Saturday, December 22, 2012

From Nostalgia to Reality

‘Tis the season to indulge in nostalgia.

The sights and smells of Christmas time evoke memories in all of us of bygone days when life was simpler and sweeter. Movies in our minds project flickering images of our own childhoods, and those of our children, and dispense emotions of excitement and love and peace. It’s a lovely time to remember, to recall how wonderful Christmas used to be for us and our children.

I confess that I enjoy this sort of remembering as much as the next person. Nary a Christmas goes by that I fail to remember happy celebrations of my childhood and youth. Songs sung over the radio today evoke memories of special times and special people long ago. Excitement in the eyes of grandchildren brings back warm thoughts of my own children anticipating Christmas Day.

Yes, I enjoy all this—but up to a point.

A couple of weeks ago I didn’t make it to church, spending the morning at home instead with angry sinuses. So I decided to tour the channels to see if a reasonable TV substitute might be available. I lighted on a broadcast from a large church loaded with Christmas-y decorations. The host was just introducing the guest artist, a Christian pianist who would perform music of the season. The artist played “Jingle Bells.”

It was like watching an automobile accident—it was so terrible, I could not stop looking at it. It was blatant nostalgia, totally devoid of any theology whatsoever. He was a fine pianist and got a swell round of applause, so it would seem that everyone bought the heresy of it.

Unfortunately there’s a lot of that around these days. The problem Christian worship planners have is to stand apart from sheer nostalgia and celebrate the miracle of the Incarnation.

The trouble with nostalgia is that it is not likely to be either complete or accurate recall. It includes only happy times. Our memories of the past are often highly edited and devoid of those things that we choose not to remember. In other words, nostalgia is out of touch with reality.

When we let this culture of sentimentality overtake and overwhelm the worship of God coming in Christ, we delete from the Gospel story all that is undesirable and even evil.

The recent tragic murderous rampage leaving elementary school children and teachers dead is a sobering contradiction of nostalgia. Not only the parents who lost children, and the families and friends of others killed, but all parents and teachers and most everyone everywhere will have a very non-nostalgic recollection of this coming Christmas.

What happened a week ago in Connecticut was beyond a doubt an evil event. Yet in a profound way, it has driven us all to look at Christmas in a more biblical fashion.

The slaughter of the innocents in Sandy Hook Elementary School makes us remember the slaughter of the innocents by Herod in hopes of murdering the presumptive child-king of the Jews. “Wailing and loud lamentation” can be heard from many Rachels today. (Matthew 2:18)

The birth of Jesus took place in a real world, one where violence and death stalked the land. Our celebration of Christ’s birth today happens in a disturbingly similar reality.

Martin Luther said something about the shadow of the cross falling across the baby Jesus in the manger. Christ’s humble birth and his violent death are both part of God’s singular redemptive act.

We do well in our festivities at Christmas to move past the happy memories of yesteryear and celebrate the true joy that comes from recognizing the astounding love of God, a love that was willing to die for each of us and for all people.

Worshipping the Christ Child is just the beginning of following the Crucified and Risen Christ. Christmas is not a time to harken back to an ancient tale of times gone by, but to welcome Christ born again this Christmas in our lives. This is the start of a journey which for many people is a dangerous one. Yet we travel through this world of evil and woe confident of God’s redemptive love, no matter what.

What in your Christmas worship points you beyond nostalgia to reality?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Going to School?

“Catechesis” [kat-i-kee-sis] — now there’s a word you can use to impress your friends. It’s a seventy-five cent word defined as “oral religious instruction, most often used referring to the education of people preparing for full participation in the faith community.

The term persists in the more common words, “catechism” (the Q and A method of teaching religious doctrine) and “catechumens” (those who are being taught).

All of this has to do with the “religious education” program of the church, designed for children, and occasional adults. We Presbyterians have been diligent in such catechesis not only in the “communicants’ classes”, but in stalwart Christian Ed. programs as well.

Yet this is much too narrow an understanding of “catechesis”. Take a peek outside the box.

I was talking with a Jewish friend of mine a few weeks ago, and he admonished me for not visiting his synagogue for worship recently. “I’d love to have you come,” he said, “to shul.” It sounded almost like he said “school”—and he did, but it was the Yiddish word. For Jews, worship is also considered an educational opportunity to learn history, culture and faith.

Every once in a while I come across a comment from an Episcopalian (or Anglican) about the Book of Common Prayer being a wonderful educational resource for faith and doctrine. More than a liturgical reference and support, the volume has status as a theological piece.

My Orthodox friends tell me that their worship is chock full of learning. Prayers tell stories, parables are visualized in icons and mosaics, theology is acted out in gestures and movement.

