The Twelve Days Christmas

I like Adam Sandler’s song about Hanukkah. I really like the line about it being “eight crazy nights.” It is a fun song. I enjoy it. He makes it relatable even for those of us who do not celebrate the holiday. I know what Hanukkah celebrates. It is often called the festival of lights because of the legend that when the Second Temple was cleansed the oil for the menorah was only going to last one day. It would be eight days until replacement oil would arrive. Miraculously, the light continued to burn until the replacement oil arrived. The Fourth Gospel (John) indicates Jesus celebrated this festival (John 10:22).

The song “Twelve Days of Christmas” always seemed strange to me. Christmas was celebrated on two days during my childhood. Rarely, did we have to wait until another day to celebrate it because of work schedules. I grew up in a church that did not recognize Christmas as a Christian celebration. The argument was that there was no biblical command to celebrate Christmas so it was considered wrong (or at least risky) to celebrate it. For the most part, I understood it and Easter as secular holidays. It may sound strange to many people. But that is the way it was.

The Twelve Days refer to the season of Christmas that begins sundown on December 24th and continues to January 5th. The next day after the twelfth day begins the season of Epiphany (or Theophany) which celebrates Jesus’ presentation in the Temple (Luke 2:22-38). It is a season of feasting and worship. December 26th is celebrated as commemorating the martyrdom of St. Stephen the Deacon (Acts 7). The 28th of December recalls the murder of The Holy Innocents recorded in Matthew 2:16-18. Watch Night (December 31st) is an American innovation recalling the Emancipation Proclamation. While it is an accident of history that Emancipation began on New Years Day, it is a fortuitous addition to the Christmas season for some churches.

There are some articles one can find that gives some interesting allegorical interpretations to the song Twelve Days. None of these are true. In fact, it throws off the whole point of the celebration of the Twelve Days. One person I spoke with on Christmas Day this year was surprised to learn the Twelve Days “is a real thing.” It is what I would have said growing up. I spoke with someone on Christmas Eve this year that felt like he had lost as he put it “the wonder and awe” of Christmas. I understand that person’s dull feeling all too well.

It is easy to blame our culture of commercialism that surrounds Christmas gift buying for corrupting the meaning of Christmas. It is also convenient to blame people for not learning the meanings of Christmas or for not feeling as they should. Ultimately though, the fault of not understanding Christmas or the failure of many “not getting it”  belongs to the Church.

Protestant Christianity has lost the meaning of Christian worship. Remember that I just said I was taught that there was no commandment given to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Some teachers said the birth of Jesus did not matter. They did not realize that Christmas celebrates the miracle of the Incarnation of the Word of God as the Only Begotten Son of God.

Christian worship centers around that Person who is both the Son of God and the Word of God. Our worship is meant to tell his story. The purpose of the Church is to glorify God in this world. We do that in worship, teaching, evangelizing, and service. Oddly enough worship is the most corrupted part of Protestantism in America. This criticism applies to the mainline, evangelical, and fundamentalist forms of Protestantism. The story we tell in Christian worship is the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Christian calendar and lectionaries are designed for weekly worship to tell this story. The seasons of preparation and fasting are important because they help us understand the meanings of the festivals. Sacraments are important to telling the story. St. Paul describes baptism as the form of the gospel (Romans 6:1-11) and holy communion as proclaiming “the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Corinthians 11:27)

The Church has failed in this area. We may say, “Christmas is Jesus’ birthday” or “Jesus is the reason for the season.” These platitudes are meaningless without getting the whole story. I remember an “adult confirmation class” I taught one year where a couple that attended were fascinated by the film “The Miracle Maker.” It is a Claymation film about the gospel story. They regretted leaving early because they “really wanted to know how the story turned out.” Well, so do I. I want to hear it every year in every place. And I don’t want it done by the culture or society. I want it done by the Church. Perhaps, we will get John’s words about how “the light shines in darkness” that the darkness neither can comprehend nor overwhelm.

