Friday, November 30, 2012

Advent Is About Desire;postID=8072017826548708226

"Advent is all about desire," an elderly Jesuit in our community used to say every year as November drew to a close. And whenever he said it, I would say, "Huh?"
But gradually it dawned on me. Christians who celebrate Advent, the liturgical season that precedes Christmas, desire the coming of Christ into their lives in new ways. The beautiful readings from the Book of Isaiah, which we hear during Advent, describe how even the earth longs for the presence of God. The wonderful "O antiphons," sung at evening prayer and during the Gospel acclamations toward the end of Advent, speak of Christ at the "King of Nations and their Desire." The Gospel readings for the season tell of John the Baptist expressing Israel's hope for a Messiah. Mary and Joseph look forward to the upcoming birth of a son. My friend was right. It's all about desire.

But there's a problem: desire has a bad rep in some religious circles. When some Christians hear the term they think of two things: sexual desire or material wants, both of which are condemned outright by some shortsighted religious leaders. The first is one of the greatest gifts from God to humanity; without it the human race would cease to exist. The second is part of our natural desire for a healthy life -- for food, shelter and clothing.

Desire may also be difficult for some people to accept in their spiritual lives. One of my favorite books on prayer is "The Spiritual Exercises Reclaimed," written by Katherine Dyckman, Mary Garvin and Elizabeth Liebert, three Catholic sisters. It's a meditation on what is called "Ignatian spirituality," a spirituality based on the writings of St. Ignatius Loyola, the 16th-century founder of the Jesuit Order. In his classic text, "The Spiritual Exercises," Ignatius repeatedly recommends praying for what "I want and desire." For example, a closer relationship with God.
The three authors astutely note that this seemingly positive invitation may present obstacles for some women. "Women may often feel that paying attention to their desires is somehow selfish and that they should not honor their desires if they are being truly generous with God." The authors strongly encourage women to resist that tendency and to "notice" and "name" their desires. To claim them as their own.

Why all this emphasis on desire? Because desire is a key way that God speaks to us, whether in Advent or the rest of the year. Our holy desires are gifts from God.

Holy desires are different than surface wants, like "I want a new smartphone" or "I want a bigger office." Instead, I'm talking about our deepest longings, those that shape our lives: desires that help us know who we are to become and what we are to do. Our deep longings help know God's desires for us, and how much God desire to be with us. And God, I believe, encourages us to "notice" and "name" these desires, in the same way that Jesus encouraged Bartimaeus, the blind beggar in the Gospels, to articulate his desire. "What do you want me to do for you?" he asked the blind man sitting by the roadside. "Lord, I want to see," says Bartimaeus.
Why does Jesus ask Bartimaeus a seemingly idiotic question? After all, Jesus knew that the man was blind! For one thing, Jesus may have wanted to offer him the freedom to ask, to give the man the dignity of choice, rather than simply healing him straightaway. For another, Jesus knew that recognizing our desires means recognizing God's desires for us. Jesus may have asked Bartimaeus what he desires because our longings help us learn something about who we are. It's so freeing to say, "This is what I desire in life." Naming them may also make us more grateful when we receive the fulfillment of our hopes.

Expressing our desires brings us into a closer relationship with God. Not naming them sets up a barrier. It would be like never telling your best friend your innermost thoughts. Your friend would remain distant. When we tell God our desires, our relationship with God deepens.

Desire is also the primary way people are led to discover who they are and what they are meant to do. On the most obvious level, two people feel sexual, emotional and spiritual desire for one another, and in this way discover their vocations to love. A person feels an attraction to becoming a doctor, or a lawyer, or a teacher, and so discovers his or her vocation. Desire helps us find our way. But we first have to know them.

The deepest-held longings of our hearts are our holy desires. Not only desires for physical healing, as Bartimaeus asked for (and as many ask for today) but also the hope for change, for growth, for a fuller life. And our deepest desires, those that lead us to become who we are, are God's desires for us. They are ways that God speaks to you directly, one way that, as St. Ignatius Loyola says, the "Creator deals directly with the creature." They are also the way that God fulfills God's own dreams for the world, by calling people to certain tasks.

