The Christmas Season Doesn’t Work

I grew up in a home that made Christmas a beautiful experience year after year. We had all the customs and traditions that characterized most American families of that day—a tree, lights, presents, special food, decorated cookies. But there was so much more. My parents made it a Christ-centered event. It revolved around the church and the home, but we were always taught to care for those who suffered. So Christmas included adopting families, visiting elderly people in our church, and welcoming people into our home so they wouldn’t be alone on Christmas Day.

We didn’t live a sheltered life. While we were not a wealthy family, we knew we were blessed and that many other people didn’t experience the warmth and love that was part of our lives. I knew that not everyone celebrated Christmas like we did. But as I look back, I realize that I assumed all Christians did.

So imagine my surprise in late adolescence and early adulthood when I discovered that the “Christmas Season” as it is practiced in our culture is not always a good thing. In fact, sometimes it is the most dreaded time of the year—a time of deep depression, a time of great loneliness and even a time when people are more susceptible to taking their own lives. I’ve learned that the manner in which our culture approaches Christmas often exacerbates the pain and suffering in the world.

I discovered that the Christmas Season doesn’t work. But many years later, I discovered that Advent does.

No, I’m not playing word games. The Christmas Season our culture observes—which begins mid-November and extends to Christmas Day—is a radical departure from the Christian tradition of Advent. And it can destroy people.

Christmas time in America is a time for fantasy. We see commercials with perfect families in beautiful homes and a Lexus in the driveway with a big bow on top. All the Hallmark movies have happy endings. We’re told that “special something” is the “magic of Christmas” or the “Christmas spirit.” And even when people try to speak out against the materialism of Christmas, they usually still talk in abstract terms, saying that Christmas is about family.

But fantasies don’t last very long. So when we’ve outgrown the fantasy, we determine that we’ll keep it alive for the children. Or sometimes we look for the magic in nostalgia, hoping our traditions will give us a few moments of remembered peace and joy. Maybe the sights, sounds and smells will conjure something “magic” inside for a few minutes. But this can be so destructive.

Depending on your current level of pain, the season can be anything from inadequate to downright disgusting. If you’ve just lost your spouse to a debilitating disease, it’s pretty tough to hear about the joy of the season. If you’re estranged from your family, the “Christmas is family” meme puts a knot in your stomach. And if you’re dealing with major disappointment with God, you actually feel insulted when you hear that “Jesus is the reason for the season.”

But Advent stands in stark contrast to the fantasy of the Christmas Season.

The word “Advent” comes from the Latin word adventus, which means “coming” or “arrival.” And, contrary to our culture’s approach, the weeks before Christmas are actually characterized by mourning. That’s right, mourning.

You see, Advent is a reality check. It acknowledges pain, suffering, and oppression. Advent is no fantasy. It calls us to face our doubts and fears, our sins and disappointment—even our disappointment with God.

We allow Advent to move us from pain to yearning. We talk about hope because Advent helps us to be open to the possibility that God has not forgotten us—that God is still God and we are still his children.

So we grasp the first Advent by re-living it. Our suffering leads to yearning, which—by God’s help—leads us to hope. Then we can begin to see peace and love and even joy may be part of our future. And it is because of the child that was called Emmanuel—which means “God with us.”

If you are suffering, don’t let our cultural December rituals define Christ’s coming. Instead, thank God for the honesty of Advent. Instead of allowing pain to destroy the sense of God’s presence, learn from Advent that we can actually invite God into our pain. Not because we understand it. We don’t. Not because we’ve come to grips with it. We are always in that process. But we invite God to share our pain simply because He is God and He has chosen to enter our living space. That’s the painful yearning and profound beauty of Advent.

My Advent begins with mourning. Two years ago, my granddaughter, Lily, arrived and left us on the same day. So now on November 25 we gather together and sing “Happy Birthday, dear Lily.” Then we release balloons and shed a few tears. I see the pain on the face of my daughter and son-in-law and leave with a heavy heart. The Christmas of our culture won’t sustain us. But our yearning for God, our belief that God is with us—and with Lily—will and does sustain us.

