Archive for December 2011

We are almost to the end of the “Holidays” as we celebrate them in our American culture.  Typically, this season begins with Thanksgiving, moves through Christmas Eve/Day and culminates in New Year’s Eve/Day.  Yes, I know the holiday season seems to be expanding faster than Santa’s belt after all those Christmas Eve cookies, but let’s just keep it simple for the moment. The inspiration for this article came a couple years ago as I was reading about the spiritual discipline of Celebration.  Because I tend to be a fairly task-oriented, forward-looking person, I am someone who needs times to stop and celebrate the ways God has blessed me.  The discipline of Celebration really resonated with me.  And I thought to myself, “It would be great to have some people over for a meal and time of sharing with each other and thanking God for the ways he has blessed us over the past year.”  I started to think that this idea sounded rather familiar.  If you’re a little quicker than me, you’re already shouting at your computer screen, “That’s Thanksgiving!”  Well just calm down!  Because eventually I got there too.  But here’s my question: Is that what we really do on Thanksgiving?

“Holiday” is such a common word that we don’t often consider what it literally means.  Not surprisingly, it is a mash-up of “Holy Day.”  “Holy,” most basically, indicates something or someone “set apart,” usually for a specific purpose.  So, a holiday is essentially a day set apart for some specific purpose.  Thanksgiving is certainly a different day, a day set apart for a specific purpose.  But what is it that we have set it apart for?  In my mind, I wanted a day or meal set apart for conversation about God’s blessings, the ways God has moved in our lives in material, emotional, relational, and spiritual ways.  What we typically mean when we talk about the Thanksgiving “Holiday” is a day set apart for family and lots of food.  Certainly those are not bad things, but it is not what I was yearning for as I learned about the discipline of Celebration.

Or take Christmas: a day “set apart” for remembering the wonder and beauty of God’s Incarnation, that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  Yet, when people asked me, “How was your Christmas?” my first reaction was to tell them about spending time with my family, how my daughter enjoyed opening her presents, and about our travels over the past weekend (and I’m a pastor!).  Yes, perhaps we set apart an hour or so on Christmas Eve to worship, but that’s not quite a holy DAY.  Rather, the big setting apart was–again–for family and food, mostly engaged in without much thought to worship, Jesus, Incarnation, or God saving the world.

And then there’s the New Year.  While this is not normally considered a religious holiday, it is another day we “set apart.”  I think that many of us actually use the New Year holiday better than we do Thanksgiving and Christmas.  It is a transition day, a time to look back at the previous year and ahead to a new year.  If you read blogs, scan the newspaper, or watch tv, you will find lots of people looking back.  There are lots of “Best/Biggest _____ of 2011″ specials and articles.  This can be really valuable stuff: wrapping up a year, summarizing it to learn where we have come.  In Ordering Your Private World, Gordon MacDonald speaks of the importance of “closing the loop.“  We need closure, and the New Year holiday is a natural time to do that.  We are also famous for making (and breaking) New Year’s Resolutions.  While we obviously don’t do this well, at least we are taking time to think ahead and envision a different future for ourselves.  We all need time to reflect and imagine.  That is what the New Year holiday can be set apart for.

This blog is not intended to bemoan anything, but rather to encourage us to take the idea of a “Holy Day” seriously.  God commanded Israel to set apart days, weeks, and even years for specific purposes.  We like the idea of having “Christmas in our hearts all year,” but as human beings, God knows that we need specific times to focus and return to him and to the life to which he has called us.  Israel had days set apart to remember God’s deliverance (Passover), celebrate God’s mercy (Yom Kippur), thank God for his provision (similar to our Thanksgiving), and even a day to lament (see Lamentations), not to mention Sabbath and Jubilee days and years.

Maybe for you, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year are all lost to other purposes and traditions.  Regardless, we Christians need the practices of remembrance, reflection, celebration, thanksgiving, and envisioning that these days represent.  So whether it is on January 1st or January 4th, I encourage you to take time to think about what 2011 was for you, where you saw God moving, how his Good News came alive in your life or the lives of others around you.  And I encourage you to ask God to help you imagine what 2012 might be: ways God might be moving to transform your character, open up opportunities for you to use your gifts, or live out God’s peace, love, hope, and joy more fully.  And then ask God to do it with you and guide you to a community that can support, encourage, and challenge you in that vision.