Desire plays an enormous role in the life of a Jesuit. As novices, we were taught that our deep longings are important to notice. A young Jesuit who dreams of working with the poor and marginalized, or studying Scripture, or working as a retreat director, will be encouraged to pay attention to his desires. Likewise, Jesuit superiors reverence these desires when making decisions about where to assign a particular Jesuit.

Sometimes in life, you might find yourself lacking the desire for something that you want to desire. Let's say you are living in a comfortable world with scant contact with the poor. You may say, "I know I'm supposed to want to live simply and work with the poor, but I have no desire to do this." Perhaps you know that you should want to be more generous, more loving, more forgiving, but don't desire it. How can you pray for that with honesty?

In reply, Ignatius would ask, "Do you have the desire for this desire?" Even if you don't want it, do you want to want it? Do you wish that you were the kind of person that wanted this? Even this can be seen as an invitation from God. It is a way of glimpsing God's invitation even in the faintest traces of desire.

Desire is a key part of Christian spirituality because desire is a key way that God's voice is heard in our lives. And our deepest desire, planted within us, is our Advent desire for Christ, the Desire of the Nations.
Originally published at America, the national Catholic weekly magazine.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Advent 2012: “Kingdom in the Streets” (Ken Medema)

                One way I like to think about humanity is that we are a cord of three strands:  priorities, passions, and practices.  Our priorities are our deepest convictions about the good, the right, and the beautiful.  Passions are the energies that drive us to act.  Practices are what we in fact do.  As Christians the gospel of Jesus Christ is the source and goal of these three “p’s.”

          Advent is one of the two times in the church year especially designed for reflective examination of our life in light of the gospel.  In the Bible “heart” is what NASA would call the “Command Center” of the person.  Intellect, emotion, and will collaborate to integrate and choreograph a life of integrity and coherence.  Unfortunately, we often find our Command Center dysfunctional with each of its three elements pushing, pulling, and seeking dominance over the others.  Paul’s “What I want to do, I don’t; and what I don’t want to do, I do” in Romans 7 is a classic statement of this conflict.

          Advent invites us to slow down and take a measured four-week journey of assessment and examination to prepare us to welcome the Christ-child anew.

          This Advent I would like to invite you journey with me under the guidance of the wonderful blind musician, Ken Medema.  In 1980 Medema released an album titled “Kingdom in the Streets.”  It is, in my opinion, a brilliant exposition of the Kingdom of God gospel announced and inaugurated by Jesus Christ.  Even over thirty years later, this album with its powerful lyrics, acute imagery, humor and pathos retains its punch.  Medema’s songs will serve as our entry into reflection on the priorities, passions, and practices that form the Command Center of our hearts.

          “Kingdom in the Streets” has eight songs.  As I hear them two of these songs speak primarily to what I called priorities above: “Is There a Place for Dreaming” and the title cut “Kingdom in the Streets.”  Two address our passions:  “I Saw You” and “Corner-Drug-Store Jesus.”  The remaining four point toward our practices:  “Those Love Songs,” “Barn Builder,” “By the Waters of Luxury,” “Don’t Tell Me.”

          We’ll take two songs a week so we’ll begin with priorities the first week of Advent, passions the second week, and practices the last two weeks leading up to Christmas.  I hope you find this a useful aid in your practice of Advent this year.  

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Sex, God and Politics

Is sex more satisfying for conservative women?  Or are liberal women just making an idol out of sex?
The always-stimulating (no pun intended) Mark Regnerus, a Patheos blogger and one of the most significant sociologists of religion practicing the craft today (and Mark is a gadfly in the most salutary sense, but far more controversial than he should be), points to a very interesting correlation between political liberalism amongst women and the desire for more sex.