Although I didn’t come from a tradition that talked about Advent, I now realize that the Christmas of my childhood was, indeed, Advent. We looked for Christ in the poor and in the lonely, and found him in our home.

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appears

                                           — 18th Century Advent Hymn

Personal and Social Transformation

“We are either a people who love, embrace, and enter into a caring posture with our family, friends, neighbors, strangers, and even enemies (real or imagined) or we will spend our lives mercilessly trying to define who is lovable and who is not, who is worthy and who is not, who deserves my attention and who does not. Inevitably, we will end up loving people who look like us, think like us, and pledge allegiance to the same flag—and we will exclude the rest. In this truly useless pursuit, we will separate ourselves from God (through tribal worship), from the world’s good (by avoiding healing and restoration), and from our very souls (through self-pre­occupation with ego).

In effect, the wisdom of Jesus describes the powerful, but often neglected, bridge between spiritual insight and social action/real compassion. In fact, the wisdom of Jesus seems to suggest that the link is even more intimate than a bridge; it is the collapse of the two categories altogether. The separation of spirituality from action is a false one. In other words, we are not called to do spiritual prac­tices—prayer, study, meditation, retreat, ritual—and then make our way, now inspired, to the work of mercy and justice. In fact, it might be argued that, if anything, it’s just the reverse: Love those who strug­gle with poverty and suffer abandonment and the effect is that we will find ourselves on a path that leads to maturity, prayer, wisdom, and Christ-likeness. If, however, we choose to avoid engagement and community with those who suffer, we will certainly live an incom­plete life, including an incomplete spiritual life.

To put it rightly, I think, the practice of prayer and the practice of compassion are both necessary and complementary spiritual practices…. We are called to be both activists and mystics, missionaries of love and contemplatives, great lovers and deep thinkers. And, in all of that, the spiritual journey can happen; in all of that, we can be made whole; in all of that, the world can be made whole…. Personal transformation and social transformation are one piece….

The true spiritual quest is not that I become whole. Informed by the belief that the world is birthed by God and is precious and sacred and one, the true spiritual quest is that the world become whole—and we along with it.” — Jack Jezreel


It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.”

— Mary Oliver

Thoughts from Richard Rohr on the Body of Christ

Paul had a concrete missionary strategy of building living communities able to produce a visible and believable message. Yet for centuries we’ve interpreted his message as if he is speaking about individuals being privately “saved.” This has made Paul seem more like a mere moralist than the mystic he is. Mystics tend to see things in wholes rather than getting preoccupied with the parts.

Paul believes that corporate evil can only be overcome or confronted with corporate good. He uses primitive yet powerful words for the negative side of corporations, institutions, and nations: he calls them “thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers” (Colossians 1:16). These are not “bad angels” as much as collective attitudes that are almost impossible to break. Because they are so widely shared as mass consciousness—the way we’re programmed to think—they no longer look like evil and are hard to resist. Murder is bad, but war is good; greedy people are bad, but capitalism is going to save the world; ambition and pride are supposedly major sins, but not in the good ol’ USA. Do you see the problem?

I’ve never heard a single sermon my entire life on the tenth commandment—“Thou shalt not covet . . . anything that is thy neighbor’s” (Exodus 20:17)—because coveting goods is the only game in town now. It’s called capitalism and consumerism! In Paul’s thinking, those big cultural blind spots can only be overcome by a group of people living and affirming and supporting one another in an alternative lifestyle. Smaller groups like the Quakers, Amish, Mennonites, and some Catholic religious orders were able to create actual alternative cultures.

