Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Big Bang Theory and Christmas Reciprocity

"The foundation of Christmas is reciprocity.  You haven't given me a gift, you've given me an obligation."

My wife's family has raved about Big Bang Theory for years, yet I had never invested the time into another 30-minute sitcom.  However, when I recently stumbled on a re-run of a Christmas special, I was won over by the cynicism of Sheldon.  Further, the lanky genius' commentary on "the foundation of Christmas"  is not only comical, but also drips with pertinent theological claims.  Sheldon and his fellow nerds are in the midst of their Wii bowling night, complete with button down shirts and alley-esque rental shoes, when their neighbor, Penny, drops in and asks if hey will be putting up a Christmas tree.  Sheldon proceeds to explain why he does not celebrate "Saturnalia," the actual root of the Christmas tree tradition, only to be taken back when Penny thwarts his aversion to the holiday.  That is, Penny has purchased and wrapped gifts for her neighbors. 

Sheldon asks, "But why would you do such a thing?"

Sheldon refuses Penny's generosity and instead underscores her "silly neighbor presents" as attestation to Christmas "reciprocity," the foundation of seasonal anxiety and depression. 

Again, "The foundation of Christmas is reciprocity.  You haven't given me a gift, you've given me an obligation."

I have mulled over these Big Bang remarks and have come up with three musings in response to Sheldon's "theology" and scoial commentary:

1.     The intensity of Christmas consumption and related anxiety is indeed about as foreign to the Spirit of the season as Saturnalia.  We have become a culture that grosses nearly 450 billion dollars in frivolous purchases, ranging from the aged Ferbies to diamonds, as-seen-on-t.v. white elephant gifts to dust collecting stocking stuffers. We set monetary limits on gifts and "spend" entire weekends trying to make sure we have made our obligatory purchases for someone who may or may not be getting us something for the holiday.   And if we think for a moment that we are not a part of this oppressive cycle, maybe find it amusing "when it's not happening to us, " in an instant we are convicted and confess, "it's happening to us!"  In this regard, Sheldon is right, this obligatory reciprocity consumes Christmas and results in something many of us may no longer want to celebrate.

2.      We have great difficulty receiving free gifts of generosity and grace. We constantly respond to others no-strings-attached gifts with statements like, "you didn't have to," "but I didn't get you anything," or "you shouldn't have."  We see the "L" sticker with our name on it and we respond not with gratitude and thanksgiving, rather lamentation over our inability to offer something in return.  We are o.k. to be those who give charity, but hesitate to be recipients.  We feel vulnerable and weak and so maybe begin to make our purchases in the year-to-come a little earlier so that we are the first to give, not out of love, but as players in competitive charity.  Again, Sheldon, you are spot on.

3.      Still more, I wonder if Sheldon's remarks are comic sketches of missional theology.  In other words, maybe the foundation of Christmas is reciprocity.  Maybe the incarnation is not only a free gift, but also an obligatory invitation.  While we may be quite comfortable to sit as observers of Christmas pageants, listeners of the Christmas stories, hearers of Christmas sermons, and pew-sitters in sacred services, the advent of Christ is no diorama.  Instead, the gift of God as Immanuel invites a human response. We not only gaze, but also and especially engage.  We must move beyond observation and pursue participation.  Said best, "we love because he first loved us (1 John 4:19).  God's gift to us is an opportunity for us to give back in gratitude, as an act of worship that illustrates our love for the one who first loved us.  Again, thank you Sheldon.  Actually, Merry Christmas Sheldon.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Tebow. Maccabees. Advent of Christ.

I have a confession: Tebow Mania has won me over. I have become enamored with the young phenom's ability to win despite critics and cynics, to include his coach and John Elway.  While I am not convinced that Tebow will be able to have a long and successful NFL career as a prolific pocket passer, his reverse-Lebron performances (i.e. absent for three quarters, come up big in the fourth) have proven that there is something about this kid that enables him to win games.[1]
Some have called it magic.

Others attribute it to his faith.

All find it difficult to explain.  Tebow is unorthodox in technique.  Timmy T is awkward and even slow in his delivery.  And when it comes to his uncanny leadership, selfless demeanor, and ability to win, win, win, the Gator turned Bronco, born in the Philippines to missionary parents, is the byproduct of some of the most unnatural skill sets the NFL has ever seen.

And no one is quite sure what to make of it. 

