Monday, December 20, 2010

Remembering Christmas

We go trudging in the cold searching for the perfect tree. We labor over decorations and straighten every bow a dozen times. We rack our brains trying to come up with the perfect present to give someone special. We spend days slaving in the kitchen hoping to put together the feast that nobody will ever forget. Why is it that we work so hard to get everything perfect for Christmas?

Back in 1954, E.B. White was feeling that Christmas perfection pressure when he sat down at his typewriter to write his annual Christmas column for The New Yorker magazine. He wanted to say something new and fresh that would inspire his readers at Christmastime. But nothing he wrote seemed to do it. And while he was struggling to find the perfect words to say, he thought about a conversation he had with his 92 Aunt Caroline, who lived with White and his wife. He described his Aunt Caroline as a woman from another century, who always seemed to know what to say.

The White family lived in New England, which was known for its beautiful fall color and Aunt Caroline loved to go for drives in the country and take in the changing colors. But this particular year they hadn’t had the opportunity to go, and when he realized this, E.B. White felt terrible about it. He went to his aunt and said, “I’m so sorry we didn’t get out for a ride to see the leaves. I know that’s your favorite thing.”

Aunt Caroline looked at him and she said, “Why my dear --- remembrance is sufficient of the beauty we have seen.” It was such an unexpected answer that he said it felt like a bird had just flown into the room. She didn’t need a new experience – she just needed to remember what she had already seen. That was enough for her. Remembrance is sufficient of the beauty we have seen.

How do you remember Christmas? Re-membering is the opposite of dis-membering. To dis-member is to take something apart. It’s to divide it up into pieces. But to re-member is to bring all the pieces back together again into a whole picture. Another word for remember is recollect, and that gives us an even better visual. It’s re-collecting the parts of the story. That process of bringing the story together again is what we’re called to do at Christmastime.

That seems to be the way Mary celebrated the first Christmas. We read in Luke’s gospel that Mary “treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.” It’s a great description of what it means to remember. Mary treasured “all these things.” She gathered up all the different pieces of the story and put them together, not just in her mind, but also in her heart. She pondered in her heart. What an oxymoron that is. How do you ponder with your heart? Well, that’s what remembering is. You take the details you have filed away in your brain and filter them through your heart. Then your experience becomes more than just a collection of facts. It takes on significance and meaning. That’s what happens when you ponder with your heart.

I remember Christmas in a way that is unique to me. At this time of year I’m pondering with my heart all the many pieces to my Christmas story. Pieces like the last Christmas I had with my father and he gave me a Shirley Temple doll. When my shiny blue Schwinn bicycle was standing by the tree on Christmas morning. Christmas Eve parties at my aunt and uncle’s. Homemade shortbread from Grandma Johannsen. As a teenager, playing my flute for the Episcopal church and discovering that some people actually go to worship on Christmas Eve. Rocking my three week old baby to sleep singing “Silent Night” to the light of a Christmas tree. Going into my mom’s house after she died in November 29 years ago and finding the Christmas gifts she had already wrapped for us. Looking out into a sea of candles on Christmas Eve and seeing my children’s faces glowing back at me. Waking up on Christmas morning completely alone for the first time after my divorce. My first Christmas at Holy Trinity when we had over a 100 people at worship for the first time in recent history. When the usher went to the balcony to count the people she got so excited that on her way back down she fell down the stairs. Those are among the pieces of my Christmas story.

But then, there is another story that gets thrown into that mix. It’s a story that has also become a part of my life. So much so that it overshadows all the other pieces of Christmas that I ponder in my heart. This is a story that is not unique to me. I share it with all of you. It’s the story of how our God came to live as one of us. Beginning his life the way we all do, as an infant. Small, vulnerable, hungry for the milk and the love of his mama. And as his life unfolded, he showed us the very essence of God: grace, mercy and truth. Into the darkness of this world, he shone with the light of God.

Although none of us were actually there when it happened, we can still re-member that story as we ponder it in our hearts and connect it with our own personal Christmas stories.

We spend so much time, energy and money at Christmastime trying to create a perfect moment, when all we really need to do is remember. We don’t need a brand new experience; we need to remember what we already know. There’s such beauty and truth in the story of Christmas that it doesn’t require a lot of embellishment or special effects. All we have to do is remember it well. Because when we do, it speaks to that deepest part of us. When we do, it’s still as surprising as if a bird just flew into the room. Remembrance is sufficient of the beauty we have seen.

Friday, December 3, 2010

I'm Not the Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Really.

It’s Advent once again and time for our annual reminder that we are a countercultural community in the world around us. We may know that all year round, but at no other time do the values of the dominant culture so obviously clash with our own. The secular world has stolen our sacred observance of the Word made flesh and turned it into a time that is the antithesis of Christ… a time filled with busy-ness, consumerism and superficial sentiment.
I think of the Easter story where a bewildered Mary Magdalene is sobbing in the garden outside the tomb, telling a man she supposed to be the gardener, “Sir, they’ve taken my Lord away and I don’t know where they put him!” We know that the gardener was none other than Jesus himself, so there is great irony in Mary’s lament. But, imagine Mary Magdalene transported in time to Concord Mills during the month of December. In this context, her words would ring oh so true, “Sir, they’ve taken my Lord away and I don’t know where they put him!”
Often we hear people grumbling over the fact that we don’t sing Christmas hymns during the season of Advent. As a Lutheran pastor I sometimes feel as if parishioners consider me the enforcer of an arbitrary rule that makes no sense to them, and I have become like the “Grinch who stole Christmas.” They ask, “Why can’t we sing Christmas songs when they’re being sung all around us?” But this is precisely why we don’t sing them in the church… because we follow a different calendar than the world around us. And we decide how we will celebrate the incarnation, not those who run retail stores.
I suggest that we sing our Advent hymns with gusto, voicing them to the very world that would convince us of their futility. We don’t sing these hymns because the pastors insist we must; we sing them because we are a community of faith that is bound together by the gospel and we will not be intimidated into following the world’s agenda. Every time we sing an Advent hymn it defines us; we are declaring who we are and who we are not. Singing Advent hymns is in fact an extreme act of Christian defiance! We are not like the rest of the world. We will prepare for the birth of Christ in our own way. We will proclaim a message that stands in direct opposition to the perversion of Christ’s life and teachings that the popular culture would have us believe. So there!
Thank God for this time of the year when we are called upon to take a stand by singing songs that the dominant culture doesn’t appreciate. Our own discomfort with Advent songs reminds us of our calling to embody an alternative community of faith in a world that doesn’t get it. Ironically, the world that we would resist with our songs is the very world that needs to hear those songs the most. And so it’s not just in stubborn defiance that we sing our Advent songs, but it is in bold witness to the love of God for the world. The same world that would obliterate the message of the gospel with this holiday that bears Christ’s name is, after all, the world that Christ came to save. It’s with Christ’s love in our hearts that we sing our Advent hymns as if the whole world depended on them. Perhaps it does.