Back before holiday greetings came under scrutiny, it was easy. Sometimes I would say, “Merry Christmas!” More often, though, I would say, “Happy Holidays!” because it applies to the whole season: Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Year’s. Today, if I say “Happy Holidays,” I might be accused of secularizing the sacred; but if I say “Merry Christmas,” does it sound like I’m trying to proselytize?
It all started several years ago when a few prominent retailers purportedly required employees to wish shoppers “Happy Holidays,” rather than “Merry Christmas.” These over-anxious merchants then painted over their “Merry Christmas” signs to read “Happy Holidays,” putting the kibosh on spreading Christmas cheer. Why, you ask? I don’t really know, but I can guess: money. It’s always about money. I’d bet you an elf on a shelf that this greeting adjustment was meant to increase profits by attracting shoppers of other faiths and appealing to customers who don’t identify with any religion at all.
Now, I don’t know much about the retail business, but I think this decision was profoundly stupid. It’s pretty clear to me that the last person a shopkeeper wants to offend in December is someone celebrating Christmas. I mean, a high percentage—somewhere between 20 and 60 percent—of all annual retail sales are attributed to Christmas buying. Alienating these shoppers could lead to a serious financial shortfall.
Anyway, once word of this ixnay on istmasChray got out, media moguls began enlisting Christian soldiers to fight in the War on Christmas. Pretty soon, folks from throughout Christendom—Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Baptists, you name it—were moving beyond theological differences to join in this holy war. Bumper stickers appeared on sedans, pickups, and hot rods saying “Keep Christ in Christmas,” or “I still Celebrate Christmas” or “It’s okay to say Merry Christmas to me.” Soon you could buy clothing, accessories, and more emblazoned with these loaded messages.
Here’s what I think. Political correctness is a good thing. The idea is basically, “Think about your words before you say them aloud.” Who among us couldn’t benefit from that basic restraint now and then? Like many good things though, political correctness can go too far.
Take your roadside “Holiday Tree” vendor. Now, this person is in truth selling Christmas trees. I know this because I have Jewish friends; I have Muslim friends; none of them have trees up in their houses. Paying good money for trees that once grew in our mountains but now stand, freshly axed from their roots, bunched together under multi-colored lights—well that behavior is singularly Christian. Wait, I take that back. I have friends who are atheists. They buy Christmas trees too. But I don’t know anyone who buys a Hanukkah pine, or a Ramadan bush. Same thing goes for wreaths. I mean really: It’s not an Arbor Day wreath. It’s not a Kwanzaa wreath. Whatcha got yourself there is a Christmas wreath, plain and simple. So if you’re a seasonal foliage pusher, call them Christmas decorations—because that’s what they are. Or call it all “Holiday Greenery” if you want--it's your business.
That is what it is too: business. And since when was it retailers job to keep Christ in Christmas? What matters to corporations is money. So, if they are putting the name of Jesus Christ on something to make it sell, then I believe they are using God’s name in vain. Plus, I don’t know anyone who has come to a saving knowledge of Jesus because they looked up in Toys-R-Us™ and saw a “Christmas Discounts” sign; do you? (One more thing, I don’t think we can begin to guess what Jesus the Nazarene would do with this mess of affluenza and consumerism we’ve got going on in this country; but I’m pretty sure Jesus wouldn’t want his name on it. Just sayin’.)
Years ago, my daughter and I were watching a Christmas movie when a Wal-Mart™ commercial aired. After advertising the prices that had just been lowered on Christmas must-haves, they signed-off promising, “Christmas costs less at Wal-Mart™.” I winced like I do when someone uses the name of God as a swear word. My daughter looked at me with 14 year old wisdom and said “Christmas doesn’t cost anything.”
She was right; it doesn’t—at least not in the way that commercial meant. Yet there are incalculable costs: the preparations for Christmas meals; the sacrifices we make to be with family; the practice time musicians invest in preparing annual concerts. These things can’t go in sale papers. They can’t be discounted. They can’t be put on glitzy signs in high-dollar department stores.