For Paul, community is the living organism that communicates the Gospel message. Paul, like Jesus, wants to change culture here, not just send people away to a far-off heaven later! If Christ’s cosmic message doesn’t take form in a concrete group of people, then, as far as Paul is concerned, it is an unbelievable message. An autonomous Christian is as impossible as an independent arm or leg. Arms and legs exist only as parts. No single one of us is the whole Christ, and “the eye cannot say to the hand, I do not need you” (I Corinthians 12:21). Believers exist as parts of the whole, the Body of Christ. Their very existence is an objective, shared state that Paul calls love or living “in Christ.” When Paul says, “without love I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2), he implies that he is inside of another Being who is Love.

Paul sees what we will eventually call the “communion of saints” (by the fifth and sixth centuries) as an organism that is very alive, real, and operative in this world. I like to call it an “energy field” created by all those who share in the various parts of Christ. “Salvation” is thus something we can participate in right here and now. When Paul addresses his letters to “the saints,” he is clearly not speaking of our later idea of canonized saints, but of those who make up his living communities and who are participating in this shared life of love in this world.

Paul does not make heroes of individuals, but it is precisely as members of the Body that they “shine like stars” as “perfect children of God among a deceitful and underhanded brood” (Philippians 2:15). Paul sees his small communities as an adequate “leaven” by which God will eventually change the whole debauched Roman Empire (Paul got the word “yeast” or “leaven” from Jesus, see Matthew 13:33). Talk about patience and confidence!

Taken from Richard Rohr's daily meditation for May 19, 2017 

The New Creatures

  “Following Jesus is actually a vocation to share the fate of God for the life of the world. Jesus invited people to ‘follow’ him in bearing the mystery of human death and resurrection. It is not a requirement in order that we can go to heaven later, it is an invitation so that we can live an entirely full life now.
   Those who agree to carry and love what God loves, which is both the good and the bad of human history, and to pay the price for its reconciliation within themselves—these are the followers of Jesus—the leaven, the salt, the remnant, the mustard seed that God can use to transform the world. The cross is a very dramatic image of what it takes to be a usable one for God.
   These few are the critical mass that keeps the world from its path toward greed, violence, and self-destruction. God is calling everyone and everything to God’s self (Genesis 8:16-17, Ephesians 1:9-10, Colossians 1:15-20, Acts 3:21, 1 Timothy 2:4, John 3:17), not just a few. To get there, God needs models and images who are willing to be ‘conformed to the body of his death’ and transformed into the body of his resurrection (Philippians 3:10). They are ‘the new creatures’ (Galatians 6:15), and their transformed state is seeping into history and ever so slowly transforming it into life instead of death. This is the basis for all of our hope—in Christ and for history.”

                                                                                          — Richard Rohr

(full quote)

“And he will be called…Mighty God…”

“‘Mighty God’ (Isaiah 9:6) is the name of this child. The child in the manger is none other than God himself. Nothing greater can be said: God became a child. In the Jesus child of Mary lives the almighty God. Wait a minute! Don’t speak; stop thinking! Stand still before this statement! God became a child! Here he is, poor like us, miserable and helpless like us, a person of flesh and blood like us, our brother. And yet he is God; he is might. Where is the divinity, where is the might of the child? In the divine love in which he became like us. His poverty in the manger is his might. In the might of love he overcomes the chasm between God and humankind, he overcomes sin and death, he forgives sin and awakens from the dead. Kneel down before this miserable manger, before this child of poor people, and repeat in faith the stammering words of the prophet: ‘Mighty God!’ And he will be your God and your might.” — Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The Canticle of Creation by Francis of Assisi

