Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas!

Wishing you and yours all the blessings of this Holy Season!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Christmas Around the World

Today I am going to be the guest speaker at the local Optimist Club luncheon, an invitation from a church member. He gave me 15 minutes to speak, a limit of six desserts at the buffet, and the topic “Christmas Around the World”. The time limit is welcomed – I won’t have to prepare much; the limit on desserts is no problem – I dropped 12 pounds when my wife signed up for the “Weight Watchers Diet” and I don’t plan to take them back; but the topic required a little research.

What I discovered is that almost every country in the world does Christmas so much better than we do. I am embarrassed that we have reduced this holy celebration into a crass and exasperating shopping experience that stretches from Thanksgiving Day until December 24th.

Yes, this year, Gander Mountain, that outdoorsman paradise, remained open on Thanksgiving Day… (sigh!)

And thanks to the exporting of American culture through television shows and movies, our customs are starting to influence other (richer) traditions that have thrilled children for centuries.

The beginning of Christmas goes back two thousand years to the birth of Jesus, as recorded in scripture. (Okay, I know the Christmas tradition didn’t begin back then, but that’s what it celebrates.) In those countries where Roman Catholicism holds the greatest influence, the celebrations start with Advent, four weeks of preparation before the birth of Jesus.

At my first church, when I tried to initiate some of the Advent traditions, my church members looked at me quizzically and asked, “Isn’t that a Catholic thing?”

In Mexico, the major Advent celebration is “La Posada”, during which a procession weaves through town with figures of Joseph and Mary searching for a place to give birth to the Christ Child. In Italy, children go from house to house reciting poems and singing carols, and are often rewarded with treats and small gifts.

Most of the gift-giving is done on December 6th, the feast of St. Nicholas. Nicholas was born in the 3rd century in what is now Turkey. His parents died in an epidemic and, following the direction of Jesus’ teaching, young Nicholas set about giving away his entire inheritance to the poor. He was made Bishop of Myra at a young age and continued his ministry of giving.

My favorite story of St. Nicholas involved a poor man who had three daughters. Unable to provide a dowry, the family was resigned to the reality that the daughters would never be married. On three separate occasions, bags of gold appeared – tossed through the window and landing in a shoe – enabling the daughters to marry. This was attributed to St. Nicholas, and is supposedly the beginning of the tradition of placing shoes or stockings by the fireplace in hopes of receiving such gifts.

Here’s what I like about the St. Nicholas tradition: Since gifts are given on December 6th, the Christmas Day celebrations in most countries focus solely on the birth of the Christ Child… as it should be. In Bethlehem, a large procession weaves through the streets of the little town, ending at the Church of the Nativity, where the baby Jesus is laid in a manger. In Italy, the faithful gather in Vatican Square to receive a blessing from the Pope. Even in Iraq, Christians carry an effigy of the infant Jesus in procession through the community and into the church, placing it in the manger. Then the priest blesses the crowd – he touches on parishioner, who then physically passes the “Touch of Peace” on until all receive the blessing.

Many countries continue the Christmas celebrations through Epiphany (January 6th), when they observe the visitation of the wise men or Magi. In Russia, children await the arrival of “Babushka” (grandmother). Legend holds that Babushka was invited to accompany the wise men on their journey to see the newborn king, but she was too busy. Later she decided to go, but never caught up with the wise men and never found the Christ Child. So now she travels the countryside delivering presents to all children everywhere in hopes of finding the baby Jesus. (A similar legend is found in Italy about an ugly witch named Befana.)

Here’s my thing: In almost every country I researched, Christmas is a two-part celebration: 1) the birth of Jesus, and 2) the giving of gifts. Whether the gift-bringer is “Dun Che Lao Ren” (China) or “Pere Noel” (France), or “Weihnachtsmann” (Germany) or Sinterklass and Black Peter (Holland), most countries keep the gift-giving tradition separate from the Christ Mass, allowing for the proper respect of both tradition and faith.

It’s worth considering.

While you ponder this, I wish you a very Merry Christmas! May the love and peace of the Christ Child fill your home in the days and weeks to come!

Friday, December 14, 2007

It Was a God-Moment

Last evening I had finished trolling the Cokesbury Bookstore at Lake Junaluska Assembly and was headed toward the cash register to make my purchase and head to the dining hall. But there he stood… in the path between me and my goal. He was an older man with a graying buzz-cut and a cane; the beaded disk at his collar indicated at least some Native American heritage. His nametag said he was Wesley, from McMinnville, TN. And it was obvious he was looking for someone – anyone – to talk to.

But I didn’t want it to be me.

