Sunday, November 27, 2005

The Reason for the Season

I see it on church signs, on greetings cards; I hear it in various Christian settings: "Jesus Is the Reason for the Season". In response, something within me suggests, "If Jesus is the reason for all this, why do I associate myself with Christianity? If the values of the Christmas season with all it’s tinsel reflect the heart of Christianity, I need to find a new faith."

Is Christmas about Jesus? No. Not now. Not ever. Christmas didn’t begin in a manger in Bethlehem. The life of Jesus Christ began in Bethlehem, but Christmas began in the dark lands of the north.

I recently heard someone say that they are glad Christmas comes at this time of the year because the lights are so beautiful on dark winter nights. Hello! That’s not coincidence, you know! December 25th is not the historic date of Jesus’ birth. Rather, it’s the first day of perceptibly longer daylight after the winter solstice. The winter solstice is the reason for the season. Think how dark and cold and depressing December would be without Christmas. Winter is a time of darkness and death. We need help to make it through. What a momentous occasion when after weeks of each day being a little shorter than the previous one, there comes a day that is just a wee bit longer. The tide has turned. We’re heading back to warmth and light. It may be a long time coming, but we’ve made a start. It’s a reason to celebrate.

Even though it’s dark now, the light will return. In the meantime, we string up lights all around city, town, and country. We change our decor to a Christmas theme. We bring evergreen trees inside and hang lights and ornaments on them. We have social gatherings. In the midst of the darkest days, our electric meters hum as we light the world in defiance of the darkness.

There’s more to Christmas than bringing artificial light into the darkness of December. We also shop! We fill the streets with traffic and the store aisles with shopping carts as we go out and spend our money on the commercial offerings of our culture. We buy gifts and wrap them in bright paper and adorn them with ribbons. We pile those gifts high under and around the trees in our homes. We buy gifts for people we love and for people we hate and for people we barely know and for people we don't know at all. We buy gifts for people who ask us not to buy them gifts. If we don't know someone well enough to select a suitable gift, we buy something that we would like or that we think they ought to like but which may have no actual value at all to them. Or we buy what other people tell us our gift recipients will like, whether the gift seems of true value or not. (Sometimes we make sure they’re returnable.) It gives us something to do in December. Go out and enjoy the lights and the cheery music. Mingle with other people. Collect the gifts. Wrap the gifts. Anticipate the distribution of the gifts. Chase away the darkness.

In the midst of this comes a group of people saying, "Jesus is the reason for the season." The lights? They’re about Jesus, the light of the world. The music? Jesus, the reason to sing. Christmas trees? Jesus again, bringing us eternal (evergreen) life! The wreaths? Symbols of God's unending love. The gifts? Celebrating the greatest gift ever and reminding us of those who brought gifts to Jesus on his birth. December 25th? No, not the first day of perceptible increase in length after the winter solstice (who even knew that?) but the day of Jesus’ birth.

This is a problem to me. I don’t mind celebrating Jesus’ birth on December 25th. But I mind it very much when people try to match up the over-the-top excesses of our culture’s holiday season with the life and values of Jesus Christ. To say that Jesus is the reason for frenzied shoppers trampling each other trying to grab the last hot item available in town is a terrible affront to the Christian faith, denying the most basic values of Christianity, such as simplicity and generosity. To say that He’s the reason for the piles of often-thoughtless gifts that are so soon broken or discarded trivializes the value of the gift He gives to us. To say that Jesus is the reason people string up lights is to presume that we know the motivation of people who may be simply enjoying the beauty of the displays. We don’t do all these things because of Jesus! We do it because it’s December and it’s dark and we need a way to cope with the darkness of winter.

Maybe I’m deceived here. Maybe other people truly trace all of their winter holiday activities back to Jesus. Maybe the joy of their relationship with Jesus Christ inspires them to put up lights and a tree in December and go out and buy gifts for everyone they know. I’m not one of those people. The joy of my relationship with Jesus Christ doesn’t make me do anything in December that I don’t do at other times in the year. Celebrating Jesus’ birth, even if I do it in December, does not require more preparation than celebrating the greater wonder of his resurrection a few days after the spring equinox. Being a Christian doesn’t prompt me to make an annual pilgrimage to the mall to buy gifts of dubious value for my friends and acquaintances. Only the cultural pressure of the winter solstice celebration prompts me to do that.