O Most High, all-powerful, good Lord God,
to you belong praise, glory,
honour and all blessing.
Be praised, my Lord, for all your creation
and especially for our Brother Sun,
who brings us the day and the light;
he is strong and shines magnificently.
O Lord, we think of you when we look at him.
Be praised, my Lord, for Sister Moon,
and for the stars
which you have set shining and lovely
in the heavens.
Be praised, my Lord,
for our Brothers Wind and Air
and every kind of weather
by which you, Lord,
uphold life in all your creatures.
Be praised, my Lord, for Sister Water,
who is very useful to us,
and humble and precious and pure.
Be praised, my Lord, for Brother Fire,
through whom you give us light in the darkness:
he is bright and lively and strong.
Be praised, my Lord,
for Sister Earth, our Mother,
who nourishes us and sustains us,
bringing forth
fruits and vegetables of many kinds
and flowers of many colours.
Be praised, my Lord,
for those who forgive for love of you;
and for those
who bear sickness and weakness
in peace and patience
—you will grant them a crown.
Be praised, my Lord, for our Sister Death,
whom we must all face.
I praise and bless you, Lord,
and I give thanks to you,
and I will serve you in all humility.

Henri Nouwen on Peace-Making

“Christians should put survival of the planet ahead of national security... Here is the mystery of our global responsibility: that we are in communion with Christ—and we are in communion with all people... The fact that the people of Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Russia, Afghanistan, and Ethiopia are our brothers and sisters is not obvious. People kill each other by the thousands and do not see themselves as brothers and sisters. If we want to be real peace-makers, national security cannot be our primary concern. Our primary concern should be survival of humanity, the survival of the planet, and the health of all people.” — Henri Nouwen

The Court Prophets

The Hebrew Scriptures (what Christians typically call the “Old Testament” or the “First Testament”) give us accounts of the writings, speeches and actions of the prophets. Most people misinterpret what prophecy was. Seldom did it involve foretelling the future. The prophets spoke to the present. Their words were highly contextual messages from God to his people, especially to those in power. The prophets railed against corruption and the exploitation of the weak. They demanded that the powerful use their power for the poor and oppressed. And they emphasized that if you didn’t care for the most vulnerable among you, you had no right to consider yourself a follower of God.

The prophets were routinely ignored or scorned or persecuted. Speaking truth to power is seldom rewarded.

Of course, not everyone who called himself a prophet was the real deal. Kings and rulers liked to select “holy men” as part of their court to give them credibility. The “court prophets” would tell the king what he wanted to hear. They would also assure the people that what the king said was blessed by God. So when the king spoke, his religious minions would assure everyone that, regardless of what seemed right and regardless of what the law of the Lord taught them, the King was to be honored and obeyed. The rules didn’t really apply to him. He had an understanding about governing that superseded the wisdom of the masses. Trust us prophets when we tell you that you can trust the king.

The true prophets started with justice and confronted the rulers, no matter the cost. One of the clearest examples was when Nathan stuck his finger in the face of King David—the most popular and powerful king in all of Israel’s history—and said, “You’re the man” who committed grave sin against the weak. (It took great courage because David had already evidenced that he was willing to kill in order to cover up his crime.)

The court prophets didn’t start with justice and confront the king. They started with the king and twisted justice to fit his agenda. I’m sure they fared better than those armed with truth.

Little has changed. Rulers and would-be rulers always want us to believe that God is on their side. And since our politicians are not theologians, they need court prophets to bless their actions before the masses.

The court prophets were on display this week in Cleveland. They didn’t start with God’s justice for the weak and oppressed, demanding that Donald Trump and his party implement that kind of justice. They started with the goal of electing a Republican. Then they did theological somersaults to make it work for themselves and their followers. Supreme Court appointments. Protection of religious rights. Defeating Hillary Clinton. These and other rationale were used to describe the would-be king as a man chosen by God, when common sense and a simple reading of the New Testament shows that Donald Trump has stood for nothing that reflects the teachings of Jesus Christ.

Trump loves the evangelicals. But, of course, the evangelicals of today’s America have lost the meaning of the evangel. The evangel—the good news—becomes pretty bad news when the court prophets distort it for the king.

A Steady Diet of Distraction

“From movie channels to cable TV to the Internet, society offers us myriad ways to artificially reinvigorate the mind. And when I am really tired, they are hard to resist. After all, what could be wrong with a little entertainment after a long day’s work?