 

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A Few More Considerations of The Crisis of The United Methodist Church

A recent blog post here titled “The Crisis of The United Methodist Church” brought some interesting responses. Most of the responses were positive in nature which leads me to believe the writers got my point. Other responses seemed to get my point and dismissed it. My point was simple. If the denomination divides, fellowship will be broken. The unity of which Jesus spoke in John 17 and St. Paul exhorts in Ephesians 4 will not only be broken but sinfully broken. Those people who argued that “doctrine” was more important than continued unity misunderstand what the “doctrine” of the Church is.

The doctrine of The United Methodist Church is not one’s own interpretation of Holy Scripture. Nor is our doctrine the product of a group of Bishops, or Pastors, or Lay Members interpretation of Holy Scripture. Doctrine is not the product of any body within The United Methodist Church. Doctrine is not the product of the General Conference of The United Methodist Church. And therefore doctrine is not the Book of Discipline. However, the Book of Discipline discusses the doctrine of our denomination.

The “Basic Christian Affirmations” of Paragraph 102 gives the following statements as subheadings.

  1. We hold in common with all Christians a faith in the mystery of salvation in and through Jesus Christ.
  2. We share the Christian belief that God’s redemptive love is realized in human life by the activity of the Holy Spirit, both in personal experience and in the community of believers.
  3. We understand ourselves to be part of Christ’s universal church when by adoration, proclamation, and service we become conformed to Christ.
  4.  With other Christians we recognize the reign of God is both a present and future reality.
  5.  We share with many Christian communions a recognition of the authority of Scripture in matters of faith, the confession that our justification as sinners is by grace through faith, and the sober realization that the church is in need of continual reformation and renewal.

These basic affirmations are the product of the doctrinal heritage of the Church Universal. We are not a creedal church per se. We are one that recognizes a basic understanding of what Christian doctrine is. Our UM Hymnal approves the usage of both versions of the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed in our worship.

The paragraph on Our Doctrinal Heritage tells us John Wesley’s theological work was in the area of practical theology. “He considered doctrinal matters primarily in terms of their significance for Christian discipleship…The distinctive shape of the Wesleyan theological heritage can be seen in a constellation of doctrinal emphases that display the creating, redeeming, and sanctifying activity of God.” The task John Wesley undertook was one of renewal and not a reinvention of church doctrine. The paragraph continues to describe those particular Wesleyan emphases regarding grace.

Here is where our confusion begins. Under the subheading of “Doctrine and Discipline in the Christian Life,” we read, “No motif in the Wesleyan tradition has been more constant than the link between Christian doctrine and Christian living. Methodists have always been strictly enjoined to maintain the unity of faith and good works, through the means of grace…the coherence of faith with ministries of love forms the discipline of Wesleyan spirituality and Christian discipleship.” The spiritual principles of the General Rules (I have written about these in earlier posts) are derived from this understanding.

The Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church and The Confession of Faith of the Evangelical and United Brethren contained in paragraph 104 are considered doctrinal standards of The United Methodist Church. Article XXII of the Articles maintains the importance of openly rebuking a person that, “Whosoever, through his private judgment, willingly and purposely doth openly break the rites and ceremonies of the church to which he belongs, which are not repugnant to the Word of God, and are ordained and approved by common authority…”

The United Methodist Church, according to our common heritage with other Christian bodies and our doctrinal standards, recognizes only two sacraments – Baptism and Holy Communion – which are open to all people. There is no doctrine of marriage or sacrament of marriage in our doctrinal standards. There is no doctrine of ordination or sacrament of ordination contained in these doctrinal standards. It can be simply stated that we have no interpretation of Scripture regarding marriage or ordination.

What we have in The United Methodist Church are practices of marriage ceremonies and ordination standards and ceremonies. It is true that these practices are upheld by simple majority votes of the General Conferences. And here we see that the denomination is threatened with a split over these practices rather than doctrines. We can disagree over practices. The special called General Conference of 2019 violates the Wesleyan spirit of our doctrine and Christian living. The General Conference was called to discuss and vote on issues of practice and codified certain violations of practices as church law. It is a bad precedent. Because fellowship are often broken by “official acts” of churches. The papal bull that excommunicated Martin Luther broke the Western Church. Henry VIII feared to die without a male heir and leave England open to another series of civil wars. The Church of England was declared independent of Rome for that purpose. Later, under Elizabeth I that breach was solidified.

