Tuesday, December 12, 2006

I begin wtih a question - Christian Nation: What the hell does that mean?

Maybe not the most appropriate question, but a question nonetheless. I ask because we are in the throes of the holiday season (I said holiday on purpose - more in a moment). I was having the "holiday" conversation with my parents over Thanksgiving when my dad started to do his religious right happy dance (love my dad, we get along, just don't agree at every point) that Target and Wal-Mart are boldly proclaiming Merry Christmas instead of the more tolerant "Happy Holidays."

It's an interesting pickle the RR (Religious Right) puts themselves in when they want to be defined as strict-constructionists and keep government out of their religious doings, and yet believe that said government should give preferential treatment to their faith. Not from a legal standpoint, mind you - purely a decorative one. Doesn't it stand to reason that if one believes strongly in the concepts behind the founding documents of our country, that same person would in fact be opposed to the display of any religious symbol on governement property, like, oh, a NATIVITY.

So, then, why is there some sense of triumph when the hated "Happy Holidays" is sent packing in favor of "Merry Christmas"? Here's why I'm ok with Happy Holidays:

1. We start saying it pre-Thanksgiving, during a time period that covers several holidays, even if you are strictly a Thanksgiving/Christmas/New Year celebrator - it's just easier

2. As our country was founded to give freedom to all religious expression, lo and behold, if we don't have people here who celebrate holidays other than Christmas. Blow me down. So, if you really believe that, be respectful of people who celebrate other traditions.

3. Do people honestly think that minimizing someone's dearly-held holiday traditions is an effective evangelism technique? If the only way you have to communicate the profound love and truth of God With Us is to put down someone else's tradition, you have no idea what Christmas is about anyway and should be benched from the evangelism team. We are called to be a blessing to the nations, not a burden to them.

4. I'm quite comfortable as a self-identified Christian celebrating Christmas as the birth of Christ, because that's who I am. If you're not that person, I'll wish you a happy holiday and hope you have a wonderful time. I don't need to make anyone else feel awkward or minimize myself to wish people well.

5. I don't know what it's like to live in a culture where me and my traditions are ignored and minimized. It must be demoralizing and it surely contributes to hostility in this country and around the world. I don't want to be that person.

Another disturbing thing about whatever "War on Christmas" has been going on (and I can't believe I'm remotely associating myself with Bill O'Reilly) is the deeper issue of what a Christian nation looks like. It seems like we think if the language and symbolism is intact, we then are turning the ship around and "returning" to something that most educated people would argue was never there.

Here's the deal: for better or worse (and, held in check, I have no problem with this) we are a capitalistic economy. When I took econ classes in high school and college, the first thing I learned was that the whole model is based on the principle of scarcity. Basically, that means we operate out of a place of fear - fear that we won't have enough, that we won't get our share, that someone will take our share. Statistically, the middle class is disappearing as CEOs give themselves huge pay raises and the minimum wage has remained constant for a decade (until now, thank God). We're not seeing a lot of anything trickle down, are we? Does anyone else find it interesting that our economy is based on fear and the most often given command in scripture is "Do not fear"?

To me, then, to be a Christian, nation is to be a people who will give without fear of running out. We trust that God will provide what we need and we do things like ending third world debt because at the end of the day, we don't need the money. We don't mind paying a bit more for the fast food we shouldn't be eating anyway b/c the minimum wage has gone up. We spend a bit more on free-trade coffee because it helps the farmers in Africa and South America. We can afford it and the people who work there need to feed their families. As Paul said, we need to consider others above ourselves. The goal shouldn't be to keep prices down, but to make sure that everyone has food, clothes, shelter, and they are loved. That's what a Christian nation looks like to me.

Friday, December 08, 2006

The Topography of Wholeness

Two thoughts have converged in my heart and head as I try to truly process the meaning of God with us this season. First - wholeness.