In order to Keep Christ in Christmas, we don’t need merchants to put the name of the holiday on their signs. Instead, we need to turn our own eyes away from the modern accoutrements of the season, and focus instead on the gift God gave us in God’s son Jesus.
“Glory to God in the Highest and on Earth (and in social media) Peace to All People!” Luke 2:14 (paraphrased)
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays
Here's a throw back from five years ago when I witnessed a humorous exchange made more hilarious by its location: a funeral home.
Originally published April 6, 2011
Technically, the funeral had not yet begun. Sure, people were sitting quietly in their seats and the organist was playing, but the family wasn’t even back yet. (They were taking a break between the visitation and the actual service.) So, really: it hadn’t started.
Still, it was awfully quiet when the somber funeral directors, hands folded behind them, heads bowed, walked solemnly down the aisle to close the casket. It didn’t seem like the ideal time to strike up a conversation.
“They lock the casket,” she said quietly, lifting her frail frame slightly so she could speak directly into the man’s ear. She’d completed at least eight decades of life already, perhaps the last six at this man’s side. The couple sat together at the end of the pew. His suit had seen better days; her white crocheted wrap hung loosely around her shoulders. Both wore bifocals, but only he sported a pair of super-sized hearing aids.
He turned, acknowledging her. “I didn’t hear what’cha said about the casket,” he countered, not as quietly as she.
She lifted herself again. “I said, ‘They lock it.’” She said it a little louder this time then relaxed back into her stooped posture and turned to face the aforementioned casket.
He tilted toward her. “They what?” His voice carried a hint of frustration.
She turned, nearly colliding with his octogenarian earlobe. “They LOCK it,” she said, plenty loud.
“What?” This time, pure aggravation punctuated the man’s question.
Her lips now approached his inner ear. “I said they LOCK the casket,” she replied, all pretense of decorum gone from her tone. “They L-O-C-K it.”
(You see, if someone can’t hear you, for heaven’s sake, spell it. That will clear things right up.)
She was back facing front now, her shoulders drooping just below the pew back. He faced front too, arms crossed. He leaned ever so slightly in her direction, saying, “Huh. Well. That shore’ don’t seem necessary.”
. . . what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. `Matthew 10:27 NRSV
Published originally 2/22/09
Some years ago, I was overcome by a sense of hopelessness after volunteering in a fourth grade class at my children’s school. (In the story below, I've changed the kids’ names and details for their own sakes.) That day, I wrote about my experience. This week, I found myself discouraged again for the children who make up the “least of these” in our school system. I remembered this long ago day and the lesson I learned and was relieved to recall that I am not the creator of hope, only a servant of the One who is.
The story from way back when. . .
“What’s this?” I asked the teacher, spying Chris folded under his desk.
"I’ve called the counselor, but who could blame the kid. He's been here since 7:00," his teacher told me in confidence, knowing that I knew the situation as well as she did.
“What? The school doesn’t even officially open until 7:30.”
"That's when they dropped him off." Chris was staying in a group home at the time, his dad having once again proven his ineffectiveness as a parent.
My heart aching for Chris, I turned to the other student I'd come to tutor. "She's wearing makeup!" I said, astonished that this nine-year-old child was dabbling in teenage foolishness already.
"I know," the teacher remarked, "We aren't allowed to use any cleansers near their eyes. She's been like that since Monday." It was Friday.
I took Polly by the hand and led her downstairs, where, amidst protests, I helped her wash her face. "I am a volunteer," I told shocked staffers. "Fire me!"
Back in the classroom, we worked on her multiplication tables. She was getting pretty good at ones and twos and we were moving on to threes. She’d be in fifth grade in months and could not possibly be prepared. But that was not the worst of it. Polly and her brother lived in squalor with their single-parent mother who worked, but changed boyfriends with alarming frequency. The child’s self-esteem was pathetic, what with her poor academics and her questionable home environment.
