Sunday, December 19, 2021

The Essence of Christmas

What is the essence of Christmas? Most Christians would not hesitate to say it is the birth of Jesus, but surely Christmas is more than a religious birthday party. Those of non-Christian religious traditions look to the winter solstice for inspiration. They find spiritual significance in the change of seasons and the symbolism of light and darkness. Those of a secular mindset use the time to celebrate family, friends, food, community, and generosity.

I embrace all these facets of the season. I love that this solstice celebration has roots more ancient than Christianity. I do not begrudge the secularization of the holiday. I love the fact that Christmas has expanded beyond the Church. 

I even like Santa! I am not a culture warrior who promotes the use of the slogan “Merry Christmas” as a means to thumb my nose at those who do not share my religious beliefs. Such mean-spiritedness is a violation of the Christmas spirit.

As a Christian theologian I look to the gospel birth narratives for the reason for the season. As a practitioner of the historical-critical method, I am aware of the problems associated with taking these accounts as history. Yet the symbolism of the ancient stories is powerful. It never fails to fill me with awe every year. 

So what is the meaning of the season? It is transcendence. This is what the heavenly host and nativity star point to. There is a Reality beyond the mundane interpretations of human existence. Heaven and earth meet at Christmas.

It is beauty. Most people do not think of the Battle Hymn of the Republic as a Christmas carol, but it is. “In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea / With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me.” Christmas is about transfiguration. I experience this every Christmas Eve as I sing Silent Night.

It is about immanence and incarnation. The Christmas story is very earthy. It is about pregnancy and childbirth in difficult circumstances. It is shepherds reeking of sheep and goats, kneeling before a newborn child, who has been laid in a feeding trough in a stable. I have often thought that only those who practice animal husbandry can really appreciate what Christmas is all about.

Most of all it is about mystery. Its meaning is beyond our knowing. It is about unknowing what we think we know. If we think Christmas is a rallying point for our team in opposition to other religious teams, then we have missed the point of the Wise Men coming to honor the Christ Child.

The Magi were likely Zoroastrian priests from Persia or possibly Nabateans from Arabia. Christmas is about a Spiritual Reality that cannot be contained within the confines of one religion. It is about the One who transcends religious differences, yet inspires them all.

The essence of Christmas? It is found deep within the human heart. Jesus taught, “The Kingdom of God is within you.” It is found in the hearts of other animals as well, hence the prominent place that nonhuman creatures play in biblical narratives and later Christmas traditions. That accounts for the popular image of the Peaceable Kingdom at Christmastime.

It is found in the heavens, which is the meaning of the Star of Bethlehem. It is found in children. The focus of Christmas is a newborn child. The Child of Bethlehem grew to be the Rabbi of Nazareth who said, “One must become like a little child to enter the Kingdom of God.”

Jesus also taught, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” According to Jesus “neighbor” included Samaritans (who were considered heretics) and enemies. If you want to find the essence of Christmas, look to unconditional love - a love that conquers our fear of people who look and worship differently than us.

Look within the heart of your Jewish neighbor, Muslim neighbor, Hindu neighbor, Buddhist neighbor and Sikh neighbor. That is where Christmas is found. Look to Love that transcends religious boundaries. As the hymn says, “Love came down at Christmas.” That is the essence of Christmas.

“Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people…. Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, goodwill toward all!” 

Monday, December 13, 2021

Born in Us

Thirty years ago on this date I was in Bethlehem. Our whole family lived just outside of Bethlehem for the fall semester while I studied at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute. We could view the town of Bethlehem from the balcony of our apartment. Those were the days before a wall and a military checkpoint separated the West Bank from Israel. We used to walk freely into Bethlehem as a family regularly. I spent many hours at the Basilica of the Nativity, which is the traditional site of Jesus’ birth.

For that reason I get a bit nostalgic whenever I sing the Christmas carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” The hymn was written in 1867 by Phillips Brooks, an Episcopal pastor from Philadelphia. He had been in Israel two years earlier and had celebrated Christmas in Bethlehem. One phrase in the final stanza is particularly meaningful to me. It is a prayer to the Holy Child of Bethlehem to “be born in us today.” This is the meaning of Christmas.