For many years, I have dreaded the arrival of December. Stress is caused by unpleasant circumstances that are beyond our control. Christmas in my adult years has involved multiple sets of unpleasant circumstances beyond my control. Thus, for me, Christmas is the ultimate source of stress. One thing that has helped me is to realize that American (or European or any other) Christmas traditions are not nearly so sacred as Christians like to make them out to be. Very little of what happens at Christmas time in the 21st century truly traces back to the birth of Jesus Christ.

If I regard Christmas as simply a cultural response to the cold, dark days of winter, it is freeing to me. I like the lights. It’s dark in December. Lights are good. A Christmas tree is nice. Christmas decorations brighten the atmosphere. Special food and social activities lift my spirits. A few gifts exchanged with loved ones is a pleasant winter event. Taking time during December to send greetings to friends and relatives near and far is a good use of this month when the darkness gives us more time inside. Commemorating the birth of Jesus during these dark days adds a special touch to the winter holidays.

No, Jesus is not the reason for the season. My commitment to Jesus Christ is not measured by how much I spend at the mall. Nor by how many social events I host or attend. Nor by how much fruitcake I make and give away. Not even by how many hours I spend in church either celebrating or preparing to celebrate Christmas. I actually appreciate the shift from saying "Merry Christmas" to "Happy Holidays". Not only do I favor descriptors other than "merry" for the commemoration of the advent of Christ, I think the latter greeting is more appropriate in light of the overwhelmingly secular nature of our winter celebration. Giving our blessing to the excessiveness of the holiday season by referring to the entire frenzied season as "Christ’s mass" is offensive to me as one who seeks to follow that humble carpenter.

So to those of you who will marvel at the miracle of the Incarnation this month, may the season be blessed with warm gatherings and a fresh wonder at the amazing love that prompted that event. To those of you who are more focused on other aspects of the season, I wish you "Happy Holidays." May the lights and the music and, yes, even the shopping bring you good cheer during these dark days.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

The First Empty-Nest Thanksgiving

We went from five around the table last year on Thanksgiving Day to two this year – my husband and me. The kids all found other places to be. One has moved too far away to come home for a 4-day weekend. The other two spent the day with friends. We could have pressured one to stay home but let her go as the others submitted their negative RSVPs. Dave’s extended family is in Florida. Mine is doing Thanksgiving with the "other side" today. I was going to have them here Saturday but my brother and sister-in-law offered to host the event so we’re going there.

This all started to fall into place a couple of weeks ago. That’s good. It helps to have a little notice that a holiday isn’t going to follow its usual pattern in order to bend my mind around it before it arrives.

I asked Dave what we were going to do for Thanksgiving. He suggested cutting firewood. That didn’t set real well with me. Gathering firewood has been a frequent activity lately. It seems that there should be something special to do on a holiday, something that we don’t do on ordinary days.

There are always stories about people who invite intellectually-stimulating guests to join them for Thanksgiving gatherings. I tried to think of all the intellectually-stimulating people I know who wouldn’t be celebrating with family and drew a blank. I thought about the less-than-stimulating people I know who might not have a family gathering but then remembered that hospitality is not exactly my best talent. I envisioned bored people sitting around in our livingroom with nothing to entertain them -- no television for parades or football, no stimulating conversation. Suddenly, the firewood idea started looking better.

We went through the list of possibilities. We’re not particularly interested in parades or football. There are no soup kitchens in the area where we could volunteer. The schedule at the movie theater is only mildly interesting – "Chicken Little" or "Harry Potter". We don’t hunt, although we do have four acres of woods. Cooking a big dinner seemed pointless with a church turkey dinner last Sunday evening and my family gathering on Saturday. Some people from church invited us to join them at a steakhouse 35 miles from home. Stuffing myself with restaurant food didn’t sound all that inviting. Television bores me. Sitting by the fire reading good books bores him. Playing games doesn’t appeal to either of us.

A co-worker told me this week that she and her teenage daughter were going to lounge around in their pajamas all day. That sounded cozy and relaxing. Maybe large family gatherings and turkey dinners on Thanksgiving are over-rated. Still, it seems like the day requires more than sacking out on the couch all day.

We came up with a plan. A tornado ripped through our county last week and did enormous damage along its 12-mile path. Fortunately, there were no deaths and only one serious injury, but 60 houses and 10 businesses and high-voltage towers and wires were strewn across the area. The roads were closed in the area for the rest of the week but opened up to sightseers last Sunday and we joined the gawkers, amazed by the awesome destructive force of nature. It was a spontaneous outing and we didn’t take our camera. We could go back and take pictures today. Then maybe an outing to the theater would round out the day.

