Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Holiday Tree

Warning: this may get a little preachy… actually, this may get full-blown rant-y.

Just so you know, there is no war on Christmas. We lost it decades ago. Any rumors you may have heard about this so-called war are probably just wars about something else. Those wars are not the point of this post.

This post is about a statement I heard on this-here internet about how the White House – apparently for the first time ever – was going to call their Christmas tree a "holiday tree." More evidence of how our Christian-expressions of faith are losing yardage to an overly politically-correct society. Only it's not true. Only the Christmas tree remains a "Christmas tree" and has never been called anything else. But don't take my word for it, click here and check out how they describe the big green thing in the middle of the Blue Room.

Now I react strongly to this for a variety of reasons:
  • Why would someone make up a thing like this? Are there Christians out there who feel like making up so-called attacks on our faith is actually helping our cause? We are about proclaiming the Truth – and this should really go without saying – but lying does not ever help us to do that.
  • Would calling it a "holiday tree" actually be an attack on our faith or even an attack on the celebration of Christmas? If Christmas is the celebration of the Savior being born into the world, how exactly does an evergreen proclaim that? Now lest I start to sound too Grinch-y here, don't get me wrong: put up your trees, decorate them festively, and light them up. They are a wonderful tradition and a joyous celebration of Christmas; they just don't have anything to do with the birth of Jesus. Here's an interesting article from Wikipedia about Christmas trees. It's a rich tradition, they have lots of meanings for us, but Christmas trees are not about Jesus.
  • Is this so-called controversy distracting us from something more important? This season, sometimes called by Christians as the "Christmas Season," is more accurately described as the Advent season. Advent means "coming." This is the season that the followers of Jesus remember our Savior entering into our world. During Advent we also anticipate his coming again and his spiritual presence with us until then, but those are also more year-round proclamations. During Advent and especially on Christmas day, we have a unique and profound statement to make about our faith: we believe that God's love took flesh-and-blood form in Jesus. Do we make that statement with the symbolism of a Christmas tree? Of course not. Frankly, I can't think of anything we could adorn our churches, houses, or yards with that could ever make that statement better than through God's love continuing to take flesh-and-blood form in the followers of Jesus. If it's the incarnate love of God that we are trying to proclaim, then perhaps incarnate love is how we ought to proclaim it.

If there is a war on Christmas, then it's a war that the followers of Jesus often forget how to fight. In this season (and in all our seasons, really), let us strive to express our faith in the way Paul described: "I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect." [Romans 12:1-2, NRSV]

Monday, October 1, 2012

Welcome Home

I think I've set the bar on my blogging too high. It seems I need some profound purpose before I can sit down and type out some thoughts. That's not how it's supposed to be; this is supposed to be a forum where I can regularly throw up some ideas and hope someone reads them and interacts with them. Perhaps I'll be able to develop the discipline to become more casual about this one day. But today, I need to write about something really profound I saw yesterday.

I'm not the kind of guy who sees spiritual lessons in everything he sees, but sometimes those lessons are hard to miss. Like when our Sunday school Scripture readings, taken from the Present Word study (Hebrews 13:1-3 & 1 Corinthians 13), and our sermon text, taken from the Revised Common Lectionary (Mark 9:38-50) both seem to point in the same direction of "hospitality and welcoming." In itself, not so strange: showing God's love through our acceptance and compassion is a reoccurring theme in Scripture, to say the least. But we also don't often get new visitors. We get them, don't get me wrong – people seem like us and we are growing as a congregation. But our growth comes in trickles, not in floods.

Yesterday however, we had four visitors in our pews (and for a church our size, those are "flood like" numbers): the invited neighbor of a member, the young couple that appeared to be "church shopping," and – we'll call her – "the lady with the cat." She gave us her name, which turns out isn't her real name, but it doesn't matter anyway. She was clearly schizophrenic and clearly homeless.

What I found even more profound than the synergy of Scripture lessons was the fact that no one freaked out about "the lady with the cat." I'm not sure what I expected, these are wonderful people and I've never seen them be anything other than gracious and accepting to visitors. But a schizophrenic homeless lady with a cat might be another story. Of course we're going to love and accept the neighbor of our member-friend. Of course we're going to be on our best behavior with the cute young couple; they are most churches' target demographic. But "the lady with the cat" isn't like us. She doesn't look like us, she doesn't think like us, and she doesn't live like us.

What I saw yesterday made me proud of this church to the point of tears: I saw the people of this congregation welcoming all of yesterday's visitors with exactly the exact same warmth and acceptance. Not just the visitors that reminded us of ourselves and who we hope to be, but all of our visitors. Would they have been so accepting if the Scriptures had carried another theme? Of course they would have. I believe the point was more of a reminder, not of who we're supposed to be, but of who we are. And I for one feel blessed to be in such good company.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

No Ruts, No Glory

Because I am fasting from meat, I've had to think about what I consume. That's not to say that I don't ordinarily think about food, I think about food a lot: "Hmm, what'll we have for dinner?" "I wonder if we have any garlic." "Mmm, nachos would be great right now."

