Waiting in the Dark

Each year, Lake Shore Baptist Church in Waco, Texas produces an Advent booklet of daily meditations by current and former members of the church — one for each day of Advent. I have had the honor of contributing for several years now. This year’s theme is Waiting for the Light. My meditation was placed to be read on December 12 this year, so I share it with you on that date.

A host of people help in the preparation of each year’s Advent meditation book. Sharlande Sledge spearheads the effort and Pam Allen designed this year’s beautiful cover. It is truly a labor of love by people who have been changed by their association with Lake Shore, myself among them.

The people who walk in darkness will see a great light; those who live in a dark land, the light will shine on them. [Isaiah 9:2]

Waiting for the Light

Waiting for the Light

Waiting in the Dark

Years ago, I had to make a move to Roswell, New Mexico. It was a move I had not anticipated and had not wanted. At the end of a long, lonely drive down from Washington State, I topped a hill and saw the lights of Roswell stretching out before me in the valley below. “So, this is where I’ve come to die,” I said out loud to the empty seat next to me. Things were bleak in my life and I’d become accustomed to the idea that they were unlikely to get better. It was just before Christmas and darkness was everywhere I looked. I had never heard of Advent and wouldn’t for another thirteen years. If I knew I was waiting for the light, I’d long since forgotten it.

But, instead of being the place I’d come to die, my time there became the beginning of a rebirth. While my darkness initially deepened those first few years, one of a series of doors began to open for me in 2003. Very gradually the darkness began to dissipate. It was still to take another few years of crawling around in that darkness before I realized there was light in my life and that it had been there all along.

More recently, another move not of my choosing. The difference this time was that I’d already begun to see the light surrounding my life. A host of generous people became the mirrors of God’s light and love in my life, helping me see more clearly the light shining just around the edges of my long-familiar darkness. I finally understood the light exists wherever I move. Despite my fear, I found another host of mirrors in my new home – another source of strength where I feared there might be none.

Jesus began his ministry proclaiming the light of the world, knowing full well there would be darkness ahead for him. He understood darkness doesn’t have to consume us. He showed us there is light in all our lives and instructed us to share that light wherever we go. “In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” [John 1:4-5]

Once I began to understand the light, I knew my wait was over. This Advent season, may God’s light shine into your darkness, giving strength to share the hope of Christ with others trapped in whatever darkness surrounds them. Sharing your light with another miraculously increases your own.

May this season be filled with waiting and wonder. Seize time during what has become an unnecessarily hectic season to take a deep breath and look beyond the hustle and bustle to remember that the greatest gift you can give another is the gift of yourself.

Christmas? Bah, Humbug! And All That Jazz

Christmas is not a time or a season but a state of mind. To cherish peace and good will, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas. — Calvin Coolidge

My sister, an aunt, a cousin, and a friend are coming for Christmas this year. That sounds like the beginning of a really bad joke, doesn’t it? Whatever else, this promises to be a very interesting Christmas. I’m actually looking forward to it.

I don’t really know when I developed a deep hatred for Christmas, but I do know it was a very long time ago. Well, perhaps hatred is a little strong. I suppose sadness might be a better word. There is a great sadness that’s followed me for most of my life. The commercialization of Christmas annoys me deeply. For most of my life, Christians also annoyed me deeply, particularly at Christmas – and Easter and most Sundays. Well, you get the idea. I’m kind of over that now, but, mostly, it’s now the commercialization. We’ve built in a situation in our society of tension around Christmas that verges on clinical insanity. The pressure is on to give people stuff they don’t need because they may be giving us stuff we don’t need and we’d hate to feel guilty because they remembered the secular rules and we didn’t play by them. It’s a time when families are supposed to get together, whether they like each other or not, and try to get along. Most of us find we need to plan all year to set aside enough money to pay for all that stuff or else we put it on plastic and try all the next year to pay down the balance – too often failing miserably.