We never left the driveway. Nor is the pile of firewood in the back yard significantly higher. We slept late and took naps. I caught up on some reading. We had sliced turkey from the deli on sandwiches for lunch and pot pies from the freezer for supper. I baked a pumpkin pie just because it was Thanksgiving, they're easy (with pie crust from the dairy case) and I wanted to have one in the house.

Thanksgiving seemed like a good day to tromp through the woods and I took some pruners with me to maybe tackle some undergrowth as I went. I ended up rescuing a few trees along the woods side of the yard from vines that were threatening to strangle them. It felt good to be out in the cold doing enough work to end up warm rather than cold. (Maybe I should have signed up for the firewood idea.) We watched part of a movie on the small television in the kitchen. We cleaned out an area in the basement where we’re going to install a small, modified furnace to circulate heat from the outside wood furnace that’s supposed to arrive next week. We talked to family on the phone. We were on the verge of heading out to where the tornado went through but didn’t quite make it out the door. When darkness arrived, an evening at home started to sound better than driving the 25 miles to the movie theater.

This probably sounds like a terrible Thanksgiving to someone with an extroverted personality who thrives on social activity, but it worked for us. It was a good mix of relaxation and accomplishment. We won’t end the week lacking for social interaction.

Like some other parts of the empty nest experience, it’s something that I think I could get used to but perhaps shouldn’t quite yet.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

On blogging

Last night I was talking to someone who referenced something I had written here. It always startles me when that happens. The internet is a big place. While there are a few internet sites, including some blogs, that include a link to bring you here, it still surprises me when someone who knows me in 'real life' happens across one of those sites and follows the link, particularly when that person is an adult.

The blog that sends the most people here -- The World of Sondra -- is maintained by my college-age daughter. Thus, I'm not quite so surprised if her friends stop past. Besides the conversation I mentioned above, I also chatted with one of those friends last night, a young man whose blog also has a link on my daughter's. I noted that I enjoy his posts. He indicated that he has stopped past here, too. Then there was an awkward pause in our conversation. It seems that neither of us could find anything further to say on the subject of our blogs.

I've participated in internet discussions on topical forums for probably ten years -- eons in computer time. I've developed relationships of various degrees, met some of the people behind the posts in person, shared much with others whom I've never met in 'real life'.

Internet relationships are interesting. They tend to have fewer dimensions than 'real life' relationships. I might know someone's 'hot buttons', how many kids they have, what they're passionate about. I might think they're hilarious or that they whine too much or are too sensitive. I might have a mental picture of them that resides entirely in my imagination if I haven't seen a photo. (There are a couple of people who exist in two forms in my mind -- the person I imagined them to be before I met them personally and the person I now know them to be. When I remember early exchanges with them, I have to go back to the earlier image in order to recall the nature of those exchanges.) If I've seen a photo, I don't have to rely so heavily on my imagination to flesh them out, but I still don't have a complete picture of them.

When I meet someone new in 'real life', I think it's safe to say that most of the information I gather about them in that first exchange comes from my observations rather than their words. I can look into their eyes, observe their facial expressions, check out their personal appearance, their posture, their gestures, etc. and make multiple assessments, many of which will later turn out to be totally erroneous. As I get to know them better, I modify my first impression to more closely match what I continue to learn about them, still using my observation skills as much as listening to the plain meaning of the words they say.

When I meet someone on the internet, all I have is their words. Beyond the plain meaning of those words, there aren't many other things to assess -- spelling skills and sentence structure, maybe. There's not even tone to consider, except for the tone I add to the words as I read. I might be able to say they are skillful at expressing themselves in writing or that I find it hard to follow what they're saying. What does that really tell me about the person behind the words? I may know them very well as internet friends and yet know nothing about what they're like in a social setting. What takes only a few short moments to pick up on in face-to-face exchanges may take much longer to gather via the internet, if it's even possible to detect without personal exposure.

Blogs add a new dimension to the world of internet relationships. Reading a blog is like reading a person's diary. You know what makes them laugh and what makes them cry and what makes them angry. Unlike topic-based internet discussions, you get a broader picture of the person's interests. However, it's a one-way exchange. The blogger pours out their life into the blog. The reader might make a comment now and then, but it's certainly not a two-way street with equal traffic in each direction. Thus, the reader gets to know the writer quite well while the writer is often unaware that the reader is even reading. This can lead to some awkward moments.

