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.