And there’s the Christmas music – most of it so inane you’re tempted to open a vein if you have to listen one more time to “Never Hit Your Grandma With a Shovel (It Makes a Bad Impression On Her Mind).” Worse, you find yourself humming those tunes in your head at the most inopportune times. Even songs like “Silent Night, Holy Night” have become just one more melody to use in an attempt to sell you something you really don’t need. Well, you really didn’t need it until the marketers blasted you often enough to create a need. Who knew I needed a flying alarm clock or a wealth redistribution holiday ornament? That last is an ornament that announces that the ornament that used to be there has been removed and given to someone who needs it more. How great would it be if, instead, that money went to actually help feed someone? How great would it be if we spent even a fraction of the money wasted on unneeded stuff to help someone in real need?

I’m called Scrooge at work, perhaps rightfully so. I promise I’m trying to get better. Well, promise may be too strong a word. I’m considering trying to get better. Being introduced to Advent a few years back has helped. There is a very real shift back to what Christmas was supposed to be about when participating in Advent, at least for Christians. It’s not like I don’t know that the holiday evolved into something else secular because, believe it or not, we’re not all Christians. Still, what began as a simple idea to focus on the children has grown into an orgy of self-indulgence. I mean, who wouldn’t want a Ferrari FF (Fantasy Ferrari) from Neiman Marcus’ Christmas Catalog for a mere $395,000.00 or a Valentino One-of-a-Kind Leather Satchel on sale now for only $1,336.00? What could more accurately portray the meaning of Christmas?

This year’s Advent meditation booklet from my former church has as its theme, Simple Gifts. A recurring theme in the meditations shared by present and former members describes the simple gift of presence, as opposed to presents. This will be my second Christmas without my mother. What I wouldn’t give for the gift of her presence for just a short while longer. Every Christmas morning throughout my life when I was at home with mother on Christmas, she opened her Bible and read the Christmas story out loud – to my extreme discomfort. Now I’m tempted to do the same thing this Christmas with family and friends in attendance, though I probably won’t. Why? Even thinking about it makes me cry. I know it’s unlikely I could make it through the reading. It’s a poor excuse, I know. But remember, I’m thinking about trying to get better.

And, by the way, which is it, anyway? Were there shepherds guarding their flocks by night as in Luke or was it Matthew’s three Magi following a star to the place of Jesus’ birth? Did Joseph, Mary, and Jesus return home to Nazareth or go into exile in Egypt? The National Enquirer would have had a field day with this one, don’t you think? You know, “Three Wise Men Stumble Upon Alien Baby in Middle East.” Actually, I think that may have been the topic of a program on the History channel last night as I was drifting off to sleep.

But, really, does it matter which it is? Does it even matter if it was either of the two gospel versions? Early Christian communities had a variety of traditions about Jesus’ birth. Each says something different about how the birth and life of Christ affected their lives – about how they perceived what happened that night and where that beginning led them in later years. Each gospel was written by an evangelist with his own agenda. I don’t mean “agenda” in a negative way, mind you. But their emphasis is different, probably to address the needs of their own church community. It once bothered me that the stories don’t match. It also bothered me that the church had blended the two stories into one story (once I realized that’s what had happened), with the entire cast of characters appearing on the stage together. It’s how we learned the story as children if we grew up in the Christian tradition. No, the important part of the story(ies) was that there was a beginning in addition to an end. We have very little glimpse of any middle of life for Jesus, but abruptly arrive at his ministry and crucifixion. But every story needs a beginning – an anchor point from which we can begin to try to understand Christ’s message of a just world. And so, we have that very important anchor point in our celebration of Christmas. Again, Jesus didn’t say “worship me.” He said, “follow me.” It’s a critical point really. We’re called to follow his example of taking care of our neighbors. We can sit comfortably in church worshiping all we want but if that’s the extent of our worship, we will be found profoundly lacking. I believe worship was always intended to be an action word.

