12.29.2016

What Pentatonix is teaching us about Christmas and the "war" on it

It's an annual tradition in the U.S. now. Every December, we hear the displeasure (and sometimes violent indignation) of Christians who feel that they're losing their holiday.

Of course, not all the observations of the disgruntled are untrue. It is in fact true that more public schools are expanding to include more holidays or not doing religiously-themed activities at all. It is true that businesses, public events, etc. are giving more and more recognition to other holidays celebrated at this time of year (or opting for a broad, secular "holidays" reference). Explicit references to Jesus on the television airwaves are fewer these days.

Such observations are not wholly untrue; our culture is diversifying. This reality is the cause consternation among some Christians who, as best I can tell, wish they didn't have to share space with others who don't believe and celebrate as they do. Apparently, a homogeneous society where everyone unquestioningly celebrates Christmas would be better.

In the midst of this environment where, according to Donald Trump, you can't even say "Merry Christmas" without fear, Christmas and Jesus burst onto the scene on prime time television this year, and I wonder how many people noticed.

Pentatonix is the 5-member a cappella group from Texas with super-human sounds that have captivated their audiences. They burst onto the music scene in 2011 when they won the third season of NBC's "The Sing-Off." Since then, they've released five full studio albums, won 2 Grammy's, and have been nominated for dozens of other awards.

Three of their five albums are Christmas albums. Among those three Christmas albums, 11 of the songs on them are explicitly Christian and/or directly reference Christ and his birth.

On December 14th, on NBC (one of TV's most popular networks) at 8:00 p.m. (one of the most popular TV viewing hours), Pentatonix had a full-hour Christmas special that included big name special guests like Reba McEntire and Dolly Parton. In this prime time slot, when some would have you believe you can't say the name of Jesus, in front of 7.5 million viewers, they belted out lyrics such as:

God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay
Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas day

In Bethlehem, in Israel this blessed Babe was born
And laid within a manger upon this blessed morn
That which His Mother Mary did nothing take in scorn

Come and behold him
Born the king of angels
Oh come let us adore him...Christ the Lord

How did this happen? Why didn't the anti-Christmas gods strike them down?

Granted, I'm possibly over-exaggerating the uniqueness of these mentions of Christ. After all, Lauren Daigle recently performed what is essentially a worship song on Good Morning America. But explicit references to Christ in prime time, especially in reverent fashion, are still uncommon enough to merit notice.

Granted, part of the reason these artists are getting a special place is because of their special talent. When you're captivating audiences and can bring in ratings, producers largely don't care what you're saying.

But I don't think their talent accounts for all of it. The members of Pentatonix, both collectively and as individuals, demonstrate a grace and humility that stands in stark contrast to the combative and pretentious posture of Christians who think there's an organized attack on their holiday.

Pentatonix is a religiously-diverse group that includes one Jewish member (Avi, the bass). Only one member openly talks about being a Christian (Kevin, the beatboxer). Based on things I've read from and about the group, it's safe to assume that at least one other member considers him/herself non-religious. These members don't protest, pout, or disengage at the thought of singing about beliefs and celebrations that are not their own. Quite to the contrary, they put in countless hours of practice and travel time away from home to be able to do so. In all their interviews, they are incredibly humble and seem to genuinely consider it a privilege and blessing that people are listening to their music. During one interview, the female member, Kirstin, began to cry as she talked about how much she owes to her mother for always supporting her and believing in her. They're talented people, but they're also gracious and humble people who have earned their following.

As it turns out, a group that is largely non-committal religiously is given more generous time and space to speak the name of Christ than other Christian groups who demand that their holiday be given exclusive recognition.

Let this be a lesson to us. Perhaps there is truth to the old teaching that you have to earn the right to be heard. A gracious and humble approach to our neighbors, one that values others above ourselves (Philippians 2:3), is how fretting Christians may find more opportunities to share the Savior that we so anxiously want recognized at this time of year.

People actually connect with you and open up to you when you act like Christ. Imagine that.

12.09.2016

Finding the Tucked-Away Message

I’ve noticed that some of the best and most powerful messages that are to be found in books, music, and even the Bible can sometimes be tucked away and often missed.

Some of the best lyrics in classic Christmas songs come in later verses. “O Holy Night” was originally written in 19th century France by Placide Cappeau, and translated into English by John S. Dwight. The third verse is incredibly rich but doesn’t even appear in some hymnals.

Truly He taught us to love one another
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease

I would also venture a guess that very few people know the eighth verse of the old English carol “Here We Come A-Wassailing,” but it’s the best verse of the song:

Good master and good mistress,
While you're sitting by the fire,
Pray think of us poor children
A-wandering in the mire.