Last spring, I watched a ping-pong match while seated next to a young man who had received a college degree the week before and whose blog I read regularly. (We were cheering for opposite teams in the ping-pong match.) I know him as a talented writer dealing with some serious issues in life in ways I admire. He knows me only as 'Marissa's mom' -- after I introduce myself again. So what are we going to talk about? I feel like I know him well and would love to chat with him. But the most I can think to say that wouldn't be 'weird' is, "I enjoy reading your blog." Even that might be too intrusive. Does he really want to know that there's someone the age of his parents reading his blog?

Even when you know someone and are pleased that they would bother to read your blog, it still makes for some awkward moments. Last night I brought up something and my friend said, "I know. You said that in your blog entry." Yes, sure enough, I did. Do I have anything else to say on the subject at all? Or did I totally exhaust my thoughts on the subject in that one post. How inconvenient to have indulged in a monologue and have left myself no resources for a dialog.

It's all right, though. You all, whoever you are, can keep reading. If I didn't want people to read what I write, I'd confine my writing to locked diaries. I just hope you'll overlook the awkwardness if we meet in 'real life' and I realize that you already know my innermost thoughts on some of my favorite topics and find myself struggling for something to say.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Why I go to church

First, I should maybe confess that I am a follower of the teachings of Jesus Christ – a Christian. Since church buildings are designed as places for Christians to gather, it would seem obvious that I would associate myself with a group of other Christians and gather with them in a church most every Sunday (the Lord’s Day). Followers of Jesus Christ have had such gatherings since the day of his resurrection, although Christian church buildings came a little later. And, indeed, I have such an association and I habitually gather with the group twice on Sunday and again on Wednesday evening, as per long-standing tradition.

Being part of a church is not always easy, however. The portrait of Jesus Christ and the God of the universe that I encounter when I attend church sometimes stands in stark contrast to what I find in the Bible – God’s revelation of himself to us. Sometimes the contrast irritates me. Thus, my previous posts concerning going to church without getting angry.

So why do I keep going if I often come away upset about what I encounter in the church? Why do I continue to gather so frequently with people who sometimes blacken the character of God, who sometimes make me ashamed to be associated with them? As someone once asked me, “Why would I continue to go someplace where I am consistently offended?” Why indeed?

There are several reasons:

1. “Lone ranger” Christians are likely to develop a view of God even more skewed than one finds in the church. There is balance to be found in a group of believers. Even when I don’t agree with what I hear at church, the introduction of a different perspective helps me hone my own beliefs and check them against the Holy Scriptures. I need the shaping that the church provides. I need to make myself accountable to a community of believers.

2. The church is my family. These are people who care about me. If I’m in the hospital they’ll come and visit me. When I’m grieving they extend sympathy. When I receive blessings they rejoice with me. Sure, some of them are scallywags. Isn’t that the case in every family? They’re still family.

3. Fellowship. When someone steps through the doors of the church, they are indicating at least some minimal level of interest in spiritual things. The church brings me into intentional contact with such people. I find encouragement along the way as I interact with others who have chosen to live as Christians.

4. Ministry. The church is a place to share my spiritual journey with others and hopefully encourage them in their own walk. Just as my church family ministers to me in my times of joy and grief, I too can minister to others. Perhaps I can encourage someone who is searching for God and having difficulty finding Him. I can weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who are rejoicing.

5. To worship God. I left this for last because I find corporate worship challenging. My most focused worship times occur in solitude. Generally, the only way I can carry worship into the church is to have it begin at home. Still, occasionally I am surprised by a glimpse of heaven even within the church.

As I mentioned in an earlier entry, the author who wrote about going to church without getting angry achieved his lack of ire by finding a church that better matched his worldview. There are several reasons I don’t attempt to do this.

1. There is no perfect church. If there were, I wouldn’t be allowed to join it because then it would no longer be perfect.

2. I am basically in harmony with the official doctrine of the church of which I’m a part, at least more than with other churches around where I live.

3. There’s a possibility that I can be a positive voice in the church, ministering to those who come to church looking for the God of love and instead encounter the misrepresentation of God that I find so irritating. Perhaps when I'm at my best the church is better because I'm part of it.

4. I am not alone. There are more people than I involved in this decision. Leaving the church would mean letting multiple people down.