Ultimately, I have to wonder what many children wouldn’t give to simply have the presence of their parents at Christmas, as well as the rest of the year. We’ve all seem to have become so busy reaffirming children to the extent of denying them the very important lesson of failure that we seem to be building in a false sense of security. The world out there isn’t nearly so kind. I love a commercial out right now that shows a little girl in diapers blissfully playing with the big box a gift came in rather than the gift itself. What technology tends to do is rob imagination and encourage a sedentary, unimaginative existence. It doesn’t have to do that but, too often, that’s exactly what it does. Now, where did I put that box of Tinker Toys? Anyone want to play Superman with me and jump off the roof? Most of my imagination was spent on slightly safer things in childhood, except when I was busy burning down the vacant lot with my less-than-perfect homemade gunpowder mixture. And, I survived it – or so they tell me. We’ve become more and more rushed, trying to make enough money to give children things they really don’t need, leaving no time to give them the most important thing we possess – our time.

I’ve purchased one gift this year. Okay, I should have bought two, but one of my ideas was shot out of the water. Ever realize how much harder it gets to buy for people as they get older? Perhaps it’s just as well. I’ve been practicing up on my “being present” present. Very often, it’s all they wanted anyway.

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. (Luke 2:14) It seems to me that this is much more than a positive, even naive, statement. It’s an invitation to look outside ourselves and realize the Kingdom of God is here and it is our responsibility to be God’s hands here on earth. This is one of those things where nothing changes if nothing changes. And those changes have to come from within ourselves. Even small changes can have a positive impact on our neighbors here and around the world.

Merry Christmas. Yes, I believe it will be this year for me. And you?

Tossing Christ Out of Xmas

Out of 100 men, one will read the Bible, the other 99 will read the Christian. — D.L. Moody

I had the misfortune a few years back of sitting in a small Baptist church shortly before Christmas. Admittedly, I had not myself returned to church at that point, but I think if I had I would have been even more uncomfortable than I was at that moment in time. Even then, the familiar hymns enveloped me in a deep sadness while threatening to be somehow oddly comforting. In short, visits to church were unsettling and I tried to keep them at an absolute minimum.

I’m not sure what the sermon was supposed to be about that Sunday morning, but what it ended up being about was how “those” people “out there” had taken Christ out of Christmas. You know that saying, “You’re not paranoid, they really are after you.”? Yes? Then you probably know this sermon already. I suppose I could just stop writing here and now, but that would defeat the purpose of a really good rant.

It seemed odd to me then and it still seems odd to me now the supposed logic of this sermon. The pastor appeared to want to whip up emotions about how Christmas had been stolen from Christians. He was downright indignant. Self-righteous, even.

So here’s how the sermon played out. Christmas has been taken over by secular society. They have turned it into a commercial enterprise overrun with Santa Clauses and, thereby, watered down its true meaning. It’s not that the pastor objected completely to the secularization of Christmas, you understand, we have an economy to maintain, after all. We’re a society dependent on selling ever greater amounts of stuff to people who already have more than they could ever need or use. Does Uncle Fred really, really need a new tie? No, it’s just that it’s been taken too far. I sat there thinking to myself, “Define ‘too far’.”

Here’s the problem I had with that sermon. Then, as now, I had a real problem with Christians as the victim in America. Are we an actual minority in the States? I believe we are and, perhaps, have always been but, God forbid, you should actually say that. Recent polls, however, show that the percentage of those identifying themselves as Christian has dropped in recent years, while percentages of those identifying themselves as agnostic or atheist has risen. Frankly, this should come as no surprise to anyone who cares to think about it. We can fool ourselves for only so long that this is a “Christian” nation. I don’t think that’s ever actually been true. There was certainly a time, though, when it was expected to say you were Christian, certainly when I was growing up. If you wanted to be elected President or really elected to much of anything, you needed to say you were Christian. That didn’t mean, however, that anything approaching Christian values were in play in much of this country. Anyone remember slavery? Anyone remember the Jim Crow laws? While there were certainly people who believed slavery was supported in the Bible, would we be willing to say so today – even if someone were inclined to believe that lie?