I hope you enjoy the end of your “Holidays” and discover the value of Holy Days in 2012.

OK, so I’m showing up to this party about 3 months late.  I never was a cutting-edge type of guy.  Occupy Wall Street has been going on since September 17 in NYC and in that time has become quite a movement all over the country, even here in Toledo.  I don’t mind not being on the cutting edge, though, because sometimes “cutting edge” simply is a euphemism for “speaking before you think.”  The more I have researched the Occupy movement, after 3 months I’m still not sure that it isn’t too soon to draw any conclusions.  So instead, I’ll use this space as a chance to share some of what I have discovered and offer a few of my initial reactions as I hold the Occupy movement up to the light of the Gospel Story.  First, my discoveries:

1) Occupy is different from what we normally think of when we hear “protest.”   As the Occupy Toledo website distinguishes, “A protest is at first antagonism. An occupation is at first COMMUNITY.  A protest is defined by opposition.  An occupation is defined by PRESENCE.  A protest is singular. An occupation is MULTITUDE.”  The movement is seeking to be different not just in policy but in practice.  So, instead of trying to garner votes for or against a particular issue/party/candidate, the Occupy movement is advocating a different way of organizing society.  And the individual occupations seek to function in that different way: sans authority, sans private ownership, sans any set-in-stone political agenda.

2) People aren’t quite sure how to respond to the Occupy movement.  It would be easier to respond if they had a set of demands or if there were a designated leader or if there were a clear audience (ie. state/federal legislators, corporate CEOs, the American public, the judicial system).  Certainly there are implications of what the movement is generally saying for most, if not all of these.  But we’re better at responding to something concrete with a yes or no than to what Occupy is offering.

3) There are a few popular “proposals” that are being spoken.  One of the most prominent would be debt forgiveness–allusions to a biblical “Jubilee”–as a way of evening the playing field and starting fresh.  The claim is that there is so much debt (individually and even nationally), that there are only a small handful of people who are not in debt to anyone–experiencing financial “freedom.”  This is not a sustainable of just situation regardless of the causes of the debt, and thus it needs to be changed.

4) The movement is seeking to be as genuinely democratic as possible.  This is one of the reasons that there has been great hesitancy in designating leaders or a specific agenda.  That is not to say there are not some key idea people who have greatly–if mostly anonymously–influenced the movement.  But this is to say that the movement has sought to be extremely dialogical, conversational, and inclusive of as many people’s grievances and suggestions as agree with their foundational goals.  They are trying to listen to people whose voices seem to be largely ignored by policy-makers and corporate leaders.

So while these are some very cursory insights I have gained into the Occupy movement, let me now share a couple of the things I have observed.  These are not necessarily original to me.

1) The Occupy movement and the Tea Party have some distinct similarities in spite of appearing to be polar opposites.  It is true that the Occupiers tend to want government to step in to regulate businesses in order to create a more just system while Tea Partiers tend to want government to step out of regulating businesses in order to create a more just system.  Yet, the more I read on the Occupiers, the more I see them–like the Tea Partiers–wanting a system that tends to be more locally oriented than federally oriented.  In the Torah (Old Testament Law) and the New Testament Church, most of the economic laws and practices assume a relational, small community–at least compared to the U.S.  Both groups recognize that economies function best (most justly) when they are small and relational and that one of the biggest problems we have right now is that our economies are not just nationally, but globally intertwined.  Without the possibility of relationship with those we are buying from and selling to, it makes the biblical economic principle of compassion difficult to follow.  Odd, but the Tea Party and Occupy movements each see the same problem and share the goal of a more locally-driven economic system.  And I agree: while globalization may allow many of us to get more things more cheaply, I find it very difficult to see any lasting, just, healthy, or compassionate solution that does not involve some sort of re-localization of the system.