Although I don't ordinarily eat much meat, I had expected a certain degree of preoccupation with food: the occasional craving or desire. (The latest episode was on Saturday, when I cooked – what I am told – was an awesome corned beef. I had a mediocre cream of potato soup.) These bouts with temptation have rather expected results: I resist the temptation because I have made a commitment to do so; other things then satisfy me in ways I didn't expect; and I am left with the feeling that I am sustained by a God who cares for my needs and not my every whim.

And if you're tired of me talking about food so much lately, here's a non food-related illustration of another surprising lesson I've been learning: I have a key ring with only church keys on it. That way, I don't have to walk around with this great big lump of keys in my pocket if I'm not going to the church. The other day I set these keys on the counter where I ordinarily set down my cell phone, instead of in my closet where I usually put the keys. I don't remember why I put the keys there, but I'm sure I had a good reason at the time. And I remember thinking, "I need to put these where they go or I'll forget them next time I go to church." And then I said to myself, "No, no. I know where they are; I will remember them." Sure enough, guess what I had to go back home for on Sunday morning?

Call them habits, routines, or ruts, our repeated patterns of behavior can be a blessing and a curse. I know me; I know that without my regular habits, I will certainly neglect a perfectly healthy choice like bringing my keys with me to work. But I also know that these same ruts lead me to less-than-healthy choices simply because that's what I'm used to doing. Fasting from meat this Lent seems to be revealing this truth to me: going without this one thing reveals my need to examine the things I do simply because that's what I'm used to doing. In other words, do I eat meat for dinner because it's good for me to do so, or am I eating it simply because (and I hope I don't get sued by the beef industry for saying this) it's what's for dinner?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Covet Not Thy Neighbor’s Roasted Chicken

Although I have stopped eating meat for Lent, I have no intention of imposing my spiritual disciplines on anyone else. In this way, I am a good little Protestant. (I don't even suggest you take on a Lenten discipline based on this blog; that should really be a decision you make in consultation with your Creator.) And, because I do most of the cooking at our house, I am really the only one inconvenienced by this spiritual journey. And although it's not a huge inconvenience, this does require some amount of planning. For example, did you know that the human animal's most direct source of protein is meat? Neither did I until a day or so before I started this fast. So going vegetarian in a household that is otherwise carnivorous, is more than just preparing meatless versions of what everyone else is having. It often involves adding other protein sources like beans or something; which often leads to an entirely different meal.

I've been on this fast for about a week and a half now and, for the most part, it's been working out fine. I am the one who does most of the cooking at our house because I'm a pretty good cook. So not only am I able to do a pretty good job of properly nourishing myself, I can make it taste pretty good too. In fact, so far there has only been one instance in which I've been jealous of what the rest of my family is eating. Hear my confession:

After church the other day, the kids and I drove down to Farmington to do some big-box shopping. As we were shopping, it occurred to me that by the time we got home, it would be time for dinner. So genius me, I decided to pick up a roasted chicken. When we got home I quickly make up some veggies and some macaroni & cheese to be their sides and as my mains. What I didn't count on is how much I apparently love roasted chicken. It surprised me, really; this hadn't happened before. Oh, there have been the fleeting memories of burgers gone by, but nothing that made me think, "Man, I want that."

The leftover chicken is still sitting in our fridge, mocking me.

My spiritual lesson came in a surprising way. I suppose I expected that there would be some sort of "resisting temptation" thing to learn, but it wasn't ultimately all that hard to resist; I wanted it, I just didn't put it in my mouth. I didn't have any grand revelation about my capacity to resist temptation, nor did I perceive a rush of God's power to help me to just say "no." Instead, I had dinner. I ate an adequate meal of macaroni & cheese and veggies (and some soybeans for more of that protein we were talking about). It tasted fine and it nourished me for the rest of the day. I felt good physically and I felt good spiritually, knowing that I had stuck with the commitment I had made.

Even without the things I crave, I am sustained by what God provides. And perhaps I'm better off.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Meat My Lenten Discipline

To answer the question no one has actually asked me: I have decided to give up meat for Lent.

Here are the parameters for my Lenten semi-fast: I'm not eating meat during Lent.

To further clarify: from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday, I am not going to eat meat. I will not be taking any days off of this fast and I consider fish to be a form of meat.

I don't get this "fish isn't meat" thing. My understanding of the term "meat" is that meat is generally the part of the animal that moves that animal around; some would call it "muscle" (I know we eat other parts of animals, it's just that I don't usually eat those parts). We eat that meaty part of the fish. How is that not "meat?" And besides, I bet the fish would certainly have its own opinion about the subject. So I'm not eating fish either; I even switched to a different source of Omega-3 fatty acid for Lent.