The New Family Structures Study asked respondents, “Are you satisfied with the amount of sex you’re having?”  As Regnerus reports, women of all political persuasions report roughly the same frequency of sex — so, before you leap to conclusions, conservative women are not “frigid” or sexually unsatisfied.  Indeed, they might be more.  18-39 year-old women who lean to the left politically are far more inclined to say that they would prefer to have more sex than they are having.  16 percent of “very conservative” women in that age range say they would prefer to have more sex, compared to 29 percent of conservative women, 31 percent of moderates, and 47 percent and 50 percent respectively of “liberal” and “very liberal” women.  That’s a very significant trend line.  Liberal women are 50% more likely than moderate women to report a desire for more frequent sex, and “very liberal” women are over 300% more likely than “very conservative” women.

And the result only grows more interesting the further you delve into it.  As Regnerus writes:
In regression models, the measure of political liberalism remains significantly associated with the odds of wanting more sex even after controlling for the frequency of actual intercourse over the past two weeks, their age, marital status, education level, whether they’ve masturbated recently, their anxiety level, sexual orientation, race/ethnicity, depressive symptoms, and porn use. Many of these are significant predictors of wanting more sex. And still the political thing matters.
This begs for interpretation.  Regnerus offers one possibility.  Liberal young women are much less inclined to be religious than conservative young women.  Perhaps sex functions as a substitute for the transcendent.  Many psychologists have posited a deep human need for experiences of transcendence, of mystical oneness, of spiritually impassioned self-abandonment.  So in the absence of another transcendent experience, in the absence of another sacred goal and unifying purpose to life, perhaps liberal young women turn to sex as the only place where they find what they’re looking for.  Since conservative women are more likely to be religious, they are more likely to have other ways of connecting and transcending.  But for many liberal women, sex is quite literally the only religious experience they can allow themselves to enjoy.

Some might find this answer offensive.  But there’s a strong piece of evidence in its favor: when you control for attendance of religious services, “political liberalism finally went silent as a predictor.”  That is, politically liberal women who attend religious services frequently are not significantly more likely than politically conservative women who attended religious services frequently to report a desire for more sex, and liberal women who never attend religious services are not significantly more likely to report a desire for more sex than conservative women who never attend religious services.

So the upshot, if I understand Regnerus correctly (and I will ask), is that women who attend church services less frequently, even though they’re not having significantly less sex, are more likely to report a desire for more sex than women who attend church services more frequently.  The question is: Why is this so?  And why is this so for women when it is not so for men?  Are women less inclined to want more sex because they attend church more frequently?  Or are they less inclined to attend church more frequently because they want more sex?  Or both?

One wise conclusion, from Dr Regnerus, is this: “measures of political conservatism or liberalism are clearly reflecting more than just Republican or Democratic Party affiliation or voting habits.  No, they’re about people’s embedded-ness in distinctive worldviews and sets of meanings.”  This seemed more clear in 2012 than ever before.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Hobbit and the Renewal of the Church (3)

4. Beginning at the End

          Let’s remember as we make our way through TH that even though it is a prequel of sorts for TLOR, the latter took on a life of its own that distanced it somewhat from TH.  For instance, the ring of invisibility Bilbo finds and uses in TH is not yet the One Ring of Power that becomes the focal point of TLOR.  And Sauron, the Dark Lord of the trilogy, is known only as the Necromancer in TH and is little more than a literary device to enable Gandalf’s movements in the story.  These two staples of the latter work play small roles in TH.  This should alert us that in this prequel Tolkien is doing something different than he does in the trilogy and that we should adjust our reading expectations accordingly.

          Oddly enough, we will begin at the end.

          TH concludes some years later with Bilbo, Gandalf, and Balin (one of the dwarves) offering reflections on their shared adventure.  Upon hearing good news of the fortunes of Dale and the Lake-town Bilbo muses that the “prophecies of the old songs” had been fulfilled after all.  Gandalf replies that he should not be surprised.  “You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit?  You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all”(330). 

          Gandalf reminds Bilbo here that he is a part of something much larger and of vaster significance than he could imagine.  In the initial gathering of the dwarves and Bilbo with Gandalf to prepare for the journey to the Lonely Mountain to reclaim their stolen gold, Gandalf intimates as much.  When he mentions his earlier nearly mortal encounter with the Necromancer the dwarves bristle for they believe they have a score to settle with this enemy for his earlier wrongs against their people.  Gandalf bristles back at them:

“Don’t be absurd!  He is an enemy far beyond the powers of all the dwarves put together, if they could all be collected again from the four corners of the world.  The one thing your father wished was for his son to read the map and use the key.  The dragon and the Mountain are more than big enough tasks for you” (30).