What’s wrong is that a steady diet of over-stimulating or fantasy-inducing distraction eventually reshapes our perception of the world and prevents us from dealing with reality. Twenty-five years ago, long before cable channels or stirring websites existed, Neil Postman wrote an analysis of the way that television was reshaping our view of the world. The problem, he said, was not so much that TV was entertaining. Life is hard, and everyone needs a momentary lift on occasion. The problem was that TV had come to dominate the culture, which meant that almost all our experiences were now coming to us as entertainment rather than in the form of serious intellectual, moral, or spiritual questions.

When we watch TV, all we have to do is make a simple, childish choice: is this interesting or boring? If it fails to pass the test, we just flip the channel and move on. It’s not surprising that even newscasters have succumbed to the entertainment trend: unless they over-stimulate us or lead us into the escapist fantasies we’ve come to expect, why would we watch them?

Jesus, however, links genuine freedom to our ability to recognize truth. ‘If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’ (John 8:31-32). Free from what? Misperception, melodrama, falsehood, artificiality, superficiality, and self-indulgent egoism—everything the entertainment industry depends on to hold our attention.”

— Paula Huston in Simplifying the Soul: Lenten Practices to Renew Your Spirit

John 19:15

“Jesus was not brought down by atheism and anarchy. He was brought down by law and order allied with religion, which is always a deadly mix. Beware those who claim to know the mind of God and who are prepared to use force, if necessary, to make others conform. Beware those who cannot tell God’s will from their own. Temple police are always a bad sign. When chaplains start wearing guns and hanging out at the sheriff’s office, watch out. Someone is about to have no king but Caesar.” — Barbara Brown Taylor


“Simplicity is the first cousin of contentment. Its motto is, ‘We brought nothing into this world, and we can certainly carry nothing out.’ It recognizes that we are pilgrims. It concentrates us on what we need, and measures this by what we use. It rejoices in the good things of creation, but hates waste and greed and clutter. It knows how easily the seed of the Word is smothered by the ‘cares and riches of this life.’ It wants to be free of distractions, in order to love and serve God and others.” — John Stott

Nothing to do with Jesus

When I disagree with my Christian sisters and brothers over issues of theology or Christian ethics, I always try to be kind. When you vociferously disagree with someone, it often sounds as though you are attacking their motives and integrity. I don’t want to do that. I cannot read anyone’s mind. I cannot know the heart of another. So, often I don’t even mention the person by name. That way I disagree with their views and don’t come off like I’m impugning their motives.

But this time, I’m going to point out what one Evangelical leader said and to do so I must call him by name. I still maintain that it is not my job to judge his motives. He has done so many good things. But in this case his words run so contrary to the gospel that I feel like I must speak out. My critique will sound harsh. I don’t mean to be harsh to this man. But I am incensed by what he is proclaiming. And I think you should be as well.

I don’t have a fraction of the influence that Franklin Graham has. He has hundreds of thousands of Facebook followers and is often interviewed by national media outlets. I’m just a pastor of a local church. I don’t have a voice. But what he said about LGBTQ children has so much potential for harm that I feel like Evangelical pastors need to speak out against this distortion of the gospel. I’ll assume Franklin Graham is trying to do the right thing as he sees it. But I believe his perspective is wrong and can have destructive results.

As Franklin Graham was recently interviewed on “Dr. James Dobson’s Family Talk,” he said…

“We have allowed the Enemy to come into our churches. I was talking to some Christians and they were talking about how they invited these gay children to come into their home and to come into the church and that they were wanting to influence them. And I thought to myself, they’re not going to influence those kids; those kids are going to influence those parent’s children.

What happens is we think we can fight by smiling and being real nice and loving. We have to understand who the Enemy is and what he wants to do. He wants to devour our homes. He wants to devour this nation and we have to be so careful who we let our kids hang out with. We have to be so careful who we let into the churches. You have immoral people who get into the churches and it begins to effect the others in the church and it is dangerous.” 