So I've been on this fast for about a week now: so far so good. I'll write more about the lessons I'm learning as the weeks progress, but I will say that the major challenge isn't that I miss meat. At least not yet. By the end I'll probably be longing for a burger from Alice's, but for the moment I'm learning to be (albeit temporary) a vegetarian.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011


The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;

he leads me beside still waters;

he restores my soul.

He leads me in right paths

for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,

I fear no evil;

for you are with me;

your rod and your staff—

they comfort me. (Psalm 23:1-4)

If anyone is actually reading this, you may have noticed that – in spite of my Lenten resolution to post devotionally each week – last week’s post wasn’t put up until this week. I failed.

“Oh, that’s okay, Brian,” people might say. “No one is perfect.” “We all make mistakes.” “Don’t be so hard on yourself.” These sayings are heartfelt, comforting, and completely beside the point. I failed. I said I was going to do something and I didn’t. As a part of my journey through Lent, I felt called to reflect once weekly about some small thing that God was saying to me through Scriptures and I couldn’t get it done on time. And I don’t even have an excuse. I simply didn’t manage my time very well and, although I got started on it last week, I didn’t get it done until this week. Mission not-accomplished; there’s just no way around it.

Frankly, it reminds me of a lot of other Lenten resolutions I’ve failed at in my life. In fact, there seems to be a reoccurring theme: I begin Lent with great and pious resolve to do something or fast from something and then fail at it part-way through. It makes me wonder if, maybe, that’s part of the point. Not that failure ought to be the goal of this kind of pilgrimage, but perhaps it should be at least expected. It seems a bit self-defeatist, but maybe I should have entered into Lent with some sort of plan in place for how I ought to respond when I (inevitably) fall short of my goal. Perhaps a sealed envelope with the words “TO BE OPENED IN CASE OF FAILURE” written on it and “All fall short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23)” written inside. You know, something to help me remember that this kind of thing happens in life and that I shouldn’t be too hard on myself. Or better yet, I should have Psalm 23 waiting for me.

In Psalm 23, the psalmist describes God as our shepherd… making us the sheep. We are these beloved, adorable, furry sheep who are also vulnerable, disobedient, and not bright enough to find our own food and water. If God is our shepherd it’s because we need a shepherd. At least spiritually speaking, we need someone who loves us enough to faithfully lead us where we may not always want to go on our own. And in my shortcomings, rather than feeling guilty or disregarding my failings as simply part of life, perhaps it would be better for me to use these failings as a reminder of the Shepherd who restores my soul and returns me to right paths. May we continue to find our Good Shepherd throughout our Lenten journey… even when we fail at it.


So Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” (John 4:5-10, NRSV)

Early in the week a coffee maker broke. I set it up to make a pot, and nothing happened: it didn’t gurgle; it didn’t steam up; it didn’t even get warm. Nothing. Now before you get worried about me, please note that we have several coffee pots at the church. I survived just fine.

But I didn’t want to be overly rash and just throw it out. I’ve made the mistake of throwing things away prematurely before (see “Moving Part 2”) so, although I’m far from being a packrat, I now pause for a bit before heading for the trash. So I left it on the counter in the hope that there might be some simple fix that someone handier than I might find. But, because I just left it on the counter and didn’t want anyone trying to make coffee with a broken coffee maker, I labeled it: “Broken.”

I immediately felt guilty for the label. I know that the coffee maker doesn’t care and would be just as happy if I threw it in the trash. But I’ve been labeled “broken” before. I know what happens with these labels: we may disregard them for a while, but they do eventually change the ways we see ourselves. Even beyond what might actually be true about a person, I think if you call them “broken” long enough they will begin to believe it at some point. Soon, we will wear these labels like nametags.

There are a lot of labels flying around in the Gospel lesson for the 3rd Sunday of Lent. Some of them are spoken: labels like “Jew,” “Samaritan,” “Messiah,” and “Living Water.” Some of them are not spoken because they’re not appropriate for polite company. The woman Jesus meets knows these labels. They define her. She presumably comes to draw water in the heat of the day because her presence would cause offence at a more common hour. Her labels shape who she is and even how she lives.

But Jesus doesn’t seem to notice her labels. He doesn’t seem to see what others see. He talks to her like he is supposed to be talking to her and not as someone labeled with “Samaritan,” “woman,” or “sinner.” And it strikes me that there is a labeling in this act as well, although I’m not sure what that new label might say. Perhaps it would say “child of God,” or “forgiven,” or maybe this conversation is Jesus’ way of offering her the label of “true worshiper.”

Whatever you’d call this new label it’s wonderful. It is wonderful because it is truer than all those other labels. It’s wonderful because it is the Maker’s label that was meant to be on us since the day we were born and will remain with us forever. The labels Jesus puts on us aren’t just some hopeful description of who we are meant to be, but who we truly are in him: labels like “redeemed,” “beloved,” and “called.”

As we continue through this Lenten journey, let us seek to remove those other labels from ourselves and one another. Let us be named by Jesus alone and let us live into the wonderful labels he gives us.