Laying it on

christmas loveIt’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas!

As we approach this holiday, preparations are being made for huge family get-togethers, massive roast turkeys, bottomless bowls of salad, and copious amounts of drink (alcoholic or otherwise).

With this celebrations, the pressure is on to do what we colloquially term ‘laying it on’–putting on your best face, wearing your trendiest clothes, saying things that could pass as highly intelligent or bring the family to tears of laughter.

Sometimes we simply lose sight of what it is all about, as we are reminded in this fourth week of Advent, love.

Love doesn’t require airs, shows, obligatory pleasantries, or even artfully-painted faces. Love is.

With love–and I am speaking here of both being loving and accepting love from others and from God–there is freedom to be who we are. Richard Rohr uses the example of his favourite saint, Francis of Assisi, to illustrate that my true identity and my deepest freedom comes from God’s infinite love for me. When I know that I am loved unconditionally (without obligations or requirements on my part) I have a certain kind of freedom where not only do I not care what others think of me, but I, occasionally, intentionally play the fool in order that they don’t get too high a view of my self.

St. Francis illustrates this stage in many memorable ways. When he hears one day that the people of Assisi are calling him a saint, he invites Brother Juniper to join him in a walk through his old home town. Brother Juniper was the first simpleton (that is a compliment!), the holy fool of the original friars. Francis knew he could always trust him to understand what he was saying. Francis once said, “I wish I had a whole forest of such Junipers!”

Francis told Brother Juniper, “Let’s take off these robes, get down to our underwear, and just walk back and forth through Assisi. Then all these people who are thinking we are saints will know who we really are!” Now that’s a saint: someone who doesn’t need to be considered a saint, who can walk foolishly in his underwear the full length of Assisi.

A few years later, when people were again calling Francis a saint, he said, “Juniper, we’ve got to do it again.” This time they carried a plank into the piazza. They put it over some kind of a stone or maybe the fountain, and there they seesawed all day. They had no need to promote or protect any reputation or pious self-image.

That’s a rather constant spiritual tradition in the Eastern Church and in the Desert Fathers and Mothers, but it pretty much got lost after the 13th century Franciscans. We became more and more serious about this intense salvation thing, or you might say we took ourselves far too seriously. Moralism replaced mysticism. And this only increased after the in-house fighting of the 16th century reformations. We all needed to prove we were right. Have you noticed that people who need to prove they are right cannot laugh or smile?

When you are a “holy fool” you’ve stopped trying to look like something more than you really are. That’s when you know, as you eventually have to know, that we are all naked underneath our clothes, and we don’t need to pretend to be better than we are. I am who I am, who I am, who I am; and that creation, for some unbelievable reason, is who God loves, precisely in its uniqueness. My true identity and my deepest freedom comes from God’s infinite love for me, not from what people think of me or say about me. Both the people who praise me and those who hate me are usually doing it for the wrong reasons. – Richard Rohr, adapted from Franciscan Mysticism (an unpublished talk)

May you know this kind of love this Christmas, a love that frees, a love that releases from expectations, a love that doesn’t need to ‘lay it on’ for others to see, and a love that values others simply because they are loved by God rather than because of what they can bring to the table.

Merry Christmas, Seriously

holidaysYes, I’m writing a post on Christmas Day.

After enjoying a beautiful Christmas Day service with my Church family and a light lunch with my awesome wife, I’m watching some fantastic school kids performing on a repeat of the Schools’ Spectacular on TV.

Watching these kids sing and dance, and put all their heart and soul into their presentations, my heart is encouraged with hope that our nation’s future may be something that is positive, uplifting and bright. These young people are our future. They have the right perspective on the evil of warmongering, the importance of genuine reconciliation with and giving a voice to the indigenous peoples, and just plain enjoying life.

Um . . . what was that you said? Oh,  but they don’t have anything to say about Jesus and seem to fail mentioning or giving glory to God for their gifts?

Hm. . . . I guess that’s where this blog on Christmas Day is headed.

Like ‘Christmas,’ religious folks tend to take such things so seriously. No longer  can we be wished ‘Happy Holidays’ or ‘Greetings of the Season.’ If ‘Christ’ is not kept in Christmas (because ‘Jesus is the reason for the season’), then it is a sure sign the world is going down the tubes on a highway to hell.

It seems that one of the great heroes of the Christian faith,  St Paul, probably  wouldn’t agree with your take on the ‘war  on Christmas.’ In fact, he was one who would take a poem written by a Greek poet about Zeus and turn it on its head by saying it speaks of the Christian God. Yup. “In Him we live and move and have our being” was written about the god Zeus by Epimenedes. This didn’t seem to be an issue with the apostle. He didn’t flinch at all. He never told his listeners to ‘turn or burn’  and he definitely didn’t hold up any ‘John 3:16’ signs.