But it appears this minister believed that he and his fellow church members were the victims in his scenario. According to this guy, we poor, helpless Christians were in danger from – what? Oddly, it seemed ultimately the real culprit was ourselves. And yet, we were also the victim. Of course, atheists and government played a big role in this guy’s tale of woe, but we as a Christian nation were also to blame for paying too much attention to shopping, buying, worrying about how to pay for it all. Where in the world was Jesus?

Pogo Possum said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” This pastor railed against the influence of the secular world on Christians while, at the same time, seemed to place the blame squarely on the shoulders of the people of this country – supposedly, of course, Christian. Confused? I was.

A little under three years ago, I arrived back at church. The following autumn, my church was preparing for Advent. What, you ask, is Advent? If you already know, you are way ahead of where I was at that time. When I was growing up in the fifties, it seemed Christmas was a one-day event – with months of anticipation, worry, planning, shopping, etc. – not about the birth of Jesus, you understand, but about what gifts we would receive for Christmas. Jesus and Santa Claus were sort of rolled into one being as a child, though not completely at our house. Christmas Eve was for Jesus, Christmas morning, then, started with Jesus before a segue to Santa Claus. I must admit I was disappointed on many a Christmas morning because I didn’t get what my fertile imagination thought I should have. I don’t recall services of anticipation leading up to the birth of Christ. I’m sure there was a Christmas service at church, though I don’t actually remember them. And, of course, we sang Christmas hymns on the Sundays leading up to Christmas. Come to think of it, I was a part of the church choir from the time I was about five up until I was in high school. So, there must have been something going on there. It’s awful to feel forced to forget even the good parts of your life.

And yet, it all already seemed somewhat commercial. God was still attending the schools I did and there was prayer there. The atmosphere was overwhelmingly Christian-ish. We had a few Catholics, but they weren’t really considered Christian – another blog, perhaps. And, God forbid (literally) if you were some other religion or even some other not-quite-acceptable-to-us flavor of Christian. Jehovah’s Witness members were particularly singled out. Their beliefs prevented them from saying the pledge of allegiance and, for that, they were ostracized. Is it any wonder we’ve lost credibility with “those” people out there who don’t show up at church? We often can’t even be civil with other “Christian” people since a number of denominations tend to think of themselves as the only real followers of Christ.

So why all the hand-wringing? Why do some Christians think they’re under attack? The only thing I can come up with is that it’s easier to attack the “other” than to take responsibility for our own actions. Agree with me or not, but Christianity has had its share of the seamier side. So much of this seems to be wrapped up in the idea that in order for me to be right, you have to be wrong.  You simply have to. We see rhetoric ramped up as, I believe, many Christian churches fear they are becoming insignificant in today’s world – and, frankly, many are. But, what is the message they’re putting out there? Many people see that message as paranoid, judgmental finger-shaking, not a message of a loving God. Why should people want to come to church? Their mortal soul? I sincerely doubt many are worried about that. Let’s face it, this society has become all about me – what I want, what I think I need, right here and now. The hell with you – get your own. That doesn’t just include those “others” outside of church, but includes a lot of people sitting snugly, and smugly, in church.

Perhaps I’ve gotten a little off track, but I believe these things need to be said. Until individuals begin to look in the mirror and ask, “How am I contributing to the downfall of moral sense in this world,” the decline will continue. And I don’t even mean “moral sense” as some God-given thou-shalt-nots. Jesus said, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” And yet, a sense of community is precisely what we’ve lost in great measure. That, I don’t believe, is the doing of outside forces. We in church, it seems to me, are going to have to extend a caring, non-judgmental hand before we can expect people to return – perhaps even to listen. That’s how I got back to church. That’s how my faith returned. That’s why I now worship in the midst of others.

