Tuesday, December 24, 2013

This Christmas Message is Rated R: for mature audiences only

At our early Family Christmas Eve service, I read a book called Humphrey’s First Christmas to the children. It’s a delightful book told from the perspective of a camel named Humphrey who traveled with the wise men to see the baby Jesus. Christmas brings with it a lot of stories like this, where animals talk and angels get their wings and a little drummer boy performs for the holy family. It’s a magical time for children.

But if you're hoping to read about the magic of Christmas here, you might want to close this blogpost right now. Because this message isn’t rated G, for children; it’s rated R, for mature audiences only. There’s a big difference. Unfortunately, we may miss the deeper message of the incarnation because somewhere along the line, we got stuck in a child’s understanding of the Christmas story. That stuckness often pushes us as adults to either a) continue to understand Christmas as a child and suspend the use of our well-developed brains, or b) dismiss the story as nothing more than a fairy tale that has no connection to our real lives.

This whole dilemma reflects a larger faith crisis. I hear about it all the time from people who admit to me that they don’t believe in God. They’re often apologetic when they tell me this, as if to say, they really wish they did believe in God, but they just can’t bring themselves to do it. Now, if you’re thinking I’m talking about you, let me assure you that you’re not alone; I hear this more often from church members than you might expect, and I appreciate their honesty.

Because when adults tell me that they don’t believe in God, it’s most often the case that they don’t believe in the God they learned about in Sunday school when they were a kid. As thinking adults, they just can’t bring themselves to believe in that God. I have to applaud them for that because I can’t bring myself to believe in that God, either.

If you ask children to draw a picture of God, they will typically draw an old man sitting on a thrown with a long white beard. Maybe that works for kids, but it doesn’t work for adults.

As children, we believed everything adults told us at face value and we had no problem accepting ideas that were less than rational.  But then, somewhere around 15 or 16, a part of our brains started to develop that gave us the ability to think critically. We doubted and we questioned.

This is about the time the kids who are paying attention will notice the inconsistencies in Bible stories. And they’ll question information that doesn’t fit what they know to be scientifically possible. It’s just not rational to believe that a virgin can have a baby, for example. How can they possibly believe such a thing?   

It’s a challenging time, but necessary time in order to evolve from the faith of childhood to the faith of an adult. The task of adolescence, after all, is to break away from your parents and become your own person. As a person of faith, it’s also important to break away from a faith that’s based on all that stuff that your parents and other adults told you was true. This is the time to find your own truth.

Eventually, adults who continue to grow in the faith will come to realize that whether or not the stories of the faith are historically factual or scientifically possible isn’t really the point. The real point is, are they true? Truth transcends the facts. Is there truth in these stories? Truth that’s big enough to hold my life experience?

The real message of Christmas challenges us to grow up. An age appropriate telling of the Christmas story for adults has little to do with the sweet Christmas pageants we participated in as children. It’s about the deeper truth of the story, the truth of the incarnation.

Children think of God as someone who is a separate being, apart from us, somewhere looking down on us, making things happen. Unfortunately, many adults seem to be stuck in this very primitive understanding of God, as well.  If that’s who God is, I can understand why so many people have trouble buying into it.

Seeing God as distant and detached from us, out there somewhere doing stuff to us, like he’s moving the pieces on a chess board, leads us to ask questions like, “Why did God do this to me?” or “How can God allow this to happen?” At its worst, it’s used to pronounce judgment upon others, “God will reward you, or punish you for what you’ve done.” That way of thinking runs completely against the story of the incarnation, God becoming flesh. It seems to resonate with the popular song, “From a distance, God is watching us.” While the truth of the incarnation, is more in line with another song: “What if God was one of us, just a stranger on the bus.”

For the message of Christmas is that God IS one of us. There is no division between the realm of God and our very human realm.  God is not separated from us; God is in our midst. God is a part of us; we are a part of God. God works within us, and beside us, and between us, and among us. John describes it so well in his first letter when he says that “no one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”  God is as close as that person sitting next to you.

The faith of our childhood wants to separate God from us, but the adult story of Christmas, the story of the incarnation, just won’t allow it.

Really, it’s perfect that Jesus would enter into our human experience by being born the way we all are. As a child, I always pictured Mary glowing, a halo above her head and a smile on her face like the Mona Lisa. That was before I ever had a baby myself, and I know better now. The stuff emanating from Mary wasn’t love’s pure light. It was blood and guts and all kinds of nasty stuff that made a real mess. She wasn’t smiling, she was hollering her head off like any other woman who’s giving birth. It’s not a pretty way to make an entrance, and our tendency to ignore the grisly reality of Jesus’ birth  says a lot about our discomfort with the truth of the incarnation.

God doesn’t live somewhere up in the sky, removed from the real stuff of this world. God isn’t only present in Temples and churches, in beautiful sunrises and moonlit nights, in golden wrapped gifts under a twinkling tree, or in sentimental Christmas stories. God’s son Jesus was born amongst the animals. When he took his first breath, the air was heavy with the stinging smell of cow dung.

We get ourselves in a lot of trouble when we start deciding where God is present and where God is not, what is holy and what is not. The truth of the incarnation is that all life is holy, and God is present in all aspects of this life, even where we would least expect it. Because of the incarnation, we can’t point to any person or any place and say, God is absent. The truth of Christ’s nativity is that wherever you are certain God couldn’t possibly be, there God is. I know it may be hard to get your head around it, but God is even present at the Walmart on Independence Avenue on Christmas Eve. I don’t know how it works, but I know it’s true. It’s not magic, but it’s a mystery.

How is that possible? How is it possible that the creator of the Universe should take on flesh and blood? That he should befriend the most despised people on earth? That he would dare to touch people with dreaded diseases? That he should die on a cross between two criminals?

While the faith of a child may marvel at the magic of Christmas, the faith of an adult marvels at the mystery of Christmas. The truth of Christmas is not that God had a cute little son who never cried when he was laid in a manger. The truth of Christmas is that little baby cried just as we all do. The truth of Christmas is Emmanuel: God with us.

4 comments:

Charley Harvey said...

Thank you, and Happy Christmas!

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Nancy. You have such a great gift with words and are spot on with this R rated version of Christmas.

Anonymous said...

God within us !

Anonymous said...

Incarnation! Really?