Something else may seem quite unnatural, certainly not normal- reading the Apocrypha as an Advent discipline.  That's right, I decided to read what was going on in-between the Testaments that provided context for the first Christmas.  So I am plowing my way through 4 Maccabees, an anonymous portion of Christian Scripture (according to 2/3 of the Christian church)[2] that underscores God's gift of reason:

"Now when God fashioned human beings, he planted in them emotions and inclinations, but at the same time he enthroned the mind among the senses as a sacred governor over them all. To the mind he gave the law..." (2:21-22).
The author(s) proceed to illustrate, through various athletic metaphors that bear resemblance to Pauline writings, the vitality of reason in the training of God's people for witness, mission, and life lived in the economy of God. This is especially pertinent as Maccabees builds towards the narration of seven brothers martyred by the evil Antiochus IV Epiphanes, whom some have labeled as the first Hitler.  In other words, the essence of Maccabees is to goad God's people towards faith and reason found in the Law that may be quite unconventional and unnatural:
"Thus as one adopts a way of life in accordance with the law, even though a lover of money, one is forced to act contrary to natural ways and to lend without interest to the needy and to cancel debt when the seventh year arrives...It is evident that reason rules even the more violent emotions: lust for power, vain glory, boasting, arrogance, and malice" (2:8,15).
 ...to act contrary to natural ways.

Yes, this is the mandate of God's people whose minds are governed by the reason of God.

And God's reason is quite unnatural.

The Advent of Christ and all that surrounds it- quite unnatural.

A virgin pledged in marriage conceives the promised Messiah.

An elderly woman and her priestly husband shamed by infertility give birth to an unconventional prophet.

Shepherds as visitors to a manger maternity ward.

Magi and wisdom teachers from the East, a land known for its oppressive history towards God's people, bring gifts to this child and reroute in order to avoid an oppressive Roman emperor and his malicious plan.

Even more, the message and mission of this Christ child who grows into his Messianic identity- unnatural.

The first shall be last, the last shall be first.

Sell all you have and give to the poor.

If you want to save your life you must lose it.

Carry your cross.

Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you.

Blessed are the peacemakers, they are the children of God.

Woe to the rich. 


Turn the other cheek.

Give your cloak, too.

Go the second mile.

Crucifixion at the hands of an oppressive empire.

Resurrection as hope for us and the whole world.

This is the reason of God-in-Flesh.

This is the mind of God that governs the Messianic passions.

We, too, are to have the mind of Christ.

Tebow. 4 Maccabees. The Advent of Christ.  Unnatural, yes.  Yet maybe that's how God has, is, and always will move in and through the faithful. May we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear how we may be called this Advent, Christmas, and everyday thereafter, to live into this unnatural kingdom of God.

[1] As an aside, I actually agree with commentators who suggest that if Tebow did not have such a gifted defense and a kicker who was able to boot it through the uprights from 59 yards out, that we may be saying different things about Tebow and the Broncos.  However, Tebow is the first to turn attention those same players, "It's not Tebow time; it's Bronco time."

[2] Catholic and Eastern Christians incorporate the Apocrypha in their canons.  That said, I find it my Christian obligation to at least explore the texts that many of my christian brothers and sisters consider to be inspired and sacred texts.

[3] A great way to pursue unnatural Christmas giving is through the Advent Conspiracy, or your own variation: http://www.adventconspiracy.org/ 

Also, one of the best articles to date [updated post on 1/14/12] in regards to Tim Tebow.  Simply beautiful: http://espn.go.com/espn/story/_/id/7455943/believing-tim-tebow 

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Partners in Mission: Youth Showing Us The Way

The cover photo is of Imago Dei and Honduran Youth.
I recently co-autored an article with PCUSA mission co-worker, Mark Wright, which was published in the latest edition of PCUSA World Mission's magazine, Mission Crossroads.   I encourage any one in the denomination to contemplate how to engage this extension of our vocation as a people of God and our interactions with the global church.  If not connected to PCUSA, I encourage you to contemplate how you can engage your particular faith community's partnership with the church universal, especially within the developing world.

The article, "Partners in Mission: Youth Showing Us the Way," explores the process that lead the Imago Dei Youth of Westminster Presbyterian Church to partner with PCUSA World Mission and the Presbytery of Honduras.  I have previously blogged about missional experiences as pilgrimage and partnership, see "Service Blitzes, Missional Pilgrims, and Jim Forest."  However, this article underscores some of the nuts and bolts of what our pre-trip preparation looks like, a vital element of any youth ministry missional partnership. 

