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.


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.


[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.


A story of new neighbors [excerpt]

I would estimate that there were 125 to 150 of them. Teenagers, all of them. They all had on a red name badge and many were carrying large backpacks. Nearly all had dark hair and skin some shade of brown. A majority of the females were wearing various head coverings — shaylas and khimars.

They had just arrived the night before, and many of them had a look on their face that’s hard to describe — a mix of eager anticipation, apprehension, and tenacious attentiveness. Some seemed really anxious about doing something wrong. One girl stopped me and asked me if it was OK to pour her drink out.

At the same time, there was laughter and talking. They whispered and giggled like any other teenagers. As they sat down with their breakfast, they didn’t spread out or leave a chair between themselves and the next person like I and my colleagues tended to do — they seemed to crowd into as few tables as possible next to each other. A few who had smartphones went to the edge of the table to take a group selfie.

I tried to read their name badges as they walked by me. Below their names, many of which I probably couldn’t pronounce correctly, were the names of different countries. Liberia, Pakistan and Bahrain were among the ones I saw... [read the full article at Baptist News Global]


Joining the Team [excerpt]

All institutions begin as some sort of movement or local effort. People believe in something or see a need and organize to make it happen. There is a common goal and mutual understanding. Often, in the terminology of 20th-century sociologist Herbert Blumer, there is then formalization and institutionalization. Movements become institutions in order to improve efficiency, secure funding, centralize leadership, etc.

However, over time, if people do not remain as active participants, or if later generations are not educated about the essence and purpose, they eventually disassociate themselves from the institution of which they were once a collaborative part. That which was once the work of the people becomes seen as a separate entity apart from the people, and sometimes even the bane of the people.

That’s an oversimplified version of how, for example, what started with the Hague Congress eventually became Brexit.

It’s also how a pledge of “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor,” and a Constitution for a new government, eventually became the wave of “don’t tread on me” hyper-individualism that we see today.

There is a lot of fear and anger, as well as dissatisfaction with the status quo. A lot about it is justified or understandable. But I fear it’s causing us to shoot ourselves in the foot... [read the full article at Baptist News Global]


All of the above

© 2014 Oliver TackeFlickr | CC-BY via Wylio
Police do a dangerous and important job, and have to protect themselves and can get shot or attacked out of nowhere. At the same time, people are sometimes shot needlessly and unjustifiably by police, and they are disproportionately black.

Police protect us, strive to keep our communities safe, do truly heroic things every day, and experience trauma that others cannot fathom. At the same time, police statistically arrest black people far more often for lower level crimes that they commit at the same rates as their white counterparts.

Within the last year, police officers have been targeted simply for being police officers, and have begun to be afraid to do the job we depend on them to do. At the same time, violent crime and police deaths are statistically at a decades-long low.

Black individuals, especially young black men, face prejudicial treatment and unfairly high levels of suspicion and scrutiny, and are 6 times more likely than white people to be the victims of violent crime. At the same time, black people also COMMIT violent crimes at a disproportionate rate, accounting for 52% of homicides but only 13% of the population.


All of the above statements are true. They CAN all be true, and they ARE all true. Stop drinking the Kool-Aid of those trying to tell you that only one side of the narrative is true and turning you against your own fellow citizens as domestic enemies. The rage and division that these one-sided narratives produce help no one, other than the politicians who feed off of it.


Facing the Worst in Ourselves, and Learning Grace [excerpt]

© 2006 Greg DunlapFlickr | CC-BY via Wylio
What would it take for us to stop playing this game, understand that Romans 3 is real, and be able to face the worst in ourselves and in others?

We perpetuate this lie that there is such a thing as a clean life, a closet without skeletons. Because we do that, we continue to be shocked every time we find out otherwise. We live our days in the midst of this fake drama of being self-assured and put together, and start to believe it’s our true narrative. We live with lists of “unforgivable sins,” but it just so happens that none of our own sins are on the list. When someone else gets exposed, we retreat to our positions of judgment and superiority — not to punish them but to protect ourselves.

Church, instead of being a place of freedom from this game, is too often a place for upping the ante, a place for advanced-level players of this game. Church can end up being a place where we are expected to hide from our brokenness rather than admitting it, working through it, and receiving the grace of God. Somehow, the church must become the place of refuge for the repentant tax collector (Luke 18:9-14) rather than where the adulterous woman, covering her head, waits for the first stone (John 7:53-8:11).