We are at Lake Junaluska, N.C., attending a conference called, “Transforming Lives by Embracing Diversity: Listening – Learning – Celebrating – Empowering”. The first day was easy, as we covered the old territory of racism against African-Americans. Yes, we are all created by God; yes, “Jesus loves the little children; all the children of the world…” Okay, I’ve got that down.

But I didn’t want to talk to Wesley.

I pretended to brows the bookshelves as I tried to duck past him and reach the cash register, but he intuitively knew how to block my path. He must have known I was trying to ignore him, but he followed me down the row of books, leading with subjects hoping to elicit a response from me. It took about 15 minutes, but I finally got past him, made it to the cash register and out of the building. With over two hundred people in attendance at the conference, I didn’t really expect to encounter him again.

This morning the conference attendees gathered in small groups to de-brief our “facilitated discussions” from yesterday afternoon. Ours had been a polite sharing of how racism had affected our lives; I heard from others that their discussions had become quite lively.

As our facilitators recounted our discussions, one mentioned that in her group a Puerto Rican pastor had expressed concern about the American flag found in most United Methodist chancels; the pastor had expressed how that symbol was a barrier for some to come to church – creating an uncomfortable link between the American government and The United Methodist Church. He wondered if others felt that way.

Wesley spoke up. He asked for a show of hands: “How many veterans are there in the room?” His was the only hand raised. Then he began speaking, about the flag, about flag etiquette, about the bold sacrifices many Americans made in “the war”. “Isn’t Puerto Rico a territory of the United States?” he asked. “So when we come to church, we are all Americans… I fought in the war so we can worship… I fought in the war for everyone.” His voice occasionally broke with emotion… the same emotion I had heard in the voices of other vets as they recounted their experiences in WWII.

But as Wesley rambled on, I felt anger building up inside of me. Didn’t the Apostle Paul declare, “We are no longer Greek nor Jew, male nor female, slave nor free”? Didn’t Paul debate the Judaizers who insisted one must first become a Jew to be a Christian? How is this different? Must we become Americans to become Christians? Finally I exploded!

“You say you fought for us, but Jesus died for us. Jesus Christ comes first. Placing the American flag in our churches divides our loyalties. I don’t depend on America for my freedom to worship; in fact, in countries around the world where Christianity is suppressed, people of faith still gather to worship, and in many of those countries, Christianity is stronger for it!”

A silence fell over the room. A facilitator offered a weak cliché to smooth over the debate, and we left. I left quickly, hoping I would not have to encounter Wesley again. I didn’t know what I would say.

Over lunch, as I played the tape over in my brain, I thought, “How ironic; I came here to learn how to ‘embrace diversity’, and when that diversity came – not from black or Native American or Korean or Hispanic concerns, but with another white guy over the display of the American flag – I blew it!”

I looked at the schedule. We would be together at least one more time. Maybe I should apologize for losing my cool before the whole group… that would be big of me. I wouldn’t apologize for my beliefs, but for how I expressed them.

I also thought about skipping the session.

The moment came… and went. I did not have the nerve to speak my conviction. And I left quickly again. This time I was pretty sure we would not see one another again. I admitted if this had been a test, I failed. I would just have to take the “F” and try to do better next time. During dinner I convinced myself that it would be okay; I had made an enemy, but one I would never see again.

The evening worship included communion, and I thought about skipping out, but Bishop Hope Morgan Ward was preaching and I was looking forward to hearing her. She did an exceptional job relating the story of the annunciation through her unique story-telling style.

The Bishop was followed by the liturgy for the sacrament. We read together a unison prayer of confession, partly in English, partly in Spanish. Then we were invited to make our personal prayers of confession to God in silence. It was still eating at me, so I prayed about the heated words I had exchanged this morning with Wesley.

A passage from scripture flashed through my mind… Jesus’ teaching about reconciliation – if you are in the temple making your offering and you remember that someone has something against you, leave your offering and go and reconcile with that person, then come back and make your offering.

I tried to rationalize that it was too late; I would not be able to find Wesley before the sacraments were served. I just hoped God would forgive me.

We stood to pass the peace of Christ. I rose, turned to my left and hugged the large black woman standing there with a welcoming smile on her face. “The peace of Christ.” I turned to my left and extended my hand to the white man standing there. “The peace of Christ.” I turned to see who might be behind me. And there was Wesley.


Um,... I mean, Hallelujah!

And his hand was extended toward me: “The peace of Christ.” I was overwhelmed, but not wanting to miss this God-moment, I managed to blurt out an apology. In the brief exchange, he tried to brush the episode aside, but I refused to let him diminish the moment. [We all need to learn to allow a person to confess their sins to us.]