I don’t know about you, but if Paul was ready to take a pagan tome about a well-known Greek god and, essentially, say ‘He was speaking of  God, the father of Jesus the Christ,’ then we can surely take a well-intended ‘Happy Holidays’ or a song like ‘Jingle Bells’ sung by carollers to be a sincere wish for good health and happiness.

Hope, Joy, Peace, Love. We celebrate these through Advent arriving, as Christians, to the Christ-child on Christmas Day.

To the non-religious, these are found in family, in relationships, in fun times and social interaction. They may not know or recognise this, but these are gifts from a generous God.

Even something so blatantly non-religious like making the holidays a time to spend with family and friends can be that which brings the positive energy and happiness, memories of which will sustain us in future days of despair, absence or loss.

We may not know that, during these dry seasons of our life, we are being held by a loving, gracious God. God, through the families he gave us. The bonds we nurture and grow by God’s providence, often pulls  us through. Though we don’t always attribute this to God, it is through all our life and relationships that “in Him we live and move and have our being.” Yes, those warm fuzzy feelings you get when you think of home–God put them there. That longing for relationship and intimacy–that too.

Looking back at the end of a life well-lived, we may well see that God has provided through well-intentioned people, funny song lyrics, and seemingly-God-absent-wishes of friends, all the encouragement,  love and grace we needed.

And,  seriously, a little white wine in the sun with family and friends on Christmas Day  won’t go astray either.

Happy Holidays everybody!

War on Christmas: A Persecution Complex?

Jesus_v_SantaI have read enough about the alleged “War on Christmas” to know that the people purporting that there is such an organised offensive (generally) feel that their faith is constantly under attack by those outside of their defined boundaries.

I know this because I grew up in this subculture.

Every Christmas season, we made it exceptionally clear in all our decorations, presents, and greetings that ‘Jesus is the reason for the season.’ (So much so, I believe, that I totally shy away from using this cheesy cliche now.) We just knew that those who gave out Santa Claus cards or said ‘Seasons Greetings’ or placed reindeer and snowmen in their front yard really didn’t get it. It was not only our duty to inform them but also our grave responsibility to decry this agenda of the devil to all who would listen.

This wasn’t–isn’t–limited to Christmas.

Those in our church believed with great conviction that persecution, ridicule, mockery, and having doors slammed in your face was actually a sign that we were doing the right thing. We were on God’s side and God was on our side. We laughed in the face of abusive language directed at us (though not visibly, because we still valued our life). We delighted when someone would take the gospel tract we gave them and proceed to tear it up, throw it on the ground and stomp on it (We would then pick it up and put it in the garbage bin to show we cared for the state of our city streets). We rejoiced when we heard someone speaking of our church of Christian school as a ‘warped, backwards, cult-like’ organisation. (So it is no surprise my parents sent me to Bob Jones University for my tertiary education.)

Looking back, I know we were sincere and truly believed we were pleasing God and following God’s holy Word to the letter:

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:10-12 NRSV)

I had all the best intentions.

Today, I am disturbed when I see groups such as Westboro Baptist Church doing the evil, angry and attention-seeking things they do under the illusion that they are blessed because they are persecuted. I don’t like being the bearer of bad news but, from my own experience, I tell you this: ‘You are not blessed because you are persecuted, nor is receiving abuse from the crowd a sign that God is on your side.’

If this were so, then God is on the side of a host of causes that make well-intentioned Church folk sick to their stomach. After all, those who support euthanasia laws in this state believe their cause is righteous and just (to end unnecessary suffering), but their rallies are vocally–and sometimes angrily–mobbed by those who claim to speak for God. Likewise, our friends in the U.S. who believe universal health care is a necessity find themselves on the defense when sincere Christians rally against this just cause.