This group and their mission seem to be a part of larger sorties against the enemies of Middle Earth.  Their task is appropriate to them.  Others (Gandalf and the White Council) will have to deal with the Necromancer.  Yet their work is all a part of a larger strategy.

          Further along in the story the dwarves sing a song that makes this same claim.  Having feasted at Beorn’s table before they commence their journey through the terrible forest Mirkwood, they sing a song very similar to the one they sand in Bilbo’s house before setting out on their journey.  It is a song about a wind, a special wind it seems, that blows a parallel course to that of our intrepid adventurers.  The significance of this wind is not exhausted by their journey, however.  It’s last verse takes off into the cosmic sphere.

“It left the world and took its flight                                                                        over the wide seas of the night.
The moon set sail upon the gale,
And stars were fanned to leaping light.” (140)

          These parallel songs surely invite us to view the dwarves’ journey and the wind’s journey as overlapping realities.  The latter is the greater and incorporates the former into its own trajectory.  Tolkien was well aware that in both of the biblical languages, Hebrew and Greek, the word for “wind” also meant “spirit” or “breath,” and was the word used in reference to the Holy “Spirit.”  It is highly likely Tolkien intends, for Christian readers at least, to see in this wind overtones of a divinely sovereign hand at work.  As difficult, slow, obscure, and ambiguous as the journey is for its participants, Tolkien shows us that a sure and unstoppable, cosmic power undergirds and empowers it.  Once again, the dwarves’ journey seems implicated into a far greater movement of forces.

          In TLOR Tolkien has Samwise Gamgee tell Bilbo’s cousin Frodo, the Ring-Bearer, the same thing. Exhausted and out of hope from the journey to Mount Doom to destroy the Ring of Power, Frodo is ready to give up.

“’I can't do this, Sam.’
‘I know. It's all wrong. By rights we shouldn't even be here. But we are. It's like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn't want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it's only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn't. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.’
‘What are we holding onto, Sam?’
‘That there's some good in this world, Mr. Frodo... and it's worth fighting for.’”

          Here we discover an analogy to the kingdom-focused horizon of Christian faith.  As we started at the end of TH, so it is helpful to start at the end of the biblical story to get our bearings.  How a story, our story, ends is the best guide to what’s important to watch for all along the way.  In Rev.21-22 we get John the Seer’s vision of God’s new creation.  And what do we find there?  A whole new world, a new heavens and a new earth (21:1), and a city descending from heaven to this new earth, the New Jerusalem, in the shape of the Holy of Holies, which becomes coextensive with the new creation.  Creation has become God’s temple, his “home” (21:3), the eternal habitation of God and humanity on a planet fragrant and beautiful with full flourishing.  Humanity, the Seer writes, will spend eternity “reigning” (22:5) with God. 

          A glance from the end in Rev.21-22 back to the beginning shows its congruence with this end.  The garden of Eden is a rudimentary temple where God is present with his people (Gen.3:8).  They, in turn, are God’s image-bearers – those divinely commissioned as royal representatives of God the Great King charged to reflect his will and way in the creation and the protect and nurture the garden temple in which God dwells.  Further, humanity is to extend the boundaries of that temple by inhabiting and pacifying the rest of the as yet uninhabited and uninhabitable world.

          Different language, to be sure, but to the same end.  God has a great program he’s working on.  His people are part and parcel of that program.  God’s interested in way more than simply individual forgiveness; and he’s not at all interested in hustling his people off to a spiritual (read immaterial) existence in “heaven” (that which is not earth or earthly).  Remember, the holy city comes down out of heaven to the new earth (21:2).  This is the kingdom of God:  the worldwide communication, communion, and community of God and humanity on a renewed creation (earth).  This comprehensive divine-human community is the glory of God, which as the great 2nd century theologian Irenaeus of Lyon put it, is “humanity fully alive, and life is beholding God.”