Desperate, both of them: Chris, with his father, an unemployed, abusive alcoholic; Polly with her pitiful academic skills and horrendous home-life. I left the school wringing my hands and wondering how my tiny handful of flour could be leavened in such a cold, discouraging atmosphere. I felt overwhelmed, under-equipped, and depressed. I saw no way around the mounting barriers these kids faced. It took me longer than I'd like to admit to realize that it truly was not humanly possible to bring hope to this hopeless situation. But, since God had put on flesh in Christ Jesus, hope was within reach.
Broken, lonely, heartbroken. Jesus.
Precious, loving, heart-healing. Jesus.
I can't get Chris a new daddy, but because of Christ, I can reach out and lift up. I can't give Polly grade-level understanding and a morally sound home-life, but I can love her as Christ Jesus loves me, wholeheartedly and unreservedly.
Did you know that during Jesus' time the entire Mount of Olives was covered with olive groves? Further, it's a range of mountains not a single mount. Who knew? Not me.
Today the Mount of Olives includes (at least) Hebrew University, a convent, Augusta Victoria Hospital (started by the UN Relief Organization in 1949), a Crippled Children's Hospital, a Nurses School and a girl's school. When we passed the girls' scho0l, we saw some girls about 13-15 years old dancing in the school yard. How lovely to see so much delight in the midst of such an anxiety-ridden region.
At the crest of the Mount, we visited Dominus Flavis, the Chapel of Tears. Tradition reports that it was from this site that Jesus looked down on Jerusalem and, thinking on the sin in the city and the pain he had experienced there, Jesus wept. The small chapel is shaped like a tear drop with small vase-shaped forms at each corner where the roof meets the outer walls. These vases symbolize vases that were used to catch the tears of mourners. The altar in the chapel overlooks Jerusalem; a glass window looks out on the city. From the pews in the chapel, you can see Jerusalem. Beautiful.
Next we visited the Garden of Gethsemene where olive trees grow that would have been there in Jesus' time. They still bear fruit. "The olive tree never dies," our guide says.
Later in the day, we visited the site of Caiphas' house. We went below it to where Jesus would have been lowered to the dungeon. Striking is that his cell was the lowest cell. There were cells above it. His was the lowest.
I was walking at this point with Dr. Anthony Negbenebor, the dean of GWU's Business school who has visited Jerusalem 17 times. He narrated for me. He said as we exited the dungeon area, "There would have been lots of people out here. They would have been making a lot of noise. And somewhere here, Peter would have been hiding. Until someone said to him, 'Hey, you were with him weren't you?' And then Peter said, 'No I do not know him."
Then Anthony and I turned and walked up the sacred stairway.
These stairs, discovered several decades ago, would have been here 100 years before Christ. Scholars believe Christ would have walked on these steps at least five times. The walk is amazingly difficult, the steps uneven, rugged, and very steep. So Anthony and I walked them, slow and carefully, huffing and puffing, grateful to be following the footsteps of Christ--if only literally.
You see, as I walk these sacred pathways, I'm reminded that it is not walking where Jesus walked but living as Jesus lived that is the real challenge, the real blessing.
Another of my earlier posts from back in 2008, written about my trip to the Holy Land.
I've said over and over today: Ooooh! I wish my sister could see this. Or, "I wish my sister were here to translate that." You see, my sister Dawn is a Latin teacher extraordinaire and there are few things she likes better than Roman ruins and a good line of Latin text. So when I was standing in the hippodrome in Caesaerea where chariot races entertained 11,000 onlookers, I couldn't help but think about how much my sister would love to see it all. This hippodrome (which bordered the Mediterranean Sea--so blue today that you wouldn't believe me if I could describe it) is only one of the well preserved ruins of this Roman town mentioned in the book of Acts. In Acts, Peter goes there on account of the Gentile Cornelius (Acts 10). But more importantly, Paul is there, defending himself and his faith. (You'll find this story in Acts 25:23-26:32.) Today, we stood in the theater where Paul probably pleaded his case. We saw the box seat (there is only one in this theater) where his accusers set. We listened as our professor spoke from the theater floor, his voice carried up to us on the winds of the Mediterranean. And I thought, I wish my sister could be here to see this.