Most harmful behavior boils down to a hidden fear or unmet need. We really never know how we would respond in certain situations. It’s the circumstances we rarely take the time to understand, but it’s the circumstances that are key... [read the full article at Baptist News Global]


Schedules, Sitcoms, and Parenting’s Important Moments [excerpt]

Parents Place from Flickr via Wylio
© 2009 Lasse ChristensenFlickr | CC-BY-SA via Wylio
Remember all those shows and movies we grew up watching? Whether it’s Danny having that important life talk with Stephanie or Uncle Phil having that teaching moment with Will, they always seem to happen when everyone at least has time for it. A child is sitting on their bed in tears when the parent happens to walk in, unflustered. Two people are alone in a car with no distractions and are not late to where they’re going. A teenager walks into a room after a break-up, and the parent just happens to be on the couch with a magazine and coffee.

Maybe I’m doing it wrong, but it never happens that way for me.

More often than not, those volatile or key life moments with my children tend to spring up when I’m late, flustered, grumpy, busy, or just trying to do 10 other things…which is more often than not. [read the rest at Practicing Families].


Going to Bat [excerpt]

© 2006 Juan Antonio F. Segal +1 million viewsFlickr | CC-BY via Wylio
Many people have gone through life with few people who will go to bat for them. This is where we begin to see that there is more to being “down and out” than having run out of money.

Compassion International has tried to communicate this with its poverty wheel illustration. On a bicycle wheel, there are many spokes that hold the wheel together. The more spokes that are missing, the less the wheel is able to function. Material wealth is obviously one of the factors, but it is intertwined with many others.

There is an environmental spoke, for instance. If you live in an area without access to clean water, with high air pollution, or with no nearby healthcare, you are sick more often and spend more of your time, money and resources on that...

...But I believe one of the most crucial factors is the social aspect. From what I have seen, a strong social network of family, friends and professional connections is the one variable that can most significantly help people weather crises in other areas.

Only when people have your back are you able to look ahead...[read more at Baptist News Global]


To such as these [excerpt]

They were all dressed up in flashy tie-dye and other clothes from the “hippie era.” I had forgotten that the music program this year was a tribute to oldies and songs by the likes of Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and the Beatles...

This elementary school is very ethnically diverse. It is also a school with dual-language classes in which the students learn in both English and Spanish. There on the stage was a beautiful kaleidoscope of faces: white, black, Latino, Indian, Asian, even a few Spaniards. Every day they learn together, eat together, and play together. Now here they were on the risers belting it out as one group...

The contrast between the sight and sound of these children and the state of the adult world is just mind-boggling...[read more at Baptist News Global]


The serendipity of ministry opportunities

© 2014 sabin paul croceFlickr | CC-BY via Wylio
In Aurora, CO, church planter Reid Hettich ended up partnering with another non-profit and forming a new LLC called the Dayton Street Opportunity Center, which has a new building in an impoverished Aurora neighborhood and offers health care job training, ESL and immigration services, and several other community development ministries...oh, and a worshiping church!

In Topeka, KS, the local Rescue Mission, a church, a former crime prevention coordinator, a social worker, and several others all ended up descending on the city's poorest neighborhood where a school had just closed down. They ended up forming a new organization called NETReach that operates out of the closed down school. They are working with the neighbors to develop this neighborhood, which includes a comprehensive mentoring program that prepares and then pairs willing residents with a team of mentors who seek to encourage them, pray with them, and connect them with community resources that were previously out of their reach.

These are just two examples I've heard over the years of churches and Christian ministries finding some amazing opportunities and engaging in trailblazing ministry partnerships. Every time I hear such stories, I often first respond by asking myself, "How in the world did they do that?! How did they think of it? How did they make it happen."

Well, come to find out, no one could have ever planned these things. Instead, they honestly seem to come about as a result of God working in surprising ways in the midst of people who had sufficiently opened themselves up to such opportunities. To put it another way, most great ministries do not begin with an idea or a plan but with people creating the conditions in which such ideas and plans can emerge.