          Proverbs 29:18 reads:  “When there’s no vision, the people get out of control.”   Social cohesion and mission disintegrate where there is no shared vision of a compelling future which catches a group up into its own momentum and disciplines.  Lacking a vision of God’s kingdom work that embraces the whole cosmos and every creature into its grace-bathed transformation of all things into the design and purpose for which God created it leaves the church at the mercy of a lesser vision’s power to shape its life.  The obvious candidate in our context is the marketplace with its competitive, self-interested, and individualistic vision of life.  A church formed by such dynamics will surely be a church with little social cohesion around a compelling vision.  And such a church we are.

            Tolkien hints in this direction in two places.  In Thorin’s recounting of his people’s loss of their treasure to the dragon Smaug, he says that dragons do not enjoy their stolen wealth.  “Indeed,” he continues, “they hardly know a good bit of work from a bad, though they usually have a good notion of the current market value” (27).  Sound familiar?   When describing the goblins into whose clutches Bilbo and the dwarves had fallen, Tolkien tells us they made no beautiful things, only clever ones, along with tools and implements of torture.  Further, they prefer to enslave others and force them to their death to produce these things (69).  Again, sound familiar?                                                                                              

This kind of comprehensive, soul-numbing, death-dealing view of life[1] and the world certainly gestures toward the kinds of things we experience today under the global capitalism that embraces our world.
          Bilbo’s adventure with the dwarves is part of a movement of the inhabitants of Middle Earth against these enemies and oppressors with an aim of a future more glorious even than its past.  It is for a Middle Earth, free and flourishing, that they sally forth to the Lonely Mountain to regain the dwarves’ hard won treasure of yore.  This vision catalyzes them all, even the initially reluctant hobbit to hit the road on the adventure of their lives.

          The church needs to revive itself by drinking deep drafts from the vision God has given us.  Thus we can see more clearly to remove the false accretions that have glommed on to the faith like barnacles which we have subsequently mistaken for the real thing.  And with our hearts scrubbed clean, God’s own vision can take root in us begin to shape us to the movement that both demonstrates and serves this larger vision.

          In a word, the church does not live from today to and for tomorrow; rather it lives from tomorrow (God’s kingdom) to and for today.

[1] Even after Smaug is killed the power of the lust for the loot remains over the company and threatens its reaching its final goal (286).

What to do about Christmas?

                         "A Grinch, A Witch, and the Liberation of Christmas                                     (Luke 1:26-38)

I hold in my hands the essential tools for liberating Christmas from its captivity to North American capitalistic, consumeristic culture. The Dr. Seuss tale How the Grinch Stole Christmas; C. S. Lewis's Narnia story, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; the “Christian Seasons Calendar”; and the Bible.

In U. S. News & World Report a few years ago, Jeffrey Sheler surveyed what he called "the battle for Christmas." His thesis was: from the time when Christians began celebrating Christ's birth (which surprisingly seems not to be until the fourth century when the Roman Emperor Constantine made Christianity the religion of the empire), from that beginning the celebration of Christ's birth was locked in a desperate struggle to “christianize" the midwinter Roman festivals of Saturnalia and various other pagan sun deities. The fascinating history Sheler recounts alerts us to the danger of nostalgia in our present skirmishes over this contested season. There never was a time, it seems (Norman Rockwell notwithstanding!), that Christmas enjoyed a pure, unsullied status, free of the taint of commercialism and excess - a time from whose heights we fell and to which we must return. No, the reality is that we are still groping towards a clearer understanding and proper celebration of the birth of the Savior. If we are going to get free of the dreadfulness of Christmas present it will not be through revisiting Christmas past but rather by boldly pushing ahead into Christmas future.

And that's what I want to do this morning - to envision what Christmas future might be and what kind of people we must become to live out that vision.

We’ll start by getting a fix on how this “battle for Christmas” is going.  And the simple answer is that it is going very poorly.  As historian Stephen Nissenbaum says, Christmas “has always been an extremely difficult holiday to Christianize.”