Advent is the beginning of the Church Year for most Christians in the Western tradition, beginning on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. The word advent means “coming” or “arrival”. Advent is marked by a spirit of expectation, of anticipation, of preparation, of longing. The focus becomes the coming of Christ. Each week includes time for reflection, both individually and corporately. I had been back in church less than a year when I celebrated my first Advent at Lake Shore Baptist in Waco. Most everything about church now fascinated me after such a long absence. Here were traditions I knew nothing about. Some things were perhaps there in a childhood I’d tried so hard to forget. Others were new to me as ideas in a Baptist tradition. Seems some Christian churches spurned Advent as too “Catholic”. After visiting church with me for the first time, my mother said she enjoyed it, but my church was a little more “formal” than hers. I’m smiling even now as I remember that. God bless my mother, she was just so thrilled I was back in church she was willing to have an open mind about things that were certainly not in her own tradition. And that was okay. We believed, after all, we were worshiping the same God.

I made my first Advent wreath that year. I then made another to share with my mother. She lit those candles every day of Advent, too. What’s Advent? For me it’s about sharing. For many years, I could not share anything about faith with my mother – or anyone else, for that matter. To share with you meant I was agreeing with you and I agreed with almost no one. I know now that it’s simply about sharing in faith. I doubt very seriously that I believe exactly the same things as the person sitting next to me in church. Know what? It matters not to me now. If faith is only about believing x, y, and z because we’re told x, y, and z are the right things to believe, we lose something of our own sense of wonder – our own sense of worship.

I believe my mother saw that the rituals observed at my church were important to me. Many churches stripped a lot of those things out of worship, probably at the time of the Reformation. They didn’t want to appear too much like the church from which they were separating. Rituals, for me, however are place markers. They bring me back to a place from which I can begin again. The frenzy of the world around me recedes into the background and I have another chance to consider what’s good and right. I have the time to remember that I am held in the arms of God and ponder what that means for me and, in turn, what I need to try to do for others.

Isn’t it funny how I seem to start at one place in my writing and end up at another? I suppose that’s partly because this is the way my life has gone. I started in one place, escaped to another and another and another, eventually returning to a changed and better place – a changed and better me. I have to remind myself continually to check in on my anger. I have to remind myself that I have been, in fact, a very angry, hurt person. If something disturbs me, I benefit from taking a look at what it is about me that triggers that anger. I love a really good rant, but it does me very little good if I’m not willing to look for a solution. My life, though, has been a lot like a labyrinth. In a labyrinth, there are many twists and turns. If you stay the path, however, you end up, always, back at the center. And, for me, that center is God. I may have lost my way, but returning seemed like the most natural thing in the world for me to do.

So, in the end, I find I need to thank that small-town Baptist minister. His sermon made me angry, but it also made me think. It made me realize that I don’t want to be the guy anymore who sits back and blames everyone else for what I think is wrong in my life or even in the world. I accept today that I can’t change the world, only my tiny part of it. But for that tiny part, I am responsible. If I’ve taken Christ out of Christmas, that is my doing. If Christ isn’t in your Christmas, you have only yourself to blame. Caught up in the noise of the surrounding world? Find a calm spot (church might be it) in which to quiet yourself. If it’s Christ you’re looking for, I’m pretty sure you’ll find him waiting for you in the quiet.

It took hands extended in love to allow me to return to church. It took a group of people who didn’t make it their business to judge me to allow my faith to return and flourish. It took finding a community of people who understand that the command to love our neighbor applies to right here, right now. I don’t recommend the path I took but I can now look back over my life and say thanks. The good and the bad, the pain and the joy – all of it. As Dag Hammarskjold said, “For all that has been, thanks. For all that will be, yes.” I decided to say yes and God placed me in the midst of a community of others who wait, expectantly, with me. You’re welcome there, too.