So I stay and get involved and continue to show up on a regular basis. And I find family and fellowship and a place of ministry. Sometimes I even catch a glimpse of God in the church! It’s a good place to be.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Standing on the Threshold

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the questions to which I’m asked to respond. This was initially prompted by a survey administered at my church. There were 160 statements. The five choices on the answer sheet ranged from strongly disagree to strongly agree with the middle option being “no opinion/don’t know”. I chose the middle option for statements concerning the thoughts of other people. (If you want to know what other people think, ask them. I’m not a mind-reader and haven’t interviewed enough people on these topics to make a categoric assessment of what ‘everybody’ thinks. I’m not even sure of my own thinking on some of them.) I also chose it for statements that could be either true or false depending on various factors. Do I like the music in the church services? Yes. And no. Some of it I love (particularly the songs I choose to play). Some of it makes me want to leave and never look back. I have strong opinions about music but they pretty much cancel each other out at church and leave me in the ‘don't know/no opinion’ crowd.

I was sailing through the survey pretty well until I got to the last set of statements, which were obviously designed to test the orthodoxy of my beliefs. The first one that made me balk read: “Prayer works.” ‘Works’? Works for what? Prayer is conversation with God. Does talking to one’s spouse ‘work’? Does talking to the boss ‘work’? Does talking to your children ‘work’? Does talking to God ‘work’? None of those questions can be answered without defining the goal of the conversation. Talking to the boss might not ‘work’ if there’s tension in my marriage and I’m looking for a solution. Talking to my husband doesn’t ‘work’ when I need to clear up a disagreement with a friend. Talking to God doesn’t ‘work’ when my goal is to get my own way. I could neither agree nor disagree with the statement without clarification. Nor could I say that I have no opinion on the subject or that I don’t know whether prayer works. I have definite opinions on what prayer does and does not accomplish. I just need a definition of the word ‘works’. I left the answer sheet blank on that one and six others. There is no good answer to a bad question. If the statement had read, “Prayer is an essential part of my life,” or even, “Prayer makes a difference,” I would have gladly agreed. But I don’t even fully agree with the old adage, “Prayer changes things.” Sometimes prayer doesn’t change anything about a situation except my own view of it. Does that count as changing ‘things’?

After refusing to respond to seven of the statements on the survey on the basis that none of the choices reflected my beliefs, I’ve been noticing other questions that bother me. The one behind the title of this post comes from a Bible study book. It is: ‘How would your life be different if you really surrendered everything to God and sought His ways above your own?” As I considered the question, I heard echoes from other discussion questions. “What would happen if we really prayed?” “What would happen if we really cared about people?” “How would things change if we had our priorities straight?” “What if we really believed in heaven – or hell?”

These questions all assume that we’re standing outside this possible attitude or activity looking in at the possibilities without stepping over the threshold. The ‘correct’ answer generally seems to be that stepping over the threshold would bring amazing improvement to our lives. So ... if surrendering and praying and caring and believing bring such wonderful things, why would we stand outside discussing the possibilities that lie inside? Shouldn’t we be stepping over the threshold and experiencing the glorious results of doing these things? Shouldn’t the question be: “How is your commitment to God changing your life?”

I can see where some steps might take consideration. For example: “What would happen if we truly revealed our hearts to each other?” It might leave us vulnerable to unpleasant attacks. People might not understand us. Or, at the other extreme, it could bring us unity and a closeness we’ve never experienced before. It might be good to weigh the various possibilities before taking the step of transparency. But I think it’s safe to pray, even to “really pray,” without a lot of discussion first.

The odd part is that when the question puts us on the threshold, any answer that casts oneself as standing inside the doorway smacks of arrogance. Example: “What would happen if we really prayed?” Uhm ... I do pray. “Yes, but what would happen if we really prayed?” Uhm ... I do “really pray”. It’s a rare day when I don’t devote part of the morning to intentional communication with God. “But what would happen if we all prayed longer and more fervently?” Uhm... I guess I don’t know. Amazing things happen in my life when I pray. I’m not sure longer or more fervent prayer is what God wants from me, but I can talk to Him about it if you think I should. As to others, I guess the only way to find out what happens when we all pray is to try it and see.

None of these responses are acceptable when the ‘correct’ answer is, God would bless us with astounding results if we really prayed. Claiming to ‘really pray’ without demonstrating such results rings hollow, particularly in light of reports of how God responded to prayers in other times and places.

Still, I would rather wade deep into the experience of being fully surrendered to God and praying and believing than to stand on the threshold and only speculate as to what might be inside, even if the reality when my human frailties get involved doesn’t measure up to the ideal picture being drawn by those who never seem to move past speculation.