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War on Advent

The "War on Christmas" theme can get a little carried away at times.  Come 2014, our various "War on ____" themes, as a whole category, are stretching quite thin.  So it was enjoyable to read Mollie Ziegler Hemmingway poking fun at both, writing a column regarding the "War on Advent" (appropriately out-of-season, too, since she wrote it a month and a half ago and Advent just started this past Sunday).  Amidst the jest, there is a serious point.  Can the rhetoric about the "War on Christmas" actually undermine Christian devotion?

Hemmingway, a fellow member of an LCMS congregation, is not the first to use the phrase "War on Advent."  Diana Butler Bass appropriated the term two years ago to attack FOX news.  Bass' column was weakened by her poor understanding of Advent.  Bass started with a good point, that much of what gets reported under "War on Christmas" has to do with salesmanship and not any faithful Christian celebration of Christmas.  But she missed the joyous expectancy of Advent, shifting what God promised to do into a call for us to fight- you guessed it- the political "War on Poverty." (This political cause is not identical with the Christian Church's mandate and ongoing effort to help the poor.)

Hemmingway's piece expands on where Bass was heading right, while leading us to question the whole "War on Christmas" theme.  Hemmingway begins with a nod to traditional "War on Christmas" themes.  She writes, "The silliest way we 'War on Christmas' is in public schools, where we sing songs about every religion's seasonal holiday--some of which don't even take place any time near Dec. 25, and then refuse to sing any of the gazillion awesome religious songs about Christmas."  Then, she pivots to a repository of additional awesome religious devotion, Advent.

Let's step aside for a bit to define these liturgical seasons.  The feast of the Nativity of our Lord, Christmas, is December 25.  The "Christmas season" in the liturgical calendar is the twelve days from December 25 until Epiphany, January 6.  That is the "twelve days of Christmas" you know of "five golden rings" fame, a time for feasting and unabashed celebration.  Advent is a season of pentitential preparation before Christmas, much like Lent is a penitential season preparing for Easter.  Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas.  You see these four Sundays marked by four candles on an Advent wreath.  Advent does not only focus on Jesus' first humble coming, born a baby in a manger, but also his second coming in glory to judge the world and bring His people into His eternal kingdom of glory.  So Advent mixes both introspective penitence and hopeful joy.  We are penitential, considering how Jesus was humbled to save us.  We are joyful because God is with us graciously.  We are penitential, considering that there will be a judgment at the end of time.  We are joyful because Jesus tells us to lift up our heads and know our redemption is drawing near (Luke 21:28).

Here are Hemmingway's first three recommendations for "fighting" the war on Advent:

1) Advent is for preparation. Christmas is for partying. So that means Christmas parties should take place during Christmas. Christmas parties should not take place during Advent. You get 12 full days when hardly anyone is working to party all you want. Use them.

2) If you’re going to throw a secular party about sleigh bells ringing, don’t bother calling it a Christmas party. Christmas parties celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the incarnate God. Your candy cane festival detached from anything tangibly related to God is not going to be hurt by being called a holiday hoe-down, ok?

3) If you are going to host a “Christmas” party during Advent, be mindful that many traditional Christians go to Advent services on Wednesdays. So pick a different day of the week for your glutton-fest during a time ostensibly set aside for fasting and prayer. (Feel free at this point to mentally imagine Dana Carvey doing a Church Lady riff on the similarities in the names ‘Santa’ and ‘Satan.’)

It's that second point that Bass was also trying to get at.  And not just Bass.  Charles Schulz' A Charlie Brown Christmas has been making this same point delightfully for nearly half a century.  The commercialization of Christmas is its own co-opting of Christmas, especially when "Christmas! Christmas! Christmas!" is blaring as a way to encourage material acquisition.  If Target stops using the word "Christmas" in their marketing, why complain?  On the other hand, businesses and groups that are happy to use the word "Christmas" use it in disturbing ways.  Walmart is trending badly, for example, from 2013's promise that they could get you "more Christmas for your dollar" to 2014's "Merry Techmas and happy new gear."  Both messages present "Christmas" as a day you get fleeting stuff, which, sadly enough, is all the day is for many people.

I think, in fact, rather than there being an actual "war on Advent" you see more and more Christians without liturgical backgrounds interested in somehow pracitcing Advent.  The nondenominational Bible app, YouVersion, features "Christmas and Advent" reading plans.  Advent is a "featured topic" at ChristianityToday.com, with several approving articles to browse.

Hemmingway's point, I believe since it is not stated outright but runs as an undercurrent through the piece, is that indulging the appetite for "War on Christmas" rhetoric isn't going to help you celebrate not just THE season, but the seasons of Advent and Christmas.  This is why Bass' piece went wrong.  She was caught in the warfare mindset, warring against FOX.  The warfare mindset drains joy.  The warfare mindset does not help me be introspectively penitential since it focuses on outside enemies.

A hope that Christ has won the battle, that His kingdom is coming, restores and uplifts our joy.  A hope that He comes "meek and mild" frees me to admit my sins.  The hope of Advent prepares the way for full Christmas joy.  The great Advent hymn declares it:  "Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel has come to you, O Israel!"

A Story of Reconciliation in Ferguson, MO

Ferguson, MO has seen racial conflict and rioting in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown.  A recent chilling report has an anonymous cop warning citizens of Ferguson to buy a gun, “get more than one” to protect their families.  See here.

