Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Christmas Absurdity: An Advent Devotional

"We are fools for the sake of Christ, but you are wise in Christ...We have become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day." (1 Corinthians 4:10,13)

What follows is my contribution to Westminster's annual Advent Devotional. Check out more by visiting www.westminsterpc.org:

One of my favorite childhood Christmas traditions, and one Amber and I have continued with our kids, is the sporting of new pajamas. Whether flannel or cotton, holiday patterned or complete with latest cartoon characters, each Christmas we make our way towards the tree dressed colorfully and comfortably. We may even look a little bit ridiculous.

This was especially true the year Amber surprised me with bright red, cotton footie pajamas covered in snowmen and snowflakes. They are awesome. They are hot. They make my kids laugh. They are border-line absurd. But I wear them every Christmas and at the occasional youth ministry pancake dinner, too.

When I read the Jesus story, it always strikes me as a bit ridiculous and absurd. God-in-flesh born to a teenager betrothed to a skeptic. Shepherds and magi as the unlikely first visitors along with the looming threat of genocide by a jealous ruler.

It gets worse.

When the precocious child reaches twelve-years-old, he befuddles his elders in the temple with strange and insightful teachings. Fast forward to Jesus' adult ministry, we encounter fantastic healings, impossible resurrections, subversive confrontations with the powers-that-be, taboo invitations extended to fishermen, women, tax collectors, children, and those with far more questions than answers. Still more, the teachings of this Messiah are riddles and parables that continue to boggle the minds of preachers, practitioners, professors, Sunday school teachers, and pew sitters. The last shall be first and the first shall be last? Blessed are the poor, hungry, peacemakers, persecuted, grieving, and those questing for justice?

I have not even mentioned Jesus' own death on the cross and resurrection from the cold and dark tomb.

It's ridiculous. It's obscure. It's also the the Way of Jesus. And this way, while we may never be able to fully comprehend or make total sense of it, leads to life. This Way also comes with the promise that all things will one day be new and right again.

So now, whenever I put on my Christmas pajamas, I am reminded of Jesus' invitation to join in the absurd movement called the kingdom of God.

And I confess, I kind of like absurdity.

"As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. " (Colossians 3:12-13)

Advent Prayer

God of absurdity, we give you thanks that your way is open to all people. We thank you that nothing and no one is too ridiculous or obscure for your love and promise of redemption. Fill us with your Spirit so we may foolishly follow Jesus even at the risk of reputation and riches. May we dare to hope and dream for the day to come when you will come again to make all things new and right. Amen.

Related Post:

Theology of Pajamas and Breakfast for Dinner #Jesusworefootes (youth ministry and doubt)


Thursday, December 12, 2013

Santa Wasn't White, Neither Was St. Nicholas or Jesus of Nazareth

Thanks, Fox News, for yet another reason not to tune in to your station and instead wait for your clips to pop up on my twitter feeds and in Facebook messages from friends. Thanks for yet another bit to use with youth and adults alike when discussing how our nation still wrestles with racism and deep-seeded bigotry.

Thanks for the clip that will certainly be used in a class I will facilitate this Sunday, "Santa's Real: The Man Behind the Myth."

But just in case nobody has yet to point out to you or your viewers:

1. Santa was not white. St. Nicholas was likeley Mediterranean and/or Middle Eastern. Nicholas of Myra looked nothing like me nor any of your homegenous panelists. So, for all you kids and Fox News show hosts, Santa just wasn't white. Coca-Cola's version may be, but the great Wonderworker of the fourth century- not likely. Just wanted to get that out there.

2. Jesus, also, was not white. Jesus was Palestinean Jew. In case you were wondering, that's not the same thing. I know we prefer to craft Jesus in our own image in efforts to leverage our agenda and privilege, but Jesus was born into an oppressed class of marginalized peasants. So maybe we should tilt our concern towards the same people groups as well.

3. Nicholas was not a Greek bishop. Nicholas was born in the latter portion of the third century C.E. in Patara, nearby Ephesus and situated within Asia Minor or modern day Turkey (see point 1). Also, St. Nick was a revolutionary, justice-seeking, philanthropical bishop of Myra. Again, not in Greece but Asia Minor during the peek of the Roman Empire.

4. Making Santa an inclusive holiday figure is not exactly a bad thing. The panelist you tried to squeeze out was actually on to something: the legend of St. Nicholas is elastic and our culture can handle diverse representations. In fact, this may be a great attempt to honor the late Bishop of Myra. If pain and isolation is caused to young kids because the cultural icon does not look like them, our greatest humanitarian and charitable deed may be to draw out St. Nick's alternative skin tone. Again, the Bishop probably had a darker complexion anyway.

5. The one thing you got right, Santa Claus is not a penguin because, as you eloquently stated, the birds can neither fly nor lug around all those gifts around the world. But your white Santa, now that's apparently another story.

