Thursday, December 29, 2011

Contemplating the Directions for 2012

With the beginning of the New Year approaching, I have been contemplating the future directions of my blog. I want to begin digging more deeply into my focus on discipleship, and I am beginning to think of the project in terms of developing a “Disciple’s Lexicon.”

A “lexicon” focuses on the special vocabulary of a particular field of study; so my focus would be on identifying, understanding, describing, and explaining the basic concepts of all aspects of Christian discipleship. My plan is to focus on the meaning and significance of each word used in the New Testament that speaks of an aspect of discipleship. My goal will be to pull those words into a larger framework that will provide a comprehensive view of what it means for us to be disciples of Jesus Christ.

This doesn’t mean that I will be dropping an occasional focus on contemporary issues that capture my attention and call for consideration and reflection; but my goal will be to provide in short essays a detailed look at particular aspects of discipleship that fit into the larger picture of what discipleship involves. While I expect the project to evolve as I experiment with this approach, my goal will be to provide a compendium of ideas, characteristics, concepts, and perspectives that like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle will gradually give shape and substance to our understandings of discipleship.

I invite you to interact with me as we strive for a deeper and broader understanding of what it means for us to be disciples of Jesus Christ.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

“Santa Baby” and Baby Jesus: Anticipation and Impatience

The Christmas season is one of those times when we find ourselves torn between anticipation and impatience. The lyrics of Joan Javits and Philip Springer’s “Santa Baby” capture that tension with the eight-fold repetition of the plea for Santa to “hurry down the chimney tonight.” But the siren’s song is not so much a longing for Santa’s presence as it is for Santa’s presents.

The season’s excitement for every child no matter what the age is based on “What am I going to get for Christmas?” And, of course, the true Gift of Christmas is one that already has been given centuries ago but now has been lost in the clutter of Christmas wrappings and bows.

We are living and experiencing Christmas today, and in that experience we find the sweet anticipation of the giving and receiving of gifts and the cranky impatience driven by the insatiable desire for more and better and brighter gifts than ever before. Maybe in this year of economic “hardship” we will have tapered off a little from the wanton extravagance of the boom times of the past, but the commercial enterprise still far outweighs the spiritual. Can we recast the inherent impatience of this Christmas Day with an anticipation of an even greater Gift?

Some conservative religious traditions reject the idea of Christmas all together, pointing out that the word Christmas itself is a shortening of the Catholic “Christ Mass.” Christmas, to them, is a popish celebration. They fail to recognize that a mass is any act of worship in which the Eucharist, communion, or the Lord’s Supper is observed. These same folks often are turned off by liturgical language like “Eucharist,” failing to recognize that the term solely focuses on “giving thanks” for the sacrificial gift of Christ’s life for our salvation. Maybe what we need is to recover the Mass, the Eucharist, the giving of thanks on this day—not for the gifts we are receiving from each other, but for the Gift we already have received in the Incarnation and the Gift that we still anticipate in Christ’s coming again. Maybe our anticipation of Christmas should be focused on the Reappearing rather than on the first Epiphany. Maybe our impatience should reflect the longing desire and excited anticipation voiced in that Aramaic expression recorded by Paul in 1 Corinthians 16:22, marana tha, "Come, Lord!”

“Santa Baby” stands in sharp contrast with Baby Jesus. Maybe we can recapture today something of the true spirit of this day: less materialism, more reverence, more sacrifice, more giving thanks, and more longing for God to finish all that was begun in the first Christ Mass.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

“Santa Baby” and Baby Jesus: Defining Virtue

The “Santa Baby” songstress reminded Santa that she had been “an awful good girl” and “an angel all year”; but when it came down to describing what that meant, she crooned, “Think of all the fun I’ve missed. Think of all the fellas that I haven’t kissed.” Like many of us, she defined virtue by what she didn’t do rather than by what she actually did.

This kind of negative legalism seems to characterize too much of our religious ethics. We’re “good” because we don’t do anything “bad,” when actually we are bad because we don’t do anything good. The opposite of being “naughty” is to be “nice”—a word that interestingly enough comes to us from a Latin-Old French-Middle English tradition based on the concepts of being “ignorant, stupid, foolish, and lazy.”  That is a pretty good picture of a lot of contemporary expressions of "nice" ethical behavior.

The songstress continued, “Next year I could be oh so good, if you’d check off my Christmas list.” Much of our virtue is future-oriented like that: based on promises, anticipated actions, good intentions, and self-congratulations that flow from promises made rather than from delivering the goods. We want to get credit for what we intend to do rather than for our track record.