Some people advocate division of The United Methodist Church and cite potential growth as a result. It is doubtful that a new protestant division will result in church growth in the United States considering the present trends in religious identification within the U.S. A few others believe that their faithfulness is being tested in such a way that they cannot listen to other people’s point of view. Either way these people are advocating further sectarian division (the actual meaning of heresy) to avoid the hard work of reconciliation. The Wesleyan understanding of original sin means none of us are absolutely correct in our views. This is an important doctrinal point. If we cannot acknowledge the evil in ourselves and the good in others, than we have become something Jesus knew and experienced all too well.

A friend contacted me after I wrote the original post. He thanked me for what I said in it. He takes an opposite side from mine. I replied to him that for all of our differences God made us brothers and sisters. He replied, “Amen.” I fear, most of all, that we have lost the vision God has for the church. Another person told me that those who only see the “big picture” often miss those of us who live in the “little picture.” I agree with that statement too.

Bob Crachit’s Goose.

Have you ever asked, “What happened to Bob Cratchit’s goose?” What do I mean? Let’s review. When the Ghost of Christmas Present takes Scrooge to view the Christmas dinner at the Cratchits home, the family has a “rather small goose” for the meal. Then when Scrooge awakens on Christmas Day he sends the family a “prize turkey” for their dinner. My point is that the Christmas dinner at the Cratchits that Scrooge saw never did not happen. But he saw it didn’t he? In fact, none of the Christmas activities viewed by Scrooge over the twelve day season could have taken place because he awakes on Christmas Day.

A Christmas Carol is a tale of ghosts showing shadows. Many readers get the impression that the stories of Past and Present are merely filler until Scrooge sees the warning that the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come scares the hell out of him to get salvations. Scrooge changes and everything else changes. Dickens does not craft his story that way. The story is a carol with stanzas just like any other.

This is the point. Christmas carols are meant to tell some version of the Christmas stories. They may be calls to remember. They may be admonitions to be joyous. They may be giving someone a sense of the wonder of the stories. Dickens makes a story about the Christmas story.

Bob Cratchit is a cypher in Scrooge’s world. He is the clerk who works in his office who later becomes the object of his employer’s charity. But that is a terrible way to view Bob Cratchit. It is how Scrooge begins to see him. The shadows that the ghosts show Scrooge opens his eyes to finally see Bob Cratchit. Bob is a father, a loving husband, a religious man, and a generous man. He is everything Scrooge isn’t but could have been. Bob also sees Scrooge. He refers to his boss as “the founder of our feast.” Scrooge had never considered before what Bob Cratchit sees in him. His view was that the world seeks to use him and take what he has. He thinks Bob the clerk uses him for his wealth. Bob “picks his pocket.” There is something happening deep inside of Scrooge when he sees Tim and learns he would die a death that could be prevented with proper medical care. Tim too sees what happens in the world around him. He cannot play as the other children do. But he enjoys watching them playing. He is also religious and thoughtful. Again Scrooge sees someone who he could have been.

The stories of the nativity of Jesus is a story about seeing. It is said the popular Nativity Scene was invented by St. Francis to remind the people that Jesus was born in poverty. Matthew tells about Herod who cannot see the glory of the Messiah’s birth. He tells about foreign Magi who do. Luke tells about how announcements and recognition of the Messiah is done by women (Mary and Elizabeth) and the shepherds. The Messiah, the glory of God and the peace of God, is recognized by people who do not matter.

Scrooge matters in this world. And now Scrooge sees what he should have seen all along.. The first place Scrooge visits is church. And then he appears at his nephews home to rejoin his family. The next act is to tell Bob in ways the clerk could not have expected that Scrooge sees him and will improve Bob’s situation in life and help Tim to live. Christmas, Dickens tells us, is about opening our eyes and seeing the peoples of the world. The ghosts and their shadows taught Scrooge about reality in a more concrete way than citing figures in ledgers or statistics concerning poverty that blind us to reality. His eyes are open. Scrooge could close them again. But he realizes his life is wasted if he does that.