A comparison of Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe helps us understand at of the reason why.  You remember the “Grinch” story?  An inexplicably hard-hearted Grinch decides one Christmas Eve to steal Christmas from the inhabitants of Whoville.  He pilfers the stockings, the presents, the ornaments, the trees, the food left for Santa, and even the Yuletide logs from their fireplaces. He waits on the hillside above Whoville, savoring the weeping and wailing he feels sure is to come when the Whovillians awake. However, much to the Grinch's consternation and perplexity, he hears only joyous singing and merriment from the bottom of the hill.

“And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow, Stood puzzling and puzzling: "How could it be so? "It came without ribbons! It came without tags!"It came without packages, boxes or bags!"  And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore.  Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before! "Maybe Christmas," he thought, doesn't come from a store. "Maybe Christmas... perhaps... means a little bit more!"

That's a nice story ... but it bears no relation to the reality of Christmas as we know it. For the reality of Christmas in North America is this: it is a commercially-generated, commercially-maintained holiday. Hear Jeffery Sheler again, summarizing the views of several historians of the practice of Christmas:

What many historians find most fascinating about. . . Christmas is that its commercialization, now so frequently denounced, is what spawned ... (it) in the first place.  The "commercial forms" associated with Christmas and other holidays ... "have become integral to their survival." The consumer culture "shapes our holidays ... by taking in diverse, local traditions and creating relatively common ones." To turn Christmas into a purely religious celebration now might cheer those who want to "take back Christmas . . ." But such an observance "would lack the cultural resonance and impact of a holiday deeply rooted in the marketplace." If Christmas came to that . . . "we probably wouldn't keep it as a society."

What's more, Christmas as we know it is no longer a religious holiday - even among the religious! A survey recently done for Lutheran Hour Ministries makes this clear. Only 37% of those who identified themselves as Christians said Jesus' birth is the most important thing about Christmas. Among Fundamentalists, no less, only 32% gave that answer! In all categories family time was easily the top answer to what is most important about Christmas.

Businesses know it too. In Pittsburgh, local merchants object to calling this time "the Christmas Season" because that excludes those of non-Christian faiths or of no faith. And of course, there's no reason anyone should be left out because Christmas is a "holiday" not a "holy day." Thus these merchants prefer the more politically correct designation "Sparkle Season."

And that's Christmas present in our country. It consists of time off from work, time with family, and, of course, buying and eating, buying and eating, buying and eating. Dr. Seuss's naive faith that it can be otherwise is simply wrong. It may be painful or unpleasant to acknowledge this, but acknowledge it we must if we want to find our way to Christmas future.

C. S. Lewis tells a different tale. His imaginary country of Narnia is ruled by the White Witch. And she rules with an iron fist. She has cast a spell over Narnia to the effect that it is always winter there but never Christmas.  Imagine that!  When she meets up with a human visitor, Edmund, the witch seduces him by feeding him her enchanted Turkish Delight. This wonderfully tasty confection snares Edmund, leaving him always wanting more but never being satisfied. His desire leads him to further and greater evil. Edmund is trapped, completely unable to free himself from the Witch and her Turkish Delight. He, along with all of Narnia, needs to be liberated from the Witch to escape winter and find true Christmas.

Yes, Lewis tells a different - and better! - tale. Using his images we can say that what we experience as Christmas is really a big mid-winter party animated by copious amounts of Turkish delight. That's why Christmas comes and goes each year leaving us with lots of bills, lots of calories, and lots of fatigue, but precious little meaning and satisfaction. Christmas-as-we-know-it does indeed need to be liberated from its bondage to winter and we from our bondage to Turkish Delight.

Friends, we need to hear Gabriel's announcement to Mary again - God is with you, you have found divine favor, God's Son will live in and through you, the Holy Spirit will empower you, nothing is impossible with God. These promises made to her are also promises made to us. They ring with the kind of liberation that just might fire our vision for Christmas future and evoke our courage to move toward it.