As I've been preparing for the Christmas Rock this weekend, I was putting together a "script" of sorts for the reading of the Christmas story from the Message translation. (say what you will - it works for a script). I was also including some of the prophecies about Jesus from Isaiah, and I included the traditional "For unto us a child is born..." from chapter 9, but, again, from the Message. In that version, the names listed for Jesus differ slightly from what we're used to hearing: instead of "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace," it's, "Amazing Counselor, Strong God, Eternal Father, Prince of Wholeness."

Nothing wrong with that. Gets the point across. But when I was going over this with my friend who is helping me put together the dramatic portion of the evening, she said she had a hard time with "Prince of Wholeness." Her exact words were, "My ear wants to hear Prince of Peace." I don't disagree. Departures from deeply ingrained traditions, espeically around the holidays, are so comforting that it's difficult to relinquish our hold on them. But, as I thought about the ideas of peace, wholeness and the gospel, it seems that wholeness is a much more accurate version. In a time of war and unrest, both at home and abroad, it's easy to focus on the ideals of "peace on earth" and the dream of a world free of violence and pain. I believe that was definitely in the plan when God devised the whole incarnation thing.

One of the major problems, however, is that as human beings we are seriously lacking wholeness - peace in ourselves and with ourselves - myself included (and possibly at the front of the line). Christ came to bring peace both in the macro and the micro. We very much want global peace but chafe at the requirements of personal peace. Case in point - I have a very strong sense of justice and sometimes this causes me to hold grudges for long periods of time against those whom I perceive have wronged me because whatever happened was "not fair." The call to wholeness requires me to let go of that, but if I do that, do I cease to be a person who strives for justice? Not entirely, but I have a twisted sense of self-satisfaction when I can hold myself up as more just, more right, ironically more whole, than someone else who would betray me.

Second, as part of staying in touch with my inner Mennonite, I get the e-mail devotionals from Goshen College during Lent and Advent. Todays was very good and an interesting perspective. Here it is:

Dec. 8 - Crooked roads and high mountains
By Sarah Wilson, a senior Spanish major from White Heath, Ill.

Scripture: Luke 3:1-6 (NRSV)
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,

'The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
"Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God."'

When I read these verses I think of Christmas time at the family farm in the Appalachian Mountains. I hear my grandfather turning up the record player as the voices of Handel's "Messiah" belt out the prophesy found in Isaiah 40. As I listen I imagine the surrounding hills bowing low to the ground and the valley rising up to meet them; I see the power of God transforming the familiar into the novel. And I don't like it.

You see, the mountains are where I feel most at home. I feel secure and comfortable when I'm in their presence. And the rough, windy roads? Well, there's a charm in hairpin turns and a certain grit and character in potholes.

I think the people John preached to probably shared some of my feelings. I imagine they were reluctant to remodel the topography of their homeland, of their heart, of their mind. There's pain in change, especially when you're quite content with the way things are. But Luke 3 makes it quite clear that the way things were was not fit for the Lord. Roads had to be straightened and mountains of pride, bitterness and envy had to come down to prepare for his coming.

Of course, the good news is that Christ booked his trip to our wilderness while our roads were still crooked and our mountains still high (Romans 5:8). There is nothing we can do to earn his love, sacrifice or faithful friendship. But although we can't earn his presence, there are ways to prepare for it. Soon Christmas will be here and we'll celebrate the birth of Jesus. We'll remember when the Savior first met us on our own turf, in our personal wilderness. Christ has come, and in fact, he is coming. Use these days of Advent to prepare your heart and mind for his arrival.

This Christmas I will listen to the words of Handel's "Messiah" with a fresh perspective, remembering that when the mountains come down, the roads are made straight and the laborious preparation is complete, "all flesh shall see the salvation of God" (Luke 3:6). Hallelujah!

Sarah says, "The way things were was not fit for the Lord." I tend to enjoy the "topography" of the status quo and don't see the need for valleys to be filled up, mountains brought low, crooked places made plain. But, that's what Christ came to do. SO, as I focus on God being with Us, this year, I will be thinking about God being with ME and how my willingness to allow him to change the topography of my journey can help bring peace on earth.