People who will not see are the most blind. We invent fantasies and call them real. As Chesterton says, it is the ethics of elfland (attributes we learn from characters in stories that begin “one upon a time”) that are the most real and make us beings that are true. Don’t criticize stories that are not “biblical” this season. There is something greater going on in them than are found in merely keeping traditions.

Persuasive Words

“They replied, ‘Surely you are not also from Galilee are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.” John 7:52 (NRSV)

Prior to the famous reading of “the woman taken in adultery,” there is an exchange in John’s gospel between Nicodemus and his Pharisaic brothers. Nicodemus is secretly a disciple of Jesus. He makes an argument that no person should be condemned as a violator of the Torah without being given a hearing. His friends on the court are outraged by such common sense that they utter the above quoted text. All that needs to be done here is for the reader to imagine the pitch and volume of the voice of the person saying it. When said forcefully, many people get the impression that it is said with conviction. Many things said with conviction are not true. This statement is one of them.

There is an old story about a church custodian who finds the minister’s Sunday sermon notes on the podium in the sanctuary the following Monday morning. She notices that the minister has jotted a note in the margin of the otherwise carefully written sermon. The note reads, “Weak point! Yell like mad!” It is a humorous anecdote only because there is a ring of truth in it.

The Pharisee who uttered the nonsense to Nicodemus overlooks some simple facts from the scriptures. Prophets did come from the area of Galilee. Jonah was from Gath-hepher (2 Kings 14:25). St. Peter’s hometown of Capernaum derives its name from the phrase “city of Nahum.” And it is likely that the Pharisee detractor knows this without needing to be reminded. Ironically, both of those prophets talk about the influence of bad thinking and acting leading to the downfall of the city of Nineveh, the capitol of Assyria. John knows this, of course, because later in his book he makes it clear that this fear of destruction motivates the murder of Jesus (11:49).

I was reminded of this story during the constant yelling staged by the “leaders” that sit on the House Judiciary Committee. The story is definitely not a parallel narrative to our own present situation. The tactic is still the same, confuse the situation by yelling like mad hoping to move someone to an “Amen” of agreement. St. Paul claims he did not use “elegant wisdom” (1 Corinthians 1:17) to manipulate his listeners. Rhetorical tactics do not make statements true. The Christians of Antiquity were rather suspicious of such manipulations. It did not keep St. Paul and others from using them. One need only read the work of St. Augustine against Pelagius to see how the former teacher of rhetoric employed the ad hominem (attack the man) ploy.

The Pharisees talking to Nicodemus intend to shame him by asking if he too is a Galilean. They are not accusing him of anything short of impurity. Why? Because impurity is the greatest sin in the mind of both a Pharisee and a Sadducee. John is very aware of this mindset. He quotes John the Forerunner (or the Baptist) who claims Jesus is “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29). The paschal lamb was to be very pure “without spot or blemish” for the meal marking the liberation from slavery in Egypt. Purity was of the utmost importance because that which was “unclean” could not be made “holy.” Pharisees wanted holiness in the person. Sadducees wanted holiness in the Temple practices. Both groups demanded “purity” as a means to their goals.

The desire to be without fault can be a consuming wish. It destroys all relationships eventually. Human beings cannot love purely, have faith purely, or keep hope purely. It is easier and deadlier to insist on purity in other ways. The manifestation of this kind of sickness is seen in how evil we will act to maintain the right to demand purity of other people.

We see this sickness in the text. The Pharisees and the chief priests will ensure the continuation of the program of making the nation pure by murdering Jesus and even Lazarus (12:10). Logic indicates more people would have to die in order to maintain this power. False accusations are offered for the greater good. False assertions are given in the name of the best for the nation. And one or two of the Ten Commandments must be sacrificed to save the list itself.

