Focus

A long time back (December 18th, 2008, to be exact), on a different blog, I wrote the following:

Before anyone calls me a Grinch (which designation I’d happily accept, given the outcome of the tale), I’m going on record as not having been fond of a lot of what we now call holidays – holy days – since I started reading and researching them. If you are caught up in the cultural thing, that’s fine – I’m not aware of many others who, like me, think that raising kids without Santa and all the other nonsense is a better way – but recognize that what we are doing is, in fact, celebrating cultural accretions attached to a single day. I do believe that there is much more wrong with the celebration of Christmas as a cultural event than the crass commercialism, and I never have cared for the fact that early church leaders freely edited our calendars by co-opting the sacred days of pagans and turned them into high holy days.

Regardless of the date of Christ’s birth, the shadow of the cross was there all along. If that day was, in fact, May 23rd (to choose a date off the top of my head), it would be no less holy than we try to make December 25th; perhaps that is the nature of one aspect of the difficulty I have with how we celebrate Christmas, in that we try to make something holy when we don’t feel God’s agreement. I suspect that holds true for a lot more people than me on a far greater number of issues related to their faith (which might go a ways toward explaining the statistic generated in the Pew Forum survey) – but that is for another post.

The material below is from USA Today:

“The focus on peace and giving gifts allows you to safely focus on nice things instead of the idea that God sent his son Jesus to be Christ, who dies on a cross. It’s human nature to want to take the ‘nice’ without the ‘truth,’ ” says Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay Research in Nashville

It’s not that Christmas partying is wrong: There just has to be a larger purpose for it, says pastor and author Rick Warren. His newest book, The Purpose of Christmas, cites celebration as one of the three things announced by the angels at Christ’s birth, along with salvation and reconciliation to God.

But social scientists say several trends work against the push to focus on doctrine:

  • The percentage of U.S. adults who say they have no religious identity has more than doubled, from 7% in 1990 to 15.2% in 2008, says sociologist Barry Kosmin, principal investigator of the American Religious Identification Survey and a research professor at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.
  • Data from Christian trends researcher Barna Research in Oxnard, Calif., finds the long-familiar bump in Christmas church attendance is mostly somewhat-regular attendees coming in from the cold more often.
  • Interfaith marriages — in which couples often blur or ignore religious differences — have increased from 2.9% of U.S. adults in 1973 to 8.5% in 2006, says Tom Smith, director of the General Social Survey for the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

But ultimately, the most significant reason behind the shift away from focusing on a religious Christmas that stresses the birth of Jesus may be found in the latest survey from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

The survey found that more than half of U.S. Christians (52%) today do not say Christianity is the exclusive path to eternal life.

Horton blames Christians themselves for taking the Christ out of Christmas. “Secularism cannot be blamed on the secularists, many of whom were raised in the church. We are the problem,” he says.

via Where is Christ in Christmas? – USATODAY.com.

I was not going to write anything else on the blog for the remainder of the year; a nice, low-key break to think about a number of issues in life looked good to me, and I do hold decidedly unpopular views on the artificiality of the celebration of the season to begin with. Many, many writers, far more gifted than I at putting the pictures and garland in place on the mantelpiece of the heart have already pointed back to the truths about the meaning – not the reason – of the season, and since my take is easily seen as a jarring note, I thought it best to keep quiet.

Rochelle’s post changed that for me, in ways that are hard to explain. I may fail, but it deserves the effort.

I know – I don’t have to ask – that Warren is tired of life as it is in so many ways. He’s tired of the pain; the frequently bricked-up bowels from years of bad diet, the multiple hip surgeries, the nerve damage from the stenosis and the curvature of his spine, and the relatively new pain in his right shoulder from having to support his surgical leg when he walks. He hits 94 this month, a day before my own birthday, and he is tired. He jokes about us dropping him off at Hartquist’s (the local funeral home) when we are on our way back from yet another visit to the clinic, to which we reply only if they are running a three for one special that week. He misses his wife, dead seven years now, and wants to join her – but it is not yet time, though he is tired of waiting. For whatever reason God has set the number of His days to be what they are, and we are here to make sure he has them in comfort, in dignity, and with family around at all times, making such accommodations to the living space as we must – and to our lives as well.

Waiting is hard work sometimes, and sometimes it seems to require more patience that we have. That is an illusion – we merely need to focus what patience He’s given us better, and sometimes? Even the desire to do that is hard – but we all wait on God for His instructions. His timing. His gifts…

FocusConsidering the outcome of the story, I’ll take the title of Grinch (or better yet, Scrooge, my other favorite Christmas tale), so long as the story is told all the way through to the end. The Grinch’s heart does grow. The transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge could not have happened without the intervention of the four ghosts who gave him the ability to see where he had come from, who he was (and was not), and where he might end if the shadows remained unaltered by the future.[1] Who we are gets placed back in perspective – not by Black Friday or Cyber Monday sales any more than by tinsel and lights – when we experience that conviction of the heart that comes without packages, boxes, or bows. The date doesn’t matter – we do. Shift the focus from the waiting and the distractions to the hope we wait for.