In all this, I can see symptoms of a larger disorder at work, a paranoia, a persecution complex:

People that suffer from persecution complex tend to believe that others are out to get or hurt them in some way. Their fears are utterly unfounded in reality and at times exaggerated paranoia and it reflects a belief that everyone has it in for them.Symptoms of persecution complex may be seen when the person interacts in normal ways and then over-reacts to perceived wrongs. For example, one person might see the affected individual as going to a restaurant, eating lunch and leaving, then going to a library, checking out a book, followed by going to the dry cleaners to pick up some clothing. What the person with the complex sees is entirely different. They might see a waitress out to get their money by enticing them to get more of the expensive food on the menu and that the waitress purposely delivered their meal late and got the order wrong just to irritate them. Then, they may feel that when they went to the library, the library personnel purposely did not offer to help them while they were perusing the shelves and that they chose to check out other patrons before them. After leaving there they may feel people who parked in the handicap spots at the dry cleaners are not really handicapped and they have it in for handicapped people and that”s why they took all the spaces and it upsets the person because they have to park far away. After going in to pick up the dry cleaning, and being told it is not ready yet, they assume it is because the workers did not like them and purposely delayed cleaning their garments and wanted to force them to wait longer for their garments just to make them spend more time in the store waiting for them.Although people who suffer from persecution complex are not dealing with a life-threatening disease, the complex can still be debilitating because it affects the way that people function in their every day life. (Reference.com)

I don’t think this disorder in its religious manifestation will ever be eradicated. There is something in the dark side of human nature that, in order to feel some sense of importance, needs to believe others are envious of you or your situation and ultimately would like to see you beaten down and vanquished.

But, in saying this, I believe that, individually, we can make an immense difference if we simply refuse to believe that we alone are right, our causes alone are just, and our way of doing things is the only way sanctioned by God. Surely God is on our side, as God is also on the side of all humanity, wanting to see us grow up! In becoming a more mature people, we put aside the childish ways of self-aggrandisement, arrogant belief, and self-elevation to recognise that we are all loved of and valued by God–sometimes despite our opinionated pig-headed thoughts to the contrary.

Maybe we should look at persecution and ridicule as a reminder to ourselves that perhaps there is a better way of doing, saying, being, that will put across with clarity what we see as important to us, yet a way that gives value and respect to fellow companions on our journey–companions even though we aren’t always on the same path.

You Do Not Need to Bring Christ Down

The NativityDuring the Christmas season, we celebrate the truth that God has come to us in the form of a little, human baby, ‘Emmanuel.’

Yet, for tall the talk about ‘God with us,’ we still have this notion that God is ‘out there,’ ‘watching us from a distance,’ and not right here, right now, with us.

God didn’t draw near to us only to remove the Divine Presence from us when Jesus returned to heaven. On the contrary: God is with us now.

Richard Rohr writes:

Paul, a good Jew, quotes Deuteronomy, “The Word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (Romans 10:8), and adds a challenge that I would repeat today, “Do not tell yourself that you have to bring Christ down!” (10:6). He knew that God had overcome the human-divine gap in the Christ Mystery. The issues of space and time have been overcome once and for all. God is here, not there.

The mystery of the Incarnation is precisely the repositioning of God in the material world once and forever. Continual top-down religion often creates very passive, and even passive-dependent and passive-aggressive Christians. I know this as a Catholic priest for over 40 years. Bottom-up, or incarnational religion, offers a God we can experience for ourselves. We have nothing to fight or prove, just something to know for ourselves. This is what we are about to celebrate at Christmas.

(from Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, p. 121)

May the awareness of Emmanuel every moment of every day bring you a deep sense of hope, peace, joy and love this Christmas.

Anam Cara

MaryElizabeth“In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.” (Luke 1:39)

The ancient Celtic words Anam Cara mean “soul friend.”

When Mary found herself to be unexpectedly and mysteriously pregnant, she set off on a trip, a trip to the hill country of Judea. Why make a journey at such a time as this? Because at the end of the trip was someone who understood. Someone who got it. Someone who shared her experience.

Elizabeth, her cousin, was also pregnant – also unexpectedly and mysteriously.

A couple years ago I made a somewhat similar journey just about this time of year. I went to visit a couple – friends – who are about my age and were also thinking about things that were on my mind and heart – work and retirement and what’s next.

The truth was I was feeling a bit scared – as I imagine Mary was also.

I had come to understand that work meant a lot more things than a paycheck (although those are nice too). Work means relationships, role and purpose. I could see and foresee my work, if not ending, then changing. And a chapter was certainly ending. It can be a tough thing. I went looking for soul friends. People who could listen. People who could get it. And people who wouldn’t give me easy, lame advice or treat this as a “problem” to be “fixed.” Just listening was enough for in doing that my soul friends helped me to listen to myself.

Mary found a soul friend in her cousin Elizabeth. On my trip I found John and Susan. In our talking and listening, our hanging out, there was an acknowledgment of deep change, and of some sifting of things of the soul. Sitting with soul friends helped open the way for me to live into a new time and chapter of life. We all need soul friends. Who are yours?