The question that remains is, “Do we want to continue being sick?” Will we decide to take a less easy path so that the dross can be burned out of us? I do not believe we want to ever take our medicine. But, as Kierkegaard observed, only a half dosage allows disease to kill even if it is only hampered a bit. History demonstrates the Temple and the Holy City were lost only forty years after the events described by John.

Loving Your Calling

This time of the year I remember Andy Anderson. He always sent my family a ham for Christmas. It was an unnecessary gesture. For two people who often had opposing ideas, we got along very well. He gave me the gift simply because I was his Pastor. I still have a Christmas wreath his wife made for my family. I received many gifts from that family.

One of the best gifts was when my father suffered a heart attack. Andy drove to the hospital to sit with my extended family (God love him just for that). Later I was told he had said, “Pastor sits with us when we have something going on, who sits with him when his family has trouble?” He got in his car and went to the hospital.

Andy was one of those Christians who was ready to help. His actions were guided by his study of the Bible and by what he had been taught. I knew of other actions he took for other people. He did not tell me about them either. He was generous with his time. He was generous with his possessions. He even took a shift each day caring for his ex-wife when she was dying. He once told me when the church youth group was having a pool party at his home. “No one needs all of this. It’s why I share it.” It was a good lesson to remember.

Andy told me he really loved my Bible studies. I enjoy teaching Bible studies. They are fun to develop. I try to make the discussion lively. When Andy died an untimely death, his widow said, “Andy always loved arguing with you.”

Sometimes the students can do more than their teachers. I am always glad to hear someone has put my advice into practice or took a lesson I gave to heart. Granted, I don’t have that satisfaction with everyone. Neither am I everyones idea of a teacher. I love to do it because sometime the point will come that I taught someone something that will make a difference in their lives.

I got the taste for this type of teaching early on in my life. Camp Buck Toms Boy Scout Camp in Rockwood Tennessee allowed me my first effort in teaching. I taught the Emergency Preparedness merit badge. The lesson plan was merely the list of requirements to earn the award. The only taxing part was getting everyone to pay attention while they fulfilled the requirements. We got to do some pretty cool stuff for emergency situations. The best lesson we all learned was that emergencies are never the same. One has to learn to think on one’s feet and to act quickly. I learned years later that one of the scouts that took my course kept a friend of his (and mine) from bleeding to death following an automobile accident. Usually when an emergency presents itself I keep my head well enough to take care of what needs doing then. I get emotional after the crisis has passed.

I knew though from that experience I wanted to teach. I was ordained an Elder which charged me to ministries of Word (Preaching and teaching) and Sacrament (baptism and holy communion). I did not become a school teacher. I have done some guest lecturing. And, obviously, I do some writing. I spend time learning so I have something to teach to someone else. It is really a good calling to have. A calling stays with a person throughout their lives even if it becomes an avocation.

When a person can’t fulfill that calling he or she tends to fall apart as a person. I have witnessed this in former colleagues and in people who simply cannot do the jobs they love anymore. It is said that until the day of his own death Stan Laurel wrote skits to be performed by him and his friend Oliver Hardy fifteen years after Oliver died. It was what he loved. He knew it would hasten his own demise not to write the skits and jokes even if they would not be performed. I personally would like to see those performed by some comedic pair. I bet they are wonderful.

How do I know for a fact teaching is my calling? That’s an easy one to answer.

Years ago in Oak Ridge I taught a course for “lay speakers/servants” for local United Methodist Churches. I joked that up to that point my appointments in the church had to be near a lake because I like fishing. After one session, a fellow came to me and said, “Our church is right on the lake. Maybe you will be sent to us.”

“Oh yeah. Which lake?”

“Watts Bar.” He replied.

“Oh, I have already live on that one.”

“When?” He asked.

“When I was a teenager I taught during the summers at Camp Buck Toms.” I said.

His face lit up. “I knew you were familiar!” He said excitedly. “You taught me Emergency Preparedness.”

We Are Not Racist!

Several years ago I wrote a post titled A Deep Sin where I describe the plague of overt racism that continues to infect white evangelicals. Today I wish to confront the sin of internal and unexamined racist beliefs. This is not a critique of ideological racism. I would hope that I do not need to do that.