Christmas is not just a birthday celebration. If that were the primary purpose of Christmas then the Bible would give a date for Jesus’ birth. It doesn’t. The mention of the Roman census does not help historians narrow it down. Christmas is not really about angels, shepherds, wise men, or a miraculous star in the East. These are symbolic elements meant to point the reader to a deeper spiritual reality.

They point to the truth that Christ is born in us. That is why the figure of Mary is so important in Luke’s nativity account. Christ was born in her. This is more than physical pregnancy. It is about spiritual pregnancy. It points to spiritual truth. Christ was born in her.  Christ is born in us. As the hymn says, “O Holy Child of Bethlehem … be born in us today.”

To use the theological term, Christmas is about incarnation. God enfleshed. God was in the human named Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus learned this himself at his baptism when he heard the heavenly voice calling him a beloved son. The apostle Paul extended it to us: “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”

Christmas is about the spiritual reality at the heart of human existence. It is about a spiritual transformation that can happen to all of us.

How silently, how silently,
the wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
the blessings of his heaven.

It is about knowing our true nature as children of God. It is about claiming this birthright. Christmas is not just about a humble birth in the little town of Bethlehem two thousand years ago. It is about the birth of the eternal Christ in us today.

We hear the Christmas angels
the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
our Lord Immanuel!

Thursday, December 9, 2021

Courage as a Spiritual Practice

In response to my previous post “Civil Courage,” a long-time minister friend replied, “How is the ordinary citizen or Christian to act with courage? Tell us how and when and where. We want to be courageous…but how?” Here’s my answer. Once again I will look to Dietrich Bonhoeffer for my inspiration. Courage is a spiritual discipline to be exercised like any other spiritual practice. So how do we practice courage?

First, Pay the Price. There is a cost for courage. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in The Cost of Discipleship “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” This does not necessarily mean martyrdom like Bonhoeffer suffered. It can be enduring the verbal assaults so common these days. “Blessed are you when they insult you, persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, for my sake,” proclaimed Jesus. He said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

This practice of laying down one’s self is a core spiritual discipline. Ultimately the spiritual life is all about selflessness. It is dying to self and living to God. Being willing to surrender the ego to the crucible of criticism is a great boon to this process. It purifies our motives. Our enemies are our greatest allies in this spiritual process. 

Being willing to suffer for God’s sake is the price of courage. Being willing to stand with those who suffer is the price of spiritual liberation.  "Our God is a suffering God," wrote Bonhoeffer. "Man is summoned to share in God's suffering at the hands of a godless world."

Second, Speak Out! Prophesy! Bonhoeffer wrote: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” Two days into Hitler's reign Bonhoeffer delivered a radio address critical of the new chancellor. He warned Germans that this personality cult would lead to the eradication of their freedoms. He labeled the strutting Fuhrer a Verfuhrer – “misleader.” His microphone was cut off before he finished.

Third, Act. Courageous action is always inconvenient, but it is absolutely necessary that courage be expressed in deeds and not just in words. “We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God,” Bonhoeffer wrote. He served as a member of the Abwehr, the German Military Intelligence Office, where he acted as a double agent for those opposing the Nazi regime. He taught at the underground seminary of Finkenwalde. He acted. He said, “One act of obedience is better than one hundred sermons.”

He agonized over his decision to be part of the plot to assassinate Hitler. He reasoned, “If I sit next to a madman as he drives a car into a group of innocent bystanders, I can't, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe, then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.” He said, “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”

Fourth, Give. In our society, funding causes is an effective form of action. Use “unrighteous mammon” for good, as Jesus advised. There are many causes to choose from: courageous journalism, supporting refugees, and contributing to brave politicians who are paying the price for courage. Among others I am donating to Faithful America, an online Christian community that is “organizing the faithful to challenge Christian nationalism and white supremacy and to renew the church's prophetic role in building a more free and just society.” Jesus said, “Where your treasure is there your heart will be also.”

Fifth, Love. In The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer wrote: “The will of God, to which the law gives expression, is that men should defeat their enemies by loving them.” “Christian love draws no distinction between one enemy and another, except that the more bitter our enemy’s hatred, the greater his need of love. Be his enmity political or religious, he has nothing to expect from a follower of Jesus but unqualified love. In such love there is no inner discord between private person and official capacity. In both we are disciples of Christ, or we are not Christians at all.”