Communion was special tonight. As I received the bread… “The body of Christ, broken for you”… and the cup… “The blood of Christ, shed for you”… for once it felt right. Christ was there.

As the service concluded, and we gathered our things to depart, Wesley approached again. Again, he extended his hand and said, “God bless you as you travel home.”

He already did… and his name is Wesley.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Prohibition Repealed!

Tomorrow (December 5) marks the 74th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition. Through the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution and the Volstead Act of 1919, the sale of alcohol was official prohibited in the United States effective January 16, 1920. The Methodist Church was a leader in the movement, as was the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.
Fortunately, President Franklin Roosevelt saw the light and signed an amendment to the Volstead Act in March of 1933 – loosening the restriction, followed by the 21st Amendment to the Constitution, signed into law on December 5, 1933. That Christmas, Anheuser-Busch hooked up a team of Clydesdales and delivered a wagon-load of Budweiser to the White House.

While it is probably considered unusual for a pastor to hail such an event, it is with good reason. As history records, Prohibition did nothing to stop the partaking of alcoholic beverages. In fact, alcohol use actually increased during this period.

Prohibition also gave rise to organized crime figures like Al Capone and Bugs Moran, who made millions of dollars through illegal sales. Saloons became “speakeasies” and created a fertile breeding ground for all sorts of illegal activities, including gambling, prostitution and murder.

Near the end of prohibition some supporters openly admitted its failure. A quote from a letter, written in 1932 by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., states:

When Prohibition was introduced, I hoped that it would be widely supported by public opinion and the day would soon come when the evil effects of alcohol would be recognised. I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe that this has not been the result. Instead, drinking has generally increased; the speakeasy has replaced the saloon; a vast army of lawbreakers has appeared; many of our best citizens have openly ignored Prohibition; respect for the law has been greatly lessened; and crime has increased to a level never seen before.

So did hypocrisy. Humorist Wil Rogers joked about Prohibition: “The South is dry and will vote dry. That is, everybody sober enough to stagger to the polls."

Of course, Prohibition wasn’t all bad. Al Capone was something of a music aficionado, and many of his 10,000+ speakeasies in and around Chicago (like The Cotton Club) became the staging area for Jazz, giving up-and-coming black musicians a venue in which to practice their art.

And because the uncontrolled quality of the liquor of the day would often cause serious illness, blindness, and even death, many of those musicians switched from alcohol to marijuana as their drug of choice.

Perhaps it was the hypocrisy that brought about the end to Prohibition. Or perhaps it came about as the government realized they were losing millions of dollars in tax revenues. Remember, Capone was finally sent to prison for tax evasion, not for bootlegging or any of the numerous illegal activities with which he was associated.

Whatever the cause of the repeal, it is important for concerned citizens to remember our history as the City Council moves toward drafting new laws concerning strip clubs in Memphis. Some groups are calling for strict, prohibitive laws that will [wishfully] drive such businesses out of town; some support legislation drafted by the state of Tennessee and adopted by Shelby County that is much more severe than what the City Council wants to implement.

I believe the City Council has the right to allow such clubs to operate. If we have learned anything from 13 failed years of Prohibition, it is that outlawing such activities is not effective. There will always be a lucrative market for viewing naked bodies, as there is for drinking alcoholic beverages; and there will always be persons willing to provide such services. If dancing naked in a club is outlawed, such activities will merely be driven underground – out of sight perhaps, but not out of town.

But I also believe the City Council has the right to require all the licenses deemed necessary, and to provide the appropriate oversight to protect the public welfare. And in the same way waiters and waitresses are required to pay taxes on “presumed tips”, so dancers should be expected to pay the government a percentage of their “presumed tips”.

But preferably not in one-dollar-bills!

The rest is our responsibility. If we don’t want strip clubs in our town, we shouldn’t patronize them. Without our dollars, they will not be able to afford to operate and will simply go away.

What’s more, we should raise our children to respect all people – men and women – not for how they can make us feel, but for who they are. I would not presume to know another person’s motivation for her/his choice of work – many simply say, “It’s a job.” But I suspect few just really, really, really want to show you their private parts for the dollar you are waving at them.

Yet I do know they are all human beings, and many share the same hopes for life that you and I have – to put food on the table, to keep a roof overhead, to possess stuff, to engage in meaningful relationships, and to enjoy all the freedoms our country has to offer.

Let’s not ask our government to repeat the mistakes of the past by imposing laws that we are personally unwilling to keep. There are just some things for which we do not need a law. As my parents used to tell me whenever I got in trouble, “You know better!”