Wednesday, December 21, 2005

And Love Would Never End

One of the things I enjoy most about the Christmas season is the music. For me the three primary ingredients of a Christmas mood are festive lights (sight), baking cookies (smell) and music (hearing). (This assumes, of course, a football game in the background). Angela and the girls get a little tired of my routine because I listen to the same music over and over again. I have three favorites: Harry Connick Jr.’s When My Heart Finds Christmas, the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Amy Grant’s Home for Christmas. That’s right, these are even better than anything I might listen to by U-2 at this time of year.

Angela and I have a strong fondness for Amy Grant because her music helped shape our faith at crucial times in our lives. For me, it was the mid-80’s when I had just graduated from college, was a new Christian, and her albums Age to Age and Straight Ahead became staples of my drive-time listening. Later, Unguarded and Lead Me On, with their faster tempo, became my favorite pop music, period. Yeah, I had a crush on Amy, of course, but her music truly ministered to me.

Angela’s experience was more profound (this is usually the case). Finding herself spiritually malnourished from a legalistic church upbringing and a rough college campus ministry experience, she was for all intents and purposes an “ex-Christian” when she was invited by a friend to take a car ride in which they listened to Amy Grant music the whole time. Angela wept at hearing of a God who actually loves us and whose tender mercies we are invited to embrace. This was a turning point for her spiritually.

All of which is to say that one of my favorite Christmas songs is Grant’s Grown-Up Christmas List, in which she sings about what the birth of Christ intends to bring about in this often harsh and cruel world.

I’m not a child, but my heart still can dream. So here’s my lifelong wish, my grown-up christmas list. Not for myself, but for a world in need.

No more lives torn apart,
That wars would never start
And time would heal all hearts.
And everyone would have a friend,
And right would always win,
And love would never end.

This is my grown-up christmas list.It can be overwhelming to think about, but not if each of us realizes that we can be one tiny part of helping this come true. Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Christmas on a Sunday

Take a deep breath and relax – this essay will not re-hash all the old issues about whether or not and to what extent the church should celebrate Christmas. Yes, friends, there are fresh new issues to hash! In a recent article (“Closed for Christmas,” Leadership Weekly,, Skye Jethani considers the deeper implications of the decision by many American mega churches not to have worship services this Christmas Day (most if not all will have numerous services in the days before), basing this decision on a desire to help their many volunteers, staff, and of course members enjoy Christmas morning with their families.

Jethani takes us through a whirlwind review of the American church’s attitude toward Christmas, some high points of which are as follows: The Puritans were “stridently opposed” to the celebration of Christmas, seeing no biblical support for it and decrying its pagan connections. Indeed, as late as 1855 a newspaper in New York reported that Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian churches would be closed on Christmas Day because “they do not accept the day as a Holy One.” This sentiment was so strongly propounded that by the 1860’s only 18 states officially recognized the holiday! America’s opposition to Christmas finally weakened in the early 20th century “with the rise of Santa Claus in the secular pantheon.” Retailers embraced Christmas as “the premier season for shopping.” In response, church leaders’ objections shifted from the holiday’s pagan connections to “the ungodly materialism they were witnessing in the name of Christ.”

Jethani wonders if the mega churches’ “spend the morning with our families” explanation may simply be putting the most positive spin on what is essentially a capitulation to the commercial juggernaut that Christmas has become, i.e., we better cancel church services because most of our people would choose to stay home and open presents anyway.

David Wells, a theology professor and frequent critic (from within) of the evangelical Christian movement in America, claims, “This is a consumer mentality at work: ‘Let’s not impose the church on people. Let’s not make church in any way inconvenient.’”

In what may be the height of irony, many Christians are pushing for “Merry Christmas” to be re-instated (as opposed to “Happy Holidays”) in department stores. Jethani notes, “Strangely, the historic outcry of churches over the materialism of Christmas seems to have reversed. Now it appears that evangelicals are upset when rampant materialism in December is not explicitly associated with Christmas.”

Well, friends, that’s a lot to chew on, isn’t it? Little ‘ol West Houston, perhaps more inadvertently than not, won’t be having alternative services in the days before Christmas. There is just our Christmas morning assembly at the regular time (no classes, though). Maybe we should have offered choices of services. Or maybe, again inadvertently, we are “forcing” one another to make an important choice. Keep the Christ in Christmas? Let’s keep the Christmas in Christ.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Reverend Billy's Church

He is 47-yrs old. He wears a blonde pompadour, white suit and clerical collar. He is full of righteous fire and a strong message for America. He is conducting a month-long, cross-country campaign that began the day after Thanksgiving in New York and ends in Los Angeles on Christmas Day. His name is Reverend Billy and he is the preacher of … the Church of Stop Shopping.

“Americans are instructed that our way of life is shopping. That our democracy is shopping. Citizenship is shopping. That we don’t need towns and cities anymore because we have a shopping experience,” he proclaims. “Our communities are collapsing. The hurricanes were a tipping point. They showed us that we’re letting our life support system go. We can be so much more than consumers.” (Rev. Billy says: Stop Shopping; CNN/Money, Katie Brenner; 11/29/05).

The Reverend’s tour (called “Shopocalypse”) has a rallying cry (“Change-a-lujah”) and began on Black Thursday with an appeal for everyone to decline to shop on that mega-purchasing day. Retail figures suggest that the Reverend’s message was not well heeded. But he preaches on. In front of the Disney store in New York’s Times Square, which the Rev. considers “the belly of the beast,” he pleads “stop shopping” to one frenzied consumer scurrying past. “Whatever,” she mutters.

Tom Halen is a performance artist whose convictions lead him into many expressions of social activism and protest, most of which I consider extreme, but I kind of like his ReverendBillyandthechurchofstopshopping gig. It’s not that I think Christmas has become too commercial (though it would be hard to argue that it hasn’t). Or that I have something against shopping (I rather enjoy it). Or even that I don’t like buying Christmas presents for loved ones during this fine season (Angela does most of that!). It’s just that the Rev. is touching on what I consider to be a very real phenomenon, and that is our increasing tendency to see ourselves as primarily consumers and shopping as a natural extension of our being -- I buy/own, therefore I am. This goes deeper than the Christmas season, of course, but isn’t it interesting that we so naturally hew to purchasing as the primary and central activity of that particular holiday, even as we acknowledge that there is much more (and deeper) meaning that should be associated with it?

As the good reverend puts it in what perhaps could be considered his version of an invitation, “Make time to spend with your loved ones that doesn’t involve shopping. It’s like getting off alcohol and noticing that you’re not drunk anymore.”

Yes, the Reverend’s religion is a bit extreme, but I’m thinking there’s some good news of deliverance in there somewhere. There are many gifts to celebrate at Christmas; only some of them are purchased. Let’s keep things in perspective. Change-a-lujah, friends? May God bless you this Christmas season.