© 2013 cathy andersenFlickr | CC-BY-ND via Wylio
If you’re connected with me on social media, you may have seen that I’ve been posting daily quotes from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I didn't read the book until after many years of watching the movie but, as these things often go, some of the best quotes are only to be found in the book. In the scene where Scrooge and his nephew Fred are arguing about whether Christmas is beneficial, I have not yet seen a movie that uses Fred’s observation that the season helps people to “think of those below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave.” What a powerful statement, easily missed when reading, that represents an approach to others that would drastically change everything from our individual behavior to our public policy. (If you’re curious to read more about why I like this story so much, click here).

It’s even true of our Holy Book. One of the most powerful statements in the Bible about worship is found tucked away in a story in 2 Samuel 24 that very few have read. It’s here that David says: “I will not sacrifice to the Lord an offering that costs me nothing.” Worship and service to God is meant to cost us something, not simply to be a method by which we get something or self-vindicate.

So it is of that ancient story of the first Christmas. The people to whom the birth was announced were not anything close to prominent religious leaders, household names, etc. but instead shepherds "tucked away" at the outskirts of the towns and magi hailing from some unknown place in "the East." The "prophecies" to which we would later look as foreshadowing the birth of Christ were not the standard Messianic texts to which those Jewish readers looked but were tucked away in pronouncements that originally addressed a different context.

And Jesus himself, not in a palace or even a guest room, but in some dirty place (probably a cave) where animals were likely kept, tucked away.

In my life so far, I have rarely found God in the places I expected to find Him or hear from Him. God's presence may be in the shadows. God's voice may be in the whisper. God's might and power may be found in a baby. It's worth noting that "Mary's song," recorded in Luke after she and Elizabeth meet, says some very interesting things about what she saw God doing through this birth. She says,

He has brought down rulers from their thrones
    but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty.

In this announcement, Mary saw a God who was about to turn things upside down. This baby would grow up to be the one who said, "The first shall be last, and the last shall be first."

God stands ready to help us see a different world through His eyes - a world in which, among other things, the most important things are to be found "tucked away" - once forgotten, but no more.

9.27.2016

[Simmering sermon] God-made boundaries

Hopkins Road is a narrow, somewhat curvy two-lane road that travels along northwest Delaware through White Clay Creek State Park. At one point, the road crosses state lines into Pennsylvania...for about 200 feet. Then you're back in Delaware.

I learned this the other day by driving along with road with Google Maps on. I was coming home from visiting some parishioners and had navigation on since I'm still finding my way around. One of the recently added features in the app is an audible welcome message when you cross a state line. The Google Maps lady will say, "Welcome to [state]." I did a double-take when I passed through that very short section of Hopkins Road and heard, "Welcome to Pennsylvania. Welcome to Delaware." Ironically, the home I had just visited straddles the Delaware/Maryland line (and yes, they pay property taxes to both states).

It's a reminder of how arbitrary man-made boundaries are. Whether it's drawing foursquare lines on the pavement or drawing boundaries on a map, we ultimately just make them up. We as adults tend to giggle at children for their imaginary world of forts and hideouts and "no boys/girls allowed," but sometimes I would prefer their world to the adult version of imaginary boundaries where we go to court and fight wars to defend them.

Our last house backed up to a large vacant lot that was owned by a cemetery. Our small backyard was enclosed by a 6-foot privacy fence (built by a previous resident), and if you opened the back gate you walked out into a large open field. During the sale of that house, when we were under contract with a buyer, we suddenly got a letter from the owners of the property behind us with an ominous notice that they would be building their own fence along their eastern boundary, the part that backed up to our house and 4 other neighbors. The letter asked us to take notice of where they had put stakes in the ground marking the county's line where their property ends ours begins. The stakes, we realized, were placed roughly in the middle of our already small backyards. There were other neighbors with fences around their yard also, and apparently, the residents who put the fences up, some of them decades ago, put them too far to the west. So, right in the middle of trying to sell our house, they were threatening to claim the rest of their property (when they weren't even using the acres they already had) with a construction date that was two weeks away. Ultimately, they decided to back off and not go through with the plan, but there were some tense phone calls and meetings.

All over an imaginary line.

When you look at a map of the United States and the boundaries between the states, you see some very straight lines and others that are jagged and all over the place. By and large, the clean, straight lines are the imaginary, man-made lines. Typical of us humans, I would say. We like our clearly-defined, neat and tidy boundaries. But the jagged, irregular lines dividing the states are largely natural, God-made boundaries, like rivers and shorelines.

Think about it. The man-made boundaries are straight and tidy. The God-made boundaries are jagged and irregular, following no predictable pattern.

If you ask me, that says a lot about God's character, how God works, and how much regard God has for our imaginary boundaries.

The first Sunday in October is World Communion Sunday, a day when we focus on the global nature of the church and the diversity of believers that make up the body of Christ in the world.

Now more than ever, the church needs to proclaim our faith in a living Spirit who calls all to his table without regard for the imaginary boundaries over which we fight and which divide us. It is fellowship at the table where Jesus broke down the most boundaries and angered those who preferred straight lines. The table of Christ remains the place where we are all nourished from the same bread and cup, as children of the same God.