2) One of the questions we have to ask any movement is, “Who are you trusting?”  For the Tea Party, the clear answer seems to be “the Market.”  They mistrust government and are putting their faith in capitalism to take care of things.  For the Occupy movement, the question is a little more complicated.  They are obviously mistrusting “the Market,” largely based on the greed and indefensible inequality they see in corporate leaders.  But does that mean they are trusting the government?  Well, perhaps.  I suppose they believe the government might step in and do some regulation or help out in redistributing some wealth (a term I do not use pejoratively).  But perhaps they are really trusting the people or a pure democracy.  As David Graeber (one of Occupy’s key idea guys) reasons, “If democracy is to mean anything it is the ability to all agree to arrange things in a different way.”  I think they believe that since our current system seems to pretty much be a human development, if they capture people’s imaginations, they are quite capable of developing a new system.  So the idea that their lack of focus or political agenda is self-sabotage may be a bit short-sighted.  The goal is not to work within the system to alter the system, but to collectively create a new system.  This is what many people seem to be missing, and why Chris Hedges senses, “This is a goal the power elite cannot comprehend.”  In some sense, this approach is quite Christian: aim at people’s hearts, capture their imaginations, and invite them to join in in a new way of doing life.  It is based on vision and invitation before policy and legislation.  On the other hand…

3) No matter how inclusive any movement claims or tries to be, there is always an underlying worldview, a Story that drives it.  The Occupy movement does share with the Scriptures a concern for the poor, the voiceless, and the helpless.  The Occupy movement does share a Christ-commanded commitment to non-violence (yes, like all human movements, we should expect slip-ups).  In fact, the Occupiers may be far more influenced by Christianity than many of them would care to admit.  There is much, I believe, that Christians can affirm in the Occupy movement.  As Jim Wallis writes, “When they stand with the poor, they stand with Jesus.”  Yes, the movement borrows from pieces of the Christian vision.  No, it is not a Christian movement at heart.  As much as our trust is in anything other than God’s New Creation process, we are at best settling and at worst doing something spiritually dangerous, replacing one kind of sinful system with another.  More on that here…

4) I think the big question that arises for me is, “If the Occupy movement (somehow) succeeds in bringing down the ‘system,’ will they have the foundation of character and commitment to actually replace it with something better?”  As Jesus says, sometimes casting out one demon merely makes space for more and worse ones to enter in.  One dangerous scenario that we face individually and any reform movement faces is the tendency to get caught up in the “others’” sin without owning our own sin.  If the Occupy movement gains power and influence, how will that power affect the character of their movement?  The fear of wealth redistribution is whether we can actually trust the middleman, the re-distributor.  Again, Jesus never tells us to trust humanity.  We should hold a healthy skepticism as much as we believe that we are all susceptible to the power of temptation and sin.  So I am wary of those who jump in and embrace a movement like Occupy wholeheartedly and place their hope for transformation and new creation there.

So what is a Christian to do?  Well, let me humbly and hesitantly suggest that I think it is important for Christians to engage the Occupy movement in a positive way.  First, we are called to see where God is at work and join him there.  I certainly don’t agree with every idea or practice of the Occupy movement (if this is even possible!).  But our job is not just to participate in things initiated by the Church, but to join where God is at work.  There is enough going on in the Occupy movement that seeks to stand for the poor and stand up to injustice that it is at least worth amplifying those parts of the movement that are picking up God’s voice.  Second, it is important for the Church to engage the Occupy movement–and I say this as humbly as I can–because they need us.  Christians have been given a truly wonderful vision of what God is doing in this world and how he is doing it.  If there is hope for a new movement of justice, compassion, and reconciliation, that hope comes from God’s initiation of that work.  The Scriptures tell us that God is blessing the world through a people who put their trust in him and cry out to him, not through people who try to do it on their own.  That is our Story, and we can live out that Story among the Occupiers.  As I have mentioned above, the Occupy movement also needs to be called to humility and confession.  Someone needs to affirm that there is great sin in our systems, but the biblical Story is very clear that we all participate in sin.  Our sin that may seem small in comparison to the system’s sin, but only until we are given the opportunity to continue in those sinful patterns on a larger scale.  An arrogant revolution is a dangerous revolution.

Only time will tell whether the Occupy movement is just a flash-in-the-pan or a lasting and growing force in our culture.  As Christians, our calling remains the same regardless: to be the Body of Christ, God’s representatives in this world, partakers in a radical kind of life, seekers of justice, and proclaimers of true hope.  If the Occupy movement joins us in part of that, let’s be grateful for that.  More on Occupy soon here at the blog.  And if you’d like, join Pastor Luke Lindon and I as we Occupy Nautica Coffee in Mayberry Plaza on Tuesday, December 13th at 7pm, where we will be discussing further the Occupy movement.  We’ll discuss some of the questions I’ve posed in this blog and many more.


