Monday, December 7, 2015

Advent Preparations


Today, for the third year in a row, I will give part of "the Christmas message" at our local Rotary Club. Of course, Rotary is not a Christian organization. In fact, even here in the bible belt, we have multiple members who are not Christians. But we have no clergy from other religions, so, today, three Christian pastors will share the duty of delivering the message of the holidays. Last year, you may remember, dear reader, that I spoke about Hanukkah. Again, the season is right for that, but I think I can do better. Two years ago, I spoke about the importance of interfaith dialogue in a club like ours--a heartwarming message for a Christmas program. Essentially, I've been trying to avoid the assignment, hoping they'd ask someone else to do it, but it hasn't worked. This year, I'm trying a different approach. I'm tackling Christmas head-on.

It's kind of funny to me, as a clergyperson who typically fights the secularization of Christmas, that instead I would fight the inappropriate religiosity of a secular "Christmas" program. Maybe I can do a better job. Maybe I can stay true to my Christian roots and still find a way to invite our secular civic organization to hold on to the spirit of the season--with only a touch of the sacred and plenty of the profane (by that I mean the opposite of sacred...not four-letter wordedness).

Christmas is coming. Every year, it falls on December 25. Despite complaining about "not being ready yet," none of us will be caught off guard. But what does it mean to get ready? How are we preparing ourselves for the holiday season?

For most of us, getting ready means decorating, shopping, cooking, and wrapping. It means long lines at the grocery story and at the post office. It means sending out invitations and Christmas cards. It means finding a babysitter and finding a dress to wear to the office party. As I preacher, I fall into the same trap, though in a slightly different genre. Greenery and Christmas kitsch will be sparse in our house because I'll be consumed by another kind of preparation. I will allow service bulletins and sermons and schedules and hymns and flowers and acolytes and ushers to occupy my mind and heart these next few weeks. My family's Christmas plans usually come last, when Elizabeth wakes me up after the Christmas morning service and says, "Can we put up the tree yet?" It's the hazard of the job. How else should I be preparing for one of the two biggest days (nights, actually) in our church year?

In the Christian tradition, the kind of holiday preparations of which we are all guilty is pretty much antithetical to the spirit of the season. Think about the story--not the habitual ways we (and I mean organized religion, too) observe and retell the story but the actual story itself. Two love-struck kids (remember that Mary was probably a young teenager) make their way through Palestine. She is pregnant, and he is unprepared. The reach their destination, where they have no family with which to lodge, and they are forced to bed down in the stable behind the inn. And God uses those lowly circumstances to do a remarkable thing. It is, in fact, the inadequacy of the whole situation that provides the perfect setting for God to show up.

Christians are supposed to look for God's message of hope in obscure, untidy, improvised places. Yet we welcome this season by doing the exact opposite. And every light we hang--every tree we decorate--makes it harder for us to see where Christmas really takes places. If you want to see Christmas, our holiday parties and churches aren't the right places to go. The Salvation Army or the CCC get closer to it, but, really, it's even further away from civilization than that. Take a look in the woods behind Kroger, where homeless people hide from our sight. There's a community out there--a village of people whom we don't want to see. And I think that's where we would find Mary and Joseph on Christmas Eve night.

But how in the world will we ever get there? And I don't mean literally walking into the woods behind Kroger. In this season of excess, how will our hearts ever be ready to find hope in those places where we least expect to find it? By acknowledging our own inadequacy and embracing it as the means through which God's message of hope will come. Instead of preparing our houses, we should prepare our hearts.

In our church, the word most closely associated with Advent is "repent." This Sunday, we will hear John the Baptist cry out, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance." He's talking to us. We--every one of us--are that brood of vipers. And repentance is how we are supposed to get ready for Christmas. That is how all of us--regardless of our faith tradition--align our hearts with what God is doing in the world. It's how we acknowledge that we've been barking up the wrong (Christmas) tree. It's how we recognize that our preparations, though lavish and intentional, have missed the point. It's how we leave behind those misguided attempts to get ready and return to God's agenda.

Stop thinking about your shopping list long enough to ask yourself how you are preparing your heart for Christmas. If the holiday season will come and go and leave you no closer to the woods behind Kroger, you're wasting your time. If getting ready for Christmas is more about spending time with friends and family and less about looking for God's presence amidst the poor, the homeless, the oppressed, the prisoners, and the refugees of this world, you're not celebrating the right holiday. If you're looking for a mid-December secular celebration with fine foods and nice music and good friends, keep it up. But don't call it Christmas. That isn't Christmas. Christmas happens in a stable. Christmas happens where those who have no party invitations and no holiday table gather. It happens away from the brightness of our holiday lights. And the only way we're going to see it is if we take as much time preparing ourselves on the inside as we do preparing everything else on the outside.

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