Or, rather, for a true story of hope and redemption, read this instead.  About a month ago, the St. Louis Post Dispatch ran an article about one of the first black citizens to move into Ferguson, Larman Williams.  Mr. Williams’ story features his white Lutheran pastor, Rev. Richard Sering, who personally helped Williams move into the area.

Williams needed help because in the 60s, Ferguson was primarily a white community and real estate agents would not return the calls of a black man, even one as well respected as Larman Williams.   But Williams’ pastor, Rev. Sering, lived in the neighborhood and Williams sought his help.  Sering called a neighborhood meeting to speak directly to the homeowners.  After the meeting, the seller not only agreed to sell to Williams, but even pay some of the mortgage points so he could afford the cost.

The Post Dispatch story goes on to tell of another tale from after the Williams family moved in.  A family that had initially shunned them, later repented and confessed to Williams how wrong they had been.  The opportunity to be neighbors allowed them to see each other as fellow human beings, all made in the image of God.  Williams said, wisely, “Fear can cause you to act and react in a way that does not necessarily demonstrate the true person you are.  Once you overcome your fear you can do things that are spiritually sound.”

What is spiritually sound?  The Bible encourages us to see all human beings as made in the image of God and therefore deserving of respect and love.  This is a teaching found throughout both Testaments.  The book of Jonah, for example, ends with God reproving his prophet for not rejoicing in the repentance of Nineveh.  The book of Revelation, for another example, describes the family of God as “from every nation, from all tribes and languages” (Revelation 7:9).

Larman Williams is right that fear is what gets in the way of us from treating one another with love and respect.  His own story shows how spending time with people that appear different from you can dispel that fear and make a place for harmony.

That’s why we should be concerned about the ways we segregate still today.  A month ago, a Pew Research study investigated ways we segregate along political lines.  For example, on Facebook, political conservatives are more likely to hear only political opinions that harmonize with their own. On the other hand, also on Facebook, political liberals are likely to defriend people who disagree with their politics.

This is one of the ways the church can be “salt” as Jesus described in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:13).  When our fellowship reaches across political or racial divides, we not only show the breadth of Jesus’ kingdom, we show how His peace “that surpasses understanding” can bring healing in places where the world remains frustratingly divided.

Jonah was told to go to Nineveh.  He fled the opposite way.  God picked his prophet up in a fish, return to sender.  Once in Nineveh, the prophet found redemption could come even to people he feared.  Like Larman Williams, you, too, may be sent among people you initially fear.  But seek to see them with spiritual wisdom and redemption may come in the unlikeliest of places. 


The Left Behind Movie is "not Christian"?

Christianity Today reviewed the new Left Behind movie and surprised some saying, “Left Behind is not a Christian Movie, whatever ‘Christian Movie’ could even possibly mean (emphasis his).  After the success of a pair of “Christian movies” in the past year, Hollywood has decided to invest more into reaching a Christian audience.  The new Left Behind appears to be an attempt to make an action/thriller out of the books that sold so well in Christian bookstores a decade and a half ago.

The reviewer, Jackson Cuidon, quotes the director, Vic Armstrong, on the potential for a Christian aspect to Left Behind:

[My agent] David Gersh said, “Well, what about the religious aspect?” And I said, “What religious aspect?” He said, “Didn’t you find it strange when people disappeared on the plane and everything?” I said, “David, I did Starship Troopers, and I didn’t question it when great big bugs came climbing over the hill and ripped people’s heads off. That’s the world I live in!”

“That’s the world I live in!” makes a wonderful contrast to Jesus’ testimony before Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).  Similarly, the book of Hebrews says of believers, “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth” (11:13).

As Cuidon’s Christianity Today review continues, it becomes about more than just a bad movie.  It’s a lament at how Christians are desperate to be at home in this world, for example, wanting movies with the same production value as the summer blockbuster.  So Cuidon asks whether the characters in Left Behind ever do anything Christlike.  He fears the church will accept “Christian movies” and “Christian books” that have no Christ so long as the explosions are thrilling enough.

I think Cuidon raises a relevant question for our own Christian lives.  Jesus asks us to be salt and light in the world (Matthew 5:13-16).  Cuidon says that Christian life can’t just be looking good and inoffensive.  After all, he says, “Jesus offended the devout more than he did the irreligious.”

Jesus’ unusual witness was marked by two characteristics that become stark on the cross.  Jesus denied self-righteousness (e.g. Matthew 6:1-6), being crucified with criminals.  Jesus offered radical mercy (e.g. Matthew 5:38-48), paying for the guilty on the cross.

While Jesus was considered a sinner because He ate with sinners (Matthew 11:19), the whole theme of Left Behind is that the righteous Christians get pulled out of the world and are therefore known to be holy.  In that sense, Cuidon raises good questions about the Left Behind books to begin with that I think apply also to our Christian lives.  Are we more concerned with looking good than with seeking Christ’s kingdom based on humility and mercy?

A similar theme was raised in the newest Lars Walker novel, Death’s Door.  He writes

It occurred to him that in their passion for listening to musical recordings of the highest technical quality, modern people might have given up something better—the pleasure giving music, rather than receiving it as an indulgence.  When was the last time he’d heard someone sing for joy?  Had he ever?  And what does it say about a culture, if its people never sing for joy?  Maybe that was why America was dying, he thought absurdly.  Maybe it was a simple deficiency of song.

Do we lose something about story, art, and song, when we feast on over-indulgent movies whose only quality is technical?  Or is the problem with a saltless Christianity?  What about in our own lives?  How do you think of being salt and light in your own life?