Enter the Story

This Sunday is the third Sunday of our Advent Conspiracy at Ball Camp Baptist Church. This is the Sunday for us to more fully enter the story of Christmas, the story of God coming into the World. This Sunday, as we worship, we will seek to enter this amazing story by giving more; giving more of our time, our gifts and our resources. By more fully entering the story of Christmas, we become participants. More than listening to the story, we want to live it. In living it, we want to join with other followers of Christ sharing the story so that others can hear it and experience the love and compassion of Jesus Christ.

Chaouki & Maha Boulos share and live the story of Christ’s birth in the country of Lebanon. As we give more this Sunday, we enter the story of Christmas alongside the Bouloses as they tell the story of  grace and mercy in the region of the world where Jesus was born.

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Your Christmas Story

Rhode Island Governor, Lincoln Chaffee, was met by vocal opposition this week at the tree lighting ceremony for his state’s official holiday tree.  That is right; he called it a holiday tree instead of a Christmas tree.   After he lit the tree, a few dozen protesters started singing “O Christmas Tree.”  Their contention was, of course, that calling the tree a holiday tree rather than a Christmas tree diminished the religious significance of the season.  Yet, I wonder if it is possible for anyone to do anything that will diminish the religious significance of the season any more than it has already been diminished.

Governor Chaffee defended his actions by noting that his predecessor had referred to the tree as a holiday tree, and in that sense, he was just following precedent.  He referred to his state’s founder, Roger Williams, who fled religious persecution in nearby Massachusetts, and founded the Rhode Island colony as a place where individuals could exercise freedom of conscience.  At the unveiling of the statue of Roger Williams at the US Capitol in 1872, Rhode Island Senator William Sprague observed that Roger Williams, “successfully vindicated the right of private judgment in matters of conscience, and affected a moral and political revolution in all governments of the civilized world.” Williams was no antagonist toward religion.  In fact, just the opposite was true. Shortly after founding the new colony, Williams organized what would become the First Baptist Church in the new World.

Ironically, Williams likely would have been at a loss for words regarding what to call a tree used to celebrate or commemorate the Christmas season.  Why?  Well there simply were no trees, Christmas or otherwise during William’s day.  They are later additions to the way we observe Christmas, and likely did not appear in this country until the 1700s or early 1800s.

Therein, lies a deeper irony.  Christmas, what it is and what it means, has become a muddled dispute about what to call a tree.  Trees, wreaths, lights and lawn ornaments are, for some people, a helpful way to enter into the story of Christ’s birth.  For others, they add no particular inspiration beyond the festive brightness they add to an otherwise barren winter landscape.  To the extent that they are helpful, they ought to be encouraged. To the extent that they become a distraction, they ought to be set aside figuratively, if not literally.

God is coming.  We as Christians have a hard time getting our minds around that reality.  The very idea of God taking on flesh and dwelling among us is something we know as wonder and mystery.  Our capacity to embrace it and celebrate it is a part of God’s gift of faith to us.  How, then, can we expect an unrepentant world to celebrate what we ourselves only know of because of God’s gracious gift to us? Such expectations seem unreasonable, even as such disputes diminish our testimony and lessen the impact of that first Christmas on the world today.

There really is nothing about which to argue.  Christmas has happened, is happening, and will happen. God is coming.  There is nothing anyone can do or say that will change that reality.  What is essential for us is to enter the story of God’s coming more fully, leaving behind whatever keeps that divine child from being born anew in our lives, and taking hold of whatever causes his presence to be more real in our lives and be more evident in our living.

The story of Christmas is a story of good news. It is a story to which we are not merely meant to listen to, but to enter.  If all we ever do is listen to the story, the carols, and the sounds of the season, we have missed God’s intention for us.  We are invited to join the story and to let our lives be shaped by it so we become a part of the good news God so wonderfully and miraculously proclaimed that night long ago in Bethlehem.

Less is More

As I am speaking to a small group gathered for midweek worship and a meal at an inner-city Baptist center, I can not help but notice the coughing of the woman sitting over to my left.  I immediately recognize her from the last time that I had gathered with this group.  She has pancreatic cancer.   Her coughing, like “groans that could not be expressed in words”, do not disturb the service, rather it is a part of the service.  It is a litany of sorts that speaks her deepest longing.

