Friday, December 27, 2013

A unexpected visitor on Christmas Eve

I learned a long time ago that Christmas Eve is filled with surprises.  You never know what little unexpected thing will happen or what unannounced visit will take place. This year it happened early.  When I arrived at church in the mid-afternoon to prepare for our four candlelight services I was greeted at the door by a man with a TV news camera in one hand and a microphone in the other.  He was from the local ABC News affiliate.  He was there to ask me to comment on a local spiritual phenomenon.  Turns out that a man in town was making for himself a tie dye shirt and what should come out of the wash, but an image of the Virgin Mary!   At least that's what he was making it out to be, along with a bunch of other people.  Could it be?  Could the Holy Mother be taking the time to visit a Florida man on Christmas Eve?   The newsman wanted my opinion. 

It had to have been a slow news day.
Truth be told, I had been tipped off by our administrative staff that this reporter would be waiting for me.  So I had a little time to think about what I might say.  What's a Presbyterian pastor to make of an appearance of the Blessed Virgin on a tie dye shirt?  I resisted the temptation to pass the buck to my colleagues across the street at the Catholic church and instead took a crack: "Who am I to invalidate the appearance?" I said.  "I learned long ago not to pass hasty judgment on anyone's spiritual experience."  Of course every ounce of me wanted to say the whole claim was hogwash.  Talk about a Rorschach moment gone bad! In my mind I scoffed just as I would have scoffed at Mary's story of the angel and the shepherds' story of the angel and Joseph's story of the angel.  Those things don't happen that way, my 21st century mind was eager to shout.  But, of course, that was exactly what I was preparing to tell 3000 people over the course of the next 8 hours -- that they do!!  Am I speaking out of both sides of my mouth?

Then came the epiphany.

The gospel preached on Christmas Eve is not just a story of appearances, it's a story also of responses.  Every Christmas character has a response to the most unusual sightings. Mary ponders these things in her heart.  The shepherds return glorifying and praising God.  The wise men go home by another way.  Something strange has happened and you can see it in the behavior of the witnesses. Their lives look a little different as a result.  For my tie dye friend the validation won't come from what folks see in the design, but from what they see in the man.

It's the way it's always been.  Christmas takes on believability not from the familiar carol tunes and pretty crèches, but in the behavior of those who've been to the manger. 

The Gregorian calendar does us a great favor when in just a week after visiting Bethlehem we are launched into a new year.  It's the time to start down a different path.  It will be our response more than our claim that will help folks to see that Christmas is more than just coincidental tie dye.  

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Christmas Without Taking the Credit

It seems that one of the new and growing traditions of December is the argument over what is the appropriate greeting and salutation we're supposed to be offering each other toward the end of the year. There seems to be a growing concern that "Merry Christmas" is going out of vogue and that the more encompassing "Happy Holidays" is taking over. Some of my fellow Christian brothers and sisters see this as one more attack in the culture wars. "Put Christ back into Christmas!" they exclaim -- as if this was up to somebody other than themselves. It seems strange that anyone would insist on everybody wishing everybody the same spiritual exercise regardless of the spiritual tradition. I can't imagine wishing my friends at the neighboring synagogue a Merry Christmas anymore than I can imagine them wishing me a Happy Hanukah. It would be as if we had missed the point. (Though this year we did have a fun Thanksgivukah service together the night before Thanksgiving on the first night of Hanukah.) However, if the reverse were to take place and my Jewish friend were to wish me a Merry Christmas and I were to wish him a Happy Hanukah then we would experience the real intent of the exchange -- a personal wish.

It's all personal, isn't it? We wish Happy Holidays to strangers and that's the way it should be. We're not personal with them. We don't know enough to know what spiritual wish to extend. But for those we know, we get personal. The same would go with a Christian friend who's just lost a loved one -- wishing a Merry Christmas may be a way of saying I don't know or I don't understand or I don't care. Instead my best wish might be to say, "I hope these days are not too difficult for you." Now that's personal.

The shepherds of Bethlehem came away from the manger with no expectation that anyone was going to wish them anything. How could anyone have known? It was too personal. That's what the revelation of God is. They were just minding their own business when the angel appeared and frightened them half to death. Why us? they ask. Who are we to get such news? But got it they did and I can't imagine any attempt on their part to explain it would have been met with anything more than suspicious looks. It was too personal. The revelation of God to anybody about anything -- love, grace, forgiveness, wisdom -- is not a badge of honor or a civil right. The shepherds' story reminds us that whatever we've discovered about God came to us quite apart from our deserving nature or keen intellect.

Rewind the tape of your own life and consider the primary causes for your discovery of what you've come to believe about God. Did it have something to do with your family? The culture you were born in? The kindness of a friend? The care of a mentor? The compelling argument of an author? The passion of a spouse? Were these your choices? Likely not. Somehow, someway the news got to you by hook or by crook. If you really thought about it -- you could find little or no reason to take any credit.

And I wonder if that isn't the best place to be at Christmas -- that place where we find no room for self-credit. The revelation has come and I had nothing to do with it. It just came, sometimes despite myself. The mystery and wonder of that is both overwhelming and humbling. It certainly gives me no reason to insist on anybody wishing me any particular kind of holiday. Those closest to me who understand my epiphanies will know what to say. And if by chance I've cared enough to know what to say back -- well then maybe that's my way of putting Christ back into the holidays.