour. I hope that we do not forget, so that in remembering the one who died senselessly at the hands of a mob, we might more clearly see the extravagant gift given freely to us by the other.