At the end of the service, she comes to me asking for prayer.  The weight of her burden is great.  Who knows what the cancer has done to her body?   She does not know, as she lacks the means for medical treatment and the feedback a doctor would give her.  Her only hope is prayer.  While she may not know exactly what the cancer is doing to her, she knows that it is surely taking life from her.   In a very real way, life now for her consists of that space between her and God.   If she lives, it will be because of God. If she does not, she will be with God.

After we pray, I cannot help but wonder what the days ahead will hold for her.  Will she suffer?  How much will she suffer?  Will a miracle happen?  How will it be between her and God?

Disease has a way of focusing our attention.  It causes us to see things that we had not seen, or had overlooked.  We think differently; our perspective changes when confronted by an invasion of our bodies that is likely to be our undoing.  Sometimes, it causes us to turn toward God and to move closer to God.  For some people, the effect is the opposite.  For them, there is anger and resentment toward God.  Still others respond with a mixture of emotions and thoughts in such trying times.

Yet, with or without disease, our lives share a common condition.  We all live in the time and the space that God gives to us.   A life threatening illness may cause us to be more aware of God and our dependence on and accountability to God.   However, good health does not mean that we are any less dependent on God for our lives, and we are certainly no less accountable for them.

Last week, we heard the prophet Isaiah plead for God to “…tear open the heavens and come down…” to us, to fill the time and the space of our living.  In essence, we asked God to be with us.  That is the heart of Christmas, Immanuel, “God with us.”   We know that God has been born, that God abides with us each day, and that God will come again.

Advent prepares us for all the ways that God has, does, and will come to us.  As we prepare, is there room in our lives for more of God?  Is there room for God to do with us what God wants to do with us?  When we put up the Christmas tree at our house, it almost always means something has to be moved to make room for the tree.  What do we need to rearrange in our lives in order to make more room for God, to make ourselves more available to God?  The radical commitment that God makes to us in taking on flesh and being born among us, calls us beyond rearranging.  God’s purpose for our lives is not that they be busier, heavier and more burdensome.  In being born, God makes a way for us to be liberated from all that would separate us from God.

What is it that keeps us from experiencing the presence and peace of God?  Whatever that is, that is what we need less of.  If we are too busy, then we need fewer commitments.  If we are too burdened by debt, then we need less spending.

This Advent season we are conspiring together because we believe that Christmas can still change the world.  The proposal is quite simple.  Start small by spending less.  Eliminate one gift– one fruitcake, one sweater, one gift that will probably not be missed, and use that money to do something that will make the birth of Christ a reality for someone who desperately needs to know Jesus.  It is a small step, but a good beginning as we seek to empty our lives of that which keeps us from experiencing the fullness and wonder of what God has done in Jesus Christ.

What if Christmas was about Christ?

That night when Jesus was born, how many people new what was happening?  Think about it for a minute — how many people new that God was being born?  Did anyone know that incarnation was happening?  Who knew that God was taking on flesh in order to dwell among us?  Who knew that God was so in love with us that God was coming to be with us?  Was anyone thinking that God was so radically intent on being reconciled with God’s creation?

Mary and Joseph had an idea that something special was happening.  Elizabeth and Zechariah might have known, along with a few other family members, perhaps.  The shepherds, of course, get clued in by a heavenly visitation.  Eventually, there will be visitors from the east.  Herod will be briefed on what they believe has happened.  Beyond a handful of people, most of the world’s population had no idea that anything significant, much less world changing, happened on that first Christmas.

All these years later, some might argue that the birth of Christ has been changed by the world more than it has changed the world.  Christmas seems to be about many things that have little or nothing to do with God coming into the world in order redeem and reconcile human hearts.  Granted there are many opportunities to do good for the less fortunate during the holiday season, but for most people these are sandwiched into a hectic schedule that reduces them to obligation or afterthought, rather than focal point.  The truth of the matter is that Christmas has become an industry, an economic engine, that springs to life earlier and earlier each year, so that it can better serve the purpose to which it has devolved.  The air around Christmas is so polluted by the smog and debris of consumerism run amok that the Christ is hardly visible.

Some have seen a threat to Christmas in the practice of referring to the season as the holiday season, rather than Christmas.  Their aim is to keep Christ in Christmas.  It is a laudable goal insofar as it goes.  One would think that a birthday celebration would, at a minimum, include the one for whom the celebration is being given.  But what purpose does it serve if the end result is still the same old hustle and bustle, the same cluttered and obstructed view of God entering our world in order to embrace us with an everlasting love.