O come Emmanuel.

May God bless, and if He is willing, see you in 2015.

  1. [1] I have no problem whatsoever in seeing the ghosts of Marley, Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come as different manifestations of the Holy Spirit. Those who disagree are certainly free to do so; my salvation does not rest on my opinions (or yours) or in literary criticism.

Follow Up

This post, coming as it does so hard on the heels of the previous post, was in fact triggered by one of the comments on it. I had started to reply to Sharon, and before I knew it, I was back in the pocket, writing merrily away, and the thoughts were flowing, when I realized I was getting ready to write another post. With that realization, I quickly copied, cut, and pasted what I had started and will continue to try to unpack below. Consider this post, if you will, a logical extension of the previous one, but with a bit more thought put in at an earlier hour of evening.

people talkingI have (at last glance a minute ago) some 650 friends on Facebook. That is an astounding number to me, and does not take into consideration the number of friends I have that do not go near Facebook, but when I try to break it down into discrete groups, different things emerge. Around 20 of that number are family; children, the ex and family, siblings and their kids, in-laws, etc. Not all of them are close geographically any more, but there is a bond stronger and deeper than words can describe with a number of those folks, while others – still in that family group – I know by name and by self-report on Facebook. There is not anything like the depth of relationship, of intimacy – and these are folks I am related to. The rest of that number can be loosely divided into groups with headings like musicians I’ve played with (some currently, some in the recent past, and some near the beginning of my musical career), bloggers (some I’ve met face-to-face), believers (some local, some distant), recovering people (there are many of these), and friends who predated the Internet. Some of these folks fall into multiple categories – bloggers who are believers and/or bloggers who are in recovery (in one form or another), musicians (some believers, some not); the permutations are manageable but fairly easy for me to spot. Very few folks on the list of Facebook friends that I have are people I have had no contact with whatsoever (though there are a few), and three of the number still shown as friends by Facebook are, in fact, dead.

In the groupings I’ve outlined, a very few are mutually close, intimate friends – long amounts of time spent together, not all of it in agreement but always with love for the other person. There are some bloggers I’ve spent hours on the phone with, and swapped many megabytes of self-disclosing information with – we are also close, and can call each other on our stuff if the need arises – but we’ve never laid eyes on one another in the same way I would like to, across a table with a cup of coffee or tea nearby drawing. It is in these two groups, and with the friends aforementioned who do not use Facebook (perhaps a choice I better understand now) that I have risked the most. Allowed close enough to hurt and heal me, these relationships have far and away the greatest depth. They know me like few others ever will; they’ve seen beyond the mask of inauthenticity whether because of choice or intuition, triggered anger or fearful landmines from my past – and they have loved me regardless. They see me with the gifts God has given and the imperfections I still have; in turn, they have risked no less, and allowed me to see them as the kids of the King they are.

It isn’t easy, this whole relational thing. But if it wasn’t for some folks who were willing to risk getting to know me, to love me at my most hateful, I would simply not be here. If it was not for the folks who have valiantly tried to carry the message, I might not be here. Some of them are numbered in that group. Others? I have yet to meet them, but I know they are out there.

Finally, for whatever reason, the words below are stuck in my head tonight. May they be stuck in yours a while yet.

Asleep In The Light
Keith Green, No Compromise 1978

Do you see, do you see
All the people sinking down
Don’t you care, don’t you care
Are you gonna let them drown

How can you be so numb
Not to care if they come
You close your eyes
And pretend the job’s done

“Oh bless me Lord, bless me Lord”
You know it’s all I ever hear
No one aches, no one hurts
No one even sheds one tear

But He cries, He weeps, He bleeds
And He cares for your needs
And you just lay back
And keep soaking it in,
Oh, can’t you see it’s such a sin?

Cause He brings people to your door,
And you turn them away
As you smile and say,
“God bless you, be at peace”
And all heaven just weeps
Cause Jesus came to your door
You’ve left him out on the streets

Open up open up
And give yourself away
You see the need, you hear the cries
So how can you delay

God’s calling and you’re the one
But like Jonah you run
He’s told you to speak
But you keep holding it in,
Oh can’t you see it’s such a sin?

The world is sleeping in the dark
That the church just can’t fight
Cause it’s asleep in the light
How can you be so dead
When you’ve been so well fed
Jesus rose from the grave
And you? You can’t even get out of bed

Oh, Jesus rose from the dead
Come on, get out of your bed

How can you be so numb
Not to care if they come
You close your eyes
And pretend the job’s done
You close your eyes
And pretend the job’s done

Don’t close your eyes
Don’t pretend the jobs done
Come away, come away, come away with Me my love,
Come away, from this mess, come away with Me, my love.

Not exactly the holly, jolly Christmas song so many folks would put up this Advent season, but then again, the work we are called to do doesn’t get a day off. Strident? Perhaps – but there are hurting people all around this holiday season, and there may be quite a few on your Facebook friends list who are as well, doing their very best to keep the mask of perfection in place so no one knows.

Take a risk – over coffee or tea? Maybe you’ll entertain an angel unaware, or bless Jesus.