As a last resort, the songstress affirms, “I really do believe in you. Let’s see if you believe in me.” This kind of “belief” is not an expression of faith. It is a way of saying, “If you really exist, show me! I’ll believe in you if you fulfill my wishes. Give me what I want and what I ask for, and you’ll see how much I will believe in you. Show me the proof. Give me a sign. Give me tangible answers to my prayers. Prove to me that you are what you claim to be.” And it’s not just about Santa that we make those demands; we also make them of God. “If you exist, show me!”
Somewhere in my studies I recall faith being defined as walking as far into the darkness as the light we have will allow; and when the light fails, taking one more step. No faith is needed to walk in the light. “I really do believe in you” is not something we experience when we walk in the assurance of a lighted path. Our faith is exhibited when we are surrounded by darkness, uncertainty, doubt, and confusion. It is moving beyond the rational, the visible, the logical, the certain. It is letting go of ourselves, our strength, our confidence, and our demands for God. It is finding grace, hope, love, and assurance in the Unseen. It is flinging ourselves out into the unknown and trusting all to God. That kind of faith doesn’t grow out of our virtue, our strength, our power. If anything, it grows out of all our inadequacies. It is when our very living show, “I really do believe in You.”

Somehow that baby in a manger invites us in this season to step out in faith and say, "I really do believe in you--from the manger to the empty tomb."

Friday, December 23, 2011

“Santa Baby” and Baby Jesus: Intimacy and Reverence

The Christmas song “Santa Baby” is an obvious spoof, but an element of presumptuous intimacy is exhibited in the way in which Santa is addressed in the song. Nine times he is called “Santa baby,” twice he is addressed as “Santa cutie” and once as “Santa honey.” This over-familiarity is a common sign of the presumption that we can control and manipulate people in order to get our own way. The songstress offers a long list of desired gifts and wheedles them out of Santa by exploiting a presumed familiarity and intimacy. Santa is a big sugar daddy who will give her anything she wants. She offers to “wait up for you dear” and “be oh so good” if Santa will hurry down the chimney tonight.

Quite frankly, this is very much like the way that some people view God. God is a big Sugar Daddy in the sky who can be wheedled, coaxed, and enticed to give us what we want. Just ask, and God will fulfill your every desire. God will make you rich, meet all you needs, and remove every encumbrance so that you can have the full and abundant life that you so selfishly desire. God will “bless” you abundantly, fulfilling your every desire.

The birth of Jesus in many ways is the most intimate gesture that God ever made toward humanity. Through incarnation, the holy, the immortal, invisible God only wise entered into our human frame and dwelt among us. Jesus gave God a face and hands and feet. He walked among us, taught us, healed us, encouraged us, and invited us into the intimate relationship of becoming his disciples. But there was a risk in the incarnation—a risk that we would seize on the tangible and try to control it, manipulate it, and use it for our own purposes. For many of us, our relationship with God is little more than giving God the image of a Santa Baby who will give us what we want.

Somewhere in the intimacy we experience with God we can lose our sense of reverence. Because God has done something significant for us through Jesus Christ, we think that we are the center of God’s attention and should be the object of God’s benefaction. Perhaps in this Christmas season we need to recover something of the fear, awe, and reverence of the shepherds who first heard the news of Jesus’ birth. When their evening in the fields watching over their sheep was interrupted by an angelic messenger, Luke tells us that “they were afraid with fear” (Luke 2:9 in the Greek), “sore afraid” (KJV), “terribly frightened” (NASB), or “terrified” (NRSV). A similar experience is recorded in Matthew 28:2-4 when an angel of the Lord appeared to the men guarding Jesus’ tomb. “For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.” If a single angel elicited such a response from brave guards, imagine the effect upon the humble shepherds of “a multitude of the heavenly host” (Luke 2:13). How can we possibly respond with less awe and reverence to the incarnation of the Holy One? Oh sure, a baby seems so innocent, harmless, and manageable; but this Baby Jesus is not a Santa Baby or a Sugar Daddy. He is the Gift incarnate—a gift far better than sables, convertibles, yachts, platinum mines, and rings—and a Gift that should drive us to our knees in reverence, awe, thanksgiving, and humility.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

“Santa Baby” and Baby Jesus #2

A gigantic leap is required from the simple request for “two front teeth” as all I want for Christmas to the list of what “Santa Baby” should supply. The “Santa Baby” list includes: a sable (coat), a light blur convertible, a yacht, the deed to a platinum mine, a duplex, signed checks, Christmas decorations bought at Tiffany’s, and a ring (“I don’t mean phone”). If that is not a classic expression of the materialism that has infected Christmas, I don’t know what would be.

Consider the contrast with the actual day of Jesus’ birth. Luke 2 is the classic source for the humble circumstances that surrounded the birth of the Christ-child. The popular “no-room-in-the-inn” scenario depicted by Luke shifts the focus, not to a stable (which is not mentioned in the biblical text), but to a “manger,” a feedbox, a trough for fodder, or a feeding place for animals (note references to “manger” associated with the birth in v. 7, with the angelic sign in v. 12, and with the shepherd’s encounter in v. 16).