We drove just down the rode to a Roman aqueduct. Now if you've not heard of such a thing, open another window and do a quick wikipedia search. Basically, Romans created a massive plumbing system that would enable them to build cities in little remote places like, I dunno, Israel. The aqueduct that we saw stretched more than seven miles. I climbed atop it and walked in the trough where the water would have flowed. I sat under the arches and smiled pretty for a picture. I walked in the Mediterranean and looked back at it thinking, my goodness, I surely wish my sister could see this.
After that, we went to a chapel near a shepherd's field--a field like the one where shepherd's would have been abiding their flocks by night. . .The chapel is tiny, and is domed. The dome creates beautiful acoustics. One of our group, Dr. Cal Robertson who was one of my profs last semester, is a gifted and talented tenor. While we were in the chapel, he sang O Holy Night. Around the dome of the chapel were the words from Luke 2:14--in Latin. This would have been a great day to share with my sister.
I began my official blog when I went to the Holy Land in May of 2008. I thought I'd bring back a few of those early posts for those of you who may have missed them the first time around.
May 20, 2008
Today we took a walking tour of old Jerusalem. We were so happy to be off the bus and out in the fresh air and sunshine.
The tour started atop Mount Moriah. You may remember Mt. Moriah from scripture. It was there that Abraham offered Isaac for sacrifice. Now, a beautiful mosque called the Dome of the Rock stands on the mount. The actual dome is covered with 24k gold. Its gleam is unparalleled in my experience.
We left there for St. Anne's Church. St. Anne is Mary's mother, that is, Jesus' grandmother. This church is the best preserved Crusader church in all of Israel. Its walls are fortress-thick. It's as if it were built by. . .well. . .warriors. St. Anne's is a beautifully simple church with renown acoustics. Our group's own tenor, Dr. Cal Robertson, sang for us there. He began with Holy, Holy, Holy and finished with Jerusalem, Jerusalem. His highly trained, flawless voice filled the chapel. When he hit the last note, no one said anything. For several moments, sacred silence swept over those present. As I reflected on the generations of saints who had worshiped there before I had come to this place, I felt humbled by the faith represented here.
Later we walked the via de la rosa--the way of the cross--a mostly legendary route that Jesus is said to have followed on the way to his crucifixion. The way begins below a convent where Jesus' trial almost certainly took place. This site has been authenticated in many ways. However, the rest of the way is suspect, though possible of course.
Still, the via de la rosa ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher which offered a wonderful experience totally unrelated to the way of the cross. There atop that ancient church (it was built in the 4th century ad) a small community of Ethiopian monks has taken residence. This community celebrates their biblical connection to Philip because of his leading the Ethiopian to Christ through the reading of scripture. While we were there, one of the monks read to us in his native language, the story of Philip. Beautiful.
Finally we ended our day at the Western Wall or as we call it, the Wailing Wall. I had brought a picture of Paxten Mitchell with me. On the back of the picture, Rob and Amy, Paxten's parents, had both written prayers. So, while I was at the wailing wall, I read the prayer for Amy and then the one for Rob. Next I prayed my own prayer about Paxten and about God's goodness and his provision. Finally I knelt before the wall, once again awed, as I have been throughout this journey, by the number of those who have prayed in this very same spot before me. To think of the prayers that have gone up here: prayers of hope, prayers of despair; prayers of longing, prayers of thanksgiving; prayers of praise, prayers of anguish. And now my voice has joined with all those other voices. I find the weight of the knowledge overwhelming. I feel so humbled at the magnitude of the faith of God's people.
Tomorrow we go to the Mount of Olives. I have a feeling I'm going to be overwhelmed there as well.