I’ll be honest, so often when I hear destructive comments from influential Evangelicals, I have to fight hard to keep from becoming an angry person. But this time, it wasn’t anger that seized me. I was overcome with sadness. On so many levels this statement runs contrary to the way of Christ and when it is proclaimed by someone with so much influence the results could crush many lives.

Contrary to what Jesus taught us, an Evangelical leader is telling believers not to show hospitality in their homes and in their churches. He is saying that people (even children) have to earn our hospitality by their beliefs or their conduct. What does this have to do with grace?

Franklin Graham is advocating keeping children out of the church—“we have to be so careful who we let our kids hang out with. We have to be so careful who we let into the churches.” Seriously? Keep children away from the church—away from Jesus? What did Jesus have to say about that?

The Gospel of Mark said that Jesus became “indignant” when people tried to keep children from coming to him (Mark 10:14). And Matthew described a time when Jesus brought a child to stand among those he was teaching. Having placed the child in their midst, he said, whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matthew 18:2-6).

Among the most at risk children in our society are transgender children. They are susceptible to abuse, homelessness, exploitation, trafficking and suicide in staggering numbers. I recently spoke to a woman who, with her husband, pastors a church in Detroit. In her section of the city she sees homeless, transgender teenagers who are picked up and trafficked. Her first response when she saw this? She began to befriend them to try to discover how she could help them. It never entered her mind to tell her people to reject them—to keep them out of their homes and their church.

Gay teenagers have experienced rejection after rejection. And now a leading Evangelical is telling people to keep it up—keep rejecting them.

In listening to Franklin Graham’s interview I was especially baffled when he said, “What happens is we think we can fight by smiling and being real nice and loving.” He not only characterizes LGBTQ children as tools of the enemy that will infiltrate our homes and churches, he then disparages the ethic of love that Jesus taught us.

We think we can fight with love. Where do you suppose we got that idea?

This is not some different flavor of Christianity he is espousing. This is not doctrinal trivia. This is not a mild disagreement among denominations. Franklin Graham is encouraging Evangelicals to ignore the teachings of Jesus—both in the way we treat oppressed children and in jettisoning the love ethic that is at the heart of our faith.

By the way, if you wonder why millennial Christians are leaving Evangelicalism, it may be because of an increasing perception that Evangelicalism has nothing to do with Jesus.

Bonhoeffer on Enemy Love

“Christian love draws no distinction between one enemy and another, except that the more bitter our enemy’s hatred, the greater his need of love. Be his enmity political or religious, he has nothing to expect from a follower of Jesus but unqualified love. In such love there is no inner discord between the private person and official capacity. In both we are disciples of Christ, or we are not Christians at all.” — Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Itching Ears

In addressing his congregation at First Baptist Church of Dallas, Robert Jeffress said, “Donald Trump was absolutely correct Thursday night when he said it is time to start bombing the ‘you know what’ out of ISIS.” The crowd applauded and cheered.

The President of Liberty University, Jerry Falwell, Jr., addressed the student body with these sentiments: “I’ve always thought if more good people had concealed carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in…let's teach them a lesson if they ever show up here.” The crowd applauded and cheered.

People simply love to hear their leaders call for the killing of their enemies. That, of course, is not what Jesus taught. But Paul explained the cheers to us…

“The time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” (2 Timothy 4:3)

When in the soul of the serene disciple — a poem by Thomas Merton

When in the soul of the serene disciple
With no more Fathers to imitate
Poverty is a success,
It is a small thing to say the roof is gone:
He has not even a house. 

Stars, as well as friends,
Are angry with the noble ruin.
Saints depart in several directions.

Be still:
There is no longer any need of comment.
It was a lucky wind
That blew away his halo with his cares,
A lucky sea that drowned his reputation.

Here you will find
Neither a proverb nor a memorandum.
There are no ways,
No methods to admire
Where poverty is no achievement.
His God lives in his emptiness like an affliction.

What choice remains?
Well, to be ordinary is not a choice:
It is the usual freedom
Of men without visions.