Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve - Sadness and Redemption

Today is Christmas Eve. Through sleet and frozen rain I drove two hours to receive the remains of my dad from the crematorium. It was a sad drive on the bleakest of days. In a cold, gray, wet and freezing parking lot I exchanged my signature for a small box of what remains on earth of Leroy Adams. I wept.

On the way to the destination I listened to the radio. Commercials urged me to spend more money I don’t have on unnecessary junk I don’t need and I felt stress levels increase. Flipping to talk radio, I heard various versions of how rotten the liberals are or how rotten the conservatives are and got the sense that the world is full of rotten people. News stations unveiled all the reasons to despair over issues economic, environmental, political and military. Music stations pounded out tunes about how promiscuity and vacuous partying would certainly bring happiness but each song sounded gratuitously silly.

I began the journey grieving more deeply over the loss of my dad and with each passing mile found myself feeling more acutely sad.
Then I remembered – it’s Christmas Eve!

I rummaged through my little pile of CD’s and dug out a Christmas CD by a Celtic Christian group called the Crossing. As I heard in song deep and melodious truths about God’s love expressed to humankind through the miracle of incarnation my heart was again strangely warmed. Though I continued the drive to receive the ashes of my father, and the task was not one that brought joy, I felt nonetheless a deep sense of hope. Redemption of the moment came through refocus upon Jesus, through whom all things are created, and who emptied himself of everything to give His life and victorious salvation to all who would receive his gift of love.

Contrary to all the messages of despair and false gaiety a broken world leaks into modern consciousness – mine included – Christ does give real hope. Last Sunday in church my wife and I sang an “O Holy Night” with the church’s rock band and one line of great truth leapt from the song – “His law is love his gospel peace.”

I experienced this “law of love and gospel of peace” deeply on this “O Holy Night” – Christmas Eve in a cold parking lot with a box of sad remains.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Tell a Good Christmas Story

Dear Friends of the North Central Conference,

Tell the Christmas story well – it makes a difference.

People need stories today. We live in an era so full of accessible facts and information and lies and misinformation that discerning between true and false is very difficult. Most people make only a halfhearted attempt to do so. Multiple “truths” are held with little sense of discomfort for Americans. Clutching to the so called “truths” of forwarded email factoids, recycled rumors and cultural myths have taken on a level of misapplied importance. The primary topic of casual conversation among Americans are movies and television shows, with the virtual lives of others taking precedence over the real lives we live. Many of us are tied into social networking via the web and cellular technology to the degree that we know more about our friends and family who live states or nations away than we do about the flesh and blood people with whom we eat, sleep, dwell and maybe with whom we pray.

In such a time as this, the power of story and image speaks to the heart and grabs the mind more than a set of propositions or attempts at establishing an historic or scientific fact. Bishop David Roller during the recent Re-Imagine Church Events challenged Free Methodists everywhere to grasp the power of story-telling – especially the story of God. You know the story of Bethlehem well and do not need me to tell you how to tell the story. But let me encourage you to tell the story of the Most High King who so loved the world that he chose empty himself of everything in order to woo his spiritual bride that had been blind to his passion and care. The story of single teen woman who believed an angel told her the most amazing secret, and how she and the man who open-heartedly became her husband overcame tremendous difficulty in following God’s call on their lives to bring a child of salvation and hope to every human being.

Stories matter when people either have no facts or are so inundated by them that they are virtually meaningless. Let me tell the tale of how a story changed our culture.

Once upon a time, in the high middle ages (1000-1300 AD) a real social problem existed. Nobles were ignoble. Noble violence was the rule of the day. War, rape and pillaging were considered the right and normal practice of the “Lords” at the time. Peasants were target practice. Early “knightly” tournaments were money grabs, in which the death of an opponent was not the goal but it was not bad, either. When an opponent was incapacitated or murdered all of the gold, equipment and sometimes people in his possession were taken as loot. The fights were not held in a sport’s field, but fought in the streets of towns, and taken to the farmland and homes of peasants, which were often burned to force confrontation. The collateral damage to food, property, buildings and lives were part of the daily stress of the “dark ages.”

At the urging of bishops, many kings tried to outlaw the practices and contain the violence, but to no avail. The church attempted many times to create ecclesiastic laws that listed the “do nots” for nobles, but these were ignored. The law and church rules could not change the plague of violence. But the plague did change, and it was the church which created the environment for change.

Priests and clerics decided to tell stories that inspired new behavior instead of listing rules and making threats of damnation. Church leaders began to write about a code of honor called Chivalry. They told stories of nobles and knights who used their power and military prowess to defend the weak, to protect the peasant, to honor and love rather than use women. These stories were told, not read, as most nobles and certainly most peasants did not read. Around campfires, in the courts of nobles, in the churches, in the streets, people began to tell tales of noble Christian behavior.

In 1000 AD to be a noble was to be ignoble, a professional murderer and thief who controlled others through fear and force. By 1300 AD the idea of being noble took on a different meaning, with a majority of knights and nobles – still violent people by nature and trade – seeking to help others as a matter of conscience and pride. Tournaments were outlawed or altered so that weapons were blunted and activity occurred in a defined region to prevent damage to peasants and townsfolk. The idea of true devotion by a man to a woman became not a romantic notion but a reality for many.

The culture had changed because the church learned to tell a story. Does our culture need reform? It will not likely occur through new laws or churches who articulate well lists of do and don’t. What if we began to imagine and tell the story, however, of life grabbed by the purpose and overflow of love and dignity that God initiated in a manger 2000 years ago?

Once upon a time in Bethlehem. . .