Andrew Purves, Professor of Pastoral Theology at Pittsburgh Presbyterian Theological Seminary, has caught such a vision and found such courage. In a Presbyterian Outlook article he declares: "I doubt that Christ can be put back into Christmas. It is naive to think we can deconsumerize or unsentimentalize this festival. Rather than Christ transforming culture, the culture has transformed Christ, or has at least transformed Christmas." That's why it is critical for us to try and discern the way things are (as I did earlier in this sermon) so we no longer waste time and energy trying to save what Purves (and I with him) calls "a lost cause." Instead we need to mobilize our energies and insights for Christmas future.

Images of liberation and of a journey toward Christmas future can scarcely fail to remind us of Exodus. And I want to draw on one part of the Exodus story to help us flesh out a new vision for Christmas. Remember how Yahweh told Moses to have the people take anything they needed from the Egyptians as they left the country? I think we need to do something similar with Christmas present.

I've already said that Christmas-as-we-know-it is a lost cause for Christian celebration and worship. But that doesn't mean there is nothing worthwhile for us to take advantage of even as we give up on the religious value of the festival. In fact giving up on that frees us to experience the benefits "Sparkle Season" does offer. I mean, time off from work, family gatherings, and a modest sharing of gifts (including a sharing of our resources and time with the poor and needy) are good and worthy things. We would be foolish to reject or despise them. And that's the contemporary equivalent of plundering the Egyptians. We're not going to buy into the excesses and absurdities of the festival nor will we seek our spiritual nurture and sustenance there any longer. But we will enjoy the gifts there to be had. As Andrew Purves puts it:

“I will stop being a religious spoil-sport who moodily and self-righteously tries to reclaim the 25th of December as a narrow Christian holy day, acknowledging instead that it is now a religiously neutral and near universally celebrated holiday.  Almost totally non-Christian Japan celebrates Christmas as a mid-winter celebration of fun and gifts, and the warmth of family and friends. No Christ of course, but a break in the winter gloom. For what it's worth, . .. next year, guilt free, I will celebrate Sparkle Season and have a happy holiday with little religious agenda.”

Me too! What about you?

How then do we genuinely celebrate Christ's birth? What will such a celebration look like? And when will it be?

The answer to that lies in the church's calendar. It is yet another mark of how thoroughly Christmas has been co-opted by commercial and other interests that few Christians are aware that December 25th is the beginning and not the end of Christmas and that Christmas goes on for twelve days until January 5, the day before Epiphany.   Recovering the church's calendar and its sense and rhythm of time is vital to the liberation of Christmas.

I suggest, then, that our Christian celebration of the birth of Christ begin on December 25th after the morning rituals you and your families go through for the opening of presents. At some point on Christmas day intentionally focus your or your family's attention on the birth of Christ and that celebrating his birth will take 12 days. Set aside time each day for appropriate reflection and response to God's wondrous gift of his Son. Leave your tree and decorations up until Epiphany. Establish a tradition of having a family or church Epiphany party to mark the end of Christmas by un-decorating your homes and churches. Use the Daily Lectionary's selection of biblical texts to read and reflect on through the twelve days of Christmas. There are as many ways to creatively use this gift of twelve days to celebrate Christmas as we can imagine.

The importance of recovering this segment of the church's calendar though, exceeds simply finding another more appropriate way to celebrate Christmas. In a larger sense, if we learn to live the church's calendar in this one season, we may find ourselves willing to explore and experiment with other seasons of the church year. Perhaps we might even imagine a future where as individuals and as God's people our lives are shaped and governed more decisively by this calendar than by the civil, or the school, or the sports calendar. And what's at stake here is identity - who we are - and integrity - how we are to be in the world. You see, integrity flows out of identity. So if we don't know or don't care about who we are in Christ as God's people, then our attitudes and behaviors will be likewise confused and confusing testimony to God's light and love. Living the church's calendar offers a vital and exciting way for us to into in the image and share more deeply in the mission of Jesus Christ.

I want to issue a call this morning: a call for any and all of you to covenant to meet with me throughout the coming year to develop ideas and activities for individuals and families to use during the twelve days of Christmas. If you sense God calling you to leave Christmas present and journey toward Christmas future, I invite you to journey with me. It's an unfamiliar and difficult journey, so let's do it together.

"Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." So it has been said before. May it please God that we say it again today!  Amen.