So, what would life be like in our churches if we took a cue from these folks and came to see what happens on a Sunday morning as going to worship which is also “going to school”? What if we thought of church not only as going to talk to God, but to hear what God has to say to us?

Here are a few possibilities.

For one thing, the participation of the worshipping congregation would have to be more active than passive. No longer would the “comfortable pew” be the dominating image of attending church.

Corporate worship is a school to train us in how to pray, what to pray, and how to live out those prayers in the rough realities of life outside the church doors. It will be filled with history lessons that connect with our personal histories. Worship will put us in the presence of God so we can recognize where God is present in our lives every day.

We will also find that we have our own set of written resources. The Bible is the main volume, to be sure, and a copy should be handy in the pew racks for those who want to read along with the reader, or to see for themselves the context of the text. Yet there is also The Book of Common Worship (BCW) and The Presbyterian Hymnal and The Psalter, and the anthems sung by the choir, and probably much more. These, and their counterparts in other traditions, are “text books” in the school of Christian worship, useful in teaching the essentials of the faith.

To this end, copies of the BCW ought to be in the hands of all musicians and church teachers, and it would be wonderful if each member’s home had a copy. The same with the Hymnal and Psalter—they have valuable versions of prayers and praise useful at the family table at home.

What is more, the Sunday morning education for all worshippers might just encourage adults to pursue catechesis, instead of dropping off their children and going for coffee. Maybe attendance in adult classes would increase when grownups discover they don’t know as much as their children about our faith. “Faith formation”, as the term is these days, is on-going for all ages.

Finally, the converse is also true. We might just find out that children find worship more interesting if they are learning from it, and not just occupying space until they can scamper out. After all, early on the only Christian education anyone got was being among the worshipping community. In this day and age, people, especially the younger ones, are more likely to be shaped by education that is more experiential than literate, more oral than written.

Worship is always a time for us to express ourselves candidly before God—our needs and wants, hopes and fears. It is also when we put ourselves in position to be impressed by God. What is always impressive is that we are in the presence of God, we are with our risen Lord, and we are moved by the spirit within each of us and among us all.

What impresses you (makes a change in your life) when you go to worship? What did you learn about your faith the last time?

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Here We Go Again

Today is the First Sunday in the Season of Advent, and the “Christian Year” is off and running once again.

It so happens, as it always has, that the secular culture got the drop on us and started celebrating the non-church version of Christmas around the early part of November. This included mostly wintery songs and Christmas carols played by local radio stations and over store speakers, with red and green decorations sprouting up upon and within most retail establishments.

This means that by the time we get around to celebrating the Birth of our Savior, many of the hymns we sing will have been all but worn out over the airways. For most people, Christmas will be only a single day, and its celebration will stop short. For those who keep the Christian Calendar, however, it will continue for Twelve Days. This will require some recalculation for Christians who want to follow the on-going story of the coming of the Messiah.

One of the problems regularly besetting congregations and their pastors and musicians this time of year is whether or not to sing Christmas hymns and carols during Advent, or wait until Christmas itself comes around. Inevitably, there will arise with clenched fist church members who want to sing Christmas carols in church because everyone is hearing them played in the shopping malls anyway, and so why shouldn’t we sing them in church. Usually some truce is negotiated.

But that isn’t the only recalculation needed if we’re going to celebrate Advent at all properly.

What is even more important is for us to remember that the Four Sundays in Advent are times of preparation for Christmas. Therefore, we observant Christians must remember not only that we must wait to begin Christmas, but that we have to shift gears into reverse. There is much to be done before we can even start celebrating.

Advent’s colors are clues for us.

The color purple suggests that Advent is a somber season. It is, in fact, a season of penitence, patterned after the older Season of Lent. The shouts of John the Baptist to “Repent!” will echo through the texts and sermons the Second Sunday.

Here we are called upon to reflect on our own need, and the world’s need, for the coming of the Messiah. If we do not recognize and freely admit that we need who Christ is and what he has to offer our wounded souls and this broken world, we will not likely be very receptive to the Gift he is and all he brings.

Blue is another color sometimes used during Advent. It symbolizes Hope. Advent is a time when we hear the hopes and longings of people in ancient times crying out again today in the yearnings of so many around the world. The desires of the Prophets ring out for what God has promised in the way of justice and peace.

One more color shows up in the candle on the Advent Wreath for that Third Sunday. Pink is the color associated with Joy. It reminds us of a text appointed for this day, Philippians 4:4-7, which begins with the word “rejoice”. Somber season though it may be, this is a reminder that the impending coming of God in Jesus Christ is a cause for great and abounding joy among all peoples.

Christmas is not a time to be treated lightly. It must be approached with reverent preparation in the form of reflection, expectation and anticipation. In other words, we should take a step or two back before we step forward.

May your Advent be a season of many blessings.