Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Merry Christmas?

An Inkling
My goodness – life in America can be complicated!  With no religion established, and every religion (including atheism) having freedom of expression, we sure can get into some snarls.  This month’s case in point:  how we wish each other well in December.
Even “Merry Christmas” has become controversial.  Once we just said it, and didn’t think twice about it.  But then people began to ask, “Isn’t that favoring Christianity’s celebration over other celebrations?  Maybe we’d better be generic, just to be even-handed.”  Thus the mandates to the employees of many stores, schools, and municipalities to wish people “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” and to declare days off to be “Winter break” instead of “Christmas break.” 
Even presuming the best of motives in such directives (making room for everyone), something is lost in generic language.  “Merry Christmas” has a warmth that “Happy Holidays” simply does not.
The controversy has heated up in recent years, with conservative political and/or religious voices saying this is secularism gone too far.  The more strident voices have called on Christians to boycott stores that wish us “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” and have cited all of this as evidence of the collapse of our national character, the coming persecution of Christians, etc.
Like I said, life in America can be complicated.  And in an already-too-long blog I’m not going to try to resolve all of the issues involved in expressing our Christian identity in a land where that is no longer assumed.  Courts will continue to split hairs, political forces will continue using such issues to rally support, and churches will continue searching for winsome ways to present our faith in public settings.
Let me offer a few suggestions for this latter pursuit during December:
§       Get over your defensiveness.  It’s okay to be a Christian in America – if not with your secular neighbor, at least with God.  And we simply cannot serve Christ well with chips on our shoulders.
§       Offer “Merry Christmas” as what it is: a prayer of blessing.  Listen to the words!  It’s not a litmus test for their response, nor is it a way to make a point.  Offer it for what it is:  a genuine Christian well-wishing.  There is a time and place for making a point, but co-opting the language of prayer and blessing is not the way to do it.
§       If you’re speaking to people you know to be of another religion, try to tailor your wish to them.  As followers of Jesus we can be kind and other-focused, something that is lost entirely when we’re trying to prove something.  Tell your Jewish friends, “Happy Hanukah.”  For other religions, it may not be so simple.  So ask them what sort of greetings they offer each other during December.  And conclude with “I hope you enjoy your ____ as much as we enjoy celebrating Jesus at Christmas.”
§       And if someone takes offense even when you don’t mean to give it, apologize.  “I’m sorry to offend.  I’m just excited about Christmas, and I wish you well.”  Hopefully they can receive it in the spirit you offer it.  And if not, know that it’s not about you.  The offense is toward Christ.  Don’t take it for yourself.  It doesn’t belong to you.
May God give us the grace simply to honor our Savior in a complicated land!  And my prayer for you is…
Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Lord of Little and Lots

An Inkling
Friday night Sarah and I had the privilege of celebrating our anniversary with a night at the Jefferson Hotel, thanks to the kindness of one of the small groups here who knew that this was our 35th Anniversary.  Actually, each day of a marriage is a gift, but the milestones provide an occasion for celebration.
The setting for this celebration was especially fun for us, as we had never stayed in a five star hotel.  If you’ve been to the Jefferson, then you know its marble-columned lobby and sweeping staircase.  We roamed around, taking in all of the art and lavish Christmas decorations.  We worked out in the fancy exercise room.  Friday night’s crab cake dinner was sumptuous, as was the room service breakfast the next morning.  Our suite had three rooms, three TVs, a luxurious bed, a huge shower, and a Jacuzzi.  If I weren’t already corrupt, that would have done it! 
We got home mid-day Saturday, still aglow from our extravagant celebration.  A few hours later we were up at the church helping to welcome the homeless women who are staying with us this week through the Caritas Ministry.  Thirty-five cots fill our Patterson Hall.  The women share two bathrooms, and ride in our carpool over to the Y for showers.  Our team feeds them well, and seeks to bless them with everything from haircuts to medical care to prayer.  We do all we can to make the week a good one for our guests.  Even so, thirty-five cots in a big room is not exactly the Jefferson.
It was the contrast between the two in the same day that made me think of Paul’s word to the Philippians: I have learned to be content with whatever I have.  I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty (Phil. 4:11b-12a).  In a culture that presses us to be anything but content (lest this year’s “shopping season” not top last year’s!), it is no small thing to be content.
Simplicity is a discipline that I’ve valued for some years, so I’ve found it a challenge to enjoy the abundance that comes with Jefferson-like gifts without feeling awkward.  For others the growing edge faces the other way.  It’s that growing edge of contentment with a little or a lot which Paul described, one of the Lord’s many ongoing projects in our lives.  The Savior who could both feast and fast to God’s glory wants to free us to do the same.  May his kind of contentment mark your Advent and Christmas seasons.