Another great resource: "Short-term Missions: Paratrooper Incursion or 'Zaccheus Encounter'?" by Hunter Farrell, Director of PCUSA World Mission, and published in Journal of Latin American Theology: Christian Reflections from the Latino South (2007).

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Spiritual Formation of Our Seven-Month Olds?

Amber and I gifted this to Lily on her baptism.
This past Sunday my wife walked into worship mid-way through the sermon with Lily, 2 of 2 limited edition Klimovitz twins.  Amber had arrived late due to our kids recent week-long battle with a wicked cold, yet the belated handoff was one of the more sacred moments I have experienced in worship. While it is quite common for our kids, not long after we make our grand circus entrance into the worship space, to be passed around and down the aisle of our friends and church family, this service I refused to let Lily go.  I am not sure if it was the passage being read, a lyric sung, or the reminder that we were another week into Advent, but for some reason I felt a different grip of the Spirit. Then Amber walked in with Noah, i.e. 1 of 2, and the sacredness further enveloped me.

This time last year, Amber and I were anxiously waiting through Advent in the midst of a high-risk pregnancy.  We were scared.  We were hopeful. We were dreamers. We were worriers.  We we were confident.  We were uncertain. We held in tension the wonder and mystery of soon-to-be parents of two.  Although at times we doubted, God was present with us the whole way.

I can say without hesitancy that those same things hold true today.

I wonder if that is what gripped me?  I think it gripped us both.  So as we moved through the liturgy, I could not help but not only sing out, but also sing into the ears of my daughter.  I could not hold back from not only the recitation of prayers, but also gently whispering them into Lily's young mind. I could not refrain from incorporating my little girl into the sacredness of worship, an invitation for even her to enter into the life as a child of God, a baptized disciple of Jesus, and a member of the community of faith called the church.

In a way, these are the beginnings of Lily's spiritual formation.  And as Amber held Noah next to me, I think these are the beginnings of his, too.

It could be said that when Christians have children they enter into a sacred and subversive art of spiritual formation.  This artistic discipline, as Hauerwas and Willimon suggest, is also our baptismal obligation:
"Christians have children, in great part, in order to be able to tell our children the story. Fortunately for us, children love stories. It is our baptismal responsibility to tell this story to our young, to live it before them, to take time to be parents in a world that (though intent on blowing itself to bits) is Gods creation (a fact we would not know without this story). We have children as a witness that the future is not left up to us and that life, even in a threatening world, is worth livingand not because 'Children are the hope of the future,' but because God is the hope of the future." (Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, 60).
Amber and I have pondered what it will mean for us to tell this redemptive narrative to our kids.

How will we live into our responsibility not only as parents, but also and especially as baptized believers?

How will we form our children in the Way of Jesus and citizens of an alternative colony within the belly of an empire?

We have contemplated...

...what will happen if they begin each day with the Lord's Prayer as a different sort of pledge of faithful allegiance?

...how we will enable the dinner table be opportunities for holy laughter, shared stories, and reflections on divine encounters throughout the day?

...where we will be awakened by the movement of the Spirit through evening prayers?

...when we will provide space to ask questions and ponder the Scriptures together?

...how we will imagine opportunities to live into God's dreams for the world as a family and members of our church?

...how we will invite our kids to become channels of grace to their neighbors, friends, community, and especially those on the margins of society?

...ways we will seek to protect them from the world and ways we will be challenged to courageously expose them to it, even the most rawest and darkest elements?

Noah's baptismal gift :)
We recognize that for now we can only ponder.  Yet this Advent reminds us that as we wait for the coming of Christ at Christmas, we also are invited to wait for the coming of our kids into their identity as faithful disciples and dreamers of God's future. And as we wait, we must continue to implement sacred rhythms and disciplines into our own lives as parents so that when they are able to take notice they cannot help but participate and enter into this sacred dance called faith.

Until then, we will continue to soak in these moments when we can hold either or both of our kids in worship as we enter into the sacred rhythm.  We must, because these moments are certainly limited editions.

A great resource I have poured into recently is the latest edition of CONSP!RE, "a quarterly magazine of faith, art, justice, and community."  The Summer 2011 edition was titled, "Children of God: Fearfully and Wonderfully Made," and incorporated a wide variety of articles and insights in regards to the spiritual formation of children.  To subscribe visit:  To view this edition: http://www.conspiremagazine.com/.