When things are changing, when we’re scared and hopeful all at once, send us a friend for our soul, O Lord, or perhaps open our eyes to the ones already nearby. Amen

– Reflection by Anthony B. Robinson from StillSpeakin

Open Happiness . . .

I think this cartoon captures the essence of the season, at least the essence as far as our commerical media is concerned. The jingles such as “Open Happiness” (Coke) or “Be Happy” (Target) assume that we believe our happiness comes from the things we possess or what food/drink that we consume.

I think we all know deep down that things don’t satisfy or bring lasting joy. But let’s be honest: we are still caught up in this consumerist ideology, espeecially during this festive season.

So, rather than deny it, let’s admit that we love our things, our food, our conveniences, our “guilty pleasures.” And while we may not be able to completely remove the things we enjoy from our lives, perhaps, especially at this time of year, we can be generous in spirit towards those who do not even have the things they need–food, medical help, shelter, clean water, hygeine or good sanitation–and give from our plenty to better their situation in life.

There are many fine organisations through which we can give the gift of hope: World Vision, Kiva, Médecins Sans Frontières, Oxfam, Anglicare, Charity Water, Vinnies, Salvation Army, SIMaid . . . and the list goes on and on. (For a great range of gifts supporting a variety of charities, try Charity Gifts.) Or perhaps your church has a program to help the needy in your community.

Let’s be honest: giving is a blessing in itself and can make you feel a real sense of joy and satisfaction knowing that you had a part to play in making this world a better place. So, as we fast approach Christmas with all it’s treasures, open happiness–open your wallet, and your heart–and give.

Xmas for Xians

I was amused to receive a Christmas letter last week rallying against the use of the term ‘holiday tree‘ instead of the standard ‘Christmas tree’ by the American White House. ‘How can they do this?’ was the tone of the letter. ‘How can they so blanatly change the meaning of Christmas by removing Christ from it?’

I see in the media the ‘war on Christmas’ seems to have gained as much momentum and support (at least in the US) as the infamous ‘war on terror,’ and to the same degree in many areas. Protests, petitions, signs–all claiming there is a conspiracy to remove Christ from Christmas, to kow-tow to the ‘minorities’ by using the greeting ‘Happy Holidays‘ instead of ‘Merry Christmas.’

Humans seem to thrive on conspiracy theories. Whether they originate in the ‘tea party movement,’ the Church, or amongst those who are seeking out extra-terrestrial life, great stories of government cover-ups and vows of silence amongst the authorities abound. Why else the great success of books and movies such as The Da Vinci Code?

So a few people have decided to say ‘Happy Holidays’ and decorate ‘holiday trees.’ Is the end of the world nearer just because they have removed the word ‘Christ’ from the greeting or taken the religious holiday’s name out of the picture? Is this really as sign that the dark forces have won? Really?

Let’s face it: for years many have been calling themselves ‘Christian’ without any sign of Christ being a part of their life. I don’t see many protests about that. Their life seems to not show any sign of the presence of the Christ, nor any evidence that Jesus influences any part of their world. Yet, again, no ‘war on Christians’ is evident.

It’s like the term I see on Twitter so often (shortened to fit as much as possible into the 140-character constraint): Xian. After all, we have Xmas–why not give Christianity (or Xianity) the same treatment?

Some might say that it’s about time we faced up to the fact that we do not carry the name of Christ by actually believing–much less following–what Jesus did. Can we say our lives are characterised by genuine concern for others, compassion, tenderness, gratitude, a deep peace, and a honesty that was the life of Jesus? How can we call ourselves ‘Christian’ if we do not truly die to ourselves to follow him? Can we truly take his name who will not walk in his steps?

So let’s be honest. We celebrate Xmas. It’s not about Christ; it’s about presents, family, eating, and fun in the sun (or snow as the case may be). A more truthful greeting may well be ‘Happy Holidays.’ We might as well not partake in the war on Christmas since in our very lives we have already shown Christ is not so much in our hearts as we claim.

After all, when it’s more about the name we give it than the heart we have, or what others are doing at this time of year rather than our own deeds of kindness, then something is wrong in Xianville.

After all, as Xians, caught up in the spirit of Xianity, Xmas is a time of peace and goodwill–with or without Christ.

Maybe that all needs to change . . .

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’

Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’

Then the King will turn to those on the left and say, ‘Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons.  For I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me. I was thirsty, and you didn’t give me a drink. I was a stranger, and you didn’t invite me into your home. I was naked, and you didn’t give me clothing. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’

Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’ And he will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’ (Matthew 25:34-45, NLT)