We still live in a world that needs to experience the love God expressed so emphatically on that first Christmas.  How can the world ever hope to experience that love unless the body of Christ, the church, intentionally and practically shares that love?  We have been loved with that love and we know that it is not ours to enjoy just for ourselves.  It is ours to share.

Keeping Christ in Christmas is not enough.  What if we did more than just keep Christ in Christmas?  What if we made Christmas about Christ?  What if Christmas was an event that could once again change the world?  This Christmas, at Ball Camp Baptist Church, we are conspiring together (literally, breathing together) to do just that.  By worshipping fully, spending less, giving more, and loving all, we are going to be a part of a Christmas that will change lives.  We are not alone in this conspiracy.  Others are breathing with us. Cooperative Baptist Fellowship missionaries in the United States and around the world are daily striving to be the presence of Christ to those who have yet to fully realize the meaning of that first Christmas in their own lives.  As we seek to make Christmas more about Christ this year, their world and their lives may never be the same.

Being Thankful

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (I Thessalonians 5:16-18). Read literally, these admonitions from the Apostle to the church at Thessalonica seem impossible to do.  Given the hardships and difficulties of life, how could anyone expect to rejoice always? With the busyness of life, how is possible for a person to pray constantly? For those situations and events that we wish had never occurred, how do we begin to give thanks in all circumstances?

For some people, these words have led them to believe that Christian faithfulness dictates that they should always be happy, rejoicing in the face of tragedy, and giving thanks in the midst of calamity. Such a reading pushes one to sometimes say what is not truly felt, and to act as if what has happened has not truly happened. While such utterances and actions may provide a temporary respite from the pain of the moment, yet the deeper grief remains untouched. Therefore, it lingers, still hurting and still impacting the life of the one who boldly and bravely tried mightily to rejoice and give thanks.

For some people, these words make no sense and are therefore dismissed, filed away with biblical ideas that are too hard, too irrational, or to impractical to be taken seriously. While such a response may seem the wiser, it leaves unexplored a deeper spiritual reality and richer intimacy with God.

When Paul says to give thanks in all circumstances, the implication is that circumstances are not be the determining factor of one’s thankfulness. If one can be thankful regardless of circumstances, then one’s circumstances are not the deciding factor in whether or not one is thankful. For Paul, giving thanks is something more than a gesture of politeness, good manners, or heartfelt gratitude.  Normally, when we give thanks there is a reason —  our family, our job, our friends. There is someone or something that touches our life in such a way that we express thanksgiving. Yet, Paul seems to point to something more than someone or something for which we are grateful, to a way of being. Be thankful, with or without someone. Be thankful, with or without something. Be thankful, with or without an apparent reason. There is more to giving thanks than our circumstances, whatever they might be, would indicate.

In a similar way, when Paul says “Rejoice always,” I do not think he is suggesting that we ought to rejoice because of this good event or this bad event. Again, the attitude of rejoicing is not determined by the circumstance or situation. Interestingly, one of the ways that the Greek word “Rejoice” was used was as a greeting. It was similar to our “Hello, I am glad to see you.” Perhaps Paul is suggesting that we greet each moment that comes our way with joy. Such joy is not circumstantial or situational, but takes a longer view. Julian of Norwich, 14th century Christian mystic, seems to have understood this sort of joy, “. . . All will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.”

The gratitude and joy that Paul speaks of are the fruits of a prayerful life. Prayer is central for the follower of Christ. It is the oxygen of living a daily Christian life. For Paul it cannot be relegated to a particular time of day, it must be a constant. This does not mean that all activity stops and the believer does nothing except pray. It does mean that everything the believer does can become prayer, a mindfulness of the presence of God, and of being in that presence. Rejoicing and thanksgiving are rooted in such mindfulness.

With joy and thanksgiving for the way God has made us God’s own, we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving. We have much for which to be thankful, but nothing more so than the reality that God has come to us and made us children of God. Everything is different because of what God has done in Jesus Christ. This Advent, as we remember God first coming to us, and how radically changed the world is because God did come, we are going to ask the question: What if the birth of Christ could change the world again? Is it possible for the joy and gratitude that we have experienced in Christ to impact the world in a way that makes a difference in the lives of people? Let’s conspire together and see what God will do.