No cave or stable or barn is referenced in the text, and the assumption of such often has been drawn from there being “no room for them in the inn” (v. 7, KJV). Actually the word translated “inn” more likely referenced a “guest room” (the other two uses of the Greek word in the New Testament are found in Mark 14:14 and Luke 22:11 and denote guest rooms) and the word translated “room” (in “no room in the inn”) is the Greek word topos, which actually means “place.” The guest room’s space was filled, or it was so occupied as to make it an inappropriate place for childbirth. Exactly where Jesus was born is not stated in the text. The focus is on where the child was laid after being wrapped in strips of cloth after the Oriental custom. We have romanticized the circumstances of Jesus’ birth, making those circumstances even better than they likely were. Such a humble beginning for a “king” seems incredible, unless we perceive an incredible alignment of God’s interests with the poor, the humble, and the meek.

We know almost nothing about Joseph and Mary’s financial situation. As a skilled craftsman, Joseph probably made a respectable living. The unexpected pregnancy probably made the travel to Bethlehem for the census/taxation a welcomed opportunity to escape the gossip and slander that Mary might have faced in Nazareth. Still, we know nothing about how Joseph and Mary financed their trip; and when it was extended, no clue is given to how they supported themselves in Bethlehem. Matthew’s Gospel does give us several clues. Mary and Joseph evidently found ongoing housing in Bethlehem because, when the Magi found them, they were residing in a house (Matt. 2:11). Evidently Joseph and his family stayed in Bethlehem for a while. Based on the information gained from the Magi, Herod ordered the killing of all male children who were two years and younger in the vicinity of Bethlehem (v. 16)—implying the possibility that Mary and Joseph remained in Bethlehem for an extended time after the census/taxation. Then, warned by an angel, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus fled to Egypt and remained there until Herod’s death. We know nothing about how Joseph supported his family during this time, unless we view the providential gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh from the Magi as the resource that allowed them to live through the Herod threat (v.11).

The “Santa Baby” materialism seems more appropriate for the court of King Herod or the academy of the Magi, but it doesn’t fit the humble manger scene with itinerant shepherds giving witness to a humble birth. God’s provision of housing, resources for escaping Herod’s threat, and eventually establishing residence again in Nazareth keeps the focus pretty much on the basic necessities of life. And that presents the dilemma (or maybe “predicament” would be a better word to describe our situations, for “dilemma” implies two unfavorable alternatives): How will we deal with the blatant materialism that hovers over all we do at Christmastime? From the lavish gifts we give and receive, to the lavish decorations we display in our homes and our churches, we glorify the season so that a humble manger hardly has its place in it all. And the letting go of the extravagance of a heavenly throne for a manger-bed cannot be fully sensed when we exploit the gaudy and miss the “emptying” of an equality with God that took the form of a slave and was born in human likeness and humbled in human form (Philippians 2:6-7). Can we turn from the extravagant toward the mere wish of a “merry Christmas” that counters our materialism with the “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who . . . humbled himself” (Phil. 2:5-8).

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

“Santa Baby” and Baby Jesus

One of the first Christmas songs I recall from my childhood was a song written by Don Gardner in 1946 called “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth.” What a remarkable time 1946 was. Our country had slogged its way through a decade of the Great Depression and then had faced the horrific struggles of World War II. The time of so much loss was passing and on the horizon was the hope for a new age of peace and prosperity. The remarkable simplicity of the times is not seen merely in a child’s Christmas wish for two front teeth; it is captured in the reason for that wish, “Then I could wish you ‘Merry Christmas.’” Something in that simple desire reminds me that we all struggle to find and articulate the central message of this season.

I’m afraid that the greater reality of our Christmases today is found in a 1953 Christmas song written by Joan Javits (the niece of former Senator Jacob Javits) and Philip Springer. The song first hit the charts when sung by Eartha Kitt; but in the intervening years (unlike Don Gardner’s song, which has virtually disappeared), every Marilyn Monroe type blonde-bombshell seems to have added this song to her repertoire. The “Christmas” song is “Santa Baby.” (Check out the lyrics here: You also will find on the internet many videos of those who have sung the song through the years.)

I’m afraid that Santa Baby’s original tongue-in-cheek spoof of Christmas has become reality in our time. When Christmas decorations compete with Halloween, when Black Friday spills over into Thanksgiving Day, and when our entire economy seems to depend of a successful “Christmas season,” you begin to sense that, not only has “Santa Baby” overtaken “All I Want for Christmas,” it has overtaken “Silent Night” and all of the true Christmas sentiments.

Over the next four days I want to focus on aspects of the Santa-Baby society as it contrasts with the Baby Jesus incarnation. I hope these reflections will help you stop and think about what Christmas means to you.