Articles, websites, and blogs:– Occupy website–links to info on the Occupy movement and historical context–some analysis of statistics related to the 99% number  and–some recent research on how distribution of wealth has changed over the past 30 years–Jim Wallis an his thoughts on whether the Occupy movement has some “Christian” character–a Occupy is being underestimated by the “elites” as well as an insider’s account of what goes on and how it developed–a call for protesters to acknowledge their own sin even as they hold others accountable–discussing how evangelicals can/should engage the Occupy movement based on 3 Christ-like aspects to Occupy

Do you ever notice a theme that seems to be converging from a bunch of different areas in your life?  This week, I was writing my article for the December church newsletter and then came across this article via facebook (which I strongly encourage you to read–especially the end).  And now that my pre-Thanksgiving ban on Christmas music and watching Christmas commercials has been lifted, I am fully in the paradox that is the Christmas season in America.

If it weren’t for the wondrous beauty of the Incarnation, Christmas in the U.S. could be pretty depressing as a Christian.  There are so many things we associate with Christmas that run the gamut from odd (“Grandma Got Ran Over by a Reindeer”?  Really?) to incongruent (Black Friday mobs) to just plain offensive (find your own example).  Perhaps one of the most upsetting parts of the Christmas season to me, however, is the way Christians conduct themselves.  This runs the gamut from total assimilation to cultural versions of Christmas (lots of shopping, busyness, no focus on Jesus) to utterly misrepresenting the whole point of Christmas in the name of protecting Christmas.  Towards the latter end of this gamut is the barrage of facebook posts, yard signs, etc. that declare one’s intention to reject “politically correct” holiday greetings (ie. “Happy Holidays”) in favor of the more “traditional” “Merry Christmas.”  In the article linked above, “The Fat Pastor” talks about why “Happy Holidays” is a perfectly acceptable greeting for Christians to use, but I want to go a step further and make a case that it may actually be the “more Christian” way to greet a stranger during this season.

I’ll start my case with what Christmas is all about.  I don’t agree with “The Fat Pastor” that Christmas is a relatively minor part of Christianity.  Perhaps the day itself, but certainly not the Incarnation, that God was “enfleshed” in Jesus.  This is truly a striking theological statement.  As Paul writes in Philippians, “[Jesus], being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.”  This description of the Christmas moment is filling out Paul’s call to Christians: “Your attitude should be the same as Christ Jesus.”  So, to sum up, Christmas is about God lovingly humbling himself and sacrificing comfort and ease to meet us where we are by identifying with us so that he can serve us, and we are supposed to follow that example.

Now, someone please tell me in what way saying, “Merry Christmas!” to a person who is Jewish, Muslim, atheist, or even ignorant of Christianity is following the example of Jesus.  How is that identifying with them, serving them, helping them to know God’s love for them, or sacrificing for them?  What I hear Christians insisting is, “It’s my right!” which is exactly what the Incarnation is opposed to.  Jesus does not grasp onto his rights or prerogatives as God, but lets them go.  He rejects rights-thinking in favor of love-thinking.

Surely some will say, “I’m not going to be ashamed of my faith.  I’m a Christian, and we’re supposed to boldly proclaim the Gospel!  We shouldn’t hide out of fear or shame.”  I hope you see that foregoing “Merry Christmas” need not be an act of fear or shame, but of love.  Not to mention that saying, “Merry Christmas” is hardly proclaiming the Gospel.  Proclaiming the Gospel in love requires knowing something about the one(s) to whom you are preaching it: understanding their worldview, assumptions, and beliefs and seeking their good, none of which really applies to a random person at the store.

Finally, some will argue, “But our culture is taking Christ out of Christmas.  They’re defiling our holiday.”  To which I would say, “We kind of took over someone else’s holiday first.”  We ought to beware of judging others lest the same standards of judgment be turned back on us.

Friends, we do not need to win any battle for the culture.  As has been said about the battle for prayer in public schools, “Maybe we should focus on getting prayer back in our churches first.”  And of the battle for the 10 Commandments, “Maybe we should be able to at least list the 10 Commandments ourselves.”  I say of the battle to keep Christ in Christmas, “Maybe we should focus on putting Christ at the center of our lives first.”  Have the same loving, sacrificial, humble approach as Jesus had.  And be prepared with an answer when someone asks you what reason you have for such hope this time of year or any time.

“But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect”  1 Peter 3:15