This came up as I led discussions about community partnerships during the 2015 Mission Summit of American Baptist Churches - USA. The theme I latched onto in one group conversation was the serendipitous nature of these opportunities. Several in the group have seen great partnerships develop that no one ever expected and that no one could have forced, but came about because 1) pastors and congregants were intentionally present in their community, 2) were open to innovation, and 3) had their antennas up for where the Holy Spirit was working. One pastor shared this story:

A person in the community had committed suicide. When this happened, the police dispatcher actually called the pastor because she had been at a meeting with him where he had read a poem about death that was meaningful to her. "You should go over there because you're the death expert," she said. After ministering to this family and coming to understand the circumstances they had faced, the pastor ended up writing a letter to the paper about a need to more directly address issues of mental illness and substance abuse in the community. As a result of that letter, people started contacting him about a task force. They brought together many different stakeholders, knowledgeable experts, and community leaders. They decided to launch a cross-sector, community-wide initiative. When word got around of the new initiative, a friend of the grieving family to whom the pastor had ministered approached him and offered to fund it for the first few years.

They couldn't have planned that. They DIDN'T plan that. But it can be traced to a Christian leader who was intentionally present to his community and had his antennas up for where the Holy Spirit was working.

I"m reminded of Joseph Myer's book Organic Community where he differentiates two types of approaches in leadership: the master plan mentality vs. an organic order mentality. He writes, "Master plans intend to control the future. Master plans provide specific answers to future questions that may not have been asked yet...A master plan does not allow for flexibility, uncertainty, or serendipity--ingredients of the aha moment...Organic order, on the other hand, presents a language of possibilities."

A lot of people say, "God works in mysterious ways" and that "all things are possible." But I've seen how opportunities come about most powerfully for people who doggedly believe that.


Polarization, public witness and the moral minority [excerpt]

© 2014 George RedgraveFlickr | CC-BY-ND
Many denominations have a solid history of adding a prophetic voice to moral and ethical issues of the day. This includes my own denomination, American Baptist Churches USA, which can claim Martin Luther King Jr. as one of its own. Our domestic arm, American Baptist Home Mission Societies, has a number of initiatives including children in poverty, prisoner re-entry, and immigration and refugee services. The Roman Catholic Church, as another example, also has a long history of social teaching, including the primacy of the family, the value of life from conception to death, and care for God’s creation.

The preceding paragraph mentioned at least a half-dozen issues that politicians and their ideological camps are currently fighting about. Imagine what a large part of the church’s historic public witness would be silenced if it were concluded that we could not speak on anything about which there is current political disagreement.

Some confuse the separation of church and state with the separation of religion and politics. The former is absolutely necessary for a free society; the latter is impossible. Churches and their leaders absolutely have a right and a responsibility to speak to moral and ethical issues, especially where suffering is happening or human dignity is at stake... [Read more at Baptist News Global]


Ashes, Children, and God in Brokenness [excerpt]

I’ve thought about this lesson in my own life and in the midst of struggles I see in other adults, but I don’t often think of it with children. What would it look like for me as a parent to be more attentive to leading my children to discover God in the midst of pain—over and above my more obvious role of helping them weather it?

I wonder if we do ourselves and our children a disservice with the common spiritual encouragement: “God will not give you more than you can handle.” This oft-repeated phrase is not found in scripture. It is a misquote of 1 Corinthians 10:13, which talks about temptation, not suffering or pain. (I wish it were true that people are never given more than they can handle, but as a pastor I’ve seen many examples to the contrary). This well-meaning expression of encouragement, if you look carefully, has for its goal merely getting us through or past the pain, or trying to make it seem not as bad as it feels.

But when we embrace our human experience of suffering—which is really hard and something that requires the support of parents, friends, and church—we open ourselves to an experience of God and spiritual growth that cannot happen any other way. It took me too long to learn that. What would it look like to teach my children this truth? [...read more at Practicing Families].


Avoid Thy Neighbor? [excerpt]

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Occasionally, someone will ask a question about what to do about this or that person walking down the sidewalk. The community officer asks, “Have you ever said hello?” Basic friendliness is such a novel idea. But the officer has tried to emphasize that speaking to people you don’t recognize can deter criminals because it shows your ownership in the neighborhood. “Well, no,” comes the response, “I just didn’t think he belonged here.”

While the community officer always encourages the neighbors to call him when they have a concern, they sometimes get these calls of “general suspicion” and he has to explain that one needs a substantive reason for asking an officer to make contact with someone.

In a TED Talk, longtime Baltimore police officer Melvin Russell lamented similar experiences:

There is no way in the world that we, as a community, should be calling the police for kids playing ball in the street. No way in the world that we should be calling the police because my neighbor’s music is up too loud, because his dog came over to my yard and did a number two. We have surrendered so much of our responsibility.

In other words, people just avoid each other anymore and don’t have enough of a relationship with their neighbors that they could comfortably go talk to them about a minor problem.

[Read the full article at Baptist News Global]