Blessed Advent and May All Your Christmases be, well, welcoming to all God's people- especially the poor, oppresed, and any wrestling with deep and real pain.

Recommended Reads and Related Resources:

  • Article referred to by Aisha Harris, Santa Claus Should Not Be White Anymore. I do not subscribe to Harris' "Penguin Claus" proposition, but I wonder if this is more satire and tongue-in-cheek that Fox missed. Regardless, her points are fair and worth pondering over with greater felxibility and humility than what was offered by Fox.
  • Click Here for Handout for "Santa's Real: The Man Behind the Myth"
  • www.stnicholascenter.org
  • www.saintwhowouldbesanta.com
  • Previous Blogpost with more links, Celebrating Nelson Mandela on Feast of St. Nicholas
  • Above image is of the legend of St. Nicholas delivering three young women from being sold into prostituion due to their father's bankruptcy. The kneeling figure is the father expressing gratitude for Nicholas generous offerings that, legend has, were thrown through his window and landed in the daughters' stockings hung up to dry. See St. Nicholas Center website for other images.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Celebrating Nelson Mandela on the Feast of St. Nicholas

I was dreaming up a blogpost on the legends and myths of St. Nicholas when I heard the news of the death of Nelson Mandela. I was eager to write a few reflections titled, "Santa's Real: The Man Behind the Myth," when I learned of the South African freedom fighter's passing from this life into life eternal. Mandela's long walk to freedom had finally reached the end. Better said, Mandela entered God's great liberation that will one day behold us all.

I am no Mandela scholar. I am a novice when it comes to the history of South Africa and the struggles with apartheid. I was ten when he took office and vaguely remember watching his inaugural address on t.v. in history class. While his autobiography, A Long Road to Freedom, is at the top of my list of all time favorites, I would have to google quotes for this post.

But we don't need the writings of a saint, letters of a hero, or verbatims of revolutionaries in order to be moved and shaped by their legacy. Their lives and witness take on a spirit of their own, influencing generation after generation to live into the same ethics and virtues of these icons of faith, justice, and commitment to the common good.

So as I sit hear drinking my coffee on December 6th, a date marked for the Feast of St. Nicholas, I find it fitting to do so with a streaming of tributes to Mandela in the background. Afterall, the fourth-century bishop of Myra and our generation's greatest patron to justice and reconciliation hold much in common.

There are stories of St. Nick secretly liberating three young women from being sold into prostitution by their father, who was on the brink of poverty. Tossing bags of currency through down chimneys and windows, which landed in the middle of dinner tables and even a sock hung up to dry, St. Nick looked for secret and subtle means to set captives free. He was, in a way, one of the earliest advocates against human trafficking.

While Mandela was the oppressed fighting for liberation, St. Nick used his privilege to do the same. St. Nick, who came from a wealthy family, leveraged his status and protested corrupt empires, politicked against unjust taxation, interrupted the executions of the innocent, struck down oppressive idolatry, and advocated for children near and far. The saint who would be co-opted by Coca-Cola commercialization and mutated into Santa Claus, was more than jolly. Nicholas of Myra was a religious and social revolutionary who was fueled by far more than milk and cookies.

"More than public charity or personal purity, Nicholas devoted himself to justice, to righting wrongs and correcting inequities. These were the concerns that characterized his life. He was more than a public defender of course; he was a minister of God." (Adam Engish, The Saint Who Would Be Santa, p. 79)

And like Mandela, Nicholas spent time in prison. It seems most advocates of God's dreams for the world do.

I have to get me a record.

People have often asked if Amber and I are going to play Santa Claus with our kids.

The jury is still out.

We want our kids more versed in the legends and praxis of St. Nick than the over-commercialized icon of materialism.

We don't want the revolution to die.

And when I consider that my kids will never see Mandela live on t.v., I want to make sure they learn stories of this twentieth and twenty-first century saint, too.

So we are going to have to tell them all kinds of stories. We are going to have to embrace a variety of traditions and maybe craft a few of our own. If we want the revolution of love, justice, and peace to be embraced by our children, we must tell the tales and leverage the legacies of heroes and sheroes of the faith.

There are plenty of tales and legends to tell.

Happy St. Nicholas Day.

And by the way, Mandela Day is July 18th.


The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus by Adam C. English (www.saintwhowouldbesanta.com)

Blogpost with Adam English and link to an excellent podcast about hardcore St. Nick: http://homebrewedchristianity.com/2013/12/02/whips-and-sticks-and-good-music-st-nick-has-it-all/


The Saint behind Santa Claus: http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/church/features/23886-the-saint-behind-santa-claus

Nelson Mandela: Dreamer of Big Dreams: http://www.pcusa.org/news/2013/12/5/nelson-mandela-dreamer-big-dreams/


Mandela quote above pulled from Kristen Howerton's Facebook page. Check out her blog: www.rageagainsttheminivan.com