In our angry, hate-filled political environment, it is most important that the heart of spiritual courage be love. Love for those who suffer. Love for neighbor. Love for enemy. Without love we might win a political battle, but we lose the spiritual war. It is of no use to win an election and lose one’s soul. When our critics spew venom, we are to respond with the grace of Christ. This is the most difficult, but the most important part of the spiritual discipline of courage. 

Monday, December 6, 2021

Civil Courage

In December 1942 German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote what has become known as his “Christmas Letter” to his closest friends in the resistance. It was entitled “After Ten Years,” which referred to ten years under the rule of Adolf Hitler. In the epistle he laments the lack of courage among Germany’s Christian leaders and others to speak against the Nazi regime.

He cries out “Where are the responsible people?” He goes on: “What lies behind the complaint about the dearth of civil courage? In recent years we have seen a great deal of bravery and self-sacrifice, but civil courage hardly anywhere, even among ourselves.”

He humbly includes himself in his lament even though he had been serving as a double agent in German Intelligence and was a part of a clandestine plot to assassinate Hitler. He was eventually court-martialed and executed for these crimes in 1945. In my estimation Bonhoeffer was one of the bravest of Christians in a time and place when extraordinary courage was needed.

We need Bonhoeffer’s type of courage today in the United States. It is sorely lacking in American politics and the American church. In America today we are facing the rise of an American form of fascism within the Republican Party.  It is aligned with a dangerous form of Christian nationalism in the evangelical church. I say this as a Republican and as an ordained Baptist pastor who served most of my ministry within Evangelicalism.

American fascism has been growing underground for decades. It sprouted aboveground in 2016 with the election of an autocratic president who brought out the worst qualities of my party and our country. This anti-democracy movement culminated nearly a year ago in the former president’s attempt to steal the presidential election by any means necessary, including encouraging an assault on the Capitol.

He lost the election and the battle, but the war is not over. American authoritarianism continues to grow like a cancer in our country, especially within the former Confederate states. Even Pope Francis recently acknowledged this “retreat from democracy.” This existential threat to our democracy and our freedoms could be foiled if Republican congressmen and senators would stand together against the Leader and his base. But they are afraid.

Congressmen and senators are afraid that he will speak against them and end their careers. Some are afraid for their lives and the lives of their families. Death threats are common. In a recent Salon interview Miles Taylor, the infamous “Anonymous” who wrote the 2018 New York Times op-ed "I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” said Republican congresspersons are worried they will be attacked physically and politically if they cross the former president. He remarked:

“I'm talking about former Cabinet secretaries, sitting members of Congress and others who personally confessed to me, ‘I don't think I can join you in rising up against this guy because I've got to worry about my family's safety.’” Taylor said. “I didn't anticipate how much I was going to hear that as a response. They would say to me, “Look, I’ve got kids and this is too crazy right now.”

There are a few brave Republican congresspersons and senators willing to speak out, and I applaud their personal integrity and courage. Patriotic Americans need to do everything we can to support them. But they are immediately ostracized by their own party, and their political future is in doubt.

The dearth of courage extends beyond the halls of congress to the pulpits of our land. Christian pastors are afraid of their congregations, and it is affecting their mental health. According to Barna surveys, in 2016, 85 percent of pastors rated their mental wellbeing as good or excellent. In the October 2021 poll, it was down to 60 percent.

Pastors are afraid to speak the truth from the pulpit or in private conversations. They fear losing their jobs if they dare to stand against the tide of Christian Nationalism which is sweeping through White Evangelicalism. Those who follow their conscience and dare to speak truth are leaving the ministry at an alarming rate.

Fascism feeds on fear. That was true in Bonhoeffer’s day, and it is true in ours. Fascists march in the streets, brandish their weapons and make threats. They lie, intimate and bully. They use propaganda and disinformation as weapons.

This is the climate that now exists in America and in the Republican Party in particular. This is a time for civil courage for people of all political persuasions and religions. Let us support those with the courage to exercise their right of free speech. Let us exercise courage ourselves, so that in the 2030’s we will not have to write our own version of Bonhoeffer’s “After Ten Years.”