In Dr. Sheri Adams church history class at Gardner-Webb University Divinity School, I learned, among other things, about Archbishop Oscar Romero. I found his life fascinating and have since been drawn to his legacy. Frequently, I refer to Romero's life and work when preparing sermons. Such was the case for this message, preached at First Baptist Church of Weaverville on May 15, 2016 (Pentecost Year C for those following the Revised Common Lectionary. Note: I substituted the Haggai text for the Old Testament reading). Here's the beginning of the message; it's continued in the attached audio.
A word of explanation: this particular Sunday, when I did the children's sermon, a toddler was particularly interested in the microphone. He added a lot of commentary and a touch of chaos to the worship that morning. I refer to this at the beginning of the audio.
John 14:8-17, (25-27), Haggai 2:3-7
In May 2015, Pope Francis ordered the beatification of Oscar Romero, Archbishop of El Salvador. Pope Francis was affirming what many had said for decades: Oscar Romero’s life so closely resembled the life of Christ, that Romero should be declared a Saint.
Romero came from a lower middle class El Salvadorian background. One of eight children, Romero learned a trade early because his father and others of the time believed that academic studies would not lead to profitable employment. Romero excelled academically though and by 13 he was longing to study scripture with the intent of becoming a priest. He completed his studies and was ordained into the priesthood at the age of 24. He rose quickly in the Catholic church and soon became the archbishop, the highest ranking priest in the nation.
At the time, El Salvador was in the midst of a bloody civil war that essentially pitted the powerful elite—who were aligned with the catholic church—against the poor, oppressed majority. Romero, most people believed, would further the cause of the wealthy elite because he had such a position of power; in reality though, he became focused on the concerns of the poor. He spoke out against injustice, taking his message from the pulpit to the streets and to the airways.
He said, among other things,
“The church must suffer for speaking the truth, for pointing out sin, for uprooting sin. No one wants to have a sore spot touched, and therefore a society with so many sores twitches when someone has the courage to touch it and say: “You have to treat that. You have to get rid of that. Believe in Christ. Be converted.”
Romero, a true voice for those who had no voice, advocated for the poor literally until his dying breath, as he was assassinated while he was preaching a sermon on living out the message of Christ to serve the least of these among us. Romero, now considered by many to be a saint, was at the very least, a true advocate for the oppressed in his land.
Oscar Romero, guided by the spirit, was the people’s advocate, the voice for the voiceless.
The word Advocate comes from a Latin word which means “to call.” Our word voice comes from the same Latin root word. Advocate, therefore, could mean "to call" or "to give voice to." . . .
You see when I was in my last couple of years of high school, we lived on the other side of a swing bridge that spans the Intercoastal Waterway. My school was less than two miles from home, but because it was on the other side of the bridge, I never knew how long it might take to drive to school. If the bridge was turned to allow large ships to pass, you might wait up to 10 minutes for it to come back around. (These days, there’s a big highway bridge that provides an alternative route from my parents' home to the high school, so the swing bridge is not nearly as big of a problem for travelers as it once was.)
Bridges. They make a real difference in the quality of transportation.
According to the NC Dept of Transportation, NC has about 13,500 bridges. We have all kinds of bridges here. We have bridges made from wood, steel, and concrete. We have highway bridges, street bridges and pedestrian bridges. We have suspension bridges, natural bridges, covered bridges, draw bridges and yes, even swing bridges.
Each year, 9,000 of those are inspected by certified bridge inspectors. And guess what? Roughly 40 percent of our bridges are "considered structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.” Now before you go out and trade your Honda for a hover car, know that NCDOT states that these bridges are safe but will “require significant maintenance to remain in service, and limits on vehicle weights may be required.” The price-tag on the repairs? Upwards of $9.4 billion!
Bridges offer convenience, save us time, and open opportunities to us that would otherwise remain closed, but they require significant effort to build and once they are built, the work is not done. That’s when the ongoing task of maintaining the bridge begins. And that task never ends.
(Want the rest of the sermon? Here's the recording.)