There are numerous examples I can supply. Some I should not use because of issues of confidentiality as a member of the clergy. Other examples are not as clear as one that built up during my time working in a factory where I listened to my immediate supervisor.

Pam (not her real name) was upset, to say the least. Her daughter worked on another line in the plant and was having trouble. Mama Bear was out for blood. When asked what was going on, she replied, “There’s this black girl that is causing a problem for  Tammy. She is pulling bundles.” (emphasis was hers) When a coworker pulls bundles in a clothing factory, that person is taking pieces of clothes that are often smaller and easier to handle. If a factory pay-scale is based on numbers of bundles processed, then it means faster work and more money. If the pay is based on hours worked, then it is a matter of more quickly fulfilling a daily quota. A person who practices that is a jerk. There is no way he or she could be anything else.

The problem continued for a few weeks. Each time my supervisor complained about it, she said, “This black girl…” The question a person could ask is simply this, “Why do you emphasize her race?” Literally everyone knows a person who pulls bundles is a jerk. If a union steward or boss is notified, the problem should be quickly resolved. The shop steward takes as dim a view of the problem as anyone else. The task of representing the person is merely one where the violation is explained.

Given the considerations just mentioned, why emphasize the race of the miscreant? Why mention her skin color at all? Is her being black somehow making the situation worse? Is it because a black person has even less cause to be a jerk than anyone else? What about the very personable white male in our own department that does the exact same thing? Does his personality let him get away with it? (This went on at the time) Of course not. Even my supervisor would have to admit when confronted that the skin color of the other woman (not girl) had nothing to do with it. She grew up making the distinction as though it was a necessary description of the person. And that distinction really matters to many white people in our country.

I could not help but notice the response when during another discussion I made the point that no black people were in our department with our higher paying jobs. The same person defensively said, “We are not racist!” It is true that one had to pass a test to get into out department. On paper, that was the only requirement. The company was obliged to give the test to anyone who bid on the job. The only reason given for a person passing the test and losing the seniority advantage was that worker was on a final disciplinary notice. It was how I got moved into the department. The woman who would have gotten it based on passing the test and seniority was under such an action. I have no idea who that person was. I was called by Human Resources to tell me I had the job. The other information came later. There was an appearance of bias because the people in our department were all white. There was actual bias that was evident in the way these people talked about people of other races or ethnicities (including the latinx people who worked in our sister plants in Texas).

The distinction that mattered mentioned earlier was as built in our personalities as our given names. It was there. And it could be changed if we knew it was not a necessary part of who we were. This is the issue. A person need only examine his or her own thinking to see where the bias is involved. It is not easy. It requires honesty.

Truth is hard to find when we do not want to find it. People usually avoid this kind of self-examination for this reason. We often lie to ourselves that it is more important to protect ourselves than to express any sentiment that would leave one open to criticism. In attempting to hold onto this type of identity, we lose all prospect for integrity.

Advent is meant to be a time of preparation. Evangelicals, charismatics, and mainline Christians do not use it that way. A cultural bias is involved that believes the only sin of the season is “missing the true meaning of Christmas,” what ever that is. The irony is that we attempt to make a holiday “meaningful” with elaborate decorations and family gatherings. We attempt to make the meaning by insulating. Times of preparation on the church calendar are meant to get our hearts and minds in order to celebrate light overcoming darkness and resurrection overcoming death. Christians are tasked with dealing with the darkness in our own persons. And that includes the darkness that allows us to be biased, to tolerate structures in our communities that promote prejudices, and to set up barriers against the promotion of light.

We defend ourselves when we sit in darkness. We prefer it all too often. “We are not racist!” We shout. “People are just too sensitive.” We whine. “We are the ones who are truly picked on.” We say. They are all lies. The worst lie is, “We don’t owe anybody anything.” We owe ourselves the truth. We owe other people grace and mercy. And we owe discernment with love to the world. The light is uncomfortable. Yet, it heals.